We embrace for a long while until Yvonne returns at which point Leomi starts transferring all her belongings to the horse. While they get ready, I recover my liangi’s lacquered case from our stash and start packing provisions.
“That’s a good-looking box.” Yvonne comments.
“It’s sealed but I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to conceal it.” I reply, worried.
“You can ask Leomi to put her official crest on it.” She tells me.
“Hm, would it work?” I ask.
“As long as it’s a recognizable Noble house’s crest and you have the proper identification papers for yourself, no official will give you trouble unless you commit a crime.” Yvonne replies.
“Leomi!” I cry out just as she steps out of the pantry with the golden jay back on her left shoulder. She flinches from the sudden noise.
“I heard, and yes I can.” She tells me. “Could you return the segments you cut off from the scanning construct? I checked and I don’t think anyone can use this specialized shell of a thing you made.”
“What do you mean? It’s perfect for that little bird, it should be able to deal with the details.” I tell her, surprised.
“No, Jessica. Not unless it becomes as intelligent as I am and controlling that construct is all it does.” Leomi responds with an amused smile.
“Mhm.” I mutter, throwing the golden jay a look.
The bird inclines its head to the side like it’s asking me what I want. I extend my hand out to link to it and return the scanning construct to its original shape. Meanwhile, Leomi writes me a letter to identify me as under her house’s authority and then uses a crest ring to stamp her lance onto the case, using flow to mark the wood.
“The construct will detect whatever you want with this, but it won’t be specialized anymore so it might be slower and it will definitely consume more energy.” I tell Leomi.
“That’s not a problem, I can make the adjustments to the segments if the jay learns to use it.” She reassures me. “It helps that I saw you do it.”
“I’m also going to need this.” I say while seizing three dozen portions of energy from her that I shape into another scanning construct inside my body.
“Did you pledge to her?” Yvonne asks, surprised.
“Yes.” Lance replies.
“And neither of you told me! How did it happen? When? Where? How did she ask? Did she ask?” The sword-sworn explodes in a flurry of questions aimed at neither of us specifically.
“Kitten will tell you.” I swiftly respond because I get the feeling Yvonne will grill me for days otherwise.
I slip away to grab a couple of long leather straps that I fasten around my liangi’s case so that I can carry it sideways on my back. I then gather the loot we took from the ‘bandits’ in Buton’s dungeon on the table in the main room.
“Before you ask, I’m not taking any of it.” Leomi calls out to me as she steps outside with the bag containing her plate armor.
I frown but don’t complain because I do need a real sword even if I don’t like the flashy appearance these three have. I make the inventory. Two swords, one longsword, three relatively intact hard leather armors, one bow with two dozen arrows, two daggers, and one knife.
Oh, don’t forget the straw hat. Why? We put quite the effort making it. I shrug and throw the hat atop the pile. I can’t carry all of this around, not unless I use the handcart which I don’t want to.
“Take the two male armors and the bow with the arrows.” I tell Yvonne. “I have no use for them.”
“You can sell them.” The sword-sworn notes.
“Too much weight to travel on foot.” I shake my head.
Yvonne throws me a skeptical look, likely because I’m still keeping quite the number of weapons. I shrug because the rest doesn’t weigh all that much. She approaches to help me arm myself.
We set the daggers’ sheathes to the right of my belt and put the longsword to the left, over my hip. We then fasten the two sword sheathes’ belts around my waist, using different punch holes so that they hang at different heights on my left side.
“You’re quite dashing like that.” Leomi compliments.
“Give me a half-hour and you’ll see.” I reply with a wink.
I unfasten the three belts and grab the jacket of the archer’s hard leather armor. I shape an armor-piercing construct to cut most of the left sleeve off and then use a thick string with a bone needle we took from the archer to close the hole for the left arm.
I would like to use the intricate Vuskyt mail-shirt but, while I can conceal it under the jacket, it’s too recognizable as Rykz equipment to risk it. We can always kill us a Noble in self-offense to get a chain-mail. I’m more worried about our lack of arm strength and energy, it’ll be more of an issue in a fight.
Yvonne approaches to help me gear up once more but I stop her to do it by myself. It takes me a lot longer but I have to be able to do it myself. Luckily, Leomi’s tips to do my hair work just as well to tie straps and link buttons.
“Did you talk about Celyz?” Yvonne asks me.
My kitten is outside but I still throw her a dark look and drag her to a corner to relate to her what Leomi’s reaction has been every time I broached the subject. The sword-sworn’s expression grows sad and rather concerned.
“I know we need to talk but what can I do if she refuses?” I question.
“It depends on what you plan to do. You should have broken up with one of them already, Jessica.” Yvonne tells me calmly, without judging. “You can leave the subject aside if you’re not going to return to Celyz, but you two have to talk otherwise.”
“I’m aware.” I utter, feeling my stomach twist. “Can you…” I trail off.
“No.” She replies firmly, shaking her head. “I know very well that both of them want you to make a choice, I’ll try to talk to her about Celyz because Leomi is too fixated but I won’t directly involve myself.”
“That’s plenty.” I reply, pushing back my greed and guilt.
I adjust my belts and unsheathe my weapons one after the other to ensure I can easily access them, from the hunting knife to the longsword. I then gather my luggage at the door. A gourd, two small sacks for my coin and clothes, and a large bag for food.
Yvonne then helps me attach the bags to my long case’s new straps and adjust their positions so they balance well on my back. Leomi returns as I finish preparing and the three of us step outside.
Their two mounts are saddled and foraging snow to find grass, the warhorse is a few sizes larger. The runic shield that disperses kinetic energy which I gave Leomi is on the back of the sword-sworn’s horse.
“You ready?” I ask.
“The chest is a bit heavy.” Leomi notes.
“Just get rid of the dirt then.” I shrug.
We make our way to the brambles behind the house. I draw my longsword and slice the bush apart to reveal the chest and the Little one. I then walk over to Yvonne and throw Leomi a look, implying that she’s the one who has to recover the parasite if she wants me to trust her with it.
She holds my gaze for a while before turning to the Little one. The muscles of her jaw are clenched but her hands are showing no indication she wants to reach for the weapon at her waist. She crouches down next to the spot it buried itself in.
“Yvonne, bring some food please.” Leomi speaks up.
As the sword-sworn departs to complete her task, Lance reaches out to the Little one with a steady hand. I discreetly approach a few meters closer to be in a position to intervene if something goes wrong and prepare a signaling construct.
Leomi taps the top of the parasite’s shoulder, the only part that sticks out of the ground, to no effect. She tries again but it doesn’t react. I frown. We could hide it with a bandage and a sling, make it look like a broken arm.
Too conspicuous and it’ll hinder us, not to mention it wouldn’t stay still. The fact we both know that further convinces me we need to put some kind of distance between us and the Little one.
We’re not that weak. But when things get rough, it might use pheromones to influence us, it might already have on top of the withdrawal and ghostly pain we sometimes experience.
The parasite suddenly stirs and slaps a tendril around Leomi’s wrist, startling both me and her. Her left hand flashes to the dagger at her belt but she stiffens before taking hold of the handle. The Little one is squeezing the flesh of her forearm while stirring underground.
“You okay?” I ask.
“I don’t need help, it just surprised me.” She replies with a tense voice.
I observe the tendril loosen as she pulls her fingers away from the weapon handle. Leomi’s instincts surprise me but her self-control more so. It’s great that she can tell the parasite is responding to her aggressivity. Not so much that the kitten’s emotions are such the Little one felt threatened.
“It thinks you’re about to attack it.” I tell Leomi.
“I know and I’m not.” Lance responds flatly.
“Either way, you need to turn this around or I won’t be able to entrust it to you.” I counter in the same tone as hers. “If you can’t bring yourself to accept it, then challenge it and tame it.” I suggest, knowing she’ll need to understand it if she wants to get anywhere.
“It’s a damn Rykz creation, not a horse.” Leomi replies angrily.
“You’re right, I’ll handle it.” I say, taking a single step.
“Stop.” She mutters.
Leomi carefully reaches out to a tendril wrapped around a thick bramble. She takes hold of it between two fingers and pulls. The Little one slowly unwraps its appendage, following her tentative directions.
Lance makes it let go of the various plants and branches one tendril after the other. The parasite transfers all of them to her arm, making her flinch every time. It is applying much more pressure than has on mine but not so much it’ll cut her blood-flow.
She then digs the Little one out and lifts it out of the ground. The Little one hangs limply from her forearm, no doubt to retain its ability to swing if she attacks. The two remain like this until Yvonne returns.
Lance signals her sword-sworn to angle the chest to make the excess soil fall out. Once Yvonne did so, she puts the piece of meat in and Leomi approaches and lowers the parasite inside the chest. It unfurls its tendrils and goes for the food.
“Stop.” I speak up when Leomi reaches for the lid.
“I succeeded, haven’t I?” She asks tensely.
“You did but you need to reassure it that you’ll be there or it’ll end up bursting out of the chest.” I warn her.
“Would it really if we feed it regularly?” She questions.
“I have no clue but you’re not me so the possibility isn’t negligible.” I tell her frankly.
Leomi frowns but she still nods. She crouches and slowly reaches into the chest to make awkward stroking gestures. As she doesn’t pull back, all I can tell is that the Little one doesn’t reject her stiff pats.
“It’s cute, isn’t it?” I ask rhetorically.
“Not the word I would use.” Lance grunts.
I don’t intervene to tell her she’s done enough and let her decide for herself so she keeps petting the parasite for a quarter of an hour. Unfortunately, her movements remain rigid without relaxing in the slightest. It’s still a big effort on her part.
“Are you willing to entrust it to me?” Leomi asks as she rises.
“Yes.” I reply, showing her my happy grin at the fact she asked.
Leomi lets Yvonne close the chest and drag it to their mounts to head over in my direction. She walks past me without stopping but snags my hand and pulls me along towards a large oak. She pushes my back against it and gently kisses my neck. I pull my hand out of her grip and reach up to caress her firm breasts.
“I’ll miss these almost as much as you.” I whisper, shivering.
“It’s good you put the leather armor on.” Leomi mutters.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I can’t rip it off with my bare hands.” She replies seriously.
She leans in to fiercely kiss me like she’s trying to eat my mouth. I wallow in her passion until she turns gentle. We take turns with each other’s lower lips before ripping ourselves off from each other and splitting, each departing in a different direction.
I return to the house while she hops atop her warhorse and leaves without another word. As I don’t hear the other horse depart, I turn around. Yvonne waves at me with a questioning look. I wave back with a wink to tell her I’ll be okay. She nods and taps her mount’s flanks with her heels.
I walk inside and throw my thick winter cloak on my back before grabbing my liangi case to lift it up on the table. It takes quite an effort to settle the straps on my shoulder and a half. I end up securing the case with a string to keep the left strap from slipping.
Elizabeth checks our accessibility to the weapons around our waist once more, making adjustments because of the cloak even though we’ll be walking so there is a good chance the belts will shift. Then I’ll do it again.
I drop the straw hat on my head and leave the house. Without Leomi, it is no longer my home. I make my way to the village, finding Hale at the gates, already aware that I’m leaving. He tells me that he will leave with Frank in a month or so but that another Hospitalier will take over.
Liz reminds him they’ll be held responsible anyway so I give him a few training tips to make up for my sister’s foul temper. Hey! We find Ms Conner at her shop, hurriedly packing as she gives last-minute instructions to her daughter. The news really traveled fast in the village.
“You don’t need to hurry, Ms Conner.” I politely tell her. “I’m going to make a large detour before heading for Meria so you can leave in a week and still make it there about at the same time as I do.”
“Good, I was worried.” She says with a sigh of relief.
“Mother, you can’t possibly be taking her seriously!” Girl number one exclaims.
“She’ll be back before spring if the arrangement doesn’t suit her, girl.” I speak up to end the argument before it begins.
“You’re old enough to take responsibility for the shop.” Ms Conner tells her daughter, stopping her just as she was about to take issue with me.
“What if there’s a problem?” Girl one asks worriedly while throwing me a spiteful look.
“If you cannot handle the workload when spring comes then ask for help. But if I have to return because you made a mess or were lazy, then you can forget about ever taking over and that’s final. I am prepared to send a letter to call your elder sister back home and have her inherit the shop if necessary.” Ms Conner threatens.
“But sister is about to finish her apprenticeship!” One protests.
“The family business rests on your shoulders, young woman. I am counting on you.” Ms Conner replies sternly before turning to me. “Where shall I go once I reach Meria?”
“I don’t have an address but you can seek Councilwoman Cecil through your husband on my behalf.” I merely tell her what I’ve told her before but my lack of hesitation seems to reassure her. “If you can’t reach her for some reason, Roisia and Rowland Urnan can help or…” I pause to search my memory for a low born but realize I haven’t made any real connections in Meria. “The Hospitaliers in general will know where to send you to meet any of these three people. I won’t have any trouble finding you as long as you leave instructions about where you took lodging.” I finally tell her.
“Alright.” Ms Conner nods briefly. “Have a good trip.”
“You too.” I reply.
I leave the store and head out of the village without making my goodbyes to anyone else. I don’t feel any attachment to this place anymore, only to my parents’ graves but they’re likely watching from the Lake and shaking their heads in dismay.
The weight on my shoulders feels light in spite of all that I’m carrying. I make a thin smile and take longer steps as I make my way south-east through the snowy hills, my gaze set on the future.
— — —
I walk for hours on end, always keeping the mountain to my left. I only stop to eat, sleep, and wash. I am forced to take quite a few detours because I run into cliffs but wasting time doesn’t bother me. I know I’ll reach my destination as long as I keep following the mountainside.
— — —
In the middle of the third day, I experience a painful stitch in the side. I slow down my pace but it soon spreads to affect my heart. The issue grows and becomes agonizing, it forces me to stop to make camp on a large rock for the night and rest.
I reinforce the nourishing, strengthening, and healing constructs anchored to my heart with the two portions of flow they didn’t burn as I journeyed. I sigh at the fact my entire access is being dedicated to keeping my body in shape.
At least, I’m moving a lot faster than I was on the way to the village and it took three non-stop days of trekking on uneven ground covered in snow to drain my endurance. Our stamina is somewhat insufficient but not to the point where we can’t force our body to keep up through sheer will in battle.
We won’t be getting into any pitched battles. We don’t plan to, at least. I sigh because she’s right to doubt we’ll be able to avoid every fight. I wrap my blankets around me, hoping that it won’t start snowing before I wake up.
— — —
The fifth day, I finally recognize the shadow of a steep cliff on the horizon and perhaps even the terrain beneath the snow. I plead the Lake that this is where I’ll find the Rykz tunnel leading into the valley because the scanning construct’s flow is decaying.