"Beware the evil lures of evil women! Revile their wicked ways, and keep your purity! They may look harmless, with their luscious, shapely bodies and red inviting lips which taste of cherries and sweet things and skin as soft as velvet which makes you shiver when they gently caress you! Nothing could be further from the truth! Given half a chance, they will send foul demons to do terrible things to you in your dreams, all night long! And then they will also seduce your secretary and do dreadful, amorous things to him and make you watch! And they laugh at you, and blame you for ruining their life and setting them on the path to evil when they loved you, but you chose to join the Church and left them pregnant rather than marrying them! And they burst out crying because they claim that you betrayed them even when you were childhood best friends and so forced them to learn black magic to get back at you! That is why you must revile them! Their malevolent, lying ways know neither boundaries nor restraint!"
– Pope Aegis X, 'Lectures on the Wickedness of Women, Part XXIV'
Louise folded her arms, staring up at the ceiling from her bed. A sick buzz of nervous tension filled her stomach.
This... this was the point from which it wouldn't be easy to go back from. Right now, she could still just about appear back in civilised society, talking about a ruined tower and... and she could make up some story about being a prisoner or something. Once she had attacked a town of the nation, raided it, even killed another noble... there was no way back until the endgame. Not until she could say to herself honestly that it had been a necessary sacrifice and that the good she had done had outweighed what evil she was forced into.
But no. That wasn't an option any more. Not when people were holding Princess Henrietta captive. Not when her fiancé – former fiancé now – was a treacherous unfaithful dog. And not when going back would make her a failure at this chance to save her country from traitors. Her mother had not chosen to act for some reason, and so... there was no way she could find this tolerable! Something had to be stopping her from making everything better! Maybe they were even threatening Cattleya!
So she, her youngest daughter, would have to do it for her.
Louise de la Vallière squared her jaw and stared at herself in the cracked mirror the minions had found for her in the tower. Gnarl said it had belonged to a mistress of a former overlord, and that made sense, because... well. Vampires were not known for their fondness of mirrors. Either way, it was a pretty mirror, even if the obsidian spikes which surrounded it were rather ostentatious and – she had found already – sharp enough to draw blood. And this way, she could brush her hair properly which was a god-send. Helmets were terrible for one's hairstyle.
But now to the business at hand. What was she going to wear when she scouted out the village? Obviously, she had the robe she had worn to Bruxelles, but back then she hadn't had her armour, and she hadn't had the dress she had taken from that... that slatternly woman. Now she was faced with the horrors of choice.
Well, she certainly wasn't going to leave her gauntlet at home. The girl paused for a moment, at the fact she had actually thought of this rotten, stinking place as 'home', and then shook her head. Well, she corrected herself; she certainly wasn't going to leave the gauntlet at the tower. It was the way she could talk to Gnarl and it was a wand in its own right and it was her purse. It would be foolish to leave it behind.
But then again, she should also wear her breastplate under her robe, Louise decided, putting it on and beginning to fasten up the straps. What if someone attacked her? And maybe she should wear the armoured boots too, because they were very comfortable, made her taller, and were actually wonderfully waterproof. And…
… and this wasn't going to work, she realised half an hour later as she stared at her mostly armoured form in the mirror. All she was really lacking was the helmet. With a sigh, she began to unfasten everything again. Well, maybe not the breastplate. Or the... no, no, no! That would just lead to it again!
An hour and a half later, Louise de la Vallière began the walk down to the tower heart. She was dressed in the same black robe she had worn to Bruxelles. Through the irregular openings in the upper levels she could see that the sun was already higher than she would have liked. She shrugged; at least the magic would mean she had no great distance to go. Just down these endless stairs and through whitewashed halls, past her advisor and...
"My lady? You are clanking slightly."
"... shut up, Gnarl." Inwardly she seethed. One of the biggest reasons for getting away was a day where she wouldn't have to put up with his... his disrespectful helpfulness! Nothing could be that annoying! "And," she added in passing, "I don't want to be followed. If I want help from minions, I'll summon them! I need a day free once in a while, when I've spent days running around swamps trying to find goblins!" When she stepped through the tower heart, she'd be away from all this and this stinking wet cold damp ruin!
Emerging from the portal and blinking in the sudden sunlight, Louise found herself surrounded by small horses. Insofar as an animal barely smarter than sheep could look righteously angry, they looked righteously angry.
"Shoo!" Louise commanded, flapping at them with one hand.
The lead one exhaled and scraped at the ground with a forehoof.
Fire crackled and roared. Thick white smoke clung to the ground, heavy and cloying.
"You made me do this, ponies!" Louise growled to the charred meat before her. "I didn't want to do this, but you brought it upon yourselves." In her metal boots she stomped away from the burning field, and then – upon careful consideration – ran for it.
As long as she was away from the site of the fire, she could always blame it on a fire dragon. In fact, she'd tell people she'd seen one flying around as she passed them on the road. That'd get rid of any suspicion from her. The perfect cri... perfect act of self-defence against unwarranted aggression from stupid animals!
Plus, they'd provided her with a fair amount of life-energy. Bending down, Louise scooped up the last remaining apple-sized orb of golden light in one hand – or at least did as best she could. It wasn't solid; it was like tar, and stuck to things. She could only see it when she was wearing her gauntlet, and when she touched the sticky light with the magical device, it absorbed it in a way which brought a sharp inhalation to mind. She very carefully didn't think too hard on what that might mean.
Whistling to herself, happy to be out in the summer warmth – which was a little too warm in her robe and armour, which she really should have thought of – Louise de la Vallière set off down the road. It was perhaps a kilometre or two from the woods where the stone circle had been to the walls of the towns of Loven, and along the way she made sure to tell everyone she passed about the dragon.
"... what, another one?" The burly merchant in the hat swore. "Sorry milady, but those youngsters said they'd dealt with it! They had a dragon of their own, you know, and they said they'd killed that earth dragon good!"
Louise coughed, and blinked. "It was a fire dragon," she said. "It set ponies on... on fire."
The man sucked in a breath. "Two dragons in such a short time? That's awful bad luck. You better tell the town council, milady; they'll want to know about this!" He shook his head. "I better move on quick, while it eats, I think!"
... well, at least he believed her. Louise put the incident out of mind as she made her way across the stone bridge and through the gates to the market town. With open eyes, she noted the barges making their way down the river and through the town, laden down with goods.
And it was certainly a market town. Brightly coloured stalls were everywhere, and the clamour and cry of human voices filled the air. Compared to Bruxelles this place may have been diminutive, but it also didn't smell as bad and the air was cleaner. And there were stalls with food on, and she could have proper food again!
The dark lady squinted at one stall in particular, and stroked her chin. Yes. She should use the chance to have as much proper soft cheese as she could, because it wouldn't keep well if she bought it back. She had missed good soft cheeses so very much; the one the minions made from rat's milk was both bland and hard. Which she hadn't suspected, given it was... well, made from rats, but there you go.
Walking through the town, Louise de la Vallière did not forget her mission, and so she made several notes. The very-nearly-the-first-after-a-few-minor-things thing she did was to make her way to the place where, according to the notes, the taxes were secretly being stored. It was a solid, heavy squat stone building which, if the sign on it was to be believed, was where windstones were stored. Well, that would certainly explain such heavy construction, the girl thought. And the cheek; the Mott crest was on the building! There were guards all around the building, on the roof and at the windows and door, which prevented her from having a closer look. But it was certainly a place where taxes could be stored.
She paused, and nodded. Yes, that made even more sense, because next to it was an anchorage-point for windships. Clearly the Council would have the taxes moved by windship, and if they did it stealthily, no one would ever know they had been moved. Which... she smiled to herself... possibly even suggested that they might not want to admit they had been stolen – indeed, as a bunch of traitors, they were almost certainly skimming off the top of the funds! And probably the bottom of the funds too, and a bit off the sides! Or maybe even just keeping them all for themselves.
After all, they were all a bunch of traitorous curs who leapt into bed with women when their fiancé was less than a season dead and who would be grievously punished like the dogs they were! Apart from the woman who was the one whose bed was jumped into, and so was a bi... female dog.
No! The girl pinched herself! She couldn't get angry about that! She had to think clearly, and rationally, and sensibly, and so extract revenge properly! Like by... oooh, a mooring with the de Mott crest on it, next to a similarly marked warehouse! That made a lot more sense! Yes, if she sent the minions in to loot and pillage that, it would be a righteous punishment rather than theft, and thus acceptable in the eyes of God. And even if the minions broke things and set the place on fire rather than actually steal things properly, that wouldn't matter, because it would still be righteous punishment.
The girl began to chuckle to herself, the laughter echoing strangely out of her dark cowl.
"'Ere, what's so funny, lady?" a grubby small child asked her. Their sex was indistinct under all the mud, but it was probably largely academic anyway.
Louise stopped laughing, and instead gave the commoner small child a small coin in return for directions, including to the town hall. Which was apparently undergoing some rather extensive repair work, judging from the cranes and scaffolding and earth mages and... and other such things that were involved in construction work; the girl wasn't too familiar with such things. In lieu of the knowledge of architecture required to determine what had happened, she instead asked the small and dirty child.
"That? That was th'earth dragon," the child said, affecting what it probably thought was a scholarly tone. "It was all snaky and big and armoured and it crawled through the streets and it ate Willy's dog and Doug's..."
"Other people have mentioned the dragon," Louise said, not particularly caring about the prattling of the child and thus tuning it out once that had turned out to be just that. "You can go now."
"It was so awesome," the child said, gesturing wildly. "It was like 'roar' and then it was 'rat rat rat' as rocks went everywhere and then the hero was all like 'oh, dark dragon, terrible force of evil, I shall defeat you with the power of the rose, the most beautiful of all the flowers, in the name of truth, justice, love, hope, beauty, and the rose', and when it was paying attention to him the other dragon was like 'woosh' and then there was wind and fire everywhere and then he did this like super-duper-amazing-awesome-mega thing where he..."
"Go away, small child," Louise said, barely listening. "Here, take this denier and stop bothering me." She was rather more occupied with working out how to get into the town hall. The flag of Tristain was at full mast, which meant that a meeting was going on, and if she could listen in, she could get away with it. Nobles could always attend town council meetings; that was the law. Argh! Curse her need to be in disguise! She was Louise de la Vallière, a daughter of one of the highest noble families in the country, and if she could just declare who she was, they'd almost certainly let her in. But that would ruin everything!
"Gnarl," she whispered. "Can you hear me? Can you think up a plan to help me get into the meeting without having to give my name or... or being suspicious?"
"Well, I recommend that you start by sneakily setting someone or something on fire," Gnarl advised. "Once you do that, there will be a distraction, and so you will be able to get through without any real problems at all."
"I could do that," Louise muttered into her gauntlet, an idea having come to mind – which she was sure was less stupid than setting something on fire as a distraction, "or I could instead do this." And with that said, she marched right up to the guard at the door. "Peasant!" she snapped. "You! Get that door open immediately!"
There was a slapping noise from the gauntlet, almost as if an elderly minion had just hit itself in the face with one hand. For his part, the guard straightened up. "Milady," he said, "I'm afraid I don't..."
Louise puffed herself up to her full height, and glared down – well, up – her nose at the man. "Excuse me? Excuse me!" she snapped. "Why are you not already opening the door, commoner? What cheek! Don't you know who I am?"
The man flinched. "I'm sorry, milady," he said, flinching, "but... well, the orders say that..."
"I should have you flogged! You impudent dog! Where are your superiors? If you don't let me on right now, I swear on all that is holy, you won't be able to sit down for a week! No, a month! No, a..."
There was a small clonk as the guard saluted so hard he gave himself a small concussion. "Right away my lady, I'll get the door for you," he said quickly. "Sorry mightily for the rudeness and I'm sorry so sorry very sorry milady sorry."
Louise sniffed. "Adequate. Barely," she said, gliding through.
"There was a peculiar lack of fire for you" Gnarl said, a trifle disappointed. "Are you feeling all right, my lady?"
"... and so that's decided," the mayor said, leaning forward. "We will have the flower girls throw garlands over the Count de Mott before he formally enters the town, thus avoiding the small problem which might be caused by the problem with the cesspit near the entrance."
The lady Emmanuelle ran her hands through her long blonde hair. "It's perfect," she declared, ignoring the clatter as a black-robed noble entered and sat down at the back. "Please do try to arrive on time; I made sure the fliers were printed personally and that they were all delivered," she said, a touch snappishly. "I do believe that we will certainly win the Town of the Year award for how we will impress the Count de Mott!" she added, clutching her hands to her bosom.
There was a muttered apology from the robed figure, and attention moved to the matter of the order in which the drinks would be served, and whether it might be a good idea to – at the last moment, raising the cost notably, as someone pointed out – buy more wine from some of the river traders.
However, the peaceful process of minor bureaucracy was interrupted twice. First, hammering started up on the roof, repairing the tarpaulin-covered hole which the men were working triple time to repair. And then almost as soon as that had stopped, an elderly woman burst through the door. "Evil!" she shrieked. "Evil has come! Doom is upon us all! We are doomed! Dooooooomed!"
"Oh, Founder," muttered Baron Joplain, "it must be Watersday. The countess is here."
Everyone on the town council wrinkled their noses at the sight of the elderly lady, who appeared to have half a bee nest in her hair, and whose mantle was smeared with bird poo. She may have been the wealthiest woman in the area who owned most of the surrounding woods – and the town, for that matter, though that was something they tried not to mention – but she was also madder than a mercury-addicted manufacture of head-warmers. "I have talked to the birds of the forest, and the fish of the rivers, and the deer of the fields, and the cows, also of the fields," she began, in a cracked old voice, "and they all tell my familiar the same thing! There is a great eeeeeeevil rising in the land!"
The mayor cleared his throat. "A what?" he asked.
"An evil!" the old lady repeated, hoping that multiple exclamation marks would adequately take the place of elongation of the word. "Goblin tribes are raiding through the forests, and the birds say that they have roamed across the land, pillaging and stealing. The rats of the city say that they even have infiltrated the capital itself, spreading vileness and horror wherever they go!"
"… are we talking about the same goblins here?" asked the blonde lady Emmanuelle. "Short, smelly and stupid? Madam, goblins cannot infiltrate your average village if the inhabitants have a sense of smell, let alone the capital. Please, you're…"
But the old woman was not to be stopped. "And the trolls! They're coming down out of the northern mountains! And orcs maim and slay, bringing their evil magics and their vile hungers and terrible strength with them."
"It's summer. They do that every summer, when the crops are in the field. The roadwardens are meant to warn of them, so that they can be dealt with."
"Bandits disturb the land, and dragons fly overhead, a sight not seen in hundreds of years!"
"Uh… what?" the blonde asked, genuinely bemused. "Yes, we know a bloody dragon attacked the town, pardon my Gallian. Didn't you? And... when you say hundreds of years, if you're going to be like that, didn't the Dragon Knights put on a demonstration at the spring festival?"
"Maybe she's getting upset that a bunch of schoolchildren with their own dragon went and stopped the earthwyrm," the portly man suggested. "Countess, they were on our side."
"I think she has been feasting a little too heavily on the mushrooms of the forest," said the elderly councilman with snow white hair, to laughter. "Esmeraulde, you are embarrassing yourself and us. If you cannot stop with this… insanity, we will have to keep you away from the fete. We simply cannot have you making a fool of yourself in front of the Count de Mott, because that will look very bad. Very bad indeed."
"The forces of Darkness and Evil are on the move!" the old woman shrieked. "Already, tales are spreading of servant of the crown left callously discarded by the side of the road like used meat by… a great servant of darkness. Possibly even… a lord over darkness! The evil that stalks the land hungers for virtues and souls, and will not rest until all is defiled by its unclean touch, I'm telling you this!"
One of the audience members leapt to her feet. "That's not what happened!" a young girl protested – it was the one who had arrived late, in the black robe. The mayor did not approve of children nowadays, with their sombre black clothes and their tight breaches and their practice of dangerous dances like ballet, but he held his peace. "All that happened was that that... that she... that she, yes, some dark evil lady... took someone hostage for a short while! And then she released her, after putting her in a sack."
There were chuckles from some of the male members of the audience. "That's now what I heard," one of them, a red-faced gentleman in a broad hat said. "But you're probably too young to understand, little girl."
"Too young?" the black-robed girl snapped back.
"You don't want to know what evil women can be like; haven't you read the sermons of Pope Aegis X," a clergyman said. "They have dreadful wiles, yes. And from what I heard, the poor girl was left nearly naked when she was abandoned by the side of the road, after the terrible dark lady stripped her and – no doubt – did all kinds of terrible things." He adjusted his somewhat steamed-up glasses. "Decency prevents me from going into any further details," he added.
There was a noise not dissimilar to steam escaping from a kettle from the young girl.
"Please, please," the clergyman gestured. "Restrain your righteous anger. The ways of evil are many and detailed, and it is best that you remain ignorant of them, least you be drive to go and seek vengeance for them... and so fall into the very trap which Evil sets. Indeed, has it not been said that..."
The man in the hat tapped the priest on the shoulder. "She already marched out," he said.
The priest shook his head. "I will pray for her soul, such that she not find the evil she looks for," he said. "If such evil is already manifest, a young noble like herself will, at best, be traumatised by the horrors of evil women who – it is said – dress like men and cut their hair short and other such sinful things. At worst, she will begin to acquire their ways, and be drawn into temptation."
"I told you there was evil in the land!" the countess Emmanuelle cackled, the motion dislodging some bees from her hair. "Beware! Beware! Beware of the evil!"
The mayor sounded his gavel. "Order, order!" he commanded. "Now, now. There... there might have been an isolated incident of some petty dark figure attacking a lone woman, but... but that kind of thing happens everywhere! That's a dreadful shame, of course, and so we should set more guards to patrolling, but in the meantime, I think we should keep quiet about such things," he said meaningfully. "We do want to win the Town of the Year award, after all! Now, the Count de Mott will be arriving – in disguise, as is his way – some time late tomorrow, when the party is already underway. He said he wants to enjoy that, before he formally is welcomed to the town on the day after tomorrow, and..."
"The evil walks among us! It lurks in shadows and..."
"Please, countess, be quiet."
Shadows loomed long in the cavernous – albeit whitewashed – darkness of the throne room. Monstrous creatures played in the corners. In the pools of light cast by sulphurous torches, their true hideousness could be seen, as well as the fact that they really would put anything they could find on their heads.
Sprawled on the throne was a dark and evil figure clad in dark and evil steel armour, which she wore darkly and evilly. And in her sinister hand, she had a fork with a small piece of soft cheese impaled on it. With ophidian speed, suddenly it was in her mouth, and the fork was loaded with another piece. The overlady began to chuckle to herself, softly.
Gnarl coughed. "My lady," he said, "you said that you were going to explain the plan, and then got distracted by eating cheese."
Louise unhooked her leg from the arm of her throne, and sat up. "Do you know how wonderful it is to be wearing armour which isn't like a skirt?" she said, cheerfully. "I can sprawl! I can do things like sit sideways on a chair and not have to worry about immodesty! It's wonderful! How dare men keep this secret from women! I should go... go get myself a pair of tights and hosiery to wear, even when I'm not dressed like this!"
"Your evilness," Gnarl pleaded.
"Mmm?" Louise asked, with her mouth full.
"Mmmm. Mmmph mmph," she swallowed. "Oh yes. That." She coughed. "Oh, it's pretty simple. To start off, I'll need a barge, and... yes, if at all possible, one carrying alcohols, or maybe flour. Or large crates. And we'll need to get the coach out, and... where did you put my horses?"
"In horse-cupboard!" Maggat contributed from his position lounging by base of her throne.
"... right. Well. Um. If they're alive... what even is a horse-cupboard? No, I don't want to know! If they're alive, get them out, otherwise steal some more!" Louise's expression, such that could be seen under her helmet, turned grim, and she viciously impaled another cube of cheese. "And," she said, sticking it in her mouth, "they armph all goinmph to paym for this indimipy. The' wilp rue the damp dey ever crosmph..." she swallowed, "the day they ever crossed me and spread vile scurrilous rumours and laughed at me in public and nudged each other and... in fact, there's going to be so much ruing around I'll have to make sure to spare some for the Count de Mott!"
"Also, there is going to be pillaging, plundering, and other words I can't think of right now which also start with a 'p'. Because they are going to pay!"
There was celebration from the minions.
"That pretty good play on words there," Maximilian observed, "using two meaning of word 'pay'. Also, 'piracy' word that start with... oww!"
Maggat hit him over the back of the head again. "Less wordiness, more cheering!" he hissed.