“What happened?” Elise looked up at Silas and Olrick. They were sitting in a room that Samuel had called a lord’s alcove, just off of the main hall. It was located up by the ceiling and was hidden, so the king could spy on his guests during balls. Now, it was being used as a meeting place between spy and handler; as Raul didn’t know about the room and Polain pretended the place didn’t exist because he thought the very idea of a lord’s alcove was disgusting, it was the closest thing to a perfect location they had. “You look shaken up.”
She looked down at her feet. “N-nothing. General Raul’s just really unnerving, is all.”
Silas snorted, folding his arms. “I’ll say. I’ve never seen someone throw Marion off her toes so fast.” Olrick nodded in agreement.
“That isn’t the only thing, is it?” he asked.
Elise shook her head. “I-I think Eza said something to insult him. He asked me to leave them alone so they could have a private conversation.”
Silas cursed, running a hand through his hair. “Of course she did; that’s the only logical thing to do when a homicidal maniac comes to visit.”
“What did she tell him?” Olrick asked.
Elise began to rub the back of her neck. “Well, General Raul made a joke about being assassinated, and Eza back talked to him, and it kind of escalated from there.” She looked back up at them. “You don’t think he did something to her, do you?”
Silas shook his head. “Believe me, if he had, you’d be cleaning up a shit ton of blood from the hallway, right now; if he’d tried anything, she wouldn’t have gone down without a fight.”
Just as he said that, the door to the alcove opened and Eza walked in. She didn’t looked hurt, but she was pissed: her brows were furrowed and her mouth was creased in a slight frown. Her face still would have looked like an emotionless mask to those who didn’t know her, but it was the most emotional Elise had seen her since she’d met her.
Silas and Olrick had noticed it, too. Both of them looked concerned as she stormed in and slammed the door shut behind her.
“How did your private conversation with the psycho go?” Silas asked after Eza had slammed the door.
“He knows who I am.” Silas seemed to know what she was talking about, unlike Olrick and Elise. He cursed and ran a hand through his hair, looking out over the hall below them.
“What are you two talking about?” Olrick asked. Silas looked over at them, then looked at Eza.
“Are you okay with them knowing?” he asked. Eza nodded.
Elise and Olrick looked over at each other, but didn’t say anything. It seemed that he didn’t have a clue what this could be about, either.
Silas walked over to the door and opened it, looking around outside to see if there were any people that could possibly hear what they were saying. Then, he closed the door and locked it.
“What we’re about to discuss doesn’t leave this room,” Silas said. “If this were to get out to the wrong people, it could jeopardize all of our lives.” The tone of his voice had become deadly serious, to the point where it scared Elise; what could Eza, a girl of sixteen, have possibly done that was so serious, it couldn’t be openly spoken about?
Olrick and Elise nodded. She couldn’t help but be scared about what Silas and Eza were about to tell them.
“It has to do with your childhood, doesn’t it?” Olrick asked carefully.
Eza nodded. “There’s a damned good reason why I haven’t told you much about it; let’s leave it at that.”
“And Raul knows why?” Elise asked.
Eza nodded. “I know what happened to the Kurzhian army.”
The room grew still. Elise may have grown up in isolation, but she knew enough about what was going on in the world outside Caitha to know about that; everybody did. For years after the Kurzhians were forced to surrender, the gossip was almost exclusively about the Kurzhian army. Every surviving member of the army that had surrendered in the city’s capital – from General Mitrius to the lowliest private – had been marched out of Orovich in chains, never to be seen again. Ten years later, what had happened to them after they left Orovich was still a complete mystery.
“How do you know?” Elise asked, though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know the answer.
“Because I was with the army when they left the city,” Eza said. Olrick bit his bottom lip, and looked over at Silas as if to decide whether or not she was telling the truth.
“So, that’s why you’ve been so secretive with your life in Kurzh,” he said to himself as he looked down at his feet. “If you weren’t, someone would’ve turned you in to the Giskens, by now.”
“They put out a 2,000 gold izba reward for me,” she said. “I didn’t think I could trust anyone; I still have reservations about it, since the reward has tripled since then. If Raul knows about it, I can’t be sure that he hasn’t told anyone else.” Silas plopped down on one of the sofas and ran a hand through his hair.
“Gods, this complicates things further,” he groaned. “How the hell are we supposed to keep this going if Elise is the only one of us who can go anywhere near his room without anyone getting suspicious? I was hoping that at least one of us would be able to go in there and get information there while he’s gone and Elise is off serving dinner to him or something.”
“So, I’m in more danger because of this?” Elise asked. Olrick nodded.
“It isn’t too late to back out,” he said. “If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, we can get you back to the medical core building and you can start training, again.”
Eza and Silas looked over at her, waiting for her answer.
Elise tucked a chunk of stray hair behind her ear. She couldn’t just back out, now, though there was a part of her that wanted to. She thought of her brother, who died trying to protect their country; she thought of Olrick, who nearly killed himself trying to get her to safety; she thought of her father, who was killed simply for showing kindness to a stranger; now that she had the opportunity to help the army keep Raul from hurting anyone else, she couldn’t let herself back out.
“I-I’m alright,” she said. “I can do this, really.” Silas and Eza nodded, seemingly satisfied, but Olrick still looked uncertain.
“In that case, we need to get you ready,” Silas said. “Your first opportunity will be here tonight.”
A pit began to grow in Elise’s stomach. “Tonight?”
Eza nodded. “General Polain is throwing a ball to welcome Raul to the city. With him and all of his men partying and getting drunk off their asses, nobody’s going to notice you slip away to his room and steal a few letters from his room.”
“Are you sure?” Elise asked.
“Positive,” Silas said with a smile. “Believe me when I say that Raul isn’t going to remember a damned thing once the night is over.”
That was a promise that, for the rest of the day, Elise prayed that he would make good on. From then on to when the ball started, the day was spent preparing. She washed her serving gown, she helped to sweep the main hall, she dusted and polished a few of the marble statues; beyond the chores that needed to be done, she spent a lot of time in the small church nestled in the castle’s expansive gardens, trying to find some solace in the serene feeling that the small church had.
She supposed that it did help, to an extent. There was only so much that could be done to calm her fears before spying on a homicidal maniac, though.
Finally, the sun began to set beyond the horizon, and the first guests began to arrive at the ball. Men and women came to the castle via carriages, clad in the finest clothes money could buy. The men were wearing fine suits made of velvet and soft, supple leather; the women were wearing long, silk ball gowns with gems around their necks, in their hair and on their fingers; stewards in flowing robes escorted young noble women, ready to be courted; they all looked so beautiful in their finery, she began to feel self conscious in her simple serving gown.
Those feelings would go away when she spotted Raul. Like everyone else, he was dressed in the best clothing his money could buy; however, he preferred a simpler fair than everyone else did. He was wearing a simple suit, with his sword strapped to his back and the ever-present bandage around his eye. He unnerved everyone who saw him, just as he had when he first arrived.
“I see that he did decide to grace us with his presence.” Silas was standing next to her, picking at the small bites of bread on one of the tables like a vulture. “I’d heard rumors that he was going to hang out in his room and plot the destruction of the country, tonight.”
“I heard that, too,” Elise said as she continued to stare at the general. “Part of me hoped it was right.”
Silas gave her a hearty slap on the back. “Oh don’t worry about it; as long as you don’t get caught, you’ll be fine.”
“That doesn’t make me feel much better,” she said.
“Shut up, Silas,” Eza said. She was holding a tankard of ale in one of her hands and her staff in the other. “You’ll be just fine, really. We’ll keep him down here while you’re up there.”
Elise took a deep breath and sighed. “When should I go?”
“Leave in a few minutes,” Eza said. “It would look suspicious if you were to leave right as he came.” With that, she left and began mingling with men wearing the same, black uniform as hers.
“Take a sweet roll,” Silas said as he picked up yet another frosting-covered roll from the table and offered it to her. “You need to calm down. This kind of thing really isn’t as big a deal as you think it is. It isn’t like you’re-“
“That’s alright,” she said quickly, before Silas could say something that would make her more nervous than she already was. “I’m not really hungry.”
Silas began to laugh, then shoved the sweet roll into his mouth. “Alright, alright; I guess I’ll leave you alone, now, if you’ve got everything under control.” He began to walk over to where Eza and the other Rooks were, which also happened to be where the alcoholic drinks were.
After spending a few minutes attempting to calm her nerves, Elise stepped out of the hall and into a servant’s passage.
The servant passages were just some of the castle’s mysteries she’d become privy to once she became a servant. They were one of two systems of secret passages that criss-crossed through the castle, and were built with the intention of having the servants work without being seen by visitors or the royal family. They granted access to every room to the castle, including General Raul’s. She’d memorized the route from the great hall to his room and had practiced going back and forth until she could reach it in just under ten minutes. She’d figured that if she was able to move around in the passages quickly, the chances of her being discovered would decrease.
After just under ten minutes, she reached the heavy, oaken door that lead to Raul’s room. After taking a few more deep breaths, she began to push it open.
The room, she discovered, was in just as pristine a condition as it had been before he’d arrived; in fact, the only signs that someone was living there were the large, leather-clad trunks, stacked at the front of the bed and the piles of papers that littered the desk. Elise, remembering what Silas, Olrick and Eza had taught her about spying, went straight for the desk and began to read what was written on the paper at the top of the stack.
Of course, she ran into a problem the second she read the paper: she couldn’t speak Gisken. Silas, Olrick and Eza had prepared for that, though: they’d taught her how to say and read a few basic military words that would show up in any report that would want to know about: troops, attack, scouts, offensive, flank, siege, arrival; among the many words she’d learned that afternoon, three appeared in the report she read: Truppen, soweit, and flanke; troops, arrived, and flank.
Elise pulled out a piece of paper from the desk and began copying down the letter.
Just as she finished, she heard footsteps coming down the hall toward her, accompanied by people speaking Gisken.
She could feel the blood draining from her face. General Raul had come back; they hadn’t been able to keep him at the ball.
Elise spent the next few moments in a mad panic. She blew on the letter, trying to get the ink to dry faster, then ran for the for the servant’s passage.
Just as she began to close the door, someone opened the door to the room.
She stopped, horrified.
I’m going to die, she thought as her blood ran cold. He’s going to find me!
Thank the gods, that didn’t happen; though Raul had opened the door, he hadn’t seen her. He was still having a conversation with whoever had accompanied him to his room.
Before he could look into the room, Elise yanked on the door as hard as she could, closing it with a quiet thud.
Just as it closed, she heard Raul’s heavy footsteps ring out against the wood floors towards her.
She didn’t wait for him to find the entrance to the servant’s passage. She folded up the letter, shoved it up her sleeve, and took off down the corridor.