Across Eternity: Book 4 – Chapter 5.1

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Precedent

King Leonard sat in his chambers, reviewing paperwork, the one resource the country never seemed to run out of. Many people thought that being a king meant spending all of his time on the throne, but most of it was spent at a desk. They thought that a king’s work was done with a sword or a scepter, but instead, it was just a quill and a bottle of ink. They thought that all guests bowed their heads and spoke with quiet reverence, but the guest that arrived spoke with his nose up and an entitled gleam in his eye. He was an old priest, dressed in fancier robes than most clergy members and with numerous jeweled rings.

“Good day, Your Majesty.”

“Cardinal Phelps, what brings you before me today?” the king asked dryly. The six cardinals were the highest authorities in the Uther’s church, each one representing one of the gods.

“I’m here to warn you of a common enemy we share.”

“And what enemy might that be?”

“You are familiar with Madam Cyrilo, yes?”

“I wasn’t aware that she was my enemy. What has she done to earn her such distinction?”

“She’s sowing the seeds of discontent among the masses, Your Majesty. She’s spreading sinful, fabricated knowledge to the public, using a means of dispersal that we’ve never seen before.”

“Knowledge such as?”

“Lewd texts, urging for ungodly fornication and the shedding of social responsibility for the sake of carnality.”

“Sounds to me like she’s a simple brothel-owner trying to stir up more business. Unless her courtesans are pleasuring men in the street, it’s not worth making a fuss over.”

“Your Majesty, this cannot be allowed to continue. This country is a well and you’re letting poison seep in drop by drop.”

“I’ll take it under advisement.”

The cardinal’s words turned cold. “I do not come to you as an average citizen, adding another piece of paper for you to skim. I am here because a threat has arisen, a threat to the kingdom and the church, and I’m calling on you to fulfill your obligations.”

“I do not adhere to demands from the clergy. I will not waste the time of even a single soldier for something so ridiculous.”

Phelps sneered. “The church has backed your rule, your war, and your policies. We’ve helped you protect the lives and souls of Uther’s citizens, both spiritually and financially. We expect you to do the same.”

“You expect me to act on your whims like a loyal dog and silence those who disagree with you. The kingdom and its resources do not exist at your beck and call. You stand in MY castle, in MY city, in MY kingdom.”

“They are yours only as long as the people choose to listen to you, but what happens when they listen to someone else instead? Someone who speaks on behalf of the gods? You can’t possibly compare. Your castle, your city, your kingdom, and everything else you believe you own will slip through your fingers, and all it takes is for those with authority to point out your failings.”

“I have earned the people’s loyalty through a lifetime of service and leadership. Don’t think you can subvert my rule.”

“Perhaps that’s what Madam Cyrilo is doing. Perhaps she’s trying to sabotage your authority with her perverse texts. That’s all the justification you need.”

The cardinal then turned and walked out of the king’s chambers as though he owned the place, unflinching in the certainty that he did.

———-

“You are being charged with the creation and distribution of contraband,” said Marcus Berholm, placing the royal decree on Cyrilo’s desk. “You must cease all works relating to literature, or you will be arrested and placed in the dungeon until further notice.”

“This is ridiculous,” Cyrilo fired back. “Since when is literature considered contraband?”

“Until now, it wasn’t, but that’s only because it was so hard to produce. A sudden large influx of any resource, be it gold, food, lumber, or books can have far-reaching political, societal, and economic consequences. The church has already filed complaints about those little pamphlets of yours being distributed to the citizens.”

“Please, Sir Berholm,” said Sophia, standing behind Cyrilo, “we’re doing this to help and educate people.”

“Though you claim to have good intentions, His Majesty and the church are concerned with how this may be used against the kingdom. We are not blind as to what is going on. You’re using magic to create texts faster than can be done with human labor, but what if it was used to spread disinformation or national secrets? What if it was used to create weapons? If this fell into the wrong hands, it could become a catastrophic tool. You already have custody of the bard, and we cannot allow a private citizen to wield this much power without regulation.”

“If King Leonard wants this power regulated for the safety of the country, then that should be settled with a discussion. Since I apparently wield so much terrifying power, then surely he can take the time to speak with me face-to-face.”

“Though you have been granted an audience with the king in the past, this is a separate matter.”

“Regardless, I’m certain that a mutually-beneficial arrangement can be established through proper negotiation.”

Berholm exhaled through his large, boulder-like nose. “I too find this decision by the king concerning. As a knight and the Royal Adjudicator, I am bound by my orders to deliver this warning, but I agree that this issue should be settled with conversation. I will pass along your request for an audience to the king, but I cannot promise anything, and I suggest you do nothing to exacerbate the situation.”

“Thank you, Sir Berholm. I appreciate it.”

Three days later, Cyrilo’s request for an audience was granted, and she, Sophia, and Alexis journeyed to the castle. Alexis and Sophia were nervous, as the last time they stood before the king was at their knighting ceremony. Now, they would be facing him as lawbreakers. What concerned Cyrilo, though, was that Daniel’s presence was also required.

While Cyrilo was wearing an extravagant noble gown with an overly decorated hat, Alexis and Sophia had changed out of their Knight Sheath outfits. They were dressed more conservatively, the former wearing her blue battle dress and the latter in her white vestments. However, while they expected the king to be joined by his advisors and flanked with guards, the number of knights and clergymen in attendance was surprising.

“Greetings, Your Majesty, you are looking well today,” said Cyrilo, curtsying with Alexis and Sophia, while Daniel bowed.

“Madam Cyrilo, I’m glad you could join us.”

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world, though I must admit I find myself rather befuddled. I was under the impression that you and I would simply be negotiating the regulations surrounding my literature project. I had no idea that so many third-party members would be present. If anything, this looks almost like a criminal trial.”

“You were notified to halt your work and refused, a criminal act. It was out of respect and professional courtesy that you were not put in shackles. Between your association with the fugitive Noah, and your antagonism with the church, your actions can no longer be overlooked. You even arrived here with two of his accomplices.”

“Oh shit…” Daniel muttered.

“Your sons’ blood is on Noah’s hands alone. I’m not responsible for his actions, nor are the two ladies with me. And Daniel here is the hero who saved Colbrand during the Red Revelries the year before. We did not come here to discuss crimes we have not committed, including antagonizing the church.”

“That is enough. Cardinal Phelps, you have something you wish to say?”

The old priest stepped forward with a cold smirk. “Your Majesty, these heretics are conspiring to bring about the downfall of Uther using numerous avenues of corruption. Madam Cyrilo, a brothel-owner, has been employing savages and shamans to lure our citizens off the righteous path and into the lurid abyss of bestiality and lust. Serving under her, the man known as the Bard of Rock has been using strange, unholy music to brainwash those who listen to it and make them slaves to sin.

That’s not all. By the power of dark magic, she’s been producing and distributing blasphemous texts and heretical devices of carnality, poisoning minds within this city. These texts include lessons on perversion and dangerous falsehoods, each page a nail in this nation’s coffin. The devices they sell, which they so smugly claim to be “toys,” are leading women astray and destroying marriages.

Even worse, these three women are known abettors of the Wandering Spirit. Under Madam Cyrilo’s watch, the criminal known as Noah has used the Knight’s Sheath as a venue to put on displays of horrific perversion, even forcing Duchess Herald to perform sickening acts against her will and dragging this country’s nobility through the mud.

Under Cyrilo’s orders, he also tortured your sons and paralyzed and kidnapped their friends. Behind her stands Alexis Veres, Noah’s blood-drunk warrior friend, and Sophia Rosege, the former betrothed of Prince Galvin and member of the church, and now a common whore.”

Her hair on end, Alexis was just barely containing her fury, and Sophia had to grasp her hand to keep her from stepping forward. Cyrilo, on the other hand, maintained her composure and fanned herself as the cardinal continued.

“Your Majesty, we implore you to give these sinners the punishment they deserve. Lock them away where they can never harm our citizens again, and tear down the Knight’s Sheath. In the name of the gods, fulfill your duty and protect these lands from the evil before you!”

The other priests all nodded in approval.

“We are so fucked,” Daniel muttered.

“Madam Cyrilo, what do you have to say for yourself?” the king asked.

Cyrilo snapped her fan shut. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, I still don’t quite understand. Why are THEY here?”

“Excuse me?”

“If the church has issues with our material, that is between them and us, but has no bearing on official law. What legal authority do they have over the operations of private business?”

“We are in charge of protecting the soul of this nation, the souls of its people, and their path to salvation,” an old priest growled. “Your blasphemous texts and bestial employees are sabotaging everything we have worked so hard to accomplish.”

“Meaning you have no authority. All you can do is apply pressure to coerce people into doing your bidding, but you don’t have the right to tell us what to do.”

“Silence, witch!” another priest barked.

“That’s enough. We will have no further outbursts,” said the king, raising his hand to silence everyone.

After a moment, Cyrilo resumed speaking. “While the church may have influence, under Uther law, they have no official authority over business practices. They can renounce the Knight’s Sheath, they can tell their followers not to visit, they can complain all they want, but that is the limit of their legal power.

To twist the law at their behest is no different from accepting a bribe. Even worse, it’s like you are surrendering your authority as king and letting them take control of the country.”

Her words set off a firestorm of angry voices, with men calling them heretics and enemies of the country, only stopping when the king once more raised his hand.

“Nor do I understand why they are bringing up issues that are already settled and unrelated to my work in literature. The razing of the original Knight’s Sheath and Noah’s revenge against the four culprits is common knowledge. You and I have already come to an agreement regarding that. So too, was it already established long ago that Daniel here is a hero for saving this city and lives the pacifistic life of a musician, working on my stage out of his love for music. His power is simply an extension of that love, the ability to share his feelings with others.

I am here because I wish to negotiate the rules and regulations surrounding my literature project, so that I may continue to educate the masses without bringing danger to Uther.”

“Regardless of your issues with the church, they have raised valid points as to the literature you are putting out, and how it is negatively affecting the minds of my people.”

“I assume you are speaking about our sexual health booklet?”

“Shut your filthy mouth!” a priest hissed.

Cyrilo ignored him and held up a booklet.

“Your Majesty, this text explains how fornication leads to pregnancy, how to maintain proper cleanliness, and how our bodies work.” She then opened the booklet to a random page. “What man wouldn’t benefit from knowing how excess heat in his nether regions can reduce fertility? Why shouldn’t women understand their monthly cycle and how to make it less painful? Don’t children entering adolescence deserve to know how and why their bodies are changing as they approach adulthood?

The purpose of this text is not to harm or pervert the minds of its readers, but to educate them so they may understand their bodies and make informed decisions. You have the right to learn and understand yourself, even if these men claim you don’t. Read it, and I guarantee you’ll find information you wish you’d had a long time ago.”

“And where did this knowledge come from?” Phelps asked. “I seem to recall a certain someone getting onstage and reciting the same lies to a room full of young cadets. That person is Uther’s greatest enemy, the Wandering Spirit!”

“It’s true, this information came from Noah, developed over his long life. He told me that cadets came to him, asking for bedroom advice, any tips or tricks they could use. He decided to give them that and more, by providing an educational lecture on how their body works, how sex relates to health, and how they may engage in the practice safely.” Cyrilo paused when Alexis gave her a nudge. “My bodyguard has something she wishes to say.”

Alexis stepped forward, standing at attention as she had been trained in the academy. “My name is Alexis, and I was indeed Noah’s friend when he was at the academy, and when I learned of this planned lecture, I shared the clergy’s disgust at the idea. However, he told me he was driven by altruism, doing it not simply for the sake of the men, but for the sake of the women they would be marrying.

I myself attended the lecture and came away with a wealth of knowledge I wished I had received years ago. Though the razing of the Knight’s Sheath did lead to his feud with the princes and their friends, he had no issue with the citizens of this country or his fellow cadets and simply wished to improve their lives through education. He was only trying to help.” She then bowed her head and stepped back.

“Your Majesty, please don’t be swayed by these tricks! They are trying to lead your people away from the gods!” the cardinal shouted.

“And what about the magic you’re using to produce these booklets?” the king asked.

“It’s not like we create them out of thin air. We take simple parchment, ink, glue, and leather, and use alchemy to rearrange them into the same form as a book, down to the most minute detail. It’s just copying books using a faster, more precise method. If you would like any other documents copied, all you need to do is ask.

The duplication magic is kept safe and usable only by me, so there are no chances of it falling into the wrong hands, and as I’ve already made clear, our goal is to educate the public and give them knowledge that will advance civilization and improve daily life.”

Cyrilo could see it on the king’s face, how he wanted to declare her innocent of all charges and let her go on her way, but he couldn’t. As she had said, the church could only apply pressure, but for King Leonard, the pressure was overwhelming. If he made an enemy of the church, the people would turn against him. The last thing he needed was a civil war with citizens forced to choose between the kingdom and the church. She decided to give him a way out.

“If it would settle this dispute, I can offer a compromise. We have been planning on expanding our subject matter, duplicating books already written and creating new ones, making a wider range of knowledge available to the common man. If it would please Your Majesty, why not appoint scholars to review bayan escort gaziantep our books and ensure they are safe for the public? Personally, I would be overjoyed if the kingdom took such an interest in citizens’ education.

As for the church, I’ll use my magic to duplicate religious texts and sell them alongside my books. That way, both sides can spread their message equally.”

Everyone in the room held their breath.

“Hmmm, agreed,” the king said with a nod.

“Your Majesty!” Cardinal Phelps exclaimed.

“This is a fair deal, Cardinal. You and the church WILL accept it. Madam Cyrilo, I shall appoint scholars to go over your prepared books. Once I am sure that they contain no hidden messages or dangerous spells, you may distribute them however you like, provided you include religious texts.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty. Your unbiased wisdom is a breath of fresh air.”

“Then this matter is hereby settled. I will accept no more complaints on this topic. You are all dismissed.”

Cyrilo was quick to lead her three underlings out of the palace, and only when they stepped out into the street did they release their held breaths.

“Oh my God, I came so close to shitting my pants there,” said Daniel.

“That was impressive,” said Alexis.

“So does this mean the church will leave us alone?” Sophia asked.

“Perhaps. They’ve marked us as their enemy, but since we’ve removed a key piece from their side of the board, that may dissuade them from further action. Now that they can’t rely on the king to subdue us, we just have to hope that they’ll lose interest and accept the merits of working with us.”

Later that night, the Knight’s Sheath was experiencing its evening excitement. Customers had flooded in to indulge in hedonism, and as usual, Alexis had her hands full serving drinks and dealing with rowdy customers. As she carried an empty tray back to the bar counter, she spotted Sophia coming down the stairs, trembling and looking gaunt. Assuming the worst, Alexis rushed over.

“Sophia, what’s wrong?”

“I was just upstairs, tending to an injury,” she said with her face pale.

“Oh God… Whoever hurt the girls, I’ll yank out his spine and whip him with it!”

“No, no, it’s the opposite. One of the customers was wounded.”

“What happened? Did Bella have another episode?”

“It was Yolanda. Everything was going fine, but apparently, when she got on top, she dropped down the wrong way, and… his thing… snapped.”

Alexis recoiled in horror. “It can do that?”

“Apparently it can! I mean, it’s not like it broke off, but something gave. I was able to heal the uh… extremity, but honestly, I could only do it while he had a blanket over his lap. Understandably, he’s not too happy. I’m going to ask Cyrilo what we should do. Should we give him a drink voucher?”

“Yeah, you should definitely talk to….” Alexis stopped as she looked to the hallway leading to Cyrilo’s study, where she just saw a man she didn’t recognize turn the corner and disappear. “Stay here.” She went after the man, turning the corner into the hallway. “You, there! Stop!” The man turned and glared at her. He was taller than her, fairly older, and the way he carried himself gave her a bad feeling. “Customers aren’t allowed back here.”

“Where is Cyrilo? I need to speak with her.”

“Give me your name and wait back in the parlor. I’ll let her know she has a visitor.”

The man ignored her and turned away, heading closer toward Cyrilo’s study.

“Hey! Get back here!”

Alexis rushed over and grabbed his shoulder, then jumped back when he spun around with a knife in his hand.

“Stay out of my way, bitch,” he growled.

“You think you’re the first guy to come here and pull a knife on me?” Alexis challenged.

The man lunged, aiming for her throat. She dodged the stab and tried to kick the back of his knee, but he shifted his footing and went for a slash. She ducked down to avoid it and rolled across the floor, getting behind him and blocking off the path to Cyrilo’s study. He spun around, and she kicked him in the chest, but he maintained his posture and came at her with a flurry of attacks.

She avoided and redirected each strike away from her body, the two fighters moving with lightning-fast reflexes. He was skilled, but what scared Alexis was the droplets she felt splash her cheek when she dodged a stab. There was some kind of liquid on the blade of his knife.

‘A poisoned blade? This man isn’t a warrior or adventurer with a grudge; he’s an assassin!’

Although Alexis avoided getting cut by a narrow margin, she managed to land two punches and a kick, sending him staggering back just long enough for her to rip a candleholder off the wall. She threw the candle, and he avoided the molten wax, then closed in for another stab. However, she blocked his attack with the metal holder, used like a parrying dagger.

The man cursed and tried another barrage of strikes, but now, Alexis could defend against every attempt, and each failed attack was met with a counter, be it a painful punch or a rib-cracking kick. Ever since she was a child, Alexis had trained with obsessive dedication, and after her time at the knight academy, even a skilled assassin couldn’t leave a mark in an exchange of blades.

The man wasn’t blind to the situation, and though it would anger his superior and bruise his ego, he realized this was a battle he couldn’t win. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a glass bottle full of nails, and pointed the bottom at her. “Gale Burst!”

Alexis instinctively shielded her face and vital areas, saving her life as a flameless explosion surged within the bottle, shattering it and sending a wall of shrapnel flying at her like a blunderbuss. The enchanted air knocked Alexis off her feet, while nails and broken glass splattered her blood on the walls, floor, and ceiling. Given this opening, the man turned and ran, rushing right past Sophia and into the parlor.

He stopped and turned to her. “You! The assistant!”

He lunged towards Sophia, but Alexis, shredded from head to toe, tackled him and knocked him to the floor. He elbowed her in the face to free himself and scrambled back to his feet, but she wasn’t going to quit. She had lost a decent amount of blood and was compensating with pure fury. She stood up, dodging several more slashes with the whole Knight’s Sheath watching in stunned silence. Unfortunately, she lost the candleholder and was once more unarmed.

“Alexis!” Sophia cried out, seeing her dripping blood.

Instead of replying, Alexis reached out and stole the belt from Sophia’s dress. She swung it at the man, striking his arm as he lunged and throwing off his attacks. She then grabbed the belt with both hands and went for the throat. He raised his knife to his neck and cut through the belt before it could close around him. Alexis reformed her hold and went at it again, wrapping the belt around his wrist.

She got behind him, kicking the back of his knee and knocking him to the floor. Then, while wrapping her legs around his other arm, she grabbed his bound wrist with one hand and held both ends of the belt behind his head with the other, now pulling the knife towards the man’s throat. It became a competition of strength, the man’s one arm against Alexis’s two, and it was a losing battle.

“Who sent you?! Give me a name!” she demanded as the blade inched ever closer.

“Never!” he growled, resisting with desperate strength. He tried wrenching his other arm free and flailing his legs, but Alexis wasn’t giving in.

“Tell me who it was or I’ll kill you here and now!”

Then, to Alexis’s shock, rather than resisting her, he plunged the dagger into his neck, driving it ever deeper until he succeeded in severing his spinal column. A simple throat-slitting could have been healed, but with this, his secrets died with him. The whole Knight’s Sheath was left in shock as the assassin’s blood pooled on the floor.

Following the failed assassination attempt, the local knight, Lady Frigga, arrived with a group of soldiers and found there was nothing left to do but ask questions and take the body. While Cyrilo spoke to the knight, Sophia was busy tending to Alexis.

“How do you feel?” Sophia asked, removing shrapnel and closing one wound after another.

“I’ll live,” Alexis mumbled, not making eye contact.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” she replied, still despondent.

Cyrilo walked over, having regressed to an attractive woman in her thirties. “Are you two ok?”

“We’re fine, don’t worry,” said Alexis.

“You’ve done truly spectacular work tonight, Alexis. Making you my bodyguard has been the best decision I ever made. I owe you a debt of gratitude.”

“Thanks,” Alexis said softly.

Frigga then approached. “He wasn’t carrying anything aside from the poisoned knife and what we suspect to be the antidote. We’ll check to see if he has any identifying marks, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up. You must have seriously angered someone.” She then turned to Alexis and smiled. “But from what I heard, you were incredible. People have been talking about a girl here that beats up any customers who step out of line. You even have a couple nicknames floating around. Have you given any thought to joining the knighthood?”

Alexis sighed. “I’ve toyed with the idea.”

“I’ll come back to deliver any good news. All of you, stay safe.” She then turned to Cyrilo and nodded. “Madam.” She did the same to Alexis. “Mistress.”

Things were quiet for a while. Cyrilo’s publishing was still on hold as details with the king were hammered out, but Alexis received new levels of respect for her vanquishing of the assassin, from the girls, the customers, and even the neighbors. But several days after the attack, the last man she wanted to see entered the Knight’s Sheath.

“Father,” she stammered, dropping the glass she was holding. She had his sharp eyes, but not his hair, and as he approached, Alexis noticed the gauntness of stress. “What are you doing here?”

“Your uncle and I received letters that our daughters were working in a brothel, but even after everything you’ve done, I had to see it to believe it. You’ve always been rebellious, but now you’ve brought shame to yourself, me, and our entire family. Are you happy?”

“I haven’t committed any sin or crime, I swear, and neither has Sophia.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying! I help run the counter, and Sophia is the owner’s magic assistant and the resident healer. We only agreed to work here because it got us out of the dungeon, and were assured we’d never have to do anything improper.”

“And yet you’re here because you befriended the most-wanted man in the country. Sophia’s parents were shaken enough by the dueling scandal, but this.…”

“Our knighthood status was revoked because of him, and we will be listed as traitors if we leave the city. Madam Cyrilo offered us shelter and work until Noah is caught and our innocence is proven.”

“Lord Boris,” Sophia said, approaching the counter with trembling steps. Alexis’s father only gave her a look of disgust.

“Sophia, so this is what you’ve become. You were a member of the church, a healer, a beacon of hope for the branch family, but then we heard about your affair, and your engagement was dissolved.”

“Galvin was the one who wagered her! The fault lies with him!”

“What’s going on here?”

All eyes turned to Cyrilo, entering the fray.

“It’s none of your concern,” Boris growled.

“I am the proprietress of this establishment, and you’re airing your dirty laundry in my parlor. If the three of you need to have a family conversation, you may use my study or another room to speak privately, but I would prefer you not cause a scene in front of my customers.”

“No need, I’ll be brief. Your father didn’t have the heart to come here himself, Sophia, but he asked me, if I saw you here and the rumors were true, to tell you you’re no longer his daughter. You both have brought shame on our family and are henceforth banished. Don’t ever show your faces in my territory again.” He turned around and walked away, leaving Alexis and Sophia stunned.

Fury shook Alexis out of her stupor and she jumped over the counter and chased her father into the street. “Fine! Go celebrate your wish being granted! You’re finally rid of me!”

Boris turned to her. “You think this is easy for me? You think I want this? You think your mother and the rest of the family want this?”

“After years of trying to sell me off to one noble after another, I think you finally have an excuse to cut your losses.”

“I did that for you! You are a Veres! As a duke, as a father, how could I let you waste your life wallowing in mud and gore? I wanted you to live a proper life, to be taken care of.”

“And trying to marry me off to Galvin, you thought I’d be taken care of?!”

“He’s a prince!”

“He’s a monster!”

They glared at each other, with onlookers in the street drawn to their shouting.

“Your mother and I tried to raise you as a noblewoman, but you fought us every step of the way.”

“You raised me to be a trophy, a shiny prize for my future husband to put on his mantle while I pushed out babies. I was raised to be sold off like a slave.”

Boris paused. “If that’s what you think, then I am a failure as a father.”

“You’re right; you are a failure. I realized that a long time ago. But Sophia and I aren’t.” Alexis stormed back into the Knight’s Sheath and slammed the door behind her.

After being disowned, Alexis and Sophia did their best to fight against the curse of despair. Deep down, they knew it would happen eventually; they knew it long before they came to the Knight’s Sheath. They predicted and prepared for banishment, but the fact that it wasn’t from their illicit relationship left them both a mix of relieved and bitter. It made the pain sharper, though neither knew why. On the plus side, everyone at the Knight’s Sheath was supportive and understanding. All the girls, from the laundry and cleaning staff to the courtesans, had been orphaned somehow.

Alexis dealt with the pain as one might expect. She continued punishing troublemakers, now using them as punching bags to vent her anger on. When things were quiet, she’d scan the bar like a predator looking for movement in the grass, impatiently searching for someone to give her an excuse. Lucius frequently had to reel her in so she wouldn’t attack customers who talked too loudly.

However, after banning the repeat offenders and beating the assassin, most customers were very well behaved, much more so than when she first arrived. Whenever she’d walk by a table, every man sitting would lower his head like a submissive dog. All she needed was a riding crop, and they’d roll on their backs and show her their bellies.

Juxtaposed with Alexis’s violent therapy, Sophia focused on the illuminated manu*********** with Cyrilo. Though her training at the church had included copying holy texts, she and the other healers never trained to create something so artistic. Still, she’d seen and read enough of them to be familiar with their styles and helped Cyrilo plan out every page, from the placement of art and diagrams to the word count.

First, she had to compile the notes she and Cyrilo had taken and was astounded by the amount of knowledge of sensuality Noah left behind, dwarfing his on-stage lecture. Foreplay, sex moves, bedroom tricks, fetishes, preferences, healthy means of exploration, and even some relationship advice poured into her brain like a tea kettle and left her steaming with arousal, guilt, and excitement. She didn’t know what ‘Kama Sutra’ meant, but each sketched position made her heart skip a beat.

While serving as a perfect distraction, it left her curiosity and lust frantically clawing at the walls of her skull, trying to get out. It was hard to focus when her inner thighs were slick with arousal. There were so many things she wanted to try with Noah, but each sinful desire threatened her relationship with Alexis. To shake herself free of these desires, she pictured Noah reciting the information to Cyrilo, speaking with a completely deadpan expression. It always made her laugh and helped clear her mind.

The Knight’s Sheath was thriving, but the atmosphere around Alexis and Sophia remained heavy, so Cyrilo invited them on an outing to give them some fresh air. The three women set out into the sunny streets early in the morning, though technically, it was two women and a cat. Mornings were difficult for Cyrilo due to her aging curse, so she planned to remain in her feline form whenever possible.

“Ah, isn’t it a lovely morning? Just feel that sun.”

She was sitting on Sophia’s lap as the three rode through the streets on the back of a wagon. Colbrand was full of horse-drawn carts and carriages to taxi people around the city, and several others had managed to take a seat on the benches lining the cart.

“It feels like it’s going to be a hot day,” said Sophia with her feet hanging over the street, same with all the other passengers.

“Let’s try to get this done quickly and be back at the Knight’s Sheath by lunch,” said Cyrilo. “I sense a nap in a sunbeam in my future.”

“What’s the plan for today?” asked Alexis.

“Some of my favorite merchants are selling essential ingredients, so I need to get them while I can.”

“Oh, are the livermot seeds in?” Sophia asked.

“That’s right.”

“Livermot seeds?”

“I’m sure Sophia has told you about the potion-brewing we do. It takes a lot of work to keep my girls disease-free, and the ingredients aren’t always cheap and available. Customers won’t want to screw if they suffer from ‘fire stream.’”

Alexis turned to Sophia. “Should I ask?”

“It was mentioned in the booklet!”

“Oh right, I think I avoided that page. Speaking of which….” Alexis looked back into the wagon, where riders put their luggage and possessions. Among the bags were several stacks of Sophia’s booklets. “So, what are we doing with these?”

“Spreading the good word,” said Cyrilo.

They reached the market and disembarked from the wagon. While Sophia carried Cyrilo, Alexis pulled a small cart filled with booklets like a rolling suitcase. On this beautiful day, the market was a bustling hive of activity, with goods from various territories and other countries flooding the streets. Food, clothing, weapons, monster pieces, spices, jewelry, magic crafting materials, and so on; everything one could need was available for a price, and coins changed hands too fast to be tracked.

“Hey, eyes on the prize,” said Cyrilo as Sophia began to amble towards a clothing stall selling garments from across the sea.

“Oh, sorry,” Sophia replied while unknowingly wandering toward a food stall.

“Sophia!”

“Sorry!” Every time Cyrilo tried to steer Sophia back onto the path, something would draw her attention, be it shiny, soft, or fragrant.

“Look, if you really want to shop so badly, you can come here on your own time, but if Sahom is out of hulen dust because your love of knick-knacks slowed us down, expect to find hairballs on your pillow for the rest of the month! Alexis, talk to her, would you?”

No reply.

“Alexis?” Sophia asked, turning around. She spotted Alexis down the street, seemingly staring into space.

“The two of you, I swear to the gods,” Cyrilo grumbled as she hopped down from Sophia’s embrace and scurried over to Alexis. “Whatever it is you want to buy, you can buy it later.”

Alexis didn’t respond, so Cyrilo took her human form and followed Alexis’s eyes. She was watching a slave auction taking place. Men, women, and children, most of them from Handent, were being sold before a large crowd. Standing atop a stage, it was clear that hope had left them, but they still trembled in fear, as if the chains on their limbs and necks had sucked the warmth from their bodies like ice.

“Growing up, everyone who worked for my family always seemed so friendly,” said Alexis. “I thought it was because they respected my father, that he had given them jobs and was helping them. My parents would tell me that they happily came to work for our family, but still, I was to avoid them, not to talk to them, unlike the butlers and maids in the house.

Of course, I didn’t listen, and I’d sneak out to the fields, looking for friendship. They were so kind to me; I thought they were loyal, beloved servants. It wasn’t until later that I realized they were terrified of me, afraid of punishment for being rude to the duke’s daughter.

I was just a naïve child when a fresh batch of slaves was brought to our home to work the fields, tend to livestock, and perform every other chore. When they arrived, they looked so miserable and sick, I thought we were helping them, sheltering them from evil people, but I was so wrong. We were the evil people. My family tried to keep me isolated from them, but I had become adept at creeping around.”

Alexis paused as a young boy on stage began to cry. He could barely stand, looking so small wearing those shackles. Unfortunately, his bawling interrupted the auction, so he was pulled off the stage by slave traders and savagely beaten until he learned to be silent. As Alexis watched, blood began to trickle from her clenched fists.

“It was just like that. Like all slaves, they had to be broken down to replace any thoughts of resistance or hope with fear. In a barn I was never supposed to enter, I saw the new arrivals get beaten, whipped, branded, and tortured by men I had grown up seeing, who I thought were my father’s friends, but who later realized were the overseers. Among the slaves was a woman and her daughter, and the sick things those men did to them….” She once more paused, with a lone tear falling down her cheek.

“I tried to tell my father what I saw, thinking he would put a stop to it, thinking he would do the right thing. But, instead, all it earned me was a smack across the face for sticking my nose where it didn’t belong. On that day, I learned how horrible the world is and realized I had to fight.

That evening, I snuck out of the house with a ring of keys and tried to free everyone I could to undo my father’s evil. What I once thought were the homes of my friends, I realized were slave quarters, and with every locked door I opened and every shackle I released, I wondered how many people had been trapped against their will while I frolicked in my family’s mansion.

Try as I might to go unnoticed, the overseers soon found out what was happening. I remember seeing slaves running into the fields, trying to get away, and being chased down by men on horseback. I found the girl from earlier and managed to get her out. We were running in darkness, unsure of where we were even going, hearing dogs and seeing torches behind us. A bola brought me to the ground, and I told her to go on without me. The overseers caught me and set the dogs loose on her. I still remember the sounds of them mauling her to death. I never even knew her name.

I was brought back home, and to this day, I have never seen my father so angry. “A small fortune!” he kept screaming. Between the slaves who escaped and those who were incidentally killed, I had cost him a small fortune. That’s all he cared about, and I never looked at him the same way again. Since then, I’ve trained to become strong enough to free the enslaved and the oppressed.

I wanted the power to shape my destiny and give others the power to do the same. I joined the knighthood to change the system and lead others in the right direction. Now here I am, all these years later, and what do I have to show for it? I should be stopping this, but I’m still just standing by, watching slaves get beaten.”

“There is no easy answer to your question, certainly no answer that’ll satisfy you. Though I admire your will to fight, this, right here, is just a battle you can’t win. If you were to cause a fuss now, what would happen? People would get caught in the middle, someone would hurt or even killed, you’d just get arrested, same with Sophia, and the two of you would probably be executed.

What would you have to show for your efforts then? And even if you were a knight, you’d still have to endure indignation and follow orders you don’t believe. You can’t change everything at once, no matter how angry or right you may be. No amount of righteous momentum can withstand the dampening of time.

Drastic action and civil disobedience are great for shaking things up and getting people talking, but it rarely evokes real change. The people who make things better on a large scale aren’t the ones who don’t tolerate evil and fight it at every opportunity. It’s the people who put up with it, waiting patiently while they gather the strength they need to fight the crucial battles; they are the ones who can make real change.

So often, the only way to fight evil is first to shake its hand and find a compromise with it, and you have to swallow your ideals long before you can ever fulfill them.”

Alexis gave a shuddering breath, trying to keep her anger contained. “How is that any way to live?”

“It’s the only way to live because the alternative is dying young, and I know you don’t want that.”

“When I met Noah, we killed an ogre pack together and freed a shipment of slaves, and now it feels like that was the highest accomplishment of my life, and now it’s just all gone downhill.”

“Come on; your time will come. There will always be people for you to save.”

It took all of Alexis’s willpower, but she followed Cyrilo back to Sophia, who gave her the warmest hug she could. After enjoying some street food to clear their minds, they resumed their shopping trip. Cyrilo led Alexis and Sophia to one merchant after another, buying up ingredients of every variety. The cart Alexis pulled would have overflowed if not for Cyrilo giving out booklets to whoever she could.

“Sell these on your travels,” she’d say to them. “Spread this knowledge as far as you can.” As expected, most merchants were hesitant to carry something so controversial, but those who were friends with Cyrilo were too intrigued to pass up the opportunity.

The shopping and distribution were going swimmingly, but something kept Alexis from enjoying herself. “Madam Cyrilo, I think we’re being followed.”

“Are you sure it’s not just another pickpocket?” Sophia asked. As expected, thieves infested the crowded market, but anyone who reached for Sophia got folded like a pretzel by Alexis.

“No, they’ve kept a consistent distance from us. See that bird overhead? I’m going to turn and point at it. Pretend to look where I’m pointing, but look down to the right. Don’t let him see you looking.” She then turned and raised her arm. “Do you see him? Tall guy with the eyepatch?”

“Yeah, I see him,” said Sophia, pretending she was looking at the sky.

“Well then, how about we take a break? I could go for a cup of tea,” Cyrilo suggested.

“But what about him?”

“Let’s see what happens. If his intentions are violent, he won’t be able to act out in the open. On the other hand, if he wants to talk, this is an opportunity to reveal himself.”

“And what if things go wrong?” asked Alexis.

“That’s why I have you as my bodyguard.”

Alexis instinctively gripped the short sword hanging from her slender waist.

They stopped at a nearby tea house and sat outside, savoring the delicious brew. Though they were on alert for their apparent stalker, Alexis and Sophia were glad to get off their feet. They took their time, waiting for something to change, but their pursuer maintained his distance.

“Hmmm, it’s good, but clearly a Covington rip-off. Any movement?” Cyrilo asked.

“None, and I’m being as discreet as I can. If I keep looking over, he’ll realize we’re aware.”

“Very well then. Let’s hop on the next transport.”

It wasn’t long before another passenger wagon rolled by, and they were quick to take the last three remaining seats, though Alexis once more had to suffer the displeasure of heaving Cyrilo’s cart into the wagon. As the taxi continued on its route, they kept looking for pursuers, but whoever was behind them seemed to give up. Then, after a while, Cyrilo suddenly told them to disembark in front of a tavern.

“Wonderful, just where I was heading.”

“What is this place?” Sophia asked.

“My competition,” Cyrilo answered before leading them inside.

Unlike the Knight’s Sheath with its large windows and chandeliers, most of the dim tavern’s light came from some spread-out candles. The furniture was cheap and shoddy, but it got the job done, and old weapons, trinkets, and hunting trophies decorated the walls. In the corner, a man played the flute for the patrons, but he was certainly no Bard of Rock.

Overall, it was a comfortable establishment, and a thousand identical taverns were scattered throughout the country. There were indeed plenty of women, and seeing their outfits and how they flirted with the men, it dawned on Alexis and Sophia.

“Ah,” they both said.

“Cyrilo, what brings a dusty relic like you to my place?” the barkeeper asked with a laugh. He was a large man, mainly in the gut and beard, but he had a friendly aura.

Cyrilo smiled and approached the bar. “I tried watering down my booze as you do, but it just didn’t have that Jurt-style taste, so I thought I’d come down here and ask how you do it so well.”

“Oh, that’s an old family recipe. Of course, I couldn’t tell just anyone, but you? The secret ingredient is a cup of love.”

“Alexis, Sophia, meet Jurt, a fellow brothel owner.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” they both said with a bow.

“Oh, Cyrilo, it’s unfair for you to horde both of these beauties. Any chance you might leave one of them with me?”

Alexis and Sophia exchanged glances.

“Sorry, but these two are specifically hands-off. However, I do have something else I can give you. Alexis?”

Alexis pulled a stack of booklets out of the cart and set it on the counter.

“I’ve heard of these,” Jurt said as he looked through one. “Didn’t you have a guy do some kind of lesson on this stuff at your old place?”

“This is based on his teachings. You can thank Sophia for assembling it with such fine calligraphy.”

“I also heard you’re in a bit of hot water because of these.”

“At most, it’s a pleasant bath. Anyway, I’m stopping by every whorehouse, bordello, and pleasure palace and handing them out.”

“High-quality work like this doesn’t come cheap. How much?”

“Well, you did give me that secret ingredient, so let’s consider it an even trade.”

“No, no, no, these gotta be worth something. What’s the catch? How much trouble am I going to get in for having these?”

“More than you’d like, but less than you’d think. Listen, this is all vital information that you, your girls, and your customers need. I’m doing this as a matter of public awareness.”

“I’m not sure. I don’t have the same protection as you do. The last thing I need is people coming after me for selling these things.”

“Just keep the stack and read one of them from cover-to-cover, then decide what you want to do with them. And if you’re interested, I’ll have something even better to show you later.”

“Fine, fine, I might as well see what all the fuss is about.”

The three women then left and stepped back out into the street.

“So, are you friends with every brothel-owner in town?” Alexis asked.

“Not all of them, but we do have a mostly-amicable relationship. As dogmatic as the church may be, there is no shortage of horny drinkers in this city, so Jurt and I aren’t exactly stealing the food off each other’s plates. Plus, my female customers continue to grow thanks to Daniel’s music and those toys Noah invented. Though technically he is a competition, there are more than enough customers to go around. Anyway, on to the next place.”

They resumed their travel, but the day was getting hot, and they were moving from shade to shade to avoid the sun. Eventually, they arrived at the second brothel, and when they stepped inside, Alexis and Sophia were momentarily stunned by the smell. It wasn’t the nasty odor of filth and unwashed bodies, but rather the vaporous mixture of smoke, perfume, and spices.

In this brothel, the only furniture was short tables and a bar counter, with all the patrons relaxing on pillows and rugs. They were smoking gonlief, eating exotic food on skewers, and drinking while the working girls belly-danced for their amusement.

“What kind of place is this?” Alexis asked.

“The owner is Ezerian, and he’s less friendly than Jurt,” said Cyrilo. She then spoke to a woman operating the counter and sent her off.

“You would look amazing in that outfit,” said Sophia, pointing to one of the dancers.

“Eh, not my style,” said Alexis with a shrug.

A man appeared, his every movement exaggerated and his clothes reeking of more perfume than all the dancers put together. He wore a tight scowl and crossed his arms, showing the rings on his fingers. “Hello, Cyrilo. I haven’t seen you since you head-hunted my best dancer. So what’s next? You want to steal the floorboards and leave my customers standing in the dirt?”

“I didn’t steal her, Maram. You drove her off. I warned you that your girls would look for work elsewhere if you didn’t properly care of them. But that’s not why I’m here today. I have something to give you.”

The conversation was then interrupted as a man charged into the brothel, wearing robes that hid his face and holding a sword. “Death to all the beasts and heretics! Fireball!”

Spheres of burning mana began to shoot from his hand. The first barrage scattered flames across the floor, blocking off the exit, and the next hit the walls. One fireball, aimed for Cyrilo, instead hit Maram, wreathing him in flames and sending him running away and screaming in agony.

“Burn for your sins!” the man screamed.

Patrons and pros panicked as the flames spread, and Alexis pulled Sophia and Cyrilo behind the bar counter. Unfortunately, she had only bought them a few moments, as the fire had taken over the tavern. A man tried to smash open one of the few windows, and as soon as the glass broke, a rush of air filled the room and pumped up the flames like a pair of bellows. The fire reached greedily for the open window, hogging the fresh air for itself with no one able to get out. It only took seconds for screams of terror to become screams of pain as the flames started claiming victims.

“Alexis, I can clear a path for you to reach him, but you have to finish the job, understand?”

Alexis drew her short sword. “I’m ready.”

“Alexis, be careful!” Sophia implored.

She crouched down, ready to spring, and Cyrilo whipped out a grimoire and raised her hand. “Flood Deluge!”

An eruption of water surged from her palm, spraying in all directions and extinguishing the fires. Hidden by smoke and steam, Alexis sprinted from behind the counter and charged toward the assailant. Though the man put up a decent fight with his sword, his training was inferior to the student of Valia Zodiac, and he could only try to buy time before her blade pierced his heart. With the assailant soon dead and the fires extinguished, it was Sophia’s turn to act, and she hurriedly began tending to the wounded.

“I think it’s safe to assume this man is our tail?” Cyrilo asked as she approached Alexis, coughing up a lung from all the smoke she’d inhaled. Once she’d caught her breath, she turned to her slain opponent and revealed his face.

“No,” Alexis said, shocked, “it’s someone else.”

That next moment, several more men rushed into the charred brothel, all armed and disguised like the first, and it was clear their intentions were the same. Alexis grabbed her sword and began trying to fend off the attackers. “Madam Cyrilo, stay with Sophia!”

Two men ganged up on Alexis, alternating their swings with no gaps between attacks. She blocked as best as possible, but they were only distractions while the others fanned out to get past her. She abandoned the two foes and jumped back, lunging for a man trying to sneak behind her. He blocked her attack with a parrying dagger, but could not defend a kick that caught him in the jaw.

Alexis narrowly dodged a swing aimed at her neck and unleashed a flurry of slashes at the perpetrator. He was skilled in his defenses, carefully guarding his vital areas, so she focused on speed and aimed for his limbs to slow him down. Inner thigh, back of the knee, wrist, back of the hand, she cut him down piece by piece, sending his blood raining onto the floor. Finally, she finished him off in the same style as his, cutting his throat.

Nearby, Cyrilo was firing small elemental blasts from her grimoire, but everything she used simply splashed off their enchanted robes. Alexis stood before her, not letting any of the attackers get close. Though she wielded a short sword, it carved through flesh and slipped between ribs effortlessly. With each passing second, her speed, strength, and precision improved, becoming deadlier and deadlier after every kill.

While Alexis and Cyrilo were busy fighting, one of the men snuck by and grabbed Sophia from behind. Fear gripped her for but a moment, but memories from her academy training came rushing back. Healers were taught self-defense at the academy, but inflicting harm to others was thought to weaken the purity of their magic, so most of their combat training focused on escaping holds and redirecting enemy strength.

Her arms were free, so she struck him in the groin, and as he doubled over, she grabbed the back of his head and dropped her weight. Thrown off balance, it took little force for her to pull him over her shoulder and slam him hard on his back. It would have been a perfect moment of triumph, but she ended up getting flipped over with him, rather ungracefully throwing herself to the floor. Practicing this move during lessons and performing it in a real battle were very different things.

She sat up, momentarily dazed, unaware of the man getting up beside her. He tried to grab her once more, but Alexis’s sword ended his life. He was the last assailant, with the rest bleeding out onto the floor. Alexis crouched down, worriedly checking Sophia for injuries. “Are you ok?” she asked, her voice filled with fear.

“Don’t worry, I’m fine. For my first real battle, that wasn’t so bad,” Sophia replied with a small laugh.

She stopped laughing when Alexis hugged her. “Now I know how you felt watching me do stupid stuff all these years.”

“Yeah, it’s stressful, isn’t it? But, hold on, I still need to heal the others.”

“Madam Cyrilo, who were these guys?”

“People angry with our work. You heard what the first man said about beasts and heretics? I’ve gotten a lot of grief from the church because many of my girls use shamanism to entice customers.”

“You mean the church sent them? No, that’s impossible!” Sophia exclaimed.

Alexis strode over to an unconscious assailant and grabbed him by the collar. “Wake up! Tell me who put you up to this!” She repeated the demand while shaking him, finally drawing an answer.

“The gods sent us, and they will rain judgment upon you for your sins.” Before he could say anything more, foam began to pour from his mouth.

“Poison!” Alexis hissed as she dropped him to the floor, watching the man spasm violently until finally becoming still. “I bet the church also sent that last assassin.”

“What do we do now?” Sophia asked.

“Now we need to make sure the knights know about this.” Cyrilo pointed to a working girl, the first one Sophia finished healing. “You, go out and find a knight. Tell them what just happened.”

Though shocked and traumatized, she nodded her head and shakily got to her feet, running out of the building. It wasn’t long before she came back, and with a familiar face.

“Well, this is… I don’t even know where to begin with this shit,” Sir Edward Holmes said, rubbing his forehead like he was trying to wipe off a written profanity. Between the numerous charred and bleeding corpses and the blackened brothel, this went way above a simple mess. “How did this all happen?”

“We were out running errands in the market, and Alexis sensed someone following us. We lost him, or at least we thought we did.” Cyrilo pointed to a slain assailant wearing an eyepatch. “When we stopped by for a visit, one of them burst in and lit the whole place on fire. As soon as we dispatched him and put the flames out, his friends decided to pick up the fight. The first to die and the last were both spouting their religious dogma.”

“Do you have any idea why these people would have a problem with you?”

Cyrilo handed him a booklet. Though her wooden cart was burned on the outside, its cargo was undamaged by the flames. Holmes flipped through the booklet, muttering curses to himself.

“Madam Cyrilo, I really don’t think you should be handing these out. This is just obscene.”

“It’s no more sinful than our bodies themselves. Besides, nothing warrants this kind of violence against us. This is the second time someone has made an attempt on my life since I started making this.”

“Well, unfortunately, it’s not just against you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You haven’t heard? That’s rare. Starting with your old place, this is the fourth case of arson against brothels in Colbrand. The second was some seedy dump out by the slums, and just yesterday, someone threw a flaming bottle through the window of Flannery’s bar.”

“But Prince Galvin was the one who burned down my place.”

“Doesn’t matter. Apparently, someone has been riled up, and they’re trying to keep the momentum going, and from the looks of it, these booklets of yours are the perfect fuel for the fire. Look, I don’t know what you’re trying to do with these, but whatever your goal is, look around. Is it worth the cost?”

“We aren’t the ones you should be asking that,” Sophia said bitterly, in the process of healing a man charred to the bone. “The people trying to stop us decided it’s worth the cost. Why should we be condemned because they are willing to murder innocents to get what they want?”

“Edward, don’t let this get swept under the rug,” said Cyrilo. “Someone of influence is clearly behind this violence, and they’re likely in the church or associated with it.”

“If they’re in the church, this is already under the rug. The politics in Colbrand between the king, nobles, and church have become a hurricane these past couple of years. This? This is a message in a bottle getting tossed around, and the message just says ‘FUCKED.’ Anyway, I’ll arrange for a carriage to bring you back to the Knight’s Sheath. There may be more of these guys lurking about, so I can have someone escort you if you’d like, but something tells me you’ll be fine.”

The carriage ride back to the Knight’s Sheath was tense. Alexis and Sophia sat together, watching Cyrilo chew on her thumbnail and glare out the window.

“I’m sorry about Maram,” said Sophia.

Cyrilo gave a bitter chuckle. “He was always so tightly-wound, but like me, he took real pride in his work. I remember he once said that whatever you do, you should make it an art. I admired that about him. His brothel was more than simply a way to make money; it was a way to be creative. The girls, the decorations, and the food were all to create his masterpiece.

Unfortunately, his perfectionism made him a pain to work for. The dancer he mentioned told me he would pinch the girls whenever they got out of line, no matter how minor the infraction was. If he didn’t like a girl’s posture, thought they were moving too slow, weren’t showing the right energy, he’d sneak up on them from behind and grab the back of their arm like a crab claw.”

She gave a mournful sigh and looked back out the window.

“What’s going to happen now?” Alexis asked.

“It’s a bit complicated. This was more than just an attempt on our lives. If they had tried this at the Knight’s Sheath, that would be one thing, but this was an attack on the entire industry. And to think, in broad daylight too. Bastards.”

“Well, whoever is behind this, if they want a fight, we’ll stand by your side,” said Sophia.

She then looked to Alexis, expecting her to add something, but her excitement waned as she saw her despondently staring out the window. It was just like after she killed the lone assassin earlier. The two barely talked for the rest of the day, even after Marcus Berholm stopped by the Knight’s Sheath to ask questions. It was when they were finally alone in their room that Sophia spoke.

“I never expected you, of all people, to lose your nerve.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Alexis, sitting on the bed and looking away. “I didn’t say anything.”

“That’s my point. Normally, you’ll jump into any fight with a knife between your teeth, even if it has nothing to do with you. After we were attacked, I wholly expected to be talking you down as you geared up to go to war.”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Well, I do. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Alexis sighed. “I don’t want to put you in danger.”

“Put me in danger? I’ve gone with you while you hunted monsters twice your size!”

“These aren’t just mindless beasts. When I saw that man grab you, all I could think of was he and his friends dragging you to some dungeon and doing the most horrific, sickening things to you. I just got you back from Galvin and I won’t let you get taken away again.”

“Alexis, I’m with you to the end, you know that. But what happens if we regain our knighthood positions and are sent into battle? Are you going to run from every fight because you’re worried about me getting hurt?”

“Of course not! I want us to be knights together, side-by-side. Do you really think picking a fight with the church will get us there?”

“Since when do you care about that? I’ve seen you throw caution to the wind a thousand times before. Why are you suddenly so willing to give in and take the safe and easy route?”

“Because I want us to get out of here! I want us to get our knighthood rank back, leave this place, and get on with our lives, free of Noah’s influence!”

Sophia huffed in annoyance. “So that’s what this is about.”

“You tell me. Look me in the eyes and swear that this passion project of yours has nothing to do with your feelings for Noah. I know how much you treasure those notes. You’re clinging to them because you can’t stand to be without him.”

“I’m not doing this for Noah.”

“Then why are you doing this? You should be the least willing to cause trouble! I remember you telling me that you came to terms with your faith and love for me a long time ago, but you’ve always been loyal to the church. Why are you so eager to turn on them now?”

“Because you aren’t the only one who wants to change the world!” A moment of silence passed between them, the two staring at each other. “I want us to work and fight side-by-side, but on the battlefield, I’ll always be standing behind you, in your shadow. I’ve finally found a fight where I can strike a blow, where I can do damage, where I can be a hero instead of only playing the support role.

Don’t you understand? If Cyrilo and I can start copying and distributing printed knowledge on a large scale, this will revolutionize society. Think back to the academy library, and imagine a library like it in every town worldwide. Imagine a world where everyone is literate and educated. Think of all the suffering and injustice that can be ended with access to information. Knowledge is power, and we have the chance to give that power to the people who have none. How is that not a fight you want to be a part of?”

Sophia’s words left Alexis stunned, feeling like her brain had been churned like butter. She stood up and approached Sophia, looking deep into her eyes. “You’re right. You’re completely right. I’ve been so focused on how things went wrong that I’ve been blind to how to make them go right. I’ve been looking for a righteous fight all my life, and now I’m trying to run away when I finally find one. I’m ashamed. I’ve let my ego and insecurities get in the way of a noble path right in front of me. No more.

You’re right that this will help people, and I’m proud of you for finding a way to do it. This will be our fight, our passion, our calling, the way we change the world. If what you and Cyrilo are doing angers people in power, then it means you’re doing the right thing, and if they want a fight, I’ll give it to them. You keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll strike down anyone who gets in your way.”

“Alexis….”

“Sophia….”

They held each other, their hearts racing with the promise of what was to come.

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