My headache fades rather quickly, it’s gone by the time we make it past the three Rykz guarding the end of the corridor. Leomi stops in between the two scouts, the warrior moves to face her.
I frown and tell the Little one to have them stand down before discreetly waving my left hand at them. The warrior trots to the side but Leomi turns around, apparently intending to return to training.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Yes.” Leomi whispers with a short nod. “The drones threw me off, and now they’re all looking at me so…”
I slowly shake my head, understanding that Leomi is feeling like she’s committing a dereliction in her duties by taking time for herself. I’ve gathered enough from her current mental state to guess that she’s feeling like she’s running out of time.
“Well, then I’ll have to spend some of what you owe me to make you take a break.” I say.
“Okay.” Leomi mutters, oddly looking even more guilty.
I walk up to her and pass my right arm around her left, pulling her along as I enter the hall. Ruth is still sprawled on the throne, which doesn’t fail to make me smile and hopeful about the future.
“Exactly why are you here Ruth?” I ask. “And I know you’re not sleeping.”
“I ‘eard ’bout… Kh.” Her gruff voice dies down into a cough. “Screw me, my throat’s sore.” She swears. “New tax b’tween Duchies, lots of fun.” She adds shortly.
“How does that… oh, I get it.” I laugh. “You pirate.”
“Corsair.” Leomi corrects in a low tone.
“Mirus has the best euphemisms.” Yvonne chuckles with a bright relieved smile as she looks at us.
“King Cenwalh isn’t going to be happy to lose his few patrol ships to former galley-slaves.” Henry notes with a small smile from the back of the room.
“I’m sure he’ll be very mad at Telnur.” Leomi grunts.
“Our support remains contingent on your restraint, Ruth.” Grace calmly speaks up.
“Yea, yea.” Ruth grunts, hopping off the throne. “This got too serious way too quick, I’m going to find a pair of dice and a keg of beer.”
She heads towards the hall’s open double doors, stumbling left and right at various speeds, her gait makes her seem like she’s falling and catching herself more than walking.
I feel Leomi shuffle as she throws a look at the parchment in front of Grace, definitely thinking of work. I shake her a little. She throws me an annoyed look and slips out of my hold to stomp towards a spiraling staircase in a small room.
She runs up the stairs at double pace, forcing me to jog to catch up. Upstairs, Leomi abruptly opens a door and then slams it behind her. I settle with my back on the left wall from it using my sense to peek into the apartment.
I first notice that our dagger is on the table inside her room, which surprises me as she would have had to take hold of it when barely conscious. She might have sent someone to pick it up, Celyz and I did really take our time traveling south.
Leomi sheds her clothes and walks out of my range. I soon hear splashing water, signifying she’s taking a bath. I dismantle my healing construct as I no longer need it and start training the logical segments Celyz taught me.
I don’t get much time as Leomi finishes within a few minutes, returning into the apartment’s main room to start dressing up in a fresh uniform while brushing her wet hair. I shake my head, disappointed by how hurried she is.
Lance takes hold of the dagger on the table to look at it for a short moment before slamming it back down. She rushes to her door and abruptly pulls it open to rush me. My Lady grabs the front of my Vuskyt mail shirt and pulls me away from the wall only to shove me against it.
“Did what I tell you influence you against cheating on me?” She asks in a fragile voice.
“We broke up, kitten.” I gently, carefully, tell her. “If you want me, choose me.”
“You could make it a gesture of your devotion to abstain completely for me.” Leomi says, almost whining.
“How many of those do I need to make Leomi?” I ask, my heart panging in pain as I wish I could agree.
“None, you’ve proven that you love me but I ever greed for more.” Leomi murmurs, her eyes hazy, lost in the distance despite staring directly into mine.
“I know the feeling.” I whisper.
“Do you know how hard it is for me to even suggest giving you up to that Rykz?” She suddenly asks in a voice full of anger, using her full height to pressure me. “For me to enter those two monstrous species into my Hospitaliers’ charter?!” She continues, her voice rising in pitch. “And I don’t mean their physical traits but their societies geared towards pillaging our lands and resources!” She adds, suddenly switching to a low grating tone.
“Leomi.” I say in a soothing tone, trying to calm her down.
“We have monsters.” Lance utters. “Obviously. But both Rykz and Lisilese force entire populations to run from them, abandoning their homes and life’s work to starve over months or years if they fail to find a place to live in. Not to mention the tens of thousands that die each year protecting our borders!”
“I, Leomi…” I stutter without an answer.
“I did this because it’s necessary but I wouldn’t have if I did not care for you.” She continues, winding down as abruptly as her temper rose. “You’re throwing it all back in my face, my feelings, my efforts.” She lets go of me and stumbles back. “Whatever happens, Liz, know that I don’t hate you.” Leomi tells me.
She heads back towards the stairs without waiting for a response. I’ve just witnesses the cracks in her personality, I’m familiar with how emotions can jump from one to the other. I’m impressed that she could remain on point anyway.
“Edusa!” She calls out as she walks past a door. “We’re starting the meeting!”
“I’ll be there.” Edusa feebly answers.
Leomi and I both pause in surprise at the usually strong and energetic woman’s weak tone. Leomi throws me a glance, looking indecisive about what to do. She obviously wants to go talk to her friend but is torn between that and her drive to fulfill her duties in the short amount of time she thinks she has left.
“She just learned about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death.” I whisper, giving context but unwilling to help her reach a decision.
“I, do I…” Leomi struggles but not for very long.
She heads to Edusa’s door, earning my approval for having learned that there are consequences to following your duty at the cost of those around you. Doesn’t stop me from feeling a tiny pike of jealousy. Leomi knocks on Edusa’s door which Hetlan’s Duchess opens without delay.
“I’m, sorry.” Edusa mutters, wiping her light green eyes which are puffed from crying. “I’m so ashamed.”
“Death is no easy or quick event to handle.” Leomi says reassuringly, laying one hand on her friend’s shoulder to squeeze it in a comforting manner.
“It, just hit me, that’s she’s really, really gone.” Edusa mutters. “I didn’t like her, and she didn’t learn a single thing to the end. Why, why do I cry for her?”
“Because she was family.” Leomi gently explains.
Edusa nods briefly. She reaches up to Leomi’s wrist and takes hold of it, the two remain like this for a little while before the old energetic Edusa emerges with a timid smile. I can’t help but growl inside my throat as I know such a face would very much attract Leomi.
“Down girl.” Lance commands in a joking manner.
“We, um, we should go.” Edusa mutters, flashing a worried glance my way.
“Of course.” Leomi says, shaking her head.
Lance flips around and rushes to the staircase, muttering something about an hourglass. I take a small step to block Edusa from following. Her eyes flicker briefly to the Rykz saber at my waist.
“She’s amazing.” I say. She’s mine!
“I know.” Edusa replies, more than a little suspicious.
“I’m a m…” I pause. “I am not a good person.” I tell her.
“I know that too.” Edusa responds in a harder voice. “I am not blaming you for doing what you felt you had to do, I merely resent some of your choices. I do empathize, and understand how unfair my position is to you.”
“I am very sorry about your sister.” I say, taking a small step back to bow with my left forearm across my belly.
“Thank you.” Edusa says. “But it won’t affect my position on the fact that I think you need to leave Caeviel.” Edusa adds in a strong voice.
“I was not trying to influence you.” I reply, gritting my teeth as I hold my position.
“What you’ve done went beyond what battles require but you had to achieve something more difficult than merely winning and you did so by yourself. Still, politics isn’t about what’s fair and what we’re trying to do matters more than any single one of us.” Edusa explains her position.
“There shouldn’t be any reward or forgiveness for the things I’ve done.” I utter flatly, frustrated about my inability to connect with the woman. “I’ve told you what I had to.”
I straighten up and depart, angry against no one in particular. Edusa watches me go with a contemplative expression. She follows behind a moment later. When I reach the bottom of the stairs, I find the warrior and scouts waiting there instead of where I left them.
They softly breathe out. I can’t help but smile and pat each of their carapaced triangular heads in thanks. Celyz, you lovably sneaky plant. She definitely sent them along so I wouldn’t forget her and remind this assembly that I am a friend of the Rykz.
“We’re starting, Councilwoman, if you would join us.” Leomi speaks up.
Edusa takes her place at one side of the rectangular table in front of Lance and Roisia. Grace is at the head with a scribe to her left so I walk all the way to the end and take the spot facing her.
“To make things clear, let us brief where we stand.” Leomi speaks up. “Port-Odo and Izla Meria’s coffers are empty but Caeviel gold will replenish them shortly. The merchant ships we’ve sent to Telnur are already on the way back while the caravans that left Port-Odo last month will take a while longer but they should return before grain becomes a problem. The first batches of iron out of the mines have come out and will be ready to be loaded onto ships as soon as they arrive, crew rotations have been organized.”
“I concur with that assessment.” Grace says over the sound of her scribe’s writing.
“I have read the messages sent to me by several houses. Only a handful of titled Nobles can be seen as open to serious discussion, the remainder can be considered to be waiting to see what occurs.” Edusa says. “They do not represent a significant enough source of income for us. The good news is that many untitled high-born have expressed interest in the opportunities to rise that we offer in our lands, it remains to see if they will accept the rule of an elected Council or a low-born officer if they chose to join the expedition south.”
“You still adamant that you cannot join it?” Leomi asks.
“Yes, there is too much to be done in Hetlan, but I will be able to send part of our army.” Edusa replies.
“Alright. We will need to present the expedition as an initiative of the Hospitaliers, not one from our combined lands. Nobles do not see low-born Templars as lesser. As long as you gain prestige in battle, they’ll behave.” Leomi replies calmly. “Those too uptight to manage, you can fraction off into auxiliary units.”
“Speaking of the Order.” Roisia says, glancing at Leomi. “The Templars are preparing to send an expedition to Izla Meria as soon as the Rykz have retreated to verify that they have indeed left, to collapse their tunnels, and raze the city they’ve erected.”
“I do not see why that last point is necessary, is the city not made of good stone?” Grace notes.
“It is not, and I will advise Izla Meria’s ruling Council to ask of the Templars they hold off by arguing that setting an outpost there will ensure that the Rykz cannot return.” Leomi says. “I expect that a flood of refugees to our lands so we will need the buildings, not to mention that the land there is arable.”
“Good.” Grace nods.
“As for our situation relating to the rest of the Duchies, it couldn’t be worse.” Leomi declares, looking less than worried. “There have been demonstrations of support for the peace last Sunday all across Caeviel’s Temples, most were thankful to the Izla but many were calling out my and Elizabeth’s name when drunk. That event caused most of the titled Court to scurry back to their lands in fright, crystallizing King Cenwalh’s base.” Leomi ponders for a moment. “His position is now hard but fragile. If a civil war arises in spring, it may shatter the Kingdom and be swiftly won by low-born, or it will break for lack of unity and chaos will reign as the King uses his renewed authority to clamp down on dissidents, high and low born alike. If it does not, his position will grow weaker as Nobility realizes that the threat isn’t as urgent as the King claims or perhaps even nonexistent as we depart the Kingdom to fight the cold bloods.” I notice that Leomi is speaking in such a way to avoid saying their faction would be at the basis of such a civil war.
“But while this happens, Cenwalh will build up his forces.” Edusa comments, forgetting to use the title that she told me to use.
“He will grow harder but also more fragile.” Leomi nods. “Civil wars are ripe with armies betraying their Kings when the current changes.”
“Since such a civil war is unlikely to occur without impetus, and even less as we are gone, why speak of it?” I ask.
“Because Nobility is unpredictable and peasantry’s reactions even more so.” Leomi responds. “A singular event may light the fuse.”
“Which brings us to Councilwoman Elizabeth Vil’s exile.” Grace speaks up.
“Ah, I figured.” I chuckle.
“Did you?” Grace asks with a raised eyebrow. “I will recommend my Council, when it is elected, to neither oppose nor enforce it.” I blink and hang back in my chair out of surprise. “My reasoning is simple, I do not see any benefit to alienating those among peasantry who support you for having put down my father while the bourgeoisie would rather see you gone as quickly as possible but does not have strong feelings on the matter if you do no damage. There is also the fact that King Cenwalh will never reward us for helping him achieve his vendetta.”
“Pragmatic.” I nod approvingly.
“Of course, that position will change if a fight breaks out between you and the King’s agents, which I warn you have infiltrated the city already.” Grace continues. I shrug, unconcerned because of the amount of Rykz patrolling the streets.
“I do have a question, who is voting for that Council?” I ask.
“The system is the same that Izla Meria made use of.” Grace replies. I throw my Lady a glance, being rather unfamiliar about what they ended up doing.
“It is far from optimal but the elections were urgent and there are plans to refine it before the next round.” Leomi tells me with a grimace, signifying that she isn’t satisfied with the system. “We currently have a high Council and a low Chamber, it is a divide between Meria and the rest of the island if I roughly oversimplify it.”
“Ah.” I nod, seeing the problem she has with it since it would obviously create a rift over time.
“I will advise Izla Meria’s Council in the same way as Countess Grace.” Leomi adds. “They are likely to follow that guideline publicly while aware that it will never be obeyed if you are to be found on Izla Meria.”
“When is that exile supposed to occur?” I ask.
“The traditional duration is the shortest time it would take you to leave the Kingdom but your case is anything but that.” Edusa replies. “Consider yourself in breach of exile anywhere the Rykz are not and beware of ambushes.” She warns.
“What will you do?” I question Edusa.
“I am rather certain that you will not visit Hetlan but I will advice my Council in the same way once I have reformed the Duchy.” She tells me.
“Why?” I frown. “I won’t be offended if you uphold it.”
“Because of what you said about what you deserve for what you’ve done.” Edusa replies, looking away. “I think you’re wrong.”
I gape behind my mask, utterly baffled. Leomi gazes between us, going back and forth while her expression grows concerned. She presses her lips in a thin line in a show of disapproval, but moves on. I love it when she’s this irrationally possessive.
“Countess Grace, have you thought of my offer?” Lance asks.
“I want your promise that you will uphold the requirement to abandon all outside responsibilities and titles for those committing to the Hospitaliers once we have the infrastructure to do so.” Grace says.
“I’ve sworn as much and wrote it down in the charter. Yvonne and Roisia have respectively abandoned their claim and title already.” Lance replies. “I will also give up on my own title of Countess and transfer my lands to the Hospitaliers when I return.”
“Then I agree to lead the Justiciers.” Grace says. “Although I find Justicar to be a much better sounding title.” She adds somewhat mischievously.
“I don’t want us to be confused with the Order.” Leomi shakes her head.
“If you allow me to retain my title until my Council is set and has chosen someone to lead the army, I will proceed.” Grace tells Leomi.
“Proceed with what?” Leomi asks, surprised.
“My duties as head Justicier.” Grace replies calmly.
“I allow it, of course. We’ve already agreed as much, Grace.” Leomi says, squinting her eyes in suspicion.
“As head Justicier, I will now share my judgment as to whether or not the Hospitaliers will pursue Elizabeth Vil for her actions during the war between Caeviel led by King Cenwalh and the Silver Hive led by Queen Grikyz over the abduction of Princess Cetyz of the Silver Hive. Do you have anything to add before I do, Councilwoman Elizabeth Vil of Izla Meria’s high ruling Council?” Grace asks me.
“Heh.” I giggle. “Only that Queen Grikyz intended to retaliate as well as rescue her daughter, but don’t let that change your conclusion about my crimes.”
“Duly noted.” Grace nods, throwing a glance at her scribe.
“This matter was settled!” Leomi explodes. She slams the table with the palm of her hand in anger, startling the rest of the room out of their stupefaction at Grace’s unexpected move.