A week after Port-Odo’s fall, Lance’s faction has already taken control over the city and what remains of its army. Like they’ve done in Meria, they recruit and get local volunteers, city guards, merchants, and artisans through accelerated training to take over the roles that the Templars and Nobility filled.
And, just as it happened in Meria, the Order refuse to take on official duties. Yet, the Templars are often seen strolling in both city’s streets wearing civilian clothes offering their help to repair damage and resolve disputes. No one is duped so as to who they are despite the lack of ostensible signs on their persons.
The patrolling Rykz aren’t accepted nearly as well as they were in Meria as Port-Odo suffered much more from the invasion, and because it was well-known all over the Izla that the insects didn’t burn crops or pillage, that they don’t let anyone starve if they remain at work. Not that the ‘conquest‘ wasn’t a bitter pill to swallow but the reality of life under occupation remained far better than humans expected.
Leomi Lance spent the week sequestrated outside the city in a recently abandoned farm. Celyz made it clear she won’t allow her to go out and about as she pleases and set a couple hundred scouts to guard her.
The Countess raged inside at being at this manipulative Princess’ mercy but swallowed her anger so as not to let it control her when she must be cool-headed. She placed Yvonne in charge of Port-Odo, still feeling betrayed that her sword-sworn, her closest friend, lied to her about Jess’ presence in the Rykz army the day she met Elizabeth Vil.
Leomi prefers to spend her time training herself and helping Rowland overcome the loss of his left eye. She also evaluates a new weapon which is a mixture between an axe and a spear, the blacksmith called it a halberd.
Within the last week, she has grown rather fond of the weapon, not so much that she would give up her own sword but enough to decide that it’ll make a better weapon than the improvised sword-staves for her organization as it’ll allow them to both break cavalry charges and fight Rykz harvesters from a relatively safe distance.
Leomi is observing Rowland who is bare-chested in the courtyard, swinging his sword at a scarecrow while holding his shield up. She is trying to ignore the scouts patrolling the farmlands surrounding them.
She finds the man to be remarkably straight-forward as the first thing he said when he arrived was that Yvonne asked him to keep an eye on her, choosing not to hide it. Leomi didn’t know exactly how to react to that but he pointed at the scar running from his left temple to the left side of his chin, splitting eyelids and smiling lips, communicating that he can’t see a thing.
“You still having trouble with depth perception?” She asks after he swings too wide.
“I always will.” He says. “It’s hard to switch from my hand and a half sword style but you’re right about the shield, I don’t really need to see what’s coming to protect my blind side.”
“You’ll get used to it.” She assures him. “I met someone who managed to fight with a single arm without training, you’ll get there.”
“Is that the woman who left with Elizabeth?” He asks.
“… yes.” Leomi replies quietly.
“Vil’s an odd one, she hates Nobility with a passion and hasn’t hesitated to slaughter but didn’t use her power against us once the battle was over.” He comments.
“It wasn’t because I intervened if that’s what you think.” Lance says.
“I didn’t, I doubt anyone could control her.” He denies.
“Mmph.” Leomi frowns, disagreeing.
“I’m pretty sure I provoked her but she was reasonable instead of lashing out.” He continues. “I suppose there are reasons behind her unpredictable reactions but I have a hard time seeing them.”
“As crazy as it might sound considering the devastation she leaves in her wake, she is trying to end the war.” Leomi explains.
“I get that.” He nods. “It’s just… who fights a personal war while seeking peace?”
“Someone that isn’t motivated by acquiring political power and is sickened by privilege, and is prepared to sacrifice themselves.” Leomi replies in a tight voice. “The reason her actions, her restraint towards Nobility, don’t really fit her personality is probably because she’s applying a plan made by others, and not just Councilwoman Cecil.”
“Who?” Rowland asks.
“No one you need to worry about.” Lance replies shortly, trusting her mother knows to protect her Jessica if Elizabeth can’t… or won’t.
Leomi experiences a burst of fear at the thought that Elizabeth could choose to let her rival Jessica fend for herself, Elizabeth has to be aware that she would never forgive her, that she would kill her for that. She wishes she could have said so out loud without breaking her oath.
— — —
A large group of warriors in a dispersed formation show up a few days later, coming from the north-west where the Rykz army set camp to await the rest to transfer over from the Izla. Lance steps outside and spots Celyz in the middle with Yvonne trailing behind.
Lance throws the halberd on her shoulder and heads out to meet them, rather annoyed at Yvonne once again for being so cozy with that Princess although she realizes it’s quite unfair since she’s likely here to see them.
“Countess Leomi Lance.” Celyz speaks up in her resounding voice.
“Leomi.” Yvonne greets with a worried look.
“Yvonne, Princess.” Lance replies.
“Scouts have reported that Caeviel’s army is fortifying a line of hills not very far north from here.” Celyz declares.
“Any news about Jessica?” Leomi asks.
“No, but more bodies have washed up along the coast so I am uncertain about who emerged victorious, if any side has.” Celyz responds, a tremble going through her tendrils. “I am here because Lady Edusa sent a messenger.”
“Already?” Lance asks, surprised.
“She has been given the title of Duchess.” Celyz utters flatly. “You broke our agreement.”
“I didn’t order her to do anything and she isn’t part of my faction any longer.” Leomi counters. “All I did was fail to inform you that she and a few of my subjects planned to leave the Izla and I had no duty to do so.”
“You have broken the spirit of our agreement and now you are justifying yourself in bad faith.” Celyz accuses with rumbling anger.
“Laughable, coming from you.” Lance replies in a cold tone. “You claim to want to work with humans but only when we’re under your control.”
“Ladies, please.” Yvonne intervenes. “Leomi, Princess Celyz is fine with working with Edusa who said she would help Elizabeth and her sister escape, I don’t think she’s aware that there was a battle while Elizabeth crossed over. Princess, Edusa is her own woman, expect her to fight you and us as well if we threaten her people.”
“Yet, Duchess Edusa demands that Leomi Lance be there and in good health if she is to allow my sister to go through the lines.” Celyz seethes. “How is this anything other than a threat, coming from you?”
“I didn’t have anything to do with that.” Lance says with a frown. “She should know better.”
“She didn’t actually put it in these words.” Yvonne sighs, throwing a dark glance at Celyz.
“But, Edusa isn’t wrong to ask for me to be there since Mother is as likely to show up with the Princess as Elizabeth is. She might just decide to destroy the institute and then assault the Palace if she’s on her own.” Lance notes.
“Exemplar Vikiana would do well not to get anywhere near my sister ever again.” Celyz threatens. “And Elizabeth knows that my sister is the priority, she will not be led astray.”
“Why? What do you hold over her?” Lance asks aggressively. “What’s the deal she agreed to that Jessica refused? What did you omit to tell Elizabeth that Jessica figured out?”
“How little do you think of your own lover?” Celyz questions in a voice vibrating with spite. “I have never lied to Jessica or Elizabeth.”
“No, you’ve repeatedly tried to manipulate them.” Leomi utters coldly, lifting the halberd off her shoulder, provoking the warriors to draw their sabers.
“I…” Celyz turns her head away in shame. “At least I have never sought to cause pain.” She responds in a whisper.
The halberd falls back on Leomi’s shoulder as she freezes, hit hard by the words. Yvonne is biting her lower lip, she is stuck. She could call the Princess’ manipulations out right here and now, but she fears to thwart this Rykz’ plans.
The consequences could fall on Jessica, Leomi, or herself. Yvonne thinks that Celyz genuinely cares but she doesn’t trust the Rykz and the fact that she isn’t human makes it impossible to predict her reactions.
Yvonne feels that the best way to help Jessica and Leomi is to bring both of her friends together as telling Leomi the truth in private might backfire even worse as Jessica wouldn’t be here to explain, and would take it as a betrayal.
Yvonne doesn’t actually know how Leomi would react but she knows that the best way to resolve this is for them to spend time alone until their emotions settle and then discuss the truth face to face.
“We need to set our differences aside, Leomi, Princess.” Yvonne speaks up, deciding to change the subject before they resume the argument and it comes to arms. “Edusa said that it would go a lot smoother if Leomi and her organization received Cetyz in conjunction with you, Celyz, because Caeviel will see that the Izla hasn’t been ravaged. It’ll also make it easier to get Cenwalh’s agreement if the Izla brokers the peace with the Rykz since he doesn’t want to appear weak.”
“Duchess Edusa expressed that she would escort my sister.” Celyz corrects.
“In the meantime, we need to find a way to break through Cenwalh’s defenses in case Elizabeth has been captured.” Yvonne continues. “Our organization would be most likely to succeed in infiltrating Meiridin.”
“Perhaps. We can discuss it in a few weeks.” Celyz replies carefully.
The Princess is thinking of Idali who will have more information about what exactly occurred on Elizabeth’s ship and might be willing to take the lead of a rescue mission if she survives the process.
“What are you waiting for?” Yvonne asks.
“Idali will be offered the same deal I made with Elizabeth.” Celyz replies. “She may heal in time.”
“You have a way to heal them but you’re holding that over their heads to get them to do your bidding?” Lance asks, outraged.
“Has your lover not told you? She must not trust you.” Celyz says with schadenfreude at Leomi’s hurt expression. “What we offer is not easy to do, the Silver Hive only demands a fair price.”
“Could… could it have helped Jessica?” Lance asks, looking torn.
Celyz hesitates, finding herself in a bind of her own making as admitting that it would have helped Jessica would only serve to underline her refusal and loyalty to Leomi when the two were together. She cannot lie so she has little choice but to remain silent.
“It would have.” Leomi says, reaching the conclusion by herself. “Yet she kept refusing even after I… betrayed her.”
“Leomi…” Yvonne starts but stops when Celyz turns to her, seeming to be daring her to speak up.
“It’ll be too late to bring our organization over in a few weeks.” Lance declares, facing Celyz head on, her resolve made. “Let me call my people over and I swear I will do everything I can to protect your sister as well as I would Elizabeth.” But, she thinks, less than she’ll protect Jessica.
“No.” Celyz replies firmly despite her impatience to free her sister, she cannot trust these two humans with her sister or Elizabeth’s safety, especially not Leomi Lance.
“Are you truly going to refuse help out of jealousy?” Leomi attacks.
“I am not refusing help, I am telling you that you will not be leading any rescue effort.” Celyz declares in a hard tone. “I do not trust you, you are a selfish being who prioritizes herself over those closest to her. As such you will remain our hostage. I will allow you to bring some members of your organization over but you will have no contact with them and they will remain under guard.”
“Hmph.” Lance snorts. “I’ll agree to that for now, we’ll see if you find anyone else capable enough and willing to rescue your sister and Elizabeth.” And, she thinks, incidentally Jessica. “Not to mention that Nobles of my faction will only follow me, or that Duchess Edusa will be much more likely to help me than to trust Idali.”
“Lady Yvonne would solve all those problems if she went along.” Celyz comments.
“Yet, she won’t.” Yvonne counters with a dark look. “Leomi and I are of the same will, Princess.”
“We will speak again.” Celyz says, unwilling to work with this Countess but knowing that she is short on time and options to help Elizabeth, it wouldn’t be this difficult if her scouts brought her news on whether she was captured or not. “The city gates will be closed tonight and remain so from now on with the army’s arrival, Yvonne. Ask the Princess on duty for entrance and the same if any of you wish to leave.”
“T, thanks.” Yvonne stutters, surprised that the Rykz saw through her desire to spend the night here despite not discussing it.
Celyz turns around and stomps away, the warriors hurry behind the Princess, struggling to keep up. Her mind is swirling across her body, she feels like she’s losing control, which only exacerbates how much she wishes she could hold Elizabeth in her tendrils to find some peace.
Lance throws Yvonne a questioning glance, suspecting once again that her sword-sworn isn’t telling her everything as the young woman has looked agitated for most of the exchange.
“Rowland.” Yvonne explains a little awkwardly.
“You went on a few dates already. You must like him, that’s a lot for you.” Leomi comments, smiling without meaning to.
“He’s a bit… shy?” Yvonne replies with a grimace. “Been wanting to commit before testing the goods, it’s a crime.”
“Doesn’t seem to be shy.” Leomi blinks. “He trains bare-chested all the time.”
“Leomi!” Yvonne exclaims with wide eyes and a teasing expression. “He’s trying to seduce you!”
“Well, I’m not indifferent to those muscles.” Leomi winks.
“…” Yvonne gapes, wordless.
“He’s in the courtyard behind.” The Countess declares, laughing as she heads towards the farmhouse. “And don’t forget to send a message to my second in command to gather her best fighters and give them halberds after you’ve had your fun.”
“I still can’t believe you promoted Roisia over me!” Yvonne yells at her back once she recovers from her shock.
— — —
A week and a half later, Roisia arrives in Port-Odo on a barge with a hundred members of the organization, most of them were soldiers before they lost fingers, limbs, or eyes. The rest decided to join it, enthused by what it represents.
Those who cannot wield halberds or sword-staves, because of injuries or lack of skill, have chosen to carry a shield and form the front-line of their small force. A courageous decision considering that is the most dangerous position.
Roisia has a rapier on the left side of her belt and a handheld crossbow attached to the right side, she wears a blue uniform and a red scarf. She carries a sealed vial with a messaging construct inside that Cecil told her to hand over Princess Celyz.
Yvonne meets her at the docks with two members of Leomi’s faction. The lines between the organization and the faction are still blurred because not only do they have the same leader but not all have made their choice yet.
“Baroness.” Yvonne greets.
“Forget about that useless title, Yvonne, where is Leomi?” Roisia asks rudely, clashing with her refined appearance.
“With the Rykz army, up north.” Yvonne replies with a small smile.
“Perfect.” Roisia nods. “I’ve got a message for the Princess that I’ve been told is urgent.”
“What does it say?” Yvonne asks.
“Don’t know, it’s sealed.” Roisia replies. “Councilwoman Cecil was quite adamant that we not even try to break it.”
“But she read it.” Yvonne comments.
“Of course she did.” Roisia laughs. “It was addressed to her after all, not that she wouldn’t have if it wasn’t.”
“A message sent to Cecil but for Celyz.” Yvonne says, tensing. “That has to come from…” She pauses.
“Elizabeth.” Roisia finishes. “My thoughts too, one more reason not to mess with the seal.”
Yvonne disagrees but doesn’t say a word. Elizabeth has grown quite popular on the Izla and even more so in their organization, it would be a mistake to suggest taking a peek within hearing range of their people because it would erode trust, even if it’s because she really wants to know how Jessica is doing.
“Unknown news is still good news.” Yvonne says, thinking that only free people can send a message as they will.
“How goes the battle?” Roisia asks, throwing a look at Port-Odo’s streets which still bears small signs of an attack.
“Difficult for the Rykz from what I’ve heard.” The sword-sworn frowns. “Caeviel’s army has been using their advantage in flow to supply the soldiers with more than they need so the Princesses are wary of engaging despite a two to one advantage, and I’m counting the peasantry.”
“Doesn’t look good for our plans to spread our influence during the war.” Roisia comments.
“All I know is that the Rykz are preparing an all-out assault. Both sides have massive flow reserves so it’s less a matter of who has more energy than who uses what they have better.” Yvonne explains.
“Well, we’re ready.” Roisia declares confidently. “Also, I’ve heard Elizabeth ran into an ambush, the ship came back.” The crowd of soldiers from the organization all seem to take a step closer at those words despite not moving.
“There were a lot of casualties, it’s unknown who came out on top.” Yvonne shakes her head.
“I pity the fools who thought they could take her on.” Roisia laughs.
“Well, aren’t you a fan.” Yvonne comments, rolling her eyes.
“You can say whatever you want about the woman but I wouldn’t fight her if you promised me a duchy.” Roisia shrugs.