Page 21 of The Lover's Leap

As I practiced a leisurely stroll across the grounds, I took in the people who made the Lombard estate their home, their work—their everything. Off past verdant rolling hills, the fields and orchards would be abuzz with activity. Biko’s farmers would be harvesting and preparing for the next season’s planting.

Our animals were left mostly to freely graze and roam along the grassland, but Biko insisted on having shelters with ground ovens to warm the livestock through the winter. This time of year was especially busy, as he cleaned and stocked the ovens himself with a few trusted assistants. One of the aspects of Biko’s temperament I most appreciated was his deep love of animals. In some ways, he was an animal himself—a wild, vibrant creature. My chest seized with a sudden rush of love for my brother.

Growing up, we’d never shared holidays or playtime. None of the activities I imagined siblings indulged in through the long, boring hours of childhood. I wondered how different our lives might have been if my father had married Idony and raised Biko as his heir. I chuckled imagining my father’s horror at Biko’s songs and fondness for the outdoors. The first time I met Biko had been outside in the fresh air, soil between his toes and sunshine lightening his hair.

I was ten years old. My tutor had fallen ill, so I’d been enjoying an unexpected day of isolation and lack of structure. My mother was working in her study, and my father was away. Norwin had been tasked with keeping track of me, but I promised him I would take my embroidery and work quietly under a tree in the garden. He’d seemed relieved I had a plan and assented to let me roam freely, not realizing that I’d never, ever been given unsupervised access to the grounds.

I had a small sack with some needlework but had, of course, no intention of working on it. I wandered far past the garden to the orchard, where I hid myself beneath the branches of my favorite Okera apple trees. The fall sunshine warmed my hair and face, comfortably so. Most of the trees had been harvested, but a few pieces of fruit, nibbled to the core by squirrels and other animals, had fallen to the ground, attracting ants and other tiny bugs.

I bent to inspect the movement of an enormous mountain of ants, marveling at the harmony and industry of the tiny things.

“Hoooo-ah! That’s a big reward!” bellowed a voice at me from behind a tree.

“Excuse me?” I dropped the sack with my needlework and clutched at my dress, ready to run. My heartbeat sped up as an unfamiliar boy wound his way through the trees.

“That apple,” he said, pointing. “Big feast for the hardworking little buggers. Mmm-mmm yum-a-lummm.”

I stared at the bizarre tune coming an even more bizarre-looking boy. His hair was wild and long, tangled and curly. His bare feet were dirty—filthy, even—and looked weathered by what must have been many, many days of walking without shoes. I’d never seen him before, but once he joined me by the ants, I did not feel afraid. I knew many of the people who lived and worked on the Lombard land had children. I simply had never met any of them before. And had certainly never imagined they roamed freely about and sang.

“I…I don’t understand,” I whispered, curiosity overcoming the prickles of nerves.

“Look,” he said, pointing. “These little critters work on this land just as much as any of us do.” He cocked his head at me and looked over my dress. “Maybe not you, miss.”

“Do you know me?” I asked, surprised. “I don’t know you.”

He grinned and held out a hand, the nails bitten down and tinged with dirt. “Of course, miss. Everyone who lives and works here knows the Lombards. You’re Miss Palmeria. I’m Biko. My parents are the crofters, Idony and Cyprian. Well, my father was the crofter. He recently passed.”

“I’m so very sorry to hear.” I knew little of the estate staff and business, beyond Ms. Deylia and Butler Norwin, but I had no reason to doubt the boy’s story. I shook his hand politely and frowned. “What do you mean these ants work?” In all my education, I’d learned to read, to write, and to pay far too much concern to styling my hair, washing my hands, and keeping my dresses clean. I’d never once inspected the earth or the creatures on it with any kind of understanding. “Do they have a purpose?”

“All living creatures have a purpose,” he said, excitement in his voice. “My father maintained ants specifically for these orchards. There are so many little things that would like to eat the apples intended for your table. This little militia prevents that from happening.”

I felt a flush of embarrassment when he saidyour table. Did that mean he’d never enjoyed the apples from the orchard? Was his table denied apples so that I might have more? I shifted uncomfortably in my dress while this Biko boy excitedly explained how the ants consumed the other pests that would otherwise damage the crops.

We talked for hours that day, and I only returned home as the sun began to slip behind the trees and my belly grumbled for dinner. But, of course, my mother took one look at my dress, damp with sweat, and my cheeks, slightly burned from so much time in the sun, and sent me to my room.

For two days, my mother confined me to my bedroom. I had no idea what I’d done wrong, other than spend the day outside exploring rather than embroidering. When Norwin silently delivered meals to my room, I searched his face for signs, for any insight into why I was being separated from the household. If he knew, he gave no indication, refusing to meet my eyes or speak. After two days of isolation, when my father returned to Omrora, my parents summoned me to their room. They explained the first of many secrets I would be obligated to keep from that day forward.

That was how I learned Biko was my brother—half brother. That my father and Biko’s mother had been engaged to be married, but once Idony conceived a child, she’d changed her mind. Refused to marry my father. Instead chose a young farmhand named Cyprian and raised Biko as their son.

At the time, none of that made sense to me, but my parents refused to answer questions. Simply told me that if I cared at all about our lives—Biko’s, my own, and my parents’—that I must never, ever reveal what I knew to anyone.

After that, my tutor was dismissed permanently. Norwin must have received the dressing-down of his life because after that day, he made certain to keep his skinny nose in my daily activities. He’d not much faltered in that duty since.

I hurried along the path toward the crofter’s cottage, replaying memories in my head. If my tutor had never fallen ill, I wondered if my parents would have ever told me about Biko. I could not imagine the person I would have become had I never learned so many truths from Idony’s and Biko’s own mouths over the many nights I’d spent in their gracious company.

My chest tightened as I considered my future. If I was able to flee Omrora, start a new life someplace where I would not be married off to a criminal who hid his deeds beneath expensive doublets and fine, false smiles, I would be free. That meant escaping what I hated about my life. But that also meant leaving the only people I’d ever truly loved.

My stomach fluttered as I considered all the people I would miss. Admitting to myself whose name was included on that list brought back thrilling memories of Syndrian’s hands in my hair, of his hold on my waist.

I shoved aside the memory of sparkling blue eyes as I slipped into Idony’s cottage. I could see through the window that she was close by. She worked just a short distance away in the garden, her hair tied beneath a loosely wrapped headscarf. She lifted a sprig of ramson flowers to her face and inhaled the white blooms. The wild-growing garlic plant normally didn’t survive this late in the season, but everything seemed to thrive under Idony’s loving touch. Plants, animals, and people. I watched her with appreciation and fascination that I’d never felt for my mother.

As if summoned by my intense stare, Idony lifted her face and peered against the rays of the sun toward the window. She raised a hand and waved, then gathered her basket of herbs and left the garden.

“Pali…” She joined me inside before tugging the scarf from her hair. She laced an arm around my waist, balancing the ramson-filled basket in one hand. “How are you? What brings you here in the middle of the afternoon?”

“I’m…I’m here to ask another favor.” I bit my lip, feeling horrible that every time I visited the crofter’s cabin, I wanted something. Company. A game. Affection. Today I needed something far more practical, but a rush of conscience made me feel ashamed.

“Anything, love.” Idony seemed entirely unconcerned as she dribbled scented oil on her hands and wiped them clean with a rag. “What do you need?”

Tags: Callie Chase Fantasy
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