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It would take a lot for Rowland to get hurt with the safety I added but I’m still disappointed that there is no crash. Throwing him oddly drew attention from the Hospitaliers so I scamper away before they can ask questions.

I keep my traits expressionless as I slowly make my way through Kruzser with my guard up and a heart that can barely handle walking. I keep my cloak’s hood up to hide myself as I listen closely to conversations happening around me, most of which circle around Elizabeth Vil’s vengeful massacre.

It was a bloodbath I tell you, witnesses saw her leap with a bloody cape draped around her shoulders from Roskal’s mansion to the Midnight Palace in one bound.”

There aren’t enough gravediggers in Kruzser to bury the regiment she took out.”

I heard she took out two thousand soldiers in one night.”

They killed Lady Shipwold, Roskal’s time is limited now that E.Vil set her eyes upon her.”

Caeviel should have its civil war back in their own Kingdom.”

No matter what, Elizabeth Vil is done for with the Order hunting her.”

They tried before and failed.”

Jessica Freepath beat an Exemplar so what makes you think Elizabeth Vil is any weaker?”

She’s obviously stronger but she won’t be facing a single Exemplar.”

E.Vil might get to Roskal first, our Emperor forbid the gathering of troops in the capital so she can’t hide behind her army anymore.”

It screws the Hospitaliers over too, what are they going to do with all their new recruits now? And I heard the Duchess beat her back by herself.”

Ludicrous. Even if it were true Roskal had no guards, her brother died in the fight so she wasn’t alone and she was grievously injured so she lost.”

The Duchess was ambushed, who’s to say who won.”

Where does Elizabeth Vil’s access come from?”

The Lake obviously, idiot.”

Shut up, stupid.”

I wonder what she’s hiding behind that mask.”

Burns I heard.”

What will Jessica Freepath do? I heard honorary Duchess Lance of Izla Meria fought her old lover but what will her fiancee do about this?”

Both were friends with Lady Shipwold, they’ll put their differences aside.”

I’d pay to watch them duel.”

Why is our Emperor not intervening?”

He is wise and Roskal doesn’t deserve His help.”

But Elizabeth Vil and Jessica Freepath are running rampant.”

Bullshit, Roskal is the one who started all this.”

They’re traitors to their Kingdom, one was exiled and the other sought after for murder.”

Can you call it murder to kill those trying to kill you?”

Well no, but…”

See, that’s why our Emperor isn’t intervening. I say let them fight it out, but out of Kruzser.”

It appears to be an accepted fact already that Roskal ordered Yvonne’s assassination, which is an unexpected result to Elizabeth’s rampage but I would mostly put it on account of the Shades moving in the dark.

It is surprising how some aren’t even bothering to use Roskal’s title to speak of her or the fact that last night has completely taken people’s mind off the events at the inn.

I spot quite a few carriages on the avenues, including a large procession of fourgons carrying luggage and furniture which confirms Nobles are fleeing the capital as a direct consequence of my sister showing herself.

The capital is animated, sudden noises at every corner that make me lose the good mood I was in after talking to Yvonne. I try to relax as I cruise the city but naught works, not even thinking of Celyz.

I unconsciously make my way to the University and the library, perhaps because of the peace and quiet or because thinking of my oak led me to seek out the books she so loves.

When I realize, however, I stop because I’ve work to do and head for the Order’s Main Temple which is easy to find even with my weak knowledge of this huge city’s streets because of the towering bell.

The closer I get to the center of Kruzser, the more imperial patrols I run across but I also spot many more Templars than before as well as squads of Hospitaliers which strikes me as odd so I further conceal my face under my hood.

I join a crowd to climb the steps up to the Temple without issue but a Semplar interposes himself before me as I am about to enter. The young man with light brown hair makes a polite bow as my hand slowly reaches for my weapon.

Welcome, Miss. There are Shrines serviced by kind and experienced Templars all over Kruzser if you seek discretion.” The young man politely murmurs. “Concealing your face inside the Temple will attract the wrong kind of attention from those here to pay their respects to our Emperor.”

Ah, so it’s disrespectful. I retract my fingers from my broadsword’s hilt and reach up to pull down my hood. As my cloak opens, the Semplar’s gaze is first drawn to the left side of my chest and then to my lack of a left arm before it settles on the scar running across my left cheek.

Dame Freepath!” He exclaims.

People snap around to stare at me, causing chills in my back. I ignore them all to enter the Temple. The hall is decorated with statues of previous Grand Masters and paintings of the Order’s achievements in battle but the center-piece is a painting on the arched ceiling.

It shows the Emperor in silver plate armor wearing a purple band around his chest embroidered with a golden lion. Rasaec’s face is concealed behind his helmet, which defies convention for the main subject of a depiction.

The Emperor is leading the First Phalanx in battle to take over a series of fortifications defended by the Lisilese on the right side and the Rykz on the left side.

I’ve read up on the history so I know it isn’t how it happened but I have to admit the scene feels Imperial, especially because I have to stretch my neck to gaze up at it.

I briefly consider breaking the thing for making me feel small when I have no reason to but find the idea childish so I definitely don’t begin shaping a construct that’ll deliver a kinetic burst to collapse it.

Jessica Freepath, your arrival has brought enough attention.” A quiet voice takes me out of my daze. “I don’t believe it necessary to threaten this masterpiece.”

Yes, a threat, definitely.” I murmur as I gaze down. “Mute.”

I can speak, we’ve established that.” He grumbles.

“You’re not with Siegfried?” I ask.

I had to deliver a report but I will return soon.” The man replies. “It seems you and Elizabeth Vil have taken to shaking the capital.”

I gaze around to find the crowd made way for me while the most devout have remained focused on paying their Due but it doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to what’s happening.

Haven’t spoken to her about it.” I honestly reply since the exchange happened over thought, luckily as I’ve taken to speaking with her out loud at times. “In fact I was hoping for the Order to lay off and let me handle her.”

Lay off?” The mute repeats with a stiff tone. “She broke the deal we made.”

Is she meant to stand by after the murder of our friend? Am I?” I question with a cold tone. “The fact is that it was an attack she had a right to respond to, and she did. What does the Order think it’s meddling will achieve? Or is the goal to protect Roskal?”

Duchess Roskal.” A booming voice corrects with special emphasis on the title, drawing large attention from the crowd.

A middle-aged woman in a silver robe that clearly holds a high position walks down a spiraling set of stairs that lead up to a canal that channels water infused with flow through the Temple.

Whatever your grievances, Duchess Roskal represents hundreds of thousands of humans living under the rule of our Emperor and is thus owed respect in address.” The woman berates.

You don’t know me at all, do you?” I scoff. “Roskal’s time is running out, I advise the Order not to stand in Elizabeth’s way because I won’t be saving you.”

You’re a small-time figure in an even smaller pond, Miss Freepath.” The woman utters with disdain. “The Order will act as it sees fit.”

Your views aren’t shared by us all, Master Maureen.” The mute intervenes as he throws me a glance containing a warning.

Elizabeth Vil’s only mistake was to torment Roskal instead of ending her on the spot, but it is understandable for she must be grieving.” Another woman speaks up, drawing attention from the people in turn.

She’s most definitely an Exemplar despite the bandage covering half her face with the golden lion head on the pommel of her sword and one embroidered on her tabard. She looks tense like she came out of a battlefield.

Enough, Exemplar. Your duty is to follow the Grand Master’s orders like everyone else.” The Master snaps at her in a low voice that I barely distinguish.

The Exemplar throws a mocking smirk back and walks away. I decide to do the same, now convinced that the Order is going to keep hunting Liz but that their hearts aren’t into it.

The exchange by itself was educating enough in other ways. It is evident that the fact Exemplars directly serve the Emperor makes them beyond difficult for the Order to punish despite them still being in the chain of command under their Masters.

If I was paranoid, which I am, I would qualify this as a way for the Emperor to control the Templar Order without having to directly interfere. Exemplars can do whatever they want with minimal consequences as long as their actions follow Rasaec’s will, or at least doesn’t contradict it.

Of course, like in Vikiana’s case, they’ll lose their position if they go too far but they still have a lot of freedom to act. It seems like the Emperor doesn’t act often but the more I learn the more I understand that Rasaec only rarely takes an official stance but has many other ways to stir the Empire.

I feel the Master’s gaze on my back, and those of hundreds of people, as I leave the Temple. The uncertainty makes me crave for battle where enemies are clear. I pull my hood back over my head and make my way into Kruzser with no specific destination in mind.

After several dozen turns and twists during my journey, once I’m reasonably certain I’ve lost any pursuers, I pick a tavern at random and sit at a table to order a beer. I spend the next hour sipping my drink and working on Suxen’s scanning construct.

I order another beer and then one more as the afternoon passes until, finally, a man I don’t recognize sits before me. I hold my palm out to tell him to hold his tongue while I dismantle the experimental segments I’ve been tinkering with.

Hey there, cutie, can I buy you a drink?” He asks.

Aisha, the voice is spot on but the line isn’t credible.” I absently respond.

No one’s ever approached you this way?” She questions while making a catty pitiful expression that feels extremely out of place on her current manly face.

What took you so long?” I return.

I had to follow you here, then go look for Roskal, then come back… I’m a busy woman you know.” She complains.
“So, where is she?” I ask.

I have no idea.” She cheerfully replies. “But I know where her subordinates are or will be.”

Cruel, you know what Liz will do to them.” I note with a frown. “Couldn’t you have found her directly.”

“I’m not omniscient and Archer is occupied because of you.” She replies while sliding a piece of parchment over to me. “Aren’t your two identities supposed to be at odds?”

Not on this.” I tell her as I snatch her notes. “Where is Suxen?”

You know where, and I can’t tell you so don’t ask.” She makes a scowl.

She’s dangerous.” I warn Aisha.

Not nearly as much as our Emperor, Jessica Freepath, and you would do well to remember this before you get into a fight with the Order.” The Shade returns in a dark tone.

“If he’s trying to continue her research…” I start.

He is not. We can apply elements of what she has found about flow in many different ways, including a construct to regulate the Blessing at the source.” Aisha explains.

Her comment gives me pause because the implication is that they’re looking for a way to block the use of flow by others, which I find horrifying. The fact she used this as an argument in the favor of the Emperor means she clearly sees it in a different light, that of a blind zealot.

As long as people can band together to fight back, then even Nobility must behave in how they act but if the possibility exists to deny the use of flow to those unauthorized, then all abuses would be on the table as there would be no way to fight back.

You look like I just killed your dog.” She comments with a puzzled expression.

Your Emperor doesn’t appear to have an issue on benefiting from those she slaughtered, used, controlled, and violated. Why should I trust him with such a construct? Why do you? From what you believe, you’ve known him for less than a tenth of his life.” I argue, holding little hope it’ll work.

Aisha’s illusion construct flickers, briefly revealing a frozen expression. I sip my fourth beer as I give her a moment to recover. She finally does and smooths out her manly visage.

You know, people feel more empathy for Jessica Freepath because your story is one of overcoming adversity again and again from the most humble beginnings but you’re more of a bitch now than when you were merely Elizabeth Vil.” She responds snappily.

Suxen is dangerous, you know this, and her work is aimed at controlling others because only she matters in her mind.” I spell it out. “I know you won’t help me but, at the very least, take precautions towards her. What if she succeeds in developing this construct and cuts your Emperor off?”

He is Chosen by the Lake, it is not possible.” Aisha denies.

He is human.” I counter. “Who knows for sure the Lake’s will and if it will not let it happen to teach the Emperor a lesson on trusting those who aren’t worth it?”

… but, that’s, no.” Aisha stutters.

“Could you have predicted her barrier construct?” I question. “Did she teach it to you? Did the Emperor?”

“No, but the concepts are out of my reach.” She hedges with an awkwardness that seeps through the stern manly facade she is projecting.

Bullshit.” I counter. “I’ve seen Wraith use it easily enough and he could never handle the level of illusion you seem to use with barely a thought.”

It takes a lot to keep this up.” Aisha argues.

I can see two reasons you weren’t taught, and one of them is that your Emperor didn’t trust you with it.” I tell her.

Secrecy is important for constructs like these.” She justifies.

My bet is that Suxen kept the construct to herself, meaning not even the Emperor has an idea of the capabilities of the true barrier construct.” I press.

Okay, fine, you win and I’ll make sure there are contingencies in place.” Aisha placates.

Don’t involve anyone else.” I tell her.

“You’re paranoid.” She grumbles.

“I trust you.” I return.

Yeah right, I’m still not convinced you don’t know the lightning construct and I had to keep your identity secret from my Emperor to maintain your threat-enforced trust.” Aisha replies while rolling her eyes.

You do realize that the Emperor let Suxen get away with keeping her barrier construct to herself because he’s more interested in controlling people’s access to the Lake than helping the Empire’s troops.” I note, returning to the main subject.

Enough, Jessica Freepath.” The Shade utters with a dark voice. “It isn’t all they hope to achieve, it was but a single example no one else would read so much into, do not try to use it to lend insulting intentions to our Emperor.”

Fine.” I halfheartedly agree as I wave to a servant.

I ultimately let it go because Aisha switched from a ‘we’ to a ‘they’ when speaking of the Vault’s work which proves she internalized a sense of suspicion during the conversation.

One beer for my companion, please.” I request.

I would rather you bring a light wine from Haitia, please.” Aisha cuts in.

Very well.” The servant nods.

“How have you been?” I ask the Shade.

Great, although I’m not in the mood to take a woman to bed anymore so don’t think buying me a drink is going to do the trick.” She responds with a bit of a dark glare.

“It was never an option, Aisha.” I frankly tell her. “And I doubt you were trying or you wouldn’t have put that face on.”

Psh, you’re such a spoilsport.” She complains.

Was she trying to challenge herself to seduce me with that appearance? I shake my head to push out this irrelevant thought and take a gulp of my beer while wondering if I should make a move against the Vault. No, I’ll die trying for certain in my state.

Why did Rasaec forbid the gathering of troops if he’s letting you help?” I ask.

Stop using His name in vain.” She complains. “Because He cannot allow a battle to occur in the capital, Kruzser’s white walls have remained unstained from the very beginning of the Empire.”

Makes sense, I suppose.” I mumble.

“And it’s to your benefit.” She notes.

“Not Lance’s.” I comment.

No, hers too.” The Shade denies. “Roskal has access to far more soldiers than the Hospitaliers can hope to gather without increased funding, the few Counts and Countesses she convinced aren’t nearly enough.”

Alright, that’s about all I wanted from you.” I tell her as I stand up.

Cold.” She grumbles.

Could you do me a favor, though?” I ask as I think of something.

Your favors are beginning to add up, Jess.” Aisha replies with a frown.

This one should be fun.” I tease. “I need you to disguise yourself as me.”

Oh? Oohh.” She preens and moves forward to the edge of her seat.

Only this one time and I’m not allowing you to do anything I wouldn’t do.” I add.

See, it began intriguing and fun but then you ruined it.” She exaggeratedly bemoans, once again forgetting she’s wearing a manly face and the way she’s moving the traits don’t quite fit it. “Fine, I’ll do it but you’ll owe me three.” She quickly decides.

I’ll owe you one favor of a similar caliber.” I correct as I turn to leave.

Ah! I almost forgot.” Aisha calls out. I throw a glance over my shoulder to find a cocky grin that utterly contradicts her words. “He wants to meet you, soon.”

Previous chapter.

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Previous chapter.

Next chapter.

As I fly in the night’s sky and slowly let myself fall towards the Hospitalier headquarters, my heart reaches the last of what it can take despite my heavy reliance on flow and the pain causes me to lose control.

The ‘wing’ of hardened air on my left flank simply fails along with the flow framework in my left arm and I spin uncontrollably. I swallow the agony and do my best to smooth my descent as well as keep my aim.

I don’t manage to stabilize but I do slow myself and correct my trajectory. Crakliink. I go through the wooden flaps and then the glass window which slows me enough I don’t break any bones when I loudly impact the floorboards.

Liz rolls and slides until she slams into the wall clenching our heart as she desperately gasps for air. She wallows alone in pain for a few long hours, more likely seconds but neither of us could tell, until I gently push her back to sleep.

It takes an effort of will to relax our muscles from the tension she kept them at. It amazes me that her mind is able to do this but the aches it causes are severely affecting me, it feels like a hundred spikes piercing me.

I do my best not to whine or squeak from the agony, I let out a few howls of hurt but they’re womanly enough that it doesn’t bother me. A pair of warm arms finally find and pick me up to hold me against an ample chest which could be Yvonne’s or my sunshine’s.

Shh, you’re safe Liz.” Teva whispers soothingly.

Her kind presence finally allows me to relax, allowing my heartbeat to cool down and recover. Liz’ idea of restraint doesn’t match anyone’s common sense but she didn’t kill us so I’ll call it a success.

How was, your evening?” I ask.

Much quieter than yours.” She replies with a worried frown.

Teva tightens her hug, constraining my rib-cage and also my heart which needs all the space it can get. I wiggle a bit to ease the pressure but she likely takes it as me being shy so she strengthens her hold on me.

Let her go, you idiot! She needs to breathe.” Leomi barks, causing Teva to further clutch onto me.

“Elizabeth needs you to leave her alone, to stop sending her in these dangerous missions.” Teva returns with a firm determined tone.

… what?” Lance asks in confusion but it doesn’t last long. “Release her!

Teva hesitantly looks down at the urgent demand and reads that she made a mistake on the thin smile I return. She loosens her grasp but doesn’t entirely let go of me, not that I’m complaining as she feels soft so it’s quite comfortable, making Leomi jealous is a bonus.

I heard the story of her kneeling to you.” Teva utters with an accusing tone that holds a trace of doubt. Leomi suppresses a short laugh.

I thought you knew Liz, clearly I was wrong.” She says without bothering to respond to the accusation.

Jess here.” I mutter.

Oh, right. Sorry.” Teva apologizes hurriedly.

My kitten makes the triumphant, gloating, smile of one who knows more but isn’t about to share. Then, Lance surprises me by kneeling before me and holding her hand out.

My sunshine sadly loses even more of her brightness but it isn’t my role to fix that anymore, it would only hurt her more later if I tried and gave her hope. I take hold of my fiancee by the wrist as she wraps her fingers around mine.

“Liz went back to sleep, what a lazy little berserker.” She remarks as she lifts me out of Teva’s arms to place me inside hers, carrying me like a fiancee should.

I glance to my friend, giving her a smiling nod as thanks before turning away so I don’t have to bear her lost and disappointed expression. It’s evident she has a lot of questions but doesn’t feel entitled to even ask, much less get answers.

I hear a long sigh as Leomi carries me out of the room to take me into another with a double bed upon which she lays me down with care and several tender kisses on the lips. She then sits with her back to the wall and pulls me to lie between her legs.

You scared me tonight, you said you would wait so what happened?” Lance asks.

Roskal, was somewhere, else.” I shortly respond. “And wait, for what? You weren’t, there.”

I was… nearby.” Leomi awkwardly responds. “There were imperial officers who only I could stall and then it was clear Roskal wasn’t there so I sought you out but you were already gone.”

Liz isn’t going, to take these excuses, as well as I do, kitten.” I warn her. “It felt like you, tricked us like you have, taken habit to.”

I have not made it a habit, and I did not tonight.” Leomi denies firmly with a pained face.

Where’s, the jay?” I ask.

Caring for Yvonne. It brought her a tiny handkerchief that it dipped in water to fight her fever, I have no idea where it found it.” She replies with an amused smile. “I’m not going to ask if you’re okay since you always insist you are but, should we go to the University tomorrow?” Leomi questions intently.

No.” I reply as I do not feel very trusting at the moment. “Just hold me, to sleep.”

I have to go back as soon as possible, we made a ripe mess tonight.” She replies apologetically, surprising me by not arguing.

Then why did you take off that armor?” I ask.

Because then I wouldn’t be able to hold you like I am.” Leomi replies with a girlish blush as she squeezes me. “I was worried after our fight, is Liz truly mad?”

I don’t think so, she…” I pause.

Tell me. Please, my jay.” She pleads.

She hates having to doubt you far more than I do.” I admit. “It’s a dark reminder of her birth.”

My kitten’s expression falls and she leans down to lay her chin atop my head, seeking comfort from me over her mistakes. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing she pushed me away if this is the result of the time she spent alone, reflecting on us instead of grieving her mother. I now have to help her make peace.

Do you want me in you?” She asks for the second time tonight but this time in a pleading tone.

Of course, Leomi, always.” I gently reply but feel odd, as I’m the one doing her a favor when I get all the perks.

She unfastens the leather strips holding my hard leather armor’s pants on but doesn’t bother, or want, to take them off. Leomi directly slips her right hand inside them and lays it on my labia.

I’m moist and the sensation of her slender fingers gets me wet despite the fact I’m too worn out to be in the mood for sex. Leomi gently massages my clitoris while her left hand opens up my armor’s jacket so that she can seize my breast with a gentle but firm grip.

My breath grows shorter and she immediately slows down to have me recover, proving her self-control to be leagues above mine once again. She touches and gives me some rises of pleasure but never penetrates me in the end.

It becomes evident that she didn’t ask the question she wanted to, that sex wasn’t in her mind either but perhaps it was the easiest of the requests she felt comfortable making.

I hang my head back and gently reach up to her cheek as I give her a bright smile. Leomi’s eyes turn away from mine in embarrassment and her hands release me. I sigh at her awkwardness and once more note how screwed up she can be.

I take the hard leather armor and sleeve-glove off, throwing those aside. I then remove the uniform Leomi hastily threw on while brushing aside the weak resistance she puts up.

I gently push her down to her side and nestle myself against her chiseled body. I then pull her face against my chest in a tender comforting hug. She gives up her resistance to tightly hold onto me as she cutely kisses my chest.

I entertain her as long as I can in spite of my exhaustion but feel myself fall asleep so I close my eyes and decide it best not to tell Leomi so she can stay as long as she wants without feeling pressured to leave because I fell asleep.

— — —

I wake alone under the covers but open my eyes to a red tulip lying on my pillow that utterly prevents me from feeling any sourness or disappointment. I grin happily at the thoughtful present from my kitten and slip the stem in my hair.

I sit up, awakening cramps in a dozen different places. Damn you, Liz. Hrm. I stretch and put on a long green dress I find in a closet which definitely belongs to Leomi considering it feels tight around the thighs and chest, not to mention that the hem touches the floor.

I turn on myself, preening in delight over wearing her clothes for reasons I fail to distinguish. I step out of the room barefoot to seek Yvonne out who I find pale and grimacing as she rests on a chair.

Chirp!” The jay on the top of her head greets.

Yvonne, how are your injuries?” I quickly ask as I almost leap up to her. She levels out her eyes to look into mine and makes a slight smile.

Fine, I’m in much better shape than Roskal from what rumors I caught up on.” She replies. “Was it Elizabeth?” She asks with a curious look.

Yes.” I confirm, a bit puzzled.

Thank her for me, I’m touched she took revenge for me.” My bestie says, bringing a grin to my lips.

It’s not done, far from it.” I note.

“How far does she plan to go? Or is it the two of you?” She questions. “Nobles are already fleeing the capital in droves.” Does she not remember her request?

All the way.” I tell her honestly. “Anyone we find out was involved will pay.”

It’s sweet but don’t get in trouble over this.” Yvonne tells me. “You humiliated Roskal by destroying her manor and heavily injuring her, everyone knows it so it’s enough.”

Roskal and Wraith have to die.” I reply with a scowl.

They do, but you don’t have to do it alone.” She gently reminds me. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

I’ll be fine.” I grunt.

Not if you hit the wall instead of the window next time, Jess.” My friend responds with a stony voice.

I have a plan, have Nobles really began fleeing?” I question to change the subject. Yvonne frowns, clearly aware of what I’m doing, but lets it go.

In droves and I’m barely exaggerating, they take Elizabeth Vil to be an existential threat.” She tells me with a smile.

She is.” I note, feeling a bit off-put.

Oh, sweetie, so are you.” My friend exclaims with a bright smile.

“Damn right.” I confirm with a short laugh. “Kidding aside, did you talk to Teva?”

I have, she seems sweet but I think her crush on you only got worse after the news this morning.” Yvonne says with a concerned tone.

Doubt it, she isn’t one for bloodshed.” I reply.

“Maybe not, but she isn’t one to shed tears for Nobility either.” She comments. “So, how are you going to handle my demise?” Yvonne asks humorously.

“Not sure, I’m likely going to gather information for Liz.” I say.

I thought we were best-friends.” She exclaims, faking shock rather well thanks to her white cheeks. “Does my ‘death’ mean so little to you? I’m crushed, shattered, flummoxed, and a bit thirsty over this!” I fail to smother a loud barking chuckle and grab the pitcher of water on the table to slide it over to her.

Don’t expect me to act aggrieved as you try to make me laugh!” I return with a glare.

Try? Succeed you mean.” Yvonne returns with a smug face. “But seriously.”

Your death was meant to affect Leomi and Elizabeth’s relationship rather than ours so it should be fine as long as I affect a somber expression.” I tell her. “Only Cenwalh may have made the connection and he isn’t within reach to advise Roskal, who he concealed it from.”

I don’t get that, why wouldn’t he tell her?” She questions.

Habit?” I venture with a shrug. “Lack of trust? Information he keeps in reserve to use at an opportune time and doesn’t want leaked? There are many possible justifications including the fact that he may not know we’re one and the same, either because he didn’t put it together or simply because Suxen never told him all she knew.”

Yvonne nods and slowly takes out a parchment roll that she lays on the table. I throw her a curious glance but she takes her time unwrapping it, explicitly to teasingly keep me in suspense.

Get on with it, girl.” I groan.

It’s just the essay I wrote for you, I didn’t know you kept it.” She says with a shrug.

Don’t riffle through my stuff, and what does it matter?” I ask.

It doesn’t, at all, it’s just a prop to attract your attention while I admire your figure in this dress you’re wearing of your own volition.” Yvonne explains, striking at the heart of me.

You don’t understand, it has Leomi’s smell and it feels nice.” I hurriedly justify.

No, no, no!” Yvonne rapidly protests with an utterly fake compassionate smile. “I’m the one who was mistaken when I said Leomi would have to work hard to get you in a dress back then, the brutish farm-girl I became friends with clearly had a hidden soft interior.” I wince at her mockery but her choice of words gives me an opening I can exploit.

Brutish, eh?” I question. “Is that what you thought of me? How it hurts to have my character so tarnished… Nay! Slandered! By a wench known to all of Meria to frequent sordid taverns by the docks in the midst of night!”

Where did you hear that?” Yvonne questions, glaring through squinted eyelids.

I made it up, I swear!” I quickly explain, blinking in panic at the thought I hurt her feelings but stop when I catch an elusive dimple on her otherwise serious traits. “Damn you!” I bark at her.

Hah, ahaha!” Yvonne erupts in laughter, she soon stops and winces as she holds onto her flank. “You’re just too easy.”

Chirp.” The jay gravely agrees.

Stuff it, wenches.” I pout. “Where are my clothes?”

Don’t change, it suits you and Leomi will kill me if she learns of it.” She pleads.

Rmh.” I grunt. “Fine, I won’t.” I acknowledge. “Do me a favor and be nice to Teva when she’s here, and keep the two of them from fighting.” I request.

Already have, although it’s going to get old rather quickly.” She warns.

It shouldn’t take us too long to end Roskal now that she’s injured and afraid but Wraith may turn out to be an issue if he doesn’t act as predicted.” I tell Yvonne.

Make sure you never turn your back on him first.” Yvonne tells me with a shiver. “He is more vicious than a spiteful rat.”

He isn’t walking or even crawling away from our next meeting, I assure you.” I tell my friend who smiles in return.

Lance said you can go find her anytime if you want to go to the University with her.” She tells me.

Implying she doesn’t have time if not for that.” I note.

Yes, but she doesn’t mean it that way.” My friend says reassuringly.

“What way?” I ask.

You know.” She notes.

I don’t.” I deny.

Come on, Jess.” She insists.

Tell me.” I push back.

Jay.” She pleads.

Chiiiirp.” The golden pest weighs in.

“… Fine.” I say with a smile. “But really, what way did you mean?” I question.

She didn’t mean it as a rejection but that she’s incredibly busy.” Yvonne explains.

Nobility?” I ask.

The imperial guard, I believe, as well as the Order which is looking for information on Elizabeth Vil.” She tells me.

Naught from the Emperor?” I question.

“No, was there meant to be something?” Yvonne returns with wide eyes.

I’m not sure.” I mumble. “One of his Shades died while another went on the hunt for the culprits, it seems like an event he would involve himself in.”

He likely will but perhaps not as soon as one as young and impulsive as you would like.” My friend remarks with a smile.

Good point, I suppose.” I acknowledge. That old thing may take a decade to respond if his supposed age affects his relations to the world, after all he takes naps that last months. “I’m going out, do you want me to bring you something back?”

Maybe a pastry or two, and a few books, and…” She pauses. “Just send me Rowland.” She concludes.

“Alright.” I reply with a huge grin as I turn and depart without delaying.

“Gently!” Yvonne adds hurriedly.

I don’t respond, to have her sweat a little, but I make a note to be extra nice when I send him to her. I snatch one of my broadswords from under the bed using flow and make my way out of the room while rubbing my right eye to check if the new scar is healing well, it is but still hurts bad.

I journey out of the building and to a training field where I find Rowland swinging his bastard sword. I shape an air-javelin that I anchor to the back of his shirt and then create a kinetic force cushion around him.

He seems to notice something because he looks up. I raise my hand and begin waving goodbye while he searches. His eyes finally find me and I activate the javelin, sending the man screaming straight up to Yvonne’s room. It’ll be cheaper to have two windows repaired at once than one after the other.

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I scowl and prepare to launch at her when the facade I’ve just breached lights up with silver flow. It doesn’t take long for energy to spread and turn all the room’s walls golden.

I hastily tighten my protective blood-weave just as a wave of flames ignites the air around me, causing a moderate blast as it interacts with dust. I manage to block it but the heat is rapidly sapping the integrity of my construct.

Thus, I rush at Roskal’s previous position with a lion’s step but I encounter naught which means she relocated. Wipe the room. I decide to follow the intent behind my sister’s advice.

I release the blood, which I can no longer harden enough to cut with because of the temperature, allowing the fire to engulf me briefly as I swiftly seize control of the surrounding air fueling the blaze to integrate it to my weave of air that I turn into dozens of air-blades.

Since the fire is being projected by runic constructs integrated to the wall, I encounter no difficulty and it is snuffed out almost instantly. I send out my attack and the constructs pepper the room.

The air-blades leave gashes in the interior wooden walls as they destroy desks, shelves, and paintings but fail to breach Roskal’s barrier which is now also protecting the tall large man she was speaking to.

A current of fresh air bursts inside, saving me from suffocation, but then the Duchess spreads out several hundred portions that she uses to create a shredding cloud across the entire room.

I reflexively launch a dozen bolts of lightning across the room, costing me three portions, but all of them are attracted to poles with metal points attached to the walls and engraved with runes that absorb the electricity. The attempt burnt portions of her construct but was entirely energy inefficient.

She received news of my attack on her manor, pretty much as it was happening, and either acted on it immediately or this Midnight Palace already had the defenses to counter this Rykz construct.

I snarl and bring my liangi around to try to end her because I’ve enough energy to fight back but I won’t last long if she’s starting the fight with this much flow, especially considering the support she’ll get from the Palace’s defenses.

I lion’s leap to her and slash down at her head but the brawny man moves in with his sword, blocking my liangi just at the base of the blade. I press down on his weapon with all my strength, causing the man to struggle to hold but failing to break him.

I angle the liangi to make it slide off and swing the other end at his flank. The man reacts by taking a half-step back and manages to block once more. I scowl and turn the liangi again to slash out with the fore-blade but this time from below.

As my blade arcs up towards his belly, Roskal’s shredding construct takes shape. With no more time to waste, I saturate the liangi’s runes with flow to cut directly through my opponent.

The Noble strikes out to deflect my attack a beat too late so he fails to aim at the handle but he’s put as much energy as he could in his weapon as well so the impact of our blades will be decided by their quality and that of the constructs enhancing them.

Unfortunately for him, I surpass him in both so I cut through his sword and then crack through the barrier that takes shape to protect his stomach. I carve a deep gash into his belly but my liangi’s handle encounters the edge of the barrier construct and is stopped from entirely slicing through his chest.

I hear Roskal scream and witness her shredding construct destabilize but it doesn’t last long as she quickly activates it while pouring even more of her flow into it, which thickens the concentration of sharp flakes floating dangerously in the room.

I deflect the attack with unstructured energy but my reserves of flow are quickly being drained so I front-kick the Noble, propelling him at her which forces her to catch him. I thrust my liangi at them as I saturate my sundering construct with energy again.

As my blade closes in on them, they both panically activate their barrier construct which only ends with them interfering with each other and thus losing their stability.

I smirk as the blade enters the gaping wound in the Noble’s torso without much difficulty, finalizing his evisceration, and then impales Roskal in the center of her chest.

Sadly, my attack caused the man’s barrier to collapse which means Roskal’s could properly activate to block my blade at the last moment, preventing it from going any deeper.

Roskal drops to her knees which pulls my liangi out of her torso while her companion falls to the side with my weapon’s handle stuck in his stomach. The Duchess, despite her grave wound, throws everything she can at me.

She increases the pressure of her shredding construct. It forces me to take several steps back, dragging her companion along with my liangi. Roskal even begins shaping a massive fire construct.

If I let her finish, the resulting blaze will mix in with the dust cloud carried and spread by her shredding construct. The resulting explosion will undoubtedly blow me to bits but I’m already struggling to hold my own so I’ve no attention to spare on disrupting her concentration.

My focus is already split between controlling my left arm as well as resisting her attack with unstructured flow, which is already headache-inducing even with my sister helping.

Watching a fire construct come into being while a shredding tempest fights against my intent-guided flow shield as it dismantles the flakes of sharp air is exhilarating. Death itself is closing in on me, melting my flow reserve like snow in the summer.

Kh, kh kh, khua, ka, kah!” I erupt in an insane bout of laughter.

My reserve of energy is dwindling and I’m not sure I have enough to breach the shredding cloud to reach Roskal again since my hard leather armor will only protect me for a short while.

I jerk the dying Noble’s body behind myself and lift him with my liangi to throw him at her over my shoulder. The two seem close, Roskal screamed when I stabbed him.

My thinking is that she might make an opening to save him but the psychological attack fails and the man is shredded into pieces during his flight towards the Duchess.

Roskal is splattered by bloody chunks of flesh and a body hollowed out of most its meat but her will doesn’t waver. The shredding cloud keeps assaulting my defense, proving her survival instinct and fears are stronger than whatever bond she had to the man.

Her traits twist as a result of this. Her expression turns into an ugly patchwork of fury, grief, and terror as I am left with only one option. I can only gamble on a full-on attack and hope it’ll take her out.

The most intense section of the shredding cloud is obviously between us so walking through it is akin to moving through thick acid. My energy keeps me safe but I’m down to fifty portions and it barely feels enough to get to her, not to mention powering my sundering construct.

There is a real chance getting to her will cripple or kill me but I’m not about to take a step back so I push forth with all I have to ensure she dies first. As I grasp my liangi and prepare to launch two linked slashes with the weapon before the Duchess activates her fire construct, a silver arrow pierces through the wall behind me to impact a rune behind Roskal.

It is soon followed by several more and each projectile destabilizes the shredding cloud, proving Roskal has been relying on the runes to stabilize her construct. Even her fire construct falls apart which means she’s in no state to fight by herself.

As Archer disables the room’s runic network, Roskal begins attacking me with wild strikes of unstructured energy that burn her reserves much faster than mine, although it remains in doubt who’ll run out first.

The deadly golden cloud fades to reveal a parquet covered in scratches and debris all over as no object or piece of furniture survived the onslaught. Roskal bashes my shield of unstructured energy with a strike of kinetic force which I easily return at her.

The woman is blasted into a wall and drops half-unconscious but then the door is slammed open. Soldiers in chain-mail rush inside with drawn swords with golden blades likely enhanced by armor-piercing constructs.

I try to lion’s leap to grab Roskal but she unleashes a thick whip of unstructured energy that isn’t relying on air or kinetic force so it goes through my defenses.

Instead of burning my last forty or so portions trying to block with no guarantee of success, I decide to reinforce my armor’s defensive construct. The impact is oddly far softer than I expected but her attack propels me directly out of the building without giving me a chance to resist it.

I tumble head over heels during my fall and barely manage to harden a stream of air that I use to regain control over my descent. I land on my feet and disperse the kinetic force to avoid breaking a leg.

I immediately glance up to the hole I made in the wall only to witness Archer leaping down the building in retreat. I swear under my breath but know I’ve been beaten. Roskal’s resistance was far fiercer than expected and I didn’t have enough energy to quickly overwhelm her.

With my heart seizing in harsh pain every few beats, I decide to leave it at this for the night. I’ve planted the seed of terror in their hearts, it is best to let them wallow in fright over my next attack and leave under the ostensible reason that Roskal fled than show weakness by futilely slaughtering until I am forced to retreat myself.

Don’t fly, it may create a link between us if you do. I flew to Roskal’s manor. They only saw you land and crack the ground, just leap away. You can fly back in the night when out of sight. I’m not done yet.

I wait for Archer to lion’s leap up to me before making my way out with him which isn’t too difficult considering the elites guarding the Midnight Palace never leave the structure, likely held back by frightened Nobles.

We evade several patrols of soldiers and crush through one who cooperated with others to intercept us at the steel bar fence. I jump over it and land in the street from where I use flow to send me up to a roof on the other side that Archer climbs to join me.

I turn to observe the surroundings, but mostly to catch my breath and give my heart much needed rest. There are no imperial guards, a clear sign someone is tampering with their assignments.

Aisha?” I question, implying she is the one making moves in the dark.

Me.” Archer responds with a raspy voice. “Brute was… a friend.”

How long do I have?” I ask.

The night, but the Order is already intervening.” He replies.

I narrow my eyes to peer into the distance and indeed spot a group of three Templars in plate riding down the street. I open my palm and flick my liangi with the thumb to make it spin, angling my hand down so the blades pass over my head.

Roskal spoke of a contract with Wraith.” I speak up, making my voice even graver than it naturally is so that he doesn’t recognize it.

A deal made for his release from the gaol.” Archer explains.

Any ideas where it could be?” I ask.

“The Duchess may leave it in the open but Wraith would not allow proof against him to be found.” He argues.

You’re mistaken, the two are falling apart.” I deny. “Apparently over an order given to breach the Vault.” Archer takes a deep inhalation that I take as a warning, which I then naturally ignore. “The Vault is an excuse, Wraith stopped trusting the woman from the moment she put him behind bars and has been working for himself ever since to create an opportunity to turn on her.

You’re suggesting Brute’s murder was a ploy.” The man utters with a chilling tone.

No, a coincidence Wraith took advantage of.” I correct. “His plan is likely to kill Roskal himself by creating enough chaos it creates a weakness in the Duchess’ security.

How do you know?” He asks.

It is what I would do if lone and relatively weak.” I reply.

Comparing yourself to that waste?” He utters questioningly with an almost threatening tone.

There is a limited set of solutions to any problem so the reasoning applies even if we are very different beings.” I explain because my sister insists. “Wraith would not rely on others to do his killing for him, he likes it too much. That is a weakness I will use to end him, but until then I need proof Roskal is behind the massacre at the inn so that my sister can work during the daytime to setup my nightly hunts.” I say, certain the trick with Yvonne didn’t fool him or that he was told by Aisha.

…” The Shade exhales and falls deep in thought. “With her brother dead, even Roskal may not know where it is at the moment. I’ll find it.”

Have it sent to Lance if you do.” I coldly utter.

Archer doesn’t respond as I turn to leap off to another building and then the next. I make my way back to Roskal’s manor using the roofs to avoid the several hundred Templars now spread through the streets.

I spot dozens of carriages, the type that Nobles use, rolling through the avenues of Kruzser despite it being the dead of night. It feels like I’ve kicked an anthill into panic and it feels good.

As I approach the manor, I notice there are far more troops on its grounds now than there were before. Several hundred Hospitaliers are trying to occupy the property but they’re running into interference from Nobles and the imperial guard.

There are also Templars led by a couple of Exemplars but the Order is standing to the side as if they’re unwilling to get involved in the political skirmish when they already are.

They might not be. Explain. I think they’re here for you, sister. … because I’m forbidden to use the mask except in defense of the Empire? That’s likely it, yes. I forgot about that. I could tell.

I bark out in laughter at all these warriors too afraid to pick a fight as I raise my hand at the manor and gather thirty portions of my energy. Wait, stop! I’m making a point. Idali and Rowland know, don’t do this! Come on sister, you enjoy it as much as I do.

I shape a large air-blade, causing hundreds of eyes to snap to my position on a house’s roof. While Jess whines about her reputation, I take my time to integrate a feedback loop for kinetic force that’ll activate upon impact and compound the damage.

Calls for evacuation soon arise as people realize what I’m planning to do so I give them all a few more tens of seconds despite the temple guards charging in my direction.

I finally launch my construct at the manor’s facade which caves in upon impact to implode a split-second later, causing the structure to fall in a cacophony and a large cloud of dust.

I leap down the roof and kick the wall of the building as I use flow to launch myself into this cloud, concealing my landing and the path of my escape. Unfortunately, not everyone is fooled and I’m discovered by an Exemplar when I reach the outskirts.

The figure in full plate stands tall with a straight spine and a greatsword held in two hands with the point on the ground. I could fight, I want to, but I’m running low on energy and endurance.

Elizabeth Vil, you are in breach of a result of Arbitration which was rendered in your favor for consideration of your service to the Empire.” He declares, likely preparing to demand my surrender.

I’m a busy being, make an appointment next time.” I jokingly dismiss one of the few representatives of the holy Emperor.

Elizabeth Vil!” Lance’s rage-filled voice cuts through the noise and strikes directly at the base of my spine, causing me to shiver excitedly as I shift to the left. “You dare show yourself before me?

Leomi Lance is stomping forth with her sword in hand and left hand open by her side. Her armor is sparkling despite the grime filling the air and her reserve is filled to the brim with flow. I can’t help but grin as I raise my liangi.

Why wouldn’t I?” I question. “Are we not lovers?

Are we?” She returns harshly as she stops before me, causing me some pain. “Your actions prove you do not respect me or our agreements.” She adds coolly.

The Exemplar flicks a look to us both and prudently moves back, undoubtedly determining I am not about to leave so he can wait for reinforcements.

You lied to me, why should I hold onto my word if yours isn’t worth the air they’re spoken through?” I return to my kitten with a chilling tone.

“I lacked knowledge, it cannot be taken as a lie and does not invalidate your duty to keep to your word.” Leomi justifies after a pause.

While her aggressive tone hasn’t wavered, I know her enough to read between the lines. The admission means she is saying she didn’t trick me. I incline my head to the side to affect consideration but mostly to tell her I acknowledge her answer.

I am impulsive, you used to love that about me.” I say, making the response sound like an accusation when it is in fact telling her I recognize my mistake.

Lay down your weapon or face mine.” She threatens.

I think not, kitten, you’re mine and I’ve use for this liangi in ensuring you remain so.” I return.

I raise said weapon before me and focus on my left arm to slide the hand down the handle for a stable grip. She directly lion’s leap at me with a lion’s slash that I block with the handle.

Leomi slams her palm into the intricate Vuskyt chain-mail protecting my torso and I feel dozens of portions of flow pour into my body. I push her back with a shove strengthened by kinetic force.

My act has almost no impact on Lance as her defenses are too sturdy but she still slides back despite the small spikes on the soles of her greaves and the weight of her plate armor, showing off my strength.

We then start battling without holding back our speed but restraining our strength as we make this an exchange of technique. It’s unavoidable some experts like Exemplars will see through this but not all will.

It does not matter much as they are likely to put our restraint on account of our affection for each other. In the end we have a good sparring session that ends when Lance launches a sideways slash that blows me towards some stables.

I flip in mid-air, land on the roof and leap away using my flow more than my muscles. It takes me a half hour to lose my pursuers and take off into the night sky to return to the Hospitaliers headquarters.

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