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Unquestionable Lilunu informs Keris that there will be passage arranged down the Malfean sewers when she needs to leave Hell, which will open up into a hidden undersea cavern after five days sailing. Or, rather, there will be when the proper arrangements actually get... ah, arranged. In the meantime, Keris has to arrange for provisioning - and of course, crew her ship. This is a problem, because she also needs to deliver the owlrider project to Testolagh. And by now, Keris is very much in favour of getting back to the southwest as fast as humanly possible.

She spends half a day in her townhouse’s study, writing, cursing and holding impassioned and entirely silent debates with the walls, floor and ceiling. When she comes out, it’s with a long list for Mehuni. It’s split half and half between supplies - everything Keris can think of - and a set of requirements.

He is, she explains, to inquire among the more powerful serfs and citizens of the First Circle - especially sublimati - for crew members willing to sail with her into Creation - two factors that she suspects will dissuade all but the bravest of demons. Needless to say, only the very best applicants are to be considered.

Rather cunningly - at least in Keris’s opinion - she’s drawn up a rough list of questions regarding what her prospective lieutenants think is necessary to prepare for such a mission, which serves the dual purposes of weeding out those who don’t know their stuff, and also filling in anything she didn’t think of.

Keris herself, she explains, will be travelling as rapidly as possible to the northeast and back, to deliver the agreed-on owlrider doses to Testolagh and see what it is he wants. She’ll be back in ten or eleven days, by which time the ship should be more or less fully stocked and the list of hopefuls should be winnowed down to a number she can interview.

((keris is much clever, very cunning))
((compensates for lack of knowledge in supplies by comparing suggestions from applicant captains~))
((Roll his Persuasion + Politics + Keris’ Infamy + ExD + 2 dice stunt = 10 + 3 Infamy dice.))
((13 dice; 9 sux, fuck yeah.))
((So yeah, when Keris gets back, it’ll basically all have gone swimmingly and - indeed, better than expected.))

Mehruni bows sinuously to Keris. “Your will be done, my lady,” he says, voice oily. “I have arranged for ten days of supplies for your return to Creation, as you wish. Shall you be taking your latest foundling with you? The one you have modified? Or should I assign her to a room in your townhouse?”

Keris nods, walking her fingers across the air. She’ll be taking Kuha, yes. She needs to use her as a showcase to Testolagh for how brilliant her modifications are, so that he’s satisfied with the end result and will agree on payment.

She purses her lips for a moment, holds up three fingers and launches into a rapid series of gestures and expressions. Her three little Nexan children will be coming with her when she returns to the southwest, she decides. At least for a while, to see if they like it better there than in Malfeas, where they’ve spent the last year. Now that she has her ship, they can stay in one of the guest suites until they make a decision one way or another.

It won’t hurt to have some more loyal humans around, either. Even if they’ll be obviously foreign, they can do things in An Teng that demons can’t.

“As you wish, my lady. I expected that you would take her with you, and took the liberty of preparing some proper clothes for her. They are with the food and baggage. I had the servants do the best with her size, but she may require some tailoring,” the shadow-man says.

Keris beams, and gives him an enthusiastic thumbs up. Nobody can hope to beat Mehuni in adjutanting. He is simply the best there is. The clothes he considers proper are a mix of all-covering silks and thick, metal-lined demon-leathers. He even provided her with thick glass goggles. Kuha seems quite overwhelmed with the clothes which aren’t anything like she’s used to.

Rather than run across the Desert with Kuha in her hair, Keris opts to ride this time. Not only does it make Kuha happy - now that she’s stronger, she’s able to stand up to five days of riding in a way that she probably wouldn’t have been beforehand - it also gives her anyaglo a chance to really cut loose and run to her heart’s content; a fact she’s delighted about.

Which Keris knows because, uh. Apparently her favourite steed can talk now. Well, sort of. Keris has suspicions that her ribbon-horse has been associating with Rounen or Paricehet or both, because while the pink-and-white demon is still largely silent except for the occasional wind-whistle whinney, she’s learned how to shape some of her ribbons into writing. Her name, apparently, is Cissidy.

It’s halfway through blaming Echo for this new development that Keris remembers she never got round to having that talk with Dulmea and the rest of her souls. Well, at least that will give her something to do on the five-day ride. Hopefully without a freaky pregnancy-causing dream this time.

Keris looks down at her notably bulging belly with a sigh. If she wore real clothes rather than just generating them from her amulet through the power of... however it works, she wouldn’t be able to fit into her dresses any more.

It’s not fair. Sasi had a normal pregnancy, slowly getting bigger and bigger. Keris pales. If she’s already this big after a month or so, how big will she be by month 14? She might only be able to roll!

There’s the sound of silent, mocking and sort of mean laughter in her head. Somehow. Echo still hasn’t forgiven her, or rather has remembered to stay angry at her. Keris can almost hear her eldest daughter making mocking depictions of a fat and round Keris rolling around.

Mounting up with a sigh, she points them in the right direction and lets Kuha take over before sinking into meditation. It’s been a month - she’s honestly kind of surprised Echo is still mad, given that - and she has quite a few long-overdue apologies to make.

She starts with Dulmea, fading into being in her mother’s harp-tower and realising with a frown that her mental avatar has bags under its eyes that aren’t there on her physical body. Eeesh. Has she mentally tired herself out that much?

... yes, she concludes almost immediately. Yes, she has. Bleagh. And on top of that, she still can’t talk. At least she has humming back down, and can almost-but-not-quite force coherent words out in a whisper.

Echo is waiting for her, ribbon hands on her ribbon hips. She’s glaring.

Keris frowns. Echo is... actually starting to get hips, she thinks. And maybe even a hint of breast under her ribbon dress. That’s... well, it’s hard to tell Echo’s age, but she’s certainly grown yet again. Keris winces. Her daughter is her height now, and might be... twelve or thirteen? Keris didn’t start to show until she was older, but she was a starving street rat. Echo doesn’t seem to complain about being hungry, certainly.

Wow. Spending an entire month focused on one thing, just being angry at Keris seems to have made her grow up some more. That’s... well, that’s a thing. Maybe the fact that she’s also being a big sister to Calesco is also influencing matters.

Regardless, Echo being here is... not exactly what Keris had planned. She’d wanted to make things up to Dulmea first, and then... well, and then get her help in calming Echo down.

Unfortunately, it looks like Echo anticipated this strategy and made sure to be here so she couldn’t use it. Sometimes, Keris reflects, it is very annoying how Echo is so smart. Especially when the girl with an attention span of about five minutes predicts your long-term plans before you’ve finished making them.

Keris puts her hands together in prayer position, and ducks her head. She’s sorry, she indicates. She’s sorry for letting Adorjan hurt her. But now that she has her ship, she points out, she won’t need to spend as much time in Malfeas! She can try to stick to Creation, where she’ll be safer.

And it’s such a cool ship! In this, at least, Keris has something on her side. Echo is her joy and her glee - and Keris is very, very happy about her new ship. Echo may still be angry, but Keris is pretty sure that the spirits of everyone in her Domain are on the rise compared to a week ago, now that she’s seen what the refitted yacht has to offer.

She’s thought of the perfect name for it, too. But that will have to wait until she gets back.

Echo silently harrumphs, and turns her back on her with a flick of her hair. She occasionally looks back at Keris to glare at her again. Also, to flick her hair again. It would appear that she does not consider that good enough.

Hanging her head, Keris holds her hands out, palms spread. Is there maybe something she can do to make up for it, she asks hopefully? She’s very sorry about what happened, but she’s not as clever as Echo, so sometimes she messes up and doesn’t know how to fix it. She looks up through her lashes with a sad expression, meeting Echo’s glare for a moment before another hair flick.

Echo pulls a face, while also trying to glare. She can tell Keris is trying to manipulate her. She’s not stupid! And what Keris needs to be is to not be so super-stupid again! Also, Echo adds consideringly, owe her a super-major favour or seventeen.

Keris pauses. Okay, she concedes with a tilt of her head. That was a bit obvious. And she really is going to try not to have that happen again. If she’d known it was going to happen in the first place, she’d have avoided it. A lot. These favours, on the other hand...

She narrows her eyes and considers. Three big outside-in-the-world favours, she decides. And Echo is only allowed to use one of them on “telling Keris to use the ship’s silent windstorm on something while she’s attuned to it”. And Keris gets to veto them if they would destroy something important, like an island, or a ship full of treasure, or something Sasi wants intact.

She considers this much-reduced list for a moment, and then grudgingly concedes that raksha ships are fair game, even if she would prefer to capture them and sell them to Ligier. She’d also, she adds with a frown and a raised eyebrow, quite like to know what that knife does.

((... wait, if Keris is attuned to the ship when it uses the windstorm... does that mean Echo can dart around in the trail?))
((... well, Echo is certainly willing to find out.))

Echo pulls a face. She’s not stupid! She’s not going to waste the fact that Keris ~owes~ her. She smiles, and spins, suddenly a lot more cheerful.

... Keris gets the sneaking suspicion that Echo may have been angry at her just to extract the favour.

Echo pulls out the knife, and plays with it. It’s a very special knife! It’s super-cutty! And it lets her get through doors. All kinds of doors. Even special ones like Haneyl’s one!

Keris groans and drops her head into her hands. She should have seen this coming. And Echo, she points exasperatedly. No cutting your way into Haneyl’s... palace?

Hold on a moment. She tilts an ear to the... well, it’s not a noise that the knife is making as it slices back and forth, because it’s completely quiet. But there’s a sort of ephemeral hiss as it cuts the air apart.

Keris blinks. Just like Calesco’s sash, it’s part of Echo now. She can hear it. And it’s... it’s a knife that slices things open. Like people. And sealed openings. When Echo says ‘Haneyl’s door’, she signs with vague dread...

Echo nods happily, spreading her arms like the big tree Haneyl has been hiding in lately. Dropping her motions to a whisper - which makes even less sense when Keris repeats it in her head than it did thinking it the first time - she leans closer and informs Keris behind a cupped hand that Haneyl gets really stroppy when she gets unexpected visitors coming round for tea. Honestly! What with all the fuss she put on when she came around to Calesco’s cave for a tea party, you’d think she’d be more polite about it when she was the host!

Keris quietly sinks down and begins to lightly beat her head against the table. So Echo can now get into Haneyl’s tree. And probably the moon, and possibly even her vaults and anything Dulmea has sealed. Oh, this is going to do wonders for her inter-soul fighting.

Echo points out that Haneyl can go anywhere she wants in the Ruin. It’s just fair. The head-thudding stops, and Echo grins happily as she hears Keris try to conceal a snort of laughter. Once she has her face under control, she looks up and concedes the point with spread hands and twitching lips.

On another note, she asks, since apparently Echo is a devious little thing who made sure to be here before Keris could find Dulmea, does she perhaps know where her coadjutor is? Keris has some more apologising to do.

Echo scuffs her feet. It’s hard to find Dulmea since she became music, she indicates disappointedly. Normally she has to kill chell until Dulmea gets angry and shows up, and that annoys her. It doesn’t help matters at all, she advises Keris. Not at all.

Echo twirls, as a thought strikes her. Does mama like how her body changed again?

Keris opens her mouth, and then closes it again. And then opens it again.

She’s... still mostly happy about why it changed, and Echo was very clever for pointing that out, she prevaricates. But the being big and round is... uh... well, it’s already kind of annoying, to be honest. And is probably going to get more so. Sasi seemed to be annoyed by it, and Keris is going to have to be like this for even longer.

She sighs morosely. If only she had a way to speed things up so that she didn’t have to be pregnant for as long. Thirteen more months like this! Argh.

Echo pulls a pouty face. She wants to know why mama is so self-centred? Because she is! Echo is gesturing about herself! She’s as tall as mama now! And her special dress is getting tight!

Blushing a little, Keris ducks her head apologetically. Yes, she agrees. Echo has grown. And might want to think about getting her dress adjusted - though an idea occurs to her in mid-gesture that makes her eyes light up and then go misty for a moment.

... would, she says with a slow twirl of a finger, would Echo maybe think about giving up a few of her ribbons for a special project, at some point when she’s a bit bigger and isn’t in the middle of a growth spurt? Because... well, she grins, Echo knows about mama’s armour, yes? And it’s very pretty, isn’t it?

Echo gives a cautious nod. Mama’s armour is very shiny and glittery, she agrees. That much is true.

Well, Keris says with a tap to her lips, she knows quite a lot about alloying metal and vitriol. So if she were to get some thin, springy metal and cut it into thin strips, and then soak it in a solution of vitriol that some of Echo’s own ribbons had been infused in... that might well be a way to make metal ribbon armour.

((... okay now I really want to see that. I’mma make this at some point. It has gone on my list.))

Echo jigs happily. That sounds wonderful, she indicates. She stretches and mock-yawns. Now she doesn’t need to keep on staying angry at mama. It’s really hard work being angry, she gestures loudly.

Keris smiles in relief. It’s hard work having Echo be angry at her, she gestures back. And now that she’s not, Keris needs to go and make things up with her other souls who are angry at her. Echo, she suggests, might want to go and consider ideas for her three favours.

This does leave her with the problem of how to find her other souls. Dulmea is music, Haneyl is likely hiding in her tree, and Rathan... well, Keris would assume that he was in his moon. If not for the fact that the moon is not in the sky.

... Dulmea first, then. Happily, Keris has more tools at her disposal than “murder chell until one of them objects”. Hopping down to the base of the Tower, she stretches her fingers out and begins to play.

She only has to play for a while before the chell have gathered around them. And then like that, one of them is Dulmea sitting to her right. And another Dulmea, sitting to her left.

“Keris,” one of them says.

Keris brings her tune to a halt and bows. Mama, she replies.

Dulmea sighs. “An entire month without you doing some... some damn fool thing like seeking out the Silent Wind again,” she says acidly. “Are you wanting some prize?”

A mute headshake. Wrapping her hands together tightly, Keris promises that she didn’t seek out Adorjan this time. Either time! And now that the Silent Wind is coming to her, she swears she’ll be more careful, and... and try to avoid Hell as much as she can so as not to draw Her attention. She hums a few hopeful bars, chewing on her lip.

One soft hair tickles Keris throat. “Your voice is recovering,” Dulmea says, more gently and less tartly. “I worry about it. You’ve already lost it once already, and the Weaver of Voices is much less... dangerous than the Silent Wind. But what if the damage scars?”

Keris nods. She’s been thinking about that, she reveals. A little bit, at least, in between bouts of vitriol-work. And she’s pretty sure that it won’t be disaster if it does. A hair tendril waves as she tries to communicate her point. The scars on her face, she signs; they were the Silent Wind directly. Her own avatar - something Keris is going to take great pains to avoid ever happening again, if possible.

But this time it was action through Lilunu - and hasn’t Dulmea noticed? Keris isn’t Yozi-sick from it. She was mad from the dream, yes - but the Silent Wind cutting out her tongue herself? Nothing. It’s because, she theorises, She was acting through Lilunu - her glory sort of got filtered down. Which means the scars are much less likely to contain as much of her power as the previous ones.

Also, Keris adds, her expression turning sly. Haneyl can help her graft features from one person onto another - and remember what she has frozen in sleep, up in the tower? She giggles as Dulmea’s eyes widen in realisation, and bounces happily. That’s right! A Gale of her own - from before losing her voice. In fact, she knows for a fact that the Gale has a voice, because she was screaming when she was made! So if her voice and tongue don’t fully come back on their own, Keris can just take the ones from her Gale, wait for them to be fully tied into her body, and then dismiss the Gale without waking it. At most, she might have a faint scar around the base of her tongue where the stub ended - and possibly not even that!

Dulmea sighs, fingers plucking out music from the air. She’s changed so much from when Keris first met her. They both have. “I hate to be useless,” Dulmea admits. “I can’t keep you safe from yourself. No one can stop the Silent Wind - only distract her. Echo was frantic. She’s been furious at you, I think at least because she thought you were being stupid. She was raging to me in private about how you should have tried to drive the possessed-Lilunu off with noise.”

Keris holds up a finger with a doubtful expression. They were, she points out, somewhere Adorjan already found noisy. She was complaining about it. And while She doesn’t like noise, are either of them absolutely sure She would have left? Or would She just have tried even harder to do what She came to do so that She could leave again - and possibly also tried to make sure Keris couldn’t ever drive Her off with noise again?

That said, she adds with a nod, she does understand what Dulmea means by wanting to help more. While it’s not something she’s tried yet because she hasn’t wanted to risk it... would it maybe be okay if Keris tried summoning one of her bodies, once they were on the ship and could spare the time?

“If you think it would work,” Dulmea says, sighing again. Her eyes look down to Keris’ midriff, and to her own strangely bloated one. “I wonder how this will be for you. You have grown big swiftly.”

Pouting, Keris folds her arms sulkily. If Dulmea had ever said how annoying it is being like this, she’d have tried to help more! Her balance is totally off! She tried to do a Snake Style kata when she was writing up her lists, and she fell over! It gets in the way when she’s sitting down! And she’s pretty sure she’s slower than before! Her lip trembles with a sudden wave of depression and feeling all slow and fat and not pretty at all.

“I still don’t understand how this happened,” Dulmea said bluntly. “It’s not even like you lay with a man. Or a woman.”

Keris’s eyes widen guiltily, and she quietly begins to shift herself away with her toes. Well yes, she indicates, that’s a very good question that is probably a mystery that will never be solved, and in fact it’s probably one of the secrets that the Great Mother guards in her fathomless depths because the pregnancy is one of Her gifts and so there’s probably no point in even thinking about it very hard really.

Dulmea glares at her. Hard.

... it’s very unfair. Keris suspects that Echo, Calesco and Haneyl have all been watching and learning from Dulmea’s glares. So cruel to have your mother and your daughters working together against you!

Well, okay, she admits under scrutiny. It is hypothetically possible in the most unprovable way ever that just maybe at some point during that five-day long period where she was floating outside the Domain somewhere on her last trip across Cecelyne, she... might have dreamed of Rat? And Yamal? At the same time? And, well... things happened. And then Things happened. Also there was a fight, she recalls thoughtfully. And she’s pretty sure Yamal was a really good martial artist for an old guy. Except it wasn’t really Rat and Yamal. Apart from how it’s their babies that she now has growing inside her.

It was a confusing dream, she concludes with a nod. But it is probably why she’s more powerful now than she was before, so there’s that.

Dulmea purses her lips. Several Dulmeas purse their lips. “They’re not Adorjan’s?” she says bluntly. It seems she’s willing to accept dream pregnancies as long as Keris doesn’t have a thing of the Silent Wind growing inside her.

Keris shakes her head. She tasted them, she motions. More than Haneyl did; she tasted them directly. One of them... one of them is a little girl of Yamal’s who seems to somehow blend Sun and Hell and Fire, and the other is a little boy of Rat’s who’s Death and Hell and Moon.

How exactly they’re managing to mingle Hellish essence in a Kimberian womb with - variously - Solar, Lunar, Fire and Necrotic essence, Keris gestures, she has absolutely no fucking idea. Because everything she knows about both healthy Yozi metabiology and about Kimbery in particular says that they should not be able to do that.

She checks again. They appear to be doing it anyway. Keris radiates bewilderment from every line of her body, and shrugs. Dulmea shakes her heads. “I don’t understand it,” she says plaintively. “But... you want this?”

She thinks about that for a while. Yes, she eventually nods. Well, not so much the process, because she’s faaaaaat. But the children, yes. Rat... she still misses Rat, wistfully and with an old and familiar pain. The guilt and shame is mostly faded, but it still hurts. And her memories of Yamal paint him as a good man; someone who cared about little people and wasn’t one of the monstrous veterans of the Primordial War and had been cut down by treachery by someone he loved.

Having their children; a little boy and girl who she can love and raise and protect and teach, who can make the world better in their stead and be there for her to care for and to love her back... it will be closure, and an expansion of her family, and... yes. She wants this.

“Then I only hope it leads to you becoming more responsible, like how I learned so much when I trained my first pupil,” Dulmea says, eyes momentarily misty. “She died, of course, but she did not fail - sheer bad luck meant that the entire area she was in, along with her target, were melted when the Demon Sea flooded the region.”

What was her name, Keris asks sadly, wrapping a curl of hair around Dulmea’s and giving it a comforting squeeze.

“She hadn’t earned one yet,” Dulmea said, sadly. “If the Sea had not come in, she would have received one after her first successful contract for the house. She was merely ‘Student’ to me. That is our way.”

Nodding sadly, Keris draws that Dulmea into a hug. Is she training students here, she asks quizzically? Besides the children in things like music and tea ceremony, obviously.

Dulmea smiles quietly. “I’m training the children in more than that,” she says. “You wanted me to be your mother-teacher. I will arm your souls with my knowledge - and I am an assassin. Haneyl is a prodigy at moving unseen. Echo is fast and agile. Rathan is skilled at seeming harmless. I have not begun Calesco’s training yet, but I shall. In the end, I will be disappointed in them if they are not fully the equal of any house angyalka.”

That gets a grin. They’ll have to have a demonstration!, Keris bounces eagerly. Or a competition! Yes, with... with some sort of dummy, maybe, so that Calesco won’t get upset, and they each have one and they’re timed on it... she giggles. This could be fun. She’ll have to remember the idea.

... speaking of Rathan, she adds. She has noticed there is something slightly different about her Domain. Namely the way that the moon is gone. She remembers something about Rathan taking it underwater, but... firstly where, and secondly why, and thirdly it’s still down there?

When did he ever learn to do that, anyway? Could he always do that? It was a lot of work for her to put that moon up there the first time she was pregnant! She didn’t leave it in the sky just so it could get hidden underwater again!

Dulmea nods. “He took the moon and submerged it when the Silent Wind came,” she says. “He has not surfaced since. I did know he could control its height - and sometimes he took it low enough to touch the water, especially when he wanted to launch some of the ships he’s been playing with, but I did not know he could submerge it.” Dulmea sighs, and looks up at the dark sky. “It would be nice to have the moon back,” she says. “We’re having to use torches for light now, and that leaves everything rather green.”

Welp, Keris sighs, flipping to her feet. She’s made up with Echo, and... she thinks Dulmea is less mad at her now? If so, she should probably go get the moon back. And also comfort Haneyl and see about getting her voice back.

“That would be good, child,” Dulmea says, flickering and leaving only chell in her place. Slipping into the nearest canal, Keris heads out into the Sea and follows the sound of ice.

... there are quite a lot of ice sounds. Apparently Rathan has been busy. She heads for the largest mass she can hear; deep and red and radiant. In fact, she realises as she approaches it, they aren’t just ice sounds. There’s vein-like strands of ice down here, wrapping hollow icebergs. Those veins... they’re tubes.

... Rathan has built a city down here, made of ice. Underwater ice. That isn’t floating. And which is already starting to be armoured in coral. Fascinated, Keris swims closer, listening to the sounds of this underwater fortress-city.

There’s quite a few things down here. Keris can hear lots of wave-cherubs. But there are other, larger, more ponderous ice things down there. Swimming quietly over to one of them, she listens carefully and prods it with a hair tendril as it moves past her. They’re not like Rathan’s normal pretty things. There’s something of the scary form of his horsies about them, but unlike the horsies they’re not hiding what they are. It turns ponderously to face her, and makes a whale-like noise, then turns back to whatever it’s doing.

Keris notices that there’s a bunch of wave-cherubs watching the big scary thing. One of them waves happily at Keris, in a way which she’s pretty sure suggests it used to be a szelkerub. It’s too insolent to be anything else. Jetting over to them, she waggles her hair around and motions that she’s looking for Rathan. The probably-an-ex-szelkerub waves its hands at her, gesturing her in towards one of the ice pipes. It lets Keris in, squirming through the ice.

Keris... thinks it’s a boy wave-cherub? Maybe?

“What do you want?” it asks Keris. It’s sounding a bit rude. And probably male, from the sound of its voice.

To see Rathan, Keris gestures again. She needs to apologise to him and hug him a lot and spend some time asking about what he’s been doing and why there’s a city down here all of a sudden. And perhaps most importantly of all, to get his opinion on their new ship, and ask him if he has any ideas about what she should do with it.

The wave-cherub perks up. “This way!” he says cheerfully, feet flapping against the icy floor. He leads Keris down through the tunnels, happily babbling about how Rathan is building a super-amazing army and how they’re going to kill the wicked mean scary wind who hurts people. “For justice!” is their big motivation.

Keris chooses not to fill them in on the problems with this plan. It’s not like they’re going to get the chance, so it’s... probably kinder to just leave them to it. She does make a mental note about that “justice” thing, though. She suspects she can guess why Rathan’s three friends at Calesco’s tea party were glaring at her.

Eventually the tubes connect up to the source of the red glow. Keris finds her way through into Rathan’s now-submerged moon, which is really now a secret underwater base filled with wave-cherubs running around the place with weapons made of pearl and ice, enthusiastically play-fighting and occasionally real fighting, too.

And there are a few more things which... um, Keris suspects are going to make trouble. She can hear other breeds of her demon down here. A lot of them aren’t Rathan’s breeds. Rathan appears to have been stealing his sisters’ demons and... well, hopefully he’s just been studying them. Hopefully.

She comes into the grand central chamber. Rathan is sprawled on a big comfy chair, surrounded by wave-cherubs sitting on cushions around him. One of them has a blackboard up in front of him, and is expositing how they could made a giant horsie made of ice and then cover it in spikes and that would mean any wind that blew against the ice would cut itself.

Jogging over, Keris waves happily at Rathan and beckons him in for a hug. She’s quite resoundingly tackled and clung to by Rathan, who breaks into very nearly literal floods of tears and thus gets Keris’ dress very wet indeed. Keris cuddles back, humming sympathetically and stroking him until the crying starts to peter out. The words “you were hurt” and “so scary” and “don’t wanna ever go back to Hell again you should stay in the real world all the time,” are heard amidst his babbling.

Once he pulls back slightly from burying his face in her hair and shoulder, Keris motions that he’s right, and that she’s going to try to avoid Hell in the future. And she can afford to do that, because now she has her wonderful ship that she can sail around the southwest!

That just sets him off into fresh tears, where the words “Talk properly!” and “Don’t be Echo! No!” are insistently demanded while he beats on her chest with his fists. Some more humming calms him down a little, and Keris hastily promises that she’s going to get her voice back as soon as she can find Haneyl. She cuddles him closer, rocking him back and forth, and kisses him on both cheeks, and apologises for scaring him so much. The wave-cherubs, she notices, have retreated and given them some privacy.

Rathan is reduced to a shivering wreck, clinging to his mother. “I was so scared,” he whispers to her. “She’s scary. And mean. G-girls are scary when they’re like that. It’s like Echo. But worse.”

Keris nods and listens, combing his hair gently with her own. Lots of his cherub-friends are boys, she prompts. Does he like them better?

“None of them are as nasty as Echo. Or as mean as Calesco. Or as horrible as Haneyl,” Rathan complains. “But none of my friends are as horrid as my sisters. Even the ones who are girls.” He sniffs piteously. “Haneyl and Echo and Calesco bully me all the time,” he says pathetically.

This earns him a sad look, but Keris doesn’t argue. She holds him, and lets him vent and complain about his siblings to his heart’s content - or at least until he starts repeating himself. Then she kisses him on the forehead again and cocks her head. Why is his moon all the way down here, she asks? Dulmea says it’s all dark up above, and they’ve having to make do with green torches instead of his gorgeous red light.

He tries to put on a brave face, but he’s shivering again. “I... I didn’t want the scary wind to find me,” he says. “And then I realised! I just need an army! So I can beat her! And we can all be safe from her being scary!”

Does Rathan know the secret weakness of the scary wind, Keris asks? She doesn’t like noise. In fact, she hates noise! She hates it so much she almost never goes near it, because it hurts her ears. That’s why Hell is so noisy - to keep her away all the time. So if Rathan played pretty music from his moon, it would definitely be safe in the sky again - especially since he’s in mama’s soul, and Keris promises to protect him.

“But Echo doesn’t go away when you play music,” Rathan complains. “Or Calesco. And Haneyl is very shouty!”

That’s true, Keris agrees. But Echo can’t run on nothing, and unlike her sisters she doesn’t ride very much. What would happen if Rathan made a waterfall stop while she was running up it to try and get into his moon?

After a brief pause for thought, Rathan appears to like this idea a great deal. Keris grins. And, she adds, speaking of moons. How much does he think Ululaya likes the Lintha - or at least considers them hers? She flexes her fingers and winks at him. How long will she keep thinking that, now that Keris has her ship?

Rathan smiles widely and sweetly. “We can take everything she has in the proper world and she can’t do a thing,” he sing-songs. “Because she’s stupid and ugly and steals attention and she tried to trick you into loving her. So she needs to pay.”

Keris nods smugly. Though, she adds, they should try to be careful about it. It’ll be best if she doesn’t even know who took them - because if she realises it was Keris, she might move on Keris’s things in Hell, which would be bad.

Also, not knowing who to blame will make her even angrier. Which will be hilarious.

Rathan twirls a finger in his gorgeous red locks. He really is a very very pretty little boy. Only Calesco can compare to him in looks. Keris wonders if his... his brother... will be as pretty as him. “Do you like my new ice place?” he asks. “I made it all around my moon, but if I move the moon back out I’ll break it and it’ll probably all break apart. And then the ice will try to come to my moon because it loves me, so it’ll all float to the surface.”

It is a pretty ice city, Keris agrees. It would be a shame to break it up, but also a shame to not have the moon lighting up the sky.

Rathan twirls his hair in hers, and hugs her closer. “Maybe I’ll make them into icebergs,” he says. He seems worn out from his crying, or maybe just wanting to sleep in Keris’ arms. “I could make them come up and I’d... I’d give them to my favourite friends and they could each have their own little ice city and they’d all be able to look up at me above them. Wouldn’t that be pretty? And I’d have pretty ice cities to look down at. All floating on the waves, with nice towers. Much better than Haneyl’s stupid tree-castle. She’s starting to build more castles on the shore, did you know that? And... and it’d be much better than Echo’s towns. They’re all messy! People just build things wherever!”

Keris nods encouragingly. Maybe he could have them make a pattern from above! Or have some of them move between others!

“And then we could make our own icebergs out in the ocean!” he says, and then pouts. “But wait. It’d be too hot. Mama! You need to go more north!”

She grimaces. North means bumping into the mean Realm though. Oh! But she could grow coral atolls instead! And maybe little floating coral islands built out from ships!

“Coral is... okay, I guess,” Rathan says, hugging her closer to express his disappointment.

Keris holds him for a while longer and then tickles him, sparking a brief but fierce tickle war whose bouts of shrieking laughter end with Rathan sitting victoriously atop his defeated mother. Vanquished, she admits his victory and begs for mercy.

“You’re getting fat,” he says with the charming bluntness of a small child sitting on top of his pregnant mother.

She is, Keris nods. She has a little boy and girl growing inside her - and the boy is his little brother. She taps Rathan playfully on the nose. When he’s born, he’ll probably look up to Rathan a lot, she predicts. So he’ll have to be a smart responsible protective big brother and make sure his little brother knows what he needs to know.

“Good,” Rathan says solidly. “I need more brothers! Mama! You’re banned from having more girls! You need more boys!”

Keris laughs. She’ll try to have boys from now on, then, she agrees. Well, one of the twins in her belly now is a girl, but she’ll try to have boy souls.

“You better!” Rathan says, accusingly. And then he brightens up. Literally. He’s glowing a faint red. “Do you want to see a moonrise, mama?” he asks slyly. Arching an eyebrow, Keris stands and nods. Rathan squirms loose from her grip, and stands there, proudly. He calls his friends in, and makes sure that everyone is looking at him.

And then the entire moon lurches upwards. Ice breaks and ruptures. Everything moans and groans and shakes. Snap. Snap. Snap. One by one, the veins break and the icy heart bobs upwards, glowing brighter and brighter.

And then the water over the top of the icy walls is gone and through them Keris can see her heart’s domain spread out underneath her. She can see the scattered green glow of the swamp, and the storms of the Ruin and the darkness of Calesco’s lands and all around her, the stormwall. And in the centre, the brightest lights of the City.

Keris might not be up to speaking just yet, but the sight draws a long, impressed whistle from her. A moonrise from the inside... that’s something else. She runs a hand through Rathan’s hair in sincere amazement at this bright, brilliant little boy who’s of her and a part of her and a child of hers.

“Is it pretty, mama?” he begs.

She nods. It’s more than just pretty, it’s gorgeous. Much like he is, she adds, coming back to herself somewhat with a smile. That wins her a big hug around her waist. Rathan is utterly charming when he wants to be. Keris sighs, mournfully. He takes after his father there. And not the Rat of her dream, not the Dead Rat. No, the utterly shameless, conniving street rat who’d been her friend, the only person she could rely on - and yes, her first love. Kissing him on the forehead, she taps her throat. She needs to go get her voice back, she motions, and promises to look around the engine room of her ship for him when she gets back to it next.

Finding Haneyl is an even more daunting task than finding Dulmea. While Keris never quite got the full story on whatever “commotion” went on in the Marsh while she was working, a brief look from up high shows that the fog there has been blown back a lot more than in the other Directions, opening up more mist-shrouded lands for habitation - and hiding, if her Seventh Soul is in no mood to be found.

However, she has a secret trump card from Echo. Instead of looking through the Marsh itself, Keris makes a beeline down to the City and roof-hops her way over to Haneyl’s tree. The fireflowers on the branches are brighter than normal, which is an encouraging sign. The fruit...

... the fruit has diversified quite a lot since Keris last examined it. The ripe apple-fig things now have a range of faces - most Tengese, but some that Keris recognises as Lintha, and several demonic visages as well. Clearing her throat and preparing herself for what might well be another tricky conversation, Keris knocks politely on the truck.

Slowly, and with a hint of reluctance the grey wood of the trunk creaks open, opening a split into a hidden place. Keris carefully steps inside.

It... huh. She doesn’t think she’s ever gone inside this place before. Haneyl has clearly been busy. It’s... well, it’s positively luxurious here. A little bit of Keris swells with pride at the way that Haneyl has made her private hidden place so pretty. There are elegant silk tapestries on the wall. There’s the smell of fresh bread in the air. And so much gold and fancy decoration and...

... and other things that look like items that Keris stole and she thought the snake had its hands on. Its... its claws? Whatever it has.

Oh.

Keris’ mood is complex by the time she arrives in the inner sanctum, to find Haneyl, her beloved Elly and - surprisingly - Calesco sat around a low table, wrapped up in blankets and having tea and one of Haneyl’s experimental cuisine items. In this case, it’s strange little red cakes with sliced up leaves decorating the icing.

“Oh, hello Keris,” Haneyl says. She’s sounding... well, not entirely pleased to see her, but not actively angry. “Would you care for some tea?”

Keris nods, shifting gears into formal mode. It’s interesting, she thinks, how her souls all like different approaches. It’s best to be playful with Echo, while Rathan prefers a more informal and tactile approach. Calesco wants blunt honesty, and Haneyl... Haneyl likes her formalities and her rituals.

Bowing slightly, Keris thanks Princess Haneyl politely for hosting her and agrees that tea would be lovely. Sitting down at the table, she waits for her daughter to give her a cup and a plate before taking an experimental sip and nibble.

“I see you’ve finally shown up, mother,” Calesco says, her cup of tea held in her shadow hair. She’s wearing her red veil, and is has what looks like a thin twig in the drink, which is what she’s using to drink it without raising her veil.

“Be polite,” Haneyl chides her. Keris inspects her. She’s grown up a little bit, but she’s still noticeably younger than Calesco in appearance. It’s probably not a good idea to mention how much Echo has grown up, or it’ll just start a fight. Keris sighs inwardly. Just looking at Haneyl makes her miss Sasi when she’s in this mood, just like looking at Rathan brings Rat to mind. But even worse, because Haneyl looks more like Sasi in terms of colouration than Rathan does Rat.

Keris nods in response to Calesco’s greeting. She’s sorry for being away for so long - the owlrider doses took longer to brew than she was expecting, and needed a lot of attention. And she wanted to apologise to everyone before asking for Haneyl’s help in getting her voice back, since asking for a favour before apologising would be rude.

And on that note, she bows deeply to Haneyl. She’s very sorry for scaring everyone, she reiterates. Now that she has her ship, she’s intending to stay in Creation as much as possible so that something scary like that doesn’t happen again.

... and... speaking of things that people now have, she adds, she’s... pretty sure that some of the things in here were out in the fog wall last time she checked?

Calesco and Haneyl have identically smug expressions. They’ve never quite looked like sisters so much as they do now.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Haneyl says, voice dripping with amusement. “You’re not very good at getting things from the snake. Surely neither of us could be better than you.”

... they’re kidding, Keris thinks flatly as she stares at them. They have to be. She couldn’t get that thing to relinquish its stuff! And neither Haneyl or Calesco are even fighters! Granted, they’re both sneaky, but... there’s loads of stuff here! No way would it not have noticed a theft on this scale!

Haneyl just sits there, looking smug. She’s clearly waiting for Keris to ask her how she did it.

... okay, Keris eventually relents. How did she do it? Seriously, how? Does the snake have some sort of secret weakness? Or did she bribe it with food?

She takes another contemplative nibble of the red cakes. She could... almost believe the food thing, to be honest. She’d probably trade at least one of the First Age bath thingies for a plate of Haneyl’s best efforts.

With an amused flick of her head, Haneyl grins widely. “Oh, something as little as this?” she asks. “Me, much smaller than you?”

“You’re gloating more than is tasteful,” Calesco mutters.

“I am not! Gloating is properly tasteful!” Haneyl snaps. She coughs, and settles down again. “Well, my dearest little sister Calesco came to me shortly after Echo most rudely cut her way into my place and then ranted a lot about you - you should punish her for saying mean things about you but mostly for being rude and cutting into my tree - but then Calesco came and she decided she wanted a bow and I realised that it was super unfair that Calesco and Echo had got presents and I hadn’t. So we came up with a nick to go pocket some’ve the stuff the snake has!”

Haneyl beams widely, apparently unaware that her accent has been slipping in her excitement from her usual High Realm to Keris’ own Nexan street vernacular.

A bow? Keris looks at Calesco in surprise for a moment. She... never really got the hang of archery, when she tried it shortly after joining the Reclamation. Especially since the bows in her townhouse are... well, not to put too fine a point on it, most of the longbows are at least a third again as tall as she is. And even the shortbows are...

... well, it was hard finding one that matches her draw length, is all she’s saying. And then it turned out that shooting an arrow was completely different from throwing rocks or knives like she’s used to. And she skinned the inside of her wrist on the string. And then gave up and sulked for a while and went back to spear practice.

She shakes herself out of the pout that accompanies these memories and turns back to Haneyl, more evaluatively. So. Not a fight over the goods. A con. A theft. That’s... clever, she admits. Attacking it head-on didn’t work, that’s for sure. But it always knows when its treasure is moved - even when Keris was finding that box of bath things for Lilunu, she had to be pretty quick on her feet to avoid it coming and taking them back after she laid a hand on them. How in the world did Haneyl fool it?

Haneyl looks smug. “We tricked it,” she crows. “Calesco distracted it when pretending to be me and then we stole fog-land and made it into proper land! And I stole everything in the new land and since it was in new land it was mine not the snake’s.” Haneyl pauses. “Oh, and I gave some to Calesco because she helped. And some of it was her idea.”

Distraction, and mass-stealing everything in the area so it didn’t sense them taking it away. That’s... that’s really clever, Keris admits. Well, it’s also somewhat worrying because, haha, wow is her po going to be annoyed about this. But clever, definitely. Okay, she admits. the pair of them win this one on inventiveness and effectiveness. She looks around. She likes what Haneyl has done with her home, too. It’s very pretty.

Her daughter preens. “Of course it is, mama,” Haneyl says happily. She harrumphs. “I wanted to give Calesco some nicer things, but she likes her dark sticky cave. I even wanted to give her pretty wall hangings and more things!”

“It suits me,” Calesco says.

“It doesn’t! You’re my sister and that means you should have nice things! Otherwise I look like you’re not as good a sister!”

Calesco smiles quietly. She seems to like that... that they’re getting on better than they were before.

Keris grins. She’s glad they’re not at each other’s throats anymore. And, she asks politely, if Haneyl is up to it... well, she’s not in Malfeas anymore. And while she’ll be going back, it’ll only be for a day or so. So it’s probably safe, now, to get her voice back. If, that is, Haneyl is willing to help her out with it?

... also, she adds, it would probably help to be able to talk to Testolagh. And send an Infallible Messenger to Sasi that has, uh, words in it. Though Calesco’s message to her was very helpful, Keris notes, even if she’s not... entirely exactly sure how she delivered it.

Haneyl bites her lip. “I haven’t done something like that before,” she says, frowning. “But since I’m the best, no doubt I can find out a way to do it properly!”

As it turns out, she is correct in this, though it necessitates a trip to the Tower and some rooting around in the sleeping Gale’s throat. Still, by the time the chill of the northeast welcomes them back to Creation, Keris is speaking once more. Which is useful, because she’s got a lot of talking with Testolagh to do.

“Kerishyra,” Kuha says, looking surprised. “It is cold here compared to your green town. Does my new me feel more cold?”

((Hmm. Actually, timelinewise? What month are we up to now?))
((It’s actually a fair way through Rising Earth now - the 19th. Keris is about two months pregnant. And, uh. Looks like she’s about six months pregnant by real-life standards.))
((This may confuse Testolagh somewhat.))

It’s nearly halfway through the year. Keris is very confused, actually. Where has the time gone? Temperatures are rising in Rising Earth, and she can see heavy clouds in the west. The entire forest smells of wet earth and damp soil and leaves. Most of the snow is gone, only traces remaining hidden under the deepest darkest woods.

“Huh.” Keris frowns, thinking it over. “I... hmm. I think it’s less that you feel the cold more, and more that you feel everything more. Those painkillers you were on when you were a twig-child left you pretty much numb.” She taps their steed on the back of the neck. “Cissidy? Take us down for a moment, would you? I need to send a pair of Infallible Messengers to work out where Testolagh is, and let Sasi know I’ll be home soon.”

The first ice-marlin flits off to Testolagh, and Keris marks the direction she hears it go. It’s a pretty short and simple message. “Testolagh, it’s Keris. The owlrider changes took longer than I thought they would, but I have them and Kuha back to show you. I’ll follow the Messenger in your direction to find you.”

((Reaction+Awareness=14. 6x2+4=16 sux.))

She hesitates a little before sending the second message, but... yeah, judging by the angle of the sun, she’s pretty sure it’s afternoon. And the message won’t reach An Teng for hours, so it’ll arrive after nightfall.

“Sasi,” she begins warmly, remembering how Sasi tends to treat her messages like letters. “Where has the time gone? It’s Rising Earth already and the snow is all but gone, even this far north. Lately things have been a rush, and since returning to Malfeas in Crowning Water it’s been one crisis after another. But I’ve managed to solve them all, one by one, and very soon now I’ll be back with you.”

She pauses, biting her lip thoughtfully. “There have been a few... things that have happened,” she admits, “of which the soul you met is only one. Her name is Calesco, and she and Haneyl have been getting along well, though they had a bit of a rough start. Just recently they managed to steal a number of treasures from the snake, the cunning little things.” Within herself, she hears Haneyl beaming smugly.

“I’m in the northeast for perhaps a day, delivering the results of the vitriol-alchemy you saw to Testolagh,” she continues. “But then it’s only a quick return to Hell to pick up the rest of my things, and I’ll be on my way to you. Lord Ligier has finished repairing the High Barge of An Teng for me, Sasi, and... oh, I can’t wait to show it to you. It’s amazing! Swift and gorgeous and beautiful!

“The rest of the new developments, I’ll explain to you once I’m back in the southwest,” she finishes. “I look forward to seeing you there; I’ve missed you terribly. Ten to twelve days, Sasi - then I’ll take you on a luxury cruise, if you can spare the time. I’ll see you soon.

“With love and looking forward, Keris.”

She lets it go with a longing look as it begins its long journey, then mounts up again and nudges Cissidy in the general direction of Testolagh. It’s not a long flight, especially with Kuha here to actually guide her. It seems that the owlriders have little rituals that help them navigate, and it makes things a lot easier.

The sky island has expanded since Keris was last here. Not only are there even more complex Malfean structures on it, but they also have lashed two smaller sky islands to it. And as she circles overhead, Keris can see that there seem to be demons tending strange crops on the top. From what she knows, that will make a big diffence food-wise. She’s rather smug to see that as well as the metal chains stapling them to the main island, there’s also a network of metallic Malfean vegetation and roots. That, she proudly recalls, was her idea. She urges Cissidy down to land, and reminds her to stay within Testolagh’s territory if she still wants a run, though it seems that five days of galloping to her heart’s content is enough to make even a ribbon-horse prefer to rest for a while.

Kuha in tow - and picking up multiple stares and whispers from the residents of the island, Keris heads in to meet with the man she’s here for.

Testolagh is here - and shirtless - working at a forge he’s set up. With his bare hands he lifts a crucible out of the flames and pours it into a clay mould, superheated bronze dripping over the edges. Around him, red-skinned heranhal demons work on hammering out iron weapons and loop together iron links for chainmail.

The sound is loud. Painfully loud. After venturing a couple of steps into the room three times before having to back out again wincing, Keris eventually resorts to plugging her ears as best she can and tossing a small scrap of metal at his head once he’s finished pouring the bronze. Testolagh turns, and frowns. “When did you get here?” he shouts, raising his voice over the already-racket. Keris winces again and beckons him out, doubling up on covering her ears with a layer of hair over her hands.

“When did you get here?” he says, once he’s taken out into one of the buildings away from the forging area. “Are you just back? And...” then he sees Kuha. “Oh? Who’s your compatriot?”

“Just back, yeah,” Keris says. “Urgh, my head. How do you work in that racket?” She shakes her head. “Never mind. I sent you a Messenger, didn’t you... oh.” Glancing back towards the forges, she rolls her eyes. “You probably didn’t hear it over the noise. Well, yes. I’m just back. And as for my companion...”

She smirks. “I promised you better health, no more fragile bones, quality of life and maybe even an improvement in flying. And not only did I manage every one, I even helped them with falling. Testolagh, I’d like to introduce you...”

She makes a dramatic bow, and gestures to Kuha with both hands and all her hair. “To Kuha. An owlrider, born anew.”

Testolagh opens his mouth. Testolagh closes his mouth. “That’s not Kuha,” he says.

“Oh. Yeah, that.” Keris rubs her temples, the smugness receding in the face of tiredness. “Yeah, there were... side effects. You know how child-like they looked? The process basically acts like...” she searches for a word. “... puberty, I guess. Which... sort of blended in a slightly unexpected way with the fact that I was... well, using my blood to bolster their healing.” She gestures at Kuha. “Which led to this. But... well, ask her yourself. It’s Kuha.”

There’s a faint pause as she finishes, in which her ears catch the murmuring of Kuha’s peronelle as it finishes its running translation. Keris winces a little and turns to the petite little owlrider. “Sorry, Kuha. I’ve been talking like you’re not here.” She squeezes her on the shoulder. “Do you want to explain your side of things? That might help.”

Kuha looks up at Testolagh, and begins a flicker-fast babble of the local language which Testolagh responds to her in. Keris winds up rather lost, but at the very least the fact that she speaks it properly and responds as she should seems to assuage some of his doubts. And he certainly seems interested as she pulls off her outer silken robes to show the fold-out wings and the way she’s moving with confidence and strength unlike the childlike owlriders.

“I see,” he says to Keris in Rivertongue, after that conversation. “So... she says you’ve made it so more owlriders will be born? If that is really true, that will be very useful and we might be able to get the tribes to properly accept them. She seems a bit confused - it will need a man, a woman and her?”

Keris nods. “It was a problem I wrestled with for a bit - even stronger, they’re too small to safely have children, and the pregnancy would make them unable to fly for months anyway, so they’d be rusty when they got back and... it wouldn’t be fair to anyone. But they’re physically female, so they can’t just sire one on someone else. So what I eventually came up with was a way for them to apply the changes to a baby when it’s conceived, and then have another woman carry it.” She nods at Kuha. “Her idea, actually. Well, she inspired it, when she said that the owlriders are already sort of a third gender - not men, but not women either.”

She grins smugly. “But that would take too long to build up your forces. So I made you some doses for conversion - fully prepared, all you have to do is implant them and my alchemy will do the rest. If, of course, you’re satisfied that she doesn’t look too Hellish?” It’s an effort to keep herself from dancing on the spot. She can’t wait to see the look on Testolagh’s face when she tells him how many doses she’s brought him.

“Well, let’s see her on owlback compared to one of the others,” Testolagh says.

Claiming Kuha for a quick hug of encouragement before she mounts one of the birds, Keris takes the opportunity to whisper an idea to her. They’ve tested her wings extensively back in Hell, first with very short drops, then on progressively longer ones with Keris ready on anyaglo-back to catch her should they not work. It took a few tries, but she’s confident Kuha has the hang of staying stable and landing on her feet by now.

“If you think you can manage it,” she whispers, “show him how safely you can fall, after showing off a bit. See if you can land right in front of him.”

((Roll 11 dice for how well she does. Enhance with stunt if you can.))
((I’m guessing that Kuha casually leaping off the owl’s back in mid-flight to spiral-glide down and pull of a three-point landing right in front of Testolagh completely unharmed is worth a 3-die stunt? : D))
((Yes.))
((11+3 stunt=14. 12 sux, whoa.))

Kuha grins back. “Kerishyra,” she whispers, as she threads her fingers into the great-owl’s feathers. “I show off lots more than a bit.”

And then she’s off, in a flurry of wings and delighted laughter. She has, Keris realises, been missing this. Ribbon horses and demon wasps are all very well and good - and perhaps they may even be faster and stronger. But there’s something about the feel of feathers under her and the powerful beat of silent wings that makes her heart soar.

And she soars. Oh, does she soar. Keris hasn’t seen much of this sort of flying - only Melunen, really, the first time she was here - but Testolagh’s eyes are wide as Kuha puts the owl through its paces. She’s mobile, far more so than Keris expected, clinging low and close to the bird’s back one moment and then leaning out the next to shift her balance and change direction in ways that have Keris squeaking in fright. Before long, there’s a small crowd watching, and Keris is pretty sure she hears the word for “impossible” thrown around more than once.

The capstone of the performance, though, is when Kuha sends the owl swooping down in a dive towards them. She’s high - sixty feet or more above the ground - when the two shapes separate. To someone who wasn’t half-expecting it, it would look like an accident - and Keris hears cries of alarm, of terror, of grief and panic around her. Even Testolagh swears fluently and starts looking around for some way he can help, but a loop of Keris’s hair grabs him by the chin and forces his head upwards.

The owl levels out from the dive, winging its way back to the roost. Kuha doesn’t. She snaps her arms open, and her sycamore-wings billow, spinning her around as her light little body slows dramatically. Her head is tucked in and down, Keris sees, and she’s holding her breath, putting pressure on her ears to counteract the dizziness. She draws her arms in slowly as she comes down, angling them to alter the path of her descent and slow her rotation.

She touches down almost lightly, perhaps five paces before a stunned Testolagh, and comes down on a knee and both hands to steady herself from her no-doubt spinning head. A few deep breaths is all it takes, and then she stands with a quirked smile.

Keris tries, she really does. But looking at Testolagh’s face as he stares, she can’t help but burst into gales of triumphant laughter. Kuha’s little grin is very like Keris’ own. That’s the starring moment of it all.

“Wow,” is about all Testolagh can say. “Oh. The... the tougher bones. She can take collisions and impacts and hard take offs.”

“That...” Keris forces out between giggles. “That was better than even I expected. Oh, wow. Kuha, come here.” She wraps the woman up in a hug, lifting her up with ease and spinning her around. “That was amazing. Incredible.”

Calming down a bit, she turns back to Testolagh. Kuha, sitting proudly in a hair-sling, turns to face the crowd of onlookers and starts to smugly answer their questions in her native tongue.

“Tougher bones, less likely to bruise, no painkillers or drugs slowing her down,” Keris agrees. “And she’s lighter, too - lighter even than she was before, for all that she looks better.” She grins, wide and brash and joyful with sparkling eyes. “Ask me how many doses I brought you. Go on, ask.”

“How many?” he asks.

Keris bounces in place happily. “Two hundred and fifty,” she crows. “I forgot to do a headcount when I was here, so I made a rough guess and did a few extra. But if there are more than you need, I’m sure you can offer them to any tribes who’ve been uncertain about accepting you.”

((Oh, Keris. She’s almost forgotten that she’s getting paid for this. At the moment she’s just basking in how amazingly she did.))
((An impartial observer might note a similarity to Haneyl.))

“... well.” Testolagh bites his lip, and then sweeps Keris up in a grand hug. “You are amazing! You’ve more than held up your end of the bargain. Come with me, back to my quarters. I think this calls for some rice wine.” He’s very warm, Keris notes. His body temperature is substantially higher than hers, and she can feel the heat from his chest and hear his second heartbeat. Warm and big and strong.

“I am amazing,” Keris agrees proudly, depositing Kuha back on her feet. “Uh. As long as it, you know. Stays just rice wine. We, um, don’t want to wreck another building like, you know.” She blushes. Just a little. “Last time.”

They get inside, and Testolagh relaxes. He looks awkward now. “I do note,” he says, as he pours out the wine, “that. Um. You’re pregnant now. And I... uh. Didn’t think you were pregnant the last time we met.” He swallows. “Who... who is the father?”

Wow, he sounds awkward.

Keris opens her mouth. Keris closes her mouth. Keris drags a hand down her face.

“Eurgh,” she groans. “Fathers, actually. Twins. And yeah, they... came as a bit of a surprise.” She glances up at him and makes a mental connection. “They’re not yours,” she assures him hastily. “Or... well... it’s kind of complicated. There was a dream - not the normal kind, one with truth behind it. You’ve noticed I’m stronger now? That was one of the results.” She motions at her midsection. “This was the other. It’s... it’s been an interesting few months.”

She wrinkles her nose. “And apparently I picked up a secret of the Great Mother somewhere that made them take up far more space than they need.” She glares vaguely downward. “This is two months in. I’m not looking forward to the next thirteen. Or explaining this to Sasi, which... I think I probably need to do in person, because you just know she’s going to have questions.”

Keris pauses to consider this, and groans again. “Many, many, many questions,” she adds in tones of dread. “And probably some poking and prodding. Joy.”

Testolagh visibly relaxes at the news that they’re not his. “I’m sure you’re lovely and Sasimana clearly loves you,” he says stiffly. “I just have no desire to... ah, become a father again because of something I don’t even remember with you.”

“Still pretty sure we didn’t... do anything,” Keris reminds him. “We were very, very drunk. But... yeah. Same here.” She accepts a glass of rice wine and sips at it appreciatively as something tips her memory. “You said, when I left for Malfeas, that you had something to discuss with me? After I finished with the owlrider changes?”

“Yes.” Testolagh sighs, nursing his rice wine. “We need to talk about... well. Me and Sasimana and... you.”

Keris stiffens slightly. “What about... uh...” She tails off as the word “us” fills itself in, and more or less answers her question for her. “Shouldn’t... Sasi really be here for that?” she tries instead. It’s a pretty weak attempt at dodging the conversation, all things considered. At best, it’ll only delay it.

“No, she really shouldn’t,” Testolagh says heavily. “She’d just make things more complicated.” He downs his drink, and pours himself another one. “I love her,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard and I don’t see her enough and... I love her. She’s the mother of my daughter. I want to meet my daughter and... and I want a family. So when you come in, it makes things... complicated.” He leans back. “I know she’s a dynast and... gods help me, but the Scarlet Dynasty has the morals of cats. She doesn’t see anything strange about carrying on a relationship with both of us, but... that just leaves us flapping in the wind.”

“I think...” Keris begins, and stops to sip at her wine. This is really not a conversation she wants to be having. Though she... kind of has to admit that Testolagh has a point about Sasi.

“... she misses you, too,” she says after a while. “I think part of... part of your problem, part of that is that you’re up here and she’s down in the southwest. You...” she spreads her hands, “you couldn’t be any further apart, unless one of you was in Hell or something. But she’s rooted there; wouldn’t be much use in wilderness like this. And you seem pretty established here, with all the work you’ve put into the tribes.”

“That’s not the point, though,” he says, running a hand through his hair. “If you’re going to be a part of her life, then we’re going to have to come to some kind of terms. Some kind of arrangement.”

“That’s what I’m... wait, no. Huh. I see what you mean.” Keris blows out a breath in a slow, soft whistle. “We can’t be fighting over her; that’s what you’re saying. Two people on the same side fighting over a third is never pretty.”

She looks down at her hands, thinking about it.

“When... back in...” she starts haltingly. “After... Haneyl; after Sasi saw a painting of her, I asked her, about... this, sort of. Well, not exactly this. But something like it.” She sighs.

“Sasi’s kind of... messed up, inside, I think. She still misses the family she had before. She loves you, and she loves me - and she trusts me, deep down. I wasn’t... I wasn’t sure of that. Not until this Calibration just gone. I don’t know when she started trusting me... it might have been that night, actually. When I declared she could...”

She trails off for a moment, frowning slightly, then snaps herself back to the present. “But she loves me,” she repeats. “She loves me, and she trusts me. Even though she’s got... things, about being in control all the time. She knows I could hurt her in ways she can’t defend against, and she trusts me not to.”

Keris smiles a little tearfully, remembering Sasi - Salina - letting that slip. Trusting her, even when she didn’t remember who she was. “That means a lot to me. That’s what’s important to me, more than... than papers about who’s married to who or who gets whose land or name or any of that stuff.

“So. I think... I don’t know exactly how Dynasts think, let alone Sasi, but I think you and her are more... formal? She’s been with you longer, and I think you’d probably be her husband, if she were less... her. And I think... I think I can deal with that. It does kind of help that you’re all the way up here,” she admits, “but I can deal with being less formal and ‘proper’, as long as she doesn’t feel for me any less.”

She doesn’t mention Rat, or Yamal; whose children she’s carrying. They’re not something Testolagh needs to know about.

Testolagh frowns. “You’re babbling,” he says. “Slow down a bit.” He paces back and forth, thinking. “You’re right,” he says. “She has problems. When... when she first arrived, I was still in training. She was a wreck. Some people take this power badly. I... I think she might have tried to kill herself. Possibly more than once.”

The words hang in the air. “She doesn’t act now like she used to. She was very... vulnerable back then. She’s grown colder, more controlled, more...” he smiles wearily, “more like a dynastic princess. Even more beautiful, too. I... I just can’t bear the thought of... of you stealing her away from me.”

There. He’s said it now.

“I couldn’t steal Sasi, thief or no,” Keris objects. “If she chooses, it’s a choice. Her choice. But you’re not listening to what I’m saying.” She looks away, frowning. “She still misses her family - still loves them, even. She hasn’t seen them in years, and they’d try to kill her if they knew what she was now. And she still loves them. She might look cold on the outside, but she doesn’t just stop loving people.”

She looks him in the eye; half-challenging, half-sulky. “If she hasn’t let them go, she’s not going to let you go. Or me. Not unless one of us forces her to. And it’s your child she has, not mine. So your problem isn’t that I might steal her away from you. Your problem is that you’re up here, and she’s down there, and you miss her.”

((Compassion 3; 1 sux.))

Wrinkling her nose, Keris drains the last of the rice wine. “And I guess I can’t blame you for that,” she admits. “I do too. Only an idiot wouldn’t.”

“So what then?” He raises his voice. “So what are we going to have to do? Especially with... that night there. Where if we didn’t do anything, the only reason was that we got so drunk that we couldn’t. That just makes things even more complicated!”

“I don’t know!” Keris yells back. “Okay? I’ve only loved two people like this, ever! I know about holding onto love and not giving up on it, not about steering around the reefs! The last two times I tried to help someone I loved-”

She snaps her jaw shut, turning around quickly and brushing a lock of hair across her eyes.

“I don’t have all the answers,” she continues, as levelly as she can. I’m the youngest of the three of us; I don’t know why you’re expecting me to.”

“Because you’re the one who’s getting in the way!” he says, teeth gritted. “I come back and find that she went off with you and you’re sharing a bed and she presents it as a done deal. I didn’t exactly get a say in it. Because the Realm has no morals and she just assumes it’s natural for her to have a mistress.”

“And how is that my fault?” Keris shoots back. “Sounds like you’re more angry at her, and just taking it out on me! I’m not the one from the Realm! Or the one who let work get between me and someone I loved!”

He slams a hand into the wall, cracking the black stone. “Now you’re just talking for yourself!” he retorts. “You won’t be saying this if you were the one stuck up in some freezing wasteland who hasn’t even got to see your newborn daughter because you’ve got your orders from the Unquestionable! You wouldn’t be lecturing people about ‘letting work get between you and your love’ if you were the one stuck up here because you can’t leave these idiot tribesmen alone for a month without the confederacy nearly on the edge of war as soon as you get back!”

((... oh, wow. Called shot to the Be Loved/Family. Nice one, Testolagh. Even if it was by accident.))

Keris flinches. Hard. Her hair, fluffed up out of its braid and coiled angrily, drops limp to the ground and pools at her feet.

“... no,” she admits quietly, hugging herself. “No, I wouldn’t.”

The abrupt cooling of her temper seems to catch Testolagh off-guard for a moment as she thinks.

“... sorry,” she offers, as he regains his equilibrium. It’s grudging, but it’s honest.

Testolagh seems confused, but he grudgingly accepts it. “And once again we’re back to the start,” he says, shoulders slumping. He stoops, and picks up some of the fallen stone from where he broke the wall. He forces himself to smile. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in taking this region?” he says, a little too much curiosity in his voice for it to be a joke.

“Hah,” she says. “No way. But, hmm. Maybe that’s where to look. See if you can get someone else to take the region; petition for a transfer.” She frowns - half at the problem, and half at how he’s somehow managed to sneaky-turn her around into wanting to help him. “Could someone else take it? Would you be able to hand things over to someone else if they were good enough to handle it, or would the tribes not accept anyone but you personally?”

He laughs bitterly. “I lead because I beat down every man who challenged me. Their tribes are family groups. They only accept me as leader of the leaders because I’m no mortal man. The plan at first was to unite them under a cultist, but... well.” He spreads his hands. “I’m not like Sasimana. I solve things directly, and I needed them listening to me so I took charge.”

Keris blows out a sigh. “You need a proxy. Like, even the Althing could agree to that; if you had someone to handle things day-to-day here, it would free you up to do other things - and you could show up in person within ten days for any emergencies.”

She chews a hair tendril thoughtfully. “If I were queen of a place I’d carved out myself,” she muses, “and I wanted someone I trusted completely to take charge of it for me while I... was... elsewhere...”

Light dawns. It is green, and flickering.

“Oh oh oh! Mother! Mother mother mother!” Keris isn’t sure exactly how long Haneyl has been listening to the conversation, but she sounds like she’s come to the same conclusion Keris has. “I would be the best at that, mother! I could make everything pretty and make the stupid raksha stay back and nobody would argue with me and I’m part of you so they’d know I was a proper princess who was in charge of them and mother mother mother, you have to see if you can summon me as soon as you try with Dulmea!”

A giggle slips out without Keris quite meaning it to. “I... oh wow, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but... that makes sense.” She runs a disbelieving hand through her hair. “I’d... yeah. I’d get Haneyl to do it.”

She looks Testolagh up and down, considering. Sasi loves him, so he’s probably trustworthy. And... she does sort of feel like the more Infernals with souls like hers there are, the better. The Unquestionable might demand that the souls of one Princess be put under oaths, but they won’t risk making a ruling that will turn a significant number of their Chosen against them.

“... Sasi made me swear not to tell anyone this,” she says slowly. “It’s one of maybe... two, perhaps three times I’ve seen her genuinely scared for me. I’m not sure if she’d have shared her part with me if I wasn’t already hip-deep in it, so... has she told you about her souls?”

“I... don’t really see how that’s relevant?” he says. “I just need to find someone in the tribes who I can make understand that there’s a more important thing than their grudges. I’m seeing if I can train a few, but it’s slow going.” He pauses. “But she said... oh, what was it? She had new souls that were basically like the coadjutor.”

Keris nods. “They’re aware, is the point. I have my own, too - and they’ve made demons of their own. Demons I can summon. You said the tribes follow you because you’re more than mortal. I don’t know what your odds are of finding someone - a mortal someone - who can unite the tribes and keep them together and stay alive and run this whole region for you. You’d know that better than me.

“But...” she leans over and taps his chest. “You have two hearts. One of them is a soul, Sasi said. We’re not so different from the Unquestionable, if we have souls that can think for themselves - younger, and not as strong, but still. So what if you could summon one? If you can’t trust someone else to keep war from breaking out here, trust part of yourself. If Rathan or Haneyl were older, I might ask them to care for things when I couldn’t.”

“That would be nice,” he says, “except... you know, the whole fact that I can’t do that. I don’t have strange awakened lesser souls, and I can’t summon them. I’ll just get what I need to do done.” The man pours himself another drink. “You?” he says, offering the wine.

Keris is slightly distracted by Haneyl’s cheering inside her head at the news that when she’s older she’ll get to run things.

She accepts another drink with a shrug. “Sasi’s souls weren’t awake like mine, at first,” she tells him. “Ask her about it. Though I guess it’s your choice how you deal with things here.” She purses her lips, empathy nagging at her.

((Rolling Compassion 3... haha, 3 sux.))

“You can’t leave the tribes for long, and it’s... twenty days to get to the southwest and back via Cecelyne,” she muses aloud. “But if you haven’t seen your daughter yet... I’ll see if I can, you know. Talk Sasi into visiting here. She can’t complain about comfort too much, not when you’ve got these buildings. And she’s not neck-deep in work at the moment.”

“That would be good,” he says, with a sigh of relief. He cracks a smile. “I’m sure you can take over for everything she does in An Teng,” he says. That’s a distinct teasing note there.

Instead of rising to it, Keris grins. “I have a pretty new ship to explore the oceans and attack the Realm with,” she boasts. “Once, uh. I finish learning how to sail her, and get a crew.”

“That sounds nice,” he says. “I don’t know. Maybe... maybe we should just talk it over with her.” His shoulders slump. “I am angry at her for taking up with you, I suppose. I mean... I knew things weren’t exclusive because her duties to the Yozis mean that sometimes she has to act like someone’s mistress, but... but it feels like more of a betrayal for her to be involved with someone else she loves, rather than just someone she’s manipulating.”

“I can understand that,” Keris says. “Talk it over with her, yeah. We probably do need a conversation with all three of us there. Somehow. Maybe she can find some Sapphire spell for it. Like Infallible Messenger, but more.” She shrugs. “I’ll ask her about that, too, when I see her. Speaking of which, I should unpack what I’ve brought you and start heading back soon. I’ll take you over how to use the doses, but you’re probably better off summoning a vitriol alchemist to do it. I’ll leave a copy of my notes for them.”

He nods. “Very well. I’d like to see a demonstration on a few of them. Ten, perhaps. To see how they work and how many of them die from it.”

Keris nods. “Alright. Show me where I can start, and I’ll take you through the basics. I’ve made it as safe as possible for them, though it takes time to have full effect.”

“Very well,” he says. “I’ll gather some up for you, and we’ll see.”

((They need a lot of food during the about-two-weeks transformation, and there’s about a ten percent ‘complications’ rate where they’ll need someone to do a successful Cog + Occult roll or they die. You can just demonstrate it as a stunt.))

Implanting the flesh-seeds is simple - for Keris, or stomach bottle bugs that can tease apart human flesh, it’s a matter of ten or fifteen minutes to settle them where they need to be and ensure everything is feeding into and from the implants properly. The transformation itself will take around a fortnight, she informs Testolagh as she works, and warns him to lay in a lot of food for them in advance - they’ll need it.

One of her patients is a bit of a surprise, and requires some fast thinking on her part when something in her liver objects to the seed planted beside it. Keris solves that by shifting the liver-seed away, and altering the positions of the others. It’ll mean her body will shift in a different order, but by the time the changes hit her liver, her health will be bolstered enough that whatever allergy caused her reaction won’t kill her.

... it’ll probably be a miserable couple of days as her newly empowered immune system sorts itself out, of course. But she’ll come out of it alive, and as healthy as the others in the end. Keris jots down a few notes on what happened at the end of her procedure for the benefit of Testolagh’s alchemists. Shifting the seeds should be enough for most complications along those lines that she can think of, though where and how to shift them will be a matter of on-the-spot judgement.

“So I’ll need stomach-bottle bugs to hand,” he says out loud.

“They’d be best for this, yes,” she agrees. “Or neomah, for the flesh-crafting aspect. I’d go for both.”

“Hmm. So noted.” Testolagh looks at Keris. “I did notice that Kuha looks somewhat like you, now. Is that some side effect? Are there any others like that?”

“Like I said earlier,” Keris explains. “The process is like a second - or first, I suppose - puberty. Since it’s my blood that I used to base the changes on, it... sort of... yeah. Altered them my way a bit. They’re... somewhat blood-related to me now.” And please, she thinks, don’t think too hard about that and what else I used to base the changes on.

((Reaction + Occult = 8 dice -> Uh... 7 successes))

Testolagh looks at her with a sudden expression of bemused faint horror. “Wait. But you took some of my...”

Dammit. “They’re still who they were, by blood,” she says quickly. “Just with a bit added. Probably something like... hmm.” Her first reaction, back when she had realised, had been “daughter”. Working on the rest of the doses had given her time to realise that wasn’t quite right. “Maybe half what they were before, half a mixture of us? Think... I don’t know... cousin? Maybe niece.” She hesitates. “... you could argue for ‘grandchild’, I suppose.”

He pinches his brow. “Still. You’re telling me that...” he gestures towards the owlriders, “... that they’re going to become our descendents? This is... fine. Fine.” He jabs a finger at Keris. “But you’re telling Sasimana that!”

His expression lasts for a few moments, and then it cracks and turns into uproarious laughter.

Keris buries her face in her hands. “Staying here is starting to look more and more tempting,” she mutters to herself despairingly.

“I... I should just court you,” he manages, through the tears of laughter. “After all, y-you need do the h-honourable thing and m-marry me after d-doing this! Otherw-w-wise our children will be bastards!” He staggers against a wall, wiping his face on his bare arms. “Sasi should see how she likes that!” he guffaws.

“I’m glad you find it so funny,” she groans. “Oh, I am not looking forward to that conversation. Explaining this is going to be enough as it is.” She gestures at her pregnancy, and resists the urge to beat her head something as Testolagh has to lean against the wall to stay upright through his laughter.

Despite her trepidation, she sets off back to Malfeas with Kuha and Cissidy that night. The owlriders that will be coming to her, they agree, will wait until the changes are established and people have had time to get used to them. And also until Keris has her own islands set up to host them, back in the South West. She gives Testolagh a respectful-if-sullen salute as she leaves, and to his credit he manages not to laugh at her apprehension. Much.

“Kerishyra,” Kuha says to Keris, as they slip through the path into the desert. “I do not know if I will ever come back. Even like the other owlriders, I am not like them. You have made me even more different.” She looks at Keris, wrapped up in silk, leather underneath, only her eyes visible. Her glass goggles are pushed up on her face. “Will you change me more? Make me even more different?”

Keris considers it, thinking through her answer as they emerge onto silver sand under a black sky. “Do you want me to?”

“I do not know,” Kuha says. “You are more different to me than I am to the others. Will you make me more like you?”

“Perhaps someday,” Keris decides, after some thought. “But not soon. Some things I have, I can’t give you. And you’re good as you are.” She shifts in the saddle to pull Kuha into a one-armed hug. “Worry about those things later. For now, let’s focus on heading to our new home.”

“Yes.” Kuha kicks her mount, speeding up. “Come on, Kerishyra! Let us get there faster!”

Alas, enthusiasm is not enough to circumvent the nature of the Endless Desert, and it is five days later that Keris and Kuha arrive back in Malfeas. After seeing to a tired-but-happy Cissidy’s feed and directing Kuha on where to change into clothes more comfortable for her, Keris goes to see how Mehuni’s preparations have been going.

“Twenty three screams, my lady,” Mehuni observes. “You are back earlier than I expected. I am barely finished.”

“It was a quick visit,” Keris agrees. “Though not a boring one. But I’m glad our timing matched. What do you have for me?”

Mehuni folds his hands together, bows, and then turns and recovers some documentation. “I have found you a helmsman and a navigator, as well as crew,” he says, inclining his head. “These are the results of my investigations on them.”

He passes the scrolls to her, and Keris curls into a chair to peruse them. Helmsman; a decanthrope - and apparently a powerful one, whose bodies don’t suffer as much from the listlessness and stupidity that body snatchers’ hosts normally do when the demon isn’t in them. The list of neuroses has her sending an incredulous look at Mehuni, but it’s followed by a note in her adjutant’s hand that directs her to the demon’s voyages. Which are... impressive, to say the least. He may be neurotic, but he’s an excellent pilot despite that. Or possibly because of it.

The other officer, Neride, is a sublimatus; an ascended First Circle like the neomah-dragon thing that works for Ligier. She’s serpentine too, but more like a snake than a dragon. A venomous one, Keris notes. According to Mehuni, she seems eager to be under the protection of someone like Keris, since a Green Sun Princess has a combination of personal power and distance from Hell that will protect her from certain unfriendly eyes among the citizen-souls of the Yozis. Excellent fighter, and experience at captaining ships across Kimbery.

Keris groans when she sees the third scroll. “The Priest,” she sighs. “I’d almost forgotten.” Mehuni has tried his best, but even his resources haven’t been able to dig up much on the upholder of the Law she’s been saddled with - not helped by how hard priests are to tell apart. Looking them in the face is illegal. after all. All he’s been able to figure out is that it’s old, even for a priest, and seems to be a little more mentally flexible than its kin. It would have to be, she realises, if it’s coming to Creation with her.

The crew are all tried-and-tested sailors; a scattering of various different species. None of them have been on something quite like her ship before, but they’ll all be able to do their jobs, and most can fight as well. All in all, she’s thoroughly pleased with the job Mehuni’s done, and says as much.

“You are too kind, my lady,” Mehuni says with a supple bow. “Unquestionable Lilunu’s servants were most useful. She asks you at your convenience to attend to her, as she wishes to talk about her painting of you.”

Keris grins. The trip back across Cecelyne gave her time to come up with her own idea on a return gift for Lilunu, and she’s eager to deliver it. Lilunu greets her in a soft lavender robe covered with growing flowers made of living gemstones. “You were not away long,” she says, leaning in to kiss Keris once on each cheek. “I suppose you didn’t see much in Creation with so little time there.”

“It was a brief visit,” Keris agrees, blushing. “But long enough for me to think of another gift for you, my lady.”

“Goodness,” Lilunu says, as servants bring food in. They’re delicate sugar crystal structures, and Keris can taste the stimulants in them. “I await the surprise.”

“I’ll keep it a secret for a little longer,” Keris smiles, and blinks in surprise at the drug-laden sugar treats. “Uh... why do- oh. Yes, you mentioned using my... skin, to paint on.” She looks at the food nervously. “Well... I do heal fast. And if I was high on chalcanth...”

“Oh, yes, that’s much what I do,” Lilunu says placidly. “Blood, hair, skin - shall I show you some of my paintings that I’ve done in the same manner? It’s just an extension of using one’s own body as a canvas.” Casually she turns and slips her robe down, showing her back.

Keris boggles. The tattoo on her back is a vista of the Conventicle Malfeasant that could almost be a window. In fact - her eyes widen - she can see things moving under the Unquestionable’s skin. “Tattoos tend to go whenever my chakras get out of flow enough,” she adds, turning back around. She discards her robe, showing Keris the dragon which writhes under her skin on her chest, writhing around the ornate piercing on her belly button. “I made this one since Adorjan took me. I long for beauty. My flesh,” she gestures at herself, and at the building around her, “I shape it for that.”

She claps her hands, and butterflies flock to her, quickly changing her robe for a dress of insects. “So, yes,” she says casually. “Art made from your body. Not a tattoo, a painting - though for me they’re much the same thing.”

“One showing me, and of me...” Keris says thoughtfully. She can appreciate the artistry - and honestly, the chance to be painted by someone as skilled as Lilunu is something she’d give a lot for. “Yes, okay. This sounds good. You can take materials while I’m blissed out on something, and I’ll have healed by the time I’m aware again.”

She pauses for a moment as several inner voices clamour for attention.

“... uh. As long as it will heal,” she clarifies. “And won’t scar or linger like...” A tap to the scar on her jawbone. “Or my voice and tongue. Though they did come back, after a while.” She throws a nervous glance at Lilunu at that, but it doesn’t look like she’s unbalanced enough for possession at the moment.

Lilunu nods. “Yes. You can heal through the gifts of Kimbery, yes? That’ll make things much easier. It should take only a short while to gather what I need. When will you be free for... oh, less than half a scream?”

“My ship is being loaded and provisioned, but Mehuni can handle that,” Keris shrugs. She grins. “Can your servants gather what you need for you?”

“Oh, I’ll do it myself,” Lilunu says. “Servants can’t handle such precious things. If you’re free now, come with me to one of my workrooms.” She calls for a servant, and makes some requests for a few things to be delivered, and then rises. “I can show you one of my painting rooms, while I am at it. Tell me, is there any interesting art in Creation where you were?”

“Well, this trip just gone I was up in the northeast with Testolagh,” Keris explains, happy to chatter. “There’s not much there, but back in An Teng is another story. I’ve been reading a book on Tengese art, and that has some gorgeous pieces in it. Their silverworking is gorgeous, of course, but they also have these beautiful embroidery styles that barely ever see the light of day! They wear them as undergarments or on the inside of their clothes - it’s a pain finding out much about them anywhere but the Shore Lands - and...”

Lilunu’s workroom is a vast, airy space with a crystal room that lets the warm soft green light of Ligier in. She’s got more fires around here, in other colours and - somehow - the different coloured fires somehow average out to white. It’s one of the strangest things Keris has seen, where she realises now how green the rest of the Demon City looks.

And under this light, there are paintings everywhere. They’re hung on the walls. There’s racks and rows of paint-making chemicals, sealed pots of exotic chemicals, and white-clad demons flecked with paint who are quietly working away mixing things. They’ve clearly been used as canvases too, because they’re tattooed and pierced according to sketches on the walls. Keris can even see a rack of piercing tools discarded on one side.

“Wow...” Keris whispers. In its own way, it’s as amazing as the workshops of Ligier. And unlike her first impression of those, she now feels an itch of... envy? Competitiveness?

... no. Ambition. It feels like a Haneyl thought, but there’s a bit of Rathan-thinking in there as well. ‘When will I have somewhere like this?’ is the best way she can think of to phrase the feeling. ‘I want a place as amazing as this - a place people will look at and be in awe of me.’

Someday, she thinks, she’ll have one.

Lilunu walks her over to part of the room, where things are clean and scrubbed. “Now, this is what I use for when I gather paint and materials from myself,” she says. “I have other fleshes of mine take it, but here I can do it for you. And... ah ha.” A servant brings an assortment of drinks on a tray. “Keris, take whatever you need. And... you will need to expand the light of your soul. Stand away from anything breakable, please. I can withstand it, but some of my tools aren’t so resilient.”

Keris takes her time choosing her drinks, and - after some careful taste-tests of a drop or so each - selects a three-glass concoction that should have her zoned out for at least an hour, even with her healing factor taken into account.

‘You are,’ she thinks to her souls in general and Echo in particular, ‘categorically banned from doing this until you’re at least as old as I was when I had my first drink of chalcanth. In outside time. I do not want to see what happens when one or more of you gets high. Especially if it’s Echo.’

That done, she downs all three drinks in one triple-mouthed gulp, and flares her soul to its highest before they start to kick in. It’s changed, she dimly realises, uncertain whether or not this is something she’s noticed before. It doesn’t feel surprising. But her head already feels a bit... floaty.

The ocean-whirlwind ripples and swirls around her. She’s crowned in green fireblossoms, and a mandala of light is at her back; abstract patterns reflecting the geography of her soul. The names of her souls are written around it, and she can see the silver scales of her po coil around her body. It’s crooning softly, not angry or territorial as usual. It sounds almost...

... almost happy. Like... like the ticklish ripples playing along her skin, and the... the colours in the air that it’s snapping at. And the way Dulmea’s music sounding through her soul is... tasty, like cherries and apples, and... mmm.

Keris drifts in a dreamland, hypnotised by her own anima light for quite a while. She doesn’t even know when Lilunu moves in. But she feels great like this. If Lilunu picked these ones out, she has to find out what they’re made from.

Then the pleasant sensations take her again.

Some time - some indeterminate period - later, she finds that her head is clearer. The anima light is gone. She’s sad about that. She’s quite dreamy feeling, but she’s moving fine. She pokes herself in the cheek. She can barely feel it.

Keris looks around, supporting herself with her hair. Oh, look. Lilunu has a big red thing next to her. A thingie. What’s the word? A fat? No, not that. A vat? No. A... a crystal thingie. Full of red. And then there’s a thing that Lilunu is doing with thread and... and a vat and... and dipping something that’s all pale brown into a tank. There’s other things hung up next to it, dripping.

“Wflbt,” she says, as a hazy memory returns. Oh. Oh, yeah. This is like. This is like when she was thingie. Drunk. With thingie. Testyman. Where she couldn’t remember which limbs were hair and which were feet and which were wings and which were arms and which were tails.

She holds up one at random and inspects it. It’s pretty sure it’s not a leg or a tail. That leaves a choice of three, none of which are useful for walking.

... maybe she should stay sitting down for a while, she decides. Until her head clears up a bit more.

After... uh, a while she’s feeling somewhat clearer. Lilunu is dressed in a smock and a leather apron, just what a mortal artist might wear. Although, uh, the blood on her is probably less artistic. Keris’ blood, too.

Lilunu looks over, humming as she sews together what must be bleached sections of skin before hanging it to dry. There are sealed crystal containers full of Keris’ blood - a lot of blood, wow - and there are other things in smaller opaque containers. “You’re waking up,” Lilunu says happily, covered in Keris’ blood. “How are you feeling? I find it can take a scream for the sense of touch to come back properly after that mix.”

“Gluh. Wasn’t... wasn’t expecting... so much.” Keris gratefully accepts a glass from a servant and checks that it is, in fact, the water it purports to be before downing it. She looks over the materials. “Is that... all from me?”

“Oh yes,” Lilunu says contentedly. “You were excellent for that. I took rather more than I needed, because you were just so good at it. In fact, you were healing a little too fast at times, so I had to be a little crude and so I had to take more to avoid wastage.” She shakes her head. “I’m a little envious, you know. You recover so quickly from almost any injury. There is one more thing, though. I’ll need some hair. I realised when I tried to take some that it didn’t grow back, so I thought it would be better for you to offer it as you saw fit. Don’t worry, I cleaned you up after I was done. It was quite messy.”

Keris nods a little dizzily. “Haven’t... needed the healing much. In fights. Yet. But s’useful for other things.” She shakes herself a little. “Did you, ah. The...” she waves around herself. “Light? Pretty?”

Lilunu’s request sinks in a moment later, and processes. “Oh. Hair. How much?”

“It’ll be for the brushes,” Lilunu says. “I’ll need several, but it shouldn’t be much overall.” She takes a lock of Keris’ hair. “This should be enough.”

“Right.” Keris nods again. “Oh, um. Maybe, uh... maybe not the...” She taps her baby bump. “Not that. Just as I normally am?”

Lilunu smiles, a quiet reserved smile that nevertheless is quite smug. “You’ll see. My portraits capture the very essence of the person. Now, where shall we paint you? And what should you wear? Your armour?”

This inspires some thought, but eventually Keris shakes her head slowly. Another glass of water clears her head a bit.

“I’ll... I think I’ll have it in the royal suite,” she says, picking her words with care. “Probably the bedroom itself. So the only people who see it will be people who matter; me and Sasi and maybe a few others. So...”

She blushes faintly. “If it’s to capture the essence of me, it should be all of me. Body and soul, without anything in the way. So... maybe nude? And with my soul flaring?”

The demon princess nods understandingly. “So... hmm. That means that not much will be visible, so the backdrop matters less. Down by one of the lakes? Or on one of the roofs? The soul will dominate the view, I think, but a good background is wanted.”

“... a lake,” Keris decides after some thought. “On the shore, between land and sea.” She grins. “It’s where I’m most at home.”

“Well, I think... oh, we’ll need a few sessions. I’ll meet you for your first session at the scream after next,” Lilunu says. “I wouldn’t want to interfere with your duties, and I...” her face falls slightly. “I have certain others I need to see. And you should take time to clear your head.” She doesn’t seem to look forwards to what she’s about to do, Keris thinks.

“Your gift...” Keris says. “Or... will you look forward to it for next time?”

“You can give it to me when I finish the painting,” Lilunu says, smiling. “It’s only fair.”

Keris nods uncertainly, and asks a servant for a palanquin home. She’s not really in a fit state to walk.

Once they sort things out, it will require a week of sessions. In the meantime, Keris will have time to experiment once she finishes her preparations.

“Like trying to summon Dulmea!” Haneyl says excitedy. “Because when you work out how to get her out of here, you can let me out too!”

This is true, Keris agrees. She does, however, make sure she’s very, very much in private, deep in her townhouse, before she tries it.

After sending Sasi a messenger to explain the delay - one does not say no when an Unquestionable offers one a gift, even it if takes a week or so to paint - Keris gets down to the business of Sorcery. There’s something different immediately about trying to summon one of her souls. For one thing, there’s no searching needed as she incants the spell and sends her mind inward. She can always tell where they are when she meditates like this - indeed, she barely has to think of Dulmea and she’s drawn to her Fourth Soul like an arrow.

“I am Keris,” she intones in powerful Old Realm as her anima flickers and surges. “I call upon a Gale of my Fourth Soul; a chord from the Endless Melody! Come to me now, Dulmea!

There’s a flash - different from normal. It’s anima-coloured light, and curling streamers of Keris’ soul wrap out and take form in the shape of a pregnant-looking quasi-angyalka.

“Child?” Dulmea asks, inside Keris’ head. “Did it work?”

“Child,” says the Dulmea in front of Keris. “It worked.”

“I can’t feel the me out there,” Dulmea says in Keris’ head.

“I can’t feel the me inside you,” the Dulmea outside says.

Keris is open-mouthed in awe. “It... it worked!” she laughs, honestly surprised. “Hold on, hold on... stay still.” Closing her eyes, she takes in the quasi-angyalka in front of her, the sound of her essence and the nature of her being. She frowns. She... she doesn’t think that’s a demon. Not exactly. This Dulmea is... she’s something Kerisian. And she’s very weak compared to the Dulmea in her head - no stronger than a normal demon.

((Enlightenment 2 Kerisian akuma.))

Leaning forward, she wraps the Dulmea-Gale in a hug - a real-world hug, something she’s only had from her mother once. Almost two years ago now. It’s scarcely believable.

“Alright,” she murmurs into her mother’s shoulder happily. “Return, and rejoin the Melody.” Dulmea melts away into anima light, rejoining the greater Keris.

“How strange,” Dulmea says. “I... I feel a bit dizzy. I remember being out there now. But I didn’t before.”

“That’s going to be useful,” Keris predicts. “Very useful. Let’s keep this quiet for now - Sasi can know, but I don’t think we’ll let...”

Despite the fact that the conversation is inside her own head, she still lowers her voice for the next part. “I don’t think we’ll let the Unquestionable know I can do that yet,” she whispers. “I don’t want to find out what they might do with a coadjutor they could talk to in person.”

She straightens. “Okay. Haneyl; your turn.” Haneyl is, honestly, the best choice. Echo can already get out to some extent, Rathan is scared of Adorjan, and Keris has no intention of even putting Calesco in the same realm of existence as the Unquestionable if she can help it.

“My turn my turn my turn! Oh! Hold on! I need to... and... and also...” Keris can hear Haneyl scrabbling around for the things she needs. Which, from the sound of things, includes a sword. She nods in approval.

“Okay! Ready!”

Once again, Keris launches into the summoning. Once again, her mind finds her soul easily.

“I am Keris, and I summon a shard of myself! I call upon my Seventh Soul, my daughter, my Flower Maiden! Appear before me now; Haneyl! Essence flickers and twists in front of her. Keris’ eyes light up, and Haneyl cheers in her head.

And then the anima-light shatters, detonating explosively. Keris feels the world slow to a crawl as the essence explodes and she feels it burn her skin - before she draws on Kimbery and her flesh reforms from the blast. All around her, essence-fires flicker over the walls. Ice and flowers and wind gust around her, cracking the surfaces.

There’s a frustrated wail inside Keris’ head.

“No!” wails Haneyl. “No!”

“... ow,” Keris grunts. “Okay. Okay. Ow. Haneyl, are you- Haneyl! Sweetheart! Are you hurt?”

“It didn’t work! I didn’t even feel a tug!” Haneyl cries.

Keris rubs a gash as it finishes closing. “Right. It didn’t... hah. Work.”

She grins tiredly. “Don’t be upset, Haneyl. You know what that means? That it didn’t work?”

“It means I can’t get out and I can’t do things for you and it’s all useless and stupid and useless and stupid!” Haneyl snarls. There’s a bestial reverb in her tone, and a rush of fire.

“No,” Keris corrects, patient but quick. It sounds like Haneyl is heading tantrum-wards, which means she’ll have to calm her down quickly. Happily, her theory should do just that.

“It means that summoning of the Emerald Circle has no hold over you. Banishing either, I’d reckon. But we just saw that it can summon Dulmea’s Gales. So it’s not that you’re not summonable at all, or I wouldn’t have been able to summon them. After all, Dulmea’s Gale wasn’t even a demon, exactly. She was a... an akuma, I think. About as powerful as a First Circle. And an Emerald Summoning worked on her.”

“So?” growls Haneyl. Keris smiles.

“So if you are summonable, but you can’t be summoned by Emerald Sorcery, what does that make you, Princess?

“But I want out now!” Haneyl wails.

“I know, sweetheart, I know,” Keris soothes. “Tell you what. Once we’re back in Creation, and I have my islands set up? First thing I’ll work on after that? Getting you out. After all.” She grins. “You are going to be one of my top helpers. So that’s very much a necessary step.”

“... plus, I really want to be able to wipe out whole camps like Sasi can,” she adds after a moment’s thought. “If I’m going to steal the Lintha and start claiming territory, power on that sort of scale is going to be really, really useful.”

Haneyl takes a deep breath. “Mmm hmm,” she says weakly. “I... I’m going back to my tree. I w-want a nap. And Elly to tell me a story.” She takes a deep breath. “You need to make sure you look your b-best for Unquestionable Lilunu,” she insists, clearly trying to distract herself. “You have to be as pretty as possible! I... I like her, so you can’t disappoint her. She’s pretty and she does pretty painting and she’s very very kind and has lovely dresses and... and even if Ligier likes her, she’s... she’s not bad because she’s nice to you.”

“Actually,” Keris says. “I wanted your help with the gift I have planned for her. She seems a bit lonely all on her own - so I was thinking of summoning her up a little group of keruby, like how you have Elly. One of each kind, do you think? Three little helpers.” She hums thoughtfully. “Do you think I should have them be unchanged, to see if they might shift to mimic her? Or shifted ones, so they stay different and unique?”

Haneyl takes a deep breath. “I think they should be young ones. Special ones for her would be special. And also, mama,” Haneyl chides her, “you want to keep some things in here secret! You told me that! So new ones won’t be able to say things because keruby say things a lot especially if they’re Echo’s ones.”

“... that is a very good, and very clever, point.” Keris admits. “So I should make them outside, with your help. Well done!”

“Also, mama,” Haneyl continues quickly, “um... there are actually five kinds. Calesco has some too now! Remember! You saw that all of them we gave her were going tar-y, except for the one of mine who used to be one of Echo’s. And the mean snake has some! They’re all foggy and silvery and they try to pounce you when you’re sneaking around near the fog but then you set them on fire.”

Haneyl hums to herself. “You probably shouldn’t give them as a present,” she says critically, blowing her nose. “They’re a bit pounce-y and screamy and they can’t talk but they just sound like wooooooooohoooooo noises.”

Keris blinks. “Calesco’s have finished changing?” she asks in surprise. “Wait, of course, it’s been more than long enough. And... fog cherubs?” She considers that. “No, it... does make sense, actually. It’s been out there since the first keruby showed up, and it’s certainly strong enough. If they don’t like to leave the fog...”

She nods. “Alright then. We’ll start with a sziromkerub, then. How do they make more of themselves?”

How they make more of themselves, apparently, is by writing a story about the new cherub coming into existence, which seems a little tautological to Keris but is at least easier than the four hours of joyful dancing that produce new szelkeruby. She takes Haneyl’s advice, and opts to produce only four little companions for Lilunu - one for each of her child-souls. Their names, she decides to leave as a matter between them and Lilunu.

“The four of you,” she tells them, “are going to be friends and helpers to a very, very important lady. Even more important than me - and more powerful, and prettier!”

All four of them seem very impressed by this, though she’s not sure which descriptor they’re more shocked at.

“So, I’d like you to be good for her,” she tells them. “And to look after each other. Follow her rules, help her with making pretty things, and...” she smiles, “try to make her happier. Can you do that?”

The szelkerub gestures happily, indicating that of course he can do it. Spinning on the spot, he flips into a handstand.

“I wonder if it’s my Happening!” the tar-cherub says brightly, holding her hands to her chest.

“You’ll be meeting her soon, but not yet,” Keris says. “Until then, you’re going to be learning about this place, since there are things you need to know. And on that note...”

Mehuni takes the orders to arrange basic lessons on Hell for four new arrivals with unruffled poise. He has, in fact, had a basic introduction to the Demon Realm for those who know nothing of it prepared for the better part of a year, on the assumption that Keris would probably be bringing back more strays from Creation sooner or later.

He... kind of has a point on that one. Keris is reluctantly impressed. It’s a fairly pleasant introduction that skips a lot of the nastier aspects of Malfeas, since there’s little chance they’ll be travelling much outside the Conventicle, and she surrenders her keruby to their teachers without much worry as she heads to her first session.

The lakeside is beautiful, with brass glass under soft green light that means it almost looks like Creation. The indigo water has silvery things darting through it. Once again, Lilunu is wearing simple undyed clothing, but she’s already set up her easel. Keris boggles at the knowledge that it’s made of her own skin, because whatever Lilunu has done to it it looks like it’s just a grand canvas. Considerably bigger than life-size, Keris observes wryly. The Keris on the painting will be just as tall as she is. No wonder she needed a lot of materials.

“Keris,” Lilunu says sweetly, waving to her. “You’re early. I’m just setting up!”

“Can I help at all?” she asks. “Beyond standing in the right place and looking pretty?”

Lilunu gestures to some servants, who are carrying boxes made of a pale green metal. “You can take over for them and help ready my brushes and my charcoal. “So, this session we’ll begin by sketching you using the charcoal I made from your flesh and bone, so we can capture the core of you. This is the vital first step. I hope I made enough! It takes quite a few rare reagents to prepare!”

It’s peaceful work. Outside their sessions, Keris meets with her new crew members and hunts down some ballistae for the main deck. She gets her hands on four - two light and two heavy - as well as a supply of algarel-tipped bolts that will blast holes in any ship she attacks. They’re hulking things of metallic Malfean plant life rather than wood - and they can probably survive a brief dip in the water, though to be safe she’ll need to have them disassembled and brought below decks whenever she submerges the ship.

Her crew-members are a similar mix of positive and negative. The Helmsman is probably the simplest. He - all twelve of the decanthrope’s bodies are male, so Keris feels comfortable using the pronoun - is excitable and more than a little paranoid, but he knows his trade.

Neride is a little more of a mixed bag.

“I won’t be your first mate,” she says straightforwardly, once she’s sure their meeting is private. Her snakelike body makes her height variable, but she is - for now - staying on roughly the same height as Keris.

“With respect, Princess, you don’t know how to sail,” she tells Keris. “You don’t need a first mate. You need a captain. Like the owner of a trading barge - the ship might be yours, but you need someone with the knowledge to run it. Even when you’re not onboard.”

It takes a day or two of grumbling, but Keris eventually agrees. She can still be a pirate queen, she supposes. That’s good enough.

The Priest is just creepy. It folds its bone hands together and bows to her, giving no name but assuring her it will uphold the law on her vessel and bless their mission. There are a pair of Creation-made sabres at its belt that Keris asks about, and it isn’t until she’s listened to a story of a judgement from almost a century ago and left it in the main shrine that she realises it never actually gave her an answer about where or how it got them.

... yeah, all in all, the sessions with Lilunu are the most relaxing part of the week. They can talk about art, and be content in the making of something beautiful. Lilunu manages to avoid letting Keris see any of the developing work as she works at it, but Keris can hear the charcoal’s soft noise against the skin-canvas and then later the noise of hair-brushes layering paint on it and then paint on paint.

At first it’s a little embarrassing in front of Unquestionable Lilunu, especially when she’s feeling fat and bloated and spherical because of the two babies growing inside her. After a short while, though, it’s stopped mattering. Anyway, she wears her burning soul here. That’s all she needs.

It’s the last day, and Lilunu says that she’ll have it done by the end of this session even if it has to drag on. She’s worked her way through a lot of paint, and now she’s emptied out a lot of her mixes. Today Lilunu is wearing barely more than Keris, just a simple armless shift. There’s paint on her arms and she’s got a brush behind her ears.

Fortunately, Keris hasn’t seen any sign of Adorjan appearing again. She has been listening to Lilunu’s essence flows - and her heartbeat, too. She’s calm when she paints, and when she’s calm her essence flows are much more equally blended. It’s good for her to paint.

((lol “even if it has to drag on”))

“About my gift to you,” Keris says, holding still. “It might need a little explanation, if you’re not concentrating too hard?”

“Oh, certainly,” Lilunu says, around a brush in her mouth. “Just... try not to move too much. Your face is done, but your soul is taking more trouble. It keeps on moving, and that makes it harder to get the lighting just right.”

Keris’s lips twitch. “Apologies for that. But yes. I figured out a while ago that I could create demons of the First Circle myself. My souls came up with a few for me - they like to play at designing them. I think some of their creations are part of some sort of competition.

“The first ones, though. The very first demons of mine. They were interesting. I didn’t think much of them at first. Little wind-girls that were like lesser reflections of my Fifth Soul - the Silence In My Wake.” She twitches a lock of hair minutely, gesturing at Echo’s place on the mandala-wheel of light behind her.

“But they were more than that, it turned out. They were special. Because without my other souls going to the work of designing new species - without even consciously changing their design - I found I could make them in different forms. Like... like the Dragonblooded, and how they have different elements, but are all the same type of being.”

Lilunu stops painting for a moment. Keris seems to have caught her interest. She bites down on the urge to move or gesture as she explains, but she can’t help grinning.

“One type of demon - but four aspects. There’s a sort of fluidity to them - and I’ve found they can even change from one type to another, under the right circumstances! Though only once, as far as I’ve been able to tell. I’m not even sure I’ve figured out all their secrets yet - at this point it wouldn’t surprise me if there were others.

“I tell you this, my lady, because it seemed to me that you could use some company - if not to tell you of Creation, then at least to amuse you and provide a puzzle for you to play with. So I thought - if you wish it - that I might leave a quartet of keruby here with you, as servants and aides, and to remind you of me?”

Lilunu puts down her brush. There’s something very... Sasi about her expression, though Keris can’t pin down the reason exactly for that. “That would be an interesting gift,” she says plainly. “Thank you. I am... well, I’ll be interested to see them. I am sure they will be finely chosen servants.”

“I’ll introduce them to you once we’re finished,” Keris says happily.

((Heh. Tolerance of Keris Kerising, interest in a puzzle, or being charmed at how sweet Keris is? Questions, questions.))

“Hold still,” she says, leaning in to carefully add a tiny amount of paint.

The painting goes on. Lilunu fusses over the details, adjusting things and adding tiny amounts of paint here and there.

And eventually, it’s done. Lilunu straightens up, wiping her brow and leaving a streak of paint on her forehead. “There we are,” she says. “Very nearly done.” She turns around, adjusting a mirror so green light is reflected onto the canvas. “It just has to dry.”

She steps away. “Now, come on. I’ll accept your gift. I just need to let it dry under the light, and then I can make the final touches.”

If Keris is perhaps a tad nervous as she leads them back to her townhouse, Lilunu is gracious enough not to comment on it. “I left them unnamed,” she explains. “I thought that you would prefer to decide on those - or let them choose, either way. They’ve been taught the essential things they need to know about life in the Conventicle; I had Mehuni see to that. And they should... ah. Here they are.”

“Here” is in one of the gardens, where three of the keruby are gathered around the tar-girl, who is peering intently into a bowl of something. The petal-cherub seems to be taking notes.

“Children!” Keris calls. The four look over to her, trade glances, and hastily line up.

“Children,” Keris says. “This is Lilunu. You are to help her now.”

She stands behind them - a little boy of wind and yellow ribbons, a pinkish-red ice girl with a cape of trickling water, a green-petalled boy with a book cradled in his arms, and a smiling girl of dark tar.

“Honoured Lilunu,” she introduces them. “These are my keruby.” As trained, all four of them fall down on their faces before her. Admittedly, the szelkerub only does it because the sziromkerub grabs him by the ribbons and pulls him down, but it’s still an effort.

“Are... they children?” Lilunu asks. “They are... strange little demons. They remind me a little of pre-sublimati demons. That same potential in them.”

Keris nods. “My souls - when I see them in dreams - are still children. The first few keruby; the wind-ones, they were originally reflections of Echo. I think that might be why they’re so fluid. They’re born with the potential to grow and change.”

“They’re too weak to be sublimati, or even close to that,” she observes. “Rise. You may look at me,” she tells the keruby. “Approach me if you will.”

Naturally the szelkerub is the first one to dance up to her, in a cluster of spinning ribbons, light and laughter. He indicates that she is the prettiest lady he has ever ever seen, a cheeky gesture indicating that no offence is meant to Keris. He is also sure that she is as kind as she is pretty.

“They love music,” Keris grins. “All of them. And they love to dance.”

All four of them perk up at the mention of music. The sziromkerub clears his throat. “Um... Unquestionable One,” he says, softly, “I don’t... um, I wrote you a poem. When I heard I was made to be a present, I asked teacher-Mehuni about you.” He reaches into his clothes, and retrieves a poem. “Here you are, Unquestionable One.”

Lilunu reads it. The corner of her mouth quirk up. “That’s very sweet,” she says. “Although your pattern is a little crude and freeform. What do you know of structured poetry?”

The sziromkerub looks utterly blank at that.

“Nothing yet,” Keris guesses. “Instinct. His kind are storytellers and readers. I’m sure he’ll learn fast. Meanwhile, her brothers and sisters,” she pats the wave cherub on the head, “are fighters and guards - I haven’t tried teaching any martial arts yet, but I suspect they’d take to them. And this little one,” she finishes with a squeeze of the tar-cherub’s shoulder. “This little one’s kind is the newest. But I believe she was trying to scry the future just now.”

The tar-cherub nods, sitting up, hands on her thighs. “I know there’s something special for me in the future,” she says, voice full of determinism and certainty. “I was made specially for one of the Unquestionable. I will be special, and something special will Happen for me.”

With the introductions made, and feeling less nervous after Lilunu’s largely positive reactions, Keris looks to the Unquestionable for a verdict.

“This is certainly a fascinating little gift, Keris,” Lilunu says. “I will freely accept these little things into my service.” She looks up at the sun overhead. “Now, I think the painting should be dried under my beloved’s light by now. Would you like to see it?”

“Oh yes,” Keris breathes. “Very, very much.”

Keris’ nerves hum as they head back to the lakeside. She can’t wait to see it. She really can’t wait.

She strolls beside Lilunu, up to the lake where Lilunu’s servant demons are clearing things away and packing up her precious paints. Keris wonders for a moment whether her keruby will end up being decorated in the same way. But right now, her interest is mostly on the grand canvas.

Lilunu places her soft hands over Keris eyes, as she walks her around to face it. The air still smells faintly of paint - but Keris’ ears are sharper than her eyes and what she can’t see, she can hear.

She can hear... herself. She can hear her own power. It’s like she... she’s standing in front of a mirror. A mirror that’s reflecting all her sounds. Her eyes flare green beneath her eyelids and she can almost see herself, just as strong as she is. She almost doesn’t need to look at it. Somehow the Conventicle Malfeasant has captured her so well that it... is her.

Keris’ eyes open as Lilunu removes her hands, and she gazes into her own face. Every pore, every last brush stroke is perfect. Clad only in her soul, Keris Dulmeadokht stands before her. The ring on her forehead burns, flickering within the artwork. Every piercing is correct, her hair is correct - she admires her own body - and Lilunu seems to have ignored her instructions not to paint her pregnant because her belly is swollen and yet wonderfully elegant in the work of art.

Behind her, her soul burns bright. The colours melt and merge and flicker beneath the canvas, the artwork living through the soul. Her po-soul, resplendent in the picture, coils and curls around her; protective of her and yet part of her too. The mandala of her souls is all there. It’s the first time Keris has truly seen the burning light that rears around her when she unveils it.

She’s... she’s beautiful. Keris’ eyes well with tears. She’s beautiful and the painting is beautiful and everything is beautiful. Tears come to her eyes, as she turns and hugs Lilunu. “It’s beautiful,” she whispers. “I’m beautiful. Thank you for... for showing me that. So that I’ll always know.”

“Remember what you said about not wanting to be painted to show your pregnancy?” Lilunu says, embracing her back. “Do not feel shame. The painting is made of you. Every last bit of it is part of you. It is you.” Keris feels soft hands at her earlobes, as Lilunu unhooks her ear-kerises and removes them. “Look at it again,” she suggests.

Keris blinks, and looks. She’s still there, still gorgeous, still- wait.

... the her in the painting. Her earrings are gone.

“...” says Keris, her mouth falling open. “Wha... how...?

“I didn’t paint an image of you,” Lilunu says, with the simple brilliance of one of the Unquestionable. “I painted you. The painting will always be one of you, because it is you. In every way.”

((Yes, this also means it depicts her Shintais when appropriate.))
((Yessss~))
((pretty giant snake painting gooooo~))

“... it looks... like I look. In the now. And always will?” Keris tries to wrap her head around the idea. “That’s... I didn’t even think you could do that. This is...”

She shakes her head in speechless awe. “I... I shall treasure it, my lady,” she says. “And do my best to capture the beauty of Creation and bring it back for you.”

“That would be wonderful,” Lilunu says, handing Keris back her ear-kerises. “You will be heading back to An Teng, yes? You can bring me some of those embroidered garments you mentioned. I would love to know of some of their more techniques. I haven’t done so much with fabrics, and humans are so much more reliant on clothes than demonkind.”

((Lilinu is willing to increase her Mentor rating with Keris.))
((Yesssss~))

“I’ll find you some of the best,” Keris promises. “And perhaps learn the art myself, if I can find a teacher.”

“That would be wonderful,” she says, kissing Keris on the brow. “You are one of my favourite princesses,” she says naughtily. “You talk to me about art and you’re an excellent model. Maybe some day I’ll teach you to make this style of artwork, if you can learn it. I developed it from my work using my own flesh as a canvas, and well, it seemed like a sensible next step. You might be able to learn it too, with discipline and a willingness to experiment.”

Lilunu frowns. “In fact,” she says, eyebrows raising, “you might have dabbled in it already. A little birdy told me that his greater self had received a quite exquisite map of An Teng from you.”

Keris blushes under the praise and perks up at the offer, but gasps at the last comment. “Oh!” she says, surprised. “I hadn’t... I hadn’t thought of that. But... the principles are sort of similar, aren’t they?” She rubs the back of her neck, smiling ruefully. “I barely knew what I was doing, then,” she admits. “I’m lucky that it worked at all. I would be honoured to accept your teaching in how to apply the art properly.” She smiles. “I look forward to it!”

“I shall have the portrait transferred to the ship, then,” Lilunu says. “Would you care for tea?”

And so a few screams later, Keris stands on her deck. The maps show the way down into the catacombs, and through the catacombs down the path to the hidden tainted demense that shall be their emergence path. Lilunu has waved her off, and Keris is looking forwards to what she’s about to do.

She takes a deep breath, letting the gentle and fortunately not-silent breeze blow through her hair. And then she descends into her vessel, sealing the door behind her. The brass shines under the green lighting and she heads up to the bridge.

“Will my lady have anything to say before our first voyage?” the captain says, coiled around the command post.

“One thing, yes,” Keris agrees. After all, she still needs to give her ship a name.

“You’re going to be a home to me,” Keris tells her beautiful vessel, running a hand along the gleaming brass of the wall. She presses a kiss to it, and lets her awareness expand to the sound of the whole vessel; the power behind it, the essence running through the structure.

“A home that belongs to me and only me; one that I won and bought with my own actions,” she continues. “I haven’t had one of those in... ever. So if you’re to be a home to me, you need a name to make you so.”

She straightens. “The Memory of Baisha, I name you,” she says, her voice ringing out with a touch of sorcerous power behind it. “Captain?”

“My lady?”

“Launch!”

And the Memory of Baisha comes to life, slipping beneath the water like some predatory animal.