A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

3.07 – Vectigal et Exitus {The Toll for Leaving}

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***

The cart wobbled and bumped, just as uncomfortable as it had been a few days ago when they’d tested their escape. It had been slow then, but it seemed even slower now. Frederica sat closest to the back, carrying her Rhetorguard armor and Elena’s Rhetor mask in a bag at her feet. Occasionally she would push a strand of floppy brown hair from her eyes, and Elena was surprised at how calm she could be.

It felt like such a short time ago that “Maple” had exploded at the slightest provocation back at Studio De Luca. Now it seemed that the more stressful and chaotic the situation around her, the calmer and more intent Frederica seemed.

On the other side of the cart from Elena, Belloza bounced up and down along with the cart, a grin on her face. Now that Elena thought about it, her Sagittara friend had been grinning after they assassinated Lord Waldren as well. The act of killing didn’t seem to bother her the way it gnawed at Elena’s stomach, and that fact itself worried her.

There was a lot to be worried about.

In the middle of the cart, the Echos Fred, Bello, and Ele all sat with their legs entangled and passing through their Stormtouched’s, their expressions varying degrees of their standard neutrality.

Owl and Emerald sat up front, casually and unhurriedly driving the cart to the walls as they’d been seen to do every day for the past week. It was strange to Elena how her heart still pounded, even though she couldn’t remember killing…whoever it was she was supposed to kill.

“You’re sure I killed one of the Twisted, in there?” she asked again, quietly, “not just Lady Adalberta, but one of the Twisted?”

“I’m one hundred percent sure,” Ele avoided Elena’s gaze, “I don’t think I’m going to forget that scene any time soon. That hammer did…did a lot of damage.”

“I’m sure I don’t want to remember the aftermath,” Elena said, “but it worries me only being able to remember the unimportant details.”

“It is only natural that a Storm which deals with memory is going to behave strangely,” Owl murmured without turning. His voice was so low that it was hard to pick up over the rattle of the cart, but Elena would prefer that to risking being heard by the crowds of Rimians that streamed around it. “I’m not surprised that something strange happened when the source of that Storm was suddenly cut off.”

“I’m convinced that’s the only reason this is going so well,” Bello said, “you should tell us when you remember what happened, Elena, that will give us an indication of when the other Rimi Lords realize that you killed two of theirs, not one.”

“Don’t look at me like that, Bello,” Belloza whispered, “the Twisted lady had a special Storm, I can’t be blamed for accidentally killing someone else.”

“The assassination of one of the council is no small thing, Belloza,” Bello said.

“I’m not pretending that it is…but who knows, in certain circles it might pay off to be known as the assassin who has now killed three Lords.”

“Either way, killing Lady Adalberta wasn’t part of the plan,” Bello looked away from Belloza, focusing instead on the back of the cart, “if Elena is any indication, we might’ve been able to simply walk out of the city. You put them on alert with your extracurricular assassination.”

“We’ll still be alright. We didn’t plan on the Twisted lady’s death going unnoticed, so the plan doesn’t change,” Owl said. “We’ll get through the walls whether they’re alert or not.”

The plan does depend on Emerald being able to talk us through the walls, though, Elena thought. It was yet another worrisome factor, whether or not the Twisted Lady had taken steps to keep Rhetor from talking their way out of the city.

She tried to console herself with the fact that it would’ve been inconvenient for the Twisted to make everyone in the city impervious to Rhetors’ Storms, and Emerald had already been able to gain a job on the walls using her Storm. Still, it only took one piece of bad luck, one guard on the wall who couldn’t be Rhetor’d, and her group’s escape would be cut short.

“We’re here,” Owl said.

Bello, Ele and Fred slipped through the walls of the cart and into the crowd as Frederica, Belloza, and Elena climbed out. Some people had seen them get into the cart near the palace, some people had seen the cart move through the streets, and some people saw them exit the cart now, but that was better than leaving a trail of witnesses. The fewer people who could talk about the group moving from the palace to the walls on the day the Twisted Lady was killed, the better.

Which she was, probably, Elena reminded herself for the hundredth time. Every time I left the castle and her influence, the blank spots left my head. If she wasn’t dead, the blank spot would’ve left my head. Unless she’s stayed with me this whole time and is here with us right now.

The thought only deepened the ugly pit of fear in her stomach.

“Not long left,” Ele said with an encouraging smile, “we’re almost through.”

“Open up,” Owl affected a weary tone when he spoke, “I’m off early today.”

Elena looked up at the walls of the city. They towered so high that she had to crane her neck to see their tops, and were so thick that there were entire rooms on the inside. In front of the cart was the large portcullis that separated the city from the inner room of the wall, and from there only one more gate would separate them from the outside. On either side of the portcullis, two guards stood at attention, although.

“It’s not your day off until next week,” the large guard on the right replied, crossing his arms over his chest.

“So I’m shirking for a day,” Owl shrugged, “what are you going to do, Gobb, report me to my supervisor?”

Gobb placed one hand casually on top of the crank that would open the gates, hooking the other into his belt. “Maybe I will. Maybe some of us are tired of your attitude, Tarcisio.”

Inside, Elena practically shook with a desire to leave. Her instincts were to tap her foot, to glance over her shoulder, to move in some way. The gates in the walls were criss-crossed iron, and she could look through both of them to see the open plains beyond the city.

As desperate as she felt, she tried not to let her emotions show. If they wanted to bother ‘Tarcisio’, displaying how much they wanted to leave would only give them more ammunition.

“Tired or not, it’s your job to open the gate for the cart when it comes,” Owl snapped, “so why don’t you mind your business and do your job?”

“Ah, now we all need to do pitch in and do our job,” Gobb smirked, “so different than a few seconds ago. So different than all the times you feel like chatting with Penelope instead of doing your job.”

Owl pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Inividen ama infirmata, I’m too good an actor,” he muttered under his breath, before speaking again. “Gobb, if you want Penelope she’s all yours. But your job is-“

“Not my job to let your little friends through the gates,” Gobb crossed his arms, “they want to get through, they can use the southern gate like everyone else.”

Emerald interrupted to suggest that Gobb stop being difficult and let the group pass.

“Alright, alright, I’ll let you all pass,” Gobb grumbled, “just remember that you owe me, Tarcisio, yeah?”

“Hang on,” the other guard spoke up for the first time, looking back and forth between Gobb and Emerald, “hold just one moment…”

Emerald opened her mouth, but before she could speak, a voice broke out in the crowd behind them.

“Elena? Elena, is that you over there?”

Elena didn’t turn. There wasn’t a single person she could think of who should know her in Rimi, let alone recognize her with short cropped hair.

“Get us through, now,” she hissed.

Emerald ordered Gobb to let them through the gate as fast as he could. The man’s eyes widened, and he practically threw himself on the gate crank, almost wrenching his arms as he started opening it..

“Gobb, what’s the matter with you?” the other guard half-drew his sword, hesitant but alarmed.

“Elena Lucciano, that’s definitely you. You can turn around, I see you,” the voice called. It was far away, almost lost in the noise of the crowd, but it was approaching.

Emerald turned to the second guard, eyes flashing, and ordered him to go keep the person calling ‘Elena’ from approaching. As the man ran off, drawing his weapon all the way, Gobb ratcheted the crank higher, and the little group rushed into the small room.

Owl kicked at the lever on the inside, and the gate fell with a crash behind them, leaving them safe inside. The room was much bigger on the inside than the gate would lead one to believe, large enough for a whole row of carts, stairs up to the second level, and a small stable with a few horses.

With a heavy portcullis between her and whoever had recognized her, Elena felt safe enough to turn to survey the scene they had left behind.

Gobb stood awkwardly on the other side, wobbling slightly as if he was drunk and struggling to regain his balance. He straightened suddenly, and his eyes lit up.

“Elena Lucciano?” he said.

“Open the other gate,” Elena said to her friends, not breaking the guard’s gaze. She had never encountered Gobb until today, hadn’t heard Owl speak of him, and somehow he knew her. Were the cities circulating news about her?

“Oh, it’s definitely you alright,” Gobb breathed, “you’ve messed up your hair, but I’d recognize that face of yours anywhere. It’s good to see you.”

Behind her, Elena heard Owl cranking the lever that would slowly raise the outer portcullis and allow them to escape, but she furrowed her brow, distracted by what Gobb was saying.

“Honestly, when I pictured this moment I really hoped we’d have the time to talk for a bit,” Gobb said, good-naturedly, “but I can see you’re in a bit of a rush, so that sadly isn’t in the cards. A shame.”

He drew a knife from his belt and flicked it into the air with a practised toss, catching the blade tip between his fingers. With another smooth motion he drew his arm back, so casually that Elena realized too late that he was about to throw it directly at her, through the bars.

For the third time in the day, Elena heard the “click” and “hiss” of Belloza’s crossbow, and before she could connect what she was hearing, a feathered bolt sprouted from Gobb’s armpit.

The knife fell with a clatter, and Gobb snarled a long string of curses through his teeth, clutching at the bolt.

“Elena,” Owl said, “the gate is open.”

“Cart,” Elena said, eyes still locked on Gobb. There were several of the carts along the inside of the room, but they had to wait for an agonizing few moments while Owl and Emerald took one of the horses and began hitching it to the closest.

A hired assassin from the Twisted? But why would they hire a city guard? What if I had left by another gate, or when this guard wasn’t working?

“I was expecting your group to be as hesitant to harm as you are,” Gobb finally gasped, “you’re not afraid of making enemies, are you crossbowlass?”

“I’ve made worse,” Belloza said cooly, keeping her crossbow trained on him through the bars.

Gobb gave a chuckle, then winced and leaned against the bars, “I really hope you find out how true that is before you die. The dramatic irony is wonderful.”

“Tarcisio?” the voice was small and hesitant, but it drew the attention of everyone in the little room.  Penelope, the girl who worked with Owl and Emerald at the wall, stood at the top of the stairs. Her gaze moved back and forth across the scene, from Owl and Emerald hitching the horse to the cart, to Belloza aiming her crossbow at the portcullis, to Gobb who leaned against the gates, clutching his armpit with a bleeding fist. “What…what’s going on?”

“Penelope…” Owl said, then hesitated, still working to hitch the horse. “…this probably looks a little strange to you.”

“It looks…it looks like you’re murdering guards and stealing a cart,” Penelope whispered. Without waiting for an answer, she pulled a short knife from her belt, but she looked more likely to drop it and run than she was to actually use it.

“It’s more complicated than that, Penelope,” Owl said, calmly, “my friend here has people after her who want to hurt her, and she has something rather important that only she can do.”

“Your..’friend’?” Penelope trailed off, looking down and picking at the handle of her knife. Owl didn’t answer, but he signalled the others that the cart was ready. Elena cast a glance from Gobb, who gave her a smile and a wink as he leaned against the gate, then another at Penelope, biting her lip and watching Owl with wide eyes.

“Move the cart in place, I’ll keep an eye on Gobb and leave last,” Belloza said.

“Pull the chain off of the crank on the way out,” Owl climbed into the driving seat, “they won’t be able to follow for a while.”

“I…I have to stop you, Tarcisio,” Penelope ventured.

“You won’t do that, Penelope,” Owl said, looking up to meet the girl’s gaze for the first time. “Even now, you trust me. You know I’m doing what I have to.”

“I do,” Penelope whispered.

Omnes deos salvum,” Gobb chuckled weakly, “I had no idea. None at all. We were all so worried about how dangerous you were…but you’re not dangerous at all, are you? You’re just lucky.”

Elena, Frederica and Emerald jumped into the back of the cart, while Owl clucked at the horse to start moving, navigating the cart’s way to the portcullis.

“Sometimes being lucky is all you need,” Belloza said with a grin.

“Funny thing about being lucky instead of skilled…luck runs out…” Gobb trailed off and slumped against the gate, his expression suddenly blank.

Something is wrong. The instinct wasn’t the Storm’s information, but Elena could feel the ice in her gut without knowing what exactly she was sensing.

“Elena, something’s happening,” Ele echoed her sentiments, and Elena jumped from the back of the cart and then paused, not sure what to do from there.

“Belloza,” she said, “get out of-“

Elena had been so focused on Gobb that she almost missed it. While the guard still stared through the gate, looking bewildered, out of the corner of her eye Elena saw Penelope move. The girl flicked her knife in the air and caught it in a backward grip, and then without a moment of hesitation hopped the stairs’ railing, and launched herself off of it.

The moment happened so fast, and yet the scene froze itself into Elena’s mind. The young girl, flying through the air in a twelve-foot drop with a knife in her hand, a grin on her face. Belloza a few steps away, still aiming her crossbow at the guard and only now turning her attention to the new threat.

A few steps, but too far away to help.

Elena was already rushing toward her when the girl landed.

Penelope landed on Belloza knees-first, slamming the knife straight down through the Saggitara’s left shoulder. The force of the impact sent both girls to the floor, with a sound like dropped bags of flour and cracking branches.

Elena slammed her arm into Penelope’s chest and tackled her off of Belloza. It was far too late to do any good, and Belloza was screaming, Bello was yelling, the others were making startled exclamations and shouted warnings. Elena almost shut her eyes as the chaos around her buzzed in her head, images of Arta flickered in front of her, and Penelope laughed and laughed in her ear.

No. Focus.

Elena opened her eyes again and shoved Penelope to the ground, holding her down on her back with one hand and pinning the wrist of her knife hand to the ground with the other. The girl’s legs were twisted at awkward angles, and Elena realized with a jolt that they were both broken from the fall.

“Please tell me she’s alive,” Elena said.

“She’s alive,” Owl replied at once, his clipped tone indicated that the situation was still grave.

Vivus et calcitrosus,” Belloza whimpered, “gods this hurts.”

The knife still stuck out of her shoulder, buried up to the hilt, and blood slowly stained her entire blouse. Each breath she took had a slight wheeze to it, and Elena remembered what Master Asclepius had said about damage to the lungs.

“Get her onto the cart,” Elena ordered, before turning back to Penelope. The girl craned her head to watch Elena’s friends, a small smile playing around her lips.

“Aaw, all your friends are Stormtouched, no fun,” Penelope pouted, “I guess I’m done for the day.”

“Penelope why would you…who told you…” Elena struggled to formulate a question, while Penelope leaned back and looked up at Elena with the same small smile.

“Gods you look so much uglier without the puzzle pieces,” Penelope said, “there are so many ways I’m going to make a much better queen than you.”

Elena glanced from Penelope to Gobb, who still looked dazed and confused slumped by the gate with a bolt in his armpit, and the pieces finally came together in her had.

“Fulvio,” she whispered.

Penelope dropped the knife and wiggled her bloody fingertips in a little wave. “I probably could’ve killed you instead of your crossbow friend,” she said, “but I wanted to give you a little taste of your own medicine. It’s not much fun, having your friends slaughtered around you, is it? Who would’ve thought?”

“You failed at that, she’s alive,” Ele snapped.

“Not for long,” Penelope said, “and now you can blame yourself while you watch her die.”

“When I come for you,” Elena said, clenching her fists,”you’re going to regret not taking your shot at me when you had the chance.”

“Please,” Penelope scoffed and rolled her eyes, “I hunted you down in barely a day, and all Coastering told me was the city you were in, I doubt you’ll be able to run very far by tomorrow. We’ll be meeting again very soon, Elena”

“Tie her legs, we need to go,” Owl was suddenly at Elena’s side, pressing a length of cord into her hands. He moved to tie Penelope’s wrists together, not meeting her gaze as he did so. Elena gingerly pulled the twisted broken limbs together, but the girl didn’t give any indication that she noticed. Instead, Penelope looked up at Owl.

“Hello,” she said, smiling sweetly, “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”

Owl frowned and pulled the cord tighter around her wrists.

“Oooh, but you’ve been introduced to the girl I’m wearing, haven’t you?” Penelope’s eyes flashed mischievously, “do you like her?”

“We’ve been introduced now,” Owl said, “so I can feel even less guilt in helping kill you.”

“You did like her!” Penelope chuckled, then cocked an eyebrow. “Do you want her now? You could untie me and the two of us could spend some time together…”

“You’re disgusting,” Owl rose, and helped Elena to her feet and toward the cart.

“Just checking the loyalty of your group, Lucciano, don’t mind me,” Penelope called.

The cart shuddered slightly as it started through the gate, wobbling Belloza in her place on the floor of the cart, provoking a little groan from her.

Fulvio watched them through Penelope’s eyes until the cart vanished out of sight.

***

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2 responses

  1. Mmm. Shouldn’t Elena be wearing her mask? And Frederica her armour? Or did they somehow manage to hide their job from the people at the gates?

    Fulvio’s scary :< And I just hope Belloza is fine ;w;

    Liked by 1 person

    2016-08-21 at 11:35 pm

  2. Bart

    the calmer and more intent Frederica seemed.
    Change intent to intense.

    Wow. Now the spy master knows what transportation she was taking, what directing they were heading, when they left, and can jump from person to person.

    I don’t really see Elena getting away from this.

    Like

    2016-08-22 at 12:27 am

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