It takes me a while to find the sitting position that allows my destroyed right arm to be still and stop moving once I do. I remain like this for hours, breathing from my belly and fighting boredom by observing the upper decks.
The slaves are guarded by at least half the soldiers present on the galley. They’re secured with chains, filling only half the benches. New oars are transferred from one ship to the other and taken out of the cargo-hold.
With my mind free to wander, I notice that a good third of the Templars form a smaller group within the thirteen. They sit and talk together a distance from the rest. At some point, they turn to look at me all at once and almost immediately turn away.
As the morning passes, the temple guards finish applying bandages and healing constructs, many then sharpen their blades. Once those tasks are accomplished, they wander to the upper deck to take in some fresh air and sunlight.
They take turns guarding me but there are always at least four close to my cell. My stomach starts grumbling long before noon, can’t do anything about it. Once my flow reserves built up enough, I assemble a healing construct and apply it to my right arm first. I decide not to mess with the timer segment, there is no pressing need yet, only a consuming desire to slaughter Odo and the Templars if they get in my way.
Although, they’re my Emperor’s servants… An Emperor responsible for this insanity. Not enough information to judge, He is old and wise, there has to be a good reason. Wise? Rasaec gambled with the Empire! He underestimated the Rykz and it backfired! No one is perfect, I must have faith.
I detect two soldiers carrying a large cauldron on the rowers’ deck, they came from the stern. They start by distributing food to the soldiers on the upper deck, and then to the slaves bench by bench. The wait is a torment. My limb clenches its fingers by itself, opening and closing them without listening to me.
Aisha is standing in the middle of the stairs leading to the rowers’ deck, the most isolated location on the ship along with the stairs leading to the cargo-hold. She isn’t doing anything, just… waiting. I find out why soon after as Vikiana heads downstairs.
The Exemplar doesn’t pay her any mind and keeps going. But, just as they cross paths, Aisha’s lips move. Not much, she likely only said a single word, yet that word is enough to stop Vikiana in her tracks.
She doesn’t turn to look at the Shade, she responds with a single short sentence and departs. Aisha returns to the top deck and mingles with those assigned to the sail while Vikiana makes her way to my cell, looking peeved.
“Telling Count Odo was a mistake, Elizabeth. Your loyalty is laudable but you’ve tied my hands with this. I can no longer bring you to the main Temple, Odo would talk and that wouldn’t end well for anyone. I barely managed to convince him not to parade you in Port-Odo.” She spouts out, venting. “We’re sailing north and then upriver to Meiridin, directly to the institute.”
“Why are you talking to me, Exemplar?” I ask. “You’ve won.” For now.
“You don’t want to end up in the institute, J.” She whispers urgently before continuing in a normal tone of voice. “Tell me what you know, help me catch a Princess. I know you think it would end up badly but this is war now and your role in it is over if you refuse to cooperate. Help yourself, give me what I need to obtain the Grand-Master’s support to get you transferred to the University instead.”
“That’s the angle you’re going for?” I mock. “I’m not afraid of dying if you hadn’t noticed.”
“Death would be preferable than ending up in the institute.” She argues.
“Then, good luck keeping me alive.” I chuckle.
“You may be a difficult foe, Elizabeth, but you are an amateur. You can’t force us to kill you.” Vikiana counters.
“We’ll see.” I tell her, tired of this pointless conversation. “You’re grasping at straws, Exemplar. Even if I wanted to tell you, I don’t know enough. Leave me be. I can acknowledge that you’re doing what you can to solve the disaster you’ve provoked but it is over, we’ve both failed.”
“I do not give up.” Vikiana replies stubbornly.
I keep my silence and close my eyes, refusing to engage any longer. Vikiana remains a long moment, visibly struggling to find a solution or a way to sway me. She ends up leaving without another word. My stomach grumbles again, calling for food. I let it, too proud to ask the Templars despite my need.
Lacking the strength to remain sitting, I take hold of the bench and drag myself on top of it to lie down. Finally, I notice two temple guards fill up five bowls and make their way to the cargo-hold.
They distribute the meals to those guarding me first and hand mine over through the cell’s metal grill. My limb tears it out of their hands, startling me and them. It plunges its fingers in the gruel and quickly absorbs it.
I let it eat, starving is better than losing control, I’ve handled hunger before. Once it is done, I grab what’s left at the bottom of the bowl, the wheat and corn grains too large for my limb to absorb. I take a fistful and start gobbling them up. The two temple guards watch with disbelief and disgust.
These strangers’ gazes hurt. I had predicted such a reaction from humans but I thought Leomi’s opinion would be the only one that would matter to me, her and a few others maybe. Instead, every time it happens, the worse it feels.
As the afternoon goes by, my weariness increases and my limb grows restless. The meal was insufficient for the parasite. It seizes the wooden bench’s plank and starts applying pressure to it, making it crack and groan. I let myself fall asleep.
— — —
— — —
I awaken to an odd feeling in my left hand, like it is holding some kind of goo. The shape of the thing in my hand is distorted, I open my eyes and look down. My limb’s fingers are constricting around a red sludge with tiny black hair, what used to be a rat.
It disobeys my order to let go, it doesn’t even twitch. I panic and almost try to force its fingers to let go with my own but the sludge of blood, flesh, and bones looks so repulsive that I can’t bring myself to touch it. I likely lack the strength to do so anyway.
I close my eyelids tight, a foolish attempt to combat my nausea at the sight and feel of the parasite digesting its prey. All it does is make the sensations even more vivid. I can’t help but experience it all as some kind of saliva seep out of the rubbery brown skin and mix with the sludge to absorb the resulting slimy fluid.
I focus on the limb’s sense and search for anything else to concentrate on. I find Vikiana on the upper deck. Her wrists are resting on the guardrail, gazing west towards the Izla with an expression of anguish, of loss.
What could be worth all this, my Emperor? The Templars are laying on their back throughout the cargo-hold, most of them are sleeping between crates and barrels. It must be nighttime. I spot Aisha, she is watching the Exemplar with her back resting against the mast.
Little by little, the rat’s corpse loses integrity. One of its bones pokes at my palm. I shake in repugnance. Food is food. But this is… No worse than when I fed on humans. That was in the heat of battle, or to fight for my survival. This is… I need to get past this. If I can’t accept myself, who will? It’s just meat.
I open my eyes and observe. With time, I manage to somewhat detach myself from my ingrained reaction. The process is somewhat fascinating, how the parasite is slowly assimilating this rat’s flesh to survive.
After a long while, only the bones remain. I tell the limb to release the small skeleton and shiver. I definitely don’t want to experience this again. I return to observing the upper deck.
Aisha is walking up to Vikiana who composes her traits before turning. The two nod and head towards the stairs to the lower decks without a word. They don’t stop in the middle of them this time but keep going.
They walk into the cargo-hold and I close my eyes, pretending to be asleep. I assemble a construct to enhance my hearing. Vikiana walks up to the four Templars guarding me and signals them to move away.
They throw curious glances at Aisha but give them the space the Exemplar requested of them. The two settle only a meter away from my cell. They don’t speak but scrutinize me for a long time, almost half an hour. Vikiana loses her patience first.
“Enough.” She whispers. “She’s obviously sleeping. We can use the stairs if you really don’t want her to overhear.”
“This is going to take a bit, too much risk of someone walking in on us. We need to keep what I’ll tell you a secret from her because she could break under torture and that would kill the plan, I think we could trust her but there’s no reason to take the risk.” Aisha replies in a murmur.
“What plan?” Vikiana asks intently.
“Later.” Aisha shakes her head. “You need to get her more food, that’s a freaking rat on the ground, Viki.”
They know each other? Of course, a mission to capture a Princess would involve a Shade.
“Don’t waste my time, it was there before her since some critters cleaned it down to the bone.” Vikiana replies shortly.
“That arm comes from a Princess and this is how they eat, Viki.” Aisha counters.
“So what if it eats a few rats? We’re all rationed Aisha, we took as much of the Due as we could with us and that takes a lot of space. Can’t compress flow when it isn’t actively controlled.” Vikiana explains.
I actively stop myself from reacting to the word ‘it’ and breaking the act, she didn’t mean me but the parasite.
“You don’t understand, I’ve observed her for weeks. She eats twice as much as you.” Aisha tells her, annoyed. “I need her as stable and healthy as possible to get through this.”
“Fine, I’ll take care of it. Now spill it.” Vikiana responds sharply.
“Something else first, it might seem a bit contradictory but you need to let Odo mess with her. He’s a liability and the easiest, least suspicious, way to get rid of him is to let him slip up and get killed, trust me.” Aisha says, her voice barely audible. “I’ll take care of those he put in the confidence with a few freak accidents along the way.”
“I don’t like this, Aisha. Do you have the Emperor’s permission?” Vikiana frowns.
“Not exactly, I have a general directive with a lot of leeway to achieve the primary objective.” Aisha shuffles uncomfortably.
“The Emperor wants her that bad?” Vikiana says, surprised.
“Not her specifically, it’s complicated Viki.” Aisha makes a grimace.
“Then talk, tell me how this helps my daughter.” Vikiana glares.
“Look, Viki. I haven’t been able to get in touch with the Emperor since He sent the Due, before Meria even fell. I can’t tell you any more than the fact that He paid a price to do this. The reason He did is the same reason why He didn’t support your request to release the Princess and end the war. You know the Emperor made a deal with Cenwalh. Well, specifically, the institute is supposed to gather information on Rykz flow distribution before anything else. They’re reportedly still in the preliminary stages of the project, it wasn’t an issue until the Rykz showed up on our doorstep because such things can last for years longer until they can be deemed failures with certainty. But we can’t wait anymore with this Rykz invasion, the Emperor needs to know whether it can be done or not now, Viki. He’s buying time for Caeviel and that means we need to get Elizabeth to the institute as quickly as possible, she has both Rykz and human flow.”
“What?!” Vikiana exclaims.
“Shh. I don’t know how its possible but I’ve seen it myself. She might be the key to figuring this out.” Aisha murmurs.
“That thing is sentient?” Vikiana asks.
“I very much doubt that.” Aisha shakes her head. “The thing is that the Emperor doesn’t know about her so I’m going on a limb here. Still, after you told me that the Rykz were on the Izla, the Emperor gave me the authorization to ignore Cenwalh’s interests and free the Princess once I have the data.” Aisha explains.
“Officially?” Vikiana asks.
“No.” Aisha shakes her head. “He is King, you know how that would go with the rest if He did that publicly.”
“The institute isn’t assailable, not covertly. We would need a Templar regiment to break in. It’s too well protected, inside and out.” Vikiana argues.
“Don’t forget that it is a secondary objective. Caeviel can eventually be made to fold to the Rykz demands, the primary task is to secure the information on Rykz flow distribution.” Aisha frowns.
“It might be yours, but mine is to end this. The Emperor blundered, Aisha.” Vikiana whispers in a hard tone.
“Viki…” Aisha starts.
“Don’t Viki me, Aisha.” She spits out. “We made a mess of this.”
“The Empire is what matters, Exemplar.” Aisha counters harshly. “I am not saying I disagree but reminding you of our priorities. I need to get us both inside to make sure that the Director isn’t playing us anyway, she might be a genius but I don’t trust her. I’ll get a sense of their runic defenses but, in the meantime, I expect you to take care of Elizabeth.”
“Girl has a death wish.” Vikiana groans.
“No, she doesn’t. She just thinks she does.” Aisha sighs. “Look, she’s young and has trouble dealing with all of this. Give her hope and a direction.”
“I’m not going to lie if I don’t have to Aisha.” Vikiana replies firmly.
“Then tell her the truth.” Aisha says, frustrated. “If this works, it changes everything. Titles will no longer be mere words Nobles call themselves but a reality, one under the Emperor’s control. Reform will become possible.”
“Is that the truth?” Vikiana asks suspiciously.
“It is, Viki.” Aisha confirms.
I knew my Emperor was worthy! I don’t like that Aisha is using me, but that’s pretty much what my relationship with Cecil is. And Leomi. That’s just Elizabeth Vil and her, it isn’t us, it won’t be us.
“I’ll agree on one condition, Aisha.” Vikiana says.
“Condition? This is your duty, Exemplar.” Aisha frowns. The Exemplar remains unmoved. “Fine. Tell me.”
“You’ll guarantee that you won’t leave her hanging in that cesspit once you get what the Emperor needs. No excuses, no pressing situations to resolve. We either get her out with the Princess or we kill her.” Vikiana declares. An odd mix of empathy and ruthlessness. I almost laugh.
“That’s doesn’t present any more difficulty than the alternative, they’ll both be held in the high-security wing.” Aisha nods. “Anything else? We won’t get many opportunities to speak until we get to Meiridin.”
“One small thing. Why did you come back to the Izla after the mission?” Vikiana questions.
Aisha throws a discreet glance my way before moving aside, away from the cell. The sound of the ship’s sail clapping against the mast and the waves hitting the hull make it difficult to hear them now that they’re further away, closer to the Templars.
“…viel is unstable, like all… kwater Kingdoms who don’t hav… fend… selves from the Lis… or the Ry… They spe… forts on fig… ch other. Don’t te… yone, but half my w… Shade is to prevent civi… rs. Someti… akes a small rev… to rele… the pressure. Izla Mer… is the poo… nd most stab… uchy in Caev… so an upris… serves as… tionary tale. It wouldn… ave left linge… resen… overtime, a few concess… and the peace tha… ows woul… have ke… tensions low and mad… sier to convinc… the other Duk… be more… sonable. Can’… encour… bellion ther… witho… ting their… duction.” Aisha explains.
What is she saying? I try to inject more flow in my hearing construct but it doesn’t solve the issue. I can’t keep it all in mind long enough to put the butchered words together and make sense of it before she starts a new one.
“Doesn… sound like it’… der contr… dali sai… vernment is… lected.” Vikiana says. “Wa… he blu… ng?”
“No. It got… of han… cause… Rykz and… beth Vil… sides, Cec… is… bitious, and she… lieves it c… ork.” Aisha’s lips part, sighing perhaps. “… vaged once… over. You… ghter is reasona… east… sh… ws wha… can be allow… zabeth, thou… is a blu… ool.”
“… ke he… n’t you.” Vikiana replies with a small smile.
“Sh… freshing.” Aisha shrugs. “…ility will…nt he… own. But she… seful.”
“Ar… u sure it… ‘t work?” Vikiana asks.
“It cou… if they’… armt ab… it. We… see. Em… ight… pport… m to buy… me.”
“Ti… for… at?” Vikiana questions.
Aisha shakes her head, refusing to answer. The two then depart one after the other. I follow them with my limb’s sense but they don’t rejoin or exchange another word.
The Shade climbs all the way to the upper deck and joins a group of soldiers, immediately making a comment that makes them laugh and pat her back. The Exemplar makes her way to the galley’s stern from the rowers’ deck, leaving my range.
Vikiana returns a few minutes later with two bowls of food, heading back here. She opens the padlock with her key. I focus on my breathing, remembering to inhale and exhale regularly. She walks in to deposit the bowls near my left limb but without entering its range.
The parasite moves and plunges its fingers inside the cold gruel. Vikiana squints and throws a glance at my closed eyes. She raises her hand, hesitating. Is she considering waking me up? She decides against it and steps out of the cell without turning her back on me. Vikiana stands outside, watching the parasite eat.
“Should probably apologize first.” She mutters. “Girl didn’t deserve any of this.”