The Duke’s galley is docked at the pier. It is a long ship with a wide open deck, providing archers with the room necessary to fire on other ships, beneath it is the rower’s deck, lastly is the cargo deck which consists of the space between the hull and upper decks.
I watch the avenue leading into the docks from inside the ship cabin’s window, expecting to see Celyz escort Leomi at any moment. I told my Lady that I wouldn’t wait, but for this to work I have to depart just at the right moment.
The crew wasn’t hard to put together at all, I only had to ask for many sailors to volunteer at the chance to leave the Izla. Most are in the rower’s deck, oars in hand and ready to go.
The other five sailors are in position around the mast with ropes in hand, ready to free the sail with a single pull. The captain is a tall bulky man with a deep red beard and curly hair, he is on the bridge with the steering wheel in hand.
There are forty workers on the upper deck, wielding atlatls. The weapon is a simple stick with a handle adapted to their three-fingered hands and a socket to fit the base of a spear-shaped projectile.
“This is kind of messed up.” The tall blond woman comments, hiding in a corner beside the cabin’s door.
She is wearing the clothes Leomi gave me as well as my mask. Her hairs are tightly bound in such a way that not even a yellow strand would be visible to anyone facing her. Lastly, just to be sure, she wraps a black scarf around her head to cover them.
“Don’t forget to bend your knees, you need to look taller than me but not that much.” I reply calmly.
“Would Lady Lance really get back at me, Elizabeth?” She asks.
“I think so, and so do you or you wouldn’t be here.” I grunt.
I shuffle uncomfortably inside the woman’s clothes, sad about the fact that I took a bath to get rid of my Lady’s scent before seeing Celyz. And it didn’t even help, the Princess still smelled my night with Leomi off of me. The Rykz’ lively demeanor turned sour, her tendrils grew lethargic, and she made a small whining sound.
Yet, Celyz still made sure that Fenyz wouldn’t be around and took care of all the details relating to my trip, she even promised to bring Leomi to the docks to help maintain my cover as Elizabeth. Although, some of her reasons for doing that might be selfish since the idea to create my alter-ego was hers.
I didn’t have it in me to ask Celyz to help me find a solution to conceal my left arm, or to remove it if possible. I have no doubt that she would take it as a personal rejection and I simply refuse to inflict that on her.
A sigh escapes me, I never thought I would feel bad about sleeping with my Lady Lance. Despite that, I remain excited about doing it again and finding out what those ‘immoral’ actions Leomi spoke of would entail.
I spot the two of them approaching on the avenue with a large escort of warriors. The Countess is going as fast as the Rykz allow, her expression urgent. I step away from the window before they can spot me without my mask and yell shortly to give the signal for departure.
The captain, outside on the bridge, immediately shouts his orders. The dock-workers on the pier remove the ropes keeping the ship bound. The sailors begin rowing, the hull groans a little because of the stress.
The galley quickly picks up in speed, making use of the receding high tide. I hear Leomi yelling from a long ways away, something like ‘You owe me!‘. I can’t help the smile the words bring to my lips.
Nor can I completely muzzle the unsettling voice telling me that while her infatuation with the idea she has of Jessica, is reassuring, she could very easily be disillusioned by the reality of who I am, and that’s without taking Elizabeth Vil into account.
“Don’t forget to only show the mask, just over my shoulder, and make sure you don’t seem too tall.” I tell the woman, gritting my teeth at having to insist that she doesn’t mess up Elizabeth’s short height. “I’m opening for a second and I won’t step out but it has to look like the reason is that I saw her, not that I’m hiding.”
“You’ve said all that a dozen times.” She complains.
“Then you won’t have a fucking excuse if you mess up.” I growl.
I move in front of her and set my hand on the door’s handle. I run my left hand over my bare face to chase my misgivings, the glove’s smooth leather still carries the odor of blood.
I make sure that my left side is hidden by the door-frame and open, directing my eyes towards Celyz before suddenly turning them towards Leomi. They’re far away but I can clearly see her expression brighten.
Her nascent grin fades almost instantly when her gaze catches the masked woman peeking over my shoulder. I immediately walk back, bumping into her as I slam the door closed.
“Jessica! No! Don’t go, it’s a trap!” Leomi yells at the top of her lungs.
A second later, I hear a scuffle and Rykz breathing cries. She no doubt tried to slip her escort, I trust Celyz to handle it as planned. Leomi’s warning does worry me, however, I’ll have to be even more careful and change where we disembark.
I grip the blond woman’s wrist and keep her in the cabin’s corner, away from the window. I only release her once the galley finishes veering away from the docks and navigates to open sea.
“We’re square now, right?” She asks.
“Take those clothes off and we are. Do not damage them.” I insist.
“I won’t, Elizabeth. Chill.” Idali says, taking the mask off with a cute pout.
She hands it over and I set it on the table next to the rest of my equipment. I start taking her brown shirt off but I catch the fact she stopped moving. Her hands are holding the collar of the blue tunic that my Lady gave me without even hiding the fact that she isn’t undressing because she wants to watch me.
“Idali.” I utter flatly.
She sighs and turns her back on me to undress. She throws the clothes over her shoulder once she’s done. I catch them before they hit the ground and lay them on a chair. I make sure that she isn’t looking before swiftly switching clothes.
I sit at the table while she gets dressed up and start checking my equipment, out of nervousness more than anything else since Yvonne assured me she took good care of it.
There doesn’t appear to be any damage to my hard leather armor, chain-mail, helmet, or hammer, I do a quick check with flow to see if someone anchored a construct to the material while it was out of my sight.
That would be a little paranoiac if not for the fact that, on the galley, there is a middle-aged woman with short black hair, the rugged face of a hardened sailor, and brown eyes.
A woman who had long curly black hair, a cute young round face, and bright blue eyes the day before. Aisha. I would never have recognized her under the illusion construct if not for the fact that my limb’s sense isn’t affected by the distortion of light.
The fact that she cut her hair likely means that while the illusion construct isn’t quite as limited as Madame Cecil told me it still has some. The young whore isn’t all she as innocuous as she presents herself, that’s for sure.
A trap possibly involving Exemplar Vikiana and a Shade making moves behind my back. Fuck me. I put my full attention my gear. I find a small, almost unnoticeable, construct hidden within my weapon’s hammerhead.
Unable to detect its color or intensity inside the Vuskyt, I can’t determine whether it is of Rykz or human origin. I forcefully link with it, breaking the hold of whoever put it there by overpowering their connection with my flow, which destabilizes the internal structure.
It costs me at least five times the amount of energy used to create the construct to quickly take over. I carefully inspect the segments, finding that their arrangement and shapes are similar to that of the signaling construct that Celyz taught me.
Yvonne is likely to be the one who put it there, but there’s only one way to be certain. I dismantle the basic segments that keep the construct tied to my hammer and pull it out as quickly as possible before it loses coherence. Luckily, I catch a glimpse of golden before the flow dissipates.
Did she put that there to keep an eye on me? Know where I am? Or possibly a defensive measure in case she ever needs to stop me. I won’t make the mistake of thinking that signaling type constructs cannot serve in battle after seeing what the Rykz did to the Duke with one of those.
I look up. Idali is slouched in a chair in front of me, observing my face with curiosity. I frown and give her my best glare. She raises her hands defensively but doesn’t stop staring.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Don’t think anyone would believe you’re the kind of girl who’d do all you’ve done.” Idali grins.
“You don’t really look like you’re the kind of woman who’d do what you’ve done either.” I utter coldly.
“Hey, all I did was offer you a drink!” Idali protests.
“Right.” I drawl. “Then why were so desperate to get out of Meria at the thought that Lance would look into you?”
“I open doors for people. Some of them were desperate enough to offer payment like you have, others preferred to spend a night rather than pay in silver.” Idali explains. “I’m not saying I’m innocent, but I haven’t forced anyone into anything.”
“You just prey on them when they’re most vulnerable.” I comment with disgust.
“I… I guess that’s fair.” Idali admits sadly. “I’ll own up to the fact that I’ve made questionable choices… All I can say for myself is that I got carried away wanting to make up for lost time when I made sergeant. Everyone around me kept telling me to marry and have kids, my parents especially insisting that it is a duty to them and to Rasaec.”
She almost spits the last word. I instinctively grip my left fist, making the leather crack. Idali doesn’t seem to notice my reaction, lost in somber memory.
“Do not disrespect Emperor Rasaec.” I tell her in a harsh tone. She slowly nods.
“Anyway, you probably know what it’s like to want women but to be unable to go out with one because people you depend on are pressuring you. Or simply because the one you really want to ask out isn’t interested or fears people’s comments and how it’ll look to her friends.” Idali makes a thin smile.
“I haven’t discussed it with my parents but I think they knew.” I reply in a tight voice.
“Those who don’t care remain silent, those who do make trouble, those who approve can’t fight your battles for you.” Idali groans. She links her hands to stretch her arms. “When I became a ranking officer in the city guard, I could finally afford to stand up to my parents and move out. So I enjoyed the freedom that my social position gave me. It’s not an excuse, I was young, alone, and let loose. I turned into the kind of adult I would have despised in the end.” She laughs scornfully.
I patiently wait for her to calm down and continue because she obviously needs to get this stuff off her chest, I’ve felt the same need often enough that I can’t deny her a sympathetic ear in good conscience. Besides, I’m definitely not in a position to judge after what I did to Teva.
“I’m paying for it now.” Idali says. She drops her head on the table. “Running away from a woman I admire with the woman she’s sleeping with despite not being that much better than I am.” She chuckles. “There’s irony in that.”
“Hum.” I mutter noncommittally.
“I’m not saying its easy for you but no one will dare tell you a thing now that you have power, like those assholes with their titles or Ras…” She interrupts herself. “I’m back at square one, except I have money but no job.”
“I’m sure you can go back once you’ve delivered the message to Port-Odo’s trade guild and find work, I don’t mind as long as you keep your mouth shut and Lance isn’t going to persecute you.” I tell her reassuringly.
“I don’t think I want to.” Idali sighs. She rises back up and brushes away a strand of blond hair that fell over her eyes.
“Well, I’m not sure what to say.” I make a grimace, thinking. “I guess all I can tell you is that I personally had no clue about what I was doing most of the time. I leaned on those willing to help and took it one step at a time. My best advice is to find an objective and keep it in mind every step of the way.”
“That’s easy to say.” Idali raises an eyebrow.
“You could join Lance’s organization, swear that you’ll turn a new leaf.” I suggest.
“I would rather stay with you for now if it isn’t an issue, I’d love the chance to kick high-born ass.” She proposes tentatively.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” I reply carefully.
“I can fight and cook.” Idali says with a smile.
“Did you ever get off the Izla before?” I ask, changing the subject.
“No, why?” She responds.
I open the table’s drawer and pull a map out, one that depicts the coast around Port-Odo in detail, and lay it flat. I follow the shore with my finger until I find the point where I had planned beach the galley.
“You heard Lance, there is a chance that someone’s laying down a trap by using the negotiations as bait. And the only objective I can think of is that they want to capture another Princess.” I explain.
“So, what do we do?” Idali asks.
“We land further south.” I reply.
I search for an enclave along the coastline, it doesn’t help that there are very few details about the terrain further inland. I suppose that grayed out zone marked ‘forest’ is enough information.
“There.” I say. “That’ll allow us to hide the Rykz we bring and carefully scout the terrain as we march to Port-Odo.”
“That’s a few days away from the city.” Idali comments.
“I would rather waste time than get caught in an ambush while we disembark.” I reply.
I fit the mask over my face and grab the map before stepping outside. I throw a quick look at the horizon. The galley is sailing south, leaving Meria’s tall walls behind, I can’t even distinguish the innumerable Rykz patrolling them at this distance.
The sailors stop rowing, they pull their oars above sea level and hold them there. We seem to have caught a good wind. On the beach, ahead and starboard of the ship, are a few hundred log rafts, each meant to carry six warriors.
Further stands a tall Princess, Fenyz, directing workers. There are thousands of them along the coastline, sawing and roping wooden beams together to create rudimentary embarkations.
I asked Celyz and she told me that Rykz drones aren’t able to swim, that their hands aren’t webbed like ours. Even if they were, she said, the configuration of their fingers or claws wouldn’t allow it while their pointy legs provide little to no purchase in water, not to mention that they’re rather heavy.
The captain gives a few sharp orders and the galley turns port, which I’m told is left, while the sailors pull the sail back. The rowers lower their oars to slow the ship down. Fenyz waves her spearheaded tendrils and warriors push their rafts at sea, climbing on as soon as they’re afloat.
I wave at the Princess and climb the stairs up to the bridge. The stern red-headed captain turns to me, one of his tanned hands casually laid on the steering wheel. I carefully hold the map out to point at the enclave I found.
“Would we be able to land there, Captain George?” I ask.
“The area is unsafe.” He comments, pondering. He points at small triangles drawn on the map. “I wouldn’t risk navigating the galley through those reefs but their rafts will do fine and my sailors can drop you off with the rowboats.”
“We’ll do that then.” I nod.
The man nonchalantly slaps one of the steering wheel’s handle to rectify the galley’s drift. He then swears, looking over my shoulder. I turn, following his gaze. There are a dozen warriors climbing the ship’s hull with their claws, their large round Vuskyt shields strapped to their backs.
“You better stay alive for my sister, Elizabeth!” Fenyz shouts from the beach in her resounding voice.
“Don’t be late or I’ll take Port-Odo all by myself!” I yell back. The Princess chuckles loudly, swiping her air with her tendrils.
“The added weight is going to drag us down too much. We were already bordering on our maximum load with all your supplies.” The captain says, swearing inside his beard.
“We have to keep pace with their rafts anyway.” I dismiss with a shrug.
I leave the man to his work and head back inside the cabin to put the map away. Idali is sitting down with her spear laid on her lap, completely focused on her thumb and index that are glowing golden from a flow construct. She pinches the spearhead’s sharp edge, moving along it at an excruciatingly slow pace.
This is going to take her a good half hour. I take care to fold the map along the preexisting lines and store it in the drawer before walking back out on the upper deck.
I make my way to a fresh water barrel tied to a hook that is nailed to the hull. I pop the top open to grab the wooden ladle floating inside and angle my mask aside just long enough to drink. As I do so, I keep my attention on Aisha, hidden behind her illusion construct.
She is expertly coiling a rope around her shoulder. If I didn’t know already, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from the other sailors. I sit down on the guardrail, enjoying the sunlight. Thankfully, the weather is clear and should remain so for the couple of days it’ll take us to reach the mainland.
As the morning goes by, the humans grow more comfortable with the presence of the Rykz. The warriors and workers do little more than stand in ranks where they don’t bother the crew, which isn’t an issue as the galley is a warship meant to carry soldiers.
The sailors use many constructs, all of them simple, from the captain’s flow compass to one that makes a sound that marks the tempo for the rowers. They mostly use the energy to sustain their physical efforts.
At noon, the galley hits a small wave at an awkward angle, making the ship veer slightly off-course and threaten to hit one of the Rykz’ rafts. The captain reacts swiftly, he corrects the bearing and shouts at five sailors, who are waiting on standby near the mast to care for the sail, telling them to wake up.
They run to port-side and work together to assemble a construct in the seawater. It produces a small wave that acts as a buffer between the two ships, pushing them apart.
Captain George’s expression relaxes as they manage to prevent an accident but that wouldn’t be apparent in his words as he spends the next ten minutes berating each and every one of his sailors for one reason or another. I escape the cacophony by walking back into the cabin to wait for lunch.