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I run into Tsek on my way back to the cargo-hold, the afternoon shift took over guarding my prisoners. I throw him a curious look. He hesitates for a moment, his green eyes wavering, but he still looks me in the eye and speaks up.

I don’t plan to leave with Ruth and the galley once this is done, I still have friends in Port-Odo.” He tells me.

You want a separate payment?” I ask.

No.” He shakes his head.

It’s fine.” I say.

It’s not that.” He says, looking a little frustrated. “I’m just wondering if you mind if I stick around.”

Oh.” I mutter. “I don’t think you actually want to do that. Once I’m done, I’m done. The Elizabeth Vil you see is just an illusion.”

What do you mean?” He asks.

I’m a peasant and I have no desire to keep… playing this game of theirs.” I explain. “The lies, betrayals, shifting alliances. Blood and death. It is sickening.”

You give hope.” He says. “What you do might not be pretty but who’s ever heard of a low-born beating Nobility at its own game? Sykus himself ran and hid away.”

Which is what I would be doing if I didn’t have this.” I say, pointing at my mask. Celyz was one step ahead like she usually is.

You’re strong.” Tsek insists.

Lance is strong. I’m a mess.” I chuckle. “I can’t fight Caeviel by myself, Tsek. If you want a new life, hope, don’t look to me.” I pause. “Ah, so this is what you want out of me. The same thing Cecil does, kind of, a symbol.”

That’s not what I want.” He denies. “I want to help.”

Cross over to Izla Meria and join Lady Lance’s organization, that’s more likely to achieve something lasting than following me.” I tell him.

She’s a Noble.” He says with a frown.

Which means she’s part of the only group of people who can do something without triggering a civil war.” I note.

Perhaps that’s what we need.” Tsek ventures.

I’m doing this to save lives, Tsek.” I counter firmly. “Starting a war is the last thing I’ll do. Besides, I have neither the influence nor skill to gather and lead an army. Let the tale of Elizabeth Vil be just that, a story. I’ll consider it a win if it inspires some to stand up.” If it doesn’t end in slaughter.

I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean for the conversation to go there.” Tsek says, blaming himself.

I’m pretty sure I’m the one who went there.” I say gently. “This entire thing has been taking a toll on me and I apparently needed to vent.”

Do you mind if I stick around?” He asks again.

I already told you that I’m not going to…” I start.

That’s not it.” He interrupts me, blushing slightly. Easily embarrassed, this one, it’s not like I’ll think less of him for not expressing himself clearly.

What is it then? What more do you want?” I question.

No expectations.” He says. “I just want to be a friend, for now, to help. You seem like you need both.”

I’ll answer you when you tell me what you’re after.” I reply.

Who hurt you?” He suddenly asks with a difficult expression, his green eyes somehow brimming with empathy.

What do you mean?” I blink, surprised.

I don’t want anything… I mean I do but it’s not like I’m putting conditions on my friendship. This isn’t a transaction.” He explains.

It always is.” I utter in a tight voice. What? Why am I…? Tears swell in the corner of my eyes. I swallow the pain down and walk, no run, from Tsek. Escaping back to the upper deck.

Wait, I’m sor…” He calls out.

I ignore him, climbing two steps at a time. What’s up with me? I’m lonely, I miss Leomi. The emotion is echoed by my symbiont and that brings Celyz’ image to the forefront of my mind, battling with my Lady’s for attention. Tender safety and passionate love.

I find myself at the galley’s bow, hands on the rail. Crack. Wood shatters under my grip. I hear Ruth yelling something about damaging her ship. I shut the world out and pull my entire reserve of energy out.

Draining all my flow at once makes me dizzy, lightheaded. I take a deep breath and pause, a large ball of black-gold is floating in front of me. What was I going to do with it? Lash out at the damn waves? I reabsorb the flow, mocking myself.

I spend a few hours there, gaze lost at sea. The prickling pain in my right forearm is a welcome distraction. Yet another worry, this is getting worse. I can’t afford to waste time, I need to be ready.

I head down to the cargo-hold and grab Vikiana, giving her half my flow so she can heal herself. The rest of the afternoon goes by in a flash as she makes me train my basics. I lose myself in my ‘Once more.‘ mantra, the monotonous task is reassuring, a fine fit for my current state of mind so.

At nightfall, I make my way to the kitchen, planning to bring back food for my prisoners. I greet Tsek and Ruth. She discreetly hands over a folded white rag when he turns his back on us.

Ruth then launches in an over-exaggerated recounting of her life, from her beginnings in a family of soldiers to how she fell for a glamorous sailor who turned out to be a pirate and the adventures that followed.

She almost got me to think she’s the good girl as she told us of her ignominious capture when one of Odo’s galleys showed up as they were relieving a merchant ship of their surplus of merchandise.

Truly unjust, you were doing that merchant a favor!” Tsek quips.

Right?!” Ruth exclaims, slamming her knife down on the table.
“Might have been about the dagger that slipped out of your hand and somehow ended up pinning the man’s hand to his steering wheel.” I comment dryly.

Elizabeth, I told you that was an honest accident!” Ruth exclaims, offended.

Oh, I get it.” I nod with a chuckle. “I once met a Lordling who decided to repeatedly bash his head against my fist. It was tragic. After the first blow, he was too stunned to stop himself.”

See, I knew you would understand.” Ruth grins while Tsek laughs.

I roll my eyes at her, glad that my mask is hiding my grin. After the meal, I grab a couple bowls that I hand over to Vikiana and Aisha, relieved that Tsek hasn’t brought up the subject of sticking around again as I have no idea how to say no without hurting his feelings. I check up on Vikiana’s injuries which appear to be healing well.

We’ll be able to spar in a few days.” The Exemplar tells me.

That’s good, I won’t be able to keep intensively training my constructs once in Meiridin and I didn’t want to tell anyone that I won’t have most of my flow available. I steal a blanket from Ruth’s bunk, who is on the upper deck gambling on dice rolls, and go to sleep.

— — —

I start the day on a sparring session with Tsek. Vikiana’s reasoning about needing to explain it all to him turns out to be more than helpful. in the middle of giving him advice, I end up telling him exactly how to counter-attack to defeat me.

I discover more than a dozen flaws in my own defense and offense by correcting his. None of them are glaring or immediately dangerous to me but I have no doubt a fighter of Vikiana’s caliber could leverage those into an opening.

Tsek and I spend a good time, yet a shadow remains over the session as I agreed to it before knowing how beneficial it would be to me for several reasons, none of which I’m proud of.

We’ll be working closely together so we need to establish some level of trust, or at least he needs to trust me. I don’t like the fact that I am reproducing what others have done to me with him, inducing positive feelings, creating a relationship so that he does what I need him to.

I end up telling him that I’ll pay him in gold to relieve my guilt, the parallel with what Lance did to me that night doesn’t escape my notice and I feel regret that I held back, that I didn’t take some revenge. It won’t be too late later, as Jessica.

You’re getting good at this.” I speak up.

I don’t, understand how you, can keep blocking everything.” Tsek replies, out of breath.

I cheat, I see more than you do.” I reply mysteriously. “I should tell you that I’m cheating right now.” I add.

How, so?” He asks.

I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart.” I say. “I need you to follow my orders and keep quiet about it all, the gold is one way to ensure you will. Another is this, getting to know each other reduces the risk that you’ll act against my interests.”

You’re not doing a very good job at manipulating me if that’s the goal since telling me defeats the point. I could have reacted badly.” Tsek comments, not looking too offended.

I can change who I bring along, it isn’t much of a risk.” I admit.

Don’t. It’s fine, I understand and I know you’re not doing any of this for yourself. ” Tsek blushes a little. “That’s why I like you.”

Eh, you’re not so bad yourself.” I tease.

It really is a boy thing to get all weird just to say he wants to be friends, reminds me of my brother when we were kids.

No, I mean I really do.” He says, flustered.

Yea, I got that.” I tell him, confused.

I have since I heard of your duel with Count Odo, taking revenge for his victims.” Tsek presses.

It wasn’t…” I pause to swallow my saliva, feeling a ball of nervous guilt form in the middle of my throat. “I didn’t do that for anyone. That was for me. He… killed someone important to me and it was my fault.”

None of it would have happened if I let Leomi help my family, if I refused to work for the Rykz, if I didn’t undermine Leomi’s position in Meria’s chain of command. If… ifif…

Elizabeth?” Tsek speaks up, pulling me out of my self-destructive spiral.

I’m not a good person, Tsek. I accepted the Rykz’ offer but it didn’t have much to do with the good of Caeviel. Deep down, I wanted to take revenge on someone and I didn’t even go through with it. The reason I’m doing everything I can to end the war is that I couldn’t handle the guilt if I didn’t.” I tell him.

That only proves that you’re a better person than you think you are.” He affirms. “I’m sorry I mentioned that.”

I sigh and swing the flat of my blade at his left knee, destroying his balance. He drops, hitting the wooden deck, swearing. I hold my hand out to help him up. He grips my wrist instead. I get him to his feet and break the hold.

Not sure why I let him as this is something I share with Leomi, he has no place in that but it’s not like we do so exclusively. It’s a mark of respect among warriors, I’ll take that.

Half-way through the afternoon, I find myself unable to keep holding my sword in my dominant hand, the repeated shocks making my bones vibrate are getting more and more painful so I switch hand.

After a few exchanges during which Tsek’s defense gets destroyed even more than usual, we decide to call it quits. According to him, it’s unfair to go southpaw on a beginner. I spend the rest of the day training my lion’s step as I’ve had few occasions to but will be a construct I’ll very much need to get out of Meiridin.

— — —

I wake up to a radiating agony coming from the area around where I merged iron to my forearm’s bones. A tendril reaches up to my right shoulder from my lower back and disperses some of that cool substance to dull the pain, without instruction.

I slowly close my left fingers in thanks, my symbiont responds by taping the palm with its thumb. I ponder on how much it understands for a moment, it seems like it can tell what I feel, through pheromones perhaps? Celyz said it couldn’t read my thoughts.

The ship is quieter than usual, and it isn’t pitching as much. Have we stopped? The sail is down, so is the anchor. I get up on my feet and make my way to the upper deck. Ruth is playing dice with a Tsek and a few soldiers at the bow.

“We’re here.” Ruth tells me. “Good thing I stayed up all night too because I don’t think that Countess intended to stop where we agreed on.”

Did she make a move?” I ask.

No, I just think she wanted to set anchor within sight of Meiridin’s towers.” Ruth replies.

Ah.” I say.

Probably not a power play, it would give her an edge but she doesn’t have the support to use this. Might be a safety in plain sight thing, or a way to show her flag and indirectly call on Nobles to visit her, get news from the city, perhaps establish a line of communication with Cenwalh.

I don’t see what else she could achieve with this since the Shade and the Exemplar have been clear in what they expect of her. She knows I’m not going to stay on the galley so I doubt she wanted to start a fight to capture me.

I shake my head, no sense in thinking too deeply about it, it’s not like I showed her the spot. We didn’t talk about this and Grace was more preoccupied with hiding the maps than looking at them.

Hey, did you take my blanket?” Ruth asks.

No, I’m pretty sure I saw Tsek with it.” I lie.

You swore you didn’t.” Ruth turns to glare at the kid. I make use of her distraction to run back down to the cargo-hold.

I don’t have it.” Tsek says with a grin.

I’m going to check! He might have planted it in my cell to frame me!” I call out over my shoulder.

Come back here, thief!” Ruth exclaims.

She keeps yelling but doesn’t leave the game, no doubt because she put money down. I chuckle and grab my stuff from the cell, hammer and the clothes I washed. I grab the blanket and bring it back to Ruth’s bunk.

I search a crate for a pair of rudimentary galley-slave clothes and throw what I find at my prisoners. I then tell their guards to remove their shackles and leave while I untie the ropes.

Get changed.” I tell them. “Underwear as well, leave no overt signs of your exalted births.” I add.

I was born from a family of soldiers loyal to the previous Duke Meria.” Vikiana replies.

And I doubt a tavern counts as exalted.” Aisha groans.

Either way, get in these rags and put the shackles back on.” I tell them.

As they do, I start removing the plate armor strapped to my left arm, with some trouble because of my right forearm’s state. I then assemble a signaling construct, adding a conditional timer segment that will trigger the message to my symbiont when it runs out but I leave it blank of meaning.

Once they’re fully dressed, I take my shirt off and call their attention to my left side. I make the signaling construct float above my palm and then focus within. I try to seize control of a tendril, one of the original five which are thicker at the base than the others who grew later, most to camouflage the breast it… ate.

My symbiont doesn’t react or resist, it simply doesn’t work, I only have some control of the one that is kind of fused to my lower-back waist muscles. I don’t have time to waste, I need to shock them and they’re starting to throw me odd glances.

I try to communicate the need to move the tendrils at my limb, it somewhat works as they start repositioning under my skin, wiggling slightly. Vikiana doesn’t much react but Aisha pales and represses a gasp.

That was just me telling it to look alive.” I tell them. “This is what it looks like if I tell it to eat.”

I activate the signaling construct in front of their eyes, just for a split second. It sends a blank message at no one, not that either of them could tell. At the same time, I pull on the three tendrils I have some control over, those three that partly fused to my muscles.

Only enough to hurt and bleed inside but not so much that I’ll rip them off my muscles since I need the flow. For now. The pain is muted by the cool substance already diffused throughout my body but I still flinch.

Alright, want to check the damage?” I ask.

This isn’t necessary, Elizabeth.” Vikiana says.

On the contrary, I’m making sure that we’re on the same page and that we’ll stay on the same page.” I utter flatly. “I will respond to any move on your part that I consider threatens my mission with overwhelming force. Depending on the situation, I may be forced to simply end your life. And know that I won’t hesitate if it is necessary, you might not take the Rykz as seriously as I do because you’ve fought them but let me assure you that, from what I’ve seen and heard, the Empire has been fighting Hives. This isn’t about an individual Queen, our Emperor has provoked a species. Queen Grikyz wouldn’t even have the right to come here without the First Queen’s permission.”

We understand, Elizabeth.” Aisha says.

I don’t need you to understand. I don’t even care if you don’t. What I need is for you to be fully aware that this is how I see the situation. In my eyes, my life and yours are expendable to achieve peace in Caeviel.” I utter harshly, honestly.

Vikiana and Aisha nod in silence, a good choice. I slip my short back on and strap the plate armor pieces to my left arm. I then check their chains and lead them to the upper deck. I call Conrad over and listen in as Vikiana reiterates her instructions.

The Templar does throw a glance at the Shade who confirms what the Exemplar just said while maintaining her act as a hostage for the onlookers, saying that she can’t wait to make the exchange.

You’re going?” Ruth asks, walking up to us.

No time to waste.” I reply. The state of my right forearm means I can’t sit here to prepare, I need to find a solution fast.

You don’t really look the part, give me a minute.” Ruth says.

She heads downstairs, crossing paths with Tsek who is making his way up with a jute bag containing grain and a small barrel of water. I throw my spare clothes to him and he puts them inside with his.

You up for this?” I ask one last time.

Of course.” Tsek replies with a tight smile.

Ruth comes back with two sleeveless tabards with the Odo crest on them. I reluctantly put mine on while Aisha and Vikiana settle on one of the lifeboats. I carefully inspect the small ship through my symbiont’s sense, looking for weapons or anything conspicuous.

I search it again with my own eyes after I get on. Finding no weapons or poison or keys, I give the signal and Ruth’s people lower the lifeboat down to the river. I sit down at the bow and Tsek at the stern while Vikiana and Aisha grab the oars.

I’m overreaching, this is going to go to shit and I’m going to end up in a ditch with a dagger in my back, literally or metaphorically. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, too many people’s lives depend on my success for me to lose my nerve.

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