Alanti heard them before she saw them, pounding feet echoing through the sewer tunnels where the Skyward Rebellion eked out an existence.
She recognised their faces - Kale and Thren - two new recruits to the cause, barely out of their teenage years, facial hair little more than pale blonde fluff.
Thren clutched at his shoulder, a crossbow bolt buried deep.
Alanti dropped from the archway above the cistern gracefully as the boys entered, Kale carrying Thren by his unhurt shoulder. The young boy was crying.
"Kale," Alanti said, greeting them with open arms. "What happened?"
Two others appeared from one of the tunnels on the other side of the cistern, taking Thren's weight.
"Dulaen said he saw the princess in the bazaar," Kale said, panic in his voice. "When we went to see if he was being truthful, the Talon's men descended on us from the roofs."
The boy spoke of Talon Grey, the king's spymaster. Although not anymore, it seemed, since the bells had tolled little more than an hour earlier.
"Dead, along with Garren and Tom," Kale said. "We failed."
Alanti placed a hand on the young boy's shoulder.
"You survived," she said. "That is not failing."
Kale nodded and left the cistern. Alanti would have to tell Gideon, although she doubted it would be high on his list of priorities currently.
Ever since they had heard of King Aradane's death, their charismatic leader had been cheerfully celebrating in the main room with several others. She was less cheerful - the death of one sickly king did not mean their struggle was over, as the crossbow bolt in Thren's shoulder illustrated perfectly.
Pulling her hood up, she left the cistern and followed the tunnels up to the main rooms. Since the rebellion's inception some three years prior, the sewers beneath the slums of the city, known as the Labyrinth, had been appropriated and turned into living space and a training area rolled into one.
It had worried Alanti at first, being so close to the very rulers they were undermining, but eventually she had grown used to it, and soon began to find comfort in it. The Burrows were very well hidden - simple charms were cast on select junctures of the tunnels that had not yet been converted, and any Sentinel patrols that came looking for them simply became lost in the darkness before retreating.
She climbed a ladder and further in she began to hear the drunken revelry emanating from the main hall. Inside, the smell of warm booze hit her like a wave, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Gideon Markham, leader of the foul Skyward Rebellion, singing drunkenly with his breeches by his ankles.
Around him, a crowd had gathered beside him, joining in with his impromptu rendition of Lo, The Dead Bastard Sleeps.
"My dear lieutenant!" He cried happily, raising an ale pitcher that sloshed over the crowd. "Come, join us."
Alanti was in no mood.
"This is not the time, Gideon," she said. "Two of our agents just returned-"
"There will be no better time, my dear," Gideon said. "Lo, the dead bastard sleeps!"
The crowd whooped and jeered.
Alanti sighed, then slipped her crossbow from her waist and aimed it at him. She pulled the hair trigger and sent a bolt flying, which drove itself through the centre of his pitcher and splintered the wood, spraying the crowd with ale.
The room went deathly silent as she wound the crossbow and slipped it back onto her belt. Gideon sang no more, wiping the ale from his face. For a moment she thought he might leap from the table and kill her.
Then, he laughed. A deep, throaty cackle straight from his belly.
The uproarious laughter spread from him to the crowd, who seemed relieved the tension had broken more than anything. Gideon pulled up his breeches and hopped down from the table, landing on the wet stone flags. He waved the crowd away and approached.
"Can I not have a moment of revelry without you shooting at me?" He asked with a grin.
Alanti smiled. It was hard to resist sharing a smile with him, his personality was infectious. Like ratplague.
"It's important," Alanti said.
Gideon nodded, wiped the ale from his face, and gestured for her to follow.
"Just what is so important you had to interrupt my relaxation time?" Gideon asked, less serious now, as the two walked toward the corridors that led to his makeshift office.
"Kale and Thren returned from their observation around ten minutes ago," Alanti said.
"They are the young boys with the arse fluff on their faces, yes?"
"Yes," Alanti sighed as Gideon held a door open for her. "They ran into the Talon's men whilst they were tailing the princess in the market. Dulaen, Garren and Tom were all killed. Thren has a bolt in his shoulder."
"The princess? Out of the palace?" Gideon asked, apparently ignoring the news that three of their dwindling blades had been killed. They found the steel door of his office and pushed it open, stepping inside.
In one corner, a candle burned, searing away the lingering stench of the sewers. On his desk, worm eaten and dusty, papers and tomes were scattered. His bed was unmade in the corner.
"They were out of their depth," Alanti said. "Their orders were to keep watch."
"They took an opportunity," Gideon said, taking a seat at his desk. "They should be commended. Why the princess was out of the palace I do not know - she has always been a free spirit, that one."
"They should have known that the Talon's spies would be watching," she said. "They always are. She always is. You forget that they are not all soldiers, Gideon, some of them are barely more than boys..."
"Thren and Kale are both eighteen, correct?" Gideon asked shortly. "Both men. Both old enough to fight for their city, and to know what that entails."
"Nevertheless, I think it would be sensible to remind the others that their jobs are to report, not to fight. We are outmatched without the element of surprise."
Gideon sighed and leaned forward, his face serious.
"Some of them grow restless," he said. "They are tired of waiting. They say we are eight hundred strong and have the voice of the people behind us."
Alanti narrowed her eyes.
"You are saying we should storm Heavensreach?" Alanti asked, incredulous.
"Even I am not so foolish as to order that," Gideon said. "We would be crushed by the time we reached the Crossing. No, brute force is not the way we win this. But tell me, my dear lieutenant, how much longer can we stay down here, hiding in the sewers? Waiting for the Talon to descend on us? Our cause is what bound us together but if we lose momentum we will lose the fight."
Gideon was right, and Alanti knew it. Three years was a lot of time to spend in the sewers when you were promised revolution.
"Princess Ora," Alanti said. "She will be crowned within the month. If we can get to her, speak with her. I refuse to believe she is not reasonable."
"I believe the time for discussion is long past," Gideon frowned. "Even if she was sympathetic to our cause..."
"If we could bring her here, show her that we are not criminals, but citizens with a voice," Alanti said. "If we could show her men like Kale and Thren..."
"Alanti," Gideon said, rising. "Are you proposing what I believe you are proposing?"
Alanti nodded and placed her hands onto the desk.
"Yes," she said, firmly. "I believe I am."
The plan had sounded simple, if ambitious, in Alanti's head. Wait for the princess to reveal herself at her father's funeral, separate her from her guards and bring her back to the Burrows. Only without the influence of the Royal Council would they have any chance of bending her ear.
"You have finally gone off the deep end, Gideon," Morten Branagh, the rebellion's sergeant, said, laughing incredulously. "Truly."
They were stood around the war table in one of the main cisterns, looking over the map of the city, with Gideon and Alanti at the head. Scattered across the table were small figurines showing where each faction had the most influence.
The gold of the assorted noble houses, including the Streylens, spread from Heavensreach to the lower bazaar. Across the rest of the map, mainly covering the Labyrinth, the Flags and several of the other districts, was the deep blue of the rebellion.
Branagh was a former noble and now led the largely untrained militia the rebellion considered an 'army'.
"It makes sense, Branagh," Gideon, now sober and fully armoured, said.
"Yes, if you are looking to get our men slaughtered," Branagh countered. "I know Heavensreach well. It is a fortress, unassailable."
Alanti leaned forward.
"I agree," she said. "Which is why we wait until she leaves the palace. Aradane's funeral procession will go through the main square of the Flags to get to the cathedral. We can place agents in the crowd and when they return to the palace, we strike."
Branagh shook his head. Alanti did not doubt he was one of the voices calling for all out war, he had no political mind.
He's a fool, Gideon had once said, but a fool who knows how to fight.
"You put too much faith in this one, Gideon," Branagh said, looking at Alanti.
The fat man had never liked her - her dark skin marked her as Ironhaven, which is all he saw, no matter that she had lived almost her entire life in the same city as him.
When her brother Temas had convinced her the rebellion were the way forward, she had expected men like Branagh. And men like Branagh had not been happy when Gideon had recognised her ability, which had made her determined to show them what she was capable of.
"Have you forgotten my name, Branagh?" Alanti said. "I can remind you, if you wish."
Branagh scowled and Gideon laughed.
"Please, you two, let us not get caught up in petty squabbles," he said. "This is our time. The king lies in state and his council is in disarray. Our best chance to avoid war is by approaching the princess and convincing her we do not wish to fight."
"I believe she will struggle to see past the men of hers we leave in the ground to get to her," Branagh said.
"If we do this wrong she will see it as a slight, and we will lose any chance we have of convincing her," she said. "We will be quick and quiet. The alchemists claim they have perfected the white mist - we will be little more than fleeting shadows."
Branagh grunted and shifted in his armour uncomfortably.
"And of the Talon?" He asked.
"We have several agents in her network," Alanti said. "Not many, but enough to feed her false information that should keep her distracted long enough for us to strike."
Branagh nodded slowly.
"We are taking a great risk," he said, picking up a table piece that symbolised the Streylen house. "If this new would-be queen is not as reasonable as you believe..."
"Then we must consider other avenues," Gideon said, sadly, and Alanti saw him meet Branagh's gaze. "But I am as keen as anyone to avoid more bloodshed. I trust Alanti."
He nodded gently at Alanti.
"Very well," Branagh said. "I will collect the men with the most experience and have them to you by the end of the week. We have a lot to prepare."
"Indeed we do," Gideon replied as the old man dismissed himself.
Once he had gone, Gideon relaxed, leaning up the table. Alanti knew convincing men like Branagh required a confident, macho front, and it appeared to take a lot of him.
"Thank you," Alanti said. "For trusting me."
"You've never given me reason not to," he replied, giving her a warm glance before leaving.
Alanti stood there, looking over the war table, hoping that his words would still be true in a fortnight.