‘Come along, Janaxia!’ Her mother was stood waiting for her, hands on hips, tone sharp, robes of station hanging loosely on her gaunt frame and gaudy regalia jangling. She grabbed Janaxia’s wrist and pulled her along, Janaxia struggling to keep up, trying not to yelp from the painful grip. A carriage was waiting for them with the family sigil emblazoned on the side, a stylised blade formed of ice, gripped by an iron gauntlet. Her sister, of course, was already sat there, waiting for them, in her own robes. She stared down at Janaxia with disapproval, as Janaxia went to sit down next to her.
Mother sat opposite, wasting no time in assessing her appearance, a look of scornful disapproval on her face. ‘Some improvement, but still scarcely suitable.’ Cold, bony fingers rubbed against her face, plucking at her all-black hair, pinching her cheeks. Then her hands moved down, twisting and tugging on the dress Janaxia had chosen, feeling the smooth, well-crafted material. ‘For meeting with our peers, it is excessively vulgar, and unsuitable for polite company.’
She pulled back, tracing a finger in the air, leaving behind a glowing trail of yellow energy, writing a glyph into the air, adding more details, Janaxia frantically trying to read it and work out what she was casting, realising just in time and crossing her arms in front of her, as her stylish, fashionable clothing disappeared. There was a brief moment of chill vulnerability as it vanished, before another set of clothing appeared around her, stiff and scratchy. As subtly as she could, not wishing to draw further attention to herself, Janaxia twisted, trying to make sure that the new clothing was at least settled appropriately, and hoping that her own clothing had been transported back somewhere, although likely Mother had just destroyed them, or transported them into a ditch somewhere. At least her nails had gone un-noticed, having only just grown back from the last time Mother had forcefully sliced them back, deeming that easier than trying to strip the colour off.
Her sister smirked at her as they moved away, looking very much like a smaller image of her mother, the same severe dark robes, completely unsuitable for the warm climate, completely enveloping her body, only colour mustard-yellow trim around the neck and sleeves, some overwrought eldritch jewellery showing the ranks of the mystic arts she had mastered. Without having earnt her own robes yet, Janaxia had to endure hot, scratchy wool, overly stiff, as flattering as a sack and desperately uncomfortable.
‘Now, Janaxia, do be on your best behaviour. Redcastle is to be our home now, and it’s important that we make a good impression. Kivata, keep an eye on your sister. I do not want a repeat of the… incident that occurred with the Lor Flemaths. There is a dignity our blood must possess, and it is my duty to instil such into you. If you cannot behave appropriately, there will be consequences. Do you understand?’
‘Yes mother,’ they both chorused obediently.
‘Very good. See that you don’t disappoint me.’
She settled herself into a meditative trace, mystic energy swirling around her as she recharged and focused her energy, yellow motes appearing in the air and slowly fading into her skin. Kivata moved in close to Janaxia, whispering so as not to disturb their mother.
‘I heard you practicing, you know. To be your age and still unable to manage even the simplest spells, it’s pathetic! Are you sure you’re even my sister? And that dress – is that what you think a daughter of the Uth Tremari, heir to the blood of the Frostreaver, should wear? Magic is in our blood, maybe if you spent more time working on that rather than painting your face you wouldn’t be such a useless disappointment!’
Janaxia didn’t respond, having no answer, and hoping that Kivata would just leave her alone. She twisted in her seat, trying (and failing) to make the stiff, scratchy dress she had been forced into comfortable. At least she hadn’t had her face scrubbed this time, forceful intrusion of magic rubbing her face raw at the same time as removing her makeup. As her sister continued to berate her for a multitude of sins, weaknesses and omissions, Janaxia looked out of the window, trying to see what she could of Redcastle. Even the noble’s quarter they travelled through seemed to be fairly plain, all red stone buildings, a few servants scurrying about on tasks from their masters. Given the heat of the evening sun, most people were sensibly staying inside, the thick stone walls providing protection against the heat.
Kivata poked her beneath the ribs, quite hard, forcing her to pay attention. ‘You really are useless, you know. We should just marry you off as soon as possible, make you someone else’s problem. When we get there, remember that you’re only here to make me look good. Just stand at the back and stay quiet.’
Janaxia did what she could to ignore her sister’s jibes, insults and goading, nodding along in the hopes it would make her stop, knowing that it likely wouldn’t. If she turned to look outside again, it would draw more sharp pokes, if not worse, so she put on a meek smile and endured it until they arrived at their destination, their new home. Due to the suddenness of their relocation, staff had been sent ahead to ready the old place, barely managing to make it functional again in time.
Mother awoke, her mystic energies appropriately replenished, eyes gleaming for a moment as she regained consciousness, a brief flare of yellow energy illuminating the carriage. She looked at the two of them again, face unreadable, hard gaze making even Kivata squirm nervously. Then, mercifully, the servant opened the carriage door, evening sunlight rushing in. They followed (of course) the order dictated by strict etiquette; Mother first, then Kivata, Janaxia following last.
She barely had time for a quick glance around – a narrow, steep street, the houses all stretching above them, buildings all built onto the steep hill, allowing people to enter on the ground floor, ascend, and then exit from the top story, onto the street above. All the buildings were well-built but plain, unpainted brick and stone, probably centuries old with barely any changes to the outsides.
Janaxia made sure to keep close behind, just in case Kivata tried to shut her out, another servant bowing to them after allowing them inside. There was a brief pause, a whispered conversation between Mother and the servant, likely an update on who had arrived to greet them. As they waited, Janaxia looked around – her first impressions were rather negative, a dark, tiled hallway, lit only by a thin slit of sunlight reflecting from a window in an adjacent waiting room. What few ornaments there were had been nailed onto the wall, random magical trinkets to try and show off their families wealth and power, mostly in the form of softly glowing wands, or old and mildly hideous artworks, all heavy colours and ugly shapes.
After waiting until Mother was satisfied, they proceeded again, entering the grand reception chamber. Some effort had gone into this room (very recently, to judge by the workman’s tool still not-quite hidden under a cloth in one corner and the smell of fresh paint), paintings of honoured ancestors hanging on the walls, a glass display case filled with (genuine) arcane implements, even a replica of Icerazor, the legendary blade wielded by her most famous ancestor, set into its own niche in the wall.
And waiting for them were their new associates, those locals initiated into the magical arts, that were wealthy or powerful enough to be of interest to Mother, and also had no other plans and were willing to spend an evening being obsequious, or at least meet the new competition. Robes and scholarly dress were very much the standard, few daring to splash even the mildest elements of colour in, those limited to darker gemstones on belts, a few threads of silver or gold glinting in the dim light. A variety of arcane runes and glyphs could be seen, tattooed onto flesh, stitched into fabric or emblazoned onto signet rings, every mage that deemed themselves worthy of the title invariably making up some complicated squiggle they could use as a personal identifier, despite there being perfectly serviceable letters for such things.
Only a few dared to break these unwritten conventions – a middle-aged man, wearing the pale green robes of a travelling sage, stood at the back, staring with intensity at one of the wall hangings. And in one corner stood a pair of youths, roughly the same age as Janaxia. Her breath caught in her mouth as she saw them, taking in the sheer splendour of their clothing, a breath-taking contrast to the eldritch blandness of the rest of the room. Both wore sharply tailored trousers, creases looking sharp enough to cut, belts of woven silver set with rubies, shoes buffed to a fine sheen. Twins, to judge by the similarity of their faces, a boy and a girl, both wearing waistcoats, buttons of ivory gleaming against the black fabric, cut to fine advantage on their slender frames, their sleeves rolled back to reveal taut, toned arms, jewelled bracers around their forearms. The boy’s hair was short and slicked back, while the girl’s hung long, divided into countless thin braids, each tied with countless golden beads, gleaming as she moved her head. Both laughed at some unheard comment, opening their mouths to reveal pronounced canine teeth, sharper than any normal human.
Janaxia was lost, rapt in admiration until a sharp finger poked her beneath the ribs, Kivata glaring at her, and she realised that she was being formally introduced. She put on what Mother would judge an appropriate expression (benign contempt) and stepped forward, wishing she’d been allowed to wear her own clothing, rather than forced into such an uncomfortable dress, especially when there were those with such style and presence. She supressed a slight flush of shame, letting her gaze wander over the room, forgetting most of the interchangeable inhabitants as soon as her sight wandered on. Placing her hand on her heart, she gave the appropriate level of bow (or, in this case, the slightly declination of her head, otherwise she would never hear the end of the shame she had bought upon the family from Mother) and introduced herself, making sure to pitch her voice appropriately.
‘I am Janaxia Seyroon Falmeth Uth Tremari, of Frostreaver’s Blood, daughter of Poratia Uth Tremari, bearer of the Ochre Lash of Granthor.’ She hadn’t heard how her mother had introduced herself, and didn’t want to repeat any of her titles, so kept it brief. She swept the room with another gaze, eyes wandering over to the attractively dressed pair again before looking away.
At least with an audience present, she couldn’t immediately be hauled away to be told what she had done wrong (that, no doubt, would come later, once everyone had left, and she would have done something wrong). It was time for the more personal introductions, mostly conducted in exactly the same way, again and again – Mother would talk, introduce Kivata, allow her to do some minor magic to show her prowess, and then, as an addendum, introduce Janaxia, before moving to the next group.
As she was led around the room, she tried to keep an eye on the pair, marvelling at their clothing. Such style, such elegance! Especially compared to everyone else in the room, who dressed in much the same manner as their ancestors, all the way back to the very founding of the Knightly Orders, if not further. Robes might be practical when working in a magical circle, but were deeply unflattering to most, and existed largely for convenience rather than aesthetic appeal.
The pair must have little rank and wealth, as they were amongst the last to be introduced, ranking just above the sots and drunkards who were clearly only here for the drink and food, and stood good odds of being thrown out before any introduction even happened. As they approached, Mother gave the slight sigh that indicated disapproval, Janaxia trying to make sure she didn’t show her own interest, fearful of rousing her anger.
They were leaning on the wall, affecting a casual disregard for their peers, breaking off whatever conversation they were having as Mother approached.
The male one spoke first, giving a slight bow, shallower than he should have given. ‘Greetings, Lady Poratia. An unexpected delight, for you to attend to poor, lowly Redcastle, rather than the grander cities of the plains.’ He grinned, showing his sharp fangs. ‘And the two youngest of the seven Tremari children. Lady Kivata, of course, is known to us.’ He stepped forward, taking Kivata’s hand, and raising it to his lips. Janaxia watched as she froze, unsure how to react, her magical tutoring not having prepared her for any form of social niceties. ‘I’ve heard your progression in the mystical arts has been most impressive.’ There was an awkward pause, as Kivata spluttered and fumed, unsure how to react, as the woman hid a laugh behind an elegantly manicured hand.
Then he stepped past her, approaching Janaxia, taking her hand. His breath was warm, and there was the faintest sharp brush of his fangs on the back of her hand as his lips brushed against her skin.
‘And you are Lady Janaxia. A pleasure to meet you; my sister and I had been wondering what the seventh would be like. Somewhat less scholarly looking than I had anticipated, an unexpected pleasure. I believe we may have an acquaintance in common, a Master Osari? He spoke of an Uth Tremari scion that took interest in his work, which I assume would be yourself? This is his craft.’ He gestured at himself, giving Janaxia an excuse to admire him close up, soaking in his beauty.
Mother sniffed. ‘I’m sure she knows nothing of such a useless individual. She is an Uth Tremari, and magic is her blood and birthright. Although I am surprised to see you here, Master Khem Anef.’ She made it clear that he was no noble, likely a rogue or other criminal, with enough wealth and influence to be useful, but not respected. ‘I had heard that the Order of the Sun had purged your stronghold, and most of your followers had been arrested.’
He shrugged. ‘A temporary inconvenience, to be sure. But there are always more rogues to recruit, and we’ll recover soon enough. But I find it interesting that the Uth Tremari are finally deigning to grace fair Redcastle with their presence. Hoping to find some legacy of the Frostreaver, maybe? Or there was that incident with the Lor Flemath heir, was there not?’
There was an actinic snap, as Mother started to loose her patience, a faint yellow nimbus coalescing on her hand, shaping itself into a rune. Before things turned violent, Janaxia took his hand, looking him in his eyes (noticing that they appeared slightly slit, like a snake).
‘Oh no, Master Khem. Simply a change of scene. After all, one cannot simply stay in the same place forever. And this place is, as you say, known to our blood. We have been absent far too long, and hope to make this place our home once more. I hope to enjoy all that this town has to offer.’
The woman laughed. ‘Well spoken.’ She turned to her brother. ‘A pleasure to make your acquaintance then, Lady Janaxia. I am Khem Asai, and have the misfortune to be this one’s sister.’ She clapped a hand against his back, enough force to make him stagger slightly. ‘Honour to you and your blood, Poratia Uth Tremari, and may your stay in Redcastle be fruitful.’
The yellow glow faded away to nothing, as Mother regained her temper, bestowing a tight-faced smile upon them.
‘Yes, as my daughter says, we have ignored this part of our birthright for far too long. Re-acquainting myself with the great families of Redbridge I’m sure will be a profitable exercise for all involved.’
All of them were smiling at each other now, without the slightest trace of warmth – but no-one was offering violence, and the thought of being able to spend some time with people of fashion was a relief, even if Mother would disapprove. But she had invited them here, so she must have at least some regard for them.
Asai stretched, seemingly entirely at ease. ‘If you will excuse us, then we have, I regret to say, other commitments.’ She stepped forward, moving towards Janaxia, as her brother stepped back to make space. ‘And I’m sure we will meet again, Redcastle isn’t that large a place.’ She also took Janaxia’s hand, pressing it to her mouth in a kiss. Janaxia felt a slight pressure, fangs pushing against her skin, not quite hard enough to break the skin, before she relented, releasing the hand and stepping back with a smile, but not before taking Janaxia’s hand in her own, noticing the paint on her nails, seemingly impressed (the patterns had taken a lot of work with a tiny brush to achieve, tiny runes of black on top of red). ‘Most fetching. I look forward to making your acquaintance. But, until then, we must bid you good day.’ The pair sauntered off, Janaxia enjoying the view as they left, even as her mother stewed.