Meria’s eastern quarter is bustling with people, more than they would be any other time of the year than winter for the simple reason that sailors, fishers, and merchants have little to do other than wait for spring.
Today especially as a merchant ship is preparing to depart with Duchess Edusa aboard while one of the Odo’s large galleys has been spotted approaching the city by the lighthouse’s keeper at dawn.
One tall woman with black eyes and blond hair is hurrying along the streets to reach the docks before it is too late. Her face isn’t charming but neither is it crude, there would be many gazes upon it were it not for the hooded cloak shrouding it and concealing her hard leather armor.
Idali is her name and she travels with two spears upon her back, one flexible and one hard made completely out of Vuskyt but painted red to conceal that fact, and to honor a friend who saved her life. Never before had she thought she could find such kinship but Elizabeth Vil is a fierce woman who compels admiration.
She takes care not to show a limp so as not to bring attention to her right leg where a Rykz creation was implanted in her flesh. Her skin already covers it but the secret would soon be revealed if people aimed at it as they would a weak spot.
Her many wounds still itch and burn at times but Idali doesn’t mind, she survived two Tianeels and gained purpose. She accelerates her pace, aware that it would be best to catch the Duchess Hetlan before she departs with the grain she exchanged for weapons.
Not only will it save her weeks of traveling north but braving the sea together would build camaraderie that would be difficult to forge if she were to show up unannounced at her Castle in Hetlan.
Unfortunately, she got reacquainted with Meria’s taverns these past few days and only heard of the news a few hours ago. Idali arrives at the docks a few minutes after the merchant ship’s departure, in time to take advantage of the receding tide.
She turns her black eyes to the hull moving away from the pontoon and estimates the distance, ten meters and slowly growing. Idali launches into a run through the scattered crowd watching the departure, avoiding various groups of armed folk.
She worried about her back and once more deplores the fact she didn’t inherit the same ability to see her surroundings as Elizabeth but estimates that there won’t be any trouble as long as she doesn’t assemble anything dangerous-looking.
Well, no trouble until she reaches the ship but Duchess Edusa is known for being magnanimous. As Idali rushes to the end of the pontoon, she signals the symbiont to prepare to uncoil. She takes three more lion’s steps and leaps out towards the merchant ship with her right hand extended out.
There are yells and calls to stop but no one throws javelins at her, which she considers quite the boon because she would have done so back in the day in the hopes of gaining a figure’s gratitude after confirming that is isn’t simply a late soldier.
Many spectators do have the thought of slaying this impudent stowaway but the change in Izla Meria’s rule has been accompanied by a more faithful enforcement of the Law so they would be punished for the mere attempt.
Idali hears the wind rushing past as she almost flies through the air. She reaches the end of her arc and starts falling, barely catching the top of the guardrail moments before she impacts the hull.
Idali grits her teeth as her chest hits the wood but her strengthened grip doesn’t waver. Now, she merely hopes that she’ll have the opportunity to speak before they try to throw her overboard.
A young beauty with bright green eyes wearing black robes with red embroidery leans over to glance down at her with curiosity. Her amusement quickly dies down as she recognizes the woman hanging from the ship.
“Miss Idali, is it not?” The woman asks, her voice cold.
“That’s the one, Duchess.” Idali says, making a grin.
“I advise you to let go now, it’ll be much easier to swim back to shore.” Edusa Hetlan tells her before turning around.
“Wait!” Idali calls out panically, realizing she’s being told that climbing up will get her thrown off. “I’ll swear my spear at your service if you take me along! This Duchy is somewhat unwelcoming to my humble presence!”
Edusa Hetlan pauses with a grimace, she desperately needs qualified retainers and this one not only survived Elizabeth Vil but also seems to hold little fear for the sea that almost claimed her life not so long ago.
Edusa’s problem is Idali’s reported character and the accusations hanging over her head, not to mention she should be bedridden after being torn apart by Tianeels even if the Rykz managed to keep her alive.
“How is it that you can walk?” Edusa asks, suspecting that the Rykz gave away another of those plant-like things they provided Elizabeth Vil.
“Perhaps having this talk inside would be more proper?” Idali returns with a hopeful voice.
Duchess Hetlan flips around in a regal way and lays a gloved hand on the guardrail next to Idali’s fingers. Her bright green eyes boring into the hanging woman’s black irises.
“That answer alone is confirmation enough for me to actively kick you off this vessel.” Edusa utters coldly. “While I won’t condemn you for saving yourself, I cannot bear what my Liege can.”
“Even if I’m here to help you?” Idali asks, paling.
“Some kinds of help do more damage than good.” Edusa dismisses.
“It isn’t noticeable.” Idali ensures hurriedly. “I swear I won’t reve…”
“The issue goes beyond that concern.” Edusa immediately cuts her off. She glances at the docks and realizes that she’s wasted too much time so the ship is too far from shore for the woman to swim. “I’ve heard all about your first encounter with Elizabeth Vil.” Edusa warns as she reaches out to seize Idali’s wrist with her gloved hand.
“I swear I’ve changed!” Idali cries out with wide eyes, she feels a cool substance spread out from the tendrils wrapped around her waist-bone.
Edusa frowns internally because she didn’t want her gesture to provoke the woman’s fright. She quickly realizes she was naive considering her status allows her to kill this stowaway and her attitude has been cold. She hurriedly uses a strengthening construct to drag Idali aboard.
“Thanks, my Lady.” Idali utters, panting more from fear than physical exertion.
“Mh.” Edusa acknowledges. “Follow me.” She orders.
Duchess Hetlan swipes her black red robe with a flourish and leads the way down to the lower deck. Two of the loyal dozen officers she recently promoted come along to escort Idali. There are no servants because she doesn’t trust those left behind by the previous Duchess.
Edusa feels a little odd as she makes her way through the corridor, she should push this blonde on a rowboat rather than bring her to the cabin for a hot tea. The Duchess almost turns around as she recalls that her first impression of Idali was that she resembles her late sister Aline, the worst among her siblings.
The two soldiers stop Idali before she can follow Edusa inside the cabin, holding their hands out. She quickly unstraps the leather holding her spears behind her back and gives them the weapons before allowing them to search her.
They take her dagger and then move to either side of the door to stand as guards. Idali steps inside, her black eyes glancing over the armchairs and the furs on the floorboards to settle on Duchess Hetlan who is placing a kettle of water on a small stove.
“Do you like mint?” Edusa asks.
“Yes.” Idali replies, amazed.
The Duchess opens a small metal container and pulls two bundles of mint leaves out that she places on a copper platter. Under Idali’s stunned gaze, Edusa then opens a cupboard and takes two porcelain teacups with silver spoons to go along.
“The ship’s owner felt it suitable to provide me with proper comfort.” Edusa mutters in a somewhat embarrassed tone. “The least we can do is put it to use, feel free to make yourself comfortable.”
Idali thinks this situation surreal, how preposterous is it that such a young Duchess would make tea for her? Still, it wouldn’t be good to hesitate so she drags herself over to a low table and sits down in one of the armchairs. She is starting to think that, just maybe, it won’t be so bad to serve this Duchess for a while.
She lays her hand on her right leg to soothe the symbiont that reacted to her fear. Edusa doesn’t witness the movement but she doesn’t need to, she’s heard plenty from her Liege and witnessed enough from Elizabeth Vil to have an idea of the personal toll it takes to carry one of these things.
The Duchess decides not to pressure the woman too much so she remains at the stove for the handful of minutes it takes the fire construct to heat the water. She then pours it into the teacups and brings the platter over to the low table.
“Be careful, it is quite hot.” Edusa warns.
The Duchess puts the bundle of mint leaves in the porcelain cup before sinking it with her silver spoon and stirring. Her gestures are clear and open, as if she is demonstrating the method to help without being too overt about it.
Idali imitates her, waiting until Edusa tastes the tea before drinking so as not to be impolite or stupidly burn her tongue. The two sigh in content as warmth spreads inside her chests. They sip in silence for a few minutes. Idali finds that the sweet smell in the air mixes well with the mint.
“So, you work for the Rykz.” Edusa speaks up calmly once she estimates that the mood relaxed enough not to spook the woman.
“I have to inform them of important developments they would also hear about from other sources.” Idali informs her carefully.
“That’s it?” Edusa asks.
“I have to pay specific attention to news about Elizabeth Vil as well as help you hold Hetlan in any way I deem necessary, serving you seems like the best way to do that.” Idali responds.
She slips in the reason why she asked to follow the Duchess because she normally wouldn’t do so. She does not realize that someone raised as a Noble wouldn’t truly question why she would want to enter their service as they are used to such things.
“That’s fine.” Edusa says, finding the Rykz’ move of keeping one of their creations active quite clever if somewhat risky for her. “What would you want in return, Miss Idali?”
“In return.” The blond woman repeats, taken somewhat off-guard by the straightforward offer. “A decent pay… I won’t be any good in ceremonies, although I can stand guard.”
“Do you have issues with Nobles?” Edusa asks.
“I won’t be making problems.” Idali shakes her head.
“That is not what I asked.” Edusa notes with a raised eyebrow. “Talk freely, I sincerely doubt you can be as rude as Dame Elizabeth…” She pauses and makes a small encouraging smile. “Or Lady Yvonne for that matter.”
“Kingdom or Empire don’t care much for slum brats like me, I return the favor.” Idali replies with an uncomfortable shrug.
“If you enter my service you will be encountering conflict with Nobility, perhaps as soon as we arrive. It will rarely be suitable to respond to provocations.” Edusa warns. “Will that be an issue?”
“Not on my part, I can stand still with the same face for hours no matter what.” Idali smirks. “They hate that.”
“Oh.” Edusa mutters as she decides not to put that to the test. “Would a position outside the normal chain of command suit you? There would be little recognition and a lot of traveling but a good pay.”
“That would be alright, I could use to see the country after spending most my life in a city.” Idali replies, quite relieved because the question implies she’ll be accepted.
“Now, before we continue, it is important for me to warn you that I have reservations about you personally.” Edusa honestly tells Idali, who stiffens with a grimace as she realizes she was too quick to relax. “I trust you’re on our side but that isn’t enough to accept you in my direct service.”
“I can work under one of your people.” Idali suggests.
“I’m afraid your situation makes that impossible.” The Duchess denies immediately without gazing at the woman’s right leg so as not to make her even more uncomfortable.
“I know which women I’m allowed to chase, no need to worry Duchess.” Idali quips to relieve her tension.
“That comment only strengthens my concern.” Edusa replies with a frown, she raises her hand to stop Idali who was about to correct herself. “I will lay down a few conditions for you to consider before making my decision if that is alright.”
“Of course.” Idali says politely even though she wants to swear.
While this Duchess is very different from the rest of the Nobles she ran into, she isn’t comfortable at all with the way this is going. Still, Idali doesn’t mind much considering there is a remote possibility this beauty with green eyes might bed her.
“You will report to me before sending any communications to the Rykz and delay them for a while if I so request. You will have the ability to reject orders if carrying them out presents you with difficulties but I will need a brief explanation as to why so as to only give you missions that suit you.” Edusa declares calmly. “You will also answer my questions about your personal life, past and present, whenever I see fit to ask them.” She adds with a soft voice so as not to frighten the blond woman.
Blood flows into Idali’s cheeks. Her black eyes fall on the furs spread on the ground, which only furthers her embarrassment and intensifies her blush as her imagination runs wild. She snaps her gaze back up to the Duchess who takes the red tone of her cheeks to be that of anger.
“I understand such conditions are difficult to agree to but I have no intention to accept anyone that does not behave appropriately in my service.” Edusa tells the woman.
The Duchess brings her teacup to her lips to take a sip as she thinks that this is as much leeway as she can give in memory of her sister Aline, who wouldn’t deserve to be remembered if she wasn’t part of her family.
Idali interprets the move as a way for Edusa to hide her own awkwardness and feels that her chances might be more than hypothetical, she might even become a Duchess’ mistress which could be worth it if the woman’s personality is actually this good.
“I don’t have much to hide.” Idali replies tentatively.
“I will do my best to be patient and understanding if you need time or wish to keep some matters to yourself.” Edusa reassures, laying her teacup back down. “My inquiries are designed to ensure that we both remain comfortable with the arrangements we make going forward.” She explains. “Those under my service are all free to knock at my door to talk. You will be no exception to that rule but I am afraid that you will need to make more efforts than most to prove yourself.”
Idali finds Edusa’s efforts to make it seem like there isn’t anything out of the ordinary happening quite adorable and irresistible when added to the Duchess’ relaxed but confident bearing, which she finds nobler than that of any mature Noble she’s ever met.
“I can live with these terms.” Idali declares carefully.
She think it a bit foolish that she’s playing hard to get when anyone in her situation would immediately accept but the Duchess is testing the waters without directly flirting so she believes she has to play the frustrating game.
“Good. Take your time to finish the tea at your leisure, I’ll take a few minutes to think this through before giving you my final decision.” The Duchess speaks as she stands up.
Edusa finds herself unable to hold back her nostalgia and longing for a long gone past where her sister had yet to grow into the woman she became. As such she makes her way to a desk in the corner of the room to turn her back on the woman and chase the unrelated concerns from her mind.
Idali notices the Duchess’ longing look but she doesn’t linger much on it or her interpretation of the situation because her eyes quickly find lovely curves to appreciate now that she has the chance to do so without being rude.
She picks up the teacup to have something to hide behind as Edusa did. She comforts her somewhat agitated symbiont by stroking her right thigh while thinking about the wonders hiding beneath those black and red robes.
Unbeknownst to her, Edusa’s thoughts are leaning towards refusing her service and dropping her in Meiridin after realizing how much the death of her sister is affecting her judgment.
Yet, Edusa hesitates because it would be unfair to condemn this woman’s rather mild but very worrying faults for the actions that her sister took, no matter how alike the two appear to be in personality.
Three things convince the Duchess to give Idali a chance. First, everything Edusa has heard can be considered hearsay. Second, Idali has suffered enough in Izla Meria’s service during the war. Third, and most important, Idali swore that she has changed.
“I’m going to give you a chance.” Edusa says, turning around.
“More than I thought I would get.” Idali replies with a disbelieving smile, having trouble accepting her luck can be this good.
The Duchess nods and glances at the teacup in the woman’s hands. Idali quickly finishes it and stands up. Edusa almost tells her she doesn’t need to hurry but it’s too late so she takes it in stride and accompanies her new prospective subject to the door.
“You have until we arrive in Meiridin to court yourself into my service.” Edusa declares, implying that Idali will have to take care of her image as well as work hard.
“I’ll do my best.” Idali promises, almost blushing again at what the takes to be an invitation from her new liege to be forward.
It suddenly occurs to Idali that this Duchess Hetlan liked Countess Lance before obtaining the title that is sending her back. Fantasies of being traded away flash in her head but she quickly suppresses them in order to remain in the present.
She quickly ascertains that, since Edusa fell for a woman like Leomi Lance, then she needs to be brazen because she won’t be attracted to timidity. In the short time they’ve spoken, this Duchess has already shown to be of great character.
Idali’s cheeks turn deep red. She doesn’t want to miss her chance so she pushes past the stone in her throat and the knot in her stomach to gently place her hand on the Duchess’ shoulder.
Edusa pauses from opening the door and turns her bright green eyes to Idali, showing a quizzical look on her youthful face. The blond woman leans in and kisses her cheek.
The action is so unexpected that the Duchess fails to react in the moment or even pull back. The lips only remain for a few seconds but Edusa seems frozen in place. Idali takes a small step back and bows slightly.
“I apologize for my impertinence, Duchess.” Idali utters with a weak voice.
Edusa’s cheeks grow red from anger and embarrassment but she doesn’t allow herself to lose her cool as she has with Elizabeth Vil, which was to her own detriment considering how much it strained her relationships. She is now a Duchess and expects more out of herself.
Edusa raises her palm to tell the silent woman to remain silent while she thinks back to the what could have led to this. She quickly determines that her last declaration could trigger a misunderstanding, intentional or otherwise.
“That was not what I meant, Miss Idali.” Edusa utters stiffly.
“I…” Idali speaks up hesitantly but the Duchess folds all her hand’s fingers except the index that she extends to cut her off.
“You should not kiss anyone before being invited.” Edusa tells her, affecting a firm tone. “Do we understand each other?”
“Yes, my Lady.” Idali nods with another bow, biting the inside of her cheeks as she realizes she let her imagination get the better of her and almost ruined a good opportunity.
The last two words cause Edusa’s anger to fade away but she still abruptly pulls the door open to impolitely show Idali out. The Duchess then closes the door and lies her back against it, hoping that this will be the end of it.
She takes a few moments to calm down and gather herself before heading for the window to open it. The air in the room feels hot and it’s making her heart beat faster than it should be from an insignificant misunderstanding.
As Edusa gazes at the sea, she almost regrets giving the woman a chance but decides that this Idali provides a good opportunity to prove her conviction that humans can change, it would give her hope for their faction’s plans to fundamentally change Caeviel and perhaps the Empire.