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We leave the inn through the window and make our way back to the house, taking every precaution to ensure that we aren’t being tailed. Not a single one of us complains even after a full hour roaming the streets when it could take us a few minutes, even though we’re all pretty sure that it’s unnecessary and we’re all tired.

Tell me, the castle is buying flow but, as far as I can tell from what I’ve seen and heard, they aren’t sending it south. Why is that?” I ask.

Well, the leyline network is configured to send flow from villages to cities and then to the capital, and then to Kruzser where it can be redistributed to the Empire’s borders. Caeviel would need to transport the energy by land and that would put a huge strain on the supply lines. I’m not surprised that Cenwalh decided against it, the Rykz would have a field day if he did.” Vikiana replies.

So we’re not prepared for this at all.” I groan.

It’s pretty bad but not entirely hopeless.” The Exemplar denies. “Flow can be held in castles and cities to be sent to the army instead of Meiridin, it spreads out the supply lines and split our forces to protect them, which is both good and bad.”

It basically means that the Rykz have the initiative.” I realize.

Yes but that’s not all bad, it depends on how Cenwalh deploys the army, he could theoretically block most of the Rykz from venturing north if he abandons a large swathe of southern Caeviel to fend for itself and uses Noble cavalry to pick off the Rykz that make it past his lines.” Vikiana explains. “It wouldn’t be a bad strategy, since it’s mostly forest and wilderness between Caeviel and Telnur apart from the border castles which can hold on their own so long as the main Rykz army doesn’t assault them.”

Is it me or are Caeviel’s defensive plans constantly being revised?” I ask.

They are, but that’s to be expected in war, especially since we’ve been on the back-foot this entire time.” Vikiana replies.

Can we afford a delay of three weeks, Vikiana?” I question.

You can’t afford not to, Elizabeth.” She tells me. “You aren’t ready.”

Unless you want to spend the entire week in a room with Suxen, you don’t have a choice.” Aisha tells me.

I shiver at the idea. Tsek blushes at the words, no doubt recalling seeing me spread out on a table. I’ve been ending up naked way too often, and not often enough at the same time. I could so use a bath and then lie down bare in sunlight. But it’s too cold for that now, winter is approaching fast.

When we arrive at the house, the first thing I do is check the shackles I’ve used on Aisha and Vikiana. They no doubt know many more constructs than I do and, if they can alter the runic shackles, these simple ones would be even easier. Their only obstacle would be the amount of flow at their disposal.

I don’t know any probing construct but I don’t need one to check the metal’s integrity if I heat them since my symbiont’s sense is sensitive enough to detect the slightest differences in temperature that would occur from different metal density.

I use a fire construct to and warm up both pairs of shackles. I find that one of the links in Aisha’s shackles is weakened. I snap it off with my right hand. Clink. She could have gotten out of those at any moment, but she didn’t. Hm. Aisha shrugs with a small smile when I confront her.

Can’t keep this girl down.” Aisha chuckles.

Would you stop testing me, Shade?” I say, rubbing my temples.

I’m not.” She sighs. “Look, you have to realize I could have escaped, I’ve had several chances when you were gone doing whatever it is you do in Meiridin. Tsek isn’t exactly a jailer.”

That doesn’t work in your favor.” I grunt. “You want to use me so it’s in your interest to stick around. You probably calculated that I would either run or hunt you down if you disappeared.”

Well, that’s true.” Aisha sighs. “What can I do to make you trust me?”

“I’ve answered that already, Aisha.” I pause. “Or maybe I said it to Vikiana. Whatever, I’m tired. Either way, I’ll trust that you won’t mess this up when we succeed and you haven’t fucked up.”

Ah.” Aisha nods in understanding.

Speaking of which. Tsek!” I call out.

What is it?” He turns to me with a curious gaze.

Are you up to stealing something from a Shade?” I ask.

Sure.” He agrees. “What’s the job?”

This one will explain it to you.” I tell him, glancing at Aisha. “And she’ll train you to do it.”

I will?” The Shade blinks.

Yes, and he better return with the schematics and without a scratch or anyone tailing him because, otherwise, you’ll become useless to me Aisha.” I tell her.

I suppose he has some experience, it shouldn’t be too difficult.” She sighs.

Making the two of them spend time together isn’t exactly optimal but I don’t want to go anywhere near that other Shade’s stash in case there are traps there that Aisha could walk me into.

I take Aisha into the bedroom and set a pair of runic shackles around her wrists. I don’t activate the runic construct, no need to take the risk since we have two of these to spare so it won’t matter if she messes with this one.

It feels like I’m losing control but I’m still confident that Vikiana and Aisha will act in their self-interest, which remains aligned with my goals for now. The three of them go to sleep so I settle on a chair with two pairs of runic shackles that I lock around my wrists and ankles.

I train to open the shackle’s four braces all at once until the sun rises, using my flow as it regenerates. Come morning, I take Tsek’s place in the main room’s bunk and wink out.

— — —

Tsek wakes me up for lunch, we devour a simple gruel together. He then resumes guarding the prisoners while I wash up and do our laundry in the kitchen. He actually tries to sneak a peek from his post while I do but I saw that coming and settled in a corner.

Once I’m done, I free Vikiana and Aisha so that they can work on altering a pair of runic shackles. I wouldn’t put my trust in them for that if I didn’t have another solution. I wouldn’t even let them do it if I could do it myself.

I now realize how difficult it is to hold someone prisoner because of the many possibilities that flow offers, which makes me worried about my plan. Perhaps I truly am underestimating the institute. I shake my head. I don’t think so, their defenses depend on flow to counter flow.

My thoughts are interrupted by Tsek who walks out of the kitchen bare-chested. His pecs and abs are chiseled and not too developed. There is an almost but not quite feminine quality to that kind of musculature. I was wrong, I can appreciate that about as much as his green eyes.

You getting bolder.” I note.

Interested?” He asks.

Nope.” I reply.

Ouch.” Tsek says, bringing his hand to his chest with a good-natured smile.

He is getting bolder, a result of living in close proximity perhaps. That or he really needs to get laid. Could be my symbiont messing with my relationships. Although, if it’s a defensive mechanism, I don’t think it is doing anything right now. And if it acts on my feelings of fear or desire, then it doesn’t apply now either.

It‘s killing me. I push the thought away again. Celyz can fix it if she can’t remove it; I trust her; I trust that she didn’t know. In the meantime, I’ll apply a strengthening and nourishing construct to my heart in battle.

Want to train?” Tsek asks.

Sure.” I agree. “We might not have long, I think the other two are almost done.” I add.

Tsek goes to pick up the wooden swords and hands one over to me, not putting a shirt on. I smirk and switch the weapon to my left hand to swing high to low. He raises his own to block, which leaves his bare chest open. I use the flat of my right palm to slap his abs.

Hey!” He yelps, looking down at the bright red mark on his belly.

And that’s why you wear a shirt.” I grin.

He responds by throwing a stab, using a lion strike. He sets his right foot too far forward so I deviate the attack to the right with a flick of my wrist and advance, setting my left foot behind his right heel.

Tsek slashes at me to force me to pull back but his blade is too close to do any damage, even if it was real, so I let it hit my right side. When it does, I take one more step forward and close my elbow on his wrist, imprisoning it between my right arm and my flank.

Stabbing is all well and good, but… hey!” I exclaim in outrage.

Tsek has let go of his wooden sword and is trying to feel my breast up. I release his wrist and pull my right hand back to punch him. Too late, my surprise cost me precious seconds and his left fist hits me square in the jaw.

I see yellow stars and my back impacts something solid. I recover almost immediately but find that I’m down on the ground. Tsek is approaching to poke at my heart with his blade, one of the spar’s victory conditions. That little thief!

I slap his sword aside with my left limb, and swipe at his legs with my sword a moment later. He loses his footing and drops to my side. I hop over, setting my knee on his right arm to stop him from retaliating, and finally place my wooden blade on his throat.

Was sure that would work.” He groans.

It almost did. Not sure whether to hit you or compliment you for improvising.” I note.

Improvising, right.” Tsek says, looking away. I punch his stomach. “Oof.” He coughs.

Is that how you treat a friend?” I question him.

You think of me as a friend?” He asks with a wide grin.

I blink and realize that I do. He took advantage of my vulnerable position to take a peek but didn’t do anything else. I hadn’t even threatened him or told him about the lightning constructs that would have struck us if he delayed so it was a choice on his part, whether he realized it or not.

Yea.” I nod. “That won’t last if you try that again.”

You did tell me that all’s fair to win.” He replies with a mischievous smile.

You need to get laid.” I groan.

… you offering?” He asks after a moment of hesitation.

No.” I sigh and get back up on my feet. “You aren’t going to let that go, are you?”

After what I saw yesterday, it’s hard to.” Tsek tells me honestly.

I thought we cleared the air about this.” I say.

He takes a deep breath, seemingly gathering his courage. Tsek then gets up and sets his sword on the table. He makes his way to the bedroom and closes the door before walking back, pointing me at the kitchen.

I follow him, not looking forward to whatever he has to say because I’ll have to shut him down again, perhaps even more firmly than before. Tsek gets to the water barrel and opens it, he uses the ladle to take a sip of water.

There are a lot of mixed signals about you.” He finally says.

How so?” I ask, frowning.

Tsek turns red and falls silent, the question seems to throw him off-balance. I glance around. I find the clean shirt he chose not to put on, grab it, and throw it at him. He puts it on, regaining some composure.

Look, just because you saw me naked doesn’t mean I’ll…” I start.

It’s not that!” He cuts me off. “Or it is but not like you think.” He fumbles.

Alright, explain.” I say.

I saw you masturbating.” He blurts out. “It was an accident, but I didn’t turn back as fast as I could…” He stops. “And to be entirely honest, I heard the bed creak but still opened the door.”

I blush. He did see. I try to find something to say but what is there to respond to that? Tsek bites the insides of his cheeks, likely expecting me to blow up. He gains in confidence since I don’t say a word, what is there to say to that His penis is getting hard.

That was just after that thing with that Director.” Tsek’s words pour out in a flurry. “I was worried you got… I don’t know. I thought that Director did something bad to you, but then I saw you masturbating barely more than an hour later.” He pauses and discreetly shifts his erect penis up so that it doesn’t push against his pants so much, probably to hide it. “You’re using sex as a way to get in the institute, aren’t you? You’re doing that instead of taking the Director as a hostage because you like that stuff, right Elizabeth?”

Wait, what?” I blink. “I’m not using sex to…”

Oh, I see where he could have gotten that idea. I probably should have told him more, but how do I explain without revealing the symbiont. Tsek takes the fact that I stopped as an encouragement.

I thought you kept asking what I wanted because you’re used to people helping because they want to use you but… maybe you also want it?” He asks hesitantly. His capacity to paint me through the lens of his desire is impressive, although not quite as far off as I’d like. “That stuff excites you, the transaction. Aisha said so, well not exactly, she told me that you and Lady Lance are like that. You’re all about the give and take, it gets you going.” He ventures hopefully.

You talked a lot about me, huh.” I reply to say something as I have no idea how to untangle the rest. “I do enjoy that with her, yes. With her.”

I enjoy anything with her. I would prefer a more normal relationship based on trust and desire when we inflict pain on each other, not transactions. That kind of thing is only between Leomi and Elizabeth, when she cheats on me with me. Loving her hurts so much, so good. I’ll devour whatever I can have of her, once I’ve broken her facade a little, or a lot.

Well, I talked to Aisha before she, you know, tried to…” Tsek cuts himself off. “Tried to do to me what you’re doing to the Director.” He finishes with an almost accusing tone.

Look, Tsek. That’s not what I’m doing.” I object.

Tsek definitely didn’t hear that I only enjoy that stuff with Leomi. I’ll just let him talk, find out where he’s going with this, find out if I trusted him too quickly. But first I need to strike that idea out of his mind.

There is something about me that Suxen wants and that’s all I can tell you.” I continue. I try to lock eyes with him but the kid’s greens are turned down and gazing at my body. “That’s how I’m getting inside the institute. It doesn’t have anything to do with sex, the Director isn’t the kind of person that would be swayed by that.”

But you didn’t need to end up chained to the table, you got her alone in that building. You could have just taken her hostage and use her to get in the institute and her knowledge to disable the defenses.” Tsek argues.

He is showing a remarkable capability to think on his feet considering how turned on he is… Yea, nope. He definitely thought of this all beforehand, played the scenario in his head and now it’s running away from him.

I’m familiar with that, it’s how I convinced myself to ask a girl out and ruined my childhood as a consequence. Is that why I’m so tolerant? Tolerant, me? I almost laugh but manage to stop myself.

Tsek, the institute belongs to the King, those inside aren’t loyal to the Director so that plan wouldn’t work.” I say but think of the Numbers and correct myself. “Or at least most aren’t.”

B, but you still mas… You were enjoying yourself right after that. It seems like a sex thing for you.” Tsek says. He raises his chin to face me. His expression is serious and he isn’t blushing as much. I’m still hot in the cheeks though, and I am most definitely not going to tell him about my reasons. He continues. “And that’s okay, you do what you want. I’m not judging but the thing is that it’s part of those mixed signals.”

You want something.” I note, knowing that he does and aware that I’m probably going to have to refuse which means he might just leave.

I do. I’m not putting it as a condition for my help but I have desires too so it’s hard to…” He says.
“I can see that it’s hard, yes.” I interrupt with a wry comment, a tease to throw him off and buy me some time to think of a way out. Except Tsek recovers too quickly.

It’s difficult because I want to learn from you, but I also…” He stops, flaring crimson.

You also want to fuck me.” I finish for him.

Yea, I really do.” Tsek admits in a short breath.

It’s not going to happen.” I tell him.

I know, you don’t like men.” He says, swallowing his saliva. “But you also seem to be into the transactional sex thing.”

You’re looking for a whore.” I comment harshly.

I’m not!” He exclaims hurriedly, obviously fearful of my misinterpretation. “I told you, it’s not a condition for my help. I’m just not sure if I should ask or not.”

You’re going to need to explain yourself a lot better than this.” I utter coldly.

My tone makes Tsek take a step back. Shortly after, a small drop of sperm rises out from the tip of his erect cock. He gulps. I sigh and take a chair to sit down. Apparently, he’s attracted to that violent side of me, Elizabeth Vil’s strength gets him off. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise considering he likes me even after the slaughter on the galley.

What were you going to ask?” I question.

I want a blowjob.” He says, his penis bulging upward. “Is there something I can do that would make you consider it?” He adds while exhaling a rough breath.

What’s a blowjob?” I ask. Tsek trips up, taken completely off-guard by my response.

It’s, um, when you u, use your mouth to p, pleasure s, someone else. A man.” He stutters.

Oh.” I nod. “What’s it called for women?”
“I, I mean.” Tsek fumbles. “A cunnilingus?” He says, almost asking a question.

Doesn’t sound as good as blowjob.” I complain humorously.

A, are you telling me no?” Tsek asks. His body temperature is lowering and his hard penis falls slightly.

I’m thinking.” I say, which makes his erection come back, full on.

I’m definitely not considering telling him what he can do for me to consider it since there isn’t anything that’ll make me consider it. I need an alternative, because I can see how much of a liability this is.

Months ago, I would have criticized him, put this on account of men being led by their cocks as that was my experience when some the villagers, both kids and adults, deigned to harass me. But after how much my libido has influenced me, I can’t honestly let myself think that.

Tsek is looking increasingly agitated and uncomfortable, not that it’s making him any less excited. I probably shouldn’t have said I’m thinking about it. Should I even do anything? It’s not like I owe him.

I don’t think there’s a way for you to make me even consider it.” I end up telling him honestly. Tsek’s expression falls. “I mean, would you give another guy a blowjob?”

Would you give me one if I did?” He counters.

Don’t answer a question by another.” I retaliate.

I wouldn’t, no.” He admits. “I would consider jerking another man off, though.” He adds, grasping at straws.

I ignore the implied suggestion. This went past my tolerance for embarrassing conversations a while back. I get off my seat and walk back into the main room. Tsek follows after adjusting his pants.

Can’t you just go to a brothel?” I ask.

I could, but that’s not going to get you out from under my skin.” He tells me with conviction.

Try.” I reply firmly.

I will.” He sighs. “But then I’ll find a way to impress you and change your mind.” Tsek adds with a confident grin that seems forced to me.

Well, g.” I stop myself before wishing him ‘good luck’. “Go now, and have fun.”

I’ll be thinki.” He pauses. “I will.” Tsek tells me, running out the door.

Was he about to say he’ll be thinking of me? At least he remembered not to tell me of his fantasies about me, that’s something… still, that request of his was definitely based on one.

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