The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Twenty-Four

Elise was speechless as Olrick led her through the castle gates. The building was huge, even bigger than she thought it would be. Walls and turrets rose up around her, so tall that she had to crane her neck up to see the top of the tallest spire; brightly-colored, flowered vines climbed up the stone walls, turning an otherwise imposing building beautiful; the grounds were green and maintained to perfection; the beauty that surrounded her took her breath away unlike anything else had, before.

“I love this place in the spring,” Olrick said as they walked across the green, lush grounds. “It’s so beautiful when everything starts to bloom.” Elise nodded as she continued to look around.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, before,” she breathed. “Do you live here when you aren’t in Asfalis?” They began to approach large wooden doors: the entrance to the main building of the castle.”

Olrick shook his head. “I have a room in a boarding house by the east wall.” He banged his fist against the door, making a loud echo resound on the other side.

The full force of what was happening hit her as they waited in silence for the door to open. She was going to be spending a lot of time at the castle, not only as a servant, but also as a spy; she would be stealing secrets from the most feared man on the planet, who wouldn’t hesitate to kill her if he found her out. It scared her to death, to think that what she would be doing could get her killed in the end-

“Are you okay?” Olrick’s voice pulled her from her thoughts.

Elise nodded as she pulled a stray chunk of hair back behind her ear. “I’m alright; just a little nervous, is all.”

“If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, it isn’t too late to back out,” Olrick said. “I mean, we can always find someone else to do this-“

“I’m fine, really,” she said. Olrick didn’t seem convinced, but he didn’t have the chance to question her, further. The doors groaned open and an older man poked his head out to see who it was.

“It’s a pleasure to see you, again, Commander Olrick,” he said as he opened the door more. He did a slight bow, then looked Elise up and down “Who is this? I never thought I’d see you with a lady friend.” Elise could feel her cheeks beginning to burn red.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” he said quickly. “Do you remember when Silas came in to get a servant’s room prepared?” The man nodded.

“So, this is who we were preparing for?” he asked. “Is she another refugee?”

Refugee. Though she knew that the man didn’t mean anything negative by it, it still stung. Elise hadn’t thought of herself as one during her time in Semata, but now that he’d said it, she guessed that that was just what she was: she’d been forced out of her home by the Giskens and didn’t really have a place to call home, anymore.

Olrick nodded. “I’m sorry if this is a burden in any way. I just-“

“There is no explanation needed, Commander,” the man said. “I know full well how that heart of yours works.” He looked over at Elise and bowed. “I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m Samuel, the head servant here at Castle Matisse; and you are?”

“Elise, sir,” she said. Samuel stood aside and motioned them inside.

“Please, come inside,” he said. “I’ll show you where you’ll be staying.” Elise stepped inside, while Olrick stayed on the castle’s stoop. “Do you wish to join us, Commander Olrick?”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid that I can’t; Princess Marion needs me to be her sparring partner this afternoon.” Samuel nodded.

“Good day, then.” Samuel shut the door and began to lead her down the hall.

The place Elise found herself in was huge, just like the outside of the building. The entrance hall had vaulted ceilings so high, shadows concealed the top of them. Paintings of members of the Matisse family covered the walls, while marble statues took up the small alcoves between the paintings. The granite floor was polished to such a sheen that she could see her reflection in it. She tried to keep herself from gawking at everything, but she couldn’t help herself.

“This is the main hall,” Samuel said as he, too, looked around. Unlike her, though, he looked at everything with a sense of familiarity. “Most of the castle’s social functions are held here, so you’ll become quite acquainted to this room.”

“It’s very beautiful,” Elise commented as she continued to gawk.

As she would learn, beautiful was a word that could describe almost every part of the castle. Every surface was scrubbed clean, every pillar was ornately carved, every religious fresco and statue done to perfection; even the servants’ areas were beautiful and clean, albeit on a much simpler level. Samuel’s tour of the castle took Elise’s mind off of General Raul and spying, if just for a little while.

Eventually, Samuel led her to a small room near the kitchens. It was a small room, with bare, white walls, and wooden floors covered with an old, once-colorful floor rug. There was a simple, wood-framed bed with a worn, bright quilt on it on one side of the room, while a wardrobe and a stone fireplace stood on the other. A window, covered with a green curtain, was in between them, with a large, old trunk under it. Most would probably find the room very simple, but it still managed to feel lavish to Elise; she’d never had her own room, before, or a fireplace whose soul purpose was to keep the room warm.

“This will be your room,” Samuel said. “I know that it isn’t much, but I hope that it’ll feel like home, eventually; it does for me.”

Elise sat down on the bed and began rubbing the soft quilt. If the servants’ rooms were this nice, what must the princess’ room be like? “This is perfect, thank you. When will I start working?”

“Normally, I would give you a few hours to get unpacked and settled, but it doesn’t seem that you’ve brought many things with you,” Samuel said. “I can give you your week’s pay right now so you can buy a few things, if you wish.”

Elise looked down at her clothes. Her dress was soiled; it was the same one that she’d worn when she’d first escaped Thaos, though she’d been able to wash it once she’d arrived in Semata.

“I would appreciate that, thank you,” she said. He nodded and pulled a small pouch from his belt that jingled with coins.

He took out a few coins and offered them to her. To her shock, in his hand were five bronze drams; she was being given more money than the tavern back in Thaos made in one month for a single week of work, one that she hadn’t done, yet. How could this man just give her that much money without so much as batting an eye?

“Are you sure?” Elise asked. “I-I don’t think I can take that much money.”

“It’s alright,” Samuel said. “It really isn’t that much money, here.” She found herself hesitating a moment longer, then took the coins. She’d never so much as seen so much money, let alone held that much in her hand, before.

“There’s a coin pouch in the trunk under the window for you,” he said. “There’re a few shops over by the military police headquarters that I would recommend. Do you know where that is?” Elise nodded. It was across the street from the army medical core headquarters, between the military intelligence building and the diplomatic service building. Olrick and Mathis had pointed them all out those first few days after she’d arrived.

“Then, I’ll leave you to your own devices,” Samuel said. “Be back here by noon, and we’ll start training you.”

After searching for the exit for a few minutes, she made her way towards the shops Samuel had talked about. Semata was bustling with activity, just as it had been every day since she’d arrived. Due to how close she was to the castle walls, most of the people she saw were members of various government organizations. She walked past women wearing the long, elegant red dresses of the diplomatic service, young boys and girls in the simple, gray tunics of the royal messenger service, men in the green tunics and leather breastplates of the city garrison; all of them mingled with each other with their heads held high, off to perform various duties in the name of Caitha.

What was happening on the streets by the castle was very different after she purchased a simple blue shift at a store by the military intelligence building. Standing in front of the building when she came out was a growing crowd of battered Watchmen and Rooks. All the ones she could see couldn’t have been much older than twelve or thirteen, and none of them were completely unscathed: many had bandages wrapped around various limbs, others hobbled on crutches, while others had an arm in a sling. An unlucky few had to be carried around on litters by the least injured or lay in the dirty streets, they were so hurt.

Elise walked up to one of the older ones, one with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head. “What happened to all of you?”

The Watchman looked over at her. The second she saw the mournful look in his eyes, she knew that she wouldn’t soon forget it.

“The Giskens attacked us during the night a week ago,” he said sadly. “You’re looking at the last of Fort Asfalis’ men.”

Elise began to feel sick. Fort Asfalis had seemed so strong, so secure; how could the Giskens overrun it so fast?

“Are you looking for a brother?” the man – no, the boy – asked; he was younger than Milo had been, even, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old.

She shook her head. “No; the Giskens killed him two weeks ago.”

“I’m sorry.” The boy said it bitterly; Elise couldn’t even imagine how sick he must’ve been to hear about his fellow Watchmen dying at the Giskens’ hands. It hurt her to think that someone so young had to be exposed to all this.

The boy’s stomach began to growl. He wrapped his arms around his stomach, embarrassed.

“How long has it been since you’ve last eaten?” Elise asked. The boy began to scratch the back of his head.

“I had a piece of jerky yesterday morning,” he said. “I let the younger ones eat the last of the rations.” Elise pulled one of the bronze pieces out from her money pouch and offered it to him. It was the last one she had after buying herself some clothes.

“You need to get something to eat,” she said.

The Watchman began to shake his head. “I-I can’t accept that, ma’am.”

“I insist.” He stared at the coin for a few seconds, then took it.

“Gods bless you, ma’am.”

As Elise moved on from the crowd of Watchmen and Rooks, her mind lingered on the group, specifically the young one she’d talked to. Fort Asfalis had hundreds of men stationed there. How could they have been caught so unaware?

And what if the same thing happened in Semata?

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