Roisia is alone inside the tent, she’s sitting at a table and sharpening the tip of her rapier with a construct, her one-handed crossbow is dismantled in front of her. I throw a look at Leomi who points me to a chair.
I don’t move, preferring to use my symbiont’s sense to search for Hetlan’s Duchess in case she decided to try to ambush me, again. Lance takes a moment before speaking up, appearing to have hoped that I would sit before she started talking.
“Edusa left as soon as the Rykz started retreating a couple of hours ago. She slipped away without bringing Henry or Margaret. I assume it’s because she isn’t sure of how King Cenwalh is going to react and didn’t want to risk their lives.” Leomi explains.
“She isn’t sure?” I blink and freeze on the spot. “Nobility is going to call for her death for helping me, the battle’s events will have spread by now! Fuck, give me your sword, I’m going.” I reach for the weapon at her waist, already calculating ways to slip into the human army camp.
“To fight an army by yourself, Liz?” Leomi asks, seizing my wrist with an iron grip.
“She might win.” Roisia comments with a chuckle. Leomi throws her a mean glare. “Sorry.” She immediately mutters before turning to me. “Councilwoman, Edusa knows what she’s doing. She will show up at Court with our allies within Nobility and set the narrative on the Izla’s predicament in a favorable manner.”
“I’m not going to let her die, even if you are.” I utter in a cold tone, ripping my wrist out of her grip. I almost run off there and then but the exhilaration I feel for this new clear goal makes me pause because of its incongruity.
“Liz, if I had my faction here, I would send them, but the Rykz made sure that I would not have them as a backup by preventing them from leaving the Izla. Roisia, Henry, and Margaret are unknowns among the Court while the two of us are too well known to make this kind of indirect move. Edusa is intelligent and she has an understanding of King Cenwalh’s current goals, trust her.” Leomi argues.
“Always blaming the Rykz.” I gripe.
I start pacing around the tent to release some of my aggression, mulling over her words and how disturbing it is that I latched onto the prospect of what anyone else would qualify as a suicide mission without a second thought.
“I was simply stating a fact. We do not have the military or political resources to be confronting King Cenwalh at his own Court. The best we can do is indirectly move out and speak to Caeviel, to the army, which is better in many ways than the alternative.” Leomi tells me. “Edusa chose to take a risk to make that easier for us, we shouldn’t throw that away.”
“Then what are you waiting for?!” I growl impatiently, too riled up and tense to keep my anger bottled up.
Leomi takes hold of her halberd and hands it over to me. I gladly take hold of it, the weight in my hands helps me cool down. I walk over to the chair she pointed me at earlier to sit down.
“I’m waiting for you, Councilwoman.” Leomi sighs. “I need your permission to speak and negotiate on the Izla’s behalf, unless you want to do so yourself.”
“That’s a bad idea, and you know it.” I chuckle darkly. “What are you planning to do?”
“Tell the truth about what happened.” Leomi replies calmly. “Exhort people to be better.”
“Naive stuff.” Roisia mutters.
“That can’t be all of it.” I comment.
“I expect to be interrupted by King Cenwalh rather early on, or at least by his people. I don’t have much planned, only a general outline of what ideas I need to get out before that happens. Father always said that people can always tell when speeches are prepared and that makes them sound insincere even if they aren’t.” Leomi explains, looking rather nervous.
“What’s your best-case scenario?” I ask.
“It’s the same as the worst-case scenario.” Leomi grunts. “According to Edusa, I’m likely to be offered the title of Duchess but what will truly matter are what strings will be attached to it.”
“You’re stacking up responsibilities.” I noncommittally comment.
“There is zero chance that King Cenwalh will recognize the Council as a proper ruling authority.” Roisia replies. “By offering this, he’ll think he’s driving a wedge in our government.”
“Which he is.” I flatly affirm. Leomi makes a small knowing smile. “You’re planning something underhanded.” I realize.
“The King dug his own grave, all I’ll do is push him closer to the edge.” Leomi makes a bloodthirsty grin.
“But it’s your best-case scenario.” I note. “Which means you’ll accept.”
“I will be Duchess, I have little doubt about that, but King Cenwalh isn’t the one who is going to give me the title, no.” Leomi answers confidently.
“So you’re not looking for the title this afternoon. Are you going to keep replying mysteriously or are you going to give me a straight answer?” I ask.
“I’d rather give you the surprise.” Leomi replies.
I lock eyes with her, keeping watch over her traits. The way her left cheek is tenser than her right, the almost imperceptible crease on her forehead, the slight squint in her eyes, all of these tell me that something is off about her. She’s not in her right state of mind.
“You’re going to take a big risk.” I say, getting worried about her. “Why?”
“Because we need results, change.” Leomi immediately replies. “I’ve calculated this, there is a good chance Cenwalh will go along but we’ll benefit even if he doesn’t.” She tells me before suddenly asking an unrelated question. “How did my people look outside?”
“Exhausted but still training.” I reply, frowning behind my mask as I wonder what she’s getting to.
“Ah, I should get them to stop then.” Roisia suddenly gets up and sheathes her rapier, rushing out.
“I need them to look as non-threatening as possible.” Leomi tells me. “King Cenwalh has to think that ceding ground today will benefit him in the long run, which won’t happen if our flag regiment appears dangerous.”
“I don’t like this.” I tell her.
“You’re not the only one who can make an apparently insane gamble work.” Leomi frowns, apparently taking my words as a challenge.
“Listen to yourself.” I say. “You’re rushing into this, I’ve only gambled when I had no other option.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it.” Leomi utters, growing agitated.
“I don’t have any details, I’m going by your words alone and the feeling they’re giving me is that you yourself aren’t confident.” I explain, trying to appease her.
“I, need to act before I…” She bites her tongue to stop herself from talking.
“You’re not telling me anything more because you know I’ll refuse, yet you’re asking for me to give you my blessing in my capacity as a Councilwoman, despite my repeatedly telling you I have no intention of filling that role.” I utter, saddened that the two of us are back to this after the marvelous night we spent together.
“You’re the one who wanted progress!” Leomi suddenly explodes in anger but the emotion recedes just as quickly. She almost crumbles from a standing position, catching herself by shifting her feet at the last moment. “Trust me, Liz. Please.” She begs. I see fear in her eyes, in her trembling slender fingers.
Roisia enters my detection range again as she returns to the tent. I get up and head to the flaps to close them, making it clear we need a moment. Roisia stops, her expression undisturbed. She turns around to direct the halberdiers and shield-bearers to form ranks.
“No.” I tell Leomi. “You’re going to tell me what your plan is or you’re not getting out of this tent.” I slam the halberd’s handle against the ground to punctuate my point.
Leomi closes her fists and straightens her back. She walks up to me, squaring her shoulders as she leans in to look down at me. I angle my head back and to the right to glance up, refusing to back away.
“I’m going to put my life on the line for this.” She affirms with a fierce flame in her light gray eyes. My heartbeat accelerates. “Whether my plan works or not, the Izla will have options open to it. Telnur would be more than happy to accept Izla Meria with its current form of government as long as our army helps them. I’m counting on the fact that King Cenwalh is aware of this.”
“I will not allow you to put your life in his hands.” I firmly deny.
“And I won’t, I am not foolish.” Leomi counters.
“But you’re refusing to tell me what you’re doing.” I comment, my stomach sinking as I take this as a confirmation that she still hasn’t learned a thing.
“Not because I don’t want to but because you’ve made it clear that my opinion doesn’t matter to you when it comes to your life.” Leomi coldly returns. “You don’t get to deny me when, again and again, you’ve thrown yourself at death’s arms without pity about the effect it would have on me.”
“I…” I trail off, struggling to find a meaningful response. “This isn’t the same, you’re asking me to make a call as a Councilwoman without giving me the information.” I pathetically argue. “You haven’t thought of what it would do to me to see you die!” I accuse in desperation.
“Of course, I have.” Leomi replies with a hurt expression. “You’re invincible, you’ll make it through and keep fighting for what we’re standing for. For me if not for yourself.”
Huk. I half-hiccup, half-guffaw, digging my heels in further from fright as she seems to think that the chance of it happening isn’t negligible. I grow angry that she could think so of me but cannot honestly blame her for getting this idea considering how I’ve acted with her as Elizabeth.
“You‘re mistaken.” I utter with difficulty.
“I’m ready to tell you, if you promise me you’ll lean on your ideals instead of your emotions to make a decision.” Leomi replies with confidence. “This is about the future we’re building.”
“What ideals?” I scoff. “I’m a slaughterer clinging to peace because I can’t handle my own guilty conscience.”
“And today we’ll be condemned or forgiven by the people.” Leomi tells me, her turn turning gentle. “You’re the strength that started this movement, Liz. I’m only the figurehead by virtue of having been born of the right parents with the skill to take advantage of it as I grew up.” She places her right hand over mine which is holding her halberd.
“What are you going to do?” I ask, finally admitting to myself that she isn’t the one making this about us, I am.
“I’m going to subject myself to the people’s judgment, like it was done in olden times. You know we can trust the people, they will make the right decision.” Leomi exults.
There is madness in her expression, insanity. Others may call it revelation, or a calling, but it couldn’t be any clearer to me that her current path is a reflection of what I’ve done to her by taking my mask off, a consequence of the words I hammered into her as I took her.
“I don’t, and neither should you.” I deny.
“Wh, what?” Leomi blinks, taken aback. “But, y, you support this system, you’ve pushed for this… republic! The Council exists on the Izla’s behalf!” She protests.
“People are ugly. They hate for the flimsiest of reasons and fight with the worst of excuses. The opposite of monarchy may be a republic, but the fact that one path brings evil does not mean that the other brings good. Rasaec himself is no better than the rest of them.” I utter coldly. “With rulers chosen by the people, it’ll be their own fault when they fuck it all up.” I angrily spout.
“You, don’t believe in any of this, what we’re doing.” Leomi falters.
I catch her by the waist with my left arm before she falls, utterly unwilling to see her knee hit the ground for any other reason than us. She grabs onto me, then lets go, then grips at me again, in too much turmoil to make a decision.
“Why do you think I admire you?” I ask, scoffing. “I am twisted, I see no good in any of this, only preferable alternatives.”
The look of utter disappointment in her gaze bores straight into my heart. It makes me feel terrible, alive. I am sick. Yet, her resolve returns, stronger despite my words. She sets her feet back under herself, pushing herself upright with difficulty but without hesitation.
“No, this, this had to be done.” Leomi murmurs. “If you don’t pick up the torch, another will. They have to.”
“Do they?” I ask, trying to stop her from throwing herself to the whims of a crowd. From forcing me to intervene.
“Even, even if none does, this is the right thing. I’ll, have lived and died for my ideals. My death will, serve to prove that even the weakest human’s voice has the right to call out for justice.” Leomi argues, her voice growing firmer from conviction the more she speaks.
“You’re the last thing keeping me tied to the Empire, Leomi Lance. If you die from this foolish gamble, know that I will visit destruction upon those responsible.” I declare, almost threaten as I lose control of my voice.
“If that’s true, then you are unfit to say a word for or against this. I need to go, join me if you can remain aside, or do not. I’ve… no desire to hear your opinion on the matter any longer.” Lance tells me with a deep pain in her voice. She tries to walk past me but I use the halberd to block her, feeling my heart sink.
“Please, reconsider.” I plead. “You’ve not had the youth I have, you’ve seen the ugliness of Nobility but not that of peasantry.”
“These people rose to defend Caeviel. They will listen to why we have done what we have. They will first learn that their voice can bring the end to a Countess in the height of her popularity. It will be a beginning, a wedge for change. If they decide to forgive us, they will witness King Cenwalh falter because of their support of me or lose his throne because he denied their judgment.” Leomi affirms.
“There is more to this than what you’re making it out to be.” I whisper. “Peasants sometimes willingly participate in their own subjugation.”
“I understand that risk, let me go.” Leomi demands, pushing the halberd aside.
“I don’t think you do.” I whisper, remembering how my home village turned their backs on Father on Baron Buton’s behalf. “You need my permission to go, as a Councilwoman.” I speak up in desperation as she walks past me.
“I’ve spoken of this to Councilwoman Cecil, it is her plan to begin with. We argued over it, I thought she was trying to get me killed to elevate you when I had no idea how far you would go.” Leomi stops to reply in a frosty tone. “It turns out we were both right and wrong. She wasn’t trying to get me killed but she was trying to elevate you, and was wrong in attempting so.”
“I did warn you about me.” I grunt, feeling like I’m choking for air as we exchange words with our backs facing each other.
“That, you did.” Leomi shivers. “It is my fault, for seeing things that are clearly not there.” Her tony is gentle yet, or because of it, her voice cuts right through my head like an ice cold spike.
“I’m not as blind about human nature as you are.” I respond, trembling.
“I thought you could see past the terrible things that happened to you.” Leomi sadly shakes her head. “It is unfair of me to have assumed so when I have not experienced half of what little you’ve told me. I will not hold a grudge over your hangups, Liz, but neither can I let us get in the way of what we both agreed is necessary.”
“You’ll do to me as you did to her?” I ask, my knees shaking. “Set me aside for your duty.”
“You don’t get to use Jessica when you’ll seek comfort into that Princess’ tendrils while I burn in the Lake of Fire, Elizabeth.” Lance fires back, seeming convinced of the veracity of her claim that she won’t be safe in death. “I lost friends to her, people I knew for years to you. You could call it my duty to see past it, but the truth is that I listened to the heart you touched and it told me what I needed to know in the same way it is now.”
“I love you. Please, don’t do this.” I beg with a cracking voice.
“And I’m falling for you.” She replies.
She says it again, again, again… I smother my insanity, barely noticing the way the Little one’s tendrils squeezes my body’s bones in response. Leomi takes a deep breath and turns around, her abdominal muscles clenched like she’s in pain.
“This isn’t about us, Liz. Trust the people you’ve fought so hard for to make the call. Please?” Leomi asks.
“Right and wrong don’t depend on numbers, Countess Lance.” I counter, shifting to face her. “You may find your support in their approval, but… I never will.” I pause. “But I will stand by you. Just because I think that you are mistaken does not mean I don’t believe in you.” Leomi brings her hand over her heart, her middle finger pressing on the spot I cut.
“And you won’t interfere, no matter what happens?” She asks.
“You should know I would never let you die, Leomi.” I berate her.
“I’ll fight you over that.” My Lady replies with a happy grin on her face.
I was wrong. I am wrong. Leomi is learning but choosing a path I hadn’t expected, or wished for, she is suborning herself to the people’s fickle will.