The Cur's Bite - Chapter 32 - System_Turn_A - 黒獣~気高き聖女は白濁に染まる~ (2024)

Chapter Text

It may have been a mistake to bring Lucette along with me tonight. Amongst the warriors of our order, Sister Coeurswain was one of the most capable, both on foot and horseback. That much was undeniable. I could consider myself fortunate to have such a bold fighter by my side. And yet... that boldness had a tendency to make her headstrong.

Lucette was annoyed with me, though it wasn't exactly obvious. One had to be familiar with her stoic and reticent demeanor to truly understand her expressions. Thus far, she had yet to actually speak out, but I could see it in the way she'd walked—brisk and overly decisive—how she'd curtly spoken to the others, and how she'd very carefully pretended as though I did not exist. Even now as we rode together, she kept her shoulders drawn, her arms folded, and scowled out of the carriage's window.

Damnable woman. That irritation, in turn, only served to drive me closer to the edge of frustration myself. "Sister Coeurswain," I finally said, "if you could glare out of that window any harder, passersby might start catching on fire."

She startled at that, facing me, sheepishness briefly overtaking her frustration. She began to apologize before she remembered her anger. "I... was only scanning our surroundings. The streets are awfully quiet," she said, with a tiny—perhaps involuntary—jerk of her thumb towards the windowpane.

I nodded. "I should certainly hope so. It'd be strange for people to be milling about at such a late hour, wouldn't you say?" I smiled wanly.

"Indeed. Just as it is strange for us to be wandering the city to meet with some vagrants and liars." Her tone was a difficult one to parse. It was meant, certainly, to express disappointment. It almost sounded more petulant than anything, though. Accusatory, in a way.

Gods, give me patience.

Beside me, Giselle laid a hand on my elbow, almost a touch too tight. James did the same next to Lucette, though he seemed more amused than concerned.

With a careful exhale, I let go of some of my own ire, and unclenched my fingers where they'd wound up gripping the fabric of my skirts.

It was fine. We were both tired, frustrated. I could swallow my own annoyance, quell the burning urge to snap at her further. "You do not approve," I said. A simple observation. The truth of the matter.

"No, my lady, I do not," Lucette said. "Everything about this reeks of falsehood. No matter how you look at it, there is nothing about this that would require the Order's presence. Much less yours. I can't imagine why we shouldn't just let the constabulary deal with this matter."

James cut in with a laugh. "Sister, I should like to add that no one is under any obligation to be here tonight. You can leave at any moment you want—just say the word." He only held his hands out palms up, giving a shrug.

Lucette shook her head, pink locks of hair jostling with the motion. Her face softened a fraction as she straightened her back, but her voice carried the slightest tinge of discomfort. "You asked for me to be here, my lady. I won't shirk my duties merely due to my preferences."

Indeed I had personally requested that she come with me tonight. Frustrating woman though she may be, Lucette's frank and direct nature was a trait I valued. She was perfectly suited to act as an honest judge of character; one with a sharp mind to judge the validity of a claim, and—better yet—one whose strong principles compelled her to give her thoughts plain and concise.

I told her as much. Lucette nodded, her expression settling once more to a calm composure. Though she failed to hide how her lips quirked up, ever so slightly.

James gave us a bright grin, resting his cheek on one hand. "We shouldn't dismiss the source out of hand, either," he said.

Lucette raised a brow at that. "The word of some gutter vagabonds isn't something I'd expect you to take seriously, brother Tarvitz."

He nodded. "Not typically, no. But I do place some value on what Black Hounds have to say."

That made her stop dead. Like a candle suddenly snuffed out. She glanced down to her feet for a few seconds, as if deep in thought.

James went on; "It's been nearly three months since they launched their offensive on Garan. Well over a month now since the Legion just turned tail and retreated. We've not heard a single word from the Hounds ever since. Their whereabouts or whether they yet lived are all total unknowns. Until this morning, when three mysterious gentlemen disturbed the peace, attempted to incite violence, then simply sought refuge in a church." He hesitated for the barest of moments before continuing. "Even the off-chance that these fellows actually are Hounds is worth the trip to me, sister."

As though to punctuate an end to the discussion, the carriage rolled to a halt. Giselle swung the door open, allowing me to step outside. She remained sitting, however, gesturing to herself then to the carriage.

"Ah. You'd like to stay here with Horace and Gaspard?"

Giselle nodded.

"Very well. As you were, sister."

Beholden as she was to her vow, she wouldn't be able to add much to our interrogation.

Our late-night excursion had the benefit of bringing with it a cloudless night and a bright crescent moon. And though the cobblestone streets were stark and unfamiliar in the dim light, a church lay just before us, easy to pick out with its many torches and firelights. As expected, there were two pairs of the city watch stationed at the doors to the modest building, guarding it diligently.

I inhaled, then exhaled, adjusting the sword at my hip. All of us were armed in a similar manner; arming swords, their hilts simple, practical, with just a bit of embellishment in either gold or silver plating, usually engraved with prayers. Given how unlikely we were to come to blows, we forewent anything as heavy as platemail, opting for the Order's uniform raiment.

"Halt," one watchman commanded, holding up a hand as we approached. "I was given to understand that the Knights of Saint Iris would come to interview the men. Would I be right to assume... Ah- I. Uh..." He faltered and nearly stumbled—actually, physically staggered—backwards as he got a proper look at me. Realization dawned over his face, eyes widening, lips parting in an expression much like a dazed deer's.

His fellow, not quite as struck dumb, lowered himself to one knee, tugging at the other's elbow. "Abase yourself, fool!" The man urged in an underbreath whisper. He then addressed me, eyes remaining fixed at my knees. "I—We must beg your forgiveness, princess. We thought only your brethren would come as your representatives and didn't... expect ourselves to be graced by your presence."

"Rise, on your feet," I replied. Both at once shot back upright and smoothed themselves. Then I smiled, for the sake of easing their tension. "I understand that our guests are within. I'd like to speak with them."

The church was a rather modest one, even if its stone walls and marble support beams held a vague attempt at artistry. Then again, Ysphine was never known to be a vainglorious goddess. It was situated at the northern edge of the city, practically just a stone's throw from the walls. The grounds were well tended, and its annex buildings had a sense of homeliness about them. Overall, however, I was given the impression of austerity.

Two acolytes awaited us inside the church: a human man and a halfling woman, both adorned in simple gray robes. Neither seemed especially disturbed at the presence of the armed guests in their sanctum. Instead, they bore welcoming faces, treating us to deep bows.

The woman stepped forward, hands clasped at her chest. "Praise and blessings to the Knights of Saint Iris. To Princess Alicia Arcturus, it is an honor to meet you."

There were titles and blessings often tacked onto my name: 'princess of Feoh and the Vennenlands', 'Knight-Commander of the Regal, Blessed and Military Order of Our Lady Saint Iris the Martyr', and more still that I would forget if I were to list them all. Some servants of the Lady often used one of those more esoteric ones when addressing me. Sometimes even the full combinations, though those were generally reserved for all the more formal situations.

It was for the better that these clergy folk politely sidestepped the more long-winded formalities. I didn't trust myself to be entirely patient if pressed to listen to them all right this moment.

My knights and I returned the greeting in kind, striking fists to breast. "The honor is mine, I assure you," I said, inclining my head in a nod. "You two are?"

"The acolytes Brother Vincent and Mother Elena," the woman replied, gesturing to the man and herself.

"You have my deepest gratitude for your efforts in regards to our wayward guests," I said. "Lead me to them. I'd speak with them myself, if you would allow it."

In response, Brother Vincent nodded, stepping aside and gesturing down a hall. "This way, if you would, Your Highness. We've made them comfortable, and allowed them to hold vigil within our vestry."

"They were a bit unruly at first. But they've settled down," Mother Elena said as we approached a nondescript door, its wood nearly blackened with age and smoothened from years of use.

"I'm sorry," James cut in, confused. "Did you say vigil? Whatever are they holding a vigil for?"

Mother Elena stared back, quizzical at first, but perhaps realizing that we wouldn't understand without further explanation, went on. "I suppose you might not have heard of it. These are men in mourning, sir. Their last companion passed away some time ago, before they even arrived. Please, consider the weight their minds carry at this moment."

No longer giving us a moment to reply, she pushed the door open, guiding the way for us as we entered.

It was not a lavish room, nor even a remarkably spacious one. It was little more than a storage space, really. Wooden beams hung low across the ceiling, their surfaces adorned with tapestries and ornaments and other such decor. Stacks upon stacks of dusty, age-worn casks sat piled around the corners, and crates were lined against the far end of a wall, stacked as high as the height of a man. There, at the center of this quiet, lonely room, were three grim and bedraggled men. A fourth lay stretched atop the wooden surface of a table, shrouded by a worn white cloth.

James, Lucette, the priests and I filed quietly into the room.

I have to admit that I wasn't quite sure what to do or say then. I'd come all the way here prepared to deal with hostility, suspicion, reticence, perhaps even outright lies. I imagined I would be met with a tale full of evasions and contrivances, filled to the brim with half-truths to conceal whatever their true motives might be. Those were concerns I had tried to account for by bringing Lucette along.

And all that momentum was promptly thrown to the wayside at the sight before me. I found that all I could do was remain silent and grant them their moment. I suspect the others felt the same.

The three of them sat on old stools, little more than wooden stumps for seats. Heads bowed, hands loosely hanging atop their knees. Each of them was lean and hale enough that even half-sitting, it was that they had the cut and build of those who'd made fighting the chief point of their trade. At the very least, I became more confident that they had indeed been soldiers of some manner, rather than simple vagrants.

Aside from all the dirt and the cuts and the bruises, of course. They all wore short, ragged beards caked with dirt and grime, lips chapped, eyes ringed with dark shadows, matted and tangled locks of hair.

Soldiers, yes. But soldiers who had not seen anything resembling good order, discipline, or the inside of a bathtub in quite a while.

After silent moments, one of them finally took note of our presence, nearly jumping in surprise as he did. "Up we get, boys," he said, as he rose to his feet. The other two followed his lead. He cleared his throat, standing straighter, and met my eyes. He was broader of shoulder than the rest, and also more coarse-looking in both his posture and features. After a silent moment, he slowly brought his hand up into a fist and placed it over his breast in salute.

Hesitantly, the other two followed his lead.

"Good evening, madam knight," the seeming leader said. "Are you... is your order here to hear us?" There was a very carefully maintained rigidness about his voice and his posture, so overt that the effort needed to maintain it was obvious to anyone who listened.

For a moment, I was surprised by the salute and his form of address. It then struck me, with some amusem*nt, that he did not know who I actually was.

I glanced at Lucette. She kept her arms folded,simply taking the men in. Her gaze was fixed only on them, and for the moment her previous annoyance seemed to have disappeared, leaving her with a distinctly unreadable air. After a moment, she inclined her head in a gesture so faint that I may have missed it had I not known to look for it.

"In a manner of speaking, yes." At last, I returned the men's salute, allowing them to drop theirs. "Your names, gentlemen?"

"I am Marco Sager," the leader said.

"Rolf Schreiner" and "Udo of Elmsburg" were the names given for the other two in turn. Rolf Schreiner was a gangly blonde man with eyes that held nothing but an intensely somber and distant expression. The one named Udo was clearly the oldest, his hair thinning at the temples and his stance somewhat slouched as he gave us a sideways glance.

"And he..." Sager began to speak again, but trailed off as he glanced at the fallen man. Ultimately, he decided against naming him.

"Well? Don't keep me in suspense, Herr Sager," I told him. "You've all made quite a commotion here, do you know that? Telling anyone who'd listen about an army of aberrants and traitors. On top of it all, you are all so bold as to demand an audience with the king himself." I folded my hands in front of me, regarding him. His companions merely glowered at the floor as if to avoid meeting my eyes. I thought he might bow his head, averting his eyes. He did no such thing. Instead he took a step forward and raised his eyes to meet my own. "What next? Do you presume to bring your claims to a higher authority? Perhaps regale the goddess Herself with your story?"

I was being presumptuous now, making conclusions and judgments ahead of what I'd known. I simply felt as though I ought to make a clear start of it—a quick little jab, as it were, to gauge their reactions.

His posture grew stiffer still as he frowned. "I... No. Nothing that ambitious. Getting this to Feoh was our only goal. And hell, with any luck, the others might manage to spread the word to other cities," he said.

James frowned. "Others? There are more of you?"

"Yes." Sager then hesitated, averting his eyes for a moment. "At least, sh*t, I hope there are. I can't even say for sure..."

We all stared on expectantly. Though Sager's shoulders slumped with a sigh, he continued. "A few months ago, there was a big gathering in Geofu with all the heads of the Alliance. The Black Hounds were invited there, too..."

I'd gathered the broad strokes of it all from various others already throughout the day, but it was an entirely different matter to hear it from the man himself.

If nothing else, Marco Sager certainly held his composure during it all. His words weren't given slowly or haltingly as he began. He relayed the full story to us plainly and straightforwardly. For all the weariness and pain in his visage, the tone of his voice betrayed little nothing. Perhaps he was being honest. Or perhaps he'd rehearsed it through so many retellings that it'd become as natural as breathing.

Three months ago, the Black Hounds had been tasked with taking the Black Citadel, while the rest of the Alliance repelled the Legion's invasion. They were the speartip to our shield, striking at the heart of the Archenemy.

Their counterattack was a success; according to Herr Sager, the Hounds managed to not only seize the Black Citadel, but captured the Dark Queen in the process as well.

"Is that right?" I asked as he spoke. "That is a rather extravagant boast to make. Capturing the Black Citadel is already a feat in itself; seizing the Archenemy would imply total, absolute victory. How in the world did the Black Hounds manage that? One would almost think you'd pulled it out of a dream."

Marco Sager frowned back at me steadily for a brief second before speaking. "It's not a boast. We caught her. Ansel took her on all by himself—She damn near killed him. But we caught her, shackled her, and bundled her up nice and pretty so the Alliance could put her on display like a pig at a hunt."

I raised my brow at that, and to his credit he didn't look away.

"Then why am I only hearing of this now? The Black Hounds have been completely silent since they departed for Garan. If it weren't for the Legion turning tail and fleeing, one could almost assume that the Hounds had been wiped out to a man."

The reason for that silence, he said, was their commander. Vault had seemingly ordered them all to remain within the Black Citadel to convalesce and hunt down what aberrants remained in Garan. For over a month they waited, until one day a mutiny broke out amongst them.

"I still have no idea what caused it, or who led it. One moment we were just sitting around waiting to find out what the hell we're supposed to do next. Next thing we know, every other man starts trying to put the blade into each other."

"And Vault?" I asked. "What became of him?"

Sager let out a soft breath. "I couldn't say, we never saw him. Maybe the mutineers cut him down, too. Maybe he was the one behind all of this. Maybe he managed to escape beside us. f*cking could've flown away in the clouds and we wouldn't know a thing."

I caught James' lips quirking up. He seemed prepared to make some quip or another, but I stopped him with a shake of my head. Ultimately, he settled for pursing his lips and shrugging.

I went on, "And how, pray tell, did you manage to escape? This munity sounds rather all-consuming. I imagine that at the very least the mutineers would not have allowed any dissenters to escape and live to tell the tale."

Marco Sager smiled at that, something torn between amusem*nt and sadness.

He attributed the idea to Ansel—That name again—who decided to set fire to the Citadel.

"Really?" Lucette asked, her voice completely flat.

"Really," Sager replied. With firebombs fashioned from liquors, they set fire to whatever they could manage to ignite. When the fires grew and smoke spread throughout the Black Citadel, they fled in the confusion, stealing what horses they could and slaying the others so as to slow their pursuers' advance. They split up, lost track of each other in the chaos, and rode at full gallop, putting the Black Citadel well behind them. "...And then last night, we got within eyeshot of the city, and the sepsis took Wallace."

He said no more. After a few moments, it became clear that this tale had come to an end.

I glanced at Lucette, who returned my gaze after a brief, considering pause. Then, she nodded her assent and remained silent.

That would have to do. I turned back to Sager. "Should we expect more of you then, Herr Sager? More Black Hounds who survived this mutiny?"

"Maybe, I... the plan was to split up. But we were only a small number in the first place. And with how f*cked up and chaotic it all got towards the end, maybe no one else made it this far." He began pacing back and forth, a hand running through the unkempt lengths of his hair. "I know I saw Jauffre, Ansel, Strom, and Hamelyn ahorse, but... sh*t. We could damn well be the only ones."

I frowned. "Ansel. You keep saying that name. In fact, I should say it's most often the name you'll bring up. Who is that? A lieutenant of Vault's?"

He shook his head. "No, not a chance. He was," he stopped and corrected himself, "He is a knight. Vault picked the guy to join us in the counterattack, but he's not really a member of the Hounds. But still, he kept saving our asses during our invasion, again and again."

A knight specifically handpicked but Vault... I did recall hearing about something like that, but the name was not familiar to me. Yet, given the way Sager spoke of him, his survival wasn't likely. Regardless, I decided to keep my questions aimed at the more immediate concerns. I nodded to the shrouded man. "Your compatriot, do you know his wishes? Did he leave any instructions?"

Herr Sager paused at that and looked at me strangely, as though he were surprised that I'd even asked. "No. He was barely making sense near the end. I know he's from here, might have some family in the city, but I couldn't really say."

I nodded. "Then with your permission, I'd like to suggest that his remains be relinquished to the church of Ysphine. Mother Elena, I trust you can see to him?"

The kindly halfling woman clasped her hands at her waist. "Certainly, princess. By Her grace, we shall lay the young man to rest."

When I turned back to the men, I noticed that they all looked at me with a certain weary disbelief. Herr Sager had gone quite pale. "Princess... you?" The question seemed to fail at the tip of his tongue. The end of his sentence simply died in a windless wheeze.

I nodded. "You did request that the king heard you. I hope you might settle for myself instead." I glanced behind me. "We ought to conclude this soon. I'm certain you all are quite tired, but I still have more questions. Allow me to propose something: Return with us back to the Holy Order's hall. You will be fed, washed, and given lodgings for the night."

None of them seemed as though they knew how to respond. They just turned to one another, gaze meeting, uncertain and hesitant. It was Rolf Schreiner who stepped forward with a frown. "...You're not asking us, are you? "

I stared right back, coolly. "I am not."

Schriener's expression turned sour at once, a scowl creeping up along his jaw as his grip curled into fists. "All due respect and everything—What the hell for? We told you the truth. We warned you of what's coming. And now you wanna arrest us over it?"

"Herr Schreiner," I said slowly, "You three have brought me a tale so tall it's hard not to feel skeptical. Make no mistake; I do take the seriousness of your claims with utter solemnity, but I can't simply take them at face value. At the very least, we must investigate—"

"Give me a break already," he said, sucking his teeth. "'Tall tales?' 'Solemnity?' For f*ck's sake, lady, this is the exact same type of sh*t we've been hearing all day. And we're telling the godsdamn truth!"

"Rolf," Sager hissed, frowning sharply at his comrade. "Don't."

I found myself similarly caught off-guard for a moment. Then a spark of irritation flared within my chest as I stared the man down.

Yet he went on, cheeks drawn tight as he bared his teeth. "Oh, of course we're wrong. Of course we're liars. Of course we didn't drag ourselves from hell to put those facts in front of everybody. By the Wounds, are you f*cking people stupid on top of—"

All in an instant his outburst was cut short and the man fell like a felled tree, lolling heavily onto the stone floor. Standing over him, Udo of Elmsburg let out a grunt and shook off his hand, as though striking his companion was a minor annoyance, not unlike accidentally stepping on a spot of mud. With a sigh, the old man straightened and leveled his frown at the rest of us.

"It's been days since any of us last slept," he said simply. "It's got us tired, saying all sorts of silly and rude sh*t. I hope you'll find it in your heart to forgive Rolf, princess. He didn't mean nothing bad by it."

I suppressed the urge to stare wide-eyed at the exchange, keeping my face carefully composed. Still, I nearly let out a startled chuckle in spite of myself.

Beside me, I noticed that James and Lucette had their hands down by their swords, but they relaxed once I waved them down. Lucette quirked a brow up, though she quickly hid the look.

I cleared my throat. "...Quite. We all harbor frustrations this late in the night. I'll refrain from taking it personally." I frowned down at Schreiner as Sager slowly helped him back onto his feet. The man blinked blearily around the room, a trickle of blood running from a re-split lip. Sager whispered to his ear, brow furrowed in either worry or annoyance, before leading him back to a chair. "I hope you'll give yourself the same courtesy, Herr Schreiner. This outburst aside, I suppose we've gotten terribly off-topic."

After helping his swaying comrade back down on his stool, Sager turned back to me with a look of heavy resignation in his eyes. "We'll go with you then, princess," he said, voice drained of anything but sheer fatigue.

Our motley crew left the church shortly after. The three Hounds were made to ride within the carriage, while the rest of us mounted on horseback. "We will speak again in the morning," I said to Sager before we mounted. "But do rest for now. It'll do none of us any good if you're dead on your feet."

He didn't nod, but the exhausted shrug was acquiescence enough. "Even if you don't really believe us... You'll still be looking into this. Won't you?"

He wasn't ignorant. Although wary as he had every right to be, Sager still chose to trust my word on faith. That at least gave us common ground to start on.

"I will," I said. "You have my word on that."

The end of
Part One:

Death of the Chivalrous

The Cur's Bite - Chapter 32 - System_Turn_A - 黒獣~気高き聖女は白濁に染まる~ (2024)
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