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Leomi is so quick that she closes the distance between us almost as fast as lion’s steps would. I raise the training sword and lean forward but she suddenly slows down when she gets within three meters of me.

I suspect she did this to disrupt my rhythm so I return the favor in kind with a couple of sidesteps. Both maneuvers might seem equally as useless but they do have the effect of forcing us to adjust, which doesn’t help momentum.

The fact she began with this means she respects the danger I pose, that’s good for my pride but pride is no good for me. I catch a slight movement of her lips, immediately reading her intention to attack in the next split-second.

I move back and to my right while swinging the sword in a wide slash from right to left. That move requires me to twist my arm a bit and the fact I retreated in the same direction means the attack is unlikely to succeed and that the only way it’ll hit her is at the end of the arc if she throws herself into it.

It also looks awkward because it is but it’s also a safe swing that gives me many follow-up options. Leomi pauses in the middle of her advance, her foot unnaturally hanging in mid-air for the duration of a finger-snap before continuing its course towards the ground before my weapon even reaches the end of its arc.

I don’t even think before I let go of the wooden sword’s handle with all my fingers except the thumb and index which I let slide down to where the pommel. As the weapon spins in my hand, I hop backward again.

Leomi releases a lightning fast swing, which would have hit my left side but now only finds air. I shudder, aware that I would have lost instantly if I didn’t catch her change of expression before.

My training sword’s handle hits my palm and I secure it in a backhanded grip. I forcefully reverse my swing in a blink to deliver a left to right stab aimed at her midsection, which could transform into a slash depending where Leomi chooses to go.

A trickle of pain courses through my biceps and points of agony in my forearm’s bones inform me that those haven’t fully recovered. I don’t let those things distract me from my Kitten’s tightening thin eyebrows when she spots my counter-attack.

She bends her spine backward where she stands, seemingly using her entire body rather than merely her arm to naturally redirect her horizontal attack upward towards mine.

Our weapons cross paths for the first time, the impact producing a small burst of splinters. Mine is thrown up which twists my arm and forces my elbow up as well while hers stops at the exact spot where the collision occurred.

I sigh, feeling utterly screwed now that I’ve lost the exchange in both strength and technique. The edge of her left hand lands on my chest, confirming what I suspected was occurring just outside of my field of vision.

Now that I think back, I did see a couple of silver strands flashing but it was too short to act on and I’m not used to these clues. We both take a step back and face each other. Leomi presses her lips with a thoughtful expression.

You can’t rely on brute strength anymore.” She tells me.

I’m aware.” I sigh. My counter-attack would have crushed through her defense if I had a two-handed weapon or if delivered by the Little one, no matter the weaker starting point. “Once more.”

Your arm?” She asks.

No worries.” I respond, throwing my training sword up to catch it in a normal grip.

Let’s go with Liz’ trick, the ‘Lover’s gambit’ she called it. Leomi takes an aggressive posture and waits for me to take a stance. I forgo that for an instantaneous suicidal charge combined with a relaxed upward stab.

Leomi slides away, likely more aware than I am of the degree to which I’ve abandoned defense, but I pursue like a dog after a bone. She makes use of footwork to stay out of my striking range.

Our swords meet a few times but it means little considering neither of us are making a real attempt at reaching the other one, the real fight is happening through footwork right now.

Leomi shifts to my right, I turn to follow but also press forward to see if I can disrupt her by threatening to go past her position. Except, she lurches forward as soon as my left foot hits the ground.

I grit my teeth and stomp down with my right foot, using the motion to add strength to my retaliatory overhead swing. The flat of her wooden blade hits my chest hard enough to cut my breath, my sword impacts hers with no less force.

She staggers a little but remains standing while I utterly crumble as the strength of her blow pushes me far back enough that my body crosses my left leg’s tipping point. I crash into the snow with a snarl.

I experience a mixture of disappointment at my loss and amusement towards Liz’ half-failure. Leomi’s blow was supposed to arrive a step after mine which would have given me an advantage and reduced the damage I took.

Unfortunately, both attacks landed at the same time. The problem is that her swing arrived at an angle that destroyed my stance while mine merely hurt. In a fight where we would have survived the exchange, I would be in a terrible position to keep fighting or escape so this can’t be considered a tie.

A slight loss but you didn’t hesitate at all to trade blows, I thought you loved me.” I comment teasingly, the point of the gambit was to give her a difficult choice but she didn’t even blink as she made hers. It’s good my kitten didn’t, means she isn’t holding back.
“It was a good try, almost got me.” Leomi acknowledges without paying attention to the second part. “But you need to stop bracing your left knee, it’s hurting your balance and slowing your reaction time, not to mention the opening it gives those who notice.”

Ah.” I make a grimace.

Your limp is gone so we can slowly get rid of that habit, don’t worry.” Leomi adds gently.

Yet, there is no smile on her face because she’s keeping under silence the fact that the habit comes from the parasite, not the limp. I get back up, rather relieved she didn’t keep going and torment me on the ground.

I squint and gather myself back together. I launch towards her before she does to take the initiative, raising the sword. She swings her sword upward from its resting position in an almost casual manner.

I don’t let her apparent relaxed stance fool me and kick the ground to dodge her attack while retaliating with a fast overhead swing, counting on the fact that the weapon is descending to do damage.

Leomi takes a single step back to rotate and keep facing me. Her upward slash slows down and she reverses direction, using a powerful vertical blow that almost mirrors mine. Our weapons should cross paths but without touching.

Does she want to exchange blows again? Shit, no, she wanted me to think so in order for me not to notice the slight angle to her counter! Splinters explode out again as the side of Leomi’s sword collides with mine.

My sword whooshes in the air, missing her right elbow by a hair while her strike hits square in the middle of what remains of my left shoulder. I flinch from the intense pain. That’s going to bruise. She attacked and defended in a single slash.

Your gaze wandered when you realized.” Leomi notes disapprovingly. “Pay attention even if you’ve already lost if only to train your reflexes.”

Urgh.” I grunt. “How good are yours that you can do that?” I ask, very much impressed because this seemingly simple counter of hers isn’t easy to put into practice at all. I could do that with the Little one’s sense supporting me but not in very close combat with a mere split-second to make the call.

Hm.” Leomi places her left hand on her waist as she ponders her response. “That was ingrained experience, both reflexes and knowledge are required to achieve it.” She tells me. “That being said, it doesn’t work against opponents much stronger than you because you’ll just be blown away.” She explains. “In that case, I would succeed in defending at the most.”

She suddenly falls into a low sword stance, making me react by raising mine to intercept. Yet, she gives me a second to catch up before attacking with another upward vertical swing.

I dodge to the right again but don’t manage to slash down fast enough to avoid creating the same situation as earlier. Leomi reverses her attack, turning it into a downward swing of her own.

But this time I catch the slight angle and manage to react by redirecting the arc of my weapon towards the right, meaning our wooden weapons impact each other head-on instead of merely crossing paths.

Good, but you’re merely reaching a stalemate by doing this when you should be seeking an advantage from dodging, otherwise you can directly face my first strike and reach the same point while saving your energy.” Leomi comments, insinuating my endurance is lesser which is infuriatingly very true.
“Seeking?” I ask.

Yes, you should always be looking for ways to improve your situation without taking unmanageable risks. Your response is aimed solely at bringing the exchange to a stop when your dodge should be a way to create an opportunity to counter me like it was at first.” She explains.

Ah.” I nod.

It feels like she’s being casual about fighting me and I don’t like that. I take a couple steps back and sit down cross-legged, closing my eyes. I look back to the multitude of fights I experienced.

A fierce desire to seek the Little one out and complete myself emerges but it is accompanied by the guilt I feel for those I fed the parasite and those innocents who died as a result of the actions I took.

What breaks the stalemate is laughably Vikiana because the reason I left the arm behind isn’t only that it was slowly killing me. No matter how powerful I thought I was, the Exemplar still defeated me.

The Lake’s blessing isn’t sufficient to be powerful enough to be truly free, not when the Empire gathers seven million portions every week to redistribute. I must become strong but not by brute strength.

I ponder on what I’ve learned and what Leomi is trying to teach me. The conclusion is simple, I need to abandon my aggressive and impatient style to learn from the beginning again.

My body can no longer follow the speed of my thoughts, nor can it deliver blows that render shields and armor to mere inconveniences. She’s faster than me without using a single construct, the velocity of her blows and reaction times aren’t things I can react to… yet.

But, if I can rise myself back to the level Liz attained, then how much fiercer will I be once Celyz returns the monster to completion? I chuckle and throw my old tactics away. I rise and swing the sword a couple of times, facing Leomi with an empty head.

Once more.” I tell her.

Leomi rushes me and delivers a huge, threatening, utterly senseless horizontal swing at my midsection. I retreat when before I may have tried to block or slip under the weapon.

She pauses for the brief moment it takes her to switch to a stabbing stance with her arm coiled back. I give her the time she needs to close the distance, using the seconds to imagine her possible angles of attack.

Leomi slides forward to bring me in range. I let her instead of attacking as soon as she steps in reach, waiting for the last possible moment to dodge. She narrows her eyes, clearly reconsidering her approach.

I move in to force her to react. She suddenly spins on herself, turning her back on me as she launches a close range swing from her stabbing stance. A split-second after I leave her field of vision, when I would have tried to attack previous, Leomi crouches and leans forward to avoid the strike I would have launched.

Instead, I’ve already jumped backward and avoided the slash before it even got close to me, taking advantage of the fact her stabbing stance means her reach is a lot smaller.

There is a lot of wrongness to her move, it’s too open, too risky, too slow. I’m quite certain that the aim was never to hit with her sword but possibly to kick me almost like a horse would if I was foolish enough to approach.

Is she guiding herself by ear with her back turned like this? It’s likely but I’m not capable of it so it’s hard to tell if she is. While I have good situation awareness, I’m at most able to determine when sounds betray threats but not of tracking opponents.

Leomi abandons her swing and breaks off without turning around, taking a few seemingly random steps to widen the distance between us before turning around and facing me again.

There’s no way you would use this in actual combat.” I comment.

I always wanted to try the cowardly drunkard’s retreat.” Leomi makes an awkward shrug. “It’s amazingly complex and variable.”

That’s the name?” I blink.

I know.” Leomi says. “I expected you to at least try to pick that last move apart because you didn’t react to the first two. What’s up?” She asks.
“Trying something new.” I reply.

You’re not going all cowardly on me are you?” Leomi questions, setting her left hand on her hip.

A bit obvious for a provocation.” I say, raising my eyebrow while suppressing the pull to charge her.
“It’s working though.” She grins.

I charge at her, lowering my wooden sword to prepare a bottom right to upper left slash. Leomi’s eyes narrow and she slides her right foot back to show me her profile. I almost see her make the next move, she’ll move backward and let the sword pass before countering.

I let it happen and launch my strike but prepare to interrupt it mid-swing. Leomi takes a step back while throwing a horizontal swing, avoiding and countering in the same instant.

I stomp down with my right foot earlier than I should to deliver my swing, abruptly interrupting my charge and attack. Leomi’s eyes widen as her sword almost hits my elbow and merely brushes past my shirt instead of impacting my ribs.

Before she can correct her mistake, I slam my sword into her belly. I could have hit her throat by taking advantage of her surprise but it’s both dangerous and likely to be dodged without using a lion strike.

Rruah!” I roar in delight.

Good feint.” Leomi responds, sounding astonished.

It was more about reading your reaction than planning ahead.” I admit but it doesn’t sink my mood in the slightest.

That’s what a feint should be.” She tells me, a huge grin appearing on her face. “I didn’t catch a clue that you weren’t going to commit, it followed up very well with your previously passive posture.”

I do have a question.” I note, feeling really good about the praise.

What is it?” Leomi asks, a trace of suspicion appearing on her face. Likely because I’m being mysterious.

How do you plan to kill a King?” I question abruptly.

Carefully.” Leomi tells me with a hint of humor. “You make a trap and throw the bait. Cenwalh isn’t as arrogant as some but he takes great pride and confidence in his title, it leaves an opening to overwhelm him with the right moves.”

Hm.” I nod. “Do you know why Duke Meria failed?”

I have ideas, but what’s your opinion?” She asks back, clearly unwilling to expose her thoughts since my question is somewhat rhetorical.

Because he was afraid. He was certain that the people would defend the Izla at first, but then they became aware that the Rykz didn’t come for conquest or slaughter, that the enemy was after Nobility. That’s when he realized he took the people for granted and he lost his trust in them or himself, he was afraid.” I explain. “If that Duke chose the path of courage, he could have risen the city’s morale and survived the Izla’s defeat but instead he let his fear control him, resorting to drastic measures against subjects that were already distrustful.”

Go on.” Leomi encourages with a frown.

Well, do you see any similarities with your position about my suggestions?” I ask with a corner smile.

It’s not comparable.” Leomi denies instantly. “First of all, I’m not entirely opposed to destroying Nobility, I merely want to preserve what is good. Second, half my problem is that you’re too impatient and destructive.”

And so, you fear.” I note, raising an eyebrow.

Your analogy doesn’t fit.” Leomi tells me.

Fine, you’re right. It doesn’t.” I sigh. “Anyway, that wasn’t my point, I just wanted to get one over you.”

I’m very surprised you would do such a thing.” Leomi deadpans. I can’t help but chuckle.

If Duke Meria kept the people’s heart, it almost wouldn’t have mattered what actions he took.” I continue like there was no interruption. “The Templars would never have moved against him. We may be building a Republic here on the Izla but it seems to me that the Empire is already quite close thanks to the Templar Order.”

You’re serious?” Leomi blinks rapidly a number of times, like she can’t quite believe what she’s hearing.

What does it mean to preserve the balance and order of the Empire?” I ask her instead.
“To…” Leomi pauses for a few tens of seconds. “To act in a way that ensures that there is no internal strife and that laws are respected, to prevent any single entity from gathering enough power to threaten the peaceful status quo.”

Now, tell me what specifically you fear about King Cenwalh and his Court?” I question with a smirk.

It’s impossible for the Templars to act against Caeviel.” Leomi instantly denies.

Well, did the Order cross the arm of sea and land on the Izla? I wonder.” I comment innocently.
“You’re saying they were countering Cenwalh by doing that.” Leomi affirms.

I have no clue, I’m throwing words at you right now.” I tell her honestly.
“They had to make sure the Rykz couldn’t return… but there was no need to send two thousand.” Leomi mutters. “It’s overkill… and it ensures Cenwalh wouldn’t even consider invading to take over. After all, there are ways even without boats.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.” I speak up with some bitterness. “The Templars will let us burn if it suits the Empire’s stability, the same way they let individual families be slaughtered for ridiculous pretexts.”

But they wouldn’t let a village be razed, even if it revolted…” Leomi adds, trailing off.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” I ask.

I do, I have for a long time even if I didn’t see the entire picture.” Leomi replies with confidence but no arrogance. “As long as we have the people behind us, we’ll have the Order as well. It means I can set plans to develop the Hospitaliers in motion without worrying too much about being obstructed.” I’m slightly disappointed that she didn’t go further with her ambitions but not surprised considering her ideals and wish to be recognized.

Of course, it depends what actions you take, the scope of your expansion, your admitted goals, as well as how loyal your subjects are to you compared to the Empire.” I shrug.

I can’t believe people think I’m the intelligent one while the Red Dwarf is the brute.” Leomi utters dejectedly but with a hint of a prideful smile.
“I’m not that short.” I pout. “I’m not short.” I correct.

Of course you are.” Leomi rolls her eyes. I lock eyes and give her a glare. Leomi’s expression turns stiff and she hurriedly reaches out to caress my cheek, actually avoiding the scar she is usually attracted to. “Not.” She adds, definitely realizing that she was mistaken.

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