Vol.2, Ch.3, P.4
Moons had passed.
The season had turned.
A span of days empty of Rolf’s company. The emptiest, then, of all the days I’d lived.
But in it, some solace from the fates: the unmaking of my betrothal to the son of House Albeck, on account of a scandal unveiled in his manor. ‘Twas nothing less than a cause for celebration, to be sure. Only, the one with whom I wished most to celebrate was now long gone.
There was, however, a spark in these sullen days. Meagre, yes, but a source of mirth nonetheless: of late, I found myself keen on reading the reports.
Of course, such reports—in their many reams—were hitherto quick to earn my daily dread just as they were to pile upon my desk. And pile they did, for we mareschals of the disparate Orders are duty-bound to share amongst one another the tidings from the many battlefields of Londosius. Especially so from the border provinces, foremost bulwarks as they are against the Nafílim tide. Indeed, nary a frontline goes unheard on the daily.
My ears had heard their fill too long ago, to be quite honest. The reports were as birds teeming into my columbarium of a chamber to great bedlam; just the sight of them flocking on my desk was enough to turn my stomach.
But in the last few months, there was, amongst the irksome bundles, a line of reports that brought colour to these grey days.
Namely, tidings from faraway Ström.
A fringeland where stood Balasthea Stronghold, Rolf’s place of employ.
‘Twas there that he alone turned their fortunes: the soldiery, reorganised; the tactics, revised; the battles, won at last. The fort was now a distant cry from the hungry coffin that it once was. Why, ‘twas that very same ill-repute that so enticed the 5th’s leadership to send Rolf to the terrible fort in the first place…
…and what drove me to save him. Given the mantle of commandant by my decree, he was safeguarded from the obligation of frontline fighting.
Imagine the throbbing veins on the leadership’s temples as they learnt of Balasthea’s turnaround, all thanks to Rolf’s command. The reports were well worth the reread, for I found great joy in recounting his deeds.
Yet, sallowing those moments was the shade of discontent. Had he done for the 5th what he did for Balasthea, perhaps Rolf would’ve long been made a knight.
True; he never was given the breadth to spread his wings. And neither was his circumstance ever blessed to much degree. But always had I wished for Rolf to apply himself more than he did.
Given proper circumstance, it may yet be possible to bring Rolf back from exile.
I sat more deeply at my desk, clothed in thought.
‘Tis certain that he was cast away from the 5th’s halls on account of faults he dared not admit to. But perhaps his fruitful time in Ström has scraped off that stubborn patina. Perhaps he may yet become a man willing to confess to his mistakes. Perhaps… someone with the strength to confront his weaknesses.
And then, were he to reflect upon himself with all sincerity…
And apologise with all due gravity…
Whilst irrefutably decorated with his merits at Balasthea…
Then, perhaps his return to the 5th might be within reach.
It didn’t have to be now. He may take his time. But given it, the possibility may be born anew upon the horizon. And with my betrothal to Kenneth now undone, my tenure here at the 5th should continue well into the foreseeable future. If so, I’d very much like for Rolf to be here beside me along the way.
Is he changed?
Is he back to his past self?
Has he abandoned the servility nurtured in these dark years, for the former gallantry of years more blissful?
To the window I looked, where spanned the far skies of the fringelands. There, my once-betrothed yet drew breath.
And for him, I yearned.
“Well, if it isn’t our star! Heard the big news, we have, Emilie. Why, I’d be a plump and happy man were pride a treat to be savoured. This calls for a celebration: to a baroness reborn!”
“O-oh, you shouldn’t, Gerd. But thank you.”
“Hold, now. Not a promotion, were it? What’s the diff, then, ey?”
“It was no promotion at all, Miss Raakel. Our dearest mareschal here has instead been accorded a fief all her own.”
The collective rejoicing of the Owlcrane flock. ‘Twas celebratory enough, really, to see them so aglow with merriment. Smiles were all about—even upon my own lips.
“And headship, as well, to a new family,” Sheila went on. “‘House Valenius’, if I am not mistaken?”
“You’ve the right of it,” I confirmed. “Though I should admit, the name plays much at pretension. Airing it alone flusters my cheeks.”
It all began with the Albecks’ wrongdoing.
When I’d been given the news, that the engagement was off the table asudden, I’d assumed the cause to be of the usual affair: embezzlement, infidelity, the sort of cunning that the nobility were so wont to indulge.
Appalling, then, that ‘twas more nefarious again than anything I could’ve imagined. For the sinful natures of Viscount Albeck and Kenneth were laid bare: both were paraphiles to an extreme, hedonist princes who derived fleshly pleasure from the violence and humiliation they inflicted upon women. Such victims were kidnapped, gaoled, and made to suffer all manner of atrocities.
The evidence astounded no less: below the Albeck manor were discovered the skeletal remains of countless souls lost. And amongst them were the remnants of none other than the viscount’s prior wives, all once falsely assumed to have perished by accident.
There was I, well on the verge of joining them.
Kenneth himself was apparently quite… “taken” with me, and from testimonials gained, he had tasked much thought to our “honeymoon”. When the foul particulars were revealed to me, I well-remember being sickened to abrupt nausea.
No family, even decorated with such historical repute as the Albecks, could dare endure in the face of such travesty. And so, House Albeck knew ruin. Their land as well, the eponymous viscounty, was beheaded of its lord.
And now, filling that vacancy: myself.
That’s right. The Londosian royals saw fit to pass the Albeck territories over to me as a fief. House Mernesse was to remain untouched, whilst I was to be made founder to a wholly new family: House Valenius.
The Lady Emilie, Dame Mareschal to the 5th Order.
And now, mistress to the Valenius barony.
The arrangement was one of convenience. I was originally to involve myself in the affairs of that province anyway, as wife to Kenneth and future viscountess of House Albeck. And I had prestige enough to warrant the wedding: namely, my hand in the recapture of Godrika, the Battle of Erbelde, and so on. The puzzle pieces were already in place, so to speak.
But of course, the solving hands had a motive of their own.
The Lady Estelle Tiselius, Dame Mareschal to the 1st Order—hers was a fraught relationship with Central, if the gossipers were to be trusted. Indeed, the illustrious hero-dame was more a thorn in Central’s side, though one too ingrained to be extracted by the pliers of political artifice.
And so the magisters saw need of a new hero. Someone whom they could groom with gifts of prestige and clout. A seed of their own choosing, from which would sprout their next idol. And as the fates would have it, I was the one selected from amongst the many specimens, meritious and folk-favoured as I was.
For that reason, I was kept from undertaking the rigours of my new office as baroness of Valenius. Central espied much use in me as a mareschal, thus was I to continue my duties here at the 5th, whilst a Central-appointed consul was to preside over the province in my stead.
“Hah. Well, fair Baroness of Valenius,” poked Gerd. “You are yet our mareschal, and for that, I should like to make a toast: to many more years of your leadership!”
“Oh, stop that…”
I felt friction, then. Of being celebrated when I had not the spirit for it. Of being called a baroness, when I had not a baron to be by my side.
There were, however, those that celebrated my situation for a different reason: I was, apparently, the first in all of Londosian history to be both a serving mareschal and the sitting head of a noble family. Such was hitherto seen only in bedtime fables, what with princesses or dukes not rarely taking up the sword to make battle. That the trope of legend was realised, here and now, caused quite the stir amongst the knightly ranks and common folk alike.
‘Twas blind revelry, really. I was no princess nor duchess, but a mere baroness, one whose provincial charges were relinquished to a faceless steward, no less. And yet the people of this realm still lionised me as some swashbuckling mistress. I had gratitude for their affections, certainly, but of late their zeal was stoked by naught but half-falsities. ‘Twas very much a development that had me ill at ease.
“Come now, Emilie love! Yer high an’ mighty now, yea? Have a bit o’ fun, why don’t ye! Throw yer weight ‘round like a real noble! Why, if I wore yer heels, I’d have that miser o’ a mess hall rebuilt proper—big, an’ roomy-like! Oh, an’ a roof fer the trainin’ grounds ain’t a bad idea either, innit?”
A bit of tomfoolery from Raakel, met with laughter all around. But she had a point—a rather convincing one.
An epiphany, actually.
My mind raced.
Loath though I was to admit, I had in fact gained no small sway. My voice reached many ears, and just as many were fain to listen, even to requests of unreason.
Like, let’s say, of welcoming back an exile.
I perused through the desk-strewing reports once more. It was quiet; nary a peep sounded in my chamber, save for the occasional shuffling of papers and parchments.
Balasthea—not yet has its stream of merits let up. What once saw nigh-catastrophic casualties on the daily now sees nearly none at all, a development clearly following Rolf’s instalment as commandant.
‘Tis a turnaround that impresses no less with each reread. Not long ago at all was Balasthea a veritable killing field. Miraculous, to be so transformed into a steeled bastion, where casualties have been made a rarity. Such an achievement paved more boldly the path to Rolf’s return to the Order, a possibility waxing to probability with each passing day.
But an impasse well-stunts its fruition—to bridge it, I need a plan. While true that my words now carry great weight, heavier still is the stigma of Rolf’s exile, a stain that cannot be so easily wiped clean through meritous service alone.
In dire need of a hint to unravel this skein, I rummaged through the other reports. ‘Twas then that a certain word caught my eye.
The skein revealed a loose thread at last.
Over the past two winters, Londosius’ war-waging had expanded in both scope and vigour, a trend sparked by my costly success at Godrika. To cope with the belligerent demand, each of the Orders underwent changes to its regime. Not least of which was the birth of the chief adjutant role, for ‘twas swiftly understood that we mareschals might require a close advisor to better manage the new rigours of our office, in light of the burgeoning scale of the battles.
Of the Orders, the 2nd had already commissioned an adjutant of its own, and to that moment, the post was serving its purposes well.
Certainly none would protest were I to avail the 5th of the same.
And just as the 2nd had done, I should open the position to all aspirants—that is, regarding little if they hold any present affiliation with the Order or no. But to match the acumen required of an adjutant, they must have some years of prior service in the Order under their belt. And to pair with it, some experience in field command as well.
Ah, that’s right.
“Applicants seeking frontline service shall also be accepted”—a condition I should not do without.
A chief adjutant minds warcraft more than he does war-waging, true, but ever the connoisseur of the sword, Rolf would inevitably find himself close to the action. ‘Tis certain: once in the near past did I bid him throw down the sword and brave anew the path of the strategist. ‘Twas an earnest suggestion that he ultimately refused.
‘Tis certain again, however, that he did admit strategy as being amongst the pillars of chivalric duty. His heart, then, was that he simply wished not to give up the blade. This I should not deny him of, regardless of the erstwhile nature of the adjutant role.
Now, one more condition.
“Neither past deeds done nor offences justly disciplined shall be of any account”—the one line of greatest import. In other words, Rolf’s exile shall be a matter wholly unenquired of.
…Oh, were it so simple.
To regard that very line, with nary a worry for its implications, would surely be a failure of my office. As a mareschal, as a superior, this was the one facet I could not leave uncut.
Nevertheless, I have hope. Hope that Rolf will answer my veiled call. Hope that he will come back. And when he stands before me at last, an apology is what my ears must first hear from his lips.
Were I to find him fast believing that all is forgiven…
…were I to find him forgetful of all that has come before…
…then what’s left to me is to abandon him once and for all.
But ‘twill be all right.
I believe in him.
From his deeds at Balasthea, I can rightly tell: back in his heart is his once-lost strength. The strength to admit his faults. The strength to confront his weaknesses.
The Rolf I’ve always known. The Rolf who would gladly apologise.
Had this strength found him during the hearing, certainly he would be right here with me in this very chamber, at this very moment.
Once more, then. Just once more will I accord him a chance.
Taking it, he shall unfurl his sail of remorse.
Seeing it, I will call my winds of mercy.
And then, together, shall we resume our voyage anew.
A voyage upon seas of a different temperament, for no longer am I a hare ensnared in an unsought betrothal, but the head of House Valenius.
I feign no doubt that Central will infringe upon matters of my marriage. But I’ll not brook their gall. Not one bit. No matter how viciously they come to bite and tear us apart, I’ll stay them by their leashes, one way or another.
…And then, I will marry Rolf.
And together, we will be lord and lady of Valenius.
A future long-faded.
A dream long-deserted.
Now within reach.
Oh, how my heart raced.