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From the gantry above 'The Painted Chamber', Arch-Duke Jean-Baptise Dervau watched the flurry of activity in the room below. Men in a dozen different military uniforms milled about, and from where he was standing, Jean-Baptiste could hear conversations in half a dozen languages. The walls of the chamber were covered in grand and ornately drawn frescos, as was the vaulted ceiling above, lending the chamber it's name, but it was the floor itself that had everyone's attention. The floor had been a project of Jean-Baptiste's father, and it had taken years for it to be finished, but from the gantry above, it was still an awe-inspiring sight. A map of Europe, stretching from the frozen eastern reaches of the Empire of Stabuga and the steppes of the Empire of Khazaria, all the way to the western coast of the Kingdom of Hispalis, intricately detailed, stretching more than two dozen feet from one end to the other, the painting was a masterpiece, drawing from the most accurate and detailed charts and maps available. It was over this map that the men below walked, and it was the subject of their discussions.

The gathered figures were military leaders from each of Grimhout's new allies, and as Jean-Baptiste listened, he could hear conversations in Kehsian, Colveili, Hispalian and Illwi, as well as the more recognisable tones of Dilmondian. As well as the military leaders, Jean-Baptiste could make out the distinctive dark green uniform of the Imperial Palace servant's, men that the Arch-Duke had personally chosen to their grasp of languages, intended to help ease the conversations between these powerful leaders. Jean-Baptiste had studied languages himself, as any future Arch-Duke was expected to, but he was conversational at best. In the coming months, he did not doubt that his grasp would improve through practice. After all, the doors of Grimhout and her neighbours had been thrown open, and a new dawn of peace, and brotherhood, was breaking over the horizon.

Grimhout had always been a patchwork empire, ever since Jean-Baptiste's ancestor had first united the warring states under a single banner, and Jean-Baptiste could vividly remember the day that his father had told him that it was this patchwork that was the empire's greatest strength. For generations, the empire had mixed blood with it's neighbours, and yet they had all been unified. Jean-Baptiste had travelled from one corner of Grimhout to the other, and he had seen for himself the disparity between the cultures of those that live on the northern coast of Woluzen, and those that carve out a living in the forests of Eeksen, and yet they were all of Grimhout. Some thread ran through them all, and that same thread that ran through Jean-Baptiste himself. The Arch-Duke did not doubt that it was this thread that had drawn Grimhout's neighbours together, and as he watched the congregation below him, he could almost see that same thread running across the room. It is rare for anyone to realise they are living in a moment of history until that moment has passed, but standing on that gantry, with the proof of this new alliance before him, the air around Jean-Baptiste felt electric.

The walls of 'The Painted Chamber' told the story of the Empire of Grimhout, every intricately detailed painting capturing a moment in the empire's history, and as a boy, Jean-Baptiste had spent countless hours learning about each moment, of the great battles, and the grand alliances, but as he had grown older, it was not these paintings that brought him back to this chamber again and again. It was the blank spaces on these walls, the emptiness that was still waiting to be filled. When he stood in this room alone, as the rest of the palace slept, if Jean-Baptiste closed his eyes, then he could almost hear his destiny calling from those blank spaces. He had heard that same calling when he had signed the treaty that had forged The Western Alliance, and standing on the gantry, he could hear it again. The west had united under a single banner, just as the warring states had centuries before, and Jean-Baptiste knew that this moment would be immortalised in one of those blank spaces, that his face would join those of his ancestors. For a brief moment, the Arch-Duke allowed himself to simply revel in that fact, before he reluctantly stepped back into reality. The alliance was a monumental step forwards, but the world was still ravaged by war, from the war in Europe, all the way to the trouble stirring in India. With a wave of his hand, Jean-Baptiste called Marc Choquet, his valet, forward from where the man had been patiently waiting.

"Yes, your Grace?"

"I want to send an invitation to Cappes. It is time to call Christophe home, and I want him to bring Princess Marie as his guest of honour. I would like to meet the young woman that has so infatuated my son, and to give them my blessing."

"Very good, your Grace. Is there anything else?"

Jean-Baptiste hesitated for a moment, brow furrowed slightly. In this new dawn for Grimhout, it was easy to thing of nothing but peace and love, but he had read the reports from the east, and he could little ignore the voices crying out in anguish and pain, still shackled and cowed by the ugly face of war. Nodding his head as he came to a decision, Jean-Baptiste spoke again, his voice ringing with authority.

"Call Monsieur Chevotet and Monsieur Seyrès to meet me in the Red Drawing Room, I have more letters to write. And inform the gathered commanders that I have something I wish to discuss with them all over dinner this evening. That will be all, Marc, thank you."

The valet bowed, before moving through the narrow doorway at the far end of the gantry, and disappearing into the palace beyond. Jean-Baptiste let out a sigh, now that he finally alone, and leaned against the gantry railing. Below him, the conversations continued, unaware that the Arch-Duke stood above them, and in that brief moment of peace, Jean-Baptiste allowed himself to relax. But only in that brief moment. Straightening up, the Arch-Duke straightened his ceremonial uniform, and walked briskly along the gantry, towards the doorway that led back into the world of responsibility and duty.
The Summer Palace in Bruglaas, perched atop a cliff that overlooked the vast expanse of ocean to the west, offered idyllic views and a pleasant temperament in the summer months, but as the nights grew long, the sky grew dark and the sea more ferocious, it was usually only manned by a skeleton staff through the winter. And yet, as the first snows begin to fall across Europe, the Summer Palace finds itself playing host to Arch-Duke Jean-Baptise Dervau himself.

Jean-Baptiste had travelled with a skeleton staff himself, his retinue a fraction of the one that normally trailed after the Arch-Duke wherever he went, a product of the abruptness of his move. Accompanied by only his wife, a dozen of his most trusted servants, and the inevitable company of Royal Guard, Jean-Baptiste had left the capital of Rivierberg a week ago, taking his court by surprise. After all, while the Summer Palace has served as a popular retreat for the Dervau family for generations, it is a cold and bleak place in the winter. The abrupt journey was labelled as a 'holiday', the Arch-Duke taking some precious time away from the court in order to clear his head with the stiff sea-breeze, but the true cause of the journey was known only to a handful of people. The reins of the Empire itself, at least for now, once again rest in the hands of Jean-Baptiste's son, Christophe, under the watchful eye of the dowager duchess, Isabelle, while Jean-Baptiste himself spent nearly every waking hour standing at the window, watching, and waiting.

The diplomatic delegation that had departed for the capital of the Kingdom of Hispalis some weeks past had carried with them perhaps the most important letter that Jean-Baptiste had ever written. Ever since it was sent on it's way, the Arch-Duke has been able to think of little else. And yet, still, nothing. Jean-Baptiste understood the weight of his proposition, but to delay for so long? Eventually, the pressure had reached a boiling point, and he had made his unexpected journey south, and here, in the Summer Palace, he will be the first to hear the response from Hispalis. The main road for Rivierberg, coming up through Arhan from Hispalis' own capital of Toletum, ran along the coast, almost a stone throw from the palace itself, and from it's perch atop the cliffs, it had an unparalleled view of any ships that were travelling north from Hispalis. Every day, he stood in this window, and every day, no news came.

Jean-Baptiste heard a soft sigh from behind him, but he didn't turn. Soft footfalls crossed the bare room until they came to a stop just behind him. Arms wrapped around him, and he felt his wife gently rest her head against his back as she embraced him, the subtle scent of rose petals suddenly filling the air.

"Still nothing?"

The Arch-Duke felt his shoulders sag, surrendering himself into the embrace for a moment. He had been watching since dawn, and the sun was already beginning to sink towards the horizon. And yet, there had been no ships, other than the usual trade vessels, and the road had been all but deserted, few wanting to brave the cold chill in the air. The last message he had received from his diplomats was that the proposition had been presented to King Charles XII Philip, but since then, there had been no word, and Jean-Baptiste could hardly bear the delay of his contemporary. He sighed himself as he replied.

"Nothing, mon ange."

"Come away from the window, you must be starving."

"I will... Soon. But if the ship left with the morning tide, it will be passing..."

The embrace was suddenly broken, the scent fading as Jean-Baptiste fell Roseline pull away. He winced slightly, already knowing what was coming.

"Jean-Baptiste Dervaux. Look at me."

Tearing his eyes away from the sea, the Arch-Duke sheepishly turned around, and looked into the face of his duchess. Dark hair just beginning to turn grey, emerald eyes intently watching his face, Roseline was as beautiful as the day he had first laid eyes on her, across a crowded ballroom two decades before. It had been after that that Jean-Baptiste had found that his wife was not always as gentle as her appearance might suggest. She was one of the few people that could challenge the Arch-Duke, and she did not shirk from that responsibility. More than once, she had been the voice of reason that he had needed, and looking into those eyes, Jean-Baptiste knew that she was right.

"You still need to eat. You have a dozen men watching the road, and another dozen watching the sea, they will not miss your eyes for the time it takes to eat."

Jean-Baptiste allowed himself to smile, leaning forward to gently kiss his wife's forehead, her own annoyance melting away.

"Thank you, mon amour. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."

Arch-Duke Jean-Baptise Dervau sunk into the sofa, and for the first time in what felt like years, he allowed himself to relax. The small chamber he was in was sparsely furnished, lit only by a lone candle on a low table. The only sign of luxury in the room was the sofa that he was currently resting on, the cushions worn with age, but Jean-Baptiste knew every inch of it. He still remembered the first time that his father had shown him the panel in the wall, the catch barely noticeable unless you were looking for it, and the way the narrow doorway had swung open. His father had told him then that the weight of rule was a heavy one, and that this small chamber, hidden deep within the heart of the Imperial Palace, would be the only place where that weight could be lifted. Over the years since his father's death, Jean-Baptiste had found just how true that was. Only three people alive, including himself, knew about this chamber, and the Arch-Duke knew that one day he would show it to his son, just as his father had shown him, and his father before him. Jean-Baptiste allowed himself a smile as he thought of the long line of his family that had found sanctuary in this room. His father had always told him that when his ancestor had ordered the construction of the Imperial Palace, he had left special instructions for this room to be built, and it had proven it's worth a hundred times over.

Jean-Baptiste heard the door behind him swing open, but he didn't bother turning around. He knew who it was by the footfalls as they moved across the room, by the weight that settled down on the sofa beside him, and by the slight sigh that followed. The voice of his mother, Isabelle, filled the small chamber, and Jean-Baptiste couldn't help but smile again at the tone of her voice.

"There was a man looking for you, Léo. I didn't like him much."

Léo had always been his mother's pet name for him, and she had often told him that it was the name she had wanted to give him when he was born, only for his father to decide that it wasn't fitting for a future Arch-Duke. His mother may have accepted the change officially, but she had still always called him Léo behind closed doors, and his father had wisely conceded.

"I don't think you like anyone very much, mama."

"Perhaps. But I particularly didn't like this one. Something about his eyes."

For the first time, Jean-Baptiste looked across at his mother, and saw that she was already watching him, a bemused look across her face. The Arch-Duke offered a weak smile, and for a moment, the weight of rule came rushing back all at once. But only for a moment. This room had served as a sanctuary for years, and within this room, he could forget the world. And his mother had also been a sanctuary, even longer than this chamber. The court barely paid any attention to the dowager duchess anymore, and Jean-Baptiste knew that she enjoyed the peace of it, but he had never forgotten that she had been a queen. He still heeded to her wisdom, whenever she offered it, and she had never steered him wrong. There were very few people that understood the intricacies of the empire, and for that experience alone, she was vital to him.

"That will be Monsieur Pierre. I should get back."

Jean-Baptiste rose to his feet, wincing slightly at the ache from his joints. He moved towards the doorway, but his mother's voice stopped him.


He turned back, and saw that his mother had already closed the distance. He was still surprised by how quickly she could move, and how quietly, despite her age. Reaching up, she cupped his head in her hands, and held his gaze for a moment.

"You father would have been proud of the ruler you have become. And I will always be proud of the man you have become"

The two embraced, and for an instant, Jean-Baptiste was a boy, held in his mother's arms. But when he straightened up, he was an Arch-Duke again. This chamber was a sanctuary, but he could not remain here forever. The world did not stop, and if he waited for too long, he would want to get back on. Turning away, Jean-Baptiste pushed open the panel, and stepped back into reality.
Arch-Duke Jean-Baptise Dervau closed his eyes, feeling the roll of the ship beneath him and letting the spray of the sea wash over him. The sun had made a rare appearance over the channel, and Jean-Baptiste could feel the warmth of it on his face. It had been too long since he was last at sea, he missed the freedom of it. Even though, the weight of ruling the empire weighed less on his shoulders, and for a moment, he was just a boy again. But it was only a moment, and as he opened his eyes again, the significance of his position came rushing back. The coastline of Kehsi stretched out before him, drawing closer with every passing moment. Jean-Baptiste had envisioned taking this voyage before, but back then he had been a reckless teenager, envisioning himself at the head of a fleet. Turning away from the approaching shore, Jean-Baptiste allowed himself a smile at how far reality was from his fantasy.

'Tigre' was a formidable ship in her own right, but she was taking the journey alone, a flag of diplomacy flying from her mainmast rather than one of war. Jean-Baptiste had grown up hearing stories of the countless wars between Grimhout and Kehsi, and yet now he stood upon a ship sailing into the very heart of Kehsi. If his journey was successful, those wars would remain firmly in the past, and perhaps both nations could finally begin to heal those old wounds. The Archduke found his gaze drifting back towards the distant shoreline of his own nation, and for a moment, he questioned his own actions. He was proud to call Christophe his son, and he was under no illusions about his own mortality, but leaving his son as the de facto ruler of the Empire in his absence... Was it too much to thrust upon the young man's shoulders?

As if on cue, Jean-Baptiste heard the man standing next to him shift on his feet, and felt a hand on his shoulder. Tearing his eyes away from the shores of Grimhout, Jean-Baptiste glanced into the face of his brother, and saw a wry smile on the other man's face.

"I know that face. You shouldn't worry so much. Christophe is a good man, and besides, Roseline will keep him in line. She has plenty of experience with that!"

Jean-Baptiste felt the worry lifting off him as he smiled. It had been Roseline's idea to bring Marc-Antoine with him on the diplomatic mission, and he was already glad that he had listened. The brothers had grown up together, and they always seemed to know what the other one was thinking. While Charles was the care-free charmer, Marc-Antoine had always had his head screwed on right, and Jean-Baptiste had found himself coming to his youngest brother for advice more times than he could count. His mission was taking him into uncharted territory, and he could think of few men that he would rather by his side.

"Thank you, brother. But it is not only Christophe I am worried for."

For an instant, the smile on Marc-Antoine's face faltered, and he turned to look towards the coastline of Kehsi. There was a brief moment of silence as the two brothers both watched the ancient enemy draw closer. The task that lay before them was one that their ancestors had always fallen short of. Could they succeed where so many others had failed?

The ring of steel meeting steel echoed around the small courtyard as the two men circled each other. Both held a sword in one hand, and to an observer, the rhythmic lunging and parrying almost seemed like a dance. That same observer would have quickly realised that the younger man was a better swordsman, slowly pushing his opponent back, always moving a fraction faster. The younger man suddenly surged forwards, his sword flashing silver in the sunlight. The older man moved to parry, but he was too slow, the point of the blade scratching across his shoulder as it passed. The younger took a step forwards, the momentum of his own swing carrying him for a moment. In an instant, a foot caught the back of his leg, sending him sprawling to the ground on his rear, the sword jolting free from his grip and clattering away across the cobblestones. The younger man went to rise, but stopped in his tracks as he felt the tickle of his opponents own sword against his throat. There was a moment of silence, the two men watching each other, before the older of the two laughed heartily, moving his sword away and holding his hand out towards his son.

Christophe reluctantly took his father's hand, and allowed himself to be helped to his feet, brushing himself down before walking over to retrieve his sword. Jean-Baptiste's smile didn't fade as he watched his son.

"You're getting a lot better, Christophe, but experience still edges out talent. Learn not to be so reckless. If you commit too much to one attack, then you leave yourself exposed."

Christophe held his father's gaze for an instant, before he allowed himself a smile, and shrugged his shoulders.

"I just didn't expect an Arch-Duke to fight dirty."

Jean-Baptiste laughed again, clapping his son on the shoulder.

"Well then that was your first mistake."

A polite cough interrupted the laughter, and Jean-Baptiste turned to see that Marc Choquet, one of his more trusted valets, had entered the courtyard, a grave look written across his normally jovial features.

"Your Grace, we have received news from the east. The report... Your Grace, you're bleeding!"

Jean-Baptiste glanced down at his shoulder for the first time, the white shirt town and bloody from where Christophe's blade had cut him. Waving away the other man's concern, Jean-Baptiste turned back to the valet.

"I'll live. Now, tell me about this report..."
Jean-Baptiste watched the ship through the telescope, frowning slightly as he saw the Hispalis flag flying from the mast. From where he was standing, on the tip of Dilmonde, he could easily see the ships that sailed through the channel, normally headed for the Kehsi capital. On a clear day, he could even glimpse the shoreline of Kehsi itself from here. Perhaps that is why the two nations had such a bloody history. They could never forget each other. The Kingdom of Hispalis getting involved did make things more... complicated.

The Arch-Duke felt rather than heard the presence behind him, and lowered the telescope as he turned. He wasn't surprised to see Pierre standing a few paces away, and Jean-Baptiste nodded his head in greeting at the other man. Pierre dutifully half-bowed before stepping forwards slightly. Jean-Baptiste had enjoyed adventure stories when he was a boy, tales of swashbuckling pirates and dastardly villains, and perhaps that is why Pierre's appearance always seemed slightly disappointing. A man like Pierre should have an eye-patch, or at least some sinister facial hair, but the other man had neither, in fact, he was entirely unremarkable. Pierre had the kind of face that you wouldn't look twice at, that could blend in amongst a crowd, and that was probably the very reason he was so talented at what he did.

Aware that Pierre was watching him with a mask of no emotion, Jean-Baptiste smiled slightly as he turned back towards the channel.

"It is good to see you again, Monsieur Pierre. I take it you received my letter?"

Pierre stepped forward again to join the Arch-Duke at the edge of the promenade. Jean-Baptiste had almost forgotten what his voice sounded like, even though he had seen the other man less than a month ago.

"I was already on my way back, your grace. I am afraid there have been some disturbing developments."

Jean-Baptiste frowned again as he looked out across the water. Matters to the east had been developing quickly, and from what reports he had seen, war seemed to be an increasingly likely reality. Perhaps it was time for Grimhout to stop glancing to the north and the south, and instead turn it's attentions towards it's neighbours in the continent. Turning back to the other man, the Arch-Duke nodded slightly.

"Go ahead, Monsieur Pierre. Tell me what you know..."
Somewhere deep within the heart of the Imperial Palace in Rivierberg, a candle was burning into the night. The room itself was modest, and in truth, few people even knew how to find it amongst the winding corridors of the palace, but it had once served as a playroom for the same three men that now sat within it. Arch-Duke Jean-Baptise Dervau glanced up from his cards and allowed himself a slight smile. The three brothers had played cards often in their youth, but as they grew older, and their respective responsibilities continued to grow, it was rare for them all to find themselves in the capital at the same time.

Charles spent most of his time in the province of Eeksen, or even in his wife's home of Asmont, and he had a young family of his own now, but he had taken the opportunity to personally accompany the recent delegate from Asmont, arriving the night before. Marc-Antoine on the other hand had just returned from his tour of the empire's colonies in Americas. But it was arguably the fourth figure sitting around the table that made Jean-Baptiste smile the most. On another night, it would have been his son, Christophe, who took the final chair, but he had already set off for Arhan. Instead, it was Juliette, his daughter, who joined them as their game continued into the night. She met his gaze and smiled in return. She was winning. Easily.

Charles laughed as he threw his cards down on the table, shaking his head in disbelief.

"I would much rather we were playing your brother, Juliette. He was never any good at cards."

Juliette smiled as Jean-Baptiste also threw down his cards, before Marc-Antoine reluctantly followed suit. The young woman collected the discarded cards, shuffling them with a practised ease.

"I am sorry to disappoint you, uncle. Another hand?"

Jean-Baptiste glanced over his shoulder at the grand clock that stood in the corner of the room. He was surprised to see how late it already was, the evening seeming to have dissapeared in the blink of an eye. He turned back to the table in time to see Charles stifling a yawn, and the Arch-Duke smiled again.

"I think not. Besides, you have a long journey ahead of you tomorrow, and plenty more time to beat your uncle at cards."

Charles audibly groaned, holding his head in his hands for a moment at the thought, before a smile broke across his face. The four figures rose to their feet, saying their goodbyes before making their way towards the door. Before he could leave though, Jean-Baptiste caught the shoulder of his youngest brother.

"A quick word?"

Marc-Antoine nodded as the other two filed out. Juliette turned at the door, before giving her father a knowing nod and pulling it closed behind her. Now that they were alone, Jean-Baptiste gestured for his brother to take his seat again, before making his way over to the small cabinet that stood against the wall by the door. Reaching inside, he withdrew a bottle of wine and two glasses, taking them over to the table before sitting down himself.

"I'm sure you don't need me to tell you what I wanted to talk to you about, brother. I trust you have what we discussed...

Well most of us seemed to adopt a 'no-touching' policy.

@Romero Are there going to be 'NPC' major powers, or are we going to be the big dogs and the NPC's are going to be more minor?

Introducing the lovable patchwork Empire with a penchant for heroic cavalry charges. Hopefully everything adds up

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