Yvonne is uneasy about her friend’s current expression, even frightened as she is seeing similarities between Leomi’s state now and that of Jessica when they both left her behind, when she took her mask off atop the hill.
“What’s going on Leomi?” She asks. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing.” Leomi giggles.
The sword-sworn looks in her ward’s light gray eyes and witnesses a dreadful insanity. Her right hand flies up to her gaping mouth in shock as she realizes that Jessica and Leomi have almost come full circle in their mad relationship, they’re growing closer to intersecting paths in a devastating way.
“That’s it.” Yvonne whispers. “I’m, I… can’t let this go on.”
“Jay needs to fly away, free.” Leomi mutters in a hazy tone of voice.
Yvonne closes her eyes, unable to keep watching. She searches her memories, trying to figure out who would be able to reach Leomi. Unfortunately, in her opinion, Vikiana and Jessica are the only ones who could, the first is injured while the second is the one who caused this.
Yvonne’s gut feeling is that there is almost no chance of this ending well if she doesn’t intervene, it has been for a long time although she isn’t certain of the exact moment she realized that they are on a path of self-destruction.
Jessica seemed to think that the choice she offered would be the end of it but her ward’s current state clearly indicates that it is a falsehood. Yvonne knows that her friend is hiding something from her.
The truth is that Leomi is hiding an entire facet of her relationship with Elizabeth and Jessica, the fact that she is so afraid of what she could do that she would rather die than risk returning to Jessica and causing her further harm.
“I need to work.” Leomi murmurs, pushing Yvonne away to get off the bed.
“Why?” Yvonne asks her feverish friend, easily fending off her attempt.
“No time.” Leomi whines hazily.
“You have all winter, Leomi, don’t you?” Yvonne asks, feeling her stomach sink.
“No, my Jay, would want me to go follow through with my ideals before it’s too late.” Leomi violently shakes her head side to side like, fighting something in herself.
“Too late?” The sword-sworn presses, worried.
“Elizabeth, veiling her threats to my Jay.” Leomi responds in anguish. “Liz is trying to take her from me, like she took my first time from her.”
Leomi half faints, half falls to sleep while grasping at the bed covers. Yvonne watches her tormented friend as she wrestles with an invisible shadow, weakly swiping at the air and trying to pull her covers apart.
Yvonne lies down by her ward’s side, listening to her friend’s nightmarish ramblings. She intuits that what Elizabeth Vil did by touching Leomi’s heart has shattered, that her friend can no longer cling to that ledge and fell back into a pit of guilt and despair.
The sword-sworn reaches the conclusion that revealing the truth about Elizabeth and Jessica now would have disastrous results to their mental health, that it’s become urgent for the two to reunite with Jessica.
Yvonne soon falls asleep as well, exhausted by having ridden all the way south from the Rykz camp in one go.
— — —
Leomi awakens in the middle of the day, feeling sick to her stomach from guilt and furious about Elizabeth’s scheme which almost brought her to kill herself. She retches at that thought, bile rising up to the back of her throat.
She despises such cowardice from herself, after all she firmly believes that the privileged life she’s lived makes her ineligible for giving up in such a way, at least before achieving what she set out to do with the Hospitaliers.
She does not see her decision to push Elizabeth to end her in the same way as that act is an expression of her love, not surrender. Whatever Elizabeth may say, Leomi loves the woman’s strength even if her romantic heart belongs to another, it was seized by Jessica almost against her will as Leomi struggled between keeping her distance and treating her right.
Leomi makes her way out of the apartment, leaving Yvonne behind. She heads downstairs through a stone staircase with flow torches hung on the walls every few meters. She enters the main hall, finding two tall women eating at the long and large rectangular table that lies in front of the throne.
“I am telling you I want to recover the gold and jewels from that gaudy thing, not give it away for free, Ruth.” The first speaks up, referring to the throne.
“But think of the symbol of you redistributing the gold you say your father stole from his subjects, Grace!” Ruth exclaims.
“I find that it would serve my subjects best if I used these riches to repair their city, I don’t see how handing it over to you is any kind of redistribution.” Grace replies, sighing.
“Well, I was born here after all, my taxes bought it so it belongs to me.” Ruth argues. “But I’m fair so I’ll give you a chance to win that gold back with dice.”
“Why did it suddenly change hands?” Grace exclaims, rising from her chair before noticing the wide grin on Ruth’s face and falling back down, realizing that she got played. “I swear that if even the smallest precious stone is missing when the carpenter arrives, I’ll throw you in the gallows myself.”
“What! Such treachery after all we’ve been through together!” Ruth protests.
“I would do it especially because of that.” Grace frowns. “You would be proving that I’ve been wrong about pardoning you by stealing from our people.”
Ruth groans and takes a gulp from her tankard of beer. Grace hides a small smile behind her hand, aware that the pirate wouldn’t even dare to touch the gold now that she’s framed it in this way.
Leomi watches baffled that an Odo could be so different from the rest of the family, Elizabeth told her as much so she was aware but finding out in person is still a surprise.
“If you want to eat, there’s some stew left inside the kitchen.” Grace speaks up. “I have not called all the servants back yet as I’ve found the coffers emptied.”
“We sent the coin south and east to replace the winter grain the Rykz took.” Leomi mutters.
“Who’re you?” Ruth asks impolitely.
“Leomi Lance.” She replies in a small voice as she heads for the kitchen.
Grace is taken aback by the response, surprised that this disheveled woman would be the quite legendary Countess that supposedly tamed Elizabeth Vil away from the Rykz and saved the Izla as a result.
Leomi herself is aware of her state but does not find the strength to fix her attire and messy hair. As she makes her way to the side door leading into the kitchen, she starts feeling like eating is an unfortunately necessary waste of time.
“What happened?” Grace asks as Leomi returns.
“Peace.” Leomi replies, taking a seat at the table. “Do you have ink and parchment?”
“Ruth, if you don’t mind.” Grace says, pointing at her plate to show that she’s eating while the pirate is merely enjoying her beer.
“I very much do.” Ruth replies, lazily hanging back in her chair and pointedly taking a sip.
“I will go get it myself if you tell me where it is.” Leomi speaks up.
“See, she has legs.” Ruth chuckles.
“No need.” Grace shakes her head.
She stands up and grabs a flow torch from the wall to head to a tiny door hidden behind a curtain, heading to the administrative wing of the keep where she takes the necessary writing supplies from the scribe’s desk.
“You were present when Elizabeth was captured.” Leomi says to Ruth.
“Sure was, the fight was pretty chaotic but it was a lot of fun to see her rip that Odo prick’s tongue out.” Ruth replies. “There are tons of amusing stories about her if you want to hear them, like the fact that she doesn’t bleed.” Leomi scoffs, bringing a mean grin on Ruth’s face. “Or that you committed a great crime in the name of love by seducing her to your side.”
“It’s the other way around.” Leomi whispers. “Why is it a crime?”
“Because she was on the verge of cleansing Caeviel of its Nobility and would already have if not for you.” Ruth replies with a bloodthirsty smile.
“Where did you hear that?!” Leomi explodes, slamming her palms on the table as she stands.
“It’s a fun story actually.” The pirate replies, chuckling. “I was in a gambling den and lost a bet I couldn’t pay so I told them a story about Elizabeth. Turns out, people are placing very different hopes on you and her but they’re all very adamant about their assumptions. It broke into a fight, that the soldiers probably won but who cares, I escaped and didn’t have to pay up.”
“I don’t care about that! Tell me who was calling for civil war!” Leomi demands.
“Calm down, Lady.” Ruth rolls her eyes. “They’re all blustering, what they want is change. Soldiers, peasants, bourgeois, doesn’t matter. Half of them don’t even make sense, they say that they want to be a Republic but at the same time they’re afraid that they’ll be exploited by the rest of the Duchy with a weak Nobility so they want their own strong, prestigious, leader like you.” Ruth bursts out in mocking laughter, towards both Leomi and the people. “People in general have no clue what they want. A poor farmer got into a fight with a low-born officer because they both want Elizabeth to put the Kingdom to the torch but the former was shocked by the latter’s lack of idealism.”
“What do they think about the Hospitaliers?” Leomi asks, relaxing somewhat as she finds that her fear of Elizabeth planning to start a slaughter are mere rumor.
“Who’s that?” Ruth asks.
“My organization.” Leomi replies, sitting back down.
“Eh, the cheap healing, training, and jobs they provide are pretty well received but people don’t know what you’re about so they’re suspicious, doesn’t help it’s from the Izla.” Ruth shrugs.
“I’m about to resolve that right now.” Leomi replies softly.
“Your organization has done a lot to help our injured soldiers.” Grace speaks up, returning with parchment, ink, and quill. “I have to thank you for that.”
“There are still a little less than two thousand of your soldiers on the Izla, mostly helping us open new iron mines.” Leomi replies, taking writing apparatus to set it to the right of her plate. “They’ll be able to return when our ships do.”
Leomi quickly finishes her stew and starts writing down some points on the first piece of parchment, using points that she extrapolated from her talks with Jessica and Elizabeth along with her own ideals as a base.
“What are you doing?” Grace asks.
“Writing a charter for the Hospitaliers.” Leomi mumbles. “It’s the first draft, I plan to simplify the language to lower the possibilities that someone will be able to manipulate the intent while keeping it as precise as possible.”
Grace finishes her now cold food with a grimace before making her way around the table to peer over Leomi’s shoulder. Ruth doesn’t move, but she doesn’t leave either.
Grace is rather certain that the woman only showed up this morning because she somehow heard of Leomi Lance’s return with Lady Yvonne, even if she is now affecting indifference.
Leomi settles on three points, thinking that she should tighten those up and leave the rest for the Hospitaliers to build upon as they exercise the duties she is lining up for them.
“I thought this republic of yours was meant to put qualified people in power with the advice of a chamber of elected representatives.” Grace says. “This doesn’t say anything about it.”
“That’s…” Leomi grunts and looks up, annoyed. “So many errors with that you’ve just said that I do not know where to begin. Could you let me work.”
“Try to explain, it concerns me as much as you since I’ve so far aligned myself with the Izla.” Grace replies, frowning.
“That is fair.” Leomi agrees, she starts explaining but doesn’t stop working. “It isn’t mine or Elizabeth’s republic, the provisional government was set up by Councilwoman Cecil and is now working to organize elections to put a chamber of representatives that will then elect a ruling Council which will itself name a leader for the army. Separate from that are the Hospitaliers which are my project, independent from the Izla.”
“I see.” Grace nods. “Your charter does not mention elections but laws, is that on purpose so you can spread the organization through the Empire?”
“It is.” Leomi replies, slightly impressed but feeling too pressed for time to push the conversation further. She regrets having set to work here instead of seeking out an isolated room.
“You’ve crossed the word ‘people’ several times in your first point, and also the word ‘citizen’ you then replaced it with.” Grace comments.
Leomi bites the inside of her left cheek, knowing exactly the word she needs to place there but having delayed doing so out of fear despite knowing that this is necessary to prevent the Hospitaliers from becoming another military arm for the Empire.
“I mean any intelligent being.” Leomi replies. “The Lake bestowed flow on three species, so I… I need, I have to recognize that. This war… wouldn’t have occurred if there was a way for the Rykz to reach Caeviel’s population.”
“Sentients then?” Grace asks.
“Even Rykz drones can feel pain or they wouldn’t ball up and whine when severely injured.” Leomi replies coldly, writing down the words ‘sapient beings’ she’s kept from the parchment.
“Hospitaliers are to guarantee the freedom of every sapient being as long as they do not act to cause mental or bodily harm to another in an act of aggression.” Grace reads out loud. “This includes the right to live as they wish according to the laws of the land they’ve chosen and the right to pledge their flow to whichever organization or individual they desire.”
“That last one is a direct attack on Nobility.” Ruth comments.
“It is not, it’s a clever trick.” Grace shakes her head. “It says that people, no, sapients have to live according to the law of the land, which is a way of saying that if pledging to the titled Noble is the law, then Hospitaliers do not have to intervene.”
“But it also says they must be free to choose who they pledge to.” Ruth contests.
“Stop playing dumb.” Grace groans. “There are intricate meanings there, people who live somewhere are considered to be choosing to do so which means that they are also choosing to pledge their flow to the titled Noble. It also means that if these people want to leave, then Hospitaliers would be required to do all they can to help.”
“That last one is definitely not going to go over well.” Ruth says, smiling.
“After a while, maybe? But at first Nobility will see Hospitaliers as an Order that confirms their right to rule even more than Templars since they think that the land is theirs and the charter enforces the fact that the people living there are their willing subjects.” Grace explains. “I doubt they’ll see past the benefits and realize that this single point is placing these subjects in a position of power over the Hospitaliers since all they have to do is demand their help to leave the land to acquire it.”
“And the next point makes it so that people… sapient beings have the right to petition a change in law, which the Hospitaliers have a duty to examine and then push for change if it reaches decisive support from a majority of those affected.” Leomi speaks up, unable to help herself from being interested in this Grace Odo’s intellect.
“Let’s see.” Grace murmurs as she leans down, absentmindedly setting her left hand on Leomi’s shoulder.
“Every sapient being has the right to petition a grievance about a law that directly affects them. Hospitaliers are required to examine the issue and determine that the majority of those affected are against it. If it is the case, the Hospitalier organization is to then find a course of action that solves the problem and act upon it.” Grace reads. “That looks a lot like the Templar creed, but more affirmative.”
“It is on purpose, Nobility likely won’t think twice about it. The major difference between Hospitaliers and the Templars is that their primary goal is to safeguard the Empire while ours will be that of freedom.” Leomi says.
“Each individual Hospitalier’s rights among the organization must correspond to their duties. From that axiom stems the degree of responsibility to which they must be held responsible in case of success or failure of their tasks.” Grace reads the third point. “That last one seems vague but oddly very precise at the same time. I would describe it as an intelligent way to set the carrot and the stick.”
“I think that this general statement would be sufficient to build a code of law upon, which can then be amended. This charter itself is meant to be set in the Lake’s flames once finished, unalterable.” Leomi replies. “Rules of conduct evolve in society so it would weaken the document if I set out clear directives instead of guidelines.”
“You do realize that all crime-slaves, all criminals, will all say that the laws used to punish them are unfair.” Ruth says.
“I do. The order and wording of my points are thought out, those who have aggressively caused harm to others will not have their freedom defended by Hospitaliers but their petition will still be heard and the punishment given to them examined in light of the crimes they committed and the opinions of those who have suffered.” Leomi explains.
“Hmh.” Ruth noncommittally exhales.
“I am not making a direct stand against crime slavery on purpose, it remains up to the people to end the practice. I am attempting to create an organization that empowers movements for change, not one that causes it. Hospitaliers are to counterbalance abuses of power.” Leomi Lance explains, acutely aware of the necessity because of her own faults.
“That is likely the best thing you could do.” Grace says, not even trying to hide how interested she is. “Placing the impetus on sapient beings means that Hospitaliers will need to remain a sharp tool to successfully follow their charter and solve problems presented to them instead of becoming embroiled in politics.” Port-Odo’s Countess pauses. “None of this means anything without the Emperor’s support.”
“He will, eventually.” Leomi affirms. “He has first and foremost been a pragmatist when it came to defending humanity. Once I’ve risen a strong enough force and demonstrated out capability for good in the Empire, the rest will follow.”
“Perhaps.” Grace ponders, moving back to her own seat to face Leomi. “If you truly want the population’s support, to do true good, you will need to demonstrate that you can do more than enforce the Law.”
“Go on.” Leomi urgently presses, feeling like her time is running out.
“Your Hospitaliers will need to pursue Justice. It’ll be slow, harrowing, and difficult, but that is the only way to become more than just another military force in the Empire.” Grace advises.
Leomi thinks that this woman echoes Jessica, she reminds her of how injustice infuriated her Jay. Lance decides it may save her time to spend the afternoon talking to this woman to determine if she can be of help to the Hospitaliers organization after she’s gone.
— — —