Golzar knelt down on the cool wooden floor. The floorboards creaked softly as her kneepad rested upon them, and she gritted her teeth. Wouldn’t do to make a noise in a room like this one.
It was dark inside the carriage. Only the dim glow of altar candles outlined silhouettes in front and behind her. There was Lady Lucretia’s foot, most prominently. The pointed toe of her shoe caught the glow of the light. It wasn’t steel-capped or anything, just a woven sandal with a cloth covering her bare skin.
On either side of Lady Lucretia, there were more familiar faces looking on. The angular column of William's nose, picked out unflatteringly by the light of the candle beside him. The glint from Ariga's wide-set eyes. The soft red of her carapace armour, vivid even in the darkness.
Lady Lucretia knighted Gerhard first, as their commander. He was kneeling closest to her; she only had to turn her head a little to the side to see a stray strand of his brown hair, flickering in the draft that came in through the wooden walls. She barely heard him breathe as the ceremony was completed.
Whispers went around towards the back of the room. Lucretia had come accompanied with only a small retinue, as was necessary to avoid drawing attention. So they had troublemakers. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it couldn’t be anything good. Golzar exhaled quietly, forcing herself to relax.
She felt the cold steel of Lucretia's sword touch her on both shoulders.
In the background, a clatter. Someone tipped over a glass of beer; another person hurried to wipe it up.
The next person to knight was Bryn, their scoutmaster. Now technically, Lady Lucretia didn’t have to knight them, but Woodlandians considered it auspicious when things came in threes. Bryn was not altogether happy to have a blade so close to their neck, even without vicious intent. Golzar heard them shift uncomfortably over the floorboards, ducking a bit when Lucretia passed her sword over their head.
From in front of her, she heard Gerhard’s foot shift on the floor. He was beginning to rise, and she did so as well.
For the first time, she looked up to see the alleged royal's face. It was covered by a black veil, but she could make out the roundness of her cheeks. Were they the same age? Golzar's smirk twitched a little bit.
"Goddess conserve." Lucretia's voice came out pointed and steely.
"Goddess conserve!" Ariga echoed, drowning out William's voice. And all around the room, each gave the cheer.
Gerhard's heel made a soft noise as he spun around to lead them out of the room. Knowing Bryn would have already followed soundlessly, Golzar made haste to march on. As they squeezed single file through the opening, her brows furrowed in concentration, listening in to what the nobles were saying.
" . . . odd choices, indeed, but I guess it can't be helped."
"The royals know best, yes, and I am certain the whole issue will be resolved by the end of the war - "
She heard somebody mutter “expedience”. A long and pointed shoe recoiled sharply away from her as she walked past.
"- keep moving, commander." William's voice breathed on her neck, sharp and bitter. Golzar pretended she'd heard nothing and sauntered out of the carriage.
She stepped into the grey light of morning. A thin mist had settled over the camp, weaving between the long granite gorges to cool the soldiers and mercenaries, who all ambled about with their daily chores. The Lions, who had been knighted just shortly before them, were grouped in a gaggle of gold and black beside the Lady’s carriage. The leader, Thornston, was squatted in the centre of their circle, a cup of dice in his hands. They sneered at Golzar’s company as they passed by.
Golzar turned to Gerhard, his back facing her as he strode onward. She bumped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. “They supposed to gamble here?”
“Leave it be,” he whispered back, voice raspy. “’S not our fight.”
Before Golzar could hop back in line however, Thornston stood up. “Captain! Commander!”
Both she and Gerhard stopped. Gerhard’s face was serene as he turned around. “Yes, Captain.”
Thornston grinned, revealing sharp rotten teeth. Golzar gagged internally. She’d made most of her Miscreants use a tooth powder mixture she’d remembered from home, and even then some of them had cavities from time to time. But none of them could possibly outdo Thornston in this matter, as she knew form all the times they’d spoken.
“So we’re knights now, huh. Chevaliers.” Thornston exited his little golden ring of groupies and trudged over to Gerhard. Golzar took a step back. He missed her with a swing of his arm and ended up awkwardly putting just one arm over Gerhard’s shoulder instead, pressing their faces close together.
Around them, people turned their heads to look. A squabble or two amongst the heroes on campaign was nothing unusual, but in the presence of Lady Lucretia, they couldn't afford a full-on fight. Golzar cackled, before she stepped forward and slapped Thornston on the shoulder.
"Yeh, better let Gerry over here get back to his knightly duties, huh?" Onyx eyes met narrowed green ones. "Sure you're busy as well."
Thornston huffed. But then he lowered his arm and pivoted back towards his troops. "Right. See you around then."
Golzar heard Gerhard let out a sigh of relief. She put a hand on her hip, turning towards the the edge of camp. Her long black locks tickled her shoulders, even while tied up, and she ran her other hand through her bangs idly. It was about time she cut it.
"Gerry?" Bryn snorted all of a sudden, and she realised they'd waited behind to listen. She turned to them, taking in the questioning mirth in their hooded brown eyes.
"What? Don't tell me you don't nickname him sometimes, because I know that's not true!"
Gerhard coughed softly to draw her attention. He glanced lingeringly at some point beyond the border of camp. "Golz', I need you to take the rookies. Training in a bit. I have to sort some things out on the supply side with the general."
"Can't you ask Bryn or someone to do it?" said Golzar, frowning.
Gerhard flushed. "I - I can't, I have to make sure all the numbers look right. Not that Bryn wouldn't do a good job but - "
Bryn interrupted. "Don't worry bout it, Gerry. I get it."
Golzar shrugged. "Alrighty then." She left Gerhard stuttering in the middle of camp, and Bryn laughing at him.
Behind the load of wagons, there was a makeshift armory. Golzar swung the scabbards in her hand over one shoulder, tilting her head to one side to make space for the hilts to rest there. The Miscreants, they'd go through swords faster than she remembered any hothead merc used to back in Besiv, so she needed to replace them often before training. Of course, she could have easily asked one of the rookies to do it, but she was the weaponsmith's daughter and she needed to make sure these things were done right.
The wagon with the weapons was large and dark. Golzar pushed aside the dusty linen cloth covering its entrance and climbed in.
"Excuse me." A familiar voice. Golzar's eyes widened. How odd.
She turned, gaping slightly, to the shadow of Lady Lucretia, sat very unqueenlike on one of the crates. Lucretia had removed her veil, and was staring at Golzar with dark lashes curling over her piercing black gaze.
Golzar had to think for a second, before remembering to bow. The uneven wooden planks rose up in her vision. "M'lady, what a surprise."
Lucretia hummed tonelessly in response. Without her veil, Golzar could see that she was clearly about the same age as the rest of them.
For a moment, Golzar stood there in silence, a passive smile on her face. Then she realised this could be the future queen she was speaking too, and that Lady Lucretia had no need to explain herself, and so she’d been waiting for nothing. She shuffled to the other side of the room, to the sword rack and began to work.
“I trust you shan’t go about gossiping about this to the others?”
A jolt in Golzar’s chest. The scabbards rattled. She glanced back to Lucretia, who as still scribbling away at her papers as though nothing happened. “Of course not.”
Golzar started at herself. “I mean, of course not, my lady.”
When Lucretia did not reply, Golzar turned back to the rusty old sword rack, a frown creeping onto her face. Royals, nobility - they were all hard to work with. It wasn't her style to kiss the ground someone walked on, but being here with the whole Miscreants company outside made her more conscious of the dos and don'ts in Woodlands.
"Oh - good!" Lucretia said suddenly. It almost made Golzar jump. Almost.
When she whipped back around, Lucretia was looking at her, a light rose dusting her cheeks. "My apologies, I'd meant to say that a few seconds ago." She cleared her throat, schooling fine features back into their solemn mask. The noblewoman - royal? Golzar hadn't bothered with the particulars of her lineage - had a caramel complexion, elegant with a cold undertone. One small hand gestured at the stack of papers she kept balanced on her lap. "I was . . . distracted."
Golzar gave a stiff nod. "Uh, don't worry about it, m'lady."
"Could you drop that?"
A broken arming sword clattered to the ground. "No, not the sword," said Lucretia drily.
She sighed. There was a smaller crate stacked atop the one she was currently sitting on. Golzar watched as she slid closer to it and languidly rested her right elbow on it, the silk of her sleeve draping over the wood. "I have your commander stop with the 'm'lady' while we're in private chambers as well, as you might be aware."
"Yes. Yes, that's right." Golzar was lying. No, she had no idea what Gerhard's etiquette around the Lady Lucretia was most of the time. They only ever asked for commanders to meet with her, not their underlings or minions or mysterious stowaways - as Golzar proudly attested herself to being when asked.
Before Lucretia could get another word out, something outside clattered and pinged loudly. Golzar was up on her feet in an instant. She nearly tore open the curtains to get a look.
A hero had ridden their way into camp out of nowhere, their horse neighing as they brought it to heel and dismounted. Their flag was golden and black - one of the Lions - and it clung, tattered to the horse's saddle.
The hero took off his helmet, revealing a face drenched in sweat, but grinning. "Oi commander!"
Golzar saw Thornston walk over to him. "Yo."
She noticed Lucretia had hopped off of the crate, and was now standing right behind her, looking over her shoulder.
The hero sauntered over to Thornston, and they retreated to a corner of the camp. Uneasily, the rest of the camp settled back into their previous rhythm, talking quietly and discussing.
But Golzar saw the glint of blue in the hero's pocket, how he slipped a long necklace and several other trinkets into Thornston's satchel. Thievery.
Lucretia scoffed, behind her. Golzar looked at the discontent in her brow. "Shall I --?"
"It won't do you any favours, captain. Sit down."
"Are you sure?"
As if to make the point clear, Lucretia dropped her papers back where they were, before taking a seat on a much shorter crate. She gestured towards the one opposite her - a gunpowder box - for Golzar to do the same.
Golzar's jaw clenched, but she followed suit.
With the cloudy sky, the inside of the wagon was darker than usual. Shadows painted every surface. Golzar sat down, knees apart, trying to feel casual. It made sense, now that she thought about it. Lucretia was the same age as the rest of them, and probably sick of all the ceremonial nonsense. No doubt she'd put up with too much of it today already.
"When I become Queen," her voice broke the silence - "this is all going to have to go."
Golzar met Lucretia's intense gaze with definite curiousity. Something about this girl compelled her to listen. Something about her made it seem like they weren't two kids skulking about in the back of an armory.
"Corruption. Banditry. It's all poison, no matter where it comes from. War heroes aren't exempt," she continued. Lucretia leaned forward on her elbows, resting a cheek in one hand. "I hope you don't find this all too oppressive. I rather like your company. And - well . . . "
Golzar sat at attention. Words on the tip of her tongue. Then, remembering Lucretia's informality, she chuckled. "Don't think we all heroes are the same. We're not mercs - not all of us. I actually think I like what you're saying."
A smile crept into Lucretia's face. She raised both eyebrows. "Really?"
Golzar felt her cheeks flush. "Yes. Really."
They sat like that a few moments more, before Golzar remembered the training drills and hastily excused herself, the new swords balanced on her hands in front of her. When she glanced back, she saw Lucretia give her a tiny wave from inside the wagon.
Evening. The last ritual. Lucretia looked stressed standing at the edge of camp. There she was flanked by two clerics, quite fresh-faced and moving uncertainly around the rows of candles. The carved wooden mask stared down from where it was attached to the back of Lucretia’s carriage.
Golzar shook her head, stopped squinting and turned back to look where she was going. The ruckus in the camp had died down somewhat. There was something about the pale rose of the sunset, maybe, that made people calm down. A cool breeze swept past, blowing a few strands of her hair astray. She'd been thinking about cutting it.
She saw Gerhard glance back, lips moving silently as he did a head count of their small company. They moved like cows walking back after a day of grazing, slow and tired from the day's work, meandering in lines to stand before the set-up of ceremonial items.
Around the sides of camp, the camp followers, peasants and other non-combatants sat on open wagons. Golzar could see the faces of children, smudged but smiling. Parents ushering them forward. This part of the ceremony was really more for them than anyone else.
One of the little girls waved at her, and Golzar grinned back.
Inside her pocket, the periwinkle flower shifted. She had found it, a purple pearl in the pale spring grasses. It was the royal emblem, had been for years. But for some reason she thought it suited Lucretia especially, and she had plans to give it to her after the ceremony.
The thought inflating her, Golzar marched on.
She stopped a few steps behind Gerhard, and in line with Bryn.
By this time, Lucretia was beginning the slow walk from her station, visible in the black robes of the Scholars for all to see. On her neck she wore a periwinkle pendant that dangled heavy and large on her chest. She'd put the veil back on.
As she passed by the wagons of Woodlandian commoners, shouts and cheers arose from the crowd. "Lady Lucretia! Your Grace!"
Behind her, the two clerics walked nervously, each balancing a pot of dyes in their hands. One was a powdery pink, imported from Rosaheim likely. The other was a light sage green. The clerics were dressed in the white robe of initiate clerics, lacking the green band that would officiate them for proper practice.
Some of the onlookers threw Lucretia little gifts. A ribbon here, a bundle of wildflowers there. Lucretia smiled graciously beneath her veil. It would have been impossible for her to carry all of them, and furthermore, a trail of petals behind a future monarch spelt well for their popularity amongst the common people.
At one point, Lucretia charmingly plucked an apple from a child's hand and was seen whispering thanks into their ear.
As she passed by the rows of heroes, however, suddenly the parade became a lot more solemn. The nobles were seated opposite them, a forest of severity and poise. But still the gifts continued.
Golzar slipped her free hand into her pocket – she had her sword in her other hand, though it was not at all to be used today, unfortunately – and she drew out the slight flower.
The trail of Lucretia’s gown was approaching. She must have seen Golzar; who wouldn’t? The second-in-command was always right next to the commander for these ceremonies. Golzar extended her hand to deliver the flower and –
Lucretia turned her head away.
It was subtle, just at the moment of pivoting. But then Golzar noticed the clerics were confused, running after Lucretia. She must have changed direction when she realised Golzar was there with the flower.
Quickly, Golzar stuffed the periwinkle back in her belt strap, crushing it in the process. Figures. Of course the future queen wouldn't remember someone like her. A smirk crossed her face, strained slightly. Her loss.
The ceremony ended with a song. Quavering voices rose from the two clerics, who sang a temple hymnal about how the Goddess created male fighters out of clay, lifeless clay, to sacrifice themselves on the fields of combat. Golzar had heard this song over and over before, so she sang it mechanically. Above, the breeze blew a few stray leaves overhead, and Golzar watched them turn one round in the air, then fall away.
Before the ceremony disbanded, she cast oen last glance over her shoulder at Lucretia. The noblewoman walked with even measured steps towards the crowd of her own, as they parted for her like a castle doorway, only to close behind her, swallowing her up from view.