The fury in Leomi’s glare frightens even me as her sharp traits twist, revealing even sharper teeth. Yet, Grace’s gaze remains steady as she holds it. She pulls up the piece of parchment she had been reading earlier.
“It was settled by you and, according to your own charter, only the Justiciers have the authority to pronounce judgment according to the Hospitaliers’ code and the law of the land they are in.” Grace argues, pointing at the last and fifth paragraph. “Not to mention that you are personally compromised by your relationship with the accused.”
“We broke up!” Leomi exclaims in a slightly panicked voice.
It’s most interesting to me that Edusa shows no surprise at that revelation, she’s taken up the habit of listening in on people really well. Can’t complain as I’ve done so many times and we weren’t discreet.
“And you can’t go back on everything all over again!” Roisia adds.
“Mind explaining that code to me?” I speak up. Lance opens her mouth to intervene so I throw her a quick glare of my own.
“The code of conduct isn’t yet written down, and it would not apply to you. Each of the commandments of that code will have to be approved by the Grand Commander after having been suggested and voted on by each Commander of every chapter of Hospitaliers.” Grace replies. “I am acting according to your breaches of the land’s laws.”
“How will you select the Commander?” I ask.
“Each chapter will select their Commander from their own ranks through direct election and the assembly of Commanders will choose a Grand Commander to lead the Hospitaliers.” Grace explains. “To become Justicier, one will have to study both the law of a land and the Hospitaliers’ code to then be confirmed by the people of the land their authority will expand to.”
“This is a charade!” Edusa exclaims. “My Liege leads us, you can’t just strike out her commands!”
“Actually, I can suspend them for review even if they do not fall under my jurisdiction. Either way, that does not apply in this case since our Commander made a temporary decision not to pursue Councilwoman Elizabeth Vil’s crimes during a war which has now ended.” Grace patiently explains. “With regards to her circumstances relating to the Rykz and the multiple crimes committed by Caeviel’s Nobility, I will only judge her character and intent over her actions. Which also means that I will ignore the overall positive consequences of what she has done.”
“That can’t be fair.” Edusa mutters.
“I think it is.” I speak up, chortling as I find this very amusing. “I couldn’t have predicted that things would end up this well, in fact I was rather surprised that King Cenwalh agreed to the peace as I expected the Rykz would have to battle during their retreat. If she isn’t going to judge what I’ve done because of the Rykz and Nobility pressured me such that I had few options to choose from, then it flows naturally that all that remains is what I intended. That being said, I resent the implication anyone other than Leomi would have that kind of influence on my decisions.”
“I can see what you meant with your loyalty problem, Commander Lance.” Grace notes, throwing a quick look at Roisia and Edusa.
“…” Leomi suddenly falls back into her chair, looking defeated but relieved in a way. “I’ll deal with that later, say what you will, Head Justicier.”
“So as to her intentions, they have been shown clear through what I’ve witnessed and the stories related to me. She has warned those who opposed her path that they should surrender or face her retaliation multiple times and has accepted those surrenders in every case save once during Meria’s siege, as far as I am aware. The atrocity she committed by executing her prisoners showed a clear intent to end the siege and bait Duke Meria to prevent him from once again using constructs to slaughter defenders and attackers alike.” Grace enunciates.
“I also…” Snap. My head abruptly twitches left and right without my input. “I also killed a dozen batteries and those responsible for turning them that way in the institute, all of them defenseless.” I say.
“I am well aware, their mangled bodies were found.” Grace replies calmly. “Is that all you have to say about your actions in the institute?”
“I won’t apologize for slaughtering them or putting their victims out of their misery.” I utter fiercely, closing my right fist to stop my fingers from trembling.
“I was not asking you to but very well, I will continue.” Grace responds in an even tone of voice. “Elizabeth Vil has clearly not pursued power. She was given the position of Councilwoman in Izla Meria’s high Council under pressure, would that assessment be correct?” Grace asks.
“Yes.” Leomi whispers.
Grace throws a look over my shoulder to Henry and Margaret, which I can detect nod in response. Edusa and Yvonne show their agreement as well. Justicier Grace turns her eyes to me.
“For your lack of self-control and your unwillingness to fulfill these duties, I recommend you resign from that position of power, Councilwoman Vil.” Grace tells me.
“That is fair.” I nod, glad that we aren’t lingering on the institute. “I resign.”
“Do you truly have no instinct of self-preservation or are you confident you would be able to escape consequences?” Grace suddenly asks, frowning.
“Both.” I grunt. “I won’t defend what I’ve done but I won’t apologize for it either.” I pause, raising my right hand to tell Grace to give me a moment to think.
How bad could it get? Death, considering what I’ve done. I swore I would go as far as I needed to no matter the personal consequences, this is apparently it. I can’t escape the consequences now from people I do respect, it would be hypocrisy.
But, is Grace going to be fair? If she isn’t, then I will have support and I can argue for it. I should act like she will be impartial like she claimed justice should be until her arguments show that she isn’t.
“You’re shaking.” Grace comments.
“Don’t worry about it.” I respond, laying my hand back on the table. “I am capable of escaping your judgment but I won’t because I think what you’re doing is worthwhile. Although, I would advise you wait for the Rykz to leave Port-Odo before acting on your judgment and let me tell them I’m staying here.”
“Is this bluster?” Grace asks Lance, and the table in general.
“It would surprise me if it was.” Leomi replies, gritting her teeth.
“It isn’t.” Yvonne affirms, looking worried.
“It depends on whether she trusts you or not, Justicier.” Edusa says. Her insightful observation surprises me.
I unfasten the saber sheath from my waist and call the Rykz warrior over, setting the belt around its waist myself as it appears incapable of doing so with its claws. I then get the Little one to send my escort of three Rykz away. They obey but don’t go any further than the keep’s vestibule.
“There, I’m unarmed and I have much less flow access than any one of you three.” I say, referring to Countess Grace, Duchess Edusa, and Leomi whose access is likely equivalent to a Duchess’. “By the way, kitten, how powerful are you now?”
“I don’t know exactly, my access has been growing steadily this week to reach above a hundred portions. Has yours not?” She asks.
“A little, maybe a couple portions at the most.” I reply.
“Well, swearing oaths to you would be treachery on par with being unbound while doing so towards me is merely reneging their Liege who only have the authority to punish them if they remain in their domain.” Leomi says with a grimace. “The Hospitaliers should lie in a gray area in the Kingdoms’ laws concerning flow oaths, hopefully we will demonstrate ourselves too useful to challenge on the fact we are pledged to in Izla Meria instead of a titled Noble.”
“Could we remain focused?” Grace gripes.
“She needs the distraction or she’ll fly into a red rage if you try to arrest her, Justicier.” Leomi snaps back.
“It would be safer if you do so yourself, kitten.” I say, swallowing my saliva.
“There is no need, I would have prepared a regiment if I anticipated violence.” Grace says, throwing me a flat look. “The fact is that you went above and beyond in risking your life for Caeviel without betraying your stated intent. Your methods and character are dangerous for the future in my opinion but, unlike you Elizabeth Vil, I do not act in preemptively.”
“Then what’s your point?” I ask, relieved that this isn’t going to devolve into a conflict I have no idea how I would have reacted to.
“The point was for me to assess your character. I am astonished you never mentioned the pregnant women you’ve freed from the institute, and that has affected my ruling. These women instigated a riot that broke past Meiridin’s city guard in order to uncover what went on inside, they razed what was left of the building to the ground at the end.” Grace informs me.
“Were they okay?” I question, worried.
“The Templars made certain of it, they are under their protection at the moment.” Grace replies.
“How did you find that out?” Leomi asks, surprised.
I’m glad Leomi kept what I told her to herself, respecting my confidence even as she could have ignored my wishes for my own benefit as she’s done so before.
“Port-Odo’s Templar Master told me so from a conference he has had with Kruzser’s Main Temple about the return to order in Caeviel when he returned yesterday.” Grace says, looking slightly annoyed at being diverted again. “You might be relieved to know that Exemplar Vikiana has taken responsibility for the deaths of the Templars that followed her as they were acting on her orders, she has resigned from the Templar Order as she estimates she lacked the foresight expected of Exemplars by exposing her squad to without sufficient knowledge of the danger.” Grace raises her hand to stop Leomi from protesting. “She claims she should have done away with secrecy to requisition scouts that would have warned her that the Princess was freed. Their deaths being on the head of Princess Cetyz…”
“Core, or trunk.” I correct. “Their heads merely contain sensory organs and lungs of a sort.”
“The responsibility of their deaths lies on Exemplar Vikiana’s head and on Princess Cetyz’ core, the latter of which cannot be charged for her actions in hostile territory during a war as she has not attacked civilians.” Grace enunciates. “As for Elizabeth Vil, all I’ve found out brings me to support the Templar’s condemnation to only allow you to put the mask on in defense of the Empire. But I will add to that, as a gesture of trust and thanks for all you’ve done to minimize loss of life, that we will not pursue it if you put the mask on in private or to defend innocent lives that are at imminent risk of death. Do beware of the fact that the Justiciers will examine any future breaches of the Law that you commit with no regard to your past service to Caeviel.”
“All that to tell me you won’t be doing a thing.” I note, rather angry as it wasn’t easy for me to take precautions against myself.
“I don’t currently have the power, or support, to sentence you to prison even if I wished to.” Grace replies calmly. “I am being as pragmatic and just as I am able with the resources at my disposal. Condemning you would make no sense when King Cenwalh and others remain free.”
“Let’s move on.” Leomi suddenly says, looking relieved about the judgment which seems rather contradictory as she’d been relieved as well when Grace dismissed her authority. “We have a loyalty problem.” She tells us, running her gaze across the table. “It is the reason why I chose Grace over anyone else along with her ideas about the impartiality of Justice, which annoy me considering she has been shutting down my arguments.”
“I don’t understand.” Edusa speaks up. “We’re strong because there is little dissent across our ranks and lands.”
“Nobility has built governments through those ties as well for centuries and we all know what came of it.” Leomi responds. “None of you question me enough and you too often agree with my positions when you have disagreements.”
“I don’t.” Roisia notes.
“You usually disagree in private, not in public, which is expected of your position as my second.” Leomi says, giving her a small smile.
“I listened when you repeatedly told me about your Mother favoring loyalty for stability even as corruption came as a consequence, Edusa.” Leomi says.
“That’s because she accepted the cost of corruption for the benefits, she was wrong in doing so but not necessarily in choosing people that won’t invite chaos.” Edusa argues.
“I don’t have a problem with loyalty to the Hospitaliers, I do have one for me personally.” Leomi says, baffling everyone, me included. “It makes us weak to rely on a single Commander. It brings the risk of disintegrating when a single figure dies, not to mention that it makes abuses of power easier to get away with because people more easily forgive someone they admire.” She argues. “The reliance on connections also makes it more difficult for talented outsiders to integrate our command structure, which holds us back. We’re too new to afford this loss of skills and good ideas merely because they do not show enough loyalty or aren’t connected enough.”
“How would you choose who to promote?” I ask, finding that her arguments make sense.
“We would leave applications open for all. Each would go through a contest of skill and knowledge where the best are granted the promotions.” Leomi explains. “It would change depending on the position they wish to fill.”
“But, how do you filter out spies and traitors if we allow people we don’t know in positions of power?” Edusa asks.
“We would not.” Leomi says. “If we wish to expand throughout the Empire, we need to build loyalty towards the Hospitaliers’ ideals over loyalty towards a specific Commander or Grand Commander. When anyone betrays those ideals, it is then the role of the Justiciers to investigate and root those bad seeds out. Doing otherwise would limit the pool of recruitment to a much too small portion of the population for us to achieve our goals. Not to mention that a single bad apple that we fail to recognize as such, like there always are in any organization, would be free to fill a chapter of Hospitaliers with their own people who would then have no regard to the organization as a whole, their loyalty only to themselves as they use our name.”
“You want to make each of our members responsible for maintaining the charter and their chapter’s behavior, Justiciers included.” Grace nods approvingly.
“That being said, I plan to have only a few locations where Hospitaliers are trained and where contests are held as a means to more easily ensure that what is taught is the charter and its spirit. For now, my Castle Lance would be the only one.” Leomi says. “Training our members in singular locations would ensure a sense of camaraderie and unity even among people of different births. It will also weed out those high born who refuse to live in the same barracks as low born or train with them.”
“We lack instructors for even that single location.” Roisia comments.
“Izla Meria’s Templars will return to their official duties soon, that will free many of our people to take up the task.” Leomi replies. “And Mother should return to Castle Lance from Meiridin soon. Mothers are the most lovingly cruel beings in the world, they make perfect instructors in arms.”
“Can’t argue with that.” I grunt, remembering the number of times Vikiana mercilessly put me down and my mother’s own strict way of using her love as a way to make me behave. “How quick do you expect to see her?” I ask, worried about the window of time I have at my disposal.
“She remains injured, it would be soon if she returned by mid-winter.” Grace speaks up.
“I want there to be an election for my post of Commander soon.” Leomi speaks up.
“You’ll win.” Roisia comments.
“But it has to happen.” Leomi replies. “It’s an issue of legitimacy.”
“Anywhere I can find food?” I ask, rather concerned about having not eaten anything in a few hours.
“Kitchen is that way, help yourself.” Grace replies, pointing at a small door.
I get up and head there, feeling unsteady from the discussion that just took place but less so now that I’m on the move. I felt obliged to trap myself into it instead of just leaving because of an old oath I can’t seem to get rid of. And I don’t want to damage their legitimacy.
“We also need to solve the issue of your vacant Baronies, Countess Grace.” Leomi says, making me pause at the door.
“I have gathered a list of people I’ve known since young who are native to Port-Odo houses, they have never had any hopes of rising so they’ll be receptive to the new system and won’t be seen as Izla puppets.” Grace replies. “I expect to lose a Barony or two to a nearby Count from that move but they are both already in opposition so it is a gain rather than a loss.”
“Then that’s settled.” Leomi nods.
“Would you be able to keep one of those domains to open a school of study for the Justiciers?” Edusa suddenly asks. “Preferably one on the coast with a small dock so my people can easily and discreetly travel there.”
“It would help separate the Hospitaliers as an organization from the Izla.” Leomi agrees.
“I don’t think that will work but the idea retains positive benefits for when you open a chapter in Telnur.” Grace shakes her head. “People will stop seeing the Hospitaliers as from the Izla when you start spreading through Caeviel and the Empire, not before.”
I open the door and head to the kitchen, soothing the Little one despite it not having called for food. It’s a little shameful to be so fearful but I never want to experience the feeling of being eaten alive ever again.