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Frank suddenly closes the distance with a lion’s step, more than likely aiming to take advantage of my relaxes posture to land a shield bash. Naive. He should have gone for a wide slash instead of trying to return one slight for another.

I drain the last half-portion of flow from my reserve for a lion strike as I slide forward and to the right to avoid his charge. I chose his left to use his own shield as my cover which effectively renders his sword useless for the next couple of seconds.

As I pass by, I casually slip my staff behind my back to extend it in his path. He trips on it and falls but makes good use of his shield to roll on the plaza’s eroded pavement. I leisurely run my gaze over the spectators as I turn around, finding that the villagers are gaping.

Frank soon faces me again with a look of astonishment. I savor a moment of self-satisfaction but it doesn’t last long as this level isn’t something to be prideful about. I decide to engage him in a couple of casual exchanges, storing my energy back into my reserve.

I raise my arm to propel my staff forward, letting it slip from my grip until my hand reaches the one-quarter mark to seize it again. Frank flinches and takes a half-step back before realizing I didn’t intend to throw it.

He frowns but doesn’t move recklessly, clearly having learned his lesson. I press the staff along my forearm for stability before lowering it down and to the right as an invitation.

Frank advances carefully but I strike his shield with a powerful stab as soon as he enters my range. He tanks the blow but it stops his advance. I launch a right to left swipe at his ankles that he avoids by lifting his forward leg.

His foot hits the ground running so I reverse my swing’s direction and aim at his head, which is child’s play considering that my weapon is made of wood. He interrupts his charge to raise his sword and block.

The impact is light as I can’t place my weight behind a slash. His arm doesn’t even shake but it matters little because he now fears the speed of my swings as well as the power of my stabs. We exchange a variety of blows for a minute as we evaluate each other.

He seems to be about as good as the late Duke Meria’s personal guards, it’s hard to tell whether he’s stronger or weaker than the two I defeated at the dungeon because the fight was short and unconventional, not to mention my opponent’s lack of visibility at night.

Ready to get serious?” I ask him.

Yes.” Frank nods seriously as he tightens his stance.

I bring my staff up and let it slip inside my palm to grip the center of the weapon. It reduces my advantage in range by quite a bit but also makes it easier to chain strikes together since I can now use both ends.

The corners of his mouth dip and he squints his eyes, showing cautiousness at my change in style. I give him a smile and proceed to take a half-step forward while straightening my back. Such an open stance can be taken as quite a provocation but Frank’s eyes remain focused.

I wait for him to take a step, which will bring us both in range of each other. He lasts two seconds before moving on me with his sword and most his arm hidden behind his shield. Unfortunately for him, a glance at his shoulders tells me all I need to know.

He’s preparing a stab not a backhanded slash, otherwise, his shield wouldn’t be so close to his body and his right biceps wouldn’t be pulled back. Perhaps he’s only trying to hide where he’s aiming but that matters little now that I know his first move will be a stab.

I extend a lion strike’s timer so much it approaches a strengthening construct before lashing out with the bottom of my staff. I use an upward swing aimed at the base of his shield’s rim, planning to make him uppercut his own chin with it.

Frank’s eyes widen as if this is an unexpected blow. I wasn’t even trying to trick him by only using the top end of the weapon before but it looks like he overly focused on it anyway.

Still, his reflexes aren’t bad so he manages to extend his left arm just before my strike lands and propels his shield up. The rim grazes his nose but that’s it apart from the fact he is now blocking his own sight.

It’s because we’re too average in height, anyone else he would still see the top of their shoulders. I forcefully ignore Liz to lion’s leap to the right of Frank before my lion strike runs out of energy, which ‘coincidentally’ allows me to avoid his retaliatory stab.

He shouldn’t have attacked but that’s hindsight. A twist of my wrist sends the top of my staff barreling down. My weapon strikes the inside of the Hospitalier’s shield, pushing it slightly further away from his body, and most importantly slams into the center of his extended training sword which further destroys his posture.

My staff’s moment is stopped there because its weight makes it lack the momentum to do more, no matter how much speed the lion strike gives me. I use the last split-second of the construct to increase the power of the punch I throw towards his left shoulder without letting go of my weapon.

Duh. His cheekbone makes a dull sound as the horizontal staff in my hand hits it. Frank’s head is thrown aside and he staggers back a half-dozen steps but he isn’t bleeding or anything, merely bewildered by a hit he did not see coming.

That’ll probably bruise.” Liz notes absently as I step back.

It’s my complete defeat.” Frank admits with a sullen look on his face.

We can go another round.” I propose.

You used the inside of my shield as a fulcrum, our skill level aren’t comparable in the least.” He says, his expression torn between amazement and discomfiture.

The plaza is utterly silent. I could have appreciated a few cheers or gasps, at the very least. Oh well… Don’t be cocky. Kh kh kh. My new sister represses laughter than can only be heard by us. I pull the staff back and use it as a walking stick to depart for the gates, wondering what Leomi will prepare for lunch.

“Wait!” Frank calls out.

What is it?” I ask, throwing a look over my shoulder.
“C, can… Can you teach me, Dame Jessica?” He asks with a stutter and a humble bow.
“Nope.” I deny firmly.

As I turn back, I notice that Ms Conner’s wide open eyes are following me. I give her a small nod as I walk away. I keep using my staff as support, not because I need it, I’m not even out of breath, but because this hobbling gait feels eminently suitable to who we are right now.

I don’t like the fact that there are people witnessing this physical manifestation of my cracked self but I don’t stop either because it makes me feel lighter, it relieves the strong pressure increasingly weighing on me as my time alone with Leomi ran out.

Hale silently opens the gates for me with a single look of surprise at my unharmed state. I make my way back home, pushing the staff through the snow with every step. At some point, I catch myself limping and immediately put an end to that exaggeration.

Our relationship with Leomi is of paramount importance but it isn’t my only objective. Finding support is one thing, letting weakness in is quite another. We have a responsibility to see our plans through, after all. No matter the personal cost. I make a curt nod to myself, wishing that the birth of Jessica Freepath will be as smooth as possible.

In blood and wisdom, the path to freedom. I never wrote that. You think very loudly, I heard. As I prepare for a counter, I spot our house and decide to accelerate my pace instead. You had no comeback. I know, don’t tell Liz. I am Li… Kuh, kuh kuh.

It’s my turn to repress my giggle while Elizabeth sulks from being tricked. We forcefully restore our composure when the door opens and Leomi appears. After all, we have to be united when the storm strikes.

She’s wearing a leather apron that looks utterly out-of-place on her. In usual circumstances, I would grin from amusement and happiness, but today she gives me a single look before reaching out with her hand.

I purse my lips, knowing that she read our mood but quite unable to decide how we feel about that. It’s great that she’s attentive to us but her asking why might trigger the confrontation early.

I set the staff next to the door-frame and take her hand. Leomi forcibly sits me down on a chair, which I gladly accept because I would have remained standing out of sheer pride even though I want to sit down. It’s the stress of setting our plan for the immediate future in motion. That is likely.

Leomi leans down to give me a gentle kiss while she combs my hair with her right hand. Her warm welcome is precisely what I needed to relax. I lay back into the chair and close my eyes.

She suddenly pulls back from my lips and I hear her kneel down, a conclusion helped by my witnessing her nervous system coming to life with silver flashes. Or at least, it should be her nervous system. I’ve taken great pains to observe the brief apparitions of this network and it somewhat fits with the diagrams Celyz showed me.

The almost-confirmation of this idea has made me quite eager to test my lightning-armor-piercing construct and standard lightning construct with these eyes, but that would be a waste of the short window of time during which I can plunder from Leomi’s access to the Lake to work on my perception construct.

I feel her untie my left boot’s laces before slowly pulling it off my foot. My heart stops for a moment and then leaps as I struggle to accept what’s happening. Once she’s taken off the second boot, she does the same with my winter socks.

Even as I hear her stand up and pour water in the dented copper basin we traded in exchange for venison, I remain too afraid to open my eyes and confirm in case I’m mistaken or she’s in a mood to sadistically tease me by reversing my expectations.

The thought is foolish because Leomi has only done so when things weren’t serious. Neither of us was left whole after nothing, it had none to do with sadism but everything to do with my Leomi compartmentalizing to deal with during an uncontrollable series of events.

Would you change your decision about keeping the beacon construct from me back then?” I ask her just as she takes hold of my bare feet. She freezes with a stiff grip.

No.” Leomi replies with a soft but undisturbed tone. “Whether among the Rykz, the Lisilese, or the Humans, there are many who can distinguish lies. Your ignorance was a thin layer of protection but also the only one I could give you. My feelings towards you and myself wouldn’t allow me to give up on the slightest chance that your lack of knowledge could save you in case of a mishap.”

Hm.” I nod, understanding that she speaks of her pride and arrogance. She isn’t willing to sour the mood by mentioning those. “I wanted to hear it.”

She plunges my feet in the water and rubs them with her bare hands, eliminating the sore sensation that permeated through weeks of travel, work, and training with only the occasional day of rest I allowed myself.

I slide in the chair as her lithe fingers’ massage makes me melt. My heartbeat slows down to a crawl as she softens my muscles with gentle strokes. I fall in love all over again, it happens almost every day but experience hasn’t a thing to provide me with a solution to the aching emotions filling my chest.

Do you know how lucky you are to have obtained sisters like us?” I ask.

It isn’t quantifiable, not in words nor numbers, my loves.” She replies with a prideful grin in her voice. “You get along, right?” Leomi questions casually, failing to disguise her concern.

Hmph.” Liz and I both exhale by our nose at the same time, which actually distorts the sounds we make.

Pff.” A chuckle escapes her but she quickly smothers it. I open my right eye for a brief moment, spotting her pressing her wrist against her mouth. “Promise me, no squabbling inside that pretty head of yours.”

Squabbling is how we pass time.” We answer in sync, just to mess with her.

Can’t you just take turns?” Leomi complains with a sigh.

I would gladly continue bantering but she starts putting more strength into her foot massage. She presses, caresses, and redresses like she’s feeling what I am. I liquefy as her magical hands work my feet like putty. Her fingers hit the right spots as naught else could.

By the Lake.” I shudder under the sensations.

My eyes half-open by themselves, allowing me to spot the golden jay standing on a chair at the corner of my field of vision. With my brain so relaxed, I immediately understand that my random thought about her experiencing what I am wasn’t so outlandish.

From what I have been told about mental constructs, which this has to be, one needs the subconscious permission of the one it is used on. If the jay is giving her clues and helping her track me, then I can hardly blame her for cheating since I would be the source of the information.

Leomi pulls my feet out of the water to start wiping them with a piece of white cloth. I tremble, realizing that she’s finishing up. It makes the massage feel both more deliberate and more enjoyable now that it is coming to an end.

Chomp! Mhgna!

Leomi’s mouth engulfs my big toe. The noises she makes are weirdly magnified but also adorable and flirtatious. That’s until she lets loose to start gnawing for real, kneading with her teeth and little restraint.

Ahuf!” I yelp, opening my eyes wide. “Are you a cat?!” The silly question escapes me in my distress.

Kitten.” Leomi corrects with a playful grin. Speaking makes her tongue rises and brushes the underside of my toes with a devastating ticklish effect that makes me squirm. “It’s getting harder and harder to wait.” She confesses with a heavy voice as she lets go of me.

I open and close my mouth for a few seconds like an idiot. She thankfully puts an end to it by pulling out a pair of clean socks from behind her back. She fits them on me and then puts my boots back on.

She rises up from her knees, moves the copper basin away, and steps around the chair I’m slouching on. I watch as her right hand travels along my torso straight towards my pants.

I blush but I don’t make a single comment or complaint, she’s intruding on a body she owns after all. And… she’s not the only one who has taken the debauched habit of regularly checking on the other’s body to ensure it is kept for us.

Her fingers slip into my underwear but merely hover above my flesh without touching me, I feel no more than the naturally cool sensation they exude but that’s plenty for torturing me.

She is perversely good at avoiding contact while I am terrible. It has more to do with our personalities than anything else, like knowledge. I oblige when I feel that she wants to be grazed while she provokes the desire in me without satisfying it.

She explores with her fingers, causing small quakes in my heart and flesh as she slides down even though she always remains less than a millimeter away from my sex to check but never ever allows a brush.

At least, unless I cause it myself, at which point she has always been glad to nuzzle me to relieve my tension. But such an act is a clear surrender on my part, as much as it is when she makes me feel she wants to feel my hand.

Such considerations remain between us, but it has become a loving game rather than a competition with a score. Being aware of her presence without being allowed to experience it is torture in truth but I don’t allow myself to waver.

The reason is simply because Leomi expressed how difficult it is for her to keep to our vow of abstinence right now and she just washed my feet so I don’t want to test the strength of her commitment, not that there would be any resentment if I did.

You did good, my jay.” She whispers and kisses me on the top of my head.

The breeze that her hand seems to exude retreats. I can finally allow my mind to settle. She releases me even though she didn’t physically hold me. She walks to my side and drops on my lap, wrapping her left arm around my neck.

It suddenly occurs to me that I really, really, really love her. I pass my arm around her waist and pull her hard against me, ecstatic about my recovered arm strength but not to the point of forgetting that it’ll always be lacking.

It’s hard to wait for improvement when my ratio hasn’t moved from one and a half wins in matches in ten from the beginning.” I reply, using brute force to return to the previous conversation and also divert it.

That is because you’ve helped me improve by leaps and bounds.” Leomi replies with a grateful smile. “Your style is yours alone, it is unorthodox but that is precisely what is helping me build my own swordsmanship.” She hesitates for a brief moment. “Besides, my best guess is that you would have the edge if we used flow.”

I only win battles because my opponents make mistakes.” I blurt out with spite.
“Yes, that is how you fight.” Leomi replies with a quizzical expression. “You induce others into making mistakes, it is a level higher than the vast majority who are only capable of taking advantage of errors.”

No, that’s…” I trail off. “You know what I mean.” I finish lamely.
“I do, but you’re wrong.” She shakes her head. “You do not realize how talented you are at spotting the right weaknesses to exploit to pick a target apart. I only survive fighting you because…” She pauses to take a deep breath. “If you had both of your arms to use a two-handed weapon, you would unequivocally be able to defeat me.”

…” I swallow my sorrow, my rage, and the ghostly pain originating from a place without nerves to transmit it. “You have no idea how frustrating it is to only have one arm to hold onto you.” I mutter, burying my face in her back. “Can’t get a good grip, or apply my strength properly to make you feel the depth of my emotions.”

That loss is one I experience deeply as well.” Leomi utters with a rigid spine and a tight voice. “But I need no physical contact to experience the intensity of your feelings when it is reflected in your gaze.” She replies sweetly.

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