Vikiana leads the young man she tried to track down through Meria with an escort of Hospitaliers, hoping that Jessica didn’t listen to her self-destructive tendencies and told him to reveal her identity for revenge.
She enters a tailor first and buys the child a pair of boots and sturdier clothes as well as a winter cloak. Ulf’s eldest remains utterly silent throughout, like he isn’t even present in the room.
His head is too full of emotions to focus on the present after hearing the story of what happened to his father. He left home after a temple guard in disguise showed up some weeks ago to talk about Teva and his father.
He read between the lines and figured out that the Templar merely followed up on disappearances but found out enough to piece together the fact they worked for the Rykz, the goal being to find Elizabeth Vil.
Ulf’s child, having been tormented by not knowing what happened for months, not believing that his father could fall, decided to leave when he realized the Order believed that Elizabeth could still be on the Izla.
He wanted to be discreet in Meria but people kept ignoring him so he refined his questions and attracted attention once he let slip he knew her height. Unsavory people approached him and asked if he lost someone close to her or if he sought her help.
He tried to lie about needing her help but his voice and eyes betrayed him. Soon after, a man found him in a dark alley and said he could help him get his revenge. Ulf’s eldest refused because he only sought knowledge.
The next day, a woman with Elizabeth’s mask caught him in a similar alley and pretended to have answers. Angered, the fourteen-year-old called her a fake and that’s the last he remembers before finding himself tied up in a cellar with scrapes all over his body like he was hit by a carriage and rolled on pavement.
People full of anger and resentment kept walking down the stairs to question him but none were willing to go further than slapping him out of frustration. The two leaders, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have such reservations but neither did they seem to care much about what he could tell them.
The two or three days the kid spent in that basement terrified the child. It wasn’t so much the unrelenting questioning but being immobilized with no recourse after spending most of his life free in the woods.
These people made him pledge his access to them as is done for crime-slaves so he couldn’t even commit suicide for lack of energy, not that he seriously considered it but anyone would have the idea in such a situation.
That morning, he woke up to hear a battle upstairs and prayed to the Lake for it to be the real Elizabeth Vil. He didn’t truly believe she would strive to rescue innocents because he met her so he knows better than to trust the overblown legend, yet she became his only light in his desperation.
When the Hospitaliers cleared the debris and stepped downstairs, he felt both relief and disappointment. Yet, these few days taught him to keep his mouth shut. He followed, lost in his own mind until his eyes fell on Elizabeth Vil.
He couldn’t help but be baffled into further silence as he realized that his prayer to the Lake actually came true. Yet, the conversation that followed threw him back into deep disappointment.
It turns out she didn’t come for him at all, but that this Dame Vikiana did. Ulf’s eldest felt some disdain at the Hospitalier for deceiving himself when Elizabeth Vil, or Jessica Freepath as they called her, admitted to having had no knowledge.
Unbeknownst to him, his trust for the woman increased because of her unrestrained honesty. Perhaps more than he would have if she came to rescue him. That impression was further reinforced when she explained to him how to take revenge without putting himself at risk.
The story that followed shook him to his core, the description of the slaughter in Castle Lance which the adolescent knows wasn’t half as harsh as the battle that followed in the plains and led to a truce.
His father’s death, on the other hand, made him feel pride. He spent so long imagining the worst, like execution by hanging, that finding out Ulf sacrificed himself to save his companions turned into relief. If his father didn’t save Teva and Elizabeth Vil’s life, then the war would still be ongoing now.
While Ulf’s eldest can’t rejoice, and feels in fact horrified at how his father’s other companions betrayed them, it is enough for him not to be ashamed and return home with his chin held high even in the face of Nobility. He can’t tell anyone but their family doesn’t have the habit of seeking light.
Vikiana brings him to a few shops and then to eat dinner before going to the docks where Roisia awaits. The two women discuss together for a while before leading him to a sloop with five sailors who are loading crates.
Two Hospitaliers arrive soon after with a pouch containing letters to deliver to Tel Shiya’s Royal Palace, mostly greetings and reports to inform Telnur that the Izla remains committed to sending their army.
While the number of fighters that they will send remains unknown, it remains a gesture of importance because of the rarity of the event. Roisia included a seemingly unrelated report about the number of peasants from the mainland that traveled to Port-Odo to take refuge on the Izla.
It is a subtle way to indicate that there will be many soldiers responding to Grand Commander Leomi Lance’s call to arms. Yet, the Vice-Commander’s mind is occupied by more pressing issues.
“Some secrets can’t be revealed.” Roisia whispers to the adolescent as he embarks.
“Roisia!” Vikiana calls her out even though she didn’t hear what was said. “Jessica made her decision, stay out of it.”
The two women face off for a while but Roisia ends up backing off because insisting might push the kid to choose wrongly. Vikiana steps onto the ship once she departs and hands over a sturdy bow to the child that she saw him admire in a shop.
“Don’t go back to your village in the straight line. Ask them to show you a map and disembark on a random beach. Keep an eye on your back as you travel and don’t leave tracks if you can help it.” She advises.
“I know the wilderness.” The adolescent reassures with a curt tone.
“Good luck.” Vikiana tells him with a thin smile before turning to the five sailors and two Hospitaliers. “Remember my face because I’ll recall yours and so will she.” She calmly informs them.
Vikiana extends her arm out to point at a warehouse. They all turn to find a short woman with messy black hair toying with the hilt of her broadsword in the shadows. The adolescent stares at her until the sloop departs and fades into the falling night.
— — —
Jessica wakes at dawn the next morning and heads out of the brothel to head for the central plaza, finding Vikiana already waiting for her in the deserted street. The two make their way through the city together.
“Why were you waiting for me?” The short one asks.
“You tell me.” The tall woman responds. “It’s understandable you barely had a nap before going to the docks but not so much you would rise with the sun considering your injuries.”
“I just broke a couple fingers.” Jessica replies with a shrug.
“Why did you go in? You know the right move would have been to back off once ambushed.” Vikiana probes.
“Because, according to… shit.” Jessica swears as she spots the two people she was about to mention walking down the street towards the brothel. “Because, according to Nahl and Rowland, I’m not right in the head.”
“Yes, but it hasn’t turned you stupid before.” Vikiana notes provocatively.
“You’ll find out why I could only go forward today, hopefully.” Jessica replies with a smirk, refusing to bite.
She doesn’t want to reveal the fact that she plans to intercept Thrin and his faction when they reach out to the Order for Arbitration. She thinks that they’re likely to decide to go to the Temple this morning to use Elizabeth Vil’s breach of her exile since her presence in the city was ‘confirmed’ the day before, just long enough for these Nobles to gather.
Jessica feels annoyed at Rowland, Nahl, and Vikiana because their presence could hinder her from crushing Nobility. At the same time, she hopes that the Nobles won’t show up because she’s in a sub-optimal state with her wounds and without most of her gear.
Not to mention that she had to leave the Vuskyt mail-shirt behind because many have seen her wear it so she’s merely wearing clothes and a broadsword right now. Yet, she doesn’t fear or doubt herself because the challenge will make her victory all the more impressive, she trusts her skills.
“Were you really looking for the kid yesterday?” Jessica asks as the two men approach. “And how did you know he was there?”
“Which kid?” Vikiana asks with an amused voice.
“You know. Answer with yes or no.” The short warrior demands, losing her temper in an instant because it felt like a jab at her height.
“Yes.” The ex-Exemplar replies. “I asked around, the Nobles living in the area were quite amiable, most work for the Empire.”
“Okay.” Jessica nods, thinking it enough to confirm that Vikiana believed her when she said she wasn’t on a rescue mission. “How did you make it to the manor from the rampart, by the way?”
“Yes, but no.” Vikiana answers with a poker face.
Jessica frowns and glares at her lover’s mother. The two challenge each other for a while but the tall veteran fails to keep her composure and a huge grin that splits her face, forcing the short warrior to scowl to repress a laugh at having been played.
“You planning to break more bones today?” Rowland asks with a smile as he falls into step.
“Only Nahl’s.” Jessica replies with a crooked smile.
“What did I do?” The Templar protests, not calling on his status which should theoretically protect him because it would backfire.
“I’m not sure.” The short woman replies easily. “But that’s the sort of thing you figure out afterward.” Nahl gapes for a moment, in dismay over her uncommon sense.
“How about enjoying your newfound reputation for a day before undermining it?” He finally asks with an air of hope. “The entire city was talking about how courageous you were to fight with a group of outlaws in order to rescue a kid only to have Elizabeth Vil drop the building on top of you.”
“Outlaws, huh?” Jessica notes, smiling because of Liz’ frustration at being blamed for the manor’s collapse. “Not Nobles?”
“Two were identified as deserters.” Rowland informs her. “And one of the archers that escaped was recognized as being part of Duke Meria’s elite guard but he resigned after the man was executed.”
“Hm, that’s not good.” Jessica says, looking worried about what that implies.
“The entire garrison has been deployed to patrol the city.” Rowland tells the group. “The Grand Commander is bringing a full regiment of Hospitaliers and the Chief Justicier should be escorted by a company so the city will be crawling with our people by noon. Elizabeth Vil won’t be able to make a move.”
“Dammit.” Jessica swears and stops in the middle of the street. She coincidentally spots a patrol of Hospitaliers passing by, taking that as a confirmation that the event she’s waiting for isn’t going to happen today.
“Isn’t that good news? Master Amand also deployed all the Templars to find Elizabeth Vil and the outlaws.” Nahl speaks up.
“It means that no one is going to make a move today.” Jessica says without explaining why that’s bad. “Why is the Order looking for E.Vil?”
“The Order always guards against evil.” Vikiana speaks up.
“Dark humor doesn’t suit you, old woman.” Jessica snaps back, feeling uncomfortable because of the threat hanging over both their heads.
“She used the mask for a personal vendetta, but Master Amand is merely looking to meet her.” Nahl explains, not quite following the exchange between the two women.
“Too afraid to cause unrest if he tried to arrest her in Meria?” Jessica asks with a mean tone.
“That’s part of it, yes.” The Templar stiffly admits.
Jessica sighs and heads for her workshop, trusting her assessment of the situation. She is certain that Huan Thrin, who has been so careful and quiet despite her provocations, wouldn’t let his faction make a move now when the situation is so unstable and the Hospitaliers fill the streets.
“Nahl, Rowland, Vicky, we’re having a banquet!” Elizabeth suddenly exclaims, startling them all except Jessica who smiles at her sister’s enthusiasm.
“A party?” Nahl blinks.
“I’m apparently going to receive quite a few people today.” Jessica says without explaining much.
She departs for the workshop at double-pace, leaving the three quite confused in her dust. Vikiana shakes her head and follows along, her eyes scouring the surroundings for threats in the same way as Jessica’s.
Both are now more vigilant than they were. Very aware that the impostor and the man gathered people with possible grudges instead of hiring simple mercenaries or bandits. It makes for more motivated subordinates, perhaps to the point where they wouldn’t fear death.
— — —
Ms Conner sends the accountant out to go present his report on the workshop’s weekly consumption of flow to the Order and returns to her desk, worrying about the effects the rumors that shook the city the day before.
She received a number of inquiries disguised as invitations as well as offers to buy their plows from people who hadn’t heard of their work before. It all seems positive to her so far but she feels unsettled because of the unbelievable stories about a girl she’s known since she was born.
What surprises her the most are Jessica’s feats in battle rather than the evaluations that Dame Freepath may be a prodigy on par with Countess Leomi Lance, unlike Elizabeth Vil who only matches her in matters of war.
“Ms Conner?” A woman’s voice calls out, startling her.
“Yes?” Lila asks timidly, turning around to find Dame Vikiana at the door.
“If I may, I wish to discuss Jessica’s youth with you.” The tall veteran declares straightforwardly.
“I was just thinking about that.” Ms Conner says with a smile because the woman’s temperament seems as good as her daughter’s who won the village’s heart in but a few weeks despite their guarded attitude.
“Would you share your thoughts with me?” Vikiana asks while taking a chair.
“Well, I knew Jessica was a genius but I thought she lost the spark until a month ago.” Lila says with a sad expression that doesn’t quite suit the context of her declaration.
“A genius?” Vikiana blinks in surprise. “She is talented but…” She trails off.
“I’m not exaggerating.” Ms Conner tells her. “She learned everything the village had to teach her by the age of eight and then more. Her parents spent almost without counting as she grew older, even selling their few heads of livestock to commission a traveling merchant to transcribe books on cheap parchment.”
“Really?” Vikiana asks. “I’m surprised she didn’t brag about her smarts.”
“I would be surprised if she spoke of it.” Lila replies while shaking her head. “Jessica stopped studying once her mother fell ill and she decided to take over the farm, she concentrated on training her skills in manipulating flow to help.”
“So, if she kept studying…” Vikiana suggests.
“She would likely have been sponsored into the University.” Ms Conner finishes with a serious tone. “But she doesn’t speak of her teenage years. The children already disliked her because she didn’t join the Templar’s class and the fact she is attracted to those of the same gender caused jealousy and embarrassment.”
“She does have a temper.” Vikiana comments.
“I am glad it doesn’t bother you and to hear you helped her yesterday, she deserves your support in finding happiness so I hope you can continue preventing Elizabeth Vil from spoiling her future.” Ms Conner declares, choosing to be just as straightforward as the woman.
“I, it’s difficult to help her.” Vikiana replies hesitantly.
She feels awkward because Jessica and Leomi’s love still bothers her deep down even though she plans to placate the Order with her life as a last resort to give them a chance at fulfilling it.
“You made it past her guard, I can see as much. Just continue doing what you have and Jessica will accept you.” Ms Conner suggests, thinking that it should be alright to give some advice because they’re both mothers no matter the vast gulf between their statuses.
“Our relationship is complicated.” Vikiana says with a sigh. “I’ve done her more wrong than your village’s Templar during the war.”
“But you’re not an Exemplar, or a former Exemplar, not to her. You’re her future mother-in-law. Focus on that bond rather than the past.” Ms Conner tells the tall woman with a reassuring smile, choosing to reveal what she’s gathered these past weeks to support Jessica despite her misgivings about the engagement.
“Tell me more about Jessica’s childhood.” Vikiana asks, changing the subject because she doesn’t know how to do that.
— — —
When Vikiana steps out of the workshop, she finds Nahl and Rowland retreating from Jessica in the courtyard. The dark emotions caused by Ms Conner’s story instantly vanish at the sight of the short Jessica pushing these two tall and large warriors in a corner.
“I’m a Templar!” Nahl protests.
“Which makes you perfectly suited to buy food on credit while Rowland fetches the coin from Cecil and tells her to bring the beer!” Jessica exclaims.
“I’m a Hospitalier, I can’t just run errands for you… in uniform.” Rowland hesitantly argues. “And she’s a Councilwoman, not a bartender!” He adds.
“So? I’m not forbidding the Council from attending.” Jessica dismisses. “Now go, shoo!” She exclaims.
“But, I’m really back on duty!” Rowland protests.
“Oh, right!” Jessica pauses, causing her two victims to breathe out in relief. “Tell Roisia I’m sorry I yelled at her and ask her to bring skewers, big ones for the meat. There should be suitable weapons in the armory.”
“That’s, not…” Rowland trails off, likely realizing he needs to change arguments. “Grace is going to throw you in a cell over this.” He proclaims hesitantly.
“Roisia’s the one who’s going to steal from the armory, I don’t see what that has to do with me.” Jessica shamelessly denies.
“…” Nahl and Rowland exchange helpless looks. They suddenly brighten when they spot Vikiana.
“Dame Vikiana!” Rowland calls out.
“Tell her we can’t use our status or connections to organize a banquet for her!” Nahl calls out.
“Don’t worry, the Order has plenty of tables in the mess hall.” Vikiana replies with a serious expression. “They won’t miss a few, ask Emffrey if you’re not sure how to get them out.”
“Exactly.” Jessica nods knowingly. “But bring a dozen, just in case.”
“We can’t fit a dozen here.” Vikiana notes, looking at the courtyard. “But the plaza has plenty of space and it’s not too far. You can cook here to deliver there and it’ll be easier to stea… to borrow the tables from the Temple.”
“But I can’t feed the whole city… Or, can I?” Jessica says with a huge smile. “Rowland!” She suddenly yells as she turns to him.
“Yes?!” Rowland exclaims before frowning. “No.” He utters even though he doesn’t know what the crazy woman wants and knows it’s useless for him to refuse now that Dame Vikiana is piling on, not that he had a chance before that.
“Tell the Council that they’re sponsoring my welcoming banquet and that the population will be very disappointed if they stick to Nobility’s rotten etiquette.”
“Ah, that’s a smart trick.” Vikiana compliments with a smile.