Read Part 1 here.
The man whirled her around into the light of a broken streetlamp. “Eleanor, you can’t keep this going. The charade has continued for too long.”
“And why can’t I?” Eleanor challenged. “It worked for the last seven years, so why not now?”
“For one,” the man started, “it wasn’t seven. Two, we’re up against larger forces. They’ve upgraded just as much as, if not more than, we have, not to mention the sheer size of their army. Out on the battlefield, it’s a score to one. We’re losing thousands of fighters and we have no way to stop such slaughter.”
“Okay, ten,” Eleanor amended. “And honestly, Aestus, you make it sound much worse than it really is. We’re not actually losing a score to one.”
“Okay, nineteen,” Aestus snapped sarcastically. “Nineteen to one, if that makes you happy. It’s still a whole lot of casualties.”
Eleanor sighed. “Any better ideas?” she asked waspishly, spreading her arms out in a gesture of submission.
“Whatever I come up with has to be better than what you have in mind,” Aestus hissed. “Your plan is insane.”
“It is not!” Eleanor retorted. “Crudelis never knew when I played acting commander, so I highly doubt Venenum will realize I’m the real princess.”
“Venenum is smarter, faster, more skilled, younger, more alert, has better technology, and overall is better than Crudelis ever was at killing you. You, the best fighter in Érdestré!” Aetus finished.
“I’ll get better,” Eleanor replied simply. “You can’t guarantee he’s better than me. After all, my teacher singlehandedly beat Venenum’s father.”
“Yet he found it incredibly difficult to teach you,” Aetus reminded her wryly.
Eleanor bristled in mock offense. “I was a perfectly fine student! He said so himself!”
“Mm, sure,” Aetus chuckled softly. “Go ahead, you think that in your fantasy world while I come up with a reasonable plan.”
Eleanor’s seriousness returned. “I can’t think of anything better.”
“We at least need a Plan B, a Plan C, a plan D, and so on,” Aetus complained. “What would happen if this backfired?”
“I have an emergency double,” Eleanor admitted. “In case something happens to me, she’s to fill in.”
Aetus groaned. “Do tell me it’s not–”
“Your charge?” Eleanor picked up his sentence. “I’m afraid it is. Roxy is the only one with same age, size, and the guts to pull it off.”
“I can’t have you putting her risk, Eleanor! No matter what you say, I’m still responsible for her.”
“I can’t say you’re doing a nice job, either,” Eleanor pointed out huffily. “She’s been gone for three weeks now and you haven’t yet noticed.”
“I have too,” Aetus defended himself untruthfully. “It’s why I agreed to come.”
“Sure,” Eleanor chortled in a perfect imitation of Aetus’s earlier laugh. “You keep thinking that in your head, while we train Roxy to fight Venenum well enough to get her out alive if need be.”
“She can’t handle this sort of stuff,” Aetus fretted, wringing his hands. “If something happens to you, what chance will she stands against those odds?”
“Aye, it’ll be challenging,” Eleanor agreed with a sad smile. “I do hope she won’t fall to pieces when Venenum forces her to murder someone. That’d be extremely unfortunate.”
“Was that supposed to make me feel better?” Aetus commented dryly.
“Quite obviously not,” said an icy voice behind them, and both whirled around.
“Venenum!” Eleanor gasped. “How–”
“Never mind that,” Venenum snarled. “I was looking for you and thought you were in trouble when you didn’t turn up for weeks. I finally tracked you to here, and what do I find? You fraternizing with the enemy.”Venenum’s face distorted until a mask of rage. “A spy, right under my nose! I guess I should have expected you to come up with something like this just to spite me, Eleanor… Or shall I call you Princess Eleanor?” He paused to mull it over. “Maybe I should call you Commander,” he smirked.
Eleanor scowled. “I knew you knew,” she spat irritably. “I just don’t know how.”
Venenum laughed, a hint of a cold tone in his voice. “It’s not hard to put two and two together, Eleanor. All around there’s news of the princess going missing, and you turn up at my doorstep sometime later and ask for a job! Your plan never would have worked, it was too foolish.”
“Don’t you think we’d had every detail scrutinized and every possible plan made?”
Eleanor knew she was taking a gamble, but hopefully Venenum hadn’t yet figured that out.
“Aye,” Venenum grinned, “you may or may not be telling the truth. I’ve decided, however, not to trust you, and I think I know how to foil every one of your plans.”
“How?” Aetus challenged, his voice quavering a little.
Venenum smiled even wider, his eyes glittering with cold malice. His voice dropped so low that they had to lean on to hear the whisper, and even then it was hard to hear.
“All of your plans need you in it, do they not?”
There was a single shriek throughout the silent Stone City before the streetlight flickered and went out.