The two week deadline Leomi has given me, that I have dreaded, has come and passed without a sound or even murmur on our part. Yet the atmosphere around us grows heavy at times, from the weight of feelings left untold and circumstances unresolved.
Today, luckily, hasn’t been one such day as we left on horseback after Frank and Hale passed by in the morning to tell me that the former is leaving to tour other villages in the area for a month while the latter will be busy visiting the many isolated farms in the surroundings.
We ride out towards the forest with Leomi holding my waist, the jay is standing on her left shoulder. I pull on the reins once we reach the outskirts and carefully dismount while she jumps off into the snow and takes a carrot out of the luggage to give it to me.
“Come on, give it to him.” Leomi encourages me.
I nervously extend my hand towards the horse while keeping it flat with the carrot laying on my palm. The nag reaches down to bite down on the vegetable, using its tongue in very ticklish ways.
“Heh.” I chuckle.
“Blow on the nostrils, he’ll enjoy it.” Leomi advises while rubbing the neck of the golden jay with her index.
I puff at its big nose, giggling as the warhorse pushes harder on my hand. After a while playing, Leomi hooks a long rope to the bridle that she attaches to a tree. We head out into the woods, following a wild path made by animals with me leading.
“Is this where you found that boar?” Leomi asks.
“Yea, I poached the heck out of it.” I chuckle.
“Well…” She hesitates. I pause on the spot to turn around. “It’s not poaching anymore.” I narrow my eyes.
“I doubt the law changed, even if it isn’t enforced.” I note. “And you wouldn’t blink at this sort of crime, what did you do?”
“I didn’t exactly do anything.” Leomi replies awkwardly. “People assume I took it down because I’m the one who brought it to the butcher.”
“Was that on purpose?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes.” She replies looking away.
“Leomi, how can I be E.Vil if you cover up my crimes!” Elizabeth exclaims with half-faked outrage.
“It’s…” Leomi looks down at the ground and kicks some dirt like a kid caught doing something wrong.
“Acting cute isn’t going to work.” Liz warns her. I sigh at the intensity of my voice, it still surprises me how she can make my throat rumble like this.
“I don’t want to have a fight.” She replies, raising pleading gray eyes.
“That would be a first.” I tell her, rolling my eyes. “Don’t worry, I’ll still teach you the blood construct even if you piss my sister off.”
“That’s not it, this just concerns you as well as the Red Dwarf.” Leomi mutters.
“Ah, you shouldn’t have…” I start but Liz cuts my voice off.
Elizabeth links to the time-perception core from our chest. We’ve spent Leomi’s entire flow regeneration these past few days since we created it to keep improving its internal structure and coherence by making use of intent directed unstructured energy.
The core is no longer a golden sphere but a Moebisus loop, a twisted strip with a single surface. Leomi explained with a grimace that geometrical shape is named after a Lisilese mathematician but that it is unpronounceable.
The functional intent is what gives it the shape while the equation it relies on is inscribed along the loop in very concentrated golden characters. It still resembles Suxen’s equation but I’m quite certain she would kill to acquire it to study the changes, especially the fact that the string of numbers and symbols now runs uninterrupted.
Elizabeth activates the segment-less core by making use of unstructured energy to give it a direction, duration, and intensity. A field of flow spreads out from the construct to encompass the entirety of our body. It fluctuates almost identically to the unstructured field I memorized.
Liz brings our hand back with extended fingers. Leomi reflexively raises her arms to guard herself but her movements are sluggish. Liz slashes out with the edge of our hand, slipping under her elbows to strike her stomach.
While she fails to react in time to lower her arms and block, she does manage to stiffen her abdominal muscles because we didn’t make use of a lion strike. Leomi counter-attacks with a left-handed jab aimed at our right cheek-bone.
I seize back control from Elizabeth, who seems determined to lay Leomi down, and lean four centimeters to my left. Her fist brushes past my head, missing her target by a hair’s width.
The core shuts down by itself after these two seconds of activation, having burned through only two-tenth of a portion if the eight-tenth of unstructured energy we burned to direct it aren’t taken into account.
The reason the consumption of flow is now so low is that we’ve memorized the construct inside out and how it reacts during training. I raise my hand and set it in-between us to put an end to this exchange for now.
“People have been showering me with stories and praises, I had to sing Elizabeth’s but I got caught up with the nickname.” Leomi hurriedly explains while remaining on her guard. Hmph.
“It’s not fine but Liz reacted like this because we’ve been on edge.” I reply with a tense voice.
“I know.” Leomi replies with an uncomfortable look on her face. She looks to the cheek-bone she tried to strike. “How are you so quick?” She asks.
“I made progress on the perception construct but I don’t think you can use it because it’s tailored to me specifically.” I explain.
“Any aftereffects?” She questions worriedly.
“Not so far.” I reply. “I’m being careful.”
“Using a brand-new construct on yourself does not qualify as being prudent.” Leomi denies with a deep sigh. “If you want to hit me, get better.”
“Swords aren’t my thing.” I complain. “I can use them but they’re too light for me to feel really comfortable.”
“Ugh.” Leomi groans. “My jay, if you can merely ‘use’ them then there are no experts in this world.”
I chuckle and extend my hand out. She takes it with a relieved smile that quickly turns into a grimace of pain as Elizabeth squeezes with all our strength. I let the two fight it out for a few seconds before turning to keep going along the path.
“You’re not going to ask me to teach you?” I probe as we make our way.
“I can’t afford it.” Leomi replies with an awkward laugh.
“What do you mean?” I ask, throwing her a sideways glance.
“Just a small joke because of how valuable that construct seems to be.” She explains while shaking her head. “Can you tell me how it works?”
“It slows my perception of time.” I reply immediately.
“Oh, my guess was close. I thought it had to do with reflexes.” Leomi murmurs. “This is great, but it’s another target on your backs with the lightning construct, although I doubt anyone will know about this one if you don’t tell them.”
“It’s fine, I told people I was given a runic item for the lightning.” I tell her with a shrug. “And I can camouflage my use of it.”
“You’re going to keep using it?!” Leomi exclaims.
“It’s fine, calm down. It supports one of my constructs and isn’t noticeable, I even have ideas to further conceal it.” I appease her.
“Are you certain?” She asks with an intense look in her eyes.
“I am.” I confirm. Leomi holds my gaze for a while before nodding. “So, do you want me to show you?” I propose.
“The lightning construct?” She asks with a slightly greedy expression.
“No. I swore to keep it to myself.” I deny, somewhat worried about her reaction.
Leomi’s grip on my hand tightens but she doesn’t comment or challenge me. It seems like she isn’t willing or ready to try to make me break my word to the Rykz. It’s doubtful she would ever be considering how important these things are for us.
“The truth is that I don’t think I would be able to control that perception construct of yours.” She says, abruptly returning to the conversation. “When one watches us do battle, it may look like you’re the one relying on inborn instincts to fight while I’m of the learned kind but the reality is opposite. You’ve built your keen senses and instincts by relying on your intelligence. Your skill for battle come from…” She pauses her explanation. “Is it alright to speak freely?”
“I won’t go off as long as you don’t exaggerate your teasing towards my height.” I reassure her. I catch her suppressing an amused smile but decide not to take her to task over it. Later, I want to hear what she has to say.
“What you’ve told me and what I’ve observed match. Your genius has been developed by spending years in pain, isolated on the fringe of society. You protected yourself from threats both psychological and physical by learning to extrapolate people’s intentions from the slightest cues.” Leomi explains. I nod in acknowledgment. “My talent is just as inborn as my reflexes are, I’ve trained and polished them but they remain at the foundation of my style.”
“Hm.” I ponder. “Is the reason we’re improving so much because we’re so different?” I question.
“Exactly.” Leomi confirms with a grin. “We teach each other things we wouldn’t think about on our own or be able to explain. That being said, our differences aren’t as straight cut as my explanation makes it seem.”
“Alright.” I nod. “Now, what is it you wanted to say about me and poaching?” I ask while pushing a branch up for her to pass under.
“You aren’t an equal to me in the eyes of the world.” Leomi utters this simple fact with an angrily curled lip. “I can’t use my power as Grand Commander of the Hospitaliers to protect you without Grace stepping in.” She tells me while throwing me a look of resentment. “So, I moved in to soothe things in case the boar sprung an issue, which was the correct move considering that Templar.”
“Poor Grand Commander, her subordinates have principles.” I mock.
“In the end, it’s your fault for triggering Chief Justicier Odo.” Leomi says.
“You don’t get to blame Grace on me.” I reply with a small chuckle. “You undermined your own power to aggrandize yourself by making your path more popular than it would be as a titled Noble but also more difficult.”
“Because Elizabeth would have fought me if I kept waiting for the perfect timing to establish the Hospitaliers…” Leomi mutters. “And you would have been disappointed in me to miss the chance the Council offered me.”
“Well, yes.” I acknowledge. “But I don’t like the fact that you’re protecting me behind my back like this.”
“Behind your back? I didn’t hide what I was doing and I just told you what I did.” Leomi protests. “And you don’t get to say that when you plan to break half the Empire’s laws.”
“You should have told me before you did anything.” I insist with a frown.
“Are you going to ask me every time before you try to protect me?” She asks rhetorically, utterly defeating me.
“Okay, okay, you win.” I groan.
Leomi grins and makes our hands swing to tell me to accelerate. I smile, glad that she’s eager to see the place I’m taking her to. We keep going in silence for a while. I soon exit the path to guide her through the woods towards the clearing with the brook.
As we make our way between a few bushes, I suddenly feel her pulling on my hand. I stop and throw a glance over my shoulders, finding her standing immobile, gazing at the sunlit clearing with bright eyes with the golden jay soundlessly chirping on her shoulder.
I enjoy her amazement while she savors the sunrays peering through the leaves that remained attached to their branches in defiance of winter. The fact that the jay is singing further piques my curiosity about how it works.
Once Leomi lowers her head, I lead her to the side of the brook to sit down on a relatively flat and dry rock. We remain there cuddling for a while, the jay even takes off with its single wing to fly around us.
“How much does that bird tell you?” I ask her.
“Tell me?” Leomi questions.
“About me.” I add. “I get the feeling it’s giving you cues or warnings.”
“Hm. It doesn’t talk if that’s what you mean.” She denies. “And it’s not only about you, although it works best with you.”
“What does it do?” I press, even more curious now.
“It’s like a second pair of eyes in a way, but not really.” Leomi says. “I think the closest comparison would be a scanning construct but it doesn’t give me information, it merely pulls my attention or gaze at times.”
“So, it warns you?” I ask. “Tells you to look and listen.”
“It isn’t so precise I would describe it that way, but yes.” Leomi agrees with a nod.
“That’s quite an advantage.” I mutter appreciatively as the Little one has fulfilled that role for me sometimes.
“I’m still not used to it.” She admits.
Leomi pulls my hand to her lips and drops a kiss before depositing it on her lap. I throw her an inquisitive look, finding a wistful smile on her face that makes my chest pang.
“It’s been amazing. I’ve had the best time with you, here and back home.” She tells me, looking down to the clear water lazily flowing along the stream. My heart lurches painfully from the complicated emotions her words evoke. “That’s why I don’t want to fight. You’re wasting your potential but I trust you so I’ll wait, I’m not leaving before you’re ready.”
“We don’t have to fight.” I tell her, gazing at the brook as well.
“If only life was so simple.” Leomi says with a chuckle. “We’ve been getting along so well because there are no pressing or important matters to attend to.”
“True, you would be terrible at plowing at first so we’d get into a few arguments.” I reply half-jokingly.
“You’re twisting my words, I didn’t say I would fail because I wouldn’t.” Leomi groans with a smile.
“We‘re also lying to you.” We confess, almost losing control.
“Because I told you to.” She denies with a tightening voice.
We tighten our grips on the other’s hand and remain silent for a long while, letting the shadow of our greed pass before relaxing. Ours is to obtain two marvelous beings for ourselves, hers to control me more than she knows she has a right to.
Leomi nervously pulls on a strand of her hair, moving it before her gaze. She has taken the habit since the roots have turned white even though her hair hasn’t yet grown enough for the discoloration to reach eye-level.
“You could already be working on that project of yours, gather workers, find a locale, contact suppliers.” She suddenly tells me.
“I already launched the project.” I reply, feeling ashamed.
“You didn’t tell me that.” Leomi notes.
“That’s why I’m the one selfishly keeping you here.” I tell her.
“I wouldn’t let you if I didn’t want you to.” She gently reassures me. “Do you want me to…”
“No.” I interrupt her. “I found what help I need, and you haven’t been telling me much either about your plans.”
“There are unsavory facets to expanding the Hospitaliers.” Leomi says. I wonder if this is a non-answer because it tells me a lot even though it doesn’t reveal anything specific.
“It involves Nobility or you would have told me more.” I comment.
“Not only but yes. The houses that have contacted the Hospitaliers do not do so only to cover their bases. They do so to force me to spread my forces outside my sphere of influence, which is why I’m not going to even though I’m going to send more people than I planned at first.” Leomi explains. “We’re already training low born from Hetlan and Izla Meria to fill this role, they will be led by educated children of bourgeois and soldiers.”
“Haah.” I sigh, realizing why she was reluctant to speak of this. “It must weigh on you to put them in such a dangerous situation.” I say emphatically.
“You help a lot.” Leomi admits, leaning to rest her head on mine. “There are concessions involved as well, like respecting privileges that have been abolished here.”
“Temporarily?” I ask.
“Of course, not that I’ve told them.” She tells me with a mean chuckle. “Besides, I’ve made it clear that the Hospitalier Charter stands above any agreement I make.”
“I think I understand your problem with my time-frame.” I say, realizing how short on time she must be to organize this on top of gathering an army.
“No, you’re right to pressure me. If we’re too slow, we will be bogged down.” Leomi replies. “Besides, I would still have to borrow money from bourgeoisie regardless of whether the Empire supports me or not, or how fast I move.” She adds sorrowfully.
“Concessions there too?” I ask.
“You have no idea, the Hospitaliers will be bound to protect guild interests for the next century at the very least.” Leomi answers with a dark chuckle. “But, while most don’t share my exact ideals, our overall goals aren’t incompatible.” She pauses. “To be honest, the Council has much to do with how angry it made me that Elizabeth refused to help me. I won’t tell you more, but I can’t wait for you to meet Cecil. She’s very shrewd but she lacks your vision which complicates her efforts to unite us in a clear direction.”
“My vision?” I question, raising an eyebrow.
“It can be qualified as a stubborn pursuit in providing people the opportunity to screw themselves over, out of their own wills and without interference, if you want.” Leomi corrects herself with a chuckle.
“I would prefer that, yes.” I agree, joining her in laughter.
“We would make wise but overall terrible parents.” She tells me while briefly squeezing my hand.
I gape a little, stunned by how suddenly she brought this up. Leomi makes a long sigh full of regret and yearning. She doesn’t think I was serious, or she doesn’t think there is hope. Is there? Not yet, probably not without help from the Rykz or University. Then don’t torment her. I’m sorry. It’s okay sister, we both understand.