Aisha bows and makes her way out of the office with discrete steps. Cecil taps her chin, thinking about my request. I stand, laying my hand on the desk and stare her in the eye.
“Meria is not going to hold, Cecil. You have to accept that and stop calculating your moves so carefully.” I argue.
“This exposes me, Elizabeth.” She sighs. “Let me think about it while you clean up.” She says, staring at the side of my head.
I run my fingers through my hair, finding sticky strands around the wound that the Templar Master left me. I can’t help the grin that forms on my lips at the memory of my Lady defending me from him. I hope she won’t get into trouble for that.
I head to the bathroom and wash my hair in the tub, weaving a healing construct over the wound. I then cover the injury by arranging my hair over it. I sit back down in front of Cecil.
“I will spread the word, but you should know that this is going to make the situation even harder to control.” She finally tells me.
“That’s the point, I can’t do anything if half the city is after me. I’m putting some pressure on Nobility.” I reply. “Do you know how Lord Patrick escaped? He couldn’t have broken through the encirclement.”
“There are old secret passages, that’s a possibility. Or he simply paid some of the Duke’s men to let him go.” Cecil says.
“Fuck. Those schematics would have been useful.” I swear.
“He isn’t the only one that disappeared during the battle, Baron Kruger and a few others weren’t found either.” She adds.
“When is the arbitration?” I ask, talking about the peasants who were thrown out of their own homes by Count Odo’s men.
“All I know is that Master Amand received the plaintiffs yesterday morning.” She replies.
I hear someone climb the stairs to the office with heavy steps and a hurried pace. A moment later, Lady Roisia barges into the room with a small piece of paper in hand. She rushes up to Madame Cecil to hand it over.
“The Rykz army was spotted out west this morning, exiting the forest.” She says without waiting for Cecil to read it. “A hundred and fifty thousand of them, dragging thousands of logs.”
Am I already out of time?! No, they’re carrying wood because they’ll need siege weapons to get up on these walls.
“How far are they?” I ask.
“A day or two.” Roisia answers. “We’ll have enough time to redeploy some of our northern and southern catapults along the western wall.”
So I have a few days, maybe a small week ahead of me, to figure something out and execute it. That’s not enough.
“You need to leave the city now, Mo… Madame Cecil.” Roisia continues.
“We’ve been over this already, Lady Urnan.” Cecil says in a tired voice, shaking her head. “I’ve sacrificed too much to get where I am, I will not throw it all away now.”
“What can you do?! This is senseless, you are a civilian!” She objects. “Look at who you’re associating with! You should know better than to get involved in the volatile conflict between Duke Meria and Count Odo.”
“That’s interesting. You think I work for the Duke?” I ask.
“Don’t you? Your infatuation with Lady Lance is all over Meria, and she is loyal to the Duke.” She replies, glaring. “You even helped the Duke get rid of the rebels.”
“Perhaps, but aren’t both the Duke and the Order looking to question me?” I say.
“It’s a smoke screen, Duke Meria has no choice but to say so because the Templars want to speak to you, get all the facts. If he truly wanted to arrest you, there would be soldiers all over the streets, knocking at doors.” Roisia dismisses, turning to the Madame. “At least make sure that you have a place on a transport for Port-Odo, just in case.”
“Enough, Roisia.” Cecil groans. “Thank you for bringing this to me, but I am not abandoning Meria.”
“Wait, what about the Templars, are they looking for me?” I question.
“Don’t know, I crossed paths with Master Amand when I left the castle so he isn’t right now.” Roisia shrugs.
“Was he alone?” Cecil asks, squinting her eyes.
“No, he was escorting a dozen low-born. Why?” She asks impatiently.
“Because Count Odo kicked thousands of people out of their homes with the Duke’s permission. Their representatives asked the Templars to intervene.” I reply absently, thinking it through. “Fuck. This is the worst timing possible, there is no way he’ll accept with his house in disorder and looking weak. I need to go, Cecil, depending on what comes out of that audience, it may trigger a riot.”
“Templars will move to arrest you if they catch you in the streets.” She warns me.
“I promised that I would help defuse the situation, I intend to keep my word.” I reply. “Besides, no one benefits from a clash.”
“I can take you in my carriage.” Roisia proposes, looking at me with an odd look on her face. “I think that I understand why Lady Lance gets along with you so well.”
“I’ll take you up on that offer, Lady Roisia.” I say.
I stand, and get to the chest, taking my tight hunting outfit out. There is a small hole in the left shoulder, from the stiletto, but it isn’t too visible. I start fitting it on over my simpler clothes.
Hopefully, the Templars will be too busy but if they’re determined to chase me down, I’ll simply take my mask and this off and slip into the crowd. I can’t take my hammer, too bulky to hide on myself and I don’t want to risk losing it.
“If you can give us a moment, Elizabeth.” Cecil speaks up.
“Of course.” I say. These two seem close. I wonder what Roisia was about to call her earlier.
I exit the office and head downstairs to have a meal while I wait for Roisia. The main room is spotless and there are night-workers having breakfast around the table that the merchants used last night.
“Come eat with us, Lady Elizabeth!” Aisha calls out.
“Glad to.” I reply, taking a seat in front of an empty plate.
I angle my mask over my face, obstructing my left eye but leaving my mouth clear. I smile in thanks when they hold out a salad bowl. I serve myself with a normal portion of lettuce and cold potatoes.
“I heard you opened that rebel Lord like a pig at slaughter.” The brawny man who welcomed me so far says with an intrigued look on his face. I cough a little to hide my surprise.
“Don’t bother her, Rob.” Aisha says, frowning.
“It’s fine.” I say. “It was reckless of me, I should have backed off when I stopped his carriage.”
“Why? He was crazy and needed to be put down.” Rob disagrees.
“An old man died because I pushed him too far, I regret that.” I admit, taking a bite.
“That’s unfortunate, but you can’t be held responsible for that. Besides, you avenged him, that’s more than any of us can hope for when a Noble goes nuts.” Aisha explains. “They usually pay a fine if the Templars rule in our favor, that’s it.”
“I know.” I shake my head sadly. “Nobility has become conceited, too secure in their privilege, they’ve forgotten their duty to the Empire. Only a few are worthy of respect.”
“The entire city knows who you’re thinking of when you say that!” Rob exclaims, exploding in laughter. The rest of the table joins him and I look down to my plate, embarrassed.
“Did you really kiss on the roofs?” Aisha asks with interest. “During the battle?”
“Yes.” I reply dreamily, biting into a potato.
“How was it?! Details!” Rob shouts.
“Lost my footing.” I reply blushing furiously. “She caught me before I fell, I couldn’t see a thing because she turned my mask sideways.”
“You didn’t show her your face?! Lady Lance still kissed you?” Aisha exclaims in a high-pitched voice.
“I didn’t and yes she did.” I gloat, a wide grin on my face.
“Good for you!” Rob says with a bright smile.
“Congratulations, she must really like you if she doesn’t care about your looks!” Aisha says.
My good mood dies down somewhat. Does she really like Elizabeth? She might still think I’m Jessica… myself. I don’t want her to fall for my alter-ego. I only needed her to get out that state of abandonment.
What am I doing? I let my desire to be with her infringe on what should have been revenge alone and now the two are intertwined in a mess that could make her resent me in the end.
I glance around at the table, finishing my meal in silence. This life might not have been so bad after all. I look down at my sleeve glove. But it’s too late, I’ve made my choice. I can’t back out of this anymore, people have died as a direct result of my actions.
“Thank you for the meal.” I tell them, getting up and adjusting my mask to fully hide my face.
Roisia is waiting for me at the front door. I join her and we step outside. The carriage waiting in front of the brothel is the one I saw Cecil use to get to the Lordling’s party.
The driver hops down from his seat and opens the door for us, we climb inside. I take a seat on the padded bench facing the front of the vehicle while Roisia sits in front of me.
We depart, the horses quickly picking up in speed to reach a pleasant trotting pace. Looking ahead, I notice Emffrey watching us go from the side of the road, wearing his official Templar uniform. He did risk his life to rescue us, I paid that debt but two of his brethren still died. The least I can do is talk.
“Stop the carriage please, Lady Roisia.” I speak up.
She glances at me curiously, raising her hand to tap the window separating us and the driver with the back of her knuckle. Emffrey walks up to us, I open the door for him. He nods in thanks, sitting next to Roisia as the vehicle departs once more.
“Templar Emffrey, what brings you here?” I ask.
“Lady Lance suggested to Master Amand that you would be more willing to answer if we didn’t hound you.” He replies politely.
“The Master was indeed persistent.” I comment flatly.
“Your actions spoke for you, he estimated that he could relent.” Emffrey says.
“The rebels.” I say.
“And what you told to those people who were wrongfully evicted.” He nods.
“Ask away.” I shrug.
“Are you an agent for Telnur?” He questions.
“Did you convince Lord Patrick to rebel?”
“I lied to him about who I am and made suggestions about what the future of the war could look like.” I reply. “I told him to seize his destiny, he drew his own conclusions about what that meant.”
I don’t recall enough of that conversation to tell whether I’m lying or not, but I doubt they have the ability to check either way.
“Did you support him in any way, by using wealth or connections.” He asks.
“No.” I shake my head categorically. “I knew for a fact that he planned to betray me because I spied on him, Lady Edusa can confirm my presence on the roofs of his mansion the night he spoke to Buton.”
“Is that why you denounced him to Lady Lance?” Emffrey frowns.
“No. My plan was always to root the disloyal members of Nobility out and expose them before they can do serious damage.” I reply honestly, simply leaving some of the truth out. Like the fact that the objective was to discredit Nobles in the eyes of the population.
“Are you a Noble, and do you hold a title?” He directly questions me.
“I am not a Noble, and I never held a title.” I admit freely, quite certain that they would have asked for my identity or family history if I tried to lie. Lady Roisia gasps but I ignore her.
“Aren’t you aware that impersonating a Noble is punished by death?” Emffrey asks, baffled by my answer.
“I am. Except that law is enforced by Caeviel, not the Templar Order. Besides, I am already dealing with the Rykz and that’s treason as long as the Kingdom is at war with them. They can’t execute me twice.” I shrug. Thrice if I count the fact that I’m unbound.
“Indeed, they cannot.” He smiles in amusement. “Your actions aren’t what most would qualify as Noble, but I believe that Lady Lance is correct, you have honor.”
“Any other questions?” I ask.
“No.” He replies. “Master Amand told me to warn you that the next time you run when he calls, he will not miss.”
“Well, that’s a relief.” I sigh. “I thought I’d have to dodge the Templar Order.”
“It was not a good idea to provoke the Master at that moment. I think Lord Patrick’s defiance got on his nerves.” Emffrey chuckles.
“I can understand that.” I nod.
“I have no doubt, I’ve seen the body.” He replies. “He did not deserve his title. To think Joan and Edward died in part to rescue him…” Emffrey’s expression turns sad.
“I’m sorry.” I say.
“Don’t be. It is our duty.” He raises his chin and locks eyes with me. “Tell me, did that peasant, Jessica, survive that night?”
“She did.” I reply shortly.
“Good.” He says, knocking on the driver’s window.
The carriage stops and the Templar hops off.
“Lady Elizabeth.” Emffrey bows with a wink. “Beware, we are watching you now.”
“Templar Emffrey.” I nod.
This is weird, most people on the street are headed towards the center of Meria, the marketplace. I wait for him to depart before turning to Lady Roisia. She is scrutinizing me with an odd expression.
“So, not a Noble, huh.” She says calmly.
“Is that a problem?” I ask, inclining my head.
“I don’t especially care, but are you sure you want that information out? I helped Madame Cecil spread rumors of you being from Telnur after all.” She replies.
“Wouldn’t have gotten away with it very long.” I shrug. “It served its purpose.”
“Aren’t you afraid of the backlash?” She asks.
“That’s why I wear this.” I tap my mask. “Tell me, why are people headed to the market so close to lunchtime?”
“I… I’m not sure. That’s odd.” She frowns.
“Do you mind making a detour?” I ask.
“I don’t.” She turns to the driver and speaks up loud enough for the driver to hear. “To the market.”
The carriage departs and makes a turn, engaging behind a covered wagon. I lay back in my seat, observing the people outside. Their faces aren’t telling me much other than that they’re not wandering in the same direction without purpose.
We reach the marketplace after a few long minutes, the merchant carts and crowd slowing us down. Several people recognize me and many wave at us as we pass.
Meria’s central plaza is packed, there are several thousand people gathered here and several hundred city guards hugging the walls on either side of the crowd. Merchants are selling various kinds of food from their stalls, although most are closed.
The first warning sign, to me, is that they’re holding their spears in reverse, holding the blunted end in front. That’s worrying. I look around, finding two tall banners being held up, both depicting the Duke’s stag head crest.
I get out of the vehicle, Lady Roisia follows. We make our way along the sides of the avenue, going around the crowd. There is a tall pedestal being assembled with crates and a servant is carrying a large red carpet.
“The Duke is going to talk.” Lady Roisia comments. “Why didn’t he warn us?”
“Because last night, fifty of you rebelled.” I reply sarcastically. “Whatever he plans on saying here, he didn’t want to give the rest of Nobility a heads up. Probably because the crowd isn’t going to like it and he doesn’t want any more complications than that.”
“That’s… actually sensible.” She blinks. “You’re good at this.”
“Not really, I’ve simply been in the middle of this all this time so this development isn’t entirely out of my expectations.” I reply calmly.
“I can see your Lady over there.” Roisia tells me teasingly.
I snap around, following her gaze. My Lady is on horseback, approaching the plaza from the street that leads to the castle, next to her is Amand. Both of them are visibly dissatisfied, they’re talking and possibly arguing but I can’t tell from this distance.
“I suppose there is no need for me to hide my ignorance now that you know I’m a low-born.” I realize, chuckling. “Tell me, Lady Roisia, is it possible for the Duke to refuse arbitration?” I intently stare at her, awaiting her response. I don’t like the look of the Templar Master’s face.
“No, but it is possible to delay it, especially in times of war where exceptions can be made. The problem in this specific circumstance is that he doesn’t have to, the Duke may deflect the blame entirely on Count Odo.” Roisia explains.
“Who will then say that he has the Duke’s permission… and they’ll both keep shifting the blame. Do they have so little respect for the Empire?” I ask, frowning.
“The Empire has less power in Caeviel than you seem to think, we are on the outer edges and aren’t threatened by either Cold bloods or Rykz so there are no Phalanxes stationed here, only Templars.” She tells me. “Master Amand’s position is prestigious and that matters a lot during times of peace, but this is war, he cannot force the issue without facing criticism and possibly an intervention from the King.”
Further down the street, a distance behind my Lady, the Duke is approaching on horseback. He is wearing a ceremonial blue and white tunic with a cape of the same color, both embroidered with his crest.
Guarding Meria’s ruler are a dozen men at arms wielding round shields, swords, and chain-mails. A column of his archers follow behind, hundreds of them.
That’s the second warning sign. You don’t gather your army to make a peaceful speech. Will I be able to keep my promise? I won’t stand by and watch a slaughter without doing anything.