It did not take much to convince the loyalist servant whose home we had invaded to give up the location of the passage, and soon I was seventh in our column of ten making its hurried way through the narrow, dark passage that seemed to cut directly under the city proper towards the castle. The man in front, who carried one of our two lanterns (He held the original, the man bringing up the rear carried a lantern we had looted from the loyalist’s home,) moved with his blade drawn and waving before him, to hopefully trigger any tripwires we might encounter. As we moved I finished wiping off my hands with the dirtied and torn remains of what had once been a white undershirt, now stained a dirty red, and tossed the rag onto the dusty stones that made up the tunnel’s floor. In its place I withdrew a servant’s rendition of the castle I had managed to acquire after some hassle- The Von Shelsburg’s  were actually very competent when it came to choosing loyal and capable servants, though it hadn’t been enough to prevent my acquisition. If my sense of direction remained true, and this passage remained straight, then we should emerge in the north-western corner of the rectangular compound, quite close to the third princess’s quarters.

The third princess, is it? A bird of a strange feather, if my information is to be believed. Ah… speaking of strange women, I wonder if she actually read my letters? Well, no matter any longer.

The third princess was a bit of an oddity, even among the strange characters that always haunted noble courts. Word had it that she was a mute, and a dumb one at that. But other voices, ones that I valued higher, had whispered that she was merely abnormally quiet and possessed a mind as sharp as a dagger, with a versatility to match. She was my preferred target for this desperate operation, as a major part of my gamble (And what a gamble it was) was being able to negotiate through, and with, a royal hostage. If this girl was as smart as the rumors indicated, then she would realize that no benefit would come from acting bravely. (Read stupidly.) As an added positive, she would not feel tempted to resist as much as a man would, as expectations for her would be to represent the royal family in a manner befitting of her station- As a princess, that meant calmly and demurely. A prince would be expected to resist and fight his way free, for the sake of his honor.

Honor. A concept that I respect, and a reality that I disdain. How amusing. Luckily, as a mercenary I have no honor, and so taking a woman hostage will be considered perfectly in character for my breed of scum.

It took us the better portion of a tense and hurried hour, but we eventually reached the end of the passage- A steep set of stairs that ended in a wooden door, warped with age and lack of use.

Or so it seemed, at first glance.

The door opened easily, and my men filed out silently into a small and apparently disused storage room while I paused to investigate the door more thoroughly. The door itself was indeed old, but the floor around it was swept clear of dust while the hinges and handle were both free of rust, telling me that this escape tunnel had seen far more use than was originally supposed.

A lovers tryst? Thieving servants? Or perhaps…

A third option occurred to me, and I had to conceal the smile that popped into place at its implications. I shut the door firmly into the doorframe, and then picked up a nearby, discarded length of wood that fit neatly into the bar-holders set on either side of the door. Turning to my men, I found all eyes on me and more than a few hopeful expressions mixed in with the grim faces.

“Insofar, the plan has gone swimmingly. We have raised no alarms and have successfully infiltrated the royal palace. But make no mistake, that was by far easier than what is to come. Now we must traverse the castle in absolute silence until we reach a nearby tower that should be slightly separated from the castle proper. Within we will find the remaining royals, or at least a number of them. Remember, at no point can we allow an alarm to be raised, nor can we harm anyone who claims to be part of the royal family. If either of these situations do occur, any chance of us surviving disappears with the same speed as a whore when she learns you’ve got no coin.”

A round of nervous chuckles greeted my words, and I cracked a grin in return- If I retained enough confidence to joke and grin, than the men would surely believe in my plan.

—————————————————————————————————————————-

Honestly, I was disappointed. Nothing of note occurred upon our departure of the storeroom, and we managed to cross the small courtyard we found ourselves in without incident. That set the tone for the rest of our skulking. We encountered no patrols, no servants, and certainly no stray nobles wandering the covered patios and gardens of the besieged castle. On the walls that surrounded us, I did see shadows enough to convince me that the castle had not been totally abandoned, but I was starting to fear that the only thing I would find in the princess’s tower would be dust and forgotten fineries. We reached the tower without any real hassle, what with my map turning out to be surprisingly accurate. It indeed stood alone, a tower just tall enough for its highest rooms to peek over the walls, surrounded by a maze garden, a fountain, a covered patio and attached to a low building that looked similar to a barracks. I detailed four men to check the surroundings while myself and the remaining troops made straight for the tower, working against time itself as light began to peek over the eastern wall, matching the glow to the west. The entrance to the tower, a single large door, stood unguarded and ajar with light seeping into the still-dark dawn. At my signal, the door was pushed fully open and three of my remaining troops rushed inside- And found a bloodbath not of our making. Two corpses lay upon the floor, one with his neck slashed open and the other with his face crushed in, their blood pooling in the small chamber that seemed to serve as entryway. Leading off the bloodstained room were two doors and a staircase that wound up the outside wall. Of the doors, one was the entrance door and the other stood opposite the entryway. That one was also already open, and within I could make out another pool of blood that had seeped around the many bookcases that seemed to fill the room. I gave no time for pause, now confused and even more concerned, detailing two men to hold the entryway and await the four still outside while myself and the remaining three moved swiftly and silently up the staircase. The second floor was the same as the first, except the entryway door was replaced by a small balcony. I would have stopped to investigate, but the clash of metal above me told me that my already limited time was growing ever more precious, and so we continued up the stairs to the third and final floor.

The first sight to greet my eyes was a grinning imp, a green monstrosity with its teeth bared in a feral laugh, painted across the backs of four men who stood in a semi-circle before the only door on the floor, aside from another set of doors that I assumed led to a balcony. The door they faced stood open, and within I could see a room that was clearly meant for nobility- Rugs were strewn across the floor, silks and satins hung resplendent and goose-down spilled from what appeared to be slashed pillows thrown haphazardly across the slice of room I could see. A fifth man marked with a goblin did battle in the doorway with what appeared to be, at first glance, a golem of steel and chain that moved with the speed of a master fencer.

It took no great leaps of logic to ascertain the situation- Someone was trying to snatch my prey from out between my jaws, and I simply couldn’t allow that. At my nod, my three troops leapt forward and drove their blades into the backs of the still-oblivious men nearest to us. Two of my men instantly withdrew their blades and moved towards the two figures still fighting, while the third simply left his blade lodged in his victim’s back and struck at the fourth man with his bare hands, striking him across the jaw before sliding behind him and snapping his neck in a single brutal twist. A groan and a shout drew my attention back to the dueling pair, just in time to watch the final imp-man slump to the ground as both of my men struck across his exposed back in a series of vicious slashes that sent blood splattering across the walls and themselves.

“Enough!”

At my shout, they both withdrew, along with the third who had retrieved his blade from the corpse, and formed a line between me and the metal giant that still blocked the doorway, who now had his blade raised against us. I fancied I could feel the heat of his glare from my position by the stairwell.

Smiling, I spoke from behind my human shields.

“I am here to negotiate. If I am given assurances of safe passage and return, along with courteous treatment, I will subject to being disarmed.”

The only response I received was a shifting of feet, and the giant raised his sword slightly higher, apparently in preparation to strike.

I tried once more, resolving silently that I had no time for a third attempt.

“I mean no harm, and so long as no harm is done unto me, neither do my men. If my terms are agreed to, they will retreat to the second level of the tower while we speak. Please, I only wish to speak. On my Honor.”

Again, no response beyond slight changes in posture, and I repressed a sigh of irritation as I prepared to order my men to kill the giant.

“…wait.

I paused, and the giant’s head snapped around as far as his full helm would allow.

“What! Kata- Princess, you cannot meet with this scum!”

Interesting. Someone hasn’t trained their puppy very well.

With just that sentence, the giant had revealed that the princess was indeed in the room behind him, and had also revealed a personal relation through his accidental use of her name instead of her title. And as an interesting aside, the giant also sounded quite young despite his size.

The voice came again, soft and waifish.

“…He swears …on his honor?

I suppressed the urge to grin.

“I do.”

“…Then enter, …and speak… with Us.”

In the distance, I could hear bells ringing frantically, though whether in panic, in warning, or in jubilation I still to this day cannot be certain.

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