My men moved slowly down the stairs to the second level, eyeing me balefully as I stood complacently next to the giant. I had removed my sword belt and had passed it to the giant, also removing the long dagger in my boot to set atop the longsword and kakris blade that both hung from the belt. I lowered my hood and glanced up to look the giant in his helmeted face, receiving a reluctant nod in the direction of the still-open door that likely led into the princess’s quarters. Stepping lightly over the mutilated corpse still in the doorway, I entered a room that both met my expectations, and completely defied them- No swathes of pink silk hung from the walls, no massive tub occupied the corner manned by an army of indentured servants. Rather, I was faced by rugs of black and red strewn about, while in one corner sat a massive bed truly befitting nobility- Long grey curtains hung from its sides, concealing the interior from prying eyes such as mine. The walls were stone, like the rest of the tower, but they were mostly hidden behind legions of exquisitely carved bookshelves that sagged under the sheer weight of the tomes they held. The majority of the room was occupied by a veritable sea of plush seats and sitting-cushions in the southern style, all arrayed around a low, round table set near to the room’s fireplace. The cushions were also colored in a palette of blacks, greys and reds, though some leaked their stuffing from what appeared to be stab and slash wounds. At the edge of the table nearest the fireplace, and so farthest from the door and myself, stood a woman in a maids outfit who cradled a pitcher in her arms. Beside her sat another woman, this one clearly younger, and also of significantly more interest to me- Dressed in a flowing dress of grey (I was beginning to guess at the princess’s color preferences,) and with a string of rubies at her neck, the petite young woman could be none other than the princess I was hunting.

Flowing red hair framed a pale face of pixieish appearance, and two large green eyes focused on me with glaring clarity even before she spoke.

“You may… approach us…”

Her voice was barely above a whisper, giving her the impression of frailty despite the glow from her eyes that promised anything but. I obeyed her words, eyes still locked unrepentantly upon hers as behind me I heard the sounds of a body being dragged.

“You do not… avert your… gaze as a peasant… should.”

There was no tone of reproach in her voice, merely the faintest hint of curiosity. I grinned as charmingly as I could, spreading my hands in a helpless manner.

“Were I a mere peasant, I would never dare enter this tower, let alone this room. But I enter I did, and avert my gaze I did not.”

The maid scowled fiercely behind her mistress, and stepped forward to berate my audacity.

“Churl! How dare you speak to Her Highness like that, you dog! Did your mother bear you in a barn?”

I ignored her, continuing my advance until I stood flush with the table opposite the princess, still gazing deep into her own eyes.

(I know this staring contest may seem odd to you, my dear readers, but I was desperately attempting to get the measure of the princess before I began negotiations in earnest. Little was known about Katarina Von Shelsburg, aside from her station and name, and so I was gambling with a deck that consisted of little more than a face card and two jokers. Any insight I could gain might just prove the difference between life and death. Hers, that is.)

The maid, continuing to be incensed at my lack of manners, spoke again and with more force in her words.

“Knave, know whom you face! You have the honor of addressing Katarina Von Shelsburg, Third Princess of the Kingdom of Bradenia!”

For the briefest of moments, something stirred in the princess’s eyes, a creature shaken from a deep rest..

Irritation? No. Wait, yes, but there’s more. Anger? And… hunger?

Ah-hah.

A single current of understanding struck me, and traveled down my spine like a lightening bolt, sending shivers of delight and apprehension across my back.

Ah, ah, ah. The well-used escape route, the deserted courtyard, the two guards… I understand it all, now. Oh my. Oh my, my dear princess, did you really? That? Of all things, and from your position, That?

As I had my epiphany and the resulting internal dialogue, my facade slipped slightly and my grin grew slightly more feral. In response, the princess’s eyes narrowed slightly, and she hushed her maid with a flick of her wrist. Probably attempting to wrest control of the situation, she spoke again, more forcefully this time.

“You said… that you had… come to… speak. Say your… piece, and… begone.”

“Ah, but milady. Why, oh why, would you so cruelly banish the man who helped to save you and yours? Surely that smacks of foolery, especially to one such as yourself.”

Her eyes glinted at my flippant tone.

“Perhaps so… if the threat were still present. But you and… yours… have already… slain our attackers… for which you have… our eternal gratitude. Now however… we wonder what… your purpose could… be for remaining.”

She was testing me, attempting to discern if I meant her ill or if I was a loyal-yet-unknown servant. I gave no hint to the answer, instead affecting an expression of shock and horror and sweeping into an extravagant bow that caused my cloak to flutter.

“Oh, milady! Please forgive me! It has just occurred to me that I have been unforgivably rude, going unintroduced as I have. I am known as Willhemet Drakson, a roaming warrior, and I hail from the distant north.”

“We had… no inkling.”

Considering that my skin was as pale as snow, and my hair as blonde as dirty wheat, I took her statement as an attempt at dry-humor and chuckled politely.

“Now, as for your earlier statements, I must admit to some confusion. ‘If the threat were still present,’ you say, yet the threat has never disappeared. I mean, for one such as yourself- a contestant in a succession war- threats and danger never truly disappear. Or so I am told.”

For an already quiet girl, the princess’s shocked silence spoke volumes. I grinned conspiratorially.

“Oh, come now. Living in an unconnected tower in the midst of unpatrolled gardens, with only a few guardians and no sign of reinforcements. And then, in the middle of a siege, an attempted assassination? Only a member of the royal family or a truly powerful vassal could have smuggled those killers in. Well, I suppose the presence of my men and myself may weaken that claim slightly.”

By the time I had finished speaking, the princess had regained some of her composure, and the maid had slipped a hand behind her back.

“Who are… you?”

“A wolf, a fool, an interested party, does it truly matter? No, of course it matters. After all, when hiring competent help one must always look into their background thoroughly.”

If my deduction had shocked her, than my next words had thoroughly confused the princess.

“Hiring… competent help?”

“But of course. Allow me to make a proposal, milady. Me and my men are soon to be the last surviving remnants of a long and storied mercenary band, “The Dragon’s Tail.” With the imminent destruction of our home and place of business, we find ourselves seeking protection and employment. You in turn are also seeking protection, and capable servants of a breed you can’t simply recruit off the street. You need strong blades, experienced blades, to shield you from the knives of your enemies. My men can provide that, and at a fairly reasonable price, no less.”

The princess kept her eyes locked on mine and gave no hint of what was occurring behind me, but I could sense a rather large presence looming towards my back.

“I already have… one shield. Why should I… require more?”

“Because, milady, more bodies is almost always a good thing. I have witnessed the skill of your shield, and it is impressive. But impressive cannot stop multiple crossbow bolts fired simultaneously from different directions- Only multiple servants with shields and a vested interest in keeping their lady alive can accomplish such a feat. And if I am correct in my reasoning, tonight you have lost every one of your loyal servants with the exception of the maid beside you, and the surprisingly quiet man behind me.”

The scuff of leather on an exposed patch of stone confirmed the giants location, but I kept my gaze on the princess before me. If the giant decided to kill me, there would be little I could do to contest the decision- His speed was impressive, and I had no doubts about his strength either. However, he would not act against his lady’s orders, meaning that my survival hinged on convincing the princess that I was more valuable alive as a servant than dead as a threat. The princess’s gaze shifted from her previous pokerface to an expression of consideration, as well as pain, though the change in expression was little more than a tightening of the brow.

“Even if… you are correct… how am… I meant… to… trust soldiers that… fight for coin… and desert in… the face… of death?”

“Because, milady, you will find yourself in possession of a guarantee of loyalty- Our symbols of affiliation. Each of us bear a badge marked with the insignia of ‘The Dragon’s Tail,’ a sigil soon to be stricken from the list of accepted mercenary companies allowed to operate within the Discordant Land, and these badges will be given into your keeping. With our badges in your hands, you will always have the option to denounce us as traitorous rebels, and you will have the evidence required to force your family to mobilize the royal forces in the effort to destroy us. Our lives will be in your hands, as much as yours will be in ours- A relationship of mutual survival, or mutual destruction. Even if you distrust our word, which is fair, you can rest assured that no group of mercenaries that have survived as long as we have will ever act against our own survival.”

I could see her mulling it over, and I knew that offering our badges had been the right decision, and that the princess was far more informed of worldly matters than the average princess. A mercenary’s badge or sigil is essentially their only protection against being considered a bandit and, so long as it was a sigil from the accepted list circulated among a large number of local kingdoms and duchies, it allowed the open carry of arms and armor within cities and buildings. Losing that would essentially relegate a mercenary to a life of banditry or toil, no longer allowed to ply their trade on the battlefield for state pay, and so most mercenaries would be loathe to offer it up, even as a symbol of fealty to secure a better job.

“I- We require something… more, more… than just… promises of mutual… death.”

“Of course. And so I offer something more than mutual death: The death of those that would do you harm, and the promise of aid in your quest to claim the throne. You see, milady, my expertise is not actually in the realm of combat- That is what my men are for. I am far more skilled, and experienced, in the field of information gathering, manipulation, tactics both military and economic, and negotiations. In essence, I have spent far more time operating as a spy, a merchant, a diplomat and a tactician than I have as a soldier. And I now offer these services to you, in humble exchange for my life and those of my men. I offer you the guarantee of victory, or my head on a stake.”

Again, the princess appeared taken aback, though I suspect for a slightly different reason than the first time. She remained silent for a lengthy period of time, and I sensed the giant growing restless behind me, causing me to worry that he might just kill me to be safe. Even so, I kept my gaze locked on the princess as a series of emotions quickly played across her features, too fast for the average man to catch- Pain, sadness, fear, anger, determination.

“We accept… your offer… of fealty.”

I grinned, even as the giant stiffened behind me and the maid jolted, and as I held in a faint sigh of relief I reached up to tug free the red and black badge pinned over my heart.

“You have my thanks, milady, and my blade. I would advise collecting the badges of my men as soon as possible, to ensure that no unsavory rumors spread about a band of mercenaries lurking by the princess’s tower.”

“Conrad… take Drakson’s badge… and collect the others. Consta… go check on… Clause.”

The maid whirled to face her mistress, giving me a quick glimpse of the long blade she held hidden behind her back.

“Milady! We cannot leave you unaccompanied in the presence of this… This filth! We cannot trust him, or his men! This could all just have been a ruse by your-”

“Enough!”

It wasn’t a shout, not really, more of a forceful breath that carried the princess’s displeasure.

“I understand… your concerns, Consta. But… this man… has a vested interest… in keeping… me alive. And… Clause…might still…”

At the mention of this ‘Clause,’ the maid’s gaze softened just a tad. Then she whirled to face me, and the disgust and fury were back.

“Know that I only allow this because I have no choice, scum. If you dare to even look at the princess poorly while I am absent, I will personally string you from the gallows myself!”

I could feel the animosity radiating from both the giant, Conrad, and the maid, Consta, as they hurried past me to attend to their tasks. I resisted the urge to give them a little wave. After I heard them descending the stairs, I refocused my attention on the princess.

“Not worried about remaining in the same room as me? What if this had all been a trick to get you alone and unprotected, like your maid mentioned?”

“You were… disarmed. And we… were not.”

From beneath the table, she produced a small crossbow set with what appeared to be a barbed bolt. I grinned freely now, making no attempt to hide it.

“Yes, but if you missed I would have ample time to close with you and overpower you. Not to mention-” I slipped a hand into the left-hand sleeve of my cloak and pulled out the long dagger strapped to my bicep. “I am still quite armed. Oh, and you can stop speaking like that, there is no longer an audience for either of us to act for.”

“I am impressed. You are the first besides Consta to realize it, and you did so far quicker than she. Are you the one?”

Her voice remained soft, but the pace picked up and she dropped the royal “We,” instead injecting intensity into her question.

“The one what?”

“The one who sent those letters.”

I sighed and shook my head.

“Milady Von Shelsburg, if you want a proper answer you must first ask a proper question.”

She glared at me silently for a moment, then shook her own head and spoke again.

“The one who sent the letters detailing the life of a mercenary, as well as the letters that detailed which information brokers could be found in this city, and which would work with intermediaries. There were also letters that detailed potential targets of the uprising, and just three days ago I received warning of the coming rebellion. So, I ask again: Are you the one who sent the letters?”

I chuckled and tapped the flat of my blade on the surface of the table, receiving a glare from the princess in response.

“I am so pleased that you read them- I spent hours gathering that information, compiling it and penning those letters. It would have been such a waste if you hadn’t. Since you read them and validated my efforts, feel free to ask me three questions- I’ll answer them all honestly.”

“Why? Why did you send me those letters? I have been receiving them for the past year, far before you were roped into this rebellion.”

“Because, milady, I was curious to see what you would do with that information. You see, we have been operating out of this kingdom for years, and word of yourself reached me one day by chance. And so I was curious to see what the quiet, forgotten princess would do-  would you ignore it, report it to your father or the city guard, or would you make use of it yourself? I must say, I am pleased by your choice. That was one question.”

“Why did you send them to me? What end did you seek?”

“Technically two questions, but fair ones. I chose you, because you were and are the weakest. You have the most tenuous claim to the throne, the least political clout, and the fewest supporters. If you decided to act in a way that might harm me, your actions would still be highly limited and predictable, if they could reach me at all. As to the end I sought, well, that’s a bit more complicated. You see, my skill sets all relate to understanding people, and the way they act, and so I am always seizing the opportunity to meet and observe new individuals with, shall we say, odd personalities. And you fit the criteria perfectly, milady. Though, I must admit, I didn’t anticipate this exact situation. You have one more question, milady, before I must depart to organize the coming day’s proceedings.”

“Very well. What do you want?”

I felt the grin slide from my face, and for the briefest of moments I let my facade slip as my eyes narrowed.

“Power, milady. The power to have my revenge, and after that, the power to find peace.”

I placed the dagger I still held loosely in my hand upon the table, turned, and strode out of the room as true sunlight brightened the eastward-facing window next to the now-pale princess. The night had broken, and we had survived. Now came the day, with all its trials and travails and tragedies. I had so much work to do in the coming days, and the princess was sure to be an interesting playmate, if a demanding one. I couldn’t have been more excited.

In the distance, I fancied I could hear church bells heralding the dawn.

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