The day preceding the banquet was excruciating work. All of the sentries had been seconded to the labourers, lugging furniture or equipment up the hill to the Previous castle. This was in full dress uniform, to present a smart face to the Drakhan, as mandated by the Celcus with more than a hint of Marcia's involvement. Part of the uniform was tall boots, one of which now stretched over Aesara's false leg. It made walking that bit more difficult. It made walking up a hill lugging a heavy box of ancient Elder writings downright painful.
A back room in the castle had been given over as a store room for the university. It led into what was currently a bare room that Celcus had designs on turning into a museum celebrating the university's work over the years. Something to make self-centred small talk with the Drakhan high command over canapés and fine wines.
Aesara couldn't help but shudder as she entered the Previous castle for the first time in almost two decades. While she had never visited the rooms they were in now – reserved as they were for presenting an acceptable face to visiting dignitaries - they were enough to stir memories of what lay below in the bowels of the building. Of the horrors that had occurred down there. She didn't know how Pyrrho made it look so easy, as the small man fluttered among the university stores and groups of workers, sharing a joke or slyly poking fun at the nearby Drakhan. He was also, unbeknownst to Aesara, trading information and instructions with the group of soldiers that had accompanied Marcia and himself from Fortunestone. They had come to the Drakhan base in various guises, but mainly as labourers for the merchants of the nearest village and source of supplies for the Drakhan.
Marcia had left the labourers behind to become Celcus' personal event planner. She was wandering about, looking entirely in her element, giving out instructions, berating any perceived slackening in the quality of food preparation or room decoration. She had more latitude to also mingle with the Drakhan, seeking clarification of where what elements of the banquet were to be held where. This formed a useful opportunity to speak with Volk, the big man in his patched up trousers stood guard over the Drakhan contribution to the event; barrels of wine and other drinks along with various delicacies from around the recently conquered lands. Perhaps he had not managed to work his way into guarding whatever lay in the depths of the building where the real secrets were to be found, but a potentially useful position all the same.
The day drew on and Aesara became, if not comfortable, then accepting of her position and task. The three of them had spent much of the previous night planning what they would do once they were at the banquet. They need to get to him, the master of this chaos, the orchestrator of the dangerous new wave of dark technologies. Perhaps they would need to eliminate his disastrous influence, or perhaps they could just destroy the research and save the seven counties. They needed answers, and tonight they would either find them, or die trying. Death would be preferable to Aesara than a fresh capture, and she suspected the same was true for Pyrrho, despite his confident outward demeanour.
By early evening the preparations were complete. Aesara stood in the line of sentries that formed a guard of honour up to the front of the castle. She'd cursed the dress uniform earlier as uncomfortably restricting and too hot in the late summer sunshine. However now she was glad of the warmth it provided as the shadows lengthened and wind picked up. They were kept waiting for close to an hour, but eventually she could see the small precession start to wind its way up the hill from the university camp below them. A slightly larger sized group of senior Drakhan moved to meet them at the gateway to the grounds that the Previous castle stood on, the two groups pausing to animatedly chat, laughter shared. They then headed towards Aesara's guard, itself now flanked by smartly dressed Drakhan infantry who had more sensibly waited inside while the various dignitaries got their acts together. Volk gave her an uneasy wink from across the way that Aesara returned with a nervous smile. Aesara's Drakhan admirer from when she had tracked down Onatas gave them both dirty looks.
The mixed high council and senior Drakhan delegation slowly made their way through the guard of honour. Pausing from time to time to exchange a word with a familiar face, or issue a patronising comment on how well turned out everyone was. Celcus himself had stopped in front of Aesara, looked like he was going to say something before thinking better of it and moving on. Did he suspect something? Would he betray them? Aesara's imagination ran wild with speculation, she had to force herself to breath more slowly.
With the delegation disappearing inside, the massed ranks of sentries and Drakhan filed over to the side of the building where Maria was dictating the final order of events. Some of the sentries were to act as attendants to the guests, but most, including Aesara were on background duties. Pouring trays of drinks, plating meals and various other menial duties. Aesara did not mind too much, it kept her busy ahead of the final move. Over the way she saw Volk slip into the drinks storage tent, package in hand.
Pyrrho drew close to her as she arranged cuts of meat on a pewter tray.
“How do we stand?” he asked in a conversational tone; had he started whispering conspiratorially it would have stood out. As it was the din of the preparation area was more than enough to keep anyone else from listening over them.
“Volk has delivered your special brew. I've got the mugs arranged ready. Still think this is an overly dramatic way of doing things. Thought you were more about the subtle manoeuvring?” she didn't look up, instead contracting on arranging the food stuffs.
“Normally am. But the toast is the only time when most of the Drakhan grunts will also take a swig. We don't have enough people to overwhelm them otherwise”
“The gossip is that the Overlord will attend the toast”
“Not like you to engage in camp tittle-tattle” Pyrrho smirked at his sister's slow entrance into his own world of intrigue “But it's be good if he did. Make a grab for him and get out of here”
“We got enough people to break out?”
“Touch and go. Hope you're up for a scrap”
“As ever” Aesara growled
“Excellent” Pyrrho turned and left, Aesara looked up to watch him go.
“Good luck, dear brother” she said under her breath.
The ringing of a bell interrupted her sentimentality – an unusual emotion for Aesara – and she hurried back into the tent where the neat rows of mugs stood to attention like the gathering masses in the main hall would be. Marcia bustled into the tent.
“Right everyone, this is it, get pouring, we need to get this to them as soon as possible” she instructed. Volk clumped into the tent, barrels under both arms and large buckets carried in each hand.
“Get it while it's fresh” he said, attempting to mimic the light hearted voice of some market trader.
Aesara moved over and grabbed one of the buckets. She was immediately taken aback by the smell. The specific process of mulling the wine had been found in one of the oldest Elder manuscripts owned by the university. While the recipe yielded and almost unpalatable brew, it was considered a delicacy given its provenance. The strong taste and foul smell would also mask the extra ingredients Volk had added, a concoction well known to Pyrrho in his line of work, the ingredients gathered by the allies outside the camp as instructed by the notes Aesara smuggled out.
The recipe called for the brew to be drank quickly after pouring, less the full impact of the taste be lost. This was undesirable from both the point of view of keeping up the university's appearances - something admittedly Celcus would care about more than Aesara – and unmasking the bitter taste of the added ingredients.
Mugs topped up, Aesara grabbed a tray and headed over to the main hall. Volk followed with the other serving staff, Marcia alongside, although she did not deign to carry a tray. At the entrance Drakhan guards blocked their entrance.
“Out of the way” instructed Aesara “this needs to be distributed quickly”
The gruff Drakhan in front of her, the one that had groped her before sneered. “We're to take 'em in darlin' ” he said “The honour of the, er, toast, er, pertains to us” he stumbled over the unfamiliar words, obviously instructions from higher up the command chain. Aesara frowned.
“There a problem?” Marcia strode up to them
“He says the Drakhan get the honour of passing them out” Aesara nodded disdainfully at her Drakhan admirer.
“I've discussed this with your commander” Marcia said in an authoritative tone, although the following pause implied she was making up what had been discussed on the fly. “The honour is to be shared, half from the university, half you and your comrades.”
The Drakhan squinted at her “Commander Boots said that”
“Yes, the dear little man was very keen to be seen as fair, now come come, time to go in”
“But commander Boots is a woman”
“I was speaking figuratively, now hurry up you silly man”
“Alright” he said “But I'm takin' 'er tray” he nodded at Aesara “She don't deserve no honour”
Aesara looked to Marcia for guidance, who nodded. Aesara handed over the tray and watched the Drakhan go in, winking at her as he turned away.
Volk went to follow the Drakhan in, but had his way blocked by a squat man in a lieutenant's uniform. “Not you fatty” he said in a sneering tone “You've got orders to go guard that stupid museum” and with that he snatched away Volk's tray.
“It makes no difference” Marcia said after the Drakhan had disappeared inside. “Might even serve us well not to be at the scene of the crime”
“Something not right though” said Aesara, soldiers instinct for trouble shouting at her.
“That's just pre-performance nerves speaking” Marcia attempted to make light, although her own instincts were also urging caution.
“Madam Marcia” they were interrupted by a squeaky voice, one of the camp messenger boys tugged at Marcia's robes.
“What is it?” she asked briskly
“One of the displays in the museum..” he squirmed under Marcia's angry gaze “...it got knocked down, labourer Olbas did it” the latter confession said at rapid pace, the messenger then taking off at a sprint lest he be grilled further.
“Olbas is a clumsy oaf” Marcia grumbled, setting off for the temporary museum.
Aesara took long strides to catch up “Does such a triviality matter right now?” she urged
“We keep up the pretence till the objective is complete. Makes denial easier if things go wrong”
They caught up with Volk along the way, who had set off for his new guard duty as instructed. Aesara made eye contact with him as they drew level, trying to see if he too shared her concerns. He didn't hold her gaze, instead played nervously with the mean looking mace at his hip.
Inside the space set up as the museum was chaos. Labourers, sentries, kitchen staff all bustled about. Most in some state of confusion. Marcia went to survey the damaged exhibit, but Pyrrho soon took her place at Aesara's side.
“We going to make a move soon?” she asked her brother “I don't like this waiting”
“Patience sister, the brew will take a little time to work its magic. For now we keep....busy” he stopped, looking about quickly. Face falling as realisation dawned.
“What's wrong?” Aesara was quick to pick up on the change in mood.
“The people here” Pyrrho continued to look about
“What about them?” Aesara also began to look around, but could see nothing odd about them.
“I know them all”
“Shit, we've been betrayed. Aesara, get out” he pushed her towards a door, signalling to Marcia over the other side of the room to do the same.
Aesara still didn't follow, but complied all the same, her brother's tone signalling fear and urgency. It took a few seconds for them to get through the throng of people and across to the main doors.
Just as they slammed shut.
Aesara banged and kicked at them, but the heavy wood, iron framed, offered no give. She turned back to the room, searching for another exit. Then she saw Pyrrho, who was looking up at the balcony. The balcony now filling with Drakhan military, each carrying a version of the weapon Volk had fallen foul of back in the hamlet. She saw the big man cower by one of the exhibits as he saw the same thing.
The crowd in the museum fell silent. All of Pyrrho and Marcia's small force of soldiers come infiltrators in the same place. Someone had known their secret. That someone entered the balcony above them all. He wore all black, culminating in a large black hood that hung low over his forehead. There was now little natural light in the room, but what there was picked out wrinkled skin and sagging jowls.
He spoke in a horse voice, tired almost, resigned. “Aesara, Pyrrho. I believe we need to talk”
The two siblings first looked at each other, then back to the man.
“Yes, father” they said as one.