Marielle didn’t expect the harvest festival to be so lively. This year people were moving wildly in unison, with wide smiles. It was thanks to the music, which even Marielle hummed at that point. Upon a raised stage a troupe performed. They had two brass instruments, a flute, and a drum. She knew they weren't at last year's festival, after all her father, the lord of these lands, had only recently purchased the instruments.
Every year, the wheat would need to be harvested. The commoners would go out into the fields with their sickles and toil for the day, bundling up the wheat and loading it on carts for transport. Every able-bodied male commoner had to participate, and as a reward, the lord would throw the festival the next evening. There were games, food and this year had music, all set up in a field to be viewed by the sky god Cyril.
There were two stages raised at each end of the festival. At one end the stage had the troupe playing their instruments and around it a sea of dancing commoners. On the other end of the field, was the stage with Count Anthony Jorel and his family, along with his honoured guests, eating on display. All of them were sitting in a line facing the crowd with the count and his lady in the middle. In the center were rows of tables, where those who weren't inclined to dance were eating or sipping wine. The blue skies of the day had already turned a dark purple as the torches and candles on all the tables were set alight. To Marielle, it made a magical sight. The twilight sky, the candlelight, the music, and the commoners' colourful clothing writhing rhythmically had her enamoured.
Marielle sat with her siblings. They were ordered by age, her two older brothers were the closest to their parents, then Marielle, then her younger sister, and finally her youngest brother. She also had an older sister Evelyn who was absent. Evelyn had been married off to the son of another count a few counties over. All on the stage were dressed in the nicest clothes they had. For Marielle, she wore a hand-me-down from Evelyn, a green and blue frilly dress that was just a little too big for her size.
To the other side of her parents were the guests, a pair of visiting nobles and a delegate from a trading company. She knew the nobles, they had visited multiple times, and she knew her parents thought of them as great friends. The delegate she didn't know. He was an old man, with grey hair surrounding a bald head. He dressed in a white simple robe, but it was clean and finer linen than a commoner would have.
Marielle's older brother Francis to her side nudged her, then pointed out the delegate. "Father says we need to be especially polite to that man. And he wants you to introduce yourself once you are done eating."
Marielle scrunched her face. "You're making that up." If her father wanted her to introduce herself to the old man, he could ask her to do it himself.
"No, I'm not. You can ask father yourself." Francis said in his whiny voice.
"Fine, I'll ask after I'm done eating," she said, making a mental note to start eating as slow as possible.
After noticing how slow Marielle ate Francis nudged her again. "I'm serious, you gotta do it." His voice had managed to get even more annoying somehow.
"Fine!" Marielle said, putting down her fork. She took a deep breath and launched herself up from her chair. Making sure to keep her posture straight and proper, she began taking as graceful steps forward as she could muster, until she stood in front of the trade company delegate.
"Allow me to introduce myself, I am Marielle Jorel, daughter of Anthony Jorel, the lord of these lands," she said while sticking out her hand. He politely accepted the offer of a handshake.
"It is so nice to meet you. I am Castor Wainwright and I’m here as a representative of the Castellian family." He smiled warmly, as they broke the handshake. "Excuse me for asking such a rude question to a lady such as yourself, but how old are you?"
A glint of surprise showed on her face at the unexpected question, but she composed herself quickly. "I'm twelve years old. And might I ask how old you are?" She must have said something weird because the man sitting beside Castor, her father's friend, almost choked on his wine. But she only followed the advice she had been given, that when making small talk if someone asks you a question you should ask the same question back after giving your response.
"Would you believe that I'm so old that I've lost count?” He paused, hoping that would be sufficient. “No? Well, I'm sixty-two years old." Castor had a little chuckle to himself. "But, twelve years old. That's a mighty fine age. You must have learned a lot of things by now right? Can you read and write?"
"Yes, I've been able to read since I was ten! And I can add numbers too."
Castor abruptly stuck out his hand to grab hold of her jaw. "Let's get a good look at you." He said while examining her features. She had blonde hair and green eyes and by all accounts a pretty face. Marielle squirmed away, and Castor let go and gave another deliberate smile. "Well, it was certainly nice to meet you. You are a lovely young lady."
"Same to you," said Marielle with a smile, happy to be done with the chat. They both gave each other a slight bow then she retreated to where she sat.
"How'd it go?" Francis asked.
"Alright, I guess. It's over, that's what matters." Marielle said, leaning back in her chair.
Now that the task Francis was responsible for was completed, his interest in Marielle waned and he instead concentrated on eating more food. Marielle finished her plate then looked over to her father, who was having a merry conversation with Castor, both liberally drinking their wine. Then they both looked over at Marielle, catching her gaze, and smiled. She turned away, embarrassed to have been caught watching them.
After the children finished their dinners, all of them except Marielle's oldest brother Garett were escorted off the stage. The festival would continue late into the night, but it was no place for the younger children. They exited the stage, guided by one of their family's servants, and got on a wagon that waited with Bella and Betsy ready to pull it. It went down the bumpy dirt road, passing through the huge empty field that had just been harvested. Then it passed through the village of wood and thatch houses and up to the large wood and stone house that was located in the center of the village. That was the home of the lord of the land, Count Anthony Jorel.
“Thank you, Bella! Thank you, Betsy!” Said Wilmer, Marielle’s younger brother, while waving his arm at the two horses. They all disembarked the wagon and went into their home, while the servant put away the horses. They switched their muddy leather boots for their indoor shoes and went to the parlour to play games. There were the board and pieces for playing stixis but none of them knew the rules, so instead, they played cards.
After some time their parents came home with their brother. With them was Castor and someone that looked like Castor’s assistant. "Alright, all of you off to bed." Marielle's father ordered and the children got up and went off to bed.
In the morning, after breakfast, a servant told Marielle to meet her father in the reception room. It was a large and well-decorated room. Paintings hung on every wall. On one side the doors on the windows were open letting in the sunlight, on the other there were bookcases, acting as a display of wealth. The floor had a nice rug, over which were a grouping of comfy chairs facing each other, next to an ornate fireplace.
She entered the room and saw her parents sitting there with Castor and who she had assumed was Castor's assistant. "Ah, Marielle, have a seat." Her father, Count Anthony Jorel said.
Her heart skipped a beat. She fought the urge to turn around and run, instead she moved forward and into an open chair. Her mother Cecilia, smiled in delight at her, which almost immediately alleviated Marielle's anxiousness. "Marielle. We have fantastic news for you!" It was clear Marielle's mother had gotten ahead of herself as her father gave her an annoyed look.
"Yes, it's like your mother said. Good news." Her father didn't seem nearly as happy as her mother, with just a begrudging smile. "We have arranged your marriage."
A bolt of panic ran through Marielle as she looked at Castor. He was too old, she thought to herself. She expected an arrangement to be made soon, but she couldn’t fathom that her parents would agree to give her away to this old geezer. Castor must have seen the panic on Marielle’s face because he just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not your betrothed.” He laughed and Marielle relaxed. “But you don’t need to look so relieved either. It’s not this guy either.” Castor gestured to who she thought was his assistant.
“So he’s not here?” Marielle asked.
“No, he’s in Venocia. And don’t worry, unlike me, he’s only a year older than you,” said Castor.
“You are going to be marrying into the DeCastellian family. To Augustus DeCastellian,” Count Jorel said, getting straight to the point. “He is the third child of the current head of the family. This is a very fortunate pairing for you.”
“Such a fortunate pairing! Exactly right. They are a powerful family in Venocia.” Her mother beamed.
Castor nodded in agreement. “You’ll stay with your family until you turn sixteen, then we will arrange the actual union. But we have already negotiated the dowry. And even though you’ll be staying with your family, we will be taking over your education. Once I return to Venocia I will arrange for a tutor to be sent, who will focus your studies towards accounting and Venocian law.”
"Alright. Marielle, do you have any questions?" Count Jorel asked his daughter.
She thought for a bit then asked, "What’s Venocia like? I'm gonna be living there right?"
"Venocia… Hm, what cities have you been to?" Castor responded.
"I've been to Honland. Is it as big as Honland?" Marielle remembered visiting Honland some years ago and being amazed at how many people were there. It had street after street of stone houses, and a castle where the duke her father served, lived.
The assistant chuckled and Castor gave him a disapproving look. "Yes, Venocia is bigger than Honland. Honland is a duchy since it’s home to a duke. But the duke there serves a king that resides in Dunlowe. Dunlowe is many times bigger than Honland, and Venocia is many times bigger than Dunlowe." Castor paused and looked up at the ceiling as he contemplated how he should phrase what he wanted to say. "So many people live in Venocia we have to bring in food from all over the world just to keep the citizens fed. And yes, you will be living in Venocia once you get married. Anything else?"
“I’m sorry, but I forgot the name of the person I’m marrying. Could you say it again? And what is he like?”
“Augustus DeCastellian,” said Castor slowly, Marielle repeated the name in her head a few times. “I’m one of his tutors, and I must say he is an especially bright boy. I’m sure you two will get along. Anything else?”
“Nothing I can think of right now.”
“Alright, then you can go.” Count Jorel said dismissing her. So she got up and left the room briskly.
She quickly walked away from the meeting room, climbing the stairs to enter her room and then shutting the door. She walked once around the room then focused on a chest in front of her bed. Marielle opened it and ruffled through her belongings until she found a toy doll that had been passed down from her sister Evelyn. It was a simple toy, made of sanded down wood sticks and a few nails, dressed with scraps of linen. Marielle started to play with the doll as she used to when she was younger than Wilmer. But stopped, when her eyes got watery and her nose got stuffed. After she wiped her face she crawled into bed to cry into her pillow.
By lunch, she had composed herself and was certain her eyes weren't red anymore. She first took a deep breath to prepare herself, then went downstairs to eat with the family. They were all already gathered, except for her absent father.
The lunch was freshly baked bread, a meaty soup, and mashed potatoes. They all prayed to Cyril in thanks, then dug in.
"We've arranged Marielle's marriage." Cecilia abruptly announced. "Everyone congratulate her."
"Congratulations." They all said, not that enthusiastically.
"Who's the lucky man?" Said Garett with a wry smile.
"She will be marrying Augustus, of the Castellian family!"
"Oh, they own the port right?" Said Garett surprised.
"Yes, they are a very wealthy family. Seriously Marielle, be sure to thank your father when he gets home for how well he placed you." Cecilia said enthusiastically.
"So how was father able to place Marielle that well?" Garett seemed genuinely confused.
"What do you mean by that?" Marielle said, reading the implication.
"Every year a larger and larger portion of our income is coming from that port. And we were making a deal with them to fund the construction of a road from that port to the main road that heads to Dunlowe." She paused every sentence in consideration, trying to explain the complicated deal in a way the children would understand. "See, there's another port that already has a road built. But the duke there has a high tax on all the goods that go through that port. The Castellians said they would pay for the road in our county. But then they wouldn't pay taxes up until they recouped the price they paid to build the road. After that, we will collect port taxes again, but we will have an agreement that the taxes would stay low at three percent. The expectation is that, since the taxes are low, and the road would be shorter than the road in the other duchy, they could underprice the competition. Then the majority of trade going to Dunlowe would be going through the port on our lands. That would increase our family's income and influence. The marriage sealed the agreement."
Garett nodded but stayed silent.
Cecelia put her forehead in her hand. "You don't get it, do you?"
"Yeah, I do! They are gonna pay to build a road, so they can pay lower taxes."
"Well, that isn't wrong, but it's not the important part," said Cecilia. "The important part is how the market will shift, as the DeCastellian representative explained it. Once most of the trade comes through that port, not only will we be making more income from the port taxes, we will be making income from taxing the crafting guilds that will set up shop around the port. They think in twenty years we might be richer than Honland."
"Oh!" Garett said with a smile. "Marielle, it sounds like you sure lucked out."
"Yeah, I guess so." Said Marielle while nodding. She was happy for Garett as his inheritance would be doing so well, but she wasn't sure if she was happy for herself yet.
The conversation after that turned to the usual, the weather, the upcoming work on the farms, and whatever happenings each might have heard about. They finished up lunch and went their separate ways. Marielle went to horse riding practice. When that was done she went to the reception room.
One by one she looked through the books, skimming the contents and quickly moving on. The books, unfortunately, were not well organized. A book on accounts would be next to a religious text, and a book on the history of their family was next to a book cataloging different types of flowers. Finally, after a relentless and efficient search, she found a book that seemed to contain the information she was after, Travels of the Known World. She flipped through the book carefully until she found the passage on Venocia, and carefully read it.
The passage was written in the form of a diary telling of the author’s visit to Venocia. It started with him arriving at the port and marvelling at the size of the city. He visited the markets, where he described the sheer quantity of goods. The city streets were paved with cobblestone and were always bustling with activity, filled with people, horse-drawn carriages, and shops selling homemade goods. The book seemed to focus on the food, the fine linens, and the architecture. From that Marielle could tell Venocia would hold little resemblance to her current home. She had four years until she would be thrust into a completely alien place, surrounded by strangers.
At the end of the passage, the book explained some of the legal system of Venocia. But the author made sure to mention that he was far from an expert on the subject. It explained that Venocia was a republic. Instead of having a king, the city was ruled by a body of elected senators who made the decisions for the city by passing laws. From the Senate, the senators would elect an imperator, to serve for a year. Aside from that, there was the high magistrate, who was elected from the magistrates by the Senate, to serve for two years. Marielle thought this part wasn’t explained properly, and on top of that, she didn’t know lots of the words. So she ended up confused when she finished the passage and put the book away.
After dinner, Marielle’s father returned home and asked to talk with Marielle in private. They sat across from each other alone in the large reception room.
“Marielle, I wanted to talk to you, because as I understand from what your mother has told me, that you were rather aloof during lunch.” Count Jorel said, tilting his head and peering right into Marielle’s eyes with a concerned look. “I understand. Sometimes, things happen and it just takes time to adjust to what’s changed. Yesterday, your life changed dramatically without much warning. Marielle, how do you feel about all that’s happened?”
Count Jorel waited in silence for his daughter to muster up the courage to say what she felt. “I’m afraid.” She muttered.
“Yes, that’s to be expected.” The count nodded. “I’m not gonna say that you shouldn’t be afraid. But in time you will become more used to it. When your grandfather died, I was afraid too. I became the count, and there was so much to learn, but over time I adjusted to my new responsibilities. You will also adjust. Time will calm your nerves.”
Marielle gave her father a tight hug and said, “Thank you, father.”