The large galley enters Meria’s docks in the morning a few tens of minutes after Duchess Hetlan’s ship departed but the crowd has already mostly dissipated as it is known much of the crew is composed of the lowest low born.
A few merchants remain with thin hopes that they brought back goods. That roll of the dice turns out to be a lucky one for these small time traders as they are the first to strike a conversation with captain Ruth when she disembarks and learn of the merchandise brought back from the Odo demesne.
Sailors are dragged out of taverns where they were sleeping on beds, tables, and counters by their ships’ owners to quickly carry the crates off the ship. In that chaos, few notice a small fishing boat sail approach a distant pier.
On the prow is a tall woman with light blue eyes, short black hair, and a hard face with traits dug by harsh times. She carries both a longsword and a short-sword at her waist but the weapons are unremarkable if well-made.
Her thick winter cloak is gray and the clothes beneath black as those of mourning. She hops off the fishing boat as soon as it drops its anchor and walks away towards the warehouses with a long stride.
Dame Vikiana, ex-Exemplar of the Order, makes her way to the central plaza where a small hooded silhouette with brown hair steps out of the market’s crowd to intercept her.
She immediately recognizes the woman who stopped her, without needing to rely on the crest of a gray wolf howling beneath a lance embroidered on her cloak. The two hug briefly before slipping away into a crowded tavern to settle at a corner table.
“Yvonne, how have you been?” Vikiana asks.
“Stressed out, your daughter is a handful.” She chuckles.
“Where is she, and how is she doing?” The mother asks worriedly.
“Likely with…” Yvonne narrows her eyes and throws a look around. “Elizabeth.” She says with a pointed look at Vikiana, deciding that it’s best not to mention Jessica at all here.
“You left them alone, together?!” Vikiana exclaims before lowering her voice.
“They didn’t give me a choice, but they’ll be fine.” Yvonne mutters. “Now that you’re here, though, I can lead you to your daughter.”
“No, it’s fine. You’ve done more than enough for our family already.” The woman sighs. “I know where to go, you should stay and live your life.”
“You know.” Yvonne repeats with a sigh. She expected as much but wasn’t sure. At least, she thinks, she won’t have to play any covert games to protect Jessica’s identity from Vikiana. “I’m only keeping an eye on the Thrin as a favor for a Councilwoman, there are plenty of people on the job. I was waiting here to welcome your return anyway.”
“What about your future? You can’t be a sword-sworn your entire life simply because Leomi and Elizabeth can’t get along without tearing each other apart.” Vikiana protests, feeling indebted to Yvonne and unwilling to see her tread the same path of thorns she took.
“They’re my friends, and yes I can.” Yvonne denies stubbornly.
“Sometimes, it is best to let relationships break Yvonne.” Vikiana utters with a hard voice.
“Or nurture them until they can thrive on their own.” The smaller woman counters with a gentle smile.
Yvonne thinks to mention the lie Vikiana used to trick her into deceiving the Rykz, which ended up causing Jessica’s capture but she immediately dismisses the thought. It isn’t in her nature to attack a someone who has lost almost everything and she does not believe she is the one who is owed an apology.
“You wanted to open a theater.” The Exemplar presses.
“I can do that when I’m older.” The sword-sworn shrugs as she deflects. “And I’m not staying simply out of duty, there is great value in helping them change the world.”
“They’re reckless but I am not in a position to criticize them.” Vikiana utters with a heavy sigh.
“You couldn’t have known the Princess had a Queen’s access.” Yvonne argues, trying to appease her.
“It was already a mistake to think we could retreat if we encountered the Princess.” The ex-Exemplar shakes her head with grief. “It would still have been able to defeat us if it discarded its hopes of survival.” Yvonne places her hand on the woman’s wrist in a comforting way, giving her some time. “I need to go, I don’t trust these two alone together.”
“We have time for a meal.” The sword-sworn replies.
Vikiana shakes her head but Yvonne still calls to a barmaid to order food. The two have a meal together, sharing their stories but keeping many sensitive matters like Elizabeth Vil’s identity under wraps to discuss later.
— — —
Long after Dame Vikiana and Lady Yvonne have left the tavern, one of the women from a table near theirs picks up her worn cloak to head outside. She paces herself as she makes her way to the slums, keeping to the patience she’s shown so far.
She arrives at a building with wooden outer walls are covered in soot. She slips inside through a side-door in an alley, finding a rectangular table in the main room with a dozen seats but only one man sitting at the head with his butler standing a step behind at the ready.
The man’s clothes have no crest but his status as a Noble is clear from the quality of his tunic and the rolls of parchment he is examining, not to mention the manservant waiting on him. He looks to be of almost thirty springs, has blue eyes, and a long black ponytail.
“Dame Vikiana and Lady Yvonne left Meria together a few hours ago, Count Thrin.” The woman hurriedly reports with a bow.
“I’ve told you to call me Lord Huan, I knelt before King Cenwalh two moons ago but that does not mean the title is once more ours.” He replies, waving his hand to tell her to take a seat.
“I apologize for being late, I had to wait for all those marked as possible spies to leave before coming over.” The woman explains, remaining where she is without daring to move.
“It is quite alright, seamstress. One does not casually tangle with an Exemplar, even if cut from the Order’s flow resources.” The man at the table replies without looking up. “We will not be pursuing them so you can take your time and have a good meal before telling me all that you’ve overheard.”
The butler immediately departs for the kitchen. Lord Huan looks back down to the piece of parchment he’s been examining. It contains a list of the Izla’s Noble houses who allied with his after the peace with the Rykz as well as details about those who kept their titles, it baffles him that only a third still have access worthy of their status.
— — —
Rowland flips over the messaging construct a courier just delivered to him as he stepped out of the Hospitalier’s temporary barracks in the morning. He breaks the seal with his flow. He sighs as he reads that Yvonne just canceled dinner and might not be back for weeks.
He heads to the armory to arm himself. He fits his gambeson and then chain-mail before fitting the white and light-blue tabard on before grabbing his weapons, a longsword and axe that he fits at his belt.
Rowland then departs alone for the docks to be there if the patrols need supervision and keep his one green eye on a specific fishing ship. The hours go by uneventfully until he spots a merchant he recognizes hand over a paper letter to an ordinary looking sailor.
The two split up after exchanging a few words. The sailor heads to the ship he is here to watch and talks to the captain who gives out orders to the crew. Rowland immediately swears and walks out of the area towards the slums at a normal pace, going off into a sprint as soon as he enters an alley.
What he’s just witnessed confirms that the ship is being used to courier news from the Izla, and that the merchant is a go-between. He hates that he has to stand-by and report the information instead of seizing the ship along with what they’re sending out.
It’s more than likely the letter would just burn if anyone other than the recipient breaks the wax seal but it isn’t certain and it would be safer to deny these Nobles’ every avenue of communication they find out.
Yet, he does understand his half-sister’s orders to observe as it will allow them to identify the whole network over time and manipulate them with false information as well as take them down in one fell swoop when the time comes.
Still, he dislikes oblique methods and thinks Elizabeth Vil’s brutality has more merit once enmities become irreconcilable, which is the case here no matter the fact that blood has yet to be openly spilled between their sides.
To him, this period of time is merely a cease-fire between them and King Cenwalh’s faction. Since Elizabeth Vil showed him the truth of things, he’s been observing the changes to Izla Meria and cannot deny that her slaughter of Nobility is what made it possible.
Had she not slaughtered those few high born officers and demanded Duke Meria’s execution, then Nobility at large wouldn’t have watched in fear while the Council kept plundering their privileges and belongings after the Rykz left.
If the Council wasn’t given power, then the Izla would be on the verge of starvation right now instead of having purchased enough grain to be able to trade some against steel weapons.
He hopes Duchess Hetlan purchased a sufficient amount to mitigate the loss of her fertile southern lands to the King because, otherwise, she’ll have to trade good iron for food which would be bad for them because that’s exactly what Cenwalh wants to happen.
He slows down once he reaches a dark alley not far from Madame Cecil’s brothel, considering he shouldn’t make too much noise from now on. He walks into the red building’s street and stops still, placing his right hand on his sword’s handle.
There is a man and a woman waiting there with skin too good to have been raised like he was, Rowland immediately concludes that they are Nobles. The fact that they’re out of breath is what gives them away as pursuers more than their presence here in the morning.
He touches the scar running down the left side of his face, from his forehead to his chin, as he inspects their builds. The man is thin but his muscles show he’ll be fast while the woman is naturally bulky in stature.
He draws his sword and axe, choosing to destroy them head-on if they have the guts to try to stop him. The man and woman try to play it casual by sending him curious looks but soon give up to close the distance to him.
“Not bad for a bastard.” The woman sneers as she pulls a mace from behind her back.
“Merely a rat’s smarts.” The man dismisses. “Spying on his betters to steal breadcrumbs.”
“Thrin sent you?” Rowland asks directly.
“The Lord has no need to concern himself with the city’s crawling sewers.” The woman spitefully replies.
Rowland ignores her to focus on the man who has yet to draw a weapon. He considers himself lucky that he’s wearing a gambeson and chain-mail since the two are likely to be about as skilled as he is.
He has no doubt that there are people watching from windows or shadows but they won’t show themselves to have their flow drained even if they had pledged their access to the Hospitaliers, they might if this wasn’t two against one.
Unfortunately, the help inside the brothel won’t be coming in time since the three of them just got here from the docks without warning. As he expected, the woman charges with her mace held high while the man assembles an air-blade about a meter and a half wide.
Rowland moves backward to buy himself time to split his two portions of flow in three, reserving one for lion constructs while using the other on a defensive construct and armor-piercing one that he doesn’t activate.
The woman’s weapon takes a golden glow as well. Rowland estimates it’ll either be a shredding construct or a defensive one since it’s a mace and there is a higher chance of the latter because she waited for his sword to turn golden to make it.
Rowland catches the man moving to his right so he lion’s steps back and to his left to keep the woman between them. That’s all he has time to do before he has to brace and receive her charge.
Her mace slams into the sword he raises to guard without shattering it. Her eyes narrow, realizing that the rat didn’t panic and activate the armor-piercing construct because her defensive construct loses only a tiny fraction of energy.
She raises her leather gloved left hand and activates the runes to intercept the axe aimed at her shoulder. The impact of the weapon on the glove pulverizes it and her palm is superficially cut but that allows her to close her fingers on the blade.
Rowland swears as he feels that the woman has strengthened her muscles to lock him into place by holding his axe and pressuring his sword. He catches his other opponent moving to flank his right from the corner of his eye and sighs in relief that he moves too close to the left side of the street for him blind spot to be exploited.
He pulls the armor-piercing construct from his sword and transfers it to the axe. Before he can finish and sever the woman’s hand, she shoves him back before then retreats with a lion’s step, leaving him wide open for the air-blade.
Rowland merely stumbles for a few steps but it’s enough to prevent him from dodging the air-blade. He dismantles the armor-piercing construct and uses the energy to reinforce his defensive construct.
He uses the split second he has left to activate a lion strike and throw his axe at the woman. The air-blade bursts together with his chain-mail, the two shatter and their golden light vanishes.
The gambeson takes the brunt of the impact for him but that doesn’t save half his rib-cage from being cracked. The violent release of compressed air at point blank sends him flying at an angle towards a building. His left shoulder impacts the wall and makes a dry snap.
“Uurrh!” Rowland growls as he crumbles on the ground.
His green eye falls on the axe planted in the center of the woman’s torso. She’s still standing and there’s little blood flowing out of the wound but that doesn’t change the fact that she’ll be dead soon, likely suffocation from the way she’s gaping.
“Margery, finish him!” The man calls out.
Rowland forces himself to chuckle mockingly even though it intensifies the terrifying pain in his chest. The man throws him a glance and notices the absent axe. He rushes to the woman, just in time to stop her from falling backward.
“No.” The man mutters, pain in his eyes.
Rowland swiftly gathers the flow he has left, about one-sixth of the two portions he started with, and creates a tiny air-needle inside his sleeve with it. He waits in agony for the man to finish him, rather hoping that he only had enough energy for the one air-blade.
Anger burns in his heart from being stopped here after the week he spent waiting, and waiting. He wonders how they figured out he was the one to intercept but it could simply have been him being too obvious or them being aware that he’s related to Roisia.
“I’m going to cut the flesh off your bones, bit by bit.” The man growls threateningly as he draws a sword from his back and approaches.
“T’was but a hunting dog, yet you mourn the pet.” Rowland utters through his grit teeth. “Weakling.” He mocks with a scoff.
The man howls and charges with the blade held high overhead but not behind his back, clearly he retains enough clarity of mind to prepare in case his immobilized opponent launches a desperate counter with his longsword.
Rowland waits patiently, pushing back the dark cloud of unconsciousness. Once the man is a single meter away, he lets go of his sword to raise his hand and propel the weak air-needle in his sleeve at the Noble’s throat.
The man fails to react in time and the construct easily penetrates the left side of his neck to burst and make a small hole into the flesh. The Lord pauses as his blood splashes out, looking utterly stunned for a moment at the realization that he’s going to die.
Yet, he doesn’t fall instantly. The Noble finds the will and strength to lash out with his sword. Rowland tries to dodge but his arms are so weak that he crumbles back against the wall.
“Rhaah!” Rowland yells in pain and defiance as the blade leaves his eye’s field of vision in its course towards his head.
The blade doesn’t have enough weight behind it to directly cut his skull, it glances off the side of his head. The tip slices through his hair to land on the remains of the chain-mail covering his broken left shoulder, further shattering the bones beneath in spite of the gambeson.
Rowland merely twitches as the first impact already knocked him out. The Noble tries to raise the weapon again but fails and falls down to his knees before dropping on his right side, dead because blood could no longer reach his brain with a few centimeters of his jugular blown to pieces.
— — —
Two women stand on a snowy hill, holding their horses’ bridles as they look down at two other women sparring in the far distance. They’ve been standing there for the good part of an hour, watching as they exchange blows so quickly that a sword-master would have trouble following them.
“See, they’re getting along just fine.” Yvonne speaks up once she’s certain her relief won’t be obvious.
“They’re fighting.” Vikiana notes.
“But look at their faces, they’re happy.” Yvonne says.
“That’s what worries me.” The ex-Exemplar replies with a sigh.
“Will you go down to see them with me?” Yvonne asks.
“…” Vikiana ponders for a long while before answering. “What kind of mother could bear to take that smile off her daughter’s face? No, I will travel to the abandoned Hive and meet with Master Amand.”
“What should I tell them?” The sword-sworn asks.
“That I’ll return to Castle Lance before spring.” Vikiana replies.
“Vague.” Yvonne mutters.
“Tell Jessica… No, never mind. We’ll meet if the Lake wills it.” The woman takes a deep breath, feeling a weight off her shoulders as her daughter and her lover lock swords to kiss. “Perhaps their way is the correct one, duty dependent on another’s ideals leaves an empty heart in the end.”
Vikiana hops atop her mount and leads it to trot downhill without a single glance back while Yvonne remains. The sword-sworn is saddened by her liege’s mother but finds that the progress made is sufficient for now since she didn’t comment on her daughter’s choice to be with a woman.