I run the graver along the surface of my liangi, adding the last line to a segment of my new armor-sundering construct. I then blow on the weapon with a satisfied expression and caress the edge of the sharp Lassus steel blade.
With my work done, I release my concentration and the sounds of the smiths beating plow-heads into shape with their hammers in the adjacent room to my workshop reach my ears once more.
I unlock the vise holding the liangi in place and carefully return it to its case, sealing it once more with a flick of my hand that releases a burst of energy. I then grab the stack of notes describing the runic construct in detail and throw the rolls into the fire.
I watch the blaze consume the relatively expensive parchment without regretting it, firstly because Madame Cecil and Ms Conner have conspired to make me richer than I ever thought I would be and secondly because I’ve learned from Suxen not to trust ink to keep my secrets.
The worst or best part is that the coin currently stacking up in the Keep’s treasury is merely my personal cut. I’ve made the decision, because I really can’t carry or spend it all, to let the two more experienced women invest my fortune however they need under each other’s watchful eyes.
I walk up to the door to my workshop and throw a look at the busy forge, feeling rather proud of my plowing construct. The smiths, who were mostly indifferent towards me even after my reputation blew up, turn to nod at me in acknowledgment.
Their attitudes changed from the moment I presented my final draft of the runic plowing construct. They had to adapt it to fit their plans of the two different plows but, from what I gathered, it was a lot easier than they expected.
I haven’t mingled with them out of their professional capacity, which Liz keeps reminding me is why they’re so respectful. If they knew you better… I get it, sister! The two of us laugh inside and return inside the workshop to bury ourselves in work for the rest of the day.
I walk up to a barrel and pull two dozen portions of energy from the water. I create a shaping construct and walk back to the worktable. I open a drawer to pick up three items of steel and silver alloy. A bracelet, a ring, and three tiny chains that I place in front of me one after the other.
These items were made from the pommel of Leomi’s sword, given to her by her mother, broken to save our lives, abandoned in the dirt when we parted ways, and recovered to join our lives together for good.
I would have added something from my old life but that girl died in truth so it would not be suitable. Instead, I tasked Rowland to find Yvonne and help her buy me a sapphire without ever telling me the price.
That is called spending without counting, which is what’s to be done for someone you’re in love with. We’re not very good with people, or society, humans, sapient beings really, but we know as much.
Rowland came back from Castle Lance with it in the morning and I fully plan to make the rock my very own. I take the steel box from the inside of my jacket and unlock it with the key, finding a shining round deep-blue sapphire.
I smile and place it next to the light gray ring, made in part with the small chunk of blade that was left on the pommel, finding the size perfect. I use the shaping construct to slowly make a socket to welcome the gem and three sharp prongs to hold it in place once I set it in.
Then, I reach out behind my back to the silver mass of energy inside the barrel and seize another two dozen portions of flow. I grab the first weapon I bought, the dagger I used to touch Leomi’s beating heart, and secure it with the worktable’s vise.
I grab an empty bowl and place it under the blade. I then run my palm over the edge, opening a small wound from which my blood drips out. I immediately use flow to temporarily isolate it with a blood-blade so that it doesn’t coagulate.
I swiftly stop the bleeding, wasting quite a bit of the energy I bought from a guild that gathers flow for its clients. I take hold of the sapphire, admiring it for a little while before using a shaping construct with a technique that took me a day to learn to dig smooth grooves.
I create a pattern akin to broken glass over the round surface, each tiny jagged trench starting at the edge to meet at the very center. I take care not to be symmetrical so as to create a unique and natural appearance.
I then put the sapphire back in its box and reach to the bowl to direct the blood to fill each of the grooves while expelling the air by making use of precise flow intent.
I verify that the red liquid is evenly spread out before using the shaping construct to completely seal my red blood inside the deep-blue sapphire. It takes me hours and almost all the energy I stored to restore its original flawless appearance.
Once I’m done, I take deep breaths and marvel at the complex feelings the jewel evokes in me. I am proud of the magnificent contrast I created through conflicting colors and pattern, the tension created by the red crack on the smooth glistening blue surface.
I set the sapphire in the ring’s socket and bend the three sharp prongs over it, securing it. I shape a specialized merging construct with the last of my flow to seal the ring and the sapphire together. I let out a deep sigh as my chest pangs in painful longing.
I give myself a moment before removing our dagger from the vise and delicately put the ring in its place. I seize the graver and a parchment with a drawing of viola northern lights to guide me, I chose that plant because it can appear both symmetrical and unhinged depending on how you look at it.
I engrave two flowers facing each other on the ring with the gem in-between and then the long stems that meet on the other side to intertwine. I then draw a few leaves in the shape of lances and an inscription in the inside of the ring.
‘To my Love, Leomi Lance.‘
It is simple but I have found that simplicity is best in times of true doubt because flourishing words may work to undermine the feelings and intent. If Leomi was there the day I tried to kill myself, I would have taken any grand declaration from her as deception because it would have appeared to my madness that she was trying too hard.
I walk out of the room to grab fifty portions of energy from the cistern the Order keeps supplies with the Emperor’s Due, a fact that never ceases to amaze me.
The Templars don’t check what we do with the energy so long as progress is made on the plowing construct and the production of plows, that being said the temple guards guarding the building aren’t fools so I can’t go overboard either.
I use flow to polish my work on the ring as well as remove small mistakes like scratches. With this, her engagement ‘ring’ is half-ready so I start working on engraving Elizabeth Vil’s crest on the inside of the bracelet and Jessica Freepath’s on the outside.
I’ve drawn it before as a model for the Noble shop to embroider on the oil-cloth of the flat umbrella Elizabeth craved for. They made quality work, worth the coin I paid, and delivered the top part of the item to the best blacksmith in Meria to modify the handle by turning it into a sheath for a guard-less rapier with a leather strap to conceal the hinge.
I pick the umbrella up and set it on the worktable. Liz was right to insist we get this, it’s better than a hat and we can now go around with a weapon in hand without anyone being the wiser.
The wooden handle-sheath and the ribs are of a silver color while the inside of the oil-cloth is blood-red to symbolize Elizabeth Vil’s tree rooted in blood-soaked soil. The outside of the oil-cloth is light-blue to represent the sky with a silver paved road disappearing among white clouds.
I engrave that very picture on the outside of the bracelet, making the road follow the spiraling design of the metal. I don’t add any ink or paint to color the crests because those would eventually fade away.
Instead, I use a method one of the blacksmiths taught me to heat metal in just the right way to produce red and blue hues, matching the crests’ soil and sky. The bracelet is already silver in color so there is no need to alter the tree and road, I merely distinguish them by using various protective substances to darken the rest of the bracelet.
Satisfied by my work, I take the three tiny chains with precise lengths that took trial and error to determine. It wasn’t too hard because I have a crystal-clear memory of how much longer Leomi’s hand is compared to mine.
The chains are to bind the ring to the bracelet so that my love may never lose either by mistake and also to add another symbol of our relationship. I attach the links, spreading them out evenly as tiers of a circle.
One will trail over the back of her hand, another will slide around the edge of her hand, the last will cross between thumb and index. I’ve left enough slack that the chains won’t hinder her but not so much the ring is at risk of slipping past her first phalanx.
I coat the silver-steel alloy in a thin varnish that will ensure it stands the test of time, using a construct to make the substance infiltrates. It makes me smile that the first task of those I hired was to teach me to create this.
I hold her engagement ring dearly to my chest before carefully storing it inside my liangi’s case, feeling awkward at the fact I don’t have a left hand to put a ring on anymore.
It’s okay, sister, Leomi will find a way as we have. We did provide the pommel. Hm. Should we marry her as blood-sisters, true siblings? She would love it. She is screwed up, it fits her, but… no.
My cheeks turn red-hot as I realize that I have forgotten we have been and will be intimate together. We can’t help it, after all, we live in the same body, share the same mind, and fell in love with the same beings.
I store the energy I have left in the cistern after filling my reserve to two-thirds with two portions, noticing that my employees have long since returned home to their families.
I dress up with my black hard leather armor and hang Liz’ favored umbrella on my half-shoulder. I check that my single-edged broadsword slides in and out of its sheath without issue before locking every door and leaving the building.
The temple guards on night duty, mostly Templars with a few Semplars, wish me good night and offer an escort that I refuse as usual. I wave at them as I walk south-east to the city’s slums, to Madame Cecil’s brothel where I rent a room because it’s become a kind of secret stronghold for her in Meria.
On the trip, I recall a blushing Rowland informing me that Leomi forbids me from enjoying the services offered there. I’m pretty sure he learned more than he should have about us from Yvonne during his mission but I don’t mind because he’s a good guy even if he’s misguided.
You’re jealous he likes my methods better. I’m not going to mess with Grace for the heck of it. You say that but you will soon. It won’t be for the heck of it, though, and I’ll toe the line to avoid her wrath not to cause it.
I pass by a fountain of water on a white pillar with a small stone leyline that connects to one of the larger underground leylines, one of the Order’s shrines in Meria that allow people to pay their Due and donate energy as they wish. Meiridin has small Temples that fulfill the same function.
I arrive at the brothel to find Roisia drinking at the bar while waving away Rob, the manager, with an amused smile. She’s wearing an almost purple scarf on a white shirt and black pants with magnificent green feathers.
I pause for a moment because I’ve rarely seen her in the few weeks I’ve been back, in fact I have only had a half-conversation and it was her giving me a warning. She’s as fashionable as always but clearly off-duty.
“Roisia, what brings you to this pit of depravity?” I ask her as I sit on a stool by her side.
“Hey, I heard that!” Rob shouts without turning around.
“You.” Roisia responds.
“I’m flattered.” I reply instantly.
“Don’t be.” She counters with a grin.
“It’s a friendly visit then.” I comment with a smile.
“You’re as suspicious as always.” She says with a sigh. “Let’s take this upstairs.”
She stands up, giving me little choice but to follow because I’m way too curious. We discreetly check that the longsword is also easy to access and follow her directly to my room where we settle at the table with a bottle of cheap beer each.
“Why didn’t you take a room at the Keep?” She asks.
“I have a few reasons but let’s just say I feel safer out of easy reach from the Council, they don’t like me very much.” I reply.
“Your threat to scuttle their attempt to determine seats in the lower and upper chambers of the Council by wealth in land by requesting the Hospitaliers to survey people after informing them of the stakes will indeed cause some resentment.” Roisia comments while raising an eyebrow. “They abandoned the plan this morning if you weren’t aware.”
“Rowland told me.” I reply. “Do you know why they gave up? I’m pretty sure they could have gathered support from Nobility and then use that to bring the public to their side with a decent chance of gaining enough support.”
“They gave up about the same day you toyed with Thrin and his goons.” Roisia tells me. “It just took a while for the guilds to back down because they didn’t want to look like they were afraid. You should have let Cecil take the forefront.”
“You’d sell your own mother?!” I exclaim.
“Not so loud, the walls are thin here.” Roisia tells me with a glare.
“I’m renting the two rooms next to this one and the three on the other side of the corridor.” I reassure her. “There are alarm constructs all over and a few physical traps as well.”
“That’s half the floor.” She blinks in surprise. “Anyway.” She waves her hand. “You know very well this was an attempt to undermine Mother and the Hospitaliers so why help her if you were going to turn around and pull the rug from under her feet? It made her insufferably moody.”
“Oh, they introduced the motion?” I ask, grinning.
“They did.” Roisia nods with a smile.
“You agree with my plan?” I ask, baffled.
“Of course.” She replies with a deep voice. “But first, Mother’s message is that she would have appreciated a warning before you went ahead with your suggestion.”
“Didn’t seem necessary.” I tell Roisia with a shrug. “And I don’t like to play politics, that fat guy from the trading guild had the information and people necessary to put the proposal together so I used him.”
“I’ll tell her you’re sorry and that it was a prank.” She says with a smile. “I have to admit it’s a clever proposal.”
“To be honest, I wanted to send a message to the entire Council by making a more drastic proposal and forcing it through but, apparently…” I pause to clear my throat and imitate the greasy voice of the fat guild merchant. “It would trigger a civil war!”
“What was your idea?” Roisia asks with an amused expression.
“Instead of putting it into law that peasants can buy their lands at cost after working and paying their taxes for ten years, I wanted to make it theirs if their families had lived on them for three generations already.” I explain.
“Seventy percent of peasantry would turn into free men and women overnight.” Roisia says, looking baffled. “That would probably… definitely cause some turmoil.”
“Will my proposal pass?” I ask.
“Yes, it should. So will the one about council-members being compensated, and the one about cutting the Izla into regions by population rather than demesne to pick representatives.” Roisia replies.
“Those two were Cecil’s as much as mine.” I tell her. “I’m guessing the proposal to have the lower chamber elect the upper chamber isn’t going to go anywhere.”
“Not yet, no, but it isn’t going to go away and Leomi did gain a right of veto for the lower chamber that merely requires a majority vote so the republic is on the right track.” Roisia reports, her eyes falling on the stack of books near my bed. “I can tell that your theft didn’t go to waste but you do have to return them to the Keep’s library eventually.”
“You can take them back, scoured most of them already.” I tell her unashamedly.
“I have more important things to do than to be your errand girl.” Roisia refuses with a scowl. “… although I may still be if I look at things a certain way.” She adds with a deepening frown.
“What does that mean?” I ask, feeling lost.
“I’ve heard rumors that a mask with a crack on the left side and a silver tree covered in blood has been spotted in Meria lately.” Roisia says while throwing me a suspicious glance.
“I’m not surprised Elizabeth would be here, are you?” I question rhetorically with a raised eyebrow, all the while wondering if someone’s trying to scare or bait me by spreading these false rumors.
“Thrin is planning to use the fact Elizabeth is breaching her asylum to tip an Arbitration in his favor, the Order may not enforce the Kingdom’s laws and rarely uphold the edicts but it would still hurt Leomi that either are being broken under her watch.” Roisia explains.
“Why ask me?” I press her straightforwardly.
“Obviously because I know.” The vice-commander of the Izla’s Hospitaliers responds flatly. My grip on the beer bottle tightens.
“Ah.” I utter and take a sip of the flat and bitter drink. “Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?”
“In part.” Roisia replies calmly. “I’m also very busy and you don’t need supervision.”
“What do you want to know?” I ask with a sigh at my tattered secret.
“I’m aware you and Mother have been playing with rumors that build up how different Jessica Freepath is from Elizabeth Vil, their distinct achievements and personality.” She deflects with a glimmer of interest in her eyes.
“That… wasn’t entirely us, not even close.” I tell her honestly. “Turns out that a lot of people were aware of my capture even with the silence of those who were there. Bits and pieces overheard taken from our conversations, from Buton’s soldiers who witnessed me being sent in that tunnel, and from quite a few rumors spread by Rykz Princesses who felt mischievous enough to make obscure but truthful remarks. Once I actually started making noise in Meria… The story behind Leomi’s insomnia came out fast from servants who caught arguments between her and Yvonne.”
“The rumor mill turned and turned. Now it’s become a heartbreaking story of a girl finding a lover and warrior to take revenge on her ex-lover only to have that warrior turn on her by falling in love with her target.” Roisia informs me with a deep sigh.
“Really?” I ask, eyes wide and eyebrows raised.
“That’s the most popular one, you hadn’t heard?” She questions.
“It’s embarrassing to hear the stories and more so to seek them out.” I explain with a straight face but with uncontrollably warm cheeks.
“Is it an act?” Roisia presses.
“No, Liz and Jess are… one but separate. It’s hard to explain and it takes more than a pinch of insanity to understand.” I tell her seriously. “How did you figure it out?”
“I am the best placed to peer into Mother’s secrets and who communicates with her, who comes and goes. That was the case back then and still is now. Don’t forget I was there when you spoke on the plaza, your words always struck me as odd coming from a woman calling herself Elizabeth Vil.” Roisia explains. “I was quite sure of myself but what convinced me was remembering how you didn’t hesitate to invite Templar Emffrey in the carriage, as if you had a sense of his character already. Besides, you never left as big an impression on me compared to the others who are a bit closer like Edusa and Grace because I met you in peaceful circumstances and knew you from the beginning. It was easier for me to start piecing the puzzle together once I narrowed down the facts of the various stories going around and realized how easily the two of you speak for each other.”
“…” I gape, speechless.
“I don’t merely take my looks from Mother.” Roisia tells me with an elegant but prideful wink. “I had the confidence to ask because both your existences would otherwise be too coincidental.”