The morning found me awake and alert, ensconced in one of the large chairs before the cold hearth, a large tome resting on my knee and a cup of wine clasped firmly in my hand. My little episode in the tunnels had cost me, in both time and composure, and it had taken the remaining hours of the night for me to compose myself and collect the scattered fragments of my plan.
Said plan was unconventional, and therefore untested, but this was an unconventional situation that I found myself in. And besides, it’s not as though almost every one of the plans I had concocted previously didn’t fall into the same category.
I chuckled at the thought and turned the page, continuing my perusal of what had turned out to be a first-edition Brillhelm’s Tactics, a fantastic treatise on possible tactics involving super-heavy cavalry paired with field artillery, along with other such unconventional pairings. It truly was an intelligent book- It was really quite a shame that the era of horse and lance was coming to a close, what with the ascending use of blocks of armored pikemen in conjunction with skirmishing swordsmen and crossbows.
But, nobles will be nobles, and such individuals could never imagine giving up their brilliant chargers and flapping pennants for the mud and blood of the infantry block. And so the cavalry continues to be emphasized, even at the cost of efficiency. And while I may be somewhat unstable, I am still coherent enough to recognize and value efficiency over almost everything else.
I couldn’t help but muse about the humorous possibility of the noble families simply charging themselves to death- It would certainly happen, given enough time. But for me to keep my word, I would need to give them a helping hand…
The door to my room slammed open, stirring me from my musings and prompting me to slip a hand under the tome to palm the short, wickedly curved blade nestled there. Glancing over my shoulder, I was treated to the sight of the princess making her surprisingly speedy way across the room towards me, followed in lockstep by the maid and the knight.
“Milady, to what do I owe this honor?”
I kept my voice steady, a hint of curiosity mixed in with my usual amusement.
“Do not play games, Drakson. What did you do?”
Her eyes told me it would not be a good idea to play the fool, but if not for the fool, what part could I play in this drama?
“What, Milady? May I know what it is I’m being accused of?”
Her eyes fairly sparked, but her voice remained as steady as I’d ever heard it.
“Miral ut Veste, only son and heir of Duke Velte. He has gone missing, and the entire castle is in an uproar.”
I quirked an eyebrow.
“What’s to say he simply didn’t bed with a common whore from the town? Or perhaps he found a comely merchant lass in one of the taverns near to the castle?”
From behind the princess, Consta snorted.
“Enough games, Rat. The Duke’s son was indeed at such a tavern, and he was seen leaving with a merchant’s daughter, however later that evening the guards at the gate claim to have seen him return home with a slim, cloaked figure beside him. But he never returned to his quarters, and now no trace can be found of him or his guest. Stop denyi-”
I cut her off with a wave of my hand, the wine within my cup sloshing slightly.
“I never claimed to deny a thing, my dear lady Norsson. Rather, I asked the questions that others will ask, to which you provided answers. Now, while no trace has been found yet, I ‘predict’ that some vagabond or local tipster will soon arrive with word of a mutilated and poorly-disposed of corpse, one that bears a striking resemblance to our missing lordling. A tragedy, I’m sure.”
I paused to take a drink, watching the princess over the lip of the cup. Her eyes had narrowed at my words, but for the moment she seemed to be too lost in thought to react properly to my words. Consta faced no such dilemma.
“You- You killed the son of a Duke!?”
She stormed forward, invading my space until I could smell the mint I knew she chewed habitually after each meal.
“You will hang for this, Rat! They will torture you, then hang you, and then the Duke will take your shredded corpse back to his castle to stick in a gibbet as a warning to all. And they won’t just stop with you, either! They’ll be after everyone you’ve ever associated with!”
She paused for breath, her hissing tirade having consumed all of her energy for the moment. I quirked an eyebrow.
“Are you quite finished with the theatrics?”
Her eyes blazed before she turned on her heel and returned to stand behind the princess, her voice tinged with desperation as she spoke again.
“Milady, please, we must do away with this scum before he brings ruin upon us all! I know your pain, milady, truly I do, but there must be a better way to avenge Cl-”
The princess’s voice, quiet as ever, still cut through the room like a whip. Consta jerked slightly before settling into a disgruntled silence, still glaring at me like the Devil incarnate. Conrad, for his part, had managed to maintain an impressively stoic facade for a youth his age, but I could sense the distaste in his gaze as he watched me warily.
I refocused on the princess.
“Did I not say that I was to be kept informed about your movements?”
I grinned ruefully.
“That you did, milady, and my failure to inform you beforehand is inexcusable. However, the situation was such that had I taken the time to ask your permission, the Duke and his son may have left our reach. Now, having struck a blow against both your brother’s power and his arrogance, I ask your forgiveness. Of course, I do not do so lightly, and I offer more than just repentful words.”
She sighed, the slightest of all exhalations, and moved to sit in the other chair, still facing me.
“Nothing in what you just said sounded remotely repentful, but very well– What do you have in mind?”
I flicked my gaze over to Consta.
“The pitcher on the table- It holds a goodly amount of a local red, good enough for drinking alone, but hardly of the quality the princess deserves. If you check the-”
“If you can stomach it, then I will be fine. Consta, if you would.”
The maid bowed and quickly moved to serve the princess, and I grinned again before locking gazes with the princess.
“Worry not, I offer more than mediocre wine. I also offer a blade, short and wickedly curved, to plant in the side of the third prince and drain him of his power- And his life. In short, I have a plan.”
The princess quirked an eyebrow as she sipped the wine Consta had handed her, then raised her other eyebrow as my own, homemade poison of choice hit her tongue.
“What… What is this? It’s so sweet!”
I smiled and took a sip of my own.
“A homemade concoction of honeyed mead, watered wine, and a few exotic herbs. You see, I’m irredeemably addicted to sweets, but I can’t exactly consume my weight in glazed breads and candies, and still fit into my armor. So, I created this little concoction- Difficult to get drunk on due to the herbs and water, sweeter than mead, with just a little bite from the wine. No two pitchers are the same, but I’m always pleased. Does it please you, milady?”
Behind the princess, Conrad sighed, and the maid looked slightly concerned. Well, more concerned.
“I find it pleasing, yes. I think you may need to prepare a pitcher or two for my own consumption, Drakson. We shall discuss this more at another time.”
She never lost her composure, but the sudden interest in the princess’s eyes gave me the impression that my young master had quite the sweet tooth.
“As you wish, milady. In fact, if you find yourself without engagement later today, do feel free to pay me a visit. We have much to discuss, the wine aside. Now, for the plan. The death of the Duke’s son will throw the court into disarray, but no group will be more shaken than the third prince’s cortorie. Miral ut Veste was a major supporter of the prince, and the cornerstone of his military power. With his loss, the third prince will fall even farther behind his brothers in terms of power and prestige, and his group will be shaken by fear and dissent. And that is only with the first death.The second will carve out the heart of the prince’s economic backers, the third and fourth will terrorize the survivors, and the fifth will cut the head off the snake.”
The princess again watched me with narrow eyes, still matching my gaze with her own, and I had to wonder if this staredown would occur every time I proposed a plan.
“You make it sound so simple, so assured, but we both know it will be anything but.”
“You are correct, milady, in that I make it sound simpler than it is. However, this is no momentous undertaking- We have the survivors of the company as manpower, the connections I made while travelling, the power of your royal name, and the human base natures of fear and greed to rely upon. It will take me a few weeks to find and secure my old contacts in the low city and slums, but they will be found. And once found, and plied with coin and favor, they will repay us by supporting us as the building blocks of our power. You see, I envision you filling the hole your elder brothers created when they began this struggle. Your eldest brother holds the majority of this kingdom’s military potential within his grasp, and the second prince dominates the future of the kingdom’s economy through his control of merchants and ministers. The third prince chose not to pursue the third path, however, and instead tried to challenge both of the elder princes for their positions. Obviously, he fell far short of his goal, leaving him with a coalition of castoffs and leftovers that hold little real power.”
“So, what is this third path you envision? It cannot be policy- There, my father’s hand controls all, and not even my brothers would dare to challenge him. This fight is between us children, to become the heir- Our father still rules this kingdom, and has made it clear that the struggle is not to affect the kingdom’s fortunes or direction in any way.”
At that, I had to stifle a laugh.
“A battle to decide the kingdom’s future leader having an effect on the kingdom’s fortunes? Perish the thought! But no, princess, in our current position, no plan I concoct would ever be potent enough to defeat his majesty, and so I shall not even attempt to. No, the path I envision for you is to become an existence not unlike a master merchant, or a guildmaster. By building connections, accruing favors and wealth, and above all by acting in subtle ways, we shall become a true force at court- Far greater in wealth and influence than any of your brothers, even if our military might pales in comparison. Because, milady, this is all ultimately a battle to accrue the most influence at court, to place the most allies in powerful positions, to gather the most information on our foes and friends alike. After all, as you yourself said, your father will not allow an open war to break out within his kingdom, which means that so long as we have suitable men at our backs we need not fear the blades of your brothers’ soldiers. It’s their assassins we need fear, and they ours.”
Her eyes narrowed at the word ‘assassin,’ but she remained silent. I was pleased to see that her personal bias against those who killed in the shadows did not control her actions- That was especially important, considering how many facets of my plan involved utilising the many underworld connections I had built up.
“Very well. I assume you will reveal more details as we approach the relevant points of your plan?”
“Good. Drakson, I will allow your plan, but know this- Do not act again without informing me. I have forgiven you once, but trust is a shaky thing, especially amongst our kind. Do not break it again.”
I stood from my chair, still hiding the dagger cupped in my hand, and swept a bow towards the princess.
“Of course, milady. I shall begin tonight- I have arranged to make my way into the lower city, where I will begin reaching out to my old contacts whilst creating new ones. I’ll be taking five of my men with me- The rest shall remain to safeguard the tower until my return.”
“Good. We will take our leave now, but expect to be called upon again before your departure.”
So saying, the princess rose gracefully from her seat and made her way towards the door, trailed by her maid and her knight. I noted with some amusement that she still had the cup of wine clutched firmly in her hand as she left.