Lady Lance lets my hand go when we come into sight of our building. I still feel the cool touch of her fingers on my hand, it lingers and I press my palm against my chest for reasons I can’t formulate.
“Don’t go anywhere today or tomorrow, alright?” She tells me when we’re just a few steps away from the entrance.
“Where would I go?” I ask.
“Just trust me.” She replies.
That’s… easy to say. I stay silent and that seems to be enough for her. We walk in, Yvonne and Patrick are sitting in front of each other while staring at a vague drawing drawn on the stone floor in small white lines.
“There has to be a tunnel that leads in the general direction of Meria.” Patrick affirms.
“Does it matter whether it exists or not if we can’t find it?” Yvonne replies, a bit annoyed. “We know the location of the tunnel we took to enter the valley, the stone doors will be hard to move but not impossible.”
“The doors aren’t the problem, we would encounter some if we find a tunnel east anyway. Our issue is that the Rykz occupy the twins, their hive occupies the center of the Izla. If we run west, towards where we came from, they will send soldiers north and south of us, we would never be able to escape their encircling. Our only option will then be to fortify ourselves inside Buton’s dungeon while they lay siege to us and pillage the region. The only direction that can provide us with a haven against their pursuit is the east, towards Meria.” He explains.
“No!” I almost yell out but I manage to keep the volume of my voice under that of a shout. “I need to go back and warn Father!”
“A warning and instructions to evacuate the whole western half of the Izla will be sent from Meria as soon as we warn the Duke.” Patrick explains without looking up from the drawing on the ground. He moves his hand that is holding a small rock and draws a small circle. “If there is a tunnel, it has to be in that area because the twin mountains on either side are too thick to dig through, Rykz and Grub or not.”
“Don’t take me for a fool, that will be much too late! The Rykz will be forced to start their invasion as soon as we escape the valley!” I exclaim with vehemence to try to get Yvonne and Lance to weigh in.
“I’m sorry Jessica but what he’s saying makes sense, we have to warn the Duke first and we can’t do that if we escape west.” Yvonne speaks up.
“We can go back and find a boat, there’s that…” I stop because the lousy fishing boat that I know of wouldn’t be able to carry more than two of us.
“There are no docks on the western side of the Izla, I’m sorry Jessica. Even if there were, it would take us too long to navigate back around the Izla to reach Meria in time for our warning to be of any use.” She shakes her head sadly.
“It is a simple choice between warning the east or the west, we cannot do both. The Izla’s seat of power, the army, and the majority of the population are east.” Patrick explains in a tone of voice that reminds me of Celyz’ when she told us our actions could result in death.
“But you don’t even know if there is a tunnel there, they could have never dug one in fear that it would be discovered.” I throw this out to gain time.
“If there is no tunnel east, we will keep searching north or south along the ridge until we find one.” Lady Lance tells me carefully, gently. “We have a duty to Izla Meria, it must come first.”
My mouth gapes a little. I snap my head around to stare at her, my face undoubtedly expressing how hurt and betrayed I feel. How could she do this to me? She recoils away from me, her face contorts to make a difficult expression that poorly conceals how hurt she is beneath it.
I don’t trust it. I don’t trust her. I grip my head with my hand, feeling the beginning of a headache. A rising pang of pain, a tiny stake piercing the inside of my skull. I flinch, stumbling a little. I take a step back to regain my balance. I see Lady Lance hold her hand out to help me.
“Don’t touch me!” I yell with the full strength of my lungs.
Her arms freeze in midair between us. I turn away from her. I can’t look at her. Father. What should I do? I… I… I can’t betray her, my feelings for her won’t let me. I can’t even justify it to myself intellectually, it’s her duty, it’s the logical choice to make for the Izla.
I can’t do nothing, can I? Once we escape, the Rykz will attack. Father might die. The only way to ensure his safety is to make a deal with Celyz… Can I trade my Lady’s freedom for that? It’s possible Father wouldn’t even be injured.
The escape probably won’t even succeed. How could it? There are thousands of workers here, dozens of scouts patrolling, an entire army of warriors. It wouldn’t be that much of a betrayal, right? Wrong. I already feel sick just considering it.
My splitting headache intensifies as my reflections only serve to push me further away from a solution to my dilemma.
I make my way to one of the walls and press my back against it to help slide myself into a sitting position on the ground. I move my hand to take hold of my temples in reaction to the pain. I hear someone move nearby before seeing my Lady sit down next to me in the corner of my eyes.
“Celyz made me promises if I become her agent you know.” The words escape me. She remains silent for a minute.
“What kind of offer?” Lady Lance finally asks.
“The tempting kind. I’m not sure if she can deliver but it doesn’t matter because I won’t accept.”
“I’m sorry.” She says after another silence.
My eyes remain dry despite how much I wish for tears that would release me from this nauseating feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“I can’t tell her that though because it would probably get us all killed.” I expel the words out, sharing that burden with her feels so liberating.
“I’ll make it all up to you, I promise.” Lady Lance tells me with certainty.
I manage to suppress the scoff that comes to my lips. It just sounds like an empty promise to me. She can’t provide me with a new arm and she won’t be able to do anything to help Father. Just holding onto Meria would be the most that Caeviel can hope to achieve at the start of this war with the Rykz.
“How?” I ask her directly. Lady Lance’s lovable lips remain predictably shut. “If we make it out of the valley, I’ll be on one side of the war while my father will be on the other.” I’ll have to stay on the Izla, within reach of that maniac.
“We can figure it out, together.” She says, reaching out with her hand to touch my shoulder. I shake it off.
“I have too much on the line to willfully believe in a happy tale-like ending. I need time to get used to the fact that I’m going to abandon my father and leave him to possibly die.”
I get up, using the wall as support because the lightheartedness that accompanied the headache makes my balance too shaky to rely on. I make my way to the door and step outside to breathe some fresh air.
After a few minutes of letting my thoughts drift, a worker arrives with a single wicker basket. I take it off the Rykz’ hands and look inside. There are only four bowls.
Celyz. A message for me. I didn’t work in the mushroom fields this morning so I am immediately shown what the consequence of my choice is. An unsubtle way to pressure me, to communicate that I can both be rewarded and punished while not pushing it so far that I can characterize her treatment as unfair. This still borders on blackmail regardless of her pretty words.
It feels like a vise is closing in on me on either side of the piercing pain in my head. How long until I break apart under the pressure and consequences of my decisions? I barely understand it myself, why do I keep choosing to trust her? Because she makes me feel like I am greater than myself when I am at her side.
Father is a grown man who knows how to take care of himself. Celyz doesn’t know enough to find him, there is no reason to believe he’ll need my help to make it through this and I can’t trust the Rykz not to use him against me even if I turn.
Lady Lance’s fear that they’ll use us against each other might be well-founded after all. Celyz might actually just be waiting for our relationship to deepen before she does just that, to make it easier to bend us to her will. I walk back inside with the basket, distributing the bowls and sitting down with the others in a circle to start eating.
The other three exchange some opinions about how to find the right way out of the valley but I shut the conversation out. I can accept the rationality of the choice they made, but the guilt I feel won’t let me participate in any way.
I finish my bowl in no time and leave the building entirely, making my way towards the well. Once there I sit with my back against the low wall surrounding it, processing my dark feelings in silence.
Lady Lance emerges from a street barely a couple of minutes later. Her simple presence is enough to relieve me from some of the weight on my shoulders. I get up, resolving not to let myself get caught in a spiral of self-pity. Ready to continue sparring.
“Let’s refine your lion strike before we begin.” She tells me. “Assemble one but remove everything you can from the targeting segment. Make sure you’re certain about what you exclude.”
I nod and get started, executing a strike in the air. I’m using my spine and a good part of my torso’s muscles down to my waist but my legs themselves only contribute to footwork and don’t need the boost.
“I only removed my legs, I don’t feel confident enough to distinguish between what I’m using or not for the rest.” I tell her.
“That’s good enough.” She raises a hand and makes a signal that tells me to come and get her.
The first strikes I throw are so close to being exactly in sync with the construct’s activation that I spend the next few hours throwing the same strike over and over again just to get it right.
I put almost no effort into setting my blows up and as such none of them even come close to hitting her. I consider that getting the hang of the timing matters more right now and she seems to agree since she doesn’t mention the lack of planning behind my strikes. As the sun gets lower and lower, I also start running out of flow.
“Shit, I’m out.” I mutter, disappointed. Just after I throw a perfectly timed lion strike too.
“Come here.” She holds out her hand.
A ball of flow emerges from the palm of her hand, it isn’t very large compared to what I’ve seen her use before but I can tell by experience that it holds the equivalent of a full twenty-four hours of regeneration for me.
“We’ll stop here for today.” She says, letting the flow in her hand trickle slowly towards me.
I spot the moment when she cuts her link to it when the golden energy starts slowly sinking towards the ground. I hold my hand out and connect to the free energy, I tell the flow to merge with my reserves and it enters my arm, disappearing under my skin.
“What kind of flow concentration would you need for the glow to be visible under flesh?” I ask, remembering my Lady’s comment about seeing Celyz gather flow inside her tendrils.
“I don’t know, the Duke might be able to do it but I can’t. I have a little over a thousand subjects pledged to me and nine barons under my rule.”
“I have no idea what that represents in quantity.” I admit.
“Twelve times more regeneration than is normal.”
“She’s stronger than you?” I frown.
“I would estimate that she is but not because she has access to more flow than I do.” Lady Lance pauses. “I would be very hard pressed to block her twenty-four tendrils and attack her at the same time. That doesn’t even take her tail into account or the fact that her reversed knees allow her to take long backward steps to keep me at a distance. Keeping her in my range would be a headache of its own.” She makes a small grimace.
“You’re still the best.” I tell her with a bright smile.
“You put a lot of thought into that compliment, huh.” She rolls her eyes sarcastically.
“Fine, you suck.” I stick my tongue out.
“Ah, straight to my heart. My friend, you are so cruel to me.” She places her palm over her heart, faking injury and pain.
I try to remain strong but I don’t last long. My worry that she took my words to heart grows as she maintains her act despite how unlikely it is that she was truly offended since we were both obviously joking.
“I didn’t mean it, you’re awesome.” I hurriedly tell her, just to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about my opinion of her.
“I was only teasing you, Jessica.” She abandons her sham, adorning a bright reassuring smile instead.
“I know, I just wanted to…” I try to explain.
“You’re just too sweet for your own good.” She shakes her head in disbelief.
“You bring out the worst in me.” I throw her the reproach in an accusing tone.
“I’m sorry, come here.” Lady Lance replies contritely. She takes a step towards me and closes the distance between us.
Her sudden approach startles me, chasing the words out of my mouth and making my throat dry out. She wraps her hands around my shoulders and brings me in for a hug.
I lift my chin up to avoid burying my face into her chest between her two perfect breasts, it wouldn’t be wise to lose all capacity for thought right now. We still need to be prudent with Celyz’ watching us.
The weirdest spot on my body starts to tingle at her contact. A point just above my butt, right in the middle of the hollow in my lower back. I let myself melt in her arms, feeling an unreasonable amount of comfort and safety from the physical contact with her.
“Better?” She whispers in my ear after a while.
“You’re going to have to do something about this at some point.” I tell her in a low seductive voice, almost panting for breath.
I know that she can tell how aroused I am because her arms are pulling me so tightly against her that my hard nipples are pressing against her flesh.
She hurriedly breaks our embrace, raising both her hands to her chest and hiding her breasts behind them while furiously blushing. She widens the distance between us in an exaggerated manner by taking several backward steps away from me.
“I… I’m sorry, my friend, I shouldn’t have held you with these thoughts in my mind.” Lady Lance apologizes in a low serious voice, turning sideways defensively.
I can’t believe it, she thought I meant it for her! She thinks I was talking about her! The realization combined with her almost shy behavior throws a feverish haze over my thoughts and my most intimate place starts getting wet.
“I’m going to need a few minutes.” I tell her with honesty, despite knowing that admitting that to her is only going to make it harder to cool down.
“Me too.” She admits with a giggle.
Our eyes find each other naturally, locking our sights together. We both explode in laughter at the same time, like the two young idiots we are. Our exclamations are full of happiness but don’t lack humor either.
After a while, we calm down. Our cheeks having regained their usual colors.
“I don’t think we should touch each other anymore.” I regretfully tell her.
“No, probably not.” She nods, agreeing with my opinion.
“We’re not going to stop though, are we?” I ask, just to make sure.
“Not ever, if I can help it.” My Lady Lance promises me with an endearing smile.
“Is that copper basin you used to show me the construct still here?” I speak up, suddenly inspired to do something for her in return.
“Just behind the well, I think.” She tells me.
I walk over, finding the basin still full of clear water. I drag it a bit closer to the well.
“Hop on!” I tell her, patting a spot of the low-wall right in front of the basin.
“No shenanigans, Jessica.” She warns me.
“I promise.” I reply seriously.
Lady Lance walks over and sits down where I told her to, legs on either side of the basin. I kneel in front of her with the basin between us, taking hold of one of her feet and untying the laces of her boot.
She goes along with my intentions, extending her leg towards me so I can more easily slide the boot off. I remove the simple, ugly sock provided by the Rykz to reveal her beautifully slender foot.
I carefully take hold of it in between my fingers, plunging it into the water little by little and enjoying her shivering reaction to the contact of her skin with cold water.
I start coursing my fingers over the plant of her foot, rubbing along the entire length and getting rid of the small amount of dust that you inevitably find there, clinging. I am satisfied with the result after a minute.
I start passing my fingers in-between each of her toes. She hums along. Her pleasure given voice allows me to put a final end to my irrational insecurities towards my rash decision. I pass my palm over the top of her foot to finish.
I pull it out of the water, pulling it near my lips and leaving a chaste kiss on the tip of her toes. I release the foot and she places it on the edge of the copper basin before lifting her other leg and extending it in front of me.
I undo her laces and slowly remove the boot. Repeating the entire process but with even more care. Once I am finished cleaning this foot, I guide it up to my lips. The tender kiss that I give her this time has nothing chaste to it as I press my lips fully against the end of her foot.
“Hum. I was wrong, but not entirely.” She makes a thoughtful pause. “In the end, we both touched on the truth.” She murmurs softly.
“What do you mean, my Lady?” I ask, releasing her foot and looking up at her.
“The heart at risk of breaking was always mine.” Lady Lance gives me her confession with a burning passion deeply buried inside the abyss of her light gray eyes.