Stain straightened the ribbon he wore around his neck. His entire outfit—a gaudy thing of red and white—was quite stifling, in his mind. The stifling came from two aspects. It was mentally difficult because Stain loathed wearing the red and white of House Jast. It was physically difficult because the outfit had been made for him one year ago when he was fifteen, and it did not fit as well as it had then.
It had taken some time, but Stain had managed to track down Elias. It was important that he talk to him as Argrave had said, and even more important that he did so before Rivien. Stain wanted to be paid well for this job. The pay was nice, naturally, but the connections he might earn were more important. This ‘Argrave’ seemed important.
“Damned bastard. Better pay me well,” Stain muttered as he walked into the village. He kept his eyes on a white banner bearing a golden lion on it. “Better line my pockets with velvet and gold and fill my mouth with caviar and cream. Him and his two elves. Thin-wristed, dead-eyed…” Stain continued to mutter as he walked down the simple dirt road of the village.
The village was quite a humble place, with only dirt roads and wooden homes. The streets were filled with the occasional spilled grain from the recent harvest. The remainder had been placed into the granaries or kept in wooden barrels for temporary storage. Stain knew enough of the commonfolk to know that the harvest this year had been quite bountiful. It was a strangely optimistic portent for a nation on the eve of a civil war.
The militiamen watched the harvest warily, for it was their village’s lifeline in essence. What was watched more warily, though, was the large contingent of white-armored knights standing just out front one of the larger places in the village. Stain loosened the white ribbon around his neck once, and then tightened it again, knowing he should appear presentable.
When the white-armored knights saw Stain, they knew immediately to pay more attention to him only by the way he dressed. Their gazes stayed all but locked on him as he approached, and even the villagers gave him a wide berth.
If my brother were here, he’d say I look noble. ‘Oh, Veladrien, you project a veritable aura of righteous honor.’ Stain made himself laugh as he imagined his brother’s voice inside his head. If I was watching myself, I’d say that even pigs can dress in lace and pearls.
Stain came to stand before the four white-armored knights just out front of the building. He felt very short in front of them—a feeling he was well used to. Within, he could see many more knights enjoying a humble, if grand in size, banquet. Stain took some pleasure in seeing their white capes stained with mud, and their white metal boots lacking a shine.
“Hold,” the first knight addressed. “State your business.”
Stain put his hand to his chest in a somewhat out-of-practice noble salute. “I am Veladrien of Jast,” Stain said smoothly. “I would speak to Elias of Parbon.”
“The young lord has already received the invitation for the banquet in Jast. His reply is not yet ready,” the first knight answered, clearly the talker amongst the four of them.
“I come regarding more important matters,” Stain said, doing his best to use more formal, proper speech. “Something concerning your young lord.”
“’Something?’” Another knight repeated Stain’s vague wording. “You might be more specific.”
“Yes, I might, if you’d just let me past so that I can speak to the one whose ear is worth bending,” Stain said a little gruffly, then added in a more polite tone, “My words are for the young lord’s ears only.”
The two shuffled on their feet and looked at each other.
“Gods,” Stain said impatiently. “I’m only one person. Search me if you must, have a mage examine me if you’re paranoid. I’m sure your young lord has plenty of those in his honor guard. Parbon has no lack of toady mages, unless your fortunes have shifted dramatically.”
“You two,” the first knight said. “Escort him to the young lord. Watch him closely.”
Two of the knights nodded, and then moved to stand beside Stain as he proceeded into the room. Several gazes turned their way. The white-armored knights weaved through tables, leading Stain somewhere. Though his escorts were especially mindful not to step on the white capes draped across the floor on account of the knights sitting on benches, Stain took no small pleasure in deliberately stepping on a few of them.
They went to the second story of the building, making their way down the hall until they reached a door. One of the knights knocked on the door, waiting a few seconds before opening up. There, Stain saw a new group of people.
Ah. These are the important ones in House Parbon, whose asses are kissed on the daily by those below. Stain saw costly clothes, glistening jewelry, shimmering weapons, and well-polished armor. Everything in here was very expensive, and Stain’s fingers twitched. After seeing their clothes, Stain saw the people that wore them.
All of Elias’ retinue sat by a round table with empty plates, having just finished eating. There were three knights present, and Stain could tell they were dangerous. Their armor was quite grandiose compared to those downstairs, bearing a golden imprint of a lion decorating the front. Their swords shimmered red and cast light, obviously enchanted. Stain recognized one knight—a blonde man with a broad build and a handsome face who had earned fame and wealth warring with the southern tribes: Baron Abraham.
The other two in the room besides the knights were more lightly-armored. One wore fanciful white clothing, and his red hair made Stain recognize him as Elias.
The other was a skinny, middle-aged man in heavy leather robes. His hair was dark and had a sharp widow’s peak, while his beard was cut to a sharp point. His eyes glowed with light and swirled with ever-shifting purple vortexes. Stain had seen high-ranking wizards before in Jast, and he knew almost instinctively this man was one of them. He gave Stain a great deal of discomfort.
“Who is this? Why have you brought him here?” asked Elias, the first to speak. All heads had moved to the door long before they entered. Stain felt a little nervous—only a little. He tried to think about his brother, attempting to combat his nervousness with resentment.
“This one claims to be Veladrien of Jast, and has some words for the young lord,” a knight introduced, touching Stain’s shoulder.
“Both true,” Stain said clearly, stepping forth away from the knight’s grip. Baron Abraham adjusted his seat until it faced Stain, watching cautiously.
Elias leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. “Veladrien. The name is familiar. You’re the youngest in Jast, if I remember right,” Elias noted.
“He may be lying. He has no magic, young lord, and House Jast is renowned for producing mages,” the spellcaster with the purple eyes spoke.
“I have magic, Helmuth, despite being the heir to a martial house. Let us hear him out, at the very least,” Elias spoke with a natural authority that reminded Stain very strongly of his brother. The spellcaster Helmuth nodded, casting his gaze at his empty plate before him.
Elias continued. “Thank you for bringing him here,” he addressed the knights. “You two may leave.”
The knights nodded and left.
“Now,” Elias gestured, offering the sole empty seat to Veladrien. “You may speak as though those present are absent. Anything you tell me will reach their ears regardless, so do not bother asking to speak with me alone.”
“I’ll stand,” Stain refused. “Brief message, anyway.” Stain cleared his throat, then said simply, “Argrave is in Jast. He wants to speak with you before you make it there. Real important.”
The name alone elicited a much larger reaction than Stain had been expecting. Baron Abraham’s face grew taut and angry, and he leaned forward on his chair. The mage Helmuth lowered his head, chuckling, and Elias’ face grew stern and serious.
“What does that bastard want?” one of the well-armored knights said angrily.
“Don’t call him that,” Elias said quietly.
“What?” Abraham turned around in his chair, facing back towards Elias. “All due respect, young lord, but he crippled your sister and humiliated your father. We of House Parbon have no reason to speak politely of him, be it in front of his face or behind his back.”
Stain tugged at his collar, feeling the room growing hotter. Crippled his…? Gods. What have I gotten myself into?
Elias looked at Abraham passively. “I have come to know him. I will not say he is respectable, but… he is not worthy of disrespect. Indeed, he has earned some good-will from me.”
“What in the gods’ name are you speaking of?” Abraham stood, the chair thrown back to the ground. Elias also rose. The two stood across from each other, eye to eye. “’Come to know him?’ Do you mean you’ve fallen to honeyed words? Actions speak louder than words, young lord. He has brought only shame to Parbon,” the Baron continued.
“Your tone is bordering on insolence, Abraham,” the spellcaster Helmuth cautioned.
“It’s fine, Helmuth,” Elias interjected. “What happened to Rosalie was an accident. Argrave has made that clear to me, and I believe him,” Elias tapped on the table insistently. “Regarding other matters… my father was the first to wrong him. He escaped from my father to perform a greater duty—ending the Veidimen invasion. A task which, need I remind you, he succeeded at.”
“You believe those ridiculous rumors of him ending an invasion?” Abraham’s voice rose in volume.
Stain took a step back, trying to blend in with the scenery. Another reason to hate gaudy clothes. They’re designed to make you stand out, Stain lamented.
“They aren’t rumors,” Elias thundered. “Don’t speak of things you have no knowledge. I was in Mateth. I saw the measures he took.” Elias stared at the great knight in the eyes unflinchingly, then harshly pointed at the chair. “Now sit down, Baron Abraham.”
The Baron stared at Elias, eyes alight with a fiery wrath. Elias held his gaze just as unflinchingly, his ruby eyes seeming all-too-calm in the face of the renowned warrior’s presence. Eventually, Abraham took his seat once more and finally broke his gaze off Elias.
Elias shot his cuffs, and then slowly lowered himself into his seat. As calmly as though the confrontation had not happened, Elias looked to Stain and asked, “What did Argrave want to say?”
“Uh… right.” Stain stepped forward cautiously. “Erm… he…” Stain paused, unsure of how much he should share. “He didn’t give me any details at all, only that it was urgent and that it should be done before you enter Jast.”
“I see. It’s like him, sharing so little.” Elias nodded once, then looked to Helmuth. “I can agree to that. He did not ask me to come alone, I trust?”
“No,” Stain shook his head after a brief moment of thought. “It might be hard to do it quietly if you bring the whole party with you, though. All the boys downstairs…” Stain pointed. “Not exactly stealthy. White sticks out, especially against the black Jast.”
“You know this region. Where would be best, Helmuth?” Elias questioned.
“Mmm… there’s a village I know. Karrel, it’s called. Should be fine to meet. Plenty public, but quiet enough to avoid attention. With me present, few can threaten you, young lord.”
“Sufficient,” Elias concluded with a nod. “Can you convey this to Argrave, Veladrien?”
Stain was slow to respond because he wasn’t used to being called that name. “Yes, I can. When would you be there?”
“Tomorrow morning, I think.” Elias looked to Helmuth to confirm, and the spellcaster nodded.
“Right. I’ll tell him.” Stain nodded. “And, uh… sorry about your sister. And your dad, whatever happened there,” Stain added. The people in the room stared, saying nothing, and Stain nervously laughed before exiting the door.
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Bio: Author of the #1 'Heroes of Berendar' fan-fiction. Vicar of Crust. President of the Richie Aprile fan-club.