Once prepared, dinner proved to be a delicious affair, though Emaile wondered whether a castle of such import to the war could provide such fare regularly or if this were simply an effort to woo her with their finest firstfruits. Either way, it was far better than what she usually ate at home; she savored the food but, more importantly, the company.
Lord Haurchefant was an excellent dining companion and regaled her with humorous tales, namely of training exercises being debaucled.
She would have thought the tales mere yarns, save the fact they were told at no one’s expense but his own: it was always due to some mistake or miscalculation he’d made. Not that there were many of them, but even the slightest admission of any form of bumble—
Certainly not what she’d come to expect from lordlings.
“I was still inexperienced in combat, and I struggled with mock fighting,” Lord Haurchefant related as he sat with legs crossed in his chair in the great hall, balancing his wine goblet in one hand. “One day I went to practice, I knocked the training dummy’s head clean off. Straw everywhere! I practically looked like a scarecrow myself.”
Emaile had just finished the last sip of her wine—at the worst possible moment. She giggled, clapping the back of her hand to her mouth as she struggled to swallow. “Heavens, Lord Haurchefant, you couldn’t possibly!”
“Oh, he certainly could have, my lady,” commented the serving-man who refilled her goblet: a kindly-looking older gentleman whose name was Emanuel, if her memory served, though all the servants seemed to shorten his name to Anuel. “Ser Caprinoille can attest.”
The mentioned knight sat across the table from her and Lord Haurchefant, still bedecked in his chainmail—as all the knights and guards of Dragonhead were, even during this evening celebration. Caprinoille clapped his hand on the table. “Certainly did! And I’d just finished building those blasted things. Do you know how long it takes to get straw brought down here from the Sea of Clouds?”
Lord Haurchefant leaned closer to Emaile. “Two moons,” he whispered.
“Two moons!” Caprinoille said without missing a beat, and too deeply entrenched in his rant to notice his lord teasing him. “Sixty whole days! And it was all over the place!”
Lord Haurchefant chuckled, this time speaking aloud for the whole table to hear. “I wasn’t allowed to swing a sword again until I’d cleaned every last straw.”
“I told him, ‘I don’t care who you are—” Caprinoille continued, “—you make a mess of my training field, you’re cleaning it up on your own!”
The assembled knights, and even Lord Haurchefant, laughed. Surely they’d heard the same tale at least a dozen times; yet it still seemed to hold its charms for them.
For herself also. Though, Emaile chuckled as she swirled her second glass of wine, perhaps it is not the story so charming as the storyteller himself…
She watched as the knight on Lord Haurchefant’s other side amicably clapped a hand on the young lord’s shoulder. Lord Haurchefant’s warm grin seemed to light the room like a candle.
Heavens, she still hardly knew how much of him was farce and how much was truth! Emaile quickly returned her focus to her goblet of wine, taking another sip.
“I am pleased to say,” Lord Haurchefant leaned closer, adding to Emaile in another soft aside, “I’ve learned some composure on the battlefield since then.”
“My lord is being modest,” murmured Anuel as he slid Emaile’s cleaned plate off the table. “He’s like a dancer at swordplay.”
Lord Haurchefant smiled wanly, shifting uncomfortably. “And the rest of the castle is constantly exaggerating my accomplishments.”
Emaile grinned as she observed the exchange. A self-deprecating lord… a house of servants who felt perfectly at ease teasing him… Any other Ishgardian noble would be alarmed, citing a lack of discipline, the non-existence of restraint… Not so Emaile.
They’re all so genuine.
Unlike anything in gilded Ishgard. There, a sleight ran in disguise as a compliment. Here, quite the opposite; there was nothing but pride and mutual respect between master and servants. She could see it in their frank gazes, hear it in their authentic laughter: everyone here enjoyed—nay, delighted in—each other’s company.
And Anuel’s compliments—no flattery there, but a genuine earnestness. How often had she heard that in Ishgard?
“You must see him on the training grounds when the knights drill on the morrow, my lady—” Anuel urged.
But before Anuel had time to finish his praise, Lord Haurchefant handed Anuel his goblet of untouched wine. “Oh, I’m sure Lady Emaile has far more interesting uses for her time,” Lord Haurchefant scoffed, “than watching a knight swing his sword a hundred times and twenty.”
But the praise—and the lord’s unusual aversion to it—had piqued her curiosity.
“On the contrary,” Emaile piped in, “I would very much enjoy watching the exercises, my lord.” She tilted her head. “That is, so long as I am permitted. I would hate to prove a distraction.”
A warm smile flickered to life on Lord Haurchefant’s features. “Permitted?” He arched an eyebrow. “My lady, you are permitted to roam the grounds wherever you like. My home is your home.”
That was encouraging to hear, though she somehow doubted “wherever” truly included every inch of the grounds.
But now, this topic of training had her intrigued. She sat on the edge of her chair. “Do you truly practice so much, my lord?”
“Every day!” He nodded sagely. “Like his blade, a knight must remain sharp!”
She supposed it was little different from her own lessons. And she did recall her father’s swordplay training when he was far younger, before his injury. Though she hardly recalled him training all day. “It must take a great deal of time and persistence to devote yourself so…”
He smiled patiently. “The drudgery is a necessary evil.” He paused, adding, “And I daresay you too bear the pain of necessary obligations, Lady Emaile.”
She blinked, startled by the sudden shift of conversation to herself. Several pairs of eyes swiveled to her, not the least of which Lord Haurchefant’s, whose blue gaze regarded her carefully.
What exactly did he mean by that? His mildly amused smile and piercing eyes seemed to suggest it was far more than a simple conversation piece.
Regardless, she felt no pain from her duties. “Obligation is our calling, my lord,” she replied simply. “I hardly see it as a burden.”
Lord Haurchefant finally broke his gaze, his grin growing distant. “Hm. They say the ones who do what they love never work a day in their lives. Do you love the work you do, Lady Emaile?” he asked idly, resting his jaw on the back of his hand.
Mystery upon mystery! What, pray tell, did that mean?
With any other Ishgardian noble, especially one who acted as he, she’d have immediately chalked it up to the idle murmurs of a banquet-heady lord. But Lord Haurchefant hadn’t even taken a sip of wine, and those blue eyes alone betrayed his cunning wit and sharp mind.
This was a riddle. A test. But what was he truly asking her? And how should she respond?
But before she could form her thoughts, let alone a reply, the young lord had added onto his question: “What sorts of things does the Lady Emaile enjoy?”
She may still not understand, but she was certainly drawn into his little game. Emaile smiled, matching his posture: leaning forward, one hand cradling her chin. “Why, Lord Haurchefant, I am certain you have far more interesting uses for your time than listening to a lady’s daily drudgery.”
Passing behind them to refill a knight’s goblet, Anuel chuckled.
Lord Haurchefant’s impish smile didn’t falter. “Indulge me.”
He truly wanted to know? About such a mundane life, so like any Ishgardian noblewoman? Yet she had no choice now but to answer now, didn’t she?
Gracious. “Besides tending to the household, I practice sketching and painting. Needlepoint is my strongest suit.” She listed, ticking each item off with her fingers. “I’ve played the viol since I was a girl. Then there’s my studies, of course: business, politics, general history, world geography…”
“Ah, yes, all the things a lady of Ishgard is wont to do,” Lord Haurchefant nodded sagely. Then his eyes glinted ever so slightly. “But I suppose what I meant was—” And here he stopped, shooting her that half-smile as his brilliant blue eyes once again pierced through her every defense, straight to her heart. “What do you truly enjoy, my lady?”
Truly enjoy. He’d caught her.
Each and every one of those things—while she knew their vital import—felt deadening. Made her want to escape. Her studies of Eorzean business and the value of the gil made her mind wander, visiting the markets of Ul’dah in her imagination. The hours spent practicing the same song on the viol made her wonder what strange and wonderful songs the sailors on ships from Limsa Lominsa sang under distant stars. The needlepoint was always of green trees of the Black Shroud or stormy seas surrounding Limsa Lominsa. Every chore and demand of a noblewoman’s life that numbed her heart made it flee to the outside world, that forbidden land she could only dream of.
Did he truly know?
As if hearing her very thoughts, Lord Haurchefant added quietly: “What makes you come alive, Lady Emaile?” That clear-sky gaze clamped onto hers and would not let go.
And how, exactly, will you respond to that, Emaile? She swallowed a lump in her throat. He’d gotten her heart to quaver at last.
She laughed nervously, tossing her head and sending her single stubborn curl bounding away from her temple. “Quite honestly, my lord, I’m not certain anything makes me feel that way.”
Perhaps the most open she’d been with him yet. And herself only on one cup of wine. Was it he himself that made her answer so frankly? For although her words and tone were light and airy—the very picture of a proper, grounded Ishgardian lady—she made a less than valiant attempt to cover the bitterness festering within her heart.
Nothing makes me feel that way. Nothing at all in the whole of Ishgard. It was sad. Yet it was true.
But why think such thoughts? Her duty was not to her own fancies, it was to—
She ran a finger through her curl. Ah. I see your meaning now, my lord.
He knew it all. She could see from the painted smile on his face, see the mutual pain behind his eyes. But there was more there, too. A spark of something—rebellion?
“Oh, come,” Lord Haurchefant said, a bit louder this time as he clicked his tongue. “There must be something, surely.”
Emaile granted him a rueful chuckle. But then it came to her; there was something, wasn’t there?
Quietly, as if they were two children sharing secrets before bed, she murmured, “I… do enjoy books, my lord.”
The piercing, searching quality in his eyes was eclipsed by the sincere warmth of his breaking smile. He joined in the conspiratorial whispering, leaning closer. “Books! Nothing quite like them. What do you read primarily, my lady?”
“Oh, everything!” she exclaimed, excitement growing before she reminded herself to maintain decorum. “Anything I can obtain.” She folded her hands in her lap and crossed her legs. She’d give herself a moment to gush. What was the harm? “They can take you so many places. Allow you to do things you’d never be able to do.” She cupped her hand in her chin. “They’re little adventures.”
His eyes lit up. “Ah, a heart for adventure… Yes, traveling the land with nothing but your wits and blade to sustain you…” He nodded. “I’ve always thought it such a—” he locked gazes with her, “marvelously romantic thing.” He flashed her a playful grin.
She blinked. Felt her face grow warm. He… surely he didn’t…?
But before she had time to process (or become too flustered), the door to the hall slid open, allowing a gust of cold wind in. The torches sputtered for a moment before a knight slipped inside, shutting the door quickly behind him. He marched straight to Lord Haurchefant, nodding to Emaile along the way.
“Forgive the interruption, milord and lady,” the knight said before leaning down and whispering something in Lord Haurchefant’s ear.
Emaile slightly turned her head away, in part to appear to give them privacy… and in part to listen in if she could. Unfortunately for her curiosity, the hall was simply too loud with feasting for her to pick up words from the deep tones.
Lord Haurchefant nodded to the knight and nudged back his chair, rising from his seat. “Alas, duty calls at the worst possible times.” He pressed one hand to his chest, bowing to her. “I have to take my leave of you this evening, my lady. But please enjoy the banquet. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.” His eyes sparkled at those last words: his brand of, what she was quickly learning, characteristic mischief.
“As do I, Lord Haurchefant.” Emaile giggled. Indeed, she looked forward to seeing more of this mysterious lord. “Rest well.”
“Thank you. And to you, my lady, I wish the sweetest sleep.” As when they’d met, he slid her fingers into his palm and gently kissed her hand. Then, he turned to bid the banquet hall a good night before gracefully taking his leave.
Emaile’s gaze lingered on the door from which he’d left. What a fascinating lord.
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