“What makes a good leader, Andráska?” his mother's eyes watched him with partial patience, a folding fan in one hand as her other ran down the laces of her bodice, “Do you know?”
A whiny sigh sounded from the child, and he threw his head back dramatically, leaning his chair back and balancing on the back two legs, “I don't know,” he wanted the lesson to be over, “Favoritism?”
“Andráska,” she snapped, leaning over the table and motioning for him to straighten, “Stop sitting like that, you'll break the chair,” she cleared her throat, ignoring when her son blatantly didn't listen and continued her lesson, “A good leader is fair and has good judgment,” she raised a hand and made a small motion, causing the servant to materialize and pour a glass of water from a perspiring jug.
His mother took a dainty sip and cleared her throat, “The immortal twins Pier and Pre hold the realm of truth and lies. Did you know this?”
Andras looked down his nose, slightly more interested at his mother's words, still balancing and looking up at the mural upon the grand ceiling, “Hm.”
“It is important to remember these things if you are to lead,”
“But I won't,” Andras was quick to interject, his father's words of the night before continually playing in his mind. He was the last born, unimportant, a leech upon the family that did nothing but drain the resources of the house. The cursed prodigal son, “I'm the last born, Ma.”
“Mother,” she stressed, clearly exasperated by the way her son enjoyed addressing her like the poor children and their own maternal figures, “Just because you are the youngest does not mean you will not have responsibilities. You will be given land one day, you will have servants to lead. An entire estate will be in your charge, do you not understand this?”
In truth, he didn't. It seemed only a matter of time before Kaleb Venora revoked those rights, before he became so furious of his son's antics that he disowned him. Lately, Andras was sure that he was toeing the line, but it would seem the only thing he inherited from his father was his stubborn determination to get what he wanted. The youngest child secretly wanted to be cursed from the family, cast out to find a new home. A childish dream of running away and being allowed to, but Kaleb Venora was fixated on keeping him under his control until he broke.
It was a battle that would continue to rage throughout the years.
Willow took another drink, unsure how to appeal to her own son. Had he always been so headstrong? “Leaders are honest and communicate well,” the words caused the boy in front her to laugh. Kaleb didn't seem to fit those criteria, but he listened, now amused, “Or they should be. You should be,” Willow wanted nothing more than for Andráska to grow up good, “You could be a different leader than your father. Each generation should stress to be even better than the one before... Andráska?”
“What?” His voice came out snippy, and he huffed. When was she going to understand none of this mattered? That he didn't matter? He would never be a leader of anyone. No one would listen to him and he wouldn't listen to anyone else.
His mother seemed to read his mind, and her voice softened, almost pleading, “Good leaders are good listeners as well, my darling. Please try, for me.”
The chair rocked back and forth in contemplation before falling forward with a thud as all legs rested upon the marble floor. He looked at his mother expectantly.
“Good leaders are...” she held up a hand to him, hoping for him to finish her sentence.
The young boy thought for a moment, chewing his lip before looking away stubbornly and crossing his arms. What made a good leader? He thought to the knights in the streets of Sabaissant, how they patrolled with airs and their average armor. Then he thought to the stable master and his sons, how he seemed to direct them with such easy going laughter and little discipline. He commanded respect without intimidation. He was... “Confident?” he glanced at his mother, “Confidence?”
Even with her training, Willow Venora couldn't help the surprise the flitted across her face, “Yes, very good. Confidence. Very good.” she fanned herself, and smiled, “Staying confident and calm allows for the people under your charge to feel the same. Your emotions become theirs, so it is important to show discipline in this regard,” Willow looked upon her son, who so easily wore his heart on his sleeve, “This will be a bit challenging for you, but as you get older, I think you will learn control.”
Andráska felt slightly comforted, and leaned against the table, using his hand to prop his head up. At the moment, the servant that had been pouring the water nodded to another that had poked their head into the room as a signal and cleared his throat respectfully, “Lady Venora, young Lord, I do believe the judgments are to begin, if you wish to join.”
The judgments... Trials. Court. It had a few names, but Andras could count on his fingers the time he was invited to watch, and his mother beamed. It had been her doing, and must have explained why he was dressed so stuffily. She stood, thanked the man and tucked the fan into the folds of her dress, “Come along, my darling. Your father is to address the people, let's see if there is something to be learned.”
Oh no. Andras quickly looked over his shoulder for feasible exits, and then to the fading back of the servant who seemed to disregard his feelings. He should have received a warning! “Ma, please, I don't wanna!”
“Andráska,” her voice took on the same tone of authority, and she bent down to look the boy in the eye, “Sometimes there are things we do not want to do, but as nobles we do not always have a choice,” her hands rested on either side of his face, gentle as she stroked his cheek, “Listen to me,” her voice took a strange tone her son couldn't quite pin, “There will be times when you have to lead others and the path will not be clear. Difficult decisions will be made to protect others, at the cost of some. There will not be maps to guide you. It is up to you,” she exhaled, something solemn hidden behind the depths of her gaze, “Higher stakes have higher costs, and you, a good leader, must use something called intuition.” her finger poked him in the chest above his heart, “Be a good listener to its voice, and you will never stray. Come along.”
She kissed him on the forehead and went to take his hand, guiding him down the corrider. They passed potted plants and elaborate artwork. Down the stairs and into the main hall. In it, an audience had formed, sitting politely as Lord Kaleb Venora sat in his duchy throne, not as elaborate as the king's of course, but lovely and delicate none the less. Andras felt it would break under the weight of his deception, gripping his mother's hand tighter, but then – realizing how childish he must look, dropped her hand and stuffed his hands in his pockets. She smiled, running her fingers through his hands in a last attempt to tame it and joined her husband in the seat beside him. The two exchanged a chaste kiss and she nodded at the people. Andras, feeling out of place, scurried to sit beside her and bitterly noticed the absence of his siblings.
It didn't take long for the trials to start. It would begin with a man leading someone forward, usually a person accused of a crime unable to be decided by the court and as a result, the judgment fell on his father's shoulders on how to best proceed. Sometimes the people gave offerings of thanks, giving bits of crops or pieces of art.
It was then that Andras realized, despite his own torn feelings over his father... the man did demand respect. He had a different face for the public, and the boy couldn't quite put his finger on it, but it was different. His voice was smooth, alluring, charming. It... eased the minds of people. Had it been from a place of sincerity, perhaps Andráska would have admired the man. Instead, he rolled his eyes, watching Kaleb Venora nobly sentence a man to hard labor for a case of dubious theft. His attention strayed a bit, as it usually did, but when the next contestant stepped forward – a woman with eyes that pieced his soul, he couldn't help but sit up. Her hair was golden, cascading in salt water waves around her shoulders and tinkling of bells and sea shells. Her dress was ripped, and a sash hung around her waist. She pleaded in a language he didn't understand, tugging at the rope around her wrists and falling to the ground before the duke and his family.
Her language was foreign, the sounds stranger than what Andráska was used to. It sounded familiar, but none of them made sense. Andras leaned in towards his mother, tugging at the sleeves of her dress, “What's she speaking, Ma?”
“Rakahi,” she whispered, “The Biqaj language,” she held a finger to her lips, signaling for him to be quiet, and Andras turned his attention back to the lovely, wild woman.
“Please,” she switched to common, “He does not understand!”
Soon a man was dragged forward, similar to the woman in appearance, but his ears weren't pointed and his eyes didn't burn as brightly. It was quickly discovered that they were charged with murder. Andraska sat forward, suddenly nervous for his father's decision. The man said nothing, looking to the women desperately. Her fingers tried to move, but were unable to portray whatever it was they were aiming to. She growled in frustration, “Please, I was attacked! He was protecting me! Please!”
Kaleb held up a hand, clearing his throat, “You were found by the guard hiding the body. Am I to disregard this?” The duke looked to the man, “Have you no defense?” The man ignored him.
The woman's head fell, but she refused to stop her case, “He doesn't understand, please, let me talk to him.”
It was clear Kaleb was growing agitated, immediately insulted by the direct disregard for his question to the man, “No. He will speak, not you.”
Still no words. Kaleb looked upon with disgust, hardening his features, “Murder is unacceptable in Rynmere. Is there anyone here who can vouch for the innocence of these two?”
Some rustling, and the woman began to cry, each time she tried to speak, she was silenced by a guard. Andraska's heart squeezed, something wrong. He felt more and more nervous.
“Well,” Kaleb sighed, leaning back, “Death for death. Take them to the prisons. They will pay for their crimes in the morning.”
Guards moved forward to grab the two, but Andráska's heart leapt from his chest, taking him with it. He jumped from seat, running to one of the armored men and shoved him backwards when he tried to lead the woman away. Surprised by the sudden assault, the larger man stumbled back, looking up at the duke on what to do.
“Leave her alone!” Andras screamed, causing the whole room to gasp and Kaleb Venora's eyes to narrow into dangerous slits. “Listen to her!”
A good leader listens. A good leader is confident. Leaders, more than anything, took charge, and he was going to do what he felt was right. His intuition was rebelling against everything about this. “Um,” his breath had quickened and he gulped, looking at the pretty woman, “What... What do you mean he doesn't understand?”
Not a single sound escaped the room, but the Biqaj woman was stunned, her tears still rolling down her face, “He can't speak,” she whispered, “He can't hear. I need,” she lifted her hands, showing the young lord her tied hands, “I need my hands to talk to him. We speak in common sign.”
“Andráska.” Kaleb's voice was monotone, but the young boy knew what trouble he would be in for going against his father's word in front of so many people. He ignored the man, knowing his punishment wouldn't begin till they were alone. This... this was more important than himself.
“Did he kill someone?”
The Biqaj frowned, “Yes,” Afraid the sweet boy would abandon her, she was quick to defend herself, “My friend is simple minded. The night of the murder, I had been drinking with some friends. One... one man tried to hurt me, and Gavin walked in and hit him. It was an accident. I...”
Some whispering spread across the audience, and Andraska's mind pieced together her words. He... didn't feel she was lying. He had to listen to his intuition, focusing on the next words she spoke, “I was scared, and I didn't want anything to happen, and... it was a mistake. I should have told someone. I was drunk, I was ashamed!”
Andras nodded, turning slowly back to his parents, but pleading with his mother, “Ma! Please! It was self defense. They don't deserve death!”
Willow, shocked at being addressed, shrank in her seat and glanced at her husband. There was more to the story, pieces even her husband couldn't ignore. She kept quiet. Andras started to plead with his father, “Punish them for trying to hide a body, but not murder!”
“They killed someone, Andráska.”
“She was going to be raped!” Andras was furious, even in his youth, the balance of right and wrong so strong within him. The word rape had not been used, but he had read between the lines, “You will overlook the attempted rape of someone just because the convicted is dead? She is the victim!”
Andras thought he saw pride in his mother's eyes, but Kaleb Venora lifted a hand, and one of the knights stepped forward, placing an authoritative hand on the willful child. 'Enough' it said.
“She said she was with her friends! There are witnesses! They can prove her story!” He looked out for any friendly faces that would take his side. No one.
“It seems my son is letting fatigue and adventure get the best of him. Take him to his quarters so that he may rest. Proceedings are no place for children.”
“What? No!” Andras squirmed, too small to fight back as the guard gripped him by the neck and lead him towards the door. He kicked, and twisted, trying to get another glimpse at the judged. No citizen of Sabbaissant spoke up, a crowd of mixed emotions and gossip swirling around him. They were cowards! “Don't kill them!” Andras screamed, even when pushed outside the room and dragged to his room, “STOP!”
All the way to his room he was yanked, his heart beating against his chest like a frantic bird. It was a lesson Andras would not soon forget, getting his first taste of leadership and being unable to do anything about it. His lesson had continued in a way that scared him – No one cared for the words of children – of the last born.
Leadership was never easy, and he had tried to do the right thing. Had he been wrong? The entire day passed, until he heard his father's footsteps approaching his room. He was to be punished, and he faced his own judgment with a straight face. Even when the door opened and Kaleb Venora stood in the hallway, his silhouette illuminated from behind and a leather switch in his hand, Andras grit his teeth and braced for the worst.
Andraska Venora wasn't a leader, yet. But he knew one thing – he would be. And a thousand beatings later, he would never be like the shadow before him. He screamed as the first lashing bit into the skin of his leg, thinking of the woman with the bright eyes and the man who couldn't speak.