The nobleman fell to his knees and cried, “Please, release my family from your curse!”
Esperance Valois tilted his chin up, arrogance showing itself in a wolfish grin. He said nothing and kept his gaze downward, tail swishing back and forth attentively.
Getting no response, Lord Emilien pleaded on. “You’ve seduced my daughter, my son, and even my beloved Ivanna, to whom I’ve been married twenty-five years.”
Esperance cocked a bushy, white brow. “And have I seduced you?”
Light from the hearth danced across the room, casting a warm glow against Emilien’s fair skin. Long, foppish hair was the trend among young nobles, but men like Emilien, with their salt and pepper coloring, preferred a close cropped cut. Esperance liked to think that his shimmering mane was a perfect compromise of the two.
Nobody would question why two finely dressed noblemen with neatly coiffed hair and lavish surcoats would be meeting in that room. That wing of the manor was typically occupied by scheming politicians and drunken lords. But tonight, there was only Emilien, Esperance, and desperation. And nobody was drunk.
“Need I remind you,” Emilien said in a solemn voice, “that my son–my heir–is looking for a wife, and that ensuring the longevity of House Daucourt is of utmost importance to me.”
“Perhaps I could be his wife?”
The eldest son of House Valois brought a gloved hand up to stroke the white scuff on his chin.
“My deepest apologies if I have offended the integrity of House Daucourt.” Esperance closed his eyes, bowed his head, and brought a fist to his heart. “I shall spare you and your kin my seductions, as I am well aware that resisting my charms is a feat only the strongest of men–and some bugbears–have ever been able to achieve.”
Then Esperance walked to the window and looked down at the city below. At this hour he could scarcely find a lantern anywhere outside of Opulence Plaza. Fondness and familiarity warmed his heart as he lifted the latch and a chill blew in that nearly snuffed out the hearth fire.
“You’re quite troublesome, you know,” Master Daucourt said, but there was relief in his sigh. “If I were not such good friends with Aurelien… Where are you going?”
Esperance, halfway through the window, turned back. “Please inform your son that my offer to be his bride still stands, despite his good father’s objection.”
And then he jumped.
Emilien ran over and peered down, but all he could see was a dark and empty street.
The Church used to be the most potent establishment in Laféron–until the wizards came. For the past decade, it was the Fal Order that wielded disgusting political power, terrorized the nobility into submission, and manipulated the lord commander.
While the Church longed for its glory days, its real enemy was not the megalomanic mages in their towering, ivory castle. It was a man named Esperance, and he was never to set foot in the cathedral ever again.
At least, that had been the hope.
The following morning, Aurelien Valois would hear the frantic call of the doorman announcing three uninvited guests. When he arrived in the foyer, he would be greeted by the red faces of three sweaty clerics.
Aurelien acknowledged them with a quick nod. “Brothers, if I had know you’d be over for breakfast, I would have warned the cook.”
“That son of yours, Lord Valois!” The one with the curly, frayed hair, Lou, cried.
“He’s burgled the sacred holds!” Claude, top of his head so bare and polished that it could reflect light, chimed in. “Stole the sacred Chalice of Yldir!”
“Burgled!” Esperance gasped, coming into view from behind his father. “Me? Steal from the church?” He clutched his chest. “I?”
“It is quite the claim,” Aurelien said, giving his son a glance that betrayed suspicion, “but if it is false, then that would mean these good men are lying.”
“I would never make such an accusation,” Esperance insisted. “No, that they were robbed, I do not doubt. That I was the culprit, well…”
Marcel, the one with a head of short, oily black hair, held up a fistful of something white and fuzzy.
Esperance jumped back. “My gods! Put that thing down! Is it still alive?”
“Alive? It’s not a mouse, my lord,” Marcel said sardonically, “it’s your hair.”
“If you allow us to search your home, Master Valois, we would…” Lou’s courage went scarlet when he caught Aurelien’s hard eyes. “Ah, perhaps, then, it would be sufficient to search only Lord Esperance’s room…?”
Aurelien began to object but Esperance spoke up.
“It’s quite alright, father. I will consent to their search because I have nothing to hide.”
Lou, Claude, and Marcel smirked in unison. The victory was theirs. Only when they stepped into Esperance’s room did they realize they’d made a mistake.
No matter where they looked, clutter abounded.
Lou began working through the piles in the corners of the room, carefully setting musical instruments aside to sift through books–some of which offended his religious senses–vials of what he hoped were just potions and elixirs, and strange, colorful orbs that could have been for magic. Or parties.
“I’ll lend you some of my texts for your personal reading pleasures,” Esperance offered when he caught Lou skimming pages. The cleric flushed and threw the book aside.
Marcel assaulted the desk, none too politely pushing aside a hapless collection of jagged rocks, smooth stones, shimmering gems, and pretty baubles of all sizes.
“My treasures!” Esperance cried as the assortment of random junk hit the floor. Beside him, his father was doing an impressive job of suppressing his annoyance at the intruders.
Claude went straight for the most obvious thing–the sturdy oak chest at the foot of the bed. He used some kind of magic to quite literally break the lock, and then he began pulling out Esperance’s cherished possessions. Like a sleeveless dress the color of sapphire. Holding it up, Claude saw that when worn it would tease a generous portion of the midsection and, judging by the narrowness of the skirt, the thighs as well.
Esperance flashed him a sheepish smile and averted his gaze like some embarrassed maiden. “I am saving that for a special occasion.”
Claude rolled his eyes and kept searching. He pulled out more clothes, no dresses, however, and a variety trinkets from far-off countries, souvenirs of Esperance’s travels. Then he lifted a strange wand from the bottom of the chest.
Long and gnarled, it was an ugly thing that looked like it belong in a forest rather than a nobleman’s bedchambers.
“Ah,” Esperance said as Claude scrutinized the knotted wand, “what I use that for has nothing to do with magic.”
When the cleric finally caught the meaning, he grimaced theatrically and flung it aside as if it was poisonous.
The rest of the search was uneventful, and the Chalice of Yldir was nowhere to be found. At some point, Aurelien was drawn away by Lady Laetitia, who seemed much more amused by the whole situation than her husband.
As the three clerics begrudgingly shuffled out of the room they’d left in a state of chaos even worse than the one they’d found it in, Esperance stopped them.
“Gentleman, there is one more place you may want to check.” They turned and looked at him expectantly. “It is perhaps so obvious that it is the last place anyone might think of.”
“Well, on with it!” Lou urged, annoyed but obviously eager to hear the secret of this great hiding place.
“Have you wondered,” Esperance said in a low and serious voice, “why I have been walking so uncomfortably this entire morning?”
The three swore in ways that were entirely unfitting of men of the cloth, then trotted down the stairs.
“You toy with us now,” Marcel called, looking back, “but one day when you need to beg for forgiveness, you will wonder where our kindness has gone.”
“One day,” Esperance shouted down to them, “I will die and be judged by my heathen god, and it is she who will decide my fate. You never know–we may just end up in the same place!”
He couldn’t help but grin as horrified squawking erupted from downstairs.
Sitting at his desk, Esperance pulled a stack of blue vellum from a sheaf. The Church loved to dye their papers, and it was said that each color had a corresponding sin. Which vice blue stood for, Esperance did not know. He never kept up with all the colors, just knew that if the Lou, Claude, and Marcel had their way, he’d be confessing a rainbow’s worth of letters daily.
As he dabbed his quill into a bottle of ink with one hand, he tossed a half-eaten pear into Yldri’s Chalice with the other. He’d return the Church’s prized possession, of course, as it was never the intended target. It was, however, a convenient distraction. And the real prize, the paper, was just a small part of a much grander scheme.
Bringing the tip of the quill to the paper, he went to work.
Brave Hero of the Great War,
I seek your aid. Something terrible is coming and I cannot stop it alone…
I don’t find it necessary to distinguish between gods and goddesses, so every celestial deity is a god, regardless of anything.