I crouch to make my way to the center of the roof, feeling light-headed. I pause, thinking that I moved too quickly but instead of settling I sense myself growing dizzier.
Fuck. Can’t remember if healing construct works on brains or not, but I don’t think they do. I assemble one anyway and anchor it to my head. What’s this, the poison? But that was hours ago, did it take this long to filter through?
I progress over the roof, using my left limb to stabilize myself. I get to the left-wing and sit over the edge to rest for a while, injecting more flow into my hearing enhancing construct. The voices that reach me are somewhat distorted.
“Why Lord Mansur, of course I would be happy to introduce you to the future Baroness Urnan. She will need connections after all, and you are well respected among Nobility.” I recognize Madame Cecil’s voice.
“Our Duke was very swift in selecting a candidate.” Mansur observes.
“Indeed, but who can blame the Duke. The title must be passed on as quickly as possible in these times of war.” She notes.
“I’ve heard that you are a long time friend of Lady Urnan.” He comments.
“She was very pleased with the nomination. It was a marvelous surprise for both of us!” Madame Cecil laughs.
“Indeed, a surprise.” Mansur says flatly. “I would no doubt be as grateful as Lady Urnan if such a boon fell on my lap.”
“Is your petition for a command in the army not receiving the attention it deserves, Lord Mansur?” She asks innocently.
“There are several candidates, our Duke is carefully considering each of us to select the best. Unfortunately, my lack of previous experience is a disadvantage that I am struggling to overcome.” He admits.
“You must tell me if I can help. Few are as dedicated to the Izla as you are, it would be a loss not to select you for the position, Lord Mansur.” Madame Cecil says.
“Well, there is something…” Mansur’s voice lowers to the point where I can’t hear it anymore.
I wait for a minute, but I hear no more. Madame Cecil must have imitated his tone. Connections, huh. I slowly get up, careful not to move too fast because my dizzy state is making it harder to keep my balance. I walk along the edge, listening closely.
Patrick’s decision to make a move in plain sight might have been the right move, after all. If I go by this discussion, there is so much scheming among Nobility that his moves might just go unnoticed because of all the constant shifts in alliances. That won’t do.
“Hey, you there!” Edusa’s loud voice startles me.
I flip around, she is climbing up to the roof on my left in a hard leather armor. Shit! The soldiers must have reported seeing me in the area. I rush to the other side of the roof without caring about the noise I’m making, focusing on my balance.
“Stop and fight me, Elizabeth Vil!” She shouts.
I ignore her and start assembling two lion’s step constructs. A spike of pain pierces my inner ear, making me stumble. I take a knee, scrapping the two constructs to reassemble them safely.
I glance over my shoulder, Edusa is approaching as fast as she dares, she isn’t holding her sword in hand but her fists are closed. I hop back up to my feet and rush up to the edge, activating the constructs to propel myself over to the next mansion’s roof.
I feel something kick the side of my foot just as I lift off, destabilizing the arc of my jump. I painfully land on my left knee, desperately gripping at the tiles to stop myself from slipping off. Edusa lands on the roof with a mean grin on her lips.
“Fight me.” She says, placing her hand on her sword’s handle.
“I’m not one for pointless bloodshed.” I stand up, ignoring the sharp protests coming from my leg.
“Yea right, I’ve seen your glove, Lady.” She sneers. “I demand a rematch.”
“Don‘t provoke me.” I threaten, taking hold of my hammer behind my back and pulling it out.
Edusa unsheathes her sword, her face turning serious as she falls into a stance. I raise my hammer, assembling four lion’s step constructs. She takes a small step back, her eyes fixed on my shoulders.
I take a deep breath, and dash towards the other end of the roof, passing by her in a flash. Her expression turns baffled as she watches me run away. Each step provokes a spike of pain in my left knee. I grit my teeth and keep going, hammer in hand.
Reaching the border, I activate two constructs and leap forward as far as I can. I land in the middle of the next roof, my leg almost gives way under me. I hear Edusa pursuing behind, following the same route and audibly catching up.
“Coward!” She yells.
I have just enough time, before the next jump, to assemble a strengthening construct and reinforce my damaged articulation. I activate two more lion’s step, projecting my body over the space between manors. I feel a bit better, not as light-headed.
I’ll never lose her if I stay on the roofs. I impact the tiles, take a second to stabilize myself and turn around to receive her if she dares to jump over. Edusa notices in time to stop short of the edge.
“Look, Lady Edusa, I don’t want to fight you.” I speak up, staring into her green eyes. I don’t know how my Lady would react if I accidentally killed this woman. “There is no grudge between us.”
“You humiliated me!” She angrily spits out, looking down. It doesn’t seem aimed at me specifically.
“It was only a duel, it doesn’t mean a thing.” I reply, trying to reason with her.
“You were unarmed.” Lady Edusa frowns. “I’ll redeem myself by defeating you with your weapon tonight, stand and fight me.”
“I won’t.” I shake my head. “If you jump, I’ll smack you down.” I raise my hammer.
“I can wait. Can you?” She asks with a vicious smile, glancing towards the street to her right.
I follow her gaze. There are six men and women making their way down the street in a wedge formation. They are wearing black colored chain-mails, wielding short spears and small bucklers. Their gait is confident but professional as they scrutinize the area. It’s only a matter of time before they look up and spot us in the moonlight.
“Who are they?” I ask, nervous.
“Crows, they have a reputation as deadly mercenaries.” Edusa answers with a raised eyebrow. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard of them.”
“Never seen any before.” I reply, doing my best to appear casual despite urgently needing to escape the area.
“If you promise to duel me, I can show you out.” She proposes, cooling down and sheathing her sword.
My flow reserves are running low. I assemble a lightning construct, less than half left now. I activate it, targeting her sword. The bolt hits the weapon dead on, but it only makes it glow a bright gold color for a second. I stare at her, surprised.
“Your trick isn’t going to work on me.” Lady Edusa grins victoriously, her traits turning soft and youthful again.
“You’re going to keep harassing me until you get what you want, huh.” I groan, finding no easy way out of this.
“Yea.” She says, amused. “You’re more interesting than I thought you would be.”
“Fine. A spar.” I groan.
I step away to let her leap over the space between buildings, assembling a healing construct for my left knee. Edusa jumps over, landing right next to me. She passes by me with a victorious smile on her youthful face.
“Don’t fall behind.” Edusa heads out towards the next roof.
I stay on my guard, hammer in hand as I follow her hopping from mansion to mansion towards the east. We soon reach the end of the block, the one in front of us is composed of houses built closely together with only tiny one meter wide alleyways between them.
Edusa starts climbing down this manor’s wall. I hurry and imitate her, unwilling to trust her not to attack me if she reaches the ground first. I modify the strengthening construct over my left leg to cover both and let go once I’m half-way, absorbing the landing.
“I’ll spar with you some other time.” I speak up over my shoulder, crossing the street to engage into the narrow alleys.
“Wait! That wasn’t what we agreed on!” Edusa calls out, jumping off the wall herself.
I accelerate into a full run, focusing on assembling lion’s step constructs to pick-up in speed. I make random turns between the houses to lose the Noble. I hear her pursuing me but after two consecutive turns, the sounds of her steps grow further away.
“Elizabeth Vil!” She yells out in fury. “Come back and fight me!”
I laugh loudly and keep running, widening the distance. Once I get far enough that I don’t hear her anymore, I slow my pace down into a jog because my left kneecap is starting to intensely hurt.
I emerge out of the alleys and turn south on a small street, feeding flow into my hearing construct. I turn south, hiding in the shadows every time I hear a patrol.
The darkness makes it easy to hide but it slows me down by a lot and I’m starting to feel really hungry. After half an hour of playing hide and seek with people who I’m not even sure are looking for me, I consider taking more risks.
I’m far enough south that there should only be city guards around and they didn’t stop me earlier despite the fact that I was clearly violating the curfew.
I hear a patrol turn at a nearby corner, they’re headed my way. I walk up to a house and press my back against the front door, using the frame to hide from their view.
They pass the crossroad, looking bored and tired. I wait for a minute and head out, laying my hammer on my shoulder so that it can be visible from afar. As I make my way, I spot a few city guards from afar but none stops to pursue me.
I reach the southern part of Meria and its crumbling structures, there’s no one outside but, unlike the deserted city I just passed through, people left their windows open and many are watching the streets with suspicion.
Their gazes usually linger on me for a bit until they see my mask, turning away soon after. I head towards the red district, guided by the noise and music coming out of cord instruments.
The brothel ‘Cecil’s’ has its facade lit up by many torches, the windows on the first floor are wide open and the party seems to be going at full swing inside the main room, full of well-dressed men and women being served drinks by night workers with sexy attires.
I wait for my stomach’s hungry grumble to end before heading inside the brothel. Glad I got here before the festivities escalate and clothes start falling off.
A man dressed in a black and white tight suit walks up to me, he is brawny and relatively good-looking with his blue eyes despite the roughness of his face. His clothes are form-fitting, both his jacket and shirt stop under his ribs, leaving his ripped abdomen bare for clients to admire.
“Welcome to Cecil’s! What can we do for you tonight, my Lady?” He asks.
“A room to eat, with a lot of food.” I reply with a small voice. “Also, please tell Madame Cecil that I’m here when she comes back from her party.”
“Of course, if you’ll follow me.” He bows, extending his arm to point at the stairs.
He takes me to a room on the second floor, opening the door for me. There is a double bed and a small round table with a bouquet of flowers laid on it. I walk in, deciding to avoid the bed, and take a chair to sit down.
I deposit my hammer on the ground and start massaging my left knee, trying to rub the pain away. After a few seconds, I notice that I haven’t heard the door close. I look up to the man. What does he want?
“Anything else I can do for you, my Lady?” He asks, with a hopeful look on his face.
“No?” I incline my head sideways, puzzled. Oh, he must be implying that I have yet to pay. “How much do I owe you for the room and a triple food serving?”
“Four silvers.” He replies, with a disappointed expression. I blink a few times, wondering why he would be, maybe I’m being a bit rude.
“The room is nice.” I add politely. “Thank you.”
“It’s our pleasure, my Lady. I’ll be right back with your meal.” He makes a thin, tight, smile and departs, closing the door behind himself.
I fully extend my left leg in front of me, kneading the thigh to help my muscles relax and lose tension. I sigh a little, letting myself lay back in the chair.
The music coming up from downstairs is entrancing but sounds melancholic to me. My Lady… A knock on the door interrupts my thought.
“Your meal, my Lady.” The man speaks up.
He walks in and lays a silver platter on the table. The plate is large, filled to the brim with a stew that smells like potatoes and beef. I take four silvers out of my pouch and lay them on the platter, taking hold of the plate in exchange.
“Thank you, my Lady. Anything else?” He asks.
“No, this is fine.” I reply, taking hold of the fork and leaning over the plate to savor the odor before digging in.
He bows and steps out, closing the door. I shift my mask sideways to take a test bite, I recognize the taste of red wine in the sauce. This is a bit too hot. As I blow on the stew I think back to the Crows, the mercenaries that were apparently sent after me.
A lot of people saw me walk in this establishment, some no doubt connected to mainlanders. I shouldn’t stay in this room. I pick up the plate and open the door, looking left and right, the corridor is empty. I step out, closing it behind me.
I make my way towards the staircase, puffing on my food as I go. I head upstairs, stepping lightly. Everyone must be downstairs, or in a room. I keep going until I reach the top floor. Pushing on the door to Cecil’s office, finding it closed.
Hm. I press my left hand over the handle and start applying pressure. The wood groans but seems to be otherwise holding. I assemble a strengthening construct over the limb, the door’s protests grow louder. I take a bite of stew as I think up a solution. Let’s test the limb’s limit.
I focus on the individual segments, tuning them to feed more flow into the string-like muscles, augmenting the power little by little at the expense of bone reinforcement. The door frame finally gives and the lock is ripped out of its thick wooden socket.
My arm didn’t send me any painful signals like the one when it was stabbed. Rykz bones are perhaps tougher than ours.
I push all the shards that fell off inside the room with my foot and close the door, inspecting the frame. It looks fine from this side, just a tiny crack near the destroyed lock socket, but it isn’t obvious.
I close the door. Yea, no problem. I open it again and step inside, I then push it shut behind me. Ah, crap, it’s moving a tiny bit along with the natural air flow. I take the stool in the bathroom and block the door with it.
There are two piles of letters on the desk, one for those with wax seals, the other for those secured with a piece of string. I take a sit in Cecil’s armchair, laying the plate between the piles. I start going through the sealed letters out of curiosity while blowing on the stew.
One of them has a lance intertwined within a stag’s antlers. I recognize it as my Lady‘s crest. I break the wax seal without thinking twice about it. The letter is short and written in cursive. Each letter was drawn delicately in black ink and with obvious care.
‘From Countess Leomi Lance,
I promise a consequent reward in gold to any who can provide me with any information about a woman of about a hundred and sixty centimeters tall, a single right arm, messy black hair, and black eyes. She may respond to the name: Jessica. She is not to be harmed under any circumstance, contact me directly if you find her, without delay.‘
The letter is signed and there is a drop of wax with her seal at the bottom. The void inside my heart shakes, roaring in delight. I tap my chest lightly to tell it to calm down, a grin on my face. I did hook her good after all.
I take my mask off and lay it over the message, getting started on the stew while I think about what to do about the letter. I can’t get rid of it, Cecil will undoubtedly notice, besides I forced the door so she’ll go through her stuff to make an inventory. I shouldn’t try to dupe a truth artist, as she called herself, it sounds like a recipe for disaster.
This stew is awesome. I savor the meal, humming in content. Thinking of duping, I find it coincidental that this letter was here, just a few letters in the pile. Paranoia or healthy doubt?
My Lady would have sent these letters out as soon as she could, I doubt Madame Cecil would have only gotten hold of one now. Did she leave it here as bait for me? To what end? No, I can’t see a point to that or any way for her to predict that I would force my way into her office.
Perhaps she never received a letter herself but heard of Lance‘s search a week or more ago when these would have been written.
She has enough information to piece the puzzle together, between the Lordling, my hidden left arm, and how Elizabeth Vil behaved towards Lady Lance. Cecil procured herself a copy of it because that’s what she would do to confirm her suspicions.
I hear light steps climbing the stairs and lay my feet on the desk to appear more confident. I lay the plate between my thighs and stomach to get down to finishing this marvelous beef stew.