The city guards arrive within minutes as Aisha prediction, I recognize the regular sound of their military gait. She leaves to speak with Idali, they’re too far for me to hear so I enhance my hearing.
“… all the papers here.” Aisha says.
“It’s all in order, the seal is true and the taxes have been paid beforehand.” A man says shortly after, likely a tax collector. Do I hate those…
“Check those three and that one.” Idali speaks up.
Nails are pulled out of the crates with a sharp squeaking sound as the metal grates against the wood. I hold my breath, ready to break through my own container. Sacs of grain are then ripped, that and the lack of screams is reassuring.
“Wheat flour.” An unknown woman comments.
“Wheat flour.” Another says.
“Corn flour.” A man adds.
“Barley flour.” Idali finishes. “All in order.”
“One last thing, there seem to be more crates than you’ve declared.” The tax collector comments.
“A hundred and fifty more than my estimation, prices lowered slightly.” Aisha hurriedly says. “I don’t have the liquidity to resolve the additional cost here but I will be at the tax office tomorrow morning, I need a little time to make a sale.”
“I would usually give you forty-eight hours but with the current situation, I expect to see you at dawn or we will seize part of the shipment.” He replies, referring to the still ringing alarm bells.
“Understood.” Aisha agrees.
“Cushiest job I’ve had in months, although it lacks the opportunities for soft entertainment that my post at the gates did.” Idali jokes as she departs with her patrol. “Sailors are too rough.”
“Don’t try to distract us from the drinks you promised us, sergeant.” The woman guard chuckles.
“After our shift.” Idali replies.
“Those are fire bells.” The collector intervenes worriedly. I listen closely and notice that there is a different pattern coming from different bells.
“I think I can see flames on the wall.” Idali comments.
They leave the area and I relax my grip on my weapon. I regretfully take the small pouch of gold off from around my neck. I’ll have to find more, I’m fucking broke. Aisha approaches and I hear her knock on the crate with what must be a crowbar. She struggles but manages to pull the nails out with the tool.
I pick up the case containing the clay vials and hand it over to her along with the gold. I take a gulp out of the liquid food in the amphorae before climbing out. She checks the money in the pouch and sighs in relief.
“That’ll be enough.” Aisha says.
“Better be, I have no more.” I groan.
“Neither do we to be honest.” She admits, making a grimace.
There are a few flow torches brightening the warehouse so I take the time to extinguish them. She hands me a long wooden case to store my equipment, one long enough to hold my hammer. I take my gear off and gladly put it away.
We step outside to observe the sailors as they finish unloading the last barge into the other warehouse. Once they’re done, I walk inside to do snuff out the torches there while Aisha leaves to speak with Charles.
There is a small commotion at a pier on the other side of the docks. Two dozen city guards are searching a barge while an officer is talking to Tobias, the second merchant. I approach Aisha but keep my distance, using a large cart as cover to hide my face.
“Three days for the bonus, Charles, that’s my last offer.” She counters firmly.
“Fine.” He says, dissatisfied. “As long as the second half of the payment arrives tomorrow morning as promised.”
“It will.” She nods.
“Let’s go!” He shouts. “We’re moving to pier three and then you’re free for the next three days!”
We close the warehouses’ double doors, I lift the wooden beams to block them myself. I grab the two cases containing the vials and my equipment. Aisha locks the backdoors behind us and we make our way along the docks towards Cecil’s safe-house.
“That went better than I expected.” I admit.
“The city guard is stretched thin and has always been corrupt to some level.” She shrugs. “I like those green clothes, what are they made of?” She asks.
“Don’t know.” I reply. “Did you find the tunnels?”
“A couple, but we haven’t had the opportunity to verify whether they lead to the castle’s keep or not, too dangerous.” Aisha says.
“Do you think they do?” I question.
“They’re dug straight towards it and there’s no way they pass under the castle to reach the other side, at worst they’ll take us in the gardens.” She answers.
“Which is good enough.” I nod.
Boom. The loud after-effect of a blast reaches us, I snap around to try to look at the eastern rampart but it’s too far and there are too many buildings in-between. All I can tell is that there is orange light and smoke rising above the roofs.
“What are they doing?” Aisha asks nervously.
“Destroying the catapults.” I tell her, concealing my own agitation.
“I thought this was only going to be a distraction.” She presses me.
“I don’t control their army, Aisha. There is only so much I can do.” I sigh. “I’ll explain once we’re inside with Cecil.” I add.
We accelerate our pace and make a few turns, arriving at the warehouse and finding Cecil waiting in front of the warehouse. We enter without a word exchanged and she locks the door behind us.
There is a mess of papers hiding the map on the table in the middle of the room that Aisha starts cleaning up. I set the two cases I’m carrying down and take a seat at the table.
“Tell me everything.” Cecil urges, joining me.
“They’re taking the catapults out in prevision for a second attack that will occur in two days, a couple of hours after nightfall. They won’t launch a third if the city holds and doesn’t surrender. The Rykz will use a large-scale construct to breach the walls, likely killing most of the defenders on the rampart and dealing significant damage to Meria itself. I believe that they have the capability to do so, a Princess’ flow reserves seem larger than what even a Duke has access to. I don’t know how many there are on the Izla, but… two of them would be more than enough.” I explain.
“I have no doubt that they can.” She says in a tight voice. “I have a lot to tell you.”
“Go ahead.” I say.
“Titled Nobles have been weakened significantly as a group since your duel with Odo, people are rescinding their oaths in mass but they are still providing the army with their daily reserves. There is word that conscripts are being told to take new temporary oaths that are less binding.” Cecil relates. “Are the drones going to make trouble?”
“They shouldn’t, I’ll feed them tomorrow to ensure that. I’ll need a few barrels of water and a large water trough.” I reply.
“That’s not an issue.” Aisha says. “We have plenty of water here and I can borrow a trough from a friend that works at a stable. I’ll bring those over in the morning.”
“Next, I want you to meet with some people tomorrow. One of them specifically.” Cecil speaks up. “Androw was a lieutenant before the battle on Castle Lance’s plains where his daughter was executed for desertion. He was demoted for that and to make room for a Noble. He provided the information we needed to target which Nobles command each section of the wall.”
“At noon.” I nod, saddened by what happened to the man. “Who else?”
“Two of his friends, Rob and Aisha have known all three of them. They’re trustworthy, angered by Nobility, and eager to make a difference.”
“I hope you didn’t promise anything, Cecil. I’ve told you that this persona will disappear once the war ends.” I reiterate.
“I haven’t. They simply want things to change, however small it ends up being, and they feel like this is an opportunity that won’t come around again for them.” She explains.
“I’ll see tomorrow.” I sigh. “We’ll need to guide the Rykz through the city to the northern quarter. I don’t think three people will be enough, five might be if I count Aisha and Rob. It depends on how many targets you’ve identified.”
“I have a little more than a dozen marked along with secondary locations where they could be.” Cecil points at the red and blue circles drawn on the map. “If I join, that’ll make six of us, which is plenty. The question is, do you have a way to control the Rykz? They’re notoriously dependent on their Princess’ orders, I don’t want to see a hundred of these creatures go on a rampage because we made a mistake.”
“I do and it’s not liable to fail within the time frame we’re acting upon. I’ll give you the details tomorrow. It’s a trick from Exemplar Vikiana’s own book, from when she rescued Lance, and also what Caeviel used to kidnap Cetyz, the Rykz Princess.” I explain.
“Alright.” Cecil nods.
“Did you acquire what we need to track our targets?” I ask.
“No but that’s in the works as we speak.” She answers. “Most should arrive in the morning and the rest by midnight tomorrow. The capes you asked for are stored inside coffers within the warehouses.”
“I hope there’s enough. I brought a hundred more Rykz than planned.” I say.
“Hm. I don’t like last-minute changes, Elizabeth.” She admonishes with a frown. “But there are plenty, I bought five hundred. I have doubts about how effective this will be in hiding these creature’s appearance but we’ll be moving at night with reduced visibility so the alarm shouldn’t be given before we hit the first soldier patrols up north.”
“What if you meet city guards on the way?” I question.
“Their patrols are predictable and officers accommodating. I have years of experience setting up discreet routes for Nobles to visit my side of the city.” Cecil replies with a wicked smile. “There won’t be a problem on that front, I can guarantee that.”
“What about that list of influential people you said you’d make? Did you start contacting them?” I ask.
“No, they’re liable to hinder us or run away if I give them any specifics about what we’ll do, which would be what I would need to do to convince them to help beforehand.” She shakes her head. “I’m ready to set it up though, that’s not a concern.”
“Alright, I think that’s about it for now.” I speak up. “Did you find a silver lion pommel sword?”
“Aisha, if you would please.” Cecil calls out.
The young woman enters the partition where the bed I used is and comes back with the weapon. I take it off her hands and unsheathe it, handing the scabbard back because I don’t need it and it’s different from the one my Lady used, this one is made of wood and leather.
I stand, scrutinizing it closely to estimate where Lance broke hers. I lay the blade flat on the table and slide it until the exact point where it needs to shatter is balanced on the edge.
“I wiped the beacon construct off because it’s useless. Only the Master and the one who assembled it can access it, for safety reasons in case of captured Templars. They don’t want enemies to be able to track the second sword of the pair.” She explains, intently gazing at me.
“Not why I need it, and don’t plan to give her enough time to consult Amand.” I reply absentmindedly.
“Then what are you doing?” Cecil asks.
“Making bait.” I utter.
I hold the weapon in place against the table with my right hand, I then use my left limb to apply pressure on the handle. I need to be careful, she likely just broke it over her knee but I can’t afford to do that.
The steel sword bends as I push on the silver lion pommel. The blade’s angle reaches an improbable angle and, just as I wonder if it’ll give, it suddenly snaps in two. The break is right where I want it but there is a small protruding metal tooth that wasn’t there on my Lady’s.
“It was really hard to find this, you know.” Cecil complains.
I shrug and walk up to the case containing my hammer to take it out. I then jam the dent into the thin cut left by Edusa and leverage it, severing the extra piece from the broken sword that now looks almost exactly like hers did. The shape of it remains clear in my memory.
I pull my sleeve up. I then use the weapon’s jagged edge to cut my forearm, taking the pain without blinking, and paint the blade with blood to dissimulate the last discrepancies with the bright red fluid.
I put it away with my hammer in the case next to the rest of my equipment. Aisha hands a bandage over that I accept thankfully and wrap around my arm before assembling a healing construct for the slash.
“There, that should fool her.” I mutter, walking back to my seat.
“Care to explain? You’ve been more than vague about this but we’re settling on the last details now and I think we need to know.” She speaks up.
I pause, unsure about what I’ve told her so far. I should keep better track of my lies… I’ll just stick to the bare minimum.
“It is almost identical to what Lance gave the woman she… left behind during her escape.” I reply.
“You mean Jessica.” Cecil says.
“Yes.” I reply, keeping a blank face.
“And you know what it looks like, precisely enough that you’re making such fine adjustments like these, despite not having been there at the time.” She comments sarcastically. “I assume you left the original item behind when you two split, Jessica.”
“I did.” I sigh. “How long have you known?”
“A while but there I had no certainty. An accumulation of things made it more and more likely, from your obsession with her to the grudges you seemed to keep that shouldn’t belong to Elizabeth Vil.” Cecil says.
“Do you recall what you told me the first time we met?” I ask.
“I remember the conversation, what are you referring to specifically?” She questions.
“You were surprised that I didn’t threaten you with violence when you guessed that I was Elizabeth Vil. Well, I’m going to repeat what I’ve told you before about my privacy and do comprehend that this time, I am threatening you with bodily harm.” I stop talking and wait for her to acquiesce with a small nod. “You will not speak of this, no lies, no truth, nothing. To the both of you, I am Elizabeth Vil and you have never met Jessica. Understood?”
“Understood, Elizabeth.” Cecil replies gracefully. “It isn’t an issue, I’m interested in the weight you have, not an unknown peasant girl.”
“Whether it’s an issue or how it benefits you is irrelevant to what I’m asking, Cecil.” I utter coldly. “You will keep this secret because I will hunt you down if you divulge my identity, I swear on Emperor Rasaec’s empty tomb that I will not stop if you betray me on this.”
I gather my entire reserve of flow and form streams of deep black-gold energy that I make spiral around me. The two woman watch the amount I gathered with amazed eyes.
“I will not speak of it, no matter the circumstance, I swear.” The Madame agrees. “I understand how you could overpower Odo now.”
“I won’t either, I swear.” Aisha adds. I relax and pull my flow back inside me.
“Could I see the arm?” Cecil asks, curious and not fearful enough for my liking.
“No.” I reply sitting back down.
“How do you have so much.” She starts.
“No.” I repeat myself, cutting her off.
“Fine, I don’t need to know the specifics. Tell me the plan.” Cecil says.
“I’ll send a message to the castle saying that I’m somewhere isolated in the city with a broken silver lion pommel sword and tell her to come alone.” I reply. She stares at me for a few seconds before realizing that it’s all I have to say.
“That’s it?” She asks.
“It’s all I need to bait her. She would only get more suspicious if I tried something more elaborate.” I explain. “She would still show up, though, but I don’t want any complications.”
“How do you plan to ambush her? When?” Cecil questions.
“I’ll fight her one on one right before I attack the castle.” I answer.
“Alone? You could swarm her with drones and get this taken care of quickly.” She says, frowning.
“This is between us, I don’t want any interference.” I reply firmly.
“What if you lose?” She asks. “What if she isn’t alone?”
“Whether I win or not shouldn’t have too much impact on the overall outcome, she’ll be out of the castle and we’ll be talking.” I answer.
“This is a meaningless risk you’re taking. Whatever you aim to achieve with this, you could resolve it later.” Cecil says. “We should ambush her with overwhelming force and be done with it.”
“You can still go through with the plan without me and convince the defenders since the Duke isn’t doing anything anyway.” I counter, annoyed.
“We need his seal ring to sap the soldier’s morale, Elizabeth.” She replies calmly.
“Fake one!” I snap, standing up.
“We haven’t seen it and no one in their right minds would agree to craft one.” She says.
“Then attack the damn castle yourselves.” I utter coldly. She opens her mouth to respond. I slam the table in anger. She holds her hands out.
“Fine, I know better than to get in-between the two of you.”
“I’m going to sleep.” I say, heading up to the wooden cases containing my gear and the clay vials. I pick them up and start making my way towards my side of the warehouse.
“Wait.” Cecil calls out.
“What is it?” I ask over my shoulder.
“What if she doesn’t show up alone? You never said what you would do.” She says.
“She’ll be alone.” I articulate, fuming.
“If I can simply suggest fighting where we found one of the secret passages to the castle? It’s a small mansion on the border between western and southern Meria, only two guards to disable. There is enough space to fight there without being disturbed and you can hide the Rykz in the courtyard at the back, just in case.”
There’s no way Leomi would bring anyone after I specifically ask to see her alone while mentioning the broken sword. But if she does…
“We’ll see.” I say, pushing the separation sheet.
“We’ll finalize the timeline tomorrow then.” Cecil sighs.
I deposit the cases next to the bed and slip under the cover, not bothering to undress, emotionally exhausted after two days of doing little more than traveling while worrying about the future and expecting the other shoe to drop. Two days.
— — —