“Oh. There they are.”
Medrauta’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as she stared at the person who had uttered those words the moment she and Viviane stepped into the room.
She had never personally met the woman, but there was only one person that came to mind when she laid eyes on the woman’s tapered waist, broad shoulders, long brown hair, and an eyepatch that appeared to be a new addition to her beautiful face.
“That’s me,” the woman nodded. “I never expected Eirlys would send me students, but I suppose these are desperate times. Dame Krista told me that you would be coming.”
Medrauta nodded in response as she exchanged a brief introduction with the senior knight. Marilyn’s presence explained quite a lot of things such as the military presence around the walls, Krista’s knowledge of Sakura’s ailment, and the detailed strategic maps littering the desk that the senior knight leaned over.
While curious, there was still one particular blunder that needed to be addressed before Medrauta could start asking any detailed questions. Though she moved to rectify her mistake, Viviane was already a step ahead.
“Baron Anson Dietrich. A pleasure to meet you.” Viviane curtsied, addressing the bearded noble who had been watching Marilyn and Medrauta’s exchange with a measure of interest and amusement.
The noble nodded, moving from his position at the table to bow deeply before Viviane. “The pleasure is mine, Lady Castellia. I only wish we had met under better circumstances.”
While Baron Dietrich’s bow was mostly interpreted as a gesture of courtesy by the two knights, in actuality, it was the nobleman’s attempt at smoothing over his own faux pas. Though he was the lord of Dietrich fief, the dominion of a single territory only granted him the trifling title of baron.
In noble hierarchy, Viviane outranked him so tremendously at the moment that he should never have allowed her to greet him first. In fact, he should have prepared a sumptuous feast and welcoming party for Viviane in advance seeing as he knew that her arrival was imminent.
Had he not been preparing for an inevitable confrontation with Bastiche, Baron Dietrich most certainly would have prepared exactly that for Viviane. Unfortunately, all he could do was hope the noblewoman would be understanding of the awkward position that he had been placed in.
“Circumstances are what we make of them, baron.” Viviane said dismissively as she walked toward the table where Marilyn stood at, beckoning for Medrauta and the baron to follow. Even as the words left her lips, she was more than a little surprised at herself. Just months ago, she would never be able to utter things like that.
“Indeed, Lady Castellia.” Baron Dietrich bowed once more, stifling a sigh of relief that nearly escaped his lips. The only ducal family he’d ever dealt with was House Revelo, all of them members of high nobility who weren’t exactly known for being as compassionate. “As you can see, we are preparing to wage war against the capital.”
“Rather bold of you,” Viviane remarked. “It doesn’t look like you have the numbers needed to match the garrison at Revelo fief.” She said, tapping her fingernail against a document laying on top of the map.
Just like the capital of Viviane’s home duchy was termed “Castellia fief”, the capital of the Revelo duchy was aptly termed “Revelo fief”, a result of the empire’s naming conventions which generally drew from the surname of the noble house ruling that particular territory. While such a method may be confusing for foreigners at first, people quickly caught on once they realized that a fief was but a mere parcel of land compared to a duchy which spanned multiple fiefs.
Due to each fief being treated as semi-autonomous territories, every baron was permitted to raise their own personal army under the caveat that they would heed the call to arms should they be summoned by a marquis or ultimately, the duke. However, Baron Dietrich’s army looked quite small even when compared to neighboring fiefs like Helfried.
“I’m surprised Bastiche hasn’t sent men to attack you yet.” Medrauta remarked as she scanned the map and looked through a few documents detailing some information regarding logistics. “You don’t exactly have a solid line of defense to counteract any artillery sent your way.”
“It’s because he can’t.” Baron Dietrich grinned. “We’re on good terms with our neighbors, and Mornestead fief has expressed interest in joining our attack. Of course, only if we strike first.”
“Classic.” Medrauta snorted. “So what? Bastiche is just biding his time while he waits for you to attack? I doubt he’s unaware of your intentions.”
The baron nodded. “There’s not much else he can do without taking a major risk. He doesn’t have enough supplies to maintain a siege... Though, I doubt he could withstand one either. Besides, he’s got his men out running some weird errands. They’ve been riding back and forth in straight lines throughout the duchy. I’d wager that it was some sort of patrol route designed in an attempt to catch the foreigners.”
“This duchy-wide lockdown really is coming back to bite him in the ass, huh?” Medrauta shook her head, amazed at how Bastiche had practically trapped himself in his own castle. “So what’s the plan, exactly?”
“The original plan was to attack as soon as possible,” Marilyn cut in. Seeing as the conversation had now been driven toward the proposed siege of the duchy’s capital, she finally saw fit to insert herself into the discussion. “But once Dame Krista arrived and informed us that we’d be receiving reinforcements from the academy, I decided to hold off on it. I trust you’ve read my letter?”
Medrauta and Viviane nodded in unison. Though they both had questions they wanted to ask, Viviane could see her knight was nearly bursting with curiosity. She gestured at Medrauta elegantly, urging her to speak first.
Medrauta nodded her thanks to Viviane before turning her attention to the senior knight. “Dame Marilyn, there is one thing that I must urgently clarify. It was written in your letter that Bastiche spoke of a ‘promise’ and a ‘circle.’ Would you happen to know anything more about that?”
Marilyn shook her head much to Medrauta’s disappointment. “Unfortunately not. I was familiar with most of the duke’s work, but I never really kept tabs on his son’s activities. If I were to wager a guess though, it’d probably have something to do with that damn deal he and Ritya made with the witch.”
“Yeah, I thought as much.” Medrauta sighed. “It looks like we’ll have to find out for ourselves, then.”
“The only piece of information that I omitted from the letter was Lady Sakura and Sir Riku’s daring escape. I’m surprised the lady is still alive and walking even after that traitorous rat Bastiche managed to stab her with a poisoned dagger.”
“You’ll find that she’s got quite a few more surprises tucked away somewhere. Right, Viviane?”
“So many that not even I’m aware of them.” Viviane laughed. Sensing that Medrauta’s brief line of questioning was completed, she turned her attention to Marilyn. “There is one thing that I’d like to ask you though, Dame Marilyn.”
“Yes, Lady Castellia?”
If Viviane had been surprised by the senior knight’s formal tone of address, her face certainly didn’t show it. “I heard from one of the underground dwellers that you actually passed by Lady Sakura and Sir Riku.”
Marilyn nodded. “Yeah, I did. I was just on my way out when they arrived. I think they were attempting to escape back to the academy but failed after finding the interior walls heavily guarded. We exchanged a few words and I told them I’d be looking for allies to liberate the duchy.”
So Jack was telling the truth... In that case... “What about the criminals that you recruited from the underground?” Viviane asked as she inspected the rest of the war documents. “I don’t see anything about them in the plans.”
“...Criminals?” Baron Dietrich’s head perked up, the surprise in his eyes genuine. “What’s this about, Dame Marilyn?”
The senior knight stared at the two nobles who returned her gaze. While she had intended to inform the baron of her deal with the criminals of the underground, she had chosen to save that particular explanation for the last minute.
After all, she was sure that the baron wouldn’t have approved of such a plan, nor the reward that she was planning to grant to the criminals who chose to aid their cause. Of course, it would be difficult for Baron Dietrich to voice any objections while they were already on the march, but it was certainly a different story now that her secret had been inadvertently exposed.
“...Lady Castellia, I...” Marilyn stopped herself, heaving a massive sigh of resignation.
“I would like an explanation, Dame Marilyn. We may be rebelling against the acting duke, but I am certainly not employing criminals in my army.” Baron Dietrich said. “It would be impossible to explain the situation to any of our potential allies, much less to His Imperial Majesty when we are summoned for an inquiry after the war with Kaslavna is concluded.”
“We... We aren’t employing them.” Marilyn stressed. “We’re simply... treating them as mercenaries. As my lord is most likely dead by now, I was planning to have the criminals fall under my banner.”
The baron frowned. “Even if we are not directly employing them, I cannot have criminals flying my colors, Dame Marilyn. Not only that, but to have you at the forefront of my forces while these brigands follow would turn my army into the most unholy amalgamation possible. The Crown would refuse to hear our protests.”
Marilyn shook her head. “No. I am saying that I will be leading the criminals as a separate force from Dietrich fief’s troops. We will not be flying your colors.”
“...I see.” Baron Dietrich nodded in understanding. “However, that is not something I will permit, Dame Marilyn. I will not allow you to become a scapegoat after everything you’ve done for us.”
Marilyn simply raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms defiantly. Although she was touched by the baron’s friendship and loyalty, it certainly wasn’t the time for her to display such emotions. “...Then perhaps you could suggest a better way to acquire the troops we need? Even with the support of two other fiefs, we would barely match the numbers needed to siege Revelo fief.”
“The solution is simple, isn’t it?”
The moment those words left Viviane’s lips, everyone’s eyes locked onto her. Even Medrauta stared at her lady in surprise, not expecting that she would suddenly intrude into what was essentially a conversation meant for adults. After all, Viviane might’ve been the highest ranking noble in the room, but her experience was sorely lacking compared to Marilyn and Baron Dietrich.
Yet there she stood, proclaiming that there was an easy solution for the complex problem raised. Medrauta held her breath, knowing that the stares Marilyn and the baron directed toward her lady were no longer out of courtesy or deference. The two adults watched Viviane carefully, waiting for her next words that would determine whether she was an asset or liability.
“...And what might this solution be, Lady Castellia?” Marilyn asked, raising an eyebrow.
“They fly my colors.”
“WHAT!?” Baron Dietrich and Marilyn both exploded simultaneously, the two of them barely managing to process what they’d just heard even as Viviane winced from the sheer volume of their shouts.
“I will not allow my actions to sully the name of House Castellia! Your mother’s fury would descend upon me and my family like the righteous hammer of Aluvsha, and our hard-earned history would be erased from this very empire!” Baron Dietrich cried worriedly.
“T-The same goes for me, Lady Castellia! My deepest apologies if I have offended you, but I do not wish to incur your mother’s rage! I would much rather face the tribunal after the war!” Marilyn said hastily.
Of everyone in the room, only Medrauta stood with an eyebrow raised and an expression of doubt. While she knew that Viviane’s mother was a bit eccentric, there was no reason to be afraid of her to such a degree. At least, not with the limited information that Medrauta possessed.
Thanks to Viviane knowing full well how ridiculous and terrifying her mother’s accomplishments were, the noblewoman had made an effort to ensure that Medrauta didn’t hear too many war stories about Dame Castellia.
At most, Medrauta was aware that Dame Castellia was one of the major contributors to imperial victory during the first war against Kaslavna, but that was about it. She remained blissfully ignorant of any specifics.
“I don’t mean it in that way, Baron Dietrich. Dame Marilyn.” Viviane laughed. “What I meant was that Dame Marilyn could simply accelerate her portion of the deal. If they are pardoned, then they are no longer criminals, yes? In that case, I can grant them temporary employment as militia using my authority as acting duchess.”
Baron Dietrich frowned. Although he had already prepared another protest, he thought it best to stay his tongue, considering Viviane’s proposal earnestly. “That... actually might work. What do you think, Dame Marilyn?”
“...It works, yes. Unfortunately, I have no guarantee that they would continue to comply with the deal if I were to write them writs of pardon beforehand.” The senior knight answered.
“There’s no need to give them the writs nor inform them of the writs’ existence,” Viviane explained. “They simply need to be dated and signed before I employ the mercenaries.”
“...You’re right. You’re quite sharp, Lady Castellia.”
“I thank you, Dame Marilyn.” Viviane grinned, giving the senior knight a curtsy.
Baron Dietrich merely watched the exchange with an amazed smile, shaking his head in disbelief. He remembered he’d heard several years ago that the heiress of House Castellia had been meek and ineffectual, yet the impressive noblewoman standing before him was anything but.
Meanwhile, Medrauta was thinking the same thing. She stared at her lady, impressed at how fast Viviane had matured over the past few months and how easily she was playing the part of a true noblewoman despite the crushing pressure that she must be feeling after proposing such a daring suggestion.
While Viviane put on a strong and confident front, Medrauta could tell it was just that. A front. Before they left and even throughout their journey, Viviane had expressed her desire to become someone that Medrauta could rely on, and the knight truly felt that now, especially as she noticed her beloved lady’s hand quivering ever so slightly.
Reaching out, Medrauta squeezed her lady’s hand, eliciting a nervous grin from Viviane. The noblewoman wasn’t sure what the repercussions of her proposal would be, nor did she know if it would anger her parents, but she knew it was what they needed right now, and that was what mattered.
Together with Medrauta, she would ensure the mission’s success. After all, she could no longer content herself with walking behind her beloved knight when she knew her place was beside Medrauta.
“Well, with that settled, shall we continue with our—”
The door burst open suddenly, revealing an exhausted messenger. The fear and anxiety in his eyes were clearly displayed for all to see.
“M-My lord! We have an emergency!”