Blake awoke from a restless sleep to greet the morning sun on his first day as an archduke.
It was strange. He didn’t feel any different, but last night everything had changed. He was an archduke, like his mother before him. The king had given him claim to Silverscale, and all the territory that his family had governed, going back since the days of Marlowe Harker.
To say he was a little overwhelmed would be putting it mildly.
Blake slid out of bed and knelt beside the cage his dragons slumbered in. It was so early in the morning that they still slept, and seeing their small forms was enough to bring a smile to Blake’s face. Even if his whole life had changed, some things remained certain.
“Blake! Blake, are you awake yet?! Are you dressed? Can I come in?!”
…And one of those things was Reed Rivers pounding on his door at the most irritating of times. Blake let out a sigh and rose to his feet, trudging over to the door.
“Blake!” Cheery as always, Reed greeted him as he opened the door, still dressed in his night tunic. Reed herself wore a bright smile on her lips, along with a simple white shirt and a pair of dark trousers. It was remarkably casual for her, and the image of a girl walking around the Thunder Palace dressed like a peasant was an amusing one.
But Blake’s amusement only went so far. “What do you want, Reed?” Blake asked, massaging his temples. He still had a bit of a headache in memory of the glasses of wine he’d had the night before, and he was hoping that whatever business she had, it would be over soon.
“Oh, beggin’ yer pardon, m’lord,” Reed smirked, her eyes twinkling as she put on an exaggerated peasant drawl. “Did I wake Archduke Harker from his sleep?”
“DO NOT even think about it,” Blake hissed, wanting to put a stop to that before it started.
Reed tilted her head to the side and gave a crooked grin. She pretended to curtsy. “As ye wish, m’lord!”
Blake let out a groan.
“Sorry, sorry,” Reed laughed, patting him on the shoulder. “But to answer your question, I just came by to check up on you, see how you were doing after last night. Elly was having some difficulty handling her wine, and I wanted to make sure the same wasn’t the case for you.”
Blake grunted a response and rolled his eyes, nearly slamming the door in her face. But that felt like too much work considering she’d just portal through it, so he muttered something and trudged back into his room.
Of course, Reed followed him. Because of course she would.
“Don’t look so sour, Blake! Wasn’t last night just the best?” She asked. Blake sighed. Reed was always smiling and upbeat, that was something he admired about her, even if he would never let her know that. But she had gotten an orchard last night. Blake now had to run an entire province.
“I’m an archduke now, Reed,” he groaned. “Do you have any idea how much responsibility that’s going to be?”
“So you are thinking of such things. That is good. That makes my duty here much simpler.”
Stunned, Blake whirled around to see Fie standing in the doorway, looking every part the consummate maid she always did. He caught Reed’s eye and she shrugged, just as surprised as he was.
“What are you doing here?” He asked suspiciously. He couldn’t deny that he was pleased to see the maid standing here now, but he was still confused. And wary, too. She was the head maid, directly reporting to the king. If she was here to greet him, then it wasn’t a social call. The king definitely wanted something from him.
“His majesty requests your presence,” Fie confirmed his suspicions, placing her hand over her heart and lowering her head. “If you would please come with me?”
Blake scowled. The king was summoning him. That had to mean he wanted something. Blake may have grown up on a farm, but he wasn’t so naïve as to the workings of court politics to think that when the king had granted him the title of archduke that there were no strings attached. He tensed, looking back at his dragons. A few had already woken up, and were scrabbling against their cages.
“I… I can’t,” he said, shaking his head. “My dragons are just starting to wake up, you can’t expect me to go off and leave my children alone just on the summons of the king…”
It was a weak excuse, and even as the words left his lips he expected Fie to dismiss it. But she never got the chance, because Reed was more than happy to step up and lift that burden off of the maid’s shoulders with her big mouth.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Blake!” She laughed, slapping him on the back. “I’ll take care of the little ones!”
Blake turned to her, about to give her a piece of his mind, when he saw the serious look in her eye. He paused, and considered that if Reed was this serious, maybe he shouldn’t push things. He nodded, and turned to Fie. “…Okay,” he relented. “I’ll go.”
Fie nodded back to him, turned, and stepped outside. “Get changed into something proper, m’lord. Then we shall depart.”
Blake looked down at his tunic. Not exactly the best clothes to wear to a meeting with the king. He turned to Reed. She looked innocently at him.
“Reed?” He asked, staring pointedly at her. He didn’t want to say it out loud.
“Yes?” She said, tilting her head to the side.
Blake sighed, and walked around her, pushing her towards the door. “Some privacy, please,” he said, shutting the door behind her.
He quickly changed into the same formal clothes he had worn to the banquet last night. Hopefully the king wouldn’t mind, they were the only nice clothes he owned. And unlike Reed, he wasn’t so brazen as to go traipsing through the palace in casual garb.
He stepped out, ready to go, leaving his children in Reed’s care. He realized that he was doing that a lot, recently, entrusting her with looking after the little dragons. When had he come to trust her this much? Maybe she had just worn him down.
But right now, his attention was turned towards other avenues. The dragons would be safe in Reed’s care, right now he had a meeting with the king.
To Blake’s surprise, Fie didn’t lead him to some grand throne room, or even the banquet hall that he’d dined in the night before.
When the king bid her enter, she opened the door and led him into a room that actually reminded him of Professor Darkflame’s office, though a lot fancier and much better decorated. …Better organized, too, he noticed, without the usual clutter that the professor was known for.
And sitting at the large desk, a serious expression on his face as he poured over a stack of papers, was King Richorr. Dressed not in the garish outfit he wore the night before, but rather a far more subdued (though still fancy) tunic and cloak was the king, studying paperwork. He didn’t look nearly as imposing or intimidating as he had the night before, he looked… well, like someone doing paperwork.
“Your majesty, I have brought Archduke Harker,” Fie said, lowering her head and holding her hand over her chest.
“Yes, thank you, Fie, you’re dismissed,” King Richorr said, barely glancing up from his papers. “Lord Harker, you may approach. Take a seat.”
As if the feeling of reporting to the teacher’s office hadn’t been strong before, it was all Blake could think about as he approached the king’s desk. He wasn’t alone. Sitting in front of the desk was a man many years Blake’s senior, his dark black hair giving way to gray. But his eyes still carried a young fire behind his wire-rimmed glasses, studying Blake as he took the seat beside him. He looked familiar, but Blake could not place where he’d seen the other man. One of many faces he’d greeted the night before, lost in the crowd of his memories.
Blake turned to look at the king, who had already turned his attention back to the papers. The king wasn’t alone, of course, standing at attention on either side of him were two knights in armor that shined like the sun. Blake didn’t know them by name, but one glance their way told him all about who they were. Polished brighsteel decorated with gold and emblazoned with the mark of the king, they were certainly members of the Four Holy Swords, the king’s private guard. He couldn’t see their eyes behind their helmets, but Blake assumed they were studying him cautiously. He was going to be on his best behavior so as not to provoke a reaction from them. Instead, he waited patiently for the king to finish his work and address him.
He didn’t have long to wait, thankfully.
“Archduke Harker. I’m glad you could join us,” the king said, lowering his papers and raising his head. He sat up straight in his seat, his face pinched into a dignified scowl that looked little like the generous and affable man he had seen at the banquet. Blake could see Lancelus in that intense sky-blue gaze of his.
“It is an honor, your majesty,” Blake said, lowering his head and placing his hand over his heart.
“Is it?” King Richorr snorted. “Coming to sit with two old men in the dawning hours, watching them discuss matters of state, that’s what’s considered an ‘honor’ for youths these days?”
Blake held his tongue, not sure how to respond. The king’s gaze was cold as ice, and his voice was as stern as Professor Darkflame’s. Had he made some sort of mistake, said the wrong thing? His eyes slid to the other man, but even though his face was familiar his eyes weren’t friendly, giving him a gaze as equally harsh as the king’s.
Then he cracked a smile.
“Don’t torture the poor boy, your majesty,” the man said, and as if he’d cast a spell the king’s icy expression melted into a wide grin.
“Hah! Boy, you should see the look in your eye,” the king bellowed, his deep laugh shaking the room. “Frightened like a scared little puppy! Is this the man who fought of Estvalian terrorists to protect my son?”
You fucking old man-! Blake forced himself not to scream. Who did he think he was, laughing at him like that?! Blake felt his face grow hot, rage and shame welling up in his chest. The king was mocking him, but he had to keep his temper in check. This wasn’t like with Trevan and the Estvalians, he couldn’t just fling a fireball at the king. He took a few short breaths to try and calm down, laughing awkwardly along with the two men.“Feeling relaxed now?” The king asked. “No need for pretense here,” he laughed.
Blake did not feel especially more relaxed than he had before, no, but he laughed along with them again, trying to get there. It was clear that King Richorr was the kind of man who Blake didn’t get along well with.
“Yes, your majesty,” he said, nodding.
“Good!” The king smiled, his eyes twinkling joyously. “Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you here at this despicable hour. Before we get into that, I want to introduce you to someone. I believe you met last night? Duke Louis Emberly.”
Ah! Hearing his name brought the face back into Blake’s memory. The duke had come up to his table last night to make formal introductions, along with his wife and children.
“Yes, Duke Emberly, it is a pleasure to see you again,” Blake said, forcing an awkward smile to his face and extending his hand to the other man. Duke Emberly accepted it gladly, smiling. “If I’m not mistaken, your house has been a good friend of my family for many years.”
“Yes,” the duke nodded. His grip was firm. “Just as I was a good friend of your mother’s. When she passed away… no.” He shook his head, and his smile took on a gentle, somber tone. “I’m truly sorry for your loss, my lord. Marea was a treasure to us all.”
“…Yeah,” Blake said, nodding numbly. Being reminded of his mother’s death wasn’t how he wanted this conversation to start. He took his hand from the duke’s and his arm dropped limply to his side. “Thank you, my lord.”
“Good, we’re all friends here,” the king dryly noted, clearing his throat. “Now, on to our business. I brought the two of you here to discuss House Harker’s role in Saekoria moving forward.”
Blake perked up at that. “Your majesty?”
The king let out a long sigh, leaning back in his seat. “When Silverscale fell, and House Harker with it, it spread chaos through the region,” he coldly stated, like the deaths of everyone Blake knew was just an inconvenience. But Blake couldn’t let that get to him. “Dukes, Marquesses, Barons, every noble house trying to seize as much as they could, like vultures picking over scraps,” he spat, shaking his head. “I needed someone who could come in and take over, take House Harker’s place as guardian and overseer of the eastern belt.”
The eastern belt, also known as Dragon’s Reach, was the territory that House Harker had presided over since before Saekoria was formed. It was the part of the sky that had been granted to Blake by the king the night before.
The king nodded to Duke Emberly. The duke’s voice was tender, a surprise from a man of his stature and position.
“Like you said, House Harker and House Emberly were always close allies,” Duke Emberly explained. “As your mother’s closest vassal, when she died, it fell to me to take over her position and run things, to keep the eastern belt in order.”
“Yes, I know all about that,” Blake said, shaking his head. He may be a novice in court politics but he still understood the system, and of course he was aware of what had happened to his family’s territory. The fact that they were treating him like an ignorant child was starting to grate on him. But he kept his cool. “Is there a reason you’re telling me this?” He asked quietly.
The duke looked to the king, who let out a long, exasperated sigh. “The reason we’re telling you all this is because we want you to understand the awkward position we find ourselves in. Now, by right of name and deed, the eastern belt is yours, by my own hand.” He glanced at Duke Emberly. “And yet, I can’t just dismiss the years of dedicated service that Louis has given to the kingdom and the region, either, now can I?”
His gaze drilled into Blake, who found himself at a loss. Was he supposed to answer? “No, your majesty?” He tried to sound firm, but to his frustration his confusion still bled into his words.
“I thought not,” the king nodded in agreement. “Which brings us to the issue. I’ve granted you the title of archduke, the lands of the eastern belt, and the authority to do with them what you please. House Emberly is your vassal now, and I thought it best that you two meet to discuss… arrangements.”
Ah. Now Blake could see where this was going.
Blake had been raised to the status of archduke. But a title was just a word, in truth House Harker had nothing to its name. Silverscale was a ruin, the house’s servants either long-dead or like Fie, working for other houses, and he sat before the king now without a single wingal in his coffers.
“Here is land and title, do with it what you wish,” the king had said, and now here he was, without any idea of what he could do. He ruled over one of the largest parts of the sky, with nothing supporting him but the king’s word and five baby dragons. The king was not going to help him rule. That responsibility had been granted to Duke Emberly, and now Blake, who had no knowledge or experience in governance, was somehow supposed to take up the mantle?
The implication of this meeting was obvious. “Make nice with House Emberly, or House Harker will likely fall to ruin a second time.”
With that in mind, Blake put on the best smile he could, and turned to the duke, who watched him expectantly. “Duke Emberly… thank you for the years of work you spent, taking care of my family’s lands.”
The duke sat a little higher up in his seat, puffing his chest out with pride. “It was my honor, my lord. And please, should you need assistance of any kind, feel free to come to me. It is the least I can do, out of the great respect I held for your mother.”
More insinuation. Blake was not used to dealing with noble guile, but he was a fast learner. He could see it in the duke’s eyes, the man was waiting for Blake to come to him. Make the request of him.
“Thank you, my lord, it relieves me to hear you say that,” Blake said, carefully thinking of the right line between politeness and pride. It was difficult, one of the most difficult tasks he’d ever undertaken. He was used to being direct, not… whatever this was.
But as unpleasant as he was, he had no choice but to continue. “Truthfully, there is something I could use your assistance with,” he said, trying to keep his frustration from leaking out. “As you know, I’m still a student. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life on a farm, where I learned nothing of governance or politics. By law I may be a man… but in these matters I’m still just a child.”
“Nonsense,” Duke Emberly said, clearing his throat. “You may be inexperienced, certainly, but in the short time we’ve spoke, I see in you the dignity and etiquette necessary for an archduke, if a bit unpolished. Given time, I’m certain you would make a fine warden of the eastern belt.”
Given time, maybe. But not right now.
“But as you say, I’m inexperienced,” Blake reminded him. “I’m still in schooling, expanding my knowledge. As you said, given time, I’m certain that I can be the lord my territory needs me to be. But until that time comes… I humbly request your counsel moving forward.”
Blake had his pride. He was getting a strong vibe from the king and the duke that they wanted him to be a figurehead, a puppet, with Duke Emberly ruling the eastern belt in his name. But he wasn’t going to just hand the reigns of his mother’s homelands over to the duke. Not right away. Asking for his counsel would hopefully show both men that he wasn’t some pushover who would just obediently do what they wanted.
Duke Emberly was silent for some time. The king sat back in his chair, glancing between the two of them and stroking his chin thoughtfully. Blake barely spared him a glance. He stared at the duke, afraid of what would happen if he backed down.
This struggle was nothing compared to the fight against Trevan. Blake’s life wasn’t on the line here, but he felt that same pressure on him as he had back then.
“Blake… would you be governing your lands from the Rem Magic Academy?” Duke Emberly asked. Blake paused, taken aback by the question, as well as the duke’s sudden formally.
“I… I hadn’t thought about that,” he admitted. “Would that not be acceptable?”
“It would be difficult,” the duke explained. “The eastern belt is a vast expanse of sky, with many noble houses within its borders. It necessitates a watchful eye, the vigilance of a lord within its borders, attending school at the same time…” His voice trailed off, the insinuation clear.
“Then may I ask, my lord, what counsel you would provide me?” Blake said slowly. “If it’s in the interest of my people… then I will withdraw from the Rem Magic Academy should the need arise.”
Blake had no intention of leaving school, but he felt it wouldn’t come to that.
“No, no, that won’t be necessary, I don’t think,” Duke Emberly said, raising his hand. “Instead, I was thinking… that I could govern the eastern belt, as I have been, in your name, of course. You would have the final say in all major disputes, but the day to day governance would fall to me. We can sort out the details later, if you wish.”
There it was, the offer. By coming to Blake like he was doing him a favor, Duke Emberly could preserve the dignity of them both. And all it took was Blake giving up his power. How convenient.
But he didn’t have any other choice. “Thank you, my lord, your help in this matter would be most appreciated,” he said, smiling as best as he could. He thought of Reed and her fake smiles, and did his best to imitate one.
The duke smiled, and Blake could see the victory in his eyes.
“And I assure you,” Blake added, “that when I’ve finished with my studies I will return and relieve you of this burden, my lord.”
“It would be my honor.” The duke’s smile didn’t wane, nor did the light in his eyes dim, which surprised Blake. This wasn’t some bid for power? The duke was willing to relinquish his territory when the time came? That… that wasn’t anything like the nobles he’d heard of.
“Of course, I still would prefer if we could come to a more… permanent arrangement,” Duke Emberly continued. “I think that, in the interest of prosperity, for the eastern belt and House Harker… it would be in our best interest to merge my house with yours, my lord.”
Blake’s questioning “huh?” escaped his lips before he could catch himself. He stared dumbly at the duke, not sure what he was saying.
“I have several daughters,” Duke Emberly explained. “If you’ll agree to take one of them for your bride, then this agreement will be the perfect arrangement. Wouldn’t you agree, your majesty?” He asked, turning to the king.
“Ah, I see, that does settle the problem nicely, doesn’t it?” King Richorr said, nodding in agreement. His eyes were shining eagerly. “Perfect! Lord Harker, you can take one of the Emberly girls for your bride, and then once you’ve graduated and the two of you are wed, you’ll take your rightful place as lord of the eastern belt. Does that sound like an accord?”
“Huh? What?” Blake wasn’t even listening to the king’s words, still struggling to wrap his mind around what was happening. The duke had just said… “bride?” He asked. That… he had never thought for a moment about that, what?
To call Blake’s experience with women limited would be a gross exaggeration. The number of girls he could hold a civilized conversation with he could count on one hand. And now the duke was proposing he marry some girl he’d never met?
“B-But… for me, to marry your daughter…” Blake fumbled for words, not even sure what he wanted to say. “I’m not… I mean… I’m not the sort of man you’d want your daughter to marry, my lord.”
Blake was not blind to the problematic person he was. It was the reason he’d agreed to the professor’s advice that he seek counseling. His temper was a problem, he was far too violent. Reed had advised him, urged him to smile more and open up more to others, and he was trying, but…
He wasn’t even near to that point, not yet.
The duke didn’t seem deterred. “From what I see of you, you seem to be an honorable man, someone who values others and will keep his word,” Duke Emberly said. “I see a good man in you, Blake Harker, much like your mother.”
Blake found himself touched by the duke’s words. He was so stunned that he found himself at a loss for words himself, unable to find the words to refuse.
As Blake sat under the piercing gazes of the king and the duke, he found himself wondering if maybe he was overthinking this. It wasn’t like he had given love or marriage any deep consideration. They were the furthest things from his mind. If he had someone he fancied, then maybe he would have objected, but if all it took to restore his family name was an engagement, there were worse prices to pay.
“I… If that’s… the only way, then yes,” Blake finally said. It still didn’t feel real.
“Ah! Excellent!” The king said, clapping his hands together. “It’s decided then!”
When Blake had awoken the day before, he had been on a train headed for Stormstar. In not 24 hours he’d gone from a boy with five dragons and a sword to an archduke presiding over the eastern belt and engaged to a duke’s daughter.
It was hard to believe.
“Well now, let’s not waste another moment on this,” the king said, rising from his seat. “I’ll leave it to you two to discuss the finer details. Dismissed.”
He waved his hand, and Blake glanced at the duke. It was time to go.
“Shall we?” Duke Emberly asked, rising from his seat as well. “We still have much to discuss.” Blake didn’t know what else to do, he was still in shock. He rose and followed the duke, trying to wrap his head around what was happening.
“I know it might seem rather shocking, to be engaged to a stranger at your age.” While the duke led Blake through the palace, he continued discussing the arrangement, much to Blake’s chagrin. It felt like everyone in the palace was watching him.
“When I got married, I wasn’t much older than you were,” Duke Emberly continued. “Your mother introduced me to my Rosealine, in fact! And as the second son of a marquess, a match with a duchess took quite a lot of getting used to, I must say.”
Blake was surprised. “So you married into House Emberly, my lord?” He asked, surprised. “But you still run the family, not your wife?” By law of headship Duchess Emberly should have been running the household, with the duke as her husband.
“My wife has her hobbies that occupy her time,” Duke Emberly laughed. “She leaves the matters of state to me. And please, Blake, enough of this ‘my lord’ business. You can just call me Louis.”
“Uh… yes, if you want… Louis…” Blake said. It was strange, referring to an adult by their first name. But it was far from the strangest thing about today.
“You met my girls last night, if you remember,” Louis said. “I will say, it’s a pity none of them are your age. Maria is already wed, Isabella is a smidgeon too old, and Emilia is only ten. But Ramona, my third daughter, she’s only a few years older than you.”
Ramona… which one was that? Blake tried to remember the girls’ faces from the night prior, but they all sort of blended together. What he remembered most vividly was the odd color of their hair. “Ramona?” He asked.
“Yes, in fact, she even attends the Rem Magic Academy, like you,” Louis added.
That caught Blake’s attention. He’d expected to not have much contact with his newly-acquired fiancé due to his time at school. But if she was a student as well… maybe it would be possible to turn this arranged marriage into something more.
Not that Blake was at all capable of such things.
Louis stopped in front of a door to one of the guest rooms and turned to Blake. “I still have some business to attend to. In the meantime, if you like, I can introduce you to Ramona. The two of you can get to know each other a little better.”
“Right… right now?” Blake hadn’t been expecting that. “Isn’t… isn’t that a little fast? I mean, just going up to her and introducing myself as her fiancé, when we barely know each other, that’s a little…”
Louis let out a hearty laugh and clapped Blake on the shoulder. “Ah, Blake my boy, there’s still so much about nobility that you have to learn.”
Before Blake could even respond, Louis turned and knocked on the door. “Ramona, it’s me. There’s someone out here I’d like you to meet!”
“Coming, father!” A muffled voice came from inside. Blake heard the scurry of footsteps seconds before the door opened, and in a second he was face to face with a face filled with freckles. They were everywhere, countless spots that seemed to shine against her pale skin.
Like the night before, what drew his eye first was her hair. It was just the oddest color. It reminded him of a dragonfruit. A deep pinkish-red color, curled in a variety of ways and sticking out to just past her chin, but the tips were a warm brown, like someone had dipped raspberries in chocolate. He knew that pigments like that were a sign of mana leaking into the roots, like with Chloe and Sabine. He forced his head down and met her gaze, staring into the twinkling blue of her eyes, hidden behind the lens of her wire-rimmed glasses.
“H-Hello there,” the girl squeaked. She was still smiling a big toothy smile, even though she was shaking like a leaf. Her tall frame looked like she might get blown over by a gust of wind, she was so startled, and her cheeks darkened more the longer she stared at Blake, clearly just as uncomfortable about this as he was.
“I’m… Ramona,” she said, offering her hand. “Ramona Emberly? We met last night?” She reminded him, her voice holding more than a little hopefulness.
“Yes, that’s right,” Blake said, remembering her freckled face vividly. She’d been so nervous she couldn’t even look him in the eye, and she’d nearly tripped over her own feet on the way there. “I’m Blake Harker.”
“Yeah, um, I know,” Ramona giggled. “My dad he… told me a lot about you. So, um… hi?” She kept ending her sentences like they were questions, which made Blake unsure of what to say back. But one thing he was growing more sure of was that apparently, Duke Emberly had been arranging this little engagement already.
“Your father told you about me?” Blake asked, glancing at the duke. If he felt any guilt, it didn’t show, he looked at the two of them with a bright beaming smile.
“Yeah, he said… uh, he said that we might, well…” Ramona’s hand dropped awkwardly as Blake let it go, and she shifted on her feet in the doorway, like she wasn’t sure how to stand. Her eyes kept glancing at her father. Then she sighed. “Get engaged? Maybe? Is that… is that what this is?” She sounded hopeful, but at the same time, Blake could sense a bit of apprehension. Maybe it was just nerves?
Whatever it was, it came with confirmation that this had been the duke’s plan all along. Blake would have been more upset, but it wasn’t like Ramona was the worst person in the world to be engaged to. She seemed like a sweet girl, and she was nice enough to look at, even if she was a little skinny. It wasn’t like Blake had a problem with her or anything, he barely knew her.
“Well, I’m glad to see you two are getting along so nicely,” Louis said, clapping his hands together. “Now, I must be going. Why don’t you two go for a nice stroll, or maybe have a meal in, and get to know each other better?”
Before Blake could raise any objections, the duke turned and walked down the hall, humming a tune to himself. Blake watched him go and let out a sigh, turning back to Ramona, who continued to give him that awkward, downcast stare as she fidgeted with her fingers.
Blake didn’t feel that much more confident about this himself.