As I wait for an opportunity to blend in, I pass my fingers through my hair, combing them. I smooth my tight leather outfit’s folds, trying to mentally compare it to what the Nobles I saw wore, judging myself under-dressed.
I can smell grilled meat, coming from inside the tent I’m hiding behind. My stomach grumbles a little and my left limb shivers in kind. I should definitely eat before I see my Lady.
I focus on listening to the inside of the tent, waiting a few minutes for the Nobles inside to leave. I slip my fingers under the canvas and lift it up, slipping inside.
There is a long table covered in various kinds of meat, from chicken to beef. I straighten my outfit once again and casually pick up a porcelain plate to serve myself. I pile up a dozen different kinds of meat and stand in a corner of the tent as casually as I can.
I take hold of a piece of chicken wing but pause in front of my mask. Ah, that’s an issue. I fiddle with the mask, sliding it until it holds sideways, arranging it so that my left eye can still see through one of the holes and leave my mouth free to eat.
“…at treacherous Red Dwarf must be a titled Noble from Telnur, or a distant part of Caeviel, Lady Countess.” I pick that specific line out of the conversations outside because it mentions me despite not recognizing that woman’s voice.
“Elizabeth may be a titled Noble, but I wouldn’t be so sure.” My Lady’s voice reaches my ears and a shiver courses through my entire body. “That glove she wears could be what enhances her strength, an efficient runic construct could achieve such results, Lady Edusa. Regardless of whether she is a Noble or a mercenary, her motivations are still a mystery.”
“Many believe that she made a deal with the Rykz, her faction’s support in exchange for the Izla itself, Lady Countess.”
“If there is such a faction, it is well hidden, Lady Edusa.” My Lady replies skeptically. “I believe that Elizabeth was simply trying to save lives. The truce was unnecessary for the Rykz, counterproductive even since our army was too exhausted and about to shatter. If her goal was to take the Izla at all costs, she would not have called the retreat.” My cheeks start burning. My Lady guessed my intentions, she believes in me even without knowing who I am.
“Your heroism and beauty are what made that tiny Red Dwarf reconsider her bloody ways, Lady Lance.” Edusa replies in a singing tone. Is she flirting?! And I’m not that short! Although, my Lady was indeed gorgeous fighting in that armor…
I let go of my plate, readjust my mask and hurriedly step out of the tent, barely noticing the sound of the porcelain shattering when it hits the ground. Every gaze turns to me when I step out, even my Lady’s light gray eyes.
She is wearing a form-fitting red slit dress that reveals one of her slender legs, her expression is astonished, surprised to see me. I… taste her with my eyes, from her combed straight black hair brushing her bare shoulders to her slender fingers pressing on her chest.
I take a single step towards my Lady, the crowd of Nobles moves back. She doesn’t move. I take another, and another, and another, until I stand in front of her. I open my mouth behind my mask but struggle to form a sentence or even a sound. I want to ask for a dance, demand it. My heart is beating too fast, too afraid of being rejected to speak.
There is a young woman at her right, her hand is laid on my Lady’s wrist. My head snaps to that Edusa, she’s… pretty. Her face is soft and her green eyes are bright.
I feel my throat tighten and I freeze, angered by her audacity but too insecure to impose myself. My left limb starts swaying side by side, a slithering motion. It seems to frighten that woman as takes a half-step back away from me, releasing her arm.
“Elizabeth?” My Lady speaks up, I immediately turn back to her.
“Good evening, Lance.” I reply in a tiny voice, uncomfortably shifting my weight from one foot to the other. “You look great.” She looks rested, healthier.
“What are you doing here?” She asks with dilated pupils.
“My, my first…” I stutter and let my words die down to take a deep breath and steady myself. This is all for our future together. “I want my first dance, kitten.” I finally utter, taking care to articulate. A giggle escapes me a second later, realizing my use of a pet name.
My Lady’s face turns slightly red and confused. I can’t hear a single sound coming from the Nobility surrounding us, all of them suspended to our conversation.
“Kitten?” She asks uncertainly.
“You have the heart of one.” I reply with a smile to my unsteady voice. She pauses, seeming unsure about how to take it, shaking her head after a few seconds.
“What should I call you, then?” She asks with a small smile that cracks the void in my heart. I struggle to suppress my desire to reveal myself, hurriedly answering before I can change my mind.
“Just Elizabeth.” I reply. Her expression dips slightly as the hope I hadn’t noticed fades away. Her slender fingers are trembling. “Focus on me, Lance. I‘m not her.” I speak harshly with a grave voice. It is necessary for my plans that she not discover the truth too soon.
“You!” Edusa breaks the silence, shouting. “Speak more respectfully to the Countess!”
“Should I?” I ask my Lady directly, not even glancing at the other woman.
“No. We are on opposite sides of this war after all.” She replies with steel in her eyes and voice. Yes, my Lady, that’s how it should be.
Nobles around us expire heavily, sighing with emotion. I expected to be challenged about my status as a traitor, but some are empathizing? Is infighting so common among Nobility that they can just accept this? I shake my head. No matter. I had a way to threaten them for my safety but I’m not going to complain if I don’t need to use it.
I hold my right hand out, in-between me and my Lady, but not so close that she could take hold of it without stepping forward herself. Enjoying her appearance in that red slit dress while she hesitates to take it. Good, at least my Lady realizes that I mean the dances to be binding.
She slowly raises her left hand, gently laying it over my palm. I wait for a few seconds, staring into the light gray abyss of her eyes, shivering at the feel of her soft skin on mine. Time flows by, stretching on for what seems to be an eternity before my Lady closes her fingers over my own.
I take a deep breath, reaffirming my resolve to take it slow, allowing myself only the most casual contact. I pull her closer, placing my left hand on her right shoulder. I lean in close to her ear, counting on the mask to distort my voice.
“I don’t know what I‘m doing, please lead me, kitten.” I whisper.
“Of course.” She murmurs in reply, placing her other hand around my waist.
I follow my Lady’s steps as she makes us spin around on the spot. The Nobles around us start chattering, some voices sound a bit outraged, others delighted.
Her cheeks take a deeper red tint and she suddenly changes direction, guiding us towards a more isolated part of the garden. We whirl around between the hedges, I focus and do my best to follow her lead, almost stepping on her toes a few times. My Lady laughs brightly as she notices how tense I am.
“Relax, Elizabeth, just meld into the movements.” She tells me with a stunning smile.
“O, okay.” I mutter, relaxing and letting go.
She leads me by the waist, casually bringing our bodies closer together, so much so that her small breasts occasionally brush against my own as we weave left and right. We are both silently blushing, I am too entranced and taken by her to dare disturb the moment.
The dance takes us off the path, which I only notice when we swirl over a bed of thorny roses, we stomp and destroy the fragile red flowers, they take their revenge over our ankles, piercing through my tight leather outfit and leaving rips in my Lady’s slit dress.
“Do you know how many lives you’ve saved?” My Lady asks, leading us back to the path without even pausing.
“No.” I reply, unconcerned.
“Don’t you care?” She asks, frowning and surprised by my short answer.
“The war isn’t over, I wouldn’t consider any life saved yet.” I shrug, resting the side of my head on her shoulder.
“That’s true but, still, you have my thanks, Elizabeth. I learned later that Duke Meria delayed the retreat because he feared the Rykz’ relentless pursuit.” My Lady tells me in a grave tone. “Won’t you tell me your real name?”
“No.” I utter firmly, not only to make her understand that it isn’t an option but to make myself accept it as well. “I would if you ask for it instead of about that girl.” Her body freezes and our dance ends.
“I don’t have a right to claim her anymore.” My Lady’s face turns blank, regret filling her traits. “I only want to know what happened.”
Ding, ding. Bell sounds reach us. I let go of her hand and shoulder, reluctantly splitting us.
“You’ll have to decide what you want. Only four dances left, Lance.” I tell her, feeling torn about what I’m doing but not letting my doubts affect the resolve I made that night.
“The Duke is telling the court to assemble, you should go.” My Lady explains, scrutinizing my mask, no doubt trying to discern my thoughts on the matter.
“So soon?” I ask, slipping my arm under hers. “I’d rather enjoy your company for a little while longer.”
She gives me a wide smile and lays her other hand on mine. guiding us back towards the crowd in the center of the garden. Many turn to watch our approach, Edusa’s intense glare joins them.
Duke Meria is standing in the middle, he is a tall muscular man with blond hair and dark eyes, wearing a long white tunic and a light blue cloak. He raises his glass up and the crowd quiets down.
Most of the Nobles present drop on one knee, my Lady included. The rest simply bows. I do my best to ignore the anger radiating out from the void in my heart at the sight of my Lady’s knee touching the ground. The difference between subjects and guests. Everyone is paying their respects to the Duke one way or another, all except me.
The Duke notices, turning his attention my way. The crowd follows his gaze and my Lady tries to pull on my arm, trying to tell me to bow. I take my arm back, breaking her hold on it. I will stand strong, I am no sheep. I square my shoulders and stare right at the man.
“I‘m not your subject, or your guest, Duke.” I utter coldly. “Elizabeth Vil, not at your service.” My voice pierces through the grumble of discontent coming from the crowd, I let a small giggle escape my lips.
“The infamous traitor.” The Duke nods, his face calm in the face of my challenge. “Lady Vil, it does not quite matter where you hail from, manners are of import in Caeviel.” He pauses dramatically, the crowd seems to stop breathing as it awaits his next words. “I insist that you bow, Red Dwarf.” He speaks, looking down at me.
I’m not that small! I grumble internally, feeling the insult in his words. This isn’t the time to show these vultures how much I dislike the name. I make a shrug, calculated to look indifferent.
“Make me.” I utter with an insane laugh, raising my left arm in front of me and pulling on my sleeve to allow them all to see the blood on it.
“I can let you attend despite your unannounced arrival because such is my hospitality and respect for our truce.” The Duke replies, his calm expression shaken by my direct challenge. “But you must show the same courtesy towards the Izla.”
“You are not the Izla, Duke.” I respond disdainfully. “You have no power over me.” I pause, feeling a mad grin draw itself on my lips. “But I‘ll make it fair, I wouldn‘t want to force you to break the truce after all.” The story of tonight will be all over the streets by morning, that Duke has to know that and he won’t be able to go overboard. “Send your volunteer and see if they can make me bow.” I gamble with faked enthusiasm.
The crowd around us seems to shake in surprise. Duke Meria’s expression turns worried, confirming my assumption that he didn’t want a confrontation with me tonight.
“I highly doubt that her highness, the Rykz Queen, would give such diplomatic latitude to a human… collaborator.” He speaks up, obviously trying to find a way out.
“Oh, she wouldn’t.” I giggle. “I don’t think Grikyz likes me very much, but she didn’t sign the truce with you, I did.”
“Is that true?” The Duke asks my Lady with authority in his voice. Fury shakes the void. How dare he order her in front of me!
“It is, my Lord.” She answers. “Elizabeth was the only one present at the time.”
“Does that truce have any value then?!” He asks, anger in his voice as he glares at me. That might have slightly backfired.
“It does.” I roll my shoulders and stretch my arms, wondering whether the Duke will challenge me himself or not. “The Rykz will respect it, for now. They are… more honorable than you lot.” The crowd grows hostile, I smile behind my mask. “I‘ll do you one better, I’m feeling a bit annoyed at all this pleasantry so I’ll even allow you to use weapons.”
“This isn’t necessary, if we can all just calm down.” My Lady speaks up to try to cool things down but her words have no visible effect. I’m not in the mood to let go of the disrespect he showed her, and I’ll never bow again.
“Please allow me, Duke Meria, I’ll teach her to respect Caeviel and your Izla Meria.” Edusa speaks up, accepting a sword from one of the crowd’s armed Nobles.
The Duke ponders, still frowning. I ignore him and turn to face Edusa, assembling an eyesight enhancing construct and the skin hardening construct, leaving it on standby, anchored on my left limb. I’ll show you how strong I’ve become, my Lady. I take a step towards the woman, she reacts by falling into a stance.
“I’ll allow it.” I hear the Duke speak up, just as Edusa raises her sword to attack.
I activate the skin hardening construct and rush forward, aiming to intercept her sword with my left limb. Edusa throws her attack with a mean grin that looks out of place on her soft traits, obviously expecting to cut through my arm.
Thunk. The blade hits my forearm, leaving a thin cut in the blood-soaked leather, I deactivate the hardening construct and take hold of the weapon in my left hand, she struggles but fails to break my grip over her sword. I bring my right back and punch her in the stomach, using my limb’s superior strength to disarm her.
“Well, that was easy.” I comment, looking down at the Lady currently holding her stomach.
The Nobility around us is silent, many are shifting their weight uncomfortably. I take hold of the sword by its handle and lay its blade flat on the ground, stepping on it. I then using my left limb’s strength to pull, bending it until it breaks. Clink.
“Countess Lance.” The Duke speaks up once the sound of it dies down. “If you will.”
I startle, caught unaware. Shit. I definitely should have seen that coming. I flip around to gaze at my Lady, to see her. She‘s making a difficult expression but her hand is extended out, calling for a sword. I hear Edusa moving behind me, charging.
I hurriedly step to my right, avoiding her rush by a hair and seizing her dress’ collar with my left hand. A Lord parts from the crowd, moving towards my Lady while holding a sword’s handle out by is scabbard.
“Lady Edusa, please stand down.” Lance speaks quietly.
“We’ve already danced, Countess. I don’t intend to engage in another with you today.” I speak up, using her distraction to throw Edusa towards the Lord holding the sword.
She crashes into him, sending both to the ground while the crowd cries foul play. I walk up to the sword on the ground, stepping on it and using my left limb to break it along with its scabbard. Criknch.
“I am weaponless, my Lord.” My Lady tells the Duke while smiling at me. “Alas, I cannot fight.”
“Just as well, I suppose.” Duke Meria comments, holding his hand up to stop a Lady from taking her sword out. “Since there are no more weapons, I’ll declare a tie.” He speaks up over the crowd, turning his gaze to me.
“They broke like dry twigs.” I reply, shrugging. I then walk up to my Lady and take hold of her hand, lifting it up to where my lips would be if not for my mask. “The sight of you strengthens me, mere steel is too brittle to hold us apart.”
I let go of her to make my way back into the garden, using the hedges as cover, doing my best to merge in with the shadows. I assemble a dozen lion’s step constructs over my legs.
Once I reach the castle’s three-meter tall low-wall at the very end of the garden, I pause to enhance my hearing. I detecting discreet steps following behind me, at least four distinct pairs of feet.
I don’t see any soldiers on top of the wall itself, but I can hear them patrolling the street on the other side.