Episode 49: Four Flags over the Lord-at-Large
A little while after the funeral, Arthur had a brief conversation with Orlaith. Isabelle wasn't close enough to tell what it was about, but she did hear the words "Imperium" and something about meeting the Emperor. Apparently Orlaith's unexpected light show was something more special than usual, even given their traveling companions. After that came the debriefing of the captives.
Arthur made Aurora attend the interrogations, and Isabelle watched as well. They were appalled by what they heard: Rape and pillage all across the land, scorched-earth policies to ensure the remaining population's reliance on the occupying forces for food, and more talk of conquest than of freedom. Food from captured land was apportioned first to the officers, next to the volunteers and their families, and only at the last to the conscripts and the pro-occupation villagers.
Halfway through the prisoners' questioning, Arthur was called away to see something, and the two ladies followed. Approaching the temporary detention area was an armed convoy, its style unfamiliar to Isabelle. Aurora volunteered, "It's a Free State knight. Him, his squires, their retinue and supplies, and outrider guards. Given the number, it must be one of the more famous knights, but I can't make out his arms from here."
The convoy bore an impressive collection of flags and personnel: Rising above everything else was a knight-borne standard pole with four pennants. Somewhat shorter were the ten spears bearing three of the same. Each of these eleven displays was borne by a mounted knight, and in addition to the knights there were thirty-three mounted squires, half-a-dozen camp followers sharing a wagon, around fifty mounted guards, and more horses and pack mules than anyone cared to count. If they hadn't been flying a flag of peace, they would have been a very efficient war-party.
Arthur read off the banners, and Maximilian, having more political experience, interpreted them.
"Lord's banners from top to bottom: peace flag . . .
". . . meaning that they've been ordered by their commanding authority to have peace as their top priority, rather than using their own discretion . . ."
". . . Church flag . . ."
". . . meaning that the Church is the official authority for this mission, which may be the Free States making a concerted move while maintaining their official autonomy or may be the Church deciding to get involved directly . . ."
". . . unless I am mistaken, the flag of the Lord-at-Large of the Free States . . ."
". . . so it's definitely the Free States making a move, if they're sending their only at-large noble to do this . . ."
". . . and the Lord's house flag. The Knights are flying everything but the Church's pennant."
"Then they're his personal retinue. Here's the drill: You're roughly the same rank as he is, unless he's been granted plenipotentiary powers. Either way, you need to be negotiating with him directly. His knights serve as an honor guard, and I'll back you with my boys to make it even. Sound good to you?"
"Yeah; let's go see what they want."