BARON VON WARDSTEIN:
Sir Kyle clanked back outside the gates of the castle, ignoring the pansy “Archduke salutes” required by his Majesty directed at him upon his exit. He wondered briefly why the Archduke insisted on “the finest, palest blue silks” for his personal guard, since it rather inspired enemy attacks than to deter them, such was the femininity of the garments. No matter, Sir Kyle used his rank to wear his armor everywhere and spare himself the humiliation.
Wardstein was relaxing in his tent when he returned. He didn’t bother to rise from his heap of furs, instead imitating the duke’s foolish salute from where he lay. “What news, Sir Kyle? Do you think our good Archduke is taken in by our ruse? No, please – don’t take a knee, we are equals in this endeavour.”
Sir Kyle relaxed in the glow of the Baron’s rough charms. He withdrew his pipe, and set about to stoking it with the finest tobacco, “plundered from only the richest of the Archduke’s customers,” the Baron had laughed.
Puffing mightily, he at last exhaled a vast plume of smoke into the face of a nearby maiden. “He suspects nothing, as you predicted.”
The Baron grinned fiendishly. “Of course he doesn’t. A man such as the Archduke believes himself superior regardless of the facts staring him in the face. I was obligated to send my best fighters back to the beaches of Tibet so that he would believe himself the victor. Sadly, we yet require his connections to further our own goals, so killing him would be a useless, though probably really satisfying action to undertake. With no apparent force of arms to threaten him with, it will enable us to approach him under a cloak of apparent weakness and easily infiltrate the castle. Twill be much easier to locate Eva through this manner.”
Sir Kyle puffed again, thinking. “I have doubts, Baron. These deceptions are not of my nature.”
Wardstein passed wind gustily, ignoring the applause from the nearby handmaidens. “Sir Kyle, is this again about your faith? Because we – ”
“No, not faith. I have doubts of the scale of these machinations. I wonder if it t’would not be better to simply ride around the kingdom representing the pale blue right hand of the Archduke. Less risky, too. And there is my loyalty, my honour, at stake here. No mere trifle. I was given this title, having come from a farm. It is all I have.”
Wardstein sat up. “You will never be reunited with Eva that way. And you know it. We need to use the Archduke to find her before he does, or he will toss her to the weeds like a used waterskin. Loyalty is one thing. But, likesay. Mates is mates, ken? Likesay, catboy – we dinnae get this far tae likesay, give up the ghost before we even started, ken?”
“Aye, ’tis true.” Sir Kyle wondered if he had yet forgotten the face of his father. “I am going back to my tent for the weekend. I’ve got a lot of relaxing to do.”
Wardstein reached for his bowl of grapes. “Aye, mate. Relax, bit mind tae keep yir eye on yon goal, likes. The wee lassie.”
Kyle nodded grimly, still thinking. He tapped his pipe on his heel and clanked into the darkness. Such as a boy covered with his mother’s stew-pots, he thought.
Sir Kyle shed his armor and walked through the darkness alone, the Baron’s nonsensical words ringing in his ears. All his talk of dinner had set the Knights stomach to rumbling, but he ignored the sensation for now. His thoughts were scattered and reeling. Lord! I am in grievous need of guidance! Though he had long foreseen that the day would come, now that he was actually torn between his liege lord and his last remaining family the reality was stark. On one hand the Duke that had elevated him from his lowly status, and on the other the imposter Baron with the insatiable thirst for blood. And of course Eva. Who could forget the sister he no longer remembered the features of? It had been so long, perhaps as long as four months, since he had last sat with her and laughed of trivial things. How he longed for her company.
Never one to spare any expense, the Duke had still somehow managed to construct a mostly ramshackle servants estates outside the castle walls, with building so dilapidated the Knight wondered if their collapse was imminent. Sir Kyle walked through them now, making his way toward the tallest of the buildings, a chapel. He needed to clear his head, Watched by mangy dogs he pressed forward, noting the light in the window. Perhaps the Pastor, he thought, would be able to shed some Divine Light on his dilemma.
He opened the door and a diminutive man in the robes of a priest looked up from a small table from where he read by candle light.
“Hail, Sir Knight,” the priest said, standing.
“Nay,” Sir Kyle said, forestalling him. ”You do not need to stand.”
The priest ignored his words, rising and approaching to give his blessing. He smelled strongly of wine, Sir Kyle thought, and his embrace seemed both unnecessary and to have lingered for too long.
“You look troubled, my son, what is bothering you?”
Sir Kyle sighed, and extracted himself from the priests’ grip. “You have seen truly, pastor, for I am troubled. I lay at a crossroads between three forces of equal might, and they are pulling my soul in every direction.”
“Who are these forces?”
“Surely you know of the Archduke?”
The Priest laughed a short, bitter laugh. “Oh, I am more familiar with the Archduke, unfortunately. That monster ra-“
“A great man, indeed,” Sir Kyle interrupted. He didn’t have much time, so he wasn’t really ready to let the priest extrapolate. One or two word answers were best. “He is the man that allowed me to stand before you thusly, and I owe him a great deal. Plus, as a man of honor, I am bound to the oath that I gave him”
Sir Kyle walked a short distance, gazing at the altar. He remembered a similar one at an outlying village, covered in blood. An accident, Wardstein had said. Sir Kyle was beginning to wonder, though.
“The other man pulling at me is new to these lands, but his reputation has grown to be nearly as large as his physical stature. The estimable Baron von Wardstein.”
This time there was an audible gasp from the priest, who turned towards the door hissing and making a cross with his hands. “Is he here?!” the priest yelled nervously. “For the love of God man, is he here?!”
“Nay, calm yourself. He is at his tent, as far as I know. He has drank a good many spirits, and ate a large amount of chicken.”
The priest did stop hissing, then, at least. But Sir Kyle could tell he was still on edge, for whatever reason.
“So you have heard of him?”
“HE IS THE ANTI-“
“I know,” Sir Kyle said, shaking his head. “Another great man, if a somewhat polarizing figure. What cruel fate to be between these two. The Baron may have questionable origins, methods and ideas, but have you seen how wicked he is in battle? He is all like ‘ROAR’ and the people are all like ‘HAVE MERCY!’, but he never does. And you have to appreciate the consistency, at least in this day and age. The Baron is a man of his convictions, let there be no doubt. Though when we last met he was talking really weird. …I think he may have had a stroke. No matter.”
The priest stared at Sir Kyle, wide-eyed. “I believe you mentioned a third influence?” the priest asked, though Kyle thought maybe a touch unwillingly. Churlish priest.
“Indeed, my sister most fair, Eva. I have not seen her since I was Knighted, and I long for her company. Plus the Baron I think wants to sleep with her. And now the Archduke has found her. I know not whether he knows the relation between her and I, I simply know she has caught his interest.”
Sir Kyle let that statement hang in the air, and the priest made the motion of the cross to the sky as he mumbled a prayer under his breath. “She is in dire straits, it would seems. So far away from you.”
“It is the walk of life.”
“Indeed. Sir Kyle, your plight is not what it would seem. Eva is the only thing that matters, and you must save her from the Duke. And also probably the Baron, eventually.”
“I was aware, yes.”
“I would like to go with you, to offer you guidance.”
“I would like that, priest.”
“I have a name.”
“Most Excellent! Come, priest. And no more hugs.”
MYSELF, ARCHDUKE JAMES:
Deep within the warren of brick-lined tunnels beneath his humble cottage near the front, Archduke James walked along Maiden Cell Block 58 looking in at newly-acquired stock of “18 year-old vintages,” as he liked to call them.
As he strolled, he calmly dragged an empty bottle of Port along the bars.
“Good morning, ladies!” he said, chuckling. “I didn’t wake you…did I?”
Although he could happily spend all day tormenting them in this fashion, through years of experience the Archduke had learned that a monotonous routine proved more bothersome. Too much at once and the lot would acclimatize rather easily; however, the anxiety of knowing that he would arrive precisely two hours into their four hours’ rest weighed more heavily on them than the sledge did after fourteen hours of Gravel Production Duty.
Most of these new, young maids stared out from atop their beds of straw with resentment, but the “Old Marms” of the group, some as old as twenty-two, knew better.
“Just try to abide by what our dear Jacqueline always used to say!” the older maids liked to remind newcomers. “’Although seemingly ineffectual so far, a united passive resistance may, by the time your own girls have come of age in their cell blocks, affect some small change for the better! Huzzah!”
When the Archduke heard tell of this dissent, for he was known to double-maidgents in their ranks, he sentenced Jacqueline to “A Quick Dip in the Lake.” Designed merely to frighten, the punishment was to load offending party into the largest of the Archduke’s cannons to see how many times they would skip across his private lake.
“Once you’ve toweled off young lady,” he’d tell them, “perhaps the next time you’ll know better than to rock the boat!”
However, despite consulting his most learned subjects from mystics to mathematicians, who would painstakingly attempt to gauge wind speed, barometric pressure, and perhaps most importantly, the precise amount of powder, all attempts had thus far had failed, and Jacqueline, like the others, had exited the muzzle as no more than a fine mist and a few bits of flaming rag.
James though, always trying to make the best of the situation, would tell the same joke to its small crew, who always laughed: “I dare say, perhaps I should invest in a better Maid Cannon?”
Walking by the Archduke’s side was the strangely good-natured Kenneth, his beloved hound. Loyal to a fault, the wretched beast was truly man’s best friend. Like the Old Maids, he had endured many years of the Archduke passing gas in his face, but unlike them, a part of him had grown to enjoy it.
“Kenneth?!” his master had taken to saying in an excited tone after gorging on a banquet of ale, pheasant, venison and the like. “Kenneth, buddy? Gail-Force Winds!? Huh, boy? Gail-Force Winds?!”
After a time, obedient Kenneth’s tail would set to wagging, and he would clank up to the Archduke’s rear—for he was made to three heavy cowbells for some reason—and patiently close his eyes and wait for the blast.
Just then though, Kenneth’s back arched and he barred his few remaining teeth at two shadows clicking their way down the corridor. One was very tall, about six foot three inches tall, and he recognized him as Clancy the Keymaster. The other however, he did not recognize. She had womanly curves, but curiously, stood at around six foot five to six foot six inches tall. She was hooded and in chains. Kenneth smelled manure on her.
“Another! Ha-ha! Tall drink of water, this one! Good, Clancy! Very good!”