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.”