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We finish our beers while listening to the rest of the clients, the various rumors they’re exchanging and tales of their lives. My mood turns sour as I hear how ordinary routines are disrupted by ordinary events.

I envy their peace, wishing that I could reclaim mine. A wild dream as I know how impossible it will be for me to recover a semblance of normality, but I’ll get as close as I can. I decide to cut our stay short and head back early.

As I stand, I reflexively reach for the chair with my right hand, realizing that my hand is paralyzed and my forearm has further swelled. I really should have simply encased the bones in iron instead of trying to use the metal to directly cement them together, it would have cost more flow but this is worse.

We make our back to the shop through the streets. Vikiana has been as silent as I have for the past half-hour, pondering on what we’ve discussed. I got the feeling that she has started to doubt the Emperor as I have, yet neither of us would admit it. Especially not to each other.

One question.” She speaks up. “If flow did judge… would you be worthy or not?”

Isn’t the answer obvious?” I ask.

Absent the answer, it depends on perspective. I’d like to hear yours.” She replies. Evaluating my hubris? I chuckle.

I wouldn’t be.” I tell her honestly. She seems to be waiting for me to develop, which I don’t because I’d rather she asks.

Why?” She finally questions. “Because of that?” She adds, looking at my symbiont.

No. Because of the choices I made, in some ways, I behaved like a Noble.” I reply.

Hardly.” Vikiana denies.

I don’t argue the point, her opinion is mostly irrelevant to me. Most people’s opinions are. We step in the shop and find the clerk talking to another client so we wait at the side for her to get to us.

Their discussion drags on, which I don’t mind as I spend the time admiring the redheaded clerk, daydreaming. After a little while, the leather-worker walks in from the workshop. She must have told him somehow.

He hands over the sleeve glove, folded along the sutures. Twenty silvers is expensive for what this is but it was specifically cut for me. After a few words of thanks, we head back to the house.

I send Vikiana inside first and head into an alley to steal another barrel of rainwater. As I set it on the wheelbarrow, I consider how much time I have before Caeviel and the Rykz clash.

The King gathered his vassals as soon as the Due arrives, which was a couple of weeks ago. Duchess Hetlan joined him and it should have taken at least a week for her to travel south with her own vassals.

I’m rather certain that Caeviel’s army barely finished gathering, it takes time to muster a fighting force. So, Cenwalh must be on the way to Port-Odo but not too far along the way.

Do I have a month? No choice in the matter, I can’t make a move until I fix my arm and I need more energy. I anchor two-thirds of my flow to the water inside the barrel and seal the lid. I then walk back into the house.

The bedroom is occupied by Aisha and Vikiana, with Tsek watching them from the main room where the two of us sleep. I head to the only other room, the kitchen, to fit the sleeve glove on.

It is remarkably similar to the one the Rykz made for me, the visible parts of it are identical apart from the threat that was used which is thinner and tighter. The straps end in small bronze buckles. At least the leather-worker didn’t skimp on materials.

Once I’m done, I head to the bedroom, telling Tsek to grab the writing kit in the leather case and to come along. I take a chair and sit in front of Aisha who sat on the bed, noticing that she exaggeratedly pulled her shirt down to show her cleavage off.

Tsek is definitely having trouble concentrating because of it. Vikiana reaches around Aisha’s back and pulls on the back of her shirt to bring it up. I can’t stop my eyes from turning to the two nipples pointing against the cloth which almost makes me miss the fact that her eyes wander most often to the kid.

We get down to working on the letter to send the director. I insist on being vague and asking the Director to bring a pair of shackles, I don’t use a single word Aisha has and settle on a road crossing on the other side of the institute from here to meet her at.

We have our meal together and settle on the final wording together, out of hearing range of the other two. We went through a good portion of the parchment he bought but only end up with a first draft that has too many ink stains to be usable.

Keep trying until you get something that looks good and then apply the seal yourself.” I tell him.

Shouldn’t we tell that Director not to bring too many guards?” He asks.

It isn’t needed and might make her bring more instead. The institute is secretive, I doubt that Suxen trusts enough people to threaten me through numbers. No, what worries me is flow and Aisha.” I tell him.

Not the Exemplar?” He questions.

I have a pretty good idea of how far she’ll go for her daughter.” I reply. “That works both for and against me depending on the situation. I think that she’ll help for now.”

When do we send it?” Tsek asks.

Whenever this is fixed.” I reply. “I think I’ll ask a blacksmith tomorrow and if that doesn’t work, I’ll just have to pay the dozen gold to get a healer’s opinion.”

A dozen? That’s insane.” Tsek blinks. “The quacks back home charged copper and they were competent enough. You might want to try those who provide care for slum dwellers, anyone who fixes the shit that goes down in these places is bound to learn stuff from experience.”

I guess it wouldn’t hurt to ask one of those.” I nod.

He goes to sleep soon after and I guard the other two while he does. As usual, I train my lion strike constructs. I make very little progress in speed but a lot in consistency which means I waste less and am a lot less likely to make mistakes during battle. I go to sleep as he wakes.

— — —

I awaken to a harsh pain in my right elbow and an intense desire to mate. I communicate my need to fight the pain to my symbiont and it increases the rate at which it injects the cool substance. After few heartbeats, the pain fades.

Good morning.” Tsek says from the threshold to the bedroom.

Hey.” I reply.

Luckily, I didn’t dream of Leomi or I doubt I would’ve been able to stop myself, spectators or not. I don’t know what’s wrong with my arm but it’s spreading. I rise and make my way to the kitchen to serve myself a bowl of leftovers.

I feel sticky with sweat, likely from pain and lust as I slept. I get washed up and grab one of my swords to go out. I would rather be armed if we’re going to go to the slums considering what happened with Vikiana in that seedy tavern, even if it means being stopped by the city guards.

I get the flow out of the two prisoners and head out with Vikiana. I pause outside to check the rag map. I left a small circle where I plan to meet the Director and I want to check the area before sending the letter.

Besides, it’ll do me some good to take a long detour around the institute before going to see a slum healer. The thought of my arousal brings it to the forefront of my mind.

I clench my sex, provoking a tiny wave of pleasure that helps quell the pressure I feel to get some release. Yea, walking will be good to cool myself down, I’d rather not look visibly flushed when I find a healer.

I see you brought gold and sword.” Vikiana comments. “Where are we going?”

Slums.” I reply, turning to the north-east.

Wait. I use my sense to check our surroundings and those of the house because my symbiont twitched like it noticed movement. I find Aisha and Tsek, moving towards the back door.

He’s behind her and she’s in shackles. He is likely bringing her to the toilet. I find it odd that the Shade would ask Tsek to go just as we leave her alone with him. Indeed, just as Tsek moves past her to open the door, she makes a move.

Are we going?” Vikiana asks.

In a second.” I absentmindedly reply.

Aisha pushes Tsek against the wall and presses herself against him, whispering in his ear. Contrary to yesterday, when he was likely in the same state, this time I’m focused on my symbiont’s sense instead of my sight so I can’t help but notice that his penis is gorging, bulging inside his pants.

My thoughts twirl. I know I should stop them but I really don’t want to walk into that. Especially in this aroused state. Shit, that’s exactly the point. The little vixen came onto me because she predicted I would leave her alone with Tsek and that allowed her to work on the kid.

Thinking of, Tsek’s sex is trying to rise all the way up, poking at the Shade’s thigh. Feeling his member, Aisha’s seductive smile grows wider and she licks the lobe of Tsek’s ear.

He is trying to push her away but doesn’t seem to be putting much energy into it. Her hand runs down and starts stroking the front of his pants and the fully erect penis underneath. Tsek reacts by suddenly shoving her back.

Yet, Aisha doesn’t seem surprised in the least. She stumbles back and her left foot ‘inadvertently‘ finds the back of Tsek’s heel, hooking it along and making him trip. He slides to the ground and she kneels between his legs before he can do anything, pulling his pants down from his waist.

Tsek is watching with wide eyes as the Shade takes hold of his penis, but he is panting and no longer resisting. Much as I would let him have this, I can’t deal with Aisha right now and that means I can’t risk letting them fuck. It would compromise Tsek, I would have to separate them and deal with Aisha myself.

Stay here. Don’t move and don’t talk to anyone.” I order Vikiana.

I rush inside the house, startling both of them. Tsek’s stares up at me with a difficult and guilty look on his face. I don’t glance down but my sense informs me that the sight of me is making Tsek harder.

Aisha becomes slightly panicky. She knows she screwed up, yet she foolishly doubles down, perhaps with the hope of exciting me enough that I’ll ask her to do this for me. She bends over and leans in while opening her mouth. My eyes follow her movement as her lips plunge towards the pink tip of his penis.

The shaft of his erect penis has a darker skin tone and veins running along the length. It’s thicker and longer than I would have thought it would be, a good fifteen or sixteen centimeters long.

Great, I won’t be unseeing that. At least I’m not that horny anymore. I step in and grab her by the collar just as her lips close around the head of his cock. I firmly pull her back and start dragging her back into the bedroom.

Wait, I actually need to go!” She exclaims.

You can piss yourself for all I care.” I reply coldly.

I throw her against the bed-frame and tie her back to it. I shape lightning constructs and shock her every time she tries to talk. I grab a sock lying around and jam it into her mouth. I then rip a strip of cloth from one of the shirts in their dirty laundry pile and gag her with it.

Do you realize that you’re putting this all at risk, what the fuck were you even trying to do here?” I ask. Her response is incomprehensible, muffled by the sock inside her mouth. “No more bullshit Aisha. I won’t make threats any longer.”

I inject more energy into the lightning construct and activate it, knocking her out. I then walk over to Tsek who is still sitting on the ground. He pulled his pants back on, looking mortified and even guiltier.

He is pressing down on his rock-hard penis to try to hide it but the action is only making his raging erection more obvious. I take a seat at the table and wait for him to feel comfortable enough to speak up.

She ambushed me.” He justifies.

I’m not blaming you.” I tell him.

She kept saying she’d… and when she actually went for it, I kind of… drew a blank.” He admits.

I know.” I say. “She almost played us both.”

Are you, interested in men?” Tsek asks brusquely. Courage in lust, huh, I see a bit of myself there.

No.” I shake my head.

Not even curious?” He questions, hopeful.

Well, a bit.” I shrug. “But it isn’t arousing to me.”

His expression falls but it doesn’t seem like he’s too surprised. At least that’s settled. I really can’t blame him about Aisha. She’s pretty, young, fit, and definitely has the experience to figure out which of Tsek’s buttons she needs to press.

You should go, hm.” I pause in embarrassment. I look away and decide to just get it out, quickly. “Get off, rub one out or whatever you call it.”

Tsek turns crimson. A really awkward silence takes over the room. He ends up standing while discreetly shifting his erect member so that it lays flat on his stomach, restrained by the waistband. The logistics involved are fascinating.

I’ll, do that.” Tsek mutters. “Can I…” He continues but his voice dies down and I don’t catch the end.

I don’t ask. I’m curious but I really don’t want to give him false hopes by seeking details on the process or giving him whatever permission he’s seeking, I do know it involves rubbing. A mistake as he visibly grows ashamed, he seems to assume that I’m ignoring him or refusing to reply.

Can I think of you while I do?” He asks directly, seriously. It means a lot to him if he’s insisting like that, it must have taken a lot of courage to ask that twice.

Sure, knock yourself out.” I reply despite my discomfort at the idea. I really do not want to shame him.

Thank you.” He says and rushes out the back door.

Tsek barely steps outside that he drops his pants and takes hold of his raging erection. He starts rubbing it back and forth along the length, passing his thumb over the tip. I probably shouldn’t be observing, but I’m curious and he is thinking of me after all.

He starts moving his hip, stabbing up in the air with his shaft. I suddenly realize that he’s imagining that he’s taking me. It makes me feel weird, not disgusted but wronged.

I did tell him he could so I can’t be holding this against him now, besides he didn’t really need to ask. I sigh. Did I take a wrong turn somewhere? Tsek is accelerating his movements, his traits are tight and focused, his eyes closed.

His body temperature is rising. A thick and long stream of liquid suddenly flies out of his cock’s head, Tsek makes a relieved and content expression. I almost hear his groan.

I don’t need to stick around, he’s done and Aisha’s out cold. I’d rather not face him when he comes back because I want to forget this entire series of events as soon as possible. We can talk later, when he doesn’t have the mental image of fucking me so fresh in his mind.

I get up and head out of the house. Vikiana throws me a questioning look. I groan and give her a quick rundown, omitting my conversation with Tsek and what he did afterward.

That young woman needs to learn that, sometimes, the right move is to make none at all.” Vikiana sighs.

That’s what she did with Idali, Exemplar.” I coldly utter.

Sometimes.” She repeats. “I think she was trying to regain some control over the situation.”

It was a stupid way to do so.” I reply. “And if she’s playing some other game, well this should convince you to make her understand that if I lose, we all do.”

I punctuate my words by assembling a delayed signaling construct in front of her eyes, identical to the one I bluffed them with the other day to make them think the limb will eat me when it runs out.

This time, I target my symbiont with it and add a message to tells it that there is danger when it’s activated, which will put my limb on alert and it would then very likely rearrange the network of tendrils spread over my body.

I anchor the construct inside the symbiont’s shoulder behind a layer of unstructured flow with the intent to activate the construct for a split second if it is probed and to send the signal entirely if the link is cut.

That looked like a short timer. What about when you’re asleep?” Vikiana asks.

I’ll extend it then.” I tell her sharply. “And don’t think of taking advantage of that, I just set a secondary trigger with unstructured flow.”

I’m on your side on this, Elizabeth.” The Exemplar tells me.

I’ll only believe that when we give the Princess back to the Rykz and it won’t matter by then.” I reply.

We make our way through Meiridin’s slums, taking a very large detour around the institute. I scout the surroundings of the spot we’ll meet the Director at and look for a building we’ll be able to use.

My only standard is for the walls to be intact as we don’t want anyone looking in. We find an innocuous-looking abandoned general store in a relatively good shape apart from the roof which doesn’t have any tiles left, they were likely stolen.

With that marked on the rag map, Vikiana and I start looking for a healer in the slums. A quack like Tsek called them. She finds one but I opt against going because it’s a man and I’d rather talk to a woman right now.

I end up getting referred to an old midwife by a father begging with his ten-year-old daughter on the street. I give them a handful of silvers in thanks. It might be a stereotype but someone who helps people give birth should be one of the most trustworthy among the slum’s inhabitants.

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