Vol.3, Ch.7, P.8
The lightness in Frieda’s face, too, was now swiftly lost.
“I have,” she answered. “It’s hard believin’, but I’ll hear your take, if you’ve got one.”
A rumour had been roving about since the morrow of that day. “Ström is destroy’d,” many said. “Our neighbour—fallen to Nafílim fiends,” others added with a shudder. Too grave for gossip this was, but though mirthless were the mouths that passed such tidings, the ears that heard them were yet hard-convinced. Not that they could be blamed, for never in Londosius’ history had any of its lands been lost to the foe. Still, such a precedent ill-soothed the serious look on the clerk’s face.
“That I do,” he whispered back. “It’s real—and confirmed.”
“Confirm’d…” Frieda echoed, crossing her arms. “Int’restin’ times we live in now, innit…”
“And we’re next, from the look of things,” the clerk said, nodding slowly.
To which Frieda frowned. “Li’l wonder why the town’s on edge…”
War was at their doorstep; the thought had been embering in Frieda’s mind throughout the day ever since she had eavesdropped the first whispers, but to hear it now from the clerk himself left her voice quieted with unease. Still, battle was her bread and butter, her very livelihood, and so, though quieted she may have been, her shoulders yielded not a shiver.
“Bus’ness’ll be boomin’ for us, you reckon?” Frieda asked wryly, wondering now if the sword girt at her hip would someday be bidden to stay the tide.
“Hmm… that I wonder,” said the clerk, thoughtfully holding his chin. “The lord has got no love for our lot, after all. Or so I’ve heard.”
“And we, him,” Frieda returned. No warmth was in her voice.
“We and the fiefsfolk,” nodded the clerk. “But that ought be left on the down-low, if you get my meaning.”
The clerk then forced a half-smile. For her part, Frieda showed no change. Prudence was her principle, for certain, as proven by her pacification of the prior squabble. Yet such prudence dared not dip its toes into the tar-pit of utter pragmatism, that Frieda would be so fain to curry any favour from the more… nefarious sorts of Londosian society, even should they entice her much reward. Hence why she took quite the dim view of the viscount of this land. Indeed, he was, to her, a man of foul regard, a rapacious rakehell, one whom she hated with no hesitation.
“Thing is, the lord’s something of a, erm… pet of Central, one could say,” the clerk whispered with shuddering shoulders. True enough, the viscount had once served as mareschal to the Order, in which time he ventured not the lightest tug against Central’s leash. No doubt, then, that between them ran pipes wide and unclogged, as it were. “So like as not…” the clerk whispered on, “…the knights’ll be getting involved, and soon.”
“From candle to conflagration,” Frieda remarked with a dusking look upon her face.
For whom and for what, the freelance knew not, but at the very least, half the answer was now made clear to her: her sword would, indeed, be made to strike. Reason backed this little, for it was but a guess of the gut. Yet Frieda lived by battle, and in such matters, no guess of hers was to be gainsaid.
“Tell me,” she spoke again, “might there be more to this yarn?”
“There is, but naught I can speak to yet,” answered the clerk. “Though the inspectors over at Roland are putting together a report, meanwhiles. Our guild ought be requesting some transcripts soon; I can save you one, if you’d like, Frieda.”
“Please, an’ thank you,” the freelance said before drawing a deep breath. “Mighty swift, the Rolanders. Impressive, really, if I’m honest.”
“Coin quickens a merchant more than it does a mercen’ry, I’m ‘fraid,” said the clerk, chuckling halfheartedly. But not a moment sooner did heavy steps groan close. There then appeared a different man, though “different” not in the fullest meaning, for this bloke seemed much like the two that had turned tail earlier: a scar darkened his cheek, whilst the rest of his body brimmed with throbbing thews.
“Frieda!” he cried with a gaping grin and outstretched arms. “Fancy meetin’ you ‘ere! Oh—that trick ya teach’d me the other day. Guess wot? Got meself bit by some elderburs while in the weeds, I did, but your stuff—it work’d wonders, aye!”
Frieda looked up, returning the smile. “Got the bane out o’ you, has it? Chuff’d to hear it.”
“A-aye!” said the man, who then began scratching his hackles nervously. “So ehr… I-I were thinkin’, ‘ow ‘bout a mug or two, ey? On me! As thanks-like!”
Quickly, he pleaded with palms together, but the clap that sounded from them was as a thundercry, as many seats in the parlour were then struck aside and many more feet stamped asudden.
“Oi, shog on out o’ ‘ere!” one voice vaulted above the new commotion. “Frieda ain’t got no time for your tiny knob!”
“Wot’s that!?” the man roared back. “Crossin’ ‘tween me an’ the fair lady, ain’t ya!?”
A rush of muscles and motion, and soon were two men tussling again, clawing and catching each other’s collars, tugging and tottering this way and that. Chairs tumbled, dust danced; with a gasp, the clerk fumbled forth to stop the new fight.
Frieda but sighed at the sight with a sidelong look and shrugged. “A bunch o’ berks, them…” she muttered. “When’s a more cultured cove ever goin’ to come ‘round, I wonder…”
And just as she aired those words, the image of a manful figure flickered in her mind.
One she had met moons before in her flight from the Albeck manor.
Flowers swayed afire under fair noonlight. Countless colours listing to and fro, as frothed and flowed fountain waters down sun-dappled channels. A gentle, eternal churning, bedight with chirps and cheers of little birds from their topiary perches and houses of hedges jutting high.
The splendour of Londosius, full-displayed in this royal garden of Redelberne. Beneath the looming and illuminant palace, amidst manicured banks of brilliant blossoms and marble balustrades, there stood two figures.
One was the princess herself: Serafina Demeter Londosius, with her gaze of graceful grey and locks of silver scintillating in the sun.
And the other: a man in his seeming forties, with a face most infrequently found on the palace premises.
“Well now,” he said, “how might this lowly yeoman serve Your Highness?”
“‘Yeoman’?” the princess repeated, her pale and perfect back yet turned to the man. “A rather humble term for so high a post as a mareschal’s hand…” Whom was she addressing but the new adjutant to the Mareschal Valenius: Edgar Bailon. Ostensibly an officer of Central for many winters, it was at the recently held royal council where he had made his presence full-known. “Thy transfer, thine enterprise,” Serafina said on, “naught hath not gone unpried by this princess. Pray thee, tell me this: what be it now that moveth thy mind?”
“My mind?” Edgar began his benign answer. “Why, my mind is merely to avail this new age—and its nascent hero-dame.” Then with a bow, “And withal, Your Royal Highness and this holy realm of Londosius.”
“…So thou sayest,” Serafina murmured.
“My hope such words were to your satisfaction, Princess,” Edgar followed. “But might that be all?”
In truth, his “hero-dame” was already homebound with her retinue. It would be a short while yet before Edgar himself could follow her back to the 5th headquarters, as on this peculiar occasion, he had been singularly summoned by the princess, who now shook her head slightly.
“Nay,” she said. “Another matter biddeth thee answer.”
Edgar bowed again. “Then answer, I shall.”
Serafina stood silent. Seldomly did any emotion mar her doll-like features. But turning at last to Edgar, such seldom emotion was now full-bare for his eyes to see. Bright and brimming: the emotion that is “anger”.
“What ploy is it?” the princess asked sharply. “That thou… that you play now?”
“…Whatsoever might you mean, my Princess?” Edgar asked back, smooth and not in the least daunted.
For a young woman as wise as she, Serafina’s question was indeed uncalled for. Still, when Edgar gave his most expected answer, the princess could but cast her eyes down… and clutch at the pleats of her skirt. Such was the strength in her trembling hands that the fine tinsel and satin very nearly squealed under her squeeze. Then, as though bursting at the seams, Serafina flashed her face forth and bore down upon Edgar a livid glare.
“How much longer!?” she cried. “How much longer will you pretend the part of ‘Edgar Bailon’!?”
The veritable scream echoed under the cloudless sky. Nearby birds all took wing, escaping the woe woven in the princess’ words. A long-mulled lament, all let upon this unassuming man, who answered with naught but silence and eyes coldly closed. The lull endured. Only wind and water dared any sound, till at last, Edgar lifted open his eyes…
Soft and serene, a smile most beseeming of the sun and flowers all about.
A smile, affable… and fearsome.