“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
– Aurelius the ‘Philosopher King’, Emperor of the Inner Sea Imperium
The next three days felt surreal in Lydia’s memories. Their engagement was short, as Aleksei was keen to fulfill his great-grandfather’s dying wish while he still had the chance. The entire Lisitsyn family and their near friends had been summoned for a hastily-prepared wedding ceremony on Friday — the holy day for Freyja, the Goddess of Love and Fertility. There, on the sun-drenched, golden shores of Lake Velikaya, they married in a private ceremony.
Their wedding would follow the aristocracy’s Hyperborean customs, with the bride sailing down the river and arriving at the beach by boat. Thus, Lydia sat nervously in her flowers-decorated chair, wearing a pure white dress with a floral wreath upon her head. She had been cleansed and purified prior to this moment: an entire day spent in the sauna to ‘wash away’ her maiden past.
The audience was full of strangers that she did not know, and even from the distance she could feel disapproving gazes from quite a few.
“The eldest marrying a servant. What a joke…”
“Nothing but a youthful fancy; though she is kind of cute…”
“Young and naive. He’ll be able to mold her however he likes…”
Lydia found their voices impossible to block out as her boat drew closer. Her breathing hastened as unworthy concerns began to circulate in her head and compound her unease. She closed her eyes and exercised her ritual of deep breathing to calm herself, though even that was hampered by the corset that squeezed around her waist for the first time.
She thought back to the moment when she accepted his marriage proposal, when Aleksei lifted her with a hug as he sang with pure and joyful laughter.
They’re just gossiping, she tried to convince herself. They don’t know him.
Yet even she had to admit that this was a marriage where the groom offered everything. Status and wealth, shelter and support; there seemed so little she could give him in return, and it made her uneasy.
As her boat drifted near the sandy shores, she heard the groom wading into the water to receive his bride. Aleksei made quite a scene as he ran up in great splashes and took her into his arms. He cradled her over the water as he unexpectedly spun twice, and Lydia gave a frightful yell as she tightly wrapped her arms around him.
“This is our day,” he whispered into her ears as he strode back toward the shores. “So relax and enjoy yourself!”
Lydia’s heart was still pounding as she gulped down fresh air. She never did react well to surprises, though as she recovered her open lips formed a faint smile.
He did that on purpose!
Aleksei’s steps were almost dancing by the time he made his way back onto dry land. He laughed and spun her several more times among the crowd, showing off just how happy he was with his new bride. Even the little acerbic whispers that Lydia had heard stopped as he set her down on sand. There, a Hyperborean priestess approached her with a silver sword in hand.
“Lydia,” the middle-aged woman in red robes handed her the ceremonial blade. “You must hold this sword as a symbol of your devotion and the bonds of your family.”
Lydia nodded as she picked up the heavy grip and raised it upward before her eyes. Meanwhile Aleksei drew a similar silver blade from his scabbard and held it before his gaze. Lydia had heard from his cousin — who came to prepare her for the wedding — that Aleksei had to ‘break into’ the grave of an ancestor to retrieve the placed sword. It was a symbolic representation of his own rebirth from boyhood into man.
The bride and groom then turned to face one another, and Lydia smiled nervously as Aleksei made a cross-eyed look at the two blades between them.
Aleksei’s younger brother Dmitriy stepped up to the priestess’ beckon. He offered her two rings in white platinum-gold, which she soon placed on the tips of their silver swords.
“Aleksei,” the priestess gripped both of his cheeks and stared into his eyes with their noses almost touching. “Do you swear to the Gods that you wish to marry this woman? To love and to protect her in the place of her father?”
Lydia turned to glance at her mother in the crowd, who pushed the elderly Baron upon a levitating lounge chair. Her mother’s eyes were glazed with pride and joy, despite the dark rings that made Lydia felt apologetic — she had to burden her mother with all the caretaking duties these past two days.
Father, I hope you’ll be proud of me today as well, her glassy eyes peered to the skies as her groom solemnly declared:
“With the Gods as my witnesses, I swear.”
“Lydia,” the priestess then faced towards her. Two palms cupped her cheeks, forcing her to gaze into a pair of heavily-shadowed, striking blue eyes.
It was a sight that represented the witness of the Gods.
“Do you swear to the Gods that you wish to marry this man? To devote yourself to him and no other?”
“With the Gods and the Protectress as witnesses,” Lydia beamed. “I do so swear.”
The middle-aged priestess nodded back at Lydia, an acknowledgement of their mutual acceptance and respect towards the other’s religious beliefs.
“Now, cross the swords and exchange them.”
Aleksei and Lydia tilted the upright swords, so that the ceremonial blades were crossed. Their fingers fumbled a little as they switched the handles between their hands, all while balancing the two rings at the tips.
It would be a sign of great misfortune — perhaps even the disapproval of the Gods — if they had dropped.
“Aha!” Aleksei exclaimed as the two finally managed, and Lydia couldn’t help but giggle as she exhaled a breath she didn’t even realize she’d been holding.
He’s making a scene on purpose to help me relax, she felt her heart flutter.
Even the middle-aged priestess laughed as she continued her explanation:
“The swords represent the union of two families, and the exchange of the bride’s devotion for the groom’s protection. Now, you may take the rings and bestow them upon each other.”
With one hand shakily holding onto the heavy hilt, Lydia reached up with her other fingers and took the ring off her ‘devotion’ sword that was now in his hands. She carefully slid the wedding band onto his waiting finger, before he returned the favor for her.
The runes surrounding each band glowed faintly as both rings set into place, sealing the contract as the new husband and wife beamed at one another. The rings represented the lasting dedication of their bond. They were impossible to remove without a rite of divorce, so long as both the husband and wife were alive.
It wasn’t until later that night when Lydia’s nerves returned.
Aleksei had lifted her between his arms and carried her back inside. He lowered her only once they reached his large, cushioned bed, where Lydia gulped nervously as she looked about the bridal bedroom. The candles were scented and the fireplace was lit. Everything had been prepared for a night where the newlyweds were expected to consummate their marriage.
Despite her exhaustion from the day’s events, Lydia’s every sense was running at full awareness. She almost jumped when Aleksei sat down behind her. His gentle fingers caressed up her arms to her shoulders, baring them as he slid her gown down just enough to kiss her shoulder blade.
“S-Sir…” She whispered, her voice quivering like the rest of her body.
“We’re married now, Lydia,” Aleksei breathed into the back of her ears, causing a tiny yelp to erupt from her lips.
“You should call me ‘husband’, or better yet: just Alek.”
“A-Alek.” She stammered. She had heard it so many times, yet it felt so alien coming from her own lips.
“I should… go switch with my mother…”
Lydia thought about how this would be the second night when her mother took care of the Baron without any breaks. She tried to turn towards the bed’s side, but it was impossible with Aleksei’s arms around her while he leaned over her shoulder.
“Wait until tomorrow,” his husky whisper brushed her ears. “Your mother will be glad to give you your wedding night. And in the morning, I’ll join you at Greatpa’s side.”
The young bride closed her eyes as she could feel his fingers brushing against her waist and thighs. He muttered beneath his breath in a foreign tongue and she felt the laces behind her corset unraveling.
She didn’t want to reject him. She didn’t want to hurt him. Yet…
She wasn’t like other human girls. Samarans had little desire for coitus to begin with, let alone her past life’s memories.
“A-Alek. You… You prom–”
Perhaps it was the tears in her voice. Perhaps it was because her trembling grew obvious. But Aleksei pulled back as if in a rush. He then maneuvered her to his side before wrapping his arm around her thin shoulders.
“Sorry. You were so cute that I went too far teasing,” he reassured her with a warm embrace and a kiss on her head. “Don’t worry: I won’t refute a promise. I won’t force you before you’re ready.
“Besides,” he joked. “You still have a few more years to fill out.”
Lydia relaxed her breath as she nodded, feeling her gratitude intermix with relief. She read enough stories to know that men often changed after they secured the girl in bonds of matrimony. Once married, a husband could legally take his wife by force and nobody would raise a finger, especially for a girl who wed above her social status.
I entrusted myself to him, so now I must have faith in him.
She nevertheless felt apologetic. “Sorry…”
His hand went beneath her chin and lifted them until their eyes met: deep emerald and clear-aqua, reflecting the light from each other.
“You’re fourteen. Last few days but still fourteen,” he emphasized. “I’m the one who forced you into an early marriage to satisfy my Greatpa’s wish. There’s no reason you should feel apologetic. If everything went normally, we would have gone at least a few years before we exchanged rings.”
If everything went normally, we might have never met, the regretful thought drifted into Lydia’s mind.
Would she trade her current happiness back for her father if she had a choice? Lydia knew there was a part of her that wouldn’t be able to let go, and she felt guilty for it.
“Besides,” Aleksei then continued. “I’m not expecting any children until I finish schooling and establish my career,” He hinted at the year he had taken off to spend more time with his Greatpa. “I want to have the time to be a proper father, unlike mine who barely stays at home.”
Lydia heard the longtime acceptance in his tone. His father, Radomir Lisitsyn, was the official Polisian ambassador to the Inner Sea Imperium, serving at the Emperor’s court thousands of kilopaces away. Aleksei and his brothers knew that their father only kept the family away due to the ‘cutthroat nature of Imperial politics’. Nevertheless, long absences for years at a time had estranged the father from the sons.
Her thin fingers pulled her corset’s remaining laces out before peeling away the garment that had squeezed her middle. She then took his hands and moved them until his arms wrapped around her waist, with only a thin dressing gown between their skin.
She wanted to show that despite what had happened earlier, she still held absolute faith in him.
“You’ll be a wonderful father,” she whispered. “I’m sure of it.”
Aleksei chuckled, and his wife blushed as his hand rubbed through the filmy chiffon against her flat stomach.
“I do hope so,” he earnestly voiced.
A comfortable silence fell between them as Lydia relaxed into his chest. After several whole days spent over preparations and ceremony, she felt like the tension could at last leave her shoulders.
“So, wife, what shall we do tonight?” He soon started teasing again. “Don’t tell me we’re just going to sleep?”
“What else do you do late at night?” She innocently replied. “Other than read, relax, and sleep?”
It was all Lydia cared to do, at least back when she had a choice.
Aleksei chuckled again. His hand reached up and began stroking her silky hair, and she instinctively closed her eyes to bask in the relaxing comfort it brought. This time, she didn’t feel any alarm or wariness as he gently lower their bodies beneath the thick comforter. His arm was still draped over her as she snuggled closer to him on the silk sheets, until their bodies hugged all the way down to their tangled feet.
“This is good then?” He asked.
There was more respect and acceptance in his tone than she could have ever hoped for.
“This is perfect,” she muttered back.
At that moment, Lydia doubted if even the Trinitians’ promise of heaven could match her feeling of bliss.
—— * * * ——
Sixteen years old Lydia woke as her eyelids fluttered open in the bedroom’s chilly air.
Light leaked through the gaps around the heavy curtains. The brightness revealed that the sun was already well above the horizon.
The fireplace was cold and still. The warmth from the previous night had long burned out. The household staff did not disturb their room this morning to renew it either. Alisa — the scullery maid at the estate — was very quiet at her job, but Lydia nevertheless woke up every time she sneaked in.
Alek must have arranged for us not be disturbed today, the young wife thought.
Leaning sideways, she smiled at the peaceful, sleeping face of her husband. Yesterday had been Aleksei’s twenty-second birthday. And to celebrate, she had given him the most precious present that she could offer.
She then noticed that his arms and shoulders were outside the comforter again.
He always does that, she whined inwardly. The room had cooled enough overnight that her side’s covers were pulled halfway over her face, yet he looked like he wanted to catch a cold.
Careful not to wake him, Lydia reached out to pull one of the lighter, exterior bedsheets up to his neck. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
I should restart the fire.
Lydia lowered the thick insulating layers that kept her warm. She pushed herself out of bed, her body wearing only a light chemise for garments. The soft carpet that her toes touched were chilly as well, but they were still infinitely better than a hard, freezing floor.
However, she shifted her weight onto her legs too soon. Her hips were still sore from the unaccustomed exercise last night, and she lost her balance and collapsed straight onto the floor.
The ‘thud’ she made — not to mention the jerk on the comforter — seemed to have woken up her husband. He soon peeked over the high mattress as his wife sat back up on the carpet.
“Sorry. My–” Her cheeks turned scarlet as she tried to describe what happened. Her voice fell to little more than a mumble: “I was trying to light the fire…”
“I don’t think you even got to the fire,” Aleksei laughed as he rubbed his eyes and climbed off the bed. His well-toned arms lifted her up and helped her back into the sheets.
“You should have just called in the maid to do it,” he nodded towards the pull string above the headboard that Lydia never used. His body then gave an involuntary shudder. “It’s too cold out. You’ll get sick.”
“Samarans don’t catch colds, remember?” Lydia smiled shyly as she pulled the bedcovers up to her bare shoulders again. “No need to call someone all the way here to do something I could have managed myself.”
Her husband huffed out a half-laugh, as though exclaiming whatever-do-I-do-with-you? Still shirtless, he shuddered as he walked over to the fireplace, pulled a few chopped logs from the hidden alcove next to it, and lifted the glass-covered iron grate to dump them in.
“You’ve got to be the only Lady I know willing to light fires with a flint iron,” he casually added, before pointing at the logs at muttering a word in the ancient tongue of dragons: “Ignition.”
A small fire instantly took hold across the wood surface as his magic kindled the flames.
“Do you not know any other common girls who married an aristocrat?” She asked plainly as he closed the glass-and-iron grate again, which kept the popping embers from burning the carpet.
“I do,” he dove back into the warm bedsheets before explaining. “But… well, people change when they move up the ladder, especially those who feel like they have to prove their new status. But you haven’t, have you? At least, not by much.”
Lydia put on a wry smile.
“I do what I should to maintain the family’s reputation. But I don’t see the need to flaunt myself in front of people.”
“And that’s enough,” Aleksei nodded in understanding. “I think it’s a good thing you’ve stayed true to yourself,” he added, before breaking out a huge grin: “although I wouldn’t mind if you flaunt yourself in front of me a little.”
Lydia could only stay quiet and look sheepish. She knew exactly what her husband had meant. Unlike most noblewomen, she had a complete lack of interest in fashion. If it wasn’t for Faina — her cousin-in-law — reminding her that she should at least put in an effort for her husband’s sake, Lydia might spend years without buying a new dress.
“Still,” he leaned back and pulled her head against his chest. “I’m not complaining. And last night…” he spoke in a relaxed voice as though he could still savor the exquisite taste. “Totally worth the wait.”
Her cheeks felt like coals once more as she remembered the night before: the sensations she felt as they finally consummated their marriage.
Samarans had little of the passions and euphoria that regular humans reached in love. For her, it had been more a sense of duty than anything else. Nevertheless, she did enjoy the experience of bringing pleasure to her husband. She had trusted him — truly this time — enough to overcome even the shadows in her memories.
“You did cast the contraception spell right?” She shyly mumbled. “I wondered if you might have forgotten given how excited you became.”
“Did it as I was unlacing your clothes,” he grinned. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to make a mistake and have a child before we’re ready. Next year will be my final one at the academy, then I have to start my internship. What kind of father will I be if I miss all of our baby’s landmarks because I was too busy paving out my career?”
“Besides,” he added. “I’d rather you join me at the academy next year.”
Lydia smiled appreciatively. She would never fault someone like Aleksei’s father Radomir, who was never there for his sons during to his diplomatic career. After all, there was intense pressure on the men of the family to carry the house’s prestigious legacy. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to imagine that her husband would be there with her.
Or, if everything goes well, she thought. I’d be with him.
“Just remember…” she added in a shy whisper. “I’ll be ready whenever you are.”
Aleksei chuckled as his hand stroked her silky hair.
“That might not happen until you’re at least forty, depending on how long I follow in the family tradition,” he referred to their services in the Emperor’s court. “Though, since our Samaran children won’t just inherit my magic, it would be nice for the Barony’s succession if you could become the mother of a Sage.”
Jerking forward all of a sudden, Lydia spun her torso around, looking horrified.
“I’d have to raise a hundred kids!” She thought of the odds.
Her husband was in the direct line of primogeniture succession. Polisia’s agnatic-cognatic laws preferred sons, though daughters could inherit as well if there are no male heirs. But regardless of gender, one must have magical affinity to legally succeed a title of nobility.
Aleksei, however, laughed it off with a hearty grin.
“You really do take everything seriously don’t you?”
A shade of scarlet crept back up Lydia’s cheeks. “Sorry. But… your–”
“Don’t worry about it,” he pulled her back to his chest before giving her head another kiss. “We’re treading fresh waters on the inheritance laws. There has never been a case of a noble marrying a Samaran until now. But who knows what might happen between today and a century from now? Even in the worst case scenario, I still have brothers to carry on the Lisitsyn title.”
He didn’t say the other alternative. Lydia tilted her head as she gazed upon her kind husband, who offered so much to her and her family.
If he wishes to take a concubine for an heir, I wouldn’t say ‘no’.
—— * * * ——
“I can’t believe I’m standing here.”
The seventeen years old Lydia stood awestruck as she gazed up at the Ilmen Academy’s smooth limestone entrance. This was the highest institute of learning in all of the Polisian Federation. Only the children of aristocrats and wealthy yeomen could receive an education here. Her late father had no chance of paying for the tuition even if he could get her enrolled.
“Well, I’ve attended for three years already and I’ve never just stood there.”
Lydia’s clear-aqua eyes lowered to see her husband’s amusement. She could tell from his voice that he’d been joking. Nevertheless it made her realize:
It’s unladylike. I’ll make him look crass.
She knew that in addition to being an institution of learning, the Ilmen Academy was also where the next generation of Polisian leaders met and networked. The Lisitsyns might be young compared to many of the ancient noble houses, but they were still wealthy and influential in the Federation’s politics.
And as his wife, I must represent the Lisitsyn name.
Perhaps the worry showed in her eyes, as Aleksei soon noticed her concern. His gentle fingers brushed the soft, lightly-curled tresses back behind her ears. Her white hair had grown long enough since her marriage that it almost touched her waist and was now impossible to hide.
“Don’t worry so much about other people’s opinions,” he pulled her closer, his expression somewhere between a kind reprimand and a reassuring smile. “Be compassionate to yourself. Even your own scriptures tell you that.”
It’s… not that simple though.
“I don’t want to make you look less in others’ eyes,” she whispered.
“Just the fact you’ve managed to join me here should impress all whose opinions I actually respect.”
His hand reached up to rub her head, and she basked in his soothing touch. Aleksei always did enjoy the silky softness of her hair, and Lydia in turn loved it when he did that.
“Besides,” his tone grew more amorous. “To me, you’re exquisite just the way you are: and that’s what truly matters.”
Lydia felt her cheeks flush as she looked away. She didn’t dislike the warm embarrassment that he often enjoyed bringing her, but even such pleasant feelings could build up to an overflow. High emotions often made her act in ways that she felt embarrassed or ashamed about later, so she always tried to keep her ‘excitement’ in control.
The corset that she now wore every day proved a hindrance yet again as she took a constrained breath. Nevertheless, she routinely needed the ritual a dozen times per day to not feel overwhelmed before its end.
Lydia heard the yell from her right, before seeing the lanky figure of Aleksei’s second brother Dmitriy run up. Unlike Alek, Dmitriy caught a face full of adolescent pimples during his last growth spurt. Though the tall and playful seventeen year old didn’t seem to care as he happily gave Lydia an exaggerated welcoming bow.
“Sister, may I welcome you to our great and wondrous academy. You’re probably one of only two dozen ladies accomplished enough to be on campus.”
He then took her hand and kissed it in perfect gentlemanly manners.
“Thank you, dear brother,” Lydia smiled back, her nose tingling.
She might have felt a bit discomforted to hear such obvious praise, had it not been for the fact that she had to work for four months to secure the recommendation necessary to attend. Even the ‘Lisitsyna’ name wasn’t enough for her. She was not just female but a Samaran as well, which meant that to be accepted by the same professors she had to doubly stand out.
…And stand out she did, as she heard another hushed voice from behind:
“A Samaran? At this institution?”
“Probably visiting friends. It’s inconceivable that she’d be attending here.”
Lydia closed her eyes and took a gentle breath. She had mostly grown used to it by now.
“Where’s Mikhail?” She asked a moment later about Dmitriy’s younger, fraternal twin. Meanwhile her hands laced through Aleksei’s offered arm as he led them inside.
“Second courtyard,” Dmitriy replied as he protectively flanked her other side. “The Dueling Club is having an exhibit to gather new members, and you know how he is.”
“I’m still surprised he agreed to come here instead of heading to Östergötland and joining one of their ‘Adventure Guilds’,” Lydia tried to maintain a friendly smile, though the results were a little wry.
She hardly approved of those Hyperborean marauders, who — among other activities like arctic exploration — raided the coasts of the western nations for plunder and slaves. However, when it came to Aleksei’s little brother Mikhail, her feelings there marked just the tip of an iceberg.
I must not think ill of him, she reminded herself to keep her thoughts clean. He’s family.
“Well, Father said if you insist on fame and glory, then you better at least learn to lead a warband!” Dmitriy imitated Radomir’s gruff, stern voice. “Next you know, he signs up to be a military cadet.”
“Hopefully, a few years of required military service might make him reconsider his romantic notions,” Aleksei intoned without any semblance of hope in it.
“Speaking of, sister,” the younger brother tilted his head. “What’s your academic discipline again?”
She had explained it before, but it was such a mixed bag that it was understandably difficult to grasp.
“It’s a cross-disciplinary studies aimed at training project coordinators,” she tried a new approach. “We learn everything from requirements analysis and risk assessment to scheduling and personnel management. We also learn a bit of every engineering discipline to orchestrate the integration of multi-disciplinary systems…”
As Dmitriy’s eyes lost focus, Lydia realized that she was fast losing his comprehension and decided to summarize:
“Basically, we manage the logistical details and allow leaders to focus on the big picture.”
“Sooo in other words, she wants to be your aide,” Dmitriy grinned knowingly at his older brother, who looked rather sheepish as his gaze swiveled away.
“I didn’t ask her to…” He mumbled.
Lydia smiled as she gave Aleksei’s arm a reassuring squeeze. Her husband never did feel comfortable when someone framed her as his servant. Even though he never once expressed shame in her past or how they met; even though she told him countless times that she didn’t mind.
He always wanted me to treat him as more of an equal, she thought. But that isn’t me or how I am…
Alongside his education in statesmanship, Aleksei was also in the oldest and most respected of engineering and science disciplines: that of a Structural Engineer. He wanted to go to the Inner Sea Imperium just like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather: to study the great causeways and automated aqueducts and water-cleansing bathhouses. He spoke of using the Lisitsyn family resources to bring them to Polisia, to improve food yields with irrigation networks, to reduce maintenance with high quality roads, and to enhance the quality of life overall throughout the Federation.
However, great dreams also required considerable planning. There were countless tasks to break down and organize, innumerable challenges to understand and solve. Otherwise, without assessing, examining, and executing every task and detail, even the most visionary aim would collapse under its own weight and remain nothing more than mere fantasy.
And that’s why I chose my discipline, Lydia thought proudly to herself. To support him and see his dreams through — that is my greatest wish.
—— * * * ——
“Have you heard about the news from the east?” Dmitriy raised a topic as the three brothers and one sister-in-law sat around a fireside table at the ‘small’ Lisitsyn residence at Ilmen.
Each of them held a book open to study, though the mind of nineteen years old Lydia hadn’t been in reading. Her third year internship was on the horizon. She’d been woolgathering about how she could join Aleksei when the new topic interrupted her thoughts.
“Who hasn’t by now?”
The short but firm Mikhail answered as he flipped another page of his book on decisive battles. His blue-and-white uniform was as impeccable as always, outlining a lean, muscular chest that was neither broad nor skinny. His eyes never looked up, but his lips formed just the slightest sneer as disdain crept into a cold voice:
“Those Khanates in the east are always so prideful, claiming their horse archers are braver and tougher than our Druzhina. Now look at them, defeated and chased like a pack of frightened rabbits.”
Aleksei closed his workbook with a sigh. This ‘group study’ was a monday night pastime that he had organized, to ‘strengthen the bonds of family’. But while Lydia could appreciate his aim, she was less convinced it achieved much effect.
“They’re still our allies, brother,” his reply held a solemn tone. “The Khanates of Astra, Sarkel, and Turan are members of the Polisian Federation. They guard our stormy eastern borders where nomadic tribes battle every season. Without them, we’d be dragged into another war every year…”
For the Polisia Federation, the three semi-nomadic Khanates were a hybrid between Marches — militarized border provinces — and friendly buffer states. They maintain much of their autonomy, including the ability to raid their neighbors without a collective declaration of war. But in exchange for unrestricted market access by Federation traders as well as a united foreign policy, the Khanates receive substantial military subsidies and a guarantee of military support during defensive wars.
“You speak of ‘battle’ as if it were an illness,” Mikhail stared up, across the table and into his older brother.
“What does ‘battle’ bring to society?” Aleksei spoke. “Instability? Destruction? Misery? Battle destroys yet does not create. It has never brought us anything that would make our civilization a better place to live.”
“It gives us legends, inspiration, unity.” Mikhail shot back his counters. “The pride of our people. All of those lasts longer than your precious aqueducts and bathhouses.”
Aleksei scowled. His fingers tightened on the chair’s armrest, although the only person who noticed was his wife. Mikhail simply returned to his book without a second glance.
Hardly the first time, Lydia tried to quell her concerns. Mikhail always manages to irk Alek in such topics.
“Do you think we’ll be obligated to send support?” Dmitriy pressed onwards, trying to keep the discussion on ‘news’ and not ‘opinions’.
“Of course we will,” Aleksei stated matter-of-factly. “The Khanates were invaded, weren’t they? By this ‘Great Khan’ who claims lordship over ‘all who live as far as the prairie grass grows’.”
Scorn and disdain rose as the oldest brother went on:
“It’s ridiculous, to think he could just shout ‘grasslands!’ and it’ll all just belong to him like this is some great game. It’d be nice if our allies’ armies had been enough to stop this egoist. But they failed to block the invaders at the Gates of Caspi, then they were routed during the Battle of Astra. The Grand Prince will now have no choice but to call for mobilization, to summon the Druzhina from the various Principalities and march south to drive out these barbaric Eastlings.”
“Whatever else, these ‘Eastlings’ know how to fight well,” Mikhail’s comment was cold and impassive. “Our scouts believe no more than forty-five thousand adversaries crossed the mountains. The three Khanates pooled together twice that number at Astra. Yet they were the ones smashed by the battle’s end while the invaders’ losses were,” he brought up one hand to emphasize the quote: “‘light’.”
“Why do we call them ‘Eastlings’?” Lydia asked. She was unused to feeling ignorant.
“Because they’re short, stubby creatures who ride small horses,” Aleksei explained. “Or so the reports claim.”
“Small, but extremely agile horses, if their consistency in outmaneuvering the Khanates is any indication,” Mikhail added. “I understand the need to give them a nickname that sounds non-frightening. However it also brings the bad habit of underestimating them.”
Aleksei nodded in agreement. The two brothers only seemed to concur when it came down to assessments in cold logic.
“Nonetheless,” the oldest stated. “We’ll likely be called upon within the week. After all, the Druzhina comprise of the nobles and our retinue. Grandfather can’t ride with his bad back, and Father is still at the Emperor’s court; Uncle Ilya is in Östergötland, and our other uncle is an alcoholic. That means we’ll need to lead the men-at-arms in their place.”
This time, it was Mikhail who closed his book with a disgruntled huff.
“You sound as if this is such a chore, brother. Where is your excitement!?” The young man’s eyes flashed with hunger, though the rest of his expression remained cool. “Honor! Glory! Fame everlasting! Don’t you want to be remembered, brother? To be read about as long as men have eyes to read!”
“Not in this manner,” Aleksei spoke dryly. “I have no desire to see my name on a battle record. I will perform my duty. That is all.”
Lydia smiled at him. She couldn’t help but agree: there was no ‘honor’ in organized murder and slaughter. It also lessened her worries, a little, that he did not desire any heroics.
Unfortunately, Mikhail wasn’t satisfied by that.
Even more regrettably, he saw the smile Lydia sent her husband.
“Your Samaran wife has made you weak, brother.”
In that moment, Aleksei lurched forward and almost pounced from his chair. Only his last second restraint — plus a belated touch from Lydia’s hand — stopped him.
Hot air shot out of his nostrils like an angry bull as his emerald gaze stared at his younger brother’s deep blue eyes. It was an ever present reminder that little Mikhail was always their mother’s favorite.
In the meantime, Dmitriy looked between his two brothers as though unsure of what to do, while Lydia had to regulate her breathing to keep herself from panicking.
Steady inhale. Slow exhale. Rinse and repeat.
Refresh all senses. Expel ill thoughts.
She couldn’t think of any serene memories at this moment, not when half her mind still had a situation to defuse. But this was the ritual that her mother had taught her since she was six, when her neighbors accused her of ‘lunacy’ after their mischievous boy dropped a spider into her dress and sent her into hysteria for nearly an hour.
Mikhail’s acidic words did not wound Lydia. She had spent her entire childhood with most people around her believing that Samarans were ‘soft’ and ‘weak’. Thankfully, she was at least a girl. Her little brother had it far worse, as even young boys called him a ‘born coward’.
However, the last thing she wanted was to drive a bigger wedge between the two brothers, to be the one responsible for open conflict between them. It wouldn’t help Aleksei, and it certainly wouldn’t benefit her: she already had enough trouble attaining any approval from her mother-in-law.
“It’s all right.” She whispered to her husband. “I don’t mind. I really don’t.”
She was thankful for Dmitriy’s neutrality, even if it was unintentional. Or, he’s purposely feigning uncertainty to not take sides, which would only escalate tensions, she considered.
After all, this middle brother always knew how to keep a low profile when it suited him.
That path of thinking then made her realize:
As the eldest, Aleksei will have command of the household troops. That may be why Mikhail is so displeased.
However, knowing the problem and solving it were different matters. Lydia had no idea what to say that might help. And before she uttered a word Mikhail gathered his belongings.
“I can tell when I’m no longer wanted.” He simply walked out.
—— * * * ——
“You worry too much,” Aleksei smiled as he rubbed his young wife’s soft hair. “Twenty thousand Druzhina and fifty Shturmoviks. Hundreds of the best war machines on continent and nearly a hundred thousand in total strength.”
He put on a confident grin as he pulled her closer for one last hug:
“We’ll be back in time to celebrate Yule.”
The Eastern Khanates also rallied ninety thousand before they were defeated, Lydia couldn’t help but feel her chest tighten. Nevertheless, she kept the thought to herself and simply nodded.
“Just be careful,” she fixed her husband’s uniform collar so that it folded under his breastplate. The Druzhina demi-lancers he led were only considered ‘medium shock cavalry’, but the polished steel that covered his chest still made him look like a Bogatyr knight-errant from romantic legends.
Seeing the unease in his wife’s eyes, Aleksei took off his thick, fur cloak and unbuckled his armor’s tighteners.
Lydia still wasn’t sure what her husband was doing when he began pulling on his outer sleeves.
“Here,” Aleksei handed her his outer jacket a minute later. It was part of his dress uniform, still warm from his body heat and dyed with his scent.
“That’s my best jacket,” he smiled. “I’ll be coming back first to retrieve it for the victory parade. So be sure to take care of it for me, all right?”
He pressed his nose against hers as his hands reached around and draped it across her shoulders.
Tears brimmed in Lydia’s eyes as she nodded back. Her chest warmed as she thought about just how well he understood her.
Please return safely. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
She no longer cared about how they stood in the Lisitsyn estate’s front yard, or how there were hundreds of men all around them. She didn’t care that it was unladylike to be too affectionate in public, or how she could never bring herself to be the proactive one between them.
For the first time, she leaned in without her husband’s lead and pressed her lips into his. His warmth soon enraptured her every sense, and she indulged upon the sweet taste that had become the pivot of her life these past five years.
They stayed together until her breath ran out. Aleksei wiped his lips’ corner as he beamed:
“If we keep this up, then I’ll never be able to leave.”
Finally waking to what she had done, Lydia looked down as she felt her cheeks burn with scarlet flames. It felt as though the whole courtyard had been staring at her, although nobody made inappropriate remarks that might disrespect the young master.
The pair enjoyed each others’ presence for one more blissful moment, before Lydia felt Aleksei step away. His gloved hands remained on her shoulders as he made one last request:
“Help Grandpa take care of the estate while I’m away, won’t you? Mother is no good at finances and the steward is coming with us.”
“Mmmph!” She nodded with glistening eyes.
Longing and hope filled Aleksei’s gaze as he slowly turned away. He pulled his lance out of the ground and, with its shaft’s support, climbed into the saddle of his tall charger.
“Saddle up!” He beckoned to any men who were still paying their farewells.
“We’ll be back in time for Yule!” Dmitriy repeated the official slogan from atop his mount, no more than ten paces away. “Do not worry sister. I shall keep him safe!”
Lydia returned an appreciative nod:
“I shall pray for all of your safe returns!”
“Pray for our glorious victory as well, sister,” Mikhail added before turning away with his mount.
“I shall!” She nodded once more with a sunny smile. She had no desire to bring up any differences between them now.
“Let’s be off then!” Aleksei bellowed to his family, household, and men-at-arms.
“RAISE YOUR BANNERS HIGH! LET THE GODS HEAR YOUR BRAVERY CRY!”
All around them, several hundred men began to shout in unison. Each louder than the previous as they hoisted their flags and lances toward the sky:
“UUU-RA! UUU-RA! UUU-RA!”
The clouds seemed to move faster, and a faint thunder rumbled in the distant northeast. The men’s eyes brightened as though they just received a divine blessing, but Lydia knew that Aleksei had planned for this.
The Hyperborean Stormlord Thor, the Polisian Stormlord Perun, the Perymian Stormlord Ukko, even the Samarans recognized the mighty Stormlord Indra. It was shocking just how much the warrior gods had in common.
“WE RIDE EAST! TO VICTORY!”
Lydia watched with a mixture of pride, concern, and melancholy as Aleksei’s mount began to trot away. He turned in his saddle and waved at her, but no more words were spoken. No more words needed to be spoken.
They both understood their roles, and nothing could fill the distance that steadily grew between them now.
As the brothers trotted over a nearby hill crest, Aleksei turned back and exchanged one more wave with his beloved wife.
Then, his figure dropped off and vanished from Lydia’s sight.
Weeks later, on a snowy morning, Lydia Lisitsyna stood just outside the entrance to the family estate. She had been waiting every morning for the mail to arrive before breakfast, for either a message from Aleksei or, at least, some news of what had happened to her husband at the front.
The air was well below freezing today. Her teeth were chattering as her fingers shakily opened the paper scroll from the local Farspeak messaging office. Her breathes soon hastened between exhaled puffs of steam. Her eyes began to tremble as they read through the contents of the news:
“…We regret to inform you that Aleksei Lisitsyn, Dmitriy Lisitsyn, and Mikhail Lisitsyn have died heroically in defense of the realm at the Battle of Terek. Due to the total destruction of the army at the hands of the barbarous invaders, no body or personal effects could be recovered…”
He’s not… He can’t be!
Her tears pooled as she shook her head beneath a barrage of frantic thoughts.
Her fingers fumbled as they pulled off her rabbitskin glove and rushed to grip her enchanted wedding ring. She tugged at it, hoping that it would stay as immovable as ever, a steadfast reminder of their matrimonial oaths.
…It slid down her thin finger against only the resistance of her skin.
In that instant, every fact, every implication that she had rejected at first struck her mind at full force. The shock paralyzed her mental chaos, leaving only one undeniable thought adrift:
Alek is dead.
Her lips, her jaw, her arms, her entire body began to tremble as she could no longer deny the truth.
Her life with him passed before her eyes in flashing images, not only the past five years but all the joys that were still to come: their proud, smiling hugs at graduation, their celebratory kiss as they finished his first project, their mirth as she cradled their first child…
All of them shattered at once into a million shards of light. Forever gone. Forever lost.
“Milady?” The doorway pushed open as her lady’s maid stepped through. “His Lordship asked for you to…”
Lydia never even heard her maid, whom — as she was later told — barely caught her in time as she collapsed into a hysterical fit of tearful wails.
However, not even her incessant cries could express the agony of her tormented spirit.
Back before the war, she had agreed with Aleksei that they were still too young to contemplate a child. Now, she would never have the chance to bear his children, to leave even a legacy of the loving family that they could have shared.