Odessa Silverberg wanted to believe that the sweat on her palms was just from nerves. Stripping off her damp left glove, she brushed her hand against the fabric of her pants and then raised a fist to the rustic wooden door. The sound it produced was morosely hollow and yielded no answer from within.
She waited a moment and then tried again, this time putting more force behind her knock, even though she was using her less dominant hand. She waited patiently there on the stoop, the newly fallen leaves adding color to the dying year and providing her with a pleasant distraction as the time passed. As composed as she was, her companion was not. He grew more agitated by the second and kept glancing around suspiciously. Anxiously shifting his weight from foot to foot, his right hand never strayed from the hilt of his sheathed sword.
"Are you sure this is the place?" he asked, pushing his blue headband up on his forehead as his matching cape fluttered in the rising wind.
She knocked again. "Yes."
"How do you know this guy?" It was more of an accusation than a question.
With a sigh, she lied. "We're old friends."
"Right," he snorted as he swatted a bug from its perch in his thick sandy hair.
Finally, a man walked around from the side of the house carrying a basket of vegetables. Straddling the right and wrong sides of thirty, he was far too young to appear so weary and haggard. Lines of worry crossed his once-handsome face and his dark eyes held a profound sadness that struck through his soul. His hair was a rich auburn color just a few shades darker than Odessa's and a bit more unkempt. Convenience rather than fashion clearly dictated how he wore it-long in the back and combed out of his face. Raising a thin brow at the two of them, he spoke quietly in a disconnected voice. "I received your letters and the answer is still no. Now, please leave."
"Mathiu," she said, stepping towards him slowly. "Please, let's talk."
"My decision has been made."
"At least hear me out since I've traveled all this way."
She flashed an alluring smile at him. "Then a drink for old time's sake?"
Mathiu considered a moment as he dusted some dirt off a carrot in his basket. "Very well, but I prefer not to drink. How about I make you dinner?"
"That would be wonderful!" Odessa said, her green eyes brightening with a distant hope. She turned to her companion and introduced him. "This is Flik."
Flik was sizing up the other man and still had not relaxed his grip on his weapon. "We're wasting our time, Odessa," he said in a most irritated tone. "Let's go."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "We were just invited to dinner."
"I'm not hungry," Flik muttered, continuing to hold a firm glare on Mathiu, who seemed far too amused at the entire exchange.
Odessa shook her head as her cheeks grew pink with anger and embarrassment. "Then go to the inn and drink with Sanchez. I'll meet you there later."
"I'm not leaving you here alone!"
"I'll be fine," she retorted with such authority that Flik didn't dare to dispute her.
Instead, he drew his blade but held it at his side as he addressed the other man. "If anything happens to Lady Odessa, I will have your head!"
Mathiu smirked at the swordsman's impetuousness. "Naturally."
"You're a coward, Mathiu."
The words were not yelled, just simply stated, but they still stung him. She knew he wouldn't let her see that, though. Just as she had predicted, his response came as a question completely off the topic. "Do you still plan to stay for dinner?" he asked as he casually plucked a cucumber from its vine.
She silently cursed his talent at avoidance. "Is that all you have to say?"
"You knew my answer before you even stepped through village gates," he said, placing the vegetable in the basket.
The wind played with her vibrant red hair but she did not bother to brush it back into place. "I was hoping you'd reconsider."
Walking around to the far side of the garden, he selected a particularly large, ripe tomato from one of the plants. "As I have said before, no matter what, that will not happen."
She bit her lip as her pride slid down her throat. "Mathiu, I need you."
"No, you just need a different hobby," he said sharply, not looking up from the zucchini plant he was sifting through. Finally satisfied with one of its fruits, he picked it and then started walking back towards the house without looking to see if she was behind him.
"How dare you call the fate of our nation-our future-a hobby!" she shouted before trotting behind him like a puppy on the heels of a child. His stride was long and fervent, so she had to jog to keep up.
Just as they reached the back door to his house, he grinned at her. "Never let your enemy see you angry, Odessa. Surely Uncle Leon taught you better than that."
She followed him inside. "Interesting that you should bring him up."
"No, what's interesting is that your friend doesn't know of our relation," Mathiu said, closing the door behind them. "I'm surprised that you were able to chase him away. He seemed to think that I was going to seduce you."
"Flik tends to overreact," she replied as she glanced around Mathiu's modest home. It was efficient and functional, just as he had been when he'd served the Empire as a military strategist. There were neither walls nor doors separating the living space but Mathiu had arranged the quaint furniture into a small kitchen, a sitting room and a bedroom. "And, to answer your real question, I thought it would be best for both of us if that bit of information remained a secret."
"Good thinking," he said as he removed the vegetables from the basket. "I hardly want to be killed because my sister is foolish enough to be running around with rogues and calling herself the leader of the Rebel Army."
"Liberation Army," she snapped.
He shrugged. "Same difference."
They regarded each other with unyielding looks and raised brows as they calculated the other's next move. It was a game they'd played since they were children-a harsh game of wills, tactics and good-natured contempt that neither liked to lose.
Finally, he relented. "Sorry. Let's just not talk about that tonight."
"All right," she said, not pleased with the win as it felt more like a draw. "Fair enough."
Mathiu was a decent cook. The vegetables and rice that he had prepared were rather flavorful and had just enough spice to keep Odessa reaching for her drink. He smiled as she chased an exceptionally hot pepper with a gulp of water. "I'm sorry there's no meat, but I haven't had a chance to fish these past few days."
"You fish?" she asked skeptically.
"I find it very relaxing when I'm not teaching or playing village doctor."
"What do you teach?"
"A little of everything. The large building at the back of the village is my school."
"Ah," she paused, seeing an opportunity to broach the forbidden subject. "Do you still teach military strategy?"
"Along with less trivial studies such as medicine and history."
"I'm amazed that you're passing on your knowledge of tactics," she said before giving him a hopeful smile. "You know, I could use a doctor for my army."
He closed his eyes. "Odessa "
She sighed and took a sip of her water. "Sorry."
He ate some more of the rice and vegetables and then spoke. "You should try fishing. You might like it."
"I never thought either of us would be scrounging for food or even cooking it ourselves," she said, a slight grin reminiscent of happier times tracing her lips.
"We were spoiled."
"Yes, I suppose we were," she replied softly. "But that is how the Empire is, you know. Lots of money for a select few and the rest of the people are starving."
"Odessa " he said, again closing his eyes.
She held up her hands in mock defense, but winced in real pain. "Sorry. Change the subject. You're good at that."
"Are you all right?" he asked, finishing the last of his meal. "Your complexion is pale, your brow is sweaty, and you are favoring your left hand."
She nodded as she pushed a piece of yellow squash off to the side of her plate where others of its kind remained. "I'm fine. Don't worry about it."
"All right," Mathiu said hesitantly before giving her a rueful grin. "You still don't eat those?"
"No, I don't."
"Silly girl," he teased. "You eat zucchini, but not squash. They are essentially the same, you know. Do you just not like the color?"
She scowled at him and then jammed a piece of yellow squash in her mouth.
He laughed harder. "Odessa, you don't have to eat it!"
She made a show of swallowing the dreaded vegetable and then laughed with him. "Some things never change."
"Thankfully, no they don't," he said before removing the plates from the table. "Have a seat by the fire. I'll get some tea."
The small fireplace did an adequate job of heating the humble house as the Silverberg siblings sat on the sofa enjoying their tea. It was a bitter blend, but neither of them took sugar or honey. After a few sips, Mathiu rose to light the lamp on the low table in front of them.
"Don't," Odessa said. "Leave it dark. The firelight is plenty."
Wordlessly, he sat back down next to her.
She raised a graceful yet intrigued brow at him. "I can tell you want to ask me something."
He gave her a sideways glance. "You're right, I do. But we promised we wouldn't talk of it tonight, so I won't."
"Ask me anyway."
He sighed and placed his cup on the table. "Your Flik, he is from the Warrior's Village, is he not?"
"That's not what you wanted to ask me," she said sourly. "But yes, he is. How did you know?"
"His attire and manner of speech."
"Well, I guess his accent does give him away."
Mathiu grinned. "If you are trying to remain inconspicuous in your travels, you should tell him not to dress head-to-toe in such a bright color."
"He tends to overdo things," she said with a laugh.
"I see that. I also know of the traditions of his village." He paused and then met her eyes. "Has he named his sword yet?" The question was innocuous enough, but it still caught Odessa by surprise.
Fumbling with her saucer, she somehow managed to set her cup down without causing a spill. "Yes."
Mathiu retrieved his tea and sipped it. "After you, I presume."
A long silence pulled between them, the ripe tension creeping along it. In the flickering firelight his kind features seemed to distort into ones much more intimidating. "Be careful, Odessa."
"Careful?" she asked, an edge on the word that she held at his throat like a blade.
"Yes," he said, closing his eyes. "Does Flik follow you or your cause?"
Her answer was only a single, sharp syllable. "Both."
"I doubt that," he responded before taking another sip of the tea. "He probably follows your cause because it is your cause."
Her patience was growing thin and it carried into her tone. "Who cares what his motives are? He's a reliable soldier and a good friend."
Mathiu's dark eyes held a peculiar sort of misery as he seized her gaze. "Stop insulting yourself by calling him your friend."
"What do you mean by that?" she asked, giving him a glower consumed with fury.
"Tell me, Odessa, did he name his sword before or after you gave yourself to him?"
She didn't answer. She just reached for her tea.
"Precisely." He shook his head sadly before dealing another devastating blow. "Mark my words, Odessa, your adolescent fantasy of chasing your idealistic cause and landing in your lover's bed will be the end of you."
She glared at him from over the edge of her cup. "At least I have a cause. You sit here and fish all day."
"Yes, but I can sleep at night knowing that I haven't harmed a single human being."
"You are doing more harm by doing nothing!" she snapped. "Fishing, teaching, doctoring all of that is fine but you still don't have a purpose!"
"And you do? Tell me, what would happen if you were to overthrow the Emperor? Would the poor become wealthy? Would the starving get fed? Would the ignorant become smarter?" He took a breath and then quickly continued the assault. "Would you change anything aside from the number of causalities?"
She frowned at the reminder that her revolution would not be without repercussions and then countered his realism with a healthy dose of righteous indignation. "I'll change everything! The Empire has become corrupt. It needs to end. The people need to be able to rule themselves and not throw their lives away to Barbarossa's whims."
"Yet you are throwing your life away. Wars are never bloodless, and Empires don't fall without wars. As a leader, you will be targeted by the enemy."
"I know that, Mathiu, but I am fighting for something I believe in!"
He stared into her eyes with unadulterated disdain. Refusing to yield, she held his gaze with fury of her own. The fire danced anxiously as the two of them glared at each other, each waiting for the other to surrender. Eventually, Mathiu broke. After exhaling ten pounds of agony, he carefully placed his empty cup down and looked at the blank wall above the mantle. "We all believe in something, but war is not the answer to anything."
The flames grew and began to crackle in the fireplace as Odessa prepared her offensive. Her eyes were firmly fixed on the kindling embers as she drew in her strength. She knew which words she had to use. They were malicious and hateful but most necessary for her cause. She took a short, hesitant breath and then the dreaded words were said. "I know what you did, Mathiu."
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "What I did?"
"Humphrey told me all about it," she hinted in a thinning voice. "When the country wasn't ready for another war, you made them ready."
"Odessa " he said, his eyes closing in desperate anguish.
She did not heed his plea for mercy. "You marched a force of men into Kalekka and you had them slaughter hundreds of people! They were innocents! They greeted you at the gates of the town as heroes of the Empire!" She scowled at him and as each passing phrase cut itself from her tongue her voice grew more ruthless and irate. "They thought you were coming to protect them, but no, you weren't there for that! You deceived them! You were there to sacrifice them for Barbarossa's next war! Women, children, everyone!" She sighed and then delivered the mortal blow. "You killed them, Mathiu! Maybe not with your own hands, but with your words!"
He stood up and walked away from her, completely unprepared for the sneak attack.
"You did that for the Empire!" she shouted, her cheeks burning bright pink with rage. "You did that in Barbarossa's name! And yet you call my cause petty? You think it is some sort of fantasy? Tell me, brother, what sort of country-no what sort of man-kills his own subjects to rally support for a war!?"
His retreat was swift. Standing in front of the fire with his left hand on the mantle, he shielded his face with his right. A stray cinder leapt from the fire and landed on the cuff of his trousers but he didn't move nor kick it away. Feeling like she had just stabbed him in the back with his own blade, he gasped a few shallow, ragged breaths. "And now you see why I cannot help you."
Odessa approached him, a soldier about to put a wounded enemy out of his misery. "You won't help me because you are a coward."
"No!" he snarled, his breaking voice carrying over the snapping wood in the fireplace. "I will not cause any more deaths! I will not make another person grieve a loved one! I will not take another life as long as I live!" He removed his hand from his face, but did not turn around. "And if that means maintaining the status quo-or being a coward-then so be it!"
"You could atone for your sins," she said, putting her left hand on his back. "You could help me."
"I'd prefer to burn in Hell for what I've done than visit it upon you," he whispered harshly, swatting her arm away, and inadvertently smacking her on the right side of her stomach.
She staggered back after the slight blow, gripping her abdomen with her hands and nearly collapsing to the floor with a cry of pain.
"Odessa?" he asked, finally turning to face her. The battle was over for the moment.
She didn't move from the awkward crouching position she had assumed. "I'm fine."
"You might be able to argue with me," he said, touching her shoulder. "But you can't lie to me."
Odessa sat shirtless on her brother's bed. She really didn't want to let him see her wound, but he had insisted, and for once, she didn't argue with him. Wiping sweat from her brow, she shivered. The room was warm, and she felt hot, but her body would not cooperate.
Mathiu lit three lamps and placed them on the dresser, making it annoyingly bright. He then started to pull off the crude bandage that had been wrapped around her chest and shoulder. "Who put this on?" He asked. "It's filthy."
"Flik," she said. "It's all we had at the time."
"No wonder you have a fever. You probably have an infection and your body is trying to fight it."
She grimaced as he pulled the last of the blood-crusted bandage off. "I was attacked by a wild boar on the way here."
"How many days ago?" he asked as he examined the wound. A horn had punctured her in the side, just under her ribcage. It wasn't too deep, and luckily there was no internal damage, but now an abscess the size of her fist had grown around it.
He frowned. "And you've worn the same bandage all this time?"
"How many days have you felt sick?"
"This is the second."
"You're lucky that I insisted on seeing this, then. A few more days and you probably would have died." Mathiu gave her a soft look. "It's infected, which is why you are ill. I'm going to drain it, clean it, and give you some medicine."
"Stitches?" she asked nervously.
"Puncture wounds shouldn't be stitched-especially ones that are nearly a week old. Yours definitely needs to drain, not be sealed." Mathiu said before standing up and going into the kitchen area of his one-room house.
With a relieved sigh, she pulled her shirt to her chest more for warmth than modesty. Mathiu was so smart, damn him. She had idolized him when they were children. Perhaps some of that was because he was nearly ten years her senior, but she didn't want to attribute all of her admiration to a simple age difference. She couldn't say that her veneration of him had changed much, but she definitely knew now that she held equal footing in the arena of influence.
A few minutes later he returned with two bowls of steaming water, a scalpel, clean strips of white cloth, a fresh bandage and some ground herbs she didn't recognize. He set all the items down on the bedside table and meticulously arranged them. Satisfied with their placement, he put a strip of the cloth in the hot water and then washed his hands with it.
After drying his hands with another strip of cloth, he placed the scalpel into the bowl to soak. "I can't say this won't hurt."
"I know," she said. "But I might scream."
"As long as you don't move, I don't care."
He removed the scalpel from the water, placed a strip of cloth in the fresh bowl and asked, "Ready?"
Odessa gripped the sheets of the bed so hard that her knuckles turned white. "All right. Do it quick."
Mathiu pressed the knife into her skin with an expert hand, cutting a perfect, thin line along the center of the infection. True to her word, Odessa didn't budge but gave a most pathetic groan.
Once the incision was made, he grabbed the cloth he had set to soak. Dabbing it gently around the opening, he cleaned the oozing pus and blood. As she started to draw away from him, he spoke in an even, reassuring voice. "Don't move. I have to push more of it out. Sorry if it hurts."
She braced herself. This round of pain was sharp, but different. It felt like someone had driven a nail into her side and then wiggled it around. As excruciating as it was, she fought against the urge to swat him away. "Done yet?" she asked through gritted teeth.
"For the moment," he said, retrieving a new piece of cloth and soaking it. "It will have to drain some more."
She looked down at the bed. "You always did know how to clean up my messes. Even when we were kids whenever I'd do something foolish, you'd take care of it."
He laughed, patting the wound again with a wet cloth. "You speak of the time your cat climbed a tree, you went after him, and I had to find a ladder to get you down?"
She winced as he pushed more of the infection out of her side. "Or the time I decided I was going on an adventure to find a unicorn. You made me a sandwich and told me to be home by dinner."
"And you ended up getting lost in the woods and I had to go find you." Looking up to meet her eyes he teased her with a smirk. "You were trouble."
Despite the pain he was inflicting on her, she managed a giggle. "I know." A few moments of silence passed, the bright lamps gleaming distraught and jaundiced hues on her pale face. Her tone was serious as she closed her eyes and spoke. "Remember the evening our parents died and I didn't understand what Uncle Leon meant when he referred to them as 'late?' I spent the whole night waiting up by the gate thinking they would be home after dark. Until you came out and told me they weren't coming back."
He wrung out the wet bandage in the dirty bowl and put another into the clean water. "Well I'd hardly call that foolish. You were only five. Children reason differently because they are innocent, not ignorant."
"Is that why you like them so much? Is that why you teach them?" she asked tenderly.
"I suppose," he muttered as he poured some water onto the ground herbs to make a paste.
"You should find a nice woman in this village and have children, then. You'd be a good father."
He didn't answer her. Putting the paste onto the newly soaked cloth, he dabbed it on the wound. "This is going to sting a bit."
She did her best not to jerk away at the irritation the medicine was causing. "Mathiu, why did you never marry? I realize that neither of us still cling to our family name or standing of nobility in the Empire, but..."
If he was surprised at the question he didn't let it show. "It's not that I can't find a wife, it's that I choose not to."
"Why not? Don't you wish to have a family? You teach children. You must enjoy them."
With a firm look into her curious eyes he told her flatly: "I do not wish to pass our family curse on to anyone else."
"Curse?" she asked, tilting her head just a bit.
"Surely you know that we Silverbergs are the heralds of history. Wherever we go, things will change, wars will be fought, and people will die. I don't want to place that burden on the shoulders of a child."
"It might be something you should consider as well," he said, reaching for the fresh dressing and avoiding her gaze. "Legacies such as ours can only bring hatred and pain."
She lifted her arms so he could wrap the bandage but said nothing to him.
He was quick about dressing the wound. When he was done, he put a bag of herbs into her hand. "Put a teaspoon of these into a drink you like. They are very bitter, so I don't suggest mixing them in water. Use them three times a day for the next week. They'll bring your fever down and fight any bit of the infection I couldn't drain."
The full moon was high in the night sky, casting eerie shadows through the curtained windows of Mathiu's home. While waiting for Odessa to finish dressing, he cleared their teacups from earlier and then put a log on the dying fire. Almost immediately, it caught, bringing a renewed, bright light into the room. Taking a seat on the sofa, Mathiu allowed himself to be hypnotized by it for just a moment.
Odessa appeared behind him and simply said, "Thank you, Mathiu."
He gave her a nod but kept his gaze focused on the steadily growing flames. "Well, I couldn't let my own sister die of something as mundane as an infected wound."
Sitting next to him, she put a tender hand on his back. "You seem troubled."
He pinched the bridge of his nose in thought. "Since you chose to bring it up earlier in the evening, I wish to state for the record that I didn't come up with the plan for Kalekka."
"Did you stop it?"
"No, and I hate myself for that," he said as he turned to look her directly in the eye with tormented sincerity. "I should have, but as you so accurately and eloquently stated, I am a coward."
She said nothing, though he could tell from the passionate idealism in her expression that she wanted to ask him just one more time to join her cause.
A long, tired moment drifted through the humble house before Odessa got to her feet. "It's late and we must travel with the dawn."
He rose and offered her an embrace.
Accepting the hug, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Take care of yourself, Mathiu."
"Farewell, Odessa," he said before releasing her and opening the door. "Always remember that the only life you have a right to sacrifice is your own."
She brushed her hand against his arm as she walked into the darkness. "I know that. But I also know that it is better to take risks than to sit idly by while the people suffer at the hands of a tyrant."
Mathiu just closed his eyes.
A moment later, he opened them and watched in silence as his sister vanished into the middle distance of the night. When he could no longer see her, he simply shut the door.
All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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