Under the crisp air of winter morning, Emaile’s eyes fluttered open. Her brow furrowed as she stared up at an unfamiliar stone ceiling.
That’s not right… Where are our rafters and the white plaster? She rolled over in bed to survey her mismatched room: the unfamiliar iron grate covering an unfamiliar fireplace and unfamiliar mantel, or the unfamiliar narrow window on the wall and that unfamiliar plush red rug on the floor—
Ah, it finally floated back: the arrangement. Her father’s plans to have her meet Lord Haurchefant. Camp Dragonhead.
Camp Dragonhead! She was outside of Ishgard! In a strange and wonderful land with strange and pleasant people!
Sighing with delight and relief, Emaile threw her arms in the air and flopped backward upon the feather down pillow.
Ah! But she couldn’t linger here in this delicious moment of scandalous freedom. They’d think her a sluggard!
Emaile flung the covers, scrambling across the room to her luggage, both suitcases propped neatly against the wall. What time was it? She hoped her exhaustion from the previous day hadn’t caused her to sleep too late. How rude he’d think her were she to keep him waiting!
After donning her favorite green and rose-colored velvet dress, Emaile finished her morning preparations and meandered into the hall.
The maidservant from the prior day, Elisabet, sat in a chair across from the room, hard at work mending a tunic.
“Ah! My lady!” Starting, Elisabet nearly dropped her needle and thread. “You’re quiet as a coeurl; I didn’t even hear you rise!” She set her mending down and rose, bowing. “Is there anything you require?”
“Oh, nothing to forgive, Elisabet.” Emaile waved. Had Elisabet been assigned specifically for her needs? The life of those of the high houses! She preferred her independence, honestly, but she didn’t wish to seem snobbish—nor give the impression that Elisabet seemed insufficient for meeting her needs.
So Emaile offered, “Is it too late to break my fast?”
“Not in the least!” Elisabet shook her head. “The bakers are usually pulling out the loaves now. Shall I fetch you a fresh one, my lady?”
Fetch? Oh heavens no, she could never impose so! Thinking fast, Emaile replied, “I would enjoy your company very much, Elisabet; thank you. Breakfasting alone is far too quiet an affair.”
Elisabet couldn’t hide her shock and small sound of surprise in the back of her throat. But she clapped her hand to her mouth and nodded. “O-of course… my lady. Please, follow me!”
Elisabet led her down the stairs to the kitchen, where Emaile selected two fresh loaves while Elisabet poured them each a bowl of milk. Together she and Elisabet took their meal to the tables, which the servants were setting up for the soldiers and, Emaile presumed, Lord Haurchefant, to dine. At the sight of Emaile and Elisabet waltzing in from the kitchen with trays of bread and milk in hand, the servants all stopped their work.
Several of them stared at Elisabet, questioning. She offered a mildly confused shrug of her shoulders.
Emaile calmed them with a sheepish smile and wave. “Forgive me, everyone; pray do not allow me to interrupt.”
As she and Elisabet sat—poor Elisabet looking so uncomfortable Emaile wondered if she’d really been polite inviting the woman to join her—a young servant boy came bounding up.
“C-can I get you anything, milady?” he asked, and from the hounded look in his eyes, she could nearly feel how nervous he felt.
Gracious, she’d never intended to cause such a stir! All this over fetching her own breakfast and inviting a servant to dine with her? Were they waited on for every meal at Camp Dragonhead? “I’m quite well taken-care of, so you may rest easy on my account! Thank you very much. Should I think of anything, I will not hesitate to ask, Master…?”
He balked, neither anticipating the question nor the title Master. “Ah… T-Tinois, m’lady.”
“Master Tinois.” A sweet name. She committed it and his face to memory. Freckles. Sandy blond hair. Hardly a day over twelve, if she had to guess. “A pleasure to meet you!” She inclined her head.
A shocked blush spread from his freckled cheeks all the way to the tips of his long ears. “Ch-charmed, I’m sure, m’lady!”
But before she could chat with him more, he went scampering away, all flustered.
Shaking her head, Emaile cut a slice of bread and dipped it in the milk, nibbling and savoring the freshness. “Mm! This is excellent!” It was such a different flavor than the brown bread Iloise baked. And were these walnuts? Iloise would be salivating at the thought.
“Our head culinarian Medguistl will be so pleased to hear you enjoy it, my lady!” said Elisabet, though she hadn’t touched her food, instead watching Emaile eat and still looking rather uncomfortable.
Emaile straightened from her meal. “Please, there is no need for such formality on my account. I may be a guest, but I do wish to be treated the same as anyone else here.” She waved her hand. “Besides, it would be a shame to allow it to grow cold.”
She noticed a few of the servants—Elisabet included—shooting slightly uncertain… but slightly amused, knowing looks. Not derisive, but knowledgeable of some hidden secret.
Given his amicability with everyone the night before, Emaile wondered if they were thinking how their unusual lord would be doing the same sort of thing, were he a guest in someone else’s castle.
“As you wish, my lady,” Elisabet finally acquiesced, slicing into her own loaf of bread. “I would never seek to offend.” She popped a small slice of the end of the loaf into her mouth.
Emaile nodded with a smile. “Nor would I!” Ah, at last, she felt as though she could relax.
Though she could hardly rest! Not with this golden opportunity to learn more about her host. Dipping another slice of bread in the milk, Emaile asked idly, “I suppose Lord Haurchefant has already broken his own fast?”
Information! Precious information. What was Lord Haurchefant’s morning routine like? Was he an early-riser, or did he burn his candle long into the night? Was he walking the rounds, checking on soldiers? Asleep abed for another few hours? All this and more told a great deal of what kind of man whose favor she may be courting.
But to Emaile’s surprise, Elisabet sighed. “We’re lucky if the young lord eats more than a bite a day. Such a particular eater, but even when we do land on a recipe he approves, he gets busy as an antling and forgets to eat entirely.”
A picky knight! Now there was something to tug the corners of Emaile’s mouth. But she composed herself and refused to giggle at his expense. He was also apparently the duty-oriented sort—assuming he was not simply avoiding meals he disliked, and assuming too Elisabet was not simply making her lord seem more industrious than he truly was.
Hm… No, one glance told Emaile the sweet serving-lady’s honest face held no lies.
So Emaile said simply, “Perhaps we should bring him some sustenance then, to remind him of the importance of caring for both mind and body.”
“My lady, this entire castle would thank you sevenfold could you get him to come to two meals a day,” Elisabet said with a shake of her head.
Well. It sounded as though she already had her first task for the day. Emaile quickly polished up her meal. Grabbing her tray, she rose from the table. “And where might I find Lord Haurchefant at this time of day?”
Elisabet watched in something only a little less than awe. But she composed herself quickly: it hadn’t taken her long to grow accustomed to what sort of person Emaile was, either, it seemed. “As soon as he rises in the morn, he checks in on the guards. After that, he returns to his study. He should be arriving there shortly.”
Study. She thought she remembered where that was from her tour yesterday. “Thank you, Elisabet!” Emaile nodded as she strolled back to the kitchen to fetch some breakfast for her eccentric host.
Then again, given the shocked looks the servants had given her, perhaps she was the eccentric one here after all…
As she’d suspected, Lord Haurchefant’s exceptional tour had perfectly prepared her for a wander around the grounds; it didn’t take her long to find her way to the hall outside his study.
A dark-haired soldier stood guard at the doorway: the same man, she recognized, who had accompanied Haurchefant and Elisabet in greeting her yesterday morn. Travois, if her memory hadn’t failed her utterly.
She couldn’t help but smile at the familiar face as she approached with Lord Haurchefant’s breakfast tray in her hands.
“Ah, Lady Emaile!” the soldier greeted, standing even straighter at attention. “You’re up early! We thought you’d be exhausted after the eventful day.”
That explained the surprise at her early rising! “How could I sleep away my first visit to Camp Dragonhead?” Emaile giggled. “It is good to see you again, Travois. I’m certain your day was far more eventful than mine. I hope you were granted ample rest.”
His eyes widened, looking nearly as surprised she’d remembered his name as the servants had been to see her dining with Elisabet. Then he shook himself, recovering quickly. “I appreciate your concern, my lady, but don’t worry about me.” He scoffed, leaning closer and adding, “My cousins in other citadels wish they had my post—”
But a man’s voice from within the study interrupted further conversation: “Our lovely guest is more than welcome to enter, if she dares venture through this mountain of paperwork!”
Lord Haurchefant. Emaile smiled.
Travois stepped to the side, gesturing her in. She took the invitation readily.
—And was immediately met with quite the sight! Lord Haurchefant had only slightly been exaggerating about the paperwork. He sat hunched forward at his desk, which was fraught with notes and stacks of books and half-rolled-up maps. One hand poised with quill pen to parchment, the other massaging his temple, he took turns shooting daggers at the document before him or glowering at the abacus at his elbow.
“Confounded numbers,” he muttered under his breath. Then he glanced up, shooting her a brilliant smile. “—Taking me away from a beam of light like the fair lady herself!” Gladly dropping his quill back into the inkwell at his elbow, he rose, spreading his arms wide in welcome. “And how was your rest, Lady Emaile? Were it anything less than comfort itself, I shall overturn your quarters until you find no thing lacking.”
“Unnecessary, my lord, as my rest was quite superb,” Emaile replied, skirting around a bouquet of rolled-up maps that blocked her way to the desk. My, however does he get anything done in here? She thought to herself before quickly returning her thoughts to the task at hand. “Your staff excel far too much to leave anything to be desired.”
“Remind me to tell them to be slightly less than excellent. Then you’ll be forced to come to me often to air your grievances.”
Arriving at the desk—miraculously without stepping on any documents—Emaile simpered. “Oh, no need for that, my lord. I’ve found a far more agreeable reason to pay visit.” She held up the tray above the stack of paperwork and books so he could see.
And see he did; Lord Haurchefant’s eyes lit with appreciation. “They forced you to deliver breakfast! The knaves. I’ll have them all strung up by their toes,” he jested as he sat once more, folding his document in half and brushing parchments, ink wells, and quills aside to make room for the tray. “Set it here!”
She did so, chuckling as she tugged over another chair she noticed tucked between messy bookshelves. “The plan was solely my own, I assure you, my lord.”
“Well, I suppose I could hardly charge you with sin. I’m no Inquisitor, after all. Will you join me, please?”
She’d had her fill of breakfast, but so as not to be rude, she did accept a slice of bread as he poured them both tea from the hot kettle she’d brought over.
They talked about light subjects over their tea—mostly predictions about the upcoming weather (fair skies so far), and this of course turned to talk about the current clime.
“Incredible what a difference the Calamity made,” Haurchefant murmured after a sip of tea.
Emaile swallowed, nodding. “I never thought I minded cold; I looked forward to autumn and the first snowfall. But after five whole years of winter…” She gestured around them broadly.
“It is trying for us all, I feel,” Haurchefant nodded, setting his cup aside and leaning on his elbow with a thoughtful sigh. “What I wouldn’t give for that day of melt to announce the spring! A day to train in the grassy fields again.”
Emaile stared into her half-finished tea, smiling sadly. Would they ever have spring in Coerthas again? “It would do wonders for morale, certainly.”
“To be sure!”
As they gazed into one another’s eyes, Emaile knew he was thinking the same as her: could see it sparkling in his eyes. If the snow could one day melt, if the Calamity itself could somehow break, it whispered hope: that perhaps someday all this dreaded war would be over.
Haurchefant snapped his fingers. “The first thing I’d do is show you the Highlands.” He spread his fingers and swept his arm across the room. “They used to come alive in the spring, Lady Emaile. Flowers of all kinds, purple and blue and lovely. They’d dot every hillock, and all the brooks would draw in the gentlest and most graceful of beastkin.”
She wrapped both cold hands around her cup, listening, leaning closer, enthralled by his description.
“The shy gazelle doe would come out of the mountains, and if you were quiet enough, you’d see her bring her spotted fawns to drink.” But just as suddenly as the hope had laid hands on him, it released him, and all the wear of winter fell back upon his brow. He slumped in his seat with a heavy sigh, shaking his head. “Now there’s little else besides monsters betwixt here and the Observatorium.”
Emaile replied wistfully, again before she’d had a chance to better pace her response: “I should have loved to see it.”
“Perhaps one day you may.” Haurchefant smiled wistfully. “We do not know that the effects of the Calamity will last forever! Nothing lasts eternal… save love.”
“Love?” she asked, blinking, smiling.
This time when he turned to her, he was all seriousness, though he still smiled amicably. “Love cares not for the bounds of mortal planes, Lady. No time nor space can bind it.”
Quite the Romantic. He and her father would have much to talk about. As strange as it had seemed when her father suggested it, she couldn’t deny, the concept was charming. Perhaps even attractive, if only she could believe it could be for nobility of the Holy See. Still, Lord Haurchefant hardly struck her as a dandy spouting off flowery words simply to catch his latest fair maiden.
But romance or not, one thing was evident, at least: “You love your post quite dearly, my lord,” Emaile commented, resting her chin on her hands with a smile.
Haurchefant chuckled. “I love a great many things,” he said as he topped off her tea. Again she wondered if he weren’t attempting one of his hints, but the playfulness wasn’t quite there: not in full force, at any rate. “But yes, the Highlands are one of a long list of things that remain to enjoy in life, even after the Calamity, if only you open your eyes to see: the changing of seasons. The rhythm in a dance. The arc of a well-placed blow.” He glanced up, and this time, she saw the smoldering passion and yet the hint of mischief and playful banter and questioning look she was swiftly becoming used to. “The tilt of a fair maiden’s laughing lips.”
Emaile could feel her face growing warmer, and she buried it in a sip of tea to distract herself—and to find an excuse for her sudden warmth.
“And of course, silver linings come even with the storm-clouds of business.” Haurchefant raised an index finger, setting down his teacup and turning to examine the stacks of books he’d nudged out of their way. “As it turns out,” he said, walking his fingers down the spines of the stacks, checking their titles, “filing reports is good for something, after all.”
She tilted her head as she watched him clap his hand triumphantly upon one of the stacks. Good for something…?
“Hardly presentable for a lady…” he grumbled, turning a book over in his hands, as if scolding the tomes themselves for their appearance. He cleared his throat and turned to Emaile with an apologetic smile. “These were to be wrapped and presented to you properly as soon as I’d finished filing, but it took me a bit to locate them. My organizational system is somewhat…” He trailed off, glancing around at the books, the maps, the parchments everywhere. “Well, I shall do better for the next delivery. On that, you have my word.”
Lord Haurchefant looked hopeless and sheepish and unashamed all at the same time somehow. But he carefully laid out the tomes, one after the other, before Emaile: one, two, three… four books altogether!
He was giving these to her? Emaile stared at the books in delighted disbelief. Travel logs, a book on Gridanian history and customs, a particularly thick red tome titled Signs of the Astrologicum—oh, little adventures, each and every one! “My lord, I could not possibly… How could I ever…?” She could hardly speak! “It truly is too kind of you—”
“Nonsense! It is but a trifle, and far less than what my lady deserves. Let these be a down payment until I can procure stories more to your liking. And of course, you are welcome to my study at any time to peruse at your leisure—” He added, muttering under his breath, “assuming, of course, you can navigate it…”
She dusted her hand over the cover of the red book, whispering reverently, “My lord, these are kingly.”
“Do you like them then?” he asked, excited as a child on his nameday.
“Like them?” Emaile cracked open a travel log, skimming its first page. All about Ul’dah: it painted images of a desert teeming with golden-orange rocky crags and bubbling rivers that issued from underground, and lovely flowers that grew when it rained. The jewel of the desert indeed! And a treasure in the snow of Coerthas. “You are too generous, my lord. Thank you.” She closed the book, pressing it to her chest. Four new books, just for her! “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!”
He glowed with delight. But he took it in stride, pressing his hand to his chest and bowing his head. “I live to serve, my lady. Ah, but I can’t allow your tea to cool. Shall I pour you another cup? You could read here while I do battle with this heinous paperwork.”
She smiled as she set the book down, holding up her teacup and saucer for him. “I should like that very much, Lord Haurchefant.”
He returned her smile with a beam of his own.
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