Into the Keep

“There is a half-frozen, half-rotted head on a pike.” 

He thought it intriguing that he had said that out loud. But there it was, a half-frozen, half-decayed head sitting atop one of the pikes at the base of one of Mercy’s Keep’s massive statues. He wondered if his quest to find Red’s things was attuned to his sense of self-preservation. Shaking away his doubt and suppressing an urge to sketch the Keep, he started walking down the bridge from the landing pad towards the entrance.

The entire structure seemed hewn from the rock itself–an imposing ancient structure with interesting modern juxtapositions. Five statues were visible from where he stood, which he supposed measured the cornerstones of Amarrian culture: A hooded priest, a Holder, an armored knight, a commoner with farm tools, and a slave in chains praying for salvation. Even though each one looked ancient, he wondered if the fifth statue was a recent addition–considering Lady Lianne’s views, after all.

“Our sand castle didn’t quite capture the… enormity,” He whispered, expecting that Red was following him silently.

Two ancient suits of armor stood across from one another at the entrance to the Keep–a mere rectangular opening cut directly into the mountainside. He swallowed back his trepidation, recalled his upbringing as a Holder, then took a step into the Keep proper. A drone activated and floated over to Reginald.

“Good morning. My name is Reginald Sakakibara and I believe I have an audience with Seneschal Hotuban Klimut.”

There was no response from the drone except a visible blue light–what Reginald perceived to be a scan. After finishing whatever it started and apparently satisfied, the drone flew back to the ceiling and went inactive. Once the drone was away, Reginald noticed a flight of stairs. As he approached it, the sound of clinking silverware and shuffling echoed down the steps on the heels of flickering torchlight. Redoubling his resolve, but not without some hesitation, he made the climb.

The staircase opened into a large hall filled with almost a hundred cyber-knights and modestly-dressed serving girls catering their requests for food and drink. The warmth was extraordinary in comparison to the frigid mountain air from the landing pad and antechamber. The walls were lined with murals depicting ancient scenes as well as more modern renditions of spaceships. The ceiling was interestingly low for such a large room, though Reginald suspected that it was due to the ancient origins of the Keep being constructed without modern tools or equipment. The tables were occupied by Khanid cyber-knights of varying ages, some of them shooting questioned glances at him.

After a while a young Khanid got up from his seat and approached him, saying flatly and without smile, “You look lost.”

Reginald suppressed the urge to correct the youth by adding “My lord” to the end of his sentence, but decided that he should stand on ceremony instead. He responded politely, with his court-pressed smile, “Good morning. My name is Reginald Sakakibara and I believe I have an audience with Seneschal Klimut.”

The youth looked surprised, “The Seneschal?”

The youth glanced towards a long table at the far end of the room, elevated above the rest. There were knights of various ages seated there, though what seemed to be Seneschal Hotuban Klimut sat at the center, deftly managing a pair of chopsticks as he ate his breakfast with a cup of tea.

“Yes, indeed. But I certainly don’t wish to interrupt his meal.”

The Khanid flicked his head towards the table, “Come, I will introduce you.”

Reginald smiled, “Thank you, I very much appreciate your assistance.”

They made their way past the tables towards the Seneschal. The ages of the patrons was quite vast–even some children playing in between them. Reginald noticed a few stares in his direction–he was used to such treatment, at least. When they finally reached the Seneshcal, the man in question had not even bothered to look up from his meal. The young Khanid bowed deeply, “Master Hotuban, this man claims he is here to have audience with you. He says he is named Reginald.”

Reginald bowed respectfully at the introduction. Hotuban waved the Khanid away, still not looking up from his meal. As he stood there, others seated at the table threw suspicious glances at him, though they offered no conversation. He was used to this treatment, being a Holder’s son.

He thought to himself the adage, “Never press one’s luck with the higher-ranked, or within their home.” He made an addendum, “Especially if they are surrounded by a hundred cyber-knights. And certainly, never interrupt a meal.”

Hotuban finally finished his bowl of rice and eggs, then took a long drink from his cup of tea. Eyeing Reginald, he asked in a monotone voice, “Your business?”

“Fleet Captain Aldrith Shutaq,” Reginald started, then thought better of it, then started again, “I was informed by Fleet Captain Aldrith Shutaq that you are the Seneschal of Mercy’s Keep. There are several items I have been tasked with retrieving, with your excellency’s permission.”

He wasn’t really sure what the honorific would be for “Seneschal,” so he went with “your excellency.” Hotuban seemed unimpressed. One of the Khanid at the table–a large man with a braided beard–grunted at Aldrith’s name.

“Brother Aldrith informed me of your interest. You will be allowed to reclaim the items in question if we still have them in our possession.”

Reginald bowed, “Thank you very much.”

Careful to adopt Hotuban’s language, Reginald asked, “Did Brother Aldrith inform you of the nature of the items?”

“Yes. Children’s toys and a holographic interface humanoid drone, child-sized. Speak with Father Ansar. He managed inventory when the Order reclaimed this place.”

Reginald smiled, “Very well, thank you very much. Where might I be able to find him?”

“Within the chapel.”

“Thank you.” Reginald glanced around, unsure where the chapel was located.

Thankfully, Hotuban provided him with a guide–a teenage True Amarr boy that had already finished his breakfast, “Take this man to the chapel. Direct him to the chaplain.”

The boy bowed, then beckoned for Reginald to follow. Reginald bowed in respect once more to the Seneschal, then proceeded to follow towards a set of double doors. The rest of the journey was completed in silence as the boy led Reginald to the chapel. Much like everything else in the Keep, the chapel seemed carved out of rock itself–the altar adorned with a black marble slab offering a smooth surface for ceremonies. Holes and shafts had been carved into the ceiling–most likely to provide air, Reginald surmised. Upon entering the chapel proper, Reginald made a traditional reverent sign.

A priest that he believed to be Father Ansar was busy tending to the altar with a female acolyte working quietly beside him. The pair were cleaning icons upon it with laser brushes and other delicate devices. Reginald was loathe to disturb the sanctity, so he approached the altar with rehearsed respect.

Once he had reached the altar, the priest looked up, squinting, “And who are you?”

Reginald bowed, “Father, my name is Reginald Sakakibara and I have been tasked with retrieving certain items. The Seneschal was kind enough to tell me that you oversaw the transition and storage of the items from when the Order reclaimed the Keep.”

The priest responded grumpily, “He didn’t tell me anything about that.”

Reginald frowned, “The items are of great sentimental value and I would be most appreciative if you aided me in locating them.”

The priest grunted, “Let me guess, something the silly capsuleers left behind when this place was run by Aldrith’s pathetic excuse of a knighthood?”

Reginald wore a smile his mother had beat into him, “Quite. That would be an accurate assessment indeed.”

The priest crossed his arms, “All right, what were they?”

Reginald nodded, “A toy slicer, two dolls, and a child-sized humanoid drone.”

Reginald took out a sketchpad from the satchel. It was a rough sketch of the Keep, drawn only from the memory of the sand castle he had made with Red.

He indicated where Eran’s chambers would have been, “The owner of the items indicated that they would be located here, prior to the move.”

Thankfully, the priest seemed nodded in recognition as he took the sketch, “Huh. Well I remember the drone and I do believe I remember the toys as well.”

Reginald smiled, “As I’ve said, I would be most appreciative if you could lead to their whereabouts.”

The priest nodded nonchalantly, “Certainly. I donated the toys to a charity in Dam-Torsad and the drone was dismantled after we found it was being used by some red-haired little girl to befriend the younger students and make mischief amongst the rest of us. She was somehow getting through the security on the fluid router network here. Some flaw the capsuleers left in their systems no doubt.”

Reginald grew pale, his quest lengthening tremendously at the words, “I see.” He tried to salvage what he could, “When the drone was dismantled, were the parts kept in storage? And the name of the charity, if you don’t mind?”

The priest furrowed his brows, “You are not seriously thinking of taking toys from poor children I hope?”

Reginald smiled back, “Not without at least a ten-fold exchange. I operate a fund for a charity of my own–my grandparents wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

The priest crossed his arms, “Are you a capsuleer? Or were you just sent by one?”

Reginald decided to counter with a jab of his own, “A capsuleer, yes, but I am also a Holder. I understand my responsibilities to the people, to serve as an example.” He added, for good measure, “It is my burden.”

The priest let his eyes wander, “Wonderful. One of the most dangerous creatures in the galaxy is asking me for the address of an orphanage.”

He snapped his eyes back to Reginald, “Give me your donation; I will take it to the orphanage myself and try to get your toys back. As for the drone, it is probably still in our cybernetics storage. I will get that for you as well…”

Reginald offered an olive branch, “Father, I understand your animosity towards capsuleers. We have done unspeakable harms since the technologies of clone and capsule were combined. But I have not forgotten my duty, I have not forgotten the path.”

“Good of you to admit that. My offer still stands. Take it or leave it.”

Reginald took out his datapad, “I can transfer the funds immediately, Father.” He did so, then added, “And I certainly appreciate your assistance in obtaining the parts for the drone.”

Reginald decided to take a shot in the dark. He understood that Red was a projection of Lady Lianne’s subconsciousness that took the form of her childhood self. He made a series of inductions–Lady Lianne had mentioned her mother and father in passing though the fact that Lady Lianne was Holder indicated that her father must have died or been stripped of his title. Was she an orphan? He hoped that he wasn’t wishing premature death upon Lady Lianne’s mother when he developed his next few sentences.

“Father, the toys in question belong to a little girl who no longer has her parents or her siblings.” That last part was a stretch, but as Lady Lianne had never mentioned having brothers or sisters, though he added it for dramatic effect, “They are memories of her time here, with her adoptive family. I hope that you understand… they’re very important to her.”

“Well if she’s the little imp that was using it to terrorize Sister Urshii the night we caught the thing, give her a smack on the knuckles for me. But I suppose it would be expected an orphan adopted by capsuleers would have a few behavioral issues.”

Reginald laughed nervously hoping that Red wasn’t listening, “I’ll be sure to convey that to her current chaperones.”

Ends justify means, Red!

The priest rolled his sleeves down, “Wait here, offer a prayer, take a blessing. I’ll be back with the drone.”

Reginald thanked the priest, then sat down at one of the pews. He felt it strange, having gone through a period of unbelief lasting all of two months. He had not even set foot in the Cathedral at Cerra Manor after all. He recited a childhood prayer for the first time in a while, focusing on things he should be grateful for: A corporation that was doing decently, his relationship with Kat, Lady Lianne’s reluctant blessing on that matter, Lady Lianne’s act of forgiveness, Lady Lianne providing a home for his corporation… The list seemed endless.

She cared about her pilots, of course. When he confessed his crime to her, she had every right to throw him out of the alliance or be executed repeatedly. She had held his fate in her hands. And where he had expected retribution, she showed mercy.

“Everyone deserves mercy, Reginald, even the darkest of us all. It’s going to be all right.” 

He swallowed at her words, feeling tears burn at the corner of his eyes. He did his best to stifle them. There was a reason she was the alliance executor after all–and being the executor of an alliance for years couldn’t have been built upon tyranny. Perhaps she really did have their pilots’ best interests in mind, even for the ones that fell from grace.

“Forgive me,” he whispered to God and Lady Lianne alike.

The priest trudged back into the chapel carrying a crate, jolting him out of his meditation. He handed Reginald the crate, “Here, and I’ll visit the orphanage in question in about two weeks. Maybe longer, I can’t foresee when I’ll have the time.”

Reginald took the package gratefully, “Thank you, Father. Please contact my household’s office in Myyhera if we can be of any assistance.”

The priest continued unabated, “Several joint servos and a gyroscope were salvaged from it, and it’s in a few pieces. Find a decent mechanic or drone specialist and you’ll have it repaired in a day or so. Shouldn’t be hard with your money.”

Reginald smiled, “Thank you.”

“Yes. Well. Thank God before His servants. And serve Him above all else. We should be just fine then.”

“I thank the Lord constantly, Father. And in His name, I serve the Crusade.”

“Heh. The 24th? Well, I have a feeling that in a thousand years this one will be mumbled about in dark corners rather than sung about by choirs. But I’ll stay quiet until God has ruled on that one. Now be off with you, I have to prepare for the noontime sermon.”

Reginald bowed again, “Thank you for your time, Father.”

He carried the package back through the maze of Mercy’s Keep and out of its surprising warmth into the frigid air of the mountainside. As he approached his shuttle, he allowed himself a glimpse back towards the impressive structure. The crate underarm, he turned his back on it, but not before hearing a soft giggle from behind him. He turned quickly, but saw nothing other than the windswept bridge and the daunting fortress.

Sighing, he boarded his shuttle.

“Maybe it was the plan all along, he didn’t save you then to save you for this.”

“Save me for this, indeed.”

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