Espionage was a dirty business, but it did have its perks. After all, in what other profession could a woman simultaneously defend her country and attend a posh party filled to the brim with beautiful noble women? Alexandra Cross allowed herself a secret smile as she entered the ballroom, surveying the crowd that had come to honour their hostess, the Countess Sabrina Sassi. Sabrina ruled the city of Paricida, a prosperous city situated on the east coast of Sapphira, and while part of the queendom she considered herself to be relatively independent. Queen Lisbeth tolerated this attitude due to the amount of wealth Paricida brought in, but was always careful to keep a close eye on what the countess was up to. And that was where someone like Alexandra came in.
Dressed in a flowing lavender-coloured dress made of fine silk with a lace collar and cuffs, and wearing a long curly blonde wig over her normal short mousey brown hair, Alexandra looked very much the part of a young noble woman. She had assumed the identity of Lady Janine Bond, a minor noble woman from Labrys whose identity had been created and maintained by the Queen’s secret service for agents such as Alexandra to inhabit when out on missions. It gave her a foot into the door of such events as the one happening that night, while allowing her to remain mostly unknown. Alexandra played Janine as shy and awed, appearing to be grateful just to be in the presence of such powerful women, a laughable premise considering she often reported to Queen Lisbeth herself.
Alexandra was slowly making her way through the room, giving everybody the proper level of attention while she slowly circled around to Countess Sabrina herself. A tall and slender woman of thirty years old, Sabrina carried herself with a smug self-confidence, though the attitude was not exactly unearned. She had sandy blonde hair cut into a fashionable bob, cold blue eyes and a permanent smirk on her full lips. Tonight she was dressed in a puffy sleeved blouse with a stiff upturned collar under a velvet vest and matching breeches. She was chatting with rotund merchant as Alexandra came up to her, not even trying to hide the arrogance on her face as the merchant tried to schmooze a better trade deal from the affluent countess. Alexandra had been carefully timing her move, wanting to seem eager to meet with Sabrina but not being too forward that the countess would be suspicious of her.
“Ah, Lady Bond,” Sabrina said with a smile as she noticed Alexandra, dismissing the merchant. “I am so glad to finally meet you.”
“It is an honour, Countess,” Alexandra replied, curtseying. “I feel deeply privileged that you would even know my name, let alone allow me to attend one of your famous parties.”
“Nonsense, I always enjoy making new acquaintances, especially those who have travelled all the way from the capital. I take it all is well with Queen Lisbeth?”
“She rules well, though she barely has time for the likes of me,” Alexandra replied bashfully.
“You sell yourself short,” Sabrina said, giving Alexandra an appraising eye. “Someone as beautiful as you would always be welcome in court. I am surprised you haven’t been snatched up already.”
“Again, you flatter me,” Alexandra said, pretending to blush. “Are you always this complementary to your guests?”
“Only those who are-” Sabrina did not finish her sentence as a gong sounded, and the countess’s concierge came up to her and quickly whispered into her ear. “Ah, you will need to excuse me. My guest of honour has arrived. In fact, you should come and meet her.”
Curtseying again, Alexandra followed behind Sabrina as she walked to the main entrance to the ballroom where the newcomer awaited. Unlikely the nobles and merchants who surrounded them, the woman was dressed in a shining suit of silver chainmail with white tabard that was segmented by thin green piping. The armour was completed by a steel high collar and a flowing green cape, and a helmet with a Y-shaped visor hid her face from view. From her size and shape, Alexandra guest she was an elf.
She was accompanied by two other women, and again both were elves. The first was similarly armoured, though without the cape, and carried her helmet under her arm revealing her closely cropped blonde hair. Though elves were known for their natural beauty, this one features were rather plain and held a hardness that Alexandra had seen before on battle worn soldiers. The second was even more slender than the other two, and was dressed in a pale green dress with a low-cut neckline and puffy sleeves, and she wore a silken veil that obscured her face. Her head was smooth and bald, mean she was most likely a sorceress by trade. Alexandra studied them all carefully, curious to learn their identity.
“Ladies, my I introduce my most honoured guest, all the way from the Everwood,” Countess Sabrina announced to the room, grinning broadly. “May I present her royal highness, Princess Shaelynn Aran!”
The armoured woman removed her helmet, smiling politely as the other guests applauded.
Alexandra had been an agent ever since she was a teenager, and had been in many dangerous and surprising situations. She had been interrogated and even tortured, and never once had she slipped from whatever identity she had assumed for her missions. But as the elven princess revealed her beautiful face and closely cropped red hair, Alexandra could not keep the shock from her face.
The woman looked exactly like Kaimela Wethrin.
“Thank you, Lady Sassi,” the elven woman said with a stately bow. “I consider it a great privilege to be here, and I am looking forward to the night’s festivities.”
Alexandra just stared at the woman, stunned by the uncanny similarities to the infamous rogue. Despite her involvement with several notable incidents, including helping rescue the former Queen Bethany when she had been kidnapped by Raven De Lanci and aiding Lisbeth during the Syn sisters conspiracy, little was really known about Kaimela. That was not too surprising, as the Queen’s agents usually did not usually deal with minor criminals, but Alexandra did find the oversight galling considering how often Kaimela and her more reputable lover, the barbarian heroine Karyn Strongblood, got themselves involved in things. And she had to wonder if the rest of her family was a cunning and devious as she was.
“Lady Bond?” Sabrina asked, breaking Alexandra out of her shock. Much to Alexandra’s surprise, the noble woman was now standing in front of her and Shaelynn, who looked upon the disguised agent with bemusement. “It seems our young friend is in awe of you, your highness!”
Alexandra flushed with genuine embarrassment, and quickly recomposed herself by slipping back into the identity of Janine Bond. “My deepest apologies, your highness,” Alexandra said with feigned sheepishness, curtseying. “I was just stunned by your beauty, Princess Shaelynn.”
“Thank you,” Shaelynn replied politely, seemingly uncomfortable with the compliment. “But I prefer to be addressed as General, which is my official title in the Elven Court. May I also introduce my second in command Captain Ionia, and my person advisor Faewyn.”
“My pleasure,” Alexandra said as the soldier bowed stiffly while the sorceress nodded politely. “I hope you find our fair country to your liking.”
“Certainly, and its people have been very welcoming,” Shaelynn said. “The Everwood is always grateful for new friends, and Lady Sassi has been very generous in allowing us to stay with her during our visit to Sapphira.”
“Princess … I mean General Shaelynn is here to see to investigate the suitability of setting up a garrison here,” Sabrina said with a grin. “A military alliance with the Everwood would be a boon to Paricida.”
“And Sapphira,” Alexandra added, beginning to see Sabrina’s plan. So she was hoping to make an alliance with a foreign force, which would cement her independence and provide her leverage when negotiating with the crown. A cunning plan, if she was really in contact with a force from the Everwood. Alexandra wondered what Shaelynn was really up to, and decided that she would need to visit the elf later that night to get some real answers.
“Quite,” Sabrina said, looking smug. “Anyway, we should go and meet more our guests.”
Alexandra curtseyed again and watched the group leave to mingle with the other noble women. She kept an eye on them for the rest party, watching for any sign of what was really going on. Was it all some elaborate con? Was Sabrina aware of Shaelynn’s real identity? Questions Alexandra needed answered. And once the party was over, she started planning to find out.
* * *
“Help me out of this dress,” Alexandra said as she returned to her guest room, which was on the second floor of Countess Sassi’s expansive mansion. Waiting for her was her “servant,” better known as the elven inventor Gaejette. She was dressed in a nice dark blue doublet and matching tights, a far cry from the constantly stained clothes she would wear when working in her lab back in Labrys, and her long brown hair was tied up in a tidy bun. Gaejette let out a sigh of relief, glad to drop the cover identity she was not entirely comfortable with, and aided Alexandra as the agent stripped out of her clothes before carefully folding the dress and laying on a nearby set of drawers.
“Did it go well,” Gaejette asked as Alexandra pulled on a pair of leather pants and a simple black tunic. She finished up by putting on a high-collared leather jacket which she belted at the waist.
“It was an eye opener,” Alexandra said with a tight smile. “We had an elven princess join the party, which is very interesting to say the least. She’s here to set up a garrison of soldiers from the Everwood, which is no doubt why Countess Sassi is welcoming her with open arms, but there is an interesting wrinkling in the proceedings.”
“Oh?” Gaejette asked, with feigned interest. Though she served the secret service as an inventor and chemist, she had little interest in politics and espionage passed the chance to try out her new gadgets. She would always listen and be polite about it, but Alexandra mostly used her as an opportunity to work things out loud.
“I am pretty sure this princess is an imposter,” Alexandra said. “I don’t know if she is conning the Countess or if they are in league, but I need to have a little chat with her. We’ll need to prepare the spare room for a guest. Time to break out the toys!”
At this, true enthusiasm filled Gaejette’s face as she opened up the large travel trunk she had brought with them. Inside was all of the equipment that Alexandra would possible need on her mission. Some of this was fairly mundane, from a small crossbow with a grapple hook and pulley attachment, to more complex items like a collapsible sword that could be easily concealed. Also in the trunk were vials of a special acid Gaejette had developed that only reacted with glass, others that did the same to hemp, and finally some smoke bombs. However the pride and joy of the collection was the new dart launcher that Gaejette had developed. Resembling a miniature crossbow that was fitted upon a leather bracer that fitted around Alexandra’s wrist, it could fire needles dipped in fast-acting sleep poison while easily being hidden beneath a sleeve. Gaejette was nearly gleeful as she strapped the dart launcher in place, rattling off technical jargon that just served to confuse Alexandra. Still, the agent could not deny the launcher was a true work of art.
“It will fire with a simple flick of the wrist,” Gaejette explained, “and this mechanism here will automatically load the next dart. It only carries five needles, so use them wisely, and if the target is wearing heavy armour, aim between the joints.”
“Understood,” Alexandra said, admiring the weapon. She then gathered up the rest of her supplies, clipping the smoke bombs and grapple crossbow to her belt and slipping the acid vials into special slots inside her left boot. Finally she placed the collapsible sword into the other boot, which meant she was now fully equipt for her adventure.
The pair moved out of their room and into the adjoining spare room, which was barren save for an empty set of draws and a large four poster bed that was missing its mattress. “Set up and chair and the restraints once I am gone. Once I am back, I will let you know by knocking out our code on the door. Remember to do the same before coming in yourself, so I can make sure our ‘guest’ is suitably blindfolded.”
“Certainly,” Gaejette said. “And what if the Countess or anyone else comes to see you?”
“Tell them that Lady Bond has gone to bed with a migraine and cannot be disturbed,” Alexandra said. “Just try and sound snooty about it. That way they will believe you.”
“I will do my best,” Gaejette said, trying to swallow down her nervousness. Alexandra hid a smile, knowing that she had not been so confident on her own first mission, and that over time Gaejette would become more comfortable with the lifestyle.
With a final nod to the elven inventor, Alexandra opened the window to the spare room and climbed outside the mansion. It was the perfect night for such activities; the night was dark and no moon brightened the sky, making it nearly impossible for an errant guard from accidently spotting Alexandra. Mentally going over the map of the building she had memorized before starting her mission, Alexandra skilfully scaled up to the third and final floor where the master bedroom and special guest rooms were kept. While working the ballroom, she had learned that Shaelynn would be staying in the master guest room, with her cohorts sharing a room nearby. This kept them close to Countess Sassi while providing them privacy, and as such a perfect place for Alexandra to whisk Shaelynn away to have her little chat.
Making her way up to the main window of the master guestroom, Alexandra latched herself a nearby gargoyle and peered inside. Shaelynn was preparing for bed, with Ionia helping her out of her shiny chainmail, with the pair conversing softly in their own language. Alexandra could not pick up what they were saying, but she could see disdain on Shaelynn’s face. Was it a con artist’s disdain for a mark, or something else? Alexandra could not tell. But once Ionia left the room, she would certainly find out.
Once out of the armour, Shaelynn dressed herself in a pale green silk nightdress, and dismissed her subordinate. Ionia exited the room with a curt nod, and Shaelynn settled into bed. It was at this time Alexandra noted the exquisite silver rapier resting by the bed, in easy reach if Shaelynn should ever need it. That could be an issue, but Gaejette’s dart launcher should be the great equalizer. Alexandra also noticed that the room had a skylight, which would be the perfect entry point. Grinning to herself, Alexandra climbed up onto the roof. However, once she got up there, she found something to be terribly wrong.
The skylight was already open, with the lock clearly broken.
Frowning, Alexandra quietly lifted the skylight open and peered inside. She could see movement amongst the rafters, a dark shape sneaking into position. As silently as she could, Alexandra crept inside, trying to get a good look at the person. Whoever they were, they were dressed in a black catsuit with a hood and mask that totally hid their identity. They had positioned themselves behind a support, and they working on putting something together. Alexandra did her best to the get in close, but the rafters were positively maze-like in design. It was then that she saw what the mystery figure held.
It was a crossbow, and they were aim it at the resting Shaelynn.
There was part of Alexandra, the cold hearted spy part of her, was content to step back and let whatever happened happen. But Alexandra never listened to that side of her, and raised her right hand to take aim at the assassin. Unfortunately the same reasons for not getting a clear look at the figure also prevented a clear shot with the dart launcher, which left Alexandra with no other choice.
So she leapt.
Flying through the air, she flicked her wrist. The dart launcher worked perfectly sending the need speeding at her target, but the clumsiness of her descent meant the dart harmlessly impacted in the beam next to the assassin’s head. It was enough to distract the assassin, causing her shot to go wild and bury itself in the wall above the bed. Alexandra landed on the bed with a grunt, quickly jumped to her feet and fired another two needles at the masked figure. The assassin was too nimble, navigating the rafters with ease before disappearing out of skylight.
Alexandra cursed, ready to give chase, but the blade of the rapier that rested on her shoulder stopped her.
“I would like an explanation,” Shaelynn said, her eyes cold and hard. “And if you know what is good for you, it will be a good one.”
“I saved your life,” Alexandra said, raising her hands. “You should be grateful.”
“We will see,” Shaelynn said, grabbing a sash with her free hand. “Hands behind your back, please.”
“If you insist,” Alexandra said, dropping her head in defeat. She brought her arms behind her and, just as Shaelynn realized her mistake, flicked her wrist. It was a terrible shot, but that was all it needed to be as the needle hit Shaelynn in the thigh. The elven woman managed a slurred curse before collapsing on the bed.
“My apologies,” Alexandra said with a smirk, picking up the sash that Shaelyn was going to use to bind her. Instead, she knotted it in the middle and used it to gag the sleeping elven woman, then tore up the sheets to tie her for her hand and foot. After checking at the door to see if their encounter had aroused anyone, Alexandra threw Shaelynn over her shoulder and began the difficult climb down to her own room.
* * *
Alexandra carefully lowered Shaelynn into the chair Gaejette had prepared for her. It was a sturdy straight-backed design, with thick armrests and legs, and the elven inventor had pulled up the carpet in the spare room she could bolt it to the floor. A series of leather straps lay next to the chair, along with a padded blindfold, which would help hide Alexandra’s identity from the captive elf.
Taking up the straps, Alexandra set about restraining Shaelynn, first binding her arms to the chair’s rests at the wrists and elbows. She secured her ankles to the chair legs next, then threaded a final strap around the elf’s waist to secure her to the back of the chair. With the straps drawn tight, Alexandra placed the blindfold over Shaelynn’s eyes, then stepped back to admire her handy work. She had left the gag in place for now, as she didn’t want Shaelynn waking up too soon and causing a ruckus. With Shaelynn bound and gagged, Alexandra went to the door that led to her bedroom, and then knocked out her special code.
“All clear,” came Gaejette’s nervous voice.
Alexandra smiled and opened the door and walked into the bedroom. “Okay, I have her secure,” she said to Gaejette, who was rubbing her hands over and over again. “I need you to do a quick reconnoitre, see if anyone has been alerted. When I arrived, there was someone else in the room, but they had less noble intensions than mine.”
“An assassin?” Gaejette gasped.
“It sure seemed that way,” Alexandra said. “This mission is getting more and more complicated, so I need to minimize any more surprises. Once you get back, remember to knock the code before coming in.”
“I’ll do my best,” Gaejette said with uncertainty, but went off all the same.
Alexandra returned to the spare room and closed the door behind her. She took out some smelling salts and held them beneath Shaelynn’s nose. The elven captive twitched, then groggily shook her head as she slowly regained consciousness. As her situation became clear for her, Shaelynn began struggling against her bonds, but Alexandra had strapped her in too tightly for any hope of escape.
“Greetings, Wethrin,” Alexandra said, affecting a low voice. “Let me spell out the situation for you. Your activities have caught the attention of certain powerful people, and they are not happy with you operating in their territory. However they are not without mercy, but you will need to earn it from them by being direct and forthright in the questions I am to ask. Scream, call for help or try to mislead me, and you will suffer the consequences.”
With that, Alexandra reached over and pulled the knotted sash from Shaelynn’s mouth.
“How dare you!” Shaelynn hissed. “Do you have any idea who you have kidnapped? The might of the Elven Imperial Army will be brought down upon you-”
“Drop the act!” Alexandra said, clamping her hand over Shaelynn’s mouth. “The elven princess act is not fooling anyone, so it is best you start telling the truth before things go bad for you, Wethrin.” She then took her hand away.
“I am General Shaelynn Aran, daughter and heir of Empress Elandrea Aran of the Everwood,” Shaelynn snapped, her face red with rage. “How dare you equate me with the lowlifes of the thieves’ guild!”
“Why do you keep calling me that?” Shaelynn demanded.
“Because it’s your name,” Alexandra said, rubbing her temples in irritation. “Drop it, princess. I know Kaimela.”
“Kai…” Shaelynn looked confused. “You mean Kailandrea. By the goddess, you know my sister. This would almost be funny … you are truly an imbecile. I am who I say I am, and you have just made the biggest mistake of your life.”
“Enough!” Alexandra said, shoving the gag back into Shaelynn’s mouth. “If you are determined to keep the act, you can do so in silence. Let’s leave you there a while, alone and in the dark, and see it that loosens you tongue.”
There was then a series of knocks at the spare room door. “Come in, she’s blindfolded.”
The door opened and Gaejette walked in. “So far, no one has raised any alarms and everything seems normal in the mansion,” she said, then stopped when she saw Shaelynn. She rushed up to the captive and began running her fingers through Shaelynn’s short red hair, peering closely at her roots. She then stood up straight, looking horrified.
“What are you doing?” Alexandra asked, but the elven inventor waved her off as she ran from the room. She came back soon after holding a vial of clear liquid. “Talk to me, please.”
“One moment,” Gaejette said, pulling a couple of hairs from Shaelynn’s head. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly to the captive as she dropped the hairs into the vial. She held up the vial and studied the liquid carefully. Nothing seemed to happen. “Oh dear. We have made a terrible mistake!”
“What are you talking about?” Alexandra said, confused and more than a little annoyed.
“She really is who she says she is!” Gaejette said, looking horrified. “Her hair is red. Only elves of the royal bloodline have red hair. I just confirmed it wasn’t dyed. You just kidnapped a real elven princess!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alexandra said. “Kaimela Wethrin has the same colour hair, and looks just like her. If you are saying this is the real Princess Shaelynn, that would mean that Kaimela is … Oh.” Alexandra stopped, not liking the implications. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes!” Gaejette said. “My parents came to Sapphira from the Everwood, and are very much royalists. The red hair trait is not well known outside of their homeland so they can travel more easily if they wish to keep a low profile. We have truly caused a disaster.”
Alexandra shook her head, wanting to disbelieve what she was hearing. “But if is the real princess, that means that assassin was … this has just become a lot more complicated.” Knowing what she had to do, but no liking it in the slightest, Alexandra walked up to Shaelynn and reached up to pull the gag from her mouth and removed the blindfold. “Princess Shaelynn,” she said, “my sincerest apologies. I am Captain Alexandra Cross and this is Gaejette, and we are agents in the services of Queen Lisbeth of Sapphira. I have made a terrible error and seek you forgiveness.”
“Me too,” added Gaejette, who dropped to one knee.
“You … you are a spy?” Shaelynn said, her eyes narrowing as Alexandra began removing the straps that bound her. “Wait, I know you! You were Lady Janine Bond, at the party!”
“That was my cover,” Alexandra said, coming clean. “I am here to investigate Countess Sassi. Your turning up was a surprise and I mistakenly thought you to be an impostor. I was trying to determine if you were in league with Sabrina or trying to con her. I acted rashly and in doing so have brought dishonour to my Queen and country.”
“To say the least,” Shaelynn said rubbing her wrists, all the time eying Alexandra carefully. “But you also stopped that assassin, and for that I am grateful. Perhaps we can call us even for now. But that leaves on pressing question unanswered.”
“Who was that assassin,” Alexandra said.
“I knew I could not trust Sassi,” Shaelynn said, shaking her head. “My visit here was negotiated in secret, with only a few knowing about it. She must want to cause a war between our two queendoms.”
“Countess Sassi is a slimy one,” Alexandra said, shaking her head, “but I can see no reason for Sabrina to make such a move. Her power is financial. Triggering a war between Sapphira and the Everwood would not benefit her, and in fact could harm her as her holdings would be the first targeted by an invading force. Something else is going on, but I do not know what. I hate to say it, we may need the assassin to take another shot at you, so we can capture and interrogate her. I don’t like it, but we at least have the advantage of knowing she is about.”
“I am afraid I agree,” Shaelynn said. “So be it. We will unite our resources until we can deal with the threat. I will to tell my advisor, Faewyn, about this, but I will need to keep Ionia in the dark about what is going on. I trust her implicitly, but she is too protective and would most likely do something rash, like try and arrest the Countess or even yourself.”
“Okay, we should meet early tomorrow to sort out a plan,” Alexandra said. “I doubt the assassin will strike again tonight, so you should be safe. I should get you back to your room.”
“Thank you,” Shaelynn said. She then paused. “Captain, do you really know Kailandrea?”
“I know a cheeky rogue named Kaimela Wethrin,” Alexandra said with a smile. “And she looks just like you. So yes, I do know your sister. I take it you did not know she was in Sapphira?”
“She left home under … unfortunate circumstances,” Shaelynn smiled to herself, but there was a surprising sadness in that smile. “I haven’t seen her in years. Is she okay?”
“I’ve only met her once,” Alexandra said honestly. “But she is well known by the Queen herself, who considers her a friend. She has at times both saved Lisbeth and her mother, and seems to regularly get herself involved in intrigue on a regular basis. I would say she is more than okay. She’s a hero.”
“A hero,” Shaelynn said with a grin, “and an ally of the Sapphirian Queen. What a strange life she lives. Thank you for telling me this, Captain. I truly appreciate it.”
“Shall we go, your highness,” Alexandra said. Shaelynn nodded, and so they headed out the window. “Gaejette, hold the fort while we’re gone.”
* * *
As predicted, the rest of the night passed uneventfully, with no more signs of the assassin. As morning dawned, Alexandra was back in the guise of Janine Bond, all demure and shy. She had chosen a dress with long, loose sleeves so that she could keep wearing the dart launcher, and was now accompanied by Gaejette, who was doing a good job playing her servant despite her nervousness. They had headed out to the courtyard outside of mansion where Countess Sassi was holding a brunch for some of her wealth friends.
Naturally the centrepiece of this get-together was Shaelynn, with Captain Ionia and the sorceress Faewyn standing close behind her, and Alexandra was impressed how effortlessly the heir to the elven empire practiced court politics while barely hiding her displeasure for such sucking up. She was obviously military commander at heart, more comfortable in her silver chainmail than in a dress, but she knew her duty and performed it well. She spotted Alexandra as the spy approached, giving her a barely perceivable nod.
“Ah, Lady Janine,” Sabrina said, beckoning Alexandra to join them. “Princess Shaelynn was just telling us of her homeland.”
“General,” Shaelynn corrected her, a subtle note of irritation in her voice. Alexandra suspected that Sabrina was on insisting on using the royal title to impress Shaelynn’s importance on her guests, but such lapses in protocol were bad form. “And as I was saying, the Everwood is very beautiful place. A perfect marriage of architecture and natural order, crafted over the centuries. We have been an isolationist society, but our Empress is taking steps to remedy this. Establishing a garrison here, with a mutual defence pact with the good Countess, is a step in bring our influence back into the world at large.”
“Perhaps you should travel to our capital,” one of the other noble women said, a short and busy blonde who was wearing too much makeup. “Our Queen would love to meet you, and then perhaps you cement an alliance between our two great queendoms! Lisbeth’s single, you know!”
Alexandra inwardly cringed at the woman’s lack of subtlety.
“As heir to the empire and leader of our military forces, I am bound by our traditions to remain unmarried until I take the throne,” Shaelynn said, politely brushing off the woman’s suggestion. “While an alliance through marriage is not unheard of, it would be my sister who would join with your Queen Lisbeth. But that is a far off possibility, and at the moment I am more concerned with establishing a good relationship with your lands.”
“Well said,” Sabrina said. “Though if you ever do wish to go Labrys and meet the Queen, I am sure Lady Bond here would be honoured to introduce you at court.”
Alexandra appropriately blushed. “I would be deeply honoured, but I am no-one of importance, General.”
“I am sure you are more than you seem,” Shaelynn replied with a smile, and Alexandra had to hide her own grin at the princess’s gentle jab at her. Well played. Alexandra also noticed Faewyn looking at her, and her silken veil did little to hide her distain. Shaelynn must have told her already who Alexandra really was, and it seemed that her real identity did not sit well with the sorceress. Alexandra made a note of that, just in case it became an issue later.
The rest of the morning went by uneventfully, with Alexandra wandering the courtyard to keep an eye out for any sign of the assassin. Though she doubted they would strike in daylight, she could not afford to relax, especially since any assassin worth their salt would be keeping an eye on their target ever chance they got. There was even a chance the assassin was right in front of her, disguised as one of the many anonymous servants that currently saw to everyone’s needs. So to that end, Alexandra had Gaejette mingle with the other servants, hoping that the elven inventor might luck out and discover a probably suspect.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, and by early afternoon there had been no sign of the assassin nor had Alexandra managed to find any clues to who would want to harm Shaelynn. Talking with the other noble women in attendance had merely shown them to opportunistic and greedy, hoping to use their access to the elven princess to deepen their coffers. It was at this time Shaelynn came up to Alexandra, hooking her arm around the spy’s and leading her off to a quiet alcove away from the courtyard so they could speak privately.
“Any luck?” Shaelynn asked.
“None,” Alexandra sighed. “I cannot find anyone even remotely suspect, and it is beginning to truly frustrate me. These are not particularly clever women, no when compared to those I usually investigate, so it should have been relatively easy to figure out who could benefit from going after you. I think I might have to go my back up plan, and arrange a midnight chat with Countess Sabrina. If anyone knows what is going on, even if she is not directly behind it, it would be her.”
“Are you sure that is wise?” Shaelynn said. “It may tip her off to your true identity.”
“I am willing to risk it,” Alexandra said with a shrug. “And it is not like it could go any worse than when I kidnapped you. I do regret for that, truthfully. I am grateful that you have been so forgiving of me in that respect.”
“Normally I wouldn’t,” Shaelynn said. “But you did the right thing when you realised your mistake. Someone less ethical would have simply drugged me again and dumped me back in my room, even possibly slipping me a reagent that would wipe my memory of the event. I appreciate that honesty, and it speaks well of your Queen and her agents.”
“And here I was thinking I just had a trustworthy face,” Alexandra said with a sly grin. “Still, while interrogating Sabrina is a top priority, I also don’t want you to be alone tonight. I am loathed to suggest such a thing, but perhaps it would be best if when you retired for the night, you did so with a certain awestruck minor noble from Labrys.”
I appreciate you concern but…” Shaelynn stopped as she noticed Countess Sassi approaching them. Then, in a move that took Alexandra by surprise, Shaelynn pulled her close and kissed her fully on the lips. Going with it, Alexandra returned the kiss, all the time keeping an eye on Sabrina. To her credit, the countess grinned knowingly and politely retreated, leaving the two women to their privacy.
“Nice save, General,” Alexandra said with a wink once they were alone again.
“Perhaps your idea has merit,” Shaelynn said, almost bashfully. “Just try not to get the wrong idea.”
“Perish the thought,” Alexandra replied, curtseying. “Shall we go break the news to your entourage?”
And so the pair of them re-joined the other noblewomen, and soon they were the stars of the gathering. Alexandra could only imagine the gossip they were creating, and was doubly amused at the looks of jealousy that were occasionally thrown her way. However, not all were happy with the pairing, as Faewyn made little effort to show her disapproval, even though she surely knew it was just a ruse. At least Captain Ionia seemingly approved, with Alexandra catching her whisper to Shaelynn the words, “Nice choice.”
As the night wound down, the other noblewomen began to leave, and it was soon time to retire for the night. Countess Sassi bid the pair good night, while inferring to Alexandra that they should talk in the morning, and soon Alexandra and Shaelynn found themselves alone in the princess’s bedroom. They checked the room thoroughly for any signs of the assassin, and made sure all the windows and skyline were properly secure. Alexandra prepared herself a station where she could keep an eye on the room while Shaelynn got into her night close. The pair bid each other good night, reminding each other that it was just an act.
And that was why it did not surprise either of them when they ended up in bed together.
* * *
“Wow,” Alexandra sighed, looking up at the ceiling of the bedroom. She currently lay next to Shaelynn, both of them naked as they snuggled together. “You know, I don’t know what was the greater breach of etiquette - kidnapping you, or this.”
“I suspect your Queen would say the former,” Shaelynn chuckled softly. “For my mother? Definitely the later. She’s very traditional, though she is trying to change her ways. But I hope that is not your way of saying you regret this.”
“Never,” Alexandra said with a grin. “We both know what we are doing, and how far we can go. And all things considered, I believe we both deserved a little break from our duties.”
“I agree,” Shaelynn said. “I am always a general first, and a princess second. To just be a woman for a while is, well, liberating.”
“So, no desire to up and leave like Kaimela … I mean, Kailandrea?”
“Honestly, no. I have my duty, to both my family and my country, yes, but I also love what I do. Make no mistake, I did have my period of rebellion, but I once I entered military training I found that I had a natural talent for leading, and I came to appreciate what it means to be part of something bigger than myself. And now, I cannot even imagine spending my life doing anything else. And what of you?”
“The same, more or less, though my childhood was much different to yours. I don’t want to go into it too much, but let us just say that I developed my talents for deception long before I was recruited to become an agent for the Queen. But that was a lifetime ago, and I do not miss it in the least. And my current life provides me with all the adventure and excitement I could ever need. But as it is, I think it is time for me get back to my room. As much as I would like to remain longer, the sun will be up soon, and I would hate to see what Faewyn would do to me if she found out about about this.”
“Ignore her,” Shaelynn laughed. “She’s just a traditionalist. She believes that the heir to our empire should be proper and chaste. If she only knew the truth…”
Alexandra kissed Shaelynn and then slipped out of bed, gathering up her dress and wig. “I want you to stay close to Ionia today,” she said as she dressed herself, her voice filled with genuine concern for the elven princess. “Tonight may have been quiet, but that assassin was a professional and nobody hires them to only take on shot and quit. I’d hate anything to happen to you, especially now.”
“Hoping to ‘protect’ me again, Captain?” Shaelynn said with a cheeky grin as she propped herself up on her elbows.
“What can I say, I love my job,” Alexandra replied with a wink. She set her wig upon her head and straightened her dress. “Well, do I look chaste and proper?”
“Never!” Shaelynn laughed. “I’ll see you soon, Captain.”
Alexandra curtseyed and slipped out of the bedroom. The mansion was quiet and sparsely populated, and those that were out and about were the maids and kitchen staff who served Countess Sassi. Alexandra eyed then carefully, just in case they were not what the seemed to be, but none raised alarm bells for her. It still bothered her that she did not know who was behind the attempt on Shaelynn, and was kind of ashamed that she had gotten so distracted so badly last night. But that was also a bit of a first for her. In her job, she had seduced women on many occasions, but Shaelynn was the first she had been with who knew exactly who she was, and the first she had been with out of genuine attraction. Alexandra did not want to attribute too much into it, but it was certainly not an unpleasant feeling.
“Gaejette, I am home,” Alexandra said as she arrived at her room, opening the door and walking inside.
Gaejette tried to warn her, but the thick gag in the elven inventor’s mouth prevented her. Before Alexandra could react, the assassin stepped out from behind the door and hit her on the back of the head with a leather sap. Alexandra grunted once, then fell to the ground, unconscious.
* * *
Alexandra groaned as she came too, her head aching. She cursed herself for being so stupid, for making such an amateur mistake, but she had greater problems to deal with. The first being, how to get out of the chair she was currently bound to.
“Ah, you’re awake,” the assassin said, grinning. The assassin had stripped Alexandra down to her underwear while she was unconscious, and was now dressing herself in the clothes of Lady Janine Bond. Alexandra noted she was a relatively nondescript woman, with short brown hair and hazel eyes, and could blend in anywhere. In other words, very much like Alexandra herself.
Alexandra looked around the room, and saw Gaejette was lying on the floor, hogtied and gagged with the same leather straps that they had used the other night to bind Shaelynn. The elven inventor looked terrified but otherwise unharmed, for which Alexandra was grateful for, but it did mean their situation was dire. But the fact the assassin had chosen to tie them up rather than going with a more permanent solution at least gave Alexandra a chance to come up with an escape plan.
“You have some nice gear,” the assassin said, walking over the bed wear she had laid out all of Alexandra’s equipment, picking up the retractable sword. She gave it a flick, extending the blade, and admired the design. “I hope you don’t mind if I keep some of it, but to be honest you have greater concerns.”
“I see,” Alexandra said. “No chance you’ll tell me who hired you to kill Shaelynn? I mean, you have me at your mercy and all that.”
The assassin laughed. “Nobody, actually,” she said with a smirk. “I was always meant to miss her. But you ruined everything, and now the job has been changed and the elven princess now has to die. Top work on your part.”
“I take it we are to be your patsies then,” Alexandra said, probing further. “Kill her and then offer us up as the killers? Pretty trite and unimaginative if you ask me. Whatever happened to professional pride?”
“It got offered triple the usual payment,” the assassin replied, putting on the blonde wig. She walked around behind Alexandra and used a thick length of cloth to tightly gag her. “You’d be surprised how much money trumps ethics. But don’t worry; at least you won’t be alone. I have one more person to collect before enacting my plan. Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right back.”
The assassin then left the room, leaving Alexandra and Gaejette alone. The elven inventor looked up at Alexandra, her eyes apologetic, but Alexandra did not blame her for the situation. It had been entirely her fault, and should have seen this coming. But she had more important details to take care of, the first to escape her bondage. She looked over the bed, and saw what she needed. She just had to wait for the opportunity to get to it.
A short time later, the door to their room opened and the assassin returned, this time pushing in Countess Sassi. Sabrina had her hands tied behind her back and a knotted cloth bound tightly between her full lips, keeping her mute. She seemed outraged at her situation, but her expression turned to confusion when she saw Alexandra for the first time without her disguise.
“Quit squirming, Countess,” the assassin growled, then dropped Sabrina with a blow to the head with her sap. She dragged the subdued noble women over to next to Gaejette, then used some more rope to bind Sabrina’s legs. “I don’t like this part,” the assassin said, “as she’s given me good business over the years. But right now she’s a loose thread that needs tying, and none of this will work if she blabs about who actually hired me.”
The assassin stood up and looked over the three bound and gagged women, admiring her handywork. “Well, that should hold you all,” she said with an evil smirk. “I’ll be back afterwards to arrange things so that blame is assigned correctly, so try and use your remaining constructively. As me for me, I have a date with a princess.”
With a final sneer, the assassin left the room, locking it behind her.
With the assassin gone and not coming back anytime soon, Alexandra went straight to work. Time was of the essence and lives were at stake, so she wasted no time of useless struggling against knots that were done by an expert. Instead, she rocked back and forth in the chair using the moment to pitch herself forward onto her feet. Keep balance was difficult, but she managed to remain upright, and hoped over towards the bed.
Now the assassin had of course not been stupid enough to leave out any devices that Alexandra could use to cut herself free, but she had not paid close enough attention to the vials of liquid. The all lay in a pile in the centre of the bed, with the hemp acid being on top. Knowing she only had one shot at this, Alexandra took as deep of a breath as her gag allowed, then threw herself backwards onto the bed. She landed awkwardly, but heard the satisfying crash of the vials shattering beneath her weight, followed by the hissing sound of the acid burning through the ropes that bound her. It was now time to struggle, and she yanked against her weakened bindings until finally they snapped. With her limbs free, Alexandra reached up and gladly pulled the gag from her mouth.
“Are you okay?” Alexandra asked Gaejette, rushing to free the elven inventor.
“I am unharmed, but I’m so sorry I allowed her to capture me,” Gaejette said, rubbing her wrists once the straps were removed from them. “I should have been more vigilant.”
“It was my fault,” Alexandra said, shaking her head. “I should have seen this coming. If hadn’t spent the night with Shaelynn I might have been able to stop the assassin before all of this.”
“You cannot blame your … what do you mean by ‘spent the night with Shaelynn?’” Gaejette asked, giving Alexandra a disapproving look.
“Can we discuss this later?” Alexandra asked with a lopsided grin, gathering up her work clothes. “I have a princess to save.”
“Fine, but I am afraid she has taken most of your gear,” Gaejette said. “Do you want me to question Countess Sassi while you are gone?”
“No, I know who hired the assassin,” Alexandra said as she dressed herself in her leather pants and jacket. “I’m just not sure why yet. Keep her tied up until I get back, and don’t let anyone inside.”
Gaejette nodded anxiously, then did as she was told once Alexandra slipped out the door. It was now a question of where to find Shaelynn. Making her way through the mansion, Alexandra headed out towards the courtyard, ignoring the startled cries of the staff that did not recognise her outside of her guise of Lady Bond. As long as they did not try to halt her, she paid them no mind, concentrating on her destination. She burst out the doors to the courtyard, where a small cadre of nobles and merchants had gathered in hopes of schmoozing up to the elven princess. Alexandra could see both Ionia and Faewynn, but there was no sign of Shaelynn.
Cursing, Alexandra looked around for any sign of the elven princess, and then caught glimpse of her heading off towards the alcove in which they had first kissed. Shaelynn was not dressed in her armour this morning, instead dressed in a high-collared silk blouse and matching pants, making her even more vulnerable. Alexandra wondered what she had been thinking, but when she caught sight of the woman awaiting Shaelynn, she knew she had no time to waste. She sprinted off towards Shaelynn, leaping over hedges and ignoring the cries that followed her.
“Assassin!” shouted Faewyn, pointing an accusatory finger at Alexandra, and soon the agent found Ionia charging towards her. Alexandra did not have time to deal with the elven captain, so dodged under her attempt to tackle her and kept moving. The ruckus had alerted Shaelynn, who now turned in Alexandra’s direction.
“Get down!” Alexandra shouted as she saw the assassin draw a small crossbow from beneath her dress. Shaelynn dropped instantly, narrowly missing the bolt that would have struck her in the heart had it have hit. Alexandra leapt over the prone princess and launched herself at the assassin, who grunted as the agent collided with her. They grappled with each other, trying to gain the upper hand, and the assassin eventually managed to kick Alexandra off of her.
“You should have never have stuck your nose into this!” the assassin hissed, drawing Alexandra’s retractable sword and flicking out the blade. But as she raised the weapon, a small dart hit her square in the chest. The assassin looked down at the needle, confused, then collapsed to the ground in a heap.
“By the goddess!” Alexandra gasped, and turned to see Shaelynn standing behind her, arm extended to reveal the dart launcher beneath her sleeve. “How did you get hold of that?”
“You forgot it when you left this morning,” Shaelynn said with a grin, helping Alexandra to her feet. “I thought it was intentional, but I guess I was mistake.”
“I was kind of distracted,” Alexandra sighed, but glad for her oversight all the same. The pair shared a quick kiss before Ionia reached them, a confused look on her face.
“What is going on, General?” the elven captain asked, drawing her sword.
“It’s fine, Ionia,” Shaelynn said, waving her captain to stand down. “Captain Cross here is an agent of the Queen, and she just helped me stop an assassin. Now perhaps we can learn who hired her.”
“I’m afraid I know who did,” Alexandra said, grimacing. “She was hired through Countess Sassi, but Sabrina was only the intermediary, not the originator. You said this was organized in secret, and that was done by Faewyn, wasn’t it?”
“Are you sure of what you are saying?” Shaelynn asked, her face hardening,
“The assassin ambushed me when I returned to my room this morning,” Alexandra said, explaining her reasoning. “She knew who I was, and we only let one other person know that. Also, the assassin admitted she was not meant to kill you initially, that she intentionally missed, and the job only became to kill you after I got involved. This was meant to look like someone from Sapphira wanted you dead … if it was to cause a war, or to have you return to your isolated ways, I cannot be sure.”
“Faewyn was always a traditionalist…” Shaelynn sighed. She turned to Ionia. “Captain, we need to arrest Faewyn.”
The elven soldier looked conflicted but nodded, throwing the unconscious assassin over her shoulder and accompanied Alexandra and Shaelynn as they headed over to where Faewyn waited for them. The elven sorceress had a mixture of defiance and shame in her eyes, her actual expression hidden by her veil.
“I said from the start this expedition was a mistake,” Feewyn said softly, unable to look Shaelynn in the eyes. “We were once the greatest empire in the world. We should not be seeking cooperation from the humans, we should be conquering them.”
“Faewyn, that is not our way,” Shaelynn said. “We may be a military power, but we are not warmongers. I cannot believe you would go as far as the have me killed for this.”
“I was not going to,” Faewyn said, gritting her teeth. “I was calling off the assassin, but then you chose to debase yourself with this … this human wench! You are the heir to Empress Elandrea, you should be above this! You are as disgusting as your exiled sister!”
Shaelynn slapped Faewyn, her face red with fury. “Do not speak about me or my family in that way! You betrayed your homeland and your Empress when you chose this path, and you will face the consequences once we return home. Ionia, gag and bind her.”
The elven captain nodded, lowering the assassin before using some cord to tie Faewyn’s hand behind her back. She then removed the veil from the sorceress and wadded deeply into Faewyn’s mouth, securing in place with another length of cord. For her part, Faewyn did not resist, choosing only to glare at Alexandra. Once the mage was secure, Ionia bound up the assassin, imaginatively stuffing her mouth with the blonde wig as a gag.
“I am sorry for all this,” Alexandra said, placing a hand on Shaelynn’s shoulder.
“It is not your fault,” Shaelynn replied softly, shaking her head as she looked upon her former advisor. “If anything, she may have gotten away with it if you hadn’t interfered. My homeland is in your debt, Captain.”
“We’ll call it even,” Alexandra said, and the pair shared one more kiss, infuriating Faewyn more.
* * *
The next few days were a blur. Countess Sabrina Sassi, upon discovering who Alexandra was, threw herself on the mercy of the Queen, claiming to not know who the target of the assassin was. Both the assassin and Faewyn confirmed this, though that was not enough to save Sabrina from having to step down as Countess of Paricida. The assassin was to be taken off to Femhall Prison, and Faewyn would be subjected to elven justice once she was transported to her homeland. A local governess was selected to rule over the city until Queen Lisbeth could choose a successor, and Alexandra called in other agents she knew in the area to keep an eye on things until she could return to Sapphira.
Eventually it was time to see off Shaelynn, and Alexandra hated to see the elven princess leave. They gathered together on the docks, where Shaelynn’s elven sailboat awaited them. Captain Ionia led Faewyn aboard, the traitorous sorceress now restrained in chains and a leather muzzle, leaving Alexandra and Shaelynn to say their goodbyes.
“Well, this has been an interesting visit,” Shaelynn said, smiling at Alexandra. She looked stunning in her shiny chainmail, her cape flowing in the wind. “It is a shame that I will never see Lady Janine Bond again.”
“I feel the same,” Alexandra said. “But if you do choose to come back and establish a garrison, which I would wholly recommend you do, I’m sure Lady Sydney Reilly would love to meet you.”
“You know who I would really want to see?” Shaelynn said. “Captain Alexandra Cross. It has been a true pleasure. Try and stay out of trouble.” With that, Shaelynn kissed Alexandra fully on the lips.
“I am going to miss you,” Alexandra said. She then shifted awkwardly. “Do you want to know where Kailandrea is?”
“Is she happy?”
“From all reports, she is very happy. She has found herself a women who she is very much in love with. She’s done well for herself.”
“Then that is enough for me,” Shaelynn said, kissing Alexandra again. “Goodbye, Captain. Until we meet again.”
Alexandra watched Shaelynn board the boat and sail off, grinning despite herself. She was joined by Gaejette, who glared at her.
“What is that for?” Alexandra asked with a cheeky smirk.
“I am silently disapproving of you,” Gaejette replied, keeping up her stare. It seemed, much like her parents before her, Gaejette was a bit of royalist herself. This just made Alexandra laugh.
“We should head back to Labrys,” Alexandra said. “Though I have no idea how I will explain this to Queen Lisbeth.”
“You could try the truth.”
“Come now,” Alexandra said with a grin. “When has the truth ever helped anyone?”
And with that, they headed off home.