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Grace Odo remains silent for a long time by my side, likely thinking way too hard about my words when the concept couldn’t be more simple. So long that Vikiana returns and stands behind me like a guard.

You’re doing that to annoy me, aren’t you?” I ask without turning around.

Hm, partly.” She replies.

How lonely.‘ Grace inscribes in black ink over white paper.

Freedom? Please.” I dismiss. “I didn’t say you can’t be taught, merely that it would be contradictory for one to be free if it depends on others’ help.”

By your logic, no one is free.‘ Grace slowly writes. Her quill making a pleasant sound on the paper. ‘You spoke of our species earlier, I would say that humans can reach the utmost state of freedom for each individual by banding together under a set of agreed-upon guidelines.’

The issue is that there will always be differences in physical and mental capability between people who leads to sub-groups which then monopolize power, acquiring more freedom than the rest.” I counter. “Nobility’s freedom rests on peasantry’s shoulders.”

That means the system must be improved.‘ Grace argues.

Or discarded.” I reply. I hear her start writing so I stop her by catching the tip of her quill. “You don’t need to write it, I know that my ideal view of individual freedom isn’t achievable. Humans cannot live alone in the long-term and survive, and we require rules because self-restraint isn’t a viable method to ensure there is no abuse of others’ freedom.”

Then why hold this goal for yourself? Pride?‘ Grace questions, showing quite the ability to read me.

You could say I’m the most prideful being in the world.” I acknowledge with a smile. “But I am also the least prideful.”

That last statement is self-contradictory.‘ Grace writes and then her lips shape soundlessly in a silent laugh. I’m sure she could make some noise even without vocal cords, odd she would decide otherwise. ‘Claiming to be the least prideful being in the world is insanely prideful.

Elizabeth Vil and I aren’t so different, we both seek the ultimate personal freedom while also aiming to help others attain theirs. Both goals are contradictory as well as unachievable.” I explain.

Was the loss of your father and then her pursuit of Leomi Lance the points where you broke off, or did it occur after Meiridin?‘ Grace inscribes the question in black ink, abruptly changing the subject.

Why does it matter?” I ask, frowning.

I am probing your sense of responsibility.‘ Grace explains.

We aren’t in complete conflict.” I speak up. Grace looks, raising her thin eyebrows. “Those events certainly caused us to diverge but we still share similar goals even if she has recently refused to work with me.”

Can you find Elizabeth Vil again?‘ Grace asks.

“I wasn’t looking for her.” I deflect.

So, were you truly seeking the child? Or following the rumors because you thought them a plot? Or something else?‘ She presses.

“The second, and I turned out to be right considering what I found.” I easily explain.

I’m surprised you used your privilege to make this banquet happen considering your pride and apparent disdain for Nobility. Hypocrisy?‘ Grace pushes, evidently unwilling to pull her punches.

Hm.” I ponder, taking her question seriously rather than as an attempt to insult me. “I sometimes act pridefully, I’ll admit to that much.” I tell her, causing both Cecil and Vikiana to scoff.

Euphemism?‘ Grace asks.

“Maybe.” I respond, affecting an unconcerned shrug. “I’m not so prideful I expect privilege. I merely am while Nobility demands if you want to make that comparison. Think of me as someone who acts freely. If others don’t challenge me, I will be as I am without worrying about whether that is because of fear, respect, or privileges they grant me. I don’t carry the responsibility of their choices. If others do challenge me, then I’ll either limit or enforce my own freedom.” I explain.

That seems like a dereliction of duty.‘ Grace argues. ‘If you’re granted privilege, you should carry the full weight of it, as Nobility should but doesn’t always.

I disagree.” I deny.

Grace locks eyes with me. Once more, I perceive coldness from the gaze and her traits. This time, I look further and realize that it is because the woman is so serious about her duties that she disallows her emotions from affecting her judgment, making her seem cold.

If one accepts the privileges they are given, they have taken an engagement and carry the responsibility of success or failure.” I argue. “If not, then one isn’t bound by other’s wishes. All that remains are consequences from one’s choices.”

Isn’t it deception if you omit to explain?‘ Grace questions.

It can be taken as such.” I reply, unconcerned. “I do not have that intent, but it is part of the consequences from my choice not to make myself clear, whether that choice was conscious or not.”

You don’t deny order.‘ Grace writes as a conclusion, throwing me off.

I don’t understand.” I admit.

I believed you denied order at first with your rather extreme views on freedom.’ Grace explains. ‘But, in fact, you pursue chaos.

Isn’t that one and the same?” I ask.

No, you don’t deny order but wish to conquer chaos by being chaos despite your awareness that the goal is intrinsically contradictory.‘ Grace responds. ‘Of course, this is all nonsense.‘ She writes with a hint of humor.

It does sound like me, though.” I reply with a laugh.

I like you, but I won’t spare you if your actions run afoul of my duties.‘ Grace swiftly inscribes the blunt sentence.

As a true friend would.” I tell her with a grin.

Grace returns a bright smile and holds her hand out. I let go of the umbrella and shake her hand. She closes her book and gets up while relying on her hammer like a cane. She bows to Vikiana and Cecil before making her way out of the plaza. Four of her Justiciers leave their posts to follow her.

I run my eyes over the plaza, noticing that there has been a lot of progress made since the Council took over with their people. The tables are now arranged in rows and servants are setting up a main one for the ‘important’ people, having even brought an embroidered tablecloth and chairs.

Rowland and Nahl are talking while looking my way. I smile and wave at them. They glance at each other and head over. I hear Cecil step back and whisper something to Vikiana before departing.

I bet she told you not to let me out of your sight.” I speak up.

Actually, she gave me permission to knock you out if you tried.” Vikiana replies.

Are you doing this to help me or to make my life miserable, Vicky?” I ask, frustrated.

Yes.” She replies with a small laugh.

I stab backward with the oil-cloth umbrella. She sidesteps. I sigh and decide to let it be for now since I’m not planning on going anywhere. Rowland and Nahl climb up the steps, attracting gazes from the curious crowd. They stop once they reach my eye level, meaning Rowland climbs one less step.

You done plotting my demise?” I ask them.

No.” Nahl replies, with a dismissive roll of his eyes.

Ah, so you were doing that but you’re not done.” I note. The Templar frowns as he tries to think of a counter.
“We simply have no more work to do, so we came to help Dame Vikiana keep you contained.” Rowland explains astutely.

She’s my bodyguard.” I tell them. I lift my umbrella to throw her a look over my shoulder. “These two are scheming against me, they both admitted it. Attack, Vicky!” I order.

She stares at me expressionlessly. I let out a mournful cry and turn back to find them smiling in amusement. I extend my umbrella out to the side, almost hitting them with the point, to invite them to sit down.

Aren’t you afraid to provoke E.Vil by putting yourself in the open? Not to mention Nobility.” Nahl asks as he settles down.

“That’s the entire point of what I’ve been doing.” I tell him.

No, I think it’s a second nature for you to provoke.” Rowland quips.

“Doesn’t mean there’s no point to it.” I note, chuckling.

“You really shouldn’t be trying to cause dissension.” Nahl mutters.

The dissension already exists, all I’m doing is bringing it to the light and making it impossible to ignore. No one forced Huan Thrin or Tuala Hakarth to oppose the Izla.” I tell him.

Nahl falls silent. Rowland suddenly makes a joyful sound. I follow his gaze, finding that kegs of beer have arrived. He jumps up and heads there, causing Nahl to make a disapproving grunting noise. I look up, finding the sun close to its noon position.

Do you mind going to the workshop to tell them to come have lunch?” I ask Nahl.

No problem.” He replies, standing up.

You’re way too nice. You know that, right?” I question.

I’m a Templar.” He tells me with a smile.

I throw a pointed look at Vikiana who responds by shrugging. So much for being an Exemplar. She frowns like she read my mind, making me chuckle. Rowland returns with four tankards. Surprisingly, Vicky takes one.

Nahl returns with my employees fifteen minutes later, they cause another round of random people coming over to greet me that would have spoiled my mood if I didn’t quickly down my beer.

Servants and cooks soon bring grilled meat that they display on the tables for people to serve themselves. A good chunk of the population passes by the plaza and the mood is quite high but I can’t get into it because there is no sign of Leomi or Yvonne. Neither Grace nor the Council comes so I assume they’ll arrive by dinner.

… but she’s too brutal.” Nahl contests. I try to remember who they were talking about.

She didn’t kill that many if you consider what she achieved.” Rowland argues.

That doesn’t change how brutal she behaves, and wasn’t it Jessica and Leomi Lance who restrained her?” Nahl asks.

Things are never so clear-cut.” I tell him, realizing they’re talking about Liz. “Especially not during a battle where plans go to die.”

See, I’m right.” Rowland declares victoriously.

But Liz did kill more than she had to.” I deny. “And so did I.” I add.

I’m sorry, we shouldn’t have talked about this after yesterday.” Nahl apologizes, confusing me. I lift the umbrella to throw him a glance.

It wasn’t your fault.” The Templar tells me with a reassuring voice.

Does he think that was the first time I killed? I shake my head and sigh while lowering the umbrella. I feel much worse about the fact I got the kid’s father killed than I do about the last dozen people I’ve killed. This abrupt reminder of how much of a monster I’ve become makes my gut twist.

I spend the next few hours in a dark mood. Watching the flow of people coming and going. The occasional flares of pain from my broken fingers as the overcharged healing construct does its work are an enjoyable reminder that I am alive.

I straighten up when I spot two butlers setting silverware and porcelain plates on the main table they placed in front of the Temple. My heart accelerates to the point where I can hear the thumping in my eardrums.

Grace returns and takes Rowland as well as Vikiana aside but that mystery doesn’t interest me half as much as the stomping I can hear in the distance, signifying there is a troop close-by.

I pull all my flow and plot my course, preparing the constructs I’ll need to reach her. With Vicky otherwise occupied, she isn’t even going to be able to stop us, which means we can do anything to Leomi, we can conquer the world! Slight exaggeration there. Is it?

A row of Hospitaliers in chain-mails appear at the entrance of the southern street, holding their halberds straight up which slightly complicates my plans but not too much.

I put my umbrella down and leap forward with a lion’s step, causing a small group of people to scatter. Uselessly because I create a platform of air at the apex of my jump and throw myself forward again, causing some excited cries from the crowd.

I ignore them as I run in the air towards the rows and rows of Hospitaliers advancing. Suddenly, I spot a woman on a large white warhorse with short white hair, light gray eyes, bronze skin, sharp traits, and a small golden one-winged jay on her left shoulder.

The rest of the world fades away, there’s no more Jessica or Elizabeth right now but a woman in love, sick of heartache for two beings and unable to hold back now that one of them is there to accept her.

She’s wearing a large white and blue cloak with the Hospitaliers’ cross crest on the chest that squares her shoulders in the sexiest way. I leap over the halberds’ points with the singular objective of reaching for her brilliant smile.

I take a few more steps and plunge towards her arm first. She opens hers and catches me. I barely notice that she lifts me up so I don’t flatten myself on her horse because I’m already nibbling the pulp of her soft lower lip.

My lower-stomach impacts her waist, which is perfect to wrap my legs around her torso. I seize her hair between my knuckles and pull her head back to push my tongue in. I eat her up, push my chest against hers so that she can feel my heart going wild.

She closes her cloak around my shoulders and then her hands get busy unfastening my belt. One soon slips inside my panties from behind while the other invades my shirt to seize my breast and fondle it, making me break my kiss. She doesn’t give me the chance to catch my breath.

I reflexively bend back, spine arcing from the electrifying pleasure her cool slender fingers cause by caressing me. She leans in and returns a surprisingly tender kiss, one full of aggressive longing and gentle affection. The perfect kiss that makes me melt and slacken inside her arms.

She pulls me straight and we lock foreheads to leverage our mouths apart. We stare in each other’s eyes, panting with our noses brushing against each other. At that moment, Leomi and I share the same thought. We can’t wait any longer.

Screw tradition.” Leomi murmurs.

“And ceremony.” I whisper.

“Do you have your ring?” She asks.

It’s in my workshop, Yvonne can get it.” I reply.

She’s already carrying mine.” Leomi tells me.

Yvonne, my ring is in a big red cloth at my workshop, ask Rowland to lead you there.” I call out, projecting my voice out of the cloak covering us.

Don’t do anything I would do before I return.” Yvonne replies with a laughing voice. I feel the hand on my ass slide around my waist.

No promises.” I reply with a shivering voice.

“Hurry up.” Leomi adds, sounding slightly more reliable.

She checks my most intimate place like she owns it, which she does, to ensure I kept myself ready for her, which I faithfully have. I grab her belt buckle and clumsily unfasten it to slide my hand inside her pants.

I check with the back of my fingers because she’s much more sensitive than I am, and pull away once I feel how smooth her skin is. Not because her palm returned to grab my right butt-cheek but because I prefer cupping her tiny firm breasts, alternating so that neither gets jealous.

How I missed these.” I murmur.

They only feel safe in your hand.” Leomi whispers, pecking my lips.

A discordant clamor erupts around us. I stiffen in embarrassment as I realize that the horse never stopped advancing towards the plaza. Leomi immediately raises her arms to set them around my neck, providing me some cover even though it costs her my body.

I love you.” She tells me.

I love you.” I reply, forgetting the rest.

Do you mind dressing us back up?” She asks.

I nod and reluctantly abandon her marvelous erect nipples to focus on fastening our belts, which takes me so long that the warhorse arrives at the bottom of the Temple’s steps just as I finish.

Do you want me to show you off?” I ask her, wishing for no more than the opportunity to spoil her.

I would be proud if you did me the honor.” Leomi replies with a glimmer in her eyes.

She lowers her arms and arranges our shirts under her cloak before pulling it off my shoulders. I unwrap my legs from her waist and hop off on the left side of the mount.

I land in front of a crowd that is still gathering on the plaza and a good thousand Hospitaliers standing in organized ranks with their halberds held up. There is cheering but also heckling, but we don’t care about their opinions. Leomi’s wish is to be held above all others, whether they approve or not.

I reach over her left leg to tap the right. She passes it over the white warhorse’s back to sit sideways on the saddle. I seize a few portions of energy from her and use them to strengthen my body.

I pass my arm around her thighs and pick her off the horse, rising her above all from the bottom of the steps. This time, the cheers drown out the few whose unwanted opinions about our relationship override their common sense.

I climb the steps up backward while Leomi waves at the crowd with a grin on her face and her left hand resting on my half-shoulder. I reach the top and wait a while for the noise to die down before setting her by my side.

Instead of the speech I expected her to give, she turns to me, leaving the people to return to the day-long banquet. Her eyes pause on something behind me. The jay on her shoulders takes off.

I follow its awkward trajectory, finding that it looks prettier in silver. Its small claws grab onto something and it flies back. I feel Leomi reach out and catch the object that she returns to me, the umbrella.

That looks oddly good on you, especially since it’s a lot heavier than it looks.” She tells me with one of her corner smiles.

Hey! I’m light.” I exclaim. “And here I refrained from toying with whores because you told me not to.”

Jessica! What would the people think if they heard you?!” Leomi asks with utterly fake outrage.

They’re more likely to be surprised you’re with someone like me than to realize doing that is your style rather than mine.” I note with a mean smile.

“Calumny.” She protests weakly.

I can hear you perfectly from here.” Vikiana utters frostily as she advances and overshadows us.

Mother, it’s not what you think!” Leomi exclaims with a serious expression that makes me giggle.

Vicky, I swear your daughter’s purity is intact!” I pile on with a deep voice, causing Leomi to chuckle in turn.

The woman’s wrinkles deepen but she opens her arms and wraps us both in a hug, utterly confusing us both. We both gape as Vikiana tightens her grip, almost picking us up, before suddenly releasing us.

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