Teoni Silvercusp is a character from the land of Cornovia on the continent of Marnopyre. Here, she is a teenager, dealing with her mother’s marriage to an important nobleman. The time this short tale takes place is thousands of years in Fels’ past, just before the destruction of Marnopyre at the hands of Sosophra Ikananyar.
The Cornovii of Cornovia had made Elgar House their traditional home for more than six hundred years. This rambling, fading stone and timber mansion of over a hundred rooms was situated on seventy acres of overgrown parkland ten miles west of Ell Lyon, just south of the High Road which led westward to Kronfeld. Since the military of Cornovia was no longer a coherent force, guardianship of the House was performed by well-paid private soldiers belonging to Conte Trajan Cornovii, the March-warden of Cornovia’s Western March.
For centuries, it was the seat of Cornovia’s dukes, but in the present day, it was occupied by only three people. Pre-eminent of this trio was Conte Trajan Cornovii himself, a man in his mid-forties, tall and solid, his greying dark hair cut close to his scalp. Since he was a boy, the Conte had custody of Elgar House and had generally left it alone, not willing to spend the large sums of money required to bring the manor back to its former, stately, glory. There was no need. He entertained few guests and there were only ever a small amount of people resident. Until his marriage six months prior, he had usually lived alone in Elgar House, sealing off or locking the myriad of unused and abandoned rooms and halls of the old dusty manor.
Now he was wed and his new spouse had moved in with him from her former residence in Ell Lyon, and reluctantly. The erstwhile Marietta Silvercusp was now Lady Marietta Cornovii, a remarried widow Trajan’s age, slight with a narrow, sad face, mouth perpetually creased downwards, her eyes the colour and cast of seawater. Marietta’s first husband Terrence had been a diamantaire and mine owner who had drowned in a boating accident on the Lyon River. Some claimed he was murdered, and a few alleged Trajan himself was behind it. Before his death, Terrence was the owner of the sole mine in Cornovia not controlled by the Cornovii. Now with his widow’s marriage to Trajan, all mines were managed by the ruling dynasty. Yet his death was ruled an accident and there the matter was settled in the eyes of most.
Marietta had three children to her marriage to Terrence: Ymelda, Nikolai and Teoni. Ymelda, the oldest, dwelt with her fiancé in the Carrethian capital of St Ellom. Nikolai was currently in Tarmanya seeking new works of art and poetry for his collection. The youngest, eighteen year old Teoni, lived with her mother and step-father in Elgar House. Unlike her siblings, Teoni had assumed her step-father’s name and was known to the world as Teoni Cornovii, though she was not afforded any kind of noble ranking or stature and was simply addressed as “melle”, the honorific reserved for minor female landed gentry in eastern Marnopyre.
It was early spring and Teoni rose at dawn, greeting the sun that poked over the riotous woodland to the east. Today she did without her jadderacks and she left off her braids, letting her boyish brunette mop fly free in the crisp, morning air. Conte Trajan had arrived home from the city last night and Teoni had no real desire to be anywhere near the man. So into the woods she went, wrapping her long coat about her as she did. There was still a hint of winter in the air and her breath steamed as she strolled down the path that led to the east gate of the estate. It wasn’t the gate that was her destination today, but the ruined conservatory with its store of wonders. It sat just off the path, half a mile from the manor proper, secluded now by new forest growth and itself was in a state of middling ruination, having been neglected since the time Cornovia wrested herself from the dying Majores’ domination two centuries prior.
Years past, so she had gotten from Conte Trajan, it was devoted to the raising of exotic plants, things that wouldn’t ordinarily grow in the cool temperate climate of Marnopyre. When that had fallen through, the Cornovii had stored many of their old furnishings and books there, apparently forgotten to all, until Teoni had rediscovered it in her exploring.
When she could, she spent most of her time there. Elgar ouse was large, oppressing and rife with unwholesome memories; not a place Teoni looked upon with any joy. Frankly, she hated the old manor with more than a passion and longed for her previous cosy home in Ell Lyon along the Lyon River. But it was gone now, sold by her mother to an unknown buyer, and they were never to return there. She envied her siblings too – why couldn’t she had went with Nikolai to Tarmanya, from all reports a beautiful forested land? Or followed her sister to Carreth? No, she belonged to Conte Trajan Cornovii now, his girl to marry off when it was convenient to him and the state, and with him she had to stay. As Teoni frequently told herself, if she had but a dram more courage, she would decamp and throw her fate and future into the hands of God. Do what most young people her age dreamt of doing: running away.
But running away was predictable, she also told herself. It was the pastime of the romantic and hopeless, something for a little girl suffused with her own self-importance. As Conte Trajan told her frequently, there was nothing important about Teoni. She was simply the daughter of a wealthy man whose mother had married above her station.
The conservatory was an escape for Teoni from his baleful stares and poor humour, and her mother’s descent into what she saw as a tragic struggle-free enchained existence. Marietta only smiled rarely nowadays, soft and slight turnings of the mouth at Teoni’s hellos or letters she received from her other two children. She had no other reasons – the Conte Trajan certainly gave her no cause for smiling that Teoni saw.
Teoni’s introspection was ended abruptly when she spotted a horse tethered to the stair railing of the conservatory. The animal turned its roan head to watch Teoni as she came up to it. A feedbag hung from the railing, and the horse, a mare as Teoni saw, was decked out with side-saddle tack. There was nobody in the weedy grounds before the conservatory and peering through the old doors, Teoni saw nothing. Curious, she prised one of them open further and went inside. The once green-tinted green roofs had been covered over with a haphazard collection of boards and canvas sheets, which only did a fair job of keeping the elements out.
Teoni walked among the shelves and cupboards, crates and boxes to the area she thought of as her study; a cosy nook surrounded by high bookcases full of books of all varieties. There on an old chair, one of Teoni’s favourites, sat a woman dressed in black Cornovian finery. She turned her pale face around at the intrusion and stared unsmilingly at Teoni. ‘Who are you?’
‘Um, good morning,’ Teoni said hesitantly. ‘I’m Teoni. I didn’t expect anybody to be here.’
The woman rose from the chair and put down the book she was reading. ‘Ah yes, uncle Trajan’s step-daughter. Forgive me if I didn’t attend the wedding.’ She pulled her riding hood back, exposing her long dark hair. ‘I am Thea Cornovii and you’ll address me as “lady”. Do you come here often?’
‘Yes lady,’ Teoni answered. ‘All the time.’
‘Interesting way to while away your days.’ Thea glanced down at the book then across the array of bookshelves and stacks of books which littered this part of the conservatory. ‘My family’s interest in the literary arts has diminished over the years. Once we had the most extensive library east of Sarmate, rivalling that possessed by the Cassimeres of the Canton. Many of these writings here are unique and would be quite valuable were they properly chronicled and cared for.’ Her green eyes shot to Teoni. ‘I trust you’re taking good care of them?’
‘I am, lady. They are interesting, especially the diaries and histories. Some of your ancestors were intriguing people.’
Thea smiled briefly. ‘I’m sure you’re equating intriguing with scandalous or villainous. It won’t offend me to hear your frank appraisal of my family, demoiselle.’
‘It’s just “melle” lady, and I wouldn’t think to offend you or your family.’
‘That would make a change, melle, as my family is invariably reviled on an hourly basis everywhere. Talking of family, I believe uncle Trajan has made you one of us, am I right?’
‘Yes lady, I am Teoni Cornovii now.’
‘You’d rather not be though?’
Thea’s manner was outwardly conversational and affable, but Teoni detected more than a trace of contempt in her tone. It’s was best to be careful about this woman, she advised herself, a woman she had known only by second-hand reputation. ‘It was my choice, lady. I took your family name to honour my mother’s decision.’
‘I’ll meet your mother later today. Uncle Trajan wanted me to come to Elgar with him, but I needed to see this conservatory again. I’ve been here the whole night sitting and sleeping in this chair. I did that quite a bit when I was a girl too.’ Thea ran a gloved finger along one oak shelf, picking up a thin line of dust. She rubbed her fingers, watching motes fall.
‘Does this place mean something to you, lady?’
It was a purposely forward question and Thea blinked at Teoni before answering. ‘A lot, melle as I used to play here as a girl frequently. I was born at Elgar and lived most of my life here before my father was made March-warden of the Eastern March. Seventeen years. I know every square inch of the place, from attic to basement. All the outhouses, the outworks, the parks, this place…out here, I’d pretend I was one of the Sylphs in the Kanterine Cycle, waiting for Gorland to come and take me as his wife. I even got one of the gamekeepers to pretend he was Gorland. One day, he rushed in here, practice sword in hand, and climbed those boxes yonder, where I’d climbed myself, pretending I was in the highest tree of the Kanterine Forest, while the Waylander’s wolves were snapping at its base. He rescued me!’ Thea broke out into a broad smile, causing Teoni to grin sympathetically. Then Thea’s face darkened and she bit a lip. ‘Father had the gamekeeper dismissed for manhandling me. For God’s sake, all he did was carry me out, acted out the part like I asked him to.’ She cradled her arms. ‘He carried me like this. There was nothing suggestive about any of it.’
‘My brother and sister play-acted the Kanterine Cycle too,’ Teoni said. ‘Sometimes Ymelda would play the part of Gorland, just to see what it was like, and Nikolai would be the Sylph. I never got to play, only watch.’
‘The deficits of the third child, melle or three’s a crowd as the aphorism goes.’
‘That’s basically it, lady, though they did let me be the Waylander a few times. You’re an only child, am I right?’
‘You are,’ Thea answered darkly. ‘If you knew my parents at all, you’d wonder how I ever managed to be conceived in the first place. Marriages are not things of joy in my world, melle.’
‘Your parents don’t like one another?’
‘Not even a trace of a smidgen of a skerrick, melle. It was an arranged marriage, and one that neither wanted. My mother is of Aish descent, the daughter of an Aish merchant who moved to Cornovia to be closer to what was then lucrative grain and livestock trade. Now this nation has neither grain nor livestock worth spitting on.’
Teoni, who knew nothing of Cornovia’s parlous economic state, merely nodded her head politely. Eager to engage Thea further, she said, ‘Mother told me something of your marriage to that Cantonian man, lady. It sounds like nothing I ever want a part of.’
Thea glared at Teoni for a moment, her mouth slackening. Chastened, Teoni lowered her gaze to the floor. ‘Sorry, lady.’
Thea pursed her lips. ‘How right you are and there’s naught to be sorry about. Hristo is a man I hope to high God you never meet, though I’m afraid he is going to play a large part in the lives of all Cornovians shortly, whether they want him to or not. I can’t say much more than that, so don’t ask.’ She watched Teoni, waiting for the younger woman to meet her eyes again. ‘You’re a curious individual, aren’t you?’
‘Just trying to make conversation, lady.’
‘It’s being made. Is there somebody in your life, melle? Has there ever been?’
‘No, never.’ Teoni shook her head. ‘There is nobody, though Conte Trajan keeps mentioning the types of man he’d like to marry me to. Bankers, financiers, Mionese noblemen, he even spoke about some sailor’s guildsman who came from the Hitherlands, the wild lands that border the pagan’s realms. Like you, I’d rather Gorland come for me than any banker or sailor, if someone must come for me at all.’
‘Come for you?’ Thea laughed. ‘Providence above!’ She noticed something about Teoni and came closer to her. ‘Girl…why do have your hair so short like this?’ One of her hands felt for a strand. Teoni stood still, her eyes locked with Thea’s. ‘Cut in such an irregular fashion? It’s…manly.’
‘I usually wear braids, lady.’
‘The braids of nubility? Are you really a stickler for the old ways, melle?’
Teoni felt the crown of her head, her expression rueful. ‘I’ve worn braids since I was sixteen, lady. My mother wore them before me, as did her mother. They are a distaff heirloom, and if God blesses me with a daughter I will pass them to her.’
‘The women of the Cornovii haven’t worn the braids of nubility since…possibly since the Majores collapsed.’ Thea grinned. ‘Well, by wearing them, you are advertising to the world you are both unwed and eligible so it’s no wonder uncle Trajan is trying to fob you off to the Mionese.’
‘I’m not so sure if I want to marry anyone,’ Teoni mused. ‘Not any time soon.’
Thea pulled a cigarette from a slim metal case and lit it. Teoni watched on, her mouth screwing up slightly. ‘Be very sure, melle. Here in Cornovia, that decision is made for you. Made for us and for all women. As sure as God’s in his Providence, it was made for me, and I’ll be free of that mistake soon, free to cast my lot in with another man if I want. If the idea of marriage appals you, then I’m afraid that is just too bad. There’s a lot of things the old Majores passed down to us, and that was one of them which was the man’s right to determine who the woman weds. She’s an asset to be auctioned off or bargained over. Uncle Trajan owns that right over you.’
‘I suppose I’m not helping things by wearing braids,’ Teoni said. She was going to say more, but both women were interrupted by a tumult from outside. There came a thud of heavy boots, and a man attired as a Cornovian cavalryman burst into their area, his face pink with exertion and excitement. ‘Lady,’ he gasped. ‘The Conte requests your presence immediately.’
‘Why, for God’s sake?’ Thea asked. ‘What’s the urgency?’
‘We’ve just had word from a fast courier that Howell of Kronfeld has been murdered. It happened yesterday, lady and I don’t know any more than that. The Conte has all the details and awaits both of you in the House.’
‘Murdered by who?’
‘I know nothing else, lady,’ the cavalryman answered impatiently. He bowed smartly and strode away, his boots echoing in the quiet recesses of the conservatory.
‘Who is he?’ Teoni asked. ‘Howell?’
It took a few moments for Teoni’s question to register with Thea. ‘Howell of Kronfeld? You seriously don’t know who Hertock Howell Tyree of Kronfeld is? Or was?’ When Teoni shook her head, she added, ‘Uncle Trajan was right about you Silvercusps. You did live under rocks. Come along, step-cousin, it’s best not to keep the Conte waiting.’