This is the story. The big one. The one I've been writing for over three plus years. It has taken many forms and rewrites that it was time to settle down and get the tale told properly. It's a long story and by no means perfect...but it's the story I want to eventually publish and sell to the world. Welcome to the story of The Duchess. Orlan, her newest protector. Her father, the hateful Emperor. And so much more.
“You were warned.”
The figure stepped out from the shadows. An elderly man with a worn face and an exquisite suit lumbered forward, leaning on a bronzed cane. His voice was like worn wood being scraped against unruly rocks. It seemed to pluck her spine as if a minstrel. The Duchess did not move her gaze from the desk, “You were kind to warn me.” The man laughed as if oil coated his lungs. She flinched.
“Kindness is not my business, your ladyship.”
“They all died. Every last one of them.”
“You would prefer I take the cost of my taxes and bills from elsewhere in the Empire?”
She felt her face grow hot with rage. For all her practice in courtly matters, her emotions had refused taming. “I would prefer a great many things, but I cannot effect the change necessary for them. Why have you come? To gloat? To preen about my chambers in the pride of your taking?”
“To see you, of course. Such feisty fires burn within, my young child. It never ceases to amuse me."
“I am not here for the amusement of Death. You have made your point, ghoul.” She stood from her desk, brows furrowed. “You have been haunting my chambers with great frequency as of late. I would know why.” She had met him the day she become a ‘broken monarch’. All those years being stalked by Death. She was starting to tire of it.
“Something has awakened. There is a great conflagration of consequence coming, my dear child. It is to begin soon. I expect to be quite busy.”
“Enough with your riddles, demon. Why?”
“You are The Keeper of the Stories, Steward of the Creator, and Guardian of The Words. You will know soon enough. There is one small matter remaining, however.”
"I tire of this game. The power of The Words can invoke you to depart."
"Only until I deign to return. I only wish to deliver a warning."
"A choice will be put in your hands within this month. One will lead to an immediate removal of a soul from this world and require my return to this castle."
"The removal will be delayed for an indeterminate time."
"Is that all?"
"It is all I wish to convey."
"As you wish."
“Your assignment has changed, Sir Orlan.” The wizened Knight Templar Captain stood in the flickering firelight, armor being removed piecemeal by the servants as he spoke, “We have received word that Sir Luke Kaiser has died. You are to be his replacement.”
Orlan sat forward, “My lord, Luke Kaiser is...was the the protector of the Duchess. I’m not sure I understand.”
“Yesterday, an attempt was made on the life of The Duchess. Sir Luke sacrificed his life to save his charge. Most of the battalion was lost in the attack. We’re sending a detachment with you to supplement those loses.”
“Shouldn’t they send someone to investigate the matter? Gather evidence? I’m not a Judicator.”
“The Duchess has her own Judicator in place. She requires a commander of her guard. It is an assignment, Orlan. It may not be the position you desired or the posting of your dreams, but it is a place.” A heavy overcoat was draped over the captain as the last pieces of iron were taken away. “We both know we cannot always get what we want…”
Orlan finished it for him, “But we can always expect to get what we need.” Orlan Wardlaw grew tired of words and sayings. It was not helping him in this moment and it had not helped him in the past. He had been expecting to be posted to the Rangers. Would have. Could have. Should have. Those words had begun to haunt him with alarming regularity. An assignment as the protector of The Duchess of the Empire of Stars was a statement. A statement he was convinced he didn’t deserve.
“Your boat awaits, Sir Orlan. The Duchess requires her protector as soon as possible. Go with The Creator in all that you do.” This was a signal that the conversation was complete and the captain would hear no more.
Orlan gave the customary bow and left the office. What had he done to deserve this? Who had he offended? He replayed the last few days in his mind as he gathered his belongings and began to trudge towards the docks. He had been proper in all his interactions. He had bowed to the right people, used the right titles and showed the proper amount of respect. Who had he fallen out of favor with to require his assignment to the lowest station within the Knight Templar Order? As he stepped onto the dock, he found part of his answer.
“I bring news of your sister.”
The words of the judge doused boiling tar over Orlan’s soul. He did not speak.
“The Seekers believe they have located her trail in the outer reach. They assure me they will have her in custody within days and returned for her trial of requirement by weeks end.”
Orlan found his voice, “I am thankful that they have found her, Judicator. I haven’t seen Tuletha in a very long time.”
Jerome Wilhelm stepped off the boat and nearly into the face of his target, “You have testified to this, but I do not believe that your word is your bond.”
Orlan did not move. He did not touch the Judicator. He did not speak.
Wilhelm stared into his eyes a little longer before stepping aside, “We shall see the true nature of the Wardlaw family, soon enough. The Creator is with us.”
Orlan gave the required bow, “The Creator is with all of us, Judicator. May He go with you in all that you do.” He turned to the wide eyed ship captain, “Let us leave this place with haste.” The crew jumped to stations and the galleon began its journey, leaving the Judicator to glower from the docks. Wardlaw spoke to each man and woman to gave his thanks for their service in getting him to his destination. The captain, a rotund and ruddy faced man, called him to his cabin for dinner and they sat as the ship rolled quietly through the waves.
“You know where you are going, yes?”
Orlan gave a sad nod he sampled the meats, “Broken Island.”
The captain poured a cup of ale and handed it to the knight, “Do not let the name fool you. It is a beautiful place. Many pretty women.”
Orlan frowned, “That is not why I am going.”
A devious grin, “It is why I am going, you see.” Wardlaw rolled his eyes and the sea captain held up his hands in protest while laughing, “S’alright, s’alright. I try to make jokes, you see. Well, not entirely jokes, but you understand.” The knight gave him a long look before tasting the ale with an appreciative nod. The captain continued, “It was a terrible place all those years ago. Before she arrived. Oh yes. Scum. Villains. The darkness of men spread across the land and into the waters.”
Wardlaw set the sweet tasting ale down testing several cheese blocks as he spoke, “You mean The Duchess.”
The sea captain nodded slowly, as if in awe of something. “She is the most beautiful of them all, you see. I never have been able to greet her, but I see her...and I fall in love.”
“You doubt me? Bah! You will see. She is everything.”
Orlan cleaned his plate and stood, bowing with respect, “Your kindness is appreciated, Captain. I should rest before we arrive.”
As he stepped onto the deck, he could hear the captain muttering, “You will see. You will see.” He returned to the deck and sat near the bow, watching and listening to the water crash against the ancient wood. He had read the tales. As far North as a citizen could go lay Broken Island. It had long been a place where the outcasts were sent to serve in exile. It had never had a ruler or a leader - just warlords who split up piece and parcel the land of the fog bound island. Ten years ago, The Duchess had arrived. The captain hadn’t been wrong. Orlan had read the underground accounts of her success in bringing the island together under her exiled rule. She had transformed the island of exile in a island of abundance. It was to be his assignment. He hoped it would not last for long.