I wake up shaking as a wave of cold wind seeps through a small opening in the blanket wrapped around my neck. I shake and swiftly get up while wrapping the rough piece of cloth more tightly around my shoulders.
I pick a couple of logs from the pantry and throw them where our stove was before setting it on fire with a burst of flow, barely even thinking about the fire construct as I assemble and trigger it.
There is thick fog surrounding the house, producing a gloomy atmosphere. I grab my cooking pot and step outside, taking care not to slip on black ice as I make my way to the well.
I pull a bucket of water up and pour it into the pot before hurrying back inside. I place the pot on the fire and wait for the water to warm up. Once I see vapor rising from the water, I take my clothes off and quickly clean up.
As I change clothes, I recall that I only have a few outfits left. I sigh and devour a loaf of bread for breakfast. I’m barely surviving, much less finding time to stock up on energy to improve constructs.
It takes a couple of weeks to really starve so it won’t happen for a while but I have no doubt that Cecil’s analysis is correct about the famine that’s threatening to hit the Kingdom.
Once an army is mobilized, not only do soldiers eat more but they also travel with more food which means that the stocks will run low and that there will be a lot fewer carriages to transport food from one village to the other.
Not to mention that sabotage and theft become increasingly likely during periods of instability. The Izla should have plenty of grain but there won’t be any surplus considering Leomi’s call-to-arms.
If Cenwalh does the same as Cecil predicts, it’ll aggravate the situation for the Kingdom. I shake my head, none of this concerns me, I never had the ability to do anything about those kinds of problems.
I get up, full of energy at the thought of doing more than just barely scraping along. I go out and make the rounds to the slipknot traps I set first. Unfortunately, only a single one of them worked but what I find is a bloody patch and a broken stick.
I caught something, but something else ate it. I sigh and leave north-west, in the direction of a small forest which lies between the village and Buton’s dungeon.
On the snowy, and occasionally icy, path there, I experience a bout of nostalgia as this is the road I took the morning before I met Leomi. It feels like I was a mere shell of myself at the time, my body was complete but my life was lacking.
The field should be just over that hill, it was the best piece of land we were given charge to. I keep walking, absentmindedly combing my still damp hair while considering whether I’ll be able to hire someone to plow come spring.
Funny how back then I was so desperate in cultivating that field in fear of defaulting on our taxes whereas now, I’m headed to hunt in the Baron’s forest which would pretty much get me hanged back then.
As I make my way uphill, I get the odd feeling that I’m being observed. While a passing paranoid thought or chill isn’t unusual, this instinctual certainty that I’m being watched definitely is.
I arrive atop the hill and look down. It doesn’t even take me even a split second to find the armored figure standing in front of the field at the side of the road, my eyes immediately lock onto the figure and no longer let go. Leomi is where I stood the very first time I laid eyes on her.
At the same time, I become acutely aware of the scars on my body, the most recognizable of which is the one on my left cheek but my missing left breast and Leomi’s awareness of the Rykz parasite implanted in the same area is no less of a clue.
Not to mention my curled and messy shoulder-length hair which would be similar to Elizabeth’s. No backing off now, we promised us love. But… Nothing. I grit my teeth, fully aware that I wouldn’t be able to turn my back on Leomi even if I were to convince myself that it’s what I need to do.
Her feet are planted firmly in the ground and her helmet’s visor is down. The warhorse she took here is calmly shuffling the snow to eat the grass beneath on the side of the road, it carries a short halberd and quite a few bags of provisions.
The Vuskyt broadsword on Leomi’s back instantly reminds me of Celyz, I don’t know what secret the two shared but the weapon’s evident sharpness and thickness make it clear that this is a blade for war, able to crush what it cannot slice apart.
And besides the weapon itself, there are the runes which I recognize as Rykz but am unable to figure out the purpose. I shake my head, aware that my apprehension and fear are causing me to delay this unavoidable meeting.
I launch myself downhill so as not to give myself the chance to back off. I land in the snow, my boots scraping on the ground as I slide down. I manage to slow down a bit and control my descent until I reach flatter land.
My eyes remain fixed on Leomi as I frightfully await the moment when she’ll turn around. Yet, she doesn’t react in any way. She seems to be standing there like a statue, there is even a thin layer of ice covering the side of her greaves.
How long has she been here? A day? Two? I approach obliquely with a wildly beating heart. That’s when I notice the one-winged Jay on her left shoulder, which I couldn’t see before because her helmet blocked the way.
The golden bird made of flow is staring straight at me, like it’s an actual living being. It has a thin head and its wing is folded alongside its body. I can distinctively see each of the tiny creature’s feathers and the claws holding onto the plate armor’s steel.
This bird is too life-like, even its gaze seems alive if somewhat calm like the surface of a lake. I shake my head, refusing to let any kind of superstitious nonsense lead me astray. This construct is a manifestation of Leomi’s subconscious at the most.
I catch a few flashes of silver going through Leomi’s body, mostly around her brain and heart, but the small lines of silver also appear inside the golden bird. It looks like flow but mixed, maybe an electrical discharge in her nervous system?
Either way, she’s evidently in a trance. I keep approaching, the thumps inside my chest growing quicker and more violent the closer I get. Once I’m a couple of meters away, I dare not keep going as my heart flares up with wrenching pain.
The one-winged Jay on her shoulder has kept following me with its eyes from the beginning, but it doesn’t matter. I swallow my saliva before taking a deep breath, feeling the shaking of my entire body as I speak in a gravely voice that closely resembles the tone Elizabeth uses.
“Leomi.” I utter.
Filaments of silver appear throughout her entire body, from the tips of her toes to the roots of her hair. Crack. The thin ice on her greaves breaks as she pivots on the spot while her arms reach over her right shoulder to seize the broadsword’s handle.
Within a split-second, the thick menacing blade is drawn and swung at my head from high above. If I still had the Little one, perhaps I would have had the reflexes to react when she spun, but right now, all I can do is stare as the weapon falls from the sky like a bolt of lightning.
Our eyes meet in this instant before my death. I smile at her in acceptance, thinking that this result is only to be expected after all I’ve done. I even feel absolute freedom for the first time in my life, her helmet covers her face but her smoldering gaze is plenty for me to be satisfied.
Yet, she has an entirely different reaction from mine as her light gray abysmal irises don’t wander away from my own but remain transfixed. She turns immobile with a sound of grunting steel, the broadsword suspended a mere hair away from my forehead.
There is no change in her gaze, her eyes seem to have frozen over. I catch flickers of silver from the Jay on her shoulder but they’re discreet, the real event are the flashes of meandering silver light occurring inside and on the surface of her skull.
I know for a fact that her hair must be standing on end inside her helmet, thankfully I don’t witness that sight as Leomi would undoubtedly be uncomfortable about being seen in that state.
The intensity of the silver flickers increases, specifically the one-winged bird which seems to be absorbing and consuming flow if I go by the varying intensity of the golden energy it is made out of.
“…” Leomi says something inside her helmet that I can’t catch.
I don’t move as I can’t really with the broadsword so close. I could sidestep it but that would go against the way my relationship with Leomi functions. We face each other head-on, regardless of injury to ourselves or the other, our love doesn’t abide cowardice.
This bit of enlightenment gives me the way to find the way out of this deadlock. I enhance my hearing and listen closely. After a while, I manage to hear a ‘th‘. As it’s not enough, I use more flow and tweak the construct, perceiving the faint thumps of her heart thrashing along with mine.
“Nothing.” Leomi’s shaky voice sips through my ears.
The word causes me to tremble in turn, like my Leomi just expressed her undying and unyielding love for me. She clearly wants to move, to hold me, but she cannot as the oath she took isn’t something she can break even if it shatters her not to do so.
And shatter her it might if I go by the increasing violence of the silver bolts coursing through her brain and at the roots of her hair. The Jay bird’s shape is slightly unstable but it doesn’t look like the construct is about to break anytime soon.
“Nothing.” Leomi repeats, her voice is a bit louder, she’s more assured but also sounds more desperate.
I wait for her to be certain of her decision before saying anything. With the things we’ve done to each other, it would be hypocritical for either of us to have pity of the other.
That Jay isn’t a true construct, it should be an expression of unstructured flow and as such should be related to her inability to see through what I am. If that’s the case, what happens to it should be a clue to what’s happening in her mind.
It would be a betrayal for me to speak before she’s been given the time to make her decision, whether it is to kill me, to capture me, or to hold to her oath. I believe she isn’t consciously aware of my two identities, but she should have known for a long time in her heart of hearts.
“Nothing.” Leomi growls with anger.
I don’t feel any aggression directed at me, on the contrary, her gaze is softening and the Jay on her shoulder growing more stable. I almost nod, once again impressed by this woman and the effort of will she’s extending towards keeping her oath.
Yet, the silver flashes are growing dangerously inside her, showing that there is a limit to what she can bear. I toy with the idea of letting her shatter like this in front of me, not seriously, but the same way she’s played with my emotions before, a perverse curiosity and desire to see what would happen.
It doesn’t last long as the risk of losing her isn’t one I’m willing to take for anything, no matter what happens. I slowly raise my foot and place it in front of me. Since she won’t move, I want to test whether she’ll interact with me if I make the first move.
Leomi doesn’t react or say anything more. I move forward, causing her to immediately pull the dull pitch-black broadsword back so that it doesn’t injure me. That’s all she does, her breaths aren’t even loud enough for me to hear.
“I release you of your oath, Leomi Lance.” I speak up, feeling like the luckiest woman in the world from the depths of my heart.
The one-winged Jay bird on her left shoulder shatters and fades into thin air. If I didn’t see the sparks of silver melding into her head, I would never have known for certain the effect this unstructured construct had on her.
Leomi’s plate armor flashes golden and falls to pieces at her feet within moments, the leather straps holding it together unwrapping by themselves while she throws the broadsword behind her and removes her helmet before stepping out of her greaves.
I see tears in her eyes, blood running down the right corner of her lips with deep bite-marks still visible. My trembling right hand meets her shaky left in the air between us, our palms joining while our fingers naturally entangle.
Her skin is pale and feels chilly. It makes me jolt and squeeze tightly to transfer some of my body heat over to her. She’s always been cold to the touch, but never as much as this.
Leomi’s magnificent light gray eyes run through my entire silhouette in a moment, making me feel like she caught the entirety of me in a single glimpse. She doesn’t even waver when her gaze passes over the flat expanse on the left side of my chest.
“I did this to you?” She asks.
“I did this to myself.” I shake my head.
“We did this to us.” She corrects herself.
“Mm.” I nod a bit timidly.
I feel frightened now that the high of our encounter is receding, about what I did to her, the magnitude of the things I did to her and how far I pushed. Leomi makes an angry corner smile that has a hint of viciousness to it, revealing the feelings simmering inside her about what I’ve done.
I straighten up as those curved lips cause a shiver of dread to run along my back. Her smile widens and I soon realize that she’s enjoying my fear so I breathe out in relief. Her smile smooths out into a gentle one.
The issues between us are far from settled, the least of which is the fact we’ve never actually sincerely kissed each other, but if Leomi is in the mood to toy with me a little even as she is furious, it means that she has no intention at all of letting go of me.
“You’re freezing cold.” I tell her.
“You’re burning hot.” She replies, clearly indifferent to her own state.
Her left hand shifts to hold on even more tightly to mine, her slender long fingertips brush against my wrist. For once, my height doesn’t bother me and I don’t feel much envy for hers. It feels just right, like such a difference is beyond insignificant between us.
“How?” Leomi asks softly.
“Parasite.” I answer, almost making the disastrous mistake of looking away.
“Breast?” She presses.
“Same.” I mutter.
“Dead?” She asks, her sharp traits twisting in wrath.
“No.” I shake my head.
Leomi looks at me, pressuring me with her silence. I know exactly what she wants to know but I sustain her gaze, certain that articulating my answer would do no good and that she’ll understand by herself that I won’t agree to her killing it.
“How much time?” She finally asks after taking a deep breath.
She clearly doesn’t have the courage to ask a longer and more precise question. Not that it matters, I know exactly what she’s asking. I take a moment to think about whether I should lie before answering, but decide against it for the simple reason that I don’t want anything like that between us anymore.
“Years.” I reply, aware that the incident of my heart seizing after I left the Rykz camp is anything but benign. “At best.”
Leomi wavers, her expression stunned as if my answer hit her like a hammer. I observe her chain mail and leather armor while she recovers, worrying about her health and whether I should drag her back and wrap her up in a blanket near a fire.
“I’m sor…” I start, wanting to say that I didn’t know what would happen.
“Don’t.” Leomi interrupts me instantly. She’s probably been expecting me to apologize. “We’re far beyond the realm of apologies.”
“I agree.” I grunt. “Do you want to know?” I ask, certain that Leomi will figure out that I’m talking about Celyz.
“Do you?” Leomi counters.
I blink, unsure about her meaning. About a few moments, I pale as I realize that she means to tell me that telling her everything will mean she’ll tell me about her own intentions towards Celyz.
“What if it’s something very important that you should know?” I stutter, very much unwilling to tell Leomi that I’m engaged to Celyz but incapable of hiding something like that from her.
“What happens between the three of us does not concern all of us.” Leomi proclaims firmly, smashing my hopes of easily smoothing things out between us three.
“I won’t speak of it, you won’t either.” I conclude in her place.
“That is… the only way.” Leomi says with a tremble in her voice, pulling on my hand to drag me just a bit closer to herself.
I hear her insecurity, her dread, her anger, all of it makes me want to hold her, to kiss her, but I fear being rejected once more. I can clearly see that I am not longer ‘Liz’ in Leomi’s eyes, things have changed and I’m already beyond fortunate that she isn’t throwing me away.
The distance between us isn’t one easily crossed right now, it’s less of a ravine that we cannot cross but a bridge formed by our hands that neither of us feels ready to step on.
It hurts but, after all, I’m the greedy one who cannot let go of my lovers and this lonely heart-wrenching pain is a fulfilling one that I can enjoy until I fall apart. I grin, stunning Leomi once more to the point where she would have tripped if I hadn’t held her steady. Her pale white cheeks take a rosy tint that inflames my pride.
“What is this, what are we to become?” Leomi wonders, looking lost and afraid.
“I don’t know.” I answer calmly. “It began as the dream of a silly peasant girl who spent her winters praying for the Lake to send her a shining Lady to take her away to a better life.”
“What does she want now?” Leomi asks.
“The girl’s dead, my Lady.” I reply with a sharp chuckle. “The dream has long been abandoned, as they all eventually are.”
“Then call me Leomi.” Leomi utters with loss and resolve in her light gray eyes.
“I’ll call you however I want to.” I deny.
Leomi gives me a short acknowledging nod and briefly clasps my hand.