I awaken in the morning, still stuck in this cell with Templars taking shifts to guard me. A few hours later, Vikiana comes by and seems to inspect the disruption construct, she doesn’t answer my questions about what she’s doing but with her gaze lost in empty space, it’s obvious to me.
I focus on healing, which means I don’t do anything other than dedicate my entire flow regeneration to the task. Bored, I start thinking about what’s going to happen once we arrive in Meiridin.
I’m going to be stuck in the institute and dependent on Aisha’s willingness to help me free the Princess over her objective of getting the data our Emperor needs. How long would it take? Let’s be optimistic and consider that it’ll work, they’ll get whatever information they need out of me within a week, or a month.
Then, what will the institute do? Negotiate to end the war? No. The institute will want more, Cenwalh will want them to go back to their original objective. You don’t scuttle a project when you’re making progress, that would make no sense.
So, once the institute gets what they need from me and give it to Aisha for the Emperor, they’ll go back to their experiments on Cetyz and me, if I’m still of any use. The Shade and Exemplar might act directly to free us, or more likely they’ll wait for instructions.
If Nobility is as dangerous to provoke as a whole for the Emperor, then the most I can expect is a covert and diplomatic operation. I’m fucked, aren’t I? It’ll be winter before these cogs get into place and by then, the Rykz and Caeviel will have already faced off on the mainland.
I can’t wait that long. If the Rykz gain an advantage, Queen Grikyz might decide that this war is going well and that doubling down will get them all they want, Princess and treaty. If Caeviel does, then why would Cenwalh let go of his asset in the institute? He wouldn’t.
Diplomacy will take too long and there is a good chance it won’t even work or the offer will be considered insufficient by one side or the other, months more of debating, of my people dying. And the damn politics could derail those negotiations at any point. There are so many conflicting interests that I can’t even wrap my head around them all.
Covert action to free the Princess by Aisha and Vikiana? The Exemplar is already planning to kill me on the way out of the institute, that’s what she thinks their chances are of succeeding. What did she say? They would need an entire regiment of Templars to break in that building and that’s not an option for the Order.
Then the only way to act is from the inside. To get in, I need to be a prisoner but paradoxically, I’ll lose all power to act by being one. I would need to trust Aisha, but from what I’ve heard, I can’t because she is more interested in the data than in pushing for peace.
I’m willing to bet that the institute wouldn’t be able to handle Cetyz once I free her. Even the Templars would have difficulty handling her or they wouldn’t have ambushed her in the Silver Hive, which seems a lot riskier than using the University’s pheromones to scout and find one that is isolated from her sisters, if on her guard because out of her Hive.
This is what my Emperor wants, needs, to achieve His vision of the future. But it isn’t what Caeviel needs in the present. I can’t rely on such a feeble thing, my people suffer now.
“Rhaaaaaaaaaaa!” I yell in frustration, startling the Templars.
I can’t remain a prisoner. I would lose the initiative in a situation that is too chaotic and fluid to predict or control. I miss Celyz’ advice now, she would help me sort through this.
The solution would be to find a way to make Aisha or Vikiana hold their end of the deal. Wait. There is no end to the deal I made. They didn’t promise anything. There is no commitment on their part to work towards a result that satisfies us all.
I can’t work with this Shade, at least not without leverage. I’m the key to the problem according to Aisha, that’s clearly my angle. Except, I cannot use it in this situation because she controls me.
How do I solve this? How do I provide the data while ensuring that Cetyz is freed? By breaking out and negotiating on my own terms. And Aisha isn’t the one I need to deal with. According to all I know, the institute’s Director has the power to both extract the data and release the Princess. That’s who I have to talk to. Intermediaries are unnecessary, harmful even.
But the Shade doesn’t trust her. So what? I can’t trust anyone with this. My Emperor Rasaec will understand. He is good and blessed by the fiery Lake. I will both end the war and provide the data He needs. On my own terms.
I have faith in my Emperor, but the Empire is a complex machine. Much more than I thought before. He acts for the best but He is constrained by His responsibilities. Elizabeth Vil is a traitor, they cannot blame Him for my actions.
What about Leomi? She wants to keep the war going, pretty much take over the plan I sold to the Lordling but to empower peasantry, not herself. I love her and she’s doing her best to make it all better, but I’m sick of war, of death. This needs to end. My Lady is smart, she’ll find a way to do this differently. This all goes back to escaping.
I flex my left limb. It seems back in shape and healthy enough. The cut in its flesh is healing a lot faster than those in mine. I notice movement on the rowers’ deck. The bulky woman, the one apparently responsible for the slaves, is talking to Odo.
Vikiana and Aisha back to back against the ship’s mast, one on either side of it. They’re not speaking, they appear to be waiting. A minute passes and Aisha takes my mask out from under her tabard, handing it over to the Exemplar. The item changes hands in a flash and disappears under Vikiana’s hard leather armor.
I inspect their surroundings. No one saw, none were looking. Aisha’s commitment to maintaining my cover is odd but it sure isn’t a favor she’s doing me. What did Cecil call me? An asset.
She’s securing our Emperor’s interests, isn’t she? If I survive the institute, the only ones who’ll be able to find me are those who know what I look like, my name. Plans within plans, contingencies.
The Empire is a gigantic board of Kaiz except there are more than two players and all they need to move the pieces is influence or leverage over it. Perhaps even more confusing is that the players are also pieces.
It all comes down to power and I don’t have enough to be completely free. My limb is an advantage, but I lack the skill in flow and combat to take full advantage of it. I don’t have the time grow enough in personal power to affect the war. No, the solution to this war lies in brain, not brawn.
Celyz did advise me to choose that course of action, to remain in the back instead of rushing to the front-lines. I would have had a better chance of evading or escaping this trap from the Exemplar if I assessed the situation with a clear mind instead of letting my successes make me overconfident, arrogant.
Odo heads down to the cargo-hold with the bulky woman. She is holding an empty bucket. Conrad spots them as soon as they emerge downstairs. He nods to acknowledge their presence and wait for them to pass before rushing upstairs.
I watch the Count and his servant with my own eyes. The woman opens a barrel and fills her bucket with water. Odo makes his way to my cell in the meantime, he waits for her before addressing me.
“It will give me the number of warriors and harvesters at the insects’ disposal.” He speaks up.
“Hopeful, huh.” I sneer.
“Dalv.” He says.
The bulky woman, Dalv, bring the bucket back and projects the cold water on me. I don’t move from my lying down position on the bench. No point in trying to avoid it and show weakness.
The cold water mixes with the dried blood covering a large portion of my body, turning pink as it trickles down my skin. I resist the pull to wipe my face and hair, to feel clean.
“Every time it refuses, I escalate.” Odo declares.
“Well, if you’re starting with a bucket, I think I’ll be fine for a while.” I note.
“How many Princesses are there?” He asks.
I laugh in response. Dalv takes her whip off from her belt and prepares to strike at me between the metal bars. I raise my left arm, I want to catch the weapon before it hits. To do that I have to, counter-intuitively, let its reflexes take over.
To be sure that it does, I assemble a signaling construct to send the danger signal to my limb, trying to communicate urgency to it alongside that. Dalv cracks the whip, the leather strand unrolls and zips towards me in a blur.
By the time I switch my attention to my other sense, I find it already wrapped around my limb’s wrist. Its movement, unfortunately, dragged my right arm along, causing intense pain. The rubbery skin of my left barely even smarts in comparison.
I focus and retake control of my arm to grab the weapon, preventing Dalv from retrieving it. Understanding that the danger is past, the symbiont lets me retake control without resisting.
“What the!” Dalv exclaims.
This might be what I need to compensate for my inexperience instead of trying to overpower every opponent, use my limb’s innate advantages. It isn’t only a parasite after all, but a predator.
“Going to have to come inside if you want to have fun.” I comment, laughing.
A bluff, my broken bones haven’t even reconnected yet which is why I haven’t moved since I woke up. I’m in no shape to fight outnumbered. Yet.
Odo glares but remains silent.
“How would you even know if she tells you is true?” Conrad speaks up, Vikiana at his side.
They visibly rushed here. Dalv turns, distracted by their arrival. I abruptly pull on the whip, forcefully hauling her towards the cell’s metal grill. The bulky woman’s forehead impacts one of the bars. Clank. I could have likely knocked her out if I tried but just this much strength is enough to cause a surge of hurt from my ribs.
“Ah, fuck.” She swears.
“I’ll ask it again. And again. And again.” Odo replies to the Templar, ignoring his servant.
“You don’t have a way to verify, this is pointless and cruel.” Conrad criticizes.
“I don’t expect a glorified guard to understand the art of interrogation. I will step up the techniques until it eventually tells the truth to preserve itself.” The young Count replies.
“Be respectful, Count.” Vikiana intervenes. “We are Templars under our Emperor Rasaec’s guidance.”
“Are you? You should be extracting what information this thing has, we only need to keep it alive, not coddle it.” Odo says.
“She actually looks human.” Dalv says, surprised and rubbing a bump on her forehead.
Water washed enough blood away that my traits must be visible even in the relative darkness. I stand and throw the whip back at her, a distraction. I then move to the back of my cell, further from the flow torches, deeper in the shadows. I assume Aisha meant these circumstances when she said some people would have ‘accidents’.
“You can interrogate her Count, but I warn you that she is dangerous. Remain out of the cell.” Vikiana speaks up.
The eight Templars present don’t overtly react to their leader permitting the Count to continue, they seem a little confused. Odo himself seems taken off-balance by it. He takes a moment to think before responding.
“Dalv is perfectly capable of assessing the danger and taking the measures necessary to ensure my safety, Exemplar. Still, I am pleasantly surprised that your Order’s famed wisdom remains of actuality.” He says pompously.
Vikiana departs, signaling Conrad to come along. The man hesitates before obeying. I crouch down to reduce how exposed I am to the whip and make it possible for me to catch it without disturbing my right arm. I watch the Noble and his servant.
“If she… it can catch this, we’ll need to restrain it before anything.” Dalv says.
“We’ll see if she can keep doing it first.” Odo says calmly.
The woman attacks again with the whip, missing me as I am only just within the weapon’s range at the very end of the cell. The morning goes by with Odo asking stupid questions I don’t bother answering while Dalv struggles to land a hit. After a few misses and my limb slapping the weapon aside, she starts aiming at my face.
At that point, I stop blocking and stand, using my left arm to hold my right in place while I dodge the weapon. It does allow me to train my ability to use both my eyes and my sense at once. I elect not to close my eyelids to eliminate the distraction of my sight.
Vikiana is already suspicious and I’m revealing inhuman reflexes, I would rather not give them any more information on what I can do. Especially not how strong I truly am.
I do take a few glancing blows that feel like intense burns on my skin as they split my flesh apart. It is mere surface damage, not really a problem, the issue is that, while this scheme of Aisha’s could allow me to kill the Count, my more debilitating injuries, like my ribs, aren’t getting any better since I keep moving.
“It has to run out of flow at some point.” Odo says.
“I’m getting close to my limit.” Dalv grumbles, massaging her arm.
“And it isn’t getting anywhere.” Odo notes.
“Aw, giving up already?” I ask.
“For now.” Odo nods, unconcerned. “But don’t worry, we’ll be back this afternoon.”
They leave and I wait until they’re one deck up to sigh in relief. I sit down on the bench. The movement provokes a short spike of pain in my back, around my left shoulder-blade, informing me that the wound reopened.
The drops rolling down my back weren’t actually sweat, or at least not only, but blood. I’m not bleeding a lot but this feels like I took one step forward and two steps back towards my current goal of getting back into shape.
Vikiana shows up with food, and a spoon, a few minutes later. She opens the cell’s padlock and walks in without hesitating. As usual, however, she doesn’t turn her back on me and remains fully alert. My four Templar guards watch from a distance, intrigued.
“Relax, I’m spent.” I tell her.
“You okay?” She whispers.
“Sure.” I reply.
“It’s impressive that you only have a few cuts.” She comments. “Can you handle them both if they step inside?”
“No.” I lie. “Going to need that training if you want me to do your dirty work.”
“You’re in no state to…” She starts.
“Then teach me flow.” I interrupt.
“We’re in a disruption field.” Vikiana argues.
“I’m starting to think that you have no intention to hold your end of the bargain.” I utter sharply.
The Exemplar steps out to grab a stool that she sets down to sit down in front of me, out of my left limb’s reach. She remains quiet for a long moment, thinking. I let her, taking hold of one of the bowls she brought to have my meal.
“First off, this isn’t my dirty work. I am only part of this because the Shade requires my help. I will demand formal confirmation of her orders once I reach Meiridin’s main Temple.” She explains.
“Whatever. Why do you keep avoiding using a name?” I ask.
“Because there is no reason to burn their current identity.” She replies.
I shrug and use my luxurious copper spoon to eat. As I do so, she starts talking about joints. She demonstrates what movements are and aren’t possible, or efficient, from a given stance by taking the stances herself.
She explains that it matters for both constructs and combat since fluidly linking lion strike stances together is the quickest way to become stronger. It makes the best use of what energy she has as well as eliminate the attack stances that have the most blind spots.
“That’s the theory, until you heal that up, I won’t be able to show you how it applies.” She says. “I saw you spin your hammer all around from a distance, landing a ‘lucky‘ blow on a soldier behind you.”
The emphasis she puts on the word makes it obvious that she doesn’t believe it was for a second.
“I extend my lion strike’s timer segment to be able to go full circle with a single construct.” I tell her, repressing the anger I have about the loss of my hammer.
“The wide arc of those kinds of attacks wouldn’t work in close combat without your uncanny situational awareness.” She says. “But it obviously works for you to a point. Doesn’t it get stuck when you land a hit?”
“Nah, it’s… it was heavy enough that it tore through most things.” I say.
“Wielding it at the speed you did would consume a lot of flow.” Vikiana comments. “Must help that your left ‘arm‘ is stronger.”
“I have the reserves.” I say, brushing past the comment about my limb.
“Well, next time you get to use a weapon, try a sword.” She advises. “You may not have realized it but you spent a good portion of your focus on keeping your balance while you swung that thing.”
“Isn’t footwork important?” I question, frowning in suspicion.
“It is, but what I saw was less footwork than struggle to maintain control over a weapon.” She criticizes. “You’re well-built but your muscles are still catching up to using weapons instead of hoes. Besides, you’re short and not heavy enough that your body naturally functions as a counter-weight like Conrad.”
“I’m not that short.” I reply automatically.
“There is a reason most soldiers use swords and shields, Elizabeth. What you do is overkill, a simple cut is enough to kill human opponents and when faced with a Lisilese or Rykz Princess, you need to be fast enough to exchange blows or well defended enough that you can ignore their attacks to land a heavy one yourself.” She says, ignoring me. “You have a good read on your opponents, but you spend so much of your focus on yourself that you can’t think more than a move or two ahead. You’re stuck in the present.”
I bite down on a huge portion of gruel, thinking about what she’s saying. In essence, she seems to be saying that using a hammer at full efficiency would require a lot more training than swords would demand of me.
“Alright, that seems like good advice.” I nod.
“To give you some perspective. There are a lot of fighters at your level of skill, my daughter is barely out of it, the vast majority of soldiers remain comfortably in it and that’s not a problem because, essentially, there is no one better or worse. Don’t get me wrong, there are those who are definitely stronger and will win most of their fights. But what marks the difference between an amateur and a professional is consistency. You need to polish your own style in such a way that you have the ability to adapt to anything but also won’t crumble as soon as someone gets inside your head, lands a good blow, breaks your pace, or your footing.” She explains.
“What makes a master?” I ask.
“Relentless training.” Vikiana replies seriously.
“You know what I mean.” I press.
“Me too. You train until your skills become instinct, until battle becomes a secondary nature, and then you keep training. There is always something new to learn, something old to fix, one of your tells to eradicate, new ways to cheat.” The Exemplar tells me. “But I think the last one is already part of your playbook.”
“How so?” I ask.
“If you tell me the number of fingers I’m holding up, I’ll take a look at your lion strike construct and tell you how to improve it.” She replies in a murmur, holding her thumb down behind her back.
Should I? I consider it for a second but quickly reach the conclusion that she already suspects the truth so the next time we fight, and there will be a next time, she won’t be trying to get around my field of vision to land a strike. I might as well gain something in exchange.
“None, your thumb is down. But that’s not cheating.” I whisper.
“It would be if you thought more about it.” She says.
“You mean let someone stab me so I can take them by surprise later? I pile up enough injuries as it is.” I scoff.
“Not only. Do you know how hard it is to learn to shape constructs outside your body without looking at them?” Vikiana asks.
“Haven’t run into that.” I reply.
“Well, it takes years to learn.” The Exemplar says. “It is a considerable advantage to be able to keep your eyes on the fight while assembling a construct.”
Impatient to see what she has to tell me about the lion strike, I pick up my second bowl of gruel and bring it up to my lips to directly push the food in with the spoon.