I awaken as the morning shift takes over from guarding Vikiana and Aisha. I rise and tell them that they won’t be needed this morning. They don’t protest, hurrying off with the night guards.
“Aisha, your flow.” I speak up once they’re gone.
She hands over another two portions of flow which I directly hand over to Vikiana to heal her broken right hand and arm. I grab my hammer and make it spin inside my palm, pondering.
“We have two days left on the ship at most, how long until you can actually train me?” I ask Vikiana.
“Not long.” She replies. “But the issue isn’t when we’ll start but how much time we’ll have before you assault the institute.”
“Two weeks, at most.” I lie to obfuscate their view of my plan as I can always find reasons to extend the delay.
I intend to be patient for an entire month before assaulting the institute, it is a long time to wait but necessary to set everything up. The planning phase will be paid in blood by Caeviel as the war will continue while I prepare. It is of paramount importance that I succeed because hurrying and failing would cost many more lives.
“It isn’t enough, I would ask for two months at the very least. Although it could take less, you’re hard-working and have some talent but the issue is that you lack discipline.” Vikiana says.
“I lack discipline?” I ask, confused as I’ve made sure to train every time I found an opportunity to.
“You’re perseverant but inconsistent, I’ve seen you change form and stance in the middle of a battle.” Vikiana explains. “You’re erratic and…” Aisha interrupts her.
“You’re not training a Semplar, Viki.” The Shade says. “The fact that she goes from brutal slashes that forcefully break her opponent’s guard to fast and precise counter-attacks is an advantage, not something that holds her back.”
“I agree, but that is master-level stuff, she must learn the basics first.” Vikiana insists.
“Why?” Aisha asks. “She’s a lone-wolf, a blunt instrument that needs sharpening, not a team fighter. Not only that, but Elizabeth does this well without any formal training.”
“That’s…” Vikiana pauses. “True.”
“Keep in mind I won’t have my hammer or swords.” I say.
“I was going to teach you hand to hand combat to begin with, yes.” The Exemplar replies absent-mindedly, lost in her thoughts.
“Well, while you think about this, I’m taking Aisha to talk to Grace.” I tell her.
“If you can’t wait two months, give me at least one.” Vikiana replies. “I’ll skip the basics and go straight to helping you develop a comprehensive style, Aisha is right.
I untie the Shade from the mast, not bothering to tie a rope to her ankle. She’s even less of a flight risk than the Exemplar. I do assemble two lightning constructs that I anchor inside my hands, it wouldn’t do to be overconfident.
We make our way upstairs and towards the cabin. The freed criminals are spread out all over the upper deck, mingling with the soldiers who appear much more uncomfortable than the criminals celebrating their freedom.
The Templars are left alone at the ship’s bow, they transferred their two badly burnt brethren there. The flow I gave them yesterday seems to have improved their condition by a wide margin. These gestures of good will don’t cost me much and they help me push the monster away.
On the left river bank are a dozen rudimentary shacks made of branches. Aisha suddenly takes hold of my shoulder to make me crouch. I throw her a questioning look. She simply points at her eyes and then to an old fisher-woman.
“Rumors about you have spread all over Caeviel.” Aisha explains.
“Right.” I nod.
I stop in front of the cabin’s door, sensing that Grace is barely waking up inside, alone in her nightgown. I smirk and cordially knock. She rubs her eyes and grabs a long robe before walking over. I suddenly open the door.
“Good morning, your Grace!” I exclaim.
“Wh?!” She shouts.
She falls backward, dropping on her ass with a yelp of pain. She panically crawls towards her sword on her hands and feet. I giggle and push Aisha inside, closing the door behind her. I lay against the wall and enhance my hearing.
Inside, the Shade groans and helps the Countess up. Grace then quickly gets dressed up and they both sit at the table. I split my attention between them and Vikiana beneath, another test to see if she’ll try to escape.
Yet I’ve slightly miscalculated and the test compromised by Tsek who is headed down to the cargo-hold, likely to keep an eye on the Exemplar. He probably saw me leave after the morning shift left.
The conversation that ensues in the cabin is somewhat boring, Aisha deflects any questions the young Countess asks about my importance or the Shade’s own plans, responding with veiled threats and reminders that the Lady is in no position to make enemies as her domain is about to be caught in the middle of the conflict.
Aisha impresses on the woman that she’ll need allies and support to hold onto her title because of her lack of experience and rudimentary education on ruling while also rebuilding her domain, from her fleet and army to buildings.
The Shade then moves on to direct threats. She tells Grace that if she’s willing to sacrifice all of that and her subjects to get her revenge, it won’t matter. There will be no arrest or judgment, she will be eliminated.
“What of Justice and Order? Surely she isn’t worth the turmoil she has caused and will continue to cause as long as she lives.” Grace argues.
“Justice is what benefits the Empire, Countess.” Aisha says threateningly.
“I hear you, and disagree. My brother may have been… hypocritical about it but I don’t think Justice and Order are what you believe they are. Still, I will heed your warning.” Grace declares.
“You have a domain to administer and will be compensated for the loss of your ships. Do not overreach.” Aisha says between grit teeth, testing her shackles.
“I will obey the law.” Grace replies.
“The Emperor is the Law.” Aisha growls, standing.
I’m not sure what to think about this. While the two Odos I killed more than deserved it, I find that I agree with this one. I have faith in our Emperor, but the law shouldn’t depend on one man’s or woman’s word, even one as great as Him, Justice should be impartial.
I have a feeling that Cecil was much more than just a front for the Shade, Aisha may be a good agent but she is no manipulator. The Madame was much better at reading people. Perhaps Aisha’s expertise lies mostly in gathering information and setting up covert operations.
“And that is why I will follow your instructions and won’t pursue this… for now.” Grace continues. “I will expect a written order from King Cenwalh.”
“Fine, it will be done. What do you know about Elizabeth Vil?” Aisha asks.
“That she’s not human, that she is a Rykz creation.” Grace replies in a tense voice.
“Who have you told? Who knows?” Aisha questions.
“No one.” Grace shakes her head. “The captain and Dalv were there for my brother’s tantrum but he’s dead and she’s missing.”
“She isn’t missing, she’s dead.” Aisha says. “Where is the captain’s log?” She asks.
“In the drawer.” The Countess replies with a worried frown, likely because she’s smart enough to discern that the Shade’s certainty means that she might be the one who killed Dalv.
Grace takes a small notebook out and hands it over to Aisha who starts ripping it apart, making a small pile of expensive paper. She then tells Grace to set fire to it, which she does.
“You shall not speak of it, to anyone.” Aisha orders. “I will arrange a Shade to keep you under surveillance, know that there will be no warning if you go back on your word.”
“I won’t.” Grace affirms.
“Remember that, your fate depends on it and so does your Kingdom’s.” Aisha declares.
The Shade then departs, almost stomping. She leaves the cabin, her expression and behavior remain intimidating even when she passes the threshold and closes the door. Her illusion construct’s traits remain relatively unchanged as we make our way through the rowers’ deck.
“That was an act.” I venture a comment. At least most of it, I’m certain that she genuinely meant what she said about the Emperor being the law.
“You mean the unsubtle threats and forceful attitude?” Aisha asks with a small smile, confirming my suspicions.
“I’m sure there was a better way to handle that.” I reply.
“No, this is familiar to her. Whatever she may claim about revenge and justice, she hated her brother so I simply acted like he would.” Aisha explains. “It helps sell the fact that I’m not bluffing.”
“Isn’t that risky?” I ask.
“Not on the short-term, it’ll do until I impress on King Cenwalh what the Emperor’s will is.” She says.
“Will that work?” I question.
“It will. Cenwalh is in no position to make waves, in part because of you.” Aisha tells me.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“He has a war on his hands and his institute hasn’t delivered what our Emperor demanded of him yet. There’s also the fact that the peasantry is agitated because Cecil spread out the information about the war with the Rykz having been caused by the King against my advice, but there was unrest in Caeviel before that so the rumor of your existence and victory over a Count would have had that effect either way.” Aisha sighs.
“Hm.” I mutter noncommittally.
Aisha stops in front of the stairs to the cargo-hold, lowering her bright blue eyes look into mine. I hold her gaze.
“You don’t trust a word I say anymore, do you?” She asks rhetorically.
“You’re stating the obvious.” I reply.
“It bothers me.” She says. “You’re literally placing your life in my hands, threatening to kill yourself before we get the data. What if I lied to you about that in the first place? What if my goal is to usurp Rykz flow after all? Perhaps the Rykz creation is what I’m after.”
“You’re foolish enough to think you could use it against them?” I ask.
“No, but it provides you with flow, which means it could provide a data point which, combined with the Princess, could be enough to achieve Cenwalh’s silly ambition.” She replies.
“It doesn’t.” I shake my head. “It isn’t intelligent enough to have its own access. Besides, I’ve heard enough people tell me that usurpation is impossible to believe it.”
“So you don’t trust me, but you think you have a good enough image of the situation to use me.” Aisha comments.
“This is fun.” I giggle.
Aisha looks at me, puzzled. I suddenly seize her throat with my gauntleted left hand, she grabs my armored wrist, vainly trying to break my hold. She tries to speak but no more than squeals escape her lips.
I assemble a strengthening construct and lift her off her feet. I let her powerlessly kick the air for a few moments before slamming her down against the wooden floor. I set my right knee on her rib cage and glare at her through my mask.
“My patience has run out, Shade.” I utter quietly. “Your probing for information is amusing but foolish.”
“Ekh, z.” She chokes.
“You see, I have a need for what you can provide me.” I tell her. “But that does not mean you have leverage over me, Shade. If you push me, I will simply make use of Vikiana to contact that director and find another way.” Aisha nods slightly. “Do as you’re told and hold your tongue, we’ll all get out of this with what we want but most importantly, you’ll keep your life.”
I stand and put her back on her feet, releasing her. Aisha takes a few desperate breaths. Her illusion construct starts fading. She hurriedly supplies it with flow. Does it mean she’s so short on energy that she has to constantly feed it what she regenerates? Or is it a trick for me to reach that conclusion?
“You screwed up, Shade.” I say.
“I kn, ow.” Aisha coughs the words out, rubbing her bruised throat.
I lead her back to the cargo-hold and tie her to the mast, releasing Vikiana. I pick up my hammer and hand it over to Tsek who buckles a little under the weight of it. I chuckle.
“I spent six months rowing, this is just overly bulky.” He justifies.
“City boy.” I tease.
“Can’t argue with that.” He replies with a good-natured smile.
“Just hit her with it if she causes trouble.” I say, glancing at the Shade. “Break a bone or three.”
Vikiana and I make our way to the other end of the cargo-hold. She starts with an explanation of the defensive construct’s various segment configurations, from the generalist that will stop most attacks, like heat and electricity, to the one focusing exclusively on dispersing kinetic impacts. Which is likely the runic construct that was used on the shield I gave Leomi.
She then makes me demonstrate my lion strike stances, verifying my constructs before I use them. She criticizes my handling of swords yet insists that I keep using the weapon, using the argument that I need to be able to use this weapon since it is the most common kind I’ll find.
“It’s not a plow nor a hammer, Elizabeth. It’s a sword.” Vikiana barks for the third time.
Most of her criticism is on point, well… all her advice probably is but she doesn’t need to be so prickly about my form. The thought distracts me and my footwork suffers.
“Bend your left knee a bit more, and don’t lay your right foot down flat like that, stay on your toes until you’re prepared to swing while switching supporting leg.” She instructs. “The rotation will add power to your strike but you’ll also retain the capability to abort.”
“I know, you’ve said so a thousand times, but it takes a lot of concentration to keep it all in mind.” I say.
“That’s why you need at least a month to understand these fundamentals and absorb the logic. It won’t be long enough to make it a second nature but you won’t have to think too hard about it.” Vikiana replies. “Does your right forearm hurt?” She asks.
“Kind of.” I admit. No point in hiding the obvious.
“I took a look but… not my expertise. I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone doing that before.” She says.
Lunch is a welcome break from the constant badgering, although I don’t complain much because there has been a noticeable improvement in my movements.
As the four of us eat, I remind myself to remain cautious, though, this gives the Exemplar a lot of information about what I can and cannot do. If all goes well, it won’t be an issue but if not, I intend to overwhelm her with flow because it would be too dangerous to fight her head on again.
“Could I join you this afternoon?” Tsek asks.
“To train?” I question. He nods.
It doesn’t take me long to realize that it’s a bad idea considering he would be the one guarding them when I set the pieces of my plan in place, I don’t want them to get attached or feel in debt to either of them. Yet it’s difficult to say no to Tsek considering how much he’s been helping.
I’m clear-minded enough to separate my emotions from what needs to be done. Yea, right. It’s not like I could kill or let Leomi’s mother die. Very clear-minded indeed. Shut up, me.
“It’s a good idea.” Vikiana tells me. “It’ll give you someone to spar against until I recover.”
“Maybe.” I say skeptically.
“Why not?” Tsek asks.
“Because I don’t want the both of you to get friendly.” I reply honestly.
“Business is business.” Tsek replies, understanding what I mean.
“That’s not an issue. The both of you can spar on your own, Elizabeth. You’ll learn a lot through sparing while teaching him what you know because you will have to put instinctual concepts into words and spell them out.” Vikiana intervenes. Tsek throws me a questioning glance.
“Alright.” I say. “But later, I need to see Ruth.”
I finish my third bowl and make my way upstairs. I find Ruth playing dice with two soldiers and a few of her own people. When she spots me, she throws a silver coin at a scrawny man, a soldier. Where did she find coin?
“Your dice are loaded.” She says in jest.
“You just don’t have the throwing skills.” He replies with a smile, pocketing the coin.
“I see how it is.” Ruth notes with a mean grin. “You spend a lot of time training your wrist.” She wiggles her hand in a vulgar manner, leaving no mystery as to what she’s implying.
I laugh with everyone else when the soldier turns red. The two of us then move apart from the rest. Ruth starts taking her rag map out but I stop her, throwing a quick glance at the cabin.
“She isn’t going to like that, maps are beyond precious and secret.” Ruth says.
“We’re not going to steal them, only take a look and pick a spot.” I tell her. “You do have a good memory, right?”
“Well yea, but don’t expect me to remember everything.” Ruth says.
“I just want an overview of the blocks surrounding the institute if you know where it is in Meiridin.” I explain.
“Never set foot anywhere near it but I’ve had to learn exactly where it is to avoid it.” She shivers. “People say there are monsters in there.”
“I’m not afraid of monsters.” I dismiss. I’m one. Besides, I’ve grown a lot since I soiled myself because of a mere dozen scouts. “I’ll get your pardon ready before I do anything, don’t worry.”
“It’s your hide.” Ruth says, uncaring.
Grace is on the bridge and there is a single soldier guarding the cabin so we immediately head there. The woman standing in front of the door has one hand on her sword.
“The Countess isn’t inside, hm, Dame Vil.” She says.
I don’t waste time trying to convince the soldier to let us pass and simply seize her by the collar. The woman mumbles something incoherent, hand frozen on her handle. I pick her up and set her down a single meter to the left.
“There, there.” I say, smoothing her ruffled uniform. I lay my index on her lips as she seems about to sound the alarm. “Shh. S’all good.”
Ruth chuckles at the distraught soldier and walks in the cabin, going straight for the furniture nailed to the walls, opening drawers and chests. Grace must’ve picked up on something because she leaves the helmsman alone and heads downstairs.
“Try the table.” I tell her, walking in.
“It’s locked.” She replies, unsheathing her sword.
Ruth forces her blade into the hinge and blows the drawer’s lock wide open. Grace steps inside just as she deposes three parchment rolls on the table.
“What are you doing, pirate?!” The Countess exclaims.
“We only taking a look, don’t get your panties all up in a bunch.” Ruth replies.
“This is…” Grace turns to me.
“Necessary if you want us out of your hair.” I interrupt her. “We need to settle on where we’re setting the anchor.”
“I want you in a slipknot, hanging from the mast!” She shouts.
“Oh, I think she likes you.” Ruth says, unrolling one of the maps. Grace tries to move to stop her but I block her way. “No, seriously.” Ruth adds, looking anything but. “I heard dying like that is really intense, like, you know…” The tall woman sensually waves her hips.
“Please don’t.” I groan.
Grace’s cheeks alternate between pink and white, from embarrassment to anger. She seizes her weapon and starts drawing it. I bring my gauntleted left hand down on the pommel, forcing the blade back in its sheath.
The Countess explodes in furious expletives, all of them unfit for a Lady. I laugh, which along with Ruth’s casual remarks, is enough to throw Grace into a loop as she fights my grip on her sword.
She is taken so off-balance that Ruth has time to lay all three maps on the table and start reading them before the Countess recovers her bearings.
“Thieves.” She spits out.
“Got what we need?” I ask Ruth.
“Yea, right there, take a look.” She points at a spot.
I let go of Grace’s weapon and join Ruth at the table. Her index is pointing at a curvature of the river. The Countess seizes the maps and pulls them away from under Ruth’s hand.
“You better not have stained it.” She says.
Despite what she just said, she doesn’t check and starts rolling the maps back up. Apparently hiding what’s on it is more important to her than checking their state. I shrug and head out of the cabin with Ruth.
“You found what I asked you to?” I ask her.
“Yea.” She nods. “I didn’t really need to look at the other map. I have the streets and blocks memorized on a small radius but don’t get your hopes up, there weren’t many details on it and there is no way I got them all.”
“It’s fine, I only need it to avoid getting lost and take notes.” I say. “Draw it on a cleaner rag if you don’t mind.”
“It’ll cost extra!” Ruth exclaims.
I roll my eyes and take a gold coin out of my pouch, throwing it to her.
“And no, I’m not up to playing dice.” I tell the woman before she can ask.
“You’re no fun.” Ruth groans and heads off.