I nod at Vikiana and walk away, back to the cell. I lie down on the bench, tired. I assemble a second healing construct and set it exclusively over my right forearm, the tingling is oppressing and hasn’t gotten any better.
Ruth and Tsek are talking separately from the rest of the galley-slaves. The tall woman and kid with green eyes and short black hair are exchanging intense words, arguing. I try to read their lips, failing.
Enhancing my hearing isn’t working either. Well, I can guess from the faces that the rest of the criminals are making. They’re disappointed but not worried or angry, some even look excited. They wanted to get off this ship but the prospect of acquiring it speaks to them.
At least, I can always count on human greed. After a few minutes of intense back and forth between Ruth and Tsek, the latter heads over to talk to me. I don’t sit up as my heart’s beats finally slowed down.
“I’ll do it. I will guard the Exemplar for you.” Tsek speaks up.
“No.” I refuse.
He has to want something from me but I can’t get a read on what. Money doesn’t even seem to be a lever to use on him, he only stole to survive and the promise of gold didn’t have as much of an effect on him although he did seem interested.
“No one else wants to, and which would you trust more than me?” He argues.
“I don’t trust any of you.” I reply harshly. “What do you want? And it better be convincing.”
“I.. I just want to, be friends.” He says hesitantly.
“I only have two friends and I understand them, I know what they want.” I mutter, thinking of Celyz and Yvonne.
I wonder if Teva counts as a friend, she likely doesn’t see me as one, after what I did to her romantically and made her do to take Castle Lance. She chose her path, she didn’t blame me for what happened.
“I want to learn from you. The way you are, how you fight. I want to be stronger.” He tells me.
I believe him but I don’t understand why anyone would want to be anything like me. No one else wants to do this. I wave my hand in agreement. Tsek grins and whispers a ‘thank you’ before walking away. I grunt and close my eyes.
I doze off, resting. I spend several hours like this, half-conscious and thinking of nothing, Vikiana’s role in it from her point of view. Some things begin to make more sense.
The Exemplar pretty much admitted to being uncomfortable with her daughter’s ‘proclivities’. A euphemism to avoid saying she disapproves of two women being together. Kind of explains how short-tempered she was that night.
Vikiana’s shown more restraint than many in my village. And now I’m a weird hybrid… a monster. I’m surprised she hasn’t tried harder to kill me. Cries of alarm arise, startling me wide awake.
I search for the cause, finding that Grace is on the rowers’ deck with a half-dozen guards and an equivalent number of Templars led by Conrad. I get to my feet and make my way to the staircase.
“Where is Ruth? It’s been a full day and she hasn’t responded to my requests.” Grace addresses the criminals guarding the top of the stairs.
“We also want to see Exemplar Vikiana.” Conrad says.
“We’ll give you supplies and both lifeboats for that thi…” Grace is interrupted by Conrad’s glare. “For Elizabeth Vil.” She finishes.
“I’m not that cheap, Grace.” I speak up, climbing the stairs.
“I see you’re finally coming out of hiding.” She says between grit teeth.
“I was wondering how many more Odos I’ll have to kill to finally have peace.” I mock.
I lay my hand on my swords’ pommels and pass my eyes over each and every one of them. The six Templars fall down into guarded stances while the soldiers struggle to maintain ranks behind their Countess.
“Surrender and I swear you will be given a fair trial.” Grace declares formally. I laugh in her face. “You defeated Father in a legal, if not lawful, duel and took revenge on my brother for his misguided actions. I am not them, and while it is true that I wish to kill you, the fact remains that you have committed crimes of treason that you must answer for.”
“Make me.” I utter coldly, choosing to present a strong front despite my weakened state.
“You will eventually be brought to justice.” Grace says with a hard expression.
She’s way too calm. Although, I suppose she believes that she has the upper hand. We may have a hostage, well two hostages but I doubt she considers Aisha to be of enough value to use against her, but she has more armed fighters and thinks that they have more flow.
Ruth is walking upstairs with a dozen armed criminals. What a slow reaction, we would have lost the staircase if this was an attack. Grace and I don’t break eye contact.
“Countess.” Ruth speaks up.
“Have you considered my proposal to release your other hostage for a ransom?” Grace asks. Well, that’s surprising, she does care. Or the Templars put her up to it, although they shouldn’t know of the Shade.
“The answer is no. I’m insulted that you even made such a low offer now that I’ve learned of her value.” Ruth replies, glaring.
“I don’t understand, her value?” Grace blinks.
“I have better things to do with my time than to watch you act oblivious.” Ruth grunts. Shit, gotta say something quick or Ruth will realize I lied to her.
“I doubt she knows, Ruth.” I intervene. “Did you put her up to it?” I ask Conrad, remaining as vague as possible and trusting that the temple guard would do the same to avoid burning the Shade’s cover.
“I did not and would not.” The Templar shakes his head. “I only deduced her identity from Viki’s reaction when you took her hostage. You shouldn’t have told the criminal.”
“I didn’t give her the specifics.” I tell Conrad.
“Enough! She’s a subject of mine held against her will by criminals, I demand an explanation!” Grace shouts.
“Why not have an auction.” Ruth smiles greedily. “She’s…”
“No.” I snap at her.
I draw one of my swords with my left hand, using a backhanded grip because speed is more important than having a good hold on the handle in this case. I place the blade on the criminal’s throat.
“We reached an agreement and I will not see you go back on your word.” I threaten.
Ruth gulps. Templars, soldiers, and criminals tense, seizing their weapons’ pommels. I run my eyes over everyone present, challenging any to pick a fight with me right now.
“The hostage has agreed to the offer I made her.” I tell Conrad and Grace. I turn back to Ruth. “There is more going on than you are aware of, criminal. Take your freedom and do not overreach as you likely have to be sentenced to slavery, to begin with.”
Ruth slowly nods, very conscious that my blade could sever her jugular with but a flick of my wrist, taking her life. I sheath my sword as quickly as I drew it. The criminal sharply waves her hand at her escort and flips around, leaving with them at a hurried pace.
They all truly dread me if even this hasn’t pushed them to fight me with a united front. I can see why, too much blood has been spilled. I don’t think anyone would resume the battle unless I actually kill someone.
Grace is squinting her eyes, suspicious. I throw Conrad a glance. He is scrutinizing me, his traits are difficult to read. He did what he could to stop the late Odo and if he resents me for the battle, he’s hiding it well.
“Is Exemplar Vikiana alright?” He asks.
“She’s fine, healing.” I reply calmly.
“I would appreciate it if I could see that with my own eyes.” He says.
“Empty your flow reserve, leave your sword behind.” I tell him. “You’ll also be able to verify that the other hostage is safe and is satisfied with her current situation. Would that be sufficient to assuage your worries, Countess?” I spit the title out like an insult.
“It would be, for now.” She replies.
Conrad gives his flow to his brethren and unfastens his sheath from his waist, handing it over. I turn around and lead him downstairs, stopping him on the last step. Both hostages twist their necks around to look up to him as their ropes restrain their movements and the mast hinders their sight.
“Are you alright, Viki?” He calls out.
“I’ll survive.” She replies.
“And you?” He asks Aisha.
“Not as well as the last time but things are looking up.” Aisha smiles cheerfully. Suspicious and she was a bit too quick to agree to my offer.
“Satisfied?” I ask Conrad.
“Yes.” He says.
“Off you go then.” I tell him. “And get that Noble off our backs, the deal I’ve made with the Exemplar holds but on my terms.”
“I can respect your motivation to strive for peace.” Conrad says. “But your actions…”
“I’ve saved many more lives than I’ve taken.” I utter firmly. I grasp at the fact as it is the only way I can justify this to myself.
“You can’t balance lives on a ledger.” Conrad frowns.
“That’s exactly what our Emperor did by taking a Princess, gambling that the benefit would outweigh the cost of a war with the Rykz.” I counter.
Conrad is startled by the response. I point him upstairs. He doesn’t insist and heads back upstairs, understanding that this is as much as I’ll allow. He seems to be contemplating my words.
As I walk back to my cell, I worry about Ruth. I spoke her language in a sense, she undoubtedly thinks that I’m protecting the gold I’m supposed to make off of Aisha. At least, that served to convince her that the Shade truly is worth enough that I’ll be able to pay her. Should I promise more gold? No, that’ll make me look weak.
She’s a criminal, likely a bully, the right call is to maintain course. We will need gold in Meiridin. I stop in front of my cell’s door and turn around, walking up to Aisha.
“You were a bit too quick to agree.” I say.
“Because I expected much worse than your offer.” She makes a grimace. “I didn’t intend for any of this to happen, Elizabeth. I truly did want to reach an agreement with you for the data in exchange for the Princess, there was no trap involved. I followed protocol and remained hidden when I should have honestly spoken to you but I was afraid of your reaction. Then Vikiana showed up and… I made bad calls because I didn’t see a path for us to cooperate, it didn’t help that the late Count was in the way. We were short on time and I thought that you would turn on me if I revealed that I’m a Shade at that point, it was too late. I had few options so I adjusted my plan on the fly to secure the data.” She tries to explain, words and sentences spewing out in a scattered manner. “You’re right to be angry but I’m not perfect, I did not see any of this coming. There are sharp limits to what I can publicly do. You won’t believe me but I did want to maintain a good relationship.”
“You’re right, I don’t. I won’t trust you again.” I tell her. “Moving on, I’ll need funds.”
“There are gold stashes in Meiridin.” She says.
“Problem will be to recover it without being spotted or alerting anyone.” I comment.
“I have a few suggestions but…” Aisha’s voice trails off.
“I’ll figure it out on my own.” I affirm, turning to go.
“Can we talk?” Vikiana speaks up.
“Go ahead.” I say, glancing at her over my shoulder.
“It’s private.” She adds.
“Tomorrow.” I tell her. “Tsek!” I call out. He turns to me with a quizzical look. “I’m going to take a nap, do you mind leaving three meals in front of the cell?”
“No, that’s okay.” He shrugs.
“Thanks.” I say.
I go back into the cell and close the grill behind. I drop on the bench. I tell my symbiont to beware, not in a danger way, not such an intense feeling, simply trying to communicate that we need to be on our guard.
They didn’t do anything while I was asleep because they need me so there isn’t much danger of anything happening. The only thing that changed is that they think Aisha is valuable but they can’t trade her since Grace wouldn’t pay a high price and the Templars wouldn’t accept, neither would the Shade I suspect.
They can’t get out of this without me, well they could swim to shore but I doubt they would have the courage after our run-ins with the Tianeels. My eyes close by themselves.
— — —
I wake up while most are asleep, rested. My sense tells me that the door is closed. I assess my state, finding that my heart’s rhythm stabilized but that my right forearm feels painful now, like a thought tiny ants are digging into my bone all around the merged iron. I grit my teeth.
The healing construct didn’t work, or it did to close the open wounds and apparently got rid of the infection but that’s it. I open and close my right hand. No issue there, for now.
Can’t do anything about this yet, I don’t know how to remove the iron and I shouldn’t try as long as my hand is operational because I’m more likely to cause more damage than to fix what’s wrong. Maybe I could sneak into a Temple and get an Alemplar to look at it and fix my scars.
No, too risky. I can’t leave the Exemplar and Shade out of my sight for too long, especially with Tsek alone to handle both. I need to keep one with me at all times, as a hostage so the other behaves while we’re gone.
I get up and pick up the platter of food left in front of the cell’s door. I devour the meal while observing the sleeping Exemplar. I then make my way to the mast and shake Vikiana’s shoulder with my gauntleted left hand.
She blinks a few times, hazy. Her eyes settle on my symbiont, widening in surprise and then fear. She moves away from my fingers. I untie the ropes around her elbows and wrist shackles.
“Chill.” I tell her, smirking behind my mask. “I’m not gonna eat you.”
“Right.” Vikiana says, composing her expression.
I hold out my right hand out to help her up. She accepts, her right arm is likely still entirely useless. I tie the rope to one of her ankles and the other end around my vambrace.
“I could use some fresh air.” She says. I sniff the air and make a grimace.
“So could I.” I agree. “If you try to run, I’m breaking your hip.”
“I won’t, I swear.” Vikiana replies.
“You know how much flow I have.” I continue, ignoring what she just said. “I won’t hesitate to sink this ship if I have to.”
The Exemplar’s eyebrow twitches slightly in reaction to how little stock I put in her word. I lead her upstairs. The criminals on guard ask us what’s happening and I let Vikiana answer, remaining on my guard and unwilling to socialize as I have no friends here.
I also let her settle things with Grace’s soldiers and the Templars guarding the way upper deck. I signal her to stop talking as soon as she’s explained, not letting her engage in a conversation with her brethren.
My heart beats a bit faster. I am in the midst of enemies. My symbiont wiggles its tendrils under my skin. A comforting gesture. Is that its intent or is it simply reacting to my nervousness?
I shrug, stretching my shoulders, hoping that the gesture will help me settle down. We make our way to the bow of the ship, walking past the sleeping soldiers in the middle of the deck while those awake keep their eyes trained on us.
Vikiana settles to the foremost point of the bow. I lay my back against the guardrail to her left. I don’t need to but directly watching the soldiers should dissuade them from trying anything stupid.
The sea breeze is refreshing, it blows into my messy hair and I run my right hand through them. I could almost allow myself to relax. We remain there for a long while, so long that the sun peaks over the horizon before one of us breaks the silence.
“You know, sometimes it feels like my husband’s death, you, and this invasion is the Lake’s way to punish me for being a bad mother or following orders all my life without questioning them, or my many failings in everything other than battle. Too many possibilities to sum up, really.” Vikiana speaks up, looking in the distance. “Four years ago, I left to capture Cetyz. During my absence, Jenna happened.”
“What?” I ask. Why is she bringing her up?
“Oh, right, you wouldn’t know. Leomi rarely speaks of her, even to me.” She says. I listen rather than contradict Vikiana, hoping to get a glance into Leomi’s mind through her mother’s perspective. “Jenna was a gifted Templar, she fell in battle against the Lisilese. But before that, she spent years teaching sword-fighting to Leomi. My daughter got… attached to her. Had a crush? I don’t know how it works between those of you who choose to be with those of the same sex.”
“I never had a choice.” I interrupt. “I’m attracted to women, that’s it.”
“Oh. Okay.” Vikiana says, taken off-balance. “See, I tried to understand but in the end…” She sighs. “The short of it is that Jenna told Leomi she was too young. I thought, apparently wrongly, that Leomi was being stubborn about it. I let her do as she willed, it is was her choice, or nature.”
The subject is bringing me back to painful moments in my youth when I was ostracized because people didn’t understand, didn’t want to. I force myself to focus.
“Where are you going with this?” I ask in a tight voice.
“Only that I’m trying to be a good mother, to keep my daughter safe. You offer a better chance of keeping her safe by ending the war than Cenwalh or Aisha do considering that they have other goals compared to us.” She says.
“Except you don’t want me anywhere near Leomi.” I note.
“Don’t take it personally.” Vikiana makes a thin sad smile. “My reasons have little to do with the fact that the two of you want to be together.”
“If you’re trying to sweet-talk me into something it isn’t working.” I utter with deceptive calm.
“I know an I’m not. I’m rambling because it’s difficult for me to agree to this.” The Exemplar turns to glance at me. “I would sell you off if it brought peace and kept Leomi safe but if you’re right, it’ll only make this worse.”
“Unless a treaty is signed, this is far from over.” I confirm. “But that won’t be my problem. I’m done once I deliver Cetyz.”
“Will you be?” Vikiana doubts. “Leomi won’t be, will you be able to stay out of it? The reason I trust that you don’t mean my daughter any harm, the reason I didn’t kill you outright, is because that night when the two of you split you still kept the Rykz off our tracks to protect her. You called for her when you were unconscious, three days straight.”
I remain quiet. The future is too uncertain, I don’t even know if she’ll want me and I do not want to think about it. I turn around and seize the guardrail, squeezing my hands until the wood cracks.
“Get to the point, I’ve lost patience.” I warn with a side glare.
“…” Vikiana visibly hesitates. “I’ll do everything I can to help.” She pronounces the words with difficulty. “I will train you, I’ll agree to put my differences with you aside until Princess Cetyz is delivered to the Rykz.”
“No conditions?” I ask.
“Would you agree to any?” She replies.
“I would not.” I say.