It was snowing.
The first flurry of the year drifted down on a chilly breeze. It descended upon the cramped districts of Velikaya, a walled trading city just upriver from the North Sea. One snowflake tumbled into a quiet, residential neighborhood. Skirting between steep, wooden roofs, it fell into a narrow, cobbled street, and landed upon the open palm of a fourteen year old girl.
She wore a modest, middle-class dress that hugged her slender shoulders and arms, then widened below her narrow waist and reached down to her ankles. Her hair was completely covered, tucked into an oversized, floppy wool hat.
Lydia watched as the beautiful crystal melted against the warmth of her soft palm. Her large, clear-aqua eyes held a bitter, forlorn gaze.
Winter is early this year, she bit her lip as she stared at the cloudy skies. Is there really no hope?
Adjusting the wool hat that hid her snowy hair, Lydia clasped one hand over the other as she made a silent prayer to the Protectress of the Samarans:
Please give us your blessing, Your Holiness.
It was said that the Goddess of Mercy observed all, able to fulfill the wishes of those most in need. But even though both Velikaya and Samara were members of the Polisian Federation, they were so far apart that Lydia wasn’t sure if such a belief held true here.
Her Samaran mother had married a merchant, a normal human of Hyperborean-Polans cultural descent. Her father’s business brought them two thousand kilopaces west to Velikaya — one of the Polisian Federation’s city-state principalities — where they lived twenty years of idyllic, married life.
Then disaster struck when her father’s trading vessel capsized in a storm, taking his life and his entire crew. He had been charged to carry a cargo of ‘political importance’, and its loss raised the ire of a prominent local noble. The legal requirement to reimburse the customers’ loss bankrupted her family. Their home and savings became forfeit almost overnight, leaving Lydia, her mother, and two siblings homeless.
Worse yet, the aristocrat’s anger pressured the Merchant Guild into blacklisting Lydia’s family. When her mother reached out to their friends and acquaintances, almost every door had shut in their faces. Everyone feared being dragged into the fallout, and instead accused her father of ‘being greedy’ to take the job despite its risks.
Lydia’s mouth turned bitter as she thought about the unfairness of it all. Her father had always been gracious to his friends. Yet this was how they repaid him. Only one man had bothered to offer a helping hand: he provided the broken shed and rations that her family lived on at the moment. However, the northern winter was cold and brutal. The leaky wooden walls would never suffice for her youngest sister, who was barely one year of age.
Both Lydia and her mother knew that the small Iliana was unlikely to survive, yet what could they do but try? A Samaran treasured their conscience above all. It determined their spiritual inheritance upon reincarnation, and no soul could ever tolerate an evil as grievous as abandoning their own child.
“Please, help us!” She again whispered her plea.
A renewed breeze blew down the long, winding alleyway. The girl shivered as her eyes reopened to the cold reality. The shadowy corridor ahead was almost empty as the early dusk fell.
The taverns would be filled by customers soon. I need to hurry.
Several copper kopeks per night was unlikely to afford a proper roof over their heads before the weather dipped below freezing. But the young girl needed some hope to cling onto. Perhaps if she worked hard, they could somehow manage to keep Iliana alive. Then, in the spring, they would be able to journey back to her maternal grandparents’ home village in Samara.
Lydia turned into the final corridor between back alleys and the main, bustling street. In her rush, she didn’t notice the figure just around the corner before bouncing off. A gentle hand caught her before she fell to the ground, and the girl looked up at the stranger in a daze.
She was an older woman just barely into middle age. Her eyes were kind and her smile serene. Her very countenance seemed to exude the aura of someone wise and pure beyond reproach. Her slender body was clad in flowing, silky white robes: a fluttery outfit that that should have left her shivering in the chill even with the enchantments that only the magically-gifted Boyar aristocracy could afford. Her exposed hand, barely even pink from the cold, carried a rod of willow with leafy sprigs as though it was still spring.
But perhaps most importantly, she walked with her long, silver-white hair in the open: a Samaran without any fear of prejudice or unwanted attention.
“There is no rush, Lydia,” the woman’s soft voice rang pristine. “There is still plenty of time.”
“H-how… how do you know my name?” The girl asked as her elder picked up the fallen hat and waved her hand over it, leaving the brown wool clean as new.
Lydia’s eyes grew as the hat covered her white hair once more. Samaran mages — or sages, as other Samarans called them — were rare, less than one in a hundred, whereas they numbered more than one in twenty for normal humans. The ability to craft spells often highlighted aristocratic heritage for humans; but among Samarans it revealed an individual’s spiritual enlightenment in the great cycle of rebirth.
“I know a great deal about your family,” the mysterious woman’s smile was sweet and calming. “I know that your father never permitted himself to make a single dishonest deal, and that your mother donated a fifth of the family earnings every year to charity. I know that your father had never wanted this risky job. However, nobody else was willing, and he relented when the pressured guild master pleaded him to. Yet when the worst happened, your family was thrown to the wolves.”
The small girl’s eyes teared. Finally, someone understood what they were going through; someone who didn’t use the excuse of her father ‘being greedy’ to distance themselves from her family.
“T-then, are you here to h-help us?” The teenage girl pleaded. Her father was a merchant after all. He must have had friends in distant lands that she didn’t know.
“Yes,” the woman beamed. “Though not directly. I could give you food or money, but it would only last a short period before your family returned to destitution. Instead, you must temper yourself for a lasting hope and aegis.”
Lydia tilted her head with incomprehension. Was an ‘aegis’ edible? Could she sleep under it? Hope she already had, or she at least clung onto, but it neither filled her stomach nor brought her warmth.
“Turn right when you reach the main road,” the white lady continued. “Enter the third tavern to your left — The Hydra’s Lair. Go upstairs to the second floor and keep walking until you reach the end of the hallway. There, you will find a young man named Aleksei brooding over a drink. Ask him for a job, and he will offer you one with accommodations for your family.”
Lydia had her doubts. She was an adolescent girl with neither training nor trade. What legitimate work could she perform to keep her entire family safe?
She shook her head. A Samaran sage on the Path to Enlightenment would never deceive me.
“Thank you very much, Milady,” Lydia gave a sincere bow. “May I ask for your name?”
The woman’s smile grew mysterious. “Just a passerby who believes that good karma should be repaid in kind.” Her gentle fingers then turned the fourteen year old girl around. “Now, remember to be strong: do your best, leave no regrets.”
With glistening eyes and a thankful nod, Lydia ran towards the main street. By the time she reached it and spun around to look again, the narrow alley was empty once more.
The main street was busy even this late in the day. Lydia ran down the cobblestone side until she reached the tavern with an eight-headed green hydra sign. Bounding up the stairs, she went straight to the less crowded second floor and scurried down the hallway.
Sure enough, there was a brooding young man at its end, sitting alone at a table with a tankard of liquor in hand.
He was an average-looking fellow, just around twenty years of age. His chin was still smooth, with short, auburn hair and a striking emerald gaze. His shoulders were neither lean nor broad, though they were covered by the finest furs which spoke of wealth. On his finger sat a small emerald ring with glowing green mana laced within, the sign of a lesser landed noble or possibly even a baron’s son.
Is it really him? The clear difference in social status between them was overwhelming.
Lydia looked around. There was no other individual who matched the white lady’s description.
But he’s a noble! He’d never hire the daughter of a disgraced family!
She couldn’t help but remember all those rejections she heard over the past two weeks, when one family acquaintance after another refused to aid them. Even her parents’ longtime friends brushed them off. What reason would he have to entangle himself in this mess?
Worse yet… what if he’s associated with the same nobles who hate us?
Her legs felt stiff. Her body was turning away on instinct. Every urge in her young mind told her to leave now, to run away before he noticed her odd behavior.
But what if she left now and Iliana died? This might have been her one chance and she’d have thrown it away. How could she ever look back on this moment and forgive herself then?
Do your best, leave no regrets. She remembered the white lady’s words.
Lydia closed her eyes and drew in a slow breath until her chest was full. She then exhaled it at the same pace, thinking of her family’s joyful smiles during their last New Year dinner. The bittersweet nostalgia returned a smile to her expression alongside her composure. The calming ritual that her mother taught her had always served her well.
With renewed determination, she approached the young man, dipping in a poor imitation of curtsy before him.
His troubled gaze looked irritated at the bother.
“I-I was told y-you were looking to hire a y-young girl,” Lydia shakily spoke. “I w-wanted to see if I would qualify.”
For a moment, the young man looked stunned with surprise. Then, with a half-snorted, derisive chuckle, he stood up and looked around the tavern’s second floor, as though expecting someone to have played a joke on him.
Lydia was frozen with apprehension. What did I do wrong?
The young man soon returned to the pinewood table but continued to give her the skeptical look. Shame grew in her gaze as she wanted to cry ‘sorry’ and run away. It took all of her will just to stand still.
“Sit down, girl,” he demanded at last. “Who told you this?”
Lydia stammered as she berated herself for not preparing for such an obvious question. How was she supposed to say that a random passing woman offered to help her with this?
Seeing her misgivings, the young man gave another half-snorted chuckle.
“Nevermind…” He sighed. “First my brothers. Now you. The Gods must be having their fun with me today.”
So at least he’s not Trinitian, she thought. That was a good start. Relations were much easier to manage when dealing with the local religions and not those who zealously adhered to that ‘one true god’.
Between the Hyperborean and Polan Gods, the missionaries of the Holy Trinity, the Tanri and Perymian devotees to the Sky-Father, and the Samarans who reincarnated through the Great Wheel — the Polisia Federation truly was a melting pot of religious belief. Yet despite this, the Samarans were unique in that they knew their journey across lifetimes, and therefore found the promise of ‘Heavenly Salvation’ impossible.
As a result, the Trinitians saw them as ‘irredeemable pagans’, and often refused them even acts of charity. When her mother pleaded for aid from the local priest of the Holy Trinity, she was told that they did not serve ‘her kind’.
“My name is Aleksei Radomirovich Lisitsyn,” the young man leaned back with an amused smile. “What’s yours?”
“L-Lydia… Lydia Ilyinichna Shanina.”
“You’re a Samaran, aren’t you?”
How does he–? Lydia’s eyes widened as she checked her hat.
“There’s a strand of hair sticking out the back. White as the falling snow outside.”
Her hand rushed behind her neck to search. Sure enough, there was a small bundle she failed to tuck inside.
The Protectorate of Samara was a region on the eastern side of the Polisia Federation. They had joined and paid taxes to the Grand Principality of Ilmen in exchange for collective military defense. However, many of the northern human societies only saw the Samarans’ temperate, peaceful nature as weakness and viewed them as second-class citizens.
Lydia fell quiet as Aleksei gave her a long and silent stare. She wanted to say something, anything, to make sure he did not receive the wrong impression.
But what do I say?
She had never been good at forming replies on the spot.
The young man then picked up his tankard and took a long swig in deep thought.
“I do have a position open, but I warn you: it’s not easy.”
“I-I’m a hard worker and a good learner, Sir!” Lydia rushed her half-baked thoughts out, surprised by the opening. “My family badly needs money for food and shelter, and… I’ll work as hard as it takes to earn it!”
Aleksei cracked an amused smile as he swirled his drink. “Greatpa did say that you Samarans value conscience above all. I guess now we’ll get to see if it’s true.”
He stared back up. His intense-green gaze locked her eyes onto him, as though this was a challenge.
“You see, my great-grandpa is at the end of his days. His health has deteriorated to the point that even the famous Samaran healers can no longer help him. He needs aid just to sit up on his bed, and barely even has the strength to swallow solid food. It took the previous maid eight hours per day just to feed him two meals worth. He wets and soils the bed through the day and into the night, and throws tantrums to boot.”
Aleksei sighed. “It’s like caring for an infant, except one that weighs eight-and-a-half stones and has to be spoon-fed ten times as much food. Our maids won’t do it properly. They grow tired and bored after a few hours, becoming careless and almost choked him one time. Meanwhile most of my family doesn’t even care. They’re just waiting for him to leave and pass down his wealth and barony.”
His gloved fingers curled into a fist atop the table. Pain, anger, and disappointment flashed through his emerald eyes at the negligence shown by his own relatives.
“But I’m the eldest great-grandchild whom he cherished and raised. I have to do my part here!” He declared, as much to himself as to her. “Father is always away on business. So it falls on me to see that Greatpa is taken care of properly!”
Aleksei brought up his tankard for another deep swig. In that moment Lydia saw the shadow of guilt and shame even in his own gaze. She could only guess that the task was laborious enough that he himself could not stand it. His endurance had failed his sense of duty, and because of this he wanted to meet his Greatpa’s happiness some other way.
However, there’s something else he’s not saying…
Lydia had a feeling, one of her fuzzy intuitions. It came from the dots drawn between the complexity of emotions and mannerisms betrayed by his every motion and gaze. Even Lydia herself couldn’t pinpoint the exact source.
But does that really matter? Would it change the job any to hear it?
No. In fact, the job already seemed daunting enough. The Samarans’ unique biology gave her good stamina, but Lydia was hardly confident in her strength. Furthermore, this was an all day, every day task with no breaks. No weekends to rest or recover from endless fatigue. Even now she could picture how exhausting it might be: laboring day by day with no end in sight.
Lydia was still doubting herself when a mental image shook her to the core. It was the sight of baby Iliana’s body tossed into a grave. Her mother broken and crying before the sight. Her bony and malnourished little brother crutching at her side…
Her entire body trembled at this dark foreboding. A deep, calming breath proved not enough, and she bit down on her lip to compose and ready herself.
I HAVE TO do this.
“I’ll do it. Sir!” The young girl vowed in solemn assurance before Aleksei even asked. “I’ll make sure to do a good job at it too!”
—— * * * ——
Lydia sighed as she collapsed into the cushioned seat facing the giant four-poster bed. The room was toasty and richly furbished with expensive, smooth velvets. Yet there was little more that Lydia wanted than to leave and go back to her coarse wool bed.
Her sleep-deprived gaze glanced at the dark blue curtains. A faint light was now peeking through their sides. The sun was beginning its ascent from the horizon once more.
Another long night over…
Everything had finally been cleaned up and Baron Lisitsyn was asleep again at last. He had soiled the bed during the middle of the night, and flew into a rage when the exhausted Lydia did not wake fast enough to respond. He had purposefully knocked his water jug onto the ground and called her an ‘incompetent imbecile’. He even refused to cooperate when Lydia tried to remove the stinky bedsheets, demanding that she heat water and give him a bath first.
With none of the household servants awake at the time, Lydia had to do everything herself. She boiled water, pulled the heavy wooden tub upstairs, helped the elderly man out of bed to clean him. Only then, when he was relaxing in the warm water, could she replace the fouled bedsheets with fresh fabrics and mop the floor of its spill. She helped him back into bed after that, before loading her arms with his feces-covered bedding and heading outside to wash. However just as she began scrubbing out the mess, he yelled her back inside to ‘do something about the room’s smell’; so she spent another half hour airing it out by fanning a folded sheet of fresh bedding.
The whole process consumed most of the night. By the time Lydia finished washing she felt tired enough to drop dead. And this wasn’t even the first time it happened this week.
Baron Lisitsyn had lost control over many of his bodily functions and soiled the bed between three to four times per day. The thick fabrics had to be replaced and washed immediately, and the household servants were only available to help during the day. He demanded a bath whenever the mood struck, and any denial of his wishes left him completely uncooperative: making Lydia’s job impossible as she could hardly budge his weight by herself.
He also had trouble swallowing, and simply feeding him required Lydia to stand beside his bed for hours on end with bowl and spoon ready. Then when he wasn’t eating or sleeping, he demanded Lydia’s attention to talk about his favorite subjects: history and philosophy. When Lydia showed that she knew little about either topic, he even began assigning her homework and grew angry whenever she took too long to read.
Lydia’s callused fingers brushed the thick tome that laid on the chair’s armrest now. Her body felt like a molten puddle on the cushioned seat. Her limbs were sore and angry for being worked too hard, while her mind felt like a foggy haze.
My favorite pastime turned into a chore, She gave off a hefty sigh as her eyelids closed. Never would have imagined that I’d feel too tired to read.
She never had many books. They were expensive and her late father could only buy them as gifts on special occasions. But she borrowed and exchanged whenever she could, cherishing every opportunity to read another tale or biography. She would have been glad to read the tomes assigned by the Baron on her own time. However, philosophy and history tended to be extremely dense and hard to digest, which was not easy on someone who lacked sleep.
Wish I could just sleep for a week…
Lydia had began to drift off when the sound of footsteps outside pulled her back to reality. They resounded with a brisk yet firm pace: a pattern she learned as Aleksei’s.
It was about time for the Young Master’s morning visit.
The heavy oak door creaked open, and Aleksei peeked in with a refreshed look that made her bloodshot eyes gaze back with blank envy. The young man was already impeccably dressed. He always checked in with his great-grandfather before leaving to take his horse out on a morning ride.
Lydia reflexively tried to stand up, but Aleksei waved her back down as he slipped inside. Servants were not supposed to sit on the household furniture, or sit at all in the Masters’ presence. However, Aleksei noted from the very beginning that it was ‘utterly impractical’ for her to work in the room all day and not rest on its chairs.
“You took night shift again?” He asked after quietly closing the door behind him, sympathy in his gaze as he eyed her exhausted countenance. “How many is that? Eighth in a row?”
“Morning… Sir. And yea..yes. Mother doesn’t sleep well these days…”
Taking care of Baron Lisitsyn was an all day, every day task after all. When Lydia’s family first moved into a cottage at the estate two months ago, her mother had demanded that they share the burden by switching every twenty-four hours. However her mother also had a much more entrenched daily pattern. When one night’s sleep schedule was broken, she had trouble catching shuteye on the next. Weeks of this took a devastating toll on her already stressed and depressed mother, resulting in a sickly pallor that Lydia could not bear to see.
Lydia came up with the new arrangement two weeks ago: her mother would take eight hour shifts from after breakfast to before dinner, and Lydia would handle the other sixteen hours every day. This allowed her mother to rest properly every night and have time to cook the children their meals, while Lydia would absorb the blunt of the strenuous job.
She managed to persuade her mother to accept this, though only on condition that Lydia would hand back a night shift whenever she grew too exhausted. She still had to tend to baby Iliana’s needs even when she was off work. Her one lucky break was that her seven years old little brother became friends with the gardener: he spent so much time helping out that he was almost an apprentice now.
Aleksei made a sympathetic smile as he sat down on the cushioned chair besides her. He stared peacefully at his great-grandfather’s wrinkled, sleeping face, before exhaling a deep breath as though one of his great wishes had been fulfilled.
“You know, when I first offered you the job, I expected you to leave or fail within the month,” he spoke in an almost-apologetic hush. “Everyone always say that Samarans can’t manage a task with high expectations, and taking care of Greatpa is anything but easy.
“But unlike most people, Greatpa liked Samarans.” Aleksei emphasized just how unusual that was. “He always said that your kind’s conscientious nature make you the ideal members of society. So I figured: why not try it out? If it doesn’t work, it’s just another failed candidate. We’ve had plenty.”
The Baron likes Samarans? Lydia’s thoughts drifted. She couldn’t think of an occasion where the elderly Lisitsyn even smiled in her presence, let alone show her any sign of affection.
“He was right though, as he usually was.” Aleksei’s faced her, pleased. “Not only did you endure and keep going; you took the job more seriously than anyone else we’ve tried. You even took on more work than an even share to relieve your mother’s burdens.”
He then leaned back with an admiring gaze. “And to think you’re still only fourteen. You really are unlike any girl of your age I’ve ever met.”
Lydia’s cheeks felt warm as she fidgeted and looked away. She was happy but also discomforted to hear his unabashed praise. She could also tell that he was implying something. But in her tired, sleep-deprived state, her hazy mind had absolutely no idea what it might be.
“I also have other good news,” Aleksei added. “You won’t need to worry about that vindictive nobleman who forced your family out of the guild anymore. He found out you were here and demanded your dismissal.” the Young Master then scoffed. “Those Samusenkos are always putting on airs, thinking they’re better just because they’re an ancient house. Well, I borrowed Greatpa’s name and told them to shove it. You and your family are under our protection now.”
Lydia could hardly believe it. “Is… is that true Sir? B-but wouldn’t that…”
She clamped down on her lips a moment too late. It’s not appropriate for a servant to say.
“Be provocative and unwise?” Aleksei made a wry smile as he finished for her. “Perhaps. I did try to be polite in the actual communique.”
He then leaned back and curled his lips into a satisfied grin:
“But what good is nobility if we cannot even shield one of our own?”
The young girl felt her eyes moisten. All of their family friends had cast them aside due to their fear of this ‘ancient house’. But her new employer did not hesitate to offer her protection.
“Go take the rest of the morning off. It doesn’t look like you managed much sleep last night given everything left outside,” Aleksei then rose from his seat. He rubbed her head gently before strolling over to his Greatpa’s bed. “I’ll watch over him until your mother arrives.”
“I-I can’t do that!” Lydia’s complaint was almost reflexive. “It’s my duty to–”
“I’ll make this an order,” Aleksei cut her off. Though as he turned back his expression remained kind. “Take. The. Morning. Off. Otherwise I’ll deduct your pay,” he added with a grin.
Lydia’s mouth remained ajar for another few moments before it sunk in.
He really is kind.
“Yes Sir.” She finally nodded before climbing out from the chair with a wobble. Despite her sore legs and uneven footing, she tried her best curtsy to express her gratitude. “And thank you, Sir.”
“Oh, and one last thing,” Aleksei interrupted her as she made her way out. “Come hungry tonight when you start your shift. You must’ve lost a stone of weight and your body clearly needs replenishment. I’ll ask our cooks to make an extra meal for you and bring it up after dinner.”
Lydia’s reaction was slow at first. But as his warm gaze pushed her initial reluctance away, the young girl found herself with a bright smile for the first time in months. She thought of the scrumptious aroma that filled the estate every night. She wasn’t sure just what exactly aristocrats ate, but it certainly beat her meal of bread and soup every night.
“That does sound wonderful,” her eyes glistened with mirth and appreciation. “Thank you…”
Lydia went home and slept for six hours straight after that, until she had to wake up for Iliana’s lunch feeding. It was the longest she had slept for over a week, and even such a small favor left her full of gratitude.
Her mood improved further when she returned at night, and found Aleksei personally bringing up a tray of food. The hearty meal included a plate of beef stroganoff and an extravagant slice of layered honey cake, which Lydia savored as she watched a lively discussion between Aleksei and the Baron over the rise of the Inner Sea Imperium:
“…Tiberius was a fool and an imbecile,” Baron Lisitsyn spoke of the Second Arcadian Trade War that determined which nation would dominate the Inner Sea. “He allowed himself to be provoked by mere words, as if his pride was as cheap as his slaves’ clothes. His idiocy would later doom thirty thousand lives at the Battle of… of… oh come on, you know the one I speak of.”
Lydia was just about to take another bite of honey cake when she paused. The Baron was staring in her direction.
Surely His Lordship is looking at the Young Master in front and not me? She thought at first. But when even Aleksei turned around to gaze, it became obvious whom the expectations were placed on.
Caught off-guard by the weight of their stares, Lydia felt her anxiety spike and her mind blank out. She knew the answer. She was still halfway through City of World’s Desire: Arcadia and the Inner Sea. The early chapters discussed the First and Second Arcadian Trade Wars in great detail. Yet, she just couldn’t conjure the name from her memories’ depth.
Then, just as she stood there looking like a stupified fish, Aleksei silently mouthed the words with an encouraging smile:
Pu La Cen Ti…
His confidence was all it really took. It fit into her like a missing gear, and suddenly her mind became unstuck and began turning once more.
“The Battle of Placentia, Milord.” Lydia began, a summary of what she had read soon pouring out from her lips. “Consul Tiberius had dismissed the cautionary advice of his sick but more experienced colleague. After his adversary’s provocation, he crossed the river on the morning of an icy Winter Solstice, without having breakfast or even scouting the other side’s geography. As a result, he fell into a prepared trap, and lost over two-thirds of his army despite its superiority in both quality and quantity.”
“It’s always the little details that build to determine major outcomes,” Baron Lisitsyn’s stern face transformed into a smirk of approval towards her for the first time. “Remember that anything worth doing is worth doing properly. Pay attention to every circumstance, and you will best all but the truest prodigies.”
So… this was supposed to be a lesson for me as well? Lydia wondered as she nodded.
“This is why history should be a required study,” the elderly Baron continued. “Within these books lay a nigh-infinite repository of others’ experience: their successes, their mistakes, their ingenuity, and their folly. Only the shortsighted will refuse to take advantage of such wisdom to guide their decisions and see into the future.”
Aleksei clearly already knew this as he nodded along, but for Lydia it was an eye-opening moment. She had always thought the book assignments were merely for sharing a conversational topic that could keep the Baron’s interest. It never even occurred to her that Baron Lisitsyn might wish to pass down his wisdom to a servant like herself.
To learn in person from an experienced statesman and scholar: Father wouldn’t have been able to afford it even if we had the opportunity.
Emboldened by the atmosphere, Lydia summoned the courage to ask:
“W-what about philosophy then, Milord?”
“What history teaches in competence, philosophy teaches in ethics,” the Baron replied before half-snorting at himself. “Though I guess it’s quite prideful of me to think that I should preach to a Samaran on how to live properly.”
Lydia closed her eyes for a brief moment as she smiled.
No wonder how his philosophy books seemed so familiar, she realized at last. They reminded me of lessons from the Samaran Scriptures.
Baron Lisitsyn might be a cranky, ill-tempered, and troublesome old man, but he truly seemed to desire the education and betterment of those around him.
“N-not at all, Milord,” she shook her head, her clear-blue eyes reflecting the kindness that she had received. “I do enjoy learning, and Mother always taught me that there is no such thing as too much of it.”
“Sagely advice,” the Baron answered with a smirking grin.
“Oh no, Mother isn’t anything like that,” Lydia humbly waved it off. “She’s a common–”
“I don’t mean literally.”
His harsh reprimand left Lydia stunned. Yet as she looked back, his expression remained cheerful, as though nothing wrong had happened at all.
She could almost envision her father telling her that she was being ‘too sensitive’ again.
Aleksei certainly hadn’t noticed it at all as he asked normally:
“But I thought Samarans held no class differences like commoners, yeomen, and nobles?”
“Samarans have a very difference concept of ‘nobility’,” the elderly Baron answered before Lydia even had time to switch gears. “Unlike every other human sub-species like us, Dhampirs, or Vilavites, the Samarans do not inherit magical ability through blood. In fact, I believe the Protectorate of Samara have no inheritance laws whatsoever. Instead, the deceased customarily gift their property back to the community.”
He looked towards Lydia to verify, and the young girl hesitated before nodding.
“T-the Samaran definition of ‘property’ is also different,” she added. “My Mother said that a Trinitian scholar once compared the entire Protectorate to ‘one giant self-sustaining monastery’. The people keep only what they need while sharing the rest with the community.”
Aleksei’s eyes ballooned as he sat back, showing his amazement and wonder at how such a society would function. Meanwhile, the Baron’s emerald gaze stared at her as though they could see right through.
“Not ‘we’ or ‘our’?” He asked.
This must be what Mother meant about His Lordship being more ‘Astute’ than he appears.
“Culturally, I’m only half-Samaran,” Lydia admitted with a wistful, ‘it’s complicated’ smile. “I was taught our ways and values, but I never lived in Samara long enough to adapt. It’s a bit difficult since the concept of ‘half-Samaran’ doesn’t physically exist: one either has a Samaran mother or one doesn’t. So everyone expects me to be a full Samaran when I’m not.”
In her fourteen years of life, Lydia had spent less than five months total in her mother’s homeland. The Samaran natives always tried to make her feel welcomed, unlike the way residents of Velikaya sometimes behaved. But the local customs were nevertheless different enough that she often stuck out like a sore thumb.
Baron Lisitsyn nodded with a look of understanding:
“I know the feeling. It took me several decades before I felt like I actually belonged among the nobility.”
His comment made Lydia stare back in wonder. Does that mean he wasn’t raised a noble?
Her thoughts must have been obvious as he declared with a proud grin that exposed every bad tooth:
“Didn’t they tell you? I’m the First Baron Lisitsyn.”
Lydia’s lips parted in a faint sense of awe. She had once heard from her late father that in Polisia, it was not uncommon to rise to titular nobility through a combination of great wealth and ‘services to the state’. However, Baron Lisitsyn was a member of the landed aristocracy: the truest of the highborns with a title beneath only Princes and Counts.
He must have accomplished something truly inspiring, she thought.
“I haven’t told her the story yet,” Aleksei’s words nudged his Greatpa to tell the tale.
The Baron chuckled and began with a nostalgic smile:
“You see: when I was still Alek’s age, my father was just a small-town grain trader. The weather had been arid and cold for several years straight, so living was tough that decade. Then, in one autumn, we found ourselves stopping at a village where the harvest failed completely. The granaries had run dry after several years of poor yields. The folks were starving, and winter was still just setting in. My father and I couldn’t bear to see it happen, so we gave them every grain we had. We were so broke after that we couldn’t even afford the expenses to return home that winter,” his laughter turned into a cough.
“Father had to take out a loan just to keep our business afloat. However, when we returned to that village the next year, the locals still remembered us and wanted to show their gratitude. Turned out the village had a gifted runesmith artisan. He spent a winter making some of the highest quality Samovar boilers we’d ever seen, which he gave us as repayment. Father saw an opportunity and offered to unite our families. I married the Smith’s daughter, and that was ho… how our legacy b-began.”
The Baron then broke into a fit of coughing. Lydia rushed to bring up a clean chamber pot as he cleared his throat and spat out the mucus several times. After several deep breaths and her hand to rub him back, the Baron resumed his story:
“We built our new business on the boiler trade: our family became renowned throughout Polisia for being makers and sellers of the most reliable Samovars. The business expanded from there. We opened copper and iron mines, constructed metalworks and hired specialists, built ships and recruited captains. Through seven decades of effort we carved out a slice of the continental market for ourselves. The Lisitsyn name became known as far as the Inner Sea as being honest and trustworthy, and the Grand Magistrate of Polisia approached us with a request to serve as diplomats to the Inner Sea Imperium.
“I served at the court of the Emperor for twenty-seven years,” the elderly Baron’s voice grew tired and raspy, yet it retained the pride he held for his past. “During Polisia’s last war against our southern neighbors, the Kingdom of Iskar, I negotiated a treaty with the Imperium that allowed us to join forces. In the peace that followed, I had arranged for one of the Emperor’s Scholae Palatinae — the elite imperial guard legions — to be created from loyal Polisian warriors who wouldn’t meddle in Imperial politics, thus tying our two great states together in lasting friendship.
“And for that,” he concluded with satisfaction. “I was made a Baron. When the Prince Magistrate of Velikaya asked what land I would like to have, I asked for the once-village-and-now-bustling-town where our family legacy began with one simple act of kindness.”
Lydia couldn’t help but smile as she held up a plate and cup for warm tea for Baron Lisitsyn to drink. She had added extra honey to it, which her mother said would help soothe his throat.
Good outcomes for good deeds, she thought to herself. It doesn’t take a Samaran to believe that Karma is real.
“Alek,” the Baron then added between sips. “That is why you should always remember our family motto.”
“Waste no time discussing what a good man should be. Be one.” Aleksei affirmed with a glance towards the young maid. “I know, Greatpa. I know.”
Lydia did not miss the obvious source of Aleksei’s quote, even if a few of the original’s words had been swapped out:
From ‘Reflections’, by Emperor Aurelius the ‘Philosopher King’.
It was the first book that Baron Lisitsyn had forced her to read.
At that moment, Lydia understood why Alek not only cherished but revered his great-grandfather. The Baron was indeed a man of both great accomplishments and scholarly wisdom, even if he often seemed insensitive or threw tantrums in his old age.
—— * * * ——
In the months that followed, Aleksei’s frequency of visits steadily increased. Bringing a dinner tray gradually became a habit, and on occasions he even helped out when his Greatpa’s bedsheets needed changing. Their discussions also prompted Lydia to take a greater enthusiasm in the books that Baron Lisitsyn kept assigning her. And the more he smiled at her in approval of her learning, she less moody she found him during the remainder of the day when she required his cooperation.
Most surprisingly though, Lydia found the topic of Samaran culture increasingly brought up during their discussions:
“…You said all societies gravitate towards a pyramid hierarchy to establish social stability,” Aleksei asked as he sat in his usual spot besides the bed. “Our social class origins are all linked to the gift of magic. We have the noble class of ruling elites, with some who could trace their magical lineage as far back as the Age of Dragons; the yeomen class of specialists and artisans, whose capacity for spellcasting made them ‘first class commoners’; and lastly the actual commoners who fill out labor and manpower needs, who lacked not only the long lifespans of the magically gifted but also career prospects and social mobility…”
It reminded Lydia of another reason why the Samarans were often looked down upon: their prevalence of mages was far lower than that of any other human sub-species.
“But what of Samaran society?” He asked next. “Do they not have defined classes like ours?”
“The Samarans have their own hierarchy, although it’s not as apparent as our own,” the Baron tried to explain as Lydia mixed more honey into his afternoon tea. “Magic aptitude is part of the Samarans’ spiritual inheritance through reincarnation, earned during their past lives. Therefore, spellcasting is recognized as a display of their progress towards enlightenment. Because of this, Samaran mages are known as ‘Sages’ and are trusted by their kind as figures of wisdom and authority.”
“We also develop… an extra sense of sorts, as we mature into adulthood,” Lydia added as she held the tea cup for Baron Lisitsyn to drink. “We can sense the Karma, the spiritual enlightenment of other individuals in relation to our own. The greater the soul, the more they seem to ‘glow’ to our senses. People often believe we’re naturally subservient. But we simply recognize a superior person when we meet them.”
It had taken weeks, but she had since grown comfortable with jumping in and out of these conversations.
“So can you sense what my karma is then?” Aleksei’s eyes brightened with curiosity, but Lydia had to shake her head and disappoint him:
“No Sir. It’ll take another five to ten years before my senses are properly attuned.”
“What about your mother then?”
“My mother…” Lydia hesitated. She didn’t want to sound derogatory, but his interest was also pressing her into a corner.
“We can only sense the karma of those higher than our own,” she admitted in the end.
“Always strive upwards. It’s brilliant,” the Baron admired. “That does mean they can’t sense most of our souls. It is said that all Samarans have at least one previous life which they’ve spent accumulating merit. Although I’ve heard it’s rather impolite to ask about it; is that true?”
“Unless necessity demands, yes,” Lydia answered as her eyes steered away.
Would I ever feel comfortable enough to share my past with another? She couldn’t help but feel conscious and wonder.
Meanwhile, Baron Lisitsyn’s grin took on a more sardonic shadow:
“It’s far more telling than the ‘nobility’ that we have among our kind.”
Aleksei sighed and gave a faint nod, as though he was forced to agree.
“Most, but not all,” he added after another moment of deep thought. “Remember how the first Emperor of ‘Western’ Imperium was adopted for his potential? Nobody expected him to succeed when his famous father was murdered in cold blood on the Senate floor. But despite his teenage youth, he proved everybody wrong and seized supreme power in just thirteen years. He established an Imperium where the greatest five Emperors were all adopted, not born.
“True Nobility do not care for breeding, age, or even social standing,” Aleksei concluded. “They seek only the truest beauty in life: dedication, integrity, and law.”
Grinning with pride at the wisdom of his great-grandson, the Baron replied with a line that he often used:
“A soul’s value lay in the color of its thoughts.”
Lydia blinked as she recognized it as yet another quote from Reflections, and once again realized how similar they were to Samaran teachings.
“We are shaped by our mind; we become what we think.” She recited. “Joy follows the pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.”
“Where is that from?”
“Samaran Scripture: The Path of Eternal Truth,” Lydia smiled.
Aleksei couldn’t help but nod in fervent agreement.
“That reminds me, Alek,” the Baron spoke. “I know what you’ve been considering. Or at least, what you’ve started to consider.”
Lydia had absolutely no idea what the elderly Baron spoke of or why he briefly glanced at her. However, it was clear that Aleksei did, as his cheeks suddenly took on a pink shade of fluster.
“I–” the Young Master stammered, but his Greatpa pressed right over his reservations.
“I’m the one who really raised you after all.” The Baron stressed with a proud, knowing smile. “Your mother might have attended your physical needs, but your values and habits came from my own. You’re worried over what others might say about our family if you do go ahead with the idea. What impact it may have on your, on our future. After all, such a thing was simply not done among our kind.”
The Baron then stopped to exhale a hacking cough, and Lydia quicked leaned in to rub his back.
“Well…” he soon resumed. “I can tell you now that you should not pay such trivialities much mind. Public opinion is useful, but that is all it is. Fate has granted you an opportunity, and you should seize it: test your choices and clear your doubts. Focus on what is truly important to you. Be absolutely certain it is what you want, because it is the choice of a lifetime.
“And always remember, Alek,” he encouraged his great-grandson with a wrinkled grin:
“An emerald is no less beautiful just because others do not praise it so. You must take wisdom and judgment into your own hands.”
Lydia still wasn’t sure what they spoke of. But while she might not grasp the exact details, she certainly agreed on principle. Though given all the allusions, this was clearly a topic that the Baron did not wish to talk openly about.
Perhaps they’d like some privacy, she guessed before making an excuse and heading for the washroom.
As she closed the door behind her, she leaned against it for a brief moment with a satisfied smile:
Wisdom and kindness. The Young Master certainly has a bright future ahead.
—— * * * ——
And just like that, another eight more months passed.
Despite Lydia’s best efforts, Baron Lisitsyn’s health had steadily deteriorated over time. His ability to digest food had gradually declined, and with it his body weakened while his vitality faded away. He was entering his final days when he beckoned for Aleksei to lean closer during one morning visit. There, in her presence, he made his final request with a raspy voice and an unusually clear gaze:
“Alek… if you’ve made your mind… ask her today. Let this old man… see one last moment of joy.”
After months of lacking sleep, Lydia’s senses had been dulled by the constant fatigue. She hadn’t even read much in the last few weeks, especially as her family’s uncertain future began to trouble her mind. The Baron was a good man, but all things must come to pass in the end. What would happen to her family once her services were no longer required?
The young maid could only stare back in blank confusion as Aleksei nodded to his Greatpa before leaving his side.
His glistening eyes met hers and he smiled. Circling around the bed, he soon stood before the petite maid five years his junior.
“Lydia,” he began with a sincere look. I’ve never told you these months, but that day when we met at the tavern, I wasn’t actually looking for a caretaker maid,” he finally admitted. “You see… Greatpa had one last great wish in life, and that was to see me marry…”
The young girl’s lips fell open.
No, that can’t be, her thoughts denied the implication outright. He has to be joking with me!
“–Father had me meet with many candidates. However not a single one of them interested me. I wanted a wife who was conscientious, honest, diligent, and scholarly as well, but I also wanted to do one last thing to make Greatpa happy.”
Lydia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. But you’re the Young Master and I’m just a servant. Her head promptly began to overheat as thoughts and objections flooded in at once.
Meanwhile, Aleksei briefly pursed his lips in hesitation, before he simply went ahead and told the truth:
“When we met at the tavern that day, I had actually just met another candidate who seemed a perfect match. Except then she turned out to be courtesan that my brothers hired, to figure out just what my tastes were,” Aleksei scowled. “She was a master of her trade and knew exactly how to tell what men wanted. And she told me that since noble daughters grew up with every leisure yet few expectations other than to marry, the chances of me finding someone among my rank who was honest, conscientious, and diligent was… almost nonexistent.”
“And that… was when you hired me.”
An absent-minded whisper emerged as her mind finally regained enough balance to connect the dots. All those times when Aleksei and the Baron spoke in allusions: they suddenly began to make sense.
“I felt depressed and out of ideas that afternoon,” Aleksei looked sheepish. “I had two goals to meet for my Greatpa’s sake, yet I could not fulfill either of them. Then to my great surprise, you entered my life. I didn’t expect anything at first, but you put more effort into caring for my Greatpa than anyone my family had brought in. That was when I began to realize: the qualities necessary to care for my Greatpa were exactly the same as those I had sought for in a wife.”
You wanted… to marry a servant?
Lydia hadn’t even realized that she muttered it out loud. At least, not until Aleksei snorted at himself.
“Wow, that came out completely wrong.” He scratched his head as he reorganized his words. “I meant the qualities necessary to meet my Greatpa’s approval. Though, I admit: I might not have considered marriage this early had it not been for Greatpa’s sake. But since I am, I also want to marry someone who I’d be happy to share my life with. I want someone who I’d be glad to work and learn alongside, whom I could take every step with and share every moment. Family, school, career, children — I wish for a true partner that I could rely upon in every aspect. And that, is what I found in you.”
“Bu-but…” Lydia stumbled over her own words as her thoughts overflowed. “I d-don’t have anything to offer…”
“You’re too modest,” Aleksei’s smile only grew. “Your example alone brings out the best in me.”
“–But I’ve no proper education…”
“You’re smart and we have plenty of time.”
“–I’ve no dowry or family connections either…”
“My family has plenty of both.”
“–And I’m plain-looking and don’t have a drop of noble blood in me!”
“I want to marry someone who is noble of thought and character,” Aleksei proudly replied as he stepped up and took her fingers into his warm hands, breaching the last barrier of propriety between a master and a servant. “But whether they are in blood or status doesn’t matter much to me.
“Besides,” he added with a loving smile. “I think you’re plenty beautiful, especially where it truly counts.”
Lydia felt her breath stop as her entire face flushed. The heat from her cheeks spread as though it might ignite the rest of her being.
“I-I-I’m only f-fourteen,” she barely managed to whisper her last objection out.
Samarans reached adulthood at age sixteen just like ordinary humans, but they aged slowly after that and could easily live up to two hundred years. Meanwhile, human mages like Aleksei could reach just a few decades short of that. They almost never married before reaching their twenties.
“You’ll be fifteen in two weeks’ time,” his expression was full of gentle kindness. “Besides, I’m not in a hurry to start a family.”
It took her a second to realize exactly what he meant, and her entire face glowed scarlet.
“Lydia,” Aleksei held her hands together as he took a deep breath to deliver those final words. “Will you marry me?”
The thought of whether she desired this or not never even came up. She had already recognized Aleksei as a kind and admirable Young Master. She would have been proud to follow him even as a servant, let alone accompanying him at his side.
But far more importantly, being accepted into his family would solve all of her family’s financial insecurities. Her mother would never again struggle to bring food to the table. Her younger siblings would receive every opportunity for a better life.
Lydia never did answer him. Her ability to speak had completely vanished by that moment. All she could do was nod, and again, and again…