We cuddle for a whole hour before Leomi gets off me to pick up the bundle of straw and puts it where she sat. I blink and throw her a look, it isn’t likely she’s pulling a prank on me considering how picky she is about appearances.
“You want to see improvement, I got this ready for you to practice your dexterity when your grip strength improved.” She explains. “Weaving straw will work since we don’t have enough sewing materials.”
It’ll likely help with controlling a liangi as well, the staff was harder to handle than a sword. I nod and pull a few stalks of yellow straw. I use my teeth to flatten them and then start making a hat while Leomi walks outside to fill the cooking pot with water.
“That apron.” I call out to her when she returns.
“Yes?” She asks.
“It really doesn’t suit you.” I chuckle.
“… You’re one to talk.” She replies and sticks her tongue out.
A few hours, one lunch, and dozens of snapped straws later, I manage to link together a small patch in the shape of a square. It’ll be much easier to continue with this base but I dismantle it to begin anew.
I spend all afternoon on this basic first step towards weaving a straw hat, restarting from scratch again and again. Leomi trains her swordsmanship outside while I do. I spy on her a few times and determine that, indeed, she’s improved since we began sparing.
Her gradual progress wasn’t noticeable because I was focused on learning everything she demonstrated but, now that I think about it, her speed and reaction times have grown to the point where Leomi is now almost comparable to her mother.
I wouldn’t have noticed this if she didn’t point our progress out because my mind has been too focused on the fact I’m far from as powerful as I would be with the Little one but that is silly observation considering there is only one way to achieve that level, which is to accept the parasite again.
Of course, it’s merely training so it remains unlikely that Leomi would win if she fought Vikiana. I shake my head and return to straw weaving. I swiftly make a square but this time I don’t dismantle it, instead I continue working on the hat which involves a few other complicated steps.
I fail quite a few times during the afternoon, mostly because I only did this a few times when I was very young as a kind of game. I pull away from the past to focus on the weaving. I achieve a half-decent shape by the time Leomi serves dinner.
“Is it alright that I’ve been using so much of your flow?” I speak up as she sits down at the table. I’ve been using at least two-thirds of her daily regeneration to test my ideas and the unknown equations in Suxen’s notebook, with few observable results so far.
“You’re asking now?” Leomi questions, looking amused.
“Forgiveness, permission, and all that.” I reply with a grin.
“You could at least give me the whole saying.” She complains with a grimace. “It’s fine, my access has been growing steadily and I don’t have a place to put the energy right now. The most I would have done with the flow is to use it for training.”
“Oh?” I throw a look at the state of her reserve to estimate how much flow it could contain once filled, I find that it’s approaching a hundred and sixty portions.
“Besides, it’s you so it’s fine.” She adds.
“Doesn’t it belong to the Hospitaliers?” I ask with a frown.
“No, the pledge people take is towards the Hospitaliers capable of either healing or fighting so I merely receive a little more than a single portion from my position as Grand Commander of the organization. The rest of my access comes from those who choose to support me directly. I’ve been told that many split their regeneration between me and the Hospitaliers.” Leomi explains. “I’m able to, under loose conditions, take control of every member’s flow. The Justiciers are able to as well but they have much stricter restrictions than I do to do so, in exchange the Chief Justicier can neutralize the Grand Commander if necessary.”
This means that she would be powerless if she lost people’s support, which is quite a decent safety measure against tyrants as long as Hospitaliers don’t make it mandatory to make a pledge to them. I pause, calculating quickly.
“Wait, doesn’t that mean the Hospitaliers have a few hundred weak Barons?” I blink.
“It does. They’ll form the core of the army in spring.” Leomi nods before making a grave expression. “A weak core but, hopefully, it’ll suffice.”
“Hm, I’ll help you kill Cenwalh.” I tell her. His death can work as a trigger for my plans just as easily as for hers.
“You will?” Leomi asks. “That easily?”
“Yes.” I nod. “To be clear, we’ll be partners in this.” I tell her.
Leomi pinches her lips as she falls deep in thought. I wouldn’t have trusted a quick answer. Clearly, her request for help didn’t include us being equal decision making partners. It’s understandable considering that it’s her plan.
“You can refuse, I won’t take offense and help you anyway.” I tell her after a while, realizing that she should know it isn’t a choice between obtaining my help or none at all.
“Partners would mean we would have to reach a consensus or overrule one another. In the case I win the argument, it’s fine, but if you do then I’ll have to use the power of the Hospitaliers to follow your plans. That cannot work.” Leomi thoroughly explains her problem with my offer.
“You’d let me win?” I blink, stunned.
“Let you beat me? When have I ever done that?” Leomi grunts, apparently annoyed by the memory of her past losses.
“Anyway.” I wave that aside. “You could easily ignore me if it involves the Hospitaliers.” I tell her.
“Then we wouldn’t be partners.” She says, raising an eyebrow.
“Right.” I chuckle, embarrassed. “So, what are you trying to say?” I ask, certain that there’s more to this.
“Be patient.” Leomi replies, waving her hand. “I am superior to you in matters of statesmanship, military command, and manpower by far.” She tells me somewhat pridefully, which baffles me considering I find it natural she would be. I find it ridiculous she would be so satisfied at beating a peasant in these things. “I have more knowledge but mostly my character is better suited.”
“You’re going to have to expand on that last one.” I tell her with a dark glare. Leomi awkwardly scratches the side of her nose.
“There are a great many disgruntled soldiers, as many as there are ambitious and greedy ones. You could raise a grand army as Elizabeth Vil if peasantry is added to such a revolution, you could grow to threaten the Kingdom with a few victories, but it would be a fragile state of affairs that would destabilize the Empire.” She explains.
“Oh.” I blink, calming down. “I’m aware my character isn’t suited for leading. If that was your point, you should have said so.”
“But I enjoy riling you up.” Leomi grins. I can’t help but respond with a smile at her bright expression. “It’ll take you a year to build up enough of a reputation as Jessica Freepath to affect events, although I’m not sure whether I’m overestimating you or underestimating you there.”
“Hm, it’s simply not possible to estimate because there are too many uncertain elements at play and events like the Rykz invasion don’t occur frequently so there are fewer opportunities to do something big enough that the Empire at large will hear of it.” I tell her.
“I agree.” She nods. “My ultimate goal is to obtain you as my consort.”
“Which is another word for a subordinate.” I note.
“My chances to succeed are about the same as Father’s who constantly tried to convince Mother, which is close to nil.” Leomi acknowledges with a grimace and a nostalgic voice.
“Are you using the term consort as used in Nobility?” I ask, pretty sure she isn’t.
“I am not.” Leomi shakes her head. “I’ve told you already that I’m using titles as a way to open doors. If there was any other way, I would use it.”
“There is, and you’re refusing.” I comment.
“Destroying Nobility isn’t productive.” Leomi frowns.
“Let’s agree to disagree on that.” I reply, shrugging.
“…” She takes a deep breath before letting out a long sigh. “Anyway, I can provide Jessica Freepath the opportunities to shine if you both join me as advisers.”
“You want us sisters both!” Liz exclaims with joking outrage.
“As an adviser, you wouldn’t have to obey any of my orders and can resign from my service.” Leomi continues, ignoring Elizabeth. “It’s a good offer.” She adds.
“For anyone else.” I reply. Leomi sighs again but she doesn’t look surprised in the least. “How about we simply cooperate?” I propose.
“What if we run at cross-purpose in even the way Cenwalh needs to die? You clearly have ideas of your own.” Leomi pouts.
“Doubtful, I only need him to die by human hands with low born involved, which is pretty much guaranteed.” I shrug.
“Good, I was afraid you would have some convoluted ideas like executing him.” Leomi exhales in relief.
“Well, an execution would be optimal but not realistically feasible. Merely imprisoning someone with his access would be difficult, not to mention the fact that there would be dozens of interests pressuring us to release him.” I reply. “No, the only way to kill him is violently in battle.”
“Cooperating with low born to end a titled Noble.” Leomi mutters. “I haven’t decided whether that’s advisable to be entirely honest with you, a Kingdom’s Ruler has weight in terms of tradition and prestige.”
“Why not? Those who have joined the Hospitaliers, Nobles included I assume, clearly see eye to eye with you about the need for change.” I ask.
“There are many in my faction who are motivated because they can see that some titled Nobles are hindering our Emperor instead of helping him.” Leomi replies, clearly talking about high born. “Not to mention that the Caeviel houses who have contacted the Hospitaliers hope to use us to protect themselves from their rivals and help control their subjects.”
“Anyone big?” I ask, curious.
“No, the important houses are testing the waters through their subjects but I don’t need them, it would actually be a problem to ally with the other Duchies since I want to eliminate them to reform Caeviel.” Leomi explains. “I’ll be able to involve the low born in the Hospitaliers and the army, but no one else.”
“That’s fine by me.” I tell her. It’ll be much more powerful when peasants rise by themselves and kill their former lieges than it would be for them to do so by order of a high born, even if it is Leomi Lance giving it. “So, your faction holds together because you won’t be abolishing titled Nobles.”
“Yes.” Leomi confirms. “I want to transform the governing structure of the Kingdom, keeping titled Nobility as one of the entities involved. Like for the Hospitaliers, I want three different powers who will balance each other out.”
“Aren’t there only two? Justiciers and Hospitaliers?” I ask.
“You forget that anyone has the power to vote which directly influences the Hospitaliers. It isn’t an equal division, but the organization needs to be able to function as an army would so this system is preferable.” Leomi replies. “Do you have insights to share about peasantry’s views towards Nobility?” I stare at her, surprised because the question shows she has a degree of awareness towards her lack of knowledge.
“Most don’t really care, no matter how much they discuss Lords and Ladies.” I tell her flatly. “Glory is like a minstrel’s rousing song, it is only sought after so long as there’s food and drink on the table. If I had to mention a hope shared by all peasants, it would be to never encounter a Noble because their joy is fleeting and the rewards scarce but the consequences of their anger permanent.” Leomi makes a grimace at my words but I’m far from done. “The low born, soldiers, bourgeois, and Nobles you interact with have a stake in the system changing or remaining the same. The former can be used to build an organization based on ideals, you are correct about your character being suitable for that task and the Hospitaliers having the potential to change the Empire.” I tell her.
“It isn’t enough for you.” Leomi notes.
“It will take too long with so few people. The organization’s ideals will slowly be corrupted by the environment it evolves in.” I tell her, keeping under silence that I’ve arrived at this conclusion thanks to Celyz who taught me about the fact that the living change to suit their habitat, animals, plants, and sapient beings alike. “To trigger true wide-scale change, you need to stir the largest possible number of people in the shortest amount of time. It’s comparable to starting an avalanche, disturb enough snow and the rest will be carried along by the momentum.”
“That’s why I’m asking you about people’s opinions of their lieges.” Leomi grunts.
“I’ll answer but, first, I’m going to say something you won’t enjoy.” I reply.
“You don’t need to.” Leomi replies with a glare. “I am aware that my craving for control would prevent me from starting a forest fire, which is good because no one can control the direction of such disasters.”
“Well ‘good’ is relative to your point of view, people should be able to pick what they want.” I shrug, glad I don’t have to pick on Leomi’s personality because I do love her possessiveness.
“They did, in olden times.” Leomi counters. “Given the chance, we can show people they weren’t wrong.”
“You say choice, we say butchery.” I let a mad giggle out. “Either way, we’ll ask them to pick one or the other, so what does it matter?”
“You know very well that reason won’t prevail once tempers have been riled up.” Leomi accuses me.
“I do, I’m just saying that they’ll be clearheaded enough to go with whatever it is they want once the dust settles.” I reply calmly.
“You’re telling me Cenwalh’s death will disturb the snow atop the mountain, whether I like it or not.” Leomi frowns.
“Exactly.” I grin, always happy to witness her marvelous mind at work. “The Izla’s Republic is but one snowflake, but it’s destabilizing Caeviel.”
“Evidently.” She nods.
“People see the titled Noble they pledged their flow to as detached from their problems but benefiting from their hard work, they accept it out of faith, tradition, and because they do defend them from bandits… who are sometimes simply people from other fiefs. I would argue that even those who are protected from Rykz and Lisilese invasions in part by their lieges aren’t much different in their views. That is simply because they will still fear even an untitled Noble’s visit because there are very few means to resist their privilege even when openly stolen from. A Templar can only do so much during arbitrage and that is further limited by the fact that peasants need to pay their taxes.” I pause to give her a meaningful look.
“I want your opinion, not to play charades.” Leomi tells me with a smile.
“Who would dare to ask for proper compensation, or even any kind of retribution, when they are at the mercy of their liege’s judgment if they are ever short on their taxes? Who can predict they won’t ever have a bad year? What peasant would have the guts to offend the smallest Noble house when it can obtain an audience with their titled Lord with more ease than they can? Not to mention that a titled Noble won’t take a peasant’s side if the other side is a soldier, bourgeois, or high born.” I explain.
“It isn’t that bad.” Leomi protests.
“Probably not.” I shrug. “I’m sure there are issues of pride involved for the liege whose subject was abused, which can easily be solved with a bribe.” I tell her with disdain. “Tell me, what is the proportion of disliked or hated titled Nobles compared to those who are liked, and then tell me how many of those with a good reputation directly help their subjects if it doesn’t benefit them.”
“It’s…” Leomi hesitates. “Okay, I see your point. There is plenty of snow on the mountain to disturb.”
“I’m not done.” I note with a suspenseful tone. “Compare those rare titled Nobles with the best reputation in their demesne to that of Templar in their holdings and you’ll find that they lose out, every single time.”
“That can’t be right.” She frowns.
“In individual cases? No but it’s because there are some temple guards like the old one in my village who aren’t especially liked, but even then he has a better standing than the late Baron Buton at his best.” I reply. “As a whole? It is absolutely true that Templars hold the people’s hearts over their given liege.”
“I wasn’t trying to say you’re wrong, just take it as an expression of surprise when I shouldn’t have been.” Leomi waves her previous comment aside. “You were about to tell me why that is the case.”
“I already have, indirectly.” I run my hand in my hair. “And you know why, it’s for the simple reason that temple guards are always there, they help out if there is a fire, they’re the first to repel bandits, and so on. They even step in to mediate mere squabbles and when the conflict involves property, the fact that the liege is the one to make a final decision helps because even the unsatisfied parties don’t blame them. Without Templars, or if their Order was more corrupt than it is, then Nobility would stand a chance to obtain people’s hearts. You saw this long before I did, or you wouldn’t have made the Hospitaliers.”
“Not in as much detail.” Leomi denies. “And I haven’t experienced it myself.”
“So, would low born soldiers under your command refuse to attack Cenwalh?” I ask, curious.
“It depends on the circumstances, which is why a trap is necessary. He needs to attack us, both because he’ll be weaker once away from his defenses and because my people will be in a situation of defending their beliefs instead of being ordered to defy tradition.” She explains.
“The question is whether he’ll fall for it.” I note.
“Which is what I need your help with. That brings us back to you accepting to be my adviser.” Leomi says with a grin.
“Nope.” I reply with a cocky corner smile. “But we’ll be cooperating with separate resources so it’s pretty much the same.” She taps the table in annoyance but nods.
“To be honest.” She suddenly speaks up. A brief flash of surprise goes through her expression, she likely spoke out loud without thinking. “It’s relieving that I can share the access I have been given with you. The support I obtained is in great part because of you after all.” She tells me with a grateful glance.
“Don’t mind it.” I grunt, somewhat embarrassed.
“Okay, I won’t.” She instantly agrees with a grin. “Ever going to tell me what that personal project of yours is that you would use so much flow and coin on it?” She asks.