The being stumbles in the plains with blood seeping out of the back-left of her waist, knowing she doesn’t have the strength to take the armor off with her single arm, bandage herself, and put the cuirass back on.
And so, she travels a kilometer in an hour to reach a crevice in the terrain and finally crumbles with harsh pain seizing her chest. She writhes and screams with fury at being immobilized.
Once her muscles stop thrashing and the agony passes, the being is left hazy and exhausted. Yet, that does not stop her from rising to her feet and resume her travels.
She trails slowly to the north while exposing her figure on the horizon as often as possible to ensure her pursuers don’t lose her. She encounters a small stream and, uncomfortably aware that she stinks of blood and sweat, stops to bathe and heal.
— — —
South-east from the being, a pregnant woman loses her water and a group of eighteen with eleven babies stops to set up camp a few hours away from their village of destination. They’ve seen almost no patrols looking for them but came across enough messengers to know the delay may be fatal to them.
Yet, while Spring is rearing, winter has yet to fully pass so they have little choice but to stop and make a fire or risk the lives of the mother and the newborn to come. Two of the original twelve argue to split up only to be threatened into silence by a woman with a disturbing scar on her neck.
The leader, a brunette who had never held such a position and relies on an appearance of confidence to hold them together, finally realizes that events have been slipping away from her, or that she never had a handle since they escaped the institute. She decides to send for help.
— — —
A tall woman with blond hair wearing a tricorne rests lazily against a charred wall near the eastern gate. She is watching troops depart Meiridin with a mean smile on her face because the martial law that was declared moments after the fire burst just all its teeth.
She turns and walks away as soon as the last soldier of the three companies makes it out of the city. She heads for the docks. Once there, she enters a quiet warehouse to be welcomed by the two hundred ‘rats she commands.
“Split up, we begin in one hour.” Ruth utters sharply as she walks in. “Take everything that isn’t bolted down from the warehouses with house Cenwalh’s crest and return to the ship.”
— — —
A day and a half go by. A day and a half during which the being recovers from battle to fight new ones. A day and a half during which a woman fights a battle of her own to deliver a new life into the world. A day and a half during which an old man rips his hair out because the city he was put in charge of was pillaged because of actions he took to protect it.
By the next day, news arrive at these people through different means. The being learns that events did not go as she predicted because there are too few soldiers pursuing her so she decides to return south.
The woman, waking up to her baby boy sleeping in her arms, meets peasants from a nearby village who their leader asked help from only to find that these people, more than helping them, wished to join them to leave these lands after their boats were seized as a precaution.
The old man, who called back troops to ensure the all-important warehouses would be safe, kneels in front of his Queen to be told that his decision to abort pursuit all but guaranteed that there would be far more low born runaways than there already are fleeting from Meiridin.
— — —
Duchess Edusa walks out of a large mansion built in the middle of a small city surrounded by acres and acres of fields with a dark look on her face as negotiations fell through despite her holding proof that these Nobles made many peasants work three days a week for them, which is against Hetlan’s law as well as seized properties under false pretenses. Edusa flicks her hand at her escort of soldiers who deploy around the building.
“Duchess, their house is the largest food producer in Hetlan.” An old general of her mother’s time warns her.
“Which is why I can’t allow them to be disloyal.” Edusa responds
“Unrest here will disrupt our already tight food supply.” He presses.
“Whether or not it is disrupted, our survival depends on Mirus to provide food to last the year so it matters not.” The Duchess responds with a hoarse voice.
“Shall I instruct our spies to hasten their efforts to reach an agreement with the rebel Sykus, then?” The man asks.
“Yes.” Edusa nods. “And send more to establish more contacts with the population if those efforts fall through.”
“Very well. I assume you wish the story of today’s turmoil to hastily reach Meiridin? The truth of it will add credence to the rumors about Hetlan’s instability we have already spread.” The elder proposes.
“Yes, but ensure the true story of these peasants to spread so that the Queen remembers our popularity with the people.” The Duchess agrees. “She must fear what we will be in the future so that she suspects no tricks in the present.”
The old General bows and departs. Edusa turns to the mansion and raises her hand. The soldiers surrounding it raise their shields. The Count standing at the balcony stands straight without fear with his consort Countess by his side.
They are both certain that this young and naive Duchess wouldn’t dare provoke their house. Not to mention the hold they have on the region, they could easily defect to the King and gain his support to seize his lands back with an army, especially considering the rumors that there have been Nobles revolting against her rule in the north-east of Hetlan.
“You should have taken the loss of your fertile lands.” Edusa utters coldly.
A mass of flow pours out of the Duchess and gathers inside her palm. The Count feels a cold sweat trickle down his back while the Countess freezes. Too late do they realize their mistake because they were never told the war between these two factions began long ago.
The Count has barely time enough to raise a disruption construct that the Duchess launches air-needles, air-blades, and fireballs to rain down upon the mansion. While he manages, barely, to protect himself and his consort, the building falls into pieces all around him.
The two Nobles drop from the balcony and are buried under chunks of their luxurious parquet. Soon, statues, paintings, and broken pieces of furniture start dropping atop the pile of debris from tears in the mansion’s facade.
They resist as best they can with strengthening constructs. But even the Count’s disruption construct, which can negate constructs that use ten or twenty times more energy, ends up running out of flow at which point air-constructs finally claim their lives.
Their guards inside the mansion fare no better than their Lord and Lady while those outside dare not challenge such a powerful titled Noble without their Liege at their backs. They do not even dare try to extinguish the flames that devour the broken mansion.
The two dead Nobles never have a chance to figure out that Duchess Edusa has naught to fear if she slaughters them all and claims, as they have towards peasants, that they rebelled when confronted with their misdeeds.
Edusa goes so far as to even wait for Templars to arrive and show them the proof she’s obtained and to point them at the witnesses. The temple guards won’t appreciate what she did but the Order’s presence in Hetlan and even Caeviel has weakened because of the two regiments they sent to Izla Meria which are then expected to follow the army into Telnur.
— — —
The Duchess rides into Altenburg, Hetlan’s capital with only a single company to escort her because the rest of her army has either been sent out of the Duchy in small units or deployed within its borders to both suppress some Noble houses and make it seem like her rule is far less secure than it is.
Soldiers, ironically, don’t need any encouragement to disturb the peace and cause brawls so they make perfect envoys to artificially cause unrest. Edusa laments the unavoidable casualties that will result from this but believes that her people’s lives are already easier thanks to her power spreading across the entire Duchy.
She can see her house’s ancestral castle hanging far off at the side of one of the tallest mountains making up the valley Altenburg lies in but feels no desire to walk within its cold walls.
Instead she heads for a small mansion that she used to spend summers in as an adolescent, the very place where the previous Duchess caught wind of her inclination towards other women.
It is both a symbol of defiance and victory for her as well as a reminder that the oppression she felt from her family is being felt by all her subjects under Nobility.
She gives free leave to the hundred loyal soldiers following her and greets the guards before entering the mansion to worry about another problem which she feels close to her heart despite being utterly irrelevant to her ambition for Hetlan.
That is, how to both spend more time with a pair of sweet black eyes without abusing her authority or seeming to be making advances which the beautiful tall blonde might feel pressured to accept because she’s a Duchess.
Edusa misses the time they spent on the ship and then occasionally around campfires on the way to Hetlan. She learned much of her life and troubles, enough that the same empathy that made her mourn her sister, made her forgive this woman’s past.
After all, Edusa thinks, what better way to witness her change than be there in person? To experience the proof herself that people can change and that the world can be better.
Edusa worries and worries as she crosses the hall but finally decides to use the same excuse as always, to ask the woman to come report to her because they agreed she would so, that way, she’ll get to hear about her life without seeming to be prying or overstepping.
Yet, there is a problem to that because Edusa advanced their previous meeting by using the excuse that she was to leave the city for a week, which means this one will be early by several days.
Embarrassed but unwilling to delay, she decides to pick another messenger to send than the last one because that way she might avoid fueling the rumors already spreading about their regular meetings becoming more frequent.
“Call Jamie to my office.” Edusa tells a servant, deciding to pick another messenger than the last one she used.
“Yes, Duchess.” The women replies with a bow.
— — —
Idali walks in the office rather nervously because she’s anxious to meet the Duchess, both because she worries about not being trusted and eager to spend time with her but afraid to push her because of what happened on the ship.
She finds a teapot and two cups set on a low table with two armchairs facing each other. Edusa is sitting comfortably in a formal dark green dress that gives her a magnificent bearing.
“Hey, um, Duchess.” Idali greets before recalling she should probably bow even though the woman always tells her not to.
“Don’t.” Edusa stops her just as she leans in. “Take a seat and make yourself comfortable, I just got back and would rather avoid diving into empty pleasantries.”
“Did you?” Idali blinks as she gazes at the perfect dress, causing Edusa to blush.
“I, had a little time before…” The Duchess trails off. “Anyway! Take a seat?” She suddenly exclaims.
“Right, sure.” Idali mumbles off-balance.
The tall blond awkwardly takes a seat in the nice armchair with flowery embroidery while worrying whether it’s okay to do so in her rough clothes. Edusa swiftly picks up the pot and pours tea in both cups.
“So, what did you do while I was gone?” The Duchess asks.
“I visited a few cities and workshops with your people, I haven’t had time to really settle in my new life.” Idali replies, a bit dazed by how busy she kept herself because it’s uncharacteristic of her. “You don’t have to worry about receiving reports I’ve been naughty.” She adds to put some humor to their uneasy situation.
“I wasn’t.” Edusa quickly reassures her.
“Oh.” Idali pauses and makes a grimace. “I haven’t sent a report to the Rykz either.” She says, thinking that this is why she was called in.
“Oh, that’s… good, yes.” Edusa blinks because she forgot since there aren’t significant events to keep from the Rykz yet. “But you can send one if you wish.”
“Then I will.” Idali mutters quietly.
“Have you, um, met anyone?” Edusa asks.
“Maybe?” The blonde breaks eye contact as she replies with a difficult smile. “It’s complicated.” She says, picking up her cup.
“Ah.” Edusa utters, disappointed, surprised, and a little vexed it happened at how quick these black eyes found another. “How is it complicated?”
“Well…” Idali hesitates. “I have to second-guess myself for things as simple as asking someone for a dance, what if she trips on my foot? You’d whip me on the public square.” She exclaims with exaggerated whipping movements that threaten to spill her tea.
“You know that’s not true.” Edusa replies while failing to repress the amused smile that comes to her lips.
“I know, but is pushing for a kiss acceptable? Do I have to ask and ruin a moment? Can I let my hands wander?” Idali asks in rapid-fire, looking lost.
“I, um.” Edusa turns bright red because those are things she’s never experienced and those questions never occurred to her. “How would it go?” She asks timidly, excited at the scenario Idali drew.
“What? A date?” Idali asks while absently rubbing the teeth scars around her shoulders because they worry her.
“Yes.” Edusa whispers.
Idali falls silent. Were it another woman, she would have tried flirting by showing through example but here, now, she worries this is a test to see her progress rather than curiosity from an inexperienced girl who’s just hit adulthood she could seduce.
Besides, she thinks herself too old by a decade, her status too low by several ranks, and her body too injured to be of interest to this young beautiful Duchess whose bright green eyes always cause her guts to turn in anxiety.
Edusa, on the other hand, dares not push too much because of her power and the fact she remains unsure that what she feels is genuine interest. Not to mention how much Idali’s path resembles that of her late sister, no matter how funny she is or how attractive she finds her black eyes.
And so these two women limit themselves to words and hypotheticals instead of taking the dive. But, unlike previous meetings, they had time to truly assess their feelings for the other and that brings a certain tension to the conversation that could get them past their blockage.
“I’m not sure, the rules depend on who it is I invite for a date.” Idali murmurs awkwardly. “For one such as you, well… a dance might be appropriate?”
“It would be.” Edusa, suspended to her lips, quickly agrees. “Or a walk in a garden.” She adds.
“A dress or a suit?” The tall blonde asks while pushing a strand of her hair aside.
“A suit.” Edusa instantly replies.
“I suppose a dress would expose my scars.” Idali says with a sour smile.
“No!” The Duchess protests. “I… Hm.” Edusa coughs to interrupt herself. “A lover may prefer to see you an outfit that suits you if they are interested.” She explains with rosy cheeks.
“Then a suit!” Idali agrees with a bright smile. “If I know the woman enough, then I would knock at her door dressed up with a bouquet of her favorite flowers…”
“Lilacs.” Edusa interrupts.
“Lilacs?” Idali asks.
“I mean, it sounds better than, um, plain flowers.” Edusa stutters.
“Right.” Idali nods. “In a suit with lilacs in hand, knocking at the door.”
“Go on.” Edusa whispers, taken by the image that makes her forget all her worries.
Idali’s breath catches as she notices the Duchess so taken by the story. The symbiont in her right thigh, that morphed to fit in and suits her needs better, squirms and propagates a warmth that encourages her to press on.
Idali pushes the feeling down, aware that it didn’t go well when she listened to it but still hopeful it might turn out differently if she makes the effort to be patient and they get to know each other.
“I would ask her out for a simple walk, very innocently.” Idali continues.
“Hmh.” Edusa exhales excitedly to show approval but also some reproach, briefly forgetting that she shouldn’t be too forward considering her status.
“We might walk hand in hand, I would lead her to a garden where she would find a minstrel with a lute that is to play a gentle song for us as we trail around the garden.” Idali relates, encouraged.
“Ah.” Edusa says shortly, realizing the importance of appearing innocent to make such a sweet surprise count. “And perhaps share a dance?”
“If my companion is so inclined.” Idali quickly confirms. “I could, perhaps, trail a few fingers along her back during.”
“A close dance, then.” Edusa notes with a warm dreamy voice that causes the tall blonde with black eyes to fell a pinch in her chest.
“Would that be acceptable?” Idali can’t help but ask for her opinion, to know if she should go forward and invite the Duchess to a walk on the morrow.
Edusa startles and straightens up in her armchair. Idali’s choice of words reminded her that this is a hypothetical involving another woman, that she’s only being told because she insisted to keep tabs on Idali’s behavior in society.
Her mood darkens but she forces herself to give these black eyes a bright smile so that her soured expectations don’t ruin the woman’s chance at rebuilding her life, at proving that she and her Liege can truly change the world.
“Yes, I’m sure it’ll make that woman very happy.” Edusa utters gently.
Idali’s chest tightens at the response. She had hoped to be given a sign of encouragement. She gives the young woman a smile so as not to disappoint her and ruin the efforts the Duchess is making to help her because, unlike other Nobles, this one is truly trying to help and she doesn’t have the heart to ruin that.
“If that’s all… I’ll, um, take my leave then.” Idali says awkwardly, unwilling to remain in the mood she’s in to infect this bright woman.
“You’re very busy.” Edusa acknowledges while hiding her sadness.
— — —
Marie and Hilda stop on either side of an oak at the side of a river to watch a small boat pass by. There are soldiers working the oars and sails which bear a large wheel as a crest.
“We should have left the day after Joah gave birth, now that there are patrols… it’s too late.” Hilda comments. “We missed the window Freepath fought to give us.”
“Dame Freepath.” Marie corrects absentmindedly.
“You know she didn’t mean that for us.” Hilda dismisses.
“Yes, but you’ve seen her fight for us. She deserves at least that mark of respect from us.” Marie replies. “We need to go north now and catch up to her.”
“Won’t she be too far now?” Hilda asks worriedly.
“She’s on foot, the villagers have a few carriages where we can leave the babies in blankets. We might be able to find her if we send scouts on the way to Hetlan.” Marie says, her guts twisting because this is what Nahl told her but she could tell he didn’t think there was much of a chance.
“The North is our only chance now anyway.” Hilda says with a sigh.