I tap one of the Rykz warriors escorting us on the shoulder while I extend my left hand out. It unsheathes its saber and hands it over. I sigh, having hoped that the Little one would understand my intent better.
I unfasten the drone’s belt, which has a buckle angled high so that the weapon won’t drag on the ground when the guard settles in it. I set it on my waist and sheathe the large saber.
“Be careful, Elizabeth.” Celyz tells me before departing.
It somehow feels like our parting is more abrupt than usual, perhaps because of her words. I shake my head, deciding to follow her advice. I pull some energy out of my flow reserve of twenty-four or so portions, it has been fluctuating between more or less golden energy which means that some people are pledging to me.
I shape a sense-enhancing construct for both ears and eyes before making a shredding construct for the large bladed Rykz saber, it isn’t as deadly as the armor-piercing construct but easier on energy consumption.
The Vuskyt weapon’s handle is bulbous and adapted for warrior claws but I can grab it inside my palm well enough to use as a club which is enough to use the shredding construct but wouldn’t be for an armor-piercing one.
Celyz also taught me how to make air-needles which are quite different from air-blades in structure, they’re calculated to use of the air they contain in order to do expansive localized damage. The construct doesn’t end on impact, only the exterior shell dissipates to allow the internal structure to violently expand outward.
I head out towards the keep with the warrior whose blade I took on my heels along with two scouts. The people on the streets turn as I pass by, more so than they did when I was with Celyz.
They probably didn’t want to attract attention to themselves with a Princess nearby. As I make my way, I notice that scout patrols are being mostly ignored, people have likely figured out that they won’t do anything if you’re not overtly doing something prohibited.
“Dame Vil for peace!” A merchant exclaims as I walk past, brandishing a fish he was about to hand over to a client over his head.
I hang back in surprise but return a small wave of hand to the man. Quite a few passerby raise their closed fists up in somewhat delayed but habitual responses of support.
It has been a week, could be that people would have been more welcoming to me if I arrived along with the news that the war is over instead of days after when they’ve had time to focus on new the problems showing on the horizon.
I keep going, using my symbiont’s sense as usual to watch my surroundings. As I progress towards Port-Odo’s keep, I notice that there are many black ship banners hanging on large buildings’ windows, there are even some on houses that were obviously sown by less wealthy people because of the gray cloth they used.
The Odo crest banners are sometimes accompanied by that of the Hospitaliers, a white and blue cross. This support is unusual, especially on low-born habitations. I was right, people are afraid of change but they’re not stupid either or I would also be seeing Cenwalh’s golden crown crest.
“Dame Vil.” One of the guards at the gates salutes me while the other pointedly ignores me. Or she’s just following protocol in remaining silent and on alert.
The keep’s courtyard is occupied by Lance’s Hospitaliers who are training a group of peasants dressed in old clothes full of holes. They bark out orders to tell their paired trainees to keep going before throwing me quick salutes.
I enter the keep through the opened reinforced double doors which show signs that they were caved in because several of the thick wood planks look new and the metal seems to have been hammered back into shape.
I walk through the empty vestibule, adorned with only a few banners, and step inside the main hall. I find a simple oak throne with a pillow on the seat and only a carving of house Odo’s crest on the backrest.
On top of that throne is Ruth, passed out sideways over the armrests. Grace is sitting at the rectangular table in front of Yvonne and Rowland while Edusa is laying back against one of the back walls near a closed door. Margaret and Henry are behind me on my left and right.
They both shuffle on their feet, making noise likely to inform me of their presence. I raise my gloved left hand to wave at them over my shoulder without turning around.
Grace and Edusa are the only ones who aren’t looking at me. The former because she’s reading a piece of parchment while the latter seems deep in thought but not so much that her right hand didn’t edge slightly closer to her sword.
“Good timing, I have some questions for you, Councilwoman Vil.” Grace says without looking up.
“Where is Leomi?” I ask.
“Either training, or working.” Yvonne replies, throwing me an intense look. “She hasn’t taken a single minute to rest in a week and barely sleeps for longer than an hour at a time because of her nightmares.”
“Whatever occurred between them is no concern of mine, Lady Shipwold.” Grace speaks up. “If you wish to find out, please do so out of this room.”
“She kicked you both out, didn’t she?” I chuckle, heading straight for the door Edusa is seemingly guarding. “I’m going.”
The Duchess throws me a flat look but doesn’t take the bait. She actually opens the door for me, revealing a corridor to a room with wooden mannequins wearing old iron gear. I can hear wood striking metal, confirming that Leomi is there. Yvonne, on the other hand, frowns and stands up with the clear intention to chase me down.
She barely makes a step that she stops dead in her tracks as Rowland doesn’t let go of her hand. He gives Yvonne a gentle smile that seems out of place next to the red scar running along his face. She answers by squeezing his hand in a reassuring way.
“I’m not going to eat you.” I roll my eyes at Yvonne.
“Then why do you bleed orange?” Grace counters to the room’s frightened astonishment. None of them had the guts to ask, huh.
“Because I‘m a monster.” I reply as calmly as I can, which is not at all.
“Is that so?” Grace asks rhetorically, seeming more like she’s making a comment than responding or judging.
“She isn’t.” Yvonne grunts. “I told you I was a lot closer and saw her bleed red and brown.”
“Were you trying to elevate the tensions in Caeviel with that game you played with King Cenwalh?” Grace asks, seemingly ignoring Yvonne.
“I don’t answer to you, Grace Odo.” I utter flatly.
“You are inside a city I grew in and very much care for.” Grace replies quietly. “I swore to protect Port-Odo when I asked my people allow me to bear the title. You’ve done much to protect the Izla and Caeviel so I expect you understand my need to ask that question.” She finally looks up from the parchment to throw me a look. I force myself to now, acknowledging her reasoning. “But the fact that you’ve accomplished your goal for peace only underlines how dangerous you are now that those motives are gone.”
“The only danger I pose is to those who attack me.” I tell Grace.
“Which will happen soon if you keep that mask on. Your exile has been announced by the Kingdom, and while we haven’t made a decision yet, the Templars have declared yesterday that you are forbidden to wear it except in defense of the Empire on the order of the Grand-Master in Kruzser.” Grace informs me in a calm voice.
“Not the Emperor?” I ask, disbelieving the fact that I’ve become so well known that it surprises me that Emperor Rasaec wouldn’t have made the decision.
“He yet slumbers as far as we can tell, it is a point of contention among many that you would have been branded an enemy of the Empire if not for that.” Edusa explains.
“I won’t stick around to be seen but I won’t be obeying this exile either.” I tell Grace head on. “As for my intent, I don’t have any. I have a life to live that I’ve put on the sidelines for too long. If a Noble attacks me, I’ll put them down. It’s that simple.”
“It is not.” Grace responds in a cold voice. “The Law must be upheld, and I am not speaking about allowing blatant Nobility abuses but the simplest ones prohibiting murder.”
“I am well aware.” I say, frowning and growing impatient. “I know the difference between fighting a war and living under Nobility’s oppression, do you?”
“I do not.” Grace admits without flinching. “But…”
“I might take you seriously if you are capable of telling me the number of wage slaves there are in the lands subject to your rule.” I harshly utter, shattering her composure and exposing a guilty looking face.
“At least a hundr’d coops in… Brreee.” Ruth burps loudly. “Port-Odo alone, she knows.”
“Hello, Ruth.” I say, unable to help myself from smiling. “Did you get that pardon?”
“That and th’ ship, not ‘cuz o’ you.” Ruth sloppily replies.
“I am only aware because you told me.” Grace mutters.
“And I only told you ‘cuz y’asked.” Ruth grunts, shifting to sit straighter in the throne. “Dun’t let that big puss push y’all around, sh’ll purr if ya scratch in da right place I ‘eard.”
“I swear freeing you was the best thing I ever did.” I exclaim, bursting into laughter.
“T’was all accord’n to my glori’… hic …us plan.” Ruth replies as she tries to stand up, and fails because she’s swaying more than a Rykz Princess’ tail while they sprint.
“But.” I suddenly stop laughing. “I’m going to need to know who told you that.” I utter in a dark tone, glaring.
“That one there, try’n tah cheer the crazy other, the amateurs thought I got boozed off.” Ruth replies, closing her eyes and comfortably hanging back into the throne.
Ruth isn’t pointing at anyone but Yvonne awkwardly moves to adjust her shirt, telling me all I need to know. Edusa’s silence is somewhat surprising, even more how sad and resigned she looks.
“We need to talk, Elizabeth.” Yvonne tells me, urging me towards the corridor leading to the room Leomi is training in.
“Enough! I have need for answers from Elizabeth Vil if you want me to be the head of the Hospitalier’s Justicier wing. Considering her relationship with the Rykz, I am more than willing to wave aside the fact that she has one of their creations. But if that is the case, it also means that her decisions were her own.” Grace explains with rising anger at the distractions.
“Are you trying to put me on trial for your Brother’s death, Grace?” I ask coldly. Grace closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.
“I’ve had the opportunity to hear what he has done to you in more detail, I am of the mind to strike both him and Father from our house’s records.” She answers. “The issue here has to do with what occurred in Meiridin.”
“My choices have been my own. Every kill I committed, every cripple I made, every rib-cage I crushed, every arm I tore or sliced off.” I explain, shuddering at the bloody images that the words bring to the forefront of my mind. I grasp at the saber’s bulbous handle to calm myself. “There is more than enough to condemn me, you have my blessing if you choose to do so, but do not make the mistake of thinking that I’ll lie down and die.”
“You said you understood the difference in judging what occurs during a war, I have no desire to pronounce judgment, merely take stock of your character.” Grace tells me, looking straight at me with two intelligent eyes.
“Why?” I ask, taken off-guard.
“I have stated the reason.” Grace replies.
“Because you’re considering leading the Justiciers? Whatever that is, I will not be joining the Hospitaliers.” I say.
“But as a whole they refuse to condemn you.” Grace explains. “I understand that you have no reason to explain yourself to me, but I would like to know why you participated in the attack on the Templars who were helping you and why you sank Hetlan’s merchant ship. Neither were a threat to you, or the Princess.”
Edusa straightens up at the question. She grits her teeth and enters the corridor to leave the room, entirely uninterested in my response. I find myself hoping that it’s because she believes what I told her, which is likely why I’m not even thinking of blowing Grace off without answering.
“They were a direct threat to the mission itself. Princess Cetyz detected them and charged them. She was in no state to listen to reason so I chose to preserve her trust rather than risk her life by fighting her to save those who were guilty of abducting her in the first place. I did what I could to save the Exemplar and another. My choice turned out to be correct considering that her trust turned out to be necessary for us to escape.” I explain. “As for Edusa’s sister…” I pause. “You know very well why I did not intervene to stop the Princess. Even if we consider that Suxen wasn’t on that ship, it was still filled with those who were fueling the fire I set to the institute and fought with the city’s guard.”
“Even considering the fact that there could have been innocents on board?” Grace asks.
“What would you have me do? Princess Cetyz thinks us humans mad, I was not about to risk her life, mine, and the war’s outcome over a hypothetical.” I utter coldly, feeling my stomach knot up as it seems likely some of the sailors didn’t have anything to do with that Lady of house Hetlan’s plot.
The image of the man she threw overboard comes back to my mind along with obscure memories of Tsek and Aisha making odd comments about the man that Lady Hetlan, whose name I forgot, was seeing. I thought the two were into rough stuff, but… but Tsek implied I got that wrong and what I’ve seen confirms it.
“One, one might have been innocent.” I stutter. “Her companion, she attacked him when he panicked during the attack.”
“That’s all you have to say about your actions in Meiridin?” Grace questions, seeming somewhat surprised.
“It‘s all I have to say, I‘m done answering.” I gripe, stomping towards the corridor. I do pause at the door as I think back to her claiming she’s deciding whether or not to lead a section of the Hospitaliers. “Why you?”
“Mostly because I am not from Izla Meria as far as I know.” Grace replies calmly, revealing very little. “My issue with the merchant ship having been sunk is that you’ve denied the course of justice for their actions, but I am not so arrogant as to hold that against you in the circumstances you were in.”
I enter the corridor, figuratively running away from questions that awaken memories and things I need to move past. I find Edusa waiting for me with a stone-like expression in a side door’s archway. I feel my patience running short but Yvonne is swiftly accelerating to catch up and I do want to talk to her.
“How has she been?” I ask Edusa, curious.
“Focused on work, morbidly so.” She replies.
“I can hear her still striking at the same rhythm.” I nod. “How long has she been going at it?”
“Days between hours-long sessions at a desk. We were hoping you would get her to take a break.” Yvonne speaks up.
“What has she been doing?” I blink, worried that she might not have time for Jessica once Elizabeth gets to take the mask off and rests.
“She’s been setting down contingencies for everything, from military formations to the strategies to fight Lisilese, Rykz, and Nobility. Also a plan for expanding the Hospitaliers depending on available resources and equipment.” Yvonne explains.
“My Liege has discussed with me about what to do in the eventuality of her death, and what to expect.” Edusa chimes in. “She thinks it’ll empower the Hospitaliers and bolster army recruitment to defend the south.”
“That’s stupid.” I frown. What is my Lady thinking?
“It is not.” Edusa growls. “That’s the problem!”
“Calm down, she’ll hear you.” Yvonne murmurs.
“I would speak louder if hearing us made her stop.” Edusa snaps back.
“Okay, what’s this plan you need me to talk her out of?” I question.
“If it was that simple, I would have done so.” Edusa says, throwing a dark look at my mask. “My Liege isn’t planning anything, she’s setting a basis to build the Hospitaliers on like she won’t be there to do it herself. She thinks that in the event of her death, her name will be lauded and used by Nobility at large to gain notoriety and glory. Leomi is correct in thinking that they’ll pervert what she stood for, telling peasants that unrest betrays the spirit of what she achieved for them, but she’s banking on the fact that it’ll also allow the Hospitaliers to spread unhindered and at a much quicker pace.”
“Okay.” I mutter. Something is off. It does make me glad that she’s is still this affected, I might yet continue to enjoy my sweet revenge. Which me? Us. “Is that all?” I ask Edusa to get rid of her.
“Just, give me my Liege back.” Edusa responds.
“She’s mine.” I immediately counter. “But I’ll do what I can.” I add in a gentler tone. Edusa makes a sharp nod but doesn’t quite seem about to leave.
“Is what you said about my sister true?” She asks in an anguished tone and expression, revealing that she had been listening in as her poker face shatters.
“I, it is. I’m sorry.” I reply with a tight throat, unable to imagine how painful it must be to lose a family member in these circumstances.
Edusa doesn’t reply, she swallows her saliva and departs in silence. I turn around and watch her leave with small steps with Yvonne at my side. The Duchess makes a turn towards one of the main hall’s staircases, leaving our sight.