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I flip the scimitar inside my hand and give it to the Exemplar, taking the wooden sword in return. While Vikiana gets used to the weight, I assemble a few more lightning constructs and inspect the rest to ensure that they’re still stable.

Satisfied, I prepare to fight them both by sinking down into a low stance, a position that has made me feel ridiculous and a bit foolish ever since the Exemplar taught it to me, still I can’t argue with the effectiveness of it.

The stance consists in spreading my feet wide in a diagonal compared to my torso, half-bending my knees, and hunching forward. The point is to reduce how much of myself I expose while conserving freedom of movement and to lower my center of gravity which gives me stability.

At some point, I’ll have to ask someone to explain gravity to me beyond it being the thing that keeps my feet on the ground because that’s really vague. I flip the practice sword in my right hand, switching to a back-handed grip because Tsek hasn’t faced me fighting like that before so it gives me an advantage.

What are you waiting for Tsek?” Vikiana questions.

A signal…?” He kind of says, kind of asks.

Well, don’t. You gave Elizabeth all the time she needs to focus and she’s being way too conciliating by not attacking herself.” Vikiana sighs.

Ah.” Tsek nods.

He takes a swipe at my throat before his chin rises back up. I avoid by slipping under it and counter-attack by slashing upwards. The back-handed grip makes it hard for the kid to pace out where the blade is or where it’ll go.

As a consequence, he dodges back a lot further than he needs to considering the inherent fault in the back-handed grip is the fact that you have less reach when you swing like that. I’m content letting him put distance between us and don’t pursue, deciding to focus on the Exemplar who isn’t moving to attack.

I move on her, stabbing at her right side. She blocks with my scimitar and I retaliate by throwing a kick to her left. She blocks by raising that leg and pivots on her right one to distance herself.

Tsek rushes back in with a quick lion strike stab which I evade by shifting all the way to the side. Vikiana slashes sideways with the scimitar at the worst moment, when I am stretched out completely in one direction and can’t go any further or move in the other direction since that’s where she’s attacking from.

To avoid getting hit, I have to break my stance. I let myself fall backward, letting the weapon swipe the empty air just in front of my nose. I catch myself with my left arm a second before I hit the ground.

Tsek takes advantage of my pause to hook my right heel, trying to trip me. I simply go with his upward pull, using that and my left limb as a pivot to flip around and get back up on my feet in one, rather disorganized, move.

I’ve pretty much turned my back on Tsek, Vikiana is to my right instead of my left now. She doesn’t attack despite being able to, I think it’s because she’s poking at the weaknesses I reveal in my forms to see how I recuperate.

Tsek, on the other hand, rushes at my exposed back as he no doubt thinks there’s an opening in my defense. I let him get closer and, just when he can no longer stop, I stab backward with my wooden sword.

Vikiana launches a horizontal slash at my right side. She’s a lot slower with the scimitar, having to hold it two-handed, but still quick enough that I have to lean forward to dodge. That unplanned for move means that my attack misses Tsek by a wide margin.

I did scare him enough that he aborted his own even though it wouldn’t have saved him if the Exemplar didn’t intervene. I absently notice, through my sense, that his cheeks lowered a bit in temperature. Blood drained out of them when he saw the point of my practice sword.

I take advantage of the fact that neither of them can stop me right now to put some distance and reassess my situation. Vikiana is slow so she’s using Tsek as a distraction but still protecting him. Tsek is swift but not nearly as the Exemplar would be.

I can deal with both as long as I force the woman to make a move that doesn’t destroy my equilibrium. The way to do that is… I leap to the side, dodging a chin-level swipe from Tsek. … to attack Tsek while keeping a counter-attack in reserve.

I flick my left wrist a couple of times, stretching it despite not needing to, drawing their attention to it. He glances down, I shift my right hand’s grip on my weapon into a normal one while he isn’t looking and spin on my feet, slashing in his general direction.

Tsek fails to see any of it coming, forcing Vikiana to act according to the timing I chose, but instead of defending him, she strikes up at me. It matters not, I use my symbiont’s full strength to slap my scimitar with my left palm.

The disruption made my attack on the kid fail once more but that’s fine considering Vikiana is off-balance. I leap into her range and bring my wooden sword around for a wild, shapeless, blow.

The wooden sword hits her in the stomach, it could have landed anywhere from her shoulders to her thighs considering that I barely aimed. Tsek steps around me to attack my back again.

I ignore him, deciding to ‘finish‘ Vikiana off first by tapping her throat with the tip of my left fingers, or roots. She nods and stops moving to acknowledge ‘death‘ just as Tsek’s sword grazes my right shoulder-blade.

Having ‘lost‘ that limb’s use, I let my right arm drop and release my sword. The blow would have left a shallow cut at the most, far from debilitating, but the fact that we’re holding back means that every hit has to count.

I jump to my right and back while slashing at Tsek with my left hand. He sees it coming and dodges, not surprising with only one arm to keep an eye on. I decide to take advantage of that and pressure him with wide, powerful, swings.

He thinks on his feet and tries to block my limb with the edge of his blade, which would be a loss for me, but he’s no match for the sense my symbiont provides me with.

Tsek’s defense flounders quite a few times as he mistakenly believes that he succeeded and throws glances at Vikiana, who basically functions are a referee at this point, but she always shakes her head in the negative.

I let him block me a few more times, letting him fall into a deceptive rhythm, and deliver my last combination of strikes to put an end to the fight. I switch my feet, putting the left forward and the right back.

Tsek notices and takes a half-step back, likely thinking that the fact I’m putting my left shoulder forward means I’m going to increase the pressure. As a result, he focuses even more on my left gloved hand.

I swipe right to left with my left arm, which spins my body which I use to deliver a sweeping low kick to his left knee with my right leg. The blow lands but, as I’ve held back, his knee isn’t actually injured.

Still, he drops down as the rules state. I walk back to the wooden sword I dropped and pick it up. As I walk back to Tsek and stand over him, just out of reach, his serious green eyes lock onto me.

He looks like he’s day-dreaming about this situation so I poke at him without taking any risks, tearing him apart ‘wound‘ by ‘wound‘. Tsek tries his best but there isn’t much you can do when you’re immobilized and your opponent can just circle around you.

Alright, the Red Dwarf wins this one.” Vikiana says with a bit of a mocking tone.

Beanpole.” I snap back, insinuating she’s tall and scrawny, the latter is pretty far from the truth.

You couldn’t have avoided that blow to your right?” She asks, ignoring my insult.

Hm.” I think it through. “No, I could have but the trade-off would have been that you’d get a chance to attack before I could finish you. I considered it safer to take the most dangerous opponent out for good and his attack was only going to graze.”

Not a bad call.” Vikiana nods approvingly. “I thought his blow would hit closer to your neck and take you out.”

He didn’t have the reach.” I tell her.

How did I do?” Tsek asks.

Not too bad, you held your own but got caught up in her pace too much.” Vikiana replies.

Can’t really help it, Elizabeth is way too quick. How can you hit a sword just right on the flat, that’s insane.” Tsek grumbles.

It’s something you’ll have to get the hang of, blocking with the edge will destroy your weapon.” Vikiana tells him.

Well yea, but with my hand?!” He spouts back.

No, don’t do that.” I say, smiling in amusement. “You’ll lose your fingers.”

So you really don’t feel a thing in that arm?” Tsek asks.

I do, a bit, enough to tell if I’m holding something but not much more.” I lie.

Vikiana’s expression turns dark from disaproval but she keeps her silence. She better, I haven’t forgotten her lie to Yvonne and the resulting obliteration of the Rykz that Celyz entrusted to me. My mood sours at that thought.

Once more.” I tell the two in a sharp tone of voice, putting an end to the conversation.

I immediately attack Vikiana, striking at the scimitar to try to push it aside. Unfortunately, the wooden sword’s lack of weight means that the weapon is barely pushed away and I can’t follow-up with a punch as I’d meant to.

The sparring session continues, I lose a lot more than I win but it does me a whole lot of good to fight the two of them. I have quite a bit of experience fighting outnumbered but Vikiana taught me a lot since.

The Exemplar focuses almost entirely on me, it seems like she only advises Tsek to benefit me. She finds plenty of flaws and I manage to correct a few during the afternoon. As I grow tired, Tsek grows harder to handle.

As the end of the afternoon approaches, a small, disturbing, itch accompanies each of my heartbeats. The pangs of pain don’t make their return but this confirms that I need to be very careful and pay attention to my body a lot more.

Specifically, I need to enhance and reinforce myself during real fights even when I don’t feel anything wrong because the effects of my symbiont’s cool substance make it impossible to notice when there is a sign that something’s wrong.

Tsek actually clutches a win during the last spar by unexpectedly throwing his sword while I’m engaged with Vikiana. The flying weapon surprises me so much that the Exemplar takes me out before I can think of a way to dodge both his and her attack.

His disbelief, when he realizes he’s the reason I lost, is quite fun to observe. At least, until Vikiana rips into me for freezing up. I try to defend myself by saying that it wouldn’t normally work on me but that apparently makes it worse.

I really didn’t see it coming.” I groan. “Like, normally someone pulls back and move their feet to throw, he was charging me when he just… brought his arm down and let go.”

That’s no reason to stop moving.” Vikiana frowns.

Probably a bit tired.” I say. “I know, it’s not an excuse.”

You could have slipped away and then I’m the one who would have needed to dodge it.” She tells me. “You need to be better than this.”

Leomi told me that she beats you twice out of ten when you spar.” I counter.

If had she spent less time beating soldiers into shape during her youth, she’d win four out of ten.” Vikiana gripes. “Regardless, I’m not the one who’s going to assault the institute with, at best, clothes on her back.” I only now notice the worry concealed beneath her harsh expression.

Don’t get like that, Vicky.” I say, smiling as she cringes from my use of the nickname. “I’ll be timing it so that I can use my flow or they won’t be able to use theirs. You just need to get me to the point where they’ll fall before I do if it’s the latter, I don’t need to have a perfect defense.”

And you won’t tell me how you’ll force that result.” She notes. “I think this is it for today, you have enough practice fighting exhausted so it would be counter-productive to continue.” She keeps under silent the fact that I need to be in my best shape tomorrow with Suxen.

Agreed.” I nod.

We take turns for access to our single bucket and barrel of water, I go first because I feel like making lunch for once. Tsek goes second. He waits for Vikiana to be done so he can put her back in shackles next to Aisha and help me cook.

What do you plan to do if this goes well?” I ask.

I’m not sure. Too many options really. I could join Ruth or stay in Meiridin, the city is large enough that I can make a living, legally or otherwise.” He tells me, it doesn’t look like either are anywhere near his top choice. “What about you?”

I can’t really look into my future, too much depends on events, other people’s choices, whether or not a friend is able to help me.” I reply. I really hope Celyz can remove the limb.

But if things go like you want them to?” Tsek presses.

That would be a first.” I chuckle darkly. “Well, I’d go back home and see what’s left. Start from there.”

I consciously choose not to tell him where I live or even mention that it’s on the Izla as the only ones who know are also aware of who Elizabeth Vil truly is. If soldiers knock at my door, I’d rather have to keep the list of who I have to hunt down for answers short. Start with Aisha, probably. Which reminds me…

Here, hold this.” I tell Tsek, handing him the stirring spoon.

I make my way to our prisoners and free them. Vikiana throws me a curious glance. I hold my left hand out to help Aisha up. Her real face tenses a little but that’s the only sign that she’s hesitating to take hold of it.

Do you mind giving us a moment?” I ask Vikiana. “Set the table or something.”

Sure.” The Exemplar agrees and leaves us alone.

You realize that what I’ve told you before, about revealing who I am, holds, no matter who asks, right?” I question her.

I do.” Aisha nods. “I haven’t told anyone.”

Don’t try any tricks like you did with Yvonne, if someone I don’t know shows up knowing my real name… you’ll be the first one I track down, Shade.” I press. Although, I might go see Emffrey before that since he’s a close second on the list of those I’m not sure I trust and he would likely be a lot easier to find.

I’ll keep your secret.” Aisha affirms.

Aisha doesn’t seem worried at all by the fact that I’m reiterating my threat, she is skilled in deception but not so much she would be able to control fluctuations in her body temperature.

It isn’t arrogance to think that she would sweat a little since she has shown to fear me when I get… mad. I glare at her illusory black eyes. She remains calm, holding my gaze without looking away.

Your blue eyes look nicer.” I say without thinking.

Ah.” She pauses, the temperature of her cheeks under the illusion rises by a tiny fraction. “Actually this is my natural color, boring black hair and eyes.” She admits.

Your curls weren’t boring, bit of a shame you cut them.” I protest.

Aisha’s illusory face doesn’t even blink, the lack of reaction is actually out of place considering the wide smile painted beneath. In a bit of a daze, I reach out to her lips with my right hand, wanting to feel the smile on my skin short of seeing it with my own eyes.

“Food’s ready.” Vikiana loudly calls out.

She tries to school her traits and conceal the fact that my compliment hit home but her illusion is anchored at skin level and so she doesn’t have enough time to do so before my fingertips go through the illusory inexpressive mouth she chose to show me, or was too distracted to control.

What are you doing, Elizabeth?” Aisha whispers the question, voice slightly trembling as the pulp of her lips brush against my fingers.

Kind of miss your smile to be honest.” I reply as I pull away.

Well, I could have turned it off.” She says, her illusory construct grins.

Underneath, she is biting the inside of her cheeks, which rose a few degrees in temperature. Kind of want to ask her to do so now, to see her blush, but this is cutting very close to flirting and betraying my Lady.

Food’s ready.” Vikiana repeats.

Ri, ght.” Aisha says. “Should go.”

Elizabeth.” Vikiana presses.

I heard you the first time, Vicky!” I reply, annoyed.

The Exemplar closes her fists and takes a deep breath. She manages to keep her silence despite obviously wanting to throw me some of the chosen word simmering in her.

I push Aisha along, ending up being a bit rough, unintentionally. We take seats at the table, Vikiana takes the seat in front of Aisha and Tsek the one next to her.

These two really shouldn’t have seen that but they’re reading too much into it, there isn’t a level of loneliness at which I would even consider betraying Leomi… with the Shade. It hits me like a brick that I have to add that to be truthful, my past actions coming back to haunt me.

So, you don’t have anything big planned after this?” Tsek asks me when I sit down.

I’m a bit tired of people expecting that out of me.” I groan but am thankful for the distraction. “The answer is no. The Empire stood for hundreds of years, it doesn’t need me. And Countess Lance is better suited to bring about changes than I’ll ever be.”

Okay.” Tsek acknowledges.

His disappointment is written all over his face, it’s so obvious that I’m pretty sure he didn’t even try to hide it. Aisha’s reaction is interesting, both her faces show relief. I kind of expected her to be supportive of Cecil’s plans for Elizabeth Vil.

I don’t know nearly enough about Cecil’s goals, the state of the Empire, Aisha’s personal views on me, or anything really to make any conclusions about her expression.

Vikiana doesn’t seem to care, not surprising considering the fact that she doesn’t want us together to begin with so what I do wouldn’t really matter to her as long as we remain apart.

The fact that Vikiana avoids the subject, as I do, likely means that she knows better than to stand between us again. If there’s anything I fully trust, it’s that Leomi won’t let anyone stop her from meeting Jessica again if I free her from nothing.

We eat in comfortable silence once again, a habit for the group as this a time to relax and neither of us wants to start an argument. After the meal, Vikiana and Aisha go to sleep while Tsek and I work on the letter I’ll send to Suxen tomorrow for the last meeting.

This night, I don’t train my construct but exercise gathering blood from with flow to shape blood-blades. I need to get good at this and at freeing myself. At dawn, I wake Tsek up and take his place.

— — —

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