The kitchen is huge, at least to me. It’s a room with ten meters long and five large walls. The tiles covering the floor are white and so clean I could eat on. There is a large window at the back of the room and a chimney next to it.
The furniture isn’t as spotless, the shelves holding the plates show signs that the slightly blackened wood was scrubbed but couldn’t be fully restored from the cast iron stoves’ smoke emissions.
I go through the cupboards, finding cups and tankards to no end. Ah. I head for a small rectangular coffer of wood that looks like it could be a pantry, finding several plucked chickens.
“Hm, where there are chickens, there are…” I mutter, starting to open every closet. “Eggs!” I exclaim, finding a few dozen laying in two baskets layered in straw.
I quickly light a stove, throwing a pan atop of it before raiding through the rest of the kitchen for plates. I find salt, pepper, and basilica inside covered clay bowls which I leave in their place because I somehow don’t feel like Grace’s permission extends to these expensive items even though it obviously does.
I do find a block of butter wrapped in a handkerchief atop a table using for chopping, likely made this very morning. I grab a small knife from a rack on the wall above the table and cut myself a small piece to throw in the pan. I gleefully crack eggs into it when the butter melts.
“Mind making some for us all?” Leomi asks from the door, surprising me as she was hidden from my sense behind a stone wall until she emerged.
“Sure, could use the help, though if you can.” I reply.
“What do I have to do?” Leomi asks.
“Hm.” I ponder. “I guess we might as well make a meal. You not needed back there?”
“Not truly, I’ve put the right people in the right place.” Leomi shakes her head.
“Alright, open that and grab a smoked ham, we’ll grill a few slices and serve it with eggs.” I say, using my thumb to point at a coffer over my shoulder.
Leomi nods and follows my directions, picking a ham to sets it on the chopping table. She uses a large butcher’s knife to cut out some much too generous slices. I grab the whole basket of eggs and then a few plates that I set on copper platters.
“Why were you glad when she sidelined you?” I ask Leomi. “You got angry at first.”
“Because Grace took her role seriously enough to alienate me, the Commander. They’ll need that.” Leomi responds, looking fidgety.
“You don’t like that, do you?” I chuckle.
“Absolutely hate it, I could use you to let off some steam but only if you ask.” Leomi replies casually, making her blade snap against the table to punctuate her point.
I shiver, disappointed in myself for getting excited at those mere words but so very tempted even though I know of the conditions attached to that. The choice matters more than anything. I set my cooked eggs into a plate and crack a half-dozen more.
“You’re not replying.” Leomi says, looking torn. I detect the one-winged flow Jay bird briefly flicker into existence on her left shoulder before dissipating. “Is it because I’m too controlling? I can do better, give us a chance.” She tells me without much hope in her voice, either about her chances of improving or of me accepting knowing her goal of putting an end to the ultimatum I posed her.
“Pass me the salt and pepper.” I reply, changing the subject. “I figure they won’t mind if I use them for us all.”
“They wouldn’t have minded if you did for yourself, Liz.” Leomi tells me.
She heads to the shelf and grabs the two small clay bowls. She walks over to my side and sets the bowls on my side of the stove. She moves behind me and takes hold of my right hand, appearing not to mind my messy hair brushing against her face.
“You have such long hair now.” Leomi says, seeming rather puzzled.
“Do you like it?” I ask.
“I could braid you.” She replies without answering my question. “Here, just a pinch of pepper, and a couple of salt.”
She sets her long slender fingers over mine to gently guide me in following her instructions, going so far as to take care that her breasts don’t press against my back. My nipple hardens from the attention she’s showing, the physical reaction lays far beyond my capacity to suppress.
“Are you certain that the creation the Rykz gave you has not messed with your mind, made you receptive to that Princess’ pheromones?” She asks, stepping away to keep chopping ham.
“No.” I shake my head. “But human relationships depend on those too, so what’s the difference?” I question.
“I suppose her intent.” Leomi replies carefully. “And the fact it isn’t natural, but I’m not about to be the hypocrite that uses that argument after having heard a good part of my life that same-sex relationships aren’t.”
“I broke her knee, you know.” I say, changing the subject but rather eager to take the chance to discuss Celyz with Leomi.
“How?” Leomi asks, flipping around in surprise with the butcher knife in her hand. “Are you crazy?!” She exclaims after having taken a moment to register all the implications of what I’ve said.
“Yes.” I reply, chuckling. “I wanted to make sure that she couldn’t control me through the creation they gave me, it was worth finding out.” I ponder for a moment. “I was also quite angry at her because of her attempts to manipulate me.” I add. “Celyz took the injury rather well, I think that’s when she started to actually take me seriously.”
“They didn’t retaliate for attacking one of their Princesses?” Leomi questions, baffled.
“No.” I shake my head. “But it does turn out that they can neutralize me, I suppose she didn’t fear for her life at the time or I would be dead.”
“Would you…” Leomi chokes on her words and swallows her saliva.
I wait for her to continue but Leomi turns back to the ham and keep chopping it. I don’t press her, finishing cooking the eggs in the pan to then set them on a plate and start another batch.
“Will you run to Celyz and allow us to end in peace if I tell you to?” Leomi asks, looking reluctant like she’s giving up on something precious to her. “Or if I excite you enough while refusing you release?”
“That would be manipulating me.” I comment, shivering at how much the twisted idea excites me.
“Is it if I openly tell you my motives?” Leomi questions.
“I’m, not sure.” I blink. “Either way, I won’t answer. Whatever Celyz and I have, it’s between us and I don’t want you poking your nose into it.” Unless you join us, then your pretty nose can go wherever you wish to put it. “Does it mean you chose?” I ask.
“I can’t.” Leomi says in anguish, gulping. “Nothing means neither for or against.” The Jay bird pops on her left shoulder and flaps its right wing. “I may impulsively damage my oath, but I can never do so voluntarily.” Lance explains, her hard voice shivering as it goes through her tight throat. “If I did… our current relationship would crumble as well because it’s based on the trust we have that the other will follow instructions we give.”
“That’s a choice in itself.” I grunt. This is so unfair for me. I know, my evil twin. But you’ll have her for us? We will or nothing.
“But, I still have a couple of weeks, right?” Leomi asks with a point of despair in her voice.
“You do, but why are you saying this like that’s all the time you have?” I question.
“…” Leomi whispers something in too low a voice to hear.
“Couldn’t hear that.” I say, serving a half-dozen more eggs onto a plate.
“Don’t worry about it.” Lance replies in a calm tone, echoing my words earlier referring to my shaky hand. “I’ve sacrificed myself to you before.” I almost laugh at the dry humor before frowning and turning to her.
“Hey, you’re not still suicidal are you?” I ask.
“No.” Leomi shakes her head, taking the slices of ham and bringing them over to throw them in the pan. The small Jay slowly appears atop of her head, shaking its cute tiny head along with hers.
“Are you referring to our relationship then?” I ask.
“Not that either.” Leomi says, looking baffled. “I can’t believe you forgot how you used everything you could to get into my bed with your dances.”
“Wait, you’re the one who kept trying to invade my privacy, how was that a sacrifice to my benefit?” I say, confused.
“I was pure before you corrupted me with your defiant attitude requiring correction at my hand.” Leomi replies, smiling with nostalgia. “I don’t think I regret giving you my first experience all that much anymore.”
“We could run away together, you know.” I suddenly suggest on impulse. “Leave it all behind.”
“I wish that was possible.” Leomi shakes her head, taking the pan from me to flip the ham slices. “But we started something that I have to see through to the end.” She makes a gentle smile tainted by grief.
I reach out to her, feeling an irresistible pull to kiss her sadness away. The small golden Jay bird made of flow appears in-between us, blocking me and startling us both.
It fades as quickly as it was created and Leomi carries on handling the pan like she hasn’t noticed despite reacting to it. I want to say something but don’t really know what. I just got rejected by her image of me, that would be funny if the implication didn’t scare me.
“I’m going to bring the food over.” I say.
“Alright.” Leomi nods, apparently entirely unbothered by being left at the stove.
I spread the eggs I cooked out on four plates and set them on two platters to bring them over to the hall, finding that Grace is deep into reading the records her scribe took, that Roisia left, and that Yvonne is flirting with Rowland in a corner of the room.
Edusa stands up and heads over to me, looking determined and rather fatigued. She extends her hand out so I give her a platter which she deposits where Leomi would sit. I smile a little and put mine in front of the scribe, who is nervously observing his liege go over his work.
“Dame Vil, do you want me to bring us a motion to the Rykz requesting reparation for any action they may have taken against you that went beyond those taken in the normal course of warfare?” Grace suddenly asks, stopping me from walking away.
“What? No.” I hurriedly reply. “Why?”
“It would not be my first public act, as that would be declaring Director Suxen and those working under her in the institute as wanted by the Hospitaliers and our combined domains for trial, but if you’re willing to give me your testimony I can initiate a diplomatic process to repair the wrongs committed against you.” Grace explains. “The Hospitaliers are considering signing a treaty banning experiments on sapient beings without their express and free consent, the wording of which already appears suspicious to me since it implies they do not intend to stop. Your input would be valuable.”
“I can handle my relationship with the Rykz, no thank you.” I shake my head, unwilling to end up in a position between them and the Silver Hive as I think it would best if they initiated relations directly. “But I can guarantee they have no intention or even the ability to pursue the research much further even if they wanted to, improving humans over themselves isn’t in their interest.”
“Do you have their word on the fact that they won’t continue?” Grace asks. I suddenly realize that the whole room’s attention is focused on me.
“I don’t.” I shake my head. “But the treaty would take care of that.”
“When we sign the treaty, we will lose that leverage to obtain concessions for you.” Grace explains. “Are you certain?”
“I am.” I reply in a calm voice despite my agitation. “You would be better suited in asking for gold or equipment for having helped them peacefully hold the territory they conquered and having supported my effort to rescue Cetyz.”
“That would work?” Grace asks, surprised.
“I’m pretty sure it would, the Rykz seems to have a sense of perspective towards collective responsibility that we don’t share but they’re also aware that humans are individuals who can act separately to their allegiances in their favor and they could be convinced to reward that.” I explain.
“Would you be willing to help?” Grace questions.
“No.” I shake my head. “The advice is as far as I want to go. I’m tied to both sides so I don’t think I should take direct action for either side to preserve that neutrality.”
The words seem to naturally pour out of me to express something I should have realized long before, that my detachment from humanity can be used for good as long as I don’t allow it to be complete, in the same way I’m refusing to completely join the Silver Hive.
“I understand.” Grace says, to my surprise.
She leans back to the parchment, absentmindedly reaching over to the plate I set in front of her scribe. I casually push her hand away, making her look up to me with a frown.
“He worked harder than you did, wait your turn.” I berate her.
“It’s no problem Dame Vil, our Countess has been working very hard.” The scribe hurriedly protests.
“No, she’s right.” Grace shakes her head, pushing the plate closer to the scribe.
I head back to the kitchen to grab the ham and more eggs that Leomi put together. I bring them to the others, feeling great about working with her to serve a simple meal. I notice that I only ever see her use a single hand, same way she tied my hair. I don’t mention it as Elizabeth is rather jealous.
“How many more plates do I need to make?” Leomi asks.
“Two, I think. For Grace and Edusa.” I reply.
“You served in the reverse order that decorum would demand, didn’t you?” She questions, smiling.
“You would have been surprised if I didn’t.” I reply.
“I’m surprised you served them at all, something tells me you did it to one-up me.” Leomi notes. Elizabeth and I both pause.
“Does everything have to be a contest?” We ask in a pained voice.
“No!” Leomi protests, turning to me. “I just, I’m only surprised you did so for Nobles.” She explains.
“I…” I hesitate. “That’s fair.” I acknowledge despite still being bothered.
We’ve created so much emotional baggage between us in such a short amount of time, I hate it. I grab a plate for myself, feeling the need to keep moving, to forge onward.
“You seem mad, I’m sorry I didn’t want to ruin this.” Leomi says, looking hurt.
“It’s okay.” I reply. “I need to go soon anyway.”
“Please stay? Your presence alone helps me.” Leomi pleads. “Your strength.”
“No.” I shake my head, feeling the urge to leave even more.
I grab a plate to gobble the eggs and ham before heading out. Stupid, letting myself get caught into her pace so much I actually almost forgot she’s been trying to get me to abandon the choice I gave her, our future.
“Before you go, let me see your face!” Leomi exclaims in desperation. “I, I think I saw your real smile.” She pursues me but the Jay bird flashes in front of her. “Ah!” Leomi yelps in surprise and confusion. “Wait!”
She doesn’t immediately follow, apparently stunned by what just happened. I run past Edusa who stood up from our commotion. I slip past her, and keep going despite Elizabeth’s hesitant calls to turn around to take the mask off to see if she has a chance at being herself.
I push back without difficulty as that part of me is aware of how destructive it would be to us after all we’ve done to her. She deserved it! Did she? Easy to self-blame now that she’s suffered what we had, we agreed on this. We still do.
I flash past Henry and Margaret, exiting the keep with the three Rykz on my heels. I slow down once I find myself in the courtyard to take a breath and avoid physically exerting myself too much.
How frightful I’ve become. I’m fine, just need to avoid damaging our body if there is no need. No matter the personal cost. That doesn’t apply anymore! I stumble towards the gates at the end of the courtyard, ignoring the eyes on me.
I keep walking towards my goal. One of my next milestones is to heal the scars all over my body so I head to the Temple. After a while roaming through Port-Odo, I detect Edusa lion’s stepping into my detection range, she has our dagger in hand. I flip around, coiling my left arm and assembling a lightning construct.
“Elizabeth!” Edusa calls out.
“Why do you have that?!” I yell.
“Whoa!” Edusa exclaims, grinding to a halt.
The warrior pulls its saber and the scouts raise their pike-like arms. The people around pull back in sudden fright towards the Rykz when they were utterly ignoring them before.
“My Liege said to deliver this back to you.” Edusa hurriedly explains.
“Wh, what?” I ask, utterly stricken.
“She said you will need it now that you… that you two broke up. That’s it.” Edusa says carefully.
I hear murmurs coming from the crowd, many express astonishment that the two of us could have separated after our victory while others say it had to happen after Elizabeth Vil and Exemplar Vikiana fought.
That along with Edusa’s interference infuriates me. The Little one bristles, showing how ready it is to unwind and impale Edusa. I think that very fact is the only reason I don’t act, having grown more and more suspicious of the symbiont.
“Enough!” I growl, running a hard glare over the men, women, and children to silence them. “She can’t have been so stupid as to send you.” I angrily throw at Edusa, to the crowd’s shock.
“She, was arguing with Yvonne who wanted to do so herself so I took it.” Edusa explains quietly. “And don’t insult me or her, I’m still a Duchess and she commands the Hospitaliers.”
“I don’t care about pride.” I utter coldly.
“My people do, the Izla does.” Edusa replies, throwing me a flat look. “And you do too but you’re too mad to admit it right now.”
I find myself stuck, knowing that I’m in the wrong but too unstable to admit it without worsening my state. I suddenly calm down as I realize how childish and stubborn I’m being with my mood swings.
I’ve jumped from an emotion to another. I even screwed up an opportunity to spend quality time with my Lady. It doesn’t stop me from stomping over to Edusa and tearing the dagger out of her hands.
She watches me inspect the weapon but I care not, deciding to give Elizabeth the time she needs for the truth of the break up to sink in. She rages inside my skull so the Little one and I wrap her in our affection. Edusa oversteps her welcome by giving me a brief hug.
“Thank you for everything.” She whispers, too low to reach the people’s ears. “I hope you’ll be well, Elizabeth.”
That’s what all that talk about me going to Celyz was, she’s giving up on me, she would rather lose me to a Rykz over being made to choose. She would rather lose Elizabeth. Is that supposed to make me feel better? It was no lie when you told her she didn’t know or understand you, she cannot until she knows me. Leomi can‘t truly love you until she knows us.