Reyla walked behind her mother as they made their way to the family meeting. She glanced to the side where Emrys walked next to her. Their mother had asked the two of them to be at her side. Reyla wasn’t sure how to feel about that, since it would most certainly make her and Emrys stand out and apart from the rest of their siblings. They had tried to argue, but their mother was having none of it, she wanted the two of them at her side. It didn’t quite make sense to Reyla, but she assumed that her mother knew what she was doing.
She couldn’t help but feel nervous about what was soon going to happen. She didn’t know what her mother planned, but it wasn’t going to be fun to watch. Reyla remembered her mother’s rage, the power of it, her siblings didn’t know what was about to happen.
They reached the doors that led into a large living room, and their mother entered first, with Reyla and Emrys following behind her. The room was lavish, but draped in a comfortable design. The walls were covered with colored tapestries that showed a deep forest, critters hiding beneath roots and tree trunks. The furniture was quality made, with leather from the highest quality monsters. There were several couches, chairs, and tables in the room, with a few bookcases along some of the walls.
The room was on the second floor of the Ornn palace, and the windows looked down at the great garden that stretched behind it. A few of her siblings were standing next to the window, talking in hushed tones. Others were sitting on the couches or chairs. Her two fathers were sitting in the center of the room, on the couch that was just large enough to fit three.
There were many of her siblings in the room, a quick count put their number to twenty one, and Reyla had trouble placing the names to all of them. Most she had only seen once or twice in her entire life. They were all older than her, all had their own families and holdings. Some hadn’t been able to come on such short notice, but the absence of one caught Reyla’s eye the most. Her oldest brother, Erik wasn’t present. He was in many ways as synonymous with the Ornn name as her parents were. Erik was the first born, the most powerful of the Ornn children. He was also one of her siblings that she had interacted the most, still barely, but enough that she remembered him.
He used to come to visit her and Nayra, had even played with them when they had been very young. Afterward, every time she saw him, he came with gifts. She hadn’t seen him more than a dozen times, but he made an impression. She remembered him always having a sad look on his face when he looked at her or Nayra, but back then she didn’t understand.
It was only years later that she learned why he looked that way in their presence. Erik was like them, he had a twin brother, Nathan, who died a long time ago. Reyla had her disagreements with Nayra, but she couldn’t quite imagine not having that connection in her mind. The knowledge that she could always reach out to her, no matter what.
Without Erik’s presence, her siblings all gathered around Vanessa, the second oldest of the Ornn children. Vanessa was… a great power all in herself. Her family owned a mercenary company that she led herself. She fought wars for those who could pay the most. And the while the wars between Houses never turned too ugly, there was always killing to be done. The Emperor allowed it, as Reyla understood it, because it kept them all strong.
Vanessa was sitting on the couch across from her fathers, taking the entire couch for herself. She wore a resplendent dress of green cloth, embroidered with gold thread. None of the others tried to take the seat next to her, the family hierarchy was clear to everyone.
As soon as Vanessa noticed them come in she stood with a smile on her face. She walked over to her mother and embraced her quickly.
“Mother, I’ve missed you,” she said as she kissed her cheek. Reyla saw her mother hesitate for a moment, but she did return the hug. Then, Vanessa took a step back and raised her eyebrow. “What is this mother? Fathers didn’t want to say anything, but this is the largest gathering we had in a long time, you very nearly had everyone drop what they’ve been doing and come!”
“Yes, mother. It is very inconvenient, why couldn’t have we done this over a link? Or letters?” Another voice said. It took Reyla a few moments to put a name to her brother’s face. His name was Leoric, and while not quite as old as Vanessa, he was still one of the older ones in the room. His family were all merchants, had their own businesses as well as being in charge of selling most of the main Ornn family produce.
Karya glanced at Leoric then Vanessa, before speaking. “Because, my children, this is a matter of great importance, and I wanted you all here—or as much as I could gather.”
“What for?” Vanessa asked, trying to look interested.
Karya looked around the room, then spoke again. “Sit,” she told Vanessa, and then she moved toward the couch where her husbands were already sitting. Reyla and Emrys followed behind, drawing curious looks as well as frowns from their siblings. Vanessa’s brow furrowed as she saw them taking positions on either side of the couch behind their parents.
Reyla tried hard not to turn around and hide from all of their attention. She put her hands behind her back and tried to appear unconcerned, although she was pretty sure that she was failing in that regard.
Vanessa returned to her seat and glanced from Reyla and Emrys to their parents on the couch. “What is this about?” She asked slowly, probably only now recognizing the serious looks on her parents' faces.
It was Father Ender who answered her. “This, daughter, is about family.”
Everyone in the room blinked at that, confusion clear on their faces. Before they could ask any questions, her father continued.
“We have failed you,” he said, which made everyone else in the room exchanged looks. “We taught you many things, or at least we thought that we did. But it has become clear to us that we’ve failed as parents, that we’ve become too detached from your lives. You’ve all done well, had made us feel proud, but in the end our failure has made us realize just how much you’ve all strayed.”
Reyla watched her siblings, seeing their expressions changing quickly, from confused to baffled. Vanessa’s eyes narrowed and she spoke before her father could continue.
“Strayed? What do you mean by that?” She asked.
Father Olem was the one that responded to her. “You’ve all grown up, gotten your own lives, but you have not truly understood what it means to be a part of this family. Some of you are close, yes, those who were born close to each other, but the rest of you are acquaintances at best. The younger of you show deference and respect to the older, not in a way a sibling should, more like subordinates.”
Vanessa blinked, then chuckled. “That is what this is about?” She shook her head. “Mother, fathers, I love you dearly, but this isn’t something that you can fix. The age difference is too large, the older of us have families and lives of our own. We do not have the time to get close with all of our younger siblings.”
“That is only a part of the problem, daughter,” Father Ender continued. “It seems that you all do not share the values that we wanted you to have. We’ve survived and thrived in the empire, because of our strength, but that strength comes from the strength of the bonds between us.”
Vanessa blinked. “We all understand that father, we know how important the family name is, and we are all working hard to ensure that the Ornn name remains strong.”
Ender shook his head. “I did not say family name, Vanessa. I said family bonds.”
Leoric was the one to chime in next. “This is why called us all here? Mother, fathers, I don’t see how this warrants a meeting with all of us. It disrupts the family, half of us are needed to run our households and affairs. We cannot get away for some sentimental interventions. We are grown, the time for bonding is past.”
“Sentimental interventions,” Father Olem said slowly. “You miss the point son, nothing is more important than family. The fact that you do not see that is part of the problem.”
Leoric frowned and opened his mouth to respond, but Vanessa stood and held her hand to stop him.
She looked at each of their parents in turn, and then spoke. “I understand what you mean. But I don’t know if I agree with your view. We are all part of the same family, we might not know each other intimately, but none of us would ever refuse to help one of our siblings.”
Father Olem shook his head. “You would do it because of the family name, not because of love. And that is where we failed you. We’ve been too distant, had left too much to others. This will change,” he looked across the room and two dozen of his children.
Vanessa gave him a small smile. “I appreciate you wanting to change, to be close to us. But it is too late now, for most of us,” she glanced at Reyla and Emrys. “We are grown, with families of our own.”
“You are under a false impression daughter,” Father Ender said. “You think that you have a choice, you do not.”
Vanessa and the others blinked in confusion.
“What?” Leoric asked. “You can’t just demand things of us. We are not ten years old. A third of us is barely any younger than you are.”
Father Ender tilted his head at them. Reyla couldn’t see his expression, but his voice turned soft, kind. “My son, our failure is so much greater than you can imagine. We know how and where we failed, and we know everything. All that you have done behind our backs for who knows how long.”
Reyla watched her siblings exchange looks between themselves, seemingly without any understanding.
“We haven’t been doing anything behind your backs, father,” Vanessa said slowly, but Reyla could see how her entire stance had changed. She looked uncertain.
“Have you not daughter?” Olem asked. “We’ve become aware of the fact, that some of you, have taken it upon yourself to… instruct your younger siblings as to the ways of how they are meant to conduct themselves in this family.”
Reyla immediately saw a change among her siblings. Some frowned, others looked at their older siblings.
Leoric was the first to recover. “Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? As the older siblings in this family, isn’t that our responsibility?”
Olem nodded. “It would be, if you were concerned for your blood, instead for the family name. And if you didn’t stoop so low as to threaten your own siblings.”
Before anyone could answer, her mother spoke for the first time since sitting down. “Which ones of you are a part of this group that thinks that they know what is best for this family?”
Leoric blinked. “Mother, we are the family. You might’ve started it, but we expanded it. Our families have worked for centuries to make sure that our House grows strong. I understand that you are angry because of our methods, but we cannot allow babes to fumble around with the family name. They don’t know enough, and if not properly guided they could do great harm to the family. What one Ornn does, reflects on all of us.”
Reyla looked at her the back of her mother’s head as she nodded, and then Karya Ornn spoke. “So, this guidance of yours includes planning to kill one of your siblings. Sending Daria to do your dirty work?” Her voice was almost too calm.
Some of her siblings reacted visibly, some tried to subdue their reactions. Vanessa frowned.
Leoric’s expression cleared. “That is what this is about? Mother, you sent Daria yourself,” he glanced at Reyla. “We needed to be sure that Nayra didn’t betray the family and the Empire.”
“And kill her if your suspicions were true?” Karya asked softly.
Vanessa’s eyes widened, and she turned to look at Leoric, but he spoke before she could do anything. “Of course, if she turned traitor then—”
Her mother’s voice stabbed through the room. “You. Wanted. To. Murder. My. Daughter?”
If the topic wasn’t so serious, Reyla might’ve laughed. She saw the understanding dawn on all of them. She could even understand what they had all thought. The power of one of the Empire’s Houses came from many things. The power of the individuals in it, wealth, respect. To be on top, they had to play politics, to make everyone understand that their House was not to be trifled with. It was why Erik had killed the person that had insulted them over Reyla’s removal from the Orders. To the older of her siblings, the younger ones were just a distant relative, they weren’t close with them. They didn’t grow up together, there was no bond that her fathers spoke about. They had their own families, their own children and grandchildren. To them, the family name was the most important thing. What was one relative that they weren’t all that close to? A relative that was still young and didn’t contribute much to the family? In their eyes, Nayra might as well have been just someone in the service to the family.
But they all missed it, they didn’t think. She could see the realization in their eyes as they all looked at their mother. As they realized that they stood in the same room with the three people that would care deeply about every single one of them.
It had been so hard to let her husbands talk, but she knew that she wouldn’t be able to contain her wrath. She had always been like that, her wrath fueling her, making her stronger. But also, sometimes, making it harder for her to think rationally. She had spent a long time learning how to control herself. Now, as she stood before her children, she was having trouble recognizing them. She remembered holding each one of them in her arms as babes. She loved them all, and the fact that they her family had ended up like this, and without her knowing? It broke her heart.
“Mother,” Leoric, her son started. She already knew what he was going to say. He was always slow to think things through, a thing that had kept him from becoming the wealthiest man in the Empire. It always took him a few moments too long to realize what was obvious to everybody else. She had loved that about him once, it had brought a smile to her face.
“It is bad enough that she joined a sect of our enemies,” Leoric continued. “But if Nayra had betrayed our secrets, then that meant that she has forsaken both the Empire and the Family.”
Karya’s face scrunched up into an angry grimace, and she tried to contain herself. Her words still came out as a yell. “The Empire is ash and dust,” she yelled. The rest of her children winced at her tone and she tried to pull herself back. “Family, is what matters.”
It was Vanessa who answered next. Her beautiful daughter, the oldest of her girls. It was so hard for Karya to see her as anything else other than the little princess she used to pretend to be, playing in Ender’s gardens. She had grown to become a powerful warrior, one of the family’s best. Even now she didn’t see any fear in her daughter, her expression was that of confusion. But then again, she always had a hard time seeing things from a point of view of someone else.
“Mother, if Nayra is a traitor, then she is a threat to the family, if the Emperor found out—”
“—No,” Karya said. Her anger rising, she could feel herself trembling. “She is your blood. And even if she betrayed the Empire, nothing is more important than blood. The only thing that Nayra has done is make a choice for herself, decide how she was going to live her life. The same thing that most of you have done. But this is not about that, this is about you thinking that you could decide which one of my, of our, children gets to live or die.”
Vanessa took a step back, but then caught herself. “Mother, mom, we can’t let one person bring the entire family down with their bad choices we—”
Karya couldn’t listen anymore. She realized that her daughter didn’t really fear her, and she obviously didn’t understand. It was to be expected, but Karya still felt the pain of it. Vanessa was one of her oldest, the most powerful. Many in the Empire thought that she was close to her parents in power, second only to Erik. It seemed that Vanessa believed that herself. Karya had always tried to be a loving parent, she had never raised her hand to her children. But this… this went beyond anything that simple words could fix. Her children hadn’t learned anything, and it was her fault. She hadn’t instilled the right values in them from the start. She had fed them lies that the Empire preached as the truth, the lies that were necessary, but that had twisted their understanding. But the truth mattered little when history was written by those who didn’t know all sides of it.
They spoke of the betrayal, of Empire as if it was some grand thing, but they knew nothing.
Karya let her anger build, and she felt her skill burning to be used. Her children needed a lesson, and she needed to make them understand that they had a long way to go before they could decide the fate of this family.
|To Hold an Army|
Her skill froze every one of her children as she narrowed down its scope.
“You think that you can threaten my child? That you can decide which lives and which dies? I have slaughtered entire Houses for threats lesser than yours. You are my children, so I will not kill you. But understand, this stops. You are not the heads of this family, we, your parents are. You do not get to make those decisions, if you disagree with this you may renounce the family name and live for yourself. But as long as you carry our name, you will act in accordance with our wishes. If anyone attempts to do what you have done again, they will be exiled from the family.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around to see Ender looking at her with concern in his eyes. She sighed and released her skill. Half of her children fell to the floor, unconscious, others fell to their knees, gasping and a few retching. Vanessa stumbled back, her leg hit the couch and she fell into it. Karya looked down at her daughter.
“Do you understand me daughter?”
Vanessa opened her mouth, but nothing came out, a moment later she nodded her head.
Karya closed her eyes. She didn’t want it to come to this, all of it was their fault for growing more distant with time. For not instilling in them the value of family over everything else. They confused familial love with the family name. But she didn’t have the time to lament, she needed to fix her family. To help them understand that the bond of family is what made them strong. She hoped that she and her husbands could get through to them, otherwise their failure would haunt her forever.