37: Déjà Vu
We sat in the meeting room, the same place where I’d experienced widely varying moments with the Naga. It was where I’d first met the Raven, where we’d discussed our plans for the heist, and where I’d been given a deadly ultimatum. This room wasn’t exactly full of pleasant memories, to say the least.
I peered around, oddly self-conscious that I was allowed to be there. These people had given me so many chances, and I felt guilty that I was even present. When Dean had woken me up this morning, in the room that we now shared, he hadn’t really mentioned what this briefing would be about. But I could only assume the Raven had something up her sleeve, as per usual. The royal ball was looming closer and closer, and this meeting had to be related to that.
When we’d entered, three people were already seated at the long meeting table, waiting. One of them was Spenser, and the other two were a pair of men whose names I didn’t yet know. Their faces felt familiar, however, so I guessed I’d probably met them before at some point during my time here. The two men were plain, both of average height and weight, wearing thick woolen tunics covered with thick coats. At our entrance, they looked at Dean expectantly, while Spenser largely ignored us both, instead staring at the table.
Dean hadn’t said a word to them, but a simple nod had put them at ease. Who was Dean, really? I instinctively felt that it ran deeper than his status within the Naga gang. While the Raven was widely feared and respected, even she didn’t elicit the awed reactions that he sometimes did. He was a mystery I’d yet to solve, and one I was reluctant to uncover. For if I did, then I would have to share that information with the King. My stomach turned at the thought, making me grimace as we stood there. Dean sat in a chair opposite of them and gestured that I follow suit. I sat stiffly in the seat next to him. Spenser sat in his chair on the other side, watching us silently.
It was only a few minutes later when The Raven arrived, alone. She walked into the room with a calm purpose, elegance and confidence irradiating from every molecule in her being. She exuded leadership and power, demanding respect simply by existing. Despite the fact that she was supposed to be my enemy, I couldn’t help but admire those qualities about her. She was a true leader, and that was something I envied. She stopped at her magnificent throne of skeletal horror, which I now knew to be no more than an intricately charmed plush armchair and made eye contact with everyone in the room.
“Welcome, friends,” she said, still standing.
Her eyes met mine briefly, and I shuddered slightly. Her gaze made me feel exposed. Something about how that thick face paint, her intensely blonde hair, and drastically dark eyes made her appear ethereal, otherworldly, like a goddess who would just as soon smite you as bless you.
“As most of you are likely aware, we are ready to set our plans into motion,” she said cryptically.
We all straightened in our seats, eager for her words. I, for a different reason than the others.
“Tomorrow night, the Usurper is hosting a ball. It’s the perfect opportunity to prepare for the rebellion’s first attack, the day after.” She stopped to take a heavy breath, and to examine our reactions.
I steeled my expression, not trusting myself.
She continued, “The Usurper won’t be expecting it, the ball will add to some chaos, and of course, we will tip the scales into our favor.” She smiled, knowingly.
We waited with bated breath, burning with curiosity to know what her plan was.
“This will be both a reconnaissance and sabotage mission,” she said, pacing a small circle behind her chair. “I will need to know what their defenses are, and, hopefully, we can determine the state of their army.” She stopped pacing and directed her attention towards Dean and me.
Dean leaned in, resting his elbows on the table expectantly.
“You two will be attending as guests, as ambassadors from the Kingdom of Sok,” she pointed with an open hand instead of a finger at us. “We’ve received intel that the real ambassadors aren’t planning on attending.” She then turned to look at Spenser and the two other men. “You three are the manservants and carriage drivers.”
“That’s perfect,” said the man closest to The Raven. “We will be practically invisible while Dean and Larke can get an inside look.” He mused, rubbing his chin, “But what will you have us do for sabotage?”
“Excellent question,” she said, a mischievous smile twisting her lips. “I have made some very dangerous, very effective weapons.” She pulled a small, smooth stone out of her pocket and held it delicately in her hand. It almost filled her palm, her wrist visibly straining to hold it up. It must have been very heavy.
“You will plant these at strategic locations in the castle walls.” Her smile grew wider and wider as she returned the bomb to her pocket, carefully setting it in there.
She rummaged around in one of her other pockets, searching for something else. She extracted a thick piece of parchment, crumpled and well worn, with some sort of markings on it.
“Spenser, take this,” she said, handing him the wrinkled paper. “This will tell you where I want the bombs placed. Follow it closely.”
Spenser nodded, storing the map in his chest pocket. I suppressed a smirk; our plans had just improved, now that he’s been trusted with the exact locations of the implosion bombs. The King will be very pleased, indeed.
“Larke and Dean?” she said, interrupting my thoughts. “You will be responsible for gathering the information we need.”
I stared at her, not allowing any emotion to show.
“Larke, you’re going to be crucial on this. Listen closely,” she said, giving me her undivided attention. “Obviously we need a current status, as a lot can change over the span of six months.” She stared intently at Dean and me. “You’re going to be how we get in easily.”
“What do you suggest?” I asked.
“Use your pull as a Suryan Mage if they don’t accept you as the ambassadors from Sok. I’d rather you reveal yourself to get in than fight and risk our efforts.” She sat down in her chair, no longer pacing. “You’ll have to be quick, though. The guards will surely alert the Usurper of your return.”
I nodded. She was right, but I felt confident that her plan would work. I would make it work.
The Raven tilted her head, watching me think. “So, I’ll offer you this,” she said, “You know that your presence here rests on thin ice. If you succeed and prove loyal, I will grant you full membership, no questions asked.” She stopped speaking to allow her words to resonate.
I stared at her, incredulous. I had no reason to expect this, and I was astounded.
As I stared, she continued. “You will no longer need a guard, you will have full freedom to leave, or stay. And I’m sure I don’t need to say what will happen to you should you fail. Do you accept?”
Wordlessly, I nodded, accepting her terms. As my head shifted up and down, my stomach sank to somewhere down in my toes. I’d been offered several second chances, and here I was, ruining them again. But I had to complete my original objective. I was a Suryan Mage, the High Suryan Premiere, and I had people to protect, and promises to uphold. I had to return to the King... but more importantly, to Nya. Never before had I felt so conflicted about fulfilling my oath.
The Raven nodded in return, a light smile turning up one corner of her mouth. My stomach sank even lower.
“Good. We will need your magical strength and knowledge of the Usurper in the coming battles.” She sat down in her special chair, and rested her hands on the table, palms flat to the wood.
“Now, let’s discuss specific details...”