Einmalig hooked his hands together, resting them in the small of his back as he stood to attention in the lavish hallway. Sandstone columns rose in rhythmic progression along the corridor to the comparatively moderate chambers. The walls were adorned in tapestries and small stands waited with bright white flowers at chosen intervals, offering beauty and serenity to all who passed.
Einmalig’s gaze didn’t wander from the woman who stood opposite – an Einzig, just as he had once been, a dedicated soldier to the Erdefunfte Gebieters – as he awaited his summons into the High Councilwoman’s chambers.
The great wooden door cracked open to reveal a short woman with shoots of dark hair, who stepped aside to usher the four Viele soldiers into the room. Einmalig led the team, his shoulders settling in a dutiful line as he shrugged into the room.
His footfalls quietened on the thick carpet as he approached the monolith of a desk, saluting the figure that was bent over it, scribbling furiously across a stack of parchment. “Einmalig of the Viele, sage,” he introduced himself to the blond-haired woman.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Giselle Schmutzleben responded, glancing up with a bright smile. She looked slightly harried. “I’m very sorry to keep you; I’m a little overwhelmed at the moment.”
Einmalig kept quiet, his gaze flitting around the room, assessing its potential for threats. High Councilmember Schmutzleben’s desk dominated the centre of the room, a great slab of rosewood piled with briefs and official documents bearing the United Forces seal.
She noticed his gaze. “My father trades in lumber,” she explained, straightening as she admired the desk. “It was his gift to me – congratulations for my position as High Councilmember. It’s a bit too much, I think…”
Einmalig nodded politely, his keen sight tracking over the collection of plush chairs that were arranged in the corner of the room around a low table, a curl of faint smoke lifting from the scented incense at its centre. An intricately carved wooden doorway stood behind it, leading off to another corridor.
“Is there anything we can do to assist you, now that you’re a permanent fixture in our lives?” the dark-haired woman asked, surveying Einmalig closely. A faint hint of disapproval tugged the corner of her lip down, as if she considered their team to be an intrusion, a burden on their neatly organised workspace.
“Ah, Einmalig, this is my personal assistant and scribe, Schrei,” Giselle introduced. “She’ll be following me very closely. She never leaves my side,” she added with a gentle laugh.
“We will protect her, in our course of providing your protection,” Einmalig vowed, meeting her mirthful gaze with solemn steadiness. “Are there any others with whom you share close contact that we should be aware of?”
“It’s just me and my two assistants, so one other,” she responded, hooking a swathe of blonde hair behind one ear. “He’ll be here shortly.”
Einmalig nodded, glancing aside briefly at the Einzig that flanked him. He squared his shoulders, standing to attention before her as he raised his chin. “Great Mage Svetya Erdefunfte has assigned us as your personal protection. The threat of the Iron Faithful has grown too great to ignore. Rest assured that we do not take our Gebieter’s orders lightly, and we do not dismiss our duties quickly. We will ensure your protection, even if it means our death.”
There had been threats upon the High Council’s lives, prompting a Realm-wide manhunt for the vigilante group who called themselves the Iron Faithful. Einmalig had recited this information to his consignment of Einzig on his first day of promotion, when he had proved himself trustworthy enough to pass on the words of the Gebieters.
Svetya Erdefunfte, in her new position of Great Mage, had expressed concern for her former fellow High Councilmembers, and arranged for teams of Viele soldiers to accompany and protect each member following Emmerich Totersieg’s abduction.
“I will be posted as your personal escort, sage,” Einmalig continued, inclining his head towards the lowlady. “I will have Einzig,” he added, gesturing solemnly to the woman next to him, “accompany Schrei. Another will escort your other assistant, whilst the remaining Einzig will assist me in protecting you, sage.”
He shifted, glancing once at his entourage, sweeping them with his gaze. “We will be accompany you throughout your home, and whilst you travel. In accordance with our Gebieter’s orders, we will not part from your side.”
“That sounds rather personal,” Giselle interjected light-heartedly, but Einmalig couldn’t discern the source of her humour. The Einzig at the compound spent years in each other’s company; privacy was a hindrance they had done away with.
“It’s necessary,” he responded simply, and some of the mirth faded from Giselle’s eyes.
There was a gentle rap from the wooden archway on the other side of the room, and a figure shrugged through, his head buried in a stack of papers.
“Lady Schmutzleben,” he entreated without looking up, “more documents have arrived from the Citadel–” He paused, noticing their guests for the first time, his words trailing off. A blush rose quick to his cheeks. “Sorry, I forgot they were arriving to- today…”
His gaze finally settled on Einmalig, recognition blossoming in his eyes. Einmalig had never been very good at reading people’s expressions, but he thought he noticed a pang of hesitation flash across the man’s face, before it disappeared, and Einmalig wasn’t sure he’d seen anything at all.
“Ah, I was wondering when they’d arrive,” Giselle gushed, relieving him of the documents. “This is my other assistant, Ruhe,” she explained to the silently observant Einzig.
“He’ll need to be briefed on the details of your protection,” Einmalig stated, and Giselle nodded, dropping the documents onto her desk with a sigh of exertion. Einmalig gestured to the door behind them as the other Einzig fell into the shadowed corners of the room, becoming shadows themselves. “We’ll step outside,” he instructed, “so that Lady Schmutzleben can study in peace.”
The young man nodded, allowing Einmalig to follow him into the corridor. He drew to a halt just beyond earshot of the door, his gaze surveying Einmalig as he glanced back.
“We will form Lady Schmutzleben’s protection whilst our Gebieter commands it,” Einmalig explained briskly. “One of us with escort you and Schrei at all times; another and myself will accompany Lady Schmutzleben.”
He glanced back in time to see disappointment flash across the man’s face, quickly and politely extinguished.
“It’s good to see you, Ruhe,” Einmalig murmured, and felt an unfamiliar pang of happiness at the young man’s blatantly overjoyed expression.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d remember me,” Ruhe confessed, a gentle smile resting easily on his face. “It’s good to see you Ir- Einzig.”
Their last encounter had been when Einmalig had been taken from the Viele compound against his will by Great Mage Svetya Erdefunfte’s younger brother, Jugend Erdefunfte, and his fiancé, Alte Sklavesman. At first he had been outraged, and desperate to return to the Viele. He’d gradually come to learn that Alte was his older brother, though he held no memory of him.
Ruhe had been taken from the Viele with Einmalig too, back when they were both Einzig. He’d been a new initiate, and he’d reverted swiftly in the company of his brothers.
The two shared an unshakeable bond, an understanding. Ruhe formed the bridge between Einmalig’s tumultuous past and his Viele future.
Einmalig found himself smiling, despite himself. “I’m Einmalig now.”
He recognised the surprise that illuminated Ruhe’s features. “Oh, you were promoted? Congratulations!”
Einmalig was taken aback by the praise; Einmalig was a title awarded to Einzig who demonstrated their unwavering loyalty to the Viele, and they were trusted with the sacred orders of the Gebieters. It wasn’t so much a promotion as an honour.
Nonetheless, Ruhe’s ecstasy was well-meaning and contagious, and Einmalig felt himself slipping into a rapport with the young man. “You seem to have had your own promotion,” he encouraged, and the younger smiled weakly. But there was pride there too, a self-accomplishment that lit up his features and had Einmalig’s small smirk growing.
“Lady Schmutzleben accepted me as her assistant after Jugend put in a word for me,” Ruhe explained, glancing back at the ajar door. Einmalig couldn’t see his face, but he could hear the relief and earnest in his voice when he added, “I’m really happy here.”
“How is Alte?” he inquired, his mind flashing their older brother. Last time they’d spoken, he’d be wishing Alte goodbye, for what they thought would be forever. His hands hadn’t relinquished their hold around Einmalig’s shoulders for a very long time, and when Alte had finally pulled back, his gaze had been speckled with tears.
Ruhe grinned. “He’s engaged now. He and Jugend are getting married in spring.”
Einmalig wasn’t sure he’d ever adjust to his brother dating an Erdefunfte Gebieter; his two understandings of the man as a leader and a normal human being were too jarring to reconcile. But he had seen the way Alte had been around him, the way he curved into every touch and laughed at every other word that left Jugend’s mouth.
Alte was a passionate man, Einmalig had come to remember, in all things. That included his love, and how he devoted his life to another; whether that be his three abused brothers or the man he loved, Alte was never one for half-measures or pragmatism. He loved unrestrainedly, and Einmalig had no doubt that he would treasure every second he spent in Jugend’s matrimonial embrace.
“He sounds very happy,” Einmalig entreated, and Ruhe nodded, smiling fondly to himself.
“He asks about you often,” Ruhe said, and Einmalig felt an odd sensation warm in his chest. “There’s not much Viele development that we hear of, but when Jugend said that they were mobilizing teams to run as protection detail, I had hoped I’d get to see you again, even briefly.”
“How did Alte respond to that news?” Einmalig asked, though he was sure he could guess. Alte had a heated temper, and a fierce protectiveness over his brothers.
Ruhe’s teeth glimmered in the soft light of the corridor, a short laugh twinkling in his throat. “He was worried, and furious. But I think he also was hoping he’d see you.”
They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, listening to the breeze ripple through the hallways and watching the plants shuffle in their vases, as if settling down for the evening’s rest.
“I’m glad I got to see you again, too,” Einmalig murmured, his gaze far away, to where he imaging Alte lounging alongside Jugend, happy and content. He mused on how well all of their lives had become, considering the past they carried with them. “I’m looking forward to spending time with you.”
“Me too,” Ruhe responded with a warm smile.