Homecoming ((Story))

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Homecoming ((Story))

Post  AWizardDidIt on Sun Nov 04, 2012 10:44 pm

Albrecht, slouching in his enormous seat, placed another slice of fried potato in his mouth and bit down hard. The sound of the crunch echoed in the spacious hall, the first noise to pervade the tense silence for over a minute. Siegfried frowned. Something about the sight of watching his younger brother eat always made him lose his own appetite. He lifted his fork and poked vapidly at the half-eaten piece of corned beef before him.

Gilbert Blau shot his gluttonous son a cold and hostile leer. Shifting uncomfortably, the fat boy straightened himself out in his chair and pushed the plate of potatoes a few inches out of his reach. He cleared his throat and fixed his posture, his eyes darting back and forth in an attempt to avoid contact with his father. The others lords in the hall, Siegfried included, followed in distancing themselves from their mostly empty platters. The servants, ever attentive, sprinted to the thin oak table and began to build great silvery mounds of plates. Gilbert stared at each and every one in turn, silently conveying an unspoken, curt statement of “hurry up.” Even though not a sound had left his father’s lips, Siegfried could almost hear his smooth, silky voice commanding the scullions to go hasten about their work. The lead servant, catching on quickly, nodded, and snapped his fingers. Barely a minute had passed before the entire table was cleared and the servants were on their way out the door, nearly tripping over their own laces as they struggled to balance dozens of glasses, plates, and utensils.

“In any case, gentlemen,” Gilbert began, “We remain unable to take the walls by force of arms. Curious as this new development may be, we should not be hasty. More detailed reports from more reliable sources should be available by tomorrow.”

The lords remained silent, nodding with mindless approval. Siegfried found himself, for the first time in quite a while, sympathizing with his father. If he could not rely on men of high birth and great power to advise in him in times of need, then perhaps a change in the aristocracy really was what the country needed. He felt ashamed of not being able to speak up himself, but knew that whatever words might leave his mouth would be meaningless. In a situation like this, he had nothing to contribute.

“The men in the camp are saying Goethe Dieter has managed to root out all your spies, Gilbert. I trust that this is only rumor. After all, I don’t think many among us have another decade to spare trying to take this godforsaken city.”

Siegfried shifted his gaze in search of the voice’s source. He quickly found it. Standing in the doorway, casually leaning against the frame, was Helmuth Koenig. At least, this was who Siegfried believed the man to be: Helmuth’s physicality had changed so much since their last meeting that barely a shred remained of the frail boy he had once been.

Although still diminutive in height, Helmuth now possessed a noticeably toned body, which he proudly displayed by way of his tight tunic. His face had changed the most radically: where once could be found round and boyish features were now sharp and refined curves more appropriate to his noble stock. Same as ever, his face was partially obscured by his uncombed auburn hair. In Siegfried’s short period of observation, Helmuth had already taken the time to toss it to the side several times. Rather than being garbed in the fine silks Siegfried had always known him to wear, Helmuth was instead dressed in the uniform of a soldier - a sergeant, to be specific. Although not in full armor, he certainly appeared to be preparing for or returning from battle: his leather shirt was speckled with black grease stains, and a yellowed and red-dotted bandage was wound around his left arm. At his side hung a loosely-fitted shortsword, and emblazoned on his breast was a colorful emblem depicting the three-pointed Star of Koenig. And Helmuth was hardly Helmuth without his pretentious, toothy grin.

Gilbert sighed deeply. With visible difficulty, he stood from his great stone chair and turned to face the new arrival. Helmuth’s smirk widened as the aged man’s lips formed into a scowl.

Your godforsaken city, and our spies. Perhaps if your whore of a sister had not given Goethe leave to stay in the city, we would not be in this situation.” Gilbert’s countenance, despite his arthritic shaking, remained pure iron. He adjusted his collar before continuing. “You come to this hall as if it were your own home and spit on my generosity, Helmuth Koenig. If you were not the only member of your house I had available to me, I would not be so lenient with you.”

Helmuth wrinkled his nose, but it was not long before his expression had shifted back to the smug one he had maintained before.

“Don’t be so uptight, old man. Do you think I would come here with nothing but a teasing remark?”

“Frankly, yes,” Gilbert replied, returning to his seat. For a few moments, he remained silent. “If you have something to say, boy, say it. Every moment we waste prattling is a moment subtracted from my r-“

“Yes, yes. We’ve heard it all before,” Helmuth interjected. “But… on to the matter at hand, dear father. ” He placed special emphasis on the word, nearly spitting it in disgust. As he opened his mouth to speak, Helmuth apparently noticed for the first time the two dozen or so lords staring at him in a mixture of confusion and wonder.

“Perhaps it would be best if we retire to my own chambers,” he said, clearly directing the remark at Gilbert and away from the lesser lords. “Sieggy can come too. I’m sure he’d love to listen in.”

Siegfried, at the mention of his name, turned his stare upwards and met Helmuth’s eyes. Somehow, the shrimpy man - or perhaps more properly, boy - was still grinning.

“Don’t look so glum, Siegfried. It’s good news, after all. Elsewise I’d wait till the last second to inform our father.” Helmuth broke eye contact and began to scan the table, apparently in search of remnants of food or drink. “And it seems I’ve missed the feast. Ah, well. When’s the next one? Every other day, isn’t it?”

He still could not get used to hearing Helmuth call Gilbert his father. The enmity between the two was certainly characteristic of a father and son, but even so…

“Enough, Helmuth. Siegfried and I will proceed to your chambers soon. You may go ahead of us.”

Uncharacteristically, Helmuth nodded his head in a polite fashion. Without another word, he turned and strode off in the direction he came, obviously headed for the War Tent. Although Siegfried could not see his face, he had no doubt that the man’s small smirk had exploded into a reptilian grin the moment Gilbert could no longer see him.

“You are dismissed.”

The lords in the hall stood one by one, and in an orderly procession, followed the Koenig boy out the door. Each one proceeded to give his own small acknowledgement to Gilbert as he passed the throne (if the block of gnarled wood could really be called such), to which the pensive and silent lord responded only with a small nod.

Several moments later, Gilbert sat alone in the Feast Tent with his two sons. Albrecht, much to Siegfried’s dismay, had fallen asleep in the interim. Gilbert was surely going to give him a beating for that. Siegfried could not help but pity the boy: being born of Gilbert’s frail second wife, Hilde, Albrecht had never possessed the vigorous constitution of his two older brothers. He was also not the brightest of creatures, and all attempts to imbue him with godspeak had failed outright. From this combination of personal laziness, physical weakness, and paternal brutality, Albrecht suffered. Altogether, Siegfried could only recall a single occasion on which Gilbert had beaten him, and two on which his father had beaten Maximilien. Albrecht, however, received at least one savaging a month, and had come to harbor a sullen hatred for his father, especially in recent years. By association, he had also come to despise the company of his brothers, something that Siegfried, on more than one occasion, had sought to remedy by making friendly offers to join in leisurely activities: hunting, fishing, or riding. But Albrecht would have none of it, and simply retreated to his room whenever he was done partaking in whatever political machinations Gilbert saw fit.

And here he sat, asleep, drooling, and without a care in the world. Gilbert stared on with an expression of disgust. Siegfried half expected his father to stand up, walk across the room, and slap his brother in the face. Instead, Gilbert simply stood from his seat and snapped his fingers. Siegfried, knowing his queue, withdrew his father’s staff from beneath his own seat and handed across the table to him. He took it in silence, and banged its metal tip on the ground several times. The noise echoed through the hall, its only audience the ghostly lords of ages past. Albrecht did not wake.

“Come,” said Gilbert, turning, and heading for the door. “Let us go.”

By the time Siegfried had stood and adjusted his armor, Gilbert was already halfway out the door. Even in his old age, the man did not spare a single moment that could be contributed to a more worthwhile cause.

Siegfried had to enter a jog in order to catch up with him, breaking a slight sweat. Gilbert looked on with a sullen expression, raising his eyebrows in annoyance. In the run, Siegfried’s belt had loosened; thankfully, there was no one around to gape and mock him for his clumsiness in trying to catch up to a man fifty years his senior. After making sure his blade and frog were properly fitted, he took his place at his father’s side.

It was the witching hour. The sky was pitch dark, its illuminating stars hidden under an unholy blanket of concealing clouds. As if afraid of the dark itself, the moon had retired to some distant corner, and was nowhere to be seen. In the dim light, it was difficult to see the road at all; the only source of light guiding Gilbert and Siegfried along arose from the torches posted every dozen feet near the entrances to various tents. Each one gave off a faint glow that cast threatening shadows in all directions.

Gilbert Blau, however, was undeterred.

After several moments of quiet walking, Siegfried finally spoke up.

“Does it not worry you?” Siegfried slowed his pace as he spoke, hoping his father would do the same. Gilbert’s movements were entirely noiseless; the sound of Siegfried’s armor clanking with his every step seemed enough to wake the dead.

“Does what not worry me?” Gilbert looked onward and continued walking, not bothering to turn and face his son.

“Helmuth. It’s been seven years, father. You know him. I know him. And we both know very well that he is not a man to be trusted.”

A torch to Gilbert’s left flickered and went out, casting a macabre shadow across his face as its embers cooled. “And you know as well as I that we have no other choice. He has proven useful. Those seven years you speak of he has spent managing this little war of ours.”

“A little war that looks to have no foreseeable end. Are you so quick to forget? He isn’t loyal to you. Or me, or Maximilien, or any of the other lords. What Helmuth wants is coin. Coin and power, and we’re going to give him both for squatting in a camp for seven years.”

Gilbert chuckled, much to Siegfried’s surprise. His laugh was an offsetting thing; a this time of night, it was anything but comforting. “You begin to sound like your brother. I do plan to give Helmuth coin and power. All the more reason for him to stay here, on the winning side. He knows his sister will die. With Goethe Dieter gone, the city will fall, and he will become its ruler. You of all people should know Furststadt has always been a state apart from the rest of the nation. Otherwise, they would not have allowed this wretched war to begin in the first place.”

Siegfried shivered and exhaled deeply. It was an unusually cold night for the central Hands. “And he will remain detached, as its rulers always have. What happens when someone else comes along and starts another rebellion? What happens when the Shrirein invade?”

“For one,” said Gilbert, coming to a stop before a great oaken door. “The Shrirein are rabble. You know the Incursion as well I. If House Blau had been on the throne, Keho would have been a severed head hanging from the walls of North Weissburg before he and his barbarians had even crossed the border into Koleinate.” He slammed his cane into the door with herculean force several times. For a moment, Siegfried thought the noise was some form of scolding, but soon realized that they had arrived at the War Tent. His father was simply knocking in an unceremonious manner. “And another. A rebellion will not occur under my rule, or your brother’s, or yours, Asrolos help us - if it does occur, it will be beyond our reach, and it will be left to whatever fool happens to be on the throne at that time to quell it. If it is unjustified, of course.”
Siegfried considered speaking in rebuttal. He opened his mouth, but before a word could come out, Gilbert poked him in the chest with his staff.

“Straighten your cloak.” The son, all too used to obeying the orders of the father, sighed quietly and submitted. As he finished adjusting the brooch, the door was pushed open, a gasp of welcome warm air bursting forth.

It took a few moments for Siegfried to adjust his eyes to the change in luminosity. At first, he did not recognize the blurry silhouette standing in the frame of the door, but as soon as the man spoke, he quickly discerned who it was.

“Well done, gentlemen,” said Helmuth fiddling absently with a lock of hair using his left hand and holding the door open with his right. “Good to see you made it here in one piece.”

“It is not right to jape about such a thing, Helmuth,” said Gilbert. “At least, if you are referring to what I think you are.”

Helmuth nodded absently, obviously not paying much attention. At some point while Gilbert was speaking, he had become distracted and ceased to pay attention. For a few moments, he stood quietly, as if pondering some unspoken question. His eyes glazed over in the direction of the walls of Furststadt, which could be seen on the horizon, looming just over the tall pines like a mountain of white rock. Their stones glittered under the sparse starlight, providing a small yet welcome source of illumination.

The shadows they banished, however, were very far away.

Gilbert cleared his throat. Helmuth seemed to zone in as though nothing had happened, quickly regaining his composure. “Well, yes,” he stated, rather matter-of-factly. “I’m simply kidding. Come inside. I have a pot of soup on the stove.”

Siegfried stepped into the War Tent after his father, savoring the feeling of the warm air. The Tent’s main hall was a massive expanse. Its walls were adorned from top to bottom with banners, tapestries, wall-hangings, mounted beast heads, and all other manners of decoration imaginable.

Ironically, the War Tent, like the rest of the “tents” in the “camp,” was not a tent at all. At one point, it had been, but after the first year of waiting outside Furststadt’s walls, Gilbert had grown impatient and began to miss the amenities of his home in Brennenburg. He commissioned a group of architects to construct actual buildings on the sites of the tents, and within several months, a makeshift town had sprung up in the outskirts of the city. Over time, it grew into a fully-functioning settlement, and took on the name of Gravstadt. Furststadt, across the centuries, had fittingly gained a reputation as a regal city. Gravstadt, the city outside the city, was one step lower. If Furststadt was the City of Princes, Gravstadt was the City of Lords.

As Gilbert took a seat near the central fireplace, Siegfried unstrapped his breastplate and removed his gloves, setting them atop a nearby table. Helmuth was standing above the hearth, stirring a nondescript pot of stew. He picked up a ladle from a nearby countertop, dipped it inside, and lifted it to his lips. Apparently satisfied by the taste, he returned the utensil to its normal resting place.

“I do not think you called us here for a midnight snack, Lord Koenig,” Gilbert said, rubbing his gnarled hands together in an attempt to warm them.

“What troubles you?”

“I find it odd of you to assume that this little visit has some deeper purpose,” Helmuth replied, taking a seat in the chair next to Gilbert. “It’s been so many years, after all. Is it so hard to believe that I simply want to throw you a homecoming party?”

“Yes.” Gilbert narrowed his eyes slightly, and curled his brow. By now, Siegfried was sitting on his left, listening intently as he warmed his hands over the fire. “It is. Come, enough trifling. We both know there are matters of weight to be discussed before the evening is out.”

“Such a stickler for formalities.” Helmuth resumed his grin. Only now did Siegfried notice that the Koenig boy had not been smiling since he had first opened the door. “Well, I’ve given the guards a reprieve from their duty. They won’t be around to hear us. So I will speak frankly. The first ‘matter of weight’ I wish to discuss is that of Goethe Dieter.”

“My advisors assure me you had no hand in his demise.” Gilbert looked at the wiry man with stony, penetrating eyes.

“Are you daft, Gilbert?” Helmuth spoke in an offended tone, clearly angered that something (what it was, Siegfried was not sure) had been insinuated. “No, I wasn’t involved in Goethe’s death.”

“It was a riot, or so I’ve heard,” said Siegfried, speaking up for the first time since entering the building. If he had not interrupted then and there, Helmuth and his father would surely have begun one of their legendary debates. “The people were growing restless. The guards were outnumbered, and the Lower Palace was stormed by rioters. They say his head was stuck on a pike and paraded through the streets for nearly a day.”

“It is a… curious development, to say the least,” Helmuth replied, in direct response to Siegfried’s remarks. “The city can more than take care of itself. Do we have a definitive answer as to what caused these riots?”

“The people grow tired of war, Helmuth. Just as we do.” Gilbert was clearly not in the mood for conversation. “The riots in Furststadt are hardly an isolated incident. There have been bread riots all over the Hands. The last riot in Rotenerde was so violent that Lord Kohl had to put it down with a cavalry charge.”

Gilbert paused and lowered his head before continuing.

“Regardless of what killed Goethe Dieter, he has left his mark. Two months ago, he executed seventeen of our spies. Seventeen of our twenty-three spies. I am glad to be rid of him. Without the Fist of the Silver, the morale of these Furststadters will fall. All we need to do is make it into the city, by any means, and this war is over.”

“You make it sound as though this is an easy task, Gilbert,” Helmuth said, putting a particularly derisive inflection on his adoptive father’s name.

“For one, recall that Kaiser Jorn still lives. Amand Dieter is also not a man to be trifled with. He has my sister as his prize and will not give up her, or his city, without a fight.”

“Jorn Dieter is not Kaiser.” Gilbert glared at Helmuth with such heat that it even make Siegfried uncomfortable.

“A technicality, nothing more. Now, back to my point. I have been sitting outside this hole of a city for ten years. I have had sappers working day and night at her walls for ten years. I have been sending thousands of men with towers, rams, and ladders to their deaths for ten years. For ten years, Gilbert, I have been trying to take Furststadt. It will not fall in a day.” Helmuth responded with his own icy glare. In combination with his sarcastic and condescending tone, it seemed to level the playing field a bit.

“I said nothing about Furststadt’s walls falling, or our sappers succeeding.” Siegfried turned his head to face Gilbert, perplexed. Helmuth did not. The contours of his face shifted into an open scowl and then an exaggerated grin, apparently a cathartic release of the emotions that had been building inside of him.

“Oh, yes, of course. We’ll simply deploy our brigade of dragon-riding Avoca stormtroopers, won’t we? That will surely scare them into bending knee to the true Kaiser.” The Koenig lordling’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. It was grating listening to him speak.

“Do you think I jape, boy?” Gilbert’s rebuttal was so firm that Helmuth flinched backwards upon hearing it. “Has the last decade rotted your manners along with your brain?”

“I would ask the same of you, Gilbert. You are old. Your grasp on this matter is even more tenuous than I had feared. I have spent this ‘last decade’ you speak of attempting every conceivable way to fell or bypass this city’s defenses.”

“A task you volunteered for. I do not demean the importance of what you have done here. It is a great honor, and when we are at peace once more, you shall be reimbursed for your loyalty.”

“A great honor?” Helmuth laughed openly, raising his head to the ceiling. “Oh, it’s an incredible honor to sit in a tent guarding a rock full of cravens while the rest of the nation is aflame with war. You deprived me, Gilbert. I was meant for better than this. But you and your-“
Gilbert cut him off midsentence. Siegfried was unsure of what he intended to say. “Do not speak of that. Do not ever speak of that.”

“You accuse Jorn Dieter of being weak. You accused Goethe of being ambitious. Yet it is your own fault that this country - your own country - has been bleeding for so long.” Gilbert was clearly affected by the remark. He recoiled, returning to a passive stance. “Whose ambition led to that, I wonder?” Helmuth spat, not bothering to conceal any of the contempt in his voice.

“You remain an insolent child, I see. Perhaps it is your comprehension that is tenuous. Attempt, Helmuth, to contextualize. I have not spent ten years in hiding, or feasting decadently on pleasures of my choosing. I have spent ten years away from my wife. I have spent ten years not seeing my grandson grow up. I have, like you, spent ten years at war, all around the country, watching this ‘bleeding’ you speak of. And now, when we finally have the chance to end it, you see it fit to harass me?”

Helmuth paused, having calmed himself somewhat. “Furststadt may die a natural death in time, but even you can end the war with a swish of your fingers. Not anymore.”

For a moment, the hall was uncomfortably silent. Gilbert and Helmuth stared at one another for so long and with so much hatred in their eyes that they became grimacing statues, their faces frozen in lifeless anger. The mounted beast heads on the wall seemed more likely to open their mouths in speech.

“You are right about one thing, Helmuth.” Gilbert struggled to stand from his chair. His arms were clearly those of a once mighty warrior, but in his advanced age, they failed him. He shook as he grabbed his cane from its resting place. With a muffled sigh of pain, he lurched forward towards the hearth. Upon arrival, he simply stared deeply into the flickering flames. “I am old.”
Helmuth hung his head. Some part of him, Siegfried knew, felt guilty. For all his knifelike sarcasm and cutting remarks, he still had a conscience beneath it all. Unfortunately, he could not be relied on to act upon it.

“We digress,” said Siegfried, in as calm and affable a tone he could muster. “Perhaps a return to the original topic of discussion is best.”
Gilbert turned his eyes, but otherwise remained unmoving. “Yes. Perhaps it is.”
Siegfried stood from his seat and stepped to his father’s side. With a brief flash of eye contact, the two came to a wordless understanding. Gilbert handed his cane off to his son, and let himself be guided back to his seat, which he reclined fully in upon reaching.

“We will not win the city by force of arms,” Gilbert began, as Siegfried took his seat again. He attempted to sit as upright and attentively as possible. He rarely stayed awake into the small hours of the night, and was terribly exhausted.

“Our attempts over the past ten years have made this lucidly clear.” For once, Helmuth’s discretion got the better of him, and he resisted the urge to reply to the remark. “And so far, our espionage has failed.” Gilbert paused, allowing the meaning of his words to sink in. “We are left with few options.”

“I thought treachery to be below you,” said Helmuth. Much to Siegfried’s surprise, he spoke in a genuine tone of voice. “I thought it to be below all of us.”

“When a decade is stolen from our lives? And when a country is violated for the greed and lust of a single man? No. When we are driven like beasts to drink at her waters, treachery is not below us.”

“Then tell us what kind of treachery we have in mind.”

“A feint. We will pack up the army and leave. A number of men will remain behind to explain our departure, along with a group of diplomats, who will negotiate a peace treaty, restoring control of the area around the city to House Dieter.”

“Excellent. We plan to end the war by letting them win!” Helmuth’s sarcasm had made a flashy return. He mockingly applauded, but ceased when Siegfried elbowed him rather harshly.

“The treaty is the feint. I will not allow a matter that began in blood to end without it. I trust the tunnels you have dug for sapping are large enough to house a number of men, Helmuth?”

“A… number, yes. Only certain tunnels, though. There are numerous ones unfit for even workers to stay within for any extended period of time.” Something was odd about the way Helmuth spoke of the tunnels, but Siegfried was unable to pinpoint exactly what it was. Gilbert, wrapped up in his explanation, apparently took no notice, and continued.

“Good. When we leave, of course, we will not truly be leaving. Perhaps five hundred men will be hiding within the sapping tunnels. Another score will be concealed within the supply shipments we will leave behind in Gravstadt.”

“And when the Furststadters bring the barrels and crates into the city…” Helmuth had begun to pick up on the plan’s direction. He tapped his fingernails on the armrest of his chair, as if in anticipation. “The men will spring out…”
Helmuth nodded. “Open the gates…”

“And allow an opening for the vanguard hiding in the tunnels,” Gilbert finished. He took considerable pleasure in detailing his machinations, and smiled rather deviously. “With this done, the rest of the army, which will have been hiding in the wood, will advance in quickly and consolidate control over the lower half of the city. The Upper District will have no farms and almost no wells. They will be driven to starvation within the month. Now, seeing as…”

Siegfried had been silent for several minutes, and found himself beginning to yawn. The meat of the discussion had been devoured, and Helmuth and Gilbert were now picking aimlessly at the leftovers, trying to find anything that been left uneaten. Now that both men had taken on more amicable personas, there was little else in the hall he could find to focus his attention. What had been a debate was now an ordinary forum. Drowsiness set in at a rapid pace. He tried several times to slap himself awake, but soon realized that such efforts were both futile and pointless, seeing as he was sure not to miss anything of importance - anything of importance that Gilbert had not already discussed, of course. He dozed off to the white noise of meaningless babble.

And he dreamt. Siegfried dreamt only of her face. Even through all the talk of war and treachery and foul magic, his dreams remained dominated by Katarina’s face, as they always had been. She would speak to him, caressing his face tenderly. Her fingers were icy, as if she had been standing in the frost for hours. They sunk into his cheeks. Yet he cherished the moment, a false but comforting vision. When he opened her mouth to speak, no words emerged. And like that, she would be gone. He would wander an empty and barren wasteland of white, where no entities but himself and his love existed: yet every time he found her, their contact was fleeting, and discomfortingly cold.
A deep-seated guilt began to build inside of him.

I should have sought her sooner, he thought.

Upon awakening, Siegfried found himself alone in the dark of the hall. He was now in solitude: both Gilbert and Helmuth were nowhere to be seen. Moonlight pierced the stained glass of the Tent’s few windows, providing a feeble but welcome source of light. The fire had gone out long ago, but a few embers still burned faintly, and the smell of Helmuth’s leek soup was still strong in the air. He could not have been asleep more than two hours.

The sound of footsteps interrupted his muddled thoughts. Someone was descending the stairs from the upper level; who it was, Siegfried could not be sure. A wave of paranoia gripped him. With the recent disappearances in the camp and reports of strange shadows moving about in the unholy hours of the night, he found it difficult to reign in his imagination. After all, the War Tent had no permanent residents. He reached for his sword, curling his sleep-tensed fingers around its hilt and gripping as tightly as he could in his groggy state. Of what use it would be against a demon of the dark, however…

“Sieggy? You’re still here?”

Siegfried was unsure if he was relieved or alarmed to know that the source of the mysterious clatter was indeed Helmuth. As his old friend descended the last few steps, the light of his torch became visible. He turned the corner and entered the main hall, bringing a much needed burst of light into the dark room.

“I am. Did my father already depart?”

“Yes,” said Helmuth, placing the torch in a nearby sconce and returning to the same chair he had been sitting in earlier. “He left about an hour ago. I cautioned him against it, in consideration of the incidents we’ve had of late, but he would hear no such worrying.”

“You should have followed regardless. He is your Kaiser, and your father.”

“And even though he’s sixty-four summers old, he still has arms thicker than my biceps. Any demon or assassin that assailed him would sorely regret it.” He smiled.

Siegfried had, for the most part, regained his consciousness. Although still somnolent, he would be able to entertain a brief conversation with Helmuth, if for no other reason than to see a few questions answered.

“It’s been a long time.”

“You have a knack for stating the obvious. You always have.” Helmuth reclined in his chair, breaking eye contact.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Helmuth,” said Siegfried, frowning gravely. He was not about to let this slippery fish of a man slide out of his grasp yet again.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He hasn’t changed. “Subtle, Helmuth,” Siegfried replied, in an exaggeratedly sarcastic tone. “I expected better from you.”

“It’s been a long time, Siegfried. Too long. Yo- our father said it himself. We may be young, but we are old.”

“What drives you to do this? Where along the line did becoming better grow to be your sole concern? You’re selfish.” Siegfried paused, allowing the blunt remark to sink in. “And so long as you keep up this charade, you always will be. Flies come to honey, not vinegar.”

“I’ve always had a problem with that idiom. What man in their right mind wants flies to begin with?”
Even for Helmuth, such circular and foolish jargon was abnormal. The man had always held a penchant for sarcastic comments, but this was something else entirely. Siegfried was confused, and in some regard, distressed. In combination with his earlier behavior…

“No one has betrayed you. Nobody goes out of their way to walk on you, as you seem to believe. When my father says that your duty is an honor, he is not lying.”

“And you did not sit idle for the last seven years, now did you, Sieggy?” Helmuth scoffed. “Get a mind of your own. You are older than I and you still follow your father like a loyal hound. A dumb hound, at that. But, I must say - I like the fact that you’re up front about your insults now. It’s considerably better than before.”

“You weren’t lying, then,” Siegfried said, with a sigh. Certainly, a part of him wanted to see Helmuth get his just desserts. But another part of him saw Helmuth as a friend and a brother - a brother lost. “I see.”

“Don’t pull that passive-aggressive bullshit with me, Siegfried. We’re men now, not boys. Let us face one another like men.” Helmuth almost spat as he spoke, clearly struggling to contain his anger. “I would tell you to leave, but that would violate my own dictum. So instead, I will be frank with my words. You betrayed me. I received no apology, no compensation, no acknowledgement. You are a thief and a liar wearing the mask of a friend. Perhaps there was once hope for our dilemma to be settled quietly - but you ripped it apart.”

“What happened was the result of your own actions.” Siegfried was not prepared to give ground. If a fight is what he wants, then so be it.

“Once more, I laud you for your… gall. Know, however, that I have not come within a mile of her in six years. She would have it no other way. Though, I’m sure you’ll have just as much trouble. Chances are that you’re a cuckold now.”

“Shut up.”

“Using the big words now, are we? I’d be inclined to say that you may have learned to read during that absence of yours.” Helmuth grinned widely, his face resembling that of a recently-fed snake. “You and I both know, however, that Katarina was a rather… shall we say, loose individual. You cannot expect a pretty girl to hang on to something as valuable as chastity for seven years.”

“I can, because unlike you, I have the ability to trust people.” Siegfried was half-tempted to stand up and walk away, but Helmuth needed to be put in his place.

“I do not trust because trust has never served me. Are we done here?”

“No, we are not ‘done here.’ We won’t be done until you recognize your own faults and take some of the blame on yourself.”

“Then we are done here.” Glowering like an enraged bull, Helmuth stood from his seat with a start. Siegfried moved to pursue him, but noticed that his left hand was firmly fixed on the pommel of his dagger. Just in case, he moved his own hand a little closer to his blade.

By now, Helmuth was standing the near the door. He had stopped, despite his earlier pace being surprisingly quick. With a jerk, he turned to face Siegfried once more, leering at him relentlessly. “One more thing, Siegfried,” he began, in faux-friendly tone of voice.

The first rays of sunlight were beginning to appear on the horizon.

“I know.” He smirked slyly before turning the doorhandle and casually departing into the dawn.

Siegfried’s stomach dropped.
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AWizardDidIt
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