I wake up, almost surprised to have fallen asleep. The two of us prepare breakfast without talking much as we don’t need to in order to work comfortably together.
We depart quickly and set a good enough pace to arrive in sight of Meria’s walls by the middle of the afternoon, having gone through a few villages and came across full carriages without any incident.
I reach out to my liangi’s case in the handcart and activate the runic construct. I hear the wood crack as small teeth from the top and bottom merge into each other, sealing it shut.
It puts me on edge that I have to enter Meria with the parasite as it is clearly identifiable as a Rykz creation even if it doesn’t look much like a human arm at all anymore, the only recognizable trait would be the elbow. Either way, the Little one buries itself into the earth so it won’t be seen unless someone digs.
“Let me talk at the gates if we’re stopped.” Yvonne tells me.
I grunt my agreement, busy checking the west of the city where the Rykz attacked. The large rocks that the catapults propelled from the walls are still there but there is no debris left from the siege towers that they destroyed.
The Rykz took it all to create their small fleet of floating platforms. In fact, the only sign that remains of the invasion is the state of the ground which looks like it was plowed and then trampled on.
My mood sinks at the thought of what I’ll find when I leave Meria. Yet, I must keep forging onward or I’ll end up rooted in place. I start pushing the handcart to get through the first gate quicker.
“Halt!” A man loudly calls out, making me tense up.
A sergeant walks out of the guard station in the barbican with a half-dozen city guards following behind, they all wear tabards in Meria’s colors and wield spears but have no leather armor or shields. The sergeant is tall and thin with a touch of gray in his black hair.
I grind to a stop, my hand flying to the short sword at my waist, squeezing the handle to control my slightly shaky fingers. I throw a quick look over my shoulder to estimate the distance I need to cross if I retreat.
In the meantime, Yvonne takes something out of her pocket. I blankly stare into space as I try to figure out what she’s holding before realizing I no longer have the Rykz’ ability to detect things.
“I’m Lady Yvonne Shipwold, I have the authorization to pass without search.” She tells them, presenting a round metal item that likely has her house’s seal on it.
“Get the list!” The sergeant tells one of the guards before checking her seal with a construct.
“There’s a list?” Yvonne blinks.
“New security measure from the Council, we mark down any unusual arrival or departure, especially those with authorization.” The sergeant replies without taking his eyes off me.
He flicks his chin to the others, giving a silent order. The five guards start circling around us, or more likely me. I start moving back towards the gate, preparing a few lion’s steps ahead of time as a cold sweat travels down my spine.
“Don’t.” Yvonne tells me with a concerned look. “It’s standard procedure.”
“To let them surround us?” I ask between grit teeth.
“It’s normal for them to seek an advantage when they see someone acting like they’re about to draw their sword.” She explains tensely. “They’re being cautious, not suspicious.”
“We just let them do that instead of securing our flank and retreat?” I scoff despite my shaky voice.
“Unless you want to cause an incident by making them even more suspicious, yes.” Yvonne replies, extending her palm out to the sergeant to try to cool things.
I almost listen to her but I hear a scraping sound above, behind, and to my right. I draw my sword and lion’s step backward in a long leap while throwing a quick glance to the sound. There are a dozen archers with drawn bows on the wall.
They don’t shoot, more than likely because I’ve reacted too quickly for them to adjust their aim. I keep moving back into the dead zone under the gate’s stone archway. Yvonne blocks the city guards from pursuing me, whispering something to them.
My right hand starts actively trembling as I raise my sword. I experience a bout of paranoia about Yvonne, which I don’t manage to suppress but don’t listen to because I know how idiotic the fear is.
“I can tell, Lady Yvonne.” The sergeant says, throwing a look to my left and my cheek. “But I cannot allow her in like this, even believing your claim she drew because of us.”
Yvonne blinks in surprise, likely completely taken aback by her instructions being denied. She bites the inside of her left cheek, looking stuck. Nobles are too used to being obeyed.
I’m screwed, I can’t leave the gate’s arch without getting shot, I don’t have that kind of endurance anymore. Not to mention I can’t leave the parasite behind.
I take a deep breath and start calculating a path to taking a hostage in order to secure a safe retreat but freeze when the sergeant makes a gesture and the city guards lower their spears.
I stare at the tall man as he approaches with his spear held up. I lean in and examine his demeanor, looking for openings for when he enters lion’s step reach. Unfortunately, he stops short of the distance I would need to grab him and retreat safely.
“You are authorized to enter Meria so we’re going to let you pass with a warning whenever you feel safe enough to sheathe your weapon.” He tells me directly in a calm voice.
I frown, lowering my hand just slightly to see if he’ll try to take the opening. He inclines his head just slightly in a small salute and retreats. Him and his half-dozen guards move back while I hear the archers above unwind their bows.
They raise their spears vertically, clearly intent on signifying that they aren’t threatening me. Yvonne sighs in relief and walks up to me. She’s lucky I’m more clear-minded than I could be because I might have struck her otherwise.
“They won’t attack unless you do, trust me.” Yvonne tells me.
“Is that because I’m with you?” I ask, shifting my grip on the sword’s handle to stabilize the blade’s tip.
“I guess.” She replies uncomfortably.
I take deep breaths and lower my weapon just a bit more, observing the reactions of everyone around and paying close attention to any sounds. As I catch no sign of a threat, I assemble a lightning construct and sheathe the sword.
“Do you want to take a seat here for a little while?” Yvonne asks me.
“No.” I grunt, unwilling to stay here any longer than necessary. “Weren’t the Hospitaliers supposed to keep the peace?” I question.
“They were but the Council clearly reformed the city guard since.” She replies.
“Okay, let’s go.” I grunt.
I point my chin at the handcart. Yvonne purses her lips, clearly aware that I haven’t lowered my guard, but she pats my shoulder and heads out. I follow immediately behind her, planning to jump for cover behind her or the cart.
My breath is short, and my palms damp as we cross the dozen meters. I keep my eye on the archers more than the sergeant and the guards because I trust I’ll see a flicker of silver if he suddenly decides to attack.
I only relax a little when we make it through the barbican’s second archway and past the exit gate to enter the city. Yvonne herself sighs a bit in relief, likely more because I haven’t done anything than out of fear of the city guards trying something. How naive.
“They shouldn’t have let us in without a search considering how I acted.” I comment darkly.
“If you thought so, why did you draw the sword?” Yvonne asks, baffled.
“I drew it because I felt danger. I’m not letting anyone get me without paying in blood.” I utter firmly.
“They could understand you weren’t trying to cause trouble, they had no reason to stop us.” Yvonne tells me in a conciliatory tone that only annoys me.
“On the contrary, it had everything to do with your status. They didn’t stop us in spite of my attitude, Nobles remain privileged even in this supposed Republic.” I harshly tell her.
“That’s…” Yvonne trails off, likely realizing that she has no real counter-argument.
“Where’s Leomi’s equality?” I press, growing angry.
“She doesn’t have the political power to personally advocate for changes anymore, Jessica.” Yvonne protests. “She’ll act through the Hospitaliers but it takes time to set this up, and we need a petition.”
“Okay.” I say with a growl in the back of my throat. “Where are the headquarters?”
“Under construction, we occupy one of the keep’s wings right now.” She replies, looking worried. “We should store the luggage before anything else, we have an apartment in the western quarter.”
“Fine.” I mutter.
I take deep breaths to cool the anger seething in my chest. It feels incoherent to be getting so mad at being left to go free but it remains unjust whether I benefit or not.
I formulate the problem in my mind as we progress through Meria’s streets to put together a short excerpt to give the Hospitaliers to do as they wish with. I pay only enough attention to the people we come across to make sure they aren’t a threat.
We come across a few temple guard groups in civilian clothes in the streets, recognizable being of the silver lion pommel on their swords. Clearly, they’ve been released by the Rykz.
Yet, it seems like Master Amand still isn’t letting them officially pursue their duties but allows them to do so on their own time. It’s to their honor even if I’m very skeptic that their work in maintaining balance does us any good in the long run.
Yvonne leads me through an alley, pointing me to an iron portal bears the Shipwold crest and name. I push it open for her to pull the handcart in. I recover the leather roll Celyz gave me.
The house is rather large and has two floors that can be accessed separately because of the flight of stairs on the side. The windows don’t have glass panels but the flaps are made of polished wood with flowers engraved.
“Ground floor is for official house business but we can use the shed.” She tells me.
“Are you sure it’s secure?” I ask.
“As much as can be, the area is patrolled.” She tells me. “I’ll lock it with a construct and add an alarm if you want.”
“Please do.” I nod.
I sit on the steps while she applies few constructs on the shed’s doors, hoping that the Temple is open and that the Alemplar will be there as well. I bring my hand up to my left cheek, recalling the sergeant’s glance. The scar the Lisilese gave me definitely feels uneven.
It’ll be healed. The darkness clouding my thoughts grows thicker, so much so that my breaths grow heavy. I try to shake myself off this but all that works is to focus back on my goals, with the small addition a stop to the Hospitaliers.
“Do you have paper and ink?” I ask her.
“Inside.” Yvonne replies without turning around.
I head upstairs, finding the door locked. Yvonne climbs up before I run out of patience and unlocks it. The apartment is quite bare of decorations but that’s still several levels beyond what I have back home.
There are empty flower pots on dedicated pieces of furniture along the walls as well as painting frames. She leads me to a room with a double bed and a closet filled with clothes of various quality.
There is a portrait of her and Leomi smiling hung above a small desk. I turn my eyes away, unable to withstand the sight of it in the state I’m in without bursting into tears.
I don’t linger on my incomprehensible feelings and seize the quill Yvonne offers me to scribble a few words in silence. Once I’m done, Yvonne attentively reads the sentence and smiles in approval.
“You’re not going to sign it?” She asks.
“Don’t see why I should.” I reply with a stiff shrug.
“Mind if I do?” She questions.
“Go for it.” I tell her.
“Pick some clothes out of my closet while I do.” She tells me. “I have a few outfits you’ll probably like that aren’t so expensive you’d refuse them.” She adds, cutting down my protests before I can make them.
I decide not to be a brat and accept the well-meaning gift. Not to mention that wearing three layers of Rykz clothes feels stuffy. I find a nice pair of brown leather pants that will block the wind well and are just the right size for me, not too tight or loose.
It takes a bit more effort to find a shirt that doesn’t have an outrageous cleavage or so many frills it’d seriously worry about getting close to any open flame. I end up selecting a thick wool shirt that’s likely meant to be used for training.
As I turn back to Yvonne, I find her sitting at the desk. She’s applying herself to copy my scribbled words onto a piece of white paper with nice calligraphy. I snort but don’t complain since it might be taken more seriously as a consequence.
“Is there a water well?” I ask.
“In the back, take a coat and towel.” She tells me, pointing me to a second closet without even looking.
I do so, deciding to leave the fight about whether I’ll keep the clothes or not for when I have some of my own to put on my shoulders. I head out of the apartment and downstairs before making my way around the back.
The well is set in the middle of a flower garden, making me groan in pain from the sight. I drag my feet along the gravel path, mortified about being there even though there is a small wall around the property for privacy.
As I undress, I can’t help but take stock of the multiple scars on my body, most look jagged because they didn’t heal right as I only had bandages and healing constructs to treat them.
They go from the relatively clean one to my left side when Teva stopped me from killing myself, to the slight white marks on my thighs Leomi caused, to the ugly shreds the Tianeel’s teeth made on my stomach, to the clean horizontal cut in the middle of my belly that I received in Castle Lance.
The most visible being what Ka’tchuk did to my cheek and the least what Amand did to my cranium. I fiercely cling to what Leomi told Elizabeth about her scars, hoping she’ll be of the same opinion for us.
I quickly clean up under the cold wind and change clothes, finding them eminently warmer than the Rykz’. I then head back around the house and upstairs, finding Yvonne dropping a handful of sand on the fresh ink.
“I wrote an opinion, not a decree.” I comment, baffled.
“One worthy of the effort.” Yvonne replies with a smile, showing me the piece of paper.
‘In the interest of equality, no one should be exempt from the law or any lawful investigation by appointed keepers of the law. No exceptions are to be made for any one person or group, be they Heroes, Rulers, Exemplars, Hospitaliers, or elected Officials, lest misplaced respect cost us the freedom we seek to obtain.
“Do you like it?” She asks with a sparkle in her eyes, likely because she’s making fun of me a bit with the signature she picked.
“Seriously, Yvonne, I don’t write like that.” I tell her, baffled.
“I used your words.” She blinks.
“I tried to make it sound serious but all those curves and shit make it look frivolous.” I explain.
“You really are a farm girl to heart, you can’t seem to stand embellishments.” Yvonne giggles. “I really hope I’ll be there the first time Leomi tries to get you to wear a dress.”
“Why would she ask me to? It’s for Nobles and bourgeois.” I say, baffled.
“Because it looks good.” She replies.
“It wouldn’t on me.” I virulently shake my head.
“Ugh, you’re impossible.” Yvonne complains.
“Anyway, let’s go deliver this.” I tell her, changing the subject. “I need to go to the Temple and…” I pause. “Fuck.” I swear.
“What is it?” She asks.
“I don’t have any silver.” I reply under my breath.
“I can…” She starts.
“I can’t believe I forgot I was broke.” I cut her off. “I need to catch Cecil, I think I can get her to fork some coin for information.”
“Pretty sure she’ll find us first.” Yvonne comments with a grimace.
“You’re right.” I nod. “Let’s go.”
We make our way out of the apartment and then take the main street towards the keep. As we go through the market plaza, I notice a few lone Templars discussing with people at their market stalls.
I notice that the Temple’s doors are closed, which confirms that Master Amand still hasn’t officially decided to cooperate with the new government. That’s beyond worrying, and not only because it’ll be that much harder to find the Alemplar.
I listen in on some of the conversations people are having with the temple guards as we pass by, piecing together from their casual questions that they’re assessing how things have been since they were released by the Rykz.
The questions I hear the most are about taxes, Hospitalier behavior, and whether the grain that was delivered from Telnur is being distributed fairly, which raises my opinion of the Order as the Templars seem to be worrying about the people’s well being.
It very much reassures me that the merchants are saying that a large part of the grain is being sent to the four corners of the Izla to compensate the villages whose granaries were half-emptied by the Rykz.
Yvonne gets us inside the keep with less trouble than we encountered at Meria’s gates because soldiers and Hospitaliers are guarding them, which she recognizes adds to my point about Nobility’s privilege even though she’s a part of the Hospitaliers.
I notice quite a few curious looks from soldiers and servants alike, not to mention Nobles. I grit my teeth to give my roiling fury from being stared at some release. They better not approach me.
“Do you mind delivering it and saying someone who doesn’t want to show themselves asked you to?” I ask Yvonne before we enter the keep itself. “I really don’t want to get involved or seen, I’m pretty recognizable.” I wave my empty left sleeve to punctuate my argument, causing the ghostly pain to intensify for a brief moment.
“No problem, I expected you to say so.” Yvonne replies.
“I’ll go seek Cecil out before she decides to send someone after me.” I tell her.