The stove emitted warmth that stung skin and enticed sweat, methodical clanks of kitchen ware echoed off stone walls, and a variety of smells swirled together to create a concoction of familiarity.
A hefty hand wiped away a gleam of moisture upon a forehead, another adjusting the overly large chef hat threatening to fall into the soup that released billows of steam and spice.
A man brushed away his threads of ginger hair, parting them like curtains and allowing his brown beady eyes to flicker to and forth as he stirred the pot of soup before him.
“How are the meatpies York?” His deep voice called from across the room.
A scrawny man with a nose as sharp as a sword, skin as tan as a potato, and a head topped with messy black hair caught lazily in a hairnet stood up, having been occupied scouring for something within the counter’s lower cabinets.
“Ten minutes boss.” He yelled back as he squatted down and continued his search.
Boss, or better known as Usopp, just rolled his eyes and looked at the more reliable man Grivas.
Grivas’ broad shoulders were moving as he diced vegetables,and his bald white head was reminiscent of a leaf catching droplets of water in rainfall.
The man turned, his round chin moving up and down,
“Eight minutes till the meat pies are done, then we have to move to finishing the main course,”
Usopp nodded back, “Thanks Grivas, I can always count on you.”
Turning back to his broth, Usopp produced a ladle resting upon the cutting board next to him. Though he knew it would be ill to taste the soup without first clearing his pallet, time was of the essence considering they were rushing to finish dinner before the ceremony began.
Per usual, the many cooks went about finishing their bounty, and Usopp found himself in the familiar trance that accompanied him through most of his cooking. A habit that had saved him the mental capacity to look out for certain rodents trying their best to sneak a bite of his famous meat pies.
Following the thought, Usopp caught a glint of metal out of the corner of his eye.
Of course, he did not turn, donning a smirk as he wondered which rat had scurried into his kitchen this time around.
Surveying the doorway with his peripheral vision, Usopp caught the sight of a... apple crate?
The apple crate then sprouted two tiny pale legs protruding from buckled shoes, which made not a single noise as they scurried into the kitchen before disappearing, the crate growing still next to a sack of potatoes.
Usopp smiled wider, ‘Erik and Nathaniel are too tall and built to fit within an apple crate, so not one of them. That leaves Gregory, Rayus, and Weston. Hmm, a little too obvious of a way to infiltrate, but clever enough to go unnoticed.’
Usopp mused more ideas in his head, absently stirring the soup before him to not give himself away. The box turned toward him, seemingly examining the cooks in the kitchen and noting their position.
The chef knew he should turn around and scold the child for trying to disturb the cooks, but something deep and old told him that it wouldn't hurt to entertain the little cat and mouse game they were playing.
So instead, Usopp half turned, eliciting the apple crate to drop dead just as it began to move again. The crate lost its legs and looked rather inconspicuous if he really cared to admit.
Now, he stayed where he was, grabbing a tomato and quickly beginning to dice it to seem busy.
The apple crate did not move an inch.
‘So this rat has patience, that means Gregory is out of the picture. Now, is it the little shy but adventurous Rayus, or the scheming all smiles Weston?’
Usopp glanced up at the clock, clicking his tongue in conflict as he weighed his next move. He was busy, yes, but it never hurt to enjoy himself a little. A moment of thought passed, then Usopp turned back to the soup, his wide back shielding the crate from seeing his smile.
The legs appeared again, but this time, two small arms and hands accompanied them. Usopp blinked rapidly, interested to see that within the tiny hands sat a fishing hook on a wire along with a wooden slingshot.
‘Bold, but still not enough.’
York stood up, the chef whooping with joy as he had finally found his favorite spatula.
“Finally, I found you darling.”
York kissed the kitchen utensil, grinning like a monkey as he cast a wide gaze around the kitchen hoping to see the reactions of his fellow patrons.
No one looked, especially Usopp as he could only hold his mouth agape as the fishing hook rested in the workings of the sling shot. The rubber band was pulled back and aimed for the pile of sugarsticks resting on the edge of a table, a delicious dessert made up of rolled up bread covered in cream and breasted in brown sugar.
The hand released the stretched rubber band, the metal hook soaring high and fast at the perfect angle. York was unaware that if he took a step back he would ruin the entire operation, the fish hook zipping behind him unnoticed.
Alas, the dunderhead did turn, but not enough to notice how the fishhook somehow managed to sink itself into the five inch delectable goodness of a sugarstick.
Then, with the overwhelming force of a fourteen year old, the sugar stick was yanked from its rightful spot, flying through the air and landing in the open hand awaiting it.
‘A good shot, had a plan from the start, patient, and most likely feeling a bit guilty at pulling off his crazy plan. It seems Weston had decided to try his hand at sneaking some deserts before the ceremony. Sadly, I cannot allow it.’
Usopp left his ladle to dry on a rag, his knuckles cracking as he looked forward to a good and well earned scolding. The crate went dead upon noticing his hulking figure and familiar ginger hair bouncing up and down with each step, the head chef’s eyes telling all too well of his growing suspicion.
‘Uh oh,’ Wes thought as he shrunk inside the confines of the apple crate, his breath held as he saw the man eagerly approaching while rolling his sleeves up. ‘I’ve done it now.’
Wes scrambled for a way out, freezing as another thought washed over him.
‘Wait. No, there is still plan B. I thought about this.’
A mischievous smirk sprinkled with unbridled confidence and a pinch of fear was donned on Wes’ face, and with his hand wrapping around the fish wire tied to his pinky finger, he pulled.
Usopp almost soiled himself as he heard the avalanche of pots and pans fall from the cabinet that somehow had opened on its own. He swirled around, hoping that nothing expensive or time consuming had been broken or spilled.
Upon him and Grivas picking up the mess, Usopp was able to sigh in relief as there seemed to be no real damage except for a dented frying pan.
‘Thank the heavens, now back to scolding that… wait.’
He frowned as he noticed that upon closing the cabinet, the smallest glint gave away the fish wire knotted around one of the curved handles. For a brief moment anger flashed across his face, but once Usopp turned to see the apple crate gone from sight, he could not help but laugh.
Now, he knew for sure Weston had done it, because his four other brothers would never put so much forethought into stealing a simple sugarstick.
Oh no, a plan for almost getting discovered was only possible by the blonde headed boy who materialized in Usopp’s mind. His blue irises which seemed to study the world as if it were a book, his smile devoid of sinister undertones, the nervous patter of his foot- a habit he could never break, and the all so vague crossed fingers situated behind his back as he schemed and plotted.
“Alright men double time, let’s make this day worth its weight in food!” Usopp clasped his hands together with a clap, his men proudly lifting their chins.
Wes heard their cry as he hid in the pantry outside the kitchen in a small hallway leading to spiral stairs. His heart beat fast, but his salvia was quicker, lathering the sugarstick as he took a bite. The taste caused his body to shiver with pleasure.
‘Worth it, even if I almost got caught hehe. Now, time to see if I could snatch me one of those pies.’ Wes was ready to enact another daring feat, but when he swiped away the brown sugar on his trousers, he remembered something rather important.
Sparring practice, he was late to sparring practice.
‘Ike is going to kill me, and that’s only if Erik doesn’t get to me first.’
The crumbs of sugar had reminded Wes of the sandlot they usually practiced on, and if he was judging the sunlight coming from the window adjacent to the pantry correctly, then he had taken longer to get a sugarstick than needed.
Wes did not loiter for a second longer, opening the door after checking the hallway was clear and racing up the spiral steps like a mad man. His tiny legs brought him into another hallway, albeit this one an entire ten feet taller and arched with marble.
The walls were a deep brown, its edges gilded with copper and console tables spread evenly, large square windows were placed between each one and allowed the afternoon rays to settle on the crimson carpet.
Wes continued his trek, zipping through more overtly decorated hallways and only slowing down when he crossed under the arched entryway leading to a familiar clearing.
A small courtyard was present, a cobbled walkway wrapping around the entire thing with a small line of hedge bushes trimmed to perfection. The middle was flat and packed sturdy with sand, and upon it stood his four brothers, wooden short swords held firm while they went through motions taught to them from a young age.
Wes exhaled heavily as he saw they were alone, Swordmaster Ike nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, you are late Slick.” Nathaniel called him out with an insult, though it flew over Wes’ head as he hastily grabbed a wooden sword from a nearby rack and quickly fell into line.
“Where is Swordmaster Ike?” Wes asked as he fanned his already hot face and swallowed all the air he could.
Nathaniel flinched at being ignored, his tall stature turning, short brown hair unmoving, and his dark skin glistening in the sunlight.
“Ah, you think we won’t mention you were late, maybe Father would li-”
A heavy hand pushed Nathaniel by the face, cutting him off.
An even taller figure stepped in front of Wes. His shoulders were broad, a long mane of blonde hair raced down his back, and he scowled with fierce blue eyes.
“Why were you late, it could be a bad omen today Weston, what if this determines how the world sorts you?”
Wes sighed, “I know Erik, I just woke up late from a short nap.”
“I thought you went to the kitchen? I saw you going that way.” Gregory, a boy with a little more weight than his brothers, ran a hand through his wavy brown hair, looking at Wes to see his eyes furrow in slight irritation.
‘I thought no one saw me, was I not sneaky enough?’ Wes thought as he faked a smile and tried to change the subject.
“So when will Swordmaster Ike be here? We should be practicing right about now.” Wes asked while beaming an innocent smile.
Rayus, the runt out of the family, picked away his long locks of black hair that stuck to his face.
“I also saw you going that way, what were you doing Wes?”
Four sets of eyes locked onto him, and for a moment his quick mouth was not fast enough to spew some nonsense so they would not get suspicious of him sneaking a few snacks. It was an accepted law amongst the siblings that if one braved Usopp’s kitchen, they must bring back something for all of them.
Although Wes finally had an excuse, their gazes told them they had already caught wind of his recent adventure.
“Is that brown sugar on your lips?” Gregory asked aloud.
Thankfully the heavens smiled down on Wes, as before more questions could be asked, a loud clap drew the five boys’ attention.
“Hmm, standing around and not warming up for sparring?” The man in a familiar crimson tabard adorned in light silver armor sauntered into the courtyard. His face was squared, his beard short, and his green hair swished to the left, bouncing with each step he took toward them.
“That calls for some extra running after.”
All five brothers groaned, Nathaniel shooting Wes a glare as if the whole ordeal was his fault. Although, it was apparently a sound judgement as the rest of his brothers gave him a side glance.
‘At the very least I can come up with a better excuse.’
Wes thought as they began to break apart and mimic Swordmaster Ike as he drew his silver short sword and started to warm up.
Sparring practice was much the same for Wes, which was him being utterly done in by all of his brothers except Rayus, the little boy practically giving up the second he faced Wes in the ring.
Wes was just not meant for the sword, as he much preferred to be cooped up in the library or explore the small forest clustered around the estate. Even if he knew every inch of the place already, it was better than sitting around the five story manor in some random room doing practically nothing. Especially now as the five of them had finished primary school a month ago, which made the last three weeks feel like an eternity leading up until the ceremony.
Wes let the words linger in his head as he got comfortable behind a potted plant, his brothers probably searching for him to try and get an answer about whether he had nabbed a snack for himself and not them. They would never find him though, his spot blocking any view of him except for the balcony above. Plus, he had locked a few rooms that were allowed for them to sleep in. They would most likely believe he was in one of them, when in actuality he lazily sat on an empty potato sack while he read an old story about the Dark War.
Wes always loved reading about history, as it pertained to an important part of who he was. Usually it was about the Dark war though, many other events in the kingdom's history reduced to a few excursions into the Beast Lands or poor excuses for conquering the continent. Wes much preferred the mass genocide, death of entire bloodlines, war crimes, and bloodshed that occured during the Dark War…
The real reason for his interest was because the Dark war was the single cause that forced him to be brought to this estate at the young age of five, his memories of his real parents muddled by his growing mind deciding it was unimportant. All Wes could truly remember about them was that they were poor, since he had vague images of a dark alley and him and his parents sleeping in it. Maybe it was best he was not with them, as he much preferred the lavish life of a noble. Well, maybe a noble, he would figure it out later today.
Thinking back to history, The Dark War had left the world devastated and almost beyond repair, the Raleigh Kingdom succumbing to hordes of monsters and the ire of high races wanting humans wiped off the face of Ereden. Somehow, some way, a scant few humans lived. Decades passed in a post apocalyptic world, but then the event known as The Blessings of Mary brought life back to the world.
Ereden soon found its stride again, and after a few centuries passed, the Raleigh Kingdom could proudly wave its ancient flag once again, wanting nothing more than to regain its other territories lost in the Dark war.
Though there was much more to the event, Wes let those thoughts drop away as he glanced down at the heavy book resting in his lap, Then after a few seconds of contemplation, he looked to the potted plant next to him.
“I think I’m done reading the same old book, time for something new.” He paused for a second. “Right random plant?”
There came no answer, Wes brushing off the absurdity of his question and slamming his book shut. He pushed himself up and stepped out of the corner he was in, making his way through the familiar hallways that he had traversed for the last decade.
The memories of him and his adopted brothers chasing one another surfaced, a particular few about the five of them breaking expensive things that led to them having to brave the full wrath of their Father’s anger. Which in reality was a finger wag, maybe a slap on the wrist, and a hug to send them off to just do it again.
Wes donned a smirk as he thought of his Father.
They shared not an ounce of blood, but it mattered little. Everything Wes was today was because of the gentle giant he called Father. The man who had taken them in and prepared them for becoming adults. He had learned to read, write, fight- well somewhat fight, and the proper ways of mercantile and law. It was all to prepare him and his brothers for a single day.
The ceremony that will decide the future in which they would pursue. Saying Wes was nervous was an understatement, because he was downright terrified.
Alas though, he stuffed away his emotions with mundane thoughts, which comfortably accompanied him all the way to the double arched doors slightly ajar.
Wes slipped through, glancing inside to make sure none of his brothers were in here searching for him. This was the first place they would look, so they were most likely long gone, pounding away on the locked doors Wes had used as bait.
Deep down, he had silently hoped for his brothers to find him, just so he could lose them through a few traps he had laid throughout the Manor.
They were simple, just a well placed bucket of cold water on a slightly ajar door, fish wire spread at shin height in certain hallways almost never used, and a trusty pouch of sand he had in his left pocket.
Sadly, Wes came to see the usually empty library, the lady who worked at the counter also gone and most likely helping out to prepare the ceremony. It left the place to feel emptier than most days, but Wes shrugged it off and walked over to a wooden shelf marked for used books.
He placed the fairy tale about the Dark War on it, heading toward a section meant for history and theories. He had tried to read some of the books on theory, but most of the text boiled down to words too big for Wes to understand. It annoyed him greatly when every sentence he would need to refer to a dictionary.
‘Hmm, I’m not really in the mood for history. Maybe a romance?’
Wes stopped walking, smiling wide as he thought about the last time he tried romance. The things he said to the maids the next day had gotten him banned from the library for a week. It was not his fault, he just wanted to try his hand at this flirting thing. Especially since the only people of the opposite sex he saw were indeed the female help in the Manor.
He had been to a few villages and seen some girls his age, but the few clustered cottages and farm hands were nothing amazing compared to the Magipolises dotted across the kingdom. Machines that carried dozens of people on pods, platforms that could be used for individuals to traverse miles in minutes, golems that did the mundane tasks and heavy lifting, and complicated sigils powering it all . Plus, Swordmaster Ike would tell of the women there, getting him and his brothers a little too excited.
The cities were very interesting to Wes, and he hoped when he turned the age of Blooming he would be allowed to visit them. For multiple reasons besides women of course. Maybe.
‘Just four more years, and I can do whatever I want.’
Wes kept his grin as he navigated through the many bookshelves which marinated in a thin layer of dust. Something that would always haunt Miss AppleBottom no matter how much she tried. Wes chuckled at the thought of the librarian, a woman who was too shy to even tell him, a fourteen year old, to stop teasing her about her beauty.
‘Eh romance is predictable, maybe…’ Wes peered at one corner of the expansive library, a door sealed shut with a weird symbol carved into the stone latch.
The word lingered on the cusp of his curiosity, growing more with each passing second he held his gaze on the door.
Suddenly though, hushed whispers entered his ears.
“Look, I told you no matter what he would come here.”
“Shh, he will hear you, we need to wait on the others to ambush him. Remember when we tried last time. The sand, do you remember the sand?”
Wes rolled his eyes, “I can you hear you two,”
There came silence, and slowly Nathaniel's imposing figure appeared from behind a shelf, followed shortly by the plump Gregory who sighed in dejection.
“Look, we just want to know if it was brown sugar” Nathaniel said, flexing his muscles to look intimidating.
Gregory just gave him a side glance, shaking his head, “I could care less, as long as it was not a sugarstick, you know I love those things Wes?”
Wes stifled laughter, “You love most things that come out of that kitchen Greg” he turned to Nathaniel, “Also flexing? Really?”
The three of them narrowed their eyes, tensions stirring slowly as their eyes met.
Then the trio laughed, Nathaniel trotting over and hanging one of his massive dark skinned arms around Wes’ shoulders, scrambling his blonde locks with a giant hand.
“You are lucky I like you runt, or I would have ground you into paste.”
Wes smiled at his brother, “Let me guess, Gregory would eat that paste after?”
Gregory playfully punched Wes in the stomach.
“Watch it, I might throw a real one next time.”
They laughed some more, and the three brothers threw a few more insults before they found themselves sitting against the door leading to the section for magic. They conversed casually, waiting for Erik and Rayus to join them.
“I can’t believe it.” Gregory said as he spun a small cyan book on his index finger. “Ten years passed just like that, and I don’t even remember half of them. Growing up sucks.”
Nathaniel had a book halfway open, placing it on his head of short black hair like it was a hat. “Yep, soon the other Lost Blood will show up, then we get sorted and bam, we all leave.”
Wes weighed on his brother’s words, his stomach churning as he thought about the statement. Soon the other Lost Blood, or kids like them, would go to the Atrium of WhiteGold where they would find out what blood they held. Once they knew, he would be forced to leave the Manor, all because of the Dark war.
A time in which the noble houses were destroyed and any survivors fled for their lives. After the whole world fell into darkness, children no longer knew the name of their houses. Or rather, they decided to drop it and focus solely on survival, which at the time was probably a good idea. Fast forward a few centuries, and the Raleigh Kingdom was thriving once again, but it no longer had nobles to help govern the land.
The blood was too mixed, and it would take decades to find the blood of each noble house and which descendants hailed from them.
In time, the decades did indeed pass, and now an entire generation of children like Wes and his brothers were found to have slivers of noble blood. They were then gathered under people the King could trust, and were raised to be ready for what would transpire today.
The noble houses were to be reborn, created once again and to help strengthen the kingdom to its true power. They were to make sure to keep the blood pure, and only mingle amongst themselves in hopes of gaining back the ancient magics tucked away for ages.
Wes was still not sure what house he might hail from, but it would not be long till he found out. Maybe he was a LionsGreat, a bloodline that aligned with fire and light, or the IronWall who were known for having bodies so tough they could smash boulders with bare hands and could smash magic spells with a simple headbutt.
Wes looked at Nathaniel, the dark skinned boy looking intently at the book he now had in his hand. He slowly leaned in, licking the page like a sundae. His face wrinkled in disgust.
‘Nathaniel is definitely an IronWall, his head is practically a brick.’
Wes could not help but smile, Nathaniel catching it and blushing in embarrassment.
“I was just curious, they smell like apples so I thought they would taste like one too.”
‘Yep, an IronWall no doubt.’
Gregory snorted, “Surprised you tried it before me.”
Once again, the brothers chuckled at the personal jab, a recurring thing when they were in the presence of one another. It seemed insults were par for the course, while laughter would soon follow.
Though, they grew silent and Wes glanced toward the library doors.
“What is taking Erik and Ray so long? They cannot be stupid enough to keep banging on the locked doors. Right?”
Nathaniel removed the book from his head, “Locked doors?”
Wes blinked at the question, “Did you guys split up this time around?”
Gregory nodded, “Yes, we know how you scheme so we wanted to cover more ground.”
Wes rolled his eyes, rising to his feet and stretching his arms, “Well let’s go look for them, we only have a couple of hours till we leave for the sorting, I want all of us to be together one more time.”
The mood dampened at the mention of the future, and the weak smiles and nods showed it clearly.
Nathaniel got up, “Yes, le-”
A loud disant scream cut him short, and the three locked their heads onto the library exit. Quickly and silently, they hurried along, pushing past the double doors and stepping into the hallway.
There, the tall broad shouldered figure of Erik stood before an unknown face. The stranger was about their age, having green wavy hair, a smirk which oozed venom, and eyes of indigo. However despite the stranger and Erik facing off, Wes noticed Rayus first, the small shy boy sitting on his rear while holding his cheek as if he were injured.
Erik spoke with audible anger, “Listen here, nobody, and I mean NOBODY lays a finger on my brothers. I do not care who you are, who you think you are, or who you think you are going to be. I will kill you here and now. I do not mind spending a few decades in the dungeon knowing I rid the world of filth like you.”
Wes swallowed the lump in his throat, seeing as how the serious expression his brother Erik wore was replaced by one he had never seen before. Usually he was calm and devout to order and rules. The things he had just said would um… break a few.
The green haired stranger put up a single hand.
“Calm down fellow Lost Blood, I was only trying to get through to him. He is soon to be a noble, he should not be lacking so much socially, and especially physically. Does he not know he may hold the blood of a noble warrior family? Is the good of the kingdom that unimportant to him?”
Erik calmed himself, the fist he had loosening.
“I can understand, but acts of violence do not instill understanding, they create obedience. So please, fellow Lost Blood, understand you entered our home and assaulted my brother. Never do it again, or you will not see tomorrow.”
The green-haired boy chuckled, “Ah, it seems I have made enemies already.” He shrugged, glancing at the Wes and his other two brothers standing and watching silently.
“It was bound to happen eventually, guess I know the five mistakes I should not associate myself with.”
Nathaniel flinched at his words, his legs pulling him forward before he could even begin cursing.
“Listen here you Slick fuck rat, I-”
Rayus, still sitting on the carpet in visible pain, grabbed the passing Natheneil’s pant leg. He glared down at Ray, who shook his head slowly.
“My name is Evan, remember it well, since I will be carving my name into the kingdom one way or another. Look forward to it, and try not to stain the name of your ancestors. ” He gave a dismissive wave and left without another word.
Silence reigned over the brothers, entire minutes passing before Gregory broke the thick atmosphere.
“Seems we have a guest.”
Wes snapped out of the trance he was in, a little taken aback by the events before.
Erik sighed and helped Rayus up to his feet.
“You need to start growing a backbone Ray, or people like that will just stomp all over you.”
Nathaniel scoffed, “I would like to see them try.”
Erik rolled his eyes, “We will not always be there to protect each other, remember that after today we go our separate ways.” He paused. “I excel at the blade, Gregory has his quick thinking in battle, Nathaniel has his overwhelming strength, and Wes has the forethought to beat his opponent before the battle even begins.”
He looked at Rayus who tried his best to disappear.
“What does Ray have?”
Wes frowned at the question,
“He has us Erik, don’t pester him. Right now we should be enjoying ourselves, not trying to fix things that might take weeks to do.” he glanced out the expansive window letting in bright sunlight.
“We only have hours, hours before we will not see each other for possibly decades.”
Erik let his shoulders sag, “You are right sorry. So what do we do?”
Nathaniel chimed in quickly, “Maybe poison the food of our dear friend Evan?”
The five laughed, and Gregory spoke this time.
“I like the food part, not so much about killing someone we just met.” He thumbed his chin. “How about we see if we can sneak some snacks before we depart?”
Everyone nodded, and Wes grinned ear to ear.
“I have a plan that just might get us in and out of the kitchen without a scolding.”
The five, even including Ray, seemed to sprout horns and a forked tongue, the mischievous glint in their eyes present with each step taken toward their destination.
Wes began to explain his plan.