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What the Servant Saw

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 Honoroit was certain there were ghosts haunting Fortemps Manor. 

Like many boys his age, Honoroit both believed in spirits and considered himself above being afraid of them. Sometimes he told himself he was far too old for the childish nonsense of being afraid of the dark; but the darkness inside the manor was different from the darkness he'd experienced on the streets of Ishgard, where there was always someone awake, no matter how unsavory, and the moon and stars were always just a thin broken-down wall away save on cloudy nights. Within the heavy stone walls of a rich man's house, it seems, there was true darkness, the kind where you could snuff out your candle and see no difference between your eyes open and your eyes closed. 

Fortemps Manor was grand indeed, but the house was more emptiness than anything else as of late. The family employed few servants, even in the best of times -- most of their staff were older men who had served House Fortemps with a fierce loyalty for their entire lives. Honoroit had found himself the center of attention simply because he was new, and it was almost unheard of for the staff to actually increase. The long war, too, had slowly ground away at both the proud edifice and the people inside it; large sections of the manor had fallen into disrepair, their inhabitants laid in graves alongside their soldier children or leaving the city behind to march, lance raised, into the maw of the beast, or to simply vanish into the sad sorrowful world to never be heard from again. One wing had even been collapsed in the recent assault upon Ishgard proper, and though the Fortemps family had hired laborers to repair it, it was more charity than employment. Progress was slow, and the shattered roof still lay sloping into the central courtyard like an open wound oozing through a bandage.

Sometimes it seemed to Honoroit that House Fortemps itself was somehow like its manor -- its sparse population scraped thin over deep wounds that would never truly heal.

A light sleeper by necessity who found it hard, at first, to fall asleep in the dead quiet of the half-abandoned house, Honoroit often found himself wandering the corridors of Fortemps Manor late at night. If anyone were to ask, he would say he simply suffered insomnia and wished to grow more familiar with his current place of employment; in truth, he was searching for the source of something he could not name, some uneasy dread that had clung to him ever since Lord Emmanellain's father had bought out his contract and brought him home. 

This place was haunted, he was certain of it. Being a rational sort, Honoroit was determined to seek the source. Sometimes his fear got the better of him, but not tonight -- tonight, he wandered the halls with a tallow candle lit to banish the shadows, nerve steeled to catch a glimpse of whatever specter lurked behind the creaking of heavy doors and the flitting shapes across barren windows in the grim moonlight. After all, this was his home too, now, and damned if he would share it with the unquiet dead. 

Upon his rounds, he noticed details amiss -- curtains fluttering in unchecked drafts, windows left un-barred to let in the chill of the now-permanent winter, portraits of Fortemps past knocked crooked and ignored -- but nothing more than was to be expected from such a vast house with so little staff. Bit by bit, he straightened decorative heirlooms, blew the dust off mahogany end tables, and shut doors as he went. Little things to make the place more palatable, less empty and alone. 

It was not until he had wandered clear down to the dining rooms that Honoroit heard something that caught his ear. 

The kitchens were by necessity a bit detached from the house proper; between them and the chambers where House Fortemps held its high society functions, when they happened, was a small garden separated from the main center courtyard by a single arch. It had been intended, perhaps, for the growing of edible flora, but the Calamity had snatched this function away -- now, it was mostly decorative, populated by a few hardy winter herbs. Still, it was furnished with benches and the now-dry marble fountains were still beautiful dusted with snow; it was, during the day at least, a place that servants often retreated to have a moment of rest between their duties. 

Emanating from it now were...footsteps. Voices, indistinct whispers that may have been words and may have been merely the semblance of words. Shielding the candle with one cupped palm, Honoroit stepped into the smallest of the Fortemps dining rooms -- the one reserved for casual meals among the peerage, whose side door opened onto the melancholy kitchen garden -- and found was greeted with an unsettling gust of chill wind that could only mean a door left ajar. Standing stock still for a moment to let his eyes adjust, holding the little flickering flame close so it did not go out and to ward off the cold, Honoroit could pick out a few strains of sound, loud as cannon-shots in the silence. The rattle of dead foliage in a gust of winter wind. A sharp hiss, as from a human mouth. The wet crunch of snow beneath a weight. 

There was no clear line of sight from the doorway to the western side of the room, so Honoroit dropped to all fours and crept, quickly as he dared, along the neatly arranged rows of unused chairs towards the open door until he was close enough to peer through the gap between the hinges, affording him a glimpse of the ghosts in the garden. 

The moon was a mere silver sliver in the sky, but between her and the stars the garden was illuminated well enough that Honoroit could make out the scene in front of him, first in flashes of discrete imagery -- the soft edge of a fur coat thrown over a pair of bodies, obscuring them from view; a white sliver of exposed thigh; his master's face, cheeks flushed and lips parted; upon the hand twisted into Emmanellain's dark hair, the unmistakable signet ring of Lord Artoirel de Fortemps himself. 

Honoroit was out of sight, he knew, but still he was grateful that Emmanellain's eyes were screwed shut. He startled, dropping the candle, which immediately winked out; the scene in starlight stood out all the more in the absence of any other light. Honoroit looked away, but the image had nearly been seared into his mind's eye. 

His master's cheeks had been wet with tears as he turned, and for one gut-wrenching moment Honoroit feared that he had wildly misjudged Artoirel's character; there were, he knew, lords whose mask of cool politeness hid a wicked heart and who took whatever they wished from those in their power. Stilling his breath and forcing himself to look again, though he felt certain he might panic, he turned toward the scene starkly illuminated by moonlight one more time, if only to decide what he ought to do. 

Artoirel took Emmanellain's chin to turn his face back towards him, and for all Emmanellain's tears and the desperate roughness of their coupling the motion was a gentle one, performed with careful delicacy. Emmanellain, Honoroit knew far too well, was unused to being treated so, and the soft touch seemed to bring him back from whatever thought had been haunting him. He fumbled with his hands up past the fur collar of the coats thrown over the both of them, twining his fingers in Artoirel's hair, leaning up to murmur something in his ear. 

Slowly, carefully, Artoirel kissed the tears from his brother's cheeks. The thrust of his hips redoubled, and Emmanellain buried his face on the thick fur around Artoirel's neck. Honoroit heard from him the faintest cry of...what was it? Ecstasy? Despair? Some mad mix of both? 

Honoroit grabbed the candle from the floor, clutched it to his chest, and turned and fled into the cavernous darkness of the empty Fortemps hallways. He ran by memory, stumbling occasionally over dusty heirloom rugs and feeling for closed doors in the dark, until he came to a window that let in moonlight, enough for him to see by, and stopped to catch his breath.

What was he to do now? Surely the sight was not intended for his eyes -- for anyone's eyes. If they were to be discovered, the scandal that would result from such a dalliance, against nature and against...

Try as he might, Honoroit could not recall any element of scripture that stated Halone's stance upon brothers by blood lying with each other. It was a thing unheard of, too strange to even condemn. 

Honoroit's hands shook as he fumbled in his pockets for a matchbox, to re-light his candle before he grew lost in the twisting hallways of the manor's vacant sections. Wasn't that the way of things, though, in the realms of the powerful? Everything was strange and backwards; men never said what they meant, were cruel to friends and kind to enemies, and secretly indulged in decadent pastimes that they in public they condemned. 

He'd seen his master weep before -- rarely, when he could no longer hold together his facade of devil-may-care rakishness. As agonizing as it was to watch, it had been some comfort, Honoroit had hoped, that he had not had to suffer alone. And as aghast as he had been to see the manner in which his lordship chose to offer kindness to his younger brother, Honoroit could not deny that somewhere deep down it had gladdened him in spite of himself. He had not thought cold, cunning Lord Artoirel even capable of showing such gentleness, Honoroit realized with a pang of uneasy guilt. 

But what was he to do now? Should this unnatural dalliance come to light, it would surely spell disaster. His Lordship's reputation was hardly unsullied, but Artoirel's was unimpeachable, and besides -- this was far beyond mere indiscretion. And yet, of all the strange vices of the rich and powerful, it seemed to Honoroit that this one may, perhaps, be the kindest he had yet seen. It seemed to Honoroit dreadfully unfair that his master should suffer so for an act of comfort, however twisted, when there were men all across Isghard who were greeted with raucous applause in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- their wanton cruelty. 

Finally, Honoroit managed to open the matchbox in the dark and strike the phosphorus head on the flint inside. The match sputtered, flared, and glowed; he touched it to the wick of the candle with fingers trembling and stood for a moment watching the flame thoughtfully. 

Considered in the light, there was really only one thing to do: keep this secret close, and if needed, make certain it was never revealed. A fearsome responsibility, to be sure, but Honoroit was by now used to fearsome responsibilities. The only thing that remained was to figure out how he was to face his master when he was called upon to rouse him in the morning. 

Slowly, with care, Honoroit made his way back to the servant's quarters. Somehow, the possibility of ghosts seemed far less frightening, having encountered the darkest specter that haunted the halls of Fortemps Manor -- the peculiar madness of the nobility, born of isolation and despair, that made sinners of great and small.