by Samuel Wolfe
An assassin is hired to kill an important man...and falls in love with his wife.
Oki was bent over her alchemy kit every free second for the next two weeks. The poison had to be ready by the solstice. Oki didn’t pause from her work when a knock came on the door.
“Come in.” She called absently.
Sofia came inside rather timidly. “Oki? Why were you not at supper?”
“Supper?” Oki glanced up in confusion. “When did it get dark?”
Sofia frowned, knitting her eyebrows. “You will go blind or make a mistake working in the dark.”
She called a servant walking by. “She needs her hearth and candles lit. Bring in a lantern.”
“Yes Mistress.” A boy answered. He entered to light the candles and hearth before rushing off to get a lantern.
Sofia came in to sit on the sofa, poised like the first time they’d met. It caught Oki’s attention. “Is something the matter, Sofia?”
“Is that the poison?”
“Indeed.” Oki replied uneasily. “It is a very dangerous process. I cannot stop until the first step is complete, or I will ruin it all. These were very difficult to obtain.”
“I am sure they were expensive.”
“Too expensive for me to buy more.”
“Can I watch you work?”
“So long as you do not touch anything. I do not want you hurt, or to ruin it.”
Sofia remained where she was. Oki felt her watching her but focused on her work. Sofia moved to the bed sometime in the night. Once the first step was complete, Oki joined her. Sofia rolled over to wrap around her. Oki tensed for a moment before realizing she liked it.
What is wrong with me?
Fearful of herself, Oki untangled Sofia. It woke the Lady. “Oki? Finally come to bed?”
“Yes. Turn around, so I can hold you.”
She sat up a little. “Can I hold you?” She asked sleepily.
Her heart caught in her throat. “It…makes me feel strange.”
Sofia chuckled. “Good, you mean. Common, baby, you hold me all the time. Let me hold you.”
“It scares me, Sofia. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Sofia gently stroked her cheek. “You are so cute when you slip into Zenith.”
Oki blinked at her. “You speak it?”
“Yes. I do.” Sofia replied. “There is nothing wrong with you, Oki. It is okay to enjoy your lover’s embrace.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” Oki protested meekly.
“If you are not ready, then we will do it the way we always do. Just know that nothing is wrong with you.” She kissed her softly on the lips; the kiss was sweet and chaste – another confusing feeling swelled through Oki.
“I would prefer it.”
Sofia didn’t press again. She turned around, and the two fell asleep with Oki holding her.
For the next several days, Oki only stepped away between steps in crafting her poison. She took her meals at odd times, though she timed her breaks to correspond with Sofia’s free time. At first she tried to convince herself it was to keep up appearances.
Then she found herself sitting in the garden talking to Sofia. “Anabel sat right down on the tacks! She went flying up hollering at me! I could hear her half across the courtyard!”
Sofia laughed so hard she had to wipe tears from her eyes. “You two were so competitive!” She finally said as she gained control of herself.
Oki paused, realizing belatedly that she was sharing her past with a client.
When did it become strange to think of her as a client?
Maybe when she had started regularly sleeping in her bed. Sofia broke her train of thought “Do not close up now, Oki.” There was honest concern in her eyes. Her lips were crinkled at the corners and her brow was slightly creased.
“…I am sorry, hon.” Oki tensed entirely when the word slipped from her lips with ease. It had felt…natural.
She got up to leave. Soft fingers clasped her wrist. Sofia began to sing in a wavering voice. It was a surprisingly beautiful voice, despite it being so unsteady.
“From the peaks of the mountains
To the depths of the sea,
I shall pursue you.
I cannot offer
Gemstones and castles,
But my hearth is as warm
As my heart is true.
From the peaks of the mountains
To the depths of the sea,
I shall love you.
I cannot offer
Men and horses
But my arm will be raised
In battle to defend you.
From the peaks of the mountains
To the depths of the sea,
I shall be yours.
I cannot offer
Fancy dresses and gourmet food,
But every day we live
Shall be for you.”
Oki turned around with wide eyes, staring at Sofia. Her lips were parted ever-so-slightly. “You have a voice to rival a songbird, Sofia.” She finally whispered.
“It is not quite as beautiful as yours.” It was then that Oki saw the tears she was fighting back. “Please, do not fight these feelings, Oki. They are…frightening. I know. They alarmed me too. But they are good feelings.”
“That is what frightens me, Sofia. I have never let myself feel this way before. I have not even allowed myself the chance. I am always on the move.”
“Perhaps you have found what you were looking for.” Oki let Sofia pull her into an embrace. “You have healed me when I was broken, comforted me when I cried and taught me sex is not evil. You have even taken care of my child. Do not be afraid to let me do the same for you. And do not be afraid to let me as I have let you in.”
Oki was too stunned to pull away or speak. She wrapped her arms awkwardly around Sofia and laid her head softly onto hers. Sofia held her as Oki tried to work out her tangled mess of emotions.
Sofia finally pulled away. “This is all going so fast.”
“Let us focus on the goal that brought this to us.” Oki found the only ground she found even.
“Sounds good to me. We cannot move forward without completing our goal.”
“I must return to do the final step. I am afraid I will not be able to sing to you tonight.”
“That is okay.” Sofia smiled at her. “Tonight, I will sing to you while you work. We can eat supper together.”
“You eat. I cannot handle food while I work.”
“Then eat now. I will meet you in your room.” Sofia then gave her a peck on the lips before heading inside. Oki followed her, splitting off with her as she headed for the kitchen. She found herself humming on the way up and had to direct herself back to her work
When Sofia came in, she had her wash her hands to eat (pesky girl). Then true to her word, she began to sing. She was right; she wasn’t as skilled as Oki.
But the bard couldn’t think she’d ever heard a more beautiful sound.
The sound of vomiting woke Oki. She sat up in bed to see Sofia leaned over a bucket. She looked pale and miserable. Oki had slept worked until dawn; it wasn’t even noon.
Sitting all the way up, she wrapped around Sofia to hold her hair for her and rub her back. When it stopped, Sofia lay back down with a groan. Oki got up to wave down a servant.
“Have the cook boil some hot water. Tell her to put mint and chamomile in it. When it is boiled, have her drain the leaves and bring it in a vat here with a clay mug.”
“Yes milady.” She curtsied before rushing off.
Oki returned to Sofia, holding her. A half hour later the tea came. As it cooled, Sofia had another bout of sickness. It was cool enough to drink by the time her stomach had settled a little. Sofia sipped the hot tea.
“What is this?”
“Mint and chamomile. You are not running a fever. Did you eat something after supper last night?”
“I grabbed a snack from the kitchen. I suppose it may have been bad.”
“Today, eat very bland food. Soup is a good idea; you are losing water when you wretch. The tea should settle your stomach.”
“What if I throw it up?”
“That is a good thing, actually. It gives your stomach something besides bile to bring up. It will hurt less and is better for you. That is why I had her bring up the entire vat.”
Sofia sipped the tea. It was late in the day when her stomach settled. She had drunk the entire vat of tea, but at last she kept it down long enough to help her. Oki went down to the kitchen to tell the cook what to serve the Mistress.
“And who are you to tell me what to cook the Mistress?”
She looked confused before blushing. “I’m sorry, milady. I didn’t realize.”
“It is fine. She snuck into the kitchen late last night and ate something that did not agree with her stomach.”
“Dear me. I will go through the stores and make sure nothing else has gone sour. Does she often go through the stores at night?”
“This is the first time since I have been here, but she was has not been eating much during supper.” Oki shook her head. “Do bring her meals up to my room. I have been caring for her.”
“Yes milady.” She curtsied and hurried to get out the right ingredients for a bland soup. “I’ll make more tea as well. Wouldn’t want her without it with a sour stomach. Off with you; I’ll have someone bring it up.”
Oki hurried back to Sofia, who proclaimed she was ready for breakfast. Oki sent a servant down to the kitchen for fresh bread and fruit; a light fare, but good for a sick stomach. Sofia ate it carefully and slowly.
“I am sorry you have to do this.”
“It is no trouble at all. The poison is done. Though if this goes on any longer, I would suggest a doctor.”
“It would happen that I eat something sour the day before the solstice.”
“Perhaps you should eat a healthy supper, so you do not get hungry tonight.”
“I will try. I have not been very hungry of late.”
“I hope you are not coming down with something.” Oki’s concern made both of them pause.
Sofia took her hand. “I deeply care about you, Oki.” She said softly.
Oki’s throat closed up. “I…I care about you as well, Sofia.”
Sofia got to her feet. “May I borrow a rag?”
Have I been here a month already?
It hadn’t seemed like it. As Sofia grabbed a rag, she undressed. Then she became terribly pale.
“What is wrong?”
“I am not bleeding.”
“Perhaps you have the day wrong.” Oki suggested calmly.
“You do not understand, Oki. I am more than a week late. I have been unable to eat and today I am ill.”
“I think I am pregnant.”
“You have only missed once.”
“I never miss my time of month. When have you ever seen me get so sick, Oki?”
“Never, but we have not known one another very long.”
“Oki, I am pregnant.” Instead of happy, Sofia was pale as snow.
Oki sang to her a sweet song of new beginnings. It at least brought back her smile, even if she still didn’t seem happy.
I can’t blame her. This child will be a constant reminder of Alexander’s cruelty.
“Sofia…I know how to get rid of the baby.”
She shook her head. “No. I do not blame the baby. Ethan was the only good thing that came from Alexander. I suppose now there will be two.”
All around the estate people dashed to and fro. Servants carried all matter of decoration, dishes, cutlery and food. They hurried to clean every speck, straighten out every room, light every hearth and prepare bathes in advance.
Alexander was in his office discussing defense with the captain of the guard and the leader of the mercenaries. Sofia, on the other hand, was at the head of the whirlwind of activity. She was calling out orders, dictating the servants like a true Lady of a Ziir.
“You there! Those dishes aren’t suited for this! Take them back and get the golden ones!” Sofia called to one servant before stopping another to have a word with them. They hurried away.
Gods, she is even hotter when she’s running a house than in bed.
She met Oki’s eyes and waved her over.
“Yes, Lady Sofia?”
“I will need you to sing in front of everyone at supper tonight.”
“Anything in particular?”
“Something classy, of course.” Sofia hesitated before going on. “Is there any way I can get you in a dress?”
“No. But you can refer to me as male during this, if you would like.”
“That is not how this works. Sing in Zen-ii, then, so they know where you are from right from the start. Do me a favor and use that pretty accent I know you worked so hard to erase. It will make it easier on my guests.”
“Very well, Lady Sofia.” Oki gave a respectful bow.
Sofia smiled. “You do not have to go quite so far. Everybody coming is well aware of my…lovers.”
“Good. I do not think I can do it with a serious face.” Oki gave her a swift kiss before giving Sofia room to run the show. She slipped away to her room, where she took a moment to brush up on the summer solstice in Torro.
This time of year, for the next six months Zenith would only see the sun a few hours every day. Unlike here, summer meant the sun only set for a few hours there. Most places honored the seasons in some way, and Zenith was no different.
As all religions, there were enough similarities for Oki to skim read a few reference books. They honored their gods during the season celebrations. Torro would be suspended in a nation-wide ritualistic celebration for three days. They gave offerings of their best livestock, crops, boar or deer. Hunting, slaughtering animals and harvesting spring crops were done in competition. Nobility, they usually held jousts, duels and horsemanship competitions.
A priest will be called to sing the proper hymns to their twenty-five gods. Since I’m singing in Zen-ii, they should have no issue with me singing my own praises to the spirits. Why not honor them from here?
During the events – hunting, jousting, duels – Alexander would be expected to be there, and at least semi-sober. Then wouldn’t be a good time to poison his drink. Supper was a no-go – the poison would be too fast for people to be fooled he’d simply passed out from the light drinking he would do during those events.
To be seen getting stupid during the ceremonies would dishonor him in the face of the gods. It may even get his title revoked and his lands taken from him; Oki doubted he would risk it. Besides, she wouldn’t be able to get close enough to do so.
After the events and before the ceremonies is probably the best time. They will be a day a part, to give them time to prepare the sacrifices and sanctify the priests. Sofia said he gets progressively drunk in the evenings; I’d say after supper.
This is the time he will be most missed. I’m sure he slips away with his current favorite servant. How do I assure that only he drinks it, and not his piece of flesh for the night?
A knock startled Oki out of her thoughts. “Who is it?”
She managed to slip away, did she?
Oki answered the door with a grim face. She knew why Sofia had come; to ask how the contract was progressing. She shut the door behind Sofia. The look on her face confirmed Oki’s assumption.
“You’re stumped again?”
“I do not want to poison his lover. I just cannot think of how to assure he is the only one drinking it.”
Sofia nodded, pacing the floor. “There is a vintage he saves from every harvest for an entire year. Nobody but him is allowed to drink from it, and he saves it for the night after the jousts.”
“That is perfect. It is the best time to poison him. Even his lover would mistake him for passing out drunk. But how do we know this lover of his will not steal a sip?”
“Alexander never beds a man who likes to drink.” Sofia assured, putting her hand on Oki’s elbow. “He likes them to feel it, to be fully aware. I personally think he also does not like sharing his drink with the servants.”
“Has he ever brought a noble to bed with him?”
Sofia pursed her lips. “Alexander thinks that his desires are beneath him. He does not like how he feels; he says it is evil to crave man-flesh the way he does.”
“…he takes servants to punish them for feeling the same way he does?”
“That is horrible.”
Sofia growled out “He is a horrible man, if you have not noticed.”
“I have, Sofia.” Oki calmed her instantly, taking her hands gently. “He is a monster. I knew the moment you turned away from me that I could not let him hurt you anymore. Seeing it myself – it took every ounce of my will not to kill him then and there. Ethan may have been the only thing that truly held me back.”
Sofia plopped on the chair, her eyes suddenly glazing over. “…am I wrong for doing this, Oki?”
Oki was to her side in a second. She got down on her knees, took both of Sofia’s hands and met her eyes. “You are not killing your husband, Sofia. I am. The blood is on my hands. Even if you were to have happened upon me instead of seeking me out, I would have killed this man. For you, for your son, and for all women who have been hurt like this.”
“But I did arrange this. I am a part of this.”
“You want to be free of the man who hurts you and his child. That is not wrong. You could not do this yourself. Do you know why?”
Tears gathering in her eyes, she shook her head. “Because I am not as strong as you?”
“Because you are a good wife and a good mother, Sofia. Because you are a devout in your religion. Because you are a good woman who is tired of being hurt. You did this because your heart is strong and pure. Let me be your blade in the dark. Let me be the one who frees you. Do not hold the pain in your heart that he has caused you; I will carry it for you.”
Sofia began to sob once again. Though this caused Oki’s blood to boil with anger, she held her.
That man has hurt her so much, she isn’t even sure she is right to do this. Sofia is a strong, confident leader who deserves love. Not this monster.
When she had finally calmed down, Oki drew her to her feet. She gave her a passionate kiss. When she separated, Oki met her eyes. “Darling, the guests will arrive soon. In the morning they will compete. Try to endure one last day with him.”
She nodded slowly. Making herself presentable again, Sofia regained her composure. When she left the room, it was as a woman in charge. Oki smiled after her.
Such a strong woman.
Shaking herself out of it, Oki prepared for supper.
Their guests came from all around the world. Torro had many allies; Zenith was too far away to be one of them, but there were at least ten different nations represented. Being a large empire in a central place, these allies posed a threat as well. Any one of them could become an enemy if they felt affronted.
The priest was perhaps the most important member. He was in flourished robes. Sewn into the robes was an image of a sun, a quarter moon and Torro’s personal symbols for the elements. He had a large entourage, including his own taste tester, servants and his congregation.
He was greeted with big flourish by Ziir Alexander and Lady Sofia, both welcoming him to the estate with a beautiful speech. When the priest took notice of Oki, Sofia smoothly replied that she was a noble from Zenith and a bard.
“From Zenith? A very long way from home.”
“Indeed. I am a traveling bard by trade. I met Lady Sofia while working with her sister. I just so happened to have been ready to move on when she offered me work here.”
“That is very fortunate. Perhaps you could tell me about your own ways to celebrate the seasons.”
“If I can find time, it would be an honor.”
“Yes, of course. As someone such as yourself, I am sure Lady Sofia keeps you very busy.” He gave a booming laugh.
Oki smiled, realizing even the priest was aware Sofia had lovers. The priest moved on from her, being greeted by the domo to be shown to his quarters. He had the best guest room in the entire estate.
From there, other Ziir’s and their wives were introduced. Oki watched them more than she listened. Though the Ziir’s themselves were entirely professional, the wives tended to make polite conversation with not only Sofia, but Oki as well.
This probably had to do with the difference between the male and female roles in their culture. As rulers, Ziir’s were here to size up allies and enemies in a courtly dance. Their wives were here to get the latest news and gossip. Being friendly with the estate’s matron would be more likely to achieve that goal – quite the opposite for their husbands.
Lastly, they greeted nobility. This was another dance entirely; Alexander played a lofty role while the men kissed his ass. Sofia was dignified while their wives reciprocated reverence. Oki wasn’t surprised most of them pretended she didn’t exist.
Most of them would rather she didn’t get involved with women – especially foreign noblewomen who dress like men.
“And who is this fine gentleman?” One of them asked.
Oki replied with a dignified smile. “Oki-ven Sigrid, traveling bard and a close friend of Lady Sofia.”
“Oh my, I am so sorry. I mistook you for a man.”
“No apology needed. I do not use gender to describe myself. Call me whatever you will; neither pronouns offend nor entirely describe me.”
She frowned, her brows creasing. “How can gender not define someone?”
“By not letting it.” Oki replied simply.
“But gender is something you are born with.”
“Only the physical side of it.”
Sofia cut in. “She is from Zenith, Cara. Let her have her customs, or she may question yours.”
Scoffing, she moved on. Sofia gave Oki a small smile that vanished the moment the last of the nobility approached. None of the others seemed brave enough to use pronouns at all if they chose to speak to or about Oki.
The rest of the gathering being beneath the Ziir and his wife, they moved to the courtyard. This is where the first of the events would take place. Trumpets announced their arrival as they sat down. First was dueling; Alexander’s knights against his guest’s.
Oki watched in boredom, not interested in these games. Alexander’s knights won in fear of insulting the Ziir on his estate. It was the same with the jousting. She tried to show interest, but Sofia wasn’t any more fascinated by an unfair competition.
The two ended up talking quietly to one another about their cultural difference. Sofia was enraptured in learning more about Zenith. Oki asked more educated questions, already knowing a great deal about Torro from the books she’d read.
“Can you two not focus on the events?” Alexander cut in.
Sofia scoffed. “Men knocking one another off giant lions and lionesses with long sticks is only fascinating to other men. Especially because this is all about politics, we know who will win.”
“Show some respect.”
“I have seen this every year since I was a little girl.” Sofia protested lividly. “They are all the same. On the other hand, Alex, I have only known Oki for a couple of months. I would like to discus her past with her.”
“You can learn more about your sex pet later, Sofia. You two spend every second of your free-time together.”
“If this were about only sex, I would not hold her when she cried or care for her while she was ill. Nor would I sit here talking to her about a past I have told none of my other lovers about.” Oki retorted instantly. “I do not stay this long in one place for sex – no matter how good the lover is.”
Sofia blushed bright red.
Alexander went red for another reason. “When was Sofia ill?”
“Yesterday.” Sofia snapped. “I was in bed getting sick all day. She had the cooks make me tea that settled my stomach.”
“Why was I not informed?”
“She was taking care of me. There was no need.” Sofia’s voice raised a little. “Why would it have mattered? I delegated all of my duties to others through Oki.”
“Did you not think that I should be informed of my wife being ill?”
People were starting to notice the two arguing. Oki didn’t like the looks on their faces – especially the Ziirs’. Being a divided couple would make them appear weak.
“We apologize for not informing you.” Oki spoke up before they could continue. “We knew you were busy and did not want to disturb you unless it was serious. Lady Sofia simply ate something late at night that did not agree with her stomach.”
Alexander let the argument fizzle out.
He can’t disagree with that publicly.
On the other hand, Sofia sizzled in hers. The conversation between Oki and Sofia came to a stop. Though it irritated Oki that Alexander had gotten what he wanted and ruined Sofia’s good mood.
Killing him can’t come too soon.
It was a pity Oki had to wait until tonight. Just as she was thinking this one of his knights took a joust to the chest and fell from his lion. The Leon roared, stopping his gallop to stand between him and the preserved enemy. To everyone’s shock, the knight’s Leon charged straight for them.
Taken off guard by the sudden move, Alexander’s knight’s Leon took a blow to the head. It leapt for the rider. The man was dead before he hit the ground. The entire crowd erupted in chaos. Alexander stood, shouting at the top of his lungs.
The two Leons rolled in battle, kicking up dust. Archers stood from the stands, taking aim and putting the offending beast down. The Ziir of the offending team stood suddenly. Alexander ordered his guards to take the Ziir into the prisons.
The priest was called to bless the deceased and prepare him to return to his home. Sofia let Oki herd her inside, the shock obvious on her face.
“What happened?” Sofia whispered. Oki noticed her eyes were dilated. She was shaking.
Oki took her hands. She was cold.
“You are in shock, Sofia.” Oki said calmly. “I need you to sit down.”
Sofia did as she was told. Oki went to her alchemy kit. It had been thoroughly cleaned so nothing was left on the instruments. She worked quickly to make her a basic remedy for shock; thyme, chamomile and lavender. It was a tonic made faster on an alchemy station than boiling in a pot.
Sofia drank it without question. Oki waited for the shock to pass before sitting down next to her on the bed. “I do not know why the knight’s Leon attacked. It could have been political, an accident or a rogue knight. I suppose Alexander is figuring that out now.”
“I have…never seen…”
Oki put her hand on her knee. “Sofia, it will be okay. Seeing it the first time is…difficult.”
Tears finally welled in her eyes. Relief washed over Oki as she took her in her arms.
Close your eyes,
For I am here.
You shall forever
Be in my heart,
As you are in my arms.
Close your eyes.
For you are loved
As you are in my arms.
Close your eyes,
For you are safe,
As you are in my arms.”
Shortly after Sofia had fallen asleep, Oki slipped away silently. She grabbed an extra dagger, put the poison in her vest and left the room. First, she made a loop around the estate. Listening to the crowd, she learned that the Leon and knight had been very young and inexperienced.
It had been an accident; the Ziir had been cleared of political fallacy – though most were questioning his judgement in placing such a young team in competition. Supper was called shortly after Oki gleaned the news.
Oki sang on stage with just as much passion as she had in the tavern where she had met Sofia. It was nice – to sing to a group again. Oki had forgotten how much she’d missed singing to a crowd. Her heart soared as she let her body get lost in the ceremonial songs of her homeland.
By the end of supper, she was tired and hungry. His last duties done for the night; Alexander stumbled away. He wasn’t drunk, but he was close. Shortly afterwards a servant followed him. Oki grabbed something to eat herself in the kitchens, listening to gossip and making polite conversation with people.
Done with her meal, she casually got up. “Alexander wanted his special wine.”
“Yes, I figured he would. Sarah, go take it to him.”
“It’s on my way back to my room.” Oki offered casually. “You guys seem really busy. I could take it up.”
“I don’t know…Ziir Alexander said we shouldn’t let anybody not from the kitchen take anything to their rooms…”
“Common, the guy is half drunk already.” Oki persuaded. “You guys are so behind, just let me take it up. It’s on my way anyway and will save this cutie a trip.”
Sarah blushed, suddenly finding the floor very interesting.
“Well…you put it that way…” She went to the cupboard and took out a bottle of wine. “Brought it up from the cellar knowing it would be used tonight. He stated it so many times I grew tired of hearing him prattle.”
She handed it over. “Just don’t let anybody see you. We could get in trouble if he so much gets a hangover tomorrow. Accuse us of poisoning him.”
He won’t have the chance.
“I promise, I shall get it to him quietly.” Oki headed there casually. Nobody even took notice of her. They were too busy talking amongst themselves about the festivities.
As soon as nobody was around, she moved into the shadows, opened the wine and poured the poison in. It was a very small amount of poison. Alcohol would mask the taste, even if he were sober enough to notice. Corking it again, Oki carried on.
The sounds coming from inside assured Oki of two things; one, that he was very much awake – and two, that he was distracted. There were no guards on post tonight. Oki had a feeling that he didn’t want to advertise his “depravity” to his men.
All the easier for me.
The door didn’t even creak on her way inside. Trying her best to ignore Alexander rutting someone half his age, Oki placed the wine on the table. She hesitated, glancing back. She wasn’t entirely sure he would drink it if he were already like this.
If he doesn’t, I can do this the old-fashioned way. It would be far too obvious, but this monster needs to die.
Oki left the room as quietly as she came in. Now, all she could do was wait. Returning to her room, Oki curled up around Sofia and fell fast asleep. In the morning, she would either be planning another attempt or watching Sofia plan a funeral.
Ethan sailing the door wailing woke Oki and Sofia from a sound sleep. He was bawling out something neither of them could understand. The first rays of light were hardly coming through the window.
“Ethan, what is wrong?” Sofia rushed to her boy, holding him as he wailed.
“Daddy is dead!”
Oki sat up in bed with a yawn. “Are you sure he simply is not drunk?”
“Yes! I found him on the floor this morning! I went to get the priest, and he said he is dead!”
Sofia flew from the room to her husband’s. Oki gently took Ethan’s hand and led him after her. The boy began crying even harder as the priest prayed over him.
“What happened?!” Sofia was demanding.
“We think the drinking finally caught up to him.” The estate’s doctor told her quietly.
Sofia’s tears seemed real enough, though Oki wasn’t entirely sure if they were. She fell to the ground next to him, whispering something Oki couldn’t hear. This was a matter Oki couldn’t get involved in.
I’m an outsider.
Her son joined her, crying so hard he was shaking.
“He was seen drinking very heavily, and the cooks reported one of the servants bringing up a bottle of very strong wine. The young man he was involved with said he was nearly drunk before pouring himself more. He tried to convince him to stop. Shortly after his third glass, he passed out. Not knowing what to do, the boy left him there. He didn’t think he was dead; only very drunk.”
“I kept telling him it would kill him one day!” Sofia wailed.
She’s actually upset. She’s really crying.
Did I…make a mistake?
Oki went to step forward when the doctor gently took her arm. “I know it’s hard, milady, but this is too important. Wait for the priest to be done first. Sofia and Ethan need time to grieve over their loss.”
“But she’s distraught.” Oki protested.
“You can help her later.” He replied very gently. “I know how close you two have gotten – especially with how he treated her – but you can’t intervene right now.”
Oki forced herself to respect their customs, watching the two grieve just out of arm’s reach.
I hope I did the right thing. I hope she doesn’t hate me.
The thought was like someone putting a dagger through her heart. Oki backed up, suddenly feeling cornered. What if Sofia was upset with her and told them everything?
Sofia wouldn’t do that.
The thought was enough to keep her there while the priest blessed the body and the family he left behind. Finally Sofia stood.
“Oki, take Ethan to the nanny and have her keep a very close eye on him. I must set up his funeral.” Her voice cracked, and tears still streamed down her face. “Then…please…find me. I – I need to hear you sing.”
Oki nodded once. Gently taking Ethan’s hand, she led him to the nanny. Giving strict orders to not let him out of her sight and to keep him occupied, she went to the gardens. The sun had risen to its peak before Sofia joined her. Oki immediately embraced her, giving her a kiss she was so glad Sofia returned.
“I am sorry, Sofia. I did not mean to make you cry.”
“I do not even know why I am.” Sofia whispered, her eyes a well of churning emotions Oki couldn’t even begin to untangle. “In a way, I suppose I am grieving for the loss of what should have been. I did begin to love him as I would a brother, for a short time. He was a good man before he got too deep in his cups. It – it changed him.”
Oki stroked her hair, giving her another kiss. “Please do not hate me, Sofia.”
“I do not hate you, Oki.” Sofia gave a nervous laugh. “I love you, and I am terrified one day I will wake up and find you gone from my side.”
Oki about feinted hearing Sofia say those three words. She’d never heard anybody but family say those words to her. Sofia watched her warily. Then, Oki said something she thought she would never say to those unrelated to her. “Sofia…I love you too. And though I may travel on occasion, I swear to you I will always come home. Though I cannot offer you money and titles, I can offer you my heart. I would climb mountains and sail seas to get back to you.”
Sofia kissed her like she never had before.
And Oki knew she would always come back. Because for the first time in her life, she had found home.