by Fred Wan

Kaspar practiced.

Every morning, without exception, Kaspar made the time to train. The exercise helped to wake him up for the day to come, before the morning sun became uncomfortably hot. So, in the quarters he and his wife Daniella shared on the top floor of the Trinken House, Kaspar practiced his swordsmanship. Today he focused on fencing.

It had thankfully been months since he’d needed to rely on his bladework, but this was a reprieve, not a release. There would come a time when he needed to rely on steel once again, and when that moment came, he would not have the luxury of time to prepare in advance.

So he followed a daily routine to keep his skills sharp, and let his mind wander as repetition honed reflexes, starting once again with a response to an initial attack.

Riposte. Parry. Thrust.

Edeline Trinken kept a fine inn and was supportive of both his public efforts on behalf of Eisen, and his private, personal side projects as well. She was straightforward, brooked no nonsense, and spoke her mind. Of like minds, the two had built, if not a friendship, an understanding built upon honesty.

That honesty had prompted her, months ago, to conclude that he had no business furnishing his quarters. She’d simply declared that, for both the House’s reputation and his, she would take charge of the matter. The only concession he winnowed from her was to leave a large corner clear, so he could go about his morning routine without needing to go out. He didn’t want an audience while he practiced.

She considered the empty corner an eyesore, but conceded when Daniella firmly asserted that Kaspar needed the exercise in order to keep encroaching age from reducing his muscles to flabby uselessness. The two women had come to an agreement, and that was that. Kaspar once again gave thanks that his wife’s persuasive skills and wordplay rivaled his own puissant skill at the bladed arts.

Counter, elbow, feint.

Having colleagues, friends, and companions with good judgment mattered. So much hinged on being united in purpose, yet free to act. Like in the finally ended Theus-accursed War.

Kaspar snorted. His countrymen called him brilliant, lauded him, claimed he’d won engagements that should have been unwinnable. Even his foes—those who survived—honored him for leading his forces to victory. It seemed almost perverse.

The proclamations and medals meant nothing. The praise was hollow. His troops had relied on him to find a way to win, to bring them home. Every single one that was hurt, maimed, or killed became and would always remain his failure. That saving them all was impossible wasn’t the point. They’d fought, they’d won, for themselves and their families, and the glory and honor of Eisen. But even in hard-won victory, too many now had sorrows to carry. And, to his grief, the battles weren’t over.

Even now, as Eisen sought to heal, new and darker threats emerged. Ones that required a commander’s eye to fight against, because precious few among the living had the insight that came from experience.

He’d been a soldier, a leader, a hero. Neither he nor Eisen needed him to be that anymore, so he stopped. Both man and country needed him to take on new duties.

Close, engage, clash.

So much of Kaspar’s life was built on trust. It had to be. He therefore made a point of ensuring that people and things were worthy of that trust. Trust in his skills. Trust in himself. Trust in his comrades. And most of all, trust in his causes. Earning the trust of others was not easy, but it was attainable. It just required commitment and effort. It didn’t require a noble bloodline and its attendant high station.

Kaspar paused in his drill, left hand raised. He glanced at the ancient but still gleaming work of the fighting arts encasing his hand up to the elbow. His people, his nation, were right to be proud of their craft. His panzerhand had protected him and previous wearers for decades in countless duels and battles, but was still as functional and beautiful as the day it was forged.

His gaze wandered down to a box, sitting on his writing desk. He wasn’t a superstitious man, but the box seemed almost… accusatory. For a moment, his shoulders slumped. He could—he would have to—attend to it later.

Stab.

Kaspar preferred a shorter blade than usually wielded by a swordsman trained in the eisenfaust style. He found something smaller to be easier to handle, to carry, and if necessary, to conceal. Short blades better reinforced the appearance of a successful merchant and dignitary, hoping to use his skills to return prosperity to his homeland. They complemented his training nicely.

Kaspar finished his routine. He glanced down, resentfully, at the gift box on his desk. He sighed. Time to clean himself up, get dressed, and deliver it.

****

Kaspar descended the stairs from his quarters towards the exit. He had obligations to meet.

“Kaspar, a moment.” called out a familiar voice.

He paused on the stairs, and turned to look upwards at Daniella, standing at the top of the landing. She glanced at him, frowned slightly, and joined him on the stairway. He looked down at himself, second-guessing his choice of attire.

“Am I not dressed appropriately?”

Daniella shook her head. “Not your clothes. Your bearing,” she gently chided. “You look like you have been asked to carry the weight of the world, and are making no secret that you begrudge the burden.”

“I’m sure Camille,” he lifted the box, “would rather have Mathieu back.”

Daniella ran a finger along the rim of the box. “The way you are sulking, you will just make it worse for her. And this,” she put her hand under his, lifting the box to eye level, “mght help give purpose to the pain.”

She lowered her hand again. “But you won’t be able to provide clarity if you’re so miserable that she has to make you feel better.”

She put a finger to the side of his cheek, turning his face to directly meet her gaze.

“Are you going to comfort her, or are you going so she can comfort you?”

Kaspar looked down and grunted, conceding the point.

“Precisely. If you can be bothered to pay your respects, don’t add to her grief. Weep on your own time, not on hers.”

She walked around him, inspecting both attire and posture, occasionally pulling on a sleeve or fixing a collar. Eventually, she patted him on the shoulder, signifying he’d finally passed this inspection.

“Kaspar, we are no strangers to this. Why does it bother you so?”

“We’d spoken a few times. Mathieu was eager to talk about bladework, and he was beginning to listen to me. He would have had potential for us. If only…”

Kaspar sighed, and headed for the door.

“Mathieu would have learned caution eventually. Now, all we can do is give Camille something to help with her grief.”

****

Kaspar gave his friend a hug.

“I’m sorry, Camille.”

“Thank you, Kaspar. I miss him.”

Camille Keiner’s meeting room was furnished in a manner befitting a woman of high station. Even distracted by grief, her gaze remained clear and her expression focused. Although he never regretted time in her company, Kaspar deeply regretted the events that brought him to her.

“What happened? Your message lacked details.”

After her servants brought a tray of refreshments, she waved them away, and gestured for Kaspar to sit. “You know that group Mathieu spent time with?” She crooked a finger, inviting him to take what he pleased from the tray.

Kaspar thought for a moment. “Young, wealthy, bored?”

“And with a tendency to dare each other to do more and more foolish things.” She sat down opposite him.

The moments stretched to minutes.

Kaspar waited. He had made the time to visit, he could certainly make the time to wait until she was ready to speak further.

“I wish he had followed your advice.”

He smiled wistfully. “About what? He asked a lot of questions.”

“Knowing the difference between panache and extravagance. And… .” Camille looked out the window, gathering her thoughts. Her brow furrowed, and her mien hardened. “Knowing when to seize the initiative and when to hold back…and being daring purposefully, instead of whimsically.” She took a freshly sliced apple from the tray. “You know they picked fights with other youths?”

Kaspar nodded. “Mathieu was a very talented duellist. Sadly, he knew it.”

“They thought themselves swashbucklers. Going to places, starting duels over petty slights, making daring escapes. Dilettantes amusing themselves. He began making a name for himself. But he wanted more excitement. They recruited a sorcier, relying on magics that invoked evil spirits. With her help, they became even more adventurous, confident that they could always escape.”

Kaspar nodded. He’d clung to the hope that he was wrong about what happened. Sadly, his instincts had been right.

“While carousing at some noble’s estate, they got into a ‘friendly duel’ with some other youths that turned bloody. The other group had more friends than Mathieu’s. The sorcier opened a portal so they could escape. Someone fired a pistol at them while they were retreating.”

She grimaced. “The sorcier was killed while Mathieu was entering the portal. It’s been days since.”

Kaspar closed his eyes. What a waste. With the sorcier who opened the portal dead, Mathieu would be condemned to wander through the walkway with no way out. Even if Mathieu stumbled out, it was well known that there was something unnatural about those portals, and that there were… things, predators and tempters, living within them. Mathieu was at the mercy of that place, and its inhabitants. Doomed to search in vain for an exit until chance or fate took mercy on him, or finished him off.

Another victim of taking sorcery for granted. All because leaving through a door wasn’t stylish enough.

“I’m sorry, Camille. I should have forced the issue, made him understand.”

Her eyes narrowed in consideration. After a moment, she gave a dismissive wave, turning away both his protestation of guilt and his apology.

“You never could have stopped him. He was enjoying himself too much. If you tried, he’d simply have stopped listening to you.”

Kaspar found he couldn’t bear looking into Camille’s teal grey eyes. He turned away, staring out a window into the street. Even though she was burdened with loss and wasn’t angry at him, Camille had an intensity about her. A formidable woman, even at her worst.

The two grieved. They discussed the possibility that Mathieu might still be found, and that if he was, the hope that the scars on body and soul could be healed.

Eventually, Kaspar produced the box, pushing it across the table to Camille. She looked at it, then inquiringly at Kaspar.

“If Mathieu emerges, we’ll find him and bring him back. But this,” He sat back. “It’s for you. I know how much this hurts, but the suffering doesn’t have to be in vain.” He nodded at Camille before departing her estate.

****

Camille opened the box, and inspected the gift contained within. She ran her hands over the contents, apprising it. Inside was a simple but finely crafted object, forged of steel and varnished a deep black.

A Prophet’s cross.

****

Kaspar knelt and prayed before the chapel’s humble wood-end altar.

“Forgive me.”

Faces haunted Kaspar. Of people who served alongside and under him, along with those who fought, suffered, and perished at his command. He remembered dreams unfulfilled, kindred left mourning, and battles that were not done, not for him, and not for those he commanded.

Kaspar wept, silently and without shame. Someone had to remember the fallen, particularly those whose passing would go unheralded. Who better than the person who could have saved them?

“I’m sorry.”

Kaspar’s mind turned to reverie. To his country and his cause.

Eisen… the nation had seen better days, but its people remained unbroken. They just needed opportunity. And he would give them the opportunity. To be fed, to prosper, to be spared the whims of fate, and to be protected from the various things that were awakening.

So he fought. And sent others to fight and die. And mourned the repeated failures.

Kaspar continued to pray.

****

Kaspar’s meditations were interrupted by a knock at the chapel’s door. He rose, and exited to greet Otto and Rosine, two of his associates. The two briefed him as they headed back towards the Trinken House.

Otto adjusted his spectacles. “Makepeace said he’ll buy as many casks as we have to sell, and he’ll pay even more if the next shipment is stronger. He’s a strange one, but he pays well!”

Kaspar nodded. The Avalonian trader was eccentric, and his antics were even more unusual than his name, but he didn’t seem… dangerous. Just strange. Doing business with him would generate useful funds, and would make it easier for Kaspar’s operatives to keep tabs on him. He turned to Rosine, flanking his other side.

“I sent Phillip and Terrel to investigate the complaints the merchants had that their food stocks were raided by unusual looking animals. Those weren’t animals, but they won’t bother anyone anymore.” Her lips curled upwards, happy to be sharing the news.

“Any other rumors?”

She produced a note. “We’ve heard several reports of sailors and fishermen being attacked by some form of aquatic beasts. They claim the monsters appeared from nowhere.” She glanced at Kaspar. “When we’ve dealt with them, I’d like to study one of the corpses.”

Kaspar considered for a moment. “Send Uwe. We’re past the point of subtlety anyways.”

The three approached a corner of the street. For a moment, Kaspar paused, looking back at the church. He’d given his due to the dead and his failures. Time to turn his attention back to the needs of the living.

Kaspar planned.

And prepared.

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