Hubert wasn’t much of one for parties, and even less of one for conversing with Cornelia Arnim. And yet here he was, lightly swirling a flute of champagne in a quiet alcove of the ballroom as he tried to dodge his hostess’s suspicions.
“I don’t like seeing a guest with such a sour look on his face,” the Agarthan Minister of Infrastructure cooed, giving away nothing behind her eyes. “With how enchanting the opera was, I had hoped my little gala would provide a satisfying end to the night.”
“My apologies, madam,” Hubert replied, politely. “I’m rather unused to high society, you see—I’d never have been invited were I not a friend of Dorothea Arnault. My name is Hubert Vestra.”
That didn’t seem too dubious of an answer, and Cornelia seemed to accept it. She gestured over a young man—cuffs visible and a brand on his hand. A Crest bearer. The orange-haired young man snuck a quick glance at him before offering up the bottle he held, refilling the Minister’s wine. “Ah, yes, Miss Arnault quite stole the show, even as a villain. I will admit that she seemed a bit too sweet to play the Demon Seiros—surely a monster should be less of an ingenue.”
Dangerous territory. “I’m sure she just wanted to create a contrast—a monster behind a lovely face. After all, nobody would expect such a heartless beast to hide herself so well.”
Cornelia, lovely on the outside as well, smirked noncommittally. She was a tricky read. “Ah, I know. Any sympathy must dissolve by the end, when Lord Nemesis and his companions gallantly sacrifice their humanity and bloodlines to put an end to her. For blood to be so cursed that it infects their legacy even millennia later—why, it’s little wonder that only selfless dedication could control the taint.”
Behind her, the young orange-haired boy stood staring at his feet, the grip tightening slightly on his bottle. How much of this do you believe, I wonder, Hubert thought. Out loud, he replied, “That is our society’s tradition, is it not?”
Before Cornelia replied, a bell signaling the hour summoned her away. Before she went, she gave him a wink and a promise to see Hubert again. Hopefully not a sign. But the passage of time held duties for Hubert, as well.
He surveyed the crowds. Dorothea was easy to spot, holding a small handful of notable military guests in conference by the doors to the courtyard. She was a bright and charming as ever, and it was hard to imagine anyone she paid attention to would leave her side. Good.
Caspar’s loud laughter was audible across the room, considerably less charming as he blocked a bored-looking Count Oswald from joining the other guests. Linhardt was silent and unassuming behind him, leaning on one of the overly-ostentatious windows, the gems on his cuffs emitting a glow that proved them currently active. They seldom were, but Caspar needed all the help he could get to seem “proper.”
The only one who was out of place was Hubert—he hadn’t expected the mansion’s owner herself to pick him out of the crowd. He had mere minutes before the Flame Emperor was due to arrive. He had to hurry.
He turned towards the young man still clutching his bottle of wine. “Would you mind showing me the way to the restroom?” he asked, with what was intended as a winning smile but made the servant look rather nervous.
“Of course, sir,” the young man responded with well-rehearsed politeness, and dared to look Hubert in the eye.
Not quite beaten down yet. That’s good.
That Ferdinand’s father wasn’t at the party was a mercy.
The Aegirs had already been reasonably well-off before Ferdinand’s thirteenth birthday, and the consolation payment given after he had been Tested and found cursed would have propelled them even higher in society. Franz Aegir was exactly the sort of man to feign a love for opera just to hobnob with the upper crust at the afterparty.
And if his father had come, how would he have reacted to the sight of his eldest child serving the guests with all the poise and politeness he’d always tried to have?
Disgusting. Everyone knows that those Crests are for slaves and monsters. Of course he’s no longer a son of mine.
Ferdinand knew his duty. He knew that his blood was cursed and must be kept under check. He knew that spending his life serving a full-human master was the pact that his ancestors had signed when they drank monsters’ blood.
That didn’t mean it didn’t sting.
After showing the rather frightening-looking guest to the amenities, Ferdinand returned to the ball, taking a deep breath to chase out any treasonous thoughts. It’s not like he was unlucky: though strict, Cornelia seemed to consider her staff beneath her notice, preferring to take her cruelty out on political opponents and criminals. Ferdinand was fed and clothed, and his duties were no worse than any free domestic servant’s.
He’d heard horror stories about what he could be enduring, and what he might if he disappointed Cornelia. He had no room to complain.
As he looked around for any guests who might need more refreshments, the room went black.
“Dark magic?” Ferdinand whispered, inaudible against the sudden screams of the guests. Then, one of the towering windows that Cornelia was so proud of shattered.
In the influx of moonlight, a cloaked silhouette appeared. “Congratulations,” announced the figure in a distorted voice. “The Flame Emperor has seen fit to grace your celebration.”
Before anyone could react, The Emperor brought their axe down on the figure right before them. It looked like the Count Oswald.
For a second, all was silent and still. Then every guest in the room began to panic.
Ferdinand pressed himself against the wall to avoid being trampled as the upper-class patrons began to rush out. Some instead fought back, and he was able to see glimpses of the action from the flashes of light from spells.
The Flame Emperor parried three guards at once, cutting one down. Cornelia dodged a masked woman in the garb of an assassin. Dorothea Arnault had fainted into the arms of both General Chilon and General Myson, distracting them from taking part in the battle. A fire had started by the table of refreshments.
Ferdinand decided that it was time to run as far as his bracelets would let him.
Every time he got too close to one of the mansion’s exits, his wrists gave a warning shock. Cornelia had enchanted his bracelets’ boundaries quite specifically: no leaving her home or entering any private room. Ferdinand wasn’t even allowed out in the yard.
He’d been quite good at fencing once upon a time, and he was still fit and strong, but he had no access to any form of weapon. Cornelia didn’t trust weapons in the hands of Crest-bearers. He couldn’t fight, and he couldn’t run, so all Ferdinand could think to do was hide.
It grew quiet as he traveled to a farther hallway, one where guests wouldn’t be allowed. Ferdinand decided to head to the laundry room, when he heard something odd from a very forbidden door.
“Ow, what was that for? I am hurrying!”
The too-loud admonishment came from the open door to Cornelia’s study. That door should never be open. It wasn’t a voice that Ferdinand recognized, either.
Against his better judgement, Ferdinand softly walked over and looked in.
In the room were three young men. One was short, with a shock of aqua hair and a stream of curses coming from his mouth. He was fiddling with Cornelia’s desk, trying to brute force his way past the locked drawer. A second, sitting slouched in a chair for visitors, was taller and thinner, with long green hair and—to Ferdinand’s surprise—a pair of Crest bracelets on his wrists, stones glowing blue. And the last was the dark-haired man that Lady Cornelia had been talking with earlier—Dorothea Arnault’s friend. The one whom Ferdinand had shown out of the ballroom earlier.
Suddenly, what had seemed likely to be a crime of opportunity seemed like a conspiracy.
The short teenager finally managed to break the drawer open, with a cry of triumph. “Told you I had it!”
“Fine,” said the black-haired man impatiently. “Just grab all the documents—we don’t have time to search them for now. Lady Edelgard will know what is useful.”
“Ah,” droned the green-haired boy, “that’s inconvenient.” Ferdinand turned his way in horror, seeing sleepy-looking eyes gazing right back at him. “I told you to keep guard, Caspar.”
“You were never going to get that thing open on your own! I saved the mission!” Caspar responded as the dark-haired guest sprung up. Ferdinand didn’t have time to run before he found himself surrounded by the clouds of a Miasma. He fell to his knees, coughing.
When he looked up, the tall mage glared down at him, radiating homicide from every inch of his body. By contrast, his companion Caspar seemed almost jovial.
“Don’t worry, man,” the boy told Ferdinand with a grin, then pointed at himself with his thumb. “We just so happen to be the good guys.”
The green-haired boy sighed, then crouched down to the dumbstruck Ferdinand’s eye level. “I’m sorry about this. We’re part of a collection of people with some strong disagreements about how society functions, and about the significance of Crests.”
It was easier to talk to another Crest bearer. “What do you mean? About the curses?”
The other boy hummed, then shook his head. “Well, I’d say even the concept of calling them curses sits poorly with me. They’re quite interesting and have a variety of useful functions. I’d love to have a chat about them later, but we need to be out of here before Cornelia escapes the ballroom and you’ve seen enough that you need to come with us anyway. I hope that sits right with you.”
“What.” Looking up at the three faces—one vengeful, one eager, one bored—Ferdinand found his father’s speeches coming to his mind and out of his mouth. “But—we’re cursed, and inhuman…And, if we don’t obey, we’ll be monsters like Seiros, and…”
The tallest man sighed. “It often takes some time to recontextualize things, but we’re in a bit of a hurry. Caspar, if you will?”
The shorter boy’s fist hit the side of Ferdinand’s head, and he fell immediately into unconsciousness.