CHAPTER 24 - LADY BIANCA SAYDE

Sunny yet cold.

Fayte pulled the blanket over his head and when it still felt bright, he tucked his head under the pillow and squeezed his eyelids shut. For a good while he just lay on the bed, relaxed and rested, yet wanting just a little bit more time in bed.  

This is not my bed. He began to rouse. I am not in Rondiar.

He knocked the pillow away and kicked the blanket off. The room was empty. This was where he had spoken with the agent. His fingers went to the cut on his left cheek when he saw a dagger stabbed into the table. A broken candle lay beside the blade. He drugged me with just a cut. Fayte got up and looked around him. The bed opposite of his had its blankets folded neatly, but differently from the blankets on the other two beds. Wilson had slept in that bed.

Emily.

Downstairs the inn had its tables pushed back to the centre. The night before this place was filled with frightened people. Now customers were seated around tables with mugs of ale and plates of food in front of them. A man behind the counter, the innkeeper most like, looked at him and only nodded. Fayte nodded in return as he fastened his sword to his belt and slung his shield behind him. After he tossed the old cloak on himself, he went up to the innkeeper.

The man placed a plate of stale bread and cheese in front of him.

"Eat," he said. "Then you shall know where your friend is."

So Fayte ate and he ate eagerly. He had not realized how hungry he was, asking for seconds and then thirds, gulping down mugs of juice. When the cold still bothered him, the innkeeper gave him a mug of ale and Fayte drank it all, feeling the liquid sear down his throat. The bitterness of the alcohol made him cough but at least he felt warmer now.

He noticed the man sitting beside him staring. The man had a mane of unkempt hair, black and dry, laying over his back and covering his face in a curly mess. Fayte said nothing when the man turned away and raised his mug to his mouth, drinking a large mouthful. He was looking at my sword. And this man had a sword of his own as well albeit a very old one.

"Thank you," he told the innkeeper. "Now about my friend."

"Head out, turn right, go up the road until you see a shop surrounded with potted plants." The innkeeper was busy wiping plates and pouring more drinks. "Your nose will know you are there before your eyes tell you."

Eres Star City was very much different in day. The streets were crowded with people and merchants with their stores set up along the road. Carts were being pulled about by horses and donkeys, and false knights were walking about as if they owned the place. Fayte followed the directions he was given and went up the road.

There are no children and with this many people, this city is strangely quiet.

The sun shone on his face and the warmth was welcomed. His breath frosted faintly but the cold was tolerable now. The people of Eres Star City seemed very reserved, afraid even. No one dared say anything unless necessary. There were no gossiping between women and merchants were just standing there, looking out of place and lost unless they had a customer. When they spoke they did so in hushed voices, most not at all, only trading coins with goods with the merchants. No one was trying to haggle.

After walking for a few minutes, Fayte smelled a wild scent like hot pepper. He went on up the road until he found the shop surrounded with potted plants. Flowers of myriad colours bloomed all over the shop. There were as many brightly coloured plants as there were earth-toned roots and stalks. A herbalist's shop. He understood why Wilson was here now.

"Stay warm and covered," Wilson said, patting an old man on the back. They were inside the store, sitting on a bench in front of a table with grounded herbs and satchels laid out. Bits of leaves and dirt were scattered all over the floor in a mess. "Boil soup with squares of onions and rounds of turnips. Keep off meat for two days, three if the coughing persists."

"Thank you, good priest, thank you," the man said, digging out a few pieces of copper from his-

"Please," Wilson said, pushing his hands away. "There is no need. Save them for yourself."

Fayte could not tell if the old man was nodding or shaking. He stepped aside and let the man leave the shop. Wilson smiled at him without cheer and gestured for the next person to come in. A mother and a little girl entered the shop. Fayte watched silently as Wilson placed his hand on the little girl's chest, listening to her wheeze as she breathed. First the diagnosis - Wilson's hand began to glow white - then the healing. His instructions were the same.

"How are you feeling?" Wilson asked.

"Rested with a dreamless sleep and a broken nose." Fayte felt his nose before he corrected himself. "A recently healed broken nose. What about you?"

Wilson only smiled a little. "A few bruises and cuts are nothing." He gestured for the next patient to take a seat.

Fayte told him about his discussion with the agent last night.

"I have an aunt stationed here," Wilson told him, waving at Preston to bring him a potted herb. "Might be she's still around."

An aunt. Fayte knew about this aunt of his for she was a knight of the Order. However her relationship with Wilson and Amelia was... strained.

"I will watch for her when I'm at the City Watch," he said, and Wilson only nodded.

This lady Wilson was now seeing had a festering wound and a fever. He had to cut out the rotten skin while Preston healed it with his white flames. A woman looking to be in her late sixties entered the shop and packed a satchel of herbs, which she then gave to the lady's husband. She told him how to prepare the herbs and how often to give it to his wife, accepting no payment as Wilson had done earlier.

"This is your friend?" the woman asked, her skin wrinkled and dry.

There were stands of white in her hair that was tied up behind her and held back with a head sash. Looking into her eyes, Fayte could not help but feel that he had guessed her age wrong. There was youth in her eyes and Fayte also noticed an absence of trust. Wilson nodded. The woman said nothing more and went out of the shop again to tend to her herbs.

"Who was that?" Fayte asked, sitting down.

"The closest thing this city has to a healer." Wilson got up and helped an old man sit down.

The boy accompanying him was hardly ten. He told Wilson that his grandfather had been coughing badly for the past week. Many times his cough would choke him and his grandfather would start spitting blood. That one glance Wilson then gave to Fayte sank his heart.

This old man is dying.

Wilson eased the old man by pouring some of his energy into him. He then gave him a satchel of herbs for the cough before he turned the little boy and asked, "Where are your parents?" He didn't get an answer. The little boy only asked if that was all and Wilson nodded before he led his grandfather out of the shop.

"If that old man had seen a healer sooner…" Wilson shook his head, sighing as he scratched Preston under the chin. "When the agent said that the Underlord does nothing out of kindness, I believe it to be untrue. Just look at what I was asked to do."

I agree… "He was just trying to scare me."

"Yes," Wilson agreed. "It is past time you leave. I can be here for days and still there will be sickness."

"Right." Fayte got up and started to leave when Preston yelped and turned around, shaking his back at them.

Wilson understood, opening up Preston's bag to pull out his tome. He reached back into the bag and from it took out a small vial encased with a steel wire frame. It was about the size of Fayte's palm and as thin as a finger. The liquid inside glowed white and yellow, alternating between colours.

Fayte gasped when he realised what it was, but Wilson shook his head.

"A fabrication," he told Fayte. "This is not Dragon Essence, but it will grant strength for a few hours. If Emily had been starved to keep her from escaping…"

"…or if Captain Resfield needs it to fight."

Wilson nodded.

"Beware," Wilson warned him, "exhaustion will take the user once the potion wears out."

"I'll keep that in mind. Stay safe, my friend." Fayte slipped the vial into a pocket on his tunic. He patted Preston on the head. "Thanks for the potion."

The white dragon bore his teeth at him and snarled, attempting a smile of some hideous sort.

Eres Star City was a mighty city in ages past. Five towers loomed over the city like the old, dying trees in the Evertall forest. Roofs were missing from three of the towers and entire faces of the towers were knocked open. These were remnants of a time when peace in Hylan was but a dream. Once before Eres Star City was a wealthy city, crowded and filled with life even though the cold was harsh. Being this near to the Templars made the people warm enough.

Fayte made his way through different streets that looked to be in only slightly better condition than the towers. There was no debris blocking paths but the walls were creeping with frostvines, and large gaping holes created by explosive magic were never filled in. King Danfred Greyblade had put up a good fight against the Great Evil, but his city was ultimately lost and he too was taken.

In the south-east of the city was where Fayte found the headquarters of the City Watch. It was a triple floored building made of stone blocks with wood-framed windows. Snow huddled in the crevices of the rocks wherever frostvines had not creep in. The blackwood doors were held by iron and above it was a white shield. Two soldiers stood guard outside, wrapped in thick wolfpelt cloaks, gripping their spears with their heads held low to keep their faces from the painful breezes.

"I seek audience with the Captain of the City Watch," Fayte said, raising his cloak to show them his shield.

"Name yourself," the soldier on the left said, his helm framed to his jaws so Fayte could hardly see his face.

"Fayte of the noble Kaywin family," he said. "May I pass?"

The soldier stared at him for a moment, wondering, until Fayte noted a glint of hope in his eyes before he let him through. They put their shoulders to the door and pushed. Cold winds rushed into the headquarter as Fayte stepped into a bright hall, lit with lumastones and warmed with torches and a blazing hearth. Portraits of past Captains hung from the walls with suits of armour guarding each beside them. The floor was clear for knights and soldiers to gather during briefings, a stage at the front for commanders to speak. To the right led to the feasting hall, Fayte saw, though he smelled no roast and heard no noise from the cooks. To the left was a stairway leading up to the second floor. It was where Fayte was told he could find the Captain's office.

This place is empty, Fayte noted the absence. Perhaps the men are upstairs sleeping. But headquarters were always noisy no matter what hour it was in the day or night. There would also be squires about, running errands for their knights, and pages as well doing chores with or sometimes for the servants. No servants about either.

The stairs led him to a corridor. Beneath his feet the wood felt firm unlike the inn. Fayte made his way across the corridor to the door at the end. Two swords were hung beside the door, a shield placed above it. On the door was a white plate carved with magic the words, 'Resfield Jonar'. Fayte noticed that the swords hung beside the doors were not the Order's swords. While knights were allowed to commission their own swords for their use, those used for displaying had to be of a certain kind, standard throughout Hylan. The ones his father hung beside his office had a hilt of white and silver, plainly carved and modest, for one should not desire to draw his blade.

With my sword as my honour, Fayte recalled the oath, I wield it only when I must.

Yet the ones hung beside Captain Resfield's doors were intricately carved, a hilt of silver and obsidian, shaped to be sharp and menacing. Obsidian was rare in Hylan for there was only one fire mountain located to the dark south. On the hilt, the black material weaved with silver seemed to stir beneath. The handle was bound with black leather, wire-framed with silver, and the pommel was fanged and pointed, going against the subdued roundness of the Order's standard sword. That was when Fayte realized how obvious where these swords had come from.

Templar's swords. He looked at the blade that shimmered in the hues of white and silver, with streaks of cobalt glancing off the edge at certain angles. And this is Eresteel.

The door swung open.

"Fayte?" his friend said.

"Hey, I never asked that you forfeit that fight," Fayte said, his eyes narrowed at the tip of the sword Jeremiah was pointing at his face.

"No you did not," Jeremiah said, putting away his sword before he clasped his hand with Fayte's. "It is good to see a friend at such desperate times."

"It is," Fayte agreed. And what desperation are you facing?

Jeremiah wore his hair down, swept over his grey shoulder guards. His face had a few scratches but they had long closed and scabbed. His friend was completely armoured unlike him, but what worried Fayte was that Jeremiah was not wearing a squire's armour.

"Either you've been in a fight," Fayte realized, grabbing Jeremiah by the shoulder, "or these are old cuts from the soldier who wore this armour before you."

Sadly his friend shook his head. "If I had worn our armour I would be long dead. Though I am slowed by the way it is forged, the plates on this armour grants far greater protection than the ones we are given for training."

A squire's armour was more weight than defence, aimed at increasing their endurance and strength as squires were not expected to fight for real at such a peaceful time.

"What's going on?" Fayte asked.

"I will explain, but first," Jeremiah stepped aside, "this is Lady Bianca, second-in-command of Eres Star City Watch."

Wilson's aunt sat behind the rosewood desk, half her face buried in her intertwined fingers. Her brown hair was longer than Jeremiah's, but dry from the cold and in need of a good brushing. She was examining Fayte, looking at him from head to toe. Lady Bianca Sayde was a battle-worn woman, having led a hard life since birth. The white armour she wore was dull, cracked, and frost was melting at different areas.

"Lady Bianca, this is Fayte Kaywin, son of-"

"The Lord-Knight," she said, her voice hoarse from all the years of commanding. "A wanted criminal."

Not again… "I am here to find the Princess," he told them. "You can take me once I have done that."

"Princess you say…" Lady Bianca murmured, leaning back against the seat but she looked no more comfortable for this was not her seat. "The city has been taken. A plague has struck us and the city is now quarantined, yet still the magister allows travellers to enter. The knights I've fought with are all taken and replaced with mercenaries. Now looters and bandits roam free in my city. I am lacking in men and the magister refuses audience with me."

Eres Star City is in a worse state than I thought.

"What is this plague that you speak of?"

"It is a sickness that causes weakness," Jeremiah told him. "Most of the people have been afflicted. It is also under this pretence that the knights were taken and the healers too. The magister claims they are sick and he means to keep them from spreading the plague."

"When did this began?" Fayte asked.

"The city was well when I left for Her Grace's party. Today marks a full week," he went on. "I was almost taken the moment I returned. The knights at the gate saw me with my shield and demanded that I surrendered. I knew they were not true knights so I resisted, got rid of them, and found Lady Bianca. Since then we have been trying to restore order to the city with the few loyal men we have."

"How many?"

"Eight," Lady Bianca said, her eyes tired. "Only enough to hold a street let alone a whole city."

"There are others but we cannot trust them," Jeremiah explained. "Some follow our orders but they perform their duties poorly. Others disobey orders outright and claim that they have their own orders from the new magister."

"Orson Reydar," Fayte said, something Jeremiah had not expected him to know.

The agent only instructed that he come to the headquarters, so Fayte told them what little he had learned from the agent and that-

"The Princess is here?" Lady Bianca shut her eyes and sighed, her head shaking. When before she had seemed intimidating, the woman now looked exhausted. "And in the hands of Saldarians no less."

"Have you tried sending for help?" Fayte asked, though he knew the answer already.

"Yes," Jeremiah explained, deeply troubled by the Princess's predicament. "We had nine loyal men before that."

"The Underlord is a cunning man," Lady Bianca said, pondering as she unrolled the map of the city in front of her. Fayte and Jeremiah went up to join her at the table. "So you're his key to getting the city back…"

"The agent approached you before," Fayte realized.

Lady Bianca nodded, glancing at Jeremiah who said nothing about being kept in the dark. "He offered me assistance in retaking the city, but he told me that I had to first find a way to gain audience with Orson Reydar. Failing that, he sent you to me."

 Father's seal. "The city is not my priority, Lady Bianca."

The lady knight smiled. "I know. Be that as it may, there is naught you can do about the Princess at this moment. We are now puppets of the Underlord and we must do as he, or his agent it would seem, tells us to."

"Why would the Underlord wish to help us?" Jeremiah asked. "He has nothing to gain."

"The Underlord is not an entirely bad person," she explained, looking at the map. "He too has his enemies and likely he is disturbed to see Saldarians in our kingdom. Let us pray that is his only reason for assisting us."

Fayte had been studying the map when he felt Lady Bianca's eyes on him.

"Leave this building," she told him. "The agent will contact you, I believe. Tell him what you must and do what he asks of you to ensure the safety of our Princess. The city is not your priority nor is it mine. It is the people who I wish to protect."

"Wilson is with the local herbalist," Fayte told her, fearing for his safety after hearing that the local healers were taken.

"Seek out the agent," she told him, betraying none of her emotions of Wilson's being here. "Jeremiah, make your way to the herbalist and guard my nephew."

"What about you?" Fayte asked.

Lady Bianca grinned. She pushed on the table and stood up, waving Jeremiah off when he moved to help her. The woman lifted her left thigh and placed it on the table. Beyond her knee there was only a stump wrapped with fresh linen.

"Why do you think I was not taken with the others?"