We make our way out of the tent. I spot Edusa, Roisia, Henry, and Margaret sitting around a small fire, they’re talking while having breakfast. I immediately head there, my hunger leaving me little choice in the matter.
Leomi follows along a few steps behind me. Edusa throws me a rather unfriendly look but she soon grabs a jute sack at her side to take two chunks of bread out and throw them in our direction.
I catch them both. Leomi smiles while Edusa shakes her head, throwing a third at her. Roisia hands us what’s left of a smoked ham along with a knife as we take seats around the fire. Leomi cuts a few small pieces of meat, handing me over half of it.
“Good morning.” Edusa speaks up.
“Hey. Where are the others?” I ask, shifting my mask to the side to take a bite, hiding my chin behind the bread.
“Running, a couple of hours every morning.” Roisia replies.
“We’re going to need to move out this afternoon at the latest.” Edusa speaks up. “Before King Cenwalh sets the tone for what happened yesterday among the army. I expect that he’ll condemn Elizabeth as a traitor and use that to pressure the Izla, my Liege. It won’t require much of an effort on his part considering your flow slight black color, Elizabeth.”
“But we don’t yet have a solution for the Rykz.” Leomi notes. “Her energy is a non-issue since she was fighting with a Princess, it’s minor compared to the rest.”
I throw her a look. She returns it, silently communicating that she’s letting me make my call. I shake my head in the negative. Leomi blinks slowly to acknowledge and turns to the rest, specifically nodding to Henry and Margaret.
“The Izla can do without Caeviel.” Lance tells the others. “King Cenwalh can’t do without the Izla. He doesn’t have the fleet to invade us but, even if he did, he would have to use his personal army. The political cost of losing the Izla after the Rykz retreat would cripple him further.”
“What do you plan to do?” Edusa asks, a concerned frown on her face.
“Cut the grass under a King’s feet.” Leomi smirks. “He’ll want to address the army before talking to me. I’ll simply speak first, force him to be reactive while reminding Caeviel why it is that the Rykz have invaded us.”
“You’re counting on the Izla’s self-sufficiency in case this goes wrong.” Edusa notes in a disapproving tone. “You’re taking a big risk by challenging the King, Elizabeth has already been declared a traitor, openly defending her will pit the King’s desire not to lose a Duchy against his pride.” She argues, reading into Leomi’s words to conclude she’s trying to defend Elizabeth Vil. “It saddens me after what she did to end the war, but this isn’t worth the risk. She can always take the mask off and disappear.” Edusa throws me an apologetic look that I wave off, biting into my food. “And King Cenwalh can always order a fleet to be built, or even simply convert trade ships, to take the island back.”
“Which he won’t do because he’s already fighting his throne.” Leomi denies. “Still, even if he does take that risk, he would be attacking an undefended Duchy that he would then need to garrison with your army at his back. There are layers to my plan.”
“Let’s stick to the first one for now, if you don’t mind.” Edusa intervenes with an awkward smile.
“Sure.” Leomi agrees. Edusa turns to me, a question in her eyes.
“Give me another piece of bread and I promise I won’t fly into a rage.” I chuckle. Edusa makes a small grimace and hands over the entire jute sack.
“Elizabeth Vil compromises our position by having fought for the Rykz and us. Our reputations are sturdier because we have a past, and we’re Nobility, but she’s entirely new to the political landscape. Her actions have set her as an enemy of the Order, of Nobility, and of Caeviel. You’ll be able to argue against the last one, I’m sure, but the Templars’ silence doesn’t mean they’ll just forgive her and those Nobles who would support us might not because of what she’s done.” Edusa explains.
“I can’t do much about the Order right now, but I have confidence I can argue for Nobility’s support by not making this entirely about Elizabeth.” Leomi replies.
“Far from me to doubt your capability, Countess, but…” Margaret starts.
“…I’m about to.” Henry finishes for her, throwing a sardonic glance.
“Right.” Margaret acknowledges. “I just mean to say that you shouldn’t underestimate how divided the opinions on Dame Elizabeth are, Nobility views her as a threat because, while there aren’t many who approve of her violence, those who do are those who are ready to fight back by any means. Some are almost fanatical about it.”
“Do Nobles do this often?” I suddenly speak up.
“What do you mean?” Leomi asks.
“Debate.” I say.
“No.” Edusa shakes her head. “Our Liege is unique in that she allows any of us to speak regardless of birth or title.”
“Allows.” I note.
“Bad word choice.” Edusa makes a grimace. “She leads us, and has the last word in case of disagreement, but she doesn’t go against the consensus.”
“Hm.” I nod. “Leomi plans to gather an army to help defend the south against the Lisilese hordes. She thinks that the King won’t dare to attack the Izla while she does.”
“Maybe not openly, but he will.” Edusa denies.
“Councilwoman Cecil can be trusted to deal with any underhanded move.” Roisia speaks up.
“Indeed.” Leomi agrees, her opinion of the woman having apparently changed.
“Wait, I agree that it’s important but we can’t afford it, we can barely afford to equip the organization.” Margaret contests. “Not to mention that Duchess Edusa needs time to take control and reform her lands.”
“Because it gives us the moral high-ground.” Edusa speaks up. “And it reinforces the narrative that my Liege intends to use, that we’ve been fighting to protect the Empire.”
“Which we are.” Leomi frowns.
“I didn’t mean to imply we aren’t.” Edusa hurriedly replies. “It’s a good idea, my Liege, it changes the subject of the conversation from Elizabeth’s…”
“Crimes.” I supply.
“To Nobility’s duty to defend the lands.” Edusa finishes.
“Not Nobility.” Leomi shakes her head. “I’m going to appeal to people.”
“It still doesn’t solve our funding issue, in fact it might make it worse if you attract soldiers from all comings.” Edusa comments.
“We’ve had issues mostly because we’ve been doing this on my funds so far.” Leomi says with a grimace. “But we’ll have the first set of gear and tools coming out of the smithies soon if they’ve been throwing flow at the iron mines to get them going like the Council ordered.”
“That’s a drop in the bucket.” I comment.
“It is, but it is sufficient to equip the organization and give us a firm base to build around. I don’t plan to fund the army we’ll gather on my own. Telnur or Haitia will contribute depending on where we go, and wealthy individuals or guilds might be motivated enough to help. ” Leomi explains. “There is also the fact that the Empire’s administration will most likely support this initiative and the option to take loans that we will repay with loot from battle.”
“For this to work, you need to convince a lot of people from a precarious position.” Edusa points out. “I know I’ve heard it said that you should have fought to the death on the Izla, no one is defending Duke Meria with what he did but a minority is still implicitly saying that he made the right call but failed in applying the necessary strict measures, for which they blame you as well. Most Nobles do admit they would have chosen to cooperate and preserve their lands in the face of this army as you have, but Elizabeth remains a sticking point. Duke Meria’s will helps but…”
“But he’s still alive and it’s a forgery.” Leomi utters coldly. “That’s a mistake King Cenwalh is going to pay for.”
“We’ll enter the stage too soon.” Edusa mutters, pondering out loud. “There won’t be any margin for error.”
“You should just abandon me.” I comment, getting started on a fourth chunk of bread with the last piece of meat on it. “If it makes it easier, I don’t mind.”
“No.” Edusa refuses at the same time as Leomi. The latter blinks in surprise. The Duchess continues. “Whatever your faults, and I could keep citing them for days beginning with Aline even if it seems like the Shades used her as bait, you’ve delivered on your promises. I think you should just take the mask off and fade away but we can’t be hypocrites and condemn you while taking credit for the peace.” Edusa’s expression hardens as she mentions her sister.
“Hm.” I mutter feeling sad about her loss but not about that Lady’s death because of how she acted towards her lover at the end. “I’m sorry.”
“Just watch your back, you’ve created motivated, grieving, and powerful enemies for yourself.” Edusa utters, looking away.
“We’ll see.” I say, picking up my liangi to stand. “I have things to do while you plot your power grab.” Roisia, Edusa, Henry, and Margaret frown, Leomi doesn’t react overtly but she turns to me. “You’re trying to change things, correct?” I ask rhetorically, channeling my anger. “Then, do tell me why there are no lowborn at this meeting.”
“Because they’re back at the Izla, training, learning.” Leomi sighs. “It’s difficult to change things quickly, the wealthy have an advantage in that they know enough to be immediately useful and the vast majority of peasants have no experience in warfare.”
“Well, as long as you’re aware of the problem, it’s all fine. I’m sure that the Nobles who join you in the future will allow low born in your councils if you just explain that they’re actually smart so they should make an exception for those.” I mock, making a sloppy bow before heading out.
“Wait.” Roisia stands, reaching out to me.
I flip around, and she freezes, realizing how close I came to using my weapon to slap her hand away. I take a deep breath but fail to calm down, finding that the darkness in me is harder to control than it has been, even if I’m not as tense as I was.
“They’re really trying, Elizabeth.” Roisia carefully tells me. “Many of the organization’s officers were low born.”
“Were.” I utter sharply. “They no longer are so it’s okay for them to rise in ranks?”
“That’s, a good point.” Roisia pauses, throwing a look over her shoulder.
“We’ve all agreed that we need to drop the concept entirely, but we can’t do so until we split from Caeviel or take over.” Leomi says. “Until then, we should make more of an effort to include as Liz suggests.”
“Suggests.” I pause. “How tied to the Izla is your organization?”
“Things are undefined at the moment but I aim to make it subject to civilian petitions and the law while independent from the Council.” Leomi tells me.
“You want a system that counterbalances power and solves grievances, like the Templars.” I note, growing interested. “What would keep your organization from abusing its position?”
“The charter, which we still haven’t written down, and the army which obeys the Council.” Leomi explains.
“But that you lead.” I utter coldly.
“For now, and the foreseeable future, yes.” She admits. “But it is still reorganizing and I would have no issue ceding that position if you bring it up to the Council.”
“They have a few names in consideration but they’re all tied to Nobility in some way.” Roisia speaks up.
“What I want to know is how the two of you are together.” Edusa gripes. “You look like you want to fight each other all the time.”
“Actually…” Roisia intervenes again. “It could help to give a little demonstration, the troops won’t be long.” Leomi and I share a glance.
“It’s definitely not a good idea.” Leomi notes, grabbing her weapon.
“We’ll do it.” I say as she nods in agreement.
“One-handed since many are crippled, it’ll motivate them.” Leomi tells me.
“Agreed.” I nod.
Leomi sets her gear down and grabs a piece of rope that she hands over to Henry so he can tie her right arm behind her back. I take two wooden swords from a small barrel and set my liangi aside.
“Flow?” I ask.
“A single portion and only standard constructs, no external ones.” Leomi replies.
“Standard?” I question.
“Lion strike, lion step, strengthening, sense enhancing.” She explains.
“Alright.” I nod, getting pumped up.
I separate a single portion, boosting my hearing and eyesight with the energy but don’t prepare any other constructs since I have so little I’ll have to adapt and dismantling those I prepare will cost me time. My symbiont struggles, projecting dissatisfaction as Roisia tries to bind it with a rope.
“Mind if I use my left?” I ask.
“No.” Leomi shakes her head.
I switch my weapon to my other hand, smiling as the Little one flexes its string-like muscles despite having wanted to test my own capability to fight one-armed. I can figure that out later, without the symbiont affecting me.
“These have a metal core.” I comment, swinging the wooden sword.
“It hits hard, so be careful.” Roisia warns me.
The troops return at jogging pace while Leomi and I warm up. They’re in full gear, hard leather armor along with their weapons, either a halberd or a shield and sword, or only a shield for the few with a single arm.
They all have sweat rolling down their foreheads despite the cold weather. I take a good look at them and start having doubts about how beneficial it would be for them to see us spar.
“Maybe, we should switch this up. The two of us against them.” Leomi speaks up, thinking along the same lines.
“It would help more than witnessing us bashing each other senseless.” I agree. The two of us link eyes, sharing a moment of understanding about our priorities. “You shield, I sword?” I ask, assuming that it’ll give them a good example of how to fight with their own tools.
“You shield, I sword.” She counters.
“You’re nimbler than I am, and have experience with a shield.” I comment.
“Hm.” Leomi ponders. “Okay.”
“Wait, we’re fighting the two of you?!” A woman exclaims, she has a single right eye but no scar on or around her closed left.
“One single portion, standard constructs.” Roisia replies in a commanding tone. “One pair at a time, shield and wooden staff. Form up!”
The hundred soldiers reflexively straighten up and form up in two lines facing us. Leomi exchanges her weapon to pick up the kite shield I gave her, getting Henry to untie her left arm and tie her right one.
The soldiers look nervous, especially those with shields who are likely to be facing me. I grin behind my mask, telling my symbiont to show them a few moves while their partners put their halberds away to grab a wooden staff.
The Little one doesn’t hold back and start slashing at the air without holding back, producing threatening whooshing sounds. Leomi rolls her eyes but, since she’s warming up by motioning front kicks, she doesn’t have much ground to stand on to make fun of me for intimidating the recruits.
“Use what you’ve trained.” Leomi tells them as she settles into position in front of me. “We’re as limited as you are and you have a more reach.”
“How freely do I get to move?” I ask.
“Realistically, we wouldn’t be able to move left and right much in battle.” Leomi replies.
“Alright.” I say. “You thinking what I’m thinking?” I question.
“Definitely, it should get us a free win.” She throws me a grin over her shoulder.
Neither of us go into further details, the two of us likely thinking to test if the other’s thoughts truly match with their own. The first pair steps up, composed of the woman with a single right eye who wields a wooden staff and a limping man with a shield that’s as tall as I am but whose shoulders seem twice as wide.
“Names?” Leomi asks.
“Mary, Commander, Councilwoman.” She replies.
“Denus.” He quietly responds, focused on the fight ahead.
“How do you rank in your regiment?” I question.
“Average.” He mutters.
“We’re the best.” Mary grins. “It’s an honor to spar with you both.”
I respectfully bring my wooden sword up to salute them and then shift to settle behind Leomi but slightly to her right where her shield won’t hinder my strikes. If this was a real fight, the two of us would likely switch positions since I’m much more aggressive and can tell what’s happening all around me, she’s also slightly taller.
“Whenever you’re ready.” Leomi says, raising her shield.
Denus immediately charges Leomi to lock shields with her while Mary throws an overhead lion strike to take advantage. I step in to block that while Leomi’s absorbs the shock and redirects Denus to the side, trying to make him open up his left side.
He counters by striking at her right with his sword, taking advantage of the fact we both have an arm tied behind our back while Mary pulls the staff back to prepare another attack. I shift to my right and throw a horizontal lion strike, aiming at Mary while ignoring the fact that both Leomi and Denus’ heads are in the way.
Just as I do, Leomi drops low and shifts to her left, avoiding his sword attack while using her shield to pressure his and push it upward. He ducks to avoid my sword while Mary panically steps out of my reach.
I forcefully redirect my attack downward, striking Denus’ shield at an odd angle and putting him slightly off-balance. Leomi takes advantage to swipe at his leg with her left, tripping him.
He drops on his back but manages to block Leomi’s shield bash aimed at his head. I hurriedly moving in, pressing myself at Leomi’s back to be able to parry Mary’s stabbing counter before it reaches her.
Denus tries to get back up but Leomi advances, stepping on his shield to throw him back down and give me space to maneuver forward while keeping a low stance to avoid hindering me. I bring my weapon back to take advantage of the opening.
Mary steps closer to stop me, entering my weapon range. I smile and lion strike at her staff, deciding not to use my symbiont’s full strength since this is just a spar and it’s not needed, as proven by how the wooden weapon flies out of her grip on impact.
“Ai!” Mary yelps, blowing on her stinging hands.
Leomi barely manages to block Denus’ low swipe with her shield but he forces her to retreat by threatening to bash her nose in. As he uses the space he won to try to getting back up on his feet.
I shift to a backhanded grip and deliver a downward stab at his shield over Leomi’s right shoulder, aiming at the left side since he’s resting his weight entirely on his right leg. The shock destabilizes him and he drops down to the ground once again.
Leomi finishes him off by moving in and kicking his sword out of his hand, using her shield to block Mary from intervening. I grin and grab my sword back into a normal hold.
“Why did you lose?” Roisia asks.
“Better teamwork and planning.” Mary groans.
“I didn’t see the sword coming so I couldn’t block it, the fact I had to duck threw her off and then we were on the back foot.” Denus supplies.
“We both expected to take one of you out with that attack.” I comment.
“Congratulations.” Leomi encourages.
“I should have been more aggressive like the Commander was.” Denus says.
“It’s about creating openings for your pair and yourself.” Leomi tells him, holding her hand out. He grabs it and she helps him stand up, patting a bit of dust and a grass strand off his shoulder. “That being said, you should prioritize remaining in position above taking risks in battle since you would face attacks from more directions than you can cover if you fall, not to mention that there is a very real chance of being trampled if the ranks close in around you.”
“I’m aware.” Denus grunts. “Commander.” He adds, a bit late.
“Were you using a strengthening construct?” I ask.
“I was, Councilwoman. The Commander used small bursts of strength to overwhelm me.” He says.
“You managed to compensate long enough to with your footwork. I wouldn’t have succeeded if Liz didn’t help.” Leomi reassures him.
“I never even got a chance to get into it.” Mary complains.
“Don’t whine! Next pair!” Roisia commands.