I strode through the front door of the inn, hopping lightly over a pair of mangled corpses before pausing to take in the carnage around me. A little over a dozen bodies lay strewn about the inn, most in various states of disembowelment or sporting gaping wounds where vital organs had once been. Add in the ten ruined bodies I had noted outside of the building, and it seemed as though my party had been busy all night, though not as busy as I had been.
“Hey boss! Did ya have a good night?”
I grinned at Kresold (I think it was Kresold, at least,) and raised my hand in acknowledgement.
“Of course. With so many ‘festivities’ taking place, I’d have been hard-pressed not to!”
Kresold laughed and vaulted over the ruined remains of a table, then began making his way to my side through the gore.
“You’d have been proud, boss. The Nails handled every single bastard that got through that door, and our only casualty was that maid’s lunch!”
I quirked an eyebrow.
“Oh? That sounds interesting. What happened?”
“Well, we had just finished up with these shits-”
Kresold kicked one of the bodies on the floor in disgust.
“-and Jules had decided to take her pup and go play outside, when that woman decided to come down and see if it was over. ‘Checking if it was safe for her lady,’ or some shit. Anyway, she comes down and immediately steps ankle-deep in some shit’s guts! She just sorta froze up for a moment, then she kinda tried to shake her foot free- and you’re gonna love this- and fuckin slips! So down she goes, lands smack in a big puddle of blood and shit, and then just starts puking her guts out. It took her a few minutes, but eventually she took off back upstairs- Let me tell you, it took everything I had not to laugh like a loon. Though, she didn’t scream or cry, I’ll give her that.”
I smirked and clapped Kresold on the shoulder.
“Thanks for that, Kresold. Are our charges still upstairs?”
“Grand. Listen, I know you all are probably tired, but we can’t stay here. I may have been a little more… active, than I meant to be. On the plus side, that means we don’t need to bother cleaning up. Gather your gear, and be ready to move in two hours, maybe a little less. I need to go handle our employer.”
Kresold’s face fell at my words, but perked back up slightly when I reached into my cloak and pulled out a handful of thin, stringy roots coated in pale bark.
“Nervroot? Boss, I thought you hated that stuff.”
“I do. It reacts poorly with silver-wood, and that happens to be a key component of my brews. Plus, I hate the feeling of coming down off it. But I know some of you are partial to it, and I can’t dismiss the energy boost it gives. So here, give some to anyone who wants some, and then start getting ready. And no more than three or four strands! I don’t feel the need to deal with a bunch of hyperactive idiots with swords right now.”
I left Kresold to it and made my way to the foot of the stairs, nodding to the other members of the Nails who were all lined up at the bar except for Carilo, who stood behind it pouring drink after drink. Jules smiled lasciviously at me from the end of the bar, and I returned an exaggerated wink with my left eye before slipping up the stairs.
I paused outside the princess’s room, making sure I didn’t have any obvious bloodstains on my cloak before I entered. I wouldn’t want to set the maid off again, now would I?
Smirking, I knocked on the door.
“You may enter, Willhemet.”
Quirking an eyebrow, I pushed the door open and entered the well-furnished room. I idly wondered about how irritating it was going to be to pack it all back up, then refocused on the princess, who was sitting on her bed with a book open in her lap. Beside her stood the maid, in a different cloak and dress from what she had been wearing when I left, and the knight sat silently on a far-to-small stool in the corner.
“Katarina, Consta, Conrad. How was the night for you all? I apologize for any discomfort you might have experienced, but I am afraid it couldn’t be helped- The people here in the slums are excitable, they tend to lose their heads easily. Also, how did you know it was me?”
It was Katarina’s turn to raise an eyebrow.
“You’re the only one who would knock on the door, or even approach us, with the exception of that exceedingly familiar-acting woman.”
I grimaced in an exaggerated manner.
“That would be Jules Verstain. One of my better fighters, and also my most insubordinate soldier. Please, forgive her rudeness. You won’t be forced to put up with her for too much longer.”
The princess took note of that, I could tell, but seemed to let it go for the moment. Instead, she closed her book and set it beside her, then gestured me closer to the bed. I approached, but drew back when I noticed her nose wrinkling slightly.
“You stink, Willhemet, of smoke and alcohol, and something else…”
“What’s this, mercenary? Was that what you spent the whole night off doing while we fought for survival here in this rotten, woe-begotten hovel!? Why, I don’t have the words to describe the disgust I feel-”
I cut her off with a sardonic grin and laugh.
“Clearly, you do have the words. Remind me to say a prayer for whichever tutor was faced with the hell that your education was sure to have been.”
For a moment, I almost had the delusion that I had stunned her into silence. Her mouth gaped like a fish’s, opening and closing with an almost perfect cadence. Then, she seemed to regain the use of her lungs and began a verbal tirade that was sure to run on for as long as she had blood in her veins.
Which would have been about a minute, if the princess had not intervened.
“Consta, Willhemet, enough! This is unbecoming for both of you, and I will not have my retainers quarrelling in my presence! We need to work together, not tear apart at the seams like this. Willhemet, you had some purpose in coming here. What was it?”
The maid looked away in silence, an angry blush still present on her cheeks, and I put on a mask of bashful repentance.
The princess seemed unconvinced.
“I came here because, until I got sidetracked, I needed to inform you all that we will soon be experiencing a change in venue. We will be leaving in roughly two hours, with adjustments made as needed. Now, if you all will excuse me…”
I made my exit before anyone could speak, sweeping out of the room and down the hall to pause at the top of the stairs, where I reached under my cloak to withdraw my wineskin and slipped into my thoughts.
It had been a while since my emotions had been so unstable- Losing myself playing with the noble child, killing the thugs in the tavern, losing my mask entirely over the course of the night, and even burning down a good portion of the slums.
I’d killed quite a few before, for a living and for pleasure, but these last few weeks had been excessive even for me. And the risks I had been taking lately, starting with the letters, then the coup, and every risky move since, had been successful as much through luck as through my own actions.
I was losing control. Rapidly.
But on the other hand, I had finally found the perfect playmate and lead actor in the princess, so I can hardly be blamed for being a little excited, right?
I found my mouth quirking in amusement even as I mentally swore to rein myself in.
I turned my head slightly to glance over my shoulder, and found the princess gazing up at me from a short distance back into the hall. She stood alone, and I could hear the muted thuds if movement from her room, so I assumed her servants were cleaning up like good little slaves.
“Katarina. What can I do for you?”
She moved forward, and I stepped aside slightly so she could join me at the top of the stairs. She looked down, into the blood-spattered and gore-filled common room, where I could hear my group of killers laughing and drinking even as they packed their loose gear.
“That is a lot of blood, isn’t it, Willhemet?”
“Indeed it is. A small lake of the stuff, or perhaps a pond would be a better description.”
She snorted, but there was no real amusement in it.
“As flippant as always. Tell me, does this not- Does this not move you in any way?”
It was my turn to snort, though I did it gently. I could guess at the weight the princess was feeling, the weight of lives lost in her name, for her goals. (Personally, I had never felt that weight, but Velera had spoken about it with me at length while I was helping her unify the slums.)
“No, Katarina, it does not. And it should not move you either. This may seem like a heavy price, all these lives lost in just one night, even if it is for a grander purpose than most. But consider this- When you are queen, when your enemies come to take what is yours and kill your people, what will you do? You will kill them, with blades and poisons and nooses, by the hundreds and by the thousands. If this moves you, if this shakes your heart, then you may not be capable of sitting the throne after all. In which case, all these deaths will have been for nothing. As will have Clause’s.”
Her breath caught in her throat at that, and I had to wonder if she would turn on me like the maid had. But she did not, instead I watched in amusement as she reformed her mask and turned to face me head on, matching my cold blue gaze with her steely green glare.
“Nothing will break me, Willhemet. Nothing will stop me, so long as you do not fail me.”
I grinned in response.
“What a good answer, Katarina. In fact, a stupendous answer. Do you know, I liked that answer so much that I’ll do a repeat of our game from the first time we met- You ask me three questions, and I’ll answer with the whole truth. No evasions, no misdirections, nothing of the sort.”
She frowned at that.
“I thought I was supposed to be able to trust you, Willhemet? This game implies you’ve been lying to me.”
I rolled my neck lazily, then shrugged.
“I have not lied to you expressly, but I am afraid that I’ve not been wholly truthful either. I tend to keep secrets as a habit, and to ensure that my plans are not leaked or misconstrued before they are ready. Just think of this as another of your trust-building games and one of my lessons all rolled into one. Speaking of which, I’ll be calling upon you later this evening for an actual lesson. I have been far too negligent as a royal tutor recently.”
She shook her head, then sighed in resignation.
“Very well. My first question is this, then: What is a Wolf of the North? You claimed that as a title when we first met, but never explained it.”
I smiled in pleasure as a stream of memories danced through my mind, mostly a collection of images centered around an ice-coated village in frozen tundra, and specks of red painting the walls of a cave.
“A Wolf of the North is one of six warriors, recognized as one of the greatest living warriors of the time. In times of war or disaster, the Wolves will be called together to choose a king for the scattered northern tribes, but otherwise they are free to wander and seek battle as they wish. Proof of being a wolf is in possessing one of these swords.”
I tapped the hilt of my blade as I spoke. The princess smirked, subtly but surely.
“You are considered one of the north’s greatest warriors? That’s not my question, by the way. Rather, this is: How many lands have you seen?”
I had to pause and think about that one. I had traveled far indeed in my time- Mercenaries were rarely sedentary.
“If my memory serves me properly, I have traveled through the borders of nine kingdoms and fought on two continents. I have also spent some time in the eastern wastes, though not long enough to claim any great familiarity with the place.”
Her eyes widened at that.
“The wastes? I was led to believe that no one entered those lands for fear of death.”
“Death is perhaps the least of one’s worries when traveling the wastes. The hordes, hunters, and various beasts that call it home all make death a rather attractive option when faced with the alternatives- Becoming a plaything, a breeding hive, or a larder, to name a few. Was that your third question? I won’t count it if you don’t wish to, considering what I shared was hardly secret knowledge.”
She was silent for a moment, and I took the opportunity to take a draw from my wineskin. I could feel my body’s exhaustion bearing down on my mind, and I was betting on the silver-bark to help boost my concentration for a few more hours yet. The sweetness and alcohol were just bonuses, though welcome ones.
The princess watched me drink, a small glint of curiosity in her eyes.
“That drink of yours, tell me about. I’ll trade that for my last question.”
I chuckled at her self-assured declaration of trade. There was no doubt in her voice that I would accept her ‘offer.’
“As you wish, but let us sit first. Here, for your dress.”
I pulled my cloak off and spread it across the floor, then moved forward and sat down on the top step of the staircase. After a moment of hesitation the princess sat down as well, settling atop my cloak and rearranging the hem of her black dress before looking at me with a small, self-deprecating smile.
“A princess of the Kingdom, sitting atop a mercenary’s cloak on the floor of a blood-soaked inn, in the midst of the slums. How true it is, that reality can be far stranger than any tale.”
I raised my wineskin, a grin tugging at my lips.
“And may it only get stranger from here. Now then, about this drink. Where to begin, where to begin… Ah, yes. I know, let us begin with how I first conceived of it. Have you ever heard of silver-wood, Katarina?”
She shook her head silently.
“Well then, let me tell you of it. It is, in short, a beautiful plant that can be used as a potent stimulant, and an even more potent poison. As its name implies, it is a thin tree covered in silver bark, with thin branches that produce pollen-filled buds twice a year. The bark contains the stimulant, while within the pollen is the poison. I have used both in the past, but the bark far more often than the pollen, thanks to the sense of clarity and focus it imbues in the user. Of course, it is not without its dangers- In large doses it can be fatal, so never attempt to chew a large piece of the bark. Also, it is extremely bland, so it is best to combine it with something pleasing to the palate, such as a pleasant drink.”
The princess looked from me to the wineskin, and then back again.
“So, you constantly consume this stimulant?”
I chuckled wryly.
“No need to be coy- You can call me an addict, if you wish. It would be a fairly accurate description.”
“Of course. My last, best hope is the most enigmatic individual in existence alongside being an addict. Just my luck, I suppose.”
I raised my drink in a mocking toast, sneering slightly behind the wineskin.
“Then you must have very good luck indeed, Katarina, because this enigmatic addict of yours accomplished in one night what should have taken weeks. Oren the Blackhand is dead, alongside most of his inner circle, meaning we have already completed one third of our projects here.”
Her eyes widened slightly, then narrowed.
“You led me to believe that removing this… Blackhand, would be a difficult task. How did you accomplish it in just one night?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Now who’s being distrustful? But in truth, I myself never thought it would be so easy. I overestimated both the individual strength of the Butchers, and the strategic capabilities of the group as a whole. To put it bluntly, they were little more than drunk rabble by the time I found them, and they were nothing but ash when I left.”
“But did you not say that the rulers of the slums banned the use of fire?”
I sneered again.
“I agreed to nothing. And how are men to see at night, without a torch or lantern? And if a drunk guard happens to slip and fall against a house…”
She stood, face twisted in an amusingly childish approximation of anger.
“Do you not care for the innocents? For all those caught on the peripheral, their only crime being in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
I rose as well, then leaned forward until hardly any space at all separated our faces. I could feel her breath on my nose- It smelled of sugar, and wine. Her eyes bored into mine, two glinting emeralds sharpened by intelligence and emotion. I stared back, the icy wasteland of my eyes hungrily reaching out consume her, and let my smile slip for a moment.
“No, Katarina, I do not. And neither do you. I can see it in your eyes, you can’t fool me- That’s not anger hiding in your eyes, nor is it disgust. It’s excitement, hunger. We are finally making progress, and you love it, but you know you should feel disgust at my actions. To be fair, most people should- I am, by almost any definition, a monster in both my actions and my words. But you are not an individual counted amongst ‘most people.’ You are a future queen, an individual who must make decisions that shape, or end, the lives of thousands of others. Every time you go to war, every time you make a decree, you will affect more lives in a moment than I could in a year. So don’t feel the need to put on an act around me, Katarina. I can read you regardless, and the opinion of others shouldn’t be something that you are overly concerned with, anyway.”
As I watched, a series of emotions dance across her face as I spoke.
I grinned again suddenly, and reached out to grasp her shoulder.
“Worry not, it would be difficult for most others to see past your facade- You wear it well. And don’t take my words as a threat, or an insult- You have already shown the capability to learn, to listen, to make hard decisions, and to move forward no matter the cost. You’ll make a good queen.”
I left her there, scooping up my cloak and striding down the stairs. I paused at the bottom and slipped a hand into my cloak, withdrawing a small scroll bound in a familiar red ribbon. I strode to the door of the inn and slipped out, pausing in the morning sun to once again take in the corpse-strewn street around me. Chuckling, I turned to face the darkened entrance to an alley across the street and flicked the scroll into the air, then watched silently as it twirled back toward the ground.
I chuckled again as a black-clad hand darted from the shadows to snatch the scroll from the air, then retreated into the shadows like a snake. Still chuckling, I turned on my heel and headed back towards the inn, ready to lead my little party to the final act of this little drama.
It was time to move on to the true performance.