The Duke’s castle was vast, set out on the top of a huge outcropping of rock that jutted off into the sea. Honestly, with the size of the thing, it should really have been called a peninsula. It was just that damned big.
The massive stone keep sat in the center of the outcropping, with two layers of wall separating it from the city. Between those walls was a multitude of buildings that supported the castle itself. Smithies and stables leaned up against the walls, while a temple to the gods stood off to the side. The cliff faces that surrounded the castle had been carved and rebuilt into a solid stone wall, allowing for people roaming the gardens that ringed the keep to gaze over the edge and into the sea below.
To be honest, the whole place was gorgeous, and I was keen to get a look at the gardens out the back some time. They even had a damned hedge maze back there. Perfect place to get lost in and have some risque sex with Dawn.
The banquet itself turned out to be boring as all hell. I mean, the castle was gorgeous again, the huge stone banquet hall had dark wooden accents and big banners for all the different noble houses.
The tables were all set out in a big U shape, with the duke and his allies at the central table, while the rest of us were seated on the two arms. Even the tables were nice, dark hardwood of some kind that had been polished to within an inch of its life. I could see my amazingly pretty face in it, that’s how shiny it was.
However, the banquet itself… when he’d talked about feasting and shit, I’d expected music and dancing, all that fun stuff. We got the music, but it was boring medieval style music, and as for dancing… apparently that happened at balls, not banquets. The people here were very particular about the difference. Honestly, us players needed to show this lot how you actually partied.
Near the end of the feast, the Duke halted the revelry for a moment by banging his fist on the table. The great stone hall fell mercifully silent as he stood to address us all.
“If the heroic party would come forward, I wish to address the six of you directly,” he intoned dramatically.
After glancing amongst ourselves curiously for a moment, we did as he requested. Taylor, Millie, CIvette, Rusti, Dawn and myself all made our way out into the center of the room. Getting respectfully down on one knee, our party-lead motioned for us to follow her lead.
“Look upon these great heroes, lords and ladies, for they are the embodiment of that title!” the Duke told us, continuing in that dramatic tone of his. “We have feasted in their honour, but now it is time for the crux of this occasion!”
Pausing for dramatic effect, he grinned around at his audience before drawing his sword from the scabbard that hung from this chair and vaulted the table. Alright, dude had some style. “Step forward, Blessed Shade.”
Huh… guess that was the devs attempting to make my sister’s very un-lore-friendly name into something a little less jarring.
Taylor rose from her kneeling position and walked slowly forward before kneeling in front of the duke once more.
With her in front of him, he raised his sword flat in front of him, sharp steel point towards the roof. “This, lords and ladies, is none other than Shade the Blessed. She has recently fought on our side in our war against the Pagutum puppets in Chigmeinon, not to mention slaying several other dangerous beasts in the wilds. This is not why we are here today though, we are here because Shade and her brave band delved deep into ancient ruins and slew a great horde of the undead. Among those chattering legions, they discovered the long dead King and his ill-fated party, along with the crown of parcosia and Heartpiercer, the sword the King had sought.”
“Their trials did not end here however! As so often happens with the Blessed, tales of what they found in that mountain spread like wildfire, bringing thieves and brigands from all across the duchy. Never fear though, lords and ladies, for the scum were no match for our brave adventurers, who fought their way here regardless!” he bellowed across the hall. He was grinning like crazy now, clearly enjoying himself. “Please, Blessed Shades, present the crown and sword.”
With a nod, Taylor materialised the two items in question, placing them on the floor between herself and the Duke. The nobles arrayed around us stilled, quiet gasps emanating from their ranks as they caught sight of the fabled items.
“The duchy, and indeed the kingdom, are both in your debt, brave adventurers. That debt, of course, must be repaid,” he told us, his smile fading into a more solemn expression. “It is no secret that the war has thinned the ranks of the nobility. Entire houses have fallen to our terrible neighbours. We mourn their loss, but we must also look to the future of our realm. I see no greater candidates to fill the gaps in our ranks than the six before us.”
Oh shit, it was true! We were totally getting noble titles! Fuck yeah! I mean, if this weren’t a game I wouldn’t be totally comfortable with that, but this was a fantasy land. We could be the good nobles that everyone kept insisting existed.
“Shade, as the leader of your party, I now grant you the lands of Bativaraosa and the title of marquise to go with it,” he proclaimed, raising the sword and placing it once on each of her shoulders. “With that done, you may rise as the Marquise Shade Bativaraosa.”
Cheering erupted around us as the nobles did their part in the ceremony. I could see a great many sour expressions in their ranks though, I was willing to bet that a whole lot of them had been vying for those lands and that title. Too bad for them. They could take it over my immortal storm phoenix body.
“Please step to the side, my lady,” the Duke told my sister with a slight nod and a smile. “I have five others to reward, after all.”
Taylor laughed and did as she’d been asked, her cheeks a little flushed and glory bright in her eyes. My sister lived for this shit, she was such an attention hog.
The Duke repeated the process with the rest of us, taking forever to talk about all the crazy shit we’d done in the game. He must have paid another player to tell him all this stuff, because I wasn’t sure how he knew about that undead angel dude with the big flails that Dawn and I put down.
We all got the title of baroness, essentially all becoming a noble family together. Well, Baronex in Rusti’s case. More sisters and… uh… what was the word for a non-binary sibling? I was going to go wiiiith… Thester. It was like them, but with a -ster on the end. Perfect. No one was ever going to take issue with that. Definitely not. Maybe it would be best to ask Rusti before using the word out loud.
When we were all done and dusted, standing there with our shiny new titles, the duke went all serious again. “Unfortunately, this reward comes with a catch. The fortress city of Bativara is not currently under the control of Jingan forces. You will have to take it back, although something tells me that you and your Blessed friends will relish that task.”
“Fuck yeah,” I blurted, already keen to go and punch some Pagutum bootlickers.
The Duke laughed at my outburst, rather than berating me for it, and gave me a big ol’ wink to go with his joviality. He kept as though I hadn’t said anything after that though, “For the five of you that have the title of Baroness or Baronex, there will be villages for you to maintain, protect and collect taxes from. Each of those villages is under our enemy’s control, just as the city is.”
“We are more than willing to clear out the Pags that have taken root there,” Taylor agreed, rubbing her hands together. “Sounds like a job for my guild, to be honest.”
“Indeed,” the Duke acknowledged, and lowering his tone he asked, “Tell me about the battles will you? It’s been hundreds of years since a full army of Aurellings flew as one. Gods, I wish I could see it, the glory must be… well…”
Dawn and I shared a look of amusement as Taylor gave a quiet chuckle, “Sure thing, your grace.”
The dude was totally just some random kid who’d spent his time listening to tales of knights in shining armour and never quite grown out of it. He was growing on me though, seeming genuinely down to earth. His wife though…
I glanced over his shoulder for a moment and found her watching us with a sort of calm appraisal. Yeah, she was totally the brains to this operation. Chick looked as sharp as that sword that was still sitting on the ground.
I didn’t get too much more time to scope her out though, because we got whisked off by some steward dude to sign a bunch of papers to make it all proper and official like.
Turns out that it wasn’t just the lands we were getting. The previous noble house being slaughtered to the last babe meant that there was a whole bunch of shit to sign over to us. A big town house was among those possessions, as well as some stakes in a few business enterprises around Jingan. Far out, we were rich now… and staring at Dawn, it gave a whole new meaning to eat the rich. Yum yum.
From there we were given rooms in the castle, although we all just piled into Taylor’s room, where she summoned our portable house. I liked our portable house, it was cozy. The day had been pretty intense, so sleep hit the moment my head made contact with the pillow.
The next two days consisted of way too much bureaucracy, like wasn’t this meant to be a game? We had bank accounts to take control of, which were the old brick and mortar kind where you had to physically go in with a key that would unlock a room with actual gold and silver in it.
We also had to go and meet the skeleton crew of servants who’d been keeping our new townhouse from falling apart at the seams. Oh and by townhouse, I mean a frankenstein monster of a mansion.
The thing was up near the castle, the walled grounds jammed between two other similar houses occupied by our new peers. Not that the walls did much good when there was like three meters between them and the house on either side. At least we had a proper garden out back. I’d never had one of those before.
The building itself was… the best single word to describe it is precarious. It looked like a stone and terracotta version of a ramshackle wizards tower, except someone had shoved a pump up its ass and filled it with air.
There were buttresses and mezzanines and towers and fuckin’ every old thing sticking off it. To be honest, it looked like the original builders of the place had hired an Artifisuki architect who’d gotten high on glue before drawing up the plans. It was a mess, and I absolutely loved it. One look at the place and I expected to find hidden passages and ghosts that huskily recited poetry in some romance language.
The end of those two days saw us all gathered in one of many cute little sitting rooms of our new mansion. I say cute, but I really mean slightly dusty and a little motheaten. This place had been empty for a while and we’d be needing to use much of our funds getting it back up to speed. If we wanted to, that is.
“So… what’s the plan now?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at my sister. Taylor was the head of our newly formed noble house after all.
“Well, obviously our lands need to be cleared out as soon as possible, since a noble house isn’t much when they don’t actually own land,” she said, leaning back in her big fluffy armchair. God that thing was hideous.
Millie, who was sitting on the ground with her back to the side of that same chair, glanced up from her holoscreen for a moment to say, “You mean the taxes that they get from the people who live there.”
Taylor gave a snort. “Yeah, that.”
“I’m assuming your guild will be keen to get in on clearing out the Pags, as well as whatever that other one was called that helped us,” Dawn mused from where she sat in my lap.
“Hale’s Hope,” I reminded her, placing a kiss on the top of her head.
“Yeah, them,” she said, finding my hand and squeezing it in reply to the kiss.
Taylor nodded, but as she leaned forward, an expression clouded her face, putting me on edge. “They are, as well as a few other guilds. Unfortunately, I have a request to make of the two of you…”
“The way you said that makes me think I’m not going to like it,” I frowned. What was she planning right now? Before she could get in her request, I said, “Dawn and I are probably going to log out for a few days, check up on mum and dad, as well as figuring out some of Dawn’s legal shit with her parents.”
“Right… well after that, I was wondering if you’d be alright staying here in the capital? We need representation in the city so that the fucking nobles don’t pick us apart before we get started,” she grumbled, punching the chair for emphasis, sending out a puff of dust from the old furniture.
Reaching up without looking away from her holoscreen, Millie captured Taylor’s hand with her own before the larger girl could do it again.
I wasn’t overly concerned about the dust though. I had more important things to complain about. “But I was looking forward to punching fantasy racists!”
Surprisingly, it was Dawn who turned around to quell my outrage. “Yeah, but if we stay here, we get to do your three other favourite things.”
“What things?” I asked suspiciously. She had a sly smile on her face that I definitely didn’t trust.
“Dancing,” she murmured, twisting completely in my lap. “Socialising,” she chuckled, low and seductive as she cupped my face in her hands. “...And fucking,” she whispered huskily as she nipped delicately at my earlobe with her teeth.
“You forgot cooking,” I reminded her breathlessly, my hands coming up to wrap around her small waist.
With a laugh, she leaned back and rolled her eyes. “You can do some cooking too.”
“Okay… okay, we can stay and schmooze,” I sighed, pretending as though I was making a great sacrifice. In reality, that actually sounded okay. Provided we could educate the nobility on what constituted a real party.
“Good, because you two are by far the best suited to that type of thing,” Taylor said with a relieved smile. “You’ve always been a sweet talker, and Dawn lived among the elite so she knows what’s up.”
I was about to agree when Civette spoke up, tentative and shy, “I can help too… I have experience around that type of thing. I’m going to be gone for a week though, maybe longer. I don’t know.”
“Alright, you three stay here, Rusti, Millie and I will go take our new land back from the racists,” Taylor agreed happily. “It’s a plan!”