I sheathe my broadsword and slow down my walking pace as I make my way because I feel a strain in my chest, a rigidity. I arrive at the workshop to find a small crowd of apprentices in the courtyard.
They are applying protective lacquer to a plow’s wood and metal parts. It is likely in preparation for taking it out of the city for testing. The temple guards and apprentices all turn to me.
“You made it away!” A boy Semplar exclaims with shining eyes. “Did you win?”
“I defeated those who stood in my path to freely go where I wished.” I reply simply, feeling a bit embarrassed.
I hurriedly enter the building before they can question me, causing the work there to pause. The master smith barks a few commands and my employees’ eyes turn back to their tasks. I swiftly walk in my workroom and gather my meager belongings.
There is the packet containing the dress I bought to wear for Leomi, a coin purse, my liangi’s case, as well as a winter cloak that isn’t too useful in Meria. I sit down once I’m done to rest my heart.
A half-hour passes without the stiffness in my chest going away so I get up and put the liangi’s case on my worktable. I fasten my two spare belts around my waist and throw my cloak on my shoulders.
Then, I set my umbrella aside to pass my arm in the liangi case’s strap and attach it to my waist before lifting it, setting it on my back. I grab my umbrella and a stack of parchment before walking out of the room with heavy steps.
Since I’m not going to come back, likely ever, I give the key to my workroom and all my notes about the plowing construct to the master smith before bidding him my goodbyes.
He receives it all placidly and wishes me good luck. I spot Rowland, Vikiana, Nahl, and Uhla outside talking but ignore them. I shake the master smith’s hand and head into the office. Ms Conner jumps from her seat and rushes up to me.
“Are you okay? Why are you still wearing the helmet? You seem pale, do you need me to call Semplar Uhla over?” She asks rapidly.
“I’m fine, I’m still wearing the helmet because I can’t stick it under my arm.” I reply, smiling a little at how quickly she forgot to use an honorific and how little my achievement seems to matter to her. “I’m not coming back, Ms Conner, so you’ll be completely in charge from now on.”
“You’re leaving the Izla? Where are you going? Are you sure it’s safe, Jessica?” She questions nervously. “Is Elizabeth Vil after you?”
“I’m not leaving yet but I’ve done all I can here. I’ll be traveling the Empire, and no, it won’t be safe.” I tell her with a smile. “You take care, okay? Don’t try to pad my fortune, trade the plows for a portion of the harvest if you have to but make sure you sell everything you can. If my coin starts stacking anyway, loan it out or use it to expand the workshop.”
“Councilwoman Cecil has already prepared to hire more smiths and buy more workshops if it’s a success, you don’t need to worry.” She says reassuringly. “You have a bit of soot on your armor, and the tip of your nose.”
She suddenly raises her hand and licks her thumb to rub the bridge of my nose with a very focused expression. I blink, too stunned by the motherly gesture to react. Ha! Defeated by Lila Conner after plowing through four Nobles in close succession. Sister… Shh, no excuses.
I sigh and wait. Once she’s done, I awkwardly pat the taller woman’s shoulder and make my way out of the office. I barely notice the accountant’s hesitant goodbye because I hear an agitated discussion outside in the courtyard.
“Of course she’s stronger than Elizabeth Vil! She fought with her umbrella on her shoulder and it didn’t fall the entire time! Even the Lord of the broken nose failed when he blew the area up!” The bright eyes Semplar girl’s shrill voice pierces through the noise in the workshop.
The reason that umbrella didn’t fall is that it’s a lot heavier than it looks because of the rapier, though. I head into the courtyard and find Rowland facing the Semplar with crossed arms.
“You weren’t there. Jessica has incredible reflexes but Elizabeth is deadlier and much stronger.” He denies.
“Care to test yourself, then?” I speak up, startling him.
“Uh, no.” He shakes his head while taking a step back before pausing and moving forward with a glare. “Why didn’t you invite me?!” He exclaims.
“Why would I?” I ask, confused.
“She didn’t need you.” The Semplar mocks from the side.
“Ugh.” Rowland grunts like he was hit in the stomach.
“Was it necessary to do this, Jessica? The city is in turmoil over what you did.” The Templar asks me.
Already? Fast. It is Sunday, people are gathering and talking. Thrin couldn’t have picked a better day or time if he tried to help us. Leomi next? Weapons. Okay, the broadsword did take some damage. Nahl’s still waiting for an answer.
“That was the point. Some turmoil now for a long peace.” I explain.
“And a large boost to your reputation.” He utters suspiciously.
“A means to an end.” I reply with a shrug.
“See, she’s incorruptible.” Rowland utters smugly.
“Or I’m way too corrupted for fame to tempt me.” I propose.
“I’m defending you!” The Hospitalier protests.
“Why bother?” I ask at the same time as Uhla. We both chuckle, and then laugh at Rowland and Nahl’s discomfiture.
I wave my hand at them and abruptly head off. I hear Vikiana follow and an awkward silence behind. I sigh internally but keep heading for the smithy because there’s no point in losing her again since she can easily find me in Meria.
“You’re tired.” She says.
“I’m not.” I honestly tell her.
“How bad is it?” She asks.
“I don’t know, you heard Suxen.” I reply.
“She could have been lying, and your health could have improved or gotten worse.” Vikiana comments.
“The madwoman didn’t consider me worth lying to back then, she probably still doesn’t.” I deny. “I just feel stiff, it’s not a large issue.”
“Take the armor and case off, I’ll carry them.” Vikiana tells me.
“It isn’t an issue of weight.” I tell her, refusing.
“I spoke to Yvonne, she said you collapsed because you were tired.” She argues.
“I did.” I admit. “But my health got better because I trained my body back into shape, I think the problem occurs when my heart beats too fast for too long.”
“Okay.” Vikiana mutters. “There are drugs you can take to calm down and help with the pain, I can find you some just in case you need them.”
“I’ve had enough of that, no thanks.” I immediately refuse. “And it might kill me if those drugs prevented me from feeling the pain because it works as a warning.”
“So, it did mess with your emotions.” She notes.
I hold my tongue, unwilling to speak about the Little one because it’s complicated. We make our way through Meria together. Most groups coming from the plaza move out of our way when they recognize us, or more likely me.
I receive as many dark looks as overly enthusiastic greetings as I pass. Overall, people seem relatively curious but indifferent. It doesn’t bother me because everyone now knows of me, which is far better than remaining a mere subject of gossip.
“At least you didn’t involve my daughter this time.” Vikiana comments somberly.
“She chose not to involve herself.” I correct. Not that she knew what I was going to do.
“Because you clearly didn’t want her there.” She counters.
“She still sent you.” I note with a grunt.
“I asked her where you were by myself after knocking out a Hospitalier on the training field who made a snide comment about Leomi betraying Elizabeth Vil.” She responds, surprising me. “You’re lucky you plan to make my daughter a married woman because the harm you caused her reputation would have had to be paid in blood otherwise.”
“Please, you wouldn’t hurt me unless…” I pause, realizing that Leomi may not have cared what her mother did if she knew everything about Celyz and we weren’t about to get engaged. “Never mind.” I finish lamely.
“Do you plan to have a ceremony to exchange rings?” Vikiana asks abruptly.
“We did but changed our minds.” I reply.
“I’ll understand if you don’t want me there, you don’t need to lie.” She tells me with a hollow voice. I feel my heart tighten painfully.
“There are no invitations because there won’t be a ceremony, Viki. I don’t know when we’ll find the right place and moment but I won’t mind if you’re there.” I tell her.
Vikiana doesn’t respond until we arrive at the smithy where she splits from me and leaves. It puzzles me but I figure that she only came to speak to me because she’s worried about how I affect her relationship with her daughter and left after being reassured.
The owner of the store fawns over me and offers to exchange my broadsword for another weapon. I negotiate with him and trade the runic weapon for three new ones of similar lengths that I hang at the belts around my waist. More than satisfied, I head for Cecil’s brothel.
There, I remove my armor, wash, shave, and put my armor back on. It takes me over an hour to do all this but, thankfully, the anomaly in my chest fades in the meantime.
My fingers are still occasionally painful but it feels like pain from healing and I was careful not to strain them. I sadly need the armor because of my plans for the afternoon.
It takes me a whole fifteen minutes to find the guts to go track Leomi down. I can no longer push the conversation about Celyz away after last night when we’ve decided to set our plans aside.
I head for the Hospitaliers’ headquarters in Meria, a large building set in the middle of a dozen barracks and several training fields. With the addition of the thousand halberdiers, there should now be over three thousand Hospitaliers in Meria.
They are now the largest armed force present in Meria considering a good part of the army has been transferred to Port-Odo, not that it changes much considering Leomi commands it too. The Templars are still the most powerful, of course, but they’re leaving.
Amusingly, she likely has more power over the soldiers than the Hospitaliers because those work for Nobles of her faction or the Council and don’t have a charter to follow. I affect a casual smile and walk into the headquarters.
No one stops me because it’s open to the public, and I’m pretty sure two-thirds of those on duty have recognized me. I decide to ask to meet Roisia because Leomi hasn’t already picked me up so there is a chance I can surprise her.
“Is Vice-Commander Roisia Urnan here?” I ask a scribe sitting at a desk in the lobby.
“She is in a briefing, Miss Freepath.” The man replies, trying too hard not to look at my missing left arm.
“How about the Grand Commander? Or was a Commander named yet?” I question.
“The Grand Commander is attending the briefing as well, and no but Denus is on the path to be promoted soon.” The scribe informs me. Attending. That means Grace is probably the one giving the briefing.
“Denus, the one with a limp and shoulders as large as an ox’s?” I ask.
“That’s the one.” The man nods with an amused smile. “He was a lieutenant for one of Duke Meria’s regiment for a decade without being promoted because of his birth. He was already in consideration because reaching such a rank despite being from a rather unknown family of soldiers is a great feat. He distinguished himself from all others last month during the training exercises led by the Grand Commander.”
“Hm, can I meet him?” I question with no intention to do so.
“Of course, Dame Freepath. His office is on the first floor, his name is on it. If he isn’t there, try the training field.” The scribe tells me.
“Thanks.” I reply with a wave of my hand.
It doesn’t seem like they’ve heard about what happened this morning yet. Or they don’t care. I’m sure Leomi got a report, the briefing might be about that. Or something else. Sister… I’m just repeating your own doubts to you. Ugh, the most likely eventuality is that the higher-up know and haven’t bothered to spread the information themselves. There you go.
I head inside and find that the entire ground floor is but a wide corridor with dozens of doors. From the sounds I hear coming from the rooms, it seems like they’re used to teach and test recruits. Some doors in the back look reinforced and several have active golden runes, likely cells to temporarily hold people.
That’s a big improvement on being thrown in a dungeon but I’m not sure it’s wise to leave the Hospitaliers unsupervised. I notice a few city guards led by a member of the Council’s lower chamber walk out of one of the rooms and activate the runes on the door, grimacing because their timing suggests they came out just to contradict me.
I make my way to the stairs with a confident gait and climb up to the second floor, which is the last. There are only a dozen doors up here but the entire hallway is guarded by Hospitaliers, there is even a whole squad of Justiciers among them that confirm my guess about Grace.
“Dame Freepath.” A one-eyed woman walks over and salutes me.
“Mary.” I greet her with a smile.
“… Did I meet you before?” She asks hesitantly, seeming a bit panicked.
“Liz told me about you and Denus.” I reply easily while Elizabeth laughs in the back of my mind for the slip-up.
“Oh.” She beams with pride. “What did Elizabeth say?”
“That you should rise in rank to prevent Nobles from taking over the organization.” I tell her darkly.
“I, I chose to take command of our company rather than become a paper-pusher in a tent behind the lines.” Mary replies awkwardly.
“Good for you.” I tell her, genuinely glad that she followed her dream but unable to help myself from slipping in some criticism about her selfishness, and I’m the last being who should be doing that. She makes a grimace. “Don’t mind me, I’m sure you’ll distinguish yourself and rise to command a regiment on the field.”
“Yes!” Mary grins happily at my encouragement. I find it awkward because she looks at least eight years older than I am.
“Did you find enough capable cripples to fill a whole company?” I ask bluntly.
“Three actually, but only two hundred are fit for active duty out of the three.” She tells me without getting offended. “Many hoped to have the honor of being under your command but the Grand Commander told us you have your own plans.”
“You can ask what you want to.” I tell her.
“Did you refuse to join the Hospitaliers because many among us support Elizabeth Vil?” She questions. “We respect what you did, and you’re the first Hospitalier in a way.”
“No.” I reply, shaking my head. “I’m not.”
“The Hospitaliers exist in large part because of you.” Mary denies stubbornly.
“I have conflicts with both Leomi and Elizabeth.” I tell her honestly. “And the Hospitaliers’ ideals clash with my proactive philosophy of preventive retaliation.”
“Hhc.” Mary suppresses a giggle, making it sound like she hiccuped which I find really cute. “I did hear about some of your recent adventures, I get what you mean.”
“You’ll hear more before the day is over.” I tell her with a wink, feeling slightly guilty about the earful she’ll get because of what I’m going to do. “Can I go ahead?” I ask, glancing at the double-door at the end of the hall.
“Ah.” Her smile turns awkward. “I’m afraid the briefing is confidential.”
“That’s alright.” I reassure her. “Is there a room I can wait in?”
“Maybe on the ground floor?” She proposes hesitantly. You probably saved yourself a punishment with that answer, good for you Mary. Could you at least pretend to root for me? You know I do, sis.
“I’ll see you later then.” I tell her with a wave.
I head back down and walk on the first floor. There are guards but fewer than upstairs. I seek out and find Denus’ office. I knock but get no answer. I enter without hesitation as if I got one and close the door behind me.
The room is utterly void of decoration, there are only two cheap chairs and a desk to fill it. I listen quietly but hear no steps headed for me so I walk up to the window and glance outside through the slit between the flaps.
There are no squads patrolling the grounds but plenty of people leading their lives, some training, others lazying in front of their barracks. I flip the flap’s hook open and swiftly climb on the ledge.
I lion’s step up and catch the sill of another window, caring very little around the noise my cuirass makes hitting the stone wall. I then use a lion’s strike to propel myself up just high enough to use the ledge as support for another lion’s step that brings me to the level of the roof.
I reach out to the tiles with my palm and grab the edge. I pull my body closer and land on my chest, the umbrella’s ribs almost scrape the tiles but don’t. I sigh in relief because Liz would have given me an earful if I messed up her thingy. I swiftly throw my leg up and climb up on the roof while using the tiles as grips.
Then, I walk towards the back of the building where they’re holding the briefing I want to crash because I’m not hearing any alarms yet so there’s no point in hurrying. People really need to learn to look up, and investigate weird sounds.