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It has only been a day since the ball, but Cecily and her companions were already making final preparations to depart. They planned to travel south by wyvern along the border, then change to horses for the journey west.

"Lady Cecilia, I beg of you to reconsider! At the very least, stay for the funeral," Lord Faren pleaded. "If your life is truly at risk, it would be safer for you to remain here."

"Your consideration is well noted, but I have already made my decision," Cecily said sternly.

Cecily could not disagree with Faren's assessment: hiding in Bern would be the easy choice. Definitely safer than returning to Lycia. But she has good reason to tear herself away from her tiresome admirer. She reasoned, with Faren and her companions, that traveling to Castle Pherae and obtaining information about the state of Laus from Lord Elbert IV would allow Cecily to figure out how to deal with the constant looming threat of assassins tailing her.

But she would not dare attempt this without Satsume or the other companions who volunteered to accompany her. After all, Cecily was nearly killed back when it was just Theodore and her. And Theodore is gone.

"Once again, I thank you for your hospitality," Cecily bowed. "It cannot be easy to accommodate my companions and myself on such a short notice."

"No-no-no-no, it was no problem at all! Please consider visiting again," Faren quickly replied with a wave of his hand.

Absolutely not, she would like to say. But instead Cecily merely offered her diplomatic answer: "When the time comes."

Right as she replied, her wyvern turned its head to look right at her. Cecily instinctively recoiled from its intimidating gaze. She's never going to get used to these creatures.
Satsume stepped around Faren and picked up his pace to keep behind Cecily as she made her way to their waiting transportation.  He was eager to get away from the high society for a while.  Faren, in particular, had been enough to put him off socialite parties for years.  Shame that I'm sharing the company of two princesses, Satsume thought.

Yep.  Two princesses.  Orica was indeed the true identity of the enigmatic Goldhardt.  But Lita had asked him to keep it secret for the time being, and Satsume - not wanting to incite drama with Cecily - had agreed.  He still had many questions, but she had promised him that he would have the answers he sought "in due time."  Whatever that meant.

"Please consider visiting again!" said Faren to Cecily, as she was aided atop a wyvern.

"When the time comes," Satsume overheard Cecily reply, as he too was helped into a wyvern's saddle.  Satsume's face twisted into a smirk.

"That means no!" he shouted gleefully.

Faren stared back at him, dumbfounded.  Cecily flashed a terrifying glare at Satsume, who hurriedly tapped the shoulder of the wyvern knight he was sitting behind, to signify he was ready to depart.  With a cacophony of wyvern shrieks drowning out the curses hurled his way, the group took to the skies for the Lycian border.
"Maria, are you sure you want to stay for the funeral?" Shad asked his sister, who was back to wearing her coat. Shad wasn't sure about leaving her here, but Lord Tyber was here too, so at least she'd be protected. Not like Lord Faren's men didn't know how, it was just that they looked, well, out of practice.

"No, but one of us should be here to represent us. Perhaps we'll earn some favor with Lord Faren by being there to honor his brother," She sighed. She looked at the group leaving with Shad and spoke up once more. "Since you won't let me fight with you at my age, the least I can do is try to get you aid diplomatically. In fact, I think I have a prospect I have to talk too. I hope he didn't leave." Shad was impressed. Maria was groomed for this. He'll have to lean on her intellect more than ever, now that Wolfram's gone missing. "But that's for another time. You're heading back to Pharae, aren't you?"

"Yeah. It's kinda where everything started. It's where I met Paige and Satsume. There were others as well. The pegasus knight Kalin, the mage Neil, and Orica of Tania. You might've liked Neil. I think. Kalin might have amused you. Or she would have given you a migraine. And you probably wouldn't have liked Orica. If only because I feel like she'd enable my reckless behavior. Not that Paige hasn't, now that I think about it. Eh, it's whatever. At least I'll be able to enter Castle Pharae as myself this time."

"You lied to get in?!"

"....no? Wolfram did the talking. I did the...limping. I told you that right?"

"Yes, that part you did tell me about. Not that you used a fake name to get in."

"My hood was up, I shouldn't be recognized."

"Whatever," Maria looked away, trying to feign a lack of concern. "That shirt looks good on you, though. You may want to get some armor while you're there. There isn't any chainmail in it this time." Shad appreciated the concern. Maisie had made the shirt just prior to them leaving for the ball and stowed it away in Shad' pack before they left. It actually felt like years since he worn something made for him instead of a hand-me-down of his father's.

He chuckled, "Duly noted. Till we see each other again," he said goodbye and climbed onto his ride. He looked over to Satsume and noticed him annoying Lord Faren again. He turned back to Maria, as if to say for her to fix that somehow, but they began to take off before hand.

"Take care of my idiot for me!" Maria yelled to the others as she waved goodbye.
Things had certainly taken a turn for the interesting with Lita and her bodyguard, "Goldhardt." Goldhardt's orders were to not let anyone find out who they were, or rather who she was: Orica of Tania. From Lita's perspective, Orica had worked hard to hold up her end of the orders, they just happened to come across someone who had figured out who she was anyway. It put the duo in a bit of a predicament on how to handle this, but Lita decided to just have things hopefully stay hidden until she got word on how to handle this case from the person that had laid down the order to begin with.

Until then, they were going to stick around with the group as planned, even if some of them might not be too interested in that. Once they landed to switch to horses, Lita would send a message off, opting to wait until they were away from where an Assassination just happened to send something to the new Black Fang even though they had no hand in this one, just for security measures.

The two of them got on their wyverns for travel as everyone that had a bit more to talk about finished up their conversations. The troubles of a traveling companion who was effectively sworn to silence was that her banter would be left unanswered. Both of them noted that Shad had mentioned Orica but did nothing to indicate that they had. After one of them had figured it out, Lita wouldn't put it past this group to start putting the pieces together and if the secret was fully out then, well, there was little she could do at that point.

Their wyverns took to the air, although Goldhardt's was once again not to pleased at carrying such a heavy load.
To say that the trip to Pherae was uneventful was putting it lightly. It was dreadfully dull in comparison to the ball itself. The border crossing itself was equally forgettable, as though the Marquess of Pherae totally disregarded the current climate between Lycia and Bern. Perhaps he trusted Bern to avoid his lands? It was impossible to say without speaking to the man himself.

The heavy travel took its toll on Cecily, especially since she had to mind her steed. Before everything happened, she would typically travel by carriage and even that proved exhausting on long journeys. Cecily knew she was slowing everyone down, but she did not apologize or make concessions. Instead, she continued to trudge on.

Only when Castle Pherae was in view did Cecily's exhaustion seemed to catch up with her.

"Finally..." she sighed. "If all goes well, Lord Elbert will be hospitable. He and I parted cordially some years past, at least."

The sun was beginning to set as the cohort of travelers approached the gate, scarred by age, where its keeper made his presence known.

"State your business," the gatekeeper demanded.

Cecily guided her horse over to the gatekeeper's side, being sure that her face is visible to the dusk's demand for lighting.

"If you will excuse the absence of notice, please inform Lord Elbert IV that Lady Cecilia of Laus is here to meet with him," Cecily replied, masking her weariness as best she could.

The gatekeeper was visibly taken aback by the words, but quickly regained his composure.

"I will pass the message forward. Please wait here for escort, milady," the gatekeeper responded.

Of course, the message would not be taken directly to the lord of Pherae. It will be passed on to the general in command of the castle first, who will ascertain their identities before allowing the lord to be informed of their presence. Unless circumstances have changed for the worse, it should be General Trott who is commanding the keep.

As it turns out, her memory did not fail her as the man did eventually approach the group as Cecily expected.

"General Trott, I apologize for not sending advance notice of my arrival, but I hope you understand that the present times are just as unprecedented," Cecily greeted the man.

"They are, just as you still call yourself of Laus after your public denouncement by the your marquess," Trott replied.

"I need no reminder, but I hope it does not sour my standing with Lord Elbert," Cecily said.

"We remember Laus' history. The marquess sees it merely as political wrangling," Trott said.

"I am glad. Shall we speak in more comfortable surrounds?" Cecily suggested, gesturing to her companions as a reminder.

"Indeed," Trott nodded.

Pheraean soldiers and manservants escorted them in, prepared to stable their horses and escort them to the guest rooms. As the necessities are handled, Cecily gazed upon the architecture of Castle Pherae, silhouetted by the setting sun. She never felt closer to home. But home is still far away.
The accommodations provided were within reason for the short notice. Cecily never felt more ready to take a warm bath and turn in for the night. But once she settled in her room, said 'good night' to Satsume, and rolled herself up in her bed sheets, her thoughts ventured home.

Surely the Marquess of Laus did whatever he could to vilify her, though whether he was successful in turning public opinion was yet to be seen. There is more to consider: why did he think that Cecily was a threat to the throne? It is true that she is third in the line of succession, with the marquess' own son, her cousin, being the heir. But Cecily never expressed interest in usurping the throne for herself. In fact, having relatively low expectations of becoming ruler meant that she had the freedom to pursue her hobbies. There were still expectations that she had to satisfy as a noble, but never as a marchioness. Her late father never yearned for the throne either, as far as she knew, though it was known that he rescinded his position as heir.

Another thing bothered her. It seemed so out of line with what she knew, but it bothered her nevertheless. Her cousin and uncle jointly accused her of being a bastard child. They called her mother a commoner, but Cecily could not say for sure whether it was true or not. But even if she was a commoner, that would not necessarily make her a bastard child.

Her mulling finally ended on Captain Miles. He placed his faith in her when he unlocked her prison cell and likely paid the ultimate price for it. Perhaps there is a pocket of hope after all...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was during the very welcome breakfast next morning that General Trott stepped in to speak with them again.

"Lord Elbert expressed his desire to speak with you, Lady Cecily," Trott said, bowing his head as he passed his message.

"Thank you. I will be with him shortly," Cecily replied.

She finished her meal and allowed herself to be escorted by Trott to Elbert's private study.

There, the lord was sitting at his desk and reading a book. The sound of the door opening raised his attention and Elbert IV stood up to greet Cecily.

"It is good to see you again, milady," he said as he came around to the front of his desk to offer Cecily his hand.

"It is always a pleasure to enjoy your hospitality," Cecily said, presenting her hand for him to take.

Lord Elbert IV is a far cry from the treatment she receives at the hands of Lord Faren.

"I have three guesses to why you are here," Elbert continued.

"Oh? Do tell," Cecily feigned surprise, though they both knew it was all an act.

"My first guess is you are asking for a favor in whatever scheme you conjured," he began. It seemed a little stereotypically Lausian.

"The second is that you are looking to settle down in Pherae." Perhaps if Cecily had given up on the world.

"And my final guess is that you wish for my help in returning to Laus," Elbert finished.

"Let us assume your final guess is correct; would you grant me your assistance?" Cecily gave him a coy gaze as she replied.

"Not directly but, at the very least, your timing could never be better," Elbert said as he guided her to a map of Elibe that decorates a side of the study.

"Lord Hannes' failures to eliminate you has made him increasingly paranoid of retaliatory action and has dimmed the march's reputation in the eyes of the Emperor. Simply deposing of him and placing his son on the throne would likely, as you would surmise yourself, maintain the status quo. One with a younger paranoid ruler hoping to eliminate the storied Lady of Laus."

"I am flattered," Cecily said.

"It's more truth than flattery. Your survival in Bern caused quite the scandal for Lord Hannes, painting a picture of ineptitude and near obsession with pleasing the Emperor," Elbert continued. "He has resorted to planting blame and causing trouble for us border marches, especially since what happened in Tania."

"Pardon?" Cecily was taken aback. "Tania?"

"Castle Tania is destroyed. Without anyone to maintain order, the entire march is in chaos. We are doing what we can, but there is little aid we could offer."

Cecily been to Castle Tania many times along her trips between Laus and Bern. She had tea and traded stories with Orica in the garden, more vibrant and colorful than the garden in Castle Laus.

"I presume Laus is seeking to annex the territory," she guessed.

"We do not have any proof, but this is likely the case. Lord Hannes has been denouncing the response the neighboring marches, Pherae included, to the disaster," Elbert explained.

"You guess that I wish to return to Laus, but it sounds more like you want me to," Cecily gave Elbert a sly gaze.

"I cannot deny that there is benefit for me. But, at the very least, knowing that there is mutual benefit would sate your curiosity," Elbert replied. He backed away from the map to his desk, where he had his half-finished glass of wine.

"Or would it not?" he added, taking a sip.

"I may be sated after you offer me something to drink," Cecily quipped, hands at her hips.

Elbert IV only chuckled as he flipped over an empty glass. Once both had their own glasses, they toasted to each other. For Tania. For Lycia. For Laus.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cecily figured there were many questions waiting for her once she returned from Elbert's study, so she prepped a quick meeting with her companions right in the dining hall where she had left them.

"I intend to return to Laus," she said plainly, allowing a moment to let those words sink in.

"Lord Elbert is gracious enough to provide means of passage through the gates into Laus' castle town, but everything else will be up to us to take the castle itself. I understand that most of you present have no obligations to me, so I will not make any demands. Only that I wish to know who is willing to follow me into danger. Know that I have no intention of dying in this endeavor: I have a plan that I know the Marquess of Laus will fall prey to, but I need the warriors to make the rest a reality," Cecily continued. "Does anyone object?"
Shad had recognized the gatekeeper from his last visit here. He silently prayed to St. Elimine that the gatekeeper saw too many faces to place his face with the Chad Chevalier who came with the scholar Wolfram Caron the same day as the library fire. In fact, the whole time they've been in Pharae, Shad was on edge about the Church. They came in force to Pharae after the fire, either to locate Shad, Paige, or Ambrose. It seemed fortunate that the attack of Tania happened. The church presence here must have been mostly redirected. Shad was a bit out of it the rest of the day and just went to bed.

-------------------------------------------------------------

Shad found himself unable to sleep. It was his first night without Maria after the Berg Castle incident and the deaths of his men haunted him. The sight of Maria, covered in so much blood, haunted him. He slept maybe two hours before waking from a nightmare. The unfamiliar setting was a bit distressing. He looked around, got up and paced around the room a bit to collect his thoughts. He climbed back into bed and closed his eyes, only to be greeted not long after with the sight of Marcus' bisected decaying corpse. He couldn't sleep. He looked through his belongings and found a whetstone. He took his sword and spent the rest of the night whetting his pair of swords. When time for battle came, he'd be ready.

When morning came, Shad was summoned to breakfast. He looked at himself in the mirror and noticed his hair was a little more grown out than the last time he paid attention to it. Bags started to develop under his eyes. He looked a mess, but there was stuff to do. Shad made his way to the dining hall, yawning the whole way. He looked at the breakfast laid out before him with a dead stare. It was good looking food and Shad was starving, but he could barely focus on eating. He never got as little sleep as he did. At least, not since passed age 12. Cecily found herself summoned away by the their host, which Shad didn't mind. Marquess Elbert didn't know the Etrurian lord and quiet frankly, he wasn't putting the right message out there with his look. They didn't talk for long. Shad started eating before she came back when she dropped some huge news.

It's time to seize Laus.

Shad's exhaustion and general malaise it brought to him vanished in an instant. Or rather, the topic gave him a temporary respite from it all. This seemed like a bad idea. Shad's kind of bad idea. At her question, Shad got up to his feet. "Lady Cecily. I fight for Etruria's freedom and against the Church of the Preservation of Sanctity. As long as you fight towards those goals, you'll have my sword at your side. I just require that the Marquess' armorer put together something for me. After seizing Berg Castle, I think I'd like to see a little less of my own blood strewn everywhere."
Satsume could not have possibly been prepared for the words that came out of Cecily's mouth upon her return to the dining hall.
 
"I intend to return to Laus."
 
Satsume stiffened and sat straight up in his chair.  "What?!"  Every tale she had told him of the marquess since they had been traveling together was harrowing.  All of the Lausian assassins they had outwitted were menacing, and at times, seemingly endless.  And now she wanted to go back?  To the lion's den?  What had changed?
 
Cecily gave no explanation as she addressed the group.  There was a call to action, and nothing else.  Satsume suppressed the urge to demand why she was essentially throwing herself into danger - both physically and politically.  Instead, he pushed his chair away from the table and stood.
 
"Does anyone object?" asked Cecily.
 
"I'm sure it can't be any worse than the rest of the messes we've gotten into," Satsume replied.  He had said it as a joke, but it was his own subtle way of nudging the rest of the group towards accepting.  He picked up his cup of tea and held it up as sort of a toast.
 
“Where you go, milady… I will follow.”
 
Shad rose to his feet, as well.  "Lady Cecily,” he said.  “I fight for Etruria's freedom, and against the Church of the Preservation of Sanctity. As long as you fight towards those goals, you'll have my sword at your side.”
 
“When do we leave?” asked Satsume.






Satsume stamped his foot to push it to the bottom of his boot.  His mind churned about as he laced it up.  So we’re finally here, Satsume.  You’re taking the princess back to her castle.  The job is finally coming to an end… He took a deep breath, letting the last thought echo before standing up and grabbing his breastplate off the bed.  The job is finally coming to an end…
 
It had been a trying few months.  He had never explicitly raised the question of what would happen once Cecily had finally reclaimed her throne.  Maybe he was afraid of the answer.  Maybe the fact that she hadn’t spoken to him since her announcement was the answer.
 
The breastplate slid over his head and seemed to float up in front of his chest, hung up on something on his belt.  He reached down and grabbed the offending item – the dagger.  His symbol of fealty sworn to Cecily.
 
It never felt so heavy before.
 
Satsume tossed the dagger onto the bed and set about fixing his shoulders and braces.  A knock on the door came as he was fixing his quiver on his back.
 
“Yeah?”
Under normal circumstances, one would seek counsel before boldly storming an enemy's fortress. Especially when the person in question does not have a military background. Perhaps it is too reckless for the old Cecily to even contemplate. But a little bit of recklessness is exactly what the Marquess of Laus would not expect. At least, that is what Cecily convinced herself of.

Shad offered his typical bluster, to which Cecily had no choice other than to accept with a nod. In all honesty, she would prefer not to be indebted to the Etruscan, but the daring nature of her plan meant that any help is meaningful.

"I am sure we can discuss the details of armament and supplies with the marquess before we depart," Cecily replied. "Perhaps this may act as a step towards freedom for Etruria."

She saw the mixture of confusion and surprise on Satsume's face, but opted to ignore it then. They could discuss the details in private, which is why Cecily was at Satsume's door later that day. She politely knocked.

"Yeah?" she heard from the other side.

"May I come in?" Cecily asked.

"Yeah," she heard again.

Cecily entered and closed the door behind her before speaking again. "I wanted to address your reservations."

Even as she said so, Cecily had to pause to collect her thoughts. It felt difficult to explain, but she would never say so out loud.

"We cannot continue this cat and mouse game with Lausian assassins," she began, referring to the assassination of Albert in Bern. "At some point, one of these attempts will incapacitate, if not kill, me. Rather than bide our time and take that risk, I would prefer to take the offensive with the opening that Lord Elbert is willing to provide us. Knowing my uncle, the Marquess of Laus, he would be grasping at any rumors of my whereabouts. That is why I need you."

Her attention found the dagger that Satsume had casually put aside. In all honesty, she preferred that he handle it with greater reverence. But it is his to do as he wills. Her own attachment to its previous owner remains a lingering pain.

"Specifically, I need to tell you how to convincingly use the authority of the dagger I bestowed upon you. At least well enough that no one would question you at first glance," Cecily clarified.

"I am sure you noticed the lion's head sculpted into the hilt. It represents the authority of Lausian nobility. However, you will also notice that the nose on this particular dagger has a large dent. The story behind it is well known to the royal guard, so you must not allow it to be examined," she continued.
Cecily's announcement took most of the room by storm, but Lita managed to keep her usual demeanor as she sat off with her "bodyguard," Goldhardt. The suit of armor on the other hand actually reacted to her, turning it's helmet, err, head towards her as the others began to react to the statement.

Lita looked over at her traveling companion before turning to Cecily and spoke up as the others finished their statements of support, no matter how hesitant they were. "While you are perhaps still not the trusting of the two of us, we will help you if you have need of us. I know that we have not been the most trustworthy of companions but it sounds as though you will need all of the help you will get."

Goldhardt looked back at Lita, who then added, "However the two of us are waiting on the reply to a message I sent some time ago. It should be arriving soon so it shouldn't delay things too much, but depending on it could cause a change in our plans. I suspect it would be of benefit to you so do not worry that it is the two of us being summoned away in your time of need. For now we shall retire to our room so that we can discuss the message when it arrives."

Lita stood and gave a small bow as Goldhardt stood as well. The two of them went off towards their room.
Shad was back in his room, thinking about the whole thing in his head. First, was Cecily herself. She doesn't seem to particularly like him that much. Someone as traveled as she was, someone who's spent her whole life raised like a proper noble, interacting with other proper nobles, his lack of decorum, lack of social graces, and other things, belonged to someone deemed a noble. He was seemingly her opposite in a lot of ways. Shad hadn't formed much of an opinion on her outside of how useful she could be in the long term. And her becoming Marquess of Laus was to go a long way in his eyes. They'll finally have something resembling an army to fight with, depending on how bloodless this attack is. Thinking of it, despite her seeming low opinion of his, he couldn't be happier that she's here. He did wonder what happened between her and Satsume that he swore her his fealty, but it wasn't his place.

Next was this attack. This won't be like the last two sieges Shad had been part of. For starters, there won't be any Hyperions in the castle beforehand. The first one, Cercium Keep two years ago, when Shad became Baron. The previous Baron, Faustus, had manned the keep with mercenaries. And Shad had a small army consisting of the former surviving retainers to his father, a few other Hyperions, and some of Tyber Fens' men. That one was relatively easy. Very few casualties, considering the scale. The previous one was of course Berg Castle. Shad barely got through that one. But it was also a surprise attack uphill towards a fortified position. This battle is still a bit unknown to him. They'll sneak into Laus castle town, but when does the attack start? Are they going to infiltrate the castle and try to assassinate the required obstacles in Cecily's way and get loud if they are noticed? Or will the fighting take place in the town and move to the castle? It's probably the former, because they lack the manpower to sustain the later. That will also weaken them overall. Cecily's not stupid enough to try that way, but even the best of plans can get tossed to the wind in an instance.

And where does this go from here? What actions does the Emperor consider when faced with Marquess Cecily of Laus and Marquess Elbert IV of Pharae unifying their might? If Lady Orica joins Tania to their forces, perhaps some of the other marches who might dare to go against the Emperor would be empowered to join them. If Tyber can get whatever Etrurian remnants together to join this coalition, restoring the Lycian League and Etruria could be possible.

Shad sat on the bed thinking all this, his imagination going wild. He snapped of it really quickly, thinking how to himself how painfully optimistic that sounded. He stepped out of his room and began pacing in the hall outside their rooms. He stopped and began talking to himself out loud. "I wonder what happened to Orica. Ambrose was the last one to see her as far as I can tell. And he seemed painfully ambivalent to her fate. Now that I think about it, I don't believe any of us saw her while we were in Tania. You'd think she'd defend her town during that whole thing." Shad sighed. "Having her with us would probably help if we had to do a frontal assault. A front line of Goldhardt, Satsume, and Orica probably couldn't be stopped. Cecily, Lita, and I could probably handle the rest if those three killed everything in front of us. Man, there is so many people I'd like to have with us if that happened. Eli and his brother. Kalin and her brother, I think. Never fought with him, but more people couldn't hurt. Ambrose, Lennox, Carla. Oh, the list goes on." He slumped against the wall, looking down at the ground. "I wonder how much longer we'll all be traveling together before we all go our separate ways. Even the men who joined me two years ago, most of them are dead now. My uncle's missing. Alice went back to her brother. Cass went back home. Lennox and Carla ran off. And I left Maria in Bern...Hopefully this war will be over before that happens. At least my family will be together again."
"Reservations?" asked Satsume.  She had done it again - read him like a book.  It was annoying most of the time, but he was thankful she had chosen to air it out privately.  She explained her reasoning for returning to Castle Laus.  As she did, she picked up the dagger that Satsume had left on the bed and held it up to him.
 
"I am sure you noticed the lion's head sculpted into the hilt. It represents the authority of Lausian nobility."  Satsume nodded.
 
"However, you will also notice that the nose on this particular dagger has a large dent. The story behind it is well known to the royal guard, so you must not allow it to be examined."
 
“Of course, milady.”  Satsume reached out to grab the head of the dagger, curling his fingers so they obscured the dent.  He held it up to Cecily to demonstrate, flashing a slight smile.  But it faded quickly as he set it in his belt, and looked her in the eyes once more.
 
“Listen… after this… we’re done, right?  You’ll have the castle, the guards, the attendants… everything will be more or less back to normal for you.  And someone like me… can get back to my family, right?”
 
Deafening silence followed as she contemplated her reply.
 
"Your presence has been invaluable to me,” she said.  “It may be early to speak of such things, but you are more than deserving of reward for your service. Is that truly all you want: to pretend that all of this is in the past? Leave it all behind?”
 
“N-no, it’s not that.  It’s just…” Satsume sighed.  “…I’m no knight.  I’m not cut out for being at the side of a noble lady, and you know it.  I just feel that, once the castle is yours again, the resources there are better suited to protecting you than…” he splayed his arms out in a self-referencing gesture.  “…a common merc like me.”
 
"Even the common folk deserve recognition for their deeds, Satsume. I need not remind you that I would be dead without your aid and, assuming everything works as intended, return me home with restoration of my status," Cecily said, crossing her arms and giving him a stern look. "If I were to have my way, that is more than enough to earn land and noble status in Laus.”
 
Satsume paused.  Land and noble status?!  That’s… wow.  Lycia had long been a hostile place for Satsume’s family, but carrying some lordly weight – however minor – might be enough to convince his family to move back...
 
All you’d have to do is spend your days living in the shadow of the woman you could never have, said some awful voice in the back of his head.  Satsume physically shook his head to shake the thought away, which Cecily noticed.
 
“Do not dare tell me you wish for nothing in lieu of your efforts,” she said.
 
“N-no!  I mean…” he stammered.  “…I’ll graciously accept whatever you see fit to give me for escorting you to Laus,” he replied, “...but I have my own life to get back to. One where I’m not so involved in fighting against the nation I used to call home.” He turned away from her uncompromising glare.
 
“...I have more than just you to look after, you know? They’re the only family I’ve got.” His mind briefly flashed to his deceased mother, causing Satsume to clench his fists. “...or at least, the only family I’ve got left.”
 
Cecily's expression softened, if only for a moment. "We can discuss the details once we have taken the throne."
 
Satsume turned to face her again.  “Yeah… sorry.  This was a bad time to bring it up.”  Silence lingered between the two of them.  He felt sick, his heart pounding hard enough to be felt in his throat.  “We’ll… talk later, I guess.”  He stepped past Cecily, trying to get to the door.
 
“Let’s go, then.  Lita and Shad are waiting…”
Cecily let her guardian escape, leaving her alone in the room. Whether he intended to or not, Satsume reminded her of her father's death. The thought churned more anger than sorrow. Her father, who served loyally in the war against Etruria, put down like a dog by none other than her uncle. Her father, who was not the heir and had no desire for the throne. It is this empire that enables her uncle. That and the damn church.

She stepped back into the hallway, staring in the direction that Satsume had left, and wondered. Will the lengths that she must go to destroy this new empire end in her own downfall?

Taking a deep breath, Cecily turned the other direction and back to her room.

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The caravan Lord Elbert spoke of was packed with Pheraean goods. There were metalworks, including various weapons and armor, woodworking goods, and plenty of foodstuffs. All of which would be readily sold in Laus' market, Cecily noted.

"This is quite the caravan, Lord Elbert," she commented as she and the Pheraean marquess watched workers load a chair onto a wagon. "Are you sure there are enough guards to ward off brigands?"

"I assumed that your entourage would make up for the missing manpower," Elbert smiled.

'Ah, of course. He saves a bit of money while we get passage,' Cecily thought as she silently nodded her understanding.

"You seem rather distant with some of your companions," Lord Elbert noted, gesturing towards where Lita and Goldhardt were.

"Companions of convenience, nothing more," Cecily replied, giving the marquess a stern look.

"What kind of companions are they really?" Elbert prodded.

"The kind that would not hesitate to murder any lord in his sleep," Cecily relented.

"Like Black Fang?" he asked.

"The worst kind," she replied.

"I presume you have never tried talking to them?" Lord Elbert questioned further.

"Why would I?" Cecily's stern gaze shifted as she answered.

"I can tell you, without knowing anything about those two, that there is always more than what you perceive--" Elbert began.

"--at the surface, yes I know. And I have no interest in knowing," Cecily interjected.

"With the challenges ahead, you may end up relying on them. Neither Marquess Eliwood nor Marquess Roy turned away aid, no matter the source," Elbert said.

Cecily began to protest, but the marquess had already flagged the two over. Lovely.

"Lady Cecily had appraised me of the two of you and I was wondering whether either of you have any thoughts or suggestions?" Elbert asked them.

It was then Cecily remembered that the two of them were waiting on an important letter. They offered to discuss plans last night, but she turned in for the night instead. She blushed in embarrassment, but only slightly before tucking the emotion back under the covers.

"Did you receive your letter?" she asked more directly.
Shad looked at himself in the mirror, decked out in the armor he had requested. He liked the fit, and it didn't feel that much heavier than his usual attire. He secured his swords on his belt and kept looking at it. The color wasn't exactly what he was picturing. He imagined something similar to what Marcus and the rest of his knights had worn. Something like a dark teal color. "Are you sure about this color? I'm not quite sold on it."

Shad looked at the armorer for a response. "I've got an eye for this stuff. Aesthetically speaking, it's the best color to go with your clothes. If you're a noble like you claim, wouldn't you want to look your best even in the heat of battle?"

"Hyperions don't do..." Shad cut himself off there. He was going to claim they don't do fashion, but honestly, they do spend a lot of time on their coats. So perhaps he has a point. So he finished, "Don't do armor. Our knights do, but typically we favor chainmail that we don't even see. Maybe it'll grow on me. In fact, looking at it, I think I know someone with this eye color. I'll take it. Thank you." He stepped over and paid the armorer, and left to join the group at the caravan.

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Shad assembled with the rest of the group. He noticed Cecily talking with Marquess Elbert. He called over Lita and Goldhardt, leaving just Shad and Satsume not involved in that conversation. Shad approached the knight, with a few questions on his mind. "Satsume, I've got some questions about this operation that I'm hoping you may be able to help me with. I know you were an Ostian knight. I've seen Ostian knights fight before, but I must ask, have you any foreknowledge of Lausian tactics or strategies? As someone who's shed quite a bit of blood as of late running in uninformed, I'd like to know what to look out for this time."