Tara crossed her arms and glared across the dinner table. The fancy dinner table of Sir Gondore Buckingsmith, father of Gaston, the noble boy Father had arranged for them all to dine with.
Another pathetic attempt by Father to match her with a boy for marriage. Another attempt to get himself tied to nobility.
They were invited by Buckingsmith, who was a preferred customer at Father’s store, The Rest’s Finest. A conversation a few days ago had led to the invite.
Tara wasn’t sure why Sir Gondore was a noble. She didn’t care about nobility, which seemed the exception in Breton society. What was even the point? To say you were better than others? Because some ancestor had once done something?
The only people who deserved extra attention were actual heroes, Tara thought. Did you save some lives? Then you deserved a title. Everyone else were just pompous asses. Like their dinner hosts.
At least the food was good. Tara couldn’t remember the last time she’d had roast boar, salmon, or a boiled creme treat. For all their supposed success, Father was tight with money, so they ate only what they grew and slaughtered. What they made Tara slaughter. Usually chicken or rabbit. Tara wondered if he did it to spite Mom, since she refused to sell the farm. Father wanted a home in Wayrest proper, not to live on the outskirts.
The food wasn’t making up for the conversation, though. Or the constant lecherous stares from Gaston.
Tara imagined even if she was attracted to men, she would’ve found Gaston repulsive. His eyes were beady, nose crooked, chin too sharp, with a forehead too big. His skin was pale, as if he rarely stepped outside. To say he was pudgy was being kind. He seemed a sload, in all the worst ways.
Tara understood others found her attractive. Words like pretty, beautiful, and gorgeous had been thrown at her, mostly by men, starting when she was twelve. Her skin crawled whenever men threw those words at her, as if the men who tossed them expected something in return for such compliments. As if she was supposed to feel special because they’d paid attention to her. As if she owed them.
At least she could threaten the boys who tried the same words, stares, and, on too many occasions, a quick grab and touch. At fifteen, she’d already broken nine local boys’ noses. Gaston seemed to be angling to be number ten.
When they’d first arrived to the Buckingsmith’s manor, they were all, Mother, Father, and Tara, given a tour. Mira was off studying magic in Cyrodiil. Sir Gondore had shown them his trophy room, full of swords and suits of armor from ancestors, pointed out paintings of said ancestors, and bragged about their supposed accomplishments. It was obvious Gondore himself had never been a knight, or warrior of any kind.
Gaston had made a point to bump into Tara twice in the trophy room, bumping into her shoulder the first time, and mumbling an apology. His eyes did not seem sorry.
The second time, he’d pressed into her back from behind, and Tara felt his hot breath in her ear. When she’d stepped forward to move away from him, he’d followed, keeping himself against her. She’d stomped on his right foot and glared.
For the rest of the tour, Gaston had kept his distance, but caught her eye as often as he could and winked. Sir Gondore was most proud to show off their collection of stuffed and mounted animal heads in the library room.
When it was time to eat, Tara was seated across the table from Gaston. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Mom sat next to her, with Father next to Mom, closest to Sir Gondore. Gondore sat at the head of the table, with his wife, Elona, next to him, then Gaston.
The table could seat up to twelve, and Tara desperately wished she could have sat in the unused half of the table. She avoided Gaston’s stare, and instead noticed the wait staff; the Buckingsmiths had servants on hand, bringing the various dishes to and from the kitchen.
One particular wait staff caught her eye. A blond Breton, who in a word was lovely. Her hair was neatly braided down her back, her eyes were blue-gray, wide and soulful. She looked to be sixteen, only a year older than Tara. She had curves for days. Tara felt an instant attraction to her.
Her voice was polite, and soft, as she offered up the various dishes to everyone. She’d smiled at Tara as she offered her the roast boar, and Tara had given her a huge grin back.
Gaston had given her a lecherous grin when she served him. Tara admired how neutral she managed to keep her face and avoid his gaze.
“Tara here is top in her classes,” Mom was saying to Sir Gondore. “She’s quite the reader.”
“And so pretty, too,” Sir Gondore replied. He winked at Tara. She looked away before a scowl crossed her face. Gaston gave her a toothy grin. Tara rolled her eyes at him.
“She’d look wonderful all dressed up for a fancy event. Stunning in a dress,” Father said. Tara had refused to wear a dress to this dinner. Seemed Father was trying to compensate for it.
Tara was about to retort, remind him how much she disliked dresses, when she felt Gaston’s foot rub against her left ankle. He’d taken off his shoes under the table, so she felt his toes working themselves under the edge of her pant leg.
Tara glared at him and kicked his foot with her right leg. His foot retreated, but he kept that stupid grin on his face.
“The next time there’s a dance, perhaps Gaston and Tara could go together,” Father was saying.
“Where’s the latrine?” Tara interrupted. They were making her skin crawl. All of them.
“Down that hallway, past the kitchen,” Elona said.
Tara made her way down the hall. She didn’t need to use the latrine, she just wanted to be away from the dinner, especially the men.
How could they discuss her like that? As if she were a cow, up for debate if it was time for slaughter. Or, a trophy. That’s what it was. A trophy to be dressed up and paraded around. Because she was pretty.
She leaned against the wall next to the latrine, closed her eyes, and rubbed her forehead. What would it take for her parents to respect her interests? She would never marry a male noble. Or, any male.
“Are you alright, ma’am?”
Tara opened her eyes to see the blond Breton servant standing in front of her. Those eyes.
Tara straightened up. “I, um…yes. Yes, I’m okay.”
“Can I get you anything?”
Your mouth on mine, Tara thought. She cleared her throat. “Away from this dinner party?”
The Breton laughed, then quickly covered her mouth.
“I suppose I shouldn’t speak ill of your bosses,” Tara said.
“Don’t hold back on my account.” The Breton whispered. “Gaston is quite insufferable.”
“He’s a leech,” Tara said, dropping her voice.
“Yes.” She gave Tara a long look. “Your parents trying to set you up with him?”
Tara nodded. “I’m not interested.” She paused. “In any man, for that matter.”
The Breton smiled. A knowing look came into her eyes. “I thought so. Me, too.”
They smiled at each other.
“Might I know your name?” Tara asked.
“Ginette. And yours?”
“I’m Tara. Hi,” Tara said.
“Hi,” Ginette giggled.
“When you’re not being a servant, what else do you do, Ginette?” Tara asked.
“Well, well. What are you two up to?”
The clipped, sharp voice of Gaston entered Tara’s ears. She and Ginette turned to see him standing in the hall, watching them. He looked angry, yet triumphant.
Ginette stepped away from Tara. She’d leaned in when they started whispering. It had been intoxicating to Tara.
“I was just checking on the maiden, sir,” Ginette said. A guilty look slipped across her face before she could assume a neutral expression. “Thought she might be unwell.”
Gaston sneered. “No you weren’t. Giggling. Flirting. I’ll have you fired for this.”
“No you won’t, if you know what’s good for you.” Tara stepped forward, in front of Ginette, as if she needed to physically protect her from Gaston.
Gaston stepped close to Tara. They were inches apart. His beady eyes were somehow more beady, narrowed into slits.
“This is my house! I’ll do what I want!” he shouted. The kitchen near them suddenly fell silent.
“You’re supposed to be mine,” he continued. “Father said you were being brought here for me!”
“I’m no one’s!” Tara shouted back. “I’m no one’s property. And certainly not yours, you slobbering sewer rat!”
“You want a servant girl instead?! Some poor slut we picked up off the streets…”
Gaston didn’t get another syllable in. Tara swung her fist and broke his nose. She’d never heard a more satisfying crunch of bones.
He collapsed with a yelp. “My node!” He managed through the gush of blood working its way down his face and through his fingers, as he held his hands to his face.
Tara looked up from him to see the cook and a mess of servants watching them. They’d come out from the kitchen to see the commotion. Behind them…her parents and the Buckingsmiths.
Mom looked aghast, and about to faint. Father’s look of anger looked to match Tara’s own.
“How dare you!” Sir Gondore yelled. That sprung everyone into action. Several servants bent down to help the whimpering Gaston.
Tara turned to look at Ginette. She had a look of fear. Tara wasn’t sure if it was Gaston’s threat of firing or Tara’s violence that had prompted it. Perhaps both.
Her father’s fingers wrapped themselves around her arm and Tara was pulled away, back to the dining room.
“I’m so sorry, Sir Gondore. We’ll pay for…” Father said. Tara had never heard him sound so simpering.
“Out! Out of my house!” Gondore bellowed. “Get her away from here! And don’t expect me to visit your store again.”
Father seethed on their way home. His face turned various shades of red. Mom trembled. Tara felt a wave building up. She’d looked back at Ginette one more time, but she’d avoided Tara’s gaze. She’d had a defeated, fearful look to her.
I was protecting her honor, Tara thought.
No you weren’t. You were getting Gaston back for harassing you.
She’d had one minute of bliss, chatting with Ginette. Now, things were a mess.
As soon as they arrived home, Father said to Mom, “Get a scroll.”
“NO!” Tara yelled. A small wave erupted from her. It shook the kitchen table. More were coming, she could feel it.
Father slapped her hard across the face.
Tara fell, in shock more than the actual force. Father and Mother fought, violently at times. He’d never hit Tara before, though. She’d thought she was safe. Thought they feared her waves enough.
“Use the scroll,” Father said to Mom.
“NO!” Tara started to get back up.
Father kicked her in the stomach. She fell back down.
“STOP!” she cried. Another wave erupted, this time almost knocking Father down. Tara heard some dishes crash and break on the floor.
Another slap, and Tara heard her mom reading the Calm scroll, releasing its magic.
Father switched to punching.
Tara never knew if it was the beating or the spell that finally knocked her out.