The two honor guards are leading the way but they don’t seem to mind my joining the group. Leomi falters and slows down but doesn’t stop. I notice that some Nobles are starting to leave their positions in the valley and on top of the fortifications to head towards the King.
“He left you to the Order, he isn’t going to make a move now. Especially not with the Rykz barely starting to retreat since he should know of your… connection. But this is still too risky, Liz.” Lance whispers.
“Do you have anything you want to talk about with the King?” I ask.
“No, not beyond refusing the title.” Lance shakes her head.
“Then it’s fine.” I shrug.
I feel something tug at my feet with every step. The Little one’s sense informs me that blades of grass are being strangely resistant, if not overtly moving to block me. I pay close attention and find that there are tiny filaments of black flow stretching in the stalks.
Celyz is worried. I smile, slowing down. I crouch and pat one of the strands in a reassuring manner until the construct fades, acting distinctively insane under thousands upon thousands of gazes. Leomi and Roisia stop and throw me confused looks.
“Don’t worry about it.” I chuckle, rising back up.
“This is a terrible idea, Liz.” Leomi grumbles.
“It could go very wrong.” Roisia agrees.
“We’ll see. I feel like having fun and this is the best opportunity I’ve had in weeks that didn’t involve messing with you.” I tell Leomi, grinning behind my mask. “Isn’t there a flag of neutrality after negotiations anyway?” I ask.
“Which is guaranteed by the Order, which is distinctively absent, which this situation doesn’t even quite match.” Leomi contests.
“Elizabeth Vil is widely seen as a Rykz agent by her status as one of their creations if that is your concern, Countess.” The second honor guard speaks up.
“She isn’t a creation!” Leomi growls. “And even if she was, she remains human first. I demand you apologize.”
“My apologies.” He replies, bowing slightly.
“Technically, he is correct.” I note. “I haven’t been requested by the Rykz, but there is something left to discuss with Cenwalh that the Silver Hive intended to ask for but hasn’t because the deal didn’t include it.”
“The treaty banning abduction and involuntary experimentation?” Leomi asks. “They’ve signed one with the Council but the King should indeed be offered to at least consider it.”
“So I should.” Cenwalh’s deeply arrogant voice cuts through our conversation. “But I refuse to do so for obvious reasons that your wording has revealed, Countess Lance. The insects would never volunteer to be experimented on but quite a few humans could be tempted to through greed. It is an inherently unbalanced treaty that your so-called Council has agreed to.”
I throw a glance up, finding that he’s still a good fifty meters away, I can now see the thin golden circlet around his forehead that works as a discreet crown, one that wouldn’t hinder his ability to fight which doesn’t make him appear overly luxurious without allowing anyone to doubt his position.
I accelerate my pace and head up to him. His eyes are steady and calm, in control. His posture is prideful but not overly so. Whatever he wanted out of this, he most likely got it or is about to.
A good hundred Nobles are now on the way downhill, the titled Court if I had to guess. Cenwalh dismounts his racehorse and hands the reins over to one of his honor guards. He then snaps his fingers, the shock propelling hundreds of flow strands that spread out and vanish in the air.
The sounds that reach my ears are now muted, even that of my own breath. I hurriedly enhance my hearing, finding that doing so allows me to listen without too much trouble but that I cannot catch anything beyond a few dozen meters in radius.
A group of servants rushes down the fortified hill with a large table and a single chair, they’re astonishingly using lion’s steps to avoid making the King wait. Leomi slows down to let me catch up and walk by her side, our two escorts split off to join the rest.
“Approach.” Cenwalh commands as he removes his cavalry gloves.
Leomi squeezes my shoulder while throwing me a quizzical look. I frown but soon understand she’s asking me to permit her to go. I blink, agreeing despite my feelings and better judgment.
The fact that she asked first makes it bearable to watch her walk up to the King and set the knee down but by no means easy. The Little one doesn’t respond to my anger in the least, the same way it cared little about my humiliation until I let my emotions loose.
“My King, I pledge an oath of allegiance and flow to you.” Leomi declares quietly. “I realize that this is abrupt and goes against decorum but this is a battlefield, it will be months before I can properly travel to Meiridin.”
“Then we shall set it aside for such a time that you do.” Cenwalh replies, waving his hand without concern before extending his left one out in front of her face.
Leomi takes hold of the tip of his fingers. I try to lash out at the ground with the halberd, not even certain of the aim of doing that, but Roisia’s hand is already squeezing my wrist. She slowly but firmly takes hold of the halberd under the honor guard’s watchful eyes and guides me to plant the spearhead into the ground.
The distraction is enough for me to close my eyes and cut myself off from my symbiont’s sense for the moment during which Leomi’s lips definitely do not touch the King’s seal-ring. I knew this would happen but even that wasn’t enough for me to retain full control.
Roisia lets go of my wrist and walks up to take a knee behind Leomi. Cenwalh doesn’t bother acknowledging her as he signals Lance to stand while pulling his hand back.
The Nobles arrive in droves, taking positions behind the King in an arc. Many of them glare at me. I make a mocking bow to the entire crowd, casually taking hold of the halberd. A few sneer, likely trying to provoke me. I just blankly stare back which quickly turns their expressions into annoyed ones.
“As for the title of Duchess, my King…” Leomi pauses, dragging the attention back to her. “I understand that you cannot bestow it upon me with Duke Meria’s will locked with him in his apartments.”
“Quite.” Cenwalh slowly agrees, failing to completely dissimulate his surprise at what seems to be a setback for his plans.
The rest of Nobility remains quiet to maintain decorum but some in the back, the ones who are likely the least influential, dissimulate mocking smiles directed at the King behind their hands, likely because of the fake will Edusa spoke of.
It is clear from the expressions of the four Dukes and Duchesses that two can’t quite believe their luck in this fortuitous event, even if they do not how it came to be. Those are Roskal and a lanky middle-aged man with an onerous looking Court outfit that a lesser Noble wouldn’t dare wear in fear of overshadowing their liege.
Edusa doesn’t offer a hint of a reaction and neither does the last Duke. Their behavior along with that of most other titled Nobles tells me quite clearly that most of them wished that Lance would be denied the title, including many who had cheered for her.
The servants arrive and quickly unroll a long piece of embroidered carpet on which to set the table down with a large chair in front of it. The feet of both pieces of furniture are sculpted but the overall impression is one of humble wealth. This King is far from stupid, he’s playing on prejudices and is striking a balance between wealth and overt opulence.
The servants then place a bottle of ink, a quill with golden filaments, and a piece of clear white paper with his crest in the corner on the table. King Cenwalh slowly walks and sits down on the large chair, seizing the quill with a wide gesture before resting his wrist down.
“But the Izla needs a leader, my King. I would ask that you authorize Izla Meria to pick a suitable candidate among its titled Nobility to send to Meiridin for you to judge their suitability, my King.” Leomi speaks up from a bowing position.
“You dare!” Roskal explodes, no longer seeming content about the turn of events.
“I dare?” Leomi questions back immediately. “Duchies have traditionally been succeeded by recommendation from a titled Court in absence of a clear heir!”
More than a few Nobles nod along with Leomi’s words while King Cenwalh silently observes. They are most definitely not supporting Leomi’s claims but protecting their independence, or rather, pushing for more as I doubt the tradition Leomi speaks of has been respected in recent years.
“You speak of tradition while this woman with who you have an immoral relationship is present?!” Roskal spits out with malice that reverberates among a good portion of the titled Nobles present. “Not to mention this peasant’s treachery, Izla Meria is barely a Duchy!”
“I am glad that you concede that the issue is our position as a Duchy rather than the old roots behind our claim to raise one of our own to lead us.” Leomi smiles. “With His Majesty’s permission of course.”
This is such bullshit, Grace would likely explode if she saw this debate that has little to do with Law and everything to do with politics. To be fair, my Lady is definitely enjoying the challenge of wills, not the truth twisting.
“So you do not disagree that Izla Meria’s rank as a Duchy is in doubt, Countess Lance?” The lanky Duke asks.
“It is up to the Court or to our King to deem whether or not Izla Meria has the strength to claim itself one of Caeviel‘s Duchies.” Leomi cleverly replies in an even voice, emphasizing only the Kingdom’s name.
“We declare that Izla Meria’s status is not in doubt.” Cenwalh calmly proclaims, putting a final end to that question. “We allow the titled court to pick a candidate, not Izla Meria.” He continues, catching on a trap in Leomi’s words that I hadn’t.
“Thank you, my King.” Leomi says, making a deep bow.
“Now, onto the subject of Elizabeth Vil.” Cenwalh continues, surprising me, Leomi, and Roisia but no one else. He plucks his quill into the ink bottle. “We have received many requests for justice, and a specific demand from the Templar Order.”
“This should be fun.” I comment. “I do wonder how you’ll spin this considering how afraid you all are that the Rykz will turn around, King Cenwalh.”
The Court erupts in vociferous call of anger but before any can draw their swords, Cenwalh raises his hand. Leomi is gritting her teeth, likely angry at me for being so undiplomatic.
I fucking hope Cenwalh doesn’t know all that much about me because I’m quite literally unable to hold my tongue here, or at least is going to keep what he knows a secret through habit or actual fear of what would occur if what was done to make me so dangerous became known by the public.
“It is unfitting for Nobility to react to an uneducated low-born’s lack of understanding on manners. Neither is it fitting to attack one of the Rykz’ creations after the insects’ Queen has declared her a friend of the Silver Hive.” Cenwalh coldly admonishes his Court. “Our laws must be applied in the context of diplomacy when it comes to Elizabeth Vil, monikered as the ‘Red Dwarf’.” The word ‘our’ is definitely not being used here to signify the Kingdom but rather the King.
“A friend is not an emissary, my King. Would you be so graceful as to clarify my confusion?” Roskal asks.
“We assume it that the morning’s missive has been deliberately left vague so as to avoid insulting the insects’ intelligence in choosing this term over an official one.” Cenwalh responds with a mocking tone but serious expression that triggers some polite laughter from the Court.
I’m quite baffled, and touched, that Grikyz did this. She didn’t appear to like me much so it means quite a lot to me that she has sent a communication to Cenwalh on my behalf, who she likely blames for Cetyz’ abduction.
I’m rather certain that Grikyz used the word ‘friend’ on purpose to keep it vague, rewarding me without going too far to make sure that the Silver Hive wouldn’t be obliged to avenge or protect me.
The Rykz Queen had to have done this right after receiving news of Cetyz’ return, not after I gave the Rykz what they wanted about Ka’tchuk, for them to receive it with this timing. I’m not about to try to explain to these idiots how wrong they are about the Rykz’ intelligence.
“Where is the Order if they have a demand of me?” I ask.
“In communication with the Home Temple in Kruzser over the conclusion of the war.” Edusa responds. “They have formed a conclave with Izla Meria’s Master Amand and received his testimony.” She continues as the King doesn’t interrupt her despite the glares coming from many around her. “Since our Emperor is otherwise occupied, likely because of the war in the east, you cannot be declared an enemy of the Empire but that does not mean the Order has no judgment to pass.” That’s… fortunate?
“We compliment your patience in explaining, Duchess.” Cenwalh comments without even glancing at Edusa. “The Templar Order has asked that we propose to you a path to redeem yourself for your transgressions towards them and the Empire, Elizabeth Vil.” He continues in a formal tone, the quill’s tip still dipping in the bottle of ink.
I almost speak up to ridicule the notion but I notice the pale look of impending doom on Leomi’s face and decide otherwise. I’ve pushed my luck quite a bit, the man is still King and his honor guard looks to be on edge.
I remember how Leomi almost broke the peace in Meria just as we agreed to it and resolve not to make the same mistake in failing to control myself. I simply incline my head to the side, deciding to listen and bite my tongue.
“Elizabeth Vil is to serve the Empire by defending its borders from both the Rykz and the Lisilese threat under the Order’s directions.” Cenwalh tells me, looking down at me from his large chair. “If you refuse, you will face consequences that we will henceforth pronounce and additional condemnation from the Templar Order that they will declare at a time of their choosing.”
“Refuse and be hunted down, wench.” The lanky Duke throws out as I ponder in silence.
“Hm.” I exhale, smiling behind my mask as I turn my neck to look up and down at his clothes. “I wonder if you’re the Duck… I’m sorry, Duke? All that pretentious garb dazzles me so much I have trouble gathering my thoughts. I wonder if you’ll be the one hunting me down. You’re such a sport to be wearing this and giving me the chance to see you coming from kilometers away. It shouldn’t be too hard to hunt you, Duke Duckling.”
I giggle as the man’s face turns red. It kind of sucks that I’m relying on the Rykz’ protection, and the people’s support, to make these comments but I doubt any of them would tell me not to reply if they were asked.
I take a single step to my right to avoid the minuscule air-needle that flies out of that Duke’s sleeve. The construct dissipates as it passes by my ear, provoking a small breeze that barely moves a hair on my head.
“Order.” Cenwalh firmly commands. “Your answer, Elizabeth Vil.”
“How about we play a game first?” I ask, chuckling.
I’m amazed that I feel so little fear for my life with the power arrayed in front and against me. I focus on instead trying to make up for the damage I’m doing Leomi’s faction by being myself in proposing something that I can use to make a point to these Nobles who many have been more receptive to Lance’s words than I would have thought.
I throw her a quick glance. She’s squeezing her fists so hard that her phalanxes are blank, a quick inspection with my sense tells me that her toes are similarly clenched. It must be tough for her to remain on the sidelines but it seems like she thinks that speaking up for me would likely harm us in some way.
“We have no time to waste on such as you, traitor.” Duchess Roskal responds.
“Do you not tire of barking?” I counter. “Is Caeviel’s King not grand enough in your eyes that you feel the desire to act like his attack dog?”
My question makes the Duchess take a half-step back like I just hit her. Yet, unlike the other Duke, she makes no move to attack but rather gathers herself and directs her hard eyes at mine for a moment before shifting towards the King to make a small bow.
My response likely makes it harder for Cenwalh to refuse, he seems tense, almost stunned at the wrench I’m throwing in the proceedings, at being defied by a low-born he can’t just order the execution of without risking the alienation of Izla Meria and the Rykz both at once.
Whatever this titled Court has assembled for, it now looks more like what the Order would put together to settle differences than a liege pronouncing judgment. While the King takes his time to make a decision, and the Nobles keep their silence for fear of appearing to be belittling Cenwalh after my words, I scrutinize the honor guard.
They all stand in perfect order behind the King, most of them are tense apart from one man who stands to the left of Cenwalh. His sword’s pommel is hidden under a strap of leather, different from that of the others who have a golden crown there. I try to use my sense to see under it but it’s difficult to tell the details, the most I can conclude is that it is not a golden crown.
“What… game did you hope to challenge us with, Elizabeth Vil?” Cenwalh suddenly asks.
“Shah.” I reply, making a small bow. “With a few corrections to the rules to reflect the current situation.”
“Which would these be?” He asks.
“I have but a vague understanding of the normal rules. It is less a challenge than a demonstration, King. I can only bet that I will not lose.” I reply confidently.
“Bold affirmation.” Cenwalh comments with a small but a glimmer goes through his eyes, that of a man awakening from a deep boredom for a brief moment.
“I promise that these rules, which I wish to keep under wraps, are to my disadvantage in playing this game. You, of course, have the prerogative to contest the changes I will explain as we play. Like I have said, it is but a demonstration applicable to current events.” I argue.
“Very well. You do not seem quite the simple barbarian that Duchess Hetlan has proclaimed you to be, but it is understandable considering your crimes against her family.” Cenwalh replies.
Edusa’s face turns hard as he mentions her sister’s death to vilify me. The lie that crossed Cenwalh’s lips was so smooth that I would have believed it had he not been who he is. It is obvious to me that he doesn’t believe me to be any smarter than he did a moment ago. This is all to build me up and glorify his win.