A metal key scrapes against the lock, opening it with a pleasant, dull clunk. I stab a small piece of meat with the fork and bite down on it, taking my time to enjoy the delicate flavor of the cooked red wine sauce.
The door’s hinges squeal as it is pushed open, Madame Cecil takes a single step over the threshold before stopping. She looks down, noticing the wooden shards on the floor, she then inspects the frame, finding the lock’s destroyed socket.
Madame Cecil doesn’t even pause, she walks in without hesitating and directs her gaze at my feet on the desk. Her hair are arranged in a sophisticated manner and she has a small flowery brochure over her pale yellow dress.
“Did you have to break my door?” She asks, frowning. “This is was a very expensive lock, how did you even…” She sighs. “Never mind. How are you?”
“Injured, knee, shoulder, and right side.” I shrug, biting down on another mouthful. “Probably going to rest for a few days before making my next move. Did you send the messenger?”
“I sent a group of three. It won’t cost more, they are to scout the state of the Izla under Rykz occupation.” Madame Cecil makes her way over to the chair on the other side of the desk and sits down. “Lady Edusa was quite persistent, she wanted to know where she could find you.”
“This isn’t the time to play around.” I groan.
“She’s a young and proud Lady, it’s not a game for her. You will offend her if you treat it as such and she’ll pursue you even more aggressively.” She says, amused.
“Doesn’t she have responsibilities?” I ask as Cecil takes her heel shoes off and lets them drop on the wooden floor.
“Not right now. Lady Edusa is attached to the third cavalry regiment. As long as the truce lasts, she’s free to do as she wishes.” She replies with a small smile.
“Ugh.” I groan. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
I make use of the lull in the conversation to take my legs off the desk and finish my stew. Madame Cecil doesn’t seem to mind as she starts rubbing her feet, visibly relaxing.
“I saw mercenaries, ‘Crows‘ Edusa called them. She seemed to imply that they were sent after me, do you know anything about that?” I ask.
“No. I know them as a group operating in this region of the Empire and that some are in Meria but not that they were ordered to pursue you.” She answers. “I could look into it. I don’t think the Duke would appreciate that the mercenaries he’s paying for are taking side jobs in his city and against his interests.”
“Please do.” I nod. I notice a small change in her traits and raise my hand to interrupt her. “I’m not going to pay for that, Cecil. I have no doubt that this information is valuable by itself since you seem to think that the Duke doesn’t know. ”
“I only wanted to ask something benign in return.” She closes her mouth, pouting.
“Sure.” I roll my eyes. “Like this letter?” I ask, picking up my mask to reveal my Lady’s missive that I hid under it.
“Ah.” Her expression turns from playful to serious in an instant. “I keep myself up to date, you understand.”
“This was sent out a week ago, Cecil. I thought we agreed that you would keep what you know about me to yourself.” I squint and stare into her deep black eyes.
“I am keeping your secrets.” She replies, looking offended that I would suggest otherwise. “This is simple curiosity, Elizabeth, Jezebel, Jessica.” She adds with a wicked grin that looks out of place on her usually elegant face.
“Great.” I sigh. “You were going to ask about the arm.” I close my left hand into a fist, making the leather crack. “This is off-limits, Cecil. And don’t take it as a confirmation that I am the same person as this Jessica.”
“Fine.” She grunts, laying her feet on the table. “Tell me more about your plans with Lord Patrick’s newly created faction.”
“I’d like you to look into something in exchange.” I reply, pushing my empty plate aside to lay my elbows on her desk. “There may be four mercenaries working for the Rykz inside Meria, I want you to look for them.”
“Wouldn’t you know if there were?” She asks, blinking.
“They ran away and left me in a tight spot, one of my companions died as an indirect result of their cowardice. The Rykz Princess wouldn’t have sent us together again. But if they tried to get paid, which I am certain they would, that same Princess wouldn’t think twice about using what they did to pressure them into another mission.” I explain. “Their names are Hurb, Hastia, Lilib, and Jacub.”
“That’s not much to go by.” She complains. “I’ll try, now tell me.”
“I don’t have any elaborate plans. I’m going to give Patrick some time to gather how forces and then leak his faction’s purpose, hopefully, that will cause some chaos, lower the public’s opinion of Nobility even more.”
“The city is growing restless already, there are rumors going around that the Rykz are much more numerous than reported with Baron Kruger’s arrest.” Madame Cecil winks. “I can drop hints around about this, place myself in a position to take advantage of the fallout when Lord Patrick’s faction implodes.”
“Give it some time, the point is to weaken Nobility’s prestige, not gain a political foothold.” I shake my head. “Remember that none of this will matter when the Rykz get here, we need to do loosen their control over Meria before the city unites to defend itself.” Besides, watching these arrogant high-born tear themselves apart is half the fun. “Once the populace loses trust in their rulers, I’ll threaten to break the truce to force them to negotiate.”
“I understand.” Madame Cecil nods. “I’ll be discreet, I know how to play the game without getting in your way.”
Feeling pain in my left knee, I lay back in the armchair and extend my leg under the desk. What am I, an old woman?! I groan.
“Bit of a random question, do healing constructs purge poison?” I ask, remembering how I got hurt.
“They filter some toxins out of the blood, yes, but I wouldn’t expect it to handle more than small amounts.” She replies, unfazed. “The construct being taught now was developed quite recently by the University in reaction to the plague that ravaged Kruzser two hundred years ago so it works on the most common diseases and poisons.”
“Recently?” I scoff.
“Well, it took a hundred years to improve on the previous healing construct, it was released to the public fifty years ago.” She shrugs.
Hm. I rub my right side, the wound is closed but still sensitive. It returns an odd tickling feeling when I brush against it. Not pleasant sensation, one of vulnerability. My mind naturally turns to my Lady.
“Do you know where Countess Lance resides?” I ask.
“Currently in the guest wing of the Duke’s castle, I’ve heard that she sold the late Count’s mansion in Meria.” Madame Cecil replies.
“Do you know a way to get in and out of there unnoticed?” I lean over on the desk, intently staring at her.
“Possibly, but we’ll both be in serious trouble if you get caught spying.” She replies shaking her head.
“How would you?” I press her.
“Get you into a dress, mask your face with a construct, and walk in.” Madame Cecil replies. “But that’s the first thing they’ll check if you’re seen somewhere you shouldn’t be.”
“You can do that?” I ask, excited. “Is the construct noticeable?”
“You apply the illusion over the glow, it takes finagling. I don’t think you should get your hopes up, the castle is heavily guarded at all times.”
“Forget about that, it was just an idea. Can you anchor one of those constructs on my mask? How long would it last? Can you make it trigger if the mask is taken off?” I hurriedly question her.
“Yes, a week, yes.” She answers. “Only if you tell me your real name.” She adds with a grin.
“Ah.” I pause, thinking.
Cecil already has most of the puzzle figured out, all I would be admitting to by telling her my name is that my left arm is a reward from the Rykz, no more. Although that could be problematic in itself, she only has a suspicion, for now, if I confirm it she’ll wonder why I’m hiding the limb under a sleeve glove.
“No.” I reply shaking my head. “I’ll tell you a secret though, one that you can sell or use.”
“What kind?” She asks, a glimmer of interest in her eyes.
“The University found a way to trick Rykz drones by using their own pheromones against them. One of them makes them think you’re friendly while the other wipes out all traces, ‘tracking’ and ‘enemy’ markings alike. The Templar Order in Meria should have a stock of vials in their Temple since Exemplar Vikiana had some.” I say, observing the changes on Cecil’s face as she calculates what she can do with this.
“How widespread is this knowledge?” She asks.
“Not at all, only the upper crust of Nobility should be aware.” I make a wide smirk before continuing on. “I even have an exclusive bit of information for you on this, depending on what you’re willing to give me in exchange…”
“What do you want?” Madame Cecil squints her eyes, suspicious.
“Too bad, I hoped you would suggest something yourself.” I sigh.
“I’m not that easy to trick.” She smiles.
“I want you to spread rumors about my background from Telnur, doesn’t matter what since I’ll deny it all anyway but I want it to be believable. Also, no more digging around for my identity.” I assemble a fire construct on my Lady’s letter and set it ablaze.
“That’s a deal if what you have to say is worth it.” Madame Cecil nods quickly, eagerness visible on her face.
“This information comes straight out of a Princess’ mo… ovaloid resounding head.” I giggle at my misstep. “The pheromones work on this Rykz army but it won’t last for long. The Queens will adapt the next generations of drones until they stop being affected.” I explain.
“How long could that take?” Cecil asks.
“Not very, it’s their language, they know much more about it than we do. After all, we use crests and passwords, they would only need to add something similar to make this trick useless.” I shrug. “No one else should be aware that the Rykz are already working on countering the University’s pheromones.”
“Revealing this could create a rift between small Nobility and the Templar Order, they’d ask for the vials and be offended when turned away.” Cecil mutters, thinking out loud. “Better, I could tell Master Amand directly and say that I got it directly from you. No, this is important enough that I could request a private meeting. Just getting into his office would put me on the current political map.”
“Sounds exciting.” I deadpan. “I’m tired, if you don’t mind…” I say, pointing at my mask.
“Oh sure. I need to think on all of this anyway.” She grabs the wooden mask and gathers a ball of golden glowing flow in her hand. “Conditional triggers are difficult to set up so I’m not going to layer a second one that verifies who takes the mask off, once you activate the construct it’ll trigger whether you’re the one removing it or someone else is.”
“That’s fine.” I nod. “Is it complicated?” I ask, seeing her focusing on the shaping of the segments.
“Yes.” She frowns, concentrating on a thin rectangular segment as she changes its size. “What do you want to look like?”
“Don’t care, just change the shape of my face but not my eye color.” I reply.
“I’ll make you pretty instead of cute, but it’ll look a bit rough because I’m not confident enough to sculpt precise details.” She says with a smile, applying the construct on the inside of the mask. “This is usually used as a supplement to makeup, not to disguise an entire face, so it won’t last very long with the amount of flow I put in.”
“That’s fine, I’ll fuel it myself.” I tell her, standing up.
“There, done.” She hands it over.
I take the mask off her hands, on the inside is a golden glowing construct with many of the thin segments spread over the surface, especially a large one over where my nose would me and another around my chin. I suppose Cecil put one over every trait that the construct needs to alter.
“How does it work?” I ask, picking up my hammer.
“Same as makeup except with light.” She shrugs, getting to her feet to accompany me to her office’s door. “You shouldn’t sleep in that room you rented, half the city knows you’re here by now.”
“I didn’t plan to. Don’t forget to spread those rumors.” I tell her, passing through the door and setting the mask on my face.
“I’ll get started on that tonight.” She replies, closing the door behind me.
I hear her swear a second later and the sound of a stool being used to block the door. I manage to keep my amused laughter under control with an effort. I make my way downstairs, doing my best to keep my eyes down when I cross the main-room, allowing me to step over the many pieces of clothing laying on the floor.
Once outside, I make my way north towards the abandoned building where I left my chest and gear. As I walk, I inspect the intricate illusion construct that Cecil just assembled over my mask, finding it much too complicated to copy.
I can’t absorb the construct inside my body to view it in its entirety since it’s anchored to the mask and I don’t want to risk destabilizing it. I know where to start to adjust the segments anyway.
I reach the border between the southern shady part of Meria and the better-maintained center, taking a left along the street separating them to look for the place I’m squatting.
A dozen city guards spot me from a crossroad in the distance, throwing me looks. They resume patrolling a few seconds later. It takes me ten minutes to find my abandoned building, but I don’t enter it immediately.
I sneak into a shadowy alley and crouch in the shadows, enhancing my hearing with a construct. I wait like that, without moving despite the strain it puts on my left knee, just to make sure that no one is following me.
After a few interminable minutes, I hear hurried steps pass by the alley as two lightweight humans accelerate. They’re communicating in urgent whispers, I can’t quite understand the words but that tone tells me everything I need to know. They don’t know where I am.
I gather my patience, settling on spending at least half an hour hunkered down and immobile, just to be sure. I roughly count the seconds as I wait to have something to do. I lose my count around three thousand again, I don’t know how many times that makes since I lost the count of that too.
Should be long enough by now, I haven’t heard any more pursuers apart from the two earlier. I get up to my feet and walk along my abandoned building in the alley, looking for one of the windows that doesn’t have flaps anymore.
Finding one, I pass over the frame one leg at a time. I then silently make my way to the room where I left my chest. I lay my hammer against a wall and get rid of the tight leather outfit, putting the mask away inside the chest.
I pick the torn shirt that I used to bandage my shoulder to clean the dust off the floorboards. Once done, I lay my back down on it and assemble two healing constructs. I anchor one to the crack on my shoulder’s bones and another to the cut on my right side that is still healing, I refill the one over my knee with flow because it’s about to run out and put the rest of my reserves into Cecil’s construct on my mask.
I close my eyes. I should stay hidden and give myself time to heal. But I need to find food.
— — —
I wake up early to the sound of carriages progressing over the street, their metal rimmed wheels make a lot of noise as they roll over the pavement’s stone dust.
A tiny ray of sun is leaking through the window flaps, brightening the room. I can hear many people in the streets despite the fact that I hadn’t seen that many people in this part of Meria before. An effect of the curfew, I suppose, people want to get out after spending so much time confined to their homes.
I get up, taking care not to strain my left knee. I pick up my hammer and start training my lion strikes. I spend a couple of hours refining my assembling speed and stances.
I start feeling hunger and decide to head out. I go through the chest and take my hard leather armor out, fitting it on. I gather a pile of broken wood planks and use them to dissimulate my chest and hammer. I head out, using path that I used to enter last night to go out since the alley is deserted.
There are a few dozen people on the street passing by my abandoned building, they’re huddled in groups and discussing. I don’t pay too much attention until I engage on the main street, noticing that the crowd here is oddly static compared to how busy I’ve seen it in the last two days.
But with my stomach’s imperiously demanding to be fed, I don’t stop to ask, making my way towards Alana’s tavern at a fast walking pace.