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vielle

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It feels like a concession of sorts, standing at the steps of Quinton Swan’s newly-built villa, hovering in uncertainty and unease in equal measure. Varda glances up at the structure from under the half-shade of her parasol and takes a necessary gulp of air.

It has been several weeks since their last meeting, that fateful afternoon when he had first visited Ravenel Manor, walking out the doors with a part of her she had not known she had given away until after his departure, and Varda is—she is—

She’s been breathing ashes ever since she had first seen him.

It is altogether strange, this feeling that has taken root in the fertile soil of her heart, blooming ivy vines around her iron trellis ribcage. She does not quite fear it, but neither does she desire to nurture it, not when there is still much at stake, the silver ring on her finger still tying her to her betrothed, an ocean and an island away.

Underneath the forest green frocks she has donned for this occasion, she is still healing, still recovering from the attempt on her life; despite her recent visit to House Senaria and the medicines and care they’ve prescribed, Varda senses a deeper hurt, bone-deep and ravenous. She thinks there must have been something in that poison-tinged arrow that even the doctors cannot ascertain, cannot remove even as it digs itself further into her marrow.

But nevertheless: she is here to make good on her vow to a business partner; whether or not she is ailing does not matter.

“I do not like this,” the stoic presence beside her announces, and Varda resists the urge to sigh. Iyalon, of course, has been making his disapproval of the situation very clear ever since he had first caught wind of the business deal she and Quinton had established. “Must you go forward with this—this peculiar condition he’s set on you?”

That insinuation that she is unable to make such a decision for herself cuts deeper than she expects it to. “It is not for you to decide,” Varda answers, and with that quiet, out of the ordinary statement, the knight swivels his head and stares at her in startled disbelief. The Lady is unmoved, however, and so he merely hangs his head.

“As you wish,” comes the stiff, monotonous reply, and no, no, that would not do. Not now.

“I will be fine.” Varda offers him a reassuring smile, brimming with optimism, and what else can he do but back down? With one final nod, Iyalon relinquishes his hold on his Lady’s arm and stands his ground as she moves up the stairs alone, soft fabric trailing behind her in her walk towards the doors. There are servants who come to greet her, and the doors shut behind her with a decisive click.

 

@King

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“Your parasol, Lady Hildebrand?” The young man offers his two gloved hands toward her. He is a native to the lands her family has governed for generations, as many of the men and women hired to tend to her business partner’s villa. He carefully takes the noble’s accessory and collapses its cover, setting it aside in a small alcove near the front entryway. Then, he gestures down the hall. “This way, please. Mister Quinton has been expecting you.”

Like its exterior, the villa’s interior is dominated by large pillars and great arches. The tiled floors are polished to a bright sheen; the walls are painted a warm cream to offset the abundance of green foliage and bright, vibrant flower petals. A modern-day Garden of Eden, highlighted by the man’s more personal tastes.

The man’s extensive historical collection has continued to grow here in the Hildebrand domain, their past now becoming his. In one case there are the shattered remains of a sword, little more than the hilt and several fragments of steel resting on a soft, black velvet cloth. It is said that it belonged to a knight from these parts that, during the Usurping, killed one of the Tyrant King’s great generals. Further down, a bloodied—or rusted—mace sat on display: the great general’s preferred method of killing.

Here, there are the battered pieces of a woman’s armor – one of the first women to be knighted in the realm. There, several tomes said to be linked to an ancient order of witches that used to stalk ancient Ursa Madeum, preying on children found to be straying too far from their hovels. It is a gallery as enlightening as it is macabre, a blending of light and dark, good and evil, which has become his favored representation as of late.

The servant guides the noble lady to a room near the back of the villa. It is a large and rectangular chamber without a southern wall, replaced with pillars instead, commanding an impressive view of the lands sprawling out behind them. These pillars are covered completely in a blanket of vines, leaves, and blooming flowers, top to the bottom. The room is minimally decorated, with a long table of polished dark wood stretching the length of it, lined with pillowed chairs. Situated in one of these seats is a veiled frame, tall as a child and wide as a man. Only a single cabinet adorns the wall, made from glass and that same dark wood, filled with all manners of ports, domestic and imported.

“Lady Varda,” Quinton says from his position at the middle of the room, near the frame. “I’ve been expecting you.”

The servant at her side bows and excuses himself to continue dinner preparations. Quinton approaches her slowly, eyes dancing over those beautiful details he’d not been able to forget, relishing them once more. There’s something different about her now, though he can’t quite put his finger on it. It’s a feeling, more than anything, familiar and yet foreign.

He takes her hand, her left hand, and thumbs the back of it as a lover might in idle moments. “I’m glad you could make it.” They’re alone now, the only eyes and ears in this home well under his command. So he lifts her hands to his lips, takes his time gently kissing each of her knuckles lowering it from his touch. He holds her hand for a moment longer, their interaction well beyond inappropriate, yet testing her limits, her wants.

Learning her, as he desired to.

“So, what do you think of my home?” He finally asks, throwing his arm wide in gesture to the large structure surrounding them.

Edited by King

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Varda cannot help the curiosity that rises in her as she moves through the halls of the villa, heart thudding soundlessly in her chest as inquisitive roots entwine themselves around the rungs of her ribcage. More than once, she finds herself gazing at the relics encased in glass scattered about, the servant hovering close by as a silent sentry until she makes to continue their walk further into Quinton’s abode.

And then he is there, as dark and handsome as he had been weeks prior, and the Lady Hildebrand takes a few moments to steady herself in the wake of his greeting.

“Sir Swan,” Varda inclines her head, not bowing in favor of her injury, “it is nice to see you looking quite—well.”

The servant takes his leave, and henceforth, they are alone.

Varda presses her lips together at the man’s slow approach, her prior equilibrium swept away from under her feet; she has forgotten the tenuous balance she had acquired on their last meeting, and once again, she is left adrift in that uncertain in-between. When he steps into her personal space, her spine straightens itself out: whether for fight or flight, it is not immediately clear.

“I’m glad you could make it.”

The heady, dark curl of smoke in her belly is offset by the twinge of pain as he pulls at her hand, presses his lips to her fingers: a rather stern reminder of her body’s current weakness. Varda attempts a faint smile, polite and slightly amused, hoping he had not caught the strain caused by his actions.

The ring on her finger catches the sunlight streaming through the pillars. She does not turn to look at it.

“So, what do you think of my home?”

This time, her smile is far more genuine. “It’s quite lovely,” she murmurs, casting her eyes about the space around them, appreciating the elegant aesthetics showcased in the architecture once more. In the sudden silence, Varda casts about for a suitable topic to latch upon. “I see you’ve acquired quite a few artifacts as part of your collection. Tell me; where have you found them? Perhaps I can obtain some of my own to further adorn Ravenel Manor’s halls.”

Edited by vielle

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“Here and there,” Quinton replies, gesturing his hand left to right in emphasis. He has no intention of revealing his secrets to her—not yet; perhaps not ever. The very nature of his business is an acquired taste, and he’s found there are a limited number of people in the world capable of stomaching it. It will be better for all parties involved—decided after their first meeting—that she remains ignorant of the evil growing long in his shadow. “I’m afraid that self-preservation prevents me from answering you further. If I were to reveal my secrets to you, well, you’d have no reason to seek my opinion on these matters any further. This way, I can be confident that I’ll see you again. And please, call me Quinn.”

Moving closer to her, forcing whatever separate personal space might have existed between them into a single entity, he turned on his heels and presented a bent arm to her. “Your timing is quite impeccable, really.” Lightly flicking his chin ahead of them, he seeks to draw her attention toward the mysterious frame, draped in a curtain of black velvet. “Had you arrived a few hours sooner, that wouldn’t have been ready for you.”

Quinn guides her toward the mysterious piece, larger than a small child by far. There’s no hurry in his pace or eagerness in his steps. Rather, he appears to enjoy having her by his side, their bodies in stride alongside each other, more than the gift itself. He uses the time to gauge her, to measure how her body works when guided by his, learn her in these meticulous ways that are only possible in the ephemeral encounters so many dismiss. She’s a beautiful woman, regal and lithe, with strong values, a powerful name, and sterling reputation.

Yes, she will do quite nicely.

“I hope you like it.”

Pinching a corner of the cloth with his free hand, he tugs it away with a grand flourish. The gilded frame is sleek and angular, shaped into clusters of orchids at each of its four corners. Inside is the rendition of her likeness, as if he’d reached into the past and imprisoned the memory here. It’s the first time she smiled at him, the blush she’d hoped gone still on her cheeks, a bouquet of white roses in her hands. Every detail, perfectly in place.

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He tells her to call him Quinn, and it is a frightening enough thought, the idea of such intimacy so casually afforded, that Varda forgets he had not given her a precise answer. Furthermore, any thought in the name of her previous query immediately flees her mind when Quinton steps forward even closer, a sliver of space all but left between them.

It is only a small matter of hesitation before she loops her fingers around the crook of his arm, and they begin to move forward, a graceful unit across the stone floors.

“Your timing is quite impeccable, really. Had you arrived a few hours sooner, that wouldn’t have been ready for you.”

“Sorry, what wouldn’t be?” She asks, all gentle curiosity, when the man tugs on the fabric covering the frame before them, and then all the air abandons earth for a frozen moment in time.

It is her.

"You—you made this?" Even as she asks the question, she is already terrified and amazed of the answer in equal measure: terror, that such a man is capable of such impeccable memory, rendering her down onto the canvas in perfect mimicry; amazement, that such a man has given her such attention, such focus, that he can replicate her image this well. He must've spent more time studying her than she had first observed. "If so, you are—quite talented, Sir," it behooves her not to choke on her words this very instance, trying to say his name the way he wants her to, color rising to her cheeks in the same manner as the painting had illustrated, "um—Quinn."

It does not quite come out the way she had wanted to say it, but the slightly-squeaked moniker will have to suffice; she cannot turn back time to deliver it differently.

Varda continues to babble despite herself, clearly flustered by this artwork presented to her. “No matter who has painted it, it is quite a lovely work of art, even as the subject is not very,” her bravado quails, and a lightheaded feeling creeps its way to blur her vision for a split second. Varda coughs, trying to dispel both her embarrassment and her vertigo, casting about to find the proper words to finish that statement and finding none. “Well. You know.”

Edited by vielle

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Quinton nods, neither smiling nor smirking. “I did. Growing up, I wanted to be—”

His dance with the past is interrupted by his partner’s brief dizziness, more prominent to his keen senses than she realizes. He feels the slight squeeze on his forearm, the abrupt shifting of her balance, and then the way it all snaps back into place when she regains her wits. Yes, there’s certainly something different about her, and this has planted the seed of a creeping suspicion that it’s far from positive.

Well. You know.”

Quinton arches a dark eyebrow at her. “I do?” Ah, yes, he thinks to himself after a moment of consideration. Of course, she does not see her own beauty. “Oh, you mean to say that you’re somehow not as beautiful as my rendition of you? Well, I respectfully disagree, Lady Varda.” He looks are her directly, lets her feel the weight of his gaze. “I have traveled from one side of the world to the other, from the poorest slums to the richest palaces, seen people of every race and creed, and I can say without hesitation or doubt that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on.”

He reaches across with his free hand, placing it atop her own. “I do hope that, over time, I’ll help you to see the same thing.”

After a few more moments of lingering there, Quinton guides her further into the room, toward the end of the table where they are to dine. “Dinner will be ready shortly,” he says, bringing her to her seat. “But, in the meantime, I hope you won’t think me too forward, but are you all right?” He pulls her seat out for her as they separate, lingering beside her as he unpacks his question. “Just earlier, you seemed, mm, dizzy. Is everything okay?”

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There are a fair few things that spell disaster for any self-respecting woman, and with these things enclosed in a handsome package that she imagines can allure even the most obstinate of wills, Quinton is a force to be reckoned with. In the wake of his devastating words of compliment, cutting deep below into the heart of her tangled-string insecurity, Varda can only breathe in deep and pray the flush of her cheeks does not make her look like a tomato.

When her shattered equilibrium is brought to his attention, the man is gentle with her, quite at odds with his severe appearance, the darkness simmering along the edges of his brow, his jawline, and truly, it is all—rather unfair. Here she is, struggling to find her stability in the midst of faint echoes of ache and a fragile disposition, and there he is, calm and composed, as casual as ever.

Perhaps Iyalon had been right after all; she is not well enough to face Quinton and not splinter to pieces before him.

“Just earlier, you seemed, mm, dizzy. Is everything okay?”

Varda sinks into the chair he has pulled out for her; she cannot show weakness, not now. Not when she does not yet know where she stands with this man before her. “I’m—I’m fine, I am,” she pauses, shallow breaths whispering up her throat, not fine.” The room begins to shatter into nothingness along the edges of her vision, and her chest clenches tight. Breathing becomes a struggle.

No, Varda thinks, no, not now.

“I am sorry,” she murmurs brokenly, her grip on his sleeve slackening as the world grows dark and swallows her up into the black void.

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Quinton doesn’t panic as the woman faints, and quite effortlessly positions himself to catch her in his arms before she can topple from her chair. “Not well at all, it would seem,” he murmurs to his sleeping beauty. She’s put him a precarious situation, this man that walks both in the light and dark, each one of his days a struggle to maintain the perfect balance. It would be easy for him to have his men slay the guard outside his villa days whilst he spirited her away to some distant land. Once there, she would learn to play her role, and play it well.

But, there is a part of him that had become fond of her. A woman grown, yet so very much a shy, impressionable child ignorant of the affections she deserves. It is her innocence, he realizes, and the desire he feels growing inside him is that of a man that wants nothing more than to protect it. So, rather than calling for Athos, Aramis, or Porthos, he calls for D’artagnan instead.

He is a thin man, this D’artagnan, with bronzed skin of foreign ancestry and a clean-shaven face. His hair is dark, his eyes darker, and he carries himself with all the regality of a young lord. His deep navy suit is sharp and freshly pressed, giving him an almost gangly appearance. He moved across the room without a sound, as if he holds no weight.

“Sir?”

“It would seem my guest is ill. Take her to my room.”

Quinton lifts her from the chair as he would a princess, depositing her into the young man’s awaiting arms as if she were made of glass. “I suspect the culprit to be occult in nature. Have one of the Seekers look her over while I inform her guard.”

D’artagnan nods and turns on his heels, exiting the room with smooth haste.

Without missing a beat, Quinton follows, parting ways in the hall to approach the front of his home. The servants there are quick to respond, but he eases them with a placating wave of the hand. He opens the door and studies the knight only for a moment, trying to gauge what manner of man he might be. “Ser,” Quinton says in an unnaturally even voice. “It would appear your Lady has fallen ill. Come with me.”

Quinton waits for the knight to move, his promptness appreciated at this moment. As they walk together, the gracious host elaborates. “We were in the middle of discussing dinner and she simply fainted. I had her brought to my room as the guest rooms are not finished, but for propriety’s sake, I felt it would be inappropriate to have her treated without you present.” The last thing he cares to begin here is a scandal involving his future intended. Her sterling reputation is equally as important as her innocence.

“I’m no doctor,” Quinton says, “But I do believe the source to be arcane.” He notes the guard’s curious glance, but not willing to divulge his secrets, simply shrugs. “I have a pension for these types of things. After a while, you develop something of a sixth sense, you could say. I’m currently having a Seeker – a female doctor – inspect her at this very moment. Has… anything happened that the doctor might need to be aware of? Has Lady Varda been experiencing these symptoms for an extended period of time.”

Edited by King

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“It would appear your Lady has fallen ill.”

Iyalon’s not expecting the sudden punch to the gut, the sudden fly in the ointment of his hard-won ease, and that’s what he blames for the way he stumbles ever-so-slightly against the carriage door: thrust hard and cast ashore in the unsteady sea of his tumultuous worry with vicious, unforgiving force.

He follows, steps military and sure in his stride. What else can he do but follow?

“We were in the middle of discussing dinner and she simply fainted. I had her brought to my room as the guest rooms are not finished, but for propriety’s sake, I felt it would be inappropriate to have her treated without you present.”

Despite the wariness he clings to, Iyalon can appreciate the host’s sensitivity to Lady Hildebrand’s repute. He does not respond to the statements offered, however. He has nothing to say to this man, this stranger that would have his Lady’s attention even in the echoes of her affliction; she should have allowed herself more time to recuperate, rather than gallivant around the countryside in some courtesy call that could have been moved to a later point in time.

The thought of Varda beholden to this man in ways he does not understand—enough to rouse her from her sickbed to meet with him in his villa alone—is a rabid beast in his chest. He dares not think of it now, not when his Lady needs him by her side.

The lord of the house believes the source of Varda’s illness to be arcane, which is an astute observation, but one that Iyalon finds rather—concerning. He shoots him a glance, faint curiosity ultimately quelled by jagged suspicion, altogether fuelled by the succeeding announcement of having a penchant for these sorts of things: a declaration he files away for further perusal.

“Has… anything happened that the doctor might need to be aware of? Has Lady Varda been experiencing these symptoms for an extended period of time.”

Ah, but this. This will require an answer he is not prepared to give to someone he has not yet been allowed to assess for himself, but: needs must when the devil drives, and his Lady is at the mercy of this nefarious poison plaguing her body. He is not prepared, but he shall have to give it.

“The Lady Hildebrand was involved in an assassination attempt a few weeks ago,” he begins, a divulgement of sorts of another mark of his failure, another strike of the iron whip on his soul. Iyalon forces himself to continue. “She was wounded with an arrow by an unknown assailant. House Senaria has provided the services of their finest physician; he has helped in her recuperation, but she has confided to us of her continued pain, and her fears that perhaps something else, something more supernatural had tainted the arrow that injured her.”

 

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Quinton frowns as they make their way through the villa, up to the second floor. “It is one of the most dangerous things in the world,” he says offhandedly. “And yet, there exists no monarch smart enough to police its usage.” There is a thick resentment in his tone as he reflects on the rampant chaos magic and its practitioners have caused throughout history, from Zengi himself to the number of criminals and terrorists that have struck out at the people of Valucre. Now, Varda finds herself staring down the barrel of that same cannon, a game of Terran Roulette that is bound to end in tragedy.

Or was, at least.

Fortunately for the Lady of Hildebrand, and her faithful knight, Quinton only prefers to play the games he knows he will win. Roulette is far less threatening when all the bullets have been removed from the chamber, after all. Iyalon may not understand him, may not trust him, but he will learn to respect him and, most importantly, appreciate his talents and gifts.

It is down the west wing of the upper hall that they find D’artangan before a parted door, a strong light spilling out behind him. He nods as Quinton and his newest guest approach.

“The Seeker has confirmed that the Lady Varda has suffered an affliction,” the young man says plainly, clearly unbothered by the news. “A curse – subtle, but extremely complex.”

Quinton looks at Iyalon. “It would appear that Lady Varda was correct.”

He enters the room to find the Seeker sitting beside his bed, Varda comfortably resting on plush sheets and down pillows. The room is decorated in sparse taste, with the bed being the largest piece of furniture. There are several dressers against the wall, an ottoman chest with a cushioned top at the foot of the bed, all of it a dark rowan black as coal, and shimmered like polished glass.

The woman stands, lowering her head in a bow of acknowledgment to her employer. She is tall and lithe, with her dark hair neatly piled into a braided bun at the back of her head. On her left hand is an ornate piece of jewelry: a single ring and a bracelet connected by several steel chains, holding a triangular group of gemstones across the back of the hand.

“I trust you can break this curse.” Quinton’s tone reveals that she is the best at what she does.

“I can,” she says matter of factly. “But, there is a strong chance the Lady will not survive it. Curses like these gain their strength by slowly feeding on their host, day by day. They’re like parasites. Judging from the Lady’s condition, this one has been left unattended to for too long.”

Still, Quinton doesn’t panic. Does he ever?

His attention shifts to Iyalon. “As Lady Varda is incapable of speaking for herself, and there is no other Hildebrands present, you are legally the closest thing to a viable power of attorney. I can heal her,” he says firmly, “but it is not something that I would go forward with without their permission. Know that if you allow me, good knight, the Lady Varda will never be able to harness, control, or interact with magic so long as she lives.”

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He is silent for the rest of the short walk, words carefully kept under the lock and key of his teeth, his pursed lips. What wise quip the other man has to offer pales in comparison to the unease that curls serpentine around his spine, the worry dragging jagged claws down the length of his throat. Within a brief period that might as well have been hours, they finally arrive at the entryway to her room, and he forces himself not to jitter in impatience as the servant exchanges a few words with his master.

“It would appear that Lady Varda was correct.”

Iyalon’s gaze shifts to Quinton, then back to the sliver of light between the doorway and the post, a wordless nod enough to signify his resignation with the dilemma at hand. The importance of propriety, yet a sudden flicker in his mind but strong, instills in him a moment’s worth of patience, stepping back to let the lord of the house push into the room first, despite the rising tide of his distress.

And there she is, laid out on the bed like a wilting dream, and gods, but the vision pierces him straight to the marrow.

Iyalon moves closer to the bed, as close as formality allows, even as he listens with one ear to the conversation unraveling beyond him. When Quinton turns the query over in his direction, he is almost unprepared, heart pained beyond relief for Varda’s sake.

“As Lady Varda is incapable of speaking for herself, and there is no other Hildebrands present, you are legally the closest thing to a viable power of attorney. I can heal her, but it is not something that I would go forward with without their permission. Know that if you allow me, good knight, the Lady Varda will never be able to harness, control, or interact with magic so long as she lives.”

Here’s what’s kept on the darkest rung of Iyalon’s ribs, the most selfish thought he has ever allowed to propagate in the garden of his soul: all things, in turn, can never hold a candle to Varda Hildebrand’s life. No matter the impediment, no matter the cost—her continued existence on this green earth is his utmost priority. She needs not the ability to wield magic; the Hildebrands have long considered magic within their bloodline to be an anomaly, an aberration, even a defect, for lack of a better term.

His Lady does not need magic more than her ability to breathe.

“For the devotion I hold for my Lady and her wellbeing, I allow it.” Iyalon holds his ground; his hands do not shake. “Do what you must, sir, if it will ease her pain.”

 

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“A wise choice.”

Quinton nods to the knight, and then extends a hand toward the Seeker. The woman fixes her hands into a number of strange poses, drawing light and sound to her palms. With a long slither and great radiance, she summons a small syringe into her grasp, which she then deposits in Quinton’s expecting palm. The liquid inside is a dark red, nearly black, and seems to drink in all the light around it.

“Liliana, where is the wound?”

The seeker steps closer. “Her right side.”

“Would you be so kind as to open the dress a bit, then?”

Liliana nods to her employer, but as she moves closer, cuts a sympathetic—or perhaps pitying—gaze toward the knight. At the bedside, she adjusts the unconscious Varda onto her left, lifting her right into the air. The jewelry on her hand begins to glow, and as she runs a single finger along the fabric, it sizzles and splits, exposing a strip of the woman’s lovely pale flesh.

The wound looks to be healing normally, but the seeker’s expression is foul. Her true sight allows her to see the real infection, coursing through the noble’s bloodstream like poison. “This is the source,” Liliana says. “I can see it.”

Quinton nods, paying Iyalon a final look. “This will all be over soon.”

He injects the serum side by side with the wound, and immediately, the seeker’s grim expression lightens. She can see the concoction spreading like wildfire, purging the curse on all of its metaphysical levels. But it doesn’t stop there and continues to burn, scorching away her arcane genetics, severing the incorporeal threads tethering her to the world’s ‘other side’. In a matter of moments, Varda is utterly normal, this reality reinforced by the serum welding itself to her being.

They lay Varda back into the bed, covering the slit of her exposed side with cloth.

“She will make a full recovery,” Liliana says. Then she excuses herself from the room.

Quinton remains sitting on the edge of the bed, hands in his lap as he gauges the knight. Another moth to the flame, hm? It must be painful for him, he wagers, forced to protect the woman he loves but can never possess. Strange how often these narratives are in these second-world countries. “What you did was very brave,” he says, looking at Varda. “There aren’t many men or women that would have the courage to make the decision you just did. It shows your absolute dedication to Lady Varda.”

Eventually, he rises, and as he passes the armored clad man, he stops to place a heavy hand on his metal shoulder. “You will both stay here the night. Varda should awaken in a few hours, but she is in no condition to travel. Make sure she rests. I’ll see you both in the morning for breakfast.” Then he's gone, the door closed behind him, leaving Iyalon to ruminate over what he's done.

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Iyalon has lived years and years as a frequent witness to the crimson tide, to the wounds and ails that plague humankind, a weary sort of rinse and repeat to the point of insignificance, but with Varda, he finds he cannot stomach the sight of blood against scarred skin for too long. He forces himself to observe, however; he stands guard against the fear that beckons in the peripheries, the demons that seek to snatch her away from his sight. He will not allow such a thing, not under his watch, not ever.

As they work on the Lady Hildebrand’s wound, the knight watches, and waits, and watches.

It is over after what had seemed to be eons, and Iyalon draws the first steady gulp of air after tenuous breathlessness. His gaze trails over to the lord of the house, uncaring of whatever he had witnessed on Iyalon’s face, that bleeding heart of black and blue.

“What you did was very brave. There aren’t many men or women that would have the courage to make the decision you just did. It shows your absolute dedication to Lady Varda.”

Quinton’s words speak of bravery, of devotion and dedication and courage to make this choice, and Iyalon is silent under the weight of a love that sacrifices all, that would give up everything for another, without mercy or recompense.

He would give years and years of his life just to see Varda breathe one more glorious breath of air, for however long he’s got left.

“You will both stay here the night. Varda should awaken in a few hours, but she is in no condition to travel. Make sure she rests. I’ll see you both in the morning for breakfast.”

How telling, that this foreigner could be so heedless of the Lady Hildebrand’s title, opting instead for familiarity, as if he had earned such a thing in so short a period of time. How telling, that Iyalon does not flinch at the sudden pressure of a hand on his armor, does not raise an eyebrow at the surety of that action, as if the man had thought it welcome enough.

But: he will be polite. He will offer respect. He will offer gratitude. It is the very least he can do, where Quinton had achieved what he could never do on account of Varda’s life. The knight inclines his head, murmurs his thanks, and in the wake of that closing door, he moves to take a seat by the Lady’s bedside, intent on keeping watch over her wearied sleep no matter how long it takes.

 

She awakens once in the lonely hours of the night, sky eyes glazed with fog clouds.

Heartsick from overwhelming relief and ache, the words slip forth unbidden, uncalled for, but the dark truth rings through them all the same. “You’re what I’ve learned to be the only thing worthwhile in this world,” he whispers, fingers clasped tight around that fragile wrist, around that drumbeat pulse stubbornly marching on despite the odds. “You are the sun in the sky and the life in the earth. You are everything, and it won’t ever mean enough, never enough for the way you fill my lungs with air, but I know this simple truth: you are my heartbeat. You keep me living.” He dares swipe a thumb against her brow, dancing the thinnest line of propriety. “Do not forget this, I beg you.”

It does not matter whether she hears him or not, in this hazy world between awakening and slumber. He breathes with the knowledge nevertheless, this weight lifted off his shoulders with the declarations he has allowed to take flight in the night, where they are naught but man and woman, stripped bare of responsibility and lineages and every damned thing in the world that separates them.

He watches as her eyes slip shut once more, and this—it is not much, but it is all he has. He will take every last inch of it.

 

In the morning, his Lady allows him the privilege of taking care of her, uncharacteristically timid as he helps her prepare herself for polite company and then leads her through the halls of the manor, in the direction of their host’s breakfast table.

“You need not do this, dear knight,” Varda tells him, lips quirked in faint amusement.

“Well, I simply must, if this habit of swooning at the feet of strangers continues on,” Iyalon retorts, and he relishes the hearty laugh that shines through, the once-persistent ache prevalent in her every movement flung into the wind, never to be seen again. Every last vestige of regret that may have lingered in his chest vanishes at the sight of her: healthy and hale and whole and breathing.

It is a new day, and where he stands beside his Lady, Iyalon is ready to face it.

 

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Quinton is awake early, as always, much earlier than his guests and even earlier than some of his most vigilant security. There’s something that’s troubling him, a nagging itch in the back of his mind that won’t cease no matter how much he scratches it. Where have I seen that look before? It’s Iyalon that he’s seeing, that noble and silent knight, duty-bound and forever loyal to his Lady.

He’s sketched the man half a dozen times since sunrise, each rendition identical in its likeness to the knight, and yet unsatisfying to its creator. It’s missing something, but what that something is, Quinton cannot place. The way he looked at Varda last night; it wasn’t the fear of a knight losing his charge. It was something more. Something… inappropriate, maybe?

With that small thought, Quinton begins with Iyalon’s eyes again, the betrayers of the knight’s stoic expression. Those deep cobalt eyes, so dark they were nearly black. They held a gaze that was as wise as it was sullen; the eyes of a man that had seen many things, not all of it good or beautiful, yet not all of it evil or hideous. A man that had watched the woman he loved from afar for years, honoring his vow of protection over his heart’s thundering for affection.

And Quinton’s hand moves across the paper, charcoal in his grip, he finds Iyalon, with his haunted eyes, staring back at him. He smirks, and continues his piece in earnest.

He’s all but finished as his two guests enter the long room at the rear of the villa. The table has been set, topped with a modest spread of tasteful foods: fruits, pastries, smoked meats, eggs, toasts, a number of jams, and a selection of juices and teas. “Impeccable timing,” Quinton says, gesturing at the two plates he’s positioned beside each other. The meats and eggs are still sizzling. “They just finished setting the table.”

For propriety’s sake, Quinton rises from his chair to greet the Lady and her knight, though he brings his sketch along with him. “You’re looking much better, Lady Varda,” he says, forgoing the intimacy between them in the presence of her guard. “And Ser, this is for you.” He presents the paper to the knight face-forward, letting him see how he’s been captured in Quinton’s collection. “I hope you find it… comparable. But come, you must be starving. You did miss dinner last night.”

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39.jpg

 

Varda feels as if she is missing something.

Something important; something she has lost to the hurricane winds of pain and distress, to the darkness of silvery nights and half-whispered words spoken holy against the backdrop of the unholy hours. She stands at the head of Quinton’s breakfast table altogether unsteady on her feet, and the savory smells emanating from the bountiful spread find themselves in battle with the anxiety simmering in her gut. This is not the time and place to be distracted, she reminds herself. Not now.

Thank the gods Iyalon is there, a steady presence at her back. She dredges up the will to stand straight and tall, to muster up a winsome smile for the benefit of their host today.

“You’re looking much better, Lady Varda.”

She nods in response, her mouth opening to speak gratitude—Iyalon had told her everything, face pale and pinched tightly—for what he had done on her behalf, when Quinton beats her to the punch, attention shifting to the stoic man by her side, pushing forth a piece of parchment that bears Iyalon’s own countenance, etched purposefully with an artist’s hand.

Varda does not see the way the knight’s face shifts into unreadability, but she rather thinks he feels uncomfortable, being presented with such a—gift?

“You are very kind, sir,” Iyalon finally responds, bowing his head low in respect, before he tucks away the sketch in the folds of his cloak and begins to usher the Lady in the direction of the plates laid out for them.

At Quinton’s reminder of her missing dinner last night, Varda feels her stomach protest in reply, quaking silently as a rather vivid prompt. “Ah, yes, so I have,” she muses, nodding gratefully at Iyalon as he pulls out the chair for her to sit before taking a step backwards, transforming into a motionless statue, watching from his spot near the wall. Taking a moment aside to glance confusedly between her knight and the empty place beside her and receiving no reply from the man’s direction, Varda then turns towards Quinton.

“Um, sir,” she dares not speak his given name so casually in the presence of others and most of all Iyalon’s, “I must speak my utmost gratitude for what you had done last night. For me.” She takes a deep breath to steady herself, continues. “I know my knight has made the decision, and I trust him with my life wholeheartedly,” a small noise rings out from behind her, but she does not turn around; Varda is merely reiterating a statement that has held true since the day her knight had been appointed Lord Protector, “but you, sir, have given away what must be valuable, um, serum, all for my wellbeing, to quell whatever curse had taken ahold of me.” She bows her head, eyes lowered to the table before her, unable to meet Quinton’s gaze. “I cannot thank you enough for that.”

 

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