I make my way along the stone bank that every pier connects to, going past a few groups of sailors. The first group is already drunk while the second is on its way to get wrecked.
A few invite me to join and I refuse as nicely but firmly as my inebriated brain can. One of them, a rough woman, insists when she notices that my gaze is quite attracted to her form.
“Come on, just for a round of drink.” She proposes.
“You ain’t damaged enough to handle me.” I giggle.
While she stands there, confused, I accelerate my pace to leave them behind. I spot the trade ship and the barge in the distance. I slow down when I get closer to make a turn along that pier, exaggerating my staggering walk.
I make my way to a pile of empty crates, barrels, and rope nets, which are used to secure merchandise. I drop down in the middle of the stuff and close my eyes. I should look like a drunk who stopped for a quick nap.
I focus on my sense and scan the two ships, looking for the three sailors. It takes me a while to sift through the faces of every sailor, from those sleeping in their hammocks to the few on the night shift.
I don’t find the three I’m looking for but my range isn’t wide enough to encompass the entirety of both ships so I can’t strike out the possibility that they’re there.
There are stashes of disparate weapons in both ships, harpoons, long staffs that end in hooks, a few rusty swords, none of that is especially suspicious. There are a lot fewer sailors on the barge than on the trade ship but that’s not a surprise.
There doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Maybe the captain’s cabin on the trade ship is a little too well furnished considering that the barnacles sticking to its hull weren’t cleaned up but that could just mean the captain is stingy yet likes luxury.
Or the ship itself is a cover for someone who’s used to living well. A bulky dock worker with a frown walks past as he makes his way along the docks, he throws me a glance but doesn’t say anything.
When he’s past, I open my eyes to inspect a third ship on another pier, finding that there are only a couple of sailors guarding it that I can see, and they don’t seem nearly as serious or alert as the half-dozen on the trade ship and barge.
Another sign that something’s going on. I close my eyes again and decide to wait a while. I can’t stay too long considering Tsek got up early and I still don’t know if this is anything urgent.
I don’t think it is, there aren’t enough sailors and weapons to attempt a serious assault on anything here. Even if there were more in the rest of the barges, it’s not like they can conceal an army in plain sight, the docks are too busy for that.
Even with an army, it’s doubtful they would get to the institute or the castle unseen. And it wouldn’t be very hard to trace soldiers or sailors back to whoever they work for.
I’m rewarded for my patience in merely a half-hour when the three sailors enter my range. They’re making their way back to the ship while dragging an unconscious man who smells like alcohol, likely passed out from drinking.
The woman is leading the way, I realize hows tall and big she is when she gets closer into my sense’s range, almost as much as one of Suxen’s numbers. She stops right in front of me and kicks my foot.
“Hey, wake up you lazy bum.” She spouts.
“Mgrhm.” I mumble.
“Go back to your ship, sailor.” She orders firmly.
“‘sa free docks!” I slur.
She brings her foot back and kicks the side of my stomach. I retch and struggle not to vomit. I whine a little and then struggle back to my feet, leaving my scimitar in the pile like it was always part of it.
That seems to satisfy her and their small group makes their way to the trade ship’s ramp. I don’t go far, as soon as their backs are turned I stop and I let myself fall back down on the pier with my arms and legs spread apart.
The three bring the unconscious man into the ship and head directly below the upper deck, they keep going until they reach the cargo-hold. Inside, they open a hatch into the hull which gives directly inside the barge.
I missed it earlier. They cross over to the other ship and go towards the prow which is out of my range. I don’t have to consider very long to make the call to stick around. I sneakily drag myself back to the pile of stuff I laid on before.
Unfortunately, the four remain out of my sense’s reach. The unconscious man was more than likely knocked out and they poured alcohol on him to make people believe he’s drunk while they dragged him across Meiridin.
I would like to talk to that man but the risk isn’t worth the unknown reward. My buzz rescinds as a few tens of minutes go by without much happening. The only consequent event is that two of the three sailors cross back to the trade ship, the large woman and one of the men.
The first goes to sleep while the second joins the night shift to play some kind of game with chicken bones. A short while later, the third sailor enter my range with a woman following a single step behind and to the left.
As they make their way to the hatch to go over to the trade ship from the barge, I notice that despite her rather mundane clothes, her gait is entirely different from the rest of the people around.
She’s walking with wide movements which denote a certain arrogance. A Noble, I would swear on it. And one from Hetlan no less. I follow the two as they go up the trade ship’s stairs. The man is showing deference to the woman, he removes ropes and objects away from her path, reinforcing my conclusion that she’s a Lady.
He opens the door to the captain’s cabin for her and she walks in, directly sitting down on the bed. The man tries to leave but she says something and he enters as well. His expression is hard to scrutinize at this distance with so much between me and them but he doesn’t seem too enthusiastic.
They talk for a bit and the man approaches, setting a knee down to remove her socks and shoes. He starts massing her feet while she hangs back with her hands on the mattress. It makes me feel lonely and a bit jealous, I miss my Lady.
I take hold of my scimitar and get up, realizing that I won’t be learning anything more. Yet, I can’t help but stick around a bit longer when the Noble reaches out to seize the man’s hair, he resists a bit but stops when she splits her thighs and pulls him in.
I must’ve been wrong about the man’s lack of enthusiasm. I tear myself away and leave as quickly as I can without attracting attention. My curiosity isn’t worth the risk of being seen or Tsek falling asleep at his post because I wasted time.
Besides, this makes me want to run back to my Lady so much that it’s almost unbearable. I want to experience these kinds of moments with Leomi, just a normal night as a couple without having to fight tooth and nail for them.
As I pass by a tavern, I resist the urge to stop by for just a beer. I know that getting drunk won’t help drown my sorrows for long. I shake my head and focus on what I’ve learned.
There’s a Noble watching the institute and kidnapping people. I really hope the one they took wasn’t from there, or at least if he was, no one would notice his disappearance.
At the same time, I pity the man and wish I could intervene but I’m not free to do so, my oath prevents me from risking it all for a single person, especially someone I don’t know. The good news is that, now that I’m aware of them, I can keep an eye on that Lady and take precautions in case they try to follow Suxen to our last meeting.
They don’t have the forces necessary to beat me either. It feels weird but with my access and ability to sense my surroundings, it would be very difficult for anyone to get the drop on me. Not to mention that I’ve beaten hardened fighters.
Overconfident would harm me but acting on unfounded fears would be just as problematic. I can’t put the mask on and reveal my presence to the population. The best course of action is to remain hidden.
Back at the shop, I detect Tsek awake and training his lock-picking on his own. He isn’t looking at what he’s doing, his eyes remained trained in our prisoner’s general direction, Aisha is awake but Vikiana is asleep. He gives me a tired nod when I walk in.
“I’m going to sleep.” He tells me.
“Alright, thanks for staying up so late.” I say.
“No problem.” He mumbles.
I throw a glance at Aisha who’s awake despite her illusion construct’s closed eyes. I remain mesmerized for a second, observing her fake traits move to match her regular breaths.
The face she chose to wear doesn’t really have anything special and even has a few noticeable faults like the fact that her cheekbones are a bit too high. Still, there is a certain charm to her like this.
I consider telling her about what I found to get her opinion but I hit the same old wall, I wouldn’t trust her answers and she could find a way to use the information. I decide to let it lie, spending the night training my constructs.
I don’t go to sleep as soon as the sun rises despite how tired I am. I wait for Vikiana and Aisha to wake up so that they catch me training with flow. The point is to implant in their heads that I’ve been burning my energy like this every night, it’s likely unnecessary but my plan depends too much on the flow I’ve stored to leave things to chance.
Once I’m certain they’ve both seen me, I pretty much drag Tsek out of his bunk. He takes it with a cheerful smile. I fall asleep as soon as I hit the layered blankets.
— — —
“… ise and shine!” Someone shouts in my ear.
I startle and try to grab the offender’s throat. Vikiana easily avoids my left hand by pulling back. I pursue but she dodges left and right. My symbiont gives up and falls back down, it is pretty much waking up after all and there’s no danger.
“Give me five.” I mutter, closing my eyes.
“Nope.” Vikiana replies, grabbing and pulling my blanket away.
I groan and flip over, burying my face into the bunk. She uses the tip of her foot to shake me. I sigh, realizing that the only way to make her stop is to actually do something about it so I gather myself and take a swipe at her other leg.
The Exemplar steps over my body with a smirk. I frown, insulted. I gather a bit of flow and assemble a lightning construct, throw a tiny bolt at her back. She jolts, taken by surprise by the small shock.
“You got cocky, Exemplar.” I giggle.
“And you’re awake.” She replies with a shrug.
“Ah.” I say and then groan. “At least let me have lunch.”
“Sure, I’m in no rush.” Vikiana tells me.
“Then why did you…?!” I exclaim but give up half-way. “Ugh, never mind.” I croak.
I sit up and gather myself, feeling thirsty with a slight headache. Vikiana sniffs the air and frowns. I reach up to her sleeve and take hold of it to help get up on my feet.
“You smell like beer and fish.” She comments.
“Stuff at the docks.” I reply. “Not really anything to worry about.”
“You sure?” She asks. “I don’t mean to sound pessimistic but we’ve been clattered for over two weeks now, events won’t wait on you to happen.”
“You’re the one that insisted on waiting a month.” I comment. “Besides, Suxen isn’t ready so the most I can do is push this forward by a week and I don’t think it’s wise considering there isn’t anything pressing me to do so.”
“I’m mostly concerned about what’s going on south.” Vikiana says.
“So am I but your daughter is safe within Meria’s walls, there’s no need to worry.” I tell her.
“I can’t help but doubt that.” Vikiana sighs.
“She can take care of herself, she’s stronger than I am.” I honestly admit.
“Strength has many shapes.” The Exemplar sermons.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Simply that a mother worries, which can be both a strength and a weakness.” Vikiana makes a vicious smile. “Although I’m not surprised, I am glad to hear that my daughter is stronger than you.”
I grin and, now awake, go look for a bucket of water to wash the scent off. When I come back, I find Tsek and Aisha deep in a conversation about stealth while the three wait for me to start eating lunch. It surprises me that she Shade argues against climbing on roofs.
“You can’t see what’s directly beneath you, you can easily slip, walking on tiles is pretty loud if you don’t move about as slowly as a snail, the only access points are windows that don’t have locks you can pick and you can’t lift a secure deadbolt.” Aisha enumerates. “If you want to get inside a place, it’s far easier to have a reason to be there and walk through the front door. But that won’t help you steal the schematics in this case. A diversion, like a small fire, would usually do the trick, but that would only make him more suspicious. I think you should simply stake the place out for a day, if he doesn’t come out then he isn’t likely to be inside.”
“What if he spots me?” Tsek asks.
“If he sees you, he’ll probably go around you and knock you out.” Aisha shrugs. “Don’t be seen.”
“You’ll be helping with that.” I intervene.
“How?” She asks. “I can’t really do much more than teach him if you’re going to keep me in chains.”
“Your illusion construct, it’s pretty intricate.” I comment.
“Thanks.” Both of Aisha’s faces smile at the compliment. “How does that help, though?” She questions.
“How wide can you make it?” I ask.
“Not very, it’s pretty flow intensi… Oh.” She says, realizing what I mean. “You want me to make one that’ll conceal him.”
“It shouldn’t be too hard to make him look like a dark shadow, something that can’t really be distinguished in the night.” I tell her.
“You’re right.” She nods. “I would need a lot of energy to make that though.”
“How much for, let’s say… an hour?” I ask.
“I don’t know, a dozen shares.” She says. “Trial, errors, and all that.” She adds with a grin.
“You’ll do with eight.” I reply.
What she asked is a little too close to the limit of what I could safely agree to. It isn’t a coincidence and I’m really starting to think that Aisha actually can’t help but to push the boundaries, it’s like a personality trait with her.
“I’ll just have to be really careful.” She says, throwing me an amused glance. “Can I have a black cloak or something?” She asks.
“Why?” I question.
“It’ll be easier if I don’t need to make the illusion from scratch.” Aisha taps her chin. “Mhm. I’ll have to add a blur, and extend it for the hands and face.”
“You’ll do with five portions then.” I affirm and directly give her three portions. “You still have the two you regenerated in the last twenty-four hours, right?”
“I wouldn’t dream to consume Elizabeth Vil’s due.” Aisha says, rolling her eyes. “Cheapskate.” She adds in a loud whisper.
“I’ll go buy that cloak.” Tsek says, a big smile on his face.
“Don’t get something expensive.” I say. “It’s probably going to get dragged in mud and stuff.”
“Right.” He nods and hurries off.
“You sound like an old maid.” Aisha jibes.
“I’m honestly not comfortable with this gold, I don’t want to be wasting it.” I reply.
“That’s… way too serious.” Aisha says, turning to Vikiana for support.
The Exemplar deadpans and gets up, picks up the two wooden swords and my scimitar before moving to the center of the room and waiting for me. I point the Shade at her shackles. Aisha’s good mood fades a little but she moves without complaining.
Once I’ve secured her, Vikiana and I start sparring in earnest. She makes me go back to the basics for the thousandth’s time, how to confuse my opponents with both footwork and grips.
Not necessarily only using a backhanded grip but also moving my right hand up my scimitar’s handle like I’m going for a short-range swipe and then delivering a wide slash by making use of my symbiont’s inhuman strength.
“Use an armor-piercing construct when you do that because your left hand is too far down the handle for you to have the leverage necessary to be certain to kill in one blow.” She advises.
“You know I’m never going to remember all that with half a dozen fighters surrounding me.” I comment.
“That’s fine, you’ll recall what you feel the most comfortable with and you’ll have more time to think things through once you cut their numbers down.” Vikiana says confidently. “Bend that left knee a little more.”
I shift my scimitar’s weight a bit more into my right hand and do as she says. It’s a habit I have to rely on my symbiont to avoid tiring my right arm but I end up straining my left leg when I do so.
“I’ll be sending the letter tomorrow.” I tell Vikiana. “Since Suxen will have all she needs to get the data, I’ll be able to go to the institute anytime I want. Accelerate the timetable if need be.”
“Ah, you don’t need to. I’m just jittery after having spent so long cooped up.” The Exemplar shakes her head, looking at me with concern. “Take a week to recuperate.”
“I’m fine.” I say, casually waving my hand.
I don’t tell her that the truth is that I can’t wait to get back to Leomi. Vikiana has too many reasons to stand between us so this is the last subject I want to get into with her. Not to mention that part of her problem is my concealing that I’m Elizabeth Vil.
She wants me to tell her the truth, but mostly for me to stay away from her daughter. I have no doubt Vikiana thinks it’s for the best because she somehow sees Leomi’s passion and my instability as an issue. Shows how little she knows us.
The fact that she’s not comfortable with two women being together is likely reinforcing her objections so I’ve been avoiding the subject as much as possible, so has she for that matter. I jump back as I sense something rushing at my head from above.
“Focus, Jessica.” Vikiana says, pulling the practice sword back.
“Right.” I nod. “And it’s Elizabeth right now.”
We continue sparring even after Tsek comes back. Aisha starts shaping an illusion construct with the black cloak on her lap. She isn’t anchoring it to the cloth yet, using the color as a reference. He keeps asking eager questions about how he should use it, and when.
The Shade does her best to answer, instructing him not to move too much when he’ll have it on, to avoid light and moving shadows. It seems to me that Aisha is basically giving him tiny bits and pieces of advice that she’s figuring out on the spot as he asks.
“How long will it last again?” Tsek asks.
“As long as you have flow to feed it up to the point where it falls apart which will happen a lot sooner than it should if you keep bothering me while I make it.” Aisha replies a bit harshly but her illusory face winks to alleviate her tone.
“Ah, right. Sorry.” Tsek apologizes.
“Come here, kid.” Vikiana calls out and holds one of her wooden swords out to him. “Do your best to beat her up.”
“Hey!” I protest as Tsek takes the practice weapon.
“You need a bit more pressure, give me that scimitar.” The Exemplar tells me, giving me her other wooden sword.