Chapter 17 – Conspirators to the Princess
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The four of us had retired to our room after a long evening of revelry; it was finally time to reveal my plan to my companions. 

I told them of the woman that had approached me and what she had said about Sarita’s future husband. 

Anne was immediately on my side. “We should rescue her. We cannot leave her to be abused or even killed by a man she is forced to marry.” 

Brad seemed put off by the idea of risking so much for the girl. “Maybe it is hogwash and that nanny tries to exploit us for some weird plot. You never know what they would make up.” 

Professor Scutolith seemed the furthest from convinced. “We cannot accept these people’s hospitality and then turn on them. Worst of all, we could spark an incident with this between the villages.” 

Their opinions on the issue had been thrown into the room. It was late and I was tired but I was also resolute to convince my companions before the mist would rise again. “The girl has helped us greatly, mostly against her will. Just think of what she could help us if she was willing!” 

“No, I insist!” the Professor had stood up. “We cannot involve ourselves in the lives of these people. Remember, we want to leave this place. If we get caught up in their plots, we could be in graver danger than getting lost or running out of food.” 

I was about to give a retort when Anne got ahead of me. “I cannot believe you would be so heartless, uncle. We are talking about a fourteen-year-old girl potentially losing her life.” 

“And what would you do, Lieschen? Would you try to rescue every single person we come across down here? Improve their lives? Take care of their troubles? We might never leave like that.” 

This time, I was the one to sooner answer. “Professor, with all due respect, we have already involved ourselves with these people by bringing her back, and we will get involved many more times, whether we like to or not. Or do you think you will somehow decipher those runes all by yourself and find out they describe the exact method for us to return to the surface? We are here now, we need someone who can help us find our way and Sarita could very well be that someone. She is of higher status, which would make her possibly an educated young woman. Who knows how many languages she might speak, or how many intricacies of this world she is familiar with? Such a repository of knowledge should not be ignored.” 

Brad seemed to think about these words, then nodded. “When entering foreign lands, I always had to rely on locals to act as translators or guides. I don't think the girl is in much danger as you think, but she would certainly be an excellent guide. And, if we help her, she'd be indebted to us, which ensures loyalty over others.” 

Anne now snapped at Brad and me, which I thought misplaced. “You just see her as an asset?! We should help her, but not because she would be helpful, but because what these people are doing is barbaric!” 

The Professor took a step closer to Anne. “Now do not forget, dear Lady Anne-Liese of house Zvlastnove, your house, whose name and crest you like to so proudly wear, has engaged in the exact same thing, like all noble houses, to ensure diplomatic stability and gifted children for generations.”  

Anne merely scoffed. “And we can all see how that last part turned out. And my father married my mother against the will of his house.” 

“And they only allowed it in the e-“ 

I interrupted the two. “Enough! We are talking about Sarita here, not the blood ties of noble houses. Professor, please consider: we will not make it here without friends, and having one travel beside us is worth much more than a single village somewhere in a cave system that could span thousands of miles into all directions, including up and down. Sarita is a good girl, she can help us and we can help her. Are you with us?” 

The Professor only needed a moment of contemplation before he sighed in resignation. “Fine then, I shall join you youngsters in your insult to hospitality. But I hope you have a clever plan, boy!” 

I was relieved about having convinced my companions, but worried at the same time about the planning we would now have to do. “Well, I do not know anything so far that could help us do anything more sophisticated than 'grab and run'.” 

“But I do.” Anne spoke up. “I talked to some of the ladies at the table. They told me Sarita's convoy would set out for the other town in three tides. I think that would be 36 hours from now. They also told me we would be invited to join the chief tomorrow for a comfortable social round on the chief's terrace, a small court just below the topmost building. Tomorrow evening would be a festivity of gifting, for which we would again be honoured guests.” 

Finally some information we could use. With this timeframe, we could start to plan everything. It was first agreed that we needed more information on our surroundings and the caves so we could plan an escape route. Each of us would scout out a different environment with the help of the very people we sought to deceive. 

Brad would ask to be given a guided walk of the town itself. He would be best suited to navigate through it due to his size and aptness to climbing. He could then find the best route through it so we could make a quick escape once we had Sarita among us again. I would ask to be shown where the Vrata vine is farmed and processed and how. That way, I hoped, I could spy out more of the spaces that were guarded by walls and gates, maybe even find a good spot to slip outside unnoticed. Anne would ask to be shown various medicinal plants and where to find them in the wilderness. With some luck, she could find a way to take once we were out, the knowledge of these plants would also help us greatly in our future endeavours. The Professor would ask to be shown mines and quarries from which to procure replacement material for Chrysita. It was on the one hand important to patch her back up so she could be of more use, but also be useful to know which deep and barely used tunnels could become escape routes or hiding places if all other plans failed. 

As for the actual extraction, it would require all of our resources. Anne would use what remained of her tea to brew a potent relaxation and calming agent. We could then instruct the nanny to administer it to the guards and hopefully cause them to fall asleep on the job or become less attentive at least. 

We also had to make sure we had sufficient rations and supplies for departure. To this end, Brad would try to haggle with the villagers, using the few coins the Professor had brought along. Their minting meant nothing here, but the valuable metals they contained could surely be worth something. If even that failed, we would have to ask the nanny to steal supplies for us. 

The time started feeling awfully late and I could see the sleep rising to all my companions’ heads. I bid then a good night and went to bed. All except Anne followed, who insisted on starting work on her valerian distillate already. 

Sleep took me easy that night and I felt sinking deeper and deeper into the softest bedding I had felt in an eternity.