Thicker than Blood by Jessica Carson

Cyril paced the edge of his room rubbing the chess piece in his hand. He was beginning to hate this room. Not that it was an uncomfortable place to pass the time. The room itself would have been the envy of any member of House Vaylen’s acquisition teams. The red brocade carpet’s silver strands leapt about in a flame motif covering the finest hardwood floors of any house in Admiralty Hill. A black marble fireplace, red leather chairs, stained glass doors leading to the balcony covered in curtains of soft silks. Cyril’s brother Menas had spared no expense in building and decorating this mansion with the idea of showing all others in Augustana, whether they cared or not, that he could have the best with little effort. Menas always seemed to get what he wanted. Luxury and power were the two words most people used to describe the place. Gauche and ostentatious were the others.

The ebony knight gleamed in the lamp light as Cyril placed it on the board. He crossed to his vanity, paused, and scrutinized his reflection in the mirror. He tugged at the one silver strand in his otherwise chestnut waves. He pushed his hair back and leaned heavily against the vanity. “A few gray hairs are the least of my problems,” he thought.

Cyril reached for his pipe and savored the puff. There were perks to Menas’ desire for the finest. Cyril strolled to the balcony door and opened the first set. Slivers of pale light streamed through the clearing clouds. Silhouettes swayed with the night breeze in the courtyard below. Cyril’s room provided an excellent view of the yard below. Small shrubs and trees carefully maintained, lined the edges of the property and provided privacy for the house. Menas’ hired guards, resplendent in their green and gold uniforms, patrolled in groups of three along the edges. Bright green hair bobbing along behind the patrol meant Picks had not yet left to retrieve Menas’ latest conquest. One of the guards abruptly stopped and began swatting at the air around him, shouting about flying ants and the gnome doubled over with laughter.

“I take it Picks hasn’t left yet?” Menas asked.

Cyril didn’t turn around. “Not yet, he seems to be having too much fun. Its a shame to make him stop to run a silly errand.” He turned to face his brother. Taller than Cyril by a few inches and much less lean, Menas’ frame nearly blocked the light from the hallway beyond. The brothers shared their family’s typical Varisan traits–tanned skin and brown hair– but the similarities ended there. A composition in contrast, Menas, toned from years of swordplay, and Cyril, leaner and more mysterious, cut a striking and imposing pair when standing together. “Next time you could knock.”

“Since when do I need to be so formal with you?”

“Since I had to start knocking before I entered your study. Fair’s fair, Menas.” Cyril puffed on his pipe and rested his arm on the top of his sitting chair. He continued, “So what are you after tonight, hmm? A ship in the harbor have and “extra” case of Irssien Ice Wine? Perhaps one of the neighbors acquired a new painting? Or is it some new artifact you found a lead on?”

Menas chuckled. He crossed the room and punched his brother in the arm. “You’re in a great mood tonight aren’t you? You should be happy. Tonight’s the night. We’re about to get everything. And you look like you’re going to a funeral. I‘m glad you weren‘t downstairs earlier, you might’ve scared off my guests.”

“Guests?”

“Appraisers, mages, scholars,” he slowly moved to the desk and casually pushed at some of the papers, “just a few people I had researching our amulets. You know, the ones you’ve been able to find nothing on.”

“You mean the ones you stole from the collector in Almas?”

“Stole, liberated, returned to someone who could use it, call it what you will.” Menas sneered, teeth growing from ear to ear, and picked up a leather journal from the desk. “As I recall Cyril, I wasn’t the only one who benefited from that trip. Or have playing chess and reading those journals from his library gotten boring already?”

Cyril shoved the pipe in his mouth and glanced at the floor.

“No, still enjoying them? Well then, shut it.” He threw the journal at Cyril and continued, “Aren‘t you the least bit curious as to what they found for me? I mean this was the amulet I said could make all our dreams come true. This is the, what did you call it…bauble, that cost us some of our best procurers. Aren‘t you curious to see if there‘s an answer to a puzzle you couldn‘t solve.”

“Not really, since there was nothing to find.” Cyril set his jaw and stared past his brother.

“Little brother you look tense. You really should try to relax more.” Menas stared down at him, his dark brown eyes made colder by the shadows cast by the lamps. “You‘ve spent almost every night locked in this room, you need to get out more. Find some new friends instead of plotting away in your room.”

Muscles tensed in Cyril’s face, but his brother continued to smile and talk. Cyril made every effort to keep his growing fear in check. His heart raced and drowned out some of what Menas had said.

“…these were some of the brightest researchers I could afford. What I find interesting is it took them a week to find what you couldn’t in months, you must be slipping. ”

Cyril pulled back and rubbed his arm. “Just call it my blood rebelling from being stuck in one place for too long.”

Menas turned his attention again to the desk and picked up a small stack of papers. He riffled through them as he spoke, “I’m surprised you aren’t more interested. The old Cyril would’ve jumped at the chance to achieve our childhood dream. My might and the magic running through your blood, we’ll be unmatched. Whatever we want, we can have. From common thieves to manor lords to gods among men…do you even remember how we talked as kids?”

“Dreams change, brother,” Cyril said.

“Perhaps. But what they found, it’s so much more than I could have hoped for. Still not biting? Oh well, I hope you’ll see things differently after tonight. I still plan on achieving our dream.” Menas let the pages slip one by one on the floor. As the last page hit the floor, he turned on his heels and headed for the door. He turned with a flourish and caressed the intricate carvings on the veneer. “Just one question before I go brother, is your lack of interest due to embarrassment or because the information I found isn‘t new to you?”

Cyril swallowed hard but kept his gazed locked ahead. The door slammed shut. The noise reverberated through his body and Cyril closed his eyes. He slammed his fist into the chair. The light breeze that rustled the curtains carried the sounds of the guards patrolling below and the scent of rose water and lily. Cyril relaxed his shoulder…that was his favorite scent.

“How long have you been out there,” he asked. He turned and stared out the balcony door. Wisps of light played among the shadows barely outlining Aeris as the clouds rolled away, bouncing off her ebony armor, illuminating her face and reflecting the icy blue eyes he had missed. The tall half-elf stretched her neck and shoulders.

“Long enough.” Aeris stepped into the room with the grace of a cat. Warm golden light flooded her porcelain face giving her an almost ethereal glow. Cyril wondered again as he watched her move, how this woman made moving so light and flexible while being so curvaceous look so simple. He followed the line of her armor until he noticed her shaking head. Cyril followed the direction of her gaze. It stopped on the painting over the west wall. “That’s what you chose for an art piece? I thought I taught you better than that.” The coldness in her voice was offset by her wry smile–a smile he’d never forget. She looked almost the same as the night he’d left with Menas a year ago: tall, athletic, angry. Only her hair was different.

He pointed to her auburn hair, “You let it grow longer. I like that look.”

“Typical Varisian, trying to charm your way into my good graces.”

“Does it still work?”

She extended her right arm and clasped his. “I think this makes us even.” She drove a left hook into his stomach.

Cyril struggled to catch his breath.

“It…really…suits…you,” Cyril gasped. Aeris brushed the dark hair away from in front of his emerald eyes. She leaned in closer and grinned.

“Flatterer.”

Cyril braced himself against her as the color returned to his face. He mustered what he hoped was a disarming smile. She didn’t return it.

“You left me in a catacomb,” she said.

Red flooded his face. “Aer…let me expl–” he began.

She cut him off. “You left me in a catacomb with dead bodies, some of who had been alive when we got there.”

Thicker than Blood continues in Part 2