“I don’t want to be a gods damned babysitter, Lera,” Caldus Agaro sighed with a terrible sense of annoyance. When she looked sideways at him, Lera Casterian could see it. The Figaran had creases in his brow and a frown plastered across his face.
“Oh, come off it, Cal,” Lera answered. She cut him a sharp look, but it didn’t have the bite that it could have. “We’re knights of the Grand Order of the Phoenix.” Her look, which had been so stern, turned into something more playful. “We live to serve the needs of the Union, whatever they should be.”
“Yes,” he said. “And today, the needs of the Union include escorting a rich boy to see one of his best friends compete in that race.”
“Think of it as a chance to get a vacation.”
Lera and Cal didn’t look like Phoenix Knights at the moment. Ordinarily, they were defined by their magitech suits of armor – not power armor in principle, but fundamentally the same in practice – with masked helms that hid their features, imposing greatcoats in the style of the famed Leo Cristophe, and a combination of spell, technology, and martial prowess that was supposed to leave people quaking in their boots. This was the theory, but nothing could quite escape the fact that most of the Imbued were barely twenty years of age.
Lera was eighteen; Cal was nineteen. With her in a buttoned-up coat, ribbon tied about the neck, collared shirt, and skirt, and Caldus in the same, but with a neck tie and slacks, they looked closer to cadets than fearsome elite soldiers. In a way, though, that fit the surroundings. The estates of Maranda’s upper crust were all around them. Even as time moved them into modernity, the expansive ranch-style plantations of T.O. Halberg’s days were still popular with the most wealthy. The lawns were more like fields, never fenced in, and each had a handful of chocobos to work them over.
The birds hadn’t been ridden as cavalry by Esperians in a lifetime, but the tradition of birdsmanship and chocobo fancying had not died out.
It was a place for status and age, and their smart, red and black uniforms – even if it made the two Knights look like academy cadets – fit in perfectly. It communicated that they were not of the age that carried true weight in Maranda. The status granted by their family names, however, was unimpeachable.
Sandamoore Hill, though, was the highest seat of status and fame in the Esper Union. Lera had been to it a few times before, but it still awed her to approach a legend and see it living before her. Oaks shaded the home, which was a roomy, wooden three-story home. It was not as immense as the Skygon in Nikeah; nor was it the towering, grand affair that many of the castles of Figaran and Doman nobles were. Sandamoore Hill, however, was the home constructed by Theodore Orville Halberg’s own two hands. It was a testament to the lifestyle of the Marandan chocobo rancher, the big game hunter, and the spirit of the best of the Esper Union.
It was the life that the Casterians modeled theirs on. For Lera, it was like looking upon the prototype and original that her family built itself upon – only hers was written smaller and had fractures, like an imperfect copy cast from the mold perfection that the Halbergs managed. She pushed back against that leak of bitterness, before it became a flood across her entire mood.
In so doing, she found that she had stopped and started staring. Cal had walked ahead of her, and turned to look back. “Coming?” he asked.
“Yes, sorry.” She hurried up to the house’s front doors. They were expected, of course. Despite the ten minute walk across the grounds, along a sidewalk carefully manicured to look like a wilderness trail, they had still checked in with the guards posted near the entrance to Sandamoore Hill’s grounds. Lera caught up with Cal, raised hand to grab the knocker, and then the door swung open.
It was pulled open by a young man with clear green eyes, light brown hair, and a sweater pulled over his collared shirt. He hadn’t bothered to tuck the shirt in, so it hung past the bottom of the sweater. He pushed a pair of glasses up his nose with one hand, while the other had a traveling bag held over his shoulder. He was the grandson of the late Grand Marshal Halberg, the hero of the Union, and named after him: Theodore Michael Halberg, often shortened to Teddy Halberg, to avoid confusion on at least one front.
That he was the son of Alice Halberg, one of the most influential philanthropists and an ex-soldier in her own right, and the now somewhat infamous Ross Payvern… well, that all combined to make him a force to be reckoned with.
“You’re late,” Teddy said.
“This is off to a lovely start,” Cal sad with a sigh, before he turned. “Come, we’ll be taking a Soldiery car to the airport.”
Lera look over her shoulder as he walked away, then looked down at the teenager. He was only fifteen and said to be as bright as his grandfather and mother, though without the same charm that they commanded. She smiled, awkwardly, down to him. “I’m sorry about that. But, this should be fun, right? We’re–”
“We need to get moving,” he interrupted. He walked past her, too. “There is an event that we will be attending, and we cannot afford to miss it.”
“An event?” Lera asked, as she turned to follow. Caldus had stopped ahead and was looking impatient himself, though with completely different reasons. “I imagine there are a lot. This race has attracted every gambler, sports enthusiast, and idiot with some coins to spend across the Web. They’ll all be in Kupopolis–”
“No,” Teddy said. “It’s not an event.” With a flash of annoyance, Lera thought thought the boy should stop interrupting him. But, this was part of being a Phoenix Knight, she reminded herself: keeping patient with the youth of the nation, and letting herself be an example. “It’s the event. You’ve heard of Jaringo Owzer, the heir to the one from Jidoor? He plans to hold an auction in the middle of the race.”
“A shopping trip! That’s brilliant, we’re here to take him shopping!” Caldus called out.
Teddy gave him a withering look. “You are. I’ll explain more of its importance when we’re there,” he says. “We need to get invitations first.”
“Wait, we don’t have invitations?” Lera asked. “Now, look, does your mother know about this? I don’t think I can approve of–”
Her eyebrow twitched when Teddy interrupted her yet again. “She has an outline of our itinerary,” he said. “And she requested you in specific, Miss Casterian. As for you, Mister Agaro… well, you’re a package detail.” They both frowned at him at that, though Lera was careful not to meet Cal’s eyes at the accusation. “Rest assured, it is important.”
Lera sighed, putting a hand to her forehead, fingers resting over the bridge of her nose. “All right. Now, how do you propose we get invitations?”
“This is why we need to be in the City by tonight,” Teddy said, giving them both a look, before he trudged on ahead of both. “The so-called Kaiser is holding a party to celebrate his impending victory in the race. I intend to call in a favor.”