It took the royal guards hours to arrive, long after the sun had cleared the edge of the eastern wall and alighted upon the bloody mess in the courtyard below the tower. I watched from the tower’s highest balcony, while through the open doors behind me the princess waited to appear and reveal her survival. From the castle proper marched a single column of armored figures, two abreast and five deep, bearing gleaming pikes and swaddled in the blue and gold of the Von Shelsburgs’ Garde du Corps. Glancing down, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the comparison to my own men, bundled into patched mail and scarred leather, with their blades worn but sharp and their eyes even more so beneath their hooded cloaks.
“Can your men handle this, without it becoming a bloodbath?”
Turning slightly, I grinned at the princess from the corner of my eye.
“Hardly. They are killers, thieves, sinners of the lowest circle and monsters of the highest order. If I leave them to it, your family’s guards will be swimming in their own blood before their shiny little blades see any use.”
The princess’s eyes narrowed as she moved forward to stand beside me, glaring down into the courtyard where my remaining seven men had spread into a semi-circle around the entrance of the tower, hands on their blades as they awaited the approaching guardsmen.
“They are only seven- How could they possibly out match ten royal guards, armored and armed in the finest fashion?”
“Easily enough, actually. All it would require is a bit of speed, and some foresight. You see, all royal guards share the same weakness, regardless of what kingdom you find them in. They are always considered the best of the best, the crème de la crème, and when so many people call you the best it becomes difficult to not believe the rumors, leading to a sense of superiority and over-confidence. Look at the way they’re marching, with their weapons in the air like it’s a parade. On average, it would take each of them at least one full second to lower their weapons and prepare for combat, longer if they happen to be behind one of their comrades because then they will need to maneuver around said comrade to have a clear line of sight. In comparison, my men can draw their blades and be upon them in less than four seconds, which means that they would be just preparing their strikes as my men finished their own.”
The princess still seemed unconvinced, so I shrugged my shoulders and turned my full attention back to the courtyard.
“If you wish it, milady, I can provide a demonstration at a later date. For now, however, I would greatly appreciate it if you could make your way down to the courtyard and explain the situation to your family’s shiny toys.”
She snorted lightly at that, then stepped back from the balcony and headed for the stairs, her knight close behind her. The maid moved to follow, but I called her back.
“Lady Consta, there is a matter we need to clarify before much more time passes. My men can be explained away as personal guards hired after the royal guard’s failure, and anyone who knows of the succession conflict won’t question the move, not after last night. However, for me to move about at court and facilitate milady’s rise, I will need some sort of cover. A role, or a title, preferably simple and inconspicuous.”
Consta scowled at me, but remained silent in thought for a few short moments.
“There are few titles that milady can grant on her own authority, just Master of the Household, which is my title, Royal Representative and Lady’s Guard, which both belong to Sir Conrad, and Royal Tutor, which belongs to…”
She trailed away at that, but she didn’t need to elaborate. The title of Royal Tutor had, until recently, belonged to Clause- The princess’s surrogate father. There was little doubt in my mind that the emotions attached to the title would be mixed at best, even if the princess did grant it to me. However, I needed a title, and trying to claim a title already held by one of the princess’s retainers would simply breed even more enmity, which I hardly needed at this point in time.
“I see. Well, please mention my concerns to milady, if you would. And before you feel the need to inform me, I have no intention of replacing or substituting for milady’s loss. I lay no claim to the memories attached to the title, simply the title itself.”
The maid remained silent as I walked past her, quickly descending the stairs two at a time until I came upon the princess and her knight near to the exit from the tower.
“My, that was faster than I expected. How did it go, milady?”
She sighed wearily.
“They were shocked, it was easy enough to see. It seems I can truly rely on no one outside of this tower anymore. I simply ordered them to ignore your men, and to clear away the bodies. Clause and my guards are going to be buried in the noble quarter in a few days, so until then I had the guards move the bodies to the burial preparation rooms beneath the castle itself. I am going to go rest now, unless there is anything else?”
I simply shook my head, then bowed slightly and waited for her to begin climbing the stairs before spinning in place and striding through the exit into the dawn morning just in time to watch the guards hoist the last of the bodies over their shoulders and begin their retreat towards the castle, blood still dripping from a few wounds here and there.
As the guards disappeared into the distance, another group of figures made their appearance from the east, near where we had first snuck into the castle. As they drew closer, I could make out both Thremsold and Kresol, and behind them six more men, all dressed in what passed for the company’s uniform- a chain tunic over dark breeches, alongside leather boots and bracers. The newcomers lacked the dark cloaks that served as the de facto symbol of my unit, but nonetheless I was certain- These were the men the Captain would have chosen to stay behind and guard the company’s coffers and storage chests. In all likelihood they were novices or mediocre fighters, but we needed the numbers and I knew the ideal trainer to help whip the newest members of the Nails into shape. All I had to do was find them, which was actually my next order of business.
“Got as much as we could, bo- Sir. The innkeep made a fuss about payment, something about wartime rates and hazard pay, but settled down after I offered to pay in steel. Anyway, we managed to snag both the coffers, your chest, and we also crammed all the personal shit we could find into the trunks those sods are carrying.”
Gesturing behind him as he came to a stop before me, Thremsold jerked his head over his shoulder to indicate the two large chests carried between the newcomers. Under his own arms were two small chests, one wood and steel and the other solid metal of an indeterminate (and irrelevant) element. Beside him stood Kresol, his brother, his identical image in every way except that he only carried one chest, this one also purely metallic. Nodding, I turned and gestured to the barracks we had taken over.
“Good work. Leave the coffers and my chest here, and take the ones with gear into the bunkhouse. Thremsold, you go in there, and take two or three of the men at a time to sort out who wants what. Make sure any disputes are settled, I don’t want infighting right now. And when you finish with that, send a few of the men to get buckets and wash this damn courtyard. It looks like a slaughteryard’s dumping grounds. ”
The twin with one chest snapped a familiarly sloppy salute, set his chest on the ground, and made his way towards the bunkhouse as he gestured for the others to follow, leaving me to stand slightly confused and alone in the courtyard.
I sighed lightly as I realized that, once again, I had gotten the twins confused.
“I am one case of mistaken identity from tattooing their names over their eyes.”
Grumbling, I turned to pick up the chests and found myself jaw-to-top-of-head with a silently staring princess. I admit it, I jumped slightly- She was shockingly quiet, and lacked any physical presence.
“Ah. Milady. I thought you had gone to rest? What can I do for you?”
Stepping back slightly to alleviate the height difference, I looked down into the emerald pools of her eyes. Narrowed, glinting emerald eyes.
“Do you intend to stay with your men?”
Slightly confused by the question, I began to move around and collect the slightly scattered chests as I answered.
“Of course I do- My options are quite limited as far as housing goes, and renting a room in an inn would simply be far too costly in both time and wealth to be of any real value. I have little less than a full year to deliver on my word, after all. Milady.”
Finally succeeding in stacking all three chest in a precarious pile, I knelt and gathered them into my arms before rising and making my cumbersome way towards the barracks.
I halted and turned slightly to face the princess, whose face was twisted slightly as though she were mulling something over.
Before I could finish my question, the princess raised her hand and turned towards the tower entrance.
And so follow I did, waddling slightly and straining under the weight of three fully-loaded chests as I followed the princess across the plaza and through the entry doors held open by Mulsata and Nulba. We halted before the still-closed door to Clause’s room, and stood silently for a moment before the princess turned to face me.
“I have put my faith in you thus far, so I may as well take the final step. So long as you serve me, you shall reside in the same hall as I, just as Conrad and Consta do, and as Clause… once did.”
Again, before I could respond or question her in any way, the princess turned and pressed lightly on the door, opening it into a dusky room lit only by a single eastward facing window.
Much like the princess’s room, the walls were hidden behind countless books and their shelves, with some shelves projecting off the walls to form other, impromptu walls that shielded a cozy sleeping nook crammed with a respectable-sized bed and an overcrowded nightable overflowing with, you guessed it, more books and scrolls. To one side of the room stood a grand table spread with maps and terrain markers, and what looked suspiciously like the markers generals would use to plan a battle. At one corner sat a game board with pieces lined neatly beside it, set with two of the four large and cushioned chairs that stood near to the table. The remainder of the room was taken up by a large array of stuffed chairs and rugs strewn before a large, cold fireplace, over which hung a mantle set with figurines and a single small book on a stand.
Stepping past the princess, I moved to set the coffers and chest on the large table, then moved to stand in the center of the room, taking it all in.
“Are you certain, milady?”
“I would not have opened the door if I were not. Your men already control the bottom level of the tower and the surrounding area, so if you mean to betray me, having you live within the tower is hardly any more dangerous. And perhaps by doing this, I might secure some favor in your eyes.”
At the last of her words I chuckled and turned to face her.
“Most people would not have added that last bit aloud, milady.”
“Most people do not find themselves in the situation I do.”
Chuckling again, I moved to the game board upon the table and examined the pieces set beside it.
“Cambrian Chess, Mora’s Demise, Drasfund, and… Is that Fortune’s Favor? This is quite the collection here, milady. I assume you play?”
“Of course. When one has nothing but time, and a voracious gamer for a tutor, they soon learn that there are far too many excuses to play games instead of studying.”
“Ah, but are not many of these games renowned for being used as aids by novice gamers and marching generals alike? For example, I know for certain that while Drasfund can stretch the tolerance of one’s patience, it is also quite the effective representation of managing a large trading guild- Provided the rules are followed, and a competent opponent is prepared.”
She looked at me in open surprise, and I smiled pleasantly in return.
“When would a mercenary have had the time to learn and play Drasfund? It’s hardly a popular game, even among those who comprehend the topic.”
“Should we find ourselves with the time, milady, I shall enlighten you over a game. However, since neither of us have a free day readily available, that shall need to wait. Now, I must commit quite the social sin; First, thank you for the honor you have bestowed upon me. Secondly, I need to ask a favor of you.”
She tilted her head inquisitively, even as her eyes narrowed.
“You may ask.”
“I will require eleven more of the pendants you have supplied us- Six for the men that you saw arrive, and five more for the people I intend to recruit. We can house a total of twenty within the guardhouse, and I happen to have caught word of five survivors from another elite unit within the company. They would be a significant boost our strength, and would fill out the roster for patrols and the like.”
“That is hardly a true favor- I have far more pendants than I’ll ever need.”
“For now, perhaps. But once things get truly underway, you’ll have need of them. Regardless, that was not the favor I wished to ask. I would like your knight to accompany me and four of my men to recruit the survivors.”
Her eyes narrowed even more, and a suspicious light glinted within them.
“And why do you need Conrad? He’s hardly an experienced negotiator, and has little experience in actual combat if you think a fight is in the offing.”
Chuckling, I shook my head as I continued to explore the room, noting many classics and contemporaries among the tomes on the shelves.
“Oh, In the Shadow of the Peach Tree? I’m very fond of that story. And no, milady, I require neither his wit nor his strength. Simply his presence will suffice- The survivors are currently residing in your dungeon, after all.”
The dungeons of the Von Shelsburg castle were certainly deserving of their local moniker- “The Devil’s Pits.” Located in a series of tunnels layered throughout the hill the castle was set upon, the seemingly endless corridors and secluded rooms had seen far more than their fair share of bloodshed, torture, intrigue and desperation. Many of the previous Von Shelsburgs had shown a taste for the more, shall we say sadistically-inclined arts, and more than one political opponent had been coerced into signing a confession under the current king.
I had been smart to request the knight- Getting access to the pits would have been nigh impossible to do without bloodshed had he been absent. As it stood, his presence merely guaranteed that my men and I weren’t immediately clapped in irons as we began our descent in search of the surviving company members, followed by two wary guardsmen. I found my quarry on the third level, after nearly an hour of fruitless searching, one level above where noble prisoners awaiting their execution would reside.
The third level, like all the others, consisted of a small antechamber set off the winding staircase that was carved into the hill, and within stood two more guards in the puffed up uniforms and ridiculous trousers of the Bradenia First, the group from which the Garde du Corps members were drawn. Past the antechamber, and through two heavily barred doors of wood and iron, stretched a long corridor lined on either side by four large cells where most common brigands or revolutionaries would spend their last few pitiful days. Beyond the communal cells, at the very end of the dark and roughly hewn stone hall, stood a large chamber where especially difficult, or extremely unfortunate, prisoners would be housed.
I say housed, but in reality the room was nothing more than a collection of cramped iron cages, such as one might use for trapping beasts or transporting animals, stacked atop one another in a rusty pyramid in the center of the room. Most stood empty- The current king, while by no means an especially just or kind ruler, did at least have one bright point- He was extremely capable at expediting the executions of those interned within his prisons. However one cage, the one acting as the corner of the pyramid closest to the hallway, contained a woman- Naked, her pale flesh and generous curves fully on display, alongside her extremely pale-blonde hair, though the latter was streaked with filth.
I had entered the room alone- Two of my men stood blocking the hallway, their backs to the room, while the remainder and the knight had gone to secure the release of the four company men I had noted in the communal cells. I had also seen a number of mercenaries from other troops, but I felt no need to risk inviting outsiders into our merry little band of killers and nobility, so they would not be receiving any last-minute reprieves from the hangman’s noose- At least, not from me.
The woman moved to face me as I approached, shifting her long veil of silver-and-brown hair so as to reveal her face more fully, a face that I knew would be comprised of luscious lips, noble cheekbones, a thin-yet-tall nose, and a dangerously sharp pair of pale blue eyes. As those eyes lit upon me, a smile spread across her face in a nearly flawless image of delight, and my instincts began to howl like wolves in the back of my mind.
“Willhemet! What a wonderful surprise! I honestly never expected to see you down here. At least, not outside of one of these boxes. Do the royal fools know what sort of monster stalks their halls?”
I forced a chuckle- A rare situation, what with my general state of amusement, but Jules Verstain had always made me slightly more nervous than I could reasonably explain away.
“Jules. Why is it that whenever we meet off the battlefield, you happen to be naked? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you in a proper state of dress.”
She smirked at me through the rusty bars of her cage.
“I never heard you complain all those nights I kept you company in my tent. Speaking of which, I don’t suppose you’ve come to free an old friend? This box isn’t exactly a fancy inn, as you can see. Hell, I’d take my tent over this, and you’ve seen how thin and poorly insulated that thing is.”
I had in fact. But the issue I faced was not simply one of inserting a key into a lock. Rather, I needed a way to secure the loyalty- or at least the servitude- of the exceptionally dangerous creature before me.
“Well, Jules, there’s the snag. See, I have once again found myself the victim of a very curious set of circumstances, and I find myself in need of warm bodies. Now, your men down the hall? I’ve already set things in motion, and they’ll be free soon enough- So long as they swear to me, of course. With that, my Nine Nails will have swelled to nineteen in total, and I only have one empty spot left. Now, I’ll gladly use you to fill that slot, but there are conditions, namely the following: You will follow my orders to the letter, you will not act against my interests, and you will not simply leave the moment you feel bored.”
As I spoke, Jules narrowed her eyes and her smile became more predatory.
“Well, as far as warm bodies go, I’m more than capable of fulfilling that requirement. As for the other fluff, well, let’s put that aside for now. Tell you what, Will, let me out and I’ll remind you of just how warm my body can be.”
I dropped the grin, and with it the pretences.
“Covering yourself in my fresh blood doesn’t count. I know you, Jules. And while I may not know how the Captain secured your service for so long, I do know this- You will serve me, or you will die on the dawn with the other traitors.”
Her smile fell away slightly, leaving only the faintest hint of amusement.
“What do suggest then, Will? I know you as well, don’t forget, and I know no words of mine will ever convince you of my sincerity. What was it you said when we fought that troop of knights? ‘Honor, chivalry, trust, all the trappings of men too weak to properly lead with their own strength?’ And as for the Captain, well that’s simple- He kept me entertained.”
I sighed and slipped a hand beneath my cloak, seizing the handle of my smallest blade and pulling the curved dagger into the flickering torchlight. I tossed it onto the ground within reach of the cage bars.
“I’ll tell you how- You’ll make a choice. Left or right.”
Jules looked at me, first in confusion, then in surprise, then finally in consternation.
“Really? Is that truly necessary?”
I shrugged and tapped my foot.
“Your choice- Stay in the box, or cut one out. I would suggest the left one- You fight better with your right side. But either way, make a decision, I don’t have all day.”
She grimaced at me again, then stretched out and scooped up the knife. I watched emotionlessly as she ran her thumb over the blade, then sighed and began to raise the curved tip of the dagger upwards.
“Do I really need to do this?”
I simply nodded. It was a gamble, what I was doing, but I couldn’t think of another way to ensure that she would remain nearby. And Jules Verstain was far too useful to simply let hang.
“Feel free to hate me. I would, in your position.”
She grinned at me again through the bars, though this time it was more of a feral snarl.
“Oh, I’ve always hated you, Will. I always have, and I always will.”
So saying, she carefully drove the dagger into her left eye, twisting it once in a savage motion that sent blood and bits of eyeball spraying into the air.
As a single agonized cry filled the tunnel, I let out a small sigh and moved forward to unlock the cage with the key I had received earlier from the head guardsman, after much grumbling and threatening. All my pieces were assembled now- Footsoldiers, Knights, Wildcards, and Royalty. All the chess pieces I would need to fulfill my promise, and my desire.
As I crushed a bit of splattered eye beneath my boot, I grinned down at Jules and unlocked the cage, stepping back quickly so as to avoid any feral strikes from the dagger she still clutched in one bloody hand.
“You can come out now. Welcome to the game, Jules. I look forward to you showing me just how warm you can be.”