Gerald walked through the halls of the Malfi palace, annoyed. He had been summoned to the Lord's Hall, even though the Duke and his sons had promised not to bother him on his birthday. He was to be left alone.
However, a servant had interrupted his training with Uncle Rudolf. He said that something important had come up and he had to meet the Duke, but didn't say what exactly had happened. If Gerald had to guess, then it would be just another excuse to have him suffer the daily ridicule.
"What do you think it is, Uncle Rudolf?" Gerald asked.
"Hmm," Uncle Rudolf pondered for a moment. "I don't think the Duke would ask for you to come himself if it was something trivial. His sons might toss you around and undermine you, but the Duke wouldn't lower himself to do it to you himself."
"He does turn a blind eye to their doings though," Gerald grumbled. He had just turned twenty, but he couldn't even have peace for a single day.
"Well, it's not like he is fond of you or the Tellus family," Uncle Rudolf said. "Whatever it is, Gerald, make sure you stay as respectful as you can. You must give the Duke face if you don't want your life to be even harder here."
Gerald nodded. Uncle Rudolf's advice wasn't something Gerald would ignore. It had saved him from a lot of trouble during the 14 years he'd spent as the Duke's ward.
Uncle Rudolf was Gerald's steward. He'd raised Gerald since he was a toddler. He was a steward to Gerald's father and Gerald after him. What the Duke and his cronies didn't know, however, was that Uncle Rudolf was a Sky Warrior. He was actually a rank 4 Sky Warrior, which made him stronger than even the most elite soldier of a regular army.
Uncle Rudolf had told him to keep it a secret when he was still 12 years old. The reason he came here to the Malfi City with Gerald was to keep him safe as well as guide him in his Warrior training. It had paid off. Gerald was now an Earth Warrior of the 5th rank.
It was well known that warriors on the Asura continent were divided into several levels. Even the weakest of them was stronger than regular soldiers. The first step on the path of Warriors was Earth which had 5 ranks. Following Earth was Sky which had 4 ranks. The highest warrior level was Heaven. It was the epitome of warriors and it had 3 ranks.
Gerald had heard from Uncle Rudolf and the Duke's sons that a person could transcend the warrior path after the Heaven rank and become a Battlemaster.
The Duke's sons had bragged that their family had a Battlemaster guardian knight who always stayed in Malfi City.
Gerald had even heard about the legendary Battlesaints who were more rare than kingdoms on the Asura continent. Even the Duke hadn't seen a Battlesaint in his whole life. If Earth rank warriors were like the most veteran soldiers of an army, and the Sky rank warriors were elites and officers of an army, while the heaven rank warriors were harvesters of lives on the battlefield; then Battlemasters and Battlesaints were gods of combat. Although, they weren't invincible, they were the kind of people you didn't want to meet on any battlefield as enemies. A Battlemaster could go through a group of 50 regular soldiers like they were nothing. He wouldn't face off against a thousand men, but he could heavily cull their numbers with guerilla tactics over several nights. Battlesaints on the other hand were a mystery to Gerald. He'd never seen one, and he'd never met anyone who had.
Uncle Rudolf herded Gerald towards the Lord's Hall, while the latter grumbled about the injustice he was suffering. He'd been handed to the Duke by his father as a 'ward' or in other words, a hostage. The war between the Andross Empire and Gerald's home, the Maric Kingdom, had ended without a winner 14 years ago. A peace treaty was signed. However, at that time, Duke Malfi had conquered most of the territory of the Tellus Viscounty. Naturally he had to leave, but before leaving, he was entitled to demand a ransom. He had defeated the Tellus family and conquered their land in a fair battle. Although he did it under the command of the emperor, he had done it alone and at his family's expense.
The Tellus family at that time was suffering along with Gerald's father. There was nothing to pay the ransom with, and the Duke had refused all other methods to resolve the issue. In the end, the Duke demanded that the Tellus family hand over the second son, Gerald, to be a ward; and the young daughter of the Tellus family, Lena, to be the future wife of the Duke's youngest son. Maric's king and Andross's emperor agreed to the Duke's request and the Tellus family had to give in to the demands for the sake of peace.
Since then, Gerald and Lena had to live in the Malfi city as nothing more than fancy prisoners. In the future, Lena had to marry that fat bugger who was the Duke's youngest son, and Gerald had to learn the rules of aristocracy and the ways of the knight as a nobleman. According to Uncle Rudolf, the Duke's demand turned out to be for an insidious reason as expected. He'd wanted to control the Tellus family and monopolize the trade route between the Maric Kingdom and the Andross Empire. Although the trade between the two wasn't the most abundant, it would still bring tons of gold if one family could control all of its tolls and tariffs. And the Tellus Viscounty was the sole territory that connected the two countries on the Maric Kingdom's part.
"We've arrived." Uncle Rudolf's words woke Gerald from his thoughts. They had arrived at the hall's doors. The doors were twice as high as a grown man and could fit five men standing side by side. Two guards stood on either side of the doors.
One of the guards looked at Gerald indifferently. "His grace, the Duke, said to let you in once you arrive," the guard said before pushing the doors open.
Once Gerald and Uncle Rudolf entered they heard the murmurs and a bit of the conversation they had interrupted.
"You're wrong. This could be very beneficial to us. If you think abou—" a voice trailed off. From its rough texture, Gerald recognized it to be the voice of the Duke who seemed to be talking to his steward. "Ah, Gerald! You've come," the Duke said, burying whatever he'd been saying before.
Gerald stepped forward and bowed slightly, followed by Uncle Rudolf who bowed deeply. "Duke Malfi," Gerald said. "I'm here to answer your calls."
The Duke seemed satisfied. Beside him, stood his steward, and on the other side his three sons. The younger two sneered while the oldest remained indifferent. Gerald looked over them. The oldest was nearest to the Duke with the largest build, wide shoulders and half a head taller than Gerald. Anyone seeing him would think him valiant. Gerald didn't know if he was or wasn't, but he knew that he was the most venomous of the brothers. A quiet schemer. At least the other two were just gruff idiots with swollen egos.
Next to him stood the second son of the Duke who was average in build and probably in everything else too. Gerald had never noticed anything interesting about him, except when he was trying to create trouble for him.
The youngest of the brothers was fat and red all over. That piece of meat was what his sister had to marry in the future. He was just short a few months from becoming 17 years old. He was the fattest and the dumbest. Gerald pitied his sister so much for that.
"Listen, Gerald," the Duke tried to feign as much sadness as he could, which worried Gerald. "We've received a letter from your family."
A letter? Gerald thought. With how sad he's trying to look, it can't be something good.
The Duke delivered on his worries right away. "I'm afraid your father and elder brother have passed."
Gerald froze in place. He wasn't sure what he had heard or what he was thinking. It was like time had stopped. He hadn't really lived with them for long, his father and elder brother, but he still cared for them. He still remembered his father trying to teach him to love marksmanship when he was five. He gave him a small bow to pull at. He had failed miserably at it. All memories of his elder brother were blurry, though. He swallowed through his dried throat."Ahem, wha—How?"
"From what's written here," the Duke waved a letter. "It was a sort of clash with some brigands." The sneer on the sons' faces got more intense right then. It was a great shame for a noble to be defeated by bandits. They were supposed to be rabble, hardly ever worth a hard fight.
"Both of them?" Gerald said, only now noticing that his eyes were wide at their utmost extent.
"Yes, I'm afraid," the Duke returned to his fake sadness. "The letter didn't divulge the details. But it has got your family seal. Your house's minister would never use the family seal without good reason. He's the only person who can if the lord isn't around."
Gerald nodded. The Duke handed the letter to one of the servants who passed it to Gerald. He skimmed over it. That was pretty much it. It mentioned the death of his father and brother and a request for 'Sir Gerald, the heir to the Viscounty' to be sent back.
The Duke cleared his throat to get Gerald's attention. "I'm saddened by your loss, Gerald. But You will have to carry the responsibilities of your family from now on." Gerald was sure he saw a hint of cunning in the Duke's eyes as he talked. He'd been around heaps of nobles long enough to know. "You have to prepare yourself," the Duke continued. "I will be sending you home tomorrow at first light."
Gerald remained silent for a moment, enough that the Duke looked worried that he was too shocked. "What about Lena?" he asked.
"Oh, your sister?" the Duke smiled. "Why, of course she will stay. Her wedding is in two years at most. There is no need for her to go back and forth. Too taxing for a young lady." The Duke's tone was now authoritative. It was clear he was just sending him alone back. The Duke wouldn't do without a guest of the Tellus family of some sort. "Now you should go and prepare," the Duke commanded, his face sterner than before.
"Yes, your grace," Gerald bowed, gritting his teeth discreetly.
Uncle Rudolf followed with another deep bow. He had been silent from beginning to end. A behavior that made him invisible in a noble's court, which was always his aim.
Gerald and Uncle Rudolf departed from the Lord's Hall. He was still grinding his teeth. He quickly returned to his sleeping chamber and locked the door. Only Uncle Rudolf was there with him, frowning deeply. It seemed that grief was creeping under his old face.
"Do you think it's true?" Gerald asked.
"I'm afraid so," Uncle Rudolf said, a pained look on his face. "The Duke wouldn't lie regarding something like this."
"They've done some similar things in the past," Gerald groaned. This time he looked troubled while recalling those memories. The Duke's cronies would allow him a chance to escape when he was younger, barely twelve. Then they'd catch him when he felt that he'd made it. They did it a few times until he realized that it was just them toying with him. It was them breaking him so that he'd never try it again. It was then that Uncle Rudolf told him about his secret, his warrior strength and his purpose. He also made sure he didn't fall into more of the Duke's traps.
"I doubt it," Uncle Rudolf shook his head. "The Duke would never risk his reputation by lying to you directly. And this," he ran his finger over the letter that Gerald had handed him. "This seems like the real seal of the family. It would be nearly impossible to forge it this well."
Gerald was silent. He thought of his father and his blurry brother. The world wasn't fair. He hardly knew them, and he wouldn't get the chance see them again either. He imagined them gone, dead; but all he could feel was coldness creeping on him. He knew he should be grieving right now but…
He sighed, a deep exasperated sigh. "Uncle Rudolf, should I be feeling . . . worse?" he asked, raising his eyes to stare at the white ceiling. "I just don't know what I'm feeling exactly."
"Don't blame yourself," Uncle Rudolf consoled. "You have hardly known your father or your brother. It's only natural that you wouldn't cry yourself to sleep. Your father was a good man. A good lord. He tried his best, but the circumstances always stood against him. I'm sure that when you return to the Viscounty and see home, your feelings will come around."
Gerald nodded. "I should prepare. It's already dusk. I will have to be quick. And I should see Lena too. I wonder if they've told her yet." He hardly ever saw her. They kept them separated most of the time. It was so they couldn't form a united front or something. According to his Uncle Rudolf, it was so they couldn't support and console each other. That way they could break easier under the pressure and manipulation.
"Yes," the old man nodded. "We should get you ready as soon as possible. I'm sure you will see Lady Lena soon enough." Uncle Rudolf was a steward. He was never really supposed to call any noble with their bare name, but Gerald had insisted that he call him by his name only, at least in private.
Gerald took a deep breath and stood up. It was time to go back to the Maric Kingdom. It was time to go home.