Manas parried the swordmaster’s attack and deftly knocked the man’s blade from his hand. “Excellent, young lord,” the swordmaster said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’ll be able to beat Lord Helfreid himself one of these days.”
Manas shook his head and wiped the sweat from his face with a cloth handed to him by a servant. “I doubt I’ll ever be that good. He’s trained with swordmasters from so many places.”
The swordmaster chuckled. “At least you don’t have the adolescent bravado that so many young men your age seem to have,” he said. “Humility is a good trait to have, young lord. Just don’t let it stop you from living your life.” He sauntered off, leaving Manas to think about what he’d said.
A commotion from the courtyard caught his attention. He made his way out of the practice ring and over to where he could see out. Lord Helfried, his foster father, was speaking with an older couple bearing the crest of Grand Duke Gehrich on their clothing. He didn’t see the Grand Duke himself, but a very pretty blonde girl around Manas’ age was riding with them. She looked irritated and glared at Lord Helfried as he spoke with the couple.
“Father, I’m exhausted,” the girl said, raising her voice so it was heard over the general din of the guests being greeted. “I’m sure you have a lot to talk about, but may I please retire to my chambers until dinner?”
Manas was shocked when Lord Helfried turned to the young woman. “Inge, have you learned no manners from the Grand Duchess?”
“I learned quite a lot from her,” Inge said. “I also know you’re breaking the rules of hospitality by keeping us out here.”
Lord Helfried shook his head. “There’s a reason for that, girl. You’d do best to be silent until I am done here. Then we will both go inside.” He stopped and, without turning around, called out, “Manas, come here.”
Manas grinned. Lord Helfried always seemed to know where he was and what he was doing, no matter how hard Manas tried to hide. He’d long since given it up as useless and openly did whatever it was he was planning. Mischief was punished, and Manas willingly took those consequences when things were his fault.
Manas smoothed his messy hair and walked over. “You called for me, lord father?” he asked.
“Lord father?” Inge asked, scoffing. “What, is this one of your bastards, Father?”
“No,” Lord Helfried said. “This is Lord Manas of Phiri Hu. He’s been fostered here due to some circumstances in his own lands. When he comes of age he’ll be sworn into his position. I’ve been training him since he was ten.”
“Oh,” Inge said, her sapphire eyes sizing Manas up. “He’s not much to look at, is he?”
“I may not be much to look at, but at least I know my duty to the man who’s raising me,” Manas said coldly.
“Please,” Inge said, holding up one bejeweled hand. “My father is many things, but a good parent is not one of them. He sent me and my sister away five years ago without even a word of explanation. I’ve been fostered with Grand Duke Gehrich this entire time.”
Manas bit his tongue. Five years ago the raid on Phiri Hu had saved his life, but could have cost Lord Helfried everything. “There was a very good reason I sent you and Lena away, Inge. I also chose not to explain anything to you because you were children, young ones at that. There was no need to terrify you.”
“What could have been so awful that you had to send us away without even a word of explanation?” Inge asked.
“The hunt for the former Lord and Lady of Phiri Hu,” Lord Helfried said.
Inge’s eyes widened. She looked from Manas to her father and then back to Manas. “Is this – is this their son?” she asked, her arrogance gone. She seemed genuinely frightened.
“He is,” Lord Helfried said. “And he is also the reason we were able to finally stop them. If you can make peace with him, and perhaps even become friends, ask him to tell you the tale. He is open enough about it to suit even the most inquisitive of minds.”
Inge looked Manas and the boy knew she was sizing him up. “Is he really all that safe to have here, Father?” Inge asked finally. “It’s said that a curse has fallen on Phiri Hu and that it’s the fault of the traitor who turned against the rightful lord and lady.”
“I’ve heard the same tales, Inge,” Lord Helfried said. “They aren’t true any more than the stories of the Dream Faerie your mother used to spin for you were true.” He walked over and took hold of her waist. He lifted her as if she weighed nothing and took her off her horse and set her on the ground next to him. “Now, apologize to Lord Manas and at least attempt to show that you learned proper manners from the Grand Duchess. I’m certain she won’t appreciate me writing to her and condemning her for not educating you appropriately.”
Inge dropped into a shallow curtsy. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Manas,” she said through gritted teeth. “I am Inge, eldest daughter of Lord Helfried.”
Manas gave her a slight bow in return, not offering her any more respect than she was giving him. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Inge,” he said stiffly. “Lord father, I should get cleaned up. The swordmaster and I just finished today’s lesson.”
“Very well. I expect to see you at dinner, Manas,” Lord Helfried said. “If I have to send a servant to pry you out of the library I’ll be very displeased.”
“I’ll make sure I’m on time, lord father,” Manas said with a sigh. He didn’t want to eat a meal with this sour, annoying girl. He just wanted to read late into the night and have a light meal in the library, as was his habit. Lord Helfried waved his hand and Manas left, heading for his rooms.08