Vikiana’s declaration of intent to apologize is so unexpected that I almost open my eyes. The woman has put herself twice in my way, at the worst possible moments. She threatened me, almost beat me into submission that night and actually did now.
I resent her for it but I don’t take it personally. She is Exemplar, the decisions she took may have been at odds with my own but she always seems to place the Empire’s and her daughter’s well-being above her own. Yet, Vikiana is responsible for this war.
Rasaec is too. My Emperor is doing everything he can to rectify… He refuses to free the Princess unless he gets what he wants! He paid a price. He is blessed by the Lake, what price could compare to what the Izla has gone through? He is blessed by the Lake, His plan’s failure must be because his servants failed to serve him as well as they should have.
My limb finished absorbing the liquid part of the gruel and takes a handful of grain. The saliva-like substance seeps out of its skin’s pores. I wait for it to finish the meal and prevent it from eating the second bowl.
It obeys, likely because it finally reconstituted its reserves. The parasite slumbers, lying on the floor. If I focus on my left flank, I can feel my skin being lifted as viscous brown blood flows from the limb to the tendril network.
Enough delaying, they want to convince me to let them experiment on me. They’re offering Odo on a platter. They’re using me to get rid of him. I’m fine with that. I need to use them in return.
Once inside the institute, I’ll be imprisoned by them. But that means they’ll be stuck with me too. Ambitious, arrogant even. For that to work… I need power, strength. How? The parasite. The closer I get to the Rykz, the more access I receive. It is worth it. It isn’t, the Templars would have defeated me even if I had more flow to call on.
As much as it hurts, Vikiana is right, I am an amateur. Besides, I don’t want to become more of a monster and I wouldn’t know where to begin. Not to mention it could backfire, the parasite has been stable so far but who knows what would happen if it grew further.
It already influences me enough, it’s apparent that Celyz knew less about what effect it could have on me than she let on. I need strength, but brute force won’t cut it, not when there is no hope of ever outnumbering my enemies. They want something from me, why not ask the Exemplar to train me in return?
I deliberately turn on my side, ready to hear what Vikiana has to say. She knocks on the cell’s grill. I move a little more. She hits the cell’s door once again. I take my time to arise from my fake slumber, twisting and turning like I’m half-awake but trying to go back to sleep.
“Elizabeth, wake up.” Vikiana speaks up.
“Urh.” I mutter.
“Jay.” She presses, referring to my name as a way to communicate that it’s important.
“What is it?” I grunt.
“We need to talk.” She replies.
“Come back in the morning.” I rebuke her.
“I don’t know when we’ll have another chance so it has to be now.” She tells me.
“Shouldn’t have punched me if you wanted to talk, gave me a headache. Let me sleep.” I say.
“There’s a bowl of gruel to your left.” Vikiana tells me.
“Should have led with that.” I comment.
I lean over to grab it. Vikiana shakes her head in disbelief. While I eat, she tells me most of what Aisha told her. She is honest about it, she doesn’t try to trick me into accepting. She even shares gruesome rumors about the institute and its experiments.
“Are you paying attention?” She asks, annoyed.
“No.” I reply with my mouth full. “I was listening in earlier.”
“Then why… Oh. You were testing me.” Vikiana frowns.
“You haven’t apologized.” I note.
“I haven’t.” She nods. “You shouldn’t have been put through all of this. While it was necessary to use you as bait back then, I could have handled it better.” She acknowledges. “I apologize for what I did but don’t regret it.”
“You owe me.” I tell her.
“I do not.” Vikiana replies in a hard tone. “You’ve turned your back on Caeviel, on the Empire. You seem to remain loyal to the Emperor but that does not change the fact that you’re a traitor that chooses to remain loyal to the Rykz even now. Consider my magnanimity as repayment.”
The demeaning words make my anger flare. I rise from the bench with some difficulty as my left limb is resting, unresponsive, while my right is useless. I stand in front of her, the metal grill separating us. She doesn’t budge, calmly facing off with me.
“How ungrateful, Leomi knew to show her… appreciation.” I utter maliciously with two goals in mind.
First, get back at this woman. Second, imply that Leomi knows who I am so Vikiana doesn’t ask. A dangerous game, but I can’t trust her to keep my secret from her daughter so I need to buy time until I find a way to make her.
“My daughter has a Lance’s honor.” Vikiana replies flatly.
“Does she, though? She broke the vow we took.” I say, grinning outside, hurting inside.
“I heard you danced, that you fought and reconciled.” She tells me with a frown.
“Oh, we danced alright.” I say dreamily. “But she has yet to show exactly how appreciative she is for what I did for her or repay me in full. I doubt you’d approve if you knew…”
“Pointless bravado, Elizabeth. I am proud of her, of what she’s trying to do.” She says serenely. “Although, her current choice of partner is indeed questionable at best.”
“There will be no other.” I roar.
I would have struck the metal grill with my right arm if I could move it. I take a deep breath. My attacks seem to just slide off the hard veteran, I’d hoped that her daughter would be a sore spot but if it is, she is hiding it well and hitting back twice as hard.
“You know Leomi took my side in this conflict, right?” I whisper softly.
“Duty is all.” Vikiana declares. “We do what we must to protect the Empire from internal and external threats.”
“Protect? You provoked a war!” I contest, seething.
“The Rykz would have waged war with us whether we captured that Princess or not. It is always a matter of time with them.” She responds. “Enough arguing, Elizabeth. Our interests are aligned in this. We both want peace but sacrifices must be made to achieve it with as little bloodshed as possible.”
“You mean that I must pay once again.” I say. “You’re asking me to die.”
“I might be, yes.” Vikiana recognizes. “I might not even make it out of the institute if it goes wrong, much less with you or the Princess.”
“Then what makes you think that I would agree to this? Why would I even trust you?” I ask.
“Because you don’t have a choice right now. Working with us is your best option, it’s the only sane one. You will end up in the institute whether you like it or not, there is nothing I can do about that anymore.” She affirms.
I involuntarily step back, the word hits me with the force of a hammer. Vikiana’s emphasis on the word is no accident, she wanted it to strike home and my reaction confirms it for her.
“I fucked your daughter, Exemplar!” I snap, retaliating with the only thing I can think of.
“Yea? Did you get her off?” She retorts flatly.
“Rhaaaa!” I roar in frustration.
She closes her right fist. The movement attracts my attention and I notice that it is shaking. It helps me cool down, feeling vindicated. She’s not as ice-cold as she pretends to be, like mother like daughter. I giggle, angry but amused.
“This is childish.” Vikiana says, making a visible effort to relax.
“I’ve given much already, Exemplar.” I utter sharply. “If you want something from me, you’ll have to pay for it.”
“You’ll get Count Odo’s life.” Vikiana proposes in a voice so low that I only heard it because of my hearing enhancing construct.
“That’s just as much to your benefit as it is for mine apparently.” I reply, not letting her tempt me.
“Isn’t your goal to help your people?” She asks. “Besides, what do you have to lose?”
“Nothing.” I respond in a tight voice.
“Ah. I truly am sorry, Jessica.” She whispers. For using it against me or something else?
“Why would this help my people?” I change the subject.
“If you cooperate, you’ll be instrumental in changing the Empire.” She replies.
“If whatever this is works.” I drawl.
“I know enough to tell you that successfully changing flow distribution for humans would finish what the leylines started, it would eliminate the need for Nobility.” She explains. “There must be a good reason for our Emperor to invest such time and effort in this, so the likelihood of success must be high.”
“Leomi’s organization would serve that purpose as well.” I argue. “Besides, how long would it take for the Emperor to do this? No. I trust that she’ll present our Emperor with a better, quicker, solution than whatever the University came up with. Besides, there isn’t any need for Nobility apart for oppression.”
“You’re naive.” Vikiana sighs. “Do you think yourself the first with some power to want things to change, Elizabeth Vil? The Empire stands because it is more productive and united than the cold bloods. The insects are superior in both regards but militarily weaker because their natural advantages can be compensated for with constructs and training while their drones remain stagnant skill-wise. Nobility keeps the Empire’s war machine running at the cost of unrest and injustice, yes. But the alternative is civil war, which would be an open invitation for the Lisilese and the Rykz to invade. The former may not be able to take our lands, but believe me when I tell you that seasonal cold blood raids would destroy us just as surely as the insects founding new Hives beneath our feet. The Empire would collapse and humanity would be finished, Elizabeth. The stakes are high, this is beyond the Izla, beyond Caeviel, far beyond you or me.”
“Then… there is no hope? No freedom for the peasantry to fight for?” I ask, shaken.
“There is, like the Shade said, once the Emperor can bestow flow himself then titles will be true things held by those worthy. Nobility will lose most of its power with only peasantry to call on for support, yet they will never side with Nobles unless they change and make concessions. Those Nobles who are unwilling would not fight alongside those who accept change.” She tells me with fire in her voice.
““Titles would remain….” I mutter, unsure. Would that truly be change?
“Perhaps you should tell me more about this organization my daughter is creating, but for now, I need your assurance that you won’t try to throw your life away for revenge.” Vikiana says.
“Idali wasn’t… isn’t a good person by any stretch of the imagination but she should not have been treated like this. I will tear Odo apart, like she thought I would.” I affirm. “Still, I want something in return.”
“What?” She asks impatiently.
“Training.” I reply.
“What?” She repeats herself, surprised.
“You’re asking me to put my life in the institute’s hands, it’s only fair that you teach me how to keep it.” I explain. “Not only that, but you want me to be complicit in all of this.” I swore to do anything to end this, whatever the personal cost, who would have thought I would end up in this position.
“I can’t teach you anything that’ll be of any use as a captive.” Vikiana says.
“Take it or leave it.” I growl.
“When and how would we even do that? You’re constantly under guard and I’m not removing those shackles.” She says.
“That’s your problem.” I say, smiling.
“You know that I don’t really need you to agree, right?” She threatens.
“Sure, but can you afford for me to resist, to try to escape at every turn?” I counter.
Vikiana rubs the bridge of her nose. I grin, glad to cause her some trouble. I’m in a bad spot, still not as bad as I originally thought. It was painful to learn the role my Emperor took in this disaster but at least I have information now.
And, like Cecil would say, knowledge is power. The data could be used as leverage at some point, I don’t know how yet. I may not end up sent to the gallows in the end. I might die in the institute but I have some hope to fight my way out if I play my cards right.
“Fine, Elizabeth.” She says. “This can’t be any worse than training complete amateurs, right?”
“Wouldn’t know.” I shrug and immediately wince in pain at my right shoulder’s protests.
It reminds me to assemble a healing construct, I don’t go at it with half-measures and dedicate my entire energy reserves to fixing my broken bones and the sliced muscles, those under my right armpit.
“First lesson, don’t let anyone do that to you again.” She says, pointing at that very shoulder. “There’s an artery there that I could have cut if I felt like it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I reply.
“Be right back.” She suddenly says.
Vikiana leaves to ruffle through one of the sleeping Templar’s backpacks. She comes back with two thick wooden stick and several leather strips. She takes her key out and unlocks the cell.
“Don’t move or I will punch your lights out.” She notes serenely.
“I don’t have any flow left anyway.” I tell her.
She cautiously steps around me to my right side and takes hold of my forearm. I flinch as she applies the splints over my broken forearm and sets it straight. She then secures them with the thin leather strips.
Vikiana leaves the cell without turning her back on me and closes the padlock. I may have considered knocking her out if my left limb wasn’t resting but I don’t think it would have ended well for me.
“Now, tell me about my daughter and what she knows of your… situation.” She says.
“Hm.” I mutter, avoiding the subject isn’t an option now that she asked directly and if I lie… she might blurt the truth out when she runs into Leomi or simply want to verify my answer. Fuck. “She doesn’t know about this.” I say, looking down at the parasite. “And I would like to keep it that way.” I add carefully.
“How could she not? You turned up with both arms…” Vikiana pauses and glares at me. “You haven’t told her who you are, have you.”
“You should be grateful I haven’t.” I twist my lips into a mean smile. “When I ran into her again, she couldn’t even sleep because of what she did to me, the choice you made her take.”
“There was no time for her to make her peace with it, I had to.” She justifies somberly.
“Whatever you tell yourself, I’m the one who put her back together.” I tell her. Vikiana’s expression falls and I laugh. “Oh don’t worry, I’ll make sure that we understand each other if I make it, reconcile like you said.”
I can make her acknowledge that I don’t need to be protected without Elizabeth Vil, that I’m not weak.
“Leomi went through enough, Jay, lost enough. Whatever you think you’re doing, do not test me.” Vikiana threatens.
“I’m curious, what did you speak of on the way back?” I ask.
“Nothing.” The Exemplar replies tensely.
She turns and leaves without another word. My mad giggle accompanies her, all the way to the stairs. I then sit back down on my bench-bed and lie down. I close my eyes, focusing on the woman as she climbs all the way to the upper deck.
Vikiana walks past Aisha, who is still socializing but with a smaller group as the rest seem to have retired for the night. The Exemplar makes a small nod when their eyes cross and keeps going, headed to the galley’s bow directly above me.
I might have gone too far, it wouldn’t do if she tries to get rid of me once they get what they want out of me. I’ll have to keep that in mind too. Perhaps, I should still try to escape. I gave my word but considering the circumstances, I hardly feel bound by it.
We’ll see if a chance presents itself. Vikiana leans on the guardrail, gaze lost on the horizon. Her traits slacken now that she has her back turned to the rest of the crew and thinks herself alone. Her expression is full of regret, of pain, of sorrow.
It would be hard to tell all of this if not for how much she resembles her daughter at this moment, with her guard down. Or the other way around, I suppose. There is a rift between the two of them, caused by me.
That makes me sad, I never intended to for that to happen. Now that I’ve lost both Mother and Father, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. As much as I sometimes want to hurt her, I still do love my Lady.
I hope they’ll find a way to get past this but my existence isn’t going to help, is it? I’m an obstacle between them. While Vikiana tolerates me now, I don’t think she will keep doing so once I get back to her daughter. Leomi feels guilty about what she did, even if she doesn’t blame her mother, she might not even try to patch things up.
An upside to my demise, I suppose. I wonder what’s wrong with me, I want to live free, powerful, but at the same time… death is an attractive proposition. The weight on my shoulders only seems to grow heavier with time, the Izla is saved but now I have a responsibility towards its well-being.
I sigh and check up on Vikiana one last time. Her mouth is moving, opening and closing, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly. She’s singing. No one else appears to be paying attention to her which they would if they heard her. Her expression is downcast but it looks like her mood improved from earlier.
— — —