Alphord said curtly, then immediately strode towards Mirabelle. She looked cutely up at him as she held the skirt of her dress and Alphord’s stern expression gently relaxed. He gently patted his daughter’s head with a large hand.
“Have you been well?”
“Yes, I’m doing well.”
“Did you feel any pain? “
“Sister took good care of me, so I feel much better now.”
Mirabelle was the youngest child, and even her graceful way of answering was as pretty as could be. Elena watched the two of them talking before her father’s eyes turned towards her. She spoke in a slightly shaky voice.
“I hope your journey wasn’t too difficult.”
Alphord nodded lightly. She couldn’t breathe for a moment. Her heart was full. She had a father she thought she’d never see again.
“Have you taken a meal yet?”
“No. I suppose you were all waiting for me because I arrived later than expected. Let’s start with the meal. “
With that Alphord made to the dining hall first, followed by his three children. He would often arrive at the castle late at night and would go to the dining hall as soon as he arrived. No one knew how special this dinner was for Elena today. She walked quietly behind him as she tried to hide the moisture forming in her eyes.
They arrived in the hall, the centerpiece of it which was a long table covered in white tablecloth. The table was large enough to accommodate twenty people, and it was neatly decorated with candles and flowers. Before Alphord had arrived Elena had taken care of the arrangements.
As usual, her father was seated at the head of the table and Derek sat on his right, while Elena and Mirabelle were seated on his left. The servants began to bring in the food, and as soon as they finished their plates the next course would come in. In the past when they celebrated Alphord’s homecoming the family would enjoy dinner because of Elena’s careful preparations, but tonight she had pulled out all the stops. No one would say it, but the large table was so full it looked practically minuscule underneath the huge feast. Mirabelle mumbled “There’s something wrong” while Alphord and Derek enjoyed their meal silently. It was Alphord who broke the familial silence.
“Are you going to participate in this year’s sword fighting competition?”
Everyone at the table knew he was talking to Derek. Derek hadn’t been able to in the competition in the capital city because of an injury he suffered during a training session. Her father and brother didn’t speak about it, but that she knew Derek had deep regret for being able to participate.
“Yes, I’m thinking of going this time.”
“If you decide to participate, try and perform well.”
Maybe this was just how a conversation between a father and a son went. Elena pressed down a smile as she listened to the conversation between the two extremely similar men. In the past she felt conversations between the two stern-sounding men were uncomfortable, but now she simply smiled. As the meal went on, Alphord turned his attention towards Elena.
“You were to attend Glen’s wedding, weren’t you?”
“I heard you came home because you had an upset stomach on the way. I know you’re trying to take care of others, but do not leave this place. You’ve probably learned from this, but we need to learn how to manage our own lives.”
“If Derek participates in this sword fighting competition he may have to live with me in the capital city in the future, and you will have more duties here at home. Don’t pay attention to anymore unnecessary things, and concentrate more on the housework.”
Elena paused as she held her fork. After a moment she replied in a subdued voice.
“I’m glad Mirabelle’s health is improving, but don’t forget that you have to care for your sister all of the time.”
“Your brother is the pillar of our family. He will follow my footsteps later and lead the Fourth Order of the Knights of the royal family. As I have said, women do well in the homes and with children. I don’t expect much from you, but work hard on the housework until you get married.”
She heard this all the time in her previous life, but suddenly she couldn’t figure out why these words weighed so heavily on her chest now. Elena’s expression turned sullen, and Mirabelle burst open in anger.
“Why is it only women is doing all the housework these days? Even though Father opposes it, women can also practice sword fighting and have professional jobs.”
“Because those people don’t come from noble birth. You don’t have to go to such trouble.”
“And can’t you just let sister choose her own marriage partner?”
“You’re talking nonsense. Elena, what do you teach your sister at home?”
Elena glared at Mirabelle to stop. Then she answered to her father in a soft voice.
“I’m sorry. Mirabelle is still young.”
“Mirabelle, don’t take after your sister.”
Even with Alphord’s firm tone, Mirabelle simply pouted her lips. If it were Elena who did this she would have been reprimanded within an inch of her life, but Mirabelle had never been scolded because she was sickly and hadn’t been expected to live long. As usual, Alphord stared at Mirabelle in a disapproving manner but quickly moved on as if things were fine.
Since Elena’s childhood she had had a lot of responsibilities to fill in her mother’s absence–the care of the family, the care of the family men, and the care of her younger sister. It was all up to her, but she had never been dissatisfied with her life. She was simply living out her destiny. But tonight she felt disappointment at what her father had said… Perhaps she wanted to be recognized her sacrifice. She had endured so much when her family had died in the future, and there was some hope he could appreciate the tears and sweat she had given for this family. She was just as capable as her father.
Elena swallowed a bitter smile. It was like a dream to have a meal together like this. There was no end to human greed. She wanted her family to be ignorant of the life she lived, but at the same time she wanted to be rewarded? Elena laughed inwardly at her selfishness. This was alright. She didn’t want any more than this. Elena swallowed the lump in her throat and tried to be fine with her meal.
Dinner concluded with a brief chat with one another along with the occasional clattering of dishes. Finally, each family member dispersed into their own rooms while Elena had to stayed behind in the dining room to clean up. Although she did not work with her sleeves rolled up, it was her job to distribute jobs and supervise the servants.
After she finished her work and left the dining room, she saw a steaming mug waiting for her at a table. As soon as she saw it she knew immediately that there was sweet cocoa in it. It was the kind of gift that Derek would sometimes leave for Elena. Since she was a little girl, when she heard something that made her angry at a family gathering he would give her sweet cocoa. Perhaps the conversation at dinner was on Derek’s mind.
‘…I haven’t received cocoa in a long time. Why haven’t I recognized my brother’s kindness before?’
She warmed her hands around the mug, and the comfort seemed to seep into her thoughts.