As Tsek prepares our meal, I focus on the upper deck. Grace is just above, sleeping inside the cabin while the helmsman is on the bridge further above with the rest of the Templars, two of them laying down with grave burns. The ship is sailing ahead with its sail alone.
I catch him looking at the left side of my breast, he immediately turns away. I glance down. It isn’t as large as before since the symbiont grew more tendrils but they were filled with blood and it apparently consumed these during the fight.
It actually looks worse. I sigh and counteract my order to camouflage. I need to be as strong as possible and this is a waste of resources, vanity will only hurt me. The tendrils unfurl from my left breast and expand back into an extensive network covering my torso.
“Any meat?” I ask.
“Don’t think so.” Tsek replies. “Let me check.”
“Oh, and are we still headed for Meiridin?” I add.
“Yes, slowly. We’re a few days away.” He tells me, rifling through a cabinet integrated to the hull. “It got pretty tense as you wouldn’t wake up and they didn’t let us off, we don’t want to land there and be at their mercy. They might have promised a pardon, but who knows what they’ll do once they have the upper hand.”
Can I still win a fight? Not by myself. I could get the criminals to side with me because they want off the ship but that only lasts until Grace gives them the lifeboats, which she would in the end, and then I’m alone.
I would have to leave with them and consequently end up on the mainland anyway, behind human lines with a Countess and the Templar Order chasing me. Going to Meiridin would be the same, isolated and hunted down.
“No meat.” Tsek says.
“Hrm.” I grunt in response.
I could make a play with Aisha to curtail that but I can’t trust her so that limits me to making indirect use of her. The Shade needs something from me so I can get her to agree to be a hostage and help conceal my location since she also doesn’t want the knowledge of what I am to spread.
Her set of skills would allow me to hide in the capital but that’s it since I can’t let her make contact with anyone. Although, I do know what her objectives are to a point and I can use that to control her.
Which is preferable? It is difficult to say whether it would be easier or harder to hide in a city instead of in the wilderness. Then the question becomes, which advances my goals?
The institute is in Meiridin but unassailable from outside and inescapable from within, at least with the resources at my disposal. Getting to the King would be a fool’s errand. Even if I get the drop on Cenwalh and succeed against all odds, I don’t have the capability to hold him or make an exchange.
Killing him could cause sufficient chaos, but it wouldn’t weaken the institute in a significant manner. Not to mention that he is a King, even if I gather and store a month’s worth of flow… it still wouldn’t be enough. Perhaps an ambush would work. What would be the point? I need to focus on Cetyz.
Meiridin seems like a dead-end right now. Escaping to the mainland and then going south until I run into the Rykz would take a while and I would no doubt be hunted down by Aisha, Vikiana, and Grace. I can’t bring hostages as they would slow me down with little benefit, and the Templars wouldn’t let me take off with them without a fight either.
How about a surprise attack? I could take them all out at once with lightning constructs and seize the ship. I’ve used the tactic before and it worked. I gather a ball of unstructured flow and send it towards the upper deck to probe whether they have defenses or not.
“Don’t!” Tsek exclaims.
“Why?” I ask, bringing the energy back.
“You’ll trip the alarm.” He says. “They set up a runic array to alert them if constructs are sent through the rowers’ deck after what you did to them during the battle.”
“So much for that idea.” I groan. “I’m stumped.”
“About what?” Tsek asks.
“I need to do something as quickly as possible but my available options all seem like dead ends, too risky to attempt, or too time-consuming.” I explain. “What are you trying to do?” He questions.
“I need to break someone out of the institute in Meiridin.” I reply.
“Institute?” He asks.
“A place where they research flow, it’s heavily fortified.” I explain.
“There are no impregnable defenses.” He affirms.
“I don’t doubt I could take the institute if I had enough fighters, but the problem is that I’m alone. Flow won’t work inside and attacking from the outside would only result in alerting the rest of Meiridin, making it entirely impossible for me alone to break in before reinfor…” I pause. “Wait, that’s not right.”
“Hum?” He mumbles, stirring the pot. “That seemed to make sense, if you have to fight your way in, the Guard will be called. Or at least whoever owns that institute will be told.”
“Not that.” I say shortly, thinking furiously. “They research flow, that means that they can’t throw a blanket construct disruption over the entire building because that would defeat the entire point.”
“How does that help you?” Tsek asks.
“They’re ready for attacks and prisoners escaping. They no doubt have multiple contingencies for both cases. So I can’t attack from outside, nor inside since my current way in is as a prisoner.” I tell him.
“That sounds like a dead-end, yea.” He nods.
“Except it isn’t.” I smile behind my mask. “I’ll see whether I can make use of this later. My other option would be to go back to the Rykz and well, that would take me weeks just to get back and leads to a longer war with apparent hope of actually freeing… who I need to free to end the war before too much damage is done or it escalates beyond control. Caeviel is dead-set on fighting it out while the Empire wants something and won’t intervene until they get it. I came here because I thought they were ready to negotiate, that failed and I now know that going back would amount to giving up since they won’t free the prisoner.”
“Let them, why does this concern you?” Tsek asks, confused.
“I got into this to end the war to save my home. I… killed more than I had reason to.” I mutter. “Wavering would be a betrayal of every action I took up to this point, it would insult all those I’ve killed. Not to mention that I have a debt to the Rykz. I might not be able to prevent an all-out war but I will try. I made a deal that’ll save Caeviel, if not the Empire. That much is up to our Emperor and I… I must have faith that He is prepared and will prevail, or at least agree to a treaty if it fails.”
“Well, I don’t know much about any of that.” Tsek hedges. “Let’s eat.”
He sets the pot down on the table and we start eating. During the meal, he expresses doubts about my origins as a peasant. He thought me a Noble, and then a mercenary. With so many things to hide, I turn the conversation to field work and how much I miss it.
I almost choke as I remember how simple life was back then, not having to second guess motivations and what people tell me at every turn. The conversation is enjoyable yet I have to restrain myself as I can’t allow myself to give any details that could reveal my identity.
Tsek seems to pick up on that and starts talking about his life in Port-Odo, struggling to get a position as an apprentice’s assistant in a smithy. He was paid enough to eat when he worked, the problem was that he was only hired every other day when the blacksmith’s apprentice needed him.
So he stole from his employers to make it through the slowest weeks. That led to his imprisonment because his boss noticed after a while. He was condemned to jail as he couldn’t repay his debt in full and was to remain there until he could, an impossibility.
In prison, he had to pay for his food and lodging, yet no way to do so as all his money was given to his former employer as a fine. So he took on a new debt, to the Count this time, while the old one grew week after week since he didn’t repay it, interest and fines for being late piled up.
In the end, he was so deep into debt that the Count was lawfully allowed to enslave him as he was no longer a small-time thief, but a criminal with a large debt to the Kingdom. Tsek sounds more sarcastic than bitter about it, rolling his eyes. He bites down on a spoonful of gruel.
“Kind of wanted to ask what’s that’s about.” He says, pointing at the chain links buried into my right arm.
“Broken bones, I needed to be functional so I used iron to hold them together.” I shrug. “It’s getting beyond uncomfortable.”
“Ah, you do have enough flow to use a shaping construct like that.” He notes.
“Merging.” I correct.
“What?! How are you not burnt?” He exclaims.
“Why would I be? I merged iron with bone.” I reply.
“Oh. I mostly saw the merging construct used to mix melted metals.” He says. “Isn’t the result too fragile when you do it cold?”
“Still tougher than bone.” I tell him. “What’s does that shaping construct do?”
“Well, the blacksmith used it to make detailed adjustments but it’s very energy intensive for minor gains. He mostly used it to decorate weapons for Nobles or when he made small mistakes to avoid wasting steel.” Tsek explains.
“Do you know it?” I ask.
“I do, I’m not very good at it though, they gave up and said I had no talent so they just took my energy and did the grunt work they would have dumped on me themselves.” He admits.
“Does it weaken the material like the merging construct?” I question.
“No, it only rearranges what’s there, you can’t merge stuff with it.” He tells me.
“Interesting. What do you want in exchange for teaching me?” I ask.
“Want?” He blinks.
“I’m broke right now but my gold pouch should be around, somewhere. If it didn’t sink with the galley. I’ll figure it out either way.” I say, inclining my head as I wait to hear his price.
“I don’t want anything. I owe you, we all do. I’ll teach it to you for free.” Tsek says.
I pause for a long moment. Huh, I didn’t expect that answer. He’s been weird, he asked me to leave with him and the other criminals despite my telling him I wouldn’t, he has to expect something out of me.
“Really? You’re agitated, nervous, I can tell you want something.” I finally tell him.
“It’s just, you’re strong and confident.” He mutters, eyes hooded.
“Ha.” I scoff at his assessment of me.
“None of us would have escaped or even tried if not for you. I won’t ask for anything.” He affirms.
“You helped me as well.” I note and continue, distrusting the response. “Are you certain?”
“I am.” Tsek nods firmly.
I get back to eating, confused. He tries to restart the discussion by complimenting my skill in battle but I let it pass in silence as I don’t enjoy or want to feel pride about that. I kill because it is necessary, my skill in it is not something I want to elevate beyond utility.
After our meal, we return to the cargo-hold and settle down in the cell. He teaches me the construct as people start waking up all around the ship. It allows the shaping of materials at the expense of a staggering amount of flow.
I direct my first attempts at the links merged to my right arm as the skin around the cuts they’re going through is red, infected, and the healing construct doesn’t seem to be managing to get rid of it which means the metal is likely causing it.
I work on the metal where it emerges from the bone, the part of the link that isn’t integrated, until it is thin enough that I can break it. The first difficulty I encounter is that iron is flowing up and down the spot I’m trying to trim, which is a problem because I want to remove as much of it as possible.
Tsek explains that I should narrow the area I’m targeting and to exclude the iron melded with bone entirely, that way the iron will only have one place to go to. I burn through two portions of flow in a few tens of minutes as I experiment but achieve relatively good progress as one of the two bits of the link is soon slim enough.
I work on the second one and this time only burn through a single portion to reduce the iron link’s diameter from a centimeter and a half to a few millimeters. I seize it and try to snap it off, failing. I bite down on my lips to prevent a yelp of pain from escaping my lips.
Tsek flinches as he sees the metal bend at its base, leveraging on my fractured bones. I take a deep breath and use a merging construct to slowly, carefully, fix the damage.
“Didn’t that hurt?” He asks.
“It did.” I say between grit teeth.
This construct is useful, it would perhaps have been better to use this to fix my broken bones than the merging construct, I could have made a splint to hold them together, although that could have taken days worth of flow.
I keep working on the two links, moving metal around until they’re so narrow at their base that I can twist until they tear. I then use another merging construct to integrate what’s sticking out and poking at the inside of my skin to the rest.
As we do this, the freed galley-slaves do all they can to avoid me and the cell despite their relief at seeing that I’ve recovered. Aisha and Vikiana often throw glances at me but I ignore them, not even turning to acknowledge them.
A tall woman with a deep voice shows up around noon to discuss our next move, right after I’ve removed the iron chain links from my forearm. I simply tell her that I’m still considering my options and refuse to engage any further.
“We kept you safe, used our flow to heal you despite the risk of the Countess going back on her word.” She says, annoyed.
“That Odo wouldn’t have given us freedom if not for her, Ruth.” Tsek speaks up.
“Yea, well we bled for that and that freedom isn’t worth a thing if we’re stuck on this galley when we land in Meiridin. You know what Odo did to you, they’ll do the same to all of us. They’ll stick us in a prison while they delay our pardon and we’ll be indebted by the time they let us out if not outright hand us for mutiny after forgiving the rest of our crimes.” Ruth glares at him before turning back to me. “I don’t care who you are, and I’m not going to ask, but you owe us.”
“I owe you?” I ask, chuckling. “We helped each other, I think we’re even.”
“We could have turned you over.” She says.
Ungrateful. My limb shakes a little and the gauntlet’s steel finger protections clink against each other. I open and close my left fist to quiet down the… rage it is transmitting, fed by my own anger. I let myself cool down before replying.
“You didn’t because you’re afraid that I’m the only thing stopping the Countess from slaughtering the lot of you.” I utter flatly. “Although, I think you’re mistaken in your assessment of this Odo. She is more honorable than the other two ever were.” I add, recalling that Grace wanted to spare Idali.
“Do you realize that she’s been thinking about killing you for days now?” Ruth asks, baffled.
“I would be surprised if she didn’t, considering the fact that I killed both her father and brother. Either way, I may have called for my own execution a few months ago.” I reply calmly.
For the next half-hour, Ruth keeps trying to get me to ask for the lifeboats, threaten the Countess and Templars if necessary. I lose my patience and put an end to it by telling her I’ll talk to the hostages before I do anything.
“They’re there, go.” Ruth groans.
“In private.” I shake my head.
“Be quick about it, we’ll reach the river soon.” She says and storms off.
I inspect Vikiana’s right arm through my limb’s sense. Her hand is wrapped in bandages and obviously deformed underneath. I get up and make my way to her. She took that injury because she saved my life. I was saving hers.
Still, it doesn’t cost me much to give her the energy she needs to heal and it’ll put her in a good mood before we talk. And talk we have to since this might be my best chance at ending this before Caeviel and the Rykz clash.
I only hope that she still wants to considering that I responded to her last offer by slaughtering soldiers and electrocuting her brethren. I check my reserves, finding a little over six portions of flow.
Surprising considering I should only have three left if I’m not wrong about how much I used in the last three hours. I shape the almost entirely black energy into a long stream and direct it at the Exemplar. I don’t cut my link to it.
“Take it, that looks nasty.” I say, glancing at her hand.
She doesn’t reply but an instant later, a golden healing construct in the middle of being dismantled emerges from her hand. Her flow hits mine and I lose my connection to it, my link to it broken.
She didn’t give me a chance to observe how she did it while wasting so little energy just not and didn’t even use the method she did to steal the Due from me during our duel.
“You have even more flow now.” She affirms without a doubt.
“How do you know?” I ask, frowning.
“I was there when you gave your reserves up.” Vikiana replies. “And I can tell from the proportion of gold to black the flow you just gave me has.” I swear inside at my lack of prudence.
“How did you steal flow when we fought?” I question. I don’t have anything to lose by asking.
“I don’t.” She smiles. “The Due is given to the Emperor with intent and he sent it back with intent of His own. That means Templars have a claim to it as His servants, it’s part of our oath.”
I could have gotten rid of that ‘intent’ by making it go through my reserve to convert it to my own dark-gold energy. That seems to make sense since the ‘claim’ depends on an oath rather than on a rule that flow would have.
“What is flow?” I ask. “I keep hearing stuff that makes it seem like it can think.”
“It doesn’t, as far as we know.” Vikiana shakes her head. “You’ll have to ask Director Suxen, she’s the expert.”
“The institute’s head.” I say. “What makes you think I’ll have the chance to? I’m free, I have no reason to go to Meiridin.”
“You’re still here, and talking to me.”
I remain silent, unwilling to admit I need her and Aisha. I want to initiate the discussion in a position of strength which means that they have to be the ones asking, not me.
The Exemplar shrugs at my silence and then winces in pain as it disturbs her right hand. She starts assembling a complex healing construct with the energy she took from me.
“I did what I could to minimize your scars but you’ll have to ask an Alemplar or go to the University to get it done right, it’s very difficult to safely manipulate a body’s natural healing with a construct.” She explains.
I freeze, stunned by the words and the hope they awaken in me.