The Fall of House Hadrine
By Jeremiah Johnson
Mirabelle Hadrine kissed her father on the cheek as he donned his travelling coat, a well worn garment of faded brown canvas trimmed in deep blue that went down just past his knees. Artur smiled warmly at his favorite daughter as she helped him straighten the shoulders and brush out a few errant creases in the fabric.
"I expect I should be back before the first frosts of the year with enough Basileian spices to secure our family's future for generations to come," Artur said with the slightest hint of pride and optimism in his voice, an unusual addition to his usually pragmatic way of speaking. He turned from the mirror to face Mirabelle fully, and the thinly veiled excitement in his eyes became clear to her, "Gregor and I have ironed out every last detail with those damned Southerners and their bloody bureaucratic University. I've never seen a people so obsessed with contracts and due process. Tides permit that I never have to listen to another clerk ramble on about the proper verbiage of an indemnification clause."
Mirabelle nodded empathetically at her father's feigned exasperation, enjoying this rare moment alone with him while he wasn't poring over documents and pulling his hair out in stress. He let out a gentle laugh, pulling her into a half hug and moving towards the door leading into the main hall of their estate.
Artur had been preparing for this day for the better part of two years, pouring all of House Hadrine's resources into the project. It would be the first time in nearly two centuries that the desert nation of Haikhma Basileia would allow foreign trade within their borders. Thanks to Artur Hadrine and his partner in business, Gregor Phinris, their people would soon have access to one of the most valuable trade routes known to Pentar. The spices of the South were legendary and had not been available to the nobility of Tyr'Mallor for far too long.
Even so, the Basileians were notoriously statutory in all their dealings, and even the slightest breach of a contract could spell an end to any future business. Artur was more aware of this fact than most, and most of the past two years had been spent in careful study of their laws and regulations. Mirabelle had been at her father's side for much of this process, acting as both assistant and sounding board for Artur's musings on the subject.
Unlike her sisters, who took little interest in anything other than socializing with their peers, Mirabelle found these discussions with her father incredibly fascinating. She worked with him on their finances regularly, learning much about the inner workings of the Tyr'Mallorean banking system, a hugely complicated organization that permeated nearly all aspects of noble life. Mirabelle found herself rarely leaving the house, preferring to spend her time with her nose in a ledger or book. Her mother often encouraged her to spend more time with children her own age to prepare for her eventual courtship and political alliances, but Mirabelle always appealed to her father and was usually allowed to remain with her precious books.
Artur stepped through the doorway and broke into a large, warm smile as he saw his wife, Helena, and his eldest and youngest daughters waiting in the hall to wish him well on his journey. Polline, the youngest at 10 years old, ran up to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her head in his stomach. "Don't go, papa. It sounds dangerous," she stepped back to look at him intently, "Frederick Gentak told me that the Basileians eat humans like they were fish."
Artur laughed again and knelt down slightly to speak directly to his daughter, "Not to worry, my precious Polly. I will be bringing some of the finest warriors Islingford has to offer along with me. They'll kill them ten times over before they can even attempt to eat me."
Polly seemed somewhat mollified by this, though Artur still had to pry himself free from her embrace so that he could move on to address his wife and eldest daughter, Virine. At 17 years old, Virine had fully blossomed into a woman and was very much her mother's child. Beautiful and dignified, she gave Artur a polite nod, "I wish you much luck on your journey, father. We will wait diligently for your return. I trust you will do our house proud."
Artur nodded and kissed Virine on the cheek before turning to face his statuesque wife, who glared at him with a cold visage. "I hope you understand that the fate of our family name is in your hands on this fools errand that you have obsessed yourself with."
Reaching out his hand softly to touch her face, Artur looked into Helene's eyes and for a brief moment, the stony facade cracked and she moved forward into his arms, embracing him warmly. "Please return to us, my love. I do not know if I.. if we.. can survive without you."
"I will return to you, my beautiful Helene. I swear it. And with me I will bring the riches of the South and secure the future of our house for our daughters and their children beyond them." With a final kiss, he disengaged himself from his wife, gave Mirabelle a firm hug and a fond wink, then motioned for his manservant to gather his bags. Helene stepped back, watching him, her face regaining its controlled air.
A few moments later, Artur gave a final glance back at his family and stepped out into the courtyard of their manor towards the waiting carriage that would carry him to the docks where he would depart for his eventual destination far to the South. As soon as the front door swung closed, Mirabelle raced up the ornate curving stairs in the grand hall to the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Just as she arrived, the door to the coach opened and a tall, handsome man in rich clothing stepped out to greet her father with a handshake. Mirabelle assumed the man must be Gregor Phinris. Though she had never met him personally, her father had said much about him.
Rather than wave farewell as she had initially planned, Mirabelle watched the two men in curiosity, remaining unnoticed. Artur had never seemed to fully trust Gregor, but realized he needed the man's influence and connections within the Foreign Trade Union in order to have a chance of enacting his visions. He was much more attractive than Mirabelle had pictured in her mind's eye. She had always imagined him with a rather too large nose and bulging, watery eyes. The truth was that he was very pleasant looking, with a strong jaw line and a perfectly groomed goatee and shoulder length ponytail, as was the style amongst men these days.
Before she could gather herself and call out to her father, the two men had already entered the carriage and begun to travel through the gates and towards the main road. With a sigh, she turned back into the house that now seemed desperately empty and lonely and prepared herself for what may well be the longest six months of her thirteen year old life.
Over the next several months, Mirabelle busied herself with monitoring the house's finances. Though it was not uncommon for the women of the household to do so, her mother and sisters did not find such matters palatable and were more than happy to leave Mirabelle to her own devices. As she delved deeper and deeper into her father's meticulous records, she began to realize precisely how much importance this contract would bear for her family. Every asset to their name was pledged to this fulfillment of this endeavor. House Hadrine would live and die by its success.
She looked over the trade documents again and again, straining to find any contingency that may have been overlooked, any possible area of weakness. She could find nothing. Her father's planning had been flawless. Though the Basileians may be masters of all matters contractual, Artur was a veteran of the War of Tides, the constant yet invisible battle for power and prestige that waged between the noble houses of Tyr'Mallor, where only the clever and innovative prospered. House Hadrine had not risen to the 15th Crest by accident. Artur had made a careful series of alliances and deals that had served to bring them from the depths of the lower houses to a position where they very nearly had a seat on the ruling Council within the period of a decade, ever since he had taken control of the house from his father, as the aging man's health failed.
This would be Artur's greatest gambit yet. Success would likely push them into the upper tiers of society. At the very least they would take over the 12th Crest and gain a seat. If the trade arrangement continued to prove lucrative to the nation, it would be entirely possible for House Hadrine to be within the top Five Crests within the next decade. Even the 1st Crest was not unthinkable. Mirabelle reeled at the possibilities and marveled at her father's ingenuity.
She studied his past maneuvers carefully, noting the delicate precision with which he manipulated his business partners, always seeming to come out ahead in the end. It was breathtaking in its perfection. She found her respect growing on a daily basis for this man she already adored. Every day she compiled a new list of questions for him in her mind. When he returned, there would be plenty of time for such discussions and she could learn all of his secrets, she told herself.
Months dragged on and soon the first frosts of winter loomed. Still there was no word of the ships from the South. Each day, Mirabelle and her mother walked the several miles to the docks to stare out into the mists surrounding their island home, hoping that off in the distance they would catch a glimpse of billowing white sails. Always they went home disappointed, the walk home feeling twice as long as the optimistic journey there.
Before Mirabelle knew it, her breath was condensing in the air before her during her walk to the docks, forming billowing clouds of fading warmth that dissipated quickly in the frigid air. Her mother no longer joined her in her daily journey, having fallen victim to a severe bout of anxiety that kept her confined to her room most days. Each trip to the docks was more difficult than the day previous, and a hard knot had grown in the pit of her stomach as she envisioned her father smashed to bits on the rocks surrounding their archipelago, or drowned in the open sea. The life of a trader was a dangerous one, especially during this time of year, when the seas ran high and occasional icebergs drifted down from the coast of Norrmark.
Then came the morning of the first snows. Islingford was in the northern reaches of Tyr’Mallor and close enough to Norrmark that winters tended to be harsh. No ships sailed during this time of year save for the small skiffs that ferried people between the islands. Mirabelle, usually enthralled by the billowing white mounds that covered the grounds of their estate, viewed it now with a terrible dread. Could there be any chance of her father's ship traversing the seas in these conditions? Perhaps they had sought harbor further south until the seasons changed. These thoughts passed through her mind quickly and she forced them away while she prepared herself to make the trek to the docks, just as she did every morning.
The sounds of a carriage crunching over the fresh snow echoed faintly through the courtyard as Mirabelle passed the balcony window. Apprehensively, she pulled back the curtains and looked out through the fogged glass, using her hand to clear a small portion so she could see below. Her heart skipped several beats and her breath caught in her throat as she recognized gilded curves of Gregor Phinris' carriage. Still not daring to breathe, she watched as Gregor slowly emerged and made his way towards the front door. He barely looked to be the same man from 8 months ago. His face was emaciated, and his beard grew wild, with little signs of grooming. His clothes were immaculate, however. He had obviously taken time to change prior to arriving here.
Expectantly, Mirabelle watched the carriage, waiting for the opposite door to open and her father to step out with a twinkle in his eyes and a warm hug for his favorite daughter. Long moments passed and the carriage remained still. The only sound was the soft crunch, crunch, crunch of Gregor's booted feet as he moved ominously towards the front door. Mirabelle turned from the window and pressed her back against the wall, slowly sliding down until she landed on the floor, arms wrapped protectively around her knees, breath coming in short, quick gasps.
There could only be one reason Gregor would be here without father. No. There had to be another explanation. There had to be another reason.
Rap, rap, rap. The curt knocking at the front door sent a chill through Mirabelle's body. Then came the scuffle of the doorman's feet and the muffled greeting as the door was opened. Numbly, Mirabelle crawled to the top of the stairs where she could listen. Now mother was greeting him.
"Helena, I regret that I am the one to bring this news to you. Artur's plans, though well laid, were imperfect. There was no way to foresee the circumstances that arose on our return voyage."
"Tell me what it is you have to say, Gregor. Where is Artur?"
"The Wasting Fever overtook the ship two weeks out of port in Haikhma Basileia. We believe it originated from the goods we brought on board." Gregor paused dramatically, as if gathering courage to continue. "Artur tried to save as many of our crew as he could. In the end, we lost three quarters of the men. I barely survived the sickness myself. Artur took ill around a week in."
There was a gasp from below as Mirabelle's mother realized the reality of Gregor's news, followed by a soft thump as she fell to her knees. Mirabelle gripped the baluster at the top of the stairs so tightly that her knuckles turned white, but she barely noticed.
"Helena, again, I am so very sorry. We have returned his body to you so that a proper dedication ceremony may take place."
"Yes.. yes.. thank you for that."
"Of course, my dear. It is the least I can do." Gregor cleared his throat softly. "There is one more matter of some importance that will need to be discussed. In order to prevent further spread of disease, we were forced to abandon our cargo at sea. The endeavor was a complete loss. I have taken significant damage to my reputation as a result, which I am willing to accept, considering the circumstances. There is the matter of the debt your house has accrued in the course of business, however. Artur was, after all, the financier for this voyage."
Helena's voice was slightly incredulous and tinged with sobs, "Surely they will take into consideration the circumstances. We will be ruined. Artur... He put everything we had into this."
"I understand completely, Helena, and I have spoken to House Hadrine's grantors on your behalf, but while they have agreed to a reasonable rate of interest on their investments, they are unable to forgive the debts. Many of them would themselves be bankrupted to do so."
"I... " Helena's voice faltered and sobs began to overtake her, "What do I do, Gregor? Oh.. Artur..."
"I will help in whatever ways I am able, my dear. To begin with, I have taken over the trade contract. Though Artur's plan was flawed, I do believe that there is hope for it, and it may be possible to keep his legacy alive with some additional precautions to ensure this tragedy does not repeat itself." Gregor paused for a moment, "I will of course send a fair share of any future revenues earned under this contract to your house, per Artur's contributions."
"Thank you, Gregor. Our house is in your debt."
Mirabelle shook her head in disbelief. This could not be true. None of it. Gregor was lying, that much was clear to her. She had pored over her father's plans carefully. He had accounted for every possibility, and taken all the proper precautions. This was all wrong.
Dimly, she heard Gregor's footsteps as he made his way back to the door and left after exchanging a few more comforting words with her mother. Barely coherent of her actions, Mirabelle made her way to her father's office, rifling through his documents, searching for something, anything that would prove Gregor was lying. Something that would prove her father might still be alive, or that Gregor had somehow killed him.
Several minutes passed and Mirabelle threw document after document to the floor, screaming in frustration at each one. Softly, silently, her mother came behind her, embracing her firmly, "Your father is gone, Mira. No piece of paper will bring him back to you."
"Gregor is a liar, mother! I can prove it! I can show you!" Mirabelle flailed desperately and tried to pull away in order to dig through the files again, but her mother held her with a grip that belied her small stature.
"He is gone, love. Whatever else Gregor may have lied about, that much I know to be true."
Mirabelle stopped her frantic struggles, turning slowly and seeing for the first time her mother's tear streaked face, and noticing both Virine and Polline standing hand in hand at the door to father's office, staring in with wide eyes. Suddenly the waves crashed over Mirabelle's head and she collapsed into her mother's arms, broken sobs escaping from her chest. Virine and Polline moved into the room, embracing Mirabelle along with their mother.
There they stayed for hours upon end until no more tears would come.
The body of Artur Hadrine lay on a small skiff on the shore of the Endless Ocean, surrounded by what flowers could be found in the cold of winter. His face was wan and pale, despite the efforts of the undertakers to provide a flush of life to his cheeks with blush and foundation. Mirabelle stared stoically at him, half expecting him to sit up at any moment and laugh at their somber gathering.
He did not stir, except to rise and fall slowly with the tide. Nearby, her mother and sisters wept softly. They each wore concealing blue hoods with veils that covered their features and high waterproof waders that allowed them to move into the water until mid thigh. It was here they stood around Artur as they prepared to dedicate him back to the seas.
Not far away, along with several hundred other bystanders, stood Gregor Phinris next to his wife, Katrina, and son, Devon. They watched from the shore, and Devon, who was perhaps a year or two older than Mirabelle, was unable to hide an occasional bored yawn as the ceremony proceeded. Gregor’s face was mostly unreadable, though he expressed sorrow at all the proper moments and intoned the dedication rites along with the rest of the crowd of onlookers.
Vultures thought Mirabelle to herself. They were all too happy to come and show sympathy when it didn’t cost them anything. Over the past week, House Hadrine had been forced to liquidate almost every asset it possessed in order to pay off its debts. Many of those standing on the shore had been among the first to call in what was owed and offered the most veiled threats for non-payment. Strange how that was all forgotten when it was time to put on their public face.
As for Gregor himself, Mirabelle had begun to nurture her suspicions about his involvement in the events leading to her father’s death. He had not called upon their house since that fateful day when his carriage had first visited. Mirabelle had spent most of her time since then researching Gregor Phinris and the Wasting Fever he claimed had taken hold of their ship. Working with her father for so many years on his projects had given her a remarkable knack for uncovering information, and what she had uncovered did nothing to ease her mind.
The Wasting Fever was an incredibly rare condition that was rumored to have originated in Norrmark during the Long Winter, nearly 1500 years ago. At the time, it had swept across Pentar, killing thousands upon thousands in all five nations. No one knew the exact method of transmission, though it was believed to be spread by contaminated food stuffs. It was a terrible disease, with early symptoms including a ravenous appetite that could not be sated. The body stopped being able to process any form of sustenance and entered into a state of accelerated starvation, accompanied by blood sweats and massive internal hemorrhaging in later stages. Most of those afflicted did not survive longer than a ten-day.
These facts all seemed somewhat consistent with what Mirabelle had learned about the circumstances on the boat. The most troubling thing was that there were almost no documented cases of survivors, even among those who had immediate medical attention. According to Gregor’s account over a quarter of the crew had survived, including Gregor himself. From what she had learned about the Wasting Fever, they all should have been dead at sea.
It hadn’t taken much more prying on Mirabelle’s part to determine that every survivor on the boat had been in the direct employ of House Phinris. Every man contracted by her father was now dead. Mirabelle had read over several of their testimonies and they all parroted back the same story that Gregor had given in remarkably similar detail.
Helene had also signed over management of the trade contract to Gregor. It had been that or go into default on their Foreign Trade Union fees, which could have resulted in immediate seizure of all their assets. The FTU had direct ties to the Central Bank and could make life unbearable for those who did not meet their financial obligations.
Gregor was now in a position to capitalize on her father’s hard work. Not just her father’s, but also her own. Mirabelle could not escape the notion that this had been his plan from the beginning. Father had played right into his hands, and the corpse lying on the skiff in front her of was Gregor’s final victory. There was nothing now to stop him from exploiting the trade agreement, which promised immeasurable wealth to whomever controlled it. House Hadrine would be fortunate to see a single sovereign from it.
Mirabelle clenched her teeth in a mixture of sorrow and fury as she and her mother and sisters began to push the skiff out into the water to the West. Soon the currents had taken hold of the skiff, pulling it out into the unknown. For as long as their people could remember, this had been their tradition. Any vessel that sailed far enough out into the Endless Ocean never returned. In ages past, it was told that the matron of her people, Liliana, had sailed to the West at the end of her days. It was believed by some that across the ocean lay a land of endless beauty, where all were reborn and those who had been especially clever and successful in life would find paradise. Others believed there was nothing to the West but the edge of the world and oblivion. Mirabelle did not know what she believed, but she could only hope that whatever awaited her father, it would be a fate worthy of his greatness.
Hours later from the shore, Mirabelle, her mother and sisters stared into the west until the sun kissed the horizon and took Artur into it's embrace. The crowds along the beach had dispersed long ago, but the four of them continued to gaze blankly into the distance, each of them gripping the hand of those next to her, and each lost in her own thoughts of a bleak future.
As the flames of the sun finally sank beneath the waves, Mirabelle felt a new fire burning in the pits of her being. One that could only be quenched by vengeance against those who had torn her life asunder and cast her family on to the rocks.
Gregor Phinris would pay dearly.