The girls ran from the carriage, and Indenuel dropped to his knees to give them a hug, until they ran right past him to Tolomon. His bodyguard was surprised, but got on his knees too, a slow smile crossing his face as he listened to them talking.
“Really, girls?” Indenuel asked.
“Oh! Tolomon, wait right here!” Emilia said before she tackled Indenuel behind his back. Isla laughed as she hugged him too, and he patted their arms before they ran back to Tolomon. Indenuel stood as Matteo walked over to him, looking incredibly nervous as he tried to smile.
“You got my letters?” Indenuel asked. Matteo paused, then nodded. “You got Martin’s letter?” Again, he nodded. Indenuel glanced behind him to see the girls fully preoccupied with Tolomon. Indenuel pulled his shirt enough to let the boy see his clear shoulder. “The mark is gone.” Matteo said nothing, and Indenuel knew that was his fault. He covered his shoulder again. “More importantly, I swear to you I will never do that again.”
The longer the boy stayed quiet, the more Indenuel’s anxiety built. “I’m glad you confessed,” Matteo finally said.
“Yeah. Me too.” Matteo’s smile was small. He took a step forward, then hugged him. It wasn’t the same. Indenuel didn’t expect it to. But it was a start. Matteo, almost ten years old, still had too much of a childlike trust in him, and he couldn’t mess this up again.
Matteo broke away, taking a step back, not looking Indenuel in the eye as Baleeah walked out of the front of the house after eating way too much for breakfast from the way she was hobbling.
“You don’t have to eat all of what they give you, Baleeah,” Indenuel said.
“It feels wrong to let it go to waste,” Baleeah said.
“Yeah, I know the feeling. Invite your siblings over next time, and they can help you eat it,” Indenuel said.
“I’ve been trying. They’re terrified of Grandami’s reaction.” Baleeah noticed Matteo. “Hi! Who are you?”
Matteo stared at her, surprised. Baleeah was of course still dressed in her rags, but it was most likely her blue eyes that caught him off guard. “Matteo. I’m Matteo. Son of Lori and Antonio, under guardianship of… of… King Ramiro and Queen Lisabeth.”
“Baleeah of Santollia City. Any friend of Eskmenmar’s is a friend of mine,” Baleeah said.
Matteo again gave her a confused look, most likely about the name Eskmenmar, before Baleeah walked over and hugged him. Matteo’s eyes widened as she let him go. He stared at her as though he didn’t quite know what to do.
Baleeah frowned. “What’s the matter? Too dirty for your nice clothes?”
“No,” Matteo said quickly so not to offend. “No.” He still didn’t volunteer the information, so Indenuel added it himself.
“Matteo’s not used to Oraminian customs. Men and women never hug each other unless their married,” Indenuel said.
“What? I’m not even eleven yet! And how old are you? Seven?” Baleeah asked.
Matteo still looked completely overwhelmed by this girl. “I… will be ten. On the second month of the new year.”
“Seriously? You’re so small, even for a nobleman,” Baleeah said.
“I’m… not,” Matteo said.
“You just said you’re under the King and Queen’s guardianship. If you’re not a nobleman, what are you?” Baleeah asked.
“He’s one of the children my mother raised in my village,” Indenuel volunteered the information as Matteo still stood silently beside them.
“Oh. You’re an orphan that went off to the fancy schools, right?” Baleeah asked. Matteo nodded, still staring at her. Baleeah seemed to notice his discomfort. “Santollian custom is ridiculous. It’s not like we’re going to get married. Are you going to visit more often, Matteo?” He nodded. Baleeah smiled as she squeezed him around the middle. Matteo grunted in surprise. He didn’t hug her back, but he didn’t break away either. “Better get used to this then!” Baleeah let go and waved to Indenuel. “Grandami won’t let me eat on the Sabbath, so I’ll see you the first day of the week.”
Indenuel waved back. “Bring some friends.”
Baleeah skipped down the walkway toward the gates. Matteo was still frozen in place, staring at Baleeah with wide eyes, his arms still slightly apart from when she hugged him.
“Delightful child isn’t she,” Tolomon said, appearing at Matteo’s side while swinging Emilia and Isla on his arms. Matteo practically leapt out of his skin, then backed away. Tolomon chuckled, glancing at Indenuel. “This boy is a miniature version of you.”
“I… I…” Matteo stuttered.
“Come on, Emilia! Let’s go choose our room!” Isla said. They dropped from Tolomon’s arm and ran into the house.
“Look, Matteo, I don’t mean to terrify you. And I’m sorry I was so intent on breaking Indenuel so he would confess while you were here. Probably didn’t make me look any better,” Tolomon said.
Matteo once again shielded himself in Indenuel’s shadow. “Yeah. Yeah, I understand.” His voice was quiet. “Th-thank you. For making him confess.”
Tolomon nodded. “I am still incredibly impressed at your ability to sneak around. Men twice your age haven’t been able to sneak past me. Where’d you learn that skill?”
“Uh… I don’t think I’m as heavy as men twice my age,” Matteo mumbled.
Tolomon raised an eyebrow. “I can hear your sisters well enough. I figured you might have learned that from your stay with Andres but you must have learned it sooner. Though a boy like you doesn’t have that many years....” Tolomon trailed off as Matteo’s eyes went wider. Tolomon gave a resigned sigh. “Who was it. Your ami, or your api.”
Matteo shot a glance at Indenuel before he even tore his gaze away. “My api,” Matteo mumbled.
“The gall of some men,” Tolomon muttered under his breath before grabbing his sleeve and moving it up, showing a thin white scar on the inside of his arm.
Matteo raised his eyebrows. “You’re api too?”
Tolomon nodded, lowering his sleeve. “Yes. An unfortunate similarity we share. But I made it out alright, so will you.”
“Yeah,” Matteo said, his face softening. “Yeah.”
“Have you had breakfast?” Indenuel asked Matteo. He nodded. “Are you still hungry?” he asked instead. The boy hesitated before he nodded again. “Go on, while it’s warm.” Matteo gave a final look at Tolomon before heading toward the house.
“His silence makes so much more sense now,” Tolomon said.
“I don’t know much about what happened. He only told my mother, and she kept his secret. But I picked up bits and pieces,” Indenuel said.
Tolomon sighed again before folding his arms and heading into the house. “Something tells me Matteo had it worse than me, though.”
“Your father used to beat you?” Indenuel asked.
“Yeah,” Tolomon said before shrugging. “When he got drunk. Luckily he was a good enough father to only get drunk when he was done with work for the week.”
Indenuel didn’t know what to say as they entered the house. Luckily, he didn’t have to. The twins stopped eating to rush over and give Tolomon a hug, which he returned before ushering them back to their places to finish eating breakfast. They didn’t let him go, though, so he sat between them as they finished their breakfast.
That first month after the Day of the Devil, Inessa did everything expected of her to keep Martin’s suspicions away from her. She avoided him, only talked when spoken to, made herself disappear when he came home, but it was getting increasingly difficult as Ana, Rosa, and Adosina began to accept her. They talked to her more at dinnertime. They asked for her to come on their social visits. She was becoming a part of the family, and it terrified her. Yes, Sara still isolated her when she could, but even Sara at one point looked at her with a softened eye.
When Inessa walked into Martin’s office a few weeks later, reporting that it grieved her to tell him that she was on her monthly cycle, Martin’s face fell before he nodded. He said nothing else, and Inessa left it at that, preparing for the next round of tests.
Every night after dinner she walked into his office, and he would do his examinations, making notes of what he sensed. At one point he even made a joke about the lining of her reproductive organ that caused her to giggle, but she stopped soon after with a chill. Martin was getting more at ease with this. She never considered herself in any sort of position of power over Martin, but his uncomfortableness about this entire thing was what kept her playing this game. If he got more comfortable, he would ask more questions, and she would be found out.
Dinners were the few times where Inessa couldn’t be nearly as invisible as she’d like. Ana, Rosa, and Adosina always pulled her into the conversation, and she obliged because it would be strange if she didn’t. Martin and Sara never acknowledged her presence while the two of them were together, which meant at dinner it was the two of them who rarely talked. Even when Inessa asked to be excused from the table, Martin would simply nod, not looking at her.
Inessa heard from the servants that Martin never slept in Sara's bed during the three days he was trying to get Inessa pregnant. He left every time, but most likely to a guest room. Sara looked miserable, and Inessa couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. As her acceptance into Martin’s family became more certain, she realized, as Nathaniel said when he came to visit, no one blamed her anymore. It was all on Martin. And Sara was paying the price.
But they should blame her. Martin was often found in his study pouring over notes. At first she thought it was notes on the war, but it was notes about her. He was gathering the pieces of the puzzle to try and place it together.
And yet she could not bring herself to stop. She stared at herself in the mirror toward the end of the eleventh month of the year, telling herself she could no longer take poppy root. Martin was different from the other High Elders. Martin actually cared. He was going to find out because he saw her as a person, not a monthly assignment. It was the main reason why he hated sleeping with her so much.
Tears ran down her cheeks as she studied her reflection. If Martin figured out what she was doing, it would be better for her to be dead. But she did not want a baby. She never wanted one. The thought of being pregnant, of raising a child for the rest of her life, it filled her with such paralyzing anxiety that she sobbed right before draining the wine.
“I’ll stop next month,” she told her reflection. “I’ll be stronger then. I promise.”
Inessa had seen Indenuel on occasion. Usually on the Sabbath when he came in to listen to the sermon, his little orphan siblings trailing in behind him. Sara hadn’t invited him to dinner, as that time of night was certainly more of a chore for the poor woman, but Indenuel didn’t need Sara’s dinners. Inessa watched, week by week, as his unusually thin frame began to build. It was around a month and a half after the Day of the Devil that she found her eyes lingering on him as he passed. It was strange, considering she saw him every week. She tried not to stare. She was, after all, a concubine, and ordered herself not to look and didn’t for the next few weeks. Indenuel always gave some excuse not to attend the Sabbath socials in the palace.
So when she saw him at the Sabbath social at the end of winter, she was so surprised that she stared long and hard. Indenuel was busy with his studies, training every day except for the Sabbath, if the gossip lines were trusted. She remembered the face he made when she walked in wearing the purple dress, but now it was her turn to stare. It was the first time he had come to the Sabbath social in months. As the nobility parted just enough for her to see the transformation he had made during the winter, she was glad he was distracted with other nobility. Next to her, despite it being the middle of winter, one of the noble girls took out her hand fan and fanned herself as she eyed him up and down before walking over to him and his growing circle of admirers. Inessa wanted to scorn the girl for her foolishness, but her gaze wasn’t much better. It wasn’t just the muscle he had gained. There was a confidence to his walk as he smiled and bowed graciously to the nobility, cracking a joke to make the entire circle laugh.
She turned away, her eyes wide as she walked over to Carmen, trying to ease herself back into the reminder of what her life was. She needed to be brave enough to not take the poppy root tonight. Martin was a month or two away from being comfortable enough to ask her questions, and she couldn’t play this game much longer.
“Beautiful dress, Carmen,” Inessa said.
Carmen smiled, giving half a twirl in her pale green dress. “Thank you! I swear it’s getting harder to get a dress from Tima’s.”
“I’m quite certain she’s the richest dressmaker in the city,” Inessa said.
Carmen laughed. “Did you hear?” Her voice dropped as she looked around. “None of us told her what Fadrique does to us, but she figured it out. She is charging him double for the dresses she makes, and Fadrique hasn’t noticed yet. I doubt she’ll ever be able to drain him completely of his funds, but I’m certain that is contributing to her wealth.”
Inessa laughed. “I honestly wouldn’t put it past Tima. I will not say a word.”
Carmen smiled, then someone behind Inessa caught her eye. “Well, hello to you,” she said under her breath.
Inessa turned to see Indenuel had broken away from his group of nobility and headed straight for her. Inessa, instinctively, grabbed Carmen’s hand in fright as her pulse quickened. Indenuel bowed, and the two women curtsied.
“Inessa, have you seen Matteo anywhere? He doesn’t do well in crowds, and I wanted to check in on him,” Indenuel said.
“Um, no. No, I haven’t,” Inessa said.
“Ah, well, if you see him, can you point him in my direction?” Indenuel asked.
“Certainly. Though… yes, I think he’s over there with Tolomon.”
Indenuel turned his head. “Well look at that, so he is. Should have gone to him first.” Inessa couldn’t speak, she was so distracted with him being here. Indenuel then noticed Carmen’s dress. “Hey, that is a beautiful dress. Tima’s shop, right?”
“You know her?” Carmen asked.
“Not personally, no. But I’d like to one day to thank her. She made the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen,” Indenuel said before looking at Inessa and giving a wink. Inessa’s heart all but stopped. “Tell Sara I’ll anxiously await another dinner invitation. She’s the best to go to for adding more pounds.”
“Oh, no, you’re fine,” Inessa said like the idiot she was.
Indenuel smiled, the left side rising higher than the right. “Well, thank you Inessa. Though I doubt Sara will agree with you. That woman will not rest until I’m as fat and jolly as King Ramiro.” Inessa and Carmen giggled. “If you ladies will excuse me, I must go check in on Matteo before a crowd gathers.” He bowed, and the women curtsied before watching him go.
“Oh, Inessa,” Carmen whispered.
“I know,” Inessa muttered.
“You have fallen bad for him.”
“Please stop,” Inessa said, turning away.
Carmen kept looking. “If Martin can’t get you pregnant, do you think you’ll go to Indenuel? He’s practically in the same social class.”
“Carmen,” Inessa said, hating how much her heart sang at the idea.
Her friend shrugged. “I bet there’d be plenty of women to volunteer to be his concubine. Honestly, you wouldn’t even have to pay me for it.”
Inessa’s face was getting far too warm. “Carmen!” She laughed to try and pass it off as a joke. Carmen said nothing, continuing to look at Indenuel as she sipped her wine. Inessa shook her head, watching as Matteo noticed Indenuel and gave him a hug. Indenuel hugged him back before ruffling his hair and giving the twin girls a twirl in their dresses. Inessa let out a breath. Somehow, she knew Indenuel would never follow the concubine law. And she doubted he would want her to feel obligated to him in that way.
And yet, that night as she stared at herself in the mirror with the glass of wine and the drawstring bag, trying to tell herself not to take it, she opened the bag and poured a healthy amount in her wine. Despite the fact that most of Martin’s family began to accept her, that she could be happy among them, that having a baby was terrifying but maybe she could shrug off the responsibilities to the servants, she couldn’t do it. This was turning far more dangerous than she anticipated. Martin still had a few more months, and she should stop sooner rather than later, but in this glass was another month of secured freedom. More importantly, she imagined what it would be like to talk to Indenuel while carrying Martin’s baby. For that stupid reason alone, she drained every drop of wine in the glass.