My Lady walks around the pond with Edusa trailing along. I watch silently as she departs, organizing what she told me in my mind. We had comparable mindsets back when we were held by the Rykz, she wanted me and I wanted her. We’re physically closer now, but I can tell that her feelings for Elizabeth pale compared to what they are for me. That’s a relief.
I head out of the park, taking my mask off right before the people on the streets notice me. There are a lot fewer now than there were, and most are older. Those fit to carry a weapon joined the army, even some carriage conductors were replaced and they were replaced by kids.
Once at the docks, I take more care to dissimulate my blood soaked self, using the large buildings as cover to hide from the city guard patrols. Idali has been avoiding me, probably afraid of my reaction. I would rather not run into her while she’s on patrol, she would undoubtedly recognize me and have cause to question me.
I make a large loop around the warehouses to get to the Madame’s without being seen, finding Aisha leaning over a map of the city while Cecil is thinking while rubbing her temples. I sit down in front of her at the table.
“Emperor, you look like someone tried to slaughter you.” Cecil comments.
“That was mostly me.” I reply, chuckling. “I found a way to get over the walls.” I add.
“Reliable?” She asks.
“Lance.” I reply.
“Good, that’s more better than the lieutenant I found to sneak you up there. We have another small problem but I think I’ve resolved it. Several merchants were arrested and their assets seized to be sold off. They were all connected to the rebellion.”
“Why is that a problem?”
“It freaked out Tobias and Charles, they’re worried that doing this will cost them everything. I told them that the Duke is filling his coffers, that he won’t stop there and it’ll keep happening as the siege drags on.”
“Were they convinced?” I ask.
“I don’t know, Aisha just came back from delivering my reply.” She sighs. “Either way, I picked these two because they’re in the red financially, they don’t have many other options.”
“Well, that’s your job. I can’t really help.” I say with a shrug. “How far along are you in recruiting for the barges?”
“More volunteers than we need, the city is filled with peasants looking for work. I’m trying to attract those with some combat experience, Rob knows some soldiers who think poorly of Nobility and this war.” Cecil explains. Rob is that prostitute I think. “He’ll talk to them some more before bringing them in, so I doubt they’ll be able to help for the smuggling part of the plan.”
“Speaking of.” Aisha speaks up. “I may have found several passages, but it’ll be difficult to inspect the area without being spotted since most of the mansions where they could lead are occupied.”
“What about Count Thrin’s servant, Sacit’s friend, did they find any?” I ask.
“Yes, but they don’t lead inside the keep, only past the castle’s walls.” She replies.
“That could be enough, the hard part will be getting from the east to the north of the city undetected with the Rykz.” I say.
“I’m certain that there is a tunnel leading from the keep to the docks. The digging construct isn’t difficult to assemble and feed energy to, whoever holds the Duke title would have the flow necessary to do it by themselves over a short period of time.” Aisha tells me.
“How much exactly?” I ask.
“Six months at the most.” She replies.
“Templars are much quicker at creating leylines.” Cecil comments.
“The Order doesn’t need to make them wide enough for people to go through.” Aisha says.
“Can you find it?” Cecil questions.
“I think so, and we might have little choice in the matter. I inspected one of the passage entrances this morning, I found a runic construct at the entrance. I don’t know enough to tell you what it does, but it’s on standby and should logically be a trap or an alarm.” She explains.
“Wouldn’t a secret tunnel to escape the keep have the same kind of protection?” I ask.
“No, because those need to be maintained and refueled, which brings more people in the know.” Cecil replies. “Stop staring at that map, Aisha, and look for the properties that belong to the Duke in the docks. Start with the older ones and compare with the well and sewer schematics we obtained. If you don’t find anything, start searching the southern quarter of Meria using the same method.”
“Oh, that’s a great idea.” Aisha blinks a few times before and immediately heads out.
“Bring me back another cloak, lost previous one.” I call out before she closes the door.
“Duke Meria isn’t as isolated as we previously thought, Elizabeth.” Cecil says. “Roisia’s father, Count Urnan, is meeting him regularly and keeping him up to date. Although, I do believe that he and Countess Lance came to an agreement about what not to tell the Duke. Count Odo has been refused entry at the keep’s gates several times, even his messengers are being sent away.”
“What is he doing?” I ask. “It makes no sense to me.”
“Wouldn’t be the first Noble to see daggers in the shadows after witnessing that their power isn’t as secure as they thought.” Cecil shakes her head.
“I’m going to need another illusion construct, by the way.” I take my mask off and hand it over to her.
“Did it work?” She asks. I nod in response. “This construct isn’t very well known, and for good reason. I was taught by one of the Emperor’s Shades.”
“Shades?” I question, frowning.
“Ah, I always forget that you didn’t receive that kind of education.” She smiles, weaving strands of flow around my mask.
“Tell me while I warm our meal.” I stand and make my way to the stove to activate the fire construct under the pot.
“I miss Rob’s cooking.” Cecil sighs. “Shades are a somewhat secret Order under the Emperor, they spy for Him and have access to the latest constructs. There is a rumor that they’re recruited directly from the University where the most talented students are picked for the task. They act in ways that Templars cannot, from assassination to political schemes.”
“How did you get one to teach you?” I ask, stirring the gruel.
“Charm and favors.” She grins. “He left four years ago on a mission for the Emperor, he said. Around the same time as Exemplar Vikiana left if I recall correctly.”
“Hm.” I mutter before moving on. “I’m leaving tonight, make sure that the barges are where you said they would be. The Rykz will also need large capes to hide their appearance, we’ll move during the night but an added precaution won’t hurt.”
“I can find a few hundred winter cloaks for horses, they should be wide enough for these creatures.” Cecil says.
“Buy more than that. I may be able to convince Celyz to lend me harvesters and those are quite a bit larger than horses.” I pause, looking at the map. “And start noting down which Nobles live in these mansions.”
“You want to expand the scale of what we’re planning this late in the game?” Cecil asks, concerned.
“It isn’t a game, Cecil.” I rebuke her. “I have spoken enough with Lance to tell that she isn’t going to surrender of her own will, no matter what.” I’m not letting her die for her duty, she’s mine. “We need to account for that and the fact that Nobility will order their soldiers to fight to the death if they’re cornered.”
I take the pot off the fire and deposit it on the table before setting two plates with spoons in them. Cecil serves us both. I start eating as she seems to mull over my words.
“You want to directly remove them from the equation… but there is no way we can do that with only a few hundred Rykz.” She says.
“We can focus on those that have positions in the army, destabilize the command structure. I don’t think we can reliably take Counts out, but they are few in numbers so they shouldn’t be too relevant in this. We’ll have to settle for Barons and regular Nobles.” I concede.
“Still too many of them to murder.” She adds coldly.
“I thinking that capturing them will be more effective.” I argue. It will be much easier to negotiate with Caeviel if we have hostages, and my Lady wouldn’t forgive me if I senselessly killed them.
“Either way, I can gather specific intelligence on a section of the wall so that we can target their commanding Lords and Ladies, create a void that you can exploit. The peasantry will listen to you, all you’ll need to do is convince the low-born officers that surrendering is their only option.”
“Can’t you do that? I’m not a public person.” I reply nervously.
“You’ll do fine.” Cecil brushes my comment away. “If we can’t count on Lady Lance to take charge and do what needs to be done, you need to.”
“We’ll see, I might be able to convince her after…” I don’t finish my sentence, noticing how wishful that train of thought is.
“Don’t forget to pick up the Duke’s seal ring as proof of his death, you’ll need it. And make sure that the Rykz don’t attack those who drop their weapons, that’s the key to this plan of yours.” She tells me.
“I will talk to Celyz.” I nod. “Do you think aiming for a single part of the wall will be enough?”
“It’s all we have the resources for, but I do expect that the surrender of a part of the army will trigger a snowball effect when the Rykz start flooding in.” Cecil explains.
“We’ll have to improvise with those that are left after taking care of the Duke.” I say. “Few problems with this plan, first is that it’s riskier because we won’t be able to use the established power structure without Lance.”
“I’ll set up a list of influential people and organize them to temporarily take over for Nobility once the city is ours.” Cecil says.
“Meria won’t be ours.” I reply with a frown but continue. “Second issue is how to direct the Rykz towards their targets, they usually use tracking pheromones.”
“If they have a good enough sense of smell, I can gather clothes with our targets’ scents on them.” Cecil informs me. “You might not want to know how.” She adds.
“I assume you’ll ask your colleagues for assistance.” I say indifferently.
“And steal or buy them off from servants.” She nods. “It’ll take a day or two to set this up.”
“I’m not certain that I can get the Rykz to understand these orders, but hopefully Celyz can instruct them.” I comment. “Is Idali still going to do what you agreed to?”
“She is.” She nods.
“Can I ask you to tell her that she owes me after that stunt? She’s avoiding me.” I say.
“Ha! Sure.” She agrees with a small laugh.
We finish eating in silence. I ponder the plan, it’s still vague at this point, Aisha is still gathering the final pieces of the puzzle and Cecil will put them in order. I’m not really needed here at this point, my presence might even attract too much attention.
Aisha comes back an hour with a parchment, throwing me an old large gray cloak. I throw a glance at the list, there are street names with annotations like ‘third from the north’ on the left side and warehouse numbers on the right, all of it is in her handwriting.
I warm up the gruel and serve her with a plate before taking my hammer out and starting to exercise. I focus on my normal routine, ensuring that I stay comfortable with the weapon’s feel. There will be battles to be fought, soon, ones that I cannot afford to lose.
“I’ve got two possible entrances. One near the northernmost peer, the other in a small store located in between the docks and the southern quarter.” Aisha tells us.
“We’ll check them both tonight.” Cecil replies.
“Be careful not to get caught.” I say. “At worst, I’m certain that we can use grapples and ropes to get over the castle’s walls, they’re only three meters tall.”
“Let me worry about Meria, just make sure that the Rykz don’t stab us in the back. I’m putting a lot of trust in you Elizabeth. I’ve had reports from sailors that the lands they occupy seem to be doing well but that may change once they control the entire Izla.” Cecil warns me.
“I will.” I say in a firm tone.
The afternoon goes by as the two women go through their notes, comparing them with the map. They find a few more possible passages.
“There are too many for them all to be entrances.” Aisha comments.
“Only a small dozen, it won’t be too difficult to search by probing the ground with a construct.” Cecil replies.
I glance out the window, noticing that the sun is approaching the end of its arc. I open my chest and start fitting my equipment on, both hard leather armor and chain-mail. I fasten the belt around my waist, verifying that the map of the smuggling creeks that Cecil gave me is still inside the dagger’s sheath. I set my helmet over my head and wrap a bed sheet around my hammer. I grab a small pouch of gold coins and slip it around my neck.
“I’m heading out.” I speak up.
“Good luck.” Aisha says, smiling, while Cecil simply waves her hand without looking away from the map.
I slip the cloak Aisha brought me on and bring the hood over my helmet. I step out of the warehouse and make my way west through Meria. I encounter few city guard patrols on the way and they don’t stop me as there is still time until curfew.
A squad of twenty soldiers passes by, escorting a wagon with a large reservoir attached to it. They are going at a slow pace as the single draft horse is having trouble pulling such a large amount of water.
They stop in the middle of a crossroad and split up. I turn a corner and observe them. The soldiers knock on the doors while a ladder is set on the side of the tank by the driver. He then calls out to the people passing by, telling them to stop for flow collection.
The citizens that gather are older or very young, they climb the ladder one by one and let their reserves of energy trickle down inside the water reservoir. I leave, reassured that the soldiers aren’t up to anything wrong.
I arrive at the inn that Lance told me to meet her at before the sun disappears behind the horizon. I find Edusa waiting for me there, without my Lady. I squint my eyes but don’t stop as the Lady is carrying the promised items, a wide round shield, a rope, and a large black cloak that should allow me to fade inside the coming darkness.
“Lady Edusa.” I bow slightly.
“Elizabeth.” She replies with a tiny curtsy. “The Rykz arrived ahead of schedule, Lady Lance is currently occupied at her position on the defense grid.”
A brief flash of light enlightens the sky over the wall, a thunderclap reaches my ears barely a fraction of a second later. Clack. I hear a sharp sound of wood, the sound of a catapult releasing a projectile.
“Let’s hurry.” I mutter urgently, worried.
I change cloak, ensuring that my helmet is hidden underneath. I then set the shield on my right arm by flipping it around because it is designed to be held with the left. I wrap the rope around my shoulder and follow Edusa towards a tower’s entrance.
The two guards at the bottom of the stairs let us pass without question. The wall’s defenders are oddly quiet, I can hear the occasional shout of surprise but no more. I find out why as I throw a glance out of one of the arrowslits when we climb above the rampart walk.
The soldiers and peasants on the wall are watching the catapults firing with amazed expressions, following the projectiles’ arcs with wide eyes. I can still hear the occasional roar of thunder, which I suspect is coming from a Princess’ lightning construct.
We pass by at least a hundred archers as we climb past the tower’s floors, they are all arranged on the eastern side of the tower. Two of them per arrowslit, one of either side of it to take turns and sustain their fire.
The second to last floor is filled with barrels, which I assume contain arrows, and there are young adolescents carrying buckets. They seem ready to resupply the archers on the lower floors.
We reach a hatch guarded by two serious looking Nobles. One is a young Lord, the other an elder Lady. They’re both wearing chain-mails and wield spiked maces. They throw us a glance, but let us through without a word.
“Thanks, Henry, Margaret.” Edusa says, pushing the hatch open for me to climb up there, she doesn’t follow me.
I hear a loud explosion and the sounds of a huge wooden structure splintering coming from the distance. I hurry up, finding my Lady standing at the edge of the crenelation, alone.
“Lance.” I speak up.
“Elizabeth.” She replies. “Count Odo has broken the truce, as expected. But with so many siege engines sitting in front of our walls, I’m not sure I can blame him. I might have ordered it myself.”
I walk up to her and gaze far into the plains until I find a tide of Rykz using ropes to pull about fifty immense towers back, away from Meria. They are made of wooden beams and their large wheels look like they were cut out of the largest trees on the Izla.
“They miscalculated our catapults’ range.” My Lady says. “Our maximum range is of about a kilometer.”
“How could they have built so many, so quickly?” I ask, a chill running through my back.
“Our scouts tell us that they have been assembling the pieces together out of sight from the walls, they were well prepared and have the numbers to do so.” She explains. “We’re lucky they weren’t ready to assault us yet, it allowed us to destroy a few of them.”
Lance points at several smoking wrecks in the middle of their lines, the remains of those towers that were hit by the large burning stone projectiles thrown by the catapults.
I watch as three more spheres of rock are projected from different points on the wall. They ascend high in the sky and keep going even higher until they reach the height of their arc and burst into flames before finally falling back down, crossing a huge distance in a small amount of time.
One of the projectiles is impacted by a huge lightning bolt that makes my eyes sting despite the distance, the sound of thunder reaches us after a slight delay. A part of it splinters away as the missile is diverted away from its target. It falls short of the tower, crashing into an empty portion of the plains and digging a small crater.
The other two miss, landing in the middle of groups of Rykz and crushing them. The creatures are too far for me to tell whether they’re scouts or workers, they’re too small to be harvesters and they aren’t carrying shields or sabers.
I inspect the Rykz’ ranks but fail to locate where the lightning construct originated from. I do catch an odd sight, four humans on horseback observing the exchange from the top of a hill. One of the silhouettes seems familiar, I freeze as the horse also triggers my memory.
I can’t be certain from all the way here but… I hope I’m wrong.