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After my bath, I take care of my gear by sharpening my weapons and greasing my armor which gives my headache time to fade. Once I’m done, I join Idali for breakfast away from the others because Uhla is loudly recounting her night at the theater to Rowland and Nahl.

The two’s expressions are rather dark. I suspect it has more to do with their black eyes that suggest they got a bit too competitive last night than Uhla’s story but, then again, who knows.

We leave the city by noon only to encounter Siegfried and the other Templar whose name I still haven’t caught, or perhaps completely forgot. They’re on their horses in tabards rather than armor, visibly prepared to travel. I raise my umbrella as I walk up to the old man.

Siegfried, I thought you would have found better things to do than to follow me around.” I lie.

The mystery you pursue is of interest to us, and so is your destination.” The Exemplar replies calmly.

There is no mystery, Cenwalh sent this Wraith and we’ll end him for it.” Liz seethes.

He best find the deepest hole to hide in.” Nahl utters.

“Perhaps it is so, perhaps it is not. The truth will see light.” Siegfried responds calmly.

His knotted hands are gripping the reins of his horse. He’s more invested in this than he’s showing. I glance up to his eyes to find them staring at me. As I return a glare, I realize he may suspect foul play on my part. Or maybe on Liz’ part.

The man spent enough time with Nobility to only believe his eyes or ears rather than reports from others. He’ll be of use, even if it makes the group I lead more complicated.

Marie, Leah, Hilda, and Joah rush out of a street in their dresses as we are about to depart. It’s a bit of an awkward spectacle to witness, especially Joah who seems not to have recovered yet from the journey and giving birth, so I stop to wait for them.

Dame Freepath!” Leah exclaims. “You’re going already?”

You’re safe here, as much as you can be.” I reply.

“But…” She protests.

Leah.” Joah interrupts with a glare. “Thank you, Dame Freepath, for all your help. If there is anything we can do, ask.”

We wouldn’t have made it without you.” Hilda grunts. “Although we wouldn’t have had to leave like that if not for you.” She adds in a whisper.

Truly, thank you Dam… Jessica.” Marie says while holding her hand out. I make a thin smile and release my umbrella to shake it.

If you want to do something for me, live your life without letting others tell you how.” I honestly tell them.

We will.” Joah says with a gentle smile.

— — —

It takes a mere couple of days to reach the region my brother left for but a full three to track him down after leaving the group to camp in a prairie in the middle of a forest growing at the side of a round mountain that looks like a tall hill.

To be safe, I don’t directly enter the village but head for an isolated farm on the outskirts. The family here built their home with wooden logs on a foundation of chiseled stones, which makes the habitation warmer in winter.

The man is currently pushing a plow while his wife is leading the ox pulling it. They don’t seem to have children old enough to help or they’re too old to stick around their parents, or they don’t have any.

Either way, the couple spots me when they reach the end of the field to turn around and stop. They swiftly clean their hands with a gourd of water and pat their brown clothes to get rid of the dirt.

I’m not a soldier or a Noble!” I call out to reassure them but it only causes them to tense. “Nor am I a bandit, I only want to ask a few questions.”

We don’t want trouble here, stranger.” The woman speaks up while warily gazing at my left side.

I’m not bringing any, for once.” I whisper the end of the sentence.

What is it you want to know?” The man asks with a frown.

If you have dried meat and baked travel bread to sell first.” I reply with a smile.

“We do, but I’ll have to cook the latter.” The man tells me with a softer expression.

That’s fine I can wait and, as I said, I have some questions.” I say with a smile. I put my umbrella on the ground for a moment to remove my helmet and hook it to my belt. Their eyes stop on my scar for a moment. “I’m looking for my brother, his name is Mersey, I was told he arrived in this village early last year.”

Oh yea, that short kid.” The woman says.

Mh, He’s tall.” I tell her.

To you, I guess?” She blinks. I frown. “He works seasonally, for the manor and a few farms, I think he lodges near the Manor.”

Does he, now?” I slowly respond.

Yeah, I think Baron Saunas has him tend the garden when they need extra hands.” The man mentions. “He might be there now.”

Really.” I croak. “Hrm.” Liz clears our throat.

He’s indeed doing well for himself.” The woman says with a smile. “You can be proud, our Lord is a good man. He feeds us out of his own pocket on boon-days.”

You’re grateful he’s giving you a meal when forcing you to work for free, really? I almost straight up draw my blade and stomp over to the village but, if my brother is in a bad spot, then doing this might make it much worse. And if he’s not… then a fist is what I need rather than a blade.

Can I refill my gourd at your well?” I slowly ask.

Of course, it’s behind the house.” The woman waves her hand.

I grab my pouch of coin by the strip of leather and flick it a few times to untie the knot. Then, I stick it between my teeth to take out a dozen coppers. The woman takes them while her husband runs off to light up the fire.

It’s too much, you shouldn’t have.” She tells me with a grin.

Give me back the change then. I roll my eyes as I walk off. It takes me a moment to calm down and pull up a bucket of water to refill. When I’m done, I take a seat and wait silently for the man to return with something good.

It takes half an hour longer than I expected but, frankly, it’s time I needed to get used to the fact my brother utterly ignored my warnings and, worse, is working for a Noble.

I end up cutting the discussion short after storing the food in my pouch and leaving for the village at a slow lazy pace, perhaps even a fearful one because I really didn’t want Nobility to hang over our reunion. Maybe he never received the letter. Mh.

I walk into the village which is mostly composed of the same kind of houses. The fact that the front doors are elevated makes me realize that, perhaps, the carved stone bases are there to protect the foundations and wooden log walls from the snow.

The streets are dusty. It seems to me that it would get damn muddy when it rains or when snow melts but, then again, the village seems to have been recently established so it’s likely they haven’t had time to pave.

There are few people in the streets but plenty enough children and adolescents that my arrival will be known by the entire population before the hour has passed. I accelerate to reach my brother before anything happens.

The manor I was directed to is at the end of the main street which has quite a few shops. It’s surrounded by a low wall and there are two copper gates. The structure is quite large, it has three floors and not too many overwhelming decorations, if I ignore the marble torso in the front yard.

You’re making excuses. He’s my brother. There are two bored-looking guards chatting at the entrance, one bulky while the other is a lean young woman. They fall silent as they spot me walking up to them in armor with two more weapons than a soldier would need and an umbrella hanging on my left half-shoulder.

“Greetings.” The man grunts.

I’m Jessica…” I pause for a moment and decide not to give my last name for now. “I’ve been told my brother, Mersey, occasionally works for the Manor.”

Ah, you’re from Izla Meria.” The girl notes with a slight frown. “That explains that, I guess. You fought the Rykz?”

I participated in their withdrawal.” I reply with a flat tone.

What got you crippled?” The kid asks with morbid interest.

Cay.” The brawny guard admonishes before turning to me with a light smile. “You’ll have to leave your weapons but you can go in to look for him.”

That is not happening.” I tell them as peaceably as I can. “Could you send for him?”

Hrm.” The man grunts. “I’m on duty so, no. I’ll ask a servant if one passes by but you’ll have to wait otherwise.”

I can’t wait, not with the news of my arrival spreading. These two were discussing you earlier, I’m sure of it. I narrow my eyes, preparing to tell them to get out of my way but then I spot a figure through the gate.

A silhouette moving through the lawn towards a garden with a handheld plow hanging on his shoulder. He has short black hair with bangs threatening to block his sight and a strong body without being overly bulky.

Mersey!” I shout as I take a step.

Hey.” The girl protests, raising her hand.

I flash her a glare but hesitate to force my way in since my brother works here and is here. When he starts jogging over, I abandon any thoughts of picking a fight. Lucky them.

Jess! You’re here!” Mersey calls out joyfully.

I twirl my umbrella and raise it to greet my brother with a smile. He rushes up to the gates and flings them open but pauses as he opens his arms to give me a hug, having come close enough to notice my distinct lack of an arm beneath my umbrella and the nasty scar on my cheek.

Still, you’re safe!” He exclaims as he stomps over.

I raise my umbrella to accept the hug and return it with a smile. He does his best to crush my cuirass, and actually manages to make the steel groan, before releasing me.

What happened? Did, um, who did this to you?” He asks.

It’s a long story, Mer.” I tell him with a shake of my head. “I’ll tell you in private.”

Okay? But it’s safe here in Hetlan.” He tells me with his goofy puzzled expression I always found intriguingly charming and annoying. “We can go back to my place if you want, I can finish here tomorrow.”

Alright.” I agree.

Mersey turns to the guards who nod, causing me to feel a burst of anger but I repress it because it isn’t my life no matter how much I disapprove. He leads me to a side street that leads to the outskirts where there is a small cabin made of thin wooden planks near a plot of cultivated land.

It’s not as comfy as home, especially in winter, but it works until I can establish myself.” Mersey says with a touch of embarrassment. “The field yields plenty enough to feed me and sell the surplus.”

Looks good.” I tell him with a smile. “It looks like it needs a bit of work though, need a hand?”

Well… kinda.” He replies while scratching the back of his head. “Haven’t had time between my Lord Baron’s garden and helping Miss Ilia plow.

Miss Ilia, huh?” I ask with a knowing smile.

She’s an old woman.” Mersey replies, making a face much too innocent to be so.

With a daughter?” I ask.

No…” He says, trailing off. “A niece.”

Congrats.” I tell him with a chuckle. “And good luck.”

Yea.” He mumbles while gazing at my left flank.

I feel a warm heat spread in my chest at his concern and can’t help letting go of my umbrella to reach up and ruffle his hair. Mersey rolls his eyes so I poke his belly and make him jump up.

Don’t.” He protests.

“Old habits.” I apologize.

That ring looks nice.” He speaks up. “Really nice.” Mersey adds with a slight scowl.

Yea, I got engaged.” I tell him with a cocky grin.

You found someone who can tolerate you? It exists?” He asks with a teasing smile.

Actually, yes, but… not sure my fiancees tolerate me or love my quirks.” I mutter with a chuckle, sure he won’t pick up on the fact I’m speaking of two beings.

That’s great, who is it?” Mersey questions.

It’s…” One’s a human, one a Rykz, probably shouldn’t lead with that. “You haven’t met so let’s get to it, we can tell each other everything later.” I reply.
“Right, work, work.” He nods fervently.

I start taking off my armor piece by piece. He helps me out with the straps on the left side of my chest which are most difficult to untie for me. Once I’ve put my gear aside, I pick up his plow and apply my construct to it.

You sure that’s a good id…” He starts but pauses as it takes a golden hue.

Yea, it’s a new construct.” I tell him. “You’ll see.”

I walk into his field and spam the tool down into the tight soil which parts with a puff of dirt. I start moving back while dragging the tool, not even bothering to pull it out of the ground to carve the furrow.

That’s crazy.” Mersey whispers.

To be fair, I’m being lazy and burning more energy than I need to by doing this.” I tell him, keeping under silence my body can’t handle much more effort than this.

You could finish the entire plot in a few days, maybe two.” He mutters.

It’s not too hard to learn… although you don’t have the basics so it might be a bit difficult at first.” I note. “Want to learn?”

Can I? This looks like it would be restricted.” He awkwardly tells me.

It isn’t, the Order approved of it.” I assure him.

Still…” He hesitates.

“Mersey.” I speak up as I turn to him. “What’s with the cold feet?”

I’m on my own now, Jess, I can’t afford to get into trouble.” He says with a frown. “Besides, what happened to the farm? Did the insects kill Father? Did you have to steal and get caught? Is that how you lost your arm?”

So you did get my letter.” I note calmly. “I lost my arm in a fight, it’s not quite relevant to why I told you to leave.”

It isn’t as if I can just up and leave, besides you’re the one who got into trouble.” Mersey replies with a touch of anger. “Baron Saunas isn’t Lord Buton. My Liege wouldn’t blame me for it, and Izla Meria is far away.”

Your Liege, huh.” I utter with barely restrained anger. “Father was killed by one of these wastes of life. When he asks you to clean his boots, do you lick’em by choice?” I snap.

Screw you Jess. Father told me to make a good life for myself and that’s exactly what I’m doing.” Mersey says with a paling face. “You always did whatever the fuck you wanted, well I wasn’t going to fucking lose my arm too by learning that construct!”

What?” I ask, blinking.

If you didn’t get cut trying to steal, it’s obvious you got caught and they cut it off!” He yells. “I was right to give the letter away as soon as I got it before you got me in trouble with the law! What were you thinking? Learning these constructs? Using them? Teaching them?!

You, did, what?” I ask, uttering each word one by one.

I gave it away!” He snaps.

You idiot.” I whisper.

And you probably got Father killed!” Mersey screams while raising his arms. “We never had any trouble and then, all of a sudden, we have Nobles hunting us?”

As I was about to reply, very likely something stupid on an angry impulse, I spot movement from the corner of my eye. I flick to check and spot the two guards I met earlier along with an entire squad of armed companions.

Liz suddenly flicks our hand up and catches my brother’s wrist as he was about to grab my shirt and turns it such that he’s forced to spin on himself, ending up with his arm twisted behind his back.

Arh!” Mersey cries.

You don’t treat your sister like this.” She utters.

Liz, later. It’s too late to deal with that. She releases his wrist. I extend my palm out to our umbrella, sending it flying up to my hand with a gust of wind I trigger with kinetic energy and control with flow.

Your dear liege seems to be wishing to meet me.” I utter with a soft voice.

What?” He asks and flips to the guards. “Oh. Yea but it’s fine.” He mutters with a vexed tone.

It is.” I murmur with a bitter smile. “You shouldn’t have done that, Mersey.”

Not like I could keep the fact I received a letter secret.” He grunts. “People asked questions.”

Questions you should have known to deflect with what I wrote.” I tell him, disappointed with fury smothering my chest.

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