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

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Chapter Twenty-Five

Olrick scanned the crowd of Watchmen and Rooks, trying to keep his anger from clouding his judgment. They were the youngest members of Caithian intelligence, the eldest having just turned thirteen the day before and the youngest being nearly seven. Most of them were injured; all of them were scared, jumping at every loud, sudden sound, and all of them agreed that they were the last of Fort Asfalis’ men. With Fort Asfalis, - the largest Watchmen/Rook fort in Caitha – gone, almost an eighth of their men were POWs, now. That was hard to swallow.

“Damn those Giskens.” He looked over at Eza, who was standing next to him, with her staff in hand and a familiar fire in her eyes. “Damn them to the darkest pits of hell.”

“Did you have some depressing interviews, too?” Olrick asked. After the kids had all arrived, Silas had the two of them and a few other high-ranking Watchmen and Rooks talk to them to see if they could piece together what happened. The result was one of the most depressing afternoons of his life.

Eza nodded. “One of the kids I talked to was an eight year old from Asfalis. He told me that he heard his mother begging for mercy before the Giskens killed her from inside the fort. He saw her body a few days later, when they were getting out of Asfalis.”

Olrick ran a hand through his hair. “I had a similar experience.”

“What’d they tell you?”

Olrick sighed. “One of the boys told me that his friend killed himself a few days before they left. Apparently, the stress of battle and the fact that they were low on rations was too much for him.”

Eza cursed. “I know that Marion wants us to save Raul for her, but after this, I might just go ahead and kill him, myself.”

“That’s a bad idea, kid.” Olrick looked over his shoulder to see that Silas had joined them. He was standing with his arms folded over his chest as he, too scanned the crowd of boys that stood in the small, sparring area. “I don’t think the Giskens would take it too kindly if their leader was killed on his way to a peace conference.”

“Well, it isn’t a very good idea to look in on him, either,” Eza said. “I don’t think that would be taken well, either.”

“At least we have a chance of them not knowing about that,” Silas said. “An execution is a little too public.” Eza was pissed about what he’d said, but she didn’t argue; she knew as well as he did that assassinating Raul at that point was out of the question.

“Do we know when he’ll be arriving?” Olrick asked.

“He’ll be here within a few days,” Silas said. “Is our inside lady ready?”

Olrick began to rub the back of his neck. “I think so; she seemed a little nervous when I took her to the castle, though. I’m not sure if she’s just doing this because she feels obligated to or not.”

“We’ll have to change that,” Silas said as he began scratching at the scruffy beard that was just beginning to form on his chin. Polain had told him to shave it before Raul showed up, but Olrick doubted he would; he’d never groomed himself for anyone, before, and he probably didn’t see the point in starting then.

Before the conversation could continue, a little boy walked up to them. He had a bandage wrapped around his head, covering one of his eyes, and his skin had pale, sickly pallor to it.

“Do you have some bread?” The innocent sound of the boy’s voice stung. He should be at home with his mother, not here, without enough food and blankets for everyone.

Eza nodded as she opened the small satchel that was slung over her shoulder. The boy’s eyes and smile grew wide when he saw the loaf of bread in her hand.

“Try and be sparing with this, okay?” she said. Her voice was soft, softer than Olrick had heard it in a long time; it was almost motherly, even. “I don’t know when you’ll get food, next.”

The boy took the bread in his hands and held it close to his chest, like a mother carrying her newborn child. He looked back up at them with an amazed look on his face, as if he were looking into the faces of the gods, themselves. The look made Olrick’s heart ache.

“Thank you!” with that, the boy ran off into the crowd, his precious bundle in hand.

“You don’t strike me as the humanitarian type, Eza,” Silas said. “I’d always assumed that you’d need a soul for that.” Eza rolled her eyes and slugged him in the shoulder, hard.

“And how would you know anything about having a soul?” she asked as Silas rubbed his now sore arm. He chuckled as he pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time.

“You two should probably head back to the castle,” he said. “I don’t think Polain would be very pleased if Marion and Kael were to go unguarded for much longer.”

The castle was busy the day Raul was supposed to arrive. Every member of the staff – including military members – were set to work cleaning everything: they scrubbed the floors, polished the silverware, dusted the chandeliers; everything that could possibly be done to make the castle more clean and beautiful was done in preparation for General Raul’s arrival.

Due to her purpose for being there, Elise was in the west wing of the castle with Eza, Silas, and Olrick, in the bedchambers that would be General Raul’s while he was in Semata. They were beautiful, with enough riches to feed a small family for months, but she hardly noticed any of it; she was much too nervous to gawk at anything.

“I-I don’t think I can do this,” Elise said as she finished sweeping the granite floors. She was nervous beyond belief, to the point

“Sure you can.” Silas was sitting on a velvet couch, with his boot clad feet propped up and his hands clasped behind his head. “It’s not like he’ll strangle you if he finds you in his room-“

Eza didn’t give Silas the opportunity to say anything else: she smacked him on the back of the head, hard, and muttered something under her breath in Kurzhian. He sat up and rubbed the back of his head, annoyed.

“Don’t listen to him,” Olrick said. “You’ll be fine.” Eza nodded in agreement.

“Yes, don’t mind him,” she said as she shot Silas a dirty look. “He just enjoys being an ass too much for his own good.” He rolled his eyes at the comment, and Eza looked back at her.

“We picked you for a reason, Elise,” she said. “We knew that the odds were very low of you being suspected of being a spy, much lower than they would be if we’d chosen one of our own.”

Elise looked up at Eza, trying to decide whether or not she was lying. As always, her face remained a stony mask.

“Do you really think I’ll be alright?” she asked. Eza nodded.

“I know you will be,” she said.

The door cracked open and Polain, dressed in fine silks, poked his head in. “How are things going in here?”

Elise performed a small curtsy, her head bowed. “I just finished sweeping, dusting, and changing the linens in this room, sir. Should I go ahead and mop in here, or are there other rooms that need attention more than this one?”

“Both would be wonderful, but I’m afraid they will have to wait,” Polain said. “A runner just came from the wall; he told me that General Raul has arrived at the wall and will be here in a few minutes.”

Elise tried to hide her discomfort. She’d known that this moment was coming for a few days, now, but it still scared her to think that it was right around the corner.

“I’ll meet you all in the main hall,” Polain said as he scanned the room, looking everyone in the eye. His eyes lingered on Silas for a little longer than everyone else, and he sighed, shaking his head.

“Commander Silas, what reason do you have for not being in your formal uniform?” Polain asked. “Did it burn in a mysterious fire?”

Silas looked down as his clothes. Due to the fact that General Raul was arriving that day, all military personnel working in the castle were being required to wear their formal uniforms: for the intelligence core, it consisted of pleated trousers, leather boots, and a double-breasted suit jacket with a high collar and gold, braided epaulets. Eza’s uniform was black, while Olrick’s was gray in order to show which branch of military intelligence they belonged to. Silas, however, was dressed in a more casual uniform, with only a black cloak to show that he was in the military, at all.

He looked back up at Polain. “Is the fact that I hate the formal uniform reason enough? It’s so stiff and uncomfortable-”

“Go get changed,” Polain said. “I will not have my head of intelligence looking like some sort of vagrant with an important guest coming.” Silas sighed and walked out of the room, skirting passed Polain on his way out and muttering something under his breath.

With him gone, Polain focused on the rest of them. “Would you three be so kind as to get Princess Marion, for me?” Eza nodded.

“Would you like us to get Kael, too?” she asked.

“I’d rather not,” he said. “The odds are extremely low, but I don’t want to risk him recognizing him.” They nodded in understanding; they wouldn’t want to have a repeat of what happened in Lügenburg all those years ago, when Raul declared war on the rest of the world.

“Princess Marion should be in her room,” Polain said. “Please make sure that she’s dressed like a proper young women before you bring her down.”

“Yes, sir.” The three of them left the room and headed for Marion’s chambers.

The royal family’s rooms were located on the east wing of the castle on the top floor, above the rooms of the castle guards. They were massive, with elegant tapestries lining the walls ad tile floors that Elise could see her reflection in. Candelabras hung on the pillars by the walls, casting an orange glow throughout the hallway. Just like everywhere else in the castle, everything around her was beautiful; to think, that just a few weeks ago, she wouldn’t have been able to imagine riches such as these.

Marion’s room was especially exquisite. The walls were a cream color, just as everything else was. Her sheets were made out of the finest Jotiese silks, with gold flowers stitched into the blankets and the pillows. The armoire was intricately carved with lilies and vines, and a chandelier hung in the ceiling with candles lit in it. Marion seemed to disregard it all as she angrily swung at her bedpost with a practice sword, making loud, angry clacks ring out in the air.

“I’m not going.” Marion didn’t even pause from her work to look at them when she spoke.

Eza folded her arms as she leaned against the wall. “Polain didn’t exactly sound like you had a choice when he sent us.”

Marion looked back at them, her eyes narrowed. “Of course, I have a choice; I am the crown princess of Caitha, aren’t I? My coronation is in a few weeks, for the gods’ sakes!”

“Which means that Polain still has the right to send you where he likes when he likes, whether or not you want to,” Olrick said. “We need to hurry, Marion; I’d rather not have Polain pissed at us for being late to this.”

Marion threw the practice sword at the ground and glared at them.

“I don’t care if Polain wants me there or not,” Marion said. “I’m not going to grace that monster with my presence; Polain can grovel in submission to Raul, but I certainly won’t!”

“So, you’re going to let Raul win, then?” Eza asked. Marion paused, then looked back at her.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, confused. “How will I be letting him win?”

Eza shrugged, seemingly indignant. “Well, by not showing up, you’ll be telling Raul that you’re scared of him, which is exactly what he wants from you; it’ll sure give him the ego boost he needs to get his army into the city.” Marion got very red in the face when she heard that.

“I’m not afraid of him!” she protested.

“Then prove it.” Eza’s voice left no room for negotiating. “Come meet him when he gets here and show him that you aren’t afraid.” Marion didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then sighed, defeated.

“Fine,” Marion grumbled as she walked over to her wardrobe. “Wait outside for me; I need to change.”

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