Forever.Ch30 Interlude

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Crack. Leomi Lance’s back hits the side of a carriage, wood splits. She yells in pain and anger. Princess Celyz’ walks up to the fallen woman, two dozen tendrils menacingly writhing around the Rykz.

A trap.” Celyz’ resounding voice thunders.

You sent my Jessica with Elizabeth!” Leomi roars, standing up.

A golden lance forms in the Countess’ hand. The Princess shatters it with a swipe of a tendril brimming with black flow. Two more flash, seizing Leomi Lance’s throat and right wrist.

Yours?” Celyz growls. “You abandoned her.”

I did, what I needed to, for her to survive you!” Lance fires back with difficulty. The Princess is taken aback by the response.

Yet Jessica lives after having rejected the offer that Elizabeth accepted.” Celyz finally says, countering the accusation. “Why speak of this trap now? Did you decide to let Elizabeth walk into it but spoke when you saw Jessica?”

No, I only just realized, I should have sooner but…” Lance explains, anguish in her light gray eyes.

Hm.” Celyz suddenly pulls back, releasing the Countess. “We have suspected that it could be a trap. A thousand drones have been assigned to protect the both of them, they know to be careful.”

There is a large crowd of people gathered around the two, held back by Celyz’ warrior escort. The Princess knows that their presence makes it very difficult for her to get rid of this woman, yet it isn’t the reason why she does not.

The primary reason is that it would go against her Hive’s interests, but it is not the only one. It goes against her nature to break a promise, but the most important reason, to Celyz’ innermost core, is that she gave her word that she wouldn’t to Jessica. It would create an unbreachable divide between them if she went back on it.

Celyz dislikes this Leomi Lance for how much she hurt Jessica. She believes that, if not for her, Jessica wouldn’t think herself a monster when the symbiont turned her into such a glorious being.

Jessica denied that she thinks herself monstrous but Celyz knows that she lied. The same way she knows that she cannot compete with the intensity of the feelings Jessica has for this woman. Celyz could smell it on the intoxicating young Jessica.

That is why Celyz does all she can to support Jessica’s double identity. She does not tell untruths as that goes against her innermost nature but as long as she isn’t asked directly, she can use Jessica’s two names to reinforce the deception without lying.

Princess Celyz knows that doing so is her best chance at keeping them apart but, mostly, there will be less resistance from Leomi Lance when Elizabeth returns home with her.

Celyz wants to give Jessica Elizabeth Vil a home within her Silver Hive, something the young girl wouldn’t be able to build in Caeviel, not with the symbiont being such a source of fear among humans.

You don’t understand, Mother knows the Rykz. If she participated in the creation of this trap… She will find a way to deal with your drones.” Leomi says.

Leomi Lance’s words worry Celyz. She knows of the Rykz’ weakness on water, some Hives have expertise on the matter, but they were much too far to reach and even they do not engage in naval combat.

The Princess watches Jessica’s ship sail away. Her feelings tell her that she should have stopped her as soon as Countess Lance spoke of a trap. For once, she lets her feelings influence her course of action, deciding to adjust and accelerate the plan.

Your mother is it.” Celyz’ voice resounds in Lance’s ears. “Prepare yourself, you’re coming with us after all.”

— — —

A couple of days later, Countess Lance, her sword-sworn Lady Yvonne, Lady Edusa, and Lance’s closest followers climb on top of a hill, south of Meria. Among them, Amelia, Nathan, and Rowland decided to join her on the trip to the mainland.

The rest of will be busy creating her organization or preparing to leave with Edusa, it will be much easier for them to sneak away now that Celyz is no longer in the city as the other Princesses remain aloof beings who pay little attention to humans.

From the vantage point, they observe a tide of workers build large floating platforms by linking small rafts together under Fenyz’ directions. Celyz is gathering forced from their military camp west of the city.

Why would King Cenwalh decide to fight this war when he could end it with but a single messenger?” Edusa asks. There is no land to gain, no riches to seize.”

Ambition, fear.” Lance says. “At the end of the day, Cenwalh hasn’t lost anything for now while negotiating with the Rykz before meeting them in battle would cost him much influence at Court. The situation is in flux, if he can hold until phalanxes arrive then why would he give up the Princess he’s holding? Peasantry suffers across Caeviel but only the local Nobility has so far.”

I’m so sorry.” Yvonne whispers.

Once again, Yvonne, this isn’t your fault.” Leomi sighs. “I doubt her trap will even work, I don’t think Mother expected Meria to fall so quickly. She no doubt counted on Master Amand and his Templars to set her trap on the Izla. Without them she can only count on Port-Odo’s Templars and those she brings along, perhaps two dozen at the most. An elite force but my brutal Elizabeth is no fool, she’ll see them coming and make use of the Rykz to escape.”

But, Jessica is…” Yvonne starts.

Jessica is smart, she won’t fight unless forced into a corner.” Leomi interrupts her, speaking with intense conviction as if she wills the words to become reality. “Elizabeth wouldn’t put her at risk, she knows I would never forgive her.”

The Red Dwarf’s voice echoes in Lance’s mind: ‘You’re stretching your honor.‘ I haven’t broken the oath, I didn’t ask Elizabeth to protect Jessica, I did nothing. These swirling thoughts occupy Leomi’s mind, torture her.

She would break her promise without a second thought to save Jessica’s life, she knows so. Yet she does not do that, she cannot risk it unless the situation presents itself. The oath is all that she has left of Jessica, without it, even nothing will vanish.

Once we land, we’ll spread out south of Port-Odo and enter villages to assess the situation while the Rykz scout the wilderness.” Leomi declares.

My Lady.” Edusa speaks up.

Lance’s heartbeat quickens at the words, imagining that Jessica spoke them. As always when she does, Leomi remembers the moment when her sweet peasant admitted she had a crush on her.

Leomi hadn’t felt the same way at the time but she knows that it all began there, her obsession. The vulnerability on Jessica’s face as her lips sought to kiss Leomi’s cheek, the pain and confusion that her traits drew as she pulled away, left her there. They excite Leomi, just thinking about it fills her with desire.

She then recalls Jessica’s devastation when she broke the vow she took to mess her up until she begs to be taken. That scares her. Leomi fears what she could do to Jessica, what she so badly wants to do to her.

In a way, Elizabeth is much safer, she’s tougher and fights back. Dominating her will be a challenge, one she wants to win but can also lose, she simply enjoys the fight with Elizabeth, the struggle for control. The consuming passion she has for Jessica isn’t present.

Whereas Jessica is different, she doubts that she has the self-control to restrain herself when it comes to her. Leomi’s entire being wants to win when it comes to Jessica, Leomi wants to protect and cherish her, to take and torment her.

My Lady.” Edusa repeats herself, calling for attention.

What is it, Edusa?” Leomi asks, controlling her voice to conceal her roiling emotions.

As ordered, I’ve integrated most of the city guard into the organization and split them up as much as possible but we lack the numbers to separate them from each other enough to fully break up their cliques.” Edusa says.

We did expect that.” Leomi nods. “The problem will solve itself as new recruits make it out of training and bolster our ranks.”

I don’t think now is a good time to leave, my Lady. They are in need of leadership.” Edusa argues.

Princess Celyz has not given me a choice in the matter.” Leomi says.

She omits the fact that even if she did have a choice, she would still go. Edusa’s expression grows hesitant, she considers staying to lead the organization in Lance’s place despite her misgivings about the plan and conviction that they need titles.

Don’t worry, Edusa.” Leomi speaks up. “Baroness Shipwold remains, she is more than qualified to handle the daily training and many of our current recruits are used to a command structure as they were guards or soldiers. They’ll help my officers guide the rest.”

What about the charter?” Yvonne asks.

The few basic rules I’ve outlined will suffice, for now.” Lance answers. “We will adjust as needed over time. How goes the recruitment of Nobles who have no hope to rise in status?”

Better than we’d hoped but still few in numbers.” Edusa answers.

Those who apply will grow in numbers as we do and succeed.” Yvonne affirms.

You leave this afternoon, correct?” Leomi asks.

Yes, I’ve delayed too much already.” Edusa confirms.

And I thank you for it, Edusa.” Leomi gives the young woman a smile.

Edusa’s bright green eyes turn away, she knows that she cannot sustain her liege’s gaze without blushing. The Lady had thought that her disagreements with the Countess would push them apart, yet it only brought them closer.

Lady Lance’s willingness to discuss her point of view and recognize the validity of her arguments made Edusa respect her liege even more, fueling feelings that Edusa tried to push away when it became clear that Elizabeth Vil had her favor.

The organization is in dire need of every resource the Countess and Council have at their disposal but the woman still decided to support Edusa’s gambit against her mother by sending her loyal subjects along with her.

No need to thank me, you helped more than you had to, my Lady. I’m in your debt.” Edusa says.

Repay me by beating your mother, Lady Edusa.” Leomi tells her.

— — —

Celyz and Fenyz stand on a small wooden tower erected in the middle of the massive floating platform built by Rykz drones. Underneath, surrounding them, are close to seven hundred harvesters and three hundred rowing workers.

They are crossing the arm of sea separating Izla Meria from the mainland, following the same path Jessica should have taken. Five hundred rafts are floating around them, they carry several thousand warriors, one of them holds her rival for Jessica’s heart and her followers.

Celyz occasionally wonders whether the reason Jessica’s heart isn’t choosing her is that she lacks such an organ. Celyz thinks that, perhaps, if Jessica felt her affection through a beating heart, she wouldn’t be so quick to refuse her.

[Thinking of your creation again?] Fenyz communicates through pheromones.

[She has a name.] Celyz replies with a sigh.

[She has not yet declared herself to be with you, has she? It’s quite obvious that you’ve been avoiding the subject. It is uncharacteristic of you to be so blatant, and I can smell your envy at the human.] Fenyz declares.

[You aren’t mad at her?] Celyz asks hesitantly.

[She was originally human, I was overjoyed for you that she responded because it was so unexpected from someone born of such a selfish species. I had no illusions. Is it because the human hasn’t accepted that her very nature has changed?] Fenyz probes.

[I believe so. She is not Rykz, Fenyz.] Celyz admits sadly.

She decides not to mention that Jessica linked tendrils with her while bound to another. She has no doubt Fenyz would blame Jessica and not her even if she admits that she cheated a little.

Celyz communicated much of herself as she inspected Jessica’s symbiont, more than she had to. Yet it wasn’t intentional and neither was her use of mating pheromones to influence Jessica, to open her up to the possibility of them being together.

Rykz Princesses are very much creatures of instinct when it comes to sex and Jessica was already attractive to her when she was ‘but a human’ like Fenyz would say.

[She could almost be Rykz if you took your research further, to its natural conclusion.] Fenyz says.

[Too dangerous, we know too little of humans and the Project’s wasn’t intended for such a transformation.] Celyz denies.

[We did not know that our ancestors were more than animals when you presented this to the First Queen.] Fenyz argues. [Don’t tell me it is not possible, Mother and you specifically picked a parasite of the generation that merged with a Rykz Queen.]

[If I presented this to the first Queen, it would be forbidden.] Celyz shakes her head, pushing the temptation away.

[Would it? This Project of yours is now the most important among all of the Hives. I do not need to hear it confirmed from the First Queen to know as much.] Fenyz says.

[I wouldn’t want to risk her well-being in this way and Jessica would refuse. I know you’re saying this because you’re thinking of me, Fenyz, but I will be fine once Cetyz is returned to us.] Celyz reassuringly tells her sister.

[Well, that little hybrid. fights well.] Fenyz chuckles. [I do want to witness what she could become.]

[I will not experiment on… Wait, Fenyz. Do you smell this?] Celyz suddenly asks. Fenyz deeply breathes in.

[The Hive is under attack?!] Fenyz exclaims with a wide-ranging burst of pheromones.

The seven hundred harvesters move, closing in around their Princesses. The large platform pitches and roils from the sudden shift in weight partition. Celyz waves a tendril at them and they calm down.

No, Jessica is. On sea, as I feared. Celyz says in a shaky resounding tone.

South-east.” Fenyz adds.

The two Princesses give orders to the workers, changing course. Celyz directly feeds her own flow to the workers to speed up their pace, yet there is a sharp limit on how fast their huge flotilla can proceed.

— — —

The next day, they come across the scattered wreckage of a naval battle. What remains of the rafts that carried Jessica’s escort of a thousand drones. There are fuming pieces of a galley, burnt by the Rykz fire construct, the one that turns what it aims to consume into fuel.

There are dozens of bloated human bodies pushed around by the waves under the sun. Yet, no Rykz in the Princess’ range of detection. They’re all resting at the bottom of the sea. Leomi Lance’s followers are shaken by the massacre, battles are deadly but naval ones especially so.

[The humans won.] Fenyz expresses.

[How can you be so certain?] Celyz asks, hanging onto hope. [Jessica could have won and continued her journey.]

[Some of our drones should have been able to grab onto the wreckage, the fact that we detect none means that the humans ensured that none would survive.] Fenyz affirms a hint of spite and disgust to her pheromones.

[Cruel.] Celyz shivers.

They do not linger on the site of battle. Celyz does not even consider that Jessica could have died. Fenyz tactfully avoids mentioning the possibility, as well as the fact that Jessica was very likely taken prisoner if she did not succumb during the assault.

Celyz gives the order to head north-east, reasoning that they will find Jessica if she went south-east to the mainland but if she was forced to flee towards Port-Odo then she needs immediate assistance.

Lance, on the other hand, is not so level-minded. She has been almost catatonic since she caught sight of the wreckage. Her Jessica is in danger because she misread both her mother’s intentions and the manner in which the Rykz planned to use Jessica.

Yvonne tries to reassure her friend, making wild claims about Jessica’s ability to defend herself, to make it through this. Leomi thinks she makes a point, that the girl is a survivor, yet she’s seen and taught the girl how to fight.

Lance knows that her single arm is a limitation that is not so easily overcome, even if Elizabeth chose to protect her above all else. Unlike Celyz who cannot bear to think that Jessica suffered Cetyz’ fate and was captured, Leomi hopes that they were, Elizabeth included.

Barely an hour later, Rowland spots something on the horizon to east. At first, they think that it is simply more wreckage and dead bodies, but they soon notice that there is someone laid across a few wooden beams loosely held together by ropes that didn’t snap like the rest.

Celyz sends a raft ahead to recuperate that person, choosing not to let Countess Lance and her followers on the platform until she knows more, she still hasn’t struck out the possibility that the Countess plotted with her mother to set this trap.

The drones carry a delirious and dehydrated Idali to the Princesses. There are horrendous wounds across her chest and right thigh inflicted on her by a creature that the Rykz don’t know about.

The bite marks don’t match those of the predators roaming the eastern seas, which is the only one the Rykz have explored. This western sea is an entire continent across from it.

The injury to her leg looks infected, rotting. It will eventually eat Idali from within. Celyz assembles a human healing construct and demands that a worker bring her pouch, containing various ointments that make use of her own blood.

It is beneficial to most creatures, it accelerates the healing process and provides sustenance. A remnant older than the Rykz Queen’s ancestor parasites even if it did help those hunt.

This dates back to their origins as carnivorous plants, the sap baited their preys and attracted other members of the living kingdom who would chase away the greedier predators who would eat them whole.

The presence of a part of her in the ointment allows Celyz to better control her flow inside another sentient’s body, something the humans cannot do as well as the Rykz as their blood loses its ‘life’ much quicker than theirs and isn’t always compatible with others of their species.

Celyz soon finds out that the woman’s leg was cut down to the bone and that the infection is so deep that she doubts she can deal with it before she dies. She makes the difficult choice of delaying the treatment to shakes the human awake and get answers.

Where is Elizabeth Vil?” Celyz asks urgently.

Wat, er.” Idali croaks with a dry throat.

Fenyz hands their own amphora of water over, the two need much more fresh water than the drones who can sustain themselves with what is contained inside the nourishing liquid they make.

Temp, lars.” Idali tells after taking a gulp. “Caught, her.”

Rhyyyyyyyy!” Celyz scrams, her voice is sharp and piercing.

[Calm down, sister.] Fenyz communicates.

[They got her, like Cetyz!] Celyz replies with a swirling tendril.

[She’s alive, Celyz, they both are.] Fenyz insists.

Celyz ignores her sister. She uses flow to enhance her speed and strength. She jumps off the wooden tower and runs across the platform, the harvesters’ ranks open up to let her through.

Celyz pounces over to a raft, landing heavily and almost capsizing the small embarkation. She cares not and keeps going, leaping from raft to raft until she makes it to the one Leomi Lance occupies.

She stands up to her full threatening height, looking down at the Countess while she gazes up to the furious Princess. Leomi’s hand is on her sword, the runic shield Elizabeth gave her is attached to her arm.

Leomi tore herself out of her torpor as soon as she heard that there was a survivor and armed herself when she heard the Princess’ shriek. Yvonne moves to flank with Nathan while Amelia shifts to cover Leomi’s right flank.

She would have fit the plate armor she brought along, if she had time and were not surrounded by water. This fight with Celyz is something she both dreaded and wished for yet it couldn’t come at a worse time as they are in no position to do battle, surrounded by aten army of Rykz.

Celyz roars and plunges her left foot’s root-like toes into a wooden beam. She then folds her reversed right knee and raises the leg to brutally kick Lance. Leomi blocks the attack with her shield, injecting flow into the runes. Much of the impact is dissipated yet there was so much power behind the blow that the Countess still finds herself laying on her back.

Her followers swing at the Princess, coordinating their assault, but it isn’t enough, not nearly. Celyz uses her tendrils to divert every attack with deceptive ease, it is not as easy as she makes it seem. She is struggling to keep each of them inside her wide field of detection as it does not cover her back or lower legs.

What is the meaning of this, Princess Celyz?” Yvonne shouts.

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Forever.Ch29

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I run into Tsek on my way back to the cargo-hold, the afternoon shift took over guarding my prisoners. I throw him a curious look. He hesitates for a moment, his green eyes wavering, but he still looks me in the eye and speaks up.

I don’t plan to leave with Ruth and the galley once this is done, I still have friends in Port-Odo.” He tells me.

You want a separate payment?” I ask.

No.” He shakes his head.

It’s fine.” I say.

It’s not that.” He says, looking a little frustrated. “I’m just wondering if you mind if I stick around.”

Oh.” I mutter. “I don’t think you actually want to do that. Once I’m done, I’m done. The Elizabeth Vil you see is just an illusion.”

What do you mean?” He asks.

I’m a peasant and I have no desire to keep… playing this game of theirs.” I explain. “The lies, betrayals, shifting alliances. Blood and death. It is sickening.”

You give hope.” He says. “What you do might not be pretty but who’s ever heard of a low-born beating Nobility at its own game? Sykus himself ran and hid away.”

Which is what I would be doing if I didn’t have this.” I say, pointing at my mask. Celyz was one step ahead like she usually is.

You’re strong.” Tsek insists.

Lance is strong. I’m a mess.” I chuckle. “I can’t fight Caeviel by myself, Tsek. If you want a new life, hope, don’t look to me.” I pause. “Ah, so this is what you want out of me. The same thing Cecil does, kind of, a symbol.”

That’s not what I want.” He denies. “I want to help.”

Cross over to Izla Meria and join Lady Lance’s organization, that’s more likely to achieve something lasting than following me.” I tell him.

She’s a Noble.” He says with a frown.

Which means she’s part of the only group of people who can do something without triggering a civil war.” I note.

Perhaps that’s what we need.” Tsek ventures.

I’m doing this to save lives, Tsek.” I counter firmly. “Starting a war is the last thing I’ll do. Besides, I have neither the influence nor skill to gather and lead an army. Let the tale of Elizabeth Vil be just that, a story. I’ll consider it a win if it inspires some to stand up.” If it doesn’t end in slaughter.

I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean for the conversation to go there.” Tsek says, blaming himself.

I’m pretty sure I’m the one who went there.” I say gently. “This entire thing has been taking a toll on me and I apparently needed to vent.”

Do you mind if I stick around?” He asks again.

I already told you that I’m not going to…” I start.

That’s not it.” He interrupts me, blushing slightly. Easily embarrassed, this one, it’s not like I’ll think less of him for not expressing himself clearly.

What is it then? What more do you want?” I question.

No expectations.” He says. “I just want to be a friend, for now, to help. You seem like you need both.”

I’ll answer you when you tell me what you’re after.” I reply.

Who hurt you?” He suddenly asks with a difficult expression, his green eyes somehow brimming with empathy.

What do you mean?” I blink, surprised.

I don’t want anything… I mean I do but it’s not like I’m putting conditions on my friendship. This isn’t a transaction.” He explains.

It always is.” I utter in a tight voice. What? Why am I…? Tears swell in the corner of my eyes. I swallow the pain down and walk, no run, from Tsek. Escaping back to the upper deck.

Wait, I’m sor…” He calls out.

I ignore him, climbing two steps at a time. What’s up with me? I’m lonely, I miss Leomi. The emotion is echoed by my symbiont and that brings Celyz’ image to the forefront of my mind, battling with my Lady’s for attention. Tender safety and passionate love.

I find myself at the galley’s bow, hands on the rail. Crack. Wood shatters under my grip. I hear Ruth yelling something about damaging her ship. I shut the world out and pull my entire reserve of energy out.

Draining all my flow at once makes me dizzy, lightheaded. I take a deep breath and pause, a large ball of black-gold is floating in front of me. What was I going to do with it? Lash out at the damn waves? I reabsorb the flow, mocking myself.

I spend a few hours there, gaze lost at sea. The prickling pain in my right forearm is a welcome distraction. Yet another worry, this is getting worse. I can’t afford to waste time, I need to be ready.

I head down to the cargo-hold and grab Vikiana, giving her half my flow so she can heal herself. The rest of the afternoon goes by in a flash as she makes me train my basics. I lose myself in my ‘Once more.‘ mantra, the monotonous task is reassuring, a fine fit for my current state of mind so.

At nightfall, I make my way to the kitchen, planning to bring back food for my prisoners. I greet Tsek and Ruth. She discreetly hands over a folded white rag when he turns his back on us.

Ruth then launches in an over-exaggerated recounting of her life, from her beginnings in a family of soldiers to how she fell for a glamorous sailor who turned out to be a pirate and the adventures that followed.

She almost got me to think she’s the good girl as she told us of her ignominious capture when one of Odo’s galleys showed up as they were relieving a merchant ship of their surplus of merchandise.

Truly unjust, you were doing that merchant a favor!” Tsek quips.

Right?!” Ruth exclaims, slamming her knife down on the table.
“Might have been about the dagger that slipped out of your hand and somehow ended up pinning the man’s hand to his steering wheel.” I comment dryly.

Elizabeth, I told you that was an honest accident!” Ruth exclaims, offended.

Oh, I get it.” I nod with a chuckle. “I once met a Lordling who decided to repeatedly bash his head against my fist. It was tragic. After the first blow, he was too stunned to stop himself.”

See, I knew you would understand.” Ruth grins while Tsek laughs.

I roll my eyes at her, glad that my mask is hiding my grin. After the meal, I grab a couple bowls that I hand over to Vikiana and Aisha, relieved that Tsek hasn’t brought up the subject of sticking around again as I have no idea how to say no without hurting his feelings. I check up on Vikiana’s injuries which appear to be healing well.

We’ll be able to spar in a few days.” The Exemplar tells me.

That’s good, I won’t be able to keep intensively training my constructs once in Meiridin and I didn’t want to tell anyone that I won’t have most of my flow available. I steal a blanket from Ruth’s bunk, who is on the upper deck gambling on dice rolls, and go to sleep.

— — —

I start the day on a sparring session with Tsek. Vikiana’s reasoning about needing to explain it all to him turns out to be more than helpful. in the middle of giving him advice, I end up telling him exactly how to counter-attack to defeat me.

I discover more than a dozen flaws in my own defense and offense by correcting his. None of them are glaring or immediately dangerous to me but I have no doubt a fighter of Vikiana’s caliber could leverage those into an opening.

Tsek and I spend a good time, yet a shadow remains over the session as I agreed to it before knowing how beneficial it would be to me for several reasons, none of which I’m proud of.

We’ll be working closely together so we need to establish some level of trust, or at least he needs to trust me. I don’t like the fact that I am reproducing what others have done to me with him, inducing positive feelings, creating a relationship so that he does what I need him to.

I end up telling him that I’ll pay him in gold to relieve my guilt, the parallel with what Lance did to me that night doesn’t escape my notice and I feel regret that I held back, that I didn’t take some revenge. It won’t be too late later, as Jessica.

You’re getting good at this.” I speak up.

I don’t, understand how you, can keep blocking everything.” Tsek replies, out of breath.

I cheat, I see more than you do.” I reply mysteriously. “I should tell you that I’m cheating right now.” I add.

How, so?” He asks.

I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart.” I say. “I need you to follow my orders and keep quiet about it all, the gold is one way to ensure you will. Another is this, getting to know each other reduces the risk that you’ll act against my interests.”

You’re not doing a very good job at manipulating me if that’s the goal since telling me defeats the point. I could have reacted badly.” Tsek comments, not looking too offended.

I can change who I bring along, it isn’t much of a risk.” I admit.

Don’t. It’s fine, I understand and I know you’re not doing any of this for yourself. ” Tsek blushes a little. “That’s why I like you.”

Eh, you’re not so bad yourself.” I tease.

It really is a boy thing to get all weird just to say he wants to be friends, reminds me of my brother when we were kids.

No, I mean I really do.” He says, flustered.

Yea, I got that.” I tell him, confused.

I have since I heard of your duel with Count Odo, taking revenge for his victims.” Tsek presses.

It wasn’t…” I pause to swallow my saliva, feeling a ball of nervous guilt form in the middle of my throat. “I didn’t do that for anyone. That was for me. He… killed someone important to me and it was my fault.”

None of it would have happened if I let Leomi help my family, if I refused to work for the Rykz, if I didn’t undermine Leomi’s position in Meria’s chain of command. If… ifif…

Elizabeth?” Tsek speaks up, pulling me out of my self-destructive spiral.

I’m not a good person, Tsek. I accepted the Rykz’ offer but it didn’t have much to do with the good of Caeviel. Deep down, I wanted to take revenge on someone and I didn’t even go through with it. The reason I’m doing everything I can to end the war is that I couldn’t handle the guilt if I didn’t.” I tell him.

That only proves that you’re a better person than you think you are.” He affirms. “I’m sorry I mentioned that.”

I sigh and swing the flat of my blade at his left knee, destroying his balance. He drops, hitting the wooden deck, swearing. I hold my hand out to help him up. He grips my wrist instead. I get him to his feet and break the hold.

Not sure why I let him as this is something I share with Leomi, he has no place in that but it’s not like we do so exclusively. It’s a mark of respect among warriors, I’ll take that.

Half-way through the afternoon, I find myself unable to keep holding my sword in my dominant hand, the repeated shocks making my bones vibrate are getting more and more painful so I switch hand.

After a few exchanges during which Tsek’s defense gets destroyed even more than usual, we decide to call it quits. According to him, it’s unfair to go southpaw on a beginner. I spend the rest of the day training my lion’s step as I’ve had few occasions to but will be a construct I’ll very much need to get out of Meiridin.

— — —

I wake up to a radiating agony coming from the area around where I merged iron to my forearm’s bones. A tendril reaches up to my right shoulder from my lower back and disperses some of that cool substance to dull the pain, without instruction.

I slowly close my left fingers in thanks, my symbiont responds by taping the palm with its thumb. I ponder on how much it understands for a moment, it seems like it can tell what I feel, through pheromones perhaps? Celyz said it couldn’t read my thoughts.

The ship is quieter than usual, and it isn’t pitching as much. Have we stopped? The sail is down, so is the anchor. I get up on my feet and make my way to the upper deck. Ruth is playing dice with a Tsek and a few soldiers at the bow.

“We’re here.” Ruth tells me. “Good thing I stayed up all night too because I don’t think that Countess intended to stop where we agreed on.”

Did she make a move?” I ask.

No, I just think she wanted to set anchor within sight of Meiridin’s towers.” Ruth replies.

Ah.” I say.

Probably not a power play, it would give her an edge but she doesn’t have the support to use this. Might be a safety in plain sight thing, or a way to show her flag and indirectly call on Nobles to visit her, get news from the city, perhaps establish a line of communication with Cenwalh.

I don’t see what else she could achieve with this since the Shade and the Exemplar have been clear in what they expect of her. She knows I’m not going to stay on the galley so I doubt she wanted to start a fight to capture me.

I shake my head, no sense in thinking too deeply about it, it’s not like I showed her the spot. We didn’t talk about this and Grace was more preoccupied with hiding the maps than looking at them.

Hey, did you take my blanket?” Ruth asks.

No, I’m pretty sure I saw Tsek with it.” I lie.

You swore you didn’t.” Ruth turns to glare at the kid. I make use of her distraction to run back down to the cargo-hold.

I don’t have it.” Tsek says with a grin.

I’m going to check! He might have planted it in my cell to frame me!” I call out over my shoulder.

Come back here, thief!” Ruth exclaims.

She keeps yelling but doesn’t leave the game, no doubt because she put money down. I chuckle and grab my stuff from the cell, hammer and the clothes I washed. I grab the blanket and bring it back to Ruth’s bunk.

I search a crate for a pair of rudimentary galley-slave clothes and throw what I find at my prisoners. I then tell their guards to remove their shackles and leave while I untie the ropes.

Get changed.” I tell them. “Underwear as well, leave no overt signs of your exalted births.” I add.

I was born from a family of soldiers loyal to the previous Duke Meria.” Vikiana replies.

And I doubt a tavern counts as exalted.” Aisha groans.

Either way, get in these rags and put the shackles back on.” I tell them.

As they do, I start removing the plate armor strapped to my left arm, with some trouble because of my right forearm’s state. I then assemble a signaling construct, adding a conditional timer segment that will trigger the message to my symbiont when it runs out but I leave it blank of meaning.

Once they’re fully dressed, I take my shirt off and call their attention to my left side. I make the signaling construct float above my palm and then focus within. I try to seize control of a tendril, one of the original five which are thicker at the base than the others who grew later, most to camouflage the breast it… ate.

My symbiont doesn’t react or resist, it simply doesn’t work, I only have some control of the one that is kind of fused to my lower-back waist muscles. I don’t have time to waste, I need to shock them and they’re starting to throw me odd glances.

I try to communicate the need to move the tendrils at my limb, it somewhat works as they start repositioning under my skin, wiggling slightly. Vikiana doesn’t much react but Aisha pales and represses a gasp.

That was just me telling it to look alive.” I tell them. “This is what it looks like if I tell it to eat.”

I activate the signaling construct in front of their eyes, just for a split second. It sends a blank message at no one, not that either of them could tell. At the same time, I pull on the three tendrils I have some control over, those three that partly fused to my muscles.

Only enough to hurt and bleed inside but not so much that I’ll rip them off my muscles since I need the flow. For now. The pain is muted by the cool substance already diffused throughout my body but I still flinch.

Alright, want to check the damage?” I ask.

This isn’t necessary, Elizabeth.” Vikiana says.

On the contrary, I’m making sure that we’re on the same page and that we’ll stay on the same page.” I utter flatly. “I will respond to any move on your part that I consider threatens my mission with overwhelming force. Depending on the situation, I may be forced to simply end your life. And know that I won’t hesitate if it is necessary, you might not take the Rykz as seriously as I do because you’ve fought them but let me assure you that, from what I’ve seen and heard, the Empire has been fighting Hives. This isn’t about an individual Queen, our Emperor has provoked a species. Queen Grikyz wouldn’t even have the right to come here without the First Queen’s permission.”

We understand, Elizabeth.” Aisha says.

I don’t need you to understand. I don’t even care if you don’t. What I need is for you to be fully aware that this is how I see the situation. In my eyes, my life and yours are expendable to achieve peace in Caeviel.” I utter harshly, honestly.

Vikiana and Aisha nod in silence, a good choice. I slip my short back on and strap the plate armor pieces to my left arm. I then check their chains and lead them to the upper deck. I call Conrad over and listen in as Vikiana reiterates her instructions.

The Templar does throw a glance at the Shade who confirms what the Exemplar just said while maintaining her act as a hostage for the onlookers, saying that she can’t wait to make the exchange.

You’re going?” Ruth asks, walking up to us.

No time to waste.” I reply. The state of my right forearm means I can’t sit here to prepare, I need to find a solution fast.

You don’t really look the part, give me a minute.” Ruth says.

She heads downstairs, crossing paths with Tsek who is making his way up with a jute bag containing grain and a small barrel of water. I throw my spare clothes to him and he puts them inside with his.

You up for this?” I ask one last time.

Of course.” Tsek replies with a tight smile.

Ruth comes back with two sleeveless tabards with the Odo crest on them. I reluctantly put mine on while Aisha and Vikiana settle on one of the lifeboats. I carefully inspect the small ship through my symbiont’s sense, looking for weapons or anything conspicuous.

I search it again with my own eyes after I get on. Finding no weapons or poison or keys, I give the signal and Ruth’s people lower the lifeboat down to the river. I sit down at the bow and Tsek at the stern while Vikiana and Aisha grab the oars.

I’m overreaching, this is going to go to shit and I’m going to end up in a ditch with a dagger in my back, literally or metaphorically. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, too many people’s lives depend on my success for me to lose my nerve.

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Forever.Ch28

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I awaken as the morning shift takes over from guarding Vikiana and Aisha. I rise and tell them that they won’t be needed this morning. They don’t protest, hurrying off with the night guards.

Aisha, your flow.” I speak up once they’re gone.

She hands over another two portions of flow which I directly hand over to Vikiana to heal her broken right hand and arm. I grab my hammer and make it spin inside my palm, pondering.

We have two days left on the ship at most, how long until you can actually train me?” I ask Vikiana.

Not long.” She replies. “But the issue isn’t when we’ll start but how much time we’ll have before you assault the institute.”

Two weeks, at most.” I lie to obfuscate their view of my plan as I can always find reasons to extend the delay.

I intend to be patient for an entire month before assaulting the institute, it is a long time to wait but necessary to set everything up. The planning phase will be paid in blood by Caeviel as the war will continue while I prepare. It is of paramount importance that I succeed because hurrying and failing would cost many more lives.

It isn’t enough, I would ask for two months at the very least. Although it could take less, you’re hard-working and have some talent but the issue is that you lack discipline.” Vikiana says.

I lack discipline?” I ask, confused as I’ve made sure to train every time I found an opportunity to.

You’re perseverant but inconsistent, I’ve seen you change form and stance in the middle of a battle.” Vikiana explains. “You’re erratic and…” Aisha interrupts her.

You’re not training a Semplar, Viki.” The Shade says. “The fact that she goes from brutal slashes that forcefully break her opponent’s guard to fast and precise counter-attacks is an advantage, not something that holds her back.”

I agree, but that is master-level stuff, she must learn the basics first.” Vikiana insists.

Why?” Aisha asks. “She’s a lone-wolf, a blunt instrument that needs sharpening, not a team fighter. Not only that, but Elizabeth does this well without any formal training.”

That’s…” Vikiana pauses. “True.”

Keep in mind I won’t have my hammer or swords.” I say.

I was going to teach you hand to hand combat to begin with, yes.” The Exemplar replies absent-mindedly, lost in her thoughts.
“Well, while you think about this, I’m taking Aisha to talk to Grace.” I tell her.

If you can’t wait two months, give me at least one.” Vikiana replies. “I’ll skip the basics and go straight to helping you develop a comprehensive style, Aisha is right.

I untie the Shade from the mast, not bothering to tie a rope to her ankle. She’s even less of a flight risk than the Exemplar. I do assemble two lightning constructs that I anchor inside my hands, it wouldn’t do to be overconfident.

We make our way upstairs and towards the cabin. The freed criminals are spread out all over the upper deck, mingling with the soldiers who appear much more uncomfortable than the criminals celebrating their freedom.

The Templars are left alone at the ship’s bow, they transferred their two badly burnt brethren there. The flow I gave them yesterday seems to have improved their condition by a wide margin. These gestures of good will don’t cost me much and they help me push the monster away.

On the left river bank are a dozen rudimentary shacks made of branches. Aisha suddenly takes hold of my shoulder to make me crouch. I throw her a questioning look. She simply points at her eyes and then to an old fisher-woman.

Rumors about you have spread all over Caeviel.” Aisha explains.

Right.” I nod.

I stop in front of the cabin’s door, sensing that Grace is barely waking up inside, alone in her nightgown. I smirk and cordially knock. She rubs her eyes and grabs a long robe before walking over. I suddenly open the door.

Good morning, your Grace!” I exclaim.

Wh?!” She shouts.

She falls backward, dropping on her ass with a yelp of pain. She panically crawls towards her sword on her hands and feet. I giggle and push Aisha inside, closing the door behind her. I lay against the wall and enhance my hearing.

Inside, the Shade groans and helps the Countess up. Grace then quickly gets dressed up and they both sit at the table. I split my attention between them and Vikiana beneath, another test to see if she’ll try to escape.

Yet I’ve slightly miscalculated and the test compromised by Tsek who is headed down to the cargo-hold, likely to keep an eye on the Exemplar. He probably saw me leave after the morning shift left.

The conversation that ensues in the cabin is somewhat boring, Aisha deflects any questions the young Countess asks about my importance or the Shade’s own plans, responding with veiled threats and reminders that the Lady is in no position to make enemies as her domain is about to be caught in the middle of the conflict.

Aisha impresses on the woman that she’ll need allies and support to hold onto her title because of her lack of experience and rudimentary education on ruling while also rebuilding her domain, from her fleet and army to buildings.

The Shade then moves on to direct threats. She tells Grace that if she’s willing to sacrifice all of that and her subjects to get her revenge, it won’t matter. There will be no arrest or judgment, she will be eliminated.

What of Justice and Order? Surely she isn’t worth the turmoil she has caused and will continue to cause as long as she lives.” Grace argues.

Justice is what benefits the Empire, Countess.” Aisha says threateningly.

I hear you, and disagree. My brother may have been… hypocritical about it but I don’t think Justice and Order are what you believe they are. Still, I will heed your warning.” Grace declares.

You have a domain to administer and will be compensated for the loss of your ships. Do not overreach.” Aisha says between grit teeth, testing her shackles.

I will obey the law.” Grace replies.

The Emperor is the Law.” Aisha growls, standing.

I’m not sure what to think about this. While the two Odos I killed more than deserved it, I find that I agree with this one. I have faith in our Emperor, but the law shouldn’t depend on one man’s or woman’s word, even one as great as Him, Justice should be impartial.

I have a feeling that Cecil was much more than just a front for the Shade, Aisha may be a good agent but she is no manipulator. The Madame was much better at reading people. Perhaps Aisha’s expertise lies mostly in gathering information and setting up covert operations.

And that is why I will follow your instructions and won’t pursue this… for now.” Grace continues. “I will expect a written order from King Cenwalh.”

Fine, it will be done. What do you know about Elizabeth Vil?” Aisha asks.

That she’s not human, that she is a Rykz creation.” Grace replies in a tense voice.

Who have you told? Who knows?” Aisha questions.

No one.” Grace shakes her head. “The captain and Dalv were there for my brother’s tantrum but he’s dead and she’s missing.”

She isn’t missing, she’s dead.” Aisha says. “Where is the captain’s log?” She asks.

In the drawer.” The Countess replies with a worried frown, likely because she’s smart enough to discern that the Shade’s certainty means that she might be the one who killed Dalv.

Grace takes a small notebook out and hands it over to Aisha who starts ripping it apart, making a small pile of expensive paper. She then tells Grace to set fire to it, which she does.

You shall not speak of it, to anyone.” Aisha orders. “I will arrange a Shade to keep you under surveillance, know that there will be no warning if you go back on your word.”

I won’t.” Grace affirms.

Remember that, your fate depends on it and so does your Kingdom’s.” Aisha declares.

The Shade then departs, almost stomping. She leaves the cabin, her expression and behavior remain intimidating even when she passes the threshold and closes the door. Her illusion construct’s traits remain relatively unchanged as we make our way through the rowers’ deck.

That was an act.” I venture a comment. At least most of it, I’m certain that she genuinely meant what she said about the Emperor being the law.

You mean the unsubtle threats and forceful attitude?” Aisha asks with a small smile, confirming my suspicions.

I’m sure there was a better way to handle that.” I reply.

No, this is familiar to her. Whatever she may claim about revenge and justice, she hated her brother so I simply acted like he would.” Aisha explains. “It helps sell the fact that I’m not bluffing.”

Isn’t that risky?” I ask.

Not on the short-term, it’ll do until I impress on King Cenwalh what the Emperor’s will is.” She says.

Will that work?” I question.

It will. Cenwalh is in no position to make waves, in part because of you.” Aisha tells me.

What do you mean?” I ask.

He has a war on his hands and his institute hasn’t delivered what our Emperor demanded of him yet. There’s also the fact that the peasantry is agitated because Cecil spread out the information about the war with the Rykz having been caused by the King against my advice, but there was unrest in Caeviel before that so the rumor of your existence and victory over a Count would have had that effect either way.” Aisha sighs.

Hm.” I mutter noncommittally.

Aisha stops in front of the stairs to the cargo-hold, lowering her bright blue eyes look into mine. I hold her gaze.

You don’t trust a word I say anymore, do you?” She asks rhetorically.

You’re stating the obvious.” I reply.
“It bothers me.” She says. “You’re literally placing your life in my hands, threatening to kill yourself before we get the data. What if I lied to you about that in the first place? What if my goal is to usurp Rykz flow after all? Perhaps the Rykz creation is what I’m after.”

You’re foolish enough to think you could use it against them?” I ask.

No, but it provides you with flow, which means it could provide a data point which, combined with the Princess, could be enough to achieve Cenwalh’s silly ambition.” She replies.

It doesn’t.” I shake my head. “It isn’t intelligent enough to have its own access. Besides, I’ve heard enough people tell me that usurpation is impossible to believe it.”

So you don’t trust me, but you think you have a good enough image of the situation to use me.” Aisha comments.

This is fun.” I giggle.

Aisha looks at me, puzzled. I suddenly seize her throat with my gauntleted left hand, she grabs my armored wrist, vainly trying to break my hold. She tries to speak but no more than squeals escape her lips.

I assemble a strengthening construct and lift her off her feet. I let her powerlessly kick the air for a few moments before slamming her down against the wooden floor. I set my right knee on her rib cage and glare at her through my mask.

My patience has run out, Shade.” I utter quietly. “Your probing for information is amusing but foolish.”

Ekh, z.” She chokes.

You see, I have a need for what you can provide me.” I tell her. “But that does not mean you have leverage over me, Shade. If you push me, I will simply make use of Vikiana to contact that director and find another way.” Aisha nods slightly. “Do as you’re told and hold your tongue, we’ll all get out of this with what we want but most importantly, you’ll keep your life.”

I stand and put her back on her feet, releasing her. Aisha takes a few desperate breaths. Her illusion construct starts fading. She hurriedly supplies it with flow. Does it mean she’s so short on energy that she has to constantly feed it what she regenerates? Or is it a trick for me to reach that conclusion?

You screwed up, Shade.” I say.

I kn, ow.” Aisha coughs the words out, rubbing her bruised throat.

I lead her back to the cargo-hold and tie her to the mast, releasing Vikiana. I pick up my hammer and hand it over to Tsek who buckles a little under the weight of it. I chuckle.

I spent six months rowing, this is just overly bulky.” He justifies.

City boy.” I tease.

Can’t argue with that.” He replies with a good-natured smile.

Just hit her with it if she causes trouble.” I say, glancing at the Shade. “Break a bone or three.”

Vikiana and I make our way to the other end of the cargo-hold. She starts with an explanation of the defensive construct’s various segment configurations, from the generalist that will stop most attacks, like heat and electricity, to the one focusing exclusively on dispersing kinetic impacts. Which is likely the runic construct that was used on the shield I gave Leomi.

She then makes me demonstrate my lion strike stances, verifying my constructs before I use them. She criticizes my handling of swords yet insists that I keep using the weapon, using the argument that I need to be able to use this weapon since it is the most common kind I’ll find.

It’s not a plow nor a hammer, Elizabeth. It’s a sword.” Vikiana barks for the third time.

Most of her criticism is on point, well… all her advice probably is but she doesn’t need to be so prickly about my form. The thought distracts me and my footwork suffers.

Bend your left knee a bit more, and don’t lay your right foot down flat like that, stay on your toes until you’re prepared to swing while switching supporting leg.” She instructs. “The rotation will add power to your strike but you’ll also retain the capability to abort.”

I know, you’ve said so a thousand times, but it takes a lot of concentration to keep it all in mind.” I say.

That’s why you need at least a month to understand these fundamentals and absorb the logic. It won’t be long enough to make it a second nature but you won’t have to think too hard about it.” Vikiana replies. “Does your right forearm hurt?” She asks.
“Kind of.” I admit. No point in hiding the obvious.

I took a look but… not my expertise. I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone doing that before.” She says.

Lunch is a welcome break from the constant badgering, although I don’t complain much because there has been a noticeable improvement in my movements.

As the four of us eat, I remind myself to remain cautious, though, this gives the Exemplar a lot of information about what I can and cannot do. If all goes well, it won’t be an issue but if not, I intend to overwhelm her with flow because it would be too dangerous to fight her head on again.

Could I join you this afternoon?” Tsek asks.

To train?” I question. He nods.

It doesn’t take me long to realize that it’s a bad idea considering he would be the one guarding them when I set the pieces of my plan in place, I don’t want them to get attached or feel in debt to either of them. Yet it’s difficult to say no to Tsek considering how much he’s been helping.

I’m clear-minded enough to separate my emotions from what needs to be done. Yea, right. It’s not like I could kill or let Leomi’s mother die. Very clear-minded indeed. Shut up, me.

It’s a good idea.” Vikiana tells me. “It’ll give you someone to spar against until I recover.”

Maybe.” I say skeptically.

Why not?” Tsek asks.

Because I don’t want the both of you to get friendly.” I reply honestly.

Business is business.” Tsek replies, understanding what I mean.

That’s not an issue. The both of you can spar on your own, Elizabeth. You’ll learn a lot through sparing while teaching him what you know because you will have to put instinctual concepts into words and spell them out.” Vikiana intervenes. Tsek throws me a questioning glance.

Alright.” I say. “But later, I need to see Ruth.”

I finish my third bowl and make my way upstairs. I find Ruth playing dice with two soldiers and a few of her own people. When she spots me, she throws a silver coin at a scrawny man, a soldier. Where did she find coin?

Your dice are loaded.” She says in jest.

You just don’t have the throwing skills.” He replies with a smile, pocketing the coin.

I see how it is.” Ruth notes with a mean grin. “You spend a lot of time training your wrist.” She wiggles her hand in a vulgar manner, leaving no mystery as to what she’s implying.

I laugh with everyone else when the soldier turns red. The two of us then move apart from the rest. Ruth starts taking her rag map out but I stop her, throwing a quick glance at the cabin.

She isn’t going to like that, maps are beyond precious and secret.” Ruth says.

We’re not going to steal them, only take a look and pick a spot.” I tell her. “You do have a good memory, right?”

Well yea, but don’t expect me to remember everything.” Ruth says.

I just want an overview of the blocks surrounding the institute if you know where it is in Meiridin.” I explain.

Never set foot anywhere near it but I’ve had to learn exactly where it is to avoid it.” She shivers. “People say there are monsters in there.”

I’m not afraid of monsters.” I dismiss. I’m one. Besides, I’ve grown a lot since I soiled myself because of a mere dozen scouts. “I’ll get your pardon ready before I do anything, don’t worry.”

It’s your hide.” Ruth says, uncaring.

Grace is on the bridge and there is a single soldier guarding the cabin so we immediately head there. The woman standing in front of the door has one hand on her sword.

The Countess isn’t inside, hm, Dame Vil.” She says.

I don’t waste time trying to convince the soldier to let us pass and simply seize her by the collar. The woman mumbles something incoherent, hand frozen on her handle. I pick her up and set her down a single meter to the left.

There, there.” I say, smoothing her ruffled uniform. I lay my index on her lips as she seems about to sound the alarm. “Shh. S’all good.”

Ruth chuckles at the distraught soldier and walks in the cabin, going straight for the furniture nailed to the walls, opening drawers and chests. Grace must’ve picked up on something because she leaves the helmsman alone and heads downstairs.

Try the table.” I tell her, walking in.

It’s locked.” She replies, unsheathing her sword.

Ruth forces her blade into the hinge and blows the drawer’s lock wide open. Grace steps inside just as she deposes three parchment rolls on the table.

What are you doing, pirate?!” The Countess exclaims.

We only taking a look, don’t get your panties all up in a bunch.” Ruth replies.

This is…” Grace turns to me.

Necessary if you want us out of your hair.” I interrupt her. “We need to settle on where we’re setting the anchor.”

I want you in a slipknot, hanging from the mast!” She shouts.

Oh, I think she likes you.” Ruth says, unrolling one of the maps. Grace tries to move to stop her but I block her way. “No, seriously.” Ruth adds, looking anything but. “I heard dying like that is really intense, like, you know…” The tall woman sensually waves her hips.

Please don’t.” I groan.

Grace’s cheeks alternate between pink and white, from embarrassment to anger. She seizes her weapon and starts drawing it. I bring my gauntleted left hand down on the pommel, forcing the blade back in its sheath.

The Countess explodes in furious expletives, all of them unfit for a Lady. I laugh, which along with Ruth’s casual remarks, is enough to throw Grace into a loop as she fights my grip on her sword.

She is taken so off-balance that Ruth has time to lay all three maps on the table and start reading them before the Countess recovers her bearings.

Thieves.” She spits out.

Got what we need?” I ask Ruth.

Yea, right there, take a look.” She points at a spot.

I let go of Grace’s weapon and join Ruth at the table. Her index is pointing at a curvature of the river. The Countess seizes the maps and pulls them away from under Ruth’s hand.

You better not have stained it.” She says.

Despite what she just said, she doesn’t check and starts rolling the maps back up. Apparently hiding what’s on it is more important to her than checking their state. I shrug and head out of the cabin with Ruth.

You found what I asked you to?” I ask her.

Yea.” She nods. “I didn’t really need to look at the other map. I have the streets and blocks memorized on a small radius but don’t get your hopes up, there weren’t many details on it and there is no way I got them all.”

It’s fine, I only need it to avoid getting lost and take notes.” I say. “Draw it on a cleaner rag if you don’t mind.”

It’ll cost extra!” Ruth exclaims.

I roll my eyes and take a gold coin out of my pouch, throwing it to her.

And no, I’m not up to playing dice.” I tell the woman before she can ask.

You’re no fun.” Ruth groans and heads off.

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