Chapter 66: Stepbrother
When she left the guild building near the docks, the sun had long since set. Walking through streets still slightly wet from a light rain that must have had fallen while she was in the dungeon, Nisha looked around as it was the first time she was seeing life. There were very little people out, the weather and the time of the day having deterred most from taking a stroll.
Contemplating on her gains, the dragon didn’t think of making any detours and directly returned to the noble district.
Ignoring the reaction of the guard when he opened the main gate for her, the elven girl soon arrived in sight of the mansion she now called home.
Struck by an odd mood, she paused for a while, and gazed at the house, reminiscing about the events that had led up to her current life.
So far, she had only called three places home. The first was the [Dragon’s Den]. Initially, the four dragons had chosen the place on instinct. After the ‘willingful’ departure of the previous inhabitants, they had acquired a living place, and expanded it over the turns to fit their needs. She considered that all of the different beasts residing there were precious, and she would love to return to them.
Not that I can, with this body of mine.
Her second home had been the royal cabin in the hunting grounds. Rather than the building itself, it had been Eldrin’s presence who had given her a strong sense of belonging to the house. It didn’t matter where, a palace or a simple sheet between two tree trunks, as long as there had been Eldrin, she would have been home. Meeting with Annabelle and Lydia added to the fond memories she had of the cottage, but she didn’t really want to go back there. Without her grandfather, the place had lost its soul.
And now, her last home was this estate. She didn’t exactly ask for luxury, but Nisha had to admit that having her own room, servants who executed her orders, and prepared meals, certainly held advantages, leaving her free at times when she had been doing chores in the past.
And she hadn’t come to that house relying on her own abilities. She was very thankful towards Luthais who had not only taken her and her two older sisters in, but also put his father’s reputation on the line to introduce her as his own relative; not to mention that she had been taught many things thanks to him, including the skills necessary to survive in court, allowing her to pursue her grandfather’s last wish. For all that kindness she had been shown, it wouldn’t matter if she was to be treated worse than that of a dog, she would find a way to repay him one day.
With the humidity of the rain still lingering on the old stones, the wall surrounding the mansion was supposedly more difficult to scale than usual, yet to the dragon it might as well have not been there. Dodging the cautious gaze of the guard on watch, she swiftly slipped inside the small castle, heading straight for the main building.
Peeking through the kitchen’s keyhole, Nisha made sure that there was no one in the room before sneaking in. To her delight, there were some sweet breads innocently left to cool near the stove, allowing her to steal a handful to take with her to her room on the second floor. She wasn’t exactly hungry, she had just been drawn to the mischief by her own gluttony, there was no way she was still hungry after her hunting trip in the dungeon earlier.
Nibbling on one of the pastries, the elven girl almost got caught by a servant walking on the upper floor. Thankfully she noticed the light of the lantern he was carrying from afar, and had enough time to hide in the shadow of the first door she came across. Already half asleep, the man didn’t notice anything particular about an accumulation of shadows in front of the lord’s study and headed towards the stairs.
If I was a thief, this would be a piece of cake. I really should talk Luthais into briefing the servants regarding security.
Taking another bite of the sweet bread, Nisha waited for the light to completely disappear downstairs before heading to her own room, closing the door carefully behind her before throwing herself on the bed.
Considering she had gone out to play in the famously dangerous dungeon, it was normal for the dragon to be dead tired. Although there were few creatures in the first layer that could give her a hard time, the sheer amount of battles she had gone through had drained her energy.
Laying on her bed, Nisha just wanted to sleep, but she took a moment to unequip her leather armor and slip into a set of comfortable sleepwear.
Closing her eyes, the dragon was about to pray to Bael and Gabriel when a knock on her door prompted her eyes to fly open.
Did Luthais find out I wasn’t here today? Is Galan gonna lecture me?
“Come in, please.”
Albeit she was panicking internally, Nisha had no choice but to draw the bedsheets closer to her body to sit on her bed, and answered.
The one who came in at that call was not someone the elven girl was expecting. It was neither the old servant, his wife, nor the head of the house. Nisha’s heart skipped a beat when she saw Eldrin who had came back to life to scold her. Aware that there was no way this would have happened, she recognized Henry – Luthais’ son – who unfortunately for Nisha had taken his face from his grandfather.
“Is it alright if I come in and chat a bit with you?”
Peering at the girl wrapped in her bedding, Henry hesitated.
Revealing her sleepwear by putting her blanket down, Nisha nodded.
“Yes, please come in. What can I do for you?”
With a tinge of guilt, she noticed that the two of them had not interacted a lot after he had taken care of her on the day they met. The elven girl didn’t dislike him or anything, only his striking resemblance to Eldrin deterred her from seeking him out too much, she couldn’t bear speaking with the ghost of someone she was still grieving.
Aside from the occasional court session they both attended, Nisha did her best to stay out of Henry’s way, his academy lessons preventing him from changing anything in that state of things. Most of the time, the dragon was leaving the estate early in the morning only to return in the afternoon or evening, further decreasing the chances of them meeting.
“It is nothing much, I just heard you were back and wanted to check if you were alright.
The dungeon is a dangerous place, after all.”
With his disarming smile and calm attitude, she didn’t even notice the trap he had laid and answered carelessly.
“Yes, thank you for the concern. It wasn’t that dangerous … wait!!!”
Realizing that she had just fallen for his plot and admitted that she had gone to one of the most deadly location there was, Nisha immediately took a defensive stance.
“How did you know?! And what do you want?!”
She didn’t understand why he would approach her in this way, especially since he already knew where she had been, and she grew even warier.
“Relax, I’m not going to tell dad. It’s only that I saw you near the dungeon entrance earlier. The high-ranked people in my class got an assignment from the Academy, we had to form teams and enter the dungeon to gain some real battle experience, I was wondering why you were going in alone. I’m here to make sure you came back safely.”
Raising his hands in a gesture of peace, Henry had probably guessed that his stepsister had been alarmed by his words.
“Hmm, you seem okay. I also wanted to tell you that you should go to the Guild to learn more about the dungeon before going there again, and maybe find a team too. I don’t see why you’d want to go there, but you are too diligent and well behaved to just pursue fun; I am sure of that, you always do what you are asked and never complain.”
How did he come to know that?
Scratching his brown hair with one hand, Henry remained in front of the closed door, visibly embarrassed by his own speech.
“I’d just hate it if something happened to you, and dad would be devastated too. It hasn’t been long, but we’re family, right? So if something bothers you, you can tell me. I’ll listen.”
Having explained what he came for, Henry turned around and opened the door to leave. At the same time, Nisha realized that her three dragon siblings and her two older sisters weren’t her only family anymore. Even Bael and Gabriel could be counted as a sort of extended family, so she couldn’t ignore Luthais and Henry, nor Galan and his wife, they were all always looking out for her.
All in all, she was lucky to have so many people wishing her the best.
Calling out in a soft voice, although not too loud to avoid arousing unwanted attention, the elven girl stopped Henry from leaving.
He turned around with a surprised face, he most likely wasn’t expecting her to respond, and had planned to let her think about it.
“You’re right, the dungeon is no safe place. But I already went to the Guild to get a guild card. See, you don’t have to worry too much.
I have to tell you… Thank you for caring. I’m not very good with words, but just know that it means a lot to me. Thank you … brother.”
Forcing out the last word, Nisha couldn’t see the stunned expression painted on Henry’s face since she buried herself beneath the covers to escape his gaze as soon as the last sound left her mouth.
Seeing that she wasn’t going to talk anymore, the young man closed the sturdy oak door behind him and discreetly went back to his bed.
He had wanted to speak to Nisha for a while now, and the dungeon came as a convenient excuse. However he hadn’t anticipated that she would appear so cooperative and even call him brother, although he was rejoicing of this turn of events.
As his own mother and father weren’t getting along well, the happiness she had showed to his consideration had touched a soft spot in his heart.
As Henry had promised, Luthais and Galan did not find out about her trip, or at least didn’t mention it on either the next day and when they went to the royal palace for the Day of Light.
Convinced that Henry’s words were not a ruse and he had meant what he said, Nisha used the opportunity and sat next to him in the carriage to start a conversation.
Although astonished, he was still more than happy to oblige.
Luthais smiled and didn’t try to interfere.
Whenever she had the chance, Nisha would try to learn more about Henry. Sitting together at lunch, strolling with him in the corridor leading to their rooms, walking together to the academy, talking. The dragon made many efforts to get a better understanding of her stepbrother.
Partly because she had a guilty conscience for ignoring him so far.
Surprisingly, Henry was quite different from his father. He had his father’s strong sense of morals, acquired after many years of strict teaching, but he never insisted on enforcing rules or following every instruction he was given, if he thought there was a better way, he’d have no qualms doing things differently.
Popular in the academy and almost innately well versed in the ways of high society, he often took it upon himself to teach her more about the relations between young nobles, and how she should behave with them so as to have as little trouble as possible.
When she asked him if it bothered him that she had become a member of the Dharnas house, he shrugged and his answer amazed the dragon.
“Isn’t it a good thing to have more people around? We are family, it means that even if we don’t always get along with each other, we will forever be able to rely on each other.”
His answer sounded way too optimistic, even for him, but the tinge of pain in his eyes hinted Nisha on problems he had and was unwilling to mention.
Apart from his good looks, outgoing personality and outstanding knight skills, the greatest surprise for Nisha was to discover Henry’s love for art. Especially music; the way he played the lute and the piano was almost divine. Pleasantly seeing that her stepsister had taken an interest in music, he agreed to teach her how to play, thus increasing the time they spent together.
After another moon, Nisha’s schedule was firmly set, training with Hale every morning, attending court on the weekends, refilling her food reserves every now and then in the dungeon, and socializing with Henry during her free time. Happy to be busy every day, the dragon did not notice that her step brother had also started to understand her fairly well.
After a short refreshing shower, the two of them sat in the garden of the Dharnas estate, him playing the lute and her whistling a melody.
“Say, Nisha, what is troubling you?”
Without interrupting his performance, he casually asked her.
Nisha, on the other hand, was taken aback and immediately stopped whistling. She had tried to keep their conversations’ topics on light matters so far, she had thought it would be unfair is she was to unload her problems on him.
“I don’t remember anything wrong happening recently. What do you mean?”
Henry nonchalantly modulated and continued playing his song.
“You have a tense expression whenever we go to the city or talk about it, you’re uneasy about it. Especially yesterday, after you returned from your trip, you forgot that we had agreed to meet up after dinner. I can easily guess that you worry about something; maybe you’d want to talk about it. Am I wrong?”
Delicately placing the instrument on the ground beside him, the young man quietly waited for her answer, his brown eyes glued to her.
Right now, his similarity to Eldrin was particularly unnerving Nisha. Had his hair been white, the one in front of her could have been her grandfather’s twin, they weren’t exactly identical, but he bore a great resemblance with the old man, at the very least.
With Annabelle and Lydia engrossed in their trader’s training, the elven girl had had no one to confide in lately. Most of her troubles were too trivial to bother Bael and Gabriel, and confessing things to servants wasn’t a very smart move for a noble.
In the end, she decided to trust Henry.
“It’s like this. I made a friend in the city, and she was very nice, showing me around and everything. At first it was fine but then I made a big mistake and ran away afterwards. I’m worried she got into trouble, and at the same time I’m afraid to go back there. What if she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore? Or was fired because of my mistake?
Now, every time I get close to the area where I met her, I feel guilty. I know I should go see her and take responsibility for my mistake, yet I also fear the consequences regarding her.
What should I do?”
I should have told him earlier.
Subconsciously, Nisha already knew what troubled her and affected her behaviour. Putting it into words and asking for an outside opinion had had a cleansing effect, relieving her of all her tension and anxiousness. She waited for Henry’s answer.
“Isn’t it just a mistake? As long as you apologize and show that you intend to take responsibility, your friend shouldn’t have any resentment. My advice would be to go there as soon as possible and take care of the situation; delaying for too long might not do you any good.
Do you think you can do it?”
Reassuring her with a gentle smile, he spoke the exact words Nisha needed to hear. Every time she had entered the dungeon in the last moon, she had made sure to wear a hooded cloak to avoid drawing further attention on herself, and only hunted in the most remote corners of the first layer, in case the Guild found her and Aubrey learned about her location.
“Encouragement was apparently exactly what I needed. I will have to apologize and I’ll probably be punished, but maybe I’ll also see my friend again. Thank you.
Now that we solved my problems, what about yours? What is bothering you? And don’t think I wouldn’t know, just as you saw through me, I can see through you!”
The kind smile turned into a wry one at the sight of Nisha’s wink.
“Can’t hide anything from you, can I? Okay, let’s see … where do I start?”