Our group eats in relative silence. I catch Lady Lance opening her mouth to speak but not saying a word. She does that a few times, sometimes looking at Patrick, others staring at Yvonne.
She probably wants to know the specifics of what Yvonne discussed with him. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was nothing special, Patrick is the heir to a count and the Izla is on the brink of a dangerous war.
He probably decided that he’d report my crimes to the temple guards and be done with it, certain that I wouldn’t be able to escape punishment.
And he wouldn’t be wrong, no one escapes from the Templars for very long if they want to find you. Not Nobility, not Bourgeoisie, not Peasantry. I can’t stay on the Izla. The thought emerges again, repeating itself. Lady Lance doesn’t seem too worried about it but it isn’t her life on the line.
I think that I’m likely to be sentenced to fight in Izla Meria’s army for the duration of the war to be pardoned but I have no fucking intention of sticking around on the off-chance they decide to just execute me to make an example because I only have one arm so it wouldn’t be as much of a loss.
My only change is to be off the Izla by the time the Lordling reports my transgressions to the Order in Meria. It shouldn’t be too hard to achieve, I’ll grab father and we can sell all the grain we kept in reserve for the sowing in the village.
Lady Lance’s previous words insinuate that something will happen soon. I throw a glance her way, finding her looking back at me. I make a small nod to acknowledge that I saw her and prevent the moment from becoming awkward. I get back to my bowl and finish eating.
I need to keep my distance from her. I remind myself. That means no more reaching out. She was clear in her refusal and I must follow my own path once free from this valley or I’ll just end up in a different prison.
I had hoped to make her accept me during the short amount of time that we’d spend together. That’s obviously not something Lady Lance wants. Actually, I have no idea what she wants… It’s too late to ask and the answer won’t change a thing. It’s time to stop trying and go back to reality.
I’ll stop pushing now that Lady Lance has made her position clear, we have a chance to be together in the future and it might work but I refuse to stick around to suffer the consequences of my actions.
Nothing about what I said or did feels especially wrong to me but that doesn’t matter, life isn’t fair so it would be foolish to expect equitable treatment from the Templars after what I did, regardless of the legends surrounding them.
I get up and make my way to my bed, the one I left empty for the last… three nights I think, I don’t have very clear memories of the first night. I hop in and lay on the sheet of fabric. It’s best to maintain myself as far from her as I can from now on.
I lack the self-control to both keep pursuing her and maintain my resolve to go on my own separate way once we are free. If I even survive the attempt. I hear steps approaching my bed.
“Jessica?” Lady Lance whispers.
“Leomi?” I reply without giving myself time to reconsider directly using her name.
I need to draw a line of my own and breaking my habit is a good way to do that. How humorous. My direct use of her name instead of her title pushes us further apart. She stays quiet, long enough that it is obvious to me that she caught on to the change in my behavior.
“Tonight, we…” Lady Lance abruptly speaks up but interrupts herself just as quickly. “No, never-mind.” She expels the words out with a sigh. I turn my head slightly to gaze at her, her expression is tentative, hesitant. So unlike herself, a break from the Lady I crushed on at first sight.
“My Lady?” I press her on as the tide of my rekindled hopes instantly break my fresh resolve to keep my distance.
“We can still lay together, I… It also brings me comfort to have you by my side.” Her proposal is tempting, but the line remains there. The meaning behind her words is cold water thrown over my feelings. This makes one time too many.
“No, Leomi.” I counter harshly. “It’s now or never. I can’t keep doing this if you refuse to commit to anything. This… game has exhausted me.”
“We’ll have time, later.” Lady Lance presses on without a shred of doubt in her voice.
“With the coming war? I still need to go back and warn Father if we ever escape. This time right now is all that we’ll get together. If you’re right and we do have a future… We can talk then.” But I doubt it since I have no intention of sticking around to be put on trial. “Will you be with me now?” I ask directly.
“I… Jessica, I…” I wait for her answer in silence, the fact that she is wavering awakens a longing expectation in me. “No. Not here, not now.” She finishes with what seems to be a renewed resolve, finally putting an end to our story together. At least, this is it for me.
“Then, that’s that.” I utter in a frosty tone. “I don’t think I should keep sleeping near you.” I feel the cold of my voice affect me deeply, all the way inside. I break away from her gaze and close my eyes soon after.
A full minute later, I hear her turn around and walk away. I experience some sadness and regret at that but they don’t move me in the slightest, the icy feeling clasped over my heart is sturdier than my self-control ever was. Life goes on.
— — —
I wake up alone, earlier than I did the other mornings if the lack of light in the room is any indication. I don’t linger in bed, knowing from experience that my thoughts won’t lead anywhere pleasant if I lay there alone with myself.
I look around but find no one else up, I can barely see the top of their noses over the bed frames. I make my way out of the building, intending to find the Princess and ask some questions.
Lady Lance is afraid of what she could do to us and I think she has a more realistic view of the situation than I do, but I do believe I have a more accurate assessment of Celyz than she does. If she intended to torture us, she would have by now, waiting seems like a waste of her hive’s time and resources.
As I think back to the path that Princess Celyz took to guide me to the library building, I hear someone else leaving the building. I turn and find Yvonne.
“Got a second for me, Jessica?” She asks.
“Sure, but can I trust a fungus?” I reply with a wink, a bit of a forced attempt to be casual but she rolls her eyes and smiles in response so it somewhat worked as intended.
“I just want to tell you that Patrick will back off, I haven’t forgotten that I owe you my life twice over.”
“Thanks.” I stretch a small smile on my lips. “Doesn’t change the fact that he’s right, I am a traitor.”
“We’ll be able to figure that out, you shouldn’t worry too much. I know Patrick’s behavior is inexcusable, but if I can just say something so you can understand his actions?”
“Sure.” I shrug. “It’s the way of Nobility to look down on us, he just takes it to another level.”
“He is… maybe not young but he is inexperienced and his best friend, Nicolas, died in the ambush.”
“Look, I don’t want to make it sound too harsh but…” She makes a distinct nod to push me onward. “This whole thing, it ruined my life beyond reparation at this point. I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t blame you, but Patrick? He’s a minor issue, a dangerous one but still so small compared to the loss of my arm and how that’s going to affect my future.”
“If Leomi doesn’t or can’t help you, I will.” Yvonne tries to reassure me.
“I’m not staying within that maniac’s political reach.” I shake my head negatively. “Besides, you’re naive if you think that your retainers will let me, a one-armed peasant with no skills or education, take a position they desire without at least trying to make my life difficult enough to make me quit.”
“I… I didn’t think it through enough, I’m sorry Jessica.” Yvonne makes a difficult face, lowering her head.
“I don’t blame you for not knowing, you’re Nobility.” I shrug again, a habit that seems to be ingraining itself in me, a defensive mechanism. Easier to pretend something doesn’t affect you than to face it head-on. “I’ve seen enough to realize the Lordling represents the worst of his kind.” I shake my head. “I’m sorry but I don’t have enough faith or trust in your ability to protect me to stick around once we’re out of this valley. You’ll inevitably need him or his father’s cooperation to fight the Rykz off and I don’t think he’ll be afraid to use this against you to gain other benefits. I should be able to run far enough away that the war here will make him and the Templars too busy to deal with me.”
“We can help with the Order at least. Exemplars have clout.” Yvonne tries to mask how much what I just said affects her.
“Thanks, that would be great.” I give her a reassuring smile, her empathy for my situation is heartwarming. “I’m going to confront the Princess with a few things.” I tell her to move the conversation along.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” She makes a worried frown.
“It would be too risky for you, but I… I need some answers while I can get them.” I’m pretty sure the Princess has plans for me specifically and that should give me some leeway, not to mention I might be able to leverage what she wants to, maybe… obtain my Lady’s freedom I exchange.
“Be careful, Jessica, they’re not fucking around. Don’t be fooled by the Princess’ friendly facade.” Yvonne warns me.
“I will.” I nod.
She goes back inside and I start making my way. I manage to get to what I think is the general area of the library but after a while, searching, I get myself lost because of how similar the buildings look compared to each other.
I didn’t think it would be too much of an issue thanks to the black door of that specific structure and I turn out to be right since I find the door after searching the streets in widening circles.
I push it open by placing my fingers somewhere with a thinner coating of black substance. I enter, finding Princess Celyz leaning over her desk. She stays silent and doesn’t mention my intrusion so I just walk in.
As I approach, I find that she is studying what I immediately recognize as a detailed map of the Izla that seems to be have had every available detail about the terrain noted down on it. There are even lines drawn between the villages that obviously represent the leylines.
I scoff a little internally, Buton was so insistent to keep the map he gave me safe when he only thought the tunnel was just the work of smugglers, and now I find that the Rykz have an even more detailed map of the Izla.
“How did you gather that kind of information?” I ask her.
“Hum, we had three years to look for them. There aren’t very many possible configurations for a leyline network that connects to every settlement.” The Princess answers without changing position, one of her tendrils passes over the map just close enough to brush over every indentation on its surface.
“You’re going to block them, you wouldn’t gather that kind of detailed information if you weren’t. It must have taken a lot of effort to do this covertly.” I note.
“Indeed. I just need one more moment to memorize something.” She says.
I nod, letting her get back to it. I walk up to one of the shelves filled with books and pick a book at random. I expect to find some kind of odd protruding Rykz writing but instead, I recognize the Empire’s alphabet.
I read the first paragraph. It describes the process of mixing wrought iron and cast iron to make steel. I close the book and open another, finding it to also about metallurgy. I change shelf, the first book on it is about a farming method known as crop rotation.
Never heard anyone doing that, we have fields of wheat and fields of corn, why would you alternate what you grow? It would just add an unnecessary complication. I keep reading but the book only describes the method, I skip ahead and find a page with a load of numbers in columns. Results in hard numbers I suppose.
“Found something interesting?” Princess Celyz asks from the desk, without turning around.
“Maybe, it looks like a record or a journal, it doesn’t really explain why they would rotate crops in the first place.” I reply.
“Something to do with letting our Mother Earth rest as I recall.”
“It seems to me like the method requires sowing and harvesting more often than what I have the experience of doing. That is hardly letting the soil rest.”
“You would need to ask a sister of mine.”
“How do you read this?” I ask.
“We ask of the merchants who sell them to us to read them first so that we can transcribe them in our writing. Those copies are safely sent back to our home, the Silver Hive. Either way, knowledge accumulated is never wasted.” She finishes with an enthusiastic rumble in her voice.
“Speaking of knowledge and the pursuit of it…” I let my sentence die out, uncertain how to breach the subject of torture. How do you ask someone, some being, why they’re not clipping pieces off of you until you tell them everything they want to know?
“Oh yes, that reminds me.” Princess Celyz speaks up with resounding curiosity, her whole body turning around in one swaying motion, her tail swooshing behind her to help her stay balanced on her odd feet. “I am curious.”
“About me?” Again? I think back to the last time she was, blushing a little.
“Yes, you’ve spoken to me freely since the start. You are exchanging with me like you would with another intelligent being despite the fact that we are responsible for the loss of your arm. The other members of your group did not do that when we captured them and aren’t doing it now, why do you behave differently?”
“It’s sad but I think the answer to your question is just habit. I am used to having someone with power over my life, you just have a bit more. The war you’ll wage against the kingdom is a distant notion to me right now. I’ve been focused on not getting myself killed in the present, a future calamity doesn’t hold as much weight, no matter how large. There is also the fact that I didn’t really know those who died in the ambush.”
“I think I understand, it is a difference in perspective between you and the Nobles. A worker will think of the task while the Princess needs to foresee what impact it will have on the future of the hive. What about your arm?” She asks.
I grit my teeth to control the bitterness I feel on the subject.
“Your scout burned my arm.” I try my best to utter the words as calmly as I can. “But I lost it because they estimated that it wasn’t worth spending the necessary flow energy on a civilian when they could be attacked at any moment.”
“An unavoidable tactical decision when surrounded by the unknown.” She comments.
“Just as tactically viable as your ambush. Tell me, who should I start blaming? What would that get me? My arm is gone, I need to move on from that without burning every bridge around me.” I tell her coolly.
“You are mature for your age if I recall correctly, yes?” She asks.
“I don’t know, I’m seventeen.” I shrug the compliment off, can’t let her manipulate my feelings. “What do you want, Princess?”
“I want my sister back.” Princess Celyz answers despite my expectation of the contrary, her tone of voice vibrates and shakes my very bones. “Caeviel took her from us.”
All of this just for one Rykz Princess?! If Lady Lance is correct, there may be very few of them, but still…
“I don’t think any of us know anything about that.” I edge, starting to feel a bit of fear because of her intensity. I suppress it. This is the time to ask. “And you don’t think so either because you would have tortured us otherwise.”
She unfurls a tendril to wave it sideways between us, swatting the idea away.
“Torture is a barbaric technique, but you are correct in thinking that I would use any means if I thought that they would give me results. But information acquired through torture is unreliable at best because you need to verify each piece of it separately to avoid stepping into a trap by lack of knowledge.” She pauses. “The amount of lies mixed with truth taints the whole method since you only know whether you were lied to for certain after you’ve verified or acted on it. Historically, some of the most valuable information was hard to believe at first and that adds another complication. Threats against hostages to coerce information out of a subject has had more success, but that still has its own risks as the victim is liable to distrust the deal and lie regardless of the consequences, or simply decide that their duty stands above the safety of the hostage. No, the practice is too barbaric in execution for such unreliable results, not to mention the investment in time and resources necessary to verify the information doesn’t always guarantee that a trick wasn’t played since you only actually know for sure until you make a move. It is foolish to trust something obtained forcefully so why take a risk when there is another path?”
Finding out that she isn’t going to torture us isn’t a surprise and the confirmation means very little to me, even less than I thought it would. I can’t wave Leomi’s fears away with just the Princess’ word. Asking about it only makes me feel even more let down, defeated.
“You want me to betray Caeviel? The Empire? That’s the other path, isn’t it.” I ask. “Why? What can I do that your hive cannot also accomplish with its resources?”
“There are some things we cannot do by the very nature of what we are.” She gives me an annoyingly cryptic answer.
I think back to our conversations to find hints, what can’t the Rykz do? As I scour my memories, I hit on our discussion about the past and their extensive knowledge of the events that unfolded back then.
That leads me to my thought about how I would look with green skin. I would stand out in a bad way, be different. People would point at me, gossip, be suspicious. That would suck, but regardless.
“That’s it.” I realize. “That’s what you want, a human spy because Rykz are too easily recognizable, too physically different from a human to get anywhere near a settlement without raising an alarm. I know you crave knowledge but it doesn’t make sense to ask me. Patrick is already convinced I am your spy, what could I possibly achieve even if you let us go.” Wait. “No. I refuse to spy for you unless you also release them.”
“I’m certain I could negotiate you down to releasing you with just the other two and keep Patrick. Or I could have forced you to spy for me while keeping the other three as hostages. But I’ve already explained to you why I will not use such means, have I not?”
“Too much risk, you couldn’t trust someone coerced to spy for you because I may betray you at the worst time.” I pause. “Because the goal is to recover your sister, you need someone you can trust.”
“Yes, indeed, I knew you would put it together if I only gave you the barest of hints.”
“I wouldn’t characterize everything you’ve told me as minor.” I self-deprecatingly wave the compliment off. “Couldn’t I convince you to turn wholeheartedly if you let them go?”
“No, this has to be a free choice, not a trade.” She shakes her head negatively.
“What’s the point of turning traitor for nothing?” I ask, exasperated because I expected her to be more forward with information now that I’ve guessed what her game is.
“You will be able to negotiate the price of your help, I do not ask for you to do this for free.”
“But you won’t let them go even after I turn.”
“Probably not, you would need to give us something that outweighs the liability they represent if freed with all the information they have gathered so far.”
“I don’t have anything with that kind of value, could you be convinced to keep them alive and imprisoned while I help you?”
“That is still blackmail.” She shakes her head in the negative once more. “Out dealings must be separate from…”
“I know.” I cut her off. “Sorry, I’m thinking.” I add hurriedly.
Is there a way around this? Why bother making me guess if there isn’t a solution around? Unless… She tried to drive wedges between me and them just yesterday.
She made me guess because if she approached me with the idea, I would have rejected her head on. The difference is that right now I’m actually considering it seriously. That ties into what she told us, that we could die here.
“We have a way to replace your arm.” Princess Celyz says in a low voice, almost a whisper.