Uncalled For Actions (7/?)
Days 43 – 49 of the experiment.
The soldiers filed out after them, most setting off in different directions while two took up guard positions on either side of the office door. Gil turned towards the summit room where he could hear the curious voices of the other attendants but his father’s grip nearly stole his breath, forcing him in another direction.
“But the meeting,” Gil protested as he was guided down another hall with guards now stationed every ten meters.
“Barkley will be assisting for the rest of the day.”
They turned the corner to the guest wing, one of their attendants seeing them coming and opening the door. The Baron shoved Gil into the room; Gil nearly tripping over his feet. He stumbled into a settee then spun just as his father released his pent up disgust.
“What were you thinking?” His voice hit octaves Gil had never heard before.
He swallowed hard. “I didn’t do anything wrong. You said-”
His father grabbed his hands roughly, pulling them up his face. “This says otherwise.”
Gil glanced at his raw knuckles, two spit and bleeding–or maybe that was Tarvek’s blood–then quickly found something else to stare at.
His father dropped his hands in annoyance. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Gil fought back the lump in his throat. All the years of trying to prove to his father he was worth something–worth his time and attention. And one afternoon with his rival destroyed that little bit of trust he’d built through all of those experiments and procedures. He shook off the feeling of helplessness and anger.
All of his reason fled under his father’s disapproving scrutiny allowing only one thing to escape. “He started it,” Gil said to his feet feeling six-years-old again and knowing the instant he said it that it was the wrong thing.
His father growled. “Unacceptable.”
Gil sighed. “I know–I tried to stop, to not engage, but-”
His father only watched him, waiting for a proper explanation. There was no point in lying. “I told you this was a bad idea–Tarvek hates me. He attacked me for no reason.”
“I swear–I was only talking to Anev- I mean the Princess.”
His father’s eyebrow shot up the same moment Gil realized his mistake; he was supposed to be observing at the luncheon, not exploring the castle with Anevka. Gil sighed, slumping against the sofa and carefully rubbing his sore face–there was no talking his way out of this.
“This was a peace summit and you are an official representative of the Empire. I expect the utmost attention to protocol-”
“I know; I’m sorry.”
“You’ve embarrassed the Empire with your behavior. I’m disappointed.”
Gil winced at some of the harshest words he could ever receive from his father.
“Herr Victori,” the Baron called into the sitting room, getting the attention of an older gentleman whose job was officially to keep files. The man approached, wary of the Baron’s ill temper.
“Yes, Herr Baron?”
“You will make sure Herr Hozfaller remains in our quarters for the rest of the afternoon.
He will stand at attention until I return–maybe that will teach him some discipline.”
Gil’s eyes snapped up to his father’s. He wanted to shout and scream and demand to know why he was being punished for doing nothing but defending himself and his reputation, but he bit his tongue and straightened his back, chin high.
Victori glanced between them, obviously uneasy with the tension and his task. “Of course, Herr Baron,” he finally said.
His father paused at the door, studying Gil like he had something else to stay but only frowned before leaving Gil standing at attention for the next few hours.
* * *
“I’m sorry,” Tarvek said for the fifth time since everyone had fled his father’s mounting wrath–not that anyone noticed any more than the first four times.
His father and sister stood on either side of him shouting their disappointment at him and each other and the world but mostly about him like he wasn’t even in the room. The noise was making Tarvek ill.
He took two steps away before his father grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, yanking him back hard. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I just need to sit down,” he said meekly, the room starting to spin.
A knock on the door ended the rest of his father’s rant. He let go of Tarvek with a shove, sending him stumbling on unsteady legs, regaining his footing and straightening his shirt just as his father called, “enter.”
One of the servants poked his head in looking more than a little nervous as his eyes darted around the room. Tarvek wondered how much he had heard–the rumors would be lighting through the castle like that fungus Anevka grew.
“Yes,” barked his father, making the servant jump.
The man cleared his throat and entered fully, standing tall. “The summit, Your Highness–the other delegates-”
His father huffed. “Yes, yes. Tell them I’ll be there in a moment. Has the Baron returned?”
“Not as yet.”
“Well, there’s that,” he muttered then turned to his children, face less red but eyes still blazing. “Anevka, you will accompany me through the afternoon’s meetings.”
Anevka nodded. “Of course, Father.”
Tarvek swallowed hard before forcing himself to meet his father’s hard, disgusted stare.
“Go get yourself cleaned up–I’ll deal with you later.” With that, the two swept out of the room, the servant scampering after them.
After the door slammed shut, Tarvek let out a long breath and slumped against the desk with a groan. “What have I done,” he mumbled.
He took several minutes to center himself before finally sneaking out the side door into the private quarters of the royal family. Inside his room, he collapsed onto his bed, head swimming. The clothes he’d gone through earlier were still spread out around him, and the mostly empty bottle of brandy sat on the bedside table where he’d left it.
In a sudden surge of anger and self-loathing, he rolled off the bed, grabbed the bottle and slammed into the wall across from him, barely noticing the shower of glass that pelted his legs before dropping to the floor, head buried in his knees.
* * *
Violetta watched from the corner as her cousin crumbled, silently sobbing as he hugged his legs to his chest. She’d rarely ever seen Tarvek lose his cool even when he’d get hurt during training–she’d always tried to be just as calm although she rarely lived up to that dream.
Seeing him fall apart scared her more than it should and tore at her heart which was even more wrong. Empathy was weakness and Smoke Knights didn’t have the luxury of being weak.
Something slick slid down her cheek, plopping onto her cloak. She wiped at her face, fingers coming away slick with blood; she found several other small cuts around her eye. Shaking the remaining shards from her cloak, she stepped out of the dark to stand in front of Tarvek–he’d wallowed enough.
“Martellus is up to something,” she said matter-of-factly.
Tarvek sucked in a shuddering breath but didn’t look at her. Had she actually managed to surprise him?
It took him a moment to get himself together before he let his head fall back against the bed with a sigh. “When is Martellus not up to something?”
Violetta ignored Tarvek’s tear-stained face as she joined him on the floor, close enough to offer support but not touching. She wanted to ask if he was okay but that was too close to caring so instead she said, “what are we going to do about him?”
Tarvek sighed. “Why do we have to do anything?”
“Because he’s up to something.”
“Violetta-” His words cut short as he finally looked at her, his eyes growing wide before shifting to the broken bottle inches from where she’d been hiding. Just as quickly, he averted his gaze, staring at his feet. “I’m sorry.”
Violetta frowned at the broken glass then at Tarvek’s shoes then at him before shrugging as her only reply. Why was he sorry? He was the one to teach her about feelings and weakness and control.
“About Martellus,” she said, trying to refocus his attention.
That seemed to work as Tarvek hopped to his feet, thrusting his hands through his tangled hair. “I have more important things to worry about than whatever stupid plot Tweedle is up to.”
“But this is important. He-”
Violetta jumped up, hands on her hips and right in Tarvek’s face. “What is wrong with you? You always told me to watch him and report any suspicious activity.”
“And earlier I told you to stay away from him–he’s dangerous, and I don’t have time to keep you from getting hurt.”
Anger bubbled up from a well deep inside that she fought constantly to keep capped. She launched herself at Tarvek, slamming into his back, nearly taking him to the ground. “I don’t need you to protect me–I can take care of myself like I always do.”
“Fine, go take care of yourself somewhere else.”
They glared at each other for long seconds before Violetta broke, spinning away before he could see the tears blurring her vision. She shouldn’t be upset at him yelling at her, she told herself. It’s not like they were friends.
Technically, Violetta worked for Tarvek and his family–she was a servant just like all the other cowed subjects in the castle, but Tarvek had never treated her like that–not when it was just the two of them alone. But in the end, she was just a Smoke Knight sworn to protect the family and ultimately expendable.
So why did his rejection hurt so much?
With a swish of her cloak, she disappeared into the darkness before she did something stupid like demand to know why Tarvek was being such a jerk.
* * *
Gil’s back and shoulder’s ached from standing at attention for so long.
He could hear the clock ticking on the mantle behind him but refused to budge no matter how much Victori fretted and insisted he wouldn’t tell.
This day just got worse and worse like he knew in his gut it would from the moment he learned of the summit.
“Should have listened to me,” he muttered, getting the older man’s attention. Gil bit his lip, raised his chin and continued to stare at the door, waiting for his father to return. He would show him–Gil had discipline. He wasn’t a disappointment.
The word bounced around his head fueling an alternating current of anger and regret. Maybe he was a disappointment. Maybe that’s why his father kept him hidden for so many years, why he was still keeping him a secret, not for his safety like he said. Maybe he’s always just been a face–another puppet to the Empire–here to serve his purpose and nothing more.
Gil sucked in a breath, holding it until his lungs burned. This line of thoughts never ended anywhere healthy.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like a rest?” Victori asked for the hundredth time, glancing at the door then back to Gil. “A snack perhaps?”
Gil let the breath out slowly but didn’t acknowledge the man. It’s not that the thought Victori was trying to get him in trouble. On the contrary, he thought the man only trying to be helpful and understanding, but Gil’s pride was much stronger than his discomfort.
Pride–one thing he definitely got from his father. The thought almost made him laugh as his lips curled into a slight grin that seemed to unnerve his nervous guard.
Victori wrung his hands before picking up a glass of water. “Maybe you would-”
Before he could finish, the door to the room flew open, letting in a loud group including the Baron, Barkley and several Sturmhalten servants that arranged a quick tea. Once the servants left and the Baron’s attendants were seated around the table, Gil’s father finally addressed him, hands held lightly behind his back like this was any other day.
Gil kept his eyes straight ahead which left them staring at a button just below the collar of his father’s shirt–it had a little Wulfenbach emblem on it.
“Follow me,” he said after a moment, brushing past Gil and into the adjoining bedroom suite.
Gil let out a soft breath, spun on his heel and ignored the pointed stares of the others in the room. His father waited then shut the door behind them before collapsing with a sigh onto a small sofa set at the end of the bed. Gil waited, confused, while his father rubbed at his face.
Was his father actually tired? Showing weakness? The incongruity of that spun his head around–maybe the world was coming to an end.
With another sigh, the Baron shifted, patting the spot next to him. “Come, sit, Gil; we need to talk.”
Yep, the world was definitely ending.
He cautiously joined his father on the sofa, keeping his distance in case it was some kind of trick–he wouldn’t put something like that past him. When nothing happened, Gil leaned forward slightly and asked, “are you well, Father?”
This seemed to snap the Baron out of his thoughts. “It’s been a long day.”
Gil nodded. “It has.” Longer than Gil wished to dwell on, mostly because he had to dwell on Tarvek, and he wished to keep his old friend as far from his thoughts as he could. It was proving more difficult than he thought after everything that happened.
“Have you had enough time to consider your behavior today?”
Gil cringed then fell back against the sofa in a slouch that rumpled his heavy coat. His father simply waited, arms resting on his knees–Gil knew there was no getting out of this conversation or lecture.
“I’m sorry,” he said eventually. “It’s not like I meant for all of this to happen. I warned you-”
“Ah, this is about your behavior; do not try to shift blame to someone else.”
Gil glared at his father, fighting back angry words that would do his cause little good until he could no longer hold the older man’s steady gaze.
“What lessons have you taken from today’s events?”
I should have listened to my gut and stayed on Castle Wulfenbach. Not that he could ever say that so he sighed. “I should have stayed at the luncheon instead of running off with Anevka like I was supposed to.”
Then I probably wouldn’t have encountered Tarvek.
His father let out a breath. “The Princess is trouble as much as her brother ever was if not more–the entire family-”
“I know, I know; you’ve mentioned it a time or two,” Gil interrupted with annoyance. “We were just having some fun.”
Reaching into an inner pocket of his coat, his father pulled out a folded sheet of paper that revealed several very unflattering drawings and mismatched scribbled comments. Gil groaned, sinking even further down in the sofa as his father snorted in apparent amusement.
“I think you need to work on your technique,” he said, dropping the paper on Gil’s lap.
Gil picked it up, stared at Anevka’s neat penmanship then crumpled it into a ball and tossed it into the wastebasket across the room.
His father laughed again which Gil found more than a little unsettling. Klaus Wulfenbach has a sense of humor? Who knew?
“Gilgamesh,” the Baron said, sitting up a little more seriously, “I know your experience with young ladies is somewhat limited by your circumstances-”
“Ugh,” Gil yelled, shooting to his feet, “it wasn’t like that at all. We were just talking. I was- I was gathering intel like you said.”
The look his father gave him said he didn’t believe that for a second forcing a furious blush to heat Gil’s face and neck. He dropped back onto the sofa, face buried his hands.
His father patted his shoulder with another snort. “When we get back home, we’ll have to talk more about this–women are-” He paused considering his words. “Complicated.”
“Father, please,” Gil moaned.
Another laugh, another pat and his father got up. Retrieving a case from a bureau across the room, he opened it on the bed behind Gil. Before Gil could fully turn to see what his father had, something sharp stabbed him in the neck.
He fell back, holding his neck and blinking as the room spun a little. “What was that?”
His father held up a syringe of glittery purple liquid and squirted a small amount out of the tip. “Inoculation,” he answered before capping the needle.
Gil blinked even more furiously. “Inoculation for what?”
“Oxfam’s Hypnotosia–Barkley did say it was going around.”
Gil shook his head which just made his neck hurt more. “The clucking disease?”
His father just continued to return things to his case as if Gil wasn’t freaking out a meter away from him.
“Why didn’t you get one then if it’s so contagious?
“I don’t need one. Now go get ready for supper.”
“Supper?” Gil asked, dropping the subject of then inoculation knowing full well his father would never elaborate on anything.
His father placed the case back on the bureau just as Barkley knocked on the door then poked his head in nervously. “Yes, supper,” he said, stopping Barkley with a hand up so he could finish with Gil. “We’re eating with the royal family tonight, and you will be on your best behavior. None of this feud nonsense from earlier. No excuses,” he added when Gil opened his mouth to protest.
With that, the conversation was over and the Baron was waving Barkley into the room. Gil snapped his jaw shut, clenching it tightly to refrain from saying something else he’d regret.
Why doesn’t he ever listen, Gil wondered as he marched down a short hallway in the suite to his much smaller room that, thankfully, had a private bath. He tossed his coat on a chair, not bothering to worry about wrinkles and discarded his waistcoat and shirt on the bed as he made his way into the bathroom.
“He never listens–nobody every listens,” he told his reflection which glared back at him until Gil let out a long sigh, dropping his head. “Story of my life,” he mumbled.
The thought hit him like a steam engine, stealing his breath. Before then and since, he’d screamed and yelled and begged to be seen, but no one ever paid him any attention. But Tarvek had listened to his ideas, had wanted to know more, wanted to talk about everything. Tarvek had cared right up until Gil messed it all up and lost the only friend he’d ever had.
He sucked in a long breath then let it out slowly, pushing all the memories into a corner of his mind to hopefully never think about ever again. He knew that was a lost cause the second he thought it because he had to face Tarvek at supper and for the rest of the summit; it was going to end badly no matter how well he behaved.
But then there was a part of him that wanted Tarvek’s attention–any kind of attention was better than silence and glares filled with loathing and anger. He hated himself a little for being so desperate and pathetic. It’s not like he could ever fix things with his ex-friend. How do you even apologize for a betrayal of that magnitude?
“You can’t,” he whispered then shook himself out. The whole line of thought was pointless–he needed to focus on surviving the rest of the week but more importantly, surviving supper.
Despite his resolution to not think about Tarvek or their history, his mind kept wandering back to it while he cleaned himself up and got dressed in his clean, fancy clothes that he hated. Give him work pants and a lab coat any day.
God, he missed the lab.
Ever since his father dragged him into this apprentice farce, Gil hadn’t had any time to be in his lab–the one good thing that ever came out of those events six years ago. Another pointless train of thought derailing his focus tonight.
With another sigh, he fixed the top button of his shirt and secured his Wulfenbach sigil, straightening it in the mirror, surprised by the burst of pride it gave him to wear the stupid thing. Silly really since all Wulfenbach employees wore one, but Gil was a Wulfenbach which mean it was his sigil for whatever that was worth.
“Gilgamesh,” his father called from outside the door.
“Coming,” he shouted back as the small smile slid from his face. He straightened his shoulders and forced a neutral expression because Wulfenbachs never showed emotion if they could help it, at least that’s what Gil took away from his father’s constant calm.
In the main room, Barkley and the other attendants hovered around the Baron nervously, some still giving reports from their day of probably nefarious activities.
His father shot him a disapproving look then headed to the door without a word.
Great, already in trouble and not even at the supper yet. It was going to be a long night.
Outside their suite, a guard waited, snapping to attention as soon as the door opened. “Escort,” he said making it clear this wasn’t optional.
His father nodded, letting the guard lead the way and showing none of the annoyance Gil was having a difficult time hiding as he trailed behind the two.
His stomach knotted the farther they got from their quarters. He tried to memorize the way the same he did while exploring with Anevka but kept getting distracted by the feeling the paintings on the wall were watching him. Knowing the castle and the family that lived here, he wouldn’t be surprised if they were being watched from portraits. The idea creeped him out and he hurried to catch up with the others.
* * *
Tarvek sat slumped in the chair in his room where he’d been since Violetta left him feeling alone and full of guilt for how he treated her.
Why had he said that?
Out of everyone in his life, Violetta was the only one he could trust–the only one that didn’t seem to have ulterior motives or sinister plots to exploit him like the rest of his family including his father and sister. Violetta actually cared about him which, unfortunately, was a weakness that needed to be flushed out of her if she was going to survive.
He ran a hand over his face, wincing at the bruises. Could this day get any worse?
“Probably,” Anevka said from the doorway startling him out of his morose thoughts. He blinked at her with a frown getting a snort from her.
“Yes, this day can probably get worse, especially if you’re in this funk at supper where Father will be watching you like a hawk.”
Tarvek slouched down further, rubbing his bloodshot eyes with a groan. “I said that out loud?”
Anevka laughed again then sat with a flourish on his bed where she picked up one of his discarded shirts between two fingers, tossing it to the floor.
“You need to get dressed.”
Tarvek knew this.
“And cleaned up–you look like you were kicked by a cranky mule.”
He knew this too but only sunk deeper into the chair until he was nearly falling out of it. “Close enough,” he muttered into his chest.
Anevka clucked at him. “This is your own doing, dummy. What were you even thinking attacking the Baron’s apprentice? And don’t blame the, what is this?” She sniffed at the glass beside his bed. “Brandy? Is this the stuff we stole last week?” Her fond smile only managed to anger Tarvek even more.
“You don’t understand,” he said, suddenly jumping up to pace across the room, his boots crunching over shattered glass.
Anevka played with her dress, spreading the flowing green skirt out around her. “What don’t I understand?”
Tarvek ground his teeth as he ground the glass under his heel, suddenly remembering the blood on Violetta’s cheek. His eyes darted to the dark corner behind the door–had she been standing there when he threw the bottle? His stomach dropped out.
“Tarvek, honey,” his sister said, reminding him very much of their mother, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He couldn’t bear to look at her, afraid she’d see the shame scorching his skin. He could have killed Violetta; he could have killed Holzfäller if Violetta hadn’t intervened–she was always looking out for him. Because it’s her job, a little voice whispered, but he didn’t believe that not after the hurt she’d tried to hide when he’d dismissed her like any old servant. What was wrong with him?
He turned slowly at Anevka’s alarmed tone. She eyed him warily, fingers playing with the ruffles of her dress–the style was from last season and the color clashed horribly with her hair, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her. He shook his head clear before facing her fully, his shoulders falling in defeat.
“What don’t I understand, little brother?” She reached her hand out to him and he took it greedily, needing her care and attention like a child needed a mother and Anevka was as close to a mother as he had.
“Holzfäller and I-” He paused, considering his words. “We have history.”
“How? We just met him today.”
Tarvek cringed knowing he’d have to tell her now or she’d never let it go.
[ Part 8 ]