The four of us leave together for the Palace on Friday, Vikiana and Aisha are at the center of the group, Tsek to their right in the black cloak, me to their left with my scimitar with a piece of tarp wrapped around the blade. The Exemplar is carrying the chest containing her armor, apparently effortlessly despite not having any available flow.
The few people we come across on the streets are driving or loading carriages with thick cloaks to protect them from the cold weather and the possibility of snow. I see enough Noble house crests to put together that most of those deliveries are meant for Caeviel’s army.
Tsek has a small pouch in hand, it contains a letter with Aisha’s seal that he wrote himself, the letter itself requests that the galley-slaves’ crimes and the ensuing mutiny be pardoned.
“And you’re certain this won’t raise eyebrows?” Tsek asks nervously.
“No, the Empire sometimes calls on the service of hardened criminals to create disposable units in exchange for their freedom if they survive.” Aisha replies.
I throw a glance at Vikiana. She nods to confirm. It isn’t surprising for the truth of the Empire to be darker than legends, I’m no longer so naive as to believe you can run such a large entity without some darkness creeping in but the more I learn about it, the more I think humans could do so much better.
“It wouldn’t be unusual for an Exemplar to escort crime-slaves to the front-lines, especially with how things currently stand with the Rykz in the east.” Vikiana tells us.
We’ve gone over this before if in less specific words, but it seems to reassure Tsek that we do so again. He is about to walk into the Palace alone with Vikiana after all and, to his credit, he never even suggested he would pull out.
“I will be nearby, if things go to shit just light a tapestry on fire. I’ll barge in if I see smoke.” I tell Tsek.
“Alright, alright. Good.” He makes a thin smile. “It’ll be hard not to do so anyway, what a story it would be for Elizabeth Vil to break into the Palace and handle these arrogant pricks.”
“Don’t.” Aisha speaks up disapprovingly. “I know the both of you had close encounters with the worst of Nobility but that’s because vultures come out when they smell carrion, there are plenty of proper Lords and Ladies out there.”
“If they have the power to act but don’t, they’re guilty by association.” I reply coldly.
“You work for… You’ve kil…” Aisha pauses, apparently unable to find a way to diplomatically say what she wants to.
She’s said enough to call me on my shit, I do work for the Rykz and have killed for them, making me guilty by far more than association. Still, my actions don’t excuse theirs.
“You’ve justified much for peace yet you can’t understand that they would choose to preserve their subjects from the consequences of starting that kind of fight?” Vikiana says.
That does make some sense. There might be more people like Count Urnan did ally with Lance at great risk to their position, even if it was for their own survival.
If Aisha’s correct, then my Lady’s chances of changing Caeviel without too much bloodshed are better than I hoped. Yet, I’ve seen Nobility slaughter peasants for trying to retreat from the battle on the plains in front of Castle Lance, it was no small number of them that took part in that.
We approach the Palace, a large stone building with five large round domes spread in a circle around a fifth which stands taller than the rest. Each of the surrounding domes has a banner floating at the top representing the five Duchies and the center one, Caeviel’s crest which is the same as Cenwalh’s.
The large double doors are embedded into a marble arch embellished by copper striations forming intricate designs. There are glass panels covering the windows. The wealth present here is evident despite the lack of gold on the outside.
There is a crowd of obviously poor people gathered to one side of the Palace, facing a small side door likely meant for servants. They’re here to sell their energy, which goes to the institute, which uses it to further their experiments on similarly, or more, unfortunate beings. A vicious process.
We stop to the side of the road, short of joining that gathering. I start looking for somewhere with a good overall view of the Palace but not so far that I wouldn’t be able to get there in a short amount of time.
“Elizabeth, can we talk for a minute?” Vikiana asks.
I make a small grimace. I’d hoped to avoid a discussion with her as we’ve likely both ran out of subjects which won’t turn into arguments. Still, I nod and lead her out of enhanced hearing range.
“You’ve been stocking up on flow.” Vikiana affirms. “The other day, you only had our energy left because you stored the rest and that’s why it looked so golden.”
I blink, baffled. Vikiana is off-mark but still somehow reached the right conclusion. I quickly think it through. Did she tell Aisha? What precautions could Aisha take to counter this?
“I think Aisha realized this a while back.” Vikiana continues, seemingly reading my mind. “Or she still thinks of you as a blunt instrument, either way I haven’t said anything.”
“Is that why you’ve just given up on changing my mind?” I ask.
“No. I don’t think a month’s worth of flow will be enough to overwhelm the amount they receive from the Palace.” She tells me honestly. “It’s not a good idea which is why I discarded it early on, I thought you would have realized that you can’t bring that much energy inside the institute undetected and that it won’t be nearly enough to break their external defenses.”
“My plan is a bit more subtle than simple brute force.” I smile, showing more confidence than I feel. “Why be silent if you think I’ll fail? Gave up on me?” I ask teasingly.
I am in a rather good mood, if Vikiana hasn’t realized what flaws in the institute’s defenses I plan to take advantage of, then Aisha likely hasn’t either. It might be the Shade’s area of expertise to find flaws but the Exemplar has at least a decade of experience over her.
“Be serious.” Vikiana berates me. “I’m not Aisha who still, somehow, views you as a blunt instrument. I’ve seen you find inventive solutions to problems and faced your tactics first-hand, I know this isn’t the whole of your plan.”
“Look, I’ve made several assumptions because I didn’t have much choice in the matter, but I’m almost certain that the holes in their defenses are inherent to the institute’s very functioning.” I tell her.
“I hope you’ll succeed, I truly do.” She says. Her words contrast heavily with her fierce expression, her upper lip is slightly pursed up, revealing one of her canines. “But do me the favor of dying as Elizabeth Vil before you drag my daughter into this.” Vikiana utters coldly, brutally.
“I’ve handled that already.” I tell her. “If I die, Leomi will be given a message telling her that ‘Jay’ left and will eventually forgive her even if she never makes contact.”
“Good, we understand each other in this, if nothing else.” Vikiana declares.
I flinch at her use of nothing but take it as an affirmation of our weird relationship which began with her threatening to kill me, continued with her choosing not to so she could capture me, to now, whatever it turned into.
“You won’t tell Leomi about me?” I finally find the courage to ask.
“You know that you need to do so yourself, Elizabeth. Besides, I don’t trust myself to sound fully supportive if I talk to her. I’ve accepted her choice, I won’t go back on that.” Vikiana admits.
“Won’t you let me bury Elizabeth Vil once this is over? Let the past lie dead.” I plea.
“I may not be able to keep you from her but I won’t be letting you lie.” She answers, implying both meanings of the word. “That is not how you build an honest relationship.”
“She’s hid plenty from me.” I spout out a bit angrily. “I never even knew about the beacon.”
“She has.” Vikiana admits. “I disapprove but the situation called for it.” She concludes. “It doesn’t make it right but it isn’t equivalent to what you want to do.”
“Fine.” I utter, closing my eyes to quash my rising anger at the woman’s stubborn position. An argument won’t help me here even if I have much more to say. “This conversation isn’t over but we have other priorities.”
“We do.” The Exemplar nods. “I have an overall tactical suggestion for you, it’s vague enough that it should fit with your plan, do you want to hear it?”
“Of course.” I say, leaning in to listen closely.
“The first thing you need to do, after stealing a sword, is to combine ‘that’ construct with the armor-piercing one, use however much flow is necessary to strike hard and wide. You don’t need to kill, only injure as many as possible and make them unconsciously think that closing in on you is a terrible idea that will lead to their defeat because the most difficult situation for you would be that the Numbers pile up on you.” She explains. “With that, you’ll have seized the initiative. Once their brains are running, looking for ways to trip you up, you switch it up and change grips, stances, rhythm, like I taught you. Make it impossible for them to get a handle on your style and patterns, don’t let them get a clear view of what you’re doing and they’ll be on the back-foot, perhaps long enough to straight up win the fight.”
“Hm.” I take a moment to gather my thoughts. “One-handed?” I ask.
“Depends on how close they are when you strike.” She replies. “And the shields.”
“Seeing a blade eat into them would be enough to scare them.” I say. “And if it doesn’t make them fear me, it’ll be easier for me to crack the shields once they’re damaged.”
“The Numbers might not feel fear, what you need to threaten is their capability to fight, which you do by injuring them.” Vikiana counters.
“So, two-handed.” I nod. “Straight up split their shields.”
“Ideally, you’ll kill a couple.” She notes.
“Alright, I’ll keep this in mind.” I tell her.
“If you don’t have access to flow, don’t hide in a corner, they’ll push your into it and outlast you. Find a door-frame or make use of lion’s steps to cruise through one side of the room to the other, they’ll have to spread out or tighten their formation.” She adds.
“And then I can take them apart little by little.” I say, grinning.
Vikiana frowns. My mood sours a little, this isn’t a part of me I respect either, my enjoyment of battle. I love besting opponents, the conflict feels pure, it is enthralling to put my skills to the test, it feels right to take my enemies apart despite my moral quandaries about the deaths.
Yet, I don’t feel guilty about killing those who wield weapons against me. To keep going, I’ve had to accept deep down that trying to take someone’s life means you are putting your own life on the line, you cannot complain if you lose it.
“I have a few last-minute instructions for you.” I tell her, deciding to change the subject. We’ve gone through the ways to use a disruption construct to my advantage in enough detail when she trained me. “You’ll be getting the gold from the stash near the city’s northern gates yourself, if the Shade follows you, it’ll work as a distraction.”
“Agreed.” Vikiana says. “I’ll be as indiscreet as possible. What about Tsek?”
“Tsek!” I loudly call out.
Aisha and Tsek turn around to us, I wave them over. They quickly make their way to us, the Shade looks curious underneath illusion so it isn’t likely she heard a thing. Unless Vikiana told her I can see through it which makes it all a ploy.
I smile a little. The time we’ve spent together dulled my paranoia but not entirely. I would be beyond surprised if Aisha so perfectly kept up a charade for an entire month. No, if there is betrayal, it will occur if she encounters an issue with obtaining the data which can be solved by acting against me.
“Tsek, you’ll be keeping an eye on the northern gate to make sure Vikiana has safely left the city.” And not tricked us. “You remember where I told you to meet me once you have the schematics?” I ask.
“I do.” He replies. “I’m confident I can get in and out without being spotted, Aisha gave me precise enough directions.”
“Don’t forget to disable the alarm construct.” I say.
“I won’t.” He affirms.
“Let’s go.” Vikiana speaks up, throwing a glance at the shrinking crowd of people in front of the castle. “I’d rather make the request while half the castle’s soldiers and servants are busy receiving flow.”
“Don’t come back if it fails for whatever reason, Exemplar.” I declare. “It’ll be your responsibility to keep Grace and Ruth in check, we’ve already made them wait quite a long time.”
“How do you expect me to do that if I don’t have that letter?” Vikiana asks.
“Don’t know, use the gold.” I tell her. “Or drop Grace at Port-Odo on your way to Izla Meria so she can write the pardons herself.”
Vikiana’s expression turns puzzled. Despite her compliments, she didn’t think I’d see through her intention to go to her daughter? She was buttering me up. I roll my eyes at her. It actually makes her look more confused.
“That’s behind Rykz lines.” Vikiana notes, moving on.
“Well, figure it out.” I shrug.
She pinches her lips and nods slightly. She extends her right hand out, palm facing up. My cheeks heat up a tiny bit as I bring my hand down on her wrist, feeling genuinely proud that the Exemplar would give me a warrior’s handshake.
She firmly grasps my wrist and I reciprocate. We lock eyes, her light blue irises are unwavering and I find no sign of hatred or deception behind the gesture. I nod in acknowledgment.
“May the Lake bless you with warmth.” Vikiana says.
“May the Lake light your path with its everlasting flames.” I reply.
We break off. Vikiana turns around, picks up the chest and sets it on her shoulder before departing with Tsek. Aisha and I watch them go until we lose sight of them when they enter the Palace.
“We could mingle with the crowd or find a tavern.” Aisha suggests.
“Around here should be fine, we aren’t too conspicuous.” I reply. “It should be obvious if there’s a fire from the panic and smoke.”
“Two unknown women standing alone on the sidewalk near the Palace without any apparent reason… that could invite suspicion and the local’s curious eyes.” She argues.
“Hm.” I nod. “Let’s walk around then.”
We slowly make our way around the Palace, using streets that run parallel to it while trying to always keep a window in our line of sight. It takes us a good twenty minutes to make a full circle around the building.
“Let’s stand here for a while, they should be about ready to meet with the chancellor by now.” I say.
“The crowd pretty much cleared out by now.” Aisha comments.
“I don’t want to miss them when they leave, tell me if you spot someone getting a bit too interested in us.” I reply.
I pull Aisha closer to me against the wall. I focus on my other sense, that way I’ll notice if anyone approaches from my blind spots while those who can see us are in my line of sight.
Another ten minutes go by before Aisha taps my shoulder and points me to the Palace. I enhance my vision and notice Vikiana and Tsek leaving, escorted by a couple of soldiers.
I tense but their guards don’t accompany them very far out. It doesn’t seem like a good sign, especially since Tsek’s pouch doesn’t look like it contains any more papers than before.
“I don’t think it worked.” Aisha comments.
“Me neither.” I respond. “Shit.” I swear under my breath.
“It’s not much of a complication, we should have settled things before Grace or Ruth can make it to Meiridin if that were to happen.” She tells me.
“I gave my word.” I reply between grit teeth, feeling a bit queasy.
I feel tendrils wiggle under my skin, their movements provoking discomfort My symbiont seems to have the same opinion as mine on this. I should have done more, can I do more now?
“You haven’t broken your word yet.” Aisha says. “They’ll get their gold and their ship for a start, the Exemplar will make sure of that. The pardon can come later.”
“Still.” I utter.
“We shouldn’t stay here.” She tells me urgently. “A couple servants have been throwing us glances, they tell the guards about us if we stay much longer and that’ll convince them to question us considering they’ve likely noticed us already.”
“Alright.” I say.
I change my plan a little bit as I am worried about that woman, from house Hetlan or working under it, since I won’t have time to check up on what they’re up to tomorrow or the day after.
I decide to bring Aisha directly to the new place I picked to hide out, an abandoned, crumbling, tiny shack which hasn’t been occupied for months. There are only two pieces of intact furniture, a chair and a table, and they’re covered in dust. Not to mention the spider webs that still remain in the corners after I’ve destroyed the vast majority that the critters laid across the entire room.
“Cold night ahead.” The Shade shivers.
I lift up a broken plank to reveal a cast iron stove and assemble a fire construct that I anchor to the plank before throwing it inside. The plank should last the day with that much energy.
I then pick up a runic shackle I stashed inside the rubble that fell and left a hole in the roof. I wrap the chain around one of the stove’s foot and then signal Aisha to approach. She sighs and resignedly holds her hands out. I close the bracers around her wrists and lock them.
“I’ll be right back.” I tell her. “If you’re not here when I return, I’ll be leaving Meiridin.”
“Won’t move a muscle.” The Shade replies.
I immediately depart. I could have lingered around to find out if she tried to get out of the shackles but it seems more prudent to leave and come back as quickly as possible since she would wait a while to be sure I left if she was to try anything.
I make my way to the shop and grab the gear we couldn’t take along, the other pairs of runic shackles, a few days’ worth of food, and the cooking pot. I manage to gather everything in a minute and then hurry back, making a hook by the dock.
I walk by close enough to the pier to check on both the barnacled trade ship and the barge through my symbiont’s sense. I don’t notice anything different, there are still a lot more sailors on guard duty than necessary.
The woman is apparently asleep in the captain’s cabin, she’s alone in bed but I haven’t seen her with anyone the last time I saw her in it. I run back to the abandoned shack, slowing down when I approach the block.
I notice that the Shade hasn’t moved a muscle, as promised. She remains shackled and, as far as I can tell, hasn’t even tried to lift or drag the heavy cast iron stove.
I don’t immediately enter, deciding to pass by and take my time to ensure that no one followed while also watching over Aisha who should think she currently has a window to escape.
It takes quite a bit of patience to waste half an hour just to test Aisha, but it doesn’t feel like a wasted effort as my opinion of her is still in flux if largely tending towards an overall negative one. If Idali died…