The Council falls silent, as if they’re taken aback. I shake my mind off my half-drawn plans to kill Arkur if he tries to leverage the Izla to get Leomi’s hand. I notice that gazes are often turning to Avery Colby.
The man clearly dislikes me, Liz, and Leomi. Or rather, he is dissatisfied. If he was completely at odds, he wouldn’t be as helpful as he was earlier in answering me or seem so disdainful of Nobility.
If I let go of my paranoia a little, I can interpret his attitude as a stance based on opposing Leomi’s accumulation of power and popularity, meaning he cares for the Izla. Cecil wouldn’t have allowed him a seat if he was merely rich and powerful after all. It wouldn’t surprise me if he made contact with Thrin to use him.
“There’s an annoying draft in this room.” I complain about the window I blew through.
Half a dozen people turn to me with outraged glares while Roisia, Cecil, Leomi, and Yvonne try not to laugh. I twirl my umbrella unconcernedly as I think of the problem. Lance wouldn’t have brought it up without a solution.
“Isn’t the issue of the impostor easy to solve? She’s likely here to kill Leomi.” I speak up.
“She could be here merely to cause us trouble by providing Cenwalh with an excuse.” Cecil contests.
“Except he doesn’t need one since Telnur doesn’t require Leomi’s help anymore.” I note.
“No, they do because the expedition will still gather under my name.” Leomi says.
“Ugh.” I shake my head because they’re being blinded by the political side of things and explain. “Roskal or Cenwalh couldn’t have predicted that Vikiana would help them, could they? So, it’s clear that whatever their goal is, it doesn’t depend on her cover remaining intact because they don’t know that there are very few who can identify Elizabeth Vil. For all they know, everyone in this room can tell the difference. The fact that the impostor uses a dagger and her companion as well makes it clear they’re not here to play games but to kill.”
“Oh.” Leomi blurbs out and closes her eyes in embarrassment. “Since the impostor gamble is likely to fail, pressuring us by making it look like Elizabeth Vil breached her exile is merely a secondary goal. His primary objective has to be to seize control of the whole expedition. My death would be dangerous for Cenwalh in the long term because people will pick up my torch but it also gives him free rein.”
“So, the impostor will make a move in the near future.” Roisia says and throws a glance at Grace. “Perhaps with support from those our dear Jessica defeated.”
‘I act on evidence.‘ Grace writes.
“She says she only acts on evidence.” I tell them. “It’s quite restrictive.” I comment.
“I’m prepared to deal with assassins, let’s focus on the problem Prince Arkur poses because he has some influence on the Fourth Phalanx.” Leomi speaks up.
“How much access does he have?” I ask.
“As much as anyone, a Phalanx pledges itself to its Marshal who then distributes energy as required to flow-smiths or officers. This method serves to prevent flow-smiths from stealing the Phalanx’s flow if they panic in the face of impending death as well as minimize the loss in energy upon their demise.” Lance explains. “The Marshal is almost always the last to fall, after all.”
“Why?” I question.
“Because the Marshal is part of every sympathetic construct in a Phalanx.” Leomi tells me. I assume that’s the construct Celyz told me requires several people. “Can we talk about this later? I think they’re growing impatient.”
“Hardly.” Avery denies. “Miss Freepath’s analysis gave us much to think about. It is likely she is correct about Duchess Roskal acting on King Cenwalh’s behalf as well if the impostor’s goal is murder, the King would be exposed himself to criticism from Telnur if the plot is discovered, placing him in a disadvantageous negotiating position. Not to mention the backlash from the population.”
“The early discovery that Elizabeth Vil is an impostor is a boon for us, their plan was definitely to ruin her reputation before we could react to the assassination.” Cecil speaks up.
“From this point on, we should all take further precautions.” Leomi declares.
“Their plan could have involved a decapitation strike during or after the Arbitration. With so many things gone wrong for them, because of Jessica, it’s likely they will take reckless measures to grasp a minor victory.”
“Preventive retaliation works.” I brag, pushing my chest out.
“We can’t solve the issue Telnur poses before knowing what they want, I suggest we wait for Prince Arkur to come to us.” Cecil says, throwing me a pointed look that I ignore. “After all, they haven’t shown any indication they’re retracting their support yet and the ball is tonight.”
The dozen present signify their agreement, apart from Grace who is apparently resolved to remain as uninvolved as possible in policy. The meeting continues but the discussion quickly bores me as it pertains to organizing the ball, patrols, and logistics.
I do take part in eating the meal delivered by Hospitaliers at the end before leaving with Leomi and Yvonne. Mary throws me a glare as I pass by. I spell out ‘sorry‘ with my lips and her expression softens, she brings her fist to her chest to express that she’ll do better before leading her squad to escort us.
I grow more and more nervous on the way out, to the point where I feel sick to my gut. It isn’t because of the disapproving gazes we draw but because of the conversation we need to have about Celyz.
“You don’t want to hold hands?” Leomi asks awkwardly as we walk through the lobby together.
“I do, but…” I hesitate, unwilling to broach the subject in public.
“You’re sweet but you don’t need to worry about my reputation. People are disappointed I didn’t stay with Elizabeth but most think it’s in her nature to be a loner and don’t blame me.” Leomi tells me.
“Hmph.” One of the Hospitaliers behind us snorts.
Before we can turn to confront whoever it is, Leomi lays her slender fingers on our forearm to stop us before giving us a smile that wipes out our anger but deepens the pit in our stomachs.
I let go of the umbrella’s handle and hold her hand, gaining some relief but not much. We soon reach a carriage and stop in front of it to wait for her escort to take their horses out of the stables.
“You look armed for war.” Leomi notes while glancing over my head.
“Ah, yes.” I mutter. “Do you mind keeping the case for me?”
“Of course, is it inside?” She asks, no doubt referring to our dagger.
“It is, I can unseal it later if you want it.” I propose.
“No need.” She denies. “How is your health? You look pale.”
“I pushed myself a bit this morning.” I reply, breaking eye contact.
“…” Leomi presses her lips together but doesn’t call me out on the lie.
“Here, give me.” Yvonne intervenes while tapping the case on my back.
I seize the distraction and start untying the rope around my waist to give her the liangi’s case. By the time we finish putting it to the back of the carriage, our escort has gathered and Leomi is comfortably installed inside.
Yvonne takes a seat in the front next to the driver, with the golden jay on her shoulder. I step in and put my umbrella down to arrange my sheathes so as to sit down in front of Leomi.
She activates a series of runes with her flow before turning her full attention on me. Leomi’s short white hair reinforce the intensity of her light gray irises, especially now that she’s examining me without hiding her suspicion.
“Why do you look sick?” Leomi asks with a worried tone. “We barely walked a hundred paces.”
“I wasn’t completely lying.” I answer awkwardly, finding it difficult to get angry. If only she was being unreasonable or aggressive, I could have gotten mad even though I’m in the wrong. Her continued silence pushes me to keep talking. “I’m… nervous. We need to talk.”
“It can wait until we get to my place, I brought a healer to examine you.” She replies with a concerned frown.
“It’s not…” I start.
“It is necessary.” Leomi interrupts me. “Please, I’m worried about you.” She pleads.
“It’s dangerous.” I contest.
“This isn’t the University, the fact that no one on Izla Meria is knowledgeable about the Rykz is both an advantage and a disadvantage. This healer is one of the best, he might not be able to heal you completely but he won’t know what could have caused the damage either. If there is a problem, I’ll solve it so don’t worry.”
I hesitate, unable to find the courage to challenge her forcefulness in these circumstances with the guilt weighing on my heart. I’m such a coward. It’s difficult to speak about Celyz and she’s only made it harder.
“I trust you.” I tell her, swallowing my saliva.
“Great.” Leomi replies, beaming. “Come here?” She offers, patting her lap. I knock on my cuirass as a response. “That’s not going to stop me and you’ll have to take it off so I might as well enjoy it.” She notes with an odd smirk.
Just go, you want to. You don’t want to look weak. I’m a big girl, it doesn’t bother me too much if it is to spoil my little sister and my lover. I get up and take off my bag of luggage before removing my helmet, deciding to magnanimously let my little sister’s arrogance go.
Lance reaches out to start expertly unfastening my belts and armor straps. I sigh at the fact we put it on to defend ourselves against her but it took merely a few words for her to get it off of us.
I settle on her lap and she wraps me in her arms. I let my head fall on her chest and close my eyes to listen to her heartbeat, feeling safe and relieved that the conversation has been pushed away once more. I despise myself for it.
I don’t think you’re weak for finding refuge in her arms, I envy you for being able to easily do so and she likely does as well. I silently nod. Leomi rests her chin atop my head and gently tightens her grip on me.
I set my right hand atop of hers and feel a sharp pang of ghostly pain in my left arm for still being unable to properly hold her. It doesn’t stop me from nestling in the emotional warmth her embrace exudes in spite of the cool temperature of her hands
“Are you hurting?” Leomi asks.
“Just the usual.” I reply with a thin smile.
“I’ll find a way to fix you.” She whispers, likely referring to my left arm as well as my heart.
“I don’t want or need fixing.” I tell her with a sigh. Celyz understands that. “We broke ourselves, kitten.”
“I meant to say I’ll find a way to heal you.” She murmurs with a conciliatory tone. “I love you as you are, I wouldn’t dream to change a thing.”
While her response doesn’t unwind the ball of nerves in my throat, it does bring a grin to our lips. We stay as we are in silence, enjoying each other’s presence. A quarter of an hour later, I feel her right hand retreat under mine to slide along my thigh towards my behind.
“You little minx, you’re on track to become more famous than me and Liz.” Leomi says with a berating and teasing tone.
Alerted by her movements and words, I manage to seize her wrist but my sister interferes and makes me let go. Liz? I’m resting in my love’s arms, don’t disturb me. Liar! Lance’s cool hand slides inside my underwear and seize my left ass-cheek.
“We don’t have much time so I’ll just give you a taste of how very worried, proud, and jealous you made me feel.” She whispers with a rough voice.
She pushes my butt up to make me stand but, somehow, the motion also makes my loose pants drop down. I feel the carriage slow down and stop so I relax somewhat.
She won’t be able to defeat me in time once I turn around and there are curtains so the Hospitaliers can’t peek inside. I shift to turn but Elizabeth interferes again, causing me to stumble forward and lean in.
Slap. The sound startles me far more than the acute pain I experience on my butt because I instinctively channel the sensation into a somewhat pleasurable shiver. I bite down on my lips to prevent a half-yelp and half-moan from exiting my mouth as that would be humiliating. I snap around while pulling my pants up and find Leomi staring at her palm in disbelief.
“I can’t believe Liz helped me do that to you.” She murmurs.
“She wouldn’t have let me do it myself.” Liz says humorously.
I glare at Leomi, very much aware that I have three burning cheeks, including a rather painful one. I bring my hand back. Leomi watches but doesn’t try to defend herself, her expression remains gleeful and proud even as my hand rapidly approaches her cheek. Slap.
“Worth it.” She tells me with a grin.
Four finger marks appear on her left cheek. I glare but can’t help but smile at her childishness, especially since she expressed her feelings about what I did on her own, which is progress. I decide to reward her. I rise on the tip of my toes to whisper in her ear.
“It made us a little wet.” I distinctively pronounce each word one by one and kiss her cheek. Jess! You should have stayed out of it, little sister.
I pull away, finding Leomi gaping and panting. I grin victoriously and turn to step out of the carriage. She takes a full twenty seconds to step out with the red mark of my hand clear on her cheek.
Mary and her Hospitaliers make such a point to step around us while avoiding to look that it becomes even more obvious that they noticed. I take Leomi’s hand and resolutely lead her through the house’s garden without letting her stop me because I don’t want them to misunderstand the slap I gave her as a rejection.
Rowland steps out on the porch and pauses as he notices Leomi’s face. He quickly shakes his head and rushes past us. I glance over my shoulder, finding Yvonne gathering my stuff. I lead Leomi to the door and let go of her hand.
“Get the healer ready, I’ll be right back.” I tell her.
Leomi purses her lips but doesn’t contest. I head back, waving Yvonne and Rowland aside and store my armor in the bag I kept inside my luggage. They don’t hesitate to leave it to me to step aside and exchange a few words. I fasten one of my broadswords around my waist as a priority.
“You could at least offer to help!” I unfairly berate.
“You didn’t spar with me today, I don’t have to listen to you.” Rowland replies with a cocky grin.
“Yvonne, you should handle your man, teach him some manners.” I tell her.
“Good idea.” She agrees. The sword-sworn gives him my liangi’s case and grabs his wrist to drag him away.
“Wait, she might actually need help!” Rowland protests.
I chuckle with Yvonne and throw my cuirass inside on top of my other pieces of gear. I then grab the rest of my luggage while being careful in handling the package containing my dress so as not to crease it.
It takes me a bit to put everything in the bag and throw it on my shoulder with the umbrella hanging on my left. Meanwhile, the Hospitaliers deploy all around the house, which is pretty much a small manor. I hear a door slam upstairs as I walk inside.
Rowland isn’t likely to escape this time if Yvonne hasn’t caught him yet. I suddenly spot the golden jay fly out of a corridor with awkward barrel rolls. It grabs the edge of my umbrella with its tiny feet to land but soon flips upside down and ends up hanging from the cloth.
“Chirp.” It states sorrowfully as if it didn’t just slip.
“Indeed, chirp.” I agree with an amused smile, guessing that it’s mourning Rowland’s fate. It’s quite prude. It’s a cute and innocent jay. Hm.
There are a few paintings of landscapes on the walls and many potted plants. I find Leomi waiting in the main room next to a shaved man with a white robe, brown hair, and a full pouch.
“You only need to lift your shirt from your back so the cloth doesn’t interfere.” He tells me. Seems like Leomi briefed him. “I’ll also be scanning your circulatory system so I need you to sit down and hold still.”
I nod and settle down on the chair Leomi brings. I prepare to block any intrusion to my brain but feel secure with her here. She pulls my shirt up for me and I grab it so she can step aside to guard me.
The man places two fingers on my back, right behind my heart. I inspect the silver segments and recognize a few from the sound one as well as a recording system, the construct doesn’t seem complicated.
He tells me to take a few deep breaths and then asks me to hold it. After a while, he adds a few scanning segments and changes the previous construct to make it smaller but with more energy which tells me he made it more precise.
He directs the construct inside my body where my heart should be. He lets it run there for a while before duplicating it and sending it throughout my body, likely along my veins and arteries.
I decide not to block the parts that reach up to my brain because the flow segments that do are as thin as filaments and don’t stop for a single moment but seem to be moving with my bloodstream.
“Some of your arteries are damaged around your heart, mostly on the left side. Others seem to be blocked, which I’ve usually seen in people who eat too many rich foods.” He speaks up. “I would suggest returning to your previous eating habits for a few weeks to see if your health improves.”
“Can you heal her?” Leomi asks intently because she knows it’s unlikely my problems have anything to do with what I ate.
“I don’t know.” He assembles another construct and sends it traveling through my chest. “Her organs appear overworked.”
“But can you heal her?” Leomi insists. I hear a trembling in her voice.
“No amount of flow can replace rest.” The healer replies firmly. “I can unclog the arteries and teach her how to use the healing construct to repair them at the very least.”
“That’ll be useful at least.” I note. “I’ve rested plenty these past weeks.”
“Then I can only conclude you suffer from an unknown illness.” The healer says with a sigh. “I believe you should go to the University, they may have documented similar cases. Even if they haven’t, there is a good chance some researchers will treat you for free to record this illness.”
I stiffen and obliterate the constructs in my body. I rise and turn, finding Leomi thinking hard instead of looking worried while the healer looks at me with a compassionate expression. I realize that my paranoia about Suxen made me overreact.
“Thank you for your help, if you could teach her while I prepare your payment.” Leomi proposes.
“It might take the entire day.” The healer warns.
“I doubt it.” She replies with a confident smile.