Vikiana leaves with Rowland and Nahl so I make my way back inside my workroom to change clothes. I fit on a loose pair of gray-white pants that are easy to move in and won’t constrain my bruises. I then fit on a thick black shirt and a silver tunic over it.
Once done, I set my broadsword around my waist and grab the umbrella to set it on my shoulder, feeling pretty good about how I look and hoping Leomi will too. I head out and run into Uhla who’s awaiting me with a serious expression but a teasing look in her eyes.
“I have power over you, Dame Freepath.” Uhla declares while grabbing my forearm.
I frown at her and sigh as I realize that this is Nahl’s revenge. She makes me drink a bitter concoction for the pain that thankfully mutes my headache and the pangs coming from my hand before changing my bandage.
She then pulls me to the flow cistern and spends the next ten minutes shaping a complicated construct to heal my fingers with a good hundred portions of energy. I feel an itch when she activates it despite the numbness.
“Alright, are you done?” I ask.
“I am unless you plan on breaking something else today.” Uhla replies cheekily. “Oh, and Master Amand sends his regards for keeping your promise so quickly about delivering the plowing construct.” She adds.
“Okay, go help out then.” I tell her.
“I can’t, I have to report back.” Uhla counters, her eyes flicking to the side.
“That’s a lie. Go help Nahl or I’ll ask Vicky to train you.” I threaten.
“You wouldn’t.” She whispers with wide eyes.
“You know I would, and even convince Master Amand to give you a week off for your squad to spend with her.” I add with a grin because I wasn’t sure my threat would work.
I depart, leaving her behind lamenting about how the Lake could allow a savage to ruin her studies. The city is just waking up but there are more patrols than people in the streets, most of them composed of soldiers who would have otherwise been getting prepared to embark for Port-Odo or guarding the walls and gates.
The plaza, on the other hand, is in magnificent chaos. The merchants who would otherwise be setting up their stalls are crowded around Nahl and two other Templars who he apparently drafted.
From the cries and pleas, it’s clear that those who sell food are trying to do just that while the rest are protesting the plaza’s takeover. I watch with a grin as he settles it by telling them to just set up on the side.
I sit down on the Temple’s steps, enjoying the calm before the storm. I take pleasure at the fact that the Izla’s bigwigs are going to be coming to me one after the other in spite of my utter lack of status.
I may be rich according to my own standards but no more so than any slightly successful merchant, it’ll take a while for my fortune to grow enough to compare to even a Baron considering their accumulated material wealth in lands and properties.
As I wait, I catch quite a few distraught gazes at my left side. While my clothes are a lot looser than my hard black leather armor, which is being repaired, it remains obvious that I lost a few chunks of flesh.
In spite of these looks, which don’t bother me as I truly care about Leomi and Celyz’ opinion, more than a few merchants and bourgeois approach to make my acquaintance. They merely say a few words without pushing for more.
While I was told I’m now really famous, it surprises me that even poor low born approach to try to salute me. They remain afar, timidly awaiting their turn while the wealthier confidently take the front.
You were right about the need to crush Nobility in the open, people didn’t take you as seriously before that skirmish despite having plenty of information about what you did.
I think it’s because the past is past. My reputation has little meaning for those it doesn’t concern or affect, the fight made me relevant in an immediate sense. Liz twirls her umbrella to signify her agreement.
“Miss Freepath.” Master Amand’s voice calls out from behind.
The small crowd gathered before me splits with bows and apologies, pushing back the peasants who stood in the back. I let go of the hilt of the concealed rapier and hold my hand out to stop them from dispersing. I find the situation rather stifling but, since things have turned out this way, I can’t give up this chance to make a point about equality.
“Master Amand.” I politely respond without turning around. “Take a seat if you don’t mind, I’ll be with you once I greet everyone.”
The Master walks down the steps and sits on one of the steps on my level a half-dozen meters to my right, grunting as he settles. My opinion of the old man rises from his humble demeanor.
“Barbarian, that’s the Templar Master.” Uhla whispers loudly from behind and to my left, surprising me.
I throw a look over my shoulder, finding her carrying a long and old oak table with three other Semplars. I can’t help but give her a huge grin, finding her concealed pout rather cute.
I turn to the increasingly large crowd and wait for them to find their guts. Surprisingly, but encouragingly, a peasant is the first to walk over with a hesitant expression that grows proud along with the other low born as they realize that I’m not joking about making the Templar Master wait.
“Dame Freepath.” The young man says while slowly bending the knee.
“Hey, I’m Jessica and I’ll trip you when you leave if that knee hits the pavement.” I reply with a wide grin. He freezes and awkwardly switches to a slight bow.
“I’m, um, Fred.” He tells me, looking a bit embarrassed.
A small commotion of cheers breaks out from the low born at the back of the crowd, started by a group of apprentices if I go by their work clothes and the tools some are carrying on their way to work.
“Hurry up!” A woman yells at him.
Fred hurriedly moves away with a cocky smile that has less to do with me as a person than the fact a peasant like me rose so high, not to mention he had the courage to walk over first.
The people who come to see me one by one greet Master Amand as well who responds much more amiably than I do to those who show a bit too much enthusiasm. In the end, the crowd disperses before even half come over.
“Is this a show of power?” Amand asks me with a touch of curiosity as he gazes at the banquet preparations happening on the plaza.
“No, of change.” I reply easily.
“For the better, it seems.” He comments quietly. “Although it remains to be seen if order can be maintained in such chaos.”
“It doesn’t bother you I’m commandeering the Order?” I ask.
“Why would it? We serve the people and you’ll be generously filling my brethren’s empty stomachs.” Amand replies with amusement. “Two thousand of them are entering the city this afternoon and they’re tired of travel rations.”
“I’m not that rich.” I tell him with a chuckle. “I think the Council is either going to love or hate me after today.”
“Ah, here comes the Hospitaliers’ Vice-Commander.” Amand warns me.
I spot Roisia cruising through the crowd with a dark look on her face and her hand on her rapier’s handle. She looks like she just woke up and rushed here, she didn’t even take the time to pick up a colorful scarf.
“Jessica!” Roisia shouts out as she climbs the steps. “Why is half the city converging here?!”
“It’s a welcoming banquet!” I tell her enthusiastically.
“We already prepared one in the Keep!” She tells me, red in the face. “They should be searching for Elizabeth Vil!”
“Which you’re not going to find.” I reply, rolling my eyes. “They’re not going to fall on your lap, they’ll either lay low or be stupid enough to try something here and die trying.”
“Miss Freepath’s method may be unorthodox but her reasoning is sound and it’ll reassure the population.” Amand comments.
“Master Amand.” Roisia greets belatedly before turning back to me.
“I get it, I probably should have warned you.” I speak up before she can. “But you would have countermanded me if you thought this was a bad idea so stop posturing, I just asked for help.”
“…” Roisia takes a deep breath and then lets out a long sigh. “I should have listened to my fears when we met and kept you away from Mother. Do you have any idea of the mess you made?”
“Not really, I’m not a logistician.” I reply with a smile.
“I do not think that is a word.” Amand comments seriously.
“It was already hard to gather and deploy the patrols on short notice, what do I do with this?” Roisia asks with a touch of desperation as she points me to the Templars and Hospitaliers moving to guard the plaza’s entrances.
“There are plenty of patrols left to keep the peace.” Amand laughingly tells her. “This is good, the Izla needed a celebration after the war and to send the army off.”
“There you go.” I tell Roisia with a corner smile.
“I swear I’ll charge you for my lost sleep.” She threatens and leaves.
Master Amand chuckles and gets up. He gives me a slight bow and climbs upstairs. I smile as I watch Roisia worsens the chaos by stopping the merchants from setting their stalls in the middle of the plaza and directing them to the wide eastern street.
“Put some nerve into it! You represent the Templar Order and our Emperor Rasaec!” Amand barks, who likely found the Semplars looking a bit too gloomy for his taste.
The morning goes by rather uneventfully after that because people from the Keep show up to take charge and organize the event with the servants they bring, setting up banners and setting a space to stock the meat before it’s cooked.
A carriage arrives a few hours before noon, breaking the now monotonous ambiance on the plaza as soldiers spread out and a butler opens the door. Cecil and Vikiana get down from it together, surprising me because I didn’t think the two knew each other. Although, from the distance between them and their postures, it doesn’t seem like they’re on familiar terms.
The former is wearing a Councilwoman’s white robe with golden embroidery reminiscent of Nobility, which is something that we argued about but that I had to let go because it had a lot to do with vanity and I suspect some overcompensation because of her low status as a Madame.
“The Council will cover the costs but you’ll have to pay half over time.” Cecil directly informs me with a rapacious smile. What a faker, she already manages my coin anyway.
“Half?!” I exclaim exaggeratedly.
“I told you, she doesn’t care.” Vikiana comments.
“Indeed, she has such a pure spirit.” Cecil acknowledges sarcastically. I can’t help but scowl at the remark even as the two smirk with satisfaction at my reaction.
“I’m clearly no match for two elderly foxes.” I spitefully remark, causing their expressions to turn stiff. “What do you want?”
“To tell you that Dame Vikiana is henceforth your bodyguard, by decree of the Council.” Cecil declares while making an elegant flourish with her robe’s long sleeve.
“Nope.” I deny. “No way I’m agreeing to a chaperone.”
“It’s only for a short while.” Vikiana tells me. “And I want to train you because you clearly don’t take swordsmanship seriously enough.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, blinking in surprise.
“You know how to fight yet you battle like a brawler.” She tells me with a raised eyebrow.
“The ceiling fell on me, did you really expect me to shape lion strikes between each blow with my head pounding?” I protest with a groan.
“No, but I hoped you would be smart enough not to let yourself be stabbed in the heart. You would be dead if she had more flow, just because you couldn’t take a step back.” Vikiana berates.
“Ugh, just stay there.” I tell her with a sigh.
Liz points at a spot to my left with the flat umbrella. It might not be so bad to drag her along, at least I can make sure she doesn’t fly off to die in battle in the off-chance she finds me that worthy.
There’s no point in keeping her away since she’s seen through my attempts to diminish myself in her eyes, and I’m tired of doing that anyway. Vikiana pointedly ignores me to head off into the Temple.
“She literally abandoned her duty before it even began, I’m firing her.” I tell Cecil.
“I didn’t see anything so I can’t agree to that.” The Councilwoman replies with a smile.
I spot a group of a dozen Hospitaliers walk onto the plaza, wielding hammers instead of halberds and large books with iron frames. They’re wearing chain-mails that drop down to their knees under their white and light blue tunics which are embroidered with a golden weighing scale. Grace leads the group straight for me, which is slightly worrisome.
“The Justiciers have a sense for the dramatic.” I note, rolling my eyes.
“You’re worse. Do you have any id…” Cecil starts.
“Yea, yea, yea. I heard that speech from your daughter already this morning.” I impatiently cut her off. “How much power does she have?”
“The Council sets the laws and the Hospitaliers uphold them, the Justiciers only intervene when there is doubt or a complaint.” Cecil explains with an annoyed frown.
“Where does the coin from fines go?” I ask, starting to realize I probably should have kept myself up to date even though I lack time the most.
“If you’re worried about corruption, the books are available to the public.” She tells me while moving to stand at my side. “The victims are compensated first and the proceeds enter the Izla’s coffers.”
“Good, although that’ll make it harder to protest if she tries to fine me.” I comment. “The Hospitaliers shouldn’t take direct income from fining people.”
“I’m not sure whether that was decreed by Leomi Lance or Grace Odo but they were in agreement.” Cecil informs me. “You really don’t trust them?”
“Leomi is too nice, it makes her susceptible to those around her.” I explain. “I don’t know Grace enough but her family and mine have had some disagreements.”
“And they’re Nobles.” Cecil notes.
“While I would bring that point up with others, you’re just as bad in terms of ambition.” I counter, causing her to chuckle unashamedly.
I notice that Grace is expressionless as she approaches and that her traits are hard and dug. Liz and I twirl our umbrella somewhat nervously as she slowly walks up the steps to face me.
“Grace Odo, I presume.” I leisurely greet her, inclining my head.
The woman stares at me, the bright eyes I remember from the last time we met now seem cold. It gives me a chill but I’ve faced much harsher gazes from more frightening foes so it isn’t difficult for me to hold hers.
Grace suddenly drops the head of her two-handed hammer on the pavement, causing a dull thumping sound. She opens her book and sets it in equilibrium on her left palm. Then, she pulls a vial of ink that she deposits on the pages before pulling out a writing quill from the back of her head.
I would likely appreciate the woman’s style and class if her silence didn’t unnerve me. I throw a glance at the rest of the Justiciers while she writes, finding that more than half have a tan and that they all have calluses. I try to wait patiently but lose it once Grace dips the quill in ink for the fifth time.
“If you’re going to play mute and keep writing, you might as well take a seat on the steps.” I bluntly tell her.
A wave of discomfort goes through the Justiciers but Grace merely pauses to ponders for a small while before nodding and sitting by my side. Her lack of hostility feels odd when added to the fact she has yet to speak to me.
I’m further baffled as she extends the heavy-looking book in-between us, apparently inviting me to take a look. I find her handwriting is clear and she makes no use of embellishing curves as Leomi does.
The first sentence she points me to with her quill surprises me as it indicates that she has lost the use of her vocal cords while the next few almost bring tears to my eyes as she offers an apology for her father murdering mine.
Damn you, Leomi, why tell her? It takes me a while to regain my composure and read her account of the loss of her voice. I stop her from continuing to write, understanding that I misread the coldness in her eyes.
“It’ll be easier to exchange one sentence at a time, Grace.” I tell her, causing another wave of restlessness among the Justiciers. “You lot go help your comrades.” I snap at them with a glare.
They return dark looks but snap to attention when Grace turns to them and waves them away. The dozen of them make awkward salutes and spread out over the plaza, apparently deciding to secure the area as a couple of them climb on top of roofs.
‘I assume you know who the Shades are.‘ I read as I turn my attention back to her book.
“I’ve had a few run-ins.” I acknowledge. “It wouldn’t be a good idea to seek revenge.”
‘Not yet.‘ Grace semi-agrees. ‘I have heard of your deeds in Meria but not yet read the report of your latest.‘
“Am I in trouble?” I ask with a smile.
‘I do not know yet.‘ She replies.
I recount yesterday’s events for her, making sure to impress on her that there is no way to confirm if it really was Elizabeth Vil. In the end she merely nods without commenting.
‘Did you seek authorization for this banquet? I have witnessed the chaos it caused at the docks and Vice-Commander Roisia has been quite evasive on the matter.‘ Grace inquires.
“Do I need an authorization? As far as I know, there is no law against organizing a feast.” I comment.
“There are technically no laws against this but yes, you do need an authorization if only out of tradition.” Cecil speaks up.
“If there are no laws, then I’m not breaking any laws.” I dismiss while throwing her a glare.
‘It would have been best if you asked for permission before…‘ Grace writes.
“No. It would not have been best.” I utter flatly, interrupting her writing.
‘Why?‘ She inscribes on the paper. ‘No laws allow this so, in my opinion, it would have been preferable to seek permission.‘ Cecil leans in from above to read over my shoulder while I think.
“Because I’m free to do whatever isn’t forbidden.” I tell Grace. “And free to break whatever laws I wish, although that comes with consequences if I’m caught.” I add with a smile.
“That’s not how it works.” Cecil murmurs.
‘Why not?‘ Grace hurriedly writes and glances up to the Councilwoman, surprising us both. ‘I find her point of view legitimate. While asking for permission would have saved us some trouble, it is our mistake not to demand it done by law.‘
“Go on.” Cecil encourages with a frown.
‘I believe in only forbidding behavior that causes harm and granting people their freedom when it does not infringe on others’ rather than stifling people by restricting every action that isn’t expressly lawful as Nobility often has. Doing so will prevent unscrupulous people from taking advantage of the gray areas in the law.‘ Grace explains.
“You’re wrong.” I tell Grace with a harsh voice, causing her to startle. “You can’t grant people their freedom. All you can do is restrain it by force, whether by arms or social pressure.”
‘I disagree with the use of the word force but agree with the rest. People are born free as you’ve said, but they do require rules and the vast majority follow them even without threats to enforce them.‘ Grace writes.
“Of course, we wouldn’t have made it as a species if communities couldn’t self-regulate. But born free?” I chuckle derisively. “How can you be free if you can’t walk or feed yourself? You can’t. Freedom isn’t given, it’s seized personally.” I affirm.