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From One, Many

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The Baisha sinks beneath the waves. From the bridge, Keris can see the giant basalt archway that forms the gateway to the hidden channel that runs below Cecelyne and into the Demon City.

Sasi has come with her, carrying Aiko in her arms. “Come on, Aiko,” she says calmly. “Time for your first view of the Endless Desert.”

“Mama,” Aiko says, pulling her mother’s hair.

“No,” Sasi says firmly. “No. No hair pulling.”

“No!”

“Yes, that’s right. No. Now, watch as Aunty Keris gives the orders to head back to our home.”

Keris grins, pleased at the attention. “Captain Neride, Helmsman,” she says, pacing forward to the window of the bridge. “Take us home. With all speed, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Captain Neride whirls, and gives a short flurry of orders in rapid hissed Old Realm. Keris feels the engine throb below her as the vessel makes the offering of essence to the old gateway.

The basalt seems to rotate while remaining in place. Suddenly the Old Realm characters on the gate light up in bright green, and it corkscrews open. Keris can see the lethally salty water that emerges from the tunnel from how it’s laden with silver silt.

And the Baisha enters the Demon Realm. Keris feels the change in her gut and in her ears.

Aiko jumps, and then bursts into peals of laughter. Twisting in on herself, her shadowy flesh flows away and her dragon-self unfolds, brassily coiling around her mother. She’s still laughing.

“Does it tickle?” Sasi asks. “Does it tickle? Tickle wickle?” Hugging her scaled daughter closely, she turns to Keris. “Well, she seemed to like that,” she says pleasantly.

“It’s good to be out of Creation,” Keris agrees. “Neride, the bridge is yours. Princess Sasimana and I are not to be disturbed.” She offers her hand to Sasi, plucking a few lilting notes from the air for Aiko’s benefit. “Shall we talk?”

Sasi offers her her child-free hand. “I suppose so,” she says. “Are we going to argue? Because if we are, I want to put Aiko to bed first.”

Keris considers it as they leave the bridge. “We’re going to talk,” she says. “There might be some, uh... disagreeing. But I hope it won’t get heated this time.”

“Well, lead the way,” Sasi says. “Though I’m walking out if Aiko gets upset before she can set the bed on fire.” She’s smiling when she says it.

Keris nods, and leads them to her quarters. “Rounen?” she asks, and turquoise petals fountain out of the air beside her to form her aide. “Sasi and I have a few things to discuss. Could you read Aiko some of your stories to keep her entertained while we talk? I’ll play, too - that should keep her happy.”

It’ll also give Keris something to do with her hands, which she thinks might be a good idea given the kind of things they have to talk about.

“Right you are, mum,” Rounen nods. “Ooh! I bet she’d just love The Story Of How The Paricehet Ate All The Eyes Of the Blood Ape Lord of the Vela Towers.” He nods. “They told me it themselves and I wrote it down.”

This seems like fairly average fare as far as Malfean stories go, Keris thinks. She glances at Sasi for approval as she settles into one of the chairs.

“I might mind more if she actually would understand him,” Sasi says mildly. “Though no swearing,” she instructs Rounen severely.

Rounen’s flame pales. “Yes, princess-mum,” he says quickly.

Keris nods happily and starts to play, unconsciously shifting to bring her knees under her on the comfy chair as she caresses the strands of Time. She purses her lips thoughtfully and regards Sasi.

“... I’m not sure where to start,” she admits. “We should talk about the fight, but other things have happened that you should know.” She sighs. “Sit down and make yourself comfy, at least. I’m over the wanting-to-hit-something anger, and I still love you.”

Carefully Sasi places Aiko down on the bed, who coos in happiness at the softness and twists back to her human form. Then there’s the customary hassle as Sasi has to get her dressed again. It becomes rather more clear why Sasi just dresses her daughter in a simple smock.

“Babies should not be allowed to change their shape,” Sasi says wearily. “She’s decided it’s funny to make me dress her repeatedly when she wants attention. Now, how about a story, Aiko? Story?”

“‘Tory?”

“Yes, a story.”

“‘Es.”

“Good, good. Now, listen to Rounen while Mama talks to Aunty Keris, like a good girl.”

Green eyes wide, Aiko reaches out to poke at Rounen’s petal-skin with a chubby finger. She feels it, and bursts into laughter. She doesn’t seem to be at all scared of a little boy made of petals who has a fire-filled bud for a head.

... honestly, given how she likes fire, perhaps that’s why she likes him.

Dusting herself down, Sasi rises and wraps her arms around Keris, leaning down to give her a kiss. “I have missed you,” she says, when she comes up for air. “Let’s not fight again.”

Keris sighs happily, kissing back. “Mmm. Me too,” she agrees. “I was jittery and on-edge the whole time I was fixing things at Agenete. Next time something like that happens, we can try to talk things out instead of getting mad and yelling.”

((Per + Pres, 14 successes to play off Keris’ feelings and fortify her Love principle.))
((Keris happily accepts the warm glow of affection, but does use some Kimmy logic to point out that she actively went out and fixed it after Sasi insulted her. Per+Pres=3+5+2 stunt=10. 7 sux; x2 boosting with Hidden Depths Temptress to encourage “don’t get mad or panic and start yelling next time a nasty surprise crops up unexpectedly”.))

Sasi sighs. “I suppose so,” she admits awkwardly. “I don’t like surprises.” She squeaks at Keris’ fairly predictable next action. “Most kinds of surprises,” she corrects herself.

This earns her a half-amused, half-nervous chuckle. “Yeah,” Keris says. “About that. Um... hmm.” She bites her lip. “So, you remember when you went to Buk Moi. And when you came back, I’d had Haneyl. And maybe part of the reason she would up as your daughter was because I was missing you so badly.”

“... should I be sitting down?” Sasi says uneasily.

Keris brightens. “That would be a good idea, yes!” she says. “Yes. And possibly drinking some tea. I can get Dulmea to make some of her calming blend.”

Sasi plays with her daughter while Dulmea prepares the tea. She takes the tea, sips it, and then carefully places the tea floating in mid air before her, held by a flare of pyrian force. “Go on,” she says.

“Right,” says Keris. “Yes.”

She chews a hair tendril thoughtfully.

“... it might be easier to just show you,” she decides, and leans over to reach the cord for the painting-curtain. It slides aside, showing Keris standing in front of a dark sea on a silver shore, with a black sky above her lit by dying stars.

More relevantly, it also shows the full glory of her anima banner as it flares totemic around her, complete with its newest addition.

“Uh,” says Sasi elegantly. “What am I meant to be looking for. You’re showing me your other body.”

Keris recalls that Sasi doesn’t view the world like her - or most people.

Following Sasi’s eyes to the portrait, Keris can see that she’s focusing on the picture as a whole; missing the changes.

... in fairness, it has been a while since she’s seen Keris flare.

“There,” Keris points out, her hair gesturing to the spoke currently on the upper left of the wheel. It’s bronze-brown and gleaming, and blue sparks form Vali’s name at its tip, opposite the slightly duller than usual grey-wood-and-green-fire spoke of his sister. “See?”

“Va Li?” she asks. “So... you birthed another soul who... uh, I am the mother or... or father of?”

Keris nods. “He’s Haneyl’s full brother. More my colouring, but you can see the Dynast in him - he’s got your jaw and his skin shines like basalt or brass. He’s mostly Malfean, I think, but he’s more of a mix than Echo or Rathan - or even Haneyl. I think his lightning is Adorjani, and his stormclouds are all black and dark like the Dragon.” She takes a quick breath, aware she’s babbling a bit, but... she’s nervous. At how Sasi will take this.

“He, uh... he was under the coast between the Ruin and the Sea. There’s been metal deposits growing there for a while, and Echo was cutting them back to make them grow faster, and he sort of... exploded a hill at me to get out. Rathan loves him; they’ve been doing ‘boy stuff’, whatever that’s meant to mean, and he doesn’t like things being chained up but he’s a natural blacksmith and either really stubborn or just not that talkative yet...”

She peters out, fidgeting, and pays very close attention to her playing for a moment before glancing up to gauge Sasi’s reaction.

“I don’t know what to say,” Sasi says simply. Her hands are folded on her lap. Behind her, Aiko laughs hysterically as she discovers she can play with Rounen’s fire. “Well... fine. So you have another soul who... who takes on some of my appearance.” She swallows. “Will he be wanting to communicate with me, as Haneyl does?”

Keris breathes out slowly, relieved at the fairly calm response. “He... hasn’t shown any interest in it yet,” she says. “I’ll ask, but he seems a lot less needy than she is. And... that sort leads into the other thing we need to talk about. Haneyl.” She tugs the curtain back across her painting again, and curls up morosely.

“... she was already fairly upset with me when we fought,” she admits. “It doesn’t matter much why. I was originally going to use a different approach in Agenete - one that she supported - and when I changed my mind she got angry. Very angry. More than I’ve ever seen her get before.”

She gulps, remembering how scary Haneyl’s tantrum had been. “She, uh. She caught fire. I mean, she turned into fire. Like how some demons can wear more than one shape. She was pure flame; no flowers or wood at all, and I think it was making her feel things more strongly. So once she was like that and angry she couldn’t stop. And then...”

Keris hangs her head and sighs. “And then you called me an irresponsible child, and she heard. She really looks up to you, you know. She loves those books you got her. I’m not sure exactly what happened next - she was deep in the Swamp, and I was busy handling the situation. But... end of story, she burned herself out. She’s not gone back to her dryad form, she’s just... ash-pale and tired and lying around without any energy. Dulmea tried to snap her out of it, but even that didn’t work. I’m worried.”

“So... she is fire and wood,” Sasi says, after some thought. “And from what you say, Malfean fire overtook her - she was imbalanced due to anger. So that suggests you need to bring her Metagaoiyn nature back to strength.”

“Feed her?” Keris thinks it over. “If I can get her to eat - and if she doesn’t flare up again when I try - then yeah. But I’d also like to ask you to write a letter for me to read to her, just to reassure her and... well, cheer her up enough for me to get her rooted again.”

“Mmm,” Sasi says. “No, more than that, she can have one of my notebooks as well. I’ve been preparing something on those of her demons I’ve been summoning.” Sasi smiles. “It might help inspire her to make things that’ll help me,” she says quietly.

Keris laughs. “Oh, she’ll love that. You paying attention to the things she’s been doing?” Her smile dims a little. “I just wish I could summon her to meet you in person. But this will do a lot to raise her spirits. Thank you.” She rises to brush a grateful kiss over Sasi’s lips, and settles back to playing.

“Those were the two most important things I wanted to let you know about,” she adds. “So... your turn, I suppose.”

Sasi smooths down her robes. “I suppose I have a question. What happened in Agenete? I’m not angry - I just need to know what I’ll be dealing with when I get back. Things were rather confused, and the Realm sent an urgent communique back about a demonic akuma Lintha.”

“Ah. Yes.” Keris winces. “I ran into a couple of... problems. But it reinforced what I wanted them to think, so...”

She can tell Sasi is giving her the ‘get on with it’ Look without even checking, and clears her throat.

“I spread rumours through the town that it had been the Lintha - planted a couple of dead washed-up demons as evidence, spread the rumours all over, that sort of thing. They took really well, and the magistrate bought them. But, uh... I got grabbed by a couple of soldiers just as I was finishing up.”

She hastily waves her hands, forestalling Sasi’s panic. “Not... I mean, they didn’t know, they just wanted to question me. And I had my essence disguised, and beating the crap out of them or killing them would have been noticed and given the magistrate something else to chase, so I thought I’d just go along with them. Spin out a packet of boring lies that didn’t have anything worth following up on, and get out okay.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Except that bitch of a Fire Aspect from the Mercy of Hesiesh was there with her friends. And they had all these... they were saying stuff about permits and papers and stuff, and... in hindsight I should have just legged it first thing, but as it was they caught me in a lie. But! But but but! My essence was still disguised, so all they got out of it was that I knew the Lintha, and that I was an infernalist working against the Realm and An Teng. So they jumped straight to ‘Lintha spy’, which is exactly what I wanted them to think. And then I legged it.”

The part about being locked in a small room with four angry Dragonblooded, she decides, is probably not vital information. And it would only make Sasi worry over nothing.

Sasi’s lips are thin. “You got overconfident,” she says. “You’re so used to not having meaningful opposition that you didn’t think to watch for Dragonblooded.”

Keris grunts in annoyance. “I don’t know enough about what they can do, either. I mean, besides the obvious stuff. I was worried they might notice if I used Rathan’s light to look innocent, but...” She screws up her nose and scowls.

“And that,” Sasi says pleasantly, “is why I’m so intent on maintaining an identity that holds up on its own.” She sighs. “Perhaps that’s enough, though. My cults are going quiet for now, so when the Realm cracks down in advance of Calibration, they won’t get my people.”

“I’ve moved my misbegotten out completely,” Keris offers. “They won’t find anything there either. And they’ll be looking out to sea more than they are inland.”

“Mmm. It will be interesting to see how that develops,” Sasi says. “I have sometimes considered taking a sabbatical from our efforts just so I could claim some minor area north or south of An Teng as my own ‘satrapy’, so to speak.”

“Do tell me if you do,” Keris grins, and the topic shifts to lighter matters. Aiko eventually gets bored of Rounen; the novelty of his fire and his petals wearing off, and climbs into her mother’s lap for some more familiar stories. Rounen seems eager to hear them as well, and the night passes smoothly to the sound of traded tales.

((Heh. Keris FLG’d the hurt and anger at Sasi’s comments along with her fear and panic over the close call, so she doesn’t actually need to ask for an apology for her own sake - just Haneyl’s.))

After Aiko is put to bed - after seemingly deciding that Rounen is her chosen night light and hugging up to him - Sasi and Keris have a very enjoyable and friendly night. But after that, Keris sleeps and dreams her way into her inner world.

Calesco is waiting for her at the edge of the City. For all her demands that Keris do right by the misbegotten, her eighth soul made herself scarce for most of the time Keris spent settling them. Given her pessimistic comments when she’d been waiting with the ferry, Keris suspects a little of that might have been fear of it going wrong. Or maybe guilt at the state Haneyl is in. For all that Calesco is mature for her age, she’s still just a little girl, and if Keris is worried...

“It’s nice to see your face again,” Keris greets her with a smile, offering her hair for a hug. “Were you camping out here to ambush me, or are you following me into the Swamp?”

Calesco looks uncertain. “I’m not sure,” she says softly.

Keris hesitates for a moment, then moves in for a hug. “They’re set up and safe,” she reassures her daughter. “They’ve got plenty of food and fresh water and shelter, and a couple of medics in case they get hurt or sick. And now they won’t get the rough edge of Tengese prejudice. They’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know how well humans will survive there. And what happens if the Realm finds them? Or the Lintha?” Calesco asks quietly.

“They’re used to surviving,” Keris reminds her. “And scraping a living out of the beach. If they’d thought they would have trouble there, they’d have said something, and we’ll only be gone a few months. The isle’s away from any trade routes, and it’s not easy to see it’s inhabited even if you find it - and it’s not really big enough to look interesting, either. And even if someone did try to sail up and hurt them; the sargasso would snare their ship.”

She sighs. “I think it’s as safe as we can make it. Well, I mean, I could have bound a bunch of... I dunno, tomescu or something around the beach with orders to wait there immaterially and attack anything that tried to hurt the inhabitants, but that seems like the kind of thing Darling Yellow might spot. At some point we’re gonna have to trust them to stay safe with what help we’ve given them.”

Calesco pouts at her under her veil. “Well, you need to promise to go check on them frequently,” she says seriously. “This matters, mama.”

“I know. And I’ll need to be checking up on them anyway. I want to get some more islands like that one set up, maybe put my ships to use running some trade between them. That’ll make them more secure as far as food goes.” Keris kisses her on the forehead. “They’ll be okay. Really. I won’t let them down.”

She straightens up and lets go, recognising the signs of Calesco starting to get a little uncomfortable in the hug. “Now, I need to go and talk Haneyl out of her... her ash mood. Do you want to come? Or...” She bites her lip. “Well, maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea. In case she goes fiery again.”

Calesco looks directly at Keris. “What do you think would happen if I’m there?”

Keris looks right back at her, though she lowers her voice. “She got angry in the first place because I gave up on my plan for the Netara’s Mercy. Which was... well.” She doesn’t voice that part out loud, merely nods between them. “She’s burnt herself out now, and I’m hoping that means she’s run out of angry. But I’m pretty sure she hasn’t found that part out, because I’ve not heard anything about a war. And I’d prefer you not have one that’s avoidable.

“So I’m not sure what would happen, but I’ve never seen her like this before, and I know she flared up at Echo when she went in. I don’t want you to get burned if she gets angry at you - or more likely, at me.”

Calesco sighs. “That was the sort of question that isn’t meant to be answered, mama,” she says wearily. “Haneyl gets angry at me. She’s a parasite at heart, a sickness of the flesh and hates having that pointed out.”

“And when you talked me out of splitting up families, you said that your people would die if a war broke out,” Keris points out. “Are you willing to have that happen just to get a few insults in at your sister?” She sighs. “Look, the two of you fight normally, and that’s fine. Mostly you just pull each other’s hair and scuffle and wind up with black eyes and bite marks. But this is something new, and I don’t know how this ash-fire Haneyl will react. She seems a lot more emotional than normal. So until she’s back to normal - or at least until you know how she’ll respond to being insulted - tread carefully. Please?”

“What I was saying is that, no, I won’t be coming with you,” Calesco says. She looks distant. “When I try to hurt her normally, they’re just shallow cuts to try to teach her to be less terrible. But,” she leans in, “you hurt her more than I could manage.”

Calesco bites her lip with Keris’ shocked gasp. “I didn’t mean to say that,” she says quickly. “I just had to. I didn’t have a choice.”

Keris holds herself very still, breathing carefully as if cradling broken ribs. “I-” she starts, and breaks off to blink rapidly and swallow. “I’m... I’m going to forget you said that,” she says after a long moment. “The rest of what you said I’ll remember, but... not that part. I don’t...”

Another careful breath. “I don’t want... you didn’t mean to say it, and I didn’t want to hear it, and I don’t want it to poison whatever we say next, and... and I’m glad you’re trying not to hurt her at the moment. That’s good. That’s very good. Thank you.”

Her hair rustles as she stands hastily. “I should... get going. To talk to her.” She hesitates just before setting off. “Have you spent any more time with Vali? I know Rathan has, but you both have something of the Dragon in you.”

Calesco huffs. “Rathan is spending all the time near him,” she almost whines. She sighs. “Please get Haneyl better,” she says softly. “Echo is Echo, and it isn’t the same talking with Dulmea. I’ve been going over to Haneyl’s court trying to make sure her people don’t get lonely. I don’t understand why they like her. She’s cruel and whimsical. And grasping. And makes them fight each other for her amusement. But they miss her.”

“I’ll do my best,” Keris promises.

She breathes out the pain of Calesco’s cutting words as they part. But something deep and instinctive stops her from letting go of the memory with them, despite what she told her daughter. She could forget, but...

... well. Maybe it’s more important to remember that Calesco doesn’t always mean the horrible things she says. The horrified look on her face is proof she regrets their impact. And as long as Keris doesn’t bring it up, they can put it behind them.

Stopping off at Haneyl’s Swampland court, Keris gets a rough bearing on where the ash-circle is from Ellyssivera, who seems to be rather stressed over keeping the court running in Haneyl’s absence. Leaving her with a similar promise to Calesco, Keris sets off.

It doesn’t take her long to find the ash field, and she lets herself blend into the background before she gets close, then edges slowly but surely from cover to cover, staying still and silent at each stopping point until she’s sure she’s unobserved before edging closer. It takes longer to traverse the last fifty metres or so than it did to find the place, but eventually Keris has a spot at the base of a tree that gives her an unobstructed view of the clearing.

The ash is knee deep, even at its shallowest. Sometimes it’s so deep that Keris has to swim in it. The water has dug canyons through it. Haneyl has burned a lot of things. The air is hot and dry and smoky, and there’s ash on the breeze. There are leafless trees growing up through the ash, but they’re burned and dead.

Haneyl is sitting up now, but she’s just listlessly letting her hand trail in the water. She’s sitting beneath a smouldering, dead grey tree. Her long grey hair blends in with the ash, until Keris can’t tell where one starts and the other ends. Maybe her root-hair is burning too, constantly trailing ash. Maybe there is no divide.

And she’s painfully thin. Keris knows what it’s like to be like that. Oh gods, does she. She knew it on the streets. She knows the feeling of being so listless she can barely sum up the energy to go out and eat. Her heart wrenches as she realises that without her fat. Haneyl looks a lot more like a younger Keris than she’d ever known before.

Thankfully, Elly has been planning for this. A greyish manta-ray-river-dragon demon from the kitchens of Haneyl’s court provided her with a number of meat dishes, though looking at her daughter now, Keris worries that maybe the largeish box won’t be enough. Though if it can get her appetite going, Keris can get her back to her court and she can gorge herself back to a proper weight.

Letting the trick of the eye that conceals her fade, Keris stands up carefully and begins to slowly and delicately pick her way over to where Haneyl is sitting.

Haneyl doesn’t respond. She just sits there, hand trailing in the water. Ash is building up there, falling from her hair. She barely looks in Keris’ direction with lifeless, faded green eyes.

“Haneyl?” Keris tricks. “I have food. And a letter from Sasi - and a present. And an apology from me. I’m worried about you. Will you eat something?”

Haneyl looks back at her. “She doesn’t think we’re worth anything,” she says in a husky voice. “What’s the point?”

“She does,” Keris says forcefully. “She absolutely does, Haneyl. Sasi was scared and panicky and upset, and she said things she didn’t mean; things she wouldn’t have ever said otherwise. She’s your mother, sweetheart. The way you get so upset and your fire comes out and you can’t stop it? That’s as much from her as from me. It doesn’t mean she really meant it. Please, eat something and I’ll read you her letter and tell you about her present, and then when you’re feeling a bit better we can have a talk and I can say sorry properly.”

((Sigh. Offering Haneyl presents is playing dirty.))

Haneyl looks at Keris for a long time. Then she holds out her hands for the food. “Feed me,” she says, with a trace of tattered imperiousness. “I... I only have human teeth like this. I can’t eat so easily.”

Keris shuffles closer, cracking the box open and letting some of the spiced meaty smell emerge. She starts with the skewers; braised meat and some sort of blue thing that looks a bit like a tomato but smells closer to egg. Small chunks that will be easy for Haneyl to chew and swallow; unused as she is to a human mouth.

It reminds Keris of nothing more than that time that her and Rat found a baby bird. They’d been doing well at the time, so Rat’d had the idea of feeding it up on scraps so they could either train it to fly at people’s faces so they’d be distracted and that’d mean they could pick their pockets, or, failing that, they could cook and eat it. Haneyl eats like the baby bird did - tiny little gulping bites.

And it does do her good swiftly. The first sign is her eyes brightening. In fact, once they’re brighter and there are faint embers glowing in her hair, she basically all-but knocks the food out of Keris’ hands and starts stuffing it in her mouth as handfuls. It seems to be burning even as she swallows it, because Keris can see smoke coming out of her mouth and nose.

“Dearest Haneyl,” Keris reads quietly from Sasi’s letter, which gets her Haneyl’s undivided attention. Well, her undivided conscious attention, at least. Her hair takes the opportunity to lunge into the box of food and start funnelling food to her mouth even faster than her hands could, without her seeming to notice.

Keris clears her throat. “Dearest Haneyl,” she reads again from the letter, and tries not to worry about what will happen when the box runs dry, which will not take long at the rate Haneyl is eating through it.

Haneyl slows down eating slightly. She’s clearly not back to normal, though. Her eyes are bright - too bright - and her hair is longer than it usually is, a grey core surrounded by green flames. The food is feeding her inner fires, rather than making her like she is usually.

“‘mmm mlismtenmm,” she says through her full mouth.

“Dearest Haneyl,” Sasi’s letter reads. It’s written in beautifully calligraphed flowing handwriting, to the extent that it’s sometimes a little hard for Keris to read because it’s had so much effort into looking pretty.

“I must apologise fully and wholeheartedly for any distress that my argument with Keris may have caused you. Know and understand that nothing I said was meant to hurt you. I was angry and upset at the time, and caught off balance, so I said things out of rage rather than true, genuine feeling. Yes, Keris can be thoughtless and impetuous, but she can also be sweet, caring, and sharply intelligent. We are all complicated people with many different aspects and many different sides, and I can be frustrated by the side of her that doesn’t think things through and which doesn’t plan ahead without viewing her entirely as a child.”

This isn’t the end, of course. It carries on in this vein for some time. But the opening really does set the tone for it.

Keris blushes a little as she reads some of it - it’s very flattering in some respects, and she sort of suspects Sasi put some serious thought into how to encourage Haneyl’s Metagaoiyn side and bank her fires down. She reads the whole letter faithfully, waiting until the end to add her own commentary.

“We’re both very sorry, sweetheart - and I’m sorry for upsetting you in the first place by breaking my promise. I know I was wrong to do that. Sasi’s given you one of her own notebooks about all the clever demons you’ve been making. She seemed very impressed with them, and she’s been studying them on her own because she’s so interested. And when I gift the Shashalme with the raksha I caught for them, I’ll ask them for a little present that I can give to you, like how Ligier gave you your bracelet.”

((Keris is promising to ask the Shashalme for at least a Res 4-5 “trinket” that Haneyl can wear along with Ligier’s bracelet.))

Haneyl takes a shuddering breath, and rises. Turning her back on Keris, she wanders into the shallow ash-choked stream. Her fire-hair trails behind her, as long as Rathan’s. She’s not wearing her tiara or robe, but instead an ashen gown and that’s burning now, burning without crumbling. She leaves fire in her footprints.

“What’s wrong with me, mama?” she asks softly. “Why am I burning up? I... I just feel everything so, so strongly. And then... then everything went limp and... and I couldn’t do anything. Even eat. And only when Echo showed up or... or Dulmea did I feel anything and then I just got angry.”

She pauses.

“I’m doing it now,” she whispers. “Right now, it’s the most important thing in the world to apologise to grandmother. It... I just feel everything. What’s wrong with me? Why do I have this burning form?”

((Cog 3+Occult 4+2 stunt+3 I Love My Family=12. 7 sux. Heh. A portentous number, given the circumstances.))

Keris cautiously takes her hand, her lips thinning at the heat. It’s not comfortable, but it’s bearable, though... well, she probably wouldn’t want to try this when Haneyl was outright fire. She squeezes encouragingly.

“When you first caught fire, out on the island, I was terrified for a moment,” she says. “I thought... I don’t know, I thought that maybe you were being hurt. That your powers were hurting yourself, and that it was my fault, and I don’t know what I would have done if...” She shivers, and hastily moves on. “But I listened to your essence, and you’re still you, sweetheart. This is a natural part of you, whatever it is - it’s meant to be something you can do. There’s nothing wrong with you. Nothing.”

She hums thoughtfully to herself as a flash of insight hits. “I think... you know, ever since the very first time I ever saw you, back before you could even talk, you’ve always been fire and plants. Well, fire and plants and person, since you’re part Sasi as well. The first thing you did where I could see - before you even showed yourself in person - was make some pretty fireblossoms to show me. I think... your normal body is balanced between all three parts of you. But this form isn’t. It’s got the fire and the person bits dominant, and the plant stuff has gone... somewhere else. Into your Tree, maybe?”

Shrugging, Keris moves on. “And that means you’re more fiery and emotional and passionate at the moment, and you get tired more easily, and I’d bet there are other things you’ll be better at like this. But Haneyl, sweetie, it’s not a bad thing to feel strongly, as long as you know about it.” Another thought strikes her, and she smiles. “I might be able to prove it, too.”

A quick flurry of emotions flashes across Haneyl’s face, and then her lips starts to wobble and she starts crying fiery tears of relief. “I was so sc-scared,” she whispers.

“Here now,” Keris whispers, drawing her in for a cuddle. Shifting around to whisper in Haneyl’s ear, she grins. “See, if you feel things so strongly? It’s not nice that you’ll get so angry or upset. But it does mean that you’ll be able to feel really, really happy. And you know what?”

Sniffing, Haneyl makes a tiny inquisitive noise. Mindful of the growing heat, Keris squeezes her reassuringly again and carefully adjusts the way her hair is hanging.

“We’ll probably argue again, and fight, and all of that,” she murmurs. “But Haneyl, you are my daughter, and I will always make up with you after we’ve calmed down. Always. And no matter what we’re fighting over - even when we’re still fighting, even when we’re angry at each other - I will never, ever, ever stop loving you, and being proud of you, and being so, so happy I have you and your brothers and sisters.”

She draws back to look Haneyl in the eye. “You understand? I’ll always love you. Whether we’re agreeing or arguing or playing together or working on things. You are always,” Keris punctuates the word with a light tap to Haneyl’s nose and a kiss to the forehead, “my beloved daughter. And I’ll always be here if you need me.”

“Mmm.” Haneyl snuggles up to her. “Even when Rathan tries to make you believe everything is my fault? My brother does that, you know.”

“I know, I know,” Keris pets her hair. “Maybe he’ll get better about that as he gets older. He’s trying to be more mature now, you know. You have a new baby brother.”

Haneyl suddenly surges hotter. “You did what?

Keris blinks at her. “I... gained another soul? Or, well. I think he’s been there for a while, but Echo was Echo and didn’t tell anyone.” She scowls, reminding herself to give her fifth soul a stern talking-to about that at some point. “Is something wrong? You weren’t upset when Calesco appeared.”

“Exactly! I was the youngest and I didn’t want to be. But now you had another one and you didn’t ask me!” Haneyl whines.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I don’t really choose to do it,” Keris points out. “It just sort of happens.” She pauses. “If it makes you feel any better... you have a baby brother now. He’s your full brother, the same way Calesco is to Echo, so you’re a full big sister.” She punctuates this with a tickle.

It is a rather hot tickle. “So he’s my brother,” Haneyl says, clearly sounding it out to herself.

“That’s right,” Keris nods. “His name is Vali. He and Rathan are spending some time doing boy things, but he uses metal like you use plants - and he likes food - so I bet you could make things with him.”

Haneyl holds out her arms, coming to a decision. “Carry me,” she commands. “I’m going back to my tree to sleep.” She brushes herself down with disgust. “To have a bath and then nap,” she corrects herself. “I don’t want to get ash in my bed. It itches! Also! Also, also!” she adds. “You need to carry Saji too!”

“Saji?” Keris asks.

“She’s my new best friend,” Haneyl nods, jaw firm. “She’s as best as Elly.” She takes a deep breath. “She found me and she read stories to me and she pulled back bits of animals she pounced on back to me and she was the one who propped me up against the tree.”

“Uh huh,” Keris says.

“She’s really tiny,” Haneyl continues.

Keris can indeed hear very tiny footprints. She turns, to see a absolutely tiny petal-cherub approaching slowly. She only reaches Keris’ waist. Her petals are the bright yellow of a sunflower, and her flames burn white. Keris smiles. She does look a bit like a sunflower. Or maybe a daisy.

“Hello Saji,” she says softly, shifting Haneyl’s weight and crouching down to get closer to the little girl’s level. “So you’ve been helping Haneyl?”

The tiny petal-cherub stares up at Keris with flame-filled eyes. “Uh huh,” she says brightly. She’s carrying a partly cooked and somewhat nibbled on swamp-creature. “Are you gonna want food too, Haneyl’s mama? Because I’m gonna need to make another trip if you do.”

She sounds very Nexan indeed.

“I’m not, no.” Keris smiles. Apparently this friend is less shy than Ellyssivera. “But I’m taking Haneyl back to her Tree. Are you coming with her?”

“I dunno,” Saji says. “I got my tree right here.” She skips over to pat the burned leafless one she propped Haneyl against. “But Hanny is nice so I ‘pose I should come with her.” She puts her hands on her hips, such as they are. “She doesn’t eat ‘less I make her,” she says solidly.

Keris’s smile expands into a full-on grin, and with a little chuckle she plucks the tiny cherub up with her hair and brings her in to rest on the hip not occupied by Haneyl. As Saji begins feeding Haneyl bites of swamp-beast, Keris turns them around and starts back towards the City, leaving the ash-filled wasteland behind. New growth, she knows, will not take long to replace it.

Haneyl falls asleep in one of the bathing pools that surrounds her tree, still hugging onto Keris with her hair. Well, she says “bath”, but the steam from Haneyl’s superheated body really makes it more of a sauna. It’s comfortable nonetheless, sitting there in very warm water with her daughter asleep leaning against her. Keris takes the chance to relax.

A relaxation which swiftly ends when a deafeningly loud thunderclap sounds out, followed by a flash of lightning. Keris yelps and winces, hands coming up to cover her ears as she squints around to find the source of the sound. On the other side of the pool, still crackling with bright lightning, is Vali. He’s squatting by the pool, one hand in the water. All the steam’s been blown away by his arrival. Keris judiciously covers herself and her daughter with her hair.

Haneyl jolts awake, a sudden wave of heat radiating from her as her hair re-ignites from the shock.

“Ow ow ow ow hold it!” Keris yells, in a tone of maternal ire that actually serves to give her five or six seconds of obedience, albeit mostly from surprise. Keris spends them renewing her own clothing, shifting her hair away from Haneyl’s and bunching up a pair of protective ear-covers in case things get loud. “Okay,” she says once as Haneyl begins to scowl. “Now you can start.”

“Are you the new one?” Haneyl says, burning bright as she pulls a mat of woven roots out of the ground, using it as a towel. “You’re very rude! This is my place and you didn’t ask!”

Vali focusses on his big sister. “You can’t tell me where to go,” he says flatly.

“I most certainly can! This is my place and my bath and my tree and my land and this place is mine,” Haneyl snaps, her towel charring and blackening. She advances into the water, quenching it before she can ignite it, but only adding to the steam in the area.

“I go where I want,” Vali counters.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Well... you can’t! Especially when I’m having a bath with mama!” Haneyl straightens up. “It’s girl stuff,” she says, deploying the mystical words of Rathan-banishing.

“So?”

“Haneyl, Vali...” Keris groans, dropping her face into her hands. “First meeting and they’re already fighting,” she mutters to herself. Then raises her voice to address them again. “Is it so hard to ask before visiting, Vali? That’s not telling you where to go, it’s just asking you to be nice. And Haneyl...” She eyes the way Haneyl’s hair is flaring. “... please don’t set your brother on fire. Especially when you’ve only just met him.”

“And another thing!” Haneyl says, raising her voice. “Sasimana is my mother! She’s mine. You might be my full brother just like Echo and Calesco are full sisters, but that doesn’t mean you can take her! She’s mine, not yours!”

Vali looks to Keris, confused.

Keris sits down on the edge of the bath. “In the world outside this place,” she explains, “I do a lot of things. And some of them I do with a very clever and very pretty lady called Sasimana, who I love very much. I love her so much that when you - and Haneyl before you - formed as my souls and my children, a little bit of her went into you as well. The way you look, and how you look like Haneyl more than you do Rathan or Echo or Calesco? That’s because both of you are born from me and Sasimana. I’m your mother, but so is she, sort of.”

She eyes Haneyl, who is fuming. “Haneyl likes her a lot, and sometimes she writes letters to Sasi and Sasi writes letters back. Would you be interested in doing that?”

“Mama!” Haneyl flares, in utter betrayal.

Vali shrugs. “As long as I don’t have to, sure,” he says simply. “How do you write?”

Keris squeezes Haneyl’s hand, hoping that her daughter will hold off exploding until Keris can talk to her in private. She does give her a quiet wink and a smile to reassure her. “You can learn from me or Dulmea or one of your siblings,” she answers Vali, “or you can ask Haneyl nicely if she or one of her sziromkeruby would like to write down what you say. But if you want her help, it might be better to ask later.” She looks down meaningfully. “Like when she’s not having a bath.”

“Okay.” And then there’s a boom and a flash, and Keris can barely hear the patter of Vali’s feet running off as she blinks away tears.

Haneyl rubs her eyes. “He’s so rude!” she declares, blinking at Keris. “And he ruined my bath! And he left and he didn’t even say goodbye! What... what a little brat! I... I don’t accept we’re related! I refuse!”

Keris smiles a cunning smile. “Well,” she says. “Actually, I think you are. But you take after Sasi a lot. You’re very like her side of the family, you know that? Telling her some stories about you was what convinced her you were her daughter, way back when you first appeared. She said she recognised the way you think.” Haneyl beams, and Keris drops a kiss on her forehead and lowers her voice to a murmur.

“But,” she goes on, “I think Vali might take more after me when I was little, on the streets of Nexus. And that means that he probably mostly wants to talk to Sasi because you didn’t want him to, and after a few conversations he’ll go back to building basalt castles and doing boy things with Rathan. You don’t have to worry about him stealing her from you.” Keris throws in a grin. “Though maybe I have to worry about you stealing her from me, hmm? Do I have to challenge you to a tickle contest over her?”

Haneyl giggles and wars valiantly, but in the end is out-tickled by Keris and snuggles up to her.

She’s back down to smouldering again, her grey hair filled with embers. In fact, Keris thinks apart from the flare-up of anger at Vali and the shock of being woken up, Haneyl is looking less ash-y and more wood-y. Maybe being close to her tree is bringing her back more into balance. If so, she’ll probably be back to normal by the time she wakes up.

Although, Keris smiles, wearing embers in her hair like that is quite pretty. Keris will need to see if she can do that herself some day.

Five days across the Desert gives Keris plenty of time to split her time between her souls, Sasi - along with Aiko, who seems to consider her to be useful only as Pretty-Music Lady - and some light planning. A few sketches of the Isle of Gulls are joined Rounen’s notes when Sasi is handling her child, as Keris roughs out some ideas for expanding and defending the island, as well as some thoughts on where to start looking for more islands to make a coastal chain of harbours.

Such work doesn’t take up much of the week-long trip, though. For the most part, Keris plays with her souls and spends as much time with Sasi as she can, enjoying the well-deserved break from her duties.

Aiko has taken a great liking to Rounen on the trip, Keris notices with amusement. He combines three of her favourite things - flowers, fire and stories. Haneyl loudly proclaims that this indicates her half-sister has excellent taste. Rounen for his part would prefer if she stopped trying to nibble on his petals, but there’s usually someone there to distract her and Keris can patch him up when she gets a solid bite in.

But fortunately for him, five days end and they surface under the light of a mad green sun.

“Ooooh,” Aiko says, getting her first look at Ligier. She exhales a green jet of fire at the sky, to the surprise of everyone else on deck.

“Where to now, my lady?” the captain asks Keris.

Keris looks at Sasi sadly. “Will you be heading straight back out?” she asks.

Sasi frowns. “It depends on where you’re going,” she admits. “If you’re heading straight to the Conventicle, I’ll go with you just so I can check in with Unquestionable Lilunu and,” she sighs, “file some of the reports that have been building up.”

Keris nods. “I was planning to. I have a gift for the Shashalme, but I need to know where they are.” She turns. “Take us to our berth in the Conventicle, Neride. I’ll need to make a few enquiries there before heading out.”

“Well, then you can help me get changed and suitably relaxed for a meeting with respected Lilunu,” Sasi says, with a quiet smile. “We may not see much of each other after that, so we might as well say our goodbyes.”

Keris nods, rather more happily, and they retire as the Baisha sinks down under caustic waves again; this time for a rather shorter trip. The goodbyes are first enthusiastic, then heartfelt, then tender. By the time Sasi is dressing, they’re back to sad again.

“I’ll miss you,” Keris admits, sniffing. “I mean... I know I wasn’t around for most of Air and Water this year, so I can’t really talk. But I’ll miss you still.” She produces a few sealed envelopes with a watery smile; one rather thicker than the other. “Vali finally got Rathan to help him write a letter to you, so Haneyl wrote a longer one. Save them for the trip - I didn’t want to give them to you earlier in case they distracted us.”

Sasi makes a funny little choked noise. “I won’t be away that long,” she says, sounding awkward. She leans in, and gives Keris a full kiss, hugging her tight. “I’ll see you at Calibration, I promise. And... and thank you.” Her voice cracks. “I never thought I’d end up in a life with... with a shapeshifting dragon-daughter and two demons who say I’m their mother, but I think it’s a life I’m happy with. Even if it - and you - keep on surprising me.”

Keris... well, alright, Keris clings a little. It’s different when it’s Sasi being away from her, and not her being away from Sasi. And not a good different, either.

“You’d be bored with anyone who didn’t,” she manages, half-giggling and half-sniffing. “I’m the... I keep you interested.” She takes a deep breath. “Check up on my owlriders while you’re up there, okay? Make sure they’re doing alright. And... and tell Testolagh he still owes me for my help with them! I haven’t forgotten our deal, and neither should he.” She grimaces, trying to think of something else to say, but nothing comes. It is - much as she hates to admit it - time for Sasi to go.

Lilunu is waiting for them at the docks. She knows they’re coming. She favours a darker hue at the moment, hair jet black and oily.

“Princess Sasimana, Princess Keris,” she says, voice ringing like a bell. “Welcome to your home. How was Creation?”

Seeing her always captivates Keris just a little, and her spirits lift. “Creation was well, my lady,” she answers. “Our work progresses, and,” she grins proudly, “I have certain arts to share with you.”

Lilunu claps her hands together happily. “Oh, wonderful,” she says. “Please, do call upon me when you’re free. And Sasimana, you don’t visit enough. I normally only see you at Calibration. And who is this little one?”

Sasi nods. “Greetings, unquestionable one,” she says, inclining her head. “Respected Lilunu, this is Aiko, my daughter and the child of Prince Testolagh.”

“What a precious little thing,” Lilunu observes. “When you call on me, I may have a gift for her.”

“You are too kind,” Sasi says quietly. “With your permission, I will return to my townhouse and settle her in, and we can get my yearly reports on the status of the South West - and the conduct of Prince Deveh - seen to.”

Lilunu sighs. “I suppose we must. Keris, dear, please don’t delay. I’ll need some light-hearted art after this.”

“I won’t, my lady,” Keris promises. “I do have a small gift for the Shashalme first, though, to thank them for some aid that has helped me in the Southwest. Do you know where their garden is at the moment?”

Lilunu purses her lips. “Not off the top of my head,” she confesses. “I shall have a message sent to your townhouse as soon as possible, though. Before the next scream, certainly.”

Keris heads back to her townhouse, reviews the reports from her aide, and not too long later she gets a message reporting that at present, the garden of the Shashalme is within their greater self three levels outward from here.

She elects to take the Baisha there, at least in part because it’s a short trip and will keep the nature of her gift more secret if she doesn’t have to escort it across three layers of the Demon City. Kimbery’s tributaries run all through Malfeas; there should be one fairly close by.

((Okay, Cog + Travel to navigate your way there.))
((... can I have Neride do it? Does she have a bigger pool? Wait, no. Hah. I still have a Principle towards the Shashalme - they’re Beloved. Mwaa haa!
3+0+2 stunt+5 MBD autosux=5. And holy shit, 5 sux on 5 dice wtf. 5+5=10 sux, yeesh. Keris proving she can captain like a boss when she chooses to, I suppose.))

Keris, for once, takes the metaphorical wheel as they sail. Not the literal wheel, because she employs her Helmsman for a reason and the reason is that he’s damn good at his job, but in the darkness between layers where Kimbery’s waters lie, Keris lets the thread of appreciation and gratitude guide her way to the Unquestionable.

Keris is glad she took charge this. This is no normal river. The first thing she finds is the current, which grows stronger and stronger as she closes in. Then there’s the grey roots sticking down, which thin the passage - and snap at her ship, scraping against the outside of the hull.

It’s like Haneyl’s swamp, Keris realises. Only much worse. Much, much worse. Haneyl’s swamp is the tiny baby version of this, and is moderated by the fire and the burns that stop it getting too gnarled and old and hungry.

But down here, in the darkness below the All-Hunger Blossom, her ship and its contents are the only thing that isn’t Metagaos.

And down here, the currents are because Metagaos is drinking Kimbery up.

Keris casts the runes as an augury for where she will surface. She frowns. Perhaps a few miles from her destination, she thinks. She’s going to need to go cross-country to find her destination.

She nods casually at a rather impressed-looking Neride and orders the Baisha to wait at a safe distance from the swamp. And also that no crew whatsoever is to follow her or even venture up on deck this close to the maw of Metagaos.

That done, she sends a Messenger to the Shashalme asking permission to visit with a gift for them, and goes to find the raksha. If she’s lucky, it will be too drugged or drunk to really ask questions about where she’s taking it. If she’s unlucky... well, she’ll have to do some tedious explaining about where they’re going. And possibly stop it screaming and running away, if it recognises where they are.

It turns out to be so utterly sloshed on chalcanth that it wouldn’t know Firesday from the Second Great Contagion. Keris rolls her eyes, hoists it up in a bridal carry behind her, and hops off the side of the Baisha to make her way in. She keeps her Lance humming in potential between her fingers. She may be visiting the Shashalme with a gift for it, but she’s still wary around a place of Metagaos such as this.

Wariness, in this case, includes “not being stupid enough to go through the Swamp itself”. No, Keris takes the high road, donning her armour and running up as far as possible. With her feet safely enclosed in demon-silver, she dances on tiptoe across the highest parts of the foliage, keeping the raksha at head-height and well away from the jungle below.

Keris darts across toothed leaves and avoids the fungal spore clouds. She’s never been into the All-Hunger Blossom again. In some ways, it’s a lot like Haneyl’s swamp. In other ways, it isn’t. There isn’t green fire. There isn’t open water, not in the same way. The trees are fleshier and toothier and altogether more powerful. The light of Ligier overhead is pale, and almost grey when it’s passed through the canopy.

And then there’s the silence. The silence is scary, because her own noise is muted. Metagaos doesn’t seem to care about the Silent Wind. Perhaps he just eats the sound here. She’s very glad when she finds the place of gold and bright fruit and song and music in amidst this terrifying grey jungle that wants to eat her up and which tries to snap at her as she passes.

Shaking a little - and asking Dulmea to play louder in her mind to make up for the silence around her - Keris waits until she’s some way into the garden before descending to ground level, and then spends a little more time leaning against a tree and shivering. Adorjan, she thinks, is not the only frightening All-Maker.

She’d really rather not meet this one in person.

Once she’s finished shaking - and after summoning her Lance to hold as a security blanket for a little while - she peels her armour off, puts her weapons away and proceeds to the centre of the garden.

Upon a great tower of gold and gems and jewels and other valuable things sits the Shashalme. She’s wearing her female form at the moment, and her scarlet skin is cherry-red at the moment. In one of her many hands, she holds a haunch of raw meat, which she idly tears into.

And all around her, her cultists sing adoring praises, even as the hunger of the forest consumes them and they transform into trees and flies and other such things.

Keris winces, and considers that perhaps this might not have been the best time to approach. Still...

“My lady?” she ventures, tentatively.

The demon princess focusses on her, rising and shedding bones and gems and jewelry from her rough tower as she descends. “Ah. Keris,” she breathes. “So you come to see me in the heart of my greater self.” She smiles so widely, showing blood-smeared palewood teeth. “Very few do that. Do you wonder why, Keris Dulmeadokht?”

“I...” Keris gulps, wondering if the reason is maybe because most people are rather smarter than she is. “Fear, my lady? A-and a lack of... of gratitude?”

“Fear is a form of worship in its own way,” the Shashalme breathes, its scent bloody. “I like its taste. So, Keris. What makes you willing to brave my heart and interrupt my gifting of cultists to my dear brothers and sisters - and my greater self, that exists so that I may live.” She leans in, and Keris feels an awkward frisson of arousal at the smell of the blood “What do you want? Or perhaps, what are you going to give me?”

No, Keris decides, stomach churning. It’s not exactly arousal. It’s more like... a hunger. A hunger for everything, so vast that things around her feel her hunger. But Keris ate before she went here and is already missing Sasi, so the hunger of Metagaos is trying to make her think of certain things.

“I have a gift for you, my lady,” she breathes. She can feel her cheeks flushing and her pupils blowing wide. “A... a gift from Creation to... to thank you for all you’ve given me.” Her hair comes around, bringing the raksha out from behind her, and she feels a pang of uncertainty. All of a sudden it looks very weak and pathetic next to the Shashalme. Hardly a worthy gift at all. “I hope it satisfies you,” she whispers.

The Shashalme beams at her. “A little prince of chaos?” she exhales. “How wonderfully delicious. And one as powerful as a demon lord, in its own way? What a - aha - princely gift, Keris.” The demon princess looks almost coquettish, looking at Keris over her eyelashes. “I remember when there were so many chaos princes that we could just ignore them,” she says, reaching out to brush the drunken, drugged fae with her finger. “Now, there are such... scarce pickings.”

Keris sees the maggots spill from the Shashalme’s fingers, worming their way into the raksha’s face and closing the entry holes behind them.

“You must adore me greatly,” the Shashalme breathes, voice hot and wet and bloody. “Such a good little princess.”

“... my lady,” Keris whispers. It seems the safest option, and is honestly all she can bring to mind at the moment. “I... I’m glad you’re pleased.”

“Would you like servants, little Keris?” the red-skinned woman breathes, her long fingernails kicking together. “Perhaps a thousand men and demons, loyal only to you. Such loyalty from you well-behoves you, so I should give you loyalty.”

((Offering Followers 4))
((Yikes, going straight for a 5-dot Principle. Hmm. Okay, asking for high Resources art supplies and so on that sum to Artifact 1, since I think Resources is an exception to the 1:1 Background exchange of the Shashalme’s deals because of how it just creates money all the time.))

“I have servants enough at the moment, my lady,” Keris says hastily. She knows what a gift of that magnitude would plant within her. “But not finery like the things that grace your your garden. I’ve learned new arts since we last spoke, and I want to practice them. Perhaps cloth and gems for me to make wonders from?” She looks up from under her lashes, shyly. “I would be very grateful.”

“But that’s so dull,” the Shashalme says, pouting, with a tone that sounds remarkably like Haneyl being offered a present she considers inadequate. “No, no.” She snaps two pairs of fingers together. “I know! There is just a darling fortress-manse on the edge of the City, beside the wall and right next to Cecelyne. It’s even one of my self’s manses. Surely if you are frequently going to transit between Malfeas and the world of the rebels, a fortified citadel for you to hold right at the edge of Cecelyne would be the perfect thing for you!”

((Offering a Manse 3 Fortress Manse))
((Argh, walking the thin line between not offending her and not getting too deep, argh, argh. Remind me to send them gifts by mail in future. Though, urgh. That’ll probably just result in Keris getting summoned for a meeting.))

“Truly, my lady, the means to make beauty is all I want for the moment,” Keris says, trying to think of what might distract Haneyl in a hungry mood from... well, the best analogy is probably ‘a really tasty meal’, which is not a very reassuring concept.

Is it too much to hope for another Unquestionable declaring war, she wonders?

“Oh, of course! Why didn’t you say, little Keris?” the red-skinned demon-woman says, suddenly happy. “I would be just heart-broken to give them away, but to one so adoring and wonderful as you, I can make an exception. I have a set of brushes which belonged to a Chosen of the Sun before they were all murdered. There is one for each metal of the traitor gods and one for the elements of vile Gaia. I’ve never used them, but I have heard they’re quite fine. One can use them to paint in the substances or concepts linked to the brush.”

((Offering a set of twelve fine High First Age Brushes, rated at Artifact 2 for the collection))

That, Keris perks up at. “Those... those sound wonderful,” she says eagerly. “May I see them?”

The Shashalme spreads her arms wide. “Of course,” she says, all smiles. “Care for some food while I hunt them down?”

“I’m afraid I ate after entering the City,” Keris says with regret that’s actually fairly genuine. The food on the Shashalme’s table may contain seeds of obligation, but it also smells divine.

... well, maybe not ‘divine’. But really good, for certain.

“Perhaps I should try to learn more secrets of the All-Hunger Blossom,” she adds, smiling. “Then I wouldn’t miss out on feasts from being so full.”

“Entirely advisable,” smiles the sharp-toothed demon princess, who vanishes off somewhere into her horde.

They’re wearing their male face when he returns, a dark-skinned man dripping with gold jewels and bearing a finely crafted orichalcum box. “I apologise sincerely for the delay,” the Shashalme says. “I had not thought of these brushes in so very long, since a Dragonblooded offered them to me... oh, well over a thousand years ago.”

Keris whistles, low and awed, as she accepts the box. “A thousand years,” she whispers, running reverent fingers over the golden surface, and her face takes on a hungry cast as she opens it.

The next twenty seconds or so are filled with happy, gleeful whimpering as she examines each brush in turn. They are exquisite. Keris can’t wait to put them to a canvas.

“My lord,” she beams. “You are generous beyond measure. I thank you for your gift, and I’ll be sure to paint you something with them.”

“I look forward to it,” the demon says, smiling. He kneels down beside the raksha. “Now,” he sings to it, “tell me what you want and I’ll give you everything. Everything, little chaos prince. I’ll give you everything indeed.”

Keris decides now is the time to leave.

Chapter Text

Back in her townhouse, Keris takes the chance to properly coo over her beautiful new paintbrushes and pamper herself. Her attempts to do so are, however, interrupted, by Rathan whining to her.

“Mama!” he complains. “The girls have grabbed Vali and they’re doing mean things to him!”

Keris sighs quietly. “Somehow,” she groans, “that does not surprise me. Alright, gimme a minute.”

She retires to one of her courtyards; the one with white gravel and a little red smoke-fountain and a rockery. Well, probably a rockery. It tastes more like bone, though what has bones this big Keris isn’t sure she wants to know. Perched among the aesthetically pleasing shapes, she relaxes into meditation and slips into her Domain, aiming for Rathan. He’s in the City, and he’s nearly vibrating with anger. “Mama! Mama! Mama! They’re in grandma’s tower and they’re doing girl things to him!” he explodes.

Keris picks him up and drops him onto her shoulders, where he immediately takes two fistfuls of hair. “Come on then,” she says. “Let’s go rescue him, shall we?”

As soon as Keris approaches, she can hear the sounds of three girls giggling. She would normally consider this to be a sign that it’s good to see her children getting along so well, but alas.

Carefully easing her way up the exterior wall, Keris pokes her head in.

She’s presented with the sight of Vali sitting on the floor, wearing a very, very ribbony dress. He’s eating sweets from one of Haneyl’s boxes with both hands, and thus has fruit stains all around his mouth. Echo and Calesco are industriously plaiting ribbons into his hair, while Haneyl hovers nearby with face paint and brushes, and a very small plate of some of her tastiest food - quite evidently as a bribe for when he runs out of sweets.

Keris blinks, gapes a little and stares. “Um...” she manages. “What... exactly...”

Echo looks up, and with her face and hair indicates that Haneyl should explain, because her hands are busy so she can’t talk.

“Hello, mother,” Haneyl says sweetly. “Did Brat-han go running to you? We’re just getting on with our new brother. Echo came and woke me up after my nap, and said her and Calesco had a good idea to make him prettier and it was something we could do all to get along.”

“Don’t call your brother names,” Keris scolds reflexively, reaching up to pat Rathan on the knee. “And... Vali, you’re okay with this?” She supposes he must be. If they had Rathan in this position, he’d be bursting pipes and calling down monsoons by now.

Vali looks up and shrugs. The look on his face is very nearly Echoese in the way it very clearly explains that he’s fine with anything as long as he gets fed sweets.

Keris blinks again. “I... see,” she says lamely. Rathan makes a high-pitched squeaky noise of outrage, and Keris pulls her head back out and darts back down to ground level before things come to a head.

“... that was very strange,” she says, which Rathan seems to agree with. “I... guess maybe he just wanted to know what they do during girl time?”

“They’re trying to steal him!” Rathan growls. “They know he’s my brother so they want to drive me away and make him all theirs! They want to make him into a pet brother who’ll just do what they want! And he’s so young he doesn’t know how you’re meant to act and he’s also weak so he’s wearing a dress just because Haneyl bribed him with sweets! She tries to do that to me too!”

((In conclusion, Keris’ Compassion, Joy and Greed have decided that her rebellious streak and capacity to say “No” to their demands needs to be tamed.))
((This is not going to end well for them when they try to use this as leverage.))
((Well, no. It is possible Echo is just doing it for the explosion.))

“Ah ah ah,” Keris wags her finger wisely. “One thing I already know about Vali? Even after just a little while? He doesn’t like being told what to do.”

“But-” starts Rathan. Keris wags her finger again.

“He’ll do things if you ask him to. Sometimes. Or if you explain why doing them would be a good idea. Or bribe him with food, which I bet is what they did up there. But telling him what to do? Or what not to do? Trying to say what he’s allowed and not allowed? He doesn’t like that at all.”

“But boys aren’t meant to-” Rathan gets out before being silenced by the finger for a third time. Keris winks at him.

“Rathan, sweetie,” she says, and drops her voice to a whisper. “When did I say I meant your rules?”

He looks up at her, frowning, and she shares a conspiratorial smirk. “He doesn’t like being ordered around,” she repeats. “And... Haneyl. And Calesco. What do you think is going to happen when they think that just because he lets them braid his hair and put makeup on him in return for food, he’s their pet and will do what they say?” She sighs. “Echo... Echo probably knows that already. She’s just playing along so she gets to watch.”

((Keris makes a social case to the Principle of “delayed schadenfreude (this is going to be hilarious)”. : P))

“But Mama,” Rathan whines, “when he’s not around because they’ve stolen him, things are more boring. I didn’t know how much I really, really, really wanted a brother until he showed up!” He tugs on Keris’ dress. “Well, you’re just going to have to play with me,” he demands. “What are you doing? I can help!”

“Well, as it happens,” Keris smiles. “I have some very pretty paintbrushes that can paint with all sorts of things. Shall we try them out? With, say...” she tickles under his chin, “... maybe some Water colouring?”

((... dammit keris. u hav started to mum-pun.))

Rathan considers this. “Paint things with water and then ice it?” he asks.

“That and more,” Keris says, letting him wriggle down off her shoulders and take her hand as they walk through the streets towards the Library. “Apparently they can do things like painting with fire, or air, or even moonlight!” She purses her lips. “Though that last one is meant for the silver moon of Creation. I’ll have to make sure it’s good enough to handle your moonlight without breaking before trying that. So, shall we go see what they can do?”

“Okay!”

Alas, it turns out after some very careful experimentation that even a tenth-part of Rathan’s rain in the water makes her brush’s bristles start to clog, and Keris has to wash it several times with Creation-water to get it back into proper condition. She reassures Rathan that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with his water, and that the brush is just not good enough to use something so special.

Rathan’s own experiments, on the other hand, are coming along very nicely. He’s somehow - without Keris finding out - developed a painting style all his own, using a tray with a thin layer of clear water and various bottles of dyed liquid. Not all of them are water - she can tell there are oils there by the way some of them sink or float - but he seems quite happy drizzling them into the bowl and drawing his hair through the water to mix, spread or detail them. When he’s done, he breathes on the tray and then lifts it up to extract a pane of solid ice with a rendition of Keris frozen into it all the way through.

It’s marvellous, and Keris wastes no time or enthusiasm in letting him know it.

((So yes, Rathan has basically invented paper marbling. Except he doesn’t need to use paper to capture the design, because he can just freeze it into an ice-canvas.))

It’s an enjoyable afternoon, and by the end of it a chocolate-covered Vali shows up. His face paint - inexpertly applied by a young girl - is already smudged, half his ribbons are gone, and his ribbon dress is unravelling. Keris raises an eyebrow at him. “How much chocolate did they give you?” she asks, slightly impressed. “Oh, and we’re painting. Do you want to join in?”

Vali shrugs. “I’m not gonna say no to Hanny’s sweets,” he says. “Not for a stupid dress that falls apart super-fast anyway. She makes good food.” He tugs his hair, and Keris notices that the ribbons that are remaining are the ones which seem to be tying it into braids. “Plus, the braid thingies are good. Maybe I might make some rings or something that won’t fall apart so quick.”

“Ooo, or beads!” Keris grins. “Metal beads and rings to hold your hair in... oh, what are they called. Hair-ropes... those things the Soot Rats used to use as gangsign...” she snaps her fingers a few times, trying to remember. “Ah, dreadlocks!” She considers him, tilting her head from side to side, and nods. “Yeah, they might suit you. And they’d carry the lightning when your hair goes all sparky and make it jump from bead to bead.”

“That’d be neat,” Vali says. He slumps over to where they’re working, and grabs one of the metal basins that Rathan has been using for his water. He overturns it, and with a little fist begins beating it into... into a brass sword? Well, it’s a Vali-sized sword, so it’s really more of a knife, but he’s making a go of it. Especially since he’s spark-welding the layers together with his finger tips in-between beatings.

Keris watches him quietly. She’s still learning about this new child of hers; far more independent than Rathan or Haneyl. Perhaps more like Echo or Calesco. He doesn’t seem to need her attention nearly as much, and sometimes she’s not even sure how much he wants it. It makes it tricky to know how to deal with him.

“Say, boys?” she asks. “What do you think I should do next year? I’m making headway getting the Hui Cha to trust me, I’ve got the misbegotten set up on their island... what next?”

“Make them love you,” Rathan says immediately. “Like the pretty lady who you made a deal with, except prettier.”

“Who?” asks Vali. “But they keep slaves. You need to stop the slave stuff.”

“Pale Branch,” Keris tells him. “The wife of one of the blue sea masters. She’s agreed to help me try and take over. And yes, I have some ideas on how to stop their slaving. If I can get my fleet to them as a gift from Riyaah MuHiitiyah, they’ll probably start worshipping her, and then I can tell them she doesn’t like slaves. With a whole fleet of junks on the line, I think they’ll probably stop.” She smiles fondly. “Especially since Rathan can make sure they don’t blame me for wanting them to stop, hmm?”

Vali looks at her. “Good,” he says. “I’ll make lots of swords so the slaves can use them to stab all the slavers.”

Keris coos happily at that thought. “Excellent,” she says. “Now here, let me help you get those ribbons out and we’ll see if we can get some locks put in.”

The next morning - with Vali bearing a clinking set of tightly-braided brass-adorned dreadlocks - Keris decorates her own hair before going to see Lilunu. It’s been a while since she’s done this - besides holding knives, needles and sharp things in it, of course - and she has quite a lot of fun scattering brass beads and intricate silver hairpieces and glittering glass drops from Cecelynite glass-storms among the red strands.

Holding it up off the floor behind her like the train of a dress, she relegates her Amulet-wear to a simple slip. Over it, she dons one of her best efforts in embroidery; a rather lovely plum-red tunic that she’s stitched wind, wave and mangrove-root patterns into in gold thread. It’ll be more fitting to be wearing her work when she goes to see Lilunu.

Keris is guided into an area of Lilunu’s quarters that Keris is fairly sure used to be a grand hall. Now, however, it’s been turned into a training ground, and the Unquestionable is performing beautiful pattern dances as she practices against one of Ligier’s automatons. Lilunu wields a brass spear with a long blade covered in burning characters - no doubt another one of Ligier’s gifts.

((Lilunu is good - but good in a rather practiced, amateurish way. Her style is too rigid by Keris’ opinion, and she doesn’t quite have the edge of a real expert. Keris estimates 2 dots in a Style, and Melee 3-4 - but Physique 5.))
((Poor Keris. How dare you throw attractive Dynastic women using spears at her? That’s not fair at all.))
((... man, if a spear-using high-Breeding Immaculate ever comes after her, she’s gonna be fucked. And not in the fun way.))

Lilunu doing art is one thing. When she paints or sculpts, Keris might be overcome with awe and envious of how good she is, but at least that’s to be expected and she knows about it ahead of time.

Seeing the Unquestionable with a spear, on the other hand - a spear that she’s not bad at using, even if she’s not on Keris’s own level of skill... well, it’s something else entirely. She wasn’t expecting that, and goes more than a little weak-kneed at the sight.

After she’s done whimpering, though, the sight starts to nag at her. While Lilunu genuinely is good at what she’s doing - better than any but the most talented of mortals - she’s still got flaws to her technique, and Keris itches to correct them. She can see the rigidity to Lilunu’s movements; the places someone as fast as fluid as her could get around her guard.

Still loitering in the doorway, she summons her Lance and mimics a couple of deflections, trying them out for herself to check that that she’s right in what she’s seeing. And also trying to work out how to give pointers to an Unquestionable.

It looks like, Keris thinks, Lilunu uses Killing Ray Style. It’s notably the famed style of Gervesin, the Grieving Lord, Messenger Soul of Ligier. Keris met him at a party once. It’s a very linear style, all about the flow of combat down a single line and direct thrusts and emulating the deadly rays of the Green Sun as they punch through all opponents and cast no shadows. It’s very nearly the antithesis of Keris’ own whirling Friagem Serpent Style.

((... aww fuck.))
((So, funny thing. I started typing a reply where she cleared her throat because no Keris, jumping into an active combat to show how someone is Doing It Wrong is a deeply, deeply stupid thing to do, especially if that someone is a) Unquestionable and b) your Mentor. But I was like “well actually I’ll roll Temperance anyway but only actually do it if I botch, lol”.))
((I then proceeded to roll Temperance and botch.))
((Which I suppose I deserved, with that attitude. Gimme a mo, I’mma do a deeply stupid thing.))

The itch to intervene grows stronger and stronger as Lilunu keeps practicing without fixing the flaws in her form, not noticing Keris lurking in the doorway behind her. Which is very annoying, because if she was moving off that damn straight line and using some proper mobility, not only would she not be grinding on Keris’s nerves like this, but she’d also have seen her guest!

Oh, hang it.

Keris darts forward onto the line and shadows the Unquestionable for a moment; the other woman’s greater height blocking her from the automaton’s sight. She doesn’t know Killing Ray herself, and doesn’t try to emulate the spear parts, but she keeps an eye on Lilunu’s footwork and as she goes into one of those too-rigid thrusts again...

“You’re too stiff with those thrusts.”

... she flows around and between them, tapping both spears off-line with a lazy-looking twist of her Lance and spinning out of reach and range in a graceful circle.

Lilunu moves - moves faster than her slightly stiff spear movements - and whirls on the intruder. Her hand is splitting apart into teeth except the teeth are brass and dripping black venom and out comes a salvo of seeds which burn with green fire. And then there’s a crystalline shriek from inside the mouth and the seeds collapse into a fire-rimmed black portal.

And her eyes. Her eyes are solid black.

Oh. Keris remembers at that point the point that’s been made to her repeatedly about not surprising or stressing out Lilunu.

The room lights up as a many-coloured bolt of... of stuff that can’t even decide what it is from moment to moment punches straight through Keris. Keris flows around it - of course, for who can strike the wind? - and it punches through the wall behind her. And the wall behind that. And out of the palace entirely. Keris hears something collapsing.

Shaking like a leaf, Lilunu grabs her arm with her other arm and cradles it to her chest so it’s pointing at the ceiling. Keris can hear her rasping breath - and can hear the tidal surge of terrible forces within her.

It isn’t, Keris realises in a sudden moment of Echoan clarity, that Lilunu cast some sorcery at her. It’s that she has all this terrible amount of energy locked up within her chakras and when it breaks through her control it escapes - in one way or another.

Her eyes are wild, as they focus on Keris - but at least they’re back to normal.

“I’m sorry!” Keris blurts, wide-eyed and terrified. “I’m- I saw- I thought you would... I’m sorry! I didn’t...”

She drops to her knees and bows, trembling. “I was... I was trying...” She can’t seem to get the words out, or even assemble them in her head right.

Lilunu just gasps for air, cradling her air. Slowly, her breath slows to something more meditative. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she mutters. “I knew you were coming. Why did that surprise me?” She looks up. “Sorry,” she whispers. “I... I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“No, no, no,” Keris shakes her head rapidly. “No, I... I’m the one who should be sorry, I shouldn’t have surprised you like that, I just needed to show... your stop thrusts were...”

She forces herself to slow down; that Echoan clarity still bright and sharp in her mind. “In, um. In Creation, I had a run-in with a few Dragonblooded. Uh, four. Four Dragonblooded. In a small room. Underground. Which they locked. And I got away, but I couldn’t flare or... or call on Echo or even use my Lance, and I only managed it b-because I’m fast and unpredictable and I could see the patterns in how you were moving and if you’d been there...”

She bites her lip to cut off the babble. “I just... wanted to, um,” she says, taking care to speak slowly. “To help... I mean, obviously I was wrong, you can defend yourself just fine. And you wouldn’t be in that sort of... I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”

((Oh Keris. Deep down, you do worry a lot about what Sasi would do in a real fight.))

Still holding her arm to her chest, Lilunu rises. “I think we both need a drink,” she says, slightly shakily.

It is a very stiff drink indeed. It’s some demonic brew which tastes vaguely herbal and burns when it goes down, and is served inside little tortoiseshell cups because it melts glass and ceramics.

Keris sneaks guilty glances at Lilunu over the rim of her cup, unsure of what to say. Asking if that outburst hurt her might not be the sort of thing she wants to talk about, but just starting to talk about art as if nothing had happened seems horribly disrespectful.

“I birthed another soul,” she eventually says. She’s not sure where it comes from, and it comes out awkwardly, but it’s a different type of awkwardness. “That makes nine, now. Or five, I suppose.” Her lips twitch slightly. “They squabble. A lot.”

There’s a brief flicker of emotions on Lilunu’s face, but her strange features are hard to read. She smiles at Keris, all seemingly at ease. “Oh my. Whose form and nature does this one inherit?”

Keris frowns. “I’m not sure, entirely,” she admits. “He’s not as clear as, say, Echo. His core is Malfean, but he has lightning and dark clouds in him as well. Vali, his name is. A smith, and Haneyl’s brother.”

Lilunu pours herself another shot, and sips at it thoughtfully. “How strange. From what you’ve said before, your first two souls were relatively ‘pure’, so to speak. But every one since then has been hybridised. I wonder why that is. Perhaps it is some manner of requirement for stability. But,” she sighs, “my own sickness comes from my own incoherent nature. Have any of your souls displayed any of the same inconsistently and loss of control that I have?”

Keris purses her lips and checks that Haneyl is nowhere near the Tower. According to Dulmea, she’s out clearing the fog from the edges of her Swamp this morning, so Keris nods.

“My seventh soul,” she says. “Haneyl. She’s not inconsistent, exactly, but... she has problems controlling the fire in her. When she gets upset, she burns out of control - and the last time she did that, she changed. Took on a new form; one entirely of flame. She burnt a whole section of the Swamp and then tired and became ash and lay there in a depression for days.”

“And did she show any other personalities taking over? Any sign of possession, or physical harm from her unbalanced chakras?” Lilunu is leaning forwards, concern on her face.

“Hmm. No, I don’t think so,” Keris says thoughtfully. “She was... her passions were burning too brightly for her to control at first, and when she was ash she didn’t feel much of anything and just lay there. But she was still her, both times, and she wasn’t hurt. Her essence shifted, but it felt like it was... maybe not a nice shift, but one that was part of her.”

She looks up at Lilunu sadly. “Not... not like the chaos in your veins. I wish I could help you with it.”

Lilunu nods sadly. “I think you should keep an eye on her and make sure to teach her self control and moderation,” she says, “but there are many other demons who experience such tempers. Indeed, I think you may have seen how violent my own sweet love gets when his ire is raised. The war against Ululaya continues on his part, and I must remain neutral for it is none of my concern, but when he rages lesser demons melt and his light leaves tens of thousands dying from Green Sun Wasting. And then such moods pass and he is himself once more.”

Keris nods thoughtfully, drawing the parallels to Haneyl. “I hope the war goes well for him?” she asks, not without interest at the thought of Ululaya being defeated.

Lilunu laughs. “In all honesty, I stopped paying attention to it months ago. There is only so many tales of glorious victories and base treachery that I can take. There is a reason I do not permit such warring on my lands. I don’t doubt at some point they’ll grow bored of it and come to some peace treaty until one annoys the other again. The sun and the moon have long since warred, and...” she blushes slightly, “... well, my presence complicates one of the ways they have previously used to make up.”

That surprises Keris more than a little, and from Lilunu’s laugh she suspects it shows on her face. “It... it’s hard to imagine him without you,” she fumbles, plucking at her tunic, and then remembers why she came.

“Oh, yes! Before I left for Creation, you mentioned an interest in seeing Tengese embroidery. Well...” She stands and twirls. “I put aside some time to learn it from the masters in the Shore Lands to show you.”

Lilinu puts down her drink and claps her hands happily. “Oh! What a pretty little provincial style? Do you mind if I take a closer look?”

“Of course!” Keris cheerfully hops closer to let Lilunu examine the stitching. “The pattern is mine, but the way it’s done is Tengese - they use a lot of gold thread, and in the High Lands it’s traditional never to let anyone see it - they wear embroidered garments under their clothes or in private. Down in the Shore Lands where I learned, people care much less and wear them openly, but technically there are laws against the peasantry wearing ornate clothing, so this is how they got around it.”

She fingers the curving lines of the wind-wave-root symbols that are fast becoming her personal signature. “They tend to stitch religious symbols and blessings to scare off ghosts and fae and demons - though I can tell you that last one doesn’t seem to work.” She grins. “But for this tunic I tried a pattern-style of my own. I have more traditional pieces if you want to see the sort of thing they make.”

“Clothing not meant to be seen. How strange,” Lilunu says, with all the confusion of a demon of Malfeas. “Did you make some as a gift for me?”

“I made a few pieces - there’s one very nice scarf that you’ll like - but I thought you might want to watch me stitch one from the beginning?” Keris suggests. “That way you could see how it works. Oh, and I have a new toy to play with that you’ll like. But that can wait until later.”

“That would be lovely,” Lilunu says, beaming. She smiles at Keris. “You know, Deveh hasn’t done anything half as nice for me as you have - and he’s been in the High Lands all along. This way, at least, to my working room. I made a new one recently for working with metal threads, but I think I left some fabrics in there too.”

“Speaking of your working room,” Keris says as she falls into step beside Lilunu, “You might be interested in hearing about a little project of Haneyl’s that I found out about a while ago.”

“Oh? And so young?”

“Well, seeing how beautiful your workroom was seemed to inspire her,” Keris smiles. It’s been long enough that she’s mostly over the horror of what had been down there when Haneyl first showed it to her - and she’s been back since to confirm that she works only with demons who are happy to be there now. “She’s made herself a little art room - well, I say little - and spends time making pretty things there.”

“Oh, how sweet,” Lilunu says in a vaguely patronising tone. “I’m sure she’s very good.”

“She is,” Keris says; proud and a little defensive. “And she’d be overjoyed to hear you say so.”

“Mmm,” Lilunu says. “Well, if you ever find a way to let her out, I’d be interesting to seeing what she can do if she really was that impressed by me.” She pauses. “And later, I think I want to talk to you about something very... personal about me.”

“Of course,” Keris says. “To both. But... ah,” she grins as they enter the work room. “Now for some stitching.”

Keris decides on an open-fronted jacket to demonstrate her embroidery on, and walks Lilunu through the nuances of the stitching and how they can be made visible only on the inside of the garment, a little of the history of the art and the way religious symbols and blessings are incorporated into the pattern. This last gets another laugh from Lilunu as she realises that rather than the Golden Lord, Keris is referencing Lilunu in the quick, neat stitches, and that the blessings are to strengthen and bolster demons rather than ward them away.

She runs out of things to say a little before she finishes, though, and they slip into a companionable silence as Keris finishes the bottom of the pattern, tidies up the threads and ties everything off. Hands resting on her lap, Lilunu clears her throat. “I would say that we are... quite close,” she says delicately, with the whole manner of someone begining something they’re not quite sure how to say. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, of course,” Keris looks up at her, realises that the topic has turned serious, and sets the finished jacket aside.

“This entire matter is not to be spoke of to anyone. Anyone at all, do you understand? If you don’t feel you can hold to that, please tell me and I will speak no more of it,” she says.

Keris pauses. “My... coadjutor will know,” she points out hesitantly. “I can’t really keep secrets from her, though she can shoo my souls away from seeing and hearing. But I won’t speak of it to anyone else, I can promise that.”

Lilunu takes a deep breath, and runs her hands through her hair, which is grey at the moment. “I am Unquestionable, yes? And yet I don’t have any souls, no?”

“Y- no.” Keris frowns. “That’s... that’s a good point. I’d never noticed that.”

“That is not strictly true,” she admits. “But... you saw how things were this day. I am imperfect and flawed. My souls are imperfect and flawed, deeply so. I was so worried that you might have the same affliction as me, for I can see how happy they make you. But maybe yours can help me cure mine.” She pinches the brow of her nose. “They suffer terribly and I try to help them, but cannot,” she admits softly.

“If I can help, of course I will!” Keris vows. “What... what do you mean by...” She trails off. “They suffer?”

Lilunu shifts. “You see how I am out of balance and keep my chakras in balance through discipline, control and keeping away from surprises?” she saws awkardly. “My souls do not encompass all of me. They cannot maintain the same balance. Every one of them suffers by their nature, and there is no balance for them as they are only parts of the whole I am.”

Keris’s hand comes up to her mouth in distress. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers. “Is that... why I’ve never seen them?” Something occurs to her and she pales further. “Wait. When I told you about my Gales... you said something about what it felt like to lose a soul.”

Lilunu nods sadly. “Perhaps we will go down to see Bruleuse. He is the one who... who I feel least guilt around,” she whispers.

She leads Keris down and out of her central palace, down into one of her gardens beside a lake - and then down a narrow stone staircase, which is nearly pitch black, lit only by the faintest glow of coral growing from the walls.

“Bruleuse has his nature from the Great Mother,” Lilunu says softly, her presence in front of Keris, “and he was spawned emasculated and burned.” She sighs. “But listen for how sweetly he sings.”

And indeed, down below from an echoing space Keris can hear a beautiful song, heartbreaking in its elegance. It sounds archaic - it is in High Realm and Keris can’t understand a word, but it’s still beautiful.

“Do you have one for every Yozi?” she asks, closing her eyes to better concentrate on the song. It’s a pity she doesn’t know High Realm, she thinks. She’d love to know what the lyrics meant, if the tune alone is so lovely.

“Yes,” she says.

And then they turn the corner and enter the hidden gotto. It’s pitch black in here. Or, rather, nearly pitch black. Because there are six glowing green-jade lights in here, from the far side of the room.

Keris can hear more. Much, much more. She can hear the lapping tidal pool. She can hear the venom in the water. She can hear the venom on the walls.

And she can hear the bulk of the gigantic thing in the water, with the six green eyes and the tentacled mouth and the wings and the open burn sores all over its body.

It’s a dragon, Keris realises. Lilunu’s soul is a horrifically burned dragon.

She throws an Echo-sharp look at Lilunu as a long-held suspicion clicks further into place. But she doesn’t say a word. Only steps closer to Lilunu and takes her hand in a show of quiet support.

The song dies down, and the green lights seem to focus. “Ah,” sighs a high-pitched for a man voice. It doesn’t sound like something that should be coming from something this massive. “You have brought someone with you, Lilunu. A new servant? No, not from the power I feel from her.” Slowly, carefully it swims closer. “A protege, then. Someone you want to meet your Nurturing Soul. Someone you want to nurture. And someone you hope can help.”

“Poor sweet Bruleuse,” Lilunu says, a choke in her voice. “Yes. Bruleuse, this is Princess Keris, a Scourge.”

“You have spoken of her before, with kindness.” The bulk of the thing in the darkness approaches the edge of the pool. “Forgive me for the lack of light. I don’t like to look at myself, and the water keeps my burns clean. Princess Keris, I am Bruleuse.” He gasps as he raises one giant webbed claw from the water. “I am pleased to meet you. Please, only shake the claw - don’t touch my skin.”

Keris carefully takes the claw and shakes it gently. “Peer Bruleuse,” she whispers. “It is an honour to meet you.”

“Lord, as a matter of fact,” he says. “This lightless cave is my domain, granted to me by Lilunu, and the attendants who clean my burns are my serfs. Such is life. Alas, alackaday.” He begins to sing, this time in Old Realm, a song about the misfortunes of existence and how things are as they are and cannot be changed.

“Can nothing be done for your burns?” Keris asks. She knows already that if anything could be done it would undoubtedly would have been, but she can’t help but ask. “They can’t be healed? Surely somewhere in Hell there must be a doctor who can...”

“Can what?” There is a hint of bitterness in his voice. “You think it hasn’t been tried? That such things are novel? That the other Unquestionable would not want Lilunu whole so her nurturing was not pained and-”

“Bruleuse.” It’s a commanding tone from Lilunu. “You speak of things you should not.”

He sighs. “No, in truth, the burns can be helped. The water eases the pain, and so does avoiding the light. But it is my nature to be maimed, and I fear that even if it were possible to heal my skin, you could not replace my missing genitals - and with wholeness in skin might come the loss of my voice, or my eyes. And if I could not sing, I would beg for death with scratched missives. I know I am fortunate compared to some of my soul-siblings.”

((Doo dee doo, roll Compassion, 4 successes on 4 dice, tum tee tum...))

Keris bows her head. “I’m so sorry,” she chokes out, tears gathering in her eyes. She doesn’t miss the way he said the water and darkness only ease the pain. Or that he described himself as fortunate compared to the others. “If there’s anything I can do to help... if there’s anything I find that can... anything at all.”

“Do you sing?” he asks. “Or play instruments?”

She sniffs. “I do, lord. My coadjutor was an angyalka, and I can play the strands of Time. Shall I play for you?”

“If you please, princess,” he says. And yes, that is a notable High Realm accent there.

So Keris kneels on the damp floor, closes her eyes completely, and begins to play. She remembers the frog goddess from Shuu Mua and tilts an ear to the song of Bruleuse’s maimed essence; chooses the notes from it that sound whole and nurturing and gentle instead of burned and pained and bitter. She plays, and tries to draw the pain she hears out of him and into herself through the sound she pulls from the air.

((3+5+3 Time-Strung Harpist+1 bonus {reinforce a target’s mood}+2 stunt+4 Compassion+4 Kimmy ExSux {endlessly giving, beauty, martyring herself}=20. 8+4=12 sux.))
((15 succeses for Bruleuse, 11 for Lilunu.))

Two voices join Keris’ music - one, male, castrato, coming from the dragon before her and the other female and rising high above the notes is Lilunu herself.

Together, the music is one of terrible, shameful pain concealed, of self-sacrifice - and under that, a simmering anger at a world that would leave such suffering in place. It is something the greatest courts of Creation would weep to hear, but only three ever do, down in this hidden grotto in the Demon City.

Keris weeps as they say their goodbyes and ascend back up into the light. It takes most of the climb for her to regain her composure, and as they reach the top of the flight of stairs she asks Lilunu if they might speak in private about a delicate matter.

“Of course,” Lilunu says, as she blots at her own eyes with a handkerchief.

She takes Keris to an inner chamber, and even there, Keris does something she’s rarely done before. “I don’t want to be overhead,” she says, before tilting her head back and swallowing her voice.

It’s still a very strange feeling.

With newfound eloquence to her movements and gestures, she apologises to Lilunu. There are, she indicates a few things she hasn’t been entirely forthcoming on. She’s never quite lied about them, just... not said anything about them until she was more sure of what they meant. Like how she had an eighth soul, and how that had worried and confused her at first.

She looks down at the by-now-familiar curve of her belly and strokes it thoughtfully. But, she indicates with a wave of her hand, they might help with the suffering of Lilunu’s souls. So can Lilunu please make the same promise that Keris made to her - not to share what Keris is about to tell her? If not, Keris hastens to add, she’ll still try to find a way to help in any way she can. She’ll just have to be a bit less direct about it.

Lilunu looks awkward. “There are certain things that can be demanded of me,” she says. “But there are certaintly things I will not... freely mention.”

Keris bites her lip, considers for a while, and finally nods.

The thing is, she gestures, the children she’s pregnant with aren’t... quite... normal.

And not just in the sense that they’re going to be inhuman creatures stronger than the majority of serfs even as an infant, like Aiko. Because Aiko’s essence is at least all Hellish, even if she’s got Malfean fire and Ophidian shadow and who knows what else mixed up in her.

But Keris’s babies, she indicates, didn’t exactly come about from... well, the usual means of making babies. As far as she can tell, the, uh, ‘ingredients’ for them came from the bodies of two dead men - one of them dead by her own hand - whose bodies she inhaled. Also there were some dreams involved.

But the point is, she reveals, that those two men were Exalted. But not Infernal ones. Which means that she might have, within her, two healthy infants who have somehow found a way to have two opposing types of essence existing together... in relative harmony.

Lilunu blanches. “How?” she breathes. “What... who...” She swallows. “Who... did the rest?”

Keris cocks her head quizzically. The rest, she signs? As in how she wound up pregnant with them, or who killed the other one?

“No, what is the... the non-Hellish part?”

Keris bites her lip. Lilunu probably isn’t going to like this, she suggests, and reiterates that both fathers are dead, and were dead some time before she conceived.

“That isn’t always a barrier.”

It certainly surprised Keris to discover that, she gestures. She’s now fairly sure that she became pregnant with them through some gift of the Great Mother - perhaps from the bodies she inhaled as breath. But... well, that dinner of Ligier’s, the last time she was in Malfeas? That, Keris indicates, was when she found out she was carrying. She didn’t take it very well, she adds with a faint wince.

And part of the reason for that, she finally, reluctantly admits, was that before they were dead, one of them was... well, a Solar. And the other, a Chosen of Death.

“But... how? One of them should be burning up from the inside while the other should be... be born dying?” Lilunu says, sounding shocked and more than a little scandalised.

Keris nods. They should. Even more so because the girl is part Fire from all the elementals and things that Keris has fed her - and the boy from the Lunar she fed him. They’re a fiery Hellish sun-child and a deathly Hellish moon-child in a womb full of Kimbery essence. They shouldn’t even be viable.

But they are. In fact, Keris adds as she feels her son stirring, they’re thriving. She gestures for Lilunu to lay a hand on her stomach just in time to feel him lazily kick and turn over.

And if they can survive with such blended essence, she signs, perhaps she can learn something from them that will help Lilunu’s tortured souls.

The demon princess sighs. “I try not to hope too much,” she says. “I will just get disappointed.” She shakes her head. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. I shall send message when we need to meet again.” She playfully pokes Keris in the chest. “And next time, don’t scare me!”

Chapter Text

Keris has a lot to think about when she returns to her townhouse. Retreating to her bedroom with a very large number of Malfean delicacies, she starts to stuff her face while she ponders what to do until Calibration. And the problem of Lilunu’s souls. And also the problem of how her children are enjoying the delicacies a lot, and so are being unusually kick-y.

She should probably, she realises, start thinking about names. Now that’s an uncomfortable thought. Which, after a moment’s consideration, she decides to put off until... later. Yes, later. Later is good.

“Princess Sasimana was right, child,” Dulmea warns. “You need to plan ahead for a pair of new children, especially helpless human ones. You cannot simply treat your pregnancy as an encumbrance if they are to be like the Princess Aiko.”

Keris pouts, and turns her attention to other matters, throwing up a stubborn wall of Later until Dulmea sighs and drops the matter. So, she thinks. Now that she’s here, and now that Lilunu has decided to trust her with such a secret... well, it might be time to extend a bit more trust in return. At least enough to explain why her Gales aren’t working. Her mentor might be able to help her come up with a solution.

After consulting with her majordomo, Keris finds that Unquestionable Lilunu is holding a grand dinner for a few Unquestionable in three screams time. As a green sun princess in attendance, Keris should be able to get an invite easily. She might have to coax Lilunu into making time for her, but - Keris grins - she suspects she might be able to get her into her art rooms where they can talk privately.

Otherwise, she should be able to get a more normal meeting in a few days time - enough time for her to go check up on the Nests or maybe go research something in preparation in the library of Orabilis that exists within the Conventicle.

Keris elects, for once, to take the subtler approach. A calmer setting with more warning is probably better for both of them. And there is a fair amount she can look up before taking her question to Lilunu. The libraries of Orabilis are vast, and though they contain no knowledge meant only for the Yozis, there’s still a wealth of information on possession and the riding of mortal bodies by demonic spirits that she can send someone to dig out.

... and on a less pleasant note, Mehuni is getting insistent that she review the activity from the Nests’ past few seasons. Urgh, Keris thinks. Paperwork. At least there are a few examples for her to examine.

Keris is somewhat surprised when Mehuni informs her that the head librarian of Orablis’ library within the Conventicle wishes to speak with her. She has a formal invite to discuss the request for information she recently submitted. The text doesn’t say whether it’s for good or for ill, but she gets the distinct impression that if she doesn’t attend she might well end up stonewalled.

She dresses up in her most regal clothes befitting of a peer, sitting a silver tiara of her own design upon her rich mass of hair, and takes a notable escort - the better for pomp and ceremony. As she is entirely expected, she is taken in swiftly into this towering structure of glass, up into the central tower which overlooks the other wings

The head librarian looks like it once used to be another kind of demon. However, that was long ago, if so. One of the Eyes of Orabilis has been mounted in its skull - surely there is no room for a brain there - and glass arms sprout from the eye, rather than from its body. It sits slumped upon its seat, hands flashing between piles of books as it looks them over and then passes them into one pile or another. It doesn’t stop doing that even when Keris appears, though it manages a half-bow from its seated position.

“Princess Keris,” it says, in a voice which sounds like a finger on a wineglass. “We received the instructions from your servants, but they were not entirely clear. As we exist here to aid the princes of the green sun in their duties, it would be more useful if you were to explain exactly what you are doing, so we can assist you in finding the information you require in our extensive archives.”

((What Charms is Keris using going into this, what scenelongs is she using, etc? This is effectively Keris using her Infamy to acquire the research materials and so on. As a result, the function of this scene is for her to persuade the librarian to assist her, and the active assistance of the librarian means she can use that for research materials for this project. The librarian abides to the letter of the rules and is controlled by the Eye of Orabilis mounted in it, so it will act as befits one of Orabilis’ servants engineered to further his goals. This information is something Keris notices, and can be used in stunts.))

Orabilis is a censor, Keris recalls Salina saying. And she knows well from her own experience that he wishes for demons to grow wise; though never too wise. This, then, will be a case of making her goals align with his. Or at least sound like it.

“My coadjutor has been a great help to me,” she begins. “I’m trying to develop a spell that will let me grant coadjutors to my servants, to advise them and to keep them serving the interests of the Reclamation. Possession seemed a logical place to start.”

((Using Beauty Over Truth and Hidden Depths Temptress to seem totally justified and very persuasive in her case, and PoEU to see what its active aid in the case would be worth to it. Hmm. She’s probably also curious enough to automatically IEI it.))
((Success - 36 successes assuming excellency spend))

Keris takes in the creature. It tastes of dessicated sand and smells like fresh forged glass. It’s weak, of course, though strong by the standards of a lesser demon.

((E4, Cecelyne aspected.))

When she considers what its aid would be worth, though, she gets an unpleasant surprise. It seems to have no desires of its own, but only exists to serve Orabilis. To that end, it strictly considers its utility based on its skill and its knowledge - and those are considerable. But there’s a strange feeling she gets from it, like… maybe that’s not the creature’s evaluation.

((Price of Everything Undercurrents indicates the help of such a creature is valued at Resources 4))

The Eye swivels to focus on her. “Very interesting,” it says, its puppet body twisting under it. “How very interesting indeed. I could see how that might be useful. To place a watcher in a servant’s body, yes.”

Keris nods. “Exactly.”

Glass hands stop moving for a moment as the creature considers the puzzle put before them. “Please wait,” it says to Keris. “My master has been notified. He wishes to consult with you on the topic of this research.”

Keris manages not to turn pale, but it’s a near thing. She’d been hoping for the aid of one of Orabilis’s servants, not the attention of Hell’s prime censor himself! Fervently, she hopes very hard that he doesn’t have a way of... of plucking knowledge about things that would anger the Yozis from her skull. If he knew some of the details of her Devil Domain, he would probably be rather unhappy.

Orabilis arrives surprisingly swiftly. Does that imply that he was already nearby, or just that he has some way to quickly get to the All-Thing? Keris isn’t sure. It’s possible he was already planning to attend the dinner Lilunu mentioned she was hosting, but then again… well, the censor might well be paying more attention to the place where the green sun princes meet.

Orabilis has the form of a silver-robed man of the Realm, regally dressed. His features are aristocratic, and in fact he looks as if he could be related to Sasi, though he appears in his middle years and is balding. Sand drips off him with every motion, and his tongue is that of an adder’s.

“Keris Dulmeadokht,” he says. “Come. Walk with me to where prying ears have no purchase and watchful eyes will not see us. Taking long legged paces, he strides over to one of the doors in the library and opens it. Despite the fact that the door was made of glass, it opens onto a totally different room. “Come,” he commands.

Keris does so. Checking that Rathan’s light still covers her, she steps into the room after the End of All Wisdom, concentrating as hard as she can on the problem at hand. Her Gales don’t work on their own. She can’t trust all her cultists. She needs a way of putting a coadjutor into a person’s head.

At least he looks handsome, in an older sort of way.

The room here is far bigger than it should be. As far as the eye can see, Keris traces bookshelves. The room gleams everywhere. She can hear countless glass books, sitting in their shelves, sand-dust coating them. There is no roof on this impossible room - and above her, the burning stars of the Malfean sky gleam. She knows that each star is a demon who burns, and that Orabilis was the one who threw them up there.

She can hear the demons screaming faintly, high above her, and her heart goes out to them.

“You have my interest, princess,” Orabilis says, adder’s tongue clicking with each terse word. “Speak, and take care - for you discuss matters which edge upon those not permitted to ones such as you. The secrets of the coadjutor and how it bonds to the third soul that dwells inside you are not ones that should be shared.”

((Roll Compassion or suppress the principle to avoid protesting to Orabilis about the fate of the demons overhead))
((3 successes. Dammit. Suppressing.))

Mother,” Calesco begins; furious and weeping, but Keris can’t- she can’t afford to attack Orabilis now, to protest or argue against his will. She can’t afford to criticise the very core of his philosophy, not when he’s one of the Unquestionable deepest in the Reclamation who guards the secrets of the Yozis themselves. Tears gather in her eyes, but she forces her hearing onto other things. Later, she can take whatever tantrum Calesco throws and weep with her for the fates of the stars, but right now she has to avoid antagonising a Demon of the Third Circle. She cannot afford the enmity of another. Not with the Csend and Ululaya out for her blood.

“I... I don’t wish to learn the secrets of the coadjutors of the Green Sun Princes, lord,” she says carefully. “Only to do something similar by some other means.” She makes a rapid guess based on a few of the things Calesco has thrown at Dulmea and decides that baring her neck a little might help. “The idea came because my Gales - the lesser me’s that I can make with the gifts of Adorjan - they can’t cope without my coadjutor there. Or I can’t cope, I suppose. And then it occurred to me that if I could put a demon in their minds to hold them together, the same could be done to others - cultists and servants and... and those whose thoughts are dangerous.”

“Hmm.” Orabilis asks more questions as to Keris’ intent, and she answers them to the best of her ability. “One question, though,” he says, almost as if in passing. “I do so hope there’s no problem with your capacity to serve. What do you mean, your Adorjani wind buddings - and you - cannot cope without your coadjutor present?”

Keris shudders at the reminder of the problem. “I think I’m too used to having her music and her presence in my head,” she admits. “When she’s gone - what I remember from them, it feels wrong. Horrible. Like there’s an empty gaping hole in me.” She pauses. “Honoured Lilunu said I might be feeling what losing a soul is like. If I am, it’s something I never want to feel again. But it’s never troubled me myself, lord. Only my Gales.”

“How concerning,” he says in a not-very-concerned voice. “Well, Keris Dulmeadokht, this knowledge is dangerous - and yet I feel it could serve the greater glory of Our most radiant selves well. To this end, I will permit this research and make certain items of more hidden lore available to you, on certain conditions. Firstly any attempt to study the secrets of the coadjutor and your third soul is forbidden on pain of utmost pain, and you will cease any research I forbid of you. Secondly, you will provide me with full access to your research notes, with no prior notice, should I ask for them. And thirdly, you will make available any products of this research to me. In exchange, I will command my librarians to cooperate fully with yourself and should you require subjects or any other tools of the sorcerer’s research - within reason - then you need only ask it of me.”

Keris bites her lip. “I was hoping to ask for Unquestionable Lilunu’s aid on this project, my lord,” she ventures. “Her insight could be priceless even if she were only to tell me her conclusions, and not the knowledge she drew them from. If I were to ask her to pass her results through you, would that be acceptable, or would it be too close to the secrets of the coadjutor?”

Orabilis leans forwards, brow furrowed in thought. “Do not presume to demand things of the Unquestionable,” he says. “But if she wishes to partake in your undertaking, I shall have mine Eyes monitor you.”

Keris bobs her head gratefully. “Thank you, my lord. I hope this work will aid the Reclamation, and of course I will obey your conditions.”

Nodding, the Unquestionable seems to come to a decision. “Then you have my permission,” he says. “I shall have my librarians cooperate with your research.” He folds his arms. “Keris Dulmeadohkt, I expect results, do you understand? Do not think that you can use this for other goals of yours.” Orabilis smiles, not entirely pleasantly. “I will be watching,” he says. “You may go.”

Keris goes. Not without a certain amount of grumbling, because ‘what does he mean, “expect results”; I’m the one who came up with the idea! And what kind of “other goals” does he think I’ll use this for; I outright told him what I’m doing with it, the mistrustful...’, but she goes quickly and quietly without further argument.

It’s internal grumbling, of course. She’s not stupid. Grabbing Rounen, the angyal twins and the rest of her escort, she collects the texts that the head librarian has ready for her and makes for her townhouse with all haste. Where she intends to have a long hot bath and be fed cherry-drenched apple slices by Kemiraci and Teveya and possibly also get a foot massage. If Mehuni wants her to look over the ledgers of whatever the Paricehet has been producing from the Nests, he can wait a scream or two. Meetings with the Unquestionable entitle her to some rest and relaxation.

Of course, any hope for Keris getting a nice relaxing bath is doomed. Just when she dozes off, she immediately opens her eyes within her soul. She’s just on the Meadowsward border of the city, where buildings slump and lean as the ground beneath them liquefies.

And there’s a painful white light in the sky. It outshines Rathan, and casts the tarry expanse in sharp, strongly-shadowed contrast. Strangely, this light simply stops at the edge of the Meadows, as if someone had drawn a pencil line on the ground. It stabs at Keris’ heart, reminds her of how she ignored the suffering of the stars of the Malfean sky. Tears blurring her eyes, she squints at the white star that hangs long over the land.

“Oh, Calesco,” Keris mouths.

She looks down, away from the bright and painful light of the star, and steps into the light. It’s bringing out the colour in the landscape, she realises. The grass isn’t black like she’d thought, but rather a rich green so deep that it’s only visible at the edges of each blade where the light brings out its hue. The sparse bushes are a brown even darker than her mother’s skin, with leaves of tar-dipped burgundy.

It’s strangely beautiful; albeit a beauty only revealed by painful brightness.

She reaches the top of one of the larger hills, sits down, and opens her heart. She can feel the tears trickling down her cheeks now, as the tension of her negotiations fades and the memory of that agonised chorus of screams returns in full. Quietly, she starts to pluck out a sorrowful melody as she looks up. She can’t quite help squinting, and has to shut her eyes every few seconds before forcing them open again, but she tries her best.

“I know you want to yell at me,” she whispers to the starlight. “Come on down, then.”

Calesco descends. She’s nothing like Keris has ever seen her before, not even when she peeked through her fingers at her daughter’s true form. Calesco is still veiled and robed and her wings are midnight black feathers, but her clothes are moth-holed and in a hundred small places her inner light shines out. Strands of luminescent white hair protrude from under her tattered veil. Perhaps that is why Keris can see the light, but doesn’t suffer the splitting agony of raw exposure to Calesco. Here and now, with the starry speckles of her light shining through her tattered clothes, there is pain - but no agony.

Two teary red eyes glare at Keris from under the veil, flashes of pale skin exposed as Calesco shifts. “You,” she says, voice choked and hitched. “You heard them. You can’t pretend you didn’t. You heard them screaming and you didn’t do a thing. B-because you wanted something from the one who threw them up there. It was him. He does that to hundreds. Thousands. Every star in the M-M-Malfean sky was him. Dulmea said so. And y-you just stood there and let him demand things of you.” The last words are full of venom.

Keris takes a deep breath, settling a hand on the swell of her belly and making no effort to hide the tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Yes,” she says quietly.

Calesco’s light burns through the holes in her veils. Butterflies - no, moths - flap around her, each tiny insect with black feathers. “Why?” she pleads. “You… there had to be something you could have done! I wanted you to do it! It… it’s wrong.” She wraps her arms around herself, accidentally exposing a thin pale hand. Pain spikes for Keris, and Calesco yanks the bare hand back into her many layers.

“I… I wanted you to be better than this,” she pleads.

Keris moves forward to draw Calesco into a hug. “I know,” she whispers shakily. “I know, I know, I’m sorry, Calesco. I’m so sorry...”

She holds her daughter close for a moment, sniffling. Then, without drawing back or letting go, she speaks again.

“Calesco,” she says quietly. “I want to ask you something, and I swear I’ll listen - really listen - to your answer. Do... do you think it’s better to be kind, and good, and... and moral, but start a war that you can’t possibly win? Or do you think it’s better to... to close your eyes and turn away from someone else’s suffering, but live and be able to help others later?”

Calesco makes a murmur of discontent, and Keris bows her head over her daughter’s shoulder, pulling her closer. “I know. I know it’s unfair; the world is unfair, I know the best choice is neither, but... I want to hear what you think. It’s not a trick or a trap or an excuse or a justification. I just want to listen to what you have to say.”

“I… I… but…” Calesco starts to hyperventilate, her wings twitching in agitation. She’s shedding feathers, her black feathers being replaced by white. “They were screaming, mama! They were screaming and I could hear them and so could you! And… and… and… and… they were hurting and you didn’t do a thing!” She grips Keris tight with her now-grey hair - except it’s not grey like Haneyl’s. It’s grey like a human’s, a mix of black and white. “And it is a trick! It is a trap! Because you say that this option can’t win which means if you do it nothing will happen and you’ll die and I’ll die! And he’ll keep doing it! Orabilis will keep doing it and there are lots of other Unquestionable who are… are evil and you can’t kill all of them! Which means I have to say it’s better to close my eyes, but that’s wrong and bad because closing your eyes means you can still hear them screaming! And they’ll still be doing it even if you don’t listen!” Beneath the veil, her red eyes are wide. “Make it be right!” she demands.

“I can’t,” Keris admits miserably. “You don’t have to say that it’s better to close your eyes; you can want to fight against any odds. But sometimes you can’t win when you want to, Calesco. You’re right; Orabilis won’t just agree to stop, and demons won’t stop finding things out - plagues and ash, the naneke want to - so the only way to put an end to it would be to kill the stars kindly whenever they got thrown up there or kill him permanently so he can’t keep doing it. And one of those would make him hate us, and the other would start an all-out war against... hells, against the whole Reclamation. All the Unquestionable would unite to kill us. We - I - can’t fight that kind of force.”

“Then how are you any different to Rat?

Keris opens her mouth and stops cold.

“You killed him because he was trapped as a slave of an ancient spirit he couldn’t get away from!” Calesco all but screams at her. “To set him free; to stop him hurting! But you’re saying you’re just the same! And you haven’t killed yourself to get away from them! So either you’re lying to yourself or you killed him for noth-

“Stop.”

Shockingly, Calesco does actually stop. Perhaps it’s the wild-eyed expression on her mother’s face, or the way her hair has formed into knots all the way down the length of each finger-thin lock; small and hard and painfully tight.

Or maybe it’s the way that one of Keris’s hands has sunk teeth into the other hard enough to draw blood.

Wide-eyed and a still little hysterical, Calesco looks up at Keris and waits for her response. Eventually, Keris sags a little.

“You’re right,” she admits in a barest whisper. “It’s a lot like Rat.”

Calesco’s lips part.

“Not exactly the same,” Keris cautions. “He was suffering. There was no beauty in his service; it was all suffering and nothing else. That’s not true for me; there are people like Lilunu in the Reclamation. And I have you and your siblings to think of; freedom isn’t worth more than all our deaths. But you’re right. If I’m going to choose to serve the Reclamation, it should be that. A choice. I should have a voice to speak out against things I don’t agree with. A right to refuse when someone evil like Orabilis demands things of me.”

She squeezes Calesco against her and pulls back to look her - with difficulty - in the eye. “So I’ll work. I’ll get a place I can retreat to if they push me too far, a louder voice in the Althing, allies enough that I can do more than just serve. I’ll get a proper choice, and I promise I’ll use it. I’ll make up for the suffering I have to let go; I’ll do good things that help people. And we can decide now what we’d do if we had the power to do it immediately.”

Keris sighs. “The rule of Cecelyne is right,” she adds mournfully. “Power is the only thing that matters; the strong rule over the weak. And I’m not the strongest around. Yet.”

Calesco swallows, her tattered veils shifting her over to expose patches of light, her eyes mad and wild. “B-b-but that’s wrong,” she whispers sadly, in a way that reminds Keris that for all her appearance, she’s still very young. “It… it… doing easy things that are wrong is still bad!” She wrings her hair together. “Why do we have to stay here?” she asks. “Can’t we just go? I hate Malfeas. It’s horrible. Everything beautiful in here seems to exist to hurt people! It’s a horrible place! Kimbery is horrible and dissolves people - and you use her horrid poisons! The demons here just fight and kill each other in endless warfare and there’s no way you can stop all that! There’s just too many of them! And how many people does… does Other Mama murder? How many? She’s like Echo at her worst, just ten thousand times bigger! I hate this stupid, wretched realm! Full of horrid mean demons! I want to go back to Creation, where the stars don’t scream!”

She screws her hands into balls. “And the others don’t care!” she accuses. “Which mean you don’t care! Echo just thinks it’s fun here and ignores things she doesn’t like. Rathan loves being important and can’t wait to get out and be a princeling here and pick up lots of demon followers. So does Haneyl - and she wants to be just like the Unquestionable! She loves telling people what to do! She goes all gooey-eyed over Ligier and the Shashalme and Lilunu - and that means you do too! And Vali’s still a baby and doesn’t do anything! When you say you want more power, how do I know you’re not doing it just because you’re going to do what… what Haneyl or Rathan wants!”

Her anger is surging, and the light under her veils is getting brighter.

Keris holds her tight, kissing her forehead. “I do care,” she says. “I do care, I do; you’re a part of me as well, Calesco. I know you hate the suffering here, I know; I do as well, I’m so sorry.” Her hair picks up the sorrowful song again; pulling music from the air. Stroking her daughter’s hair, Keris closes her eyes against the growing light. “I’m sorry that caring so much hurts. I’m sorry you can’t not see it. I wish I could make things better for you. But know that I’m moved by you as much as the others. If I get power, I’ll use it to help people - like the owlriders, like the misbegotten - for no reason other than kindness. You do sway me; you stop me doing things I shouldn’t and you make me want to stop the suffering I see.

“I can’t fix all of Hell,” she admits. “But just because the strong rule doesn’t mean they can’t be kind if they want to be. The stronger I get, the more I can do. I can try to learn more healing, so I can do more good things that leave people better-off. I can teach it to others, so they can do the same. And if... if you want to leave Malfeas, I can send you to Sasi to check on the owlriders I helped and ask her to bring back medicinal herbs from the northeast. Or to Darling Yellow to make sure the misbegotten are okay, or... or anyone else you want to go to in Creation. Or I can just sit with you and listen for as long as you want, or play with you if you want to make music. Whatever you want, sweetheart.”

“I’m hurting you, mama,” Calesco whispers. The words are bubbling up like tar, now. “I… I can’t keep lying. I’m so tired of it. The… the darkness isn’t me. It’s all lies. And it’s hurting you to be near me. I w-want you to be here, I want to… to do some of the things like you do with Rathan and Haneyl and it’s so easy for them and they get to be so open, but… but I don’t want to hurt you. N-not if you w-won’t learn from it. Being around me will j-just hurt you. Because I’m… I’m tired.” Her voices hitches in her throat. “S-sometimes I get so sick of it I w-want to just cast off my veils and m-make everyone s-see the truth. But then I’d j-just be hurting people. I’d be as b-bad as… as the Unquestionable. And they d-don’t want people questioning them so no one will call them on their lies. And if I took off my veils, I’d… I’d just be h-hurting my friends down there. In my meadows. B-but I’m tired of lying all the time. I like the pretty lies, the ones which make things nicer, but… I can’t think of pretty things. Not when I remember the stars screaming. I d-don’t want to hurt anyone who d-doesn’t deserve it, but… but...”

Calesco trails off, lost for words.

“Play, then,” Keris suggests... “Take me to your cave, and I’ll close my eyes and put a blindfold on, and you can cast your veils off and play the truth through music, and I’ll play with you. It’s good that you don’t want to hurt people, and you’re allowed to feel frustrated. So get all the angry and hurt and sickness out through music. Music isn’t a lie, and even in Malfeas it’s not ugly or cruel.” She wraps more of her hair around her daughter, letting it unknot from the tight strands it’s tied in. “You can take off your veils and rest, and I’ll be there with you. I refuse to stay away just because of a bit of pain. Accepting a bit of pain for the people you care about is what love means.”

Calesco starts crying again, although this time it’s from happiness as well. “Mama,” she whispers. “Y-you’re very hard to stay angry at.”

Her daughter leads Keris into her dark cave, which has by now acquired at least some furniture and decoration - from its appearance, Haneylian in origin - and Keris blindfolds herself. She hears her daughter move a stone in the way so it blocks the entrance, and then slip out of her layered veils and her gown and her shift, until all her movements are bare flesh and hair and feathers.

Through sound alone, through reflected echoes and the noises Calesco makes and the beating of her heart, Keris hears her daughter and knows her appearance when she’s denuded of all her lies.

Calesco is petite, shorter than Haneyl - and certainly shorter than Echo - but she’s just as thin as her full-sister. The reflected sound paints her face in Keris’ mind. She has Keris’ jaw and eyes, but the rest of her features come from the avatar of Adorjan who lay with Keris to conceive her. She’s delicate and fragile - or at least she would be if she was a human. From the way her nails and fingers click, they’re made of white jade too, and her bones sing like jade. Feathers rustle on her scalp, woven in with her hair, and cover her temples and cheeks. They’re not the only feathers she has, though - further wings sprout from her shoulder blades, hips and ankles, each one an arm in its own right.

And her knees are the wrong way around. It brings a faint smile to Keris’ lips, as she wonders how Calesco conceals that her knees are backwards. Indeed, her feet sound almost more like hands, and her toenails like fingernails or claws.

Her daughter, her compassion is beautiful, Keris thinks, tears wetting her blindfold. If only she could help Calesco see that. Compassion is beautiful, even if it hurts you. She thinks she’s ugly and has to hide herself away, but the world is ugly and can’t stand her presence.

And then Calesco begins to sing, and her pure, untamed voice rises high into the upper registers without a pause for breath.

She sings, and Keris pulls music from the walls and the air and from Time itself to join her voice in song. It’s Old Realm that Calesco is singing in; an archaic form that she must have got from Adorjan. The lilting minor key and the sheer emotion in her voice obscures the lyrics somewhat, but Keris can tell that it’s a song of grief and rage and guilt and resentment. It speaks of shadows and sin and callous cruelty, and every other sentence is interrupted by a sob.

Keris does her best to shape and guide the melody, shifting it not quite to happiness, but at least to something bittersweet. She wants, so badly, to remind Calesco that shadows and lies are ultimately cast by light and truth, and that even people who’ve known cruelty can still come out with kindness. The kind she’s revealing from beneath her veils right now; so pure in meaning that it hurts those unworthy of it.

Without ceasing to play, she swallows her voice and reaches out to take Calesco’s hand; squeezing it reassuringly. You’re beautiful like this, she means, and tries to get across her reaction to finally hearing what her daughter looks like. Your light is beautiful, and it’s everything else that falls short.

Calesco’s little hand wraps around Keris’ larger one. For all her strangeness, her hand feels little different from a human’s - though her fingernails are long and sharp enough that she could probably open a man’s throat with them. Of course, so could the silk-soft-steel-sharp feathers that sprout from much of her body.

So much of Calesco’s form seems made to bring pain to others.

In the end, the song finishes, and weeping Calesco embraces her mother. It is a delicate movement, one which requires the utmost care to avoid lacerating Keris’ skin. Wrapping her arms and hair around her, Keris envelops Calesco’s bird-like form and lets her cry out the pain, peacefully.

However, such time must pass, and Calesco eventually shifts and dresses again, covering up her true form with deceitful shadows. Keris can no longer hear the rustling of feathers and even the sounds of her feet change as she lies that her legs are human.

Little hands undo Keris’ blindfold. Calesco is dark once more, dressed in fresh veils and a deep purple gown. Her hair is simply black. The room is not dark, however. The tar-coated rock of the walls shines and gleams with trapped light, pooling in oozing beads. Looking around, Keris feels that the inside of this place is coated in the night’s sky and conveys that to Calesco with a hand-gesture.

“The stars are mine now,” Calesco says fiercely. “I’m keeping them. To remind you of today, I’m going to paint the sky with stars. Better ones. Ones that don’t scream. Ones that sing.” She sighs. “But not now. Send me to Sasimana or Darling Yellow, mama. I need some time alone. Some time away from Hell. Make sure you give me a nice dream to carry, though.”

((Heh. It’s an interesting note that it’s Keris’ Adorjani souls that have already got ways to escape her soul))

Keris nods understandingly. She’d like Calesco to go to Sasi, she indicates. Firstly to make sure she made the trip okay and has arrived safely in the Northeast. Secondly to ask her to check on the owlriders and make sure they’re all healthy and that there are no health issues and that they’re happy. Thirdly to ask Sasi to bring back a seed crop of the ice-land medicinal herbs and flowers for Keris to make drugs from, a list of which she can get from any of the wise-women or shamans who Keris learned from.

And mostly, she indicates, to send her a happy dream of cuddles and the warmth of the Meadows and lovely singing and beautiful music. Sasi will probably be crotchety in the cold, after all, so it’ll be a nice message for both parties.

Calesco comes apart into a painfully bright wind of light and shadow, fading. Keris blinks away tears, and eases past the boulder that had been blocking the light. Turning back, she glances into Calesco’s cave. The light is already fading, but it’s still beautiful.

It’s strange. Calesco seems to consider the Adorjani parts of her to be real, and the Ophidian parts to be a lie. Which they are, because they’re from the Shadow of All Things. But Sasi has embraced the Shadow, and they’re real enough for her.

Echo is waiting for Keris outside.

She waves hello to Mama. She heard the beautiful singing, she indicated, so she came over to listen. It really was super-pretty.

Sidling up to Keris, Echo tugs on her sleeve. Is Calesco going to be all right, her gesture indicates. Her little sister isn’t a very happy person. Echo wishes with a melancholy expression that Calesco would learn to let go of things. She clings to her pain like she loves it, and that, Echo indicates, spreading her hands, is something she just doesn’t understand. It’s not very healthy. Calesco would be happier if she was more like Echo.

And, Echo adds, hands on her hips, she said some very mean things. She didn’t have to go say all those things!

Keris wobbles her hand. Calesco will probably be okay, she thinks, but she can’t let go of things like Echo and doesn’t want to. Winding a lock of hair around her finger as she tries to find a way to explain it to her eldest, she suggests that maybe it’s like how sometimes noise gets loud enough to hurt Echo’s ears, but music is still pretty and she doesn’t want to just stop hearing it altogether.

It is sad that Calesco isn't happy very often, though, she agrees with a mournful nod. She’s very pretty and it’s beautiful how her compassion is like loving everyone, but she doesn’t think so because of how her light hurts people. That part is like how Echo got very sad because she couldn’t wear pretty ribbons without damaging them, she explains. It’s not something she can just not care about.

Keris puts a finger to her lips, warning Echo not to push Calesco too much about this sort of thing. That would make her even more sad, probably. She likes it much more when she sees people being nice to each other, if Echo wants to cheer her up.

Echo wearily huffs a strand of ribbon-hair out of the way. It really seems like so much work hating things and being sad and stuff, she indicates. Staying angry at Mama for how she scared Calesco with what she did with Other Mama was the hardest thing Echo ever did! Everyone else should just learn to be like Echo and Mama and Other Mama and just let go of all the bad feelings when they’re boring.

With an easy shrug and a spin, Echo waltzes away. But that’s not why she’s here, she indicates, raising one finger! She’s actually here because her and Vali and Hanny and Ratty are all having a really fancy dinner with Hanny and Hanny sent Echo to look for Mama and Cally to invite them to her dinner. She also gave Echo a note, she adds, patting herself down.

Echo spreads her hands. Oh wait, she lost it. Well, the note probably didn’t matter! The point is, everyone else is having yummy snacks Hanny made and Mama and Cally are invited! Yay!

Following, Keris rolls her eyes and mimes pulling gloves on with a questioning tilt to her head. Did Echo remember not to hold the note with her bare hands, she asks? If not, that’s probably what happened to it. But yes, she nods, a dinner sounds nice, and also means she can pretend to have dozed off in the bath and thus avoid Mehuni nagging her for a bit longer.

Cally won’t be able to come though, she adds unnecessarily. She’ll explain that to Haneyl when they get there.

Echo and Keris run full speed across the tops of trees, silent winds who only brush the leaves.

Echo doesn’t thank Hanny enough for how she makes a really fun running place, she gestures with a grin. Maybe because Hanny gets all shouty about damaging her leaves, she adds with a pout.

Haneyl has set up a big tent beside her tree. Keris arrives to find Haneyl and Vali leaning around a little brassy thing that moves, while Rathan talks earnestly to a Dulmean Gale about his lessons and how he wants to learn how to make poisons like she does.

“Ah ha,” Haneyl announces, rising with a practiced flourish of her golden robes. They fit her nearly perfectly now. She’s been growing, but Keris thinks she must be adjusting the clothes as well or something. “My dearest mother! Welcome, welcome! In honour of the great honour that Unquestionable Orabilis has shown you by tasking you with such a role, I have put out a little meal that was just something I threw together, no real effort, you know how it is. Think of what we can do with another Unquestionable who considers us useful and a skilled and capable servant! Not like that stupid Deveh!”

Haneyl’s accent is sweeping high up into her best attempts to copy Sasi’s Realm accent, although in truth Keris doesn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s Eastern Inner Sea at best. What she does, however, see is that Haneyl’s statement about “something she threw together with no effort” is a blatant lie.

“And of course, because we are a family and this is something to celebrate and be happy about, everyone is invited.” She peers around. “Did you not find Calesco?” she asks Echo, sounding rather peeved.

Keris coughs a few times to get her voice back and hastily motions Echo to let her handle the question. “Calesco did not take my meeting with Orabilis well,” she says. “At all. I sent her to carry a message to Creation so she could have some time on her own to think and calm down, so she’ll be back in ten days or so - maybe twenty if she needs a bit more time and I send her out again.”

She musters up a proud smile. “But we can talk about that later. This does look like a very nice meal, Haneyl. You’re getting to be a very skilled cook if you can throw something like this together with ease. Maybe we can offer Sasi a full meal when she gets back at Calibration, hmm? And since you helped with my Gales before, I might have some things for you to do to help me with this coadjutor project. And...”

She frowns, looking down at the brassy-coppery thing in Vali’s lap. “And what is that?” she adds. “Is that a... an animal?”

Vali bounds up to Keris, clinging to the creature. He presents it to his mother, held in both hands. It’s a cat. Or, rather, it’s something which looks like a cat, if cats were made of brass, had a lion-like mane, and sparked.

((Totally looks a bit like a metal Jolteon))

And also only had three legs. This isn’t the way that these creatures are meant to be because there’s a bandaged stump where its front-right leg is meant to be.

“I found him!” Vali announces. “His leg was hurt! So I’m looking after him until he can decide whether he wants to stay with me or go somewhere else.”

“Oh! Oh! Mama, tell Vali to let me heal him! I can make him a new leg!” Haneyl intercedes. From her tone, this is an ongoing argument and Haneyl is trying to outflank Vali by going to Keris.

“No,” Vali says. “You’ll just make him yours. He’s not yours. He’s his.”

“I want to give him a new leg,” Haneyl growls.

“You want to steal him!”

“Haneyl, if he’s Vali’s pet then Vali’s word is final,” Keris says absently, staring at the little animal. Now that she thinks about it, she’s heard cats in the City here and there, though she didn’t pay them much mind at the time. But... while it’s no great surprise to hear them in Saata or An Teng, where did they come from within her own soul? Are they some new type of demon? Her eyes flash green as she lets the kitten sniff curiously at her hand, his mouth opening in a yawn to show a flash of iron teeth.

The brass-furred cat is pathetically weak - as weak as a mortal, and weaker than the weakest demon. It is, in fact, about as puissant as a Creation pussy, for all that it’s a kitten the size of a small fully grown cat, and its fur and flesh appears to be made of brass and iron.

But the sight of it tastes like her. It’s just her, just like the world around her. But this is a little creature that’s made out of… her-ness.

((Kerisian essence, Enlightenment 0))

The kitten licks her fingers with a rough tongue that feels like a wire brush, and then tries to nibble on her. Its teeth can’t get through her skin.

“No! Bad!” Vali announces, pulling the cat away. “You’re not meant to bite Mama! Bad Iosoto!” He hugs the cat closer. “But mama, he isn’t my pet. He’s his own pet. I’m just the one looking after him and making sure he stays safe and that someone,” he glares at Haneyl, “doesn’t stick her plantyness into him and so steal him from himself!”

“You’re dumb,” Haneyl retorts. “He’s a cat! Cats can’t own things! And he’s not as pretty as my cats. He doesn’t have any pretty flowers and I bet he can’t even breathe fire! I don’t even want him! I was trying to be nice because no one wants a useless cat who’s missing a leg! Even if you’re a little brat, you’re still my brother and that means you need pets who aren’t broken!”

“He’s not broken! He’s strong!”

Echo helpfully contributes that he’s not a very pretty cat. Measuring him out with her hands, she indicates he’s far too fat and heavy and proper cats are sleek, fast...

“Exactly!” Haneyl agrees.

… and made of velvet and silk and blood and other pretty things, Echo concludes. She wags her finger at Haneyl, scolding her for talking over her. She shouldn’t be so uppity about her cats! They’re ugly and slow too!

“Nuh uh!” Vali counters. “He’s pretty and he’s strong and he’s managing even without a leg and he’s super clever because he knows how to open windows and how to build traps to catch bugs!”

Echo shrugs. She bets he can’t run at thirty miles an hour over short distances, like her cats can.

“Mama!” Rathan contributes, cannonballing into her and sweeping her up in a big hug. He doesn’t seem to want to contribute to the argument, instead preferring to wrap his arms and his hair around her like a squid.

“Hello Rathan,” Keris laughs, catching him and swinging him around. “So, poisons? Good choice. They’re a bit like your acid rain, you know. And what do you think about Orabilis and my new project?”

Rathan twines around her. “Mmm. He’s sort of bossy, isn’t he?” he says. “But I bet he’ll like us if we do that! I mean, we were going to brag all about it at the All-Thing, weren’t we? Because if everyone knows we made up this brand new spell, they’ll want to learn it from us and then they’ll have to study with us and we can make friends with them and get them to love us!”

Keris smiles.

“And if he tries to steal credit from us, you can go in disguise and smash up his libraries in a way which makes it look like people we don’t like did it!” he adds brightly.

“Rathan!” Haneyl interrupts, disengaging from the fight about the relative virtue of fire vs lightning vs blood. “That’s silly!”

“Rathan!” snaps Dulmea at the same time, marching over and grabbing him by the ear with her hair. “How dare you!”

“Mama, don’t listen to him! I wanted to tell you something even better! Far better than his silly ideas!” Haneyl continues as Dulmea drags Rathan off. “See, see, see, I’m going to build a castle! It’s going to be my own project! I already started it! It’s going to be super tall and big and it won’t catch on fire because I’m going to make it out of pretty white stone-”

Blah blah blah indicates Echo, flapping her hands around mockingly.

“Shut up, Echo! It’s going to be the best! And so I worked out how to make my own special servants who aren’t demons because my demons aren’t very good at moving stone!” She twirls, in a very Echo-like happy motion, gold robe flashing.

“Hey now, wait a moment!” Keris objects, rescuing Rathan from Dulmea and giving him a cuddle and a kiss on his abused ear that stop his sniffles. “We’ll talk about Orabilis later, okay? As a family.” Possibly, she considers, with some way of making sure only one person talks at a time, or they’ll never get finished.

“Now, Haneyl. A castle, huh? To protect your people from fires? I bet Calesco liked that idea. But what do you mean by special not-demon servants?” Keris considers, pursing her lips, then glances at Vali’s kitten and blinks. “Wait, you mean like chell? You had some working in your Tree last time I visited, didn’t you?”

Haneyl claps her pale hands together. “Even better! They’re much easier to make than demons! I made lots and lots of them! 77! And then 77 more! They’re really stupid, which is good because their job is to move stone and when I tried to get my sziromkeruby to do that, they were too clever and got bored and started writing stories about fish. Also, they can pull rocks without complaining like the farissya did when I told them to do it!”

They’re super-boring, Echo indicates. They don’t even try to run away when you stab them. Or even fight back. She pouts. She stabbed a few, but they just fell apart into swamp mud and branches and that was boring so she went and found something more interesting to do.

“And Echo stabbed them!” Haneyl continues. “But do you know what I found when I was moving stones around from the new islands between the sea and my lands? I found gems! Lots and lots of brightly coloured gems! And do you know what that means?”

Keris has a sinking feeling that she does. “That you and Rathan are going to go to war over who gets to have them?” she asks. “Also, can I see one of your special rock-movers? This sounds interesting.”

“Well, I suppose it isn’t eating time yet,” Haneyl says. She holds out her arms imperiously. “Carry me! Go where I tell you to!”

With an indulgent sigh, Keris picks up Haneyl. It’s harder than it used to be. Haneyl has put on even more height and even more weight, and now she’s almost as tall as Keris is. She has to put down Rathan to even manage this, which requires disentangling him first and produces no small amount of whining.

“Be good and don’t fight, everyone,” she says. “I just need to go see this.”

Carrying Haneyl, Keris darts out, heading sea-wards. Haneyl gives clear and imperious commands, ordering Keris to head down one of the many rivers in the swamp. Already, Keris can see - and hear - the changes. There are flower-barges floating in the rivers, lit by burning candles on strings, and Haneyl appears to have ‘borrowed’ quite a few of Rathan’s keruby, who seem to be enjoying their new lives as gondoliers.

Swiftly she reaches the areas of the swamp where the plants thin out and there are more lagoons and more islands of vegetation. But Haneyl has her continue, and she heads out into the mangrove-like areas at the edge of the sea, back to the islands that she remembers from the time when Haneyl lost control to the fire.

And what she sees there is that Haneyl has indeed been busy. She can see cranes that look like the ones from the Nexan docks, even if they’re made from trees! She can see docks that are made from flowers and leaves where the barges are landing, and she can see entire areas of swampland which throng with activity. And everywhere, there’s the sound of picks and claws scrabbling at stone.

The creatures that Haneyl has invented are clear to the eye. They’re hulking, ape-like things made of grey mud and grey vines and grey leaves, with empty hollow faces where a single flame burns inside a hollow skull. They’re being ordered around by sziromkeruby and farisyya and others of Haneyl’s demons, as they cut into the islands and pull out man-sized blocks of stone, pulling them in chain gangs onto the barges.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Haneyl breathes. “All this! All mine! I’m mining it so it’s mine!”

Keris gapes. Indeed, Keris slows down enough that she almost falls through the water, and has to hastily speed up again and dart over to a shoreline and up a rocky crag to a vantage point where she can see from. Putting Haneyl down gently, she slowly turns a full revolution, taking in the hive of activity that this corner of her soul has become.

“Mama?” Haneyl prompts.

Keris whistles. Then laughs. Then turns and sweeps Haneyl up in a hug. “Sweetheart, this is amazing! You’ve done so much...” She turns to look out at the organised supply chains and overseers and shipping lines again. “Where is it all going? Are you building right now? Hold on, let me just...” She closes her eyes, focusing on the sound of the flames in the mud-men and the internal glooping of their movements. They’re similar to Vali’s kitten - creatures that aren’t even demons, though they’re recognisably of Haneyl, and of Keris through her.

((Enlightenment 0, Haneylian essence))

“As soon as I can summon you out into Creation,” she says fervently, “I am putting you in charge of making me more habitable islands down the southwestern coast.”

Haneyl twines one finger in her hair. “I’m not sure I could make them anywhere else,” she admits. “They’re sort of… I make them from the swamp. It wants to do what I want it to do. It wants to take form.” She clears her throat. “Of course I’ll do amazing things for you!” she adds more confidently. “I really like making things! It’s fun and I can make pretty things! At the moment, I’m just trying to get as much stone as possible. I’ve never built a castle before, but mortals do it so it can’t be that hard, right?”

Keris laughs at that.

“And!” Haneyl continues, reaching into a pocket. “Look!” She hands what Keris is clearly to her thief’s eyes a very good quality opal. “These are the gems I’m finding! I’m trying to get as many of them as possible too! Isn’t it pretty? It could be greener, but it’s still quite nice!”

Keris gives another approving whistle, taking the stone carefully and giving it a few licks and careful taps, listening with a close ear to the echo. “Very nice,” she agrees. “Cleaned up and polished, I’d say... sixteen, maybe eighteen hundred dinars? Maybe more, depending on the jeweller. Or if someone better at selling things handled it. I only ever got a few hundred for things like this on the streets.” She taps it again. “It’s called opal, this stuff. This... I think this one is a thin layer of it over a white stone - that’s what makes it so pretty and brings out the colour.” She turns it in her hand, admiring how it shimmers in the red moonlight, and reluctantly gives it back.

This is, she realises, quite a good opportunity to have a quiet talk with Haneyl about Orabilis - private, away from the others and while Haneyl is still riding a high and won’t feel as bad about being wrong. Searching for a way to lead into the topic, Keris turns and surveys the work going on below and around them. It really is impressive. She squeezes Haneyl close to her side, unbearably proud of her daughter and what she’s accomplished.

Haneyl seems to be coming to her main point as she snuggles up to her mother. “So I was thinking about this white stone and how it doesn’t belong to me or to Rathan and how there’s this pretty gemstone and… and it’s not mine or Rathan’s… well, of course it’s mine now,” she hastily adds, “but if it was mine then it’d probably be gold or emeralds and if it was Rathan’s it’d be rubies or… or pearls or something.”

She swallows. “Mama,” Haneyl says. “I think you’re going to have another baby. Like Vali.”

Keris blinks. Then looks down at the opal again. Then looks around.

“... huh,” she says. It’s all she can really manage for a moment.

Then her brain kicks in. The three Directions of her Domain, the way that her souls have naturally occupied each centre and two of the borders, with Dulmea in the middle. The way that Haneyl and Rathan have been squabbling over this region since it formed; unable to come to a decision on who should own it. The white stone and opals and islands here, where the trees thin out but the ice and coral doesn't quite reach.

“... I think you’re right,” she says. “I think you’re exactly right; well done, Haneyl. That’s really clever of you. And if Echo had worked out the same thing she’d have told me, because she kept Vali secret so doing that again would be boring. So you got it before she did, even.”

She purses her lips, wondering how to feel about this. She’s never actually had advance warning of a new soul forming before. “Well,” she says decisively. “At least we’ll be prepared for this one. I wonder what they’ll be like?”

“I’m watching out for any explosions,” Haneyl says firmly. She shifts uncomfortably. “Although… uh, Echo told me not to tell you when I worked it out and she showed up and said she already knew and had been waiting to see how long it’d take me when I was digging around in the new baby’s back garden. She said she wanted to see if you could work it out on your own. I ignored her of course, because I’m a good girl, aren’t I?”

She crosses her arms. “And that’s why I need to get as much of the stone and the gems out before they show up and start telling me no,” she adds solidly. “Because it’s really going to be a very pretty castle! And I guess they can live there too if they want to, because Rathan stole Vali from me and Calesco gets babied by Echo so I need my own sibling who lives next to me and who isn’t as mean as Calesco.”

Keris smiles and kisses her forehead. “You’re a very good girl, and I bet you’ll be a really good big sister,” she assures Haneyl. “And the land here will probably get renewed and changed a bit when they’re born, if the trend holds, so it’s okay for you to do some gem-mining. Though, about you being a good girl, I’d like to talk to you about Orabilis before we go back to the others. Just us two.”

“Isn’t it great?” Haneyl beams. “An Unquestionable! And you’re doing stuff for him directly, Mama! He showed up in person really fast to ask about your project! Imagine what he’ll say when you do it for him!”

“Mmm,” Keris hums, distinctly less excited. “That’s the thing, sweetie. I think maybe you’re thinking of all the Unquestionable as being like Ligier and the Shashalme and Lilunu, who’ve all helped us and been nice to us and given us things. But remember, stupid Ululaya wanted us to work for her for nothing, didn’t she? And like you said, the coadjutor spell I want to make? It’s my project. I came up with it, I went to research it, and I didn’t ask for Orabilis’s help at all. But then he came along and thought he could tell me whether or not I could do it and put limits on how I was allowed to work on it and now he’s saying it’s his project that I’m doing for him.”

She frowns. “And he’s really powerful and one of the most central Unquestionable in the Reclamation and a very, very bad enemy to have, so I’m gonna have to go along with it, especially since I still get the spell I want out of it. And I’d rather he thought of me as a useful princess who obeys the rules than as a threat to the Yozis. But I’m still not exactly happy with him.”

Noticing Haneyl’s falling expression, Keris hugs her close again. “It’s still very sweet of you to throw a party for the start of my super-special project,” she assures her. “And of course you can still help with it and I’m sure you’ll do really well. Just remember that not all the Unquestionable are our friends, okay? We’re not their slaves, and we work for them because we choose to.”

Haneyl’s eyes flare brighter. “He’s trying to steal our stuff!” she fumes. “Mama… I… he tricked me by being all Unquestionable and stuff! Well! Maybe Rathan was right!”

“Yes, maybe he was,” Keris agrees. “Let’s go back and make sure Dulmea isn’t telling him off for saying it, shall we? You know how she is about the Unquestionable.”

“Yes!” Haneyl fumes. “You’re right!” She pauses. “Should we tell the others just to make Echo even more-”

You told her! Echo gestures hotly, tapping her foot irritably and also silently. Haneyl is terrible, she adds with a look of betrayal. She has no idea how her sister could be so treacherous. Staring pleadingly up at Keris and firmly planting her hands on her hips, Echo insists that Mama needs to punish her wayward daughter. She’s completely ruined Echo’s surprise with the plans and the carefully written clues and the dance number she’s been practicing with the szelkeruby!

Echo shakes her head sadly. Disgraceful. It’s just disgraceful. The lack of appreciation for building up tension and the fun of a sudden revelation on Mama is vile! Haneyl, Echo accuses with a jabbed finger. Haneyl has no style at all!

“... what are you doing here?” Haneyl says, gritting her teeth.

Echo implies she got bored of waiting for the food to start, so went to find Mama and Haneyl. Only, she indicates, spreading her arms wide, she was betrayed by her baby sister! Betrayed!

“To be fair,” Keris points out wryly, “if you’d wanted the whole thing with the clues and the puzzles and the spontaneous dance number, you should have done it with Vali or Haneyl.” She grins smugly. “It’s boring now,” she teases. “Oh, my clever daughter reduced to repeating herself and using cliches, like keeping a new soul secret from me yet again! Maybe she’s losing her pranking edge in her old age?”

She eyes Echo and frowns. “Huh. Come to think of it, you’re nearly a teenager now, aren’t you? Remind me to see Berengiere again and get you a new dress. Or maybe get my hands on some other magical cloth and learn sewing.”

For some reason, Echo completely forgets about the unforgivable betrayal of Haneyl. Her happy bouncing indicates that not only does she want more dresses, but she’d quite like a veil like the Weaver of Voices has. It’s pretty! Especially if she can use it to cover up that she’s made of wind and ribbons until suddenly she reveals it, she grins cheekily. Or shoot hurricanes from her face. Mama needs to learn how to do that, Echo nods.

Now, she concludes with a sweeping bow, food time, yes? From Haneyl the Betrayer, she adds with a glare.

“If I gave you sugar, will you stop calling me that?” Haneyl asks.

Only on payment of sugar-coated sugar-glass, Echo retorts by sticking out her tongue.

“Back we go, then,” Keris agrees, hoisting Haneyl up again.

They do have to rescue Rathan from Dulmea’s scolding again upon their return, but once that’s accomplished the meal goes ahead with only the normal amount of Kerisian bickering. Which is quite a lot, but no wars are started and the table, cutlery and even most of the crockery is intact by the time they’re finished, so Keris counts it as a win.

Alas, she’s woken from her pleasant doze by Kemiraci, who apologetically tells her that Mehuni is requesting her presence to look over the production records from the Nests.

Sigh. Back to the paperwork, she thinks.

Chapter Text

Keris breezes through the records from the Nests - there’s really nothing much to report there. She does go and admire her share of the profits made from the sales of the goods there, which is nicely sitting in one of her vaults. And yes, maybe she does roll around in the exotic Malfean currency a little bit, but that’s just for the novelty.

She has more serious things to do than this. With only a little complaining from Haneyl as she leaves the piles of money behind, she pretties herself up and takes a winding route through the Conventicle past Sasi’s townhouse on her way to meet Lilunu for tea and a light meal.

Today, Lilunu is... um. Keris boggles slightly. Lilunu is meeting her in one of her gardens, except the entire garden has been done up in some pastiche mockery of a peasant’s farm from Creation, as interpreted by demons and built to a vastly greater scale than normal.

Demons in incredibly lavish things that vaguely resemble peasant garb herd automata that are probably meant to be chickens, but really look more like very small tyrant lizards. There is a pig-farm composed of a progeny-race of Isidoros who herd human slaves. There are certainly all kinds of Malfean vegetation there, trying their best to look like rice and wheat and failing.

And in the centre of it, sitting outside a rude peasant’s hut made of emerald and wearing an outfit which Keris thinks is probably meant to be some kind of shepherdess, if shepherdesses wore clinging dresses made of apparently living sheep’s wool, is Lilunu, holding her spear which is currently pretending badly to be a crock.

Keris cannot hear Echo going into paroxysms of silent joy at the sight of how many ribbons Lilunu is wearing in her hair and tied to her spear, but she somehow knows her daughter is basically incapacitated by glee.

((dammit, Lilunu))
((lol))

“This is... interesting,” Keris says as she bows and settles down outside the hut next to Lilunu. “Echo thinks you look wonderful. And I like the chickens.”

Lilunu gives a pleased little twirl. “I thought it would be dreadfully amusing to pretend to be a peasant,” she says happily. “You used to be a peasant, didn’t you? I suppose this makes you feel just at home!”

“Well...” Keris says, diplomatically. “I was... more a city girl, myself. Last time I saw any streets that weren’t cobbled before Dulmea came was...” something flickers across her face as she remembers the ravaged sight of Baisha in the distance. “... years ago. Longer than I could remember.”

“Oh, that is a shame,” Lilunu says. “I shall need to find some other of my princes and princesses who can advise me on improving this.” She claps her hands together, and servants bring out deep red tea and a light meal. “How are you, Keris?”

“I’m well, my lady,” Keris says. “I’ve started a project that might interest you. You remember how my Gales were failing?”

“Oh yes, I recall,” Lilunu says. “It was quite strange. I made some enquiries on your behalf, and none of my other princes have had similar issues.”

Keris bites her lip. “I think it might be because I’ve nurtured my souls so much,” she admits. “They can’t cope with my head being so empty. So the idea I had was to create a spell.” She grins winningly. “A spell that did something similar to what you did with Dulmea originally - something that would let me give my Gales coadjutors of their own.”

((Reaction + Politics))
((5+1+2 Coadj=8. Uh. 9 sux. Wow. Three tens.))

Keris sees Lilunu stiffen up, behind her calm mask. She’s worried - no, she’s even scared. Keris is almost certain of that. She wouldn’t have noticed it if it wasn’t for that fact that Lilunu’s tells are incredibly similiar to Sasi’s. It’s exactly the kind of nervousness Sasi shows when Keris starts talking about things which aren’t ‘safe’.

“I see,” Lilunu says politely, no trace of her concerns in her voice. “So what you are saying is that you are looking for a way to bind a demon into a host?”

“Yes,” Keris nods, guessing at why she’s worried. “So I went to the Library to look for research material on possession and, uh... ended up talking to lord Orabilis, who gave me leave to continue on this project as it would serve the interests of the Yozis. Though there were a few things he banned me from looking into.”

Yes, she distinctly relaxes at that. Keris is certain of this - Lilunu is deeply, privately scared of Orabilis.

((Keris discerns that Lilunu has a 3-dot principle of Fear towards Orabilis))

“I see,” she says rather more brightly, and then shifts to awkwardness. “Although I must confess... Keris, I am not initated into the mysteries of sorcery. I haven’t learned it.” She sighs. “I am scared to. I have enough problem keeping my natures in harmony - I fear the terrible forces in sorcery might harm me further.”

Keris blinks.

Keris blinks a few more times.

“Wait, really?” she asks. “That... actually that does make sense, I guess. Hmm.” She pouts. “I was hoping to ask for your help. This complicates things a bit.”

“I would be interested in helping,” Lilunu says, reaching out to brush Keris’ hand with a long-nailed hand. “I do appreciate watching sorcery be worked - in truth, I’m a little jealous! - and if Orabilis approves of it, no doubt he will be wanting rapid results from you. I would hate for you to draw his ire.”

Keris perks up. “Really? Wonderful! Then I should tell you what I’ve worked out already! Oh, and lord Orabilis said that I should work under the direction of one of his eyes if I’m going to ask you things, so that I don’t approach what I’m not meant to know about.” She pauses. “But before that, there are a few things I’d like to tell you about, ah, the embroidery we discussed a few nights ago.”

“After we finish the tea, certainly,” Lilunu says. “Do you like it? It was a gift from the Street of Golden Lanterns.”

Keris sips appreciatively, casting her eyes around the “peasant life” landscape. She has to admit, the tyrant chickens are actually quite impressive. Hopefully Echo is still too paralysed by ribbon-joy to notice them, or there will probably be some running around her Tiger Empire soon.

“It’s lovely,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve been to the Street before. Maybe I should.”

“Neither have I,” Lilunu says sadly, and Keris remembers that Lilunu seldom leaves her own landscape body that stretches all around them. “She has visited me, though - outside of the Calibration celebrations, that is. She has a quite...” Lilunu pauses, clearly looking for the right words, “... distinctive personality.”

Keris’s lips twitch, amused.

“Oh, I don’t mean to speak ill of her,” Lilunu says hastily. “No doubt she concerns herself with her own affairs. But she is a very - ahem - passionate personality, and very open with her nature so it wells up and affects lesser beings. I prefer things to be more controlled and calm. It must be nice to be as open as she is, without having to worry about the consequences.” Lilunu smiles. “Perhaps you would prefer her company. You can also be much more open than I am.”

“I’m not so sure.” Keris tilts her head. “I mean, Sasi is like you - controlled and calm. And I love her. Same with... I mean, maybe some types of different personality just fit together?”

Lilunu sighs. “I was more implying that you might appreciate her presence more than I do,” she says a little tartly. “She is... ah, agitating to be near, and that is something I must worry about while you do not.”

“Well, you might have a point there,” Keris concedes. “But while I might enjoy her company more than you, I doubt I would prefer her company to you, my lady.” She tilts her head and smiles her most charming smile. “For one thing, I doubt she’s nearly as accomplished in the arts.”

“I will refrain from making any comments about the arts in question,” Lilunu says politely, indicating to Keris that the Conventicle Malfeasant may indeed have a bitchy side she hides beneath her facade of politeness. She finishes off her tea. “But she does certainly have excellent taste in tea. Let us head to my workroom if you want to show me more of the embroidery.”

“Of course.” Keris gathers herself up and follows Lilunu inside, taking the opportunity as always to look around at the beautiful surroundings.

It is a little strange to think that this building and this workshop - and this entire dome - is Lilunu’s body just as much as the woman walking beside Keris. But sometimes Keris remembers it and moments like this, when she can see new stairs extending down a wall like growing hair are moments when this is the case. There are demons working on sculpting and guiding the growth.

Lilunu leads Keris up stairs that hadn’t been here before and into a workroom that might be the same one she had been in only a few days before, or might be one that merely resembles it.

Keris wonders for a moment whether the apartments inside Lilunu hurt her - or whether they’re more like architectural versions of the body modifications she does to herself to try to control her flesh and the way her hybrid nature flows through her. She listens carefully for a moment for any eavesdroppers that might be nearby, closing her eyes and focusing hard.

This is Lilunu’s workroom. There are always plenty of demons here. In fact, there’s the very, very distinctive noise of szelkerub laughter up ahead, and Keris catches sight of the wind-cherub page she gifted to the Conventicle Malfeasant. His pink and yellow ribbons have been utterly covered in intricate calligraphy and ink-drawn pictures. She grins and waves to him. “I see someone’s happy. Have they been well-behaved, my lady?”

Lilunu smiles. “They are interesting little things,” she observes. “And they need to eat and sleep so much, just like humans! I had to build them a shaded place, because they found my beloved’s eternal light quite stressful.”

“They do keep surprising me,” agrees Keris with a fond nod. “And... that’s connected to what I wanted to tell you in private.”

“Ah,” Lilunu notes. “Then perhaps this is not the best place.” She looks down at Keris’ belly with amusement. “No doubt you’ll want to get some of the weight off your spine. I do believe you’ve be happier in my baths. Come along, then.”

She leads Keris to a strange, almost cramped little rocky grotto that’s several storeys above the workroom. The sunlight streams through the emerald roof, and the entire room is filled with steam. The water here must be very hot indeed, given how the emerald roof focuses Ligier’s light into selected areas of the water.

Discarding her pastiche of a shepard’s outfit outside, Lilunu sinks into the steaming water with a sigh of relief. “This is a nice little private place,” she says, and frowns. “Well, unless my love chooses to descend from the roof for a visit,” she adds.

Keris sinks into the water with a blissful sigh. “Ooohhhhhh. Oh, that’s good. That... that’s very good. Mmm.” She purrs quietly, wriggling in pleasure and dipping under the surface completely for a moment. Inside Keris, her daughter very much appreciates the heat and starts kicking hard.

“So, um,” she says, wincing a little. “The... thing. I haven’t told anyone about it until now because I wasn’t sure what it meant, and... well, I did sort of tell a few people about it, just not in detail, and they sort of assumed it wasn’t what it was...”

She bites her lip and tugs on a twitching lock of hair nervously.

“I, um,” she mutters. “I have a... a landscape. Place. Sanctum, I suppose. In, uh... inside my soul. Where my souls take form. That’s... that’s why I can talk about keruby like I see them a lot. Because there are quite a lot of them in there. Along with Dulmea and Echo and Rathan and Haneyl and...” She waves a hand. “All of them. I’m not... I can take things out and put them in, if they’re small, and I can summon serfs from inside, but the borders are mostly sealed. I can’t get in there myself. Only dream myself in there while I meditate or sleep.”

She gulps. “I’m... not sure what it means,” she repeats. “Or what it is. Or why it’s there.”

“A dream?” Lilunu asks, sinking back into the water, her hair fanning out around her. Keris whimsically wonder how many long red hairs get in the water here. With both her and Lilunu bathing, the demons who have to clean this place are going to have a lot of work to do.

Keris purses her lips. “Haneyl, sweetheart?” she says - softly, but loud enough for Lilunu to hear. “Could I have one of those truffles, please?”

She reaches into thin air, which tears, and a perfectly sculpted truffle drops into it. She holds it out to Lilunu.

“It’s a real place,” she says, slower this time, the panic receding a bit now that she’s shared the secret. “Within me. I reach it through dreams, but I can put things there and take them out again. My souls can’t escape it, and I can’t summon them - I’ve tried. But I can summon my serfs.”

She bites her lip. “I think-” she starts, then cuts off and lowers her eyes hurriedly. “I’m... not sure what it is,” she finishes. “At first, Dulmea was just a voice in my head. Then this, about the same time my hair lengthened.”

“Mmm. Dreams are real, Keris,” Lilunu says, with the blaise approach of a demon. “Sometimes things crawl out of mine.”

Keris opens her mouth.

Keris closes her mouth.

“I... did not know that,” she says, slightly higher pitched. She blinks a few more times. “So. It’s not... you don’t think I’m turning into... into landscape on the inside or anything? It’s just a natural part of me becoming more demonic?”

“You might be turning into landscape on the inside,” Lilunu says, with the same blaise attitude. “One prince has embraced so much of Malfeas that his flesh is becoming a city and he must trim it ‘lest he be left immobile by his terrible power and strength.”

“...” says Keris, glancing in vague concern at some of the thin brassy scars on her hands and fingers. “... right.”

She settles down a little, relieved that she doesn’t seem to be in trouble for having a world within her. “Is it possible that changing the dream would change me? Because Haneyl - she was awed by your art room and by lord Ligier’s palaces. She’s decided to dig up part of the landscape for white stone and build herself a castle.”

“Hmm.” Lilunu thinks about this. “I do not believe so. Although, it may increase your self-discipline. That is just your soul exerting dominance over your flesh, after all. That is the nature of self-control.”

Keris preens a little. “That’s... that’s good to know.” She sighs happily. “These baths really are glorious.”

“She’s so pretty,” Haneyl says in Keris head, in a very similar tone to how Keris is feeling. “And this bath is wonderful. Mama, she looks like she’s from the Realm. I hope I’m as pretty as she is when I’m older. And as powerful! And have my own lands as big as hers with so many servants!”

((Oh, Keris. Your greed for wanting baths like this has drawn Haneyl’s attention and increased her “Lilunu is so cool!” feelings.))

Chuckling at her enthusiasm, Keris relays this to Lilunu and segues into a discussion on cooking-as-art. That starts a long and rambling conversation that strolls leisurely through food, plant dyes, tattooes, tapestry work and takes a brief diversion into soft gemwork when Lilunu’s orvenkerub page comes in with towels. Her nacre skin has been heavily carved with intricate patterns.

Keris leaves with a skip to her step, happy to have the burden of keeping her Tiger Empire lifted from her shoulders - and to have shared her own secrets with Lilunu in return for learning of Lilunu’s own souls.

She feels like some painting, she thinks. Back at her townhouse, in her own studio. Maybe she can whip out a few landscapes of her Tiger Empire to show Lilunu if she’s interested.

Keris’ majordomo notes that a packet of tea has just arrived as a gift from Unquestionable Lilunu. After some thought, she gives half of it to Dulmea as a present and half of it to Haneyl to see if she can replicate it, while she happily hums and jogs up the wall and up to her painting room.

And then her day is quite ruined as she walks in and remembers what she did - and what she painted and who she painted - the last time she was here.

“Tell me a story, Rat.”

Her old friend and once-love meets her gaze from a hundred angles across the walls and canvases. From rough sketches that merely suggest shape with splashes of colour to detailed studies that portray his laughing eyes and easy grin, he pins her under more stares than she can count.

She turns to run, but the door has swung shut - and he’s here, too; scratched into the back of the very door. How long have these been waiting here for her; to remind her? A year? It must be close to that. She’d locked the door when she left, last Calibration and she’d... and she’d just forgotten...

Wheeling around in an attempt to avoid his eyes, feeling sick with remembrance and guilt at the blameless weight of his gaze, Keris drops to her knees and flees into her Devil Domain. It isn’t... she shouldn’t get to feel so happy and bouncy and good when... and she’s pregnant still, with his child, and...

“... paint,” she blurts to Dulmea. “I need to... no, I don’t want to talk, I just... go sit by the window. Please. I just want to paint and... and not think for a while. I wasn’t expecting...” She gulps. and fumbles for a brush, half-heartedly twanging notes from the air that she can tell are crude and jarring by her usual standards.

Dulmea has a kettle boiling already for her new tea, and so she firmly pushes Keris down and instructs her that she’s going to wait until she has some calming tea in her.

((5 successes on her attempt to calm Keris down))

For once, Keris shakes her head. “Please, I can drink as I work. I need to get this out somehow. A-and... painting him just put it off until now, so I need to paint something else. M-move on.”

“If you just wait for a moment, I can get Rathan,” Dulmea begins, her voice icy calm.

Keris can read her. She’s not that subtle. She’s trying to get Rathan in to hug Keris into submission.

“Dulmea.” Her hair tendrils are lashing, she realises, and voice cracks a little. “I need you. To just sit down at the window. And I’ll sit, and paint, and... and drink tea later. But I need to paint.” Her fingers are actually aching as they curl around her new brushes. She can start with water, she thinks, and add earth and wood and mix them together...

“I paint you here, or I go find something else to paint,” she forces out.

Dulmea looks at Keris calculatingly. “I will meet you over near those new islands that Haneyl is busy strip-mining,” she says. “You liked them a great deal when Haneyl took you there, and...” a strange expression of almost-pain crosses her face and she wraps her hair around herself. “... what was I saying? Yes, you have already painted me here. Perhaps a new challenge will entertain you.”

And like that, she’s gone in a flurry of sound and the chell that remains starts to clear things away.

As Keris jogs, she suspects that Dulmea has just tried to trick her into having a calming run.

If that was the intent, it... isn’t working, she realises. If anything, the urge to paint is getting stronger. As soon as she’s outside the limits of the City, she calls on Valiant speed and roars across the landscape in a crackling aura of light and sound. Normally it would at least make her wince, but she barely notices as she homes in on Dulmea’s music, using several embervine men as stepping stones to reach the top of the island she’s on. It’s the same one they used as a picnic isle when Haneyl went all fiery, but Keris is too monofocused to really notice.

“Okay, I’m here,” she blurts, settling herself. Her fingers are really starting to ache now, and she lets out a sigh of bliss as she makes the first brushstroke. It feels like sore muscles getting a good massage to work the knots out, or an open wound scabbing closed. Or... okay, it’s quite hard to place the feeling exactly. But it feels good. She falls into a trance, Dulmea’s words passing over her mindlessly as she quickly sketches out Dulmea’s silhouette on the canvas and fills in colour, shade, texture, detail.

She’s about to draw back. But the urge isn’t finished with her yet, and she starts another painting right over the top of the first without thinking. The same scene, the same model... but different in every aspect, with some features exaggerated and others faded, subtly different lines suggesting utterly different geometry, juxtaposed colours mingling to create new depth.

Again and again, Keris paints the same picture atop itself. She doesn’t hear Dulmea’s voice - trance-fogged like her own - begin to sound alarmed. She doesn’t notice the embervine men slowing and falling where they stand, crumbling to nothing. She doesn’t even notice the island beginning to tremble.

She does notice what happens as she finishes the tenth layer of her painting, though. By all rights it should be an incomprehensible mess by now, but it just looks deeper, as though seen from a dozen points of view all at once. And the focus has changed slightly. It’s not a painting of the island anymore. Or even of Dulmea. It’s a painting of... whatever’s...

... inside her?

“No, stand up,” Keris chides Dulmea, who is slumped down and only held up by her hair. Her endlessly moving hands are trying to clutch her pregnant belly, because her hair is exploding out from her everywhere, clinging onto rocks and the ground and despite that she’s on the very edge of falling down.

“... hurts,” Dulmea manages weakly.

“You...” Keris urges, fully in the grip of mania. “You need to stand so... I need to get this... last angle... for...”

She looks at the painting again.

It looks back.

Dulmea screams, but Keris’s eyes are wide and fixed on her work as it ripples and shifts and stands; folding itself over and around into a human shape. It hurts her eyes, and bile rises in her throat, and she can feel the manic urge that gripped her flow away like water as the painting-thing lifts its surprisingly human head and tilts it at her.

Keris looks over at Dulmea, and finds her sprawled out on the ground, panting, and...

... no longer pregnant.

Another little body sits in front of her, in the exact same pose as the painting-thing. Its head is tilted at the exact same angle. Both of them stare at her as their forms ripple and settle.

They - it - whatever the forms are, they’re not very big. They’re still deciding how big they are, but they’re toddler-sized and have rough toddler-like proportions.

The blood-covered - except is that blood, or red paint - child that sits by the bleeding, panting Dulmea might be another angyalka, Keris considers. Except, no. The hands are long-fingered, but they’re not that long fingered. The hair is moving and twitching, but it’s not that twitching.

And the other one, the painting-child - well, they’re covered in what’s almost certainly paint, even if it smells like ink or oils. They have horns and one half-grown wing and four arms and their facial proportions are strange and blocky and asymmetrical. And their red-blond hair twitches in exactly the same way as the other child.

Keris dithers for a moment, then gathers the painting-child up in her hair and rushes over to check on Dulmea, putting... it, beside its...

... sibling? She’s not sure. And to think she thought she would be prepared for this one. She wraps them both up in the hair tendril, supporting them gently and keeping them in place.

“Dulmea?” she whispers urgently, her head swimming. “Dulmea, are you okay?” She helps her mother up into a sitting position, keeping a careful hair tendril wrapped around the child.

... the child? Keris blinks. Where did that thought come from? There are two of them.

Aren’t there?

“Ow,” Dulmea says, breath ragged. “Humans. I hate you right now, child. I never wanted to grow something like that inside me and have it force its way out. Everything hurts.”

Keris hugs her quickly, and turns her attention to the...

... to her newest...

... to the two small forms her hair is wrapped around.

((UWR; 10 dice; 5 sux.))

The song of their essence is unsettled and maddeningly amorphous, but it tells her enough. Despite the two bodies, this is a single soul. A single soul... in two halves; painter and painted, boy and girl, polarised between hers and Dulmea’s. A single soul that apparently can’t control both bodies independently yet, given the way they’re moving in perfect tandem.

Keris thinks, at a guess, that the body she painted is in the lead right now, with the other copying probably-his movements exactly. But a moment later it seems to shift as both heads turn down to examine the hair holding them.

“Zanara,” she whispers, naming them.

Only then does it occur to her to check what’s happened to the islands around her.

The islands are here. Yes. The islands are certainly here. And so are a lot more islands.

The sea here is shallow, and the sand underneath is pure white. Keris is sure of this, because the water here is incredibly clear. The islands, too, are pure white stone. Keris gets the weird feeling that she’s standing on an unpainted canvas.

And then a glimmer beneath her feet catches her eyes, and she looks down and sees a smear of opal-dust on the white. It reflects the red moonlight in all colours. The red and green moonlight.

Wait. That’s not moonlight.

Ah. Keris cannot actually see any of Haneyl’s mining operation any more. What she can see is a big cloud of green-lit steam coming from the middle of one of the bits of shallow sea.

... Keris vaguely remembers that there was an island there a short while ago.

... she should probably go collect Haneyl, because she’s not entirely sure her daughter can swim.

Diving into the crystal-clear water and wobbling a little, Keris bounces off a couple of islands en route to her daughter and is still a little dizzy as she comes up beneath the sputtering, yelling, splashing form and lifts her clear of the surface. The swimminess in her head is by now familiar, but that doesn’t stop her vision blurring a little as phantom colours seem to drift over the white surfaces she can see, crying out to be painted.

“Nrrgh,” she comments, paddling one-handed back to the island with Dulmea. She’s not sure what the other hand is doing, but it seems important, so she leaves it to it.

Haneyl splutters out several mouthfuls of water from several mouths as she gasps for breath after Keris drops her on the fine white sand of the beach. “Mama, did you destroy my island?” she growls when she’s able to speak without wheezing. “I was on it! And so was my stuff.”

“Think... soul got born,” Keris mumbles, half into the water. “Can’t think straight. H’ng on.” She pulls them up onto the shore, wobbles slightly and falls back in. Her second attempt at crawling up is more successful, and she sits and leans against Haneyl for a moment as lines of poetry echo through her ears.

“... in brightest...” she murmurs. “Urgh. No. Here. This way.” Tottering up to where Dulmea is resting, Keris blinks at the two... toddlers. At least one of whom she’s certain had horns a moment ago. Or possibly horn, but it’s not there anymore.

“Zanara?” she says cautiously.

“Yes,” they say at the same time, and giggle.

Dulmea, Keris notices to her head-achy-confusion, has decided that she has had enough of having a body for now and left a bleeding chell on the ground. She sits down, on the grounds that this gives her less far to fall if gravity decides to trip her up. “Why’re there two of you?” she mumbles. “An’ where’s your... tree? Or moon. Or... whatever?” She looks around vaguely, wincing at the bright stark whiteness everywhere.

Four eyes - or possibly five eyes, because she’s either seeing things or the messier one has three eyes at the moment, one in the middle of his forehead - stare back at her, confused. They do look very young. Maybe only three or four. Toddlers.

She sighs, and opens her arms. Keris’s head may hurt and her eyes and ears might be seeing things that aren’t quite there, but she still has a new child to say hello to. “C’mere,” she beckons them, and stretches out her hair to help the two clamber into her lap for a cuddle.

After a touching moment of bonding, she pulls herself together enough to tap the one whose bird-talon feet are digging into her leg and mutter a vague order to be less sharp and pointy.

“So you had twins,” Haneyl says, accusingly. “I didn’t say you could have twins!”

“I think... they’re one child,” Keris murmurs. “Just in two forms. Like how you have more forms. They just have them... both out at once.”

One of the twin bodies reaches for Haneyl, which results in the other accidentally hitting Keris in the jaw.

“... an’ they aren’t very good at it yet,” she adds.

Haneyl purses her lips as she strips off her drenched robes, sitting around in a light cotton shift. “You got me all wet, babies,” she informs them. “So you owe me. Also you stole land I took fair and square.” Despite her Haneyling, she’s still taken the chance to edge up to Keris and get her first hair-hug of her new siblings in.

In just a shift, Keris can see more clearly that Haneyl is putting on weight and height. She looks distinctly older than Calesco now. She can also see that the shift is browning and steaming. Haneyl is basically drying from the inside out, and she’s singeing her undergarments because of that.

“So I have a new sister and a new brother,” Haneyl decides, after poking them a bit. “She looks a bit like me.”

Keris nods, trying to force clarity back into her head with only partial success. “I’m going to be busy with this Gale project for the next month or so,” she worries. “I know you’re busy with your castle, but... could you look after them when I’m not asleep?” She frowns. “An’ try to work out where their... rooted form is. Big body. Like your tree or the moon.”

((Per + Pres))
((3+5+2 stunt x2 ZANARA PUPPY EYES=10, playing off her stated desire to have a sibling to play with like Rathan. 8x2=16 sux.))

It is the perfect thing to offer to Haneyl. She flares with happiness, literally. Her eyes gleam brightly and embers flare to life in her hair.

“Of course!” she gets out all in rush. “I’m going to be the best big sister ever! Just you see! And I’m going to be all responsible and you’ll can trust me totally to look after them! You can go work really hard to make the Unquestionable happy and when they’re happy it’ll all be because of me and also I’ll have so much fun with them and I’ll make them their own nap room next to mine - in fact, they can sleep in mine because I’ll keep such a close eye on them!”

This alone seems to delight Zanara, who giggles at the sight and tries to grasp the fire. The girl body manages to grab a flame, and pulls back with a yelp of pain, but then goes to grab the fire again.

Keris solves this by gently grabbing what seems to be the boy body and pressings its arms down. The girl turns and gives her a deeply betrayed look, which fades in seconds as Zanara gets distracted looking at their male body from a new angle. The boy body gets several unintentional kicks in as the girl toddles over to poke at... themselves.

“You,” Keris predicts, “are going to be a headache. I can tell.”

((This stroke of foresight is derived from the fact that all her kids are headaches. :V))
(( : D ))

Chapter Text

Alas, Keris doesn’t have all the time she would have wanted otherwise to get to know her new soul. She has Orabilis metaphorically breathing down her neck, and if she wants to get a working spell before Calibration, she would need to get started right now.

Fortunately, Dulmea and Haneyl seem to be taking care of Zanara, so that gives Keris time to get started. She’s got access to the libraries of Orabilis and his servants bringing her the materials she needs, and Lilunu to help her.

She starts off by devouring the texts on demonic possession. Many are common knowledge, but some are secret - censored information that Orabilis has given her permission to see for the duration of her project. Within Keris’s soul, Rounen faithfully transcribes what she reads - there’s no guarantee she’ll keep her access to such things after the spell is finished - and once she’s skimmed the work she goes over it again with Lilunu, asking for her mentor’s unique insight in the field.

Lilunu has taken to Keris’ project with enthusiasm, although Keris is not sure entirely that she might not be doing it because it gives her an excuse to be doing something with Keris for weeks on end and avoid having to attend Unquestionable councils and the like.

“Why, Keris,” Lilunu says to her, “it is necessary to blend the essences in the weaving. I don’t think everything about the formation of the coadjutor will work with your efforts, though - you do not have a fragment of titanic power that your demon must hold before it fuses to a human.”

Keris shifts thoughtfully; one ear on the Eye of Orabilis that observes them. “Something else, then?” she muses. “A substitute, a... catalyst. I wonder... hang on, I think there was something about this in one of the older texts. A few of the old races... the urtalmic? They could bind demonic power into the blood, I think...” She pages through scrolls, looking for the one she wants.

It’s an interesting position to be in, Keris is finding. Lilunu is undoubtedly more capable than her; able to do natively what Keris can only emulate. The libraries of Orabilis are certainly more knowledgeable, with reams upon reams of information on demonic bindings and possession. But Lilunu does not know Sorcery, and the libraries of Orabilis hold little on the nature of the coadjutor. Keris is the bridge between them; standing in the sweet spot with a task that only she can do.

It’s a very strange feeling; the idea that she can do things Lilunu can’t. Not just in the sense of leaving Hell, but in the sense of... knowing things. It’s as though Keris were... were Sasi-smart.

“Oh, by the way,” Lilunu says. “Esteemed Orabilis informed me that he has secured the required human test subject for this - fifty souls. He informs you that he will be most displeased if you waste them.”

Keris nods; her lips thinning. “I won’t start testing on them until I’m pretty sure it’ll work,” she says. “And, mm. It’d probably be a good idea if I made sure they’re all healthy and well-fed and well-rested. The stronger their bodies are, the more likely they’ll survive any errors.”

“I’ll see to it,” Lilunu says. “Which breed of demon do you intend to start working with?”

“For now, angyalkae and agatae,” Keris says. “Neither of them are particularly violent or unstable, and I know from me and Sasi that they make good coadjutors.”

“That makes good sense,” Lilunu says approvingly. “And they are beautiful creatures. I like pleasing breeds.”

Keris beams. “Oh, remind me to show you some of the breeds my souls have come up with. You’d probably like Haneyl’s erooltony or Rathan’s caelpans.” She hums happily. “My souls seem to appreciate beauty. Well, I don’t know about the newest one yet - or Vali - but the others all do.”

“The newest one?” Lilunu asked quizzically.

“Ah... yes.” Keris frowns thoughtfully. “A little after our meeting where we talked about dreams, I... well, a new one was born. My tenth soul. I think the last I’ll be developing, there doesn’t feel like there’s any... any space left, now. I called them Zanara; they’re... twins. Sort of. Still very young. Haneyl is taking care of them for now.”

“Twins?”

“Sort of.” Keris shrugs. “They have two bodies; a boy and a girl. Except, heh,” she chuckles, “they can’t control them separately yet. So they focus on one at a time, and the other one mimics its movements. One of them almost hit me in the jaw because the other was trying to poke something. And their forms are fluid - they shift shape a lot, and one of them keeps trying to grow wings.”

She purses her lips, and stares unfocused at the scroll for a moment, before shrugging again. “Well, Rathan was a baby for quite a long time after he was born, then grew up quite quickly. And Haneyl took a little while to learn how to talk. I’m sure Zanara will mature in time.”

There’s a wistful, slightly unfocused look in Lilunu’s eyes as Keris talks.

“Well, perhaps I might have a gift for them at Calibration, if you might think of something suitable for them,” she says.

Remembering Lilunu’s own souls, Keris reaches over to squeeze her hand sympathetically. “I would be honoured,” she says softly. “And I hope one day I can introduce you to them.”

“I would be pleased to see that day,” she says.

Not all of Keris’s time is spent working. Most of it, yes, but she gives herself a few days of rest a month. Creating a spell takes time - more time than she actually has before Calibration - and even if she works flat-out, she still won’t have a prototype she’s comfortable using before the Althing until at least a fortnight into Rising Air.

Which means that if she’s going to miss it anyway, she can afford to take it at an easy pace and not make mistakes. And free time means that she can look into... other things. Which is why Keris takes a day or two off to make some... private enquiries. Both into any demons who might talk her through a few simple pieces of High First Age technology... and also anyone, anywhere, who might have heard of the towns of Baisha and Huzei.

Keris hears the names of two demons who know more than a certain amount about the secrets of the Shogunate - and, it is whispered, perhaps of the High First Age as well. The first is Quv, a demon lord who descends from Ipymithia who takes payment to safeguard secrets - and over the aeons, many such secrets have never been reclaimed by their master. He charges dearly, but he is reliable in that. The second is Asarin, who descends from the Prince of Leeches and this demon lord styles herself after a lady of the Shogunate, for it is said that she felt much affinity for an infernalist Terrestrial of that time who called upon her time and time again.

Alas, no such mention has been heard of Baisha - save the name of her ship

((Hmm. So what Keris is looking for here is advice on how to work one of the essence recorder things from her Hoard, so she can fill it with memories of Creation for Lilunu. She could also risk trying to Past Life it, but... risky. Very risky, despite her tentative truce with Yamal via letter. Let’s think, then...))

Keris is disappointed about the lack of leads for her hometown, but not altogether surprised. She doesn’t withdraw her inquiries, but she sets them into a holding pattern as she considers her other investigation.

Quv would seem to be the more reliable, dependable source for the information she wants. But he costs. He costs quite a lot. And Keris is loathe to part with things she doesn’t have to. Accordingly, she asks Mehuni to politely request a meeting with Lady Asarin over tea.

She takes the time off when she has things brewing in her alchemy labs. It’s going to be a day’s travel there and back to the lands of Asarin, which are considerably further out - and even then, she’ll need to use one of Ligier’s roads to get there and back.

The demon lady Asarin rules an expanse of basalt and stone bordered on one side by the mercury forest Szoreny and on the other side by Metagaos. Her domain would, in Creation, out-size the Blessed Isles, but here it is lost in the vastness, for a single arched rib of Malfeas passes over the entire space. For that reason, she builds her castle on the underside of the rib, so that her cool brown fires can add an umber note to the green light of Ligier that shines on her lands.

She is known as the False Sun, and looking at her burning castle that hangs like a lantern from Malfeas’ rib, Keris can see why.

Keris has spent the day brushing up on the few Shogunate formalities she knows about - titles of address and a few other things that Asarin is known to like. She’s careful to enter the castle as an equal visiting a respected peer, with a small gift in the form of vitriol-silver hair ornaments. Her manners should be passable at least, though she suspects she may tend a bit to Realm-etiquette she’s picked up from Sasi.

“Greetings, Lady Asarin,” Keris says as she’s let into the castle and shown to its mistress. She bows - not as low as she would for Ligier or Orabilis, but enough to show respect. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

Asarin is barely taller than Keris. Brown fire burns on her scalp rather than hair, and two long jets take the place of braids. She also wears her flames as armour, and by her throne sits a long-handed, heavy-headed handle. “Peer Keris Dulmeadokht,” she says, “I am pleased to meet you. I have heard something of your acts for Ligier and your exploits in Creation.”

“Good things, I hope? I’ve heard of you in turn - they say your knowledge of the Shogunate is unrivalled.”

Asarin puffs herself up, in a very Haneylian way. “Well, I’m very good at what I do,” she says proudly. “Perhaps we might retire to my observatory, and discuss matters further - such as why you are here.”

“Of course,” Keris nods. “Please, lead the way.”

((And like that, Keris has pegged her as “treat like Haneyl at her touchiest”. : P))
((The true benefit of Pantheon souls: practice at dealing with squabbling demon lords.))

Asarin’s observatory is at the bottom of her castle, where cool brown fire streams past it like a waterfall to cool and fall as ash on the buildings below. From here, Keris can see the silvery expanse of Szoreny’s roots to one side reflecting the mad green sun, while hungry Metagaos is grey where the light of Ligier itself is consumed.

In Keris’ opinion, this observatory doesn’t quite match up to the many things she’s seen in the halls of the demon princes. It is a pale attempt to match the wonders of Ligier. The decor could be considerably improved, and the brown light is not flattering. Still, despite that it is a glass-floored room with many fine telescopes which are trained on various places of interest in her lands, and there are an assortment of finely chosen sculptures standing around in here.

But then again, Asarin is a demon lord, not a demon princess and so she cannot match up to those standards.

Keris nonetheless makes appropriately appreciative noises over the sculptures and compliments Asarin on her fortitude and skill in carving out a domain on the very border of the Swamp.

Keris’ feelings make themselves heard as Haneyl is apparently watching. She has several unflattering things to say about the fire, which is insufficiently hot and insufficiently green - and even more about the apparent fear of perfectly natural swamps.

And then Zanara chimes in.

“Yeah,” their - her? - piping voice says. “Those statues are bad! They’re boring! They could be pretty but they’re not!”

That’s enough to make Keris stumble over her words, though she covers it by suggesting tea. If Zanara is talking already, she’ll clearly have to spend some time in her soul on the way back from Asarin’s territory. For now, she palms one of the small devices she and Sasi found on the Baisha as they cleared it out, waiting for the conversation to drift back to the purpose of her visit.

Soon enough, it does. “It is interesting to meet you, but I don’t think this was just a social call,” Asarin says, perhaps a little more bluntly than is proper. “Why are you here?”

Keris quietly puts the device on the table between them. “I happened to come across this trinket in the course of my exploits,” she says. “A minor wonder from the First Age. When I found it, it was able to show a glimpse of something - a recorded play, I think, though it ran out of fuel quickly. I was wondering if someone as knowledgeable as you might know how to refuel it - and also record other things on it; perhaps memories.”

She tilts her head, considering the demon’s reaction to the sight of the thing. What might it be worth to Asarin, Keris asks herself, to have the right of first refusal for any other Shogunate items Keris might find in future and be willing to sell?

“It’s not the first such trinket I’ve come across, and it probably won’t be the last,” she adds. “Perhaps I might bring any others I find to you for evaluation - or to find a home here.”

((Using Price of Everything Undercurrents and Hidden Depths Temptress to feel out Asarin’s response to such an arrangement.))

Sitting back, Keris sees the flicker of Asarin’s eyes and hears the hiss of her hair. She’s interested, and she certainly considers it valuable - but it’s not a driving urge of hers. It’s undeniably valuable to her, but it’s something with a definite price and that she’d refuse if what Keris asked was too dear.

“That sounds like it could work out,” Asarin says hesitantly, and then straightens up, much more confidently. “I know what! I’ll explain to you how this one works, but I think it’ll be more useful for both of us if we do it as friends.” She taps her firey armour, which makes a sound as if it’s metal. “I have quite some interest in all kinds of occult lore, and I was free in the Shogunate much more than in the modern day. You seem to be interested in it too, yes?”

“Very much so!” Keris says, leaning forward eagerly - and with no small interest in how she makes fire work like metal. Even Haneyl seems to be reluctantly intrigued by that.

“Well... I have heard tale that your kind can call forth demon lords to Creation, yes?” she asks.

“... my kind can,” Keris agrees. “It’s not something I know how to do - yet - but I intend to learn soon.”

Asarin flaps her hand dismissively. “I have no real interest in taking land in Creation, though if you look below you you can see these vast lands were conquered by my hands and my legions,” she says. “It’s stupid when I have my own lands here, rather than five days away. But there are places there of power - and of lost secrets, of the Shogunate and before. Should you find ancient places of power, I think you and I would be able to take and hold them - as allies, not,” she blushes, “not as master and servant.”

Keris tilts her head, considering, and smiles. “I think that would work very well,” she agrees. “Very well indeed.”

((Oh, Keris. Instead of Octavian, you call on the tsuntsun Kuuko Ellogian demon lord.))

“Mama!” Haneyl gasps, clearly outraged at the idea that anything would slip through her fingers.

‘Don’t worry,’ Keris soothes inwardly. ‘Like she said; her lands are here in Hell. If we hold places of power in Creation... well, then it makes sense that I’d oversee them most of the time. And an ally who knows about the time of the Shogunate is worth a lot.’

“But what if she lies about what things do so she can take them!” Haneyl whines. “And anyway there’s no such thing as a pretty Shogunate thing I don’t have a use for!”

‘If she lies, we’ll spot her lying and get angry,’ Keris points out pragmatically. ‘Remind me to learn how Sasi spots lies at some point. And don’t worry, I’ll keep you well-supplied with pretty things. But occult secrets from the Shogunate - lost knowledge - that’s a thing that can be shared, see?’

Haneyl seems about to whine more, but then she shrieks, “No, Zanara, put that down!” and there’s a sound which sounds remarkably like one of Dulmea’s teapots being dropped. Keris leaves them to it and refocuses on the real world, where Asarin is examining the recording trinket.

“This is fairly common,” Asarin says after a while. “I’ve seen similar things before. Where did you find this?”

“Either in an ancient tomb that I breached the defences of, or in my ship - the Baisha used to be a First Age yacht. I think there were a few of these in both. That one in particular...” Keris squints at it. “... was from the Baisha, I think.”

“Can’t you tell me more? This can tell me a lot of things,” she says, chewing on her lip.

Keris frowns, trying to remember more, and hears a quiet chirping and a phantom weight in her hair. Firisutu. Of course; he does love her pretty things. She listens for a moment as the little demon jogs her memory.

“... it was lying on the ground,” she says slowly. “There were a few others there - crystal cubes, similar things to store information. Most of them didn’t work - not enough power, I think... ah, there was an Amulet there too; like mine, though not as good. Um...” She continues haltingly, sharing what she can about the other devices.

Asarin seems to make up her mind. “I think this will run off the nature of Air,” she says, eventually, “to trap the voices and the nature of Fire to show images in its hidden flame. From what you say, it’s likely some kind of recording of a play or another form of entertainment trapped so that it can be watched at any time, without having to keep actors around you all the time. Pah! Having that many servants is a rank of privilege! Silly humans! But a lack of air and fire is likely why it’s not working. Well, that or simple age.”

“Easy way to test that, I suppose,” Keris says. “Though... not without taking it back to Creation. Maybe a hearthstone or two. Uh... do you have any ideas on how one might record something else on it?”

“If this is truly a thing of the rule of the Solars or the early Shogunate,” Asarin says confidently and superiorly, “it will be have a creature living within - not quite a god, but not a demon either. Somewhat similar to the Things That Dwell In Corners, in fact. The right words in Old Realm can command it.”

Keris nods, already suspecting how she might find out what those are. “That’s perfect. My very great thanks, Lady Asarin. Will you be attending the Althing at Calibration?”

Asarin harrumphs. “No. My stupid demon prince didn’t offer an invite to me! Idiot! Stupid idiot!” Her head is burning brighter, and certainly can’t pass as hair anymore. “So I’m going to hold my own better party!”

((... can Keris offer invites? Is that a thing she’s allowed to do? Or is it Unquestionable-only?))
((She doesn’t know - but, you know, the party is being held in the Conventicle Malfeasant, so Keris might just be able to squeak an invite. : p ))

“Oh, that’s terrible!” Keris says. “You clearly deserve to be there, and... ah, I’m required to speak, but I’d hate to miss your party.” She purses her lips. “Perhaps I could speak to Honoured Lilunu? She might extend an invitation in your prince’s place. And then we could meet there.”

Asarin blushes, literally luminescently. “C-could you?” she asks.

Keris smiles. “I’m on good terms with her, so I can definitely ask,” she winks.

Asarin smiles at her, and then scowls. “If you’re just doing this to use me, I’ll never forgive you!” she announces dramatically, fires burning bright. “But if you’re serious, then you’re the best!”

... it seems her mask as a Shogunate lady is just that, a mask.

Keris ducks her head with a smile at how Haneylish she seems beneath it. “Then I should go and ask her with all haste, to show my good faith,” she says. “The trip back to the Conventicle is a long one. I’ve enjoyed meeting you, Lady Asarin. I hope our friendship will be a great one.”

Asarin insists she stays for a little longer - enough to eat at least, but after that Keris leaves, heading back to Ligier’s burning bridge through the... the not-heavens. She slides into a running meditation as she goes, letting her tie to Zanara guide where she comes out.

Keris finds herself on the big island on the edge of Haneyl and Rath... Haneyl and Zanara’s land, which is where Haneyl is building her castle. It’s taking shape, though they’re still laying the foundations. Everywhere, Haneyl’s swampmen are swarming, digging up ground and in their tens manhandling giant stone blocks. Haneyl has apparently decided that she does need a solid foundation, and is putting one in.

And there, Keris can see what can only be a “princess tent”, which is to say it’s a large tree raised up whose woven roots form a tent. There are a number of sziromkeruby sitting outside, doing some mix of cooking, eating and reading (usually at least two at once). But it’s not just sziromkeruby. Considerable amounts of Haneyl’s court seems to have decamped here, so there are angyalka playing, there are farisyya prancing, and a block of icy glass anchored at the shoreline marks a hive of luvegya, with a smelter set up. Haneyl may be wanting glass windows.

Keris walks slowly though the hustle and bustle, largely ignoring the way that it parts in front of her and closes up behind her. She admires the princess tent for a circuit and then ducks inside, knocking twice on the entrance as she does.

Inside, it’s brightly lit. Despite the fact that the building is a tree, there’s a large fire burning in the centre in a stone pit. Haneyl has drawings and plans scattered all over the place somewhat chaotically, and looking at them Keris can already tell that her daughter keeps on changing her mind about what her castle is actually going to be.

But it’s not really Haneyl she’s looking for here, it’s Zanara. And she finds them - or at least their male body - at the centre of a gaggle of orvenkeruby, being cooed over. Keris sighs. Her new child seems to have drawn a large crowd of girl wave-cherubs. Maybe Rathan sent them to try to counter Haneyl’s influence.

“Hello you,” she smiles, dropping down and pulling Zanara onto her lap for a cuddle. “So you’re talking now, hmm?”

“Mmm,” he says. “I listened to people and learned. Hanny talks a lot so she was easy to learn from. And things got a lot easier when I worked out I only had to have two ears.”

“Clever little thing,” Keris praises fondly, then pauses and frowns. “Actually, yeah,” she says slowly, looking around. “It strikes me you had four last time I saw you. Where’s your, uh, other you?”

Zanara smiles at her artlessly. “She’s being a painting right now,” he says. “Or maybe a statue. I can’t remember what I made her. But I think I want to be a painting next time I want to be her.”

“...” says Keris, which about sums up what she can make of that. “Oh... kay,” she eventually decides on. “And you’re having fun helping Haneyl with her castle? And,” she grins, tickling him under the chin, “giving your opinions on pretty statues?”

Zanara beams at Keris. “Hanny is showing me all the art she has!” he says happily. “She got her friends to teach me reading and there are so many things in books! Writing is art! Pictures are art! It can be anything.”

“Art is the best,” Keris agrees. “Have you seen silverwork yet?”

“Hanny showed me some! It’s all pretty and shiny!”

Keris grins wider. “Do you want to see how it’s done?”

Zanara runs forwards and gives Keris a hug. “That’d be wonderful, Mama!” he says, in a voice nearly as adorably sweet as Rathan at his most manipulative. “Only I think I want to be her for this because I’m better at it when I’m her than when I’m me.” He grabs Keris’ hand, and reveals that the cloak she thought he was wearing is actually a set of wings, like a dragonfly’s. “Come on.”

He pulls Keris along to a corner of the princess tent, where there’s a wall-sized painting. It’s hard to see what’s going on in it because it’s so abstract, but one thing Keris can tell is that there’s two green eyes - the same colour as Lilunu’s - staring out of it straight at her, and Keris feels watched.

Zanara pushes his hand into the painting, and just like that, another hand emerges. With a wet-slithering noise the other Zanara crawls out of the painting while the boy Zanara is sucked in.

The girl straightens up, her scarlet hair bright and somehow red in the green light of the fire. “Keris!” she says adoringly. “You’re going to show me silverwork! You promised me you would so I decided to be me so I could do it with you better than he could!”

“Um,” says Keris, looking between the painting and Zanara in shock. “Um. Wait. What?”

Then her eyes narrow. “... hold on. Like. Like me and my painting,” she says. “That must have affected your birth.” She picks the little girl up, looking her over. Keris can’t see herself in Zanara the way she can in her other children - their boy body has too many strange features and mutations to pick out her own features, and their girl body...

... well, Keris thinks, smiling as she notices Zanara’s three-jointed fingers. She is clearly Dulmea’s child.

“Pretty eyes,” she compliments. “Alright, silverworking. Come on.” She winks. “I’ll show you how to make a hairpiece that doubles as a garotte.”

“Yaaaaaay,” Zanara cheers, waving her hands - and her hair - in the air.

Back with Lilunu, Keris remembers to ask about the invitation for Asarin before diving back into spellcrafting. She throws herself back into the problem, wishing she had Sasi there to help. Still, between Lilunu’s advice and Orabilis’s records, she thinks she’s put together a theory on how to thread together the strands of human and demon. A chalcanth bath can render down the demon, and in that state it can imbue a mortal body - like water seeping into a sponge.

Keris is as careful as she can afford to be. She doesn’t start testing until she’s pretty sure she has a solid plan, and she ensures that her subjects are healthy and well-fed, as well as keeping herself on hand as a healer when she starts testing. Still, there comes a point fairly soon where she needs to put her ideas into practice, and she doesn’t hesitate or stall when it comes.

((Kimmy Excellency is the only Charm I’ve got that I can apply. Keris is trying to apply her alchemical knowledge, using fresh chalcanth as a required ingredient in the spell. She’ll take the +1 to make an attempt at safety for the participants.))
((Okay, so you’re designing the spell as an alchemical thing, so the design roll will run off Occult and Cog. What Styles will you use for it?))
((Empyreal Alchemist for the alchemy bits, and Malfean Scholar for some of the research where applicable. And... man, this is going to mean that spell is basically a demonic baptism, isn’t it? Dammit Keris.))
((Yeah, so this spell is probably going to come out as very... classically demon-alchemist. The sorcerer makes a demonic brew imbued with a demon, and administers it to the patient. It has a chance of killing them if they’re not strong enough. A bit witchy rather than a baptism.))
((Oh, Keris.))
((So, yes, Keris’ roll is Cog + Occult at difficulty 7+1 = Diff 8.))
((Right then. 3+5+3 Style+1 bonus {altering living beings with theion to}+2 stunt+4 Kimmy ExSux {great artist, warp herself and others}=14. 6+4=10 sux.))

By the time Sasi arrives back for Calibration, Keris is doing... well, not as well as she’d hoped, but about what she could have expected. She has a sound theoretical basis down, and she’s now onto human experimentation which... well...

... it doesn’t always kill them. There is room for improvement there. Keris has already found that willingness is a considerable advantage there for survival - that if they’re not willing to accept the demon, they die horribly and mutagenically. She’s quite happy to use this as an excuse to use only volunteers in her experiments; justifying it to Orabilis as avoiding waste.

As soon as she gets the news that Sasi has returned, Keris goes straight to her townhouse to greet her. Which is perhaps a mistake, since she’s coming off quite a long day with little sleep the night before, but she’s tired and heartsore from trying to save one of her subjects and just really, really wants to see her girlfriend.

Testolagh is there with her, Keris hears even before she arrives. He’s there and he’s holding Aiko, who is happily babbling to her father about... about something in what sounds like High Realm mixed up with Old Realm.

She debates going in, but... well, they’re going to have this conversation one way or another, and to Keris’s slightly sleep-deprived judgement it might as well be now.

She knocks.

Chapter Text

Keris is let into the little family gathering. She observes - not for the first time - that Aiko doesn’t look like her parents, even when she’s in a human form. She’s toddling now, and she’s wearing an elegant green-grey smock that sets off her dark skin and brings attention to her bright green eyes.

“Roo-roo!” she says happily, staring at Keris as she looks for Rounen.

That, at least, brings a smile to Sasi’s lips. Sasi is dressed in northern furs and looks quite peculiar in them, but her hair is - as always - immaculate and her iridescent eyes are watchful. She’s nearly impossible to read - she has her mask up fully, and Keris could hear that she wasn’t so reserved before she walked in.

And then there’s Testolagh, and there’s definitely prickling hostility in the air there. More so than the last time she saw him, actually. They were getting along quite well then. But now, ah, now she’s in here, and his daughter and lover are here and he doesn’t want her to be here with them.

Keris shifts uncomfortably on her feet, glancing between the three and feeling a quick, quiet stab of jealousy at how they fit together.

“Welcome back,” she smiles, hesitating only a moment before going over to hug Sasi hello. “How was the journey?”

“Ah, much as it always is,” Sasi says, with an elegant shrug as she embraces Keris back. “We narrowly avoided a glass-storm, thank goodness. And-”

“Roo-roo!” demands Aiko, tugging on Keris’ hair.

“Hush, darling,” Sasi says down to Aiko.

“He’s writing up some texts for me at the moment,” Keris says. “I can summon him, if you want? He can entertain Aiko and we can... talk.” She glances uneasily at Testolagh as she finishes.

“Are you sure that’s quite w-” begins Sasi.

“Sounds good to me,” Testolagh says firmly.

Sasi sighs. “Very well,” she says reluctantly. “But not right this moment. I shall have the servants prepare a more... civilised meetingplace.”

“And a meal? And a place to sit down?” Keris asks hopefully, perking up. “Sorry, I’ve been working for most of the day, and I didn’t get much sleep last night. And these two are murder on my ankles when I’m not running.”

Sasi raises her hands, a wide smile on her lips. “Of course, of course. In fact,” she says, pausing deliberately, “why not come back in an hour or so, after you’ve had time to wash, change, and the like. It’ll give the servants a chance to set things out properly and I can use the time to put Aiko to bed.”

Keris eyes her. The other reason Sasi is saying that, she suspects, is because she wants time to come up with a plan for what to do and how to get Keris and Testolagh to go the way she wants them to go.

((Rollin’ Temperance~. 2 dice; 3 sux. Hmm.))

Well, she thinks, Sasi does probably want all three of them to get along. And if it starts going in a direction Keris really doesn’t like... well, she’s good at surprising Sasi, and doing that might be enough to draw some truth out if needed.

“That sounds like a good plan,” she says after a moment’s thought, catching Testolagh’s eye. If he knows Sasi as well as she does, he’ll probably see what she’s doing here as well. “I’ll be back a little later, then.”

“I’ll make sure to pick out what you like,” Sasi says, kissing Keris goodbye and then carefully making sure she leaves and isn’t left alone with Testolagh before she heads off to put Aiko to bed and confer with her majordomo.

Keris is half-tempted to double back, or at least send Rounen to say something to him. But Testolagh seems prickly, so maybe it’s a good idea to meet him with food between them before resorting to fighting it out. Keris heads back to her townhouse and takes a quick bath, then debates what to wear. After some thought, she goes for a gown in Lilunu’s Realm-Hellish style, with her hair worn up in three interwoven buns.

“Mama,” Rathan says firmly. “Hanny and me’ve been talking.”

“Yeah,” Haneyl agrees. “You’re not allowed to lose her, got it!”

“And he’s not allowed to steal Sasi!” Rathan adds, a trifle shrilly. “He’s already stealing her attention! What if he takes all of it? He’s already the daddy of her baby! Between the two of them, there might not be enough time left for you.”

“But it’s more important that you not lose Mother,” Haneyl interjects quickly. “If we... you have to share her, then that’s bad, but it’s even worse if she’s not ours anymore. Because that’s what she is. She’s ours.”

The bickering starts almost immediately.

“I’m keeping Sasi,” Keris says firmly. “Nobody is stealing her. She loves me - she said she loves me - and she trusts me, and she won’t get taken away. Testolagh and I just need to... to settle a few things.”

By a complete and utter coincidence, the silver hairpin she’s putting in chooses that moment to snap into three pieces and go flying across the room. It’s probably a good omen.

When Keris returns, she finds that Sasi has set up something in one of her inner courtyards. The low buildings of her townhouse surround the place, and the soft green light of Ligier shines off strange mirrors that leave the light almost white - but dim. The silver sandstone of Cecelyne is pale and the onix decorations rim fountains of liquid shadow.

Sasi has put out food, and the triangular table has carefully been arranged so every side has one person’s favourite food. Sasi has apparently been taking notes.

For her part, she’s changed from her furs into her preferred silvery robes, and she’s looking very pale indeed. And to be formal, she’s also got her forehead brand glowing pale green.
Testolagh has also taken the chance to change, but he’s in formal light armour, made of finely buffed brass. His metal eye gleams green, and he’s glaring at Keris.

“Welcome, everyone,” Sasi says. “Please, sit.”

Keris wastes no time doing that. She sinks into the seat and snaps down an apple with a happy sigh, closing her eyes in brief bliss. She takes the opportunity to quietly assess the mood, listening to Testolagh’s breathing and the creak of tension in his muscles.

How much, she wonders caustically, does he want her gone? How much does he value being the only one Sasi loves?

Sasi makes small talk. With seemingly genuine interest, she asks Keris what she’s been doing and what her research she’s been hearing tales about entails.

Keris is happy to oblige her, and describes - in somewhat redacted detail - how she got the idea that a spell to create a coadjutor would benefit the Reclamation and obtained permission from Orabilis to pursue it; drawing on his libraries and working closely with Lilunu. She leaves out her personal reasons for wanting the spell, as well as Calesco’s reaction. Those can come later, in more privacy.

She also turns the questions back on Sasi, asking how her trip to the North was, how Kuha’s sisters are doing, and whether she picked up the seeds Keris was hoping for. As much as Keris wants to be polite and draw Testolagh in, she can’t help but include one shot across the bows with a subtle reminder that Sasi wouldn’t have gone if not for Keris encouraging her to.

“Oh, of course,” Sasi says, with regards to the mention of the seeds. She reaches into her shadow - which pops into existence despite the Ligierian light - and retrieves a sizable storage trunk. “I’m sorry - some of the names and descriptions were a little vague to me,” she apologises, “so I simply had some demons gather everything in the area, along with whatever I could get from the local shamans or whatever they called themselves.”

“The owlriders are mostly doing well,” Testolagh said stiffly. “A few have died - complications in the process - but those were the ones who were sickest at the time when they got the treatment. They need a certain strength of body, it seems, for the seed to take hold.”

Keris nods sadly. “It’s looking to be the same with the coadjutor draught,” she says. “If they aren’t strong enough or they don’t want it, it fails. I’ve been using only volunteers lately. It means more survive, and fewer get wasted.” She looks down. “Still not always enough, though. One of them died yesterday; that’s what I was working on. Surgery, trying to help him pull through.”

“Mmm,” Sasi says. She folds her hands in front of herself. “And... you are sure of the terms of your agreement with Orabilis? What occurs if you cannot achieve your goal to his satisfaction?”

“I can,” says Keris flatly. “I will.”

“But if you don’t? What have you promised him?” she asks, a note of entirely sincere concern in her voice.

“I...” Keris says, frowning as she thinks back to that conversation. “... don’t think I did? He said he expected results,” she glowers faintly at that, still sore, “so I’ll get him results. We’re already seeing promise.”

“And is there a deadline? Orabilis is... powerful. And he has an adder’s tongue for a good reason,” Sasi says. “I have... learned that in the past.”

“No deadline,” Keris says. “I’d have liked to have been ready by Calibration, but even Orabilis will understand that I can’t make a spell from scratch in two months, no matter who’s helping me. We’re making good progress, though... uh... I can’t show you a fair bit of it. You know how it is. Forbidden knowledge and all.”

She reluctantly concedes to the fact that if she’s going to get along with Testolagh, she should probably include him in the conversation.

“So, um, how goes the Northeast?” she asks. “Have you made progress stabilising the tribes?”

Testolagh glowers. “The tribes grow, but this just makes them more and more erratic. Most of the other tribes have surrendered and joined this coalition, but this just means they fight for supremacy inside the coalition and the chieftans squabble. They simply don’t identify as part of the same people, and think their real enemy is still the other tribes.”

“Urgh.” Keris winces. “I’m... sorry to hear that.”

“Yes,” Testolagh says glumly. “I plan to petition the All-Thing for a re-evaluation of this mission. It seems endless, and I am sure I would be much more useful...” he shudders, “somewhere warmer.”

“Ligier might go for you bringing his glorious light to other parts of Creation,” Keris muses, turning the idea over thoughtfully. “I could mention it to Lilunu, at least, though... ah... I think he’s still not too happy with me, so I probably can’t put in a good word with him...”

“It’s a question of the stupid politics of Hell,” Testolagh says bitterly. “Because I can’t leave these idiots alone, I can’t run off to Hell to suck up to the Unquestionable.”

Keris shrugs. “So use what connections you do have,” she says bluntly. “Sasi can speak up for you, and she’s got sway here. Naan would probably throw in for you to roam around like he does. Ash and dust, I’d argue for it, and we don’t even get along all that well. You’re wasted up there; it makes sense to reassign you. You’re one of a handful of Princes who could give me a good fight if I went all out; put four of us together and there’s probably nothing in Creation we can’t pin down and kill. That’s useful.”

“And I think it’s easy for you to say that, when you seem to have so many Unquestionable falling over themselves to make friends with you!” Testolagh snaps.

“Ah,” Sasi says delicately. “So I think everyone should perhaps have a drink, and then perhaps we should have that talk. Before either of you escalate things... and then break up my house.” She pauses. “Would you do that? For me?”

((9 successes))

Keris’s hair writhes and rustles in its tight buns, and the scar along her jawline flashes white in the mirror-light as she clenches her teeth.

“A drink sounds good, yes,” she says slowly. “It might be better to have that talk in the gardens, though.”

“I don’t think that would be such a good idea, dear,” Sasi reminds her. “My gardens are a desert, remember? It would probably be better to stay here...” she snaps her fingers, “but wine, yes, that would be better. A Venefa vintage, I think.”

A red wine is delivered to the table, and Sasi swirls it in her glass, before she sits it down.
“So,” she says heavily. “I think now is the bit where we talk about our relationship.”

“You mean your relationship with me and your relationship with her,” Testolagh says, crossing his arms.

“Yes. That’s exactly what I mean,” Sasi says. Her expression is distressed, and she looks so upset. “I love both of you. In different ways. You fill different needs - and I’m not just talking physically. I’m talking emotionally as well. I want you to at least get along with each other.”

“Easier said than done,” Keris points out. “He’s jealous of me being in the Southwest with you and not being stuck in the middle of nowhere. And I’m...”

Her mouth twists and she cuts off, gulping down a mouthful of wine and snagging a roasted cob-vine to munch on sullenly.

“There’re reasons for those, is the point,” she picks up again after a mouthful. “We can’t just turn them off.”

“Reasons like the fact that Keris has played more of a role in Aiko’s life than I have,” Testolagh says, agreeing. “She was nearly one when I first saw her.”

Keris winces. “I am sorry about that,” she says quietly, the sullenness receding for a moment. “I don’t know how else it could have gone, but... honestly. I’m sorry it happened.”

Sasi spreads her hands. “You both have a place in my life. I really do wish I could see more of you, Tes. You’re my rock, my love, someone who was there for me when things were at my darkest. You helped me find a new place - a happier place. And...”

“And then you took up with another woman,” Testolagh says softly. “I already conceded that you could... involve yourself with other people for the sake of the things the Unquestionable ask of you - even though I wasn’t happy about it.”

“I... it wasn’t planned,” Sasi says, clearly distressed. “Keris was sweet and funny and completely different from you. She’s not like you, she doesn’t replace you. It’s not like I can only love one person. And I can’t choose who to love. This is just how...”

“... how civilised people do it?” Testolagh growls. “Oh yes. The Realm, so very civilised. And with the morals of cats.”

Keris frowns. On the one hand, she kind of has to agree with Testolagh that being told what civilised people do by the Realm makes her instinctively balk. On the other... if morals mean only having half the love you could have, she can’t really see what the point of them is. There’s nothing special about being more miserable than you have to be.

“We’re sitting in a townhouse on one of the innermost layers of Hell,” she points out. “Served by demons under the light of the Green Sun. How civilised is that? How moral? If we...” Unconsciously, Keris pulls a thin lock out of her buns to chew, trying to put words to the idea that struck her.

“... if we argue and decide based on who we were, all that gets us are solutions for people who we aren’t anymore,” she settles on. “Which are useless. We’ve changed. Our situation has changed. Doing things the way civilised people do them, or holding to morals from where we were raised... we’ve already broken both of those just by being what we are. They don’t fit us anymore. You need to find a solution for who we are now.”

((Oh, Keris’s Emerald Sacrifice. She really has let go of her past and embraced her new place in the world in a way they haven’t~))
((Per + Pres))
((3+5+1 Firebrand Demagogue - this is something Keris really does believe quite strongly, after all - +2 stunt+4 Adorjani ExSux {enlighten them, let go of attachments}=11. 8+4=12 sux.))

“Quite so,” Sasi says smoothly. “Fundamentally, I’m not asking you to to leap into bed with each other or anything else. But you’re both a part of my life, and you’re both important to me. I love you - both of you. Testolagh, you have to believe that I love you. I had your child. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t have done that. And Aiko is a little bundle of joy, and you’re her father and I want to be with you so you can be there for her just as much as I am. And Keris, you’re funny and clever and I’ve loved watching you blossom, becoming so much more than you were. I’m proud to have taught you sorcery, even if you then take it in directions I have problems following. And,” she says, voice catching in a way that tugs at Keris’ heartstrings, “I know you love me too - enough that your souls shape themselves after me. I want you to be there and I want to meet my son and daughter by you.

“And so I want you two to get along. I know you both have difficulties that each other can help each other with. I’m sure you can find things you have in common - after all, I suppose your lives before you got this great gift were more similar to each other in many ways than mine was to either of you.”

Keris glances over at Testolagh, and finds him looking back at her. She tilts her head, considering.

((... hmm. So yeah, I’ve been rolling Temperance periodically through this - and Keris has somehow not failed or botched yet; she’s had three 1s, a 3 and a 2.
Hmm. For this, I think I’m going to roll Possessiveness vs Sasi Principles.
... 0 vs 3 sux. Okay then!))

“... well,” she says to him cautiously after a long moment. “I’m willing to try talking if you are.”

((Keris notices Testolagh’s display of Temperance 4.))

“I suppose so,” he says reluctantly. “I... I don’t think I’ve been entirely fair to you. There have been ways that I’ve acted to you that you haven’t earned, and it wasn’t entirely honorable of me. I should have taken things up with Sasimana more directly, rather than targeting you.”

Keris nods, feeling her hackles lower and her hair relax. “How about we trade stories over some more wine?” she suggests. “And perhaps you can tell me a few things the owlriders have been doing; I’d like to hear about them. Kuha has been well. I’m thinking of trying to find her an albatross or a sea eagle; something better suited to ocean flying.”

He smiles back at Keris. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much use there,” he says. “I have no idea how they do that. I can’t bring myself to ride anything less reliable than an agata.” He spreads his hands. “I’m not exactly the smallest man. Even that ribbon horse you summoned a while back seemed a bit slender for me.”

“Quieter, though!” Keris points out. “Hush, if there’s one thing I don’t like about Malfeas, it’s the noise. Saata is loud, but Hell is something else again. Not fun, with my ears.”

She smiles ruefully, and sighs. “So. Who goes first, then? And what do we already know about each other, beyond us both being from the Scavenger Lands?”

Sasi rises gracefully. “I’ll leave you to that, then, so my presence does not agitate things,” she says elegantly. She meets both Keris and Testolagh with a painfully honest gaze, her eyes wide and wavering happily. “I’m so glad you came to talk things out like grown-ups,” she says, with a little hitch in her voice “Thank you so very much.”

Keris gives her a kiss, but restrains herself to dropping it on her cheek rather than her mouth in deference to Testolagh. He follows suit, and they wait for their mutual lover to leave earshot.

A quiet staring contest begins. It’s broken by Keris.

“I was born in a village called Baisha,” she says quietly. “Near a trade town; Huzei. I’m not sure where it was. I didn’t even know its name until a year ago. Sasi helped me get the memories back. My best guess at the moment is somewhere in the southern Scavenger Lands, but beyond that...”

She shrugs. “Your turn. This might be easier if we go bit by bit.”

“Malzar,” he says. “It’s in the Hundred Kingdoms - a small market town. They say that there used to be a great city there and people used to live in the hills which were built by the gods, but the place has been picked bare hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The Dragonblooded of Lookshy came, and took everything of value. But that was long before I was born - maybe it wasn’t even them.”

He sighs. “I was the miller’s eldest son,” he said. “There was a river running through the hills... well, you probably know what a watermill is, yes? That was my home.”

Keris nods. “Blacksmith’s daughter. My father. I... think I had at least an older brother. He was a local, but my mother was from... I don’t know. South. Far South. Her skin was far darker than mine. We were a tiny settlement on a river.”

Her face hardens into old, well-worn lines of hate. “Then the slavers came.”

She doesn’t elaborate. She doesn’t really need to.

“A scavenger lord came,” Testolagh said. “He started poking around in one of the hills. Mining into it. The water turned stagnant and stale, and then stopped entirely. Then everything in his camp died. I... I gathered up all the young men - even the boys - because... well, we had to fix the water, didn’t we? So we had to go there with the priest and find what he did.” He paused. “Only the monster was already out, and while we were running around the hills... we’d... I’d left the town undefended. Without even the priest.”

Keris closes her eyes in sympathy.

“I, ah. I ended up in Nexus. You know the posh househoulds there will buy slaves young? Makes them easier to ‘train into good patterns’. I spent two years like that, then got out onto the streets. Grew up in Firewander. Met a... a partner, my age. He disappeared without leaving any sign when I was about fifteen, and I got reckless and cocky. Decided to try and break into my old owner’s home.” She scoffs. “A grand theft to set me up for life.”

“It started raining. It was a storm when we came back,” Testolagh says, staring through Keris. “Everyone was dead. Everyone. It hadn’t spared anyone. The only ones left were the men and boys. The ones who’d been running around on the hillside. The ones who had meant to been protecting everyone. The priest screamed at me - said that if he’d been here, he could have done something... and that probably we’d drawn its attention by running around like that and if we’d just stayed put and prayed then none of this would have ha-”

His voice hitches.

“-ppened,” he concludes.

Keris shifts closer, leaning a little further forward and moving her hand nearer his. Not touching, but commiserating.

“I was the other way around,” she murmurs, drifting back in time. “I got in; got past the first wall and into the grounds... gods, I’d imagined it so many times. With Rat, then later on my own, more seriously. I might even have done it, I just... I froze up. Couldn’t force myself to go on and risk the guards, couldn’t bear turning back. So they got me anyway. And I still had the burnt-off brand on my arm, so they knew I was an escapee, and that meant I got one of the...”

She closes her eyes and has to force the words out past the remembered sickening terror. “One of the special cells. If I’d kept moving I’d have had a chance, whichever way I went, but I just... sat there.”

She sighs, releasing the breath hard and fast. “And then, Dulmea came.”

“I was sitting there in the rain, while everyone else handled the bodies and... and then, yes. The demon came,” he says.

Keris takes a gulp of air. She’s not used to feeling out of breath. “You were here earlier than I was, weren’t you?” she asks, and then rapidly reconsiders asking about his early days with Sasi. “Was Hell as much of a shock for you as it was for me? I fell in with a cult to Alveua and from her I got picked up at the gates of the City by Jacinct.”

A tiny smile flickers at the edge of her face. “Looking back, I’m honestly a little impressed I didn’t faint.”

He nods. “There were... far fewer of us at the time. I was one of the early ones. And that meant the Unquestionable were... well, there were fewer of them involved, but they were very much more focused on things. Ligier personally trained me to use his green fire. I...” he pauses, “I have a lot of rage and hate to draw on, buried deep down. The fire comes very easily to me.”

Keris winces. “Some-” she starts, then stops. Her mouth opens and closes a few times more before she visibly steels herself to continue. “I’ve run with the Silent Wind, twice. She gave me these.” She taps her scars. “She lay with me in my dreams, and possessed Lilunu to... I don’t even know. Gift me something? Teach me something? It scares Dulmea sometimes, how much like Her I am. How easily I take to Her power.” She winces. “Ligier too. I’m banned from his layer.”

Testolagh rubs the back of his neck. “I... may have been a little blunt with some of the Unquestionable,” he says awkwardly. “And may have said some things that they didn’t want to hear.” He glares at Keris. “I don’t like lying. I try to be better than that. And yes, I am fully aware that Sasimana has embraced far more of the Dragon than anyone entirely healthy should.”

“You’re telling me,” she mutters. “But it’s kept her alive a few times, so I have trouble being too mad. Speaking of, did she tell you about Buk Moi, or avoid talking about it?”

“Buk Moi?” he asks. Evidently she didn’t mention it.

“... yeah, we’re leaving that talk for later,” Keris decides. “But... I get where you’re coming from, I think. I don’t like some of the things they do all that much. It just... sucks that sometimes it’s best not to say it.”

“But to say nothing is to condone it,” Testolagh says, through gritted teeth.

“Oh, mama,” Calesco observes, in a voice which sounds worryingly like infatuation. “I like him.”

Keris quietly drops her head into her hands.

“We have a lot of power,” she says. “But not ‘take on the Unquestionable’ power. If you argue with them, they’ll assign you to the edges of Creation and nothing will change, and that’s hateful and bitter and awful, I know, believe me. But... so is the world, for now.”

She groans. “And Calesco likes you. Of course she does. I don’t know why I didn’t see that coming.”

“Calesco? Your coadjutor?”

Keris shakes her head. “My eighth soul. My souls are a fair bit more active than yours, I think. I have six child-souls within me - two of them have fashioned themselves after Sasi. Calesco... Calesco was born from the Silent Wind. We’ve... talked about this issue before.”

“No, not really,” Calesco puts in. “We’ve shouted about it and argued about it and cried about it. There wasn’t much talking.”

Keris rolls her eyes. “Fine, correction, we’ve had blazing rows about this issue before. And then I sent her to carry a dream-message to Creation so she could get away from Hell for a while.”

“I... see,” Testolagh says. He smiles, not entirely pleasantly but with some amusement. “So there is some good inside you, then, if your soul agrees with me.”

Keris can feel Calesco’s blush.

“I’d send her to talk to you, but I’m a little afraid of what she’d come back with,” mutters Keris. “Ask Sasi about them if you want; she probably has notes. I’m... working on a way of summoning them. No luck so far.”

“So, on the topic of Sasimana,” Testolagh says, “she is... well. She’s changed over the years. And not wholly for the better. She’s got colder. More manipulative. I don’t think she would have gone behind my back like... well, she did with you, when we were new to the City.”

“She doesn’t trust enough,” Keris agrees. “I think it’s fear? She wants to be in control all the time, know where everything is and where everyone’s going and have a hand in everything’s going to turn out. She does not react well when her plans go off-track, I know that. And because she’s so... so roadbound, she doesn’t let things just happen, and react honestly.”

She sighs, slumping a little. “I was sort of hoping Aiko would pull her out of that,” she admits. “But she’s still doing it. That hour was so she could plan out how to get us talking, not for my sake.”

“Almost certainly,” Testolagh agrees sadly. “Have you ever seen clockwork? She’s like a spring, wound so very, very tight. And when a spring snaps, it’s messy indeed.”

Keris drops her head back into her hands. “What are the chances of her listening if either of us bring it up?” she asks, already knowing the answer.

“Near zero,” he says glumly. “She’s pulled in too many directions. I can’t imagine how it feels to live like she does, always lying and pretending to be someone else, wrapped in your own shadow - but I couldn’t do it.” He smiles ruefully. “Couldn’t even learn to hide myself in the Dragon’s Shadow. It just felt wrong. Unclean. Like I was wading in mud.”

“I haven’t even tried to learn anything Pyrian,” Keris admits. “There are a few tricks that’d be useful, but...” She shudders. “So, mm. We’ll have to work out a way to... soften her?” She frowns. “That... sounds like a bad thing, but also feels right.” She wrinkles her nose. “But I don’t have any ideas at the moment, and I’ve been awake too long. And I have brewing to do tomorrow. Careful, delicate brewing.”

She considers him, taking in the set of his shoulders and the resigned worry on his face.
“We should meet to talk about this some more,” she decides. “If you get any ideas, or think of some new angle, you know where my townhouse is. We might grate along each other, but we both want her happy and safe. Right?”

“Right,” he agrees. “And... maybe one more thing.” He cracks his knuckles. “There... is something I’ve been thinking about, on and off,” he begins, a trifle hesitantly.

Keris tilts her head, cautious but curious. “Yes?”

“Last time we met. Or maybe the time before that. You mentioned something... and maybe you were right. Someone else needs to take responsibility for the tribes. So I can be rid of them. Someone that the All-Thing can be sold on them taking responsibility for leading the tribes.”

“... right,” agrees Keris, wary about where this is leading. “Did you have a specific someone in mind?”

“No,” he admits. “That’s the problem.”

Keris nods thoughtfully. “Mmm. Someone who’d work as a successor to you; strong enough to hold the tribes together, smart enough to not screw up.” She hums. “Add that to the list of things to think about, I guess.”

“I was hoping that there might be some demon lord who could just seamlessly take up a role as the new god of the tribes,” Testolagh says wryly. “I suppose that was too much to ask for.”

“Maybe... but it might not be out of the question, either,” Keris muses. “I’ll ask around, see what I can turn up. Give me a scream or two of warning if you want to drop by my townhouse; I’ll be busy with this spellcrafting until past Calibration.”

She squeezes her eyes shut and rubs at them tiredly. “Until we next meet, then,” she finishes. “I’m glad we’re on... something like better terms, now.”

He rises, and squeezes her forearm. “Don’t expect me to kiss you farewell,” he says, deeply.

“Maybe you should hold back on the wine, then,” she retorts, eyes glinting mischievously as she looks up at him. “As far as I remember, you were the one who keeled over first.” She squeezes his arm in return, then skips out of the room before he can muster a comeback, a grin settling in on her face.

“That went,” she decides as she starts back towards her townhouse and the siren lure of her bed, “a lot better than it might have done.”

“It did, didn’t it?” gloats Calesco. “See! I was right! He agrees with me! You don’t need to lie all the time and be terrible to people and you certainly don’t need to tolerate the demon princes being horrible people!”

Keris groans again. “And you’re not going to let this go now, are you?” she asks rhetorically. “Wonderful.”

Some hours later, Keris lies on the white sand of her soul and relaxes. She thinks that went quite well. And Testolagh is... yeah, she does understand him a bit better than she does Sasi a lot of the time. He’s a much simpler person - someone who also understands having to work hard to avoid starving.

She also decides she likes the new islandy bit of her soul. It’s close enough to the Sea that it’s not as humid or hot as the Swamp, but it’s still much warmer than the Sea - and everything is much more serene than the Spires.

In front of her, Zanara’s little boy body conscientiously works on a sandcastle. He’s got quite elaborate flying buttresses in place already, and it’s nearly as tall as he is.

Sifting her hair through the sand, she turns up another shell - just as white as the sand it’s buried in - and tosses it over to her son, who makes a pleased humming sound and caps a tall, thin tower with it. His right hand has angyalka fingers, Keris notices; candlewick-thin and seven-jointed. He’s using them to add fine detail to the wet-sand walls.

Smiling, she returns her attention to the black skies above her. Yes, Testolagh is someone she can see herself getting on with, in the same way that she got on with people who weren’t Rat on the streets. Tit for tat, fair exchange, equal payback - you showed someone respect if they respected you, and if they crossed you, you crossed them right back or everyone knew you for a coward. As long as he doesn’t rock the boat, she can play nice.

And they’re both in the same boat when it comes to Sasi. They both want her to relax and stop... what was it Testolagh said, about clockwork? Winding herself too tight? Something like that. Keris turns ideas over, mulling over this one and that. The problem with most of them would be getting Sasi to agree.

Overhead, something circles, dark wings nearly invisible against the black night’s sky. Rathan hasn’t risen yet, so it’s true night in her soul.

“Zanara, sweetie?” she asks impulsively. “If you knew someone who was... who was always frightened deep down inside and wanted to control everything so nothing could hurt her, and trying to do that was hurting her anyway, but she didn’t want to listen to anyone who told her so, what would you do to try and get her to step back and relax? How would you get through to someone who didn’t want to hear what you had to say?”

Zanara frowns. “I think I’d say exactly what they wanted to hear, but phrased so they do what I say,” he says innocently. “And I’d give them lots of nice things to coax them along, so there were lots of little rewards that they could get for being good.”

Keris tilts her head, working through that. Slowly, she smiles. “That’s a very clever way to do it,” she praises. “I might just try that and see if it works. Thank you, Zanara.”

The dark wings grow bigger, and Calesco descends. She... stands out here. A lot. She’s a dark shape on the white sands. “Mama,” she says. She glances down at Zanara. “Perversion.”

“Call your brother by name,” Keris orders. “Especially on his turf. Don’t be mean.” She flips herself upright - well, alright, she rolls onto her side and laboriously pushes herself upright (stupid babies) - and greets her daughter with a kiss to the forehead. “How are your stars going?”

Calesco scowls. “They’re being a problem,” she says sulkily. “They don’t want to form properly. And no one ever tells you how to make stars. Also, they keep on falling out of the sky and hitting things. Although I’m certain the murderer is pushing some of them.”

Keris groans. “Yes, that certainly sounds like the sort of thing she’d do. Well, keep working at it and I’m sure you’ll get there.”

Calesco leaps up to a big white rock, to perch on top of it like a... well, like a rather cute crow. “So,” she says. “I didn’t know Testolagh was like that.”

“No,” says Keris, firmly and warningly and... and maternally and...

“No,” she repeats for good measure. “Absolutely not. You cannot... gang up on me with him.”

Calesco’s dark cheeks blush. “I can if I want to,” she mumbles. “He’s nice and he’s honest and he doesn’t like how horrible a lot of the Unquestionable are. I think he’s a much nicer person than Sasi.”

“Sasi is nice!” Keris protests. “She’s just... you heard what Testolagh said, she’s scared, it’s not her fault. She’s not...”

She sighs. “And not all the Unquestionable are horrible. Lilunu isn’t that bad. She makes sure the Conventicle is nice and safe and beautiful, and basically never leaves. And yes, sometimes she causes omen-weather storms, but that’s hardly her fault.”

“Oh, come on, Mama,” Calesco says, a hint of cruelty in her voice. “I know you noticed that she sometimes talks about Ligier like she’s scared of him. You remember Pela, don’t you? You made sure I remember her. She took up with a gang boss and he gave her nice things, but then you’d see her with bruises that she wouldn’t talk about. And then he threw her out when she got pregnant.”

“... I remember her,” says Keris. “But I can’t see... I’m having...”

She pauses. Thinks for a moment.

“If that is what’s going on,” she says, “and we’re not just... just seeing things that aren’t there in her injuries from the Yozis, then there’s no way she’ll talk about it unless she trusts me. Trusts me a lot. And I don’t think we’re that close yet. So I’m not going to push.”

“Or is that just your excuse to do nothing?” she asks. “But I know you want to help her, because I want to and I’m the bit of you that thinks those things all the time.” Calesco’s lips twist. “What do you think about that?” she addresses Zanara bluntly, deliberately bypassing Keris. She seems to be watching Keris at least as much as Zanara, though. She’s pushing, seeing how Keris reacts.

Keris opens her mouth heatedly, then hesitates and closes it, looking to Zanara to see what he has to say.

Zanara carefully digs an opal out of the sand, and brushes it off. “I think you’re just doing this to annoy Mama,” he says artlessly. “I don’t think you really care so much about what I saw, compared to what she says. And whether she steps in, or lets me talk. But I think you’re mean and you like hurting people you love, and that’s why you’re being like this - because you haven’t worked out what to think about me.”

Calesco’s expression shifts rapidly in quick succession, but Keris gets the distinct feeling that she’s impressed and trying to hide it. And that Zanara said exactly the right thing to push their big sister off balance in a way that she doesn’t mind.

Keris bites her lip, and carefully swings Zanara up and into her lap to plant another kiss on his forehead. “Thank you, sweetie,” she says, hugging him. “Though, Calesco. I did want to ask your opinion about Sasi’s...” she waves a hand vaguely. “Issues.”

“You can lie all the time without being her,” Calesco says. “I do it.”

“I know that,” Keris agrees. “But what she’s doing - why she’s doing it - isn’t healthy. I need to help her. And hey,” she throws a challenging look at Calesco, “you were just saying that Testolagh is a nicer person than she is. I think if she learned to relax and wasn’t so hung up on being afraid, she’d be able to be kinder.”

“She won’t be able to relax as long as she’s spending all her time living undercover, lying to everyone and manipulating them for the Unquestionable,” Calesco says. “Testolagh complains about spending all his time in the cold foresty place? Well, think about Sasi. Not only does she have her own missions - which she puts much more effort into than you do - but she’s also managing you and helping you, feuding with Deveh, and running the plans for the South West. Every personal project you’ve ever seen her do has been at your prompting, often to help you. She only takes holidays when you coax her into it.”

Keris nods slowly. “Yes. Aiko... might help there, honestly. It certainly won’t hurt, for her to have someone she can be sweet and kind and maternal to without having to lie or cheat or hide.” She rubs her jaw, humming thoughtfully. “Thank you. I’ll talk to Echo about tampering with your stars. Or maybe just bet her that she can’t do something that she’ll find more interesting; that’d probably be more effective.”

“To stop her doing that, you’d have to stop her finding glowy things interesting,” Calesco says glumly.

Keris risks settling down next to her and putting a careful arm around her, rubbing her shoulder sympathetically.

“I can’t promise that I’ll declare war on the Unquestionable,” she says. “But I’ll keep talking to Testolagh. And listening to him. And not just about Sasi.”

“Good,” Calesco says. “Hanny and Ratty might not like him because they think he’s stealing Sasi from you, but bluntly they’re just mean jealous babies.” She shifts. “I... I was going to sneak off and see if I could leave him nice dreams, but maybe that might make him angry,” she says in a tiny voice. “And I don’t want him to be angry at me. He’s nice. He’s a much better person than almost anyone else you know. He’s certainly better than you.”

Keris squeezes her reassuringly. “Well... I’m glad you told me instead of just sneaking off,” she says, choosing to carefully let the sort-of insult pass her by. Honestly, she’s not sure she can entirely disagree.

She looks down at Calesco’s face behind the veils, as Zanara reaches across from her lap to hold his big sister’s hand. Keris sighs.

“I think... oh, this is probably a bad idea. But... if you just said hello and that, you know, you agree with him and think he’s a good person...” She winces at the thought, but she hates seeing Calesco timid like this. It’s not something she’s used to seeing from her eighth soul, and she doesn’t like it. “... if you’re basically just introducing yourself with a short dream, he shouldn’t have any reason to get angry. And if he does, I’ll...” not punch him not punch him not punch him, Keris thinks, Calesco likes him Sasi likes him don’t look for a reason to break his nose “... defend you.”

“I’ll... think about it,” Calesco says carefully, sitting back on the white stone. She reshapes her veil to form a scarf. “It’s cold here.” She slips off the stone, and strolls over to Zanara. “Um. Hi. What are you doing?”

“I’m building a castle! And it hasn’t fallen over once, unlike Hanny’s!” Zanara says brightly.

Keris suddenly and mysteriously goes poker-faced.

“Calesco? Would you like to help?” she asks.

“... okay,” Calesco says, after a pause.

But there isn’t much time for play with her souls for the next few weeks. Keris has a lot of working to do. She does find the time, between brewing, spell notation, surgery and research, to have a few quiet sit-downs with Lilunu and just... talk about art. Learn from the demon she’s increasingly coming to think of as her mentor. It’s a relationship Keris has never really experienced before - Lilunu is like her in many ways, and friendly and beautiful and experienced and wise. It crosses Keris’s mind once or twice that this just maybe is what having an elder sister might be like.

... well. A certain kind of elder sister. Not... really a kind that any of Keris’s children fall into. But the kind she’d sometimes dreamed of having, or wanted to have, or wished she’d had. The kind that she’d heard the odd kid talk about on the streets; caring and there for you and...

Well, those days are ancient history now. But the memory is enough for Keris to steal some time with Sasi and ask her to prod the recording-trinket she recovered from the po and see if there’s a way to put new images in it. Lilunu deserves a present.

Sasi finds that it records things it sees, when in the proper environment. It seems to have been made to record things like musical performances and plays and speeches of Solars, so that their adoring followers could watch them any time. There’s a series of phrases in Old Realm that clears the memories of the cube, and then others which start it watching the entire area around it. When it is properly suplicated, a single cube can create phantom images in a circle all around it. Keris thanks her with a kiss and secrets it away. Her plan will have to wait until she can get her hands on some fuel for the thing to run in Malfeas, as well as get back to Creation and do some recording. But it’ll be a nice present for the next time she visits Hell nonetheless. And until then, she can go through some of her sketches and paintings of Creation and give them to Lilunu as a way of seeing it by proxy.

Lilunu appreciates the gift. And when she’s with her, working with her and studying with her and recovering from the latest mishap while the servants clear up the research area, Keris is learning other things.

((Keris has a week of training from Lilunu she can use on appropriate Styles or Abilities with an applicable stunt.))
((Wheeeee, Temple-as-Body Style!))

The painting that Lilunu made from Keris’s flesh and blood still enthralls her whenever she sees it - she hasn’t tried to step into it like Zanara can theirs, but she’s considered it at least once. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Lilunu chooses things in that vein to teach her; the ways that landscapes and flesh are linked in being such as they, and how architecture and body art can mirror one another to create beauty.

Zanara listens adoringly from the central room in Keris soul, even to the bits that someone that young probably shouldn’t have been listening to. Keris, for her part, finds that it’s easy for her to remove any decorations she adds to her body this way - she just has to use the weaving roots of Metagaos and Haneyl to eat up the ink under her scale. It’s useful when she’s learning to work with tattooing inks - which is interesting in its own right, because she’s done a lot of work with ink before.

Then Haneyl suggests growing flower petals under Keris’ own skin when she wants to get bright colours there, and things get even more interesting. Lilunu is delighted at the new trick, and Haneyl preens inwardly at her praise. It certainly raises their spirits for the subsequent rounds of research, development and testing.

But despite their best efforts, they’re not quite finished by the time Calibration looms.

Chapter Text

It is the first day of Calibration, and it is painfully early in the morning. No sun will rise over Creation today, but even if that were not the case, it would be hours before sunrise - hours before the first scream of the tomescu, here in Malfeas. In a palatial townhouse on one of the innermost layers of the Demon City, Keris Dulmeadokht lies sprawled out carelessly in the centre of a bed large enough to fit a dozen people. One arm and a leg are curled around an ancient relic of the Shogunate; her Grief-Choking Lance cuddled close like a child’s beloved toy. Two locks of hair are absently squeezing the stuffing out of a pillow, and another has anchored itself to a bedpost. Her Amulet-fashioned sleepwear lazily oscillates through a vivid rainbow of hues as she hums to herself in her sleep. All is peaceful, quiet and calm in this royal sanctum.

A calm that’s ruined by a black-haired cannonball that dashes through the door in utter silence and takes a flying leap onto the bed with a whooping yell of “Mama!”

Two pillows and a mattress suffer an unfortunate demise as the intruder effortlessly avoids Keris’s retaliatory strike and dances cheerfully around the bed while waiting for the Scourge to wake up.

“... gnn,” manages Keris, squinting. “G’t’slp, ‘ko.”

She slumps down on the bed again, avoiding the large gash in the mattress. A second or two passes, and her head shoots back up. She stares, head still swimming from sleep, at the silk-clad girl swinging happily on one of the bedposts.

“... wha?”

“Soooooooo,” Echo says, beaming, “you know that tunnel I’ve been making which totally will lead me out through the stormwall and which I’ve been digging with Other Mama’s knife which is super-stabby and cutty and in fact is diggy as well as stabby and cutty and which I’ve been preparing for Calibration so I can sneak out and surprise you because I’m the best and cleverest ever ever ever?”

“... ngh?” says Keris, struggling to parse this. “You’re. Outside.”

She examines Echo’s fingers where they’re clinging to the bedframe and not eroding it.

“... at Calibration?” she adds, cautiously.

“Duh what did I just tell you?” Echo says exasperatedly, vaulting back off the bed to spin perfectly on one toe. “I told you that I dug my way out as a surprise for you and also so I could see if I could do it which I totally could and urgh why are you not awake anyway already?”

Keris rubs her eyes and quietly tests a finger on her Lance, which hurts. Okay. So probably not dreaming, then. She cocks her head, listening, and... yup, this is definitely Malfeas and she hasn’t somehow accidentally pulled her townhouse inside herself in her sleep or something.

Which.

Means that Echo is actually here.

Outside her.

In Malfeas.

“...” says Keris, and moves off the bed. “Hold that thought, right there. And stay in the room,” she orders.

A few seconds later, an Infallible Messenger swims its way Sasiwards with a plea to get the hell over here. Hopefully she won’t sleep through it. Or maybe hopefully she does, since she’ll be in a really foul mood getting woken up at whatever hour this is. Keris is honestly afraid to check.

“Okay,” she says. “Okay. Okay. Go over that again. You. Cut your way out of my soul? Come here.”

Several prods, pokes and a tickle attack prove that Echo is definitely actually really physically here, and not a hallucination. Keris sits down on the bed and tries not to have a heart attack.

Echo spends some time glomping her, but alas, that doesn’t hold her attention for long enough. She starts running on the ceiling in circles, all the time while asking Keris things. Like “Mama, what are you doing? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama?”

“Stop!” Keris eventually resorts to. “Okay. Okay, come down here and...” She looks at Echo’s ribbon-dress, which is... decidedly short around the sleeves and looks tight on her. She isn’t wearing her gloves at all, and she may not need them like this, but she likes them enough that she’d be wearing them if she could.

Keris sighs, and pries her Amulet off her breastbone.

“Put this on,” she orders. “And let me shrug into some of my Tengese work, and then we will...” she flits rapidly through possibilities for holding Echo’s attention, “... go to the armoury. And then the training rooms. And spar for a while.”

Unfortunately, it turns out it requires fifteen minutes of concentration for Echo to attune to the amulet, and she just doesn’t feel like it right now, you know?

On the other hand, Keris realises as she takes her daughter in fully and compares her to the Echo she remembers from a year ago, she’s notably older. Like, she looks like a teenager. Like, she could be Keris’ little sister rather than her daughter. Her taller, thinner, not-pregnant little sister. But she has some curves now, even though she’s like a better fed version of Keris at fifteen.

So in the end, Echo winds up wearing some of Keris’ clothes, which are short in the arms and legs, but honestly, there’s enough short skirts and sleeveless clothes that that’s not actually a problem for her. Keris leaves the Amulet with her for the moment, and manages - largely through excellent hearing and running very fast - to get her to the training rooms without any of her servants seeing. She sends another Messenger to Mehuni telling him where she is, that she is absolutely not to be disturbed for anything less than a personal visit from one of the Unquestionable, and to send Sasi to her if and when she shows up.

Then, with a pair of blunted training spears, she turns her attention to seeing just how good this newly-teenage Echo is on her feet.

((... honestly, with her pregnancy weighing her down a little, this could potentially wind up slightly embarrassing for Keris. : P))

“How about a bet?” Echo asks liltingly, flipping into a handstand. “First one to three hits wins something ~niiiiiice~. That sounds fun! And we have to only do it through pure skill!”

Keris rolls her eyes. “I’ve got better reach from longer hair, more experience and I’m probably stronger,” she points out. “You do not have good odds here, even with me weighed down.”

“So you’re saying it should be two favours to one!” Echo chirps. “Good idea! Unless you’re scaaaaared.”

Keris glares. Then cracks her knuckles and takes the training spear through a series of blurring spins.

“Okay,” she grinds out, and pulls out a coin. “You’re going down. Start when it hits the ground.”

She flips it high, and gets ready.

Echo spins on one toe, sweeping her leg through the air under the coin before it hits the ground. She’s not even aiming for Keris - she’s just doing it because she can, with an arrogant smirk. Keris lunges just before it reaches the ground, making sure to already be in motion as the ting rings out through the hall. This is, she is slightly uncomfortably aware, going to be a pretty difficult match. Echo is as fast as she is, knows most of her moves, and is probably almost as lethal with a spear.

Which means the best way to win this is to get her off-balance as fast as possible and use superior reach to tag her before she can come up with something clever. Batter her back with enough force and speed and power that she goes down easily.

((Okay, so I guess, opposed Physique + Melee rolls? Anything else affecting things?))
((Don’t think so, no. Resolve in one roll and let the degree decide how close it was?))
((Yes. And Echo got it promised as pure skill, so she’ll call cheating if Keris uses any of her superior excellencies))
((I had realised that, yes. Specifically I went “... shit, Keris can’t use ExD to show the little brat who’s boss”. Though no pregnancy penalties till the 13th month, it seems. That’s something.
5+5+3 Friagem Serpent+2 stunt=15. 7 sux. Oh, this could be embarrassing.))
((5+5 +1 Friagem Serpent + 2 Killing Wind + 1 Quiet Location bonus + 2 dice stunt = 16 dice.
10 10 9 8 8 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 5 5 5 1
14 successes))
((... yeah, that was embarrassing.))
((God, she won 3:0. Keris got trounced.))

Echo’s spin turns out to have been much more than she was letting on. Her foot sweeps around again and she kicks her mother in the face as she ‘kicks’ off from the ground with her hair, bringing her spear down into the small of Keris’ back. Her mother grunts in pain, and collapses forwards, hair already moving to catch herself. But Echo’s already moving again. The final blow is her landing gracefully on Keris’ back as she collapses, both toes digging in for the third point.

She vaults off Keris, and gives her a florid bow with a cat-like smirk flashing white jade teeth. “So... you’re up to five favours you owe me, Mama?” Echo says grinning.

“...” says Keris, wincing at the blow to her pride. She just... okay, in a real fight only one of those blows would have really been damaging, but...

... she didn’t actually land a single blow on her daughter. Which means Echo just won three-nothing.

“... okay,” she admits grudgingly. “That... was... pretty good.”

Echo’s smirk somehow becomes even more cat-like. Keris grunts.

“Fine, very good,” she concedes. “Urgh, apparently I rely on my magic too much. And am... not used to fighting people as fast as I am. At all. And yes.” She glares. “... five favours.”

Echo claps her hands together. “Mama! You can count!” she says mockingly. “Well done!”

Keris grits her teeth. “Smug little thing.”

She takes a deep breath. Her pride is... stung. Yes, definitely stung, and definitely sore, and probably going to stay that way for a while. But Echo does seem very happy with herself. Keris forces the anger down and opens her arms.

“Alright, come give me a hug, brat,” she says. “And then we can do some running and a bit more sparring. Without any bets this time. And just in here. No going outside until I talk to Sasi.”

“Yeah, she didn’t wake up obviously,” Echo says cheerfully. “Because it’s the morning and she’s always like bleargh, it’s the morning, I’m Sasi and I’m all sleepy and grumpy and silly and I don’t get up until midday, and the messenger only speaks to you and you didn’t shout loud enough to actually wake her up and anyway that’d have made her angry!”

Keris drops her head into her hands.

“If,” she says, “I decide to go over to her townhouse. Because this is a very important thing. What are the chances of you staying here and not stabbing anyone until I get back?”

“None,” says Echo, without a trace of shame.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” sighs Keris. “And if I took you with me, and we went at a run so it was interesting, could you promise to stay close to me and not go running off and try not to be seen by anyone?”

Echo’s eyes narrow. “There’s really no chance of Big Sister being around?” she asks, suddenly nervous.

“She’s with Big Mama,” Keris reminds her. “Always. And yes, the - She - is one of the reasons I want to keep you secret until Sasi has had a chance to look at you and work out what is going on. In fact... hold on, jog around me. Slowly. Well, slowly by our standards.”

Echo complies at a brisk sprint, and Keris closes her eyes to listen to the not-sound of her essence, evaluating her daughter with as clinical an ear as she can manage.

What to say of the nature of Echo? Well, Keris tastes the most obvious change in the way her daughter sounds immediately. She’s still weak, but she’s not as weak as she once was. She’s... uh. She’s weaker than a demon lord like the Weaver of Voices... but she’s a demon lord.

((Adorjani-flavoured Kerisian essence, Enlightenment 6))

Beyond that, she sounds like she is flesh and blood only in the sense that demons are. Her bones, nails and teeth are jade - just like her sister Calesco’s - and her organs make no sound. Her heart beats noiselessly. There is a strange sound like her, too, because Keris can hear the ribbons that are not here yet, but which are her normal form.

“...” says Keris. “So... I’m assuming that listening to your own essence was one of the first things you did after getting out and jumping on me?”

“Uh huh! Before jumping on you, actually. Your townhouse is neat!”

Keris pauses, processes that, and decides not to go there. If she’s missing any servants that she had yesterday, there’s not much she can do about it now.

“So... congratulations, you’re a demon lord, and ohhhhh no. Haneyl is... Haneyl is not going to be happy about this when she wakes up.” She pauses again. “So not for several hours, probably. Thank the Makers she takes after her mother there.”

“Yeah, no,” Echo says happily. “We’re all changing. I’m just smarter than them and better and also older so my teeny weeny sister that isn’t Calesco or Zanara half the time is just lagging behind me. She’s probably just going to go eat everything she can and probably burn down half the swamp to feed her demonic powers so she can be as good as I manage ~effortlessly~.”

Keris pinches the bridge of her nose. “I’ll... tell her that when she complains. And then order the Swamp onto fire watch.” She sighs. “Again.”

Echo shrugs. “Dulmea’s already one, you know. It really basically happened already when she became like the wind and in many places at once, it’s just that her power is all smeared out and super-thin so she hasn’t pulled it together yet and realised what she is.”

“... what?” Dulmea shrieks in Keris’ head. Keris winces.

“Thank you for that, Echo,” she sighs. “No, really. Thank you. So much. Dulmea? Can we... have this conversation once we’re with Sasi? Because I think we’re now at the point that means we go and wake her up, no matter how grumpy she’ll be.”

“I can’t be a demon lord!” Dulmea wails.

“Yeah, we’re handling this with Sasi,” Keris decides. “Echo. Stay on my tail - if possible stay in my hair. You’re a demon lord now. Big Sister is an Unquestionable. We really, really want her - and everyone else - to not know you’re out until we know what’s going on. Okay?”

“I think I’m too tall to fit in your hair now,” Echo whispers. “I’m taller than you now.”

Keris glares. “Then crouch. Come on, let’s go.”

“Okay!” she says quickly.

Keris winds up running with Echo clinging onto her back. She makes the run to Sasi’s townhouse as quickly as she can, opting to use cover for as much of it as possible. Lilunu, she thinks. Lilunu will probably be a good second person to go to, after Sasi. She’ll know what to do about this. They get in over the roofs. With Echo there, the two of them are considerably more silent than little mouses, and both of them can hear when people are looking. Slipping into Sasi’s townhouse, Keris opts not to bother arguing with a bunch of Sasi’s servants and heads straight for her room, Echo’s silent giggles at her back.

Sasi is, unsurprisingly, still asleep. At least Testolagh isn’t with her, Keris sighs gratefully. “Okay,” she says, at normal volume. “I’m sorry for this. I know you really hate being woken up early. And I know you don’t like surprises, and that you’ve got a lot of stress on your head right now, and...”

She stops, feeling suddenly guilty for loading this, as well, onto Sasi’s shoulders. But... well, Sasi hates surprises. She’d hate finding out about this later even more.

“... and a bunch of other things,” Keris finishes. “But I really need you to wake up and help me plan for this.” Wincing in anticipation, she begins the long and difficult process of shaking Sasi awake as Echo turns cartwheels around the walls.

“Gwha?” Sasi manages, “St’p, Keri’. Trying to sleep.”

“We have a problem,” says Keris bluntly. “A big problem.” She makes no attempt at hiding the urgency in her voice. “Sasi. I really need your help on this, so we can plan out what to do. Please.”

“But...” Sasi seems to wake up slightly more. “What are you doing in my bedroom? And who is that?

“Yeah. Remember how last Calibration, Echo figured out a new trick and turned human? Well, she figured out another one this morning.”

Keris gestures the black-haired girl over, and she comes in a tumbling, flipping, laughing run; bouncing to a stop beside her mother.

“Nemone Sasimana,” Keris introduces formally, “meet Echo. Echo... this is Sasi.”

“Yoooooooooo,” Echo exclaims. “I am Echo! Princess of the Ruin, Queen of Silence, the Silence in Keris’ Wake, um... do I have any more titles yet, Mama?”

Sasi blinks. She seems still totally lost.

“Fifth Soul! That’s one!” Echo adds perkily.

“Holder of Five Favours,” Keris adds, grumpily.

“That’s another one! Yay! Also, I wanted to be able to make lots of copies of myself, but nooooooo, grandmother was the one who got that, honestly it’s like Mama doesn’t trust me with it or something which is nonsense, really, I’m totally trustworthy and reliable and where was I, oh yes, I also am the Maker of the Keruby!”

“She got out,” Keris explains unnecessarily. “What you’re feeling right now? That was my feelings about an hour ago when she woke me up by jumping on me. She’s grown into a demon lord in her own right. And she says that-”

“All my less awesome siblings are growing up too!” Echo cheers, turning a half-cartwheel and walking backwards on her hair for a moment before rolling back down and spinning around with her arms and hair outstretched. “So they’re all probably going to find ways out as well, but less interesting and original ones because they’ll all just be copying me because I did it first and I didn’t even need to put effort into it while Ratty’ll probably need everyone praying to him for his ego to get big enough and Vali’ll have to punch his way through the ground or something and it’ll take ages and be boring and not half as good as mine.”

She flips her knife into the air and balances it blade-down on her nose as she spins, grinning happily.

Sasi glares at Keris. “You have one instruction right now,” she commands. “Make me tea. I can’t think yet and already things are going horribly wrong, unless you want me to banish her. And I’ll still need tea before that.”

“I don’t want you to banish her,” Keris says. “She’d just burn a favour making me convince you to summon her again. And tea, right, gimme a mo... Haneyl’s still asleep but Dulmea isn’t, I’ll just...”

Tea is produced, poured and provided. Hair more than a little mussed, Sasi cups her tea in both hands and glares at both Echo and Keris. Especially at Echo.

“You,” she commands Echo. “Sit still, behind your mother. Wait. Stop spinning in circles, if you want my help.”

Echo squeaks and sits directly behind Keris, although she does start swinging her legs instantly. Keris quietly reaches her hair back and starts a game of cat’s cradle, on the basis that if Echo doesn’t have something to occupy her hands and attention, she probably won’t be able to resist finding her own entertainment.

“She’s still a demon,” Sasi observes. “She’s very nearly as dangerous as you are, and her purpose is to... follow behind you. She very much is the silence in your wake, isn’t she?”

“Yep! Yep! That’s me!” Echo says happily.

“A very loud silence.”

“She can only talk during Calibration,” Keris says drily. “So she tries to fit all five seasons of babble into five days.”

“So really it’s cruel to make me be silent you’re wasting the time I have to talk do you know how little time five days is?” Echo manages in a burst.

“Hush,” Sasi commands.

“So unfair!”

“I can also confirm that she is very, very, very dangerous,” Keris sighs. “We had a sparring match, and-”

“I won! I won I won I won! I got three hits to nothing before Mama even got started and I was like wham and kicked her in the face and then whee and jumped over her and hit her with my spear it was a pretty bad spear to be honest, Mama’s spear is way better, or Wyldeater, that was really pretty! And then I was all like whoom and landed on her back and that was another hit and that was three points and that meant I’d won and she hadn’t hit me once, even though she said I didn’t have a chance!”

Keris gives Sasi a pained grimace.

“Yes,” she grinds out. “That.”

“She... beat you?” Sasi asks, frowning. “But... how?”

Keris is, this time, quick enough to get her hair over Echo’s mouth in time. Her daughter immediately starts some heated gesturing, which she ignores.

“Because she is very, very fast, and it was a contest of skill without magical aid, and I underestimated her,” she says. “She might actually be faster and more agile than me at the moment. And she also knows all my moves, because she lives in my head and helps me fight all the time.”

“I only stole some of your moves! Some of the rest I invented based around being me! Or learned by copying Other Mama!” Echo gets out before being regagged.

“Other...” Sasi says. “Very well. So.” She massages her brow. “Your souls are becoming demon lords. This is therefore a thing that we can do.”

“Apparently,” Keris says. “And the others will be coming out soon, I would guess. Which means that I really, really doubt we can hide this. Echo... okay, Echo alone we pretty much can’t hide. Rathan, maybe, but Haneyl as well? And...”

She winces. “Oh... oh boy. Calesco. Out here. In Hell.”

“I can banish demon lords,” Sasi says, eyes narrowed. “That might be safest for them - and you.”

Keris bites her lip. “Maybe...” she admits. “If Calesco, at least, is out here for any length of time... the Unquestionable will kill her. No question. And then I’ll kill them.” There is no doubt in her expression.

She sighs. “But... no. This is happening. And I think banishing them would only delay whatever’s going to happen. That Priest is still on the Baisha. We can’t hide this forever, so it’s better to control how they find out.”

“The question is,” Sasi says, “whether the others will truly manifest in the outside world. If so, you’ll want to select the right ones to make a good impression on... Lilunu first, I think. But Keris, I beg you, I think it would be better to keep them secret - for what if the Unquestionable demand to be able to summon your souls?!”

Keris doesn’t answer, but her expression probably reveals more than she’s willing to admit.

“Rathan and Haneyl would make good impressions,” she says slowly. “Echo... is nothing terribly surprising, at least. I’d already thought of going to Lilunu first. She would be sympathetic.”

“She will likely inform the other demon princes,” Sasi says carefully. “She is our warden as well, and our watcher.”

“Yes, but she’ll do it from my side,” Keris says. “She will not want my souls harmed, or under the control of others. If we go to her - if - then she’ll help as much as she can. I know she will. And...”

She grimaces. “One of the first meetings I had with Ligier, I wound up blabbing about Echo to him accidentally. And he approved. He said that other Green Sun Princes had tried to hide their developing souls, and that they were fools. I’m worried that even if we banish them, the Unquestionable - Lilunu especially - will be able to sense the demon lords within me.”

Sasi releases a sudden breath. “You did?” she says, shaking her head. “You lucky idiot.”

Keris shrugs. “It was my first time meeting him. I got nervous. I babbled.”

“Mama does babble when she’s nervous,” Echo contributes, and squeaks as two glares pin her.

Keris chews her lip. “It worked out, anyway - he approved of me telling him upfront. Lilunu would be in my corner... Jacinct too, probably. Ligier... probably. The Shashalme’s happy with me at the moment. Orabilis...” She chews on a hair tendril and wobbles a hand.

“You are woefully optimistic. Hell’s Censor will want her brought under Cecelyne’s law,” Sasi says.

Keris wrinkles her nose. “Fair. Urgh. Are Unquestionable even allowed to summon... other Unquestionable’s souls?”

“They are not - but to say that might imply you are Unquestionable,” Sasi says, running her hands through her pale hair.

“Oh, there’s no need for that,” Echo says happily. “I question Mama all the time. Therefore she’s not Unquestionable.”

Keris rolls her eyes and jerks her thumb at Echo. “Well, I have seven demon lords for souls - or will - and I could probably fight most of the weaker princes and win, so...”

((Per + Presence))
((3+5+2 stunt+3 Prince of Hell Style+4 Malfeas ExSux {arrogant, strong, authority}=13. 10+4=14 sux. Keris makes an extremely good point re: “if I’m not an Unquestionable, where exactly are you drawing the line?”))

A stunned silence falls as Sasi stares. “You’re serious. You’re actually serious,” she whispers. “You’re serious... and you think you could do it. And... Dragons help me, you could. I... I... I... I don’t know what to say. You’re planning to declare yourself an Unquestionable. I... I...”

Keris leans forward and takes her hand. “A young one. One who needs the guidance of her elders, one who’ll work for them in their wisdom and power; I’m not their equal yet. But yes. Come on, Sasi, you must’ve looked at Ululaya. At... at Orabilis, at Jacinct. You must’ve tasted their strength. We’re as powerful as they are, in person! They’re older and more experienced, they have way, way more holdings, they don’t doubt or worry like we do... but that’s just, just time.

“Look me in the eye, Sasi, an’ tell me that if you’d been around as long as they have you wouldn’t be just as scary. You remember what I said to Testolagh, last night? Me, him and Naan together; there’s almost nothing in Creation we couldn’t pin down and kill. Tell me that ain’t true here. Tell me; tell me truthfully, that if half a dozen Princes stood up and demanded something, that they could just ignore us. Tell me you believe that. If you can.”

Sasi rises, and backs away from Keris. “You’ve gone mad,” she says. “No. I will not be a part of this. Not until you come to your senses. That is illegal against all the laws of Cecelyne. You cannot take on the Unquestionable. They are jealous gods, Keris. They will not brook us making claims on their position. They will kill you - and they will kill any of us who think to try that. You might try to get your souls treated as part of you, as peers - but you are not Unquestionable and you are delusional if you think you can get that.”

She stands at the door. “Come to your senses, please,” she says. “But until you do, please don’t talk to me. I have Aiko to think of - and I won’t let you drag me down in your madness.”

And she walks out.

Chapter Text

The sharp click of the door shutting behind Sasi is a painfully loud retort in the sudden silence. Keris stands wide-eyed, staring after her. Her thoughts wheel and turn like a flock of birds fleeing a falcon.

Sasi said... she didn’t... Keris tried to... they weren’t...

“... Mama?” Echo asks, edging closer from her refuge behind the bed, where she’d retreated at some point after the mood turned scary.

Keris doesn’t answer. She barely hears. She’s trembling; scared enough to be breathing, fast and harsh and shallow.

“Mama, it’s not-” she starts, but Keris cuts her off.

“She’s right,” she whispers. “I- I’ve gone mad. And I drove her off, and now she... she...”

She shakes her head, makes a whimpered noise of terror, and bolts for the window.

Keris runs. To where, she’s not quite sure. She’s running to run. Inside her head, she can hear flames burning, ice crashing, and rocks smashing. Everything is wrong.

“Mama?” Echo asks, jogging alongside her. “What’s happening? Talk to me.”

“Everything is wrong,” she moans, leaping a wall and blindly knocking past a jade lion. “I’ve gone mad and she hates me and I don’t know what I was th-thinking and...” She speeds up, taking to the rooftops, tears trickling down her cheeks. “She’s right, I was stupid, I shouldn’t have... this was a mistake. Everything was a mistake. Sh-she’s scared of me! I’m p-putting her in danger! Her and Aiko! I shouldn’t be here at all; I’ll get us k... I’ll get...”

She can’t finish; her words blurring into incoherent sobbing nonsense. Echo thinks for a moment, and then wraps Keris’ hair in hers. “Hugs time!” she announces loudly. “Hugs hugs hugs! You need a hug from me so things will be better because I’m the best and I only get five days of hugs a year so you shouldn’t waste them!”

Keris wraps Echo up in her hair, clings protectively and doesn’t slow. She’s heading towards Lilunu’s workshops, she realises, and almost breaks a wall with the force of her turn. She can’t go to Lilunu. Not now. Not when she has her Echo; her brilliant little genius demon-lord daughter. The Unquestionable will know as soon as they see her, and they’ll know what Keris thought and what she said, and they’ll kill her for it. Her and Echo, and all her other children.

She has to keep them safe. She has to keep them secret. She can’t let anyone find out... find out what she said. She can’t even think it, or she might start believing it again, and just voicing it made Sasi lea... made her scared.

Keris clings to Echo harder, taking small comfort in the realness of her; the feel of her firstborn with flesh and skin and a voice, and keeps running.

“Now, I think my hair needs brushing and washing ‘cause it’s full of stuff like sticks and stuff because I sort of used it to pick stuff in Sasi’s gardens but then things got stuck in it. So now you need to take me back with you to your baths and I can sit still there while you brush and wash my hair and that’ll give me aaaaaaaaaaages and ages to think, yep yep yep,” Echo decides. “Plus, you spend ages normally looking after your hair so I want to know if it’s fun or not.”

((Oh, Echo. As long as Keris keeps running as fast as she can, she doesn’t have much time to think.))

“I... yes,” Keris agrees. Her townhouse. Her townhouse is safe. And Echo’s hair is all tangled and messy - she picks a firmin needle out of it with a wrinkled nose - and it needs washing. Changing course, it doesn’t take them long to get back to the safety of the house, and Keris barely slows down as they race through the corridors in a blur of red and white and black.

Echo whoops as they skid into one of the smaller, soundproofed bathrooms and does a cannonball into the floor-level tub, sending a wave of water all over the marble floor. Keris twitches a half-hearted smile and wades in after her, stripping her out of her tunic and starting work on her long black hair. She’s still trembling and jittery, but it helps to have something important to take her mind off what happened. And Echo’s hair needs brushing and washing.

“Echo, I can’t do this if you keep swimming round the tub,” she points out with a brave attempt at her normal composure.

Echo pouts as she sits still-ish, although she does vibrate slightly, jittering with either nerves or just an excess of energy. Her short black hair - well, short by Keris’ standards, but long by basically anyone else’s - is slowly stripped of all the accumulated clutter.

“Mama,” Echo asks. “Who do you trust? Or, like, even know closely? People who aren’t one of your soul-babies or Dulmea or Sasi, I mean, ‘cause you can’t really talk to us ‘bout it and Dulmea is Dulmea and you just had a super-massive argument with Sasi and going to talk to her isn’t going to be easy or stuff and we probably want to get you talking ‘bout stuff with people before things get even worse or, you know, like Haneyl wakes up and has an even worse tantrum than you’re having right now because when she tantrums it’s like you and Sasi added together and none of us want that.”

Keris flinches at the mention of the argument and flinches harder at the blunt appraisal of how Haneyl will take things. She squeezes her eyes shut and works on Echo’s hair by touch, trying to force past the burning, freezing, crashing chaos in her mind and answer Echo’s question.

“... Lilunu?” she suggests, “But she’s an Unquestionable, so she’d... kill us.” She flinches again. Lilunu is her mentor, they talk about art and she showed Keris her souls, but... the Unquestionable are jealous gods, and Lilunu’s an Unquestionable, and... she forces herself on.

“Kuha ‘n Rounen ‘n them,” she croaks. “Naan, but he’s out in the City. Testolagh, sorta. Uh...”

“Okay okay okay wow, you need to get more friends, I mean I have hundreds of szelkeruby who are all my bestest best friends when I need them to be, so you’re totally all lonely because you hardly know anyone,” Echo says confidently, putting one hand on her newly grown hips. “But I don’t really know Naan so I don’t know if you trust him because you totally basically never think of him, while... I dunno, you sort of don’t like Testolagh much but Calesco does like him and she’s smarter than you but more stupid than me.”

((dammit Echo stop saying things that Keris is going to believe wholeheartedly; you are not helping her issues about her intelligence))

Keris nods shakily. “Calesco’s probably right about him,” she admits. “She’s better at judging people than me. An’ I do need more friends.”

Echo nods, cuddling up to her mother. “So I guess what do you want to talk to him ‘bout?” she asks. “Let’s practice it!” She stands up, hands on her hips, and affects a pompous air. “I’m really Testolagh, cunningly disguised as Echo, fwaff fwaff fwaff,” she says mockingly. “I hate the cold. Everything’s so cold and horrible in the North! Whine whine whine! Why are you here, Keris? What do you want? I want to get back to getting kissy with Sasi and sulking about not seeing that annoying baby Aiko who’s waaaaaaay too loud more!”

“He...” Keris says, and her mind promptly blanks. “I... I was with...”

She waves vaguely at Echo, remembers Sasi’s reaction to her, and curls up with another choked sob.

“Everything’s gone wrong,” she whispers. “Sasi hates me, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Fwaff fwaff fwaff,” Echo says, stroking her chin. “What do you mean, everything’s gone wrong? Have the Unquestionable decided to put you with me in the stupid cold stuff place?”

Keris mumbles something incoherent into the inside of her elbow, then remembers she’s supposed to be... practicing. Or something.

“They’re going to kill me if they find out,” she sniffs. “I went mad and said things and... and he needs to protect Sasi if they do ‘cause I have to stay away and not talk to her or I’ll drag her into it too.”

Echo frowns. “I don’t think you’re trying hard enough at pretend, Mama!” she says accusingly, and then shrugs. “Oh well! It’ll be alright on the night! Or the day! Or right now! I don’t think Ligier is very thoughtful with the way he’s always overhead! It makes things so much harder for telling what time it is when you forget! Normally I can just look at Rathan or run over to the giant clock grandma has which is also next to her market full of interesting things and that is a much better way of doing things. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to get dressed up in the super-best bestest form of clothes which is of course ribbons which solve all problems and make sure we have all the ribbons in our hair and then we’ll go talk to him but you’ll keep watching me all the time and I’ll mime-speak to help guide you because you’re useless at the moment while I’m the super-best and in control so that means you just need to do everything I say and everything will be just fine!”

This seems sensible, and Keris finds her spirits lifting a little. Yes, things will be okay when she’s actually facing Testolagh. She can just explain things, and Echo can help if she’s not sure of how, and she’ll have ribbons on.

Having an Amulet is very useful in situations like this. It means she can beribbon her clothes as much as she wants.

Another convenient advantage of ribbons is that Echo is wearing enough of them with Keris’ help in winding her up that it is very hard to tell she looks like Adorjan, or indeed that she isn’t in fact a demon that’s just made entirely from ribbons apart from a pale face poking out.

“See! Don’t you feel so much better and more confident and way happier than Haneyl who doesn’t wear enough ribbons and thus she’s all envious and always want more stuff and Calesco who’s all mopey and sulky and both of them don’t wear enough ribbons, QED,” Echo says in one breath. She punches the air. “To the Testolagh estate! Or... whatever you call it! Ooh! I wonder what he has for food there!”

Testolagh’s townhouse is a looming, intimidating spire made of black basalt which rises above a fire filled garden of metal plants.

“Sure did get awfully Vali and Haneyl in here,” Echo drawls.

Keris is indeed feeling more confident, which is perhaps why she doesn’t bother making a plan for how to introduce herself and instead just darts in through a window. Or maybe that’s because the grinding churning natural-disaster feeling in her head is making it hard to think. One or the other.

((Echo, of course, considers entering through a window to be the natural way of getting into a place if it’s closer than the door))
((Obviously. Entering through the door is so mainstream.))

“Hey Testolagh!” Echo says brightly, flipping up onto the breakfast table where he’s trying to eat. “So we’re just butting in right now because we want to talk and hey, is this breakfast, I wonder what it tastes like, wait wait wait no, that’s not important, what did I need to say - oh yes, I totally remember now, it was that Mama needs to talk to you in private and it’s about Saaaaaaasi and we need to talk and not have people listen in and stuff you know oh yeah and I’m Keris’ daughter and don’t you think my dress is super pretty?”

Testolagh says what any rational person would say in such circumstances. “What?”

“I,” says Keris, and immediately starts running into problems. Everything was supposed to be easier when she was in front of Testolagh, but she’s in front of Testolagh now and it’s not. And she needs to talk to Testolagh in private, and that means Echo won’t be there to help, and it’s about Sasi and what Sasi said and the Unquestionable will kill him too if she tells him; they’ll kill anyone who thinks like she did when she was mad, and that means she’s putting him at risk just by being here and...

Very quietly, Keris starts to hyperventilate again.

“So chop chop!” Echo orders. “Mama needs to talk to you and she’s being all panicky and worried and stuff and so I need to be there so come on because I don’t think any of us will want it if she has a panic attack because that’ll be like a total mess for everyone, yep!”

That seemed to get through, and Testolagh rises, frowning. “This way, then - and it better be important,” he says. Echo apparently is trying her best to assist him by loading up a plate with food, or possibly she’s just stealing the cutlery. Keris isn’t sure at the moment, but her hands are certainly moving quickly, obscured by the mess of ribbons she’s wearing.

Keris nods and follows, squeezing her eyes shut and digging her nails into her palms to try and get her head in order. She’s panicky and worried, she knows that, but she can’t make her feelings settle and she can’t get her mind to go still and something is wrong; deeply and horribly wrong. And not just what’s going on with Sasi.

Testolagh closes the door behind him with a grating thud that gets on Keris’ nerves. “I was having breakfast,” he says. “And who are you, young lady?”

“Oh, right!” Echo springs up to him, jingling slightly from the stolen cutlery hidden on her person. “I’m Echo! Probably... like, Echo Kerisdohkt if I do what Haneyl does and start giving myself extra titles and stuff but I don’t feel like doing that because too many titles will probably weigh you down! But I’m Echo, I’m Keris’ daughter and the smartest one and also the fastest and the most stabby, and my other mother is Adorjan and I’m also the eldest of mama’s souls... well, I mean, apart from the her bit that does the thinking and the snake and the bit that’s all glowy and powerful and Dulmea who’s her coadjutor, but I’m number five! And I’m now a demon lord! Isn’t that super-mega-amazo-awesome?”

Testolagh looks slightly helplessly at Keris for confirmation, matters not helped by the fact that Echo is jogging on the spot.

Keris takes a moment to try and sort out the order things happened in.

“I... woke up,” she says slowly. “Today. And she was outside me. And a demon lord. So I went to Sasi.” Her voice cracks a little.

Testolagh glares at Echo, his eyes flashing green. “So she is,” he says in shock. “Or at least she’s as strong as many of them. How? How is this possible? This... this is a thing we can do?”

“Well, not me, but you can!” Echo says helpfully. “Because you two are basically the same but I’m not ‘cause I’m just one of her souls even if I’m smarter than she is. Mama’s sort of really dumb sometimes. Well, a lot of the time, really. It takes her ages and aaaaaaages to realise things that I pick up when I’m just standing around.”

Testolagh sigh, glaring at Echo. “So, what are you? Her talkativeness? Because you don’t shut up.”

“I do shut up!” Echo says, mightily offended. “I shut up nearly all the year because I can never normally talk and I only have five days a year where I can actually make any sound probably because my other mother is Adorjan and my big sister is the Csend and so sound isn’t part of my nature but during Calibration those restrictions aren’t there and I can talk so I don’t like wasting time because you’d talk a lot too if you could only talk five days a year.”

Testolagh puts one finger on his lips. “Shh,” he says. “I’m thinking.”

“So am I!” Echo says.

“Sasi was confused too,” Keris offers, sniffing a little. “But then I went mad and scared her. And now she hates me.” She curls in on herself, wrapping herself up until she’s almost as swathed in hair and ribbons as her daughter.

“What did you do?” Testolagh says, the stress in his voice clearly a sign of how he’s trying to stay calm.

“I said things,” Keris whimpers. “I went mad, and I said things, and the Unquestionable will kill me if they find out, and now she hates me and I have to stay away and I don’t know what to do.”

“Basically she gets all silly and hyper when her souls do new stuff and I think me an’ my brothers and sisters and Zanara are all turning into demon lords so that might sort of mean she’s basically crazy,” Echo says helpfully. “Sasi didn’t like how she started talking ‘bout how if she has demon lord souls, that means she’s equal to one of the boss demons - which is basically an awfully stupid thing to say even if it is true. Like I said, Mama isn’t very bright, and she’s crazy right now to boot. So ‘cause she doesn’t have many friends, she’s come to you ‘cause you’re one of the few people she knows plus you don’t like them much either and won’t shout at her and that’d be super-annoying if she starts crying again.”

Even in her current state, Keris can’t help but feel a bit violated by how Echo is talking - especially since she doesn’t seem to respect her at all.

Echo leans in. “Plus,” she adds conspiratorially, “Calesco, who’s Mama’s loving compassionate side, she’s my sister - like, my full sister, not just my half-sister - and she respects you tonnes because she thinks you’re really brave to stand up for what you believe in even if it makes the Unquestionable boss-men mad at you.”

Keris draws in on herself further and whimpers.

“She... does?” Testolagh asks,

“Oh yeah,” Echo says confidently. “Mama’s really soft and kind and caring. She just doesn’t like showing it ‘cause she grew up on the streets and stuff and she doesn’t like people thinking she’s weak. She’s adopted some street rats from Nexus just ‘cause she felt sorry for them and when she kills people for the boss men, she hates it if they’re people who couldn’t fight back or, like, they’re not mean people.”

((I can’t tell if Echo is BEST WINGMAN or WORST HELPER.))
((Echo: “Whynotboth.png?”
Keris: “What’s a pee-en-gee?”))

Keris raises her head from where she’s been thinking hard. “M’not weak,” she mumbles. “Jus’ crazy. Testolagh, I need to stay away from Sasi and the Unquestionable and... everyone, so you gotta protect her. She’s got souls too, and if they go demon lord she’ll be in trouble like me for it so you should do something about it and I’ll...”

She pauses for a moment and looks helplessly at Echo.

“I’m keeping her safe and stopping her doing anything stupid or stuff because, oh boy, she does a lot of stupid things when she listens to souls that aren’t me,” Echo says, crossing her arms confidently. “I’m the best, but the others just make her do things which aren’t fun at all! Oh! You need more fun in your life, Testolagh! I could totally help-”

“Please don’t,” he says dryly. “I think I already know what ‘fun’ involves for you, given your Adorjani nature.”

“Well, everyone enjoys a good stabbing,” Echo says. “At least the people doing it, right?”

“Exactly,” Testolagh says. “Please don’t let that side of you dominate who you are, Keris.”

“So mean!” Echo wails, rather ruining her complaint by doing cartwheels at the same time.

“You picked the worst time and place to go insane, Keris,” Testolagh says after some thought. “If this had happened elsewhere, things would have been fine. How many demon lords may start trailing you around?”

“Six?” Keris guesses. “Dulmea is already one, Echo says. But she hasn’t come out.”

Testolagh swallows. “Seven demon lord souls,” he mutters below his breath. He takes a deep breath. “What did you say to Sasi, then?” he asks. “I might need to talk to her.”

Keris flinches. “I, um,” she mutters, somehow managing to curl in even tighter. “I was... crazy. And. She said they’d want to chain my souls. So I declared myself... an Unquestionable. Because... seven demon lords. And I said if they pushed it I’d...”

Her face twists, leaving no doubt as to what she’d implied as her rebuttal.

“Speaking as a demon lord, I don’t agree!” Echo chips in. “I don’t wanna be a citizen anyway. It sounds like work, having to follow the silly laws here. I’d much rather just be a peer like you! It’s like being a citizen but with none of the downsides!”

“Hush, you,” Testolagh says. He groans. “No wonder Sasimana reacted badly. She believes in the Yozis, in the Unquestionable. She defines herself as one of their priestesses. It’s one of the ways she copes with... with what we are now. But I don’t think you do - and I don’t. I owe them loyalty for the gifts they have given me, but I am not Sasi. I am sworn to serve them, but when I have fulfilled my duties, my time is my own. I am their swordsman, not their slave.”

Frightened grey eyes under a tangled mess of hair and ribbons look up at him. “I... don’t?” Keris asks. She turns to Echo, frowning. “You don’t?”

Echo shrugs. “Far as I see it, you got the best of both worlds. You don’t need to do boring stuff like keeping land in Hell ‘cause you get your super-neat house in here - which I don’t wanna do either - and you don’t need to follow most of the laws and you can come and go as you please and that’s great ‘cause nothing is chaining you down in Hell. Plus, if I had your status, I could do stuff for the Weaver of Voices and I’d get so many dresses as rewards!”

Keris blinks, remembering. “Sasi... said something like that too. That I could try to get you treated as... as peers.”

“Well, you’re a peer, so I should be able to be one too ‘cause I’m you. Only obviously the best bits,” Echo says confidently. “And sure, Hanny’ll probably cry like a big baby ‘bout that, but you can probably just bribe her with an island in Creation or something or some books or tell her it was Sasi’s idea all along ‘cause Hanny is super predictable! Not like me!”

Nodding slowly, Keris looks at Testolagh. “And... what you said about being a swordsman, not a slave...”

“I obey them because they have honoured me with power and given me the tools to get revenge for my family,” Testolagh says, as cold and distant as a prince of Hell. “But that is my honour that means I must repay them. Many of the Unquestionable are loathsome beings I respect not one bit. They are cruel monsters who care nothing for man or demon or anything save themselves and their own pet obsessions. Some are more worthy - but all too few. So I spend as little time as I can in Hell, so I am not in their mind.” He nods at Echo. “She is certainly right there - you could not make me take holdings in Hell, or willingly involve myself in their politicking. I still have my honour, and they cannot take that from me or lower me to their level.”

“Iasestus,” Keris murmurs with a shiver. “Orabilis... Ululaya. Not all of them are...” her mouth twists. “Nice. But they gave me things... power, freedom, family...”

“Hey, they had nothing to do with me or Cally,” Echo contradicts. “Big Sister isn’t my mother,” she looks nervous, “and I’m super glad of that. And my Other Mother was the reason you had Cally.”

“The Reclamation sent me Dulmea,” Keris says quietly. “Before anyone else, I had her.” She screws her eyes up and shakes herself. The confusion and pounding head-chaos is ebbing, but giddy exhaustion and a deep throbbing ache in her soul is replacing it. “But if you don’t want to be a peer and I... I don’t believe in the Unquestionable, I just... follow them, because of loyalty and not... faith?”

Echo waves her hands around. “No, no, I want to be a peer, like you. It’s like having all the benefits and almost none of the boring bits of citizenship. I don’t want you to be Unquestionable. For one, that would mean I couldn’t question you! Urgh! Super-urgh! You’d do everything wrong if I couldn’t help you make the right choices. And I guess the others help too,” she concedes, somewhat reluctantly.

Keris breathes out slowly. “A peer. But not a... not a proper demon lord. Because I’m a peer and not an Unquestionable. And they won’t kill me because... because I follow them. I just don’t worship them. Like Sasi does.” She repeats it to herself twice more; the words reassuring as her panic starts to abate.

“And... and I know that now, so I’m... not crazy anymore? And... and peers is good; I can do peers, and that...” she gulps. “That... means... I can- no, I can’t...” Keris looks at Testolagh pleadingly. “You can tell Sasi I’m sorry? That I’m not crazy anymore? That I take back... what I said?”

Testolagh hunches over, hands on his knees. “Why do you trust me this much?” he asks bluntly. “We’ve done little to qualify as friends. You know I have reason that I don’t want you around Sasi - and yet you’re trusting me to help you get back together with her. Why?

Keris blinks at him. Lingering adrenaline and confusion make lying too complicated a prospect to take seriously. Lying requires thinking.

“I... don’t really have anyone else?” she tries, not sure what kind of answer he wants. “Lilunu, and maybe Naan, and... me. Echo’s part of me. Dulmea’s part of me. Rounen ‘n Firi are from me. Kuha... is basically good as.”

She shrugs. “Sasi’s still scared of me. I can’t tell if I’m still crazy on my own. Who else have I got?”

He narrows his eyes. It doesn’t seem to be quite the answer he wanted - or expected. “But that doesn’t explain why you trust me,” he says. “Desperation is one thing, but - well, for example, if I said the wrong thing, if I said you were desperate and panicking and would say anything; then what? No, I can’t accept you’re just desperate, because you’re trusting your... your rival for Sasimana’s affections in your attempts to regain them.” He frowns. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

By Keris’s wide-eyed look, this cunning hypothetical hadn’t occurred to her. But a moment later her own eyes narrow.

“Nuh uh,” she argues. “You wouldn’t do that ‘cause...” She frowns, trying to remember where her certainty comes from. “Calesco said you’re... you care about...” A hair tendril waves vaguely. “About... being fair. Telling the truth. And doing what’s best for Sasi. And I’m not... I wouldn’t say anything, I was...”

She groans and rests her head on her knees. “Thinking is hard,” she complains.

“Mama’s trying to say you’re all fair and noble and stuff like how you ‘pologised for not being fair to her the other day and so she knows she can trust you ‘cause you’re a trusty person and that’s why Sasi even fell for you in the first place, duh,” Echo puts in, almost vibrating with impatience. “Because you were all ‘blar blar blar you can depend on me I am very dependable’ so your dependableness means you won’t be mean and refuse ‘cause Sasi is happier with Mama than she would be without her and you know it.”

Emerging from the ball of ribbons, the young demon lord puts a hand to her chin in an exaggerated thinking pose. “Also also also! At the moment she’s prob’ly freaking out ‘cause,” She adopts a vaguely Sasi-like stance, “‘argh argh argh Keris has gone crazy and us Green Sun Princesses can make demon lords and I didn’t know this so all my plans are thrown off whack and what if I go crazy too when it happens to me argh argh argh I have to plan but I can’t plan without information and I don’t have any argh!’ So actually it’s best you go tell her that Keris was only crazy for a little bit and now she’s calmed down and if Sasi didn’t go crazy when she budded souls then she won’t when they become demon lords, because otherwise she’ll be all upset and neither of you want that.”

Keris nods vaguely and points at her. Echo beams happily and turns a handstand.

Testolagh straightens up. “Well,” he says, frowning. “That’s certainly an argument.”

“The bestest-best argument that...”

“Hush,” he says, casually reaching over and putting a finger to Echo’s newly upright lips. He sighs. “And yes, that is a question of honour. I couldn’t face Sasimana if I lied to her about that.” He smiles wryly. “And she’d probably find out. So what you’re going to do here is rest, until I return. And I will be taking this young lady with me, as proof of my verity and also because I don’t trust her left alone in my house.”

“That is a cruel and mean comment,” Echo says around his finger, shamelessly ignoring the large number of stolen spoons hidden in her clothing.

“You didn’t deny its accuracy,” he accuses.

Echo pouts.

((Testolagh is wise. He also has no idea what he’s letting himself in for, trying to corral Echo.))
((Not when he uses a grappling-enhancer on her wrist!))
((ECHO DO NOT TRY TO CUT YOUR WAY OUT OF THE GRAPPLE WITH YOUR KNIFE))

Keris nods with a euphoric grin. He’s going to talk to Sasi. And then Keris can say sorry, and Sasi won’t hate her, and she won’t ever ever say anything so stupid out loud ever again, and...

... and, she thinks with a rush of confidence and happiness, that means everything is going to be alright. Better than alright. Perfect.

“Mama, you’re probably super-exhausted from not being me, so you should get some sleep,” Echo says, wisely. She grins, clearly indicating that she’ll make sure Testolagh is on his best behaviour and also steal some things from him to give to Calesco as Calibration presents.

Yes. She should go have a rest. She really is tired, Keris thinks, with a yawn. Echo says everything will be... be alright, so of course everything will be alright. How couldn’t it be?

Testolagh and Echo leave the room, and Keris curls up in the corner, making sure to have her back to the wall - a habit of her childhood.

((Torment ended/faded))

She opens her eyes in her Domain, her head spinning like the Cloud Wall. A moment’s observation reveals that she is perched on the very uppermost tip of the Tower Melodious, which... might explain the dizziness, actually. The tower-harps are loud. Trusting her preternatural balance, she makes a quick dash downwall for the highest window she can find, falls in through it, and then meanders downward in gradually decreasing wobbles until she finds a chell.

It’s facing the other way, and doesn’t appear to notice her. Keris cleverly solves this problem by falling on top of it. Hah. She is a genius.

It’s only when she gets up and looks around that she realises how very wrong things are. Her domain is tiny once again. All the lands are gone. Wait, no, that’s not right. She can see a bright green glow through the stormwall to the... the... to one side. But there’s a cyclone enveloping her soul, spinning around and around and around, sealing off the city from the other lands.

“... Dulmeaaaaaaa!” she yells, poking the chell hard and fast before starting to actively shake it. “What’s going on what’s going on what’s going on?

The chell flickers for a moment. The music on the whipping winds is dissonant and insane.

“I... you... it doesn’t make sense,” gasps the chell-Dulmea, flickering, before she’s gone again.

Keris looks around desperately, abandons the chell and sprints for the main room. The bowl with the miniature Domain is out by the time she gets there, and she skids to a halt next to it with a string of curses on her lips.

Buildings churn and boil, and rivers flow through new paths. The fog obscures the outer domain and she can barely see glimpses of the structures she knows should be there. A red glow for Rathan - a terribly bright green flow for Haneyl that encompasses most of her lands, gleaming rainbow in place of water for little Zanara, star-speckled mist for Calesco and bright, bright blue arcs of light for Vali. Only Echo’s lands are somewhat clear, and they’re misty and wavery.

“Oh, fuck me blue,” Keris mutters. “They’re all evolving. Fuck.” She looks out at the cyclone whirling around the City walls, and back to the green incandescence. If the Swamp is on fire... well, Haneyl has been putting measures into place to protect her citizens if another major burn comes along, but if such things fail they’ll be devastated. On the other hand, her past history at getting through the outer Cloud Wall is... not spectacular.

“... plague and rot,” she swears, and sprints Swampwards anyway. The whole Domain is probably a hazard right now, but the Swamp will be the deadliest. It always is. She sticks to the largest streets, not trusting the warping and fluid rooftops, anchoring herself to the ground with her speed and dodging reflexively whenever walls burst up from the ground or the cobbles twist and writhe.

The storm wall is ahead. It’s blood red at its lower level, whipping around the line of Keris’ authority she drew here. But that bloody low-hanging area seems to be weaker, more sane. Something that Dulmea’s influence might be keeping under control. She might be able to break through, if she can find the right leverage - whether physical or metaphorical.

“Dulmea is queen of this City,” she snarls at it as she approaches, “but I made her so. I am this Empire; every inch of it, and you will not keep me from my children!”

She hits the wind in a rush, bending almost double to minimise her shape and wrapping her hair around herself to streamline her profile. It still feels like getting hit in the side of the face by a hammer. A hammer covered in sharp pins. But the wind breaks, and Keris almost stumbles which how suddenly it gives up. And then she’s through, into the grey expanse of the swamp.

For the first time ever, it might be thought to look like a normal forest. After all, all the trees are topped with green. Except then one looks more closely and can see that the canopies are ablaze. The fire is keeping high and the roar of the hungry flames are painfully loud - and at the same time, everything is also growing fast enough that Keris can see it. The plants are growing so fast they’re nearly exceeding the rate at which the fire is burning things - and that’s why the canopy is on fire. The plants are pushing the flames upwards.

Above, emberhawks scream and soar in a conflagration of world-ending proportions. Keris swears again and races inward, screwing her useless watering eyes shut as she tries to bring the layout of the Swamp to mind. Anyone near a large river will have a good chance, and by now “make for water” is advice rooted into every Swampdweller’s mind when fire threatens. If the waterway evacuation routes are safe, that means the main one at threat would be... the Swamp Court Trail; linking Haneyl’s main court to her castle-building docks. Densely populated, landbound and probably being choked and clogged by burning foliage.

Keris shifts course slightly and pulls her Lance out. Cutting back the burning sections is something she can definitely do to help anyone fleeing along that way, and the road will take her to where Haneyl and Zanara most likely are. Three rats with one stone.

((Physique + Athletics to see how many she can save.))
((5+5+2 stunt+4 Compassion+10 Adorjani ExD {inevitability that bad things happen, noone expects her, inspire heroes}=26. 20 sux, fuck yeah.))

There have been fires before. There will be fires again. But in this fire, there is something else - a saviour who rarely interferes in the day-to-day running of her Domain. A being many of the fleeing demons have never even seen from a distance, let alone interacted with. But the flaring anima banner is unmistakeable as Keris flies down the Swamp Court Trail, Lance out and singing, scarlet hair streaming back like the fire of Creation, dancing on heads and burning branches and even on drifting leaves and embers.

A tree falls from the forest; its crown a blaze of green flame. Keris hits it as it topples and it explodes into kindling; the gales of her anima dousing the wood fragments and whipping them away. A burning nest of vines threatens to expand across the road, cutting off those behind it. Keris passes and it withers to a dozen lightning stabs. She’s impossible to miss; glorious and terrifying, a sign that this catastrophe is beyond anything seen before.

And she’s an inspiration. Behind her, farisyya roar with renewed courage, leading the columns onward and trusting their armour to keep the flames from their flanks. Lizard-wolves throw themselves into keeping the way clear, and szulok pull great carts and wagons full of passengers.

Keris saves impossibly many demons. Not everyone - she hears screams from too deep in the woods, but nearly everyone. And she hopes the wildwoods sziromkeruby will fare better than some might have hoped, because they tend to live in hollow trees and maybe the trees’ growth will protect them from the fire.

And, thank goodness, Haneyl’s castle is mostly standing. Mostly. Some of the towers have collapsed from out-of-control growth of the gardens, but the basic structures are holding. The demons within have coated the inner walls with wet mud and that’s baked to clay in the heat, but it’s packed to the brim and the outer walls and the stone foundations are creating a firebreak.

She hops the wall and grabs the nearest demon that doesn’t look like it’s doing vital work. “Which way?” she demands, and honestly doesn’t need to elaborate on the context. It points her towards the shore, and she sprints that way without hesitating. Haneyl must have gone to water when she felt herself start to go out of control. She certainly wouldn’t have risked staying in the centre of her castle. The fire out in the Swamp is more or less normal - the flame that comes off Haneyl herself will eat through anything, up to and including stone. She can see that this already happened. There’s a hole in one of the seawards walls - one much bigger than a human - and a water-filled channel that leads out to sea.

Keris swallows. Except now she can see the Isles from here, and she can see the rainbow-coloured storm that’s washing over the islands. She can see geography twisting like clay. There are even little coracles with things that look like they might be keruby trying desperately to paddle for the relative safety of the islands right at the border.

Something streaks through the sky, screaming, burning bright green. Keris squints up at the brightness. It’s long and thin and draconic - and it’s flying despite its lack of wings. Perhaps the flame is keeping it aloft.

She curses yet again. She’d thought Haneyl would be in full-blown living-flame mode - feared, at worst, that she might have become some even greater blaze. This, though... it looks like Haneyl has left humanity behind entirely.

... well. Whatever she is, she’s probably not hurt. And there are more demons in danger.

Keris takes a fraction of a second to catch her breath, and dives into the water to help.

She manages to fish the little... whatever these keruby are, things made of clay and reeds and stained with bright colours. Some of them don’t seem to know what they are, either, because they’re confused and talk about how they were just trying to fish for things to eat when the brightly coloured pretty storm rolled in. Zanaran keruby, she realises. If they weren’t already, the storms must have adapted them all in one go. All of her souls are flaring; their essence is surging... honestly, Keris is wary of even trying to eyeball what the clashing, surging essence flows must taste like. She asks about Zanara instead, hoping her youngest is safe, wherever they are. Certainly not in the castle, given the lack of rainbow-tinted mayhem and screaming.

((So yeah, Keris is probably going to circle around the Domain doing her best to get demons to safety while checking on her souls. Those in the Ruin and Meadows probably aren’t too badly off, but the Sea and Spires are... likely to need intervention. Abstract it somewhat? I can see that we’re unlikely to have one-on-one talks with her souls until, heh, they’re summoned.))
((Hee. This is going to go down as the Five Days of Chaos.))

Keris dives into the Isles. It’s good that this direction is nearly unpopulated, because she can’t find almost anything living at all. The only creatures she finds are basically hugging close to the City, unable to get through the Storm Wall around it - but still in the area of relative stability where there are tall buildings and the artstorm can’t touch them. There are other things out in the rainbow storm, but Keris shudders because they’re being mutated so much that it’s probably not a good idea to save them. Zanara’s ecology is probably going to be formed by what happens at the end of this.

By contrast, the Sea is almost... sane. Yes, there’s a nightmarishly cataclysmic storm and it’s raining acid, but that’s something the inhabitants know how to deal with. She finds an iceberg-island almost immediately, with its hatches battened down and helps rescue demons from a ship.

Unlike the Swamp, though, the wildsea demons are doing fine. Most of them are just hiding under the surface with their ramsquid and other mounts, or they’ve fastened their sails over the top of their ships to deflect the acid and the raining ice.

And up above, Keris can see the moon. It’s beating so fast that the air is pulsing, and it’s glowing sun-bright in its redness. She blows it a kiss and promises herself to head there as soon as she’s finished rounding the Domain. If Echo is out already, Rathan will probably be next. But right now there are still people to save, and... well. Haneyl was the worst-off so far. Vali has more than a few similarities to his sister, and the Spires are a harsh and stormy place at the best of times. Keris makes sure to plug her ears before venturing towards the cliffs, and rises above the water as the to-and-fro currents and waves become strong enough to smash steel apart against the rocks.

Keris was more right than she thought, she discovers. Vali and Haneyl are very similar in a lot of ways, and she realises in a sudden fit of guilt that the two of them have been set off by her own conflict over Sasi.

A pitch black stormcloud filled with bright blue lightning chokes the entire Spires, and it seems like half the mountains have blown their tops and are bleeding lava over the land. She already finds one village utterly destroyed by the magma and a few straggled survivors trying to outrun the burning rock on their animals.

Fortunately, this is something she can try to fix. Haneylian fire eats deep trenches into the landscape as she runs; stalling the lava’s advance as it pools down into them. Keris’s hearing and innate knowledge of her Domain’s geography isn’t stalled by the black smog, and she directs the survivors she finds either Citywards or Ruinwards, depending on which is closer. An anyaglo-mounted szelkerub she stumbles across is a blessing, and she orders him into the Ruin to recruit as many ribbon horses as he can find for help with evacuation. The little creature’s ribbons are hardening into bronze, she notices. And there are sparks playing in his hair.

But there’s no time to linger on that, because she’s pulled into clearing a path through a field of rapidly-growing stalagmites and burning away an avalanche. Her anima is burning around her like a bonfire now, and even so it’s starting to get hard to keep up as she works her way clockwise towards the Ruin; cutting as many level paths as she can as she goes. Hopefully Echo’s Direction at least isn’t undergoing a natural disaster.

She does indeed find that the Ruin is basically calm, and that a lot of demons from the ruinwards Spires have fled into it. Sure, there’s a bit of a magma problem and the winds are strong, but things are the most normal here.

Oh, Keris thinks. Oh. So maybe all the... the stuff-ness that made Echo what she is now she drew from the land, and the others are still accumulating essence. Or something. The land is so overflowing with power because her children are trying to digest it. She doesn’t waste much time, though she pauses to order a fair few fliers back into the Spires to help with evacuation and direction-finding. Her flaring soul gets attention, and more than a small following, but she outpaces all but the fastest and most stubborn ribbon-horses as she heads for the Meadows, fearing what sort of cataclysm she’ll find there.

((Oh yes, Keris has to roll Compassion for the way she’s doing triage rather than trying to save everyone in hearing range, and if she succeeds, she has to suppress it.))
((Goddammit. 4 dice; 2 sux. Suppressing - Keris forces herself to keep moving and keep circling the Empire, knowing that lingering to try and save everyone in one Direction will doom those in the others.))

Night has fallen over the Meadow. Night so dark that the green glow of the Swamp can’t be seen. Night so dark that it looks like a solid black wall at the edge, as sharp as a ruler line. Steeling herself as she approaches, Keris tries to put the screams and cries she’s already pushed past out of her mind. She has to triage here; lingering to save everyone in the Swamp would have doomed those trapped in the Spires. But it still hurts, leaving them behind in the name of efficiency, and she has a feeling it’s about to hurt more. At least she doesn’t really need her eyes.

Keris grits her teeth and plunges past the wall of blackness, bracing against what she might find within.

In the blackness of the Meadows, Keris can barely see a hair’s length in front of her. But there’s still light. There are stars overhead, lesser ones. But there’s one bright one at the top, screaming at the top of her lungs, and it hurts to hear and look at her. Calesco’s cry is full of misery and pain.

Keris sheds bitter tears. She and her daughter will need to have a long talk after this - she and all her children will probably have to talk about this once it’s over, both individually and all at once. But she listens for the sound of mezkeruby and needle bells and trident weavers; hopeful that they’ve had the sense to simply plug their ears and close their eyes and stay on the hilltops rather than risk falling into an unseen tarpit. Across the dark landscape, a symphony of faint screams can be heard. They’re screaming faintly enough that indicates that they’ve been screaming for a long time. And something in Calesco’s voice indicates that the pain and horror she’s feeling is the pain she’s inflicting on them, and there’s a feedback loop going on here.

Keris screws her eyes shut and swallows her voice. Normally when she speaks like this she does it through mime, but there’s another way she can do it - one that she’s used once before. Just like last time, she shouts inwards and lets the noiseless reflection bounce out.

‘CALESCO!’ she yells as un-loudly as she can, putting as much force as possible behind the mental word. ‘Calesco, it’s me, focus on me! Focus on my voice! Come to me!’ She changes course, skipping over a tarpit, darting up a hill, making for where she remembers Calesco’s cave to be. ‘Come down from the sky, Calesco! I can help! Please!’

A star falls, with the sound of many wings. Keris sees her daughter through bleary eyes, caught in her painful radiance, and her heart goes out to her. Her wings have grown so much - much more than her body has. She looks to be maybe ten in the middle, but her wings are larger than she is and she gropes around like a blind woman, eyes screwed shut. Her bird legs are clumsy and barely able to carry her weight on the ground.

“Mama,” she gasps. “It hurts. It hurts. It hurts it hurts and I can hear their screaming outside and it all hurts.”

Keris squeezes her eyes fully shut and grabs Calesco with her hair. The cave, she gestures with pats and frantic nudges. If Calesco can get herself into her cave and seal the entrance, hopefully it will cut her off from the people seeing her and hurting because of it, and then she’ll stop hurting so much and everyone will be safer.

Keris wishes she could stay and help Calesco more, she says with a tearful hug, but there are people still in trouble and she needs to go make sure the moon won’t explode and figure out where Zanara are and push more evacuation routes into the Spires. Things are really bad right now, she adds mournfully. They’ll need to talk about it later.

With Calesco hiding in her cave after one last forehead kiss - and this isn’t going to do her thing about her ugliness any good, but honestly there are so many things going wrong right now that Keris is pretty much forced to put some of them on the back burner for later - the Meadows are more or less safe. Well, no, there are a lot of people who’ve screamed themselves hoarse and who are sobbing at how much it hurt and will probably need healing or mind-healing or whatever, but that’s not something Keris can help now, so she heads back out.

The Spires and Swamp are the two biggest threat areas, and in both cases evacuation routes are the main goal - high-density population centres first, then spreading out from there, exploiting whatever safe routes like wide roads or rivers or flat ground already exist. Keris flares her soul even brighter and snaps out orders to anyone close enough to hear her silent shouts. Soon the word spreads; and swift-moving anyaglos come to pace her as she runs before peeling off to relay her commands elsewhere.

Keris herself heads for the Isles, reopening the swamp court road en route with brute force and shredding anima-winds. She knows where Rathan, Haneyl and Calesco are. Vali is probably underground, given all the volcanos. Zanara is somewhat more worrying, and she wants a bead on her youngest soul.

Keris doesn’t want to think about it, but she’s seen something not so different before. Just once. When things got really, really bad in the Firewander district. She hates - hates hates hates - to even think about it, but there’s something slightly... fae about Zanara and certainly about this storm.

Over islands that are constantly reshaping themselves and waters that flow with paint rather than, well, water, Keris runs. And then she sees something huge and constant. A two-faced statue protruding from the depths. She isn’t sure how big it is, because it’s buried up to the neck - but each head is a hillock. She risks a quick flash of perception beyond the merely physical; her eyes tinting green as she evaluates the huge thing. She’s pretty sure it’s Zanara, but she wants - needs - to be sure.

Yes. That’s certainly Zanara. And their strength is... hard to discern. It’s almost like they’re part of the landscape, part of Keris. She realises that she’s aching deep inside. Are... are they peeling away from her?

She looks around at the... the fae-like storm around her. She can’t risk defending herself like she did against the Wyld if there’s the slightest chance that it’s coming from Zanara, which in turn means she can’t slow down enough to let it touch her. Therefore...

... slashing her hand open on her Lance and swiping it across her mouth, Keris diverts enough to run up over and onto the statue, pressing a bloody handprint and a crimson kiss against two vast foreheads.

“Remember me,” she whispers; voice all but lost in the landscape-warping rain and waves. “Remember who you are. You’re not alone. I’m here.”

Then she’s off and running again, back towards the City this time. More to do, more to do.

Eventually, though, she’s done everything she can, and the chaos in her Domain is starting to get oppressive to the point of forcing her avatar out. Slipping back into the real world, Keris wakes up in a cocoon of furniture. Apparently her hair has been moving in her sleep - quite violently - and has dragged the mattress, two bedside tables and a decorative shield from the wall into a sloppy barrier between her and the rest of the room.

A mostly-destroyed barrier, she notes, because her anima is flaring around her in the real world as bright as a bonfire - and by the looks of the room, that’s not the brightest it’s been while she was fighting a battle of triage within herself. She hopes Testolagh didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the furniture in here, because most of it is beyond any hope of repair.

Still, though, she feels... strangely good. Pretty damn good, in fact. Surprisingly so, given how chaotic and hard the past few probably-hours have been. Breaking down on Testolagh must have been good catharsis - and perhaps being presented with a problem she could tackle helped as well. Those she couldn’t save weigh on her, but Keris is certain that many now live who wouldn’t have, had she not intervened.

Yes, all in all, she feels in a fairly good mood to go explore Testolagh’s townhouse for a bit and explain things... to him... and Sasi...

...

... who are currently standing in the door of the bedroom and staring at her warily.

“Uh,” Testolagh says, looking with shock at his destroyed furniture.

Echo, standing behind them, gives Keris a resounding thumbs up which clearly communicates approval for the beauty of the destructive artistry.

“... I can explain,” hazards Keris, but even she has to admit that she doesn’t sound like she believes it. “Uh. How... how long have you been standing there?”

“Not long,” Echo pipes in cheerfully. “I’d have poked you with a stick if I’d had the chance.” She pulls a face. “Or if Testolagh hadn’t grabbed my arm. He’s awful strong!”

“... yes,” Keris agrees, eyeing him and Echo warily. “Uh. My inner world is... sort of having six simultaneous disasters. At the same time. Because my souls are evolving, I think. The Swamp’s on fire, half the Spires have gone volcanic, the Sea is under a huge acidstorm, Calesco’s gone all agony-light and screaming, the City’s having a seizure and there’s a fucking Wyldstorm over most of the Isles. I’ve been...” she waves a hand vaguely. “Doing triage. If it helps, I... didn’t actually realise I was flaring out here as well.”

She pauses.

“I mean, I’d still have done it if I’d known, because otherwise a lot of my demons would have died, but I’d be more sorry about it if it hadn’t been an accident.”

“I pulled it all out with me so I became me!” Echo beams. “Oh, I should probably have mentioned that earlier! Oopsie!” She doesn’t sound very sorry.

Paler than usual, Sasi leans heavily against a wall. “So... ignoring that for the moment,” she says with a shudder, “... we should close the door anyway.”

The door is closed and people try to find seats where they can in the broken furniture. Echo perches on the chandelier.

“Keris,” Sasi continues. “Um.”

Keris winces. “Yes. Uh.” She chews a hair tendril nervously. “You were right,” she blurts. “I went crazy. I mean, I always go crazy when... and this must have sent me totally over the edge, and I’m really sorry I shouldn’t have said what I said and... and I’m sorry I scared you and I won’t say anything like it again. Unless I go crazy again, I guess. But I’ll...” She hesitates. “... try... really hard... not to?”

((Is she lying or omitting the truth?))
((No. For all else that Testolagh said to “solve” her dilemma, he didn’t actually challenge Sasi’s central points of “you’re crazy at the moment”, “you’re not an Unquestionable” and “the Unquestionable will kill literally all of us who they catch thinking that way”, and Keris has accepted those as true, at least barring further evidence against. She’s probably remembering Lilunu mentioning that she isn’t an Unquestionable after she went to her about Calesco being an eighth soul, too.))

Sasi exhales, and with the characteristic stiffness in her eyes that Keris has only seen a few times before when she’s trying to cry and can’t, she rushes forwards to embrace Keris, her silver-black-blue anima flaring to life around her. “You mean it,” she mumbles into Keris’ hair, sounding awkward and ill-phrased. “You... I... I should have remembered you act strangely when your souls change. And... and... oh, I’m so glad you’re better. Did the rest help things?”

“Well, Haneyl has turned into a dragon, Dulmea is too shaken up to form bodies, there’s a cyclone cutting the City off from all my children’s lands,” Keris says as flippantly as she can, carefully ignoring the slight tremor in her voice and hugging back a little too hard with all eight limbs. “A-and I spent the past... however long it’s been... saving my demons from everything from fire to avalanches to acid rain and evacuating them to safe places. So... um... surprisingly, yes, the rest helped. Having something else to focus on and getting all the chaos in my soul under control seems to have... settled me a bit. I think.”

Sasi smiles weakly. “Well, I... I don’t think I’ve have that problem,” she says. “If my soul-world starts having natural disasters, it’s rather compact.” She half-releases Keris, and sits down next to her, cuddling her. “We need to teach you to do this,” she says to Testolagh.

“Do you?” he asks. “The downsides seem... noticeable.”

“Learn it Sasi’s way,” Keris suggests. “It’s really useful being able to store as much as you want within yourself. And her inner world is nice and peaceful. Mine started out big and then got bigger. Though,” she glances at Sasi, “I think part of that might just be that my souls are more, uh, volatile.”

A quiet creaking noise catches her ear, and she rolls her eyes. “Case in point. Echo! Stop unscrewing the chandelier while you’re sitting on it!”

“I am not!” Echo protests.

“She’s lying,” Sasi says.

“I’d guessed,” Testolagh says drily. “Get down from there, young lady.”

Echo pouts, but obeys, slithering down. In fact, Keris is slightly annoyed she seems to be better behaved around Testolagh than she’s ever been around Keris. And more obedient to boot.

Sasi shakes her head. “Anyway, dear one, my inner realm has its own share of conflict between my souls. It seems to be innate to having many souls.”

“Yours don’t set whole Directions on fire, though,” Keris says, and frowns. “Uh. That I know of. Come to think of it, I don’t know your souls very well. Just Kalaska and Seresa, I think. And...” She glances at Testolagh, “yours are still dormant?”

“It’s easy to not set directions on fire when you don’t have directions,” Sasi says.

“... whole Directions,” Testolagh says, gulping. He looks Keris up and down... well, down and further down. “Just how do you fit that much space inside you. You’re not the tallest.”

Keris squints at him warningly. “... my Domain’s, uh... I dunno. Hang on.” She lets her eyes glaze over slightly, prodding the mental feeling of it. “... maybe... twenty kilometres across? Rough circle, bordered by the Cloud Wall - dunno how thick that is; and I guess it doesn’t matter given what happened when I tried to go through it. Six Directions; one for each soul, and the City in the middle.”

She blinks, shaking her head to clear it. “Ugh. Most of it’s still in chaos. I think... like Echo said, their essence is growing and spilling out into their lands, and they haven’t absorbed and digested it all yet.”

Testolagh lets out an impressed whistle. “Nearly as big as the Conventicle Malfeasant,” he says, after some thought. “Okay. I could certainly see the use of that.”

Keris beams smugly. “I can move houses and ships in and out if I’ve claimed the ground in Creation,” she boasts. “I had a whole fleet in there at one point.”

Her face falls slightly. “... and then I had to take it out again ‘cause the bloody keruby were destroying the sails and rigging. Little pests. And it took, like, a day and a half to offload them all, and gave me a monster headache by the end of it, and then the little brats started complaining and Rathan pestered me for a week about it.” By the end of her tirade, she’s scowling.

Sasi winces. “Oh. That’s probably wrecked, isn’t it?” she says. “Can it be repaired?”

“The fleet? It’s... not as badly off as you’d think. Needs some repair work, but the hulls are okay and the masts are mostly good. Most of the sails are a complete write-off, though, and the decks are going to need some work because there are book-leaf plants growing all over them and singe marks on everything and ribbons everywhere.”

Keris shrugs. “Most of them were Realm ships, so I’d have wanted to change the sails and tweak the lines a bit anyway, to make it less obvious where they came from.”

Sasi nods. “Good thinking,” she says. She rubs her face against Keris’, and then rises, letting go. “Testolagh and... uh, Echo said you’d been talking with him about... some kind of plan? Something about him and the North?”

Keris actually purrs for a moment, then pouts at the loss of contact, and only then processes what Sasi said. “Hmm? Oh! Oh, yes! We were talking about finding someone to take over for him there - a citizen who he could spread a bunch of cults to who would bind the tribes together in worship. Probably someone linked to Ligier, since...” she gestures at Testolagh, “from what I said, you use a lot of his fire, so that’d make it seem more genuine. And I said I’d see if I could think of anyone, and also that asking you would be a good idea, ‘cause you know everyone.”

Sasi frowns, lips curling up in thought. “This would be a matter of talking the Althing into it,” she says, “and hopefully persuading one of the Unquestionable that it was all their idea in the first place to snatch this clearly-profitable enterprise from Testolagh and hand it off to one of their souls - and demand that one of us summon and not bind the demon lord.”

Keris looks at Testolagh. Testolagh looks at Keris.

“That’d be you, then,” Keris replies. “I can manage serfs and that’s it.”

“Uh! Uh!” Echo interjects, bouncing up and down and waving her hand in the air.

“Cutting your own way out isn’t me summoning you with sorcery; therefore it doesn’t count as far as summoning a citizen goes,” Keris rattles off without turning her head. Echo pouts.

“Oh, that summoning duty would be assigned by the Althing,” Sasi says, brow still furrowed. “It’s a matter of coaxing one of the Unquestionable into thinking that it’s all their idea to take the assignment away from Testolagh to expand their own interests. Because, dear one,” she smiles fondly at Testolagh, “some people certainly have an interest in keeping your... ah, bluntness in a remote corner of Creation, but the Unquestionable cannot be questioned and I doubt any of them care enough if one wanted the lands of those silly bird-riders for one of their souls instead.”

“Hey!” Keris objects. “Less of the ‘silly’, thanks! I put a lot of work into the owlriders!”

Testolagh rumbles. “I suppose you’ll need to take your ones before we can do that,” he tells Keris. “I doubt they’ll honour the agreement.”

She nods. “So, hmm. What up there is valuab- huh.” She purses her lips. “I mean... there is one thing up there that’s pretty valuable. And which the Unquestionable would want.”

“Hmm?” Sasi asks.

Keris gives her a patient look. “The reason I was up there in the first place, Sasi. Fae. A demon lord would probably be able to set up something to grab loads of low-level ones and ship them back to Hell... and since it’s way out at the edge of Creation, there’s room to be loud about it. I mean, hmm...”

She frowns, thinking back. “The giants in the centre of that hungry mountain might give a demon lord some trouble, and the freaky way they can control the landscape would be a problem, but those bone golems... owlriders and demons should be able to take them down and trap them with the right tactics. Right, Echo?”

“Wellll...” Echo drawls, “I gotta say, most demon lords aren’t half as super-amazing as I am and also don’t have a special knife from Other Mama so I dunno, and... oh, Mama, what about the worshippers, I mean they’re far away from other people so they can totally go and become the gods of the tribes and that’d be sweeeeeeet and I bet there are demon princes who are even more greedy than Haneyl ‘cause Haneyl is super-easy to trick into things if you exploit how she always want more stuff because she’s silly and doesn’t understand you can’t run super-fast when you’re too weighed down which is why knives are the best weapon like Other Mama says.” She pauses. “Well, gestures.”

“She’s got a point,” Keris admits, ignoring the second half of Echo’s babble for the moment. “Empire out on the fringes of Creation with a bunch of worshippers and no Immaculate Faith; sounds tempting.” She nudges Sasi, leaning into her. “I bet you could sell it.”

Sasi nudges her back. “You’re the one with a relationship with the Shashalme,” she says. “Why don’t you sell it?”

Keris gives some thought to that. “... I mean, if I mentioned that you were interested in trading in those followers if you could get the Althing’s permission...” she muses quietly. “Hmm. And Lilunu’d be sympathetic. And, hmm. If Echo can behave herself over Calibration and be... talking and stuff, and so on, then that might help with how she’s seen like it did for Dulmea...”

She trails off into quiet speculative muttering, occasionally gesturing vaguely with a finger or lock of hair, then snaps out of it abruptly. “Wait, no, wait, hang on. Why should I have to do it? I’m the one least affected by him being up in the North! And... and stop tricking me into thinking of how I’d do it if I was going to, too!”

((curses. sasi is learning keris-wrangling style. by placing a puzzle in front of her and then distracting her at a crucial point, she will automatically work on it for a while before remembering that she has no reason to do so : P))
((also reverse psychology and bribes))

“I’d just heard you were in its debt and information is of value to it,” Sasi says mildly.

Keris attempts to looks haughtily unaffected, then gives up and looks interested. And then stubborn, and then conflicted, and then grudgingly interested again. Sasi watches calmly as her lover’s face shifts through various expressions, which eventually settle on a resigned pout. “Fine, fine, I’ll talk to them,” Keris grumbles. “And try to avoid getting given anything this time. Even if those brushes were... well, anyway.”

Sasi taps her fingers together. “Keris, dear,” she says, “I think it is probably best if you don’t attend any festivals today. Find some excuse to be absent.” She smiles. “Not a stomach bug. They won’t believe you.”

Keris nods. “I could use some time to level out. I’ll say I’ve developed a new gift and I’m getting control of it. Which is true. Ish.”

Sasi nods. “Well, I need to spend two hours today getting ready for a rather important ball where a certain demon prince has requested my presence.” She affects a mock pout. “I don’t suppose both of you could put aside your differences and - together - help me wash? We could be very clean by the end.”

“Don’t push it,” Testolagh says, rolling his eyes, though his eyes flick to Keris and her clinging dress.

Keris just smiles. “No, of course, that’d be fine, Sasi,” she says sweetly. “We’ll just retire to a bathroom for it, shall we? And leave Echo alone. And unsupervised. And bored.”

Echo nods enthusiastically at this idea.

Sasi shakes her head. “No, you need to look after Echo and I need to avoid showing either of you excess favouritism,” she says sweetly. “Testolagh, I will be sleeping at yours this day, and Keris, I will be around at yours tomorrow. If it’s fine with both of you?”

Keris’s smile vanishes. “That...” she starts, but so soon after fighting with Sasi she’s not willing to push it. “Yeah, fine,” she mumbles instead. “I’ll just... head home, then.”

She takes the opportunity for a quick kiss and a “love you” as she corrals Echo, and regards Testolagh for a long moment.

“... thank you,” she eventually says, careful and cautious. “For helping today. You... helped. I won’t forget that.”

“And... you may help too,” he says carefully. “And please don’t take my refusal personally. You are certainly a beautiful woman and... uh, it’s not that you’re ugly.” He’s blushing slightly.

To her mild horror, Keris feels a faint blush rising on her own cheeks, and blesses her skin tone for hiding it as she scrambles for an escape route. She coughs awkwardly. “Yeah, of course; nothing personal,” she blurts, “and you either about the... and yeah, okay, I’ll just...”

Grabbing Echo, she beats a hasty retreat, holding up a finger when her daughter’s eyes sparkle with mischief.

“Not,” Keris warns, “a word. Now come on. I want a rematch in that training room. Without any bets or favours this time.”

Echo nods, and swallows. Once they’re safely outside, she tugs Keris’ sleeve. Her worried expression clearly communicates she wants to know if her friends are going to be okay. With a sad hand gesture, she communicates that she didn’t want to show it in front of mama’s friends, but she’s really worried if everything is happening all bad in the normal place.

“The Ruin is fine,” Keris whispers; too quiet for anyone but Echo to hear. “The Spires were evacuating people into it, and most of the Swamplanders were heading for Haneyl’s castle and the stone buildings. Rathan is raining acid, but the Sea-goers know how to handle that. I got Calesco into her cave where she won’t get stuck in a pain loop like she was, and the bits nearer the City aren’t too badly off in any of the Directions.”

“I... I didn’t think it would be this bad,” Echo whispers miserably. “I knew there’d be some big smashy stuff, but maybe breaking out at Calibration wasn’t the best idea.”

Keris sighs. “I think... honestly? I think this was gonna happen whenever it happened. You know me, Echo.” She grins ruefully. “I don’t do things small. As soon as one of you went demon lord; all the others would follow. We’re lucky it didn’t happen months ago, to be honest. Can you imagine having to deal with this while we were in deep with the Hui Cha?”

She gives Echo a hug and a kiss on the forehead. “Don’t worry about it. Even if Calibration did make it... more, somehow, I’d guess it also means it’ll be over once Calibration ends. So five days and everything will be fine.”

“But if it wasn’t Calibration, we wouldn’t have so much of our us-ness spread out into the land so we’re less demon-ness and more Keris-human-ness,” Echo whispers. “I bet Haneyl has become a dragon and the girl-her is in her tree. Just like Vali. They’re both dragons.”

“What’s done is done,” Keris declares. “If you feel guilty about it, you can apologise to your siblings and the citizens later. And until then, you can make up for it by being well-behaved for me in front of the Unquestionable. Okay?”

Echo bops Keris on the nose, and runs off towards the dojo. “One point!” she announces cheekily.

Keris blinks, growls, and gives chase with a grin.

Chapter Text

The meditation spent triaging and getting control of her inner world has helped settle Keris from her madness. However, that doesn’t mean her pride isn’t still a little stung. She chases Echo into the armory, where she puts her hair and her greater reach to good use; snatching weapons from the walls and drawing her daughter into a whirling exchange of blows that dances up the walls, along the railless wooden walkways and between the racks of killing implements without disturbing so much as a single shelf.

And if Keris takes advantage of the fact that the south wall bears a huge ivory mural of the Promise Wind that Echo can’t seem to stop glancing at... well, that’s simply capitalising on her opponent’s distraction. A perfectly natural part of any fight.

The worst, most annoying thing, Keris decides afterwards is how Echo shrugs off her solid thrashing like it means nothing at all. She doesn’t even play up the probably-stinging blows to her ego and body that she suffers when Keris starts hitting a little too hard as she vents her feelings.

“Okay, you win, mama,” Echo says, bleeding from a split lip with a swelling black eye. “Now let’s go find something else fun to do!”

After a faintly guilty kiss and some medical care, the rest of the day is spent on lighter things. A swimming competition in the lake, since Echo is curious about what “not-normal” water feels like, music time where Echo flits rapidly between percussion, harps and wind instruments, a while spent simply jogging through the corridors and checking on the state of the Domain with Echo happily following...

And shortly before the day’s second scream, when Keris is satisfied that the natural disasters within her are beginning to settle, a discreet invitation for Lilunu to come to the townhouse on a matter of some urgency.

((Per + Politics to get Lilunu to take time out of her very busy Calibration schedule of hedonism, hosting parties, engaging in strange rituals to placate all her greater Yozi selves, and being fucked raw by Ligier.))
((Charming. 3+1+2 stunt+4 Adorjani ExD {unconsidered variable, no one expects her}=10. 4 sux. Channelling Mentor 3 {Lilunu}, however that manifests.))
((Look, she’s a busy demon princess over Calibration. It’s not like most of the year, when most of the GSPs are out and she’s basically got nearly unlimited time for Keris. The Unquestionable are very busy arguing over policy and she’s having to run around trying to keep people talking to each other and not declaring war on each other within her body.))
((Fair, fair. This just means Keris gets to go “look, I tried to get in touch with you and I said it was urgent” when Lilunu is surprised tomorrow or the day after.))
((And indeed, she came quite a long way down the Per + Politics results of a few “other people who want her attention” requests. You can roll Mentor to try to bump her up the list.))
((3 dice; 2 sux.))

The message that returns says, in summary, that the lady Lilunu is in congress with the Unquestionable and cannot be disturbed - though it does have a hand-written note attached in her own handwriting which tells Keris that she’s invited to a party on the third day of Calibration where many of the highest of the Unquestionable will be attending and she may be able to slip in some time for her then.

Keris considers this. Well, she sighs... she tried. And at least she can show up then with Echo, Rathan and Haneyl all in tow. Which does leave the question of what to do tomorrow, but... she can decide that tomorrow. For now, she needs to...

... she needs to...

“... Echo,” Keris says with mounting dread, “do you need to sleep when you’re like this?”

Echo tilts her head. “Mama,” she says, with mock seriousness, “when have I ever needed to sleep? I don’t even know how to do it! It’s probably super-hard! It involves closing your eyes and then lying there and not doing anything at all! I don’t know how anyone does it!”

“...” says Keris, contemplating what Echo can get up to during an entire night in which Keris is asleep and she is not. She makes a few quick calculations involving Testolagh’s goodwill towards her, the relative durability of her townhouse and its staff, Echo’s attention span and obedience and the length of an average night’s sleep when spent underwater, and sags slightly.

“How,” she says, and clears her throat. “How about following me as I run? How long do you think it would take you to get bored of that?”

“How interesting is the journey gonna be?” Echo counters. She shudders. “Also, also, also, this is super important, as long as Big Sister is nowhere nearby.”

“Around my manse and grounds?” Keris suggests. “But, and this is the really important part; without killing anyone.”

Echo pulls a face. “But what if they look like they’ll bleed in interesting ways?” she whines.

“Even then,” Keris says firmly. “I like my staff here. But I need to sleep... or, well, I guess running works just as well. But I need to meditate my way into the Empire to check on the others. And I don’t want you,” she flicks Echo’s nose affectionately, “causing too much trouble while I do. And somehow I think that if you super-seriously sugar-promise me to be good, you’ll remember that for all of an hour before starting to wonder if the fire dancers heating my main bath will bleed.”

Echo’s eyes light up with interest. Apparently the thought hadn’t occurred to her yet.

“They don’t,” Keris heads her off. “Unless you cut them with Big Mama’s special gifts, which I do not want you to do, because I like hot baths.”

Echo pulls a face. “There are so many rules out here,” she mutters rebelliously. “Don’t stab this person, don’t blow up this thing, don’t do this, don’t do that. Oh! Oh! Is there a hunting place nearby! I want to go hunting and find out about new demons and stuff that they do so I can make better things like them but obviously less rubbish when I go back to the Ruin!”

Keris purses her lips, considering what she knows of the local area. She doesn’t particularly want to set Echo loose on a random group of demons who might be comparatively innocent by Hellish standards - and more to the point, she doesn’t want to go too far or risk drawing attention. But she has to admit, Echo’s idea is a good one.

((Quick Hellish Lore roll - does Keris know of anywhere nearby that fits the criteria of a) loud, b) fairly close by and c) not many sapient or innocent beings there, that she could basically sleep-run through while Echo guided her, explored and stabbed things?
Cog 3+Lore 2+Malfean Scholar 3+2 die stunt+5 Adorjani ExD {always in motion, kills because it is in her nature}=15. 6 sux.))
((There are indeed hunting preserves on Lilunu’s land, outside her body, set aside for the Infernals to amuse themselves. As far as Keris remembers, the breeds that are not specifically made to be hunted are largely filled up with criminals whose sentence is to survive for a certain of period of time in the hunting preserve))

“Okay,” Keris says after a moment’s thought. “How about this for an idea. There are a few hunting preserves on Lilunu’s land, with criminals in them. They’re on an inner layer and it’s pretty loud here - which I know will hurt, but it means Big Mama and Big Sister will stay away. So we’ll go to one of them, I’ll start running and meditate, and you can follow me, guide me around, and kill things. How does that sound?”

“I’m not just going to kill things,” Echo pouts. “I’m also going to be collecting things and I’m going to give them to you so you can put them back home and so I can make things from them when I’m done!”

Keris smiles indulgently. “As you say. Okay, grab what you want from the armory and we’ll be off.”

“Yay!” Echo cheers, darting off only to return with a perhaps excessive number of weapons dragged behind her. They vary from classical weapons of Creation to giant two-handed axes clearly only meant for a blood ape. She begins vanishing them away into her hair, clearly having used the chance to steal one of every kind of weapon in the armoury. “Ready!”

It’s a short, stealthy run - with Echo once again hooded and cloaked - to the hunting preserve, and Keris sets off at a gentle jog. They practice for half an hour or so as Echo gets the hang of nudging a sleep-running Keris in the direction she wants, before Keris lets her take over entirely as she sinks into her Tiger Empire.

The City is still consumed by winds, and Dulmea flickers between the chell, unable to keep form for long. The outside world, however is somewhat more visible and the storm wall seems to be retreating. Keris can see that areas of the inner sections of her soul-world, like the ash-choked buildings of the near-Swamp, are visible.

“Dulmea?” Keris says to the most sensible and consistent knot of music she can locate. “I’m... if this is a freaking-out thing... I was crazy. I’m not, anymore. I know what I said was stupid and dangerous and... and I didn’t mean it. Or, well, I did, but... I was insane when I did. I understand now; I’d never say something like that if I was in my right mind.” She pauses guiltily. “I’m sorry.”

“Echo... was wrong,” one chell manages to gasp out. “Or... or didn’t understand properly.”

“Now I know that the... the music is also me and there’s much more me than there’s meant to be, I... I have to remember to be in just one place.”

“It’s hard, child,” a final one concludes.

“I’m sorry,” Keris says again, mournfully. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I...”

“... don’t know. I... I think things will be easier when the others...”

“... aren’t drowning out my music.”

Keris nods, and makes her way out to the Sea. Rathan, at least, should be relatively easy to check on. And with Echo no longer in the Domain, he’s her eldest child.

She grins when she sees the stormwall. Her souls and her demons aren’t fools. They’re streetsmart. And the retreating stormwall has left an iceberg stranded on land. So of course her demons are using its caverns and tunnels to cross over.

There’s an uppity wave-cherub who tries to get Keris to pay to pass through, pointing a coral spear in her direction. He doesn’t appear to know who she is.

She’s so amused by this that she actually pays him. Admittedly in a spear lesson rather than money - and a spear lesson that takes the form of disarming him in a fluid motion too fast to follow and then slowly repeating it a few times and explaining how it was done - but Keris contents herself with the thought that she has still given him something of value.

She also contents herself with the memory of his expression at the end of the lesson - and also those of the small crowd that gathered to watch it - when she gently explained to him that she was Prince Rathan’s mother on her way to visit him.

Keris is still smiling a little at it as she swings herself aboard the ship that Rathan is sailing around the Domain in; touring the iceberg-cities that survived the storm and dispensing aid. A largeish group of demons on an out-of-the-way part of the deck seem to be envoys from the cities yet to be visited, all of whom are quietly murmuring praises to his courage and charity.

Keris comes face to face with her son. Or, more accurately, face-to-his-neck. Annoyingly, he’s taller than her now. He’s a gangly young man in his early teenage years, although this requires some inspection to verify. Suffice to say, he’s even prettier than Rat was - and prettier than Keris. He’s so pretty he could probably pass as female, at least from the neck up, with soft lips and long eyelashes and, of course, a flowing waterfall of crimson hair that reaches his ankles.

He also has short, stubby horns growing out of his forehead. Those are new.

“Mama,” he says, his mid-tone voice hard to tell whether it’s a deep-voiced woman or a soft-spoken man. “That wasn’t fun at all.”

Keris opts to go straight for a hug, and while she can’t pick him up and spin him around anymore, she can certainly make herself felt.

“I know, sweetheart,” she says. “But look at you now! You’re... oh...” She pulls back to get a proper look at him, her eyes misting up a little. He’s very feminine, yes, but... if he weren’t; if his features were shifted just a little into the male equivalent, they would be painfully like his father. As it is, it just makes a surge of nostalgic affection and pride swell up inside her, and she pulls him in to buss his forehead with a kiss again.

“You look gorgeous, sweetheart,” she praises. “And so tall! Taller than me, now!” Keris mock-pouts at this. “You and Echo both. And Haneyl, probably. Soon I’m going to be the shortest one in here, you know!”

“At least there are all the keruby to look up to you,” Rathan says, the air twinkling around him.

Keris laughs. “Very true. And I can see you’re helping people here; good for you. But...”

She takes his arm and draws him aside a little; a quick, hard look sending keruby and tengervel scattering to give them some privacy. “I don’t know if you’ve had time to notice in between all your charity work, but Echo managed to cut her way out of the Domain yesterday, around when all of this started. Out of this world entirely; out into Malfeas. And... I think I can probably help you out this coming dawn. It feels like I can, anyway. Would that be something you’d want, Rathan?”

Keris lowers her voice still further, leaning in to whisper to him. “I’m asking you before Haneyl,” she explains, “because you are older than her, so I think it’s fair that you get to come out first. Don’t you think?”

“Of course, mama,” Rathan says, rolling his shoulders. “Although not for too long. I’ll need to make sure everyone here sees how wonderful I look. And I need to make my moon even better.” He smiles easily. “And also raise the ceilings. I was banging my head when I woke up. It’s hard work being tall.”

“I can see that. I imagine these must be bumping things a lot,” Keris says, tapping one of his little horns. “They look very handsome. Do you like them?”

“Oh yes,” he says, delighted. “I’ve seen you running around after animals. The biggest and best men always have the biggest horns, so I’ll have the biggest! And there’s no way that Haneyl will have them because she’s a girl and-” he smiles broadly, “-that’ll infuriate her.”

Keris smiles indulgently. “I bet it will. And speaking of Haneyl, I think she turned into a dragon during the whole... “ she waves a hair tendril vaguely, “... chaos. So I should probably go and see if she’s turned back yet and let you get back to your work helping all your subjects out.”

She hugs him again and kisses him one last time on the forehead. “I’m very proud of you and your people, and I’ll see you tomorrow when I wake up,” she promises.

“Aren’t you going to go see Zanara?” Rathan asks, mildly surprised. “He’d already recovered by the time I woke up and looked down. He said that he thought it was probably because he was so young that he was still like clay or unforged metal and could just accept more. He’s up on the moon, because he normally stays with Haneyl and her entire Direction is still on fire.”

He cleared his throat. “Though, uh, he said that the she-he is still in there.”

Keris blinks. “Ah? Hmm. Up on the moon, huh?” She chews a hair tendril thoughtfully. “That was good thinking on your part; well done. I was sort of assuming Zanara would be with Haneyl or still in the statue I saw... hmm. Okay, I’ll stop there on my way to the Swamp and visit him on the moon a little later. If you’re sure that he’s already recovered, I can probably trust him to be safe while I stop your sisters from breaking their bits of the Empire any more, right?” She winks.

“They’re so clumsy and silly,” Rathan says gravely. “Or so Echo.”

“Believe me,” Keris says wearily over her shoulder, as she hops off the boat and starts Islewards, “I’m well aware.”

The Isles are still storm-wracked and torn, but there are patches of stability in them. The islands seem to have gotten bigger, and Keris notes with interest that they resemble the area around Saata more, with snow-white trees with many-coloured fruit and pale mountains - well, okay, hills - with opaldust snow on the peaks.

((... opaldust snow. So cool.))

Keris swings past the area she saw the two-headed statue in, curious as to how Zanara stabilised so fast compared to her other souls. There is still one head left in the shallow sea, choked in pale sargasso and whipped by paint-rain - but it’s the male one.

Keris makes an interested noise. That suggests that either the bodies are taking turns here, or Zanara’s female body is pretending to be a boy. Keris did that on the streets, and Calesco has shown a talent for knowing things about Keris’ past, so maybe it seeped through.

Either way, Rathan’s probably going to have a surprise waiting for him when he goes back to the moon. She shrugs, waves to the statue and continues on to the Swamp. Rathan was right; it is still burning. Not as fiercely as it was earlier, but there’s still a green glow lighting the skies over the Direction, and the trees Keris can hear on the shoreline sound like charred wood and ash. The air tastes smoky and hot; rich with the promise of land renewed.

The ash wastes spread over the land, choking the still-burning trees that are trying to grow. The fire burns bright green, and there are choking clouds of ash and smoke.

And within the smoke, Keris can hear the roaring of the dragon. “Aww hells,” she mutters, and speeds up, shutting her eyes against the smoke as she runs silently through the flames. Her ears are intent, picking out the sounds and shapes around her as she searches for her daughter.

Within the coiling smoke, Keris finds the dragon. It - she’s - long and thin and serpentine, with no wings and four limbs. Her scales are fine and grey, but bright green petals dance over her surface like flame. Her graceful, almost crocodile-like head filled with teeth has a collar of flower petals. When she roars, a burning jet of Haneyl’s flame comes surging out, which consumes wood, water and stone alike.

And her eyes are bright green and very human, even as she feasts on flame-charred tree-meat that oozes blood over her as she tears into it. There aren’t many places nearby that aren’t on fire, so Keris clears a space off to the side of the bloody spectacle with a few rapid slashes to form a little clearing that she can stand in without her clothes catching light.

She then stands for almost a minute, watching Haneyl gorge herself and trying to think of something to say. Long enough, as it turns out, for the dragon to catch sight of the flicker of red hair amidst the green-burning greyness in her peripheral vision.

A fang-lined maw rounds on Keris as Haneyl coils possessively around her food, and a wave of scaldingly hot blood-and-floral-scented air rolls over her.

“... well,” she says weakly, “this is... definitely more impressive than any of your siblings I’ve yet seen. Are you still... you, Haneyl? Sweetheart?”

“Mine.” The words are halting, unfamiliar, and Keris remembers with painful sharpness how hard Haneyl had found speech at first. The voice is hers, but cast into immensity and deeper because of it. “You. Can’t. Have it.”

“I wouldn’t dream of trying to take it from you, sweetheart,” Keris says sincerely. “It’s your food, just like this is your place, right? And this is your new form. A dragon.”

She looks Haneyl up and down, trying to judge her length. “I guess that’s probably ‘cause of Sasi,” she adds carefully. “She’s a Dynast, so you’ve got a bit of dragon in you. Well... more than a bit, apparently. A lot.”

((oh, keris. already showing signs of the style she’ll perfect with kalaska; working with and around the needs of abnormal personalities.))

“I need. To eat,” Haneyl says. “I can feel it. The hunger. The fire. They need fuel.” She shudders convulsively, her form already thinning. “No space. To be human. So I left that me. In the tree. Like Zanara does. We’re more alike. Than I thought.”

Keris starts to consider this, then catches sight of the rate at which fat and muscle is burning off Haneyl’s bones. It’s alarmingly fast.

“... you need to eat,” she agrees. “Okay then. I’ll help. You want me to bring you food, and clear a path to more? Meat? And while I get you food, you can tell me what you mean by there being no space to be human.”

((Physique + Survival to see how much food she can gather to buy answers with.))
((5+3+2 stunt+8 Metagaos ExD {voracious hunger, acts to acquire sustenance}=18. 12 sux.))

Keris is off like a shot, almost before Haneyl finishes a curt nod. She can taste several more meat-trees nearby and goes for them first - they’re too big to drag over to Haneyl, but she can cut down, burn and scatter everything between them and her daughter; blazing a warm trail of shallow cinders that leads from meal to meal and doesn’t force Haneyl to search or wade through ash.

Next come beasts. There are very few still alive in these burning forests, but singed and charring bodies are everywhere. Mostly beasts, Keris is grateful to see, and she boots or tosses those she sees onto the clear path she’s cutting; easy snacks that Haneyl can snap up as she moves.

Thankfully, Keris moves a lot faster than her daughter. By the time she’s approaching the last of the nearby meat-trees, Haneyl is only just reaching the first one, and Keris hears the roar of flame quite clearly as she starts circling to find more. A thought brings her back to the path to set fire to the remaining meat trees - Haneyl won’t have to waste as much energy burning them if they’re already alight when she gets to them, and that should keep her fuller for longer.

Haneyl doesn’t recognise her at first - but then her eyes focus. “Thank you. Mama,” she forces out, through a full mouth. “Yes. What I was saying. Was that. This has shown me that I am fire and I am hunger. Down at the root.” Tears sizzle from her eyes, flash-boiling into steam. “I try to. Be human. But I’m not. Never will be. Never was. It’s just a pretend puppet that I put away. This is me. The real me.”

No,” Keris insists, breaking off cutting another path to pace alongside Haneyl as she moves purposefully down the open track. “Absolutely not. Have you looked at yourself, sweetheart? You’re a dragon! Sasi’s daughter! Your eyes are human like this, even when you’ve sealed your human side away in your Tree.”

She pauses to let that sink in. “You know what I think? I don’t think this is the real you. I think this is the fiercest you. You’re evolving into a demon lord, you know. You have so much power all of a sudden! So you needed a body that could hold it all, and... well. Humans are a lot of things, but they’re not good at raw power. But that doesn’t mean that your human side isn’t a real, important part of you. Your mother’s best tools aren’t the big powerful ones, after all - they’re her talking and thinking and planning.”

Risking contact for a moment, Keris shifts in to give the dragon a reassuring hug around her neck; careful not to get in the way of the scything jaws that clamp down on the third tree and tear a huge chunk out of it.

“I think you’re upset at the moment - just like how I go a bit crazy when my souls change suddenly. And I think that if you go back to your tree and merge with your human self again, you’ll be a lot more in control. Because they’re all important parts of you, Haneyl; the fire and the hunger and the human. They-”

((Rolling Reaction+Occult for a flash of brilliance; 5+5+2 stunt=12; 6 sux.))

Keris’s eyes widen. “... oh,” she whispers, letting go and backing away. “Oh, of course. Haneyl, your different forms come from that! Your Tree is all hunger, isn’t it? And your usual body is perfectly balanced; part fire and part hunger and part human. When you turned into flame... that was fire and human. And this is fire and hunger. So... hah.” She grins. “So in total, I guess you’d have seven. Seven forms, and you’ve found four of them so far. Five, if whatever you left in your tree is pure human.”

Haneyl’s tears hiss. “Get away from me,” she roars. “Go find. The human bits. She deserves your love. Not me. H-how many of. My people. Are dead because of. Me.”

“... Haneyl...” Keris says, her eyes wide, and takes a moment to be fervently, overwhelmingly grateful to the her of half a day ago, who thought to run the court road and open it for those who were escaping. “... Haneyl, your people survived. I opened up the swamp court trail during the fire. It wasn’t blocked off by the flames or the growth... almost everyone got to the castle. Your castle. It protected them from the fire. They all got behind the walls and they didn’t get hurt.”

She steps forward slowly, trying to meet Haneyl’s eyes. “That was you. That was your planning, that was your idea. That was your ambition, your fire and drive, wanting a castle of white stone on the shore. Your hunger for your own place bigger and better than anyone else’s. You protected them.”

Haneyl is silent, apart from the chewing. And then she bursts into tears, that hiss and boil. “So leave me,” she says, softly despite her bulk. “Go hug my. Human parts. So it’s waiting for me. When I’m done.”

“I love all the different parts of you,” Keris says firmly, stepping closer again. She’s on firmer ground now, both metaphorically and literally. “You are my precious, wonderful, brilliant daughter, and I love you no matter what you look like. No matter what form you’re in. Your human side is sleeping in your tree, from what you said. You need me now. I’m staying.”

“You’re distracting me! I’m having. To think human to talk to you! And I can feel the hunger. Growing. Each time I do it!” Haneyl weeps. “I want this to be over! I do! I do! But thinking hurts. And makes me hungrier!”

Keris thinks very hard for a few busy seconds.

“... okay,” she says. “One more bit of thinking, then. If you want me to stay and stop talking and just help you get food, I’ll do that. And if you want me to go and fetch your human side from your tree and bring her here to try and rebalance yourself, I’ll do that too. It’s your choice, and if you want me to just stay and help you feed the hunger, I’ll stop talking.” She pauses. “Your choice, Haneyl. You get to decide. Here; I’ll fetch more beasts for you now so you don’t feel as hungry.”

She runs up the length of the track quickly; gathering the larger bodies and dragging them with some effort back for Haneyl to devour.

“Go. To human me,” Haneyl whispers. “Tell me I’m beautiful. Comb my hair. Make me ready to be a princess. When I wake. And then go. Help the others. As long as I eat, I’m fine. But Vali doesn’t have hunger. And he’s. A lot like me. He’s my brother. He’s. A dragon too. I know it now.”

Keris processes that, pales, and nods. A flicker of a forced smile crosses her face, and she bows.

“As you command, High Princess,” she says formally, and then she’s off, making for Haneyl’s tree with all her speed.

((oh haneyl : ( ))

Haneyl’s tree is in the deepest, brightest part of the fire, and choked in ash with only its highest branches emerging from the flames. Still, Keris finds a way in through hidden passages at the top.

She also finds demons alive in it, even if it’s like an oven in there.

“L-lady Keris,” stammers Elly in sheer relief, shaking like the leaf she resembles.

“Ellyssivera,” Keris breathes in relief. “Good, you’re alive. Is everyone safe in here? Is Saji in here with you?” The little petal-cherub nods, running up to Keris and clinging to her legs. Keris kneels for a moment to hug her reassuringly. “Haneyl is safe,” she says. “Most of her is a dragon at the moment, and she’s eating meat-trees out in the Swamp to fuel the transformation she’s going through. She’s growing in power, but she’s not in danger. The court got out safely; I opened up the swamp court road when the fire and growth tried to choke it and they made it to the castle. Now, Elly.” Keris pulls back a little to look the sziromkerub in the face. “Your princess left the human side of herself here. I need you to take me to her. Quickly.”

Elly clasps her hands fearfully, rubbing her petals together. “She was on her throne,” she babbles, “she was on her throne and then fire came out of her and she won’t wake up, she won’t wake up!”

“That’s okay, that’s fine, Elly,” Keris says, lifting her up and starting to jog. “Listen, Haneyl has three sides to her, doesn’t she? Her fire and her hunger and her humanity. But she’s not like Zanara, she can only have one active at a time. She realised that her fire and hunger were going out of control, so she left her human side behind and went out away from her people so she wouldn’t hurt people. That’s why she won’t wake up. That part of her is just asleep at the moment - and she’ll wake when she’s ready.”

Keris is a little vague on the exact details of the Tree’s inner layout, but the throne room isn’t hard to get too, and she ducks through the doors as she finishes speaking. Haneyl is slumped over on the throne, and clearly the sziromkeruby have done their best, but... well, they’re not medic-demons so their best hope is that they’ve read a book that mentioned how to help people. And things are as hot as a sauna in here but they’re still trying to keep wet cloths on Haneyl, because she feels like she’s burning up.

She’s also tearing out of her clothing. Her - sleeping? Vacant? Empty? - body looks to be nearly the age Rathan is now, if not older. The two of them always seem to appear very close in age, ever since Rathan stopped being a baby and caught up with Haneyl. She wasn’t wearing her royal robes at the time, and so her leaf-dress is splitting and torn. She’s put on a lot of height, and filled out considerably.

Keris smiles, as she pats her daughter’s too-hot brow. Haneyl seems to take more after Sasi in her build, even if her face is a more even blend and her hair is certainly not Sasi-straight. Acting on a suspicion, Keris goes hunting for the golden robes that Haneyl took from the High Queen of An Teng, and... yes, lo and behold, as soon as she lays them along Haneyl’s body touching skin, they shift and squirm and resize themselves to fit her new proportions.

Keris has suspicions about those robes. They are the kind of suspicions that she should probably mention to Sasi, though admittedly she and Haneyl will be meeting in a couple of days anyway if all goes well, so perhaps there’s no point.

Regardless, she gets her daughter dressed, combs her hair, arranges her crown and - as an afterthought - delicately applies some of the gold-leaf Tengese makeup that’s made its way down into the tree to Haneyl’s lips and eyelids. Gold, it turns out, works very well on her.

“Make sure you have food ready for when she wakes up,” she tells Elly. “She’ll be hungry. You’re doing a good job keeping her cool; I think that’s helping. Having her sword and some pretty things for her to hold probably wouldn’t go amiss either.”

Keris leans over her sleeping daughter, thinking to the dragon gorging herself somewhere in the deep Swamp.

“You’re as beautiful there as you are here,” she whispers. “My high princess. Soon you’ll get to step out of this realm and meet your mother properly. And Ligier, and Lilunu, and all those other people you’ve seen from behind my eyes. And you’ll be wonderful at it. I promise.”

She drops a kiss on the girl’s fever-hot forehead, and leaves with a fond smile.

Her next stop... well, she’s tempted to go straight for the Spires. Very tempted. But backtracking halfway through the Swamp to the Isles and Sea would be pointless, going through the City would be difficult, and heading further spinwise lets her accomplish something else important en route.

Keris really wants to check in on Calesco and make sure she’s okay.

Dancing through the ashes, Keris sees the veil of night ahead. At least this time when she enters, there isn’t screaming pain, though things remain as dark as they were before. She’s quite thankful that she roughly remembers the way to Calesco’s cave - and that she can hear where she’s going, because trying to do this properly-blind would be a pain. The cave itself is easy to find once she’s close enough. Light streams out like painful wire around the edges of the boulder. If she got lost, Keris could follow the line of agony.

Inside, she can hear her daughter crying.

Keris ties two thick locks of hair across her eyes in an improvised blindfold, and slips through one of the cracks between wall and stone.

“Calesco?”

“Mama?” Calesco asks hoarsely. “So you’re back. Come to hug the monster back into remembering to lie to everyone?”

“Come to make sure my daughter isn’t screaming anymore,” Keris says. “Calesco, this isn’t your fault any more than it is Haneyl’s. Or even Echo’s. Weird things happen at Calibration. This one kicked you all into starting to mature into demon lords, and the rush of power...”

She spreads her hands vaguely in a gesture that encompasses the dome of utmost darkness swaddling the Meadows and the agonising light streaming from every inch of Calesco’s unveiled form.

“I like hurting people,” Calesco whispers. “I like it and I hate it. And you’re so fucked up in the head because of my other mother that you know in your heart that hurting Sasi, or Darling Yellow, is a kind thing to do. And so I like doing it, because I’m those bits of you and I could feel them all scream below me when they looked up at my ugliness and I liked the way they screamed because they were learning and I liked the way they made me hurt because I deserved it and it felt good. I’m a monster. I should stay in here. And you should be locked in here with me too.”

Keris...

... Keris doesn’t really have an answer for that. She sits down next to Calesco, and a few minutes pass in silence.

“... have I?” she asks after a while. “Ever hurt Sasi or Darling Yellow. Just because I like it, or to teach them... have I hurt them deliberately, instead of by accident? You’d know better than me.”

“You don’t think about it. You remember being another way. You don’t think about your feelings,” Calesco whispers. “But I do. It’s almost all I do. I knew it felt good to hurt people. But I realised that no one else thinks like that. Haneyl doesn’t like hurting people - she just doesn’t care. Same as Rathan. Even Echo just runs on. But I like it. So I realised I couldn’t do it in front of others. And I knew how there were people on the streets who liked it. You remember, don’t you. The clients the harlots all kept away from, because even if they’d pay more no one wanted to be hurt. You were desperate once because you needed medicine and if you hadn’t had your knife you wouldn’t have got out of it. You spat on him when you threw him in the canal. So I knew it wasn’t right.”

Keris’s face pulls up into a scowl, remembering that night. On the plus side, she had got medicine out of it. The beltpurse had been quite full, actually, once she pried it off its former owner.

They sit a little longer.

“I don’t want you to be locked away in here,” Keris says, after a while. “I can’t... I don’t think I can bring up anything against what you’re saying. I mean, I could say that some lessons need to be painful, but... you’re probably right that enjoying the pain that much isn’t so good. But I can’t believe that anyone as worried about it as you are is a bad person, and I don’t want you to lock yourself away over it. And I don’t think you’re ugly. You’re beautiful. It’s the world that’s ugly, and that’s why it hurts.”

“But I... I hurt people. And it hurts to see people in pain, but it feels good to hurt people if they’re learning from it,” Calesco says, choking back tears. “You can’t trust me. And... and it’s all your fault! If... if... if it wasn’t... if the Silent Wind didn’t catch your eye and you hers, then... then then your feelings wouldn’t be me! It’d be someone else, someone who wasn’t a horrible, dreadful person who likes to hurt people. I even like hurting you. It feels good to make you suffer by pointing out your lies and hypocrisy. So you’d be happier without me too.”

In a conversation with someone else, Keris would look away to give herself time to think. Here and now, she keeps her blindfolded eyes directly on Calesco and cocks her head. Reaching forward very gently, she traces the edge of an oversized wing; careful to stroke the right way to avoid the razored edges of the soft feathers.

“... I don’t think so,” she says.

She can hear Calesco’s quick in-breath; almost a flinch.

“Compassion... kindness... caring about people,” Keris says slowly, thinking through it as she goes. “It hurts. That’s part of why we care, I think. Because seeing other people hurt, hurts us. Because truth is painful, and the world is ugly. Because admitting that... you maybe aren’t a good person all the time... doesn’t feel good. You were always going to be linked to pain, I think, and I’m... I’m sorry for that.”

Keris shifts closer, and oh-so-carefully pulls Calesco in to wrap their hair together and cradle her daughter’s face.

“Listen to me, Calesco,” she says. “I can’t see you, because your light - that hurts to look at, yes. But I can hear you. I can hear every feather and every bone and every hair on you. You are not an ugly monster. You are not a horrible person. You are beautiful, and kind, and I can trust you.”

Okay, she thinks. She knows that; knows it deep down in her bones and her heart. Now, why does she know it? Calesco won’t be happy with just a feeling.

“... you like hurting,” Keris says, slow and careful again and thinking as she goes. “You like hurting, and I think you like being hurt, but that’s not how you act most of the time. Well, to me it is. But I’ve heard you with your keruby; with them you’re sweet and gentle. You take care of them - more than any of your siblings, I can trust you not to do anything cruel or frightening or horrible to your subjects or those weaker than you. When you make problems, you do it by pointing out something I’m doing wrong. And usually you’re at least partly right about it, if not all. Huh.”

She rocks back a little in realisation. “I guess that’s one reason I know I can trust you. You might like hurting, but you’ve never hurt me just because you like doing it. You don’t...” Blindly, Keris gropes for an example. “... you don’t throw the years I spent with Kasseni in my face. That would hurt, but you don’t do it. You only point it out when I’m... when I’m being cruel, or wrong, or thoughtless. And you understand what it’s like to want to hurt people, and I think that makes you care about those people more - and it makes you more determined not to give into your urges.”

Sighing, Keris pulls Calesco into a gentle hug. She doesn’t quite manage it without getting cut, but they’re only a few shallow nicks on her arms and a single scratch on her collarbone. “It is my fault that you are the way you are. And I’m still so sorry that it hurts to be this way. But I love you, and I always will. I promise. I think you can do far more good by doing as you have done than by locking yourself up.”

The light in front of Keris’ eyes changes. It gets redder, strangely, and Calesco makes a giggle-hiccup. “You... just opened my eyes,” she says. “Thank you.”

At least she’s still smaller than her mother, even if she’s developing. She’s certainly not like lanky Echo - Calesco has Keris’ own build, perhaps even more delicately boned and petite.

“I... did?” Keris asks, wondering if it’s worth peeking at this new light. “I mean, you’re welcome, obviously.” She draws back a little. “Are you feeling better? Will you be okay here? Vali is probably as much a dragon as Haneyl, and I’m worried about him. Will you be alright?”

“I... I think so,” Calesco whispers. “I... I think it’s over.” She pulls herself to her feet, scrabbling for cloth. “I need clothes,” she says softly, as she unfolds that gift of Adorjan again and again and again, until it’s metres long. The sound of her feathers vanish as she wraps herself in it. “You can open your eyes.”

Keris opens her eyes, to see an older - and perhaps sadder - Calesco looking down at her. She’s in her early teens, and she’s dressed all in red, in something that looks like a veiled and hooded version of one of the saris worn by Tengese women for formal events. Under it, she’s short - still smaller than Keris. “I didn’t feel up to weaving a proper lie about my looks,” Calesco says sadly.

“Is this truth, then?” Keris asks, reaching out to trace Calesco’s cheek. “Are you human?”

Calesco falls silent. “You know, I didn’t even think about it,” she says. With shaking hands, she removes her hood and veil.

Underneath, she’s red-eyed and white-haired, with features that very much resemble Echo’s in their blend of Keris and Adorjan. She inhales with a gasp of shock at Keris’ lack of flinching.

Keris is wide-eyed for a moment. She’d hoped - she’d hoped so hard - but she hadn’t really dared believe until she saw it. And now...

A slow smile spreads across her face until she’s beaming. “Oh, Calesco,” she whispers. “Come here. Come here, let me...”

Calesco crashes into her, and the next few moments are a teary blur of hugging and stunned, shaky laughter. Calesco pulls back first, studying her hands as if they hold all the secrets of Creation. Taking her in with eyes no longer clouded by delight, Keris raises an eyebrow and whistles.

“I’m impressed,” she says. “You’re as pretty as Rathan, I think. You’ll be flat-out knock-down stunning when you’re grown; like Lilunu.” She breathes out shakily. “I should go and help Vali. You’ll be okay exploring... this? You promise?”

Calesco gestures, and the rock rolls away. It’s... gloomy outside, but the Meadows have survived the catastrophe fairly well because Calesco’s threat was largely mental. Trees have been knocked over by the windstorm, but otherwise things are mostly intact.

Kissing her on the forehead and leaving her to tend to her people, Keris heads for the Spires. This, she has a nasty feeling, will not be easy. The Ruin is recovering. However the magma from the Spires is encroaching on the spirewards flank. Refugee camps are... uh, almost indistinguishable from how they live in the Ruin anyway, but they’re there. Keris rushes past the slow-moving flows. They’re not going fast enough that she needs to intervene to prevent deaths, which means she’s best off going to the root of the problem. Which means Vali. The question is where he’ll be. She certainly saw no sign of him last time she was here - unlike Haneyl, who was making herself pretty obvious.

“Please don’t be underground please don’t be underground please don’t be underground,” she mutters, gritting her teeth and forcing the clamour of the mountains into the background as she sweeps her surroundings for any signs of her son. “I can get you off a mountaintop or yell at you if you’re in a cloud or dodge if you’re sparking lightning everywhere, but I cannot swim down a volcano chute, so please don’t be underground.”

She can hear him. He’s in the clouds, the thick black smoke clouds filled with thunder, moving very very quickly. He hates closed environments, and it looks like this growth in power hasn’t trapped him in one - or if it did, he’s broken out. He sounds like he’s calling the thunder to him, and Keris groans. This is going to be really, really loud. She diverts up the nearest spire that’s tall enough to pierce the cloud cover and runs upward into the storm.

“Val-” she begins to shout, and gives up almost before she’s begun the second syllable. There is, literally, no point whatsoever. She can barely pick her own voice out over the shrieking wind, booming thunder and volcanic rumbling. Five yards away from her and she might as well be miming to a blind man.

... for a moment, Keris wonders vaguely whether Echo’s miming would actually work on a blind person, before she shakes the diversion out of her head and resorts to option two.

Option two is to make sure that even if Vali can’t hear her, he can’t help but see her. This would normally be difficult in the thick, greasy clouds that lightning crackles and booms through.

So Keris flares her anima. Brightly. Very, very brightly. The red-silver anima-whirlwind surrounds her, and she can see the brilliant light pierce the gloom with supernatural radiance.

With a thunderous flash of light, Vali is overhead. He’s goat-headed where his sister is crocodilian, and bigger than Haneyl - except no, that’s not quite right. He’s bulkier than Haneyl, with the glow of magma showing between basalt scales. He also is a serpentine dragon, limbless save for brass-boned wings. The webbing between them is black lightning, edged in painfully bright blue-white.

“What is this light?” booms the thunder.

“Your mother, Vali,” shouts Keris, trying to judge his size and shape. It’s a lot harder than it seems like it should be. She can’t hear him properly over all the noise, and he’s too bright to look at directly. “It’s me; it’s Keris! I’m checking you’re okay!”

“So much power!” he booms. “All free! All out! All mountains break! All rock flows! So much better this way! Not trapped in a tiny form!”

Despite the fact that the rain battering her face is warm, Keris suddenly feels very cold.

“And the people who are being forced out of their homes? Being trapped in refugee camps in the Ruin? Being sealed inside dead-ends by lava or avalanches?” she snaps. “Are they better that way? I’m happy that you feel free, Vali, but is this really what you want for your people?”

“I knew I was trapped as a human!” Vali’s thunder booms happily. “Too small! Too compact! Chained! Tied down! Enslaved!”

((How big is he? And Haneyl, I guess.))
((They’re both Chinese dragons about the same size as trains.))

Keris thinks hard as the huge form settles lower in the air, coiling around the spire she’s standing on, bringing the cart-sized head down to her level. His burnt-orange eyes burn into her; standing out even brighter against the electric blue glow from his wings.

“Isn’t it useful for anything?” she asks. “Making things, say? You like making swords and beads and forts with Rathan, don’t you? Can you do that like this? It looks more like you’re just breaking everything. And you like animals too, don’t you? Where’s Iosoto? Can you play with him in this form?”

He blinks his big eyes. “Oh! I should go play with Hanny!” he booms happily. “She’s a dragon too! I know it! Because being a dragon is better! And she is my proper sister! She’ll be free of being all tiny too!”

“She needs a lot of food at the moment,” Keris says hastily. “She’s very hungry, so she won’t be able to play because she’s eating so much. Vali...”

She pauses. Considers. Comes to a decision.

“I won’t ask you to go back to your human form while you’re having so much fun,” she says - a little sadly, because she’d quite like to see what her and Sasi’s son would look like as a teenager. “But could you think about doing something for me? Your lava is pretty, but it’s hurting people. Could you go and build some big walls with your broken mountains to channel it places where it won’t?”

“Everything will be lava,” Vali booms. “It’s what stone wants to be. It gets to go where it wants, instead of being trapped!”

Keris winces, covering her ears. The sheer volume is really starting to hurt, and she can feel her head throbbing painfully. “Please, Vali. Doing this is taking away choices for everyone else. Just... think about it.”

She slips a little and starts back down the spire, clutching at her head and plugging her ears as best she can. She’d like to stay longer, to argue more, but... she can’t. It hurts too much. Vali is safe, she’s made sure of that, and she’s pretty sure the Spires are mostly evacuated. If he really wants to melt every mountain and flood the Ruin and Sea with lava... well, Keris will deal with that once it becomes a major problem. For now, she needs quiet.

Vali will be a problem, Keris thinks sadly as she looks over at the Spires. The surface is covered with magma and volcanoes, and the ever-present rain is falling on the molten rock. Sections of water-cooled rock floats on the magma, like scabs on an open wound.

Maybe she didn’t spend enough time with him. Haneyl has had a lot of attention, and wants to be human. But Vali is just so independent and doesn’t seem to have built the same attachments to the human form - in fact, he seems to find being a human as a limitation.

She lets her head fall. Another failure on her part. Sometimes it seems like all she does with her children is make mistakes. And every time she swears to do better she ends up just making another one. Sometimes the same one, even.

Well, however she’s going to fix it - however she’s going to give Vali something to be human for - she can’t do it while he’s in a mood like this. At least he seems happy. The destruction he’s causing is more incidental than cruel.

Too weary and sad to swim, Keris flicks herself into an upward waterfall and lets it carry her up to the moon. She’s swept and borne on the river currents, flying though the choking clouds of Vali’s lands and out into the relative calm of the Sea. Coming closer, of course, to the soft crimson glow of Rathan’s heart-moon. And, she notices, for all that he scorns Ululaya, he’s also started building a palace on top of the moon. Apparently Rathan has finished his charity tour while she was busy and is once again in residence, because the waterfall bends away from the ocean-halo and towards the palace itself; depositing her neatly onto one of the balconies. For once she doesn’t need to shake herself dry - the remaining water flows out of her hair and clothes to trickle inside in a small stream; drawn towards its lord. Keris follows it at a cautious amble. Hopefully Rathan’s misconception about which Zanara is up here hasn’t started a fight.

Such a wish is, sadly, not granted, because she can already hear the argument. It’s moving along familiar refrains, like “drawing on my walls” and “I’m making them better!” and “be a boy again!” and “don’t wanna!”. Sighing, Keris sweeps in and plops herself down on the nearest seat. It’s made of ice, and is somehow squashy, which she might be curious about if she didn’t feel so down.

“Rathan, Zanara,” she says warningly. “Slow down, stop showing and explain.”

Rathan has little-girl-Zanara by the collar, who’s squirming and trying to hit him - but running into the problem that he’s now got considerably longer arms.

She’s got hair that’s half red, and half bright green, reaching to the small of her back. Zanara looks to be about seven or so, with long claw-like fingernails that are snow-white and almost flared, like they’re brushes. And her eyes are different colours today - one orange and one blue, with strangely blotchy, non-round pupils.

“S’not fair!” she whines, still flailing. “I was just painting the wall!”

Behind the throne, there’s a half-done picture of a giant sea monster with lots of tentacles and teeth destroying a fleet. From the paint-flecked chairs stacked up in front of it, Zanara seems to have been compensating for her lack of height by piling up furniture.

Keris beckons Rathan over and steals Zanara from him, settling the little girl in her lap. “This is Rathan’s palace, sweetheart,” she points out. “That means you should be nice and not paint bits of it he doesn’t want you to. But I’ll tell you what - you can paint me, if you want to.” She holds up an arm and cocks her head. “How about you give me some facepaint and draw on my arms? And Rathan and I can talk while I hold still for you,” she adds, catching Rathan’s eye.

“Didn’t tell me not to,” Zanara grumbles rebelliously, but her eyes - shifting to pale pink - light up at the idea of using her mother as a canvas.

Rathan jams his hands in his pockets, and gives his best aura of hurt offence and being ill-done-by. “You know how long it’s going to take to clean up everything she made a mess of?” he asks. “And this isn’t the only place. It’s just where we caught her.” He radiates an aura of how unfair it is that Zanara isn’t being punished more.

((7 successes))

“Poor thing,” Keris says sympathetically, pulling him into a quick hair hug and shifting to let him sit beside her as Zanara starts to decorate the scar running up her jaw. “Maybe Zanara can visit when she’s a he again to apologise? And until then, why don’t you tell me about what you’ve been doing? I’ve seen to your siblings - we should talk about Vali in a bit, but you first.”

Rathan shrugs, sprawling out on his throne with one leg hooked over the arm. He’s showing rather more leg than would be considered appropriate in An Teng. “Not much,” he admits. “I went around and showed myself off to all my nobles I could find, and told them to tidy their places up or I’d take their land away from them. Otherwise, I’ve been trying to fix up my palace. I’ve managed to do that thing Hanny was being a pain in the butt about - I made golems from ice so they’re doing cleaning up and stuff. Oh, and I’ve been reshaping things so the ceilings are higher. That was really important.”

“Ice golems?” Keris says, perking up a little and getting a tug to the ear from Zanara, who is tracing what feels like teardrops-turning-into-eyes down her cheek. “Can I see?”

Rathan, making the minimum effort possible, sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles shrilly. Keris can hear footprints outside and a cluster of golems - apparently all the ones in hearing range - troop in.

They are... well. They are made of pink ice, and they look like him.

((omg, do they have horns too?))
((Yes. They look exactly like him. Except mirror-imaged))
((o rathan))

Waiting until Zanara is between brushstrokes, Keris claps delightedly. “Amazing! Much prettier than the embervine men. And I bet you can use them as mirrors, too, can’t you? Very clever. So, tell me about your favourite nobles...”

Spending time with Rathan is always peaceful and calming. If anything, the effect is even stronger now that he’s a teen - he hasn’t lost the adorable innocence of youth like most young men would have, and he’s more eloquent and expressive than ever. He pulls so many smiles from Keris that Zanara eventually tells her in exasperation to stay smiling so that she can paint around it, and Keris feels the gnawing guilt over failing Vali recede a little.

After Rathan finishes a sweet story about one of his anaxari who made a perfect crown of pearls for him and who he rewarded with a underwater mollusc-farm barony, Keris interjects with a short explanation of what his little brother has been doing - and a warning about the lava that might soon start spilling into the Sea.

“... I think all the inhabitants got out,” she finishes, “or at least, got to the near-City bits that he’s not bothering with. But if you could keep a few ships near the coast to rescue anyone who tries to get out that way, I’d be really grateful. I’m worried he’ll hurt people while he’s so...” She sighs, then twitches her face back into a smile again at Zanara’s warning look.

“Well, that’s awfully silly,” Rathan says immediately. “If everything is just magma and volcanoes, who’s going to adore you? He likes breaking things, true, and dragons are nice animals... though not as good as orcas... but he’s probably just running around like he does when Echo feeds him sugar.”

Keris hums. “How long does that usually last, then?”

“Depends how much she fed him,” Rathan says darkly.

“So he’ll be at it for a while, then,” Keris sighs. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like that, though. I wond-”

She stops, closes her eyes for a moment - which Zanara takes advantage of to doodle tiny mouths on her eyelids - and opens them again.

“Echo has been making sure to feed him only when I’m not there,” she says. It’s not a question. Rathan nods sourly, and Keris grunts in annoyance.

“Because she knows I’d stop her if I found out, probably. Well, what happens when he runs out? Will he just fall asleep?”

((DAMMIT ECHO))

Rathan nods. “He usually just collapses and either crawls into the ground or someone finds him.”

“Oh, great,” Keris mutters. “Okay, in that case could you also have someone keep an eye on the Spires from up here and tell me when all the lightning and volcanoes stop. That way I can go rescue him. Not you, though, because...” her smile becomes more genuine, “you will be coming out into Malfeas soon. Is there anything special you want to wear?”

Rathan looks uncomfortable. “What’s the most appreciated style there?” he asks.

Well,” Keris starts, and they’re off on a discussion of Hellish fashion that Zanara abandons painting to join in with. By the time they’ve decided on an outfit, they’ve moved thrice, tried on a dozen different ensembles and Keris can feel an insistent tug coming from outside.

“I think it’s morning,” she says. “Alright, if you don’t want Zanara painting up more of your moon, you should probably get them down now. I’ll make my way back to the townhouse and then see if I can let you out.”

Rathan nods, and picks Zanara up by her collar. “I’ll drop her in a river to carry her back home,” he says.

Keris’s lips twitch as she fades away. Apparently he’s not quite as over the graffiti as he’d seemed. She opens her eyes in her body to find Echo hopping up and down in front of her with a double-armful-plus-some-hair of the most eclectic mixture of junk she’s seen since... well, since the last time she worked her way through one of Echo’s trap-filled dungeons on a lark and opened the chest that had been placed at the far end.

“... what is all of that?” slips out, despite Keris’s reluctant knowledge that an explanation probably won’t help.

“Stuff. And things,” Echo says, in an explanation which clearly and evidently will not be seeing more details. She thrusts it towards Keris, for her to put it away in her soul.

“So, what now?”

Keris rolls her eyes and throws it into her Domain - into Dulmea’s dome, and Echo will have to ask her very nicely to get it back. That can be her punishment for feeding Vali sugar, Keris decides. If she behaves, she might even get a heads-up on that fact before going back in.

“Now we go back to the townhouse,” she says, “and let your brother out. Did you have fun?”

Echo has managed to get her clothes covered in blood and there are multiple eviscerated demons in the area. “I killed a whale!” she says happily. “And a ship!”

Keris frowns as they set off. “You didn’t go outside the preserve, did you?” she asks.

“Not a chance!” Echo says blithely. “But I do happen to know where there’s some treasure in a sunken ship!”

“...” says Keris. “Okay. We will go to the sunken ship and get treasure. Then we will go to the townhouse and let your brother out. Which way is it?”

“Yay!” Echo cheers, leading Keris to a sunken ship outside the hunting preserve laden down with Malfean lead and barrels of Szorenyian quicksilver. Oh, and demon corpses.

“... I thought you said you didn’t go outside the preserve,” says Keris, as she moves barrels into her soul. “Echo...”

“I didn’t,” Echo says. “I just heard it sink! If I sank it, I’m sure I’d remember it!”

((Do the corpses look like they were Echoed?))
((They look like they were Echoed.))

Keris gives her stern look. “Which is why all of these bodies have your signature written all over them in giant fatal wounds, I’m sure,” she says flatly. “Echo, if you have brought down a legitimate ship from some demon lord or another, I will not be pleased. You do not want to draw attention to yourself in this realm. You know that.”

“Uh uh!” Echo says firmly. “I didn’t do it! I’d remember it if I did it, but I don’t remember doing it, so there!”

“You forgot doing it as soon as you’d done it,” groans Keris. “Because you knew I’d be mad about it, so you stopped caring about... urgh. Echo... okay, fuck it, we’re getting out of here. Come on.” She shoves the last barrel into her Domain and heads out at speed, hoping that her daughter hasn’t just gotten her into more trouble.

((DAMMIT ECHO))

“Well, if you’re going to get into trouble for something I didn’t do, why not burn it up with Hanny’s fire?” Echo says, pouting.

Keris considers this for a moment, then doubles back to put the idea into practice. And to inhale all the bodies. As long as there aren’t any witnesses - and Echo is generally pretty good at not leaving witnesses... well, it won’t be something Keris is happy about, but maybe she can dodge any consequences.

Her fingers are crossed and her hair is knotted as they make their way back into the Conventicle. She knows instinctively she has to sleep for hours to let Rathan out. So she’s going to just have to pin Echo down with her hair and teach her to sleep normally. Normally that would probably have made her feel guilty, but at the moment she’s annoyed enough at the girl that she only takes the time to grab a few games that can be played by a single person and keep them in Echo’s reach before submersing herself in an underwater bed and sliding into sleep.

Keris sleeps well, but she’s woken not by the screams of the tomescu, but by quiet voices talking in her room. She opens her eyes to... darkness. Darkness in Malfeas.

Rising from the waters, she sees Rathan and Echo sitting at a low table that wasn’t in the room to start with, sitting opposite to a woman in a low-cut dress wearing a demonic pale mask. Bowls of plain rice and tea are on the table.

Echo is staring, unusually silent for her human form, while Rathan is here in Malfeas, chattering away with his full open personality on display. The woman speaks softly in Old Realm, answering questions with a whisper-quiet voice.

“Ah,” she says, looking at Keris. “And the sleeper stirs. Greetings to you, Peer Keris.”

“Ngh,” Keris says intelligently. “Um. Greetings?”

Then her brain kicks in and she realises what darkness in Malfeas means. And who - or at least what - is in the room with two of her children. Her demon lord children.

“Oh,” she adds, suddenly wide awake and considerably less relaxed. “G-Greetings to you, Unquestionable.”

“Expect nothing from me,” she says warningly. “Now, would you care for rice and tea?”

“... yes?” Keris asks, shaking the water off herself and moving over to the table. A soul of the Ebon Dragon, one who she mustn’t expect anything from and who wears a mask... ah. Yes, Keris knows who this is now.

She keeps her mouth shut rather than voice the knowledge, and takes a cautious seat between her souls. The woman carefully pours out tea for Keris, and places a bowl before her that magically fills with brown rice.

“You may eat and drink, if you wish. Or you may not,” she says, sipping her own tea. Keris doesn’t hesitate or think about it, because she’s just spent most of a night running around killing things and is quite hungry. She sips at her own tea and downs a few spoonfuls of rice; silently thankful that Haneyl isn’t here to complain about the boring flavour.

“May I ask your intentions here?” she ventures, squeezing Rathan’s hand and glancing at Echo. “And... actually also how you got in... wait, no, stupid question. I’m honoured by your visit, regardless.”

Oh, she thinks suddenly. That letter she sent Lilunu. Perhaps that’s how this demon - Noh; heart of the Shadow of All Things - knew to come. Or at least what caught her interest somehow, if she wasn’t simply drawn here by her nature. Or if she didn’t come here with plans in mind.

Honestly, Keris isn’t sure which possibility scares her more.

“That is something you can ask”, the woman says. “But I will speak. You may listen, or you may not.” Keris closes her mouth, nods, and listens intently. “I have no name. I reject such chains,” she continues. “But you accept chains and so you are Keris Dulmeadokht, though that was not the name you were born under. I will not speak to you of things I want you to do. I am curious as to your nature, though- and your newly manifest souls that will infuriate the Blue Glass Maiden.”

Keris makes a tiny sound of misery. Wonderful. Another Unquestionable angry at her. The heart of Cecelyne, no less.

... honestly, with Ligier, Echo’s Big Sister, the demon before her and the Blue Glass Maiden, Keris is starting to think that maybe she’s just really attractive to frighteningly powerful demons. She sort of wishes she knew what she was doing to attract their attention, so that she could stop doing it.

“Curious for an explanation?” she asks. “Or just to watch what I do?”

“I may sit and watch her reaction,” the woman says gracefully. “I have loathed her for a long time, and her spite and rage shall amuse me greatly if it goes as I expect. But then again, I may not. But that is not solely why I am here - though Rathan is an amusing youth and Echo here knows more than she should. And that is very amusing.” She puts her hand to her mask, and chuckles. Apart from a quick, sharp look at Echo and a fond grin for Rathan, Keris keeps her reaction to a nervous smile. She cocks her head and waits for Noh to continue, if she so chooses. “The Golden Lord has been a long-standing annoyance of mine,” she says. “His attitude and his laws and his mentality irks me. They have annoyed me since before the gods rebelled.”

Keris straightens, comprehension dawning. Aha. This is definitely more familiar ground for her. She might be waiting for a response. Then again, she might not be. It’s hard to tell with this nameless demon. “I’ve encountered his priests in An Teng,” Keris says after a moment. “Obnoxiousness seems to be a signature of his cult.”

“Mmm,” the woman says, sipping her tea. “Expect no reward if you spite his cult, thwart his works, and dishonour his priests,” she observes. “But if you do not expect it, my gratitude may come. Or it may not.”

Keris nods. “I understand, honoured one,” she says. “I hope I prove amusing should you choose to watch my souls and I in the Althing.”

“Do not seek me out, for you will not find me,” she says conversationally. “Do not wait for me for I will not arrive. But if you do not look for me, you may see me again.” Carefully, almost fussily she collects her bowls and her cups - including retrieving a cup that had vanished into Echo’s pocket without Echo noticing its absence - and then opens the door, and steps out, taking the darkness with her. Keris immediately claps a hand over both Echo and Rathan’s mouths. She waits, counting the seconds, for a solid minute. Then she sags back into her chair.

Unquestionable,” she groans. “Blue silence and plague-Dead, that was tense.”

“She was strange,” Rathan says thoughtfully. “A bit like Calesco, but not.”

“How long was she here before I woke up?” asks Keris. “And... Echo? What did she mean about knowing things you shouldn’t?”

“About half an hour,” Rathan says. “Her rice was bland and her tea was sort of watery.”

Echo shakes her head, eyes wide. “She was here before Rathan got out. She knew he was coming,” she says softly. “I think she’s cleverer than me, or at least she can think faster than I can think and be different before my thoughts can work out what she is. I have a headache from talking to her. She had a different face before Rathan arrived, but changed.”

Keris gulps. Coming from Echo - who she has to grudgingly admit is considerably smarter and fleeter of thought than Keris herself, or indeed almost anyone Keris knows without active magic being used to boost them - that is a terrifying appraisal.

“O-okay,” she says shakily. “Okay. Okay, right.”

She takes a deep breath. “Right. Okay. We’ll... I’ll think about that. And what she said, and... yeah, that can wait until after Calibration, and maybe a talk with Sasi. Until then...”

Chewing a loop of hair thoughtfully, Keris takes the opportunity to give Rathan a proper welcoming hug. “I skipped yesterday, so I should really be seen in the celebrations today. And I invited Asarin, so I should look her up and say hello to Naan and stuff. But I think I want to keep you two under my hat until I can talk to Lilunu about you - and until Haneyl is out and about.

“So... hmm. Echo, you understand why that’s important, right? Not letting anyone - especially Big Sister, know that you’re here until I can explain things properly. Can you think of anything that will occupy you for a day and not lead to you killing a ship full of demons you aren’t meant to kill? Or depopulating half my staff. Or anything else like that.”

“I can think of hundreds of things,” Echo reassures her. She smirks at Keris. “Hey, Ratty, we’re teenagers now so let’s go out and get drunk! After all, I bet mama did it aaaaaaall the time when she was our age.”

Keris quietly drops her head into her hands and groans again. “... tell you what,” she says after she’s finished banging her forehead on her palms. “You... oh, fine, I suppose you are old enough now. I’ll let you have some alcohol. And a bit of chalcanth. But in return, Echo, I’d like you to stay here while I show my face at the Althing - and since you did go and kill that ship outside the preserve, even if you don’t remember doing it, I’d like you to give up your knife while you’re doing that. Because...”

Briefly, Keris tries to think of a way to gently say ‘I don’t trust you not to cut your way out of the room and go stab all my servants on a drunken whim and possibly leave the townhouse entirely and offend an Unquestionable.’

Then she gives up and just says it bluntly.

Rathan pats Keris on the hand. “Don’t worry,” he says, with eyes that gleam with sincerity and honesty and a complete lack of comprehension that Keris could possibly doubt him, “if you keep her knife, I’m sure I’ll be able to keep her under control. After all, if she’s bad, I’ll tell you everything. I want to see what Malfeas is like outside this section, and there won’t be so many people watching us outside the Conventicle, so you can just leave us and we’ll be fine.”

((11 successes))
((... now I am trying to think of a way to gently tell you that I don’t trust you to etc.))
((Hmm. Urgh. Yeah, I’m still really leery of letting them out alone, since they’re... mmm. Yeah, okay, I think I’m actually gonna veto this.))
((Keris-mama is putting her foot down. It’s almost like she doesn’t trust Echo and Rathan who have just become teenagers and want to see what all the fuss is about. Not least because modern Keris wouldn’t trust her teenage self with a spoon, let alone anything more serious))

“... well...” says Keris doubtfully. “I guess all the Unquestionable will be at the Althing... but listen, Rathan, you need to stay hidden. You’re... oh...”

She looks at him, listens to the song of his essence, takes him in from the tips of his stubby little horns to the pointed toes of his spotless shoes, and her heart nearly bursts with love. She laughs softly, then wipes a few tears from her eyes and sniffs.

“I know you want to explore,” Keris whispers. “But Hell is dangerous. And you’re stronger now, but there are far stronger things, and I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you. It would kill me, Rathan. If you want to explore Malfeas you can, but not today. Wait until I can go with you. Please, just keep Echo on the grounds - in the townhouse; in the room if you can. Distract her with sugar or puzzles or... or whatever. I’ll be so, so grateful.”

She smiles sweetly at the pair of them. “And I’ll be coming back regularly, and if I find you not here then I will track you down and drag you back and manacle you both to a wall for the rest of Calibration, are we clear? Or send you back to the Domain on the spot and not let you out for another year. Echo, the knife. Now.”

((Oh yeah, pinging Rathan with UWR. 10 dice; 7 sux.))
((Rathan maaaaaaaaaay be using various effects to try to coax Keris into letting him have his way, including an MDV lowerer which removes barriers to his desires, a success adder when trying to negotiate, and something which makes his attempts to get what he wants sound minor and inconsequential no matter what he asks for. He’s Enlightenment 6 like his sister; with Kimbery-flavoured Kerisian essence.))
((... oooo, that sneaky little thing.))

Echo pouts, and hands over the knife. “I’ll tell other Mama if you lose it!” she threatens.

Keris sheathes it in her belt. “I won’t lose track of it for a second,” she promises. “And I won’t use it either; it’s yours. But it stays with me until tomorrow. Now, remembering that I am entirely serious about sending you back to the Domain if you leave the townhouse... I’ll fetch you some alcohol and a couple of vials of chalcanth to play with.”

She’s quite careful with exactly what she chooses - enough to let them get moderately tipsy, but not seriously smashed. She’s also quite careful to herd them into the most secure room in the townhouse and lock the door behind her. There’s a fair spread of food for them to munch on, and all told Keris guesses that her measures should buy her an hour, perhaps two, before they get bored enough and inventive enough to get out of the room anyway.

She’ll have to use that time wisely, then. And maybe see if there’s anything in the snake’s hoard that can buy her some more time. Keris grabs the first thing she finds in the chaos of her soul. In this case, it’s a little gold container with a complicated dial that Keris has never been able to get open yet. Maybe Echo might be useful if she’s able to get it open. She lets her daughter at it and hangs around for a few minutes to see what progress she makes. If she can get it open in moments, Keris at least gets to see what’s inside it. If it takes her longer... well, it’s a distraction that’ll occupy her for a while. Win/win. By the time she leaves, Echo is on all fours by the box, tapping it and listening for the noises of its internal mechanisms.

And now she has to get dressed and ready for the party! It’s so hard being a princess!

Keris does, admittedly, rush things just a little. She might not look quite at her best today. Eventually she just goes with one of Haneyl’s flower-dress demons, and tarts it up by weaving her Amulet through it as an overlayer of shimmering strands between the flowers that constantly sheds faint glitter into the air around her, making it sparkle and bringing out the colour of the blossoms.

She’ll do a quick tour of the main events, she decides, make sure to be seen, say hello to Asarin if she sees her, ask Sasi and Testolagh over that evening if she sees them, and then get back to the townhouse asap. If anyone asks, she can gesture at her pregnancy and say that she’s nursing her children through a delicate stage.

The party is tremendous in scale and exceptionally decadent. If she takes her children to one of these parties, they will be learning many things - although, honestly, there’s a good chance Echo may have learned many of them already by listening in.

And, unfortunately for Keris, one of the first people she meets is Orange Blossom who smiles widely and happily when she sees her. Keris is instantly suspicious, and smiles back sweetly. “Orange Blossom!” she greets. “How nice to see you.”

“I have been looking for you. Where were you yesterday?” she says with a smile.

“Oh, something came up,” Keris says mournfully. “A new gift of the All-Makers that I had to get under hand, which had a few unexpected effects on my children. I’d have liked to have been here, but... well, you know how it is when personal business gets in the way of work.”

“Such a shame. And how have things been going with you? Down in the sweltering heat of the South West? So far from your home, yes?”

Keris makes a face. “Urgh, don’t talk to me about Tengese summer. The heat, the humidity, the monsoons... how people live there without being able to dive to the seabed and cool down, I have no idea.” She bites her lip. “I suppose the weather in the Scavenger Lands is nicer?”

“Oh, much nicer,” she says. “Have you ever wondered what the weather in Nexus is like right now?”

“Occasionally,” Keris admits carefully. “Much the same as ever, I’d guess.”

“Oh, I suppose that isn’t your real home, after all,” Orange Blossom says casually. “But then again, you have been asking questions about Baisha, haven’t you?”

Keris freezes.

“... what do you know,” she says slowly and quietly, “about Baisha?”

“Well, that depends,” Orange Blossom says. “Maybe you’d know more if you’d stayed in the Scavenger Lands, of course. But I suppose I could ask more questions about it. If you were willing to do something for me.”

For a moment Keris just stares at her, not quite comprehending. Then it falls into place that yes, Orange Blossom knows something about her home - or at least has the means to find out - and yes, Orange Blossom is refusing to tell her. Is... is using it; this knowledge Keris needs, as a... a bribe. Outrage wells up in her, only to be stoppered helplessly in her chest, unable to do anything.

Keris closes her eyes and takes a long, slow breath. From the sound of her, Orange Blossom is well aware of the powerless frustration she’s provoked, and is probably enjoying it.

Opening her eyes, Keris forces a smile back onto her face. “That sounds very generous of you,” she grits out with her best attempt at politeness. “I’d hate to keep you from the festival, so perhaps we should meet and discuss it over a private meal? At your convenience, of course.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful,” Orange Blossom says. And yes, she is clearly enjoying this. Keris really wonders at this point why she slept with her. She manages to refrain from grabbing the woman, shaking her and screaming, and suffers through a few minutes more agonising small talk before making her excuses and leaving on a visible orbit of the festivities. Coming across a demonstration of two fire-demons fighting with blades, Keris stands there, staring blankly. It takes a while for her to wrestle down the... actually really strong urge to go back and rip Orange Blossom’s tongue out. Or break her jaw. Or...

Keris turns sharply on a heel and marches away, breathing out as she does so. The intense, powerless, frustrated fury blows away like the wind. The lingering resentment towards the woman remains, but the boiling black-as-pitch hatred is gone. She sighs shakily. Now at least she doesn’t have to worry about literally attacking the other Princess if they run into each other again.

... still probably best not to dwell on it, or she’ll get angry all over again. Sifting through the sounds of the crowd, Keris goes looking for Naan and Asarin.

Asarin is conveniently easy to find, given her hair is brown fire - for all that she isn’t the tallest. When Keris finds her, she’s speaking with a dark-skinned Southern woman with a hare’s tail and disfiguring scars down the left side of her face.

“And then he doesn’t even speak to me!” Asarin is saying, in an Haneylish tone. “Can you believe it? What an idiot!”

“Asarin!” Keris greets her, considerably happier. “I’m so glad you came! Oh, it’s wonderful to see you.”

Asarin beams at her. “Peer Keris! It’s good to see you. Keris, this is Lelabet. Lelabet, this is Keris, peer and princess of the Green Sun.”

The hare-tailed woman inclines her head. “Greetings to you, peer,” she says softly. Her accent is faintly familiar, although Keris is not sure quite where from.

Keris inclines her head back, her eyes flashing green as she automatically takes stock of the woman. Lelabet is of the Ebon Dragon, and she’s weak compared to Keris, perhaps only as strong as Echo or Rathan.

((Enlightenment 6, Ophidian essence))

“Greetings, Lady Lelabet,” Keris replies. “I hope you’re enjoying the festivities?”

“It’s quite a little entertainment,” she says, “although Creation is of more interest to me these days.” She leans in, lips parted. “I can’t wait to see what you will do to the powers of Creation, princess of the green sun,” she says, a flirtacious look in her eyes.

((... 10 successes on 14 dice to flirt with Keris.))

Keris eyes her up and down appreciatively, a spark of interest in her eyes. “Well, any friend of Asarin’s is of course a friend of mine,” she says with a warm smile at the other demon lord. “Perhaps we could speak of possibilities over a meal, at some point. Oh, and Asarin, how have you been? I’m terribly sorry I wasn’t here yesterday.”

Asarin pouts. “Men,” she grumbles. “I was here, and my stupid greater self completely ignored me! He’s just caught up with his latest Terrestrial floozy! Well, good! I didn’t even want him paying attention to me! He didn’t even appreciate the new armour I forged for myself!”

“I’m surprised,” Keris says. “It’s beautiful. Forged fire? I can paint with flame, but working it into solid form is beyond me. May I...” she gestures with her fingers, and Asarin spins to show off the lacquered armour in full. Keris grins and applauds lightly. “A gorgeous piece indeed,” she compliments.

Asarin flushes. “Thank you!” she says. “But of course, some men don’t pay any attention! He’s just a stupid pig!”

“Well, men,” sighs Keris philosophically. “Sometimes they just don’t understand a woman’s heart. I’m sure he’ll come around eventually. And speaking of men, I should probably see if Naan is around. He’s another peer; a friend of mine - I could introduce you, if you’d like.”

“Oh, would you?” Asarin asks, and they head off together.

“So, where are you positioned, peer Keris,” asks Lelabet, who seems to have invited herself along. “What are your current projects within the stolen realms?”

“At the moment I work against the Realm and the Scarlet Throne from the Southwest,” Keris explains, cheerful enough to have her along. “My task from the Unquestionable is to ruin those Dynastic houses that draw wealth from An Teng - I was stationed there with Peer Sasimana originally, but I’ve moved down to a lovely little city called Saata to start influencing the pirate trade and the Lintha.” She smiles happily. “It’s going rather well. And of course my ship is a true boon, though I’ve had to be careful with its use since I don’t have any way of refuelling it in Creation yet.”

“Ah ha,” Lelabet says. “Yes, that may be very interesting. If you need a friend who might be willing to help mortals and the like rise up to overthrow the powers that be, you and I might be able to come to an arrangement. I adore helping lessers overthrow the mighty.”

Keris beams at her. “I will definitely remember you, then. Perhaps the three of us could spend some time together after the Althing meets tomorrow, and- ah, there he is. Naan!”

Naan is sprawled over on the seats, several empty glasses in front of him. He is, as usual, at least slightly drunk. Several neomah are snuggled up to him. He salutes Keris with his half-full glass. “Keris!” he exclaims, before downing the rest of his glass.

Keris grins and salutes him back. “Naan. It’s good to see you. These are Lady Asarin and Lady Lelabet; friends of mine. Ladies, this is Peer Naan.”

Naan waves at the serving demon, calling for more drink, and he nudges neomah out the way for his female guests. “You’ve gotten fat!” he booms at Keris.

“I’ve gotten pregnant, you ass,” she says with an eyeroll. “And I’m ready for them to be out; they’re getting intolerable. I’m halfway to agreeing with Dulmea about human pregnancies. How have you been?”

“Fucking ace,” he says. “I’ve been bounced all over, but I’m just back from Skullstone. Killed a Dead Exalt woman, ha ha! Smashed her head in with my fist, and then sunk her ship and killed all her ghost-slaves!”

“Good,” Keris says firmly. “Come down to An Teng, help kill the one who was running around a few months back making shadowlands.” She smiles. “I’d offer to spar or challenge you to a drinking contest, but I can’t while I’m carrying these two. Some other time, maybe? Let me know where you’ll be posted next.”

Naan laughs. “I don’t know on long notice myself, but sure, I’ll tell someone to tell you. If I remember. Have a drink!”

“The stuff you drink, no thanks,” Keris says, shaking her head. “I’ll catch up with you later.” She heads away, shrugging for the benefit of the ladies. “He’s a little crude, but a good one to have at your back in a fight. And fun to carouse with, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.”

Asarin looks somewhat offended and a bit shocked. Maybe she wasn’t the best person to introduce to him. Lelabet, however, is giggling. “He’s funny,” she says.

“He can be,” Keris agrees. “I’m sorry for his rudeness,” she adds to Asarin. “I should have realised he’d be drinking - I’m trying to cut down on it at the moment, so I’d forgotten. Sasimana has much better manners, I promise.”

“Ah, I have had previous dealings with Lady Sasimana,” Lelabet says conversationally. “If you are going to look for her, I believe I saw her by the lakeside earlier. So yes, if you wish to speak with me later, Lady Keris,” she flutters her eyelashes at Keris, “well, I will be more than pleased to make time for you. I think we could find many desires we have in common.”

“I’m sure we could,” Keris flirts back with a winning smile, brushing against her softly and allowing a lock of hair to linger as it brushes across her shoulders. “Lady Asarin? Shall we go to the lakeside, or did you have something else in mind?”

“I would be more than pleased to be introduced to Lady Sasimana,” she says.

Keris is keeping careful track of time, and assesses how long it’s been as they proceed down to the lake. She hasn’t been here too long, and she’s mingled a fair amount - that talk with, urgh, Orange Blossom, some careful moving about to be seen, Asarin and Lelabet, Naan. She can probably get away with a little more before having to head back to the townhouse. Sasi is sat there beside Testolagh, holding his hand. They’re talking quietly with each other, discussing people who Keris doesn’t recognise the names of. She makes sure to approach from a direction that lets Sasi notice them from a little way off, smiling faintly and issuing a little wave as Sasi looks over. There’s a flicker of emotions on Sasi’s face, but Keris can’t read it.

“Keris, dearest,” Sasi says, rising. “So glad you could make it here. I was worried that your problem with your children might keep you away from this.”

“Well, the girl has been a bit of a nuisance,” Keris admits. “But the boy settled down this morning, and I think he’s helping keep her calm. Still, I should be getting back to my townhouse soon, just in case. But first, introductions! This is Lady Asarin; a friend of mine who helped me with some research a little while ago. Asarin, this is Peer Sasimana. She’s in charge of the operations down in the Southwest.”

It’s certainly something to watch from the outside, Sasi unleashing her Sasi-ness on a demon lord. She seems to instinctively know that Asarin likes to be treated like a lady and likes civility and manners. They seem to be hitting it off, and of course Sasi is the perfect Realm lady.

Keris steps back a little and exchanges cautious nods with Testolagh. “Please,” she murmurs quietly to him, “please explain how you got Echo to listen to you. Because keeping her from causing havoc is a full-time job, and not an easy one.”

“She’s a child,” Testolagh says. “I made it clear that I would not tolerate misbehaviour or running off to stab someone, and so she didn’t.”

“See, I try that and she obeys for about ten minutes and then sees something shiny and forgets,” Keris admits with a sigh. “Maybe she’s just too used to me. What’s that saying about being familiar and contempt?”

“How do you treat her normally? Do you lay down limits on her?” Testolagh asks. He looks down at Keris’ baby bump. “... do you even know how to treat children?”

I love my children,” Keris hisses at him, anger flaring to life. “Don’t you dare suggest otherwise!”

Sasi and Asarin glance over at the outburst. “It’s not a question of love,” Testolagh says wearily. “It’s a question of knowing how to handle children. New mothers struggle with one - let alone many. My,” he wets his throat, “... if it hadn’t been for my mother and my wife’s mother, we wouldn’t have known how to handle our son.”

Keris opens her mouth and closes it. She glances over at Sasi and Asarin and forces a quick smile and a flutter of fingers to convince them to turn back to their conversation, before it falls from her fingers. “That...” she says quietly once she’s sure they’re not listening, “... that’s not- not fair, though. I didn’t have... I didn’t... how am I supposed to know about that? Where am I meant to learn?”

“Did you try asking other mothers about how to raise a child?” he asks softly.

“Like who? What kind of child?” Keris shoots back, struggling to keep her voice low. “My children aren’t human, they don’t... they don’t think human. I mean, I’ve tried to keep them as close as possible, but how... if I take advice meant for mortal kids; treat them like they’re something they’re not, what’ll that do to them? It’d cause more problems than it’d solve! It has caused problems, till I worked out enough to step around what they can’t help but do.”

“That’s not who I was talking about,” Testolagh says with a sigh. “I was talking about the children you are pregnant with. You are right - Echo is not a normal child. But Aiko is more like a normal babe than not in many ways, even if she... sometimes set the bed on fire.”

Keris looks down, biting her lip. “I... yeah. Okay, yeah. I should ask... Sasi, and the Hui Cha women, and... and pox take Orange Blossom, I should be able to...”

She cuts off with a shake, biting her lip hard. “You’re right,” she admits. “I’ll... do that, I guess. I’ve been setting up a place in Saata I can settle to raise them. Well, not Saata, but Shuu Mua.” She rubs at her forehead. “For now I’ll get back to the townhouse and stop them breaking anything else. Tomorrow I can at least stop hiding them. Uh... on that note, could you ask Sasi to visit tonight - just to help me work out what to say to the Unquestionable?”

“Remember, she said she’d be spending the night with you tonight,” he reminded Keris.

Keris perks up considerably. “Oh yes. I’ll just say my goodbyes, then. And...” She sighs, and squeezes her eyes shut for a moment. “... thank you. Again. I needed that... that advice.” Her lips twitch in a faintly amused grimace. “You keep throwing me off balance with things that hurt to admit you’re right about. No wonder Calesco likes you.”

((Roll Per + Pres))
((... heh. She honestly believes that. 3+5+2 stunt+4 Pay Each Man Back In Kind=14. 9 sux. Testolagh can explicitly notice Keris has a thing about tit for tat and fair payback and so on - and while he’s her rival for Sasi’s affections, he keeps giving her needed and useful lessons; ones she grudgingly acknowledges she needs.))

He smiles faintly. “Sometimes I forget you’re actually the age you look,” he says. “I tend to assume we’re all older than we look.”

Keris giggles faintly, bids him goodbye, and goes over to make her farewells to Sasi and Asarin; excusing herself as “the children are at a delicate stage; I should go home and tend to them further.” She makes sure she takes a fairly visible route out; nodding and smiling at a few faces she recognises and exchanging a few more small niceties, but she’s on her way back home in good time. And just in the nick of time, too, because Echo is bouncing off the walls. Literally. She’s solved the puzzle box, revealing a particularly fine orichalcum signet ring with the sun’s crest on it, and then locked and re-locked the box three times. Rathan is sitting there, quietly reading and staring daggers at his hyperactive sister.

Keris takes the ring but allows Echo to keep the box, makes a casual suggestion that a breed of demon who were each a really tricky combination lock like that but which had different solutions for each individual might be an interesting thing to put in the Ruin so she’d have lots of puzzles to solve, and cuddles up with Rathan to see what he’s reading and coo over how well-behaved he’s been. It’s a book the help apparently found for him, and a tome of demonology and demon-breeds. He’s making notes in a flowing cursive hand on what he’s reading, which seems to be looking at why people make demons.

This would probably be a little more impressive if he didn’t seem to be paying a lot of attention to the neomah page and the associated pictures. Well, he is now a teenage boy. Keris artfully pretends not to notice this, instead offering a few of her own observations and her reasons for making some of her personally-created breeds, like the szulok and the iszangols.

Keris can only think about what’s going to happen when she has three children out and about. Or four. Or five. She’ll handle it somehow, she decides. Tomorrow she can take them to meet Lilunu and explain things, and then at least she won’t have to hide them. And then...

... well, maybe Testolagh had a point. Maybe she should try applying at least some advice from other parents to raising them. She knows most of their quirks now; so she can probably cannibalise such suggestions for the useful parts. She just didn’t want to admit that in front of him because that would have meant admitting that she hadn’t even thought of asking for help.

“Mama, mama!” calls Echo, breaking her out of her morose thoughts as she twists around juggling a bevy of knives. “I should make up a fighting style that uses juggling, that would be the best thing ever! Oh oh oh! But not knives! Juggling battleaxes!” She pulls one out of her hair, leaving the dozen or so knives to go flying off in different directions; most of them towards the floor or ceiling. Keris tilts her head to let one of them whizz past her ear and lodge in the wall.

Time for moping later, then. Back to work for now.

Chapter Text

Motherhood is exhausting, Keris decides. She already wants to cram Echo back into her soul and let her run around in the Ruin and burn off some of that limitless supply of energy. In contrast to her, Rathan is a perfect little angel.

... which often lasts right until she puts her thoughts together and realises what he’s doing or what he’s asking for. Puberty is hitting him hard, and he’s fascinated by the many attractive demons that Keris has as her servants in her manse. And she just knows that if she leaves him alone with them, the serfs will be putty in his hands. She’s already almost dreading what will happen when Haneyl is out tomorrow. At least, she thinks, clinging to the thought like a drowning sailor to a patchwork raft, at least she’ll have people to help her corral them once she doesn’t need to keep them secret anymore.

... she’d still really, really like Sasi to hurry up and get here to lend a hand in handling them though. On the other hand, the thought occurs to Keris that Sasi will have certain interests here. And she’s not sure if she’s worried more about Sasi’s curiosity being aroused by her children, or... uh, the fact that Sasi might want time with her girlfriend and no one wants Echo showing up mid-way through a romantic liason.

Maybe she can send Echo to bug Testolagh, Keris muses. Or escort her to bug Testolagh, to stop her running off halfway through. Or... see if Sasi has any ideas on how to make Echo stay still for another night. Urgh. She does love her Fifth Soul, but Echo is exhausting to be around for any length of time.

Sasi arrives rather later than Keris might have liked, but her annoyance at that is somewhat subverted by the fact that Sasi clearly went home to change and clean up. Her strangely colourless beauty is emphasised by the fact that she’s wearing a midnight-black dress that hints at the body below, but somehow stops any precise details from being seen.

She gracefully proceeds into the room, and wraps her arms around Keris in an embrace as she bends down for the kiss. From the wicked look in her eyes, she entirely intended for Keris to find that the dress is indeed insubstantial shadow.

“Gneh,” is Keris’s comment as they disengage. Well, they break lip contact. Sasi is holding her up somewhat, because her legs seem to have temporarily stopped working. “Ngh. Hello.” She smiles up dreamily at Sasi, then drifts back to lucidity.

“Echo! Rathan!” she calls into the next room, “get in here and meet Sasi properly!” To Sasi, in a lower tone, she adds “We’re going to want to have a conversation about a few things that happened earlier today. But first, the nicer bits.”

Echo bounds in, food stains on her face. She has apparently started comfort-eating out of boredom. “Have you finished doing the noisy kissy kissy stuff?” she drawls in a Nexan burr, and then her eyes widen in interest and she charges in towards Sasi. “How do you do that? That’s so pretty! I can hear that the shadow is all clumped up and swoosh but also under-over-under like fabric and also it’s trapped inside and it’s really super pretty because it hints at everything but you can’t see the underneath! It’s something Calesco would totally, totally like.” She starts running her hands over Sasi’s dress and skin, tapping both as she tries to listen to how it works.

Rathan is hanging back by the door, rather more cautious. Keris can see the rosy blush form on his cheeks as he looks at his mother’s girlfriend. Slapping Echo’s hands away and putting herself between her son and her girlfriend’s... attractive qualities, she winces slightly as she makes introductions.

“Ah, Sasi, you’ve already met Echo, but now that I’m not crazy and delusional anymore... yes, this is my Fifth Soul. Who is - Echo, stop poking - entirely too energetic. And this is Rathan, who is being - Echo! - much better behaved.”

“We’re just getting to know each other!” Echo whines. “You get to hug her so I think I should be allowed to poke her to see how her dress works!”

And then Sasi giggles. “It is very interesting, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s an art of Malfean demons, where they flense the shadow from someone.”

Echo claps her hands together gleefully. “Omime!” she yelps. “It’s stitched together from the bits where it’s been cut! I bet I could cut someone’s shadow off - or at least I could totally do it when Mama gives me back my knife - and try making them myself! And it’ll last as long as the demon it’s made from is still alive! Oooh, oooh, but how is it so strong against light! Of course, of course, because the demon it’s made from is kept in light that casts shadows which must be really really expensive in Malfeas!”

“That’s exactly right!” Sasi says, delighted. “So which light do you think it is?”

“Well, it’s obviously not sunlight ‘cause Creation’s sun would burn the demonflesh also it’s hard to trap and super-expensive to import so...”

“Urgh,” Rathan says, slumping. “Now she’s done it.”

Keris pats him sympathetically. “She got Echo in the curiosity,” she commiserates. “You know how she gets. But at least she’s not bouncing around as much now, right? And,” she adds with a wink, “maybe Sasi can outsmart her.”

“Oh! Oh! Can I try it on!?” Echo asks eagerly, her and Sasi having been engaged in a fast-flurry of words. “I bet it’d make amazing ribbons!”

Sasi giggles. “Maybe later, but I’m wearing it right now,” she says with mock seriousness. “I need it.”

“Oh, I’ll dress you in ribbons in return!” Echo says. “White ones! They’d go perfectly with you! But then a hint of red to bring a bit of colour to you and...”

She’s yanked back by Rathan’s long hair. “I’m really sorry for how my sister is acting,” Rathan says, putting on his best winsome face. “I’m not sure what I can do to get your forgiveness, but if she’s being a pain I really apologise.” He adds a little bow to that.

Keris chuckles. “I’m sure Sasi doesn’t blame you in the slightest, Rathan. After all...” she purses her lips. “Echo might just be eager to prove how smart she is, because of our visitor this morning.”

“I don’t blame you,” Sasi hastens to reassure Rathan. “After all, Echo is... interesting. Why don’t you tell me how you’re finding Malfeas for the first time, and then perhaps we can eat? Together, Keris?” She puts one hand to her brow. “I may be a little tipsy because there were a lot of drinks at the last party, but not much food. I need to get some food in my stomach.”

“Food we have lots of,” Keris agrees, leading the way to the table as Rathan cocks his head in an adorable thinking pose. She makes sure that she and Sasi are on one side of the table and Rathan and Echo are on the other. “Rathan? Everyone in earshot knows what Echo’s been enjoying, but you’ve been quieter.”

Rathan hums quietly. “The masked lady this morning was interesting,” he says. “Echo couldn’t work her out, and that was funny. I haven’t really been out of the townhouse yet, though.” He pauses. “Mother’s servants are nice too,” he adds in a deliberately casual afterthought. “But she won’t let me talk to them for very long.”

“Oh, is that right?” Sasi says. Carefully inclining her head so he can’t see, she winks with one eye at Keris. Keris remembers at this point that Sasi is... like, in her fifties and has adult children from her first marriage. “Why would she be doing that?”

“I think she’s just too scared that I’ll get in trouble with them,” Rathan says, with heartbroken wounded candour. “But I’m not like Echo, I wouldn’t do anything bad! I just want to get to know some of them.” He leans over the table a little, his fringe drifting across his forehead to perfectly frame his eyes. “Mother means well,” he confides more quietly, “but I think she’s so worried that she’s going overboard. Don’t you think?”

Keris quietly bites the inside of her cheek to remind herself that she is not actually stifling her children by refusing to let them run around murdering things in the slums of Hell or flirt their way through her entire staff.

“Oh my,” Sasi says, with perfect and totally sincere shock. “How could she be so cruel? But then again, she is your mother. Maybe she just wants to keep you safe. After all, I don’t let my daughter wander the streets of Hell without supervision - so it’s hardly a surprise that yours is keeping an eye on you. No doubt she’ll be much less strict when you’re back in Creation, yes?” she says, including Keris in the conversation. “So perhaps now is the time to behave and prepare for later.”

Keris nods. “I have some thoughts on what you can help me with when we’re back in Creation,” she promises Rathan. “They might be related to that pretty ship of mine. Sailing on it, and maybe even helping command it.” His eyes widen with interest, and she winks. “Just like Haneyl... well, actually, I was wondering,” she says, changing tack and nodding at Sasi. “You mentioned taking a sabbatical and setting up your own little satrapy a while ago. If we’ve moved out of An Teng while the Realm are there in force, maybe early this coming year would be a good time for it? You could focus more on Aiko, and... and possibly summon Haneyl and teach her a bit about tact and subtlety?”

Sasi leans in, her hand touching Keris’. “I would be honoured to do that for you,” she says softly. “You... you care enough about me to shape two of your souls after me. If Haneyl wants to be my daughter, then I’ll take good care of her.” She pauses. “If she can stand proper standards, that is,” she adds, smirking at Keris. “She may find me a little more demanding than she idealised.”

This earns a grin. “Oh, I’m counting on it. By all means, put her through her paces. And speaking of uncomfortable realities...” She clears her throat. “We, uh, had a visit this morning. A woman. A demon.” She pauses. “... an Unquestionable. She was here when I woke up; when Rathan emerged, and she caught Echo rather off-guard.”

“Oh?” Sasi asks, suddenly intense - and perhaps even worried. Keris nods.

“She was of the Ebon Dragon. She was pale, she had a mask... she told me not to expect anything of her, and made no demands of me. I think... I think she was the Dragon’s heart. Noh. She didn’t seem like she’d tell anyone about them - she said that she might watch the Blue Glass Maiden’s reaction. Or that she might not. She came here to tell me that she’s never liked the Golden Lord and that to spite his cults would amuse her, but I think she found Echo and realised Rathan was emerging and decided that was interesting too.”

Pausing for breath, Keris thinks back to the meeting and scrunches up her nose. “That’s three fetich-souls I’ve met now, and all of them are personally interested in me,” she complains. “Four, if this’ll make Iudicavisse angry. Can I maybe stop doing whatever’s drawing their attention?”

“I don’t know,” Sasi says, plucking the leaves from a fruit before her. “Can you?” She frowns. “But this time you didn’t invite it. You didn’t even truly prompt it. Have you been dabbling in more of the Dragon’s teaching recently?”

“None that I’ve noticed,” Keris answers, which is... honestly not the most reassuring denial, but the best she can give. “Echo talked to her for the longest, and Rathan - I didn’t wake up after she’d been chatting with both of them for half an hour or so.”

“Her tea was watery,” Rathan contributes. “And she didn’t give us any nice food like this. Just rice.”

“That is one of her... well, not expected traits, but something she is observed to usually do,” Sasi says, brow furrowed. “Certainly, she would fully support anything which angers the Blue Glass Maiden because the two have been foes since before time. I just hope she is wrong and the Maiden will not take your manifested souls personally.” She shakes her head. “But I fear she knows her enemy too well.”

Keris groans. “Yeah, we’re going to need to talk about how to handle that. We’re all,” she adds firmly, glancing at Echo who is rather artfully peeling the skin off an apple in a perfect, hair-thin spiral with the tip of a throwing needle, “going to need to talk about how I’ll approach that talk, and the request that you be treated as peers, and how you’re going to behave in the Althing while I request it.”

“I have always felt that it’s better to only ask for something once you already know the answer will be in the positive,” Sasi says, popping the fruit in her mouth. “I... do not think we have time now to ensure you have enough Unquestionable backers who will oppose the Blue Glass Maiden.”

“... if you’re suggesting we keep this secret until next Calibration,” Keris says, alarmed, “I... I think that is going to be difficult. Extremely difficult.”

“Not secret,” Sasi says. “Just not... open. As it stands, they’re in a legal grey area to the best of my knowledge of the laws of Hell. The Demons of the Second Circle are defined as the souls of the Third Circles, you see - and neither of those two are that. And the laws do not define the status of our souls. This means, I believe, that until their status is legally established they are arguably strangers - outlaws, with the laws of Hell having no hold on them. But they can pass as citizens to people who don’t look too closely, because there are thousands of demon lords.” She taps her fingers on the table. “So perhaps if you can get Ligier on side with the idea that they are peers, then I have other demon princes I can talk to given time and he is a fetich who can gainsay the Maiden. But we’d need more time for that. More time, but less risk.”

Keris purses her lips thoughtfully, and looks at Echo and Rathan. Her eyes glint green.

“... they taste like me,” she points out. “And... Sasi, I’ve been trying my best, but there is a limit to how long I can keep them from going unnoticed by people who will look closely. Hmm. But... I can get a meeting with Lilunu tomorrow morning. I can start by telling her; she likes me...”

She breathes out slowly. “Okay. But. Assume that this does get out tomorrow. Assume we try for more time but don’t have it. What should I do?”

“Pull in every favour you have with Ligier,” Sasi says immediately. “Make sure he’s on side, and will consider it an offence for the Maiden to rule on her own to decide that our souls are citizens. Hammer home that we are green sun princesses, and that Iudicavisse has no right to declare it unilaterally. That’ll buy us time to get more Unquestionable on-side.”

Keris nods firmly. “I’ll have Haneyl with me, and she idolises him. That should help. And...”

She glances at Echo.

“... well. The parentage of another two of my souls may also be a factor,” she says carefully. “Though I probably shouldn’t mention that outright.”

“It would probably not be a good idea to rely upon the Silence in her Wake - or, indeed, the Contrary One. We must not expect her to aid us. Perhaps then she may help if we do not presume on her,” Sasi says carefully.

“... I wasn’t talking about the Csend,” Keris says. “Um. Do you... Sasi, I thought...”

She falls silent, unsure of what to say. Echo, on the other hand, does not share her hesitation.

“My other mama isn’t Big Sister,” she says with a shiver. “No way! My other mama is Big Mama. She put the pretty scar on Mama’s face, and she’s Calesco’s mama as well! But I was born when she met mama in person, where Calesco was from a dream, and that’s why I’m the bigger sister.”

Sasi tilts her head. “Hmm. We may need to have an in-depth discussion about that later, Echo - with no one else to interrupt. I’ll remember that.” She pauses. “Sorry, like I said, I am a little tipsy.”

Keris relaxes a little. She’d been worried that Sasi would freak out at that titbit.

“The other thing today was... well, it can probably wait,” she sighs. “But Orange Blossom cornered me in the Althing and... well, she said she knew where Baisha was. Or knew something about it, anyway. But she’s refusing to... rrgh. I’ll just give her whatever it is that she wants for it and go back to avoiding her, if I can keep from breaking her nose over how sun-damned smug she’s being about it.”

She shakes her head, shifting in her seat a little to slide her leg up Sasi’s under the table. “It can wait,” she repeats. “Now, Echo, Rathan. What should I do with the two of you to keep you from causing mischief and give Sasi and I some privacy? Echo, you don’t get your knife back until tomorrow; stop asking. I am still not happy about that ship.”

Sasi tilts her head. “Hmm,” she says. “I’ve thought of something. Keris, have you categorised and watched all those First Age recording devices we found on the ship yet?”

Keris blinks. “You know, I don’t think I ever did. Partly ‘cause I couldn’t turn a few of them on.” She smiles. “Echo, you did like that box puzzle. Do you feel like another challenge?”

Echo claps her hands. “Do I!

((Oh, Keris. Leaving your children watching movies so you can go off with your girlfriend.))

“Well,” Keris says, “tell you what. If you can not only watch all of them by morning but also write down little summaries, and if you don’t burst in on us or do anything against the rules I set for not getting noticed... if you manage all that, then I will let you off having to give up some of your talking-time, Echo, by asking Lady Berengiere for a new set of ribbons for you from my voice, and you, Rathan...”

She looks him up and down and sighs heavily. “You, I will allow to take your pick of reading material from Malfeas before we leave. The kind you’ve been bugging me about wanting to have.”

She pauses, and another thought occurs to her. “Also,” she adds hastily, “no eavesdropping. At all.”

From the look on Echo’s face, she’s trying to look as innocent as possible - possibly in the hope that Keris forgets that her hearing is as good as Keris’ own. “When I say ‘no eavesdropping’, Echo, I mean ‘I will put you in a soundproofed room on the other side of the townhouse if I have to,” Keris growls at her. “Or maybe just go back to Sasi’s place with her, if I think you’re listening in.”

Echo pouts. “Fine,” she mutters. “Better be interesting puzzles!”

“I am certain they will be,” Keris says to her sweetly, threading her hair around both of her children in a hug. “Play nice, don’t annoy each other, and be on your very best behaviour tomorrow, alright?”

“Now where are the puzzles?” Echo demands.

After offloading them - which is somewhat easier, since Keris has already gathered up the things for her attempts at a present for Lilunu - Keris and Sasi retire to a bedroom as far away as Keris can find. Echo and Rathan are once again locked in, though in deference to the results of last time, Keris has chosen to seal them into one of the training rooms. There are a few folding screens in one corner for Rathan to sit and read in if he wants to, and a fair amount of space and equipment for Echo to run around in and perform gymnastics on.

In deference to the fact that Keris is fairly sure Rathan could convince any of her staff to open the lock and let him out if they so much as heard him through the door, the only key is in her hair and her servants have been ordered to avoid the corridor, and indeed most of the wing.

“So,” Sasi purrs, “now the children are out of the way, how much do you like my dress?”

Very much,” growls Keris. “Let me see. No, just... stay there. Let me look.”

She looks. She appreciates. She growls again. She’s not sure what her expression looks like, but her hair is moving forward in rippling waves, quite without conscious thought, to wind around Sasi’s waist and reel her in closer.

“Now let me show you how much more I’ll like it when it’s off,” Keris grins, and pounces.

Keris can’t help but feel jealous of Testolagh - and how he takes Sasi’s warmth and faint desert smell away from her. She’s missed this. It drives her to greater heights to prove that she’s better for her than that man is.

Once it’s over, Sasi’s hair is no longer perfect and she’s sleeping in Keris’ arms.

It takes a half-hour or so of dithering to extract herself - and that only with the knowledge that she’ll be awake before Sasi and can climb back in, quite possibly with Haneyl in tow. Slipping out of Sasi’s embrace with a gentle kiss to her lips, Keris ducks through a curtain to the ornate brass-and-marble bathtub in the bedroom’s attached en-suite, and fills it with nice hot water. Slipping in and letting the water close over her head, she lets herself drift off to sleep - and into her Domain.

Things are becoming a little more sane in the Domain. A flickering, inconstant Dulmea greets her, in a room full of chell she’s jumping between.

“C-c-care for some tea?” she asks.

“It’s made the-”

“-best I can when I can’t keep one pair of hands for too long.”

“Thank you, mama,” Keris says, folding herself down into seiza on automatic and taking the cup in her hair. “Are you feeling better?”

“A little. The-”

“-storms have nearly entirely died down in the Isles, and the Spires are cooling down. The-”

“-volcanos have stopped erupting, so I just hope Vali has tired himself out.”

“I’ll go check,” Keris nods. “And Haneyl?”

“The Swamp is still burning,” Dulmea says.

“Swamp first, then.” Keris squints for a moment, then hugs a chell at random. It flickers into Dulmea for a moment beneath her touch. “Did you hear Sasi’s plan?”

“I did. It seems sensible and not too risky,” Dulmea agrees, hugging back. “She is good for you-”

“- and not just in bed. She helps you calm down and think. I do wonder sometimes what you would have been like if you had stayed with Orange Blossom.”

“Disappointed,” Keris spits bitterly. “And probably screwed over by something when she wasn’t there when I needed her again. Stupid... anyway. I’ll go see how Haneyl is and let her know that I’ll be letting her out. Um. And I really hope she’s not still a dragon when I do, because that seems like it might be awkward to explain, and also it would damage the bedroom. And then I’ll go drag Vali out of whatever mountain he’s fallen asleep on.”

“Good luck,” another Dulmea says, giving Keris a motherly kiss on her forehead.

Keris doesn’t bother tracking Haneyl conventionally. Oh, the flames might be a little hotter around her, and she might burn long channels through the Swamp, but there’s fire everywhere and at the rate everything is growing, any spore will be well-hidden in a matter of minutes. Keris’s only chance using that route would be to stumble across fresh tracks by accident.
Instead, she lets her heart guide her; closing her eyes and feeling the cool lick of flames on her skin as she dashes through the blazing wetlands, feeling for her daughter through the bond that they share.

She finds Haneyl’s trail in the wafting of embers, and follows her all the way back to her tree. The tree is completely on fire now, burning like a small sun. As far as she can hear through the painfully intense inferno, there doesn’t seem to be any escaping air from within it, though - it sounds like it’s been sealed up. And there’s a gnawing sound coming from the roots.

Making a quick circuit around it; careful to stay moving at enough of a run that she isn’t burnt, Keris circles down lower into the ashes and flame, employing her hair, her spear and her anima to blow the drifts of ash out of the way.

“Haneyl!” she calls. “Haneyl, it’s me; it’s Keris!”

There is no response from the reptilian thing down in the pit, but the echoing sound is... peculiar. It sounds like it’s going down much, much deeper than sound normally does in her soul.

The positive thing about Haneyl’s tree being ablaze, Keris supposes, is that it’s burning so fiercely that it’s depopulated a space around it. She hops back and skids to a stop, thigh-deep in the ash fields and decidedly uncomfortable between the inferno in front and the forest afire behind. Heat lingers in the ash, too, and the gritty drifts are just on the edge of painful, even through her clothes.

Surveying the tree again through almost-closed eyes, Keris considers. She could try to cut her way in... but that would run a high risk of letting the fire in, and she’s not sure that would be a good idea. Dragon-Haneyl is apparently digging down to the roots, possibly to try and get in that way. Keris...

... Keris isn’t sure what she can productively do to help, here. Unless... is she trying to get in that way, Keris suddenly thinks - or to get out?

“... please be human-shaped when you come out,” she says - probably too quietly to actually hear above the flames. “It’s not that I don’t love you whatever shape you are, it’s just that you’re a really big dragon and I am in a small room right now. Please, please be small enough to fit inside it.”

Prayer made, Keris nods. Haneyl... well, Haneyl seems to have things fairly well in hand here. She’s digging her way out into Malfeas, Echo cut her way out through the Cloud Wall, and from what Rathan said he raised his moon high enough to sail up through the sky.
Vali, then.

Keris finds Vali. Or, rather, she finds a mountain-statue of Vali that she can hear he’s entombed within, the metal peak of the mountain being hit repeatedly by thunder. Fresh basalt and other volcanic rocks cover the landscape. Wincing and hoping that her ears will forgive her, she listens closer to the rumble of the thunder and the pattern of the strikes; the groan of pressure from within the mountain and the crackle of electricity through its metal veins. Through the pain, she can vaguely hear that he’s swelling in power within.

Breaking off and retreating, Keris returns to the City. Haneyl is digging her way out. Vali... may or may not have crashed from exhaustion, and is probably not happy about being entombed, but he’s growing in power safely enough. Calesco is human, and Zanara is already stabilised...

“... I’mma stay here for a while’n’rest m’ears,” she mumbles, collapsing onto a Dulmea who turns into a chell halfway through the sentence. “Nice’n quiet. Well. Quietish. Well. Musical-quiet.”

She rubs at her eyes with her hair, considers standing back up, and opts to instead slide further downward until her head is in the chell’s lap. “... yeah. Just. Rest my eyes. For. An hour or two...”

Keris falls asleep within her dream.

It only feels like a little while later that she’s woken by a splashing, thrashing weight on her chest.

Gasping for air, Haneyl surfaces inside the bath as she yanks Keris up out of the water. “Argh!” she shouts. “Why’s there water under the... wait! Aha! It worked!”

Keris squeals happily and glomps her, standing up in the bath and leaning backwards to spin them around. Water patters against the walls as two sets of hair whip out, and then Haneyl’s added height overbalances them, tipping Keris backwards over the side of the bath.

There is a slam, a yell, a crack, a tremendous crash, a loud rushing splash, another even shriller yell, and then relative silence.

After a few moments, Keris grunts and levers the marble bath basin up enough to slide her legs out from under it, throwing a mournful look at the broken brass leg.

“I didn’t catch whose kick hit that and whose hit the basin,” she says, surveying the lopsided angle the bath is now standing at with only three intact legs. “So I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume it was me.” She picks the broken chunk of brass up and looks it over before tossing it over her shoulder into the bath. “Eh. I’ll fix it later. Hungry?”

“Of course!” Haneyl says quickly. “I burned through an entire dragon’s worth of me to dig that tunnel.” It is at this point she realises that she is naked, and screams and covers herself with her hair. “And it didn’t work! Mama! You were meant to dress my human body! I was trying to pull the clothes out with me!”

“I did!” Keris protests. “I dressed you in your special robes, even! And your crown! And I did your makeup!”

Haneyl pulls a face. “Stupid... argh! This me is probably the super-thin dragon me only human again, which means I probably left my full human body back in the tree. Or maybe... maybe that body melted into the tree when I pulled power from it. Grr.”

“I can try and get your robes and crown out, at least,” says Keris. “Hold on, Dulmea’s all weird at the moment and it’s trickier getting things from places that aren’t the Tower.” She closes her eyes and focuses, grasping at the air carefully. “Just... hopefully they’re not... part of the tree as well... or this might be...”

They are apparently part of the tree. Or possibly Haneyl is so greedy that she won’t let her robes be put somewhere where someone else might get their hands on them. Either way, they won’t come.

“What happened?” Sasi says blearily, staggering through clad only in a blanket. “You screamed, Keris... huh?”

Keris hastily spreads her own hair in front of Haneyl as a second veil of modesty. “Ah... yes, so this didn’t go quite according to plan. But, Sasi?”

She takes a deep breath. She can actually hear Haneyl’s fast, rapid breathing behind her. Her daughter is so nervous and tensed up and anxious that she can’t speak.

“... meet your daughter. Our daughter,” Keris says. “Meet Haneyl.”

And she steps aside, winding her hair around Haneyl’s as a reassuring presence.

“Oh.” Sasi’s voice cracks. “She looks so much like...”

Keris smiles, a little tearfully, and nudges Haneyl forward. “You,” she says. “Me.” Haneyl still seems paralysed, and Keris blinks as an idea strikes her. “Oh, wait sorry, I got that introduction wrong.”

She clears her throat. “Nemone Sasimana; Green Sun Princess and Peer of the Infernal Althing, head of the Southwest coven,” she says in as regal a tone as she can manage while sopping wet and standing in front of a broken bath, “may I introduce you to Haneyl Kerisdokht; Seventh Soul of Keris, High Princess of the Swamplands. And Haneyl; I would like to introduce you to Sasimana in turn.”

Another faint nudge. The formal titles seem to snap Haneyl out of her rigid frozen staring.

Sasi reaches out, running a finger along Haneyl’s chin - their shared chin. “You look so much like my second,” she says, barely breathing it so Keris can just hear it. Then she smiles, wrapping her blanket around Haneyl’s shoulders. Haneyl clings to it, shaking faintly. “It’s lovely to meet you,” she says, turning on her full charm. “Keris has told me so much about you.”

Haneyl swallows, and mutters, “‘nk you.”

“Look at you. Already taller than Keris - and nearly a woman,” Sasi adds, evaluating her. She looks her in her green eyes. “And your eyes are very pretty.”

Haneyl blushes. From her expression and knowing her well, Keris can already guess that Haneyl is comparing her own body to Sasi’s and feeling that she’s coming off worse in every way. She knows her daughter has issues about how Calesco is prettier than her - issues that Calesco sometimes uses as a weapon.

Wrapping another quiet hair-tendril around Haneyl’s shoulders, Keris squeezes lightly. “Clothes, I think, would be a good idea. Haneyl? Shall I summon one of your beautiful flower-dress demons for you to show Sasi?”

“Later,” Sasi says, rubbing her eyes. She hugs Haneyl, guiding her towards the dressing gowns. “No demonology before breakfast.”

Breakfast is a... interesting affair. Sasi is sleepy - not so much because she was up late, but because Keris’ screams woke her and she’s not a morning person. Keris is hovering around Haneyl, making sure she eats properly. Haneyl, for once, is unusually quiet and shy around Sasi, and even though everyone’s now in dressing gowns she still seems to be comparing herself to her other mother and finding herself wanting.

When Rathan and Echo show up, Rathan is not happy to find Haneyl is now taller than him and she’s back more to her normal self for a little bit as the two of them resume their normal social tussling to see who acts as socially the elder, until Haneyl suddenly gets embarrassed and retreats back to Sasi’s side. In fact, both of them are blushing a bit around each other, and seem acutely aware of how they’re both dressed only in dressing gowns.

Keris makes a mental note that she’s probably going to need to give them all the talk at some point soon.

Echo, of course, is disgustingly awake and bouncy, and loudly dumps a pile of notes in front of Keris. “I started watching three at a time!” she says, beaming. “It made things go so much better since there wasn’t the same dull bits!”

“... thank you, Echo,” she says, accepting the pile. ‘Filing’ is apparently something that Echo has yet to learn, and Keris promptly decides to pass them on to Rounen at the first opportunity for sorting. “Well done, I’ll see to your ribbons in a couple of days, and...”

She sighs wearily, and reaches down to her belt. “... here’s your knife back,” she finishes. “Do not stab anything with it.”

“I promise I won’t stab anything,” Echo says with wide-eyed honesty.

Keris gives her a deeply suspicious look, and turns her attention to the other occupants of the table. “Rathan, yes, you get your literature, and... Haneyl?”

Her daughter looks up through her fringe. Keris smiles encouragingly. “Do you think you could make me and Sasi some tea? This stuff isn’t as good as the kind my staff make, and it might help Sasi wake up.”

Haneyl nods. “Yes. Yes, I can do that,” she says, obviously distracting herself with something she is good at. She finds the pot of tea-leaves, nibbles on one, and frowns. “This won’t do at all!” she says to herself, then takes the flowers from the centre of the table. She looks Sasi in the eye. “This’ll take a little bit, because I’m going to have to make this grow some proper tea-leaves,” she says seriously, “and then dry them out. But it’ll be much better by the end.”

Perhaps the tea is travelling back in time, because just the sight of Haneyl poking the root-like tips of her hair into the flowers and twisting and changing them as she feeds them bits of food is enough to get Sasi’s attention. Keris smiles softly and occupies herself by paying attention to Rathan to keep him from getting upset and also by corralling Echo. She keeps an ear on Haneyl and Sasi, though, and interjects the occasional comment when Haneyl’s nervous chatter stalls. Getting her talking about Elly and Saji seems to work well.

“So, Keris,” Sasi says, leaning forwards in a way which catches Rathan’s attention. “With all the... ah, drama that has ensued, what are you doing for the speeches at the Althing today? It’s Calibration 3, after all.”

Keris blows out a quiet sigh. “Well...” she starts, “I got my ship and hit the Dynastic trade routes pretty hard, blew up Agenete and left it useless, I’ve been encouraging pirate activity against the Realm outside of An Teng and working with the Lintha, and I’m creating a spell that will aid the Unquestionable’s cults and followers in Creation. It’s...” She waves a hair tendril uncertainly. “I can probably spin it to be adequate, even if I did spend a fair amount of time on personal stuff. It was personal stuff that made me better at doing my job, so... oh! I also found a few leads on manses that can serve as fuel supplies for the Baisha in Creation - which will let me use it a lot more to wreck the Realm Navy.”

Sasi nods. “It probably won’t draw any exceptional praise, but you spend enough time doing ‘personal’ things for Ligier that there’s no risk of any censure. Just play it safe, and don’t get too obsessed with looking better than any of the people who’ve done anything spectacular - that’d be my advice. You’re looking like you’re relying more on your personal relations with a few Unquestionable than the overall favour of the Althing, in my eyes.”

Keris nods. “I’ll want to take these three into the festivities - not hiding, but moving along the edges so that they’ll pass for unfamiliar citizens at a glance - to meet with Lilunu. Would, ah... could you accompany me for that? It’ll be easier to keep track of everything if you’re there, and you might be able to add a few things to the discussion.” She pauses. “Though Lilunu might want to talk to me in private since they’re my souls. In which case you could also maybe help keep them from wandering off.”

Sasi purses her lips. “With that hair, I wonder if we could pass them off as angyalka sublimati,” she ponders. “That would explain their power and their looks. Though... hmm, we may need to get Echo to wear a mask because some of the Unquestionable knows what human form Adorjani prefers.”

Keris winces. “That... is true. But, hmm. Yeah, sublimati would work. Echo? What do you think of wearing a pretty mask? Something made out of a sturdy enough material that you can keep it after Calibration?”

Echo’s eyes light up. “Not a mask! A veil! Like Calesco’s! She doesn’t realise how pretty she is, but I do and I want to see how it’s like!”

“A mask would be better,” Sasi says firmly. “Veils wouldn’t necessarily cover up your... ah, distinctive look.”

“I might be able to lay my hands on a white jade one at some point,” Keris tempts.

“Oooh, bone,” Echo says happily.

((dammit echo stop having a warped view of what bone is))

Keris nods happily. “That sounds like a plan, then. Anything I should look forward to from you? Grand speeches like last time?”

“Not particularly,” Sasi admits. “With Aiko around, I’ve had less time than I should have - and I’m not going to brag about certain things I have achieved. I’ve reported them to the Unquestionable separately, but I don’t want the identities of certain very, very prominent individuals in Tengese society who now work for me getting out. And,” she says, raising her hand, “no, I won’t tell you either. This has taken me two years to put together. They’re not one of the three princes, but as a favour, please tell me if you’re planning to kill any senior Tengese nobles.”

Keris nods. “I wasn’t planning on it, but I will if it comes up.” She pauses. “... what has Deveh been doing since last I saw him?”

“Nothing good,” Sasi says softly. “He’s spreading the power of the Hierarchy wantonly through the Theocracy of the Jade Souled. I visited once, in disguise as a trader. The land itself has been hammered into symmetry. He’s going to have a Wyld Hunt on his head as soon as someone realises what it means. The only reason he hasn’t already is that he’s making sure his slaves still pay their tithes and don’t make any trouble, so the satrap doesn’t care.”

Moron,” Keris hisses. “He’ll draw attention to you... urgh. Okay, I think you should definitely take that sabbatical.” She glances at Haneyl, who’s looking worried, and decides a quick subject change is in order. “Oh! Is that tea ready?”

“Nearly,” Haneyl blurts out, embers glowing on her hair as she apparently pumps heat in through needle-thin hair strands that penetrate the strange grey leaves she’s made. “Can you boil the water, mama? Keris, that is.”

Keris obliges, grinning as Sasi takes in the green flame flickering through Haneyl’s hair with great interest. She sets a pot of bubbling water down as Haneyl appears to finish with her plant-sculpting and watches her quickly get to work. Echo and Rathan seem fairly happy to wait without bickering for once - Haneyl’s cooking is apparently worth getting along for.

The tea when prepared is a deep green, spiced and sweet. Keris smiles in pleasure seeing it - it’s one of her favourite of Haneyl’s brews.

And certainly, from the way Sasi’s eyebrows raise when she tastes it, she either likes it or is perfectly faking otherwise. It’s hard to tell with her. “This is wonderful,” she says. “A little too sweet, perhaps, but I suppose Keris does prefer things sweeter than I do so you made it for her tastes.” She fends away Haneyl’s grab for the cup. “No, no, it’s fine. Just something to remember.”

“If sweet isn’t to your taste, maybe you should ask her to cook you something spicy later on,” Keris says mischievously. “I’m sure she could outdo any Tengese chef with her dishes.”

“Please don’t,” Sasi says. “I suffer enough from Tengese formal dinners where they seem to be competing over who has the hottest mouth - and you know that very well, Keris.”

Keris snickers. “Honestly, you’d be surprised. Haneyl’s cooking makes you not even mind the burn. But if spices aren’t to your taste, I suppose you’ll just have to teach her some traditional Realm recipes. Right?” She winks at Haneyl; quick and subtle and sly.

“If she cooks as well as she makes tea, I will need to,” Sasi agrees. She shakes her head. “Although, urgh, I am very much missing clocks here. We have five people to dress for the grand meeting, and these three need disguises as angyalka sublimati on top of that. And we mustn’t be late! Everyone needs baths! And hair care!”

“Right.” Keris snaps into motion. “Okay people, move move move! Baths first, Haneyl with Sasi, Echo and Rathan with me! And remember, while you’re out with us you are going to act as if Dulmea-mama is right there in a really picky mood and enforcing the no-hands rule with needles, got it? I will summon one of her Gales if I need to!”

((Per + Pres to corral and handle Echo and Rathan))
((3+5+2 stunt+8 Kimmy ExD {impossibly high standards, thinks she is fair}=18. 9 sux.))
((Success, stunt how Keris dresses them and what she wears for the formal event as you will. Also, Sasi is rolling Cog + Bureaucracy for this little organisational dramatic action - you can stunt-learn Haar Hidden Dealings after the time you’ve spent hiding the children over the past few days.))
((Yesss, will do. So Echo is wearing ribbons and a mask. Rathan will be wearing simple-but-very-high-quality Hellish robes that don’t detract from how gorgeous he is, and Haneyl will probably be in an erooltony.))

Some rummaging around turns up a mask for Echo; a grinning, vaguely feline demonic thing whose features are merely suggested by shape and angles without a lick of paint or colour. Keris isn’t sure what exactly it’s made of - it looks like pale grey wood, sounds like bone and tastes almost like pottery - but Echo immediately declares that she loves it; gathering her hair into five long ponytails that hang out of the back. Keris doesn’t even bother trying to convince her not to wear ribbons; merely convincing her to use pretty, high-quality ones that match instead of her usual mishmash.

Rathan is a lot easier. They’ve already worked out what he’s going to wear, after all; the simplest and most modest of the styles currently fashionable in Hell; toned down a little so as not to draw attention away from his natural beauty. His hair falls free in a red waterfall; his stubby horns just poking through it, and he elects to take a book, “just in case”.

Haneyl comes out of her bath with Sasi; lips gold-dusted and eyes carefully made up, to find an erooltony waiting for her. Keris has made sure to summon a different demon than the one she wore yesterday; this one’s petals a vibrant Ligerian green, but she suspects a few people might still draw a parallel. That’s fine - in all likelihood, they’ll just assume Keris has been making sublimati allies, or maybe that she thinks she’s onto the next big fashion.

Keris herself, since her boasts will be of piracy, pillaging and plunder, has decided to wear her armour with a nautical surcoat. The demonic silver gleams in the light as she moves; the helmet left off and a Hellish mockery of a Tengese captain’s jacket sized and adjusted to fit over it. Her Kasseni-bangle adorns her wrist, and her gold-and-ruby earrings sparkle in her favourite state of tiny three-wave krises.

With the three of them using their hair and looking as demonic as they do, nobody will guess the truth. Keris is sure of that. They’ll be taken as citizens, or maybe sublimati, but there’s really nothing surprising about a peer associating with demons at a festival during Calibration. Unless she draws attention to herself, nobody will look twice. Rathan smiles shyly at her, and leans up to whisper in her ear.

“I’ll make sure Echo and Haneyl behave,” he promises. “I understand, mother. We have to look innocent and normal. That way nobody will be suspicious of us. I won’t let them go off and do anything dumb.”

Sasi herself is wearing a silver robe that seems to be made of liquid mercury. Her hair is carefully braided - by Haneyl, given the green-burning flowers woven in - and an emerald bindi hangs down over her caste mark that catches the flight from within.

“You look beautiful,” she tells Keris. “Are you ready?”

((Sasi - 9 successes on the hiding-conspiracy-plan.))
((Keris is activating Haar-Hidden Dealings to supplement it.))

“Ready as we’ll ever be,” Keris says, reaching up for a very light kiss that doesn’t disturb their makeup. “You’re even more gorgeous than usual. Right, Echo, Rathan, Haneyl. Remember: stick together, don’t wander off, try not to look too shocked at things, and act like Dulmea is testing you on your angyalka skills.”

Sasi raises an eyebrow as she catches faint winces from all three children, but forebears to comment.

“We get it, mama, honestly,” whines Echo. “You’re taking forever, let’s just go!

Keris sighs. “Fine. But remember,” she stresses one last time, ignoring the exaggerated rolled eyes that Echo somehow manages to convey even from behind a mask with no eye holes. And then they’re off.

Not an unusual glance is even directed their way. Of course people are paying attention to her and Sasi, but in its own way the overtness is its own disguise.

Orabilis glides up to the pair of them. “Peer Keris,” he says, voice clipped. “I have been reading the notes you have been submitting. The progress is perhaps slower than I might have liked, but it looks solid. I anticipate your results eagerly. Well, I must be gone. I do not have time to speak to you when there is a council of my fellows to attend.”

And with that, he heads into one of the grand palaces here.

Keris blinks a few times, squeezes Haneyl’s shoulder to keep her from bristling, and relaxes. “Well,” she breathes. “That was... pleasant. I didn’t realise he was reading all of my notes as I submitted them, though. I thought he’d get someone to look through them... ah, but I suppose this is a project that has his personal attention. Shall we see if we can find Lilunu?”

She feels a little guilty for springing this on Lilunu at a time like this, though there’s also a sense of righteous annoyance that she wouldn’t have to spring it so suddenly if Lilunu had given her a meeting earlier. Regardless, when she catches her mentor’s eye over a performance of the Dance of Diminishing, she puts on her most panicked expression and swallows her voice to gesture that Lilunu should really, really hear what she needs to say before the grand convention starts.

Fortunately, Keris is silver-tongued knows exactly what to say. Lilunu’s servants direct her into their lady’s dressing room, where Lilunu is being dressed by her servants. They’re carefully building a mantle of bronze leaves over her soft white underrobe, wiring them together with silver wire.

“Oh, Keris. You said this is important,” she said, carefully not moving. “Sorry for this, but I can’t move right now.”

Keris considers her words carefully, eyeing the servants. “... I don’t want to shock you, and this might,” she says, at length. “I’ve spoken to you of my... children. And at one point you took me to see an acquaintance of yours; who we sang with. My children have... grown... faster than I expected, into something similar.” She pauses. “They are not... confined as they once were. It may be possible for you to meet them, as you once mentioned doing. I haven’t told anyone yet, because I’m concerned they might be...”

Another pause. A slightly longer one.

“... that they might be exploited by those older and more experienced than them,” she eventually settles on. “But I thought that if anyone could help me guide and protect them, and introduce them to those who... who won’t hurt them, that it would be you.”

Lilunu freezes. A few snapped orders in Old Realm are enough to get her servants fleeing the room. Her features fluctuate several times - a clear sign of agitation as her nature fights her control. “What are you saying?” Lilunu says, carefully trying to remove her mantle so she can move without it breaking.

Keris holds her hands out slowly, helping her out with a steady pair of hair-tendrils. “I’ve made sure that it won’t cause trouble. It’s still secret; they’re disguised,” she says, fighting to keep her voice calm and soothing. “But... my souls have grown and escaped my inner world. The eldest three; they’re out here, in Malfeas. I went... well, I went briefly insane on the first day, as they all began to grow and swell in power, but once I stabilised I made sure to keep them all in my townhouse and stop them from causing any trouble.” She pauses, evaluating Lilunu carefully. “They’re with Sasi; she knows. We’ve got them looking like sublimati; nobody has really paid them much attention. Would you like me to bring them in for you to meet?”

Lilunu swallows. “I can meet them?” she asks. “Are you saying that, truly, they are... out in the world?” She nods. “Send them in,” she says.

Keris leaves the room for a moment, and comes back in trailing Sasi and three... well, not exactly small forms, because all three of them are taller than she is.

Stupid growth spurts.

“Lilunu,” she begins, “Unquestionable, honoured lady, my wise mentor, I am pleased and proud to introduce you to, in order...”

She flicks Echo’s mask up onto her forehead. “Echo, my eldest; fifth soul of mine.”

An arm goes around Rathan’s shoulders and Keris pulls him down slightly to kiss him on the forehead. “Rathan, my sixth soul and eldest son.”

Haneyl is standing very close to Sasi in her flowery dress, her glowing green eyes wide as she takes in Lilunu - whose own green eyes stare back. Keris gently lays a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “And Haneyl, my seventh soul, who takes after your lord’s fire. As you can see.

“Children?” she adds, turning to face them and quietly making sure that she’s positioned to stop Echo if her eldest lunges and starts trying to poke her mentor, “this is Unquestionable Lilunu. Be on your best behaviour,” she adds in a slightly quieter tone.

Lilunu’s eyes widen in shock, and then her lips start moving. She’s not even saying anything, just mouthing silent words.

((Roll 1 dice))
((... aww man. 1 die...
...
... fuck. I really hope that wasn’t her attempt to keep control of herself. Um. Ummm.
... botch. Shit, I am genuinely scared now. If she breaks down now, it could knock the whole Althing off track, and... shiiiit. Please, please say that wasn’t her control roll to not go crazy.))
((Congratulations!))

Lilunu exhales, her hair turning red again from the black it was becoming. “I’m fine,” she says faintly. “Just fine. That was... that was quite a shock. But I’m fine now.” She glides up to the three children, her soft white robe brushing against the ground. “Let me take a look at you,” she says, reaching out with one long-fingernailed hand to take Echo by the chin.

((You didn’t succeed on your Mentor 1 (Adorjan) roll!))
((... excuse me while I whimper in terror for a moment.))

Lilunu takes in all three of the children, lingering longest over Haneyl. “Oh,” she says softly. “This one, this Echo - she is a child of the Silent Wind alone, but this one, he is not only the Red Moon and,” she shakes her head, “this child is more than the Hungry Swamp, she is almost as much my lord. Oh, Keris,” she says, wrapping her in a hug, “they are all so beautiful! And so healthy!”

Keris hugs back happily, purring with delight. “They are wonderful,” she agrees. “The others aren’t ready to come out - I don’t think Calesco or Vali will be coming out - but I might be able to let you meet Zanara, my youngest, tomorrow or on the last day of Calibration. But, ah... Sasi and I had concerns. About how certain of the Unquestionable would react to them.”

Sasi speaks up. “Unquestionable Lilunu, I do not feel it would be best to spring this on the others without prior warning. Though I would of course not cast doubt on the intentions of demon princes, I have souls myself and I fear the things some of your kin would prefer. It would likely be too focused around their own desires, rather than the greater good of the Althing. To that end, it would be better to keep this quiet until next year, time to prepare and make sure that esteemed figures like yourself and your most magnificent lord can prepare properly.”

“What is it that you want?” Lilunu asks. “With regards to your souls, that is?” She’s more brusque and businesslike with Sasi, Keris notices.

“I merely wish that our souls receive the same status as us - that they are treated as peers, not as citizens.” Sasi bows her head respectfully. “They are aspects of our own minds and if they were to be held fully under the laws of Cecelyne, it might be possible for the Exalted of Creation to summon them - and even if they cannot, what if demon princes outside the Reclamation sort to control us through that? It is for our safety and the safety of the goals of our masters that they should be peers, set aside from the right of the servants of Heaven to demand anything of us.”

((... 8 successes. Goddamnit Sasi, that wasn’t a good roll from you. Wait, no, also channeling a Principle.))
((... 9 successes total. Dammit Sasi, that’s just increasing your underperformance. Keris may need to step in with her deal-making skills. Seriously, what the hell Sasi, 9 successes off 28 dice.))
((Aiming at Lilunu’s sadness about the state of her own souls, and her happiness and relief that Keris’s are so healthy and secure, and the fairly obvious fact that they would not remain that way if the Unquestionable voted to bind them with oaths and chains. Sasi made the logical argument, so Keris is going for the EMOTIONAL APPEAL.))
((Per + Pres, also consider what charms and Principles are in use because you sort of really need to get Lilunu on side. : p Effectively lvl3 stunt from playing off things about Lilunu.))
((Using MOE and BOT to look innocent and vulnerable and justified in being worried, as well as Hidden Depths Temptress to encourage Lilunu to hide the kids.
3+5+3 stunt+1 Firebrand Demagogue+1 bonus {speaking in line with a 4+ Principle}+4 Kimmy ExSux {self-defined victim, secrets, brokering deals}x2 HDT=13. HAHA, WOW. (11+4)x2=30 sux. Jesus, Keris.))

“Declaring them to be peers as parts of us would also make us responsible for their actions, my lady,” Keris adds quietly. “I think it would be easier and safer to let us control and tend to our own souls than risk letting them run wild in Hell - where they might be injured - or binding them with oaths that might leave them suffering and unable to act at all.” Knowing what she does, she’s able to play off things that Sasi can’t - things that Sasi doesn’t know about. “Any Green Sun Princess who becomes close to one Unquestionable makes enemies of others - look at lord Ligier’s war with Ululaya. Peer Sasimana is concerned with our ability to serve, and she’s right, but... I would fear for Rathan personally if the Blood-Red Moon turned her anger on me and had the ability to bind or command him.”

Lilunu nods solidly. “You’re right,” she agrees. “The risks of them being controlled - or trapped - is something I hate to think of.” She paces back and forth. “You have them disguised as a angyalkae, yes? Then perhaps they shall be my guests in a... private box in the All-Thing. This is my body, so I can give them a private box if I wish. I agree - there are Unquestionable that I would not wish controlling my own souls.”

Keris beams, and carefully hugs her again. “I am more grateful than I can say,” she whispers. “Thank you. I know you’ll take good care of them.”

Lilunu nods. “You know why I want your souls to fare well,” she says, with a hint of sadness in her voice. “Keris, your children are beautiful and young. I wouldn’t want to see them trapped or miserable.”

Wishing that she could comfort her more or express hopes of healing Lilunu’s poor, maimed souls, Keris merely nods. “I know,” she says. “Thank you again, my lady. Sasi and I will see you at the grand convention.”

Haneyl appears to be conflicted heavily, caught between wanting to spend time with Sasi and wanting to spend time with Lilunu. And there’s something else, something she’s putting together as she gets used to her new teenaged face. “Mama,” she whispers softly to Keris as she hugs her. “Why do me and Sasimana look so much like the lady Lilunu?”

“Lots of powerful demons look like they’re from the Realm,” Keris whispers back, which is technically true. “Orabilis is another one; remember? Ask me later and we can talk about it then, okay? Don’t mention it to Sasi or Lilunu, though.”

“O-okay,” she whispers. “M-make sure to make it clear that Echo can’t ruin this for me!”

Keris kisses her on the cheek and nods. “I’m sure Lilunu is clever enough to keep her in line anyway,” she points out, and moves over to give Rathan a hug and a kiss goodbye. Echo she smiles at fondly before brushing a kiss across her forehead and flipping her mask back down.

“That does suit you,” she sub-vocalises, knowing her eldest is eavesdropping on everything. “I know you’ve probably already worked out what Haneyl was wondering about, but try to let her work through it at her own pace, okay? It’ll be more interesting that way. And don’t bother Lilunu too much - remember Big Mama can listen through her sometimes.”

Echo stiffens up. “That was mean, to point that out,” she mutters.

“I’ll get you your ribbons tomorrow,” Keris returns between words as she makes her goodbyes and ducks out of the dressing room. “And I’ll see about that white jade mask, too. Think about what kind of design you’ll want. Oh, and I’m sure you’re a very good girl who’d never deliberately eavesdrop on secret conversations from your nice safe private box, so I’ll assume that any fun things you tell me tonight? You must have come by them honestly.”

((Oh Keris. “If I encourage her towards this type of mischief, she may be less likely to do other kinds.”))

Echo nods minutely. “Do you know one of the best things about ribbons? You can write on them too,” she whispers back.

Keris leaves arm in arm with Sasi; a grin on her lips and a mischievous giggle in her throat.

“That... went well,” Sasi says, sounding mildly surprised.

“I told you,” says Keris smugly. “Lilunu is really nice. You just need to know how to talk to her. And now...”

She eyes Sasi up and down longingly for a moment, and then sighs. “If I say we could get ourselves out of sight somewhere now that we don’t have three hangers-on, you’ll tell me that it would ruin our makeup and that we don’t have time to fix it before the convention, won’t you?” she pouts.

Her girlfriend smiles, and Keris feels unseen hands brush against her. “Do you want to turn up to the Althing not looking perfect?” she asks teasingly.

Keris has to put some serious thought into that, which is quite difficult given where some of the unseen hands are brushing. “Gnh,” she whimpers, leaning against the wall for a moment. “I think... I, ah... might be worth it... but... maybe not... the grand convention?”

“The answer is, no, you don’t want to turn up not looking perfect,” Sasi says. “But if you’re very good... well, the thought occurs to me that we don’t have to collect the children immediately.”

This thought perks Keris up considerably, and the two of them enter the great conclave of the Green Sun Princes and Princesses looking regal and almost entire composed once more. Hopefully, Keris thinks, things will be a little less tedious this time than last, now that she knows more people here.

Compared to last year, everything seems less impressive. Not that she’s insulting Lilunu’s work in preparing this space, which this year appears to be almost a forest grove full of the vegetation of Hell, looked down on by the viewing boxes of the Unquestionable. Keris’ heart is full of pride when she thinks that her children are watching her from one of those boxes.

She sees Asarin, one of seven women sitting around a quite handsome young man with dark hair, and catches her eye. The demon lord smiles at her, and Keris’ mouth quirks up.

And then the speeches begin. Other princes and princesses she doesn’t know have died this year, and so Keris has to wait even longer before speaking because she’s higher up the seniority list. Apparently, though, from what she gathers there’s something big happening in the North West. The forces of Hell are moving against a Lord of Death and his forces in Skullstone, and there have been several major battles between puppet-nations and the Lord of Death’s forces. She vaguely recalls a drunken Naan mentioning something about this at the party - something about breaking a dock and killing a Dead Exalt or something? She thinks it might be related, anyway.

And then it’s her turn. She can see Orange Blossom staring at her from across the circle. Waiting for a response.

“Unquestionable, citizens, peers,” she announces, determinedly not focusing on the woman - though Keris can still hear her, watching. “The wealth that flows from the Southwest to the coffers of the Realm has dwindled, this past year. With my warship; the Baisha, I have harrassed their trade routes and seized a fleet of their vessels; slaughtering their crews to a man! With fire and blade, I have destroyed the silver-town that funnelled the wealth of the Tengese highlands back to the Blessed Isles! I have sent the Realm’s forces searching for foes they will never find, built up pirate forces in the oceans they patrol, reached out to the Lintha; our allies, and aided their own efforts to throw down the traitorous kin of the Dragons! Soon I will have manses to fuel my warship throughout the year, and the Realm Merchant Navy will be crushed by my hand!”

There is of course polite applause, but everyone knows that people are prone to bragging here. Still, some people are probably going to take account of that, especially people who have interests in the Realm Merchant Navy.

Things proceed. Naan is a bucketful of laughs as he details the many, many things he’s blown up, wrecked and killed - and Keris can’t help but feel that he’s having a lot more fun than she is. Sasi is a masterpiece of deflection, making it sound like her work is having grand and wide-reaching effects across the South West without actually detailing very much of what she’s doing.

((More on her game there, heh, 18 successes))

The applause at first from the other princes and princesses is weak, but it’s prompted into thunderous clapping by the applause from the Unquestionable. Whatever Sasi briefed them on before this meeting clearly has made them very happy.

And then there’s Orange Blossom. In many ways, her speech resembles a version of Sasi’s with less finesse. But there’s one bit that sticks in Keris’ mind.

“... and despite the barriers of a Lookshyian expeditionary force which has taken and is holding the newly rediscovered city of Eshtock, I assure you, they will not get the treasures. A silent blade will destroy them all,” she announces.

((... goddammit.))
(( : D ))

Keris is pretty sure Sasi notices her slight flinch at that part. And she definitely notices how Keris - despite really, really wanting to hang back and spend some time with her girlfriend before going back to collect her children - makes her excuses and slips away into the crowd. But she’s not there any more when Keris looks back, and she can’t hear her amidst the noise, so she decides to apologise later and focuses on getting Orange Blossom into a private room where they can talk without being overheard.

“Eshtock, then,” is her first, flat comment.

Orange Blossom brushes unseen lint off her sleeves. “Yes,” she says. “I see you noticed that. Yes, Keris. What do you know of Lookshy and its foreign policy?”

“Well they...” says Keris. “They... ah...”

She stops.

“... let’s go with ‘not much’, actually,” she admits. “Why?”

“Because it relates to what I want you to do in return for knowledge of the location of Baisha,” Orange Blossom says. Her dark eyes glint. “Lookshy treats the Scavenger Lands as its back yard. It reserves the right to act against things it considers to be a threat - and it considers things like ‘not having resources it wants’ as a threat. It very much loves its First Age ruins and Shogunate salvage.”

Keris scowls. “Going out and digging up old weapons, old graves, that sort of thing?” she asks, thinking back to her time in Matasque with Sasi. That expedition had been from Thorns, but... “Sending out groups to... to look for mass graves from the Contagion, old First Age machinery?”

“Yes, that sort of thing,” she agrees. “Now, Eshtock until recently was trapped within a valley of mists that apparently the last commander of the defence forces called on to protect it from the fae. The mists were dispelled by a sorcerer of Lookshyian allegiance and now they have sent an expeditionary force to claim it. From what my spies say, the Shogunate city has rotted while it was trapped within the mists, but there are still many treasures that survived time. Already they have shipped out an entire arsenal of jadesteel plate. The local lords aren’t happy with this, of course, but what can they do against Lookshy?”

“Nothing, ‘cause Lookshy don’t care what they break or trample on while they’re looting places,” says Keris absently. “So you want me to go in and kill them all so that your people can loot it instead, right?”

“No, not exactly,” she says, reaching out to take Keris’ hand. Her hands are warm and soft. “Here is what I want. Amilar Mena is the commander of the expeditionary force. He is popular and a hero of previous campaigns. I want you to kill him - and in a way which makes it look like he was assassinated by Dead Exalts from Thorns. I want a war between Lookshy and Thorns, and this will help. Do this for me, and I will tell you where Baisha is. Do you agree to do this in return for the knowledge you want?”

Keris’s eyes widen a little, then narrow. She thinks, hard, for several intense seconds. Killing a Dragonblood, she can almost certainly do. Killing him without making herself obvious, in a way that looks like Thorns... that’s going to be trickier. Doing so in the middle of a Lookshyian expeditionary force, trickier still. She’s not actually sure what evidence she can plant to conjure up that image.

But. Orange Blossom knows about Baisha. So she’ll find a way.

Keris looks up and meets Orange Blossom’s eye. Her grip becomes firm.

“I agree.”

A great oily blue burning pyre unfolds around Orange Blossom, as her brow lights up with a green circle surrounded by a green ring. Silver sparkles and rainbows glisten and gleam in the deep blue depths of her ignited soul. Behind the other woman stands a great devil tigress, its eyes burning a brilliant blue and its fur the colour of the deep sea. “So it shall be. I will not break this vow - neither should you,” Orange Blossom says.

Keris’s teeth clench, but she restrains herself to a nod. “I assume you want it done as quickly as possible? I won’t be able to leave Malfeas until my spellcrafting for Orabilis is done, and that won’t be for a month or so. I’ll leave as soon as I’ve presented my work to the Unquestionable.”

Orange Blossom scowls, but nods. “It should take them longer before they move, but it’s up to you to make sure you arrange for that death,” she says.

“I will,” Keris says, waving her off. “If that’s all?”

“Just remember not to get too greedy,” Orange Blossom says curtly. “I expect you to steal some things from the city - I know you well enough for that - but you’re not there to pillage the place. Unless you can summon up a legion of the Dead to carry off everything you find, stick to small things that they won’t wonder how the assassin got away with the treasure.”

Keris pouts at this - she had been planning to steal a fair amount, but relents with an irritated grunt. “Nothing too big to believe,” she promises. “Now I think we both have other things to do here today.”

“Yes, I think we do,” she agrees. “Get this done for me, and I’ll tell you everything I know about Baisha - and I know where it is, before you kick up a fuss about me trying to cheat you. I hold to my deals - I swore this oath so you wouldn’t go running off or get distracted by someone else,” she says bitterly, in a tone which almost reminds Keris of Rathan talking about Echo.

“Don’t act like I ran off for no reason,” Keris says; quiet but heated. “I came back panicking from my first mission ‘cause I’d found a Dead Exalt on it; stronger than me and already dug into the city. I came rushing back here to ask for help, and I got told that you weren’t here. Not even because you were on a mission; you were off getting your own lands. I joined up with Sasi, yeah, but that was because she was there when I needed her. You weren’t.”

((*ex-girlfriends parallels intensify*))

“You’re just the same,” Orange Blossom says, raising one eyebrow. “In fact, I spend more time on tasks for the All-Thing than you. Don’t think I didn’t notice that you weren’t mentioning you spend more time working for a few Unquestionable. Oh, I know a lot about all the time you spent buying favours from the Green Sun for that ship you’re so proud of.”

Keris has no answer to that, and looks away. Orange Blossom scoffs, and stands to leave, but Keris stops her at the door.

“Orange Blossom,” she says quietly, without looking up from the floor. “... you said ‘is’. Where it is. Not ‘was’. Do you mean...”

She can’t actually finish the sentence. Even forming the thought is like holding a jagged ball of razor-edged hope in her chest. She’s not sure if the prospect makes her want to laugh, cry or hit something.

“One free thing, then - yes, there are people living there,” the other woman says, watching Keris intensely.

A single tremor goes through Keris, starting somewhere in her chest and rippling down her limbs and up into her scalp. Her hair twists, knotting and bunching up to shield her back, and she takes a shaky breath.

“I... okay,” she says after a moment. “I thoug- okay. Okay.”

She curls into herself, feeling very fragile all of a sudden, unsure of what it is, exactly, that she feels. All this time she’d thought her home was gone. That all that would be left was a ruin; the bend in the river, a few scant traces. But if there are still people... if maybe some people escaped the raid...

((Orange Blossom can probably deduce that Keris isn’t going to be doing much talking for the next half hour or so.))

Orange Blossom leaves her, which is probably for the best. Keris isn’t sure she wouldn’t have tried to shake something more out of her if she’d stayed.

Chapter Text

All things must pass in time, and Calibration is one of them. Keris heads home after a little diversion with Sasi, back to her waiting children - who have been joined by Zanara. It turns out that in human form, Zanara’s male form is a little reddish-blond boy who looks quite a bit like Rathan - though less pretty - while their female form is even more notably of the Realm, with mid-length red hair and bright green eyes.

She knows the exact moment of midnight in Creation. With a silent sigh, Echo’s human form decoheres, skin peeling away to reveal only ribbons and light underneath.

With a shrug, Echo indicates that it was fun while it lasted.

The changes with the other children are less dramatic, but no less present. Haneyl’s hair shifts, becoming more gnarled and the embers igniting in it, while her teeth become slightly more prominent and her eyes glow from within. Rathan’s eyes gain their pearly shine and his horns grow slightly, coating over with ice. Zanara, who is currently female, lets out an extravagant sigh and gleefully watches her hair turn back into a splattered orange and pink.

“I was so bored like that,” she drawls.

But Keris enjoyed these past few days of Calibration. They were... productive. With Sasi’s words in mind, she’s made sure to talk to the other two Unquestionable positively inclined to her; quietly reminding Jacinct and the Shashalme of the things she’s done for them in polite and respectful conversation. She’s not sure she can count on them to back her against the Blue Glass Maiden should her secret come out, but she can certainly make sure they consider her trustworthy and entertaining. Every little helps.

There aren’t many of her fellow Green Sun Princes that Keris knows well - and with her pregnancy as far along as it is she can’t really risk sparring or drinking with Naan, who rivals her in deadliness and constitution - but she trades nods with the ones she recognises and has a short conversation with Geasa that largely consists of ranting about Dead Exalts and how they should stay in the grave where they belong.

She also mingles with lesser demons. Berengiere accepts some stockpiled and hoarded silverwork in return for another batch of voice-ribbons and a rewoven set of gloves - though Keris is careful not to have Echo model for them in person. She spends more time with Asarin as well; and by the end of Calibration she thinks they’re approaching a real friendship. The demoness’s acerbic temper and sharp wit make Keris laugh, and Asarin seems to value her opinion and taste - as well as a sympathetic ear to tales of her love life, and the demon prince Balanodo who Keris has yet to meet.

Lelabet comes back for another visit, too. Either by chance or design, she picks the next night that Sasi spends with Testolagh. It’s a less cerebral connection than with Asarin, but Keris is just as pleased to make it. Up close and without her veiling half-mask, Keris sees the disfiguring burn scars that cover the left side of Lelabet’s face - and down her left arm and as far as her hip. She flinches slightly as Keris takes in the pink scars against her dark skin.

“What happened?” Keris murmurs; soft and soothing, ready to back off if the demon doesn’t want to talk about it. “Can they not be healed?”

“It was an Immaculate monk, wielding one of their legendary spears,” Lelabet says tersely. “And nothing has worked so far. The fire just burns me again.”

Keris hums sympathetically, listening closely and curiously to the sound of the scars. She wonders if anyone has put the powers of a Green Sun Prince to the task, or if offering would only offend her further. Deep within the scars, she can hear the sound of glowing, hidden embers. No wonder they can’t be fixed by anything Lelabet has tried so far. Whatever the Dragonblood did to her, her flesh still burns from within - and more than her flesh, her demonic essence too. Keris kisses the scars and allows the subject to change back to a more enjoyable one, though her mind lingers thoughtfully on the wound until thought flees entirely.

((Hmm. That would probably be, like... a complex Working to heal? Possibly one involving the spear in question? Not Countermagicable, or it would already be gone. You’d have to, heh, draw the embers out. Ouch.))
((Yes, it’s not a sorcerous thing.))

Calesco gives Keris a very judging look that night when she visits her daughter in her dreams.

“What?” Keris protests, taking the opportunity to turn her daughter this way and that, examining her new height closely. She is, Keris is extremely satisfied to see, still shorter than her mother. “What have I done this time to anger you?”

Calesco continues to judge her in the gloom of the Meadows. “So you went and found someone else because Sasimana is with Testolagh tonight,” she says critically.

“... I’d actually say she found me,” says Keris, refusing to rise to the barb. “And yes; she’s friendly and I wanted company. Who does that hurt?”

“You did it because you were bitter that Sasimana has two lovers,” Calesco says sharply.

“I did it because she’s flirty and hot and interested,” Keris argues back. “I’m not- okay, I am a little bitter. But I don’t love her like I do Sasi, and I don’t see why I should just passively wait for her to come back to me and never touch anyone else.” She sighs. “Must we argue about this? I would have thought you’d be sympathetic to that wound of hers.”

“She’s a demon lord. I don’t assume that she deserves my sympathy,” Calesco says, folding her arms. “You slept with her because you want to make Sasi jealous, at least in part.”

“Well, maybe I shouldn’t tell Sasi about it. Then she won’t be jealous and all is fine; happy?” Keris retorts, beginning to scowl.

“You did it just for pleasure,” Calesco says softly. “There should be love.”

Keris considers that, stops scowling, and sighs.

“Love... love is rare, and precious, and painful,” she says sadly. “I think it’s okay just to do things that don’t mean very much but which make you happy. Love is special, and it makes things better, and a life without it is awful. But not everything need spring from it.”

She pulls Calesco into a hug. “I really need to have a talk with the... well, with four of you. Not Vali or Zanara. But I don’t want Rathan and Haneyl deciding to try resolving fights the way Ululaya and Ligier used to.”

“You don’t question why I know these things already and I know everything you did with Lelabet, even though you’ve been very careful to run around after Rathan and keep him away from neomah,” Calesco says, voice soft. “Why? Do you care more about him?”

“No,” says Keris, equally quiet. “But I’m worried about him abusing his looks and taking advantage of lesser beings. I know you wouldn’t do that. And I know it’s in your nature to know things about me, because you’re truth, more than any of your siblings. You know things ab-”

She stops abruptly. “Wait, hold on. Everything I did with Lelabet? Not just that I did things in general, not just how I listened to her scar, but... details?” Her cheeks feel hotter than usual for the Meadows, and she realises with a wince that she’s blushing; her previous poise lost in the face of sudden awkwardness.

((o keris))
((u were thinking this was just neutral information to critique you on plucked out of your brain - a synopsis, rather than a play-by-play))

Under her veil, Calesco has a faint blush on her cheeks. She covers it up with cruelty. “Yes, mother,” she says sharply. “You were the one who made me associated with such things, so I know about them. Even when I don’t want to? Does that make you happy? Does it make you feel excited?

“No! Argh! Stop talking about it!” Keris covers her ears, which is still habit despite the fact that her hearing makes it next to useless in actually blocking out sound. “I didn’t exactly carve you out of silver; it wasn’t my choice to make that knowledge part of you!” Another thought occurs to her, and she cringes further. “Wait, does that mean that my time with Sasi... no, no, don’t answer that. Do not answer that. Do not answer anything near that. Argh.”

((Calesco used AWKWARDNESS.))
((It was super-effective.))

“You love Sasi,” Calesco says, more gently. “Everything you do is just an expression of love. I don’t mind that. It’s sweet. And Sasimana was so gentle with Haneyl. I think she loves her already. She reminds her of the family she lost. But you didn’t love Lelabet - and you were doing it because you were angry at Sasi. And I don’t understand why you... you’d do something you normally do because of love because you were angry at the person you love.” She hunches in on herself. “It made me feel bad.”

Keris cringes more at the implied confirmation, and decides to have an in-depth talk with Sasi before sleeping with her again. Dulmea is one thing, and she tends to turn her attention away to other things. Calesco getting a front-row seat is another.

“I’ll...” she starts to promise, and then considers that an absolute promise of this nature would make things very frustrating during the months that she’ll be apart from Sasi for work. “I’m sorry I upset you,” she says instead. “And I’ll try not to do the... the angry and jealous part again. I won’t say that I won’t take lovers I’m not deeply in love with, but... I’ll try to be sure that there’s actual affection and friendship there. Something more than just physical. And... yeah, and now I’m going to, uh, run away, because this conversation is awkward to the point of torture.”

She stops again, then grabs Calesco’s hand and meets her eyes through the veil. “Also, Echo must never know,” she says firmly and with muted horror at the visions of teasing and satire dancing silently through her mind. “Ever.”

“She’ll listen. She’s always behind you,” Calesco says, hugging back. “I’m sorry. I... I don’t understand what I know. And I don’t get all your feelings.” She pauses. “Also, I don’t see everything normally,” she admits. “I snuck into the tower because I wanted to understand more about what you were doing, and Dulmea is still distracted.”

“She’s always annoying, more like,” Keris mutters at a tone that Calesco is technically not meant to hear, but does anyway. “Please don’t do that again, then. But thank you for telling me that. Are you well? I saw your wings were bigger during Calibration - a lot bigger. Your light is under control now? You’re not hurt from what happened?” There’s a mixture of relief and concern in her voice - the former for moving away from the topic, the latter for Calesco’s wellbeing.

“My body changed,” Calesco says, cloth rustling as she shifts. “A lot. It hurt. At... at least I used to look more human before, but now I can’t even pretend to be a bird-woman. Growing up just means pain and misery.”

“Oh, Calesco...” Keris hugs her again. “Do you want to show me?” She covers her eyes in demonstration, motioning at cave and the boulder.

“It’s ugly,” her daughter says miserably. “I’m uglier. More painful. I’ve tried to help the people who saw me and I just hurt them even more.”

“You’re not ugly,” Keris insists fiercely. “Show me, and I’ll show that to you. You’re not ugly, Calesco, and you never have been. You just... you see the truth. A truth that would break other people, and you’re the only one who can stand its glare. It doesn’t make you ugly, that it reflects off you. It makes you strong - and brave, to protect them from it.”

“If you want to suffer, then you’re just going to insist,” Calesco says, leading her to her cave and sealing the rock behind her.

Standing on one side, Calesco exhales, peeling away her veil. But instead of the light shining through before, her shadow-garb simply is destroyed by the light escaping.

Agony smashes into Keris, hitting her like ten thousand knives.

She doesn’t scream - less because of fortitude and more because the breath is smashed out of her. The fact that she falls over backwards actually helps - it means that Calesco is out of her sightline, which reduces the pain just long enough for her to shut her eyes.

Which... doesn’t actually make the pain go away.

That’s new. And not very promising. But it reduces it to bearable levels, even though it somehow penetrates easily past skin that could turn back a knifeblade to flense at something ephemeral within. Gathering herself, Keris listens to the renewed and bolstered song of Calesco’s power.

Calesco is bigger. Much bigger. She’s still smaller than dragon-Haneyl or Vali, but each of her wings is now larger than her entire body. Moreover, Keris can hear the hundreds of eyes on her wings and body blinking.

It’s hard to tell through the pain, but Calesco is... it’s hard to tell how old she is, actually. She’s certainly smaller than the others, but that’s just because she’s built more like Keris. In among her giant wings, Calesco is slender and petite and her limbs - including her bird-like legs - are now covered in feathers.

“Even you’re screaming,” she says sadly.

Keris grits her teeth, and stands. Keeping her eyes shut, she walks determinedly forward, ducking under a wing as Calesco tries to shield herself to avoid the silk-soft, razor-edged feathers, and sets her hands on Calesco’s shoulders.

“A fire can warm you when you’re cold, cook your food, forge your tools, light your way,” she says hoarsely. “It will burn you if you touch it, but it’s good. A river can water your plants, feed you with fish, carry your boats, power your mills. It’ll drown you if you fall in, but it’s good. A knife can keep you safe, cut your meat, whittle pretty things, cut your bonds. It’ll cut you if you touch it, but it’s good, Calesco; you are good. Things that hurt aren’t always bad. Things that don’t aren’t always good. Fire and rivers and knives are beautiful, and so are you. It’s only when they’re misused that they turn ugly, and you would never do that. You’re too careful - too caring - to let that happen.”

Gently; carefully, she draws this Calesco - this unveiled Calesco whose wings half-curl around them, filling the cave’s space; whose eyes watch her from a hundred different angles, who flinches and curls away from her approach as though she’s scared to be touched - into a hug, and kisses her forehead fondly. The pain is a deep, sharp thing that doesn’t build but doesn’t fade, and Keris isn’t sure how long she can force it away for, but she forces herself to hold on at least until Calesco starts to soften in her arms.

“You made me like this,” Calesco whispers, almost kindly. “I don’t get to run around like they do. I can’t touch the world. I have to keep lies between me and everything. Echo exists to kill people, but I hurt people more despite that. I hate you sometimes.”

Keris flinches. Hard. A few tears trickle down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, choking a little. “I’m... I’m so...”

“I told you you’d be hurt,” Calesco says, with that same kind cruelty in her voice. “Haneyl is my sister, remember? When she goes to one extreme, she doesn’t just change form. You made me let go of my lies, and that means I like hurting you. It’s not just my light that pains you.”

“Enough,” Keris whispers. “Enough. Put it back. I just...”

She feels the cutting pain fade, and sighs in relief, sagging a little as the body in her arms becomes small and fragile again.

“... I hate you thinking yourself ugly,” she admits. “I hate you sitting here and hating yourself. I want you to be happy. And you are beautiful, Calesco. I promise you that. Even if your light hurts, it’s reflecting a world that’s ugly. Not you.”

Calesco sighs. “When we’re back in Creation, I want to spend some time outside,” she says. “Not here. Not in Hell. But... maybe there’s things I can see away from everyone else. Including you.”

Keris nods tiredly. She still has a lot to do - checking on Vali, her Sorcery work now that Calibration is over, and perhaps introducing her souls to Ligier. Surprisingly, Calesco accompanies Keris to look for Vali. “There’s only the two of us here right now,” she says. “It’s quiet. And this way I can spend time with him without Rathan showing up,” she adds with disgust.

“He probably wouldn’t be so paranoid that if you hadn’t forced him to wear a dress so many times, you know,” Keris chuckles, but happily lets Calesco come along. “Last I saw, Vali was in a mountain-statue. Let’s see if it’s exploded yet.” It has, and Vali is easy to find. He’s working on one of his spires, carving things out of basalt magma. It looks like he’s making a giant dragon statue.

“Well,” Keris says approvingly, “this looks a lot better than turning everything into lava. Vali! Down here!” She has a call a couple of times for him to hear, and the metal beads in his dreadlocks glint in the light of a flash from the clouds as he spots them. Vali shrugs. He’s grown up, but he’s still younger than ten. His hair is filled with sparks, which fade as he stops working. His features aren’t too similar to Haneyl’s, but he’s somewhat her in how he glares. With a flash and a boom, he sprints down to meet Keris and his sister.

Ears,” groans Keris. “Argh. Hello, sweetheart. Dragons, then?”

Vali nods, the top of his head at about chin height for Keris. He’s going to be big, she can already tell, much like his sister. “Dragons are the best,” he says firmly.

“Okay,” she concedes, “but I bet you crashed hard when you ran out of energy, didn’t you? You can’t be a dragon all the time.”

“Not yet,” Vali insists. “But I’m still littler than both of you! I’ll get to be a dragon all the time and everything will be amazing.”

“... maybe,” Keris says, meaning ‘I hope not’. “But until then, how about we try to find things you have just as much fun doing in a human form, so that you’re not bored while you wait? If she wanted...” she adds with a quick glance sideways, “you could maybe ask Calesco to take you flying, say.”

Vali beams. “Flying as a dragon was brilliant! I like it! Oh! Oh! Maybe I can make my dragon flying work when I’m stuck as a human!”

“Well, at the moment Calesco is the only one who can fly properly,” Keris says firmly. “So you should ask her nicely, because it’s her choice whether to help you with it, right?”

“... well, I guess,” Vali says. He beams at Calesco. “Once I’ve finished making dragon statues to stare back at Echo’s skulls, the land should have finished making more towers! And then we can go explore them! And build things on them! And make better houses for people ‘cause I make better houses than the land!”

Calesco smiles faintly, but with some warmth to it. “I’d like that,” she say.

Vali grabs her by the hand, ignoring her attempt to flinch away. “And! You fly with wings! Well, I saw a bird box through mama’s eyes! It’s like a house for birds to land in when they’re tired! So I’ll make you one on top of a spire, near one of my places where I sit so the lightning can hit me which is great!

With a crack and a boom, he dashes off, dragging Calesco in his wake as she’s tossed around by the wind. Wincing and covering her ears again - she really wishes Vali would stop doing that from right next to her - Keris blinks after them in bewilderment. Well, she thinks, that will... probably end positively? If not, Calesco can get away easily enough just by taking to the air. Good enough, she decides, and leaves them to it.

Keris has seen to her inner children, so now returns to the complicated process of presenting the children - including Zanara - to Lilunu now that she has more time. She’s mentioned wanting to talk to all of them. And after that, then comes coaxing Ligier. In their demonic guises, it’s harder to explain them away as once-angyalkae, but Lilunu’s knowledge and cooperation allows for covered palanquins and secret passages through the Conventicle. Listening with half an ear to little boy-Zanara earnestly asking if Lilunu knows how to paint beaches - and Keris gets the feeling that he means using beaches as a canvas, not depicting them on one - she gathers up her three eldest and reiterates her pleas, demands and mild threats to ensure good behaviour. The Crown Prince of Hell is not someone she can afford to offend, and much depends on a good first impression.

She does note that Haneyl is prominently wearing the bracelet he gave Keris for her, a year or more ago. Her Seventh Soul seems even more nervous than Keris herself.

“It’s a good thing that Vali and Calesco aren’t here,” Rathan whispers. “I hope she’s not being super-mean to him.”

“Last I saw of him, he was talking about making giant dragon statues to stare at Echo’s skulls,” she tells him truthfully. “And I don’t think she was planning on being mean. Now remember, Ligier is fiery, but he won’t hurt you as long as you’re polite - and you’re always polite. And he’s still at war with Ululaya, so he doesn’t like her very much either - though don’t insult her too badly; be respectful...”

“I know, mama,” he says patiently, patting her hand. “You don’t need to worry so much.”

Ligier is here in lavish style, dripping with emeralds and fine-scaled armour. He waits on a throne, Lilunu as his empress at his side. There’s an amused look on his face as Keris approaches, trailed by four ducklings.

Keris approaches, stops and bows. Her ducklings; three of them taller than she is, follow suit - though admittedly one of them has to get pulled down by the hair, and the smallest is distracted by the decorations in the room and thus a beat behind the others.

“Lord Ligier,” Keris begins. “Some time ago, I told you of my souls and their development. I tell you now of a new growth they have undergone; that has let them step beyond me. These are Echo, Rathan and Haneyl; my three eldest, and Zanara, my youngest. I hope that in your wisdom and magnanimity you will look kindly on them; young and inexperienced as they are.”

Behind her, she hears Haneyl and Rathan curtsey and bow in obviously-rehearsed union, with a chorused “greetings, Unquestionable Ones.” Out of the corner of her eye, she notes with some surprise that Echo also curtseyed, albeit silently.

((Per + Expression))
((Hahahaha plz dice fairies be kind plz. 3+5+1 Spirit-Charming Supplicant+2 stunt+3 I Love My Family+8 Kimmy ExD {beauty, charm}=22. Hah hah! 11 sux! Not bad!))
((Literally average.))

Ligier adjusts how he is sitting, leaning forwards. “Ah,” he says, a wide magnanimous smile on his face. “And this would be young Haneyl, would it not?” he says. There’s a faint squeak from Haneyl. “And I notice you are wearing the gift I gave you. It looks fetching on you, young lady - as does my flame. You’re quite the little court beauty, aren’t you?”

((And those twelve successes punch waaaaaaaaaay through Haneyl’s MDV.))
((Haha wow. Hmm. I’m guessing that was a paternal air, since Lilunu is literally sitting next to him?))

Haneyl squeaks, and wobbles, her pale cheeks flaming and her eyes wide. It’s only Keris’ sneaky hair that manages to catch her daughter’s sagging knees. She supports her daughter with a rueful smile, though her eyes narrow a little as she runs over the inflections on Ligier’s words. There’s certainly an admiring air there that might not be entirely innocent - but Keris can hear some vanity in there too. He’s certainly admiring her looks, but Keris also suspects that he’s mostly appreciating how his fire looks on her.

“Please, my lord,” she says with a disarming grin. “Too charming, and I fear my daughter might ignite.”

Haneyl makes a mortified little sound, and Keris can certainly see that the embers and fireblossoms in her hair are glowing brighter. She coughs quietly and shifts the topic to safer waters. “My lady, this is Zanara, my youngest - he greatly admires your artwork and had some questions about the finer points.” Zanara’s hand slips into hers and he nods, still looking around with wide, awed eyes.

Ligier’s eyes take in the mutated form of Zanara’s male body without any surprise or shock. “And how do you fare, young man?” he asks. Zanara tries to ask questions, but Rathan nudges him.

“I’m sorry for my brother’s presumption, Unquestionable One,” Ratha says very smoothly. “I am very honoured to meet you, and I wish to make it entirely clear that I share your dislike for the Blood-Red Moon. She is cruel, presumptuous, and not half as pretty as she thinks she is.”

((9 successes, and very well-done by Rathan there))

Ligier laughs, a cultured, elegant noise. “Quite the little charmer, isn’t he?” he says to Keris.

Keris smiles fondly. “Very,” she says proudly. “And this is Echo, my fifth soul. Please forgive her irreverence.” Conscious of Haneyl, she doesn’t explicitly mention Ligier’s past meeting of sorts with her eldest, though Echo waves at him in a cheerful way that Keris doesn’t quite catch, but which she suspects carries a glowing review of Wyldeater in its subtleties.

Ligier nods, slightly bemused. “I see,” he says, which only sparks Keris’ interest more.

((ECHO))

“My lord...” Keris says hesitantly, “Honoured Lilunu may already have spoken to you of this, but I have concerns about the status of my souls in Hell - and those of any other Green Sun,” - she applies the slightest of stresses to the words - “Princes or Princesses who develop them, should they become public knowledge. Peer Sasimana has suggested that as aspects of us they be ranked as peers - as we are - but I fear the Blue Glass Maiden might argue otherwise, and wish to chain them under her laws.” She takes a breath, nervousness bubbling in her stomach. “I fear that to bind them might cripple us as servants of the Reclamation - and more, I fear that to bind them would cause them great pain and suffering, for they are my children and I love them dearly, and not all Unquestionable are so kind as you and your lady.”

Ligier leans forwards, settling his chin on his hands. “Speak clearly, little Keris,” he says, interest and amusement in his bright green eyes. “Why do you presume that your own souls should be elevated to a status above my own?” She gets the feeling he’s playing with her - but it doesn’t feel like that’s a good thing.

“N-not above,” she stutters, wishing that Sasi had been able to attend this meeting. “Your... your souls are of course older and stronger and more experienced; and you are Unquestionable besides. But I...” She wracks her brain for the points that Sasi made. What had they been? “I fear that if the Unquestionable were all able to bind the souls of the Princes - your Princes and Princesses of the Green Sun - that the negotiations of the Althing would break down as Unquestionable simply compelled our souls in whatever way suited their interests. To bind them would make our selves beholden even to those outside the Reclamation...”

She sneaks a glance at Ligier’s expression. He knows there’s more.

“... and I want them safe,” she admits, shrinking a little. “I know there are Unquestionable who hold little fondness for me. I do not fear for myself, but I would live in dread of what they might do to my souls and children. I couldn’t bear it if they were hurt, or suffered. It is not status I seek for them - merely a measure of protection while they are young.”

((Hmm. Okay, so appealing his pride in them being Green Sun Princes whose souls shouldn’t be able to be yanked around by other Unquestionable, a practical point about how the Althing works wrt Third Circle bickering - the setup suits him at the moment because he can offer the most for personal missions - and an emotional appeal that touches on both “Ululaya doesn’t like me ‘cause I sided with you” and “your ill girl waifu’s souls suffer and she’s really sad about that; I don’t want the same for mine”. Keris is of course being very honest, because she is not stupid enough to lie to fucking Ligier.))

Ligier smiles humorlessly. “But little Keris, are you ignoring that there are duties of a peer that are not asked of a citizen? Surely if your souls are to be peers, they would have duties and obligations to the Althing just as you yourself have?”

“As aspects of myself, they have already aided me in my work,” she offers. “Echo helps me when the time comes to kill, and the others have similar ways of support. I’m sure they will be eager to take part in my duties now that can step out into the world - for as parts of me, my duties are surely theirs also.” Keris is putting on a pretty good composure, but underneath she can feel herself trembling minutely, and her hair is knotting in painfully tight clumps here and there. If her souls have missions in Creation - missions of their own, without oversight, where she can’t protect them properly... the image of Lelabet’s terrible burns swims into her mind, and she has to forcibly stop her hands from shaking and compel her hair to straighten.

((Per + Pres to try to negotiate “my souls should be assigned as my assets”))
((This I can do better. 3+5+2 stunt+4 Never Be Chained Again+8 Kimmy ExD {thinks she is fair, brokering deals, elegant practicality}x2 HDT=22. 9x2=18 sux.))

Ligier looks over at Keris’ souls - Haneyl, blushing but with a fire in her eyes, Rathan in his most innocent and pleasing, Echo hard to see because of her lack of motion, and Zanara watching him with wide eyes.

“You push a hard bargain, little Keris,” Ligier says, shaking his head. “Suppose I would say that yes, I would support acknowledgement of the souls of you and your kind as... shall we say, ‘lesser peers’ while you remain ‘greater peers’, who are not entitled to some of the greater benefits of your rank but who are treated the same in the eyes of Hell. Well, this would no doubt take me great effort to push through against some of the more obstinate of my equals and lesser Third Circles. I am fond of you, little Keris, and your souls are charming, but this would be a major undertaking.” He leaves the sentence hanging for a moment.

“Well,” he says as Keris’s tension threatens to snap, “I do believe you’ve persuaded me. I will be exerting myself for you, so ill-gratitude would not be fitting.” That sentence, in contrast, slams down like a lead weight.

“Safeguarding my children, my lord,” Keris says with absolute sincerity, “is worth more to me than...” She gropes for a comparison and clearly comes up short, shaking her head helplessly. “I will be grateful until the end of my days, and loyal until the last.”

She lets herself, for a moment, cradle the idea of her souls being safe - or as safe as anything can be in Hell - with proper, genuine protection. Her eyes go misty with tears. “Thank you,” she whispers; the words clear in the perfect acoustics of the hall. “Thank you so much.”

((Well someone is getting a bunch of raksha as presents from Shuu Mua. : P))
((So basically now I have an excuse for her to go off all over the place doing things for Ligier without any major rewards for her. : p ))
((Yes, sigh. Oh, Keris. She’s just going to start a policy of grabbing most of the raksha she comes across and funnelling them to him. He will be very smug.))

Calibration has passed, and now the green sun princes are drifting off back to Creation. Sasi is already packing to depart - she’s heading back straight to An Teng after her holiday in the north, taking Aiko with her. Keris slips into her townhouse quietly; making enough noise as she approaches that Sasi can hear her coming. She holds up a lacquered box as her lover turns, giving it a gentle shake. The clinking of metal comes from within.

“Toys for Aiko,” she explains. “Her first birthday’s coming up, and I probably won’t be there, so... some simple vitriol-silver rattles and things that can survive her teeth, plus some clothes in the Tengese style.”

Sasi smiles at Keris. “That’s so thoughtful,” she says. “I only hope she only teethes once - the last thing I need is for to have multiple sets of teeth coming in.”

Keris chuckles, then reconsiders and winces. “Speaking of multiple sets of teeth...” she says, “With Calibration over, I need to get back to my sorcery project - and Orabilis will be watching me more closely. I need to decide what to do with my souls. Echo is basically going to have to go back into the Domain; she’s too energetic and impulsive to stay hidden for long, but you said that Haneyl would be welcome with you. She needs to learn about subtlety and how to work in Creation, and, well... with the Realm still in An Teng and Aiko coming up on a year old, it would be a good time for that sabbatical you mentioned a while ago.”

Sasi nods. “If she can stay at least a little subtle, I can look after her. On the other hand, if she can’t... well, I can always banish her back to you if things don’t work out or I get the Immaculates poking into my affairs too closely.” She smiles. “Are you going try to hand any of the others off to me? Or maybe Rathan to Testolagh?”

Keris grins. “Rathan, I think, can stay with me - at least until I finish my work. He’s lazy enough to stay in the townhouse where Orabilis won’t see him, and he’s getting interested in sorcerous theory. He’ll probably be happy to set up in my townhouse library and read everything there. And I may keep Zanara out long enough for them to talk to Lilunu a few times. She’ll like them. They can do art together.”

“Isn’t Lilunu working with you, though?” Sasi asks.

Keris shrugs. “We can probably find time for one afternoon of art before we dive back into the sorcery. And it means a lot to her that my souls are so happy and healthy - we Princesses might be able to use powers from different Yozis, but demons trying to do the same rarely ends well.”

Sasi squeezes Keris’ hand. “Just take care,” she says meaningfully. “Orabilis has eyes in many places.”

“I’ll treat only my townhouse as really safe, and I’ll take them back in if I get worried,” Keris promises. “You be safe - and take care of Haneyl. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but your opinion means a lot to her. She’s fiery and confident when she feels safe, but she’s shy and fragile with you at the moment.” She smiles encouragingly. “That’ll pass once she gets used to you, I think.”

“We’ll see,” she says. “Well, I intend to leave in four scream’s time. Make sure she’s packed and ready to go - we’ll be going by agata-back over the Desert, so there’s limited luggage space. You’ll need to bind an agata for her and her possessions.” Keris gives her a hug and a lingering kiss before returning to her townhouse to tell Haneyl.

Haneyl’s expression shifts repeatedly in a short span after receiving the news, finally settling in a nervous cast. The fire in her eyes are dim. “I... I don’t know if I can do this,” she whispers softly to Keris, clinging to her. “H-how long will I be away? I won’t see you for weeks. M-maybe months. And I... I don’t know how to... I’ll be leaving my lands and they’re all burned and what if Rathan starts stealing them and...”

“Your lands are regrowing, and Elly and Saji are trustworthy,” Keris says firmly. “I will make a law that nobody can steal someone’s lands if that person is out of the Domain at the time. And... come here.” She gathers Haneyl into a proper hug - which is rather more awkward now that her daughter is taller than she is, but six hair-limbs make up for it. “It’s going to be okay. I promise. You’ll miss home and you’ll miss me, that’s normal - and I’ll miss you too, so much. But you’ll be with Sasi, and you’ll be learning so many things - things about the Realm and Dynasts and governing and being clever and sneaky and elegant.” She blinks back a few tears and lets Haneyl nuzzle into her shoulder, the floral-smoke scent of her hair surrounding them both. “You’ll... you’ll be so busy, and you’ll learn so much, and you’ll get to have time with Sasi like you’ve had with me. We can write - you can ask Sasi to send messages to Rounen, and I can send them back to you. And if it gets too bad, you can ask her to send you back all the way. Just give it a chance, okay? Because if you’re big and brave and brilliant, you use what you’ll learn with her to help me out in Creation, claiming islands and seizing land and all the other things you like.”

She plants a tender kiss on Haneyl’s forehead, then shifts to rest her own against it. “I will miss you so much,” she says again. “But Sasi deserves to spend time with you too - and you deserve to spend time with her. I know that she’ll love you. Be brilliant, and make me proud.”

Haneyl bursts into tears, shaking like a leaf. “I’ll... I’ll try my best, mama,” she whispers. “B-but... but I want... I want Elly with me, but she’s my best friend and I trust her to handle things.” She pauses. “And I can’t take Saji with me or else Elly will think I like her more than me. M-maybe I should make someone new, j-just so I have someone with me.”

Keris lets her cry, holding her close and whispering soothing things to her - compliments, reassurances, endearments. “Maybe you should,” she says. “Or make friends with Aiko, perhaps. You’ve been a very good big sister for Zanara. And yes, I’ll make sure Rathan doesn’t steal them either. Just remember, you can always come home if you really want to. If you do, we’ll both understand - I wanted to go home the first time I left mine. That’s normal.”

“Don’t you dare tell anyone I cried like this,” Haneyl mutters, wiping her eyes on her sleeves. “And... and what do I even take? I don’t know what to do. I’ll need to take everything with me because... because I can’t make things here in the same way as back home and I bet Creation’s the same.” Keris doesn’t mention that in her distress, Haneyl’s accent is slipping back to Nexan.

“Well, remember that Sasi will give you things to use,” Keris points out. Bribery always makes Haneyl happier. “So I suppose you should think of the things you use a lot and which you can’t really get replacements for, and pack those.”

“I s’pose,” Haneyl says, hugging. She swallows. “This... this is just like being a Dragonblood and going to secondary school,” she says more to herself than Keris. “I read about that in books. So it’s like finishing school. And the books say that if you drop out, you’re a failure who’s worthless. So I won’t drop out, even if I really want to.”

“It’s not quite...” Keris says, wishing that she had read some of those books and had a better idea what Haneyl was talking about. “... like I said, we’ll understand if you want to come back home. That won’t make you a failure. The important thing is that you learn a lot and enjoy yourself, okay?”

“Okay,” Haneyl says, untangling herself. “I’ll... I’ll go make a list and write down everything that I think I’ll need. Like my sword.”

“Good plan,” says Keris, and goes off to hunt down Echo.

((Roll 1 dice))
((Gulp. Fail.))

It turns out that Echo might have forgotten exactly what she promised to do vis a vis “not leaving the house”. Rathan says she was talking about finding sweets when Keris checks in on him and Zanara’s girl form is paying no attention to anything because she has her hands on some obsidian and is cutting away at it with her tongue sticking out, but they haven’t seen Echo in the kitchens.

((Oh goddammit.))

Swearing quietly, Keris makes a break for the door and hares off in search of her. Hopefully she’ll have remembered to have worn her mask, at least, and be taken as an eccentric sublimati. Taking a risk, she pauses before she leaves the ground and shouts to the surroundings in general.

“Echo! If you can hear me, get back here right now!”

Echo doesn’t come back when called, but Keris can hear a pattern of erosion leading out over the wall. Cursing further, she follows it at high speed. Echo’s path leads her out of Keris’ lands, and into one of the markets that serve the green sun princes. Keris remembers what Rathan said about how she was looking for sweets, and groans.

“Echo,” she mutters low enough to not be overheard by those nearby, “if I don’t see you within five seconds you are in so much trouble.” Closing her eyes, she listens for the aura of silence that Echo carries about herself; a hole in the soundscape of the market.

The pool of silence is audible - or, rather, the hole in the noise. Keris tracks Echo down to a street of merchants and sweet-sellers, and she watches her daughter, swaddled in ribbons that cover her wind-form entirely as she walks down the street.

And then Keris notices that Echo is filching things from all the tables, hiding them in a ribbon-bag on her back.

“Echo,” she says quietly, “you have enough. Back here, now. Follow me.”

Echo whirls, and waves at Keris happily. Just a little longer, she seems to indicate.

“No, now,” Keris growls. “Or you’ll draw attention here. Bad attention. Follow me.” Shadowing her steps is one of Echo’s favourite activities. Hopefully it’s enough to pull her away from the crowded marketplace. Echo trails after her sadly. Her sullen motions clearly indicate that mama is being a hypocrite ‘cause she takes things she wants all the time.

“Yes, and if you want them that badly I’ll take them for you,” Keris mutters, leading her away from the market, “and in Creation I wouldn’t complain, but here you can’t go out like this while we’re keeping you secret. Come on; back to the townhouse. And then I’ll send you - and your sweets - back to your friends in the Ruin, where you can run around as much as you like and not be bored by hiding anymore.”

Echo pulls a face under her ribbons. This is so unfair, her shoulders seem to indicate. No one suspects a demon wrapped in ribbons ‘cause ribbons are the best.

“Uh...” Keris says, “I... don’t think that’s quite right. But yes, Hell isn’t fair. That’s why I’m sending you home.”

But she likes being outside, Echo indicates with spread wide hands which still have stolen goods held in her ribbon gloves. Mama is taking all the fun out of everything, she indicates with a waggle of her head.

“You like being out here because there are things to steal,” Keris says flatly as they reach the edge of her lands and cross onto the grounds of the townhouse. She remembers what Testolagh said about being firm and setting limits. “You are literally holding stolen things right now, and maybe I am a spoilsport, but... come here...”

It takes a few grabs to get a hand on Echo so that she can drag the girl back to the townhouse, but with contact comes an instinct that Keris follows automatically. The ribbons and shawls Echo has draped herself in, as well as the ribbons and wind of her body, unwind and flow into her, and after a moment’s confusion Keris hears an annoyed footstomp from within her.

Hopefully, she thinks, nobody saw that.

“Stop complaining,” she says. “You have your sweets, and now you can run around as much as you like. If you’d been good and followed the rules, I would have let you stay out longer, but this is your punishment for breaking them.”

There is the sound of something breaking, possibly because someone silently cut away at its base. Echo is apparently having a tantrum.

“Echo...” Keris groans, pinching the bridge of her nose and going back inside. “Look, I will let you out in Malfeas when it’s safe and won’t get us all in trouble. Next Calibration, okay? And you can kill things in Creation with me. But if you’re going to sulk about this, then...”

Be firm, she repeats to herself. Be firm be firm be firm. Set limits.

“... then... then have it,” Keris manages. “It won’t change things. You broke the rules, so if you can’t be out here without being noticed, you can’t be out here at all.”

Ultimatum made, she tunes out of her inner world and goes to find Rathan and Zanara. Hopefully they, at least, will be easy to deal with. Maybe it worked. Keris hopes it did, at least. If there’s one thing that her interactions with Sasi and Testolagh have shown, it’s that Echo doesn’t respect her at all.

Rathan, at least, isn’t his sister. He’s just sitting quietly and happily, reading a book.

“Rathan,” she sighs, dropping into a seat next to him. “Echo is back in the Domain, and Haneyl is going with Sasi in four screams or so. Would you like to go back to the Sea, or stay in Malfeas while I work on Sorcery? If you stay out here, remember that you have to be secret and not leave the townhouse so Orabilis doesn’t notice you.”

Rathan frowns. “Is Testolagh going to be going soon?” he asks. “Because if Haneyl gets to go with someone, why shouldn’t I get to do something too? And he’s, like, the only man you know. And if I’m there, I’ll be sure to make him see that everything you do is fine and there’s no problems with anything you do. He doesn’t get to steal Sasi from you, I’ll make sure of it!”

“... I could ask him, if you wanted,” says Keris, blinking in mild surprise. “I sort of thought you might like to stay and learn things here; seeing how you’ve started reading your way through my library.” She grins.

Rathan shrugs. “It was just an idea I had. And Testolagh needs to be persuaded to be less Calesco-like.”

Do you want me to ask him?” Keris asks, honestly curious. She rather doubts Testolagh would agree, but...

Rathan shrugs. “It was just an idea.”

Deciding that this probably constitutes a ‘no’ - or at least an ‘I don’t care very much’ - Keris gives him a hug. “Well, I think I’d miss you a lot if you went off to the Northeast. Will you stay here with the books, or would you like to go back to the Sea and your friends there?”

Rathan considers his options. “The books, I guess,” he says. “It’s easier to stay out since I can ask you to go back any time, but I’m fine here. Plus, it gives me time for everyone else to clean up the mess made by the storm in the Sea.”

Keris mouth twitches up into a wry smile, contrasting the differences to Haneyl. “Yes, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be involved in that,” she murmurs. “It sounds like much too much hard work. Alright. I’m off to find Zanara, then.”

Her Tenth Soul, she knows, will probably need to go back into her soul - and probably stay in the City with Dulmea, now that Haneyl won’t be there. But she does want them to spend at least an afternoon with Lilunu before then; to introduce the two properly. They deserve to meet in a setting where Lilunu isn’t being an empress of Hell.

Zanara is working on the obsidian, making it into a tiny glass statue. She’s working away at it with what looks like some of Keris’ diamonds from an earring.

“Zanara, sweetie?” she says. “Did you like Lilunu, when we met her?”

Zanara tilts her head, looking away from the obsidian. “Uh huh,” she says, huffing her green-and-red hair out of her eyes. “She’s pretty and her art is gorgeous.”

“Well, would you like to meet her in her personal art rooms and talk some more?”

Her eyes gleam at that. “Yes! Yes! Did you see her dress? All those little things hooked together? That mantle! It was gorgeous!”

“I know, right?” Keris bounces eagerly. “You keep working on that statue - and maybe some other stuff to show her - and I’ll get us a meeting as soon as I can. And then you can go back to the Isles, or maybe the City. Haneyl is going off with Sasi to learn things, so Dulmea might be looking after you for a while.”

Zanara pulls a face. “But Dulmea has so many rules and gets so mad,” she whines. “I want Hanny back!”

“She’ll be back sooner than you think,” Keris soothes. “And I’ll be around more once my project is over. Think of some things to ask Lilunu, okay? And make sure you have pretty things to show her!”

“Okay!”

Now that Calibration is over, it’s not much more than a scream before Lilunu’s schedule opens up and Keris can bring Zanara along to meet her properly. “I introduced you to my three eldest in person,” she says after she’s been welcomed in and they’ve retired to a private room, “but you only met my youngest at a distance, and I thought you might like to get to know them more. This is Zanara.”

Zanara shows absolutely no regard for protocol in a rather Ekoan way. “Hiya!” Zanara says happily to her. “Your art is super-pretty! How do you do it?”

Lilunu looks down at the little girl who’s staring up at her without a trace of shame. “It is,” she says, smiling. “What do you want to know?”

Zanara has lots and lots of questions.

“I think Zanara is the part of me that loves art,” Keris says quietly, after answers have been dispensed to most, if not all, of the babbled interrogation and Zanara is carefully working with a piercing kit that Lilunu has shown her. “Her human form at Calibration looks a little like you - I guess you inspire me.” She looks down with a faint blush, remembering a conversation similar to this with Sasi. While the other Green Sun Princess has Keris’s heart and Lilunu is more a mentor nowadays, she shares the Realm features, and sometimes Keris can’t help but be a bit distracted by her beauty.

“I, uh, thought you’d like to meet her. Or him, when they’re a him, but she seems to like doing art better.”

“It’s him-me is the art while me-me is the artist,” Zanara says brightly. “He-me is while I-me do.”

“Yes,” Keris nods after a moment sorting through the sentence. “That.”

“And Keris is both art and the artist,” she adds. “Like us-me. Keris has made herself into art from being worse stuff originally.” She tilts her head. “Except I think she’s also your art and not just ‘cause you have done stuff to her and made the best painting ever of her.”

“Yes, someone got ideas from that painting,” Keris smiles. “They keep one of their bodies as art while they use the other one.” She listens to Lilunu carefully, trying to judge her feelings. Her mentor seems captivated by Zanara. She’s just been staring at her after answering that flurry of questions, and she seems just on the edge of coming close enough to hug the little girl.

“So, Zanara got to ask you a lot of questions,” Keris says brightly. “Do you want to ask her any? I’m sure she’d be happy to answer them.”

“I have a few,” Lilunu says softly. “But-”

Zanara sidles up close and takes Lilunu’s hand, and Lilunu gasps. “You can ask me whatever,” she says. “But only if you give me ear piercings like you have! They’re amazing! What stone is that?”

Lilunu directs a glance at Keris, perhaps asking for permission.

Keris spreads her hands. “She gives himself horns, tattoos and eyes all down his arms on a daily basis. Ear piercings are pretty minor; feel free.”

“Well, then we can do that,” Lilunu says. “But I’ll have a lot of questions for you...”

Keris does keep an ear on the two of them as they work - and listens to the questions that Lilunu asks. She trusts her mentor with her child, give or take a few quirks of the demonic mindset, but she’s still quite willing to learn a few more things about her in doing so. It quickly becomes apparent that Lilunu adores Zanara. There’s no other term for it. She’s like how she is with Keris when they’re working together, except there’s more than that there. She’s gentle with her too. It’s nice to have that knowledge - and a few other sessions - when, three screams later, Haneyl sets off across the Desert with Sasi and Zanara returns to the Domain. The goodbyes are long and tearful, and even Rathan seems to be unsettled at the thought of Haneyl being gone. The two even share a hug, with mutual promises to stay safe and not declare war on each other while they’re gone.

Keris is doubtful about how long those will last, but she supposes anything is possible.

And then it’s back to work. Lilunu’s spirits seem buoyed, and Keris is grateful for the extensive note-taking she (well, Rounen) took before Calibration, because it means she can quite easily slip back into the flow now. Soon, she’s pretty sure, she’ll have a solid spell down - her test cases are getting more and more stable and successful.

It takes Keris a bit of time to get her head back in the game. She’s busy re-reading her notes and re-familiarising herself with things, but the workshops and assets and demonic aids that Orabilis leant her didn’t take a break and that means everything’s ready for her to resume when she feels like it.

Early Rising Air fades into the middle of the month, and by the last week Keris is mostly just tweaking and streamlining. She wants to be able to demonstrate this before the Althing, and so she needs to condense the long, finicky, delicate ritual down to something quicker and more portable, which doesn’t need as much equipment. Lilunu can’t help as much with this part, what with how she lacks knowledge of Sorcery, but the libraries of Orabilis have reams on the subject of spell efficiency. It’s boring and fiddly, but not as stressful as live testing. Rathan proves surprisingly interested in the details, and she lets him read the scrolls on theory as she puts them to use in her study.

Not everything goes right. Of course it doesn’t. Keris is left staring as one of her cultists volunteers dies horribly, the demon tearing out out of their body, where it then messily expires.

But things do indeed refine their way to mostly being safe. Keris thinks that whenever something goes wrong, it may well kill the subject. This won’t ever be a safe spell. Alas, she thinks, that probably won’t motivate the demon princes to be careful with it. But she can at least emphasise the risk factors on the basis of lessening waste. And it will mean that her Gales can live without the horrible emptiness inside.

((Roll Compassion))
((... Compassion 4. 1 sux. Dangit.))

Keris is feeling stressed and worried by this on top of everything else when she comes for the final presentation, showing the new spell to Orabilis - and a few other Unquestionable guests, including Lilunu. Orabilis is acting with a very ownerly manner, his adder-tongue licking the air - and before the demonstration, he’s very clear to Keris that everything needs to go right or he might take it personally.

((Okay, the casting roll is Cog + Occult. With this spell, failure kills the subject unless the occultist manages a reflexive Reaction + Occult roll so it just fails instead. It’s equal to the Enlightenment of the demon being used, +2. Roll it, and if you succeed, stunt the successful demonstration as you wish. Note that these mechanics are provisional and subject to change when I do a proper write-up of it))
((Gotcha. 3+5+2 stunt+3 Empyreal Alchemist+1 bonus Style sux+4 Kimmy ExSux {disturbing art, impossibly high standards}=13. 8+1+4=13 sux.))

Burying the stress and worry as best she can, Keris puts on her most professional face. Focusing on the alchemy helps, she finds - she can sink into the frame of mind she uses when working on brews and potions; not quite passionless but disconnected from the emotion a little, leaving her head clear to think.

Everything in this demonstration has to go right - and not just right, but perfectly; above and beyond what Orabilis expects. To that end, she’s picked a cultist personally; a woman who cast off her old name when she entered the service of the Yozis and who is strong in body and mind. Keris is exacting and careful as she boils down the perronele into a demonic brew and feeds it to her subject. As the jerks and spasms begin, she launches into a practiced speech to the onlookers, going through the genesis, construction, casting ritual and risks of the spell as her attention and ears stay locked on the woman’s body.

The transformation seems to be taking well - quicker and better than usual under Keris’s personal care, too. Keris is able to slow down a little when stressing the failure states of the spell and how best it should be used, and is just wrapping up with public thanks to Orabilis and Lilunu for providing backing and support when the demon finishes settling.

“If you will notice,” Keris says confidently, “the woman is now an akuma fused in symbiosis with the peronelle. Her akuma breed is a three-souled kind, with the two human souls now existing in harmony with the demon. Notice the way she is reflexively opening eyes on her skin. Notice the way that her skin is changing colour as it shifts from the armoured mode to something which emulates the human form. Respected unquestionable ones, the spell can take a human and turn them into an akuma who retains their capacity to pass as human and places the demon in their head as an aide and mentor - and means your servants will no longer be two-souled humans.”

There is polite applause.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” Orabilis says, “I sponsored this research because I saw a way to provide us with expendable akuma assets that - with sufficient numbers - may be able to counter the Immaculate dogs who harass our cults. The subject must desire it or will die - so this will allow us to enforce loyalty on mortal or once mortal servants within Creation, and once they are transformed, they are our creatures. I therefore offer knowledge of this as a gift to my allies and friends - and only them. All others fall under my domain if they learn it.”

And he smirks.

Keris grits her teeth, but makes no word of protest. If Orabilis wants to use this in his Unquestionable power games... well, it probably won’t make him any more likely to back her on her souls’ independence, but it should, hopefully, stop him forming a grudge when Ligier rules it so. It’ll associate her with him, but he’s one of the more powerful Unquestionable in Hell; having him think of her as smart and useful is no poor thing. And if he plans to use it to send akuma-servants to fight the Immaculates...

... well, she justifies, he was probably going to send those cultists to fight them anyway, and at least now they’re a little more able to fight back when the Wyld Hunt comes to kill them all. The justification rings a little hollow, but she has what she really needed out of the whole affair, and she’s ready to leave Malfeas and be shot of Unquestionable politics.

After the presentation, Orabilis invites her to one of his glass libraries. Sitting on a cold blue throne, he leans down towards her. “You have pleased me, Keris Dulmeadohkt,” he says. He folds his hands on his lap. “I believe you may count me as a friendly ear now. As my gift to you, you may take what you like from this library - but take only what you can carry.”