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I wake up feeling weirdly enthusiastic about the day of training ahead, at least it’s weird for me as I’ve been lately. After taking a bite to eat with Tsek and checking on our prisoners, taking their flow, I grab the short sword I always carry around now and head out of the shop to stash my full reserve.

As usual, I walk by the rundown structure, using my sense to guide my flow underground and into a water barrel. I pick up on three people with my sense, which is quite normal early in the afternoon.

What makes me take mention of them is that they’re on the wrong side of the street. Instead of being to the opposite of the institute, they’re at the entrance of an alley that directly crosses over from here to the street that runs around the block occupied by the institute’s dark large rectangular building.

I hesitate to spy on them, I only have about four portions of flow, what I took from Aisha and Vikiana. But it’s golden, which means I have a lot more freedom to use it. I regret not taking my long scimitar.

Regardless, I can’t quite ignore these people as they could be Shades or inspectors from the institute. I make full use of my symbiont and scale a building up to its second floor.

I cross the dusty room and throw a look out of a crack in the flaps. There are two men and a woman standing at the corner. From what I see and detect, the three carry daggers but aren’t using illusion constructs. They aren’t talking, they seem to be waiting for something, or simply watching.

I take a moment to think it through. These three don’t appear to be any different from the rest apart from where they stand since there are plenty of people like them in the slums, with weapons hidden underneath their clothes.

Still, there’s something that doesn’t quite fit with these three so I decide to wait and see. Well, not see as I have to remain out of sight but sense. After a few tens of minutes, they turn away and move out.

Perhaps they saw someone leave the institute, I have no line of sight to the building and it’s too far to detect. I could try to find out what they were watching out for but there’s no guarantee I will or even recognize what I see.

I follow them instead, if they’re operatives of some kind, where they go will tell me a lot. I climb back down into an alley running alongside their path. All three of them have rolling gaits which reminds me of the way Ruth and a few of the crime-slaves moved.

I lose sight of them a few times as they make their way through the slums but always find them again as they seem to be roaming in the same general direction, that of the docks. I peg the three as sailors, making their presence near the institute even odder.

They make a stop in the first tavern they come across, a seedy building with moss sticking to its walls. I opt not to enter and be seen despite the cold outside air, I find a discreet corner where I can wait with my back against the establishment’s wall, which puts them squarely inside my sense’s range.

After the first hour they spend drinking, I start second-guessing myself. There are a few things that keep me interested enough to spend time on them, beyond the oddity of their previous behavior.

There is the fact that the three don’t mingle with the rest of the clients, they talk to people at the counter when they get drinks but invite no one at their table, they also throw glances at each person that enters the tavern.

With another half-hour wasted on this hunch, I seriously consider just leaving as I can’t really afford waste an afternoon on this. Luckily, I don’t have to make the call as the three depart soon after for the docks.

I encounter a lot of trouble following them once there, there are many buildings on the other side of the piers but there is a lot of empty space and that makes it hard to remain close enough to use my sense.

I let them trail ahead, falling back on my vision to keep track. The three of them walk up the ramp to a trade ship with a large number of barnacles attached to the hull. The mast’s flag isn’t one I recognize but the symbols, a steering wheel with a cart, looks like one a merchant guild would use.

Docked right next to that ship, pretty much touching, is one of Duchess Hetlan’s barges. No need to be a genius to suspect that those three are spies. It could be irrelevant or it could be the pebble that breaks my plan.

There are too many variables to account for them all. Too many agendas. That being said, does that mean I shouldn’t act on those I pick up on? I don’t really have the resources to deal with this or, once again, the time.

But if Hetlan is sneaking around the institute, that directly affects me. If they make a move and the institute goes on full alert, or if they spot me while they spy on them. I groan and make my way back to the abandoned shop.

I find Aisha, Tsek, and Vikiana in the main room when I return, the last two holding wooden swords as they spar. I gripe at that. What if the Exemplar decides to knock him out, he couldn’t react in time and do anything about it. I burst through the door and slam it behind myself, Tsek startles.

Get them back in their chains.” I order.

Without waiting for a response, I make my way to my scimitar and pick it up. While Tsek gathers the intact shackles and sets it on our prisoners, I swing my weapon in mid-air, making whooshing sounds that increase the kid’s nervousness.

Aisha and Vikiana have the good sense to go along without saying a word. My bad mood is probably clear on my face. It feels like all these complications are going to crash down on me and I can’t really convince myself that it’s only paranoia.

Did I screw up?” Tsek asks me once he’s done securing them.

I set my scimitar down and pick up one of the wooden swords in my right hand, throwing him the other one. He manages to catch it by the handle, showing that he has impressive reflexes. It won’t help him.

Raise your guard.” I tell him. He adjusts his grip and sets his training sword in front of his chest at an angle. “We’re going to spar, at some point I’m going to get serious and try to knock you out. Use a lightning construct to take me out as soon as you notice I’m actually attacking.”

Right.” Tsek replies, turning serious. “Is this about…”

By the time he says those three words, I’ve already assembled a lion strike, activated it, and struck out towards his left temple. Tsek panics a little but manages to block. Thunk. My wooden sword impacts his.

His parry deviates my strike but doesn’t stop it, my sword’s tip retains enough momentum to hit his forehead. He doesn’t pass out but his eyes glaze over. I flick my wrist to strike at the temple once more, this time with my wooden sword’s pommel.

Tsek drops, not unconscious but definitely out of action. He is frowning, from pain and concentration as he tries to clear his vision to target me with one of the lightning constructs I entrusted him with. I sidestep to get out of his line of sight and place my sword on his throat.

Okay, you win.” Tsek mutters, closing his eyes. “Oh, the headache.” He adds, rubbing his head with his left hand.

You’d be in a much worse state if the Exemplar tried this.” I tell him.

I kind of realized that I messed up when you walked in. My fault, I didn’t think it through. I just wanted to train.” Tsek says.

Well, at least you pieced that together on your own.” I lean down and pull his hand away from his head. “Yeah, that’s going to bruise.” I comment.

That’s fine.” He sighs. “I deserve that one.”

Yes, you do.” I agree without pity, not only thinking about today’s screw-up.

I spend the rest of the afternoon beating Tsek into shape through forceful and surprise attacks to teach him to be on his guard. He surprises me quite a few times with counter-attacks that could, without a doubt, lead to him grasping a win on me.

I would have let him have the victory any other day, to motivate him and give him some confidence, but that’s not the goal of this session so I cheat with my symbiont, using its reflexes to slap the flat of his wooden sword away.

While it undermines Tsek’s confidence in his sword skills, which is entirely the point, I am surprised to find that his consecutive defeats are actually pushing him to fight harder. He doesn’t give up, resolved to clinch a win out of me.

I don’t gift one over to him but I’m certain he’ll manage one eventually, even if I cheat, as long as I don’t make full use of my symbiont’s reflexes. I put a stop to our spar when the time to have dinner comes around.

Tsek reluctantly puts down his sword and gets to cooking us a meal in the chimney. After devouring the gruel, I immediately get up to grab my mask and scimitar, setting the former under my tunic and wrapping a tarp around the latter’s blade. As I head outside, Vikiana blocks my way.

You skipped on training.” She tells me, reproachful.

Stuff came up.” I reply shortly.

Problem?” She asks.

Don’t know yet, I’m about to go find out.” I tell her impatiently.

“Do you need me to come along, for backup?” Vikiana proposes.

I suddenly realize that, much as I blamed Tsek, I’m the one who often left him with these two despite my fears that he would get too close to them or that the two would team up. I’m the one who left the opening that made him lower his guard.

My resolve to be careful about guarding prisoners was incompatible with the need to make my preparations for my plan in secret. I seriously consider taking the Exemplar along.

I don’t intend to get into a fight but if one does occur, there are situations in which I won’t be able to count on her. If I’m confronted by Templars for one, or if we find something that she estimates ruins my chances to free Cetyz.

Which is a non-negligible possibility considering these sailors were watching the institute and might be working for Hetlan. I want to trust her but I can’t afford to. I shake my head negatively.

Alright, well, don’t take any risks.” Vikiana tells me. “Don’t sit still if you’re surrounded, you have a tendency to hold your ground and forget your footwork and makes you easier to predict. You don’t need much space to stay in motion.”

I nod and walk outside, scimitar in hand. Meiridin’s streets are dark, I realize that it’s the first time I’ve gone out alone during the night since I got here. As I make my way to the docks, I notice that there are very few people roaming around.

It’s a sharp departure from Meria’s poor quarter where there was always some level of activity and people going around at night, at least before the curfew. Likely because of the brothels.

I use my symbiont’s sense to get a feel of what people are doing, finding out that the slum’s inhabitants tend to either be drinking indoors or be engaged in obviously nefarious activities on the roofs and in dark alleys.

A group of four observes me as I pass through the street below them. They are no doubt thieves as one of them carries a crowbar, but the fact that they each have a dagger to the waist, one inside a boot, and another in the back, makes me suspect that they’re also murderers.

They consort together but never approach the edge of the roof so I don’t worry about an ambush. I do accelerate my pace as these four might have friends. I keep my guard up as I make my way to the tavern the sailors stopped at earlier.

As my experience goes, spies tend to spread rumors that benefit them so if I hear something about the institute other than what I’ve usually heard or what I’ve spread out myself about the Rykz Princess being held there, then that means that these sailors are likely responsible.

It would be a start to figuring out what they want at least. I scrutinize the clients inside before entering the tavern to make sure that the three sailors aren’t there. Once I’m certain, I use an air-blade construct to deposit my scimitar up on the roof and walk inside.

The tavern itself is cleaner than I would have thought considering that its outside facade isn’t really being taken care of. The staff is pretty much a single plain-looking waitress and a fat bartender. The man’s physical shape strikes me as unusual as the place doesn’t look like it’s swimming in coin.

I take a tall stool at the counter and ask for a beer. I give out a cover story about being a mercenary desperately looking for a job. The bartender sympathizes, not in a very honest manner but I’m buying drinks and I think that’s all he needs to get past the fact that I’m a hired warrior.

Which turns out not to be a very popular occupation for those who aren’t in need of their services. I don’t mind, and I understand the antipathy attached to the profession considering that mercenaries work for Nobles a lot. I doubt merchants hire more than a few to watch their warehouses and guard their shipments if they don’t have their own.

Not to mention that my complaints about the state of affairs in Meiridin and the lack of available work because most of the purses left the city to go south only underlines the fact that I didn’t join the army. I swiftly finish my beer and then ask for another that I quickly down as well.

Once I consider myself tipsy enough, I ask the waitress about recent rumors. She gives me a quick rundown, glancing over the subject of the institute with a mere mention that it’s always the same.

The place is bad but and no one’s doing anything about it.” She tells me. “But that might change.” She adds, affecting a mysterious air.

King Cenwalh could do something!” I protest too loudly.

Yeah!” A client with a well-endowed bust yells in agreement. I doubt that woman understood what I said.

Actually, funny you should mention that.” The ordinary girl tells me, leaning in close. “Some sailors came earlier today, said that they heard the King refused the Emperor’s direct order to close down the institute and release all the prisoners.”

She makes the effort to be discreet as she tells me this, like she’s revealing a great secret, yet her expression is gleeful that she’s not taking it seriously but enjoying spreading that bit of news and possibly causing trouble with it.

I notice, through my other sense, that the fat bartender is pointedly avoiding to look at us but trying too hard to listen in at the same time. The angle of his head makes me think that he’s mostly trying to catch my reply.

Bah!” I spout disdainfully. “Rubbish!”

I swear that’s what they said!” The waitress defends herself.

I’m not doubting you, sweet cheeks.” I add hurriedly.

You better not.” She pouts.

I’ll have another beer, as an apology!” I exclaim.

The waitress chuckles and takes my tankard. She hands it over to the bartender who swiftly fills it up at the keg and slides it over back at me. I take a small sip, feeling like it’s going to be hard to finish this without getting drunk.

I decide to take my time to finish it and ask no more questions that could draw attention to me. That bartender might be getting paid to report on people, which is how he got to eat so much.

I have no clue about what’s going on but it seems like someone’s laying down some groundwork to take a swipe at Cenwalh, and as such at Caeviel’s throne. Duchess Hetlan more than likely. I ponder whether to scout that trade ship and the barge next to it or not.

It would be risky, but I do need to know if they have soldiers hidden in there. I don’t think it likely that they’re preparing to attack the institute but, after all, they’re Nobles. If that Duchess thinks that the Princess will get her the throne, she just might go for it.

I can think of possible two motivations, the Duchess could be wanting to free the Princess, ending the war. That could get her enough support among Nobility and peasantry to seize the crown. Or she could be planning to hand the Princess and Suxen over to the Emperor if she’s aware of the possibility.

I really wish Aisha hadn’t broken the trust between us, I’m sure she could figure that out without risking to expose us. Can I afford to pursue this lead? Can I afford not to? Ugh.

They just started spreading this rumor today, as far as I can tell, and I doubt it’s true considering that the Emperor is sick. Could this just be a result of the rumor I spread about the fact that freeing the Princess would end the war? Doubtful, that kind of distortion can only be intentional.

Do I need to intervene if there’s someone here? Only if I find out it throws a wrench in my plan. But I do need to figure this out before they start making more obvious moves which could alarm Suxen.

The Director’s suspicion would likely fall on the Shade but even if it doesn’t, she would undoubtedly further increase the institute’s security. I sigh and wait for the waitress to pass by me.

Where’s the bathroom, I really need to go?” I ask, slurring my speech.

There’s one in the back, out that door. We share it with a few houses.” She replies, pointing to show me the way. “Don’t fall, there’s a step!” She adds.

I fake stumble off my tall stool. The plain girl shakes her head and rolls her eyes, I grin in response and step outside. This little act was supposed to be an excuse not to finish my drink, but it turns out that I truly do need to use the bathroom.

I swiftly get that done and walk back in, muttering something about their beer being too strong and needing to go back home to sleep it off. The man shrugs and takes my tankard away.

Should be more careful, you’re pretty short.” The waitress comments.

Am not.” I reply automatically.

Right.” Plain girl, who doesn’t look that plain anymore, smiles. “Don’t go through the slums in your state.”

I’ll be fine, I’ll come back some other time if I find work!” I tell her.

You’re welcome anytime!” She replies.

I head out the front door and immediately slip into the alley to the side to control my air-blade construct, making my scimitar fly down and into my hand. I then make my way along the piers.

I don’t have to try very hard to appear drunk considering that two beers and a few gulps of the third I drank got me a little more than tipsy. It makes it a bit more difficult to focus on my other sense but not so much that I fear missing anyone who tries to ambush me as I try to remember where that barnacled trade ship was anchored.

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