I pull myself out of my slumber. Today is the day. I hop out of bed and grab the basin to clean up, spending half an hour getting rid of every little smudge of dirt. I thoroughly wash my hair and wipe the last stains of blood from my mask before putting it on.
Once done, I pick clean white clothes with long sleeves to hide my glove and dress up. I grab the wooden case containing the clay vials and the set the one with my equipment under my left arm.
I push aside the tarp separating my section with the main room. Aisha and Cecil are dressed up with dark outfits. The map of the city on the table has more lines than it did last time I looked, several of them highlighting paths of escape. Aisha is carrying a wicker basket with shirts, socks, and pants inside.
“Those hold our target’s scents.” Cecil says.
“Okay. Feeling ready?” I ask.
“As much as we can be.” Aisha nods.
“Whether or not we succeed, Meria will have fallen by tomorrow.” I tell them. “Stay alive, the Izla will need leadership.”
“I have no intention of dying.” Cecil says with a smile. “Let’s meet these creatures, I’m rather curious.”
She picks up the map while Aisha sets bread and smoked meat on a piece of cloth that she ties into a small package. We depart, walking along the docks with the sea to our right.
There is only a single ship anchored to a pier, a galley waving Duke Meria’s flag. That may be why there are much fewer people on the docks than there were yesterday, all those who could leave already have.
Rob, Cecil’s employee, is there with Androw, Liam, and Louise. They’re waiting for us in-between the warehouses. They are carrying swords at their waists and wearing hard leather armors under their hooded cloaks. Attached to their belts are large handkerchiefs.
“To hide our faces.” Androw speaks up, likely having noticed the direction of my gaze.
I nod and directly walk up to the backdoor, unlocking it. I hold it open for everyone to enter the building, stepping in behind them. The darkness is pierced only by the rare ray of light that makes it through the wooden wall’s planks. I lay down the two wooden cases I’m carrying.
They’re all holding in place, hesitating to move from where they stand and apparently not daring to assemble fire constructs to see their surroundings. I take hold of a flow torch and light it up, handing it over to them.
“Don’t worry, I have what I need to ensure that there’s no problem.” I say, showing the case containing the clay vials. “It comes directly from a Princess so it should be more effective than even the University’s stuff. Don’t attack and they won’t either.”
“I’ll watch from here if you don’t mind.” Louise speaks up and the other two nod in agreement.
I shrug and make my way to the first crate, pulling the lid and laying it down on the ground. Aisha helps me take the rest of the covers off while Androw lights up some more torches. Cecil stands with the other two, scrutinizing the drones and occasionally glancing at me.
“See, no problem.” I tell Louise and Liam, pointing at the lethargic Rykz. “Grab a barrel. Androw, help Aisha pour the flour.”
I tap a harvester’s rolled up shell. It awakens and uses its legs to push itself out of the crate, rising to its full height. They hold their breaths, watching the large creature stand. I exert a slight pressure on its back to direct it towards the trough at the center of the room. I move on and wake all the harvesters up.
“Break the chunks.” I speak up, they’re all warily staring at the Rykz who are forming ranks.
“Mindless but effective indeed.” Androw comments, face revealing his dislike. “Will they be able to fight with these injuries?” He glances at the harvester with a broken arm.
“Without an issue.” I confirm.
As the morning goes by, they get more comfortable with the drones. They help me cover them with the horse cloaks, which we end up having to cut in a few places because the hems are constraining their leg’s range of movement.
None of us use constructs, choosing to keep our reserves maxed out in prevision for tonight. I get the drones to form ranks in front of the barred double doors in both warehouses.
“What do you think?” I ask Androw.
“That they look odd but not immediately recognizable.” He replies. “We’ll be able to go by during nighttime, but eventually someone is going to alert the guards.”
“Is that a problem?” I question.
“No, we’ll move faster than the news. Still, something to keep in mind.” He says.
“Alright, are we done for now Elizabeth?” Cecil asks.
“Yea.” I nod.
“Let’s eat then.” Aisha speaks up enthusiastically.
We climb and take a seat on the empty crates to have our meal. I slide my mask askew and devour my chunk of bread along with a small slice of smoked meat. Androw is pensive while Cecil’s eyes remain trained on me.
“What is it?” I ask.
“I want to discuss what happens next.” She replies.
“Tomorrow.” I say.
“I want you to take a spot in the council I’ll put together. There is some… criticism about your violent ways and dealings with the Rykz.” Cecil explains. “It would be beneficial if you took an active part in restoring the peace.”
“I’ve told you before that Elizabeth Vil is a temporary persona. Besides, they are correct in thinking twice about following my example. Violence should not become an end, it must be a last resort and I have not used it as such.” I reply firmly.
“The problem is that many agree with your methods, Elizabeth. You need to set the course.” She argues.
“I cannot remain in Meria, Cecil. I have an obligation to see this through which means that I will probably leave before the Rykz army does. I’m sure you can find a better figurehead.” I say.
“Not among peasantry.” Cecil objects.
“That’s just as well.” I comment thoughtfully. “Your council can rule lawfully by itself, there is no need for a flawed flag bearer.”
“There needs to be a counter-balance. You’re perfect for the role since you have enough power and dedicated support from the peasantry that they would be wary of defying you. It would offset unrest if you’re there to show that the bourgeois in the council aren’t a new kind of Nobility.” Cecil argues.
“Ask the Templars.” I shrug. “It is their role to provide balance, make them take a more proactive part.”
“If they make it through the night.” She sighs. “The morning has reassured me somewhat about the Rykz’ ability to discern friend and foe but temple guards aren’t known for laying down their weapons. I suppose I’ll send a warning to their Temple after we’ve secured the prisoners.”
“Trust me I’ve seen them fight the Rykz, the Templars won’t fall unless they make the mistake of attacking a Princess head on again and I doubt they will.” I say.
Androw and his two companions concur with my assessment. We finish eating in silence as the atmosphere grows heavier because of the deadline looming over our heads.
“I’m going to get ready.” I speak up, hopping off my crate.
I make my way to the long wooden case holding my gear. I carefully put my hard leather armor on. It smells like blood and iron, like battle, death. I grow nervous but I focus on tightening the straps that hold the protective gear in place. The feel of it around my body allows me to relax a little, despite the restraint places on my breasts.
I fit my chain-mail over my shoulders, securing it by fastening my belt around my waist. I turn my back on them to take the mask off to set my helmet on. I grab the broken silver lion pommel sword and wedge it under the belt before taking hold of my hammer.
“How long until nightfall?” I ask.
“Let’s see.” Androw says, making his way to the door. He opens it slightly and throws a look outside. “It’s about two in the afternoon, so in seven hours at least.”
I nod and open the other wooden case. I take a couple of clay vials containing the friendly pheromones and tie them to my belt with leather strings, next to my mask. I then hand the case over to Androw.
“The ones with black dots are for you and as a safety if you need to mark children as friendlies.” I tell him. “The others we’ll open before we go. You can remove the cork or break them.”
“Noted.” He nods.
“Can you show me the map?” I ask Cecil.
She unrolls it and lays it down on the ground. I look for the small mansion between the eastern and southern quarter, near the center of Meria. There is an avenue that goes from the docks and crosses a street very close to it.
It might be safer to use it since, as far as I recall, there are mostly shops along the way. Those will be closed because of curfew so there will be fewer people around than if I go through a residential area.
“What do you think, would I have a better chance of getting by undetected if I take that avenue rather than the alleys?” I ask.
“Yes, but make sure you only engage on it after you’ve made it out of the piers. There are almost always drunk sailors breaking curfew.” Androw answers.
I spend the next hours staring at the map, not even talking, simply memorizing because Cecil will be bringing it with her since they’re the ones who’ll need it most. We’re supposed to meet in a courtyard at the south-west corner, near the section of the wall that they’re going to compromise by taking out its officers.
The afternoon goes by at an excruciatingly slow pace that only serves to make me tenser. To occupy myself, I call to review the plan several times. Androw goes along with it, the only test to his discipline seems to be his grim determination to set it in motion. Aisha, on the other hand, is biting her nails.
“No weapons?” I ask.
“I have a dagger.” Rob says, showing the small weapon behind his back.
“Aisha and I have a better chance of making it out safely without one. One of the few tenets Nobility still respects, to a point, is that they don’t attack unarmed civilians.” The Madame replies.
“Tell that to the Duke.” Liam comments with a dark frown.
“I concede the point. Still, we would attract unwanted attention if we drew blades and we are capable of defending ourselves to a degree. It is safer for us to appear non-threatening.” She explains.
“I can see the sense in that.” Androw agrees.
I nod, recalling how Teva wore hers but never seemed ready or able to actually use it. I doubt Cecil, or even Aisha, would balk at the sight of blood but their argument seems sensible.
Two more hours later, the tiny rays of sunlight filtering in from outside finally show signs of weakening. I lay down my hammer to start walking back and forth, fighting my impatience.
“It’ll be time to send the message soon.” I speak up.
“You want to write it?” She asks.
“Yes.” I say.
Cecil searches a pouch at her side, taking a small piece of parchment out along with a small ink bottle and a quill. I take the items off her hands and set them on the crate. I write as few words as possible. It’ll rattle her.
‘Alone. Crossing of the 4th and 5th streets.‘
I take hold of the broken sword and drop a few drops of ink on the pommel’s silver lion head. I then take the piece of parchment and press its clear back on the pommel, marking the back. I check the result, it’s slightly smudged but I can definitely recognize the image. And with how crumpled the message is, there should be no doubt in her mind.
I softly blow on the ink to help it dry quicker, dreamily imagining the coming fight. Pinning my Lady, tearing her down so that she experiences the path I took, revealing my face as the last blow. Feeling my bloodlust rise, I shake my head.
Aisha walks up to me, her hand held out. I fold the paper in two and extend it out. She seizes it but waits a few seconds, staring eye to eye, before taking it. She leaves the warehouse, opening and closing the backdoor in a flash.
“Are you confident in being able to defeat the Duke after battling the Countess?” Androw suddenly asks.
“I’ll have the Rykz to count on.” I reply. “And a trump card.” I add, thinking of the runic construct on my sleeve glove.
“He isn’t at his peak power.” Cecil notes. “But don’t let your guard down, the fact that he hasn’t shown himself in days is worrying in itself.”
“We’ll see.” I dismiss the concern, what matters now is my battle with Leomi.
Aisha comes back about twenty minutes later, as the sun gives out its last rays for the day.
“I passed it along to a runner, it’ll reach her soon.” She says.
“Good.” I grin. “Let’s get ready then.”
I walk up to the case and take out the clay vials that aren’t marked with black dots, handing them over to the others. They uncork them and pass through the Rykz’ ranks with them while I tap the shoulder of each of the hundred warriors to pull them aside.
The scouts and harvesters organize in three groups that each contain five squads of ten. We move on to the other warehouse and do the same before unbarring the front double doors. Cecil keeps an eye out while I turn to the others.
“Ready?” I ask them. “Now’s the time to pull out.”
“Ready.” Androw replies with a serious expression.
“This is our chance to create something new. Nobility needs to go for that to happen.” Aisha speaks up, surprising me.
“Well said.” I nod.
Androw distributes the vials marked with a black dot and they pop the corks off. Aisha then takes the clothes out of the wicker basket and hands two to each of them. I pull the double doors open while Rob does the same for the other building.
“This is it, let’s go.” I say, towards the Rykz and the humans.
The drones pour out of the warehouses in order. Their legs hit the pavement with muted clicking sounds, it is audible but not too overt. I wave at the two columns of a hundred warriors and take their lead, immediately guiding them into an alley. The others take the same route but take a turn at the second crossing.
“Good luck.” Androw says.
“May the Emperor bless us.” I reply in a whisper.
The scout and harvester squads follow those who opened the vial containing their orders. The cloaks, made for horses, don’t seem to be hindering their ability to move around or detect their surroundings.
I would recognize their figures as belonging to Rykz at first sight but it shouldn’t be the case for most others. I assemble an enhancing construct for my eyesight and one for my hearing.
I feel oddly at peace. I’m a little worried about being spotted but I’m past hesitation now. This is it. This is the moment that will decide if the battle for Meria ends in slaughter or the birth of something new. Sadly, I won’t be around long enough to witness what Cecil plans to enact.
We reach the end of the alley and I raise my hand while slowing down. The warriors stop behind me. I throw a glance to either side. Most windows have their shutters closed and there is no light coming out of half of those who aren’t.
I take a right and cross over to the left side of the street because there are more open windows giving out torchlight. We’ll be less likely to be seen if we pass under them.
I make my way with the two hundred warriors. Unfortunately, they’re making some noise and people are curious by nature so some throw glances out and observe our passing. I set my hammer on my shoulder and grit my teeth, a single scream could sound the alarm as it would be heard by city guards who would then check the area.
“What is it?” A woman asks.
“It’s dark, looked vaguely like tall cattle though.” An adolescent answers.
I sigh and accelerate my pace. We’re making too much noise anyway, might as well hurry along. I count the streets as we pass them and when we reach the 6th, I take a right turn between two large buildings with no signs of inhabitants.
Once all the warriors are hidden between the structures. I stop and ponder how to get them to stay here for a moment. I decide to simply hold out my hand as I walk backward. They follow along. I slam the ground with my boot and they stop.
I take a few more steps distance and they remain in position. I turn and make my way to the small mansion by taking a left on the 5th street, soon arriving at the crossing with the 4th.
There are two guards outside of the building, sitting under the porch like those I saw yesterday. A man and a woman throwing dice in a large bowl, they’re both wearing clean-cut clothes and have swords at their side.
I walk up to them while assembling two lion strikes. They watch me with suspicion at first but it is soon drowned out by surprise and fearful recognition.
“Elizabeth Vil.” I say, giving them a small bow. “You two have something of a choice to make right now.”
They stare at me, pointedly avoiding the mean looking hammer resting on my shoulder. After a while, I incline my head sideways to provoke a reaction.
“W, what kind of choice?” The man asks.
“Well, you either decide that your duty is to go home to your families and barricade your doors or…” I say, deliberately trailing off.
“Or?” The woman questions.
“Or you make noise and cause me a minor inconvenience before I knock you out.” I shrug, taking a step to put them within range of my weapon.
“The mansion is empty, Lady Vil.” She affirms, fidgety.
“I know.” I reply. “Which means it isn’t worth it for you, is it?”
“There’s a… reason we’re here. The Duke wouldn’t be happy with us if we just left.” The man argues.
“Meria will have bigger things to worry about before the night is over, I promise you that. Just say I knocked you out if it makes you feel better, same result except you’re not risking your skulls.” I say. They swallow nervously, still hesitating. “Go home.” I order them in a harsh tone.
The two share a quick glance, nodding almost at the same time. They suddenly take off at a running pace. Shit, are they going to… Nah, they’re not calling for help or alarming anyone, just escaping. I sigh in relief and wait until they fade into the distance before making my way back to the Rykz.
I guide them to the mansion without incident. I press my left hand against the door’s lock and leverage its strength to attempt to force it open. I fail at first, ending up having to find firm footing to use the two lion strikes I prepared. I activate them in close succession to ensure that I break through the reinforced frame and lock. The wood cracks with a dry sound.
I walk in with the Rykz on my heels, making my way to the door leading into the backyard. I unlock it from the inside and manage to get all of the warriors in. I then search the bookshelf concealing the passage to the castle.
I find several and sigh, deciding to simply test them all. It takes me a bit to go through them all and none of them move even a single centimeter aside. I frown and almost make my way upstairs, despite how unlikely it would be for a secret passage’s entrance to be located there.
I realize in time, before ridiculing myself, that I only tried to make them move from right to left. Groaning, I test them all again and this time discover the underground tunnel behind a shelf containing large record books without titles on their spines.
The stairs leading down are made of oak and the pillars holding the railings are carved with stag heads. I frown at the unnecessary expense and close it again. At least that tells me that this probably leads inside the keep.
I head to the front of the mansion and close the door, blocking it with a chair, I then slide an armchair in front of a window that gives on the 4th and 5th street’s crossing.
I wait there with my hammer on my lap, stroking its handle that ends in a spike as I imagine how it would feel to pin my Lady down with it. My heartbeat grows faster, stronger. Time elapses, I spend it counting the seconds separating me from her.