Francine glances at the nearby automata then takes my hand and begins walking me away from the court. “Not here,” she whispers, her voice and movements filled with barely contained excitement. As we travel through the palace, I drift back to my assigned place behind her to the right. While I want to call it feigned obedience—I do have an image to maintain as Vera, after all—I am somewhat relieved Francine is leading the way. Even with my newfound awareness, Helena’s sorcery still lingers, urging me to be docile and making my surroundings and passing peers seem grander and more imposing. With my mind this scattered, the palace halls have never seemed quite so dangerous, I never quite so vulnerable within them.
And so I squeeze Francine’s hand a little tighter, following behind dutifully as she takes me past inanimate sculpted busts of Arlunn’s former monarchs and animate sculpted busts of Helena’s former enemies. In the meantime, I try to ignore my mental fog and devise some kind of plan out of this mess:
First: I must remind Francine that I am of value to her. This will not be difficult—my various skills are already well known to the royal spymaster.
Second: Convince her to betray Helena, possibly by appealing to her vanity or desire for power.
Third: Regain access to my document trove of blackmail, secrets, and exploitable weaknesses.
Fourth: Use Francine’s spy network and my knowledge to begin influencing the court once more.
It’s not perfect, but it’ll have to do—as soon as Francine is satisfied that we aren’t being followed, she guides me into a dusty unused storeroom and shuts the door behind us.
“Is that you, Veronica?” I nod. Francine leans against the door and crosses her arms. As her upper lip curls into a mischievous grin, I half expect to find fangs underneath it. “Prove it.”
I take a shaky breath and stand tall. The time has come for me to perform again, exhausting though the prospect may be. “Go fuck yourself and your stupid fucking queen, you sycophant.” Insulting Helena makes my skull and heart ache, but I muster the willpower to maintain my bravado.
“Well, well.” Francine shakes her head and lets out a husky laugh. “That’s quite the evidence, little wench. How’d you pull it off?”
“Abruptly and unpleasantly.” She cocks an eyebrow. “Paolo’s outburst, it…well, suffice to say, trying to make me forget my past burdens is a fool’s errand.”
“That’s not a very satisfying answer.”
“You’re not asking the right question.”
“Oh? And what would that question be?” Francine pushes herself away from the door and takes a step toward me. I don’t budge.
“How you’re going to make it out of that mess on top.” I gesture at the rest of the palace.
“Is that so? How ironic,” she purrs, one of her spindly fingers reaching forward to twirl a strand of my hair. My breath catches at the touch. “The girl who got herself turned into a fucktoy wants to give me advice on navigating a political crisis.”
I swallow harshly. The memories of our ‘training’ together make it impossible to keep a straight face when she’s this close; I must be absolutely dripping with emotional tells. My sex isn’t far behind, annoyingly enough. Best to get on with the plan before it becomes a distraction. “Not just advice. Partnership.”
Francine feigns a gasp, holding her other hand in front of her mouth. “Veronica! I didn’t know you felt that way about me.”
I pout. “Very funny.” My persuasive skills have grown rusty over the past few months, turning what would normally be delicate negotiation into a jumbled mess of words: “I’m around Helena all day, nobody believes me capable of anything, and I’ve regained my ability to remember and act on what I see and hear. You’ve seen firsthand the incompetence of those fools out there playing politics—if we united, they wouldn’t stand a chance against us.”
“Hmm. If I remember correctly, your past ‘partners’ had a nasty habit of ending up scorned, cut out, or cut up.” The spymaster backs away and begins polishing her spectacles, trying to hide her eagerness behind the mundane gesture. It doesn’t work. I can see smug satisfaction tugging the corners of her lips upward clear as day.
“Things are different now. You know that.”
“Oh? Why is that?” Francine looks at me expectantly. Of course she’s going to make me say it. She’s the worst. I finally break eye contact and look down at the floor, blood rushing to my cheeks in embarrassed frustration.
“...because I need you.”
The laugh that comes out of Francine is by no means kind, but it at least seems genuine. I’ve piqued her interest. For now. “There’s something I never expected to hear out of you. Not outside the bedroom, anyways.” My current least favorite person in the world bends forward so she’s on my level. A few small strands of curly blonde hair frame her face, pulled out of their tight bun by her enthusiastic gestures. I do my best to ignore how attractive she looks—not in a conventional sense, but in how she carries herself with total confidence. “And what, pray tell, has inspired this change of heart? Why would ‘genius of intrigue’ Lady Veronica Tiern possibly need me?”
A huff escapes my lips. “I hate you.” Francine only grins wider at my declaration. I sigh and recite exactly what I know she wants to hear. “I need you because I have no influence. Nobody respects me.”
“Surely not! You are a Lady, after all. Why wouldn’t your peers respect you?”
“...because I’m a fucktoy.” Heat surges through me at the admission. Without really noticing, I grip the hem of my dress and shift my thighs against one another.
The spymaster triumphantly swoops back up to a standing position. “And therein lies the problem. Don’t get me wrong; the thought of working together is…titillating.” She flicks out each syllable precisely as if they’re all part of a carefully orchestrated piece. It’s infuriating. “But sadly, fucktoys make dubious allies. What happens if the Queen gets back inside your head? If someone else learns of your deception? A needy little thing like you can’t keep secrets, can’t bluff, can’t intimidate others. And while you’d only face more magical brain surgery if caught, I’d be sent straight to the gallows.”
My fists clench. Things are not going according to plan. “You would do well not to underestimate me, Francine. Vera is gone, and I’m not so easy to control.”
“Are you sure about that?”
I blink, caught off guard by the question. “What?”
Francine shrugs. “You’re not exactly strong-willed.”
She’s insulting me. I force down the excited flutter her words ignite in my stomach—I’m not supposed to suffer such slander. “You dare doubt my faculties? I am Lady Veronica Tiern. Secrecy is second nature to me, lies a fluent language. You should be so lucky to have me by your side.”
“Uh-huh. And right now, Lady Veronica Tiern, you are a horny mess who may or may not still be ensorcelled.”
I can’t accept that; refuse to even consider it. Forward is my only option. Forward is all I know. Forward to the next scheme, the next struggle for supremacy. But without Francine, there is no forward. Nobody else has the courage to go against Helena and Berinni as well as the power to actually pull it off.
Having lost control of the situation, I begin to feel like a cornered animal. My vision narrows and my ears ring as I march right up to Francine, fear serving as fuel for my rage. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, you absolute imbecile. I broke free of Helena’s sorcery because I’m smarter and stronger-willed than you, and—“
“Oh, for goodness’ sake. Not this again.” Francine’s hand snakes out to grab my hair, tugging my head to the side. “If you’re not going to listen, little fucktoy, then I’ll just have to show you.” She bends over and runs her smooth, soft lips across my now-exposed neck. I shudder.
“Do your worst, wretched woman.”
What follows is a series of arhythmic nips, kisses, and nibbles all the way from my collarbone to the tip of my ear. Francine offers no pattern for me to ease into, leaving me constantly tense and shivering in anticipation of a bite’s sting. The lightest feather touches make me jump, and the slightest bits of pressure from her teeth send pain shooting across my high-strung nerves with no chance for me to adjust. I squeal when she grazes my earlobe with her teeth; moan when she shifts to kiss my lips. Within minutes, her minimal efforts reduce me to a sensitive, quivering mess while my rants and curses become increasingly incoherent.
Francine hums contentedly. “See how easy that was?” She slips her hand under my dress to rest against my soaked panties. My attempt to grind on it is immediately met with a corrective slap. “Ah ah ah, little fucktoy. Not until I say you can.”
“Nngh…you…fuck…” I squirm without really trying to escape, eyes darting anywhere that isn’t occupied by her hungry stare. “...gods…stupid…mm!”
“Are you ready to be honest with yourself?” Francine absently brushes her finger across my clit. My hips buck in response.
“I…I can’t!” I wail. The spymaster presses her fingers against my inner lips through my panties, curling and uncurling them upward so the thin wet cloth is her only barrier to fucking me properly. I mewl and bury my face in her shoulder. This can’t be how it ends. My political career was supposed to lead to triumph and glory, not to a rough fuck in some dirty backroom. Yet in spite of my convictions, all I can do is watch as my last chance at power slips away. I’m too overcome with lust to do anything else. The pathetic nature of my fall only serves to turn me on further, arousal forming a vortex along with my rage, and…
…and I love every second of it.
There is no greater rush than absolute defeat; no greater relief than being freed from the constant fear and paranoid conspiracies of political ambition. It’s over. I did everything I could, and it wasn’t enough.
What I feel is different from Vera’s meek acceptance, being somehow more intense even while lacking magical stimuli. Under Helena’s compulsion, to submit was a thoughtless, effortless process—I obeyed because I had to. Now, though, each and every bit of myself I trust in Francine is another willing decision on my part, one that makes me hot, indignant, and embarrassed all at once over how needy I am and how much I enjoy being hers. I have the freedom to struggle against her, lose, and revel in my newfound lack of control while remaining consciously aware of my humiliation. It’s the kind of thing a girl could become addicted to.
Elated by my newfound realization, I writhe about in Francine’s grip until we’re face to face and balance on my tip toes for a hungry kiss. “Fine! Fine. You’ve made your point.”
Her hands stray to squeeze my tight little ass. “Good. And for what it’s worth, I…I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I rescind my offer of partnership.”
“You…rescind it?” Francine looks bemused. The slight vulnerability is cute on her.
I tilt my chin up, doing my best to hold back a manic giggle. “Indeed. After your sorry display just now, it’s quite clear to me that we are not equals.”
For the first time ever, I leave the royal spymaster speechless. Watching her process the audacity of my statement is an absolute treat, as her mouth hangs open for several seconds before she realizes my true meaning. “You are unbelievable.”
I glance at my nails coolly. “That being said, I might still find some use for you as a servant. Would you like to hear my proposal?”
For a moment, I worry I’ve gone too far too soon in my teasing—Francine’s demeanor turns predatory, the blonde leaning forward and digging her nails into my back. Instead of immediately fucking my brains out, though, she just responds in a low tone that makes my knees weak. “Speak.”
This is it; the point of no return. I leap past it with gleeful abandon. “There’s a collection of documents you might be interested in; documents I collected on my fellow nobles—”
“—I fucking knew you didn’t give them all up, you bitch—”
“—over the course of many years. While they aren’t all up to date, I’d say most of them are still relevant.” Giving away my secrets still hurts. They are, in essence, the culmination of my career, serving as documented evidence of my time in power. But the reality of my situation means I’d never be able to get into a position where I could use them. Title or no title, my reputation among the gentry is ruined. The best I can do is trade them away in one final backroom deal—an homage to the Veronica Tiern that once was. “If you can find me a sorcerer, they’re all yours.”
I drop the performative flourishes to speak plainly. “Helena’s still in my head; I still love her, for fuck’s sake. I need someone who can fix me.”
Francine considers for a moment. “And then what?”
“Who knows? Not court intrigue, that’s for certain. I’ve spent more than enough of my life among incompetent hacks already. Perhaps I’ll join the circus.”
For a split second, I see a sad little smile flash across the spymaster’s face. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Good. It’s settled, then.”
“So it is.”
We stare at each other for a moment.
And then we both lunge, our arms and mouths intertwining in a series of kisses and caresses closer to wrestling than they are to anything romantic. I fight valiantly, but at two-thirds of Francine’s size I have no hope of gaining the upper hand—before I know it she has me pinned on my back to the dusty wooden floor, her mouth claiming my own as her hand returns to its rightful place over my cunt.
It’s her cunt, really. At the moment, all of me belongs to her. Francine pulls away from the kiss and leisurely removes her spectacles, placing them in her back pocket while never taking her fiery eyes off me.
“You think you’re clever, fucktoy?” She growls out the last word. There’s no trace of the earlier playful tease or composed politician; for the moment, Francine has become a creature of pure need as much as I have. She makes no effort to hide her delight at my feeble attempts to struggle or at how I gaze up at her with wide, nervous eyes.
I can’t resist getting in one more playful jab. “Yes, Lady Francine!”
It proves to be one too many. Francine pulls my dress partially off until it’s over my head, the fabric restricting my arms and covering my face. Her fingers trace up my sides before latching onto my left nipple, pinching it hard enough to make me cry out. “Well then, ‘genius of intrigue,’ how about you escape? Show me how smart you really are.” She doesn’t let up in her assault, now squeezing both breasts harshly.
I try to wiggle my way out from under her, but her weight pressing down on me makes it all but impossible. Plus, any time I jerk or twist my torso it only intensifies the blooming pain in my chest. “Ow!”
“Come on, little fucktoy. Let’s see that brilliant mind at work.” Francine takes my dress off entirely, allowing me to move my arms once more and see the look of pure sadistic joy on her face. Not that either will do me much good—I’m far too weak to offer any resistance.
“P-please!” Sensation crowds out all coherent thought and leaves me helpless and gasping. I’m so fucking horny I can hardly function, the adrenaline and endorphins coursing through me only serving to amplify my primal desperation. “I’ll be good, I promise! Just please let me go—aah!”
“You’ll be good?” Francine stops her torturous squeezing, giving each nipple one last flick for good measure. The lack of additional attention only makes it easier to feel how hot, swollen, and hard they’ve grown. “That’s a very tempting offer.”
I nod rapidly, bobbing my head up and down.
After a moment of chin-stroking, though, she turns back to me and shakes her head. “I see. This is another of your clever tricks, isn’t it? I think,” she continues, her hand stroking my cheek, “you don’t even know how to be a good girl.” She slaps me in the face, then returns to abusing my poor nipples. I howl in pain.
“Nonono, wait, I—nnghAAaa!” With the last of my capacity for rational thought, I devise a plan: I must convince Francine that I can be a good girl.
“And to think I almost fell for your ruse.” The spymaster shakes her head. “Perhaps you are a clever fucktoy.”
I let out a long whine at one particularly nasty tweak, then put my plan into motion. “I-I’m sorry, Lady Francine.”
“For what?” She’s fully kneading my breasts now.
“For disrespecting you.”
Francine nods. “And?”
‘And?’ What else is there? “Um…I’m also sorry for…talking back?”
One of her hands begins tracing circles over my pubic mound, occasionally slapping it lightly. The area is sensitive enough that I jerk back every time.
The nature of her game becomes clear. “And for saying you weren’t my equal.”
Francine doesn’t speak; she just waits for me to continue. And before I know it, words start flowing out of my mouth in some sort of impromptu submissive confession.
“For calling you an imbecile, for all the other times I got mad and insulted you, and, and, for working against you and my own best interests for so long, for not recognizing what a submissive little whore I am, for pretending I’m smarter than I really am, and—”
I’m cut off by Francine’s hand pressing over my lips. I lick at her fingers, and while she rolls her eyes she still pops two of them into my mouth to suck on. “Apology noted. Perhaps we can make a good girl of you yet.”
I moan in delight and continue my gentle suckling. It feels…safe. I feel safe.
“For showing such progress, though…” I feel a hand trail down to my soaked panties. “A reward is in order. Do you want to get off, fucktoy?”
I whimper an affirmative.
“I want to hear you say it,” she breathes into my ear, pulling her fingers out of my mouth and wiping them on my cheek.
“Please. Your fucktoy wants to get off, Lady Francine.”
“Then you hump.” I do. Despite the awkward angle and despite her pin restricting my movement, I swivel my hips and rub my needy cunt against her over and over. Francine watches my face the entire time, grinning madly and never moving her hand a single inch to pleasure me. There’s no need for her to—I’m eager and willing to debase myself for pleasure, rutting myself on whatever she offers like an untrained animal in heat. Once I find a steady rhythm I don’t even avoid eye contact anymore. There’s no hiding the fact that at this moment, we’re both exactly where we want to be.
“‘I need you,’ she says, as if I didn’t already know,” Francine chuckles to herself, giving in to the thrill of having absolute control. “I’ve known for a long time, little fucktoy. How long did you last after your transformation? A week?”
“Nine days,” I squeak out a correction as my clit rubs against the base of her palm. My tongue is nearly lolling out of my mouth, my breath ragged and frequently interrupted by moans.
“Nine days before you willingly came to me, sulking and pouting and not really knowing why you were there. Half the palace would have jumped at the chance to fuck you, but that wasn’t enough—girls like you need structure. Discipline. And a steady hand to administer it.”
Maybe her speech is nonsense born of megalomania. Maybe the moisture in my eyes is sweat. Maybe the powerful feeling of satisfaction welling up within me comes only from temporarily escaping Helena.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
I don’t come. Even in a more stimulating position, Helena’s magic still would have blocked any chance at orgasm. But despite that, I still find satisfaction in rubbing myself against Francine’s hand until my cunt is numb and then collapsing onto the floor. Once I’m spent, she tugs my panties off, wipes her hand on one of their tiny remaining dry spots, and then folds them up and tucks them in one of her tunic pockets.
Physical and emotional exhaustion prevents most movement, but I’m still able to worm my way into her lap and gently headbutt her shoulder until she starts stroking my hair. She’s terrible at it. Strangely enough, that fits her personality—the acrobatic and lithe dominant returning to her uncoordinated, awkward self as soon as her time in the spotlight ends. I make a mental note to tease her about it later. We rest for a few more moments like that, catching our breath and cooling our passions.
“Let’s get you some water and a bed.” Francine eventually pulls me to my feet and wraps an arm around my shoulder to keep me steady. “You’ll need your rest. After all, we’re not through the woods yet.”
“Inn ren Sol mentieren, inn ren dus. As the Sun rises, so do I.”
Eshe carefully steps over a charred wooden beam in an attempt to get a more complete view of the wreckage before them. The early morning autumn wind makes the smell of smoke impossible to avoid—they can almost feel it seeping into their cloak and hair as they circle the remnants of what was once an inn. Soldiers crawl over the foundation like ants, shoveling piles of ash and heaving away larger chunks of lumber and masonry.
“Wasn’t much to be done once it started. Haven’t found any bodies inside yet, though.” Ina follows close behind them. Since reporting the incident to Eshe, she’s maintained the ‘responsible passerby’ affect in an attempt to mask her involvement and avoid discipline. It won’t work. “Ought to be done by noon.”
“And the owner?” Eshe’s voice has the low, gravelly tone one would expect from someone awoken before dawn to inhale dust.
Ina shrugs. “He got real mad and came at some of the Duke’s men with a spade. They beat him and dragged him off.”
The lieutenant closes their eyes and rubs their temples. “Alright. Let me know if you find any dead. Dismissed.”
After only four days in Niol, the occupation is already on the verge of becoming a sacking. Anyone could have seen it coming—Berinni’s coalition of mercenaries and conscripts were promised and then promptly denied a war, being ordered instead to march into the capital and do nothing. Disordered soldiers filled with restless, disordered energy have a tendency to commit disordered deeds. Eshe mentioned that to Laviny on the march. He didn’t seem concerned.
The lieutenant looks to the horizon and sighs.
“Inn ren Sol mentieren, inn ren dus. As the Sun rises, so do I.”
The sound of a distant scream jolts Eshe awake. Disorientation grips them for a moment before they come to terms with their surroundings—they’re in the command tent. They’ve been sleeping in the old wooden chairs of the tent every night in an effort to make themself accessible to their soldiers. After all, they’re in charge of the camp while Laviny partakes in negotiations, and the chaotic nature of their campaign means someone always needs to speak with them. Best to be easily found.
After only eight days in Niol, the Order’s camp is one of the few safe places left in the city. Eshe and their sun-knights are supposed to have authority over the other legions in Berinni’s coalition, but in practice, their attempts to give orders have all been met with lip service at best. As far as Eshe can tell, the Duke’s plan for revolution was to assemble a giant pile of money and then throw it at whoever was willing to fight. And while it’s gotten him this far, his forces are quickly dissolving into self-interested quarreling factions.
They stand and stretch their legs, working the sore spots in their neck and back developed by a week of bad sleep. Stepping over the discarded pieces of their armor lying on the floor of layered rugs, they open the main flap of the command tent and peer out into the darkness of the early morning hours. The inside of the camp is well-lit by magically powered sun orbs, but Eshe is far more interested in the sprawl of refugee tents and shacks just outside the camp’s wooden walls—the scream likely came from somewhere out there. Not that they have any real way of finding out or any concrete plan of what to do if they did.
And yet they always feel compelled to look.
“Inn ren Sol mentieren, inn ren dus. As the Sun rises, so do I.”
Eshe nods along as countless figures explain their recent tragedies. They still make an effort to walk the city streets every day, offering aid when they can and an ear when they can’t. During the day, at least. A majority of the Order’s soldiers aren’t interested in going out at night, and forcing them could have consequences for morale. Nobody says it outright, but their reason why is clear: they don’t want to risk their lives for the sake of civilians in a foreign land.
“...countless livestock dead …”
“...still can’t find her…”
“...bandits squatting in my house…”
Eshe raises a hand to quiet the crowd. “South and east of town you’ll find our camp; as of right now, each person can claim one free meal each day. Unfortunately, we currently lack the supplies and manpower to deal with your individual issues. But rest assured, we will stay until your city is well once more.” They’ve memorized the speech by now. The majority of the crowd accepts it and walks away grumbling.
After only twelve days in Niol, their lack of sleep is becoming a serious issue. They’ve made do with much less before, but never so soon after a Reflection—the lingering effects of the ritual cloud their mind and tax their body, making what would otherwise be acceptable duress into a brutal slog. Refracted bits of color still dance before their eyes, and flashes of intense heat reminiscent of the sweat lodge are liable to strike them at any moment. Their stomach is never quite settled and their eyes ache for lack of rest; as a whole, they are stuck in a numb haze. So much so, in fact, that they fail to notice a civilian before walking into them.
“Oof! Hey, watch it!” the woman shouts, falling down onto her back. She’s short and wiry, with a frock of bright red hair wrangled into two long braids.
Eshe blinks slowly and then rushes to offer a hand once they catch up with reality. “Apologies, madam.”
“Whatever.” The redhead takes their hand and pulls herself back onto her feet, brushing the dirt off of her tunic. She wears several layers of linen clothing, all of which have clearly seen a great deal of use. “Oy, aren’t you all sorcerers?”
“...what?” Eshe glances back at their escort, both of whom are clearly eager to move on.
“Well, it’s just that every story I ever read about sun-knights has ‘em using more magic than the Queen Herself.” She peers at Eshe curiously. “So if that’s true, why are you talking about supplies n’ all that? Can’t you just…” Her hands wave about vaguely.
Eshe sighs. “No. There are complicated rites and rituals involved to use any sorcery.” Their nausea flares up as they gesture to the other soldiers and begin walking away. “Have a nice day. Stay safe.”
A few seconds after they turn away, they hear the rapid tapping of footsteps against the cobblestone street as the civilian rushes back over. “Name’s Riley, by the by. Next time you might want to learn a gal’s name before you bowl her over.”
Eshe very nearly smiles at that. “Knight-Lieutenant Eshe of the Order of Sol Gloria.”
Riley walks alongside them, constantly falling behind and then rushing forward a few steps to keep pace. “You here to kill the Queen?”
One of the Order’s soldiers shoots Eshe a sidelong glance, silently offering to rid them of their uninvited companion. Eshe subtly shakes their head. The company gives them something to focus on besides their splitting headache. “Kill the Queen? Where did you hear that?”
Riley shrugs. “Word around the docks says you are. Says She’s gone mad, and that the sun-knights descended from the skies to put Her down.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Can’t be that complex; either you off Her or you don’t.”
The corner of Eshe’s mouth tugs upward. “We’re not here to kill the Queen.”
“Huh. Then what are you here for?”
Eshe doesn’t have an answer to that. They settle for a change of subject instead.
“What do you do around here, Riley?”
“Runner, courier. Dockworker when things are slow, at least before they closed the river down tighter than a…” Riley sheepishly glances at Eshe. “Tight…knot. Last two weeks I’ve been mostly busy staying alive, though. Good work if you can get it.”
“That it is. Whereabouts do you live?”
Riley kicks at a loose stone, hands shoved in her pockets to stave off the cold. “Dunno.”
Eshe tries to sneak a look over at the redhead only to find her doing the same. Her eyes are a dazzling blue; bright enough to make them feel a little bit more awake. They try not to imagine what those eyes have seen as of late.
They continue their circuit throughout Niol in silence. Other civilians occasionally follow along with the group, realize they aren’t offering anything, and then peel away. Riley sticks around. Once the main gate of the Order’s camp is in sight, Eshe feels growing anxiety twisting in their gut. They could help this poor young woman; find an extra tent and let her stay inside the walls away from the violence and chaos. Feed her what would likely be her first full meal in days; give her the opportunity to bathe and sleep soundly. Offer her genuine companionship, if she so chooses.
They’re about to invite her inside when they catch the expressions on their soldiers’ faces. Both their escort and the gate guards alike regard Riley with naked suspicion and hostility, viewing her as a potential threat. Eshe remembers back to Ina at the tavern fire, the woman-at-arms having no doubt just spent the night drinking and whoring with the offending mercenaries. They remember the stony faces of the watchmen as a brutal melee broke out between refugees and bandits just outside the camp. And above all else, they remember the disinterested faces of Laviny and the Duke as they received Eshe’s reports on the growing violence all around them.
Riley wouldn’t be safe in the camp—she’d be a pariah. A target. The roots of disorder had spread underneath the walls and into the hearts of their soldiers.
Even still, Eshe’s heart suffers when they leave her behind. She stands outside the gate, watching them go with her wide blue eyes until one of the guards shoos her away.
Eshe’s thoughts and feelings layer over one another in a scrambled mess as they walk to the command tent. The Path, it seems, has made itself invisible to them—to the point where they doubt even the loyalties of those beneath them and the motives of those above. They need a moment to themself to think.
They do not get a moment to themself to think.
“Lieutenant!” One of the guards outside the command tent snaps into a salute. “There is a guest waiting for you, Ser. One Viscount Paolo Liotenz.”
“At ease,” they mumble as they walk past the guard and through the entrance flap.
Sure enough, the Viscount awaits them inside—his boyish good looks slightly more rugged thanks to his unshaven face and leather armor.
He stands as he notices them enter. “Ser Eshe! I apologize for not planning a meeting ahead of time; as you might imagine, schedules in the palace are quite unpredictable.”
A dizzy spell strikes Eshe. They feel like they’re about to vomit. “Not to worry, Viscount. It’s a pleasure to have you.” They meander their way over to their chair-slash-bed, clumsily sitting down while still in half plate armor. “But I’m not sure I can offer you anything that the Knight-Captain could not.”
Paolo smoothly removes his sword belt and sits down as well. “Ah! Well, I am here under unusual circumstances.”
Eshe braces themself for the bad news or absurd request that inevitably follows the words ‘unusual circumstances.’
“I want to speak with you about Lady Veronica Tiern.”