As I predicted, the royal army faced little resistance during its push to retake the city, easily breaking through the disorganized and weary forces at the gates before spreading throughout the city to cut down any bearing blades or crests not of the royal family or their noble supporters. Personally, I suspect that more than just the rebellious nobles and merchants were cut down- In all likelihood, the King seized upon an opportunity to execute a brutal and easily excusable purge of the kingdom’s upper crust, something he had been threatening to do for years.

The battlements of the castle provided me with a commanding view of the city as I awaited the destruction of the mercenary band I had called my home for years. From my perch, I could see the tall city gates thrown wide by the charging Bradenian calvary, pennants snapping behind them. Following the calvary came a stream of torches, not unlike a parade of angry red ants, that would group up and then disperse throughout the city at a moments notice. Above the wind rushing past me I could hear the screams of men and horses, and while it was likely a trick of the mind, I could have sworn I smelled the iron tang of spilled blood as well. Grimly, I watched as the various mercenaries in service to “Das Rosen Gericht” desperately tried to halt or slow the flow of the Bradenian soldiers, to no avail. Every time the torches were halted in their advance, it was but for a moment, and soon the battle was all but lost.

After the flow of battle had turned irreversibly against them, most of the surviving mercenary forces cast off their badges and slipped away into the populace of the grand city, disappearing into back alleys and slums from which they could depart once the unrest had been quelled. However, for my former company, no such luck presented itself. I learned after the battle that the Lieutenant and his forces had been struck down to a man after having been surrounded by loyalist forces still fighting in the noble quarter. The Devil’s Dogs were similarly defeated, though I did learn through a bit of bribery that Verstain and four of her best fighters had been captured alive, and mostly in one piece. The remainder of the company found itself penned in by advancing royalist forces, and after a brief, desperate battle was broken and annihilated or captured to the last man.

I watched their desperate struggle from atop the walls, alongside four of my men and the princess’s maid, Consta, who had no doubt been sent to keep an eye on the princess’s new retainers. We received some looks askance from the few royal knights standing guard, but Consta’s presence and the pendants now hanging proudly at our necks dissuaded any from challenging our presence. At least, for the moment.

“Poor bastards. Wonder how many were lucky enough to survive that?”

One of my men, Thremsold I think- He was the older of a pair of twins, and I was forever confusing them. I shook my head and corrected him.

“The dead are the lucky ones.The only fate awaiting the ones that survived is a long, painful stint in the dungeons before a short drop and a sudden stop.”

Thremsold scowled, spat off the wall, then spat again.

“Just seems a bad way to repay the Captain and all, us up and disappearing without even a warning. Doesn’t sit right.”

I couldn’t claim to empathise with him- I was a selfish creature, without a doubt, and my survival came before any feelings of sympathy- but I did understand how he felt. Many in the company owed the Captain a debt, either of coin or of blood, and I was one of that number until just recently. And honestly, I had quite liked the man. He was brusque, sharp, and experienced- The ideal battlefield commander, though not very suited to handling the more political aspects of our work. But with the Lieutenant to help him handle logistics and training the men, and myself to handle the more economic and political sectors of our business, our force had seen unprecedented success and growth in the years since I had joined.

So yes, I was a little sad to see his head struck from his shoulders by a mounted knight resplendent in royal colors. Actually, that may have been one of the royal princes, though I couldn’t tell at this distance.

Sighing, I turned away from the slaughter below and walked back along the wall towards the stairs that would take me back to the princess’s tower, where the remainder of my men would be removing the corpses and stripping them for anything of value, material or information, and securing the perimeter against any further threats. A thought occurred to me as I walked, and I turned my head slightly.

“Thremsold.”

He picked up the pace and drew level with me.

“Yeah, boss?”

I sighed again.

“First of all, we are now royal guards. Try to be a little more formal, so I don’t have to try and find a replacement if you get yourself executed. Second, once the city has calmed down slightly, I need you and Kresol to go back to the inn where we left our gear and the company coffer and collect as much stuff as you can. The focus is on gear and coin, with our maps and papers a distant third. Also, the Captain probably left a small contingent of guards- Try and convince them to join us, more bodies are always useful, even if they aren’t exactly up to our level.”

He smirked and snapped a sloppy salute before slowing his pace and falling back into formation, leaving me alone at the head of our little party.

I was not alone for long, however, as the ruffle of cloth beside me alerted me to the presence of the maid- As if her frigid presence chilling my side wasn’t clue enough.

“What do you want, Mercenary?”

I resisted the urge to throw her off the wall there and then, and instead flashed her my most charming grin.

“Why, what all mercenaries want- Gainful employment with limited risk, a solid roof over my head, a kind employer, and a warm hearth to return to after a battle.”

She frowned, a thunderous furrow between her brows expressing her contempt for my answer.

“Don’t lie to me, scum. I know your intentions are far from such simple things. Why else would you dare to seek out my mistress?”

“Well, it certainly wasn’t for the charming company she keeps, I can assure you of that. And I hardly sought her out, rather, circumstances simply conspired to make our partnership mutually beneficial.”
She snorted at that, turning her head up and away from me.

“Too clever by half to be scum, and twice as odorous, so you must be a rat. Tell me, Rat, why should I believe you aren’t simply a charlatan who hopes to take advantage of milady’s position.

Now it was my turn to snort.

“And what ‘position’ would that be? The one where she is attacked in her own home and her servants are slaughtered with impunity? Or perhaps you meant her position as the Third Princess of Bradenia, the absentee royal whom many whisper is deaf and dumb? Hardly positions that inspire jealousy. No, maid, what I desire from milady is the same as what she desires from me- An intelligent and capable partner with whom to conspire, and bring about change in our situation.”

She scowled again, eyes narrowed in distrust, before slowing her pace to fall behind me, though not before tossing in a parting remark.

“The only change I expect you to bring about is all our heads on pikes, and milady left alone to the mercies of her family. I will be watching you, rat.”

I snorted again, before turning and making my way down the spiraling stairs contained within one of the towers set along the walls, exiting the stairway into one of the many gardens that surrounded the castle proper and making my way along the gravel paths that wound their way through the gardens like snakes, heading for the glow of the princess’s tower, noticeably separate from the rest of the castle’s lights.

As we approached, my men split off to take up positions around the circle of light cast by the torches thrust into the earth around the plaza of stone set before the tower’s sole entryway. In the center of said plaza, staining the flagstones red, sat a pile of mutilated corpses stripped to their britches, beside which sat a pile nearly equal in size of armor, cloaks, blades and pouches. A distance away from the would-be assassins lay three bodies, set out cleanly and untouched, covered in a white bedcloth stained red with their life-blood. The loyal door-guards and the unfortunate Clause, who I had learned was the princess’s elderly tutor, and much beloved.

Two of my men stood outside the door to the tower, while two more kept an eye on the attached barracks that would become our new home. If my orders had been followed, there would be one more of my men guarding the secret tunnel through which we had gained entrance to the castle.

Stepping lightly over the red rivers flowing thickly through the gaps between the flagstones, I made my way to the entrance of the tower, exchanging nods with the men on guard- Nulba and Mulsata, our two resident southerners, dark skin shining in the torchlight and and the dawning sun. I turned to Mulsata, the darker of the two, his skin as black as the shadows that wreathed his homeland in the hidden jungles of the far south, and gestured around.

“Any trouble? Or rather, any sign of the guards that should have been protecting their princess?”

He shook his head and grimaced, his teeth a startling white against his skin- Privately, I was certain his was the cleanest set of teeth in the company, and possibly the kingdom.

“No Sihr, naht a sign of dem.”

His accent hung thick over his words, but he spoke with a manner that told of a pride in his adopted language. He was a smart man, despite his lack of learning and heavily scarred features, and I often used him as a surrogate second in command when my actual second was off seeing to my orders.

“Well, be prepared. With the dawn, they’re likely to come skulking back to confirm the princess’s ‘unfortunate’ death. Try not to antagonize them too much, having a pile of bodies next to the tower and a crowd of unfamiliar armed men is likely to lead to some tension regardless. We don’t need some of ours getting hurt over a simple misunderstanding.”

“Yes Sihr. We will be waitin.”

He snapped a far cleaner salute than the one I had received on the wall, before returning his attention to the gardens as I made my way through the entryway and into the tower. Inside, I was tempted by the closed door that lead into the now-deceased Clause’s room, but I instead turned to the stairs and made my way up as the sound of Consta’s footsteps echoed down to me- She had brushed by me while I had been speaking to Mulsata.

I passed quickly by the second floor and made my way up the the third floor landing, where I was once again greeted by the sight of the armored giant- Conrad. This time, however, he had removed his helm, displaying a shockingly young face set with dark brown eyes beneath short curly hair to match. He was seated in a simple wooden chair beside the princess’s door, and his shield was leaning against one armored leg as he ran a whetstone down his longsword. All of his equipment was of high-quality, and half his shield was painted in the blue, gold and red diamonds of the Von Shelsburg’s while the other half was colored by the princess’s personal sigil- The same design set into my pendant- A black bird, reminiscent of a raven, set over a red field beneath a gray sky.

I nodded to Conrad, and received a silent frown in return as I stepped through the doorway and entered the princess’s chambers. The princess was still in her dress from an hour before, but was now seated in one of her plush seats with a large tome open in her lap, a glass of something red and presumably alcoholic set atop a small table beside her. She glanced up at my arrival, and I tactfully ignored her puffy, red eyes.

Drakson.”

I swept a bow.

“Milady. I have returned from witnessing the destruction of my former company. The siege of castle Von Shelsburg is broken, and the dawn has come. It is safe to say that the city will be secured by midday, and the executions of “Das Rose Gericht” shall begin shortly after that.”

She closed the book and set it atop one of the arms of the chair, taking and sipping from the glass beside her as she turned slightly to face me.

Don’t just stand in the doorway- Come take a seat. I have far too few retainers left to stand on propriety.

There was no false friendliness in her voice, just a desire to get on with business. I could appreciate that- Small talk had its place, but that was for friends and acquaintances, in situations where speed was not of the essence, and the bodies of old friends didn’t lay cooling in the yard. I made my way across the room to the chair set directly across from her and sat, sweeping the edges of my cloak back so they wouldn’t catch on the knives and pouches strapped to my chest and sides.

“You still don’t bear a sword, I see.”

“No need, milady. It is now safely ensconced beneath my bed in the barracks, along with all my larger blades. I much prefer gold and my humble wit to steel anyhow.”

I counted at least four knives when your cloak shifted, not including the one you left on my table.”

“Simply because I prefer words and coin does not mean that others feel the same. As for the knife, that was a token of fealty. It is customary for a knight to present his king with a sword, no?”

You are no knight, Drakson.”

“And you are far from a king, milady. Nonetheless, tokens have their place, do they not? Surely you of all people understands the importance of images and figureheads.”

You have been quite insistent about pointing to my lack of power. It is entirely unnecessary- I am well aware of the poor position my supporters and I are in. And if you’ll recall, you number among those now.”

“Perhaps, but you’ll forgive me if I continue to emphasize the reason you hired myself and my men in the first place- I would quite like to retain my value. Besides, your powerlessness is only a temporary matter, and easily rectifiable. What I was referring to was your position as a member of the royal family- You are a symbol of this kingdom’s past, present, and future.”

You mentioned that before- That you would place me upon the throne. I fail to see how you intend to do this, or rather, how you could even contemplate it. Between myself and the throne stand three elder brothers, a slew of dukes and ministers, as well as two elder sisters and every male child conceived of my siblings! The only conceivable way I could ever find myself upon the throne is if God himself reached down to smite every noble male in the kingdom, and even then I would only be seated beside my husband as the powerless queen of two kingdoms.”

I grinned- The princess was entirely correct, if what she said was true. And for the most part it was, with a few exaggerations here and there. But I had a plan to handle that. Rather, I had numerous plans to handle that, though what direction they would take would be decided by how far the princess was willing to go to reach the throne.

I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could utter a word a bookcase swung aside and Consta stepped out, another glass and a crystal decanter in her hands. Within the decanter swirled the same red liquid as what was within the princess’s glass, and I cast a slightly longing gaze at it- I had left my own wineskin within my chest at the inn. To my surprise however, Consta made her way over to me and set the glass on a table beside my chair, filling it to the midway point before making her way quickly over to the princess’s side, as though being in my presence offended her.

“Thank you.”

I nodded to her as I lifted the glass to my lips and swallowed a draught of what turned out to be a fragrant and heady red wine. Sighing in appreciation, I settled back into my chair and refocused my attention on the princess, who watched me in silence.

“As I was about to say, you are entirely correct in your analysis milady. However, you are thinking only along the path of natural succession, a path already abandoned the moment assassination attempts came into play. There are far more options, options such as staging a coup d’etat, or proving yourself to your father and being named Heir to the Throne. Alternatively, we could solicit the aid of outside forces, and then in turn plot to rid ourselves of them once they had served our purpose. However, I find all of these options to be exceedingly unattractive for a plethora of reasons- A coup would be untenable, because along with the suppression of “Das Rose Gericht” the majority of fractious militant elements within the kingdom will be purged, removing any potential for another attempt in the near future. As for being named Heir to the Throne, such a thing may have been possible should you have been much more outspoken and active in your early years at court, and should you have been born a male. But the combination of your age, gender and quiet reputation at court removes any support for that option, rendering it equally untenable. And as for seeking outside aid… Such an action actually carries the most potential for success, and also the greatest risk. The most expedient way to secure such aid would be to enter into a marriage alliance with one of Bradenia’s more powerful enemies, but the outcome of such an alliance would most likely be you as a puppet atop the throne, a course you have already expressed much distaste for.”

She scowled, the first strong expression I had seen cross her face since I watched her slideshow of deliberation during our negotiations.

“All I have heard is a list of attempts either doomed to failure, or leading to an unacceptable outcomeNothing you have said thus far has given credence to your claims, and I am starting to entertain the notion that you are nothing more than an actor that is in love with the sound of his own voice.”

“Patience, milady, patience is all I ask. I have a series of plans that, if properly executed and followed through upon, can indeed see you upon the throne and the majority of power within Bradenia concentrated within your grasp. However…”

Here, I hesitated slightly, knowing that her answer to my next question would determine the direction all of my looming endeavors would take.

“However?”

She prodded me with her voice, traces of the scowl still evident on her face. I breathed in, breathed out, and posed my question.

“However, the direction these plans would take, and indeed if I can go through with a number of them, depends entirely on how far you are willing to go. To what extent are you willing to bear the knowledge of my actions? How much pain and betrayal are you willing to inflict upon those outside of this tower to win? How much can you take?

As I spoke my voice grew rougher, stronger, and I leaned forward to emphasize my words. If the princess was a bleeding heart beneath that quiet exterior, if she was unwilling to strike and only wished to defend, then we were doomed to a war of attrition where we would be hopelessly outnumbered, and no plan of mine could save us then.

The princess’s face went blank as I finished speaking, and she leaned back slightly into her chair as she seemed to contemplate my words. She remained silent for many long moments, so long that I began to fear that her silence would be my answer, and I began to prepare for one last impassioned-yet-logical speech when she suddenly spoke.

“When I was a child, my father was always busy attending to matters of the state, my mother was wrapped in an endless web of social intrigue and gossip, and my sibling were either off learning and training, leading forces, or being married off for alliances and peace treaties. I was incredibly, unbearably alone- Consta had her training and duties as a royal maid, and Conrad was forever training with the royal knights. Many of my tutors viewed me as worthless- a future bargaining chip that only needed to know how to sew, to speak pleasantly, to smile obediently.

Consta shifted awkwardly behind the princess, and I blinked at her apparently-unprompted sharing. Outside the open door, the sounds of the whetstone paused, before continuing far more slowly.

“But, there was one tutor, a man, who didn’t see me as a mere bargaining chip, or as an icon of royalty. He saw me as a young girl who wanted to play with the other children in the castle yard despite her poor health. He saw a child who loved to read, who wanted to talk and be talked to, a child who didn’t want to be alone. He saw that child, and he played with her, taught her games of wit and knowledge that wouldn’t tax her health, he recommended books to that child and held lengthy discussions about them and their meanings after she finished reading them. He became a father, a brother, and a friend all in one body.”

Here she paused and took a single, deep, shuddering breath, fortifying herself.

“As that child grew, he encouraged and supported her. When that child found herself cut off from the majority of the court, he followed her into seclusion. And when that child was attacked by her own family, when her own flesh and blood struck at her in an attempt to kill, he died in her stead to raise the alarm and saved her life. So to answer your question Drakson, I am willing to do anything to win. Because if I do not, then the few remaining people that I truly care for may meet the same fate as that loyal, wonderful old man. Do what you need to, so long as I know, because as far as I am concerned, the only thing I owe to anyone inside this castle is bloody vengeance.”

My grin had long since vanished, removed by a slight sense of respect for both the departed Clause and the princess, and by the cold rage radiating from the princess’s small frame. My own childhood and adult life had been much harder and harsher than than the princess’s, of this I had no doubt. But I understood both the pain of loss and the agony of isolation enough to sympathize with the princess- To lose one of only three trusted friends surely stung more than any blow from a blade, and yet not a single tear ran down her face nor nary a tremor entered her voice. Faced with such a genuine force of will, I had only one response to give.

“By your will, it will be done, milady. Within one year, I will seat you upon the throne of this kingdom. So swears Willhemet Drakson, son of Drak Jorsson, and Wolf of the North.”

And once she was seated upon the throne of Bradenia, well, why stop there? The Discordant Land was filled with many upstart kingdoms, many of whom could benefit from a powerful and strong-willed leader, one with an able advisor beside her.

As I left the room, cloak swirling in the wind of my movement, I couldn’t suppress the grin on my lips and the chuckle in my throat. It truly had been the right idea to leak word of the rebellion to the royal guard, despite the risk.

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