The documents we recovered at the Baxter Estate turn out to be rather useful. It appears that we found the main base of operation of the Brotherhood in Georgia. This makes our failure to recover its leader intact that much more regrettable but also allows us to learn quite a bit.
Many of the notebooks detail transfers of supply and money to various local cells, and by checking against records we ‘convince’ merchants to share, we identify three hideouts in the span of a month. Dalton manages to convince the third one that he is a member of the Brotherhood for long enough to learn a few things before we neutralize it. We confirm that they are on the trail of the wreck of the Leucadia, and that the ship was used by their sister organization in London to transfer a relic of great significance. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the ‘key that breaks’ that Nashoba was referring to.
Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that those Brotherhood members are but low-level agents. They know barely enough to accomplish their objectives, a cautious policy that proves the experience of our foes in the business of secrecy. We still have no idea about who their leadership is and what they aim to achieve, or indeed what the relic really is. Some of their notable members may know more, though going after such public figures will require some preparation. I do not want to leave a slew of murdered high-profile targets. There is no surer way to attract the attention of powerful forces I would be unable to face.
September 9th, Higginsville, Georgia.
I am in the planning room reviewing notes when I feel panic coming from Dalton. I surge to the door and come across him in the entrance.
“What is it?”
“Mistress… There is a vampire outside!”
“That I can tell. They are wearing a mask, and they are dressed in grey.”
My mind, which was on the verge of panic, immediately calms down and I smile happily.
“Grey, you say?”
I open the door outside and take in the newcomer. Masked, she is dressed in a form-fitting lamellar armor of exquisite make. The whispers of powerful enchantments come from her armguards and the sword at her waist, a blade I recognize easily.
“Are you going to invite me in?”
Her voice comes clearly and carries a hint of a smile, yet it also sounds tired.
“Of course, I offer you my hospitality.”
“Thank you, Ariane.”
I lead her up the stairs, Dalton has gone to warn Loth.
“You have a Vassal?”
“At such a young age too, I am impressed.”
I do not reply, and we soon find ourselves in the smoking room. Jimena takes a seat with a sigh that betrays a wariness that is not physical in nature.
“I need to ask you something, Ariane.”
“I need your help infiltrating a major army camp and killing its general, no questions asked.”
“When are we leaving?”
Jimena lets out a short laugh, bitter, yet relieved.
“I knew I could count on you. Pack your things and bid your farewells. Your companions must stay here, your Vassal too. We will be back within a week.”
Ah, so we were going to kill the commanding officer of a local force. This is troublesome. Murdered public figures attract a great deal of attention, something I could use a lot less of. Without a word, I leave to prepare, meeting Loth and Dalton on the way. I confirm that it is safe.
In anticipation of a possible evacuation, I have an ‘emergency bag’ ready for a quick departure. I grab it and add a few personal effects, travelling clothes, and my rifle. I also take a silver bullet with a piercing glyph, courtesy of the master of the house. When it comes to assassinations, long-range weapons are always a safe bet.
When I return to the entrance, I find all three people talking in quiet voices. Dalton is telling them of his latest arrest involving a duo of conmen pretending to be Castilian nobility. They did not speak three words of Spanish between themselves.
“Ah, you are here. Loth, Dalton, I am sorry but I cannot involve you in this.”
“Don’t worry, I understand. Just make sure ya bring her back to me in one piece aye?”
“Yes, I promise, though I would not worry too much. I am sure she can defend herself.”
Her tone is dismissive, her demeanour, distracted. I am deeply concerned. All the vampires I have met learn very soon how to school their expressions and keep their emotions under control. Beyond politeness, it is a question of survival. That Jimena would give it up fills me with worry.
She politely bows to Loth and Dalton both and turns without a look. With a last goodbye, I hurry to follow.
“Hum, Jimena, I have a sarcophagus we could use to sleep safely…”
“I have my own and we can share it.”
She stops in her tracks and turns to me. For the first time this evening, I detect a hint of hesitation.
“Ariane, I know you are not… Like me and Aintza. I will not force anything upon you, I give you my word.”
“Ah, yes,” I reply with tremor. I will have to let her touch me, probably. It should be fine. I trust her, I think.
“Worry not, the secured container is wide enough. I understand that you need space. Listen, Ariane, I, ah, no, I will tell you in a moment. I apologize for the confusion. As you can guess, I feel a bit out of sorts.”
Understatement of the year. She seems so lost, almost like a human. This bothers me more than I would like to admit. I still trail her without pause.
We exit Loth’s grounds and find a black carriage at a crossroad. I am surprised to see horses again and I remember that Lambert used to ride one.
“I never asked, how are those horses not afraid of us?”
“They are called Nightmares, a special breed. Quite expensive.”
And that is it. Proper conversation is a lost art, it seems. It would be easier to pull rotten teeth from a grizzly than to draw words from my companion tonight. I give up, and we depart in silence after she covers her conspicuous armour with a cloak.
I expect us to make good time and I am soon proven wrong. After less than an hour of travel Jimena leaves the Eastern road for a side path, and we soon arrive in front of a concealed lake lined with wildflowers.
The landscape is so enchanting that I have little doubt that she selected it on purpose. The view of the stars and moon in the cloudless night sky is breathtaking. Tendrils of baleful purple reflect on the surface of the placid water, turning it into an exotic composition enshrined in a green background. The sounds of life and the movements around us only understate our immobility, a proof that we have more in common with what is above than what is around. Vampires in general are mostly static, until we are not.
Jimena removes a ceremonial knife from a recess in her grey armour and turns it in her hands thoughtfully. The blade is not metal, but a crystalline and irregular form. I give her the time she needs to gather her courage. Eventually, she does and makes a conscious effort to meet my eyes.
“When you left New Orleans I wrote you a letter. In it, I called you blood sister. It was… Presumptuous of me to say that. I gather you do not know what blood bonds are?”
“I am sorry, I do not.”
“There is no need to apologize, my dear. Blood bonds are promises of friendship between two vampires that transcend allegiance. To claim one is a great privilege, for they are precious things. Few would dare to commit themselves to such a deep oath.”
Jimena takes a deep breath before continuing.
“I offer and ask that we join as one.”
I pause, surprised. And where does this come from? I cross my arm in front of me in what I know to be a defensive gesture. I care not about showing signs of weakness in front of her. Apparently, we are past that.
“What does it really entail?”
“There are many words I could say, yet they matter little. The essence of the bond is that we will protect and work in each other’s best interest when asked and when possible. The words of the oath themselves are vague but the meaning is clear. We will become as sisters should be.”
I ponder this for a moment. I like and respect her as a friend, I do. I owe her my life and freedom and quite a bit besides, and none of it matters. This oath, it is not one that stems from obligation. It requires free will in its purest form.
“I am no Mistress, you know this. When Nirari returns, his will shall crush mine and there is nothing I can do about it.”
“If he does return, then it will be so. We do not ask the impossible of each other, we ask that we act when it matters.”
“Why do you want to take the oath, really? You already did for me more than I could ever ask and I never hesitated to join you. We act as if we were sisters.”
“Yes, and this would make it official. You will be able to claim this bond, as will I.”
“You are taking a risk with this, are you not?”
“With all due respect, I do not give a dead rat’s ass. I came and asked for help. You answered. You did not even stop to think about it. That is all I need to know.”
A sister. I never had a sister, yet if I did, I wish she could have been like Jimena: unconditionally supportive, fearless, and caring.
Jimena blinks in a show of powerful emotion. She swallows with difficulty and slices her palm with the glassy blade, then shoves it in my face like a bashful teenager at her first outing.
“In joy and despair, in feast and battle, in triumph and death, one of heart.”
My, so brusque. She really isn’t one for long ceremonies…
“One of heart,” I reply, and slice my hand as well. We join and for a beautiful moment, I feel the deep bond of kinship that we just created. We stay here for a while, enjoying the deep trust between us and the ephemeral beauty of the scene around us, and I…
“Alright let’s go.”
Ah? Why you tomboyish lout! Can I not enjoy the moment?!
“Are you this much in a hurry!?”
“S-sorry, I am not good at this sort of thing. Sorry!”
She rushes away, towards the carriage. The fugacious satisfaction I had fades like dew under the sun, and my mouth curves into a pout. It really isn’t fair. This is the sort of memory that lasts a lifetime, or several in our case, and she went and ruined it. Seriously…
When we depart once more, she will not meet my eyes. I settle into a sulky silence and wonder what it will take for her to share what is troubling her so. Only then would I be able to “untwist her panties” as Loth would say it.
We ride past sleepy hamlets and harvested fields in silence. I consider taking out my notebook and reviewing either runes or our latest progress and eventually decide against it. I have not been out here for a while, just enjoying the landscape as we pass it. This activity lacks the frantic pleasure of running outside that I do enjoy so much, and yet I find it relaxing in its own right. Perhaps I needed this. We have been focused so much on tracking the Brotherhood, that not an instant has passed that I did not think about it. This distraction is a boon in disguise.
It is long past midnight when we come across a small patrol carrying torches. Two men on horses with muskets at their back ride to us. We are hailed by the lead.
“Hold! State your name and business.”
“We are travellers and our business is our own,” replies Jimena testily before I even manage to consider a diplomatic response.
Hem, that is not the proper way to handle this situation.
“It is my business if two women are out there at this hour around those parts. Where are your fathers and husbands, I ask? Proper, God-fearing ladies have no cause to wander around after the light is out.”
“And proper gentlemen have no cause to accost women, after dark and otherwise. Now step aside and I will remind you to mind your manners.”
“I will not allow a woman to teach a man, she must remain silent!” replies the man with a triumphant sneer. At this stage, both the second patrolman, who is a young man with a frizzy moustache, and myself share a moment of horrified fascination.
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” retorts Jimena with deadpan delivery, “See? Two can play that game.”
Now that both parties have shown their ability to quote the Bible when it suits their purposes, we enter the next phase of any doctrinal dispute: violence.
The man sputters in fury and pushes his horse to my sister who looks at him with the immobility of the gargoyle. I can feel the turmoil in her aura. Oh, oh no. I really hope she brought a shovel.
“I’m going to teach you some respect, wench!”
He grabs for her shoulder and pulls the other hand to throw a punch. Faster than even I can see, both his arms are imprisoned in a steel grip.
“By what right? By what right will you teach me a lesson? Because you are stronger? Because society allows it? Well, go ahead. Punish, oh mighty one.”
What is wrong with her? Jimena releases one hand, and her assailant throws a hook in her cheek.
“Let me go, you crazy hag!”
Jimena’s dismissive slap cracks against his head, Blood gushes from his mouth and falls on the dirt below. His horse starts to panic.
In front of me, the second militiaman looks on stupefied before grabbing his musket.
Oh, well, it was nice meeting you. I jump. In a single bound, I cross the distance that separates us, then throw him on the ground and stab his panicked ride in the brain. I jump down as it falls and catch the downed man by his ankle before he can crawl away. I then drag my screaming captive under the cover of the trees.
At least my need for blood is momentarily solved.
Before leaving to a more secluded place, I turn back to a somewhat bashful Jimena. She holds her own prey in a choke and has the decency to look embarrassed. I make myself frown to clearly mark my displeasure.
“Do not take too long.”
If she lets his horse go, I swear I am not running after it. What was this all about anyway? Ah, never mind that. Let me enjoy myself first.
“Would you mind explaining what is going on?”
“This is nothing to concern yourself about,” says Jimena with a grunt as she digs deeper. The hole required to bury two horses is very deep. It will take us the rest of the night to finish. Well, it will take her the rest of the night. I have elected not to help.
“It is, if you are going to act like a blood-crazed fledgling with a grudge. I thought we were in a hurry? This was entirely uncalled for and you know it.”
Jimena sighs deeply and leans on the shovel.
“I am loath to bother you with it. You are already helping me tremendously and I offered you sisterhood partly for this. With our bond now made undeniable, you can claim me as sister and when the time comes, call for my help as well.”
“This is not just about backing. Being your sister means that we share our concerns, not just use each other’s support for clandestine operations. There is a step between partners in crime and siblings.”
She lowers her head in shame.
“You are right, of course. I am sorry. So many things have happened in the past few years that have challenged my beliefs, and now I am facing some uncomfortable truths about the world and myself. I realize now that I am dragging you into this. I can tell that you are facing your own struggles and still I bother you with my concerns...”
“Will you stop this already? Just spit it out woman, do not force me to extract the information out of you.”
“Oh?” she replies with a bit of mirth, “and what will you do if I refuse?”
Jimena laughs at what she believes to be an idle threat. A short rendition of Auld Lang Syne for the departed patrol later, she quickly reassesses the danger her ears and sanity find themselves in.
“Alright, I’ll talk, just please, stop. Oof. I see that you were not bluffing. Now I must ask, when I suggested music, did you follow through? Please say no.”
“I am not a fool. I picked up drawing and painting.”
“Thank the Watcher. I know that you potentially have decades to practice, but…”
“You are trying to change topic dear sister, and I would qualify this latest remark as a low blow. Perhaps I should pick up where I left off?”
“No no no forgive me! I will speak.”
I close my mouth like one sheathes a blade. For the umpteenth time tonight, Jimena sighs loudly and painfully. She resumes digging and starts her story. At first, her tone is hesitant, almost shy, and she often lifts her head to look for a reaction. Then, she forgets about everything to let her story flow.
“In order to explain my distress and the situation I find myself in, I have no choice but to tell you of my story. I know of your past, and it is now time for me to share mine as well. "
"I was born in a village in Catalonia in the year sixteen eighty-six. And before you interrupt, yes, I know you have no idea where this is and so I will elaborate. Catalonia is a region in the North East of Spain. Now, when you think of my homeland at that time, you probably imagine galleons filled with gold, fiery soldiers full of bravado duelling before a field of wheat while clad in garish colours, yes?”
“I blame the book you sent me, the descriptions were fairly vivid.” I answer.
She snickers but the sound comes off wrong. It is cold and empty, just a human gesture produced out of habit and politeness with no real substance. There is not a trace of mirth in it, and I soon learn why.
“Spain at that time was hell on earth. It was a corpse ravaged by war, famine, droughts and plagues. Bandits and mercenaries scoured the land and milked it to its last dregs, and its people were facing suffering the likes of which had not been seen in centuries. There was no longer a state. Justice could not be obtained but by the strength of one’s arms. The inequality of status between the mighty nobles squabbling like vultures and the poorest commoners cannot be understood by one who was born in a republic.”
Jimena’s shovel arcs in the air, sending a plume of rocks and mud that falls like hail on the branches of a nearby tree.
“Look at me, using all those complicated words and setting the scene like we are going to the bloody opera. Let me paint you a clearer picture. I was born from the daughter of a coalman and a passing soldier. She had many other children and we all grew up together with others in this small village at the edge of a forest. We were hungry all the time. We were also destitute, and insignificant. My favourite half-brother died when he crossed the road in front of a viscount and forced him to slow down. The man shot him in the head there and then. My younger cousin was found by bandits as she was foraging for food at the edge of the road to Tarragona. They had their fun then slit her throat. She was thirteen. In winter we had to take turns going out because we only had enough clothes for three children at once. The rest had to huddle naked under a pile of filthy blankets. We had to dump our dead outside and bury them in spring because no one had the strength and willingness to dig into the ice. Every year, we lost family to disease and exposure. Every year the remaining ones would rut like beasts and every year, the tired women would pop out screaming runts into the world, and would latch them to their barren breasts in the hope that this one would survive to adulthood. This was my life.”
“In our village, there lived an old priest. He was the third son of a merchant who fell out of favor with his hierarchy for one reason or another. He liked to gather the survivors and tell us stories of a time when our nation was rich and mighty. He told us we used to be the pride of Europe, that we cut the Americas between ourselves with another country called Portugal. He told us of the Habsburg empire and how massive it was, ranging from the Mediterranean to a land far to the North, beyond the Pyrenees. I was full of questions. I asked him why we were suffering. Were we punished by Him? He said that yes, we had lost our ways and that we used to follow the values of Christianity and were being punished for our conceit. He told me of the heroes of our past including El Cid, and his wife Dona Jimena Diaz who shared my name. I thought about that a lot. Perhaps if I lived a better life, the human god would bless me and I could save myself and Spain like El Cid saved Leon and Castile from Ibn Yusuf.
A few months later, my little band found a wounded noble on a hunting path we were using to poach rabbits. Most of us wanted to rob him but I alone argued against it, and since I was taller and stronger than most, we brought the man to a refuge we used to smoke the meat and dry pelts. When he woke up, the first thing he did was to beat me black and blue and accuse me of assaulting him. He then decided to teach me a lesson. I was lucky, my strongest cousin came back with an early catch and got him off of me before he could finish. Then, I took his dagger and I stabbed him, and stabbed him, and kept stabbing until he stopped moving.”
I know how this feels. The powerlessness, the unfairness, the pain, the guilt.
“We buried his body and I took his purse to the closest city. A few boys and I bought bags of grains and meat with the coin we had found. For a week afterwards, none of us went hungry.
This is when it came to me. I had followed the will of the church and lost my virtue, then I followed the will of the world and got a full stomach. I got a lot of respect out of the plunder from the ankle biters of the village. I could beat most boys in a straight fight, I could come up with plans and I did not belong to any man. That was enough to become a leader.
The next time some lowlives came by to take our food we waited until they were drunk and asleep and killed them all. We took their weapons and used them to prey on travellers and merchants alike. We were cautious and patient, and we left no witnesses. And so I became a bandit queen.
We had a good run. We chose our targets carefully and would spend entire seasons without attacking anyone. With this, we were able to get things for our village. Men had the strength to work, women would not starve so much and many more children made it through the winter. It lasted until that fateful night we tried to attack a single mark. A noble carriage with no escort drawn by two black horses.”
“Yes, this is how I met lady Urraca, my sire, and the only lady of the Cadiz clan.”
Jimena’s mood turns contemplative after that. I know that upon reaching masterhood, vampires are freed from the need to obey the one who turned them. It does not cut all ties, however, and it appears that her relationship with this Urraca lady is more harmonious than what I have with… MastEr.
“She was so impressed with a band led by a woman that she only killed two of us. The others were let go under the condition that I would enter her service. And I did, gladly. Now, you may wonder why I would serve a monster willingly. You have to understand, I was certain I was doomed. ‘Thou shall not kill’. I had broken the most cardinal rule. It was a damned soul no matter what and I fully expected, in my heart, that one day my luck would run out and I would end up trying to hold in my entrails on the side of some muddy road or with my corpse hanging from a noose and crows gobbling up my eyes. This is what the world had in store for me, and I did not know, did not hope for anything better.
"And then this woman came.
"She was not a member of the nobility, yet she was rich and clean and smelled so good. Fat merchants and pompous counts alike would fight over her favours. She was a woman and yet she was a fierce warrior learned in the ways of the blade. She was not a believer and yet she seemed at peace with the world and herself. I was told this was impossible. I was wrong. I wanted to be her. I loved her. No, I adored her. She was the world to me.
"She moved through the night granting gifts to those who deserved it and punishing those that abused their power. All those validos parasites were but dead branches that she carefully pruned from her domain, like one tends a garden. Their pathetic plots were seen through and unmade in record time. This is it, I thought at that time, this is what a true heroine is.
"When she selected me to be turned, it was the most beautiful day of my life. I was convinced then that I would live among vampires a life of honour, following our strict code of conduct and carving a place for myself at the tip of my sword. The days of corruption, nepotism and petty politics would end with me. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I was eighteen and lady Urraca was the only one of us I had ever met.”
Jimena looks older than eighteen. The life of a highwaywoman must have been harrowing, or perhaps it made her mature faster. For all her apparent candour, I did not miss the moment she said they left no witnesses.
“You can imagine my disappointment. Disillusion is a dangerous emotion for us, but still I fought on because I realized there existed a group that shared my beliefs.”
“Yes. Clad in grey to show that they shed their erstwhile allegiances. A unified army with strict rules, fighting to rid the world of its worst elements.”
“This is a bit ironic considering vampires can be seen as the world’s most dangerous elements.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Jimena’s question is a valid one. I think for a moment. Do I believe myself a blight on this world? Not really. I have killed, yes, many times, and yet I have also protected my territory from worse threats. We are the lesser evil, I believe. Were we to rule the world, there would be less freedom, and also less senseless slaughter. Something to keep in mind.
“No, I do not.”
My sister nods as if there ever were any doubt. As someone who has seen the worst humanity has to offer, we must seem mild to her in comparison.
“I joined the knights and for a while I really believed I had found my place. Squads and individuals were dispatched to bring order and discipline, relentless in this pursuit. Then I was betrayed on a protection mission.”
“Yes. I was charged with bringing a fledgeling to Geneva for judgement. We knew she had committed an unsanctioned massacre, but her master’s involvement was still under debate. She was to be put to the question.”
“Fledgling cannot countermand their master’s order. If they ordered her to be quiet, she would not talk.”
Jimena stops digging for a second and leans on the shovel, as if under a great weight.
“There are… Ways… To break the compulsion. A vampire’s body can endure inhuman amounts of punishment when their spirits cannot. Even the Ekon and their legendary pain tolerance will eventually succumb to agony and the truth can be extracted from a shattered mind. As I said… It has been done, and will be done again.”
“Yes, in any case, I gave our route to a fellow knight who was in the vicinity, requesting support, unaware that he and my charge’s master had been lovers.”
“You did not know?”
“It was not common knowledge. He leaked the route. We were ambushed and the fledgeling was slain. An inquiry revealed the knight’s duplicity and he was punished then exiled. My own failure was judged less harshly, and I was only demoted.”
Jimena stares in the distance for a while then resumes her digging.
“When you found me under the keep, I was bitter. The emotion carried by your tears allowed me to deal with the frustration and anger at the unfairness of it all. It led to the belief that this was only a one-time occurrence. I had to accept that knights were fallible. As I mentioned in one of my letters, I was given the opportunity to regain my rank by the head of the knights in Boston, a man named Wolfgang. I must accomplish several tasks and if successful, I will be a knight again. Only…”
“There are two other squires in this land and one of them has been sabotaging my work. You can imagine my present state of mind.”
“Oh, my, this again. I must ask though, are you and those other squires in competition?”
“Implicitly. The length one has to remain a squire can vary according to their ranking.”
“Have you considered that Wolfgang may have left instructions to test whether or not you learned your lesson?”
She freezes completely.
“What lesson would that be?”
“Don’t trust anyone, not even other knights?”
She puts the shovel down.
“You are implying that he would cripple his own operations on purpose?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not, but what better way to see if a fallen knight can be redeemed than to make her face what caused her failure, the betrayal of her own side, once more?”
“Then it means I made a mistake when asking you for support. We are not to share the details of current operations, I am already stretching the rules as it is, by asking you to come to back me up out of concern for a trap.”
“Or perhaps you are using an outside and reliable ally when a fellow squire is not.”
“Yes… Yes, you are correct. I know I can count on you because I know you. I am right to follow my instincts. Just as I should have followed both my instincts and common sense before. This is a test, one way or the other. Thank you Ariane, this was enlightening."
“Hum, I do believe you are giving me too much credit.”
“I am not. I was bitter because nothing has changed, and I was wrong. I cannot make the world perfect, but I can do what you do.”
“Eating one’s enemies?”
“No! Well, yes, but not just that. I meant the way you see the world. You understand the bigger picture, yet you always genuinely focus on the most immediate issue, the one you may yet solve. Instead of being dejected that some knights do not conform to my standards, I should instead work on purging them from our ranks. Yes, that is what I should do. Thank you, Ari, thank you!”
I am not convinced that I should take any credit in this whole affair. I still nod in recognition.
“I am glad to be of assistance. There is just one last thing.”
“I think you can stop digging now,” I say as I indicate that the hole is now deeper than she is tall.
“Ah. Yes. This is deep enough. We just need to put them in and refill.”
“No, dear sister, you refill.”
As fate would have it our target is near Fort Barrington, location of my last meeting with the honourable sir Bingle. I am tempted to check on Cecily and see if she found a good party, unfortunately we are “here for business” as Loth would put it, and so I stick to Jimena and the plan.
When she told me our target was in a military camp, I was imagining rows of tents and men at parade surrounded by earthworks and wooden towers, like I saw in those patriotic recollections distributed around town. I was mistaken. This is no temporary bivouac of an army on the march, it is for all intents and purposes a town.
Fort Barrington proper lies on a fortified hill surrounded on two sides by rivers and on the last one by a complex of fortifications and redoubts. We have no issue passing those in our carriage, and I soon understand why. Beyond the first ring lies a mess of wooden huts of simple, but solid make. Between them and even at night, a crowd has gathered around an improvised marketplace. Sutlers operating from wagons provide men on leave with tobacco and alcohol. Women collect used uniforms and return them sewn and laundered. The smell of food is everywhere and the sounds of sex coming from a two-story building shows beyond a doubt that the world’s oldest profession is practised here. There are at least five hundred people around us as we make our way to what seems to be the designated parking space. Some soldiers even walk around with their wives and children.
“Hum, how many combatants are we talking about here?”
“The third line infantry regiment and first regiment of Georgia militia with some horses and artillery, a bit over three thousand men in total. Access to the general’s quarter is restricted at all times, therefore we will have to infiltrate the base itself.”
“I see. And the target?”
“General Chester Floyd, commander of the seventh military district. He dies tonight.”
We park between two empty wagons and I get down quickly.
“We will proceed with our task when most mortals have fallen asleep. You should not show yourself too much. People will remember tonight and strangers most of all.”
“Hold on, I have an idea. I will be back in ten minutes.”
True to my word, I run my errand, making sure to Charm my memory away from the cloth merchant and return promptly to my accomplice. When Jimena sees me, her brows creep up ever so slightly.
“Ta-da! What do you think? In the darkness, we could pass as soldiers! It should help our infiltration!”
Jimena blinks several times as she takes in my uniform.
“Ariane, turn around please.”
I grumble and comply. Those trousers are entirely too tight where it counts and I am afraid that the seams will just pop open should I attempt to crouch too fast. When I am facing my sister again, she is biting her lower lip.
“Is something the matter? It’s a good idea!”
“Oh, Ariane, it is certainly an excellent idea. Revolutionary and… eye-opening. Unfortunately, ah, how should I put it? You are too shapely to pass as a man.”
“It will be dark!”
“Anyone who spots you in this uniform will inevitably notice that it is being worn by a woman. I am sorry, Ariane.”
I was really looking forward to being disguised too…
“Well, I suppose I will have to return them.”
“Ah no no no wait! Give them to me please, I want Aitza to try them on.”
“Jimena, surely you would not ask her to infiltrate a base?”
“What? Oh, of course not, hrm, don’t worry I will make sure she removes it… Promptly. You have my word. It will be for a good cause.”
Curious. Oh well, it matters not.
“Rather, I can lend you one of my squire armors. They are adjustable.”
“That will not be necessary, I would rather move in the outfit I am comfortable with.”
In the next few minutes, we compare our murder apparels in an impromptu fashion meet.
“And the blood washes so easily!”
“What a marvellous contraption dear sister, and you say the dress has the heart protector I recommended?”
“Stupendous, I wonder if Loth of Skoragg would be inclined to make one for me, against compensation of course?”
“I am sure he would be delighted to have your business.”
We promptly get prepared. I keep my Talleyrand in a black shoulder holster to prevent light from shining on it while we move, and though my sister frowns with disapproval, she does not object me bringing it. I would sure hope so! Next to poison, ranged weaponry is a great way to get rid of targets safely and we are hunting a human. Truly, my rifle is the optimal solution.
Jimena has me memorize a basic map of the military camp itself and we settle to wait in companionable silence. The sounds of the night grow progressively more subdued as the crowd drifts to sleep. A little past midnight, she stands up and declares that it is time.
We run through the village in perfect silence, easily avoiding the occasional late revellers. We soon reach open ground and accelerate towards our target. When we reach the first earthworks, Jimena easily jumps over it and I follow her immediately. As she lands, she seems to remember me and looks with worry, promptly turning to relief as I stop beside her. This situation is repeated a few times until she realizes that I have no difficulty matching her speed. All those nights spent running around have finally paid off.
In the next few minutes, we weave and sneak our way through the base like ghosts. We step behind patrols, between pickets and above the walls of redoubts. Neither rocks nor spikes can stop vampires. Nor can eyes and ears catch us as we make our way through mortal defences with perfect discretion, unmatched and unbothered. The entire facility lies open and I use this opportunity to inspect it. Rows of wooden barracks housing a squad each alternate with smithies, armouries and barns. I have issues wrapping my head around the number of fighting men present here, and they only represent a fraction of the forces that would be brought to bear against an invasion! I can only imagine major battles involving tens of thousands of troops. What a spectacle it must be! How unfortunate that such actions only occur during the day.
Without incident, we approach the general’s quarter from the side. He lives in an old house that predates the camp by a few years, surrounded in turn by a square fort with guard towers on each corner. We easily jump up the wall and after making sure that the sentries are looking elsewhere, drop down. I immediately follow Jimena in the shadow of a small cabin built against the palisade.
In the middle of the open ground stands the refuge of the man we are here to slay.
It shines in my eyes like a city’s night sky, while several squads stand at attention.
“I knew it,” whispers my companion and indeed her suspicions are confirmed. The stone edifice is covered in wards and spells of all kinds. It is enough to make it almost impregnable. Only someone warned beforehand would set up such an intricate and expensive work in place. This represents several days of effort for a team of experienced mages, and a small fortune in materials. Jimena was indeed betrayed, by someone with a connection to spellcasters.
“Can you break the protections so that I may get in?” she asks.
I turn to her dismissively.
“What are you talking about? We are not here to infiltrate, but to end a life.”
“We would need to drag him out of this death trap.”
“Inaccurate, sister, I only need to see him, and I know the way to do it.”
I examine our surroundings and locate what I expected. The fort is designed to be autonomous under siege even if artillery would make short work of the walls, therefore it contains a powder reserve.
“Here is what we should do,” I whisper, and share a simple plan.
At first Jimena is reluctant. Her old-fashioned approach to operations conflicts with my method, and yet she cannot deny the allure of such a pragmatic solution.
“Very well, sister, I shall follow your lead in this matter.”
She is about to leave when she stops and adds in a whisper, without facing me:
“When you came to me in the keep, you said you were a fair shot and I ridiculed you for it. I owe you an apology.”
“Then do so after I succeed. Good luck.”
I breathe in and out with absolute calm. The two men on the guard tower slumber at my feet, their willpower no match for my full-powered Charm. The night is silent but for the flames of open torches and the heartbeats of tired men.
A hundred paces in front of me, Jimena slips behind a bored guard and slowly lifts a set of keys from his belt. She turns and opens the door to the armory. It turns on its hinges in silence. She disappears inside and emerges a few moments later with a barrel of powder.
She skirts the outer wall in the darkness to a shed facing the general’s bedroom.
A fire erupts from it. It quickly engulfs the small structure while Jimena slips away. Screams and sounds of alerts erupt left and right.
The shed explodes in a rain of fire and shards. An alarm bell rings in the distance. At my feet, one of the guards stir. The air is filled with yells and screams. The camp is waking up.
A trumpet blares in the darkness while a crowd of half-naked men rushes out of their beds, weapon in hands. They spread out. Additional torches redden the night, casting shades on the ground that shake and twist as if dancing in madness.
The shutters open to reveal an old man with short hair wearing an open shirt. His eyes are a striking blue and a small scar on his left cheek are all that remain from a Creek arrow.
Hello, Chester, and goodbye.
I pull the trigger. With unerring accuracy, my Talleyrand rifle sends its payload into the night. Loth’s engraved silver bullet shatters the wards as if they were flimsy glass. A red flower blooms on his forehead and I know his brains now splatter the inside of his bedroom.
I take a second to holster my weapon. My task is accomplished.
“W-what?” mumbles a sleepy guard. I backhand him into unconsciousness again. I could just kill him, but I love the idea of leaving only one victim. The message is that much more potent. It shows that all those guards were so useless we did not even bother taking them out.
As Jimena reaches me, we jump out and vanish into the night.
The next evening.
“You are incredible Ariane, I have never seen a young Courtier move as well as you did, I never expected you to keep up with me so easily! And this is not just your physical abilities that do you credit. It was a brilliant idea to use fire as a diversion and the risks were calculated. I was hesitant at first, because I have had unfortunate experiences in the past. Obviously my concerns were unwarranted.”
“Yes, I had Loth teach me a bit about fire management after I too made a bit of a disaster,” I add with a wince.
“Well at least you did not try the flaming pigs. I swear this was the second worst idea I ever had. I am glad that you could learn from my mistakes.”
I wince once more, not meeting her eyes.
“Please no, I do not want to be reminded of that debacle.”
“Ariane I quite specifically told you...”
“I know alright? It was an accident!”
“How can it be an accident?! You used fire! There were pigs!”
“I did not know they were there specifically!”
“How did you not anticipate this development, I ask?”
We turn around to a strong picket of men checking the camp’s exit.
“Am I disturbing you ladies in the middle of an argument?” asks the head guard with a smirk. He is an imposing sergeant with the countenance of a man who has seen much. Black pockets under his eyes are a sure sign that his shift should have ended long ago. With the assassination of its highest-ranking member, the camp is in disarray, and by now most soldiers only remain upright by sheer frustration.
“Of course not, sir.”
“And why are you leaving us so soon?”
I capture his attention and realize the man is frustrated, he most likely believes the killer to be either a turncoat in hiding or long gone. He is also dismissive, as in his mind two young women could not possibly be the culprits.
“Our business is done, we are heading back to our village, sir.”
“Your business huh…” he adds, and I realize I was mistaken. He thinks us courtesans heading back to wherever we came from after entertaining officers. Our fresh faces and subdued clothes, coupled with the fact we travel alone, place us firmly in this category,
I smile sheepishly. Yes, my good man, you caught us.
“Will you need to search the carriage?”
“How do you know we search carriages,” he asks with a frown. Jimena turns a worried eye to me but I reply without pause.
“You searched the one in front of us, and now you stop us. Sir.”
My voice is candid and without arrogance. I slightly push on the feeling of dismissal and the sergeant soon turns around and waves us off.
I nod and we depart.
Jimena smiles appreciatively after we are out of earshot.
“That was quick and efficient, Ariane. You are full of surprises, and just as resourceful as I hoped.”
“Yes dear sister, it is extraordinary how much can be achieved when one does not antagonize a figure of authority in front of its subordinates, is it not?”
Jimena ruminates on that before continuing.
“I think I liked you better when you were not so sassy.”
So, this is how Dalton feels when he gives me lip? My situation is hopeless, for he will never give up that beautiful vindication.
We spend the trip back in stories and humorous bickering.