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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2241202-The-Lady-and-the-Thug-part-6
by RickyZ
Rated: 18+ · Fiction · Fantasy · #2241202
Ester returns home to finish business
         Lord Vanderhauss paced before his own desk, unable to sit, for the life of him. The letter his daughter, Esther, had sent by post, had arrived a couple days prior, and now lay open on his desk. He had read it several times now, in the vain hope of finding some clue as to when she would return. A father wishes to comfort his daughter following such disgraceful treatment. Yet, more importantly, a business-man requires his head acquisitioner.

         Mr. Odendorf would be arriving any moment now, to collect his copy of the terms of agreement. He couldn’t provide something that was enroute along the highway. This news would be most upsetting to the trades-man, as someone of Mr. Odendorf’s position had very little time to afford. This would not be the seamless transaction it was planned to be.

         “Of all times,” he huffed as he paced, “it has to be now. Of all times. This is most disconcerting.”

         “Would it be more preferable to have delayed an alternative appointment?” Hoffner suggested from his own desk, all while surveying his bank ledger, comparing his notes to a set of receipts.

         Lord Vanderhauss halted in place, eyeing his banker, suspiciously. Hoffner simply kept working, betraying nothing.

         “Sarcasm is hardly assisting at this time.” He turned to face his banker. “This is Odendorf, of Odendorf Refineries. This is not a man with time to leisure.”

         “One could argue,” Hoffner flicked through the receipts, “that neither are you, nor your clients. Mr. Odendorf included.”
Lord Vanderhauss screwed up his face, grasping his own hair before throwing both hands into the air.

         “Eric, please,” he finally got the banker to look at him. “I do not wish to waste this man’s time! It is most unbecoming of me! People come to Vanderhauss shipping, because Vanderhauss is most expedient. We honor our clients by valuing their time, not with delays!”

         “Well,” Hoffner thought critically, “I do believe, given the unusual, and rather ingracious, nature of these recent proceedings, that you, my lord, are entitled to some empathy.”

         Lord Vanderhauss eyed Hoffner with some irritation. How many times must he tell his banker, not to refer to him as my lord? Though Hoffner did it rarely, thank goodness.

         “Do keep in mind,” Hoffner continued, returning to his work, “Mr. Odendorf is a particularly old fashioned gentleman. He would be deeply grieved to hear of your daughter’s humiliation. Even with as busy as his schedule keeps him, I’m sure you will find him most accommodating.”

         Hoffner raised his head from his ledger, looking Lord Vanderhauss reassuringly in the eyes.

         “He is not an insensitive man,” he added, “just a stern one.”

         Lord Vanderhauss stared at his banker contemplatively. With hands on hips, he breathed a heavy sigh, forcing his nerves to calm.

         “Perhaps I am just overreacting.” He waddled his way over to the veranda, taking in the crisp sea air.

         Feeling much more refreshed, he decided to preoccupy his mind with something other than business. Naturally, family came to mind.

         “And as one of my daughters returns home,” he looked over his shoulder at his banker, “I cannot help but wonder. How is my Tess?”

         Hoffner grinned broadly as he finished a calculation, then turned towards the wall of the office door.

         “Taken an intrigue into landscaping,” he replied, with a loving gaze.

         Lord Vanderhauss turned to see what Hoffner was looking at, and felt absolute shock course through his body. It was as if beholding something far too beautiful to be true.

         “Oh, my dear Grace!” he breathed in astonishment. “My little Tess did that?”

         It was a gorgeous painting. Simply stunning. Capturing the Jaggenfeur country-side superbly. It was a scene of summer light, and fall flowers combining into one spectacular image.

         “She hates it.” Hoffner mused.

         Lord Vanderhauss gaped at the man, incapable of comprehending what he just heard.

         “She hates that?” he gestured to the painting. “But it’s simply stunning!”

         “I tried to convince her on that,” Hoffner explained, through his glee, “but she simply refuses. It is not perfect, she says.”

         “And you had it brought here?” Lord Vanderhauss exclaimed in horror.

         “I told her I love it,” Hoffner answered, still smiling fondly at the painting.

         Lord Vanderhauss gazed at his banker with some amazement. Truly his little butterfly had chosen a perfect match for their little Tess. He appraised the man fondly, proud that Hoffner was his son-in-law, as well as his banker.

         “Lord Vanderhauss,” a small voice came from the door.

         He turned to see a servant standing at the door. This one was named Ruben. He could not remember where he had learned that, only that his name was Ruben.

         “Mr. Odendorf is here to see your lordship,” Ruben expressed most urgently.

         Lord Vanderhauss took a deep breath, then regarded his servant.

         “Very well, then,” he sighed. “Let us see him in.”

         He strode towards his servant, and the two made their way from the office to the sitting-room. Upon entering the sitting-room, Mr. Odendorf began standing from one of the sofas.

         “Ah, Lord Vanderhauss,” the trades-man announced. “A pleasant tiding to you and your family on this most beautiful day.”

         Mr. Odendorf extended his hand in welcoming. Lord Vanderhauss waddled over to the trades-man in a hurry to proceed.

         “Mr. Odendorf,” he grasped the trades-man’s wrist warmly. “I am happy to see you arrive to our beautiful city, in full health. Do you require any servicing after your long journey?”

         “Hardly that long of a journey,” Mr. Odendorf shrugged off. “A couple of days travelling through the Middenhond is quite invigorating.”

         Mr. Odendorf did always have a rather peculiar idea of what was invigorating.

         “Perhaps not quite the case for your daughter?” he suggested. “Nottingdale is a significant distance further.”

         Lord Vanderhauss couldn’t help, but feel embarrassed.

         “Oh, indeed,” he chided. “A significant distance, certainly.”

         He couldn’t prevent his guilt from showing through.

         “A distance,” he continued, “made slightly more significant by my daughter’s delay.”

         The pause that followed was particularly long and uncomfortable. Mr. Odendorf sighed heavily in exasperation.

         “My good man,” Odendorf pronounced with obvious annoyance, “I hardly need reminding you how precious my time is.”

         “Which is exactly why,” Lord Vanderhauss assured, “the cause is as disturbing as the news.”

         Mr. Odendorf eyed Lord Vanderhauss with some curiosity.

         “You see,” Lord Vanderhauss continued, “my daughter befell the attention of some most ingracious miscreants within the city’s law enforcement.”

         “Good heavens,” Mr. Odendorf appeared genuinely concerned.

         “She held her honor, naturally,” Lord Vanderhauss reassured. “Though, she did pursue justice, as a result. I am afraid the following legal proceedings within Nottingdale’s justice have led to an involuntary delay in my daughter’s return.”

         Mr. Odendorf looked thoughtful.

         “Though she is enroute as we speak,” Lord Vanderhauss continued humbly, “I am terribly sorry for the postponement of this transaction.”

         There was a long pause, where Mr. Odendorf considered what he had heard.

         “Well,” Mr. Odendorf finally exclaimed, “I can hardly judge a man, or his daughter, for upholding their honor. Such disgraceful behavior warrants immediate and decisive action.”

         He considered Lord Vanderhauss for a moment, then continued with some admiration.

         “It seems your daughter has done me two favors, Lord Vanderhauss. That of acquiring my trade rights, and that of cleaning up the corruption of Nottingdale. Thessilians are…” he searched for a polite way to phrase it, “an incorrigible people. That your daughter would know dishonor at their doing, I bleed for you.”

         “That is most kind of you, Mr. Odendorf,” Lord Vanderhauss smiled gratefully. “Is there anything I can interest you in, during the wait? Perhaps some form of refreshment?”

         “If it is not too much trouble, a simple coffee will do.”

         “We do happen to have some cheese filled pastries, if you would desire.”

         “Splendid,” Mr. Odendorf grinned broadly.

         Lord Vanderhauss offered the trades-man a seat, and turned to address the servant named Ruben.


         Esther stepped down from the carriage feeling particularly flustered.

         “Oh Gretchen, what was I thinking?” She ridiculed herself, as she waited for her handmaiden. “I should have been here two days ago, and now I’m delaying Mr. Odendorf. What kind of example am I setting for my father’s business?”

         “I for one would blame the Nottingdale City Justice,” Gretchen stepped down from the carriage, with handbag laced over her shoulder. “Seems perfectly fitting after the demonstration of their competence.”

         Esther gazed off into space, shaking her head in contemplation. Then started walking briskly for the front entrance of Vanderhauss Manor.

         “No,” Esther continued to consider. “No, it’s not that. It’s…” she rolled her eyes in frustration, unable to phrase it differently. “It’s Richard.”

         “It is a proper noble person’s place to extend their appreciation where they see fit,” Gretchen offered in suggestion.

         The two women climbed the steps leading to the front of the manor.

         “Nonetheless,” Esther admitted as they climbed, “I owe an apology to Mr. Odendorf. His time is very valuable, and I squandered it paying a debt of gratitude.”

         They paced the final yards to the entrance.

         “I am beginning to accrue many debts,” she confessed.

         “My lady will do well with this transaction,” Gretchen reassured.

         They entered through the front doors, as they swung open, accompanied by a doorman’s customary greeting. Entering the sitting-room, Esther was surprised to see no one. She gazed around in disbelief. Then she caught the sound of a distant yell.

         Esther began making her way towards her father’s office. Muffled voices came from beyond. As she drew closer, metal scrapping could be heard along with the occasional grunt. She turned into the office, and saw a coatless Mr. Odendorf out on the veranda. He was repeatedly striking a practice target with his arming sword. With a final flourish, her father clicked the stop feature of a pocket watch.

         “Time,” he declared, holding up the watch.

         “Nine strikes,” Hoffner declared, as he turned to a chalk-board with an ever expanding equation scrawled across its surface.

         Mr. Odendorf gave a hardy laugh of exuberance. Spotting Esther, he greeted her cheerfully.

         “Ah, Miss Vanderhauss.” He motioned to his man-servant, who promptly approached with a scabbard and belt in hand. “How pleasant to see you returned.” He sheathed his sword.

         Hoffner turned from his chalk-board. With a pleasant smile, he nodded in greeting. While her father appraised her with a combination of fondness and gratitude. Mr. Odendorf began to cross the office.

         “Mr. Odendorf,” Esther began, “I must apologize for the inconvenience of my tardiness.”

         “I heard the most disturbing news from Nottingdale,” Mr. Odendorf came before her, his expression turning to concern.

         Esther extended her hand, palm down, in greeting. In response, Mr. Odendorf took hold of the underside of her wrist, and nodded a small bow. Formalities aside, Mr. Odendorf released her wrist, and straightened before continuing.

         “I grieve to hear that your ladyship was exposed to such miscreant behavior. Such a travesty. My heart bleeds for you and your family, my lady.”

         “You are most kind, Mr. Odendorf,” Esther showed her appreciation. “Shall we commence the transaction, then?”

         “Ah, yes,” his tone shifted, becoming more lively. “That would be most excellent. Though I see,” and he appraised her, “you have only just arrived from your distant travels. Perhaps a short recess to freshen ourselves before commencing.”

         He appraised himself as he continued.

         “I seem to be mildly clammy from Mr. Hoffner’s sport.”

         “Most kind of you, Mr. Odendorf,” her appreciation deepened.

         “Splendid,” Mr. Odendorf beamed delightfully, and gave a small bow.

         Curtsying, Esther turned from the office, and made her way for her private quarters, with Gretchen in tow.

         “Allow me to show you to the guest wash-room, Mr. Odendorf,” her father’s voice trailed behind her.

         “Ah, very good, Lord Vanderhauss,” Mr. Odendorf’s cheery voice followed after.


         Esther carefully placed the pages of the Odendorf-Elmdock contract into a file, bearing the same title. Folding it shut, she took the file to a large set of cabinets. These held the names of various imperial regions, stamped into lengths of metal plating. Locating the one entitled Central Thessily, she pulled it open, tucking the file into the front of a filing case entitled Nottingdale. Closing the cabinet, she then retrieved her business pamphlet, taking it to a shelf of brackets atop the cabinets. Sliding it home, she turned to appraise her work. All was finished.

         “That,” her father appeared, carrying two glasses of cognac, “was quite the successful transaction, if I do say so.”

         “It was hardly a difficult negotiation, father,” Esther smiled appreciatively.

         Then her guilt came forward, as she shook her head in disappointment.

         “I should have been more expedient.”

         “Nonsense,” her father stood before her, brandishing both cognacs. “You were subjected to most despicable behavior. Such insolence from the city’s law? The very nature of those dogs enticing you into fraternization.”
He placed particular disgust on the last phrase.

         “Such offenses should never be tolerated,” he continued, offering a cognac. “You did well by standing strong, and represented our house with the highest of honor.”

         She accepted the cognac.

         “Besides,” he went on, “Mr. Odendorf found you to be highly professional, and enjoyed himself immensely. I do believe that Eric’s math helped to settle a dispute in Mr. Odendorf’s favor. Apparently, he and Mr. Feckler cannot determine who is more proficient with the sword.”

         Esther couldn’t hide her disbelief. She stared at her father blankly for a moment.

         “And Hoffner proved Mr. Odendorf more proficient, just with numbers?”

         “Indeed,” her father’s satisfaction spread broadly across his face.

         Esther felt like she should be used to this sort of thing by now, yet it never ceased to amaze her. Hoffner really could figure out anything purely through numbers. She gazed off into nothing, feeling overwhelmed by the very notion.

         “Excellent business,” her father raised his glass.

         “Excellent business,” she sighed her agreement, raising her glass as well.

         The two sipped at their cognacs.

         “Now with business aside,” he beamed at her encouragingly, “how is my little bug?”

         Esther couldn’t stop her affection from flashing, at her father’s use of little bug.

         “I am well.” She reconsidered her answer. “Tired. Could use a proper bath.”

         Her father appeared slightly amused at this. Then she continued somewhat reluctantly.

         “There was a soldier.”

         Her father displayed his confusion.

         “At the theatre that night,” she continued. “He came to my defense when I was being enticed.”

         She gazed around the floor, in search of the proper way to phrase it. Looking back to her father, she continued with some hesitance.

         “He incapacitated them,” each syllable sounded slow to her.

         Her father’s furrow of confusion raised into an expression of immense surprise. He blinked several times.

         “Incapacitated, you say.” He pondered this momentarily.

         Esther grew more uncomfortable as she waited for his response.

         “Well,” he finally exclaimed, “as a father, I’m certainly grateful to him.”

         Esther looked at her father in pure shock.

         “Father! How can you say such a thing?”

         “Well, are you grateful to him?” Her father’s confusion returned.

         She opened her mouth to retort, but then hesitated. As she thought about it, the answer seemed obvious, yet wrong of her. It shouldn’t be proper to appreciate Richard’s methods. Certainly as much as she did. Still, she did.

         “Yes,” she determined, “I am.”

         Her father gave reassurance.

         “And as a father, so am I, my little bug.”

         Her affection flashed again, denied self restraint. He beamed at her.

         “So,” he continued, “what is the soldier’s name?”

         “Richard. Ordell. He is a sergeant at their academy.” She thought it over guiltily, then continued with some hesitation. “Was with their academy.”

         Her father’s confusion returned again, and she searched the floor for more words.

         “He has been reassigned stations due to his resulting infractions.”

         Her father’s surprise re-appeared, though much more subdued. She looked guiltily into his eyes.

         “Infractions he acquired from defending me.”

         Comprehension dawned on her father’s face. He nodded with understanding, appearing deep in thought.

         “Well, that certainly is most unfortunate. Most unfortunate, indeed.”

         He eyed her conspicuously, then continued.

         “Still, while his own country may not appreciate his methods,” and he leaned in close, whispering, “I do.”

         Esther gazed at him in wonder. He shrugged lightly.

         “As a father.”

         Her appreciation showed through, and he beamed at her.

         “So,” he continued, “what is his new assignment, if he is no longer training to be an officer?”

         Her guilt returned anew.

         “Fort Vasbrook,” she finally answered.

         “That is a prisoner recruitment facility, is it not?” His curiosity mounted.

         Esther could only nod in response, for fear she might burst out crying. Her father delved into his own curiosity.

         “If I do recall,” his voice came slowly as he concentrated, “that fort holds one of the single most sung about divisions in the whole of his country’s army.”

         Esther released a humored breath, despite herself. The Lucky Thirty Seventh most certainly was sung about. Though most of the songs were not quite flattering. Her father shrugged in contemplation.

         “Perhaps this gives him an opportunity to gain even more songs for his division.”

         He raised a conspicuous brow.

         “An end to the war, perhaps? Certainly seems within his capabilities.”

         Esther gaped at her father, dumbfounded, and he gave her a playful look in return. She tried to scowl at him, but found herself smirking instead.

         “Well,” her father mused, “when peace does eventually come, I should very much like to meet the man who upholds my daughter’s honor so decisively.”

         Her smirk turned to appreciation.

         “Especially,” he suggested, “one who returns a war hero of the empire.”

         Her father always had a way at making things all right. She was grateful to be home again. He beamed at her.

         “Arthur?” The inquisitive voice of her mother called from beyond the office. “Is that my little sapphire I hear you speaking with?”

         A moment later, her mother appeared in the threshold, accompanied by Tess. Her mother’s eyes lit with delight, and she made a small sound.

         “Oh! My Esther!” She strode towards Esther with her arms extended wide, leaving Tess grinning pleasantly by the door. “Oh! My beautiful little gem! You are home!”

         She took Esther up into a massive embrace, rocking slightly from side to side.

         “Mother, it was not that long of a journey,” Esther reassured while still locked in the embrace. “I have been away for longer arrangements before.”

         Her mother allowed her to straighten, looking her directly in the eyes.

         “Well! A mother is still permitted to miss her little gem no matter how long she is away, child.” Her mother placed a fond hand to Esther’s face, cupping her cheek.

         “And after what happened with the Nottingdale authorities!” Her tone became serious. “Disgraceful! Such dastardly behavior! I could hardly believe it when I read it! The absolute nerve! The scandal!”

         “There is hardly any need to get so dramatic over this matter, my little butterfly,” Esther’s father attempted to calm her mother.

         “Is that so?” Her mother’s eyes grew with annoyance, as she spat accusation. “And how exactly should one behave over such things? Should I be calm? Reserved? Perfectly content with the way my little gem was treated? The way my family was mocked?”

         “Mother,” Esther sighed with exasperation, trying to reassure her huffing mother.

         “I would remind you,” her father explained, “that our Esther handled herself most honorably, and with the highest respectability. She conducted herself like a proper lady, even in the face of such disgrace and scandal. She represented herself and our house both with firm conviction and a genteel manner. We should be proud of our daughter’s triumphs.”

         Her mother’s icy accusation melted away as she turned back to Esther. She beamed.

         “Well, of course, my little gem would conduct herself like a proper lady.” She swelled with pride as she gazed at Esther. Then leaned forward confidentially.

         “Though you should still consider being more firm with your station. You do not need to earn their respect. It should simply be received.”

         “Yes, Mother,” Esther sighed in resignation.

         Tess moved to greet Esther, her grin broadening.

         “Seriously, dear,” her mother insisted, halting a slightly off-put Tess in place. “You really need to exploit your station to a certain measure, not allow yourself to be exploited.”

         Esther gaped in indignation.

         “Hilde,” her father coaxed, before she could retort, “let us, please, set this matter aside. Whatever ungraciousness she suffered at Nottingdale, she has dealt with. Most effectively.”

         Her mother’s pride spread across her face, as she gazed at Esther.

         “From what I understand,” her father continued, “the remainder of her stay saw those of most admirable quality.”

         Esther restrained with all her might against the urge to reel on her father at that moment. Praying that she still looked completely natural, and didn’t bugle her eyes in shock, she held her breath, as her mother turned to address him.

         So much for setting the matter aside.

         “Well, I should hope so!” Her mother voiced her own aggravation. “From what I understand, Lord Elmdock is a perfectly genteel man. Even if he is of lesser nobility, he is a very prudent man from a highly sensible house!”

         Esther stood in place, wondering how best to proceed. Her mother turned back to her, and worry ran across her face. Tess approached slowly, showing her concern.

         “Esther!” her mother gasped, “he did not!”

         “No!” Esther suddenly came to, in alarm. “No, Mother.” She reassured, still holding her mother. “Lord Elmdock was a perfect gentleman, as were the other city occupants.”

         Both her mother and Tess looked pleased by this.

         “As were the theatre occupants,” she hesitated to get to the point. “And as were the members of the army academy.”

         “Army academy?” Her mother showed her puzzlement, matching that of Tess. “You did not mention any army academy in your letter.”

         “No,” Esther confessed. “At the time it all seemed so overwhelming. I thought it best to include the business ends of my visit.”

         She searched for the right way to phrase it.

         “The matter with the army academy seemed too personal to simply write. I thought it best to wait until I could explain it in person.”

         Her own words sounded hypocritical to her. As if she could simply put off an important matter. A matter that had resulted in her spending an entire second day in Nottingdale longer than she was planned. She felt slimy at that moment.

         “Well, explain it now, my dear!” her mother coaxed.

         Esther searched for the proper phrasing once again before continuing.

         “That night at the theatre, while I was prepared to defend myself to the fullest extent of my station, there was a soldier.”

         “A Sergeant Richard Ordell, I am told,” her father offered.

         “And he defended your honor?” Her mother glanced between Esther and her father for confirmation.

         “He did, Mother,” Esther finally managed with affirmation.

         Her mother gave a small sound of relief. Then she cupped both of Esther’s cheeks in her hands, positively beaming.

         “Oh, my Esther,” she mused. “Of all the girls in the whole of the empire to live such a story-book life, you are the most warranting. I should hope that you will always find those of good nature to be readily prepared to uphold your honor. No matter where your travels take you.”

         “I am told,” her father added, “he incapacitated them.”

         Esther reeled on her father this time.

         “Incapacitated?” Her mother appeared completely flabbergasted. “One man incapacitated four others?”

         “He challenged them,” Esther tried to explain, “but when they did not relent, he proceeded to defend me.”

         “By incapacitating them?” Her mother appeared completely disgusted. “This is the conduct of an officer in training from the Nottingdale army academy?”

         “Former officer in training, I am told,” her father extended. “His command has seen it fit to reassign him to Fort Vasbrook.”
Her mother gave a small sound of alarm.

         “Well!” she continued, “I see there is no end of miscreants within Nottingdale!”

         She turned on Esther’s father, glaring fury at him.

         “Is this what you intend our gem to endure?” She burned brimstone. “Being enticed by absolute dogs in the guise of Nottingdale law enforcement? All so some thug in a soldier’s uniform can seek his own blood lust?”

         “Mother!” Esther exclaimed, unable to hide her shock.

         “You mean to tell me that my Esther was defended from amorous delinquents by some intemperate reprobate? What sort of outrage is this? Is my gem to receive this sort of treatment every time she must visit that backwards city? Is one act of callousness supposed to overcome another show of flippancy?”

         Tess, who had been looking off into nothing, gradually brought her gaze up to lock with Esther’s eyes. Upon which, she showed her pity, as though expressing how sorry she was for their mother’s bursts.

         “Are any of Thessily’s defenders honorable at all?” Her mother continued to rant. “What kind of backwards country would you have our daughter conduct business in?”

         “Mother, that is enough.” Esther cut in decisively.

         Her mother appraised her with notable confusion. Esther checked herself before continuing.

         “I know his conduct towards the four scoundrels in question may have been less than ideal, but he regarded me in a perfectly gentlemanly fashion. He defended me to the fullest of his capability, and treated me as one should treat a lady. Even when it resulted in infractions against his own country’s law and doctrine, he accepted his own fate. Demanded it, even.”

         Her family stared at her in some puzzlement. She pressed on, despite it.

         “If ever there was a man who was willing to better himself, capable of doing so, I believe it to be him. I have never seen a man uphold civil integrity so vehemently, even to his own degradation. That has to be important, somehow.”

         “You truly believe in this man?” Her mother appraised her considerately. “You truly believe in his capabilities?”

         Esther nodded, hope rising.

         “For what it is worth,” her father offered, “I certainly believe in his capabilities.”

         Her mother stared heat into him. Esther’s hope was fleeting fast.

         “If it is of any consideration,” Gretchen’s voice came from the threshold, “the sergeant in question is accommodated by his own military as being a soldier of elite status.”

         They all turned to her wearing a mixture of expressions, mostly consisting of surprise and alarm. Esther felt her own chin drop towards the floor as she gazed wide-eyed at her hand-maiden.

         “His coat tails were particularly pronounced,” Gretchen explained further. “Longest I have seen within the Thessilian army. Aside from perhaps a few others, to include their king’s guardsmen.”

         Esther continued to stare at her hand-maiden with pure disbelief.

         “Did you not notice, my lady?” Gretchen seemed equally surprised.

         “I did not realize they were that long,” she lied, feeling how pitiful her excuse sounded.

         How could I have missed such a thing? A Thessilian elite stands out more than an imperial guard. How could I have missed his tails?

         Her mother looked between Esther and her hand-maiden a couple of times before making a small sound of amusement.

         “Oh! my Esther!” She cupped Esther’s cheek once again. “You truly are the best in your father.”

         She beamed before continuing.

         “I only hope that it is for the best that you insist on such tolerance. I fear your father may yet misconstrue your better judgement in the end.”

         She darted an accusatory glare at Esther’s father before resigning.

         “Well.” She continued. “If you are satisfied with the matter after dealing with it so thoroughly, then I will leave the matter be.”

         She beamed at Esther approvingly.

         “Perhaps,” her father suggested, “we should all see our way towards the dining table. Supper should be ready in another hour, I would presume.”

         Esther’s mother made a small sound of agreement.

         “Indeed,” she observed, glancing over Esther. “After the day’s outing in the country, I find myself quite in need of a thorough wash. See to it that you receive one as well, my dear.”

         “Of course, Mother.” Esther exclaimed in exasperation.

         Her mother appraised her fondly, before pulling her into a parting embrace.

         “I am so very pleased to see you home, my little gem! You have grown into quite the lady so quickly!”

         She parted herself, still appraising Esther with fondness.

         “Now do hurry along and wash up, my dear.” she added. “I do wish to see my little gem sparkle at the dining table!”

         With that, her mother made her way from the office. Her father hastened to catch up with her, grasping both Esther’s and Tess’ shoulders warmly as he passed by. Both parents disappeared beyond the office threshold where Gretchen stood.

         “Your bath is ready, my lady.” Gretchen mentioned politely.

         “Thank you, Gretchen,” Esther replied before regarding her older sister.

         As Gretchen strode around the corner, both Esther and Tess rolled their eyes in collective exasperation. Unable to hold back any longer, they broke into wide grins, and closed the distance to embrace each other fondly.
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