The case on my back and the armor I’m wearing aren’t very heavy but the weight is still enough to disturb a tile, almost making me fall. I manage to recover by lowering and widening my stance.
I hear window flaps being thrown open behind me, no doubt as a result of the noise I cause climbing up, so I move a bit faster but remain careful not to stomp too hard or shift my weight too abruptly from one leg to another.
As I advance, I deploy two portions of flow, barely even taking notice of the fact that there is more energy in my reserve than there should be. I try to shape an air-shield but, unsurprisingly, encounter a disruption field that prevents me from doing so.
I make my way to the edge of the roof and use the unstructured energy to make a platform of solid air beneath me. I find the task rather difficult because I can’t even use the core of the air construct to help me.
The one big drawback of using unstructured flow is definitely the focus it requires, especially when operating within a disruption field apparently. I take deep breaths and fix my attention on it, leaving the operation of my body as an afterthought.
I turn around and jump down towards my golden air-shield. I spot a glass window and angle my body towards it. I land on the platform and kick it with a lion’s step, propelling me inside the room.
I pull my arm and legs in front of my chest and lower my chin to break through the glass with my helmet. As soon as I feel the impact and hear the shrill sound, I draw all my flow together which includes the tenth of a portion left in the air-shield.
I raise my head and spot a dozen figures sitting at a rectangular table. I shape the energy into two air-blades that I send flashing above the two rows of heads towards the figure with short white hair sitting at the other end.
A woman with brown hair steps forward from behind my target, a shield already held in her left hand. As she prepares to block my air-blades and throw her ward back with her right arm, I shatter my attack to turn it into a gust of wind.
“You’re all dead, except these two.” I speak up with a giggle.
I suddenly hear something tap my cuirass with a clinking sound. I glance down to find Grace upside down on the ground in a turned over chair with her hair spread around her head and her arms extended out with her hammer.
“And so am I, apparently.” I add with a chuckle.
‘Doubtful, I had no time to shape a construct.‘ Grace replies by writing in the air with her flow.
“Hammers need momentum, it might have been enough to break my focus though.” I tell her before looking up to address the room. “Your security is horrible, it stinks of complacency.”
“Jessica!” Yvonne exclaims with an outraged voice.
I grin but she gives me a pout. I shrug and throw a look around, finding pale faces staring at me, including Cecil and the old Avery Colby. Roisia is glaring but her shaking lips tell me that the realization of how easily she could have died scared her out of her wits.
Leomi is drumming the table with a prideful expression, which is vexing because it means she definitely wasn’t caught off-guard when even Yvonne and Grace could barely react in time. But then again, she was facing the window so Grace’s reaction is the most praiseworthy.
“Everyone, I present to you Jessica Freepath.” She speaks up as our eyes meet. “You now know why my hairs turned white.”
“Chirp!” The golden one-winged jay on her shoulder exclaims in agreement, startling me. She actually gave it a voice?!
Hospitaliers suddenly barge into the room with weapons drawn. They’re a bit late but I notice that there is a vestibule between this room and the corridor. Leomi raises her hand and waves at them. They throw me fierce glares but turn around and leave the room without a word.
“What is she doing here and what is this?!” Count Urnan explodes with a thundering voice.
“I’m someone to smack your lot in the right direction.” I tell him offhandedly while helping Grace get up after she rolled off her chair.
“Is that what happened to your face?” Roisia asks spitefully.
“Apologize!” Leomi barks at her with a hard tone that slashes through the protests and accusations arising from those attending the meeting.
“What for?” I ask quizzically. “She’s obliquely right. I got smacked as a distraction for someone to make an ambush.”
“…” The dozen people stare at me, gaping and further taken off-balance, even Leomi and Yvonne who I told about Ka’tchuk.
“What?” I ask them.
“True story?” Cecil asks with interest.
“To a point.” I reply.
“I meant to ask about the reason you’re here.” Cecil corrects with an amused smile. “For our dear Chief Justicier’s records.” She adds pointedly, clearly telling me to be careful.
“Well, I mostly sneaked in to see her.” I tell her, directing a glance at Leomi.
“Jess!” Leomi utters with a warning in her voice.
“Oh, right…” I pause to think. “I didn’t sneak in at all but I couldn’t find the door.” I tell them.
“…” Their dubious expressions, silence, and impatient gazes serve as answer enough.
“You can trust me, I would never sneak in. See, I broke the window so it can’t be said I was discreet.” I explain.
“Believe in me.” I add.
“… you should stop saying… words.” Leomi tells me with a deep sigh. I glance down at the scribbling Grace.
‘Jessica Freepath is guilty of vandalism at the most, and perhaps reckless endangerment.‘ I read.
“See, even she thinks it was merely vandalism.” I tell the room.
‘That is only because the building is open to the public and you have connections to most of those present so I do not wish to waste my time pursuing pointless charges because no condemnation could be made with their undermining testimonies.‘ Grace writes quickly.
“I get that you’re trying to point out that I’m abusing my privilege.” I whisper to her with a smile. “But I didn’t calculate that my actions would be consequence-free, I am ready to face whatever you can throw at me.”
“I think we should lock her up for now.” Leomi speaks up. Many among those present nod as they consider the proposal.
‘…’ Grace writes, making me chuckle.
“Do you think this is a laughing matter?!” Count Urnan yells at me.
Roisia makes a grimace while Cecil hides her mouth behind the back of her hand. The Council-members present are making rather indignant faces as well, causing Grace to straighten up in her chair and, surprisingly, look at Leomi.
“Please.” I utter coldly, causing Roisia’s expression to turn sour as she likely knows her father is in a losing argument. “Do you think I fear any of you?”
“We represent Izla Meria, show some respect!” Avery Colby utters flatly.
“You have seats because I gave them to you.” I tell the Council with a sharp voice while caressing the hilt of my longest broadsword. Their surprise at my response gives me the time to take a deep breath and seize my umbrella’s handle. “You have an Izla because Elizabeth and I decided it was worth our lives for so do not piss me off because what I gave back then, I can now take back.”
“Your achievements don’t place you above the law or give you the right and power to threaten us!” The Count spouts back with a dark voice.
“You best take the morning’s lesson to heart lest you end up on my path as well, little Count. I tolerate your existence because I have more important matters to deal with than interfere in the Council’s rectification of the mistakes I made while hurriedly establishing it.” I explain, growing tired of their blind arrogance.
“You have no right to be here, much less swagger in and act so arrogantly! We represent the people, you don’t represent anyone but yourself!” Avery exclaims. “Even Elizabeth Vil would have no say at the Council after having given up her seat and with the Rykz gone, much less you who hid behind them and now hides behind us from her!”
“Should I demonstrate how afraid I am?” I wonder out loud. This might be worth exerting a few muscles, gotta run away first though. Which is why I’ve stuck to words so far.
“Jessica, please.” Leomi speaks up without a hint of pleading in her tone, trying to get me to stop fanning the flames.
“I’m not angry, yet.” I warn her back.
“Chief Justicier, are you going to sit there without giving your opinions?!” Avery Colby asks aggressively. Grace flips her book around to show what she wrote while we argued.
‘I do not believe her act of vandalism lies within my purview with Hospitaliers present to enforce she pays the fine and for the damage but I will of course oblige if you wish to make it so. If you seek for more severe charges to be pressed, there is an argument to be made about spying but you have to make it because none of the information discussed here was meant to be kept from her. So far, neither the Hospitaliers, nor the Council, nor any individual has made any requests of the Justiciers. Her speech is of a political nature, which I cannot involve myself in as Chief Justicier.‘
“Speech! Threats you mean!” Colby exclaims in outrage. Grace merely stares back at him without setting her iron-bound book down to write an answer. He lowers his chin in the end, giving up without requesting her to act.
“You are weak.” I speak up, glancing at the upper Council-members one at a time. “The population has so far stuck with you because you haven’t committed enough blunders to warrant a wide-spread revolt. You did a decent enough job picking up the pieces but you’re very far from having won hearts. Try to act against me with the same shamelessness and arrogance as Nobility has, I dare you. I will not even need to lift a finger for you to be thrown off your illusory high horses.”
“You are exaggerating, Jessica.” Cecil notes. “And you would be in no better shape if such events came to pass.”
“I am not.” I deny, throwing her a glance to find her with a curious expression. “I’ve destroyed Nobility this morning, they have no more prestige to rely on. Their supporters will never side with you and can no longer help with pride. After all, no one likes sore losers. Any action taken against me by a group of Nobles or Council-members will now be interpreted as cowardice and met with revenge from my supporters who will find many attentive ears even from those indifferent to me.” I pause. “Of course, I invite you to challenge me to a duel if you have the confidence.”
“You overestimate whatever influence you believe you’ve obtained for your cause.” The Count utters sharply.
“Grand Commander, is this your doing?” Colby asks with a suspicious expression.
“Idiots.” I insult them with a sigh. “People do not need to agree with my cause for them to be infuriated if the right conditions are met and Leomi Lance would be taking you out herself if she had the desire to do so. She is silent because she knows I’m right, none of you can afford to abuse your power to deal with me anymore.”
“I do think it would be prudent to put you in chains but the Chief Justicier wouldn’t let me do so one-sidedly because I’m apparently biased.” Leomi tells me, her resentment towards Grace is evident from the inflection of her voice. Grace perks up at the words and hesitantly reaches for the ink vial with her quill.
“I think she wouldn’t allow you to interrogate me either if they decide to imprison me.” I speak up, causing Grace to nod seriously. “Yvonne sold you out.” I tell Leomi who scowls without revealing any surprise.
“What is this?” Count Urnan suddenly asks with a low voice.
His calm along with Avery Colby and the rest of the Council-members’ nervous silence tells me that they’ve picked up on how unfavorable their posture is towards me. Oddly, the fat guild-member doesn’t seem too distraught.
“Obviously an introduction to Jessica Freepath.” Cecil answers without bothering to conceal her amused grin anymore. “She’s much more amiable if you don’t try to confront her with vanity, she tends to respond to arrogance with overbearing arrogance.”
“You know what shocked the crowd the most?” I ask rhetorically, ignoring Cecil. “It wasn’t my skill with the sword, they cheered for my victories. It was that some among the people present stepped forward to support my fight against Nobility. There were few, but trust me when I tell you that the guts it took for them to do so woke the crowd up.” I inform them. “Of course, my skill with flow made quite a sensation as well.” I add belatedly.
“You believe she speaks the truth?” Urnan asks Leomi.
“She hasn’t told a lie, her perspective on the situation is her own but I do believe it is rather accurate.” Lance replies with a nod.
“Then why do you want to imprison her?” He questions.
“Personal reasons, and also because her intrusion can be leveraged to show the city that the Hospitaliers enforce the law with impartiality.” She explains honestly. “That being said, doing so with this timing would be unfavorable. Which is likely why she picked this moment to make a fuss.”
“Hey!” I protest.
“What? You are kicking up a fuss on purpose.” Leomi counters, blinking in confusion.
“No, well yes I am being fussy.” I admit. “But I didn’t pick this moment or plan to kick them down a notch or two. I came here to see you and they annoyed me.”
“You could have waited for the meeting to end.” Roisia speaks up.
“Ha.” A chortle escapes Yvonne who quickly places her palm on her mouth to smother it.
“Patience isn’t exactly Jessica’s strong suit when it comes to me.” Leomi tells her with a smile.
“Where is Viki by the way?” I ask. Grace replies by raising her quill and fluttering it in front of my face. “She’s working for you?” I question. She nods.
“Would you please throw this woman out so we can get on with the briefing? Before she succeeds in baiting Elizabeth Vil here.” Avery Colby utters with barely restrained anger. I hear Grace drop her book and start writing so I decide to hurry instead of throwing someone off a chair to throw it at him.
“I do have a question for you about one of your guild-members who was present at the plaza this morning.” I speak up, turning to the old man.
“I don’t owe you any answers, nor do I care to waste any time on this insinuation.” He replies, showing indifference that doesn’t seem feigned.
Hm, I’m probably being unjustified in my paranoia. Most people don’t like being threatened, I heard, it might be my fault he’s hostile. Might? You didn’t exactly go easy on him either.
“Dame Freepath is just as involved in what’s being discussed here as we are, if not more.” The fat merchant speaks up. “I see no sense in temporarily holding her considering the Grand Commander’s doubtful motivations, the problems doing so would cause, and how difficult it would be to with how easily she breached the disruption construct.”
“I second that.” Cecil says while staring at Colby who snorts but doesn’t challenge the assessment. Grace picks up and turns her book around for all to see. I squint to read upside down.
‘While the archer we captured refused to speak, I have a witness who saw him next to the woman with the mask on. It is impossible for one of the late Duke’s people to hold a grudge towards Jessica Freepath but not towards Elizabeth Vil. Why has that woman’s status as an imposter not been reported when the two most likely to recognize her as such are the ones who met her?‘
The Council and Count Urnan show true surprise, Roisia and Cecil fake it quite well. It’s odd Cecil wouldn’t pretend she already knew to reinforce her connection to Liz so as to use their fear of E.Vil, but maybe it would be disadvantageous for her to do so considering Elizabeth Vil’s supposed breach of her exile puts the Izla in a bad spot.
“Ah. I assume that question is for me considering you questioned Vikiana already.” I speak up. Grace shakes her head in denial. “So, you know I was being evasive with my answers and concluded someone else pulled strings.” She nods.
“Mother refused to explain when I asked her.” Leomi speaks up with a slight frown. “I was waiting for you to find out more on your own before confronting the issue because people misunderstood the event in Elizabeth’s favor so I didn’t estimate the matter urgent yet.”
“I know but I’m not telling since Viki didn’t.” I tell Grace, surprising her and Leomi. “The gist of it is that Elizabeth Vil wouldn’t appear so openly in Meria but that Viki and Roskal would prefer she would so their interests coincided in sustaining the farce.”
“You hold proof that it is Duchess Roskal’s doing?” Cecil asks intently.
“Not really.” I tell them while shaking my head. “I’m assuming it’s Roskal because Cenwalh is too arrogant to act directly and the Hakarth threw her name out. They used a barrier construct that Suxen invented and a sophisticated fire-kinetic hybrid construct.”
“So, no hard evidence.” Cecil says with a sigh.
“We have enough with Prince Arkur’s support to fend off King Cenwalh if he accuses us.” Lance speaks up with a somewhat cold voice, her mood sorely affected by her mother’s scheme. “The issue is that the Caroline might not wish to involve Telnur to counter this blatant scheme because King Cenwalh is gathering the realm’s professional armies as the Councilwoman predicted.”
“And the Kingdom will suffer for it.” Cecil murmurs with a sad expression.
“Would you please explain in detail for everyone to hear?” Leomi proposes.
“The quantity of supplies he is gathering to feed his army means that the reserves of some regions will be stretched to the breaking point, thankfully Hetlan hasn’t been called to mobilize because it would turn the situation catastrophic considering the Duchy lost its most fertile lands.” Cecil says with a somber tone. “Now, before some of you jump in to say that the Kingdom will be able to withstand the demand with an early harvest, let me remind you that most of the carriages that remain will be sent south on a long journey with a portion of the grain while few will return.”
“What do carriages have to do with this?” I ask curiously.
“Almost everything.” Avery Colby speaks up. “They are the main tool to fight back against famines. Without the ability to transport food, the regions that suffer a bad harvest next year will not receive sufficient grain to both feed the population and sow the fields.”
“So you’re saying the Kingdom is going to starve despite having enough food?” I question, blinking in dismay.
“Yes.” Cecil agrees seriously. “There are always other sources of food to rely on for peasants, as I’m sure you know, but if there is a massive drought in one of the Duchies… even wild roots won’t cut it.”
“How can the King and his advisers be ignorant of this if you know?” Leomi asks, making me frown because it shows how blind she is towards Nobility at times.
“Because we’ve seen it happen while they haven’t even heard of the problem.” Avery utters with a hard voice. “Famines are blamed on lazy peasants and bad weather, never on the chamberlain or subordinate that failed to obtain sufficient transportation for the food bought or sent as relief. Sometimes, there is a true lack of food as the Kingdom might experience because it never sent an army south along with months of supplies, but most often they are caused by a failure in management that is then concealed from superiors. Even those Nobles who made the mistakes themselves are unlikely to have learned the lesson to heart because it is easier to find excuses or call it the will of the Lake.”
Lance scowls and presses her lips together, seeming furious about something. I sigh inside and play with the idea of taking her out of here by force. The sound of Grace’s quill pulls me out of my reverie. She is drawing a fish under a ship transporting a stand of wheat.
“Grace suggests using boats to move food.” I speak up. She raises her quill and waves it. “And promoting fishing, I suppose.” She nods.
“The Izla’s population is already going to have to eat the fish they would smoke and export. Most of our merchant ships will need to be used to transport food south to Telnur to sustain Grand Commander Lance’s expedition as well.” Colby denies with a somewhat disapproving tone.
“Isn’t Telnur meant to support our army?” I question.
“It wouldn’t be wise to depend on them, and there is a good chance King Cenwalh will lay claim to most of their spare supplies.” Cecil tells me.
“So, Arkur.” I utter somberly while twirling my oil-cloth umbrella.
“We’re back to the problem of obtaining Telnur’s support since they no longer depend on Izla Meria to be reinforced.” Lance speaks up.