Lance returns with a somber expression. I worry about my fuck up but her light gray abysmal eyes are trained on the ground, showing that she’s deep in thought while Edusa is glaring at me without reserve.
Roisia signals the Hospitaliers to keep going ahead but they do give me salutes with sad apologetic faces, likely because of my exile. I respond by handing over the halberd I took with a wave of my hand to tell them it is of little concern.
“There was a better way to do this than to openly defy the King, Elizabeth Vil!” Edusa explodes. “Striking the Shah board? Sending messaging constructs? Have you lost your mind?”
“That’s no news.” I chuckle. “What happened?”
“King Cenwalh set a new tax for sea and river trade between Duchies!” Edusa gripes. “He never would have thrown that in there if not for your bet! This is going to cripple us while it will barely affect the rest of the Kingdom that mainly uses land to trade.”
“Other Kingdoms remain open at the normal rate, Cenwalh didn’t think of it because the southern trade route isn’t practical with all the mountains and ships are subject to be boarded by Lisilese raiding ships in the summer. On the other hand, the main west-east route with Mirus is in Roskal’s Duchy which he wouldn’t want to tax.” Leomi denies. “You’ll still be able to go ahead with your plan, our Duchies simply won’t be able to inter-connect.”
“Which makes it even harder for my lands to develop.” Edusa bitterly grumbles.
“What about the politics?” I ask.
“Not good. I didn’t do as well as I hoped I would among Nobility and peasantry seems to be beyond divided about us, there is no lack of hatred for Nobility but the numbers aren’t as high as I thought. If I had to estimate, I would say that around a quarter could be convinced to rise up in arms which is far from enough.” Leomi sighs. “About you… it’s hard to say. The story will spread that you won the game and obtained the gold, even if we don’t help it along. We couldn’t get a word in after you left. He attacked our relationship again and claimed that breaking the Lake’s command of populating the lands, which isn’t one, leads to treachery.”
“There are a good number of domains ready to tie trade connections with us, mostly Barons and Baronesses on the coast.” Edusa speaks up. “They wouldn’t ally with us, but they’re making sure not to be seen as enemies either. The fact that they respect our potential power enough to make this move during Court can be attributed to you, Elizabeth.” She gracefully admits
“You mean fear us.” I comment before turning to Leomi. “Your opinion?”
“That was disgusting, need to wash my mouth.” She groans.
“That bad?” I blink.
“Hate that King, would kill him now if I could.” Leomi gripes. I notice that Edusa’s cheeks rise in temperature at her words, which makes no sense.
“That can be arranged.” Celyz calmly notes, unfairly calling her bluff as such an attack would resume the war. Leomi throws Celyz a dark look before turning back to me without responding.
“It was naive of me to take responsibility, it didn’t matter in the slightest for the Court, it made our position worse when it came down to your exile.” Leomi continues apologetically.
“It mattered for the people, my Liege.” Edusa interjects.
“What do you mean?” I ask, resisting the pull to glare at her.
“I may have been able to negotiate with the Order to bring you south if I didn’t make the move to tie your actions to my own. If I kept a small distance between us, Cenwalh might not have felt it so necessary to directly remove you through exile. If I asked for forgiveness on your behalf, it would have framed this as a romantic gesture instead of a political one, meaning that Nobility as a whole would have been more supportive of us.” Leomi lists the reasons out. “But then again, doing so might not have worked at all. Many have seen my plea as one of love among peasantry which set a line between the fuckers who are against it and the rest when Cenwalh directly brought it up.” Edusa and Roisia make a grimace at her swear. “That’s generally good because, by the Lake, I’m not going to change or hide who I am. Either way, it was damn hard to let you do this, Liz.” Leomi throws me a sheepish glance, which I find eminently sexy.
“You’re not mad at me?” I ask, pushing down my impulse to kiss her.
“You did better than me.” Leomi shakes her head. That doesn’t mean you aren’t mad. “It pushed many to Cenwalh’s side, which could have been avoided but your point wouldn’t have been as clear, at least they’re now thinking along the correct lines as we’ve overall re-framed peasantry’s importance in their political games. It was always going to take time but it’ll take less now.”
“It’s impossible to know how it would have turned out if you went softer from the start, Countess Lance, Duchess Hetlan, Dame Vil.” Roisia formally interjects. “If they saw weakness, a lack of support, or flailing enthusiasm from peasantry, then this could have been the end of us. Even if Cenwalh is fine with letting you grow as a threat, the titled Court is most definitely not. Roskal herself may very well have split off from the King and used her influence to strip us of our titles.”
“Exactly.” Leomi agrees.
“I agree.” Edusa nods.
“One problem remains, Cenwalh insisted that any candidate for the title of Duke or Duchess has to dismantle this Council prior to traveling to Meiridin as, in his words, it would be a disgrace for a titled Noble to rely on low-born.” Roisia says.
“It’s a play to cause discord.” Leomi waves her hand like she’s swiping the comment away. “It won’t work and we’re not about to send anyone to his Palace.” Her vehemence surprises me.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because we don’t need the King’s recognition to have a leader.” Leomi replies slowly. “We’ll delay as much as possible, but ultimately the Izla’s ruling Council will remain the power which chooses who leads the Duchy. Hopefully, they’ll pick me as Duchess but it won’t be permanent either way so whoever it is will never go get confirmed.”
“It does make it a lot harder for me.” Edusa frowns. “It’ll already be difficult to deal with my Noble subjects and appointing a Council will make it even worse with this.”
“Then don’t.” Roisia says. “Focus on fixing what you can and preparing, you can always establish a Council once you have full control over the army.”
“I need to establish a system to break the flow vow to Nobility as you’ve done on the Izla, the Hospitaliers are an obvious choice to shatter their hold on power.” Edusa explains.
“No way that’ll go unchallenged.” I comment.
“It won’t from within the Duchy but King Cenwalh will let it happen while trying to sow discord to undermine the system’s viability in people’s minds. I can deal with covert attacks and plots.” Edusa replies confidently. “If I delay, it’ll be harder to make the gradual change without the Kingdom’s interference.”
“Then do it in one go.” Leomi suggests.
“Organize the Hospitaliers beforehand?” Edusa asks, pondering. “That could work if I set it up as a lightning strike once I’ve weakened Nobility and strengthened my hold on the army.”
“Once again, Nobility choosing the path that extends their grasp on power.” I grunt, angry but not surprised. Edusa’s ears go red as her temper rises as well.
“I don’t hide my face behind a mask!” She blows. “I’ve put my entire life on the line here, contrary to you!”
“Poor little Lady, taking the risk to be a Duchess!” I fire back. “Your greed and ambition are plain to see!” Edusa’s hand flashes to her sword’s handle but Leomi calmly takes hold of her wrist.
“Elizabeth, Edusa has already replaced many of her Mother’s officers with loyalist low-born. The top of the ladder remains filled with Nobles but you can’t expect things to change in a week.” Leomi argues.
“Excuses.” I growl, my left hand’s fingers twirling as I activate some of my prepared constructs. “Excuses, exc…” Celyz gently rests one of her tendrils on my left shoulder, making me pause.
“Don’t touch her!” Leomi explodes, reaching out to me.
Roisia steps between Leomi and me, stopping her from grabbing my cloak and pull me away from Celyz. She locks eyes with Edusa who purses her lips and lets go of her weapon.
“Ladies, tempers have been running high because the three of you have been personally under attack, don’t turn on each other now.” Roisia speaks up. “We’ve already established that we need to do better about peasantry, let us not get into a fight over something we are in agreement over.”
“I…” Edusa pauses. “I apologize, Dame Vil. Your exile is going to be hard to make up for and I bear resentment for the fact that it could have been avoided. It is unfair of me.” She bows.
“It’s, fine.” I grunt. “I shouldn’t be judging you before giving you a chance.”
“Lady Edusa is being nice but somewhat dishonest.” Celyz comments in a calm resounding voice to the three Ladies’ dismay and anger.
“Explain.” I bark at them before they can attack my Rykz sister for plainly exposing the truth.
“We need time, a confrontation will end us before we can make a move and you’re the most likely trigger of such an event.” Leomi says, the cold look in her eyes softens as she turns them to me. “You are a potent rallying point so this remains a complete loss. Thankfully, the King didn’t want to trigger a confrontation over your mask so you can still move around.”
The fact that Celyz doesn’t intervene says much in my view as she wouldn’t hesitate to call Leomi out if she smelled less than honesty here. Edusa’s frown makes it clear she doesn’t entirely agree but she doesn’t bring it up.
“He still wants you to cause trouble but not here.” Edusa warns me.
“Why? And how does that connect to the mask.” I ask, curious as to her opinion.
“Because he plans to use the changes we make to gather support from other Kingdoms, specifically Mirus who already has public order problems because of Sykus. He’s already reached out to their Queen. If you wish to return to Caeviel at a later date, he’ll likely spread rumors that you’re an impostor. The symbol will shatter when you take the mask off because you’ll then be depicted as a greedy peasant, not to mention they’ll be able to target you with any manner of tricks and schemes.” Edusa explains.
“That’s naive of him.” I laugh. “That plan only works if I take it slow, which I have no intention to if I am forced to return.”
“Call it a contingency.” Edusa shrugs. “His hands are tied in regards to you in the present because of your relationship to the Rykz. He would lose his crown for certain if he broke the peace now. He may already have lost it if not for the three of us.” She glances at me and Leomi. “Countess Lance’s discovery of the Rykz on Izla Meria allowed him to mitigate damage and consequent blame to a minimum, my replacing the previous Duchess whose gambit for the throne would have opened the way for others if she failed, and primarily what Elizabeth did to negotiate an end to the war.”
“So why does it feel like we’re losing?” I ask.
“Because you’re a brute, and I don’t mean it in a bad way.” Edusa smiles. “You see things in different terms than we do. We build the path to success and move accordingly, while you see the obstacles and determine where to strike to shift the odds in your favor. My opinion is that, for the near future, you are not what our side needs.” Leomi tenses and tries to discreetly pull on Edusa’s sleeve.
“What is it we require?” I question my Lady, squinting my eyes.
“…” She bites her lower lip without responding.
“If you won’t say it, I will, my Liege.” Edusa speaks up. “We need the woman who made the plans, not the enforcer that set them in motion.”
“She doesn’t want anything to do with me.” Leomi whispers, avoiding my gaze to reply to Edusa. “And I’ve told you that if she wants any part of this, she will show up.”
“We have plenty of recruits but we lack thinkers. It goes for the entire faction at the moment. You’ll be able to enjoy the winter in relative peace, Councilwoman.” Roisia tells me.
“Rhy.” Celyz exhales loudly, producing a sharp angry sound. I smile, predicting that she’s annoyed about the same thing I am, that they are pretty much both insulting and complimenting me. “Elizabeth is as intellectually capable, if not more, than any of you.”
“I meant that Councilwoman Cecil will need her help in an administrative capacity, Princess.” Roisia hurriedly explains.
“Setting plans in motion is a different skill-set than applying them, that is all I meant.” Edusa justifies in a firm voice.
“Elizabeth doesn’t have the patience.” Leomi counters, giving me a nervous glance as she’s worried that her honest opinion would anger me.
“Can’t argue with that, I sometimes lose it.” I chuckle. “But it seems like you’ve been skirting very close to what your oath allows you for quite a while from what these two know.”
“I can talk.” Leomi challenges.
“Depends on what your intention was in doing so.” I counter.
“An explanation I owe her, not you.” Leomi replies in a final tone, taking one step towards me.
“Fine.” I say, raising my hands to tell her I’m backing off of Jessica’s territory.
“The two of us need to talk anyway.” Leomi declares, glaring at Celyz over my head.
Roisia sneaks up next to Edusa and pushes her back to force her to to start walking away with her. They head downhill towards the human camp while Celyz and Leomi seem to fall into a battle of wills over which has the right to my time. I grow extremely uncomfortable, if flattered.
As I stand between them, I find myself unable to make up my mind over how to solve this. The easiest way would be to cling to Leomi as we are together but I’ve been hurting Celyz by refusing to let go and so I cannot intercede against her.
“Will you finally challenge the fact that Elizabeth belongs to me? Body and mind.” Leomi asks with an unsettling voice and a somber expression.
“Hey!” I exclaim, but also the pure joy I feel when she makes this claim I’ve longed for with all my heart. “That’s not…”
“Liz, this is between us.” Leomi shuts me down.
“It is, Elizabeth.” My Rykz sister agrees, putting a final end to my weak protests.
Celyz’ tendrils twist around her torso, showing her internal conflict, her pain at having never gotten a chance to fight this battle because I’m too obsessed and stubborn. Yet, she stands tall, her root-like toes firmly planted in the ground.
“I, do not.” Celyz admits with difficulty.
“And this is why you aren’t worthy of her!” Leomi explodes, surprising the both of us. “You accept without even asking for her opinion on the matter! How could you dare claim any honest feelings for her?!”
“I, it is… no. That is…” Celyz stutters, taken entirely off-guard.
“I own her, because she allows me to.” Leomi continues in a shivering voice, pouring her uncertain heart out.
My Lady is ignoring my Princess’ flailing tendrils and swaying trunk, a clear indicator to me that Celyz is certain she has been misunderstood. Her prolonged silence and the prickling odor she is exuding make me realize that she feels guilty anyway and isn’t certain that Leomi is wrong in her accusation either.
“I have always respected her choices.” Celyz quietly tries to justify herself.
“Did you ask what they were about you or in this matter?” Leomi pitilessly questions.
“Not, not always.” Celyz admits with anguish. “It, but it is clear to me, I, it is difficult to explain but… our language is… we can smell… but not…” She stumbles in her response, likely still struggling to refute the accusation in her mind.
“But you present yourself like a pure being that does not lie anyway.” Leomi spits out, interrupting her. “I might not be as virtuous but at least I don’t make a mystery that I want to own her!”
“What about Jessica!” Celyz explodes, taking a step forward and bumping into my back. “You used her like a toy until she broke!”
“I, did, not. It.” Leomi pales, faltering. She reaches out to my cloak’s collar to pulls me into her arms. “Sorry, I need your strength.” She whispers in an almost inaudible voice. “I regret my choices and mistakes but I’ve no more lied by omission than you have to Elizabeth! If you’re so damn pure of intent, tell Liz that you have no plans to use her if she follows you back to your Hive!” Leomi recovers her colors as she grows furious.
Celyz’ tendrils seize and twirl on themselves as she impotently watches me be stolen from her proximity. I freeze up, unable to reject either, yet choosing a side by doing so.
“It is not the same.” Celyz denies. “She would need to function as part of us, it is not equivalent to making use of her.” I make a small nod to signify my position to both. Leomi bites her tongue but lets it go.
“I told Jessica everything I knew about our relationship when I knew it. I protected her from all I could, including herself and me, because she was in no state to make life decisions about us or anything long term, which was partially my fault.” Leomi affirms. Celyz doesn’t call her out for lying. My heart tightens as I feel deep sadness for my Rykz sister’s plight, mixed in with an overwhelming wave of relief to learn that Leomi wasn’t just toying with me. “The circumstances that we found ourselves in are on your head, Princess!” Leomi accuses.
“I’m as associated with what happened under my mother’s rule than you are to what your mother did!” Celyz blasts back, barely managing to restrain her voice. “I did what I could to minimize loss of life!”
“Because you feared for your sister.” Leomi dismisses in a cold tone.
“Yes but also because I’m a scholar! And then later because I met humans who did not have your prejudice about the Rykz!” Celyz counters.
“Prejudice.” Leomi mumbles, squeezing me tightly in her surprisingly trembling arms. “Prejudice.” She repeats as she regains control of herself. “Prejudice. Do you not eat humans, just as the Lisilese do? Of course you do. The Hive consumes all available materials that serve its goals, the fact that they died beforehand makes no difference if you’re the one who killed them. Tell us, how many people were sacrificed for your experiment on my Liz to succeed?” Leomi questions in a cold dead tone while grasping at me with desperation. I ate humans.
I return the hug as hard as I dare, knowing of her first crush’s fate and that her guilt about Jessica isn’t the only reason why she sought comfort through holding me in her grasp.