We make our way through a maze of buildings, the passages between them are wide enough for carriages but smaller than streets. We can hear dock workers discharging a boat in the distance, shouting about ropes and pulleys.
Aisha guides us towards a corner at the far end of the docks, a small enclave bordering the sea with a small peer leading a few dozen meters in the water. The warehouse she enters is of medium size and has a no windows.
Inside, I find a large space separated into three rooms by wide tarps. There are barrels, marked ‘water’, ‘food’, and ‘meat’, in the main room near a stove and a wide roundtable. The other rooms have two beds each and a basin for toilet purposes.
“This is nice.” I comment.
“We’ll be safe here, the docks are heavily guarded but they only check incoming freight, not the warehouses themselves.” Cecil says.
I grab a cooking pot, filling it with water from one of the barrels while Aisha lights up a fire inside the stove. I then set the table as she takes a piece of smoked beef and starts cutting it into small cubes.
I search the food barrel, finding a sack of potatoes. I take a knife and sit at the table to start peeling them. Cecil lays her jute sack on one of the beds, opening it to take a notebook out and taking a seat next to me.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Picking apart what you’ve told me. There are twenty-two thousand people inside Meria right now, five or six thousand of those are professional soldiers.” She replies.
“Which means that most of the Izla’s population lives under Rykz occupation.” I say.
“If this war lasts longer than a couple of months, we’ll all starve.” Cecil sighs, laying her finger on a line of numbers.
“So soon?” I question.
“Yes. Meria is a trade port, we only stock up in grain later in the year. They can ferry grain across but with the war, many mainland merchants are unwilling to take the risk. With the supplies left behind by the army in exchange for the truce, it means that we’re already running low. We would need to buy the grain in bulk and import it ourselves, the only one with the capital to do that in any significant volume is the Duke.” She explains.
“And he’s already broke.” I grunt.
“This does give us a cover, an opening.” Cecil says, pondering.
“You want to import grain?” I ask.
“I’m thinking of a way to get those Rykz you need inside the city. Short of taking a gate ourselves, this is the only other solution I can think of.” She tells me.
“You want to hide them inside a grain barge.” I realize.
“Yes. Grain barges can fit about fifty large crates, I’m confident that I can pay the right people to speed up the process of verifying their content.” Cecil taps her notebook. “I know a few merchants that are desperate enough for gold that they wouldn’t look too closely into it, smuggling is profitable after all.”
“I have some coin, but I don’t think it’ll be enough to pay for several shipments and bribe the guards.” I tell her.
“The Rykz can provide the grain, all they need to do is leave the crates in a creek with the front dozen filled with actual food while the rest contains one of the creatures.” She explains.
“I’ll need a way out of Meria.” I say.
“You don’t have a way to communicate with them?” She asks.
“No.” I shake my head.
Cecil goes through her notebook, turning pages until she stops on a simplified map of Meria and its surrounding coast with circles drawn around coastal landmarks. She takes a quill and an ink vial out to cross one of the furthest marks from the city, she then rips the page out and holds it out for me.
“This creek is isolated and plenty of merchants have used it in the past so it won’t be hard for whoever we hire to find. It isn’t used anymore because the Duke caught wind of it but that part of the Izla isn’t under human control anymore so you won’t risk getting caught there.” She says.
“Alright.” I take hold of the paper and fold it in four to fit it inside the dagger sheath on my belt.
“Meria’s gates have been closed since yesterday. I’ll think of a way to get you on the northern wall with a rope.” She tells me.
“Water’s boiling.” Aisha says, throwing her cubes of meat inside.
I nod and take hold the peeled potatoes, putting them in the pot. I sit back down at the table.
“That’s a lot.” Cecil comments.
“I’m hungry.” I shrug. “Can’t I just use a boat to get out of Meria?” I ask.
“You could but it’s expensive and if you’re spotted, then they’ll know to keep an eye on the docks. It would be better for us if many people saw you exit the city like this.” She explains.
We wait for the meal to cook at the sound of Madame Cecil scribbling notes in her book. I throw a glance, she’s copying names from a list on a blank page, putting down checks in front of some of them.
As we eat, the two discuss their plans for the next day. Agreeing on who Aisha should go see in priority and where she can meet Roisia.
“You could start probing merchants in the morning.” I suggest,
“No, I need more information. I’ll make some overtures the day after tomorrow. You should come along when we meet, your presence will help convince them that I’m serious.” She says.
“Aren’t you afraid that they’ll give us up?” I ask.
“We’ll be careful, I know those we’ll speak to personally. They won’t risk exposing themselves by stepping forward and screwing the deal for one of their colleagues even if they refuse to take it themselves.” Cecil replies before making a wicked smile. “Besides, they know not to mess with me. I have enough dirt and leverage on the guild to silence or take anyone down as needed.”
“We’ll see.” I say with a frown, recalling how my grandfather lost everything. Merchants can act like sharks just as much as Nobles when they smell blood. “I’m going to lie down.” I add, finishing my plate.
“Good night.” Aisha waves.
I pick one of the two beds in the back room. I hear Aisha and Cecil settle down soon after. Only two days left until the Rykz setup at the base of the wall, there is a good chance that the mainland faction will break the truce.
I need to get out of the city before that and try to convince Celyz to give me more time before she assaults Meria. The fact that I have a plan should help, but I made no progress with her sister’s situation so it isn’t guaranteed. There is also Queen Grikyz to consider, she might lose patience and decide to overrule Celyz.
— — —
I awaken several times in the morning, falling back into a sleepy daze. I don’t really have much to do today, just wait. As I finish the thought, Cecil pushes the tarp aside, telling me to get up with a stern gaze. I groan and throw my legs over the edge of the bed, sitting up.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Bad news.” She says. “Rob just came by, there have been multiple riots across the city, yesterday afternoon and even during the night. The Duke’s people have been scouring the streets and knocking at doors to draft anyone who fits the criteria. They’ve been beating those who protest too much.”
“Deaths?” I question, a pit of worry digging into my stomach.
“Several, accidental for the most part.” She sighs. “There are some reports of Count Odo’s soldiers taking advantage of the situation to fill their pockets and drawing their weapons when challenged.”
“What sort of low-lives could do such a thing?!” I jump up to my feet in anger.
“They’re just as afraid for their future as the rest of us, and this isn’t their home.” Cecil explains. “I expected this to happen, but not so soon or so blatantly.”
“It’s my fault.” I gaze at the ground. “My… Lance was right, after all, chaos reigns without a strong enough power to maintain order.”
“It might be true.” She replies carefully. “It is hard to tell when the situation is so unstable to begin with, I wouldn’t draw any conclusions. This is temporary, once we replace the Duke, things should stabilize.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing.” I admit, feeling depressed and needing to talk to someone. “I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without your help. I think the Rykz planned for my defeat as much as my success.”
“What do you mean?” She asks.
“I’m supposed to rescue the Princess but how likely is it that I’ll achieve that by myself?” I reply.
“Not very.” Cecil comments.
“Exactly. They want to force a treaty on Caeviel, something that forbids experiments across species. I’m one of those.” I explain, shaping a dark-golden flow ball over my palm. “Their Queen is using me as a demonstration. Showing that they can raise a simple peasant from nothing into someone capable of fighting Nobles head on.”
“Or perhaps something to give the institute in exchange for their Princess.” Cecil says, staring at my hand.
“That seems likely to me, although, I was told that whatever was done to me isn’t what the institute is looking for.” I absorb the flow back into my reserves.
“The institute wouldn’t know that, you’re unique as far as I know and that might be enough of a lure.” She notes.
“Hadn’t thought of it like that. I’m not surprised they didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t have accepted to be used like that… but I’m beginning to reconsider it.” I tell her honestly.
“That’s admirable but foolish.” She admonishes me. “You are becoming infamous, I wouldn’t be surprised if your name spread beyond the Izla by now. You could do much more for Caeviel while free than you could by ending this stupid war at the cost of your life.”
“I’m not worthy of that reputation. After all I’ve done… it would only be natural that I pay in some way.” I say. “I have blood on my hands, innocent people’s blood.”
“Do you really think yourself worse than those at the top? Than King Cenwalh who is staying silent despite being responsible for this invasion?” She asks, getting agitated. “People need hope and you gave that to them. You showed them that Nobility lies, that they can be defeated.” Cecil takes a deep breath, her expression turns intense. “I don’t care what you think of yourself, you don’t have the right to take the easy way out now.”
“I’m telling you that I’m thinking of sacrificing myself, how is that the easy way out?” I ask, baffled.
“Because it means you’re giving up.” Cecil takes hold of my shoulders to start shaking me back and forth. “Think beyond yourself, think past what will happen once we put Countess Lance in charge. Think of the future.” She urges me.
“I don’t understand.” I admit.
“You’re standing in opposition to Nobility. I think your strength and reflexes are beyond what a normal human can achieve from what I’ve heard. Elizabeth, you could challenge titled Nobles in duels and win. You could reform Caeviel’s entire social structure by following their rules!” She exclaims enthusiastically. “You could be the figurehead of a revolution.”
“I…” I start hesitantly. “That is the Emperor’s domain. I’m only trying to repay my debt to the Rykz while minimizing the damage to the Izla. After this… Elizabeth Vil will disappear.”
And if it all goes well, my Lady will take me back. If not, well, who cares? Doesn’t matter what I do if I’m not at her side.
Cecil pauses, scrutinizing me for a long moment before letting a long sigh escape her. She lets go of my shoulders and walks back into the main room. I get up and follow her, taking a seat at the table.
“Aisha shouldn’t be too much longer.” She comments looking outside.
“Listen, about what you said, I agree with the need for things to change but Emperor Rasaec must have a plan. He is aware of more than we are.”
“What if he can’t challenge them? Have you thought of that, Elizabeth?” Cecil asks me. “His phalanxes are constantly engaged on the Empire’s borders, he does not have the forces to fight a civil war against Nobility.”
“But he is the Emperor, they would defy even him?” I ask, realizing the naivety of my words as I speak. “Of course they would.” I utter coldly.
“Just please keep this in mind, Elizabeth.” She says. “This war will make your name known across the Empire, you cannot waste this chance to make a real difference.”
“I will.” I reply shortly, heading up to the stove to activate the fire construct.
“Let me impress on you how important this is.” Cecil continues. “In some mainland domains, peasants are treated with barely more consideration than crime slaves. Many are obligated to work for their liege, laboring in mines or construction sites twice a month, without pay. The Izla’s main production is grain so we haven’t been affected by this new trend so far, but it won’t last. Caeviel’s Nobility will be desperate to strengthen themselves once the war with the Rykz ends, no matter the result.”
I put some water in the pot and prepare a good portion of grain to make a simple gruel. I turn to face Cecil. Is she exaggerating?
“Lance won’t allow this to happen to Izla Meria.” I tell her.
“Don’t let your feelings blind you. Countess Lance represents the best of Nobility but that is not sufficient, it never is.” She replies in a flat voice. “Even the King, at the height of his power, isn’t able to dictate his will to his subjects without consequence. No one is all-powerful and when the system itself allows Nobility so much power over us, then a single person simply cannot stop the abuses from within.”
“The Templar Order is there to provide balance.” And she wouldn’t be alone, I would help. “Look, I hate Nobles as much as you do, but I am not who you want me to be.”
“Not yet at least.” Cecil replies with a smirk. “Ah, Aisha is here.”
The young woman opens the warehouse’s single door and walks in, her curled black hair looking slightly unkempt and her cute round face torn by a sad expression.
“There was a skirmish between citizens and soldiers an hour ago, thirty dead men and women.” She immediately reports. “They blocked their street to defend their homes, fearing the rumors of soldiers in black pillaging Meria. The Duke’s people didn’t ask questions, they pinned them down with arrows and charged to make an example.”
“What else?” Cecil asks without losing her cool.
“Some people are resisting the draft and getting beaten into submission, it’s happening all over the city.” Aisha replies. “Master Amand is furious, he sent his Templars out to patrol the streets. They’re trying to uphold the law but there are barely two hundred of them left, and almost half are Semplars, novices in training.”
“I need to be out there.” I mutter. “I…”
“Could do nothing.” Cecil cuts me off. I flinch at the word.
“I also have good news, sort of.” Aisha says hurriedly. “Duke Meria has kicked most Nobles out of his castle wing, he is isolating himself. Only the Countess still lives there with his personal guard. Rumor says that he’s losing his grip, paranoiac, punishing servants for the slightest mistake or lack of decorum.”
“We’ll need to get rid of her before anything else.” Madame Cecil comments.
“Be careful about what you say.” I utter tensely with a small growl in my voice.
“I just meant that her presence will hinder our plans, Elizabeth, that’s it.” She says, bringing her hands up defensively.
“You won’t do anything to her.” I tell her. I take a deep breath, thinking quickly about ways to bait my Lady out. “Find me a Templar’s sword, one with a silver lion pommel, and I’ll deal with it.”
“I can do that.” She agrees, carefully lowering her arms and turning to the young woman.
“I have no specific information about secret passages, but I have the confirmation that they exist. Janice saw a map of the sewers on Count Thrin’s desk and she told me that they made turns that looked off even to her at the moment.” Aisha speaks up, changing the subject.
“Get in touch with Charles and Tobias, organize a meeting tomorrow at different times.” Cecil tells her.
“What is my… Lance doing in all of this?” I ask.
“Supervising the defenses on the wall, she is being sidelined from the events inside Meria.” Aisha replies quickly.
She‘s too damn naive, loyal to a fault. I’ll open her eyes to the truth, eventually. The water boils on the stove, pouring the grain that I prepared into the pot.
“Where do you want to meet them?” Aisha questions.
“At the park, north of the castle.” Cecil says. “It’s isolated and they won’t suspect that we would be so brazen as to meet so close to the seat of power as fugitives.”
Master Amand is doing more for the people than I thought he would. He was angered by my actions but hasn’t ordered his Templars to hunt me down, he chose to send them in the streets instead.
Perhaps I could convince him to depose the Duke, none of this would be necessary. I could take this opportunity to talk to him while the Temple is relatively empty.
“I’ll come with you, Cecil, but I’ll go my own way after that.” I say. “Oh and, when are the messengers you sent to Jessica’s father supposed to be back?”
“Any day now, I’m actually worried about them since the truce may be broken while they’re on the way back.” She replies.
I sit down at the table, anxiously running my fingers through my hair. Father is going to be fine. I told him to leave the Izla, there is no reason for him to be coming to Meria. Unless he decided to join the messengers because he’s worried about me.
He’s not so foolish as to enter a city under siege… is he? Shit. I should have told him not to come here under any circumstance. The most dangerous moment will be when the Rykz arrive. I’ll have to make sure that I’m on the walls when they do, just in case.