Leomi’s question feels genuine, she’s truly seeking an answer and her sharp traits are reflecting how lost she is. The doubt she’s experiencing isn’t aimed at us but herself as proven by the self-mocking smile on her soft lips.
Of course, I’m the one who brought my oak up. Lance has always made it clear that there isn’t anything for us to discuss that involves Celyz between us, she won’t yield to my request to open her heart or accept that I’ve allowed her in mine.
“You make me so angry at myself.” She tells me with a difficult voice.
“Chiiiirp.” The jay squeaks sadly.
I hold my tongue because I can tell from her unsteady hands that she’s struggling to get a handle on her emotions. I wait as I am, captive of the instability I triggered in her.
“I can’t allow myself to tear you away, not simply because you’re entirely your own woman, but because I love and respect the surprises you give me again and again by rising on your own.” Leomi murmurs. “I resent you for that, and… it. It‘s, irrational, but not.”
Lance pushes me harder against the oak, to the point where I have difficulty breathing. It feels as if she’s using me as a physical outlet for her inner conflict, yet she releases the pressure without calming down in the slightest and pulls me away with a slight limp.
Liz, feeling as uncertain as Jess does but more prone to take action in these circumstances, uses the relatively flat umbrella to block the light projected by the rising moon and the setting sun.
“And you’re sick.” Leomi says with twisting traits. “Should I help you make the most of the time you have? Should I ignore us to ensure you have a future? Should I focus on us at the risk of your life? Should I weep because I hesitated for so long that I left a gap in your heart?”
“Take it one step at a time.” I gently advise her because that’s what I’ve relied on.
I pass my arm around her back and hug her, holding the oil-cloth canopy just above her head as if to try to prevent her tears from flowing. Her left hand finds my thigh while her right lands on my scarred cheek, she pulls me in with the former and pushes me back with the latter as she leans in to kiss me.
Lance nibbles my lower lip and then bites down on my tongue. I have a distinct feeling that she is using my body to settle her emotions down. It hurts that she’s not seeking my participation but I can’t complain as she was courting me earlier and I put an end to it.
“I cannot bear to strike you, nor can I afford to, nor can your health sustain it. I have to settle for obliterating your enemies but it isn’t enough. Thankfully, the guilt in your eyes when you witness my pain does much for me.” Leomi murmurs as she releases me.
“I would destroy any being that threatens you, Lance, no matter what.” I tell her, trying to make up for my refusal to stand by her side by expressing this evident fact.
“Which is why I can’t have you remain by my side unbridled when I travel to Kruzser, no matter how I wish I could.” Leomi replies with a difficult expression. I didn’t expect this response. “And so, I have to ask whether you could accept to become my consort. It would give you the power to speak in my name as an honorary Duchess. I wouldn’t restrain you.”
“You wouldn’t need to, I would have to restrict myself so as not to cause you harm.” I reply in a whisper, aware that I don’t need to refuse since the way she made her offer indicates she very much understands my attachment to freedom.
“Then, at least lead a squad to travel through Hetlan and Mirus.” Leomi proposes.
“Mh.” I reply, in no mood to argue inside her arms.
She squeezes me and releases me, agreeing with her actions. I return my umbrella to my half-shoulder and pass my arm around her waist to help her stand on her feet. I am responsible for her difficulties after all.
“If you don’t want to, I can make arrangements to travel together.” Leomi murmurs.
“No, I do have things to do in Hetlan.” I reply.
Sykus’ connection to foreign Noble houses makes me see Leomi and Edusa’s plans to use him and his followers in a different light. I may as well ‘help’ them since their challenge of traditional Nobility will help my plan to destroy the system.
“Okay, but…” Lance hesitates. “Be careful.”
“I never am.” I reply with a chuckle.
“Indeed.” She lets out a small laugh. “I’m sure you’ll make me proud.”
“Should I bring you back?” I ask, having felt her tension since she pressed me on the oak.
“No, the ball has become completely irrelevant because of the actions we took. All that awaits me are idiots who think too highly of themselves.” She replies with a mean smirk.
She is undoubtedly imagining the high born vainly waiting to have a chance to talk to her so as to, perhaps, eventually, ask for her hand. Truly idiotic since, if they had a chance, the way to do it would be to directly approach Lance and impress her rather than slowly build a rapport.
I feel blessed by the fact she isn’t bringing us back. She could easily have chosen to mingle in order to make me jealous. Perhaps she made her move earlier not merely because she could thanks to what I did but also because controlling the whole Izla allows her to marry whoever she wants and dismiss political pressure.
“I now know for certain what game Arkur is playing which means I have no need to remain.” She tells me.
“Oh?” I say, looking up to her.
“He simply wants to make sure that Caeviel won’t be able to pressure Telnur, which he can do by making sure the Court is in internal conflict by not allowing them to defeat my faction.” She explains. “Tying me to a powerful house through marriage would have worked but, apparently, your runic plow has enough value for Telnur that he settled on using it and the Hospitaliers to tie our interests.”
“I knew that the concessions he gave me were things he was already prepared to give you but I didn’t realize the extent of it.” I note, feeling a bit underwhelmed by my performance.
“No, trust me, Telnur didn’t want to help the Hospitaliers so openly.” Leomi hurriedly cheers me up.
“…” I stare at her with a blank expression.
“Ah.” She says, realizing that she basically admitted Telnur did want to accept her Hospitaliers.
“Why would they want to support your organization?” I ask her.
“Because Telnur needs soldiers, it’s a gamble for them whether we would successfully expand and help defend their borders but not a risky one because those we motivate to take up weapons to defend their Kingdom will definitely join their forces if the Hospitaliers collapse.” Leomi answers. “I am confident that he wouldn’t have agreed to provide real estate to us if your runic plow didn’t have so much potential.”
“Details, I’m but a mere peasant with no education.” I plead humorously.
Leomi throws me a glare and shuts her mouth. I blink, not sure why she suddenly got mad. She pulls her hand out of my grip and resolutely turns her back to me. I move to hug her from behind.
“I don’t like it when you play stupid.” She pouts. “It feels like you’re making fun of me.” I squeeze her.
“Let me guess then.” I say and ponder her previous words for a while. “It still has to do with their lack of soldiers. The runic plow can increase their production of food so it’s logical to think that it can also free a portion of their peasantry so that they pick up weapons… or even work as smiths or dockworkers.”
“Exactly.” Leomi confirms while flipping around with a grin. “Telnur benefits from having the Hospitaliers’ ideals attract those that aren’t enthusiastic about joining the army or skillful enough to join the Templar Order. There will be many that fit that category but are too old to be recruited in the Phalanxes once your runic plow spreads.”
“You seem confident it’ll perform well.” I note, rather surprised. “Arkur has to be too or he wouldn’t have offered the deal.”
“Master Amand has high hopes for it and the master-smith running the tests has been bragging about how efficient the runes are.” Leomi replies, looking at me in an odd way. “You didn’t know?”
“Eh.” I shrug, feeling that the construct I made is good but far from being as impressive as the construct Cetyz used to split the earth.
The corners of her lips rise in amusement, making my heart beat faster. We start walking hand in hand around the garden, I notice that she leads me to the north and wonder what she’s up to.
“There are pansies there.” She whispers while nodding ahead.
Liz hurriedly raises her umbrella, opening our sight to parterre of our favorite flowers. There are some with deep purple centers and a blue edge, others are golden-red, and even a few tiger eye orange-black pansies.
She brings me there and naturally takes hold of the umbrella as well as lets go of my hand to give us a moment. I crouch down in front of these favorites of mine to savor the sight of these fragile-looking but very sturdy flowers.
I run my fingers along the multitude of petals and feel a bit sad I can’t make Leomi a crown as I did for Celyz. I don’t have any regrets but these would suit Lance. I rise into her open awaiting arms.
“Can I pick one for you?” My kitten asks in a whisper.
“Please.” Liz replies with a rather soft tone, feeling as giddy as a little girl inside. Sister… Enjoy it, don’t act proud if you don’t want to, no one here is fooled. “Uhhhmmmh.” E.Vil whines.
Leomi kisses the pit of our neck, suppressing Liz’ complaints. The jay soon lands in the flowers and picks a rare tiger eye pansy with its talons. The flow bird then clumsily flies up and releases the flower in Lance’s palm. She then gently slips it in Liz’ hair above the right ear.
Yet, after the romantic gesture, she merely kisses our cheek and leaves us wanting for more. We turn in her grasp and reach up to her short hair for Liz to seize them and force her down to truly kiss us.
Leomi leans in with a delightfully surprised look on her face. It quickly fades as she picks up on what Liz and I want. She parts her lips to welcome ours so that our mouths meld in a profound kiss.
Once we separate, out of breath, we pass our arm around her waist and walk with her to the north under the umbrella she holds over our heads. I soon catch sight of Yvonne, Rowland, Nahl, Uhla, and Vikiana waiting for us near a half-dozen horses with tankards in hand.
“Hm.” I exhale in surprise.
“Mother and Yvonne will remain with us as the rest guard the surroundings. I kept the arrangements minimal.” Leomi hurriedly tells me.
We wave our hand to tell her that it’s fine because we don’t trust our voice to remain steady if we were to speak. After all, we’ve just realized that Leomi intends to bring us somewhere to get engaged… tonight… in these dresses.
Liz and Jess meld into one as their hearts start beating so hard, so fast, that they feel it constricted inside their chests. I take over and support Lance’s walk to her warhorse, help that she gracefully uses.
Viki’s stares angrily at me with her clear blue eyes but her expression is confused and quizzical. I find it amusing that she figured out I’m the reason for her daughter’s stiff gait but is too innocent to realize how it happened.
Yet, I feel sorry that Leomi couldn’t speak openly with her mother. There isn’t much to worry about because the hug earlier means they’ve begun to reconnect so things will get back to normal for them in the near future as they spend more time together.
If I knew it would bring them together, I would have told Leomi about Celyz as soon as Yvonne arrived at my house and we learned that Vikiana was nearby so Lance could chase after her. Family is very important and there is every chance that her mother will outlast my lifespan.
“Hey, Viki!” I cheerfully call out, causing her to glare at me.
Nahl and Uhla both startle into a saluting stance with panicked expressions on their faces. I can almost see them sweat despite the fact that Vikiana isn’t part of the Order anymore, and neither are they, which means she has absolutely no power over them.
As Leomi and I approach, they pick up on the fact that Viki has chosen to ignore me rather than attempt a vain reprimand. The two of them try to put some distance between them and us anyway but are blocked by Rowland who is ‘standing in their way like a giant oaf‘ if I read Uhla’s expression correctly.
“The savage is allowed to call Dame Vikiana that?” She asks nervously.
“Nope.” Rowland denies with an amused voice.
Vikiana snaps to him, surprising and scaring him so much he moves back. He only retreats a single step because Yvonne stops him and blocks the way. I chuckle in amusement because Rowland is the same size while his shoulders are one and a half wider than hers.
“My bestie earned the right.” Yvonne teases.
“How do you do that?” Nahl asks in a loud whisper.
“You do not.” Vikiana intervenes frostily.
Lance chuckles soundlessly and leads us into the guardhouse which is surprisingly empty. It should never be the case even when the portcullis is lowered so I suspect that the area is much better guarded than it looks or that Leomi trusts the soldiers holding the walls around the Keep much less than is apparent.
While I close the door, wondering what’s up, she opens a chest and takes out two hard leather armors with bands of steel sown for added protection as well as two riding outfits to wear underneath. We silently change clothes and fold our dresses in a travel bag.
We then go out and Leomi helps me get atop her warhorse so that I lift her up behind me so that she doesn’t have to strain herself to raise her legs in order to climb on.
As we wait for Vikiana, Nahl, and Rowland to scout ahead before departure, Leomi plays at braiding and unraveling my hair. I take my attention off Yvonne and Uhla, who have brought their horses close to talk.
“You can’t seem to decide whether you like me best with messy or combed hair.” I tease my kitten.
“I… ‘t seem… deci… hether I want… ess you up or… mess… p by you eit…” Leomi whispers back in such a tiny voice I struggle to piece her words together.
I blush and immediately enhance my hearing because it was a loss to miss her admission. Unfortunately, she returns to toy with my hair in silence, but the construct does allow me to pick up on the other two’s conversation.
“Liander is the most amazing playwright, you have to go see his dramatization of ‘Yilsa and Sadner’ in Hetlan, you absolutely can’t miss it!” Yvonne utters excitedly.
“I’m not sure, tragedies are…” Uhla trails off, finding no words.
“I saw it when I was a child and it blew me away.” Yvonne replies.
I dismantle my construct because it feels like a private conversation and I’ve lived through too many tragedies. I instead lean back on Leomi and enjoy her care towards my hair while looking forward to arriving at our destination.
Our three scouts return a few minutes later and we depart at double-trot towards the northern gate of Meria. We come across half-regiments of halberd wielding Hospitaliers several times on the way, plenty for me to figure out that they’ve surrounded the Keep with several defensive layers.
“Leomi?” I call out to her, demanding an answer since she no doubt hasn’t volunteered one so as not to spoil my mood if I didn’t want to know.
“By now, Roisia will have evacuated the entire Council from the Keep by using various secret passages.” She tells me. “Cecil, Grace, and I have all independently confirmed that there have been movements indicating that a rebellion with the goal to take my and the upper Council’s lives is likely to occur in the upcoming week.”
“So you chose to trigger it early.” I guess.
“You did, I merely pushed those recalcitrant and hesitant Nobles over the edge tonight.” Leomi corrects with a mean chuckle.
“If that’s the case, why are we leaving the city?” I question, suspecting her to be trying to protect me.
“I didn’t want you to be there when swords were drawn, this minor scuffle isn’t worth you risking your health for, but there are also strategic reasons and I’m not dismissing the possibility that the impostor will make a move on us so it isn’t as if I’m cuddling you either.” She hurriedly explains.
“… Okay.” I acknowledge.
“There is no way to know how many officers or recruits will get involved, even among the Hospitaliers, but I have no doubt that some units will be tearing themselves apart tonight over whether or not to rebel. This is meant to function as a test for Commander Denus and the officers who will remain behind on Izla Meria so it wouldn’t be suitable for me to interfere.” Leomi says.
“And?” I press. “You could be observing rather than leaving the city.”
“It is best, at times, not to give your enemies a target to rally towards in order to take it down.” Leomi tells me. “The absence of their main objectives from the battlefield will take the wind out of their sails, especially because whatever tricks they play on the Templar Order won’t hold them back for very long so they have to swiftly obtain victory considering their numbers will be limited and supplies nonexistent.”
“And those who join in order to obtain their revenge won’t fight nearly as enthusiastically if the object of their hatred isn’t in their sight.” I add, understanding.
“Indeed.” Leomi acknowledges pridefully as she pecks the side of my neck. “My strategy is based on the fact that an army should never completely surround an enemy and always give them a way out so that they do not fight with desperation.”
I catch sight of Meria’s northern gate and notice that there are fewer torches on the wall than I would expect. Our friends don’t tense up so I assume that Lance made sure that Hospitaliers or trustworthy soldiers would be holding these gates.
My suspicion turns out to be well founded as we go through the barbican in a single go without having to stop in-between the portcullises. Vikiana leads us towards the East-North-East, and the coast.
After two hours of riding in shallow darkness, during which I occasionally hear sounds of battle coming from Meria on our right, we pass by a wood that hides the city from our sight and arrive at a small stone cottage built atop a sharp cliff that faces the sea.
The small house is adorable and the view all around us entrancing, but I hold myself back from relaxing my guard because Uhla, Rowland, and Nahl haven’t departed. It means that Lance is likely waiting for some kind of signal.
“I’m sorry, it’s taking a bit longer than I expected.” She tells me with a contrite expression.
“It’s fine.” I tell her with a grin.
I take hold of her hand and lead her to the cliff. There, I find a rock to sit on while dangling my legs in the void with waves crashing beneath. I take the umbrella from Leomi and invite her to sit by my side. She does so with a smile.