She tried valiantly to remain focused on her father, though she felt more nursemaid than daughter: checking up on him throughout the day, asking what business he had every morning and inquiring where he’d been at the end of the evening. And she never once let him go alone to the Forgotten Knight, of course; after the last time and given the conversation she’d overheard, she was far too fearful what he may say should he partake of too much wine.
But more and more he would slip away early in the morning or late at night, avoiding her. He evaded her questions. Rarely would she receive straight answers.
Still, her father was no fool: he said nothing controversial—indeed he said next to nothing at all on the nights he visited the tavern now, though these were becoming far fewer than they had been before.
His friends Marseilles and Garson had ceased to come calling, and they always seemed to be leaving the Knight just as she and her father arrived. This exodus hardly seemed to phase her father, but he always looked just a bit… distracted. As if his faculties were elsewhere engaged, his mind rifling through records only he could see.
But while her father distracted her mind, her heart was finding distractions of its own to ensure she was properly torn asunder.
Any glimpse of the House Fortemps unicorn emblem would send her imagination skittering back to Camp Dragonhead, her imagination to the warm embrace of its lord. And try as she might to fight it, the Knights Fortemps were hardly the only reminders that attempted to arrest her attention at any given moment throughout the day. It seemed any little thing could remind her of her home that rested far too far away from home.
Helping Iloise prepare the meals would bring the sights and smells of Medguistl’s kitchen delicacies and the warm-baked bread she’d share with Haurchefant or the servants in the mornings. Setting the table reminded her of how magnificent the banquet table had looked that first evening bounty she’d experienced at Dragonhead. And she couldn’t help but think what fun her Father would have chatting and laughing together over a morning meal, sharing stories as only older men could.
Every errand would drag in its monotony compared to the sense of pride and delight she’d felt from caring for the chocobos with Olivier… and Haurchefant, when he had any time to spare.
And oh, each night how she’d ache for just a little time to spend reading in his office with him in the chair beside her.
Thoughts of him bloomed like flowers in spring, warmed her like the sun. She’d close her eyes, and her imagination would steal her away to that moment when they’d touched one another’s hands at the bookcase.
She ran her fingertips across the back of her hand. If only wishing could make that hand appear once again, allow her to see the sparkle in his eyes as he looked at her…
Would the separation ache as much could they send letters? But those were out of the question. Were anyone to see messengers entering the Retois house bearing letters with the Fortemps crest—it would raise too many questions, arouse too many suspicions. And it was still too early to let the world know they were courting; it simply could not be.
So she’d return home from errands each day with breathless anticipation, her every thought bent toward that one day she’d hear it was safe to make another journey to Dragonhead. She’d scarce have time to toss off her coat and scarf and hat before turning hopefully to her father.
Any word? She would ask wordlessly.
And each day he would break both their hearts anew by shaking his head. For despite his own secret distractions, he was just as anxious to hear from the young lord as she.
“Nothing yet,” that sad look on his face would say.
But it never took too long before Emaile found her despondence giving way to dancing through the house again. For she had seen the way Haurchefant had looked at her with quiet longing as they’d bid goodbye; had felt how his hand eagerly held hers and had resisted the need to release, even to the last moment.
She knew the word was only “yet.”
Their chance to see one another again would come soon. They had only to be patient and wait.
So they would each have to suffer in their mutual prisons of solitary confinement.
And of course, in time, her patience was rewarded.
Today she had no chance to doff coat and hat and scarf before her father and Illie nearly pinned her to the door as soon as she’d shut it behind her.
“He’s ready!” her father whispered hoarsely, giddily.
“They’ve asked to have you for Starlight, Lady Emaile!” Illie squealed.
Starlight… Emaile leaned against the front door, in full hat and coat and scarf; all three forgotten. Starlight at Dragonhead! What would it look like, all bedecked for the holiday?
“Oh, if it isn’t the most romantic thing I’ve heard!” Illie chortled, cradling her cheeks. “Candles n’ holly against the white snow, an’ love blushing under the stars… Ahh, Lady Emaile!” Illie took hold of her hands, swinging the two of them around the house.
And all the while, Emaile’s imagination danced. She and Haurchefant dining and laughing in the hall with everyone. Gazing at the stars once the revelry had calmed…
It warmed her from her head to her toes, far more than her winter clothes ever could, as if Haurchefant himself had arrived to deliver a flagon of hot chocolate.
But… Emaile’s smile slowly faded. “But won’t it prove suspect,” she asked, tugging Illie to a halt, “me coming to visit for a holiday?”
Her father grinned.
“Oh, but that’s the best part!” Illie burst out, absolutely in ecstasy. “Lord Seche has arranged it all! You’ll go in disguise, hidden on a cart full of supplies and gifts for the guard at Whitebrim Front and Dragonhead! Smuggling you away under cover of darkness to meet your Love—Oh, it’s deliciously romantic!”
Emaile beamed. Just like something out of the story-books she adored so much. She spun to her father, her face surely aglow for how warm it felt. But though she wished to express her delight, her gratitude… her words failed her utterly! She could but smile and smile!
Her father grinned back, nodding as he cupped her face in his hands and rested his forehead against hers. “Merry Starlight to you, my dear.”
The packing of gifts and gathering of supplies flew by in a whirlwind of excitement. Emaile could remember almost none of it: she was only ever aware of the warm delight that floated her through each step of the trip’s preparations.
At last the chosen evening arrived, and Emaile could scarcely contain herself. She fidgeted, twirling her thumbs: no easy feat as they were cloaked in Illie’s thick black woolen mittens. Bundled head to toe in wool, in fact—to ward off the cold and to disguise her identity.
She stood under the glow of a lamp at the chocobo porter’s, watching Jean and her father load the carriage with presents.
Finally her father turned to her, offering her a hand. “Time to go I think, Iloise,” he smiled and shot her a wink. “Or else there will be no room for you!” Despite his smile, however, there was… a sadness and restlessness about him.
All she could think of was the troubling look he’d had that day she’d caught him after “researching.”
Emaile rested her hand on her father’s arm. “Is aught the matter, Lord Retois?” she asked softly in the best impersonation of Illie she could muster. She had to play her part here in public, evening or no.
But Iloise disguise or not, all she could think of was the troubling look he’d had that day she’d caught him after “researching.”
He patted her hand. “Nothing for you to worry over. Now, up you go!”
So still he refused to give her answers. Surely he knew that only worried her more!
She held his gaze a moment longer, still not taking his hand.
Surely it had to be something dangerous. Something he should not know, or else he would not keep her in the dark like this.
He smiled softly. “I appreciate your concern. But you have gifts to deliver, do you not? It would hardly do to frown all evening.” He laughed. “Go on now. Enjoy yourself, for once.”
When still she hesitated, he leaned close, whispering in her ear, “Trust me not to get into too much trouble while you’re away. You’d never be able to enjoy the holiday if I did, would you? And I could never have that.”
She offered a nervous chuckle in reply. But at least it was some reassurance. Still, it wasn’t always him she worried over… This time in particular, she was far more afraid trouble would find him.
But… Were that to happen… Well, there was nothing she could do to prevent it, whether she were here or not. All she could do was trust their fates to the Fury.
“Do take care, Lord Retois,” Emaile finally sighed.
He nodded once, firmly, as if agreeing in her resolution to trust the Fury. Then, at last, she allowed he and Jean to help her up into the carriage.
Emaile situated her rustling petticoats as the men finished loading the last of the gifts. So packed in she was that it felt as though she’d been entombed in presents! Then the chocobo twittered, the carriage lurched (fortunately the gifts were packed so tight that none of them fell), and off she went into the night!
Iloise had called it a romantic venture, but she hardly felt the romance at the moment. The restlessness she’d felt from her father had surely alighted upon her. As she rode, Emaile wrung her nervous hands. Anxiety for her father warred with her growing excitement. She was on the road again…
Bound for Haurchefant again.
She knew not what the future held in store for her except in this short little moment, here and now. The moment her father so desperately wanted her to be present in. To savor.
But could she? Should she? Wasn’t it terribly selfish of her, to enjoy a starlit Starlight holiday when so very much could go wrong for her father?
The carriage stopped at Whitebrim Front first, and there from the back of the carriage Emaile dispensed presents of food and warm clothing and toys to the knights and their families. Seeing delighted children scamper off playing with a carved and painted wooden chocobo or wrapping thick, brightly-dyed scarves around their necks soon banished all her thoughts of gloom.
For who could stay worried and fearful on Starlight when bringing so much joy?
When over half the gifts were gone, the coachman mounted up again. “Time to go, Miss Iloise!” he shouted.
Emaile waved farewell to all the happy faces as they bid her goodbye in chorus: “Fury bless you! Merry Starlight!” they called.
The cries slowly faded into the distance, and Emaile finally plopped down into her seat. Far more room without half the presents here now.
She glanced at the remaining gifts with an exhausted but satisfied sigh. And a little smile she couldn’t quite resist.
Because the remainder of these gifts was bound for one last stop.
She’d thought she was tired, but with each turn of the cart wheels, Emaile fidgeted, unable to sit still. No, she could take it no more. Emaile rose from her seat, making her way to the back of the carriage, tugging back the curtain to see how far they had yet to go—
And there was Camp Dragonhead, alight with torches, starlit herself in the wintry night.
Eager shouts rang from the ramparts. In a matter of moments, as if the whole castle had been waiting in doorways with bated breath for their arrival, the walls and gateway flooded with cheering familiar faces: even at this distance, she could recognize them by their bearing: there were Anuel and Tinois, waving from between the parapets. There stood Travois and Arthuriox and Caprinoille. In the wide-open gateway, Olivier sat perched atop Emaile’s favorite black chocobo, flanked on either side by Elisabet and—
And Haurchefant, smiling as he threw his arms open wide to greet her.
Her heart twirled and took to the skies at the sight. The carriage could not come to a halt fast enough! As it was, she nearly leapt out head-first as soon as it stopped within the walls.
Emaile and the driver dispensed presents as before, and though both holds had been excited, the atmosphere here was electric. Almost every child giggled when Emaile handed them their gifts, and she coyly held her finger to her lips. A lady delivering Starlight gifts under cover of night! It was their little secret.
The children seemed to keep the secret better than the adults, at any rate. Emaile thought for sure the game was up with how many comments and knowing looks Caprinoille shot to Haurchefant.
Haurchefant! She could feel herself blushing crimson as he brought up the end of the line, coming closer and closer with each step. Perhaps she’d be the one to give it away in the end!
The most costly gift was for him, of course, and Emaile cradled the custom-ordered sword carefully until he strolled up to her to receive his present.
But as she handed the sword toward him, it was not the beautiful blade that had stolen his attention. The two of them locked gazes, neither one seeming to break the look soon.
And he smiled: wide and eager and as bright as any of the children with their toys.
“How kind of Lord Retois to send a gift to me for Starlight,” he said, his eyes still swimming in her own. He hadn’t even reached for the blade.
She was certain she was about to catch ablaze if she blushed any redder, so warm she felt!
His grin widened; his eyes sparkled at his mischief. Then, and only then, did he tear his gaze away from hers, pointing to the sky. “He was quite concerned for your wellbeing, Miss Iloise. Said it would hardly be right to force you to ride home so late after all this fuss. And considering the Skywatcher said it’s to snow soon too—a veritable blizzard incoming!—your master has requested we keep you for the holiday.”
Her heart jumped again with delight. There was nowhere she would rather be for Starlight than here at Camp Dragonhead, amidst all the cheers and smiles and laughter. With him.
Haurchefant extended his hand to her, smiling that wonderful, mischievous, inviting, mysterious smile. “That is, if you’re amenable to such an arrangement, my lovely miss…”
She could feel dozens of eyes staring with breathless anticipation, though her eyes were only for Haurchefant. Lost in his smile, deep in the sparkling starlight of his gaze. Slowly Emaile took one step closer… Extended her hand… She could hear her heart hammering out of her chest as she slipped her hand in his.
The castle erupted into cheers.
Haurchefant chuckled, tugging her close, tucking her under his arm. So close! Closer than she’d ever been before. She could feel his warmth seeping into her as he cradled her against his side.
She never wanted to leave. She had to resist the magnetic pull of his chest, resist the urge to lay her head against his shoulder.
With his gift in hand, Haurchefant seemed quite at his ease! Joyously he gestured to the carriage driver. “Come, sir, will you join us in the merriment?”
The driver smiled, but he shook his head as he mounted the seat once more. “I’ve got family waiting for me back home, m’lord. But I thank you for the offer all the same.” He doffed his cap and waved as he got the chocobos going. “Merry Starlight to you all!”
“Merry Starlight!” Camp Dragonhead called after him, a chorus Emaile quickly joined in, waving farewell.
The very moment the carriage driver was out of earshot, Haurchefant pressed a kiss to each of her hands in turn, still holding her against his side. “Now, my lady Emaile,” he said, spinning her as she giggled with delight. “We are free to celebrate with reckless abandon! We shall have a Starlight celebration like no other!” He held her close again and turned to the assembled castle residents. “What say you, friends?”
Another round of cheers, clapping, and whistling.
Haurchefant turned to Emaile with a wink and a nod. “I believe they’re ready.” Once more he addressed the crowd, “To the hall!”
The children sprinted off, leading the merry prance to the Great Hall, which Emaile could now see was decorated with evergreen garland and brilliant red bows.
Haurchefant tucked her arm in his, holding her close. “I hope you yet have some energy for a few dances with me, my lady Emaile,” he whispered.
“For you, my lord,” she whispered back, grinning, “I could dance all evening long!”
He threw his head back and laughed: silvery, delighted. “Then we shall put that claim to the test!”
|Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash
She giggled with him, and arm-in-arm they strolled into the Hall. All the tables had been pushed to the walls to leave plenty of space for the dancing. Some of the servants clambered up onto a table, tuning stringed instruments and experimentally piping flutes. And then, once they were ready, they delved straight into a medley of upbeat Starlight songs. The drums beat, the strings sang, and the flutes twittered like birdsong in the morning.
Adults and children alike cheered and scampered onto the dance floor. Men faced the women in a long row, with plenty of space between as they all showed off their light feet, prancing and gracefully drawing first one arm out, then the other. Quick, tight motion and careful concentration was required for a proper dance, but tonight was hardly about a “proper” Ishgardian ballroom dance and more about pure enjoyment. To see everyone dancing to the best of their ability and grinning made Emarella laugh with delight.
Then the song changed, and couples began to pair up for the elaborate chorus line dances.
“Come, Lady Emaile!” Haurchefant cried, grinning as he reached for her hand.
Giggling, she clapped her hands in his, and he swept her into a twirling dance. She and Haurchefant wove in and out of other couples’ extended arms, spinning and laughing together. Their every motion was in sync: their movements precise, their steps in perfect rhythm to the music. He was a magnificent dancing partner. Never before had she had so much fun at a dance.
Song after song they danced to: she lost count. She hadn’t cared to count at all; she wished the music would play all night. Her body, however, thought otherwise, and eventually she and Haurchefant collapsed into seats at the table, still giggling despite their breath coming in happy, ragged gasps.
After a moment of rest to catch their breath, the whole castle mobilized once again, pulling tables and benches back to their places. For now that the dancing was done, it was time to feast!
Medguistl had spared no expense tonight: pies and quiches and roasts and baked vegetables and candied nuts lined the tables, each dish garnished with red bows and lit candles. The men rolled in barrels of fine-vintage wine, and everyone had their fill of food and drink and stories and laughter to their hearts’ content.
Emaile sat beside Haurchefant at the centermost table, surrounded on all sides by her beloved Camp Dragonhead. But of all the smiling faces, none stole her attention quite like Haurchefant’s. He was lit like a hearth, warm and inviting and sparking with life. As always, he gestured emphatically as he spoke, but tonight he was even more lively, more jovial, and more delighted than he’d been that first banquet he’d hosted for her.
And when he noticed her staring at him, his smile only grew more brilliant. She fell, lost in his sparkling starlit eyes. Time held its breath as she and Haurchefant gazed into each other’s eyes.
And then Haurchefant slid his hand across the tabletop, resting his palm atop her hand. Her heart skipped a few beats. Together they intertwined their fingers.
I’m glad you’re here, the gesture whispered as they sat hand in hand through the rest of the feast.
Merry Starlight, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Hannukah, dear readers! May there be blessings that shine in your life to bring you smiles during this season.
Final Fantasy XIV and all related names and terms are the property of Square Enix. And I am not affiliated with them.