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Tack. I blink, no longer feeling the mask on my face. I look around, finding it on the ground not too far. I pick it up and set it back on my face. The ship is waking up as well. The galley-slaves, sleeping on their benches in the most uncomfortable positions, are being slapped or beaten awake by soldiers.

I grit my teeth. Criminals as they may be, they are humans, not animals. I notice that the bucket, that spilled yesterday during the chaos following the activation of my lightning construct, is upright in my cell and filled with water.

I rise, shifting the mask to the top of my head. Despite my parched throat, my thirst, it takes a conscious effort to make myself drink and I do so one tiny gulp at a time. I then splash water over the ridiculous amount of dried blood covering my body to clean up, scraping it off when necessary.

Vikiana is asleep in the cargo-hold, hidden from my view behind a crate. The four Templars responsible for guarding me are watching me like hawks. I turn my back on them and sit with my legs crossed, the closest to privacy I can get.

They cannot help but stare at my left side where my limb’s shoulder links to my flesh, the tendrils protruding from under my skin. Their gazes make me feel so uncomfortable that I have a hard time thinking. I need to find a way to fix my forearm if I want to escape tonight.

I don’t have a choice but to hide the shackles from their sight if I want to break them with any discretion. I sigh, resigned, and focus within. Of all the constructs I know, the only one that could do it in a reasonable timeframe is the merging construct.

But, directly fusing my bones together sounds like a terrible idea considering I don’t know anything about the effects it would have on my biological functions and would shorten my arm. So, I need to do it indirectly. I essentially need splints that would allow me to use my arm, the wood ones are out, too fragile.

I look down at the chains. Desperate times, desperate measures. To do this well, it would take a whole portion of flow, which is less than it would take to heal it with an overcharged healing construct and be possibly less risky than messing with the healing construct.

Can’t try yet. I carefully move my right shoulder. The muscles are reconnected well enough. I bring my left limb tight against my rib-cage. The ribs are fused well enough. Both actions are painful, but it appears that trading one of my injuries to fix the other two paid off.

Although, I would have thought that the ribs would have taken longer. The limb’s tendrils kept them in place and that seems to have helped the process. I assemble a merging construct and start re-familiarizing myself with its segments.

It might hurt a lot more, but I can’t risk dilating the bones so it’ll have to be the iron. I’m fucking crazy even considering this. I need to cut my skin to the bone before doing it, to make sure that I don’t merge the iron with a vein, a nerve, or tendon.

So, cutting. How do I do that? I don’t have a weapon. I explore the cell once again, fruitlessly. Planks, beams, bench. I pause. There is something sticking out from my other sense, something in the wood. Nails.

I’m sitting on two of the hull’s planks, kept together by nails and with cord stuck between them to make the link watertight. I press my left hand’s root-like fingers around the nail and… push. The wood is too resistant to break with just this, sadly. I could coil back and… No, too much damage, too loud.

I assemble a lion strike with a tiny amount of flow, targeting my left hand alone. I focus on my hearing, the oars plunging in the seawater, the sound construct marking the beat, the ship hull’s creaking. I sink down into the rhythm of it, counting down and predicting.

I activate the construct and press. Crack. Cold sweat rolls down my back. The wood around the nail gave away, just slightly. The Templars didn’t even blink. I sigh in relief. The nail’s head is sticking out, just a little bit. Just enough to take hold of it and slowly, carefully, pull it out.

I put it away in my briefs for later. I then get back to my merging construct to adjust two segments governing material dilation. I only change one of the two, the one I’ll use on the iron. I extend the timer segment, I’ll be able to accelerate the process once I get a handle on it but to get there it needs to start slow.

This is insane. It’s the only way. I swore to end this war for the Izla, the objective is half accomplished. I cannot… it hurts but I cannot trust the Empire because the greater good it is pursuing is different from the one I am. Not incompatible, but diverging.

I have intimate knowledge of the threat that the Rykz pose and, so far, I have failed to convince those who matter that the costs of a war with them will supersede the gains. Could it be that humans are so blindly arrogant that even when faced with overwhelming force, they still believe that they’ll win? And if they do win, in what state will we be left in?

It seems that they cannot imagine their own defeat. Perhaps an irrational belief in oneself is a requirement to wage war. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do all that I’ve done, struggling against impossible odds, without some ability to delude myself.

And when I cracked, when I didn’t have faith that I could make it, what kept me going was insanity, love, a reckless disregard for what could happen to me. Few have this kind of madness in them. Or at least, I haven’t met any.

I could reveal more of what I know, that this could lead to full-out war. Wait, don’t they already know? My Emperor reinforced his phalanxes near the Silver Hive and moved in reserves along the border, it means that He had at least some inkling that the consequences could go beyond a simple war with Queen Grikyz. Too many questions. Not enough Answers.

How could He… I shake my head. This isn’t a productive line of thought. I explore the galley with my other sense. Odo is on the upper deck, pacing with a frustrated expression. Your game isn’t going as planned, huh.

Vikiana is up, talking to her Templars in the stairs to the cargo-hold. I try to read her lips once more. The most I get out of it is ‘Dot’, maybe, and then perhaps ‘nyne’, and ‘pa’, mere fragments. Seems like she told them ‘Don’t let anyone pass.’ but that’s me using what Vikiana said she would do to guess what she would be saying right now.

Rhaa. Mother always bashed me with confirmation bias. This isn’t reliable at all. I feel like I could manage with extensive practice but it’s useless at the moment. I simply observe Odo and Vikiana as they seem to be on a collision course.

The Noble is too stupid to simply back down and I’ve experienced the Exemplar’s stubbornness first hand. If she’s made a decision, she simply isn’t going to back down. Good, keep your attention on each other.

So many things could go wrong that I decide to spend the rest of the morning getting as accustomed as possible to the merging construct, how its segments function. I occasionally notice Odo barking at his soldiers, venting.

My stomach informs me that it is noon. Not long after, Vikiana talks to Conrad who makes his way towards the ship’s stern. Minutes later, a man wearing an apron crosses the rowers’ deck to climb up to the upper deck and talk to his Lord. This has to be about food. That’s not good.

Odo‘s expression brightens like he suddenly got an idea. He gathers a half-dozen soldiers and heads downstairs, passing by his galley-slaves without even sparing them a glance.

He then heads directly towards Vikiana and her Templars. The conversation that ensues is quiet at first but Odo grows confused. The Exemplar’s lips clearly form the word ‘no’, she isn’t budging.

I imagine she doesn’t even have to invent a reason, both her and the Shade agreed to keep my identity under wraps so they can’t allow soldiers down. This falls entirely within Vikiana’s mission parameters.

Odo grows agitated, angry. He is too used to getting his way. He shouts, the voice reaches my cell at its high point. The Exemplar doesn’t budge, her icy expression remains. After that outburst, the Count departs towards the stern with his escort, leaving my range of detection.

A few moments later, Odo returns with Conrad but no soldiers. The Templar is empty-handed. I grit my teeth, no sustenance for me today. Odo doesn’t even stop to discuss this with Vikiana, he stomps past her and returns to the upper deck.

He likely wanted to use his soldiers to hold me so he didn’t have to do it himself, likely starving me and using food as a reward for talking. Coward, it’s just a bit of lightning. I can’t bring myself to smile. The end result is that I’m not going to get the food I need to maintain control of my limb.

I should be able to last the day as long as I don’t exert it but I have to since it’ll only get worse tomorrow if I delay my attempt, not to mention that the symbiont is almost assuredly expending resources to help us heal. This move on my sustenance is pretty much an ultimatum whether they realize it or not.

Where can I find food? I need to be in my best shape if I am to beat the odds. The Templars are splitting up, leaving only two to guard the stairs to the cargo-hold while the other six join Vikiana and make their way to the stern.

Can’t expect much there. I turn my attention back to my cell. Maybe, maybe it’ll catch another rat. I shiver in revulsion. I can’t help but be glad that there isn’t any within reach. Ironic how I’ve devoured humans, yet rodents are apparently one step too far.

As I thought, the Templars return without a portion for me. They relieve the other six who go have their meal. At least the Rykz offered food for work. I wonder if I could row in exchange. Silly thought.

I go through the instructions I can send my limb, wondering if there is a way to make it go to sleep and consume less. Not much there. I do hit on the one that gets the parasite to camouflage the damage it does to its host.

I look down at my left breast. It is just a useless piece of flesh in the end, perhapsTing. Vikiana knocks on the cell’s bars with her knuckles. I throw a glance over my shoulder.

How bad is it for you to skip meals?” She asks.

“It’ll eat me if there isn’t anything else.” I reply sharply.

Vikiana falls silent, taken aback by my answer. I turn away and assemble three signaling constructs. I add the ‘camouflage’ order to each and then break them at different points. At the end of the first, then middle, and lastly at the start. Somewhat abstract, but the meaning should be obvious enough.

How long do you have until that happens?” Vikiana asks. I remain silent. “I need to know what the time limit is to cut your losses and take action.” She insists.

Exemplar, we should have cut our losses four years ago before provoking the Rykz and placing the Empire on a path to total war.” I utter coldly. “I will not provide you with information that can easily be used against me.”

I’m going to find out eventually, Count Odo is resolved to get you to talk and he thinks you’ll do so before we get to Meiridin. You’re willing to risk your health just to buy time?” She asks.

Whether it gets to that point or not is up to you.” I shrug, unconcerned. “Aisha could…”

Don’t.” She interrupts me.

Put an end to all of this whenever she wants.” I continue, ignoring her. “But she won’t, will she. I won’t be left to die like Idali, but I’m willing to bet that she’ll consider that the fact that I’m alive as having preserved my health well enough.”

I’ll try to talk to her.” Vikiana says.

Send her to me, I’d like to have a little chat with her.” I laugh grimly.

That’s not going to happen.” She replies.

Too bad. I wonder what she looks like now.” I muse out loud, deceiving the Exemplar.

Aisha is helping soldiers bring the sail back, I might not know what her illusion construct currently shows but I don’t need to. I am darkly amused by the fact that this Shade seems to think that I’ll work as her asset after this.

Did you train the lion strike?” She asks.

Hm.” I nod. I would have actually considered staying long enough to spar with the Exemplar if I could. “Any tips about layering it with a strengthening construct?”

Both constructs need to be able to stand on their own to conserve adaptability.” She replies. “If you run out of flow and your strengthening construct is what allows your body to handle the lion strike, you could find yourself in a bad spot. Otherwise, same advice as the lion strike, don’t boost the muscles that can naturally handle the strain. I wouldn’t advise you to use both at once unless you have access to an external source of flow. It isn’t an efficient use of your energy.”

I nod absent-mindedly, already assembling a strengthening construct and removing the muscles she told me not to enhance with the lion strike. I’ll have to be very careful with what the tells me.

Leaving those muscles out seems to make sense but the woman tried to exploit my helmet’s restrained line of sight, I wouldn’t put it past her to trick me by giving me bad advice to make it easier for her to defeat me. I should avoid physical combat with the Exemplar if at all possible.

You know the Rykz lightning construct.” She speaks up.

I do.” I reply.

There is no point in hiding the obvious, besides I’ve demonstrated it often enough on the Izla and she no doubt heard of it.

I would like you to return the key I’ve given you.” She whispers.

Ah. Because you’ll protect me?” I ask, scoffing. “I’m finding it difficult to trust that considering…” I pat my stomach.

I can change the disruption construct.” She says.

You would have if you could, without asking or bringing it up. No, I think it’s too late to make any changes now that it’s deployed.” I tell her, basing this on the fact that Duke Meria had to touch the runic construct in the headquarters to disable it. “I suppose you could disable it and then assemble it again but that would waste a lot of flow, wouldn’t it?”

If you refuse, I will double the guard.” The Exemplar says.

Go ahead.” I shrug. “I’ll take it as a breach of our deal.”

While I’m didn’t plan to break the spirit of our agreement, I won’t complain if she puts an end to it by herself. The difference between four and eight pairs of eyes on me is negligible.

Does that mean you’re going to try to escape?” She asks. “Turn around, Elizabeth.” She suddenly adds.

What do you think I’m hiding?” I scoff, throwing her a mocking glance over my shoulder. “This is all the privacy I get.”

Do it.” The Exemplar orders.

There is no doubt in my mind that there will be consequences if I refuse so I spin around without breaking eye contact.

Satisfied that the monster is still secure in its cage?” I growl.

Vikiana frowns but doesn’t answer. I get back in position and observe her talk to the Templars guarding the stairs. They leave and gather the rest of them, doubling my guard to eight with two upstairs on the rowers’ deck. Over the next few hours, they rotate in groups of two.

My hunger only grows more intense but I still hesitate to activate the signaling constructs. I do not want to give up the semblance of a normal appearance provided by this fake left breast but I don’t have much of a choice.

Yet, I delay the decision. Vikiana could come back and order me to turn around again. I bide my time and wait for nightfall, for my flow reserves to refill. I spend the entire afternoon in a state of uncertainty, so many things could go wrong.

I need to disable the disruption construct, break my shackles, merge the pieces to my forearm’s bones, and my escape won’t have even begun once all of that is done. The most delicate part of the plan will be to shatter the… Anyway. It is a stressful experience to spend the afternoon in a state of constant doubt.

After an excruciating wait, soldiers and Templars do start going to sleep. I don’t give myself the opportunity to rethink my plan, I activate the three signaling constructs. My limb receives the instructions and the fused tendrils in my left breast react momentarily.

The rubbery flesh underneath my skin contorts, provoking a ticklish sensation. An itch somewhere I can’t scratch. The breast gradually loses volume. Viscous brown blood is being drained out as I’d hoped and, with any luck, it’ll provide the parasite with some much-needed sustenance.

My heartbeat accelerates as the first step of my plan becomes reality. I stop myself from proceeding too fast with the next one, I decide to give my limb the time it needs to reassign its resources.

During the next half-hour, blood is pumped out of the mass of fused tendrils to the point where it splits into thin individual appendages once again. The separating process is countless times faster than it took to grow them but it takes another thirty minutes for it to complete.

The tendrils then spread out, diffusing the cool substance to numb the occasional spike of pain they provoke when doing so. I smother the uneasiness and reluctance I feel as the symbiont spreads those newly freed appendages throughout my body. It is necessary.

They anchor themselves to my sternum in front, then to my spine in my back. Those that remain reach down, positioning themselves over my belly. That last adjustment of the tendril network is the one that causes me the most pain.

I take it in stride, directly telling my limb to fight for survival. I’m not holding nothing back tonight. I giggle at the thought, my good humor helped along by the euphoria that accompanies the Rykz adrenaline equivalent.

I don’t forget about prudence and scrutinize the Templars before making my next move. Those on guard duty are making odd expressions but don’t appear to be worried that I’m attempting an escape.

I stealthily slip my left hand in my briefs and take hold of the nail I stashed in there earlier. I gently take hold of my right arm and rest it on my crossed legs before untying the leather strips holding the splints in place.

I then run the nail’s point over my skin, seeking the spots around the broken bones without veins or nerves to hinder the operation. I prick the skin in the two I find to mark them.

Vikiana is lying down in the cargo-hold but her irregular breaths tell me that she isn’t sleeping yet. No matter, it won’t be long. I train myself by assembling this new and improved lion strike, training while I wait for her to succumb.

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