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Chapter 23

 

…you will toil and struggle and fight and die against any and all intruders that would come, as your House has done for generations. Yet, for all of these efforts, your names become as dust to those that reap the benefits of the peace that you win for their lands.

 

Lady Shalltear’s words of a month previous returned to Ludmila’s recollection, and a tear rolled down her cheek as she bit her lip in frustration.

 

Lady Shalltear knew.

 

By her words, she knew, and Ludmila was entirely oblivious to them at the time – replying like some naïve child: eager to repeat what she had learned as a diligent pupil.

 

Everyone knew.

 

Everyone but a certain Frontier Noble.

 

Ah, what was this called again? Being ignorant? A fool? A loyal, stubborn fool: the last in a long line of loyal, stubborn fools.

 

Even when warned – even when told directly, her heart refused to believe that someone entrusted with the duties of a noble could conduct themselves in such a manner. Right until Count Völkchenheim’s tale of House Fassett was forcibly crammed down her throat, at a point where everything threatened to collapse around her once again. All of her preconceptions of the world and how it should work had been steadily crumbling away since she entered Lady Shalltear’s service and, now, even the ways that defined her very existence were cast in doubt.

 

Generations of unwavering service. Generations of stalwart vigilance paid for in blood.

 

And for what? So that others could skirt the law and play their games of intrigue? Ludmila recalled her father’s expression of gratitude over their meagre stipend – the price the others paid for peace – which allowed them to uphold their duties: to continue to hold the border. Her feelings over the memory warped, tainted with her new understanding of its meaning. Rather than being seen as reliable peers, supported by the efforts of the realm as a whole, they had been treated as nothing more than guard animals sustained by table scraps.

 

Was that all her family and people amounted to? Was it all that they were worth?

 

How her realizations repainted her knowledge of the past was not even the worst of it. If Lady Shalltear knew, it was almost certain that the Royal Court knew as well. Countess Jezne’s fears were probably justified: the central administration would simply allow the situation to develop to such a degree that it could be used as damning evidence against retention of the laws that they were so dissatisfied with. It would be a fatal blow to the aristocracy, and a permanent stain against the hundreds of thousands of Human citizens of the Sorcerous Kingdom.

 

All of the efforts of the past month; the promising future laid before them: all torn apart by a noble house still mired in their old ways…and no one but the Royal Court – who had no reason to move until it suited their purposes – possessed the legal authority to stop them.

 

The faint sound of objects clattering to the ground, followed by the crash of plates, came over from across the courtyard. Ludmila unclenched her fists and took several deep breaths. With the source of her ire at the forefront of her mind, her continually rising sense of aggression was probably wreaking havoc with her maids’ work.

 

Ludmila closed her ledger and put away the last of her tasks for the afternoon, trying to untie the angry knot in the pit of her stomach. There was no point in fuming powerlessly over the reality that now faced her: all there was was to follow through with Aemilia’s pointed counsel. Her maid understood that things were not usually so ideal either, but, rather than fret over the state of affairs, Aemilia had placed her trust in her liege: confident that Ludmila would find a way.

 

Rather than agonize over whether she should change her ways, Ludmila could only remain steadfast and see them through. She would place her trust in Lady Shalltear, and depend on her liege an answer to their dilemma. If the old ways of the court had been ineffectual against House Fassett for generations, continuing to pursue those methods was pointless – a new way was required to deal with them. If only she could figure out how to broach the subject with Lady Shalltear, and what she might be able to do to help.

 

It was admittedly an odd feeling for a worshipper of the Six Great Gods: that she would trust in an inhuman liege because those of her own kind had proven to be untrustworthy; their ways insufficient. Yet, as Bishop Austine had told her, the champions of humanity in the Sorcerous Kingdom would be the ones who secured a place for them. It was a rare thing for faith and politics to align, and in such a strange way, at that.

 

After several minutes chipping away at her anger, she managed to reign it in – but not in the sense that the unwelcome sensations had gone away. Instead, the vague and pervasive feelings had coalesced into something more defined: like an arrow, ready to be loosed at…whatever it was. For the time being, she still did not have a means to launch that arrow at anything, but it was far better than being tossed about by her feelings with no end in sight.

 

The light tapping of shoes could be heard from behind her, and Aemilia entered the edge of Ludmila’s vision.

 

“Are you feeling better now, my lady?” Aemilia asked.

 

“Yes, thank you,” she replied. “Is everything alright in the kitchen?”

 

“The Linum sisters sort of…crashed into each other moving a few things around,” Aemilia said. “They’re cleaning up the aftermath right now.”

 

“That was probably my fault again,” Ludmila sighed. “I really need to get this under control.”

 

“It’s actually gone now, my lady,” Aemilia said. “Just before I entered the room, it vanished almost entirely.”

 

“Really? Then at least it’s one less thing to worry over,” Ludmila said. “Was there something you came to see me about?”

 

“Yes, my lady,” Aemilia replied. “There was the matter of your appointment with Terah this afternoon.”

 

“Of course. I forgot how curious I had become about that – let them know that I will see them now.”

 

“Just one moment, then, my lady,” Aemilia replied. “I will get the others.”

 

The others? Ludmila frowned. Just how many people did Terah’s matter involve?

 

Several minutes later, Terah returned with Aemilia, Wiluvien and Lluluvien. Ludmila had not seen them all in one place since they entered into her service. Craning her neck to look around them, she half expected the Death Knights to be somewhere as well, but they were nowhere to be seen. Terah, Wiluvien and Lluluvien lined up before her, while Aemilia stood at her place behind Ludmila’s shoulder. The arrangement seemed suspiciously similar to when she had been introduced to the Linum sisters, the morning after they had arrived.

 

There were distinct differences, however. Her maids no longer had their frightened and haggard appearance. Wiluven and Luluven, especially, were no longer so thin and weak looking. Their dull, half-dead look had disappeared; their steel-grey eyes bright and sharp. Glossy teal hair had grown below their shoulders and their postures were no longer so timid and filled with uncertainty.

 

When they curtseyed deeply to greet her, however, Ludmila felt something was off. She tilted her head curiously at the gesture that was far too formal for regular domestic activities. As she looked at them, they looked at her – the impasse was a bit annoying.

 

“Speak.”

 

Both started at her command, and they spoke after a brief glance at one another.

 

“Lluluvien is with child, my lady,” Wiluvien said.

 

“Wiluvien is with child, my lady,” Lluluvien said.

 

Ludmila blinked slowly, then blinked again. Her mind did a little flip and worked frantically to make sense out of what was being said.

 

“Are you trying to have me guess which one of you is pregnant?” Ludmila said.

 

“They’re both pregnant, my lady,” Terah replied flatly.

 

“How long has this…how long are Elves – Half-Elves even pregnant for?”

 

Elves were rumored to live ten times longer than Humans, aging at relatively the same rate. Did that mean Elves were pregnant for ten times longer than humans? It was a vaguely horrifying thought.

 

“I think our mother said she carried us over three seasons, my lady.” Lluluvien said.

 

Ludmila breathed a sigh of relief. She examined her chambermaids again: they certainly didn’t bear any signs of their pregnancy.

 

“Then…this was from that time under Count Fassett’s orders?”

 

They nodded. Ludmila sighed again, then looked up at the limestone ceiling. She had not the vaguest sense of what to say, or what to do.

 

“Alright…so you are both with child. For what reason did you want to meet with me?”

 

“I thought you might want to decide what to do with them, my lady,” Terah said.

 

What to do with them? What did she mean?

 

“I’m sorry, my lady,” Lluluvien said, “are we fired?”

 

“What!” Ludmila nearly shouted, which made her maids flinch, “Why would I dismiss you? Do I really seem like such a terrible person that you think I would toss two pregnant retainers out into the street?”

 

“N-no, my lady,” Wiluvien replied. “I’m sor–thank you, my lady. For the both of us.”

 

The Linum sisters curtseyed again, even deeper than they had before.

 

“What about their work, my lady?” Terah asked.

 

“The Skeleton labour that they are directing should be able to do most of it, should they not?” Ludmila answered, “They might not be able to do some specific things that require their personal attention, but we can bear with it for a month or two. They may retain their positions, if they wish.”

 

“Very well, my lady…but what about after?” Terah posed another question.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“They plan on raising their children, but children take a lot of time, work and money. Is it really alright?”

 

“Based on the projections for demesne revenues,” Ludmila told her, “funds for food and sundries is hardly an issue any longer. It would have no more effect on my finances than supporting any of the other household retainers that the Undead labour has rendered unnecessary. Even if all of you decided to have your own families one day, I would not mind…as for figuring out what to do with the babies when they finally arrive, I suppose we can figure that out when it happens. It couldn’t be that bad – better than trying to raise them alone, at any rate. Since a good portion of your work is done through the Skeleton labourers, you may be able to perform your household tasks and tend to your children at the same time.”

 

The thought of advertising the Skeleton labourers as a boon for homemakers and working women everywhere drifted up from the depths of her mind. Well, maybe she should try it in her own demesne first before forwarding the idea to the central administration. The opportunity was right in front of her, after all.

 

“If that’s the case,” Terah said, “then I have a suggestion.”

 

“I’m listening…”

 

“It would not be appropriate to raise children in a city manor – especially one that is meant to only house Nobles and entertain their guests. Taking them to Warden’s Vale would be the best option.”

 

“You two are alright with this?” Ludmila looked to the sisters.

 

“They’re the ones that expressed interest in it in the first place,” her Housekeeper said as they nodded in confirmation. “After Ms. Luzi told them about Warden’s Vale, they’ve wanted to make the move ever since.”

 

“We’re sick of the city, my lady,” Lluluvien said. “Even though our lives have been good ever since we came to you…the memories remain. Please take us with you: we would very much prefer to live away and surrounded by nature.”

 

“In that case,” Ludmila said, “I have no objections. Accommodations will be a bit cramped but, as the demesne grows, extra hands will be needed for the household there anyways. Mrs. Ro’eh, how long will it take to train or hire suitable replacements for the city manor?”

 

“Hmm…that would depend on that Head Maid in E-Rantel, Miss Veyron. She still avoids dealing with us like before. The new footmen took a couple of weeks, so I’d expect it to at least be about the same.”

 

It wasn’t a long time to wait and, given the impending crisis in Fassett County, it might be enough time for them to contribute in some way. Given that Countess Corelyn had proposed the notion to deliver sanctions against House Fassett, and she was also not a neighbouring noble that would be suspected of having a conflict of interest in the matter, it was likely that she would be sent to the territory in the west. With the unscrupulous nature of House Fassett, Ludmila didn’t want her friend to go with nothing but a light diplomatic escort.

 

As the timing seemed so ideal, another thought came to her.

 

“Wiluvien. Lluluvien.”

 

“Yes, my lady?” They replied in unison.

 

“Before you go to Warden’s Vale…would you like to help in bringing House Fassett to account?”

 

The Linum sisters exchanged glances with one another, then returned to look at her in confusion. The hungry gleam in their steel-grey eyes was unmistakable, however. They listened quietly as Ludmila explained that situation in Fassett County, and the dilemma of the House of Lords. After she finished her explanation, Terah did not look surprised, but Aemilia was livid.

 

“That’s…that’s…how could they?” Aemilia could not hold back her outburst, “Is this what triggered everything this afternoon?”

 

Ludmila nodded and turned her attention back to her chambermaids.

 

“I understand if you do not wish to come – you now have more to care for than just yourselves, after all – but you will be well-protected for the help that I might need from you. As you are familiar with House Fassett’s demesne, the information you can potentially provide may prove invaluable.”

 

“We’ll go,” Wiluvien spoke right on the heels of Ludmila’s words. “Both of us will go – doing this will mean so much to us. Our mother should still be somewhere in their county as well: we would like to find her, if possible.”

 

“That’s not something I can promise you,” Ludmila said, “as we won’t be going there for that purpose. If the opportunity arises, however, I will see what I can do.”

 

“Yes, my lady,” they said. “Thank you, my lady.”

 

“Then we’re settled.” Ludmila said. “Luzi, prepare some regular clothing – ten days’ worth. I’ll have to have this dress cleaned up as well…it will make more sense for me to go as Countess Corelyn’s lady-in-waiting, since I only have one formal outfit. It should help with my getting around as well, should I need to.”

 

“Yes, my lady,” Aemilia nodded, then stopped. “Wait, does that mean I will not be accompanying you?”

 

“That’s right. I need you to rectify my lack of a wardrobe here in the city. By the time we get back, it will almost be time for the big event.”

 

“What does that mean, my lady?” Terah’s brow furrowed.

 

“Ah…there will be an official announcement soon,” Ludmila said, “so do not let anyone know before then. An event will be hosted by the Sorcerous Kingdom in a few weeks, in order to return levels of trade back to where they were before. I would like to be prepared to entertain any merchants or dignitaries that may present opportunities for the demesne.”

 

“Understood, my lady,” Aemilia said. “I will begin preparations to commission suitable garments once I prepare your things and you're on your way.”

 

Her lady’s maid left to begin sorting out the luggage and the Linum sisters followed shortly after.

 

“Was there something else, Mrs. Ro’eh?”

 

Her Housekeeper was silent for a minute, looking down at her hands folded in front of her.

 

“Can you do this, my lady?” She asked, “Pardon my saying so, but noble houses like Fassett do not evade the justice of their liege by being careless or stupid.”

 

“I don’t know, Mrs. Ro’eh,” Ludmila said. “But the future holds too much promise to allow their…legacy to ruin everything. I will do everything that I am allowed to prevent this, because I know that the Royal Court will show no mercy if it’s decided that House Fassett represents an unacceptable risk inherent to the entire aristocracy. Repaying grace with spite, as Lady Shalltear once told me – His Majesty’s favour has flowed freely from his hands; I will not allow anyone to spit in them.”

 

Ludmila rose from her seat, leaving the drawing room to head towards the entrance of the manor. For once, she did not curiously glance into the letter room.

 

“Where are you going, my lady?” Terah called out after her.

 

“For a walk,” she replied. “I need to sort out my thoughts – perhaps I’ll visit the gardens. There’s no need to call for anyone, I’ll be taking one of the footmen along as an escort.”

 

Stepping outside, Ludmila discovered that the sun had already disappeared behind the nearby wall. Motioning to one of the Death Knights, who fell in step behind her, she walked out into the street and took a deep breath of cool air. She could see several other nobles in the surroundings, accompanied by their servants. It seemed that she was still the only one amongst her peers who used the Undead as a part of her Household.

 

She recognized several familiar faces from earlier in the afternoon: it appeared that the meeting of the House of Lords had recently dispersed, so she decided against heading to the gardens and headed towards the Corelyn Manor instead. Surely enough, as she walked some distance past it and along the route to the Wagner Manor, she came across Clara. Her friend was being attended to by her lady’s maid and two footmen.

 

Countess Corelyn’s weary-looking expression regained a bit of energy as she registered her friend’s approach.

 

“Lady Zahradnik,” she put a smile on her face. “Are you feeling better now?”

 

“Yes, thank you, Lady Corelyn.” Ludmila replied, “That feeling you described earlier hit me a lot harder than I expected it would.”

 

“I am so sorry,” Clara said, “I said it right before I called over Count Völkchenheim too. I should have known it would run you over like a wagon full of barrels, considering how you are about these sorts of things.”

 

“I think I will be ready for it from now on,” Ludmila said, “…but we share much in common on that front: what do you usually do about it afterwards?”

 

“Who knows? Scream at the walls in my office, maybe.”

 

She couldn’t imagine her gentle friend doing such a thing. Then again, it was an awful feeling.

 

“I would pay to see that,” Ludmila said.

 

“You would not be able to afford it,” Clara returned.

 

They could only keep their straight expressions for a few seconds before bursting out into light laughter. Ludmila joined Clara as she continued walking home. Clara’s servants glanced sidelong at the Death Knight as it joined them, but they continued to follow their mistress over the scrubbed cobblestones.

 

“What were the results of the meeting?” Ludmila asked.

 

“There is a fairly long list of things,” Clara answered, “but we had difficulty coming up with something that could really hurt them. Fassett County has mostly depended on the highway, and its legitimate industries are unaffected for the most part. Most of their other incomes come from their…other activities, which they would dare not resume in their territory under the watchful eye of His Majesty’s servants.”

 

“So you weren’t able to think of anything else that might be compelling?”

 

“Unfortunately, no.” Clara shook her head, “The list is effectively the rest of us wagging our collective finger at them. An embargo on their exports in our own respective fiefs, refusal to trade with them directly. They will not need us to survive, though – they can conduct business through the city and with the other nations whenever their merchants start to visit in earnest again.”

 

“What other plans have the House of Lords set into motion, then?”

 

“Pray to the gods?” Clara let out a hopeless noise, “We incorporated Count Völkchenheim’s olive branch, but everyone knows that it is unlikely to produce a favourable outcome. I have been tasked with delivering this useless missive; Wagner and Gagnier are coming along as well. I would very much love to have you with us – maybe you could scare them into compliance or something.”

 

“Of course,” Ludmila smiled mirthlessly. “It may be that I can.”

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Aeridinae Lunaris

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