Yvonne startles when the Princess attacks Jessica with her flow, throwing her backward so hard that she flips on herself and lands on her belly. Yvonne thought the Rykz and Jessica had an agreement.
Yvonne hurriedly picks Leomi up, placing her body between her liege and the Rykz Princesses. She assembles an air-spear but delays launching it even to save Jessica, aware that doing so would put her ward in more danger which her friend would more than frown on.
She decides to throw Leomi to the side if either of the Princesses retaliates, yet remains hesitant as the Rykz isn’t threatening Jessica’s life. Her indecision doesn’t last long as the one named Fenyz passes her spearheaded tendrils under Jessica’s intricate mail shirt.
Yvonne immediately launches the construct but the Princess’ unstructured flow expands out and disintegrates it before it even gets close. She does her best to quickly complete a second one but it fails just the same.
“Fuck me.” Yvonne swears under her breath, just before the second Princess impacts Fenyz.
She assembles three air-shields for safety, using the access she obtained from joining the Hospitaliers that the entire population of the Izla swore flow pledges to. Jessica is bleeding a bit but the Rykz seems to be protecting her.
Yvonne starts retreating, taking the confrontation and the lack of counter-attack as proof that she doesn’t know nearly enough about the circumstances but that what she’s hearing confirms that her friend’s life isn’t in danger. She decides that evacuating the premises is the about all she can do right now.
Yvonne thinks that she likely shouldn’t have tried to intervene so soon in order to protect Jessica. After all, if the Rykz wanted to kill them they would be dead. Edusa and Roisia are a little shaken but even their horse is unharmed and escaping.
She uses a strengthening construct to help Leomi walk downhill. Her charge is entirely out of it, her eyes are fuzzy and staring at the grass. Leomi’s reaction to seeing Jessica’s face worries Yvonne a lot.
She believes that the small wounds on Leomi’s forehead show that she took a hit that dazed her but the blood is dry, the fact that she remains out of it means that the impact was more significant than the injuries imply, or so Yvonne hopes.
“What is going on?” Leomi asks, sounding lost as they make their way downhill.
“I don’t know but you’re safe right now. Did she hit you?” Yvonne asks, hating the fact that she needs to and disbelieving that the possibility is even there no matter how angry Jessica is.
“She definitely hit on me.” Leomi mutters.
“Leomi, did she hit you?” Yvonne insists.
“I’m not sure…” Leomi replies. “My head, hurts.”
“Try.” Yvonne insists, struggling to keep her charge upright. “Remember what I told you years ago, assess what you did and then figure out how to fix it. This is the same, tell me what happened.”
“I, I think I saw Jay.” Leomi whispers.
“Jessica?” Yvonne asks.
“Was flying in circles, flapping her wing, singing. It was beautiful.” Leomi says with a dreamy smile but her expression soon turns to despair. “It hurt, my brain ached, so I… yes, I hit my head and she flew away, free.”
Yvonne places her hand on Leomi’s forehead, feeling that she’s burning up with a fever. She worried from finding that Leomi did this to herself, again, but is rather relieved since she can handle that.
If it had been Jessica, she would have had to try to keep the two apart, which would have been close to impossible and heartbreaking for her. She picks Leomi up with a strengthening construct and throws her over her horse’s saddle before running back uphill, meeting Edusa and Roisia.
“What was…” Edusa starts.
“One moment.” Yvonne interrupts them.
She scouts the horizon, finding that Jessica is slowly headed north with a few dozen Rykz scouts following her. Yvonne feels completely lost as to how to keep things together, she feels that her friends are drifting further and further away.
Leomi’s state means that waiting is the only choice. Her impulsive reaction in removing the mask was not only dangerous to both her friends. She clings to Jessica’s words that contain the hope that the two will soon reconnect.
If that happens, Leomi will finally be able to find peace in Jessica’s arms. She will then make her move to end the lies, provide them with the right circumstances to end the lies and heal.
“Sorry, my friend, I need to take care of her so I can’t follow you right now, I’m sure it’s what you would do as well.” Yvonne whispers to Jessica’s back as she disappears behind a hilltop.
“Yvonne, why did Elizabeth bleed orange?” Roisia asks, looking frightened.
“She didn’t.” Yvonne quickly replies, entering damage control. “Look, you both know that Countess Grace has suggested that she is a Rykz creation but she herself says it is hearsay from an unreliable source.”
“I believed it absurd but, with this…” Edusa trails off.
“She has one of their creations in her chest, but she is not one.” Yvonne swiftly explains. “We’ve all seen drawings of the small Rykz they’ve catapulted inside cities to spoil supplies. They used something similar on her but as you’ve seen with this altercation, they do not control her so I plead you not to add oil to this fire by spreading rumors.”
“We will not, but this brings more urgent questions to the table. It is further indication that questions need to be asked.” Edusa says, frowning.
“We should help her!” Roisia protests.
“I agree, yet we need knowledge if we are to do so. Elizabeth Vil has kept her secrets, I respect that but now is the time to demand she reveals them to us or step aside.” Edusa firmly responds.
“Time is something I don’t have for this, I have no intention of discussing it in her absence.” Yvonne tells them.
“That is fair.” Edusa acknowledges. “Where is my Liege?”
“On my horse, tired.” Yvonne replies shortly and departs, leaving Edusa and Roisia.
— — —
Edusa presses her lips together as she watches Yvonne leave, riding away with her liege sitting on the saddle in front of her. The Duchess had expected to cry when the time came that her hopes were crushed but she finds herself standing immobile with her broken heart and without tears to shed.
Yvonne’s knowledge of the matter put an end to Edusa’s hopes that the revelation will end the relationship because it means that Leomi is already aware of Elizabeth’s circumstances, she feels shame for having wanted such an outcome.
This event clarifies discussions Edusa has recently had with her liege and clues she picked up on, Leomi knew and struggled with this but ended up accepting Elizabeth despite the trauma her liege experienced in her adolescence.
The Duchess cannot help but admire her liege further, even as that decision underlines the strength of the two’s relationship and utterly destroys her chances. She wishes, both for Elizabeth and Leomi, that whatever the Rykz did can be undone.
Edusa knew that it would eventually happen as, even if they were to break up, there is still Jessica who she would never be able to compete against once she turned up.
The Duchess had deemed that peasant a much better alternative to Elizabeth Vil and likely someone she could admit defeat to without regret if only she could have obtained a few weeks to court Leomi Lance.
She is entirely unaware of even the possibility that her liege’s two lovers could be the same person and of the fact that Leomi is currently single. Yet, perhaps she would have reached the same conclusion even if she did for she is aware that she has clung for too long to someone who is simply not interested.
“It’s time I move on.” Edusa speaks up with a tightness in her throat.
“I’m sorry.” Roisia replies compassionately.
“I have a lot of work to do.” Edusa shakes her head. “Elizabeth’s demonstration polarized Nobility but I failed to see the positives in that at the time. I received a dozen messages last night after Court, most of the titled Nobles are openly siding with the King in fear of the changes they see on the horizon but this shows that they desire to open backchannels to ours. After all, Cenwalh… King Cenwalh has shown himself unreliable and untrustworthy with the institute. Elizabeth has underlined the fact peasantry is not defenseless, this is a perspective that Nobility can no longer dismiss which opens options we did not have before.”
“Your point that the situation is more volatile for it stands.” Roisia notes.
“It does, but is that such a bad thing?” Edusa asks, looking to the sky. “In the end, those Nobles who would have firmly sided against us would have done so as I reform Hetlan. At least now, I can find allies that would not have revealed themselves otherwise.”
Edusa starts planning her stay in Port-Odo. The Kingdom’s armies will follow the Rykz as they retreat but she has decided to remain in the city a while longer with her army.
She formulates a plan to dodge the new tax by exchanging their spare weapons, armors, and shields for tools. Her Duchy has the raw materials to replace the gear while the Izla will need them until they can build up their production. Edusa suddenly breaks down in tears.
“Why, why can’t I even compete with this m, m, monster?” She wails as Roisia embraces her in a gentle hug.
“You don’t really believe that.” Roisia says, rubbing her back.
“I wish I did…” Edusa replies, pressing her face in Roisia’s shoulder.
— — —
Yvonne reaches Port-Odo in the very early morning after having spent the entire day and most of the night galloping, supplying her mount with flow and taking breaks when needed for the animal to keep going.
Leomi fell asleep within moments inside that Yvonne’s arms make by holding the reins, she hasn’t woken since but muttered much during her sleep about a fragile Jay.
Yvonne gathered that Leomi is protecting a single-winged bird in her dreams even as the chirping maddens her, clearly standing in for Jessica. It worries the sword-sworn who blames her absence for her failure to realize the deterioration of Leomi’s mental state.
Yvonne pushes through the gates without stopping as the Rykz drones guarding them aren’t at all suited to control who gets to enter or leave the city. She takes advantage of the fact that there’s barely anyone outside as people are just starting to get up to make it to the keep unhindered.
— — —
Leomi awakens in bed with a splitting headache and a burning fever, finding Yvonne sitting by her side and wiping her sweaty brow with a piece of wet cloth. The Hospitalier Commander immediately catches sight of a colorful Jay being chased by its own dark shadow inside the rich apartment.
It’s exactly like what she saw in her dreams, but this time the bird isn’t safely imprisoned in her hands while chirping for its freedom but being hunted by Evil. The flash of a toothy predatory smile shatters her hallucination.
“No!” Leomi screams, sitting up so abruptly that Yvonne almost falls over.
“It’s all okay, Leomi, you’re safe.” The sword-sworn hurriedly says.
Yvonne seizes her friend’s wrists and forces her to cross her arms over her chest, having sufficient experience to preemptively stop Leomi from violently lashing out as she sometimes has after or during a feverish nightmare.
“But Jessica isn’t!” Leomi exclaims. “I, I need to protect her!” She adds, weakly struggling.
“Calm down, what did Elizabeth tell you?” Yvonne asks, locking eyes with her friend to give her something to focus on.
“That, Jessica has been missing for a month.” Leomi mutters, still trying to gather herself. “She, she could have drowned, she could be…”
“Both are true but she had been missing just as long before and do you really think Jessica would so stupid as to embark on a boat without realizing that her handicap would make it harder for her to swim?” Yvonne asks, forcing her friend to rely on her intelligence instead of her feelings.
“N, no.” Leomi virulently denies, unable to accept that her astute peasant would be so foolish. “B, but what if she was attacked? Or, there was an accident?”
“If Jessica made it out of the battle then she would have found solutions, correct?” Yvonne questions.
“Y, yes.” Leomi slowly nods.
“Idali was in worse shape and survived so if Jessica did not escape then we would have found her.” Yvonne affirms.
“T, true.” Leomi says, her expression falling while her cheeks turn white. “Then, then, it’s… worse.”
“Worse?” Yvonne asks.
“For her.” Leomi says deliriously, limply falling back down on the bed. “And, it’s still my fault because I failed to act and show her how great I think she is, no matter that my lovely bird only has a single wing left.”
Leomi retreats into a fetal position, shaking from head to toe as she imagines the woman behind her every heartbeat suffering as one of the Rykz’ creations eats her alive, the painful agony and awareness of her flesh being consumed little by little.
“Leomi, please talk to me.” Yvonne pleads, shaking her friend’s shoulder.
Her effort is fruitless as Leomi cuts herself off, falling into a deep depressive state. Yvonne grits her teeth and pulls her sleeves up to her elbows, deciding to do something that could easily backfire on her but has succeeded in tearing Leomi out of her deepest despair on two occasions.
The first time when she first came into Leomi’s service as her liege struggled with vivid nightmares of Jenna being torn apart and eaten alive by Lisilese. She had to intervene every morning for a week straight to explain something Leomi already knew but needed to hear from someone else.
The second time after Leomi delivered her report about the Rykz to Duke Meria when she refused to go to sleep and tried to go rescue Jessica by herself, that fight cost her much of Leomi’s trust.
Yvonne hates having to literally fight tooth and nail with her ward to save her from herself but thinks it’ll be more peaceful this time and much quicker because Jessica’s lies are built on a house of cards that a gust of wind would destroy if not for the people that care for them both.
The sword-sworn slowly takes hold of Leomi’s right shoulder and chin, forcing her to look up to her. The Countess firmly closes her eyes, refusing to look, refusing to engage. Smack. Yvonne slaps Leomi’s right cheek with her full strength. The Countess’ eyes flip wide open, filled with anger.
“Tell me what Elizabeth said or I swear I’m gone.” Yvonne lies in a threatening tone.
“You hit me!” Leomi utters, outraged.
“I don’t want to wrestle you down and make you talk to me like old times, Leomi, but I will if I have to. She’s also my friend.” Yvonne says, feeling guilty about lying as she pulls on her ward’s heart-strings.
“I, you’ll leave me, if I tell you anyway.” Leomi says, turning away.
“Are you twelve?” Yvonne asks harshly, knowing that her friend’s fever is likely responsible but determined to break through to her anyway. “I’ll decide, now speak.”
“Liz, Liz said, that Jessica is going to accept the Rykz’ offer.” Leomi stutters, begging the Lake to keep Yvonne by her side as she wouldn’t be able to bear losing her on top of everything.
“You’re not thinking straight.” Yvonne immediately jumps on the opportunity to talk. “You want to protect her so much or that it’s making you forget that she’s plenty capable of doing so by herself and evaluating her decisions to avoid making stupid mistakes. The war is over, why would she change her mind now?”
“B, but…” Leomi protests.
“No, enough. You’re not going to do anything until you tell me the whole story.” Yvonne interrupts. “Jessica isn’t as weak to her emotions as you are, and that’s saying a lot.”
“That’s, true.” Leomi admits against her pride.
Leomi recounts everything that happened from the battle to her encounter with Elizabeth and Celyz, unburdening herself while reinforcing her guilt at the same time and growing even more convinced that she shouldn’t be going anywhere near Jessica.
“You realize that Elizabeth admitted that she induced you in error when she asked you to make a choice, right?” Yvonne asks rhetorically. “This entire thing implies that she knows Jessica survived.”
“But, I told you all she said, she’s missing!” Leomi protests.
“And you agreed she wouldn’t be that stupid.” The sword-sworn counters.
“B, but, what if…” Leomi weakly shakes her head.
“She has a lot more information about Jessica than you do and she doesn’t believe that Jessica died.” Yvonne utters firmly. “Elizabeth Vil would be the first to make that claim if she could without lying to free your heart for herself, you know this.”
“Elizabeth!” Leomi explodes, sitting up in fury.
She almost immediately falls back down on the bed, holding her temples to whimper in pain. Yvonne sighs in relief, having succeeded in somewhat defusing this crisis by reaching a point where her ward won’t fall back into depression.
“Why did it have to come to this madness, Leomi? Couldn’t you just let her fuck your brains out as I told you?” Yvonne asks.
“Elizabeth needed to be handled, you should have seen her.” Leomi protests in a whisper.
“No matter, you have a choice to make.” Yvonne sighs again, having known from the start that it was unlikely for Leomi to resist the attraction of bending Elizabeth Vil over. “At least, I’m sure she enjoyed it more than even you realize.”
“You barely know Liz.” Leomi dismisses.
“What about your choice?” Yvonne presses.
Leomi’s face turns to stone, she closes her eyes and pulls the covers over herself, her mind filled with the Jay’s shadow and how it so easily tore her lovable bird apart. She could cry, but she doesn’t allow herself the relief, she’ll learn about Jessica lives or not eventually as she protects nothing.
“What did you see when I took the mask off, Leomi? You said something odd.” Yvonne asks, trying to find another angle to keep the conversation going.
“How different they are.” Leomi replies, unable to help herself. “Jessica took confidence from our support even as she knew of her own weakness. Liz, is self-assured, sometimes overbearingly so. Jessica only resorted to violence when cornered. Liz has few limits to what she’ll do, if any. Jessica was alone and desperate for mere acceptance without condemnation when we met, she clung to us when she received it. Elizabeth fiercely rejects bindings other than to me, even then it is both solid and shallow. The choice is obvious.”
“What do you mean?” Yvonne asks, confused.
“I will have to go with Liz to protect Jessica from Elizabeth’s revenge for a perceived betrayal even though she is the one who betrayed me by making me face this choice.” Leomi utters in a dead tone of voice.
“You intend to sacrifice your happiness?” Yvonne asks, baffled.
“I can be happy with her.” Leomi lies, knowing that it would be impossible if she gives up on Jessica, which she knows she does not have the strength to. “Jessica can find her way without me, she will even be better off. Elizabeth is as obsessed with me as I am with my Jessica.”
“It makes no sense, the best way for you to protect Jessica is to be with her, Leomi.” Yvonne argues, sensing something extremely wrong about Leomi’s current state of mind. “Elizabeth offered you this choice, she’ll live by it if you choose the one you love.”
“But what will the consequences of that be?” Leomi asks rhetorically, her feverish mind already convinced that she saw the ultimate ending when the dark shadow consumed her Jay.
Leomi Lance fully intends to go to the meeting point to force Elizabeth to kill her and then pierce her heart with their dagger in return, avoiding any chance of meeting Jessica and entirely avoiding the choice. Once dead, Leomi plans to roam the Lake until her Jay bird spreads her wing and either finds her or leaves her alone there to burn with nothing for eternity.
“Leomi, you’re not planning anything foolish, are you?” Yvonne asks, concerned. “This is your chance to get back with Jessica, Elizabeth will have told her of this choice she gave you. What if Jessica is there waiting for you? Will you be able to choose against your heart?”
“For Jessica? Anything.” Leomi utters with zealot-like resolve.
The Countess believes that dying in her love’s arms after having removed the Evil threat to her life would be more than Leomi thinks she deserves, the greatest imaginable gift behind nothing. The two of them departing together for the Lake would also satisfy Liz, she has shown her as much.