The story so far…
A silken-gloved fist banged on an oaken door that had been garnished with square imprints. Not a sound came from within the building, so Archibald decided to knock again. He retrieved his hand and coiled it with the other from behind his waist. He grumbled to himself while waiting in the veranda that led into Fordshire Manor, he would have expected a response by now. Yet he was given none.
Wisps of wind sighed past his ears, until they swept through the black strands of his hair, only to whistle past the leaves of a grand fig tree that stood in the middle of the gardens. Even Archibald’s aged eyes burned with the fires of a forgotten youth when he gazed upon the garden. Fordshire Manor, home to Baron Fordshire XIX, was the most opulent corner of Grenal City. Most of the settlement was marred with grimy alleys and streets in which the honking of cars took precedence over even the most pleasant of conversations. It was a melting pot for outcasts and criminals alike, one where they could fester in their degeneracy or crimes.
But Fordshire Manor was nothing like that.
Fordshire Manor’s gardens where an ocean of emerald which was bathed in the splendor of the sun’s rays. Beds of roses, lilacs, and daisies were arranged in paths that the hapless visitor might lose themselves in just by daydreaming within the confines. Archie could see himself–as a child no less–frolicking amuck in the beds of scarlet roses, wafts of flowery fragrance teasing his nostrils. He could see the scrapes in his arms which had spent the whole of the day climbing atop the boughs of the fig tree, but he wouldn’t care. He had been free then–in that time where the Turtillians had been no issue to him. Yet perhaps that time could come back to him…maybe he had a few minutes to–
“Um, siiir?” Archibald’s thoughts came reeling back to the present after the butler that greeted him at the door had spoken up. His voice was a monotone one, without even a hint of inflection to add flavor to it. It had the aristocratic accent of those colonials whom were so fond of dragging out their vowels.
Archibald whirled backwards, almost stumbling over an ornate vase with circular patterns. He was then greeted with a frail gentleman in a navy dress suit. “My…condolences?” It had been some time since Archie had practiced proper etiquette. Truth be told, he never expected he would need that skill ever again.
The man squinted his eyes down at Archibald, and licked his lips once. “Hrm…yeees. Master Fooordshire has been waiting for you. Cooome right this waaay.”
Recalling that his weapons had been stripped from him before he’d been allowed into the premises, Archibald sauntered into the luxurious halls of Fordshire manor with the butler close at hand. It opened up to a large antechamber on which were hung portraits designed by renowned artists. The dingy landscapes designed by the School of Realism, the dandy fields of flowers crafted by Romanticists, and the unintelligible garbage that the Surrealists called “art” found itself displayed in galleries all around the manor. All of them in places with padded furniture and where trails of perfumed scents lingered.
With that, the old man led Archibald down one hall, only to come into another, and then another, and then he would take a sharp turn without Archie noticing. Archie had seen the same abstract painting on one of the right walls at least six times before the butler had made any real progress. That, or Mr. Fordshire XIX was fond hanging a replica of the same painting in every corner of his dwelling.
Soon enough, they’d reached a wide set of oaken stairs that led to a door that was wrought in the same fashion as the one that led inside. Before Archibald could speak to the butler again, the bald gentleman bowed and was halfway down the stairs before Archibald was able to think of what he would say.
“This ought to be the Baron’s room then…” Archibald muttered under his breath while slid a crack into the room.
His eyes were treated to a crackling hearth with the stuffed head of a grand moose hanging on a plaque that was directly above the fireplace. Fusils, rifles, and a slew of pistols were hung on walls and arranged on stands beside a variety of creatures that Archibald could only guess had been slain by the weapons. The door creaked while he went one step into the room, and he was met with a fresh, transparent whiff of air. He breathed in mouthfuls of it. It felt as though he’d been taken deep into one of the pine forests that were a ways off of the grim of cities. He would have allowed himself to inspect the room further, had it not been for the realization that he was not alone.
His curious gaze drifted along the room until it fell upon the arm of a high-backed chair with velvet cushioning. A stout figure rested against it, but it was no more detailed than a shadow to anyone whom gazed at it from behind. A robust arm protruded to his left, the meaty fingers twirling the stem of a wine glass. An uncorked bottle of the crimson delight stood on a small table which was also to his side.
Firewood crackled and the hearth belched out embers that danced in their flight. And then the person in the chair lifted the glass to his lips. “Come inside. I’ve been waiting for you. For a proper long time I have.” The Baron, despite what Archibald thought his age to be, still held a clear voice. The kind of voice that could convince a man to jump off a cliff, and if that same man lived through the drop, he’d jump over the cliff again should the voice command it.
Archibald bore himself forward, fawning over the rifles and pistols that had gone out of production years ago. Had he the free time, he’d go out hunting with one of those, yet time was not kind to him. It never had been.
Archibald seated himself on another chair that was behind the Baron. The oaken legs screeched a bit when he sat down, he’d have to remind himself to lose some weight later. “Baron Fordshire, I presume?”
“The nineteenth.” The Baron made a point to emphasize his place in the long line of Fordshires. He drummed his fair fingers on the rim of his seat’s armrest. Archibald could see that he wore an admiral’s vest, with golden stripes that were luminous when the hearth’s light reached them on his shoulder. “Let’s talk business why don’t we? But first, spare me a moment.”
Baron Fordshire XIX raised either of his palms and clapped twice. His callous hands being the way that they were, the sound echoed throughout the whole of the room. Right after the clap, there came a voluptuous mistress in a fine gown whom bore a tray with two wine glasses on her arms.. She wore a crimson gossamer dress that ended in flowery designs by the time it reached her bosom. A curling river of hair slid down one of her shoulders, and then Archibald’s eyes landed on her lips. Moist and the same color as her gossamer gown. The same woman he’d met at the pub.
“Been a while, hasn’t it? I wasn’t sure you’d come, but now your–” the Baron raised a finger toward her, and she zipped her mouth.
“We can leave the pleasantries for later, Daniella.” the daughter pouted, and Archibald watched as her shapely legs peeked out of the gown while she took up a seat beside the Baron. Considering the age gap, she was likely his daughter.
Archibald slouched against his seat and brought his arm to grip the stem of one of the vacant glasses. He looked into Daniella’s eyes for a moment to see if he was allowed to pour himself a drink, she nodded and by the time she finished his cup was already half-filled. Archibald took a swig.
“I’ve heard much of you, Archibald of Newlenburs. Your dealings, your recent excursions, but more importantly, I know that you and I are allies. Allies against those abominations that have crept into our glorious nation of Winsworth–of those Turtillian beings that hide, extort, and manipulate our proud people.” he slammed his fist on the armrest, only to regain his cool by opening his palm again. “You and I, we are much alike. We both know that they’re pulling the strings with their planned assassinations and the sudden replacements of noble peers. Yet neither of us would just stand idly by and do nothing of it.”
“Yet I haven’t seen you call them out in public.” Archibald retorted, and a tense silence stood between both of them. Daniella narrowed her eyes at Archie’s bold remark. “If you really cared as much as I did, you’d be on radio broadcasts nationwide, telling everyone the truth.” Archibald sipped his wine. He would not allow himself to be compared to some pompous aristocrat whom happened to be aware of the truth. What good would that do if he wasn’t willing to stand up for it?”
“True, true. A coward I am, I’ll give you that much.” His inflection got rougher by just a tinge, to the point that only an educated man would have been able to notice it. “But bravery and truth aren’t commodities we give much value to in these times. Suppose I did say the truth, what would be the best that happens to me? Should I lose my lands and have all mention of my lineage erased just because I made myself a fool in the eyes of the public? It didn’t work out when it happened to you, why should it work out for me?”
“A wise man once said that we ought to value truth in spite of what anyone else believes.”
“Should he value truth above even his own daughter?” Archie raised an eyebrow, and spun his head toward the youthful Daniella, but he was not met with a playful smirk. She glared at him, with all the intensity of the pale sun.
Archibald was left speechless, so he downed the rest of his drink while he tried to think of how to phrase a possible rebuttal. Debating men of his own kind came naturally to Archibald, without regard to the individual’s status or wealth. Yet being the courteous gentleman that he was, he could never bring himself to argue with a woman, it had been the last thing that his father had taught him. And the only thing that Archibald regretted learning from Edward Newlenburs.
“Enough of that. We’ve come to talk business, not to argue.” Daniella returned to her seat after her father diffused the situation.
Baron Fordshire shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. He set the glass back on the table, and then he turned to expose his whole profile to Archibald. Had Archibald been a lesser man, he would have called Fordshire a freak of nature the moment he saw him, but Archie believed in principle. But even that still didn’t stop him from being unnerved by Fordshire’s appearance.
An ebony sphere lay in the place of his left eye, with a burning cerulean dot shining in the middle of the void. The Baron blinked once and six metallic fragments came together until they met at one center point and retracted with a mechanical movement when he opened his eyes again. Vein-like wires protruded from under his skin right above and below both eyelids. He was one of the Enhanced Ones, albeit not to the extent that one would hear about in the news. Yet unlike most of their ilk, he was not some lanky youth that sought strength through artificial means, nor was he a senior whom wanted to relive his youth. Baron Fordshire was middle-aged, but among the healthiest of that demographic. His shoulders were broad and his short hair had only recently begun to gray. His muscular constitution threatened to burst out of his naval uniform at any second.
“Don’t be embarrassed. You wouldn’t be the first to react negatively to this. But enough of me, I’d like to bring in the subject of my brother, Philip Fordshire. Uncle to my daughter.” He waved a hand toward her and she gave a courtly smile.
“Philip Fordshire? My deepest condolences, it was just a week ago since he’d passed away was it not? I heard of it through the radio.” Archibald set the glass of wine on his lap and he leaned toward the edge of his seat.
Fordshire’s artificial pupil faded and shone, only to fade and shine again. It was odd. In truth, the Baron needed only get rid of that one part of himself to be human, but to see him so nearly resemble humanity made Archibald’s stomach churn. “Uncle died a peaceful death, but that isn’t the problem. It was old age that took him–earlier than I would have wanted of course–but I’m powerless against it. The problem was what happened after.” Daniella, whom had held any trace of emotion to herself since Archie had met her, now spoke with a subtle fervor.
She paused as though the Baron meant to speak again, but he took another sip of his wine instead.
“It’s what happened after he was buried that worries me the most.”
“What do you mean after?” Archibald bristled his moustache while he looked at the time on his pocket watch.
Daniella glanced from one end of the room to another, in the same way she had done back at the pub. Not a soul was to be found in the Baron’s personal study. She lowered her voice to that fine line between casual conversation and murmurings. “None of the journals circulating Winsworth know about this, it’s a family secret, but when my father had gone to visit the grave just four days ago, he found it empty. Not even a scrap of Philip’s clothing was left in the coffin, only an odor.”
“An odor as foul as horse dung and human waste, but it was faint.” The baron joined in all of a sudden. “I would have thought it to be dingy grave-robbers, but before I knew it, I had smeared my hand across a foul slime on the rim of the coffin. When I inspected it, all I saw was a black ichor oozing down the coffin.”
“Turtillians.” The word had a certain aura to it when Archibald mentioned it. The kind that could earn a couple of seconds of silence. “There’s no question about it,” Archibald elaborated and wrung his hands together. “they stole your brother’s body. You made a good choice in not reporting it. The authorities would have silenced you a mere moments the second you made the announcement public.”
“Oh Lord.” Daniella buried her face between the palm of her hands, and Archie patted her shoulder. Yet much to his surprise, she did not sob. By the time she’d removed her hands from her face, her expression was one of pure disgust.
“Don’t fret, milady, we can still recover him.” He had made his voice as dashing and heroic as he could manage, but that only worked on damsels that had been distressed. Daniella was not in tears, nor in sorrow, nor was she in pain. An almost masculine anger had seized her, the rage of one that has been wronged.
Baron conjoined his hands and rested his chin on them. “It is all fine to hear you speak of solving the problem. But a man is as good as cattle if he doesn’t act on his word. I would gladly take you to the church where my brother’s been buried–but only you can make the choice, Sir Archibald.”
That same grin that had found itself on Archie’s face in the pub had come to him again, the same grin he bore when he swore he’d kill every last trace of Turtillian filth in the Winsworth Imperium. Even if it took him one kill at a time. The moustached, gentleman hero, Archibald of Newlenburs, puffed up his chest and locked eyes with Daniella. They exchanged a glance, but one of pure determination. The kind of glance that defined men and women that would not allow the tides of history to drown them in their wake. Archibald offered his hand to Baron Fordshire XIX.
“I would be honored.” Archie said while he awaited the admiral to clasp hands with him.
Fordshire chuckled to himself, his cerulean pupil flaring up with newfound fervor. He brought his brawny hand and clasped it with Archie’s. “I knew you still carried the spirit of a gallant in your hands Archie. The Winsworthi aristocracy have a saying, but never has there been one that has lived up to it more than you.”
“‘Once a gentleman, always a gentleman.'” They both intoned the mantra, and Archibald felt the tight squeeze of Fordshire’s hand.
In due time, the admiral let go. He walked over to a stand that was above his fireplace, and hoisted a rifle that had been sprawled atop it. Above it hung the head of a mighty buck, one of the antler’s chipped with injury. A testament to the power behind the weapon’s bullets. Daniella crossed her arms and downed a drink of wine, all the while Archibald watched as Fordshire unloaded a cartridge from the rifle. It was an M2 Gorond, with a thick iron barrel beneath a carapace of oak. Fordshire strapped it to his back.
“Let’s get a move on, shall we?”
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