Machinations by Moonlight
Several days had passed since the brief skirmish, and the soldiers had continued to drill regularly. Even now, when fat rain clouds grew overhead and began to deposit their loads of chill rainwater, they continued drilling and practicing. Practicing the movements of sword and shield, of pike and bow, they kept at it. And throughout it all, Eskatia was there in the thick of it, leading by example. Whenever possible, she would be out on the field with her troops, showing them that even though she held higher rank, that she was a soldier just like the rest of them. This only served to motivate them, banishing the slight thoughts of disgruntlement and dissent that had otherwise formed by day after day of slogging through the thick mud.
It was during a lull in these near constant exercises that Eskatia prowled the halls of the castle. Her armor, usually pristine and gleaming, was spattered with mud and ran with rivulets of rainwater. She was soaked, sodden and bedraggled, but didn't let those minor physical annoyances deter her from her stalking. She was frustrated. Earlier in the day, one of their spies had unearthed a rumor that the Solar Kingdom was preparing it's troops for a massed operation, but no further information had been forthcoming. So she had taken to prowling the halls outside of the war room, in the hopes that news would break, and they could at last mount up and head off to war.
As if spurred on by her thoughts, the door swung open, and immediately she turned to face it, her sodden cloak slapping wetly against her greaves. The one who opened the door was none other than Afeemina, which seemed curious. As of late, Afeemina had been avoiding the war room. Eskatia had yet to ask why, hoping that in time Afeemina would either overcome her hesitation or at least disclose the reason. And it seemed to have happened. Of course, this happened mere days after Annarose had set off on another of her mysterious errands. Eskatia thought it mere coincidence, but others were more perceptive. Afeemina immediately rushed to her side, an excited gleam in her eyes.
"Princess! We've just received an update from our undercover agent! Ernst, the Knight of Luminance, is maneuvering a force of light cavalry through the gap in the mountains to the south! They are riding hard, and estimates put them at entering Crest territory within three days!"
At those words, Eskatia let a smile touch her face. They had them! Striding forward, she rushed into the war room, eager to plot out their counter offensive. They had enough time, if they could gather and mobilize their own troops quickly enough, then an ambush would certainly be possible. She looked across the room, seeing it's other inhabitants. Herself and Afeemina had just entered. Dical, present as always, when not in the field. Lebeau was absent, but in his place was none other than Koenig, chomping at an unlit cigar. After several incidents, he knew better than to actually light it, but old habits died hard, especially for old soldiers.
Eskatia moved to the large table dominating much of the room's space, and gazed at the masses of troop strength reports, maps and other papers, all piled up at one side of the table. The majority of it's surface was a recreation of the land between their own and the Solar Kingdom's. Small figurines represented troops and units. Already, Ernst's pure white icon was placed at the shallow dip in the mountain range indicated by lines rather than actual shapes. She returned her gaze to the others in the room to see that she had their attention before stating her opinion.
"Ernst favors quick strikes, so there is a very good chance he will be leading a lightly armored cavalry best equipped for rapid deployment and a running battle. I propose we counter with our own heavy mounted troops, to nullify their limited offense." As she said this, she plucked up a large, armored figurine from the side, and placed it near Ernst's position.
A hacking cough stopped Eskatia before she could develop her plan any further, the source being Koenig. He waved off a glass of wine, instead opting to take a pull from his personal hip flask. With his throat soothed, he gestured at the figure Eskatia had just placed. "Your tactics are sound, save for one detail. With the heavy mounted troops, their own mobility isn't as great as our other troops, and will not be able to reach Ernst's forces until he has already closed to a day's ride from our city's borders." He slid the figure back several inches, until it was standing just outside of the city at the base of the castle. "We can't let them get that close, their rapid tactics could wreak havoc on our citizens. Instead, we should send our own rapid deploy forces to meet them as soon as possible."
Eskatia pondered Koenig's words. He did make sense, she hadn't thought about the distance the heavy mounted troops would need to cover even before reaching Ernst. She looked up, and tried to judge how the others felt about the idea. Dical, as always, was taciturn to the point of being aloof. Afeemina, on the other hand, appeared undecided, and that was enough to convince her. Afeemina usually agreed with almost anything she said, outside of the obviously faulty. So if she was actually thinking it over... "You are right, Koenig. Very well, then let us send out our rapid deply forces to meet Ernst's offensive head on!"
Further discussions were held, to determine just how many troops to allocate. They needed to send enough to try to assure victory against Ernst, but they couldn't afford to deplete their other forces in the chance of a second strike. In the end, it was decided that Dical would lead their troops, and he would take several dozen of their fastest mounted troops.
While this planning was taking place, there was unrest brewing within the city below the castle. Not civil unrest, the citizens were overall happy with their lot in life. No, this was something more serious. A series of violent murders had been taking place at night, with no culprit ever being found. People were growing scared, but even with an increased patrol, they seemed no closer to identifying or catching the killer. People were urged to stay indoors and to avoid leaving their homes alone at night. They were only too happy to comply. But even then, they were not safe.
Another murder had happened just the night before. The victim was still inside of their house, but the door had been forcibly ripped off of it's hinges, great claw marks gouged furrows in the house's plaster walls. Blood splattered the interior of the house, and the victim, or what was left of them, had a rictus of terror on their face. The soldiers who had reported to the scene looked over the gore and carnage with jaded eyes. The scene was just like the others, the killer had struck again. And still, they were no closer than they had been before! Finally, they had no choice but to take care of the corpse, to give them a proper burial, and to assign someone to clean up the mess.
After the soldiers left the scene, a shadowed figure crept into the house. They reached out a pale, trembling hand to touch one of the numerous claw marks in the walls, just barely touching the savage mark. They jerked as they heard a sound from outside, and quickly ran away, disappearing into the shadows.
By the time the next morning rolled around, Dical and his chosen troops had already rode off, setting out at the first crack of dawn's early light. It was predicted that he would reach Ernst's force at just beyond the halfway point, and likely within a day and a half. Until then, there would be no communication between them and Dical, to prevent the enemy from spotting anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing else for the troops who remained but to drill, and get the little bit of rest they were allowed.
It was after the first of the enhanced drills that a short break was announced. The soldiers had far too much discipline to actually do so, but many felt so dead on their feet they believed themselves moments away from collapsing. They waited until they were dismissed before moving off of the castle's parade grounds, to return to their barracks and rest and recover. Some went straight to the mess, others chose to wash up and eat later. Others simply found a secluded spot in the shade to get some rest.
Eskatia did none of those. Ever since the command was given for Dical to go and not her, she had been feeling tense. She knew it was the smart decision to have him go instead, but that did little to change her mood. No sooner had she finished the drills then she was pacing off back to the castle. She knew she couldn't push her soldiers too hard, they needed to rest. But the Dolls that stood guard and patrolled the castle, those were another story. She could easily work out some of her frustration on one of them! She didn't even bother to change or wash up, instead going right to the rather barren section of the castle reserved for the Dolls when not at the ready.
Eskatia suppressed a mild shiver when she entered the area. One reason was because it was a little drafty, with that cold, clammy breeze that seemed so prevalent in castles. The second reason was because occasionally the Dolls gave her the creeps. Not when it was just one or two of them, then it was no problem. But this? There were over one hundred of them, all standing at attention, looking directly at her with those cold, precise eyes. She shook off her uneasiness, knowing it was just in her head.
She paused for a moment before gesturing to one of the Dolls near the front. The selected unit stepped forward, saluting precisely, as they always did. Eskatia instructed it to spar with her, in the adjacent unused storage room. It saluted once more, and immediately set off, with Eskatia following shortly thereafter. Only a moment later, and both were within the chosen room. It was just as plain as the last one, but thankfully empty of any bystanders or audience. Just Eskatia and the Doll. Eskatia drew her blade, and waited as the Doll began it's start-up procedure, subvocalizing through a brief list of commands and queries. Finally, the Doll drew it's weapon, a simple longsword, and rushed forward.
It had been quite some time since Eskatia had last dueled one of the Dolls. She forgot just how unnerving the prospect could actually be. They felt no pain, they were never discouraged or afraid, and they were at least as physically capable as any ordinary soldier. All in all, a very nerve-wracking class of opponent. She was very thankful they were on her side. She stepped forward quickly, her own blade flashing out in a silver arc as she parried the Doll's overhead swing. Their blades met in a brief flash of sparks, but already the Doll had moved away and back, circling around a few feet and rushing forward in a piercing thrust.
Eskatia tried to parry again, but this time she wasn't quite fast enough, the blade skittering along her armor, very nearly stabbing through the vulnerable weaker joint of the armor at her midsection. She rushed forward and brought her own blade forward once more, in a forceful blow that would have sent a normal opponent tumbling back. The Doll only blocked the strike with it's free arm, the blade biting deeply into it's synthetic flesh but not severing the limb. Without missing a beat, the Doll countered, moving it's arm wide away from it's body, to make it impossible for Eskatia to immediately counter with her weapon. The Doll then used a simple but effective maneuver. Still holding the sword in it's hand, it punched Eskatia, the metal in both it's arm and inside of it's clenched hand enough to make it a staggeringly strong strike.
Eskatia reeled back, stunned for a moment but able to withdraw her blade, bringing it in close to a guard position. And just in time, again the Doll was keeping up a rapid attack, now leaping forward and lashing out with a rising kick that would have hit Eskatia in the chin if she hadn't bent back at the last instant. Eskatia saw her opportunity and took it, loosing one hand from her double-handed grip to grab at the Doll's leg and pull sharply to the side and down, to try to foul it's landing. The Doll had better balance and gyroscopes than she had thought, it still landed as nimbly as a cat.
They finally separated, putting some distance between them. Eskatia was breathing hard, already feeling exhausted and worn out. The Doll looked virtually fresh, aside from the deep cut in it's arm, now leaking a small bit of oil and lubricant. Eskatia narrowed her eyes, this was a bit too much so soon after her already excessive drilling. She didn't know just how much longer she could last. For a simple spar, she believed she had accomplished what she wanted. She began to relax her guard, but before she had a chance to tell the Doll to stand down, it was rushing her, taking note of her relaxed pose. Eskatia's eyes widened, her body slow to react, too slow! As the Doll's blade moved closer and closer to her, her eyes widened and she couldn't look away from the point of that lethal yet unadorned blade.
Was this the end, then? She still had yet to unite all the land under Crest's rule! She still had more she needed to accomplish! It couldn't end like this! She let out a savage yell, her voice's ferocity serving to get her moving again. In a flash, her blade whipped forward, so quickly it actually left a blur in it's wake. A second later, a clang sounded, although their weapons had already made contact. The Doll's sword, and hand, lay on the stone floor. The Doll stood there, impassive, the whirring gears inside of it's bared forearm now steadily dripping oil.
For a long moment, the only sound was Eskatia's frantic panting. She had no idea where she had summoned up that last reserve of strength, but it was taking it's toll. Already, she could feel her body tingling slightly, the precursor to what would surely prove to be an entire set of muscle pains the following day. In a haggard whisper, she gave the Doll one last order, 'Go get yourself repaired' before she slumped forward, dropping to one knee. The Doll immediately left the room to do as instructed, leaving a sporadic trail of oil droplets in it's wake.
That left Eskatia alone with her thoughts. How had she reacted so quickly? She had been at her limit, but in a sudden burst of speed, she had surpassed it and managed to triumph. She wasn't sure if it was a good or bad thing that had happened, she would have to be very careful. All strength came with a price, and if she couldn't recall paying it, then it would exact a steep fee in the future. Already, she felt like she had been working out for several days straight without breaks, not just a few hours. She sheathed her blade with a trembling hand, and slowly, ever so slowly, managed to stand upright once more. Sweat ran freely down her brow, as well as under her armor. She had originally hoped to continue drilling with her troops for the entire day, but she knew that was not going to happen.
Slowly, taking steps deliberately and taking frequent pauses to rest, Eskatia finally left the barren chamber, leaving it just as empty as it had started, save for several splashes of liquid, be it oil or sweat. As she maneuvered through the abandoned halls, she kept an eye out for a living attendant, and spied one. They looked young, younger than her at least. She beckoned to them, before giving them an order to deliver to Koenig. He was to take over the troops' drills while she regrettably retired for the day.
With that last task accomplished, Eskatia resumed her halting march toward her final destination. Washing up, and then going right to bed. Before this moment, she had never really considered whether her room being up several flights of stairs was good or bad. Now, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was the latter. But she was determined, determined enough to scale those stone steps, and finally reach her chambers. She wavered, and very nearly collapsed once she had gained the nominal safety of her private quarters, but instead managed to lurch forward and collapse roughly into a chair. Her armor bit into her deeply in the process, but she was already so pained that she scarcely felt it. For a long moment she lay slumped over her table, focusing on just breathing. Deep breath in, hold it, release. Deep breath in, hold it, release.
When she finally felt that the world wouldn't start spinning the moment she raised her head, she began to remove her armor. Piece by piece it disappeared from her form. She regretted her lack, but didn't have the energy to immediately clean and polish the pieces like she ought to do. Soon, she was clad in a sodden woolen undergarment, and nothing more. She then managed to reach her private baths, and spent much longer than usual partially submerged in those steaming waters. The heat of the water felt wonderful, and almost instantly began leaching away at least a small portion of her exhaustion and aches. She would still be sore in the morning, but hopefully still able to carry out her duties.
Finally, she clambered out of her bath and toweled off, once again wordlessly accepting a fluffy towel from the Doll who stood at the ready. She wasn't petty enough to glare at this Doll just because she had had so much trouble from the other one. Cinching the robe halfheartedly, she returned to her bedchamber as quickly as her tired body would allow. She was already longing for the sensation of the cool pillow beneath her head, the smooth silk sheets wrapped tightly around her to keep in her body heat. Perhaps she had even started daydreaming, and not paying much attention to the real world. One moment she had been moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, looking directly at her door, the only door in that segment of hallway. The next, Annarose was standing a few feet in front of her, staring at her with those mysterious crimson eyes.
"Hime-chan?! You look awful! What happened?" The other woman rushed to her side, all thought of games and teasing set aside in the wake of this new development.
"Blunt and... to the point as ever, Annarose. It's nothing, just a sparring match with one of the Dolls. Back from your... errand already?" Eskatia tried to press on, to reach the safety of her bedchamber and get away from Annarose, not wanting to put up with her obscure ways. But the woman remained by her side, actually being forward enough to assist her in walking. Normally, Eskatia would balk at such treatment. She was no invalid! But she remained silent, perhaps by the fact that she could, in fact, use the assistance.
Moments later, she was back in her chambers. Annarose continued to help her until she was seated on her bed. With that completed, she swayed over to Eskatia's dressing table, and plucked up the same ivory comb from before. Without waiting, or even asking for, permission, she clambered onto Eskatia's bed behind her princess, and set to work, combing through her still wet locks. Eskatia felt a faint blush form on her cheeks, but was too tired to argue. After all, Annarose had done this same act before, and had behaved herself. So what harm could it do? She remained where she was, shivering from time to time as one of Annarose's fingers brushed lightly against her skin.
Time passed, and soon Annarose had finished. They weren't sitting in front of the mirror, so Eskatia could not immediately see the fruits of Annarose's efforts, but she assumed it would be similar to before. As if reading her mind, Annarose got up once more, returning the comb to it's proper place and returning with a silver hand mirror. She held it in front of Eskatia, that she might look at her reflection to see what Annarose had done. She blushed again, surprised at what she saw looking back at her. A stern face, cheeks with just a hint of rose on pale skin. Red lips and deepest black hair. And her hair! Annarose had styled it again, but different from the time before. It looked like one of the more elaborate styles worn to those fancy dress parties she always abhorred. Oddly enough, she couldn't find herself to bring forth that same loathing now.
She raised her head to return Annarose's gaze, finally managing to say what she had failed to the last time. "Th-thank you... Annarose."
"It was my pleasure, Hime-chan." Annarose went to return the mirror now, continuing to speak as she did. "But on a more serious note, Hime-chan. You really should not be fighting with the Dolls unsupervised. Remember, they have been upgraded to be more capable in battle. It didn't hurt you too severely before you called it off, yes?"
Eskatia felt a bit nonplussed at Annarose's unintentional claim that she wasn't the equal of one of those Dolls. "No, I actually won, Annarose. I managed to sever one of it's hands, at least."
Annarose's eyes widened in surprise, shocked that Eskatia had managed to gain victory over the automated fighter. Impressive! She returned to the side of Eskatia's bed, leaning slightly forward in interest. "That is incredible, Hime-chan! You are truly a valiant warrior, you do your kingdom proud!"
Eskatia blushed and looked away at the unexpected praise, not thinking she was worthy. After all, she had only barely won, and at great cost. It hadn't even been against an enemy, either, but one of their own troops! "N-no, I still have much to learn."
The beginnings of a plan twinkled in Annarose's eyes as she looked down at the bashful princess. She knew just what to say, but how would she react? "Nonsense, Hime-chan, you are a fine warrior. In fact, after that show of might, I think you deserve a little reward!" Smiling eagerly, she clambered onto Eskatia's bed once more, slinking closer. Eskatia blushed furiously at that, seeing Annarose crawling toward her on hands and knees, showing a dangerous amount of cleavage in the process, seemed so... mature that she didn't know what to do. She could only close her eyes as Annarose got closer, not wanting to see what she was doing.
Soon, she felt a cool sensation along her shoulders, and with a far too late grasp, failed to stop her robe from slipping down. Her arms quickly flew up to cover herself, and she glared at Annarose. "W-what are you doing?! Stop this at once!" But Annarose only smiled innocently at her, ignoring her command and gently, yet with surprising force, pushed Eskatia over. In her weakened state, she was in no shape to fight back, and soon found herself rolled over onto her stomach. Her robe was gathered up at her waist, revealing her bare back. She blushed furiously, but having lost all control of the situation, had no idea what to do to get out. She tried struggling, but Annarose placed a hand on her shoulder, and began rubbing.
At that same instant, it felt like an electric shock had ran up and down Eskatia's spine. Her blush deepened, and she buried her face in her pillow. Soon, the hand was joined by it's twin, and they both began rubbing, massaging. Eskatia shuddered, Annarose's hands felt cool against her flushed body, barely able to stand it. But as the massage continued, slowly, hesitantly, she calmed down. Despite her best intentions, she was beginning to enjoy it. Her tired muscles were much more appreciative of it, though. Already, that dull ache from before seemed less painful, less troublesome. She was just beginning to think it wasn't all bad when Annarose took it one step further.
At first, Eskatia didn't realize what had happened. She felt a weight settle against the small of her back. Not very heavy, but something seemed wrong. Something about the position of Annarose's hands, in relation to that weight... Then realization hit her, as she realized Annarose was actually straddling her! Her cheeks' blush deepened so furiously that she was surprised she didn't immediately ignite. She realized she could feel Annarose's body heat through the sparse layers of cloth separating the two, and shivered, suddenly incredibly uncomfortable. She tried to speak out against it, but her voice was a mere croak. She had no choice but to suffer through it in horribly embarrassed silence.
Meanwhile, Annarose was ecstatic. A grin seemed permanently set upon her face, as she slowly took her time rubbing the knots of tension out of Eskatia, her fingers digging slightly into her smooth, perfect flesh. She shifted her position, her hips sliding back until she felt a swelling underneath her, and grinned, settling back against Eskatia's firm derriere. She continued the massage until she honestly couldn't stretch it out any further. Eskatia had seemingly given up partway through. Whether she had fainted or just fallen asleep, she seemed to have been relaxed too well. Finally, reluctantly, Annarose slipped off of her princess' body, and just stared down at her. For a long time she didn't move, but then finally she snapped alert, as if she had been daydreaming. She reached down and carefully covered Eskatia up, then bent down one last time. Now hovering above Eskatia's head, she inclined her head and gave her a soft peck on the forehead. With that done, she straightened up, and turned to leave.
"Sweetest dreams, Hime-chan..." As she walked away, the sway of her hips seemed even more pronounced than usual. She licked her lips, the faint but unmistakable taste of Eskatia's hair on them, finding it exquisite. An immensely self-satisfied smile was now upon her face, as she closed the door behind her, leaving Eskatia to some much deserved rest.