Esther attempts to represent Richard, but is surprised again by his honor
|The carriage rocked as they drove along. Esther held her hands in her lap, wondering how she could possibly feel reluctant to leave this awful city. After everything that had happened, everything she had been put through and forced to do. What could she possibly have to stay for?
All business matters were attended to. All legal matters had been dealt with. She had no dear friends in this city, or deplorable ones for that matter. So why did she feel compelled to remain? She thought it over and over, but could find nothing. Then an image came to mind. An image of a soldier in uniform, and her heart involuntarily heaved.
“Are you alright, my lady?” Esther snapped her head up to see Gretchen surveying her with concern.
“Oh, it is nothing,” she lied trying to play it off. Gretchen gave a small smile of assurance.
“Forgive me if I am out of place,” Gretchen continued, “it just seems that with all this wretched business about, that perhaps-”
“It’s Richard,” Esther blurted out before she could stop herself. Gretchen appeared only slightly surprised.
“Oh.” A moment later her face tilted in confusion. “You mean the sergeant from the other night?”
“His name is Richard,” Esther insisted. Gretchen appeared caught off guard. Sighing, Esther collected herself. “My apologies, Gretchen. I should not snap at you such. That was unbecoming of me.” Gretchen smiled in comprehension.
“If it is not out of place for me to say, my lady, I would suggest that insistence is very becoming of you,” Gretchen’s smile turned more cheekish.
Esther could only smile in appreciation, then returned to staring off into nothing. Gretchen leaned forward confidentially.
“If I may ask, my lady, why so insistent on calling him by name?”
Why was it so important that he be named? She had met plenty of persons of great importance, and had seen plenty of others who were of much lesser standing. All the extravagant events she had been dragged along to over the course of her sixteen years, had engrained a sense of reading people. She knew how to recognize the class of those around her, and knew who was important enough to be known, and who wasn’t.
It seemed cruel to her as she thought about it, but most people were simply worthy of just leaving be. One had to be efficient with the names they remembered as well as the faces to pair them with. Either that, or one could find themself overwhelmed by names. It would be horribly embarrassing to refer to a person of great import by the incorrect name, and just plain silly to do so to a commoner.
So why was Richard important? What made him so note-worthy? Though it pained her to think it, she couldn’t find any reason he should be considered important enough to name. He was just a common soldier. A sergeant perhaps, but still just a soldier. Though a soldier in this city would be stationed at the Docksbury and Combs Army Academy. Which meant that, as a sergeant, he was training to be an officer. Still, training to be was very different than actually being.
All the Lieutenants she had met were officers seasoned at least two years, and had earned some form of honors. Beating down four men of the city watch was hardly going to earn him any prestige. More than likely it would earn him a caning, and a severe one at that. Yet he had done it on her behalf. Without being asked or told to, he simply took it upon himself, and acted on her behalf.
That meant something, but what, she didn’t know. She just knew that it was important to her. Even if no one else cared, it was still important to her. Finally, unable to justify herself, she shook her head slowly.
“I do not know. There is just something about him, but I do not know what it is.” She leaned back in her seat, feeling lost.
“Well,” Gretchen ventured, “if it had anything to do with how he defended your honor-”
“He stood up for me,” it hit her immediately. “No one has ever done that for me.”
“Well, not like that,” Gretchen emphasized.
“No one has ever done that for me,” Esther persisted. “No one has ever had to, yet he does it anyway.”
It all just seemed so girlish, yet she couldn’t help but feel awed.
“I do not know, Gretchen, there’s just something about him…” she searched for the word. “So…” there had to be a better word.
She shrugged in resignation, preparing herself for how silly she was about to sound. “Manly.” It was the worst possible adjective she could have picked, and shook her head, ashamed by her own confusion. “I know it sounds silly. Ignore me, Gretchen, I am babbling nonsense.”
“No,” Gretchen interjected. “My lady, it is not silly nonsense.” She appeared rather shy before continuing, “In a way, it makes perfect sense.”
This took Esther by surprise. She gawked at her handmaiden, who shifted before continuing.
“It can seem like something that only happens in stories from long ago, but I think any woman would appreciate having a man who is willing to defend her honor. No matter what the cost. No compromise.” She glanced toward the ground in shyness, “I believe that we all look for that sort of quality in all men. Though rarely do we ever find it to this extreme. So much,” she searched for the word, “vigor.”
Esther gazed at her handmaiden with some amazement. How did she seem to know the inside of her own thoughts so well that she could actually make sense of it all? The woman was a wonder, and a blessing. It seemed odd that her dearest friend should also be her servant.
“His vigor will get him into trouble,” Esther observed.
“You do not believe that his city or his army will be grateful for his deeds?” Gretchen ventured at sarcasm.
Suddenly Esther felt horrendously selfish. Here she had spent the entirety of a day defending herself, even after the rats had already been dealt with. She retained every right to have done so, but what about Richard? He was completely at the mercy of a city that had intentionally made him out to appear like some deviant. His command was bound to take the word of the City Justice over his own. Who would defend him? She had, of course, ensured that City Justice send a copy of the fully revised report to the academy, but she didn’t feel particularly trusting of them. Richard was most likely still facing injustice at the hands of his command.
“I should represent him,” she whispered. “I should ensure that his command knows the truth of this matter.”
She knew she should, but she had other matters to worry about. Her father’s business was always pressing, and she would want to return home prior to Mr. Odendorf’s arrival. She really did need to maintain her schedule. Yesterday had been completely wasted dealing with City Justice, when she should have already been on her way homeward that morning. After everything that had transpired, she didn’t want to remain in this city any longer than she had to. Yet what would become of Richard? She felt trapped, unable to choose between duty and desire.
Suddenly Gretchen leaned clear across the interior of the carriage, bracing against the cabin wall. Sliding the forward viewing port open, she called out.
“Driver?” The man ducked his head towards the porthole, awaiting instruction. “The lady bids you take her to the Docksbury and Combs Army Academy.”
“The academy, my lady?” He looked quite puzzled.
“Her lady wished to show appreciation to the soldier who defended her honor.”
The driver began nodding in comprehension. “Of course, my lady. To the academy, then,” and he turned back to his horses, urging them on.
Gretchen slid the porthole shut before reclining back into her seat. Unable to hide her amazement, Esther gaped at her handmaiden. Gretchen simply smiled in encouragement. Some friend, indeed. Some servant.
Smack! The reed cane, which was really more a flat switch, struck hard against Richard’s back. It felt like tendrils of lightning shot into his skin, and travelled throughout his flesh, pricking at his bones. Searing pain flashed heated red. His skin was burning. His flesh burned, too. It felt like the worst sunburn coupled with the relentless sting of angry bees. He grit his teeth, breathing hard as the fury throbbed through his back.
He thought he should’ve been used to this by now, but, damn it, it stung to no end. It was turning out that Caldswald was being true to his word. Not that the master sergeant had been personal about it, but lessons had to be learned, even if the hard way. Examples also had to be made, though Caldswald hadn’t mentioned anything about that. Richard just figured that was the case.
“Twenty seven!” Major Brougheed’s voice rang out crisp as ever.
Even counting, the man really could’ve been a herald. One of the best. Though his counting brought no comfort to him during the continuous beating. He supposed, they were at least half way through tearing his back up good. Better than being back at the beginning.
Smack! It seemed as though Caldswald was slowing his pace even more, really allowing for the pain to sink in. He had let it sting for long enough already, why slow up even more?
This pause seemed to be even long-
That one had caught him on the lower back. He should’ve figured that Caldswald would spread out the hits, but he had allowed himself to become complacent over the last several strikes. He had gotten too used to his upper back taking the brunt of it. Twitching slightly, he grunted against the pain, mashing his teeth. The pain was finally beginning to sub-
Any slower and they’d be here until curfew.
“What is this?” a feminine voice cut through the air like a thunder clap.
Who was that? Richard could hear a collective rustling, as the entire crowd of army academics, dressed in full armor, turned towards the new speaker. Wearily, he raised his head, supporting himself atop the block his wrists were bound to. He hadn’t realized until that moment how exhausted he was from having his ass whooped so hard. Surging between the ranks, like a billowing thunderhead, was… the noble lady from the night before?
She descended upon the sentencing platform, blazing fury at his superiors. Her handmaiden respectfully waited at the bottom of the short steps, while she practically bounded up them. She stamped across the platform, striding right up to Lieutenant Colonel Helwin and Major Brougheed.
“Did you not receive my revision to the constables’ report?” the words steamed from her mouth.
“My lady, we received the revision late last night,” Major Brougheed voiced with concern. “We were able to thoroughly review it this morning.”
“On behalf of His Highness’ army,” Lieutenant Colonel Helwin chimed in, “and this fair city, I thank you for your contribution in the pursuit of justice, my lady.”
“Is it customary of His Highness’ army to negate the acquisition of evidence?” she snapped in fury. “What of this city? Am I to expect more insolence, as was extended to me by the House of City Justice?”
“No, my lady, I assure you,” Major Brougheed implored.
“Then why,” and she pointed directly at Richard, eyes unyielding from his superiors, “is he tied to that block?” The amount of emphasis on the word he seemed rather odd, as though the very thought of him being punished offended her. She was actually representing him, defending him. Who was she, other than a noble lady who had been horrifically insulted by his fellow countrymen?
“I’m afraid, my lady” Major Brougheed confessed, “that even with the revision to the evidence presented, Sergeant Ordell has not been excused for his infractions.”
“Do understand, my lady,” Lieutenant Colonel Helwin coaxed, “this entire affair is purely a military matter.”
She slapped him. With a clap that rebounded off the barracks, the school houses, and even the academy walls, she actually slapped him. Richard could feel the crowd involuntarily cringe, see the officers recoil, paling. Lieutenant Colonel Helwin cupped his face looking utterly bewildered, stricken with shock. Who was this woman?
“I had four hungry dogs,” she hissed, “dressed in uniforms of this fair city’s watch, lapping at my ankles like I was some kind of succulent cut.” The amount of emphasis she placed on fair city and succulent cut could have sunk the damned Dreary Lout straight to the bottom of the Northern Jorvauntic. “Enticing me to exchange favors,” her voice grew in volume, “like I am a courtesan of the lowest esteem. Their superiors recorded their lies as official legal documents,” she screamed the last three words, causing the entire company to jump. She continued to roar.
“And they failed to mention my presence, as if I were just an apparition summoned by the urging of the loins. As if my house title means nothing to this fair city. Should I expect more of the same incompetence, the same insolence, as I received at the House of City Justice? Should I expect it from the entirety of this fair city? His Highness’ army?”
“Please, Lady Vaunderhauss, I meant no offense to either yourself, or your most noble house.” Lieutenant Colonel Helwin looked absolutely appalled by the very nature of the engraceous treatment she had received.
Richard was overcome with shock, and gapped stupidly at her. Vaunderhauss? As in Vaunderhauss shipping? He felt stupid. He felt like the stupidest git to have ever crossed her path. Noble lady, indeed. She didn’t just come from a noble family. She came from one of the wealthiest, most influential, most well recognized houses in the whole of the empire. The whole bloody damn empire. And he had just stood there, gawking at her, as he floundered with what little bearing he could actually muster.
He had embarrassed himself, his family, his army, this city, and even his country before her. He hadn’t represented himself like a proper gentleman at all. Just some woods rough from up north who wanted to avenge the destruction of his home. He had made a horrible example of himself. He didn’t deserve to be graced by her presence, nor have her heatedly defend him. Yet there she was, of her own volition.
“Our hearts heave from the state of your stay within our fair city, my lady,” Major Brougheed offered condolence. “This sort of miscreant behavior is most unbecoming of our nature as a civilized society. However, in compliance with the very doctrine that we uphold, we are bound to deal justice when one of our own violates the law. Sergeant Ordell is being punished for those crimes, crimes to which he himself confessed. Nothing more.”
“His entire history is quite littered with infractions, my lady,” Lieutenant Colonel Helwin offered. “This is far from the first time he’s accrued malcontent.”
Her stare seemed to give him an abrupt change of heart.
“Please, my lady,” he continued, “I am so very sorry for the despicably ungracious behavior you have been subjected to, within our fair city. I beg of you to lend us the opportunity to redeem our king’s army and his city in the eyes of your most noble house.”
She eyed them for a long moment, then her voice came so hushed, in comparison to the earlier tirade, that Richard could only just catch it.
“I will be seen by your commander, now. I do not care if he is squatting on his chamber pot. I will speak to him from outside the latrine, and he will receive my testimony.” There was no mistaking the finality in her tone.
“Of course, my lady,” Major Brougheed responded first. “May I also offer for myself and the Lieutenant Colonel, here, to partake in recording your testimony? It seems only fitting as we were present to initially receive Sergeant Ordell’s confession.” She eyed him cooly. “And testimony,” he quickly added.
“Very well, then,” she finally proclaimed.
Major Brougheed’s “Very good, my lady,” cut over Lieutenant Colonel Helwin’s, “Thank you, my lady,” just slightly. They made to hustle off for the commander’s quarters, but when she didn’t move, they stalled. The three stood there for a moment that seemed to span a year.
“Well?” she appeared to be annoyed with anticipation.
“My lady?” Major Brougheed looked baffled.
The lady turned her head about towards Richard, eyes wild with frustration. Pointing at him, she turned back to address his superiors.
“Aren’t you going to release him?” she spat. “Does your army also find it customary to leave an accused tied down like a rabid dog?”
“No,” Major Brougheed appeared taken aback. Then an expression of sudden horror spread across his face, a look he shared with the Lieutenant Colonel. “No, my lady. Not at all.”
He stood smartly to attention, addressing the crowd.
“The remainder of the sentence of fifty lashes with reed cane, shall hereby be postponed until such a time as a new verdict has been reached.”
“No,” Richard heard himself mumble, even before he realized he had said it aloud.
“Sergeant?” Major Brougheed sounded as concerned as he was confused.
Richard willed himself to look into Lady Vaunderhauss’ eyes. It felt wrong to do so, but it had to be done. He owed her that much courage.
“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, my lady,” his accent sounded like trash flowing from his mouth.
At least he thought so. Of course she would, too, but he owed her his explanation.
“You honor me beyond what I rightfully deserve.”
She blinked, appearing as though she intended to say something, but held her thoughts instead. Best to just cut to the end, and be done with it.
“But I broke the law. I went against the doctrine of my king’s army, and that of his realm. I’ve committed my share of infractions, even before that night.”
He felt lower than dirt as he revisited all the things he had done. His whole life seemed to be plagued with nothing but malcontent. All the times he had scared others with his impatience, or bullied them into righting a wrong, or flat out beat them into a meat sack. It all spanned through the entirety of his life. He had thought himself a purveyor of justice, an upholder of honesty. He had believed that he was fit for law enforcement, the army even. Who was he joking? Himself? He wasn’t a law enforcer, he was a thug. A thug who would rightfully be sent off to join others of his kind.
“I need to be held accountable for my actions. If I don’t, then who will?” It sounded far more accusational than he had meant.
Both his superiors seemed torn between being immensely impressed, and hopelessly mortified. Though it was her expression that clenched his heart so tightly it felt like ice forming in his chest. She looked devastated. Absolutely hurt beyond all comprehension. She had fought so hard on his behalf, representing him as only a blessed angel could have.
And this was the thanks she received? On top of everything else she had been through, this was his gratitude? She didn’t seem capable of accepting his fate, so reluctant to allow for him to be hurt anymore. She had won for him, and he had spat on her victory. He found himself incapable of looking at her, eyes steering as low as he felt.
“Forgive me, my lady,” he barely managed to whisper.
“Sergeant Ordell,” Major Brougheed appeared as a concerned family member might. “There truly is no need for this now.”
“No disrespect, sir,” Richard turned towards the block, preparing himself, “but I believe you left off on thirty one.”
Caldswald spoke up for the first time, as though to reason with him.
“Just do it, already,” Richard spun, staring firmly into Caldswald. “Get it over with!” With that final roar, he waited.
Caldswald looked like he wanted to cry in shame. Reluctantly his eyes shifted to the major as if looking for confirmation. Major Brougheed seemed wrought with doubt, then he snapped to attention once more.
“The remainder of the sentence... of fifty lashes with reed cane, shall hereby recommence... from the count... of thirty one.” His voice rang out, full of regret. It must’ve been hard giving that order.
He could still feel her eyes on him, feel the misery in them. Even as her handmaiden joined her side, beckoning her away to a more appropriate distance, the hurt remained fixed on him. Such eyes should never know such disappointment.
Forgive me, my lady.
Smack! The cane finally knocked searing heat back into him. He dug his fingers into the hard concrete of the block, teeth clenching. Even after being hit over thirty times, the heat of the strike was still shocking.
Smack! That time the blow struck immediately following Major Brougheed’s count.
Smack! The cane struck him again, cutting off the count.
“Thirty four!” Major Brougheed sped up significantly, just managing to get the count out before the cane struck down again.
The world became a boiling torrent of blows raining down upon his back, striking one on top of the other. Digits of a value of thirty flew by, as though the major had started up a shanty about numbers. How morbidly proper to have someone sing a tune to your ass getting whooped.
The blows fell so rapidly, Richard felt as though he could barely breathe. His eyes stung. His everything stung. Thirties became forties, whizzing by in a blur. His back seared, hotter and hotter. Foaming between his teeth, he groaned through the pain lancing through him. He clung to the block, trying to think of anything other than the pain. All track of time was gone, the count forgotten to him. Just the pain was all he could sense.
“Fifty!” Major Brougheed’s voice told out over the square, sounding more like a bell from the Dolland Tower. Some part of Richard’s mind said it was over, finally, yet he waited for the next blow to come anyway.
“Caldswald!” the major’s voice bellowed. For a long moment nothing happened.
“Caldswald.” Only the sound of his own agonizing seething, and Caldswald’s hard breathing. The man was practically panting.
“Brian,” the major used that same voice of a concerned family member, once again. “Look at me.”
Caldswald’s breath seemed to turn towards the major.
“That’s fifty lashes with reed cane,” Major Brougheed declared. “The full sentence has been delivered. You may stand down.”
Caldswald’s breathing made it sound as though the man would burst into tears. However, the man’s boots stamped together as he stood to attention, then tapped along the platform as he withdrew to a more preferable distance. Boots clicked once more some ways off.
“Bailiffs may now relieve the sergeant,” Major Brougheed announced.
Four guards positioned before the platform climbed the steps, and crossed the distance, encircling Richard. Two of them took hold of his upper arms, gripping him near the shoulders and elbows. Their gentle grip seemed odd, then Richard realized they were trying to help support him, rather than restrain him. He did feel exhausted after the ordeal. Just how bad did he look?
The other two loosened the straps binding him to the block, and helped to free his wrists. With him now freed, they adjusted their hold, gripping his forearms near the wrists and elbows. In unison, all four began lifting him to his feet.
“Back off!” Richard roared, violently shaking the bailiffs off.
Releasing him they jumped back, looking quite taken aback.
“I don’t need your help. I can stand on my own.”
He partially regretted turning down the assistance, but it would be better for him to move when he was ready. Right now, he just needed a moment. He took several sharp breaths, preparing for a massive exertion. Pushing his feet into the ground, he began the long process of coming to a full stand.
Funny how pain in one part of the body, could be so debilitating for the rest of it. His legs were fine, but the more he moved, the more his back stung. It made him not want to move at all. Just lie down until the pain went away. However, that wasn’t an option. He had to move, and that meant standing, regardless of how his back burned.
With an immense effort and a prolonged groan, he finally came to a full stand. Panting, he turned to face Major Brougheed, then stood to attention, wincing.
“Your orders, sir?” He couldn’t stop himself from panting.
“Report to the infirmary, sergeant. You are dismissed.”
Richard saluted, flinching from the pain. Still, it was a quality salute, despite how much it hurt.
“Soldiers!” Major Brougheed’s voice rang out.
In unison, the entire company of academics stood smartly to attention.
An echoing click of heels resounded across the square, then the crowd turned and dispersed.
Turning to descend the steps, Richard looked straight into the face of Lady Vaunderhauss, and froze. Her eyes were still fixed upon him with that same hurt. However, there was something else in them. That same mystery from the night before. How could she still look at him like that? Her mouth hung open only slightly, as though she might say something at any moment. A hand hovered just beneath her chin. She must’ve covered her mouth in horror as she watched him beaten before her.
Suddenly, Richard was very well aware of himself. Standing shirtless and beaten raw, sweating from every pore in his body. Far from presentable. Gawking at her like an idiot, unable to walk right, or stand straight. Far from proper. He snapped to attention before her.
“I, uh… hope… that you can find it within your heart… to forgive my country… for the few bad apples that have been thrown your way… m-my lady.”
The hell was wrong with him? Why was it so hard to get even a single thought out? He felt incredibly stupid. It would be better to just leave her in peace.
“Have a safe and timely journey home, my lady,” he managed, before turning away from her, and slinking off down the steps.
The bailiffs joined him at either flank, and the small formation marched off for the infirmary. Richard forced himself to keep his eyes locked forward, lest he hang his head in shame.
“This is not over,” Esther hissed at Major Brougheed. “I will be seen by the commander, and he will receive my testimony.”
“Of course, my lady,” Major Brougheed replied. “The Lieutenant Colonel and I shall take you straight to him.”
The two officers stepped forward, leading the way to the commander quarter’s.