There is a beautiful shop in Meria that sells hats, umbrellas, shoes, dresses, anything Nobility needs, the workers make happen for they are proud high born as well. The outer and inner walls are of white stone with discreet black veins.
This sole building likely holds two-thirds of the marble on the Izla, speaking of the indescribable wealth of the Noble houses who have a stake in the shop. Yet, as of this morning, it has lost all of its glass windows to a small woman who insisted in dancing with an umbrella to determine if it suits her.
If one didn’t witness the interactions that led to that event, one could have believed her to be clumsy but none of the Nobles present would believe so. She barged in with a man and kicked up a fuss about the carpet catching its feet, calling it an ambush.
After much yelling, the woman declared without leaving any doubt that she is a low born yet refused to leave when it was politely explained that the items sold here are made for Nobility and produced with their access to flow.
While the tall man who accompanied her inside laughed, she began talking about taxes while threateningly playing with the hilt of her short broadsword. The high born listening were all refined so they tried to explain calmly but were overwhelmed by her lack of manners.
Things soon fell apart as the employees’ pride overwhelmed their caution and picked a fight that swiftly ended with five black eyes when her companion stopped laughing. A Lady remembers all this and shudders at the memory while the two disasters walk out of the shop on broken glass.
While these Nobles knew they were being provoked, and lacked the authority to kick them out for the Izla’s laws are no longer friendly to them, they did not believe anyone could be so daring as to attack them like this.
Yet, they know there isn’t anything they can do but follow the orders they received for two dresses and an oil-cloth umbrella. They were told in no uncertain terms that they will pay the taxes they owe and serve any client that shows up or lose their livelihoods through incongruous accidents.
While these two brutes didn’t introduce themselves, one wore a Hospitaliers’ uniform while the other seemed like a madwoman that would come back with a hammer to make good on her promise to ruin them if they cling to privileges they no longer have.
— — —
Crack. Rowland steps on a shard of glass and shatters it further, causing the small crowd of spectators to panically scatter away from him, and Jessica whose radiant expression appears more threatening than the destruction they left behind.
He wonders if he went too far by telling Jessica that most high-end shops owned by Nobility have been exempted from taxes but then shakes his head, convincing himself no one knows this is his fault so he can just enjoy this spiteful revenge.
“Was there a need to break their windows?” He asks while suppressing a smile.
“Of course, the air felt stale.” Jessica affirms shamelessly.
“And the porcelain teacups?” He questions.
“That was a genuine accident.” She replies.
“You threw the platter at the wall.” Rowland notes calmly.
“It was heavy, I almost cramped so I instinctively threw it.” She explains.
He bursts out in laughter but then his eyes fall on an elegant face with dark hair and brown eyes. The woman has a rapier by her side and a red scarf around her neck, her uniform is unmistakably that of the Hospitaliers.
Rowland freezes on the spot, reflexively catching the back of Jessica’s cloak to stop her in case she decides to run over the woman blocking their way. He swallows his saliva as he realizes he should probably run.
“Sister.” He murmurs softly.
“Oh, Roisia!” Jessica exclaims.
“Vice-Commander for you, brother.” Roisia utters flatly. “And you, Dame Freepath, should know better than to do this.” She adds, throwing a glance at the shop’s ruined windows.
“S’all part of the plan.” Jessica replies lazily. “No one died.” She belatedly adds as if the possibility was likely.
“You broke the…” Roisia starts with a dark expression that her half-brother recognizes as a warning that something bad is going to happen.
“Hold on!” Rowland interrupts. “The windows were an accident, same for the teacups!”
“…really?” The Hospitalier asks, her tone leaving no mystery as to her disbelief.
“Ask them.” Jessica replies with a shrug. “I’m very clumsy.”
She is affecting a casual appearance but she is afraid of being imprisoned to the point where it feels like her hairs are standing on her scalp. It has something to do with her past but also the fact that Leomi would quickly learn of it and gallop over.
Jessica swears under her breath at Elizabeth’s propensity for running wild when given the chance, to which the sister inside her head scoffs and laughs because they both had fun when purposefully messed with her sister’s equilibrium.
Roisia drags Rowland inside with her hand on her rapier’s handle to ask about the events that led to this. In the end, the shop owners accept Rowland’s apology but not reparations in spite of Roisia’s insistence that they can ask for and receive.
These high born have a good reason for their refusal, their business simply won’t survive if they don’t adapt and none of their houses can afford that loss now that their titles hang on the Council’s goodwill.
It is more beneficial for them to absorb the cost themselves to smooth things over and negotiate an arrangement to pay their taxes owed a long period of time with Councilwoman Cecil who is no doubt the mastermind behind this.
After all, they think, thugs show up out of nowhere and then a person of authority arrived immediately after to resolve the matter before it had a chance to blow up, what else could it be other than a blatant show of force?
While they are being paranoid about this being a well-planned scheme, they are correct in thinking that Roisia’s arrival is no coincidence because she was indeed sent by Cecil as soon as she got the news of Jessica’s tantrum.
As the brother and sister talk to the shop’s employees, who also represent their houses as owners, Jessica takes off at a languid pace. She knows they’ll catch up so she doesn’t feel like waiting.
— — —
Jessica enters a large room with the latest equipment, from a foundry to a mold maker and a whole section dedicated to regular smithery. There are more types of hammers and pliers lying on worktables than she cares to count or believes the blacksmiths use.
There are kilns and large metal frames holding huge vices that they call presses. She has some clue of what most of these things are used for but hasn’t had the time to truly learn because she needs to finish the plowing construct and turn it into runes for the workers to take over.
The initial investment originates in good part from her spoils of war, the rest came from Cecil herself in the form of manpower, supplies, and flow. But the rest of the coin was gathered by Ms Conner who convinced people sent by Cecil to pay for their plows in advance in order to receive them before winter’s end.
It puts some pressure on Jessica but she doesn’t worry too much as she waves aside the apprentices rushing to greet her with a smile. She heads for a side-door to her personal workshop, finding Ms Conner waiting in front of it.
“Ms Conner.” She greets.
“Lila.” The woman corrects once more. “I still can’t believe the scale involved, Miss Freepath. No less than five blacksmiths and triple the apprentices.”
“Ugh, please don’t. You’re twice my age.” Jessica says with a painful groan.
“It wouldn’t be proper since you’re the owner.” Lila denies while shaking her head. “Did you truly not know it was my name?”
“Everyone calls you Ms Conner.” Jessica replies with a shrug. “Do you really believe it sounds more respectable?” She questions teasingly.
“Yes, ironically.” Lila replies with an easy smile, accentuating the wrinkles at the corners of her lips. “The Order has sent an envoy this morning to warn you in advance that the temple guards assigned to us will arrive in the afternoon.”
“Good… or bad. It depends.” Jessica mutters, pondering whether they’ll try to get in the way of her altered plans for Meria.
“You asked for them.” Lila notes before marking a moment of hesitation. “The Order will soon begin delivering flow, a hundred portions daily but I have been told that it can increase to match our needs for production if your endeavor proves successful.” She reports.
“What was that pause about?” Jessica asks, concealing her surprise at the extent of the Order’s generosity.
“I caught some rumors about what you did after you left the village from people who worked in the Keep.” Lila explains awkwardly. “I’m just surprised Kruzser would give their permission within a day considering what I have heard.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Jessica dismisses casually. “The Order is more practical than their legends would lead you to believe. Which, I have learned from experience, is a requirement for establishing said legends without ending up in a ditch.”
“Anyway.” Lila says, moving on. “The plans for the double-plow are as far along as they can be, the smiths only await your work to finalize them.”
“Good, anything else?” Jessica asks.
“I have some numbers to run by you.” The middle-aged woman says hopefully while looking like she expects to be disappointed.
“I don’t do math if I don’t have to, you know that.” Freepath instantly denies and rushes into her workshop, unlocking and locking the door behind herself without a moment’s pause.
The room is wide but utterly dark, there isn’t even a single window to shine light on the multiple desks and papers spread over them. Jessica reaches out and activates a runic fire construct engraved inside the stones of a newly-built chimney.
She feeds a few logs into the flames before settling at a desk and kindling a candle to provide just enough light for her shining eyes to see the ink on the sheets of parchment spread out all over.
She checks her work on the armor-sundering construct she intends to apply to her liangi. She already prepared a worktable with engraving tools in preparation for the modification despite the fact she knows she is far from ready to do so.
The construct is a modified lightning-armor-piercing construct, which was already an altered version of the armor-piercing construct. This time, she made an even wider breadth of changes to increase performance while reducing energy consumption.
She added segments of the kinetic and shredding constructs in order to amplify the physical force delivered on impact while concentrating it on the edge of the weapon.
Because she is taking bits and pieces of various constructs and patching them together, Jessica still thinks of her work as tinkering even though it could cause untold mayhem over its possession if publicly released.
Which would happen even if she removed the lightning construct segments she’s finally succeeded in combining to the armor-piercing construct. That is perhaps her proudest achievement thus far, and she has little clue how she succeeded. It merely happened as far as she can tell.
She was working to arrange the segments used to charge the air in the lightning construct in a circuit that ran along the edge of the weapon she used for testing when she had an epiphany as she watched silver bolts course through the metal.
She closed the circuit to make the lightning circle around in an infinite loop that guides it to enhance the severing segments without letting the electricity escape, which further improved the performance while cutting down on flow consumption.
It then took Jessica a whole afternoon and two dozen portions of energy to merge the severing segments of the armor-piercing construct to the charging segments of the lightning construct, allowing the lightning to run indefinitely inside the blade without creating sparks on the surface of the metal while also reducing energy consumption.
The Empire’s flow-smiths and researchers would react with somewhat violent disbelief if they were told. After all, even the kindest being would feel some negativity or doubt at such a leap being made through the intuition of a creator who then didn’t even look any further to understand.
Jessica is now working on integrating the kinetic and shredding segments to the armor-sundering construct but without looking to merge them because these fulfill two separate and important tasks.
She’s close to perfecting the amplification and concentration of the physical impact but hasn’t yet because it will require her to do much experimentation to optimize the intensity and vectors of the effects.
The integration requires her to make use of an imbroglio of determinants and conjunctions through links that connect to conditional segments. Her goal is to efficiently allocate energy between the pure use of flow to sever and increasing the blade’s physical cutting capability.
She prioritizes flow towards either function by monitoring the degree of resistance encountered by the sundering segments, which consumes as much energy as it needs which means that the less it burns, the less it needs compared to the kinetic and shredding segments which are perfectly capable of taking over once armor is breached.
Jessica relied on her experience in battle to reach the conclusion that she cannot design the armor-sundering construct as if it is meant to cut a solid block of steel when she wants to use it to get past various layers of armor. It complicates her work by a lot but that is because of how tedious it is to solve every little issue that crops up rather than the difficulty.
To Jessica, creating constructs has become akin to writing a sentence with intent in place of words, or crafting a plan step by step, or dismantling an opponent’s defense one strike at a time. Her grasp of the logic of flow increased as her confidence grew and she trained her minds to form clear intents.
As she awaits Rowland and Roisia, she merely reads the runes to check for mistakes and keep the image of the construct fresh in her mind. After a quarter of an hour, she hears a knock on the door and steps outside.
“If this was one of the Councilwoman’s schemes to make every other business held by Nobles to fall into line, congratulations because they will.” Roisia utters without a trace of joy in her voice. “But I give you a warning not to do anything like this again because I will press for an inquiry regardless of whether those you’ve harmed want me to do so or not.”
“I wouldn’t even if it was the plan and it didn’t work.” Jessica replies expressionlessly. “I really did break stuff because I’m clumsy.”
“Rhm.” Roisia grumbles and fiddles with her red scarf while she looks for signs of deception. “You’re either a really good liar, or a terrible warrior, and I know what’s what.”
“There is a third option that involves drinking beer.” Jessica says with a grin that Roisia doesn’t return. “But, anyway, it won’t happen again. I caused enough trouble today to stir Thrin’s pot.”
“I’ve ordered Rowland to write a report that I’ll send to the Grand Commander along with mine, Miss Jessica.” Roisia says threateningly.
She inflects her irritation into the name but the recipient stiffens for different reasons than the tone. Jessica suddenly wonders whether she blew her sister’s cover and if Leomi will use this as an excuse to put her in chains, which she’s sure she would enjoy breaking under duress.
“I’ll be looking forward to what comes next even more then.” Jessica utters with a cocky smile.
Roisia stomps off, leaving Rowland standing there with a barely repressed grin. Jessica chuckles along but he tries to wink with his single eyelid, ruining the mood with the awkward sight.
“Don’t do that.” Jessica says, cringing inside.
“You manage all this? You?” Rowland asks skeptically while looking around to get back at her.
“Ms Conner does, she’s more trustworthy than you.” Jessica replies flatly. “You know the first thing she said to me?”
“What?” Rowland question, curious.
“That she couldn’t handle everything so she’ll be hiring someone to deal with the finances and pay while she manages the people.” Jessica explains, leaving so much out that it would be impossible for him to connect the dots.
“I don’t understand.” Rowland replies with a frown. “Isn’t that what anyone would do?”
“You don’t get it because you don’t get people.” Jessica says with an exaggerated sigh.
“I came back here because you said you could train me, Jessica Freepath. Not to play charades.” Rowland tentatively pushes back, refusing to let her push his buttons.
Elizabeth laughs in Jess’ mind at her failure to trigger his anger to which Jessica replies that she’s testing his character and smarts because he’s technically a Noble which means he has to make up for that to be good enough for Yvonne.
“I told her she could determine her own pay and she threw that away without a second thought, she likely never even realized she could overpay herself or that I was testing her.” Jessica explains.
“Oh.” Rowland whispers, impressed by Ms Conner’s honesty.
“If you need to contact me and I’m not around, you can trust her to relay information.” Jessica says, revealing why she brought the woman up in the first place. “I’ll make time to teach you every morning but I’ll be very busy for most of the month so don’t get yourself into trouble.”
— — —
Huan Thrin slams his desk in anger after hearing Lady Tuala Hakarth report three incidents. She found herself the target of a one-armed warrior when she went against his advice to scout the location of the morning’s ambush, a warrior who went ahead to cause two more incidents.
Those didn’t directly involve house Hakarth but the fact that the slighted shop contacted her through their houses instead of him is a clear sign that his grip on the faction has slipped in the span of a single day, further delaying his goal of being chosen as the leader despite the fact there are no other candidates.
“Who is this Jessica Freepath?” Thrin asks Lady Tuala between grit teeth, finding that the first name sounds familiar but can’t recall the occasion during which he heard it.
“We don’t know. She appeared out of nowhere.” The woman replies, her jaw no less clenched. “Her identity matters not if we eliminate her.”
“No one does what she has without a death-wish or a scheme.” Huan replies condescendingly. “Either makes her dangerous for us to confront head-on.”
“Why did she mention bandits from Buton’s Dungeon?” Tuala asks directly, unwilling to get into a losing debate by arguing she’s more dangerous because her pride is already in tatters.
“If I had to guess, I would say she slaughtered some of the people that the cowards who fled the Rykz sent to recover their funds.” Thrin replies dismissively. “It’s a threat and a provocation regardless of what the story behind that is.”
“The Hospitaliers…” Lady Tuala starts.
“Have apologized!” He explodes before this woman he now believes stupid suggests they expose the extent of their influence to weigh on such a meaningless scuffle. “And it was Rowland Urnan who was off-duty from being injured in our ambush! How do you think it will go for us if Grace Odo is called to investigate with her powers as a Justicier?!”
“She lacks any legitimacy to condemn us.” Lady Tuala Hakarth replies arrogantly.
“Legitimacy.” Huan bitterly spits out. “Legitimacy is born of power and tradition, Lady Tuala, and we have none to squander now that Count Urnan has been provoked.”
“Because of your mistake.” Lady Tuala replies without pity.
“It was worth the risk to conceal our method of communication.” Huan explains contritely. “The letter was sent to our King without issue so our gains superseded our losses in that matter… until this Jessica Freepath showed up.” He grunts. “We shall ask all our friends to investigate who she is and whether she can be bought from that whore’s service.”
“About the ball…” Lady Tuala mentions, trailing off.
“We shall attend and plan for no more until we have more information.” Huan Thrin utters flatly. “Hopefully, Elizabeth Vil will show up and cause cracks we can exploit with King Cenwalh’s influence behind us.”
“Some have caught sight of the mask in Meria, she will attend one way or the other.” Lady Tuala mentions suggestively.
“And how do you propose we find her identity? Or defeat her if we do?” Huan asks with a frustrated voice. “She fought Duke Meria’s best soldiers for a half-hour without showing any signs of fatigue, are we meant to find an army in the basement to throw at her?”
“So we merely keep visiting the Order until the ball?” Lady Tuala questions.
“And gather information to make our play through Templar arbitration or wait for spring, yes. Unless you want to call a gathering to change course.” Thrin proposes with full confidence she won’t.
After all, he thinks that no matter how stupid this Hakarth is, she has to be as aware as he is that their allies are more likely to retreat out of fearful caution than to take a risk after the morning’s events.
Lady Tuala shakes her head in denial and stomps out, bottling up her anger to slowly boil until she releases it to take her revenge for the humiliation the warrior inflicted by defeating her with a tankard of beer.