I engage on the ladder, observing Edusa’s dissatisfied face as I go down. I’m not surprised that my Lady attracted this young Noble, she seems naive and eager to prove herself. I hop down to the floor, landing in an attic.
There is a source of light behind me, allowing me to see the various cupboards and crates stored in the clean room. I turn to find the light, ending up nose to nose with my Lady. My breath catches in my lungs and I lose myself in the abyss of her light gray eyes.
“Lady Elizabeth.” She says in a low tone. Her stare is fixed on my helmet, squinting. I have the feeling that the dried blood is bothering her. “Lady Edusa.” She turns to the youth as she engages on the ladder.
I open my mouth but my Lady’s frowning expression dissuades me from speaking up. She is wearing a chain-mail and hard leather armor reinforced with metal bands.
“Lady Lance, we were…” Edusa starts, glancing down at us.
“Fighting, after I forbid you to do so.” She coldly cuts her off. “You know that they’re only waiting for an excuse to break the truce! How can you be so irresponsible? Have you not listened to a word I’ve said about the consequences of your actions?” My Lady utters rapidly, bombarding her.
Edusa skips over the last two ladder rungs. She turns to face Lance, looking down in shame.
“It was only to first blood.” She mutters.
“And you!” My Lady ignores her to glare at me. “You should know better than to accept.”
“I didn’t!” I protest, taking a step back. “Well, I did, but it was to shake her off.” I add, lowering my chin.
My Lady raises her hand. I flinch, bringing my shoulders together despite myself. But she only uses her slender fingers to push a strand of straight black hair behind her ear, sighing.
“Why are you here Elizabeth?” She asks me gently.
“I wanted to see you.” I reply without thinking.
My Lady blinks a few times, my answer surprises her as much as it does me. I impulsively intercept her hand as it comes down from arranging her hair, taking hold of it. Her cheeks redden a little as she looks at me.
“Hey!” Edusa steps between us, breaking our hands apart. I throw her a dark glare, in sync with the void’s roaring in my heart. “You said you wanted to talk to her, not flirt.” She stares back.
“About what, Je… Elizabeth?” She asks, stumbling on the name.
The slip throws a cold shower on my heating feelings and I step away, focusing back on my task. I need to act offended, not that I have to force myself with her.
“I’ve told you before, Lance, I am not her.” I utter, heading towards the stairs at the back of the attic immediately after.
“Wait! Elizabeth, I’m sorry!” She calls out.
I ignore her words, hurrying down the flight of stairs with my hammer on my shoulder. I run into two Lords at the bottom, one of the I recognize as the one who gave me a thumbs up back in the forest with Teva, after the Nobles tried to ambush the Princesses.
The other I’ve never seen before. They both look in their late twenties, about the same height and lean muscular frames. I walk past them, barely waiting for them to step aside since they don’t seem threatening, simply baffled to see me come down the stairs.
“Elizabeth!” My Lady says as she hurriedly catches up.
I stop in the middle of the hallway, turning around, seeing Edusa join the other two Nobles to the side.
“What have you been doing these past few days?” I ask sharply.
“Supervising our defenses.” She replies hesitantly. “Why?”
“Because of last night.” I pause and take a deep breath to cool myself. “Count Odo ordered the expulsion of thousands of civilians and seized their homes with your Duke’s blessing.”
“What?! Why haven’t I heard about this?” My Lady exclaims, her cheeks turning pale.
“You‘re being used as a figurehead to rally support but your naive ideals are a thorn in their side, they’re playing you as a fool.” I spit out, pressing her to see the truth. “Setting you aside when it fits them, and calling you back when they need your image to disguise their corruption.”
“I, Duke Meria wouldn’t…” She stutters.
“She’s right, I heard of it this morning.” Edusa whispers.
“Why didn’t you tell me?!” My Lady snaps and flips around, almost shouting.
“They said that Count Odo has the Duke’s permission. I’m sorry, I didn’t think it through.” Edusa looks away.
“We’re going to the castle, now!” My Lady turns back to me, her expression is difficult to read as it shifts from guilt to sadness and then to resolve, she takes a step forward in my direction.
“Not now you aren’t.” I extend my left hand out to block her way. The two Lords at the bottom of the stairs tense a little in reaction. “They’re organizing themselves to appeal to the Templar Order, you can add your voice to theirs later. We have a bigger problem than that right now.”
“What’s more urgent than that?” She frowns.
“The architect, Mathew, that was killed yesterday. Was he carrying schematics detailing Meria’s water supply?” I ask and my Lady nods in response. “I suspect a group of four mercenaries are responsible for the murder and stole the plans to find which wells they need to poison.”
“How do you know that?” Her eyes look to the opening in my helmet.
“I worked with them to breach your Castle’s walls, they suggested that method then.” I reply coldly.
I notice Edusa and the other two Nobles draw their swords from the corner of my field of vision, keeping my eyes fixed on my Lady who doesn’t seem surprised.
“Stand down, I knew.” She raises her slender hand. “I received the reports, Lady Elizabeth is the reason the town wasn’t burnt down to a crisp.”
“You shouldn’t have this much faith in me, Lance, I’m not her.” I grunt, baffled at how she seems to be convincing herself more and more that I’m me.
“Regardless.” Lance shakes her head. “Military wells are guarded and not so easy to approach or mess with. We’ve also doubled the number of soldiers assigned to the task when Mathew was murdered. A group of four mercenaries wouldn’t be able to poison a well without being noticed.”
“They’re after something else, then.” I say. I don’t know enough about Meria to just guess. “What could those schematics tell them?” I ask.
“Don’t know.” My Lady throws a look over her shoulder. “The three of you, go report this to Commander Morgan. What do they look like?” She glances back at me.
“Hurb, Lilib, Hastia, and Jacub. I wouldn’t know how to describe them, Hastia is taller than Lilib and Jacub, but smaller than Hurb. They’re from Telnur and don’t really have distinctive traits that I can recall.” I reply.
“You’re not coming with us, Countess?” Lady Edusa questions worriedly.
“I am not.” She answers with finality. “This is an order, I expect you to report this and come back with solutions.”
“Lady Lance, I formally protest. She isn’t trustworthy of her own admission.” The Lord I don’t know says.
“Let’s go, they need to talk.” The other Lord pats him on the shoulder, pushing him forward.
I step aside to let them both pass, Edusa hesitates, still looking abashed from my Lady’s rebukes and criticism. She finally makes up her mind and follows the other two, glaring at me as she goes.
“We should go with them, look for these mercenaries.” I speak up, suddenly nervous about being alone with my Lady, my heart beat accelerates and I feel my resolve loosen.
“We’ll think about it after you get cleaned up.” She replies.
She steps into my personal space and takes hold of my left hand, too suddenly for me to react. She then heads towards a door at the end of the hallway, pulling me behind her.
I follow along, flustered by her actions, by how unguarded she is acting. How can she just accept my part in the loss of her castle? She turns the handle and guides me through a richly decorated living room towards another room.
“What do you mean by cleaned up?” I ask, finally catching up with her words as she opens the door to a bathroom.
“The blood.” My Lady answers, making me sit on a stool right next to a copper bathtub with a golden faucet. “Here, let me.”
She turns it open, I hear water flow through the pipes and into the tub. She extends her hands towards my helmet. I let go of my hammer and raise my own to intercept her wrists.
“No.” I utter firmly.
“Okay.” She makes a thin smile, slipping a hand behind her back and taking the dagger that she stole from me out, sitting down on the edge of the tub.
I watch, unsure about her intentions, finding no aggression on the beautiful sharp traits of her face. She takes hold of my left limb with her other hand, guiding it under the pouring water. I feel the skin absorb some water as it infiltrates through the leather.
My Lady starts using the knife to scrape the dried blood off of my sleeve glove, pulling my hard leather armor’s sleeve up until the entire stain is revealed. I find myself caught as I observe her actions, mesmerized by the sight of her so gently taking care of me and unable to tear my eyes away.
The knife’s blade shaves more and more flakes of blood away and they start accumulating inside the tub, floating over the water that slowly takes a red hue. I can see the concentration on her face, how focused her light gray abysmal eyes are on the task.
I feel my desire to kiss her as an ache in my heart. I start to unconsciously lean forward towards her lips, the movement itself awakens me from my daze.
Fuck! I can’t let myself be caught in her rhythm. She‘s dangerous. I straighten my sitting position on the stool and force myself to look away from her gorgeous figure.
I clear my throat, furiously thinking of something to say that would cover the enthralling sound of my Lady’s dagger scraping against the leather and give me something other than the fact that she’s taking care of me to focus on.
“What happened?” She speaks up, still gazing at the glove. Catching me off guard once again.
“I killed.” I admit in a shaking voice, feeling a ball of guilt form inside my throat.
“To defend yourself?” She questions. I pay close attention, finding no accusation in her tone or expression. I stop myself from sighing in relief.
“Does it matter?” I ask, desperate to hear her opinion.
“It does, Elizabeth, you have a right to preserve your own life. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” My Lady replies firmly, turning to give me a comforting smile.
My breath is growing short and heavy at the simple sight of the bright expression on her face. She turns my limb around and starts cleaning the underside of my forearm, looking back down to follow her work.
I feel tears of relief roll down my eyes, glad that my helmet is dissimulating how weak I truly am from her. I watch the movements that she makes, removing the blood from my limb, freely letting my grief out as I bask in the moment but taking care not to let a single sob escape me.
My Lady finishes her task just as I calm down. She puts the knife away behind her back to start using both hands to rub the sleeve glove under the faucet, washing away the remaining blood that permeates the material. The bathtub is now half filled with bright red water and the smell of wet leather fills the bathroom.
“I’ll let you wash your helmet by yourself since you don’t want to take it off.” She tells me, as the sleeve glove’s leather returns to its natural dark brown color.
“Okay.” I reflexively reply.
My Lady runs her fingers along the length of my arm, intensely scrutinizing it. I hurriedly pull it away, fearing that she would detect something unusual about it.
“Don’t linger.” She adds, standing up to leave the room and closing the door behind herself.
“Thanks you, Lance.” I speak up, carefully articulating every sound.
She doesn’t reply. I take my mask off from my belt, using a cloth to scrub the traces of blood from the wood. I then take a deep breath and switch it with my helmet, just in case she breaks her word again.
It takes a while to get rid of all the blood that stuck to the metal but the metal is smooth under it so it isn’t too difficult to separate the red layer. Once done, I fit the helmet back on and tie the mask back to my belt.
I get up from the stool, keeping a hand on it to steady myself. This is all to get even, I can’t forget the vow she broke and the revenge I swore. I walk up to the door, taking a few seconds to calm my breathing.
I make sure that my helmet is set right over my head and grit my teeth, setting my hand on the handle, turning it open, and stepping into the living room in one fluid movement that doesn’t leave me with enough time to second guess myself.
My Lady isn’t there. I stop on the spot, caught by surprise by her absence. The crackling sound of a fire emerge from a room on the other side. I make my way to that door, knocking on it.
“Lance?” I timidly call out.
“One, shit!” I hear a dull clang sound. “One moment!”
Worried, I lay my hand on the handle and push the door open. Discovering my Lady in front of a large cast iron stove. She is rapidly shaking her left hand up and down as one does when burned, holding a pan with her other one.
“Are you okay?!” I panic and hurry over to her side.
“It’s just a small burn, don’t worry.” She shrugs, intently staring at the pan.
I follow her gaze, finding a dozen eggs cooking inside. Half of the yellows are broken and there are tiny bits of shell visible on the surface. I can’t help but snort the sight.
“Did you throw the whole eggs in?” I ask, giggling.
“Of course not!” She replies, hurt.
“Then how did that happen?” I point at an entire half shell buried under egg white.
“I’m not sure.” My Lady groans as I explode in laughter.
I make my way to a cupboard and open drawers until I find a fork. I then take her place at the stove and imperiously point her towards the dishes with the utensil.
“Set the table.” I tell her.
I endeavor to remove the bits of shell as best as I can, breaking a few more yellows as I do. Once satisfied, I take the pan off and extinguish the stove’s fire construct. I make my way into the living room.
My Lady set two plates with knives and forks on the table. I serve the eggs, taking two-thirds for myself. I sit down in front of my plate, spotting her raised eyebrow.
“You made too many for two and I’m really hungry.” I say, shrugging.
“I meant to ask about how you’re going to eat.” She replies. “I was just going to bring it to you in the bathroom.”
“Ah.” I cough, embarrassed. “Look away.”
She gracefully obeys, turning around in her chair. I quickly put the helmet down on the table and take my mask out, setting it sideways on my face, leaving only my mouth visible. I lower my chin and lean forwards over the plate as a precaution.
“Alright, let’s eat!” I exclaim happily, digging in without waiting.
“Enjoy.” My Lady replies with a smile.
I pause with the fork half-way up to my mouth. Enjoy? Why say that? What’s in there? I let go of the utensil and stand up so violently that the chair is projected back, hitting the ground. I adjust the mask over my face and step back.
“What did you do to the food?” I ask, moving back towards the bathroom where I left my hammer.
“Noth… I didn’t do anything, Elizabeth.” She tells me with a worried expression, standing up in turn.
“I don‘t believe you.” I utter coldly, hurrying into the room and grabbing my weapon, turning around just as she arrives.
“I swear, Elizabeth, the food isn’t drugged.” My Lady speaks up with a point of desperation in her voice.
“Doesn‘t matter, not touching it.” I reply, moving forward and forcing her back.
“It matters to me that you believe what I tell you.” She tells me with a pained expression.
“I‘ve heard plenty about what your word is worth from your last sweetheart.” She stumbles backward, paling. “You’ve spent the entire time convinced that I’m her, I can tell. What does it say about you?”
“J… Elizabeth… please.” She stutters, tears forming at the corner of her eyes.
I walk past my Lady, double stepping towards the exit. I hear her run after me, gripping the back of my chain-mail and stopping me.
“How can I make it up to you?” She asks with a trembling voice.
I‘ll be taking care of that, don‘t you worry. I turn around, finding a distressed expression on her face. I grin behind my mask, enjoying it on some level while feeling the void pang in my heart.
I notice my helmet on the table. I walk past her, using the fact that she‘s behind me to take my mask off and fit it back on.
“You can deal with the rebel faction rising up in your backyard.” I tell her, securing the mask to my belt before looking back to her.
“What?” My Lady asks, taken by surprise. Either by the abrupt change in subject or the information itself.
“Nobles approached me, tried to make a deal.” I lie.
“How long ago?” She asks, quickly wiping her tears and turning serious.
“Few days.” I answer, somewhat baffled by her ability to just do that.
“You’re only telling me now?!” She exclaims, anger painting over her sharp traits. She takes a deep breath and calms down. “Alright, okay. I’m sorry I yelled.” I frown, dissatisfied by how easily she seems to be able to control herself.
“Why? Why are you just letting it go? Is it because of your duty to maintain the truce?” I ask.
“Duty.” She spits out. “My duty would be to throw you out of Meria.” She takes a breath. “Do you think me a fool? I can tell that you’re not as innocent as you pretend to be about the rise of this rebel faction.”
“Then why?” I repeat myself, annoyed.
“…” She opens her mouth but immediately closes it.
“Ah, her again.” I utter, encountering no difficulty in making my voice sound angry. I feel the grin on my lips widen alongside the tear in my heart as the void demands a kiss while my resolve remains set on revenge. “Can‘t get rid of her, can I?” I add wickedly.
“Please, Elizabeth. Work with me, together we have a better chance of saving the Izla. I can tell that you’re trying to help, but rooting those disloyal elements out is a setback, it hurts Meria.” My Lady argues.
What? That’s what she thinks I did this for?
“You want me to help you convince the population to willingly hand over their homes, pick up arms and be slaughtered to stop an invasion caused by your own? By Noble greed?” I giggle at the thought. “I won‘t be another pawn in the Duke’s game.”