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Author: Muselessbard

Marches – Chapter 09

Author’s Notes – So, nine chapters in and we finally reach the wedding. This is a key chapter, the final crossing of a threshhold and losing her connection to her old family, forever tied to this new family. While modern concepts of marriage can’t help but seep in a bit, this is designed as a medieval style of political marriage. She can’t risk getting a divorce without a good reason, or it endangers her homeland – but does she even care about her homeland anymore? Should she? All in all, this is an important chapter, and one I feel that I glossed over too much in this original draft. In the new version, I plan on holding here a bit long to explore those questions more.

The Wedding of Sarus Astier and Mirabelle d’Argent

Those days passed quickly. Like a summer storm coming onshore, she felt it so distant until it had arrived. Then she felt as though a weight had fallen on her chest. She couldn’t explain it, but nerves had almost completely overwhelmed her. About a week before the actual event, the Astier all left Milae. Every single one of them, and all their guards. Then it was just her and her family. Romi came to Milae a couple of days before the event to stay with her as well.

When the day finally came, she felt herself shaking. The entire day her hands trembled and she felt a weird mix of fear and anxiety. This wasn’t a man she loved, it was a man she had met only once and that was a secret. Now, she was to be bound to him. It would be expected of her to have his children. It was something she had rarely imagined. He seemed kind enough, but the stories of him were of a man who would find his goal and set upon it. She had chased off the thoughts of that possibility, that she was just a goal, so many times. She had agreed to this, but she was not prepared.

That morning, before the sun had even begun to peek over the horizon, she was joined by her sister, Romi, and a small legion of handmaidens led by Coralie. She was given a warm, perfumed bath. A priestess of Lune arrived during and after her bath, she was anointed and blessed for the coming nuptials. They worked on her hair and it was brought into a meticulously maintained style adorned with fresh flowers. Then for what felt like hours she was pulled into the elaborate wedding gown that had been made for her. It was a flowing gown, designed to exacting specifications by the tailors of the village, with outerwear brought from Ava. A silver-lined corset was tight around her, and her gown trailed for meters behind her. A blue capelet was draped over her shoulders. She was given a few bracelets brought by the families, her d’Argent signet ring was worn on her right hand, and what must have been a full pound of necklaces and pendants draped from her neck. She barely felt like herself with everything on like this. A silver circlet with the symbol of Lune centered on her forehead was slipped on. The veil was last. The blue silken fabric was attached to the circlet in the rear and draped forward across her face. Once all that was set her handmaidens moved off to help her sister and Romi change.

Then she was left alone. For the first time in her life, perhaps, there was no one with her. Even Coralie had left to help the others. Bastien was outside, within range of her voice to be sure. Just her. She looked at the small silver mirror that had been given to her, staring back at the woman’s reflection there. She rarely even imagined this day, let alone like this, or that she would actually be going through with it.

After a few moments though, the priestess returned. She closed the door behind her softly and moved to join the lady. She stood quietly for a moment, before finally speaking. “My lady, are you ready? The sun will soon be rising.”

“Everyone else is ready?” Mirabelle asked.

“Yes, Lady Cedolin and Marquise Girardine are awaiting you just outside. Sir Bastien and Marquis Girardine have your honor guard ready to move out, and the carriage is prepared for you.”

“I suppose we’re ready then.”

“Is there something wrong, my lady?” The priestess spoke softly.

“No. Just nervous,” Mirabelle spoke quietly. “Actually.” She admitted, “Has there been any word from mother or father?”

The priestess gave a small sigh and shook her head. “No, my lady.” She bowed. “Your father is…”

“Don’t you dare make an excuse for him.”

The priestess stopped and just gave a nod. There was a pause, “I meant no disrespect, my lady.”

“I am one of the Fille de Lune. The Grand Magister of Lune isn’t going to come to my wedding.” Mirabelle spoke as she stared into the mirror. She set it aside with a long sigh.

“You are a Fille de Lune. Lune chose to bless you, my lady. I am sorry your father won’t be here.” The priestess gave a quiet bow to her.

“Speak no more of it,” Mirabelle spoke as she rose, and headed out of the room without another word. The priestess followed behind closely but made no attempt to speak to her again.  She walked through the manor, angry at the conversation and terrified of the steps she would make today at first, but it wasn’t something she could keep up. As she walked the servants of the home bowed and wished her well.

When she stepped out of the manor, she lost her breath. She barely noticed the cold because of the sight. A carriage covered with thousands of flowers sat waiting for her. The Knights of Tirmont sat atop their armored horses in bright ceremonial armor and capes prepared to escort her. There was Bastien too, standing at the carriage door in freshly polished armor. The old templar’s lip couldn’t hold back a smile.

“My lady.” He said with a bow, and a smile he couldn’t hold back, “I know this old templar has done nothing to deserve the honor,” He spoke as handmaidens rushed to pick up the trail of her dress before she reached the road. “but please allow me to escort you to your wedding. Your grandfather awaits you there.” She just smiled and nodded, and then moved to the carriage. He helped her up and then joined her in the carriage, where Romi and Roheis awaited her.

There was a sound then, a shout from the honor guard, and then they were moving. The village was a little way from the top of the hill and the Chateau de Astier. She sat for almost an hour, chatting quietly with her sister and friend, but nothing slowed her nerves it seemed. Shortly after dawn finally broke, there was another shout, and they stopped. She took a breath and knew what that meant. They were at the Chateau.

She felt her heart skip a beat or two, her pulse starting to race. She heard a voice. “My lady?” She glanced around, and then looked to the door. Bastien leaned over and opened it, and one of the knights sat nearby. “We are ready, on your order.” He spoke as his horse adjusted under him. “The rest of the way is prepared for you.”

She nodded. “I am ready.” Her voice cracked as she spoke.

“As you wish.” The knight replied, “Honor guard, dismount.” He barked up at the other knights.

She waited, listening to the sounds of the knights dismounting and taking up position around her carriage. They waited for her. She must have hesitated because she felt a hand on her hers. “We’re with you, my lady,” Bastien spoke with a squeeze of her hand.

She nodded and stood. Then, Bastien stepped out of the carriage to help her down. As she stepped down and out of the carriage, she felt a tug on her dress as the handmaidens worked to lift it for her and keep the trail off the ground. She paused to let them work and at that moment she looked at the ground first. The frost still hung on the ground, but she did not stand on dirt. The path had been laid for her – a path of flowers and branches of trees, and just ahead of the carriage a long cloth runner leading to the Chateau. This was a home she had not seen before. For the first time, with the sun rising behind the mountains, she saw it.

Atop the hill overlooking Milae was a small castle. Lining the road to its gate was a grove of willows, not unlike the village it oversaw. The gate itself was of great red timber, capped with iron. The stone walls stretched around the grounds, and she could hear the river running through the castle from here, trickling down the rocks and feeding into the greater rivers in the region. She could see the peak of the old temple over the walls as well. This was no temple of Lune, but a temple of Erthus, another goddess. The goddess of the forest, so it made sense there was a temple to her here, though she thought it strange the altar was in the castle walls.

She took a breath and her eyes lowered to the people. The road was lined with citizens of Milae and the other villages and hamlets in the province, and just beyond the walls were all the nobles seated and waiting. For her.

That was a terrifying thought.

She felt Bastien brush a hand on her back. “My lady, after you.”

She nodded and began to walk forward. The road was not long, but she took her time. As she passed the carriage, a cheer went up from the crowd. It startled her a bit and she saw the nobles begin to stand. She walked a few more paces before the Knights suddenly stopped and a small group of men approached from one side of the line.  They were ready to defend her it seemed.

“Knights of Tirmont,” Ervig called out to them, dressed as fine as she had ever seen him – with clean mail and a long black cape. His men, however, still looked as ramshackle as ever. “The men of Milae ask that we be granted the honor of escorting our Lady d’Argent alongside you.”

The Knights did not respond at first. So, Mirabelle nudged Bastien. “Knights, her lady would bid you accept.” He responded at the nudge.

“Then we shall. The Knights of Tirmont are honored to stand alongside the Men of Milae.” The Knight closest to them called back.

Ervig waved his men forward, and they moved to join the Knights. The dichotomy of the two was undeniable. The fine armors shined against the patchwork leathers worn by the men of Milae, but they stood no less proud than the knights of the honor guard. Then once again they moved forward. The people continued their cheers. The weight kept growing on her shoulders.

There in the gate was her grandfather though. The old man wore his noblest of clothes and an old tarnished longsword at his hip. He couldn’t help but smile when she walked up towards him, his eyes welled with tears. He stepped forward.

“Sir Bastien, Knights of Tirmont, and men of Milae. Thank you for the protection of my granddaughter.” He spoke softly as he stepped forward. “Please, allow me to take you the rest of the way, little one.”

“Of course.” She replied.

“Your grace,” Sir Bastien spoke with a nod. “She is in your care.” He took a clenched fist and hit his chest.

Mirabelle stepped forward, and her grandfather offered an arm to her. She linked her arm in his and they walked through the gates. There were the nobles, banners from so many houses lined the inside of the walls. Her eyes widened at one though. It was a gold shield with a black cross potent center and a blue rose above the potent, with a silver crown above the shield itself. She felt herself take a sudden, gasping breath – but didn’t even have time to panic before her arm was panted.

“Don’t worry about the charges, Mirabelle,” He said quietly, and gave her arm a little squeeze.

She nodded, and they kept walking forward, between the standing nobility on all sides of her. Her eyes finally rested on the front of the event, where two men stood. The priest of Lune, and her betrothed. He was dressed in reds, mostly, but wore a warm furred cloak – and he had his sword at his hip. She felt herself smile at him, but she knew no one would see that. She took a breath as she felt her grandfather stop. This was it.

“This is Lord Sarus Astier,” The priest called down to them. “Son of Marquis Valamir Astier.”

“This is Lady Mirabelle d’Argent, granddaughter of Duc Leufroy d’Argent.” Her grandfather responded.

The priest gave a nod, and for a split second, she saw a displeased look on his face. “And you give her this day of her wedding?”

“She is Fille de Lune. By the grace of Lune, I have had the honor to escort her.” He turned to her, “Today, she makes her choice alone. And I will support it.”

“My lady, d’Argent.” The priest took a deep breath. “Do you willingly come this day?”

She swallowed, and for a moment considered saying no. The whole thing was arranged, for political gain. Her family would be dishonored if she refused, and she knew that going in. But today, today she felt sure that this was the right path for her. She gave a squeeze to her grandfather’s arm. “Yes. I come willingly.”

“Then please, join your betrothed.”

She nodded and stepped forward, but her progress was stopped. Her grandfather pulled her back to steal a quick hug from her. She moved forward and stood next to Sarus for a moment. Her eyes drifted down to the ground below her, but more specifically her hands. She heard the priest start to speak.

“Your Majesty, your graces, lords, ladies, men, and women – you come here today for the joining of two souls this day, the first of spring under Lune’s new moon. This is a time for new beginnings, rebirth, and we are blessed to have such a day to behold a union such as this. Two great families, the Astier and d’Argent will be joined, for the betterment of both and for the Republic itself moving forward. Our blessed daughter of the moon joins here today her life to the heart of wyverns.” The priest’s voice boomed over them. She stopped listening though, just watching her hands. They were still shaking. She was shaking.

Maybe the cold had finally gotten to her, or maybe it was just the nerves she couldn’t shake. The fear that this was the wrong path, that she had made a poor choice, that her life was over. All these things raced through her mind. The idealist and romantic in her feared that this was not a man she could love, that she would be alone, relegated to live her life out raising children of a man she barely knew in a small village. That fear of course was echoed by her desire to have that romantic love of the stories she read as a child, that beautiful knowing. It didn’t matter. She would cross that bridge when it arrived. Now, now she just wished her hands would stop shaking.

Her thoughts had plagued her long enough that she was distracted when she suddenly realized the priest had stopped talking. But it had been sudden as if he had been interrupted. Her eyes rose and she glanced to Sarus for a split second before she felt a weight on her shoulders, and fur on the back of her neck. His cloak draped across her shoulders, and she felt the warmth of the cloth, of him, again. She just stared at him.

“Sorry, your reverence,” Sarus spoke with a little wave of his hand. “My apologies for the interruption.”

“Not at all,” The man spoke with a shake of his head. “My lady, it is a cold morning. Is that better?” The priest asked quietly.

She just nodded. Then the priest went back to his speech. She was bewildered. She knew wedding protocols. The bride and groom were not to speak or see each other until the day of. They were not to speak to the priest until the ceremony was over, except when addressed as part of the ceremony. They were not to touch one another until the ceremony was over. Instead, on this cold spring morning, he removed his cloak in front of the Princess of their kingdom, and draped it over her shoulders, interrupting the wedding, and then had the nerve to speak directly to the priest without being addressed. It was all improper. On top of that, now he stood in the cold without a cloak.

She turned her head to him and just stared for a moment. When he caught her, he looked at her and gave a warm smile. Then mouthed the word “warmer?” to her. She nodded, and then quickly turned away. He clearly wasn’t ignorant of the traditions, he just didn’t care. She felt suddenly flustered.

“My Lord and Lady. As is only proper, I now turn to you. Under the morning sky, on your first new day sharing this path together, I ask that you turn to one another.” They did as he spoke. Again, she was staring at him from under that thin veil. He was odd to her. Even on just this second meeting though, he was not feeling as much a stranger. “Please, reach out to one another, and join your right hands.”

They did. Her hand slipped into his and their fingers intertwined. His hands were cold, but then he squeezed her hand. She couldn’t help but squeeze back.

“Your paths are joined today. May your hearts and souls follow in these coming days. When you struggle, may the other give you strength. When you succeed, may the other be the first to share in your triumphs. May you bring your families honor. May your bond be never broken.” The priest spoke putting his hand over theirs. “In all things, look to each other. As the moon starts anew, so to shall you, and may your love grow to be as steady and reliable as her rise each night.” He nodded at them. “Before Lune, before Ethrus, before the assembled, but most importantly before one another, do you vow to be husband and wife, to forsake the old and usher in the new together, and to each other stand and strive to with all your being to fulfill your duties to one another?”

She paused for a moment. She didn’t know what to do, exactly. This was it. Two words. She felt him squeeze her hand again, and she swallowed. “I vow.” She said quietly.

“I vow,” Sarus replied after her.

“Then it is my honor to announce you,” The priest spoke, motioning for them to turn while keeping their hands together. They did, switching sides before the altar and standing ostensibly on the side of their spouse’s family. The priest stepped up behind them. “Majesty, your graces, lords, ladies, gentlemen, and gentlewomen. It is with all the blessings of Lune, I present to you not Lord Sarus Astier, and Lady Mirabelle d’Argent, but Lord and Lady Astier d’Argent.”

She felt a wave of relief. That was it. The act was done. They were husband and wife.

“Now, the Lord and Lady will retire for the morning. Marquis and Marquise Astier invite you to enjoy the bounty of Veillée de la Vouivre. The young Lord and Lady will return to greet you all during the noon meal.”

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Marches – Chapter 08

Author’s Notes: So, this chapter builds up to the wedding. It introduces more family who may or may not become important later on. It feels a bit sudden and abrupt to me now, but I think part of that is good. Weddings often have people showing up in big numbers, and it is overwhelming. I should concentrate on that a bit more, I think. On that note, I’m re-writing the whole story, so it is hard to see exactly what will stick around. I plan on concentrating on the wedding much more, and parts of this will likely survive. Most likely, I’ll expand on aspects and cut others. Overall, I’d like the wedding to take up more of the story in the next iteration, and parts of this deserve to live on in that version.

Arrivals

When she came in from the snow, that night she found herself more welcomed than expected. She had barely made it back into the manor before she was surrounded by the people she had just left. From a quick embrace from Romi and Cyne to a lecture from Bastien to Ervig showing up a few minutes late with a small search party, everyone had been worried. So, she asked to have paper and ink brought to her, and that night she penned letters to her family. Tienette had only watched for a time, and as the letters were written, the two talked about the decision. She assured the woman that it wasn’t the knife that sealed her decision. She had decided she would go through with it long before – but his actions had made her realize that she felt safer in Milae than she ever had on the Coast. It was decided while working on those letters that the wedding would be on the first full moon of Spring, as was common for the followers of Lune.

She hadn’t been able to pen the letter to her father, though. So, Tienette wrote a letter for him, and the basilisk was as cruel in the letter as her reputation suggested, though she didn’t let Mirabelle read the crueler rebukes of his behavior. She even decided that it would be the messenger that carried his gift who would return her letter to him.

The next morning, the date was announced to the villagers by Ervig and his men, and just like that the village was a buzz. This was something that astonished Mirabelle. In her home, weddings were small affairs, with family and priests. The Astier had invited every single member of their hold, and riders rode out on that first day to all nearby holds as well. The event was a celebration, not just for the nobles, but for the entire hold. It gave the people of the village something to work towards through the winter, and it made it even more challenging for Mirabelle to travel the town – as she often spent time getting well wishes from the townsfolk, and that would inevitably lead to a small crowd of others joining in.

Work in earnest began during the darkest part of winter after the Solstice festivals ended. Tienette and Cyne brought in tailors and got to work on a formal wedding dress for her, and jewelers followed getting her feeling on countless styles of jewels to adorn her. It was overwhelming in a lot of ways and took much more time than she would have expected but it passed the winter quickly. Before she had realized it, the weather began to warm, and the days began to feel longer again.

As spring seemed to be in reach, a messenger arrived with a letter from her sister Roheis. She had happily agreed to come to the village and spend the weeks leading up to the marriage with her sister. She had sent the messenger ahead of her, but it was only a day or two later that a militiaman showed up at the door of the manor, explaining that banners and a small cadre of mounted soldiers had been seen coming down the road.

He described the banner as a blue shield with a gold bend, with a centered white alerion above three crossed spearheads. It was one she recognized immediately.

“Alerion?” Cyne asked as an excited Mirabelle waved for Coralie to bring her a coat and boots.

“It’s a beakless bird, footless bird.” Tienette explained with a slight smile, “Forever cursed to fly, with no hope of rest.”

“Oh,” Cyne spoke with a little bit of disappointment in her voice.

“It isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s a symbol of the Girardine family, a sign of their eternal vigil over the walls of the Tirmont.” Mirabelle spoke from nearby as Coralie helped her wrap a coat around her form and worked to prepare her boots for her.

“Tirmont being the fortress on the border of Ava proper and the Banner lords territories.” Tienette added quietly, “And the sight of a hundred battles. A few fought against Vouivre.”

“So, they were our enemy.”

“Yes, but that was a long time ago. The last skirmish between us was before you were born.” Tienette corrected her daughter thoughtfully.

“Before Sarus was born?” Cyne asked quickly.

“No. We clashed swords against them about fifteen years ago, but it was not a pitched battle. Only a few hundred men.” Tienette admitted with a sigh.

“Any of ours?”

“No, your father wouldn’t commit troops if he didn’t know he could win.”

Mirabelle shook her head and moved finally finished lacing up her boots. Coralie through a quick cloak around her shoulders and stepped up behind her mistress. Bastien busied himself attaching his sword to his belt, but seemed ready to join them as they left. The Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. “I’m going out to meet them.”

“I’d like to come.” Tienette admitted, “But I need to find my face.” She gave a little smile and shook her head. “You go ahead.”

“May I?” Cyne asked. The girl was still young and hadn’t yet received her mask for the masquerade, but in truth, she was only a few years younger than Mirabelle.

Her mother nodded towards Mirabelle, who gave a quick nod without speaking. So, Cyne fell in line with them.

“I’ll watch over her, my lady,” Bastien added quickly. “No need to call in extra guards. I’m sure the Marquis de Tirmont will have more than enough men to keep her safe.”

“Very well,” Tienette spoke softly. “I will meet with you all soon. Enjoy the reunion.”

The small group headed out of the manor and to the streets. Aside from lingering snow in a few shady spots, it did look as if it would soon be spring. Mirabelle almost jogged towards the edge of the village, with the others just trying to keep up with her. When they arrived at those Willow Gates, she found that Ervig and his men had already arrived.

The Captain of the Guard turned towards her and gave a nod, “I see my man found you, my lady.” Ervig added with a quick bow to her. “Oh,” He stammered as he saw Cyne with her, “And I did not expect to see you as well my lady Astier.”

“He did,” Mirabelle answered back, as Cyne gave a soft bow towards the man. D’Argent stepped through the militia to the forefront, crossing to the very front of the village. Cyne joined her, but Bastien and Coralie stood with the militia.

Ervig stepped forward. “Scouts caught their banner about an hour ago. They’re in no rush, but I don’t believe Marquis de Tirmont spared much expense on this trip. It makes my men feel a bit underequipped.”

“Perhaps once I’m your Marquise officially, I can open up trade with them.” She glanced back at the militia, who were dressed in ramshackle chain mail and boiled leather plates, and armed with simple iron spears, daggers, and hunting bows in some cases. They were not professional soldiers, but rather the conscripted or volunteer peasants of the village. She wondered if they were an efficient fighting force in the least, knowing they had none of the training of someone like Bastien. They didn’t speak much more for a time though, just watching the banners grow closer.

Finally, when they were well in view, it took Mirabelle’s breath away. She saw her sister for the first time in nearly a year. Roheis and her Husband were both in ceremonial armor. Shining plates of steel atop blue lamellar. On their hips, long swords and daggers of exquisite craftsmanship stored it well-maintained leather scabbards. His steel spear rose above them both, a personal banderol attached just below the blade and fluttering in the wind. On her horse, she also had a new, fine longbow attached to the saddle – but it was her guard that carried her banderol, the white stag replacing the alerion in the Tirmont arms.

Behind them were arrayed, forty knights or servants. The knights wore fine, shining plate. Each was armed with fine blades and wore long blue capes. Their horses likewise were all masterfully outfitted, with each wearing banded plates of mail over soft leather barding. Even the servants wore armor, though it was mostly shined chain atop leather. It was a display to be sure.

As they got close enough to see Mirabelle, Roheis lost her patience and spurred her horse forward.  It was only a minute before she reached the line, and she quickly swung her leg over her horse’s saddle and dismounted, and then she rushed around to her sister. She locked her in a tight embrace, which while Mirabelle returned, it was clearly one-sided. “You look well, little Belle,”

“Roheis, you look…” Mirabelle finally broke the embrace and pushed away just a bit. “Knightly.”

“I am knightly. It turns out the people of Tirmont need a Marquise who can stand by her husband in a fight. And I always wanted to learn the bow.” She glanced to the side and smiled. “Sir Bastien, Dame Coralie.”

Both gave small bows to her, and to her husband as he caught up to her.

“It is good to see you again, Lady Mirabelle,” Ghislain spoke loudly, his voice carrying over the militia as he sat atop his horse a moment. He let the horse settle. “And to all of you, I am Ghislain Girardine, Marquis de Tirmont.” He announced before he dismounted as well and walked towards the sisters d’Argent.

“And you, Marquis.”

“Please, my lady. To you, I am just Ghislain.” He spoke with a smile.

“Belle, you’re being rude.” Roheis pressed her, physically pushing on her shoulder as she nodded back to the others. “Introduce us.”

“Oh,” Mirabelle turned and found Cyne first. She motioned to her, “This is Lady Cynewise Astier, daughter of Marquis Valamir Astier and Marquise Tienette Astier. Du Nid de Vouivre.” She added.

“Ah, I had heard Lord Sarus had a sister,” Ghislain spoke with a low bow to her. “It is an honor to meet you my lady Cynewise.”

“Cyne is fine.” The young girl added nervously but returned the bow.

“And this,” She motioned to Ervig, “Is Captain Ervig de Milae, who was steward of the village until my arrival, and still acts as Captain of her Guard and leader of the military forces of the city. He also still acts as Steward but likes to claim I am in charge.”

“Belle – don’t editorialize.” Roheis corrected. “You know this is a Wyvern wedding. You will have to introduce every family member and every guest that has not met when they approach you.”

Ghislain shook his head and gave his wife a pat on the back. “Forgive her, Captain Ervig. She is worried her little sister is not prepared for the ceremony.”

“No forgiveness needed, my Lord Tirmont. We hope we have helped prepare her as well.” Ervig spoke with a bow. “To that point, the people of Milae have been blessed to have Lady d’Argent with use. It is an honor to get to greet her family.”

From there, the sisters and their entourage would enter the village. They chatted on all sorts of the minutia of their day to day lives, catching up on mostly small events. IT was nice to catch up. For the past year, both had been settling into new lifestyles, so they had more than enough to talk about for weeks. Tienette greeted them when they returned, speaking on behalf of the family from behind her basilisk mask. She promised that her husband would return soon after but was away collecting his brothers.

Of course, once they were back to the manor they rested for a couple of days, and then again began work on the wedding. Most importantly, perhaps, she had a supportive family member there – but she wished more would come. A few days after they arrived, Romi had ventured into town and was introduced to them, though she had trouble even speaking to Ghislain without turning into a stuttering mess of a girl, with cheeks as red as any flower. But she was an important piece of the puzzle in preparing Mirabelle for the ceremony.

Vouivre weddings were complex. They were parties, with every noble far and wide invited alongside many of the villagers under the care of the families being joined. It was expected that during the wedding, the guests would be greeted by both the Bride and Groom, as their first act as a married couple. Knowing the men and women that were in attendance was paramount, and generally, each offered a gift. So, poor Mirabelle had to learn the names and banners of any that might attend, as well as anything that could help her remember.

“This is impossible.” Mirabelle lamented after she.

“Each guest is going to be wearing their masks. As it is considered a court event, the masquerade must be upheld. But, the Vouivre believes that the bride and groom must prove they can see beyond that. Correctly addressing each guest in attendance will show that you are a true Vouivre bride and can hold your own in their courts.” Roheis rattled off the words as if she had said them more than enough over the past few days. “Every bride does it here.”

“But not every bride is a d’Argent. People are coming from all over the Kingdom.” Mirabelle groaned and laid her head on the table around which they sat.

Roheis sighed and nodded. “We have to keep going. The Vouivre and Ava you have down, and it won’t be a problem.”

“And you’re doing okay with Rane,” Romi said with a little smile.

“You are not doing well with the Banner Lords or Danelan though,” Cynewise added from nearby, flipping through a large tome that listed the banners of the kingdoms.

“Not helping.” Romi scolded quickly.

“We need to know where to concentrate.”

“Girls.” Mirabelle shook her head. “All of you are helping, and none of you are helping so let’s just do the next one.” She said as she sat up and stretched.

“Okay.” Roheis waved at Cyne, who raised the book up and pointed to one of the banners. Her eyes narrowed. “Green shield, black bars.  With a slain manticore in the top right-hand corner. Steel colored manticore, red blade stabbed into it.” She sat back. “That’s a little violent.”

“Wait, manticore. That’s Dunelan. So,” Mirabelle took a breath, “The sword means they kill Danelans. Black bars, green shield…” She shook her head for a moment, “Marquise,” Her face distorted a bit, as she closed one eye and seemed to think, “Marquise Maccul de Rigani?”

“You can’t just guess an entire province for a Marquise, Belle.” Roheis sighed.

“I don’t know where Maccul is from, Ile de Morr?”

“Yes! Ile de Morr…”

“Marquise Maccul de l’ile de Morr a Rigani,” Mirabelle raised an eye as if she was done, but held on to the last vowel since she wasn’t sure.

Romi leaned over towards her after a minute and pushed, “The…”

“The…” Mirabelle softly waved a hand, “Hint?”

“No hint. You know this.”

“My lady, they did visit the temple once when you were young.” Bastien spoke up, “You were smitten with their mounts.”

“Bastien!” Roheis raised her hands and barked at him, “How is that not a hint?”

“Marquise de l’Ile de Morr a Rigani, chevalier commandant de l’ordre du pegase!” Mirabelle said with a clap of her hands.

“You are pushing her hard, she needed a hint.” Bastien defended himself, from Roheis who was giving him a disappointed look.

“She could have gotten there,” Roheis spoke softly.

“Wait, you got to see a Pegasus?” Cyne asked quickly.

“Pegasi,” Mirabelle clapped and squirmed happily at the answer and question. “She rode in with twenty knights of the order after some battle, seeking healing and,”

“My lady, just skip to the best part,” Bastien said quickly with a wave of his hand.

“One bit Roheis.”

“You brat!” Roheis kicked at her sister under the table.

“No.” Bastien shook his head and ran a hand across his forehead.

“They let them ride the creatures,” Coralie added from nearby. “When I was brought on, it was all lady Mirabelle would talk about.”

She hadn’t quite finished the sentence when the manor door was pushed open quickly and Ghislain rushed in, warranting a small startled noise from Romi. The group turned to look at him, as he seemed in a bit of a rush. “My ladies, pardon the intrusion.” He gave a bow, “Lady Mirabelle. There are other arrivals. Lady Tienette asks…”

“What banner, Ghis?” Roheis asked.

He looked confused, “It’s the banner…”

“No, describe it.” She interrupted her husband

That only seemed to deepen the confusion on the man’s face. “A gray shield with red orle and a black wyvern holding a knot of willow branches.”

“I know that one,” Mirabelle spoke with a large smirk.

“Me too.” Cynewise teased closing the book and standing up. She seemed a little excited to see her family again.

“Is Sarus with them?” Mirabelle asked quietly.

“No, my Lady. He was sent on to their home, with a couple of the younger children. The rest of the family has come to meet you.” Ghislain nodded. “They should be here in a few minutes.”

“Then we should get ready. We’ll continue this later.” Roheis said softly.

The girls all stood and moved to change into more courtly attire. Then Mirabelle’s eyes turned towards Romi, who stood nervously in her hunter’s cloak. She knew she didn’t have anything more to wear. She glanced at her friend. “Romi, would you like to join us?” She asked quietly.

“I’m unprepared, my lady. I can just take my leave.” She responded quietly, with her head held low.

“Nonsense.” Lady d’Argent said with a smile. “You can borrow one of my dresses if you like.”

It only took a few minutes to change into their attire, with Mirabelle and Roheis in more exquisite wear than the others thanks to their father’s station – and Romi awkwardly pulling at the fancy clothes draped on her, clearly out of her comfort area. Cyne’s dark-colored dress was a stark contrast against the royal blues in the other two women’s choices. Cyne gave a little bow to the others, and she took her leave to join her family before they were formally introduced.

More importantly, given it was a court event, in a way, they all donned their masks. Mirabelle had not worn her mask around the Astier ever, but this was a sort of official event. Coralie handed it over to her – a simple silver cloth mask with steel wire hardening it to hold its most important aspect, the two small stag antlers that rose from the sides. She took a breath and slipped the mask on. She glanced over to her sister, who wore an almost identical mask. Then she glanced at Romi, who had a full-face mask styled after the face of a fox.

After a moment, the door opened again in the main room where they waited, and Ghislain joined them. His mask was more militaristic, befitting his role, with a horsehair flare rolling back across his natural hair, dyed white now in honor of his wife. He gave a smile, “Ladies, are you ready to receive guests?” He asked quickly.

“Yes,” Roheis stated bluntly, pushing Mirabelle to the forefront. She gave her a nudge. “You can do this, consider it a dry run.”

Ghislain stepped back out, and his muffled speech followed. Then the doors opened again, with Marquise Tienette stepping through first, followed by her husband, then three men she didn’t recognize, and another woman. Cyne stepped back in with her family, sticking close to her mother and father.

Mirabelle felt her mind race. She didn’t know who these people were, but they came under the Astier banner. She took a breath and gave a bow, “Marquis and Marquise Astier, welcome back.” She said with a long low bow. She raised back up slowly, giving herself time to look across the other men and women in attendance. Then she smiled. “It is an honor to get to meet more of your family finally. If you will, allow me to introduce my sister,” She waved a hand to her, “Marquise Roheis Girardine de Tirmont.” Her hand then moved over to Romi, “And my closest friend, Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane.”

Romi blushed at the words.

“Lady Cedolin?” One of the men’s voices broke the silence. Mirabelle had expected Valamir to speak, but he hadn’t. Instead, this man spoke. He was an overweight man, a rolling double chin, and the look of sweat on his marred skin. He stood a few inches shorter than Valamir but stepped forward as he spoke. His mask was red wyvern feathers but laced with gold threads. “There is no Lady Cedolin, only Romi Batard.”

“With all due respect,” Mirabelle spoke harshly, raising up and standing defiant, “Lord Vithimiris Astier. I recognize her rightful parentage. You will do the same in my presence.”

There was an uncomfortable pause for a moment in the room. The man stared at her for a moment, a scowl of anger on his lips as he watched her eyes. She didn’t turn away from him, staring. The pause was long enough that she thought to demand an answer, but before she could his scowl disappeared, and his mouth opened to release a belly laugh. “Well done!” He reached up and pulled off his mask and tossed it aside. He opened his arms wide and stepped away from his family and towards her. His demeanor completely changed. Without his mask, his eyes were bright, wide. His smile was as big as any she’d ever seen. The laugh-lines on his eyes and with flushed cheeks were simply disarming. “I am sorry, Lady Romi,” He said walking towards the girl and clapping his hands together. “I want you to know that I believe your claim, and always have. Your cousin should be ashamed. And he is a fool to cast aside such a talented woman.”

Romi didn’t know how to respond. She was bright red, a nervous fire in her cheeks. She may have mouthed something quickly, but her voice simply did not fall on anyone’s ears.

“Vithimir, you couldn’t last even until at least one more?” Valamir shook his head. “Why do I let you stay in Ereleiva?”

“Hush, brother. You knew to let me go first was a poor plan.” Vithimiris laughed and looked towards Mirabelle, who was a bit confused. Her eyes showed it. It was much less so than Roheis’, though. She turned to Vithimir who opened his arms to her again. “Welcome to the family. Come come. Give your uncle Vithimir a hug.” He motioned to her.

Though confused, Mirabelle relented and offered an embrace. Before she knew it, she was in a crushing hug.

“We are excited to have you.” He finally released her and slipped around her with one last pat on her shoulders. “Now, Marquise Roheis, the lady who tamed Ghislain.” He spoke as he moved on to his next prey.

Mirabelle had hardly gotten her breath back when the next two approached her. She gave a smile, still sort of collecting herself.

“Forgive him, my lady.” This man was more like Valamir. He was tall, a bit scruffy, with long unkempt hair held back by a ceramic and carved marked mask, sealed with red and stylized to match the others’ feathers.

She nodded at him and responded. “Lord Arimir…” She said with a smile, “There is nothing to forgive.”

“Damn right there isn’t.” Vithimiris broke from his conversation to interject, before falling back into a conversation with Roheis and Ghislain.

“And that would mean that you,” She nodded back to one of the women, also in a ceramic mask, “Are Lady Sunilda.”

“Correct,” The lady said quietly, stepping out from the crowd. She was a petite woman, with short-cropped black hair, and at that moment was clearly pregnant. “You’ll forgive me for not being more involved.”

“Have you enjoyed your stay in Milae so far?” Arimir asked her with a slight bow. “I hope we were able to get the manor to your liking before your arrival.”

“Everything has been wonderful, thank you.” Mirabelle nodded.

“Sunilda and I will be at the top of the hill mostly until the wedding. I hope you understand.”

“I do.”

“After your wedding, we want to get to know you better, though.” He smiled and pulled a small trinket from his jacket. “For you. We were in Cote d’Argent about six months ago. I wanted to make sure to get you something from home.” He offered it over to her.

She smiled and took the small box when offered, bringing it to her. “I’m honored. You didn’t need to.”

“I like to bring my nieces and nephews things from my travels.” He gave a smile and stepped back.

Then the final person stepped forward. He didn’t say anything, though. Mirabelle knew she was out of easy marks. There were only three Astier brothers now. He was an older man, wrinkled skin on the back of his hands and neck giving that away – but he wore a blank mask, just a thin gray cloth. The cloak he wore was as noble as any in attendance but was clearly just a traveling cloak. He was being careful to not show anything under the cloak either. She wasn’t sure who this was. Then she saw it though. Beads peaked out from his cloak, a necklace. She recognized them. Her father wore the same things. “I’m sorry, your reverence. I’ll admit I can’t see your face…”

“Ah, yes…” He said softly, raising a hand to pull off the mask. The voice, though, she recognized, and before he could even reach to the mask the young woman had broken any semblance of courtly ideas and rushed over to him with a tight hug. Roheis likewise had dropped what she had done and rushed over.

“Pepere! I didn’t expect you.” Mirabelle said quickly

“Lady Tienette invited me,” The old man laughed a bit, before wrapping his arms around her for a second, and then offering one over to Roheis, “It is good to see you both well.”

“It is a long trip, you didn’t need to come all of this way for me.” The Lady d’Argent protested with a tighter hug.

“It was a hard trip, yes. But you are worth a thousand.” He was a small man, and age had stolen much of his form and replaced it with a thin wrinkled man, and yet he commanded the room when he spoke. Perhaps it was just the scene, but all eyes were on him. He gave a small nod to his granddaughters and sighed. He gave a quick kiss to the woman’s forehead. “I hear you might need someone to walk with you that day as well. And nothing would make me happier.”

“Of course.” She gave a quick nod, before finally pulling back a bit, and waving to Romi. “Romi, this is Duc Leufroy d’Argent.”

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Marches – Chapter 07

For this week, I am posting Chapter 07 of Marches. This chapter was the one that hooked me and made me, though I’ll admit I am not one hundred percent sure on the why. You might see as you read. This chapter will need a lot of cleaning up and clarification in the rewrites, but the soul of this chapter will remain the same. Little things such as changes to the reasoning she ends up in the snow, the introduction to the chapter, and similar will all be readjusted. But, I do like this chapter, even as it is, flaws and all. So, with that in mind, I hope you enjoy it. And let me know what you think!

Fair winds,

Muselessbard.

A Meeting in the Snow

After Romi’s story and some additional meetings with the Astier family members, Mirabelle’s mind had fallen heavily on the upcoming decisions. She knew that winter was coming and soon enough she would have to make her choice, to pick whether she wanted to go through with this marriage or return home. She felt she didn’t have much of a clue on which direction she truly wished to go. As winter fell upon the village, and the weather turned bitterly cold, she found herself still enjoying her life here. The villagers were incredibly supportive of her, and as the first cold nights fell a great number of them would come to her manor with gifts of warm soups or drinks, freshly woven blankets, or even just simple supplies like firewood. She was incredibly well taken care of, but she felt like a member of the town. That was something she hadn’t felt on the Coast. She had always felt distant as if the people watched her from afar. Here people seemed to genuinely care for her safety. It made her like the idea of staying, at least with the people of the village.

On the night of the first real snow in the region, she found herself entertaining a few guests. She had invited Romi back a few times, and the two had become close rather quickly. The young noblewomen had few things in common in their background, but they were both visitors in this land and that gave them connection beyond the time they had known one another. Tienette and Cynewise had also come to the home and decided to stay after the snow began to set in. The four chatted about nothing. The three youngest carried the conversation, with Tienette often just listening to them chat. They shared warm teas and shared stories of everything they could think of.

The snowstorm had been come on quickly and laid down inches of snow without much warning. It was cold, but the roaring fire stoked by the servants of the manor kept the four comfortable. They expected to be stuck there at least until the sun was high in the sky the next day. So, they would make the best of it. It was hard to think of much better than the warm room, friendly chats and laughter, and safety they enjoyed. Coralie softly played her vielle, giving a light tune to back up the conversation.  All in all, it was a nice night.

As the night began to stretch, though, there came a knock at the door. As late as it was, it was impossible to consider who it may have been. It was Tienette’s guardsman who went to the door and soon returned with a half-frozen rider. Crystals of snow and ice clung to the man’s furred cloak, but the blue colors gave him away immediately. As soon as his eyes fell on Mirabelle, he fell to one knee and lowered his head.

“Lady d’Argent, forgive this messenger his tardiness.” He spoke with a hoarse voice, his throat clearly as dry and frozen as his skin. “Your father bid me bring a message and a gift.” He spoke softly. “He asked I say but one thing. His words, if I may, my lady?” The man stretched out his arms and waited for a response.

Mirabelle was a bit flustered by the sudden entrance, a bit worried as to what it could mean. With the gift, though, it was clearly in relation to her marriage. “Of course, you’ve come all this way.”

“Your father says, he hopes that your choice is clear and that he knows you’ve will have made the right choice for the honor of your family.” He did not raise up or move at all from his lowered position.

“That’s all?” Cynewise spoke quietly, likely meant to go only to her mother, but it was heard by everyone.

Mirabelle just nodded and moved over to the messenger. “And the gift?” She asked.

The messenger pulled a small ash box from one of the satchels hanging from his hip, and without looking to her, he held aloft the gift. She took it and took a breath fighting back a bit of excitement.

She looked down at him and finally let a smile cross her lips, “Thank you, messenger. Coralie will see that you have a warm place to rest, and food and drink.”

“Right this way, sir,” Coralie spoke from the back of the room, having set aside the vielle in the seat she had been sitting in.

The messenger bowed lower, and then raised up. He nodded to Mirabelle, “Mercy, my lady.” He spoke quickly, before stepping away from the girl with a lowered head and moving back and into the home to follow her servant. As he walked, the strange phrasing caught everyone off guard and a few now watched him like hawks, eyes glued to his actions as he moved off towards the dining room with the handmaiden.

Then there was a clattering nearby. All eyes were back on Mirabelle, but she had dropped the gift and without a word darted out of the manor. Most were surprised, and all called after her. She looked like she had seen a ghost, her face pale and a clearly visible quiver in her lips as she fought to get out of the room before anyone could truly see her reaction.

Bastien was up and after her first, racing to the door to follow his ward. He likely would have caught her if a voice had not called for him.

“Sir Bastien,” Marquise Tienette spoke swiftly, “Let her go,”

“No, my lady, I need to…” He had paused to turn, to speak to the Marquise directly, when he saw her.

Tienette stood over the gift that had been dropped to the floor. The box had broken, letting its contents spill to the floor in the center of the room.

Bastien stood with his mouth agape, stunned silence his only response. Tienette just nodded and took a deep breath. She didn’t say anything for a moment, before finally letting out a sighing, “Oh, Mirabelle. I am sorry.” She said as she knelt next to the box and pulled the gift away from it. It was a small black stiletto, only a few inches long. She touched the blade, and her lips twisted to a disappointed snarl.

It had been a blur, but as he followed the path of footprints in the snow and dark, he heard a faint sound – sobbing. He moved towards it, following the path that had been taken by the other as best he could without stumbling. He walked through the brush and snow, and as he came to the edge of a hill he saw her. From the disturbed snow, it looked as if she likely slid down the side of the hill, at least halfway. With no light, she was lucky she wasn’t terribly injured.

“Mademoiselle, are you alright? Are you injured?” Sarus called down to her.

She turned her face up to see who was speaking, but the two had never met. Neither Mirabelle nor Sarus could have recognized one another. She responded, with a bit of a laugh at herself, “I am uninjured.”

Sarus took a breath and nodded. He waved a hand at his bodyguard, who stood down and waited just behind the top of the hill. “I’m coming down anyway.” He said, stepping over onto the slope and slowly but surely sliding down the hill with a torch in hand. As soon as he reached the bottom he moved over to where she sat, nestled near a frozen creek bed and under a young willow tree struggling under the weight of the snow. He knelt next to her, and for the first time, the light fell on her face.

The light fell on pale skin and silver hair, now damp due to the snow that had fallen on her during her hasty escape. He took a breath and offered the torch over to her. “Here, my lady, take the torch. It will help warm you if just a bit.”

“Thank you,” She said softly taking the offered torch and pulling it into her little willow hovel. She felt the fool as she looked at him. “And you are?”

“If I tell you, my lady, you will be upset.” He admitted as he smiled over to her, a nervous smile and one that was clearly unsure how to proceed.

“I am already upset, sir.” She shook her head.

“Fair.” He spoke, “My name is Sarus Astier,”

“No,” She spoke as fast as she moved, trying to back away from him and covering her face. “You can’t see me for another few months, my lord.”

“Lady d’Argent. I will absolutely leave if that is your request.” He said with a nod. “But, I can’t leave you out here in the cold.”

“You’ve already given me a torch, that would be enough.” She protested, still hiding her face.

“At least my cloak as well.”

She didn’t say anything in response for a moment. But she was cold. Freezing, even. It was stupid to run out here alone. She relented and gave a quiet nod.

“Very well,” He felt a bit odd not speaking to her, something easy enough to see from yards away as he fidgeted and almost struggled with the clasp of his cloak. “Is there a reason you ran out here into the dark and snow, my lady?”

“A message from my father.” She spoke, trying to keep her eyes off of him for the time being.

“I suppose the wedding is still on then,” He attempted a joke as he finally reached the clasp and pulled it off. She gave no response. “I’m sorry, that was crass of me. I try to joke when I’m nervous, you see.”

She shook her head. “No, it was fine. I just…” She let her eyes drift over to him for a moment. In the flickering light, she finally saw him for the first time. After years of his name in her head, she had a face. It wasn’t what she expected in the least. His father was somewhat scruffy, a traditional vagabond, his mother was the basilisk. She assumed he would have the same look to him. But he didn’t. He had a surprisingly strong jawline, that same dark hair as his parents but it was cut short and well maintained. His eyes were smaller than she expected, but that may have been from the squinting due to the torchlight. He did have some scruff, but she wasn’t disgusted. She shook her head. “I was still deciding.”

“Ah, yes. Mother said she gave you the option to decide whether or not you wanted to go through with it.” He nodded and offered over his cloak. “Here, wrap up.”  She took the cloak and struggled to wrap it around her shoulders with the torch in hand. He reached over and pulled one side over her shoulder.

“Thank you,” She spoke softly.

“It is my honor, Lady d’Argent.” He replied with a succinct nod. “Once you’re warm, I’ll help you up the hill and we can get you back to the manor.” He paused a moment, “Can I ask which way you are leaning?”

“No.” She said sternly, looking away from him for a moment. She sighed, “I do love Milae, though.”

“They are loveable. But you miss the villages of the Coast and the people there. It must be com-“

“No, there isn’t a village at the Temple,” She interrupted.

“Wait, so just you and your family and servants?”

“Yes. Magi don’t administer to people in social matters. Not like the Astier do.” She said softly. “I’ve enjoyed walking with the people. Days and nights with just parishioners are a bit less engaging.” She paused for a moment, “This isn’t what I imagined as a girl.”

“Yeah. I know the feeling.” Sarus spoke with a nod.

She looked to him for a moment and then paused. “My father sent me a gift.” Her eyes welled up at the words, a little crack of her voice and quiver of her lip as she fought back another wave of sobbing.

“What gift drove you to the woods in the snow?”

“A black stiletto.”

Sarus swallowed and shook his head. He clearly didn’t know how to respond. “So, he said go through with it, or kill yourself?”

She whimpered out a small, “Yes.”

There was a moment they sat in the snow silently before Sarus spoke up again. “I’ll break it off, then, if you want. It saves you from either, and I doubt a little dishonor will sink my standing at this point.” He reached out a hand, “I don’t know you, but you don’t deserve to be forced into a life you hate just to fit the whims of our father’s.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment again before her hand reached up and took his. She shook her head. “No…” She spoke with a little choke, “I think I’ve made my decision. I think I had before tonight…” She said with a nod.

“I guess I’ll find out soon enough on that.” He spoke and stood, “Are you ready to head home?”

She gave a nod and stood with him, stepping back out from under the willow. “I am.” She shook her head a bit. “You weren’t supposed to see me until the wedding.” She added again as they moved towards the hillside and began the trek back up.

“I know. I won’t tell anyone.” He said as a joke.

“I’m sure they’ll find out one way or the next.” She responded, “You wyverns do have a knack for it.”

“True.” He paused to help press her up and over the edge of the hill, letting most of her weight press down onto his arms as she stepped up and across the bank. Then he was surprised as her hand was offered down to him. He gave a small smile and took the offer, and they reached the top. Then, joined by Sarus’ guardsman, they began the walk back to the village.

They didn’t say a word until they almost reached the outskirts when Sarus did finally speak up again. “My lady d’Argent,” He started, quietly and close to her. “I am serious. What your father did, I will never understand. But, if you feel that this is not the path for you, send word to me. I will end it.”

She paused, stopping both in the falling snow. “You are serious aren’t you?” She asked quietly. “I know the culture of the Wyverns, my lord. Do you?”

“I do,”

“So, you’d be willing to dishonor your family, never be allowed to marry, and have to repay my dowry… just to keep me alive.” She spoke plainly.

He never answered verbally. He just nodded. It was enough for her at that moment.

They had stood long enough. “We should get you in soon. I’m afraid this is where we need to part ways though.” Sarus spoke softly. “We can’t be seen together yet.”

“Of course.” She spoke with a smile and a nod, removing his cloak and offering it back to him. “Thank you for finding me, and making sure I was able to return safely.”

He took the cloak and nodded, “It is my honor, Lady d’Argent.” He gave her a low bow and stepped aside.

She then walked back to the manor alone, through the town of Milae. She hadn’t moved more than a hundred meters before one of the townsfolk rushed out of their home to her, with a warm cloak in hand. They draped it over her shoulders and walked with her. Soon enough, a militiaman had met up with them as well – and before she reached the manor it was a small cadre of citizens making sure she reached her home safely.

Before her father had sent her a message, before that hideous gift, if she was honest with herself, she had already made up her mind. Meeting Sarus didn’t change that. This was her duty to her family and his duty to his. If he was a brute she would still have her own name to fall back upon. Her father wanted to force her hand, but in truth, she had always wanted to be away from him. She was just lucky that this village was where she would end up. Milae had become like her home, her people driving her to want nothing more than to stay in the village. As she thought, she realized that wasn’t true. This place had become her home long ago.

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Marches – Chapter 06

Author’s notes – This is another Chapter in Marches that I am not particuarly proud of. Luckily, it isn’t from Mirabelle’s perspective, so it was going to get cut. When it was originally written, I did not have a good grip on who Sarus was, and as the writing went on his character shifted to something a bit different. He is still a wyvern, but his reputation became less of a violent one. The story isn’t necessary to the plot, and I don’t think it added that much. I tried later on to bring this plot back, but am not happy with how that turned out.

That said, I think Mirabelle learning about Sarus before meeting him is very important. This will be rewritten, but more of her finding out about him from the people of the village and the legends, rather than an actual story about him. I think that’ll make the introduction of Sarus more impactful in the following chapters. There isn’t much else to say about this chapter though. Pieces will survive, but it will be better to switch the perspective and change the style of learning about her future husband.

This chapter won’t be in the next draft, but as always I thought it might be a waste to just have it forgotten. I hope you enjoy.

Sarus Astier

Sarus Astier was not the usually young noble in many ways. His father began training him early to help take on court life, and before he was fifteen winters, he was already appearing in court. He had a knack for the art, it seemed. He was not unlike his father in that regard. He had a knack for finding weak points in others. However, he was hot-headed and tended to run his mouth before he had secured his win.

This gave him a bit of a reputation as having quite the bark, but he was often derided as not having much of a bite to his words. He was not a large and imposing man, and despite having raised quite a few objections and argued his points in court with his father, but he was rarely taken seriously. Still, he had become a very common feature of the courts in Vouivre. While at first, he was often alongside his father, he became more and more often seen on his own. His quick objections and unflinching and often open rebukes and arguments earned him a nickname quickly. He was soon known as le Chien, the Hound.

This seemed to bother him at first, and after a few years of court life, it did reach a boiling point. In one instance, another noble of the province goaded the young man into a confrontation. His constant pressing of an issue caused Sarus to lash out – despite the objections of his father. The act was particularly egregious as he had been in court with the Grand Duc de Vouivre, the highest-ranking noble of the province, and a member of the royal family by marriage. He was swiftly humiliated, in such a way that it took his father quite a bit of political capital to even get him safely out of the meeting.

Since then, Sarus had been relegated to local affairs, but he was not content with such things. He studied the man that had humiliated him. As his future wife arrived in Milae, he discovered the man was going to be in court again with the Grand Duc, and Sarus would not miss such an opportunity. And so, he traveled to the city of Iacessa, deep in the mountains of his homeland, with a single goal in mind. It was not a political move, nor something that would gain him any true benefit, but the Hound was on the hunt. The name would stick after this display.

Sarus reached the city of Iacessa early in the morning, just as the sun rose above the horizon. He wore a new mask at this time, a motif of the hound. He traveled with only two attendants, leaving his guards and servants back at his home. The message was clear when the first noblemen spotted him walking the dew-covered streets. He was here for himself.

Shortly after the first-morning meal, the young noble had arrived at the hold of the Comte de Iacessa, where the nobles of the region were meeting. The hold was only accessible by a large carven staircase laid into the mountainside. A large palatial manor was built on a small plateau, which is where the nobles met today. The guards held any who approached at the base of those great stairs. Sarus paused a few paces before reaching that final path. He did not come in under the banner of his house but declared himself as confidently as if he had a thousand men behind him.

“I am Lord Sarus Astier de Nid du Vouivre, known as le Chien by the men of the court. I am a servant of Grand Duc Marcomir Alaric de Nid du Vouivre, and of her Majesty.” He called out to the guards. “I am here to speak with Marquis Teias Valia de Precis.” He stood firm in his location, settling in for a long while. “I will await him here.”

Of course, the guards sent the message, but returned with the simple message of, “His honor Marquis Valia respects your bravery, but asks that you return home.”

To which, Sarus would bark a reply. “The Marquis must face me. By rights, I deserve to meet and speak with him. Should he not, I will remain here throughout the noble’s meet.”

The guards again took the message and returned with yet another reply. “Our master says, then you will wait. It will be a lesson in patience.”

“Please send the following message. So it shall be.” Sarus adjusted, “But I believe the lesson will be for others.”

“You have a lot to learn still, boy.” Was the response the guards brought after that.

“Sir, I humbly request that you refer to me in my official parlance.” The guards were growing tired of this as they jogged back up the stairs to give yet another message to the Marquis.

“Don’t be so quick to judge, little lord, after all, you are but a boy.”

“A boy who understands how to properly address his peers, marquis,” Sarus responded.

Every response, Sarus sent the guards to reply to him. Time and time again, they were bound to interrupt the noble meet to give the message to the Marquis. The other nobles would chuckle as the Marquis was flustered with each and worked to come back with a witty response. Still, it clearly wore on his demeanor. As other nobles argued points on defense and trade, he was distracted and every more and more frustrated. Finally, the Marquis had enough and asked to be excused.

This caused the Grand Duc to become annoyed with the situation himself. He agreed, but due to the situation, he told the Marquis he wanted to see him handle the young noble. So, the nobles took a recess and moved to the stairs.

“I see your patience reached its tipping point, Marquis.” Sarus barked from the bottom of the stairs. “Perhaps a refresher is in order?”

“Listen here, boy. You’ve had enough fun. You are interfering with royal business.” The Marquis shouted back at him.

“I merely meant to respond in a timely fashion to each of your requests. Our last meeting was unfortunate, and I’d like to be sure that we stay on the right foot moving forward.” Sarus smiled, though no one could see it. “Did the guardsmen disturb the meeting unduly?”

“Yes, of course, they did. At your order.”

“I made no such order. Guard’s, did I ask you to interrupt?” The young noble shouted. They shook their heads. He shook his head and motioned towards them.

“Implicit orders are still orders.”

“Yes, you know that very well, Marquis.”

There was a pause as the Marquis seemed a bit bothered by that response.

“While I have you here, I’d like to speak with you at your earliest convenience, Marquis. I will be in town if you would like.” Sarus raised his hands with a quiet bow.

The Marquis said nothing.

“About what?” Another noble asked, “Trying to get your honor back, little hound?”

Sarus shook his head, “No, my lord. I freely admit my mistakes. One of my villagers trades with a small hamlet known as Rianoll. It is in the Marquis’ territory.”

The Marquis’ eyes widened at the name, but he did not respond. Unfortunately, the response did not go without notice by some of the others.

The Grand Duc waved to a nearby attendant and said something, quietly with a displeased scowl crossing his lips.

“I have never heard of such a place.” The noble responded with a little smirk, “Why come all this way for a merchant?”

“In a town as small as Milae, every trade connection matters,” Sarus spoke softly. “I see the Marquis cannot speak about it now. Nothing will change if he takes his time. I can wait for answers. Rianoll isn’t going anywhere.”

“Surely the hound doesn’t come all this way without a purpose. You don’t have a banner with you.” One of the nobles seemed to realize. “You smelled blood, didn’t you? What is it about Rianoll that brings you here.”

“I wouldn’t dare. It is the Marquis’ territory.”

“There is nothing to tell. It is a small hamlet, not even on the maps or on any roads.” The Marquis finally spoke. “I can barely remember it is in my holds. What does it trade? I doubt you need timber.”

“They crafted the most wonderful glass. There was a man there of great talent. My man would bring fresh sands for his art.” Sarus responded.

The Marquis steadied himself and nodded, “Ah yes. I seem to remember some glass trinkets being traded in the towns. Some were sent as tax collection, I believe.”

“Kind of you to accept,” One of the nobles said as he adjusted out of the way of the returning attendant, who handed off a piece of parchment and a pen dripping ink to the Grand Duc, who wrote something down and returned the document down.

“Of course, they hardly grew enough food to support themselves.” The Marquis said softly, brushing a hand along his neck.

Sarus smiled a bit wider. Some of the nobles too had picked up on that particular word. The Grand Duc shook his head and handed the paperback.

“Sarus,” The Duc shouted. “Whatever you needed, wouldn’t have been easier to go to the village?”

“Yes, your grace. Except there were no maps I could find with adequate directions.” He responded. “So, I had the merchant take me.”

The Marquis stumbled back for a moment, his façade shifting quickly as he realized what was about to happen. He quickly interrupted. “Fine, Sarus, I’ll speak to you – let’s not waste any more of the meet’s time.”

“So, you don’t want them to know the village was a smoldering ruin?” Sarus barked up at him. “That the people tried to claw their way out of the shrine you boarded up?”

The Marquis stood as still as stone.

“Or maybe that it was over a stupid mistake. What exactly happened? Did she rebuff your advances? Maybe the glassmaker messed up a project?”

“None of this is true. This is just a thinly veiled attempt to damage my honor because I humiliated you. Admit it, boy.”

“No. This is because men under your house banner burned women and children alive.” Sarus shouted up at him. “I’ll admit, I stumbled on it because I wanted to find your dark little secret. I assumed you would have some hidden thing. Some pathetic perversion I could press you on that would make you snap, and everyone could see the petulant coward that was left when you broke.” He gave a nod. “I thought my father’s tactics would be more than enough. And let’s face it, you would have given me anything to have your little secret stay secret wouldn’t you?”

The nobles stepped away from the man, as he looked around for some semblance of support.

“I did keep one thing from my father’s teaching, though.” Sarus stepped forward. “I know the real secret. I know why you burned those people alive – why their screams haunt your every night’s sleep.” The hound pulled a scroll from his cloak and held it. He took a long breath. “And while these men are disgusted with your actions. You know what is in here – written for the Grand Duc to bring down your punishment.”

“You have nothing. This is all a farce.” The Marquis shouted, throwing his arms down quickly. “You besmirch my honor and try to bring ruin to my name. You accuse me of heresy and stand there like some savior. I will cut you down where you stand and bring an end to this charade.”

“I accept,” Sarus spoke simply, offering the parchment to one of his. “Swords – and if you want me silenced, I suggest you choose now as the time.”

“Then now it shall be.” The Marquis turned towards a guard. “Your sword.”

As the guard unhooked and handed over a sword, another noble spoke up to the Grand Duc, begging. “Stop them. There is no point to this bloodshed.”

“There is a point.” The Grand Duc said quickly. “Our people are bound by honor, and one of these men speaks the truth, and that will only be revealed as one of them lays bloodied on the ground. The duel has been called. We cannot stop it. To the death, with swords. As was spoken by the duelists.”

“Yes, but if…”

The nobles stopped speaking as the Grand Duc just raised a hand, “Just witness.”

The Marquis stepped down the stairs and drew the guardsman’s blade, tossing aside the scabbard as Sarus’ bodyguard offered over his own drawn blade to his master. The young noble just stood calmly waiting though, the broadsword held lightly in his left hand.

The Marquis reached the bottom of the stairs and shook his head. He raised the blade and gripped to the hilt tight with both hands. Sarus took a breath but didn’t seem to enter any sort of duelist’s stance. For a moment they just stared at one another before the Marquis rushed at the young noble. The young man was quick, though, and he ducked out of the way of the first swing. He brought the sword up to block the Marquis’ next strike, and then it was over. The hound’s blade slid along the Marquis’, and a finely timed twist pierced the long sword blade deep into his shoulder.

The Marquis screamed and dropped his blade as the arm went limp, and blood began to seep through his clothes and down the arm. He fell to his knees, and he shook his head. “How did you…?”

“You think everyone is lower than you. You attack from a high point, and when you miss, you strike low.” Sarus answered. “Your debates mirror your swordsmanship. Just like your pathetic little plots.”

“You don’t have anything.”

“Actually,” Sarus smiled, “You are right. I don’t.” He wanted to laugh for a moment and then shook his head. “You see, I sent my evidence ahead of me, but not just to the Grand Duc.” He whispered. “You’ve made more enemies than you know.”

“Sarus, the duel was to the death.” The Grand Duc bellowed. “Finish him.”

“With all due respect, your grace, I cannot do that,” Sarus replied, slashing his blade through the air to fling the blood from the tip. “While it brings me no great pleasure to let him live, I am to be married in a few months.”

“And why would that stop you?” The Grand Duc barked, an impressive and powerful voice for such a shriveled old man.

“I am marrying a daughter of Lune. While the Seas and Moon have no strict rules about honorable killings, they do have a ritual peace during the lunar year leading up to a union.” Sarus spoke with a slight bow. “I ask that you let him live, and face the pain brought to him by his action in a hamlet who believed him their protector.”

The Grand Duc was visibly displeased with that answer and shook his head wide. “Fine. I know who it is you marry, and I’d rather not order you to do something that may upset her father.” He waved at a guard, “Take the marquis, throw him in the dungeons. We’ll let him die there or string him up like the common bandit he is.” The guards snapped to the job given them, and the Grand Duc turned to the nobles. “We have a meet to finish. Back to the work.” The old man turned and gave a wave of his hand. He paused for a moment and turned back to Sarus. “Astier, do not let yourself forget where your loyalties lie. I’ll deal with Precis, but you press my patience and I will deal with you as well. Do you understand.”

“I will remember, your grace.” Sarus ended with a quiet bow.

Then the Marquis was dragged away, and Sarus gathered his things and left it at that. There was a change from the name le Chien after this event. He was no longer about his bark, but about the hunt and from then on he’d be known as Le Limier, the bloodhound. Now, it spoke to his hunt and the man’s unyielding drive to finish whatever had been started. His humiliation due to his quick actions was rapidly forgotten, and the rumors spread even before he was able to return home from that expedition. Most importantly, there was a distinction between the man and his father now.

For a long time, he was just a shadow of his father – and everyone expected him to work in much the same way. He had turned his father’s talent into something else though. Valamir had learned how to find weaknesses and exploit them. He had inherited that, for sure, but with much more of his mother’s aggressive stance. His father was an opportunist, but Sarus was a hunter – and once the hound smelled blood, he would seek it until he had the source squarely in his sights.

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Day Shift – Chapter 21

Chapter 21 – The End of the Year

Mattias had barely finished with an irate customer seconds before. Christmas had come and gone, and now it was that stretch between the holiday and the new year. It was a strange twist that very few people really understood. People had their gifts now and were trying to figure out how to use them or set them up – and they no longer felt the need to be polite. It would be a couple of weeks before it calmed down, but it was just as busy as it had been for the past week or so. It was tormenting, but the light at the end of the tunnel gave a bit of hope that it wouldn’t be forever. Those things would go back to normal soon.

As he leaned back, he worried that normal wasn’t what he wanted it to be. There was a dread to keep doing this. Even after the realization that these people were closer to him than he cared to admit. He took a breath and finally turned his head to the person that had drawn his attention. One of the Human Resources goons had shown back up at his cubicle and flagged him down. He saw the man waving at him and waiting for the call to end. He pulled off his headset and tossed it down on the desk.

“HR,” The vampire spoke with an unhappy smirk on his lips, “I guess we’re here to talk about the whole Eve, thing.”

“Something like that,” The HR man said with a twist of his forefinger into a come-hither motion before moving off towards Ed’s office.

For whatever reason, that really unsettled Mattias. Oh well, he assumed he was getting fired. One couldn’t throw down with a werewolf and not get fired. The camera’s caught the whole thing, so the police and district attorney had no intention of charging him with anything, sure. It was only fair that the company opted to fire him over it though. After all, he had spent Christmas in jail. Oh well. It was a good run. One he was happy with overall.

He took a breath and pushed himself back and away from his desk. “Alright, I’ll be back.” He glanced around and realized no one could hear him. He shook his head. He’d at least have to come back and get his stuff. He pointed down at his small and constant companion of a Lunchbox. “Stay.” He ordered before stepping up and heading out of the cubicles and into the hall. He kept getting stares from people as he passed by. Between the scarred up face, the shattered glass doors as a reminder, and the rumors, he couldn’t have guessed what exactly brought their attention to him.

He never liked meetings with HR. He was pretty sure no one did. And in this case, he expected it to be his last. He didn’t think he would have a job after the meeting. The look on the faces of the HR personnel waiting for him in Ed’s office. There were three of them, and he hadn’t ever seen them before. Each was dressed impeccably but in that meticulously designed way as to pretend to be a little more approachable. And they all watched him with the same level of bland disinterest that marked so many in their profession.

That was fine with him. They needed to be distant. It made their job easier, and frankly, he didn’t begrudge them for it. Well, maybe he did a little bit. He glanced into the glass out of instinct, trying to check his reflection. It was just a blur. There was nothing there to point out that he was anything but a smudge as far as he could tell. He could almost see through it now. That was a depressing realization. He would have liked to know if any part of him was still hanging off or was an obvious give away for him being a member of the undead.

He approached the door and took a moment to look back. He had grown to like this place, or rather the people inside of it. Now, he was kind of sad to see it go. He didn’t know what else to do now but go on in. He pushed open and stepped in, watching the three keep their eyes on his every single move. He’d make the first move.

“You wanted to see me?” He asked with a little nod of his head.

“Yes, Mr. Holland. We need to talk about your future with the company,” The middle Human Resources goon spoke up.

“Of course. That’s what I expected,” Mattias admitted.

“Most people,” The Left one said with a little nod out of the room, “Would not have come in today. They would have taken a few more days to recover, or may have even sought some sort of benefit from the company.”

“But you,” The Right person said quickly, “Are not most people, are you?”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Mattias felt a bit of defensiveness slide up his spine.

“Just that. You are not most people. You have scruples, and always seek to get the job done,” The Center spoke up again.

“We have to ask if you understand that your actions have consequences,” The Left added.

“And if you are prepared to accept those consequences.” The Right concluded.

Mattias was already tired of glancing back and forth between them. He didn’t like feeling as if he was being treated like a child as if they were buttering him up before tearing him down. He took a deep breath and waved a hand at them. “Yes, I did. Get to the point.”

“Company policy is to wait for security or the police.”

“And let one of my team get eaten by a lycan? I don’t think so.”

“There was no sign that she would have been injured. Until you intervened,” The Center spoke coldly, placing both hands on the desk and standing up.

“There was. Plenty before and at the time,” Mattias spoke, “I acted. I won’t apologize for that. Do what you have to do.”

The three stood quietly and looked at him for a moment.  They each gave a slow nod, and the center one turned towards him again. “And what is it that we should do?”

“Fire me, I assume.”

They all gave a quiet nod again before the Center smirked. “That would normally be what we would do. But today is not normal. You fought a Lycan to protect a team member, despite every bit of evidence pointing to the fact that you had no desire to be here. You’ve been an exceptional employee, even with your personal challenges. And a position has just opened up that we would like you to consider.”

Mattias didn’t trust them for a second, but he had to admit he was intrigued by the fact that he wasn’t getting fired. “What position?”

The Left and Right stepped away from the desk, as the Center took a step back, pulling with him the chair he had been sitting in. He waved across it, “This one.”

There was a moment when the vampire took them seriously, but then a smile crossed his lips and he let out a small laugh. “Ms. Chambers is the boss here, not sure how she’d take me sniping her position.”

“Ms. Chambers quit, effective this morning.” Both Left and Right spoke at the same time.

Mattias’ smile dissipated. “What, why?”

The three looked between one another, and then looked at him. Center cocked his head to one side, “I’m sorry, Human Resources can’t offer an answer to personal questions about employees. But, the position is open. It would come with a large jump in pay, a more flexible schedule, full benefits, and of course, your own private office.”

There was a moment of silence in the room. A pin could have dropped and sounded like a hammer. He had wanted to get away from all this, but now that he had started to feel attached he was having second thoughts. He likely needed stability. He needed to have a little extra cash flow and a more secure set of benefits now that he was progressing as far as he was. He never would have assumed this curse would have brought him to this point. He never thought it would trap him in a job he hated, and a cubicle farm he could have cared less to see again. The thought of security was hard to miss in his place. Every part that fell to pieces needed to be replaced and surgeons were expensive in the best of times. After all, discretion was the better part of valor, and his team needed a watchful eye.

Still, a minute to talk it over even with just himself would be a good plan. “Can I get back to you?”

“Sure, take the day,” Left responded.

“We just need an answer by tomorrow.”

The day finished and Mattias went home to consider the options. Of course, he spoke to Rory and Olivia about it. He didn’t want to talk to his team about it, but he did eventually ask Hal about it as well. All of them said the same thing. None of it helped. He had one more person he needed to ask about the job before he decided. One last person to talk to about it.

He was lucky that the weekend came fast, and with the new year stretching it a bit further, he wouldn’t need to be back to work for a while. It gave him time to do some research, to find out where Ed had gone. After a day or two of pestering everyone he knew that might have known where she was, he finally found himself standing on a sidewalk on a busy street. The same busy street he had met her on that night with Ava.

He tapped his knuckles against a glass door, the dim-lit building completely abandoned, but recently cleaned. There was a light flickering in the back of the building and after a few moments, Ed appeared from one of the doors. He gave her a little wave, and she waved back. He took a step back as she moved to the door.

She looked different. She wasn’t as sharp. She was smiling, spattered with paint and wearing loose-fit clothes. Her hair was a mess, barely staying in the loose ponytail she had pulled up recently if the small streaks of paint on the strands of hair were anything to go by. He kind of liked her better like this, though he didn’t quite understand it yet.

She pushed open the door, “What are you doing here, Mattias?”

“I heard you were here, so I had to see for myself,” He said with a grin and a nod to her. “So you decided to go your own route,”

She nodded, “Yes. I quit after your… well, fight. Put my entire savings into it. Probably stupid…” She waved in, “But I had to try. Want the tour?”

“Sure.”

“What about you?” She asked, “Human Resources told me you were their pick to replace me.”

“Yeah, that’s what they told me too,” He said with a nod. He stepped into the building and glanced around. “So downtown, easy for people to get to, close to a busy street for students and things. You’re going through with your plan, right?”

“Might as well try. Right?” She smiled over at him. Her hands waved out and gave a quick image, “I figure I can get this well lit, well painted, offer something like coffee or ice cream or whatever. You know. Give people a safe place to find themselves.” She paused for a minute. “I know it’s not much yet. I’m still painting, and then I have to get the floors…”

“No, I see what you’re saying. It’s a good open room, plenty of light fixtures…” He shook his head. “A little work will go a long way. I have faith in you.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have expected to hear that from you,”

“Really? I thought we bonded pretty well as things went on.”

“Good, I’m glad. I thought we did too.”

He took a breath. He was going to say something else, but she beat him to a question.

“Like the new gig?” She asked with a sly tilt of her head.

“Wouldn’t know.”

“Haven’t started yet?” She asked.

“No,” He said taking a deep breath. “I quit.” He said with a little nod, “I’ve only got one life, turns out. Not going to waste it there.”

“What are you going to do instead?”

“Well, I was hoping you might be willing to listen to a proposition. I had this dream I kept putting off, and with a friend starting down the same path… I thought I might tag along.” He said. Her smile widened a bit, and she gave a nod. That was the beginning of his new life, and there was nothing about it that didn’t terrify him. It was better than wasting away though.

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Day Shift – Chapter 20

               Mattias stared at the blank wall behind him, the cold stone a welcome distraction from the constant roaring hum of the industrial fan set up just on the other side of the cold county prison cell he found himself sitting in. They had been kind enough to set up a heater behind it for the other people in the cell, and it was set low enough that it was only a nuisance. It was incredibly uncomfortable, though, feeling the force cycled air pushed against the bare bones of his upper arm and jaw. It chipped away at him with a relentless constancy that would have irked him under normal circumstances, but under these, it made him anxious and it made him itch.  He assumed the latter was due to the dust in the gaping open wounds he had, but he wasn’t sure. It could have been that itching for the blood he had lost.

               It had not endeared him to the other prisoners, that was for sure. The constant wind was uncomfortable for everyone stuck here. Mostly, it was drunk folks who had been enjoying their Christmas Eve a little too much. Or succumb to the loneliness of the holiday season. Either way, this is where they ended up. Of course, to them, it was a bit more hellish, as they were sharing a tank with a broken and torn up undead.

               Luckily, Hal had been put in the tank with him too, at least after a couple of hours. He went to the hospital to get checked out first with a nice police escort before being brought out to the station to serve his time there until the district attorney or a judge was available to set up their possible crimes and come up with whether they were going to be charged. Even the police seemed to agree it would be a self-defense situation, and that they shouldn’t expect to hard of a fight from the DA or authorities. Still, they were going to be treated like criminals.

               So, here, on Christmas eve, he sat staring at the wall with a fan blowing his clothes and hair all about him in a torrent of discomfort designed specifically to keep him from turning to mist and floating away harmlessly. Though, he had no such plan to do so. That would just make the situation worse, though he had to admit, he wondered how they would even be able to book him, or anything given that they couldn’t take a picture of him.

               It was an odd way to spend Christmas Eve. He mostly sat against the walls, and eventually adjusted to glance out and around himself from time to time. The others here were as pathetic as he was, asleep on benches in a county jail cell waiting for a chance to get out and go back to whatever it was their lives held for them. He didn’t know, he didn’t talk to any of them except Hal, but they all looked as excited with the idea of going forward in life as he felt.

               He didn’t really look forward to anything. He didn’t regret his actions, of course, but he didn’t quite understand the way things unfolded. He was having to conclude that he cared about his team. They were his friends, or as close to friends as he had nowadays. Aside from Rory and Olivia. He even kind of cared about Ava, as weird as she was. He hoped he hadn’t drained too much, but she was able to call the cops, so he supposed he hadn’t.

               It was a long night. He couldn’t sleep for a variety of reasons, but most of them were vampiric in nature. He wasn’t in his comfortable environment, his lair. There were a lot of little aspects that made it uncomfortable here. The smell of others, the fact that he wasn’t near any of his supplies, and that he was already in poor shape.

               But it didn’t matter.

               He had done what he needed to do and now he was being punished for it, and the world kept spinning as it always did.

               That was the thing, he supposed. That’s what bothered him. Nothing would change, he felt. Not in a way that mattered to him in a lot of ways. Ashley might be a little better off, and that was good, but would she just go straight back to work? Straight back to the same old job she hated. He’d fall into the same trap most likely. He always did. Things would come along that were just similar enough that he could settle for them. He always settled.

               He drifted off for a few minutes. He honestly didn’t know how long. There wasn’t a dream or anything similar.

               “Vampire,” An officer called out, rapping his knuckles against the bars of the little local jail. “Good news and bad news.”

               Mattias didn’t feel like turning around but forced himself too. His eyes squinted in the wind as he tried to look out to the guard. Try as he might, though, the winds made him look away.

“Bad news is the DA won’t be back until next Tuesday, so your sentencing is going to be a bit.” The officer hadn’t even asked which he wanted if any of it. He just started in on his explanations when the opportunity arose for him. “Good news is your lawyer is here,”

“That would be good news if I had a lawyer,” Mattias spoke as he stretched.

“Mattias, I’ve always got you covered,” Rory’s voice came from behind the officer, as he stepped out into view, well dressed in a fine and expensive suit, complete with tie and cufflinks. He looked as if he had just walked in from a deposition or a courtroom, though it was well into the wee hours of Christmas morning. “Can you turn off this fan, Officer? If he was going to escape, you don’t really think this would help do you?”

“He can turn into mist.”

“It’s not mists, its an incorporeal form and the refraction of the light in the ectoplasmic residue makes it appear as mist to the uninitiated,” Rory corrected as he pulled a hand from his pant pocket, “I have a few courses I can suggest if you and your officers would like to get more acquainted with non-humans,”

“No thanks,” The officer said nothing else but did reach over to turn off the industrial fan.

The sudden lack of fan noise was almost disconcerting in a way, but that infernal itching stopped quickly after, and Mattias had to admit that it

“Halil too,” Rory pointed to the sleeping Hal, who was twisted awkwardly around one of the cell benches. “Matt, if you’d wake him up.”

“You’ll have to fill out his paperwork separately…”

“I understand how paperwork is done,” He waved his hands across his suit, “Note the lawyer suit,” He grinned, “Let them out and I’ll get all that done,” Rory spoke before walking back off towards the front office of the station.

Mattias shook Hal awake. “Hal,” He said a couple of times as the barred door was pulled open.

His old manager groggily sat up, quietly stuttering out a bit of a word or two, but none that were fully formed yet.

“Rory’s getting us out, come on,” Mattias said, tapping him lightly on the shoulder.

The men both stood and stretched and walked out of the cell on their own volition. The officer just waved them down the hall. Neither said anything, but both were as relieved as they could be to be out of that place. It would still be another quiet half-hour, or maybe a full hour. It was hard to say, really. Again, he couldn’t help but doze off a little bit from time to time, and Hal didn’t help. The man sat down in the lobby and fell right asleep. Again, he was sitting alone. But again, he felt like, at least for the first time in a long time, he wasn’t actually alone. And on Christmas, that was a nice feeling.

“Come on,” Rory spoke as he entered the room and wandered on past them. “Let’s get you guys fed. They haven’t fed you, right?”

“What?” Hal spoke as Mattias helped him walk up and get standing. “Hey, Rory,”

“Hey Hal,” Rory smirked and gave him a nod, “So, food?”

“Food sounds good,” Hal said with a groggy yawn and nod.

“Where’s open?”

“There’s one of those twenty-four-hour diners across the street,” Rory said with a clear hand motion in what Mattias assumed was that direction, “I go there a lot of nights like tonight when clients do something stupid. Usually, they’re buying me dinner, though.”

“I can pay,” Mattias spoke, “Least I could do.”

“I was kidding,” Rory shook his head, “Come on, my car’s just outside.” The man yawned and marched out of the jail’s lobby, a few folders tucked under his arm. He didn’t wait for them, but it didn’t take too long for Mattias and Hal to fall into step behind him.

Just as he said, his car was just outside. He wasn’t one to show off, so there was just an older mid-sized sedan waiting for them. Mattias looked up when he stepped outside but kept walking towards the car. He climbed in, and there wasn’t a conversation. There was just a short drive. There was the darkened sky, his natural habitat. The stars, while dimmed by the light of the city, were pretty visible. And it was quiet. Unnaturally quiet. The city was asleep. Families were resting and waiting for the big day tomorrow. No one was waking up early to rush to the gym, no one was having trouble falling back asleep before work. There was a peace to the air that couldn’t be denied. There always was this time of year.

All in all, humans had a habit of sucking the fun out of everything. Humans embodied the seven deadly sins more than any of the non-humans. He struggled to survive, trying his best to be a decent person, fighting against his personal challenges. Everyone did that. Every single person on the planet had their challenges, but then nights like tonight came along. Christmas Eve. There wasn’t that worry. People weren’t bogged down by their usual struggles, not as much. Yes, there were outliers. An abusive partner could ruin the thought of holidays. A bigoted family who didn’t want to see you because of your life choices. Those things happened. Those were part of the challenge.

There was still hope, though. Hope that humanity would prevail, that the holidays would bring out the best of people. He needed to be reminded of that sometimes, and Rory showing up in the middle of night to bail him out of jail was one of those reminders. Perhaps not as big of one as the crowd waiting at the dinner for them.

As the car pulled up to the diner, he saw that the parking lot was full. As Mattias stepped out of the car with Hal and Rory, the trio walked up and stepped up onto the sidewalk outside of the diner. It was one of those old places that were always open, where the cooks made the food for you on a slab just behind the counter and waitresses always said hello when you entered. The food was greasy and perhaps not the best food ever, but on late nights like this it was very welcome.

And there, waiting for them to arrive was a table full of familiar faces. Olivia caught his eye first, a habit he still couldn’t break. But she sat next to Ashley, who was trying her best to understand how Olivia’s purse could communicate with her. An older couple sat next to her, her parents perhaps. They shared a lot of features. He could see the back of Lindsay’s head too and even spotted Maddox jogging back to the table with wet hands.

“Well, what’s all this?” Mattias asked.

“You should’ve asked for your one phone call,” Rory said as they paused outside the door. He sighed and turned around to face Mattias. Hal paused as well. “Luckily for you, you have people that want to watch out for you.”

“So, Ashley called Ol..”

“It doesn’t matter who called who, or any of that,” Rory said with a smirk. “Maybe, just maybe, you should try leading by example more often.” He took a breath. “I’ll sew you back together tomorrow morning, alright. Anyone who is going to freak out with skeleton Matt showing?”

Mattias watched as Maddox paused, giving time for someone to move off the boot. Ava popped out of the booth with a little bit of a bounce, and her eyes just happened to catch a glimpse of him. He couldn’t hear her but he saw her mouth move. She gave an excited bounce on her toes and rushed towards the door. That got everyone moving towards the door. He even spotted Ed, letting others go before her.

“I’m not worried about it. I don’t think this crew sees the vampirism,” He spoke with a little smile. “At least, not tonight.”

“Not ever,” Hal spoke up with a smile before he pushed open the door.

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 19

Eve

For the next week, work was hellish. Then came that fateful day. The one that every countdown had been working towards. All around the nation people sat and prepared to spend one of the most revered days of the year with their families. For the most part, after a week of relentless calls, it made the day relatively straight forward. It was no less busy than any other, but it was much less painful. Most of the questions and comments moved from trouble to happy people just wanting to make sure something got set up correctly to make the holiday go off without a hitch. It was much more doable. No less busy, but a much more pleasant sort of busy.

Still, by the time lunch finally rolled around to give him a break, Mattias was in a state. His throat hurt and he didn’t want to talk anymore. He just wanted to walk off the conversations for a while and be out of the office. So, he went out into the halls, outside his company’s office, and he walked in circles. He tried drinking his bottle as he walked. He was going slow though. Between the daylight from random windows he passed by, and general nausea from dealing with people all day, it was slow going. He made sure to finish the bottle before he finished his walking in circles. He couldn’t risk losing control again. And he wouldn’t.

From time to time, he’d stand in the hall and just concentrate on sucking the blood out of the bottle for a few seconds. At least on one occasion he awkwardly locked eyes with some worker from another company and gave him a friendly single nod. He was kind of curious if the man knew what he was doing. It wasn’t a common thing, and the bottle was just red-colored with minimal branding, so it wasn’t like he was out in the open drinking blood. Still, it was an odd thing to do, he thought. It must have been at least a little morbid for those around him too, but he really wasn’t sure what he could do about it. The only real alternative was to lose control and drain people, and that would be much worse. So, really, he wasn’t sure why in the world he felt like it was awkward to choose this option.

Either way, his break came to an end. His pocket vibrated as the alarm on his phone went off, giving him the two-minute warning on his time, and he let out a defeated sigh. He began to schlep his way back to his office. He was in no hurry and had no desire to return to work. So, he took his time. A minute or two late wouldn’t hurt anyone.

When he came back through there was a woman at the counter talking to Ava. He thought about passing on by, but a burst of familiarity with the brunette and the look on the receptionists face both made him linger for a second. The lady turned towards him with a sort of scowl. She was annoyed about something.

“Can I help you?” Mattias spoke up softly, turning on his customer’s voice and adding a little smile.

“I’m looking for Ashley Tran. I need to talk to her.” The woman said. He couldn’t quite put a finger on where he knew her from. Her voice wasn’t familiar to him.

His eyes turned to Ava, who just shook her head and shrugged. There was something else there though. “It is Christmas Eve so she…”

“I know she’s here. And I want to talk to her. I’ll go back there myself to get her if I have to.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’ll check for you,” He replied. The tone the woman had didn’t instill him with any trust, though. “Anything I can pass along to her about who was asking to speak to her?”

“I just need to talk to her,” The woman turned and stared straight into the vampire’s eyes. She bore a hole in him with her look, anger virtually dripping out of the air around her.

“Okay, fair. Business or personal?” He continued, though there was enough snark in his voice to be picked up. Enough that her eyes narrowed deeper on him. A shame that he lacked the empathy most humans enjoyed. He was tired, and with his human parts still recovering, he couldn’t quite find the courage to give in to the worry he knew he should have felt.

“Personal.” She spat the word at him.

“Okay, I’ll see what I can do. Ms. Mays, would you be kind enough to treat the lady to some coffee or cookies or anything she needs,” Mattias said as he walked off and through the doors.

“I don’t want any treats,” The woman howled after him.

He didn’t see poor Ava’s response. It wasn’t the first irate customer she had to deal with. Or team member. Or whoever this lady was. He didn’t care. He walked back to his desk and paused at the edge of the cubicle. Every one of his agents was sitting and talking to a guest or team member and going just as hard as they could go. He walked over and set his bottle on Ashley’s desk, which caused her to look up at him. She never flinched or changed her tone of voice with the guest. She was on a roll, and she just kept going.

He took a pad of paper and jotted down a quick message. Someone up front to see you. Seems pissed.

He didn’t need to write anymore. She just nodded and went back to the phone call. That was good enough for him. He stretched and moved towards his desk, but then the curiosity got the better of him. He tried to remember where he had seen the woman before. He couldn’t put a finger on it. He thought about it for a moment and decided to walk back up to the front and talk to her.

He was surprised when he saw Hal there talking to her already. He wasn’t against it. A couple of managers was better than one, after all. Especially at calming down an irate guest. He hustled a bit to get to the door quicker and pushed it open in time to hear some words.

“You aren’t welcome here,” Hal didn’t pull out a stern voice often, but with a confident point to the exit. “Now, leave.”

Mattias started to say something, but then he noticed the blurred reflection on the brass of the receptionist’s desk, with Hal’s reflection being fine. His heart sank a bit. She looked taller than when he left too, but surely that was just in his mind or the way she was standing.

“I want to talk to her now, and I won’t take no from some random jack off,”

“Whoa, that escalated. What the hell is going on here?” Mattias held up his hands.

“Fine, Ava, call security,” Hal ordered the receptionist, who was nervous.

“This fat ass won’t let me talk to my girlfriend,”

“Girlfriend?” Mattias said quietly. Suddenly he saw it all come back together in his mind. She was the woman he spotted on the texts. He had seen her here before. And, then there was Thanksgiving. “Hal’s right, you need to leave. Now.”

She gritted her teeth. There was a visible vein on her neck for a moment, and her face twisted to an angry red. Hal gave a nod of his head, “We know all about your anger problems, so why don’t you,”

He never finished the sentence. The woman raised a hand and backhanded Hal. There was a sickening slap and it knocked him off his feet. Then another sickening snap as the woman’s leg twisted and shattered, growing and reforming. Then it got worse. Her face twisted, her nose tore and twisted, a maw growing out of her face and fur beginning to sprout from every visible point of skin. This wasn’t some movie like transformation where she stood still though. She stomped forward on mismatched legs. One hand, half transformed to a claw reached out and caught Mattias by the throat and she lifted him off the ground with no trouble what-so-ever. He might as well have been a doll. Then the transforming lycan threw him.

Not just tossed him aside. Threw him. She launched him back and hard, and he slammed into and through the glass doors that separated the foyer from the cubicle farm. He rolled limply up against one of the nearby cubicles in a shower of shattered glass shards.

“Mattias!” He heard Ava’s voice. By the time he looked up to see where she was, Hal was back on his feet. He was bravely if stupidly doing his best.

The heavyset man charged the werewolf with all his might and heft, catching her in a tackle rather low. With only one leg transformed she was easy to bring down in that first second. She kicked him off of her and tossed him up and onto a nearby chair like a ragdoll.

Ava had taken the opportunity to run out of the foyer and over to the vampire’s side, “Are you okay?”

“I just got thrown through a glass door, Ava…” He muttered as he pushed himself up. “Get out of here, get to Ashley. Call the damn cops while you’re at it.” He said quickly.

“Right, what… you’re going to fight?”

“Gotta save Hal.” He said quickly, before standing up. She stood too, and then an idea crossed his mind. This fight wouldn’t be fun. “I hate to ask, but do you mind if I get a boost?”

“A boost…?” She asked before she saw him bear his teeth. Even in this situation, the sudden realization excited her more than he would have liked. “Oh, fuck yes,” She said as she pulled her hair away from her neck.

He didn’t wait for further permission. He just leaned forward and latched onto her neck. She let out a noise that was too close to euphoric for him, or this situation, as his venom began to slip into her veins and he pulled forth some of her life force.

Now frozen donated blood was sustaining for him. He didn’t need to worry about that. But fresh blood. Fresh blood was an entirely different thing. And from a neck, there was so much. He felt a warmth in his veins he hadn’t felt in years, a flow of energy stolen from a willing victim. It was invigorating. Dangerous. But invigorating. He released her neck and watched the woman slumped over for a second, taking a moment to catch her breath and let herself restore a bit of energy. Looking down at her, he could not help but want to drink more, even if the woman and her obsession bothered him to no end. He gave her a light smack on her shoulder.

“Do me a favor and call the cops,” He spoke as he sat up and cracked his knuckles.

She gave a nod but didn’t say anything. He didn’t look back. He just trusted she would do what he asked. In the meantime, he turned his attention back towards the danger that awaited him. There before him was a pissed off woman, half-way transformed into her lycanthropic form. Her body was still twisting. Bones and ligaments tore and twisted, snaps and disgusting tearing sounds were light on the air. He stepped forward back into the room and dusted himself off.

“Sorry I gendered you,” He asked coldly, his eyes twisting up to the massive beast. “I just assumed Ashley’s loser with a temper was a guy.”

She snarled down at him and it seemed the fight was on.

Now, it was important to remember that there was no glory in fighting. That this had devolved into hand to hand combat was a great failure on his part, and he knew it. Then again, he knew what she had done to Ashley and personally he thought she deserved a beating. He had a good line in mind too. His celerity would be perfect to slip in and out of her blows, to bob and weave, and launch small attacks of his own when he had an opening. Then he’d coolly ask if she was done yet once she was visibly winded. A solid line, a good plan, he was ready.

Of course, no he wasn’t. No one was ever ready for a fight. No plan ever survived being introduced to someone else. He was reminded of that when she pounced him, and once again caught him in one great paw. She tackled him to the ground without hesitation and dragged his head up in preparation to slam it back down.

After his head was put through one of the floorboards he realized he should have done something smarter. Turn to mist maybe. That would have been good. Luckily for him, she assumed he was dead. She was right, but off on her timing. She bounded forward, towards the cubicles – but that was something he couldn’t have. He closed his eyes and his body rose from the ground without a movement, carried by the solemn winds of the grave back to his feet.

He pushed off from the floor with one foot, and he was on her within a second. He didn’t have a catchy phrase to give to her right then. He just grabbed her by the back paw, and with a moment of undead strength, he yanked her back and threw her with all of his might.

She did not go as far as he had hoped. He was hoping for a heroic throw where she flew back across the foyer and through the glass doors. But no. She just toppled a few feet and scrambled onto all fours, charging him once again with her teeth bared. That was enough to let his instinct take over and when she reached him he was just a cloud of mist. She tried to snap at him, but traveled right through him, tumbling against the pathetic cloth and board wall of the nearest cubicle – which startled a few people beyond.

“Hah, missed me,” Mattias spoke as he reformed in the lobby. “Ah, damn. Mist. Mist me. Shit.” She turned with a howl and rushed back towards him. That warranted another move from him, and with his unnatural speed, he slipped away from that charge. He didn’t realize how quickly she could pivot, though, and she very quickly caught him in the side as he tried to turn to face her. Her momentum, even staggered by the change in direction, was more than enough to slam him hard into the receptionist’s desk. That snarling maw snapped at him and caught him in the cheek, tearing flesh from bone.

He had plenty of blood in him at the moment though. The pain wasn’t there, just a feeling of anger. He slashed at her with his claws, fingers across her arm. A small spray of blood and a howl from her was all he needed to get a little wiggle room. She wasn’t holding as tight with the wound, and that let him send a swift kick to her knee. His enhanced strength was more than enough to add another sickening snap to the series that had been filling the room. He did not enjoy the feeling or the sound, or her angry howl afterward.

She snapped at him again, and he tried to dodge and pull away from her. Her teeth sank into his upper arm, and he didn’t have time to change his mind on pulling away. Instead, he pulled his arm out of her teeth, causing his flesh and cloth to be ripped away like it was nothing. It left only a bloody bone and some hanging flesh on his arm, and the wolf spit out the flesh, her maw twisted into a look he could only describe as ravenous.

He raised the now partially skeletal arm and pointed at her. “We can stop this anytime, you just need to calm down.”

He should’ve left that last part off. She roared and charged at him, and he bolted towards the foyer door in response, with the werewolf right on his heels. At least she was concentrating on him for now. He pushed through the doors and into the hall, not glancing back as he heard shattering glass. He wasn’t sure what he was doing exactly. Leading her away, he thought. So he headed down the hall towards the stairs. When he reached the fire exit he kicked open the door and vaulted over the side and down the stairs.

His little bit of levitation let him snake his way between floors, hitting the ground on the first floor after falling a few stories, while the wolf was bounding down levels of stairs one at a time. He ran through the door into the foyer and waved off the nearest work. “Go, leave,” He yelled before he turned to see a couple of police officers, “Oh, thank god, she,”

He felt an odd sensation. Two small pricks, then searing pain and his body locking up hard. He twitched and collapsed to the ground, convulsing as one of the police officers loosed every ounce of juice into him from his taser. Luckily, they seemed prepared, because as soon as that werewolf ran through that door, she met the exact same fate.

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Marches – Chapter 05

Author’s Notes – I am reluctant to post this chapter. I hate how this chapter turned out in its first draft. I would have preferred it lay forgotten. But, there is an importance in showing mistakes. Or, I guess more importantly for me, I need to be willing to show those mistakes. This chapter is very important though. Romi becomes Mirabelle’s closest friend in her new home, and gives her a bit of a sense of normalcy. Despite the fact that Romi is not a Noble in the eyes of many. She becomes her confidant, and appears again throughout many of the future stories.

For this chapter, I did a lot of removing. The fight in this chapter was confusing and unnessecary, so in my first rewrite of this chapter removed it. It changed it to a simpler style where our Fox hunts down the Licorn off screen, and meets Mirabelle after finding them. In addition, I decided against killing both off. They were never mentioned again after this chapter in the first draft, and that felt like a waste. So, I’ve changed that. Other changes include pulling characters a little closer to their later characterizations, since I have a better grip on them, and detailing some sections to fit better with the story’s thematics.

I may add the second version of this chapter to the website, but I haven’t decided yet. For now, I am just posting this version. I do not like this version, and I am not proud of it. But, it was a first draft. And that is the building block of any part of a story. I hope you enjoy some elements of this part of Marches.

Fair Winds,

Museless Bard

The Fox’s Bastard

Mirabelle had found herself at home in the village faster than she had expected. The people of Milae were incredibly cordial to her, with an excitement to have her that she never saw in any of the people who visited her old home. She never knew the people of the villages outside of Towers at the Temple, but here – she was already getting to know people. Only a few weeks had passed before she had found a few she could genuinely rely on to help her with a great deal of her required tasks in this new life. Ervig, specifically, had been essential in helping bring her information about the region.

She had been lucky that the Astier owned two manors, as well. They had a fortified home atop a nearby hill, which was built across a river tributary and was where the family actively lived. But Chateau Ronic, where she currently lived, was the home of one of the middle Astier ancestors. From what she gathered, the eponymous Ronic was a leader of the village but otherwise detached from the family affairs. However, while the others were off at war, she was able to defend the village from an opportunistic attack. The villagers held it up as one of the pillars of their relationship with the family.  It seemed the family mostly used the manor as a place to stay when visiting the village now, but for the time being, it was hers to do with as she pleased.

She kept herself busy learning about the region and its people but made time for meals with Tienette. While she did not connect much further with Valamir, she did spend quite some time with Sarus’ younger sister, Cynewise – though she always went by Cyne. The two did not enough together for Mirabelle to consider her a close friend, of course, but she could easily see her becoming one in the future. Still, this isolation made her feel rather lonely. One day, that feeling began to gnaw at her more than usual, and she decided that she needed to leave the residence and go about in town, in hopes of clearing that fog from her mind.

So, with Coralie and Bastien behind her, she ventured out into the village once again. It was a day like any other in the town. A few traders had come into town that morning, as they did every few weeks. It was a time when she could get a few items she didn’t normally have access to – mostly dried goods from the coast, in this case. Still, she enjoyed looking. Every once in a while she would find something from home that helped her feel a bit more grounded. It was a challenge for her to avoid simply buying up more than she needed too, but luckily Coralie was always nearby with a reminder about her stipend.

Today was not unlike any other. The sun peeked through the leaves of the trees scattered throughout the village giving a little bit of warmth on an otherwise blustery day, as the summer season faded into autumn. The people were happy though, the sun and early stages of harvest beginning keeping spirits high, despite the colder day. She spent some time chatting with some local villagers as she passed through, still impressed that she was greeted well nearly every time. Of course, there were outliers. A few villagers had let it slip that they’d prefer an outsider not be joining their ruling family – but she had expected that sentiment to be the most common.

Instead, even only a few months in. She found herself walking the streets of the village with the same confidence she might have strolled the temple. While speaking to the baker, though, her ear caught a warning.

“Look out!” A villager’s voice pierced the otherwise peaceful day. There was a distinct, sharp screech of someone in trouble, then the sound of a scared or wounded horse.

Mirabelle felt a heavy hand on her back, the gauntlet edges pressing into her spine and forcing her back. Bastien may have said something, but it was impossible to tell. There was the distinct sound of steel leaving scabbard. On her other side, Coralie and falling back against her as well, both pushing her back and into the merchant’s stall. She barely had a chance to look to see the trouble. A pair of large draft horses had been startled, or maybe injured. She couldn’t tell. Their drivers tried desperately to get them back under control. Then there was a distinctive snap, the leather of their reins giving way under the stress. One of the drivers fell back at the change in force, losing his footing and smashing to the ground with a scream. His partner was startled, and the second horse’s reins were lost. Both horses tore forward. The cracking of wood followed as they stripped free of the cart.

Then the animals rushed forward down the street, panicked. Little was more dangerous than a frightened animal, and a massive draft horse on a busy street was a genuine threat. When they rushed down the street, people scattered. Mirabelle saw the creatures rush at a villager, one raring up and striking out with its front hooves. Luckily, the villager had been able to dart out of the way, but they moved fast towards the other villagers. One villager fell near one of the horses, who kicked back. “Bastien!” Mirabelle’s voice broke through the noise.

The old templar didn’t hesitate. When her voice called, he pushed off from her and rushed towards the villager. He raised his sword, both hands firmly gripping the hilt of the old weathered blade and raising it as a spear. With a yell, he met his mark – the blade sinking into the draft horse as it raised up with a sickening sound. The templar followed through, pushing his entire weight into the beast. He was not a small man, but the beast was enormous. He pushed with everything he had and tilted the thing just enough to knock it back and away from the villager crawling to their feet. The villager let out a scream as the horse hit the ground next to it, with the templar now atop it.

That was all the opening that Mirabelle needed. She pushed past Coralie and rushed out to the villager on the ground. She gripped the villager’s hand and helped him up. Her handmaiden was right behind her, though. As soon as the villager had started to climb to his feet, she felt Coralie hit her in the back – hard. She and the villager stumbled forward, and she turned to see the handmaiden rolling out of the way of the other angered horse.

“Coralie!” Mirabelle yelled back to her as her eyes caught a glimpse of Bastien pulling his sword out of the creature and stepping away. Then she realized her mistake. One of the draft horses, the one still standing, had rounded back around to face down the small foreign handmaiden armed with nothing but a dagger. And the other rolled back to its feet, despite the blood pumping out of the sword wound in its chest.

She saw it then, the bright white bone at the center of each horse’s skull.

“They’re licorn.” Mirabelle almost laughed with a mix of excitement and fear. They were not just frightened and scared animals. They were unicorns, their horns carved off their skulls and forced into service as draft animals. They were bred for war, fighters from the day they stood to their deaths. She felt a hand on her shoulder, then another, the villagers pulling her back and off the street and to a nearby building.

Bastien steadied himself and took a few steps back. His stance changed, his center set and ready for the oncoming charge. “Coralie, can you get to safety?”

“I’ll try.”

“Go left.” He ordered as the two unicorns charged at them. Both dodged to the left. Bastien’s blade swung up as he was passed by the creature. Coralie had rolled away, taking a swipe but her blade didn’t seem enough to cut through the creatures hide without getting closer, and her goal now was to run and protect her lady. As soon as she was clear, she did just that. Leaving the Templar alone.

The Licorne did not hesitate to rush at him, recognizing he was the only threat against them at the moment. The templar swung at the first to rush him, ducked away from the second, and resettled just before they rushed again. It was the only strategy that would work here, but these creatures were smart. After only the second rush, the one he dodged past stopped short and kicked with its hind legs. The powerful hooves hit the man’s armored back and sent him crashing forward. The wind was clearly knocked out of him, and the second creature turned about to make another run. Then there was a whistle and another. Two arrows struck the creature in its wound, sinking deep, and causing it to stagger.

An archer at the end of the street stood, another arrow knocked into the simple bow. A man stood a few steps ahead of the archer, with a wooden spear readied and waiting. The archer didn’t slow down for a second. As soon as that arrow was knocked, it loosed and a whistle followed. The target had changed, striking the uninjured licorn square in the flank. It let out a pained noise and then turned to the new target, rushing down the street towards its new threat.

Bastien was able to pull himself to his knees as it started its charge and brought his sword around with everything he had left in him. The blade found its mark, cleaving the back leg off the creature. The severed limb toppled harmlessly to the ground, and the Licorn itself lost is balance and stumble, crashing to the ground. Another arrow struck it as it fell, this time square in the head. The spearman rushed for and quickly finished the job with a powerful thrust into the creature’s chest. The other unicorn fell to the ground and struggled to keep itself up. After another minute it gave up and collapsed, its breathing slowing and fading.

Mirabelle rushed out to Bastien, who was climbing to his feet slowly but surely. Coralie stayed close but kept her blade drawn and her body between the archer and her lady.

“Bastien, are you alright?” Mirabelle asked as she helped him steady himself.

“I’ll live to fight another day.” He said with a bit of a panting breath, “You stay put next time.”

“Announce yourself,” Coralie’s usually soft voice barked out at the archer as she approached.

“This is Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane.” The spearman barked back. “I am her guardsman, Alain.”

Mirabelle glanced up, but what she saw was not what she expected.

Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane carried a simple bow, ashen in color with a frayed bowstring. She wore clothes more suited to a hunter than a noble. She had a simple hide and fur cloak and worn and somewhat ragged clothes. The only mark of nobility on her was the pendant necklace she wore. Moreover, the woman was unimpressive, and if she was honest, a bit odd. Her face was round, with puffy cheeks and a small chin. In a way, it looked as if the bottom half of her face ended a little bit earlier than it should have. With thick, bright lips and large eyes, it just made that even more the case. Her form otherwise was thin, more so than it needed to be, and she was not particularly tall, and would not have been tall enough to draw back a longbow well.

“Thank you for your assistance, Lady Cedolin,” Bastien said with a bow of his head. “I fear it might not have gone well without you.”

“I’m just happy I was able to help.” She spoke with a mousey voice, high pitched and quiet, but quickly spoken. She gave a little bow of her own as she handed her bow over to Alain. “And you are?”

“I am Sir Avent Bastien, templar of Lune and protector of Lady Mirabelle d’Argent.” He said motioning to her. “And our protective handmaiden here is Coralie.”

“d’Argent?” Romi’s eyes went wide, much wider than normal. She visibly swallowed and then quickly knelt before them, her voice barely a whisper. “My lady, my sincerest apologies. I did not recognize the Fille de Lune.”

“No, no, no,” Mirabelle said pushing past Bastien and Coralie to put a hand on the archer’s shoulder. “You saved my guard and helped protect Milae. You don’t need to bow or apologize for anything.” She gave a smile and a shake of her head. “I should be apologizing to you. I do not recognize your name. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with all of the noble houses in the region yet.” She didn’t wait for any sort of answer though, “But, I insist you and your man dine with us tonight, and if you need a place to stay, the Manor has more than enough visitor space.”

“I wouldn’t dare intrude.”

“I insist. It isn’t an intrusion. It is our honor, and I’d like to repay you, even in a small way such as this.”

While Romi was very reluctant to accept at first, she finally relented saying that she would be honored to share a meal that evening, but that they had already arranged for a stay at the local inn in the village. They thanked her again and allowed her to head off to finish her business in the village, and they stayed behind to deal with the aftermath. Soon enough, Ervig arrived with militiamen to handle the cleanup.

As his men began the cleanup in earnest, he had the story relayed to him by a few different people. He clearly took Bastien’s version as gospel, only adding the others’ details as he needed too. A few villagers had given him wildly exaggerated claims, but he was glad to find out it was little more than scared beasts. He was clearly concerned that they were Licorns, but he was more curious about another fact.

“She was introduced as Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane?” Ervig spoke up softly with a slight shake of his head. “Romi, le batard de Renard?”

“What exactly are you implying, Ervig?” Bastien spoke quickly, a bit defensively.

“The Fox’s Bastard.”

“She’s the daughter of Luc Cedolin du Rane. He was a marquis, across the border from Milae.” Ervig explained. “He was called le Renard, the Fox. Not because he was particularly cunning or quick, but rather because he had orange and red hair.” The militiaman pointed towards his own head or the hair on it – which bore no resemblance of similar colors. “He never married. His lover died in childbirth, and he raised Romi alone.”

“So, her father never granted her status as a full member of his family?” Mirabelle asked calmly, but quietly as they still stood in the village streets. She didn’t want to be too loud, to speak to openly and say something uncouth about the archer who had saved them.

“Unsure. When her father died,” The captain took a breath and crossed his arms. “She was only fourteen. Her cousin took regency of his estate, she has officially declared a bastard by the Duc du Rane.” He glanced down to the path below him. “There are rumors that her cousin orchestrated it. But, in the end, she is illegitimate. By law, she is just Romi. Her cousin did grant her a small piece of land on the edge of our territory. But she mostly subsists by hunting and has a small contingent of loyal servants.”

“How many?”

“Less than you brought to the village, my lady,” Ervig said quickly. “She is a kind girl, but of little concern.”

Mirabelle made a noise, somewhere between a huff and growl. It made the others around her step back and away for a moment. She took a deep breath and then gave a little bit of a shake of her head. “I’d like to know more about what happened to her and her family.” She ordered after a moment. “Coralie, have the servants find what they can from the village over the next few days.”

“Of course, my lady.” The handmaiden gave a quiet bow. “We’ll find what information we can.”

“And I still want to have a meal with her.” Mirabelle clarified. “Bastard or not, she is of noble blood.” She spoke with a quick nod. “And I look forward to it.” She seemed to have decided as she dusted off her clothes and looked to Ervig. “Make sure the people are safe and this is cleaned up. Please bring me a report after you’ve sent one to the Astier.”

“Yes, my lady,” Ervig said after a moment. His head twitched to one side for a second and he gave a smile, “My lady, you do recall you are just a guest here, correct? There is no need for you to worry about the day-to-day.” He gave a smirk, poking at the young girl, “Or are you considering staying?”

Mirabelle frowned at him. “You forget yourself.”

“My apologies, my lady,” He replied with his hands raised for a moment. “I meant it mostly in jest.” He admitted with a smile to her, and then a gave her a bow. “By your leave, ma’am.”

She gave him a dismissive wave, and then looked over to the others. “I’d like to return to the manor now.”

She took her time returning to the manor, lingering on the streets for a time and working slowly but surely to return. Once back, she set it upon her servants to prepare a traditional Cote d’Argent meal – light fish, sweet fruits and vegetables, and a stout bread. She gave them their orders and went back to her quarters to bathe and clean herself up. Then, once she had dressed in a nice enough dinner dress, she set about waiting for her guest to arrive. As the night began to fall, clouds began to fill the sky blotting out the stars.

It made for a dark night, and as the dinner hour passed her servants began to mill about and see if she would decide to eat without her guest. She did not. Instead, she simply sat and waited. After an hour or two, she relented and allowed her servants to eat – but she waited. Night fell darker, and the deeper the time went the more she listened to her servants speak about how she was wasting time. That the girl wasn’t coming.

With the darkness engulfing the home, she had her servants light a lantern outside, and one for her to read by, and she continued to wait. As she read, she listened. Bastien’s snores from his place nearby her were perhaps the loudest of the sounds, but Coralie’s insistence on busying herself around the lady came in a close second. It was not as late as everyone seemed to feel it was that night. Only an hour or two had passed since darkness fell, but they were impatient.

When there was a knock at the door, Mirabelle stood and moved over to see who it was. Coralie rushed to stop her and to open the door herself, but the lady would not have it. She opened the door to greet the archer and her guard with a smile.

“I apologize for the late hour, my lady,” Romi spoke with a deep bow. “Please forgive,”

“Not at all,” Mirabelle replied swiftly, cutting her off. “Hunter’s rarely come home until the end of the day, Lady Cedolin.”

Romi smiled and lowered her head. “Thank you,” She said quietly.

“Come in and have a meal with me. Your man is welcome to rest and eat as well, of course.”

“You are too kind.”

The two walked into the manor and found themselves in the dining room. The sat to eat and for the next few minutes, they found themselves merely exchanging more pleasantries, which irked Mirabelle – though her face never showed anything but kindness. As the conversation seemed to go nowhere, she opted to push the archer, to see what she could discover about her. After a drink of wine, she spoke plainly.

“Ervig says you are the daughter of Marquis Luc Cedolin – but a bastard.” Lady d’Argent put a hint of emphasis on the last word. “He is wary of you.”

“Ervig is…” Romi’s grip tightened on her cup and she sighed, “Cautious, but correct. They call me…”

“I know,” Mirabelle spoke softly. “You don’t have to say it.”

Romi nodded and continued. “I live in a small home in the forests on the Rane border with Nid de Vouivre. It is a meager hunting lodge my father built. Something my cousin didn’t care enough to take.”

“You don’t seem to harbor much ill will…”

“My cousin is a fox. He is cunning and always a few steps ahead of anyone who faces him in a political arena. He doesn’t join conflicts he will lose. His case against my inheritance is ironclad in regards to the law. He has contacts at every level of the court of Rane and he can bend them with a few choice words.” She spoke with a clear bit of sadness. “Had he put his skill to something great, he would likely be one of the best of us – but he is driven by power and wealth.”

“Perhaps one day you can secure your lands again,” Mirabelle spoke with a succinct nod.

“No. My father’s lands are rightfully his. As long as he leaves the lodge and forests to me, I have no reason to test him.” The archer shrugged. “One day I hope to be able to sway him back to something more important than power and wealth. His potential as a courtier and leader is astonishing. His mastery of debate and the sincerity to which he puts his mind to the research behind arguments is inspiring – if currently misplaced.”

Mirabelle didn’t say anything. She was a little surprised. That was rather high praise for a thief and con-artist, but moreover, she was astonished at her sizing up of the man. “Tell me, what do you think of Ervig’s abilities.”

“Hm?” Romi raised a brow and paused between a bite of her dinner. “I…” She thought a moment. “As a military leader he is talented, but his domestic abilities leave much to be desired. He tends to want to handle things himself and lacks the education required to properly adjuvate village projects. It drags him down as a domestic steward, but his skill with a spear is quite good. His understanding of bandit tactics and small conflicts makes him very skilled at defending a village such as this. He also has a knack for connecting with his subordinates.”

Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. She thought that maybe there was more to the archer than she let on, but this all but proved it. “Do you know this much about every noble in the region?”

“What?” She shook her head for a moment, and then gave a sigh, “Well, yes. I had too to keep my holdings.”

“So you know about the Astier?”

“Yes, of course. As the regional power, and the nobles of the closest town to me, I have too.” Romi spoke softly.

“What can you tell me about Valamir?” Mirabelle asked, before shaking her head. “Actually, no. I know the Marquis and Marquise…” She pondered for a moment, “Romi, what can you tell me about Sarus?”

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NaNoWriMo Day 22

Author’s Note – This is what I got written today. No where near a full chapter, but I just wasn’t quite finding the words. This chapter isn’t exactly as easy as I had hoped it would be to write. I’ll admit, climbing action is a little harder to do with slice-of-life, and that is making it more of a challenge for me to write. But, that’s the good thing about trying new things. You learn.

Chapter 19 – Eve

For the next week, work was hellish. Then came that fateful day. The one that every countdown had been working towards. All around the nation people sat and prepared to spend one of the most revered days of the year with their families. For the most part, after a week of relentless calls, it made the day relatively straight forward. It was no less busy than any other, but it was much less painful. Most of the questions and comments moved from trouble to happy people just wanting to make sure something got set up correctly to make the holiday go off without a hitch. It was much more doable. No less busy, but a much more pleasant sort of busy.

Still, by the time lunch finally rolled around to give him a break, Mattias was in a state. His throat hurt and he didn’t want to talk anymore. He just wanted to walk off the conversations for a while and be out of the office. So, he went out into the halls, outside his company’s office, and he walked in circles. He tried drinking his bottle as he walked. He was going slow though. Between the daylight from random windows he passed by, and general nausea from dealing with people all day, it was slow going. He made sure to finish the bottle before he finished his walking in circles. He couldn’t risk losing control again. And he wouldn’t.

From time to time, he’d stand in the hall and just concentrate on sucking blood out of the bottle for a few seconds. At least on one occasion he awkwardly locked eyes with some worker from another company and gave him a friendly single nod. He was kind of curious if the man knew what he was doing. It wasn’t a common thing, and the bottle was just red-colored with minimal branding, so it wasn’t like he was out in the open drinking blood. Still, it was an odd thing to do, he thought. It must have been at least a little morbid for those around him too, but he really wasn’t sure what he could do about it. The only real alternative was to lose control and drain people, and that would be much worse. So, really, he wasn’t sure why in the world he felt like it was awkward to choose this option.

Either way, his break came to an end. His pocket vibrated as the alarm on his phone went off, giving him the two-minute warning on his time, and he let out a defeated sigh. He began to schlep his way back to his office. He was in no hurry and had no desire to return to work. So, he took his time. A minute or two late wouldn’t hurt anyone.

When he came back through there was a woman at the counter talking to Ava. He thought about passing on by, but a burst of familiarity with the woman and the look on the receptionists face both made him linger for a second. The lady turned towards him with a sort of scowl. She was annoyed about something.

“Can I help you?” Mattias spoke up softly, turning on his customer’s voice and adding a little smile.

“I’m looking for Ashley Tran. I need to talk to her.” The woman said. He couldn’t quite put a finger on where he knew her from. Her voice wasn’t familiar to him.

His eyes turned to Ava, who just shook her head and shrugged. There was something else there though. “It is Christmas Eve so she…”

“I know she’s here. And I want to talk to her. I’ll go back there myself to get her if I have to.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’ll check for you,” He replied. The tone the woman had didn’t instill him with any trust, though. “Anything I can pass along to her about who was asking to speak to her?”

“I just need to talk to her,” The woman turned and stared straight into the vampire’s eyes. She bore a hole in him with her look, anger virtually dripping out of the air around her.

“Okay, fair. Business or personal?” He continued, though there was enough snark in his voice to be picked up. Enough that her eyes narrowed deeper on him. A shame that he lacked the empathy most humans enjoyed. He was tired, and with his human parts still recovering, he couldn’t quite find the courage to give in to the worry he knew he should have felt.

“Personal.” She spat the word at him.

“Okay, I’ll see what I can do. Ms. Mays, would you be kind enough to treat the lady to some coffee or cookies or anything she needs,” Mattias said as he walked off and through the doors.

“I don’t want any treats,” The woman howled after him.

He didn’t see poor Ava’s response. It wasn’t the first irate customer she had to deal with. Or team member. Or whoever this lady was. He didn’t care. He walked back to his desk and paused at the edge of the cubicle. Every one of his agents was sitting and talking to a guest or team member and going just as hard as they could go. He walked over and set his bottle on Ashley’s desk, which caused her to look up at him. She never flinched or changed her tone of voice with the guest. She was on a roll, and she just kept going.

He took a pad of paper and jotted down a quick message. Someone up front to see you. Seems pissed.

He didn’t need to write anymore. She just nodded and went back to the phone call. That was good enough for him. He stretched and moved towards his desk, but then the curiosity got the better of him. He tried to remember where he had seen the woman before.

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Day Shift – Chapter 18

Letters to Santa

 

               The week before Christmas was such a unique experience in the Customer Service Industry. While it was unique for each different type of worker. Retail workers perhaps had the most demanding job, as hundreds or thousands passed through their gates. Warehouse workers shipped with an unending frenzy of items to process and move on. Food workers dealt with hungry and happy people non-stop, watching dramas of countless lives unfold before them. And every single mistake made in that time, no matter how benign or human in nature, would end up at the desk of a Customer Service Representative – by whatever title they held at their respective company. It was no different for his team. Every slip, every mistake, every team member pushed just beyond breaking, would end up with a call to their department. Everyone would be the worst. They no longer received calls from confused team members or guests. All hands were on deck. So that Monday before Christmas, Hell Week started. Every call was angry, every one a problem to fix or solve, and those scant few that weren’t would only last a few seconds before they were over and it was back into the trenches. There was no break, no relenting of the wave of trouble that followed them here. It was eight to ten hours a day of constant trouble that needed to be solved. Every second of this weighed on his team, each building their stress more and more, until they were all exhausted and broken, smashed into the dirt and left there begging for the release of silence at any cost.

               Of course, they were professionals. All of them knew the secret to survival. All of them knew how to make it beyond this week and to the next. Each had been prepared.

               Helena was the newest, and she struggled the most. Lindsay had a kind heart, and she was right there with the newbie. The others, though. They had the secret down pat. And that secret was.

               Let them win.

               Let the waves of complaints destroy you. Don’t try to survive. Once you were broken, everything became easier. Nothing hurt you. All you wanted was for it to end. You could do your job without the worry of being defeated because you had already lost. This wasn’t a pit of despair. The guests had done nothing wrong. There was no reason to hate them or be hurt by them. The reason this week was so hard was the company, the expectations. All that faded away with one simple idea.

               “Worst they can do is fire me,”

               It was true. Every discount, every refund, every little breach of the company’s policies to make the guests happy and find the solution needed to keep things moving was worth it. The guest was happy, you were done with it, and the worst-case scenario was that you were fired. At this point, with this much stress, the idea of being fired was one of many lights at the end of the tunnel. Survive with a job, or survive without. Either way, once you were broken the week was already won.

               “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Ed said with a shake of her head, standing with a box of donuts in her hands, already half-empty from the ravenous desire of the various team members who had jumped up. “You all don’t believe that drivel right?”

               “I mean,” Maddox spoke up first with a mouth full of donut. “You pay us shit, and expect us to provide excellent service, go above and beyond, work extra hours.”

               “And benefits suck,” Ashley added before taking a bite of her donut.

               “Right, and when we push for better wages you say dumb stuff like… you make well over minimum wage, there are a lot of perks to this job, blah, blah, blah,” Maddox continued.

               “And you two?” Ed looked over to Lindsay and Helena with a bit of a scowl.

               “I’m new here, don’t look at me,” Helena said with her arms up, and a donut daintily placed on a napkin at her desk.

               “I think Maddox is being too polite,” Lindsay shrugged.

               “Really? I mean, this is a good job,” Ed gave a glance to Mattias.

               “Sure,” The vampire said quietly with a slouch and a sigh, “But it’s not what any of us want to do forever.”

               “Well yeah, but until then,” Ed argued.

               “Until then it’s a drain on our life force, our very souls,” Ashley gave a little bit of extra verbosity and staged drama.

               “Seriously?”

               “Actually, she’s not wrong. It’s just good enough to keep you here for the money and benefits…” Mattias said, but before he could finish, he was interrupted.

               “But exhausting enough that you can’t really look for anything better.” Maddox spoke up, “I mean, of all of us, only Mattias can pay for his apartment,”

               “And he lives in a shithole of a tiny box they can sort of classify as an apartment,” Ashley tossed a little barb towards her boss.

               “It isn’t that bad of an apartment,” Mattias had planned on saying that. He didn’t, though, it was Ed that said it. Which made the conversation pause for a few seconds before the awkward silence was broken by Maddox.

               “Oh, ho. So the boss’ boss has seen his apartment too,” He teased.

               “Shut up, Maddox,” Ashley bit back. “I have, Lindsay, has,” She waved between the two, “You just leave instantly after every shift and don’t want to help out.”

               “I signed the card,”

               “Oh,” She laughed, “My bad,”

               “Guys, it’s fine,” Mattias waved a hand down to try to draw them away from that.

               “You all think this way, though? That we don’t treat you well?”

               Mattias sighed, “No company treats its employees like family, they just pretend they do. We don’t make enough, we get decent benefits, but doing this eight hours a day is hard during the slow periods. You take on everyone else’s problems, and by the time you go home, you are exhausted. You forget what you really want to do. But, you make enough to survive. Just not enough to thrive. So you keep going, hoping it will get better, or you’ll stumble beyond your station. That’s what I did. Got comfortable, and kept a job that exhausts me and really kills me… and I’m ranting. Nevermind,” He suddenly stopped talking and glanced away. The others stared at him for a minute.

               “What did you really want to do boss?” Ashley asked.

               “I didn’t say,” Mattias almost bit back at them.

               There was a long silence this time. The soul of the conversation had been touched on. There was something else each person here long term had shared, something they didn’t admit. Each of them had a dream they had set aside because of this job, because of the toll it took on their balance of life. The drain of emotions for the service of others was a real thing. It left so little time to do what one wanted to do. When broke it down workers, they worked eight hours a day, plus the commute. Mattias was closest, and that was another hour or two a day, depending on traffic. Then there was getting ready before the day and once one got home. Another hour would be gone if there wasn’t a haste to that getting ready. Decompression was also necessary from a job like this. Some people did it better than others, of course, but most days it easily ate up another hour – just getting away and over whatever it was that had eaten away at the mind from the worst that day.

               At the least, this was eleven hours of the day. Days when a team member worked more, or got caught in traffic, or faced off against an angry guest or employee – it could easily reach thirteen or fourteen. Sleeping eight hours a night was necessary too, or mistakes were made and irritability became a much easier trap. It was a dangerous combination. One that could compound swiftly. Three or four hours to one’s self was not enough. Not enough to have a healthy balance, at least. Things got left behind.

               It was dreams that were easiest to drop. They felt distant and less than essential.

               Mattias was realizing that might have been a mistake. That dreams might have been all there was separating them from the monsters at their core, whatever those were.

               They all realized that is where this conversation had moved. Mattias had been here the longest, but he wasn’t speaking up.

               “I wanted to be a gymnast,” Lindsay spoke up softly. “In college, I studied that, and communications. I was too big to make professional or Olympic teams, but I always thought I could work with teaching gymnastics somewhere.”

               Helena spoke up, “That’s awesome,” She said with a feigned bit of excitement that was something they all had practiced to such a degree that it became second nature, though she wasn’t great at controlling her switches in and out of that mode yet. “Sorry,” She realized what she had done as the other eyes glanced over to her, “Why don’t you?”

               “I probably could have right after starting here… but,” The Fomorian sighed and slunk down in her chair slightly. “Now I just want to go home after work, and I don’t feel like doing anything. I’m shy by nature…” She admitted, “So this takes a lot out of me. I don’t have the energy to deal with more people after work. So, I don’t.” She played with the edge of her shirt nervously.

               Again, there was a short, silent pause.

               “I wanted to go back to school. Learn magic, you know, properly,” Ashley spoke up next. She let out a harsh sigh, knowing exactly what follow up question that would warrant. “I didn’t have enough money to pay to go much. Thought I’d take a few little classes, community college stuff…” She sighed, “Even that made me have to get help from my folks. Then last Christmas it got busy, even on night shift…” She looked away, “Didn’t make it. Failed out. It’s hard to look at a computer screen once you get home from this, you know.”

               Maddox gave a smirk, “My turn, right?” He took a deep breath, “I’m always looking for another job. I should’ve quit when I realized how unhealthy it was making my… what do you call them…” He snapped his fingers, “You know, that thing you do instead of dealing with it?” He gave up and threw his hands to the side, “Well whatever it is called. I stopped doing that well. Tried a few different things to cope. None of them good. Now I’m medicated, which helps. But, still.”

               “You’re medicated?”

               “Yep. I mean legally, like psychiatrist approved anxiety-reducing wonder pills,” He snapped his fingers a few times. “Make everything more doable. Still, haven’t found another gig yet.”

               “Should I be worried about having taken this job?” Helena asked quietly, trying to lighten the mood slightly. It didn’t work for her though. She sighed, “I might have made a lateral move. I wasn’t too happy being overlooked and forgotten by most people in my last position.”

               “Oh, being walked over,” Ashley said with a nod, “Yeah, you’re not getting away from that here.”

               “Yeah. I’m the tallest person here, and no one knows my name,” Lindsay added.

               “Partially the shy thing, Linds,” Maddox spoke.

               Though no one had said it, they had all noticed that Mattias hadn’t said anything. Not yet. He clearly didn’t want to talk about it, or he hadn’t been convinced yet. Ed had watched him for a moment. He had tried to zone out, to ignore the situation. She had noticed. It was working on him. He wanted to open up, but there had not been quite the push he needed.

               “I wanted to open my own business,” Ed spoke quietly. “It was stupid. There was this old radio show I listened too when I was… really young,” She shrugged. “There was a place the kids in the show always hung out. I never had that growing up… my room was about the best place I could find. But I always wanted to make a place like that. You know? Sell snacks for after school. Somewhere kids wouldn’t have to worry, where they could study or hang out…” She laughed, “And here I am, a corporate stooge instead,”

               “Aw, you aren’t a stooge,”

               “More like a high-ranking minion.”

               “Not helpful, Maddox,”

               “Somewhere to teach non-humans how to handle it,” Mattias spoke in a little over a whisper. That silenced the conversation completely. His team watched him as he took a long sip of his blood in a bottle. “I was incredibly lucky to know some non-humans… and it was still stupid hard to learn how to deal with all this bullshit.” He said looking down at the bottle, the crimson liquid swirling back to stillness near the bottom. “Every non-human is a little different. And those of us that changed later in life… it’s a damn minefield. If I had a place where I could have learned, where I would have known there was someone to talk to. I wouldn’t be this far gone.”

               His voice trailed off. Then there was stark silence.

               “That’s… nice, boss. The idea,” Ashley said with a nod.

               “And…” Ed spoke up. “Working here made you hold off on it?”

               Mattias nodded, “It gave me an excuse to.”

               “Yeah,”

               “Remember when Christmas was all about presents?” Maddox said with a nod.

               “Maddox, not now…”

               “No,” He waved his hands down. “I know I’m kind of an ass, but I’m serious. Remember how we used to write Christmas lists and letters to Santa?”

               Everyone but Mattias just stared at him. Mattias stared at his desk, or the floor.

               “I’ll take that as a yes,” Maddox continued. “My therapist says writing down dreams, goals, all that, is helpful in finding a path and keeping yourself calm. In my case, it helps things keep from getting overwhelming. So, I just had the stupidest thought,” He smirked. “Why not write our dreams that this job killed as letters to Santa? You know… what we’d need to pull it off and stuff. It’ll celebrate the season, and maybe give us a couple of ideas on where to go from here.”

               Again, silence for a few moments. Maddox sat with his arms wide, glancing from person to person and expectantly awaiting an answer. From the smile on his face, he expected an affirmative.

               “Huh,” Ashley intoned with a little neutral shrug.

               Ed glanced to Mattias, and took a small breath, “Mattias, I kind of like the idea. I’ll write a letter if you will,”

               The others gave small nods, but it was Lindsay who finally asked outright, “We’re all in. What do you say, boss? Want to write a letter to Santa with us?”

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