“Lady Emaile! Allow me the pleasure of welcoming you to Camp Dragonhead.”
Her mind quickly returned to the present as Emaile slipped her hand into Lord Haurchefant’s and bowed her head demurely. “The pleasure is mine, I am sure, my lord.”
A kiss on her hand. The mischief in his eyes slipped into a knowing little smile, impish and playful.
Not at all what she’d expected, for certain. But this whole trip had emerged from the unexpected.
Marrying for love… Could Emaile truly find such a lofty thing anywhere in Coerthas, let alone in an Ishgardian-bred lordling?
Her father had such elevated thoughts of love. He’d loved her mother dearly before her death when Emaile was yet quite young. And though her father had encouraged Emaile’s elder sisters to marry lords of higher standing, he had never once forced a match, instead encouraging them only if he truly felt they were happy with their mates.
Both of them good men. Just…
Emaile’s mind wandered back to the pompous nobles who filed out of the Forgotten Knight each afternoon, scoffing at her father’s desire for justice. An apt sampling of the lordlings Ishgard had to offer.
Just give me one man who stands for what is right, she thought. Give me that, and I will love him eternally.
Well. So it wasn’t only her father who hoped for clear-eyed visionaries…
But her thoughts were driving her to distraction from her kind host’s conversation. Emaile quickly returned her full attention to Lord Haurchefant, silently scolding herself for such inconsiderate behavior.
“You’ll have to forgive the Highlands for their inhospitality,” Lord Haurchefant was saying. “I failed to inform them a lady was coming.”
The jest startled her out of her self-reproach; she chuckled.
“The snow didn’t trouble you, I hope?” The young lord inquired, tilting his head. His hair was a lovely ice blue, matching his eyes, which were blue as clear skies.
“Not in the least, my lord.”
“Excellent!” He clapped. “Halone be praised there was no blizzard when you arrived. Winter is a terrible thing here in Dragonhead as of recent years.”
He tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow and spun, waving to the impressive structure of his citadel abode. “But we’ll ensure your stay is as comfortable as possible, as I assured your father.”
The maidservant and the soldier fell in, following silently and dutifully behind.
“Do you like hot chocolate, Lady Emaile?” Haurchefant asked suddenly. “We make the best in Eorzea, I think. Wouldn’t you say, Elisabet?”
“Assuredly, milord,” the maidservant dipped her head with a slight smile of her own, as if this were some hidden joke between the two of them.
What an odd household they’d proven already. Emaile wasn’t sure what to make of it, but they made a charming first impression, at the very least.
And she did, in fact, adore hot chocolate. “It happens to be my favorite drink, my lord.”
“A lady of refined tastes! Mine as well. I’ll fix us some while Elisabet and the groomsmen get your things settled. You don’t mind staying in the north tower, do you? But I imagine you have a head for heights. Born and raised in Ishgard, as I understand?”
Despite his airy and relaxed nature, she could sense a pointedness to his words, like a rapier seeking a weakness in a fencer’s guard. Not malicious or hostile, perhaps, but penetrating. Searching for information. She wasn’t certain how much of Lord Haurchefant’s time was spent away from Ishgard, but he certainly knew how to brandish his words like an Ishgardian noble.
Still… Emaile resisted the urge to smile. I am no mouse tossed to the cat. “Wherever you think best, my lord, is more than fine berth for me.” Not demanding, but not too compliant as to be saccharine. “But yes, I have lived in Ishgard all my life.” It did, unfortunately, imply all the cliches that hung upon Ishgardian nobles, but she couldn’t deny the truth. And perhaps he was hoping for a typical Ishgardian housewife.
“All your life?” Lord Haurchefant paused mid-stride, cocking a brow. “Have you never been outside the walls?” he asked, incredulous. Not judgmental, but genuinely curious.
“No, never.” Emaile shook her head. “Well… Not until today,” she confessed, slightly embarrassed. The way he said it made her feel as though it were something quite remarkable indeed. As if she’d been missing out on a wide world outside.
Which I’ve felt all too keenly…
As they talked, they passed under a stone archway, part of a pair that flanked a stone staircase. The flight of steps led up to a beautiful, enormous blue crystal as high as three men.
Lord Haurchefant followed the direction of her gaze. “We’re still setting up the aetheryte, but we do have a few in the Central Highlands,” he explained. “Certainly not as many as in Ishgard though. They certainly prove useful. The toll is something of a nuisance, but I suppose quick travel must have some downside.”
Emaile had only used the aetheryte teleporting system in Ishgard a few times; she vastly preferred strolling through the city on her own two feet. The instantaneous transportation was convenient, but it always turned her stomach upside-down!
“Now if only we could open our borders again,” Lord Haurchefant continued. “Can you picture it now?” He swept his arm across the air. “Adventurers from all corners of Eorzea running through these courtyards: not just a handful, but a hundred fair faces, a thousand stories!”
“Adventurers?” Emaile tilted her head. She’d never heard the term before.
“Yes! A varied sort. They travel Eorzea, taking odd jobs. Some of them are quite formidable fighters.”
“And the Holy See would permit them to stay?” Emaile asked with amazement. Certainly not. Coerthas would never open its borders to mercenaries; not since the Holy See had left the Eorzean Alliance, at least.
“Oh, we of House Fortemps hire them quite liberally. Of course the other High Houses look down their noses at the practice. But it’s rather difficult to turn down men willing to fight and die for our cause after a millennium of war, hm?”
Mercenaries fighting against the Dravanians. It almost beggared belief. But people do many things for gil…
Her thoughts were interrupted as Lord Haurchefant whisked her along a full tour of the grounds. He proved an excellent guide and host, neither pointing out every crag and thus losing her interest (and patience), nor whisking her through the castle so quickly she could get no heading on the place. No: he offered just enough guidance that she felt she could navigate without him should the need arise, but left her with plenty of undiscovered rooms to sate her own curious explorations later.
Lord Haurchefant peppered the tour with chat as they strolled until they made their way back down from the battlements to the tower that held the sleeping-quarters.
“We’re currently completing the preparations for your welcome banquet,” Lord Haurchefant explained as he drew Emaile past the threshold into the welcome room: a warm but sparsely-decorated place. The only homey article was a tightly-woven rug that rested on the floor in front of the crackling fire.
She resisted a small smile. Seems as though the place could use a woman’s touch…
Lord Haurchefant continued, jesting: “As it turns out, it takes more time than I’d calculated to turn a military briefing room into an appropriate banquet hall.”
Lord Haurchefant guided Emaile up the stairwell to the second floor, where another hearth and sitting-room lay. The chairs and tables here were functional but nothing elaborate, and all were drawn close to the fire.
“So you’ll forgive me for the purely selfish request of a bit more of your time as we await supper.” Haurchefant offered an apologetic grin as he escorted her to one of the seats.
Once she and her skirts were situated, Lord Haurchefant sat beside her, clapping his hands on his knees. “At least it cannot be said that Ser Haurchefant entertained a lady with military proceedings.” He offered her a rueful smile.
She crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap. “How does the war go on this front?”
A slight, almost imperceptible lift in his brow. His reaction was to be expected; few noblewomen would have inquired.
Lord Haurchefant flicked his wrist. “Well, we’re quite far from the frontlines, of course. But we serve as an important base for scouting. Keep tabs on our enemies’ movements.”
He spoke nonchalantly, but Emaile could see him watching her carefully out of the corner of his eye. Gauging her reaction to his response. Would her eyes glaze over? Had it been merely a polite question to fill the room, or an inquiry to make her seem more interested than she truly was?
He did not yet know that she was genuinely inquiring. Emaile nodded, leaning forward in her chair. “My father says you defend against two different enemies here in Dragonhead.”
“You refer to the Dravanians in addition to the Ixali, the bird-like beastmen.” He nodded, and she could see he was at least mildly impressed she knew even this much about the war efforts. “Yes, they’ve been giving our old friends in the Black Shroud some trouble, from what I understand.” He loosely gestured. “Yes, we’ve been keeping an eye on them. So far they haven’t bothered us, so our orders remain to not engage. They mostly remain in their camps to the north.”
“Isn’t it quite cold for them here compared to the Shroud?” Emaile asked, tilting her head.
“You would think! But it seems no worse for them than it is for our chocobos.” He shrugged, sighing. “If only the cold drove all our enemies away…”
She and Lord Haurchefant made more small-talk as the fire burned down. Elisabet came and went, carefully edging around their chairs from behind, likely trying not to disturb her lord and the visiting lady. Emaile listened as Elisabet quietly directed the groomsmen up the stairs with the luggage. Were Emaile a woman of a High House, there would be far more for them to carry, but as it was, she’d only brought two trunks: one for clothing and one with gifts for the lord as thanks for housing her.
She was rather proud she’d gone with her father and helped with the orders: a sword and knife from a popular Ishgardian swordsmith as well as a new bridle with polished black leather and silver studs, engraved with the House Fortemps crest.
Though perhaps she’d rein in her pride until she’d gauged whether the young lord truly liked them.
Emaile rested her chin in her hand as her elbow relaxed on the arm of the chair. “You speak as if you’ve seen a good bit of combat in your lifetime, my lord.”
At this, the handsome lord hesitated. No, hesitated was too strong a word—that would indicate he seemed uncertain what to say. But that look that crossed his face as the mirth and playful airiness disappeared, that contemplative countenance left behind—that was too aware, too grave, to be hesitation.
Lord Haurchefant leaned forward in his chair ever so slightly. “I’ve seen combat, that’s true, my lady Emaile. And let me tell you,” he paused, staring full in her face, as if the calm chill of his blue eyes could help drive his point home, “the trials of war are something I wouldn’t wish on any man.”
By the Fury. That look… That intense gaze that seemed to pierce right through her! What horrors could a man have witnessed—perhaps committed—to cultivate a look such as that in his eyes?
He straightened in his seat, a hint of a smile slowly returning. “But I’m blessed to serve Ishgard. It is a knight’s duty to protect, and I ply my trade with pride. Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Indeed, his smile was no longer the playful one she’d noted earlier: this one was full of pride in his role.
He had clearly worked hard to become a knight, had not simply been awarded it on account of being Count Fortemps’ son. And surely he had not done it not for the prestige, for he was no son of lesser sires… No, this man had become a knight for as clear and pure a desire as helping those in need.
Were Ishgard populated half with men as noble as he, she thought to herself, the war would have ended centuries ago. “We can never thank you enough for your service, my lord,” the words slipped out before Emaile had time to gauge whether they were appropriate.
Lord Haurchefant’s impish smile returned as he nodded and took her hand, kissing it. “Let me assure you: excellent company such as yours is all the thanks I need, my lady.”
Gracious! She felt her face warm with the pink tint of blush. One minute, a hero as clear to read as the daylit sky; next, trying to make my heart quiver like a typical Ishgardian dandy…
But which was he? Only time would tell.
And, though she’d hardly admit it… Emaile was eager to find out.
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Final Fantasy XIV and all related names and terms are the property of Square Enix. And I am not affiliated with them.
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