The academy gates welcomed us when we returned with the flowers, and the commoners still indulged in a wasteful chore. The clouds had turned dark in our short detour, and chilly winds made me shiver despite my incessant clothing. The sparse commuters paused to look at the busy people within the gates before continuing their journey of life. Not that a few tens of years mattered in the undead age, but mortals always strived to live the best of their little lives.
You could say it makes us jealous if it helps you sleep at night. The undeniable fact is that you die, and we don’t.
Letitia grabbed the basket of flowers from my hand with a frown that hadn't disappeared since our short market stroll. I followed her silently as she pulled her cowl and removed her cloak. Yule had disappeared to do its surveillance or to complete whatever demonic tasks it had left undone.
“Commoner girl,” my lady called out, and she saw surprised glances from the women gathered around the entrance. They were briefly stunned at my lady’s appearance, but they knew not to stare at a noble’s face. Only scythes and swords awaited them otherwise.
The girl looked at me and then at Letitia before making her way to us uneasily. “This servant greets the noble one,” she kept her head low and bowed imperceptibly.
“Here are your flowers,” Letitia proffered the basket. “Don’t ask Rudolf to do your bidding in the future.”
“My apologies, noble lady,” she broke out in cold sweat, and her voice grew weak. She brought her hands together, accepted the flowers, and continued, “I didn’t know he was a nobleman.”
“Now you know,” my lady said. “He’s my bethr-”
I put my hand over her mouth and whispered in her ears. “Even if this girl can’t tell apart servants, the other people can, my lady. Are you trying to taint your reputation?”
Letitia bit my palm softly and pulled my hand away. “I know what I am doing!” She glanced at me, aggrieved, before turning to the girl, “I heard you know how to bake.”
“I’ve been versed in the skill since young, noble lady,” her face regained color, and her voice appeared chirpy. “I have worked in many taverns and bakehouses, so they can attest to my skills. None in the capital, though…”
“Did you get kicked out of them?” my lady asked. She had become very tolerant in the past few weeks. Was I to be blamed?
“Ah…” her gaze wandered between us before she sighed. “My brother… he keeps creating problems for me. Bad company, he says, but every time? I hardly believe him anymore. All the while, our mother has been taking care of the aftermath, but she is dead now. I was thinking of working in Bayle’s confectionary until I met… ” She looked at me, searching for my name.
“Rudolf,” My lady said. “Bake some bread for him tomorrow. If you manage to impress him, I’ll hire you. We are planning to open a confectionery store soon, so we need good bakers. Also, he is not a marriage candidate if you are looking for one. He is taken.”
I chuckled as I ruffled my lady’s hair.
An explosion in the distance pulled my attention, and I glanced at my lady, who gave me a perceptible nod after returning my cloak.
I rushed toward the marketplace before turning to an alley. With a dagger, I cut my forehead and forged a mask that stuck close to my face. Yule was out there, so I ran in haste. Capturing a demon hound was not a mortal-level task, but there were too many powerful mages hidden under the surface.
I climbed the roof blithely and used [Frist Step], dropping some tiles on my landing. A few commoners from the market plaza managed to get me into their sight, but I looked nothing short of an apparition.
There was havoc in the central square.
I jumped down the roof close to the pit. Yule was standing beside it, watching a ten feet hole vigilantly. The debris had created enough disturbance to get a clear view of anything beneath. A few hands and legs were littered around, disjoint from the bodies. Bloodied streets had many emptying their stomachs. The aftershock had destroyed edifices around the vicinity, and fragments of the houses had tumbled to the streets.
A few people cried for help, their bodied stuck underneath the debris. The Escavs had already reached the frontlines, helping out the people doomed to be dead in a few years. Soldiers were getting mobilized. Mages were entering the turf. But I had little care for these worldly things because I saw a carcass when the smoke cleared out.
“Gwar grr! Gwar Gwar!”
Yule howled, and I slid down the dugout with the hound after removing my blood mask. I checked for the mortal's breath, watching the musculature of the face. Peeled skin really made the mortals imperciptible. A small pouch lay beside the body, the blood stains on it too evident for it to be any good. The stench of decaying flesh pulled my attention to the details.
Fingers. Mortal's fingers. He was tortured to death.
I tore open his tunic and ran my gloved hands over his browbeaten ribs. All twenty fingers were torn apart before his face was smashed with a spiked club, his ribs broken with a hammer. His teeth were plucked one at a time, and the skin on his arms peeled out in turn.
Before any Escavs could pour in on us, I grabbed Yule and escaped to the closest alley. The instigator of the commotion was nowhere in sight, despite my [Devil Eye] searching every single soul in the central square. The royal garrison had isolated the area, so we had to undergo a pat-down search despite my obvious dislike for random mortal's touch.
I had hardly exited the central square when I saw a familiar silhouette in the distance, the swarming crowd making it hard for me to get a clearer picture. I trudged through the warm bodies to stand before him. With no words, I acquiesced to follow him to a deserted area, the decomposing trash and rotting stench of animal waste making the place inhabitable.
"Care to explain what's going on?" I asked, showing my bloodied gloves. I discarded them the next seconds and burned them in my hands.
"I don't know," Terian covered his nose with his arms. "All I know is my fate will be no different if the crown prince gets wind of my pact with you. So, I need to move up the dates, Rudolf. It's got to be done tomorrow. During the graduation ceremony, I need you to be inside his private gallows."
"I can't do that," I sighed. "My lady wouldn't let me. But I can guarantee that I can sneak into the gallows tonight. With ease, if I may add."
His indifferent eyes studied my face habitually, hands hidden behind his stature draped in an exquisite purple robe. Emerald stones glittered in the calming light of the chilly morning, and my eyes inadvertently pulled towards them despite my incessant effort to understand the man before me.
"I can just hope we were discrete enough not to raise their guard," he let out a defeated sigh, succumbing to his fate as a mortal. I hadn't expected a man of his caliber to give up his facade of indifference toward life, but I suppose death was an abysmal wall that was unscalable for mere mortals. "But I suppose if you could kill the Marquis in the gallows of the Escavs, no place could hold you back."
"What's the thing you want me to retrieve?" I cast [Splash] over my hands once the gloves had disintegrated.
"A soul-bound doll."
I searched my memories for soul-binding techniques but found none. There wasn't even an instance of such blasphemous technique in my entire undead epoch, and here he was, stating as if it was common knowledge. It irked me despite my face feigning nonchalance as if his words held little consequence to a mercenary.
"What's soul bound?" I asked, feeling invigorated after the irrational irritation disappeared. My whole being was more excited at the prospect of having to gobble up new knowledge, new arts, and perhaps new techniques on torture. The name had already given me enough hints as to what it entailed.
"I had made a pact just like yours," he paused, waving his hands at his aides. They stepped back far enough to hear none of what Terian was speaking. "When the Nerken Dukedom betrayed the throne, the king had little choice but to mobilize the entire garrison and appoint an honorable scapegoat to lead the royal army. I was the commander of the southern fleet at the time, with brimming military power that rivaled the Duke himself. Of course, it meant I could choose a side, and my decision would decide the fate of the kingdom. My family was held hostage in the capital, so I had no choice but to come back to the king's aid in haste. But the Monarch had little trust in his retainers. [Soul Bind] offered him a way out of the predicament.
"Inkala. The name is deep-seated in my bones, wrecks me in my nightmares," he took a deep breath, his brows quivering noticeably. "He is currently the crown prince's mage. For the loving father the king is, he makes no good ruler. Blasphemous words, but I don't care to cater to the needs of indulgent rulers. Women and family had dethroned him long back. Only his health lets him cling to the throne, which will become his poison soon enough."
Treason gets my blood boiling even after living for thousands of epochs. Dethroning the authority for a faint hope of freedom, yet succumbing to the very same power until new treason churns your gut. The never-ending cycle had never failed to amuse me. Yet mortals persistently believed they were in the right, clinging to their fading morals, flickering life, dying like a moth attracted to its death.
"I believe you share my sentiments," he finally said after a long pause. "If Lady Letitia's well-being is your sole concern, then I believe letting the crown prince ascend the throne is the last thing on your mind. If you want, we can let our families unite by marriage. My son is of marriageable age and-"
"Family politics is not my forte, Lord Terian," I said, suppressing the congestion in my chest. I didn't really understand my emotions at the moment. Perhaps, I didn't like that he was treating my lady as a piece to be exchanged for his lofty goals. "My lady is the head of the family, so it's better if you talk to her."
"I understand," he tactfully changed the subject. "Come to my manor after you retrieve my soul-bound body. Just,” his brows furrowed, “don't hurt it."
I nodded and watched him disappear with his entourage. Yule was feasting on some dead carcass, churning the eye of possibly a fowl in great merry. I sank on my haunches and watched Yule absently.
"Say," I nuzzled its head. "How would you feel if my lady got married tomorrow?"
"Gwar gwar!" He snarled with his bloody mouth.
I chuckled. "She doesn't belong to us. We are, after all, demons from hell."
"Grr," its bloodied teeth disappeared, and it moaned pitifully.
"She'd be happy with us?" I watched the dark clouds in the distance. "I don't know, Yule. I thought my machinations were all that mattered in the beginning, but I'm not so sure anymore."
I laughed, nuzzling its belly. "Let's go back to her, shall we?"