The point of Nodremaid closest to the tunnel entrance from which Argrave and his companions had entered was the most thoroughly ‘cleaned’ by the Stonepetal Sentinels. It was largely devoid of danger or foliage, and the city retained some of the order it attempted to create in the distant past.
These facts made it dangerous. It would be the first place pursuers might look.
Argrave was certain there were pursuers. The six pigeons linked to him via [Pack Leader] had been keeping an eye on the tunnel entrance, per Argrave’s directions—they could not follow into the tunnel through the darkness and the link between them grew faint, but Argrave knew that a sizable group had entered. He could not be certain of how many, nor their composition, but knowing they existed was a very valuable piece of information.
The three of them had moved to a building temporarily, to seek shelter for a time and to decide their course of action. It was an abandoned merchant’s stop, though the furniture within had rotted over the centuries that passed. It was just a wreck of rotten wood and cold stone, now.
“Alright. Given my recent lack of success, I’m going to float to you all the ideas running in my head, and then we can decide from there.” Argrave said, leaning up against a wall that faced the open doorway so as to keep watch. It was a pointless gesture, he knew—Galamon would notice interlopers long before he did.
“Be concise. We should hurry, lest we lose our head start.” Galamon urged.
Argrave glanced at Galamon. Though acknowledging this bothered him, Argrave had to admit he felt some frustration Galamon had so quickly disposed of the Stonepetal Sentinel guarding the tunnel. Of course, without him, they may have all been killed. A simple fact kept his frustration in check; all of this was Argrave’s fault to begin with. He was the reason that man guarding the tunnels was dead.
“Right,” Argrave nodded, dismissing his errant thoughts. “We can’t stay here, where the city is least heavily influenced by the abominations left by the Order of the Rose. The Sentinels know this area best. Only a matter of time before we’re found.”
Galamon and Anneliese both nodded, and so Argrave continued. “That said, going into that jungle of flesh and bone is all but suicide. The Guardians roam Nodremaid in large groups. If one of them should find us, it’ll be difficult to escape unscathed even if I call upon Erlebnis’ power. These creatures are fast, ruthless, and intelligent—far different from those we witnessed in Thorngorge Citadel.”
“Leaving us with what option?” Anneliese inquired.
“The way I see it, we should move into the vampires’ territory—the headquarters of the Order of the Rose. They hunt the Guardians just as the Sentinels do, and we need to engage with them eventually, be it on friendly terms or… otherwise. It’ll be safer there than here, and it’ll place us closer to our goal.”
“Given what you disclosed to the Sentinels, they’ll be expecting us to go there,” Galamon pointed out.
“I thought the same,” Argrave crossed his arms. “Before recent events, I had intended to use the Sentinels as a cudgel against the vampires—win them to my side, talk them into coming with me.” Argrave scoffed at himself. “Guess I learned that you shouldn’t mess with the crazy. Regardless, if they’re pursuing us, the only thing I can think of is trying to force a confrontation between the vampires and the Sentinels. Maybe diplomacy, maybe just shepherding…”
“It’s an obvious thing to do. If the leader of the group pursuing you is competent, he will notice that intent immediately,” Galamon shot down quickly. “That said… it’s not a bad idea to head into the vampire’s territory. At the very least, I understand how they might be better than dealing with these… Guardians. I can keep watch better.”
“Okay. We can refine things further as we journey, but for now, we head to the headquarters of the Order of the Rose in Nodremaid, where the vampires reside. We’ll stick to the perimeter of the city—fewer areas the Guardians might approach from if we’ve a wall on one side.”
“We will have less maneuverability,” rebutted Anneliese.
“True, but that’s only if we’re caught.” Argrave nodded. “I don’t think it’s possible for the six pigeons linked to me via [Pack Leader] to come down through the darkness. I wish I had thought of this when we were escaping, but… well, what’s passed has passed. As such…” Argrave raised a hand, a spell matrix forming. The link between him and the birds shattered. He felt a strange emptiness in his chest, as though an emotional piece of him had been torn away. “If possible, forming a druidic bond with local fliers is paramount.”
“There are birds down here?” Anneliese asked incredulously.
“…no,” Argrave said after a pause. “Bats.”
“Oh, right,” she nodded, somewhat embarrassed. “Stupid… question.”
Argrave smiled, finding some solace in amusement amidst the constant uneasy dread. “Can’t blame you. Place is big enough for birds. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky there are no flying Guardians in this hellhole,” Argrave mused. He looked at Anneliese for a while. “How are you holding up?”
“I knew what to expect. I steeled myself. And… we have only barely begun,” Anneliese shook her head.
“Alright. Things ever get too much, don’t hesitate to stop us,” Argrave said.
Argrave felt a hypocrite saying that to Anneliese when uneasiness and anxiety plagued him so terribly. A voice echoed in the back of his head, saying, ‘This is it. This is where the skies end, and where I plummet into what I knew was coming.’ Try as he might not to dwell on it, Argrave had a fear of death as sharp as mint on his breath.
Argrave stepped to the doorway. “Let’s get going. Galamon, keep an eye out for bats, would you?”
“Bats, people, vampires, necromantic abominations… anything else?” he shook his head bitterly, adjusting his helmet.
“Not yet,” Argrave shook his head. “Soon, though.”
A servant poured water over a plant in the greenhouse. The flowers resembled poppies, but they were a deep and rich purple that shimmered in a way that was not entirely mundane.
“That is enough,” Elenore said, standing just behind the servant. She wore a white and green dress, as ever. The dress was long so as to cover the stumps that were once her feet. She wore white prostheses that barely showed beneath the dress. They were accurate imitations of feet, with the nails made of gold.
“But…” the servant said. “I only just began watering this one, my princess.”
“These are the Imperial Poppies—I remember their smell. You overwatered them yesterday, and they don’t need much water to begin with. You were distracted. I remember,” Elenore said neutrally.
The servant seemed surprised the princess even knew where they were standing. She opened her mouth and started to say, “I—”
“Don’t argue,” Elenore interrupted. The princess turned her head to the side. A maid walked down the aisle of greenery.
“My princess. You called for me?” the maid greeted, curtsying. Despite the fact that her master was blind, the maid had been quite diligent in maintaining her appearance—her orange hair was neatly bound in ring-braids, and every part of her uniform was impeccable. The princess’ head stayed idle, facing the maid as though watching her, despite the blindfold hiding her empty eye sockets.
“I did call.” Elenore held out her arm. “Walk me back to the fountain.”
The maid hurried to obey, gingerly grabbing the princess’ arm. She walked forth slowly, the princess’ steps beside her confident. One could not be certain if it was trust in her servant or confidence in her abilities that made the princess’ steps so sure.
“Induen has declined to return from Elbraille. He intends to… do something. He did not specify what,” the maid relayed quietly once the servant was beyond them.
“I see,” Elenore said. “Keep in touch. Watch over him. Inform me of his doings.”
“Yes, my princess,” the maid nodded. “One of the royal knights at his side is one of your Ears.”
“I know,” Elenore said. “Make sure communication is infrequent and discreet. I cannot risk my brother learning I have one spying on him.”
“Yes, my princess,” the maid said once more.
“Therese,” the princess stopped walking.
The maid was surprised that the princess knew her name, and her eyes widened. “Y-yes, my princess?”
“Many of the other maids that serve me have loose tongues, and loose fingers. They take money where they can. If I did not so ruthlessly punish traitors, they would doubtless sell my information to the nobility.”
“P-princess, I have never…” the maid stuttered.
“I know. As I said, the maids have loose tongues, especially for each other’s misdeeds. Most thefts, I am aware of. I make an example of some that cannot be ignored without an adverse impact on my respectability. Yet you… for years, you have never been dishonest. That is why I intend to give you a position of importance.”
Therese’s eyes widened.
The princess turned her head towards the flowers nearby, stepping close. She inhaled sharply through her nose, and then exhaled. When that was done, she looked back to the maid. “Things must happen in the coming months. The opening I saw to fly away from this place has closed. Elbraille has folded. I must find another path. If no opening exists… I must create one. To create one, I must poke holes in that which has been built around me.”
“I live to serve, princess,” Therese said, placing her hand to her chest.
“Live for yourself,” the princess shook her head. “But know that beneath my wings is the best place for you.”
“I-I have never heard you speak like this, princess,” Therese said uneasily.
Elenore stepped forward. “And you will be the only that does, I believe.” She fumbled about, but eventually her hands grabbed Therese’s shoulders. “There must be upheaval, chaos. The box that contains us must shake until it tears. You are capable, you are loyal. I wish for you to do this.”
Therese took a deep breath, and then exhaled. “What must I do, princess?”
Elenore leaned in and whispered, “Margrave Reinhardt’s brother, Bruno of Parbon. He still lies in my father’s hands.” Elenore paused, and then continued, “We must begin the process of planting one of our own in the team that tends to him. My father has him guarded well—he is of great value to securing victory for Vasquer. That is why he must die, and the whole world made aware of his death.”
Therese shook, but eventually nodded. Realizing the foolishness of the gesture in front of a blind person, she quickly said aloud, “I will, my princess.”
“Do not rush things,” the princess said sweetly. “Be slow, be quiet. Leave no loose ends. Inform me before you take any action. Can you promise me this?”
“Yes,” Therese said at once. “Yes, I can promise, my princess.”
“Good.” Elenore smiled. “And… when we are alone, call me Elenore.”
“T-thank you for this grace… Elenore,” Therese said somewhat awkwardly.
The princess reached to her ears and fiddled for a moment, before pulling free both of her earrings. They were studded with many diamonds, their base gold. “Take these. Sell them. It is but a beginning to a long and fruitful relationship. In time, you will become my right hand.” Therese looked overwhelmed, and Elenore placed the earrings in her hands. “Now, go.”
“Yes, my princ—Elenore,” Therese corrected, then curtsied and moved away. Elenore stayed facing her as she left, smile on her face. The maid had already long gone, yet it remained. Only after a great deal of time did her smile fall.
She took a deep breath as though taking in her surroundings. She felt around, feeling the nearest flowers.
“The white roses… three hundred steps to the square,” she recited in a low mutter.
The princess walked forth with no escort by her side, perfectly in the center of the pathway.
Support "Jackal Among Snakes"
- Buried on a hill overlooking a little river with pinecones all around
Bio: Author of the #1 'Heroes of Berendar' fan-fiction. Vicar of Crust. President of the Richie Aprile fan-club.