As we approach the keep, I enhance my senses and start calculating the time it took to get here from Port-Odo in order to figure out how likely it is that Leomi is in the city right now.
At least a week, possibly quite a bit more considering I don’t exactly know how much time I spent recovering, so she’s likely on the way if not already here. I’ll have to be on my guard to avoid my Lady.
“You should go back to Leomi once you’re done, I’ll be fine.” I tell Yvonne. I take a deep breath to combat my sad reluctance at parting ways.
“She’s been working herself to the bone, I don’t think it’s healthy but it doesn’t worry me too much because it’s not a new pattern. It’s a little like there’s a weight off her shoulders.” The sword-sworn replies.
“I have a few personal things to do and I don’t want to be seen with you too much, Yvonne.” I explain more firmly. “I’ll go back to take my things and leave your clothes, we’ll see each other if you’re there.” I add.
One more thing I’m leaving behind to keep going. Yvonne nods and gives me a small smile. I can tell that my cold and abrupt demeanor hurt her but she isn’t letting it show, she simply takes hold of my shoulder to squeeze it before turning around and entering through one of the keep’s side doors.
“I need to keep going.” I utter.
“At that cost?” Jessica murmurs.
“Yvonne was being a friend.” Elizabeth grunts.
“Would you stop pilling on we? We set the milestones we are following.” We berate ourselves.
I catch a few odd glances from Hospitaliers in their white and blue uniforms. I have to make an effort of will not to reach for the sword Yvonne gave me. I glare at them until they look away.
I head around the keep to put some distance between myself and the Hospitalier’s headquarters while searching for a steward to escort me to Councilwoman Cecil’s office.
The garden, which was verdant not so long ago, is now bereft of most green as many trees and bushes have lost their leaves for winter. The labyrinth of shrubs still stands but has taken a brown hue.
There are a couple of gardeners but no servants so I head inside through the ballroom. I come across a steward walking through with a platter of clean empty wine glasses to set them on a table, likely for a dinner meeting.
“Greetings.” I speak up, sounding odd to myself.
“Good day, mam.” The man replies cordially.
He sets his platter down and makes a small bow before raising a single inquisitive eyebrow. I internally applaud his subtle and professional politeness even though he just called me ‘mam’.
“I’m eighteen.” I note, unable to help it.
“I would not dare call a woman at arms who yet carries a sword after suffering the kind of injury you have anything less.” The man adroitly responds with a serious expression.
“Would you lead me to Councilwoman Cecil’s office?” I ask.
“Of course, would you happen to have a meeting?” He questions.
“No, but she’ll see me.” I respond confidently.
“Then, perhaps I can direct you to the waiting room.” He replies politely.
I consider pushing harder but the man’s been polite and I don’t feel confident or safe enough to cause a scene here. I nod in approval and follow him through the corridors, coming across a few Hospitaliers, patrolling soldiers, and people in regular clothes.
“Do people often show up like this?” I ask.
“Only since the Council has taken power, it’s unusual but quite refreshing if straining for the protocol.” The man answers.
“I hope I’m not disturbing your work too much.” I tell him.
“It is not a bother, mam.” The steward replies. “I have a single table to set.”
“You started early for that.” I note absentmindedly.
“Commander Lance is scheduled tonight with Duchess Hetlan to meet members of the Council, it was deemed wise to prepare the table early in order for the Hospitaliers to have time to secure the ball room.” He explains.
I stumble despite having expected it, barely managing to catch myself. The man stops, his left elbow extended slightly in case I need help but not so far that he would be intruding.
I squint my eyes in suspicion, thinking him too good to be true for a servant who has clearly been in Nobility’s service for years. I wouldn’t be surprised to find he’s someone’s contact, perhaps even Cecil’s.
A steward wouldn’t be this polite to someone of my appearance barging into the keep with a sword. Why not? People think I’m cute. I was. True, he’s being nice to drag information out of me.
“May I inquire as to the reason behind your visit to Councilwoman Cecil?” The man asks amiably as he slows down, preparing to stop in front of a door next to a staircase. Knew it. It’s a pretty normal question… Still.
“Her establishment owes me wages.” I tell him in a flat tone.
“Oh…” The steward blinks in surprise but doesn’t blush.
At least he thinks I was a bouncer. Not that it would be wrong to be a whore, it’s just really not for me. Enough dallying. I give the man a quick nod as a salute and open the door to the waiting room.
There are a dozen people sitting on benches set against the wall with a rug tainted by mud footsteps in the middle. It makes me smile a little as it shows not even the ill-mannered are being barred from entrance to the keep.
My good mood dies down rather quickly as I close the door as I recognize Robert Conner, he owns the general store in my village with his wife, who offered to help me and Father a day before I left home.
He’s sitting with his back straight as a ruler, his shoes are spotless. He’s wearing a clean-cut gray work jacket with a rather used fur coat folded over his forearm. He looks like he’s on his way to Temple.
He glances up to me, like many others, but quickly looks back down without a single change in expression. I, on the other hand, remain blanked out and frozen by surprise until I realize I’ve been given a few timid greetings.
“Good day as well.” I reply quietly, my eyes fixed on Robert.
He looks up to me again, meeting my eyes. He hesitates for quite a few moments before abruptly standing up and stiffly walking up to me, causing a small commotion in the room as people move their feet away to let him pass.
“Jessica?” He asks, sounding baffled.
“The one and only.” I chuckle darkly.
“We thought you died!” He exclaims, scrutinizing my face like he’s having trouble recognizing me.
“Nah, never even got close to.” I giggle, finding my answer quite funny.
Besides, it won’t be long before he says something that’ll cost him a few teeth. He inspects my expression for a long while, somehow managing to look at me in suspicion. It doesn’t last as he notices my missing left arm and the sword at my waist, going pale.
“W, what happened?” He asks.
“It was just a prank, Robert, don’t worry about it.” I reply with a smirk and without a hint of respect for his age, status, or wealth.
“A p, prank?!” He exclaims, almost shouting. “You lost your arm to a prank?!” I startle at the anger in his voice. “Was it that coward, Buton?!” Robert questions, closing his fist so tightly that his knuckles turn white.
“No, a Noble did it but it was because of a Rykz ambush.” I tell him in a slightly shaky voice, my emotions about the event far from settled no matter the revenge I took on Leomi and the pain I caused Celyz.
“Oh.” He settles down a bit. “The Baron is dead, you know.”
“I’m aware.” I grunt.
“Your family’s debt is cleared, but…” Robert pauses, looking at me with an uncharacteristic look of worry. “No, this isn’t the place. You should go see my wife once you return, alright?”
“I might.” I reply, completely unsettled by the man’s lack of aggressiveness towards me.
“Why are you here?” He asks. “I’m a representative of the Council’s lower chamber, perhaps I can help.”
“Aren’t you waiting in here like I am?” I question in a slightly mocking tone.
I experience a disgusting feeling of superiority because I know I could punch him and force my way to Cecil’s office with little to no consequence, and even defeat a couple of guards if I play my cards right. I shake myself out of my stupid and immature state of mind.
“I have a meeting scheduled with Councilman Colby.” Robert replies without taking umbrage at my words.
“I’m here to see Councilwoman Cecil.” I tell him. “Not that it’s any of your business.” I add, unable to help myself with how he treated me in the past.
“I can help with that if you’re willing, I can even ask another representative.” Robert says, clearly aware of the grudge I hold.
“How did you get that role to begin with?” I question, morbidly curious.
“Our family is the only one that was capable to take the burden to send someone after the Rykz plundered us.” He replies in a dark tone.
“Must be good to be a bourgeois.” I mutter under my breath, too low for him to hear unless he’s enhancing his hearing. His lack of reaction tells me he naively isn’t. “Lead the way.” I tell Robert.
He throws a hesitant look at my sword. He’s apparently thinking I shouldn’t have one here, or maybe at all. Yet, he doesn’t say a word as he guides me out of the room even though he grows nervous as we approach the soldiers on guard at the bottom of the stairs. He sighs out in huge relief when they let us pass without a word.
“I heard Commander Lance is executing the former Duke tonight, once the market closes.” Robert tells me in a trembling but excited voice.
“They hadn’t yet?” I ask. Right, I insisted Leomi had to be the one. I want to go see that. I don’t. We don‘t, it fits not our plan.
“No, it took a few days to obtain Master Amand’s approval on the list of crimes he committed.” Robert explains.
“Hm.” I mutter, growing short of breath.
The Templar Master did in fact arrest Duke Meria and left him alone with me, probably hoping we’d kill each other. I shake my head and push my knees to quickly climb the last few steps.
A mistake as I find myself on the verge of throwing up by the time I step on the second floor. I take a break in spite of my pride, placing my hand on the wall to give my legs a bit of a break and gasp for air.
“Do you need water or anything?” Robert asks me.
“No.” I reply sharply. “Where’s her office now?”
“End of the hallway.” He replies.
I make myself straighten up and make my way along the corridor, almost expecting to see Aisha barge out of one of the doors. My eyes soon fall on an officer standing guard next to a Hospitalier in front of an office.
I recall that the lieutenant is one who helped abduct Nobles during Meria’s siege because he had a vendetta against one. Can’t recall the name, though I’m not surprised Cecil kept him around at all.
“Is the Councilwoman inside?” I ask, not that I doubt so but to block Robert from taking the initiative.
The man nods at me in response, his hand resting on his sword’s handle. Oddly, I don’t feel very threatened. Likely because I have some trust that the man won’t attack me without reason.
“We can announce you if the matter is urgent but you will need to take that sword off.” He tells me.
“Hm, I’m not doing that.” I reply, making an apologetic grimace before taking a deep breath. “Cecil!” I yell. My sudden outburst startles him, the Hospitalier, and Robert.
“What is it?!” Cecil shouts back, sounding pissed.
“It’s me!” I reply, taking a step back as her guards take a step forward.
“Who?” Cecil asks more calmly, clearly starting to get a clue but not quite there yet.
“Me!” I exclaim, chuckling at the dark faces that the guards are making and how Robert is shifting on his feet, not knowing where to put himself.
“Oh, you.” Cecil mutters inside, too quietly for the other three to have heard without a hearing construct. “Let her in!” She orders.
“But, she’s armed.” The officer protests.
“Good.” Cecil utters back to their surprise.
I step past the guards, enjoying their baffled expressions. It was a little stupid but I’m not too worried about being remembered by them, it can only help back at the village if Robert thinks I have connections. As I open the door, however, he follows along.
“What are you doing?” I turn and ask a little aggressively.
“Well, I represent the v, village’s i, interests.” He stutters.
“This isn’t a matter that involves your village.” Cecil dismisses him. “She merely delivered a message for me.”
“But…” Robert protests. I notice Cecil raising her head up in the corner of my eye, which is apparently enough to shut him up. “Don’t agree to anything.” He whispers to me in a tiny voice before running away.
I blink a few times, quite unable to recognize his change of attitude as real. I step inside and close the door behind myself, deciding it means little considering he isn’t in familiar territory.
Cecil is in a red and black dress, looking as elegant as always. She is sitting behind a large oak desk with several piles of documents in front of her as usual. There’s also a familiar collection of rolled up letters held by strings.
She swipes her hand, releasing a wave of flow that I track as it goes around me to infiltrate a series of runes around the door. The silver runes flash and pulse before settling.
“You got rid of it.” Cecil comments, eyes set on my left side. I approach and sit on the armchair in front of her.
“It ended up being choice between my life and an arm.” I reply quietly.
“Jessica then, that is unfortunate.” She mutters.
“Should I have let myself be consumed for your ambitions?” I grunt, growing angry.
“They were yours as well, as I recall.” Cecil notes calmly. “And yes, you should have given your life if necessary. The Lake knows I would have if the opportunity was granted to me.”
“You have no clue what you’re talking about.” I growl.
“You aren’t the only one who has suffered, I simply had not thought that you would be one to back away in fear of your life and the blood to be spilled.” Cecil counters harshly.
“I simply grew out of sacrificing myself in humanity’s squabbles.” I reply between grit teeth.
“As is your prerogative.” Cecil acknowledges quietly with a look of disapproval and disappointment.
“You’re not going to try to strong-arm me?” I ask, suspicious.
“That would backfire according to my judgment of you.” Cecil tells me with an amused smile that quickly fades. “Is the loss of that arm the cause behind your naive agreement to Cenwalh’s peace?”
“What?” I ask.
“I thought Leomi Lance to have the necessary will but I suppose the woman was always an idealist so I should not have put stock in her turn to proactive defiance, especially as it faded once Meria fell.” Cecil mumbles.
“Explain.” I utter, growing impatient as I hadn’t thought this meeting would go this way.
“The promise gold you obtained in your bet? We will never see even the glint of a single coin. You should have demanded it or something equivalent on the spot.” Cecil throws at me with a flat glance. “The peace you agreed to, and your exile? Those play entirely in the King’s hands, they quell the people’s anger such that revolt is no longer certain.”
“I don’t understand.” I tell her, entirely lost.
“Had the war continued without even a battle, Caeviel could not have sustained it.” Cecil utters flatly. “The longer it went, the more chances of an incident that would have turned the people against Nobility. Anger is never sufficient to motivate even the most fearful or attached to their lands to fight, revolts simply do not occur without a threat to a people’s survival.”
“The Rykz were that.” I realize. “And you made sure everyone knew that it was all Cenwalh’s fault.”
“With Elizabeth Vil to lead, a low-born who defeated a Count in a duel and spoke the Rykz into a cease-fire, there would have been a wave Nobility could not have guarded against.” Cecil sighs regretfully before her gaze grows hard as iron. “The opportunity for a revolt remains, but not for the reasons Commander Lance’s naive little faction believes.”
“What did you do?” I ask.
“Me? No more than ensure the Izla’s survival.” Cecil replies calmly. “The steps I have taken were ordinary and in the open. The fact that they will incidentally shake Caeviel cannot be traced back to the Izla.” She assures me in a cold voice that causes a chill to run down my back. “We have bought every grain that Telnur had in surplus as well as sent caravans to Mirus to acquire enough supplies to raise the price of what remains when added to the amount of food that the Empire is sending to the east.”
“You’re trying to cause a famine?” I ask, having a hard time to speak so much her words strike me.
“Trying? No. I am not even planning or wishing for it to happen.” Cecil fiercely denies. “Cenwalh will take a military action come spring, causing more grain to be moved and consumed, further raising the costs. The quantity of food we had to import because of the Rykz combined with the greed of Nobles who are likely to sell every bit of food they can to Mirus will cause Caeviel to experience famine, not a nefarious plan by me or the Council.”
“That, you can’t let that happen!” I exclaim, rising to my feet to strike her desk with my palm because I would have drawn my sword otherwise.
My reaction has none to do with what I’ve experienced when I was joined with the Little parasite, it has everything to do with what occurred in my youth, memories I’ve done my best not to directly think about.