Natsuki Taniguchi has allowed Psi-Stalkers to settle near her family lands, made an alliance with a tech-focused Guild and is presently assisting her house in engaging in a massive military buildup. These things garner notice House Taniguchi’s superiors have finally taken notice.
The summons to the Countess Fortress-Manor couldn’t have been a surprise. It was politely worded of course but did requrest that someone from House Taniguchi come to account for their actions… without soldiers. There is apparently some concern that this force will be directed inward. It did not say anything however about Jericho and as the Baronet is involved he made it clear to his Banphrionsa that he would be happy to accompany her if so she desired. He might have impishly suggested they take Natsuki’s puma… though that might or might not be wise.
Either way the Fortress Manor is an impressive place. Hardened against attack with active and passive defenses and guarded by the Countess’ personal retinue, it’s one of the most secure places for many miles around. It’s also quite comfortable and at the moment it’s not in a huge state of alarm. The ‘driveway’ is well lit and the Countess servants can be seen going about their daily tasks from the outside. From the door on the second floor balcony, it seems that the Countess is taking a break from her duties to water the flowers in the boxes that line the edges of that balcony.
Natsuki had been expecting the summons and she’s not so ill bred that she //would// have turned up with soldiers. Well, maybe a small honour guard – it’s dangerous times after all but the instructions were explicit. With Jericho by her side, she certainly feels safer though and his offer was readily accepted.
They’re arriving now, not in the Puma – as much as the idea appeals to the part-elf she does have some sense about her. It’s in her car, that sleek little black sedan that she drives. And she //is// driving – much faster than she had before she started to pilot the Puma. Jericho might be kicking himself at the moment.
The car pulls to a stop in a cloud of dust and Natsu slides out, wearing a very nice skirt suit in Taniguichi and Trent colours. The bracelets on her hands catch the light as she gestures and offering her arm to Jericho, she raises her chin. “We’ve been seen, Leannan… ”
She expects the Countesses butler to receive them and the Countess to take a moment to join them.
Silas Thorne’s family has served the Crowley’s for a long, long time and he himself has known the present Countess since she was a young girl. Now a man nearing sixty, clad in the purple and black colors of House Crowley. He steps out onto the veranda as Natsuki screeches to a halt next to it.
Jericho would be kicking himself if his leg bent like that.
When the Baronet emerges he bows slightly, and then again when Natsuki does.
“Miss Taniguchi. Baronet Trent. Welcome to the Castle Crowley.”
There’s nothing wrong with Nats driving skills – she’s quite adept, in fact. She just likes to drive fast and since learning to pilot the Puma that speed has increased.
Waiting for Jericho to take her arm, the part-elf inclines her head warmly to Silas. “Master Thorne, it is a pleasure to see you again. I hope your family is well?” she says pleasantly “We are here at the invitation of her Ladyship. If you could announce us, I would be most obliged.” Her eyes tilt up slightly to where the Countess had been, she expects it won’t be long.
When the Countess arrives, Natsu curtsey’s. Not a mean feat given the length of her skirt and the amount of leg she’s showing.
“We are quite well, thank you Miss Taniguchi. I understand congratulations are in order for your… recently established relationship with Baronet Trent.” Not engagement but… sort of?
“If you will follow me.” Jericho takes Nat’s arm and slightly takes the lead. She’ll do much of the talking – though not all he imagines – but he can lead her through a door.
The furnishings and flooring are dark hardwood inside. The whole place smells of well worn leather and exotic spices. Something, perhaps a bread, is cooking in the kitchen. The countess comes down the stairs as the trio enter in through the foyer wherein are hung portraits of the Crowley Counts going back generations.
“May I present Baronet Trent of Guild House Trent and Miss Natsuki Taniguchi of House Taniguchi.”
“Thank you Silas. Please get some drinks for our guests. I shall take them from here.” Countess Crowley says in her smooth, somewhat smokey Contralto.
“Hello Natsuki. It’s been some time. I’ve been hearing some interesting things from your part of my County. Would you and the Baronet care to accompany me to our sitting room?”
“Thank, Silas. They are indeed.” Natsu smiles. It’s been a long time since one of the nobility has … contracted themselves … as she has. “Do give my regards to your family, please?” It doesn’t hurt to be nice to the help and Silas manages to hide his distaste for the part-elf.
“My hero …” Natsu murmurs teasingly as Jericho takes the lead. She expects he’ll have a bit to say when the audience gets going. He’s not there just for the window dressing.
“Lady Crowley…” Natsu murmurs as she rises from the curtsey. “Thank you for the invitation to visit. I’m sure you know Baronet Trent, my … partner.” she affects the introduction smoothly as she nods in assent to the question “There are many interesting things happening in that part of your county and yes, we would love to accompany you to your sitting room.”
“I understand you are to be congratulated on your accession, Baronet.” Countess Crowley knows that Jericho fought a civil war to secure that. And won it. She also will surely know that he has his Guild’s military and intelligence services solidly behind him and isn’t shy about using either.
“Thank you Countess.” Jericho says.
The sitting room is comfortable. Two shelves of books line one wall, and several comfortable, overstuffed chairs are arranged around a trio of small tables. The countess lowers herself into one, smothing her skirts, longer than Natsuki’s and also in her House’s purple and black. Jericho sits in another and Natsuki, presumably, in a third and not in his lap. It isn’t too long before Silas is along with drinks, Jericho and Nat’s preferred drinks. Someone has done some research.
The countess accepts her wine and takes a sip.
“So… there has been a lot of activity on my border.” Her border. She means the beyond the Taniguchi border, which is technically hers since the Taniguchi’s swear fealty to her. She’s making a point. House Taniguchi at one time held a ducal title and it has surely crossed her mind that Zelda might like to regain it… and eliminating their count might be a first step.
Natsu is silent as they enter the sitting room, listening as Jericho and the Countess exchange pleasantries. She does wonder how much the Countess knows about her part in Jericho’s war – that’s not a time the part-elf remembers fondly even if it did bring Jericho to her.
It’s wine for Natsu in company like this. At home, she might partake of a Fae beverage that her grandmother sometimes sends. She accepts the glass and folds herself with grace into the chair near Jericho – no, she doesn’t take his lap, she does know how to comport herself in situations like this.
“There is a lot of activity on //your// border, my Lady.” The emphasis is just barely there but Natsu is aware of the situation. “And as your vassals, we are guarding and patrolling it. Lady Taniguchi runs patrols everyday to that end and I administer the holding to support her, and you.” beat “How much do you of the situation we are facing?”
There’s a look to Jericho and the part elf reaches to take his hand. There’s a limit to just well she will “behave”
Jericho takes Natsuki’s hand and gives it a gentle squeeze. He doesn’t at all mind being seen ‘with’ her and that is possibly one of the things that drew her to him in the first place. He doesn’t say anything quite yet though he’s sure the questions about his guild’s involvement are coming.
“Let us say I do not know much.” Cagily, the Countess doesn’t reveal what she does or doesn’t know. “What would you tell me in that case?”
“My Lady…” Natsu murmurs, glancing at Jericho and knowing that he knows what’s going on here. “… I would tell you that a threat is coming from the West. One we can not name but we have seen the effects of what it is doing. Settlments of psi-stalkers are being devestated. Those that don’t manage to flee in time are killed.”
She’ll tell the Countess everything and save nothing for her sensibilities. Lorna Crowley isn’t known for faint-hearted.
“Jer— the Baronet and I were approached by psi-stalkers we were trading with asking us for help in this. We took an expedition into the mountains and found just this. We have also offered a place for the psi-stalkers to settle while their villages are under attack.”
Natsu watches the Countess, judging her responses. Jericho might be surprised that the part-elf doesn’t try to influence her with her charm. She wants the Countess to accept this on her own terms.
“I see…” The countess swirls her wine in her glass and takes another sip. “You can corroborate this, Baronet Trent?”
“I can yes.” Jericho murmurs.
“And this has nothing to do with the fact that you’ve recently secured power in your guild and are looking to expand that power base with a strategic marriage to someone with… upward mobility?”
That’d be Zelda, nominally but there are ways that marrying Natsuki could be advantagous. Jericho isn’t expected to climb the social ladder and a marriage to a lesser member of a great house does just as much for him as a marriage to Zelda herself.
“Never crossed my mind.” Jericho says dryly. Hopefully the Countess will appreciate his humor.
When she smiles, slightly, it seems she does.
“Very well. So, tell me of the nature of this threat. What has you so spooked that you’re hiring mercenaries and your… intended is dramatically expanding his CorSec. No simple demon or Psi-Stalker threat, surely.”
Natsu stills when Lorna speaks to Jericho. The Countess won’t see it, but Jericho will note it and feel it in that link she has with him. She could add that marrying her would be seen as a mark against him. Dirty D-Bee that she is. But she doesn’t, she lets Jericho speak for himself.
“Jericho, do you have the recordings that we took in Puma?” Natsu asks the Baronet, letting go of his hand so he can show the Countess. She expected this, it seems and the mention of the Puma might raise another question. “I really don’t know, my Lady but in all my years, I’ve never seen anything like it. And that includes the uptick in the attacks on your borders. What we saw were villagers that devestated. One had been levelled by something and the other … a survivor says the psi-stalkers turned on each other, under the influence of a woman who turned out to be a demon. I … can’t convey how bad it is simply with my words.”
She doesn’t say that. It’s not ‘polite’. She may well say it to others, but it takes someone with less social graces to say it to Natsuki’s face. In a way it probably hurts more when the whispers come, to know that the smiles are at least somewhat faked.
Lorna, though, knows Natsuki well enough to have interacted with her personally on a number of occasions and that tends to… soften things a little bit.
“Ah yes.” Jericho says as though she had just reminded him of something. He produces a data chip from his coat and hands it to the Countess who takes a PDA out of a small drawer in the table nearest her and slides the chip in.
From her expression she’s certainly interested by all the video but it will take several minutes to play through.
“How did you come to form such an… alliance with the Psi Stalkers? They’re not normal trade partners and I was unaware that House Taniguchi was involved in major trade ventures.”
It’s a casually asked question, but one with a lot of meaning in the answer. “And… you were piloting the Puma, Natsuki? What does your cousin think of that?”
Natsu’s come to expect that. Jericho knows that well. That people will talk about her, behind her back. Yes, it hurts more but she’s got thick skin.
The video is from the Puma’s perspective, not quite the pilots but close enough. It shows the first settlement with the trees knocked over and the hole that was in the wall. The second town is possibly more horrifying – with the bodies of the psi-stalkers that had dropped where they fought. Clearly, they’d been fighting amongst themselves – which is almost unheard of.
It also shows an interview with the survivor from the second town and his relating how things went so quickly south when the woman appeared.
“My job, Lady Crowley is to manage the Estate and make it prosperous. With the continued incursions from the demons over the last two years, we have had been stretched to deliver our contracts. I looked for new ways to diversfy our income. It was the Baronet in one our first meetings that suggested trading with the psi-stalkers – not for us to do it directly, but it got me thinking.”
Falling silent for a moment, Natsu considers how much to share. “I had some trouble that required some protection from … magic. We recruited one of the psi-stalkers and the relationship was born. Going to a trade agreement was … not all that hard, in the scheme of things. I also am the major shareholder in a mine out of Vesper.”
“My cousin … will be surprised when she finds out, my Lady. She’s on extended patrols at the moment and our time together is fleeting. But yes, I was and I do.”
“You’ve been quite busy in securing the wellbeing of your House.” Lorna says, not looking up yet. “That’s to be commmended, but it also makes nobles nervous. Especially being as you are… inhuman.”
The woman looks up and lays the tablet aside. “However I am not concerned about your loyalty right now. This is quite concerning information. The only question I reall have right now is… why hadn’t you requested aid before now. As your House’s liege I am obligated to provide it.”
Natsu closes her eyes for a moment as the Countess speaks. It wouldn’t matter what she says, she’s still a dirty D-Bee and that’s all they’ll see. A look of hurt flitters across her face before she manages to school it but given Lorna is looking down, she might miss it. Jericho will feel the sting though.
“My Lady, the Houses are stretched thin as it is and I was in the process of sending the request to you. That’s why we have the video ready for you. This information is only a week or so old and I had to be sure that we weren’t calling Wolf.” Natsu’s not sure where that saying came from actually.
What she doesn’t add is that she’s other calls on her time as well. The management of the manor, which is no small thing and … this business with the Puma.
“As much as I appreciate that, Miss Taniguchi I would prefer to learn of threats to my county sooner rather than later. I take it, then that the Psi Stalkers and the Guild military buildup are a preparation to counter this threat?”
“They are, Countess, yes.” Jericho gives Nat’s hand a bit of a squeeze. He know she’s hurt. Knows that it stings to be treated as less because of waht she is.
“I see. Do you believe that your forces will be sufficient to repel the problem?”
Natsu stills further, returning the squeeze to her hand “My apologies My Lady, I shall endeavour to do better in future.” It’s polite and deferential and … rather meek.
“As we don’t know what we are facing, my Lady, I can’t answer that directly. However, if what we saw is any indication, then it’s doubtful. From what I can tell from our intelligence there’s more than one thing we are dealing with.” They don’t know if they’re related to each other or totally separate. Natsu wants to recommend that the Countess raise the other noble houses but far be it for a ‘inhuman’ to do that.
“Hmmmm…” Lorna taps her fingers on the table nearest her chair. “I believe, in that case, that it would be most prudent for me to mobilize the rest of the county and alert the Duke.” The Duke of the Western Border is Lorna’s superior and can provide even more aid if he can be convinced that it’s necessary.
“In the mean time, why don’t you tell me what I can do to help with your mobilization. If we’re attacked before the other families can get ready, you’re our best, and indeed only, defense.”
Crowley is, generally, a pragmatic countess. Less courtly than those on the interior who face threats to their lands less often.
Natsu nods as the Countess makes her decision, face as impassive as she can make it. “The Baronet might be best to detail that, my Lady. From my Houses perspective, we need bodies to mount more regular patrols. I can’t levy the holders anymore than I have, it will affect our farming – and a starving people in the time of conflict is not good.”
Which is why she’s recruiting mercernaries.
Casting a look at Jericho to add his thoughts, Natsuki adds one more thing “We are ill equipped to deal with the magic demons often bring with them. Perhaps there might be someone who would be willing to give some advice on that matter.” Like say, from Vesper.
Jericho nods in agreement with Natsuki. “We need more everything but a way to counter the machinations of the demons would be good. Not all of them use brute muscle and toughness. Some have magic.”
The countess makes a face. Magic isn’t illegal, per se, in Dogwood. It’s just highly frowned upon. “Provided you’re answerable for any laws they break, you may do so. There may be some mercenary magi in the Billet.”
There probably won’t be many. With Vesper so close most of the magically inclined go there rather than endure the slings and arrows of people’s opinion in Vesper. But there are some and magic IS technically legal. It won’t do House Taniguchi’s standing any favors which may upset Zelda a bit but that has to be balanced with the House’s survival.
It won’t do the House’s reputation any good, no. No more than Natsuki having a psi-stalker body guard and being a part-elf herself. With any luck, some of the damage will be waved away as ‘Natsuki Strangeness’. “Thank you, my Lady.” Is what the part-elf says. If Greg wasn’t being so difficult, Natsu would ask him for help but … he is.
If there aren’t any mercenaries in the Billet, or not enough, she’ll ask her contacts in Vesper. Varos Jenek seemed to be well connected.
“Was there anything else I might assist you with, my Lady?”
“Keep me updated regularly on the progress of the crisis. Once the knightly houses are mobilized I’ll deploy them along the border. God willing, the Duke will take this seriously and order the whole western frontier defended but until then I’ll alert our neighbors at least so the can be foreward.”
Lorna takes a deep breath, consideirng.
“There was one other thing….” She pauses and smiles slightly. “When can we expected wedding invitations?”
“I will, my Lady.” Natsu answers. If the nobles don’t take this seriously, it will be to their cost. House Taniguichi and House Trent as well, but at least they’ll be as ready as they can be.
Seeing the Countess pause, Natsu stills again and waits, with dread. Pauses like that, in her experience, are rarely good. And she was right. For once, the part-elf colours slightly before she recovers. She hadn’t expected this and she’s not ready with an answer. Jericho //had// said he would marry her when she asked him, eventually.
“We’ve not set a date, my Lady.” she answers rather smoothly given she was caught off guard. “When we do, we will be sure to invite you though….” Jericho might have more to add. Or he might not.
“It would be hour honor to have you there of course.” Jericho is decent with people and certainly isn’t about to offend the Countess. She seems like a decent sort anyway at least as Dogwood natives go. And she hasn’t… well, she’s been rather polite all things considered. Besides it’s traditional for a noble’s superior to bless the union and it will be rather an event especially seeing as it will be the union of a noble house and a guild which does not happen often.
“I look forward to it. Will the two of you be staying for dinner or do you have urgent business to attend to?”
It remains to be seen who graces their wedding – when there is one. Many of the Houses don’t pull punches where Natsu’s concerned. Natsu squeezes Jericho’s hand and offers him the smallest of smiles. His connection to her feels … warm.
“I didn’t presume dinner, my Lady, but we would very much like to stay, if you wish.” It will do both of their Houses good to deepen the relationship with the Countess and it might set the womans mind at rest about Natsu and House Taniguichi.
“We’d love to stay, my Lady.” Jericho says with a slight half bow from his seat.
“Well then that’s settled. Dinner should be on soon. Let me get Silas to bring us in more drinks and we can talk of happier things. I understand there’s an art exhibition coming up in the city and Natsuki always knows if these things will be worth goign to. And you can tell me what kind of business you’re in, Baronet…”
More wine, and more whiskey, is brought for the guests to while away the time talking until it’s time to eat.