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We head out towards the kitchen at the stern, joining Tsek who is already busy at the stove. I tie the Exemplar’s rope to the table’s feet, which is nailed to the hull like most of the furniture.

So, cold bloods see flow red?” I ask after taking a seat.

Far as we know, it’s hard to be certain really. Describing colors is difficult without a common frame of reference.” Vikiana replies.

What do you mean?” I question.

Lisilese don’t see the same colors that we do. As an example, the sun appears red to them but gold to us. Like the Rykz, they can operate at nighttime without problems.” She explains.

Hm.” I tap the table with my gauntleted hand.

Something about that is tickling the back of my mind. I get up, heading to the window at the back of the room, the stern-most end of the ship. I open it and look up to the sun. I blink and turn away, retinas prickling. Okay, that was stupid.

What are you doing?” Tsek asks.

I’m not sure.” I reply.

I extend my human hand out into the late autumn, early winter, sunlight. I focus on my limb’s sense, on the surface of my skin where the rays gently hit to warm me up. If I had to describe my flesh’s rising temperature as a color through my symbiont’s sense, I would say that is growing darker, blacker.

Flow color matches how each species perceives the sun? The Rykz created a sun stone for each day since they reached the surface, to represent the sun. The Rykz know more about the Lake of fire’s blessing than we do, Celyz implied as much but didn’t straight up admit it as far as I know. That’s a bit too much of a coincidence.

Do the Lisilese believe in the Lake?” I ask Vikiana.

They call it the Hunter’s Blaze.” She says.

Why?” I say, lowering my gaze down to the river to observe the sun’s reflection.

Because they believe that the flames are red like their preys’ blood instead of gold like we do. They believe that the blood of what they hunt is added to the Blaze and makes it burn hotter, sustains it.” She explains.

Hm.” I nod.

That’s why you’ve been called Red Dwarf you know.” Tsek speaks up.

What do you mean?” I ask.

Well, as far as I know, you reminded veterans that fought the cold bloods of how they look after battles.” He says, stirring the large pot of gruel he’s making with a long wooden spoon.

It’s not a compliment, per se, but not really an insult either.” Vikiana tells me. “It’s an expression of… something between fear and respect. The Lisilese who have scored kills voluntarily drench themselves in our blood. Veterans know to be cautious of humans who are brutal and skilled enough to look like that after getting through a battle.”

Well, I can’t deny that it happens more often than not.” I grunt, throwing Vikiana a glare as she is a bit too inexpressive.

A burst of wind blows through the window, disturbing my hair, strands fall over my mask and in front of my eyes. I shake my head to push them aside. More end up settling and blocking my sight.

You need a haircut.” Vikiana speaks up.

I just cut them a couple of months ago.” I frown. “And I’m pretty sure a portion were burnt back when…” I trail off, gazing at my armored left limb.

Doesn’t look like it.” She comments.

I shrug and walk up to the cupboard, mind still preoccupied by the connection between flow and the sun’s color in the three species’ primary methods of perception. It can’t be a coincidence.

I grab three bowls and spoons, setting the table. Tsek serves Vikiana and me before heading down to the cargo-hold to bring the galley-slaves their meal. I scrutinize the upper deck, finding that the soldiers are cooking in the open air, grilling meat and boiling water.

They took all the meat from storage, didn’t they.” I complain.

Most likely.” Vikiana replies.

I focus on the cabin just above our heads. Grace is hung over a table with a sheet of paper on it. Next to her is the helmsman. They seem to be arguing, quietly as the not even a whisper reaches us. The man’s left hand is shaking slightly.

It’s about time I break this little status quo that confines the galley-slaves to the lower deck, they’ve had time to get used to the plan so they might as well start surveying what occurs upstairs.

I scrutinize the inside of the cabin, seeking the meat. It takes me an effort to sense through a thick wooden coffer but what I find raises my spirits. My hammer is inside, still split in two from Vikiana’s sword blow but it’s there.

At the bottom of the chest are round and flat pieces of metal, that small amount of detail is enough to tell that these are coins. I smile when I note that there is a small pouch which is about the same size as the one that was taken from me.

Indeed, Nobility’s greed is such that they wouldn’t leave their materials possessions behind, sinking galley or not. I finish my meal and bide my time for Tsek to come back, my hunger beats my desire to hold my weapon in hand once more.

The kid comes back with enough gruel left over for me to fill four more bowls and I don’t let the fact that I’m eating more than my share stop me. Once done with lunch, we all head back to the cargo-hold.

Ruth is playing dice with three others but still kept an eye on my from the moment I stepped in. Her companions all have swords at their waists, a significant detail considering most of the criminals left their weapons near their bunks.

I recall that all three of them admitted to knowing the lion strike. That’s good, she’s gathering the skilled. As long as she doesn’t turn on me. I hand the Exemplar’s rope to Tsek and start untying Aisha.

Ruth!” I call the tall woman out.

What is it, Vil?” She responds.

It’s time to go out for some fresh air!” I exclaim, patting my swords.

Arr, finally!” Ruth’s lips twist into a mean grin. “Hear y’all!” She shouts at the criminals. “We’d be showin’ dis fresh wat’r softies…”

Ruth coughs, having forced her voice too much. Most of the freed galley-slaves laugh in good spirit and draw their swords. Vikiana and Aisha, whose ropes Tsek is holding, have worried looks on their faces.

Ugh, don’t know how the cap’n did it. We be taking charge up there, mateys! Keep an eye on our prize and the Odo so they don’t screw us over!” Ruth exclaims.

I lead the way with her, climbing the stairs with two dozen armed enthusiastic criminals following closely. I shape a lightning construct, using a dozen portions of flow. I extend the timer segment to last an entire day, wrapping the thin line of energy in a spiral around the spherical construct.

I then charge the air around me, trying to form a sort of defense that could intercept air-blades and retaliate. The issue is that the affected zones aren’t static as the ambient air is mobile, and even more so on the upper deck.

Hm, time to get creative. I stop in front of the stairs to the upper deck, raising my gauntleted hand to warn the rest. The Templars and soldiers have noticed us, they’re calling everyone to task.

Give them some time to get their shit together, we don’t want to provoke an unnecessary fight.” I tell Ruth. “And I’m setting up a construct.”

I’ve seen Duke Meria walk in the sky, this shouldn’t be too difficult. I shape an air-blade construct but distend it to shape it into a lens-shaped black-gold shield. I keep expanding the construct until it reaches three meters in diameter. I then use my lightning construct to charge the air inside.

I elongate the timer segment and the newly created air-shield grows dimmer. That should do it, it’ll last plenty long enough and it isn’t consuming that much energy anymore because I’m not compacting the air that much since I don’t need to cut anything with it.

Now, let’s see if this works, the worst that can happen is a bit of a violent breeze. I direct my lightning construct inside the air-shield and activate it. Without a target, the bolts that flash out sparkle and fizzle out randomly, contained inside the lens of charged air. Satisfied with the result, I deactivate the lightning construct. As long as I don’t keep it up too long, it won’t burst.

Isn’t it a waste of flow?” Tsek asks.

A little, it’s a matter of convenience because I can use this several times.” I reply. “If a fight breaks out, I’ll be able to focus on other things.”

I move the air-shield in front of the group, filling the staircase with it. Ruth pokes it with the point of her sword. She doesn’t encounter so much resistance that she can’t plunge it through the compressed air a little but it doesn’t pierce very deep at all. Doesn’t stop her from trying to repeatedly stab my construct through and through.

You done?” I ask the woman.

Just making sure.” Ruth grins.

We head up, following behind the air-shield. Our disparate group comes face to face with a little under twenty soldiers arranged in two staggered loose lines to allow those in the back wielding bows with arrows already nocked in to shoot us through the gaps in the front-line’s ranks.

Their formation is flanked by two lines of five Templars in hard leather armor with drawn swords in hand. Grace is at the forefront, her weapon in her sheath. The tension is palpable, I can almost smell the fear in the air. I should help that dissipate first. I move my air-shield aside with a flicker of my wrist.

I signal Ruth to sheath her weapon and walk up to the Countess with her. Grace’s posture is rigid, one could take it as frozen by terror but the look in her eyes tells me that it would be a mistake, it is repressed aggression. They could win if they attacked, an arrogant Noble would.

Prudent, to choose to parley.” I comment, stopping face to face with her.

Cowardly.” Ruth says with a toothy smile.

I’ve not the mind to underestimate you, Elizabeth Vil.” Grace says, ignoring the criminal.

I give Grace the details that concern her about what was agreed on between me, Aisha, and Vikiana, the role that the freed slaves will fill in overseeing their good behavior. When the fact that she is to turn her galley over comes up, she almost blows her top, half-drawing her weapon.

How did you get the Exemplar to agree to this?” The Countess asks, seething.

It wasn’t up to her.” I reply.

Grace’s young eyes flicker to Aisha before turning back to mine. I grin behind my mask. I care little about the Shade’s cover, it might even push Aisha to impress on the Countess that she is to be silent sooner rather than later.

I don’t know how much she knows, how much her brother told her, it’s a problem but not one I can currently solve. All I can do is keep the various players’ goals and motivations in mind to be ready to act if they change.

Trust doesn’t have anything to do with my counting on the Shade to protect my secrets, both for her self-interest and self-preservation. For that to happen, the Countess needs to play along.

Are you going to accept this truce or not?” I ask directly. “The war’s outcome itself is at stake here.”

That is precisely why I am even talking to you.” Grace snaps.

Then why are you still hesitating?” I question.

Because they are hostages. I do not know if I can believe them, whether they are willing or coerced.” Grace replies.

Do you really think an Exemplar and one of them would fold to me? Work against the Empire? Even I’m not that scary.” I laugh.

Is she really?” The Countess asks.

Ask the Templars yourself, they must have figured it out by now since they know her.” I shrug. “If they haven’t, I would start questioning their faculties.”

Grace ponders for a moment, she then walks up to Conrad. The two exchange a few whispers. She returns with a jaw clenched so tightly that I wonder whether she’ll be able to speak.

Grace faces me, scrutinizing me from her full height, yet I don’t get the feeling that she’s looking down on me. She takes a few moments to give me her answer which comes in the form of a silent, determined nod.

Ahoy! Bring up your bunks!” Ruth exclaims.

Get the two of them back in the cargo-hold if you don’t mind, Tsek.” I speak up.

And if I catch whoever the heck is on guard sleeping, I’ll throw the lot overboard!” Ruth adds.

She’s taking her role as a future captain seriously. I roll my eyes and direct my air-shield to cover my back as I head straight towards the cabin. The soldiers blocking the way involuntarily step back, splitting ranks in front of my advance.

What are you doing?” The Countess asks.

Getting back what’s mine.” I reply. “We can go talk to the prisoners after I do so.”

I ignore any further protest of hers and walk in the cabin. I don’t head straight for my hammer, I nod at the two heavily injured Templars lying in hammocks against the wall who don’t respond. I first open a few drawers while Grace stands on the threshold, barely holding her outrage back.

Ah!” I say after opening the thick wooden coffer. “There’s my gold, and thanks for recovering my hammer. It was a gift from a good friend.”

The Countess pales, cheek white with anger. I pick up both of my weapon’s pieces, slip my gold pouch around my neck, and step out of the cabin. Outside, I dismantle my air-shield construct and send the flow that composed it back inside. I split the energy into halves and cut my link to send the flow to the two badly burned temple guards.

Cocky.” Conrad comments. He is hanging over the guardrail above, on the bridge.

I admit I hoped she would take the chance to attack me.” I say, pointing at the Countess with my thumb. It would have resolved that issue.

Ah.” He nods.

I wouldn’t go back on my word.” Grace utters with a frown.

Your brother had no problem exploiting the letter to break the spirit.” I growl.

The young Countess remains surprisingly silent, apparently unwilling to disagree and defend her brother. I decide not to waste time on an Odo and head back to the cargo-hold.

The criminals will mingle and keep an eye on everyone to protect their own interests. Besides, if anything does happen, I will know. Grace and Conrad remain behind, no doubt considering my offer to talk to Vikiana and Aisha in my presence.

They decide to follow me down to the cargo-hold in the end. I settle within earshot and draw a curtain of my flow in-between the two pairs in case they try something. I use my symbiont’s sense to ensure that no more words than those I hear are exchanged.

The conversation that ensures doesn’t teach me anything new, just a confirmation of all that’s been said and reassurances on Vikiana’s part. Aisha plays her part as a bastard Lady hostage for the criminals guarding them, Conrad and Grace throw a few platitudes her way but that’s all.

They’re lucky the slaves seem to be more interested in counting down the minutes to their shift’s end than in poking holes in my story because these two are terrible at supporting her act.

Once they’re gone, I decline Vikiana’s offer to keep training. I start working to create a construct using the same base as the one Celyz gave me that contained the varying signals I could send my symbiont and the equivalent meaning.

It’ll be a good way to send a message to Celyz. The issue is that it could be intercepted and read, by the merchant I send it through at the very least… I just need to be vague enough.

I spend the afternoon working on that recording construct, creating several with varying levels of energy to test the rate of decay, how long they’ll last. It needs to be couple months at least. As that problem arises, a question comes to mind, one I need the answer to for my plan.

Hey, does anyone know how long unstructured flow lasts?” I ask out loud.

Don’t know.” Tsek replies. “Never had that much of a surplus, to be honest.”

A month or more in water, a week anchored to steel. The rate of dissipation varies depending on saturation and the material, it’ll vanish a lot quicker if you leave it floating in thin air.” Vikiana answers, confirmed by Aisha.

What about in simple constructs?” I question.

A month, maybe.” She replies.

Hm, thanks.” I mutter.

That’s about what I expected, my plan holds. Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave my hammer behind. I still assemble two shaping constructs and create small ridges where it was cut, it’s a method Father taught me to properly repair a tool with a merging construct.

Back then, I had to do this with a file we loaned from the blacksmith instead of a shaping construct. Well, I didn’t have the reserves to do this even if I had known the construct.

I alter the Vuskyt by digging tiny trenches and raising small hills with the displaced metal, consuming an exorbitant amount of flow in the process. The construct is a new one for me so the result doesn’t look precise or pretty but it allows me to get used to it.

I slot the hammerhead piece over the spiked scythe portion. They don’t fit together exactly but after a half-hour more of working the kinks out, the weapon is renewed… as long as I hold it.

A merging construct allows me to slowly meld tiny hill to tiny trench while dilating the Vuskyt as little as possible and taking care that my weapon’s handle remains straight at all times while I do so.

It takes me all afternoon and I end up taking a break to have dinner before finishing. By nightfall, my hammer is repaired and shorter by an imperceptible fraction.

Ruth shows up as I am about to go to sleep on the cell’s bench. She is holding a rag in hand. I throw her a curious look. She lays the rag down on the floor and spreads it out, revealing a rudimentary map depicting walls and a river coastline. It was drawn with a piece of charcoal.

Meiridin?” I ask.

Yes.” Ruth nods.

Where did you get that? I wanted to take a look at those in the cabin but didn’t feel like I could push the issue yet.” I say.

I have a good memory.” She taps her head with a wink.

Is it reliable?” I ask.

Mostly.” She shrugs. “Gate placements might be off by a wide margin and I haven’t set foot out of the docks so I left that blank.”

Why did you draw it at all?” I ask. What does she want?

Because we need to agree on where we’ll set the anchor down, I wouldn’t want you to lose your way back with that pardon letter and gold you promised.” Ruth replies with suspicion.

It would be difficult to get lost with a river to follow.” I note.

Anyway, we can set there.” She points at a turn in the river. “It’s not too far from Meiridin and there’s a sizable hill which will hide the ship from even the best runic spyglass. Rumors will spread from merchant ships who come across us, though. But there isn’t that much traffic and I don’t expect trouble as long as we leave Odo’s crest flag on top of the mast.”

You’re the expert.” I nod. “How far are we?”

Couple of days? I haven’t spotted any recognizable landmarks but we’ve been sailing upstream for a while now.” Ruth replies.

Alright, we’ll talk more tomorrow.” I tell her.

Don’t screw with us, Vil.” Ruth says, wrapping up the rag and sticking it inside her pants.

I wave her away and lie down on the bench.

— — —

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