I glare at Lance until she sits down. We awkwardly sit there. Yvonne is tapping the table with her fingers, thoughtful. Leomi’s face is flushed with agitation, contemplating the answer she got. Celyz wraps her tendrils back around her torso, unreadable at the moment.
The throne room’s banners and paintings were taken down, leaving the walls bare. I do my best to focus on anything other than Yvonne, catching her occasionally glancing at me from the corner of my field of vision.
There’s not much I can do about that other than hope she’ll confront me before talking to Leomi, or just forget about this entirely. Fuck, Emffrey too. I can’t start denying head on or it’ll aggravate their suspicions. But ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.
I’ll be leaving soon though. Out of sight, out of mind. So little time left with my Lady, I need to make the best of it and… Leomi is watching me closely. I turn to lock eyes, the gray abyss pulls me in and I let myself melt into it.
“You going to hold to your word after the last dance I owe you?” She asks.
“Yes.” I reply calmly. “One question. You’ll have to figure out which answer you want the most.” She nods sharply. “Like, ‘Who is Elizabeth Vil?‘” I add, giggling to hide my fear that she would actually ask that question.
That’s what my alter-ego would want her to say, better to bait her with it and make her think its a trick rather than avoid mentioning it which would make her wonder why. Besides, she thinks she already found out who I am… somehow. I could always answer that I have the same mother as Jessica, although, she would no doubt ask for more.
The throne room’s double doors open, Cecil walks in, wearing an official but sober looking white tunic. There are five bourgeois following behind in the same clothes. All of them in her debt, one way or another, I’m sure.
I recognize two of them, a tall blond woman and a slightly overweight man. They’re both part of the same merchant guild and met with Cecil in her brothel the same night I killed Patrick.
The other three are unknown to me but none of them seem like they’ve ever lacked food. The group’s leader, he’s walking in front with a golden brooch on the front of his shirt and a small cane in hand.
Aisha enters last in a blue innocuous simple dress, she takes a spot in a corner of the room. Celyz waits for them all to comfortably sit down around the table before rising slightly to speak up.
“Welcome, I am Princess Celyz, representing the Silver Hive.”
“Countess Leomi Lance, representing Nobility.” My Lady says monotonously.
“Madame Cecil, representing the lowest rung of society.” She declares seriously.
“Avery Colby, representing the artisan guilds.” The man with a cane nods.
“Sybil Whytton, representing the trade guilds.” The tall blond woman bows.
They turn to me, but I remain quiet since I don’t represent anyone. Celyz makes a noise reminiscent of someone clearing their throat, except she doesn’t have one.
“You should take a seat at the Council, Elizabeth.” Cecil speaks up.
“I will be leaving soon and I have no interest in meddling with politics.” I shake my head. “That being said, I can’t help but notice that you haven’t invited anyone of peasant origin.”
There weren’t many smiles in the room as they were preparing to talk business, yet faces fall all around as their moods spoil. I tap my foot on the ground, awaiting an answer from Cecil.
“There are no low-born non-citizens who wield sufficient influence, there are some locally but that doesn’t extend past their circles.” She explains.
“You could hold elections.” Lance speaks up. “It’s been done before, in older times.”
“And those city-states fell prey to chaos.” Avery comments with a raised eyebrow.
“A common misconception.” Leomi denies. “They were conquered by our Emperor Rasaec at the beginning of his reign, one of his first campaigns. They lost a war but had stood strong for hundreds of years before then, even though they bordered the cold bloods. They invented the early phalanxes.”
“We have the necessary expertise to govern Meria gathered here. Is there a need to create such a complex system?” Sybil asks.
“I am not asking for opinions on whether or not peasants should be allowed on this Council.” I utter coldly.
“I am simply making the point that this is only a temporary measure. At most the war will last a few years. At best, it’ll end before the end of this one. Simplicity and efficiency should be our priority here.” She argues.
“Because this is a test case.” Cecil speaks up. “If we can make this work, then our ideas could be used to create similar systems in kingdoms that are open to new ideas and are closer to their peasantry. Like Telnur.”
“We can expand on who becomes part of the Council once we have a government up and running.” Avery says.
“Let us be clear from the start so that there are no misunderstandings.” Leomi tells them. “I know well the trappings of power, if we delay this decision then it will likely never come to pass.”
“No offense to you, Dame Vil, but I am concerned that peasants are simply not…” Avery starts and I interrupt him there.
“I advise you to think very carefully about the next words that leave your mouth, Avery Colby. I killed Count Thrin before he could finish a similar sentence.” I tell him, smiling when he cannot help but glance at the hammer in my left hand.
“Elizabeth.” Leomi says with a frown.
“I only mean to say that peasantry lacks the life experience to view policy making from an objective point of view.” Avery says, gulping.
“And you do?” I ask sarcastically. Lance throws me a disapproving look. “Moving on.” I continue. “That issue is quite easily resolved, is it not? Appoint elected representatives and they will learn once they are part of the process. Not to mention that you yourself lack their intimate knowledge of the problems that peasantry faces, how would you solve them without their input?”
“I’ll acknowledge that much.” Avery nods in agreement.
“So do I.” Sybil adds.
“So it’s settled, we’ll organize elections.” Cecil says. “Next Sunday on the marketplace plaza if that’s alright, Princess Celyz.”
“It is.” Celyz replies.
“Do the same for the rest of the Izla.” Leomi speaks up. “Send messengers for every village to send someone to speak for them and elect a leader for the province.”
“I can do that.” Cecil nods.
“One thing we need to resolve urgently is the matter of the city guard, they aren’t patrolling the streets anymore and the Rykz can enforce peace but not uphold the law for us.” I speak up.
“Which brings the next point to the table, the city’s coffers are empty and so are the castle’s.” Cecil says.
“We don’t have the option to raise new taxes right now, people would revolt and most don’t have the money anyway.” Avery notes.
“Seize Nobility’s assets.” I tell them. “Manors, furniture, armor, weapons. All of it.”
The table turns to the Countess, expecting her to contest the proposal. I even detect Aisha throwing a quick glance.
“I agree, and my faction will participate, but it will be almost impossible to convert all that into spendable liquidity.” She says instead. “There is enough silver in the headquarters to pay the soldiers and conscripts, but that’s it. And I refuse to consider taking that away from them.”
“Elizabeth’s idea does solve the immediate issue though. There will be enough money lying around in their mansions to fund the city for a few weeks.” Cecil tells us.
“The docks will be reopened for trade.” Celyz speaks up, her resounding voice filling the room. “As long as do not set down your anchor in Caeviel, I see no issue in returning the seized ships to their owners. That will allow you to exchange what you take from Nobles for food-stocks in Telnur. The Silver Hive guarantees that it will purchase the first shipments.”
“Would you allow me to send a ship to Port-Odo, simply to inform those who decided not to come back that Meria remains open for trade?” Sybil asks.
“No, but you can send someone with Elizabeth when she leaves tomorrow.” Celyz replies. Tomorrow already. I make a grimace behind my mask.
“Tomorrow?” Lance repeats, straightening her back.
“You’re going ahead of time.” Yvonne comments. “They’ll send a message once they are ready. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to go before, your presence could make them nervous.”
“I don’t intend to show myself.” I reply.
“I should go with you.” Leomi suddenly speaks up.
“No.” Celyz responds immediately. “You are to remain within these walls.”
“It’s fine.” I hurriedly intervene. “If this doesn’t go anywhere, we’ll have the opportunity to talk about what’s next Lance.”
“What if the negotiations fail and you end up stuck in Port-Odo with Caeviel’s army? King Cenwalh has experienced officers at his disposal, it will be different from facing the forces we’ve managed to scrap together. They have a chance of stopping the Rykz there if Emperor Rasaec continues to send flow.” Leomi protests.
I distinctively notice the look of surprise on the Council’s faces, they appear to have been unaware of the event. Aisha’s posture stiffens in her corner of the room, behind me, but she regains her relaxed stance within moments.
“Then I will deal with it.” Celyz replies, voice rumbling. Lance seems about to keep arguing.
“Moving on.” I utter, cutting her off. I throw her a glance that I hope she interprets as a promise to talk later so she drops the subject. “I don’t like the idea of the Council having an armed force that obeys directly to it and the city guard isn’t trustworthy enough for the job.”
“I can understand your reluctance to put the city guard back in the streets, you’ve seen their corruption first hand after all.” Cecil says, frowning. “But I think I’ve proven that you can count on me.”
“You have and I am. Still, you are not alone here.” I reply slowly.
“I think I’m owed a little more than just this as an explanation.” Cecil presses, heating up.
“We all know how Nobility behaves with the power to both make laws and decide how to interpret how they apply, it is a dangerous trap we don’t need to walk into.” I explain with a sigh. “You would have the ability to make laws and judge those who infringe it, but they would be enforced by a separate group.”
“And who would that be?” Avery asks, pointedly looking at Leomi.
“The only one here with the experience that has proven not to abuse their power.” I respond flatly. “Is anyone here going to deny that Leomi Lance is fit for the job?” I ask. Celyz grows a little restless, noticeable because of the way her tendrils move, but she remains silent.
“No, I already thought of her for that role. I simply hadn’t considered that we wouldn’t have a say in what she does. That isn’t an issue for me as long as the Countess is impartial in her duties.” Sybil says. “The question remains, what men and women will she command? Her faction can help, but there are too few of them to cover Meria and the people would not see kindly to a guard dominated by Nobles right now.”
“I do have something of an idea.” Leomi declares quietly. “I’ve had it in mind for the better part of the month now.”
“Oh? What is it?” Cecil asks with interest.
“Princess Celyz is the one who provided the inspiration for this in a way. The Rykz’ flow distribution is the contrary of ours, they spread it in a downward manner. From Princess to commoner, to drones.” She explains. “I want to form an organization for people to pledge their oaths to instead of swearing to individuals. We would have strict rules and a charter to live by.”
“Is that possible? To dedicate your regeneration to a group?” I ask.
“It is.” Celyz replies flatly.
“There are hundreds of injured soldiers who no longer have any income since the army is currently disbanded and their wounds prevent them from finding work, the same problem is posed for the conscripts. The organization would take care of them and fulfill the task of peacekeeping which would guarantee them a minimal pay.” Leomi continues. “Besides, with the population’s oaths, those who can patrol will both have access to the energy necessary to quell unrest as well as the ability to control the flow of those involved.”
“I like the idea, but I’m unsure of the necessity of giving them control over other people’s reserves, it isn’t required to take the oath.” I speak up.
“It would give us the ability to have the equivalent of a titled Noble at every street corner. This kind of adaptability is something Nobility never had.” She argues. “People wouldn’t be subjects to this organization, there will be strict rules of conduct in place to ensure that there is no abuse.”
“The objective is to maintain order, not build an army Leomi.” I contest.
“I agree with that point, Elizabeth.” She smiles. “How about this? Only those that have proven responsible will be given the power to control other people’s flow. Since you can swear oaths to an organization, I’m certain I can find a way to word it to create the equivalent of titled Nobles within it.”
“I can agree to that as long as you guarantee that you’ll be careful about who you pick for the role.” I say. She grins at me and I melt a little inside. “Council?”
I gaze at the members sitting at the round table in turn. As my eyes pass over them, they all give their agreement with a short nod. I end up looking at Celyz, unable to read her ovaloid head’s expression with its lack of human features, but her restless tendrils tell a story of their own.
“Well?” Lance presses.
She remains silent. It is obvious to me that she wants to deny Leomi the opportunity to do this. Yet the objection likely comes from her feelings not her reason, and so she hesitates.
I rest my hammer against my chair and discreetly move my left hand under the table to gently tap a tendril that is conspicuously lingering near my arm. It trembles a little and she exhales through the twelve openings allowing her to breathe.
Unfortunately, Leomi loses some of her temper. Possibly because she caught sight of my movement, or simply because the two don’t get along. The fact of the matter is that she cuts in at the worst moment.
“My faction has done much to bring this conflict to an end.” Lance says, frustrated. “I would like you to recognize that fact, Princess Celyz.”
“Your actions triggered the early start of the war. However many lives you think you’ve saved, more blood was spilled because of it.” Celyz responds sharply.
“You’re only trying to split me and Elizabeth apart, the same way you are with Jessica. You manipulative swindler. You’re isolating them so you can control them, influence them under cover of all your so-called good intentions.” Leomi spits the diatribe out with barely restrained anger.
Celyz’ reversed knees extend and she rises to her full height. Her tendrils deployed all around her and waving quickly. Rhyyy. The wheezing sound is expelled out of her ovaloid head. Her tail smacks the stone ground and she suddenly turns to me.
“Did I pressure you to be with me, Elizabeth?” She asks, her resounding voice emerging in a whisper.
The question hits me like a hammer. The layers to it, the underlying meaning, means that I have no other choice than to answer truthfully. Otherwise, it puts everything at risk, because once again I couldn’t control myself.
“There it is, leveraging whatever you have on Elizabeth to your advantage.” Leomi declares pointedly.
Yet, there is a slight confusion in my Lady’s expression. She noticed that something’s off about this. Crack. One of Celyz’ tendrils impacts the table with a snapping sound, close to that of a whip.
“Celyz isn’t.” I affirm. “I make my decisions out of my own will, Lance.”
“You’re a liar.” Leomi says, disturbed and paling.
“Your opinion matters little to me.” Celyz grunts, visibly calming down. “There is more trust between us than there is between the two of you, Countess.”
My Lady’s eyes watch us, moving from me to Celyz with disbelief. I grit my teeth. This can’t be happening. What have I done? I need to end this now, before it blows up. I need to…
“The Rykz agree to put you in charge of this organization and the city’s peacekeeping duties.” I declare.
I do my best not to glance at Celyz but fail as I simply cannot help but sense her. She stiffens in reaction to my words. She then wraps her tendrils around her torso and departs without a single comment.
“We’ll reconvene at lunch.” I speak up, tone unstable.
As the Council members around the table stand and leave, with various salutations that I don’t listen to, I finally find the courage to look my Lady in her light gray abyss, yet they are gazing downward. Her face is blank. She is slumped down in her seat.
Yvonne doesn’t seem to have realized what Leomi likely did and she shakes Lance’s shoulder to get her to follow her out. Likely to ask her to explain what just happened. My Lady slowly gets out of her chair only to glare at me, clearly communicating the fact that she takes what I’ve done with Celyz as a betrayal.
Before I can say anything, she stomps out of the room. I feel a lump of fear and anguish form in my throat. I go after her, same as Yvonne. I get past the double doors a few steps behind the sword-sworn.
Leomi is already turning at the corner of the corridor, but I find something even worse. Cecil and Aisha are talking to Yvonne. I didn’t hear what they told her but if Yvonne stopped chasing her friend when she’s in that state… I can only think of one thing that would achieve that result: me, Jessica.
I freeze on the spot, feeling like my life is unraveling around me, that my lies are catching up to me. I panic for a moment, unable to reach a decision about what to do. The cool substance spreads out from my limb and my head clears.
Cecil could expose me. That’s more dangerous than if Leomi completely cut ties with me, Elizabeth, and I can talk to her later once she had time to think and my Lady is already far ahead by now, I’d have to search for her. Fuck.
The three are slipping out through a side corridor. I hurry back inside the throne room, running at full speed. I grab my hammer and rush back out, making the turn in the hallway just in time to see a door close behind them.