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I awaken flat on my belly, my arms stuck under me with a golden sun floating in front of my eyes. Flow. I reach out to my own to defend myself but notice the face behind the glow as I do.

Conrad, his nose is bloody and slightly off. I struggle against my shackles, to fight, to survive, but find no leeway. My other sense informs me that the rope is tied around my chains. Panic, buried just beneath the surface, flares. It takes a conscious effort not to lash out and hurt myself even more.

The break in my right forearm feels just as bad, if not worse, than it was yesterday before Vikiana set the splints that are now broken. My shoulder’s muscles mended, but it isn’t enough and the wound reopened.

I scrutinize my surroundings and find that I’m not inside the cell. Odo is lying down a few meters away, Dalv is healing him. So I was only out a few minutes at the most.

Kuh.” I cough, there is still some water inside my airways. “Keh.” A rush of fear and adrenaline quickly follows.

The thirteen Templars are present, six of them are blocking the stairs, preventing soldiers from barging in. Grace is on the rowers’ deck, pacing with a frown. She seems worried but not overly so. Vikiana is lying back against a barrel, face buried in her hands. Her expression underneath is difficult to interpret.

It is awake.” Dalv tells Odo.

Good.” He replies, supporting himself on Dalv to stand. “We can resume where we left off.”

No.” Vikiana speaks up.

No?Odo repeats. “No?!

No.” She confirms. “You’ve demonstrated quite clearly that you are unable to follow the security measures in place and these rudimentary facilities don’t allow for amateurism.”

It almost broke.” Odo affirms.

Fu, ck you.” I growl, voice hindered by the ball of nerves in my throat.

I can teach it the meaning of the word, there are ways to…” Odo spits in my direction. “Escalate.

Vikiana rises from her position, she lowers her right arm to rest her palm on her sword’s golden lion head pommel. She slowly approaches Odo and stops when facing him. Dalv tries to interpose herself in-between them but Vikiana’s left hand flickers, it disappears and reappears as a fist hitting her jaw.

The bulky woman drops, unconscious. Vikiana then places the same hand on the young Count’s shoulder. Odo is too startled, too surprised to think of drawing his weapon, he tries to move back but she stops him.

Do I look like I’m about to take your head off your shoulders?” She asks, almost casually.

N, no?” Odo stutters.

That’s odd.” The Exemplar notes, the threat of violence is evident in her tone.

You can’t…” He starts but stops on his own, no doubt realizing that he’s alone. Odo straightens his back. “I will retire for the night, Exemplar. But tomorrow, it will talk.”

Odo shakes Vikiana’s hand from his shoulder and stomps towards the stairs, shoving the Templars aside to make his way out. He is visibly restraining his pace, controlling himself.

Clear out!” Vikiana orders sharply.

The Templars clear out and climb the stairs to guard the top. Conrad and another grab Dalv and drag her out. Vikiana waits for them to leave the cargo-hold before turning to me.

I glare at her, my only resort to evacuate my anger as I am unable to move. She walks up to me and takes her dagger out to cut the rope. I flip over to my back. The movement releases my right arm from the pressure of my weight but, as blood flows in, a wave of agony courses through me. I shake.

Vikiana reaches down and helps me sit down with my back against the cell door’s metal bars. I want to talk, to show strength, but I feel that if I do, tears will escape me. The Exemplar silently takes hold of my torn bra, tying the two ends of the right shoulder strap together, covering me.

She is hesitating, looking like she wants to talk. Her hard traits don’t hide her unusually concerned expression. In the end, she takes my mask out from under her leather armor and holds it out for me. I snatch it out of her hand and place it over my face, injecting energy in the runic construct.

I breathe out in relief. Yvonne’s comment didn’t sound true to me when she said I was different with it on, but it turns out that I simply never realized that it reassured me, brought me strength and comfort from anonymity. How weak.

I need to escape. I… I can’t be taken to the institute. I cannot stay here. The succession of thoughts doesn’t do anything to help me calm down, it increases my nervous shaking and disturbs my right arm. Vikiana notices.

She stands and makes her way to a backpack set against a crate. She riffles through it until she finds two more wooden splints. She then walks back and crouches on my right.

She carefully takes hold of my forearm and unties the leather strips holding the two broken splints before replacing them. I should hate this woman but I can’t fight the fact that her presence makes me feel safer.

But she isn’t on my side, Vikiana and Aisha are using me. I need time, at least a day and a half of rest to heal. A burst of anguish arises at the thought of having to deal with Odo tomorrow with my arm in this state.

I need time, pl.” I cut myself off, just short of begging. “I, just one day.”

I feel… sick. I’m taking advantage of my own weakness to buy space, pulling on her emotional cords.

It’s my fault. I should have seen it.” Vikiana says. “You are in no state to withstand this.”

I’m fi…” I protest automatically, out of vain pride.

Young.” She interrupts me. “There is a difference between fighting with your life on the line and being taken to the edge, shown how mortal you are and the lack of control you have on the outcome.” The Exemplar’s expression hardens. “There will be no more. I shouldn’t even have let it happen to begin with. This isn’t required in the mission parameters, I don’t know what game the Shade is playing, but I won’t go along.”

I don’t react to the empty words. All I need is a day and then I’m going to… I’ll spend the night and day regenerating, looking for a way to fix myself enough that I can run.

I’ll handle myself Odo if need be.” She says.

Odo is mine.” I utter.

Vikiana remains silent. I focus on my plan. I know how I can escape the cell, I just have to… My broken forearm is the most pressing matter, that won’t heal in time. I reach for my healing construct and concentrate it on my shoulder muscles and ribs.

I look down at the splints holding it straight. The problem isn’t so much the constant pain it radiates but the hurt when I move it and displace the bones. The Exemplar moves to sit in front of me.

What crazy idea crossed my daughter’s mind this time?” Vikiana asks softly.

I take the distraction, more than willing to occupy my thoughts with Leomi. I recount what I know of her intentions. How she wants people to pledge oaths to her organization instead of an individual, that she wants to create a charter with rules of conduct that would forge trust.

Vikiana asks a few questions about whether its possible to do that and I tell her that Celyz did say it was. She doesn’t say that the Rykz lied but doubt is clear on her face so I explain that while she doesn’t tell the whole truth, she wouldn’t tell a straight lie that can be easily refuted.

Vikiana is convinced by the argument but keeps pressing about more details which I can’t give her considering I don’t have any information apart from the fact that oaths to flow are much more malleable than the general public knows, but the Exemplar is already aware of that.

Yet, she remains stuck on the fact that one can take an oath towards an organization, she doesn’t let it go. It hits me after a while that the Templar Order could easily be supplied with flow using this method. That’s why Vikiana is having such a hard time believing me.

I put forward the notion that Nobility could be blocking the information but Vikiana says that if they know, then the University and the Empire do too because Nobles are in no way united.

She suggests that Nobility would revolt if the Emperor tried. Beyond that, we both agree that if it was so easy, the Emperor would have used his long lifespan to gradually introduce the idea to undermine Nobility so there must be drawbacks and obstacles we simply don’t know about.

That or the fact that it’s possible is new information, or simply something humans haven’t discovered yet. Talking to her and about Leomi, even indirectly like this, helps me stabilize emotionally.

It allows me to regain sight of my oath to the Izla and remember the future I need to strive for, one of peace, rest. Conrad arrives as our conversation dies down, bringing two bowls, spoons, and a small cauldron one-third filled by gruel.

The Templar’s nose was straightened and he wiped the blood. Still, the break remains visible. I don’t apologize, I don’t regret it. At the end of the day, we’re enemies even if I loathe the fact that I find myself opposed to my Emperor’s Order.

There is no avoiding the fact that my faith in Emperor Rasaec was shaken but I cannot let myself doubt his plan at this juncture even if I work to… not oppose but improve. One way or another, I’ll have to enter the institute and the data He needs provides me with some leverage against them.

I only need to break the… escape. Conrad tears me out of my thoughts by holding out a gourd for me to drink. I edge away from it despite my thirst. I can’t see water right now. He makes a tight grimace and puts it down in front of the Exemplar.

Conrad then retreats to the back end of the cargo-hold. Vikiana fills my bowl and gives it to me. I notice that she uses her left hand to do so, which wouldn’t be indicative of anything except that she’s keeping her torso out of my left limb’s range.

Prudent. I consider attacking but, frustratingly, the fact remains that a good portion of the barrels filling the cargo-hold contain flow that she can call upon. I cannot defeat her without a weapon, injured, and with barely any energy.

No, my plan to scut… break out depends on specific goals that I need to attain, rushing will destroy my chances. I inspect the key to the disruption construct she gave me. She knew something would happen, and let it. I wonder what the thought process was, to give me a better chance? Because she judged me as weak, like Leomi?

How’s your arm?” Vikiana asks.

Worse, I think.” I answer.

You’ll have plenty of time to heal by the time we reach the institute.” She says. I do my best to hide my reaction to her words. “I’ll be there and the Shade will make sure that the priority is the data, not torture or experiments. Once we have that, there is no reason for us to leave you there.”

Or to keep me alive.” I say in her place. She shuffles uneasily, looking to go back on what she said when she didn’t think I was listening. “Don’t bother, we’re not friends but I understand why you went there. Believe me, after… after that. I do.”

Vikiana nods. I shift the mask aside to start eating, in silence. The mood shifted, undermined by the reality of our situations. Whatever she is willing to do for me, it’ll never cross the line between us. We may both hold a similar loyalty to the Emperor, but the Exemplar is part of the power structure while I am not.

I serve myself a second a third time. She observes as I eat, a question held back on the tip of her tongue. I turn a blind eye to it, focusing on the barrels and trying to figure out which contain flow.

There are no markings on their surface, at least none that I can detect with my other sense. Perhaps there is writing or a symbol, but the most I can tell at the moment is that there are barrels of water on either side of the cargo-hold.

Doesn’t i… the creation need to eat?” Vikiana asks once I finish my bowl.

It takes what it needs out of me unless it is starving.” I reply calmly.

The Exemplar’s expression distorts in pity, and… maybe disgust mixed in but I might be projecting. She schools her traits in no time and asks if I want more gruel, an obvious change of subject. I wave it off. I lean back against the cell door’s metal bars, make use of it to get back on my feet.

Vikiana stands before I do, letting me rise on my own. I find myself grateful that she doesn’t offer help. I walk back in my cell. My mask falls off. Clack. The polished item hits the ground. I forgot that the disruption construct would interfere with it since it sticks because of flow.

I groan and crouch down to pick it up. I lie down on the bench, setting the mask back on my face. I close my eyes, but with no intention of sleeping yet. Vikiana closes the padlock and departs, calling the Templars back.

I follow her path to the upper deck. The soldiers don’t pay her much attention. They wouldn’t be so indifferent if they knew about what transpired between the Exemplar and the young Count. The confrontation wasn’t big, but there would be some reaction on their part, looks and whispers.

Vikiana heads to the ship’s bow once again, but she doesn’t sing. She waits. Four of the temple guards take position near my cell. A fifth, Conrad, watches over for a few minutes but soon leaves and joins the Exemplar on the upper deck.

They talk, and as hard as I try, I fail to read the words off their lips. I let my mind wander, but not so much that I grow drowsy. The galley-slaves are rowing, the sound construct’s beats are regular.

Every few minutes, I send the tiny specks of flow I regenerate to my healing construct. It staves boredom off, and I can’t really help myself from doing so. After what seems to be days of boredom, the soldiers finally give them a break. Nightfall, the day’s end I suppose.

I focus on my healing construct and adjust its timer to last a single day, double the construct’s standard. I then empty my energy into the construct for the last time. My reserves will be full tomorrow at the same time.

My plan is simple if complicated in execution. I need to turn the slaves to my side, which can be done by showing them the path to survival. I recall what Leomi told me so long ago about the results of her bouts with Vikiana. I can best someone of a higher skill level, no one is so perfect that they’re invincible.

I need to create favorable circumstances. Cheat, because there are no such things as rules in battle, in survival. Nobility’s greatest weakness is the fact that their soldiers are loyal to the one holding the title, the one paying them.

Even if I had the gold, it is doubtful that I would be able to turn soldiers, especially after my defeat. Still, I can turn this the other way around. If they let their liege die… it is over for them, not only will they not get paid, but they may very well find themselves without a home to return to.

Odo is integral to my success, but so is cutting the Templars off from flow. It would severely limit, if not eliminate, their use of armor-piercing constructs as well as force them to be more conservative about their lion strikes. Their overall strength would drop significantly.

It isn’t possible to overpower those guarding me, that’s why I plan to breac… Anyway, there aren’t any Templars on the other galley. I pause as the back of my mind notes a shift in Vikiana’s posture. She is looking at Aisha over her shoulder, unmistakably angry.

The Exemplar turns to Conrad, speaks, and the man leaves. Soon after, the Shade takes his place next to her. Vikiana speaks a single sentence. Aisha a single word. The former punches the latter in the stomach.

 Aisha doubles over, gripping the guardrail to keep her balance. The Exemplar looks down at her. I imagine it to be a pitiless glare. What’s this about? Me? But why? It’s not like what would happen to me was any mystery.

All I can think of is that something changed about Vikiana’s perception of the situation. Aisha recovers her breath and blocks the second punch. She does it effortlessly despite the fact that Exemplar’s attack was so quick that I only noticed once it was stopped.

The Shade is definitely a lot better at combat than her young age and small frame would suggest. It is no coincidence. I never thought of her as a physical threat, even after I learned of her true occupation.

Aisha leaves, apparently neither of them are in the mood to have a conversation. Not surprising considering the commotion around them, the soldiers who saw alerted the others in time for them all to see one of their own be hit by an Exemplar.

Aisha’s face, no doubt hidden behind her illusion construct, is impassible. Yet, those who walk up to her, to ask what just happened, react to her answer with surprise, amazement, or shock. Many even pat her shoulder in a comforting manner, laughing and looking impressed.

She probably sold them some story to maintain her cover. I could expose her, out of spite or whatever, but what would it gain me? Odo knowing could cause her trouble but he’ll die. Vikiana knows and the Templars aren’t going to blab about one of their own.

The soldiers and crime-slaves are even more irrelevant than a Count living on borrowed time. Them knowing her face, name, and occupation would prevent her from working in Port-Odo… maybe. Her name and face are interchangeable.

It could spread to the Izla, she would lose would be an established identity on the Izla but wouldn’t she just need Cecil to help her forge another? Pointless. Revealing that I can see through her disguise would cost me much more than it costs her.

Vikiana figured it out and I can’t trust her to keep it to herself, but the Shade doesn’t know for now and the Exemplar isn’t going to throw the information around… hopefully. This is one of the occasions where the fractured nature of the Empire works in my favor. I close my eyes. I’ve watched all I needed to. Rest, heal, slaughter.

— — —

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