Panting, I press myself against the wall. "To close," I gasp. "Can't - let that - happen again." Vida nods tiredly in agreement, too out of breath to speak.
My view from where I am crouched is limited, but from what I can tell, the snipers have stopped shooting their silent guns and the soldiers haven't found our position yet. Of course, I can never be sure; they'd easily be able to track my low-level heat sensor if I put out a scan.
Vida says something that I don't catch, and I jerk my head up. "Pardon?" I ask, my old accent coming through slightly with the question.
She frowns at me, her brow furrowed in fear and confusion. "We have no plan," she says, her voice wavering slightly. I try give a comforting smile to the younger girl, but it doesn't work.
"I really hope we don't get caught," I sigh, putting a hand to my forehead.
As I rack my brain for ideas on what to do, Vida nods off, jolting awake every few minutes at the crack of a twig or a loud rustle of the wind. I can hardly blame her - we're there for what feels like forever, and my muscles cramp up after a time.
Hours later, Vida pops her hand up, very suddenly. "Wait, do you hear that?" she hisses. I tip my head up, craning to hear what a few passing guards are saying. I cling to the wall more, praying to every godly deity that I know of that we won't be found. I've been tortured before, but I doubt that my new counterpart could keep even our biggest secrets, well, secret for very long under the pain.
"... and the Crown Princess, too." I can barely hear the low, gruff voice of the soldier over the whir of the military drones in the distance.
The other guard gasps quietly and murmurs something I can't quite catch, and his partner responds, "Yup, she's coming here, to this base. First time anyone of the royal family has shone their face in over five months. Those damned rebels are ruining everything." I clench my fists together. You're the ones who are destroying our society, I think angrily, but the first sentry speaks again.
"She's coming here for a meeting. Today's attack was too close, and too well timed. I hear they almost got… it."
"It?" the other soldier echoes.
"Yeah, you know, it. Our most heavily guarded anything! Let me just tell you all of the secrets about it!" I hear the sound of one slapping the other. "I can't very say what it is, idiot! Rebels are still probably here. Actually, we shouldn't even be talking about it in the first place." As their voices fade away, the subject of their conversation changes to the recently raised gas and exotic fruit prices.
Vida looks at me, her jaw ajar. "Princess Eulalia, coming here, so close to HQ?!" she squeaks in astonishment.
"Don't call her 'princess,'" I snap. "It's not a name she deserves." I decide, after a long moment of hesitation, to scan for life. It's a big risk, but one I'm willing to take.
I wince as the scanner comes to life all too loudly, it's buzz sure to attract unwanted attention.
As expected, there are several people scattered around the nearby area, but they're in surprisingly good positions for us. Taking a deep breath, I say to Vida, "Alright, here's what we're going to do. You're going to go back to headquarters and tell them what's going on and to bring some - no a bunch - of reinforcements back here. If we're lucky, tonight may be the night we win the war."
Confusion is written all over her face. "What about you?" she asks. "Aren't you coming with me?" Shaking my head, I sigh, trying to prepare myself for the upcoming trials I'm about to face.
"No," I say. "I'm going to kill the princess."
Twenty minutes later finds me crouched by a clothesline.
After another round of guards passed, I sent Vida back to our base. She sprinted across the short area between our hidden cranny and a tall nearby oak tree, which she climbed with inhuman speed. She quickly jumped through the branches and out of sight.
Now I stare at a badly guarded entrance, mainly used by servants. Only an old soldier with a potbelly who I could outwalk stands by the wooden door, squinting out into the distance. If what the gossiping maids I heard earlier said is true, then the undercover Crown Princess will be coming in through here in about ten minutes, to the greatest summer-palace-turned-fort in the entire land. The hard part is getting in before her.
A servant I didn't see before pops up with a basket full of clean laundry in his arms and heads to the door. But right as he opens it, the guard throws out an arm. "Identification," he mumbles.
"But - but I just came out here! Like, an hour ago!" the boy protests. "You watched me literally the entire time! What could I have done? I've been cleaning clothes!"
The sentry rubs his forehead and sighs. "You know the rules, Johan," he reminds him. Johan groans, and awkwardly maneuvers the laundry until he can pull out an ID card from his front pocket. The guard nods and waves him through.
"Crap," I mutter. Of course I didn't think this was going to be easy, but I had hoped I would just float through security, no questions asked.
About a hundred feet away, a sweaty messenger appears from around a bend. "Urgent, urgent!" she calls. The guard perks up. Seeing this, I grab a few clothes from the line and change, glancing around to make sure no one's seen me. I grab a few others, hurriedly fold them, and slink to the door with them piled in my arms as the young girl quietly gives her report through gasps.
I get about ten feet in when a loud voice barks, "Stop!" I freeze, slowly turning around, trying my best to look like a meek, innocent maid.
"Yes, sir?" I ask, attempting to make myself look smaller than I actually am. The sentry lopes towards me, a scowl on his face.
"What -" he growls, "the bloody devil are you doing?"
"Delivering clothes, sir." I let my old accent come through, and with it more hate than I've felt in a long time. He grabs my arm with a meaty hand and starts to say something, but he's interrupted.
"Let her go," comes an authoritative voice. "She's mine." I turn around as best as I can in my trapped situation, and walking to me is a woman. Pretty enough, I suppose, with her long hair wrapped around her head in braids. She's wearing dark clothes and no makeup. I'm guessing she's supposed to look bland, so no one remembers her, but her administrative demeanor ruins that.
The princess, I realize.
She calmly detaches the guard's hand from my arm, and pulls me behind her. From the look of fear on his face, it's obvious he recognises her, too.
"Even if she wasn't my maid," the princess says, "you have no right to handle the servants so. I mean, I kind of doubt she's a rebel coming to, I don't know, kill me." She looks between me and guard and laughs slightly.
Well, you're not far off. At this point, I'm just waiting for reinforcements, I think. I can barely keep a straight face.
"So," she continues, "you're dismissed. Back to your post, soldier." Steam is coming out of the guard's ears as he storms away.
Turning to me, the princess holds out her hand. "I'm Eulalia," she says. "Would you like to tell me what all that was about?"
Gingerly, I take it. I'm itching to assassinate her, right here and now. One quick shot and bam, she'd be dead. But I can't, not yet.
"My name is Eilo," I say, immediately regretting it. Why did I give her my real name? Idiot, idiot, I think, but it's too late now. "I'd like to apologize, Your Highness -" it kills me to address her so - "but I left my ID in my room, you see, and -" Eulalia laughs and holds up her hand.
"It's all right, Eilo," she assures me. "I'm quite forgetful, myself. But you owe me. Hm, let's see…" She taps her chin. "Ah, yes! You see, when I got here, I thought that it would be a quick stay, just an overnight thing, maybe not even that, but now I'm not so sure. I passed a meeting on the way to the bathroom, and those old military boys were arguing something ferocious, so I think this will take longer than originally planned. And because of this, I didn't bring anything, including servants, so…" She clasps her hands together and sways back and forth. "You could be my personal servant!" The look on her face is so hopeful is hurts.
My brain automatically thinks, She knows what I am and hopes to get information out of me, but another part of me realizes that she might, just might be, well, lonely.
I quickly push that thought aside and decide to seize this fabulous opportunity. "I - I don't know what to say, Your Highness, this is - this is -" Really infuriating, I think.
I don't think I've ever seen such a big smile as the one on Eulalia's face. "Thank you, Eilo," she says importantly. "And please, only use 'Your Highness' and 'Princess' in public. Those just aren't my names."
"I'd like to see you in my room this afternoon, by like, I dunno, four-ish? I've got my first meeting at five. I'll probably need you for three or four days, a week at most. That cool?"
I nod and smile. This is way to easy, but hey, I'll take it. We stand there awkwardly for a minute until she finger guns me and walks away. I breathe a sigh of relief and duck into a storage room to tell my boss about my good luck.
The closet I'm in is stuffy and tight, but it will do the job. After flicking on the light, I dig into the deep pocket of my uniform, groping for my communication device, the only high tech digital object I own.
A minute later I'm hastily silencing the calling ring as I phone up the headquarters. To my surprise, my leader answers on the second ring.
"Vida told me what's happening. The only reason I found out so late was because the scouts closest to the palace were killed. They're onto us, and while I've got people near you, I can't get in. They have the Crown Princess to well guarded," he says before I can speak.
"It's not all bad," I reply grimly. "I've just got a position as Eulalia's personal servant." His silence makes his surprise obvious. I can practically hear his jaw drop.
"How -? Never mind. Don't strike immediately, wait for your orders. We've got them in a better place than I could have hoped to dare. Finally, this war may be ours." His voice is giddy with excitement, and he has to take a moment to compose himself to continue speaking. "Anyway, get into a secure position by 11:30 tonight for an update. If you don't answer within twenty minutes we'll assume something's happened and storm the place. Got it?"
"Got it," I answer, suddenly feeling nervous.
And tired. I've been on my feet all day, and am now feeling the effects. There's a bit of time until I have to report to Eulalia, and I wouldn't mind a bit of sleep…
Of course, I know that the moment my head hits the pillow I'll be wide awake. The words of my mother will play through my mind: "A good soldier doesn't rest until all her work is done." Though, then again, my mother isn't exactly the best example of a good soldier.
Trying to find the servant's quarters through all the hustle and bustle is nearly as much of a nightmarish hell as war is. At one point I end up in the pantry and I'm yelled at by a cook. It takes a while, and by the time I get where I want to be, it's already time to help Eulalia.
Her rooms are surprisingly simple, especially for an heir to the most important throne in the land. I remember suddenly about how an extreme amount of people didn't support her being the future queen, mostly because the five generations before her to rule were all men, and the people of my country do not accept change easily.
Out of the connected bathroom door comes Eulalia, wearing a formal outfit of flowy pants, a prettily decorated shirt, and a gold chain necklace, her hair damp and down.
"Oh, god," she groans to me. "The hospitality here is awful. After seeing some of the other guest rooms that were fancy enough for an Emperor, I was a bit startled to get this one, in all its plainness, but I wasn't going to seem like a self-entitled prat and complain about that. They already hate me enough as it is.
"But then I went to take a shower, and guess what?! There was no soap! No shampoo, no towels. Nothing. And it wasn't as if they didn't know I was coming. Word was sent yesterday, and I didn't arrive until two. They had plenty of time to just stock up on some toiletries. Plus, the whole entire time I've received nothing but glares and mean comments. I mean, come on! Can you believe it?"
I shake my head in slightly fake sympathy, though it didn't seem fair that she was denied such simple pleasures, things that I would expect from most simple hotels.
"I'll see to that right away," I assure her. She smiles and sits down on her bed, which seems to be bare of sheets, pulling out a brush as she does so. She begins to comb it through, and once it's unknotted and somewhat dryer she attempts to braid it, though she's obviously struggling.
"Would you like some help?" I ask, surprising myself. Both of my younger brothers and sister have long hair, and while I often pulled it up in some sort of style, I don't have exceptional talent. I can't believe I'm offering her help, out of my own free will.
I do a French braid, weaving a pretty blue ribbon into it. Eulalia looks relieved. She touches it cautiously, not wanting to mess. "Beautiful," she praises, looking in a mirror. "A few maids at home are pretty good with hair, but they're all scared to death of me, and refuse to touch any part of me for more than a second, as if I'll execute them if they do. I do wish they would relax a bit. I don't have anyone to talk to; my siblings are all much younger than me and don't understand much, and all they want to do it play. All of my friends have either gone into hiding or left the country. I want to just talk it out with the rebels, see what they're dissatisfied about. My father was a terrible ruler, and after the difficult birth of my littlest sister, my mother isn't fit to do much else but rest and maybe do some mild cleaning. Her health worsens every day; another worry onto my list."
She looks at me meaningfully. "Thank you for this. I'm just ranting to you, but it's getting a lot off of my chest. I hope that's okay. Once this is all worked out, just tell me if you need anything and I'll do my best to help you."
This alone almost crushes me with guilt, but I tell myself she'll hate me after this, and her kindness will just be empty words.
Eulalia swoops out the door. She quickly checks her watch, and says, "Ooh! Almost time for the meeting. I want to be a bit early, see, to make a good impression, but I doubt that will happen. I'm always late. I probably won't need you, but can you check in at, oh, I dunno, nine? Hopefully it'll be done by then. I think they have to release us by then." She waves goodbye, and turns to go left, while I go right.
Fortunately, her room is right near the servant's quarters. I desperately need sleep, but first I need to act like her loyal servant and get her some proper things.
I storm right up to a maid, who is stirring at a large pot as the kitchen is mad in the rush for dinner. "Excuse me," I say, trying to sound as foreboding as possible. The maid glances over at me, unimpressed. I increase my volume slightly. "The Crown Princess Eulalia is not satisfied with her quarters. Her rooms are utterly unfit for someone of her status. Basic toiletries are not included in the bathroom, and the bed does not have sheets. She is weary after a long day of travel, and still has to go to this discussion, which will no doubt try her patience and mind. If the room is not even somewhat ready by the time she returns, I will be having a conversation with the higher powers, your bosses." By now, everybody has stopped what they are doing and are staring at me.
At the maid has the decency to look embarrassed. "We'll get on that right away," she mumbles, and I nod my agreement. I take a moment to glare at everybody, then spin around and stalk away.
Exhaustion floods my body as I search for a room that no one lives in, but they all seem to be at least half full, and I know they will notice a new roommate.
So instead I take a closet. It's small, and very obviously abandoned - everything here is pristine and well kept, so seeing the broken door and dusty walls definitely places it apart from everywhere else that I've seen.
Fortunately, hay is scattered on the floor, and it makes a good sized pile once I push it into the middle. I drag some sheets and blankets on top of it from a pile of clean clothes, set an alarm for eight fifteen, and then I'm out like a light.