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We keep sparring, Leomi fights a lot more carefully and methodically. She no longer aims to achieve the ‘kill’ in a few blows but rather extends the exchanges to teach me, not that she doesn’t sometimes strike out with unexpected blows and counters.

I manage to sneak a second win in but it was more of a fluke than anything else. Overall, I get beaten to the point where it feels like all my bones hurt but the most difficult part isn’t so much that than controlling myself from lashing out like Elizabeth learned to do, and do very well.

It isn’t that it’s a bad tactic to relentlessly pressure my opponent, but it simply does not work on Leomi in my current state. She’s just too good at reading me so, at the very least, I would need to use lion strikes to fight faster than she can think or prepare a counter but then she would do the same so…

Yet, I don’t even suggest using flow because this kind of training will be invaluable when I meet an opponent that is better than me at my best, like Vikiana. After a few hours, the mere act of walking makes me feel like my ankle’s bones are grinding against the ground.

Let’s stop for today.” Leomi proposes for the third time at my count. “I’m exhausted as well.”

It’s good training, battles don’t end when one wants them to.” I deny again, swaying from the hurt radiating out of my whole body.
“Liz, you’re barely holding it together.” Leomi frowns. Her use of the name startles me. Did she pick it consciously?

Don’t pity me.” I utter in a gravely voice, my tone slightly undermined by the fact I plant the wooden sword in the ground to be able to stay on my feet.

No.” Leomi shakes her head and steps away. “You can’t reach me and I won’t continue so you’ve lost the right to make a decision on this.”

Once more.” I tell her, forcefully ignoring the pain in my thighs, knees, calves, waist, spine…

You won’t learn a thing in this state, at best you’ll come out of it without injuries.” Leomi flatly denies again. “Keep pushing and I’ll directly knock you out for your own good.” She threatens.

Ugh, fine.” I groan.

I relax a little which causes a wave of spiraling dizziness. I feel something grab my wrist and pull me upright. I realize I almost struck the ground but that she caught me in her embrace before I did.

Whoopsie, little bird almost fell out of the nest.” Leomi says with a grin while picking me up in her arms.

Kitten.” I groan in protest.

Well, can you walk?” She lightly asks.

…” I open my mouth but manage to hold my tongue because I have a premonition she won’t let me get away with my pride if I lie.

Leomi brings me inside and carefully sets me on a chair. She lights up a fire to cook us a meal. I don’t move, mostly because now that my agonizing muscles are cooling down, all my bruises are waking up to make themselves known.

It was worth it just for winning with that feint, not to mention all she taught me. I smile inside as I watch her make us a meal, especially because her movements have become more certain which means she’s getting used to it.

I need to go to the village in the afternoon to see the butcher and my horse.” She tells me. “Do you need anything?”

Hm.” I ponder. “Maybe exchange some meat for eggs, and some vegetables if you finished what’s left… and a few loaves of bread if you have copper because more will go stale.”

Alright, I’ll go after lunch and be quick.” She says.

Do you have spare paper and ink to sell me?” I ask a bit hesitantly because what she has is of such high quality I can’t even estimate how much it costs.

Of course.” Leomi replies without turning around from the fire. “It’ll cost you a braiding session.”

I mean, I don’t mind doing your hair, but that’s not even remotely worth what you’re giving me.” I blink.

Oh, nonono.” She shakes her head as she stirs the cooking pot. I can easily imagine her grin from her tone. “I’ll be braiding you, and it’s worth it to me.”

Leomi.” I say in a disapproving way.

Jessica.” She returns in a firm voice. “It’s that or gold, and I don’t value gold much in this case.”

Hmph.” I sigh. “Okay.”

…” Leomi remains silent for a long while. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I have stocks of paper and ink back home, it wouldn’t cost me a thing to give you some.” She tells me.

I stiffen. I feel struck, not stuck, but truly stricken between the happiness that she would give up on something with her control issues merely because it makes me uncomfortable but I can’t ignore my sadness at hearing her say that this isn’t home to her.

It was likely a slip of the tongue but it isn’t surprising, I wouldn’t think of Castle Lance as home a few days after living there, or even months. Yet, it still hurts deep down because I still hold the hope that I could convince her to vanish from the world here, no matter how impossibly unrealistic it is.

It’s fine, Leomi, I do want to look good for you and it’ll make me happy if it makes you happy.” I tell her, pushing away my delusion. “I’m just a little stubborn about some things.”

Great!” She cheers, failing to read me for once.

Probably has to do with the fact she has her back turned to me and that my voice occasionally expresses contradictory emotions, and that I sound tired. I shake my head to stop over-analyzing.

My exhaustion is making it difficult to keep a leash on myself. Celyz would have picked up on the clues, but that’s a kind of laziness or cowardice on my part to expect Leomi to always have an accurate read on me when I’m unable to, be it towards her or myself.

Jay?” Leomi asks. I startle and look up, finding her looking at me with a worried frown.

Let’s eat, and then you can braid me before going.” I tell her with a smile.
“Really?” She questions, looking giddy.

Yes.” I nod.

She hands me my bowl and drags the other chair right next to me. I struggle a little to eat because of my stiff hand so Leomi reaches out to take my spoon. I stop her by lifting it and feeding her instead with a trembling hand.

She pouts but gives up, clearly aware that it isn’t the moment. She serves me a second and third bowl which I devour without a complaint because I’m that famished after spending a delightful morning fighting her.

Once we’re done, I lean into the chair and let her have her way with my hair, enjoying her attention and care but unable to shake the flurry of thoughts and plans swirling in my head.

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to talk to her about the Templar Order, the Empire, King Cenwalh, or Duke Meria with Leomi earlier, although I did, it was something akin to being unable to hold back my desire to shape into words the thoughts that have been accumulating while Liz ran wild through Caeviel.

There are some things I can’t tell Leomi, the same way she won’t tell me about some of her plans. We’re as much rivals as we are lovers after all. We juggle between confrontation, competition, and cooperation.

I wallow in the feeling of her hands pulling and setting my hair, understanding what she meant about how good it feels to be taken care of by someone you love. Besides, it might be innocuous but it builds trust which our relationship is sorely lacking.

Your eyes.” Leomi murmurs. It takes all I have not to tense up and suppress my body’s defensive reaction. “They kind of shine.” She tells me with a certain tension in her voice.

When did she notice? It’s dark inside, it was dark in the village alley, I hid my eyes conspicuously, there were plenty of opportunities for her to notice. We can’t stay silent for long.

I was injured and had to use flow.” I respond offhandedly, holding back on as many details as possible even though it might bring suspicion. She leans down and hugs my neck, reassuring and pleasing me because it shows she’s less interested in the story, or secret in this case, than in my well-being.

Is there a part of you that came out intact?” Leomi asks in a trembling voice.

I…” I trail off, trying to think.

Oh, I didn’t mean it like that.” She exclaims.

Like I’m a wreck?” I chuckle, a bit forcibly. “It’s fine, it didn’t even cross my mind that you were thinking that.”

But it would eventually.” She mutters.

… true, you know me so well.” I shift my head and rest my cheek on her arm. “I think my feet, but… I can’t really be sure.” I tell her, surprised that I’m feeling comfortable enough in her care not to close up.

What did happen to your arm?” She asks. I feel her slender fingers running over the slightly protruding scars on either side of my forearm.

Are you going to ask about each one?” I question instead.

Eventually, yes. I have to know.” Leomi whispers. I take a deep breath.

I broke it fighting your mother, pushed myself too hard with lion strikes. I fixed the fracture by merging a couple of chain links to the bones.” I tell her, shivering at the memory of the pain I went through. “I have a few more on my shoulder, she cut my armpit muscles to disable me.”

Hrm.” Leomi groans.

Not quite happy your mother came up, huh.” I tease.
“I was hoping for a tale of courage, not recklessness.” Leomi retorts. “I warned you so many times but you still ended up crippling yourself.” She berates.

Well, that story is a dark one and there isn’t much courage involved.” I tell her, quite peeved about remembering my cowardice under torture. “Although, it brightens in the end.” I note. “E.Vil slaughters the unjust and joins the misguided Templar to defeat a dangerous creature which arose as a consequence of the battle.”

Ooh! Tell me.” Leomi exclaims enthusiastically.

I make it a point to recount the story to her in a way that doesn’t hurt her relationship with her mother which means I skip and change so many parts that it’s almost incoherent and definitely incompatible with what I told her in the tent a couple of weeks ago. Although it’s hard to exactly recall what I told her back then considering I hid a lot then as well for the same reason.

Leomi doesn’t seem to mind in the least, she resumes turning my messy hair into an assortment of tiny braids as I speak. She either understands my intentions or doesn’t want to push me or enjoys the story or all those reasons.

And so the Tianeel was defeated and E.Vil took part of its flesh to replenish her strength.” I finish in a grandiose tone.

You ate it.” Leomi blinks.

Just a slice.” I tell her.

It’s a cold blood.” She says, sounding baffled.
“Not really but they eat us so why can’t we eat them?” I question, chuckling.
“That’s…” Leomi trails off. “So you.” She bursts into a bright bout of laughter. “Too bad you won…” She cuts herself off so hard her teeth collide with a tuk. “Never mind, I’m done.” She quickly says, moving a handful of braids before my eyes.

Too bad I won…?” I ask, dismayed.

Too bad you won, I would have liked to rescue you in your direst hour.” Leomi clumsily corrects. I don’t believe for a single second that it’s what she meant to say but I let it go, checking my hair up close.

It looks nice.” I smile at her.

Not as good as I hoped, though but I think it’s the lack of ribbons.” Leomi sighs. “No, free curly hair will still suit you best even if this makes you look more like a warrior.”

It does?” I question, puzzled.
“We’ll have to alternate haircuts in function of the situation.” Leomi says, ignoring me.
“I’m not doing that.” I grunt firmly. “It takes way too much time and effort.”

Are you saying I’m not worth it?” Leomi asks with a threatening voice, distorting my words to turn them into an offensive.
“Those braids stay on until they start unraveling.” I tell her, refusing to get caught into that losing argument because the risk is that it’ll give her an opening that she can use to seize control of my look.

Mh.” Leomi scoffs exaggeratedly. “Fine, it was a good story so I’ll lay off.” She tells me with a kiss on the cheek.

She takes the opportunity while I’m slightly stunned by her lips to move away, stealing away the timing for me to protest. It’s very well played on her part, she didn’t press because I would have dug in but neither did she agree that I have a right to refuse.

Wait, she framed her retreat like a reward, implying she does have control. I get up just as Leomi reaches for the door. She suddenly accelerates and rushes outside. I try to run after and start an argument but I’m too sore so she’s far gone by the time I walk outside.

That little… Don’t insult my Leomi.” I cut Liz off.

We lost! No we didn’t, that maneuver showed weakness, if she was confident she would have pushed a lot harder. That’s not good either. It was a playful skirmish, not a battle so it’s fine.

I walk into the storeroom and take out her scribe’s pouch. I grab a plank to use as a table and sit down, placing it on my lap. I take out the paper, ink, and quill before closing my eyes to clear my mind.

Yet, my emotions remain in turmoil because of Leomi, and my story in small part, so I fail to pull my thoughts into shape. There are too many abstracts I struggle with like Good and Evil which should be impartial but appear subjective when I’ve encountered them in reality.

I open my eyes, deciding that I should just start throwing words on paper if only because it’ll make me focus. I plunge the tip of the quill in the tiny vial of ink and press it down on paper.

Perhaps Good and Evil aren’t a duality as they do not resemble each other in characteristics. The state of Good is a reward onto itself which civilizations and individuals strive for in order to improve their circumstances. On the other hand, the state of Evil cannot exist without preying on either Good or itself. This could mean that the state of ultimate Evil is mere nonexistence. The Lake is the cause for existence so it is the ultimate Good.

I pause at this point, rather puzzled by the fact that my beliefs infiltrated this short tirade which shouldn’t have involved the Lake at all and ended up contradicting myself. I read what I wrote again. A fond smile appears on my lips as I notice that the words I’m using come from Mother, Celyz, or Leomi.

At this point, I’ve disproved my premise because I’ve arrived at an ultimate duality of existence against nonexistence which isn’t very helpful considering defining those two states is beyond my ability. Setting aside the absolutes, the difference between Good and Evil lies in developing the previous point.

I ponder for a while, scratching the side of my chin.

Good can be achieved without Evil because a thriving state that is objectively Good does not require Evil to improve. Mistakes while doing Good can give birth to Evil but that is a mere accident, not a requirement. A state of Evil cannot continue indefinitely because, however slow, the corruption still requires a constantly worsening situation which inevitably leads to destruction or to the necessary step of allowing Good to thrive for it to devour, which will in time lead to the defeat of Evil.

I absentmindedly drip the quill in the bottle of ink. Am I being naive?

What Evil corrupts or destroys is Good. Which means that it is no duality but an asymmetrical relationship where Evil depends on Good to grow or even exist while Good can exist by itself even when shackled by Evil because its nature is to improve or maintain itself. Yet, there is an issue, does Good exist if there is no Evil to learn from, to compare to, or to destroy?

Shit, I did it again. I bury my face into my palm and get so annoyed that I bury my nails in my forehead. At least, writing this far has helped me calm my mind and forgo these abstracts that aren’t helping me reach a concrete conclusion.

The answers are likely within the Lake and only granted to those beings who become worthy of being welcomed by the flames. Through experience, I can affirm that it is possible to achieve good by committing evil, yet the risk of corruption is great and does not fade. The lack of capitals is not a mistake nor is it humility but a recognition that actions can only be considered good or evil from a certain perspective within a set of circumstances. As long as one has ambitions, I highly doubt that it is possible to do true Good, but good is within the realm of the achievable.

I chuckle at my arrogance but don’t linger on it because I’m finally reaching a point where this is helping me understand my own uneasiness and it serves as a warning for my future self, even if I’m unlikely to listen to my past self if the stakes are great enough.

A way to guide oneself towards good and away from evil would be to determine whether the actions taken immediately would be beneficial for others even if one were to fail to improve one’s situation. Looking merely at the end result one seeks opens a trap because events are unpredictable whereas all beings lack knowledge and wisdom. Yet, by following this advice it is possible that no actions at all is taken. Evil thrives when Good does not act so risks must be taken. Perhaps the best course of action is to exercise caution and edge towards freedom over restriction because none would be alive to read this if sapient beings were blindly inclined towards Evil.

I chuckle at my addition of a reader, enjoying it without being quite certain why it’s so amusing other than the fact that I have no intention of showing this to anyone which means it’s a way to tease my future self.

I sign it as ‘Freepath’ because I’m satisfied that formulating this set of ramblings helped evacuate my misgivings and expunge some of my indiscriminate hatred for the world.

I fold the paper and slip it inside the hole where I hid the liangi’s case without disturbing the hiding spot. I don’t take Suxen’s notebook out because I don’t have that much time before Leomi returns so I choose to start working on building a table.

One other reason why I don’t continue is that I’m a bit preoccupied with Vikiana even if she’s weeks away from arriving on the Izla. Like a sense of incoming doom that I can’t quite shake off and that’s been growing since I mentioned her to Leomi.

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