Vol.3, Ch.2, P.6
“Ah, the Lord of Buckmann himself! And the fair Baroness besides,” Estelle greeted with a raised glass. The gesture was requited with a bow and curtsey from the Buckmanns, both of whom, too, balanced fine wine in their hands. “‘Tis an honour to meet you at last. I am Estelle of Tiselius, though I see my reputation precedes me.”
“Oh! Precede! Even the robins regale us with your feats, madame!” the baron laughed along with his wife. “Mayhap this be your first stay in our humble province?”
“‘Tis indeed, though hardly the first visit. Business has made me quite the busied tourist, if naught else,” the mareschal answered with gentle joviality.
Sure enough, it was by countless commutes to and from the royal capital that Estelle had grown rather familiar with the Buckmann landscape. Some visits to the nearby towns, too, were under her belt, that she fancied having strode past him unbeknownst at some point in time.
“And never does it fail to impress, this place,” she went on, peering briefly at the glow of blazing gloam beyond the windows. ”All thanks to the fine rule of your house, I’m sure.”
With that, a spring-bright smile dawned upon her regard, rousing a wistful sigh from the cincture of guests. They had all of them heard word of Estelle’s winsome looks; none were disappointed in the slightest. One might even say they were captivated, for such comeliness, too, adorned her carriage and conduct both.
“Oho! Your words are as wings whisking me away to Heaven and back, Mightiness! Too kind you are,” the baron beamingly gushed. “Indeed, this land is my life—as it should be! If His Majesty has measured me mete for this fief, then so must I answer with full concern to its care.”
Florid deference was in the baron’s diction, and for good reason. While true that Estelle was daughter to the count of Tiselius, she herself was hardly the head of a house—not so with the baron of Buckmann. The social ladder saw him situated upon a higher rung than she, thus by rights, there was no need to prostrate himself so before the mareschal, as it were.
But “mareschal” was the rub here. To be sure, Londosius, militarily minded as it was, illumed its Orderly commanders in a special light, one not to be outshone by any sitting lord. “Her Mightiness”, then, was not for show. Further still, the baron beheld before him no other mareschal than that of the 1st: the hero-dame herself.
Little wonder, now, as to why his mien was most courteous. His wife beside him seemed no different.
“Fair Mareschal, to all ladies of Londosius are you a shining lodestar, truly—not least to myself, of course,” the baroness said. “A great honour it is merely to make your acquaintance. Greater still now that my lord husband has your praises to boast about!”
“Let them be no less yours, my Lady,” Estelle returned softly. “But I must say, airing the truth was more my mind than charitable applause. Peace and plenty—this land is loved by much, and that is no lie.”
“My…!” blushed the baroness, covering her gasping grin.
“Truly a gladness upon our ears, Mightiness,” spoke her husband, bowing slightly. “‘Tis but a fruit of unrelenting labour on the part of my wife and I, that the feats of my forefathers should not go fallow.”
Modesty, too, was in the baron’s mien. But deceit? Nay, for true to his word, the wonderful abundance of the Buckmann barony did owe much to the successes of his ancestors. The vibrant vegetation, for example, was the product of prudent irrigation works maintained by generations of Buckmanns. All the rivers, too, were rigorously regulated, thus were floods and like whims of the wild mitigated to a seldomness.
The current baron was but a cog in this enduring machine, a mere inheritor of his predecessors’ hard work. At the very least, however, he did not fall victim to the same vice committed by many other folk, ennobled or no: that of summing up his self-worth solely from the feats of his former lions and the prestige of his household. No, the baron was no such man. He merely saw his station as one of nurturing the fruits of his family, that they may be handed down unbruised to the next-in-line. And so was he never moved to endeavour any enterprise beyond his mould, nor to mar the amalgamated boons of the Buckmann line.
A man not so noteworthy—that was the baron. But he knew as much, and was sooner content than concerned with it. And for a wealsman such as he, it was a rare trait, indeed.
“Buckmannfolk be blessed,” Estelle reflected. “Surely could they not have wished for a finer lord.”
“Nay, my part be small,” the baron said, waving his hand humbly. “Their blessings are rather born from the peace you and yours assay to protect, madame. Such rigours earn our greatest gratitude.”
Sunny was the baron’s smile. But not so for the mareschal, whose mien was then enshawled in shade.
“Peace… is it, now?” she echoed quietly.
A cloud then grew over the lord’s look.
Had he toed over some line? Perhaps so. For centuries has war smouldered under Londosius’ soles, but now did it burn more brightly than ever. “Peace”, then, ill-palled the realm and its people—not least those braving the fighting fields themselves. Theirs were shoulders bearing the burdens of battle most terrible of all. Where was peace for them?
The baron, keeper of his calm and curated garden, knew not. And yet did he gaily speak of it afore the mareschal, offering what but a sunny thanks for it. The absence of solemnity was thus a slight against the hero-dame, who herself had hitherto wagered her very life on the frontlines no few times before.
“I… I spoke awrong,” the baron said darkly. “Most dear be this peace, paid with sacrifices bitter beyond our knowing. Not lightly is it eked out; not lightly should it be lived. Yet light did I make of it. A sin upon my head, Mightiness. Pray forgive me.”
“Why such words, Lord Buckmann?” the mareschal asked the brooding baron, her regard unreadable. “Peace is peace, is it not? Free and deserved by all?”
“‘Tis indeed, madame. Peace be the due of all Londosian folk, certainly. But wealsman that I am, my station demands more… nuance. And there did I fail to answer. The stain of ignorance is mine to wash.”
With bitterness were bent the baron’s brows, his gaze grave as it cast down. Bared in his words was his heart of hearts. The baroness, too, appeared no less pressed by her husband’s faux pas.
Seeing them so morose, Estelle inly sighed. They were unsullied, these two, set with jewels of just and genial sentiment. Meeting them here on this mild evening informed the mareschal as much. But more lurked behind this “much”. For on those heart-jewels glimmered cracks and ill-formed facets of foolery: dullards, Estelle deemed them. The “why” of it was simple.
These two had once abandoned a child.
Nay, they had disavowed that child’s very existence.
If such became not the deed of dullards, then what did? Bearing this thought, Estelle parted her lips once more. Here on this day, in this hall, would be aired the words she had longed to give breath to.
“Splendid,” she began, handing off her wine glass to a servant. “You well-hem in the howls of your heart, my Baron—a lodestar in your own right, hm? How blessed your children be, to have such a light to look to.”
A wisp of anger gave volume to her voice. But to her, it was not to be helped, for the Buckmanns were fair folk, more so than her prior measure of them. And that was precisely why it pricked at the hero-dame’s patience so.
If fair they be, then why?
This, Estelle could not help but wonder.
Why commit so cruel a mistake?
Why abandon a child so?
Oh, how it racked her.
But for however much it did, the Buckmanns discerned it not. Nevertheless, their faces were stiff. For years now, it was taboo to touch the very topic of “children” in their presence. The other guests seemed to understand this quite well as they watched on in cold sweat.
After a moment of numb confoundment, the Buckmanns at last broke their silence.
“…Blessed, indeed, for our part, as well,” the baron almost stammered, unsteadily nodding. “Dear Felicia took well to the burdens of her upbringing. She is our pride and joy.”
“That she is!” his wife echoed. “And a Dame Brigadier to the Order, no less!”
“Oh, I know. Very well, in fact,” said Estelle. “To mine ears stream word of the strong, whether they hail from the 1st… or the 5th.”
To this, the Buckmanns exhaled with relief. Their stiff faces softened to those of parents, sparkling with pride and consideration for their child. Such warmth only worsened Estelle’s irritation.
Loving and lauding their dear daughter, Felicia Buckmann, was not in itself a crime, no. It was well and fine, in fact. But was that it? Had they nothing at all for another of their rearing?
The thought rose and rushed to Estelle’s lips.
“…You are blessed with a son, as well, are you not?” she asked with sharpness, straightway cutting open whatever comfort that might have eased the Buckmanns’ faces. Petrified once more, their brows furrowed further than before. All pleasantry turned to pain.
“…Your Mightiness,” the baron began again, tense in his timbre. “Verily you seem apprised of the man himself. You, the very pinnacle of the knightly Orders, suffering the stain of… of so vain and vapid an officer. What indignance you thus bear, I can scarce imagine. For my part, I am shawled in shame to have ushered in such a shadow upon this world. But, pray, do know this: that thing is no longer a son of mine.”
“It is as my lord husband says, Your Mightiness,” the baroness added. “That thing is but a worm of an otherworld, slithering through our lands—a fiend fancying itself a son of Man. Its presence pains us greatly, but silence should serve a greater salve. Pray let this rest, madame.”
Oh, the heat howling now in the hero-dame’s veins! Any more and her blood might truly have boiled over.
Yet this was no habit of hers. Portrait of prestige that she was, not few of her days were spent spewing platitudes with the many other who’s whos of high society. But if there was aught such unsought days have honed in her, it was the art of the palliative, of masking herself in mildness to unmake any arisen friction.
Would that the hard-learnt lessons availed her here, for brimming from her face now was anger most apparent to any eye. The wrath of Londosius’ most renowned blade, laid all too bare. Such rancour then coldened to a keenness for killing, coursing from every span of her body.
The Buckmanns yelped. There they stood, frozen as frogs afore a seething, glaring serpent. The other guests, all of them, recoiled in fright.
“Dr-dread Mareschal!” the baron whimpered. “Most just be your rage, most just, indeed! But pray perish all mind for that man. He is a wayside stone, a sallowed soul, a soiling eye-sore! Yet nary an obstacle should he prove to the mighty momentum of you and yours!”
“Th-that he is, and naught more!” his wife yipped. “And should he be a babe too blaring in his blubbering, why, do cast him off, madame. To some dungeon corner, dark and alone. He’ll rot soon enough, I reckon!”
At that very moment did a scabbard hang from the hero-dame’s hip. And sheathed in it: a live sword. A fact of much regret to the mareschal, as to stay her sword-hand from reaching the hilt required a mountain of restraint.
Oh, for one’s own child, what wicked words. Allowed by divine law though they were, Estelle yet found herself incapable of concealing her ire.
“…And I reckon not.”
Those few words, finally wrung out of her, were aimed exactly at the baroness’ desired doom for her son. But the Buckmanns’ discernment of this was clear off the mark: they instead took them as an echoing repudiation of the ungraced himself, that for sure did the mareschal vehemently share in their disgust for the child they themselves begat and reared.
What hope they had for this day. Hope in meeting the mareschal, hope in forming a lasting fellowship with so famed and fair a personage. For to be friends with Londosius’ foremost lioness would surely shine a new light upon the future of House Buckmann. But in their reverie had they roused the lioness to her present rage.
It was all that man’s fault. The man they once raised as a son of their own. Even now, of all times, was he managing to mangle things up! This was the Buckmanns’ thought, boiling in their bosoms by the heat of regret.
“Y… Your Mightiness,” the baron began again, “we share in your chagrin, we do. For in fairer days did we once harbour hope for him. But those days are dusked. He has turned a man ungraced, a hound unfanged—”
“I reckon not, I said!”
So repeated Estelle, her tone a tempered edge, her indignance a damning ring through the hushed hall.
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