Within Meria, Yvonne is making her way through the deserted streets, it is nighttime. She looks exhausted after having ridden for three days in a row after her encounter with a Lady Vil in the woods. She is nervous, jittery, and afraid for her friend.
She didn’t want to leave her alone like that, but she could not tell her the truth either and worsen Leomi’s already unstable state. Yvonne told her friend that she would meet her mother in Meria and find out what Master Amand’s verdict on her actions was.
She is also torn, having found out that the woman she met is also a traitor, that she took down half a dozen Nobles by herself during the ambush. They called her the red dwarf after her bloody helmet and hand.
Telling her friend the truth would only have motivated Leomi, even more, to keep looking. That Elizabeth’s information about Jessica’s presence within the Rykz army are likely to be accurate since the two were there together.
She turns at the corner of a street and enters the city’s main plaza, heading towards the Templar Order’s Temple. The large double doors are closed but there are two guards there.
Yvonne takes out an insignia with her mother’s crest engraved on it, a gray wolf laying under a stag’s head, and shows it to the two Templars. They push the doors open for her and she steps inside.
Inside she quickly heads towards Master Amand’s office, it isn’t so late at night that the man would be resting. She climbs the stairs and knocks at the door.
“Enter.” The Templar Master replies from inside.
Yvonne opens the door, walking inside. The room is bare of any decoration, save one large tapestry with a golden lion’s head, Emperor Rasaec’s crest long may he still live. The middle-aged man is sitting behind a desk inside, his traits are fatigued and his dark hair cut short.
In front of him are books, the largest one of them contains detailed illustrations of Rykz types. There are arrows pointing to points in the harvester’s armor, detailing the weak points. There is only a rough sketch of a Queen and the name Queen Grikyz written over it.
“Master Amand.” Yvonne bows. “I am Lady Yvonne, daughter of Baroness Shipwold.”
“What brings you here, Lady Yvonne?” He asks tapping on his desk with impatience. “I hope it isn’t about Exemplar Vikiana.”
“I’m afraid that it is, Master Amand, I’ve received some information about why the Rykz are here and what we can do to get them to negotiate.” Yvonne explains.
“The Princess, I am aware.” He shakes his head. “That Rykz is not in our custody, the decision is in the hands of our Emperor Rasaec or King Cenwalh.”
“Would you allow me to meet with Exemplar Vikiana?” She asks, disappointed.
“She is in her room, do as you like.” Master Amand replies, leaning back over his papers.
Yvonne bows and exits the room, heading towards the living quarters. She asks for directions and is pointed towards a door at the end of the corridor. She walks up to it and knocks.
“Vikiana, it’s Yvonne.” She calls out.
“What are you doing here?” The woman asks, letting Yvonne in.
“I met a woman after the ambush, Elizabeth Vil.” She explains.
“That’s obviously a fake name.” Vikiana scoffs. “What about her?”
“Regardless, she told me that the captured Princess can be used to get the Rykz off the Izla. That she has a way to negotiate peace if that Rykz’ freedom is on the table.” Yvonne nervously runs her fingers through her hair. “I think that’s the safest way to put an end to this.”
“You want me to go talk to the institute?” Vikiana frowns. “It’s a long way back to the capital and I don’t think my title is going to have much weight there.”
“You could try to talk to Master Amand, convince him to make it an official mission from the Order.” Yvonne pleads.
“Are you certain that this person can get the Rykz to negotiate?” The Exemplar asks.
“Elizabeth presented it as a message from Jessica and I later found out that she is working for the Rykz.” Yvonne explains. “What do we have to lose? If the Rykz refuse, we simply send the Princess back to the institute. I think it is worth trying and you’re still an Exemplar, this isn’t something the simple daughter of a Baroness can do.”
“Alright.” Vikiana nods. “But you’re coming with me. If I want to convince anyone, I’ll need a direct witness to impress on them how dangerous this Rykz threat is to Caeviel.”
“I can’t, Leomi needs me.” Yvonne refuses instantly. “She’s not handling how she decided to part with Jessica very well despite how necessary she still thinks it was.”
“My daughter can take care of herself, Yvonne. I regret what happened but she is a grown woman now and you’re the only direct witness available to me. We don’t have time to waste, it’s a long way to the capital.”
“Are you sure you’ll need me?” Yvonne brings her hands together, wiggling them uncertainly.
“I am.” Vikiana replies firmly, heading out of her room and already planning to ask the Master to consult with the Emperor directly on the matter since He is the only one with the authority to give orders to a King.
— — —
The three, Master Amand, Vikiana, and Yvonne, gather in the morning within a circular room with four symbols painted on the walls at each cardinal direction. ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Delay’, and ‘Delegate’. The checkered ground is engraved with every letter of the alphabet, one per square stone.
“You’ll have five minutes to ask your question once the sun reaches this mark.” Master Amand reminds the two women, pointing at a line drawn in front of a tiny window.
Vikiana heads towards a small silver lion head laying in the middle of the room and picks it up.
“Do I need to press it on the letters or can I simply stand over them?” She asks.
“You can stand, the Exemplar on the other side is experienced enough to detect his beacon’s every movement, just make sure you pause long enough.” He responds. “And keep it short, your question must be answerable by one of those words.” He adds. “It is very costly in terms of flow to send a complete reply.”
Yvonne observes from the side of the room, feeling honored and nervous at being allowed to observe the process of sending a message directly to Emperor Rasaec, at witnessing His answer. She follows the sunlight as it pushes the shadows away, slowly nearing the line.
Vikiana stands over the letter ‘c’ while holding the silver lion head in hand. The light hits the line and she starts moving through the room, pausing for a few seconds on top of each letter.
‘Caeviel, Izla Meria, Rykz invasion, possibility to exchange the Princess held by institute against Rykz retreat. Orders.’
“Leave the beacon on the ground at the center of the room and step back.” Master Amand tells the Exemplar.
Vikiana does so, joining Yvonne to the side near the room’s entrance. They stare at the lion’s head, awaiting tensely with bated breaths. Emperor Rasaec’s time is the most valuable commodity in the entire Empire, important titles have changed hands for just the promise of a few minutes of His attention.
After a delay of half an hour, the silver lion’s head suddenly moves. Slowly turning, producing scraping sounds against the stone despite how spotless the room is. Yvonne rejoices as the beacon points at ‘Delegate’ but her excitement dies down when it keeps moving. It finally stops, the lion’s eyes staring at the word ‘No’.
“You have your answer.” Master Amand nods. “The Emperor has spoken, perhaps you’ll have more luck with King Cenwalh but I doubt it. It was on His order that we helped them, the King is not likely to risk insulting the Emperor by releasing the Princess after asking for his help.”
“We have to try, I’m bringing Yvonne along as a direct witness that they’re not just a threat to the Izla.” Vikiana replies, her expression determined despite her not feeling much hope inside.
“I can allow this much, Viki, but remember that you are still on probation. I’ll see what I can do to mitigate the fallout from the main Temple in Meiridin but don’t make it harder for me.”
The Exemplar straightens her posture at the mention that the Order’s Headquarters in Caeviel’s capital is handling the case of her unauthorized use of the Rykz pheromones and quite possibly revealing the existence of it to the creatures.
— — —
Yvonne buys everything she’ll need for the trip and sends a message to Leomi to tell her what she’ll be doing and why. She omits any mention of Jessica and only mentions Elizabeth Vil in the letter.
Vikiana packs her bags in the meantime, preparing her ceremonial uniform and a silver-colored tabard with a golden lion head sown into it. She then heads towards the docks and meets Yvonne on the peer.
There is a lot of traffic over the water, merchant ships and barges delivering grain, arrows, weapons, armors, shields,… Mostly war supplies but also passenger ships that ferry people on and off the Izla.
Yvonne and Vikiana embark on one of those, grumbling about the excessive price asked of them for a simple crossing to Port-Odo.
— — —
It takes the both of them a week to reach Meiridin by horse, using relays setup along the main road to exchange mounts and have a fresh one each morning. Despite the fact that they arrive early, the city is already active, carriages filling the streets.
Vikiana and Yvonne then send a messenger to ask for an audience with the King. They make sure to impress the urgency of the matter in their letter and how it impacts the war on the Izla. They spend the rest of the morning in an inn, bathing and preparing themselves to visit the institute.
The building is large and rectangular looking, located in a rather seedy part of the city, it occupies a whole block by itself. The streets giving access to it are deserted while the neighboring ones are too crowded. The people who live in the area appear to be avoiding the institute like the plague.
Yvonne and Vikiana, in their most formal attires, walk up to the main gate and ask that Director Suxen be told of their presence. They are made to wait without even being allowed in to escape the region’s cool northern climate. An hour later, a tall woman shows up, wearing a white blouse with a book stuck under her arm.
“Exemplar Vikiana, we meet again! What can I do for you?” Director Suxen asks with a wide welcoming smile.
“Have you heard about the Rykz’ invasion of the Izla, Director?” Vikiana asks.
“Yes! Fascinating how they could cross all the way through the Empire and even beyond the sea without being detected! We have quite the betting pool on how they could have achieved such a thing. What would be your guess as a military woman?” The Director questions with curiosity, her smile still intact on her lips.
Yvonne shivers as she observes the woman, her expression seems… unnatural.
“I’m here to ask whether or not you’re making progress with that Princess we captured, Director.” Vikiana explains, ignoring the question.
“Ah, I’m afraid that so far we haven’t had any success.” Her smile lessens somewhat. “We’re currently looking for solutions but flow research is notoriously lengthy so we’re not giving up yet!”
Vikiana takes a deep breath, she had expected that answer but still hoped that after three years, the institute would have made some progress or given up entirely.
“Would you consider handing the Princess over if it means that the Rykz will give up their invasion of Caeviel?” She asks anyway.
“The Rykz are savages. You cannot expect that they would truly respect a treaty, that creature is of more use to the Kingdom than a shaky promise from a barbaric species.” The smile on Director Suxen’s face fades in the blink of an eye, replaced by a cold stare.
“Director Suxen, I am Yvonne, daughter of Baroness Shipwold. May I say something?” Yvonne asks. The women makes a small nod. “I’ve witnessed how many eggs there were on the Rykz Queen’s tendrils myself. Next year, there will be at least a hundred thousand Rykz on the Izla, preparing a full invasion of Caeviel.”
“You’ve directly witnessed a Queen with her eggs?” The Director asks with a glimmer of interest in her eyes. “How tall was she? How many tendrils? How often did the workers have to feed her? How quickly did the eggs grow? When will they hatch? No, don’t answer that last one.”
“I.” Yvonne hesitates, surprised by the flurry of questions that all seem off topic to her. “We need that Princess to save the Izla, to prevent the war from spilling over on the mainland.”
“Yes, yes, you’ve already told me as much and I’ve given my answer. Now, tell me all that you know.” The woman opens her book and takes a writing quill out of a pocket, staring at Yvonne with expectation.
“Director Suxen, I am certain that you will receive a fully detailed report on what they witnessed in a short while.” Vikiana intervenes. She frowns but puts the book away. “What could convince you to release that Princess?”
“I have plenty of funding from the Kingdom, I don’t see what…” The Director pauses. “Well, we may be missing some data points to detect their specific flow pattern so if you can find me another Princess… I would be open to an exchange.”
Yvonne opens her mouth to protest the unreasonable demand but Vikiana raises a hand to stop her from talking and alienating a woman who has the King’s ear.
“Thank you for your time, Director Suxen.” The Exemplar bows slightly. “We will take our leave.”
— — —
Vikiana enters the courtroom alone, untitled Nobles are rarely allowed access to court and it counts double for this private audience. To either side of her, on the walls, are the banners of every Duke in the kingdom.
In front of her sits King Cenwalh of Caeviel, wearing the golden crown depicted by his crest. Behind his large wooden throne lays a golden lion banner.
Apart from her and the ruler, there are three other people in the room. An old Exemplar dispatched as an adviser and witness by the Order, a tall minister with traces of white in his closely shaved beard, and a youthful general of no more than thirty springs.
“Exemplar Vikiana enters the courtroom, your Majesty!” The minister speaks up. “She humbly requests an audience.”
Vikiana bows deeply towards the King but does not kneel as her loyalty is to Emperor Rasaec. The man on the throne lays his elbow on a padded armrest, casually turning his gaze towards her.
“You may not speak. I‘ve heard the details of your request already, Exemplar. If you have no more arguments, I do not see why I should release the Rykz that you’ve acquired yourself with great effort.” King Cenwalh utters in a slow lazy tone of voice, and yet it still contains a trace of majestic arrogance to it.
Vikiana grits her teeth, angered by the fact that she is not even being allowed to argue her case.
“Is this request sanctioned by Master Amand?” The King asks the other Exemplar, the one at his side.
“It is not, your Majesty.” The elder man answers, clearly articulating each word.
“Then this is all the time I have for you, Exemplar.” The ruler waves his hand, casually dismissing Vikiana.
She bows once more and turns around to leave the room. Seething at the humiliation and wondering why the King even bothered to agree to an audience if he never had the intention to even hear her out.
A power game? Courtesy towards the Order? She asks herself but neither of those reasons satisfies her. The King may simply want to be able to say that he heard the Izla’s request but found it wanting.
“Damn aristocracy, their manners and thoughts are tortuous even when they give straight answers.” She spitefully groans once out of the palace.
— — —
Later that day, having considered her options, Vikiana returns to the inn and meets with Yvonne in the room they share. They sit at the table and enjoy a freshly cooked stew.
“The King has agreed to send the Princess to Port-Odo under heavy escort. Tell that Elizabeth Vil that if the Rykz want to negotiate, they need to send someone.” Vikiana lies to Yvonne, gambling on the fact that another Princess may show up with a smaller escort than usual.
She thinks that it would be a fool’s endeavor to attempt to capture one in the middle of an Izla that must now be crawling with Rykz.
“His Majesty did?!” Yvonne exclaims, her worried expression brightens, relieved to hear that her King chose with wisdom. “That’s great news! We need to go back now, I don’t know how long it’ll take us to find that woman again.”
“I’m staying for a few more days.” Vikiana shakes her head, feeling some remorse for her lie to the young woman, opting for some truth. “I will gather some old friends together, the Izla can use every sword it can get and those will be held by Templars.”
“Alright, that’s good, things are looking up!” Yvonne exclaims a bit forcefully. “You’ll excuse me if I get prepared right away, I’m worried about Leomi.”
The two women separate the day after, one travels back to the Izla to rejoin her friend while the other spends her mornings exploring the seediest parts of Meiridin and her afternoons meeting with old friends.