She was worried the books would prove too great a temptation: that she might forget all etiquette and ignore her host in favor of digging into his precious gifts, but as it turned out, she had need of their distraction a bit longer even after his paperwork was complete. At length, Lord Haurchefant looked up from his work with a heavy sigh, excusing himself, as he had business with the guards on the walls.
“Oh, forgive me if I inhibited your morning routine!” Emaile cried, sliding a finger in the page of her new travel log as she closed it and set it in her lap. “Elisabet said you ordinarily performed such tasks straightaway in the morning.”
Halfway risen from his chair, Lord Haurchefant paused. “And she is quite correct. Elisabet knows me far too well; better than myself, I should venture.” He nodded with a rueful chuckle. “I had performed my usual rounds, but today my numbers suggest I must visit the guard once more.” He frowned, wagging a commanding finger at her gifts. “Now, it’s your job to keep the lady company until I return! Should I hear any complaint at all, I’ll confine you to the dusty study once more!”
Emaile laughed. “They shall make poor company compared to my lord, but somehow we shall manage. Running a household takes a great deal of time; I can only imagine running a castle—and a military front besides—takes three times as much.”
He sipped off the last mouthful of his tea, clapped the cup to its saucer, and bowed as he took her hand. “Ten times as long, knowing a lady awaits. I shall return presently.” And with a peck on her knuckles, he swept out of the room, a man on a mission.
With a quiet chuckle, Emaile shook her head and settled down in her chair with her new book.
Though as she sat and read, she began to understand a bit of why Lord Haurchefant dreaded the place so—besides its untidy interior and his nemesis paperwork. It was far too quiet here, all alone in this still corner of the castle; silent and lonesome, even while reading.
But he’d commanded his books to keep her company, so she would find them company well enough until he returned. The travel log was well-written, but in the quiet, it simply could not weave a proper spell around her fancy.
Emaile set the book down with a sigh, glancing at the messy desk. Perhaps a change in topic would do the trick. The tome from the Observatorium caught her eye. What could be more entrancing than the world of magic?
Curious, Emaile picked up the red tome, licked her finger to turn past the title page, and began to read.
How wrong she had been! The introduction alone possessed an arcane mix of poetry and prose with words she had never read before in her life. A single sentence took her ages to comprehend; a paragraph an eternity. But eventually she’d meandered her way through the first two chapters—and felt exhausted for all the effort.
Still, her efforts did not go without bearing fruit: she had already learned a great deal more about magic than she’d ever thought she’d learn: how magic was a manipulation of aether, which made up all living things. How this selfsame aether was the very fabric of reality and the spark that gave the soul life. How there were various schools of magic that manipulated aether in different ways and with vastly differing ideals, but how the Observatorium dealt in peering into the future through the stars.
It all sounded like a fantasy, yet the school of Astrologians not far from here would say quite otherwise.
“Find anything of interest?” came Haurchefant’s voice from the open doorway. “Travois informed me you’ve been here the whole time…”
Emaile’s heart jumped in shock and dismay. Had it truly gotten so late? “Oh! Forgive me, Lord Haurchefant!” She closed the book, but before she could lay it down, Haurchefant had crossed the room and taken a peek at its cover.
“A practitioner of magic, Lady Emaile? A surprise, to be sure.”
Emaile blushed. Perhaps her first large gaffe! Practicing magic was vastly beneath their station. “Oh, no. But… I do find the topic fascinating, and this tome has only piqued my curiosity further, I will confess. Though… I do believe much of it to be beyond my ken.”
“Piqued your interest, you say?” Haurchefant said in quite a mysterious tone, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I am certain nothing is beyond the ken of an intelligent young woman who reads.”
Did he not think poorly of it, then?
But he interrupted his own thoughts, it seemed, as he clapped. “Well, just as you rescued me from a fast, so too shall I return the favor. With our respective business, we quite nearly missed the midday meal. Can your lessons wait a moment while I escort you to the dining hall, my lady?”
Offering her hand, she rose from her chair with a feigned sigh. “I suppose I could stall my inquiries into the mystical world of magic. As long as it is for a meal with my lord.”
“I do very much like the sound of that.” He winked.
But it was on the fourth day that Lord Haurchefant announced, “I’m off to run an errand out of Dragonhead, Lady Emaile.”
Out of Dragonhead? Now that was unusual. She fought her disappointment as she glanced up over the edge of her book.
How surprised she was to see neither Lord Haurchefant’s typical somber gaze nor yet his sigh of reluctance he normally exhibited when he had work that interfered with their time together. No, both were noticeably absent, instead replaced by a skip in his step and a gleam of excitement in his eye.
Even for a moment, her disappointment lost to a smile at his delighted posture. By the Fury, again like a child on his nameday. Whatever could he be planning? She set the book down on her lap, maintaining her composure and working her hardest not to let slip a hint of her emotions. The better to play along with whatever he schemed. “We shall certainly miss you, my lord.” She did wonder whether she was right in speaking for everyone else. Perhaps it was mainly her own feelings of disappointment, having lost her best conversation partner to a full-fledged business trip this time.
“Oh, I shan’t be longer than a few hours, I wager,” Lord Haurchefant tutted, waving his hand. “Though if I may be so bold, Lady Emaile, I do wonder if you would be interested in accompanying me on this venture?”
The lift of his brow, the tilt of his chin—irresistibly charming. Her heart began to pound within her breast. Him, inviting her on a business trip? But… surely he would be taking a guard with him. He would never invite her to travel alone with him. Despite all the secrecy her father had attempted to enshroud this visit of hers, that level of scandal would get out for certain!
Haurchefant continued, “I simply thought the troops alone poor company for us both, and I’ve been forced to sacrifice so much time to work rather than tending to your needs…”
Traveling with Lord Haurchefant…! She could feel warmth seep into her cheeks and desperately pulled out her fan to rescue herself by concealing her face.
Heavens, why in Eorzea could even the littlest thing set her off like a school-girl?
She found herself nodding without even the slightest hesitation. “I would be delighted, Lord Haurchefant. This is so unusual! I never expected I would be granted the opportunity to accompany you and observe as you do business.”
Feeling her blush simmer down, she felt safe enough to put the fan away—and slide the book from her lap to the desk.
“Well, this particular trip is something rather special,” he said while taking her hand to raise her from the chair—and sneaking a kiss on the back of her fingers. “I do believe you’ll find it entertaining.”
His eyes sparkled with mischief. He was plotting something for certain. “Oh, I am glad you said yes!” Giggling, Haurchefant paraded her out of his study, holding his head high, his voice all alight with delight. “Please, allow me to escort you to the stables!” he said, though in truth they were already halfway down the hall.
Something special? What sort of business was he planning to conduct that she would find so enjoyable—and he so giddy over? Emaile couldn’t resist a giggle of her own as he tucked her hand in his arm. “I would inquire as to our destination, but I am loathe to sully a surprise that grants you such delight, my lord.”
Haurchefant turned to her with a self-satisfied little hum. “And I am equally loathe!” He tapped the side of his nose with his free hand. “No spoiling this dish, by the Fury! No, you’ll find out soon enough, if the lady is willing to bear with her unreasonably mysterious host.”
There is nothing unreasonable about you, my lord, Emaile nearly retorted. She felt her face warm anew at the thought—and alas could not flick out her fan fast enough to conceal it this time. She said nothing, but she was quite certain that her blush and her smile, which she herself could feel made her face glow, had betrayed her all the same.
They made their way down to the chocobo stables. The smell only took her a bit of time to become accustomed to; these were animals, after all, but clean ones and being well-cared for. A red-headed boy of fifteen or so winters brushed their feathers and trimmed talons. He glanced up with a bright grin and a salute to Lord Haurchefant.
“Good work as always, Olivier,” Lord Haurchefant praised the boy with a nod before turning to Emaile. “Have you ridden before, my lady?” Haurchefant asked as Emaile reached up to stroke a bird’s lovely feathered head. It chirped cheerfully and leaned its head into her petting. Such soft feathers! And it was such an unusual color, too: a striking black.
“I’ve received instruction, though I’ve only ridden once,” she confessed. “There were few opportunities in Ishgard, unfortunately.” Most streets forbid chocobo riding except for cavalry soldiers or the occasional messenger; the one time she’d actually ridden was nearly seven years ago, when one of her father’s clients had insisted she try one of his prize-winning chocobos after they’d closed out a particularly lucrative business deal.
“Allow me to assist you in mounting up, then.” He crossed over to her, instructing her which side to mount the chocobo from. She knew this much, but she appreciated the careful direction just in case. “Are you ready?” he inquired, to which she nodded.
And, without further ado, his hands were on her hips. An innocent touch and purely pragmatic, she knew, but she blushed all the same at the closeness. With as much ease as though she weighed the same as one of the chocobo’s soft feathers, Lord Haurchefant picked her up and gently settled her onto the chocobo’s back.
“Comfy?” he asked her, clearly struggling to repress a grin, though whether it was due to seeing her blush or due to his continued excitement for his little surprise, she was uncertain.
It only took a moment’s adjusting of skirts to settle herself side-saddle… and to settle her impossible blush. “Yes, quite.” She tossed her head, her ringlet bouncing impertinently, as if it too were teasing her.
“Excellent. Albeyr will take good care of you. Best chocobo I’ve trained yet! Do you know, he’ll even do squats with me!” Haurchefant mounted with grace, moving in one smooth motion; as only a knight who’d done this many a time before could do. “We’ll be back before sundown,” he assured the stable-boy, who watched the proceedings from the inside edge of the doorway.
Digging their heels into the chocobos’ sides, they trotted away: out the stables and down the courtyard. As they approached the southern gate, two mounted knights (a married couple, Stelle and Vieron) flanked them. An escort after all. Emaile nodded to them, and they smiled and nodded back. I didn’t quite expect the escort to be armed, however. Had the beasts nearby truly become so dangerous? Perhaps a result of the Calamity. Or perhaps knights always carried their weapons with them; she wasn’t sure she’d seen a single man lay down their arms despite patrolling Dragonhead day in and out.
Lord Haurchefant leaned close and whispered, reassuring her, “We won’t travel far, but it puts me at ease knowing they’ll be close.” He waved his hand, some signal to Stelle and Vieron, who fanned out and dropped back a dozen or so yalms behind. Far enough to offer them some privacy, but near enough to be on hand should anything dangerous occur.
Was it strange her skin tingled with anticipation, not just at the surprise, but the prospect of even a hint of danger? How foolish, yet it did hold some thrill to it: as if she were going on a real adventure!
She and Haurchefant rode side-by-side at a leisurely pace. It allowed Emaile a glimpse at the scenery: at the winding road down the hill headed south, at the bare trees reaching for the whitened skies, and the looming circular stone structures a story high up ahead.
“What are those, my lord?” she asked, gesturing to the structures. They nearly looked like cakes made of gray rock.
“That is Skyfire Locks, the domain of Joacin Charlemend Francel de Haillenarte,” Haurchefant nodded. “Good lad. Childhood friend of mine, actually, though six years my junior.”
The name was familiar. Emaile tilted her head, wracking her brain. “A son of Count Baurendouin, yes? His fourth-born, I believe.”
“What an excellent memory you have, Lady Emaile! Quite right.”
He acted as though it were quite remarkable. Emaile chuckled, embarrassed by the unwarranted praise. “My father spends a great deal of his time speaking with the higher nobles; the Four High Houses come up quite frequently.” She shook her head. “I almost feel I know some of them personally.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Anyone of House Fortemps?”
She giggled. “No, my lord; you and your family remained quite the mystery. Though I have heard your father oft favors Lord Retois’s political leanings.”
“I must confess, I don’t often participate in Ishgard’s political rumblings,” Haurchefant replied, staring off into the distance. He glanced back at Emaile, the cloud of a frown melting into a smile. “But I have heard as much, myself. As have I heard our fathers are unfortunately outnumbered when it comes to fighting for justice in the Holy See.”
Emaile sighed. “I will never understand—” she began, though she paused before she were to speak far beyond safety. I cannot understand how power can so utterly blind. But never; she could never voice such thoughts aloud. “—I cannot understand how the good of the people can meet with such stunning silence.”
He watched her silently for a moment; a thoughtful and quiet gaze that truly gave her pause. Had she still said too much? He seemed to be considering her every word… not in judgment, but of consideration… and a glimmer of admiration.
Finally, Lord Haurchefant spoke softly: “In the few times I have met him and the more tales I have heard, your father has proven nothing but a man of honor.” He did not remove his gaze from hers; he still stared her square in the eye. “Would that more men of Ishgard composed themselves in such an unpopular way.”
Did he truly think such of her father? She lowered her head humbly. “You honor us with your kind words, Lord Haurchefant. Thank you.”
“I only ever speak honesty, my lady; there is nothing to thank me for.” He smiled, loosening his chocobo’s reins to give it a more free head. “But I do lament the time I have lost in further acquainting myself with your father due to my responsibilities oft keeping me from Ishgard.”
Then, at last, his eyes glittered with the mystery and mischief she was quickly becoming accustomed to. “Perhaps in the future I may be so impertinent as to pay both you and your good father a visit?”
Her reply of a blush was becoming all to frequent, but from his widening grin, she wondered whether this were the very reaction his look of mischief had sought to evoke. “We would be more than happy to host you at any time, my lord.”
He beamed. “Well! I shall set about planning my trip posthaste then. But one journey at a time, I suppose, eh?” With that, he gently pulled his chocobo to a stop, pointing straight ahead. “We have arrived, Lady Emaile.”
Her brow furrowing, she followed the line of his arm down the snowy hill… to a walled-off hamlet with a single towering spire that seemed to pierce the heavens.
The Observatorium! Emaile’s heart soared with delight and dread. She would get to see real mages in practice! But how had he known…?
Haurchefant continued, “I set up an appointment to discuss magic with the chief astrologian of the order.” He dismounted and gathered her chocobo’s reins, tugging both their mounts through the snow to close the distance to the northern gate. “Come, come, he will be delighted to meet you in person!”
The world of magic was just as mysterious as the tome had suggested. She’d understood little of what the chief astrologian had spoken on and had only a few questions to pose due to her lack of knowledge, but her experience there had only opened her eyes wider.
“I do thank you for tolerating my ignorance for so long, chief astrologian,” Emaile thanked him as they were bidding their farewells late into the afternoon. If they did not leave soon, evening would soon be upon them. And while Lord Haurchefant mentioned no particular dangers here at night, she could imagine the beasts were nothing to trifle with.
“Our work here is too important to spare time for the ignorant,” the chief astrologian said in his crisp, no-nonsense way. He seemed a stiff sort of man who would get along swimmingly with the higher nobles of Ishgard—all protocol and business and no time for pleasantries—but… “And you, my lady, are no such sort. It requires an adept mind to grasp even those basic concepts you expressed to me, and that from reading a tome rather than through practical application and study. It is a shame you were born into nobility, for we would have been glad to have—” He stopped, collecting and correcting himself before saying too much. “Travel safely, Lord Haurchefant. Lady Emaile,” he bid a stiff farewell, bowed once, and then left them to make their way back down the ever-winding staircase that seemed straight out of a fairy-tale to the main floor.
Emaile couldn’t help reliving the sights and things she’d discussed over the past few hours, and though much of it she went over in her mind, Lord Haurchefant would ask her questions to coax them out along their trip back. “What did you like the best?” “How did you know the answer to that question?” “What exactly does aether do?”
He shook his head. “I daresay, my lady, I nearly felt the need to draw my sword and beat some of those Astrologians off you; it seemed they were about ready to steal away my guest and force her to join their society as an acolyte.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “Then it is good for us both that my standing prevents me from so doing.” Her smile faded into thoughtful introspection. “To be able to help the kingdom…” she murmured dreamily. “Seeing into the future, using the aether to heal wounded soldiers who have fought so hard against dragon and Ixali and all other dangers…” She rolled the reins back and forth between her fingertips, feeling its surface thoughtfully. “What a life that would be to lead.”
She felt a hand rest on her own, and she glanced up to see Lord Haurchefant closing the gap between them as he held her fingers. “Those who wish to serve will find a way to do so. Even if it turns out to be a way they least expect.” He nodded, again not breaking eye contact. Staring, as if into her very soul, to reassure her. “Of that I am certain.”
It was the second time this day his soft-spoken but poignant words had pierced her heart and nearly made her cry. She nodded, forcing a brave grin from behind her misty eyes. “Then I must keep searching for my fate, as the Astrologians do!”
Still his eyes held her own. “I hope I am there to see that fate rise, my lady. I am certain it will be a dawning most beautiful indeed.”
His words came so bold. So effortless. Still she knew not whether within them was true courting or whether it were simply his way of speech; all she knew was that everything he said was, indeed, the truth from his heart.
A man like this was worthy to be treasured, to be sure.
This time, she did not even pay any mind to the warmth that blossomed in her cheeks as they approached the gates of Dragonhead, heard its sentries calling out and welcoming them back.
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