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Fear & Excess

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Two seasons ago...

Far from Creation lies a realm of sin and blasphemy. Five days walk across a silver desert - or ride, or sail, for the journey always takes as long no matter how fast one travels it - lies the vast and terrible city called Malfeas, whose king shares its name and which is populated by mad and monstrous demons beyond number in their multitudes.

But there are worse things than mere demons in this godless place - demon lords whose armies would destroy the kingdoms of Creation, and demon princes whose very voices shake the ground. And close to the centre of the crazed geometry of a city so vast that distance falls short of describing it live the lesser-princes and princesses sworn to the green sun of Hell, plotting endlessly to undo the works of the righteous and the faithful.

Two of them were meeting now, in the first few days of Ascending Air, in a rock garden of rough white stone and red-smoke fountains. For tea.

Nemone Sasimana, disgraced princess of the Imperial Household, granddaughter of Her Imperial Majesty the Scarlet Empress, Fourth of Her Title, steepled her hands together. She inhaled the scent of her pale green tea, served in immaculate bone-china painted with scenes of the Demon City. She muttered a short prayer to the All-Makers, who wrought the world and within whose flesh they resided. And only then did she look sharply at her mistress.

“Darling, I am not very happy about this. I know you must trust these women to bring them to Hell, but to bring them to this kind of intimate meeting…”

Keris leaned forwards, placing a lock of her hair on Sasimana’s lips to silence her. “Shh, Sasi.”

“That’s exactly what I mean! Darling, you are using my name.” Her gesture took in the Hui Cha cultists sitting around the table.

“And it means nothing.” Keris brushed her hair against Sasimana’s nose before withdrawing it. “Sasi, they won’t betray me. They won’t even remember this meeting in their day to day lives.” She glanced over to the one to her right, a muscular woman with sword scars on the backs of her hands. “Smiling Steel, tell my Sasi what you are.”

The Hui Cha woman smiled, and in the light of the lanterns her shadow stretched out in the form of a great hound. “I am the true Smiling Steel, the one Lady Keris created. She cut out a little bit of Smiling Steel’s soul, fed it on raw meat and dreams, and so I was born. I am the bitch that lurks in her, watching and waiting for a command from my lady. My mother-self doesn’t know I exist, not exactly - and she doesn’t know what I know. So Lady Sasimana, trust in Lady Keris. I will never betray her.”

Something unexpected churned within Sasimana, listening to this woman - this sorcerous watchdog - describe her existence in such plain terms. She looked over at Keris. “I’ve never looked too deeply into the creation of watchdogs,” she said. “Where did you learn this?”

“A few murders in the south for Claudia, and she paid me with knowledge of this spell,” Keris said. “Smiling Steel here is… an improved version of the original woman. She’s someone I can trust. Kinder, too, at least to her sisters in the cult. She doesn’t get jealous in the same way, or have the same furious rages. A few other tweaks. All to make her happier and more stable.”

“Lady Keris is making my mother-self into me,” Smiling Steel said, gracefully lifting her teacup up. “When she completes the path of her ascension, she will become me fully. Lady Keris has made me my own midwife, which is greatly amusing.” The Saatan ladies shared a laugh.

“Is there any limit to what you can make them do?”

Make them do?” Keris laughed at that. “Sasi, I’m not making her do anything. I’m not making any of them do anything.” She nodded to the six-armed, compound-eyed mix of demon and woman who sat calmly at the table with them. “Scarlet Blossom willingly gave up her humanity and fused with one of my demons. Smiling Steel and Second Harmony there - I shaped their watchdog-selves to be like this. I don’t have to compel obedience. They know what they are, and they love it.” She let her eyes carry over to the last woman at the table, the dreamy-eyed woman with oil-slick patterning in her hair who did not care that she was topless and flaunting her heavily tattooed and pierced form. “And then there’s Shy Doe. She let Lady Lilunu use her as a canvas. She doesn’t even need her watchdog anymore. She’s past that.”

“It is so wonderful to be like this,” Shy Doe said, eyes not quite focused, as if she was trying to take in all the vistas of hell at once. “The princess gave me freedom. I can see so many things I couldn’t before.” Tears glistened at the corners of her eyes. “It’s so beautiful.”

Forcing down her desire to know more about what Keris had done to them - and ask the women themselves how it had felt to experience all that - Sasimana met her mistress’s eyes. “Keris, I know you’re trying to show off to me.”

“Is it working?” Keris asked playfully.

“Yes, actually,” Sasimana admitted, “but I did not ask for this meeting just to find out about what you’ve been working on. I wanted to have a more serious talk about matters.”

With a sigh, Keris tilted her head. “Can’t you let me have a little more fun? Well, maybe we can all have some fun. Ladies,” she said, rising to her feet and stepping around the table. “Why don’t you go play in that fountain over there? Sasi and me’ll take it to that bench and we want something pretty to watch.”

“It’d be terrible if that smoke ruined our silks,” Second Harmony said, her lips curling up coquettishly.

“Goodness, it might,” Keris agreed, the same smile on her face.

“I suppose we’ll just have to strip for you before we climb in,” Second Harmony said. “My ladies, why not take your seat and we can entertain you.”

Taking her tea, Sasimana joined Keris on the padded bench closer to the fountain and let her mistress cuddle up to her, resting her head on Sasimana’s shoulders. “Second Harmony was a courtesan in her youth,” she explained softly to Sasimana, as the other woman gave orders to the house angyalkae who took up a languid, sinuous melody.

“Her youth?” Sasimana raised her pale eyebrows, taking in the woman she would have pegged as being in her early twenties; graceful, golden-skinned with large brown eyes and jasmine-scented black hair.

“Oh, she’s in her fifties. She owns a number of quality tea shops in Yellow Point, but that’s just legitimacy for her real employment as a procuress working for Strong Ox. She thought she could muscle in on my work,” Keris purred, her tea forgotten as she watched the dance begin. “But I explained things to her, and gave her a little something that brought her back to the prime of her youth. She’s very loyal now, even if she has to wear her older appearance as a false shape in public. But that just helps to tie her closer to my cult.”

“Nicely done,” Sasimana complimented her. By her reckoning, the demonhost Scarlet Blossom was dancing a male-like role - and she certainly had enough hands for the other three ladies. “They dance-”

“Like me? Yes,” Keris said, as the other women stripped Scarlet Blossom from her long red-silk tunic-like dress, each movement one of eager abandonment. "It's one of my gifts to them."

“I know your humour. Does it amuse you to teach these wealthy Tengese ladies to act like dancers in your club?” Sasimana shifted in place, feeling warm at the thought. “Do you ever put them on stage?”

“I don’t show my pets off to just anyone,” Keris said softly, as more and more flesh was revealed. “But,” she added as the punchline, “some of them like the idea of baring themselves, hidden behind masks. And those ones get special training. And new faces for the dance.” She kissed Sasimana’s jaw, a lock of hair putting just a little downwards pressure on her lower abdomen. “The offer is always on for you to take a season in my club,” she teased.

“You know I could never get away from the Realm for a season like that,” Sasimana said, even if that was not what she wanted to say. Because the thought of a whole season working the club like a common dancing girl, having to obey everything Keris said and, oh, the mere mention of ‘special’ training? Of course the idea was attractive.

“Of course not.” Keris giggled. “You know Haneyl took a break as a headliner when I was over in the South?” She rolled her eyes. “She gloated about it to me. She gets that ego from you, I’m sure. But Calesco said she’d been burning out on work and hiding from a mean nasty magistrate who happened to be on Saata and a change really did her good. Maybe it’d do you good too.”

“I can’t disappoint…” Sasi’s attention drifted, as Shy Doe was the first to dreamily lower herself into the smoke-fountain, her decorated form appearing and disappearing through veils of red. “I have my duties as a Director.”

“I know, I know.” Keris rested her head on her shoulder. “So do I. But you don’t need to work quite as hard as you do.”

“On the topic of work,” Sasimana began. She was starting to get the feeling that Keris had ordered her ladies to go play in the fountain to try to avoid any hard conversations. She was used to her mistress’s aversion to interpersonal conflict, but it still sometimes snuck up on her. “I’m… wary about what you’ll be doing on the Street.”

Keris’s eyes narrowed in mild hurt. “Didn’t you say you were taking time off and you’d be sure to catch my performances?”

“Yes, and… I am. I will. But…”

“But?”

The first happy giggle drifted over from the fountains. “.... Ipithymia, Keris? Really?” Sasimana said, lowering her voice. “Not just acting in her plays, but…”

Keris quirked an eyebrow. “Is there something wrong with her, Sasi? She is Unquestionable.” Which trapped Sasimana, because... well, her mistress was right. She could hardly criticise the souls of the Yozis, even if some were less... cultured, than others. But that was a viewpoint Keris had voiced herself before - not quite to the point of heresy, but certainly making it clear that she had strong preferences among their masters, and favoured the orders of some above others. Ipithymia had not, to the best of Sasimana’s knowledge, ever been a demon princess that Keris favoured before this Calibration past.

And did that look of innocent inquiry hide the faintest trace of satisfaction at seeing their roles reversed like this, with Sasimana unsettled by Keris’s bed partners? No. No, it couldn’t. Keris could be spiteful, but this was far, far beyond what she would do for such ends. And anyway, she’d never turn that spite on Sasimana. Keris loved her, that was something she knew. It was carved into Keris’s soul - it had taken form as one of her souls. She would never hurt Sasimana willingly.

... would she?

Or had Ipithymia gotten to her? The Street of Golden Lanterns was old and cunning, and for all that Keris was justly proud of her identity as Tenné Cinnamon, that was a game that Ipithymia had been playing for five thousand years. What if she’d managed to gain some leverage over Keris? Mighty in battle she might be, but Keris could be painfully vulnerable to softer skills - Sasimana had firsthand experience of just how true that was. She knew for a fact that she herself would never want to spend a whole season under the command of the Gilded Idol. She would lose pieces of herself among all those blandishments. She would succumb. Of course she feared for Keris.

But Keris was stronger than her. It was something she had known for years at this point. Keris was at home with herself and who she was, and her souls loved her. And until Sasimana could better herself… maybe she was only projecting. Maybe Keris didn’t feel the same temptations Sasimana did, because she’d become hard on the streets, not weak and soft. Yes, Sasimana was scared. Scared of anything happening to Keris. But maybe Keris had nothing to be scared of. Maybe.

“It is nothing,” Sasimana said, eyes returning to the entertainment before her. With exaggerated, almost comic motions, the slight Shy Doe had the demonhost Scarlet Blossom on all eights before her, and her dance mimed taking her from behind. Smiling Steel and Second Harmony each had a hand to their mouths in mock shock, but given where their other hands were, it was not all that convincing.

“Liar,” Keris said, not even looking at the performance.

“No, not nothing,” Sasimana conceded, “but… yes, I am worried for you.”

“Aww.” Keris kissed her for that. “I love you too, babe. And I’m sorry for worrying you, and I know you’re stressed and need to relax more.”

“I’m fine,” Sasimana assured her.

“Drink the rest of your tea,” crooned Keris, looking up at Sasimana through her lashes. “And then give me your hands, love. I’ll make you feel all better.”

Frustration couldn’t hold on in the face of such sweet promise. Hiding a smile, Sasimana did as she was told, draining the rest of the peppery tea and laying her hands in Keris’s own.

If there was one thing she couldn’t deny, it was that Keris was certainly qualified to work for the Street of Golden Lanterns. Strong fingers, calloused from years of wielding knife and spear but softened by lotions and flesh-sculpting, got to work kneading her palms and stroking down her fingers. Letting her eyes flicker closed again, Sasimana leaned back in her seat with a breathy sigh. Her head lolled against the backrest as Keris dug clever thumbs into the flesh between her thumb and forefingers, working the muscles there until they were soft and pliable, then moved onto her wrist and forearm. Scarred lips brushed across her fingers, and one by one Keris took them into her mouth, sucking lightly, teasingly. Seductively.

“K-Keris,” Sasimana moaned, shifting in her seat to press her thighs together. It felt sinfully good, having attention lavished on her like this. Keris’s warm hands sent tingles racing through her from where they touched, stroking up from wrist to elbow and back as her palms dragged over sensitive skin. She could feel root-tendrils dipping past her skin to tweak acupuncture points as all the tension of a stressful Calibration bled out of her, all the aches and pains of countless piles of paperwork kneaded out and forgotten.

And still Keris’s mouth worked at her fingers. Sucking, nipping, pressing butterfly kisses to her sensitive fingertips. Dragging her teeth across Sasimana’s knuckles one moment, breathing little puffs across wet skin the next. Driving her to distraction while Keris pinched and pressed and rubbed circles that sparked her nerves and fired her blood.

“Mmm...”

Her own hands reached out, invisible and immaterial, dipping below Keris’s dress. Stroking over her skin, pinching at her nipples, dipping down, down, down towards her-

“Keris.” And Sasimana blinked in surprise, because that had come from Keris’s mouth - but not in her voice. Keris herself seemed surprised, but not shocked .Sasimana could see her tongue piercing burning with the same rainbow light as her familiar’s eyes.

The luxurious pampering stopped, and Sasimana heard herself let out a hurt whimper at the bliss being taken away when Keris slipped out of the grasp of her mind-hands. She opened her eyes to complain, Keris gave her a vaguely apologetic look and leaned over to kiss her chastely as she stood. “My lady?” she said through a second mouth she opened on her hand. “Sorry, Sasi, she-”

“Keris, can you please come over here? Baaji’s shown up out of the sky and he’s in a mood and I need you to sing for him and keep him happy while I find out exactly why he’s throwing his weight around please,” Keris’s mouth said.

Twisting, Sasimana could see the snowclouds that hung heavy over the central spire of the Conventicle. “Should I come?” she asked, shifting back and forwards in her seat in unfulfilled need.

Keris shook her head. “On my way, my lady,” she said. The light in her mouth died. “Sorry,” she added reluctantly. “Duty calls. And at the worst time.”

Sasimana did not actually care very much about duty right now, because it led to her not having Keris’s hands on her anymore. And then the guilt struck for that thought, and she nodded. “Go.”

“I’ll try to get back! Really, I will! But Baaji can be really needy and he really can upset my lady’s feelings sometimes and… you’re leaving tomorrow.”

“I know. Back to Creation.”

“I’ll try to see you before you leave, I really will,” Keris promised. “And maybe Testolagh too. But I have to go.”

She dropped another kiss on Sasimana’s lips, quick and chaste and not nearly enough to sate the desire she’d awoken, and then in a flurry of skirts and movement she was gone.

Sasimana stayed limp in the chair, the scent of cherry, honeysuckle and vetiver filling the air, feeling the burning heat of tender muscles and the sharp-sweet tingle of lips and tongue dragging over her fingers migrate straight down to her aching, unsatisfied pussy. She was sitting here all fired up, and Keris had gone, and nothing she’d get would be as fun as her mistress. And she was staring straight at Keris’s pet cultists. The ones she’d claimed and twisted and possessed and made into people who were freely fucking in a fountain in front of a stranger.

Fuck. She pressed the tip of one mind-hand against her eager slit, thinking of Keris, and set it to vibrating with a resonant frequency. Fuck, that was too hot. Just like it had been far too hot a few days ago to watch Ipithymia take Keris in her own dressing room, watching and knowing they knew she was watching and wishing she was there too with even more people watching.

In a flurry of silks, she strode off, heading for the gates that led to Ipithymia. No one could blame her for taking one last chance to have something nice before she headed back to Creation. Just this once.