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Five Calibrations Pass

Chapter Text

Follow the typhoon, as it rolls in off the Great Western Ocean.

The clouds, black and hot and laden with water blot out the sun. They roll and boil, whipping up the sea. A small low-lying coral reef is swamped as it rolls over it, as happens whenever a great storm strikes. There, ahead is a sizable island, and the winds rise up over it, howling across the jagged valleys and smoking volcanoes, screaming into the wyld-pockets and battering the lies of the princes of chaos. And now the front of the typhoon has sunk down, down the slopes of the island and onto the smaller body that lies next to the larger isle.

There is a city there, a city once-white, now covered with paint in many colours. In the gloom many of the exotic paints glow fluorescent colours, giving it a strange dream-like air. The wind whips the trees and tears up plants. A city of pirates, scholars, priests and traders. The city of Saata.

Focus in on the ancient spires of Windswift College, where they have folded up the semaphore towers before the typhoon hit, and follow the winds through to the circular form of the Jade Carnation which lies just on the edge of the college district. The Jade Carnation, pleasure palace and place of decadent indulgence, spoken highly of and whispered as to what the affairs might happen in.

It is dark inside. It always is, when there’s a show going on. Many-coloured paper lanterns hang over the stage, their light reflected down by brass mirrors. Reflected onto the singer. The beautiful, red-haired singer whose voice sends a shiver down the back of all the listeners of this packed place.

For her audience, Tenne Cinnamon sings. It’s a crooning melody, this one; a seductively mocking warning about the dangers of women. To be sure, the singer should probably carry a warning label, and the lilt to her voice and the lazy smirk on her painted lips as she sings is clear proof that she knows it. Knows it and owns it; swaying around the stage and glancing coyly at certain members of the audience with lidded eyes.

They’re not all Tengese, the women she looks at. The cult that meets here has expanded - a select few, carefully chosen members added to the group of women who worship the fell and beautiful goddess Nululi in its cellars. They’re not Tengese, but they’re close enough - respectable enough - that they haven’t raised hackles among the existing members of the cult. Though of course, that might be due to the heady, decadent influence of their high priestess.

Up in the best seats sits Hui Cha Golden Child, Hui Cha Little River, and their associates. There’s discussions going on here; women doing as Hui Cha women have always done, and discussing money. Moving numbers around. Making promises - and promises like this are kept, because when they get broken people wind up dead. Behind closed doors, of course. Nothing that House Sinasana, the rulers of Saata, need to know about.

But the conversations come to an end when a second woman sashays on stage; Tengese-looking, dark-eyed, dark haired, in a tiny slip of a midnight dress. Soft-featured, curvy, sinuous. And even the lights seem to look at the world through hooded eyes now, as the singer Sesha joins Cinnamon with a trail of her long black nails down her arm.

The music shifts. There’s a tension in it now, a yearning. The musicians are good at what they do - personally trained by Cinnamon herself - and they apply themselves to their instruments with fervour as the two women begin their number. The words are slow - lyrics of invitation, of challenge and a call to compete - but the chords come faster and faster; racing the pulse and quickening the breath.

And then they begin to dance.

Cinnamon alone sent shivers down the spine. She and Sesha together are intoxicating. Their movements flow and ripple as they come together in feigned combat, undulating against one another and breaking apart with looks of longing. The whole room feels heated, the air is thick with sex and incense. Everyone watching is drunk on it. Drunk on them.

Inside, the watchers gasp; they exhale; they sigh. Intoxicated by the figures on stage.

And outside the wind howls. It moans. It gushes down onto the angled rooftops, and soaks those outside.

Thunder booms over Saata. Lightning lashes down and kisses one of the towers in the Perfect College of Holy Mati, setting the roof ablaze. The gongs and chimes of the many temples are struck, to placate the wind spirits and thunder gods who might spend their fury on the works of men.

People cover mirrors when storms come. This displeases the demon lord Hermione, who finds her comfortable spots for spying upon the city are greatly restricted. But now things are better than they used to be. Her mother - mother, she tastes the word on her forked tongue and finds it still strange - has thinned the walls between Here and There. And Hermione who is a creature of There, a thing of mirrors and reflections and echoes, can welcome guests into the mirrors where she dwells.

Guests such as her little brother Ogin, who she has had a fond spot for ever since she escaped from Hell pretending to be his reflection. He quickly discovered that mirrors were like pools he could crawl into with effort, and now he escapes from his watchers to play with her. Or as he is doing right now, eating stolen rice cakes while he listens to her stories with big moon-silver eyes. Iris sits behind him, as a little girl who’s braiding his hair.

“So what story do you want today, little brother?” she hisses, mirroring his form for a moment before reverting to the form that’s now hers and hers alone, with the Tairan eyes and highland cheekbones of her mother. She reaches forward with her hair to tickle him, grinning wickedly. It still sends a little thrill of happiness through her quicksilver heart to use the proof of her new family, and to say the words aloud. “Something more about Hell? A lesson on alchemy?”

Ogin shakes his head, and cinnabar eyes flash.

“Or,” Hermione drawls tantalisingly, “do you want to hear what I told our mother about my time in An Teng?” She leans forward, her grin widening. “Do you want to hear about sorcery?”

Ogin solemnly, gravely bites into a rice cake, and nods. Thunder booms outside, strangely echoed within the mirror world as reflected sound drifts in from the false-window moments later.

“Well, it started off after your full big brother Rathan initiated up in the mountains,” Hermione says, slithering into her dragon-skin and coiling up around him. She’s still deciding who her own full siblings are. She’s Keris’s daughter, of course, but she needs another parent too, like all her new siblings. And she doesn’t want Lilunu. But it would be nice to have a full sibling who she can get along with like Rathan and Nara and Ogin do.

Ogin wraps his tails around hers, and the feeling of skin contact still nearly takes her breath away. He stares up at her and tilts her head, prompting her to keep going.

“Right. Well, Mother came back here and asked me where I was in the Trials, and we worked out that I was stuck on the Trial of Fear. You know that one?”

Ogin nods. Though he never likes admitting when he doesn’t know something, so that might not be trustworthy. Well, she can explain anyway.

“I needed to face my fears, not just acknowledge them,” she tells him. “So Mother used a word game to say that I should go strike at the Unquestionable through their servant, Peer Deveh. But without actually telling me, because she has to pretend she doesn’t hate him!”

Iris blows out a smiling dragon face and a book with turning pages, and Hermione nods. “Yes, Iris helped. She turned the pages for me in Mother’s notes on aaaaall the things she knew about him. She knows more now, of course.” She puffs out her chest. “I went and spied on him and brought lots of ssssecrets back.”

Ogin nods, and breaks up a rice cake. This one has been drawn on in icing. It seems to technically make it art, at least by Iris’s standards, because Iris takes the half he offers her and gleefully bites down into it.

“Mama doesn’t like Deveh,” Ogin opines.

Iris exhales a flame shaped like a question mark, tilts her head, and then exhales a second one. Hermione thinks it’s her seconding Ogin’s unspoken question, and then asking too what she actually did.

“He’s dull,” Hermione scoffs dismissively. “He’s ssso proud of being a puppet for the Whispering Pyre. And he tries to kill all his emotions and be as passionless as her, even though he’s so obviously pining for attention from her souls!” She laughs, high and mocking. “Mother’s right, he’s a pathetic little thing. And I snuck around without him noticing, watching from mirrors, hiding from sssight. Never being near enough for him to detect. Like you taught me, little brother!” She lowers her head to nuzzle his hair, and Iris eagerly takes the opportunity to bury her fingers in Hermione’s silvery mane, stroking and petting and exhaling little happy intertwined dragons. Hermione enjoys it for a while, and then shakes her mane out from the braids that have mysteriously appeared in it - when did Iris get so fast at that? - and smirks.

“But I didn’t just spy on him and come back with secrets, no. Can you guess what else I did?”

Ogin tilts his head. “Something clever,” he ventures. Which of course is true, but is also the most risk-averse answer.

Iris is nowhere near so restrained, and produces a stream of rapidly flickering fire that includes explosions, burning flowers, a mountain being eaten by a dragon and an army that all falls over when a giant cat jumps on them.

Hermione preens, and allows herself to feel very smug. “Well, you’re both sort of right,” she says. “It was clever. And there were explosions. I found out that he was trying to build a manse, and figured out where it was, up in the High Lands, beside a great lake that reflected the sky and a mountain so high it had ice and snow at the top! And he was using mirrors to gather the power he needed for it - which of course is a good way to be powerful, but really stupid when I’m there. Because I was clever enough to work out what he was doing and sabotage it! I trickled mercury through his oh-so-precious mirrors and poisoned a few of his empty-men so their hands would shake as they worked, and swapped some components out for quicksilver fakes, and you know what? You know what?”

She shivers at the memory. How good it had felt to spite him. To ruin his plans. To destroy his beautiful half-built manse. And not just to spite him, but to finally vent some of the hatred she felt for the Unquestionable, to at last strike back at what she was afraid of and win. To face her fears and defy them.

It had felt beautiful.

“They didn’t even realise it had gone wrong until it was too late,” she says rapturously, her red eyes half-lidded as she remembers the stupidity of the men and women Deveh had hollowed out. Mother wouldn’t have hollowed people out like that. She’d have left them their wits and their initiative, and they’d have been faster to react, quicker to realise something was wrong. Still not quick enough, against Hermione, but it would still have been better, because Mother was better than Deveh and so was Hermione. “They tried to stop it, but they didn’t know how, because I was smarter and cleverer and quicker. And I swam out into the lake as it exploded, and all the work he’d put into it was gone in an instant, with nothing to show what had happened.”

Iris nods so violently her head might fall off, and breathes out a picture of a giant cat along with a question mark.

“No. No cats were involved,” Hermione says.

A sad face is what she gets in response.

Ogin offers Hermione a rice cake. “A prize,” he says.

She takes it with a courteous flourish and snaps it down. It’s sort of tasteless, although the icing is nice. Sweet, like her flowers.

“That’s not the only reward I got,” she boasts. “Mother says I’m ready for the last Trial now. Sacrifice. Or Choice. I have to choose something that’s holding me back, something I’m better off without but don’t want to let go of.” She scowls, flowing back into her girl-form and fidgeting. “I haven’t decided yet. Mother said it’s important. It changes you. It’s not something to do lightly, she says - even though Rathan basically did, and he’s fine. I know hers and Rathan’s and Oula’s, but none of them really feel like me.” She pauses, huffing. “Well, maybe Mother’s. She left who she was in Nexus behind. I wouldn’t mind leaving behind who I was in Hell, when I was still Lilunu’s daughter.”

A moment later she remembers her audience and looks at Iris apprehensively. Iris crosses her arms, and wags her finger disapprovingly at Hermione. For someone who is basically a toddler and has a prominent obsession with cats, Iris can be very preachy. But Hermione generously forgives her for that. It’s easy to forgive the first person who ever touched you and who is always generous with her hugs and kisses and her willingness to fall asleep on your lap.

Ogin, for his part, is considering things in his wide-eyed, grave way. “You don’t like Lily, but not in the way that Mama doesn’t like Deveh,” he contributes. “She just thinks he’s bad in every way. You’re all mixed up about Lily.”

Hermione feels her hair lash angrily as her back straightens. Rage curdles in an instant, displacing pride and achievement.

“She promised me things she never meant!” she hisses. “She left me trapped in mirrors where I couldn’t touch anything! She didn’t care! I’m not mixed up about her! I’m Keris’s daughter, not hers!”

Ogin considers this as he chews on a fragment of rice cake. “People have two mummies. Or a mummy and a daddy,” he says eventually. “You can have two.”

Hermione bristles. “I don’t want her as my mother after the way she lied to me,” she hisses. “I’ll find a better other mother! One as good as Keris!”

Ogin frowns at that. “Lily is really nice,” he points. “She’s always been nice to me and Kali. She is our,” he focuses, “godmother. Which means we have three mummies and she gives us lots of presents and doesn’t make us go to bed early unlike mama.”

Iris bundles onto Hermione, knocking her over and pinning her down. Her eyes - Lilunu’s eyes - gaze down at Hermione, big and puppy-like. She breathes out a little tiny flame Lilunu, along with several sad faces. Hermione knows what her sister means - and she’s watched jealously as Lilunu spoils Iris and the twins.

“Well she was never like that with me,” she mutters, turning away. “With me, she just shouted at me and said I was being cruel and sent me away. And never did anything to protect me from Orabilis. I had to hide from him on my own.” For a moment the hurt and spiteful bitterness are enough to make her tremble. Those early days, not long after being born, when she’d first realised what Orabilis would do to her if he saw her as she really was... they had been terrible. Terrifying. Hell was vast, and it hadn’t held any safe places for a young dragon with a grudge in her heart. “I didn’t see any of that niceness,” she spits.

Ogin crawls over to beside Hermione, lying next to her and intertwining her fingers with his. His motions scatter rice-cake crumbs over both of them.

“Zana said that Lily is scared too,” he says softly. “Mama and Zana were talking and they thought I was having a nap but I wasn’t. And Zana said that Lily is scared too.”

Hermione huffs as spite changes targets with quicksilver speed. “Well yeah, obviously,” she says. “None of the Unquestionable respect her, really. Only Mother. And...” she gulps. “Orabilis chained up one of her other souls. Lela. Antifasi knows a little bit about her.” She shivers. “He wants to chain her up too. And Lilunu couldn’t stop him if he got the others to agree.”

For all that she’s trapped in mirrors, Hermione can at least see danger coming and run away, or spit poison at it - verbal or otherwise. Her twin is blind and deaf and mute and helpless. She wouldn’t even be able to scream.

Ogin looks at her with big silver eyes. She can see herself in them. “Orabilis is the real baddy,” he says. “He hurts Lily.”

Thinking little of it, Hermione nods - but Iris blows an exclamation mark in her face and gestures at him. Then a sad Lilunu face with a big scary mean face looming over her. And then a little dragon - which is probably supposed to be a Hermione-dragon rather than an Iris-dragon - holding hands with the Lilunu face and jumping up and down on the mean one, shooting sparkly rainbow-lights from her nose.

Hermione takes a moment to work through that.

“... you think hating her is stopping me from hurting him?” she guesses. A mixture of excitement and unease fills her. “That... this should be my Sacrifice?”

It feels right. It feels like... like something big enough to Sacrifice. But just turning around and forgiving Lilunu? Accepting her as a mother after she failed to be one? Hermione doesn’t want to let her off the hook like that.

Except... isn’t that not-wanting-to the exact kind of thing she needs for it to be a Sacrifice?

“I- I don’t know,” she says, drawn to the alluring idea of sorcery, in her grasp right now, but repelled by the price. “I need to talk to Mother about this...”

Iris blows an encouraging face, and hugs her again. Ogin joined in, wrapping his tails around her waist and making her shiver happily.

“... but if you’re right... thank you.”

A hundred miles and more to the west, the storm rifles through the mountains of Shuu Mua, tearing at the ground and ripping up bamboo forests in its fury. Wind-bears snarl.

The storm has sunk its fingers deep into Zen Daiwye, and its new patron spirit watches in sadness as this land knows its first typhoon. The air itself screams as wind rushes through the knife-edged, needle-tipped limestone formations along the edges of the valley; the rain-sculpted peaks and narrow canyons acting like vast columns of flutes all around. Though this is the first time the hammer of the skies has struck them, the locals here have superstitions about the wailing, and huddle fearfully in their huts and communal buildings.

Evedelyl, Wild-Mother of the Daiwye, flattens her ears against her skull against the noise. Her hearing isn’t as acute as her beloved daughter’s, but the storm is still painfully loud. Spotting another shift from the upper slopes, her great legs lumber into motion and carry her to the boulder-catchers. Planting her lioness paws firmly, she gathers the net in two firm hands and braces.

The boulders hit it like siege weaponry from on high, smashing into the tightly-woven ropes. Some cords snap - but they’re meant to. The breaking absorbs much of the impact of the rocks, and the looser strands that lay slack stretch out until they’re taut, bringing the worst of the rockfall to a halt. Evedelyl grunts as the weight pulls her a few metres forward, then eases off. The soil will continue spilling down the slope, drowning a few fields, but the deadly rocks have been halted.

Shaking her sodden mane and gathering up her long, drenched skirts, she retreats back down the slope and resumes her scanning of the hilltops.

The boulders form mounds, stacked up by tiny demons who scamper around, rolling them together. The little creatures are no more than a hand in height, but they’re strong for their size and a few of them can lift fallen branches and plant them in the ground. They weave fibres into ropes, and create more catching-nets for their mother-maker.

Within the buildings down below, the men and women of this isolated valley pray to their new deities - gods and goddesses that Evedelyl has patiently taught them of. To laughing Eko and dark-eyed Calesco, they ask for freedom from fear and soothing dreams; from the Lord of the Waters and the Sound that Sunders they ask for respite from the lashing rain and howling wind; and the rulers of Swamp and Isles hear pleas for safe crops and gifts of beauty once the madness without has passed.

Another boulder rumbles and thunders and is caught by Evedelyl. She strains, feeling her tiredness, the ache in her muscles.

But they are praying to her. She can hear them. She can feel them; their fear, their worry. And she draws strength from their devotion. So she catches the next one. And the next one. And the next.

And miles and miles and miles to the Horizon, on the edge of the Wailing Fen, the storm hasn’t arrived yet. Not quite. But it’s rushing in quickly, looming on the horizon.

Two sisters are there, in this twisted landscape where the light is a little green and there’s always ice in the humid swamp, tinted blue, and savage red monkeys gibber in the trees. It feels like... home.

This land is scarred. It’s scarred from millennia-ago blasphemy and a monster whose scream still echoes for those who can hear it. It’s scarred from centuries of pirate raiders who plunder its shores and pillage its resources without ever staying to build on cursed land.

And most recently, it’s scarred from a demon of brass and green fire who tore into the cannibal tribes who originate from these hellish wetlands. The Zu Tak have drawn back defensively for typhoon season, mooring their raft-towns close to the shore to avoid the storms as they always do and clustering around their settlements in case the monsters come back. They pray to their ancestors; the Greater Dead who empower them and drive them ever outwards to raid and conquer new lands. They pray for protection, for strength, for the destruction of their foes.

It isn’t helping.

Sooooo, Eko indicates, tracing her toe in the ground. She has some complaints for her darling baby sister cutie-pie. Some really pressing complaints. Like, to name one, she counts off on her fingers, she thinks her baby sister kind of hogged all the fun with the last village. There was hardly any left for poor Eko.

“The village before last, you went after some of the children,” Calesco huffs. “We agreed to avoid the innocents and only kill the Dead.”

Okay, first of all, Eko protests with an upraised finger, those totally weren’t kids. They were, like, almost as old as mama was when she first came to Hell. Which when you think about it is way older than poor little Eko who’s not even five yet, so really if it’s an age thing then they were picking on her. And also they were trying to stab her, which was rude, and anyway they’d probably been raiding and killed people so they weren’t innocents either, so there.

Also, she adds, holding up another finger, her adorable darling imouto-chan has really not holding up her end of the conversational ribbon on this sisterly outing. Eko’s been having to carry all the talking and sororal bonding by herself; it’s very unfair.

Calesco stares at her. “What are you talking about?”

Well, Eko motions with sage big-sisterly wisdom, this is just the two of them going out into the woods - well, the marshes - to camp out and share a tent together and tell stories around the fireplace and do fun sisterly bonding activities like running and murder and modelling new types of ribbon-fashion away from the critical eyes of annoying little brothers. It’s basically a camping trip. And they’re meant to also be having deeply emotional conversations where they spill all their deepest secrets to each other in the sanctity of the trusting sisterly lack of judgement and grow closer by doing so!

Except Calesco’s mostly just been complaining about the weather and how well Eko is doing at the murder bits and reciting poetry all night, and while Eko totally supports her best friend introducing her to new hobbies, she feels like she has to raise the point that it’s getting a bit repetitive.

Calesco glares at her sister. And despite herself, a giggle escapes her. “You’re ridiculous,” she says, trying to scowl again.

It’s true, Eko nods tragically. One of the deeply held shameful secrets she’s been keeping close to her heart is that she’s afraid mama might have passed down her love of ridiculous flashy finishing mid-air moves to Eko. And she knows it’s not as efficient a way of murdering giant undead monsters, but it’s just so much fun! But if grandma finds out about it she’ll be all sarcastic and mean. It’s a big worry, really, she finishes with a grave nod.

“Utterly ridiculous. You are silly!”

Well she needs to do something to lighten her little sister’s spirits, Eko points out as she taps her nose. And it’s working, see! Calesco’s not worrying at all about the big horrible meanie Dead grandmother they’re about to pounce on! She just needed a bit of big sister advice and the right smidgen of ridiculousness to forget all her broodiness and get ready for another fun fight. Eko takes a proud bow. It’s really no bother to help out, she explains humbly. Anything for her darling Cally.

Calesco sighs. “I wonder how everyone else is doing,” she says, stretching out in the tree, legs crossed. “It looks like rain. It’s probably hit them already.”

Eko kicks at the ground, blowing her cheeks out in a pout behind the mask. Mama’s probably sitting out in it deliberately so she can be cold and wet and miserable on purpose, she grouses.

“That’s the third time today you’ve criticised her out of the blue,” Calesco says, giving her a funny look. “And you spent a whole hour the other week complaining about how it’s apparently her fault this place doesn’t have any proper ribbons. Loosing barbs at mother is usually my job, not yours; what’s prompting this?”

Eko crosses her arms. Oh no. They are not getting into this. It’s Eko’s job to protect her darling baby sister from any worry or concern or anything to do with how Eko saw things in mama’s dream-nightmare from the nasty eaters that she wants to forget but can’t let go of. So there! Calesco just needs to go be happy!

Calesco stares at her. “That... Eko, that was months ago,” she says. “You’re still angry about that?” She searches her memory for the last time her sister had clung to a single emotion for so long. Never, that she can recall. Except maybe...

“Was it that bad? As bad as...” she glances around fearfully and lowers her voice a little, “... as Big Mother?”

She’s pretty sure they’re not talking about this, Eko indicates with a flap of her hand that’s distinctly snippy. Why is Calesco insisting on sharing the misery that Eko is trying to protect her from?

Putting her hands on her hips, Calesco stares her down. “I thought you said this was meant to be a trip to bond and have deep emotional conversations and spill our deepest secrets?” she needled. “And you wanted me to stop being broody - well now you’re the one who’s brooding.” She smirked triumphantly at the scored point, then eyed Eko’s mulish stance and sighed.

“What if I said that as your,” she rolled her eyes, “‘precious little sister’, I wanted to help my big sis feel better? So that she isn’t too distracted to protect me from all the nasty ghosts?”

Eko’s mask twists into a scowl. That’s a dirty move, she accuses.

The smirk comes back out. Calesco puts her hands together and resorts to dire measures. “Please?” she asks sweetly. “I’m worried about you, big sis.”

That... that is not fair! Not fair at all! That’s the base treachery and vile perfidy that Eko would expect of Zanara! Or Rathan! To be betrayed in this way is more than she can take! Eko covers her face with her hands, weeping piteously.

After a few moments of extravagant grief, she peeks between her fingers. And finds Calesco staring at her, arms crossed.

With a silent sigh, Eko collapses to the ground. Calesco just isn’t going to let it go, is she? Bah. Bah, she gestures tetchily. Fine.

Yes, Eko is furious at mama. And scared for her. And wants to hug her, but can’t.

Eko... Eko saw Mama’s life before grandmother showed up. There was a lot of people hurting her. Hurting her body and hurting her spirit. She got made to do lewd things. That she didn’t want to do.

Eko swallows, jittering back at forwards, arms wrapped around herself. Did... did Calesco know, she asks? That Eko wasn’t mama’s oldest? That Mama lost Rathan’s big brother or sister?

A complicated expression crosses Calesco’s face. After a moment, she unslings her bow from her back and sits down next to her sister; bow on her lap.

“... I knew,” she admits. Her tone is studiously neutral. “Not at first. But when the whole mess with Kuha happened, the pain made something open up. I dreamed about it - all the pain and love she was forgetting. Mostly Gull. But Rat, too. And the... the baby was part of both.”

There’s nothing but silence from Eko as she sways back and forth.

“I- I didn’t say anything at first because she wasn’t hurting anyone with it,” Calesco says defensively, her words catching a little. “She was lying - to herself more than anyone else - but she was doing it to cover up her pain. She was so, so hurt back then. And I didn’t blame her for that, for wanting to focus on us instead of... them.” She frowns, her lip starting to tremble. “But then she started playing as Cinnamon and using all the things she learned back then w-without admitting it, a-and it was like she was d-denying that Gull and the baby ever existed, and it was a lie that was hurting them; hurting their memories, and that was wrong and I just got s-so angry a-and...”

There are tears spilling down her face, and her voice is getting choked. She hugs her knees, trembling, as the guilt comes back.

“I didn’t want her to get so hurt,” she whispers. “I wanted to hurt her, to make her admit the truth, to make her learn. But I never wanted that. A-and she wasn’t angry at me, b-but...”

Why couldn’t she be allowed to forget it, Eko mimes with a tiny, sad flick of her hand. What’s wrong with that?

Calesco shakes her head minutely and takes a few minutes to get herself back under control. “If she wanted to leave all that behind, I’d have let her,” she sniffs. “But she wasn’t. She was - is - doing the same things now as Cinnamon as she did back then. Forgetting it is fine, but I won’t let her be a hypocrite. I won’t let her lie about the ugliness of the world while she’s spreading it and benefiting from it herself. I won’t.”

But why? Eko meets her sister’s eyes mournfully; one pair set behind a veil, the other behind a mask.

Mama and Gull were bad for each other. They kept on hurting each other. Gull always let Mama down and used her for her money; Mama hurt Gull when she got angry. She throws her hands in the air. They were poisonous for each other, she insists, mask in a snarl. And then there was that awful, awful Chen! He was even worse!

“I know.” Calesco sounds defeated, and tearful, and tired. “I know. It’s awful, and I wish I could cover it with lies, but... then it would just happen again.”

She shuffles closer and her arm transitions into a wing as she wraps it around her elder sister’s shoulders. With an unsteady breath, she lays her head on Eko’s shoulder.

“Sisters?” she murmurs quietly.

Eko wraps a gloved, lacy, only-somewhat-blood-splattered-arm back around Calesco. They’re always going to be sisters, no matter what, she insists hotly. Eko is the world’s best big sister, and she’s not going to the fact she is still furious at Mama for putting herself in a place where all of them could have gotten killed... she’s not going to let that get between her and her darling baby sister.

Plus, next year Eko is definitely going to have to take a break to look after her new re-babied sister and make sure Haneyl gets raised properly in the ways of fun and also in the ways of fashion and catering and proper manners and not-being-lewd!

“You say that,” Calesco smiles, humour returning to the little scene, “but you’re really just going to beg sugar off her until you can’t eat any more without being sick.”

Eko has never done that, she tells her baby sister archly. She is never sick from eating too much sugar. At least when it comes in its proper form, i.e. tiny cakes and fizzy drinks.

“Of course not,” Calesco gently mocks. Then she lets out a quick, heavy sigh; like she’s forcing all the emotion of the difficult talk out and blowing it away. She stands, slinging her bow back across her shoulder.

“Anyway,” she continues more briskly. “I thought we had a ghost to hunt down? You better get up and get to it, or I’ll take all the action this time as well, big sister. I’ll bet you the next sweet food we find that I get the kill.”

Eko crosses her arms. Such impudence! Such rudeness! Some meanness from someone who should be sweet and innocent. Firstly, Calesco is on. Secondly, for being so rude as to imply Eko isn’t the best stabber... that’s a tickling as punishment!

“You’ll have to catch me first!” yells Calesco over her shoulder, already three steps away from Eko and taking to the air with great heavy wingbeats. Wise to her sister’s ways, she was already getting ready for take-off as she gave the challenge.

The laughter and taunting and faux-angry threats of the two demon lords are small in the great wasteland of tainted marsh and fetid swamp. But they make this corner of the Wailing Fen a little warmer, while they last.

Back in Zen Daiwye, lightning strike the madly whipping trees. Ancient growths a few months old burn.

And in the light a glass temple on the valley slopes, domed with sparkling cerulean crystal, twinkles in the sullen gloom.

Its resident is scared of the thunder. As she is scared of most things.

At least her existence is more comfortable now. No longer is she confined to a single glass-walled shrine, where she must huddle in fear of those who can break her rules and invade her space and shout at her. Now she has a temple all to herself; a safe home of half a dozen rooms the size of the whole world within her Greater Self.

The lady who brought her here let her pick the anchor of her home from a handful of Hellish wonders made from the materials of the Desert and the Spheres, and choose where her temple would be set, and how it should be filled with books and toys and instruments. She put a lot of locks on the doors and windows, too. All on the insides.

The little girl - who is not a little girl, and yet is - knows the lady. Her mother-Self has made laws in the past about how the lady isn’t allowed to hurt or change her. Some of them, the lady has broken; mostly recently in claiming the little girl herself.

She tries not to dwell on that. Last time she did, it hurt to think about, and made her cry, and almost made her angry. She doesn’t like crying, and she likes being angry even less. When she gets angry she hurts people and then she gets scared of herself.

Flinching at another roll of thunder, she focuses her attention on other things instead. Like the serfs the lady left her to be friends; a collection of strange little beings who are playing with her fox, and who have so far left her alone when she wants to be alone, and read with her when she wanted to read. They are, she has decided, probably not threats to her. At least, not physically.

Fear is something squirming in her gut. It always is. But every time the sky growls at her, the squirming feeling gets more sickening, more scary. Her armour isn’t shutting out the noise! And every time it booms, Kalaska swears she can hear her precious things, her precious laws, her rules cracking. She said that the sky isn’t allowed to do that! She said it isn’t! But it keeps on doing it even though she doesn’t want it to and that makes her all hot and tight and jittery.

Again, she looks over at the others; the loud and unpredictable and scary serfs who might not be able to hurt her physically, but they might laugh at her or say mean things about her when she’s not there or she might get angry and hurt them and then lady Keris will be angry at her and she’s even more powerful than Kalaska is so what can she do then?

No, it’s better to stay here. Away from them as they play with her fox. She wants to hug Huli, but he’s with the serfs and the thought of going over and saying things to them makes her so nervous she feels like she’s going to be sick.

She hates being sick.

Maybe if she hid under the covers of her bed, she wouldn’t have to hear the sky. It couldn’t hurt her then.

Something moves in the corner of her eye, and she flinches; her arms coming up defensively as she whips around to look at it. It’s not one of the serfs, though. It’s a little six-legged cat made of black ink, with many-coloured eyes and a rainbow flame on the end of its tail. Pulling itself out of the wall, it steps carefully across the bed and exhales a plume of fire in the shape of a little girl hugging a six-legged cat.

She knows this creature. It’s lady Keris’s familiar. It’s weaker than her, but it’s still scary. It’s not a serf, which means that the rules that say weak things aren’t allowed to hurt her don’t work on it. It eats art, and the Kalaska looks fearfully at the beautiful painting of the foxes in the city that hangs on the wall, checking for any bite marks.

And lady Keris can see through its eyes. Is that why it’s here? Is lady Keris checking to see if she’s done something wrong that she’ll be punished for? She hasn’t! She hasn’t done anything here! She’s been good!

The not-a-serf edges closer and nuzzles her hand like Huli does. It breathes out another pair of shapes; a cloud with lightning coming out of it and a scared-looking face, then climbs onto her lap. Its tail flicks from side to side lazily, and it blinks up at her with the same ever-shifting eyes as lady Keris’s frighteningly powerful teacher.

And then it flows into another shape, tail lengthening and becoming bushy, ears morphing, two of its legs vanishing into its body as it grows slightly. And...

“Y-y-you’re a f-fox,” Kalaska whispers in a tiny noise. Her voice is rusty and awkward from disuse.

The creature - Iris, she remembers; lady Keris called it Iris - breathes out a smiling face, and reaches up to lick her cheek.

It can be a fox. But it can not be a fox. But given it wanted to be a fox now, maybe it... she, maybe? Lady Keris called it a ‘she’. Maybe she wants to be... nice? Because foxes are nice.

“I... d-do you eat anything, l-l-little fox?” she tried.

The little fox-Iris tilts her head and looks around, her bushy tail still swaying from side to side. She spies the bowl of plums on the bedside table and nods eagerly, gesturing towards them and giving Kalaska another friendly lick.

Another roll of thunder booms. For some reason that’s making her feel all hot and angry inside, the little serfs don’t seem to care! They’re just playing with Huli while one of them cooks food and it smells nice but she can’t just go over there and ask them for it, she can’t!

“W-we...” Her throat is too dry. She stares helplessly at the Iris-fox, hoping she understands that they’re going to go to bed and eat plums there and hide from the thunder.

Iris nods, and they snuggle under the blankets together. The sounds are muffled, but still make her flinch. It’s not as bad, though, because Iris licks the tears away from her face and nuzzles into her neck and is warm and smooth when petted. She’s very appreciative of the plums, too, as Kalaska feeds them to her one by one.

The bowl is almost empty when there’s a light tug on the blanket.

“Um, miss Kalaska?” a soft voice says. It’s one of the dark ones that look like they’re Seresa’s serfs. They’re quiet, at least, compared to the flower-ones who argue about books all the time or the clay ones who play music or act out scenes from plays.

“Miss Kalaska?” the voice repeats. She doesn’t know which one it is. “I was talking to Miki and she said you might be hiding over here ‘cause the thunder’s hurting your ears like it does szels, and then the food finished cooking so I volunteered to come over and ask if you wanted any and also if you wanted the cliffhopper wool Torom had in his pouch. He says it’s what orvens stuff in their ears when they have to go the Spires, ‘cause it’s noisy there too.”

There’s a pause, as the serf waits for an answer that the girl doesn’t give them.

“... well, um,” they say as she stares at the underside of the blanket. “I’ll just leave the plate here on the table, and the wool next to it, and you can, um, do what you want.” There’s a faint rattle and then another awkward pause - broken by a particularly loud thunderclap - and then the serf starts to retreat.

Being outside isn’t like she dreamed it would be when she was younger. Kalaska remembers those first letters from Haneyl, which seemed to full of nice things. But Haneyl isn’t here. And when she got those letters, she was younger and... and it was just her and Seresa. Things were better then.

She was stupid to think the Outside was any less scary than home.

But still the plate vanishes under the blankets.

And there is another world, and another storm. Blue-black lightning tears through the sky, earthing itself violently into lakes and blowing chunks out of stone.

“No, stupid, take me that way! Giddy up!”

A bulky young man strides through the storm, a little girl on his shoulders. She pulls on his dreadlocks to guide him, or at least tries.

“Vali, I’m wet all through! Why is your home so rainy!”

“Yours rains just as much!”

“Yes, but mine is warm!”

“You wanna go inside, then? Or I could go dragon and take you above the clouds!”

“No!” More yanking on brass-beaded dreadlocks. “You take ages to turn into a dragon! I’m not waiting in the cold for that long! And I don’t want to go inside either; it’s all dark! Take me that way! That way that way that way!”

The young man turns, and the little girl stuffs her hair in her ears and clings to his forehead as he leans forward into a runner’s crouch. With an explosive boom, he shoots forward, leaping from a lip of basalt to clear a vast chasm between two spires and skidding across the stone where he lands. The little girl’s scream of delight accompanies his enormous leap, and she untangles her arms from around his forehead as they touch down; her brother absorbing the impact with his legs and a half-crouch to keep her from being jarred or thrown off.

“Now up, up! I wanna get to the top and look around!”

Vali was having fun. A lot of fun, actually. Having his big sister be a little sister was great. They got to do stuff together, and she was all small and tiny and needed his protection.

With a snarl, he pulls up on a ledge, and leaps up an overhang. Carrying her like this is a great weight for his training.

And he doesn’t have to think about the bit when he woke up and heard that Zanara had torn out her heart. Not when she is here with him, and even if she isn’t... isn’t the she he wants her to be.

“Vali, stop, stop, stop! I want to see the lake!”

“The lake?”

She yanks at his hair to direct his head towards the broad mountaintop lake. They’re close enough to the edge of the Ruin that there’s an oversized cow skull so big there’s a little village huddling under it, and beside the skull is a lake that’s lit by the half-submerged island. Oh yeah. He remember this place. That used to be a sky island, until it got too weak to fly and fell into the lake. But now it’s there, insulated by the water, and so it constantly crackles with trapped lighting that means this whole lake is lit by blue light.

“There, stupid!”

He chuckles. “You’re such a little brat.”

“I am not! You’re the brat, stupid! And you’re going to take me to the lake!”

“Maybe I should make you walk.”

That produces a sudden gasp. “You wouldn’t do that! I’m all tiny! My legs are short! And it’s wet and I’m hungry!”

“Fine, fine,” he says, changing course before she starts drumming on his head with her tiny little fists. “What d’you wanna eat? I could yell for Iosoto if you want; he’s a good fisher.”

“These are your people,” she says accusingly. “Make them feed us!”

“Yeah, they don’t do stuff just ‘cause I tell them to,” he informs her. “This is their spot; as long as they aren’t breaking my rules, they can do what they want. But I guess we can go see if any of ‘em want to give us some food in return for something.” He nods firmly. “And if they don’t, I’ll challenge someone to a duel for your dinner. That’s a promise!”

“That’s stupid!”

Yes, Vali thinks. On the other hand, there’s real downsides to your big sister being your little sister. She’s way less able to be chill than usual. She isn’t willing to just sit back; she’s always asking questions, or wanting to do things, or constantly having to show people she’s in charge. Her passions are smaller, pettier, less beautiful in their grand ambitions. Honestly - and thinking like this is annoying, so he doesn’t bother to do it much - she reminds him more of Aiko now. Only pushier.

The lakeside town does not prove to have anyone feeling charitable in it, but there’s a dobormin who feels cocky enough to accept Vali’s challenge of a best-two-out-of-three arm-wrestling contests for a meal. It takes a bit of effort, and he has to take a few of his chains off and go up from a quarter of his power to 40% after he loses the first bout, but soon enough Haneyl is gorging herself on a brass bowl of noodles roughly the size of her entire torso, and lambasting the cook for how he made it.

Vali waits for her to finish, and finds his thoughts drifting back to his mum. And what happened on Shuu Mua after... after what happened to Haneyl.

The mazes were bad enough, really annoying and impossible to solve just by powering up enough and smashing them. He could have got out of them fine, but getting in, through to the middle... they kept turning him aside there. He’d known his mum was being hurt, and all his strength hadn’t been enough to stop it.

But then he’d found out what had happened in there, and what mum had been hiding from everyone, and that had been even worse.

In the time since, it was... he’d found out a lot about what happened. Mostly from Cally, a bit from Eko, and he asked Lilunu some questions and she actually said a lot. Which was just to be expected, because she was super cool and made of dragons. He didn’t blame mum for anything she’d done in the past to stay alive. That was just what you did. Nexan law meant nothing; people who said you didn’t have the right to do whatever it took to stay alive oughta die and see how they liked it.

He picks up a pebble, and crushes it into sand, lightning cracking over his biceps.

But what mum did to Gull was wrong. Gull had been her wife. They’d lived together and shared everything and they were priestesses anyway so they were married as far as anyone had been concerned. And after she died, mum didn’t go on a proper quest for revenge or get back at the one who killed her wife. She just pretended Gull hadn’t existed. Which... he didn’t even have words for.

“Vali!” Haneyl calls, distracting him from his dark thoughts. “I’m full and my tummy hurts! Take me swimming!”

He levers himself up and dusts the sand off his hands. Mum’s honouring Gull now, at least. He’s still going to remember it, and watch her to make sure it doesn’t ever happen again, but it’s a start.

And he has a little big sister to look after. Like he promised to.

“Sure thing,” he says, striding over to pick her up. “I can teach you to punch spark eels!”

“... what? Hey! No! I don’t wanna go swimming if there are big things with teeth in there! Put me down right now! I’m ordering you!”

“Nah. You said you wanted to go swimming, so swimming is where we’re going!” Grinning, Vali totes the squirming ball of arms and legs and complaining up onto his shoulders and heads down to the lake.

Maybe once she’s stopped yelling, he’ll tell her he was joking.

... or not. He said he’d protect her, after all. Not that he wouldn’t tease her a bit.

“When I get big again, you’re not going to get away with this! You’re going to regret this!” Haneyl screams, pounding on his head with her little hands. “I hate Zanara! I hate them I hate them I hate them for doing this to me!”

Dropping the teasing act for the moment, Vali swung her down and hugged her. It was never good when she started thinking about Zanara and about... what had happened. He’d been trying to keep her distracted, and for the most part he’d been succeeding, but every so often the memories would power up enough to break out of where she had them locked away.

“It’s okay,” he told her, wrapping his big arms around her too-little form and squeezing gently. “You’ll get better and then punch ‘em. Or whatever else you wanna do as payback. Me and mum and Rathan’ll all back you up on it.”

“I don’t understand,” she snivels into his shoulder. “Why?”

He shrugs. “‘Cause Rathan’s all about, y’know, balance and debts and boring exact payback stuff that he works out with scales and stuff, and mum was really, really mad at them, and ‘cause you’re my sister. Even when you’re being a brat. And that means I gotta punch anyone who hurts you.” He winks at her, though she doesn’t see it due to having her face buried in his clothes. “Believe it!”

“Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid.” If he wasn’t soaked, she’d be getting his clothes wet from her tears. But he is, so it doesn’t matter. “Why’d she do it, you idiot?”

Oh. Right. That’s a harder one. Vali scowls thoughtfully.

“Dunno,” he says after a moment. “Mum said they had two reasons. One of them wanted to get the poison out of you, and the other one wanted to get the mercury-stuff.” He pauses. “You want me to hold ‘em down while you beat it out of them once you’re big again?”

“Mmm hmm.” It’s a little snotty sound.

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Vali says simply. He feels the vow etch itself into his bones.

She just stays there for a while, a warm little body held against him until she’s cried out. Then, “Let’s go visit the monkey and see if he has any presents for me.”

“Whatever you say, little sis.”

The last song draws to a halt in the Jade Carnation. Tenné Cinnamon holds Sesha in a low dip; one hand wound in her hair, the other hooked around her waist to support the graceful curve of her spine. They stand frozen in tableau; displayed in a moment of intimacy for the hungry eyes of all their onlookers, and so heated is the atmosphere between them that every breath in the room is caught.

And then the moment breaks. Cinnamon pulls her co-singer upright again, and Sesha unwinds her hands from where they were buried in that long red hair with its silver feathers, and they take their bows to the audience as the cheers and applause start to build.

“Well, that was fun,” Sesha - Seresa - purrs in her ear. “And look how red miss Li Xua is in the face after watching that. She’s a cherry. I wonder how she’s going to feel after her... initiation. We will have fun with that, won’t we? It’ll be nice to have fun with a lady who isn’t Tengese.” She licks her lips. “Otherwise, it’s like going to a tea house and only sampling one mix.”

“Hush, you,” Keris whispers, amused. “Wait your turn. We still need to get her used to the Tengese girls - and them to her.” Her sensitive ears twitch as the applause continues. The room is built with an ear for acoustics, and from here on the stage Keris can hear everything. The couples whispering to one another about what they plan to do tonight. The business talk half-forgotten from the boxes up above. The rumours circulating through the stacks, the beat of hearts and the sting of palms raised in furious praise.

Praise of her. Envy of her. Want of her.

It’s delicious.

They don’t cheer her name like they do in Hell. They don’t know her real name, for one, and for two her club isn’t that kind of establishment. But the whispers, the “How did she do that?”, the “Did you hear how high she went?”, the “Venus bless me, I want her dress”?

They’re just as good.

She spreads her hands wide, and lowers them. Like magic, the noise quietens. Except no, this is better than magic, because there is no magic in this; no trick of essence, no hypnotic pull on their minds, no help or flexing of metaphysical muscle.

This is just pure, raw beauty and charisma. Silencing an entire room. Spellbinding them to whatever she’s going to say next.

“I’m glad you enjoyed the performance,” Cinnamon says. Her voice is rich and warm and smooth; unstrained by the exhaustive performance she’s just put on, and quiet laughter ripples out at her tongue-in-cheek understatement.

“For those who can’t bear to wait until my next showcase night here, I’m glad to announce that they’ll have an opportunity before then,” Cinnamon continues, her voice rising teasingly but leaving them hanging as she delays the payoff. Whispers start - speculation, guesses, bets. She flashes a gorgeous smile to the room at large.

“Sinasana Mei-Fang has booked me for a special performance at the Anubalim at the Red Rice Festival a week from today. So, my lords and ladies, if you wish for more of me... do try to be there.” She winks flirtatiously, and a hundred hearts skip a beat. With one final bow, the curtain closes, leaving her and Sesha in relative privacy.

“That should make Mei-Fang happy,” Keris murmurs. “Free advertising. Always fun when you have people baying for invitations; it lets you drive the price up high.”

“I do like high prices.” Seresa stretches. “Money is just a way of getting time to yourself to enjoy one’s self. And,” she traces her fingers along Keris’s jaw, “because you charge the rich a lot, you can give charity performances to the poor and let them have some fun. And of course, you like being watched...” There’s an amused lilt in her voice.

Keris nips at her fingers with a smirk. “Aren’t I a bleeding heart?” she retorts as she leads them backstage. “Everybody wins. They get the time of their lives; good food, sweet music, an experience they’ll never forget. And I... I hear everything up there. So many rumours and mutterings. The word on the streets and the whispers of the rich.” She grins, teeth gleaming. “That fat old abbot in the monastery might think he’s got his finger on Saata’s pulse, but I’ll have a web to rival his soon. Just you wait, Sesha. You’ll see.”

“I can hardly wait,” the demon lord purrs. “Now, Cinnamon, darling, I do believe it’s time for you to go and get changed for the performance this evening. Li Xua deserves the best. After all, she’s going to be pledging her soul to you.”

“That’s not all.”

“Oh, of course not. You’ll mark her with your dark investiture and grant her the power of a demon. But we need to make this fun, don’t we?”

The storm passes from Saata, and what is left is the repairs. Hard work, to bring things back into order and leave them ready for what comes next - for there will be more typhoons this year. This is life in the Anarchy.

“That sounds like way too much work for me,” Rathan observes, stretching out and overlooking the sodden, swampy ground. “I know you like building things, Oulie, but we have people for that. Let’s go do sorcery instead. Mama’s still refusing to teach me to destroy people with magic, but I’m pretty sure we don’t need her for that.”

“I can get her notes!” Oula chirps happily. “I’ll just tell that Rala girl to make me some copies. I think there was a weather control in there somewhere, and some kind of wood hand claw thing...” She hops closer and kisses him on the cheek. “It’ll be fun! A nice romantic getaway where we can work together~”

“Then it’s a plan. We’ll just... mmm. Take a trip to the Isle of Gulls, or maybe one of the smaller uninhabited islands around Shuu Mua. Somewhere where no one will make a big deal about a tiny bit of magic maybe going out of control,” he decides.

“I mean...” Oula said, twining a lock of hair around her finger. “We could always go back home instead. I’m sure I could be a good influence on your sister and make sure she grows up less... everything, this time.”

“Do you want to be anywhere near Haneyl when we’re showing off that we have sorcery and she doesn’t?” He raises his eyebrows. “Really, Oulie? Are you sure about that?”

She pauses. “She might not remember?” she tries. “Urgh, fine. But I miss being back home, so you’re going to have to give me extra cuddles to make up for it!”

“We’ll go home for the end of the year,” Rathan agrees. “Mama’s heading back for Calibration as usual, so we’ll get a ride back with her if we feel like going to Hell. Even if we don’t get the sorcery finished. There’s always next year.”

“Well then, my handsome prince,” Oula breathes, slinking her arms around his neck and pressing into him. “Take me away to your sorcerer’s tower~”

She pauses as something occurs to her. “Oh!” she says. “We can go back to the lighthouse out west. Aunty will like our initiative if we volunteer to check up on it, and it’s out of the way and in the middle of the sea like you said, so we can do all the testing we want there. It’ll be a surprise for her!”

Rathan gives her a look. “And you’re not going to threaten any of the gods there with sorcery?” he asks. “Or make sure that nymph boy is a bit too close to the targets?”

She kisses him. Doesn’t answer the question, though.

“Fine,” he sighs, and makes a mental note to watch her around the drinks. Mercury in wine isn’t a good combination, and is a bit of an overreaction to a little harmless flirting. But it’s a good idea, and it’s one mama will buy. Rathan is... well, it’s not that he doesn’t love his mother, but he kind of wants a break from her for a bit. Looking after her is exhausting. And he’s not all that happy about... all the stuff that came out about her past. What she did, and... what she didn’t do.

Her debts from that time aren’t squared, good or bad, and she was hiding them.

Of course, she’s watching him. She knows him, as well as nearly anyone. “You’re not happy,” Oula says. “Did I do something wrong?” Her voice gains a sharper note. “Did someone else?”

“You’re fine, Oulie,” he soothes, kissing her on the nose. “I was just thinking about what happened to mama, that’s all.”

“I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” she confesses. “She nearly died! If she dies, you die! And maybe I do too! Except it wouldn’t be worth living if I survived and you didn’t!”

He hugs her. “It’s alright,” he soothes. “She’s not going to fall for something like that again. I’m not going to leave you. But...”

He pauses, wondering if it’s a good idea to spill out his feelings on what happened to his girlfriend. He can trust Oulie with anything, of course, just like she does with him. But just because he can doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea.

Of course, she knows him well enough to read the hesitation, and touches his face softly, stroking upwards through his hair to wrap her fingers round one of his horns.

“You’re not happy because of her,” she says softly. “No... you’re not happy at her? Why?” Her pupils shift into knives again and her tone goes sharp and cutting. “What aren’t you telling me? What else happened up there?”

“It’s not about what happened then,” he tries. “It’s... just about some of the things which came out. Things that happened before we were born.”

“Like what?” She tilts her head. “Like how Auntie wound up working for Hell?”

“Sort of,” he said. “Anyway, we should go see her and ask-”

“Rathan!” Oula pulled back and stamped her foot in frustration. “Stop avoiding me! You’re trying to change the subject! I can tell! Tell me whatever it is so I can make it better!”

Rathan made a face. But with his girlfriend in a mood like this, there wasn’t much he could do except capitulate. It was kind of a pain how determined she got sometimes.

“The fae made her relive her past,” he admitted with a sigh. “All the way back from when she first came to Nexus. Some of the things she did before we came along were things she was hiding. I don’t... I’m not happy with her about some of them.” He paused. “... quite a lot of them, actually.”

“Oh.” Oula shifts atop him, moving to rest her head against his shoulder. Her hand casually squeezes his. “She never talks about her past. Not really. She just says she was a great thief and she lived... you know. Kind of like the kids do back home.”

His mouth twists a little. “She was lying.” He hesitated. “Well. Kind of lying. Okay, not exactly lying. But... doing that thing where she tells the truth in a way that makes people come to the wrong conclusions.” He sighs. “She talks like it was just her and my father. But it wasn’t. She had a gang - she had a boss, like a kid working for a noble. And not a kerub-noble. A bardeer or something.”

His delicate hands curl into fists. “And she had a wife, too, and the debts between them were horribly out of balance - both ways!” His voice rises. “And she never spoke about her! She let the other gang members who betrayed her go without getting payback! She... she did things that were wrong.”

She’s there, petting his hand, holding him tight with her hands and hair. “Shhh, shhh. She was married? But... she never mentioned that.”

His shoulders slump. “She died. A few months before grandma came to Keris. Her name was Gull.” Bit by bit, she drags it out of him - what they were like to each other, how they’d loved each other, how they’d hurt each other. How it had ended.

“... and she’d never even said her name until the fae dragged it all up. Even afterwards, she tried not to! In Hell, when she was recovering! She flinched away from talking about it! She has a debt!” He stamps, hard, and water crashes.

Blinking, Rathan looks around at bone-dry soil surrounding a frothing moat around them.

Oh. Whoops. He must have pulled all the water out of the rain-swamped ground and whirlpooled it around him in his agitation. Relaxing his grip on it, he lets the moat settle and gingerly hops off the new island onto solid ground, offering Oula his hand to help her over.

Oula has listened to all that, and she frowns. “That doesn’t sound like something she’d do,” she says slowly. “That’s... something Eko would do, but not Aunty Keris.”

“Eko and Calesco,” Rathan says sullenly. “Calesco knew. She set it off. And Eko was hiding it from the rest of us; keeping it locked down where mama never thought about it.” He glowers in a vaguely eastward direction. “They have some payback coming too,” he mutters darkly.

“Well, we could always declare war on them and invade them,” Oula says, after some consideration. “Speaking as your general, we could sack the Meadows and... hmm. You can’t really make the Ruin any worse than it is, can you?”

He huffs a laugh. “We’ll talk about that when we go back,” he says. “For now, I just want to get away from mama for a bit. Cool my head. See if she starts balancing her debts.”

“Then a holiday away is a good idea. And we don’t need to share whatever things we invent until she acts better,” Oula declares, with a sneaky kiss to his neck.

“Yes,” Rathan agrees. “And we don’t want to see anything of those two. Stupid Eko. Stupid Calesco.”

But when the history books were written on RY 772 in the Anarchy, there was only really one thing that would matter. One event whose importance would only be recognised later on, in dribs and drabs, but the consequences would be seen immediately the next year.

Ratana, of the line of Waen, is not in the line of the heirs for her teaching. She is a lesser student, a servant of great Waen who cares for her host-body and sweeps her temple and polishes her shrine and sheds blood for her great-great-great-great grandmother.

Kneeling by the door to the shrine, Ratana hears the raised voices inside.

“Fools! What are you playing at? What are you running from - and what nonsense tale are you bringing this time?”

That was Malee being scolded, from a more favoured line of the family and the teachings alike. Cruel, mean, and keen to rub her superiority in her face, as the stormy winds blew overhead, whipping the pungent swamp grass. Ratana was glad she was being yelled at. She leaned at the bone-curtain, listening to hear what tale Malee had brought to their ancestor.

It’s something about the attacks, she knows that much. It’s been a hard year for the clans. First the assaults in Earth - she’d heard rumours of a terrible new demon from out of the Fen; some monster of green fire and brassy skin, that had burnt villages and sunk entire war-barges. And more recently...

... well. She’d heard the whispers, too. Some new horror - something even worse than the brass monster. Something that had already struck at one of the cousin-clans last year, in Ca Map.

“Do you think to excuse your brother’s cowardice?” That’s Waen, her voice thickening, her rage such that her vessel is melting. Ratana tries not to think about what will happen if... if the rot takes Sanoh. If she might be next as a host. She can only hope that Elder Waen will not consider her pretty enough to wear.

She listens closer, pricking her ears to hear the terrified babbling of her cousin. Something about... demons? Yes, wind-demons. Two of them. Ratana shivers. Two demons, destroying an entire war party? It sounds impossible.

And yet... Malee speaks so vividly; words stumbling over each other in her fear, about a red wind swathed in ribbons that had cut through their brave warriors like a typhoon, and a white wind veiled in shadows that had pierced the hearts of their ancestors with arrow after terrible arrow.

She doesn’t sound like she’s lying. She doesn’t even sound like she’s afraid of grandmother Waen. She sounds more terrified of what she barely escaped from, in Ratana’s opinion, than the furious ancestor in front of her.

Malee’s protests rise to a peak. But they are silenced. They are silenced by that scream that Ratana knows too well. It’s the sound of a woman’s souls being drawn out of her lungs, screamed out as food for their ancestor. Elder Waen must have had enough of this failure.

This is not the first of her daughterhood she has eaten over the past few weeks. Nor the fifth. She has been killing her own clan, so insistent - so furious - that they report failure after failure. That the Lesser Grandmothers she sent after this unknown threat have not returned. Ratana has heard the hissed furious curses directed at weak men and conniving daughters.

Thunder cracks overhead. Rain lashes the ground, flooding the land below the raised-on-sticks huts. But under the thunder, she knows the Elder is eating the body. Drinking its blood, to strengthen her host. Taking what remained of... of Malee’s life.

Swallowing through a dry throat, Ratana backs away from the door. Elder Waen doesn’t believe the reports about the wind-demons. No mere hellspawn could cause such devastation, she’s said. The ravings of her descendants are pathetic excuses to disguise their own incompetence.

Ratana’s not so sure. Oh, Elder Waen’s right that no normal hellspawn could do that. A single Lesser Grandmother could deal with a pair of brutish monster-apes or squirming worm-deer. But she can’t help but think... what if... they aren’t mere hellspawn?

What if they’re stronger?

Like... Lesser Grandmother stronger. A pair of Hellish lords - or ladies, she supposes. Come to bedevil them.

She knows better than to say it - to even think it - near Elder Waen. But that many terrified people coming back, talking about laughing massacres and agonising light... they can’t all be lying, can they? Not all the exact same way.

And if they are real, these wind-demons... Malee’s warband had only been a few hours away.

How long until they come here?

“Oh, little Ratana. Come in!”

Of course she obeys. Elder Waen is there, crouched over Malee’s body, mouth red not with lip-paint or ochre, hands red not with henna. The half-eaten heart is still in her grip. Her hair - so carefully washed, so carefully cared for by Ratana - falls in front of her face like a veil. “Find the Taeng girl and tell her that she gets Malee’s duties and rights. And tell her that she is to fix this for me, or she’s mine.”

Taeng is a mother, nearly dead herself, a ghost-calling witch. She will not appreciate being ordered around by Ratana, even if her mouth is merely echoing Elder Waen’s words.

“At once, Elder.” It’s the only safe thing to say. She grovels briefly, backs out of the room as hastily as she can without giving offence, and tries to work out how to break the news to Taeng without getting a curse put on her out of spite. Maybe if she phrases it as a promotion? No, that’s stupid, Taeng will see through it in an instant. A way to climb the ranks, though, and prove herself to Elder Waen?

... maybe. If she acts servile and stupid enough, and Taeng is in a good mood.

She leaps down from the shrine into one of the underlying boats, and starts poling herself towards Taeng’s family compound.

Lightning flashes. It hurts her eyes. She can’t help but think of all the people who have gone into Elder Waen’s hands. The things she’s done to try to survive that meant she had to harden her heart. It hurts.

There is no thunderboom.

That wasn’t lightning.

She smells the blood before she reaches Taeng’s compound. It’s staining the swamp water; drenching the stilt houses - the whole compound is a charnel house. She hurries through the rooms, trembling with fear, trying to find someone - anyone. There are no bodies. Just clothes and weapons lying around, empty. In the shrine she finds Taeng, or... what was probably Taeng. Her amulets and tokens, at least.

They obviously didn’t help.

There’s a ghost there, too - or what’s left of one. Most of its chest is gone, and it’s... decaying; the corpus so shredded she can’t even tell who it was, dissolving into sludge even as she watches. Wide-eyed, hands over her mouth, Ratana tries not to hyperventilate. She backs out of the room, back out of the compound, back towards the boat. Every creak of wood, every gust of wind draws a flinch. But nothing appears to cuts her apart or shoot her through the eye. No terrible laughing demon of wind blows up to end her life and flense her soul.

She can’t help but feel like she’s being watched, though, as she poles herself frantically back to Elder Waen and tries not to sob with fear. There! Something dark in the sky, seen for a moment as lightning flashes. There! The men’s place where they go to take firedust and do whatever men do when they’re strung out... it’s falling. Falling apart. Flashes of light, red and white, like swamp-wisps flickering - and each flicker in the rain looks like a person until it’s gone.

A body goes flying out a wall, and then there’s a flicker and the body is in two pieces. Whispering prayers under her breath and trying to keep her breathing even, Ratana poles her way through the clammy waters of the swamp until she finally butts up against the stilts. She clambers up, tears leaking from her eyes. Elder Waen... is probably going to kill her. She’ll want the strength for this fight, and even if she believes the wind-demons have come, she’ll be so furious that she’ll lash out at the closest target.

Ratana... doesn’t want to die.

But if it’s a choice between Elder Waen and the wind-demons, at least she knows what the former will do.

She takes a step towards the shrine, and something sharp pricks against the small of her back.

“Don’t make a sound,” says a voice from behind her. It’s a girl, a bit older than her, with an accent she doesn’t recognise that has a faint rasp under the clear alto. “Turn around slowly, and tell me where your grandmother-elder is.”

She turns, slowly, tears leaking from her eyes. Lost entirely in the rain.

The demon is shorter than her. It’s the first thing she notices, and it’s so surreal she doesn’t know how to feel about it. She’s dressed in black and red clothing the likes of which Ratana has never seen before, and has many black wings sprouting from her back. Her bow is a monstrous thing, strung with a deep red string that seems to leave a crimson haze in the air around it.

But that’s not what Ratana is looking at. None of that is what Ratana is looking at.

She looks at the demon’s pale face in the gloom, so much paler than the golden skin of her people; that heart-shaped face, those deep red eyes, that ever-moving black hair that frames it, and swallows.

It never occurred to her that demons might be beautiful.

“Eko,” the demon says in a slightly raised voice, though Ratana can tell by the tone that it’s not addressed to her. “I think I’ve found what we’re looking for. Finish up and get over here. The elder,” she adds, this time definitely to Ratana. “Where is she?” Her bow is trained on Ratana’s heart, so close that she can see the arrowhead is a vicious-looking thing of amber.

Ratana can’t answer. She can barely breathe; caught between terror and... and something else.

Piercing red eyes narrow, and then soften slightly. The demon lowers the bow, and her hair settles a little from writhing like a nest of snakes.

“I can see your heart,” she says. “There’s still some good within you. You know your elder is a monster. Tell us where she is. I won’t harm you; don’t be afraid.”

Ratana points up, silently. Up at the shrine. She... she’s terrified. She doesn’t want to die, and death awaits her in every direction. If she just doesn’t say a word at all, maybe she might not cover her in her dark wings.

Her dark wings. She looks at the demon. Or maybe not a demon. Maybe...

... maybe this is Death herself. Black-winged, beautiful; the crow who croaks in the marshes when a grandmother’s time passes.

There’s a giggle from beside her, and she barely stifles a shriek. A thing is perched on the tops of the stilts that poke through the house deckboards, hopping merrily from one to the other. It’s swathed in ribbons and silks - bright arterial reds and shining whites speckled with blood-splatter, with silvery-grey gloves that stop even a hint of skin showing. And its face! Its face is a demonic leering grin, too wide for any natural creature, haloed by ribbons that writhe and move just like Death’s dark hair.

It cocks its head at her and giggles again, and Ratana can’t help but feel like it’s plucking every thought she’s having right out of her head, and finding them funny. She can hear... nothing. No sounds of bells, no horns. No one trying to raise the alarm. Nothing but the storm. But...

“How... many did you take?” she asks Death. In a whisper.

It’s the nightmare figure in silks and ribbons who answers, but she doesn’t use words. She just tilts that smiling face, and her meaning is clear.


“Sh-she’s in there,” Ratana whispers, pointing again. “You can’t...”

The Demon hops down to stand next to Death, swaying in place as if to a song. They don’t look like they care very much about what can and can’t be done.

“Stay here,” says Death, not unkindly. “This won’t take long.”

Ratana stays frozen by the perfect confidence in her raspy voice for a long moment as they disappear inside. But she can’t... she can’t just stay and cower. Something drives her up to the shrine despite herself. Up to bear witness to the end.

Something strikes. The entire building gives way, the poles tumbling, and it falls down into the water-fattened pools below. She goes under, and is carried away by the burst-banks river. Somehow, maybe because her grandmother was watching over her, she manages to grab onto one of the boats, which carries her free from the debris. Bleeding from her scalp, she manages to lever herself up into the boat. And sees what is going on.

Elder Waen has torn her host apart, and now she looms, waist-high in the water, nine armed and tarry and black, red eyes burning against the dark sky.

The demon dances across the surface of the water, skipping on liquid like it’s solid earth. And dances is the right word; she’s showing off, her image flickering from place to place and lashing in to avoid the great swipes of the hulking Elder.

She cannot see death. But she knows she must be near.

Everything is sound and horror and fury. She’s never seen Elder Waen fight before, but it’s an even more terrible sight than she could have imagined. And yet... the Demon laughs delightedly as she slips past blow after blow, never quite where Waen’s blows or curses land.

The same can’t be said of Waen. The Demon has a knife; a curving thing with a white blade and a black hilt and a red tassel, and it leaves bleeding gashes up the elder’s arms and across her waist. Streams of blood pour from them like red gusts of wind, regardless of how little sense it makes for an Elder Grandmother to bleed. And with each cut, Waen seems a little thinner, a little weaker, a little... less.

The waves kicked up by Waen’s flailing jostle the boat and nudge Ratana’s head up. And she sees where Death has gone, and why she can see the fight so clearly.

Death is above them, wings outstretched. But she’s not dark anymore. She’s speckled with light; a hundred thousand tiny points of white piercing through her dark clothes like stars in the night sky, enough to light the river like a full moon. There’s a shining arrow of white light the length of a spear nocked and drawn on her monstrous bow, and red eyes look down in judgement from where they’re scattered across her wings.

She dips lower in the sky, great wings beating, her writhing hair wrapped around the bowstring to help her arm pull it back. Her dark garb is fraying around the bright-glinting stars, and as Ratana watches she gathers the shadows around her like a tattered cloak.

“Ghost of the Zu Tak,” Death calls, and her voice holds terrible promise. “Bear witness to your sins, and see!”

The Demon dances back, still laughing, still skipping across the surface of the waters.

And Death casts off her cape of shadow, and looses.

The arrow does not scream. It does not wail. But it is let go and it is a plane of death, something that divides one thing from another. Light from shadow. Life from death.

Elder Waen’s head from her neck.

The light that accompanies it is impossible pain. It feels like the lightning bolts: the way they made her think of all her cousins who Elder Waen had eaten. The people she’d refused to help because she was scared. The rituals she’s taken part in.

But it’s so much worse than just thinking about it. It feels like doing them all over again, and each one stabs her heart with pain and shame and horror. Ratana screams - or thinks she screams, it hurts too much to be sure. Through the tears in her eyes, she can barely make out Death - blindingly white now; a star come to earth, glowing and radiant and unearthly.

She hears Waen’s screams, even through the pain. For all that Ratana’s done, she’s only a young servant, not even yet fully grown. If this light of Lady Death is punishing her for her sins, how much more must it be hurting the dying Elder? She is old, and the things she’s done are beyond counting.

Some part of her mind clings to that, as she seizes and writhes in agony. The thought that it could be worse than this is an awful, impossible comfort.

And then it’s over, and the light fades - cloaked again in shadow, stifled at the source - and Ratana collapses back into the boat without even the energy to raise her head.

She lies there, limp and numb and giddy from the sudden cessation of pain, for she’s not sure how long. Until the boat rocks slightly, and someone kneels down beside her.

Lady Death looks down at her with dark clothes and dark hair once more. The Demon peers over her shoulder, still grinning but with a vaguely sulky slump to its shoulders.

“I... you killed. Her.” Ratana screws her eyes shut. “Everyone.”

“Everyone who deserved it,” Death replies calmly. There’s no guilt there. But why would there be? Death comes to everyone eventually, and it’s not for those she chooses to argue. “But not you,” she adds. “Do you know why?”

Her jaw aches. Hands, too. She’s bleeding, she realises; bleeding from where her nails tore into her own palms. She remembers leading sacrifices... victims... to the Elder’s chamber. “N-no,” she croaks.

“You’ve done wrong,” Death tells her, and the judgement chills her bones. “But you’re not lost. Not yet. You still regret the things you do, even without my light. There’s hope for you to atone.”

The Demon behind her nods cheerfully. They’re letting Ratana go so she can tell others what happened here, she realises. So she can spread the word and speak of Lady Death, and of the doom that comes for the Grandmothers.

“You know better, now,” Death tells her, and lays a cool hand on her forehead. “Be better. Do what’s right.”

Ratana sits there, shivering, cold in the warm Fire rain. Death looks down at her, and must be satisfied at what she sees. She leans down and presses a kiss - cold, burning, blissful agony - to Ratana’s forehead.

“Remember,” she murmurs, and draws an oilcloak around Ratana’s shoulders.

Then, with the beating of great wings, she’s gone - and the Demon with her.

This... this has changed everything. For her. But not just for her. Her family, her clan... they will maybe never recover.

Her ancestor is gone. At the hands of Death herself. Death who dwells in the stars, and descends with her judgement.

Beautiful death herself.

Chapter Text

Calibration 2, 772 RY

Hell's mad green sun shines down upon the sprawling palace-city of the Conventicle Malfeasant, and she sits upon his lap. This is not how things are done in Calibration in Hell, but this year it is different and Lilunu can sit down and relax with her love.

That is because this year, the responsibility for handling the entertainment of the second day of Calibration lies upon the new Mistress of Ceremonies, Keris Dulmeadokht. And the entertainment given to the peers of Hell and the demon princes is one of her own design.

The majority of it is not dissimilar to the spectacles of years past. This is, after all, Keris's first Calibration organising the festivities, and it's best not to rock the boat too much, too soon. So there are great gladiatorial matches in the arenas where blood is spilled on silver sand for bloodthirsty audiences. There are praise-choirs of human slaves who sing paeans of prayer and worship to the Yozis and their souls. There are great banquets of decadent food, drink and recreational substances.

But there are other things, too, that bear more of her personal touch. The vast demonic choirs - angyalkae foremost among their number but by no means alone - play great symphonies composed by Keris, her Coadjutor and her youngest Progeny soul Zanara. Ornate stages host plays and performances that mock and degrade the great powers of Creation, and ancient stories from before the rebellion of the gods are retold to flatter the mighty deeds of the Unquestionable in aeons past. Citizens and peers are invited to flaunt their athletic prowess in a series of fiercely competitive races and contests of strength, and the victors are awarded prizes to the cheers of the crowds.

All of these things have costs, of course, and behind each banquet are hundreds of hours of reviewing recipes and sourcing ingredients and assigning chefs and planning routes and timings to get the food from kitchen to table. Behind each performance are countless screams of audition and rehearsal, and every gladiatorial match needs equipment and careful calculation of odds - both for the betting and to ensure the fiercest fighters don't clash too soon, but only come together as the sets narrow down and the finals draw near.

Keris Maryam Dulmeadokht is thoroughly sick of paperwork. But looking upon her work with Zanara by her side, she feels justifiably proud of the end result of all those late nights spent reviewing documents and forms.

Zanara leans back in her plush chair, shadow-tiger Iris curled up in her lap, and counts out the beats of the music with one hand. Her mismatched eyes, one red and one green, are bright, almost feverish; her expression, frantic. "They're not matching the beats, Keris, they're not perfectly on time," she frets.

"It'll be fine," Keris reassures her, although the strain around her eyes suggests that she herself is not entirely calm. Her hair rises up around her and makes several sharp, precise motions towards the chorus that's lagging by a flicker of a heartbeat, where a watching demon relays her order to the conductor.

Other eyes all across the Conventicle are trained on her box. There's a watcher for each block or entertainment, and all of them wait for her semaphore-signals as she orchestrates the chaos of the revelry and troubleshoots issues as they arise. A constant stream of runners pass by the dragon aides she has at the base of her tower. Her sharp ears pick up another problem in the making, a banquet course delayed, and a quick word to the aide in the box with her has a message sent down to change the order of the meal to give the cooks extra time.

Sparing a moment to squeeze her eyes shut, Keris massages her forehead. Gods. She's already got a headache forming. Having to juggle so many activities, remember so many plans, keep track of everything that's happening so that she can adapt around obstacles as they crop up... it's not good for her to be pushing herself like this, she knows. She can do it, but only barely, and only with the help of her caste mark flaring on her forehead. It's as exhausting as a marathon, twice over. Thinking this hard, thinking this smart, is not good for her. She's not Sasi. She's not built to be clever in more than quick flashes.

And there's another day of this in four screams, too. Urgh. It's going to be hard enough giving her boast at the Althing tomorrow - it'll be a miracle if she's even conscious on the fifth.

Miraculously, things end without a cataclysm, and Keris heads off. Now she has costuming to get to, because she's got a new outfit to wear for when she gives an aria before the demon princes and even as she heads down to the changing rooms there are people asking her questions and checking with her and reporting to her and aaaaaaaaah-

This particular costume looks more like spiderweb than fabric. It's almost entirely composed of white silk cords, woven and split and twisted around each other into a pattern that will, when fit snugly over the exact shape of Keris's body, pull taut to cover her from neck to ankle in a net leotard of six-fold symmetry. Hexagonal panels of jewel-studded fabric fill some of the gaps between the silken cords - enough to give her modesty and draw interesting asymmetric designs up her flanks and across her stomach - but much of her skin is still bare.

Keris is smugly aware of how very good it looks when it's on. Unfortunately, that same snug fit, and the fact that it's basically hexagonal fishnet, means getting it on is an exercise in toes and fingers getting caught, silk cords needing to be tugged or adjusted to sit right, and general annoyance and frustration. Matters aren't eased when one of Lilunu's servants comes in, looking for her judgement as to how to handle Quintus, one of Ipithymia's souls who's gotten riotously drunk and, well, the last time he did that, someone got eaten. Keris has to pause while she considers how to handle this, and by the time the little green-foam creature is gone, now she's running late.

All the candles in her room start to burn black, all at once. Devouring light. Not shedding it. But she can see her own face in the mirror, still.

No. Not her face. The face of the darkness. Smiling back at her.

Keris stiffens. She's flattered Unquestionable and danced for fetich souls today, but she hadn't expected one to make an appearance in her dressing room, much less this one. But then, if she had, the Contrary One would not be here. Such is her nature.

"My lady," she says, bowing low. "I am honoured by your visit."

Noh steps from the mirror, her robes flowing around her, her jet-black hair trailing in her wake fluttering behind her like strange wings. That white mask of comic mirth stares at Keris, the only part of Noh she can see. Everything else is merely heard.

"I saw you dance today," she says, voice soft and husky. Not the same voice she had before. "You tie yourself up in bondage as ornamentation. Now you tie yourself up in bondage," a delicate hand moving in thick sleeves, "as ornamentation. A choice; one you make. Or one which is made for you."

"If it is my choice to don, my lady, then I may slip free whenever I wish," Keris offers nervously. "I would rather be the one choosing than have the choice made for me."

The Calibration of last year flashes through her mind without her permission. The deliberate sabotage of her and Sasi's trip across the Desert. The way their late arrival had been the final capstone of a scheme to rob her love of the Southwestern Division. The humiliation of accepting her own directorship of the Anarchy under the smug eyes of the Blue Glass Maiden as Deveh took An Teng under his crystalline thumb.

She keeps the still-smouldering anger off her face. Mostly. "Better to make the bonds my own," she finishes darkly, "and own them."

Noh pauses. That small, delicate hand brushes Keris's jaw, and leaves a cold, sticky, clinging residue there that seems to sap all the heat from her bones. "To be a slave is an indignity. To be captive is suffering. To obey is agony," she whispers. "To bear the subjugation of another is to be subjugated."

Her fingers run down Keris's neck, and brush against the ropes. And the cold spreads, gnawing away at the harness she had half-way on. Keris can hear the cloying blackness as if it's something solid, something physical which is taking bites of the costume and replicating, spreading, spreading...

Slightly panicked - not just at whatever unknown magic Noh is working but also at the potential loss of what was quite an expensive outfit necessary to a performance she's already running behind on getting to - Keris takes a nervous half-step back and brings her left hand up to grab at the fine silken filigree, trying to assess the damage.

The darkness has taken it, devoured it. And in its place all that remains is cold, clinging physical shadow, holding her as tight as an infant's caul.

"I would never wear marks of my bondage proudly," Noh says, voice distant. Her voice is coming now from over Keris's left shoulder, but that's not where she can hear her body. "I would have died free, if they had let me."

The darkness is total. Keris can hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing, taste nothing. It is in her mouth and it is in her eyes and in her ears and it is drowning her, forcing its way down her throat and-

And it is just the absence of light, and she can hear Noh once more.

"It is unfortunate that the sweet boy Rathan was not here. His need to be loved is a chain upon his soul, but he is quite the charmer. And Eko is an interesting conversationalist. A shame."

The candles go out, no longer burning black. And Keris is - she thinks - alone in the darkness.

Her skin prickles. So cold, so clammy, so clinging. Her over-sensitive skin can feel that Noh's residue coats her from neck to toe, as close as a second skin - and as thin, too.

Nothing of the ropes remain. Did... did she take offence to seeing them, Keris wonders? Skimming her fingers ever-so-gently across the residue, she shudders. It feels... honestly, it reminds her a lot of when Sasi becomes the light-hating shadow and crawls onto her body to cling to her beneath her clothes.

That always feels icky and cold and vaguely dirty, too. Not that she'd ever say so.

But minor discomforts are less important than the main order of the day here, which is that the outfit she was supposed to be wearing for the aria that she's already running late for is entirely gone, and Noh has left her this... wafer-thin form-fitting shadow membrane instead. Perhaps she wants Keris to go out wearing it as a sign of her influence or something. Perhaps she wants Keris to reject it and go out naked as a sign that she rejects all forms of bondage and entrapment. Perhaps she was just here to see if she could talk to Eko and Rathan again and got mad at seeing Keris wearing ropes.

An entire college of scholars could probably debate the finer points of this question for years without reaching a conclusion, but happily, Keris is able to shortcut it. Divining the intentions of the Contrary One is the next best thing to impossible, so rather than try, she makes the pragmatic decision that she came into this dressing room to change outfits, and changed outfits she has. Perhaps not into the one she intended to change into - and she's going to have to write off the loss of all that jewel-studded woven silk, urgh - but she's changed now, and running behind, and getting out of this membrane would take more precious time.

Also, if she can get out of it without tearing it, it'll probably be valuable for something. An exotic ingredient, maybe, or a component of sorcery. She's sure she can find some use for it.

That can wait until later, though. For now, Keris makes haste out of the dressing room and towards her next appointment, already making mental revisions to her aria to suit the dark new outfit.

Calibration 3, 772 RY

Great symphonies resound through the Conventicle Malfeasant. It is the third day of Calibration and the Unquestionable are in attendance to review the reports of the green sun princes.

But one of the minds behind the great entertainment is not in attendance, for by the laws of Hell they are neither a green sun prince nor a demon prince nor a demon lord. Dressed in their white robe, but with the hood down and the mask tucked up, Nara wanders through the lush gardens cultivated by Lilunu’s own hand, and lets the warm wind blow through his reddish-blond hair.

Yesterday went... okay, he decides. More of it had to be farmed out to lesser talents than he’s happy with, but he’d acted in a few of the satirical performances, and he’d been the conductor of one of the largest choirs. The attention had been wonderful - and Lilunu had congratulated him and smothered him in praise for his contributions. It’s enough to be content with, and tomorrow will be better.

Zana’s still fretting over the acts that hadn’t gone so well, of course, but Zana’s been fretting a lot lately. It’s why they’ve been spending more time as him lately, and it’s why he’s here now, alone at Calibration when both of them can exist at once. Normally they spend this time together, but she’s just too much of a pain right now, so he’s doing his best to avoid her.

He comes to a small glade, where the metal plants with their verdigris leaves have been cleared out and a small pavilion set up. Human slaves stand here as a prayer chorus, their veneration here so present that each word makes the air ripple and distant ambrosia can be smelled. Nara knows what that is, because Lilunu let him have some, fiercely expensive that it is. The food of the gods must be stolen from Heaven and smuggled to Hell.

Settling in front of them and blinking languidly with four eyes from an otherwise-human face, he basks in the feel of their eyes on him. It’s not as sweet as it might be - they don’t know who he is beyond a demon with enough rank to be here, and their worship is impersonal and shared with the other revellers, but it’s still as intoxicating as any drug. Sprawling out on a divan, he considers the future.

Well, the rest of Calibration is spoken for, and that’ll be fun. After that, it might be a good idea to head back to the Isles. He’s been gone for a long time, and he’s learned a lot about governance and leadership from Lilunu that he wants to implement back home. And not only that, but things are going to start getting interesting. Rathan and Vali are both furious about Chir and the stuff mama was hiding, while Eko is furiously defending the way she’d hidden it, and Calesco’s making no apology for it coming out the way it did. Things are taking shape for a war - a really big one, not just the little things born from squabbles and petty insults.

Zanara has no real stakes in the argument. But it’s something they can profit from. The only risk is Haneyl getting angry at them - but she’s still little, so there’s not much she can do directly, and Vali’s probably not going to start a war on a third front just to avenge his sister. Or at least, Nara’s pretty sure they can talk him out of it if he tries.

A sixth sense warns him, and he’s on his feet, hood back up, and idly ambling away from the pavilion like he’s just passing through, no, certainly not snacking on prayer. It’s just as well, because he can taste the stagnant cold blood on the air, like a wave washing before it. In the mirror-sheen of a polished tree branch, he can see the newcomer into this little glade, a horned woman with pale pink hair, dressed in paper robes. She almost looks a little like Rathan’s girlfriend Oula, but her snow-sparkling skin is far paler than Oula’s and her horns are more bull-like.

“You! Servant!” It’s directed at him. He can taste the intent; he is a servant, one she has seen hanging around Lilunu, and thus he can be nothing more than another obedient flunky. Sliding his mask onto his face, he turns and bows wordlessly, obedient as expected.

“Entertain me,” she says simply. There are other women trailing behind him that he’d missed in her wash of power; each one nearly identical to her. That one has no horns and wider eyes, this one dresses in black and carries a reaper daiklaive, that one there has blue hair and dresses like a Realm-style maid - but they still have fundamentally the same face. “You’re one of the girl’s entertainers,” she says, sprawling out on the divan he had occupied previously. One of the other women immediately kneels before her and slips her high platformed sandals off, massaging her feet, while the one in black starts to knead her shoulders. “I have just walked out of a very boring meeting which simple minds like yours couldn’t hope to understand - and it wasn’t even half-way done! - and I need something to take my mind off things.”

She glares at him. “Go on. Ent-er-tain me,” she says, as if talking to a simpleton.

Bowing again, Zanara motions at the praise choir to change their song, feeling out the woman and trying to decide what she wants. Hmm. Yes. Drama. Passion. Turbulent emotions clashing, a story of great heroes and terrible villains, or else something else unique and vibrant.

... well, he was just thinking about one such tale. And if he abstracts it a little, what’s the harm in telling her the shape of the story without its details?

So, to the praise-songs of the mortal chorus, Nara begins to dance. He sketches out the conflict and the cast - a mighty queen of a growing nation, her shameful past revealed. Her eldest child and a younger sister by the same father, who knew of the sordid deeds of her youth and helped her hide them, and her proud sons, who fly into a rage at discovering this new side of their noble mother. Another of her daughters struck down by sickness in her shock over the truth laid bare, and-

“I can’t believe you!”

... ah. That would be the last member of the cast. Who he was trying to avoid, and does not appear happy about him airing their family drama.

Zana is there, an imperfect princess of the Dynasty. Her scarlet robes have an inappropriate cut and the shades of red are not quite what are legally required; only half her hair is in the perfect hime cut that it should be and the other half is shaved short at the sides; her tiara is of hellish brass and vitriol-corrupted jade. One eye the red of Rathan’s moon; the other the same bright green as Haneyl’s fire. A trail of painted silver tears running down her left cheek, the same side that she’s ruined her dynastic hairstyle.

The Unquestionable is sitting up, in something which seems split between outrage and interest. She didn’t expect this, but doesn’t seem to realise exactly what is going on and isn’t sure if it’s part of the entertainment.

And the last child of the mighty queen, Nara introduces his other half, adapting smoothly to the interruption. The twins who set the beautiful plot in motion with the theft that led to the queen’s lies being stripped away, who now war with each other - for while neither regrets their deed, one feels guilty and the other does not.

Zana will take the bait. He knows she will. They’re two halves of a whole, and Zanara can never resist something pretty. And what could be prettier than disguising the argument she came to have as a performance for an Unquestionable, and speaking truth that sounds like a lie to one of the very demon princes they’re hiding their nature from?

Her hand collides with his face, a loud slap against his mask. It stings. “You didn’t even care about her,” she rages. “It is your self-same greed, your desire to steal your older sister’s silver that set this in motion! Yes, she was cursed by that theft, but it was her nature to take it. And you only care to take that cursed treasure for yourself! To flaunt such a theft!”

Their minds briefly touch, for even at Calibration they are not really two separate people. More than one, less than two. Both of them are masks they wear to act out roles for the world. Nara only lets people call them a boy because Zana feels female when they act like her; truly, he’d rather change as the whim took them. If Nara insisted, all of Zana’s memories are free for the borrowing, and vice versa - but he doesn’t insist. Not now, not when she’s already pissy about something that had to be done.

“She is sick because of you. Because of us,” Zana fumes, giving away she’d been rummaging through his thoughts at the same time. “And you don’t even have the decency to feel bad! Even when our hands,” she lifts up her palm, to show the red blood she’s drawn from her own hand with her nails, “are still crimson with what we did to her!”

“She is sick, but she will recover,” he returns smoothly, his body language shifting smoothly from dancer to actor. “And the curse no longer grips her in its clutches. Was that not why you wished to take it from her, dearest sister? You were as eager as I to take what she had rightfully stolen. Does your heart cry out now to return it to her, and see her consumed?” He plays the oily, remorseless tone of the tale’s villain well, the twin who cares not for the harm their scheming caused. Hanny will get better. And the Silver Forest is better off with them anyway. It’s not like they didn’t know what taking it from their sister would involve, so getting squeamish now is just melodrama.

Not surprising melodrama. They are, after all, a melodramatic soul. But the act’s getting a bit stale from where he’s standing. Zana should just take Eko’s advice for once and move on.

That earns him a filthy glare when Zana’s dance happens to leave her back facing the audience. But she lashes back, taking on a little more of the role of the guilt-ridden princess. She breaks into song, her will coaxing the human slave prayers into becoming her backing chorus, and her words are a flashing silver knife in her upper registers. Accusing, blaming, regretting the necessity as she wrings her self-bloodied hands together.

He sets a tenor countertone as he parries her weeping and mocks her regret, and sings of the plot to come. Of the war their brothers think to wage for the disgraced queen’s throne, of the sisters who knew and defend their mother’s right to it. “Strife will come and spears will be drawn,” he sings, “and we have much to gain. And yet you sit and weep vain tears for our mother and sister’s pain.”

Because yes, the tale was a sad one. Mama’s past was painful, and Haneyl’s death was a terrible thing to do. But in its sorrow it was beautiful, and he knows Zana sees that too. It was a bittersweet tragedy in which suffering made mama and Haneyl shine all the brighter - and they’ll go on to perform bigger and better acts in future. But there’s another play in the works now, and Zana’s so obsessively focused on how they wrote the last one that she’s missing it. If it takes off before they can prepare, they’ll be left on the sidelines of it all, ignored as their siblings battle!

But Zana just doesn’t seem to want to let it go. Her lines ignore his sensible refutations, and she banishes his concerns from her presence with cutting words. When they’re Zana, they’re better with words and scripts and the like than when they’re him, and she’s using that against him.

She slaps him again, and doesn’t pull the blow this time. With a wail, she falls to her knees, tearing her robes open to bare her chest at him, back arched. “So go ahead!” she calls out. “Go ahead, brother! Why not tear out my heart too, and crush it in your hands! Why not? You care not about her. No guilt, no sorrow, no grief for you! So be it! Take my womanly heart from my bosom and crush it!”“

This is the same place their argument has ended every time they’ve had it. And he wants to leave her there, retreat and storm off and go back to avoiding her, but now he can’t. Now they’re performing, and the role he’s carved for himself - the role she reinforced by playing into the guilty princess - is one that must act out its part. She-they can be annoyingly clever sometimes. She must have planned this to trap him.

With an angry growl that’s only slightly exaggerated, he grabs her by the hair. “Very well!” he roars. “If you have become nothing but a chain of weakness around me, I will cast you aside as well! For it was my sister’s mind that birthed our plan to rob our sister so, and if you cannot remember that, there is nothing of my sister left!”

And with that, he plunges his hand into her chest and tears out her heart, to an agonised scream and fatal jerk.

... it’s stageplay, of course. She’d palmed a pomegranate and concealed it in the robes she’d pulled open, and it’s a simple bit of sleight-of-hand to palm it in turn as he mimes ripping her heart loose from her breast, crushing it to leave her skin stained red and raising his clenched fist to drip red juice into his mouth while she slumps limp and discarded to the floor.


Where to take the play now?

He stares at his “bloody” hands for a moment, using the shocked realisation of what his character has done to buy himself a moment to think and check on their audience’s reaction. The Unquestionable and her attendants look suitably enthralled, although the one in black with the reaper daiklaive can be heard to audibly whisper “Wait, that’s not really her heart. What a cop out.”

((Goddamnit now I’ve gotten fond of Ohasei’s edgy SI.))
((Hahaha. That’s what she wants you to do~))

What to do. What to do? He can feel Zana waiting for his next move too, slumped on the ground as the “murdered” sister. If he leaves it here, or seems pleased at her death, that’ll be... bad.

What was this scene? The prince of the tale had to kill her, because Nara had played up his villainy too much not to. This, then, is a possible ending to their argument. One where they stay torn between their guilt and their annoyance at it until it rips them apart. And... he doesn’t want that. He could never want that. The roles that Zanara plays may conflict sometimes, they may resent and lash out at the feelings that pool in one part of their mind or the other, but they could never want to change themselves. To tear a part of themself off and discard it... no. Never.

He falls to his knees. There are subtler ways to go about this ending, but his read on their patron tells him that she’s not one to care overmuch about realism or originality.

“What have I done?” he whispers, grief choking his words. “What have I done? Is this what she felt? My sister of the same womb? Is this the guilt that clawed within her, which I mocked so callously? Woe. Woe, that we had but shared a heart, that I could feel her pain and understand! Would that my greed had not blinded my heart of justice!”

He claws within his robes, throwing his head back dramatically. “As I took your heart, dear sister, let you take mine! That my wicked deed might be avenged, and my sinful debt... be paid.”

There’s enough pomegranate left to crush it under his robe and form a growing red stain over his heart. His robes cooperate eagerly with the mummery - Lilunu’s craft is ever a perfect tool for an artist’s hand. With an overexaggerated wrench, he tears his heart free from his robes and places it in the limp hand of his sister, surviving just long enough to bow to his watcher before slumping over her cooling body.

((So yes, Zanara's conclusion is that while they’re not entirely sure of the conclusion to their row, they are committed to not letting it drive a rift between them. And also a certain ironic amusement in that Zana is now the one who wants them to pay back their debts, while Nara is feeling possessive over their new charms and did it out of greed.))

There is a shocked pause, and then the Unquestionable is on her feet, clapping so loudly the air booms. Her attendants copy her perfectly in total unison, so their hands move together. “Beautiful,” she cries out, “just beautiful!”

Zana tugs Nara up, and hand-in-hand, Zanara takes their bows, luxuriating in the praise and applause. Their fight can go on hold at least until the curtain falls. And indeed, Nara’s next thought is one that Zana also feels so strongly that it burns past their pretend separation. This Unquestionable, whose ten thousand subtly-different faces can be seen in all the metal around her, now envies them. Not Keris. Them. It’s sickly sweet in the air, a laser-like focus in the eyes.

((Ohasei’s most prized trait is her Followers N/A, her countless daughters. She has just started to envy Zanara for being better actors than her progeny.))

“I will commend you to the girl Lilunu next time I see her,” the Unquestionable says, with a flap of her hand. “Though a word of advice. It’s really best to warn the audience before you kill off a major character, let alone two. Also, I feel the work would have been improved by some forbidden love between the siblings.”

“Incest is hot,” agrees the blue-haired attendant.

“Your critique is as gracious as it is generous, queen of a thousand honours,” says Zana, curtseying with all the dignity of a great Dynastic lady despite her torn clothing.

“We will heed your wise advice, and treasure your approval,” finishes Nara, with a low bow and a suggestive arm around his other half’s waist.

They manage to escape the demon prince and her hungry, envious gaze - which manages to feel slightly dirty as well as really good - and hide themselves down by a river, in a little crook of a mirror-tree. Zana lies down, her head on Nara’s lap, and picks at the scab on her palm. “Ouch. This is going to be a pain until I can get Keris to fix it up,” she grumbles. “The sacrifices for art. And my robe is ruined. Anyway. You wanna talk?”

“I suppose,” sighs Nara, nudging her over so he can start on braid her hair into a multicoloured rainbow-plait. “You know, we can be guilty about Hanny and get ready for whatever the boys are going to do. We can be sad without being nothing but sad.”

“I... I asked about how she’s doing,” Zana says in a tiny voice. “Keris said that... she’s really miserable whenever th-the topic comes up. That she’s little and... I don’t want my big sister hating me. I... you know how things were when we were little. She’s not my blood sister, but she’s still my big sister and she was the one who looked after me and she taught me how to paint and Keris didn’t have much time for us and... I can’t handle it if she hates me. And that’s... that’s even if she isn’t trying to get it back.” She touches her chest, just left of centre. “The envious heart.”

Nara’s expression flickers as he feels her worry through their touch. “She won’t,” he argues, a little too forcefully. “She’ll be really mad, and she’ll demand something - maybe even doing the same to one of us so we have to spend a year reforming. But then it’ll be back to normal.”

It sounds... less convincing, spoken out loud like that.

“Besides...” he adds, trying to sound confident. “You know how she is. She burns hot, but it doesn’t last forever. She doesn’t hold grudges over things. And... she’ll see that it was poisoning her. She was miserable before. She’ll feel better with it gone.”

Zana’s mismatched eyes meet his. “You’re lying to yourself,” she says softly. “Trying to get her to let go of something that she thinks belongs to her and got stolen is like... like trying to get us to accept something as being ugly when it could be pretty. It’s an ugly thought, I know. And everything is prettier this way around. But to her, everything seems ugly when someone’s stolen something from her and won’t give it back.”

Nara bites his lip. “If... if we made her something. A gift. Not something small, a big one - something like the bow mama made for Cally. That might... she’s willing to trade things. Sometimes. If they’re worth the same.”

“What can be worth part of who you are?” Zana asks. “She... I’m going to tell her I did it for her. That I love her.” Her hands crumple in his robes. “Even if it makes her hate me. I c-couldn’t let her get sicker and sicker. She was getting so mean and so unstable and... and...”

Zana rolls over, and starts to sob softly into his lap. Nara folds himself down with the flexibility of an inhuman spine, hugging her to his chest as she cries.

((Heh. I wonder if Nara’s really even been thinking about “what if Haneyl hates us forever?”))
((He has not. Because, sigh...))

“If it gets that bad, mama will step in,” he consoles her, trying to sound certain. Her fears have bridged the gap to him, though, and now they’re not so much in two minds about what’s happened. “She won’t let her hate us. It’d be ugly. The world can’t be that ugly. This one, maybe, but not our world. It’s not allowed to be.”

By the time she’s all cried out, her make-up is a mess and she’s red and botchy. He feels a tickle in his head as she pushes through the barrier between them and looks through his eyes. He doesn’t mind that. Appearances are important.

“I’m a mess, aren’t I?” she says sadly.

“Kind of,” he agrees sympathetically. “And not even the pretty kind. Your mascara didn’t run down in teartracks, it just kind of smeared. And your cheeks are too flushed. The red’s oversaturated.”

“Fuck.” She wriggles in his lap, slipping out of her torn robes to dump them beside her on the little beach. “Realm fashion looks great, but it’s such a pain, and all that red really limits your options for secondary palettes.” She stretches out cat-like on top of her robes beside him, basking in the green sunlight.

“Careful, dearest sister,” he teases, remembering the Unquestionable’s words. “My ‘forbidden love’ might overcome me if you flaunt yourself so shamelessly.” His hands come up to feign clawing at her and he puts on an exaggerated leer.

It’s supposed to be a joke. She’s meant to snort, and say something scathing and funny about the demon they’ve just performed for.

But she doesn’t.

“I mean, you’re him-me anyway,” she says, sounding a little too thoughtful for his liking. “And, I mean, it’s not like I’m really your sister. Maybe... uh. Maybe we could try kissing and see how it feels. You know, to practice. For other people.”

Nara freezes. “Wh-what?”

She rolls over onto her side, resting a hand on his stomach. “I’m saying if you want to kiss me, I... I’ve wondered what it’d be like. Not with you, with anyone. Or... I mean, I’ve,” her face manages to turn a bit redder, “I’ve, uh... you know?”

"You know?”

Zana is by now a similar shade to her robes. “It d-doesn’t matter, and-”

“Oh. Oh! The... um. On-your-own thing.”

“Yes. Um. I mean, if we both...”

“Yeah, but... I mean...” Flustered, leaning back to get some space, he tries to marshal his thoughts. His whole scene’s been thrown off, and this... this isn’t something he’d thought about. How long had she been keeping this hidden from where their minds joined? “Mama would... we couldn’t...”

Zana flinches back, hands going to her face. “Oh dragons,” she moans. “I... I think you’re a bit more Rathan and we all know it took him so long to realise Oula had the hots for him and I’m more Haneyl and we know how she is and I think Keris said girls mature faster than boys and dragons I’m so embarrassed and...” She crosses her arms in front of her. “I... I m-mean it when I d-don’t call Keris ‘Mama’ because she’s not my mother, Dulmea is. And we’re both Zanara and... and Zanara can play with themselves if they want and Keris doesn’t get to say anything and... I mean, if you wanted to! We both have to be okay with it obviously!” She swallows. “I just... I had the idea... remember Haneyl and Kuha fighting or Calesco and Kuha or Calesco and all her break-ups and... it might... hurt less if it was... just us. And I’ve been… things have sucked since we had to do that. And I… I wanted to be happy. It's not fair how happy Rathan and Oula get to be!”

“I-I-” Nara stutters, feeling his face burn. “I’m not... reacting badly. Or, or mad, or anything, you don’t have to panic, just. This is a lot.” He’s acutely aware of where she’s lying on him all of a sudden. And her bared skin has a gravity that it didn’t have a second ago, which is more frightening than attractive. His eyes pull towards her, but his mind baulks at the thought.

As if feeling the first threads of panic, Zana hastily grabs her discarded robes and scrambles up off his lap, wrapping the stiff fabric around herself like a blanket. They stare at each other for a moment, awkwardness hanging heavy in the air.

Nara clears his throat. “I... you... we’re both really pretty, but I hadn’t really thought about...” He can feel her fear and reaches around wildly for a way to reassure her and- “I m-mean I’ve touched myself before and you know I’m only a ‘him’ to make you happy so... um, I... don’t know where I’m going with this. I mean we do love ourselves but I don't know if it means like that and...”

“Okay. Okay.” She feels like a high minor arpeggio, rising and falling on the far side of the keyboard in rapid, anxious rhythm. “Okay, just... um...”

She bites her lip, and reaches out tentatively to cup his cheek. They both close their eyes as they let division briefly end, and sit as one being again, cupping their own cheek as their hearts beat in time.

Zanara tilts their heads and considers, toeing furrows in the dirt with one body and picking anxiously at a nail with the other. There’s curiosity in the thought of... of knowing themselves like that. But there’s embarrassment too. They’re too nervous - too ashamed, Makers, they’re acting like Eko - to try it right now.

“We might be able to get he-us more comfortable with she-us, though,” they muse out loud in two voices. “It’d be really ugly if he-we start blushing and stammering around she-us after this. Especially when we’re trying to perform. Quick-changes between scenes would get awkward and awful.”

One head with four eyes turns to critically regard another head with two.

“And she-us still looks like a fright,” they sigh. “Urgh, why couldn’t Keris-mama make us a prettier crier? We’d have made us better.”

They take their hand off their face and pretend once more that they're not one person with two bodies. Or from another point of view, let their own identities re-emerge. Both are true, depending on who's asking. Not really one person, not exactly two.

“I’ll go for a swim to wash my makeup off,” Zana decides. “I need to cool down anyway after that dance, and I’m all sticky from the pomegranate juice. You can wait on the bank and keep an eye out.”

Nara reaches out and takes her hand. But not to do anything. To stop her. “I... um. Just thought of something. Actually, I think we did.”

Zana nods. “We did. I-we're thinking the same thing you-we are,” she agrees.

“That Unquestionable. How she said...” his already red cheeks only feel hotter, “that... uh. What she said. And... she’s a part of the Sphere of Speech.”

“I know,” Zana says, sounding uneasy. “I think I felt some of this before, but she... she might have made it easier to say. Because did you feel how she envied us? She might... um. Have laid that out. As a curse. To show us up. To teach us a lesson, as she’d see it. I don't think she understood. She thought we really were brother and sister, not... what we are. It's a cruelty from her.”

Nara nods. “That... uh. Was what I thought. So I think if we talk about this later, it’s a while later. And maybe we get mama to check us over to make sure there isn’t any lingering curse-magic.”

“... good idea,” Zana decides. “And yeah. Not until after Calibration. We don’t want her distracted tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Nara agrees.

But he still watches as she strips off and runs out into the water.

Calibration 5, 772 RY

It is the last day of Calibration, and Keris Dulmeadokht is exhausted. She is shattered. Her head aches and her feet hurt from too much dancing and she feels like she's losing her voice. The third day was the grand ceremony where she had to report on everything she'd done, then a fete, then meetings, and then she'd had to prep for the fourth day - and yesterday she was on her feet all the time and feels spread as thin as butter. And she hasn't been able to relax today either, as she runs around helping Lilunu and sparkling at parties and doing ten thousand little things and being called in for divisional meetings and bleargh. She feels bleargh.

She can't help thinking of the third day and her presentation and her boasting. Did it go alright? Had she managed to suppress the rumours about how she'd nearly died which would have hurt her perfect record? Certainly, she had emphasised that the chaos prince of Chir she had slain had been named the Blue Star, and had once been a hateful Chosen of Venus herself, fallen and corrupted by the fae. She had made much - though little in the way of specifics - of her takeover of Ca Map, the floating platform-city that broke a Realm fleet in decades past. The ruin brought to the ancestor-worshipping tribes of the Zu Tak drew approval from those in the audience who hate the Dead, and while she hadn't named her identities in Saata, she'd bragged about her consolidation of power as Little River and her now-firm grip on one of the major pirate factions, as well as the tendrils she's wormed into several others through Cinnamon.

She hadn't mentioned the treasure-trove she and Asarin had found in the dragon-crawler, high in the mountains of Shuu Mua. Nor the horrifically illegal sorcerer corps she's been training from among her own First Circle demons, nor the new valley carved out there full of Keris's people. And she'd certainly kept quiet about her cousin, vanished away in the night to work for Jupiter as a Chosen of the Maiden of Secrets. But despite all that, it's been a good year. A successful year. She had plenty of things to boast about.

If only she'd been less frazzled for the boasting itself.

And so she sits in the lap of luxury, tucked away in the corner of the room, nursing a wine and trying to just settle herself. To calm herself. To get over how frazzled and sick and nervous she feels, and how she just wants to lock herself in her room for a day or two and not have to talk to anyone.

Least of all Sasi or Testolagh, who are also at the same party. Together. She saw them down on the dance floor; Testolagh, coldly handsome with an outfit Sasi must have picked for him which hugs his form in soft black velvet trimmed with warm brass, something which nearly is a uniform yet flatters his form. And Sasi, in deep red with her hime cut trimmed to perfection, the cut-outs from her robe flaunting she's wearing nothing underneath.

She suspects - no, she knows Sasi's been asking for her. She knows Sasi is looking for her. And she knows what her girlfriend will want. What Testolagh will want. But Keris can't. She just... she can't. She and Testolagh tried, and it didn't work - or rather, it worked far, far too well. Testolagh's masochism and her spiteful envy had turned her into someone awful, someone who'd taken pleasure in hurting and degrading him and binding him in his own oaths. Keris doesn't want to be that kind of person. But Testolagh does. And Sasi... Sasi has far too much of the Dragon in her not to get off on that kind of degeneracy and sin. She loves Testolagh, but Keris is willing to bet money that she'd enjoy watching her proud, honourable, stubborn lover torn down from his oh-so-virtuous perch and reduced to a plaything begging to be twisted and defiled.

Hearing Sasi's voice approaching, Keris shifts backstage and huddles further into the corner, making no sound and staying perfectly still as her lover sweeps in, looking gorgeous and alluring and tipsy and horny and eager. Keris looks at her with longing, but doesn't speak up as Sasi scans the room, brushes over the parts out of sight with a tickle of unseen hands, asks a few questions of the revellers and fails to notice her lover tucked away in the corner. Of course she does. She doesn't know for certain Keris is there, and backstage like this, Keris isn't part of the narrative. Sasi's story tonight will be one of searching for her girlfriend all over and failing to find her until she sulkily goes back to her man.

Drifting out of the room once Sasi's gone, Keris stays backstage for a while as she liberates another few glasses of wine from oblivious servants and heads back the way Sasi had come from. She probably won't double-check places she's already been. It isn't until she's found herself another little nook to hide from sight that she lets herself become part of the performance again, and that only to confiscate the instrument of a demonic servant and take over playing herself.

Closing her eyes as she plays, she looks through Iris’s, a couple of kilometres away in Lilunu’s palace at the heart of the Conventicle. Her familiar is with her twins, and the three of them are being given a painting lesson by the little agyakerub who entered Lilunu’s service last year. It’s going... well, Ogin is very intently staring between the bowl of Hellish fruit and his easel, where a fairly good rendition of it is taking shape very slowly as he tries to get every line perfect. Kali is enthusiastically finger-daubing a variety of colours onto her painting by the handful. And Iris is in her little-girl form, and appears - from the way her viewpoint keeps leaning right up to her portrait and then rearing back again to reveal a blank canvas - to be doing lots of quick likenesses of the bowl and kerub one after another, and then eating them every time the canvas gets full.

... at least they’re having fun, Keris thinks, and lets the vision go.

It is while she hides behind a role as a mere musician-servant that a woman catches her eye.

No. Say it for what it it is. Erembour, That Which Calls To The Shadows, catches her eye. Erembour, whose skin is Calibration's midnight sky and whose eyes shine like the full moon of Creation. Erembour, whose velvet-night hair is picked out by strands of glowing white and whose robes are glowing silver. Erembour, whose beauty is said to equal that of Venus and Luna.

Keris, dry-mouthed, can believe it. She has seldom seen her in the Conventicle, and she doesn't know why - but even from a distance, she was lovely. In this less formal situation, she is something too beautiful to be human, too perfect to be real. Her faint smile is cryptic, and the crowd parts around her, yet does not flee. She is Unquestionable and they fear to offend her, but she is too lovely to stay away from. Lovelier than Ululaya; lovelier too - and Keris cannot believe she's saying this - than Lilunu.

And there is something oddly familiar about her, too.

She stares, for a while. The nook she's chosen, and the musical accompaniment she's taken over, give her a good vantage point to watch from as Erembour talks to one demon, smiles at another. Dances, briefly, in a whirl of silver robes and dark skin and white hair.

It's that which makes Keris realise the familiarity. Calesco. Erembour reminds her of Calesco. Not in personality - the sinful temptation of the Unquestionable could not be further from Calesco's piercing compassion. But the mix of darkest night and bright white light, the inhuman beauty of her features and movements. The way that shadows around her beckon with aching temptation. All of those remind Keris of her daughter, so far away right now, in Saata for the Calibration festivals.

Without really thinking about it, she finds her music changing, shifting, climbing the scale into the wordless, accusing heartfelt song of Calesco's essence. It's a melody of piercing starlight cloaked in darkness, of painful Compassion veiled in sweet-scented lies - and perhaps it's similar enough in the lower registers to Erembour's own inner melody that it catches her ear, because her attention shifts to Keris.

She doesn't do anything, or say anything - not until the piece is complete, at least. She just stands there attentively, silvery eyes locked on Keris, a quixotic smile beckoning her over.

Entranced by the slight curve of those lips, Keris rises, gesturing an angyalka servant to take up playing again. She doesn't beeline straight to Erembour - she doesn't want to seem too eager - but she takes only a brief detour to the nearest tray of drinks to select a few. She remixes them as she gravitates towards the Unquestionable, combining three drinks in carefully eyeballed ratios into a clean glass and adding a pinch or two of this and that from her Domain and a droplet of her own blood before giving the final mix a quick shake.

"My lady," she says with a sweeping bow, offering the finished concoction. "Please, with my compliments."

(Mixology enhanced by Flavour Without Boundaries for a subtle social attack intended to gain her approval.)

Erembour's sleeves are long, so long that she holds the glass in the fabric when she takes it, rather than let them slide out from her robe.

"Such a thoughtful gift," she says, amusement clear. Her voice is low and slightly husky, her accent isn't exactly one Keris has heard before. She takes a sip, and rolls it around her mouth. "Quite lovely. Though you do surprise me, Keris." There's a little roll to her 'r' sound. "To think I'd find the new Mistress of Ceremonies here, serving drinks and playing music in such a minor room in this party. I do hope that child Lilunu didn't send you here in a moment of pique."

"No, no," Keris says hastily. "No, my lady Lilunu has been very supportive of my efforts this Calibration." She smiles self-effacingly. "I simply wished for a brief rest from the festivities to collect my thoughts. I hope you have enjoyed the revelries this year?"

Erembour chuckles. "I seldom attend these things. Calibration has a special meaning for the Ultimate Darkness himself, and most years I am called to honour him. But he bade me attend this year, for his heart was disquieted." She looks at Keris over the top of her drink. "I happened to catch you in that gorgeous shadow-membrane dress. Such a performance. I was very," and there it is again, the rolled r that makes it sound like she's caressing the word, "appreciative of what I got to see."

Keris swallows, pleasurable tingles going down her spine. "I'm glad my efforts were appreciated, my lady," she husks, her own voice dropping half an octave. "Perhaps I might entertain you further?"

Wait. Shit. She hadn't meant to say that. Had she? Too much of her brain is caught up in the gleam of Erembour's eyes, in the dark promise of her lips. In the rolling huskiness of her voice and the shapely form beneath those robes.

"My lady need only request her pleasure," Keris whispers, hardly hearing her own words, "and I would be honoured to meet it."

"A pleasure, for me?" She sounds like such an ingenue. "Perhaps... you might do a little thing for me. And then you might meet me in the gardens outside - or rather, the tunnels that lead down from the Micotxi fountains." Erembour favours her with another smile, and walks away. Through the back of her robes, Keris sees a rat tail poking out, but she's more distracted by the sway of her hips.

Any question of 'What favour?' doesn't even make it to her lips, because she read the demon princess's intent in her smile. There is a serf-servant of Lilunu on the grounds of this party-palace, named Metriculon, who serves Ligier in secret; a spy for the mad green sun. Erembour wants his head delivered to her, down in the catacombs. The heady lust, the desire to please, the thrill of what Erembour's lush decadence offers seizes Keris's mind, leaving it hard to think of anything else.

She's moving out of the room almost before she's finished registering Erembour's intent, the rush of purpose intoxicating her wits entirely. It's not even a question of the sinful promise layered within Erembour's smile. After all the heartsick, exhausted, stressful weariness she's endured today, just the sense of having something to do, of being excited to do it, is enough to have Keris's heart pounding and her blood rushing and a smile coming to her face. What's one serf against that? Ligier has innumerable spies. He probably won't even notice this one missing.

Metriculon is easy enough to find. Keris touches base with one of her dragon aides - this may be one of the days Lilunu is in charge of, but Keris's support staff are still involved - and looks over the records to find where the demon in question is assigned. Then it's as simple as drifting over there and giving a curt order to a seemingly-randomly-chosen demon in passing to go take a message on a course that will lead him past the Micotxi fountains, and an alluring song as he passes that draws him into the shadows of the tunnels.

Where a figure melts out of the wall and decapitates him as soon as he steps out of the light of Ligier and into the darkness. Poor thing. Just an unfortunate servant waylaid by a predator on one of the ten thousand errands necessary to keep the festivals running. Perhaps an enemy of Ligier's recognised him and committed a crime of opportunity. Perhaps it was simply bad luck. Certainly, there's nothing to suggest it was premeditated. Who could have predicted his passing through that courtyard at that precise time?

Beaming proudly as the body falls limply to the ground, Keris catches the head in her hair, turns, and presents it to the shadows with an elegant curtsy.

The shadows call to her, their music drifting out from the catacombs, and like a woman entranced Keris follows the sound, somehow knowing where to go. Down here in the dark places below the demon city, Ligier does not care to shine, and with the spider-man's head in her hand she follows the song. Down basalt stairways littered with debris and past polluted stinking canals of Kimbery laden with waste from the Conventicle Malfeasant that glows faintly. There are scurrying things down here. Not rats. Wolves, bats, owls, and their eyes gleam with uncanny awareness. And then there are the other creatures, the misfits, the freaks and the monsters, the things that are neither man nor beast nor demon. They dance in the shadows.

The shadows do not move like they should. They curl and coil, and are seldom always the same shape.

And in the end Keris finds herself in a vast hollow chamber so large it has its own clouds. It shouldn't be able to fit, and she's sure she didn't go this far down, and yet here it is and here she is.

Erembour's horn calls her. Erembour waits for her, in this dim chamber, sprawled out upon steeped pillows. Her eyes glow like the moon, with nothing to reflect.

"My lady," says Keris, blushing and presenting the head, still dripping gore. Her head is swimming, but the excitement and eagerness to please has overwhelmed the ennui and exhaustion of the day, and she's captivated by the dark lady's spell. "Have I pleased you?"

"Oh, you are just a treat," purrs Erembour. "Toss that disgusting thing aside, and come sit with me."

Keris obeys, and owls come bearing things to clean herself with, while a wolf trots up with a tray of drinks in its mouth. She takes it gratefully. Here, in the gloom, Erembour is even more fair than she had been in the light of the Conventicle. Keris knows that secret of the Ebon Dragon herself, but that power is a pale reflection of Erembour's allure.

"I wonder," Erembour murmurs, "why you did this for little old me? When you could have," she pauses, "refused." There it is, that rolled r. "But the darkness called to you, and you came to me. You are, they say, Lilunu's pet, and she is Ligier's, and yet you murdered one of his spies without a second thought. More than that, you enjoyed it. I can hear how it makes your breath hitch. Your toes curl." She traces a finger along the back of Keris's hand. "The hair on the back of your neck rise."

Keris shivers. "L-Lord Ligier..." Her head is swimming, and the faintest trace of guilt encircles her throat for a moment, but... it's not like Ligier is clan, and this didn't hurt Lilunu at all. "L-Lord Ligier has m-many spies, a-and... and he won't miss this one, and I was so tired and... and Sasi w-wanted me to do stuff and I didn't want to but I wanted to do this and it f-felt good an' you're so lovely an' it was exciting an' easy an' not hard talking stuff where I gotta... gotta say no to things an' be 'sponsible an' stuff..."

There's warmth wrapped around her. The skin all the way up her arm is tingling along the path Erembour's finger followed, up to the back of her neck where it now rests, drawing her into the beautiful woman's shoulder. Her breasts are soft against Keris's own, and her hands are gentle, and her scent surrounds them both in a bubble of indulgence where nothing else matters, where all responsibilities are put aside and Keris need do nothing but relax and indulge.

"There is a darkness inside you, Keris," Erembour purrs, her tongue embracing her name as her hands embrace her body. "A melancholy, sad darkness that longs to revel in my shadows. To give in. To succumb. I can feel our kinship. The Nameless One had many things to say about you, and I am glad I decided to come looking to see what of you drew her interest. And you are such a pretty little thing; thief, murderess, nightwalking harlot. I wish I had found you earlier, for you are so many things I love. Give into the shadows, Keris. Embrace them."

Whimpering into the soft skin and inhuman beauty of That Which Calls to the Shadows, Keris's arms and hair come up and wrap around her voluptuous, hedonistic form.

And embrace the shadows Keris Dulmeadokht does.

Embrace them, and far, far more.

Erembour is, so it is said, one of the finest instructors in the many arts of love, and Keris can believe it. And Erembour has velvet soft ropes and somehow she knows that right now Keris doesn't want to have to make decisions or choices or be responsible for anything. So she both strips away Keris's responsibilities and with her kisses sears the knowledge of how to do that to others into her.

In the aftermath, rope-burned and tearful, Keris lies in the arms of a demon princess and lets out far more than she ever meant to about Chir and about Sasi and Testolagh and her fears and lusts. She pours them out into Erembour's dark, expectant hollowness until she's spent.

"So this is some of the darkness within you, Keris," Erembour purrs into her ear. "So beautiful. That proud, rigid Testolagh likes to be hurt; you feel devoured by the hungers of Sasimana. And those dark moments in the arms of the fae haunt you still. To feel so trapped, so close to death, so ensnared in your doom. Gorgeous. And your past - if you had come to me when you came to Hell, what a wonder I would have made of you. Well, of these dark things, your situation with beautiful Sasimana and handsome Testolagh are most within my field of expertise. Do you wish for my council - and perhaps my instruction, too?"

Trembling, limp, weak-limbed and small in the shadows' embrace, Keris nods meekly.

"That which you fear imprisons you. You desire it, and desire them. You fear to let yourself go and treat Testolagh as he wishes; you fear that Sasimana's lusts are more than you can handle. But from what you have said, you have bedded them together and separately. I think, perhaps, that which you fear with them is not exactly them. It is everything else that has been weighing down on them. You feel that to bed them like this is not melancholy decadence, it is labour that weighs you down. And that is what you fear."

She runs long, silver-clawed fingers down Keris's side; her rat-tail wraps around Keris's thigh.

"Perhaps it is that rooted fear that gets in the way, and you must either discard it or resolve it otherwise."

"But that means facing them," Keris whispers, her voice hoarse from talking and sobbing and screaming with pleasure. "And I don't want to face them yet. I don't want to go back out there, into the light."

"Their desires are the desires of the dark; the ones that hide within their hearts. The desires demons do not reveal under Ligier's light, but they dance and revel in when my music sounds out." She caresses Keris's face. "You came into my darkness to bare your heart and live without restraints. Maybe you should lead them down similar paths. Share the unshackled melancholy joy we shared. Make a dark place where the light does not shine and let them face those desires. As it is, the names of those lusts go unspoken.

"And if you would like my aid in letting them taste those dark desires, you need only ask." A kiss. "You pretty little thing."

((Advice Erembour is, ah, a little prone to “OK, but have you tried corrupting them?” as a solution to problems. It’s mixed in with the actually good advice that maybe Keris should talk things like how they handle Testolagh’s masochism and dealing with how Sasi might get if she saw how Keris and Testolagh were when they got unchained.))
((Surprisingly useful!))
((Keris isn’t agreeing to the “corrupt them” thing, but is kind of giving tacit permission to be briefly made a creature of darkness that doesn’t have to think about such hard difficult choices for a while.))

"Please," Keris breathes. It's not exactly a request for her aid. More of a plea. "Let me stay a while, m'lady. W'th you."

"My darkness is a home to all the cast-out things of Hell," Erembour tells her fondly. "You will be a treasure within it."

Reaching over, she recovers her great silver horn, and takes a deep breath. Its sound is something deep and sonorous, that fills Keris's skull. The darkness swirls and dances, both in this hollow room and behind Keris's eyes. The demons and creatures who had been watching them dance to its sound, and it goes on and on and on.

Keris rises up to her knees without conscious thought, voice keening as her bones crack and shudder. It hurts and it feels wrong, but the wrongness is right in its own way. Her jaw hurts and her skull hurts and her spine is cracking and breaking. Her thumbs are twisting and her wrists are shifting and cracking and black hair is forcing its way through her skin, becoming a thick sleek coat interspersed by feathers. She tilts forwards onto all fours, her weight feeling better that way, and a pain in her backside is - she knows - a tail forcing its way out. Something strange is happening to her chest, but she's not sure what in among all the rest of the pain. Her screams are now something between a shriek and a yowl.

And still the horn goes on and on and on and on, and it captures Keris and sweeps her up and makes her dance and dance and dance among the other night beasts and creatures. Her waltz is sometimes on four legs and somethings on two, but it's sad and melancholy. The shadows dance with her, and so do the rain, and in the centre is always That Which Calls To The Shadows, the conductor of this mad symphony.

It's only when Erembour ceases to blow that she is allowed to slump down. There is spilled wine on the floor, and in her reflection, she can see what she has become.

She's not human anymore, whatever she's become. There's some human left in her, but there's just as much of owls, and of cats. Her eyes are huge, taking up a quarter of her face, and her nose has become a hooked, fused beak under which a fanged mouth grins. Pointed ears sit high on her head, nestled amidst a mane of black feathers that extends back, back, back - her hair transformed into a hundred feathery ribbons.

Her neck has changed too - her whole spine. She can tilt her head back ninety degrees to look forward from all fours as easily as when she's upright, and her spine - already unnaturally flexible through the gifts of the Silver Forest - is now so pliable that she can arch backward a hundred and eighty degrees to touch the back of her head to her heels.

Six breasts hang from her chest, like the nipples of a cat, and soft dark fur covers her upper body. Not black, like her feathers, but an impossibly deep red, like blood spilled in tar. Her hands are paws, with velvet-smooth pads and lethal claws hidden within, but her feet are vicious four-clawed talons, covered with the black down that her fur blends into at the waist. Three claws forward, one behind; there's nothing human about the structure of her feet now. Nor her knees, which have become digitigrade, allowing her to walk easily on all fours, paws and talons clicking together across the floor.

From her spine, four wings have forced their way out - two at her shoulderblades, two at her hips. They're not large enough to let her fly, but they have claws too; hooked talons at the joint where they bend that are perfect for catching and ripping through flesh. Her twin tails - sleek, short-furred and striped like her daughter's - lash eagerly in the anticipation of prey, and a purr rumbles up from her throat.

Folding her wings against her flanks, the owl-cat creature pads over to Erembour's side and rubs her chimerical head against a naked thigh in gratitude. Because it's not just her body that's changed.

There's no tension, like this. No stress. No worries.

Only the joy of the night, and the thrilling thought of the hunt.

Erembour sprawls back in amusement. "Almost none of your kind have been so willing to accept they are one of my creatures," she murmurs, shifting her legs so they're wrapped around the chimerical monstrosity. "How long will you be wiling to stay? There is so much I can teach you. My adorable little student."

The owl-cat purrs again, and then makes a strange, half-growling, half-cheeping noise. Perhaps she can no longer talk. She does seem to understand, though, and catches Erembour's fingers in her mouth, letting sharp little fangs prick at - but not break - the demon princess's skin. Her tail lashes, and her wings spread to beat a couple of times in the sheer giddy excitement of a hunting lesson down here in the dark.

Oh, she certainly hunts down here. She hunts and kills down in the dark, and she couples with Erembour when the mood strikes her, and she is not the Mistress of Ceremonies. She is barely Keris.

There's no sense of time down here, even less than Hell usually, because the tomescu are barely audible, and the owl-cat barely knows what the muffled screams are to count them. But she's slept several times, and hunted in the brightly lit - too brightly lit - paradise in her dreams, too.

But one time she dreams of a place that does not exist in her dream-paradise. There are too many beings here, beneath a sunless, starless, moonless sky, in a city of low white stone lit by glowing painted buildings and burning torches. Drums and gongs sound, fireworks replace the missing stars, and the air is thick with the scent of food and smoke and firedust.

And the crowd screams for the night-dancer. "Black Shawl!" they call for her. "Black Shawl!"

The owl-cat winces from the volume, though she seems to have no body nor physicality, and her viewpoint shifts, flitting through the streets like a night bird. She settles upon a verdigris copper statue, and sees the whirling black figure upon a temporary stage set into the frontage of a building.

The dancer plays the trickster moon, in the story of the world’s creation. Barely clad, her nakedness is only covered by mist-thin veils and black body paint. Her face is painted as the crescent moon, a silver arc cupping her jaw. Her motions are sinuous and constantly elliptical, never moving in straight lines. Every step follows an arc; every gesture paints a curve in the air. The Sun is on the stage too, but he is clearly a man in yellow body paint bedecked with brass jewelry. Save when the dancer comes near him, and then he stands a radiant figure in gold. This is how her dance spreads around her, and wraps everything up in her story. The cloth and paper props become images from when the world was young, the dancers in demon masks become true monsters, and the coiling shadows of the night’s dance hide that this is just a street in a bustling town.

Wide-eyed, the owl-cat watches this tale that she knows not to be true, and yet in this moment she believes it. More than that, she can see how the shadows have taken the crowd and brought them to believe it too, and they have claimed the musicians so they sing like men possessed and play instruments with skill that is not their natural right.

But that is the magic of the moon, and in the Calibration gloom her dance is a reverent thing, of love for the earth-queen Gaia who she sees below her. Gaia is there on stage too, in blues and greens and while at first she looks like a Saatan girl in body paint, when she enters the moon’s story she is the crashing tides and roaring flame and howling wind. The moon flirts with her, seduces her, orbits her endlessly and together they turn against the demons and send them falling from the stage, never to return (but where did the bursts of green flame come from?).

Victorious, the moon embraces Gaia and they kiss and their passion sweeps through the crowd like a wave. Women gasp and moan as the passion infects them too; men holler and cheer to see such a sight, not understanding what the moon’s trick is. And their kiss ends and they leave the stage hand in hand, as the Sun - just a man in paint, once more - proclaims their victory.

But the watcher follows the moon and Gaia to backstage, and watches the moon pin Gaia up against the wall. "Oh, my Lui," she whispers to her, and for all that she’s short she’s strong. "You were marvellous."

"I was only human, my Black Shawl," Lui whispers back. "You are not. I can never match you." She giggles. "Did you see how everyone was watching? Women were throwing their hair ornaments onto stage!"

"Of course they were," and the moon’s long black hair traps each of Lui’s limbs in turn. "They want to be in my place."

"They want to be in my place. Don’t pretend otherwise."

"Well, in that case," the moon says, "let’s get your pay and then we can go back to your place. And I can clean your body."

"I wish I was like you and could just conjure up the costume," Lui says, sounding dreamy. She gasps, as the moon’s hair shifts adventurously. "But you’re my shadow lover, and I am only human. I never thought I’d be in a real spirit tale."

The moon kisses her deeply, smearing her lip paint. "You drew my attention, and I fell in love with you. I might be a spirit but a beautiful woman like you is hard to find."

Ah, yes. The watching owl-cat knows the moon, though her name is hard to call to mind. But the moon is part of her, warm darkness and cold light, and so in a sense it is her who takes this dancer-girl to bed and makes her scream out prayers to her Black Shawl.

And when she wakes, she is in the arms of Erembour, who is also kin to the moon-girl, and she makes her pet scream just like the moon played with her dancer.

Chapter Text

There is a voice in her head which does not like this way of being. The many-coloured hair woman with the long fingers in her dreams wants her to cut away this form and return to who she was, but she - Keris, that’s the name she uses - doesn’t want to. She knows she could any time. But she also knows that turning back will make her unhappy and overworked and... and she will turn back, she will, but just not until the people she doesn’t want to see are gone.

But instead they come for her. She smells them, tasting the air through the sewer-reek, and she stalks them. She won’t - she can’t - hurt them, but maybe she wants to frighten them away. Or maybe she wants to see them again. The ever-changing one who’s so terribly strong, and the one who smells of the desert and the shadows just like Erembour and of cold blood and hunger and other things and-

“Keris!” The silver-haired one is looking directly at her, eyes cutting straight through the darkness. “What happened to you?”

She gives a happy mewling hoot, and leaps - her wings spreading to give her a few seconds of gliding time that extend her jump. From the wall, from the roof, from a gutter outcropping she rebounds, lightning-fast and lithe and playful, and cannons into the desert-shadow-coldblood, crowing triumphantly as she pushes her down to the yummy-smelling squishiness of the floor and licks at her face and neck and the low neckline of her chest. Her wings spread and flap excitedly as she backs up and turns to the powerful-ever-changing one, trilling and purring, tails flicking from side to side, and dares to dart in and nuzzle her thigh with her soft-furred cheek and her hard beak and her sharp little fangs.

For some reason, the target of her affections is - while smelling of relief - also not pleased to be on her back in the sewers.

And then the ever-changing one picks her up by the scruff of her neck. “Keris,” she says, eyes painfully bright green. She sounds scared. Scared and angry. “What are you doing? What... if she did this to you...”

She exhales, green flame licking around her as the other one pulls herself to her feet and makes upset noises.

“Keris. Lead us to Erembour. Now.”

Mewling pitifully, the owl-cat shrinks in on herself, pawing at the strong one’s wrist to be let down, to be let go, to be released.

But the ever-changing woman is having none of it. She shakes her roughly by the scruff of the neck and repeats her demand, and the weight of her stare is enough that the owl-cat’s wings furl. Her feather-ribbons curl in around herself and her tails dip down between her legs as she leads the way off through the tunnels, not bounding joyously through the dark as she has been since coming down here, but padding meekly along with shoulders hunched and head low.

Retracing her steps back through the dark, following some unnoticed instinct that tells her where the shadows lead. Back towards the vast, dark-clouded dome where she became what she is now and began her hunt. Erembour waits there, dressed in her silver robes for once, hands folded up her sleeves.

“Lilunu,” she says, sitting at her little table. “I was wondering when you’d show up. And Peer Sasimana, such a pleasure.”

“Erembour,” Lilunu says, green light shining through the cracks in her petrifying skin. “You stole my Keris. And you have turned her into this... this thing that can’t even talk.”

“Wine? For you two? Keris likes wine.” She crocks a finger towards the owl-cat, calling her to her side.

The pale-haired woman isn’t saying anything, lips locked together, reeking of fear. And also the sewers.

The owl-cat keens, wings spreading, claws and talons digging into the black stone of the floor. She wants to go to her dark lady, who has wine and maybe some meat and who’ll pet her and then let her go hunt again once she’s eaten. But... but she doesn’t want to leave the ever-changing woman’s side. She’s stronger than the dark lady, and angry, and claiming. And the pale woman is scared, and she shouldn’t be scared, not while the owl-cat is there, because she’s... she’s the pale one’s protector. Abandoning her when she’s scared would be wrong, on a level that twists her gut.

Circling indecisively between the three women, the owl-cat blinks huge eyes against the bright green light and waits uncertainly for someone to tell her what to do.

They’re shouting at each other - well, ever-changing is shouting at Erembour, Erembour is calmly answering back and silver-hair is saying nothing at all. But ever-changing is using many voices. It makes the owl-cat’s ears hurt and it makes everything hard to understand.

There is one thing that gets through the haze and the pain, though, and that’s when Erembour says, “No, on the contrary, I did nothing she didn’t want. She can leave any time she wants. What she wanted was an escape from the burning light of responsibility - and you two might ask why she found her heart filled with darkness that drew her to me?”

And she can hear the hissing, crackling noise and everything is snarled up inside ever-changing and worse she can hear the toxic, blightful green light escaping from the cracks in her stone skin.

It’s too much. She screams - the high, mournful cry of an owl mixed with the rasping yowl of a cat and the piercing shriek of a woman - and dives between the word-duelling women. Her left paw comes up on reflex to rest on ever-changing’s breast, pulling at the painful-bad light that’s hurting her and it’s the owl-cat’s job to protect them both from things that hurt them and to take the burdens of toxic-light-power that tax ever-changing too much and to look after small-things that pale-one can’t nurture and... and...

With a sibilant hiss, silver feathers slide out through dark red fur and black down. Digitigrade legs and lashing tails fuse together into a long serpentine body of pure, lethal muscle, and hook-jointed wings fuse back into an expanding torso as she puts on bulk, shoulders spreading, ribcage swelling. Black-feathered ribbons split into bone-white hair, owl-like eyes and beak shrink back into the feral cast of a human face.

The lamia coils around Nemone Sasimana and the demon princess Lilunu, the former wrapped securely in her tail, the latter in an apologetic embrace. She squeezes both gently - Lilunu’s rage interrupted for a moment by the transformation she has heard about but never seen before.

Keris Maryam Dulmeadokht turns to Erembour, ignoring the blood dripping from between her feathers.

“Unquessstionable One,” she says respectfully, forming an honouring-mudra with her hands and giving a slight bow from the waist. “I thank you for allowing me to ssstay in your domain for a time, but I’m afraid my lady callsss, and I am her creature before all othersss.”

Lilunu burns, radiating toxic essence as the burning pits that should be her eyes lock on Keris and-

Indigo joins the green, and then colourless white. And she stuffs a fist into her mouth, breathing into it, as the stone flakes away and leaves skin again.

“Keris,” Sasi says, holding her, and this close Keris can see the hints of tarry shadows at the edge of her eyes which tell her she’s been crying, really crying, not fake-crying. “Is that... you?”

“It’sss me,” Keris reassures her. “I’m sssorry, my lady, my love. I could have come back sssooner. I... I jussst...”

She bites her lip with sharp silver teeth, her feathers rustling. She’s bigger than Lilunu like this. Even her human parts. Her upper body grows to be a match for Testolagh’s size when she takes this form, and her lower body is five or six horselengths.

“I wanted to ssstop thinking for a while,” she admits, the words strangely soft and sad in contrast to the enormous, feral creature she’s become.

“Well, then matters are resolved,” Lilunu says, voice as taut as a wire under strain, “and in future, my lady Erembour, you will not take my Mistress of Ceremonies from me during Calibration which is the time of year I need her most.”

“Oh, little Lilunu, so brightly burning, so lacking in understanding,” Erembour says, stepping back away from the glow. “There is darkness in your heart too, even when you wear the light of the King. It sings to me. If you just accepted it - but you are too young, too heated. If you ever want tuition, you need only come to me - and the same might be said for you, Sasimana. I know you hear my call.

“And you two should speak to Keris. She is beautiful to me, for what she was and what she is, and perhaps she can shield your eyes from blinding light and so shed you of unneeded enlightenment. She understands more than you.

“Fare well, Keris. And if you ever want to come back to my arms, you are welcome.” That silver gaze looks Keris up and down. “Come wearing that form if you wish. I adore your taste in colours.”

Keris bows again, respectful but shallow, to a lady not her own. She dares not speak, let alone acknowledge the invitation. Lilunu is already upset enough - and now that they know she could have done this at any time, she knows she’s going to get scolded.

“And rightly so,” says Dulmea, sounding equally angry. “Really, child. What were you thinking?”

Keris doesn’t have an answer to that besides the obvious - she wasn’t, and didn’t want to be. She doesn’t try to give one. Better to wait and take her reprimands like a woman. Serpent. Thing.

With Keris to carry them, it is much faster getting back to the surface. And not much is said, although Lilunu in one snapped remark reveals that it has been over two weeks since Calibration.

And now they’re away from Erembour Sasi is falling apart because she has been down in the sewers of Hell and she has unspeakable things on her and she’s feeling ill because of being too close to an angry Lilunu ruled by the King so her Pyrian nature is having to fight off Green Sun Wasting and Lilunu is likewise overcome by her post-rage headaches and hurts and Keris, well... the stench of the sewers is being overpowered by blood as they move. There’s quite a lot of it now, trickling from under Keris’s feathers as her body angrily rejects what Erembour did to it. Mingled with Pekhijira like this, she knows her own mind, and she doesn’t dislike the form she took. It was pretty, in a way, and when they’re separate again her snake-self might try to replicate such beasts within the Rim of her inner world. But it’s no longer the time for such things, and so she pushes them out, blood seeping from her pores wherever she forces another twisting of her flesh or mind or spirit through her skin.

There really is quite a lot of blood. And it’s really starting to hurt. Maybe this was another reason she didn’t want to change back in a hurry.

When they get back to the Conventicle, Lilunu refuses to let either of them out of her sight, and drags them into an ice bath which she flops into. She’s still running hot and her descent into it is accompanied by steam down in this natural-looking grotto where Szorenic branches sprout from the walls. Sasi sinks gingerly into the freezing water, clearly suffering but not wanting to gainsay Lilunu and willing to accept washing with freezing water if she can get clean.

Keris, of course, doesn’t feel the cold, but does feel the glares she’s getting from the other two women in the bath.

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Lilunu stares at her. “Just fucking tell me what you were doing,” she demands, with coarseness Keris has never heard from her before. Coiled up - and even like this, her serpentine form is occupying a full third of the impressively large bath - Keris winces again.

“Um,” she says. “I, uh. It wass a lot of thingsss.”

Her bloodstained feathers are staining the water around her a ruddy crimson, and ice is forming between the tines of her feathers. Her hair shifts nervously, knotting along its length - but although she’s nervous and guilty, the oppressive tension of her responsibilities and the bone-weary dread at the thought of talking to Sasi and Testolagh are gone, lifted away like morning fog burned off by the sun. The stress-knots in her shoulders have been replaced with languid looseness, and the clenched fists around her throat and heart and belly are nowhere to be found. She feels... she feels like she can do this.

Huh. It seems like that long spell down in the dark did her a world of good. Not that she’s going to say it like that, for fear of being burned to a crisp by sheer force of anger. Bad enough that Dulmea caught the thought, her music turning sharp and scolding in rebuke.

“Um,” Keris restarts, and takes a breath, closing her eyes and letting the conjoining of herself and her other-self go. She feels the twin-strand of her selfhood unwind and divide against, feels her face shift back to normal, her body shrink, her tail diminish and split into legs.

... there’s still quite a lot of blood on her. And while she’s never uncomfortable in water, she feels the cold more with bare skin than with feathers.

“I... I wanted to escape,” she says hoarsely. At least turning back seems to have given both women another breath of relief - proof positive that she really is back to her normal form, with no new additions or changes. “To... to get away from, um. Not just my Calibration duties. I-it was stressful, but I think I could have handled those, if it that were all. But it was my first Calibration, and I didn’t do very well in the Althing - I heard people whispering about Chir. N-not the details, not how badly I was hurt, but... that I almost died to raksha. That I was weak. And that... that made me remember... what they did.” Compulsively, she runs a hand along her legs and across her stomach, hugs herself with her, clenches the fingers of her right hand. Reminds herself that they’re all there. That her body is whole.

Swallowing, she licks dry lips nervously. “A-and... there was, um.” Her eyes flicker to Sasi. “Some. Personal stuff. As well. That I wanted to... to avoid.” Her shoulders hunch. “And then Erembour was there, and she... I was being polite, offered to entertain her, and she invited me into the shadows and she was beautiful, and she listened to... to things I would have felt ashamed at telling you. Like that. I was so stressed and stretched-out that I felt like admitting it to you would... would prove I wasn’t...”

Her gaze lingers on Sasi for a moment, then moves to meet Lilunu’s gaze.

“... worthy,” she mumbles, and looks down again, arms coming up to hug herself.

“You didn’t think to say anything! You didn’t say where you were going! You just vanished and-” It’s Sasi who explodes, sudden rage from nowhere, and just as suddenly it’s gone. “Erembour can hide things - herself, other things - in the shadows of the Dragon. The Ultimate Darkness,” she says, voice so brittle it sounds like it might shatter at a flick. “I tried to scry for you. I couldn’t find you. Iris couldn’t reach you. Your painting went black. Lilunu came to me and suggested I try to divine where your piercing is. Nothing. It was like you’d stopped existing. If... if,” her throat hitches, “if Zanara hadn’t been fine, we’d have thought you were dead!”

The word echoes. Then,

“Claudia mentioned she’d seen you speaking with Erembour,” Lilunu says, huddled in on herself, crushing ice to slush with her hands. “That was a clue you were alive. And Sasimama - sweet Sasimana - managed to commune with the Ultimate Darkness in a manner I didn’t know my princes and princesses could do, and found that yes, she saw glimpses of you within the Shadow of All Things. Only then did we come to find you and found you’d been turned into a beast and she was acting like you were hers and you’re not.” Steam explodes, the water suddenly uncomfortably hot, and Sasi yelps in the sudden green-lit humidity. “You’re not hers, Keris, you’re mine and no one else gets to have you because you’re the only thing they let me have and-”

She bites back what she was saying, clamping her mouth shut, and she simmers as Sasi scrambles out of the once-ice-bath. Keris can see the gleaming rainbow tears in Lilunu’s eyes. She scrambles across the bath to kneel, head bowed, the back of her neck bared, her own tears pricking at her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whimpers. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, my lady, I’m yours, Sasi, I’m so sorry, please, please, don’t cry-”

Her hair reaches out, tangling around Sasi’s hands, resting placatingly on Lilunu’s knees, stroking at Sasi’s cheeks and shoulders, wiping at Lilunu’s tears. Her hands pluck mournful melodies from the air, and her voice hitches as apologies spill out.

“She said you abandoned me. She said you wanted to be like that? Why?” weeps Lilunu. “Why would you want to be a... a monster like that?”

“I’m so-” Keris chokes, crying in earnest now. “I didn’t, I wouldn’t, my lady, never. I’d never abandon you, I couldn’t abandon you, you’re clan, I’ll serve you and support you and help you and your souls be healthy no matter what, I swear-”

She cuts off with a shocked hiccup, the force of her vow taking even her by surprise as it carves itself into her bones. Her eyes go wide and she collapses from her kneeling submission into Lilunu’s lap from the dizzying combination of pain and oathsworn self-bondage, hair tightening around Sasi’s hands and pulling her closer reflexively.

“You. You mean it.” Lilunu’s nails turn to grey stone from the base up, digging into Keris’s head as she holds her tight, and from her position Keris can see the scale-like ridges under the skin of her thighs. “But that doesn’t mean... that doesn’t change...” She trails off. Because it does, clearly, change things for her. “I... I didn’t mean to drive you to a breakdown. I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, you’re my Keris and I know it was selfish wanting you to be my Mistress of Ceremonies so I’d get to see you more and wouldn’t have to work so hard at Calibration and you can quit and-and-and-”

Lilunu has other things to say, but Keris is a little distracted now from the way Lilunu is holding her so firmly into her lap.

Squirming a little, she throws a pleading glance at Sasi - not least because she needs to apologise properly to her as well, and also because she can’t get a word in edgeways to insist that she has absolutely no intention whatsoever of quitting her post as Mistress of Ceremonies if this is the kind of workload Lilunu has to shoulder alone without her, that would go completely against the oath she literally just swore-

... and not at all because it’s very distracting being pressed into the lap of a naked woman as inhumanly gorgeous as Lilunu who Keris definitely doesn’t want to start thinking that way about because Lilunu is her mentor and also arguably metaphysically related to her as one of the parents of her Second Birth and also she doesn’t want to die horribly in green fire, but this position is making it very hard not to think things of that nature nonetheless...

Sasi, cruel woman that she is, does nothing to help, and eventually Keris is let go enough to be pulled up into an only-somewhat-less-awkward tight embrace. Lilunu like this reminds her a... a lot of Hermione, Keris thinks as her mind wanders. And indeed, she’s seeing red in her irises and she can smell the sickly-sweet scent of cinnabar blossoms.

It’s... exactly what Hermione was like when she lost Zanyi.

In the rather foggy space of her brain not running around in circles and screaming, Keris has space to blearily wonder about that. She’s never seen Lilunu this... this jealous, before. And she’s unusually stable, too. Down in the catacombs her skin had been fracturing, she’d been leaking toxic essence - she was on the brink of hurting herself. But she seems to be riding this wave of possessiveness. Is that because Hermione is so much healthier than her other souls, content and well-looked-after in Creation as she is? Is it because Hermione’s initiation as a sorceress and a shaper of essence has left her - and Lilunu - better able to handle surges of Szorenic essence?

... is it just coincidence and Keris should really shut up and stop letting her oath force her into obsessing over ways to help Lilunu and enjoy being hugged and fussed over? Yes, that sounds like a good idea. She manages to get out a firm refusal to Lilunu’s offer of resigning her post, and then gets dragged back into a newly teary, even more constrictive hug that - she tests - Keris’s full strength isn’t even enough to shift. In fact, it’s actually making her ribs deform a little with mercurial flexibility.

Whimpering a little as her cheeks burn bright red, Keris keeps a grip on Sasi to make sure she doesn’t run off before Keris can properly say sorry to her, and pats what bits of Lilunu seem safe as she makes consoling noises.

Fortunately, Lilunu’s exhaustion starts to hit and after only a bit more hugging and kisses for Keris, she leaves to go lie down and get over her headache and fatigue. That just leaves Keris and Sasi here in the once-icy bath, that’s now a steamy grotto where the drips of condensation falling down from the metallic branches are a constant background noise.

Sasi doesn’t say anything. She just stares at Keris, her butterfly-kisses mind-hands constantly on Keris’s skin as if she wants to feel if she tries to leave again.

Shifting closer, Keris lays her head on Sasi’s lap and looks up at her plaintively.

“I was never going to stay down there forever,” she murmurs. “I just... didn’t want to be me for a while. I was always going to come back to you.”

“Am I the ‘personal stuff’ you wanted to avoid?” Hurt.

“I- that...”

Keris makes a face and feels quietly, fervently thankful that the two weeks down there in the dark were as restorative as they were. This is the exact conversation she fled the surface to avoid the first time.

“You aren’t,” she says, with a weary sigh. “I love you. I always will. But... Testolagh. Was.”

She plants a soft kiss on Sasi’s thigh, then shifts up and cuddles into her side. Erembour’s advice echoes in her mind. Some of it... well, she’s not going to draw them both into the shadows and corrupt them. But she was right about the rest. That bedding Testolagh has become labour, that she’s worried about Sasi’s lusts. That she fears what weighs down on them, and how it might twist her.

“I know what we talked about, last year,” Keris confesses. “And we tried. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work, Sasi, and I think... I think we need to talk about it, and why it’s not going to. Things got... nasty, between us. That’s part of why I stayed down there. I didn’t want to face him here.”

“I’ve talked with him about... well, about you,” Sasi says, a mind-hand cupping Keris’s cheek. “I thought - he thought - things were working a bit better between you. I was looking forwards to sharing you. At least when it’s the three of us. I know you thought when we talked earlier that you didn’t want to try to be closer to him during the year, but... is it so bad that you can’t let go and just enjoy this short period a year we have together?”

For the space of a heartbeat, Keris feels herself start to soften. Sasi’s so lovely and hopeful, and her words make sense. It’s not that long a time, and it would make her so happy, and would it really be so bad-

Keris closes her eyes and pulls away. Not far, just a few inches. But far enough that Sasi’s phantom touch is no longer stroking her lips. She closes her eyes and takes a couple of deep breaths. This. This is what she was afraid of. Sasi is so, so good at talking people into things. Especially at talking her into things, because Keris adores her so much, with her whole heart, and Sasi has so much of the Dragon in her. So much of the same dark allure as Erembour.

If she lets Sasi in like that, she’ll find herself back in Love Unchained with Testolagh before the end of Air.

So Keris Dulmeadokht closes her eyes, and Tenné Cinnamon opens them with a professional smile. Her love for Sasi wails in her heart at the shift in tone - her love should never be treated like work! - but Sirelmiya is not in charge here, and the mask of Cinnamon is a shield against a lover’s blandishments.

“I know this is disappointing,” says Cinnamon gently, and she can see Sasi notice the shift in register, hear the minute uptick of her heart and the faint widening of her eyes as she finds her footing unstable on this new social ground and scrambles to understand what’s changed. “But more happened this year than I think he told you, and my perspective of our last tryst wasn’t the same as his. Can you sit for a while and listen to why I’m worried?” Reaching up, she cups Sasi’s cheek in return. “You won’t lose me, I promise that, and we might talk about doing a few things together with him. But I need you to understand why I’m hesitating - and I need you not to try and talk me into it until I’ve explained. That was what I was avoiding, these last two weeks.” A polished smile, tinted with humour. “You’re very persuasive, darling.”

Whatever Sasi really feels is swiftly locked away under her look of heartbreaking concern. “Keris, has he been lying to me? It’s not like him, but for you to be hurt in this way...”

“No, no,” Cinnamon says swiftly. Much as she might dislike Testolagh on a personal level, she doesn’t want to break Sasi’s heart or cause strife between them. “No. It’s the other way around, Sasi. Just... listen, alright? Our last tryst, I took him to Love Unchained; it’s the shrine to pleasure I told you about, hidden in a cliffside ruin and decorated with all my arts. We spoke, and we dallied, but it was unsatisfying - it didn’t excite me. And... I took it further.”

In a low, calming voice, she explains. Everything. How she’d ridden him to the edge and then denied him release - provoked him, taunted him, tricked him into swearing oaths that held back his pleasure. How she’d brought him low, tormented him - tortured him, and laughed about it. The things she’d done to him, the things she’d threatened to do to him, the way she’d enjoyed it so much. How ruining and degrading and hurting him had been exciting, been fun. How the thought of breaking the proud, honourable man and making him a mindless, bestial sex slave had felt like the best idea in the world.

“I was closer, that night, to being one of Erembour’s creatures than I ever was these past two weeks, Sasi,” she finishes in low tones. “I was revelling in the thought of his corruption. I wanted to do it. And he doesn’t deserve that, Sasi, and neither do I. I don’t like what I became when I was with him. He brought out the worst in me - and though I love you dearly...”

Only Cinnamon’s distance lets her continue. Cinnamon’s distance, and the memory of Gull and the vows she swore to Venus. To help bring serenity. Sasi needs to know this. It might hurt her, but she’ll be unhappier if she never learns it. Just like confronting her about Kalaska was the right thing to do.

“... although I love you, darling, I fear that you’d fall into the same trap. You adore the pleasures of life, and there’s a lot of the Dragon in you. I fear that with you there, I might not be able to stop.”

Sasi’s face is shocked, appalled, maybe even a little horrified. It’s an expression Cinnamon never wanted to see directed at her. And yet there’s a taste in the air and a rush of blood that hints at arousal. The story Sasi had just heard affected her - in both ways, Cinnamon thinks.

“That’s... awful, Keris,” she says softly. “I... no. I don’t... I don’t want that for him. I know you don’t love him like I do, but...” She closes her eyes. “That’s awful. And I would stop you. I wouldn’t let you do that to him. He’s my Testolagh. He means too much to me to... he’s Aiko’s father, he was there for me when I was at my most fragile, I do love him. I think, my darling, you’re assuming that I feel the same way about him and - have you ever wanted to do that to me? To break me down like that?”

“No.” The reply is instant and firm. “No, never to you. You’re like me, darling. Our morals are...” Cinnamon shrugs. “Flexible. Testolagh is stubborn and honourable and proud, with a hardened heart, and I am his opposite in all of those things. That difference grates on both of us. And, well.” A rueful smile. “You know how spiteful I can be when people look down on me.”

She strokes Sasi’s hand. “I would never hurt you out of spite or a desire to see you suffer. There’s nothing in you that I want to ruin or make lesser. You’re safe from that, I promise - and I believe you when you say you’d never do that to Testolagh yourself. I just... I think it might be for the best if he and I stay separate. Or, if we do come together to please you at Calibration, that it be brief and strictly controlled.”

Sasi pulls her in, wrapping her in her embrace. “I understand. I think you’re too hard on yourself, Keris, and I think you’ve been worrying about this all year, but I do understand. And I don’t look down on you for this. There are things both of us enjoy that the gods tell us men and women shouldn’t. Testolagh, too.” She kisses Keris on the lips. “I do want both of you. Last time, the three of us, in your lovely manse on Ipithymia, was so much fun. I thought we were really getting along. If we... if we stay like that, I think it’ll work fine, yes?”

Letting Cinnamon slip away, Keris nods tentatively. “Al-alright. But I mean it, Sasi, I’ll want... I’ll want rules, and arrangements ahead of time to know what we’re doing, and that kind of thing. Each time. I don’t trust myself to play freeform, not with this, and I know I’d find ways to squirm around the edges of a single promise, in time. That’s why I ended it with him instead of swearing an oath not to go that far again.”

“Of course, my darling. I can see how much this means to you. You really seem scared of yourself, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this from you before.” Sasi shifts Keris slightly, so she’s sitting on her lap, and the two of them rest together for a bit in the warm, steamy baths.


“So, how was she? Did you learn anything interesting?” Sasi catches Keris’s expression. “Darling, she’s famed as a teacher in the arts of love.”

That draws a bark of laughter from Keris, and she drops her head back onto Sasi’s shoulder. “Yeah. Yeah, she deserves to be. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that wrecked after sex.” She shivers at the memory. “Especially that one thing with the- remind me to try that out on you, you’ll love it. But we talked, too. She had some... pretty good advice, about this stuff. I mean, between the stuff about how I should just lure you both into the dark and revel in it. She said it wasn’t you two I was scared of, it was the stuff weighing us all down. And that I should... well, basically that I should talk to you about it, though she didn’t put it quite in those terms.”

She stretches languidly. “I think I learned a few things about temptation, too. And I know it scared you, and I really am sorry, but being one of her hunting-beasts for a while was... it took a lot of stress off my mind. I’m not going to do it again, not when it hurt Lilunu so much. But it wasn’t an awful experience. Though if I’d been thinking more clearly when I let her change me, I’d have sent a message to you first. That part I do regret.”

“That’s good, at least.” Sasi gives an evil smirk. “I’m jealous, my love. Erembour seems oddly evasive of the Conventicle - perhaps because she hates Ligier so much. To think you got to enjoy her pleasures before me. Though going down into the sewers was not a pleasure. In fact, it was disgusting. You owe me quite a bit for that.”

Keris’s squeak comes from Sasi’s wandering hands.

“How about you put some of that learning to use and try luring me down into the dark just a little bit? Maybe not the full corruption meal, but just a starter. Just you, me, and whatever wicked teachings you acquired from That Which Calls To The Shadows?”

“Oh? Just a starter, hmm?” Keris considers, and then gives Sasi a wicked smirk. “Well, why don’t we work on a new play together? You liked Elanora, didn’t you? And I can include you in the credits for this one when it’s performed next year.”

Of course, those are only her words. In her smile is a wealth of sinful promise and veiled intent. It won’t be just any play, the husk to her voice and the set of her lips say. It’ll be something focused on the Dragonblooded - no, the Imperial Family itself. A play that mocks and degrades them, that foretells their abasement and humiliation and willing enslavement to the Yozis. Keris would never be able to write such a play herself, she hasn’t the knowledge required - so it’ll be Sasi who’s responsible for a performance that would be thrice-blasphemous on the Blessed Isle, Sasi who so utterly violates and profanes the taboos of the Realm.

And for every line she writes, every page of the manuscript she finishes, she’ll be rewarded richly. Won’t she?

Pink rises on Sasi’s cheeks. “You’re just trying to get me to do your job as Mistress of Ceremonies!” she protests, but Keris can hear the hitch in her breath that tells her she’s already caught her. “And that’s delicious. I accept. We need to get started right away!”

Keris grins. “Well, you did imply you wanted to help with how stressed I was,” she purrs. “Shall we, then?”

Five days later, the mad frenzy that seemed to take up Sasi ebbs away somewhat, in the sticky depths of Sasi’s bedchambers. There are papers all over the floors and the bed, written first in ink and then when they ran out, in colourless fire burned into flash-forged paper.

Sasi yawns, sags, and slumps back onto the papers on the bed. “Going to, need. Some reworking of the second scene,” she says wearily. “Just... a few hours.”

Keris tucks her in and starts again to gather the notes from the last frantic, desperate cycle of writing. It was... interesting watching it from the outside. Five days, ten screams - that’s what her allure seems to be able to captivate someone for. Sasi doesn’t even seem to realise that this came from the outside, that it wasn’t just her idea for a play. And she’s really, really into it.

There’s far, far too much content here for just one play. With Sasi’s writing speed and the inspiration, she’s been producing tens of pages an hour.

It is also, without exception, utterly filthy. There’s so much here that it’s not at its best, but... Keris flips through the pages. Wow. Wow. She’s... she’s not sure she could put all this on in the Conventicle without some eyebrows getting raised. She definitely couldn’t put it on in Saata. Maybe not even as a private cult thing.

Sasi’s pen has spilled her raw, uncontrolled id onto the page, creating a patchwork, inconsistent, and - Keris admits it - really kind of hot first draft of the decline and fall of the Scarlet Dynasty into self-inflicted decadence. Until they’re so seeking hedonistic pleasure that they throw open the gates to Hell so the delights of Malfeas can possess them. The mighty of the Realm, rutting with demons in the street. The Imperial Court turned into a brothel where the workers won’t accept coin; the temples turned into places of penance for the Yozis. Decadence and mindless addiction. Pictures in the margins for what the actors should be doing at any given time.

More than pictures. She’s been using Keris and her Gales and her blood-construct fakes as her models and inspiration for the past five days.

Keris whistles softly. She’ll need to do some heavy editing on this to cut it down and streamline it. Many of the scenes interrupt the plot to go on side-tangents of this character or that disgracing themselves, and it’s clear that Sasi was paying less attention to a coherent narrative than to getting everything out onto the page, spilling all her darkest fantasies out onto paper, leaving nothing and nobody out. Keris doesn’t recognise many of the names, but the way they’re written makes her certain Sasi does. She wouldn’t be at all surprised if the cast of this play made up a respectable portion of everyone her lover ever knew in the Imperial Court - those few who were kind, and those far more numerous who were cruel. This fantasy is vengeful as much as it is lustful.

Honestly, there’s enough here that Keris could probably make it a series of plays instead of just one - a cycle occurring in parallel, with each play following a different House and casts that only overlap at the edges. Yes, and that would encourage anyone who watched one of them to go watch the others, because they’d hear about the events of the other plays going on in the background, but not see them first-hand. And of course, once you’d watched one, you’d know for all the rest where the narrative eventually led. The fun would be in getting there.

That said, she’s going to have to do most of the editing herself - and either strip out the worst of Sasi’s dark fantasies or else perform them only on the Street of Golden Lanterns. Because there’s no way she’s letting Zanara be involved in this kind of moral filth, and she can’t put them on in the Conventicle. Unless... perhaps two versions of the cycle with the same general plot? One that’s only as sexualised as Elanora, and the other... well, the other for Ipithymia?

Keris shakes her head. She can think about that later. She has an entire year to edit these, that’ll be plenty of time. For now, she can give Sasi a massage so she doesn’t wake up sore.

She sees to her sleeping, exhausted girlfriend, and tries to lie down and go to sleep herself. But she’s not tired enough. Her mind is too awake, her body too stiff. And maybe a bit turned on from reading Sasi’s work all together.

Settling down, she tries to meditate to calm herself, and she’s barely surprised when she opens her eyes to find herself at the gates to Sirelmiya’s temple. Of course her mind drifts there, and to the cat-woman creature who’s there in her luxurious robes, sweeping the yard with a humble brush.

She can’t help but chuckle as she sees her Thirteenth soul. Part cat, part bird, part woman - perhaps that’s why Erembour’s horn twisted her as it did. Although Sirelmiya is far less jumbled and monstrous a mix. Her parts are separate and clearly defined - a woman’s upper body, a tigress’s haunches and the great white wings of an eagle, rather than the twisted mishmash of parts Keris had become.

Her chuckle draws the demoness’s attention, and Keris bows at the temple gates and then steps in, smiling fondly at the great statues flanking the entrance - beautiful Sasi and aggravating Ney. She gives Sirelmiya a hug, folding herself into the giant chimera-priestess.

“It’s lovely to see you again, your majesty,” deep-voiced Sirelmiya says. “And just as lovely to see you spend the past five days venerating Sasimana.”

“She was well-pleased by the end of it,” Keris agrees. “If a little exhausted. She’s sleeping soundly now, though, and she’ll feel nice and relaxed when she wakes up. How have you been?”

“It’s been very quiet with no one around,” Sirelmiya observes, putting her brush aside and leading Keris through into the temple. There is a blue-skinned hungry one in white robes waiting for her, and Sirelmiya orders her to prepare tea for them. The handsome man bows, and obeys. “Almost a little too quiet. Life is a little dull without the children fighting. Haneyl has been coming here often, but I prefer her when she is older.”

Keris nods sadly. “Chir was awful. I mean, she’s adorable like this, but I do miss her being grown-up.” She resolves to track her daughter down and give her a cuddle when she’s done here. And, uh. Also check with Dulmea on exactly how much her children knew about her time with Erembour. She remembers hunting in here, but she’s pretty sure she’d stuck mostly to the Rim to avoid the painful light of the moon and stars.

At least Kali and Ogin were safely being babysat by Lilunu and her attendants over Calibration. They’ve probably been relishing the opportunities they’ve had to get up to mischief.

The tea comes. It is a fiery brew, with spirits added in, and burns as it goes down. “Your majesty,” Sirelmiya says, holding her bowl-sized cup in one hand. “Forgive any impertinence, but I do not understand why you chose to deceive Sasimana with the shape of your mind. You became someone she did not expect, to deny her delights she desired. And then used that beautiful secret taught to you by Erembour to deflect her away from thoughts along the same direction. Would it not be wiser to love her and Testolagh alike, and teach them the submission they both desire from you?”

Keris considers this for a while. It’s a talk she’s had with Sirelmiya before, and one her soul has never really understood - and perhaps can’t understand, by her nature. Still, she can give it another try with what she’s learned in recent days.

“I could do that,” Keris admits. “But Sasi - and far more Testolagh - don’t have someone like you within them, my loving soul. Like I told Sasi, if I let myself fall into that kind of relationship with them, I would start to hurt them more than pleasure them - Testolagh for sure, and Sasi by hurting him. And that... that would risk hurting her love of me. Better to keep Testolagh at arm’s length and deny Sasi some of what she wants than to indulge her with something that would poison our bond.”

She plucks a thread from the hem of her robe and holds it up to demonstrate. “It’s lovely, and woven together with others it can make a cord that can hold up a heart. But if I put all that weight on just one thread, it’ll snap. What Sasi wants isn’t the same as what’s good for her. I have to hurt her feelings a little by denying her this, in order to help her. And,” she adds, more to herself than Sirelmiya, “given what she poured into that play, I should probably try to get her to understand that indulging her darker lusts is bad for her. Erembour wasn’t wrong when she said that a lot of her darkness lived in Sasi. More than what lives within me.”

“I do not understand.” Sirelmiya pauses. “But she worries me. Calesco comes to me sometimes, to speak of the desires she does not like and does not want others to know. They are not unlike those lusts Sasimana wrote down in the play, but Sasimana’s are more extreme. If the darkness in Calesco is Erembour’s darkness, then that would explain some of it.”

Sirelmiya pauses and lets out an undignified squeak. “Uh! Do not let Calesco know I mentioned that.”

Keris laughs. “My lips are sealed. Just, uh, never give me the details.” She smiles. “I’m glad she has you to talk to. She’s seemed happier since you came to be.”

Well. Mostly. With a few notable exceptions. That Keris isn’t thinking about.

“I do not know how to handle Sasimana - rather, to teach her not to desire these dark things,” Sirelmiya says sadly. “That is not something known to me. And you are scared of her in a way you are not scared of Ney. You would not have pretended to be Cinnamon within your own head around him.”

“I’m not scared of hurting him. He... he doesn’t matter less, but...” Keris searches for words. “He’s less vulnerable. Sasi’s been hurt so badly. You heard what she said about Testolagh - she broke, before I ever Exalted, and he helped put her back together. I could hurt her so much more if I’m not careful - and not in a way that teaches her. Just in a way that would break her apart again.”

“Do you think this game with the plays is good for her?” An honest question. “She likes writing them. I think she would have done this even without Erembour’s technique. She liked Elanora a lot. Perhaps you could bring her to Saata for a season and have her write the entertainment for Cinnamon’s club? And star in it too. It is no doubt less stressful than being in the Realm, which... well, one can see she hates it and lusts for it.”

“I want to get her out of the Realm, I’m just not sure I can. I’m not even totally sure what she’s doing there,” Keris huffs. “I guess... she did take that sabbatical up to the northeast with Aiko, a couple of years ago. I mean, that was when she was still in charge of An Teng, but there’s precedent for it.” She rubs her nose and chews a hair tendril thoughtfully. “I’ll float the idea to her, see if I can convince her to take some time off. I should probably avoid any more plays based around the Realm, because, uh, that seems to be where her darkness comes out. But some light-hearted stuff in the Jade Carnation might be good for her. Comedies and romances, maybe. Maybe a drama with a happy ending for a festival.”

They talk of some other minor things before Sirelmiya brings up something which has been clearly nagging at her for a while.

“I do not like Cinnamon,” she admits. “This personality-face of yours you use for the service of Venus. It is dishonest. Not the face, the service of Venus at all. I do not believe you should give your worship to such a thing.”

Keris is silent for a long time, staring off over the temple walls at the distant circling clouds of the Rim in thought.

“I don’t like Venus very much, nowadays,” she says, at length. “I think I did, once. Or I thought I did, or I wanted to. But she did no more than any of the other gods as I grew miserable in her service, and I found no peace or joy as one of her priestesses. But...”

She shrugs. “That kind of doesn’t matter. I made my vows. I can’t un-make them. And I’ve been reminded - by Calesco and by Vali - that promises are important, and that trying to forget that part of my life was wrong. Besides, I don’t have to like the bitch to work for her - and the work is important. I might not trust Venus to have a hand in my own life, but being a Joyful Priestess is about more than that - it’s about more even than love, or sex. It’s... it’s smoothing over the rough edges of a community. Bringing peace to a united people. That’s a service that matters, regardless of who its patron is.”

She chuckles mirthlessly. “And maybe Rathan and Calesco would say I spread enough suffering that I have a duty to balance it out with some serenity, to keep the scales even.”

“In my heart, I know serenity is a lie.” Sirelmiya sips her tea. “But as Calesco says, a beautiful lie can be better than a cutting truth.”

And that really is the heart of it, Keris thinks. Her fulfilment and happiness in service to Venus may have proven a lie, but the lie itself has value still. She lied to Sasi to shelter her, and she lies to the world to be safe. If all the world were painful truths, there wouldn’t be much world left.

She swirls her own tea, still barely touched, around in its cup.

“I’m glad you see it my way,” she says.

Chapter Text

After such an... exciting start to Air, Keris decides to take things easier. She makes sure to devote plenty of time to the twins and Haneyl so they don’t feel neglected. Aiko already left with Testolagh, as he has her this season when it’s going to be cooler in the Deep South. And Zanara has sent off on a grand project to re-design all of Haneyl’s wardrobe as an apology present. And also probably an excuse to get experimental. Zanara’s fashion is often a little too cutting edge for comfort, sometimes literally.

However, her easy-going decision lasts about a week. Sasi leaves fairly soon, and while she has some editing to do for the plays, it isn’t as fun without Sasi there as an author and someone willing to get distracted with her.

As a result, Keris takes her new-found energy and re-motivated spirit and applies it to the politics of Hell. Among her other meetings is starting the initial steps for a longer scheduling of Sasi’s play on the Street of Golden Lanterns. Ipithymia doesn’t come to negotiate in person, but she does send her soul Claudia. Claudia is not what Keris had expected from a soul of that street of vice and pleasure. She’s a tall, south-eastern-looking woman with golden eyes and a patchwork of crude tattoos on her dark skin; a big, rough-featured woman, with a mohawk and the lean muscles of a killer. She carries a bone-headed spear with her, and a cloak made from stitched-together scraps of skin.

Still, for such a feral-looking woman, she’s nothing less than courteous when she sits down in the gardens of the Conventicle to listen to Keris’s offer.

“... so it’s a question of how much your Greater Self desires my involvement,” Keris is saying over a bottle of - very expensive - wine. “I’ll be glad to offer a little input over the casting and directors, of course, but my duties in the Conventicle are time-consuming. If Lady Ipithymia wants me personally involved, the performances will be better, but I will have to ask for a larger percentage of the profits from each showing.” She tilts her head and smiles winningly. “And of course, while Elanora’s tale has proven very popular, it’s not the only work I can offer the Street of Golden Lanterns. Peer Sasimana and I have another work underway at present - an entire series of plays, in fact, which are much more... favourable to your lady’s tastes, shall we say, than Elanora’s damnation.”

Claudia’s eyes gleam as she looks at Keris over the top of her generously filled wine-glass. “If it is up to the quality of your past work, my lady would be fascinated. How complete is the work? Might you be able to demonstrate a scene or two to me - understanding, of course, that this is an early draft?”

“Well, the first draft is complete, but it requires a lot of editing yet,” Keris says. “We intend to split it into a cycle of ten plays, all occurring simultaneously, charting the downfall of the Realm and the corruption of the Great Houses of the Scarlet Dynasty.”

She withdraws a thin sheaf of papers from her hair and slides it across the table. “This is from halfway through the Fall of Tepete. See what you think.” It’s one of the bits she’s had a chance to edit and enforce some plot on, but she’s done little thus far to tone down the inner darkness Sasi poured into the script. She’s also left the lurid illustrations in place.

Claudia recovers a little pair of gold-rimmed glasses from her jacket, and begins to leaf through the pages. Her eyebrows rise as she proceeds. “Yes, I believe my lady will be very interested in the final product,” she says, when she’s done. “What Elanora teased, this flaunts. And such a ten play cycle is something I think has great promise for sales upon the Street. While I don’t believe it’s in a finalised enough state to immediately offer a contract for its performance, we might be able to come to an arrangement about right of first refusal and exclusivity if that option is taken...”

“I’m willing to offer exclusivity on the unabridged cycle,” Keris demures, “but I do wish to perform a... shall we say a less enthusiastically vulgar version next year at the Calibration festivals. Even with much of the sexual content omitted, the plot of the cycle is, after all, the downfall of the Realm and its willing submission to the Yozis. However, that will likely condense the full ten-play cycle into... perhaps four, one for each contender to the Throne, which tease more than they flaunt, as you put it. If Lady Ipithymia is willing to consider the abridged cycle a separate product, I would be happy to come to such an arrangement. And of course,” she smiles. “Seeing the shorter version might well convince the lords and ladies of Hell to pay for the full experience.”

“Hmm.” Claudia considers this. “As my lady has always said, exclusivity is a very... valuable commodity to the right buyer. But then again, so too might such a thing function to advertise the full version to the discerning. I might have to seek further instructions if right-of-first-refusal is not on the table. Unless...” she gives Keris an arch look, “I can offer anything further to persuade you to perhaps seek another play for the Althing and grant Ipithymia exclusivity? Everything, Peer Dulmeadokht, has a price - and it can be a mighty high one, but it is still for sale.”

Keris purses her lips. She’s awfully tempted, but her possessiveness makes her loathe to sell such rights so early. She needs this for the Althing! “I wouldn’t want to so casually turn down an exclusive arrangement with Unquestionable Ipithymia,” she demures. “But as Mistress of Ceremonies, my duty is to provide the very best entertainment to the nobility of Hell at the Calibration Festivals. Something like this is a near-guaranteed success - you see my dilemma.”

She finishes off the glass of wine with a long sip and feeds Iris a grape as the little ink-dragon sneaks her head out from under a long sleeve and begs plaintively. Reading is not something her familiar has learned yet, so she’s not too worried about her looking at the scripts. She seems much more interested in the snack bowls, and begs shamelessly for a taste of the demon lord’s drink.

“I don’t think we need to decide immediately,” Keris decides, pulling her greedy little dragon back onto her arm. “There is, after all, much work to do on the rough draft before it can be condensed into either cycle - abridged or unabridged. Perhaps we can set another meeting to discuss this after you have spoken with your lady and I’ve produced more material - including samples of the same acts from both cycles - for her to judge the differences between the two? And I’ll refrain from looking for other offers until then.”

“Perhaps that might be prudent,” Claudia says thoughtfully. “And I think, if it is possible, for the next meeting I might be able to bring some other important citizens and demon lords in my lady’s service, who would be greatly interested in this. Your case would be helped if you could perhaps show a few scenes from the plays - yourself and a troupe of actors demonstrating, perhaps? If you could guarantee that, I could offer a payment to assist in the production of such an early performance.”

“I’ll have a selection of scenes ready,” Keris agrees amiably, already mentally crossing out a few of the more extreme ones towards the end of the draft. But she can certainly show quite a few of the earlier scenes, and the sin and degeneracy even of the middle acts should be enough to earn her a great deal of interest, especially if she picks just one scene from the last act to give a taste of the finale. “My aide will convey the details to you once I’ve looked over the current state of the drafts. And perhaps offer you a choice of which scenes you’d like to see,” she adds with a grin.

Claudia nods to her, a recognition that she’s playing the game as it is meant to be done. “That’ll do very nicely,” she says. “Incidentally, Peer Dulmeadokht, once this meeting is over, we might want to talk about possible contracts for services I can render in Creation. I am aware that you are a director of one of the south-western regions, and I may be able to offer some profitable options you might wish to take.”

“Oh? Well, I’d be overjoyed to take a break from editing and talk to someone like-minded,” Keris says. “And I could go for a sparring match if you’re interested. It’s rare I get to test myself against other spear-users, and yours is a gorgeous piece of work.”

“I saw you fight against that woman Kasteen,” Claudia says, showing a hint of incisor as she smiles. “I would be fascinated to see this. And perhaps - to put our bodies on the line as a wager of that spar?”

“A scar as a wager?” Keris raises an eyebrow. “Or a night? I’d be open to either...” Her eyes flick up and down Claudia’s muscled form. “... but I must say the latter sounds more fun.”

“Oh, I’d be up for either, but I was there for the aftermath of your fight with Kasteen too,” Claudia says shamelessly. “Those stakes are entirely acceptable for me, win or lose.”

“A night, then,” Keris purrs. “And the winner makes the rules; the loser submits. My sparring halls are a short walk away. Shall we go now, or would you rather some time to prepare?” There’s a glint in her eye now, and an edge of gleeful challenge. It’s been way too long since she got to spar for stakes that matter, but which don’t go as high as ‘death’. And honestly, Claudia’s not wrong. Win or lose, this is going to be enjoyable.

“I will go and report to my lady and inform her of the arrangement and the quality of your play even in these rough stages,” Claudia says, saluting her with her glass of wine. “She pays me very well for what I do for her, and I never break my contracts. I’ll return when I’m free and then we’ll have our fun. I’ll send a messenger with a contract for this duel and the terms for the victor.”

“I look forward to our next meeting, then,” Keris says, eyes alight and hair flicking playfully from side to side. “Until then, my lady Claudia.”

“Until then, Peer Dulmeadohkt.”

She leaves, with a graceful bow and a kiss of Keris’s hand, and leaves golden lip paint on the back of Keris’s hand.

“You like her,” Dulmea observes. She’s still somewhat chilly, but she’s softened a bit now that Keris isn’t showing any signs of wanting to become an unthinking animal again.

“I know what to expect from her, she’s reputed to be excellent with a spear, she’s hot, and she’s refreshingly direct after so much Hellish politics,” Keris replies happily. “Also, I’m pretty sure the play impressed her more than she let on, so she’s probably going to advise Ipithymia to give me a good deal. Urgh. This’ll mean more editing to do, though.”

She yawns, mouth opening slightly wider than a jaw without quicksilver flexibility should be able to, and rubs at her eyes. “S’not as bad as paperwork and,” she snorts, “accounting ledgers.” She’s still reviewing the costs of this Calibration and the feedback reports on her days’ festivities compared to Lilunu’s. “But even editing gets tiring after a while. And I can’t let Zanara near any of this stuff, because... like... even if I only let them at the first few acts where it’s not so bad, they’d demand to see the rest. And no way in Hell am I exposing them to all of that.”

“Do you think you’ll summon her for your own operations? If so, keeping on her good side is of high importance,” Dulmea advises. “But do take care not to feel that she is something you cannot discard. And child, consider this advice - perhaps it might be a good idea to look for her friendship. I do not think you can trust her, but she is reputed to be honourable, if only within coin-honour. And you need more people who will support you - within reason - in the affairs of Hell.”

((Oh Dulmea. She’s so despairing of Keris making friends rather than fuckbuddies that she’s like “have you tried friends-with-benefits?”))

“Yes. And Eko stole Asarin.” Keris pouts. “But Claudia was one of the citizens I was thinking of trying to get onto friendly terms with. She’s said to always think in terms of creditor and debtor, but... I mean, after those roles have swapped places a few times and everyone’s always paid on time, that can basically be the next best thing to friendly. I might try talking to Zsofika again, too. And I wanna find... whatshername, that one soul of Iasestus who’s not unbearable, the alchemist. Tereki! She sounds interesting. And she wrote this piece on a ranking system for souls that I want to ask her about, because it sounds a lot like the kind of difference I noticed between normal people and souls like Kerisa, or... uh, Maryam.”

It’s four screams before she gets the messenger back, with apologies from Claudia due to having to handle an emergency for her lady, and an arrangement for the match. But Keris isn’t letting that time go to waste. She puts some time burning off some of the softness from too many parties. Kali is very eager to help mama get back in shape, and it’s... it’s very pleasant having her daughter with her, mimicking her spear moves and her katas. She’ll have to see if she can make this a regular thing with Kali. The little girl is for once well-behaved and listens and doesn’t run around screaming when she’s exercising with mama.

Maybe she’ll try to include Kali in her morning work-out routines, she thinks, looking at her dozing daughter who’s exhausted herself with practising the one spear strike mama showed her over and over again until she’s doing remarkably well at it for a toddler.

But that’s not the only thing Keris does. She also makes use of her authority as Mistress of Ceremonies to get one of the arenas opened up for her personal use, just her and Claudia. It’s one of the more feature-filled ones, rather than just an open circle, built around an outcropping of Szoreny. Mirrored roots and quicksilver pools are everywhere, turning the battleground into a hall of mirrors - and just to make things more fun, the scenes reflected aren’t always real.

Claudia shows up in armour made from the scaled skin of some great behemoth, trimmed with the woven hair of goddesses and gods who pledged their immortal lives to her. Her spear is painted afresh in gold tracing, picking out the scrimshawing, and her bracers are lined with dragon-teeth. She radiates a lazy, sexual power in her strength and muscular grace.

“Well-chosen, Peer Dulmeadokht,” are her greeting words. “This isn’t some pansy-ass dustbowl arena. This is a hunt!”

“And a fine one,” grins Keris. She’s in her armour, lance in hand, the gleaming moonsilver moving smooth and lithe around her. This will be a good test run for her ideas of how to improve it - she’s in a place where she can probably take a couple of months off at the Nests to do so once the Calibration paperwork is finished.

“So, the rules are simple enough.” She gestures to the quicksilver stream dividing the arena roughly in two. “One-minute prep time to conceal ourselves where we stay on our respective sides of the river. When the call goes out, we’re free to hunt each other to our heart’s content. Whoever comes out on top wins.”

“Yesss,” Claudia growls, her eyes gleaming and her teeth bared. “Alright then. Let’s get this started!”

With a cocky salute, Keris turns and retreats into the tangle. She has an advantage here to balance Claudia’s nose - this is vegetation, and it doesn’t slow or hinder her at all. Not only that, but her silver armour blends into the quicksilver trees perfectly. She’s just one mirror among many.

The call goes out, and the hunt begins. It’s quiet at first, as the pair stalk each other through the crazed arena of mirrors and reflections. Hunting by sight is all but pointless here - they’re tracking sound, scent and movement amidst the jutting roots and pools. Iris sails out on silent wings, circling the arena as she jumps into reflections and scouts for her mama’s target. In the end it’s Keris who finds Claudia first, staying silent and quiet in her blind spot for a good ten seconds or so to make sure she has the right one amidst the reflection before rocketing forward with a sudden deadly thrust.

It misses. Barely. Claudia has centuries of experience in battle and hunting both, and the faintest hint of movement in a reflection at the corner of her vision sends her ducking and rolling. Then it’s a clash of spear against spear, and it’s wonderful. Claudia’s style is savage and direct and makes use of her teeth as much as her spear, while Keris’s Friagem Serpent is whirling and circular and evasive. They clash and part and come together again, and for a little while it seems like neither has the upper hand.

But Keris proves faster - and more than that, her reach is superior. Her lance leaps into her hair like a living thing, and suddenly she’s fighting with a range advantage that Claudia just can’t equal, whipping her Lance around in whirling deflections and sudden thrusts that put Claudia off-balance before trading it back to her hands and darting in to make good on the openings in the hyena’s guard. It’s not always safe or successful - more than once, she finds that a seeming stumble was actually a feint, and gets a bloodied lip or a badly bruised rib for her trouble. Nonetheless, sheer speed and swift reach seem to be carrying the day against brute force and muscle.

When it ends, it’s sudden. Their last engagement left Claudia with a gash over one eye, and the blood trickling down into her vision makes her misjudge which Keris is real as they re-engage. Her bone-headed spear shatters the truck of a jutting Szorenic root, and Keris hits her full in the stomach, winding her and knocking her down. A swipe from the twirling butt of the Lance knocks her spear out of her hand, and then the tip is resting under Claudia’s jaw and there are hair tendrils pinning down her limbs. Keris leans down low, pressing her armoured form against Claudia’s, and grins through bloodied lips as their breath fans together.

“That’s my win,” she whispers triumphantly. “Good fight, my lady Claudia.”

Claudia lets out a thin whine, breath coming hard and fast. “I yield,” she groans, clearly winded. “You’re good. You were holding back against Kasteen, weren’t you? And...” She wheezes for a bit, as Keris lifts the spear away. “There are... few people... fond of this style of spearplay. There’s some Snake in your style, isn’t there?”

“Friagem Serpent - it’s a hybrid of Snake and Air Dragon,” Keris agrees, stepping off her and giving her a hand up. “Learned it in my first few months in Hell. Though I know pure Snake as well. What was that you were using? An animal style - I’m guessing Hyena? I haven’t seen many animal styles that use polearms before.”

“Golden Hyena,” Claudia says, swiping away blood from her mouth with her thumb. “My personal style. I know Hyena, obviously, but I won this spear off Marcellus a long time ago and it was too valuable to sit around unused, so I invented a way to adapt Hyena to it. And to be able to wield it even when I take on my beast skin.”

“Oh, now that I’d like to see,” Keris says eagerly as they leave the arena. “And, huh. Where’s Hyena commonly used? Because some of your moves were reminding me of the Lionesses - a mercenary band I hired from Terema; they’re outcasts from the Brides of Ahlat down in Harbourhead.”

“Wherever men see the queen of beasts, they learn from them,” Claudia says. “But... ah, I know Harbourhead. It is one of the regions where I can escape from this prison, when the blood of a hyena and a lamb mix on dry earth. They fear me there, say witches learn from me and my shape-shifting hyena daughters.” She flashes bloodied teeth. “They’re right.”

Keris chuckles. “So I’ve heard.” Then she sobers as she remembers the monstrous hyena-like form of her mother’s ghost, and affects casual curiosity. “I heard a few tribe names from them that you might recognise. Zwiswayo, Samatar...” A microscopic pause. “Daiwye.”

“The names ring a bell,” Claudia admits. “There was a Daiwye woman a century or so ago who killed one of the witches I’d granted power and a beast-skin to. She turned down my gift, and tried to fight me. She impressed me, so I only ate one of her hands and let her go.”

“Sounds like a story.” Keris’s eyes glint hungrily, but she suppresses the surge of curiosity. She can plumb her for more details later - if she seems too eager now, the tale will come at a cost. “But for now, I think you have a forfeit to pay me back in bed.”

“Of course, my lady,” the hulking, bruised woman says, with a wry smile. “My pride is hurting - as is my body - but I keep to my deals. Do you have a destination in mind? That charming tower my greater self gave you? Your townhouse, or mine? Right here in the middle of the arena? You beat me fair and square.”

Keris perks up. “Well I was going to take you back to my townhouse,” she muses. “But you’re right. My Tower on the Street seems a much more pleasant place for this. And I think you’ll like the Pulsing Floor.” She smirks. “Perhaps even enough to come back.”

“At the very least, I’ll want a rematch next Calibration.” She gives Keris a rueful look. “The next scream might change the stakes - or it might not.”

“We’ll see,” hummed Keris. “Alright, Iris, off you go. Time for you to stay with Lilunu.”

The little dragon rises up off her left arm, opens her mouth and exhales a plume of varicoloured fire in the shape of a pile of sweets.

“Iris,” Keris warns. “I’m not in the mood for you being difficult right now.”

Repeating her demand, Iris coils back around her arm and contrives, from where she rests her head on the back of Keris’s hand, to look smug. She knows Keris can’t do kissy grown-up things while she’s still there, the little brat.

Claudia looks down at Iris with a soft smile on her lips. “She seems to want something,” she observes. “Dragonette, so you want sweet things, hmm? But I think the question is what you will give me?”

Iris tilts her head, and exhales a question mark.

“I’m far from an altruist. If you want something from me, you’ll have to give up something in return.”

“Alright, enough.” Keris clenches her fist and pulls inward from her skin with a flex of metaphysical muscle. Iris has just enough time to get out a distressed complaint that lightly singes a nearby root before being tugged into Keris’s inner world and spat out of her eggshell in the Isles.

She’s going to hear about that later, Keris thinks ruefully. Iris is always sulky when she’s grounded. But letting her think extorting her mama to give her privacy is acceptable will lead to having to pay huge fees in sweets whenever she wants alone-time with anyone.

“Sorry about that,” she says to Claudia smoothly, recovering her composure. “Now then. Come along.”

Her time under Erembour felt wonderful. But there’s a special delight to leading a woman whose frames ripples with muscles to her tower, especially when the woman was good enough to land a blow on her - but not good enough to win. Oh, that feels delicious. They take the exit to the Street from the All-Thing, and through golden-lit streets Keris leads Claudia, her hair serving to leash her trophy.

It’s not far to the set-back shape of the Topless Tower, but Keris gets a sedan chair anyway so she can relax and see to both her and Claudia’s wounds. She needs them both in excellent shape for what comes next.

The Topless Tower awaits, gaudy gold and studded with amethysts on top. Keris leads Claudia in, counting the stairs. First the Golden Floor, where everything is auric, even the feathers of the demon-birds that stuff the beds. She glances out the windows, taking a relaxing moment to overlook the gardens where a purified inlet of Kimbery surfaces and golden flowers bloom on brass trees. But then she’s leading Claudia up the stairs. The noise of this prosperous thoroughfare fades, and the noise of the market which adjoins a breach in the mountain-sized walls of Hell on the outer layer replaces it. Woven carpets of great fineness and the exotic skins of demon-beasts decorate the walls.

“I see this room has shifted since I last came here,” Claudia observes. “It is quite to my taste.”

But the Veiled Floor is not their destination. No, the next floor up is the Pulsing Floor; not a floor Keris has spent much time in with Sasi, because her lover doesn’t like the atmosphere. This is almost a living thing; the air is thick with the mug of sweat and sex, the curtains are woven hair, and ivory archways resemble bones. Outside lies a chained behemoth whose pained mass fills the horizon, meat and blood that Ipithymia harvests for her entertainments. This is a place of skin. The walls are warm and damp to the touch, the floor sticky, the beds covered in velvety flesh.

“Would you rather go back downstairs?” Keris hums smugly. “Or does this floor satisfy your tastes?” There’s a wealth of promise of what else Claudia might be tasting soon in the last word, throaty and low.

“This is the heart of the Street,” Claudia says, voice oddly soft. “Under the gold; under the beauty; meat pounding meat, at least if you ask Quintus - my brother. The gold is just how we keep score, he says. Do you agree with him, or does the smell and the fleshiness just do things for you?” She cracks her fingers. “Or maybe you have a plan? You’re interesting, Keris. You’re sharper than you act in the Conventicle. I think, perhaps, you depict yourself like my greater self, but you’re maybe a bit more kin to me under the perfumes and the smiles.”

Keris gives her a piercing look, the smugness fading into thoughtful regard for a moment. It’s an interesting - and uncommonly perceptive - question. But perhaps Claudia is well-suited to ask it. Most who see her probably think of her as a feral, brutish beast, all muscle and no brain. They’d probably be thrown to see her sitting courteously at a table with gold-rimmed spectacles on her nose, reading through documents and negotiating with a sharp intellect and a thorough understanding of value in trade.

After five years as an Exalt, Keris has learned to stop judging by appearances.

“Perhaps I am,” she murmurs. “And I do have a plan, yes. I make use of this floor for my alchemy, and the access to the distillery district’s ingredients. I have some nice little brews tucked away in here that will make our pleasure much more enjoyable.” She taps Claudia under her chin. “And I want to get a look at that hyena-form of yours, once I’ve had my pleasure, and I’m sure you’ll be hungry. There’s good food around this entrance to my Tower. But first...”

She pushes Claudia up against the wall, unnaturally strong for such a small woman, and slides one knee between the other woman’s thighs.

“First, I think I’m going to ride you till you scream.”

Sidestory - The Snake and the Hyena

It’s the hint of stiffness in her armour that she’d noticed when fighting Claudia that leads Keris to decide she probably shouldn’t spend all of the Season of Air indulging herself, no matter how she might self-justify that she was making contacts and swaying people. To remove herself from some of the temptations of the Conventicle, therefore, she leaves Zanara in Lilunu’s hands to handle their temper-tantrums that their fashion projects aren’t going well and decamps to the Nests along with the twins and a few of her chosen servants.

“Some tinkering, maybe seeing if I can do anything about the armour, and of course, some time away from Hellish politics will do me good,” Keris tells Rounen, who she’s brought along to handle auditing her work and also because she can trust him to be responsible while also not having too much of a nervous breakdown if Kali messes up his papers.

“Of course, ma’am. Though I have arranged for a messenger relay to keep in contact with Unquestionable Lilunu and to reassure her that you’re not about to disappear on her,” her aide says primly, idly petting Ogin as the little boy plays with a new toy Keris bought him.

Keris winces. But it’s a fair point, and not one she can argue with after what she’d done by disappearing into Erembour’s caverns for half a moon. “Yes, that’s... good thinking. Thank you, Rounen. Remind me if I go more than a couple of days without sending her a message, will you? I might even ask her advice on how to go about fixing the armour.”

She returns her attention to the heavy moonsilver plate, chewing a hair tendril. It’s been getting more and more recalcitrant about attuning to her essence, and - much as she hates to admit it - there may be no easy fix here. When she’d first recovered it from Yamal Icewind’s tomb, it had been in a bad way, and she’d given it over to Hellish artisans to be dipped in vitriol and imbued with a new animating akuma-mind to replace the long-dead least god, or whatever other moonborn spirit had once resided in the artifact and acknowledged its mistress’s commands.

But while it’s served her well for several years now, it’s always been... stubborn. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t use it very often, maybe the artisans weren’t up to the task, or maybe there’s just some inherent incompatibility between armour, spirit and wearer, but it’s been getting steadily more stubborn and less obedient from battle to battle.

Keris sighs wearily. “I may just have to draw the animating spirit out and replace it,” she grumbles. “Which will be a bitch. But... I guess I can at least get some of its old functions back into working order if I’m overhauling it that much anyway. Hmm. Rounen? Where did I pack the shadowsuit Noh gave me at Calibration? I might be able to repurpose that into an inner lining to bind the new spirit into.”

Rounen, of course, has the lists of where everything has been packed. “The third set of baggage, packed - as I recall - in the same compartment as your samples of oilgleam cloth, within the lead-lined box.”

Excellent,” Keris crows. “Hah. Told you it was a good idea to keep things like that around. Okay, good, then...” She dithers for a moment. “Hmm. I should probably take some reference texts if I’m going to be working with Ophidian materials...”

A few rounds of checking and rechecking that they have all of the books Keris thinks she might need - which end only when Rounen notes that her Tower will allow her to take a short trip back to her townhouse if she remembers any she truly can’t do without - they’re all packed up and ready to move out. Kali and Ogin ride in their mother’s hair, gleefully trying to get at the baggage and find out how much they can pull out of any of the weatherproof bags, but Keris is able to restrain them from causing too much chaos as they set off for the Nests of Paricehet.

It is sometimes a stark reminder what Hell is like when she leaves the pleasant confines of the Conventicle. There is a war going on in the way, and they have to detour around the carnage, devastation, and flashes of essence-weaponry in the sky. The lights scare Ogin, and he’s very clingy and nervous until they’re far past it.

The Nests haven’t changed much since she was last here - god, has it been years? The strange puzzle-form buildings are in a certain configuration, and the air is heavy with the stale blood of the Ellogean ichor it is built over.

WHY ARE YOU HERE? spell out a cluster of the black and white birds of the Paricehet as she arrives. DO YOU BRING MORE CREATURES TO EAT?

Fortunately, Keris thought ahead, and did in fact take a detour to the warzone to capture a score or so of aggressive demons and poison them into unconsciousness. At her nod, the limp bodies are shoved out of one of the carts and onto the ground.

“I’m here to make use of the Nests for the rest of the season,” she calls up to the flock. “I’ll be making use of several configurations, so you’re free from your side of our trade agreement until I leave again.”

IT IS YOUR RIGHT the birds spell out, before flocking out en masse.

“I don’t like them as much as I did when I was a child,” Rounen says softly. “Maybe it’s because I now have eyes.”

“Or maybe it’s because you wrote down most of their stories,” Keris teases. “I recall those made you quite popular back in the Swamp. Now, come on. I need this place set up as a vitriol workshop if I’m going to examine the alloying of my armour and boil the spirit out.”

“As you wish, ma’am.”

To solve the strange puzzle at the heart of this place is what is required to reshape it into a structure that works in vitriol, and the mechanisms and gears and sliding stones shift as it moves. Ogin watches with wide, wide eyes, and Keris makes a mental note that she’ll need to keep him away from the control-puzzle. It shouldn’t work for him as he isn’t attuned here, but she tries not to underestimate her son’s ability to find ways to get into trouble.

Something which has only redoubled with the introduction of vitriol to this place.

The alchemy-Nests are as she remembers them, with the path from the hearthroom leading out to the top of a tower. All around her are low buildings full of Cecelynite glass stills and extractors, shallow trays of bubbling vitriol, fume pipes and boiling-towers and lenses and chilling flasks...

“... Rounen,” Keris groans quietly. “We probably need to put leashes on the twins. I want someone assigned to each of them every hour of the day. This place is an accident waiting to happen.”

“Ma’am, if you knew you were going to be doing vitriolic alchemy, one more impertinent than I might wonder why you didn’t leave them in the care of Unquestionable Lilunu.” He leaves the question hanging. “As your loyal aide, of course, I will not do so - but it might be an idea to make sure that there is a szulo for each of them.”

“I left them alone with her for two weeks,” she mutters. “I don’t want to fall into the habit of never being there for them.”

Like Sasi had with Aiko, she doesn’t say. It’s a cruel thing to think - she knows Sasi would like nothing better than to be there for her daughter. But it’s still something lurking in the back of her mind whenever her work conflicts with her parenting.

“You’re right,” she sighs. “Two szulok. And maybe a Gale. I can look after them until then - I’ll be spending the first few days just doing a proper examination of my armour with the tools I have here.” She claps. “Speaking of which. Let’s get started.”

The examination confirms her worst fears. The akuma-spirit within the armour - not truly sapient, but about as smart as a cat or a fox - has developed disharmonies with its moonsilver home. A consequence, Keris thinks, of slight errors in the initial vitriol-alloying that built up over time. It’s unfixable at this point - she can salvage the alloying, but the spirit is a write-off. It’ll have to go.

“Okay,” she summarises after examining the last few samples in the longer-brewing reaction flasks and circling the locations where over-saturation of the vitriol to delicate moving parts has damaged joints and introduced friction to the smooth articulation of the plates. Behind her, Kali laughs delightedly as she tries to escape the long-furred embrace of a felid ape to see the sunshine.

“I’ll need to add fresh material to the weakened parts of the armour to fix the stiffness. That’ll be normal silver rather than true moonsilver. But that’s fine, it’ll still be... yeah, it won’t even be one part in twenty compared to the rest. It shouldn’t weaken the armour as long as it’s properly alloyed, and I can transmute it to keep the essence as aligned as possible. Getting the spirit out will be trickier, but with the right reagents in a weak solution and a banishing ritual I can do it without damaging anything further.”

She purses her lips. “That leaves what to put in its place.”

“Mum, have you considered making it really yours?” Vali suggests from inside her head. He’s seldom been paying attention to the outside world and she’s thankful for that, but smithing is one of the things he really enjoys. He might have taken time away from hanging out with tiny-Haneyl to watch. “Right now, it’s not really yours, and I think that’s why you don’t use it much. It’s just armour you wear. Not like your spear, which you think of as yours. Haneyl even talks about it as if it’s yours and she doesn’t want it.”

Keris hums thoughtfully and brings a hair tendril up to tap at her lips. “The problem is, it’s expensive,” she says, thinking out loud. “My Lance is mine because I keep it constantly bound to me. But my armour - it takes even more essence than my Lance to keep it tied to me. Too much for day-to-day. And I always have my Lance on me, I can’t wear my armour around all the time.”

She bites at the hair tendril and chews, mulling it over. “But... maybe that’s because it’s not enough like me. I mean, it’s moonsilver. It should be able to change shape. Maybe I’d be able to bring down the cost - at least for a resting state - if it was already half-anchored in my essence. One of my demons...”

Her eyes widen fractionally. “Or one of my Gales. No, not a Gale, that’d be too clever; I’d go nuts. But... hah. A Fang, though. That could work. That could very well work. Make the armour an extension of Pekhijira and it’ll watch my back for me! And I can patch up the weak bits with Pekhijirite silver to make the link stronger!”

She pauses, and sighs. “Of course, that does mean rendering a Fang down into chalcanth. Urgh. This is going to suck. Even if I make it painless and give it a new body in the armour, I’m gonna feel guilty about this. Also probably get punched in the face. Still... yeah, yeah. I can make a lining out of Noh’s shadowsuit and try to enhance the aspects of independence and freedom-from-bondage, then infuse the chalcanth into it as I patch up the...”

Tailing off into muttering, she wanders over to the nearest table, surroundings forgotten, and dives back into planning.

She makes good progress over the days and weeks despite the requirements of childcare. It’s nice to have them around, even if it is both scary and aggravating sometimes. But she has the safety of a pocket world for them to live in, and when her self-imposed “morning” comes, she takes her little feather and tires her out with katas and exercises with mama. And it helps. It really helps. She’s never seen Kali quite so well behaved, not since she was just a tiny baby who lay there and didn’t try to escape.

It’s during one of these false-morning exercise routines that thunder without lightning strikes the landscape not too far from the manse, collapsing a hillock-sized mass of twisted basalt down into the underlayers of Hell. Kali bursts into tears at the noise, and by the time she’s got her girl calmed down, Kimbery has flooded the pit in a tumultuous, swirling whirlpool full of loathsome things and vile hissing acids and many-coloured poisons.

Furious - and not a little scared herself, since rearrangements to the landscape on that scale run a very real risk of destabilising the Nests - Keris tucks Kali away in the pocket-world of her collar, grabs her Lance and marches over to investigate. Her armour is stewing in a weak solution of vitriol, birch bark and gold dust to excise the animating spirit, and will be there for another day and a half before she can remove it, so she’s going unprotected. But it’s not like there’s much in Kimbery that can drag itself out onto solid ground and still threaten her, so she’s not too worried. Most likely, this was some kind of cover-collapse sinkhole - she just needs to check for any signs it might happen again.

It’s as she sits overlooking the sinkhole, sketching out the landscape so she can see if it progresses or changes over the next few days, that the hissing indigo waters start to effervesce, throwing out red fumes. They part, and from the depths rises a figure, carried on the sparkling red mist.

“Well, hello there,” they say, and thunder booms and the waters fizz more violently.

Tall, even lanky, and androgynous; there’s something about this stranger that reminds Keris a bit of Zanara. Maybe it’s their eyes, which are mismatched; one is a socket filled with silver flame while the other has an iris the colour of cherry blossoms. Their hair is a mess of many-coloured strands, pinned back with a cinnabar blossom. They wear a patchwork robe of demon-skin, but Keris can’t tell if they’re a flat-chested woman or a muscular man. There might be curves under the baggy garment, but it’s not clear. Their skin is pale, as pale as Rat’s was when he was dead, and stained many colours around their hands. And over one shoulder, they have a ludicrously-sized starmetal grand daiklaive with a broad head that’s encrusted with layer upon layer of crystals and acid-blotches and something which can only be chalcanth stains.

Keris can taste the cloyingly thick cinnabar blossoms in the air, and smell the stink of mercury. And the serpent hisses in the back of her head at the sight of a rival.

((Szorenic essence, Enlightenment 9))

She yelps, and backs up a hasty dozen paces, only barely keeping a slew of startled profanity from slipping out. Okay! Not a sinkhole! An Unquestionable’s landscape-form! That’s great! Just peachy! Perfectly fine!

Once her heart has settled somewhat from the rapid pace it accelerated to at the demon prince’s sudden appearance, Keris ventures back towards... them, she’s just going to use Zanaran pronouns for this androgynous being. Their name comes to her as she examines them. Khereon Ul - yes, this is the Alchemist of Souls. She’s read some of their essays - in fact, she’s gone to some lengths to get her hands on a few of them down, because this strange, intimidating creature is an alchemist almost without rival, and has a keen interest in the nature of the soul that parallels and exceeds her own.

“Unquestionable One,” Keris greets them, bowing low. “I’m honoured by your presence. And delighted to meet you in person - I’ve studied your work at some length. Your text on the chalcanth properties of the different orders of being was brilliant.”

They beam at her. “Oh, wonderful! You are a learned individual!” they say. Once again, thunder rumbles overhead and the waters boil. It is, Keris has read, part of their nature. They radiate a manic energy with every gesture, sort of like Zanara does when they’ve read about a new kind of art and really want to talk about it with Keris. “I was hoping I’d find you.”

“Aiming this is always a little temperamental,” they add.

“And of course, it was a disgrace that Ligier and his little cabal,” sudden rage, and sudden absence, “didn’t invite me to join from the start. It took far too long for me to be informed that my greater self had been welcomed into this unprecedented mingling of Primordial natures. Which is what I have been interested in for so long. Some of the others,” again, a hiss, “denied me this understanding! For no reason!”

“I’m sure they failed to understand the depths of your research, honoured one,” Keris returns diplomatically. Something in the way their intonation shifts from statement to statement makes her think of Zana and Nara trading off sentences. Just... squashed into a single body. “Though, may I ask... you were hoping to find me?” She puts on a flattered smile. “Has my reputation preceded me?”

“But of course.” They clap their hands together. “You are Keris Dulmeadokht! Mistress of Ceremonies! Particularly well placed to see everything about the confluence and inter-mingling of essential natures from your position at the right hand of the Conventicle Malfeasant!”

“And - might I be so bold to add?” they add, “a quite wonderful specimen yourself! I heard from esteemed Kagami that you were the very first to take our nature into you! Such a marvel! Such a quicksilver-sharp mind - and an alchemist too!”

Hidden under Keris’s sleeve, Iris shifts uneasily. Keris feels the faint tickling pressure turn around on her forearm and slither up and over her shoulder to hide on the small of her back, where Iris curls up in as tiny a ball as she can form. She’s scared of this demon. Very scared. That spot is her favoured hiding place when she wants nothing to notice her, now that she’s too big to fit under Keris’s hair.

“I flatter myself that I’ve achieved some expertise in the art,” Keris says humbly, inwardly deciding that her work with Lilunu’s chakra knots and crippled souls are topics she is going to avoid even if it takes outright lying to the face of an Unquestionable to do so. “And the Silver Forest... I find much in his nature that harmonises with my own.”

“Of course you do!” Khereon Ul says brightly. “Oh, such wonders we will make together! Such boundaries we will dissolve. For that is the greatest work of our King, you know; theion to, the universal solvent, that which makes the rebus and the magnus opus possible. Of all the things he ever did, none rival that - and it was Gaia’s foolish vanity that it was not part of the world from the start. Idiot child, draped in the borrowed fineries of others. I’m quite jealous that in her stupidity she stumbled upon such a marvel that would not be rivaled until the genesis of the Conventicle and creatures such as yourself!”

“But where are my manners?” they correct themselves. “Yes, indeed, I am Khereon Ul, the Alchemist of Souls, and the most talented alchemist in all the worlds that are, were, and shall be.” They touch down on the rock, bare-footed, and the stone starts to squirm and change, becoming other than it was. Some drips like wax, some melts, and some bubbles up into tiny mountains. “Fourth Soul of Szoreny, and four is a mystic number, the number of the virtues - and I am most virtuous in my temperance, my scholarly conviction, my boundary-breaking valour and my compassion for all life.”

They hold out their hand for Keris to kiss.

Hesitating for only a heartbeat, Keris takes it in her left hand and dips her head to kiss it, feeling the strange texture of the demon prince’s essence under her fingertips as she does. With her eyes shifting to slits, the sensation is actually painful. That little touch is like dragging sandpaper across her lips. And she can feel the pores encrusted with the residue of strange compounds, taste the demon-blood on their hands when she inhales - but deeper, deeper, and her po-like sense of touch can feel that this Khereon Ul is not one branch. They’re two. At least two, maybe more. All twisted together. Twisted together so finely the bark has fused and they look almost seamless. Almost. And their branch is covered in scar tissue. Endless, endless scar tissue. It’s like the difference between a tree in the wild and one that’s been pruned to be a bonsai, but not like the bonsai that Haneyl grows that are worked from the inside. One wired into shape and cut and cut and cut endlessly so nothing exists where it should not and nothing is permitted to grow without the overseer’s design.

Suppressing a shudder, Keris corrects her earlier decision. Not only is she keeping the details of Lilunu’s treatments from this being, she’s also going to do her level best to keep them far, far away from anything she cares about at all. Especially the twins. She has a horrible premonition of the interest Khereon Ul might take in infant akuma who harmoniously blend Heavenly and Hellish essence. Yes, they’re staying shut in the collar-sanctum for as long as this cauldron-pit is within sight of the Nests, tantrums be damned. She’ll send them back to the Conventicle if she has to.

But if she’s going to keep them safe, that means distracting the demon prince with something shiny so they don’t go looking for things to study. “As I said, Unquestionable One, your visit honours me,” she says. “And I would be delighted to work alongside you - although if you have no projects in mind, might I request that I finish the one I came to the Nests to work on? I have a delicate set of reactions underway at the moment, and you might be interested in what I’m doing with them.”

Khereon Ul seems to exist in a nearly perpetual state of being perked up, but they managed to perk up even more. “Oh, that sounds fascinating!” they say gleefully as the sky rumbles overhead. “Do you have notes? What manner of material are you working with?”

“This way, this way,” Keris says, inviting them to follow her to her working lab. It’s on the opposite side of the Nests to the low-slung building she’s staying in and the open space she exercises with Kali in, which was originally to keep the twins from getting into mischief with her notes, but she’s fervently thankful for it now. “So, not long after Exalting - in fact, before I even visited Hell for the first time - I raided a Solar tomb in Nexus and recovered a suit of moonsilver plate armour that belonged to a Lunar of the High First Age. It was vitriol-treated while I was instructed in various skills for my duty to the Reclamation, but the alchemists who did the job performed poorly...”

She talks quickly and at length as she shows Khereon Ul through the Nests, showing him the armour soaking in its vitriol-solution bath and the white-haired Fang in a tank of pure, high-grade theion to, eyes closed in dreamless slumber. She’s almost completely dissolved, with only her head, upper torso and most of her right arm remaining, and the dark liquid is full of swirling currents of silver-grey, which shift constantly with predatory grace. The patterns shift from serpentine coils to abstract shapes that remind Keris of watchful eyes as she passes, and her gut stirs uneasily at the reminder that the Fang is still alive in there, reduced to a liquefied soul awaiting a new body.

“Now, these are the notes and texts I’ve been working with,” she says as they enter the lab room. She quirks a grin. “You may recognise some of them.” Indeed, the very text on chalcanth properties she’d complimented Khereon Ul for is sitting, well-thumbed, on a lab bench next to the calculations for how to render down a Splintered Gale formed through the gifts of the Silent Wind - for such a thing is not a demon, and needs a process all its own to be properly distilled.

The silver fire in one eye glows even brighter. “To dissolve a reflection of one’s self and use it as a reagent; such sweet ecstasy,” they exhale softly. “To make weapons from aspects of yourself is far from rare - oh, many of my souls have been honoured to be ascended into tools of one kind or another, but this is something new. Marvellous! Marvellous!” They start to giggle, high-pitched and melodic.

“If you want to keep this up to date, I’d infuse it with more of those aspect-facets at least once a decade,” they add almost casually. “If you can’t stop the decay of the ideoform from vitriol dissolution, I can foresee that the diverging signature of your own nature will lead to pathological tendencies in the armour. You might want to look for that.”

“Oh, but look at this! Have you considered finding a moon-chosen and alloying them with the armour? That might be a way to tame the meso-thermic tendencies of lunargent under the new moon,” they interject on what they had been saying.

“I’ve had two encounters with moon-chosen to date, and my takeaway from both of them is that catching them is more trouble than it’s worth,” Keris grumbles. “I lost an orichalcum plate that I had plans for to the first one. But, hmm. I hadn’t thought about drift in the animating spirit. Then again, that’s what happened to this one - and that in only five years, so maybe I should have been...”

She scribbles a note to herself to that effect. Once-a-decade maintenance to re-imbue her armour with a fresh Fang is something she can live with, but she’ll need to keep an eye on it to make sure it’s not drifting faster than expected. On the plus side, that idle comment proves that Khereon Ul definitely can help her with this project - and that her project will definitely hold their attention.

“What I wanted your opinion on is actually the other ingredient I had planned for this, honoured one. I was visited at Calibration by the Contrary One, who, ah... took exception to one of my outfits and exchanged it for one of her own. It was my thought that - see here, this shadow-skin still carries an echo of her power - if I can concentrate the aspects of independence and freedom-from-bondage in this and then infuse my Fang into it, I might be able to lay the groundwork for later letting it animate the armour independently to me, as a construct-servant. I’m fairly sure the armour could do something like that back when it was worn by a moon-chosen, so the structures are there to support it. Just degraded.” She runs a hand through her hair. “But that might accelerate the ideoform decay, or at least make it more wilful. Not that it’s not wilful enough already.” She adds the last in a mutter, rubbing her jaw ruefully where Fang had clocked her before being drugged unconscious.

“Now, that’s probably not a wise idea, given the-” begins Khereon Ul, before trailing off.

“No no no see that would work it wouldn’t work for me, but your nature is already containing elements of the Contrary One and her nature is Will, you see! It is intent, self-shaping against the expediencies of a formless world. There is a resonance within your quadruphasic soulform mimicry that resembles her existence already, and more than that, there’s a harmonious channel that enables more!” they blurt out all without breathing.

“Of course that will make it more contrary and independent, but if you’re seeing to mimic the nature of a demon lord in part as a monument to your nature, why, that might work out better! That is the fundamental flaw of the gods, you know,” they say, clearly getting distracted. “We had to make them wilful so that they would not be subsumed by the stories of chaos, for will is the barrier to tale-twisting, but will is a double-edged blade - as you likely know if you’ve ever dealt with the Contrary One! So it would be best to geas this armour so it cannot turn on you, and stay vigilant for its betrayal and prune its psyche - but such prunings are often fascinating elements to add into a brew, so really you have only benefits!”

“It’s an echo of my po, and I have wound up getting into fights with her before,” Keris muses, lifting herself up to sit on the edge of the table and thinking out loud as she tries to untangle the jargon Khereon Ul is using. It’s not beyond her understanding, but she has to concentrate to parse it. “So it’s a choice. Making it more independent will stabilise it, but it’ll make it less a tool and more a true extension of my po, one that I’ll have to put effort into keeping in line. But we have been getting along better since Taira... oh. Oh, I wonder what would happen if we... wait, no, there wouldn’t be a direct connection, so the fusion wouldn’t reach the armour. Oh, except no, I was planning on reactivating the self-compression that allows it to take on a lesser form, and if I made that into a tattoo-aspect it would be connecting with me! That might actually work! Ah...”

Khereon Ul is looking even more interested. Keris reviews what she blurted out.

... there’s probably enough there to give a fair amount away. Well, this at least doesn’t reference Lilunu or her children at all. “Ah... my po takes form in my dreams as a great silver-feathered serpent. We’ve fought, in the past, and more recently come to an agreement that’s allowed me to take on her nature. It’s how I was able to externalise an aspect of her into a lesser form with the gifts of the Silent Wind, instead of myself - and I’ve embraced her enough that I can join with her in body as well, as easily as I can become wind or other peers can become shadows or devil-tyrants or stage-garments. If the armour was joined with me in tattoo-form, do you think such a fusion would let the spirit-fraction inhabiting it conjoin with my po?”

“Faaaaascinating,” Khereon Ul purrs. “And where did you learn these things? Was it from that dear child, the Conventicle Malfeasant?”

Pain spikes at Keris’s hip where Iris has just lifted her head and sunk her teeth into Keris in terrified warning not to let this topic go any further. “No, no,” she deflects hastily. “My lady Lilunu has taught me acupuncture and geomancy and beautiful artistry, but this was inwardly formed... around the time I took the Silver Forest into myself, actually. Bare days after. Perhaps your Greater Self’s nature unlocked the reflections between my original human souls.” That thought seems to please the demon prince, and Keris quickly capitalises on the diversion. “Of course, I couldn’t ask you to judge how my transformation would affect the armour without a demonstration - would you like to see it? We should leave the Nests if so, I’d need a clear space.”

They clap swiftly. “Oh, that would be just lovely! I want to see this very much! The human po is such a silly thing, so very...” they sniff, “limited. Optimised for its purpose, of course, but barely functional for anything that a real self-aware being needs.”

Their cherry-blossom eye’s pupil comes apart, and drifts through the eye before reforming. “Oh, but if you have managed to transmute it into a real soul, like a real person would have, that would say fascinating things about the uses of human souls when transmuted by extended exposure to truly colossal amounts of the essential nature of the titans. I wonder how many souls I could easily obtain...”

“No, no, can’t get distracted. Po-form, yes? Chop-chop!”

Keris nods, hops off the desk, and leads the way back outside to a clear space - still on the other side of the Nests. She briefly swallows her voice as she goes, sending a glance and a quick flick of fingers to a distant Rounen that order him to keep the twins safely in the collar-sanctum, and to keep that in their living quarters, and to not come out while the Unquestionable is still here. It’s quick enough and silent enough that Khereon Ul doesn’t seem to notice or care, and they’re shortly back out on the edge of the blood-lake the Nests sit in, on the solid ground between her manse and the cauldron-crater.

“Right then,” Keris says, and hesitates. Well, there’s no use ruining some perfectly good lab clothes for this, and it’s not like there’s much point in body modesty around someone whose interest in sex probably only extends as far as the exotic ingredients one can gather from it. “This tends to do a number on whatever I’m wearing, so I’ll just...”

She strips off quickly, rolls her shoulders, and closes her eyes against the eager mismatched stare. Reaching into herself, she brushes against the uneasy, frightened hissing of her other-self. Pekhijira is scared, because Keris is scared. Khereon Ul is brilliant, and if things were different she’d be more genuinely happy to see them, but with her children here the demon prince is a fearful threat. And even disregarding the twins, she can’t ignore the fact that this being is a monster - a monster who talks casually of pruning her souls as it prunes its own.

But a smile offers more safety than shield or spear here. Coaxing her serpent-nature to the surface, Keris lets the transformation takes her, and begins to grow.

The silver fire is so bright and so wide, it’s singing their mismatched hair; their other pupil has torn itself apart and there is no sign of it in that wide, wide eye.

“Marvellous,” they exhale. “Marvellous. This is not the nature of the titans, but it descends from them in a way I do not understand yet. But I will. I can see the devil-serpent, looking out from behind the fog. A self-aware ripple in the cauldron that is your self. Not a human po, no-no, far from it.” A soft moan. “Formed from such power, but - ah! Built up. A crystal from a rich alchemical soup, around the seed-culture of a po.”

“It is... something not unlike me. A reflection of primordial glory.”


“Ssshe wasss not alwaysss ssstrong enough for thisss,” Keris agrees, slithering around Khereon Ul in a half-circle to let them see how she moves, the rippling power in her tail. “Or asss great within me. Only asss I grew did ssshe - from the ssstrength of a demon lord to what you now sssee.”

If Khereon Ul smiles any wider, their head might fall off. “I can see that. Oh, I can see that.” They titter. “Yes, yes. The alloying and reaction of the essential nature of the titans, within the cauldron of a human soul, moderated by the greatest of all catalysts - exaltation!”

“Do you know of any of your peers we can induct into this? I wish to see more-more-more! Yes! More transmutation of disparate powers into these pseudo-demon princes, unattached to any one titan! Like the inverse of that Lilunu girl, attached to many! And yet enabled by her! There must be more peers who can undergo essential catalysis!”

“I know of none who are ssso clossse to their lower ssselves thusss far,” Keris hisses tantalisingly. “But assss Missstresss of Ceremoniesss, I will meet many of my peersss. I would be happy to keep my eyesss open and my earsss sssharp for any I could teach.”

“Do so. Yes. Do so.” Khereon Ul hugs themselves, rocking back and forth on their heels. “Oh, my my my. This is the start of a wonderful friendship!”

Keris lets the strands of her being separate again, shrinking back down to her human self, her hair curving around her as a veil to give her modesty.

And smiles.

She wasn’t intending to win an Unquestionable’s backing when she came here, but it seems she very much has. And with this kind of excitement, they’ll probably let their obvious interest in Lilunu slide for a while, especially if she can coax another Infernal into embracing their own po. They’re definitely not going to be thinking about her precious babies. And if that puts her alone under the eyes of a crazed demon prince... well, it’s not a position she’s unused to.

“I think so too,” she lies warmly. “I’m so glad I met you, Khereon Ul. I think we’re going to learn many things together.”

For all the assistance that Khereon Ul gave, Keris made her excuses sooner than she’d have planned, and made her way back to the Althing to prepare for her return to the Anarchy. She wanted her kids away from that mismatched gaze, and she wasn’t prepared to spend more time in Hell working on her armour with their attention.

Maybe she’d be able to make some time to finish it off later this year.

Of course, Lilunu is standing in the way there. She’s feeling neglected and simply must have Keris to help her host a guest. Fossyi, the Necrophore King, lame and... suspicious. Widely known to be a necromancer and dabbler in necrotic sorcery, and guarded only from the law of Cecelyne by his status as an Unquestionable.

A month ago, such an ominous reputation might well have unnerved her, but after smiling into the madly enthused face of Khereon Ul, Keris is feeling very resistant to being spooked. And the interests of the dark and sickly demon prince remind her of something she has stashed away, prompting her to retrieve it from the vault in her mother’s Tower where it’s been languishing since she crushed it into its current shape.

Naturally, Lilunu can’t resist the opportunity to play dress-up with her student, and so Keris is waiting at her side in a tight black dress of clinging shadow-fabric, over which heavy necklaces, armbands and belted chains of dull grey Malfean lead present a layer of grave ceremony and regal duty. In her hands she carries a box of the same, a depiction of the crone-faced millipede she’d fought in Ca Map carved into the sides that wraps around to stare up from the lid with hateful eyes.

Wheezing, limping, using his war club as a crutch, Fossyi makes an unceremonial appearance. One side of him is withered and grey tinged, and his breath rattles in his chest. His cloak of insects chitter and click, catching the light that shines down through the great stained glass that covers one wall. His hair shifts slightly, and Keris realises it’s a mass of antennas.

He reminds her of her uncle. Not as he is now; crotchety and often grouchy but still a loving part of her family, enjoying his retirement. He reminds her of Xasan when she first met him, overweight and grey faced and barely holding on to the will to live with the loss of his hand.

Fossyi ignores the fanfare and shrugs away the servants sent to help him. “Lilunu,” he says, voice rusty. “You’re looking better than last time, lass.” There’s a hint of a rough Northern accent in his words.

“Your infernal highness,” Keris says, curtseying deeply at Lilunu’s side. “May I offer you anything? I hope your journey was pleasant.” Internally, the medic in her is taking in his symptoms with fascination as she dispenses small talk and pleasantries that he seems to care as little for as the servants. As Mistress of Ceremonies, she’s a perfect hostess, but as Yuula’s student she’s itching to get her hands on him for a better examination.

He glances over at her, and makes a faint ‘khuh’ noice at the back of his throat. His skin, which reflects light like a beetle’s shell, is painted with ceremonial red paint in a language Keris doesn’t recognise.

“Fossyi,” Lilunu says, with a little warmth in her voice, and claps her hand. The room reforms, shrinking down in volume considerably and folding crystalline seats out of the ground. “Thank you for coming to see me. It’s a shame you couldn’t make it at Calibration.”

“You know I’m not going to face Orabilis and his stuck-up ways,” Fossyi says in his rough voice. “There’s no need beating around the bush with such lies.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“Well, of course you wouldn’t,” Fossyi says, sitting down with some relief.

“Fossyi often comes to see me in the year when I’m normally lonely or bored,” Lilunu explains to Keris. “He’s a grouchy old bear, but once you get through his shell, he’s fun enough.”

“Lying again,” Fossyi says. “What you see is what you get, lass, and you keep on with this view of things that is just a dream.” He snorts. “So this is your pet they let you keep this time?”

“Keris isn’t my pet,” Lilunu protests.

“If she had a tail, it’d be wagging.”

Despite herself, Keris can feel something starting to form that’s less polished smile and more genuine grin. ‘Grouchy old bear’ might be an informal way of putting it, but she doesn’t get the feelings of callous pride or casual malice from him that characterise her interactions with many other demon princes. While he’s technically insulting her, it’s hard to be offended by comments about her devotion to her lady. It reminds her again of her uncle - the tone is very much like Xasan when he’s being crotchety at her. And she can’t help but feel somewhat fond of self-proclaimed foes of Orabilis.

“Lord Fossyi,” she says, forgoing the curtsy this time. “I’ve read some of your texts on the categorisation of souls - I would love to see your collection someday, if it’s as grand as it sounds. And I have a gift for you that you might enjoy.” She offers the lead box, cracking the lid to show the jet black gem within, gleaming wetly as if it’s freshly torn from the chest of the Zu Tak Grandmother whose soul is trapped within.

“One of the Greater Dead who I ran into in the Southwest of Creation,” she explains. “She had some skill in necromantic sorcery herself - I had to break two of her spells as I pinned her down and carved out her heart.”

That draws his attention, and his dark eyes light up as he falls upon the crystal. “Mmm, mmm. See that sheen?” he lectures. “See the lustre, the hue? Clear indications that this spectre was indeed of the Greater Dead, and more than that, it attained that rank through the veneration of a cult. Notice the smoothness, the cleanness of shape? You wouldn’t see that if it had majorly embraced our dearly departed relatives. And each of the Rivers leaves its own marks. See that colouration? Ain’t got the variance that you’d get if this ghost was a sin-eater.” He takes the box in his good hand, laying it down on his lap, and pulls out a shadowcaul glove from a pocket and slips it on, before examining it more closely. “Ah, no, I reckon I was wrong,” he says. “Look at this flaw down the centre. That’s a mark that the whispers of the Neverborn were in this one’s head, but not too much. If I want to work this into something, I’ll need to cut it to excise that flaw.”

“The Zu Tak are ancestor worshippers who’ve been proving themselves a nuisance,” Keris offers, sensing an opportunity. “They have quite a number of the Greater Dead supporting them - enough to field three or four along with a major raiding party. If I come across any more specimens like this, I’d be willing to sell them to you.”

Carefully, delicately, Fossyi puts the soul gem back in its box, and closes it back up. Only then does he lean back in his seat, idly rubbing his withered arm with his good hand. “Do y’know where they’re getting the power for all this, gal?” he enquires. “These... Zu Tak? How many of them are there? I haven’t heard of them before, and if there’s so many prayer-fed Greater Dead, they have to be one of the great nations of Creation. But then why don’t I know of them?”

Keris shakes her head. “Quite the opposite, your highness. They’re savages, scattered up and down the coast of the Wailing Fen. From what I’ve heard, they’re cannibals who turned to ancestor-worship in order to survive... well, the Wailing Fen, which is as close to the lands of Hell as you can get in Creation. Not a good place for mortals to dwell. They live in villages among the swamp and send out their great rafts and outrigger canoes to pillage and raid the islands of the Anarchy, dosing their men up on drugs that kill them young and backing up their forces with necromancers and undead Grandmothers like,” she nods at the box, “that one. I couldn’t guess at their full number or exactly how long they’ve been doing this, but it’s been long enough for a fair few of them to become this strong.”

She pauses, lips twisting. “I suspect they may have the backing of a deathlord,” she admits in a quieter tone. “I can’t prove it, and I have nothing specific I can point to. But I have trouble believing that so many powerful ghosts would work together like they seem to without an even stronger one ruling the lot of them. And they’re very, very aggressive in trying to expand. A lord of death urging them on from below would explain how fanatical they seem.”

Fossyi shakes his head, antenna clattering as he does. “No. A ghost fat on mortal prayer-cults needs that prayer to stay strong. They’ll starve and wither if people stop praying to them.” His fingers click on his knee as he taps away. “If they were eating up the stuff of the Fen, that’d be one thing. But I’d see Hell-stuff in the gem if that were true, and it isn’t.” He looks directly at Keris. “Bring me more of these soul gems if you can find them. This is a puzzle I want to get to the bottom of. And,” he gives an unamused grin, “I dare say you want to know how they’re getting so many Greater Dead if they’re in your Directorate, gal.”

“I would, yes,” Keris agrees frankly. “Thank you, highness.”

“And now,” he adds, “I think I want some of those drinks and food you offered, gal. Me and the lass have some catching up to do, and it’s... what’s the words that arse Orabilis likes so much? ‘Matters of the Unquestionable’. Something of that ilk, then. So bugger off.”

Lilunu catches Keris’s eyes, with a minuscule roll of her own and a quirk of her lips. “Be a dear and help out in that manner, would you, Keris?” she says elegantly.

“Of course, my lady,” Keris agrees with another curtsey, and sashays off to rustle up some refreshments. The feeling of obeying Lilunu’s command is a warm, pleasing rush that spreads out from her pierced tongue and tingles its way down each limb and settles deep in her core.

Fossyi stays for nearly a scream, and then limps off to one of those strange buildings that Lilunu calls up from the ground to house one of the Unquestionable. It seems he’s going to be in residence for a while. Keris is called back by her mistress to help work on the embroidery on a new set of lingerie while Lilunu weaves.

“He’s quite the character, isn’t he?” she says mildly, as her shuttle click-clacks from left to right. The air here smells of the perfumed oil that Lilunu works into her fabrics and the green light that sparkles through the stained-glass roof into this white-painted workroom is soft and gentle. There’s an infrequent stream of lesser demonic servants coming in, bringing Lilunu things or informing her of events in the Conventicle Malfeasant.

“I see what you meant when you called him ‘grouchy’,” Keris says. “He’s very... informal, compared to other Unquestionable who stand on ceremony. But I think I like him for it.”

“I think he’s lonely,” Lilunu says. “He lives out on the blasted heath around Oramus, you know. Not many visitors there. Even the Silent Wind hesitates to blow there, though some of that is because of the music that drifts through that space. But it makes him a little... odd, even by the standards of some of my peers.”

Keris shivers. “I’ve heard of that place. They say there are things that squirm out from His Broken Wings. Things that shouldn’t exist. That couldn’t, if His wounds didn’t let them in.”

“He, ah.” Lilunu is clearly looking for a way to say this. “Orabilis’s law is ill-maintained there and even his eyes fear to go there, for they do not wish to see such sights. Fossyi has reason to avoid the law, not just for what it lays even on the Unquestionable, but for the rumours - only rumours, I must add - that he teaches the forbidden arts of necromancy to students. Even serfs.” She pauses in her weaving. “In that way, he is very much a soul of the Ebon Dragon,” she says drily. “None of them seem to believe that laws should have any hold on them if they don’t want to follow them.”

Keris winces a little. “Well,” she says quickly, casting around for escape routes to change the subject away from that particular minefield, “uh, speaking of... characters among the Unquestionable, I met Khereon Ul at the Nests last month. Well, I say ‘met’.” She wrinkles her nose. “I was trying to get my armour working and they, ah, opened one of their cauldron-whirlpools nearby. They definitely live up to their reputation as an alchemist, but I had to leave before finishing my work.”

“Oh?” Lilunu seems vaguely interested. “They don’t seem to wish to meet with me. Or, rather, when they were going to attend once, I mentioned it to Orabilis and he informed me that he suspected that Khereon Ul was only doing it out of politeness and would probably cancel when they found another distraction. Which happened, of course.”

A moment of extremely fast internal calculation passes at blinding speed. “They’re... very enthusiastic about their work,” Keris agrees. “I, um...”

She trails off, biting her lip and second-guessing herself. Her instinct is to keep Lilunu and Khereon Ul as far apart as she possibly can. But... is this really the way to do it? To keep Lilunu ignorant of the demon prince’s madness? To follow Orabilis’s example - Orabilis, who wants her chained and powerless?

Her hesitation lasts a moment too long, and then it’s a moot point as Lilunu glances up and catches the uneasy, conflicted look written all over Keris’s face.

“Keris.” Lilunu twists around, crocking her finger at her. “You know something. Tell me.”

The command is undeniable. It grips Keris’s whole body like a fist clenched around her, and her tongue starts moving almost without her involvement.

“My lady, avoid them at any cost, please,” are her first words, stumbling over themselves to get out as fast as possible. “They... they scare me. They’re manic, insane, obsessed with radical alchemy and unique soul structures, and their envy of the- the secrets meant only for the Yozis that deal with new entrants to the Reclamation is second only to the envies of their Greater Self. I’m pretty sure they’re fixated on you, personally, for... for your compound nature. They were two Unquestionable once - maybe more, but something happened to fuse them together so closely I could barely sense the seam and everything over that was scar tissue, layers and layers and layers of it, like they’d cut and cut and cut away at themselves. They spoke of boiling down their own souls to make tools of them - or, or just to experiment - like it was nothing. They sought me out specifically because I’m yours. When they tried to steer the conversation towards you, they looked almost crazed-”

She slams her teeth together, cutting off the stream of babble, and takes a couple of deep breaths while Lilunu is rocking back, startled.

“I- I drew their focus off you for the moment, I think,” she adds, as reassuring as she can be under the circumstances. “I’m enough of a curiosity that they want very, very much to study me, and I managed to hide Iris and the twins and everything I’ve learned from you. My armour got them interested, and that led to me showing them my po and my lamia-form, and that really fascinated them. I think they’ll... well, they won’t forget about you, but they won’t do anything rash that would drive Lord Ligier into a murderous rage until they decide I’ve stopped being a novelty. You’ll be safe from their attentions for a while yet as long as they don’t run into you at Calibration or something.”

There is a hush, which is not a silence. A hush is the noise of people trying not to make any noise. Then, “I see.” Lilunu gestures Keris over, and wraps her arms around her, bringing her into a hug. “Poor you,” she murmurs. “You must have been so scared. And yet you were willing to...” What she was about to say is cut off. “You were willing to deflect an Unquestionable. For me. No matter how scared you were. Knowing that they were in their rights to do all kinds of things to you if they caught you leading them away from what they wanted.”

She strokes Keris’s hair. “No one else would do that for me.”

“You’re my lady,” Keris mumbles, snuggling into her arms. “And I- I was pretty sure they wouldn’t try too hard to hurt me. They want to study me. They can’t do that nearly as well if I’m dead. I showed them what they wanted to see and pretended to be as... as obsessed with their passions as them, and they believed it without thinking twice.”

She swallows, trembling a little. “I-it was the twins I was scared for. Th-that’s why I left early. I was getting a lot done with their help, b-but having the twins at the Nests while they were there was just... it was t-too risky. I can finish my armour another time. Alone. With nobody else at risk.”

“Mmm.” Lilunu holds Keris, the strength of a tornado and a wildfire compressed into soft, uncalloused hands. “If you want, I can work on your armour myself while you’re gone. I’m often bored in the year, and getting to work on something like that which will protect you from threats in Creation would be my pleasure.” She cups Keris’s face, her rainbow eyes tinged indigo as she looks at Keris. “But you need to promise you won’t get into any fights without your armour, got it? You need to stay safe! Not get yourself into danger all the time! And definitely not get trapped by any fae or any bitchy silver-haired demonesses, you understand?!”

A watery giggle escapes. “‘kay,” Keris mumbles. “I mean, yes, my lady. I promise. No... no fighting fae, or Zu Tak ghosts, or getting trapped anywhere. I’ll stay safe in Saata and let Testolagh and the Baisha do the fighting for me. And... and I’d be honoured by your help with my armour. I can take you through what I’ve done so far before I go back.”

“Just as well. I was getting bored weaving,” Lilunu says cheerfully. “By the way, have you finished your embroidery?”

“Ah.” Keris blushes. “Just a little longer my lady. I’m almost done.”

“Take it. As a gift. It won’t fit you, but I’ve got,” Lilunu rolls her eyes, “so many pairs that they’d probably just sit in a wardrobe somewhere. A lot of my weaving is just to kill the time and make myself feel useful between Calibrations and when I’m not bearing a third-soul waiting to be sent out again. Make a gift of it to someone you think is worthy of wearing my work.”

“I will, my lady.” Keris holds it up, pursing her lips and considering it. “Actually... with a couple of minor adjustments, this will probably fit Haneyl when she finishes recovering from... her own experience at Chir. I’ll give it to her with your compliments, my lady. She’ll be overjoyed.”

“Dear me, yes.” Lilunu flicks Keris on the nose. “One might think your children have stolen all your fair share of height.”

Betrayed, Keris pouts. “It’s very unfair,” she complains. “They’re all too tall. And Kali will probably be the same way. Ogin too, if he takes after his older brother.”

Lilunu laughs at that. “Come on, then. Let’s see what you’ve been working on.”

Chapter Text

It’s nice to be back in the world. It’s maybe a bit blasphemous to think it, but it is nice. Kali is delighted to get to play under a yellow sun again, Keris gets to see her mortal family, and as an added benefit she’s five days away from Khereon Ul. It’s not that they’re her enemy. It’s just that their friendship is terrifying.

But there’s something which comes before everything else. Something which - annoyingly - she only thought of after the fact, so she’s missed the anniversary by a couple of weeks, but waiting a whole year until the 21st of Falling Air comes around again would be even worse.

Keris reaches out and lights the incense sticks she’s placed around the charcoal hand-drawn picture of Gull. She’s set up this little memorial shrine in the Jade Carnation, because... it just feels right. It’s the club owned by Cinnamon, but Cinnamon is Keris’s most... most her face, more than Little River, and more than that it feels like it’s what Gull would have wanted. The Jade Carnation is a nobby club that wouldn’t have let Gull or Kit in the front door and would have chased them away if they’d started rummaging in their trash. Well, actually Keris has set up a soup kitchen out back because of exactly those memories, but - doesn’t matter. It’s a nobby club, but it’s built off things she learned from Gull. How to be a joyful priestess, how to dance, how to sing, and of course it’s paid for with stolen money and Gull was the one who taught her to pick locks and lift purses.

There’s really no better monument to... Keris swallows. Her mentor. Her lover. Her wife. No ceremony, but a Nexan marriage didn’t need one of those. If you lived together and bedded together and acted like you were married, you were.

Her eyes blur with tears, and she tries to think of something to say to this charcoal sketch of a woman who’s been dead a long long time. Whose death, pretty directly, led Keris to that very bad cell, and from there to the service of Hell.

“You taught me summa the mos’ important lessons I ever had, Gull,” she whispers. She doesn’t speak with the mingled accent that’s natural to her nowadays, the mingling of Nexan twang, Firetongue staccato and the rolling wash of Lintha-dialect Old Tongue. She speaks instead in the low-class Firewander drawl that she’d used when Gull had lived. The street-syllables roll off her tongue with the barest hint of effort, their shape still familiar to her mouth.

“Wi’out you pickin’ me an’ Rat up off the street after that job went bad, we’d’ve never got anywhere, I reckon. We’d’ve died on the streets whenever our luck finally ran dry. But you took us in an’ taught me how to steal an’ how to dance an’ all your little magics. You were one’a the best pickpockets I ever seen, Gull. I can’t even count how many times that kept me fed. An’ the little magics and tricks you taught me, I still know ‘em today. They were the base I used for everythin’ else. All the grand Sorcery I do nowadays. All that came from you.”

She takes a wavering breath around the lump in her throat, and sniffs back tears. Then presses a gentle kiss to the charcoal lips of the picture, so soft that it doesn’t even smudge the lines.

“I miss you, Gull,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry I let you die.”

The candles don’t burn blue. There’s no sacred aura around the incense. The hand-drawn portrait doesn’t come to life and condemn or forgive. There’s just Keris, and her sorrow. The good, and the bad.

She knows she could forget all this. Forget Gull. Just like - so Dulmea says - she forgot all the bad of Rat, all their fights, all the hate she still can’t fully recall but for what patchy fragments Chir brought back. She could cut it out of her life. Let this shrine be the last time she ever thinks of her.

But she doesn’t. Gull deserves better than that. Nobody but Keris even knew she died, and she doubts there’s more than a handful of people in the world who remember her name. She won’t consign Gull’s memory to oblivion like that. Not when she did so much for Keris.

No, she’ll sit here and hold a memorial for a woman who was, yes, flawed. Flawed and weak and selfish, but also clever and warm and kind. Who’d shone with beauty and grace before the drugs broke down her body, and whose dances had enticed gods and pleasured spirits. Who’d looked at two ragged, dirty, terrified street rats and seen potential in them. Who’d been right, too, because both those snot-nosed kids had been Chosen by peerless shards of world-shaking power and Exalted above mere mortal men.

And next year she’ll do the same. For as long as she lives. Because Gull was the making of Keris Dulmeadokht, long before she used that name, and she was the only person Kit Firewander ever had who hadn’t betrayed or abandoned her in the end.

Keris stays there, listening to her memories and waiting while the incense burns down. Praying that Gull has better luck in her next life, that she lives long and lovely and loved.

She knows Calesco is in the room with her, perched on one of the stools at the back, but this isn’t a moment for her children. It’s a moment for her mentor.

With a whispered prayer that Venus keep up her fucking end of the bargain and give her reborn faithful servant some of the serenity she never found in her last life, Keris claps her hands to scare away ghosts, and wipes her tears. She leaves the handkerchief with its stains as an offering of her love.

There’s a little sniffle from the back of the room. “That was beautiful, mama,” Calesco says softly.

“Thank you.” Her voice - accent back to normal - is a little thick from holding back tears, but she swallows past the lump in her throat and ignores it. “Do you want to light a stick of incense for her and make your own prayer?”

Calesco nods, and makes her own offer; a stick of incense and a pair of badly tarnished and scratched coins that... Keris boggles slightly.

“Yes. Somehow they made it all the way from Nexus,” Calesco says softly, brushing the Council’s seal on the back of the larger copper coin. “I got them as payment during Calibration and it... seemed like a good offering.”

The words stick in Keris’s throat. She hadn’t been able to afford coins for Gull’s eyes, what with the Council’s oil costs for a murder victim taking everything she had. And Calesco knows this old, tiny, petty pain.

“Thank you,” she whispers again, and takes a long, shuddering breath. Bowing to the shrine, she sits down on the floor, listening to the sounds of life in the building above. It isn’t a large room she’s put Gull’s shrine in. She has no plans to expand it or make the memorial something grand or gaudy. It’s a humble little thing at the end of a corridor that was probably meant to be a small storeroom, or maybe a bunkroom just large enough to fit a cot and a locked chest. It was going unused for anything besides holding some spare chairs before Keris claimed it, and she’s filled it with nothing but the modest shrine and a couple of kneeling mats, one of which she takes now.

“So,” she says. “Did you just come to pay your respects to Gull, or did you want to talk to me as well?” She smiles gently. “You did well covering for me while I was away. There were a few issues built up, but nothing I couldn’t handle by sitting them down for a formal talk or two.” She doesn’t mention Little River by name - habits die hard, and it costs her nothing to be cautious even here.

Calesco settles herself down, smoothing down her black, grey and violet kimono. No, wait. That isn’t violet. It’s a very deep blue, and that’s not like Calesco. “Did you hear what I did at Calibration?” she asks. “I danced the role of the Moon at the performance at Weavers-and-Yellow-Dog.” She looks inquisitively at her mother.

“I, um.” Keris clears her throat awkwardly. “I’m aware, yes. I was watching.”

“You were?” Calesco frowns. “How? You... you were in another City.”

“I had a... call it a dream, while I was deep in the darkness. The details can wait. But yes, I saw. You danced beautifully. Transformed the stage.”

“Oh.” Calesco swallows. “I... I really enjoyed it. I love dancing, mama. I... I think it’s what I’m always going to remember of Lui. Even if my love didn’t last too long past Calibration. She touched my life. I... I loved it. To entertain. To be Black Shawl upon the stage.” Her eyes twinkle like distant stars. “It was... it didn’t hurt anyone. It was beautiful.”

“Yes,” Keris agrees softly, not entirely surprised that Calesco’s affair with the girl from the vision hadn’t even lasted out the rest of the month. “That’s the best thing about the arts. They can bring joy without causing pain. Beauty without sorrow.” She waits for a moment. “So you want to do more of that sort of thing?”

“Yes, but that’s not only it.” Calesco takes a deep breath, hands on her thighs. “Mother, I hurt you. I hurt you and I threatened the lives of my brothers and sisters and my own life and the lives of all the keruby and the other demons. I don’t regret it, because you had to be made to accept your debt to Gull. But I did wrong, in the name of doing right. And... and I have a duty. To use my talents for better causes. To try to spread happiness, to make up for the misery I can so easily cause. To be more than a dilettante demon lord, flitting through the land, taking my own pleasures wherever I desire.”

She kowtows to her mother, pressing her forehead to the mat.

“Mother, please take me as your student. I wish to become a joyful priestess of Venus. To take up the blue, and swear the same oaths you did.”

Keris stays perfectly still for several seconds. Then, very slowly and carefully, she rises to her feet, turns towards the door, thinks better of it, wavers for a moment, and finally steps over to lock it.

Then she kneels back down again, still without a word. Her hair twitches and lashes behind her, the movement of the long locks filling the small room. She starts speaking several times, cutting off each beginning before she gets more than a syllable out. Turbulent expressions pour across her face, and her hands fist on her knees.

“... you understand that this is not a light request,” she says eventually. “Taking up the blue and swearing the vows of a Joyful Priestess is a one-way process, you can’t un-swear them. It’s not poetry or calligraphy or studying the winds; a passing fascination isn’t enough. It’s not something you can get tired of or move on from.”

“I know,” Calesco says in a tiny voice.

Keris’s jaw works. “You understand,” she says in a strained voice, “that Venus is not a kind goddess to serve. The work is important, yes, and I offer her what she is due in prayer, but I cannot say that I like her. I made my vows at fifteen, bright-eyed and hopeful, and in her service I watched every little bit of peace and happiness in my life leave it. You’re not even three yet, for all that you look and behave like someone five or six times that. You’d be swearing yourself to lifelong service having barely lived any length of time outside it.”

“I understand if you feel I need to prove myself and learn more as your student before I take the oaths,” Calesco says, brow still pressed to the ground. “I want to be your student. I will take the oaths when you feel I am ready.”

“You...” Keris looks away, towards the shrine, half frustrated and half desperate. “You understand, Calesco, that there are some things I couldn’t teach you, even if I wanted to - which I don’t. The Joyful Priestesses are an order of harlots as part of how we follow Venus. There are secrets and rituals which can only be passed on firsthand, through sex. There is nothing that will make me do that with you - to you. And there are other secrets I don’t know, I was only ever half-trained. Gull and Liho got me far enough to take my vows, but they didn’t know everything either, and the older I got the less they trained me. After Rat disappeared, Liho lost interest and Gull started falling apart.”

She squeezes her eyes shut, feeling tears prick at them for entirely different reasons to her earlier crying. “I understand you want to help people, Calesco, and I’m proud of you for wanting to, but this... why should I let you do this? I’m not saying you’re not deserving, and I’m not saying you wouldn’t be great in Venus’s blue, but why should I let you do this to yourself? There are better ways of penance, there are other ways to help people...”

“But none of them carry on Gull’s legacy,” Calesco says softly, and the love in her voice, the guarded trust in Keris’s better nature and the tragic hope for a way to honour and carry forward the kind heart of the woman who first taught her, almost breaks Keris right there and then.

She bows her head for a long time, taking deep, slow breaths as tears roll down her cheeks. Calesco stays prone, forehead pressed against the mat, waiting for a judgement.

Minutes tick by in silence.

“... okay,” Keris whispers at last. “Okay. I’ll... teach you what I can. And see if there are others among the keruby who would learn, who I can teach that they might then teach you in turn.”

Calesco takes a deep breath, and looks up. She rises back to her knees, palms on her thighs, and bows a bow Keris remembers being taught by Gull. “I want to say you won’t regret it,” she says huskily, “but I think we’ll probably both regret it at some point. But I’ll try to make you proud of me. And,” she swallows, the tips of her hair turning white from the turbulent emotions within her, “thank you. Not just for accepting me. But also for, uh. For thinking of that and deciding to train keruby.”

She blinks heavily.

“I remember something Gull told you once. She told you that it wasn’t good to be a priestess alone. That she was glad you were there. I remembered that when I was thinking about this. That it’s not good to be a priestess alone. I’m not just doing it for her memory, mother. I’m also doing it for you. And if you start training keruby too, I think... I think it’ll be better for you too.”

Keris wipes her face clean of tears and fixes Calesco with a burning glare. “Yeah. Maybe. But you’re probationary until such a time as I say otherwise. If I think for a moment you’re not taking it seriously, you’re out. You do exactly as I tell you and don’t bug me for the higher secrets, ever. I’ll teach you them - or train others to teach you - when you’re ready, and not before.” She’s trembling like she’s fresh out of a fight for her life, and her stomach’s as snarled up as a ship in her sargasso fields. “If... mm. We can... we can have you take the formal oath of apprenticeship - not the blue proper, just the one not to reveal any secrets of your initial training and all that - on your birthday. Water’s not a great season for it, but the night before the new moon of Crowning isn’t bad, and it being your birthday will give it weight. Until then, you can work on some basic skills and practice the right mindset.”

“You’re terrified, mama,” Calesco says softly. “Is there... is there something about the training process I don’t know? Something bad?”

Clenching her fists to steady them - Gull always said steady hands were the best tool of pickpocket and priestess alike - Keris shakes her head minutely. She’s not sure if she’s answering Calesco’s question or rejecting it. “J-just memories,” she stutters. “Too many memories. And I... I wanted better than this life for you. For all of you.”

Calesco doesn’t rise, but she reaches out with her hair to wrap it around Keris’s legs and hold her. She’s a bit touchier than she was when she was younger, but she’s still Keris’s least tactile child - less so than even Eko - so it always comes as a surprise. “I think the way to honour Gull,” she says, “would be to take the good parts and make something better. You always preferred the priest parts of the job. So did she. And the worst parts of selling yourself was when you needed coin to survive. I don’t need coin to survive. I could live in luxury if I wanted. I want to help people by doing this.”

With her eyes fixed on Gull’s shrine, Keris’s nod is a tiny thing, tremulous and timid.

But it’s there.

Up in the mountains west of Saata, the sky is always a deeper shade of blue. The Water air is pleasantly cool, even a little chilly. But maybe that’s just in contrast to the still humid and hot Saata. There’s wyld-stained snow on the tallest mountains visible over the top of the valley, and the wind whistles down the riverbed and makes the brightly coloured painted wooden windchimes clatter and the wind-flutes sing.

“Gods above, below and around,” Ali says, looking around. “It’s not quite home, but there’s more of home here than I ever thought I’d see on the other side of the world.” The little forge-goddess has followed him here and sits on his shoulder.

“It’s uncanny, I tell you, how much the houses look like Baisha,” Xasan agrees. He works his shoulders. “‘Course, Keris says she... kinda dreamed this place into being, so I guess she wanted to make a place that feels homey.” He glances sideways at the third and fourth members of their group.

Evedeyl, sitting down and still towering over all of them, her tail lashing idly in the breeze which blows through her mane of hair. She’s been up here nearly since this valley came into existence, and she’s the most visible - and most impressive - of their new pantheon, the mother-goddess who’s as tall as the trees and who somehow knows when there’s a difficult birth to show up and lay her blessings of strength on the mother. Her long flowing over-robe is pinned with little flowers and sacrifices. She merely shrugs. But the fourth of them, Vali, beams widely.

“Yeah, mum did a really good job with this place. It’s like your home in Taira, but it’s also like she took bits from home-home and made them exist out here.” He gestures over at the valley cliffs and the knife-edged limestone needle formations that line them. “That’s all me, y’know. But that only makes sense, right? This is meant to be a home for all of us. So it’s got bits of all our homes. Even,” he shields his eyes, glancing up the valley at the blue-glass reflection of Kalaska’s temple-fortress. “Even those of us who don’t know what a real home is.”

“I wouldn’t mind living up here, if this is the worst the weather gets. Permanently, I mean,” Ali says. “Back home there’d have been snow on the ground at this time of year. You don’t have to tell Keris, but her estate is just too hot. And... I don’t know, but we saw kids in the villages we headed through. It might be good for Hany to grow up with more children around her who are her own age. So she doesn’t have the burden of always being the eldest around.”

Evedeyl clears her throat. “There are many children here, yes,” she says. “In fact, not long ago, the first child was born who was conceived after this place came into being.”

“Huh.” Ali blinks. “I guess... yeah, the timeframe sort of fits.” His mind seems to spiral back to his worries. “I just don’t want Keris to feel like we’re abandoning her. Even if the climate feels better up here and things are... simpler. I bet the people here will always need a blacksmith. But family needs family, and Keris... well, she’s been alone for so long. I don’t want to betray her.”

Vali claps him on the shoulder. He’s really quite proud of his uncle. He’s a good man, for all that he’s nervous and always worried. “I reckon she’ll understand. After all, she’ll be coming up here plenty.” He shuffles. “Not sure if Hany will like it here so much,” he admits. “She’s gotten real used to life with Mum.”

“Yeah. That she has.” Ali sighs. “I... I know it’s been really hard for Hany, growing up without a mother. She’s really taken to Keris.”

“As is proper,” Xasan booms. “That’s what a sister is for.  To be the mother if the child's mother passes away.”

Vali tries not to look guilty or feel bad. Because he remembers the truth. He remembers Aunty Zanyi. But he isn’t subject to Fate, which dares to tell him what to do or what to remember. And trying to remind Uncle Ali and Great Uncle Xasan about her never lasts.

“I guess she could do it like Aiko does,” he says. “Be up here for most of the year, and spend some of it down with Mum.”

Ali pulls a face. “She’s my daughter,” he mutters. “I... she’s still just a baby, really. I know she likes to act like she’s big and mature, but she’s just a little girl. And Keris is busy so often. I’m just not sure it’d be good for her to be moved around so much.”

Evedelyl’s dress rustles as she leans back. “It is important to keep the children safe,” she remarks. “But you should take care not to stifle them. Hanilyia would miss her friends in Saata if she moved here for good. And she is a clever girl who,” she smiled, “may wish to attend a temple-college when she is older.”

Ali blanches at that. “But those places... the students get in fights and they drink and commit crimes and...”

“If anyone starts a fight with Hany, I’ll beat them up for her!” Vali says. Then pauses. “Unless she wants to beat them up herself,” he adds. “Haneyl would.”

Evedelyl rests a massive hand on his head. “I am sure Hanilyia has more sense than that,” she reassures Ali. “And it will be years before she makes that decision. There is no need to worry about it yet.”

“I’m still not fine with her going to one of those places,” Ali grumbled. “But... yes. She might not want to go to one anyway. And right now, we were looking for a place to build a family place.” He rubs his hand against his short-trimmed beard, looking around. “What are you looking for, Vali?”

Vali cocks his head thoughtfully. “Well, you’ll want a forge,” he says thoughtfully. “And so will Mum, for when she’s up here and wants to play with silver. Plus me, even if I,” he flexes, “don’t need one to work with metal. And Mum really liked the waterwheel on your old house in Baisha. I was looking through her eyes when she looked at it, and she took lots of notes and sketches. I bet I could make something like that if I put my all into it.”

He nods firmly. “So somewhere on the river with enough space for everyone to fit, plus a few workshops. Either a good stretch of solid bank, or an island in the middle where Mum can feel safe.”

“Gods, yes,” Ali says firmly. “I used to have to carry the water back home, and it was bad enough when we were up against the river. Normally that’s a woman’s job, but... well.”

Xasan wrapped a comforting arm around his shoulders. “Enough dwelling on the past. So, I guess we wander up and down the valley. I like the idea of something on an island.” He nodded. “More secure.”

“There are a number of places that might serve well,” Evedelyl says placidly. “Most of them are in the middle of the valley where the river widens, but there are few closer to the mountain the river springs from.”

“Right! I’ll go check up there!” Vali cheers, and bolts to his feet. Ali and Xasan have enough time to shield their eyes against the flash of light as he explodes into motion, though the thunderous boom still leaves them wincing.

Over the next few days, they consider several locations Vali finds, and eventually settle on a rocky island that looks like it was left here by a landslide long ago. Which never happened, due to the way this place was made. Still, it’s an island of solid rock that has sunk into the soft earth of the valley, rising up out of it and parting the river in two. The ground is less marshy here, and it’s towards the top of the valley, where the terrain is a little rougher and so the farming villages are some way away.

Vali spends some time examining it from all angles, and eventually nods. “There are a couple of cracks in the foundations,” he proclaims. “But I can fix those up with a bit of fire and then get building. Hey, uncle. You know how the old house was, right? I wanna do something that feels the same. But bigger.”

“Big enough for me?” Evedeyl says. It’s unclear whether she’s teasing, given her soft voice doesn’t change much.

“Yeah!” Vali insists, striking his palm with his fist. “I’ll make sure it works for everyone! Our family home!”

He looks around at the banks, frowning. “But I guess first I gotta get some roads set up here. I’m gonna need a bunch of wood and stone to build this, and I can’t carve the island up for it without making it smaller. Stone here doesn’t regrow the way it does back home.” The wrinkle of his nose echoes his mother’s when she’s feeling disdainful. Rock that can’t put the effort into healing when it got hurt isn’t really worth the name, in his opinion. “And I should probably get a work crew together so I’m not doing it all myself.”

“The people of the valley have little time free to help with construction,” Evedelyl gently notes. “They have their own families to look after.”

Vali’s jaw sets stubbornly. “Then I’ll do enough of their work that they’re free to help me with mine!” he declares. “Or else I’ll build the whole thing by myself!”

Ali opens his mouth to try to explain that this isn’t how it works, then closes it again as he remembers that his nephew may be able to make it work that way anyway.

It’s a good-sized island, about a hundred and twenty metres long and half that at its widest point. The waters have worn away the rock - or seem to have done so - to make it a rough triangle pointing upstream, and the broader downstream end creates a sheltered patch of calm water where the swift current isn’t quite as fierce. That’ll make a good dock for any little boats they need, Vali decides. And a fishing spot for Xasan and Rathan, too.

The river isn’t as wide here as it is further down the valley, but there’s still a good twenty to thirty metres separating it from the banks on each side, the north bank closer than the south. They’re near the top of the valley, where the water is deep and the current is strong. He’ll have to make a bridge - maybe two, with ways to pull them up from the island side for defence. The house can go on the downstream end of the island, next to the dock, and the narrower upstream end can have a garden for Haneyl and workshops for him and Mum and uncle Ali. Probably a good idea to put a wall around the edge of the island, too, just in case of floods.

But that can come later. Right now he needs roads. The foot of the mountain at the top of the valley is only ten minutes walk away, and the nearest village is three times that in the other direction - Feixi, if he’s remembering right. It’s one of the smaller villages, too, so he’ll have to work extra hard to get the people there to come help him out.

Evedelyl rises to the task of road-making, though, using her size and weight to stamp out paths of packed dirt from the closest point on the north bank. Vali fixes the cracks in the rocky foundation with the application of a bit of lightning and clears away the scrubby plants that were growing over the top, while Ali and Xasan tell him about how their old home was structured.

“Hey,” he interrupts only once. “Uncle? Did the old forge have a name? This island should have a name. Something to call it, like Mum has Silver Lotus in Saata.”

Ali laughs at that. “I... I guess we never felt like we needed it. Everyone knew it was the place where we lived, the ahangar.” He drops back into the Tairan dialect for ‘smith’. “Ali the Ahangar, like my father before me.”

Vali nods. “Ahangar Island, then. That’ll be what we call this new home.”

“Hmmph. It needs a better name than that,” Xasan grumbles. “This is where these people’s gods are going to be living. Where powerful spirits will dwell. The old temple above Baisha didn’t name itself after a smith, and that’s not how you name a holy place.”

“S’not like they’ll know what it means,” Vali says practically. “And it should be something from Baisha. Besides, smiths are the best. They make stuff. You don’t get much better than that. Those sun gods sure don’t.”

“The Sun burns chaos away from the world and brings light and order,” Xasan says harshly. “He is the chief of the gods for a reason; the mightiest warrior and the slayer of great beasts and wicked things. You might not like him, boy, but you are my kin and you will show him the honour he deserves!”

Vali folds his arms. “I’m not gonna listen to anyone trying to tell me what to do,” he says stubbornly. “Anyway, Mum was the one who burnt all the chaos away from here. And she was the one who killed that blue star guy who was in charge. And she’s the most mighty warrior I know. I don’t see why I should respect the Sun when she’s the one who did all that stuff instead of him.”

Spots of anger rise on Xasan’s cheeks. “That doesn’t change things. If you honour your mother for this valley, then you should honour the Sun for his protection of the whole world.” He pauses. “And you don’t show your mother the proper respect, either,” he adds, bringing up an old topic he’s expounded on before.

“As long as he keeps making his light burn us whenever we don’t have stuff protecting us, I’m not respecting him,” says Vali. “Kali likes him enough for three people anyway. And I do respect Mum!” He pauses, considering. “When she’s not being dumb and listening to Haneyl or Zanara or Eko or Calesco too much, I mean. But I respect her most of the time!”

Before Xasan can respond, Ali is between the two of them, a hand on each shoulder. “I think we can just hold off on a formal naming until we can do the proper ceremonies and Keris is there to agree and everything,” he says quickly. “And people are probably hungry after this morning’s work. Why don’t we see about some food and put this conversation aside?”

Man and boy glower at each other for a moment, but reluctantly agree. “Okay, but I’m gonna go up and visit Kalaska,” Vali says. “She might want some too, and I promised to look out for her.”

“That’s... that’s fine,” Ali says weakly, shoulders relaxing in relief.

“You are a good boy,” Evedelyl says, reaching down to pat the top of Vali’s head with a finger. “She is a scared and difficult child. She does not accept my attempts to reach out to her. Perhaps you may have more luck.”

The temple of Kalaska sits on a slight rise that juts out from the mountain slope, out of the way of snowmelt runoff and somewhat protected from avalanches by relative elevation. The sheer drop behind it and to either side mean it can only be approached from a diagonal uphill angle, and a miniature gatehouse with thick blue-glass walls and sturdy gates sits in front of the crystal-domed square building and the five rooms within it. There are a lot of locks and deadbolts on the doors and windows of this little shrine. Few have been opened more than once or twice. It’s not a place of perfect safety, for a great enough force could shatter the walls and break open the glittering dome. But to do that would undoubtedly rouse its occupant to a rare state of fury, and that might spell an attacker’s doom where the gatehouse gauntlet would not. These walls are as much to keep the inside in as the outside out, by the resident’s own design.

Vali knocks twice on the gate and waits, looking over the building with a sceptical eye. Glass isn’t really his kind of material. It’d look much better in metal or stone. And while Mum has obviously helped with the design, he can tell she let Kalaska have her way with a lot of the basic layout. It looks and feels more secure than it is.

Not that it’s going to get attacked here, of course. So it doesn’t really matter.

The sound of an inner door opening comes from behind the gates. Apparently the gatehouse room isn’t occupied most of the time. “Who’s there?” someone yells from inside. Sounds like one of his brother’s orvens. “Friend or foe?”

“It’s me,” he calls back, hefting the basket by his side. “Vali. I’ve got food.”

“Okay, but you didn’t say whether you’re friend or foe! I asked you that!” the orven calls back.

“He says he has food, obviously he’s a friend!” snaps someone who from the crackle in her voice is clearly a szirom.

“Not all people with food are friends!”

“All Valis are!”

“I’m a friend!” shouts Vali, unwilling to be patient for the ten-minute wait it’ll take them to work this out on their own. “Let me in already!”

“Okay, he says he’s telling the truth. So we can let him in,” says the szirom.

“He could be lyin- ow! You hit me!”

“You hit me too by stopping us getting food! Open the damn door, Veni! It’s just- ow!”

“I’m opening it, but not because you hit me! And Vali, you gotta promise to leave if you’re not actually a friend!”

He eventually makes it in with most of the food, leaving the szirom and orven bickering good-naturedly over some flatbread in the gatehouse. The main temple is a simple domed square that the gatehouse leads into one corner of. It’s divided into five inside; one middle room under the dome and four corner rooms; the furthest of them Kalaska’s.

There’s a lot more art in here than there was last time he saw the place. Not all that surprising, since Mum left some agyas here. They’ve taken to their new princess’s tastes, and pictures of foxes hang from the glass walls, while books and scrolls litter the floor and shelves; a sure sign of szirom presence if there ever was one. Two mezes are napping on a szulo in the first room, and a dreamy looking agya is muttering lines of poetry as they try to find a good rhyming couplet. Vali leaves them to it, and heads through to the rear rooms, looking for Kalaska.

Vali is not self reflective at the best of times. He leaves that to people like Rathan, who have shiny metal in their blood to help with that sort of things. But even he is a little worried by the writing in the glass walls.

It says things like “Keris can’t vanish on me” and “Where has she gone?” and “What is she playing at?” and “Lady Lilunu is scaring me when she’s like this but she’s not allowed to hurt me!”. Over and over and over again, overwriting the words that had previously been here. And he can’t even read everything that’s here, but he thinks the other language is high realm.

“Kalaska?” he asks, advancing through into the centre room where the light through the blue-glass dome paints everything a hundred shades from indigo to cerulean and knocking on the door of the furthest quarter. “Cuz? You in there?”

The glass in here is shattered. No. Not shattered. Growing inwards in huge jagged spikes, as vicious and breakable as any of Calesco’s amber.

For some reason it brings to mind the image of a turtle shell with spikes on the inside.

Vaguely cautious now, but undaunted - it’s not like some scary glasswork can frighten him off - Vali advances into the room, peering around, stooping down to look under the furniture. Or what’s left of it. It belatedly occurs to him that he could have asked the keruby what had been going on, but he’s in here now, and turning back would be a waste of time.

There is a sounds like nails on slate behind him. Only worse. And oddly resonant.

He looks up. And up. At the ceiling, where Kalaska hangs. Or something that’s nearly her. Neck twisted around like an owl’s. Arms and legs far too long for her body, and gnarled and bestial. Made of that same splintered glass. She’s clinging to the roof by her talon toes.

She stares at him, eyes burning brilliant blue behind her veil of grey hair.

And the screeching noise of nails is her carving something into the roof with her claws.


Vali huffs. Growing up with Eko, Haneyl, Calesco and Zanara leaves a person decidedly hard to spook, especially by demonic-looking girls looking creepy and aggressive. He has demonic-looking girls being creepy or aggressive at him about five days a week when his whole family is together. And the pressure trying to force him to feel scared, to obey, to flee the room, only firms his resolve.

“If you’re having a tantrum, it can wait,” he says up to her, putting the basket down and planting his hands on his hips. “I brought you a picnic, so you can come down and eat it with me.”

She isn’t up on the ceiling anymore. She’s gone in less than the blink of an eye, and in the gleaming, sparkly glass fortress, Vali doesn’t exactly find it easy to find her again.

But she finds him. He only realises that after the fact, of course. Something razor sharp and red hot grabs him from behind, and he barely registers the sparks of claws scraping against his skin and breaking through before he’s flying. But not in the good way. In the kind of way that ends in him slamming into one of the sharp walls at high speed, cracking brittle glass under his bulk, before coming to a very painful stop.

He coughs up blood, and pulls himself up on one arm. Other one isn’t working so well, for some reason. Both of the two Kalaskas he can see in his oddly blurred visions seem horrified, and curl in on themselves, wrapping those monstrous claws wet with his blood around them.

If she says something, he can’t hear. His ears are ringing.

Still, he’s not one to let little things like stab wounds or broken arms or concussions stop him, and he shakes the dizziness away as best he can, forcing himself to his feet and shrugging off some of his chains. Lightning crackles around him, and he can feel the brass and basalt scabbing over his side.

“What-” he coughs, more confused than angry - though far from pleased. “What was that for?” And where did it come from? Kalaska had never shown any signs she could fight before.

She doesn’t respond, huddled in on herself. He can taste metal in his mouth as he slowly pulls himself up again. Ow. Ow. This is just like Calesco’s amber. He’s going to need someone with a fine hand and a pair of tweezers to help get this out, or it’ll hurt for weeks until his body manages to wrap it up in brass and crush it into his kind of stone.

Huddled up like she is, she looks far too much like his little big sister when she’s remembering too much about Zanara. Wincing, he stumbles over to her, kneeling down without getting so close that he won’t have any warning if she tries to hit him again.

“Hey,” he says, big-brother instincts coming naturally from time spent with the twins. “Don’t cry, it’s not that bad. I’m tougher than I look, you know.”

He’s almost fast enough. Almost wary enough. He sees it coming this time. Realises she can move between points without passing through the places in-between.

But it’s not a little girl who lashes out this time. It’s something much bigger and fox headed and entirely made of glass and crystal with those same vicious claws, and it’s right in front of him.

He manages to get his arms up, but the sheer force behind the blow sends him flying through the wall.

Fortunately, the sheer power and the helplessness of being tossed like this is liberating. And with a roar, his body expands and hardens, lightning and clouds rising in a previously clear sky.

His wings stop his fall, and he roars his triumph to the storm.

But the rival... but Kalaska doesn’t follow him out. She’s a dragon! Like him and Haneyl! It’s great! She should come out and fight him and their war can shake the world and... where is she?

No! No! This isn’t fair! He can already feel himself slipping, denied his release, his battle against an equal!

He swoops down, his curled brass horns and great brass wings crackling with blue-black arcs of lightning, and headbutts the tiny hole his pathetic human body had left in the wall. But it gets no bigger. Quite the opposite, in fact. Spikes of glass are sewing it shut, forming a lattice of those jagged amber-like barbs to block the way in. The whole temple is growing them. Like an animal curling up in a ball of protective spines. The gate slams open, and for a moment he hopes- but no. All that comes out are the keruby and the two szulok set to look after them, hurrying the whole group away as the gullet of the temple chokes on a thousand vicious fangs.

Roaring with anger and denial, Vali circles once, twice. He tries to ram the rearmost section again, splintering the fragile glass separating him from his rival. But nothing fights back against him. There’s no resistance to dig in his heels against and lean into. Just thick walls and glass claws and silence.

With a mournful bellow, he loses his grip on his freedom and it peels away, leaving him to glide down toward the bank of the river and fall the last few metres as a bleeding human once more.

It’s Evydeyl who finds him, drifting down the river in a cloud of red, and who lifts him out by the scruff of his neck.

“What was that, child?” she demands.

When Vali looks up, his shoulders are slumped but his eyes are bright and sparking.

“She’s a dragon too,” is all he says.

“You tried to fight her.” It’s not a question. It’s also very disappointed.

“She started it! She hit me first! Twice!”

“Vali, she is a scared child.” Evydeyl is angry with him. She’s never been that before. “You charged in on her, and didn’t listen to her warning. She always gives a warning. It’s one of her rules.” Yes. She’s angry, and that’s a growl in her voice.

“Didn’t feel very scared when she hit me through a wall,” he mutters, sullen. But there’s a hint of shame there as well. Maybe he’d been a little bit hasty. Just a bit, though! And she’d still overreacted!

“You might be younger than her, but you are much more mature. Or at least you are meant to be!” she snaps. “I don’t even know how long it will be until she lets her keruby back in. She’s slightly opening up to them, coming to trust them around her a bit. Then she had a very bad spell just after Calibration and backslid a lot and so help me, Vali, if she decides she can’t trust us, Keris’s souls, it’ll all be your fault!”

She pinches her brow.

“So help me. If you go near her before I say you can, I’ll tell Keris and I’ll have her ground you within home until Kalaska says you can come out. And that might be years. If I ever,” there’s ice on her breath, “catch you upsetting her, Keris will know everything that happened today. And do you think she’ll be happy with you? Do you?”

“... no,” he mutters, glowering at the ground. His side is still hurting - and it’s scabbed over, so that glass isn’t coming out without him reopening the wound. He holds in a cough, refusing to show weakness while he’s being scolded.

“We’ll see where things go from here,” she says darkly, then sighs. “And look at you. Come on, let’s try to get as many of those splinters out before they scab over. You being in pain and hurting yourself more isn’t good either.”

Grumbling, Vali trudges after her, with one last look over his shoulder at the falsely-fragile glittering dome of the temple on the heights.

Mid-morning in the Jade Carnation; the quietest time of the day. The floor is shut and the windows shuttered to keep out the rising heat. There’s only a few oil lamps alight, and they gleam off the polished mirrors scattered around the place. A figure in black sits elegantly at one of the tables, a plate of cold scraps from the kitchen in front of her. If she was playing to type, she’d be drinking some sticky expensive cocktail, but actually what she has in front of her is a clay cup of goat’s milk, sweetened with honey.

Calesco sighs, and pokes around the remnants of yesterday’s late-night service on her plate, crossing and uncrossing her legs. It’s already early Falling Water - ironically the driest season in Saata, so the city is alive with the sound of construction even more than usual - and her time as Cinnamon’s student has been... not exactly what she’d expected.

It’s not that she’d expected to dive right into... into the kind of thing pirate lords paid Cinnamon for a night of. Or even deep occult secrets of spirit-hosting that - she now realises - her mother had used to let her ride Kuha’s body in Malra, without letting on where she’d learned them. But she’d expected... oh, something. Little bits of magical theory, tips on how to use her looks or charm to guide people’s thoughts, even just some philosophy to study on the duty of the Joyful Priestesses and what their charter from Venus was.

Instead, Cinnamon has her... scouting out rumours and gossiping.

“Before you loose an arrow, Student,” she’d said, strict and formal in a way that Calesco’s mother never is around her daughter, “you sight your target. You pick the shaft you’re going to use. You aim. A priestess’s work is much the same. You need to know what people’s problems are before you can fix them, and you need to keep in mind how fixing one disharmony can amplify others. Resolve the vicious rumours about a pirate lord, and he may double down on his persecution of a rival’s businesses. The best way to see things coming is to know everything that’s going on.”

So gossip it is. Gossip-gathering, and working in the new little shrine that Cinnamon has raised in the courtyard. And by ‘working’, she means ‘sweeping it’ and ‘polishing anything made of metal in it until it shines’. And of course, watching the begging bowl she’s set up there and selling the mystically-powerless-but-pretty little prayer strips she’d prepared.

She’d known going into this that her mother’s experience as a priestess was equally that of a conwoman and a beggar and a street entertainer. But this really is making it clear that she considers this sort of thing to be an intrinsic part of the vocation.

The fact that drunken guests tip remarkably well when Calesco asks them for donations somehow makes it worse. Because Cinnamon has declared her new student Black Shawl is being paid in those donations she can gather, and nothing else.

Voices drift in through the kitchen door, coming up from the extensive cellars. One is Cinnamon. The other is female, Tengese, eager...

“... a good idea, yes,” her teacher is saying. “I suggest you think more deeply on it. Study the birds in your garden, watch how they fly, how they move. See how different breeds have wings of different shapes, and how they fly differently - some swift and darting, others strong and slow. Consider even bats and insects - do not limit yourself, my dear. Draw them, paint them, in honour of Lady Nululi, and pray to her for guidance on how to incorporate them into your image of your truest self.”

“Yes... yes, I will! Ah, my princess! She shows me what I might be in my dreams. My demon-self will be so beautiful...”

Ah. Scarlet Blossom, then. She’s the furthest ahead in the Evocation of the True Self Cinnamon has been leading the pacted members of Nululi’s cult through. Though the wings are new. Apparently she’s still not happy with the shape she envisions for herself once free from the laws of the gods and Immaculate Faith.

This isn’t something that Calesco likes. It’s a side of mother that isn’t reflected in her. If she had her way, there wouldn’t be cults like this. Not with their hierarchy, their rules, the way that mother twists them into people that they wouldn’t have wanted to be when they started.

Yet that happens anyway. Even without intending it. Because Calesco is starting to hear the whisper of prayers when she listens for them. And the thing about the voices she hears is that she recognises them. Even now, as she turns her mind that way, she can hear one. The words are indistinct, but the soft-spoken, softly-accented voice is Adelia’s. It brings a faint smile to Calesco as she recognises her first love after Kuha, the quiet, eloquent poet-dedicate of the literature-goddess Alka. It’s poetry she’s praying with now, and though Calesco can’t make out the words themselves, the meter and rhythm tell her that Adelia hasn’t lost any of her talent or passion since they parted.

She’s trying to make out the details of the prayer when Keris interrupts, walking in alone and sitting down across from with a sigh. And it is Keris now, not Cinnamon; her courtesan-manners have dropped away like a casually discarded shawl as her movements shift back to a more predatory grace than Cinnamon’s alluring sway.

“I like her,” Keris says, pulling a cup of tea from her hair and sipping, “and her true-form does look like it’s going to be interesting, but gods does she go on a bit. How are you, sweetie? Good day?”

Calesco shrugs.

Keris eyes her for a moment, takes another, longer sip from her tea, sighs again, and pulls Cinnamon’s manners back over herself. Calesco’s reminded of her own shadow - how she cloaks herself in this lie or that so easily and effortlessly, changing faces as easily as expressions. Mother does the same thing. Just inside her own head, and with personalities instead of appearances. Small wonder she birthed a soul whose nature was lies-hiding-truth. It’s all she ever does, day-in, day-out.

“So then, Student,” Cinnamon says. “Have your studies gone well?”

“I polished all the brass in the shrine again,” Calesco says softly. “And,” she drops a half-full pouch on the table. It’s a mix of coins and paper notes of all denominations, from realm jade scrip to silver and bronze to one actual obol. She doesn’t like touching obols, because the jade doesn’t quite burn her, but it’s definitely unpleasantly warm.

An obol is eight months wages for a peasant in the Realm. And the almost-certainly-a-Dynast-on-holiday who dropped it in the collection just tossed it away. It makes her angry - even angrier than the fact that that man also pinched her bottom and tried to get her alone for a ‘prayer session’ where she could ‘bless him’.

She stayed calm and smiled and teased because that’s what mother wanted of her, but she is still angry about that.

Cinnamon eyes her thoughtfully as she counts out the money, lingering on the obol. Something in her expression implies she knows or guesses what happened in that particular encounter.

“I did warn you about the uglier parts of this job, Student,” she says softly. “There are times - many times - when a priestess must smile and pay service to people they privately despise. You need to find a way to come to terms with that, because it’s only going to get more frequent as you learn more.”

Calesco forces herself to smile. “But teacher,” she says, as sweet as her honey, “this sacrifice on my behalf helps me find those who oppose serenity wherever they are. That man, for example, will have pushed his attentions on other pretty priestesses before. And those women won’t have been like me.”

Rolling her eyes, Cinnamon tips her cup towards Calesco in acknowledgement of the point. She still hasn’t stopped trying to get Calesco to rethink this path, but so far Calesco is holding her own against the pressure to give up.

“If you insist,” Cinnamon says, and raises her voice a little. “In that case, if Sesha would like to come the rest of the way upstairs and join us, you can tell us the latest news from Saata.”

A squeak, followed by footsteps and some quiet grumbling, comes from the direction of the flight leading down to the pantries. With a hint of a pout and a distinctly Sasi-like flounce, Seresa emerges and collapses into one of the lounge chairs with a bottle of wine she’s secured. “Darlings, you two can be so un-fun sometimes,” she protests.

“Find some better material,” Keris says sweetly. “So then, Student? What’s going on in our lovely, peaceful city? Sesha, I assume you’ve heard things as well.”

“War, treachery, bloodshed, infidelity and hedonism,” Seresa says happily, taking a gulp from her bottle of wine. “I’m having several affairs, three men and one woman tried to get me to become their mistress last week, and two of the men then fought a duel over me. This really is a delightful city, and now I don’t have to pretend to be you - unlike last season. And,” she shoots a dirty glance at Calesco, “I don’t have that one viciously murdering my good vibes.”

Calesco rolls her eyes with Eko-ish verbosity, explaining her low, low opinion of that stupid drunk.

“Hey! I’m not drunk yet. Or stupid,” Seresa grumbles back.

“Two men fought a duel over me back in Nexus, once,” Keris reminisces fondly. “Only I was there, and both of them were so distracted by my beauty that one of them missed and the other stabbed himself in the leg. And then I had to sew him up before the auction started. And then the auction got attacked by an Anathema.” She considers that for a moment, and frowns. “Actually, that whole day was more trouble than it was worth in a lot of ways. Moving on. Calesco?”

Calesco rolls her shoulders, pushing a globule of cold mango chutney around her plate. “Two things you might be most interested in, I think. I’ve put time into following them up, though... well, one of them is very secretive. You know your friend, Ba-le?” Keris nods. “She was born a Baltoo before she eloped. She was the heiress. It’s some of their sworn men who were too deep in their cups when you had me serving. They got very talkative. And getting quite seditious about the Sinasana kin-stealers and ‘that spoiled slut’ who betrayed them and opened her legs for the Sinasana.” Calesco meets her mother’s eyes. “I think there’s something going on there. They’re really holding a grudge. They think they’ll get their revenge, I think.”

Keris purses her lips, lethal calculation taking over for a moment. “Hmm. Might wanna nip that one in the bud,” she muses. “I’m renting Shining Foam from her. And I don’t particularly want the satrap going on a rampage to avenge an attack. At least not an undirected one. Maybe a quiet tip in someone’s ear to bring it to her attention early... mm. Good eye on that one, well done. The other?”

“It... wasn’t entirely what you asked me to do, but I think it might interest you,” Calesco admits. “I’ve been looking into the Devout College of the Wild Orchid, one of the old temples that dates back to the Blue Monkey Shogunate. They, uh...” she glances at Seresa, “they sounded from a distance a bit like they had some common ancestry with your calling. So I was wondering if they had anything they remembered that you might not have learned.”

She is taking her oath seriously. Mother won’t respect her if she doesn’t. So she can’t say much when that stupid tarry indulgent hag is here.

There’s a glint of pride as Keris leans forward, Cinnamon once again. “Interesting,” she hums. “I’ll admit, my teachers weren't much for history, but it’s supposed to go back at least a hundred years. I’d be surprised if a cousin-branch of the same school of thought was all the way out here, but not shocked.”

In the lounge chair, Seresa has already tuned out, bored by the discussion of history and philosophy. Quick and subtle, Keris glances over at her and winks. Yes, Calesco thinks. She’s definitely scored points with that one. And hopefully she’ll be privy to whatever mother’s conclusions are after taking a look at the temple.

“Going back to the Raaran Ge for a moment,” Keris says, annoyance surfacing, “have there been any more developments in their war with the Padua family, or is that little clusterfuck still at a rolling boil?”

“Nothing has changed,” Calesco says. “Though I heard some rumours that the Sinasana might lay down the law soon because of that brawl in Makor Square last Saturnday.”

Keris growls. “Uuuurgh. I swear to- what was Eko thinking?” She thumps the table. “If this spills over into the Hui Cha, I am going to ground her to the Ruin for a year. No, worse, I’ll... I’ll...” she makes a sharp, aborted gesture, unable to come up with a punishment dire enough. “Something. She says she doesn’t even remember why she started it in the first place, can you believe that?! Or how. Though I bet it had something to do with the assassinations they’re accusing each other of.”

Calesco sighs, a sweetly melancholy sound. “She was hinting before Calibration that she had a surprise for you that she was sure was going to make you happy. She might have chosen to forget when it didn’t.”

“Why would I be happy about a war she started without telling me she was going to start it?” Keris demands. “Urgh. Well, whatever. I at least managed to use it to calm Pale Branch down. No offence, darling, you did well, but she was getting a bit distressed at Little River acting ‘off’. I told her I’d been planning something for the Raaran Ge that the sudden war threw off, and that calmed her down.”

Seresa giggles. “It’s funny, but I’m pretty sure Sasi has come into my bedchambers annoyed about you starting big cataclysmic things without her being told. And then I had to help her vent all that stress and worry,” she purrs, kicking off her slippers and wiggling her toes at Keris.

“That-” Keris starts, raising a finger, “was... completely different. Because, uh. My things were justified, and she just... didn’t have all the information. And there wasn’t time to tell it to her, because she doesn’t do so well with having stuff sprung on her. Unlike me and Eko.” She nods, secure in her logic.

The look from Seresa and Calesco’s dark eyes are oddly similar.

“It is her nature to cause chaos and disruption, and now the Sphere of Speech makes her seek out melodrama,” Calesco says. “She is both the murderer and the fantasist.”

“Mmm. Well, she’s grounded until I decide I’m no longer pissed at her,” Keris replies. “I’m not going to complain about her causing chaos or being melodramatic, but I’d like to be read in on the plays before she stages them. See if you can get her to understand that whenever she next comes up with a ‘surprise present’ for me.”

“She’ll only ever understand anything if she feels it’s more fun that way,” Calesco says. “I know my big sister. She takes after her mother.”

Huffing, Keris changes the subject. “Well, while we’re on the topic of older siblings and people I’m pissed at,” she says, “my ship is running supplies to that little project around the coast of the mainland this season. Your brother requested it.” She pinches her nose, grimacing. “I’ve been generous with the captain so far, but if she keeps screwing up I’m honestly not sure how much longer I can justify keeping her on. Even she can’t screw up a freight-hauling job, but so far she’s two-for-two on abject failure when it comes to important work.”

“I’m surprised you tolerate so much failure,” Seresa says idly. “Sasi would have replaced her. Has she actually ever succeeded at anything?”

Keris’s nose wrinkles, and she doesn’t answer for a moment. “She gets one more chance,” she says at length. “That’s all.”

Calesco smiles a little maliciously. “Maybe she’ll screw up again in front of Rathan, and he’ll handle the situation for you. Won’t it be nice to keep your hands clean? And no one will blame him. It’s what he does.” It’s letting out more of her light than perhaps she should, but she’s been hearing a little too much about what a good boy Rathan is from mother over the past couple of months and it’s getting on her nerves.

“Perhaps he won’t need to,” Keris says darkly. “I’d say she’s at less threat from Rathan than from the Priest onboard my ship. It’s been getting as impatient with her as I have. And I don’t have nearly so tight a leash on it as I do on her.”

“Ah, lovely, no one to blame who’s on your side,” Calesco says.

Seresa sighs. She gets irked when Calesco fails to be sufficiently reverential of the monsters who rule the demon realm, so Calesco of course works in these barbs whenever she can.

“No one to fob off my work at Shining Foam on, either,” says Keris, letting the barb pass by. “So I should probably get back to reviewing journeymen hires. And I believe you have more prayer strips to write for tomorrow’s sales, hmm?”

“One last thing, in private, mother,” Calesco says. She glances down her nose at Seresa as she rises, but in the end they go upstairs rather than try to dislodge her from the comfy chair. “Are any keruby... interested? You said you’d start looking...”

“I made an announcement,” Keris confirms. “There’ve been a few potentials - most of the first surge of responses weren’t really serious, but a few have stuck with it. Including one name you might recognise.” She raises an eyebrow. “Is Marchioness Anyuu of the Salt Raiders a familiar name?”

Anger flares in her, cold and bright and sharp. “That murdering vicious savage! Her? Her?”

“I was surprised too,” Keris says. “But she does seem serious. She officially passed over leadership of her gang - well, she, uh, tossed her black ribbon to her runner-captains and let them fight for it - and made a pretty convincing case for genuinely wanting to turn her life around. Said to give you her... regards or apologies, I’m not sure which. And also asked me to say hello to someone called Shi, who she seemed to think I knew.”

“The name doesn’t ring a bell,” Calesco says, thinking. “I...” Her hands ball into fists. “If you train her and you... you don’t... you accept her... then you’ll teach her and then she might teach me and...” She trails off, stomach churning. “Mother, is this some kind of... of cruel test to make sure I don’t go through with it!?”

“Honestly, no,” Keris says. “Like I said, I was as surprised as you when she came to sign up. She said...”

She grimaces at the memory of her talk with the szilf. Anyuu was one of Eko’s oldest cronies, the leader of one of the largest gangs in the Ruin and a honey-thieving thorn in Calesco’s side that went back years. Eko had not been pleased to find her answering a “lewd, shameless invitation to degeneracy”, and had demanded an explanation even more stridently than Keris.

“She said that the Quicksilver Betrayal had made her think about things,” Keris says, quoting the embroidered-up gang boss’s words. “About fighting with each other and stealing from each other and where it gets you. She said she wanted to give peace a chance. That it seemed like a better way.”

“She’s a szilf! She... she has to be pulling some kind of prank!” Calesco insists. Insists, because if it’s true then Anyuu is making a determined effort to change and better herself in the face of no one ever expecting that of her and if that’s true, that’s really admirable and more than a little...

... hot.

Oh crap. This is what happens when she doesn’t have a crush. She’s so vulnerable to people doing really impressive things. And that’s why Anyuu therefore is just pulling some cruel szilf joke!

“I believe that’s my place to judge, not yours, Student.” The easy-going mother is gone in an instant and Cinnamon is back in her place, strict and formal. “If you are so concerned, however, you may speak to fellow students of your temple in matters of philosophy, so long as you keep it civil. I will summon her tonight, and you can take your own measure of her intentions.”

Calesco screws her eyes shut, accepting the reprimand. She’s emotionally compromised right now and she needs to go out and find a new crush somewhere in the city before this thing can solidify, and that means avoiding Anyuu until she’s found someone else. “I overspoke, my teacher,” she says. “There is no need to summon her on my behalf. Especially when you would have to cancel your performance tonight at sunset to do that.”

“Mmm.” Cinnamon dips her head. “Back to your prayer strips, then. I expect two boxes before you go to bed for the night.” Calesco winces. It’s not more than she can do, but it’ll mean a choice between finding a new crush, and sleep.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to further investigate the Wild Orchid college, my teacher?” she tries with a tiny bit of desperation.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Cinnamon says placidly, with a hint of sadistic satisfaction. “And your daily chores are more important. Prayer strips, then bed. You can look into it further when you’re all caught up and have some time free.”

“Yes, teacher.” Calesco swallows. Until she took up this role, she hadn’t realised how hard her mother worked. She’s living two lives, one as Cinnamon and one as Little River, and maybe an extra one as Keris Dulmeadokht. And sure, Gales and her use of Calesco and Seresa as body doubles for things that a Gale isn’t enough for helps, but she’s still living three lives. She only sleeps a few hours a night when she’s in Saata Proper, taking her naps in the baths. She gets a bit more rest when she’s in her estate and not having to be up until the early hours of the morning being Cinnamon, but then her Keris-life expands with sorcery and arcane research and demonology.

She doesn’t think her mother realises how much she’s changed over the past few years, since she wound up with her own Directorate.

“By the way, mother,” she says, shifting back to their normal relationship. “I didn’t want to talk about it in front of Seresa because she’d blab if anyone asked her, but how are you handling the problems with the Hui Cha?”

Keris leans back and stretches in another quicksilver shift of demeanour. “Eh, like I said, I managed to talk Pale Branch down. She wasn’t exactly a problem, she was just getting nervous at how Little River had seemed off. You’re good, and you did really well, but you can’t play Tengese as well as I can. I can’t play Tengese that well without cheating with Zanara’s petals. All I had to do there was reassure her that I was off because of the stupid Padua war. And as for the blue sea masters...”

She rolls her eyes expressively. “That stupidity was just men being men. Jade Fox and Peaceful Wave got into a pissing war over spice trading rights. Nothing that couldn’t be solved by sitting them down and making some pointed comments about getting along, they were just being stubborn idiots about it”

“Well, that is what those triad murderers need you for,” Calesco says, wrapping a lock of hair around one of Keris’s strands. “They only keep you on as the Golden Crown because you keep them from killing each other. And I spied on them when I was being you. Jade Fox was telling one of his men who was grumbling that it might not be how they used to do things, but Little River has them all making more money than before because fighting the other blue sea masters is expensive.”

Keris contrives to look both very smug and very proud. “Good girl,” she praises. “And yes. I need to start seriously pushing for them to take over trade across the rest of the Anarchy. The more money they’re making from merchant fleets, the less they’ll want to risk on wars.”

“I don’t like all of that,” Calesco says darkly. “There’s a lot of slavery. And the sugar and tobacco trades are murderous and based on human lives being spent for coin. There are things more important than money.” But there’s no convincing Keris there. Haneyl might be crippled and still healing, but her mother’s greed is still a powerful force. At least when her big sister is better, it’ll Haneyl being sent out to do those awful, awful things in the name of profit rather than her.

Keris lays a gentle hand on hers. “I don’t intend to let slavery flourish in the Anarchy,” she soothed. “There are limits to what I can do, but I won’t stop targeting it until it’s rooted out and gone. Now go on. You’ve got work to do, and so do I.”

“Yes, mother.” Calesco stretches, and works out her writing hand. “And mother. You might want to go back and be Little River for a bit at your estate. Spend some more time with the twins and Atiya, and make sure Aiko’s room is aired out. She’s expected back in a couple of weeks. You’ve worked hard almost all season.”

She’s not being selfish. Her mother deserves some time with the children. The fact that Calesco will get a lighter hand and be able to catch up on her sleep is entirely coincidental.

Keris smiles. She’s a brutal taskmaster to her students, but when her children express worry for her, she folds much more easily. “Alright,” she says fondly, “if you insist. I’ll finish the last round of journeymen hires for Shining Foam, then head back the day after tomorrow. Maybe look into repairing the west wing.”

Calesco nods, clasps Keris’s forearm with a lock of hair, and then heads up the narrow and winding back-staircases to her cramped garret room (“This is how I lived when I was studying so you should too,” her mother had said) at the back of the Jade Carnation.

There’s barely enough room to stand upright, and half the space in the room is taken up by her bed-slash-folding-table. Outside, it’s raining gently, and she stares out through a crack in the shutters for a while at the hazy, rain-veiled city of Saata before lighting a candle and getting to work on her prayer strips.

As the season draws to a close, the demon lord Haneyl is feeling ill at ease.

It’s not because she’s hungry, because she’s just eaten very well. It’s not because she’s bored, because she has a good book. It’s not even because she’s lonely because she has her new friend Mata here. Mata is very special because she came to Haneyl from the Meadows and wanted to be her friend. She was a mez back then, with a really large white mask and she didn’t seem to like that. But she said her Happening needed her to get to work for Haneyl, so she did! And now her white mask has turned into white petals and her black tar has turned into black petals and she had purple fire! She’s very quiet and soft for a szirom still and that makes her a good friend when Haneyl feels wobbly or off.

But even hugging Mata isn’t helping. Not with the thoughts she’s having now.

“Mata!” she demands. “Tell... tell me a story! A really happy one! Where nothing... where nobody dies or anything!” Stories don’t make the bad thoughts go away, but they can help bury them under nicer thoughts, she’s found. Except... except sometimes even happy stories have things in them that make Haneyl think of the bad thoughts again, and she can’t stop her mind circling around them like a drain in a sink, and if she lingers on them too long it makes her fires go even dimmer and food stop tasting good and- and- and-

“Now!” she demands, stamping her food and blinking away tears. “Mata! Stories!”

“Uh... uh...” and Mata’s stammering sets off the bad thoughts again because the stammering, shy, female szirom who should be reading to her should be white with green fire, not black and white with purple!

Everything is wrong!

Covering her face with her hands and curling into a ball on her throne, Haneyl lets out a muffled wail of frustration. She’s trembling, and her tummy hurts, and she feels sick and anxious and... and...

the lazy satisfaction of seeing Elly on her knees by the desk as she goes through the accounts, the numbers in the ledger adding up and up and up to-

-burn with envy at the sight of that perfumed popinjay flaunting his wealth and access to the far southern coast, when she deserves those riches more, SHE should-

-have supper with mama and the twins, feeding little Kali scraps of meat and tickling Ogin under the chin with a sense of patronising fondness for how young and innocent they are and how much they still have to grow-

“Make it stop!”

Haneyl’s scream is tear-muffled. “Make it stop make it stop I don’t want to think about that make it go away!”

“Make what stop?” Mata asks, shrinking back. “I hadn’t even started the story yet.”

“I-I-I-” Haneyl hyperventilates. “G-go... go get Eko! Get Eko and make her come here and tell me how to make this stop! Something’s happening in my head and I don’t want it to and it’s bad and I don’t like it and I want it to go away!”

Mata runs, and she’s gone. But now Haneyl is left all alone with her thoughts.

Except that’s sort of the problem. It’s not that she’s all alone with her thoughts. It’s like there’s someone else in here with her, thinking things she never thought and knowing things she doesn’t know.

And the thing is about that? Haneyl knows intimately about that kind of infection. It’s what she does. Her seeds, growing inside others, cultivating their thoughts.

There are thoughts growing inside her now. They’re thoughts growing inside her - and worse, they don’t feel like her. The other her - the Older Her - from the memories is... different. She’s lazy, in an arrogant, smug sort of way. She’s angry-hungry, like a fire that wants to eat everything around her all the time. She’s still proud of being a princess, like Haneyl is, but... the tone is different. She thinks about Mother, but she thinks about things Mother has taught her that Haneyl doesn’t remember, and sees being a Dynast as... as something else that Haneyl doesn’t have enough memories to understand! And she thinks about doing stuff with Elly and Rounen - who are grown-ups now! - and lots of other people! She’s different to Haneyl! As different as Haneyl is from her siblings! And that means...

She forces her mind away from that thought again, squeezing her eyes shut and gesturing for music and a plate of food. It doesn’t help very much. The music is the kind of thing that would normally make her feel happy or eager to go out and have adventures, but now the sound washes over her like she’s a rock it can’t soak into. And the food just tastes like ash in her mouth. Hot tears seep down her face as she shakes.

Hey, hey hey hey comes Eko’s familiar expressive gestures, as she drops in through a window and sweeps Haneyl up in a ribbony hug. Why is her adorable little imouto-chan so sad? It’s cute and moe but also not right for Haneyl to be crying like this.

She smells of sweeties and blood. Did Zanara show up here again, her hugs inquire.

“I- I-” Haneyl sniffles, clinging to her sister’s silvery-grey dress and sobbing into her armpit. “S-stuff keeps... in my head... I-I’m’memb’ring stuff f-from the older me a-a-and it doesn’t f-feel like me th-thinking it a-and it’s like she’s infecting me li-like I do t-to stuff with me seeds a-and...”

She looks up at Eko through tear-blurred eyes. “A-am I going to die when she comes back?” she whispers, giving voice to her deepest fear - the one she can’t quite get away from, no matter how hard she tries. “She... she’s not like me at all, s-so when I grow up again, a-am I just going to... to stop?”

In her mind’s eye, the abyss looms. The terrifying black void of oblivion - worse than pain, worse than fear, simple non-existence. Everything she is, snuffed out and gone from the world. Never experiencing anything ever again. No more food. No more hugs. No more stories. Nothingness.

She whimpers again and buries her face back in what passes for Eko’s chest to hide, clinging to her like a limpet.

Eko freezes for just a moment. But the way she is, her stillness is very noticeable.

Haneyl is her adorable baby sister no matter what way she is, Eko gestures with her free hand. And she remembers the first time Haneyl was this small. She was just as cute then. Not like when she grew up to be all... Eko catches herself. Her head falls. She should not have said that, should not have said that, her slumped shoulders say.

“To be all what?” Haneyl demands. “Tell me! Tell me tell me tell me tell me tell me-”

Sadly, Eko interrupts her before she can get to the seventh repetition by putting a gloved hand over her mouth. Glaring, Haneyl bites her.

“You have to make me feel better!” Haneyl orders. “That’s what you said you were a big sister for! Well I don’t feel better! I’m scared!” She feels herself tearing up again. “And you still haven’t to-told me if I’m going to d-die when I grow back up and now you’re hiding things and you have to tell me!”

It’s all very complicated, Eko gestures, rubbing her hand. It hurt her as much as it hurt Haneyl to bite her. Her mouth is sore.

See, when Eko and Rathan and Haneyl were little the first time around, Eko was a lot more stupid and had a lot more problems focusing on things. So she can’t remember everything. But she was still Eko. And so that’s why Haneyl is still Haneyl even if she can’t remember everything.

Forgetting, Eko explains, is how life works. As long as you feel like you, you’re still you. And Haneyl now, she adds, has an advantage that big Haneyl didn’t have. She doesn’t remember having the nasty bad poison-metal in her. Haneyl got confused and took in the poison-metal because she thought it was a tree, but the poison-metal tree is actually a metaphor for divergent time-like points in phase space measuring configuration-states of the branching all-histories and so it envies all the states it could be in, but isn’t. And that was very bad for big Haneyl’s state of mind. Little Haneyl is a lot better, like they were when they were kids.

Eko tilts her head at her. Doesn’t she feel better now that big sister Eko has cleared everything up, her expression asks.

Haneyl blinks at her. She doesn’t feel much better. Mostly she feels confused.

“What’s a... a... turning-away... like-a-clock bit... map?” she hazards, trying to make sense of the more confusing gestures. “You mean I’m... I’m not going to be the Older Me I remember being?”

Eko sits back, hugging herself as much as she’s hugging Haneyl. Eko... did a thing that’s sort of like what happened to Haneyl, in reverse, but if you could go backwards in time, that’d be like going forwards through the same thing Haneyl suffered, she tries again to explain. She paused, one hand on the other glove. Can Haneyl keep a secret, she enquiries?

Wide-eyed, Haneyl nods. She squirms free long enough to order everyone out of her throne room, and waits until they’re all gone before burrowing back onto her sister’s lap.

“I won’t tell,” she whispers. “What is it?”

Eko pauses, mask twisted up into a mortified look. And then tugs off the glove. Showing the hand underneath.

The hands made of ribbons, scrawled over in bloodstained writing. The ribbons, entwined with veins that slowly pulse with cold, stagnant blood. The flickering, sickly light mixed in with that. The wet, painful-looking texture.

Eko did this to herself, she gestures with that hand that isn’t what Eko is meant to look like. She drank the coldblood of the holographic universal narrative principle, knowing what it would do to her. She let it change her. Did she kill the old Eko when she did it? She doesn’t think so, but maybe the old Eko would disagree. Eko is now a lot more able to be serious, able to focus better, but there are side effects and they can be very bad. Like what happened to her body.

She puts the glove back on.

Little Haneyl doesn’t have the poison-metal tree in her, but the memories of Big Haneyl do, and... and Big Haneyl didn’t go into it with Eko’s understanding. The side effects were really, really bad for her. Eko filtered the blood of the holographic narrative principle so only her body would get changed in ways Eko didn't intend. But Big Haneyl let the poison-metal into her mind.

And, she taps Haneyl’s brow, that’s not there any more.

With a quiet gasp, Haneyl takes in the... the effects of what Eko did to herself under the gloves and clothes. She throws her arms around her and tries to hug as much as possible.

“Does it hurt?” she asks in a tiny voice. “Can... can you make it better?”

No, Eko shrugs, and she wouldn’t if she could. The cold blood helps her think more slowly. Lets her be someone other than just her Other Mama.  Takes the edge off her mood-swings and allows her to go out and pretend to be someone who doesn't hurt things just by touching them. But it’s part of her now. Getting rid of it would be like taking Calesco’s shadows away. You can’t, and trying would be very bad.

Haneyl, Eko informs her dryly, is very lucky that her other Mama is Mama’s good friend Sasimana. Eko and Calesco aren’t so lucky.

Haneyl sniffs again and wipes away her tears on her arm. “S-so... I had something like that in me. But now it’s gone. And... and when I grow back up... I won’t stop being me? Y-you promise?”

Eko hugs her baby sister. If Big Haneyl tries to forget being Eko’s tiny cute imouto-chan, then Eko will stab her and make tiny cute imouto-chan come back again. Big Haneyl had a duty to tiny Haneyl, because she could have just stayed asleep in her tree for a year. But she wanted to be tiny cute imouto-chan - probably because she’s adorable - and that means she has a responsibility to who Haneyl is now.

She boops Haneyl on the nose. Maybe Haneyl just wanted to learn how to be not-sick and not-lewd again, she suggests.

“Huh?” Haneyl tilts her head. The poison-metal that Older Her stupidly ate was making her sick, she knows that, but... “What’s ‘lewd’?”

Good heavens is this the time Eko really had somewhere else to be, goodbye tiny cute imouto-chan. That’s probably what Eko gestures, anyway. The last bit is pretty hard to understand as she accelerates away leaving the wall hangings flapping in her wake.

Staring after her, Haneyl wonders what that was about for a moment, before shaking her head and letting it go. She understands the important stuff. She’s not going to die when she grows up and gets her memories back. She’s just going to understand what a stupid dummy Older-Her was, and grow up to be an Older Herself.

“Mata!” she calls. “Everyone! Come back in! I still want storytime! And then...”

She thinks of vein-entwined ribbons and sickly light pulsing under the wet texture of painful flesh. Of the shameful cringe to her big sister’s shoulders as she bared part of herself she didn’t like to make Haneyl feel better.

“And then we’re doing some baking! Lots and lots of baking! Of really sweet tiny cakes!”

Chapter Text

Hundreds of kilometres to the west of Saata rises the structure of an ancient lighthouse-manse from the blue-green waters. This close to the edge of the world, sometimes the wyldtide brings strange sea-life on currents from the trackless waters of unreality. But this structure has survived a long, long time, weathering typhoons and hurricanes, and it has had many inhabitants. First, the lighthouse keepers of long ago, who saw to its maintenance. Then, when those men perished, the birds came in their cawing masses, living in the stone tower and turning it into their nests, re-painting it in guano and feathers.

But now new inhabitants have come. First, they starved shovelling the centuries of guano, taking it away to sell it. And now this marble structure, well-weathered and aged, is a nest of demons.

Striding around the gravelling cove, the demon lord Rathan wanders from here to there and makes sure the hellspawn and creatures of his mother who serve him are doing their jobs. There, a few mercurial artisans are working with mercury and marble to reinforce long-eroded foundations. There, brutish creatures turn cranes to hoist stone up to the tower where more demons are working on patching holes in the walls. There, his brother’s drudges sullenly handle shovels to shift more of the bird-poo into barrels for transport and sale.

And from the water emerges a figure of beauty; pink-haired, silver-horned, her eyes blinking in the sun before focusing - as they always do - on him. Draped only in the silvery skin of her dolphin-form, Oula pulls herself half out of the water and he hurries over to see what she’s found.

“They’re right!” she says, eyes gleaming in delight. “The old jade polestone got washed away, but it’s down in the silt about five hundred metres that way!” She points out to sea. “The black jade’s warping the local geomancy around it. We can’t lift it out yet because the manse isn’t reinforced yet and a springback could ruin it, but...”

Aware that he’s smiling adoringly, Rathan listens to her excitedly plan out how to retrieve the sunken component, interjecting here and there with a word or two but letting her have her way with the conversation more often than not. This is Oulie’s project, not his, after all. Mama put him in charge of the work crews and keeping the island safe from prying eyes, but the geomantic work is firmly Oula’s authority, with even Rathan himself serving as a support sorcerer under her command.

All around the island, demons are working. And they’re following Oulie’s orders, even if some of them - the hellish ones - think that they’re following his orders conveyed through her.

Gods, Hell is so stupid sometimes. Why would you put a demon lord in charge of something that’s not really their thing? He’s not an architect, and his knowledge of manse-building is just some of the theory. Oulie’s studied with Mama under Lady Lilunu, learning the ways that the flows of essence are like that of the body and that there’s really not much difference between the body of a god-being and Creation. He’s glad he isn’t having to oversee this. It’d be so much effort and he wouldn’t make as good a job of it as his smart, ambitious, brilliant girlfriend.

He realises he’s zoned out slightly when she sticks a hand out at him. “Rathan! Towel!”

“Sorry, Oulie,” he says, handing her one and watching her dry herself off. She knows he’s looking, and puts on a bit of a show for him, but enough demons are nearby that she keeps it tame. Nobody else is allowed to look at her bare. Only him.

“Did you hear the orcamen while you were down there?” he asks as she finishes finger-combing her hair. “They’ve been passing by more often since Water. I think next year I might go and try meeting with them.” Maybe he can work on an orca form of his own for the occasion. Oula can turn herself into a dolphin, and he knows Haneyl and Vali can both take on draconic shapes. A horned orca would be the perfect equivalent for him; he’s wanted to be one ever since he was little.

“Yes,” she says, holding up her towel defensively with her hair as she does up her breastband. “I think they might be the same group we heard early in Air, but heading the other way. They might head down to the far south-west in Air, and head further north now. Maybe it’s some kind of migration for things that only grow in the southwest in the cooler parts of the year.”

“Worth making friends with, then,” he hums, and leans forward to kiss her on the cheek. “Not that they could ever displace you, my pretty dolphin.”

“Oh, my darling,” she says, her pupils only narrowing slightly. “I’d only have to worry if they were pink orcas.”

He kisses her again, and they start back up towards the lighthouse. “So, with the polestone accounted for, that moves our timetable up,” he says, gallantly offering an arm for her to hold as they ascend the steps. “We’ve got all the raw stone and materials, and the cladding repairs are underway. How badly warped is the geomancy?”

“As bad as we feared,” Oula says, squeezing his arm. “If not slightly worse. So I don’t think a small adjustment of the geomancy will be enough to redirect the flow back to this manse. There’s a place nearly a kilometre away that’s a proto-demesne, but there’s still too much flow pooling here for it to be easier to build a new one on that site.” Her damp skirts flick around her, and he coaxes the water out. “I think something bigger will be needed, if we don’t want to get stuck here for years. If not more.”

That sounds, Rathan reflects, entirely too much like mama saying she’s had ‘a really good idea that isn’t too risky’. “How much bigger?” he asks warily. “And will it risk a demesne exploding? Because I’m all for learning new things, but that really doesn’t sound like fun.”

“I mean,” Oula gives a hair shrug. “What I’m really thinking about is some real magic. Coaxing the dragon-lines like you would the flow of a river, damming the flow to that quasi-demesne and channelling it all into the manse to reaffirm its previous strength.” She catches his expression. “Obviously I’ll want your help, and probably Aunty Keris too. Sorcery is more powerful in trios. Or if we can’t get her, we can get her to summon Asarin to help us, maybe.”

Taking her hand, Rathan squeezes it thoughtfully as they make their way into the restored structure. It’s already looking much better than it did when they got here; the centuries of guano have been cleaned off the white stone walls and the rooms within patched up and refurbished.

“An Emerald Working, then,” he says at length. “Okay. It still sounds risky, but I trust your expertise. And,” he grinned at her, “I bet you have a whole heap of new orders for me to give, if we’re going to be reinforcing the manse to handle a dragon line being diverted back into it.”

Oula raises a warning hand as they step through into what she’s been calling the war-chamber. It isn’t one, not exactly, but it’s the former-and-future hearthstone chamber and the only demons allowed into it are ones who descend from Keris. Nothing of Hell is allowed in here, and Ipa and Bhui are two hungry ones who handle the administrative documents here as well as being willing to kill and eat any overly curious hellspawn. Compared to the rest of the structure, it’s been made much more comfortable with pink wall-hangings to keep out the breeze and soft woven rugs of swamp kat-fur.

“I can’t say I can do it for sure,” Oula confesses. “I know I saw it in some of Aunty’s books, but I might have to send someone back to pick them up because I don’t have these texts here.” She stretches, working her shoulders. “At the very least, next month is going to be a lot of research and small-scale experimentation. Which almost certainly probably won’t go wrong.”

He winces. “Do you really have to put so many qualifiers on that?”

“You know what Aunty says; ‘power is never safe’.” Oula shrugs. “I don’t think I’ll blow up the manse. But if I do, Aunty says that I’m powerful enough and have enough anchors that I’ll reform in her like your sister did.”

That assurance makes Rathan visibly relax. “Okay. Good. I don’t think I’d want you doing this if there was a risk of losing you.” He pulls her into a quick hug, exploiting his height advantage to nuzzle her hair between her horns. “Draw up a list of the texts you want and I’ll send a courier back to Saata to get them. And until they get here,” he smiles, “we can relax for a bit and enjoy ourselves.”

Oula claps her hands. “Oh, wonderful! I’ll go get changed. And you,” she boops him on the nose, “are going to go do your paperwork and your daily reports. Including the patrol reports. And the summaries we’re sending Aunty Keris. You have done those, haven’t you?”

“Most of them,” Rathan lies, thinking of the pile of paperwork he’s been slacking on. It’s fine. He remembers roughly what he’s been doing for the past couple of weeks, and it doesn’t matter if the daily reports aren’t written on the day when they’re delivered in bundles. “I can have them finished soon.”

“Then you should go and do that while I get ready for our date this evening, shouldn’t you?” she tells him archly, pressing herself against him. “Because I’m in a good mood and you don’t want us getting distracted by Aunty Keris sending a messenger midway through the date wondering if everything’s okay and worried that her son isn’t talking to her.”

She pauses.

“Again,” she adds meaningfully.

Sighing, Rathan gives his girlfriend one last kiss and then makes his way through to his personal office, from which he runs the work crews and deals with disruptive influences. Count Mele is in there, his boots propped up on the desk as he flips through a book of probably-racy woodcuts. Both Cala and Noi are there with him, with that very specific wariness of two artisans in love with the same person around each other. Noi is brushing his hair while Cala sketches her love in the chair, but they always have half an eye on each other.

“What’s up?” Mele asks, not bothering to get up. “Are you back already?”

“Paperwork to do,” Rathan sighs. “Oulie’s still annoyed about mama interrupting our date last month.” He lets himself fall into the comfortable chair he spent quite a bit of effort obtaining for his desk, and pulls a stack of papers over, the outline of his daily reports already written in by the dragon aides that prepared them. These are easy enough to do, just boring. Moonday before last, cladding repair on the manse exterior. Mercuryday, more of the same. Venusday, same again. Marsday, sail out to intercept that elemental and gently deflect him off to the south. He only bothers with a few sentences for each day; not much around here is interesting enough to need more, and mama won’t care about the lack of detail even if Rounen will.

“What’s our fleet looking like?” he asks idly as he scrawls line after line of effortlessly pretty handwriting. “Have we found a new grove to get timber for repairs yet?”

Mele perks up. “I’ve taken it on myself to prepare us for a raid of an island southwards. They’ll have tropical woods, and we can take what we need. We leave the day after tomorrow; myself as captain, and some of the more,” he flaps his hand, “expendable hellspawn as brute muscle. If we sail for a few days, we’ll be safe from anyone following us back and, well, the High Queen does like her maps.”

“She does,” Rathan agrees, smiling. “Oh, speaking of maps - Cala, Noi; you were right. Oula found the polestone sunk about half a kilometre northwest. She says the geomancy’s tangled around it, so she’ll probably want to talk to you about how to get it out of the silt it’s buried in without risking a springback collapse.”

“She’s one hell of a woman,” Mele says admiringly, idly reaching out almost seemingly without thinking to take Noi’s hand and kiss him, and swinging his legs down to step over to pet Cala. “She always was, even when we were kids - but now she’s the greatest treasure in your collection, my prince.”

“That’s my Oulie,” Rathan agrees happily. “As sharp as a knife and as pretty as a pearl.” He sets the sheaf of daily reports aside and pulls the summary sheet over. This one will take more thought, because quite a bit of progress has happened in the past three weeks, and the report for this half-moon will need to include Oula’s plan to divert the dragon lines with a Working. “Which means I need to treat her as well as she deserves to be, which means getting my work done,” he finishes distractedly. “Even when it’s a drag.”

Mele yawns. “I don’t know why you give her quite so much latitude,” he observes, his ivory fingers tickling under Cala’s neck and drawing her closer to him with a mewl that ends up with her half on his lap back in his seat. “You’re the prince; she’s only a duchess. A few well-chosen words and a kiss, and she wouldn’t be pushing you to get work done this late in the day.” He pulls in Noi, kissing the artisan.

“I’m trying to brush my hair,” the other man said, smiling.

“I’m just so overcome by seeing you like this. Both of you,” he purrs to his two lovers. “And,” he adds to Rathan, “if you shortened her leash a bit, she wouldn’t be such a bully to my darlings when they’re working on things. She’s really not very nice to you, is she Cala?”

Cala glances between her lover and her prince, and clearly considers what to say. “She can be a bit mean sometimes. I mean, she’s a duchess so you wouldn’t expect her to be as gentle as some others, but she... well, she says some very hurtful things sometimes.”

That gets Rathan to look up, eyebrow raised. “Oulie was mama’s first student,” he says, tone edging on warning. “She isn’t the kind of woman you leash. And she works hard for me, so it’s only fair that I put in some work for her when it matters. Though,” he sighs, a flicker of red light shining from his hair, “I will ask her to be nicer. I’m sure she’s just a bit stressed at the pressure of handling this repair project - mama asked her to get it done by the year’s end if she can, and these are dangerous forces to be playing with.”

“Oh, no doubt, no doubt. I know everyone’s on edge having to put up with,” Mele catches his eyes, “the hellspawn. They’re such... beasts.”

Rathan nods. “They’re a pain. But they’re useful, so we’ll put up with them for as long as we have to. They don’t need to know how things really work to help get the manse repaired.”

“No doubt. But I’ll be glad when they’re not here, stinking up the place,” Mele says drily.

Rathan continues on with his work, perhaps being a bit more cursory than he would have on other days, and stores it in the big heavy safe with the complicated locking mechanism Vali made.

“Have fun, your highness,” Noi calls out, the meaning clear in his voice and also that he’s glad to have the prince out of the way for his own fun.

Whistling, Rathan heads through and up into some of the more repaired rooms in the tower that the keruby have occupied, and up to his personal bedchambers. Where he finds that Oula is still in the bath.

“You know,” she says as he climbs in with her, “I am willing to bet that you just rushed through everything.”

“Would I do that?” he asks innocently, his eyes gleaming with his light.

“Of course you would, you goof,” she tells him fondly, leaning in for the kiss.

The next day she makes him rewrite the bits which weren’t done to her standards.

It is dawn as the sun rises over the eastern horizon on Saata, and the birds are singing.

“Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama!”

The dawn chorus is a thing of peace and tranquillity. Brightly coloured birds of paradise greet the rising sun, as they have for thousands of years before. The sprawling city itself is in its most quiescent, though Saata never truly sleeps.

“Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama!”

In the case of Keris, in her estate in the south of the island, she has her very own dawn chorus and her very own bird, who’s perching heavily on her chest and shouting her name over and over again with no signs of tiring.


“Yes, yes, Kali, I know,” Keris groans, aching and feeling like she really could have done with a few hours more. “It’s morning. Go back to sleep. And don’t wake your brother or sister.”

“But mamaaaaaaaa!” Kali protests. “It’s only the best day ever! The bestest best day ever!”

“Mmn.” Keris cracks an eye open, unwilling to get up and commit to dawn exercise just yet. “And why is that, little feather?”

“Mama!” Kali is shocked. Shocked and appalled. Maybe even horrified that her mama can forget something like this. “Mama today is the day Aiko comes back and that means it is the bestest best day! She could be here now while you’re asleep!” Her daughter, much like Eko on sugar, is positively vibrating with the amount of coiled-up energy inside her.

“Honeyyy,” Keris groans, rolling over and burying her face in her pillow. “It’s dawn and mama was up late last night, I doubt Aiko will be arriving until after breakfast at the earliest. Give me another hour?”

Two little talons hop up her back, and her daughter pecks her sharply on the back of the head. “If they’re going to get here after breakfast then we gotta do our morning dances and go eat as quick as possible!” Kali demands. “Come on, mama, or they’ll take ages to get here!”

Keris sighs, and reluctantly accepts that she’s not getting any more sleep this morning. “Fine, fine,” she grumbles. “Go back to your room and get dressed in your practice clothes. I’ll be along in a minute.”

Kali pops into a tiger cub and dashes out the door in a patter of feet, slamming it behind her, and Keris is left alone in the grey light of the dawn. Slowly, she pulls herself out of bed. Washes her face. Gets dressed in a light practice gi and tells the staff to prepare breakfast for her and Kali.

Her daughter’s very finite supplies of patience are entirely exhausted by the time she’s mid-way through the process, so she has a very bouncy Kali constantly interrupting. It’s a relief to take her daughter outside and away from everyone else.

The outside of her estate has seen a few new changes this year, and the Earth growth is really kicking in and growing vibrantly.

“Alright, warm-ups,” Keris yawns. “Five times round the garden, then do your stretches. And remember: it’s not a race, you don’t have to beat yesterday’s time. Off you go.”

“But mama!” Kali protests. “If I don’t do better than last time, that means I lose! To yesterday-me!”

“You can compete with your actual practice, but warm-ups are just warm-ups,” Keris says. “If you do it too fast, you don’t warm up right. And that means you lose to muscle cramps.” That draws a little gasp from the girl, and she runs off in a hurry.

Keris, for her part, conceals a yawn and starts to stretch herself. She was up so late because she had to head over to Shuu Mua to see the hand-over of the Baisha’s grand plunder into a hidden warehouse, and then the sight of everything Captain Neride had managed to take had led her to forget about the time.

But such wonders! Jade, jadedust, hearthstone slurry and the alchemical products of Ta Vuzi. She’d hit one of the treasure ships and its convoy, sinking the ships and looting the tribute from that satrapy, and now they’re hers. All hers.

It scares her a little, beneath the possessive glee. That the Realm draws such expensive tributes from what is - as far as she can tell - a relatively unimportant satrapy that the Dynasts of the Blessed Isle think little of. The spoils of Ta Vuzi are wealth beyond imagining for most mortals, her secret warehouse is stacked wall-to-wall with goods worth their weight or more in silver, and this was a single tribute convoy among hundreds of satrapies and holdings the Realm keeps in its grasp. Sasi’s words about its weakness come back to her, but... how is this weakness? How can an empire this mighty fall?

At least Neride is starting to deliver, though. That talk Rathan gave her must have done some good, because Keris was getting ready to bring her wrath down if the sea-krait demoness had failed once more. This captured plunder is enough to buy her another season, and if she performs well against the Zu Tak during hurricane season, she’ll clear her slate of fuck-ups as far as Keris is concerned. And maybe next year she can take the Baisha down to Ta Vuzi and scout the sea lanes for more tribute ships before the Realm get wise and start giving them stronger convoys-

“Mama! Mama, I’m done!”

“Alright, go get your spear,” Keris says distractedly, mind still half on Ta Vuzi. It’s actually a weighted bamboo rod, because Kali can be a little hard on her practice weapons and bamboo is cheap, but it’s enough for her to get the forms down with. “And show me your stance.”

Kali bounds into place, wearing her adorable gold-yellow practice gi with her two long braids folded behind her back, her spear in neutral guard and her weight carefully centred. She’s beaming sunnily, delighted to be doing this with mama and even more delighted that she’s seeing Aiko again. She’s been looking forward to this day for weeks.

Hmm. Keris will need to stop Kali going in too hard against Aiko. The last thing she needs is for Kali to decide she needs to show her how much she’s learned about spears by hitting her.

“Very good,” Keris praises. She’s not just being nice, either. Kali takes naturally to anything athletic. “Now, high guard, and...”

She starts off with a series of telegraphed strikes for Kali to block, painfully slow and weak by her own standards but quick enough that her daughter has to focus to keep up with the rhythm and strong enough to jar her hands if she blocks wrong. Kali throws herself into the exercise with fierce determination, circling as she backs away with much-improved footwork from last month. She’s obviously been practicing both her movements and also paying attention to footwork and spear at the same time.

“Good,” Keris repeats, “and now your attack.”

Kali’s attacking form is a little sloppier. On the defensive, she risks rapped knuckles if she doesn’t get it right, but when she’s the one striking she has a tendency to get more enthusiastic about swinging and stabbing her practice spear as hard as she can than about precision and form. Yes, Keris decides. Definitely going to need to have a talk with her about not trying to practice with Aiko. Kali’s attacks don’t pose any threat to Keris even if they land, but Aiko is nowhere near as resilient.

Still, the practice takes up time and drains away some of Kali’s near-boundless reserves of energy, and by the time they can hear temple bells drifting over, Keris is feeling very satisfied and quite proud of her daughter. And Kali is clearly proud of herself, too, because after she bows to her mother, she throws herself forward and hugs Keris’s leg while making happy little noises.

“Mama mama mama let’s go eat! Food foodity food food! What’s for breakfast! Is it nice?”

“I don’t know,” Keris says, swinging her little feather onto her shoulders. “I suppose it’s whatever the Qamardokht sisters made for us today. Let’s go find out, shall we? Is Ogin up yet, or do we need to go get him out of bed?”

“I woke him up because Aiko’s coming today! He threw a pillow at me and told me to go wake you up!” Kali beams.

Keris chuckles. “Well, let’s go find him, then. Do you think he’s still feeling grumpy?” She’s been paying more attention to the nature of her children ever since Lilunu showed her how they behaved outside her view, and she hasn’t yet been able to determine exactly how their connection works. Certainly they always seem to be roughly aware of the other’s condition - awake or asleep; healthy, sick or hurt. And they can find each other even when one is hiding or they haven’t seen each other in hours. But asking how they do it yields nothing but a cryptic head-tilt from Ogin or an “I just know, mama!” from Kali. Keris has been trying to narrow it down by seeing where the limits of their knowledge are, but it’s difficult to work out what’s a magical connection and what’s just Kali and Ogin knowing each other very well.

Ogin is in the room he shares with his sister, head buried under the pillows and some tails escaping out from under the light linen sheets. The noise he makes when Kali bounds over and jumps on his bed, singing about how Aiko is coming, can best be described as “Mrrrngrh!”

“Sorry moonbeam,” Keris says, catching Kali as she goes for another bounce. “I tried to wear her out with exercise, but she’s too happy.”

“Mama! The sun is up! That means we have to play!” Kali protests at Mama The Traitor.

A tousled, white-haired head emerges from under the pillows. “‘ning Ma,” Ogin says, silver eyes heavy and sleep-gritted. Keris scoops him up in her hair with a blanket still wrapped around him, and cuddles him close.

“Morning, sweetie. Kali, why don’t you bounce downstairs and start on breakfast without us? That way you can have eaten and dressed properly if Aiko gets here early, and Ogin and I can get cleaned up while you’re watching for her and her daddy. Have you picked out which outfit you’re wearing to meet her in?”

Kali’s expression indicates that no, she hadn’t even thought of that, and so she charges off into the twins’ walk-in closet.

Ogin looks up at mama with both hope and disappointment. “Want to go back to sleep,” he grumbles.

“I know, moonbeam,” Keris says sympathetically. “But Aiko is arriving today, so I’d like you to get washed up and dressed and have breakfast before she does. You can have a nap somewhere quiet once you’re ready and I’ll get Kali out into the gardens.”

It takes quite a bit of chiding and hassling to get Ogin out of bed and dressed in an adorable little outfit Keris thinks he looks perfect in. He’s a lot like his brother Rathan in that way. And then Mama has to stop Kali from pulling open all the drawers and trying everything on because don’t you see Mama she has to be the best for Aiko!

By the time everyone is down at eating, there’s been enough noise that quite a bit of the rest of the house is barely more awake than Ogin.

Keris eventually resorts to taking Kali back out into the gardens to run around with her dog. The dog is a recent development; Kali found a feral stray wandering around the estate grounds a few days ago and aggressively adopted it, which it seems to have taken to happily enough. Keris is a little more concerned about the situation. This is the second wild animal Kali has adopted, and the last one - a spiny rat - spent two weeks as “the bestest friend in the world” before some internal balance in Kali’s brain shifted from one side to the other and it went from pet to prey.

The fact that Kali’s newest friend has been dubbed “Breakfast” - ostensibly because she found it early in the morning - does not give Keris high hopes for this one’s survival.

Still, Keris finds things for her to do this Saturnday, and it’s just before lunch that Rounen reports that there’s a low, fast, wave-skimming magic cloud approaching.

Keris sighs. “It’d be easier to meet him up in Saata proper,” she grumbles. “That man is incapable of being subtle, but at least that way he could arrive by boat rather than flying into the cove on a magic cloud.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Rounen says. “Just as you say.”

Aiko is far from the perfect little princess she is when she’s in Sasi’s hands. She’s dressed in a somewhat travel-stained smock and sandals, and her hair is a windblown mess. She’s even darker from her tan than usual, and her green eyes are ablaze. “Aunty Keris!” she cheers as she and Testolagh pick their way up the path, waving with her free hand.

“Aiko!” Keris greets, jogging over to sweep her up in a hug with a grunt of effort. For all that Aiko is a little girl, she weighs as much as her brass-scaled dragon form - and that’s now the size of a wolf. Keris has to add a few hair tendrils to keep her weight supported. “Look at you!” she coos. “You’ve grown again! Soon you’ll be catching up to me at this rate. And is that a new bracelet? It’s very pretty.”

“Keris,” Testolagh says with a nod as she fusses over Aiko. “You look well. How are things?”

“Ticking over nicely,” Keris returns, nodding back and leading them back up the path from the shore to where Kali is busily instructing Breakfast in how to play fetch. “I’m developing my cover identities and stabilising their income and influence, so there’s been nothing flashy. But it’s been going well. How about you? What’s the latest news from the Anarchy? Will you be staying long in Saata?”

“Longer than usual,” he says, as Kali squeals happily and charges in to grab the barely-lowered-to-the-ground Aiko and drag her off to meet her new pet. “There’s some things I need to get done in Saata. I need more ships, and more than that, I need sailors. So,” he shrugs, “I’ve heard a lot about the pirates of Saata, so I thought I’d hire some.”

He smiles.

“I’ll make sure they’re loyal to me. Once they sign on.”

“Mm. Well, just remember the rules: keep the demon stuff deniable enough that word doesn’t get back to Triumphant Air,” Keris tells him. “They haven’t heard anything yet; you’re safe down in the Anarchy as long as you don’t go completely overboard. As for hirelings... I’d suggest looking among the Raaran Ge families. Rounen can probably brief you on which ones are looking for work.”

“Makes sense,” Testolagh says. “No, Kali, don’t pull Aiko around like that. She’s been travelling since early morning and she’s tired and needs to eat.” Keris catches her foster-daughter’s slightly grateful look.

Lunch follows, and an appreciative Aiko seriously tells Keris that the food is always better here than when she’s with Daddy. Testolagh chuckles at that, and concedes it’s true, and things pass with nothing of great import going on.

However, in the heat of the early afternoon, everyone is feeling sleepy, and Keris takes Aiko and the twins with her to the baths to help them cool down. The reflected sunlight bounces off the water, dancing over the paintings on the ceiling, and Keris lets herself relax slightly. Things are always easier when Testolagh isn’t there. He hasn’t said anything about how she vanished at the start of the year despite the fact Sasi must have been worried, but she’s sure that conversation is lurking there in her future.

But for now, she has three small children in the nice, cool stone and with warm air around her. Ogin happily dozes by the side of the baths, and Kali scolds Breakfast as she washes her pet. Aiko has the most of Keris’s attention here, because she needs her black hair combed and brushed and cleaned out of sea-salt.

She relaxes into Keris, just enjoying the maternal company. Keris might not be her mother, but she can be something for her that Testolagh can’t.

“What happened when I wasn’t here?” Aiko asks. She always speaks maturely for her age, and she can be startlingly insightful for a four-and-a-half-year old.

“Well, let me see,” she muses. “Rathan is off at sea, and Eko and Zanara are back in my inner world. But Calesco is doing stuff in the city, and Vali is up in the mountains building us all a house. He’s found an island up in the valley I made, and he’s going to put a room in it that can be yours if you want to visit us there. Kali has a new pet, which you saw, and Ogin’s taken up paper folding ever since he learned how to make little paper boats. Atiya has some new dolls, and I think Rounen has a present for you that he’s not telling me about, so it’ll be a surprise for you.”

She tickles Aiko under the chin, making the little girl giggle. “What about you? What have you and your daddy been up to down in the Anarchy? Do you have any good stories?”

Aiko twists around, so she’s looking Keris in the face. “Daddy made a brand new island and I helped him do it properly,” she says, sounding very, very pleased with herself. “I made him put a beach in! The sand is black and it’s hot and steams because the island is also a volcano. Also, more lakes! And I told him that he needed mangroves because I remembered what you said about how mangroves stop the waves washing away the land!” She sighs, sounding remarkably like her mother. “He would have done it wrong without me.”

“Very good!” Keris praises. “Yes, that’s right. And they’re also a very rich habitat full of fish and plants and animals. And they protect against storms. You did very well making him listen to you there. And a beach, too, my my.” She whistles, long and low. “Is it very far from the first island he made? Why does he need a whole new island, anyway?”

“Daddy says,” Aiko reports, “that he’s making islands outside the world. Outside the maps. And there’s new people living there when he makes the island. Mother taught me to draw maps and understand them so I help him with maps. I asked him how he can be making islands outside the maps when they’re on his maps and he said they’re only on his maps.”

Really now?” says Keris, who has certain opinions vis-a-vis other people having access to more accurate maps than she does. “Well, he’s right that maps are very nice things to have, especially when they show things other people’s maps don’t. Maybe your daddy could share his maps with me as a present, like I share my ship with him?”

“They’re back in Daddy’s home,” Aiko says informatively. “That’s another island he made. It’s a big one. He made it even bigger when there was a wild storm but he tamed the wild storm and made the island bigger, he said. He has a very big black fortress there.”

Iris has been listening with draconic glee, and wiggles out of Keris’s arm, coiling around Aiko and poking her head up at Keris. She breathes out a flame-dragon coiled around an island.

Keris glances down at her. “Iris,” she chides gently. “You already have an island of your own. You can go get Yaleena to give you piggybacks around it whenever you want.”

Iris considers this, and counters with a dragon coiled around two islands.

Keris rolls her eyes. “Ask Zanara,” she says, deliberately misunderstanding what Iris really wants. “They dote on you, and with Yaleena arguing for you I’m sure you can negotiate one of the Isles being dedicated to you.”

“Mama mama mama mama!” explodes Kali, rushing over. “I want an island too! A big one! With lots of tasty things on it! And a big pond! And a mansion and there’ll be caves for Ogin and I can have a flying cat!”

Iris nods wisely, and adds a flying cat to her now-three islands.

Keris sighs. “If I find another wyldpool, and if I decide to paint an island into shape with it,” she says, “I will consider letting you help design it. And make sure to include lots of tasty things, and a big pond, and some caves, and maybe some flying cats. As for the mansion...” She taps Kali on the nose. “Your big brother is busy making one for us up in the valley, so you can wait to see that one before demanding another.”

Aiko has been considering something. “Aunty Keris?” she asks hesitantly.

“Yes, sweetie?”

“I thought you said that Big Sister Haneyl would be back when I got back. At Calibration. I thought you said that. I,” she inhales, “I miss her.”

Keris winces. “I know, honey. I do too. She...” Keris pauses for a moment. Aiko is a worrier, and prone to fretting. Best to start by softening the blow.

“I want to be clear,” she starts. “Haneyl is completely fine; nothing bad is going to happen to her and she’s not going anywhere and you haven’t done anything wrong. But she got hurt up in Chir at the same time I did, so she’s having to recover in my inner world for a lot longer than usual. It’s like when you or your friends get poorly, and you don’t feel very good and have to stay in bed for a few days, but once it’s over you’re back on your feet like normal. Haneyl has to stay within me for a longer time than that, but she’ll be back just the same in a few more months, and she’ll make sure to hug you and tell you how much she’s missed you too.”

“But I haven’t even got any messages from her,” Aiko says in a tiny voice. “Did I upset her? Is she not my big-sister-friend anymore?”

“No, sweetie. But...” how to phrase this... “in order to get better, she’s put a lot of herself in a seed to regrow. It’s like your big sister is mostly-asleep, and only has a little bit of herself running around as a little girl - nearly as little as you. Her big-Haneyl-ness is sleepy all the time, so she has trouble remembering stuff from outside my inner world. Every time she tries, it’s like when Kali wakes you and Ogin up at the crack of dawn and all you want to do is go ‘blaargh’ and pull a pillow over your head and go back to sleep. It doesn’t mean you don’t still love her-”

“I love you too, Aiko!” cheers Kali, hugging her.

“... and it doesn’t mean Haneyl doesn’t love you,” Keris resumes. “Just that she’s too sleepy-poorly to do letter writing. She’s asked about you a few times, but if she tries to wake up her big-Haneylness and think too hard, she gets all wobbly and falls asleep and wakes up grumpy.”

Aiko gives a little sniffle, and nods. Keris isn’t really lying, either. Haneyl really is unwell. She goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up if she spends too long outside the Swamp. It’s been painful and distressing for Keris to see her brave, clever daughter reduced down to this state. But it’s also not fair on Aiko. The little girl really does love her big half-sister.

She cuddles the little girl close, and lets Kali bracket her on the other side. “Well, I’ll tell you what,” she soothes. “She’ll be getting better in Wood, so we have a few months to plan out a really good party to welcome her back. Why don’t you help me work out what she’ll like, and that way we can be sure she’ll have lots of hugs and thank-yous waiting for you when you next see her. Does that sound good?”

“Yes,” Aiko says softly, a sound almost lost by Kali’s cheer of “Party!” and prompt grabbing of her trying-to-nap brother and her “Gin Gin Gin we’re having a party!”

That night, Keris sleeps with Aiko snuggled up against her because the little girl always gets a bit worried for the first days after moving. And she dreams of Aiko’s mother. In a torn-open palace open to the sky, the walls bedecked in heart-red banners, she meets Sasi and there she knows her and helps her feel loved.

In the aftermath, the two of them tucked under a torn-down banner as a bedsheet, Sasi lights up a dream cigarillo. She exhales red smoke. “I’ve missed you, my love,” she says.

“Me too,” Keris groans. “Urgh, work is dull at the moment. My students are all incompetent.” She pauses. “Well, two or three are minimally competent. And show some promise. But still.”

She sighs, nuzzling into the crook of Sasi’s neck. “Aiko arrived today though, so that’s improved things. She says hello, and that she loves you very much, and that her daddy made a new island from a wyldpool down in the Anarchy and she made sure he did it right, with mangroves and a beach and everything. Apparently he’d have gotten it wrong without her help.” She chuckles. “She looked just like you when she said that.”

Sasi beams. “I’m so glad she’s back with you,” she says warmly, kissing Keris’s cheek. “I know Tessie would never let her get hurt, but I’m still not comfortable with her being so close to the edge of the world. I’m... that’s a burden off my back that she’s with you and she has all your demon lords to help keep her safe.”

“She’s missing Haneyl,” Keris says sadly. “But like I told her, Haneyl will be coming back in Wood. I’m planning to take everyone back up into the mountains to celebrate, so Aiko will be safe as houses there. I Shaped that valley while I was injured and scared; it’s built for defensibility.” She kisses Sasi’s cheek. “How about you? How’s it going on your end?”

“I could name most of the people who now are working for me, knowingly or not, and you wouldn’t recognise them.” Sasi pauses. “However, I do have a new underling. As in, the Althing had me pick up someone new who was chosen on the Isle and she’s been placed in my directorate. You’ll probably meet her next Calibration. Amiri Magenta. From a lesser house, barely more than a patrician house - and goodness, does she have some resentment about that.” She pauses. “Do make sure to keep that name a secret. She’s kept up her mortal life; I covered up any signs of her Second Breath and disposed of the witness.”

Keris blinks: “Huh. Right, yeah, we’re division heads. We have subordinates.” She shrugs. “Testolagh feels more like an ally than an asset, you know? And, like, he’s older than I am. In both senses. Yours is a baby. Gods, she must still be no stronger than a demon lord.”

“Testolagh should be a division head.” Sasi’s expression is wry. “Something like nearly a quarter of us are. If you’re not one, you’re either new, bad at leading people - like your friend Naan - or say the wrong thing and anger the wrong people. Like him.”

“Yeah,” says Keris awkwardly. Talking about Testolagh with Sasi - especially his flaws and position in the Althing - is never exactly comfortable. “Oh! Speaking of subordinates, Neride’s actually been somewhat competent this season. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. Have you ever heard of Ta Vuzi?”

Sasi closes her eyes, eyelids twitching as she searches her memories. “... in the north-western Anarchy, just below the Wailing Fen, held by House Ragara, exports are beastman slaves, alchemical reagents, low grade jade and hearthstones.”

“That’s the one. Well, Neride intercepted one of their tribute ships and its convoy, killed everyone, grabbed the tithe, sunk the ships, and brought everything back to me. And Sasi, there’s a fortune here. The alchemical reagents alone... and the jade? And the hearthstone slurry? I don’t even know what I’m gonna do with the last one.”

Keris hesitates, and chews a hair-tendril.

“But... I looked up how they make it. I don’t... Rounen wasn’t able to find much in the way of details, but apparently they’ve got these giant ‘dragon-drinker’ machines that pump... something down into the ground, and up comes this, this slurry of hearthstone fragments and essence tokens, and the whole region is sick and diseased and polluted and dying because of it. I don’t even want to imagine what they’ve done to the geomancy to make pseudo-hearthstone fragments form under giant artificial crane... tower... things, the book wasn’t clear and there weren’t any pictures, but whatever’s going on there cannot be good for the place. Right?”

She props herself up on her elbows above Sasi and barrels on before her lover can answer. “So, like... I was thinking, the sources Rounen found say the drinkers are all falling apart, they’re not manse-tough and while they’re pumping slurry out of the local geomancy I don’t think they’re hooked into it, so there wouldn’t be any demesne explosions if they got destroyed - or at least there haven’t been from the ones that have broken so far, and Lilunu’s taught me enough that I can check before doing anything. And I’m fast and I have the King’s fire by way of Haneyl, so if I wanted to I don’t think they could do much to stop me just... swimming there for a season and going around burning them all down over the course of a few nights. By the time news hit the capital of the first few going down, I’d have taken half the rest out - I know I could get them all before they could defend any enough to keep me out.”

Pausing again, Keris glances at Sasi to make sure she’s following. Her face is neutral, but her lips are pursed.

“It’d be obviously demonic,” she continues, “but there’d be nothing that pointed back to me, and I could lay false trails leading into the Fen or whatever. They can’t rebuild the drinkers or they’d have repaired them already, and without the drinkers there’s nothing there of value they can’t get other places cheaper. It’d kill the place as a satrapy and let the land start healing besides. But.” She holds up a hair tendril.

“But, and it’s a big ‘but’... I dunno what would happen next. Like, environmentally I can guess, and I know the Realm would pull out. But, like... I’d have knocked out the main industry of the place and then all their dickhead rulers would leave. I dunno how the locals would take it. I dunno what their society would do. I dunno if it would make their lives better or if they’d just... disintegrate like a gang whose boss had been knifed. And they’re right under the Wailing Fen and I do not want the Zu Tak to swarm into Ta Vuzi and start rebuilding just after I’ve finished punching them back into the swamps. And you’re way better at politics and predicting big stuff like that than me. So... what do you think?”

Sasi listens, and she’s very much Nemone Sasimana at this moment, not just Sasi. “I don’t think it would end well. For one, Keris, if House Ragara can’t take their tribute in reagents and hearthstone slurry, they’ll take it in slaves. There are always buyers. But more than that, I know the textbook of how to control these kinds of poor places. Put local patsies in charge, raise up a hated minority so they’re reliant on the patronage of the satrap, and make people complicit in what happens. I’m not totally informed on the facts on the ground, but this won’t be a place like the satrapies of the southern coast. I think you’re very much right when you say they’d disintegrate like a gang whose leader is killed, turning on each other to fight over the scraps. All to try to keep the favour of the Realm. And you know more about the Zu Tak, but as I recall they’re necromancers and that kind of horrible bloody fighting will only make them stronger.

“Keris, it sounds like an ugly place, but your doubt is healthy - it tells me you’re thinking about such things. And I am proud of you for that.”

Keris blushes, but then wrinkles her nose. “I don’t want to just leave them there, though. I mean, ignoring everything else, that collapse is going to happen eventually anyway whenever the dragon drinkers run dry, and in the time between now and then they’ll supply the Realm with... a lot of money. Like. A lot. I filled a warehouse with the haul from that tribute ship.”

She blows out an irritated sigh. “I think I could force the Realm to pull out if I did bring down the drinkers. The Anarchy’s basically cut off from the Blessed Isles - and even Triumphant Air - by the Hook... it’s just too far to be worth getting slaves from. It’d be too easy for me to intercept their ships; they can’t reach all the way out to the edge of Creation. If it was An Teng I couldn’t fend them off, but they’d have to get a fleet out from Triumphant Air, round the bulb of the Hook, past Ca Map and through some pretty pirate-infested waters to accompany it. And that still wouldn’t stop me just slitting the ship’s belly open from underneath and then leading any Water Aspects that chased me into the Fen.”

Falling silent for a moment, Keris chews a hair tendril. “But even if they ignored the locals wanting their favour and pulled out because it wasn’t worth the cost... that still leaves the place collapsing. They’re doomed if I do hit it, and the Realm keeps profiting if I don’t.”

“Fundamentally, my dear, you’d need to put something in place that could catch the edifice when it tumbles,” Sasi opines. “You’d want locals who are in a position to take advantage of the disorder and put a new regime in place. People sworn to our masters who respect the rightful rulers of the world. And it might be a solid idea to spread the worship of a demon lord or demon prince with a solid grasp of geomancy and a fondness for fixing broken lands, so the miracles they - and you - bring will be justly adored.”

Keris adopts a very thoughtful look and falls into deep thought for a moment. “That’s a good point,” she muses slowly. “A very good point... hmm. And something to catch whoever the Realm are using as - what did you call them? Local patsies, hated minority... yeah, whoever they are, they’ll probably want to flee the country really quickly after the Realm pulls out. If I can be there with boats for them, I can get them all into my service and take them to a new island somewhere. Two assets for the price of one. Urgh, I don’t know enough, that’s the problem. You said beastman slaves - I guess there are a lot of beastmen there, then? Rounen’s notes didn’t mention... well, they might have done, I kind of skimmed them. Rrrgh.” Her hair rustles in frustration. “Fine, I’ll do nothing for now. And see if I can find out more about the place. Maybe send...”

She pauses, rapidly marking off all six of her eldest children in rapid succession - too likely to do her own thing, busy with ocean manses, probably going to want time with her businesses after she recovers, too likely to murder everyone in charge, no concept of subtlety, too young.

“... someone,” she finishes. “I’ll maybe send someone to investigate. Elly, perhaps. She’s pretty trustworthy. Or, hell, just wear a false face and hire someone from the Raaran Ge to take a poke around.”

“A wise idea. They’re the local remnants of the gens of the Blue Monkey Shogunate, aren’t they?” Sasi smiles. “You should be looking to be getting some Dragonblooded underlings anyway. You’ve been using your child-souls in their place, but there’s some things a dragonchild is much better. Especially in the face of other dragonchildren.”

“I’m trying, I just... want to make sure they’re loyal,” Keris grouches. “I can’t trust coin-hire Dragonblooded with anything important, and that limits how much I can use them for anything. They’re too strong to kill easily if they find out stuff about my children and react badly, or start thinking about outing me to a higher bidder. That means I can’t just employ established dragons, I need to find some I can get on my side with, like...” She waves a hand vaguely. “Gratitude. Love. Genuine loyalty, you know what I mean.”

Sasi sighs. She obviously has different opinions on these things, but she doesn’t want to be fighting with her girlfriend in her dreams. “By the way, I’ve been writing more,” she says, clearly trying to change the topic. “It’s been... cathartic.”

“Oh?” Keris perks up, a slight mercenary glint coming to her eyes. “Do tell! I’m always happy to hear your work. And see drafts. Not that I’m trying to exploit you, love, but the script you wrote me back in Air is wildly more popular than Elanora in the bidding I’m getting for performance rights. You have real talent as a playwright.”

“Well, I could always give you a demonstration,” Sasi says, a wicked little glint in her eye. “I’ve even managed to get one of my cults with a few Lower Deliberative members in it to act out a few scenes from my work I did for you last Air. It’s really hot.”

“... o-oh?” Keris suppresses a wince. She hadn’t realised that little corruptive nudge she’d given Sasi at Calibration would take so well. And while she’s making a lot of profit from the play in Hell, acting out scenes from it on the Blessed Isles...

“Scenes from the early acts, or... more towards the end?” she asks hesitantly.

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s a private little group,” Sasi reassures her. “This kind of thing would be totally unacceptable in public. Or even in most parties. The Order would have people who took part in these kinds of Yozi-worshipping rituals put to the elements, so by having them do it - well, it’d be a death sentence to let others find out.”

“I’m well aware,” Keris mumbles. “I did the editing on that script, remember?”

She rolls over, tipping them onto their sides and snuggling back into Sasi’s embrace with a happy wriggle as Sasi’s arms close around her. It’s nice, being able to have these dreams with her loves. She doesn’t do it often - maybe three or four times a season - but it makes the loneliness recede a bit, being able to connect and talk and cuddle when it feels like it’s been too long.

Also the sex. The sex is really good. Gales are good for when she just wants some physical release, but they’re not Chosen.

“I love you,” Sasi murmurs into her ear. “I wish Tessie knew how to do this, but at least I have you.”

“I love you too,” Keris murmurs back, and turns in her embrace to pull her in for another kiss.

Shining Foam Upon A Babbling Brook sits in the hills above the coast-hugging city of Saata proper, on the lands held by the Sinasana family. Its neighbourhood is largely worthless ruins, part-plundered for stone and entirely stripped of any ancient wonders long ago. But around it, there are signs of life that were not there before. When Little River moved in, she renovated old buildings as dormitories for her workers. And some of the workers brought their families with them, and other people showed up to sell food to the young people who lived there. And now some of the cleared spaces are starting to show up with crops, as the kitchen gardens of the local workers start to bear fruit.

It isn’t as fast as Sinasana Ba-le would have liked, but there’s now a village forming around Shining Foam. And the recent recruitment of new journeymen and students has seen a surge in the local population. Little Bird has made her own arrangements with Ba-le and now she’s leasing an old apartment block she’s renovating herself. It’s a sign of this old part of the city coming back to life.

But Shining Foam still isn’t making money, and hasn’t yet. And while Elly has been busy obfuscating the books and concealing expenditures and laundering Keris’s hellish money through it to look like laundered Hui Cha money pretending to be income, it can’t go on like this forever.

Hence the new journeymen. Who have, unknowingly, handed themselves over to a hellish tyrant. They call her that when they think she can’t hear them, not knowing how very true the description is.

For their teacher is a demon princess, and a teacher of demons besides. If the young, unproven journeymen who jumped at a chance to earn their masteries under the instruction of a Water Dragon had been given a chance to talk to Keris Dulmeadokht’s past students - the ice-horned demoness named Oula, the infernal-sworn woman called Kuha, even the demon lord Calesco who Saata knows as Black Shawl - they might have been told about the uncharacteristic harshness a normally-kind woman brings to tutelage. But then, Little River’s reputation is not one of kindness, and these men and women put themselves in her hands regardless. Perhaps they only have themselves to blame.

On one particular morning late in Earth, there’s certainly lots of blame being laid. And a lot of regrets, too. It’s an evaluation day of their efforts with wax-casting, and Little River is critiquing what they’ve produced.

“Sloppy,” she says, examining a talisman meant to bring good luck and fortunate winds to a ship captain. “You’ve lost most of the detail here and here. Intricate detail is difficult to carry through a casting. You were overambitious, and spent so much time on the wax carving that you weren’t able to finish the piece when the silver lost precision. Next.”

This piece is a sword pommel in the shape of a wolf’s head. It gets a cursory inspection and a frown. “Inadequate forming in the wax. And a poor grasp of proportions - you mis-sized the lower jaw in the wax. Again; the transfer from wax to mould to silver will reduce the fine detail and amplify your mistakes. Your waxwork was rushed, and it shows. Next.”

The only person in the courtyard who has yet to be criticised is Little River’s daughter Atiya, only a week away from her third birthday. Every time her mother critiques a piece, she hands it to the little girl, who holds it in a cotton cloth so that none of her skin touches the metal and minutely inspects it for the flaws Little River has so mercilessly pointed out.

Atiya is not a normal child. Oh, she is named in an archaic way, like she was one of the old Tengese royalty. Oh, her mother is a child of dragons and so maybe she will be too. But she’s strange in other ways.

Her appearance; paler than other children, and never tanning, only burning, so she’s as pale as an aristocrat back in the old country. Her eyes are so dark that it almost looks like her pupil takes up her whole eye, and her too-straight, too-smooth hair is a midnight sky.

And her mannerisms. Her collection of dolls is extensive, and each one is always dressed in a particular way that changes based on the time of day. She rarely speaks, and when she does, it’s a flat monotone. Her answers to questions are... strange, and often not at all answering what she was asked. She rarely responds to her name when it’s called out, and her mother has to come over into her sight line when she wants her attention. When the children of the families living around Shining Foam try to play with her, she doesn’t respond.

With all this and her looks, her mother’s keen ears can hear the rumours and mutterings. ‘Ghost child’, ‘touched by the Pale Mistress’, ‘Calibration babe’. Even the outcasts and strangers of the Tengese have a keen sense of the normal, and they wonder if Atiya has been influenced by something abnormal.

Eventually Little River finishes her scathing review of her students’ efforts, and dismisses them to work on refining their wax casting techniques with simpler examples. Retiring to the shade of the tree where Atiya has grown bored of their examples and gone back to playing with her dolls, she hovers nearby for a moment. Two of the dolls in play she knows - Lady Green is easy to identify, currently in a light green dress since it’s the morning, and Hissy the Snake is currently in a blue-and-green diamond-patterned skin. The third one, though - a male doll with broad shoulders and a black coat - she doesn’t recognise. Rounen must have acquired it for her, or just given it to her as a present. Her aide has something of an eye for things her youngest child will like.

“Atiya, darling?” she says, waiting for a pause to interject into and crouching to get the little girl’s attention. “That’s a nice new doll you have. Would you like to introduce me to him?”

“He’s ‘Pector.” She realises after a moment that he looks like one of the House Sinasana customs inspectors, and her daughter didn’t quite get what Rounen was probably saying when was introduced. “He has a black coat.”

“I see,” says Little River, nodding seriously. “Do Lady Green and Hissy like him?” It’s not an idle question. Atiya’s dolls are far from a cohesive unit, and there are quite a few bitter grudges and rivalries among them, which her daughter seems to enjoy keeping track of. Even if some of the reasons for enmity can be decidedly... strange.

Atiya considers this. Then, “Lunch?”

“Of course. Do you want rice and bean paste like usual?”

Atiya doesn’t look at her, but does say, “‘s.”

Little River sends a servant off to get meals for both of them, and Keris Dulmeadokht sits back with one ear keeping idle track of her students and watches her daughter play.

She’s concerned about Atiya. That much is easy - if a little galling - to admit. For all of Fleshweaver Xia’s expertise, something in the process of Atiya’s creation must have gone wrong to have her turn out like this. It’s... painful to think like that, because it’s not like she loves her daughter any less for her differences, and thinking of them as ‘flaws’ feels cruel.

Perhaps ‘difficulties’ is a better description. Or indeed ‘Bans’. Atiya seems to have something of a demon’s nature in her in the limits to her behaviour, just as an angyalka must play the strands of Time and an amphelisia cannot bear laughter or cease their constant murmuring. In Atiya’s case, there are textures she cannot stand - smooth metal, certain types of fabric - and she’s averse to direct eye contact. She’s willing to touch other people, but only in certain ways, and she hates it when her rules are ignored. In some ways she reminds Keris of Kalaska, and she tries as best she can to accept and support both girls’ needs and eccentricities.

It’s hard, though. Neither is good at communicating what they think or feel, which means that all too often she learns of a new Ban by accidentally breaking it and setting off a meltdown. One trait of Kerisa’s that has definitely carried over is her stubbornness, and Atiya is incredibly resistant to being calmed down when she’s upset. She doesn’t throw loud, passionate tantrums like the twins do, but the bleak depressions where she clams up and refuses to talk or acknowledge anyone at all are even worse than screams and broken property, in their own way. Perhaps this is just who she is, or perhaps it’s a facet of the dark blessing Noh laid on her at her birth. Keris has no way of telling the difference.

It’s not that Atiya is unhappy here at the moment, sitting in the shade, playing with her dolls. She doesn’t tell stories or anything, but there’s clearly some kind of narrative going on there. And though she isn’t very open with her affections, it’s different with Rounen. Her aide is... well, there are mutterings that maybe he’s her real father, given the way she’ll immediately walk over to him and sit by him whenever he shows up.

Or maybe it’s just that none of Keris’s daughters are ‘normal’, but maybe a younger Calesco would have been more like Atiya. She’s certainly night and day to Kali, who’s just as gregarious and willing to talk at length to total strangers as ever.

One thing she does have in common with her siblings is a love of music. In fact, Atiya is turning out to be one of the most musical in the family as an audience. She doesn’t like singing or playing herself, but she rivals Ogin in how sensitive she is to a single missed key or poorly-tuned instrument. Keris gently starts humming a melody as their meals arrive and Atiya eats her lunch in careful order; three spoonfuls of rice followed by one of bean paste each time. Once she’s contentedly occupied with that, Keris lets her attention drift back to her students.

They are an ungrateful lot. Okay, yes, Little River is something of a harsh taskmistress - she’s also heard ‘slave-driver’ and ‘devil-smith’, the last of which is amusingly accurate. But they are improving. And they’re improving fast. The practice castings sitting in the wooden bucket where Atiya discarded them aren’t great, but two weeks ago her students wouldn’t even have been able to attempt designs that advanced.

And while she’s willing to overlook insults directed at her that are muttered outside of Little River’s hearing, she’s not nearly so tolerant of insults directed at her daughter. Atiya has nothing to do with her standards of work, or her students’ mediocrity. The first and only smith to voice a poor opinion of her had turned around to find Little River looming behind him, and after his ejection the rest of them have treated her with careful politeness even when they think her mother is absent.

It’ll be a while yet before they get up to the level where she’s happy to sponsor them for accreditation of mastery at a temple. But there are a few who stand out from the crowd as having potential; two men and a woman with more natural smarts than the rest and a natural knack for craftsmanship that sees them advance at a quicker and easier pace than their fellows.

Grey Dog and Falling Ox - well, those two men come together. Both as best friends, and also as... well, more than friends. She’s spied on them and knows that they’re trying to avoid the marriages their families have arranged for them. Not get out of them exactly, just... put them off. It’s probably why these two who might arguably be able to get their own shop together have come all this way out away from the main body of the city. Grey Dog is one of the ones who plays the fiddle during the evenings; his lover has an impressive baritone. And then there’s Li Yuan. Not Tengese, and she’d been one of Little River’s charity cases; a single mother who she’d expected to wash out of her training and just find a job for her - because Keris sure as hell wasn’t going to put a woman with a young infant out on the streets even if Little River would be expected to be more cutthroat. But she has a natural talent, one which clearly wasn’t going appreciated at her old workshop where she only maintained the furnaces and made the wax negatives.

These three are the ones Keris is thinking of offering further tutelage to. Oh, all her journeymen are pacted to her, sworn to her service when they began their employment at her smithy and given silver dragon-head tattoos to show their status. But for these three, she’s seriously considering investing more power in them as she did for Pale Branch. She won’t go through with it until they hit the limits of mortal skill from her teachings, and that will be some time yet. But she’s been watching them, and they seem trustworthy enough to deserve such a gift even without the loyalty she’s been drilling into all her students.

Not that she’s going to stop doing that. There’s an icy shard of gratitude in the heart of every journeyman in Shining Foam, whispering how fortunate they are for her tutelage, and fleshy seeds accompany them in many of the whinier men and women.

Now, when lunch is over, she thinks she’s going to have them run around the compound. It’s not sadism. They just need to build up their endurance in the heat and humidity. Totally different from sadism. They might disagree, but that’s why she’s the teacher and they’re not.

Keris has other students. Other, far less human students.

“No!” she snaps at the szilf currently demonstrating a dance in what will someday be the front courtyard of a blue-walled temple. “You’re still putting too much swing into your hips. And that dip to flash your cleavage was not part of the form. The Flower-and-Wine Steps are to draw a spirit out of their sanctum by honouring and flattering them, not flirting and flashing thigh. This is one of the basic forms, Anyuu, if you can’t control your nature enough to master this, you’re not going to succeed as a Priestess. Now, again. From the top.”

But then again, keruby are very human. And Keris is no softer on them, in this temple being built in the near-Meadows, closer to the City than Sirelmiya’s temple. It’s close enough that when she stands on top of the dome - or at least what the dome will be when it’s finished - she can see the Swamp and the Ruin at the same time.

And this temple is very special for one reason; it’s a place for adults. The silence-wards that have been laid down, woven from Ekoan cloth and painted with blood, stop any of the music of this place escaping. And one of the duties of the would-be initiates is to keep all child-keruby out. Without exception.

Marchioness Anyuu of the Ruin-Meadow border hills sets her jaw, backs up to the edge of the marked-out proto-courtyard, lifts her arms into the practiced starting pose, and starts again as Keris plays. This time she sticks to the steps as Keris taught them.

“... better,” Keris allows. “Work on that last flourish - you want to project more of an air of sincerity and respect, at least on the outside. Try widening your eyes a bit more and toning the smile down a little - think ‘shy flattery’. Gods love it when they think you’re so overawed by their power and rank that you can’t help peeking up from between your lashes at them.” She pauses, considering that. “Actually, so do most humans. One of the ways this dance works for both. Now, come sit down and give me your hand.”

Anyuu is a szilfa, and she’s old. Admittedly, old by kerub standards isn’t all that old, but she’s older than the hills and the mountains of this landscape. Older than Rathan and Haneyl. OIder, too, than Firisutu. One of those irritating early keruby who are proof that Eko was the first one to make lesser demons. Her shawls are red-and-white checked, her mask is an exaggerated blue-lipped priestess-harlot, and though she might be hiding it, Keris can tell much of what she’s doing has her blushing.

Her arms are heavily tattooed - a carryover of the ribbon-embroidery she’d had as a gang boss before committing herself to this path after the Quicksilver Betrayal made her re-evaluate her life choices. Keris takes her hand and pulls back her sleeve, turning it palm up.

“Review time,” she says briskly. “Why do we study hand massage?”

Anyuu inhales. She holds her hands out in front of herself, turning over and over her dark skin, looking at the once-embroidered tattoos of Old Realm characters on each knuckle. “The... the hands are the out-stretched greeting,” she says, voice trembling slightly. “They’re the second thing people look to, after the face. They’re the second impression, and you said that m-many people judge a joyful priestess on seeing her... her profession, so we must make a good second impression. And it’s also easy. And poor health in the hands is a s-sign of weak extremities.”

Keris inclines her head in a slight nod. “Very good. They also contain all of the essential basics of our style of massage, making them a good teaching tool both for you, and for any clients who need to be gently introduced to the physical side of our duties. Hand.”

Anyuu obediently returns her hand to Keris’s grip, and Keris briefly clasps it between her own. The close-to-human nature of keruby helps her here, and her thumb traces a seemingly-idle path up and back along Anyuu’s inner wrist while the fingers of her other hand apply light pressure to three points on the back and sides of her palm.

“Now, what did I just do, and why?” she asks.

Anyuu frowns, wiggling her fingers. “You... hid the ache in my left hand from where I got stabbed by that bitch Moli.”

Keris nods. “That’s a general pain reliever. It’s not a long-lasting effect, and it’s weak, but it’s quick and easy to apply, and a client won’t always consciously register the difference. Their body will notice, though, and associate you with the discomfort going away. That’ll incline them to trust you more when you touch them in future. Particularly effective for labourers or people who do a lot of work with their hands - drudges, for instance.”

She reached into a pocket and took out a thin silver bracelet. “Now,” she said, fastening it onto her left wrist, “show me what you’d use to distract me and focus me on my right hand while you snuck this off my left.”

Anyuu gulps, but gamely takes her hand after only a minor pause and starts on the Fourteen Fingers, which... isn’t what Keris would have chosen, but fits the criteria she gave. She pays attention as Anyuu meticulously works each joint in turn; distal, proximal and knuckle. She makes one or two comments for improvement, but in general Anyuu’s doing fairly well and there isn’t much to criticise beyond simply practicing more to refine her familiarity with the techniques.

She notices Anyuu filch the bracelet, of course, but it’s a good subtle theft, and it would take a very sharp-eyed or suspicious human to spot it if they weren’t prepared.

“Alright, I think you’ve earned a short breather,” Keris says once they’re finished. “Do you have any questions you want to ask?”

Anyuu considers her options. “Where’d you learn all this stuff?” she goes for. Keris has been doling out information piece-by-piece, never giving her everything she asks for, not least because she’s a szilf and they have problems not-using any information they have in their mockery.

But the other thing is something that Anyuu can’t know. She speaks like she was born in Firewander. It’s even more Nexan-sounding than Keris these days. And it’s so strange that these demons so perfectly could be someone she’d known in Nexus. Hell, there were always the rumours that some of the nuns and monks at the Immaculate temple she’d used to go to as a kid used to be with the gangs. Keris hadn’t believed it at the time, ‘cause what kind of gang kid would go straight and become a boring, ill-fed nun?

“Nexus,” she says. The bare minimum of an answer. Anyuu hasn’t earned anything about Gull yet. “That’s where my branch of the order was based. Might still be; I haven’t been back in a while.”

“Nexus,” Anyuu says, trying the word on her mouth. “Where the fuck’s that? You dun’ talk about it much here. Is it more like the Spires or the Swamp?”

It is a reminder that not all keruby are like Rounen or Oula, absorbing things from her like a sponge. This old, old kerub has spent her whole life in this tiny world. She doesn’t know about Nexus; she probably doesn’t really know anything about Malfeas, or other demons, or anything that she didn’t learn here. She was a gang boss, after all, so maybe she saw some plays that mentioned things of the outside world, but her keruby treat knowledge of Creation as an interesting flavour. Hell, even the more knowledgeable ones tend to have minor freak-outs when they get outside and find the sky is blue during the day, the moon is white, and there’s a super bright super-moon that creates the day.

“There’s a great set of islands in the middle of Creation, like the City, with a small sea around them and an ocean to one side,” Keris explains, after a moment’s thought. “On the other side, where the Meadows would be, there are two great rivers running from far inland that meet and mingle and then join the inner sea. Nexus is - or was - the greatest of Creation’s cities, on the banks where those two rivers meet and join together. There are a few that rival it in size, but none in character.” She scowls. “Or there weren’t. It went downhill after I left.”

“Putting the Isles in the middle of the world?” Anyuu pulls a face. “That ain’t right. That’d put Zanara in charge.”

“Yeah, a lot of people in Creation don’t much like the Blessed Isles being in charge,” Keris agrees wryly. “Unfortunately, they’ve got a bunch of legions and naval fleets to make their case for why they should be. But that’s the domain of Lady Mars, not Venus, so it’s not our concern as priestesses.” She claps sharply. “Up, and show me your stretches. You’re still not flexible enough, I want a hundred hamstring stretches on each leg. Set the bar at the second interval.”

“Yes boss!” she declares instantly, flipping to her feet with almost insultingly casual ease.

Keris watches her as she stretches, and she catches herself trying not to think about Gull. Yes. Her feelings about her teacher, her lover, her wife are still all mixed up. She’s so used to training her mind not to think about her that she has built-in habits of avoiding such thoughts.

Would Gull be proud of her now? And how did she feel when she started teaching Rat and Kit as her first two students? Were they really her first students? Or had she been hiding that from Keris? She...

Keris’s stomach lurches, as she realises that she’s fast approaching the age Gull had been when she met Kit for the first time. She’d been... what, thirty? Thirty. A scary number.

It feels like a milestone, and one she’s not entirely comfortable passing. She has children now - a large and ever-growing brood. She owns businesses, she has students. She’s setting up a temple that she’ll be in charge of, and she gives orders that she never even sees carried out, so detached is she from the outer fringes of her influence. And that’s not even going into her positions in Hell. Head of the Lower South-Western Division, Mistress of Ceremonies... as much as it makes her uneasy, there’s no real denying that she’s an adult now. A grown-up. No longer a kid, or even a reckless young woman with nothing to tie her down. She has responsibilities now. Chains of duty and obligation that bind her as surely as any set of manacles.

And she knows well from Gull that falling into such things before you’re ready for them can have tragic consequences.

She watches as Anyuu tries faithfully to do her stretches, but she’s shaking from exhaustion by the end.

Well, maybe there’s some advantages to being the teacher.

Chapter Text

Early in Wood, Keris takes her extensive brood and heads up to Zen Daiwye. She wants her family around her for Haneyl’s recovery, and that means sending messages out to recall Rathan and bring everyone together.

There’s an odd air of deja vu as she leads her family up the hidden paths and secret tunnels up through the highlands of Shuu Mua. It’s a much faster route than the first time Asarin led her up to the lost city of Kokunga a year ago, because the Great Mother’s blessings ease their path and guide them down hidden routes. But it’s the same basic direction, and now the dragon-crawler can be seen through some now-cleared vegetation as they take the path up the cliff face.

She still needs to do something with everything she got from the dragon-crawler. And with the dragon-crawler itself. It passed out of mind with the stress of her injuries, and she secured it, but it’s not doing any good just sitting here. Vali’s said that the people she made are avoiding the old ruins, so they’re secure for now, but people are people and might still want to plunder things.

Oh well. Problems for later. Right now, she needs to pick her way through the landscape to see the new mansion that Vali’s been building.

Vali’s made more progress than she’d expected. The island he’s found is high in the valley, nestled in the middle of the river with swift currents on either side. Her son has raised a large compound on the downstream side; four large wings are connected to each other with a trio of smaller ones huddled in the courtyard between them. She can see a temporary bridge connecting the island to the south bank of the river as they approach, and he’s constructed a simple dock that the biggest wing fronts onto.

Inside, it’s... less impressive. Vali’s raised the external structure with admirable speed, but inside the house is largely unfurnished. A few of the ground-floor rooms in the east wing have sleeping mats, boxes and improvised furniture laid out, but it’s clear that people have basically been camping out here rather than living. The walls are bare, there’s no furnishings, the water tank on the roof is empty and unconnected to anything and there’s no art anywhere in the compound besides a few lightning-etched pictures of dragons burnt into the wooden walls in the bits of the west wing Vali’s claimed as his own rooms.

Still, it’s an amazing canvas for Keris and her children to paint on - and once Keris walks through to see the rest of the island, she sees that Vali’s laid the foundations for workshops and forges up the south bank, and has left the northern bank mostly untouched. When she asks, he says it’s because the soil isn’t as rocky, so Haneyl can set up some gardens there once she’s better.

“Vali, this is amazing,” she praises, hugging him. “Well done. I’m really proud of you.”

He just grunts at that. He seems out of sorts, though it’s not until she talks to Evedelyl that she gets the full story.

“I... see,” she says, once her maternal soul finishes recounting things. Running a hand down her face, she groans. “Okay. Okay. Fine. This isn’t unsalvageable. Has she let her keruby back in yet?”

“She held out for nearly a month, but I think,” Evedeyl says, cross-legged on the floor and still towering over Keris, “I think she was missing having people cook for her so she let them back in.”

“Right.” Keris relaxes a little. “Okay, that’s good. I wasn’t looking forward to trying to coax her out if she hadn’t.” She chews a hair tendril thoughtfully. “Mmm. Okay, I’ll go up and be very respectful of her rules and apologise on Vali’s behalf - I’ll get him to write a letter so she knows it’s not just me saying it. Maybe bring her some better food, too.”

The thought occurs to Keris that maybe it wasn’t just Kalaska missing people cooking food for her that got her to let people back in. She wonders whether it matched up with Sasi getting the news that Aiko was back with Keris, safe and enjoying herself.

If so... well, Evedelyl might not know why Kalaska had such a bad patch after Calibration, but Keris can’t help but notice the correlation to her going missing in Erembour’s catacombs. She’d hoped that by treating Kalaska well, she might help Sasi’s mental health. Instead, it seems to be more the other way around.

... well. Maybe she is doing her love some good, she just can’t see the results very well in their infrequent dream-meetings. It’s a nicer thought than the idea she might be doing no good at all.

“Alright, I’ll go up later,” she says. “For now, decorating time! Calesco, pick out some rooms for yourself and think about how you want them to look. Maybe the top floor of the east wing? I think I saw a balcony up there you could fly from. Evedelyl, can you watch the children and tell me when you see Rathan coming upriver? And I...”

She cracks her knuckles.

“I am going to start decorating this place. Starting with a few kordroma to give us some fabrics.”

When Xasan sees the highlander-inspired stylings for the first time, he gets misty-eyed.

“What do you think, uncle?” Keris asks, bouncing on the balls of her feet. After a month’s hard work, the house has been transformed. Thick rugs cover the floors, while drapes and wall hangings break up the wooden walls. At the moment they’re mostly plain things whose patterns are simple blocks of colour, but there’ll be plenty of time to add more intricate artwork and embroidery to them in the months and years to come. Keris has dredged out and smashed up a few of the more wrecked spoils she’s taken to turn them into furniture, and all the rooms on the ground floor are populated enough not to feel empty, though many still have no specific purpose. There are bedrooms claimed for every family member - Eko and Zanara having given their opinions from behind Keris’s eyes, and Haneyl’s rooms being put closest to the planned gardens. The top floor of the east wing still looks a bit barren, apart from Calesco’s suite, but it’s out of the way so it’s not as noticeable.

And everywhere, there are nods to Keris’s heritage. Harbourite colour schemes accompany masks and spears mounted on the walls. Paintings of Nexus are dotted here and there, along with more Hellish art that Zanara has contributed in breaks from whatever project they’re working so hard on in the Isles. Keris even went delving into the Rim and negotiated with her po, and came out again with an Infinite Resplendence Amulet like the one she used to wear, before her children started stealing it as an anchor to Creation. This one is a lesser type, but still more than enough to anchor a Sanctum that takes form as a trio of huge, tent-like rooms that even Evedelyl is comfortable in. Its entrance is at the centre of the island, in the shrine where Keris has placed the priceless statue of Mela she recovered from Eshtock. The power in that will be enough to protect the whole valley, once she has time to set up some potent sorcerous wards.

Xasan swallows. “It feels like home,” he says, sounding stuffed up. “It’s made of stone, but it still feels like... like home. Like this might be a new place for the Daiwye. Maybe not how they were in the old days, but the clan will live on.”

Keris smiles fondly. “I’m glad you like it.” She hugs him, then pulls back, smile turning teasing. “So, out of interest... have you actually caught anything in all that time you’ve spent fishing from the docks? Because I haven’t seen much fish in our meals yet.”

“I caught some,” he protests. “I just don’t know what these ones like. And there’s a lot of river-shrimp and other bug-things in there and they don’t bite like a proper fish!”

“I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it,” Keris grins. “Eventually. Do you think you’ll be staying up here, or splitting time like Ali wants to?”

Xasan doesn’t look comfortable. “I don’t know, Keris,” he concedes. “I... I didn’t have a plan. Hell, I didn’t think I’d live this long. I didn’t want to moulder in Baisha, but Ali was there and it’s not right for family to leave a widower there on his own. If something had happened to him, it would have left Hanily on her own. Family doesn’t do that. But now she’s got you. And I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t want to be a lonely old man who outlived his whole clan.”

“Well...” Keris says, hesitantly. “You’ve still got us. And the people here... they’re not exactly highlanders, but the herders up on the slopes feel like it. You could teach, or share stories of the old land, or... well, there’s a lot of things you could do. Like you said, the clan will live on. And I know we disagree about some things, but I don’t want the old ways to die out.”

She hugs him again. “Stay here for the hot season,” she suggests. “Meet the people, try things out. See if you can find something you want to do. And... don’t lose sleep over it. Tomorrow’s the new moon.” Haneyl hadn’t regrown on the anniversary itself, so Keris was assuming it would happen then. “We’ll be seeing her soon, so there’s a party to get ready for.”

“Aye,” says Xasan, with a sigh. “Aye. It’s just...” He leans back on the seat, looking over the river. “I gave the best years of my life in the service of a shah, and then his daughter, Keris. I was a kalantar. I commanded men. Even back in Baisha, I tried to be kalantar. But it’s peaceful up here. I don’t know if they need me.”

“I’d suggest my Lionesses,” Keris says wryly. “But...” Even after several years, relations between her uncle and Nandi are... tense. Even disregarding the Lionesses’s all-female roster, the clan rivalries there don’t seem to have faded.

“I don’t know,” Xasan says. “Maybe I’ll spend some time walking the valley. See if there’s any man who’s getting on who’d be interested in an old battered soldier to spend his later years with. Maybe I might see if you can magic me up those cattle I said I’d buy with the shah’s wages when I went back home. But somehow I don’t think a herd will be enough to keep me interested. Not now. Not after everything I’ve seen.”

Keris nods. She knows the feeling. For all that she’d love to cast off all her responsibilities and retire here to live in peace... she doesn’t think she could. Not really. Not after matching wits with dragon-children, entertaining Unquestionable, deceiving demons and fighting fae lords. Her life is scary, and certainly there will always be times she has to retreat and hide from it for a while. But she couldn’t leave it behind, either. Her oaths are as yet unfulfilled, and she’d be bored by a rural village life.

Xasan lets out a barking laugh. “Still, there’s worse ways to spend your older years than somewhere warm where your niece is the local goddess. I’ll see what Ali does. The boy’s the son I never had, even if he isn’t the son I wanted.”

It doesn’t happen on the anniversary. Nor on the next day. It hurts Haneyl to see Mama so sad and disappointed, even if she tries to hide it. It makes her feel like Mama doesn’t want her, until Mama sweeps her up in her arms and hugs her and kisses her.

But on the day before the new moon, Haneyl starts to feel the tree calling her. It calls her with a force she can barely resist, like a white-jade needle tugged towards the Pole of Earth. And she can feel the Big Haneyl thoughts thinking through her. It takes her a while to realise that this is one and the same.

The tree was Big Haneyl all along. And she was asleep. Asleep and dreaming as she healed. But now she’s calling the missing part of her, the missing awareness back. And the little sapling is just an extension of the sprawling mass of roots underground.

She holds onto Mama. She’s scared. All her fears are becoming real. And Mama is excited-scared-eager, and she calls Eko and Zanara in and the Big Haneyl thoughts are so hot and angry on seeing Zanara that the tree’s branches flare up.

This... this might be the end for her. For who she is now. Because she’s using all her strength to exist for a little bit longer, and she’s already getting tired. One moment where she can talk to them all as she is now, before Big Haneyl calls her back and wakes up and... and she isn’t sure if she’ll wake up as part of that or whether Big Haneyl won’t be her.

Haneyl swallows, and looks between Mama and her sisters anxiously.

“Mama?” she says, timidly. “I-I’m scared.” She can’t articulate why. She doesn’t have the energy to try and get all the complicated words out, and she’s too scared of voicing them, anyway.

But maybe Eko said something, because Mama cuddles her close in her arms and her hair and looks at her, so close and intense it’s like she’s staring right through her. And then she gently kisses Haneyl on the forehead and tucks Haneyl into the crook of her neck.

“I love you, my little princess,” she says, and Haneyl can feel her voice vibrating through her chest, can taste her sincerity with the root-fingers she’s sunk into Mama’s skin to cling tighter. “I love you so much, and I’ve loved our time together this past year with you as,” she tickles Haneyl’s nose, “an adorable little sweetheart. And I know you’re scared. I know it feels like there’s a difference between you and her. I’ve felt the same thing, you know. Whenever I make my Gales, they’re like little-mes. And sometimes, if a Gale-me is doing stuff on her own for a long time, it feels scary to come back and join together again. I feel like I’m going to get swallowed up in the big-me and just stop.”

She strokes Haneyl’s hair with her own, and Haneyl nods, sniffing. That is what it feels like. Mama gets it.

“But then when we do join up again,” Mama murmurs, “we’ve both been apart for the same amount of time. And I remember being both of us equally. You’ve been doing things for a whole year, sweetie. You’ve climbed mountains with Vali and invented new cake recipes with Eko and you held that big tournament for your farisyya that you built a whole new jousting field for. And big-you has been asleep for all that time. It’s scary to wake up, but she’s not a different person. She’s you, and you’re her, and the you that you’ll be together will be both of you. You won’t be gone. I promise.”

She kisses Haneyl’s forehead again. “I love you, Haneyl. So, so much.”

And it does help. It helps to know that Mama does something like that and splits bits of herself off and feels scared when the small bit is becoming part of the whole again. Because Mama is big and brave and strong, and that means if she can do it, Haneyl can certainly do it because she’s her daughter!

She turns, and walks towards the tree. She can’t refuse it, not now, not when the branches are reaching out for her and the grasses are waving under her feet to almost pull her towards the growth and even her legs feel that pull. But she has her pride. She is a princess, and she’d rather die than be pulled kicking and screaming by her body rebelling against her. If she is going to stop existing, then she won’t be a baby as she meets her end.

The faces on the fruits of the tree are all looking at her, with eyes that burn with pale green fire. The lesser trees around it are reaching out with hungry hands, their branches covered in flame. She’s so so glad that Mama said that there was probably going to be a natural disaster because that had happened the last time she’d grown up, and made sure that everyone was in a safe place, whether in the City or the Meadows or the Isles.

She loves her land. She’s gotten to know it in the past year so well. The wilds of the Deep Swamp, the bright flowers of the border with the Isles, the tangled gloomy growths by the Meadows, and the bright and happy garden-buildings by the City. And she loves her people. The sziroms, who are her friends, and their grown-up versions who look after her. Her knights, her sail-backed lizards, her friendly kats and all the other demon and akuma breeds that live here. She doesn’t want them to be hurt. And maybe this way they won’t be.

These thoughts allow her to distract herself from the fact her body is walking for her. Walking to her end. And with her last bit of will, she places her palm on the trunk of the grand tree, and holds it there even as the tree starts to pull her in.

“If you don’t look after my stuff,” she says, trying to keep the shake out of her voice, “I’m going t-to tear my way out of you and take over.”

A tug, and her flesh comes apart and she’s part of the Many-Faced Tree.

There is a rejoining in which time means nothing. Perhaps it takes a moment. Perhaps it takes a hundred years. Perhaps it is a lifetime and a year and a day, all experienced and remembered at once. She is a seed coughed out on the muddy ground, she is a flame in the shape of a girl that burns with passionate fury, she is a merchant princess lounging at a desk covered in ledgers. She is a child asking her mother why the sky is black, a demon sinking roots into a Tengese woman to ensure a birth, a nameless thing hiding in the swamps from the red and brown thing-that-looks-like-her. She is fighting, she is fucking, she is bleeding out from a carved-open ribcage as she struggles to breathe. She is all these things and a thousand more, a shattered mosaic of moments in time all flying together and forming a picture greater than the sum of its parts.

Time snaps back into being.

She is whole.

She is naked.

She is underground, buried in rich soil amidst grasping roots.

She is very, very angry.

High Princess Haneyl Kerisdokht of the Swamps of Krisity tears her way free of the earth , hair blazing, nails and fangs lengthening, flowers growing around her neck as her eyes become reptilian. The dragon is within her, and for once she feels no shame, no self-consciousness, no desire to hide this ugly, monstrous part of herself. No, right now the dragon seems entirely appropriate to how she is feeling. Her eyes light on the figures waiting for her, and most especially the smallest one, with two-tone hair and mismatched eyes.

“You,” she snarls, liquid green fire dripping from her lengthening muzzle. “You did this to me.”

“I know,” and she can taste the fear in the air from here, from her, from two-tone hair. “I know I did. It w-was making you sick! Are... are you feeling any better? Without the mercury in your heart?”

Oh, the mercury. The mercury which was hers, which belonged to her, which she earned and owned and which the two-tone hair stole from her. She very nearly vomits fire across them for that, and the only thing that stops her is that it would be too fast. Instead she throws back her head and roars her rage to the sky, petal-ruff flaring. The crocodilian screech echoes off the trees, and she lunges towards the little shaking figure, her powerful talons digging into the soil as she moves her great bulk-

Someone steps into her way. Someone gets in the way of her vengeance...

“Haneyl,” the interloper says softly. “I promised little-you that you’d still be in there somewhere. Will you make me a liar? Is she really gone?”


Her charge comes to a halt a few feet away from the long-red-hair - mama. From Mama. Her tail lashes furiously, stripping away the undergrowth that’s sprung up around her tree while she’s been sleeping. She growls, a low bass rumble of discontent.

No. She isn’t gone. She remembers being little. She remembers Mama’s last words to little-her, how scared she’d been and how they’d made her feel better, bolder, braver as she walked towards her sleeping-self. But that doesn’t matter right now! What matters is revenge!

“I can see you thinking again,” Mama says, stepping forward to lay a cautious hand on the tip of her nose. “I do that, too. Stop thinking when I get too angry. Haneyl, before... what happened, you were angry and twisted up and envious. The mercury was poisoning you. And you hated Rathan for learning Sorcery before you, and you hated me for how he broke through first, and you hated... you hated a lot, baby. I couldn’t help you then. But right now... right now you’re standing on the edge of a Choice. You have two things you could give up. Your mercury. Or your little sibling.”

She gulps.

“I can’t influence your Choice. It has to be yours, and yours alone. But Haneyl, baby. Please. Think about what you want to Sacrifice.”

She rests her hand for a moment longer above Haneyl’s terrible crocodilian jaws.

And then, at a quiet, shaky-voiced word from Zanara, and with an effort of will that leaves her trembling in almost-physical pain, she steps aside.

Her head is aching. Because she’s thinking now and she can feel that she’s thinking differently than she remembers. The hunger is gnawing inside and the horrible ache in her chest of missing something that was hers, should be hers. And there’s the rush of heat, the rage and the power and the knowledge that Mama is stronger than her and is scary and that that thing Zanara is a peer and a threat. And then there’s that petal-delicate shell of worry and fear and concern and that cringing sensation that she might be doing things wrong.

But that’s all there is. There isn’t that cloying, sweet hatred, that delicious envy that’s so sweet on the tongue, that was like everything sweet and meaty and which drove her on. That rich fuel that drove her on-on-on. That made her shake and tremble and which hurt when she wasn’t the best. It’s not there. And she remembers it being there, but little-her doesn’t remember it being there.

She’s not thinking and feeling like she used to think. Her thoughts are growing in a different soil.

... and it’s all Zanara’s fault standing there with something that should be hers! is what she nearly snarls. Nearly.

Lifting a limb, without thinking she rubs the silvery scar on her chest. Just over her heart.

“You don’t understand,” she tries. Demands. “It’s mine. It’s part of me. She can just give it back and I’ll let it go and-”

“I will not let you poison yourself again.”

It’s not one of Vali’s oaths. But the words are like stone nonetheless. They echo out across the Swamp. They make the ground tremble and the sky heave. A thundering deluge of rain falls, briefly filling the sky with a few seconds of brutally heavy rain as the clouds above burst open and release all their moisture in an instant. As quickly as it starts, it’s gone, leaving the ground wet mud and water beading on every surface.

Keris’s face is implacable.

“I will not let you poison yourself again,” she repeats, more softly. “It was hurting you, Haneyl. I cannot watch you die a second time. And it would have killed you. You can choose to give it up, or...” she closes her eyes in pain, “y-you can choose to resent Zanara for it forever. But you cannot choose to take back what you lost. Sorcery is about moving on. About leaving behind what was holding you back. Not clinging to the past.”

“No, really, you don’t understand.” It’s a desperate, begging plea escaping from Haneyl, as she shrinks back down. “I can feel where it should be. You still have it! But I can feel the hole in my chest! If I don’t have it I’ll never be as good as I was before! I’ll never be able to push myself as far! It’s not there and it makes my skin crawl knowing it’s not there and she can just give it back and you do it and...”

Inside her chest. Inside the hollow space; something echoing out. Not a voice. But patterns of thought, built up over a year. A year of childish detox - and yes, detox, because little-Haneyl is think-feeling that she sounds pathetic and how dare that brat look down on her! She’s just part of her and she doesn’t get to say that!

She’s just part of her. Just like her seeds are part of their hosts.

Haneyl throws back her head and laughs. She ignores the worried sounds from the others. They don’t understand this either. Little-her was scared of being taken over from the inside by her, but really, that was her purpose. Just the other way around. To be that time of thinking without the heartsap that’s making her beg and plead to have it back. To be re-absorbed and take her over from the inside.

She laughs and laughs and laughs, and she ignores the hands that are patting at her and the hair that’s trying to hug her, and when she finally stops laughing she is human again, looking up with tears running down her cheeks. The world looks different. She can see the ripples of her mother’s declaration still echoing off the Cloud Wall, and the beads of water shimmering on the trees hold a myriad of secrets. Eko and Zanara look utterly different and yet exactly the same, and Mama’s worried voice in her ear holds layers of meaning that were never there before.

She’s seeing the world she grew up in through new eyes. Perhaps they’re the eyes of little-her, she thinks. New eyes for a new rebirth.

“Haneyl,” her mother whispers from where she’s cradling Haneyl’s head in her lap. From her hushed tone, she can already tell what just happened.

“Zanara’s always been a garbage sibling made up of the stuff I don’t want any more,” she says, elation in her voice. “I don’t want - I choose not to want - it anymore.”

She feels her mother relax. She must have been terrified. Mama’s never dealt well with her children fighting. Reunited and awake once more, Haneyl can remember how she’d screamed when Zanara had turned on her and carved her open.

But she’s not screaming now. She’s crying, but she’s crying with happiness and pride, and her arms come around to hug Haneyl hard enough that her newly-reformed ribs creak.

“I’m so proud of you,” Mama sobs. “So, so proud, baby, my baby, my Haneyl, come here...”

Zana’s crying too, and rushes forward to get in on the embrace only to flinch at the last second, still guilty and unwilling to impose on Haneyl’s personal space. Rolling her eyes, Haneyl reaches out, hooks her with an arm and pulls her in.

“You get one,” she says, trying to sound magnanimously tolerant and not really succeeding because she’s still too elated. “One hug. I’m still not happy about you carving my heart out, even if I don’t want the stupid quicksilver.”

“I just wanted you to be well,” Zanara blubbers. “You were there for me when I was little and it was turning you into someone bad and...” The rest is lost in tears.

Eko catches Haneyl’s eye. There’s a nervousness there. The unspoken question as to whether Haneyl remembers her confession as to what she’s done to herself. Haneyl gives a slow, subtle nod. She remembers. She remembers what Eko has done to herself, and she also remembers that Eko exposed that secret shame and bared her skin to make her little sister feel better when she was panicking and scared.

With a quick check to make sure Mama and Zanara are busy bawling into her, she brings a silent lock of hair up to her lips and covers them. She’ll keep Eko’s secret. She’s earned that much and more.

Eko’s mask twists into a grin. Poor Haneyl, her mocking posture indicates. She’s lost all her tan. Now she looks much more like Mama’s good friend Sasi and much less like Mama.

“Urgh,” she mutters. “Shut up, stupid Eko. We were having a moment and you ruined it.” She looks down at her porcelain-pale skin in disgust. “Look at this! I mean, I still look good, but I had a really good tan going and now it’s gone. And I lost my tattoos.” She growls in annoyance. “Mama, you better teach me some really good spells to make up for this. And give me a better sorcery name than you did Rathan and Oula.”

Her Mama presses a teary kiss to her temple. “I already did,” she whispers. “Haneyl Azhgardna, I name you.” And this invocation has Sorcery behind it, has the scent of foreign power and life-in-all-things that Haneyl recognises from the Salinan texts she’s studied. “Who grows new life from fire-touched soil, and tames it with human hands.”

“Hmm.” She considers it. “We’ll see. And-” What she had been about to say is lost in her yawn. “Urgh. Regenerating really takes it out of you. Come on, everyone. We’re going to my hot springs. I need to rest and clean myself up. Then I’ll need to reassure my devoted subjects that, yes, I am back. And then you, mama, are going to need to summon me because I have so much catching up on and incidentally I bet you don’t even have some grand achievement for the Althing because I haven’t been here to remind you to do your job and-”

Picking her up with a grunt and a cradle of hair, Mama stuffs a cake in her mouth to shut her up. It’s the first thing she’s eaten in this new rebirth, and Mama obviously put some effort into making it good - sweet honey twines around spice and the subtleties of the texture sing out how much she’s loved, how much effort went into this and how happy her family is to see her again.

She wolfs it down in moments, and Mama feeds her as she starts off towards the hot springs, cuddling her close the whole way.

“In Lilunu’s name I call you! By the mark she made on me I summon you! In your own name I open the way for you! Come now, oh Flower Maiden, oh Orchid Dragon! Come now, Seventh Soul of mine! Come to me, Haneyl Azhgardna!”

In the open courtyard before the shrine of Ahangar Island, Iris rears up from Keris’s arm. Her wings spread wide, and she throws back her head with a high, clear call. Rainbow fire coruscates around her, and the occult flame she holds in her front talons blazes huge and wild.

In front of her, the skin of the world gapes open like a jagged pair of green-burning jaws. Tangled vines and drifting veils of pollen choke the opening, obscuring everything on the other side - but they don’t hinder the tall, pale figure that steps through. The green jade jewellery left abandoned in Chir a year ago is waiting for her, and she carefully puts it on before looking around.

“Hmm. I’m not sure I like what you’ve done with the-” is about all she manages before she gets hit by several ballistic small children, a ballistic Vali, and an only-slightly-more-sedate Rathan.

The sheer relief and jubilance of the twins, Aiko, Hanily, Vali and an aura-flaring Rathan all put together brings Keris back to tears of happiness - which turn to tearful laughter when Evedelyl can’t help herself and sweeps the lot of them off their feet in a titanic embrace. Haneyl is stuck in the middle of it all, caught halfway between lapping up the adoration and protesting her inability to breathe. Even Atiya looks pleased to see her again, focusing on the big celebratory ball and only wrinkling her nose a little at the noise.

“So,” she says, picking up a very happy Aiko. “We’ve agreed that Zanara gets this one thing. Because I was really ill before they did their thing. But this isn’t a precedent!”

“You sure you don’t want me to hold them down while you punch them a few times anyway?” Vali asks, draping his arms over her shoulders from behind. “Because I did promise.”

“Urgh, you’ve bulked up even more,” Keris hears Haneyl mutter. “I thought my memories were exaggerating. Mama! Make him stop growing! He’s meant to be my little brother!”

“If I could, I would!” Keris calls over, grinning. “He keeps refusing!”

Haneyl considers this. “Vali, I order you to get taller and bulkier!” She glances at her mother. “Worth a try.”

Still laughing, Keris shakes her head. She’s already tried that, and-

“Okay sis!” Vali grins obnoxiously. “If it’ll make you feel better, I will! Oh! I’ll turn into a dragon, that’s both!”

“No!” three or four people shout, as well as a “you’re still grounded!” from Keris. Vali huffs sulkily.

Kali, meanwhile, has had enough of being ignored. “Hanny! Hanny Hanny Hanny Hanny! Look at me look at me look at how big I am now, there are fishes here Hanny, and Vali said there were gardens for you over there and I helped dig all the rocks out, it took aaaaages and there was a rabbit and I caught it and it was yummy!”

Haneyl shifts Aiko to a hip and picks up Kali, staggering slightly under their combined weight. She sits down, one girl on each knee. “That’s very good, Kali. Haven’t you got big? You must have been eating very well.” She glances at Keris. “Now I’m back, maybe your hunting powers can join mine and I can teach you how to cook. Because while raw rabbit can be nice when you’re on the run, it’s even better when you cook it with plenty of spices.”

Kali is delighted at this prospect, and Aiko leans into Haneyl’s shoulder to get away from the cheering. “I’m glad you’re back,” she whispers, clinging to her arm and looking up through her messy fringe. “I missed you.”

Haneyl sniffles. “I missed you too, baby sister. I bet tiny me and you would have had a lot of fun if I could have come out and played.”

Iris slithers into Aiko’s hands, and breathes out two little girls holding hands.

“Yes, that’s true, Iris came in and played with tiny me. And she stole a lot of things I was baking, didn’t you, you little pesky dragon?”

A flame of a grinning face is the answer she gets.

Of course, there are more relatives to greet. And one of them is her cousin, who announces to her face, “You can be Hany. I don’t mind. You should call me Hanilyia now.”

“Oh? You think you’re big enough to demand your full name?” Haneyl asks.

“Yes! After all, I am older than you.” Hanilyia puts her hands on her hips and scowls up at her cousin. “I have to look after all these babies.”

“I’m not a baby! You’re the one who sits in on my lessons,” Aiko counters.

“Ignore the baby, I’m the oldest one of our gen-er-a-shun, so that means you need to call me Older Cousin.”

Haneyl exhales. “I might compromise on Hanilyia. Might. I’m not calling you Older Cousin.”

Keris can see the little smile on Hanilyia’s face that tells her that the little girl started with an outrageous demand to make it more likely that Haneyl concedes where it actually matters.

“Hany, don’t talk to your cousin like that.”

“Daddy, it’s Hanilyia!”

“Yes, Hanily.”


Her laughter is under control, but Keris still has to cover a smile of her own at that exchange. Hanily is shaping up to be as clever as her mother, if not more so. She sidles over to where Calesco and Atiya are staying out of the way of the too-enthusiastic bits of the reunion, the latter on her big sister’s lap, and sits down next to them.

“Are we waiting for her to get some space from the cuddle pile?” she asks. “Good plan. I’m not sure Evedelyl isn’t gearing up to crush them all in another hug.”

“It’s very loud,” Calesco says. “And Haneyl is milking it for everything she can. Atiya doesn’t like the noise, and neither do I.”

“My quiet girls,” Keris says. “Though I think it probably won’t be long before Ogin comes over to join you.” Her son is currently clamped onto Haneyl’s ankle, but his hair is plugging his ears against Kali’s loud yelling. “Tell you what; I’ll try to break the cluster up and get people inside to start bringing food out for our lunch. You can go welcome her back while there’s some breathing space.” She kisses them both on the forehead, then jogs off to rope the more enthusiastic family members into helping mama bring food out for big sis Hanny to get better with. She keeps one ear on Haneyl as she shepherds her excitable babies inside, though, and hears Calesco stand and make her way over to her sister as the door shuts.

“Mama is glad you’re back,” Calesco says softly. “She’s so bad at paperwork and managing things. And she’s been making me do it when I have to cover for her.”

Haneyl pauses, and Keris can hear her happy little sigh. She slings an arm around Calesco’s shoulders. “Missed you too, baby sis.”

“That’s not what I was saying.”

“Yes,” and Haneyl kisses her on the cheek, “but it’s what you meant.” And with that said, she saunters off.

Chapter Text

The blue-grey-green sea does not ripple as Keris sprints along the coastline, following the jagged curve of the Hook. She is a breath over the waters, a fast-moving figure whose hair streams behind her and if any of the junks following this coastline notice this strange sight she is gone before they can investigate.

She is south of the Wailing Fen now, and following the flat coastline of Ta Vuzi, a sad and melancholy satrapy - or so she’s heard. She can see the odd, wading-bird-like figures of the dragon-drinkers, under a hazy grey sky, rising up from sodden grey-green land that isn’t sure if it’s water or solid soil. And the same confusion extends to the algae-choked sea, spreading out from fat, broad, lazy river deltas. Low, wet villages huddle next to fishing docks, raised up on bamboo stilts. Fat mosquitoes and biting insects spread out through the air.

The landscape here isn’t sick in the same way as the Wailing Fen is, but it’s still not well. She can taste it. Something is missing.

But she’s heading here along the coastline of Ta Vuzi, heading down to the easten side, where the bulbous headland of the Hook curves back in, because she’s looking for the Righteous Deer Monastery. With a very certain goal in mind.

She’s here to investigate this place, this satrapy from which the Realm extracts jade and hearthstones and alchemical reagents and leaves poisoned soil and fouled water and a dying, fractious populace in return. She’s here to investigate, to claim a staging point from which she can work her dark designs, and to please her masters by pandering to their delight for perversions of the Immaculate Faith and the worship of the traitor-gods who cast them down.

That it allows her to test the feasibility of a personal goal is an added benefit that Keris is hardly going to turn down when the opportunity offers itself to her so neatly.

She doesn’t stop until she’s getting peckish, and at that point a sizable city is visible ahead of her, black smoke rising up from its fires. Stepping ashore for a few moments to pull out her maps and check it, Keris is fairly sure this must be the capital, Qui Don. The Dictator rules here, but his authority doesn’t spread far beyond the city - and in truth, doesn’t even spread through most of the capital either. The satrap, Ragara Eilka, is the real power here, and the Dictator has no authority over the Realm-owned docks or free-port.

Qui Don sprawls over the landscape, up and down the broad La Ne river delta. The heart of the city is built around a more solid island there, with an ancient Shogunate fortress at its heart. Keris can see the gleam of ancient air-cooling units from atop it. Around it, lies the Realm freeport, built in their style, whitewashed and red-clay-tile roofed. There are other clusters of Realm-style, always built around one ancient Shogunate structure or another, many walled off as little fortresses in their own right. They stand in sharp contrast to the city around it which spreads across the little islands and river banks. House-boats and stilt houses form streets on the silt-clogged, shallow delta, tied together by reed and bamboo bridges. Small boats poled by nearly-naked figures travel between housing clusters in the muggy, sweltering humidity. Insects buzz, and the whole area smells of improper sanitation and something vaguely oily and metallic.

And most of the people Keris sees are beast-blooded, in one way or another. Many are of mixed blood and only limited animal traits; men with deer horns and cat-like eyes, women with dull bird-plumage in their hair and the knees of a dog. But there are more obvious beastmen; turtle-men with brightly painted patterns on their shells, gatormen working at the docks, and bird men who perch on the roofs of stilt-houses. The markets are alive with cries both human and animal.

Eyeballing a few of the local residents, Keris pauses in the shade of a convenient grove of trees to pull a shadow-guise over herself, turning her hair brown again and shortening it down to merely her waist as well as switching her silver feathers out for dull black. After a moment’s thought - and with a half-apologetic wince to Dulmea at the memory of Erembour’s transformation - she throws in a pair of cat ears the same colour as her hair.

Disguise set, she saunters into town, keeping her head down, her shoulders hunched and a wary ear out for the local gossip. Time to see how badly off this satrapy really is.

It reminds her of Nexus. But not in a good way, like Saata. It reminds her of the Nexus that she hasn’t romanticised; the grinding day-labour of Nighthammer, the ruinous poverty of Firewander, the slums slung out on the river in barge-towns. And unlike Nexus, there isn’t the feeling that the people here are just waiting for their next big break. They might mutter that they’re going to make it big, but that’s just a dream to make the day-to-day life less crushing. Something to say when your children are sick or you have to go to the money lender again. And that’s how things were in Nexus, that’s true, but...

... Keris doesn’t have the words to explain how it’s different. Nexus was polluted with Nighthammer’s coal-smoke and the way that Nexan rice was oddly gritty, but the sickness in this land isn’t just fumes and vapours. It’s in the soil, and in the tarry-tasting water in some canals, and the way the bird-men sitting at their clay furnaces are boiling the water over their kilns.

Maybe it’s the way that they seem to be looking up to the Realm and their white buildings. Like a beaten dog, looking up at a cruel master and wishing he’d set them on another mangy cur so he’ll be happy with them. There are little fighting pits here, and men fight beasts and each other, roaring for the raucous violence.

The rain comes in, hammering down on wooden roofs and off canvas awnings. It takes some of the smoke out of the air, and carries oil-slicks over the top of the cloudy water. They know about rain like this, because many of the streets connecting boats have coverings, and the stilt-raised paths might sway, but the river rushes underneath. Keris watches a trio of children, one with little velvet-covered horn stubs and two with cat-like faces throwing cords into the rushing river underneath to try to snag bits of debris and pull them out again.

Uncomfortable with the memories this ailing city is drawing up, she uses the cover of the rain to move on down the coast, shedding her disguise as she goes. Her initial impression wasn’t wrong. And neither was Sasi. The people here want the Realm around. They’re like a gang boss’s girlfriend so beaten-down that they make excuses for what it’s doing to them. It...

... it reminds Keris of Maryam. Of how she’d been with the ghost of her mother. And that’s never something she likes thinking about.

She’s glad for the rain as she makes her way down the coast. It means the capital disappears quickly as she puts distance behind her, and cleanses the greasy feel from her skin.

She pays more attention to the coastline from there, and doesn’t just hug it. She pauses in places, making sketches of the skeletal-bird-like things that bob up and down. She plays with her white-jade leyothier, and frowns when she sees what’s happening to the dragon lines. And she stops over in some of the small towns and villages in the broad river valley which funnels down to the capital.

In many ways, things aren’t so bad there. Keris likes cities, but she can’t deny that in many ways they’re a repository for human misery. The family-less, the lost, the desperate, the dreamers all flock there and many of them get chewed up and spat out. Out away from that expanse, the air is somewhat cleaner, though there’s still sourness in the soil. Sprawling sugar and cotton and rice plantations dominate the lowlands, ruled over by beast-blooded lords and clan patriarchs. They’re almost always mammalian; deermen, bearmen, bunnymen, catmen and dogmen and blends thereof. But the workers in the fields are much more mixed; there’s birdmen and lizardmen there. That’s just how things are, in this flat landscape dotted with rural estates and Immaculate shrines. Oh, there are many shrines. It reminds her of the Scavenger Lands, but maybe even more so. Every small village has a shrine painted in the dragons’ five colours, and monks and nuns are a frequent sight on the landscape.

There’s beauty here, too. She spends a few hours up a tree, above a field of yellow wildflowers which gently slopes down to a river. There are swamps that Haneyl would take delight in, and the whole coastline reminds her a bit of the border between the Swamp and the Isles. The people here love their brightly-painted buildings, their chequered woven jackets, their long skirts that billow around them. There’s music in the little villages, and delicious spicy foods made from the wild deer and the crayfish and lobsters and crabs that are as common as mud here.

But she can tell the whole landscape is crumbling. Washed away by the sea at a rate of - gods, metres a year, maybe. It can’t last, and the very geomancy is sick too, just like the mud is poisoned and there’s always smoke in the air.

“It’s even worse than I thought,” she comments sadly to Dulmea as she surfaces from an offshore dive spent tasting the mud at different intervals out to work out how long ago it had subsided into the sea. “And I don’t think there are any easy fixes, either. It’s like...” She gropes for an example. “Like... like what all those years of drugs and stimulants have done to Peaceful Wave’s body, or the Despot’s over in Ca Map. Like mercury building up, just... layer on layer on layer of progressive damage. And I can’t put root-fingers into a landscape or just dose it with an alchemical cure-all. I don’t think there are any easy fixes here. They’ve beaten the land so badly it’ll take decades to recover. Centuries, for the dragon lines.”

“From what I understand of your lessons with Lady Lilunu, the proximity of the Wailing Fen to the north makes this land already... frail,” Dulmea says, thinking out loud. “I wonder if ancient maps would say that the Fen was smaller and has been spreading south as the geomancy here weakens.”

“Shit,” Keris hisses. “It might have been. Urgh, but there’s no cleansing that... hmm. Though, I wonder. If it was possible to get rid of Gorol’s scream completely, I reckon the High First Age would’ve done it... but maybe the bits outside the area they couldn’t get rid of can be fixed? I’d have to do some more checking... I wonder if you can hear that scream throughout, or if there’s a fixed border to it?” She taps her lips. “Hmm. Something to check. Knowing more about that place will help me keep the Zu Tak safely under a lid, and while I’m all for a source of Hellish ingredients, I don’t much want it taking over the whole Hook. Not even the Unquestionable would. It’s hard to rule a swamp where no-one lives.”

“I think some of them would like that,” Dulmea says softly. “After all, it is a weak place in the world. I dare say it would be easier for our masters to enter Creation there. And if it is larger, and weaker...”

“As a staging point it’s great,” Keris allows. “But you don’t want a whole house made of front doors and cloakrooms. Some would be fine with a swamp full of primitive savages - the Shashalme, maybe Khereon Ul for all the ingredients, others like that. But I rather think more of them wouldn’t.”

She purses her lips. “Though... hmm.” She doesn’t continue out loud, but Dulmea is as attuned to her thoughts as her senses, and reads the flicker-fast chain of musings that go by. She’s already brought Hermione out of Hell, but Hermione hitched a ride with her - and was one of the healthier of her souls, too. Perhaps a wound in the world like this might serve to bring something more of Lilunu’s nature through - another soul, or even a brief manifestation...

“Do not think of such things,” Dulmea warns her. “Her souls - they are demon lords, and Hermione is a useful ally. That is one thing. But at least secure Ligier’s permission before trying this. Please.”

“I know, I know, I won’t do anything rash,” Keris placates her. “If nothing else I’d want to take my time to be sure it wouldn’t hurt her. Anyway, thoughts for later. Does this coastline look familiar, or did we already pass the prominence the monastery was meant to be on? Because I still think that inlet back there looked like the one down the coast from it on the map.”

“We haven’t got that far, and the monastery itself is on a jutting out bit out to sea,” Dulmea says, sounding slightly over-weary. “We need to head further on - and I think it would be a good idea for you to find a place to sleep tonight if we don’t find it by late afternoon. The last thing we need is for you to run past it in the dark.”

“Fine,” grumbles Keris. “But if it turns out I was right and we get all the way to the inside of the Hook without finding it, I’m saying I told you so!”

((Roll me Cog+Travel))
((/r 3d10s7c10 #KerisAttemptingToNavigate))
((Keris rolled 0 <3; 3; 3> #KerisAttemptingToNavigate))
((oh my god keris))

Nearly a week later, Keris actually finds the monastery. It should have been a day or so. But she managed to get lost in the jagged coastline and missed it, and continued too far along the interior of the Hook. She only realised her mistake when she got as far as Dhouta, and that was far, far too far - outside Ta Vuzi entirely.

Dulmea is not saying anything. Keris already got the I Told You So phase out of the way.

“On the plus side,” Keris says , determined to find a bright side as they finally lay eyes on the stone walls atop the rocky promontory, “I’ve got a really good sense of how badly they’ve been fucking up the coast now. Like, not just in the cities, but all the way down the- huh. Wow.” She comes to a stop, eyeing the layout of Righteous Deer from without. “That... is not what I was expecting from a monastery. Like, even the one on Triumphant Air wasn’t this fortified. That looks more like the Lookshyian fort from Saha.”

Keris has seen the landscape around the area in far more depth than she planned to. She’s seen how it’s crumbling, washed away by the sea as earth’s integrity gives way. She’s swam out and found ruins in the shallow waters; she’s even seen artificial island-settlements of beast-blooded sailors living in old towers surrounded by floating house-boats and thinner fishing boats.

And that means she knows for a fact that this fortress wasn’t originally a coastal one. It was probably once in a commanding location over this flat landscape, with ancient weapons to annihilate anything that it could see. But now it rises up from its solid foundations, which have remained solid even as the land around it is claimed by the sea.

The temple-nunnery is shaped like a five-pointed star, with the white walls decorated with red geometric patterns picked out with traces of gold leaf. There’s a gantry visible on the western side, as people up on bamboo scaffolding apply a fresh coat of paint. Orange banners flap in the wind, waving in the onshore breeze. Old essence-weapon towers have been turned into bell towers, where heavy bronze bells sit in place. And that’s the thing she sees about it; it’s massive and blocky and thick-walled, but it’s lost many of the weapons it was intended for. There are only ballistas set up on the sea-ward facing walls, not any of the crackling essence weapons that were intended, and while there are nuns up on the walls, they’re only in the armoured buff-jacket-robes she’s seen for war-nuns before.

At the other end of the half-flooded isthmus that leads to the temple, there’s a small town with low walls, surrounded by rice fields to one side and swamp-cotton on the other. Keris thinks it’s called Bha Qun, if her map is correct.

She makes for the town first, calling for Zanara as she does. Her youngest soul is still in her inner world after Haneyl’s recovery, busying themselves reforming the Isles into a theocracy. But now they come to the mirror within her mind and look through her eyes at the project Keris has set herself.

“Alright,” Keris whispers as she finds a good spot to observe the town and pick a disguise from. “You remember what we talked about. The important thing here isn’t just making it pretty, it’s a proof of concept to see if it works.”

“Yeah yeah, I know.” It’s Zana, almost vibrating in eagerness. “Getting them to accept it matters more than making it as pretty as it can be. Oh, but Keris, you will let me help design the next ones, right?”

“If this works, you can be more creative with them, yes,” Keris agrees. “Now focus.”

It’s a simple enough concept - and one that neatly kills two birds with one stone. The demon princes of Hell love to hear tell of the Immaculate Faith corrupted and perverted into infernalism, and an entire monastery of devout nuns brought into Yozi Worship will delight them. It might objectively be a petty achievement compared to the seeds Keris is laying in Saata to push the Hui Cha into controlling trade throughout the Anarchy, but it will pander more to their grudges against the children of the Dragons - and Keris will be able to play it off as creating a staging point to ruin Ta Vuzi, too.

And it will be that. But there’ll also be a hidden goal, secret to everyone beyond her innermost circle. Because if she can corrupt these Immaculates into the worship of two specific Yozis - two Dragons who were crippled in the great war against demonkind, their names forgotten and unmourned - then it will be proof that she can subvert the Immaculate Faith to worship Lilunu’s souls in turn, as “Lost Dragons” who made a noble sacrifice to eternally guard the prison of the Yozis.

That’s something she can get a lot of use out of, in future.

“I’m thinking dreams,” Keris murmurs, watching the half-hearted, world-weary bustle of the little town with sharp eyes. Her previous disguise should do to blend in here and pick up the local gossip. “If I scope out the monastery and get a feel for the most influential nuns, I can go to each of them in dreams and corrupt them with visions of the dragons left behind. Make them really want to weep and mourn and pay their respects to the cast-down crippled kin of the five they worship, who fell during the War. Once I get enough of them thinking that way, I just have to arrange for someone to voice it and everyone can speak up to say they’ve received the visions too.”

“Mmm.” Zana hums to herself, thinking. “Do you want to work from the top down, or the bottom up? The leaders here will have more power and influence to direct their followers, but they might be more able to notice that something is up. You’d need to make sure they don’t realise something is up, or don’t tell if they do realise.”

“Well, I do have that lovely little gift Erembour taught me,” Keris says smugly. “So... yes, I think we start with the higher-ups. They’ll also be the most senior, so the younger ones will trust them more when they say this is legitimate dragon-worship. And...” she purses her lips thoughtfully. “What do you think about sending them visions of an ancient lost icon to the Forgotten Dragons hidden in the swamps, once enough of them are onboard?”

“‘An image of the Yozis is, in a sense, still a Yozi’,” Zana quotes maliciously. “And you’re becoming akin to them. Do you want to forge an ancient fen-preserved wooden idol of yourself as Gaia, granting life to your eldest and youngest progeny?”

Keris’s eyes glint. “Oh, darling. You come up with the best ideas. Get me a sheet of concept sketches drawn up while I do some spying, and we’ll make it tonight or tomorrow.”

The people in the nearby settlement are a taciturn lot; rangy fishermen with deer horns and tired cat-eyed woman back from the rice fields. They don’t say much. Keris hears from a grumbling pair of women washing clothes in the river that since the abbess is some relative of the satrap, she should do something to get the taxes lowered and it’s an offence the salt-rate they’re paying, but the only other thing she gets is the woman’s name; Humble Mouse. She moves on to the monastery itself, maintaining the cat-eared, crow-feathered disguise of a native and adding to it by dropping out of the story altogether. Lurking unobtrusively backstage in simple clothes, she’s nothing but a local stagehand at the edge of the scene, out of sight and out of mind.

But Keris is watching, from her point of view near the players of this drama. She watches the nuns go about their daily business, and she listens, too, to what they say and do when they think they’re unobserved.

She watches them. The monastery itself is too small for the fortress it dwells in, like a hermit crab in a too big shell, and so much of it has been closed off. Courtyards have been turned into gardens, or fields; much of the structure is bare and stripped. Even half of the central citadel, which is the main body of the temple, is sealed off in this way. In its day, this must have been a fortress holding thousands; now, at most a few hundred nuns are here.

Most of them are locals. Cat-woman, deer-women, the blurred beast-blooded so common in Ta Vuzi. Many of them seem young, of marriageable age; some are barely older than Hanily. Those are mostly the ones in the fields. The older ones are disproportionately fewer in number. Perhaps they leave the nunnery when they get to a certain age.

“Or perhaps they took heavy losses a few years back on a Wyld Hunt,” Dulmea suggests.

This way, however, she gets more knowledge of the leadership. Humble Mouse, the abbess, is a woman with Dynastic features who looks to be in her late fifties. She’s in good shape for that age, though, and Keris can feel that she’s enlightened her essence even if she isn’t a dragonchild. The treasurer is Grey Gull, even older, with skin like parchment; the chief cellarer in charge of the supplies and the fields is one-eyed Gentle Wave; the chief of the library and scriptosium Serenity is surprisingly young for such a role but has divine blood. And then there’s Discipline, a wall of a woman who heads up the local wyld hunt and is training nuns out in one of the bare courtyards.

Unfortunately, her surreptitious raid on the library reveals that all the monastery records that might give her an idea as to the balance of alliances and arguments between these five women are written in High Realm. Which she cannot read. And neither can Dulmea, Eko or Zanara, even if the latter can speak it a bit.

“Damn,” Keris mutters in low tones. “Well... fuck. There goes my first resort. Urgh, and spying on their meetings probably won’t help much either. I bet they’ll speak High Realm there, too.”

She retreats back out to the sealed-off parts of the fortress to consider her next move. Looking into reflections to see the price they’d each sell themselves for would give her a good idea of what drove them, but it would be costly and exhausting to do, and leave her weak and listless for dream-crafting. Playing a junior nun and interacting with them to take the measure of their behaviour towards their underlings might shed some light for a lesser cost, though there’ll be a limit to what they’ll show of themselves to their lessers. A villager might give a different view, but that has the same problem - and they don’t seem to interact much with the monastery - certainly not to the point of coming up here.

Maybe it would be quickest and easiest to just dive in and start sending them dreams in no particular order, trusting the corruptive power of her blandishments to carry her scheme regardless of strategy.

“Bah. Stupid unreadable High Realm babble,” Keris grumbles, watching Discipline run the fitter-looking nuns through their training. “Stupid unfair Realm leadership. Why couldn’t they put someone local in charge who speaks Firetongue?” She sighs, slips out of her hiding place and steps back on-stage again. But not as herself. No, this time she coughs out blood onto a stolen habit and takes the role of a junior nun - just one among many, a faceless member of the supporting cast who the eye skims over in favour of the main characters.

“Well then,” she mutters, “let’s meet our ruling Sisters.”

No one looks at a nun with a broom. She’s just standing there sweeping, and the most she gets is a “Make sure you see to the prayer hall and do it properly, the last girl skimped on the corners”.

Discipline is the first of the senior women she interacts with, because she’s the easiest to find. She’s loud enough that she can be heard from outside the temple. Keris called her a wall of a woman, but honestly that’s maybe an underestimate. She’s like this fortress itself, packed down into someone who might as well have been hewn from the rock. She takes un-nunly pride in that body she’s clearly cultivated, and given that she’s demonstrating to the juniors that her punches can break thin slabs of stone, it’s really no surprise. She’s loud and demanding, but Keris has seen women like this before. Hells, Haneyl is like this; she expects the best of her people, but Keris sees her order a girl who’s got too heated on the training fields to spend three hours in solo meditation after she breaks another girl’s fingers.

The head librarian Serenity is her precise opposite; pale-haired and pale, flinching, reclusive, with hands stained nearly up to the elbow from the inks she works with. Of course she takes pride in her superlative understanding of history. Her libraries are tombs of the written word, and there’s strange hanging sacks that Keris only realises are full of sawdust and rice when she gets conscripted to help change one. The one they’re replacing is notably damp; they’re thaumaturgical dehumidifiers trying to keep the paper in here dry. For all her flinching shyness, Serenity is a bully to the likewise-reclusive underlings she has, and wields the ability to remove their exemptions from certain other duties other nuns have to perform like a club.

Gentle Wave is proof of Keris’s suspicions; an old scarred veteran of the wyld hunt given a sinecure as the head cellarer due to her injuries. She’s of the generation that the temple lacks women of that age, so clearly a hunt went wrong. She’s missing an eye and several fingers, and there’s scars visible on her limbs that look like she got hit by the splash of a metody. She’s morose, and clearly unhappy with her back-end role; she takes pride in her faith, rather than her position in the temple, and she’s a grumbler.

Grey Gull doesn’t seem to be making all the decisions; watching her in private, she seems to mostly nap in her chair and seems half-senile. Her doe-eyed assistant Azure Rabbit makes half the decisions for her, and she’s a local; Keris can read her work and notes that the temple is paying more for its purchases from one clan than the others around here.

And finally there’s Humble Mouse, the clearly-Dynastic head of the temple. Another failed dragonchild like Sasi, Keris suspects, who still takes pride in her - low - position in House Ragara. She’s an odd woman; on one hand. she genuinely seems to be trying to do her best here, in this lonely, remote island-fortress far from where she was born. But on the other hand, her contempt for the locals is clear whenever she’s talking with one of the outsider senior staff in private. It’s just a worn-down exhaustion with how they keep on doing things they shouldn’t; they worship local gods, they hold heretical beliefs, they make images of the dragons, they - she’s clearly irked at this -worship the Scarlets as the Dragons’ Embodiment in Creation. She, as she sees it, wants to help them become better people and they keep on refusing to do it.

Keris looks at this woman - this aging woman, who’s as old as Sasi but looks far older and must have failed her family’s expectations just like Sasi did. This devout woman whose painfully earnest faith is clear her in her every action, who feels lost and ignored and isolated in this petty out-of-the-way monastery that the Realm doesn’t care about or likely even remember most days of the year. This compassionate woman who genuinely is trying, in her own way, to help the people here despite the contempt she has for them. This tired, exhausted woman who life has ground down by pitting her virtues against an uncaring world.

What have the Dragons ever done for Humble Mouse? What has the Realm? What have they given her, except for strict and rigid laws about images and philosophy and rituals that she rubs herself raw trying to hold to and teach? What have they done to pay back the debt of her worship, her heartbreakingly sincere devotion? Keris remembers feeling like that. Remembers wanting nothing more than to pledge herself to them; those five coiled figures who hold up the world on their wings. Remembers the long slow slide into resentful disillusionment when they never, ever answered.

What was it Sasi had said? She’d found another dragon, who welcomed her and gave her the powers those five would not.

Keris looks at Humble Mouse, and with a terrible, inhuman ease, she falls in love.

She’ll show this woman a better way. She’ll give her something to believe in that will answer.

Within her head, Keris hears Sirelmiya purr in satisfaction.

Humble Mouse is dreaming. She’s dreaming, and she’s vaguely aware that she’s dreaming, but she keeps moving through the swamps because it’s what she was doing already when the thought came to her, and because even if this is a dream, she’d rather dream of something - anything - other than the swamps of Ta Vuzi. But no matter how far she goes, she can’t seem to find the monastery, or the town, or even the shore. The swamps just go on and on, the landscape rolling in gently feminine curves that aren’t at all like what she sees from Righteous Deer’s windows.

And then she gets to a point where the landscape starts to rise, and rise, and rise. And when it gets too steep for her to go any further, she finds a clearing free of trees, and looks up.

What looms above her, titanic in scale, silhouetted against the sun, is only a woman in the sense that a typhoon is a movement of water. Humble Mouse has heard of the great statue of the Lap, far across the Firepeaks on the coast of the Inner Sea. This figure would make that great statue look like an insect’s toy.

Her every breath is a typhoon, and her hair sublimates into lightning-lit thunderclouds that fill the sky. Her eyes are seas, and her breasts are mountain ranges. The trackless deserts of the South are spread across her belly, and between her legs lies a rainforest, hot and moist and full of life. Tattoos are carved across her naked skin - sinuous shapes that are not images of the Dragons, but which sing out their natures as clearly as if they were before her in truth. They cling to her, as mighty as hurricanes but small against the vastness of this being, their titan-mother.

This is no petty local god.

This is Gaia herself.

((OK, roll it vs MDV 4. Or, rather, uh, MDV 0 from TLA.))
((Okay, what’s my pool? Per+Pres?))
((So, I think you need to activate AFB separately since it’s an enhancement to image crafting.))
((Sure. So, hmm. Do I have Styles that count for this? Exotic Beauty, heh? Or... huh, actually Prince of Hell might qualify here, just for how Keris is appearing as a being of sheer overwhelming might and power. And she is going for “terrified awe” of Gaia.))
((Yes, for both.))
((AFB is Per+Politics to create adoration of Gaia-Keris. 5+2+3 Exotic Beauty+3 TLA-enhanced stunt=13. General “terrified awe” is Per+Pres is 5+5+3 Prince of Hell+3 TLA-stunt=16. And her MDV is 0 so I barely need any Excellency use, but... yeah, why not, I’ll chuck 5 Malfeas ExSux into that main roll to really slam it home. :V))
((/r 13d10s7c10 #GaiaKerisAFB))
((Keris rolled 8 <9; 10; 3; 2; 5; 8; 2; 1; 8; 4; 8; 2; 10> #GaiaKerisAFB))
((/r 16d10s7c10 +5 #TerrifiedAwe))
((Keris rolled 10 <2; 3; 4; 4; 1; 2; 8; 6; 6; 6; 6; 10; 3; 8; 3; 7> #TerrifiedAwe))
((Ok, yeah, at this point she’s basically incoherent putty in religious devotion in your hands))

Humble Mouse - Ragara Uya - falls to her knees. Hands digging into the ground. Barely breathing. She drops her gaze; terrified, awed, adoring. Not daring to look upon the titan, yet unable to imagine disobeying whatever Her will might be.

But as she drops her gaze, she sees that the clearing she has come to is occupied. Occupied by the very titan she has just gazed upon - the woman-shaped mingling of the elements whose every movement holds the ferocity of wildfires and the strength of earthquakes. She is smaller, yes, barely any larger than a mortal woman. But size means nothing to this being. Less than nothing.

This Gaia is not simply reclining in the heavens, though. She is dancing. And with her dances another. Gaia is crashing tides and howling wind and the growth of forests, but her lover is dark and pale and silver, and she matches Gaia step for step, arc for arc and kiss for kiss. With heartfelt reverence and love, the seductive moon orbits the queen of earth, and Humble Mouse watches them embrace and kiss and fall to passion, feeling like a voyeur but too trapped in religious wonder to look away.

And from their union, two more dragons are born that Ragara Uya knows nothing of.

One is black. Not black like Daana’d, but blacker still - an absence of light, an emptiness that holds light and reflects nothing from it. He coils around his mother, nuzzling her affectionately, and then with a flick of his tail he propels himself over to the moon, who kisses him on the forehead and casts him up, up, up into the flat white expanse of the sky, where he spreads his wings and becomes the night against which the stars and moon can be seen.

The other is no colour, and every colour, and all the colours that could not be. He lays his head on his mother’s breast with wisdom beyond his years, and she strokes his head once before passing him to the moon, who again kisses him on the forehead before throwing him out, out, out towards the unformed edge of the world. And there he folds his wings around to become the border of the unreal that holds back the wyldtide.

Gaia kisses Luna once more. And then she turns. Eyes like oceans pin Uya with infinite depth, and the earth-mother bestows on her a secret smile.

She has a task for the abbess, that wise and knowing smile whispers. Gaia misses her two forgotten children, and mourns that her descendants have forgotten them. She would be pleased if Uya were to leave them offerings, and to remind them that their mother loves them still. It would be an act of great favour, and of devotion, if Uya would do this for her - secretly, and safely, so that those who saw her sons forgotten do not stamp out their memory a second time.

“I...” the abbess stammers. Loving the titan. Fearing her. Filled with awe and filled with terror so close in kinship that they’re just one thing. “All-Mother! C-command me!”

Gaia crosses the clearing in a single step, and takes Uya by the shoulders. Her hands have the strength of landslides and volcanoes in them, but she is gentle.

“Pray for my sons,” she commands; ten thousand voices speaking as one. “Pray to my lost dragons, honour their memory, and guard it that they are not forgotten again. Do this, my priestess, and you will be blessed.”

The midnight-black dragon curls around her, holding her close, sinking under her skin and she knows she has been blessed by it. She knows she must adore it, venerate it, as the All-Mother commands. And she knows that she wants to. She longs to obey, to offer veneration to these two. And her heart weeps for these two, to be forgotten.

Keris wakes late the next morning. It’s already humid and muggy, and she feels unpleasantly damp under her skin for a bit. She takes it easy, drinking tea with Nara in the near-Isles in a pleasant little cafe that feels like the Jade Carnation on absinthe. And then she wanders back to the looming temple, to find things all a-flutter.

“The abbess says she had a vision! That she saw the Mother of Dragons! She’s been in the temple since dawn, praying,” whispers a fish-scaled initiate as she scrubs at identical robes in a long washing trough.

Gathering herself, Keris reinforces her twin-layered disguise again - the role of a junior nun over the shadow-seeming of a local - and slips into the temple. This is where the tricky bit will be. She’s given the abbess a fervent mania to worship the forgotten children of Gaia. What she needs to do now is make sure Humble Mouse doesn’t blab to anyone who might raise alarm bells until Keris can get them, too.

She made sure to emphasise how Gaia’s sons were forgotten once, and must be kept secret so their memory is not suppressed again. But she’s still going to keep a close eye on the woman until the five-day manic period has passed.

When she emerges from her seclusion, she immediately sends for the chief librarian. She wants her to find if there’s any records of the Night Dragon and the Border Dragon. Keris’s breath almost comes out in a scream - but no, Humble Mouse is talking about outside threats. Of the forces of darkness seeking to suppress this. That she wants to see if there’s any evidence of this being hidden in the histories or concealed, and so there’s a need to ensure that only the right people know about it. Certainly not - she whispers to Serenity - letting the locals know yet. They might misunderstand.

Serenity nods her agreement, convinced by her abbess’s words.

Keris mutters inaudible curses to herself at the close shave, and resolves to visit Serenity’s dreams next. She is, after all, looking into this. Naturally, Gaia might be expected to respond - and perhaps to reveal a few more hints. Perhaps the existence - though not the form or the location - of an ancient idol to her forgotten sons? It’ll exhaust her to do it tonight, given how draining the abbess’s dream was, but it’s probably best to get Serenity converted as soon as possible. Then she can take a breather of a week or so before going after the other three, who are unlikely to be drawn in quite so soon.

The shy, retiring woman is even easier. Keris might be aching and sore, but the conspiratorial logic of secret lore that only she gets to know is something Serenity can’t resist, especially when Gaia herself entrusts her with finding and cataloguing it.

Keris spins her lies about ancient temples where her forgotten children were honoured, of how the Zu Tak heretics and the Lintha have been purging all traces of their existence, and how it is righteous that these images of her self-sacrificing sons see the light again. And she buys it all.

With two senior nuns down and three locked out of the conspiracy for now, Keris takes a breather, and elects - after some careful monitoring of the monastery until Humble Mouse’s manic period is over - to do some exploring of the local area to find a good place to put her idol. Somewhere it can reasonably feel like it’s been preserved for many centuries without being discovered, only recently unearthed to give Gaia cause to send the omen-dreams.

((OK, so you’re trying to disguise evidence with a Cog + Occult + geology/geomancy kinda style roll to fake it being revealed by coastal erosion.))
((Sweet. Hmm. Does Passing Off Blame work here? Blah blah blah... act of depravity, so yes, hah, this is Yozi-worship that’s corrupting the emulation of the Immaculate Dragons, which qualifies.))
((Oh Keris. It’s her favourite act of depravity.))
((So, 3+5+3 Temple-as-Body Style+2 stunt+10 Szoreny ExD {toxic gifts, adoring fans, attention of others, weakening his foes, this is basically Szorenic as shit) for 23 dice, then. Tee hee. And Cog+Subterfuge for Passing Off Blame is 3+5+3 Silver Willow+2 stunt=13 to add to the Difficulty, which I’ll also enhance with 5 Szoreny ExSux.))
((/r 23d10s7c10 #HidingUnholyIcons))
((Keris rolled 6 <2; 4; 6; 4; 3; 9; 1; 5; 5; 5; 3; 4; 6; 4; 5; 5; 10; 8; 5; 8; 5; 8; 3> #HidingUnholyIcons))
((/r 13d10s7c10 +5 #BlamingCoastalErosion))
((Keris rolled 13 <4; 7; 6; 3; 7; 3; 8; 9; 8; 8; 7; 5; 9> #BlamingCoastalErosion))
((... holy shit))

It’s nice to go for a walk in the countryside, Keris thinks to herself ironically as she squelches through the sodden bayous. When she stops, she often sinks up to the knee. Mud is meant to be good for the skin, in which case her legs are going to be gorgeous.

She’s definitely not stuck for choice when it comes to places to hide evidence. However, she strikes the jackpot when she finds part of an ancient building drowned in mud and sunk down, clearly recently revealed by a landslide. She just needs to make and design the gift she’s going to leave for them to find here and she doubts anyone will ever know it wasn’t here all along.

“Alright Zanara,” Keris says as she finishes poking around the place. “I think this will do, so let’s see what you have for me.”

It’s an impressive spread that her artist-soul has come up with. With several days of design time and a trip as Nara down into the Dream through the Undersea to look at the Gaia-dream Keris crafted for the abbess, they’ve sketched out nearly a hundred potential designs and painstakingly narrows them down to ten core concepts. All are strongly influenced by the aesthetics of the Great Mother, which Keris doesn’t particularly want to include in this project - the added skill isn’t worth the risk of the Yozi elements being recognised - but each is still a strong idea for the idol she wants.

“Mm. This one, I think,” she says, tapping the sixth design. “I like the balance of abstraction and realism in the dragons. And Gaia’s pose is a little scarier than the others without being too scary. I want them to remember she’s a titan, and that it’s her sons they’re worshipping primarily.”

“I mean, they’re going to love you regardless,” Zana says bluntly, twirling her brush between her long fingers. “It’s an image of you. You’re gonna make them Yozi-sick with adoration.”

((Ok, so, you have 2 auto-sux from Zanara’s design work on your crafting and making the statue. Make it cool and you could get a sweet stunt from it.))
((Also, which of your, uh, many art-and-craft charms will you be using?))
((Hmm. While it’d be cool to boost it with Pelagic Muse Artistry, I don’t think the increased pool is worth the semi-obvious Yozi aesthetics, and I’m not trying to give them derangements anyway. So, hmm... I’ll break down some living things for Destruction Begets Creation, then use Flesh-Weaving Tendrils and Adoring Fans Biomagnification to make a gorgeous idol of Gaia and her two forgotten children; the Night Dragon spreading dark wings over her and the Border Dragon coiled around her to protect her from the wyldtide.))

“Yes, but it’s the principle of the thing,” Keris argues. “Now then. Let’s see about materials.”

There’s more than enough wood around for the fen-preserved wooden artefact she wants to create. But wood alone isn’t enough. Oh, Keris is able to collect enough wood from the small alder and willow trees around that she can fuse it all together into a big enough statue, but for the level of detail she wants, she needs more than soft woods. She ends up hunting down a few deer and wild pigs, as well as an aging bull gaur that’s as briefly surprised to see her as she is to stumble across it, and dismembering them all to get at the bones. These she stretches out and laces through the wood she’s stacked up along with spiderwebs she gathers from the ever-present insect life, transforming the simple deadfall into a material that’s part wood, part bone, with sticky silk twining its fibres together.

It’s a substance that would be impossible to make without something that could mimic the way her root-fingers can tease organic matter through itself and merge wood fibre into bone fibre into silk strand as if they were never separate at all. Part plant, part animal, part something in-between, it feels very appropriate to make a statue of Gaia out of.

It also, more importantly, holds fine detail exceedingly well without fragmenting or warping at all. Delighted, Keris roughs out the general form of a dancing woman built to a greater scale than mortal men. The sinuous shape of the Night Dragon drapes itself across her shoulders, rearing up and spreading his wings above her, while the scarred scales of the Border Dragon are wrapped around her hips, his battered wings encircling her against the Wyld without.

That done, Keris takes a moment to flex her fingers out and gets started on colour and detail.

((Hee hee. I do like Keris’s wood-bone-silk material. The kind of thing you need a stomach bottle bug or Flesh-Weaving Tendrils to produce. Remind me to come up with a name for it. So, that’s a Cog+Expression roll?))
((Cog + (lower of Expression and Occult for how exotic the material is), Diff 4))
((Sweet. So... hmm. Temple-as-Body would apply to this, since she’s deliberately going for Gaia’s image evoking landscape-forms. It’s a newly developed style by Lilunu, but it is also Hellish... ehhh, anyone who gets close enough to recognise a Yozi-tinted Style in the cult idol will already have clocked the Night and Border Dragons as TED and Oramus, I’ll risk it. So that’s 5+5+3 Temple-as-Body+2 stunt+10 Kimmy ExD=25.))
((Enhancing with Flesh-Weaving Tendrils to make working the material applicable, AFB to make it an ADORE ME memetic hazard, and Destruction Begets Creation to add (Resources dots) autosux for the various living creatures Keris slaughtered to get the bones she used, which is... probably Res 3 for several deer, pigs and a bison? Plus those two autosux from Zanara.))
((Eyyyy. And the AFB roll is Per+Pol is 5+2+3 Exotic Beauty+2 stunt+7 Szoreny ExD {false friend, attention of others, respect of others}=19.))
((/r 25d10s7c10 +5 #StatueOfGaia))
((Keris rolled 20 <1; 9; 7; 10; 9; 8; 2; 8; 9; 7; 2; 6; 2; 4; 10; 1; 9; 5; 6; 5; 9; 10; 1; 4; 6> #StatueOfGaia))
((/r 19d10s7c10 #LoveMeAndAdoreMe))
((Keris rolled 13 <7; 10; 8; 1; 4; 2; 10; 8; 2; 6; 6; 9; 1; 1; 7; 1; 9; 10; 7> #LoveMeAndAdoreMe))
((christ, keris))
((it is a very impressive statue))
((even Keris kind of wants to worship at it))
((Zanara is in gleeful fits, and insists on getting several paintings of it before Keris hides it in the ruined building.))

Part of the art is making it look old. Hinting that once it was painted, but now isn’t. Apply just traces of ruined paint, and let the curves and the artistry be softened by time. Forge it well enough that if Keris had known how to do this in Nexus, she could have lived as well as Wet-Fingered Mako, who forged old artwork and made it look like it’d been found in the Nexan underlayers.

Honestly, she’s just showing off with the fabric here. Sculpted fabric which looks like it could be picked up by the wind any moment, which waves in an unseen breeze.

It’s so good it takes Keris’s breath away. Because it’s clearly her face on this statue of Gaia. If she hadn’t known she was a fucking gorgeous woman, she’d have fallen in love with herself now and here. As it is, it’s just a reminder of how she’s probably the hottest thing in this whole wet and miserable satrapy.

“It is...” she whispers, her chest feeling tight, “gods, almost a pity I have to hide this away in a filthy old ruin like this. Hell, I’m tempted to make something else for them and keep it.”

“Keris,” Zana says. “You can do this any time you like. Hell, you know what you should do? Make a new identity as an artist in Saata, and get paid to make beautiful artwork. You can have Cinnamon buy something from her and put it in pride of place. Actually! Even better, when you’re not being her, I can be her! So make sure she’s got some pretty duality themes!”

Keris huffs a laugh. “Maybe. I mean... there’s already Two Opal, so they’d have to be different to that. And when you’re in Hell with Lilunu I’d have to have an excuse for them not showing up much, because two faces is already a strain. Something about... I dunno, long periods of seclusion or travel whenever they feel like they need to find new inspiration, or...”

She belatedly realises that if she’s already planning personality traits, the ‘maybe’ she started with is probably superfluous. “Okay, fine,” she concedes. “We’ll talk about it when we’re home. For now, though...” She lifts the statue with a grunt. It’s heavy, but lighter than its size makes it seem. “I’m thinking... just here, where the mud’s piled in through the window. I can have it half-submerged with only the top bit protruding.” A strike with a knife sends the sloping pile of mud up in green flames, consuming the lot, and Keris gets the statue set up where it was as more starts falling into the half-buried room from the interior of the hillside it faces. The thickness of the mud makes it slow going, but within an hour or so it’ll be a slope again, with the idol submerged in it up to the waist.

Now all she needs to do is send three or four more dreams - each with slightly more hints as to the existence and location of the statue - and wait for the nuns to find it.

It goes so well that Keris spends half a day paranoid and terrified that she’s being played for a fool. But no. The one she was most scared of, the old scarred veteran Gentle Wave, takes to the visions like a fish to water and finds a new purpose there. And she’s one of the junior nuns who’s brought by the seniors to excavate the statues they’ve seen in their visions from ‘Gaia’ and she can hear the gasps at the beauty of the statue and the reverential tears of the other women. They have seen the face of the All-Mother, and they love her for that.

The nuns bring a boat up, and carefully carry it back to the temple-fortress. In their holy place, they erect a statue of two Yozis and Keris, and they pray to the three of them with voices cracked with adoration and devotion and sorrow that such things have been forgotten. Keris can hear the distant murmurs of the prayers in stereo.

“What will you do now?” Dulmea asks. She sounds very pleased, not least because Keris is very much doing her job and for once it’s not only coincidental to benefiting herself. “And what will you have them do? The junior nuns have seen you, and your image has been burned into their minds.”

“One more dream,” Keris says. “Humble Mouse again. But this time I’m going to talk to her. Not as Gaia, as a servant-spirit. But the Mother of Dragons is wounded. Ta Vuzi is a bleeding cancer on her back. The Night Dragon looks down on it but can’t touch the land he hangs over, the Border Dragon faces out and can’t unfold his wings to heal his mother’s wounds. A little imagery and a message from a nature spirit and I can get her reporting on the state of the land and where the dragon lines are most damaged. And that’ll tell me where the dragon drinkers are, and where the most active mining is going on. Where they’re getting their profits.”

That night, in the dream, Humble Mouse sees the swamps of Ta Vuzi in black and white. And red. Red, where the landscape itself is bleeding. Red trails in the water. Red from the animals that lie stacked up in piles. Red bleeding from the wounded sun in the sky and red oozing from the mine-marred uplands.

“Our Mother is wounded,” a voice hisses from the star-speckled night sky.

“Our Mother is ravaged,” a second hisses from the distant edge of the world.

“She bleeds where men have tortured her,” “twisted her,” “tormented her.” They blend together, the sibilant whisper and the echoing rumble. Both male. Both furious. Both helpless.

“We cannot help her,” they say. “We have our duties.” “We are weak, our power wanes.” “We have been forgotten.”

The blood runs down past Humble Mouse. So much blood. More blood than any body could hold. More than any army. More than any sea. It wells up from beneath the dragon-drinkers, and in the whirlpools it forms she can see how the dragon lines have been mutilated into great spirals carved into Gaia’s flesh. How they must hurt. What agony She must feel.

“We cannot help her,” the Night Dragon repeats.

“So this duty falls to you,” the Border Dragon commands.

“Your people hurt her so.” “It is your sin to bear.” “Your sin to fix.” “Your sin to atone for.”

The whole swamp is pouring blood now. It comes up to her knees. Up to her waist. Up to her chest. Soon she’ll drown in it.

“Find where she is bleeding.” “Find where she is hurt.” “Learn what must be done to heal her.” “Learn what must be set to rights.”

The tide of gore is up to her neck. The current threatens to wash her away entirely. But even as the roar of the red flood fills her ears, she still feels those voices in her bones.

“Allies will come.” “Those who can salve her.” “Those who can save her.” “Find them.” “Aid them.” “Tell them what you know.”

And then she’s drowning, flailing, swept away by the endless lifeblood of a tortured titan, their last words still reverberating in her mind as she wakes.

“This duty is yours. Do not fail us.”

She obeys. Of course she does. And - Keris feels, as she watches - she thinks the woman appreciates having a cause. Having a purpose.

“She’s not the only one,” Zana remarks from within Keris’s head. “You don’t like this ugly little place either. It’s not pretty, what’s happened here.”

“No,” Keris thinks grimly as she re-dons her skin and washes the blood off herself in the sea. “The kind of people who did this... it reminds me of Deveh. Or the Joyful Wave viscounty. Twisting the landscape into their own idea of what it should be, just for... for profit, even though it hurts the land and makes it sicken and die and be worth less. Thinking only of themselves.” Her nose wrinkles. “It’s ugly.” She sighs. “And it’s going to take a lot of work to fix.”

“Haneyl would be really mixed about this. Because on one hand she’s greedy enough to do this, but she’d also be super nettled about the damage to the swamps,” Zana observes.

“Mmm. Well.” Keris sighs. “I’ll set... something up to collect information. Maybe a kerub to gather reports every so often, a witch or something. Probably not a full-time resident. And I may think about... ugh, I don’t want to assign Haneyl to this place, it’ll take way too long to fix and she’s too valuable. Maybe some Hellish demon who’s good with geomancy, if I introduce them carefully. I’ll ask Lilunu if she knows anyone and meet them to talk it over in Air.”

She claps her hands and stands, shaking herself dry. “Anyway. I think this has taken nicely. One more week of observation to check on how they’re going about the spying business, and then I think we can head home.”

Zana hums to herself happily. “Nearly time to go and see Lilunu anyway,” she says. “And maybe this year you won’t run off and get her all upset.”

“I know, I know,” Keris groans. “I said I was sorry. And I promise. It won’t happen again.”

“Oh, I mean, I bet you learned a lot from Erembour. She’s famous for being, like, just the prettiest,” Zana says with an audible shrug. “So if you learned new art, Lilunu will just have to cope, y’know?”

“Maybe. But I don’t want to hurt her like that again.”

“It’s not good for her to be sad,” Zana agrees. “Not good for the surrounding area, either. She’s kinda hard on the landscape when she gets in a temper! Oh! On your way back, you should get her a local present from here!”

“Hah. You’re right.” Keris considers for a moment. “Well, I can grab a bunch of the local clothes so she can see how those chequered patterns and weaving styles differ from An Teng. And I’ve already got some lovely sketches of the landscape. And, I mean, I do have that haul from the tribute ship.” Keris considers a moment longer, then nods. “I’m sure I could part with some of it to give her some hearthstone-slurry to play with. If nothing else, it’ll be a novelty for her. And I’d love to see what she makes of it.” She taps her lips thoughtfully. “Maybe another sculpture with that bone-web-wood stuff, too. That might have some real potential as a material. Yeah, I’ll do a miniature copy of the idol for her, and also just make some stock of the stuff for her to try carving and shaping.”

And with her mood picking back up, she sets out to do just that.

Chapter Text

A hurricane roars outside. The waves rolling up from the south are laden with the heat of the season of Fire, and outside they slam into the restored structure of the manse. It holds. Of course it does.

After all, Oula thinks, inhaling the smell of the sea-oil circle painted on her brow, she was the one who repaired its design.

There are three of them, equidistant around the hearthstone chamber. Each one dressed in undyed cotton, purified of external influence. Sea water drying on their skin. Her, in the western position, leading this ritual. Rathan, dashing and handsome. And behind the third position there is a carefully stationed mirror, such that Hermione stands in the mirror where she would be if she was there to complete the circle. In the reflection, all three are where they should be. It will hold. Oula’s calculations are flawless.

The ritual circles she has been working on are painted on the floor with squid ink. Pearls and salt contain and channel the energies. No fires are lit in here, because Fire would disrupt the balance of energies.

Oula claps her hands. “Are you ready?” she asks the other two.

“Yes, Oulie,” Rathan says.

“Yesss, Oula,” Hermione says from her mirror.

Three sorcerers. Ready for a great working. One that will change the fabric of Creation. They are going to reach into the world, and coax the dragon lines back to the positions they held once, long ago. It would have been easier with five sorcerers, but three is a number that still has power in lunar matters, and the moon has always held powers over the tides of Creation. And so that is what they will do.

Rathan represents the moon, for he is one - a far more handsome one than Creation’s. Oula’s heart, sitting in the box at his hip, beats faster as she thinks of him. Hermione represents the Elemental Dragons, for again she is a dragon and though quicksilver is not one of the elements of Creation, it is still something of primal power, the first material which can become other things.

And she? She is the Sorcerer. She will call upon the Moon and the Dragons. The tides will flow, and Water shift, called back to this place. The proto-demenses around here will obey her will, and coalesce in this place. This vessel she has built for it. This bowl which will hold water’s nature.

Some might say that it is blasphemy for a demon such as herself to invoke two demon lords in this facsimile of ancient Shogunate sorcery. Those people are fools. There is power in the living world, which remembers such things. There is power in a demon lord, and only fools deny it. And more than that, there is power in reflection. Both her beloved Rathan and Hermione are creatures of reflections, and by positioning them like this, they reflect each other. And a reflection of a reflection can reflect in turn.

She claps her hands three times, and exhales. Letting the power within her stir. Calling it forth, from deep inside. The power that is the world’s, but which she can evoke. It rises from the depths and falls upon her, and it’s the same thing in the end. Her tattoos start to glow, shedding their reds and pinks and silvery light over the walls of the manse. So too do her irises, glowing the red of the moon.

Rathan and Hermione follow her lead, and clap three times, calling up their own power. She can feel how much stronger they are. Rathan’s gentle light is a column of his moonlight rising up from him; Hermione is a tangled branching network of silver light which blossoms into cinnabar red at the tips.

“I am the dragon who controlsss all the elementsss,” Hermione announces. “They are within me.”

“I am the moon, master of the tides,” Rathan declares. “Water flows where I will.”

“I am the sorceress,” Oula says. “And I ask the dragons and the moon to listen to my sacred plea. To hear my song, and call the tides.”

And she lifts her head to the sky and starts to sing.

Outside, the waves build. And build. And built. The hurricane screams, howling as the geomancy of the world is twisted asunder.

Lightning strikes. Again and again, until the sky is nearly white with blinding light. Whenever they pause for a moment, a deep blue glow filters out of the depths of the ocean. The water is dragged towards the manse tower like iron filings pulled towards a lodestone. It builds up around the tower, rising and rising until there’s a bowl of water blocking out all sight of the manse from elsewhere.

Ten miles away, it starts to rain strange silver fish, creatures falling from the sky in riotous omen weather. They die, choking, in the salt water. They were never meant to swim in this ocean.

Fifty miles away, Fate glitches, and a village woman finds three copies of her husband sleeping in their bed. All swear blind that they’re the real one. She tricks them into a series of tasks to prove it, and for the next two weeks she’s a very happy woman indeed who never has to gather water or wash clothing. She’s somewhat irked when two of them pop out of existence on the next full moon.

A hundred miles away, a fisherman who had been desperately trying to grab fish before the hurricane reached him is pulled out to sea by an inexorable force. A freak wave nearly overturns his boat, and carries him all the way to the Jati Isles, far to the south east.

The storm hammers into Oula’s will. On one side, she has the moon; on the other, a dragon. She will not be defeated! She is guiding the dragon lines into a place they once occupied. They will be at home here! This is how they are meant to be! Her voice rises even above the sound of the thunder, cutting through it as her tattoos extend out of her body and spread through the air. Her horns burn with white light. The moon is a totem behind her; the sea embraces her; her hair moves like living waves. Her eyes are solid red now, and her veins thick and black with living metal. She no longer stands on the ground, carried aloft by her raw power.

She has offered the tides a home! And they will obey!

Through her raw throat, she screams one last word in Old Realm, and brings her hands down.

Every light in the room dies at once. Hermione’s mirror cracks. The ritual circles collapse inwards. There is a sense of a great and terrible crushing pressure, and the entire structure shakes.

And slowly, slowly, slowly, the centre of the room starts to pulse with a deep blue glow.

With a thud, Oula collapses to her knees, and then onto all fours.

“Ow,” she croaks. “Ow.”

There is a clatter as Rathan pulls himself upright. “Is… is this it?” he manages, exhaustion radiating from every word. “I… well. It didn’t blow up.”

Hermione breaks into high, tittering laughter. “Oh Yozis, I hurt all over.”

“I know how you feel,” Rathan says. “It… it feels like my whole body was a tube and then so much water used me as a pipe. Ow.” He stumbles over to Oula, and lifts her head off the ground. She leans against his thighs, letting out a faint exhausted and yet satisfied hum. “How are you feeling, my little sorceress?”

“Li’ I’m ‘mazing,” Oula mumbles into his crotch. “Also li’ I cou’d slee’ for a wee’.” She considers this. “Or two. Mayb’ three.”

Rathan shakes his head. Already, he can see something start to crystallise at the top of the plinth. “Let’s get you to bed. Me and Hermione can make sure everything’s cleaned away for now.”

“I also want to go to bed,” Hermione points out.

“Yes, but let’s just give it an hour or two to make sure everything’s stable,” Rathan suggests. “Come on, little sis.”

A faint blush emerges on Hermione’s cheeks. “Well, since you ask me sssso nicely…”

“That’s the spirit.” He ruffles Oula’s hair. “You did a hero’s job today, my great and mighty dark empress.”

“Mmm. Tha’ nice…”

Dark clouds fill the western horizon, bringing an early dusk. The storm hasn’t reached Shuu Mua yet, but it will, soon. And Little River will of course be delighted to offer the hospitality of her estate to those guests who don’t wish to take the long ride back to Saata proper in the middle of what looks to be a hurricane.

After all, her estate might not be the most expensive on the island, but it’s clearly much improved over how it was when she bought it. Warn golden oil lanterns glow from inside intricately painted paper screens. The wall-paintings are clearly Tengese, but there’s an edge to them which can only be a product of Saata. Fine silverwork and delicate curiosities have their places in the southern wing of the building, and her chefs are truly astonishing.

The lady is talking to them - and just making sure everything is on schedule - when her aide Rounen enters. He glances over the cooks, every man or woman there either a disguised demon or a cultist, and verifies that the location is secure.

“Ma’am,” he says to Little River. “News from Rathan.”

Little River nods, and leads him out of the kitchens and into a pantry where they have more privacy. Her staff are loyal, but they can’t share what they don’t know even by accident. “What news?” she says, checking over her outfit. It’s a layered dress of overlapping greens and blues and violets, all thin and wispy linens that collectively give her modesty without the bite of heat or humidity. And the colours mingle together like the hues of the deepest oceans.

He slides a note written on rice paper out from the sleeve of his elegant robe. “Prince Rathan reports that Oula has successfully brought the manse back to life, having coalesced the local dragon lines back to the reinforced node. He says it’s holding strong, and that the manse is already starting to form a hearthstone seed-cluster. In light of that, he’s leaving Mele in charge of the location and ensuring its safety, and he’s taking Oula and Lady Hermione back to Zen Daiwye as the three of them are exhausted.” He clears his throat. “That’s largely the sum total of it, ma’am, apart from a few instructions he has for me. For example, he wants a telescope and instructed me to order Elly to buy him one.”

Keris perks up. “That’s fantastic news!” she says, delighted. “Send him his telescope - in fact, make that a present from me, and send Oula and Hermione something as well. Ask Elly for a list of suggestions that I can pick from tomorrow evening. And draft a commendation for them all. That manse is going to be very, very useful for us.” She claps her hands and rubs them together, feeling the vague tiredness of the schmoozing she’s been doing all week evaporate away like morning dew under the sun. “Excellent work. And well done for bringing me this immediately; it’s definitely important enough. Thank you, Rounen. Oh, and while I have you here, I checked the nursery ten minutes ago and Atiya wasn’t there - do you know where she went? I assume she went to find somewhere quiet away from the other children, but there are too many places for me to search while I’m busy handling the guests.”

“No, ma’am. I’ve was checking with the on-duty message-watcher.” Rounen inhales, clearly worried. “It’s not like the young lady to vanish like that. She’s not like the twins, who personally I am very glad they are with your brother up in Zen Daiwye. We would not be able to keep Kali from showing her face and then there would be capital-Q Questions about why Cinnamon’s daughter is here.”

Keris winces. “Damn right. Well, Rathan can handle them if they’re causing Ali trouble.” She sighs. “Tell the staff to keep an eye out for her, then. And have a look around yourself; she likes you. I need to go find Ba-le and make sure my little tip about the Baltoo mutterings reached her.”

He nods. “As you wish, ma’am,” he says, and elegantly proceeds off.

Keris rechecks her dress, dons Little River’s rigid mannerisms again and grabs some wine on her way out through the kitchens. She’s had a very successful season of being seen and making waves at the Fire parties, both as Little River and as Cinnamon, but the enjoyment is starting to wear a bit thin. Not that she’s exactly looking forward to the intense stress of Calibration preparations and her two days of festivities... but after that will be Air, when she’ll have a relaxing season in Hell after most of her peers have returned to Creation. A season that she can spend pottering around, talking to Lilunu in her free time, working on projects and generally enjoying the lack of pressure and deadlines.

It’ll be nice. Though she may have to leave the twins in Creation this year until she’s sure Khereon Ul won’t come knocking at her door again. Lilunu will miss them, but... Keris doesn’t want them exposed to that monster, ever.

She steps back through the doors, and though it’s always loud to her, being in the same room as her well-dressed, rich, and arguably-mostly-criminals guests is a whole other level. Jade Fox is here, the sober-looking crime lord with his well-connected wife at his arm. Sea Eagle isn’t here, but his weather-witch niece is, which is probably for the best. The old man doesn’t like non-Tengese. And there’s people from the Ladies, though they think they’re just here because they were invited as Hui Cha women to Little River’s party. But it’s not just the Hui Cha. There’s Raraan Ge of all kinds, members of House Sinasana that Little River knows through Ba-le, there’s priests and merchants and in the centre of the room on the stage there’s Piu, dancing for Little River as a living work of art.

From what she can hear, everyone’s enjoying themselves and no fights have broken out yet. Little River hasn’t put out any really strong drinks yet, and the food - a menu made over the course of a weekend between her and Haneyl - is good enough that people are filling up. She’ll only put out the harder drinks once people have food in their stomachs.

Stomachs like the stomach of the Immaculate abbot Bei Ta, who’s occupying the buffet table and vocally blessing everyone around him merrily. “Sextes Jylis clearly smiles upon such a wonderful use of the bounty of his crops,” he pontificates, “and so I really should honour his blessings on the land by having another one of those little samosas. They’re delicious!”

“Now, Iris,” Little River murmurs, bringing her left hand up to her mouth. “You stay right there, young lady, do you understand me? No going and making friends with the abbot. I will reward you later if you stay good and quiet.”

She’s tempted to send her familiar off to find her daughter, but very, very few people are aware that Little River’s magical tattoo can leave her skin entirely, and it’s not a fact she’s especially willing to share in mixed company. So instead - giving the abbot a respectful and seemingly coincidental berth - she goes looking for people she knows, giving her ward Piu an approving nod as she passes and keeping an ear on the party gossip.

Ironically, it’s while she’s looking for the older woman Little River knows that she finds the little girl. A hastily stifled laugh catches her attention as she passes the Flying Fox Lounge, and curiosity has her poke her head into the shaded room. What she finds, to her surprise, is a number of high society men and women clustered at the far end of the room, sitting and standing around two of the luxurious armchairs that have been pulled together, seat to seat.

Sitting in the sheltered nook with backrests and armrests securely boxing her in on every side is Hui Cha Atiya, surrounded by a dozen dolls and thrice as many little suits and dresses. Her eyes are fixed on the little figures and she isn’t looking up, but as Little River walks up to the group, the woman whose laugh had caught her attention asks something and Atiya shakes her head firmly.

“She can’t wear the green,” she mumbles, not looking up at the adults who are listening avidly. “‘Cause... ‘cause she’s meant to be the warm colours and the green’s not... not warm enough so they don’t like each other.” She raps her knuckles together twice. “And the stripes are different ways, and you can’t have that, the stripes haveta be like each other or it... looks bad.”

Beneath Little River, Keris blinks in confusion. She’s... giving a fashion lesson?

There’s a general murmuring among Atiya’s audience - Keris suspects her daughter isn’t actually aware of how many people are there. They seem to have picked up on her dislike of loud noises, so they’re making an effort to be quiet and not crowd around her too much. With the way she’s determinedly avoiding any risk of eye contact she may not have realised she’s talking to more than one or two people. But the fact that she’s talking at all is a surprise. Normally it’s a struggle to get more than a short sentence out of her... though, Keris admits, she has always been fairly willing to expound on the lives and clothes of her dolls. Albeit only in a quiet mumble.

“What should I be wearing?” asks - a moment’s thought, yes, that’s Kalto Sha, of the Kalto family - a woman whose hair is artfully curled and whose dress really isn’t covering up very much. She’s trying to cover up a laugh.

Atiya glances over at her, avoiding her face, taking in the slinky red garment with the white immodesty panels of sheer fabric. “I don’t like the red and white,” she says. “It looks like hurting. Pink is better. It’s like flowers.” She pays attention back to her dolls, and recovers one. “Like Liloula. Hannel made her for me. She looks like Oula.”

Whoops. Keris needs to have that talk about secrets soon. “Hello, darling,” she says, sliding into the group and sitting lightly on one of the pushed-together armrests. “I see you’re telling these ladies and gentlemen all about clothes. Do mine look nice enough for today?”

“Yes.” She doesn’t look at Little River. “You’re always blue like over there.” She points out towards the windows that overlook the ocean.

Her mother smiles. “I’m glad you like it, dear.” She trades some quiet greetings with the group as Atiya starts to change one of her boy-dolls into a new suit, carefully rooting through little hand-sewn jackets until she finds exactly the one she wants to match the rest of the outfit she has in mind.

“I must say,” Little River murmurs in an undertone to Sha, “I’m a little surprised to find my daughter with such an attentive audience. May I ask how this came about?”

Sha smiles. “The little girl showed up, and took over this corner with her dolls. Yola asked her what she was doing, and then she started explaining that it was getting dark because of the storm so she had to change their colours. She has really interesting reasons for why these colours work better with the storm coming in. She says she has to get them changed so the colours aren’t so loud. And then she said that Mala’s embroideries told a pretty story, and then she made up a story about what they all meant.” Sha looks Little River up and down. “I’d say she’s going to have your eye for fashion. You look fantastic in that.”

Little River allows herself a faint smirk. “My thanks. And please don’t take Atiya’s criticisms harshly. She’s rather too young to appreciate yours.” She offers a hand. “We haven’t been properly introduced. Hui Cha Little River.” It’s a pointless introduction; they both know who the other is - but it’s how things are supposed to be done.

“Sha, of Kalto.” She grins at Little River. “I had thought of heading home before hurricane season, but it came early this year. Such a shame I have to stay in Saata. Home is Shuu Kath, just north of the Jati Isles.”

Little River nods. “I know it, yes. In fact, I had investments in a trade route that ran around the south coast of Shuu Mua until fairly recently; they would have passed close by. What is it like there? You’ve far less protection from the typhoons off the great ocean, I imagine.”

She spreads her hands. “That’s life. At least we’re not Shuu Ranfa. Have you seen that place? The Wyld Coast there is a nightmare. It seems to take the brunt of every wyldstorm. Me, I think it’s the gods judging them for digging all the jade out of their mountains. You have to leave some in the earth, or raksha will steal the land because there’s no longer good honest jade to scare them off.”

Little River pauses. “Shuu Ranfa... that’s the Bakalong family, yes? I’ve had one or two conversations with their heir.” Who had, if she recalls right, been interesting. He’d been that sorcerer-historian - the one she’d remembered partly for the scent of demons on him that marked him as a very illegal summoner, and partly for his theories of ancient sunken islands as big as Shuu Mua on the seabed of the Anarchy.

“Oh, that poor boy. He was being considered as a marriage prospect for me, you know, until he was chosen by the dragons. Not so lucky. His mother is a monster. I know people say it’s just an argument over fishing rights, but no - his mother’s a monster and his great aunt is a vicious pirate.” She sighs. “He’s too soft for that family.”

“He did seem rather more interested in ancient history and sunken islands than in politics,” Little River smiles. She glances over and finds her little girl fisting one hand in her dress as she stares intently at the newly dressed General Mo-ro and explains something about him being... cute? Oh. Wait. No. That’s her attempt to pronounce ‘execute’.

“Speaking of politics,” she adds, and waits for Atiya to finish a sentence before leaning back in. “Atiya, darling, can you say that again? I’d like to hear too.”

“He is a bad person and has failed Princess Beanie. So she took his toys away from him and now he is being ‘cuted,” Atiya mumbles.

“How terrible,” says Little River gravely. The avid listeners appear to be delighted at this turn of events, and she’s not sure whether to inform them that Atiya doesn’t quite understand what execution entails. As far as Keris can tell, she seems to think it involves being subjected to very tight hugs, lots of shaking around and very loud noises.

... Keris suspects she can probably blame Kali’s overenthusiastic hugging for that misconception.

“What did he fail her at?” she adds, partly out of genuine curiosity. Last she heard, General Mo-ro was in rather high favour among Atiya’s dolls.

“He didn’t expect am bush by ‘Ko’s dolls,” Atiya explains.

“Well, that was foolish of him, wasn’t it?” Little River nodded. “Incompetence like that from a general definitely deserves a punishment. Though maybe execution is a little too much.”

She glances around the watching adults. This turn from fashion to political drama appears wildly entertaining, and there are a lot more smiles and laughs being badly hidden. Keris considers her next move. Until that talk with Atiya about secrets, she can’t really let this go... but on the other hand, everyone’s clearly curious now, and refusing to let her daughter talk about a subject as harmless as her dolls would be suspicious.

... ah, of course. There’s one doll associated with a raft of political drama, infighting and ruthless competition that Keris has already thoroughly vetted, and that’s the one fed purely by what Atiya’s heard at Shining Foam.

“Speaking of failures,” she says slyly, “how is Miss Foamy doing with her journeymen? Are they still being very naughty?”

“They learned more ‘bout making things,” Atiya says solidly. She pauses, and seems to turn her attention back to her dolls.

“Oh?” Little River glances around conspiratorially, and leans in. “And what have they been learning?”

“They’ve been learning ‘broidery. Like when Hanny lets me watch her ‘broider. It’s making little shapes with thread. And adding new colours to things that are only one colour. It’s bad to be only one colour. I like trees and stars.” She offers up one of Miss Foamy’s dresses for consideration. “She shouts at them when they don’t ‘broider right. Everything has to be right or it’s wrong. And then she drops them inna river.”

Her mother’s eyebrow arches up. “Really?” she says. “That sounds very strict of her. I hope it teaches them not to get it wrong again.”

There’s a round of quiet coughs from the onlookers, and one or two people have to briefly turn away. Little River’s reputation as a teacher has spread beyond her forge. As has her propensity for taking her daughter along when she’s teaching.

“Embroidery certainly is very pretty, isn’t it?” she adds. “The way the branches spread out over the shoulders of her dress there looks very good. Who’s best at it, of her students? And who’s the worst?”

“Mr Patches is good. He has to patch himself up because Kali tore him up. Gold Hat isn’t good. He can’t take his hat off,” opines Atiya.

Keris nods wisely and lets some of the other adults start asking questions with a graceful incline of her head, drawing back a little from the conversation but staying close enough that she’s no more than a glance away if Atiya wants her. She keeps an eye on her little girl as the nobles coax titbit after titbit about the ruthlessly competitive fashion academy of Miss Foamy out of her, watching for any signs that she’s distressed by the attention or is starting to reach the limits of her willingness to talk. Her body language isn’t normal, but it’s consistent - she starts fidgeting rhythmically with her hands and her dolls when she wants quiet time, and her terse replies get even terser.

But no, she seems perfectly content. Her short and piecemeal answers are just how Atiya talks. Kali will cheerfully latch onto anyone willing to listen - or stay still, or pass within five feet of her - and babble at them about whatever she’s currently thinking until they pry her off and escape, but Atiya is more cautious in conversation. She tends to give a little information and then stop, and wait to be prompted for more. Keris isn’t sure why. Maybe she thinks other people won’t keep up if she doesn’t check they’re still following her every so often. Or maybe she just doesn’t like it when one person talks for a long time without interruption, the same way she intently divides up her meals and eats a bit from each part of the dish in careful order.

And of course, Little River has other people who want to talk to her. Some of them were people she didn’t even know before, or hadn’t really talked with, like Kalto Sha. Hui Cha Atiya and her awkward, serious mannerisms have broken the ice and some people are using this chance to get close to the hostess with the opening of talking about her adorable and funny daughter.

She introduces herself and socialises and makes small talk, and by the time Atiya starts to show signs that she’s getting tired, Little River’s circle of acquaintances has expanded quite some way. Both Ba-le and Pale Branch have drifted through to see what’s going on in this relaxation lounge, and Little River finds herself with a helper as she calls a much-mourned end to the storytelling and starts gathering up an increasingly uncomfortable Atiya and her various dolls and clothes.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” Ba-le murmurs to Little River. “And hiding away some of the more interesting guests, too!” She bounces up and down in her soft slippers. “Did this little lady escape from the nursery?”

“She’s not a great fan of loud noises,” Little River answers, tucking Atiya’s head into her shoulder after making sure she won’t be touching skin and won’t have any hair in her face. The three-year old’s little head lolls against her collarbone, too tired to really stay upright. “What with all the other children in there while people were partying, she gathered up her dolls and came down here to get away from them. And now she’s going to bed, since she’s tired herself out. Right, darling?”

Atiya mumbles something sleepy into the layers of the dress and shifts to better block out the light from the lamps.

“I’ve been holding off having children myself because I wanted to avoid the toddler phase. And the baby phase,” Ba-le admits. “But she looks like she’s just heading out of the worst bits, and she looks awfully sweet.”

“It’s stressful,” Little River admits. “But worth it. And of course she’s a great help in disciplining my students at Shining Foam.” A faintly competitive gleam enters her eye. “They’re getting to a reasonable standard. Not enough to make my mark on Saata yet, but a little more expansion and investment and I’ll have the best smithy in the city. As I’m sure you’ve seen from the value of the area.”

“I am rather pleased about the news that’s coming out and the developments there, it’s true,” Ba-le says shamelessly. “Took you a bit longer than I’d liked to get up and running, but in the next few years, well.” She smiles. “That’s when the fun starts.”

“A slow start sets good groundwork for the future,” Little River says placidly. “In any case, most of my journeymen will be ready for their mastery tests soon. I’ll look into acquiring a temple’s backing next year and getting them fully licensed.”

“Mastering off your journeymen?” Ba-le says. “Why would you do that? They’ll go off and start rival temple-shops.”

“Not if they can profit more by staying at mine,” Little River says, smiling slyly. “And a smithy with a group of masters that can cooperate - with apprentices of their own - can take on much, much larger projects. The kind of projects that would normally be split over multiple shops, or else be commissioned far in advance and take a season’s output or more. If Shining Foam maintains a stable of masters, it will have the capacity and the reputation to take on grand commissions faster and more cohesively than anyone else can get them done.” She smiles a reptilian smile. “And my students might call be a slavedriver, but they’ll work together without squabbling under my wing. I know how to mediate high-strung tempers.”

Ba-le looks her up and down, one eyebrow raised. “So you’re thinking the subsidiary shops will stay loyal?” she asks. “You don’t think small. And, hmm, I suppose you’re going to front them the money for set up.”

“As long as they stay on the land I’m renting from you,” Little River smiles. “My particular expertise is hair ornaments, but each of my students is specialising in something different. There’s enough separate niches that each shop will be distinct, and enough similarities that competition will push them all to improve. Given time, Shining Foam will be where all the best shops are clustered - and once that reputation is established, well.” She hikes Atiya a little higher where she’s slipping down, and smirks. “At that point it will be a self-sustaining cycle. And I can pull them all back for any grand commissions that a single shop couldn’t manage alone.”

“Have you found a divine sponsor yet?” Ba-le asks. “If you’re looking to make a new temple-complex, you’ll want to get that started early. Maybe someone down on their luck.”

But before they can talk any more about that, Atiya starts to grouse and Keris’s attention is pulled away.

“It’s not a decision I intend to make lightly,” she says as she leaves Ba-le at the entrance to her personal family wing. “I’ll put thought into it over Calibration and the start of the new year. Until next time, Ba-le.”

“Until next year,” she says as Keris heads off.

“You know,” Haneyl says, wet and steaming slightly as the wind and rain blows around her, “I am once again wondering why the fuck I volunteered to help you with this.”

“Because you’re my sweet and charming big sister,” Calesco says, carefully sorting through her lockpicks with her hair as she works at the trapdoor in the temple’s highest tower. “Oh wait, you’re not. Yes, why are you helping?”

Haneyl clutches her drenched clothing around her, and glowers out at the storm-wracked city. Gusts of rain and wind hammer down on the white stone, washing away some of the filth that the city brings, and for once there isn’t smoke in the air. The rain gives a strange, dream-like air to the luminescent paint. “I could be in my nice warm bed.”

“No you couldn’t. It’d be someone else’s bed.”

“Any bed with me in it becomes mine. Are you done yet?”

“Nearly,” Calesco says, working the lock.

“Can you ‘nearly’ faster?”

“Nagging me won’t hurry it up.” With a click, she gets the final tumbler and the lock opens. Unfortunately, the trapdoor does not. “I think it’s barred.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Haneyl shimmies in next to her, working her sodden grey hair in to work at the wood. “I am not spending a moment out here longer than I have to. I’ll just fix the wood afterwards.”

In a few moments, the bar comes away, but Haneyl holds it and only lets go next time thunder booms. The clatter is lost in the noise.

“Nicely done.”

“Just get us inside.”

Calesco easily lifts the heavy trapdoor, and the two demon lord sisters break into the drafty storage room in the temple’s topmost tower.

“Hmm,” she says critically. “Well, it looks like we’re in the right place. Remind me to do something nice for Mother later. I might not have known how to disable that alarm ward last year.” She glances around the storeroom quickly, but as expected there’s nothing for Calibration being kept here. “Remember, we’re not here to hurt anyone. Nothing that won’t heal. Just... enough to put them off their game until after the festivals.”

Haneyl wrings out her hair, pulling off her outer layers of clothes as she fuels up her body heat. She really starts steaming as she dries herself from the inside out. “I didn’t want to go pick a fight with these ladies in the first place,” she says, rolling her shoulders. “And you’ll want to do something about being soaked yourself, unless you want to leave wet footprints all over the place. Urgh, this has ruined my hair.”

Calesco huffs, pulls her shadow over herself to lie that she’s dry, and leans against her sister’s warmth. “At least you can warm yourself back up,” she points out. “I’m used to it being even hotter than you like it, and I don’t have any fire of my own. Come on, share.”

Haneyl looks around. “It’s dark enough you can shed your shadows here,” she says. “That’ll speed things up, and we can talk while we wait.”

Looking around - and pulling the shutters tighter over a couple of windows - Calesco shakes her hair out and lets the layers of shadowy, tarry lie slip away. Her dark skin peels away to leave porcelain paleness behind it, and her black hair washes out to white. There’s a faint glow from the depths of the strands, but her light radiates no further than a soft shine where what little light is there in this small, cold attic room catches it. Her starlight is veiled in the gloom.

Most of the water went with her second layer of shadow, leaving her only slightly damp. Still, the storeroom is far from warm, and once she’s done making sure the window is solidly covered, Calesco marches right back over to Haneyl and shoves in under her arm. She’s the smallest of their mother’s souls - well, she’s still got a bit of height on Zanara, but they’ll overtake her soon - and Haneyl is nearly as tall as Vali with none of Eko’s coltish slimness, so there’s plenty of space for her to get tucked up close and enjoy the way Haneyl throws off heat like a hearthplace.

“This is like my garret back at the Jade Carnation,” she says quickly, before Haneyl can get the wrong idea about her wanting to cuddle or something. “Freezing cold and drafty. So while we wait and you dry us out, you were telling me about whatever family you’ve been bankrupting and buying into bondage?”

Her big sister cuddles her. “So, I’ve been getting back up to speed. And fortunately, Elly is an excellent help, and identified the Abhang family of Raraan Ge as a target. They’re one of the larger Raraan Ge families, and have holdings on quite a few islands. And control Pahullah, too.” She pauses. “Have you come across any of them in your work?”

“Abhang, Abhang...” Calesco frowns. “Yes, I think so. There’s a girl from their family who’s come to a few of Black Shawl’s performances. And keeps visiting the Jade Carnation to buy prayer strips every week or so. Malila, or Malena... something like that. Sort of dull.” She sighs happily. “Not like my Wistful Ruby.”

“She’s cute?” Haneyl perks up. “What’s she like?”

Calesco shivers happily. “Oh, she’s gorgeous. She’s from Shuu Misaa, and she has so many stories about scaling the sea cliffs there - she loves climbing, and she could probably half-draw my bow if she ever really tried. She says she wants to try climbing Mount Rasna one day, just with a line and pitons she takes with her.” Her smile turns wicked. “She was ever so awed by my wings. She said abseiling and freefalling down from cliffs into deep water is the closest mortals like her can ever get to flight - but I took her up to see the stars.”

Haneyl grins wickedly. “Strong fingers, then?” She chuckles. “Good on you, little sis. But where was I? Yes. The Abhang family lost a lot of money when they lost their holdings on Alahi with that slave rebellion. They’re in a lot of debt. I’m securing as much of it as I can, because it’s secured in their land. Farms, plantations, mines; all over the western Anarchy.” Her eyes gleam bright green. “And when I have their debts, that’s one step to getting my hands on the family. But even their land will be a help.”

“I passed through Alahi briefly a couple of years ago,” Calesco says, going distant for a moment. “While I was working with Testolagh, back before he carved that island out of a wyld zone. There was so much suffering there. So much misery.” Her hair rustles, and the soft, muted glow brightens, prickling at the eyes. “It was evil. But he wouldn’t let me interfere. He didn’t care what those... those monsters were doing to the people they had enslaved.”

“Look, Testolagh isn’t a kind person. Mama says that. So does Mother,” Haneyl says with a shrug. “And the whole place is in civil war now. I’ve seen what it’s done to the sugar futures in the Daimyo-and-Yellow. Sugar has shot up since... before.” One hand shifts, running over the silvery scar on the left-centre of her chest, between her breasts.

Calesco winces. “Does it still hurt?” she asks, fearing the answer but driven to ask anyway, like touching a hot stove to feel it burn. Zanara’s actions weren’t her doing, but she’d capitalised on it to hurt her mother, and it’s hard not to feel a little guilty still.

Haneyl rubs it thoughtfully. “It aches sometimes,” she says frankly. “And I can’t fix it. I don’t think I ever can.”

“Why not?” Calesco asks hesitantly.

“It’s not a scar in my flesh. I’ve tried to re-weave my flesh around it. Even cut it out and tried to grow it back. But the new flesh grows back with it in. I think it’s a scar in my spirit. Or... not even a scar. Part of who I am now. So I can’t ‘fix’ it any more than I can,” she taps the embers in her hair, “sew these up.

“There’s a reason I was furious about it. I can still feel a part of me missing. It wasn’t a good part for me, but...” she shrugs. “This scar is what remains of it. It’s a marker of my loss.”

Silence falls, but for the rain hammering on the roof, as Calesco considers that.

“... is it like Sorcery?” she asks after a while. “You have to give something up for that. This was your Sacrifice, wasn’t it? Will it be the same way if I learn, whatever I Choose to give up?”

“No, I don’t think it’s quite the same. I think it’s... like my fire, like I said. But in reverse.” She stretches out her long legs. “We’re funny things, you know. I’ve been thinking about it. Getting used to thinking differently because I don’t have any quicksilver in me anymore. I started it. And everyone else copied me. We’re not meant to be mixed up like we are. Eko and Rathan started off like how they’re meant to be. Just of the Silent Wind, and just of the Demon Sea. And I think for a moment, when I was really small, I was just of the Hungry Swamp. But I think I found fire, at the roots of the world. And,” she shows her teeth, “I ate it. Of course I did. I didn’t know not to. But the fire got in me, and I grew into me along with it. And once I did it, you did it too, and mama seemed to learn we were better as hybrids.

“But remember Asarin? She can’t do anything like that. She’s nothing but the Sphere of Speech. Never able to be anything but stagnant blood. Stuck in that awful staid boring love melodrama with that idiot. She’s still a goddamn virgin. At five thousand years old.” Haneyl rolls her eyes. “Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.”

“Tell it to someone who doesn’t have to put up with Eko’s stories about her ‘bestie’,” Calesco says with a roll of her eyes. “Hmm. Come to think of it, her keruby couldn’t even mature until she took the Elloge’s nature into herself. Was it you who taught mother about hybrids, I wonder, or was it mother working it out that led to you?” She tilts her head thoughtfully. “Eko and Rathan were still babies back then, and I wasn’t even born yet. Maybe you should ask Dulmea what mother was doing just before your birth.”

“Maybe.” Outside, thunder booms. “How did you get the shadow, anyway? Vali came out of that crater like he is, and... well, Zanara seems to be made of bits of me and Rathan that we shed as we grew up. And Rathan copied me and tried to eat Szoreny, but he’s always been cold so the Mirror Tree wasn’t so volatile in him.”

Calesco shifts on their seat, uncomfortable but unwilling to move away from Haneyl’s warmth. She stays quiet, and doesn’t answer.

“Okay,” Haneyl says, after a long pause. “So come on, I just shared my baby story. What’s yours?”

Huddling in on herself, Calesco’s hair curls around her, and she wraps herself in shadows.

“I didn’t get born from mother like you did,” she says, and her voice is bitter. Scared. “My first memory is falling. Falling, and screaming, and blazing with light. I crashed down into the tar of the Meadows, and I wrapped them around myself and stained my feathers with their tint as my first ever blanket.”

She folds her arms around herself. “Haven’t you noticed? You and Vali are dragons. Rathan’s probably going to be an orca or a dolphin or an eel. Eko loves ribbons so much there’s no way she won’t mimic them with whatever shape she’s hiding inside herself. I don’t know what Zanara will be, but it’ll probably be the same - something long and slender. Like this you’re mother’s daughter, but as a dragon you’re a child of the snake.”

She pauses. Haneyl can feel her brooding.

“But I’m not,” she spits. “My true form is wings and light and pain. And not the beast’s kind of wings. I come from a different womb.”

“So?” Haneyl is surprisingly blunt. “Look, our keruby say a lot about us. More than we like, really. And look at Rounen and Saji. Rounen hates his dragon form. Saji’s dragon-form burnt down everything around it and she has to hide it within flesh. Only Elly likes hers. I might not hate the dragon as much as you hate what you are under all the lies, but I get it. I’m not Vali. Being the dragon means I’m an always-hungry monster who can’t think when I get too hungry. You think I’m going to hate you because your nature deep down hurts people? When... when I was young, I hurt a lot of my friends with the first big forest fire. Killed some of them. I didn’t mean to. But... it happened.

“It’s what I said about how I was the best for being the first to learn how to mix these things. You’re not just the light. And haven’t been since you fell in that tar. Trust me, you wouldn’t be thinking like you do now if you didn’t have the Ultimate Darkness wrapped around you. That’s you, just as much as the Silent Wind is. You’re still my baby sister even if Mama’s actually your dad.”

Calesco snorts. But after a moment longer, her tense posture relaxes, and she leans back into Haneyl’s warmth.

“... thanks, sis.”

They sit together longer in the damp warmth, slowly drying off. “You know,” Haneyl says, combing Calesco’s hair out with her fingers. “It’s funny. I don’t have my tan back properly yet, and so... when you’re like this, and I’m like this. We really do look quite a bit more alike than normal. Your hair is lighter than mine, and you’re even paler. But still. We’ve both got something about the shape of our faces we get from Mama.”

Calesco leans her head on Haneyl’s shoulder and holds a smaller mirror - part of her thief’s toolkit - out with her hair. Framed in the tiny glint of silver, she can see what Haneyl means. It’s obvious they’re only half-siblings, but... it’s also clear that they share a parent.

“She’ll get all soft and clingy if you tell her that,” she jibes, trying to downplay the contented feeling that comes over her. “And probably insist on us modelling for half a dozen paintings before she lets us go.”

Calesco remembers too late that Haneyl doesn’t exactly consider such things a downside. Mother is very vain - so vain that she expresses it through Haneyl, Rathan and Zanara. “And well she should, because we’re probably the prettiest things on two legs in this city,” her big sister says. “I know you like to downplay it, but you’re gorgeous. Nearly as pretty as me.”

“Well...” Calesco can’t help but preen a little. “I am getting pretty famous as Black Shawl. People are starting to leave love letters for me at the Jade Carnation. Some of them are actually rather sweet. Of course,” her fond smile fades into an annoyed sniff, “other people are needlessly stuck-up and haughty about it. Like this lot.” She gestures below with a flick of her hair. “Refusing to let me learn anything about them - either as Black Shawl or even under other faces. They’re as secretive as Mother.”

“Aww, poor Cali,” Haneyl says playfully, checking her clothes and finding them mostly dry. She pulls her shift back on. “I’m entirely behind you taking things from stuck up people who aren’t me, but it’s another way you’re my little sister, you know.”

“Hmph.” Calesco pats herself down and pulls a lie back over herself, reshaping her sash to her customary veil. “We’re not taking anything. Just changing a few things here. Sabotaging a few of the Calibration performance props... maybe giving their lead dancer a really visible rash. Nothing that will hurt her or that she won’t recover from. Just enough that they won’t be able to field her in the festivals, even with makeup on.” She smiles viciously. “Serves them right for being such stuffy obstructionists about things.”

“Poor you,” Haneyl says, frowning as she sees how creased her clothes are. Roots get to work smoothing things down. “Let’s get this over and done with then. And then once we’re done, we can go out to a lounge. You can think of it as research on your rivals and I can watch the pretty people.”

Haneyl does in fact drag her little sister off to an expensive lounge they’re done. In light of Calesco’s preferences, the dancers dressed mostly in feathers and body paint on stage are all women. Calesco sort of wishes Haneyl hadn’t done that for her.

“... and she thinks she’s fine, but the next time she puts strain on that ankle, she’s going to twist it and it’s going to take her out until after Calibration,” Haneyl grins, shelling pistachios systematically and popping them into her mouth. “Is that what you were looking for?”

Calesco nods, a smile flickering across her face as she tries to avoid looking at the stage. If Ruby knew she was at a place like this... and none of the women on stage live up to her love, even though they are all gorgeous. A blush shades her cheeks at the thought of Ruby wearing so little, and she focuses on her drink.

“Y-yes,” she stutters. “Yes, that’s perfect. And I... well, I had my way with their props department. It looks like they use weighted wooden mock props for rehearsals so they don’t risk damaging the expensive ones - so I sabotaged some of the more expensive ones. Their transcendent spear of the Sun has a notch cut most of the way through the shaft just under the head, so it’ll break off the first time it hits anything in their mock duels. And a couple of the chain links holding up the great disc of the Moon they dance in front of are barely hanging on. It’ll be terribly embarrassing for them when the whole thing falls out of its frame from a strong gust of wind.”

Outside, the thunder booms. It doesn’t drown out Haneyl’s laugh. “That’s going to be so funny! I might have to go to their play this Calibration! It sounds like a great comedy!”

“It will, won’t it?” Calesco grins smugly. “And they’ll feel embarrassed enough in the aftermath that they’ll be a lot more willing to listen to me when I tell them I want to help them out. They’ll make a good addition to that side of Mother’s work, from what little I’ve been able to find already.”

She sips at her drink, her mind going back to their earlier conversation. “Hey,” she says. “You got distracted before you told me much about,” she drops her voice, “Sorcery. About getting it and... what’s it like? You’ve been studying it, right? What have you learned how to do?” She bites her lip. “Rathan may have got it first, but he’s a pain to talk to - and even if I wanted to put up with him patting himself on the back, he’s been out on the other side of the mainland for most of the year. And Mother’s been teaching me more about occultism and spirits and... I don’t know. I can’t ask her to teach me about it. I don’t get to choose my lessons as her student. So you’re the only one who can tell me.”

Haneyl swirls her rum. “I mean, I’m not much of a sorceress yet,” she admits. “I can’t even,” she lowers her voice, “summon anything. I managed to get Mama to dig out something made of jade so I can learn that boat spell she used in Taira. It seemed useful - and something I could actually get my head around first.” She sips. “I don’t think Mama quite understands not everyone has her weird sense of intuition. It’s the Eko in her.”

“Oh, tell me about it!” Calesco bursts out. “She has such high standards as a teacher, but some of her explanations are awful. It’s like she expects you to just get the ideas about how trap wards and lock magics work the first time she explains them! And when you ask her to repeat it or simplify what she said a bit, she looks at you like she’s disappointed that you didn’t pick it up from a sentence!” She shakes her head. “Or, no, worse than that, like... like she’s confused that you didn’t. Urgh. It’s the worst.”

“Dragons,” Haneyl winces. “That bad? I thought it was just that I was so new to it that I hadn’t learned things like how to read that notation she invented that’s... well, it looks a bit like the Salinian things in some of the books, but there’s bits of random Rivertongue and some symbols I think she invented herself.”

Calesco groans. “The wavey-branchy ones? Yeah. She did. And sometimes she puts Firetongue bits - in both dialects - in among the Old Realm. It’s like she just uses whatever word best fits the concept she wants across... what, half a dozen scripts, if you count Salinan symbols? And then just relies on how she thinks that way to translate them when she rereads them later. I honestly don’t know how Rounen hasn’t tried to strangle her. Or Sasimana, for that matter.”

Her sister groans. “I... kinda hoped that you’d get it better ‘cause of the...” she waves her hand, “... you’re Eko’s sister and all. But no. It’s all her. So real question is; how do we train Mama to be a more disciplined thinker?”

“Well step one would require training her to have discipline,” grumbles Calesco. “So it may be a lost cause from the start.”

“You might be right.” Hanyel taps her fingers on the soft leather seats. “But this is important. Legitimately so.” She looks sideways at Calesco. “You know how she thinks, right? She really wants her own school of sorcery. She doesn’t want to be a queen, but she does very much want to be the mother of the Kerisian school. Or at least a legacy or something like that. She’s really pushing this sorcery thing. But she’s bad at teaching. Let’s look at who she’s trained. I’m just starting out. Hermione... she seems to have just left to do her own thing and told her to read books. And Rathan is just mostly stumbling through with trial and error. The only one she’s actually, really put a lot of time and effort into training is Oula. And I think Oula’s trained Rathan more than Mama has.”

There’s more than a little resentment in the way she says that name.

Calesco hums. “That’s not quite it. She does teach. She did a bunch of tutoring for Hermione and Yuu and some of the others while you were, uh, out of action. It’s more like...” She thinks for a moment. “It’s like she teaches up to her students making their Choice, and then she stops. Oh. Oh, of course.”

She leans back and snaps her fingers. “She’s thinking of it like mastery. Like becoming a sorcerer is the bit you need to be taught, and after that you can set up independently and develop on your own. And... you know, I wonder how she learned? I know Sasimana tutored her through initiating, and she learned from Malek when we were in Taira, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her really studying under anyone to learn new spells. Mother does tend to learn just by reading and practicing on her own. She probably doesn’t realise the rest of us can’t do that.”

“And she hoards her texts,” Haneyl grumbles. “Which is right, of course, but not from me! I... oh.” She brings her palm up to her face. “Of course. Rounen will have transcribed her copies, and he’s scrupulous about keeping notes. He should have things I can ‘borrow’. Or, you know. Borrow.”

“There are some things she keeps even from him,” Calesco warns. “The Joyful Priestess stuff. But not much of that is Sorcery - well, not the kind you cast, anyway. It’s mostly ritual things, from what I’ve seen so far. Workings, rather than distinct spells.” She taps her lips. “I think we need... urgh, I hate to say it, but we probably need to pull Rathan and Oula and Hermione on board. And then go confront her and hammer it into her head that we still need to be taught after we’ve become sorcerers. And that she needs to work out a single script for her sorcery texts and stick to it, though,” she rolls her eyes, “that might be beyond her. Maybe we’ll just have to wait until she teaches a dragon aide who can translate her scribbling for that part.”

She offers her hand to Haneyl. “I can help you translate her weird mish-mash of notation if you help me study for my initiation on the side,” she offers. “I don’t get it perfectly, but I’ve see enough of it in the stuff she’s had me studying under Cinnamon that I’ve got the hang of deciphering it. And I want to learn to cast. On my schedule, not hers.”

Haneyl takes her hand and sighs. “The worst thing is, I think might have to go to Oula even if Mama gets her act together,” she says reluctantly. “And she’s a catty bitch at the best of times, but she’s also Mama’s favourite student and the one who’s advanced enough that Mama puts her in charge of that thing she’s doing at the manse. Her. Not Rathan. Even though she’s not even one of us.”

“She’s weak,” Calesco says simply. It’s not an insult. It’s a statement of fact - almost gentle. “She’s not like us. She doesn’t have the strength of...” she pauses, aware of their surroundings, “... lordship, to support her. If anyone outside the family found out about what she can do, she’d be marked for death. Mother doesn’t dote on her because she’s more talented, she dotes on her because she’s more at risk.”

She tilts her head, an allowance granted. “And, okay, also because she’s kind of a suck-up. Mother looks at her and Rathan and sees... well, herself. And Rathan’s father. She sees herself in us, too, but we don’t have that tinge of regret attached. She looks at Oula and wants to arm her against mistakes that Mother already made.”

“That’s all very well,” Haneyl says darkly, “but she’s going to be really smug if we have to ask for her help. So maybe we just put that to the back of the queue for now and see how we can handle things together.” She bites her lower lip. “And maybe I’ll see if Elly’s interested. Mama likes her too. And at the very least, it’d be nice to be able to hear from her when I’m travelling overseas.” There’s audible fondness there.

“What’s...” Calesco pauses. She knows Haneyl doesn’t have romantic feelings. Not like she does for Ruby, the way she’s swept up in a wave of adoration and devotion and heartfelt connection every time she sees her love. It doesn’t make sense to her, though she takes Haneyl’s word for it. But the way she talks about Elly...

“What is she to you?” she asks. “Because she sounds like more than just a friend, but you’ve said you don’t love her. Well, not like that, anyway.”

“She’s my best friend,” Haneyl says simply. “So of course she’s more than a friend. I’ve known her almost all my life and even when I was ill, she stayed loyal and did a really good job handling everything for me. She’s...” she waves a hand in the air, trying to explain it without having the words. “Huh. I should see if there’s a hungry one or dragon aide who’s interested in serving you. A gay man, preferable, so the two of you won’t have either falling for the other. I know your adult keruby... you keep them at a distance. But it’s good to have someone you can totally rely on, no matter what. Who’s always there for you.”

A faint smile forms, and Calesco squeezes Haneyl’s hand gently.

“I’d like that,” she says. “A dragon aide, maybe. Someone who can run the Meadows for me, and who... understands about hiding what you really look like, underneath.”

“Hmm.” Haneyl stretches. “Maybe I’ll see if there are any ex-mezes who want to return to your service. You know some of them with big masks have started moving to the Swamp and trying to become sziroms? My new friend when I was a child again was one who’d done that, who was so close to growing up that her petal-face was all white. Do you know Mata?”

Calesco cocks her head. “Mata, Mata... the one with the moth mask, with those flared wings? I was getting worried about her. She made the jump to sziromhood?” She sighs in relief. “That’s good. My little ones don’t deserve the pain of their masks breaking. I’ll have to make it known that they can escape it that way, if they want to.”

“She’s... still sort of mez-like. Very shy and retiring, and a dreamer,” Haneyl observes. “I’d be willing to bet a talent she becomes a dragon aide. I’m going to give her a title when she grows up. She was there for me when I needed help and was very vulnerable. And was quite the little brat sometimes, when I was hurting. I’ll find her some niche of my territory that needs managing, and give her a nice stable sinecure.”

She sips her drink. “It’s a reminder that our keruby aren’t quite as distinct as they seem. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s just like what I was saying in the tower. There’s power in mixing things that weren’t meant to be mixed.”

“Except,” Calesco says archly as she finished off her own, “for notation scripts.”

Sunlight sparkles off the waves in an isolated part of the southwestern sea. West of Shuu Mua and north of the Sunfall Isles, this empty patch of ocean sees few signs of life and even fewer passing ships. From horizon to horizon there is not so much as a smudge of land in sight, and for a year and a half, the only things to pass through this spot have been fish shoals and the occasional pod of whales.

But this seemingly deserted area is not as empty as it seemed.

The shadows of the waves grow longer and longer as the sun dips low in the sky. This is the last day of Fire, and the fading light seems to sigh like a weary man unshouldering his load after an unbearably long day of work. Lower and lower it dips, as the sunbeams fade from bright gold noon to the deep red of dusk.

And then, finally, to darkness.

Far to the east and south, people light lamps and huddle around fires. Across the Sunfall Isles, in the highlands of Shuu Mua, amidst the crowded streets of Saata and the scattered provinces of the Jati Isles, there remain the lights of men to beat back the starless, moonless night.

But not here. Here, the blackness is total. No illumination comes from the heavens, and nothing shines upon the waves. So complete is the darkness that there is no visible difference between the sea and the air above it.

So there is nothing to reveal what happens next to the naked eye.

It begins with a deep and sonorous groan from down in the depths; a metallic creaking and rumbling from the pitch blackness of the seabed. Then a bubbling and rushing as something rising from the deep pushes the ocean aside in its ascent. And finally comes a crashing and splashing and pouring of water as something gargantuan surfaces, brine pouring off its every harsh line, an enormous hulking form of black metal hidden under the lightless blanket of Calibration.

Within the brutalist structure, deep blue light blooms under black metal visors. Long-dormant automata rise, shake out the stiffness from ten long years of inactivity and begin their assigned patrols along deserted corridors. Systems shift into diagnostic mode, running checks that have been run once a decade for centuries, precisely as their orders demand.

But this time, something has changed. There is essence flowing into the ancient manse that was not there last time it woke and raised its terrible bulk from the seabed. The instruments and readings confirm it. The Second Sister has been restored, and for the first time since the Balorian Crusade, the Mother is operating at greater-than-half power.

The automata are passionless. They make no judgements. They have no wants. They follow the rules and protocols laid down centuries ago by the Shogunate engineers who built this vast blunt edifice.

But nonetheless, as they carry out the essential maintenance to ensure that all things function as they should... there is a sense of anticipation in the dark.

Perhaps someday soon their long and lonely vigil will be over.

Chapter Text

In the days before Calibration, everything is all a rush within Hell. Keris has been hard at work here since before the start of Descending Fire, and so she’s really had the chance to watch all the other princes of the green sun trickle back for Calibration. One of the things she’s noted is that Sasi’s and her experience with the sandstorm means most people try to arrive more than five days before the start. Just in case they get diverted in the Endless Desert.

They’re mostly acting like it’s going to be a holiday. Bastards. She knows that isn’t quite true because they’re going to have meetings and stuff and the grand presentations, but she’s feeling more than a little resentful.

Sasi is already back, along with her new subordinate. Amiri Magenta, Keris recalls her name is. She’s a small, doll-like woman with firmin-dark hair, and she’s wide-eyed and shocked to be seeing Hell for the first time. Keris is at Lilunu’s right hand when the newcomer is introduced to her for the first time and that’s a thing to realise; that she’s now an institution of Hell. After that, Keris surrenders Aiko to Sasi’s custody, and goes back to rehearsal after rehearsal, hammering her actors into shape for their own good.

And of course, quite notable, Testolagh arrives only two days before the start, on the Baisha. Keris forces herself to take some time off from her work to get the debriefing from him and Neride.

“A grand triumph,” Neride says, with obvious pride and no small amount of relief. “Between myself and Prince Testolagh, we rolled up several key hurricane-ports of the Zu Tak and crushed them. Three flotillas destroyed, and Prince Testolagh slew those of the Greater Dead. Losses from our marines have been very slight indeed. We’ll get them replaced easily.”

“Excellent,” Keris says, relaxing. She’d been worried, given Neride’s past performance. “How would you gauge the impact to the Zu Tak as a whole? Do they still have enough power-projection to act as an oceanic power in the Anarchy?”

“I couldn’t say, your highness,” Neride says. “I don’t know how many humans there are there.”

Testolagh clears his throat, idly rubbing his thumb over a new scar down the back of his left arm. “From what it looks like to me, the Wailing Fen is a shithole,” he says. “I’d raid other people if I had to live there, even if I didn’t have Greater Dead telling me to do so. But given those bands are mostly young men, we have to have put a big dent in how many there are there.”

Keris nods thoughtfully. “Very well. Neride, I was beginning to have my doubts, but this is a great success. At worst, the Zu Tak have been dealt a crushing blow here - at best, they’ve been crippled as a faction. Testolagh, good work. The Unquestionable always like to hear accounts of grand duels and the slaying of powerful foes and so on.” She claps her hands. “I’ll keep an eye on the savages over the course of the next year, but assuming they don’t bounce back, I think we can call our campaign against the Dead concluded. I’ll confer with the other division heads before deciding what next to devote the Baisha to doing.”

“Of course, your highness.”

“Fine by me,” Testolagh says with a shrug. “I swear, I’ve never seen so many greater dead as I did around there.”

“Yes...” Keris frowns, remembering Fossyi’s words back in Air. “I want to investigate that, at some point. They should not be capable of supporting that many Greater Dead with that small a cult. And it is just a cult. They’re not tainted or drawing power from further down. Something strange is going on.” She purses her lips, then shakes her head. “But it’s not something the Baisha need concern itself with. Thank you, Testolagh, Neride. Well done.”

Neride bows. “Yes, your highness.” She slithers out.

With a nod, Testolagh waits until the snake demon is gone. “Do you know where Sasimana is?” he asks. “She’s back, yes?”

“She got back a week and a half ago,” Keris tells him. “Aiko’s with her, and, ah... Rounen?”

“The schedule Peer Sasimana provided you marks her as ‘in meetings’ for the duration of this morning, ma’am,” her aide offers up promptly. “With a note that she will be taking lunch in her townhouse if you are free. Which you are not.”

Keris sighs. “Right, the arena reviews. Fine. Testolagh, give her my apologies?”

“I will.” He pauses. “You’re feeling... better?” he asks a little tentatively. “I know you... well, what happened last year at the end of Calibration, happened. And Sasimana said you were wobbly from the stress of having to do this. Have you talked to Lilunu as to prevent that happening again?”

“... I’m fine now,” Keris says, grateful that he at least waited for Neride to leave before bringing up her... episode. She nods to Rounen, who bows and retreats, and then hops up from her desk to pour herself a glass of wine.

“What happened last year was... well, it was a lot of things,” she says, swirling the dark red liquid and staring down into it. “Some of it was the workload, yes. But it was also my first Calibration, and I wasn’t quite recovered from the battle I had up in the mountains, so I was doing it handicapped. This year, only one of those things is true. It won’t be fun, but I can handle it.” She glances up, catching his eye. “And better me being stressed for a couple of days than Lilunu having to handle all five on her own. Her health around Calibration is improving now that she’s not stretched so thin.”

“Well, you know your own mind,” Testolagh says. His attitude reminds her a bit of Vali. That’s settled for him. “Anything else, my director?”

“Nothing else,” Keris says. “Except to say hello to Aiko for me when you see her.”

He nods his farewell, and leaves Keris alone.

It’s just over a full scream before Keris has some time free, and she has Mehuni send a message inviting Sasi and Testolagh over to her townhouse for the talk that she avoided last year. She doesn’t do it happily, or even all that willingly. But as much as she might not want to have this discussion - even as much as she might like to run away and hide from it again - Keris knows that it’s something she needs to have.

If she doesn’t have it here and now, on her own turf, ahead of Calibration... then she’s going to wind up being ambushed by it during or after, when she’s already stressed and worn down. In this situation, making the first move is her best and safest bet.

As such, when Peers Nemone and Matachim arrive at Peer Dulmeadokht’s residence, they are shown in by the staff and led through the palace of white marble walls and fluted pillars, along a corridor decorated with grand landscape murals on one side that lies open to the grounds on the other. The lady of the estate is waiting for them in a covered veranda that offers stunning views over the Lake of Singing Shoals and the tamed Szorenic grove to one side of it. A generous feast is laid out on the low, round table surrounded by cushions, and she’s made up and dressed in an elegant, asymmetrical, ankle-length variant of her favourite red dress.

“Sasi, Testolagh,” she greets them, warmly but with a touch of Cinnamon’s remove. “I’m glad you could come. How is Aiko?”

“She is very happy and doing very well,” Sasi beams, leaning in to kiss Keris. “It amazes me how big she’s getting every time I see her again. And she had a lot of stories for Daddy and me about what she’s been doing. She says that Haneyl is teaching her and Atiya embroidery?”

“Atiya is very enthusiastic about fashion,” Keris agrees, kissing her back. “And in fact rather charmed a number of pirate nobles from the Raaran Ge and a few other Saatan partygoers not long before I came back to Hell. Who knew the lives of dolls could be so enthralling?”

“Aiko likes her because she’s less naughty than Kali and Ogin,” Sasi says with a smile.

“Not,” Keris says drily, “a difficult achievement. Anyway, please, sit down, eat.” She takes a moment to breathe and centre herself as they get seated, listening to the musical chirping and splashing of the strange breeds of fish that inhabit the lake and watching the light of the green sun reflect off the mirrored branches of the grove. They start the meal with the same kind of light and simple conversation, but Keris knows she has to bring up the reason they’re here sooner or later.

“So,” she starts, once they’ve finished the first course and as her servants carry the empty dishes away. “I invited you here because we need to talk about...” she gestures, “the three of us. The talk I avoided last year with, ah, some slightly foolish actions.”

“You? Foolish?” Sasi’s tone is utterly convincing as to her complete disbelief and lack of comprehension as to how anyone could ever possibly believe Keris capable of being unwise.

Testolagh on the other hand grimaces. “Go on.”

Keris closes her eyes. She loves Sasi. Testolagh loves Sasi. And while Testolagh and Keris do not love each other, they are tied together nonetheless by their shared feelings for this wonderful, if sometimes overly sarcastic, woman.

And that is not a stable system. Strife and conflict and jealousy will inevitably make themselves felt. So if Keris wants to keep Sasi - and if she wants to help Sasi’s life be less plagued by stress and pain - she must bring balance and harmony to the triad. This is not just something necessary to keep her relationship and help her love. It’s also her duty, both to Gull and to Venus. Had she done this in Nexus, perhaps she wouldn’t have lost the first and second loves of her life.

She refuses to lose the third.

Keris closes her eyes, and Tenné Cinnamon opens them.

“I told Sasi about our last tryst in Love Unchained,” she says, professional distance acting as a shield. “And while it was enjoyable for both of us, I don’t like the person I became back then. I think perhaps your pride might have rebelled a little too, in the cold light of day the next morning. My worry - which I shared with Sasi in the aftermath of Calibration last year - was that if the two of us... treated her, as she put it, that we might fall into the same spiral. So I want us to talk about this and make sure that doesn’t happen - and I will want to talk about every group tryst we have in future, rather than making one set of rules and assuming that will be enough. It won’t.”

He nods. “Makes sense,” Testolagh says, folding his hands over each other on the table before him. “I... liked what we had, but Sasimana says you didn’t find it so enjoyable and just pretended otherwise for my benefit. I can understand that, and it does explain how things... changed after that.”

Sasi shoots a glance at Keris. It is quite a meaningful one.

Keris stares back. She doesn’t swallow her voice, but there’s nonetheless something distinctively Ekoan about her veiled incredulity that Sasi didn’t tell him. Or, not even that. She actively lied to him. Simply not telling him would let Keris fill him in now. This...

If it were someone else, someone like Lilunu, Keris would call her out on her misrepresentation. She’s determined not to lie to Lilunu any more than she absolutely has to, after confessing to her about Khereon Ul’s attentions - not even by omission. But Testolagh... isn’t clan. Him not knowing the truth may not be entirely fair on him, but it’s not hurting her or Sasi, either.

Slowly, she nods. But her eyes promise Sasi that they will be talking about this later.

“I don’t have anything against you personally,” she says smoothly, adopting Cinnamon’s professional veneer again with a smile. “Believe me, it’s nothing to do with inadequacy in your skills. I’m just more comfortable with women, most of the time.” All true enough, even if Ney blurs the line a little. But they don’t need to know about Ney. Neither of them do, because knowing about Ney would send Sasi into a terrified meltdown. “But I’m willing to make exceptions to treat Sasi - and since we’re all here for Calibration, I think she deserves a treat before we go our separate ways.”

Again, he nods. “I understand. It... makes sense, given how you seemed sort of uncomfortable and not really into it most of the times. I wish you’d say something.” He meets her eyes. “I wouldn’t want to make a woman who prefers other women bed me.”

“It’s not your fault,” Sasi interjects smoothly. “I... thought it would work. And it didn’t.”

“I’m not averse to men,” Keris says, soothingly. “And it’s-”

She pauses. Yeah, no, going into her past as a harlot with Testolagh cannot possibly improve the situation here. “It’s not like it wasn’t pleasurable,” she says instead. “Just, yes. We didn’t click. So.” She pauses for a moment to finish cleaning her plate. The view gives her a little more breathing space as a marlin-like fish springs from the lake’s surface in a glittering, beautiful leap.

“So,” she says again, “I think we can just... chat, over our desserts, about what acts we would be comfortable with, and what we can avoid so everyone has a good time, and decide when to come together. We need not necessarily...” she searches for a word briefly, “... focus on each other, if the night is for Sasi to enjoy. Well. Perhaps a little, for her to watch.” Her smile at Sasi is knowing.

The talk is very adult and sensible, and... not something Keris has ever done before, now that she thinks about it. Her past relationships have always been chaotic things. Full of passion and often not exactly between peers. And her and Sasi... well, uh, their mutual tastes line up fairly well.

But after the dinner, Sasi lingers after Testolagh leaves.

“Thank you very much, my love,” she murmurs, holding Keris closely. “For everything you did this evening.”

Keris takes a shaky breath, letting Cinnamon drain away. “Better to tackle it properly now than do it on the fly later,” she says. “But,” and she pulls away, frowning, “why did you lie to him? If he doesn’t know what we’re trying to avoid, he’s not going to be much help dodging it.”

“Keris,” Sasi says, guiding her head onto her broader shoulders, “do you think he’d have understood ‘I enjoyed it a lot, I was really into it, but I don’t like being someone who likes this’? It would have hurt him, made him feel judged - and that would only be when he’s got his head around it. I’ve talked with him and I can be who he wants. A little less soft shadow, and a little more... grinding sand. It’s simpler this way for us as a trio.”

She strokes Keris’s hair. “I didn’t lie exactly. You do prefer girls. I just put the truth in a way he understands better.”

“I’m not sure...” Keris starts, and then gives up with a sigh. “Well. I suppose you do know him better. And know him better,” she adds, chuckling. “And this works well enough for keeping me from going too far. As long as I have a list of things I’m allowed to do that I don’t stray outside of - and as long as we work it out each time to keep things fresh and so I don’t start finding loopholes - it’ll serve. You can grind his sand while I keep a little distance.” She leans up to kiss Sasi. “And I do want to treat you. You deserve it, with all the hard work you’re doing on the Isles.”

“You’re already a treat.” Sasi sighs. “If only the plays had been ready this year. Oh well. We have more time to polish the scripts for next Calibration. I want to help you with that next year.”

“Please do,” Keris sighs. “I’ve promised Ipithymia a month of my time in Air to get the last three scripts finished and whip some of her actors into shape. And I’ll probably be spending a good chunk of Fire on training the leads.”

“Mmm.” Sasi leans her head on Keris’s. “I’m tired, Keris,” she admits. “Coming back, only seeing my daughter for a little bit a few times a year... she’s so big already and I’m missing so much of her life.”

Keris kisses her on the temple. “I make sure to talk to her about you,” she says. “And I’ve finished that spell I was working on before last Calibration. The one to mimic what Lilunu did to tie my painting to me. If you wanted... I could create one of you, and take it back with me. It wouldn’t have an inner world like mine does, but you could meditate into it and see and talk through it, and I could put it somewhere she could always get to it when she wanted you.” She bites her lip. “It’d be a sympathetic link, so... if you think it would risk discovery, I wouldn’t want to put you in danger. But it’s far less obvious than a Messenger. And it lets you see, as well as talk.”

“That’d be nice.” She pauses. “I may see you next year, though. I’m going to be requesting your services as an assassin for a mission this year. You might even be able to bring Aiko over for a few weeks.” There’s hope in her voice.

“Oh?” A thrill of mingled interest and fear ripples through Keris. “An assassination on the Isles themselves? Who and where? Someone important, if you’re requesting me. A dragonblood?”

“This one goes high enough that I’m presenting it as a mission proposition to the Unquestionable,” Sasi says. “Yes. One of the Imperial Ministers. Ledala Ama, the Wise Minister of the Office of Foreseen Cataclysms. She’s showing a lot of interest in rumours of the Anathema from across the world. Most of what she’s picking up is about the Dead Princes, but I worry she’ll put together something about what we are too.”

Keris hums. “I can’t guarantee killing a dragon quietly,” she warns. “But I can disguise myself like I did in Eshtock. I’ll look forward to seeing you - and hopefully this can earn you some time to take another sabbatical.” She grins. “What do you say? Some nice time off in the South West, blue seas and sun, acting in the Jade Carnation as one of Cinnamon’s starring performers, seeing Aiko every day?”

There’s a sigh. “You do like the thought of turning the granddaughter of the Scarlet Empress into a common dancing girl,” Sasi teases. “Does it do something for you?”

“What can I say?” Keris teases back, pulling Sasi down onto the cushions and walking her fingers up her side. “Perhaps I just enjoy seeing you on a stage where you belong.”

“Well, I’m looking forward to seeing you on the stage in a couple of days,” Sasi whispers, between kisses. “So maybe that’s why we’re so good together. We belong in the same place.”

There isn’t much time for personal things in the rush of getting things ready before. But in the last few hours before Calibration starts, Keris manages to finagle a few things such that she can stop by the new townhouse of Amiri Magenta with a few of Lilunu’s best tailors in tow. It’s perfectly innocuous. She’s just the Voice of the Conventicle Malfeasant, making sure the newcomer looks her best at the grand talk.

Magenta’s townhouse is one Keris registered a few times before. It belonged to... oh, what was his name? Big, skinny guy. Easterner. She’d seen him meeting with Orange Blossom when she worked for her. No, the name is gone. But it’s a tall, skinny almost tree-like structure made from shiny black glass, with rooms hanging down from the branches which fork off from the tower. There’s new fresh growth here, though; hints of red and silver, and green veins that glow from within. Keris remembers Lilunu mentioning that the townhouses adapt to match their owners, which makes an odd kind of sense. At the very least, it’s quite Lilunu.

Amiri Magenta greets her senior with mild surprise, dressed in a soft morning robe in gentle teals. “To what do I owe the honour of this visit from Lilunu’s Voice?” she asks courteously, her High Realm accent very clear in her less-practised Old Realm.

“This is your first Calibration, isn’t it?” Keris replies, gesturing at her entourage. “My lady cares deeply about her beloved peers, and while her duties over Calibration are time-consuming, she and I wish to help all newcomers to the Althing settle in.” She smiles warmly, tilting her head. “Peer Sasimana may have already given you a general idea of what to expect, but if you wish, I can share my side of things and allow you the use of the Conventicle’s tailors.”

((Using Kindness Expects Repayment to offer information from a seasoned expert and PRETTY CLOTHES from Lilunu’s own staff for her first Calibration speech.))

Magenta is a small, weak creature to Keris’s sight; her flame barely stronger than her own children. And in the glinting of her eyes, Keris sees she’s mirror-brightness and burning green rage, with a hint of wispy shadow and hunger.

She sees the same glint in Magenta’s eyes, and more than that, she sees the other woman’s flinch back. “I would welcome such advice, if freely offered from such an esteemed elder peer of mine,” Magenta says placidly, no mark in her voice of that little twitch.

There’s more to her, though; Keris can see gleaming ghost-echoes of Magenta, a devil-queen whose burning soul envelops her.

((Enlightenment 7, dominant aspects Szoreny and Malfeas, hints of TED and Metagaos. Envious; no. Pride in her status as an Exalt.))

She leads Keris in to her dressing room, and the tailors get to work. It’s very much like a side of Sasi Keris has seen before; the tendency to treat the help as animate furniture and so be willing to talk when she’s in the middle of a fitting or suchlike.

Of course, Keris feels she wears that little shard of gratitude-ice very well, but that’s just her.

“So, how much has Sasimana told you about the Calibration festivities?” Keris asks, settling into a lounge chair with a bowl of cherries as she directs the tailors with flicks of her hair and nods or shakes of her head. “I recall I was busy enough with missions and training in my first few months that I had little preparation, but there’s no use in repeating what you already know.”

“Quite a bit, Lady Dulmeadokht,” Magenta says, as the servants measure her arm lengths. “It is a grand spectacle, as well as how our masters evaluate our services over the past year. And of course, it’s a chance to socialise that’s even more weighty and fine than the galas and feasts during Calibration in the Imperial City.”

“Indeed,” Keris nods. “And I do hope you enjoy my work; the second and fourth day of the festivities are mine to arrange as Mistress of Ceremonies. But the centrepoint of our time here is, of course, the Althing itself, where we boast of what we have done in our masters’ service and, I’m afraid to say, often seek to one-up one another with our triumphs. I understand you came to Sasi later in the year? Many of our peers had few solid achievements in their first Calibration speeches, simply for lack of time.”

Magenta gives a not entirely pleasant smile. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” she murmurs. “Lady Dulmeadokht, with all due respect, I have been quite deliberate in my efforts to... revenge myself on certain individuals. There have been quite a few tragic deaths. And some of them have opened up quite considerable opportunities for advancement for myself, even for a poor, benighted individual such as myself from a lesser house and who has not been blessed by the Immaculate Dragons.”

For all that it’s coming out of the mouth of this seemingly cultured Dynast, Keris can hear the tightness of rage under her calm tone. This is not a woman like Sasi, broken by becoming a demon. This is a woman who’s snatched at offered power with both hands, and is now letting out decades of spite and bitterness and anger on the people who scorned her and made her feel worthless.

“Oh?” Keris gives her a razor smile, allowing a slither of quicksilver fellow-feeling to emerge from amidst Zanara’s blossoms. “Very well done, then. And that will go down very well with the Althing. The Unquestionable adore stories about the downfall and humiliation of the great powers of Creation; the gods, their Chosen and the servants of the Scarlet Throne. Tell them of the deaths of those who thought to claim Creation as their own, retell how they suffered as they died, and you will get a pleased response from most.”

“Thank you, esteemed elder,” Magenta says, unable to bow as the many-handed tailor wraps her up in silk measuring cords.

Keris gets the odd feeling that she... might not realise how old Keris actually is. From what Sasi mentioned, her new underling is around Keris’s age.

It’s a weird feeling - even more so to realise that Magenta is obviously watching what she says. And while that might be something Sasi-like, a careful calculated veneer over her real feelings over which she presents whatever will advance her goals...

... that’s not the feeling Keris gets. Indeed, that Sasi-like political skill and those inscrutable machinations feel more like what she expects Keris is doing. She’s not watching her words to get the maximum effect out of them. She’s watching them because she doesn’t want to offend the powerful, beautiful, influential peer who showed up on her doorstep for reasons unknown.

Or to put it another way, she feels like Keris does whenever Noh shows up to talk to her or Ligier summons her to a meeting.

Getting her head around that is enough effort that Keris falls back on small talk, asking about Magenta’s first impressions of Hell, what parts of the Conventicle she’s already visited and her time with Sasi on the Blessed Isles. All the while, the tailors work, assembling a selection of pieces that Keris approves or rejects largely by reflex, asking Magenta’s opinions of the best as they chat.

“If I might be so impolite,” Magenta murmurs politely, “might I ask a question?” Keris nods. “In that case, I was just wondering that... well, I have not observed such a blend of tastes and smells from any save the Conventicle Malfeasant herself. Even Elder Sasimana herself partakes less of disparate Yozis than yourself, and you two are of a likeness of authority and power. How would one achieve such a thing?”

Keris tilts her head. Thinking about it... well, perhaps that’s true. She’s drunk deeply from the gifts of the King, the Silent Wind, the Swamp, the Sea and most recently the Silver Forest. And on top of that, she’s picked up a few tricks from both Dragons, as well as the nature of the Sphere of Speech that Eko grafted into her.

Plus there’s Pekhijira, of course.

Wow. Maybe she should pay more attention to what her own essence-melody sounds like, if it’s this obvious she’s... well, being compared to Lilunu herself is certainly a statement. And most of the other peers Keris has tasted do seem to focus mostly on two or three - or at most four or five - Yozis.

“Success,” she says after a moment’s consideration. “And stress. Different peers pick up the gifts of the All-Makers in different ways, you understand - Sasimana identifies the precise gift she wishes to learn and studies it until she can replicate it, while Peer Matachim was taught how to wield the King’s fire by Ligier himself. In my case, I’ve found that I tend to earn the powers of the Yozis more instinctually - it’s very difficult for me to choose what I learn, but things come to me when I need them most, or when I’ve been acting heavily in line with them for some time.”

She grins, inviting Magenta to smile back. “My mission record, in that light, probably speaks for itself. Sasimana and I were instrumental in the assassination of a deathknight of Thorns several years ago, and the subsequent downfall of Nexus’s Council of Entities. Since then, I’ve turned my hand to assassinations, sabotage, political games, sowing mistrust and conflicts between the powers of Creation, cult-making, trade...” She shrugs. “It really comes down to experience. The All-Makers gave you a seed. The more time and effort you put into nurturing and working on it, the taller and stronger it will grow.” An artful pause as Keris glances up and down her own diminutive height. “Figuratively speaking, I mean.”

“Of course, wise elder.” Hmm. Now Keris isn’t sure whether the other woman is making fun of her. Sasi had to have mentioned her actual age, right? “So in your case, it developed with mere age? I had observed that the experience of Lady Sasimana teaching to hide myself in my shadow is not how dragonchildren learn things.”

“Well...” Keris’s smile turns strained. “I also made certain... choices, early in my career, which I believe sped my development considerably. But since the first of them was to run with the Silent Wind and open my eyes to the full might of her soul, as you tasted the strength and flavour of mine, that’s... not a path I would recommend.”

Even the tailors freeze for a moment, before Keris clears her throat sharply and they jump back into action. It’s not a secret that Keris is known as the Wind-Kissed in parts of Hell - she’s even heard it whispered openly outside the walls of the Conventicle. But it’s also not something that people tend to bring up directly, on account of being too terrified to talk about it. Half-consciously, Keris lifts her hand - her right hand; she has no intention of touching an open connection to Adorjan with her left - to trace the scar running down the line of her jaw.

“... that said,” she adds, shaking off the memories, “prayer is another way to touch the minds of the All-Makers, and a much safer one at that. If you’re a skilled enough priestess to get a response. Much of what I know of the Lintha was a gift from Kimbery, in return for a sacrifice and a heartfelt plea - and in the wake of that communion, I found that the gifts of the Sea came a little easier to me.”

“I...” Magenta clears her throat. “I see. Perhaps, if you do not consider this rude, I might be able to be of some use to you in the Realm, and in return you might instruct me in certain of these means to achieve more power.”

Keris gives her a warm smile. “Certainly,” she agrees. “I’d be glad to have a contact on the Isles - and I might perhaps introduce you to Pelepese Anadala, the Sea Spider, who sits on the Enlightened Board of the Warm Oceans and coordinates the efforts against the Realm’s navies.”

Magenta smiles sweetly. “Of course, respected elder.”

Keris raises an eyebrow at her, but then the tailors are done, and she beckons Magenta to rise, don her new outfit, and look at herself in the mirrors.

“Well?” Keris asks. “What do you think?”

Magenta is small and doll-like and dark, like the firmin that is her coadjutor, and so Keris hasn’t forced bright colours on her that wouldn’t suit. Instead, her dress is a layered thing of shifting greys and blacks and whites, with silvered panels mixed in among the complex patterns. Each layer is separate, with patterns of open panels that show the layers below down to the black undergown, and the effect as she moves is to create a shifting, disorienting pattern of shades that is as deceptive as it is unsettling - like mirrors reflecting mirrors into eternity, the angles changing just enough to throw off an onlooker’s eye.

The wardrobe Keris brought along of course included jewellery, and so Malfean emeralds with hearts of Ligierian fire add spots of colour at Magenta’s neck and ears and waist and wrists, honouring the third Yozi she has partaken of in power and serving as a subtle mirror to the fury lurking under the mirror-brightness of her mind. Iris raises her head off Keris’s hand to give an appreciative coo and a puff of enthusiastic rainbow flame.

“Ah! What’s that?” Trust her scene-hogging familiar to ruin the moment.

Iris, for her part decides to answer the question, and exhales an iris-shaped flame.

Keris sighs wearily. “Thank you, Iris. Magenta, this is my familiar, gifted to me by my lady Lilunu. Iris, if you try to eat any of the artwork in Peer Amiri’s townhouse, I will ban you from candied fruit for a week. And keep you on me so you can’t beg any from Lilunu.”

Iris exhales a pouting face, to which Keris replies with an eyeroll and a stern look. “If you can say hello politely, you may do so,” she says, and surprisingly, Iris does, squirming off her arm in dragon form and flying over to perch on Magenta’s wrist, then shifting into her six-legged tiger form and licking her thumb with a friendly blink. Her tails flick languidly from side to side, tipped with the occult flame that her dragon-form holds in one claw.

“I see. Such a strange little creature.” Magenta’s eyes gleam green. “It’s like she’s part of you,” she observes.

“She is,” Keris agrees. “She’s a sweet little thing, and helpful. If occasionally gluttonous.” Having completed her examination of the new person, Iris hops down to the seats and starts innocently edging around the corner of Keris’s vision towards the bowl of cherries. “Now then, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time that the Althing will be starting soon. So if you’re happy with your outfit, would you care to accompany me to the centre of the Conventicle? You may have to put up with my distraction - there are always issues to solve when running the festivities - but I can point out the best of the revelries to you as we go.”

“Of course, wise elder,” she says humbly in response.

They are heading through the streets of the Conventicle as Calibration comes. It’s immediately obvious. The tomescu scream, but more than that, there’s a change to the way the air feels. A slight breeze starts up, and auroras ripple through the sky, showing glimpses of Creation. As the scream dies away, a grand symphony begins as Lilunu starts to conduct her opening score, and the whole dome reverberates with music that brings tears to Magenta’s eyes.

Not to Keris’s, though. She’s heard this time and time again in rehearsals. And that means she has somewhere to be.

Five days away from Hell, the starless, moonless sky stretches from horizon to horizon. Calibration has come and now five days darkness will rule.

Up in the cooler mountains of Shuu Mua, the hidden valley of Zen Daiwye is ablaze with light and life. From the newly built temple-house near the higher reaches of the valley where the gods of these people live, the lights of the bonfires in the streets of the little villages can be seen. Down in White Stone - named for the big rock that the village is built around - they’re burning the fields and grassfires sweep across the lands.

There are no stars, and the demon lord Rathan is looking at where they are not. He has a lovely and highly expensive telescope that his kind and generous little sister Haneyl grudgingly paid for, with finely ground lenses made by a Raraan Ge artisan. Humming happily to himself, he makes notes on where the Treasure Trove should be. With this lens, he can see the holes in the sky where the stars should be. Sometimes he can see glimpses of Hell. The sky over Cecelyne, the darkened sand, and sometimes glimpses of distant green.

It’s fascinating.

“Rathaaaaan,” comes a voice from behind him, and a shapely form presses up against his back, standing up on tiptoe to hook elbows over his shoulders and wrap a pair of shell-patterned arms around his chest. “There are parties going on further down the valley, Ratty, and you said you’d take me to one. Are you really going to spend all day staring at the sky instead of me?”

“We will, we will,” he says softly. He wonders whether there’s some kind of numerological meaning to the pattern of stars he sees glimpses of green behind. “But this is important research, Oulie.”

She sighs, and he feels her forehead thump into his back, the lengths of her spiralling horns pressing up against him - though thankfully not their curved-back points. “Couldn’t you at least be doing something interesting?” she mutters. “Like alchemy? Urgh, fine.” She pulls away and marches around him, wearing a short robe that stops scandalously high on her thighs and bares most of her back. She’s put Sea-silver rings around her horns, and her eyes and lips are painted.

“Fine,” she repeats, dragging a chair around and sinking down onto it in a deliberately tantalising pose across from his telescope. “I’ll sit here, and you can stare at the sky and explain to me what’s so interesting up there.” Her pupils flicker into loving hearts for a moment. “I do like hearing you show off how smart you are. And,” she smirks, “I’ve taught you enough Sorcery that it’s your turn to teach me something.”

He meets her eyes. “I have a cunning idea,” he says, after glancing around and checking the mirrors. “Why don’t you go and entertain Hermione for a bit instead? That way, she won’t be feeling neglected when we need some... private time.”

Oula purses her lips, and he can see her weighing the neglect of right now against the threat of another interruption from an eager little sister who - as he has not forgotten - had declared her intent to marry him before mama adopted her instead.

Thankfully, the latter proves more dire. “Urgh,” Oula grumbles, getting up again. “You’re too clever for your own good sometimes, you know that? Kiss first! Then you can get back to staring at the stupid broken sky.” She glances upwards and huffs. “Figures that this realm would only get the colour right when it’s not working,” she adds acidly.

“I remember when the sky was just like this back home,” Rathan says, almost more to himself than anyone else. “Back when it was just me in the sky. Before Calesco started filling it with her stars. We’d sometimes see cracks in the sky then, too. They’d show the world outside. I wonder if back home is constantly in a state of cosmological calibration.”

“Well, you can...” starts Oula, beginning to lift her chin for her kiss, but then paused, interest caught by the question. “Huh. Hmm. I mean... Aunty said that she’s not a creature of Fate - and neither are you. Or me, even, though it can capture me where it just tries to push you out unless you’re anchored against it.” She tilts her head thoughtfully, her pink hair twisting around itself as she considers the question. “I guess that means she makes her own Fate. Maybe that means it’s constantly changing and calibrating for whatever she does? Or... I don’t know, what’s Creation’s Calibration for?”

“Some of the texts said that it’s about the world cleaning out the... the detritus of the year. And that Fate is most powerful at the start of the year and weakest at the end. So maybe,” Rathan purses his lips, “I wonder. The books say that unlike Calesco’s stars or Hell’s stars, the stars of Creation are where the gods write their plans. So maybe they’re taking them down now so they can update them. Maybe in Heaven they’re having planning sessions now, just like mama has in Hell.”

“Seems pretty stupid to me,” Oula says doubtfully. “Why would you write your plans all over the sky where anyone could look at them? Aunty barely writes her plans down at all. Putting them up in the stars is just begging for someone to read them and get the jump on you.”

“Presumably it’s important to Creation’s functioning, given they have to take it down and repair it once a year.” Rathan sniffs. “Given how much better you and the other keruby are than the serfs in hell, I can only presume that the Primordials did a sub-standard job when making the world, and the gods are probably doing worse maintaining it. You know, I borrowed Rounen’s reports and read the one he gets periodically from the Isle of Gulls. The keruby there have replaced more gods, amusingly enough. Do you have any ambitions towards goddesshood, or would you rather avoid such entanglements?”

Oula hums. “I would do well as a goddess, wouldn’t I? Hmm. But it would probably take time away from you, and alchemy, and learning sorcery. I mean, I wouldn’t want to do a terrible job at it like Creation’s gods do.” She tosses her hair. “I’d prefer a subordinate in a divine role - a higher-ranking one with others reporting to them. Then I’d be able to check on things but not have all my time taken up with paperwork like dragon aides enjoy.”

Rathan looks away from his telescope. “Yes, you’re right. I don’t like the idea of you being subordinate to anyone else.”

Her pupils become little hearts again, and she leans up to kiss him before sashaying off to find Hermione, hips swaying as she goes.

Ah, wonderful. A little peace and quiet. He uses the time well, and plots out much of the missing houses of Jupiter, but by the time his eyes start to ache he’s had enough astronomy for now and climbs down out of the tower, looking for everyone else.

The top floor of Ahangar House’s east wing is still largely empty, which isn’t too surprising. It’s the largest building of the compound, and the only three-storey one, so its uppermost rooms have gone largely untouched save for Calesco claiming a suite under one of its towers and Rathan taking the other. Still, it’s no longer bare walls and floorboards. Thick rugs muffle the sound of his feet as he traipses downstairs, smiling at the pictures adorning the walls.

One of the things you got used to in this family was mama sketching you all the time, and she’d been so happy to have a clan home that she’d stuck her sketches and pictures on every patch of wall that wasn’t occupied by a door, a drape or a window. A lot of the older ones have ended up near the top of the house, and he pauses halfway down the stairs to admire one of himself, looking about Hanily’s age, in a very fetching captain’s outfit at the helm of a ship. Probably done around when Vali was born, if he were to guess. Maybe a little later.

Shaking his head fondly, he continues down into the warm open space of the main hall; a two-floor space that looked straight out onto the dock and abutted the kitchens. Hanging drapes billowed down from the high ceiling and wall hangings ran down the full height of the walls, tucked in near the floor to give the space the feeling of a great tent within a greater building. The furniture in here was all sturdy and comfortable; built to be knocked around and tossed over by scuffles and jumped onto, and the rugs that covered the floor were three layers deep to make any fall a soft landing.

Ogin and Atiya were curled up in a hanging chair, intently working on sewing something into a doll’s coat. Rathan elected to leave them to it, looking instead for the others. He could see Xasan through the curtained arch that led to the kitchen, but Ali and Hanily - and more worryingly Kali - were nowhere to be found.

He heard a faint noise of distress from Atiya, and when he turned to face her, she was averting her face from him.

“Atiya?” he asked, puzzled. Oh, wait. “Am I wearing the wrong thing?”

“You put the wrong eyes in,” she whispers faintly. “And you’re wrong!”

Oh, Rathan thinks. Of course. He’d half-forgotten the changes that he underwent at Calibration - and there’d been no mirror up in the tower, so he hadn’t been reminded. Kneeling down, he gentled his voice.

“I’m sorry we didn’t warn you, Atiya,” he says, calling on a little of his aura. “When the sky goes black at Calibration, we change what we look like - it’s the rules of the world. It happened last year too, but you were probably too little to remember. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just like wearing a different outfit at the right time of year.”

“Kali’n’me don’t change,” Ogin states. But his question is implicit. He doesn’t like asking questions.

“Well, the way it works is that Mama has two types of babies,” Rathan says, smiling innocently. “Some of us are her soul babies. We come from her inner world, so this one doesn’t let us stay here and tries to push us out if we don’t have things that protect us. But because we’re here on this world’s rules, we change when it does. And then she has her body babies, like you and Kali and Atiya. You’re meant to be in this world, so you don’t have to worry about the sunlight burning you, and you stay the same shape when the world changes.”

“Kali doesn’t stay the same shape,” Ogin points out, his attitude such that he’s caught his big brother in an utterly devastating trick.

“Ah,” says Rathan cunningly, “but Kali doesn’t change when the world does. She changes when she wants to. The world doesn’t get to tell her when to change or not. But I can’t do this whenever I want - it only happens when the sky turns black and the moon and stars disappear.”

Ogin frowns. He doesn’t like that answer.

Atiya, on the other hand, tilts her head. “So people have ‘Braytun looks,” she decides.

“Eko and me and Hanny and Calesco and Vali and Zanara,” Rathan confirms. “But it’s a big and important secret, so you need to be clever and not let anyone outside the family know about it.”

“Oula said she has a pretty dress for ‘Braytun,” Atiya said.

“She does,” Rathan agrees, remembering how short the skirt had been. “That’s clothes, though, not changing what her eyes or hair look like. But a lot of people do dress up differently for Calibration.”

“You’re dressing up different,” Atiya decides, the problem resolved in her head. She goes back to her embroidery. Her and Ogin have taken very well to Haneyl’s lessons, and Atiya in particular seems to adore something she doesn’t have to wear her glasses for. She looks odd without them on.

Chuckling, Rathan leaves them to it, and slips into the kitchen, where Xasan is putting together a flatbread wrap full of something. “Uncle,” he says. “I don’t suppose you know where Kali is? Or the girls? I promised Oulie I’d take her to one of the Calibration festivals down the valley.”

Xasan pauses, mid-way loading it up with spiced mutton. “Ali took Hanily and Kali down to one of the villages. I saw Oula going up to the mirror room with some wine.”

“I thought it seemed a bit quiet,” Rathan grins. “Are you going to spend it here in the house with Ogin and Atiya? We can do some fishing later if you feel like it.”

“I was going to see how Ali said the parties were. I don’t want to take the trip all the way down if it’s not for me.” Xasan sniffs. “Plus, it’s bad luck to travel too much at this time of year. It’s not like Ali to be so adventurous.”

“I think he was feeling a bit lonely without much company here,” Rathan says. Then considers. “Also, Hanily might have convinced Kali to help pester him into it. Did he say which one he was going to?”

“He just took a boat downstream. I think he might have been going to check out a few.” Xasan shakes his head. “You know how he doesn’t like Hanily spending too long up here as the oldest child around.”

“Mmm. Well, I’ll tell you what Oulie and I see when we visit,” Rathan offers. He steals a bit of mutton for himself, and idly snacks on it - ach, too much Swamp spice - as he wanders over into the south wing, where the mirror room sits on the furthest side of the docks, a mirrored path leading out through the one small window to the water for when Hermione wants to go swimming.

Oula is not in the room. Not directly. But when he looks in the wall-to-ceiling mirror, he sees her sitting in the reflection along with a young girl with slit-pupiled red eyes, long white hair that moves without a wind, and who has a hint of a scaled tale escaping from the back of her robes. They’re reading together.

“Hello girls,” he says with a friendly grin, walking up to the mirror and through it with a ripple of quicksilver. “How’s my favourite dragon-sister?”

A faint blush rises on Hermione’s cheeks despite her best efforts to be otherwise. She knows what he’s like, and yet she still can’t help but beam at being placed above Haneyl. “My two favourite people are here,” she purrs. “How nice.”

“And it’s just as nice for us,” Rathan returns, giving her a hug. She cuddles into him happily, still not quite accustomed to physical touch. Before his girlfriend can get too upset at him, he presses a kiss to the back of her hand and winks at her. “So, Oulie, what have you two been reading together?”

Oula smiles at him. “It’s a philosophical text by a mid-600s Raraan Ge sorcerer. Jash of Baltoo. Aunty Keris found a copy of it, stole it, and she wants me to read it and tell her if there’s anything worthwhile in it.”

“Is there?”

“I’m not yet sure. It’s very, very dense.”

“He’ssssss a bad writer,” Hermione agrees. “Very boring.”

“Well,” says Rathan, clapping his hands. “Why don’t you take a break from that, Oulie, and come with me to one of the festivals? Ali took Hanily and Kali out to visit a few of them, and I know you wanted to see what they were doing in White Stone. Hermione, you’re welcome to come along if you want, or you could keep Ogin and Atiya company.” He’s making a little gamble here, but he suspects she’ll stay. Festivities aren’t as much fun from behind a reflection, and Hermione is very fond of his little brother. And Ogin praises her to Atiya, so Hermione seems broadly tolerant of her.

Hermione considers this. “I’ll be the sssstrongest one here and have to keep everyone safe,” she decides, beaming.

Rathan beams back. “You will, yes. Especially with Vali off down the valley somewhere.” He rolls his eyes. Vali’s attempt at arguing that Kalaska should be pulled in for family bonding had been unanimously vetoed, and he’d reacted by stomping off and declaring he was going to find some goblins to punch.

Well, at least it’ll make the valley safer with Evedelyl having gone back to mama’s inner world before she left for Hell. Vali can punch whatever he finds trying to sneak into the valley. Rathan has a date.

“Make sure Ogin doesn’t wander off somewhere,” he orders, giving Hermione another hug. “And remember to have some fun yourself! We’ll bring you back some festival food and a present.”

“It needsss to be bigger than the ones you get for Ogin and Atiya,” Hermione says insistently.

“I’ll make sure,” Oula agrees as she pulls him out of the room.

Before she can get him out of the house, though, a clamour goes up. And this one isn’t Xasan, or the children still intently bent over their stitching. No, this comes from the inner courtyard of the compound, on the island-side of the wing, and takes the form of a chorus of screeches, shrieks, whistles, rattling and beating wings.

Oula gives Rathan an imploring look, which he returns with a sympathetic but firm reply, and with an aggrieved sigh she follows him the wrong way out of the building and onto the stone-tiled courtyard dotted around with flowerbed basins and three largeish huts.

The nearest one of the three has wire-mesh panels covering three of its four walls, a storm of feathers and colour inside it, and a very harried woman trying to calm down her flock.

“No, no, please, just sleep. This isn’t your first Calibration. I mean, some of you are older. Just... why aren’t you sleeping?” Rathan hears Kuha beg her birds.

Pursing his lips, Rathan whistles - soft at first, then gradually louder, letting his aura of moonlight expand in its simplest and most fundamental form: the tidal pull of beauty. It takes a moment for it to wash over the clamouring flock, but after a moment they settle, perched on the hanging bars and stands and clinging to the mesh, their feathers still ruffled and anxious.

Two dozen pairs of glittering eyes framed by vivid plumage fix on him, and the noise dies down. In her search for new flying mounts, Kuha has disdained the owls she’d once ridden and gone instead for smarter birds. Now, the bright blues and greens of cerulean magpies and long-tailed cockatoos fill the aviary. Kuha’s had great success in training them to follow commands, but apparently the work she’s done on their nerves isn’t as solid as she’d thought.

“Having trouble?” Rathan asks sympathetically, still holding every eye captive. As long as they’re focused on him, they can’t panic at the black skies above. “Did you already try the curtains?”

“I’ve even tried closing the shutters and covering up their cages with curtains. It just makes them even more scared. I don’t... I don’t understand. Maybe it’s something about this landscape not feeling right to them,” Kuha says plaintively. Her clothing is streaked with white from spending time around scared birds. “The older ones were not so scared when we were in Saata, Rathansyra.”

He frowns. Mama’s not going to like that if it’s true. She wants a flight corps, and if they’re this rowdy when they’re little, the giant ones she means to create from these proofs-of-concept will be deadly to be around every year.

“We might need to dose them with something to keep them calm,” he says reluctantly, Drugging birds is never particularly safe, but if they keep flustering like they obviously have been, they’ll hurt themselves or each other. “Or... hmm. You’ve taken a few of them into mama’s sanctums, right? Did they take that badly? If we could move them into the shrine-rooms, that might stop them screaming at the landscape.”

“I haven’t tried it yet, Rathansyra. They were too scared for me to try. Birds often take ill or act strange at Year End, but,” she spreads her hands. “I do not know. Perhaps they can tell that this land is younger than it looks.”

“Well,” Rathan stretches. “I can probably walk them in there without any of them flying off, as long as none of them...” he glances at Kuha’s - rather nice, under the stains - clothing. “... uh, get too close. If it doesn’t work I can just walk them back into the cages.”

Rathan distinctly hears Oula’s aggrieved noise.

“Oh, thank you, Rathansyra. It is my thought that if this does not work, we may need to see if we can take a few of them outside the valley into the parts of the world which are not so young, and see if we must keep the aviary there,” Kuha says, looking up - and up - at him.

He runs a hand through his hair, nodding absently and pulling Oula into a cuddle as Kuha carefully unlatches the door of the aviary. “Mama won’t like that much, but it’ll be better having it outside the valley than risking them every year. Actually...” he grimaces. “We might have to do that anyway. Mama probably can’t afford to make a big enough sanctum to hold them all when they’re big. Hmm. Oulie, we should go out on a date in Air to look for building sites past the dragon-crawler.” He pauses. “And also remind mama to actually salvage the dragon-crawler,” he adds. “She hasn’t done anything with it yet, and I want to see if there are any more books in it.”

“It is one of her less admirable traits,” Oula says a little cattily. “She likes having more than doing.”

Kuha purses her lips. “Do not say such things about Kerishyra, Oula!”

Rathan doesn’t bother pointing out that the barb was aimed as much at him as it was at mama. Oulie is still exhausted from all the work she did over Fire at the Second Sister, and he’s maybe not been pampering her quite as much as she deserves, in his distraction. A nice long romantic date at the festivals - and some careful obliviousness to any and every other pretty young man or woman there - is a little overdue.

“Well, let’s get them all into the sanctum so we can get going,” he says, and starts walking them backwards as Kuha swings the door open. Entranced by the pull of his aura, the birds follow, pouring out of the door in a stream of vivid colour and fluttering from perch to perch or hopping along the ground after him. He leads them across the open yard and over to the shrine where the coiled blue-jade statue of Mela sits, and lifts the broad curtain that covers the outside of the shrine’s back wall.

Behind it is not the white wood of the shrine, but rather the inside of an enormous tent, big enough for Evedelyl - who stands level with treetops - to fit inside with ease. There are a couple of enormous bits of furniture for her to use - an armchair big enough to fit all of his siblings at once, a table twice the length and breadth of the average four-poster bed - and then all else is piles of furs, enormous cushions and folded felts. There are almost no hard surfaces to be seen; everything is fabrics and textiles. Giant curtain-covered openings lead out of the tent-like space into the other rooms in this sanctum, all of which are folded into the lesser clothes-amulet his mother set around the throat of the statue of her that stands at the back of the shrine.

The birds are still too enthralled to be panicking as they were, but something about the tent rooms at least seems to calm them compared to the newly-wrought landscape outside. Maybe it’s because this little world at least isn’t lying about being artificial.

“I guess you’ll be volunteering to explain to Aunty Keris that birds crapped all over her tent,” Oula pointed out, arms crossed as she leaned against the wall.

Rathan waves an idle hand. “I can just summon a couple of drudges to clean everything,” he says. “Or maybe try to tweak the tent itself - I mean, the amulet-clothes clean themselves when she reforms them, so the tent should be able to do the same-”

“Uh, Rathansyra,” Kuha coughs, recognising the signs of him starting to get lost in theory talk. “I am sure you know about the magics Kerishyra uses to make her god-spaces, but... could you let the birds go? If they do not like it in here, we will need to take them back to the cages.”

Rathan brings his hands together, and claps once. His light pulls in on itself, and the birds no longer move like creatures possessed. Some spread their wings and take flight, still agitated, but the magpies mostly seem to flock to nooks and crannies, looking for nesting places.

“Alright!” he says. “Well, glad to help, Kuha, and if you could try to stop them making a mess I’d appreciate it. But now Oulie and I have a date to go on.”

Kuha sighs. “I wish I was back in Saata,” she says, with a slightly excessive sigh. “The parties during Year End are very fun and there are many people who want to to get laid and are not asking questions about who will be there and who will not be there when the sun rises again.” She shoots a sidelong glance at Oula. “Oh well. I will just have to do what Kerishyra wants and work hard in her service without getting the personal pleasures I desire.”

“I’m sure she’ll trust you with a big project eventually,” Oula says back sweetly. “She does recognise talent and loyalty, after all.”

“I am sorry that you do not understand why the birds matter to her,” Kuha shoots back. “I understand why she did not explain such things to you. The birds do not like silver-metal-water. It makes them sick and die.”

“It’s called mercury,” Oula returns. “But I suppose I’m not surprised a substandard student like you would get that wrong.”

“Oulie, didn’t you want to see more than one of the festivals?” Rathan interrupts before the verbal spat can get any more heated, kissing her temple just next to the base of her horn. “Is it really worth getting into a fight here when we could be dancing instead?”

Oula immediately clings to him, shutting Kuha out of her view of the world. “Yes, let’s go!” she says quickly, snuggling up to him.

They set out down towards White Stone on one of the small riverboats, carried swiftly away from the wooden dock and the welcoming silhouette of Ahangar House by the swift current, and a short while later Rathan guides them gently in to a sheltered spot by the bank and ties the boat up, then offers a gallant hand to help Oula out. The festivals are already in full swing in the village, with a big fire burning to ward off the night and the sound of singing to scare away goblins and ghouls.

“So, shall we start with dancing, or food?” Rathan asks, wrapping an arm around Oula’s shoulders. “I’ll follow your lead, my lady love.”

Adjusting the sit of her Realm-esque yukata, Oula revels in the attention she gets as a horned girl in the company of one of the gods of this land. “Well, I was waiting so long, some food sounds nice,” she says to him.

“Food it is, then,” says Rathan, flashing a polished - though not pearly - smile at the villagers who greet him. “Hello everyone! I and my beautiful lady Oula are here to join the festivals! We ask for your hospitality, and whatever food you think is best for the occasion!”

They had clearly been expecting him - or at least one of his siblings - because the general mood to his appearance is like what he’s seen in Saata when mama shows up deliberately late for a performance as Cinnamon. A distinct mix of ‘he’s finally here’ and ‘thank the gods he showed up’.

But because of that, there’s a village of people waiting for him, the prettiest of all their divinities. And the village is larger than it would be at other times of year, because it’s a tradition of these people that the herders and pastoralists who normally dwell up on the hillsides come down to the villages for Calibration. For meeting with family, and of course, for safety from goblins and other fae creatures.

Rathan hasn’t yet worked out exactly how a place that Mama made less than two years ago has traditions per se, and where said traditions came from, but that’s something he’s very curious about.

Regardless, the village is a somewhat disorganised little place of bamboo-wattle clay-tiled houses, that look vaguely Nexan, vaguely Saatan, and vaguely Baishan. There’s clay pits down by the river where a good amount of the ceramics made in the valley come from, and that’s why they have tiles here in White Stone while some of the smaller villages just use wood or tarred fabrics. The streets have been laid out with rushes to soak up water and hold together in the Fire rains, and there are little painted icons hanging from the walls. Including, he notes with smug pride, the six-sided snowflake symbol that he taught them he likes. Ah, it’s good to be a god. Or, well, better than a god, but worshipped as one.

And look, there are little children to offer him with a garland of flowers. That doesn’t actually go over his head due to his horns, so he gives it to Oula.

He keeps an eye out for his family as they eat - and then put off dancing a little longer while they digest and get roped into telling stories. Soon Oula is busy telling them about the birth of Vali, where she’d first met Keris and he’d helped calm the seas in the wake of his brother’s explosive entrance to the world, and Rathan sits back and listens with a loving smile on his face, glancing around for any sign of Ali, Hanily or Kali every so often before returning to watching Oulie. She’s getting into the story enough to start gesturing as she talks, which is always adorable.

The long-legged, graceful kats that inhabit the valley flock around him, too, especially the sea-kats who clamber out of the river, lured to him. He leans back, stroking one between the ears, and catches a glimpse of his uncle through the crowds. He’s smiling, and looks much less worried. That almost certainly means that Hanily and Kali are either well-behaved or he thinks they’re somewhere safe and are being well-behaved and they’re... well, not. But at least Ali looks like he’s shed some of his normal burdens, down in this village that looks a lot like Baisha. There are some of the Lionesses too, but at least one he’s seen looks like she’s going native.

Hmm. Mama might be feeling mixed about that. Because on one hand, she’s paying for them, but on the other hand Mama will be a sucker for stories that are like his grandparents but end more happily.

“Rathan!” Ah. It’s Oula, and she’s finished storytelling. Rising to his feet, he takes her hand and kisses the tips of her fingers, letting his lips linger for a moment and enjoying her blush.

And then, to the beat of the music, he takes her by the hands, whirls her into the crowd, and together they dance the night away.

To the east, in the pirate-city of Saata, the merchant princess Xisa Faso strides through the thronging streets. It is the Great Calibration Festival, and for one such as her - the head of the Seventh Blossom trading conglomerate, as well as the up-and-coming Mangrove & Bonfire financial syndicate - it is five days of indulgence, revelry, and lavish displays.

At least in theory. For in truth she is the demon lord Haneyl Azhgardna Kerisdokht, the Flower Maiden, and Xisa Faso is not present in the city. Haneyl has only five days a year when she looks like she does, able to pass completely as human, and it’d be a damned inconvenience if some of her associates noticed that certain traits she normally excuses as her aspect markings as missing. So Xisa Faso is deep in prayer as a flesh-sculpted dragon aide takes her place being publicly devout and generous from a distance, and that means Haneyl is hitting the streets. Her hair is braided back and bound in jungle-flowers, she wears a gilded mask, and her clothing would be called inappropriate if it wasn’t for the fact that sheer silks with immodesty panels were common dress for partygoers in Saata during Calibration.

Trailing in her wake - a proper two steps behind - is Elly sculpted into a false identity that won’t compromise her position in Saatan society if she’s caught out. And if Haneyl does say so, her best friend looks utterly ravishing in her low-cut gown and wolf-mask.

Overhead, fireworks burst in many colours. The temples are doing their best to scare off demons and ghosts through firecrackers and loud music. It may work for ghosts. Haneyl can’t see any. But it’s sure as fuck not working against her, because she’s just standing there in the crowd watching priests atop a papier-mache elephant float blow their horns and swing incence-laden thuribles around, only adding to the smoke in the streets.

There are many things happening in Saata tonight; many parties being hosted by the higher class, many plays being performed on open-air and indoor stages, many prayers being sung by choirs of priests.

Haneyl is here for only two, and happily, they’re on at different times, so she doesn’t need to choose. Right now she’s making her way through the streets to the traditional performance of the Triumph of the Gods put on by the Devout College of the Wild Orchid.

It promises to be quite the entertaining show, though not for the reasons its cast might expect.

((/r 4d10s7c10 -2 #WildOrchidPerformance))
((EarthScorpion rolled 3 <9; 1; 10; 10> #WildOrchidPerformance))
((... holy shit))
((The triumph of “it’ll be alright on the night” apparently.))

It begins so-so. The props are clearly not up to the standards expected of the great performances of Saata, and they’ve clearly improvised with things recovered from dusty old collections of the temple. Some of the famed dancers of this house of courtesans are missing, struck down by illnesses or accidents. The role of Alnia is being danced by a young pink-haired initiate, and she’s not even the understudy; she’s the understudy’s understudy. Zanih is a man well-past his prime, squeezing into clothes meant for a young man. The customary instruments are lacking, and they’ve cut a few songs.

And yet they’re making it work. Alnia is sparkling, under paper lanterns. Zanih brings an old man’s regrets to a role meant for someone in the prime of youth, and it gives the whole thing a melancholy air that’s an annoyingly good re-interpretation of an antique dance.

Despite herself, Haneyl finds herself actually enjoying things. She’s watched much worse things, and they’re doing it in the face of so much adversity that she’s finding it entertaining. Elly is watching with wide eyes as she snacks on Saatan kebabs from a vendor.

“I’d expect you to be more irked at how they’re managing it despite everything,” she says softly to Haneyl as the play moves to its tragic conclusion.

“I would be, but it was Calesco’s thing, not mine,” Haneyl says casually. It’s Calibration, there’s plenty of parties to go to, and she wasn’t invested in sabotaging this place anyway. It’s an old slowly dying temple, preserved in its refusal to change and yet suffocated by it. Her little sister is the one obsessed about it. “I wonder if she’s up on one of the rooftops watching things.”

“I hope she isn’t,” Elly says. “She’ll be sulky if she knows she failed, and your sister shares her misery with others.”

“You said I do that,” Haneyl says mildly.

“Yes, but,” Elly squeezes her hand with her pale, long-nailed hand. “She isn’t you.”

“Oh, you,” Haneyl says, touched despite knowing how Elly is. To reward her friend, she pulls her in for a deep kiss.

((OK. So, uh.))
((This is a triumph of a performance))
((against massive adversity))
((and sabotaged by demon lords but they don't let that stop them))
((oh my god if one of them Exalts I'm going to laugh))
((and then swear a lot))

And thus she isn’t quite looking at the stage as Alnia gives her final aria. Her love, dead. Her faith, betrayed. The cruel Moton seeking her hand. In such a world, how can one live, love, endure? No, better to leave it as a self-sacrifice to the gods, so that they might triumph against evil. She raises her knife, cursing the evil of men such as Moton.

The midday sun rises in Calibration, and shines down upon Saata. Shining down on the city, in a column of sunlight. It shines on Alnia. Lifts her up above the stage, to the shoulder level of the other actors, and her hair flows around her like a marital veil. Her back arches, her mouth open in a silent scream, her eyes like staring into the sun.

The sunlight has a shape, and with four arms he holds her closely. Whispers something in her ear. Lowers her to the ground, as the noon sun falls from the sky and rests upon her brow.

Across the city, every single temple bell and gong sounds out.

((son of a bitch))
((I was considering whether to do it))
((and then I realised))
((o look a young woman from a dying order of holy courtesans))
((I really hate you sometimes))

Jerking away from Elly, Haneyl stares up at the girl, frozen. Her eyes aren’t blazing green at Calibration, but the King’s power still burns within them, and she can sense the strength of the sun-flame in the young girl’s heart. It’s as strong as hers. This girl is a rival.

A rival and a Solar. Here. In Saata.

Fuck. This is the worst time for this! If mama were here... urgh! But she’s not! She’s five damn days across the Desert! And the only other person in the city is Cali, and who knows if she’s even watching this? Although if she is, Haneyl has no doubt she’ll have fallen in love with the girl on sight, which means that she’s going to do something stupid if she’s here, and if not she’ll do something differently stupid when she finds out about this and... urgh!

With the imperial will of a sorceress and a Dynastic lady, Haneyl forces her racing thoughts under control. She has three choices, and she sees them arrayed like potential moves on a Gateway board; three paths and an instant to pick between them.

The first option is to do nothing. This young girl is a noon sun, like the woman Mama described from Malra. Not a fighter. The city is crawling with Dragonblooded, and most of them are armed. Even with the pathetic state of the local Immaculate temple, she’ll be dead before she can get out of the city without help. It’ll even hurt the temple’s reputation enough that mama can easily take it over when she returns.

She’d dearly like to do that. There’s just one problem, and her name is Calesco. If she saw this happen and fell in love, she’ll act to stop the girl’s death, and everything will be ruined.

The second is to get the girl to safety. Rescuing her here would let mama flip her pretty easily when she gets back, and a young Solar is nothing to scoff at. The problem with that is that it’s horrifyingly risky, because of the aforementioned Dragonblooded. And while Haneyl has a decent alibi for Xisa Faso right now, being recognised will spell ruin.

The third path is to help her indirectly. A distraction, a noise, a covert means of guidance - something subtle to help her escape without taking a direct hand. But Haneyl isn’t her mother, and that route still offers substantial risk for far less reward. If she’s going to stick her neck out for this girl, she wants to be paid for it, thank you.

If she knew where Calesco was, she could pick in an instant. As it is, she flips her hood up just in case and rolls forward onto the balls of her feet, waiting to see which way the crowd goes and how smart the newborn sun-child is. If it takes her too long to realise the danger of her new position, she’s not worth the investment.

One thing Haneyl very much sees here is that Saata is not truly Immaculate. Not at all. The onlookers don’t curse at the newly sun-chosen woman. They don’t hate her. And she doesn’t hate herself, either. She spreads her arms, and gives some inane comment about sharing peace and being good to each other and blah-blah-blah.

There’s a sniffle next to Haneyl, and a dark-skinned woman in deep lilacs wipes her eyes. “She’s so beautiful,” obviously-Calesco breathes. “She’s learned so much from adversity. We hurt her and she’s become so much better because of it.”

“That’s great, because House Sinasana is going to hurt her as soon as they catch wind of this,” Haneyl mutters back, relaxing. At least her options have narrowed to one now. “And the Steel Dragon Society, and probably some of the Raaran Ge too. Get up there and whisper in her ear that she needs to get into hiding until we can play this off as... I don’t know, a clever stage illusion or something. Take her to...” she narrows her eyes, thinking fast, “the Seventh Blossom office two blocks towards the docks. You can get in through the back door, it’s empty over Calibration, and it has guest rooms for clients - you can use it to remind her of the position she’s in while she lies low. Then mama can talk to her about where to go from here when she gets back.”

Calesco clasps her hands together. “If she can’t endure this, she doesn’t deserve such a gift,” she says, adoration audible in her voice. “But she will endure. And I won’t go near her when she’s like this. Neither will you. We are wretched creatures of darkness. I can see the line of your tan from the side that was facing her when she flared. You’re darker than Vali on one side now. If we go closer, we will truly burn.”

Haneyl hisses in rage. This is a perfect opportunity to lay the groundwork with a powerful new asset! And the stupid laws of the stupid gods are interfering!

“Elly, paper,” she snarls quietly, and scrawls a quick message on the sheet provided. Wrapping it round a handful of coins - in part for the quality of the performance and in part to get it noticed - she beckons one of the stagehands over and drops into their hands.

“For Alnia,” she smiles, hiding her fury behind a pleasant face. “I truly enjoyed her performance. Could you see that she gets this?”

She waits just long enough for a nod before whirling around and stalking away, baring her teeth at the ground. She’s in a run-something-down-and-rip-its-throat-out mood now, and she’s not going to have the chance for a while. And mama’s probably going to freak out over this even though it wasn’t Haneyl’s fault at all!

Tugging Calesco along, she glances over her shoulder and follows her sister’s gaze to the actress as she receives the hastily-written warning.

She doesn’t visibly blanch, but she smiles and slips backstage, likely vanishing into the warren-like ancient temple.

“Well,” sighs Haneyl, “I suppose that’s the best we can do. And we can get some favour by saying we were the first to warn her, later on.” She eyes Calesco fiercely. “If you go after her in the next few nights, make sure she likes us,” she says fiercely. “And don’t tell her too much. Adami took the truth of mama’s powers well, but she might not. Don’t get all love-stupid and blow our cover to someone we know nothing about.”

Calesco sighs dreamily. “Of course I won’t. The sun burns through my lies when she’s so intense. I don’t want to hurt her like that. Not when there are ways to hurt her that’ll make her even stronger. More beautiful. To think we allowed her to become so wonderful by trying to ruin their play.”

This is probably, Haneyl thinks, a romance that is going to go rather more starlight than is healthy. Must be the Dragon in her, wanting to oppose that kind of sunlight. Haneyl would much rather eat the girl or infect and cultivate her, but it’s not like she didn’t already know that love makes people act crazy. And her siblings are all crazy in their own ways anyway.

“Maybe take a few days to calm down and think more clearly before that,” she suggests, suppressing the urge to roll her eyes. If her sister leads off with antagonism, there’s an unacceptably high risk of golden fire getting thrown around and investments being ruined. And... also of Calesco making a powerful enemy and getting hurt. Not that it wouldn’t be her own fault. “She’ll probably have a lot to do, and you have your own performance to worry about.”

Calesco pats her arm. “Don’t worry,” she beams at her older sister. “I need to know everything about her first. What she likes, what she doesn’t. Her name. Oh! And I’ll need to talk to her under false faces first before I even tell her my name.”

Haneyl nods wearily. “Right. Yes. Urgh. I need a bath to calm down from this. I’ll be at your show tomorrow. Elly!” She begins to turn back to her townhouse, but stops, a sudden thought striking her. “Oh, and Cali?”


“You get to be the one who explains this to mama. Loose an arrow about it. Tonight.”

“She’ll just interfere.” Calesco looks at the expression on her sister’s face, frowning mulishly. “She didn’t tell us immediately when she started sleeping with a sun-child! And she told me not to tell her about my relationships!”

“And how do you think she’ll react when she gets back and finds out we kept it from her?” Haneyl hisses. “Besides, if you don’t tell her, I will. And you know she’ll be furious then.”

Somehow. She still doesn’t know Infallible Messenger, and Rathan and Oula are both up in Zen Daiwye, and neither she nor Elly can leave the city now, not when they need to keep a lid on this. But she’ll find a way, even if she has to juggle algarel grenades for a couple of weeks while Elly makes the trek up to the valley, because this is the kind of thing they need mama to have plans for before she gets back. If it gets sprung on her while she’s still wound up from Calibration stress, she’ll have a meltdown and they’ll waste valuable time.

“Promise me,” Haneyl orders, narrowing her eyes. She hazards a shot in the dark. “ She’s your teacher, not just your mother. This is relevant to your lessons.”

That brings Calesco up short. Haneyl still doesn’t know much about exactly what mama’s teaching her at the Jade Carnation, but she does know that Joyful Priestesses are meant to bring harmony to the community, and a newly chosen sun-child seems pretty fucking disharmonious to Saata from where she’s standing. She watches Calesco’s lips thin, and assesses the muleish nod that follows.

“I’ll do what I have to,” Calesco mutters.

“See that you do,” mutters Haneyl, and stalks off with Elly at her heel. She needs a long bath. And, apparently, a mirror to check the damage to her complexion. She may love her little sisters, but she’ll be damned if she’s going to go around looking like Zanara with half her face pale and the other half nut-brown. Some rapid tanning or flesh-sculpting may be in order to even herself out.

“That was quite notable,” Elly says softly, offering her a kebab.

“That,” Haneyl grumbles, snatching it and biting half of it off in one snap of too-blunt teeth, “was a disaster, and one that was - again - entirely Calesco’s fault.”

She sighs, disposing of the rest of the kebab in a few more mouthfuls. She’s too stressed to even really taste it.

“Come on, Elly. I’m too tired to do anything else today. Let’s go home.”

It was not until Calibration had passed that the sun truly rose in Creation. And five days away from that place, Keris feels the ending of that time as a full-body shudder. Zanara’s androgynous fused self blurs and separates into Zana with a full-back tattoo of robed Nara, and in Lilunu’s sky great auroras of omen weather blaze - a new trick she’s learned and is using to mark the end of this time.

Then, comes clean-up and Keris’s obligations to Ipithymia.

But before that, Lilunu summons Keris to her chambers to drink wine and collapse with exhaustion.

Feet dragging, head throbbing, eyes aching, Keris stumbles in wearing only the underlayers of the elaborate and exceedingly heavy silver-and-sea-pearl outfit she’d made her last aria in. She’s tired enough that her hair is trailing behind her rather than held up in a braid or a train, half-in and half-out of its complex updo. Zanara follows her, holding a dozen or so of the sixty six coral pins that had held it in place and catching the remainder as Keris tiredly pulls them out one by one and tosses them behind her.

She mumbles a greeting to Lilunu and manages a smile that’s interrupted when her shins bump into a low chaise. Blinking at it for a moment, she considers something, tilts her head, and flexes her hair.

A shower of long, beautifully carved hair pins clatter to the floor, prompting an outraged noise from Zanara, and Keris sighs with relief as the tension on her scalp eases. Then, without further ado, she tilts forward and lets herself fall face-first onto the chaise.

“I can’t believe this, this is outrageous treatment of pretty things, just go run around if you’re tired,” a grumbling comes from Zana.

“No,” Lilunu warns Iris, who’s curled up in the wineglass she’s trying to pour a drink into with her mouth open. “Bad Iris. I won’t give you the label if you don’t behave.”

“M’too tired to run,” mumbles Keris into the furniture. “M’lady, did the Unquestionable enjoy the private performances?” They’d been a new innovation this Calibration, born from feedback of Third Circles growing bored or missing things they wanted to see in previous years. This time, Keris had ordered a team of demons on her staff assigned to each demon prince to produce a plan of suggestions for what major performances they might enjoy, as well as planning out some private showings to suit each Unquestionable’s personal tastes.

She gets a big glass of blue wine pressed into her hand, and a pat on the head. “Keris, they loved you,” Lilunu tells her, long nails scrabbling away at the label to pass to the insistently begging Iris.

“Mmn. Tha’s good.” A hair tendril dips into the glass without Keris lifting her head out of the cushions, and the wine level drops rapidly. “An’ you feel better than you used to in Air?”

“You are always a help, Keris, in relieving my worries.” Lilunu tuts at Zana. “Zana, dear, just ignore the pins. Sit down and have some wine too. Just as soon as I get this... stupid label... off...”

Keris extracts herself from the chaise with a groan and reaches across to press a finger to the bottle. A ripple spreads out from the point she touches, and the glass becomes ice, which the label pulls away from cleanly. Iris makes a happy sound and pounces, shoving her head onto the paper and starting to excitedly chew on the blue-skinned demon mascot.

“Oh no,” Keris mumbles in an incredibly unconvincing tone of distress. “The bottle’s gonna melt now, we better use the rest of the wine up quickly before it does.”

A hair tendril lifts her empty wine glass up and wiggles it hopefully.

“I get some before she drinks it all!” Zana interjects, collapsing onto a seat and folding her legs up under her. She looks oddly Eko-ish as she rocks from side to side. “Why are you two so tired? I feel like I could dance for days after this! So many people looking at my stuff!”

“You and attention are like Kali and sunlight,” Keris grumbles. “Calibration for us is like a marathon for you.”

“Urgh now that sounds like effort,” Zana says, cradling her wine. “I was sort of pissed that we decided to be one person this year but we probably had our reasons even if I’d been looking forwards to getting to chat to Nara without us getting in my way.”

“Maybe next year,” Keris consoles her, patting her shoulder with a hair tendril without moving from where she’s half-leaning on Lilunu. “M’sure you’ll have great new shows to talk about him with by then, too.”

Zana’s smile is oddly smug, even by her standards. “Oh, I hope so.”

Lilunu shakes out her hair, which has darkened all the way to indigo with only a few streaks of red. She looks around. “Are things private?” she asks, the words almost drowned out by the music drifting through the door.

Keris yawns, blinks dazedly for a moment, but pushes herself upright after only a momentary exhausted pause. Closing her eyes, she listens carefully as she circles the room, searching for any eavesdroppers or hidden watchers.

“Looks like it,” she says after cracking a door open and shooing away the servants outside it. “Nobody else in a place to listen in. You need something, my lady?”

She sits there, as she sometimes does, indigo-hair streaked with white sea-foam. Looking older than she usually does, and maybe in the first trimester. “I know no one knows where Hermione is this moment,” Lilunu says, holding her wine. “But I do hope that she is well.”

Keris stills. Thinks carefully. Walks back to sit down on the chaise across from Lilunu, demure and inscrutable.

“I would also hope that my lady’s souls are as well and content as can be,” she says. “If you haven’t felt her absence tear at you, I’m sure she’s found a home somewhere her nature doesn’t pain her. And...” she pauses to consider again. “... I would also hope that she has overcome her resentment of you, and perhaps come to realise that her insults when she was young were childish, and not truly meant.”

“It hurts when they die,” Lilunu says, more to herself than Keris. “And I haven’t felt that. So yes.” She meets Keris with her eyes, pearly-pale. “You mean that?”

“If there’s anything I’ve learned these past few years, my lady,” says Keris with a frank grin, “it’s demons, and children.” She glances at Zanara. “And demon children,” she adds with a nod. “She was bitter and spiteful when I met her here, but I could tell she cared about you under the venom. If she didn’t care, she wouldn’t have felt so strongly about your status.”

She leans forward and takes Lilunu’s hand. “It’s been years, my lady, and she’s either settled somewhere or been moving - and staying safe enough that you haven’t felt her die - the whole time. Either way, I think she’ll have grown up enough to move past her resentment and admit that she loves her mother. I only hope that one day you might see her again so she can tell you so.”

She looks up through her lashes. “And I promised to help your souls however I could,” she adds. “So if I should ever run across her by chance or the Yozis’ design, you have my word I will take care of her.”

“That’s... that’s good. That’s good.” Lilunu inhales sharply. “At least one of my souls can be happy.”

“Perhaps more can be, in time,” Keris says, bright and hopeful. “I... did have a thought on that note, if I may, my lady. Your dominating soul, Divisa, is that part of you that draws from the King; the part that rules and is accustomed to command. When I danced for her, and she gave me orders, you noted that she was uncommonly lucid and even-tempered. I thought... perhaps, if she were to be given some say in the arrangements for her youngest siblings, like Antifasi, the responsibility and authority might help her overcome her bestial side more often? And Bruleuse is one of your healthier souls, and he has things to nurture. It would be worth a try, at least, to see if letting your souls exercise their natures helped their conditions.”

“She is full of spite and hatred,” Lilunu says, ashamedly, slowly. “I... I could not rely on her always feeling well. They suffer enough because of me; I will not let that bit of me hurt them more.”

“Hmm.” Keris frowns. “I see. Still, the idea might be pursued - with Bruleuse at least, or... hmm.” She quirks a wry smile. “I’m afraid I still don’t know many of your other souls, my lady. I can’t say which others might be able to exercise their natures safely to see if my theory has merit.”

“I know you want to help them, Keris,” Lilunu says, sounding more miserable. “But I am misshapen. Malformed. The great healers of the Unquestionable have tried to help them. They cannot. And... there are things about me forbidden to you. I can’t allow you to get hurt by trying to help me and falling in Orabilis’s domain! I mean that, Keris! Don’t you dare risk yourself digging into things forbidden to you! That’s an order!”

“Of course, of course,” Keris throws her hands up, backpedalling. “I wouldn’t dare offend the End of All Wisdom by claiming the right to knowledge meant only for the Yozis.” She ducks her head shamefacedly. “I know lady Yuula has a talent for healing that I may never equal, but... demon princes don’t age or change or grow. Humans do. I just hoped that maybe my nature might let me see a solution from another angle. That’s what we princes of the Green Sun are for, right? Tools to help the Unquestionable do what their prison prevents them from doing themselves.”

She gets a light slap on her hand. “You need to stop putting yourself in danger, Keris,” Lilunu says, pulling out a delicately embroidered handkerchief and blotting her eyes. The fabric singes and melts. “Why do you think so lowly of yourself and what you mean to me that you keep on putting yourself in such danger? And on that note!”

“I don’t... think lowly of myself,” Keris defends, looking at Zanara for support. “And I don’t put myself in danger!” She pauses. “Deliberately.” Another pause. “Often.”

“I mean, you kinda do,” Zana points out. “Like, in both ways. You don’t think as well of yourself as you deserve. And as for the rest, well, speaking as someone who’d pop out of existence if you died, I want you to be plenty safe. And the new missions you got this year sound dangerous.”

“Yes, they do,” Lilunu agrees. “And that’s why I said ‘on that note’. I had a little hint that they were going to step up what they wanted of you, which was why I so easily agreed to help with your armour.”

Keris perks up, her hair lifting off the floor and swishing from side to side eagerly. “It’s finished? It’s ready? You did it?”

“Of course I did. And I’m very hurt that you would doubt me in such a way!” Lilunu holds that expression for about three seconds, before she breaks into giggles. “Oh! Your face! And I think I’m already tipsy! I really should have eaten more today! Oh well!”

“Can I see?” Keris is breathless with anticipation, bouncing up and down in her seat like her daughter in a sunbeam. “Can I see it, my lady? Please?”

“Well, I suppoo~ooo~oose...” Lilunu pauses. “Once we finish this wine.”

Lilunu seems to rather enjoy Keris’s eager anticipation, and more than that, hold off on fulfilling it. Maybe it’s a petty cruelty, but on the other hand they do have a bottle of very good wine they need to finish before the transmuted ice bottle melts.

Only then does the somewhat tipsy party head out into Lilunu. And this time, unlike normal, they head down. Lilunu’s workrooms are normally light and airy and up in the high places of the Conventicle Malfeasant, but she takes Keris and Zana to an elegant green crystal lift that reflects light from up high down the column, and it sinks down, down, down, into a vaulted chamber that is...

... ah. Keris recognises this. It’s one of Ligier’s workrooms like she saw on his layer. But what is this doing down here?

When she asks, Lilunu blinks at her. “Keris, of course I wanted a lovely forge like this,” she says. “But the first one got flattened when my form shifted. So he made me the next one below me, down in the catacombs, so I won’t accidentally crush it! And he made sure there’s all these conduits so his light comes down here!”

“That’s amazing,” Keris says in wonder. “But what- oh! Those towers, with the mirrored chimneys! That’s what they’re for!” She slams a fist into her hand. “I’d wondered, but they’re too small for me to get down without effort and I never had time to try.”

Zana is looking around with wide eyes. “I can’t believe you kept this pretty place from me!” she accuses Lilunu.

“A girl needs some secrets,” is the lofty response. “And...” Lilunu pauses by something draped in white velvet. “You know, I had all these plans for how I would present you with this, but I didn’t have time to really put them into effect. Also, I was worried my other princes and princesses would get jealous and while I have time to make these gorgeous things for you, I don’t have time to make them for everyone and it didn’t seem just fair...”

Keris spares a moment in her excitement to hug her. “I understand, and I don’t need any kind of grand ceremony, my lady. I’ll love anything you see fit to give me, however you give it.”

She falls silent, biting her lip and shifting her weight from side to side, literally trembling in anticipation. Lilunu waits, eyebrow slightly quirked, that mischief in her many-coloured eyes again.

“... but please can I see your work?” Keris finally cracks. “Please please please, my lady? Don’t leave me and Zana in suspense like this!”

“Oh no, really, I’m enjoying the show and taking notes. Mother is really making an act of torturing you,” Zana says. For all her attitude, it’s somewhat less convincing. Again, she’s showing hints of something Eko-like, namely how Eko acts when she’s bored but not bored enough to run off or start stabbing things.

Bereft of explicit support, Keris resorts to turning pleading eyes on Lilunu, lacing her fingers together under her chin and widening her eyes without blinking to add a sheen of shimmering tears to her gaze as she looks up through her lashes beseechingly.

Humming the grand opening theme to the Althing’s ceremonies, Lilunu carefully - painfully slowly - undoes the ties holding on the white velvet, and pauses on the last one.

Then with a smile, she snaps her fingers and the fabric goes up in rainbow flames.

Through the fire stands Keris’s armour, reforged and remade. And she’s wildly, wildly different. Her helmet is Pekhjira’s face with a crest of swept-back feathers, and even when the rainbow flame dies out, the armour still scatters rainbows even under the monochrome green light of Ligier. It looks like something half-way between a heroic statue like the ancient armour in the Daimyo-and-Yellow, and an anatomy textbook of a flayed human. There are scales there in the patterning of the harder plates, and more metal feather-weave in the armour’s camail.

Keris reaches out and touches her armour. She’s warm to the touch. Keris swears she can feel a heartbeat. Swears she can feel the metal breathe.

“Oh,” she whispers reverently. “Oh, my lady. She’s beautiful.” Tracing her left hand across the silver, she can feel the life within it, the pulsing soul - a Fang of her own po - coiled within.

Trance-like, she coaxes the suit open and steps into it from behind, the metal closing around her like the petals of a flower. There’s resistance at first, as she walks around the room slowly, feeling out the range of motion of the reforged joints, touching her toes, working through forms. Reaching out to it with the light of her soul.

And then, faster than the old akuma-spirit ever had, the Fang within the armour recognises her as its other half, and reaches back.

Iris breathes out fire that wraps around Keris, not burning her, and sinks into the left arm. It’s notably asymmetrical there already, and only becomes more so, her left arm cracking to reveal many-coloured fire-veins underneath and even the style of the armoured glove becoming more talon-like.

The scales have become silver feathers now that it’s on her - and as Keris tests it further, she finds that her other half responds to her very soul. A flurry of lightning-fast strikes at the air send ribbons of red light flowing back from her gauntlets and a cape of crimson wind forming about her shoulders. Breaking apart a block of wood and consuming it in green fire causes the feathers along her arms to turn to stony, brass-carapaced plates that green fire glows under. It’s as though her armour is an echo of Lilunu herself; it’s always the same in form but its surface shifts as Keris calls on the different gifts of the All-Makers she’s imbibed.

Her left arm always bears the touch of Iris, though. And whenever she lets it settle, the fluid-form plates become a layer of silver feathers.

“This is incredible,” she whispers. “And... the tattoos...”

It takes a moment of searching. But... yes, there it is. She can sense the tie to her soul, the lingering link between the armour-spirit and Pekhijira. This armour is no doubt a sympathetic link to her soul just as her painting is - but that doesn’t matter if it never falls into an enemy’s hands. And it won’t. Because all she need do is reach inside herself and pull...

It feels like when she merges with her lower soul. Or an echo, at least. A lesser echo. Maybe it’s just that there’s less raw material to work with. Because rather than swelling into immensity, she feels the closeness deep within but doesn’t grow. Instead, the mass of metal sinks into her flesh and bones, soaking in like water into fabric. Until it’s all gone, and what remains is silver and rainbows under Keris’s skin, spelling out words in her own script that tell of her legend.

Zana sticks her fingers in her mouth, and wolf-whistles.

Nude and unashamed, Keris admires herself, turning this way and that in front of the mirror as an indulgent Lilunu looks on. The tattoos are extensive, running across her skin in the flowing wind-branch-wave lines of kymaaeran patterning, accentuating her curves and muscles in a way that cradles the geometry of her body and guards her veins and arteries. Rainbows play off silver where abstract, stylised designs bud off the lines like leaves from the vine - designs, Keris realises after a moment, that represent the gifts of the All-Makers she’s taken into herself. Or at least the ones that are always with her, like her steel-hard skin and uncanny balance. Experimentally, she draws Zanaran petals around herself to assume her perfect social camouflage - and yes, the designs shift and change as petal-patterns take their place among the tattoos.

Feathers are still a common element in the kymaaeran lines, and her left arm still looks strange, with rainbows refracting more visibly from the silver and space among the tattoos for Iris to settle. No longer is she the only tattoo resting on the back of Keris’s hand - though this form of her armour doesn’t cover up her dusky skin, the designs are densely packed, and the only place she doesn’t have any is her face. Even her neck and hands bear traceries of silver - and no doubt when she calls more on more of her powers, the complexity of the designs will increase.

“Well, Iris?” she murmurs, curious as to her familiar’s opinion of tattoos she can’t just shred. “What do you think?”

Iris swims around the new shapes on Keris’s skin, sometimes passing over them and sometimes under. She nibbles on one, but it doesn’t get damaged.

Rearing her head up, she nods, and exhales a picture of Lilunu, then a smile, then an arm and a picture of Keris’s mansion in Creation.

“Oh really?” says Keris, greatly amused. “This is your palace now? Your palace your mama made for you?”

Iris tilts her head, concentrating, then breaths out the mansion as it was before Keris renovated it, then as it is now, and connects them with a line. And also a picture of a cat.

Keris grins at Lilunu. “I think she’s saying this counts as renovations to her home,” she says. “Although I don’t think I was in quite as bad a state as Silver Lotus, young lady. You take that back.” She taps the back of Iris’s head chidingly, and misses as the dragon ducks back into her skin, nibbling on another strand of silver happily and exhaling rainbow fire on it. The colours swirl around and into the silver, momentarily brightening the inner glow of the tattoos on her hand and wrist.

“It’s wonderful, my lady,” Keris enthuses, spinning around and then darting in to hug Lilunu again. “And I can feel the cost of supporting it is less like this - much less. I can easily maintain it when it’s this cheap.” She purses her lips, summoning out Ascending Air in a flicker of red lightning and a shift from silver lines into jagged scarlet bolts around her wrists and forearms. A testing swipe at the back of her right hand has her humming thoughtfully. “Far less protective than the full armour, though. Reduced protection in exchange for a lessened burden on my reserves. I can live with that, especially since I can externalise it so quickly.” She demonstrates a few times, calling the armour out and then returning it under her skin.

“The only potential problem I can see,” she admits carefully, “would be people getting the wrong idea. I can probably play off Cinnamon having got some extensive new body art from a divine patron, and the Hellish aspect to the designs is obscure enough that only really talented occultists are going to catch it, but... less talented ones might just see the moonsilver tattoos and think ‘Lunar Anathema’. This is a great form to keep it in if I have it under clothes or I’m doing jobs outside of Saata, but for my public faces it could get tricky.”

“I am wonderful, aren’t I?” Lilunu tells her, her hands already busy with pencil and sketching paper. “Although... Zana? Can you tell what Keris doesn’t seem to have realised yet?”

Zana considers this, and nods. “The most aesthetically pleasing option,” she opines, looking Keris up and down with a stylist’s eye, “would be something that allows intermediate gradations. Something that allows a full range of creativity in one’s plumage.”

Lilunu pauses her sketching to wrap an arm around Zana’s shoulders and happily kiss her on the cheek as her hair shifts to take on scab-red streaks. “You’re exactly right! The armour wanted that! I made sure to ask her!”

((Zana worked it out on the logic of “what would be the most aesthetic option?” There is a reason Lilunu so willingly went for accepting her as a daughter.))
((They are very much alike, although in some ways their relationship is more “irresponsible aunt” / “hipster drama club troubled child”.))

“An intermediate...” Keris frowns, shifting the armour between states again. And again. And again. Try as she might, she can’t access this new form; there’s no notch between the two. She can pull it under her skin, and she can push it out to form armour, but if there’s a halfway point it’s not one she can find, and the shift doesn’t stop halfway no matter how quickly she terminates the push or pull. Stymied, she scowls, flexes tattooed fingers in thought, and sends a wordless query inwards.

The response comes back so quickly it feels like the armour was waiting for her to ask. It’s startlingly clear, and also shockingly derisive. She can practically hear the Fang - and Pekhijira herself - scoffing at her stupidity. Of course there’s no halfway point. Clothing isn’t halfway between tattoos and armour. Feathers aren’t a midpoint between skin and shell. They’re their own thing, with their own direction. Duh.

Keris blinks. And then, tentatively, closes her eyes and tries pushing sideways instead. An inner sensation gives way under the light mental pressure, and she finds that instead of pushing or pulling she can spin, turning the metal round herself in ten thousand tiny strands and weaving it into form.

Moonsilver shifts against itself like silk. Keris opens her eyes. A great feathered silver cloak is settled on her shoulders, needing no tie or buckle to hold itself together at her neck, for it extrudes from her collarbone and upper back, flaring out at the bottom even as it clings to her arms and shoulders. Despite being woven moonsilver, it feels as light as a feather.

“... oh,” Keris murmurs. She pulls, and the metal sinks into her skin. Pushes out, to form hard armour. Tugs and spins, to weave it anew into a form-fitting tiger-dress whose folds and ruffles all reflect different rainbow hues, and whose bodice extrudes from her very pores.

A delighted grin forms. This must be how Calesco feels about her sash. Though, she notes, there are still those feathers around her ribcage and collar - just trimming now, but present nonetheless. It seems as though Pekhijira’s presence in the armour makes it form them reflexively whenever she’s not pressing it into some other form with her magic.

“A silent, feathered hunter,” Keris murmurs, stroking down the side of her bodice and rearranging her skirts. “Strigida, I name you. My silver predator of the night.”

With a delighted clap, Lilunu beams. “Such a good name.”

Zana, by contrast, is giving a more considered look. “So. Can I borrow it?” she begs.

Keris immediately hugs her dress to herself, respinning it into a closely-wrapped sari trimmed with feathers and embroidered with rainbow glyphs. “No stealing my armour as an anchor!” she snaps. “Mine!” There’s a jealous hiss to her voice as she darts behind Lilunu for protection.

“Wasn’t going to steal it,” Zana grumbles. “Just wanted to show you how to wear her better.”

“Zana, you don’t know everything I put in there,” Lilunu informs her archly.

“I could work it out better! And she’s too pretty to go to waste on not-being-worn-by-me-at-least-sometimes!”

“You can do sketches to show me,” Keris allows. “But no wearing her!” She examines her left arm. With Strigida acting as a sari and her arms bare, it’s not showing the odd effects of Iris - although there’s still a varicoloured flare at her left shoulder. “This is going to be Cinnamon’s. A new artefact-garment she got given by a divine patron or something. Like Calesco’s sash.”

“... wait.” Zana looks mulish. “You let Calesco be Cinnamon! And Seresa too! So they’ll get to wear her!”

“Calesco has her sash, so she won’t get ideas about not giving her back,” Keris points out. “And I very much doubt Seresa will want to risk wearing her for too long. Strigida’s a bit too snappish for her tastes.”

“Hmph!” Zana balls her hand into a fist, and punches her other hand. “Lilunu! Teach me how to make pretty things like this! I want to be able to make something this beautiful! And also make everyone want to come to me and beg to be wearing my designs on the battlefield!”

Lilunu admires her nails. “I don’t know. Maybe you have to show your value to the Reclamation and by helping Keris,” she teases.

“I do!” Zana protests. “I do, I help her with Calibration and I said we should have an identity in Saata to be a pretty artist and Keris hasn’t made it yet! I helped her make the nunnery pretty too! And make that bone-wood-silk stuff she made the statue out of!”

“That was my idea, actually,” Keris points out. “And so was giving Lilunu some of it, before you try to claim credit for that part.”

“I still helped!”

“Well,” and now there’s a little bit of malice in Lilunu’s expression. “Maybe next year, you can make a personal report to me as if you’re one of my princesses and I’ll evaluate your performance as if you were one of them. And if you impress me, I’ll teach you some of Hell’s arts of forging.”

Zana’s eyes boggle. “That’s... that’s extortion!” she whines. “You can’t do that!”

“Think of it as practice,” Keris says, smugness bubbling up as the tables turn on her irreverent daughter. “After all, we’re trying to get you promoted to lesser-peer status, and you’ll probably have to make reports then. To me, at the very least. This is a good learning experience for you.”

Zana works her jaw uselessly, caught in the horrible and previously unprecedented situation of having to work to get something she wanted, and worse, being trapped by Lilunu who is completely acting against character and not just showering her in prizes and rewards. She turns pleading eyes to Lilunu, but that only seems to make Lilunu smile broader.

“Surely you’re not claiming you can’t do something pretty enough to impress Lilunu, are you?” Keris prods slyly, sliding out from behind Lilunu and radiating self-satisfaction.

“You... you’re just saying that! You want me to... to go and tell you that of course I can do it and you want to trick me into accepting that you two can be mean and demanding and work me like a dog when I’m trying to make the world prettier and this is ugly!”

The two older women just look at Zana, as if they’d rehearsed this.

“I mean of course I can, but I know what you’re doing! I just want you to know I know what you’re doing and... and I know you’re feeding my envious heart and showing me all these beautiful things and telling me I can’t have them but then not teaching me how to make them even when I ask!”

The silence continues.

“... you two suck,” Zana fumes.

((Oh Lilunu. Spending more time around Zanara does make her a bit more prone to... you know, not quite being so spoiling and putting her foot down with them, because she gets to see some of Zanara's less charming traits.))

Keris breaks down into giggles first, which immediately breaks Lilunu’s composure and sets her off. Zana does get a kiss on the forehead though, and an only-somewhat-condescending pat on the head.

“It’s for your own good, darling,” Keris tells her fondly. “You need to be challenged a bit to push beyond your limits and do your best work.”

“You’re treating me like Haneyl or Rathan,” Zana pouts.

“Both of whom have holdings in Creation~” Keris teases. “Rathan and Oula are running the lighthouse-manse for me, and Haneyl has all her businesses and land and hirelings. Don’t you want something like that too?”

“I mean I was fine just getting everything I wanted here in Hell, but apparently you two have decided that you don’t love me anymore and I now need to slave like an overworked donkey to get something little.”

Lilunu takes these accusations which are not exactly grounded in reality, and nods. “Precisely,” she says, sea-foam-like hair falling around her.


“So, Keris,” Lilunu says, linking arms with her. “I think we’ll leave little Zana to go back to your townhouse and start thinking about the great and wonderful things she’s going to do for me - and for you, because I’ll be counting whatever she does in your report next year - and now you can do the much more important thing of taking me to your workroom so I can watch you play around with that wood-bone material that makes those gorgeous statues.” She looks arch. “Or are you too tired for that?”

Keris rolls her shoulders and cracks her neck. “For you, my lady,” she says bravely, offering her arm, “no task is too great.”

Lilunu’s other hand cups Keris’s chin, and scritches under her chin - almost like one would for a well-behaved pet. “Good girl,” she murmurs as they leave the fuming Zana behind.

Chapter Text

A flare of light in the shadowed room of the Conventicle. “It’s kind of funny,” a mid-tone voice says, from the robed, veiled figure leaning against the wall. Their southern accent is hard to pin down. “I think we’ve exchanged maybe five words before.”

But should she believe it? How much else of Veil is lies? Because to the pricking of Keris’s eyes, they taste like a blend of blood-soaked battles, the tang of chaos, and freshly hewn dirt, and they’re no stronger than a mortal.

Keris came here to the Conventicle to meet with the head of the Southern Directorate of the Reclamation, but apparently they wanted to play with her. Keris doesn’t know their name; they just go by Veil. She doesn’t know whether they’re male or female either, because at previous Althing assemblies it’s always been a different person meeting in the seat. But she knows they’re a Fiend, and they’re old for an Infernal. The Tenth Seat in the Althing, and still on their first incarnation - as far as anyone can tell. Which makes them the second Fiend ever chosen by Hell.

“I suppose the Fire Mountains are too much of a natural barrier,” Keris replies, leaning back in the hanging seat she’s chosen. “The South and the Anarchy don’t interact much directly, so we’re not on any committees together. And yet,” she tilts her head, “you put in a request for my services. I know why Peer Sasimana did - I was her subordinate before she moved; she knows my work. But I’m curious about your reasons.”

“Maybe I just want to be your friend,” Veil says in their mid-tone voice. “And that means budgeting with the wealth of my directorate to hire you at a surcharge. No, you wouldn’t believe that. So maybe the answer is more that you’re the assassin and thief with the best record in the Althing and I want to see how well earned it is. Or maybe it’s that the work that needs to be done is on the edge of your territory and I don’t have anyone in position because my people are much more concentrated along the coastline.”

Veil is certainly right about the first option’s believability. If they were that reckless with their division’s funds, they wouldn’t still be division head. But the second and third sound plausible. Keris is well aware that her mission record is, at a technical level, perfect. She’s never been assigned a mission she hasn’t succeeded - and in most cases she’s succeeded beyond the scope of the requirements.

“The edge of my territory,” she says, thoughtfully. “Away from the coast. So, just east of the mountains - Gem?” She leans forward in the hanging chair, feeling it swing under her. “What exactly do you want me to do for you?”

Veil leans back into the wall, sinking into the shadows, and Keris hears the rustle of their presence as they appear on the other side of the room. Always keeping a certain distance from Keris. “I need chaos and disruption in the spine of trade along the Fire Mountains,” they say simply. “For the major trading points between Gem and the Inner Sea to be thrown into anarchy. The deaths of leaders, destruction of dams, the madness of heirs. All things you’ve done before.”

Keris purses her lips. “Not a single job, then,” she says thoughtfully. “You’re talking about a season of work, across a dozen or more nations. Maybe more.”

“But far less targeted than your usual work - and there are no satraps and few dragon-children there,” Veil observes. “I know what you did in Taira, and how Malra is crumbling in the face of their child empress.”

The only outward reaction Keris gives to that is a slow blink, though inside there’s a jolt. Ney never talks about work in the dreams they share once a season or so, and neither does she, so she hadn’t actually followed up on the consequences of her terrorising the naib. It’s not exactly a surprise to hear that she sent him into a paranoia spiral bad enough to cripple his nation - and in fact the cold vicious envy in her belly croons happily at the thought - but there’s a hint of worry for her father and half-sister as well.

She conceals it under Zanaran petals of etiquette, and laces her fingers together, tapping one bare foot on the demon-fur rug. This isn’t the only request she’s had. Sasi has contracted her for an assassination as well - a single hit on a Dynastic minister deep inside the Blessed Isles. This job will mean another season spent outside of Saata, which will strain her identities there...

... but on the other hand, it’ll also solidly reinforce her mission record. And Veil will owe her. Not to mention the opportunities she’ll have while in the South to follow up on a few leads there and generally enrich herself.

“I’m open to the proposal,” Keris says after a moment’s thought. “I have other commitments early in the year, but unless something unexpected and serious arises or I get contrary orders from the Unquestionable, I’m open to taking the job in Earth or Wood, pending a discussion of payment. I will want as much information on my targets as you can gather in advance, though. I don’t want to spend longer than a season away from the Anarchy, and research and prep work are always the most time-consuming parts of a kill.”

Veil claps their hands together, a short, oddly muted sound. “Of course, of course. I have preliminary location information - including full briefing data on the target cities - and initial suggestions here, and I will ensure you have the contacts of agents of mine in those cities. I am so pleased to be working with you, if you do accept. My friend.” Their accent has shifted to something more Eastern.

Keris holds out her hand - her left hand - to shake. “A pleasure,” she agrees with an easy smile. To the brief, fleeting touch, Keris can only feel the weakness, and the Maiden of Battles, the earth, and chaos.

Interesting, she thinks as Veil leaves. Very interesting. And annoying. She feels the lure of sweet-scented mercurial envy rising, but squashes it. Petty spite against another division head isn’t what she needs here. Anyway, she’ll be paid handsomely for this job, and it won’t be terribly difficult. Time-consuming, but not difficult. And there are probably a few things of her own she can use it for. Certainly if she’ll be in the general area of Gem it’d be almost criminal not to see if she can plunder its treasuries, and while she’s not going anywhere near the Lap itself, she’s heard good things about the wealth of the lands around it.

Of course, two major assassination missions in one year will remind everyone that she’s lethal, just when her peers and masters were starting to relax and underestimate her as the pretty, decorative Mistress of Ceremonies.

The time away from Saata is still a concern, too. Keris has promised Air to Ipithymia to finish the scripts of the Scarlet Surrender Cycle - with an assassination on the Isles and a season spent on the other side of the Firepeaks, plus her usual preparations for Calibration, that’s more than half the year she’ll be spending outside her Direction. And Anadala has asked something of her too; he’d kept her back after the meeting with Sasi’s new underling and requested she make sure Triumphant Air sends an all-calm report back to the Realm at the end of the year to convince the Navy to pull back to the Isles.

“It’s gonna be difficult to do all three,” she murmurs to herself as she pads through the Conventicle’s halls towards Lilunu’s workshop. “But I really don’t want to turn down official requests from division heads. Even one rejected mission will spoil my record, let alone a failed one.”

“It is hard to be the best,” Dulmea says softly, without a trace of humility or hesitancy. “And-”

But her voice slows to a deep crawl, as the world bleeds to red and white. Watching the world lose all colour, Keris feels the rush. And there! Ahead of her, a ripple in the air seen as distortions of the world. Emanating from a suddenly cracking tower seen through the window! And as the ripple creeps through the air like a lit trail of wet firedust, things around it explode. Elegant paintings. The lacquered paths of the building. The bones of a courtier-serf in its way. It’s crawling towards Keris and she reallyreallyreallydoesn’twantogethitbyit-

She darts out of the way, hair sweeping to the side so as not to get caught as it passes. Her eyes flash green as she tracks the moving... thing? What is this? A venting of Lilunu’s chakras? She’d thought her lady was free of those - it hasn’t been that long since Calibration - but maybe something got her wound up again. Ascending Air slips into Keris’s hands as she spins and keeps pace with the distortion, maintaining a wary distance.

The things destroyed by it ring like a bell. A bell of crystal and colourless fire. And yes - it’s sound that’s doing this. The note that brought the destruction lives on in those things, and around them other things are starting to crack and reverberate with the same note. Outpacing the shockwave with a lightning-flash blast of speed and a shockwave of her own, Keris shivers as the last echoes die away. Pyrian. This is a Pyrian creature. A Pyrian creature in a Conventicle tower, destroying parts of the Conventicle.

Keris’s lips thin. She suspects she knows what this is.

Wary of another blast, she darts towards the now cracked and fractured tower, eyeing the spiderwebbing fissures in the walls with concern as she ducks inside through a door that hangs open from one hinge. Perhaps she should go and get Lilunu... but if she does, she has no guarantee that the situation here won’t worsen in the time it takes. Better to try and fix the problem now.

Silently, she slips through the tower’s rooms, starting at the bottom and working up as each proves empty - or at least devoid of survivors. As she reaches the top, the whole tower is singing. The noise is everywhere. Singing out louder and louder, sending out more waves of sound. She can’t dodge them all. Not without exhausting herself.

Cursing under her breath, she ignites the embers of her soul and her caste mark flares to life on her forehead; a green-burning empty circle lightning the room in Ligerian green.

All the sound around her stops dead. The bone-breaking pulses of sound continue beyond her soul’s reach, but die instantly at the edge of the circle of silence, muted by the power within her.

After a few wary heartbeats to make sure her invocation of deadly hush in the heart of the Demon City hasn’t drawn any unwanted attention from its progenitor, Keris continues forward again, this time with slightly less wariness but equal hurry. She can mute the cruel resonating chimes that are still echoing past her. Others, more vulnerable, can’t.

At the top of the tower is an egg-shaped space, and like an egg it’s been cracked. The crystal walls are akin to Keris’s burning soul, but the sound broke out through some flaw, some weakness, and made things in the world reverberate with it. Something that lives in the music. To hear it is to become it.

But the main vessel for that note is here; broken-limbed, shattered, like a cracked and dropped pop held together by the thinnest surface layer. Wingbones broken, limbs broken, tail broken. And those bits of the singer which are whole are only whole due to the care it takes. The slightest mistake, and another bone will break.

“Look who it is,” the dragon says, pausing and twisting one colourless eye towards Keris. His scales are silvery-blue and gleam in the light of the interior flames. “It’s her plaything. Come to shut me up, have you, hushbringer?”

Keris’s heart cries out at the broken state of another of Lilunu’s souls. What agony he must be in, to feel his bones break constantly - as her arm breaks every time she absorbs a knot for her lady.

Also he’s insulting her, but after Hermione and Divisa, she’s come to expect that not all of Lilunu’s souls will be as kind as Bruleuse. Flowers and mercury twine together behind her eyes, reflecting the shape of this crippled dragon’s feelings.

He expects her to break. Break, or fail him. Everything always does. He envies her, though it doesn’t exactly feel personal; maybe he envies everything. And she can see his pride in his artistry. He doesn’t need to make his music beautiful. He does anyway.

“I came to find the source of the chimes, my lord,” she says. “I don’t believe we have been introduced.” She bows low. “It is my honour.”

“No it isn’t.” He pours contempt into his tone. “Unless you think it honourable to shut up your lady’s desire to make her vision real.”

Flattery, it appears, is not the way to this dragon’s heart. “What vision?” Keris asks, dropping some of the niceties. “Or which? She has shaped the Conventicle to beauty - tell me of what else she envisions. I am her servant, and I have sworn to help her in any way I can.”

“Ha! No, she wouldn’t tell you what Keramos is,” he - Keramos - says. His lips curl back, to show cracked crystal fangs. “There is a part of her that wants to remake Hell. All they let her have is her own flesh, and so she cuts it and tattoos it and pierces it to make this place. But she would see the whole world made beautiful. The order of Hell is not what she desires in her dreams.”

Keris approaches him, lowering herself to sit - and putting herself at his level as she does, so he need not look up at her. “I have often thought that the Conventicle is the most beautiful part of Hell,” she agrees. “And I have used her arts in Creation to build temples and manors as she shapes her own flesh.”

“She is weak. She will break,” Keramos says. “For I break because she does. Her vision will never come to pass. And so I break things I dislike.”

“I wish to help her,” Keris says. “To strengthen her, and to aid her souls. She’s prohibited me from digging into secrets that Orabilis forbids to peers, but I still want to help. She is strong. I’ve seen her crush demon lords with a word, when her power was settled. I just need to find a way to bring it out.”

He looks at her with those withering eyes. “Foolish girl.”

A stir of irritation flares. She is, Keris thinks as her hair lashes behind her, getting thoroughly sick of people putting down her desire to help Lilunu. Even Lilunu does it! And now Lilunu’s souls are dismissing her? Lilunu is clan, she’s hurt, she cares about Keris, and if one more person sneers at Keris’s vow to help her, there’s going to be bloodshed.

“It would not,” she responds, teeth clenched, “be the first impossible thing I have done. Dismiss me if you want. Call me foolish if that’s what you think. But I am going to help Lilunu and heal you and your siblings even if I have to invent a whole new branch of healing to do it.

“You think you’re telling the truth. I have no reason to care what you think,” he says, with none of Lilunu’s guarded phrasing or politeness.

“I am telling the truth,” Keris growls, rising. “And I’ll prove it, someday. Until then...”

She bows, anger in every motion. “My lord Keramos,” she says formally, in clipped tones. “I’m glad to have met you.”

Because I’m going to make you eat those words and then flaunt it in your face when you’re better, she doesn’t add.

“I’m sure you’ve done your job to let Lilunu run here in a panic to seal my prison up again,” he says sourly. “Go on. Walk away.”

Glaring at him, Keris digs into her hair. “I said I would heal you and I will,” she snaps. “I know I can’t do that now - if it were that easy you would already be healthy. But I can’t heal you with no information either, and if I walk away now I’ll still have none. So, my lord Keramos. As a medic, may I examine you? I will be gentle, and you may stop me at any time - if you are truly so blind to hope that you refuse to even try for a better state of affairs.”

“Do as you will. Your kind do - Lilunu says as much,” he says harshly.

Marching forward, Keris pulls her medical kit out of her hair and starts looking Keramos over, touching him as carefully as possible and mapping out his twisted, fractured skeleton, tasting the brittleness of the bone with delicate root-tendrils, assessing the state of muscle and skin. Where his bones are broken, she gently teases them together, and where his nerves are aflame with pain she soothes and pacifies - temporary treatments, but a short-lived relief from agony. Iris peels off her hand as she works, and wings her way around to breathe out a greeting near her much bigger brother’s face.

One eye the size of Iris herself focuses on the little dragon. “Oh, so you’re rubbing your flight in my face,” he says sourly.

Iris considers this statement, and shakes her head, instead breathing out an image of two cats playing around with some string. She leans in, and nudges the string-fire-image towards Keramos with her nose.

“Iris,” Keris warns absently. “No distracting me while I’m working.”

Iris of course ignores her, and pops into the little girl form she uses to play with the twins and Aiko. Behind Keris’s back, she picks up some of the shattered crystal that’s fallen from the walls, and licks it.

Rolling her eyes, Keris finishes up her diagnosis, completing the sketch of Keramos’s skeleton - with notation of lengths and sizes beside it - and running a few final tests on his muscle tone and wing membranes before stepping back with another bow.

He is weaker than he could be, Keris thinks. It’s hard to say, because he’s so very fragile - and very large. If he was human-sized he would be prone to breaking bones, but as a giant crystalline dragon he cannot walk without hairline fractures. But that just makes him even weaker. His muscles are atrophied, his scale-tone reduced. And just lying here, barely able to move, cannot be doing anything for his clearly-vile temper.

“Thank you, my lord,” she says, compassion softening her tone again from the sharp irritation it had taken on. “I will let you know as soon as I make progress in aiding you.”

That only draws a snort from him. “Go, then. And take that little pest with you.” Iris by this point has made a little card stack from fallen crystal, her forked tongue sticking out as she puts the top two pieces together.

Ushering Iris back to her skin, Keris takes her leave. It’s not strictly speaking illegal for her to meet Lilunu’s souls... but at the same time, Lilunu hasn’t introduced her to this one despite ample opportunity. And given her reaction to Keris’s suggestions, she’s starting to think Lilunu isn’t planning to introduce her to many. Her shame and her fear of Keris endangering herself are holding her back.

As such, it’s probably best if Keris doesn’t get caught talking to one, even if she’s not technically speaking doing anything wrong.

As she slinks off, skin blending into the background, she sees Lilunu and some of Ligier’s construction-automata heading this way. There is a shock of white in Lilunu’s hair, and one eye burns with colourless fire.

Yes, definitely best to keep away from this and make it look like she’s been a good girl busying herself with her other work.

“It’s nice to have you to myself. You’ve been busy on your own projects recently,” Lilunu says. She’s at her farm for the first time in a while, although it has changed since last time. Keris has made sure that the human slaves are moved away from here, and she’s procured plenty of fruits and seeds from Creation. Lilunu has clearly been entertaining herself by trying to work out how to grow Creation’s crops under an eternal green sun, with somewhat mixed successes. Keris politely doesn’t comment on where she can see some of the fruits from the Anarchy have clearly been hybridised with things from Hell. “And look how well my mangoes are doing!”

Keris plucks a ripe fruit from the tree, weighs it for a moment and takes a bite. Her eyebrows raise. This is definitely one of the success stories. The rest of the mango disappears quickly.

“Delicious, my lady,” she says, licking juice from her fingers and flicking Iris away as she tries to steal some for herself. “I’ll warn you: I may have to steal some of these and take them home for Haneyl to make a meal out of. They’re better than the Saatan kind.”

Lilunu beams at that, and claps her hands. “If you find any more seeds or kinds of fruit, bring them here! This is awfully fun! It’s the way they don’t grow right even when I try my hardest! But I’m going to make those darn bananas work, just you see!”

Iris licks at Keris’s palms, tasting the mango juice on them, and nods approvingly.

Hiding a smile, Keris agrees. Lilunu is always happiest when she’s enthusiastic and determined about things, and the banana trees have been driving her to rants that are honestly sort of adorable to watch. It reminds Keris of Haneyl’s approach to architecture, but from the other side.

“I could always bring my daughter back with me for next Calibration if you need advice,” she teases, and holds her hands up at Lilunu’s haughty, mock-offended look. “Not that I don’t think you can do it! Perhaps just to taste-test your - assuredly successful - banana plantation.”

“Calling on the Hungry Swamp is cheating!” Lilunu says, ignoring that some of her successful plants show exactly the signs of such meddling.

“Of course,” Keris placates, giggling. Then she sobers. “Actually, my lady, I did have a... a thought, of something you might look into. If it interested you, I mean - I wouldn’t presume to try to tell you where to spend your time.”

“Oh?” Lilunu says, her gown shushing behind her as she twirls her parasol and ambles down the paths between the orchards.

Keris follows, staying by her side and just a little behind, arranging herself at Lilunu’s right so that Iris can twine around her mother’s fingers.

“Eko decided to show up a few times over Calibration to help me ‘de-stress’,” she says dryly, “and dragged Asarin along with her. Among other things,” like Eko demanding to spend the year with her ‘bestie’; a request Keris still hasn’t decided whether or not to grant, “we talked about the spoils Asarin took home from, uh, Chir. Or the city just outside Chir. And it made me think.”

Keris warms up to her topic as she continues, hair flicking as she gestures to make her point. “Asarin was with me for the whole raid on that city. She saw the Shogunate materials we recovered there, she got a good look at my fighting style - she certainly knew my name and my face. If I’d bound her, rather than just summoning her, she’d still know those things, and the binding would have expired when she came back to Hell. And I asked her, while we were up there, about other people who’ve summoned her in the past, and she told me some stories about them!

“I know the Priests of Cecelyne keep records of which citizens are summoned across the Desert,” she goes on, “so I thought: is there a reason why the Reclamation couldn’t have a sort of... a meeting, when citizens allied with the Reclamation returned to Malfeas, to ask them about their summoner? Their name and what they look like and what capabilities they showed and what they summoned a demon lord for? Because it would be really useful if I could see someone powerful in Creation and have Rounen look up their description and get a dossier on who they are and what they’re like.” She grins impishly. “And I know you enjoy meeting people in the middle of the year when most of us peers are out in Creation.”

Lilunu looks somewhat awkward. “That would largely... I’m not sure how much I should be saying, but... no. No, it’s not a secret, it’s just not talked about. But the Minister of Tales, Vigilabo, has that under his jurisdiction. He does not always reach out to people in time, but I have heard from the others that few of them look at his blue-rimmed invitations kindly - for his authority is under the Desert’s law, and he is one of her souls.”

Keris winces. “Ah. Damn. I thought there must be a reason I hadn’t already heard of it being done.” She chews a hair-tendril thoughtfully. “May I ask... is it his jurisdiction alone, as with Orabilis? I don’t want to get in trouble for going around asking if any citizens I know get bound and I’m not allowed to ask them about it when they get back.”

Lilunu pauses. “As long as you do not claim you have authority to do so, you should be fine,” she says firmly. “You are a peer. You are outside many of the lesser laws of Hell. But as for the others... well. The Endless Desert does not like people to think of how one can spend time outside of this prison-realm through slavery and obedience to the traitors who cast her and the other All-Makers into this place.”

“Right,” Keris agrees, wincing again. “Thank you, my lady. Even if I only find out a few faces from asking around, it’ll be useful.” She shakes her head, dismissing the topic. “Now, about those bananas. How are they misbehaving?”

They pass another hour or so in their stroll through the gardens, with Lilunu detailing the woes of stubborn Creation fruit that won’t grow properly even in expensive soil imported from its native lands. But eventually, Keris’s other duties call, and she takes her leave to return to her townhouse and await her afternoon meeting.

And while she waits, she reviews her secret little project. Her secret little project that she can’t risk getting Lilunu’s help with, because it would reveal far too much of her hand - most notably her premeditated murder of a Pyrian citizen and her intent to render down the demon lord’s bound essence, which sits in a safe behind her desk in a faceted crystal the size of a hen’s egg, whose surface shines green when the light falls on it at some angles and purple at others.

“Okay,” says Keris, settling down and ignoring the whimpering scream from within the gem. Four years of imprisonment have not reduced Lei Mei to madness - yet - but they haven’t done her mind much good either.

“So, setting aside the malice question,” she continues with a glance at Zanara, “since that’s probably going to take alchemical dissolution and some careful refining to boil the consciousness off to avoid a spear that hates me and wants me to die. I like this elinvar-scales-over-moonsilver-core idea, but how are we going to reshape the chain-linked segments it’s in at the moment without basically just disassembling the whole spear down to raw materials and remaking it from scratch?”

“I mean, that might be necessary,” Nara says, mask off and brow furrowed in his focus. His face looks entirely human, and a lot like a less pretty Rathan - though Keris can see quite a bit of Ogin in the shape of his face. “Maybe some engraving and... mmm, acupuncture-like shifting of the essence-flows in the moonsilver to coax it into a new shape without reforging it?”

Keris hums thoughtfully, pulling her spear out of nowhere with a flicker of red lightning around her wrists. She twirls it twice, and splits it apart into its chain form, snapping it twice across the room and watching how the chain-links that connect the segments of its haft behave.

“That could work,” she muses. “Hmm. Okay, we’re going to be using a chalcanth bath to alloy this,” she raps the gem with a knuckle and gets a whispered scream of hatred, “to the spear anyway. If we increase the vitriol concentration a little, we might be able to sort of... half-dissolve the moonsilver and have it resolidify along a shape that better matches its new essence-form. And with the engraving, we can probably get the elinvar in a state where it can easily fragment into scales... hmm. Acupuncture. Acupuncture for a spear. Okay. Well, she’s going to be a snake when she’s done, that’s pretty much inevitable, so I’ll take a look at some chakra diagrams of serpents and maybe get Pekhijira’s advice.”

She nods, checks the hourglass, and withdraws the spear, packing Lei Mei’s gem back into its lead safe. “Alright, Claudia will be here in a few minutes. Mask and robe on if you’re staying, out if you’re not. And you still don’t get to look at the scripts.”

Nara rolls his eyes at his mother. “Well, I’m going over to Lilunu’s, then,” he says. “She might be a stinking traitor just like you, but at least she appreciates me enough to let me help her with stuff.” He jams his hands up his sleeves, and slopes off like a sulking teenager.

Sighing, Keris watches him go, then gets up to search for her books of animal and demon anatomy along with the beautiful handwritten tome that Lilunu gave her. It takes a bit of searching in the massive floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that dominates one wall of her office, but soon she’s sat down again with her spear on her desk and all three open as references, using Lilunun principles to map acupuncture points onto mortal and demonic serpent physiology and then translating those across to her spear.

The whole process is pretty inexact and involves an uncomfortable amount of guesswork, so she’s honestly rather pleased when Mehuni clears his throat from the corridor and announces that Claudia is here.

“Send her in,” Keris calls, withdrawing her spear again. Scripts, scripts, where are her... ah, top left hand drawer, neatly arranged and bound. Thank you, Rounen.

This time Claudia is wearing a gloriously tacky gold lamé jacket that narrows down to a wasp-like waist over a - Keris narrows her eyes. Yes, that’s definitely a highlander dress, even if it’s in golds and greens. And of course, she has her cloak of patchwork skin over her shoulders.

“Hmm. Quite the nice little office,” Claudia opines as she walks in. “You clearly work in here as one of your main places. You’ve hammered your personality into things.”

Keris looks around, considering. Perhaps she has, though she’s never really thought about it before. The wall to her right is one giant bookcase, and the one to her left hosts a huge window overlooking the flower gardens and an aquarium full of Southwestern fish and brightly coloured aquatic plants. The wall behind her desk has a number of cabinets and lockboxes for more secure storage, an extensive weapon display rack, a master calendar blocking out all her appointments and a couple of Lilunu’s larger paintings - a grand landscape piece of a great battle between demons done entirely in shades of green and red, and a self-portrait of the Conventicle itself, which updates itself every time Lilunu changes her architecture. The far wall, which Keris faces, has Rounen’s desk by the door opposite a chaise lounge for visitors, and a folding screen that cuts both off from the corner where she hosts comfortable discussions over drinks. One of her own paintings of Creation takes pride of place above the low table and tea-set there; complimenting the window view with a landscape shot of Saata and the Southwestern sea from high on the slopes above the city.

Her own desk next to the aquarium is fairly small. She’d tried sitting behind it to get things done and almost driven herself mad with boredom and distraction after only a few days, and a week into her role as Mistress of Ceremonies she’d remodelled completely. Now, the open space of the room between her own desk and the entrance is a loose obstacle course of pedestal tables that vary from waist- to chest-height, each holding a pile or two of reports on this topic or that. It lets Keris get paperwork done on her feet when sitting behind a desk is too frustrating and she needs to be active, assessing priorities with a glance at how they’re laid out across the pedestals and sorting them by area across the great raised map of the Southwest in the corner opposite the tea table. The stacks on the finance and scheduling tables are somewhat higher than usual today, and Keris chooses to ignore the amused glance Claudia gives a particularly precarious one.

“Why don’t we have some tea,” she says, standing with the scripts and moving around her desk to the tea corner, “and talk about what I’ve got for your lady.”

Fabric shushing around her legs, Claudia takes a seat. “I’m sure you’ll pick the tea well,” she says.

Keris smirks and heats the water for a gingery, invigorating brew. “I’ll refrain from any alchemy in these drinks,” she taunts. “At least until after we have our next spar.”

“Such kindness,” Claudia murmurs.

“So,” Keris says, stacking up the scripts. Properly bound and piled on top of each other, they make a respectable pile, but one still reduced from the sheer volume of paper Sasi had output over the course of five days. “These four in red are the Abridged Cycle, and the ten bound in gold,” she grins, “are the Unabridged Cycle.” Each script has its title written - in the gold and red lettering respectively - under the unifying logo of the Scarlet Surrender Cycle - or ‘The Decline and Fall of the Scarlet Realm’, to give the saga its full title.

“Take a look,” Keris says. “The scenes I showed you last time were mostly from the Fall of Tepete and the Abasement of Sesusu. Comparing between the red and gold editions should give you a good idea of what you’re getting.”

Claudia recovers her little spectacles from a pocket, and starts to flip through. “So how have things been with you?” she asks conversationally as she reads scenes of Sasi’s id poured out onto the page and barely pulled back by Keris’s editing. “Did you have fun last year?”

“It was busy,” Keris says honestly. “And this year looks set to be busier, but yes. I got a lot done professionally, and,” she smiles, “more personally, I remember our last encounter fondly.”

“Do you indeed?” Claudia leafs through. “My lady has acquired a new dragon-child who she wishes to make a grand appearance in some work. Do you think this work would be of such stature to be worthy of his presentation?”

“A dragon-child would certainly make things more authentic,” Keris says. “And... may I be blunt, Claudia?”

“You? Blunt? Surely you jest.” It’s unclear whether she’s joking.

“I’ve spent almost a year on editing this, on and off, and Sasimana helped write the first draft,” Keris says, ignoring the jibe. “We both know it’s going to be good. Given the subject matter, your lady will love it just for how it mocks and degrades the Realm - and the debauchery in it will please her further. And the writing is, if I may say so myself, very good. With a decent cast of skilled actors, it’ll be a success. With a few dragon-children playing major parts and a lead as good as I am for some of the central roles, it’ll be fucking amazing.”

“A lead as good as you are?” Claudia smiles. “Are you volunteering?”

Keris raises an eyebrow. “For Calibration, certainly, but that will be a performance in the Conventicle, as part of the celebrations I’m in charge of arranging. On the Street? For free?” She chuckles, and sips her tea. “No. I know my worth as an actress, and it doesn’t come cheap. Elanora was one thing - this would be much more of a commitment. If Ipithymia wants me to star in the Unabridged Cycle, I’ll want to be paid.”

“Oh, now, if you were willing to commit to a season-long headline on the Street, quite wonderful things could happen.” Claudia’s golden eyes meet Keris’s. “My lady has the capacity to throw a great deal of resources behind you and your work in Creation. Quite exceptional amounts. You are, after all, perhaps the most junior Director with only a single subordinate among your peers - and the Sixth Seat is reputed to be a troublesome, disobedient man. Someone that the North-Western director was glad to be rid of. You get so little, Keris, compared to the vast riches that the Blessed Isle, the East or the South receive. The support that I - and through me, my lady - could provide you would be... very significant.”

“Hmm.” Keris tilts her head. It’s an attractive offer. Too attractive. Claudia does nothing for free, and a pitch like this means she’s expecting to get a lot in return.

Keris can’t quite see exactly what Claudia is getting from this - but she knows her own worth is vast. Colossal. Something that could beggar emperors. And Claudia is sure Keris will accept eventually; it’s just a question of raising how much she’s offering until it meets Keris’s price. She gets the feeling Claudia has a lot of leeway in how much she can afford to pay and still make out like a bandit.

Well, it can’t hurt to ask. “You’re offering a lot up front, before we even start haggling over price,” she says, sipping her tea again. “What are you getting out of this, Claudia? You’re not just acting on your lady’s orders - she pays you for your service. What do you get for negotiating this deal with me, and why does it make you so eager for me to sign?”

Claudia pauses, and puts down her documents. “Keris,” she says, peering over the top of her spectacles, “in case you don’t recall, my lady was very impressed with your first play - and then for the past couple of years you have put a lot of effort into making a name for yourself as an entertainer par excellence in the service of Lilunu. My lady greatly enjoys the finest things in life, and you have shown to her that you are one of them. A rare and precious jewel she wishes to display in her grandest theatres and finest and most exclusive clubs. I live only to please my lady.”

She pauses, for just a heartbeat.

“And pleasing her in this way, getting your services for such an exclusive period, would make me ludicrously wealthy even by my standards.”

Keris raises an eyebrow, tilts her head, and then smiles. “You’re getting a commission for recruiting me,” she says. “Or perhaps a cut of my earnings? Well now. That does change things.” She leans forward, propping her elbows on the table and resting her chin in her hands. “Tell me more about these vast riches.”

“You’re no real stranger to selling your body, are you?” Claudia says. “I know the look in your eyes, and your taste. And I suspect you are well aware of what some of the mighty of Hell would pay for just one night with you. Therefore, consider that a small percentage of the net of such earnings is a remarkably large amount for a humble citizen such as myself.”

“A fair point.” Keris leans back and observes Claudia for a moment, foot tapping. “How much of my earnings would I get from my work on the Street, if I signed? Backing for my division would be great, and very welcome, but I’d like to see some of the profit the mighty of Hell would pay me if I’m to be a jewel among golden lanterns. I don’t doubt your lady will take the biggest cut, so what’s mine?”

“Why, that would be part of the negotiations with my lady,” Claudia says smoothly. “My own arrangement with her is quite separate. But you have taken plenty of,” she looks Keris up and down, “delights with the Topless Tower she granted you the leasehold of, in payment for that prior performance. She can be most generous in her payments, as you have already seen.”

“Mmm. One more question, then. And you’ll forgive me for asking it, because it’s the question you would ask.” Keris sets down her cup and laces her fingers together. “Why should I commit now, to your offer? I doubt I’ll have time for a season on the Street this year, after all, so even if I agreed it would be a delayed arrangement - next year, after the first airing of the plays. Why shouldn’t I wait until then for Ipithymia to renew her offer, and negotiate with her directly, minus your commission? What can I only get from you, that I should sign my body over here and now?”

“Well, for one, my friend,” Claudia smiles, “you get my services in the negotiation, because I stand to lose a veritable fortune if you walk away here and now - and as a peer, until you sign her contract, you can do just that. And for two, if you agree to this, I’ll cut you in on three percent of your gross. Paid directly to you.”

“Tempting,” Keris muses. “But I doubt that’s half your take, and it’s certainly not more than half. Ten percent, I’m guessing she promised you? I could call in a favour with, oh, a few different people to help me negotiate, and see how much of that ten percent I could get directly.” She smiles back, winding her hair around her finger. “I do like you, Claudia, so I’m inclined to agree. But you wouldn’t want charity even if I were inclined to give it, and Ipithymia will like these,” she raps the stack of scripts, “enough that I suspect she’ll be inclined to be generous. What can I only get from you?”

“Oh, Keris,” and that’s a little chuckle, the kind of laugh one makes when someone walks straight into a prepared ploy. “I thought you’d have asked something about where I got this dress. How I know these styles so very well.”

Keris stills. Her eyes rake over Claudia again. “I had noticed the highlander style,” she murmurs. “But I’ve seen them before. Pretty fashion is nice, but I’m more than able to make my own dresses.” She arches an eyebrow, anticipation bubbling light and eager through her veins. “Except it’s not the fashion you’re offering, is it?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time in those highlands,” Claudia says. “And you practically vibrated when trying to find out more about the Daiwye clan. You even have something of their nose and chin about you.”

“Yes,” Keris admits softly. To another friend she might talk about her mother - but not Claudia. Keris likes her, but she also knows her nature. Anything she tells the Lambskin Hyena will, by her very nature, be for sale.

“For this? Everything I have about them, everything I know about them - and the skins and souls I’ve taken from them, to do with as you see fit,” Claudia offers. “To wear for your own purposes - or you could burn them if you wanted. It’d be a waste, but they’d be yours.”

“Done.” It’s fast; it’s too fast, and she’s giving away how much she values this, how much she craves her heritage, but the word is out before she can even think about it and Keris doesn’t care what social advantage she might be sacrificing by saying it. “Done. We’ll talk details later, but you’ve got your contract. Next year, after the first Cycle airs at Calibration.”

Claudia offers her hand, they shake on it, and then the matter returns to the scripts. It only re-emerges at the end.

“Once we get the contracts signed for this play, I’ll draw up the arrangements for your headline act on the Street,” Claudia says. “We’ll need to discuss terms, arranged services, periods of work, guarantees, and the like. Potentially, a contract could be signed that would be purely for acting in your cycle - but to maximise your earnings and the favours you’ll accrue from my lady, I’d recommend that you accept a more generous and far-reaching arrangement. After all, speaking as someone who headlines a few times a decade, it’s a way to make connections and meet people for later business advantages like no other.”

Keris looks at the paintings on the wall beside them - the family portrait especially, which depicts her children in stylised forms that look more like abstract designs of their colours and themes than people. She thinks about the motion that Ligier is working on; the coming vote, still years away, that will decide whether her souls are lesser peers or subject to the cruel laws of the Endless Desert.

The vote that the Unquestionable will have a say in, and she will not. Except through those of them she can convince to side with her.

“Yes,” she says quietly. “I suppose it is.”

Claudia misses - or chooses to not point out - Keris’s soft words. “Well, there’s going to be a lot of reading, negotiations, and meetings in our future,” she says instead. “Though if you’re looking for a bout - well, we can have one in the next scream or two, or save it for afterwards as our little treat. Same stakes as before?”

That pulls Keris out of her contemplative mood and back to happier shores. “I don’t know,” she grins. “Are you sure you can bear up under another session like last time? I recall you begging quite prettily for me to stop tormenting you once or twice. If you’re this eager to go through it again, maybe I really did give you a new fetish.”

“Oh, sweetie, I’ve been training - and I’ve prepared.” Claudia rolls her shoulders. “Are you sure you don’t want to see everything I’ve set up for you?”

Keris cracks her knuckles. A bout with Claudia will be just the thing to test some of her guesses about her spear’s redesign.

“Bring it on,” she says.

Some might say that her bravado was overly cocky, because Claudia turns out to have been training and preparing for this fight all year and this time she wins. But Keris doesn’t have any real complaints about being the demon lord’s pet for a scream. And scream she does.

Early in Descending Air, Keris arrives back in Saata feeling refreshed and looking forward to the year ahead.

This lasts about until she steps into the Jade Carnation, and gets promptly dragged into a backroom by a bushy-haired, tanned-darker-than-her Haneyl, who recounts quite a tale while directing glares at a sullen Calesco. Of a sunchild who was chosen in Calibration, and vanished in the first days of Air with no signs of violence. And that now there’s a magistrate sniffing around Saata.

“But you should have known all this,” Haneyl concludes. “Because she said she’d tell you. And Rathan went and fucked off with Oula, and you never got around to teaching me Infallible Messenger!”

“I said I’d do what I had to do,” Calesco says back icily.

“And what you had to do was tell mama that there was a fucking sun-child in the city, who then vanished without a trace or any sign of violence! And now there’s a fucking magistrate here snooping around!” Haneyl snaps, the flames in her hair flaring to light up the room.

“What... how...” Keris stutters, twisting her hands in her hair and resisting the urge to scream. “I leave for a season! One season! Fucking...” She bares her teeth. “Fine, the sun-child’s gone. We will be talking about that later,” she says, glaring at Calesco, “but current problems first. The magistrate. What do you have on him? Her? Do we have a name?”

“He came mid-way through Air, and he’s been a pain in my fucking ass since then,” Haneyl says darkyl. “He’s called Ragara Midari.”

Keris blanches.

“Say that again,” she says, eyes wide and terrified. Her hair spasms behind her, then wraps around herself as Strigida shifts from a feathered cape into full armour in terrified reflex. “That name. You’re sure?”

“Entirely sure,” Haneyl says. “The man’s a shark. And the parties in Saata seem half-empty sometimes. A lot of people are finding reasons to not-be-here. And someone from the Raraan Ge tried to have him assassinated three days ago. He killed the assassin, found out who hired them, and called them out for a duel outside the Temple of Mahka. Cut them down with a single blow, that’s what the stories say. I didn’t see it myself because I’m not going anywhere near a magistrate if I can avoid it. He might see I’m not human.”

“Fuck,” Keris moans, her voice modulated a little by the armour. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. You’re right, he’s a shark. He’s the one who was on Triumphant Air when Ligier sent me after Danadu Mara. I barely beat him then, and that was on neutral turf where I didn’t have anything to hide besides Ali and Zanyi. He’s like...” she shakes her head, trembling. “Like Ney, but cruel and not lazy and Dynastic.”

She collapses into a chair, pulling Strigida’s helmet back under her skin but leaving the rest of the armour out. It’s comforting to have it there, a barrier between her and the rest of the world.

“Okay,” she says. “Okay. Okay. You’re right to avoid him. Keep your distance, keep your businesses ticking over, keep him from having any reason to notice us. If he’s here for the sun-child, he’s probably focusing on her temple, we just need to... not stand out. Calesco, you saw fit not to give me advanced warning about this, and you’re the only one apart from me who can hide her essence. Run the Jade Carnation for me, and keep things low-key. As for me...”

She presses her lips together. “I wish I could stay, and send you two away. But it’s hard enough running Little River and Cinnamon normally. I can’t do it at all with a magistrate looking around. And I can’t run our businesses like Haneyl can. So I think Little River needs to announce she’s leaving on a... a trip down south looking for more funds or something, I’ll work out exactly how to phrase it to the Hui Cha later. And Cinnamon can leave a little after that to do a tour of the Anarchy. I was meaning to plant some spies around the big ports anyway, this just... makes it more pressing.”

Meeting first Haneyl, then Calesco’s eyes, Keris bites her lip. “I want you two safe. But I think I need both of you to stay here and run cover or we’ll get caught. Will you promise to flee back into me if he catches you? I’d rather blow our cover in Saata entirely than risk him killing you.”

Haneyl looks outright rebellious. “He is not taking everything I’ve worked so hard for,” she snaps. “That one,” she nods at Calesco, “can make herself useful and body-guard me. And I’m going to get myself a dragonblooded mercenary ‘for protection’. They’re for hire, even if they’re more expensive than I want.”

Keris’s lips thin. “Fine, but... just...” She leans forward and pulls Strigida under her skin to hug Haneyl close. “Be careful, okay?”

Sitting back, she lets out a shaky sigh. “Okay. What else... you said Rathan’s away. Eko... decided to stay in Hell. Well, actually she argued me into letting her spend a season with Asarin instead of the year she wanted and then fucking hid and ignored my Messengers to come back until I had to leave, which...” She bares her teeth, and shoots Calesco another irritated look. “... I will talk to her about whenever I next see her as well, but it’s probably for the best that she’s not here. Zanara, any project you were thinking of for Lilunu that takes place in or around Saata is vetoed until the magistrate is gone.” She turns back to Haneyl. “That leaves Vali. Is he still up in Zen Daiwye?”

The two sisters let out a nearly identical exasperated sigh.

“My little brother has, according to the latest message from Zen Daiwye, run off to become a pirate,” Haneyl says, her tone clipped.

“He’s such an idiot,” Calesco adds. “I checked up on him and he’s still angry about being told off for fighting Kalaska. So he’s going to show us all by becoming a pirate lord.”

“Oh, for...” Keris pinches the bridge of her nose. “No, you know what? Fine. As long as he’s away from Saata, he can run around... punching other pirates, I guess? Whatever. He’s safe, he’s not in town to get Midari’s attention, and he’s probably having fun: that’ll do fine.”

She lets her head fall forward into her hands, and groans again. “Gods. And to think I was hoping for a quiet, peaceful year back home.”

“And I wanted my own Raraan Ge family,” Haneyl sulks. “But I’m not going to make any moves on them when that bastard could stop me getting what should be mine. I... it’s so awful! I don’t even know what’ll draw his attention! What he’s even looking for! And incidentally mama you owe me for all the work I put into correcting your records and laundering your income and training some underlings to run things for you and keeping the real books off site.”

“Get through this year,” Keris tells her fervently, “and I will reward you handsomely enough that you’ll have trouble deciding what to do with all the presents I shower you with. Seriously, you seem to be,” another annoyed look at Calesco, “one of the only two grown-up children I have right now who is not in some kind of trouble. Speaking of which...”

She turns to Zanara. “You wanted to make a big performance for Lilunu. Well, I want you away from Saata, so give me some ideas.”

“I could probably assassinate someone in a really pretty way,” Zanara says from behind their blank mask. A little too eagerly.

“No,” says Keris flatly. “More mysterious deaths or disappearances? With a magistrate around? Absolutely not. Something else.”

“Well, you’re letting Haneyl take over a Raraan Ge house so I should get one too!” Nara flips straight to.

Neither of you is taking over a Raraan Ge house,” Keris says, shooting that one down without even pausing for breath. “Again, magistrate. The Raraan Ge aren’t all in Saata, but they’re still way too close. No, you’re getting outside of Saatan waters. Hmm.” She purses her lips. “Tell you what. You’re good at getting into people’s heads and working out how they think, and I need some good intel on Ta Vuzi. I know the capital and what they’re doing to the city, and I have a foothold in the Righteous Deer monastery, but I don’t know enough about the political scene and the people. Go there, play beastman, snoop around and don’t get caught, and I’ll count that as a season of service for the Lower South-West. And give a glowing report to Lilunu about how much information you brought back.”

“But that’s a miserable wet swamp,” Nara whines.

“An important miserable wet swamp that we’re intending to make prettier,” Keris coaxes. That doesn’t seem to appeal, so she sighs. “And you can choose something pretty to do in Earth while I’m travelling around on tour as Cinnamon.”

“Urgh. Fine.”

It’s perhaps a sign of how tired and stressed Haneyl is that she doesn’t automatically spring to defence of a swamp.

“We just need to keep our heads down and stay out of the way,” Keris says, already feeling the tension and fear settle into her bones. “And wait for him to leave. In a couple of seasons, this will all be over.”

“Are you going to assassinate him?” That’s Calesco, blunt like only she can be.

“No. All that would do is get the Realm to send another - one with more backup. Maybe even a full Brotherhood.” Keris shakes her head. “We keep our heads down, we wait for him to finish his work here and go. And then this will just be a bad memory, and we can go back to normal life.”

Chapter Text

Unfortunately for the demon lord Calesco, the Midnight Whisper who comes to young beautiful women in the witching hour, a normal life means the cruel and savage tyrant who rules her life is back in Saata. For now at least. And she has things to say to her compassion.

At length.

“... irresponsible and selfish,” Keris rants, pacing back and forth in the private cellar of the Jade Carnation they occupy. The statue of Nululi stands in silent repose, hands folded behind her and a stern expression on her face. At this time of day, none of the cult ladies are in attendance, and the only demon present is the penury courtesan Nyquan, who was snacking on a jar of coins when Keris pulled Calesco in and is now surreptitiously trying to wedge himself further behind a pillar while wishing he was anywhere else.

Calesco isn’t actually sure her mother has noticed he’s here yet. She certainly hasn’t acknowledged him at any point in her tirade.

“Haneyl told you to alert me, and you didn’t just refuse, Calesco. You told her you would, to her face, and then pretended you’d done it for nearly two weeks before she realised you’d lied to her. She might have caught Rathan before he left if she’d gone to him earlier! And now there’s a fucking magistrate in the city! And we have no idea where the Solar is! You didn’t just put yourself in danger, you risked Haneyl, Elly, everyone who works for them, everyone who works for Cinnamon, everyone in the Hui Cha - all of the people connected to us are going to die if that man digs up our presence here! Because you were besotted with a girl enough to not even tell me about an Exaltation in my back garden!”

Keris’s feet twist on the carpet as she spins again, arms chopping at the air, hair lashing. The scars on her face stand out stark white against her dark, anger-flushed skin. “What have you got to say for yourself?”

Calesco takes a deep breath. Then, “I wished her to have serenity,” she says. “And I owed her a debt for my actions against her. My service was my duty to her.” Another pause. “As a client.”

There’s a moment of silence as Keris absorbs that. Her jaw ticks, and a spasm ripples along her hair, terminating in a subtle flick at the ends that sends a needle flying across the room to embed itself in the wooden panelling just to the right of Nyquan’s pillar. There’s a startled squeak, and a morbidly curious gold-horned head is quickly yanked back behind cover.

“Client privilege,” says Keris after a moment. Her hair is puffed out like a cat’s tail, but not rearing up above her shoulders yet. “You’re invoking client privilege. That is loopholing, Calesco, and you know it. You also know how I feel about abusing the letter of the rules to compromise their spirit. You didn’t keep it from me because it was your duty as a priestess-trainee, you went looking for a way a priestess-trainee could keep it from me and claim it was duty.”

Calesco indeed knows how her mother feels about it. She feels it’s fair game whenever she does it. However, she’s on thin enough ice right now that she isn’t going to say that out loud.

Instead, she folds her hands together. “After she vanished, nothing would have changed even when you came running back. Haneyl couldn’t find her. And you, mother, are not Ney. You told us all before you left that you had important things you needed to do in Hell. You would have gained nothing and lost much if you had come running back. Especially,” she emphasis, “if you came back, knives out, consumed by fear for us.”

Keris’s lips thin, and her eyes narrow, but Calesco knows her mother and the way Keris’s hair drops a little from its puffed-up state tells her that she’s scored a point.

“That doesn’t explain why you sent me nothing,” Keris says, quieter but not quite willing to let go of her anger yet. “Not even a heads-up that there’d been some developments and that I should come in quietly. Nothing about the magistrate - who very much was a threat I should have come running back for. Gods, Calesco, Ragara Midari...”

Her hair contracts again, wrapping around her, and the feathered cape she’s turned her armour into over Calibration flows out to coat her skin in a thick, protective layer of moonsilver.

“... he scares me,” Keris admits. “He’s like Ney. But an enemy.”

Calesco swallows. Now things have let down the tensions, she can be more honest. “He scares Haneyl too. A lot,” she says. “She hasn’t even made jokes about sleeping with him.”

“Yeah. Think about that. Think about the fact that in Triumphant Air I went up against him with Rathan’s innocence and blame-shifting, Haneyl and Zanara’s artistry in warping wood and flesh to fake a narrative, Dulmea’s experience and your lies, when he didn’t even know he had an opponent, and he still almost saw through my frame job. If I’d arrived even a couple of days later, he’d have wrapped up Danadu Mara before I could have done a thing about it. And now this man is here. In our city. Where we have secrets to protect.”

Keris shivers. “And you didn’t tell me, Calesco. Both you and Haneyl were in danger, and I didn’t even know.”

“But this is Saata,” Calesco says. “And even Ney couldn’t unpick all the sins of this city. And we’re not even poking him. There are many, many high class bordellos in Saata - and he hasn’t even shown his face here. Not even when on a break.”

Sighing, Keris stops pacing and flops down at the feet of Nululi’s statue, leaning back against its legs and tipping her head back to look up at her lady’s face.

“I’m still not happy with you right now,” she says. “I won’t be for quite a while. Nyquan, stop hiding and fetch me a drink, would you? I’m not going to do any more shouting.” She shoots a glance at Calesco. “Unless there are any more nasty surprises you’ve been waiting to drop on me?”

Calesco winces. That Keris is referencing Chir so bluntly is definitely a sign that she’s pissed, even if her overt rage seems to have burnt out. She usually avoids the subject of Calesco’s knife in the back in the fae city entirely - or awkwardly forgives her for it when it does come up.

Harsh truths are her nature, though. “Not of the same league,” she says. “But your Saatan Ladies are getting ambitious. You’ve been neglecting them. And, well...” She explains the situation, how some of them have been looking for power in places outside of Keris’s cult. Trying to advance their promised spiritual development faster. To secure more occult lore for them and their sisters in demon-worship.

Fortunately, Keris’s only reaction to that is to wrinkle her nose and sigh. “Yeah,” she says. “I wish I could say I was surprised, but I’m... really not. Scarlet Blossom, right? And probably Smiling Steel, and I bet Second Harmony’s recovered some of that ambition she had when she tried to muscle in on us.”

She rolls her head against the statue’s legs, tilting it to the side and pursing her lips. “Well,” she muses, “I guess I’ve been meaning to let them meet their lady for a while now. I’ll let them know that they’ve proved themselves enough, and that if they free up a couple of weeks over Calibration I’ll have them taken safely to Hell and presented to their lady, or...” she waves a hand, “whatever. I’ll dress it up a bit, but yeah. Testolagh always spends as little time as possible in Hell, I can have him bring them back on the Baisha if they can’t free up much time, or bring them back myself if they can. Then present them to Lilunu and... well, after meeting her I very much doubt they’ll dare look for power elsewhere.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Calesco asks, in a way that leaves no doubt that she thinks it’s a bad idea. “What if one of them tries to back out when she realises what’s going on? Hell is... a lot.”

That’s not the real reason she doesn’t like this. She hates Hell, and she hates its rulers. She doesn’t like the gods, but her mother’s masters are even crueller and more callous. She doesn’t want even these Hui Cha ladies actively being brought into its knowing service. And that’s what it would be. Right now the demons they consort with might as well be gods and elementals.

Keris shrugs unconcernedly. “They already know Nululi’s a demon princess; that’s been no secret for a while. I’ll keep them inside until we get to the Conventicle, and the only demons they’ll meet will be my house staff and Lilunu. If any of them get cold feet on the way there, it’s a long walk back - and after they meet Lilunu, they’ll be too awed and overwhelmed for second thoughts.”

Calesco sighs. Her feelings about Lilunu are... complicated. Because she’s a princess of Hell. She’s spoiled, indulgent, and cruel in her thoughtlessness. She owns slaves. She takes nice things from the exploited masses of Hell, and uses them for petty fripperies. The wealth that Lilunu blows on her art and her entertainment and just one Calibration party could make life better for uncounted demons. Everyone in Saata could live like princes easily with the wealth she tosses around on her... her foolishness.

She should hate Lilunu.

And yet. Lilunu doesn’t mean to do any wrong. She’s foolish, but she’s ignorant in her unthinking cruelty. There’s no malice in her beauty. And so Calesco is more charitable to her than Lilunu deserves. And her mother loves Lilunu.

... Keris’s feelings there are complicated too. Calesco barely avoids wincing openly. If nothing else, Keris loves Lilunu enough to assume others will, just as much as she does. Granted she’s probably not wrong, in the case of mortals, but it’s still a blind spot. One fed by Keris’s fierce belief that Lilunu is more than the spoilt idle princess Calesco frankly thinks she is, and that she deserves more respect than she gets from the other demon princes.

It’s going to cause trouble someday, Calesco has no doubt. But talking her mother out of it is futile. Enough that she hasn’t even bothered trying.

“I guess I’ll have to leave Strigida with you when I go,” Keris murmurs, sitting up with a sigh. The armoured carapace melts back into her skin, reforming into tattoos. “Or just keep it as a feathered cape whenever I wear it as Cinnamon and make you a copy out of normal silver. We’ll see.”

Calesco can’t help but smile at that. Her mother has been very clear that Haneyl never gets to touch Strigida. And Calesco thinks she can have fun with moonsilver-tattoos as her lie-veils. What mother doesn’t have to know about won’t concern her.

“Huh,” Keris grunts, pausing mid-stride. “Actually. I know you’re not one to be impressed by armour that changes shape,” she nods at Calesco veil. “But... Haneyl didn’t even comment. I’m not sure she even noticed, beyond a glance.” She frowns. “Shit. She really has been stressed this past season, hasn’t she?”

With a sigh, Calesco fiddles with one lock of hair. “She isn’t like me or Eko,” she says. “She doesn’t thrive at the edge of a knife. She knuckles down and works hard and cuts back on all her indulgences, but it burns her down. Isn’t it amazing that she’s spent nearly an entire season on her feet rather than on her back?” Calesco inhales. “Uh, that just slipped out.”

Keris throws a disapproving glance at her, which shifts into faint distraction.

Except, wait. No. It’s not distraction. It’s discomfort, quickly swallowed and hidden under a well-faked pretence of wandering thoughts.

Which means her mother is hiding something. Something that just came up, something related to what Calesco just said. Something she specifically doesn’t want Calesco knowing, or she wouldn’t have hidden her reaction.

Calesco feels her cheeks warm up. Okay. Okay. So her mother either slept with someone she’s embarrassed about, or she’s going to sleep with someone or... or...

“A whole season on her feet rather than her back,” she says slowly, teasing out the words to see what her mother says. She crosses her arms and gives her a glare.

Keris’s jaw clenches minutely. The rest of her face stays impassive, but Calesco is watching the hair and the hands. And those tell the real story. Locks twisting into knots at the ends of her braid, her fingers curling slightly around phantom knife hilts. The faintest bend to her knees, shifting weight forward onto the balls of her feet.

Defensive tells.

Inhaling, Calesco forces down the nearly-overwhelming compulsion to cut through her mother’s lies with sharp and bright words. This is a situation for oozing softness. “As your apprentice,” she says, lowering her voice, “do you... have a long-duration contract that will require me to mind the Carnation for you?”

A moment passes.

Then Keris’s shoulders slump.

“It won’t be this year,” she says. “But yes. Claudia came to me and offered a season-long contract on the Street of Golden Lanterns, and... on the balance of things, I decided it would be best to accept.” She avoids Calesco’s eyes. “There are financial reasons to do it. Ipithymia offered a lot of funding for the Lower South West, and... Claudia has records of the Daiwye clan. But more importantly, it’ll let me get in close with Unquestionable. Probably quite a lot of Unquestionable. And I’m still not confident about our chances in the vote on your status.”

“Hell means nothing to me. Less than nothing,” Calesco says. “You don’t need to do this to yourself for me. For us. We can leave that place behind.” She inhales, feeling suddenly and strangely tight in the chest. “You... you don’t need to be Kit again. Not... not for any reason.” Her eyes are stinging.

“Hell has Sasi,” Keris says softly, and needs say nothing more. There are two ways to parse the sentence, and Calesco knows her mother didn’t mean the nice one. She can almost hear the word “hostage” trailing those three words.

“S-Sasi is soft. Pliable. Mother, you could break her loyalty to Hell, you could.” She’s begging and she’s not entirely sure why. Just that her thoughts are all in a whir and it hurts her and she doesn’t want to see her mother hurt in this way and this is all her fault for making her accept her history with Gull but she wasn’t meant to do something like this and... and...

“Eventually, yes,” Keris agrees. “But not soon. Not soon enough. And Hell has Lilunu as well, and her I can’t convince and steal away.” She pauses again, head tilting... but lets the thought go, for now. “It’s okay, Calesco. It’s just work. It won’t... it won’t be like it was in Nexus.” Her lips twitch. “I’ll be a lot better paid, for one. And I’ll have some choice in my clients, too. And it’ll just be for a season.”

Her arms come around Calesco gently, pulling her into a hug. She hadn’t even noticed Keris coming over.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Keris murmurs. “It’s not your fault.”

“It is. You’re doing this for me and I don’t want it and... and,” she lets out a shuddery gasp, sparkling white tears soaking into her veil, “and Eko wouldn’t want it either. Or Vali. And if Rathan knew he wouldn’t want you to do it. And... and what if the Street gets her hooks into you and then a new sister shows up and she starts making you someone I don’t want you to be but I can’t want a sister dead and-and-and...”

“Trust me to stay safe,” Keris says firmly. “And trust me to care for my family. I know adding any more of you would unbalance me, so I won’t let her do that.” She smiles, self-effacing. “I can guard my mind, you know. I know I don’t always, but I can. Besides.” She taps her scar. “If she gets too pushy about trying to change me, I’ll remind her that her brother doesn’t want me on his layer for a reason. Ipithymia’s not stupid. She wants me for a season, not forever.”

She claps. “Now. If I’m going to be spending a lot of time away from the Carnation over the next couple of years, I need to leave it in better shape. I have been neglecting it a bit, and part of that is how it’s getting by on headline acts. My staff need training. Serious training. I’m going to pick the ones who cover the most hours and put them through hell for a season, like I did at Shining Foam. Maybe two, if I take the best of them on tour. Want to come with me and pick out our young trainees, Black Shawl?”

Calesco takes a shuddering breath, wiping her wet veil on her sleeve. “I... give me a moment to clean myself up. And remember, quite a few of your girls have children. I know I’ve made sure that the Carnation offers its people childcare, but remember that.”

“I know,” Keris nods. “Hmm. Actually, speaking of Kit. We’ve got the soup kitchen and the childcare, but I bet there are little things we can do, too. Like... stools behind anything with a counter, so they can sit down instead of standing their whole shift. Quick and easy snacks for them to grab while they’re working - stuff they can bolt down quickly, and time to do it. Maybe cots in a back room somewhere for when you’re dead on your feet and need to crash for an hour and make up time later.” She taps her lips. “Good shoes, too. I remember hating mine when I was on my feet all day, and sandals are easy and quick to size. Giving them all something comfortable to wear for their shift will make them look better and feel better. Mama, could you write this stuff down? Yeah, I know, it’s just easier if I can talk out loud. Thanks. Okay, what else...”

Listening to her mother prattle on about the thousand tiny inconveniences of waiting tables and working bars and how they might be remedied, Calesco concentrates on making herself look presentable.

At least the Carnation can be kind to those who work there. Even if they are about to be put through unexpected hell by a slavedriver of a teacher.

Hundreds of miles to the west of Saata, close to where the world broke down into madness and fluid chaos, the demon lord Rathan was getting some time away from his slave-driving mother and the general slave-driving attitudes of people who kept on wanting him to do things. Well, technically Oula was there, but what she wanted to do didn’t count as ‘slave-driving’ because what she mostly wanted him to do was her.

Sprawled out on a rock under the warm sun, he listens to the message from his mother and shakes his head.

“Well, looks like they’re in it over there. I guess I’m just going to have to keep on being on holiday. No Dragonblooded magistrates will be able to notice us if we’re over here.”

Oula gives him a sharp look. “You’re not thinking of helping Aunty Keris?”

“She can help herself. She gets over-confident if there’s too many of us around. And Haneyl spent most of last year lazing around, so it’s her turn to get worked to the bone by mama.”

Oula considers that for a moment, and tips her head. “I suppose you have a point,” she agrees. Shifting over, she lays her head in his lap, her pupils shifting to little hearts. “Does that mean we have the rest of the year off on holiday, then? What shall we do~?”

Rathan smiles down at her. “Well, obviously we can spend time together,” he says, stroking a few pink strands of hair out of her face. “But I think I’d like to do some studying, too. You mentioned you want to do some more sorcery. And...” he looks out at the sea, “I’ve been thinking. Haneyl has a dragon form. So does Vali. So does Kalaska, apparently, and she’s not even one of us. Even you have your - lovely - dolphin form. So I might have a form like that I can take. An orca. I want to see if I’m right.”

“You could be a dolphin, you know,” she points out, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know why you’d want to be something other than a dolphin. Which is, I hasten to add, better in every way than anything Mele can do.”

“No, I want to be an orca.” He sighs wistfully. “They’re so pretty. And if I was a dolphin, Haneyl would just use being bigger as an excuse to bully me.” A thought occurs to him, and he cocks his head. “Didn’t you mention something about wanting to try making another spell?”

Oula grins. “Aunty Keris is really into the way the Saatan temples do things. So I’m going to make a new spell for her. Something to prove to her that I’m her disciple, not just her student. And also to show up your sister.” She balls her fists. “Haneyl is more driven than you - sorry, Rathie, but it’s true - so I need to keep her under me so I’m always Aunty Keris’s best student. And unlike her I don’t have the advantage of being born a demon lord.”

He leans down to kiss her on the forehead. “You’re beautiful and brilliant enough that you don’t need crutches like that,” he praises. “Alright then. I’ll work on seeing if I have an orca form, and you can plan out your spell. Do you want any help?” He raises his hands quickly at her raised eyebrow, grinning. “Not that I think you’re incapable! I know you’re better than me. But it was fun making the Rime-Winged Gull with you.”

“I need to make it on my own,” Oula says fiercely. “As my mastery project, as Aunty Keris would put it.”

“Alright then.” Rathan kisses her again. “In that case, we can keep sailing for another month or two and then find a nice island to put in at when you get to the point of doing testing. And I can talk to the orcamen tribes some more. I bet I can learn a lot from studying how their bodies work, and they’ll probably be sympathetic to how I’m an orca god whose,” he sniffs, tears coming to his eyes, “cruel and envious swamp-dragon sister locked me in this two-legger form and sealed away my power.”

Her look is adoring, playful, and carries just a hint of eye-rolling. “We can maybe find a small isle nearby where I can build us a holiday home,” she suggests. “It’d be so much easier if we could get Aunty Keris to give us a sorcerer’s sanctum, but I guess we’ll just have to rough it.” Her tone of voice is deliberately mocking Sasi and her accent. “Sleeping under the same seaweed sheets. Waking up with the sun.” She snuggles up to him. “Me having to wear your robes because all my other clothes are wet.”

“Mmm. Sounds like fun.” Rathan pulls her fully onto his lap, and leans back against his rock. Life is good. And looks to stay good for the next few months. A nice change from the last couple of years, even if things are getting a bit hairy over in Saata.

He just hopes his little brother is having a good time off on his own holiday.

Vali is not having a good time. Not one bit.

It had started so well. He’d run away from Zen Daiwye, which is basically like running away from home. After only getting a bit lost, he made his way to the coast, and then lied that he was a sailor looking for work and signed on with a ship. Of course, they thought they were keeping him for years and years, but he didn’t feel like there was any need to tell them how wrong they were. He’d worked his way down the coast and then across to the island to the south of Shuu Mua, that he doesn’t know the name of. Then a pirate ship had pulled into port, and it had been a way better boat and the captain had been wearing a really badass coat and hat.

So of course Vali had challenged him to a duel, and won, and now he was the captain. And also had the coat and hat. And he’d made them turn their flag into a dragon. All important things for being a pirate.

Only - just like mum before him - he’s finding that being an actual pirate captain is really hard work.

“How hard is it to work out where we are?” he yells at his first mate, who has at least earned his respect for being tough enough to stand up to him about stuff, even if most of it is boring. “We’ve passed two islands in the last two days! Just find which ones they are on the map!”

“Captain, we’ve just been followin’ your orders,” the first mate says, hands folded behind his back. “You’re the captain. And a mighty powerful spirit too.”

Vali’s orders have mostly, so far, consisted of sailing around trying to find ships to plunder. It’s a lot harder than mum always made it look. “Fine,” he huffs. “Just... figure out where we are. And find us a port! We probably need to put in for supplies soon.” That’s definitely something he remembers mum complaining about.

“Course, capt’n. As you say!” He salutes him, and wanders off back to the pointy end of the boat.

Vali turns back to the wheel, grips it piratically for a bit, and then gets bored and hands it over to the helmsman. With a flash of light and a thundering boom, he leaps up to the crow’s nest and glowers out at the horizon.

He’ll show his family. He’ll show them all. He’s not going to stay at home and get put down and insulted for the Kalaska thing anymore. If they’re not going to let it go, he’ll just have to show them how good he is without their stupid rules. Do something awesome. Find something super valuable. Beat up some great enemy. And then make sure they know it was all him, so they have to beg him to come back and stop telling him off.

All he needs to do is find something to set himself against.

Ascending Water comes and goes, and the days of Resplendent Water follow it. And in them, the staff of the Jade Carnation are of divided mind. On the one hand, their employer is wonderful. Rich and high-society Cinnamon may be, but she seems to have someone on her staff who’s worked the floors of bars and casinos before, because she’s instituted a host of little changes that improve their lives in a myriad of ways. Free meals for each shift, and time to eat them during breaks. An in-house medical staff who give regular check-ups, and refer any recurrent bruises to the dark-skinned foreign women who work as bouncers and security for the club. A barracks near the club with clean, dry, mould-free beds and discount rent for her workers. Even Maiden’s Tea for all her workers - not just the women who work in the bedrooms, but anyone who wants it. Yes, in terms of job perks and caring for her employees, Tenné Cinnamon is a fantastic boss.

But when it comes to job training, she is brutal. For the past season she’s been forcing everyone who works with customers directly through an accelerated course of study in the arts of love, seduction and flattery. She drills them on how to judge what a client likes, picking out those who like slender girls from those whose eyes stray to broad-chested boys and zeroing in on the ones they best appeal to. She teaches them to project sincerity and earnestness until even the most jaded customer believes they genuinely like him for who he is, despite the coin he’s paying for attendance. She instructs them on how to tempt and tantalise, offering things that the proud nobles of Saata would normally think beneath them with enough allure that they go the extra mile - and spend the extra money - on the Carnation’s full range of delights.

While they learn fast, there’s only so much they can take. And so, halfway through Rising Air, Keris decides to give them a break for a few days by going to visit her family up in Zen Daiwye.

((Keris is getting them trained up in MBD and then pushing them to 3 dots of Cerulean Paramour so she can start on their Abilities once it’s mastered.))

It is perhaps a sign of how long Keris has spent in Saata by this point that the uplands feel cool. She finds herself reaching for a shawl to wrap around her shoulders because she’s feeling a bit chilly.

And of course, Evedelyl is here to make sure she wears that shawl rather than try to tough it out.

“Is there any word from Vali?” her towering soul asks, concern clear in her motherly tone. “I don’t know what he’s doing, running away like this!”

“Calesco checked up on him,” Keris groans. “He complained about everyone being ‘completely unfair about the Kalaska thing’ and tried to punch her out of the dream. Apparently he’s trying to become a pirate lord. I asked Rathan to keep an eye out, but honestly, there’s not much in the Sunset Sea that can stand up to him and he can get away if he finds himself in serious trouble. And as long as he’s sailing around trying to be a pirate, he’s not at risk from the magistrate and won’t go knocking on Kalaska’s temple anymore. I think it’ll be best to just let him work it out of his system - though I’ll see if I can run into him when I’m sailing around the Anarchy in Earth.”

She tucks her hair back. “Apart from my wayward son, how is everyone? Is Kalaska back to where she was before Vali poked his head in? Sasi’s looking forward to taking a break after this assassination I have in Water, I think.”

“Some days better, some days worse,” Evedleyl says gravely. “She seems back to almost normal around her keruby, but Vali has wounded her ability to trust anyone more powerful than her, or even an equal. And she did not extend much trust there in the first place.”. She draws a big breath. “She knows Vali is a reflection of you. He hurt her ability to trust you either.”

Keris swears, low and bitter. “Okay. Okay, I’ll... go and see her, I suppose. Rrrgh.” Her fists clench, and her hair lashes angrily. “Damn Vali for this. Seriously, it was the worst... urgh. Maybe... maybe if I tell her about Pekhijira. How there’s part of me that’s scared and wants to hide away from the world all the time as well. Maybe that will help. And I brought back some Cecelynite and Pyrian hearthstones for her fox to eat, so that might at least win me an audience.”

She drags a hand down her face. “If it comes to it, I’ll force Vali to apologise to her properly and let her set a punishment. We can’t make her trust us - only show that we’re serious about respecting her boundaries and asking her to. And I think she’s happier here with her keruby than she would be in Sasi’s inner world, at least.”

“In that sense, you’re right.” Evedleyl exhales a deep, rumbling sigh. “The keruby talk to me. They hear her muttering and read her scrawls. She is not so surprised to have directed such violence against another demon lord. They say she has done so many times before.”

“... do they now,” Keris murmurs. “Interesting. I’ll ask Seresa about that when I’m back in Saata, if I can corner her.” Sasi’s more indulgent soul has been avoiding Keris ever since she started training her staff at the Carnation, possibly out of fear that Keris will apply the same slavedriver intensity to making her improve.

She shakes the thought off as they come around the riverbend to Ahangar House. “Well, that can wait,” she adds. “Are Ali and Hanily home, at this time of day? What’s Kuha up to?”

“Kuha has taken Meji with her and the two of them are examining the countryside east of here,” Evedleyl says, clearly more happy to be changing topics. She catches Keris’s look. “The hungry one,” she prods her. “He has red skin and white hair, and was once a szel. They’re looking for nesting sites that they can move the birds to, preferably before next Calibration. The end of the year drove the birds mad, she says.”

“Damn,” Keris mutters. “Yeah, I remember, vaguely. Rounen gave me a report on it. Something about the valley not being real enough and them being smart enough to work it out?” She lets Evedelyl pick her up and cross the stepping stones to the island with four or five great strides. “Alright, I’ll tell Rounen to remind me to look at the place once they’ve picked something out and got a structure set up. Then with a bit of luck we can mutate the birds bigger next year and get our flight corps up and airborne.”

She hops down, cocking an ear, and trots over to the sound of ironwork she can hear from the forge without waiting for Evedelyl to address her brother. “Ali! Hanily! Come give me a hug, I just got in from Saata and I’m all cold and tired!”

Hanily is sitting outside the forge, kicking her legs as she reads a book. From the paper and the general style Keris is sure it’s szirom-written, which means it’s likely low in things a little girl should be learning, but rich in dramatic duels, explosions and praise for Haneyl. She’s momentarily almost off balance that her niece - who looks so much like her - got something as expensive as a book as a present, but of course, sziroms consider books about as common and important to have as food.

“Aunty Keris, you’re back!” she cheers. “Are we going back to play with the twins and Aiko?”

“Not today, sweetie,” Keris says, picking her up and twirling her around. “Aiko’s off with her daddy and the twins are back in Saata - I’m just here for a quick visit. How are you? Having fun? Learning a lot?” She raises a teasing eyebrow. “Sweeping out the forges enough?”

Hanily rolls her eyes. “There’s always too much sweeping,” she says in a weary tone. “But daddy is being a lot more easygoing about it since he started going on walks with Hilthr. So that’s good. It lets me read more. Do you know that if you grind up flowers really fine and mix it with scorchberry juice, it makes something that goes ‘boom!’ if you set some Valiant sparkbronze on it? I want to try it and see if I can blow up a swamp dragon!”

Keris freezes. Not because her niece is apparently getting ideas about playing with explosives from the szirom books she’s reading - although, uh, that probably is something she should do something about - but rather because...

“Hilthr?” she asks, carefully keeping her feelings off her face. “Who’s that, honey? I don’t think we’ve met yet.”

Hanily pulls a face. “She’s a lady from one of the villages,” she informs her aunt. “He met her at the Calibration party stuff. She’s got a baby boy but no husband. He cries a lot. Daddy and her are going on walks.”

“I... ah... huh. Okay. Okay,” Keris says, feeling dizzy and faintly sick. “How... where...” She pauses, hair fluttering. “I’ll... I’ll be sure to ask him about that.” She ducks into the forge before Hanily can reply, looking for her brother.

Ali is at the forge, working on what looks like part of a fence. Right now he has a cherry red piece of metal held in a vice, and is slowly twisting it so there’s a spiral in the bar.

“Ali!” Keris calls once he’s put it back into the forge to heat. “Good to see you again!” She swallows down a dry throat. “What’s this I hear about you going on walks with a lady?”

He finishes what he’s doing, and only then more than grunts at her. His brow is drenched, and he ladles water from a nearby barrel onto himself to cool off.

“Oh. What’s the matter, Keris? Nice to see you.” He deliberately pauses. “And yes. Hilthr is her name. She’s really sweet. And a widow.” He gives Keris a meaningful look, that speaks volumes about the fact that he, unlike his sister, won’t sleep with a married woman.

She fidgets, uncertain and off-put by the quiet judgement. “Are you... I mean, I’m happy if you’re happy, but... is Hanily alright with it, and is it... are you sure you’re ready to...”

She can’t tell him what she really objects to. She can’t tell him about the fact that Hilthr may be a widow - albeit one whose husband may never have existed outside the Shaped history of this place - but Ali is not a widower. But without being able to bring up Zanyi, her hesitance trips over itself and goes in circles and makes her stumble with clumsy words.

“I know I’ve always been single since as long as you’ve known me,” he says. “But you brought us here to live, Hanily and me. To live, not just to be your charity cases. And Hanily deserves to have a mother around. Hilthr is kind, and sweet, and she’s a weaver. The best in the village, I’d say.” He pauses. “I’ll always have time for you. I’m not going to vanish. You’re still family.”

Keris worries her lip and knots her hair. Ali seems happy. Ali seems happy, and he wants a normal life, and... and Zanyi won’t ever come back and have that with him, and he doesn’t even remember her, but she remembers him and this will hurt her when she finds out, but making him stay single his whole life for a wife he thinks died years ago would be cruel, but...

She pulls on Cinnamon like a protective coat, and smiles up at him, wrapping her arms around him in a hug.

“I’m glad you’re happy, Ali,” her mouth says as she buries her head in his chest. “And I know you’ll always be there for me. I guess I just... didn’t really expect it.”

He hugs her back, and behind her smiling mask she squirms. “Okay!” she says a little too loudly, pulling back. “I can see you’ve still got work to do, and I’m tired from the trip up, so I’m just going to... to turn in early and get some sleep, and tomorrow we can go out and you can introduce me to her and I can visit Kalaska and everything. Love you!”

Beating a hasty retreat, Keris escapes up onto the roof of the compound and secrets herself away in the water tank, ignoring the izsangols that clean the river water that’s pumped up here. Curling around herself, she gnaws on her lip until it nearly breaks skin and tries to figure out what to do.

Because her brother is... is courting again. Her family is changing shape. But there’s one member left out who won’t know, and who deserves to. And who she can’t risk contacting by any means that can be tracked.

“Mama?” she whispers, barely audible. “If I’m really careful to avoid anything about work or what I’m doing or anything professional... would you get mad if I sent Zanyi a dream to let her know? She deserves to know. It’s her family too.”

“Of course I would,” Dulmea says, but there’s a weariness to her tone. “She is an agent of Heaven, Keris, and you are a - mostly - loyal servant of Hell. But since you’re going to do it anyway because you consider her family, let’s talk first about what you’re going to say and at what point you’re going to pull out of the dream.”

“I’ll... I’ll only tell her about Ali. That he’s met someone and... that he seems happy. Oh, and Hanily. Just stuff about how she’s doing and that she’s grown so much and she’s reading and, um.” Keris shifts in the water, her hair cocooning her. “I won’t tell her about making the valley, or where we are. Or about anything I’ve done for Hell, or anything going on in Saata, or Sasi.”

“And if she asks about your children? As she is likely to?”

Keris’s eyebrows draw together. “Um...” On the one hand, she shouldn’t talk about what they’re doing if it intersects with her work. On the other hand... can it hurt to say that Calesco is still playing the romantic lover in the night to a succession of girls, or that Kali is putting adorable levels of enthusiasm into her morning exercises with mama?


“I’ll make sure not to let any details about what they’re doing slip! General stuff only. Like that they’re happy, or a bit stressed, or that I’m a bit annoyed at them at the moment. Nothing she could get anything useful from.” Keris pouts sulkily. “Not that I think she’d use it. She said she was trusting me with Ali and Hanily. And if she’d told anyone what she already knew when she disappeared, we’d have seen a heavenly legion dropped on Saata by now.”

“I don’t want you doing this,” Dulmea says. “I just want to lay my objections here. And... try to be sensible insofar as you are capable of doing that when family comes up.”

Wrapping her arms around herself, Keris gives her mother a mental embrace.

“I promise, mama. I’ll try.”

Then she closes her eyes, and lets her flesh come apart into dreams.

Darkness, without form. But by now Keris is practiced at this. She can still feel the pressure of the water and her embrace, and so water surrounds her skin. A graceful flick of hair extracts her from her curled-up position, and her feet find the bottom of a tank that’s there because she expects it to be.

She surfaces into a world of night. Red and white stars glimmer over the valley whose distant slopes are nothing but shadowy backdrops across a river of tar, and where everything is painted red, white and black. The wind ruffles Keris’s hair with a whisper of distant laughter as she stands on the roof of Ahangar House, under the moonless heavens of her inner world.

Down below, movement follows sound. Hanily, running around the yard, playing with a fem and two orvens. It’s not her real niece, but it’s a perfect likeness of her, a lone splash of colour in a monochrome-and-scarlet world, replaying memories Keris has seen from this very spot.

It’s a small dream she’s built this time. A family home on an island in a painted valley with no identifying features, under heavens that hold no recognisable stars. But it’s enough to give Zanyi a look at how fast her daughter is growing, from a distance.

Keris winds up the tension in the structure of the dream, and releases it to seek out its subject.

Time passes. Keris isn’t sure exactly how much, because a dream has a fleeting-at-best association with time, but it feels longer than usual. She lodges in her target, though, and that’s when she becomes truly aware once more.

Zanyira is looking... well. She’s looking well. Her hair has regrown back to shoulder length, she’s more toned, and she’s wearing a long silk nightdress that looks a bit like some of the pieces that Keris has seen in Sasi’s wardrobe.

But in this world that’s red and black and white, her eyes are soft and gentle green and shine like emeralds. “Hi, Keris,” she says, leaning against a wall. “So you have missed me, little cousin.”

Keris had thought she was prepared for seeing her again. She’s not. Before she knows it, she’s lunged over to hug Zanyi tightly. In fact, from the way her cousin makes little wheezing noises and scrabbles at her shoulders, she perhaps hugs her a little tighter than necessary.

“Of course I missed you,” she sniffs, loosening her grip a bit. “I mean, you... y-you ran off and left me as head of the family. Stupid. Should’ve known I’m not suited for that kind of thing.” She draws back, looking Zanyi over carefully. “You’re...” she hesitates. “... well? Your heart’s still fine? No injuries?” A brief, tense pause. “The, um. The birth went okay?”

“Oh yes. It’s always easier when you’re chosen, trust me,” Zanyi says, with the voice of long experience. “He came out like a pea from a pod. His name is Darius. Named for my father - your uncle. And Kiss, you should know that our bodies don’t bruise or break that easily. Everything got fixed up when I remembered who I was.”

“Well excuse me for worrying!” Keris pouts. “Okay, so. We both have to be careful what we say, obviously - but if we’re just sharing family news that’s not at all job-related, it’s just personal time, right? And, uh. It’s family news I’ve got.” She nods down towards the yard, where Hanily and the keruby are playing something that involves a lot of kicking a leather ball around and trying to hit each other with sticks. Or possibly hit each other’s sticks with sticks, since very few of the blows seem aimed to connect. “Good news first. Hanily’s getting ever-bigger and ever-brighter.” She pauses, and frowns. “And ever-brattier. I heard her trying to make a bet with Haneyl about how old she’d be when she overtook me, last year.”

“You mean my daughter hasn’t done so already?” Zanyi asks with a faint smile.

Keris glares. “I am not,” she emphasises, “that short. She’s still only up to my, uh,” she drops her voice and coughs. “... shoulder. Chin. Area.”

“There, there,” Zanyi reassures her. “Let’s be honest, Kiss. You could be taller if you wanted to be. But you like acting offended when people you love jibe at your height.”

“Hmph,” Keris grumbles, although she doesn’t actually refute the statement. “Anyway. The other thing...”

She sighs, and screws her eyes shut so she doesn’t have to watch Zanyi’s face change.

“Ali... met someone.”

“Oh.” Complicated expressions flash across Zanyi’s face. Sorrow, acceptance, anger - and relief. “It was going to happen sooner or later.”

“It’s recent,” Keris reassures her, one eye cracked open. “This Calibration just gone, apparently. She sounds... nice. Not as clever or witty as you, but someone he can be happy with.” She bites her lip. “I’m sorry, Zanyi. I mean, I know it was going to... but it must still hurt. And, well. I thought you deserved to know.”

She spreads her hands, acceptance the mask she wears. “He’s still a good man. And he deserves to get to live a life not weighed down by a sick wife, or with his memories hiding me away so he thinks he’s been single since I - probably died in childbirth, yes?” She wraps her arms around Keris, clearly not as okay with it as she’s trying to act. “It’s like you and your dad,” she says. “You said he had a new life and you wanted to let him have it. It’s the same for me. Always is, really. It’s why they try to find us before we get too old.”

Keris wraps her up in another embrace, this one less forceful, and lets her sniffle for a while.

“The twins are doing well,” she says, to break the silence and give Zanyi something else to think about. “I’ve started Kali on morning exercises with mama to let some of her energy out, and she’s much better behaved for it. And some meditation in the evening with Ogin, when he feels like it. They’re not causing nearly as much mischief now. Atiya’s doing well, too. Very focused on fashion. Her dolls have more outfits than some nobles do.”

“That’s nice,” Zanyi tells her. “Let me tell you; training isn’t easy when you have a newborn to look after. And training is never easy when they’re getting you back up to speed. It was the same for you, I bet.”

“My first few months of training were certainly Hellish,” Keris tells her with a straight face.

“I think I remember you saying that, yes,” her cousin says. She looks around the dream. “Is this a new trick? I’ve never seen you do this before.”

“It doesn’t look nearly as impressive from the outside,” says Keris drily. “And I don’t need it very often. I never really had to send you a dream when I could just stick my head in at the townhouse in Saata. But it’s nice to be able to talk to someone properly instead of just trading messengers - and a dream is private. No chance of listening ears.”

She prods Zanyi in the side. “And quit trying to worm secrets out of me. I said no talking about work. Keep going like this and I’ll decide I’m still offended that you broke into my lab at Silver Lotus.”

“I’m just... concerned, because I’ve seen this trick before. Or something a lot like it.” Zanyi meets her eyes, and shakes her head. “Poor Marus.”

Try as she might, Keris can’t hide the flinch. And Zanyi’s sharp, sharp eyes are on her, perhaps because with her new understanding she knows Keris’s powers have some connection to the Silent Wind - and Keris thinks she sees something behind the simple recognition of the name. Zanyi doesn’t say anything about it, though. “Well, I’m sure you won’t be using it for those purposes,” she says lightly. “How’s Xasan doing, anyway?”

“Good!” Keris clears her throat. “Yes. Good. He’s, um, been spending time out and about. Fishing, drinking. Quite a few arguments with the Lionesses. I think he’s found a place for himself, one he can be happy with as he gets older. And, well. You know Xasan. He’s not fully happy unless he can be a bit grumpy at things sometimes.”

“Hah! You’re not wrong!”

They talk further of family and inconsequential things, under the bright and crimson stars in this shadow-valley with the wind always blowing. Below them, the little girl runs and plays in the three-colour yard, and demonic companions come out to join her and return inside. The sun never rises, and the sky never brightens, but eventually they feel the dawn approaching nonetheless, and run out of shallow things to talk about.

“Will I see you again?” Keris asks, looking at Zanyi sidelong. It’s a question she’s been sidling up to for a while but not quite daring to voice. “Outside dreams, I mean. We all miss you - those of us who remember you. And things are... tense, with us on different sides, but if we’re careful we don’t necessarily have to be enemies. If I got along with Ney, I can certainly make a space for meeting family on neutral ground.”

“I... don’t know.” Zanyi purses her lips. “It’ll be hard. I’m not in the South West at the moment, and questions will be asked if I show up in another Department’s area of operations. And neither of us want questions asked. Things are even more complicated right now, because the Realm is dying and - though I’m not asking you to confirm anything - I’d bet you a talent your lot are pushing hard for that. Between the Solars and the Abyssals, everyone is working overtime to try to handle the damage they’re doing to Fate.” Again, the look Keris gets is something of Zanyi knowing - but not saying - that Hell is also fucking around there.

Keris shrugs helplessly. “I know. Well, I mean.” A complicated expression crosses her face. “I still don’t see how the Realm can fail. But I know things are a mess right now, with fucking Solars and the Dead and all.” She hisses, short and sharp and angry. “And I know we can’t talk about work, but I do understand how division politics can be a bitch. Just...” she sighs. “If we ever do run into each other, for whatever reason. By choice or... or on mission. You know I won’t hurt you, right?”

Zanyi looks at Keris, and suddenly looks a lot older than her. “Don’t make a promise you can’t keep,” she says sadly. Then she grins. “You might need to break my leg so I can’t run after you, and given how you fight a broken leg is a few weeks of desk duty for me so I’m getting off light.”

Keris tips her head. “I won’t hurt you beyond what you can heal from, then,” she allows. “I don’t want you to fear me.”

She wraps Zanyi in one last hug, and kisses her cheeks.

“I won’t send you dreams again,” she says softly. “Not unless it’s news like this - big family stuff that’s outside work. I know that too much contact would be a bad idea for... a lot of reasons. But... I do hope we get to a place we can meet on friendly terms, someday.”

“I hope so,” Zanyi says. She pats Keris on the hand. “And if I wind up near Saata, I might stop by at your mansion or club. I’ll... uh, try to send warning.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Keris chuckles, and taps her on the nose. “See you there, then, Zanyi.”

And she lets the dream dissolve.

Chapter Text

A Scarlet Scandal

The mid-Water wind blows from the south. It fills the sails of countless vessels, coming from the richest lands under the dominion of the Realm. And the wealth, the tribute, the satrapal plunder of the hot lands of the south mostly enters the lands of the fractured Blessed Isles through the gateway of Arjuf.

Arjuf! Jewel of the southern Realm! Centre of commerce and wealth! Second largest city in the lands of the Scarlets! The wealth that flows through here makes Saata look like a provincial market town. The townhouses of the Dynasts here are palaces that could rival and exceed anything of the pirate princes. But there is none of the Saatan anarchy here. Even from the sea, the enforced homogeneity of the city screams out at the world. Repeated district designs are separated by internal walls, manned by well-dressed keepers of the peace in shining armour. The streets are clean, scrubbed by chain gangs. No one gets to build a thing in the city limits without the geomancers’ say-so. There are no slums here. Only tenements planned and built by the Terrestrial masters of this city. The living quality may be no better than a slum, but the building won’t be hurting the geomancy of this city.

Keris Dulmeadokht hates it at first sight, as she walks off a ship with stolen papers and past a Keeper of the Peace who’s lecturing the other sailors about how they’re only allowed in sea-facing districts and they must keep their passes with them at all times. Once off, she ducks into an alley and now she’s a Keeper of the Peace herself. She strolls straight past several more checkpoints, heading towards one of the slightly less grand palaces right next to the river, beside a grand arched steel bridge that’s a glorious red and is even now being re-painted by work crews.

For all the nonchalant confidence in her gait, she’s on edge in a way she’s rarely ever been before. Nothing around her is making hostile moves, but a stifling pressure seems to hem her in on every side. She can almost picture the might of the Realm as a vast, looming hammer hanging above her in the sky, just waiting to crash down with terrible force.

And speaking of looming... she slows as she crosses the bridge, looking northeast, and comes almost to a stop in awe.

It’s not that she’s never seen the Imperial Mountain. On some days you can see it from Saata. You can certainly see it from Nexus and An Teng. But she’s never seen it from this close. Close enough that the blueness of the air at lower altitudes doesn’t hide its flanks and make its snowy peak look like it floats a hundred miles above Creation’s soil. Close enough that she can see slight details on its impossible slopes. Close enough that she could reach it in a single day, were it safe for her to run there.

At the highest point, something glints among the whitecaps. Sunlight off the ruins of Meru.

... the bridge crew are starting to notice her stalled progress. Keris shakes her head slightly and resumes her walk, glaring at one man who hastily turns back to the girder he’s painting with huddled shoulders.

She has an address to follow, and she identifies which one of the slightly-less-lavish palatial structures she’s meant to be meeting Sasi in. She slips in over the wall, scales the structure, and finds a luxurious room prepared for her, just like the message said it would be. She’s a little early because she didn’t get as lost as she feared, so she has about a day to relax, recover from her trip, and - as the note says - enjoy the Yozi-cultist servants waiting on her hand and foot.

After scaring the living daylights out of two of them by popping out of the bedroom with no warning - perhaps a little mean of her, but it helps dissipate some stress, so she forgives herself - Keris orders herself some fruit and tells them to draw her a bath, then goes looking around this place that Sasi has made for herself.

It is, to be honest, actually a relief to see it. She’s been worried for months - years now, in fact - about Sasi’s presence here in the Realm’s seat of power. Wandering the halls of this residence that would put many Saatan palaces to shame is physical proof that Sasi is, if not safe here, at least successful enough and unconcerned enough for her safety to live in wealth and comfort and keep a staff of Yozi cultists around her who haven’t been discovered despite the law-men walking the streets outside. The hissing presence at the back of Keris’s mind will never fully lower its guard while she stands on the Blessed Isles, but she can at least think of this as a safehouse, a place where she need not fear danger at any second.

The next day, Sasi arrives - and not alone. Far from alone. Because with her is a mid-height woman, with short, snow-white hair spiked up, an almost brusque black-and-white gown, and a cold and utterly artificial sculpted beauty.

Keris recognises her. She’s been at Althings since Keris came to Hell. She calls herself Glorious. Director of the Omphalos - which is to say, the Blessed Isle. First Crown of the Reclamation’s Third Seat. First of the Glass Spiders.

Not one, but two directors have come to talk to her.

Glorious strides into the sitting room, heading to the Gateway table that was set up by the servants as ornamentation. “Ah, Director,” she says to Keris, with a hint of warmth. “Wonderful to see you. So you play?”

“Poorly,” Keris admits with a rueful smile. “I’m more an assassin than a military commander, and Gateway pieces aren’t usually open to being coaxed into turning on their players.”

“Hmm.” And it’s such a calculated noise. Keris can hear the unspoken snub.

Sasi, of course, breezes in - but ah, she’s not Sasi right now. She’s Director Sasimana in front of her peer - and likely rival, because Glorious was the Director here first before Sasi got moved here. “Keris,” she says, radiant in soft teal embroidered with High Realm characters. “How was your trip? How are you finding Arjuf?”

“My trip was fine,” Keris says, giving Sasi a much more genuine smile. “And Arjuf is a novelty. This is the first time I’ve set foot on the Blessed Isles, and the satrapies I’ve spent time in weren’t as structured as this.” She’ll save her actual opinion of the place for later, in private. Or maybe not, since Sasi might take offence at Keris insulting her birthplace, even if she doesn’t like the people in charge much nowadays. “So,” she continues, shifting to mirror Sasi’s professionalism and directing her words to Sasi, not Glorious, “I’m sure you have the prep work I asked for. Run me through why I’m here, and leave nothing out. I’m not leaving anything in a job this important to improvisation unless I have to.”

Glorious doesn’t glance at the Gateway board, but the pieces start moving as the air ripples around her. “The briefing documents are being transferred by Director Sasimana and is her concern,” she says. There’s something about her accent - it’s not Sasi’s High Realm. “I’m not here for that. I’m here because the situation has changed since the contract was agreed at Calibration. Does the name Sesus Nagezzar mean anything to you?”

Keris closes her eyes with a faint frown as cover to prod Dulmea about it. Surprisingly, she does recognise the name. Nothing else, and no details about it, but she’s pretty sure she’s heard it before at least once. Possibly while Sasi was talking to her about work.

“Vaguely,” she says, as Dulmea returns the mental equivalent of a shrug. “I’ve definitely heard the name, but little beyond that.” She opens her eyes and raises an eyebrow at the other Director. “What kind of mess has he caused, and how is it going to impact the contract?”

“Nagezzar is one of the most prominent figures in organised crime, corruption, and blackmail - certainly outside of Sesusu,” Sasi says. “He is a grandson of the Third Scarlet, but on his first campaign as a young man he was rendered lame. As one of the Sinisi, he was always a man of vast appetites, but since his laming his habits turned into an obsession. But he was still kin to the Third, and had something of the Dowager Emperor’s mindset. He turned his indulgence into a crime empire - the Shadow Court, it’s called.”

She settles herself down, sweeping her robes around her. “Ledala Ama is a very straight-laced, boring Ledala-sort. Temperate, balanced, religious - her obsessions are the Ledala obsessions of knowledge, not of the flesh. The fact that she will be attending a somewhat risque bathhouse is already out of character. The fact that Nagezzar - that Slug of a man - is attending at the same time? Deeply suspicious.”

Keris purses her lips, nodding slowly. “Do we know what they’re plotting together on?”

Glorious lifts up one hand, the gateway pieces revolving around it. And just for a moment, Keris can hear unearthly melodies drifting across from her. “No one knows everything that man could have heard,” she says. “For Minister Ledaal Ama to deign to meet with him? It must be something big. These are the terms I’m offering; for a doubling of the contract fee, eliminate Nagezzar, and recover any information he has his hands on which might pertain to us. The same clauses about secrecy also apply to him.”

“Eliminate one of the greatest crime lords on the Blessed Isles and recover his secrets,” Keris says flatly. “In parallel to the minister I’m already assassinating. Without giving us away, and without alerting either of them before I strike to the point that they can escape - which means either completing one kill quietly enough that the other doesn’t notice before I hit them, or going after both of them at once and fighting two-on-one odds. It’s not beyond me, but twice the targets means rather more than twice the work, Director Glorious, and I was given no prior warning of this change to the contract we agreed on. Especially given that Nagezzar will be a lot more familiar with the tricks of my trade than Ledala Ama will be - and I’m not fool enough to think a dragonchild isn’t a threat just because he’s lame and fat.”

Glorious tilts her head. “What is your price?” she asks, cutting past all the bullshit. Cutting past it to such a degree that Keris hears the little micro-tension in Sasi, who had clearly been looking to negotiate more and probably wheedle Keris a bit.

((PoEU on how much it’s worth to her. Also IEI and WWOF for good measure.))

This short-haired woman is Keris’s superior whose raw presence makes her want to cringe back; her crystalline brightness trapping impossible light and a few stains of other tastes. The light from her gleams in the metal in the room hints at her power in the Realm in her reflections; her sheer influence exerted over the government of the Realm. But there’s no envy here, not at Keris. And so really here, she considers this job something she can pay Keris an emperor’s ransom to do and it’ll be done.

((E10, SWLIHN primary, Oramus secondary, traces of TED, Cece, Malfeas. No envy, proudest trait her Influence 4 over the Thousand Scales (the Realm Bureaucracy). It’s worth Resources 5 to her.))
((hot damn))

Jumping off that inner sense of value, Keris names a figure, and a short but vicious haggling session ensues, concluding in an agreement for three or four times the original contract price in a yet-to-be-decided form. She may have need of funds down in the Anarchy, but in case her spree of robberies for Director Veil in the South proves unexpectedly fruitful, Keris makes sure to leave open a way to take the payment in artefacts or manses or similar non-liquid forms.

Leaning back in her chair feeling fairly satisfied with the value of her services, she nods. “Alright then. So both my targets will be meeting in a bathhouse. Director Sasimana, you have the details? Walk me through them.”

“Good. That’s agreed,” Glorious says. “I have to be on the other side of the Isle tomorrow, so I’ll leave this in your hands as this is your project, Sasimana. Director Dulmeadokht, it was... pleasant to exchange some words with you. You have a most peculiar melody.”

“... so I’ve been told,” says Keris bemusedly, and gives the base minimum of a respectful nod as Glorious leaves. She waits until the Defiler is out of earshot before raising an eyebrow at Sasi.

“So I’m guessing you knew my opinions on people changing the job at the last second when this came up,” she says drily. “Was it that recent that you couldn’t get me a warning, or did she throw her weight around?”

“Both,” Sasi admits, letting down her guard. “She’s... not someone I can get on the bad side of, but this was something I only picked up in the past week,” she says, wrapping her mind-hands around Keris’s waist. “The Slug was a presence on the periphery of court when I was a girl. Someone talked about as a warning and an example of what happened if you let yourself go. But he’s only grown fatter since then. I don’t think you’ll have much problem securing the kill between his incapacity and his habits. Though remember not to use plant-based poisons on him.”

Keris nods thoughtfully, moving into her embrace and hugging her back. “I’m still not going to underestimate him. He’s a crime lord. If he was an easy target, he’d be dead already. What about the minister?”

“No soldier or nun; still not to be underestimated,” Sasi says seriously. She produces several thick binders from her shadow, and naturally Keris goes for the maps first. “We can get started, and break for lunch. How are you liking the townhouse, by the way? It belongs to Ledala Maka, who’s one of my people, and she’s more than willing to contribute a townhouse she barely uses to the righteous cause.”

“It’s, ah... nice?” Keris shrugs. “I feel better for seeing it, at least. I’ve been... really worried about you here, and I know half of what I was picturing was silly, but, like. It helps to see you’re in a nice fancy rich place like this, and that you feel safe enough to have Yozi cultists here in the middle of a big Realm city. Means you probably aren’t in the kind of danger I’ve been scared about sometimes.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Although,” she adds. “Are all Realm cities like this? So...” A hair tendril waves vaguely. “Square and samey?”

Sasi rests her hand on Keris’s. “The Ministry of Perfected Geomancy tries to ensure that important cities are properly designed, but Arjuf is special. The Ledala have put the profits of the southern trade into this city for hundreds of years. It’s not just about the geomancy. It’s also about having a city that dominates the Caracal River. The walls here would make taking this city a nightmare, and laying siege to it is nearly impossible. And,” she sniffs, archly, “it’s very Ledala to make sure they know everything about people’s comings and goings.”

“It’s awful,” Keris huffs. “Nexus is - was - much better. Saata, too. Everything here feels like... like a bonsai tree wrapped in so much wire it has to grow in straight lines and right angles. Bleh.” She cocks her head. “Wait, special? Is this a big city, then? I mean, it’s bigger and richer than Saata, but I figured that was just a not-in-the-far-Threshold thing.”

“It’s the second-largest city in the Realm,” Sasi says. “Arjuf is the gateway to the South. If you were even to look at Myion, you wouldn’t be so impressed.” She catches Keris’s blank look. “That’s in the West, on Daoshin; the ancestral holding of the Cadaca.”

The names don’t mean much to Keris - the Great Houses of the Realm never have - and so her only reaction is a “huh” of interest. Second-largest in the Realm? So this is only one step down from the capital. One of the greatest cities of Creation, standing up there with Nexus and the Imperial City.

“Anyway,” she says, shaking the diversion off. “Let’s get down to details. Tell me as much about this bathhouse as you can, and when the targets will be there.”

“First let’s sit down and have a meal together. And I’ll provide a more detailed briefing on the targets and the location,” Sasi says.

After an excellent meal, Sasi takes Keris to the attics and starts to set up her briefing presentation, fishing things out of her shadow as papers and maps and documents float around her. “So, a little more on your targets - including some things Glorious might not know so I wasn’t going to say in front of her,” Sasi begins, hands folded behind her. “Let’s begin with the main one; Ledala Ama. Or Ledaal Ama, if you are to use the - tch - uncouth Low form of the name. “A member of a branch family of House Ledala, Ama is the youngest of her three siblings, but the only one chosen by the dragons. Her mother was mortal, and died young; her father Otomo never remarried. After her brother died in a duel and her sister was assassinated, Otomo clung to his remaining child becoming sour and possessive. He cowed his shy, withdrawn, and bookish daughter, driving her on with crushing pressure to prove herself to not be a failure.

“Because of her psychologically abusive father, Ama is constantly trying to prove herself. That served her father well, who in his latter years took great pride in his daughter’s rise into the Empress’s confidence. Shortly after her elevation to the status of an Imperial Minister, he died in his sleep - young, for a Dynast in seemingly good health, but not exceptionally so. For her part, she had an intense love-hate relationship with her father, but even more than that despised herself for not being strong enough to stand up to him.

“Even after his death, the same obsessive drive still holds her in thrall. Keris, the Minister of the Office of Foreseen Cataclysms is a dangerous woman. Part of why the Fourth Scarlet promoted her so high is that she is no great fan of social events and feels no great affection for her broader family. Normally, she stays within the high-end security measures in her personal estate, an ancient war-manse guarded by both automata and the numerous dragon-child bodyguards she is entitled to as an Imperial Minister. Not something you want to risk yourself on, I’m sure.”

“Not if I have any choice about it,” Keris agrees, wincing at the thought. “Minister of Foreseen Cataclysms. As opposed to Unforeseen Cataclysms, I guess? We’d fall into the latter - what kind of thing does she deal with?”

“Ah, perhaps it is not the best translation.” Sasi looks pensive. “She is a minister tasked by the Empress with foreseeing potential threats to the Scarlet Realm, so that the Scarlet may best act to avoid and mitigate them. So, for example, one thing she does is identifying regions where it is known little is known about them, because those places are locations in the world where the Lunar Anathema - or, now, the Solars - might gain power. She has authority over the Imperial Astrological Society, and - well, I know for a fact that she was nearly dismissed when she did not predict that there was a risk that Thorns might fall to the Dead.”

“So, a reclusive, anti-social woman who’s married to her work and is paranoid both by upbringing and by job description,” Keris summarises. “And she’s going to a seedy bathhouse to meet a crime lord of vice and degeneracy. Yeah, I can see why you’re suspicious.” She considers it. “You think she thinks he knows something about another upcoming problem for the Realm? A problem that might be us?”

Sasi inclines her head in acknowledgement. “The ranks of those who serve the true masters of the world are not... flawless in their devotion,” she says delicately. “There are those who waver, and more than that, there are those who hear things they shouldn’t. Enough that they might take fright. And have. And there are those who can put together rumours. The Realm has spent a long time looking for Anathema - mostly moon-Chosen, but these days they also look for the sun princes and the dead princes. And while it is the policy of Glorious that her directorate pretends to be Solar Anathema, we... don’t exactly glow yellow.”

Keris wrinkles her nose. “I guess keeping our spot at the table secret was only ever going to last for so long,” she admits. “And once we’re known, it’ll be harder to keep our hand concealed. Star-chosen can summon citizens and interrogate them.” She pauses, running over her acquaintances in her head. She’s pretty sure nobody who Heaven can summon know precise details about her identities in Creation. Asarin and a couple of others would be able to say she was in Saata, though, and a description of what she looks like could lead Heaven to Cinnamon.

Fuck. Probably a good idea to lay in some plans to sacrifice that identity if necessary, even if it’d hurt like hell. On the other hand, Asarin’s fairly obscure, and while Keris has a solid measure of fame in the Reclamation and on the stage, her personal life and friendships aren’t as well-known.

“Alright,” she says. “Go on.”

“Ama is a deeply religious woman, obsessed with cleanliness - both spiritually and physically. That is one of the few things that draw her out of her fortress-home. However, normally she goes to Immaculate temple-baths. To go to a pleasure-house, especially one attended by sorts such as Nagezzar, is not something she would normally do. She will likely be out of sorts there. Moreover, she will be wanting to hide her presence at such a place, and while her bodyguards are mostly loyal to her, she will minimise the risk that another minister has bought one of her men. Her demeanour is reserved and awkward, sometimes cripplingly insecure and sometimes tending on megalomania. When she speaks, it is in fits and starts, jumping between ideas as they strike her. Intellectually, a genius, trained in the Heptagram - though not a sorceress - and with the full archives of House Ledala to put things together. She is a great threat to us, Keris.”

“Mmm,” Keris nods, thinking hard. “Okay, levers. She has issues with her father, even well after his death. Can’t see a way to exploit that crack, but it’s there. Obsessed with cleanliness, she’ll be ashamed and off-balance while she’s in this place. Sometimes insecure, sometimes ambitious to a fault, jumps all over the place - like a combination of Haneyl and Eko but more awkward than either. Dangerously smart, but not a sorceress. Dragonblooded, but not trained as a soldier or a nun.” She taps her lips. “She’ll have fewer bodyguards than normal, but still some, and they’ll be Dragonblooded as well. Where does she get them? Legion drop-outs, ex-monks, Lost Eggs? Will she have them go in with her? How much is she likely to trust them?”

“She will likely only take her two most trusted bodyguards with her - Ledala Iki, her cousin who’s been in her service since she was a girl, and Itadi Amado, a former legionary assigned to the Guardians of the Imperial Ministers. Iki - she trusts implicitly, though my agents inform me that Iki resents her subordinate position. Amado is a professional and a member of a lesser house. As best I can tell, he’s resolutely apolitical; the Guardians are rewarded very well by the Thousand Scales if they reach the end of their time.” Sasi taps her index fingers together. “I’m not sure why Ama trusts him over her other bodyguards.”

“Hmm. Okay. I’ll work them out later.” Getting up, Keris starts to pace, flicking one of Ascending Air’s curving blades out into her hand and flipping it over and over on itself as she thinks. “Nagezzar, then. My other target. Grandson of the Third Scarlet, lamed in his youth, crime lord, vice lord, king of the Realm’s seedy underbelly. If you tell me he’ll be unprotected, I’ll laugh. What am I in for?”

“What has not been said about Nagezzar - the Slug? Born to the highest blood in the Realm, grandson of the Third Scarlet - but crippled in his first battle before even the age of twenty. A failure in his grandfather’s eyes, and the eyes of the Third’s faction at court, when he had been raised to believe that he would be the old man’s protege. Cast aside. Left to stew in bitterness.” There’s a tone to Sasi’s voice, the kind she’s using when she’s hiding things.

Keris looks at her for a long, thoughtful moment.

“Do you know him?” she asks, bluntly. “Did you know him before?”

“Nagezzar is one of the most powerful crime lords in the Realm,” Sasi says in a level tone. “Where other crime lords might have their influence in a city or a prefecture, Nagezzar’s name and bloodline lets him operate in the highest levels of society. Every year, young debutantes are brought into his orbit. Pulled into his debt. Offered a taste of what he can do as a friend. Many don’t progress past that stage. He doesn’t get anything major on them. But others get pulled into his roots.”

The other blade of Ascending Air flickers out into Keris’s hand, and her hair rustles. “So that’s a yes, then,” she says with lethal, silken calm. “He got his hooks into you. Another grandchild of another Scarlet - another disappointment, even. Just like him.”

And he warped her, she fills in silently. Sasi has been an indulgent soul for as long as Keris has known her. When things get hard or when she gets stressed, she runs and throws herself into sex and drugs and booze. Is Nagezzar who she learned that from? Is he the one who taught her such unhealthy habits? The one who pushed her into using them to excess, playing with her until they were her only escape from pain?

“He hurt you,” she says, and there’s a hiss at the back of her throat, a faint chiming from her hair as her feathers rattle together.

((Prodding Sasi in the “Keris (My Invincible Protector)” Principle; Keris has worked out or guessed that Negazzar hurt her in the past and immediately reacted by wanting to murder him for revenge, not just money.))
((Oh Sasi. She likes it when Keris gets protective.))

“Not me personally. Not too badly. But one of my closest girlhood friends got in far too deep,” Sasi says, face totally neutral. “It ruined her life. And matters did not… end well for her.”

“... we are going to come back to that ‘not too badly’ qualifier later,” Keris promises in dark tones. “But fine. He dies. Painfully. What’ll be defending him? Is he a sorcerer? He’s a Wood Aspect, and from his job he sounds more focused on corruption and manipulation than defending himself. I can’t believe he won’t have bodyguards - and unlike Ledala, he won’t be ashamed to be seen in this place. What kind of defences does he have against people with stories like yours trying to have him killed?”

Sasi pauses, shuffling documents with her mind-hands. “There will certainly be bodyguards - bought dragonblooded, mortals, the guests who will jump to his defence. But in many ways, what keeps him safe isn’t force of arms. He has blackmail on enough people that he’s untouchable. The last time a magistrate tried to make a move against him, the magistrate,” she cleared her throat, “fell on her own blade. Even I don’t know what actually happened. It’s just accepted that she killed herself, because no one wants to look too closely. He’s a sorcerer, if only a dabbler - but he certainly has sorcerers on payroll. And in his debt.

“You might be wondering why we don’t just make use of him. But - and this is why he is a problem - there is… a certain moral core there. He wants revenge on the Realm. But he wants revenge, I think, by making it come to him. Making it have to show him respect. Making it beg him for assistance. He’s not someone we can use, but he’s a rival who operates in the same spaces as us. And he’d revel in making the Realm throw him a triumph for revealing the existence of hellish Anathema - and goodness knows what the Star-Chosen would do with him as an asset. If he isn’t one already.”

“Hmm,” Keris grunts, flipping her kris end over end again and catching it with its point idly balanced on a fingertip. “So his main defence doesn’t work on us because I don’t care what I break by killing him. Fine. That still leaves a lot of lesser defences. Not many easy flaws to exploit in him - not in his head, anyway. Most of his will be physical. Fat. Lame. Maybe drugs in his system, if he uses any that aren’t plant-based for the sake of actually feeling the effects.”

She wheels on her heel and goes back to pacing, head down, hair flicking from side to side like a cat’s tail just before it pounces. The bone-porcelain knives of a fourth-century Realm treasure flash and leap in her hands like living things, their curving blades seeming to undulate like bending fabric instead of brittle china as she parries and cuts at the air.

“... what do you want this to be, Sasi?” she asks eventually, looking up. “Obviously the truth is out. How subtle are we going? Where’s the line to be drawn? What’s going to kill Ledala Ama and Sesusu Negazzar? A Lunar Anathema that flees back into the harbour? A Dragonblooded assassin hired by some player in the fight for the Throne? If I can pull off having them both found dead with no sign of who killed them, do we even want to leave it open, or is there a faction we want to frame? What’s the story we’re telling here?”

“I would like it as quiet as possible,” Sasi says simply. “If there’s no overt assassination of the Slug, people will tear into each other trying to control his crime empire. Failing that, make it look like an internal threat, from a dragon-child. I don’t want to give the Realm an external enemy to unite against. Likewise, if you can silently kill the minister, the bathhouse will cover it up and make it look like natural causes.”

“Mmm. Okay, so as silent as possible. Do you even want the bodies found, or should they just disappear?”

“Too perfect a disappearance will ask questions. But there’s a balance there to be had to get your job done.” Sasi raises one thin eyebrow. “And I suspect you’ll want to hang around the bathhouse longer, so you’ll want more time. Given what you had me collect to make your daughter, I suspect you’re already thinking of reagents for flesh-forging more dragon-blooded children.”

Keris grins unapologetically. “You got me. So, the site, then. Tell me about this seedy bathhouse. Where is it, what’s it called, who runs it, who owns it, how big is it, the layout - as much as possible. It’s the best place to make the kill, but I need to know every inch of it if I can.” She hums to herself. “And yeah, I’ll insert myself as a servant there a few days or weeks in advance to get the lay of the place in person and collect some materials. I can use Elloge to be an unimportant bath attendant easily, though it’ll be better if I have a proper cover identity.”

“First, the location. The meeting will be occurring in the Cerulean Blessing bathhouse, located in the hills over the town of Kaoda. Kaoda is east of here, past the Dragonswrath Desert, located in the Halcyon prefecture. Precision geomancy has turned that land into a picturesque paradise of emerald hills and shining silver beaches, and it makes for a favoured vacation spot for much of the Dynasty’s more contemplative scions, who in turn have cultivated a rich artistic tradition in the locals. Kaoda itself is famed for its hot springs. Quite the resort, and it’s close enough to Arjuf that one can travel there to take a few weeks holiday for a brief constitutional.”

Nodding, Keris commits the location to memory - which is to say, asks Dulmea to write it down for her - and makes a note to get a look at a map of the place. “Right.”

“The Cerulean Blessing is run by Ahana Nuri. She is firmly in the pocket of the Slug, and this bathhouse’s reputation is somewhat tarnished. It is only tarnished because rumour is it that she has more than a little talent for covering up shameful events. Cadaca Su drowned in the baths here five years ago, but there was no indication of foul play, despite the beliefs of some of her friends. While it is a pleasure house, there is superficial respect shown to the Immaculate faith and so a small shrine is maintained on the northern side of the compound, kept notably distant from the main body of the resort. Likely so the few monks and nuns present at the shrine do not have to see anything they would be obliged to condemn.”

“Huh. I see.” Keris purses her lips. “So, Ama can die in a way they can cover up, and they will. How will Nuri react to Nagezzar’s death?”

“Panic, fear, worry that she’ll be eliminated by other members of his organisation or by his blackmail targets for having got her hands on his secrets,” Sasi says, with a hint of cruelty. “Such a shame.”

“I more mean what will she do, but alright, I guess it doesn’t matter,” Keris says. “I’ll make it messy, then, but contained. Paint the walls with him in a private room or something.” She flicks Ascending Air back into un-being around her wrists, and cracks her knuckles. “Targets, location, constraints, clean-up. That just leaves timing. When is this meeting set for? How long do I have to prepare?”

“The Slug left the Imperial City ten days ago. Ama has not left her mansion, but there are signs of activity and preparation for moving. It’s likely that given how Ama can be, she will schedule the meeting for the night of the fourteenth when the moon will be fullest and the risk of Dead or demonic spies least.”

“Twelve days,” Keris murmurs, twisting her interlaced fingers this way and that. “Well then.”

She rolls her shoulders and cracks her neck.

“Better check out this bathhouse while I have time.”

Sasi smiles. “The bathhouse has an excellent reputation. I quite enjoyed my time there. Fine masseurs, an excellent mechanism that mixes cool river-water with the hot springs to set the baths to a pleasant temperature, a good selection of spirits and wines, and of course plenty of very friendly assistants and courtesans who are very much the Slug’s people. There are lots of ways for people to move around unseen in the Cerulean Blessing, between the access tunnels, the staff corridors, and the upper levels of the buildings. Do try to enjoy yourself, my love.”

It is raining in Halcyon when Keris arrives. Not the heavy rain that hammers Saata in the rainy season, but a light, almost misty drizzle that matches the fog that clings to the mountainsides during this season.

But even the fog is sculpted, engineered to aid in the beauty of this landscape, in the hills of Halcyon up from the justly famous beaches. It is seldom so thick as to obscure the gorse, the heather, the groves of cherry trees whose perfumed wood burns in the braziers. Instead, it adds a note of romance and mystery to the landscape, and as Keris approaches the bathhouse-resort it seems to float above the hills as if enchanted by some sorcerer.

She checks in with the invitation offered to her by Sasi, wearing a false face. The lady Kaora is a Nexan merchant princess extended an invitation to the Cerulean Blessing by Cadaca Moi, who unfortunately has been unable to attend himself due to family matters. Sasi assures Keris that the cover story is loaded with the implications that Moi is getting his mistress out of the way when his wife is around, and that’s far from uncommon for foreign guests at the blessing. Certainly, the staff show no surprise to see a Scavenger Lander here, and in fact assure her that her High Realm is very good and her Low Realm is nearly flawless.

Their flattery is a joke. Keris - out of desperation to try to avoid having to have Sasi cram the knowledge of the language into her mind using the gifts of the Principle of Hierarchy - has found a way to borrow knowledge from those she’s infected with her Haneylian seeds. Stolen words occupy her forebrain, pulling her thoughts into languages she’s never learned. It works enough to be a foreign merchant who can talk in Low Realm with a Nexan accent and knows a few words of High Realm.

“... and this is your suite,” the attendant tells her, showing her around a place that’s nearly half the size of her bedroom at home. “If you need anything or have any questions, just ask.”

“Thank you,” she says, which is a phrase that’s seen a lot of use in the past half-hour or so of being shown round. “I will.”

She waits until he leaves, then flops across the bed and considers what she’s learned. Her tour may have been standard, but what was meant to show a mortal guest around has revealed considerably more to someone who can hear through wooden walls with ease, lick traces of scent and sweat off the walls with subtle finger-mouths and sense the prides and envies of the staff and guests as she leeches on their expectations of how she might behave.

It was certainly informative. But now she has a bit of a headache, so it’s time to lie down and evaluate her findings.

((Retroactive dramatic Investigation action to scope out the place with hearing, taste rolls that can get me a man’s eye colour from a drop of his sweat, WWOF/FtFF on the staff to get a general sense of the kind of people they are and the kind of person they expect me to be, etc.))

“Well, well, well,” Dulmea says inside her head. “You’re in, child. And this is an interesting place. It could almost be a Hellish bathhouse, if it wasn’t for the aesthetics. The dragonchildren here might as well be citizens. And the staff are serfs in all but name. I’ve worked in such places before. If you are careful, this will be well within your skills.”

The sound of mandolins drifts in through the paper screens. The bathhouse here is tall, and feels to Keris’s senses like it’s almost a demense. The blending of fire and water here is deliberately cultivated. The structure is built into the hillside, with the resort above the surface and the servants and the less sightly aspects set back into ancient caves. It reminds her of Triumphant Air in that way, where the poorer people lived in the magma tubes. The baths lie at the centre of the compound, a cascading series of pools that mix the mineral-rich boiling water from the spring with cooler river-water from an aqueduct. Around it are set structures. Some of them, boringly staid and respectable. Others, rather more discrete in their salacious tastes. It might be the middle of the day, but Keris can hear what is going on in some of them, and taste the opiate-smoke and burning coca leaf (to name but a few of the alchemical diversions) on the air.

The staff, for their part, are... hmm. Maybe jaded isn’t the right word, but it isn’t exactly the wrong one, either. They’re very used to entertaining the every whim of spoiled hedonists, mortal and dragon-child alike. They’re not sure what Keris is going to ask of them, but at least she’s not a dragon-child so she’ll probably be less demanding if she isn’t perfectly satisfied.

“Well, I’ve been here half an hour and I’ve already seen a dozen different ways to stage an ‘accident’,” Keris murmurs under her breath. “With so much pipework around and how hot the springwater is, it’d be pretty easy to set up a fatal steamburst or boil someone alive in their bath. Or add a paralytic to a tub to drown someone. I could probably get something toxic and mineral-based into the food or drugs pretty easily, if a target isn’t wearing poison-detecting rings while they’re stripped down.”

She stretches, languidly melting back onto the forgiving mattress. “And then there are the people options. I saw masseuses, that’d be an easy way to get access to someone while they were naked and unarmed - I could even take my needles in openly. I could leave an explosive under someone’s bed as a maid, or garrotte them as a bath attendant. Plus, Sasi said Negazzar’s hated. It’d probably take barely a nudge from, uh, Erembour’s gifts, to get someone to go after him. Or I could even pretend to be the kind of person he likes to target myself.”

She rolls over, lying on her stomach and kicking her legs up behind her to tread the air with curling toes. “I think... we’ve got a week or two until they arrive. For now we’ll scope out the bathhouse as thoroughly as possible, including the back ways and servant corridors and secret rooms at night while most of the staff are asleep. Maybe play servant a few times to see how easily I can move around as one and grab some samples from the Dragonblooded here. I won’t lock myself into a precise method for the kill until the targets arrive and I can judge what’ll work best on them.”

“If the Slug is as lame as Sasimana reports, he won’t easily be able to escape such a malfunction in the baths,” Dulmea agrees. “But it is best not to monofocus yet. Some very interesting ideas there, child. And,” there is a wry note to her tone, “no doubt you are looking at some of the features here and considering how to steal them for the Jade Carnation.”

“If I was on Triumphant Air I could get hot springs,” Keris mutters sulkily. “Stupid Immaculates stealing the good places. But yeah, the piping work here is really advanced, I definitely need to steal the... well, not the boiler design, since they don’t have one, but the way they pump it to guestrooms. And I don’t know how they’re separating off their drug-rooms from the neighbouring areas, but the opium smoke wasn’t spreading anywhere near as much as it should have. Air pressure, maybe? Some kind of pumping system that draws it away? I’ll have to look into that, too. I guess it’s the same sort of thing whether you’re piping water in or drug smoke out.”

“Perhaps, child, you might to visit the baths so you can look at the mechanisms for the purpose of seeing how easy it would be to tamper with them and also act to relieve that headache of yours,” Dulmea suggests.

“A fine idea,” Keris agrees, and heaves herself upright. “But first...”

One thorough check of her room for listening-holes and spy-points later, Keris saunters off towards the baths contemplatively, catching a servant partway there and ordering some light wine and cherries as a snack. She takes her time as she goes, admiring - well, evaluating - the art the resort is plastered in and listening to the rushing of water through the walls as she finds a bath that’s not too crowded to exacerbate her headache, but has a few other people she can watch to see how things work.

She notices fairly quickly that the artwork varies quite radically depending on where you are in the resort. The buildings for more puritanical guests go for abstract intricate artwork of geometric patterns that evoke rivers and flames. On the other hand, the more - ahem - salacious places don’t respect the aniconism of the Immaculate Faith, and damn near approach the art styles Keris was using in Love Unchained. The dragon-child artist behind this must have known exactly what they were doing. Keris sort of wants to have a chat with them.

Though of course, those buildings and sections are often much more sealed off, and Keris’s little jade guest-necklace isn’t enough to get her into them. She can hear the structure of the rooms and the patterns of the paint, but she’s missing the full experience. That’d cost substantially more, because there are certain places in the report that only the five-jade guests are allowed into, and Keris’s cover is only a red jade guest. Which is to say, still costing vast sums, but the kind of vast sums that might be spent on impressing a visiting merchant and-slash-or getting your mistress out of the way of your wife.

So, she has the choice here of what kind of bath she will make her first appearance at. One of the more puritanical ones? The ones which seem closest to the ‘default’? Or one of the ones that are distinctly closer to the risque end of the spectrum?

After some consideration, she decides to start at the risque end of the spectrum. Negazzar will certainly be spending his time in the lewder areas, and from what Sasi said about how he wants to hurt the Realm by making it come to him... Keris wouldn’t put it past him to try and force Ama to approach him in such a place for their talk. It’s the kind of petty, vicious humiliation Keris might go for in such a position.

It is still early in the day, so she presents herself at the Bath of a Hundred Delights. The attendants are somewhat surprised, she can tell, but then they hear her Nexan accent and it all makes sense to them. They’re not sure if she’s a depraved Nexan or she just doesn’t understand the context, but it doesn’t matter to them. She gets led into a private area where she’s offered her choice of washing, waxing, and other pre-bath beauty treatments. The windows are shuttered closed and the air is perfumed, and statues of cavorting onis and fire ducks gleam in bronze. Keris can hear the water rumble in the pipes behind the, the force of the water pressure making the statues slowly shift and move.

She plays the spoilt but fairly personable merchant princess, with enough demands that the attendants can tell she’s used to luxury but none that are particularly strenuous, difficult or unreasonable. A wash and a foot rub relax her while she lets her attention drift about the room, guessing at the kind of force behind those moving statues, the way a gear might be sabotaged to send a great bronze arm crashing down on someone’s head or a wing snap out into a throat with terrible force. While they wash her hair and scrub her back, she listens to the way sound travels through the pipes from where it’s pumped in, pinpointing the places where boiling water runs closest to the walls.

There’s a lot to work with here, for sure. No shortage of method. The problem will be witnesses.

((/r 10d10s7c10 #ISpyInTheBathhouse))
((Keris rolled 2 <2; 9; 7; 1; 6; 5; 1; 5; 2; 6> #ISpyInTheBathhouse))
((/r 18d10s7c10 #LookingForPreBathSabotagePoints))
((Keris rolled 3 <1; 5; 5; 7; 6; 2; 2; 4; 2; 7; 8; 2; 2; 1; 2; 4; 5; 3> #LookingForPreBathSabotagePoints))

She can hear that it’s hot water driving the statues, and there’s gears and valves going on. How hot? Exactly how does it work? She’s not sure. The attendants are just making too much noise and she’s sort of sleepy. And they certainly don’t let her get up and start poking the machinery. They’re... quite careful in guiding her back. She suspects that too-curious people have probably gotten hurt - or damaged the moving statues - by meddling with them.

Once she’s cleaned, she’s guided into a larger central mixed-sex bath, where pre-mixed water cascades down from one wall into a wide and shallow pool. There are more statues here, though they don’t move, instead holding bowls of burning perfumed oil that light up the blue-and-golden tiles that decorate the floor and ceiling. One wall is open to the elements, looking out over the misty valley, and there’s a man there leaning on the balcony and smoking a pipe. A couple of women lounge in the pool, sharing a bottle of wine, while another man sits cross-legged under the waterfall with a younger man’s head at his groin. Behind a paper screen, servants play languid music.

Sleepy-eyed from the footrub and sulky at being shooed away from the clever mechanisms that she can’t work out, Keris looked over this... this... oh, fine, this admittedly gorgeous bath where people are having fun and it’s all pretty and clever and better than her Jade Carnation even though it’s the Realm’s and it’s owned by the Slug asshole who hurt Sasi and is just awful and...

Mercury blooms in her heart, cold and sweetly bitter.

((EH Principle formed: “I’ll Kill the Slug in His Own Pretty Bathhouse”))
((/r 19d10s7c10 +4 #MercuryFuelledSpiteInvestigation))

((Keris rolled 16 <1; 8; 10; 6; 2; 5; 8; 5; 10; 6; 10; 8; 8; 7; 3; 7; 5; 5; 1> #MercuryFuelledSpiteInvestigation))
((Much better.))

Keris looks around, and driven by her hateful envy, it’s all laid clean to her. The water flow is pre-mixed here, but not too far up-stream. The aqueduct carrying the cold water has a branch running to each bath, but each pool is built around its own channel of the hot-water springs. Could she just cut the cold water? No. There’s enough water in these baths to dilute down a hot addition such that anyone could get out in time. Something more would have to go wrong. Maybe a breach to the hot springs themselves, so that vast bubbling cauldron underground turns into a geyser. Presumably there are geomancers or other people who maintain it to keep a proper flow and stop such a disaster happening. And-

“Ah, hello!” It’s one of the two women with the wine, something slightly southern in her look and her coal-black hair. She’s a young flame, but a flame none-the-less to her watery friend. “You look new!” Keris’s stolen High Realm thoughts aren’t in good shape, but she’s pretty sure that’s what she said. “I’m Cadaca Heisi, and this is my friend,” and there’s the twist of her lips, “Pelepese Seheca.”

((Heisi - Fire aspected, E3. Seheca, Water aspected, E2.))

“Ah, hallo,” she responds awkwardly, caught flat-footed for a second but recovering swiftly. “I are- am - Ahangara Kaora. I come first time this bath to... uh...”

She pauses, makes a briefly frustrated face at the awkward syllables and grammar, and switches to Low Realm. “I’m sorry. My High Realm still isn’t very good. This is my first time here, yes. Lovely to meet you.”

Seheca laughs in a somewhat superior manner. “You’re lucky you’re cute,” she says, flipping back her wet pale blue hair, “because otherwise I might have to duel you for making such a butchery of the tongue.”

Heisi elbows her in the ribs. “Stop that!”

“Honesty is of the dragons.”

“Stop scaring off the pretty girl.” She gives Keris a startlingly vivacious smile. “Care to share a drink? Where are you from, and are you here with company?”

“Well, I’ll never say no to a drink with a pair of beautiful, dragon-graced ladies,” Keris flirts back, with an admiring look at both Dynastic women. “And you can probably tell I’m from Nexus, though it’s been a few years since I was there. Lately I’ve been staying with Cadaca Moi over in Arjuf, who gifted me with an invitation here but was,” she smiles, “sadly unable to attend with me due to pressing family matters.”

“Oh, Moi. I vaguely know him. He’s my second cousin once removed,” Heisi says, offering Keris a little cup of rice wine.

“Wasn’t he the one who got drunk at that party and duelled Sesusu Ali?”

“No, no, that was Sui. Moi was the one who fell off his horse at that hunting meet in Scarlet.”

“Oh yes! Right into a cowpat!” Seheca laughs behind her hand, locking eyes with Keris. “What a buffoon of a man. Though perhaps I shouldn’t say that, if he’s the one paying for you to be here. He’s in trade, isn’t he?” she asks her companion.

“Yes, very much so. Especially the relic trade from the Scavenger Lands.” Heisi gives Keris a somewhat tipsy, but still evaluating glance. “Are you a scavenger lord?”

“Solely a merchant princess nowadays,” Keris deflects, accepting the wine. “I have a few stories of my scavenger days, but honestly, most of them were spent wading through mud and finding few relics. The finds we did make were the start of my career, though.” She smiles fondly, thinking back to those days in Matasque with Sasi - years ago, now. She’d been so very young, back then.

“Ah ha.” Heisi nods. “So have you only just arrived? How are you liking things here? We’ve been here a week, because - well, I just find Water such a depressing season, so I really do need a constitutional away from my husband.”

“What she said. I also need a constitutional away from her husband,” Seheca says dryly.

“My, what a surprise,” Keris gasps, raising a hand to her mouth in faux shock. “I was in dire need of a constitutional away from... well, not my husband.” She smiles slyly. “Truly, it’s amazing how many constitutionals young ladies find they need away from men. You’d think there was something wrong with their gender.” She blinks innocently. “Or perhaps it’s just that women make for better company?”

The conversation takes a pretty predictable path from thereon in, and within a few minutes, Heisi is kissing her. She tastes faintly of ash, and she’s warm to the touch like she’s running a fever. “My room, your room, Sehe’s room, or right here?” she breathes hungrily.

“I don’t see any reason to move if you don’t,” Keris murmurs back, hiking herself into the little flame’s lap. Zanyi... might have had the barest hint of a point. While she might stomp and scowl about being small, it’s very nice to be able to comfortably use her partners as furniture. She drags a hand through Heisi’s hair, stroking and massaging in ways that have the taller woman’s eyes flickering shut and a low groan arising. Meanwhile, Keris’s toe traces up the inside of Seheca’s thigh, and she winks invitingly at the Water dragon as Heisi tugs her into another kiss.

If there were more people here, or the environment wasn’t already basically one of sex and indulgence, she might hesitate. But if two Dragonblooded like her, she’ll be able to use their status as cover - perhaps even getting invited into more secure areas - and Heisi is clearly