Leomi keeps holding me for a while until the water boils and I give her a thankful smile to tell her I’m okay. I almost can’t believe how naturally she’s taking to this, even though she must be used to camping outside.
While she cooks, I step outside and grab the hide that I stuffed with the organs. I discreetly make my way into the bush behind my house and drop the hide near the Little one who is almost entirely buried next to a hare’s broken skeleton.
It reaches out to my arm with its tendrils before the hide. I hesitate but decide to crouch and help it. The parasite wraps its appendages around my forearm and biceps to pull itself out of the earth. It then leverages its hold to throw itself closer to the entrails.
I reach out and run the back of my hand on its rubbery brown flesh. The Little one responds by imitating me with a single tendril as its hand takes hold of the boar’s heart.
I nod, pretty satisfied that we can communicate without the need for a construct. After all, we spent quite a while together. I can’t predict the Little one but it doesn’t mean we can’t understand each other in the present.
I walk back home, finding Leomi in the process of serving two bowls. I take a loaf of bread out and split it in half. We sit down on the log together. There is barely enough space for both of us to sit down but just having Leomi here is pretty much living a dream.
It won’t last because she can’t stay but in a way, it’s better, it prevents me from procrastinating and forces me to make my goodbyes to my life, to move on from the past to focus on the future.
“Is it okay to leave the meat outside?” Leomi asks.
“It’s fine as long as it isn’t near the ground.” I reply. “And it won’t spoil in this temperature.”
I take a bite of my slab of meat, finding it rough with a strong nutty and iron taste. Leomi made wheat grain to accompany and it mixed in well with the juice. I devour my bowl in a few minutes and then observe Leomi eat one small bite at a time.
The fact I’m staring at her doesn’t seem to bother Leomi even though we’re very close. She finishes her share and extinguishes the fire. We go to bed, full and replenished, behaving maddeningly platonic even though I could swear we both want to tear the other’s clothes off.
At the very least, I want to take a peek at her while she undresses but I’m so afraid of revealing my eyes that I close them and slip under my blankets. I listen closely to every ruffle as she takes her clothes off to sleep in her underwear. My heart rate rises, making me acutely aware of the stiffness in my chest.
“Good night.” I speak up.
“Hm.” She replies.
— — —
“No!” Leomi’s hazy cry startles me awake.
The tone makes it clear that she’s still asleep and having a nightmare. I open my eyes to find that it’s dawn outside. I get up and walk to her camp bed with my blanket. She’s rolled up on one side so I let myself crash down on the other.
Leomi’s hands grasp out under her blanket and find my wrist, seizing it. I startle from the ticklish touch even with the cloth between us. I smile and shift to settle against her, rolling myself up into my own blanket.
“…ine!” She mumbles, seemingly more at peace. We’re so screwed up.
— — —
I awaken alone and get up. The sun shining through the window indicates that it’s around the middle of the morning. I spot my clothes drying at the window and stare for an embarrassingly long time as I struggle to accept that Leomi made the laundry.
Baffled, I rush outside only to find that the boar’s carcass is gone. Her warhorse has a cover over its back but its saddle is off. It’s lazily sifting through the snow to find grass.
I step back inside to check the small storeroom, finding the saddle, her luggage, a bag containing her plate armor, her short halberd, and her sword. She can’t have woken up long ago considering how late we went to sleep.
I make my way out to the well and pull a bucket of water to splash some water on my face. I then adjust my hair, hoping that she didn’t go to the village even though I know she did.
She’ll be going to the butcher, probably attracting half to the village. I sigh and head out. Isn’t today Sunday as well? I accelerate, realizing that everyone in the area will be in the village today.
Her clothes, her smooth skin, her weapons, and even her height make it obvious that she isn’t low born. At the very least, people will realize she’s from a Noble house. She might also have stopped at the village with Buton.
I accelerate my pace, more worried about their reactions considering the hatred toward the late Baron than annoyed at Leomi for making my life here more complicated. In a way, it’ll make it easier for my brother to find me since I’ll likely be gone by the time he comes back. He’ll know who to look for to find me with this.
As I approach the village, I spot that the gate is open and hear a clamor inside. I sigh, disappointed. People are clearly elated, even if they’re not exactly wrong to be about Leomi, I would have wished they would have learned their lesson about Nobility.
I walk in, finding Leomi standing in front of a scattered crowd looking rather embarrassed as families come over one by one to bow and introduce themselves, the Millers are the ones doing so at the moment.
There is a large armchair behind her. It looks old but of very good quality. She dressed up in a simple brown leather jacket and pair of black pants but the quality of the cloth and the chiseled buttons make it clear that it’s a cut above everyone else’s Sunday clothes.
The travois is set against the wall and empty. It wouldn’t surprise me if the butcher volunteered his services and opened his shop just for her today. As I step into the village, the crowd quiets down and most eyes fall on me.
Edric and his parents, on the other hand, don’t dare to stop bowing as Leomi turns to me, throwing me a pleading look. I scoff and look away, my vision accidentally landing on the two Hospitaliers who are hurrying over to me.
Their quick pace and the urgent look on their faces make me puzzled. I catch Leomi hesitating but before she can escape over to me, Ms Conner and her daughter walk out of the crowd together to bow, replacing the Millers.
Leomi quickly recovers a dignified expression to receive them. There is a tension on her face that make it clear that she’s not enjoying this in the least, that is most definitely because she doesn’t see most of these people as sincere.
Yet, she soon relaxes as Ms Conner speaks up and gestures for her to rise. I’m too far to hear anything but I’m quite certain Ms Conner just thanked Leomi for returning peace to the Izla, and was likely the first to do so. The daughter, kid number four, looks excited to meet Leomi.
“Ms Jessica.” Frank speaks up. Hale nods briefly.
“‘Morning.” I reply, raising my eyebrow to push him to say what they came over to say.
“The Lady is Countess Lance, Grand Commander of the Hospitaliers.” He tells me, looking a bit concerned.
“I’m aware.” I reply casually.
Frank doesn’t seem surprised in the least. After all, he definitely knows that I left the village to deliver something to Leomi. I’m pretty sure there are very few who are aware of the story behind our escape so he likely assumes we haven’t spoken much.
“I don’t want to seem presumptuous, but she has an important position in Caeviel.” Frank says a bit uneasily.
“I’m also aware of that.” I reply, frowning. “What are you trying to say?”
“It, it might not be good if you don’t go greet her.” Frank tells me hesitantly. He looks like he’s afraid I’m going to be rude to her because he told me I have to go and bow.
“You listen too much to rumors.” I grunt, guessing that he’s been told of my irascible character by the kids. “I can be perfectly gracious.”
“You threatened to kill us the day we met.” Hale grunts.
“I just wanted to know how serious the two of you were about this Hospitalier business, and I was slightly annoyed.” I reply, chuckling.
“We understand as much.” Frank says, raising his hands in an appeasing manner.
I gaze over his shoulder to the crowd, finding many eyes stuck on me. Some have concerned expressions, likely because they want me to behave but don’t think I will. Others look like they can’t wait for me to do something stupid.
“You think Lance is going to be offended if I don’t go over?” I ask Hale.
“No, but others will be.” Hale responds. “Frank wants to mend the rift and you not going will widen it.”
“And you don’t care.” I say.
“I do, but I think you do not.” Hale explains, smiling a little.
“Good read.” I nod. “I’m not going to go out of my way to mess with people but I haven’t done anything to them so it’s their problem if they have an issue with me.”
“Some could say that they owe you for bringing the map that led Commander Lance to the Rykz and thus allowing the Izla to be forewarned of their arrival.” Hale tells me with a slight nod of recognition.
“Caeviel does owe me, but not for that reason.” I laugh. “Lance would have kept exploring the tunnels, been captured, and likely escaped whether I brought the map or not.”
“Will you go?” Frank asks directly.
“Bow? Not a chance.” I chuckle. “That being said, Ms Conner is taking a while.” I add, throwing a curious look over.
“The village still lacks many iron tools.” Hale explains, counting his words like they’re worth silver.
I catch Leomi making a very uneasy expression and Ms Conner bowing a few times in succession. I shake my head, understanding that it’s unlikely Leomi will do anything, it would infringe on the Council’s powers if it didn’t change since the meeting where it was created.
“Didn’t you tell them not to bow?” I call out at Leomi, half-yelling.
Frank and Hale startle at the loud volume of my voice. A shocked silence falls over the crowd. Leomi turns around to throw me a dark look, seeming to say that I should have been more diplomatic about her image.
“I did…” Leomi tells me, making a frustrated sigh.
She doesn’t even need to raise her voice with the stillness in the air. Ms Conner and her daughter are stuck in a half-bowing position, looking like they don’t know what to do.
“Just rise, Commander Lance isn’t here in any official capacity.” I speak out.
Ms Conner throws Leomi a glance from the corner of her eyes for permission. Leomi nods and they straighten up. She runs her eyes over the frozen crowd, probably assessing what my outburst is going to cost me.
“Jessica is correct, I do not have the power to decide where the iron goes to. But, I can advise you to send a letter to the Council detailing your needs and promise that it will be looked at.” Leomi declares in a loud voice. “The mines have barely been opened so it may be difficult this year but if you send a request early, you will be ahead of the other villages so there will be hope next year.”
People loosen up a bit and a few whispers arise from the back of the crowd. Still, most still looked quite aghast at my daring intervention but don’t actually have the guts to reprimand me since the Noble agreed. Ms Conner bows deeply, and directs her daughter to do the same.
“Thank you very much, Lady Countess.” She says.
“You really don’t need to bow, I am merely traveling.” Leomi repeats herself.
“Is there anything our humble village can do to help?” Ms Conner asks quickly.
“No, I have already found lodging but thank you for the offer.” Leomi explains.
Half the crowd turns to me without making a sound. Their gazes go from astonishment to understanding to dismay. There aren’t half as many looks of disgust as I would have expected, likely because they fear Commander Lance.
Many faces suddenly pale as they realize the state of my house and all the things they could be held to account for doing to me. Their reactions are a bit foolish, it isn’t like there is anything Leomi would act on.
“How did this happen by the way?” I ask Leomi, enjoying their panic at finding out that my social position has risen far above theirs without them knowing.
“Private first class Frank was somewhat enthusiastic when he recognized me.” Leomi tells me with a grimace.
“I…” Frank starts but doesn’t find the words.
“I’m not surprised.” I laugh. “You a Noble of some kind?” I ask him directly, aware that a low born wouldn’t have rose above a common Hospitalier so quickly.
“A bastard.” He corrects, swiftly shaking his head.
“Same thing.” I shrug. “You’re not bad in spite of that.”
Leomi walks over to me. The villagers look on, seeming stuck in place as they watch. I groan, regretting the fact that things turned out this way. I don’t like the fact that Leomi’s social position changed mine in the village at all.
“Sorry I got found out.” Leomi whispers.
“Look at yourself, they would have guessed even if he didn’t say a thing.” I reply with a grunt.
Frank and Hale, who were swiftly retreating, both startle at my disrespectful tone which is several levels above my previous irreverence. The former is probably thinking himself foolish for having come over to talk to me when it actually raised my opinion of him by a little.
“I was a bit naive but could you at least have waited until they’re out of hearing range? You’re hurting my image.” Leomi tells me with a glare.
“They’ll think you benevolent or something.” I dismiss.
“Jay.” Leomi says with a dark voice. “I’m a leader. More than ten thousand people have pledged their flow to me and more depend on the Hospitaliers for their future. I’m not going to ask you to grovel, at least not outside the bedroom, but if you want to speak to me like that in the presence of my subordinates, you need to accept a position of power at my side.”
“That’s…” I frown. “Fair. It was not in private so I should have been careful.”
“It isn’t fair to you at all.” Leomi shakes her head. “I can say whatever I want to you, and even lead you by the nipple through a crowd of Nobles, but you can’t without consequences. Although, I shouldn’t be doing any of that in public.” I can’t help but blush in embarrassment, making her grin. “It’s necessary to maintain unity and discipline.” She finishes.
“I understand that.” I tell her reassuringly.
“I know you do, but you don’t care or take it to heart.” Leomi replies, losing her smile. “At least, you don’t hate the Empire so I should count my blessings.” I blink, feeling that there’s something behind that remark.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“That you have zero social experience and no desire for any.” Leomi replies. “I’m going to try to remedy that.”
“Leomi…” I start but she cuts me off.
“Come on, you enjoyed our first dance in Meria.” She encourages me.
“I’m not going to mingle here. I have a working relationship and I’m satisfied with that.” I tell her.
“Of course.” Leomi nods. “They’re all staring like we’re about to eat them.” She adds in a murmur.
I throw a look around, finding that she’s spot on. Ms Conner and Frank look nervous about what we’re talking about, and many have pale faces. They’re likely recalling all the remarks said in front and behind my back.
I doubt they remembered Leomi likes women before I got here, or even knew. It’s not like anyone would have gone out of their way to tell them. The mere fact that she’s sleeping at my house was enough for them to make the connection though.
A Noble simply wouldn’t sleep in a peasant’s house unless they were involved. And even then, it probably doesn’t happen. Ms Conner takes the fact that we’re gazing at the crowd as an opening to walk over.
The woman almost bows but decides not to after looking over Leomi. I glance at the side of Leomi’s face, noticing her flat lips and a slight frown. She’s far from as calm as she appears, she probably read the situation as I have and guessed that the villagers are worried.
“On behalf of the village, I would like to offer some utilities and furniture like this armchair to make your stay more enjoyable, Lady Commander Lance.” Ms Conner speaks up and makes a small bow, apparently unable to help herself. “A mark of our gratitude.” She adds.
“There’s no need.” Leomi replies with a brief wave her hand, without thanking Ms Conner which is very indicative of her mood to me. “I am here on a vacation of sorts, do not mind my titles.”
She’s making me sound like a mistress but it would be the same whatever she said, whether the excuse for her presence is thanking me or recruiting me, they would all think that there’s something inappropriate going on from the moment they found out she’s living in our home.
“If I can dare to insist, we would truly all feel better if my Lady Countess didn’t need for anything.” Ms Conner presses nervously, bowing again.
“Enough with the curtsies. I don’t care how you feel, it’s all hypocrisy at this point.” Leomi suddenly snaps. “I don’t know what happened in the past but I can guess. I did not intend to speak a word of it but if you insist on making amends, I’ll insist on hearing the circumstances behind each offense you’re trying so hard to bribe me to overlook.” The crowd is so still that I can hear the ruffling of their clothes as the winter wind blows. Leomi doesn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “We’ll need no favors or services we don’t pay for, is that clear?”
“Very clear.” Ms Conner acknowledges in a tight, frightened, voice.
I can’t help but smile a little. I would rather Leomi’s status wasn’t uncovered but she reacted perfectly. She didn’t overstep on my life and made her position clear when she could no longer avoid doing so.