Leomi keeps silent on the rest of the way, ruminating on my words as we go. She opens her mouth a couple of times to say something but never actually does. I think she’s stopping herself from picking my arguments apart by attacking the specifics.
“You underestimate the damage those species can cause.” She finally concludes. “There is also the issue that intentions have little to do with what will actually happen in reality. The Lisilese are unpredictable to begin with and the Rykz have occupied land without the intention to conquer it before.”
“So you’re saying they would strike to weaken us if there is a civil war?” I ask.
“At the very least, yes.” Leomi nods. “But, as I said, the Lisilese are difficult to predict. They have objectives that don’t always make sense to us. I’ve read that if there is prey interesting enough, they’ll actually give up on a strategic win so that their best warriors can hunt an Exemplar or a high-ranked titled Noble.”
“Hm.” I grunt.
I’m the one who falls silent this time, feeling like her points destroy mine. Still, she isn’t trying to shut me down, just sharing her point of view. I’ll have to be careful when I have more than a vague idea.
“I could use your thoughts on something.” Leomi speaks up.
“What?” I ask.
“I’m considering the implementation of a sanctuary policy in the case that someone accused of a crime takes refuge in a building held by Hospitaliers. Unless there is proof that they’re guilty, we would protect them.” Leomi explains.
“What’s the end goal?” I question.
“Expose Nobility’s abuses in a way that raises our reputation.” She instantly replies. “It should give people hope and make even the most ordinary officer would think twice about abusing their power if we succeed.” Leomi pauses before squeezing my hand. “But at first the use will be to push King Cenwalh into a conflict with us.”
“How would that work?” I ask. “The policy itself sounds great but difficult to maintain.”
“That’s why I want to start with a King.” Leomi turns to give me a fierce smile. “He won’t be letting us gain influence so easily. If we proclaim this policy, he’ll be opposing it because infringes on his power as a King. As long as we don’t act in Caeviel, and he’s attacking us, we’ll have a shot at killing him. If a King dies to the Hospitaliers while committing an injustice, who else will dare to challenge us?”
“Wouldn’t there be repercussions for doing that?” I ask, baffled by the enormity of the scheme. Although, it isn’t more half as ambitious as my goal.
“Of course there would be.” Leomi shrugs unconcernedly. “That’s why there are steps to fulfill before setting this plan in motion. I could use your help to figure it out.”
“Before we get into that, we’re here.” I tell her, nodding nervously at my house.
Leomi throws a look and suddenly picks up in speed, pulling me and her warhorse along. I try to drag my feet but she has none of it. She ties her mount to a small tree while I open the door for her.
She bursts inside, going through the rooms one at a time like a tornado. I silently thank my luck for having made the kids clean up my room without delay. It’s quite odd that I feel more unease at having her explore my house than at the idea of dealing with an actual titled King.
“Good place.” Leomi calls out from the pantry before rushing into my room. “Sturdy walls.”
It didn’t take long for her to see all of it, after all there’s only a pantry, storage room, a main room that my parents slept in, and the bedroom I shared with my brother. Leomi returns with a broken piece of wood in hand, making me pale.
“What happened?” She asks.
“The Rykz, and a few thugs.” I shrug uncomfortably. “It’s just furniture, it won’t be too hard to make.”
“Thugs.” Leomi notes flatly. “If I recall correctly, that village didn’t have a wall and your family had stables.” I hold her gaze, refusing to entertain her oblique offer for assistance.
“I’ve dealt with it.” I tell her.
“They paid you back?” She asks. “How much?”
“No.” I shake my head. “Coin isn’t much use in this, I would never be able to get the village to pay me back for the stables and it would cost me a lot of goodwill to even try, not that there’s much to lose in that department. I’ll ask them to build something else and they’ll do the work.”
“What about the thugs?” Leomi questions, frowning.
“I exaggerated, just a few kids.” I sigh. “It’s handled, I made them fix some of the damage. I would rather do the rest than have them stick around any longer.”
“Alright.” Leomi nods. “I’ll unpack a few things, maybe go buy some things for convenience as well.”
“Please don’t.” I vehemently tell her. “You’ll never pass for a peasant.”
“I wasn’t going to try to.” Leomi notes while throwing me a look.
“Just, I don’t want to deal with…” I trail off. “The disruption.” Leomi frowns.
“You want to hide me.” She utters, looking utterly baffled.
“You’re a Noble, I’m not.” I reply, gazing away. I truly don’t want to deal with people’s comments and gazes, it’s a burden and I’m liable to lash out.
“That’s easy to fix now.” Leomi quickly replies, apparently trying to reassure me.
“I don’t want to be one and, frankly, I’ll feel better when you give up your title.” I explain, forcing myself to look in her eyes.
“I’m going to be named an honorary Duchess by the Council, Jay.” Leomi tells me. “It won’t give me any lands or power on the Izla so I won’t have to obey Cenwalh because I won’t have responsibilities to the crown. It’s the least I need to deal with other Houses while keeping to the Hospitalier charter.”
I grit my teeth, angry that she’s only telling me this now even though we’re still catching up. It annoys me how she continues to find and use loopholes for politics instead of throwing the whole concept of Nobility away.
“Leomi…” I take a deep breath but don’t continue, unable to find a good argument to convince her.
“How ironic.” Leomi lets out a bitter laugh. “I’ve been scorned, laughed at, and insulted over my relationship with Elizabeth. Yet, you’re the one who’s ashamed of me.” She says, looking deeply hurt.
“I’m not!” I exclaim, angry that she would think so. “I admire your intelligence, your strength, and your ideals but we’ll never see eye to eye on Nobility.”
Leomi straightens her back and looks down at me. I push back against the feeling of inferiority that comes from my height until I overwhelm it. I shift my weight to raise my chin in a way that’s challenging rather than because I have to in order to glare back at her. It’s a small trick but it makes a world of difference to me.
“Long ago, you accepted my social status, and ambitions.” Leomi utters with a cold tone. “Will you go back on that now?”
“What if I do?” I ask, not backing down.
“Jessica, I’m not looking for a confrontation.” She tells me in a tone that seems to contradict her words.
“The only reason I don’t utterly despise the Empire is that it’s necessary, Nobility is not.” I spit out.
“Titles have a use and the old ideals aren’t dead among titled Nobles. Your hatred won’t build anything to replace what’s there, Jay.” Leomi tells me.
“It‘ll be fine if I destroy it in the right way.” I utter, growing more agitated even though she’s trying to be reasonable.
“…” Leomi visibly hesitates. “Who did you… no, never mind.” She stops herself. “Are you going to push this issue?” She finally asks, looking like it pains her to do so.
“Dammit.” I growl.
“Can I force her to cut this part of herself? Is she even able to? Do I have the right to? As she said, she took the heat for what I did as Elizabeth, and some of the benefits but one doesn’t go without the other so it’s as fair as can be. Without me, her faction would be in a much higher standing and wouldn’t be in direct conflict with King Cenwalh.
Not to mention that she forgave what I did to her or that her position as a titled Noble is the reason why the plan to force Meria to surrender worked with so few casualties. And she was taken hostage by the Rykz. She’s been through a lot as well.
“Let me ask you something.” I speak up. “How did you calculate what we owed each other?”
Any way I look at it, she did a lot more for me than I did for her since she escaped the Hive and it wasn’t out of love but a sense of justice because she never truly felt that for Elizabeth. Keep twisting that knife, see what happens.
“Between Liz and me?” Leomi blinks, surprised by my question. “It had a lot to do with how I felt and what I needed more than the actual value which would be difficult to assess. Your presence was that important to me even if I didn’t understand you half as well as I thought, or agree with your actions.”
“And making me kneel?” I ask.
“It was a fantasy as well as a necessity to negotiate with Cenwalh.” She replies unhesitantly. “If you had no backing as Elizabeth, there wouldn’t even have been a negotiation but simply an order of execution.”
“The reason I can call you ‘my Lady’ is that I respect you. At first, there was the sense that I chose you as a Liege and I was weak enough to accept that at the time.” I explain patiently. “But there’s no more of that Leomi.” I utter with a firm voice. “Whether you become a Duchess, a Queen, or an Empress I won’t be bending the knee unless it’s in private or to ask for your hand.”
Leomi’s expression turns to stone, and then a wide smile splits her face, and then back to granite. I grin at her reaction, proud of myself. Her slender fingers tremble a little as she passes them over her face like she’s just waking up.
“I’m perfectly fine with that, Jay.” Leomi hurriedly agrees. “Although…” Her expression drops like a stone. “It won’t be that easy to obtain my hand.”
“I’d like to see anyone try to stop me.” I utter in a dark tone. I’ll go through even Vikiana if I have to.
“The first would be me.” Leomi tells me while raising her hand a bit nervously, apparently to defend if I were to attack. I might have if I wasn’t frozen trying to figure out what she means. “I was of the mind that I would be the one to ask for yours.” She quickly adds. “It would mean a lot to me, and would be a socially stronger statement, if harder to accomplish.”
“Why?” I ask, which is about all I can articulate.
“Well…” Leomi bites her lower lip. “A low born asking a Noble would be disparaged as a social climber, mostly because you aren’t rich. If you were, I would be seen as seeking a union for coin, or doing you a favor… It’s a bit of a mess.” She mutters.
“I want you, not your damn Court.” I bark, fuming against these obstacles that should have no right to come between us.
“Jay, even a Countess is an important position in the Empire, not to mention a figure of controversy like me.” Leomi tells me. “There are titled Nobles who sought my hand since I was twelve. Rejecting them for you… It’ll go better if I’m the one to ask, and send a message through the Empire that such a relationship is possible.”
“This isn’t about politics!” I blow up. I then breathe in, finding myself to be surprisingly short in air.
“It’s about our love, and how it affects the world around us.” Leomi throws back in my face. “Don’t forget that just the fact we’re both women will invite criticism and hostility. If we’re to face these obstacles, we can’t blindly forge ahead.”
“I…” I inhale deeply. “You’re right.” I acknowledge, unable to remain angry at her when she’s pursuing ideals that I share.
“Besides, I want to be the one to ask you, Jay.” She adds a bit timidly.
“How come?” I question.
“I, I have a few reasons…” Leomi trails off, looking away.
“Kitten.” I imperiously call her while seizing her left hand’s slender fingers.
“Well…” She gulps. “Traditionally, the one who asks is the one who shares their last name… but you won’t take mine and I want to keep it.” She explains. I nod encouragingly, reassured that this isn’t going to be an issue between us. “Also, you’ve been a kind of hero for me since you lost… since I took your arm.” Leomi explains, growing more courageous from my acceptance. “So, I want to ask for your hand with pride. Regardless of whether anyone else realizes your value, I want to make it clear that you’re worth it to me.”
“Is that it?” I ask.
We’re both red from the excitement of discussing our engagement. Leomi’s mouth is slightly open, looking like she almost can’t believe it was this easy, which is a bit vexing considering she’s the one always throwing things in when we could just be in love. What of Celyz? Shut up, Liz. She calls me that, I don’t.
“I may have a few ideas about how it’ll go.” Leomi says, taking hold of my hand to enclose it in hers.
“Go, on.” I encourage her, chocking from a painful heartthrob.
“I’d like you to barge in, armed and wearing a dress. I would then ask for your hand.” She proposes, looking at me expectantly.
“A dress?” I ask, worried.
“Anything you like, I have a few ideas but you’ll have the last word!” Leomi exclaims, sounding desperate. “You can be as rough as you want, kick the doors in, I don’t mind. I’d even like that.”
“A dress.” I grunt. “Okay.” I nod, rather looking forward to it.
“And, um.” Leomi hesitates. “I should also carry you out of the room.” She adds expectantly. “It’s tradition… and you know how much I love holding you.”
“How much of this comes from Yvonne?” I ask instead of replying.
“A lot.” She answers, her smile widening.
“Thought so.” I nod, aware that there’s no way I’ll defeat both if I start arguing the specifics with them. “We’ll see about the carrying, but I don’t like it.” I firmly tell her.
“No matter how much I like it when she treats me sweetly, I still don’t want to be seen as the lesser in public. Which is actually a bit political now that I think about it, I was right not to give her too much of a hard time earlier.
“Forget about it then.” Leomi instantly tells me, striking it off without a shred of hesitation.
Leomi brings my hand up to her lips and lays a gentle kiss on the back of my fingers. I stiffen as an acute pain tears at my heart. This is the second time in a few seconds, something’s wrong.
I force myself to slacken and shift my hand out of her grip to push one of her strands of hair back behind her ear. She leans into the touch, holding my hand between her cheek and shoulder with eyes half-closed.
“I’m going to go hunt, I’ll bring some food back.” I speak up.
“Right now?” Leomi asks, raising her eyebrows in surprise.
“I have to take care of my future fiancee.” I quickly justify. It isn’t a lie but I’m rushing because I’m afraid I’ll have an episode like just after I left Celyz.
“Right.” Leomi nods, her grin returning.
I head out immediately, feeling an itch in my chest that doesn’t bode well. I assemble a healing construct with all my energy as soon as I close the door and fast-walk away. I almost start jogging and not because of my fear of showing weakness to her or worrying her about my health.
I’m simply that excited about what we just agreed on, I feel lightheaded. It wasn’t even hard. It slipped that I wanted to ask for her hand and the conversation just naturally went from there.
“She really loves me!” I can’t help but yell out in excitement, wanting to tell the world.
“I really do!” Leomi shouts back from the house.
I trip and almost drop. My blush intensifies at the same rate as my happiness, realizing that I didn’t go very far and that she perhaps she was watching me go. Throb. I choke from the harsh burst of pain that feels like my ribs just shattered.
This time I don’t almost fall, my left side crashes into the ground. I smother a cry as I feel what’s left of my shoulder’s bones bite into my flesh from the inside. Luckily, my empty sleeve provides an additional layer of cloth so I don’t feel many scraps. Unluckily, waves of agony accompany each of my heartbeats.
I thrash in the snow until I reach the wet dust underneath, horrified. It feels like I’m going to die just after one of the happiest moments of my life. I close my fist and hit the ground while my legs kick the road, unwilling to fall now, alone, drooling because I can’t even control that.
I regret leaving Leomi but I’m incapable of even crawling back to tell her I loved her as my last words. And to, cruelly, ask her to tell Celyz I loved her too. I should have gone to the Little one at the very least, just in case… but then again, I would rather die than turn into a monster and lose Leomi.
I start crying, I wish it would be from loss but there is a large part of pain and terror. The truth isn’t so gentle. I don’t want to die. Not before my loves get along, not before I have children. Please. I look up to the sun, finding an orange sky surrounding it. It’s beautiful but there is no salvation there.
I push through the harsh pain, gathering enough of my mind to split my healing construct’s flow in half. I inhale, feeling the dry air scrape through my dry throat to give me the small amount of oxygen I need to make a strengthening construct for my heart.
I already had the resolve I would keep one, always, but I forgot to take care of myself as usual. I’m sorry Leomi, I’m sorry Celyz, if I make it, I’ll do better. I feel myself fading away as waves of knives stab my chest.
Yet, it is exactly what wakes me up and gives me the strength to endure and fight. If I’m to die, I owe it to Celyz and Leomi to fight to the end, to fall to pieces before the Lake takes me.
I’m betraying both, unless I put everything into them, I won’t even have a chance at getting them to understand how utterly selfish I need to be in order to love them fully without regrets.