A gentle knock echoed through the room, disturbing the atmosphere of a man, hard at work within. After several more scribbles, ending with a curl of the pen, the raven-haired master of the house looked up.
“Come in. It’s open.”
The door clicked and swung, guided by a suave elderly gentleman, tray atop one hand. Refreshments, tea and crackers, were laid neatly on top of it.
“A break, Lord Dengel? You’ve been going at it since the crack of dawn.”
“Thank you, Pietro. I suppose I can spare that luxury.”
Pietro set the tray down, leaving Dengel to eye the neat arrangement carefully constructed as Pietro set about pouring the tea. Appearances were important, even for the smallest of things. And Dengel knew that quite well, having been the secretary of a former Duke for many years. Still, it felt quite strange to be on the receiving end of it, even after several months.
While the work itself was hardly any different than what he was used to, the title itself put a certain amount of pressure on him. No longer was he the figure in the background, working simply to clean up after another. Now, he was a lord himself. Taking over the Faulkner lands and name had been Claude and Eryn’s decision, one essentially forced upon him.
He smirked, thinking about how the two had moved on to other things. Quite a lot had happened since he met them, but he would be lying if he regretted any of it. It was an honor to be recognized by such outstanding people… especially since one of them now sat on the highest seat.
“How things have changed…”
“Nothing, Pietro. Just a bit of reminiscing.”
Dengel shook his head to clear his thoughts before taking a sip of his tea. The crisp, refreshing taste, with a hint of bitterness, shaved off the tip of exhaustion that loomed over him. Not until he took a moment to pause did he realize just how many were still to be signed off.
New trading opportunities, an influx of goods and services, permits for new facilities, permissions for personnel allocation… the list of requests went on and on. The pile still waiting for review was twice the size of the one completed.
On one hand, it was splendid for such mundane business to be so rampant. The excess of constructive opportunities was a sign of a healthy economy and a fervent workforce. Dengel preferred it much over the wicked schemes and tomfoolery that he arranged in the past.
Yet, a part of him wondered if the King and Queen were a bit… too into it, making leaps and bounds too fast for the rest of ‘us normal people’ to fully digest. Shiny things galore filled a plate too small for even a noble to gorge upon. Certainly, it was no longer the matter of one’s wallet, but the inability to even grow bored of something before the next fancy came around, even with such short attention spans possessed by the upper class.
“Well, no need to be so formal, Pietro. I was but a mere servant not long ago. At least in private, we need not adhere to such stiff tradition. Especially in regard to a great man such as yourself.”
Dengel motioned for Pietro to join him for a break, the elderly butler nodding before pulling up a chair and pouring some tea for himself. Even as a servant, the once Captain of the Royal Guards possessed an aura that boasted of refinement and dominance.
But that was to be expected of someone possessing the strength of heroes. Several times, he had taken up the sword in a time of need, displaying power that rivaled Electi despite being only human. Yet, it was these times of peace that he truly enjoyed. The threat of the Demon that he watched over was no longer a thought in his mind.
When asked if Pietro wished for anything else after Dengel became the Lord of Faulkner, he merely shook his head and smoothed out a crease in his immaculate uniform. The gentle look in his eyes told Dengel that this was where he wanted to be. There was no point in chasing after someone who had released herself from her cage.
He was a simple butler serving hot tea. A fine retirement.
Not to mention, he could easily scratch the itch of a warrior by simply hopping into a portal to Sanshiro. Not like Lau wasn’t already doing so every weekend.
“My Lord, perhaps it is time to hire more people to delegate the work to. There is no need to follow the same inclinations as the previous lord. You hold the position now, and your qualifications far exceed what is expected of you. But that does not mean you must do everything yourself.”
Dengel sighed. He had to admit that he was a bit of a perfectionist. But one couldn’t just discard years of such expected behavior once there was breathing room. His body was already itchy enough in fine silk garments.
“I suppose ‘trust’ is the main issue here. A servant of Faulkner must earn one of those coveted spots, don’t you agree?”
Pietro chuckled at that joke, even if the circumstances were mostly true. How could a normal servant compare to that of an Electi or similarly high-leveled fighters in hiding? They would no doubt feel completely overwhelmed by their proximity. Only Dengel and his family had no special abilities on that scale.
The sound of knocking interrupted the conversation. But before Dengel could answer, the door swung open. Dengel could only think of two such people who hadn’t received the proper upbringing to tacitly wait for permission.
A pair of young adults marched through the doorway, dressed in matching male servant attire. But unlike Pietro’s pristine appearance, their uniforms carried the wrinkles of activity. Motions done not in elegance but purely with function in mind.
Aside from the longer brown hair tied in a ponytail for one, the two standing with blank stares could have been identical twins. But twins they were, just of different genders.
“We have finished our task as dictated, Sir,” the girl, Gwendolyn, reported as she stood completely straight, the remnants of officer training in Purnesia ingrained in her movements.
“We have discovered the location of the black-market ring exploiting our fellow countrymen, Sir,” the boy, Orwin, added immediately afterward. The two of them continued to cycle through their statements, following up in sync, as they conveyed their findings.
Even in times of peace, the whims of greed and ill will cast themselves over the populace. It was for that very reason that Dengel didn’t hesitate to create a task force to handle such matters. With his knowledge of the underworld’s workings, he could sneak people into operations that threatened the prosperity of the Kingdom. He gripped the light side of a coin that was once flipped for hidden endeavors.
Having been subjected to some of these unsavory practices, Gwendolyn and Orwin were all too willing to lend a hand for the sake of getting rid of such filth. It was the least they could do with the lives that had been spared.
The two of them had expectations of being executed, but then, the newly crowned King gave them mercy. As puppets to a grand scheme, Claude Evers held no grudge against them, and neither did the Queen. The pair saw this situation as ‘victims of the circumstances’.
With no place to go but needing to be monitored still, they were handed off to Earl Dengel Faulkner, a man with a sharp gaze that commanded attention or risked punishment. His eyes reminded them of the late Empress of Purnesia. And so, they were determined to make use of the mercy handed to them by carrying out his wishes.
After listening to the briefing, Dengel sat back in his chair and took another sip of tea. Pondering for a moment with his eyes closed, he suddenly opened them and pulled out his notebook. After jotting down several notes, he closed it up and shot a piercing glare.
“Those lower rank nobility must have someone higher up backing them. Let’s get on the inside and wait for the exchange to happen. I know that it may be a lot to ask of you two, but posing as merchandise will catch them most off-guard.”
“If that is what you believe is optimal,” the twins replied at once.
“I see. Then, prioritize your own safety. It wouldn’t do to open yourselves to risk. The two of you are proud members of the Faulkner household, not pawns or tools. Keep that in mind.”
Raising a salute, the twins marched out of the room, leaving Dengel to let out a huge sigh. He didn’t feel particularly thrilled to send children that were so young for such a task. Even if the Queen personally vouched for their abilities, he couldn’t help but picture Alice caught in a similar situation. He would never let his darling little sister get anywhere near such vile men.
“Please don’t leave marks on the china. It’s been with the family for ages, and I have no idea if the artisan still lives.”
Dengel backed the cup away from his lips in haste, not realizing that he had started grinding his teeth upon the lip of it. There were very few things that unnerved him, and this was apparently one of them. He set the cup gently upon the plate, to ensure that his stony countenance was properly intact.
“A bit of a soft spot for them, eh?” the butler commented with a completely flat tone, one that implied an irony in its neutrality.
“Hard not to, considering their past. I was in such a position myself at one point. In disbelief that my crimes had not resulted in my own demise. Second chances invoke the greatest of trust when offered at the bottom of a well.”
“Ah…” Pietro lightly sipped his tea for a moment, creating an awkward silence before he continued. “And here I thought that my Lord might have become a bit smitten with Miss Gwendolyn.”
A swift thud of palm against wood shook through the room, followed by the frantic shuffling of a chair.
“That is-, she is the same age as Alice! And she cares deeply for her brother! That’s all! We simply understand each other!”
Pietro raised a brow at that outburst. Despite how sharp-tongued and witty his new lord was, there seemed to be an obvious crack in his defense if one knew where to look.
“Mutual commonality in mindset. That sounds like a healthy start to a relationship, does it not?”
Realizing that he was alone in getting heated over it, Dengel quickly sat back down and brushed his hair back with his hands. His forehead gently touched the wooden desk, where the grains upon the surface were now the most interesting thing before his eyes. After several moments of boring holes into it with his gaze, he was ready to face the silent guest savoring his tea still.
“Is it wrong? To hold such feelings.”
“My Lord, you are speaking to a man who drew his sword against an entire country over ‘feelings’. Perhaps, whatever situation that you may hold hesitation over is just a bit more trivial. Just the slightest.”
Pietro had given up everything to be with someone from Sanshiro, because they had shared a mutual connection. It was laughable that Dengel’s worries could even compare to that.
“Still, I worry about the two of them. It’s not easy to live with half a core, relying on each other to feel complete.”
“You’re a smart man. You’ll find some resolution. And if you find your own power insufficient, help is separated by a glowing circle. You need to just ask.”
Dengel nodded. Teatime was such an effective method for easing the mind. Perhaps, he would ask Gwendolyn and Orwin to join him next time. They were servants of Faulkner after all.