“Excellent, Master Reginald!”
Reginald, a boy of seven, beamed at his mentor–a Brutor that he called “Gotfrik.” The boy wore a cream colored coat and matching trousers trimmed with dark blue–the traditional colors of the Imperial Navy–while his opponent wore a similar outfit of maroon. Gotfrik towered over the boy at over six feet in height, his dark complexion and muscular build masked by his coat. They both wore a white cravat–a sign that they were indeed equals, if only within a fencing strip. That’s what Gotfrik had told Reginald, anyway.
The boy brushed away a lock of black hair from his face before lunging into Gotfrik with reckless abandon. He pushed the giant back towards the mirrored wall on the far end, Gotfrik making the usual faces of surprise and amazement. But Reginald knew it was all a farce, for as soon as the Brutor reached the third line before the wall, he counter-attacked.
“Three. Four. Four. Five. Five. Three,” Reginald muttered to himself as his eyes struggled to track Gotfrik’s blade, each number corresponding to a form of parry–a triangle of basic defense.
Three protected his left side, Four protected his right, and Five–the blade held parallel to the ground, his arm raised–safeguarded his head. He sprung back an additional step to disengage from his opponent. Gotfrik’s strikes reverberated well through Reginald’s arm. Seeking a brief respite, Reginald darted backwards a few extra steps, then, his feet together in an “L,” back straight, head held proudly, and arm extended to his opponent– established “point in line.”
Gotfrik stopped his assault momentarily. Reginald took every second for much-needed breaths, remaining wary of the Brutor’s crafty blade. The boy kept his fingers nimble on the grip–he had to be sure after all–he wasn’t allowed to lose to Gotfrik. The Brutor suddenly sprung forward, his blade striking into a standard “beat attack,” aimed at knocking Reginald’s sword away to leave him exposed to a sudden lunge. With a millimeter of clearance, Reginald rotated his sword out of the path with a twirl, then fell directly into the Brutor in an all-or-nothing lunge. He closed his eyes, praying that Gotfrik wouldn’t strike him with a roundhouse blow. He felt his saber bend upwards as he landed a hit on the Brutor seconds before Gotfrik tapped Reginald’s cheek with his own saber. It was over.
It was essentially anticlimactic by the time Reginald managed to gasp, “Touché!”
The practice room erupted into small applause for Reginald. Only after saluting and bowing to his mentor was Reginald allowed to gasp for air. He almost dropped his saber on the ground as he bent over to rest on his knees. Besides he and Gotfrik, there were no others on the strips. There never were. It was always only them at two o’clock in the afternoon until half past four, practicing Reginald’s swordplay, while a small detail of slaves watched from near the entrance-way. Each one carried something of some importance–towels, water for Gotfrik and Reginald–though they were on separate trays, handled by separate servants, and lemonade and cookies for Reginald–though he was only allowed these if he did well.
“Excellent work, Master Reginald,” Gotfrik nodded approval as he accepted a glass of water from one of the servants, “Remarkable talent.”
“Thank you,” Reginald said politely, not that there were many words he was allowed to say to a slave.
Reginald wiped his face with a towel, then drank a full glass of water. He was only allowed the lemonade and cookies after he drank the water. Nonetheless, water tasted sweet, each sip was deliciously reinvigorating. Sometimes, he wished he was allowed to gulp the water down like Gotfrik, but he knew better than to do that with so many eyes watching him. Reginald picked up a cookie and nibbled at it gingerly, watching the grown-ups discuss the next part of his schedule.
A new slave wearing a black coat clicked down the hallway, then entered the practice room. He panted for several moments, gaining the attention of all present, including Reginald. He seemed like a nice slave–his face was wrinkled but warm–but mother had told him that if he ever saw them misbehaving or failing in their duties to tell her. Reginald wondered if panting counted as “failing.” His mother would give him a treat for every slave he said was misbehaving. He never saw those slaves again.
“Master Reginald,” The slave panted, “Your father has returned. Your mother requests your presence at the front of the house. I’m to escort you there.”
“Father?!” Reginald’s eyes lit up–forgetting the debate he was having with himself.
He cleared his throat, thanking Gotfrik once more. He was sad that he couldn’t finish the cookie, placing the half-eaten delectable on the silver tray from whence it came. He dabbed a napkin to his mouth as the slaves present went to work tidying up his appearance. A blur of hands, wrists, and faces nearly smothered him as they adjusted his collar, cravat, and hair.
“Can we straighten his jacket more?” One asked.
“What he needs is a bath.” Another murmured.
“There’s no time for that!” The slave sent to retrieve him said firmly.
Finally, after the makeshift preparations were complete, the slave bowed and beckoned for Reginald to lead the way to the front of the house. Reginald thought that the slave was pretty lucky today–Reginald knew all of the shortcuts through the estate.
“Master Reginald,” The slave frowned, stooping down to Reginald’s height, “Are you sure it would not be quicker to take the main corridor?”
Reginald wasn’t really sure what the slave was talking about, least of all why he was speaking to him. Slaves were never allowed to talk to him. Servants were. His mother had been very clear about the distinction–slaves wore collars to follow the righteous path, servants had already followed the path and were free. Never suffer a lazy slave, she told him–he was jeopardizing their souls if he did.
“What took so long?” Reginald’s mother, Elaina, asked angrily, bending down to make adjustments to Reginald’s attire.
“Mother–” Reginald started, hoping to earn a treat for the day.
But she interrupted him, “You look filthy.” She sighed, “Just fall in line.”
The “line,” of course, referred to the very carefully arranged rows of servants that headed various household departments. They stood eagerly and at attention in front of the solid, twin doors that separated the Sakakibara Estate from the outer courtyard. His position was behind his mother, but in front of the servants–a row unto himself. His mother had told him that he would stand on the far left when he began to have brothers and sisters. He looked forward to that. He really wanted to be important.
The doors opened and he saw his father, Ishariel. But he was carrying something. At first, Reginald thought it was a gift from Caldari space, but the only gifts that moved were animals–and animals were kept on leashes, not in blankets.
“What. Is. That?” Elaina asked. Reginald recognized the voice, the one he knew to avoid at all costs.
Ishariel tried to smile, but instead caught Reginald’s curious gaze. His father looked at the blanket again, then back to Elaina, “She’s Reginald’s new baby sister. Her name is Naomi.”
Reginald’s heart leapt despite his mother’s chilling tone. He would have jumped into the air if etiquette hadn’t glued him to the spot. He could feel the excitement welling up within him. He was a big brother, now. He looked to his mother, expectant to find an equally excited face, but his smile disappeared as soon as he laid eyes on her. She was livid, her gaze intense, a well-rehearsed smile on her lips.
“Joraa,” She spoke to the butler, “See to it that Reginald is prepared for dinner.”
“At once, my lady.” The older man and a few other servants started hurrying Reginald away from his new baby sister. He looked over his shoulder, his only form of protest. He hadn’t even gotten to see her face!
“When will I get to see my new baby sister?” Reginald asked the servants as he turned a corner.
“Soon, Master Reginald,” Joraa assured him.
Reginald had eaten dinner alone, his mother and father having been “indisposed” according to Joraa. He had returned to his room as a result, waiting patiently for when his mother visited to wish him good night. His governess had told him three stories–normally it was only one, two if he was really good–by the time Elaina arrived. She looked unsettled, anxious, almost as if she didn’t want to be there. He wondered if his sisters was getting all of the attention, if his parents were slowly beginning to forget about him. Still, he was an older brother now and he had to ask.
“Mother,” He asked, as she embraced him, “When will I get to see my new baby sister?”
He felt her hands twitch against his back–a new sensation. After that came her recoil, as if Reginald was on fire or poisonous. She looked at him in shock, her mouth agape. He had never seen her like that before.
“Mother,” He frowned, “You’re frightening me.”
“That… That whore’s spawn is not your sister.” She shook her head at him, her eyes wide with impassioned rage.
“What does ‘whore’s spawn’ mean?”
He felt tears welling in his eyes as the sudden sting of his mother’s hand against his cheek. His head had turned with the strike so that he was looking over his shoulder. What had he done? What had he said?
“Never say those words again!” His mother screamed.
He was shaking with fear and confusion, barely managing a nod as he forced every ounce of strength to hold back the tears. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.
“And don’t you dare cry.” She said through gritted teeth.
He wiped his tears away with his sleeve. It was always a risk when he did that on the verge of tears. There were times it would dry his eyes, and other times he would feel warm moisture against the fabric on his arm. This was one of those times.
“Put down your arm, Reginald.”
The tears were flowing now.
He lowered his arms to reveal tears streaming down his cheek. He desperately wanted to rub it, but his arms felt like weights against his mother’s commands.
Slap. The other cheek this time.
“Gentlemen don’t cry!” She barked at him.
“Yes, mother.” He replied weakly, doing his best to stifle additional tears.
Down the hallway, he suddenly heard a higher-pitched wailing. It was loud and unpleasant, worse than a siren and just as irritating. It sounded like a girl’s voice, but several octaves above the normal register. His sister was crying.
His mother sneered as she turned away from him and went out the door. His governess bowed, then gently put out the lights, leaving Reginald in the dark sitting upright in bed with tears on his cheeks. He reached for his bedtime companion, a teddy-bear named Horatio. He had had it since he was little and always held onto him when he wanted to stop crying.
“Shut her up!” He heard his mother scream from down the hallway, her voice booming. He then heard her make a loud groaning sound before her footsteps disappeared into the opposite direction from the cries.
Part of him told him to stay in bed. The rest of him told him that he had to do what an elder brother should do. After a long while of drying his own tears, his ears not growing any more accustomed to the wailing, he slipped out of bed, holding Horatio carefully, and donned a robe. He knew he wasn’t supposed to open his door after it was closed unless there was good reason to, but he urged himself forward.
He cracked it open to check the hallway. It was empty of slave or servant, but the door to the old nursery was left ajar. He tiptoed his way down the hallway, the cries getting louder and more intense. Finally he poked his head around the nursery to see his governess and a female slave trying to coax Naomi into silence with bottles, rhymes and stories.
It was now or never.
He cleared his throat, holding Horatio behind his back and looked at the two women.
“Master Reginald,” His governess turned her eyes towards him, “What are you doing out of bed?”
“My mother requests your presence.” He lied, trying to maintain a noble timbre, though his earlier bout of tears did little to help that. For good measure he added, “Both of you. She is in the study.”
His governess and the slave exchanged glances, then hurried past Reginald down the hallway.
When they were out of sight, he scurried over to Naomi’s crib, dragging a stool over so that he could peer over the edge. She was a small creature, chubby, and with wide-open dark eyes. She had a full head of black hair. Her mouth was open, producing that horrid sound. Miraculously, she stopped as her eyes met Reginald’s.
“Hello Naomi,” Reginald whispered through a smile, “I’m Reginald. But you can call me ‘Regi.’ I’m your big brother.”
Her face began to contort into a fresh set of wailing.
“Wait, wait!” Reginald produced Horatio. She stopped, her gaze now resting on the teddy bear.
He smiled softly, “This is Horatio. He helps me when I cry. Maybe he can help you too.”
He lay the teddy bear gently next to Naomi, who had grown silent looking at the toy.
He couldn’t help but grin.
“I’m your big brother. I’ll always protect you.”