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Making my way to the side door, I detect Edusa following behind me. Her steps aren’t making any sound. I keep going without indicating that I know. What is she doing? I step outside, finding the carriage we took here.

I take hold of the draft horse’s reins, Edusa is waiting behind the door for me to depart. I head deeper into the alleyway, scrutinizing my surroundings. I catch heat coming from a few bodies in various locations all around, one on the roof, two hiding behind windows, a fourth hiding behind a barrel at the corner.

Edusa walks out of the building and I stop, turn around and rush her. She startles but reacts almost without a moment’s pause, yet doesn’t find the time to unsheathe her weapon before I fall upon her. My right hand finds her throat, left seizes her dominant wrist with so much strength that I have to consciously restrain it and prevent it from trying to feed.

Ah!” She exclaims in pain.

Lady Edusa.” I utter coldly. “Why are you sneaking about?”

They wanted time alone, you crazy bitch!” She replies scornfully.

Please. You hid behind the door until I turned my back on you.” I take a deep breath. “It is… difficult to restrain myself from hurting you.”

Fine, I tried to follow you. I want you to leave my La.” I squeeze her throat, interrupting her.

Don‘t call her that.” I threaten before releasing the pressure.

Cough. Leave my Countess alone, you’ve done enough damage already.” She replies defiantly.

Or what?” I ask, squinting.

Nothing, I’m just.” Edusa starts but I throw her away from me. She falls and rolls on the ground. She stands, brushing the dust off her clothes. “Don’t! It’s fine.” She calls out towards the Nobles approaching before turning back to me. “Listen, Elizabeth, if you won’t break up for both your sake, think of this. We’re the most powerful faction in Meria right now but we don’t control the Court despite the Duke’s absence because of our link to you.”

So?” I question. “None of that matters to me.”

We could have improved peasant lives and reined Nobles in if not for you.” Edusa replies.

You see, that’s the problem.” I utter, taking a step towards her. “You shouldn’t have power over peasantry to begin with. Nobility has proven unworthy of its privilege, the system itself is broken.”

We can’t do that in the middle of a war, change takes time.” She frowns.

If not now, when? You have to start somewhere, else you are simply deluding yourself with excuses.” I counter and leave.

I grab the horse’s reins and lead it further into the alley, Edusa and the others don’t attempt to pursue. I pick a path that goes along the eastern quarter without entering it. I find a small isolated courtyard between two closed shops and stop there.

A few minutes pass without me detecting anyone with any of my senses so I take my mask off to go through the docks’ main avenue. I reach Cecil’s warehouse without an issue, the city guards still have their hands full regulating the crowd.

I park the carriage behind it and stop at the door to ensure that no one is watching before putting my mask back on. I step inside, finding a man in a light blue tabard and hard leather armor, he is about thirty years old with brown hair and eyes. His expression is steely and grim.

Next to him are two soldiers clothed the same, a man and woman with blond hair. They are younger but not that much. They are all wearing the Duke’s stab head crest but only the older one is wearing an officer’s insignia. Cecil and Aisha are visibly reassured.

Androw, Liam, Louise. This is Elizabeth Vil, as you probably know.” Cecil speaks up. I nod in response to their greetings.

Carriage is outside.” I tell Aisha. “Food?” I ask.

Stove.” She replies with a smile.

I take a plate and serve myself at the pot. I sit at the table, Cecil pulls the map away to make space. I start eating while the rest take seats around me.

How did you get away?” Androw asks.

Walked out, she was looking for information not a confrontation. I gave her as little as I could.” I reply. “There is news that King Cenwalh is taking steps to negotiate with the Rykz but that doesn’t change what we have to do here.”

Duke Meria will hold onto his city to the end because he fears that the King will not allow him to retain his title after allowing the Rykz to infiltrate his lands to such a degree. It is the end for him if Meria falls.” Cecil says.

That is also my assessment” Androw agrees.

But this piece of news does give us some hope, although I’m not certain why the King would fold so quickly. Perhaps he is running into trouble rallying support from the Empire’s phalanxes, the closest one is at least a month away after all.”

We’ll have to set this aside for now.” I speak up. “There was a secret passage behind that stove?”

Yes, it leads to an Inn near the plaza.” Cecil answers. “I’m a bit embarrassed that she caught us there. My main occupation isn’t viewed very favorably by some and it leads to interesting situations sometimes. It was my mistake that I didn’t realize we were seen.”

Regardless, this is a problem. Lance has probably figured out how you escaped by now. I don’t think our plan of using the passages will work if she warns the castle.” I tell her, frowning.

Then we cheat, we attack before they can reorganize.” Androw says calmly. “We’re prepared, night falls in five hours which is enough for us to put the final details together and raid their Manors.”

But that means that my Lady could get caught in the middle of this. That’s not a good enough reason to put everything at risk. They seem to be waiting for my answer, I take a few bites.

Not an option, the Rykz won’t attack until tomorrow night.” I argue. “How do you plan to force a surrender without them pressuring the walls?”

Can’t you signal them?” He asks.

No.” I shake my head.

You’re rushing to conclusions.” Cecil intervenes. “Countess Lance may find the passage, but that doesn’t mean she will guess the entirety of our plan out of nowhere.” She rolls her eyes.

This compromises the operation, it makes sense to change course and avoid the risk.” Androw contests.

I understand you have the mind of a military man, but remember that I read people for a living.” Cecil says. “She has too many responsibilities to spend more than an hour or two on us and her mind is occupied by the wall’s defense.”

While she may not, other people around her might.” Androw argues.

The Countess cares for Elizabeth, even if it occurs to her that Elizabeth might use a passage to infiltrate the castle, I guarantee that she will not alert anyone of that possibility.” Cecil refutes.

I’ll acknowledge your knowledge of the people involved, but you’re risking Elizabeth’s life on this.” Androw says. “I am satisfied with the opportunity you’re giving me to seek justice but I would rather not see it cost innocent lives.”

I’m far from innocent.” I reply, shaking my head. “Let’s look at this from another angle. How many men at arms are there in the castle right now?”

A couple hundred as far as I am aware. If you move quickly, you’ll be able to reach Duke Meria before they fall on you.” Androw replies while Cecil nods in agreement.

Any reinforcements they can call on?” I ask.
“No, they are already short on soldiers to hold the wall and it’s even worse after last night’s attack. They could possibly call on another hundred if they deem that we represent a serious threat, which they shouldn’t since you guaranteed that the Rykz entered Meria undetected.” He replies.

Then we don’t have an issue.” I say. “They don’t have the necessary manpower to defend against what I’ll attack with.”

I agree.” Androw nods. “What’s your backup plan in case the passage is trapped?”

We found a smuggler’s tunnel that leads from a warehouse to a general goods store right outside the castle. I discarded it because it did not lead inside, but we can use it if necessary. The walls are only three-meters tall, it wouldn’t be difficult to make a ramp with carriages and crates.” Cecil speaks up.

What do you think our chances would be if we do that?” I ask Androw.

If you take out a patrol without being noticed and get past the wall, you’ll have a chance of reaching the keep just before they sound the alarm. You will need to sacrifice most of the creatures to not only get past his men at arms but also force him to use all his flow. And I’m not even mentioning the titled Nobles residing in the keep.” He answers.

So, not likely to succeed.” I note. “Do we have a plan of the castle?” I ask Cecil.

I have a map drawn and verified by a few servants, you can trust the layout but not the scale.” She says, pushing a small roll of parchment to me.

That does bring me to asking you how we’ll control the Rykz.” Androw speaks up.

You’ll have to apply a pheromone on you that will mark you as friendly towards them, they will not attack as long as you do not bare your weapons against them. I will give you spare clay vials containing that pheromone in case you need to apply it to spare someone. The Rykz will split into squads and follow you until they pick up their target’s scent.” I explain.

How many are there?” Liam asks.
“Around five hundred, I will take most of the warriors because I don’t think the harvesters will fit inside the tunnels.” I reply. “Fifty harvesters and two hundred Rykz soldier drones should be plenty for you to work with.”

It is.” Androw says with a hard determined expression. “What’s the timeline for the attack on the wall?”

Two hours after nightfall tomorrow night.” I say.

We’ll need to be quick, it’ll take at least half an hour to reach the northern quarter and get into position to grab our targets. We’ll avoid skirmishes with patrols as much as possible but they will inevitably happen and slow us down even more.” He notes.

The Rykz will switch to killing if they encounter heavy opposition. You simply have to guide them and explain to your targets that they have a choice. If there are patrols blocking you, just let them deal with it while you move on.” I tell him.

That’s a bit counter-intuitive for me, I’m not used to leaving soldiers behind but I can deal.” Androw says slowly.

Well, I think that’s all I can contribute.” I speak up. “I’m going to go spot the tunnel entrances, Aisha could show me if you don’t need her.”

That’s fine.” Androw nods. “We’re simply going to finalize what the plan of attack will be, Cecil will get us there but we need to settle on the most efficient path to take from one target to another.”

Do you mind?” I ask Aisha and she shakes her head. “Alright.” I say standing up. “I’ll feed the Rykz tomorrow morning. We should all meet there at dawn so you can get used to them and help out.”

I head out of the warehouse, taking my mask off when Aisha closes the door behind me. She climbs back into the carriage and signals me to do the same.

We’ll have to drop the last barrels off first if you want to feed them tomorrow. I need to bring this back soon.” She says.

Okay.” I nod.

We make the stop to unload them between the warehouses. I walk around the buildings to verify that both front and back doors are still locked. Satisfied, we leave for her friend’s workplace, making a detour to pass in front of a small storage unit that isn’t even as large as a small house.

That’s where the smuggler tunnel is, there is a hatch on the ground at the left corner when you enter.” She tells me.

Seems pretty small for a warehouse.” I comment.

You don’t need space if you’re moving the merchandise out as soon as it arrives.” She says.

Aisha then brings us to the stables near the southern gates, where her friend works. I stand in the shadows while she talks to the young man. She tells him that she’ll borrow the trough for another day if it’s no trouble. He shrugs and says he’s glad to help out with a friendly smile.

They wave at each other as Aisha and I depart on foot. She guides me to a street corner and stops. She turns around, facing me with her back to a mansion on the other side of the street. It isn’t large but I can see that potted plants and marble railings through the glass windows.

There are two men playing dice under the front porch, they are wearing casual clothes but unlike most shops guards I’ve seen in the city, they have swords at their waists instead of clubs or daggers.

The night shift isn’t any different.” She comments. “We could go around and slip inside to check if you want, it shouldn’t be too difficult.”

I don’t need to.” I shake my head. “This isn’t far from the docks so I’ll have time to check while I wait for Lance.”

The tunnel entrance is set behind a bookshelf that slides when pushed.” She tells me. “Are you set on doing this alone? It would be safer to ambush her. According to Madame Cecil, it’ll be much harder to reestablish order if she dies because her faction is the only one likely to be willing to help. And if you die… well I’m not sure what the effects of that would be but it would be a sad ending for both of you.”

I owe it to myself.” I reply. “We need to resolve our history before we can move forward. I’m alive now because I set on this course of revenge, I can’t turn back now. I won‘t. Too much blood has been spilled for me to allow cowardice within myself, I’ve lost too much. I’ll beat her, prove that we can stand as equals. Bring her to where I was. Nothing won‘t happen again.” I pause, noticing my loss of control.

Aisha remains quiet, calmly listening. I take a deep breath and start wondering. With all I’ve done, my questionable decisions.

Aren’t you afraid of me?” I ask. “Don’t you think me insane?”

I think you’re struggling like most people are. Your choices are your own. We’re not afraid because neither of us thinks you’re the kind of person that could go through with your threat if we were to accidentally reveal your identity, and that’s what makes you worth gambling on.” I frown and she raises her hand to tell me to let her finish. “We don’t intend to do so, Madame believes that the symbol is more beneficial and revealing your identity would hurt more than help.”

Don’t trust me too much, Aisha. I’ve done ugly things.” I say, thinking of all the blood I have on my hands, from the ambush in the forest to what I did in Castle Lance.

Yet, you’re risking your life when you don’t have any stakes in Meria’s future.” She comments. “You could have hidden and helped the Rykz from the shadows instead of doing all this.”

It’s my turn to remain silent, failing to find anything to say and feeling like contesting her assessment would only end up looking like I’m fishing for compliments. I sigh and start walking back to the docks.

We reach Cecil’s warehouse without issue. I put my mask back on before stepping in, finding the four of them standing around the table and arguing as they move around it to point at the large map of the city. They’re prioritizing targets in function of location and importance. I sit in and listen out of curiosity, especially when Androw talks.

Listen, you need to understand that as soon as we hit the first patrol of soldiers, Nobles in that street will notice. The more cowardly will barricade themselves, which shouldn’t be an issue if we have harvesters, but the smarter ones will run for help. That’s not a problem because we’ll have moved on before the reinforcements arrive, but the issue is that a warning might reach the titled Nobles which is why we need hit the two Barons first and then split up to catch the rest before regrouping here.” He points at a spot one street away from the plaza. “There, we’ll make use of your knowledge of the city’s guard patrols to evade them and head for the wall which should be about to be attacked at that point in time.”

Are you certain that you’re not pushing this plan of action because of your personal reasons?” Cecil asks. “And don’t get mad, I’m asking honestly.”

It’s fine.” He grunts. “You know people but I know soldiers and conscripts. Discipline and rules are ingrained into them through training. Added to that is the fact that most grow up to see Nobles as people who naturally hold power over them, regardless of right and wrong. This means that if we want to convince those they command, we need to show them that even these titled Nobles are just as human as they are. Elizabeth’s duel did much to push the idea, but the fresh reminder will be what makes or break your plan.” He explains, his cheeks red from the passionate diatribe.

The general sentiment about the war is negative. I worked hard to achieve that result.” Cecil says. “Perhaps, that clouded my view. People feel like they shouldn’t have been dragged in one of Nobility’s power plays, one that brought creatures who never threatened Caeviel.”

But that is not enough to get them to turn on their officers or lay down arms without orders. What you’re attempting is quite different from provoking a rout, Cecil.” Androw says with a smile. “I hope it works for you, but I need to reiterate that we will be leaving with Baron Nadir in our custody as soon as we regroup.”

“What will do you to him?” I speak up.

Get him to apologize to my daughter in her grave.” He says firmly, his resolved expression mirrored by his two companions. “If you succeed and Cecil sets up that council she spoke of, then perhaps the Baron should stand trial. Otherwise, I will give him a weapon and see whether he runs away or not in the face of death.”

You’re a better person than I am. I wouldn’t have put Father’s killer on trial.” I whisper to myself. “Those that you fail to capture alive, bring their severed heads.” I add out loud.

To what end?” Androw asks.

It’ll be useful to convince Nobility I’m not bluffing when I threaten them.” I reply coldly.

I lay back in my seat, listening as they continue to discuss. The conversation soon turns laborious as they split their tasks so I stand and get to the stove to start making tonight’s meal. Androw and his companions leave early, confirming that they’ll be at the docks tomorrow morning.

I eat alone with Aisha as Cecil leaves to collect the clothes carrying our target’s scents. I train for a few hours and go to bed, eager to see the morning’s sun.

— — —

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