Chapter Two: Smooth as Glass
The meeting with Camus and Owen had gone well. So well, in fact, that Irene had been invited to go with them on a trip to Lake Karmarya, which was north of Fishery. The four of them—Irene, Camus, Owen, and Losse, their chaperone—sat in the carriage and chatted as they traveled. "I've never been to Karmarya," Irene stated.
"It's enormous," Owen, who sat directly across from her, described it, "it's maybe a tenth of the size of Fishery, which is big for a lake. I think the mainland has bigger lakes, but Karmarya is Cecilia's largest."
"It's one of those few beautiful places I know of," Camus, who sat beside her, spoke with an even tone. Irene knew what that meant. She was excited to spend the weekend with the two of them. 'Nary had pushed her to go, insisting that she and Tolemus could handle the inn on Sunday. Irene wasn't complaining. She'd been thinking of little other than what it would be like to marry Owen or Camus. With her twenty-third birthday on the horizon, she was on the clock. She was lucky that she and the brothers had hit it off so quickly. They were quite agreeable. But still she wondered; Owen, or Camus? It was a tough decision, but she hoped their time at the lake would help her make it.
The conversation eventually lulled. Camus was sitting with his arms crossed and his eyes shut, breathing slowly and evenly. Losse was watching the passing scenery with vigilance. Owen was leaning against the side of the carriage, eyes shut, mouth slightly agape, very clearly dozing off. Irene became restless and looked out the window, wishing she could walk alongside the carriage. But for over an hour she simply stared outside until the fields became woods, watching squirrels and birds flit by. Though she knew it would bring her discomfort, she couldn't help thinking about what she really wanted from life. She didn't want to marry. She didn't want to settle down. She didn't want to raise a family. She wasn't ready. What she did want to do was pack up, buy passage to the mainland, and see the world. It would make her even happier to bring her family along. What she wanted was true freedom. But what the world was expecting of her was nothing less than bondage. How could so many people just settle down and do nothing interesting for the rest of their lives? It must be somebody's cup of tea, she supposed, but surely not everybody wanted to be tied down in one place forever. Then again, she considered, not everybody had all of the options she did. Many families put a lot of pressure on their youth to perpetuate the system. Eventually, when her own children were grown she'd have to make them do the same.
The ride was finally over. Owen was the first to leap from the carriage, stretching his legs and arms and groaning. Camus stepped outside looking tired and began walking toward the edge of the lake. Irene hopped out and followed Camus, Owen in tow. Losse stayed behind, tethering the carriage and horses. Irene stood at the lake's very edge. The water was as clear as glass. As her vision panned up, she observed the short, thin trees that made up the surrounding woodland and the tall hills in the distance. There was a splashing noise out in the lake and the ripples gently pushed the shore. "You were right," she told Camus, "this is a very special place." He looked at her, but he didn't smile.
"There's plenty to do here," Owen said. "We can walk anywhere there's a path, we can swim, we can fish…"
"We ought to go help Losse set up camp," Camus said, walking back to the carriage. Owen followed him with Irene trailing. Losse was lifting wooden crates with supplies out of the back of the carriage. Camus took them from him, setting them on the ground.
"There's a nice, flat spot over there," Owen pointed across the lake.
"Start carrying then," said Camus as he walked by, carrying one crate. Owen picked one up and followed him. Irene waited for Losse to turn his back and then she hefted one of the crates up herself, following the brothers. At the campsite, Camus set the crate down with ease. Owen set his down a bit roughly, and was trying to keep it from falling over as Camus turned around. He looked concerned as Irene approached. Owen turned around and gave her the same look. "Let me take that for you," Camus insisted, lifting it out of her arms. "Perhaps you should wait here," he suggested, "let us do the heavy lifting." Irene huffed.
"Have you forgotten I'm an innkeeper's daughter? Do you think my father carries everything from the delivery carts himself?" She splayed out her arms, looking at her body, then back at Camus. "And look at me. Do I really look that delicate?" Camus sighed.
"It's just not a lady's work." He stated. "Besides, you're our guest. You're in charge of enjoying yourself. Let your hosts handle the work." He turned about and headed back to the carriage. Owen gave Irene an apologetic look and followed Camus. When they were out of earshot she sighed, folding her arms and wearing a sour look. She had to remind herself that she wasn't here to make a statement about herself; she was there to bond with the brothers and choose which one to pursue. She walked over to a small log that sat halfway buried in dirt and half protruding into the water and removed her shoes and socks. She took up her skirt and dipped her feet into the water. It was actually quite warm, warmer than the sea. Camus was right, in one respect: Irene was a guest, and she was responsible for her own enjoyment.
Once all of the crates were moved over it was time to pitch the tents and construct a fire pit. Losse, Owen, and Camus were starting to put together the first tent. "Isn't there anything I can do?" Irene called from her seat on the log, "I'm getting bored over here by myself." Camus looked up briefly, but Owen beat him to the punch.
"Don't worry miss Irene," he called, "this should only take us short while." Irene shook her head, folding her arms again. Then she unfolded them. It was a bad habit that made her appear cross, and it was a little immature. She supposed she'd better get used to the lazy lifestyle if she was marrying into nobility. Other than childbearing, the marriage wouldn't really require much of her. The Noble House of Fishery probably had cooks, maids, seamstresses, and even nannies for everything else. Everything that Irene had ever done at the Family Inn would then be barred from her. It was a daunting thought. How would she be expected to entertain herself? They treated her like she was made of porcelain. No entertainment that had any kind of work to it would be appropriate for her. It would drive her mad to live like that.
While they put up a second tent, Irene stood off the log and began to walk along the lakeshore. "Don't go too far!" Owen called after her.
"Okay," she answered, trying to mask her annoyance. Fish passed her by in the water, occasionally coming to the surface for air. They were plain colors, all brown and gray and blue. The fish in the sea were wilder colors. Birds flew between the trees, chirruping and singing. Irene looked back when she was a good distance away from the men. They'd only just arrived and she was already wondering if this visit had been such a good idea. Maybe she should look for new suitors… She watched them put up the last tent from a distance. When they were finished, Owen waved to her. Feeling better, Irene strode back to the site.
"We're all done with tents," Owen said as she returned. "The fire pit will be easy, but we need some rocks…"
"We can handle it," Camus said preemptively, sensing Irene's excitement to help.
"Oh no you don't," Irene said, hands on her hips and a cross look on her face. "You're not leaving me waiting any longer. You said it yourself, Camus; I'm in charge of my own entertainment." Irene walked to the edge of the woods behind them and started looking for rocks. She ignored the look he gave her, but soon after he came over to help her.
"Forgive me," he said, "I was raised to be polite. The man should care for the woman where he is more capable." Irene shook her head.
"I don't imagine noble women would argue with you," Irene replied, "but you know that I am not a noble woman, and you won't make me one by treating me like one. Besides, would you rather have somebody who makes you do all the work, or somebody who can pull their own weight?" She had an armful of rocks by then. "How many are we looking for?" She called to Owen. He shrugged and looked at Losse, who was constructing a small metal cage.
"That's probably fine," Camus said, carrying half as many. They dropped the rocks into one of the empty crates for Owen to arrange on the ground. With nothing else to do, Camus walked over next to the log and stared out over the water. Irene watched Owen construct the rocky bottom of the pit. First he dug a small hole in the ground, placed a rock in the middle, and began placing the rocks spiraling out. When the rocks were all laid out, Losse was just finishing up the cage. There were four spires on the bottom at each corner, which he stabbed between the rocks and into the ground. The last crate was full of twigs and branches, which Losse stuffed into the cage. The sun was still high, so Losse suggested they wait to start the fire.
Once finished, Owen suggested they dress for the water. Camus agreed. Owen used his and Camus' tent, while Losse allowed Camus to use his, as he declined to swim. Irene, the only woman there, had her own tent. She'd brought a white swim gown, which once belonged to 'Nary. It was a one piece of some soft, white material that covered her legs like shorts and her arms like short sleeves. There was another sheer fabric over the white, which was the part that actually made it a gown. It flowed a little longer than her short sleeves and fell just below her knees. The collar covered her neck and buttoned up in the back. As she exited the tent, Camus also left his. He was wearing traditional swim robes in the noble colors of Fishery. It was a single piece, like Irene's gown, but the sleeves were all the way down to his elbows, where they flared out. The legs were just below his knees, where they also flared out. Irene thought it was rather appropriate that it was for swimming; it certainly made him look like a fish. Owen emerged a short time later in a robe of a similar style in similar colors, but his suit also had a dark blue sash about the waist. Irene felt a little flattered for a moment as Camus elbowed Owen, a warning not to stare at her.
They swam out a little ways, scaring off fish. The water was refreshingly cool compared to the humid warmth of the evening air as the sun baked it. Irene was certain to have new freckles after this trip. They talked a little more about Camus and Owen's studies, and Irene had a lot of questions.
"So what exactly does your training entail?" She asked them.
"Several things," Camus replied. "We are trained in combat survival, and diplomacy. We are also educated about the elemental domains."
"What exactly does it mean to choose a domain?"
"It dictates what style you learn, in terms of combat," Owen replied. "Each domain has its own style, its own custom weaponry, and its own disciplines. For instance, a soldier with a domain of Fire is trained to attack quickly with strength and to be able to finish enemies quickly. Their weapons are often slow to wield, but kill in one blow. Like large axes and such."
"How about Water domain?"
"The Water domain is about speed and accuracy," Camus said, "The weapons are light and quick, and the idea is to only strike when you know you'll hit."
"That's fascinating," Irene replied, "so there's a different style for every element?" Camus nodded.
"Except for Knowledge and Wisdom; in those, one learns the art of healing." They soon thought to ask Irene about her own life at the Family Inn.
"What's it like? What do you do?" Owen inquired.
"Well, I cook and I clean, and I serve guests," Irene answered, "It's not a hectic lifestyle, but it isn't without its challenges."
The sky began to darken. Camus suggested they dry off before it got too late, otherwise they'd be freezing by night. Owen and Losse tended to building a fire while Camus and Irene watched from the water. Suddenly, Irene realized she needed to answer nature's call. She tapped Camus' shoulder and indicated that she would return shortly,then departed into the woods.
It was nice and quiet in the trees. Birds were settling down for the night, and Irene was happy to have some alone time. She sat and enjoyed the silence, closing her eyes for a moment and breathing a deep sigh.
When she returned, she heard Owen and Camus talking. She lingered in the trees to eavesdrop. "I don't really know." She heard Camus say.
"What do you mean?" Owen asked, "I think she's great. She's pretty, smart, energetic..."
"Stubborn," Camus added, "rough, argumentative. Do you really want to fight her every time you need her to do something? She's unyielding. Her manners won't be acceptable in our home. So yes, as a friend she is excellent. And of her beauty there is no dispute. But as a wife…"
"Maybe you're just controlling," Owen suggested.
"What do you mean?" Camus asked. Irene could hear the offense in his voice.
"I'm just saying. She's all well and good when you let her be." Irene heard something cracking. The fire? "The only time she argues with you is when you try to control her. If you paid attention, you could see that her behavior is very predictable. She understands the value of hard work. The value of a dollar. Maybe she'll make a difficult wife, but I think it would be good for you to spend some time with somebody who doesn't need your help with anything." They shared a moment of silence.
"I'm… Controlling?" Camus inquired dubiously. Irene imagined Owen shrugging.
"Does it really matter if she likes to swim? Or if she wants to do some heavy lifting?" It was almost like Owen was trying to set her up with Camus. Everything he said was nice to hear, but it was directed at convincing his brother that Irene was good for him. "Not in any direct way." Owen continued. "She's one in a million, wild, strong, and beautiful. If the sea could be any one person, it would be miss Irene. It's worth it, if you ask me."
"So, you love her?" Camus asked. Irene raised an eyebrow, surprised to hear that so soon.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far just yet," Owen contested, "but I've definitely taken an interest. Of course, she's fair game, but I think she likes me better. You're going to have to learn to relax and have fun if you want to take her from me." They were quiet again. When the silence persisted, Irene crept back into the camp.
"I smell something cooking," she stated as she walked into their midst.
"We're cooking fish skewers," Owen told her, "but maybe tomorrow we can catch fresh fish to fry. These guys are salted, probably a week old."
"Owen," Camus cast him a sharp glare, and then set his eyes on Irene, "I'm sure they're fine. But he's right; they'd taste even better fresh."
"I'll bet," Irene agreed, "I know a thing or two about cooking. That would be fun." Some time later, Losse collected the fish skewers from the fire and divided them among the siblings and Irene, taking two for himself. They ate and exchanged stories from their childhood while seated around the fire.
"Before Owen was born," begun Camus, "my father brought me and our mother to this very spot. I snared, skinned, and cooked my first rabbit here."
"When I was only six years old," Owen added, "I found a nest of smallish, fist-sized eggs in a pond in our House. It turned out they were Wyvern eggs, and they weren't far from hatching either. Luckily we managed to smash them in time, thanks to me. Wyverns are a terrible pest, and very poisonous. They breed quickly and eat everything in sight."
"When I was little," Irene replied, "I got lost in the woods north of the inn. I was found by an old hermit, who guided me back to the coastline—where I brought you two when you visited—which is how I discovered the place. The old hermit was never found, and to this day my parents aren't certain they believe me. But I remember him. He had white hair, and eyes like mine. He wasn't dressed like us though; come to think of it, he was very strange-looking for an islander."
"A mainlander?" Owen said skeptically, "here?"
"Probably not a mainlander," Camus replied, "even mainlanders don't usually have eyes like yours, miss Irene. They don't look too terribly different from Cecilians, except for the tone of their skin and their mainlander fashion. Do you think perhaps he could have been related to you?" Irene considered it. She remembered his eyes, but she was so young when it happened that it never occurred to her that he could be any more than a lonely old man in the woods. As she grew older, it occurred to her that he was rather strange, but she figured that if nobody had ever seen him that he had probably long since moved on.
"If he was," she asked, "why would he leave me there? I'm quite distinctive. If he had lost somebody like me among Cecilians, I would not have been difficult to locate. He simply sent me home." Owen shrugged.
Night fell, and the woods became quiet. They changed into their nightclothes in their tents, and bid each other good night. Losse extinguished the fire before lying down in his tent. Irene's tent was quite plush. The brothers had provided her with a very soft and fluffy blue comforter. With it came two fat pillows. This was hardly roughing it. Her own bedroom didn't have these kinds of amenities. It was a warm night, as well; Irene could sleep comfortably enough without the covers. As she lay down to sleep, her mind wandered back to the question of the day: Owen or Camus? Once again, she found herself reconsidering their individual qualities. Owen was nice. He was sweet and understanding and easy going; but Irene found him physically unappealing. He was far from ugly, and she knew he could be considered attractive by other women, but she was mostly attracted to Owen for friendship. He was adventurous and interesting, but…
It was a frustrating concept. Owen was perfect in almost every way, but Irene just didn't feel any static. Even stranger was that she felt attracted to Camus, who was nearly her opposite. Sure, he was strong, pretty, and intelligent like her, but Owen was right. Camus did have some control problems, and some problems respecting their differences in opinions. Marrying Camus would be like surrendering herself to the nightmare of domestic bondage. At least her freedom to entertain herself would be protected by Owen, but she was reminded of 'Nary's description of her grandfather. He might be a good person, but if she married him she'd still be forced to sleep with him. She supposed that even if she didn't take Camus, she ought to leave Owen be; he should be given the chance to find a woman with some real attraction to him.
Camus rose first the next day. Irene saw him in his noble robes standing by the log as she crawled out of her tent in a brown and white sundress. He heard her emerge and looked back. She smiled cordially and strode over beside him. "Beautiful morning," she said. It was; the sun was barely above the trees, and the lake was covered with a thin, fine mist. Cool dewdrops had collected in the grass overnight, and they cooled her feet as they crushed the grass beneath her. The birds were just beginning to sing again, and the sky was clear and serene.
"It certainly is," Camus agreed. They stood quietly for a moment, appreciating the scenery. Then he turned his gaze toward her and said, "I want to apologize again." Surprised, Irene cocked her head at him.
"For what?" She asked. "You haven't done anything wrong."
"On the contrary. You were right; I treated you like somebody you were not. I treated you like somebody I expected you to be." He gazed out over the glassy surface of the lake. "You are different. I can accept that. I worried that you might be difficult to live with, but I have realized that I am not without my own flaws. And obviously you will not be shunned in my house. My father must think very highly of you to put us together." Irene smiled. He was being so blunt.
"Do you mean to tell me, Camus," she inquired, "that you have been considering courting me?" His head whipped around so fast she was worried it might fly off. The look of surprise and embarrassment on his face was priceless. It was clear what he thought: that the reason for their meeting and for this trip had been for them to get to know each other to determine whether or not they would make a suitable couple. That was the reason, of course, but Irene certainly hadn't been told. She'd been left to assume. Owen and Camus appeared to have been told after all, and had been under the impression that Irene had been informed as well.
"I… I'm sorry. I… Assumed…" Camus looked flustered. Irene shook her head, smiling softly.
"Let's go for a walk," she suggested, stepping along the lake edge. He followed her reluctantly. They walked a short way silently before Camus apologized again.
"I thought you knew…" He reasoned.
"I may not have known," Irene assured him, "but I certainly suspected. There's nothing wrong with it. I do have to be married sometime anyway. And let's be honest, the clock is ticking." Camus looked at her, confused.
"What do you mean?" He asked. So they really haven't told you much about me at all, she thought.
"My father and I have an agreement. As you may know," she really didn't know what he knew about her, at this point, "I am twenty-two. In mere months, I will turn twenty-three. My father and I have an agreement. If I choose a husband before I am twenty-five, I may marry anyone I choose. If I reach twenty-five and I'm still unwed, however, my family will choose a husband for me." She smiled at him. "It's more freedom than most women get, and I'm very thankful for it. But it will be for nothing if I don't find myself a good man before my time expires." His face had returned to a normal, placid expression and he was watching her intently as she spoke.
"I suppose it's a good thing we met, then," he replied.
"Yes," she added, "I suppose so." They walked on in silence a while longer, taking in the calm serenity of the lake.
Irene decided to break the ice by talking about their families. "Except for my looks," Irene explained, "I wouldn't even know I was adopted. Tolemus, Nessa, 'Nary, Brae… They all treat me like I'm blood. And the twins don't even know what life was like before me." Camus nodded.
"I imagine it's nice, spending so much time with family." He said wistfully. "My mother passed away when Owen and I were young, and our father is often gone on diplomatic business or holed up in his bedroom with her old belongings. I don't think he'll ever stop missing her." Irene expressed her condolences. "I barely remember." He shook his head. "But it does get lonely. I'm away for training eight months out of the year. It's why I spend so much time studying. My two-month breaks just feel like open holes in my mind. I get bored. I can't stand to be idle."
"I'm the same way," Irene related, "but I'm fortunate enough to have many siblings to occupy myself with. I may lack close friends, but I do get company from the guests at the inn." She paused. "I wish you could come live with me instead of the other way around. We're a tightly knit family." He smiled and shook his head.
"It would be interesting, and surely we could visit, but I think you'd like the House. You'd be able to do the same things you did at the inn, only you wouldn't be required to work and you'd have more money." It's true, she thought. That didn't sound so bad. "There are many beautiful places in the House too… Gardens and ponds and such. You may be able to appreciate them better than I. I've lived with them all my life, so they're no wonder to me. Actually," he stopped in his tracks. Irene walked a little bit ahead and then turned to face him. "My birthday is in a few weeks, some days before I return to my training. We'll be celebrating my acquisition of the bronze badge as well. There will be dancing, and important people from all over the island—and even parts of the mainland—will be coming. If you would like to come," his hesitant manner of speaking betrayed his nerves, "I could send you a formal invitation."
"That would be lovely," Irene replied, "but I don't have anything appropriate to wear for such a formal occasion." He shook his head.
"Don't worry about it." He assured her, "I will send some money to you when you return home. I'm sure your grandmother knows a good place to look for a formal dress." Oh no. He was already spending money on her. She made a skeptical face as if to decline, but he cut her off, "Both Owen and I would be very happy to have you attend. Even if you don't marry either of us, you are a good friend. We don't have many of those." Irene smiled, put a bit more at ease.
"Then you shall see me there." She confirmed. He grinned softly, his nerves still plainly written on his face. Didn't they address that in his diplomacy training? She didn't actually know what that entailed, but she imagined that if somebody were trying to make a diplomatic negotiation or do any kind of damage control, he ought to have a good poker face. Suddenly, they heard faint shouts from behind them. They both looked back down the path. Owen was waving and shouting at them from the campsite.
"What the…?" Camus said, his eyes narrowing as he tried to get a better look at his brother.
"I think he's getting lonely," Irene said, "Let's head back over." Camus nodded. Once back at the camp, they saw Owen standing outside the tent holding three wooden rods.
"It's still a little early," he said, "if you want to catch fish, this is the best time."
"Sounds good," Irene nodded. Camus took a rod and Owen handed one to Irene.
"There's a spot I remember from less than a year ago," said Owen, "I don't know how good it is now, but I think it's worth a try. It's on the other side of the lake." They all walked along the lakeside, Losse in tow. Irene watched the scenery pass them by. They approached a tall hill at the far end of the lake. At its base was a stone slab which sat on top of the water. "They like to hide under there," Owen explained, "but when they feel your cast hit the water, they'll be drawn out." They walked out onto the stone slab and sat down. Losse set down an empty crate, presumably for the fish. "This is a good place to look for bait too. Worms love soft, moist soil." Irene let him talk, even though she knew well how to fish. She'd gathered her own bait more than a few times, and caught plenty of fish in the sea.
Owen began digging around in the ground. Irene joined him. Camus seemed about to stop her, but then he checked himself and just began digging. Owen quickly found a few, and soon it became a contest. Owen caught the most, having dug eight worms to Camus' five and Irene's six. The worms were placed in a pile in front of the three of them, and after they baited their hooks they chose a casting order to avoid crossing their lines. Camus cast out first. Owen threw his line, and last was Irene.
"So what did you guys talk about this morning?" Owen asked, sitting at the edge of the slab. Irene shrugged.
"We were discussing plans for her to attend my birthday party," Camus explained, "and my bronze badge ceremony."
"Ah." Owen said, smiling. "I look forward to that. I'm not much for big parties and formalities, but they've always got good food and sometimes they put on a good show." He looked up at Irene. "And you'll look stunning in a gown with our House colors. They bring out your eyes." She smiled back.
"You're too kind," she said, "but I almost wonder if I wouldn't look better in the colors of Timber House…"
"No," Owen said, feigning despair, "I mean, you'd look good in a potato sack, but you'd look best in Fishery's colors!" Camus laughed.
"Yes," he agreed. "I think blue rather suits you." Huh. The color of sadness. Irene couldn't help thinking.
By the end of the afternoon, they'd caught several fish. They ended up throwing the older ones back in favor of fresher ones, since they knew they couldn't eat everything they caught. Irene taught Owen and Camus how to spot some herbs in the grass and woods, and with the small bit they found they were able to roast the fish with some flavor. The rest of the evening was spent swimming and chatting about things, and the night they spent sitting around the fire telling stories and eating the rest of the fish. It ended on a good note.
Their weekend was about up, and they would return to Fishery the next morning. Irene lay down that night with good feelings in her stomach, but discomfort in her heart. She was certain that both brothers were falling for her, but she still felt torn. Owen was so charming and sweet, but Irene couldn't help her attraction to Camus. Camus might not be as charming, but he did have certain characteristics she found endearing. She found his serious nature somehow appealing. Why I can't I have them both? She thought with some frustration. If only they were one person!
She thought about 'Nary's warning. If she pursued both of them too far, it could cause problems. I might lose my chance of marrying either of them at all. Still, it seemed too early to make the decision. How much did she really know about them? Well, she promised herself, no matter what, I'll make the decision by Camus' birthday. After giving it a little more thought, another notion occurred to her. If I marry Camus, she thought, then I can have Camus' body and Owen's personality. In a way, I can have them both…