She’d understood he was a busy man. Truly, she did.
But the disappointment was far harder to conceal the next time Lord Haurchefant approached her confessing he had to go on a trip for business… this time, regrettably, without her company.
She should have anticipated this. He was a busy man. He ran an entire castle and all of Dragonhead, besides. But she still felt her heart weighing down at the news.
“I could never bore you with the details of an actual business trip,” Lord Haurchefant was saying, in between his profuse and almost distraught apologies. He forced a smile, but it wasn’t his usual glittering, mischievous smile: it lacked a warmth, and there was a sober concern hiding behind his eyes. Sternness and regret: the same sort of regret her father exhibited when he had no choice but apologize to a client for failing to fill their expectations. Copious apologies and compensation were never far behind.
“I’ll be detained for a week, unfortunately,” he explained.
A week! And she felt as if she’d seen so little of him… She missed breakfasts with him, huddled in his study with tea, helping him will his way through paperwork. She missed him asking what she’d read that day instead of begging her pardon with a kiss on the hand and retiring early due to work the next day. She wanted more scintillating conversations with him. She wanted to go on more adventures with him.
Every corner of her disappointed heart wanted to ask whether she might not be able to accompany him after all. But to not only question his decision, but to be so forward as to invite herself on a trip with him… And were he to go without escort, to venture forth alone with him… Too many stories could be whispered, could be rumored, could ruin both their reputations. She could never taint either of their honor so.
His shoulders sagging, a frustrated, disappointed sigh escaped Haurchefant’s lips. At the situation? At himself? “All I can do is pray your forgiveness, my lady. I’ve proven an inexcusable host this entire trip…” He was about to add more but seemed to catch himself.
So, there were some words even he refrained from uttering. It made her burn with curiosity despite her disappointment.
“—But I must at least maintain some semblance of hospitality and ensure you are here, well cared-for,” he finished. Nodded hesitantly to seal the words, at least halfway satisfied with his verbal correction.
A thought crossed her mind suddenly. Had… she inhibited him during her stay here? Emaile clutched her skirt anxiously. “I certainly hope I have not proven a burden to your business, my lord…”
“No, no!” The emphasis, the desperation in his voice made her start. He composed himself and shook his head vehemently. “Absolutely not. If anything, having you here allowed me to work more fervently than ever before, I assure you, my lady!”
Oh, what in Eorzea had ever gotten into her? Her mind was a muddle, and her heart was hammering, and her emotions felt as though they each wanted to run in a separate direction.
—A fact that was not aided when Lord Haurchefant snatched up her hands in his, gazing earnestly into her face. “The honor of House Fortemps is at stake, and I shall defend it to my last breath. As soon as I return, I shall make it up to you. This I swear.” He tossed his head; raised a determined finger in the air. “Whatever you ask, it shall be given, up to half the books in Dragonhead!”
She couldn’t resist a giggle. “That would make your duties perilously hard to complete, I imagine, Lord Haurchefant. I could never punish the good people of Dragonhead so.”
“Then name your price, lady, and you shall have it in abundance.”
He was so concerned, so desperate to make amends! When all he’d been doing was simply his duties. What did it matter what they were or how long they would take?
She knew he was no dandy, tired of a plaything and struggling to avoid her at every turn. No. Lord Haurchefant only ever spoke the truth, so often in such bold ways.
She clapped her hands to her side. “Well, you will simply have to complete your business venture quickly so you may learn the mystery of what prize I desire as compensation!” She smiled impishly, one she hoped was worthy of his own.
He chuckled. “The ultimatum has been set then. Very well!” He took her hand in his, pressing a light kiss upon it as was his custom. Though far from commonplace, Emaile found herself enjoying the gesture the more he did it. He looked up from her hand but, for a moment, did not release it as he locked gazes with her. “I look forward to unlocking this mystery when I return.”
He left later that afternoon to a crowd of servants and Emaile sending him off. Elisabet shouted for him to travel cautiously on the road. Travois and Caprinoille saluted as Haurchefant rode past.
Anuel wasn’t watching Lord Haurchefant; his gaze rested on Emaile, his countenance sad and his head bowed with a weight of worry almost father-like. But he offered Emaile a brave smile all the same.
Emaile remained standing at the gate, watching Haurchefant’s chocobo ride alone into the distance until it was swallowed by a snow-covered hill and she could see him no more. Then, and only then, did she return to the castle, her heart strangely heavy.
Same as each morning, once she’d prepared for the day, Emaile poked her head out to find Elisabet waiting in the hall. But unlike every other morning, the serving-woman’s greeting smile had lost a bit of its glitter. Elisabet’s hands moved ever so much slower over her mending, working with less vigor and more sobriety. Though she did agree to breakfasting together again—by now with only a moment’s hesitation. Emaile felt she would like the company even more today.
Each breakfast with Elisabet had become less of a marvel until now Emaile was certain if she arrived without Elisabet there would be murmurs of concern.
Quietly the two of them took trays and arranged them with their meals. Quietly they sat side-by-side. Quietly they both stared at their meals, neither one feeling particularly eager to eat.
Emaile glanced over at Elisabet’s tray. Apparently she’s feeling as little appetite as I. Emaile forced a wan smile. “Well this won’t do at all!” Loosely she gestured to the food. “Were Lord Haurchefant to see us, we would never hear the end of his teasing.”
Elisabet glanced up, blinking, awoken from her lost wanderings of thought. But as Emaile’s words registered, she returned the feeble smile. “Regular pots calling a kettle black, aren’t we, Lady Emaile?”
But even their little jest couldn’t banish the heavy cloud of melancholy that had settled upon them.
It seemed the whole kitchen felt it; the cooks and servers went about their business with less bustle and more of a shuffle. Talking, which normally they heard in murmurs to the rhythm of the clanking kitchenware, had almost ceased to be.
Tinois approached with decidedly less spring in his youthful step, his head hanging. Still, he was just as sweet and timid as he inquired whether there were anything he could do for her this morn.
The spell had taken even poor Tinois! Well, this truly would not do!
A genuine smile graced her face this time as she gestured to the seat across from her. “Actually, I would be honored if you would join us, young Master Tinois, should your chamberlain allow.”
That sparked a reaction at the very least. Tinois grew sunset red in the face. “I-I—I couldn’t possibly interrupt, m-m’lady…!”
“Oh, you’re not interrupting anything,” muttered Anuel as he strolled up from behind the lad and elbowed him in the back. “Humor the good lady, boy.” He winked. “I’ll take care of it if the chamberlain puts up a fuss.”
Even the elderly servant’s teasing smile flagged at the corners, and his eyes had lost a glimmer of their usual spark.
Not having him here truly was a heavy weight. Shocking.
Though… which was more surprising: that they too felt it as keenly as she, or that she felt it so keenly herself?
There was nothing she could do to bring him back any sooner, but at least she could help console the others. Ease the separation, however small her contribution may be.
Emaile patted the open seat on her other side. “Difficult to cover for him while supping yourself, Anuel,” she invited. “Pray, join us. I will be the one to make amends should the chamberlain refuse to indulge me.”
Anuel’s chuckle stuck in his throat as he glanced to her, eyes wide with surprise. There was a moment as he parsed her invitation… glanced around the room incredulously… and then shrugged with a sheepish laugh. “Who am I to deny my lady?” he said as he slid into the seat.
Tinois, seeing two of his seniors so joining the breakfast, finally conceded and hesitantly sat across from Emaile, as cautiously as if the seat were a hot iron in the smith’s furnace.
They supped, and Emaile made small-talk, though the conversation was short-lived and halting. Her noble upbringing had equally equipped her to remain silent when words were ill-advised as it had to speak when words were required to fill the air; not so the servants. They simply couldn’t muster much conversation.
Perhaps that had to do with her impromptu breakfast invitation, but Emaile wondered how much of it had to do with the overhanging melancholy… and their absent lord.
Her hypothesis only seemed to strengthen the more servants she passed as she meandered through Dragonhead. All the servants welcomed her warmly, but their smiles came from drawn faces: as with Elisabet, Tinois, and Anuel, so too the others: servants and knights alike. Everyone seemed a bit at a loss of life.
It weighed on her heart too. Wandering the halls of Dragonhead, which had seemed like such a scintillating prospect when she’d first arrived, now felt like a purposeless exercise. She moved without a thought, hounded by the mild sense of melancholy.
The sensation finally drove her to the hall outside Lord Haurchefant’s study, though her feet had taken her there before she’d even realized. Suddenly there was Travois, standing at his post outside the door as if his lord had never left.
He too greeted her with the same friendly but wan smile everyone else seemed to carry: like an invalid trying their hardest to bid you good morning despite the fact they could hardly sit up on their own.
She smiled and good morninged him in return, resisting the urge to sneak a peek or even rap on the door. She knew no one was there, so the itch to check, just to be sure, caught her by surprise.
Emaile tucked her head down and hurried down the hall.
One day stretched into the next, each one with the same damp feeling weighing on the whole castle. It grew heavier day by day until it had soaked into Emaile’s very soul: a profound sense of loneliness.
And the more she began to recognize the feeling, the more she found her feet pulling her back to Lord Haurchefant’s empty study.
As she stared at the oaken door, she knew the change in atmosphere in the castle was no figment of her imagination. This was the cause of change: this the nexus for all the melancholy, the servant’s wan smiles and the weary sighs she heard escaping now and then when no one knew she was just around a corner. How unkind of him to leave his household like this!
How they loved him so.
She found herself wishing she could pry open the door and find him hiding behind a stack of those books of his, so she could happily proclaim to them all that he’d simply been playing a game of hide-and-seek the whole time. Just to see their smiling faces and hear them laugh again.
And perhaps to hear him laugh, too. His lovely, silvery sort of laugh: the one she’d heard during the banquet.
Alas, he was not in that study. But Travois always was, standing guard at the door.
It was her second time wandering past the study this day when Travois forwent the greeting and offered her a rueful smile. “Not quite the same without Lord Haurchefant around, is it?” he asked abruptly.
Perhaps the forward question should have surprised her, but it did not. Not the same, no; not remotely. She shook her head, a hint of a sad smile on her own features. “You all must care for him dearly.” It was precious. She wondered if Lord Haurchefant knew just how beloved he was to his people. Though he likely had an inkling. And just as likely felt the same toward them, considering he’d earned this devotion.
“Little not to love about the young lord,” Travois commented innocently, shrugging his shoulders.
Love. Had the word choice been intentional? Emaile felt her face grow warm. But surely he hadn’t directed such a comment to her! He meant for the servants, surely.
But there was a gleam in the corner of his eye, a hint of sparkle.
Gracious, was this mischief a trait he’d passed on to the whole castle? Emaile flicked out her fan from her belt and fanned herself furiously, trying to will the blush away.
But as she desperately sought to change tack on the conversation, a commotion startled she and Travois both. The guard glanced up and out the window down the far side of the hall, squinting. A voice shouting, Emaile could hear, though she couldn’t pick out the words.
She needn’t try for long; the next moment, a young serving-girl came flying down the hall, all abubble. “He finished early! He’s on his way now! The messenger’s just arrived,” she proclaimed, slowing to a halt as she approached Travois and Emaile. She paused to catch her breath, bowed to Emaile, and snatched up Travois’s hand, shaking it excitedly. “He’s coming back tomorrow!” she shouted, breathless, beaming.
Travois’s grave demeanor disappeared into the glow of his grin. “Well, don’t just stand there, girl! Spread the word!”
“Oh, I will!” she giggled. “Isn’t it wonderful, m’lady?”
But before Emaile could reply with a relieved chuckle of her own, the girl was already bounding down the hall. “Lord Haurchefant is coming back tomorrow afternoon!” called her echoing voice.
Travois laughed. “Just a bit longer.” He turned to Emaile with a wink. “I suppose we’ll have to live until then.”
And, despite herself, Emaile’s heart soared to see their smiles. And, perhaps, it went sailing off on the same breeze.
He was coming back tomorrow, and all would be well again.
As afternoon approached, Emaile took post between some of the watchmen on the parapets, scanning the horizon for signs of riders.
It was cold up here, out in the wind, and the parapets only offered small protection from the chill. She was grateful for her fur-lined cloak, but she turned to the watchman on her left, incredulous. “However do you manage not to freeze?” she hissed, rubbing her cold arms.
The watchman glanced over to her with a smile and a shrug. “A good drink before the shift works small wonders, my lady.” He shook his head. “We manage. Your concern is better suited to those of higher stature.”
His reminder swung her gaze back out to the horizon, and a moment of panic clutched her breast. Had she missed his arrival? She’d wanted to be there to see him!
But a quick glance told her no, Lord Haurchefant had not yet returned. She slumped against the parapet with a disappointed sigh.
The silence stretched into three more hours, and the twilight sun began to stain the snow golden-orange. The afternoon was all but gone… and still no sign nor word from Lord Haurchefant.
Now a real fear had taken hold of Emaile. She paced along the parapets, stealing glances that only increased her concern as each one confirmed he had yet to arrive. Afternoon she said, didn’t she? Emaile twirled the fabric of her skirt between her fingertips as she paced. Perhaps the messenger was mistaken. Perhaps the girl misheard! Perhaps… perhaps he encountered foul weather. He’d said the weather here was inhospitable. How bad was it, truly? Had he encountered a snowstorm? Or worse yet… beasts?
She paused in her tracks, her heart hammering in her chest. No. Of course he would be fine. He was a knight of Ishgard. He’d trained for such situations as that. And here she was, worrying like a mother hen! Over a man she’d but recently met.
But he was no stranger; he was her gracious host. And the servants! Were anything to happen to him, they would be crushed…
Emaile paused between two parapets, leaning against the stone despite its freezing-cold surface. Lord Haurchefant… Please be safe.
If only she could will him to safety! She closed her eyes, whispering under her breath: “Fury, bring him back, I pray you…” Over and over she repeated the words, out loud or to herself in her mind when she feared the watchmen would think her mad, mumbling to herself—
And then she heard an excited cry from the watchman on her right, just before she saw the movement in the distance herself: one lonesome chocobo trudging through the snow… and Lord Haurchefant riding hunched forward on its back.
The entire wall erupted with joyous shouts, and Emaile was quick to join in to welcome the lord home. As soon as the sound reached him, Lord Haurchefant sat up straighter. And, if her ears didn’t deceive her, he offered a shout of his own.
Her heart soared alongside the rest of Camp Dragonhead as she cheered the young lord the rest of the way to his castle.
Emaile watched as a cluster of servants rushed from the buildings to the gate to meet Lord Haurchefant. With a beaming grin, she gathered her skirts and made her way down from the walls to join the welcoming party.
It was a bubbling, laughing, joyous throng she melded into as she stood on her toes, looking over heads to watch as Lord Haurchefant came riding through the open gate, dismounting with practiced grace and handing the reins off to an awaiting chocobo stablehand Emaile hadn’t met yet.
The servants crowded around their master, welcoming him back and only peeling away from the group to return to work once he had bid each one a personal thanks. But his eyes were ever casting about the crowd. A question was clearly forming in his eyes, about to utter from his parted lips—when he caught gazes with Emaile. His smile brightened as if a cloud had passed from the sun, and he angled toward Emaile, gently parting the crowd.
“I had not thought,” Haurchefant said, loudly and clearly over the babbling of the excited servants while never once breaking eye contact with Emaile, “I would be greeted at my own home by my honored guest!”
Emaile chuckled, watching as Lord Haurchefant finally made his way through the remaining servants before her. She offered him a curtsy, bowing her head. “Allow me the pleasure of welcoming you to Camp Dragonhead, my lord. I am Emaile, your humble guest.”
They both shared a giggle.
“Now!” said Lord Haurchefant, raising his head to the remaining servants. “Let’s get you all inside before anyone loses their nose to this chill!”
Everyone laughed and cheered. Emaile glowed with delight.
I’m glad you’ve returned.
Lord Haurchefant held out his strong arm for Emaile to take. “And perhaps my lady will enlighten me as to the answer to her mystery…”
Looping her arm in his, she laughed. “Why, more breakfasts with you, of course, my lord.”
His smile flagged for just a moment, sorrow in his eyes, before he intertwined his fingers in her hand and kissed her fingertips. “And so you shall have it,” he murmured thoughtfully. “My undivided attention—every waking and sleeping moment—to the limit you can stand. And a Fortemps always keeps his word.”
A blush warmed her cheeks as she glanced down, unable to process such a proclamation! “Gracious! I fear it would be you who would first tire of me, my lord.”
He firmly shook his head. “That, my dear Lady Emaile, is impossible.” His eyes glittered. “Never have I met a better breakfasting partner.”
Her blush spread across her face right down to the tips of her ears, and she looked away, shocked and unspeakably delighted.
But what had that look of his from before meant? Emaile’s brow furrowed, and though she was certain the question was bright in her eyes, Lord Haurchefant’s gaze now fixed on the Great Hall.
No… his eyes angled just above. To the walls surrounding it. And his brow was furrowed again with grave concern.
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