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The soldier took hold of the carriage door handle as he looked at the princess inside, his deep blue eyes mixed with both asssurance and somberness, a peculiar pairing.

"Willowshire," he said, answering her question of where she was being taken,"your going to Willowshire."

Willowshire was a small hamlet several miles west of the capital Dalhorst, a countryside village with a population just short of thirty. It was more of a settlement than a village really. It was known only for it's farms and the surrounding wilderness which was filled with wild game. Willowshire's inn in fact made the majority of it's business from hunters and trappers staying the night before heading east to Dalhorst or to the northwest to the city of Riven. Aside from the occasional patrol passing through, Willowshire saw little military prescience, and in general was totally ignored by the Alvionish army. This made it an ideal location to retreat to from the eyes of the Queen and her followers.

With his right hand, the bearded veteran removed his helmet slowly from his head, revealing curly yet neatly cut black hair with visibly noticeable streaks of gray along the edges. The man slightly lowered his head, closing his eyes and speaking quietly yet audibly,"Farewell my young princess, and please be safe. When you become Queen someday..." he raised his head and smiled slightly, his wrinkled eyes drooping in the corners,"I ask that you might remember my name, and remember me; Jared."

He gave her a wider smile and a friendly nod, placing his helmet on his head and sharply closing the carriage door.
Without warning, the carriage suddenly began to rock, the sound of footsteps and low grunts could be heard. Someone was climbing onto the carriage.
Jared's voice could suddenly be heard,"Be safe, and watch out for patrols. I wager that by now they've discovered she's gone."

As if on cue, a loud, heavy dong of a bell could be heard, followed by another, and another, and then another. The castle alarm.

"They know." Said another voice from atop the carriage, a raspy, older voice.
"Go, get out of here." Jared could be heard demanding.
"I'll see her to Willowshire safely by tonight." Said the second voice.

The immediate creaking of a gate could be heard, followed by the slapping of reigns and a loud cry from the unseen driver. The horses all released a chorus of bellowing neighs and the carriage began to methodically rock slowly from side to side as the horses began trotting along, through the gates, and off of castle grounds.

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Cecilia pushed the curtains in the carriage window apart to see her rescuer stand to the side just before the carriage started to move. She waved gently to him, hoping that the small gesture could convey her gratitude. She had expected to march to her death today, and instead he had led her to an escape.

But she was far from out of the woods. The carriage ride was far from leisurely. The sound of sixteen hooves beating on the path made her insides turn nervously. She kept her head down, but couldn’t help but peer through the curtains to watch the castle walls race by. They cleared the gate as the alarms blared through her head. They knew that she was gone. They were looking for her.

Through her limited viewpoint, she saw confused commoners and peasants alike being pushed aside as soldiers and guards poured into the streets. Her breath caught in her throat and she ducked away from the window. She couldn’t risk being found. Not now. Not when she was finally outside of the castle walls after five long years trapped inside of them.

The princess didn’t look out the window again until the distinct sound of hooves on cobblestone changed to hooves on dirt road. It was a deeper sound. Less echoey and hollow. They were out of the city.

Stone walls and tin roofs cleared away to lush greenery and impossibly high trees. When the trees cleared, she could see rolling fields in the distance that seemed to go on forever. Compared to her tiny cell, they did go on forever. Far in the distance, the mountains were visible. Cecilia had never been to the mountains. Her father had always promised that they would go there one day.

With the city behind them and infinity ahead, the sound of the horses was almost soothing instead of nerve wracking. She felt her eyelids grow heavy. The princess returned the curtain to its rightful place and laid her head against the window instead. Her eyes closed and her breathing slowed until it was deep and steady. She hadn’t slept the night before... there would be plenty of time to sleep when she was dead.

Well, she wouldn’t be dying today. Not anymore.
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CHAPTER 2: THE LOYALISTS




It was the latter hours of the day, the golden summer sun that had shone from above was now descending behind the distant mountains to the west. The warm rays that had bathed the earth just hours before faded as the sky turned to dusk and the evening was announced.

The village of Willowshire sat comfortably nestled into the green meadows of the surrounding solitary countryside. The entire town was built along a single wide dirt road that cut through the town east and west. The road itself was lined with several homes, as well as the inn, which sat at on the eastern end of town on the north side of the road. Several fields and farmhouses as well as a mill stretched along the north side of town, connected amongst themselves and to the main road by small footpaths. To the south lay a vast forest which was teeming with wild game, making this a favorite area for hunters and trappers.

As the day ended, the last signs of life could be seen winding down in Willowshire. Mothers ushered their children inside for the evening, farmers were putting away their tools and locking up their livestock, and house windows began to glow golden from candle and lantern light.
The town blacksmith was hanging up his apron on the wall of the forgery when he spied a large carriage pulled by four horses come rolling into town from down the eastern road. The horses were trotting along at a moderate pace, not too fast, but not very slow and relaxed either. Rather curious, the blacksmith hung back near his forge and watched as the carriage came to a stop before the inn, halted by a yanking of the reigns and a short “Whoa” from the driver, a grizzly looking older man in a dull brown tunic and trousers. Evening in the fading sunlight his mottly gray hair and scruffy face were visible. The blacksmith continued watching from the porch of his forge as the rugged looking man hopped down from the carriage, slightly shaking it, and stepped around to the opposite side of the carriage which faced the front of the inn.

With a grunt to himself, the blacksmith went inside his house to retire for the night.

The carriage driver reached up with his right hand and pulled open the wide wooden door.

”We’re here.”
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The princess awakened with a start and shot to the opposite side of the carriage to stare at the gray haired man, eyes wide in fear. In that brief moment, she forgot where she was and the events that had transpired that morning. It took a second for her senses to come back and she relaxed. She scooted across the carriage to hop out with the help of the driver.

Cecilia looked around, blue eyes alert and awake now as she took in the tiny village around them. She had never been here. It was off the regular path. Not that all villages in the kingdom weren’t important... some were just far out of the way.

“Willowshire?” she asked. It was all coming back to her now. Malcolm taunting her that morning... the soldier ushering her through the castle... the horses. Her head shot towards the horses now, who were standing patiently, waiting to be fed and watered after their long journey. She took another step away from the carriage, still nervous of the huge animals.

The town was quiet and peaceful. Very different from Dalhourst. By this time of the evening, the city was still alive and bustling with people. Here, it seemed that the town was already settling in for the night.

For someone who had just awakened, Cecilia was full of energy. Hell, she was practically bouncing as she peered past the carriage and at the inn that they had stopped in front of. “Is this were we’re staying?” she asked. It was an inn. An honest to goodness inn. With beds! Maybe even a bath! It was difficult to contain her excitement at the prospect.
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“More or less, M’lady.” Grumbled the gray-haired driver in response to her question, his voice hoarse with age and rather dry in tone.

He was a man of average height and slender build, with sagging shoulders and a rather narrow frame. Instead of a beard, this man had thick, scruffy stubble across his face, from his cheeks to his chin to the top of his lip. His eyes were solemn and burdened by heavy bags beneath them, wrinkles riveted his forehead, chin, and the corners of his wide mouth. His clothing was that of a commoner; a brown two-piece tunic, worn leather boots, and ragged gloves on his hands.

“Follow me Princess, Your Ladyship that is,” he said, his voice slightly rising in tone,”we’re going around back, down to the cellar. There’s someone waiting for you, Baron Simon Monticourt. He’s one of the men who arranged your escape. He wishes to see you.”

The man walked past Cecilia around to the back of the carriage, and politely indicated for her to follow. As he proceeded past the carriage around to the side of the inn, he spoke again,”My name is Bromley, Your Ladyship. It’s an honor to be in your presence. I’m glad I got you to safety. It was a tight squeeze getting you out of Proud Spire and Dalhorst, I’m just thankful that we managed to save you.”

Despite his weathered appearance and rugged tone, Bromley was quite chatty and as respectful as he could be toward Cecilia. He lead her around to the back of the inn, which, aside from several kegs and crates, was empty and deserted.
The large double door that lead to the cellar was nearby.
Bromley stepped forward and unlatched the doors and pulled them both wide open, and turned back to Cecilia.

“Baron Monticourt has things to discuss with you, Your Ladyship. After that I’m sure he’ll see to you a proper meal and a good hot bath, both of which I’m sure you desperately want. I need to go tend to my carriage and horses, but I’ll see you later. Have a good evening, Princess.”
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Cecilia nodded politely and followed Bromley as he motioned her around the carriage. "The honor is all mine, sir," the princess said gently. To any observers, it would not have seemed so strange for a girl in Cecilia's state to address the driver as 'sir', but really it was a shocking notion. This man was leagues below her in terms of status, yet he had saved her life. She did not care at that moment if he was a peasant from the lowest ditch in all of Dalhourst. To her, he was a gentleman, and she would refer to him with that respect. "I am also quite grateful for your help. If I had any gold to give you, I would shower you and Sir Jared." She sighed. "Unfortunately, all I can offer is my gratitude. That, at least, I have plenty of."

Her mind began to reel at the mention of Baron Simon Monticourt. That name was not familiar to her. Should it have been? The princess was frowning thoughtfully as Bromley led her around the inn and opened the cellar doors. It was only then that she ceased her internal musing and stopped dead in her tracks. She had just escaped one cramped space below the ground, and now he was beckoning her into another. Her hesitation was justified, at least. She looked at him uncertainly.

Surely this man would not have aided in breaking her out of the dungeon and brought her all this way just to trap her in another cell. Right now, he was the only ally that she had. She had no other choice but to trust him. Besides, the promise of a proper meal and a bath were tempting.

"Thank you again, sir," Cecilia said. She lifted her filthy skirts into a proper curtsy, bowing her head at this commoner in the same way that she would have bowed to a man of much higher status. "I will not forget the kindness that you've shown me today."

With that, she placed one foot in through the cellar doors and descended beneath the ground to meet with Baron Monticourt. She wondered as she breathed in the stale air of the cellar what sort of business this man might discuss with her. There were so many questions that she had, and it was due time for some answers.
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With a short smile, Bromley said,”You take care of yourself, Princess.”
And with a pair of heavy thuds, the cellar doors closed shut behind Cecilia.



The first noticeable thing about the cellar was it's condition. Though not a total disgrace, it had seen better days. Loose bricks lined the walls that threatened to break loose like a beggar’s rotten teeth. The wooden ceiling panels were creaky and patched with small cobwebs, and the old boiler for heating water was scored by debts and scratches and was rusted along the connecting edges of the pipes. The floor was slightly dusty and grimy, and the entire room was littered with empty kegs and ale bottles, as well as old food crates. It was clear the cellar hadn’t been swept or kept in proper maintenance for some time. On the far wall, opposite to the cellar doors, a heavy wooden bed sat perched against the brick wall. The bedsheets were surprisingly clean and practically glowed a welcoming snowy white. Two pillows lay at the top of the bed, nuzzled together in a cozy way.

Just in front of the bed sat a small, simple wooden table and a chair which sat facing across the room, away from the bed. The table held a hot, freshly cooked meal of roasted beef, peas, corn, a head of lettuce, and a fluffy sweet roll dripping with fresh glaze. A tall mug of cows milk sat to the right of the plate. The swarming combination of freshly cooked smells overpowered the musty cellar’s dank odor and flowed into the nostrils of the newly arrived Princess.

“Welcome, Princess Cecilia Alderon.” A voice suddenly boomed to the far left of the Princess, within the cellar shadows.
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As soon as the smell of food reached her, Cecilia felt her mouth water. Real food! She made a beeline for the table and was about to take her seat and reach for her fork when she heard the voice from the shadows. She jumped, still skittish from all of the excitement from earlier, and whirled on her heel to face the direction of the voice.

She squinted to try and get a better look at the vague outline of the man before her. Dinner would just have to wait.

"You must be Baron Monticourt," she said primly. She stepped away from the table, partly to get a better look at the Baron, and partly because she was afraid that the temptation to dig into the meal would be too great. She did not want to risk being rude in front of the man who was partly responsible for rescuing her.

"I have not heard much about you, sir, but I am quite grateful for all of your help today." She lifted her skirts into a small curtsy. "I did not think I would ever see the outside of Proud Spire again. I thank you for that."
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“Think nothing of it My Lady Cecilia,” replied the shrouded man, his voice eloquent and proper to the point, annunciating each word to the syllable,”it is my duty as a loyal subject of Alvion to aid the rightful rulers of the land when they are in need.”

As he finished, Baron Simon Monticourt stepped forward from the darkened corner of the room,revealing himself to Cecilia.
He was of average stature and build. His clothes, though fine, weren’t overly flamboyant and showy. His white beard and graying chestnut hair, which was heavily receded, were neatly groomed.
He stood feet together, arms at his side, and shoulders back. His face held a regal and shrewd expression as he looked upon the Princess.

“Allow me to formal introduce myself Your Majesty,” he said, bowing respectfully as he spoke,”I am Baron Simon Monticourt of Rosaldia, proud subject of Alvion, and loyal to King William Alderton in death as in life, and equally loyal to you Your Ladyship, as his rightful heir.”

He raised from his bowing position, the proud and dignified look still true to his face, he continued,”I am also one of the founders of the Loyalist Coalition, an insurgent group that wishes to see the murderous Serpent Queen Malva Alderton removed from the throne and brought to justice. Furthermore, we wish to see you Lady Cecilia placed on the throne as the righful queen of Alvion.”

He took several slow, cautious steps toward Cecilia, looking at her with intent yet not in an insubordinate manner. He remained silent for a minute, looking Cecilia over with, not ridicule, but a kind of wonder, as well as noticeable pity at her current shape and state.

“Please,” he said, taking Cecilia gently by the arm and guiding her around to her chair,”eat My Lady, you certainly could use a fine meal after what you’ve endured for the last five years. I’ve ordered the maid to boil water and fetch a tub for a bath and get you some decent clothes to wear.”
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Cecilia head her head a little higher when she noticed the pity in his gaze. Though she was more than pitiful in that moment, with her filthy clothes, matted hair, and skinny frame, she was still a princess and she did not want anyone to see her as anything less than that. It was a hard thing to pull off when one looked as bad as she did, but her proud eyes and her posture worked wonders.

"And how exactly do you plan to overthrow Her Grace?" Cecilia asked. She was curious, to say the least. It had seemed that the Serpent Queen had a loyal following. Where had this "Loyalist Coalition" been the past five years? She added these to the ever-growing list of questions in her head as she followed along with Simon's touch and took her seat at the small table.

Cecilia patted down her skirts properly, though she could barely breathe through the smell of food that took over her senses. She was still a lady, and a lady did not devour food like a wild dog... no matter how hungry she was. She picked up her fork and carefully cut off a piece of the roasted beef before bringing it purposefully to her mouth. In spite of herself, she moaned as the flavors exploded on her tongue. She covered her mouth immediately, cheeks flushing pink with embarrassment. That was... unexpected.

"My apologies, sir," Cecilia said. "But please, if you could tell me more about this Loyalist Coalition of your's. I'm rather intrigued."
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Baron Monticourt ignored her expression of pleasure regarding the food. He in fact wasn’t at all surprised, giving her rather malnourished looking state from being poorly fed in a dungeon for five years. Honestly, she looked and sounded to be in better shape than he had hoped for.

He stood before Cecilia across the table, feet together and arms raised and somewhat crossed over his chest.

“The Loyalist Coalition was founded just four months back, by myself and a few others, whom you will meet tomorrow. For the past few months we’ve been working to organize and supply ourselves, as well as develop plans and strategies for realizing our goal of seeing the Serpent Queen dethroned. We’ve managed to gain the support of several nobles and military officials, and have also secured an impressive amount of funds to support us as well. And now we have you, Your Ladyship. We have successfully rescued the rightful heir to the throne and have laid a foundation for possibility, for a better future. For we believe you will make a far finer and more just Queen than Malva.”

The Baron turned and casually strolled off to Cecilia’s left, toward the rustic old boiler nearby. He continued as he came to a stop before the old contraption,”In short Your Majesty, by securing your safety, we now have you as a beacon of hope. More will rally to our cause when they see that we not only rescued you, but wish to see you acclaim the throne of Alvion. I know you have made no commitment yet, and forgive me if I speak out of line Your Ladyship, but you must realize we are your only hope in reclaiming your birthright from your wicked aunt.”
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Cecilia chewed deliberately as he spoke, nodding where appropriate. Honestly, it was hard to concentrate when her senses were suddenly alive with all the things that she had been lacking the last five years. The surprising warmth of the cellar... the taste and smell of the delicious food. She nearly missed a few things that he said, but kept forcing herself to pay attention.

She swallowed and looked down at the plate to see that she had nearly devoured everything in the amount of time that it took Baron Monticourt to tell his tale. For once, she did not care if he thought that it was unladylike. For the first time in a very long time, her belly was full of warm food. She savored the feeling as she turned in her chair to face him properly.

"So I am an icon for your cause," she said. It was not an accusation, merely an observation. She nodded gently. She could live with that. If it meant reclaiming her birth right, then she could be an icon.

All the rage and plans for revenge that had died in the cell beneath Proud Spire years ago slowly began to smolder again inside of the princess. Back then, there had been no hope. She was just a stupid girl with no family, no subjects, and no power to right the wrongs that had been done to her. But now? This man stood before her and told her of an entire following of nobles and military men who were apparently loyal to her. It was hard to believe, but well... how else would they have managed to break her out of the castle?

"I am forever indebted to you and the rest of your men for rescuing me," she said graciously. "And I will gladly join your cause." He was right. They were her only hope.

Her eyes slid towards the cellar door. Now that she had eaten, she was looking forward to that bath that he had mentioned earlier. Imagine that. A proper bath. Her skin was already prickling excitedly at the notion.
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Baron Monticourt winced slightly at her icon statement. In a sense she was right, she would act as a beacon of rally against Malva and her supporters, being as she was the legitimate heir, opposite of Malva who usurped it through assassination and plotting. Though at the same time, he didn’t want her to think they were simply using her as a puppet for their own ends and agenda.
The Baron had very much liked her father William and respected him as a king and a man. The Baron was among many who could practically smell the stink of plotting and scheming behind Malva’s rise to power, and like many, he despised her rise and rule as Queen of Alvion. The oppression, the tyranny, the totalitarian government, it was wretched.

The Baron’s eyes lit up however on Cecilia’s words of acceptance, her agreement to aid in the Loyalist cause against Malva’s regime.
“Splendid, magnificent,” he said, trying to contain his glee,”I’ll inform the others when they arrive tomorrow. Lord Cromley and Sir Harper will be eager to meet you, Princess. They’re both co-founders of the Loyalist Coalition and my friends. They’re good men and hold no love at all for the Serpent Queen. We do have more to talk about, but I imagine your ready for a hot bath and a good night’s rest. I’ll be staying up in the inn, so if you need anything, come upstairs and find me, Your Ladyship. Before I go, is there anything else you need or want?”
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"I am eager to meet them, as well," Cecilia said. Her previously stoic expression broke into an almost pleasant smile. It was a little strained, and somewhat unfamiliar to the princess after having no reason to smile for so long, but it was a start. "And I look forward to discussing things at length with you all in the morning... but you're right. For now, I just want to take a proper bath and sleep in a real bed." Her smile grew more genuine at the mention.

As thankful as she was to Baron Monticourt and the others for their kindness, she was exhausted. It had been a long day. As it turned out, freedom was tiring work. At his final request, she could only offer him a look of appreciation. "I think you've done quite enough for me for one day," Cecilia said. "I'm sure I'll have more questions than you could possibly answer and even more requests in the morning, but for now, I'm content." In fact, she was more than content. She felt amazing. The air was sweeter. Breathing was easier. Her stomach was not aching from lack of nutrition.

It did not take long for the maid to come with a tub for her, which was filled with steaming hot water, and a neatly folded set of clean clothes. The princess waited until the cellar doors closed and she was finally alone before she peeled the ragged dress from her body. For a few minutes, she stood before the bath - her old clothes a pile at her feet - and examined her nakedness. She was marked with angry red rashes in places from the dirty clothes, and her skin was dry and irritated. Her wrists and ankles were scarred from her early days in the dungeons when she had been shackled. She was bony, malnourished, and pale. Not the kind of alabaster pale that was considered beautiful among women her age, but sickly pale.

Just as carefully as she had pinned it back that morning in preparation for her execution, Cecilia untied her hair from its braid and let it fall lank and heavy over her shoulders. She stepped into the bath and lowered herself down, gasping ever so slightly as the hot water touched her skin.

For a long while she just laid there, breathing in the steamy air. When the water began to cool, she dunked her head down and washed the years of grime and knots from her hair. When she moved her hand away from her head, strings of hair hung from her fingers where it had fallen out. The princess didn't care. What was a little hair when she now had a whole life ahead of her?

She crawled into the bed situated in the corner of the cellar looking like a new woman. Her skin was pink from the hot water, and her wet hair braided properly over her shoulder instead of tucked back into a matted mess. She had a spring in her step and a new light in her eyes as she sunk into the soft sheets.

A part of her mind wondered if she really had died that morning, because surely this was the Promised Land. With that thought in mind, Cecilia drifted off to sleep, a content smile on her face.
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At the break of dawn, the village of Willowshire was awakened by the chorus of crowing roosters and barking dogs. Within the hour after first light, the village was already lively and at work. Farmers were checking and watering their fields, the village blacksmith could be heard hard at work with hammer and tongs at his forge, the wives of the farmers were at work as well, be it tending to the house or children, or milking the cows or tending to the chickens. Hunters had already departed their homes, their bows in hand and dogs in tow as they descended into the wilderness south of town to hunt for game, be it for food or to sell at the market in Dalhorst.

The inn was more or less empty for now, the only ones inside being Hans, the owner and barkeep, and Isabell, the maid, server, and flutist for the inn, and of course Baron Monticourt, who awaited for his two colleagues to arrive so they all might meet with the Princess and plan their first course of action.

While Hans and Isabell weren’t members of the Loyalists cause, they still shared their ideals, and both had no love at all for Malva and her illegitimate rule. They both agreed to house and care for the Princess, as well as keep her identity a secret. While there was little-to-no support for Malva in Willowshire, it was still prudent to keep Cecilia’s identity and location a secret. While Willowshire was of no major importance, patrols passed through town every couple of weeks, as well as many who would gladly turn over Cecilia to the Queen. After all, it was obvious that Malva would spend the next many weeks turning all of Alvion inside-out searching for Cecilia so’s to arrest her and have her executed, eliminating any chance of losing the throne. It only made sense that Malva would have bounties and wanted missives sent across the kingdom, and Baron Monticourt did not wish to risk some greedy merchant or some farmer down on his luck to turn in Cecilia for a hefty payment in coin.

If Cecilia was captured, all would be lost. There would be no chance for a second rescue. Malva would have her under the highest security and executed immediately to avoid her escaping again. And without Cecilia as their figurehead, their icon of revolution against tyranny, the Loyalists would never gain the needed support to topple Malva from the throne. Princess Cecilia was important in so many ways it was practically inconceivable.

___________________________________________________________________________


It was later that morning, just two hours short of noon when a knocking came at the door to the cellar. It was Baron Monticourt and his two associates, whom had finally arrived after a long journey across the countryside. They now stood huddled together outside the door, awaiting Cecilia’s permission to enter the cellar.
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When the knock came upon the cellar door, Cecilia had just finished getting herself together. She had awakened early. For once, it was not because of the gruff voice of the jailer, or Malcolm banging on her cell door, or even because she had not slept the night before. No, the princess awakened early that morning because she was excited for the day. It was a foreign feeling... having something to look forward to. She had awakened with crowing of the roosters, and instead of rolling back over in the bed and sleeping away as much as the day as she could (since time went faster when you were sleeping, of course), she had crawled out of the heavenly bed in the cellar and started to clean herself up.

"Come in!" she called in response to the knock. She straightened the chairs at the table beside her bed before returning to the bed to fix the sheets one last time before her guests could arrive. Once her cellar was presentable, she waited with her hands clasped at the front of her skirts for the Loyalist Coalition to arrive.

It was hard to believe that the young woman waiting inside the cellar was the same person that had been ushered down the stairs the previous evening. The clothes that had been provided for her were far from courtly or fashionable, but they were fresh and clean. She wore a simple white shirt tucked into a light green skirt that ended just at her ankles. On her feet (which had been bare for so long that she nearly forgot what shoes felt like), she wore brown shoes that were just a little too large but comfortable and sturdy, nonetheless. Her hair had been untied from its braid and now fell in soft, chestnut waves around her shoulders that perfectly framed her round face. While she looked far from a princess, she no longer looked like she had been dragged out of the sewers.

"Good morning, Baron Monticourt," she said cheerfully at the sight of the man that she had met the night before. "And you two must be Lord Cromley and Sir Harper." She bowed her head respectfully to the two unfamiliar men. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
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Baron Monticourt smiled and gave a slight bow to Cecilia as the three of them approached after descending into the cellar.

“Good morning, Princess,” he said,”I trust you had a good night’s sleep. These men as you have guessed are my two associates, and cofounders of the Loyalist Coalition. Introducing Lord Weldon Cromley and Sir Robert Harper.”

The two men bowed respectfully as they were introduced to the Princess.
Lord Weldon Cromleywas a man of thin build and average height.
He wore the clothing of a nobleman, a deep colored coat, a fine vest and tunic underneath it, dark colored trousers that matched his coat, and a pair of fine leather shoes topped with silver buckles. He was a grim looking man that looked to be in his late thirties to early forties. His age-pocked face was frozen in a permanent look of foreboding.

Sir Robert Harperwas a far younger gentleman that both Lord Cromley and the Baron, looking to be in his late twenties. He was dressed far simply than both men as well, wearing a simple black tunic with a high collar and a pair of cream colored trousers and brown leather boots, worn around the edges slightly. His face held a state of seriousness and dignity, opposed to the unfriendly gloom of Lord Cromley’s expression. He was taller than the other two men as well, they’re heads even with his shoulders. At his side he wore a glimmering sword of steel, with a dual edged blade and a sharp tip, the hilt and pommel were ornamented with unique designs of twisted flame.

Lord Cromley spoke first, having raised from his bow first,”Good morning Princess Cecilia Alderton, I am Lord Cromley of Riven, it is an honorable privilege to meet you. I’m glad to see that your well, especially after what you’ve been through.”
His voice was smooth and oily as one might say, like that of a sly merchant or a two-faced politician. He smiled thinly, his mouth forcing dimples into his haggard cheeks.

Sir Harper spoke next,”Your Majesty, it’s an honor to meet you and a pleasure to see that you are well. I am Sir Robert Harper of Rosaldia, I am a knight of Alvion and serve in the court of the good Baron here.”
Sir Harper’s voice was more assertive and strong, bold even, opposite to the refined, sly voice of Lord Cromley.

The Baron gave an affirming nod and looked to the Princess, asking her,”Have you had your breakfast yet, Princess? I don’t wish to rush you, but we’d like to commence with the elaboration of our plans, our first move if you would, and we’ll need your counsel and assistance.”
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The princess nodded to each of the men in turn as they bowed to her. It was completely natural to her, falling back into the pleasantries of court life. Despite not being bowed down to by anyone since she was a child, it felt right. Still, she had to force herself to keep her expression neutral at the sound of Lord Cromley's voice. While he appeared to be a perfectly respectable man, his voice gave her an uneasy feeling.

"I can skip breakfast," Cecilia said. She placed a hand over her stomach and gave the men a wry smile. "I think I'm still full from the feast last night." Truly, the previous night's meal was more than she was used to eating in the run of a week. She suspected that she might not be hungry again for several hours. At the very least, she could wait until lunch.

"I would much rather hear your plans," she continued. "You say that this has been in the works for several months now. I suspect that my rescue was step one of an elaborate plot... I'm anxious to hear all about step two." She ushered them towards the table at the foot of her bed to sit, suspecting that they would commence their meeting in the cellar rather than risk being spotted above ground. She had only been missing for a few hours... surely Malva's entire army was on the prowl for her at this time.
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“Very well,” the Baron said,”gentlemen, let’s have a seat.”

The lord, the noble, and the knight all took a place at the simple table nearby, shifting their weight gently as the rickety chairs freaked beneath them. The Baron cautiously eyed the legs of his chair for a minute before finally relaxing in full. The three of them now sat cross-legged and ready to begin their first little “meeting” with the Princess.

Baron Monticourt spoke first,”Well, Your Ladship, I suppose first you should know what resources and assets we have at our disposal. As Baron of Rosaldia, my political position and power alone can be of great benefit, obviously. I can also offer small amounts of financial support from my treasury, however this is quite limited, as I can’t afford to drain the coffers of my city. You understand of course. There are also several within my realm whom secretly support our cause; guard captains, scribes, city councilmen, lower lords and such. Their particular individual uses can make them invaluable agents in the future. I have actually been working to arrange meetings with other lords and nobles who I know have high discontent for Malva and her illegimate rule, to further our support.”

The Baron had hardly stopped to draw breath when Lord Cromley spoke up, leaning forward slightly as he talked,”I, M’Lady, am our factions primary financial supporter. The immense wealth from my silver empire can be used to fund our cause. We will need weapons and other certain items, which won’t be cheap. Not to mention that potential bribes and buy-outs can be assured to be expensive as well.”

The Baron, who had been listening to Cromley, turned back to Cecilia, adding,”He’s right. Lord Cromley’s fortune can take us far. He in fact holds contracts on several bands of mercenaries...”

“Which I will gladly direct to the Loyalists disposal,” Lord Cromley cut in,”after all, these men are sellswords of little question, as long as they’re paid well, they’ll do nearly anything I command of them. They’re not as desirable as loyal followers of heart, but we’ll have enough of those soon I believe.”

“Indeed,” the Baron affirmed,”and, Your Majesty, as for Sir Harper here, he will act as your bodyguard and companion on any ventures or trips you make. Your safety is his utmost responsibility.”

“A responsibility I will see to, even to the death.” Sir Harper said boldly, pressing his right fist to his heart and giving Cecilia a short nod.

“Good man.” Monticourt said, giving Harper and strong pat on his shoulder.

“Lord Monticourt,” Cromley said,”I believe that we should inform Princess Cecilia of our next course of action, ‘step two’ as she put it.”

“Of course,” the Baron said with a nod, turning to Cecilia,”I next step, Your Highness, is diplomacy. We need to gather more allies before we take any direct action against the Queen. I have arranged a meeting for next week with three other men who I believe will be of great boon to our cause. And for that, Your Majesty, we will need your help.”
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Cecilia met each man's gaze as they took their turns talking, staying completely silent the entire time. Her lips were pressed together, her gaze level, and her hands folded neatly in her lap as they told her of their plans. She realized in that moment that she was completely and utterly unprepared for this. She was not a Queen. She was orphaned at the age of 15, and had spent her entire adult life living in a dungeon. What little her father had taught her might have been handy at fancy parties and public functions, but this was not some jousting tournament or ball. This was real. This was war.

A short burst of panic made her heart race, but she kept her expression stoic despite her mind's protests of what are you doing? Are you out of your mind?

When they finally stopped speaking, she cleared her throat quietly. It took another moment for her to calm her pounding heart. Finally, she spoke, her voice perfectly even. "So you would propose that the next step is a tour of sorts," she said. It made sense. Cromley's fortune, while beneficial, could only take them so far. Just as Monticourt's connections had their limits. They needed her face, her voice, and her cause to get enough of the kingdom behind her to take town Malva. "Gather enough men and influence to have a chance against the Queen." So this was the 'icon' bit that she had Monticourt had discussed the night before.

"I must say now, Lord Cromley, that I am not too fond of the idea of hiring mercenaries," she added sharply. "My father led noble, loyal men who were loyal only to him. The idea of buying an army is one that I am wary of." Her expression was stern. "What's to say that they would not sell our secrets and turn their swords on us at the instruction of a higher bidder? There are many in Alvion who are just as loyal to Malva as they are to me, and would not hesitate to empty their pockets to see her stay in control."

She shook her head. "Everything else is fine, but I'll not put my life in the hands of sellswords." The way that her blue eyes darkened suggested that this was not up for discussion.

"Who are these men that we'll be meeting with?" the princess asked, moving on to the next issue. "And what is it exactly that you need for me to do?"
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