Shaking her head, Iloise stifled a fresh sob. “I—I still haven’t the faintest. I-it all happened so quickly, my lady. I—”
Emaile hushed her, glancing meaningfully at the shut door.
Soft voices. Even if Travois hadn’t meant to listen in, it didn’t mean he couldn’t hear.
Iloise followed Emaile’s gaze. Then she nodded, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. Her voice fell to a hoarse whisper. “One minute Lord Retois is ushering you out the door; next he’s rushing around like the hoard of Dravania is on his tail: grabbing his coat, looking for his hat. Tells Jean he’s going out on business. Jean turns to me, paler than fresh snow, an’ says we need to go for a walk. W-well, of course I’m not going to budge! Supper wasn’t going to cook itself, after all; not for all the strange behavior in the world…” Her story trailed off, and she began to tremble.
Steadying Iloise in her arms, Emaile waited with bated breath. The worst, she knew, was about to come.
Illie pursed her lips, covering her mouth to stifle another sob. “Next thing I know, there’s shouts outside… Jean’s gathering his coat. This time he’s telling me not to follow, but…” She paused, face falling grim as the grave. “I followed him and the crowd straight to the Confessory. Didn’t understand why everyone was headed there…”
She choked down a sob. “It was a madman’s house in there. Men shouting, screaming curses. Throwing things. And in the middle of it—”
Iloise looked up at Emaile, her eyes burning with all the information Emaile needed. The tears slipped down her face. Her lower lip trembled, and she glanced down at her feet.
Emaile squeezed her shoulders reassuringly. “Go on, Illie,” she whispered. Though the last thing she wanted was for Illie to continue.
“Your father,” Iloise whispered. “They—” She gasped, burying her face in her palms. “He—They were calling him a heretic! They had him on trial, and they—they ruled him guilty, and I—” She shook her head, shuddering. “Jean took me outside, but they even had your sisters and their husbands on trial too. And they… they said…”
But Emaile knew what they’d said. If her father, her sisters, her brothers-in-law had all been on trial… had all been convicted of heresy, there was only one course of action…
Trial by combat.
She’d thought her heart couldn’t shriek any louder, any colder. But it was now. Wrenching anguish twisted in her chest. Sera. Vidaille. With her father’s injury, he’d have been no help in combat. Her sisters knew no weaponry; hadn’t been allowed to learn as ladies of the house. And with a crowd of that magnitude railing against her father…
She’d have given her brothers-in-law to the count of eight. No more.
They hadn’t stood a chance to prove their innocence. Anyone in the Holy See could have seen that.
“They’re gone, my lady.”
The world went silent in her soul, snuffed out by those words.
Illie sobbed. “The See… They executed them all…”
Emaile’s legs collapsed. She slumped onto the bed, staring ahead but seeing nothing at all.
Executed. Her family, every one of them… gone. Just like that. Surely it couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be that simple to end her entire world.
But she still knew nothing, sensed nothing around her. Nothing except the screaming, returning and echoing in her hollowed heart.
Dimly she heard Iloise continuing, though the words only came to her at a distance: “…And now they want your head too! They—they already got Jean too, bless him.” Iloise began to sob anew. “He told me to find you n’ warn you… Bought me time to escape…”
Iloise continued to weep, her story finally complete. But all Emaile could feel was the numbness, creeping down her neck to her fingertips and toes. She brushed her fingers together, marveling at how quickly the panic and anger turned to ice. So… This is how it ends.
Iloise’s voice finally broke through the silence. Mostly because it was a question she simply could not ignore:
“Whatever will we do, my lady?” Iloise said, barely above a breath.
What will we do?
Emaile’s mind began to work long before she was ready to let it.
We must flee.
Guilt immediately followed the thought. Your family’s warm in their graves, yet all you can think about is yourself? Mourn them a moment, pretend to care about them for once in your life, for pity’s sake!
But no. She had no time for mourning. Iloise was still here, and if they had even taken Jean, then Iloise was surely in just as much danger. Especially now that she’d aided Emaile at all in warning her of the manhunt.
They had to flee.
And where could you possibly go? You’re branded. Exiled. Anyone who gives you refuge of any kind is—
Emaile froze, eyes shooting wide open in horror.
Haurchefant. Her breath caught in her lungs.
He would fight for her honor until his last breath was spent. He would never let them take her.
But he could be killed! Her eyes filled with hot fearful tears. Please, they cannot—They will not take everything from me in one day!
Even if, by the Fury’s grace, he won the trial by combat… it would never be enough.
The doubt. The whispers. Rumors would surface that he had harbored a heretic, even considered marrying into her family.
Then would come investigations; the Inquisition would uncover all those trips Emaile had taken to Dragonhead. And then Haurchefant’s name would be finished. And surely any rivals would cast doubt on House Fortemps as well, just as they had with House Haillenarte. Once so proud, their reputation was crippled, their name the jest of half the lords of Ishgard. And to have not one but two High Houses under suspicion of heresy… to cast doubt on Count Edmont and her beloved Haurchefant…
She could never let it happen. Not while her heart yet beat.
Emaile’s eyes hardened: umber stones gleaming under her darkening brow. “Daniffen Pass,” she announced, rising and taking Iloise by the hands. Her gaze locked with Illie’s. “We’ll take the pass, loop westward, and then head south, into the Black Shroud.”
With the Holy See having broken ties with the Eorzean Alliance five turns ago after the Battle of Carteneau, it had far less political sway over the Shroud. If they’d be safe anywhere, it’d be beyond Coerthas’s borders.
Iloise sniffled, hope sparking back in her eyes. “Th-the Shroud. Yes. I… I have a…” She paused, suddenly looking almost… embarrassed. “A friend, stationed on the border.”
Emaile stared at Iloise. A hope? She didn’t dare believe. But it was a chance. “You trust them?”
“I trust him implicitly, my lady,” Iloise replied immediately. Her cheeks flushed a little and she glanced off to the side.
Ah. That kind of a friend. Then she would have to trust him, as well. Emaile nodded.
Yes. Daniffen Pass was the only way to leave Coerthas without Haurchefant—or any other holds—discovering them along the way. The path straight south out of Dragonhead, the one Haurchefant had taken her down on their trip to the Observatorium, went directly past Haurchefant’s friend, Lord Francel. And then, of course, straight through the Observatorium itself. Too many eyes to observe their flight.
It was true, however, that the mouth to Daniffen Pass stood perilously close to Whitebrim Front, but perhaps… Perhaps…
Emaile glanced out the window. The bitter winter air hung heavy with white fog. Perhaps it would be enough to conceal their approach.
Now… how to leave Dragonhead without Haurchefant suspecting?
Emaile squeezed Iloise’s hands. “Follow me and say nothing of this to anyone here at the castle. No one must discover what’s happened to my family nor where we’re headed until we’ve long gone.”
“Of course, my lady.” Iloise curtsied.
Emaile crossed to the door, struck by the thought that this was the last time she’d ever see it again.
A foolish thought to allow herself to dwell on. Her eyes welled with fresh tears. But she shoved past her sorrow and the door all at once.
As she’d expected, Travois had loyally ensured no other soul lingered outside the door to listen in. Not when Emaile had explicitly requested privacy. Travois stood even more straight upon her emergence from the room. “Is anything amiss, my lady?”—His polite way of asking what was going on.
Emaile forced a smile, but she could feel how cold it was. And no hope of it working against those tears in her eyes. “Just some familial troubles.” She tried to say it idly, off-handed, but her pained voice betrayed her. She exhaled and tried to smile one more time, to collect herself before she fell apart outright. “Iloise and I are going for a short ride to clear our heads, if that’s all right.”
Haurchefant’s voice called from down the hall: “I’ll have Olivier saddle them for us immediately,” he said as he approached.
He’d likely been waiting just out of earshot the entire time. Waiting for her. Offering her the privacy she’d asked for but ready to leap in to help her as soon as she let him.
She couldn’t do this. The concern drawing his face into that stern frown… That look alone was killing her.
How would he feel? What would he think once she… vanished?
She was abandoning him. If being apart were so brutal to them both, just think of what her tearing them apart forever would do. She was about to put him through torment. Perhaps even a lifetime of wondering, worrying, wishing… aching.
He’d never know whether she had lived or died.
Please… forgive me, Haurchefant.
Not that she deserved it.
The tears slipped down her cheeks, trickling to the corners of her mouth. She could taste the sharp salt. And her mouth began to move before she could think: “I appreciate that immensely, my lord, but it’s such a personal thing… We just need a bit of time in the fresh air. Clear our heads.”
She watched him stop, only a few fulms away, just within arm’s reach. His mind was working behind those worried blue eyes, considering every possible meaning to her words. Trying to play the games they’d played for so long, seeking the meaning they hid in every turn of phrase.
There was hidden meaning here, but for once, she prayed he wouldn’t find it. For once, let him not see through her; for just once, let her not be transparent to his keen eyes.
I promised I’d never ride too far.
Tears overflowed; she couldn’t hold his gaze.
Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me…
Slowly, hesitantly, Haurchefant bowed at last. “Of course… my lady Emaile.” He stood straight, his eyes absolutely pleading. “I will be here when you require an ear,” he finished.
The knife twisted in her heart.
I can’t do this…
She clapped a hand to her mouth—before she could speak, before she could break down and tell him everything, sob on his chest, wail that her father and sisters and everyone was gone.
She gathered Illie’s hand and tugged her along behind. She’d meant to at least offer a parting thanks to him, but she couldn’t even manage that. She didn’t trust herself even that.
With Illie in tow, Emaile hurried out of the tower to the stables.
Though the Fury would have one more barb to jab into her wounds. Because of course the stables were not empty.
Albeyr and Olivier were there to greet her, the chocobo offering a peep of delight upon her approach while the boy immediately raced up to her.
“Lady Emaile! They say something’s spooked ya!” cried Olivier as he scampered around, trying desperately to glance at her face.
Seeing the boy was only a little less painful than Haurchefant himself. Emaile turned her head, struggling not to let Olivier see her tear-stained face as she saddled the chocobos.
“What’s the matter?” Olivier asked. “You look so pale!” He grabbed a set of reins and began to assist her. “Is Lord Haurchefant taking you on another ride? I can come with!”
Emaile paused long enough to offer him a tired smile. “Just a little outing with my serving-woman and I today, Olivier.” Her fingers shook, struggling to complete the knots Olivier had worked so hard to teach her.
Cautiously Olivier steadied her hand, took the rope from her, and completed the knot with ease, not looking away from her all the while. He too was full of concern.
Blast it, all you lovely ones, why must you care so much? She patted his hand appreciatively. “We’ll be fine, Olivier,” she reassured him, before the inevitable offer to accompany them came.
Olivier glanced from Iloise to Emaile. Both women were brimming with tears. But like Haurchefant, he slowly nodded, entrusting them with the matter and simply helping them mount up.
As they left the stables, Emaile couldn’t resist one last glance backward at the boy. Her kind tutor. “Thank you,” she whispered. To him. To Dragonhead.
She spun around, urging Albeyr into a trot so Olivier wouldn’t see the tears spilling down her face.
As she had so many times before, Emaile rode past the open gates out into the misty snow-covered land. But it was Illie, not Haurchefant or Olivier, riding at her side.
No more glances back. She couldn’t. Her heart could only bear so much heartbreak, and it had reached its limit.
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