Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Bella!

Skotia does not flirt with disaster by constructing further on your assertion. That’s the simplest sort of trap! The magic of the stranger unravels if you pin yourself down, if you let your shadow be limned and sewn up tight. That’s why he doesn’t agree with you, he doesn’t explain his presence here, he simply offers a nod and a bashful look at Nero’s Praetor.

“You noticed me?” he asks, and his smile is like the rosy fingers of dawn on a world that is not Tellus as it is, tantalizingly glimpsed through the golden thread of his mask. “I’m surprised. Not that I expect you not to notice people, but even me? Well. You’re careful and have a long memory, Bella.”

He inclines his head, neatly lowers himself with a footstep back, an attempt to mimic the submission of serpents. “Allow me to add to your welcome to the Endless Azure Skies, Praetor. I’m sure there is little enough I could add to your understanding of this place, these people, given how clever you are— but I know how to dance, and I have two feet to do it with. If you are in a generous mood.”

He straightens, tries to look nonchalantly away, glances back at you as if he’s worried you might have somehow vanished between heartbeats. His ears, too, are that gentle pink. He doesn’t know where it’s safe to look— at your face? Too impudent. At your body, draped in lace? Too licentious. At your feet? Too meek. He settles, eventually, on your hand, on the wine glass, for the most part.

The boy has it bad, and in a way that might even feel strangely familiar. He honestly doesn’t feel that he deserves to dance with you, but the desire to hold you and try to be a passable partner, to win just a smile from you, would cause his heart to carve a tunnel through his ribs if he didn’t say something. Which makes no sense, except that he still sees you as a Praetor, and presumably that takes precedence over the ears and tail, or—

Ah. He’s also into those. When he looks he doesn’t see a servant, he sees a great lady whose approval he craves. Maybe even a Mistress. If you whispered a command in his ear, who knows what he would do?
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Phoe
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There's a stranger standing here in front of her, begging for her attention. Normally she'd have blown him off by now. But normally she would not have called him over in the first place. This stranger is intriguing, and not for his strangeness. She scoffs, and takes a long, slow sip of wine.

"You can tell nobody drinks on this planet," Bella offers with a shrug, "This might have been passable three hundred years ago or whatever, but these assholes just let it sit around this entire time. Fucking snobs break it out now to show off to the 'distinguished guests'. Like I can't tell the difference."

She twists and sets the glass on the tray of a passing server. When she turns her attention to the boy again, he's still staring. At her hands. She rolls her eyes and sniffs the air. He smells of salt and sweat, in a way that reminds her of gymnasia and training and sets her heart racing. His sweat is not Her sweat, but it's... nnnnnm. Her eyes slide across his mask down to the undone button at the top of his jacket, and the definition of those slim-yet-tone, firm, powerful shoulders. She licks his lips with rather more fang than strictly necessary.

"There's nothing I hate more than somebody who's got something good in front of them and lets it go to waste. The galaxy's full of death and rot and pain, Pretty Boy. If you're lucky enough to stumble across something sweet, it should be a crime to ignore it. In fact, mmm, Praetor, aren't I? I say it is a crime."

Bella's hand is swift as wind. Her talons are cool on Skotia's cheek, but carefully curled to the side. She squeezes with the strength of titans and the gentleness of the bedroom all at once. She takes his jaw and leads his eyes forcefully away from her hand and toward more beautiful pastures. To her waist, and the inviting softness of her stomach all draped in gossamer. Up and up, there's a good boy, to the mountains rising up on her chest. And this is where she leaves him, watching her breasts. Not her face, not her eyes, but every little sway the follows the motion of her body, and every subtle bounce that makes the shifting of her feet.

She feels the heat building on his skin. She feels his mouth fall slack against her fingers. She feels his neck craning and watches his eyes begin to dart. And she knows, with a secret thrill, that this is not shyness. He doesn't try to find the floor, but strains against her grip with helpless, flustered hope that he might find the secret angle her designer did not intend and catch a glimpse of the dark buds hidden underneath the intricately patterned lace.

Bella grins. Her spine is tingling with the rush of electricity and eyes that see her, want her, need her. But her fingers show the mercy her heart refuses to, and finally tilts the boy's head up to look at her face. Even through his mask, she can see how flustered he is. His body reeks of excitement, a new and far sweeter kind of sweat that clings to his skin under his fine, rich clothes and mixes with the delicious salts that pull at the deepest corners of her memory.

"Good boy," she purrs, "What a fine citizen of the Empire! Would you like a reward from your Praetor? Then come and dance with me. The night is only halfway gone, and I've got so many eyes left to steal."

She takes his jaw more firmly and nods his head before he can ruin the moment by speaking. She feels him follow, not offering the slightest bit of resistance. There's another spark the builds inside her, and it burns like hungry fire. Beautiful trusted to her instincts, right? Then nothing she does tonight is wrong.

With a firm tug of his wrist, Bella pulls Skotia onto the dance floor. In another moment her hands are all about him, guiding his to where she wants them on her body. And they dance, pressed deliciously tight together. Every step in accordance with her will. Is this what you came for, Pretty Boy?
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by TheAmishPirate
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“I don’t know if I like working for her.” He finally says, keeping his hands busy with stirring sauces. “She won’t harm us, and she’ll protect us. I know this. But. Bahhhh. I don’t know.”

Which to the trained ear, meant that he did know, and he did not like the answer. So Vasilia keeps silent a while longer.

“I think that.” Gradually, working himself up to it. “If it got her a better result, she would not hesitate to let us or our friends come to harm. I know it’s awful to say, before she’s even had the chance, but, the thought is there, and I can’t ignore it.”

“You don’t have the choice she has, Dolce.” She offers, now that he has the thought out in the open. “We’re against an Ikarani. If we don’t follow her plan, we’ll be dead without ever knowing what killed us. Whatever her plan may be, it’s her plan. You’re not vouching for it, and you certainly don’t have to like it or her. You’re doing the only thing you can to save us all.”

“But the Housekeeper was special. To H'san, and Jalia, and Fangst, and all of them.” He stares long into his bubbling pot. “And our crew’s special too. I know it. Whatever an Eater of the Dead is, whatever she knows, she doesn’t know that.”

“So. If she's wrong there. What ought a good Captain to do about it?”

Now where did all this come from? Usually, he just stopped at whatever thought was bothering him, but then again, he also usually didn’t wear a hat of high office. Just what had Zeus been teaching him?! Or was it Hera? She hopes it was Hera. Easier to thank her. “For now, we serve dinner.” She sets a great silver-and-blue tray atop a floating sphere. “If the moment comes...I trust you’ll make the right decision. And in any case, you can always come to me for poor advice.”

“Vaaas!”

“You stand upon a vast treasury of mistakes, and I will not have my husband and Captain acting the miser of such riches.”

They left the kitchens, off into the unknown. Whatever would follow next, nothing would negate this truth: He is giggling, and she is the richer for it.
Hidden 2 mos ago 1 mo ago Post by Balmas
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Alexa presses the bundle of sheets against her face, and does her best not to cry.

Which makes no damn sense. There's nothing special about them. They aren't a treasured gift from a friend or the loot of a dangerous battle. There're bedsheets like them in every cabin in the Plousios, and gods know she's got more important things to cry about.

But they're her bedsheets. Redana had given her the cabin and everything in it. Showed her how the sheets could be ordered to change color, pattern, even plushness.

"How would you like me to set it up?"

"You decide!"

Just like that? No, uh, no pattern in mind? No preference for, say, an emblem or a flag?

Nothing?

Just. The idea that the sheets, the cabin, everything in it. All for her. For her to do with as she pleased. A private space. Somewhere she could decorate without anybody else's input.

The pile on the bed is almost accusatory in its size. You let yourself trust, Alexa. Now look at what you've done. Now you have all these memories, and every one of them needs a resolution before Molech uses them to learn who to hurt.

And yet, she wishes it were larger. That she hadn't been so hesitant to accumulate them. That she'd spent more time with others in the ship, picked up more memories.

Rusty's bed, at least, is easy. Molech knows about Rusty already, so there's no reason to hide it.

Unless… Maybe it's better Rusty spends time with the Coherents? Murvle certainly spends a lot of time petting her whenever he goes out at poker night, and it would at least put a layer of separation between them…

The recipe notebook is next. Easy enough--she already knows all the drinks recipes from long campaigns' worth of memorization, so in theory, those pages could go. But if she rips out those pages, it'll make the newer pages--battlecrab in sweet potato mash, a delicate tea recipe, and so on--stand out like a freshly-polished diamond in a pile of coal.

Does Molech know about Ramses? Has he been paying that enough attention? She has to assume he doesn't know, has to treat it like a threat. She can't destroy half of it…

The kitchens! Of course! That's how you hide something--put it where it won't be noticed. Who'd notice a little scrap notebook of recipes amongst dozens of others?

And… Well, if things go poorly, at least Vasilia will have a chance to try out some more of Colonel Shad's old mixups.

All too soon, the pile is sorted. A reddish lock of hair. A fragment of battlecrab shell. A sketchily put-together plaque. All tied to friends, all representative of possible victims. All selfishly put in a pile to save, or to hide, or to give away. None destroyed, or set alight, or put somewhere forever out of reach.

Soon, all that's left is the letter.

And… well, Molech's known about her for centuries.

She never does end up changing the bedsheets back to default.
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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Alexa!

There was no friction in Molech taking command of the Plousios. In fact, it feels like a strange relief to the structure of the ship. All questions are resolved. The path is clear.

The Alcedi cannot be faulted, for they are as much the children of Molech as you are. When he reached his hands into their genetic code and wrote the rhythms of war into the tempo of their hearts he left a hole that could only be filled by fealty to legitimate authority. With one breath he announced himself, and with the second he announced their target. And that is all that was needed.

Thunder rumbles down the corridors of the Plousios, as it always does as the Kingfishers prepare for war. The Alcedi are creatures of Zeus even more than they're cogs in Athena's engine. They are the glory of battle from the skies; a thunderstrike of unstoppable destructive force. They are the saviours, reinforcements, the fall of the hammer against the anvil of the machine phalanxes. All across the galaxy, battle cultists lose themselves in emulation of the gods in their most martial aspects: The legendary Azura bridge keepers, the mad cults of Ares, the Codexia of Athena, and many more besides. The Alcedi were unique amongst the battle servitors and their divine traditions for drawing the open favour of Zeus. They seemed to be Molech's masterpiece, displacing their elder sisters, the Kaeri.

(Unstoppable until the howls of the wolves of Ceron drowned out even the crash of thunder. How had Nero beaten him? You still don't understand it.)

The Order of Hermes, likewise, fell into place easily. In their case, though, it seemed less a declaration of loyalty or the fulfilling of a genetic sequence so much as it was carefully placed submission. The Order of Hermes is, from what you've learned about them in your time with Ramses, overwhelmingly aware of what they have to lose. Their society is deeply materialistic and categorically resists displays of noble self-sacrifice. The loss of the Yakanov, one of the flagships of their civilization, to the crossfire unleashed by a single Imperial Assassin was another data point to emphasize just how bad an idea it would be to start raising questions if a human - and an emperor, no less - showed up and started issuing commands. So they fold, having endured enough displays of force in recent days to make another one undesirable.

Your role, then, is to talk to the Assistant Secretary of Fear and Doubt. Molech does not understand or appreciate the organization or relevance of the creatures of Poseidon, but cannot overlook their military potential for the looming battle. And so you are sent into the lower depths of the ship which have begun to look curiously like the mangrove forests of the Eater of Worlds, thick and humming with life and the clack-clack of battlecrabs at every stage of development. The Assistant Secretary's home is in a massive pavillion, red and white striped, surrounded by ranks of crabs holding flags and banners in massive pincers that look one errant twitch away from severing in half.

Vasilia and Dolce!

There is music. Someone is singing. They've got the voice of an... the voice of a...

You don't have time to listen. You already spilled a quarter of the soup as the music hit you. There are polite coughs and your throat is itchy. But some attention turns from the dance floor and to you - and your meal. Some Azura seem to awaken as if from a deep sleep when the smell of your cooking touches their flickering tongues.

Bella is here. She is dancing with a dark stranger. Thist did not lie when she said the assassins were close.

But that... music. It's getting into everything, infectiously, hypnotizingly good. If you're going to keep bringing this meal out, and potentially distract the Azura from it, you'll need to roll to Overcome.
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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The music comes from something descended, distantly, from a gramophone. It is a huge thing of turning gears, and from it issues forth music from a thousand years ago. An orchestra would be a security risk; a record cannot be a disguise, a trap or a traitor. So they are alone, the three of them: Xanthippe, Redana, and her Bella.

One-two-three, one-two-three, the waltz demands, unwilling to be patient enough for Dany to be careful, marching her forward relentlessly. One-two-three, one-two-three, and Bella must allow herself to be a mannequin, because the Imperial Princess must lead: on the battlefield, in the polis, and on the dance floor. Her duty is to be limp and pliable, to follow the movements of the princess without question, to be silent and never, ever offer a hint. No matter how distressed Redana might get, no matter how Xanthippe snapped at the princess, Bella is to exist for the benefit of her mistress. That’s what it means to be a good girl.


Skotia is not an excellent dancer, but he is an eager partner. He follows Bella’s footsteps smoothly, picking up every small cue that the Praetor provides; when he hesitates, he allows her to take control and show him where he needs to go. When dipped, he lets one hand brush against the floor ever-so-slightly, and the flash of his neck begs to be bitten, to be bruised, to be marked.

“I’m glad you’re here to show me what to do,” he murmurs. “Truth be told, I never was particularly good at it. Not like you.”

”—because I expect great things from you, your highness,” Xanthippe says, with cloying sweetness. “Now, go get a drink. A young girl’s head needs water to turn the wheels of the mills of the mind.”

Redana slinks over to the pitcher of water, head bowed, wearing that same look of slightly hurt frustration she gets whenever she’s bashing her head against something that refuses to budge. If it was about speed, she could do it; if it was about tossing Bella up in the air, she could do that too. If it was about making up whatever she wanted, well, she and Bella had already had their own dance parties, in this very room, jerking around and wiggling, laughing, as the strings on the record played something jaunty and bouncy. But dancing isn’t about fun. Dancing is about sending a message. It speaks to nobility, a life of leisure, absolute control of mental faculties and physical prowess, and a steady poker face— all things Redana lacks.

The ice clinks in the pitcher; Redana doesn’t see Xanthippe put her hand on Bella’s arm and squeeze hard, doesn’t hear her whisper: “And as for you, slut, stop distracting her highness! Hold your upper body still and do not look her in the eyes again…”


“—and as I climbed,” Skotia says, eyes dancing quicker than his feet as the music goes slow and stately, “I decided to lie down on the slope. I didn’t even need a blanket; the grass underfoot was so soft that sinking into it felt like I was already in Elysium. So I propped up my head and stared down into the sweet-scented valley between, and considered myself, perhaps, the most fortunate young man in the world.”

They sway together, slowly, even as the Azura around them twine their bodies in elegant spirals; bereft of such lower bodies, all they can do is press close together.

“And that’s when I had the sudden urge to taste the grass,” he says, and rests his head against her. His heart, beating so fast and hard, knocks politely against her ribs. “I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like in my mouth— but what mountain climber hasn’t ever had a thought like that?”

His hand drifts lower and, for one daring moment, squeezes, lifts one cheek ever so slightly— and when he glances up, it’s both to be sure he’s allowed and to dare her to punish his impudence.

The trick is to imagine that her feet belong to somebody else, isn’t it?

That the pain belongs to someone else. When Redana is done, she can slip out of her heels and groan and sit down. But someone needs to refill the pitcher, doesn’t she? And someone needs to wind the great organ that spits out songs from ghosts long-gone, and someone needs to take dinner out of the oven, and someone needs to see Xanthippe to the exit and signal Alexa to let her out, that the chamber is locked and sealed behind Xanthippe, once the instructor of dancing has finished telling Bella what a useless little whore she is, and someone needs to not daydream about locking her in the chamber and walking away on feet like knives, no, waltzing away, and someone needs to do it with a smile and a curtsey, and someone needs to do it all fast, and her reward at the end of the day is getting to unbuckle the shoes from her numb feet.

And if she does it all right, her reward is that, alone, her princess wonders what’s wrong with her if her feet are pinched and sore in a way that’s so very different from running on the track, but her Bella doesn’t feel it at all. What is she doing wrong? Is she broken? She can’t be, but what if she is? What if Hera spoke to Terpsichore so that her feet would always hurt while dancing? What if she was going to make a fool of herself at the ball for her thirteenth birthday, and in front of Odoacer of all people?


When the music (does not stop but instead becomes a low and all-encompassing hum that is the spine of the world), Skotia remains pressed to Bella for a moment, willing himself to remember this when he is no longer confident and daring, when the clock strikes midnight and all his magic leaves him: that he was allowed to hold Bella in his arms like this, and she’d never know that he was ever anyone different.

In the moment between songs, when some couples choose to leave and more, many more, join the dance, Skotia holds to Bella as if afraid that she will toss him aside, unworthy, bad at dancing, a brat who takes liberties beyond what she invited. He holds her as if he is drowning and she is the whole wide color-clogged sea.

“Will you allow me another, Praetor?” he asks, simply.
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Phoe
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There is a fire burning in the sweet scented valley between the mountains. The heart underneath it does not quicken, but it pounds. Nothing crumbles, heaves, flutters, or otherwise succumbs to kinds of things that would doom a fragile maiden. But the valley burns, and when she lifts Skotia off the ground to bring him level with her face, her golden eye burns too.

Bella's smile is a thing of teeth and vengeance but somehow a polite and refined smirk all at once. If her hand is trembling, and it is, it is not with effort or embarrassment. Her stance is too firm, her heart is too steady (pounding into her ribs as it is). Every inch of her burns hotter than a fire, but her tail flicks with a posture of bemusement.

Her eye flicks away once, then twice, looking for a clock. Her breathing slows a tiny bit. The sound of polite laughter bends her ear, and a shadow passes her face briefly, but her attention does not leave the mysterious young man again. Her ears flutter suddenly, as though shaking something out of them. She smiles again, and this time brushes Skotia's cheek with the back of her fingers. She is both warmer and colder, and that's the most warning she has to give.

"Another? No. You can't dance for shit."

Aphrodite is all about the room. He blows the smell of soup into Bella's nose, and the savory aroma softens her heart. He guides the breeze the wafts through the room just so to lessen the sting of the venom filling the hall before it can distract her from the matter at hand. He winds the gramophone and picks the music that tightens all the muscles in Bella's stomach. His invisible fingers flick the button off the top of Skotia's jacket for good, and it drops to the floor with a tiny, sensuous clatter. And then he steps back to light a cigarette, and wait.

Bella pulls Skotia close, so that their faces touch. She cranes her neck to put her lips by his ear. Her breath is hot and steamy and deliberate. So is the nip of her fang on his lobe.

"This will be a lesson, fool. When I'm done with you, you'll be a master. Every twitching. Quivering. Inch of you."

This is the power of desire. This is what the stranger buys with his daring touches, though not because he dared to reach. An Imperial Pet endures a thousands touches a day, whether she welcomes them or not. But none of those were ever quite so soft or hesitant. None of those worshipped the curves they dared to touch. None of them begged. None of them treated her like a treasure that had to be earned and unlocked. Bella's throat rumbles with a sound called validation.

She puts the young man on his feet. He needs to feel the ground beneath him so he'll understand how little he can do. Move where you will, fight if you want, Skotia. You'll end up where Bella wants you, in the end. Not that you will, you naughty thing. She could put you on a leash right now and you won't say a word of complaint. She could slip ornamental ears shaped like hers atop your head and slide her fingers through your hair and you'd mewl like a favorite pet. Don't deny it. You'd let her make a servitor out of you in a heartbeat, take your place beneath her and call it a dream come true. Wouldn't you?

The dance is a tango. Bella marches Skotia with her hand wrapped firmly around his hip, and where she squeezes... riiip! A slash of her beautiful talons leaves a tiny gash in his beautiful costume. Her fingers slip inside the hole and brush along the firm muscles and supple skin beneath.

They march and spin, and she slashes two tiny lines across the shoulders down the arm, to give her a better view of those gorgeous, muscled arms. They move in a line as one and she sweeps him down lower and lower until his hair brushes the floor, and while he swoons her claws brush tenderly up the inside of his thigh. She lifts him in the air to buy a moment for her thumb to probe the new alteration and see what kind of soft and sweet fabrics he's hiding underneath. The pucker of his lips and the shuddering of his breath draws a purr from Bella's chest.

She slices a tiny line along the center of his chest, and several more in sharp diagonals where she touches his abs, which are worthy of a god. She never cuts enough fabric to ruin his careful outfit. Just enough to mark him. Just enough to give her secret access to the treasures hidden underneath, just enough that she can part the fabrics with a bow or a sweep and give herself a private, Praetor's-only glimpse of everything she wants.

And she does want everything. She is in command here. She, Bella, dances with the fluid grace of a... person who feels trusted, and is free to trust in turn. She moves his hands where she wants them. When he next caresses her butt underneath her tail, it's because she tugged his arm there, and squeezed it tight until he had no choice but to obey.

"Good boy. Good. You do learn fast." She pressed a talon against his mask and flicks it down almost to his nose. But this alone she doesn't cut.

She should bend him over and bite his neck until he's marked so thoroughly there will be nothing left of him that isn't hers. She should tear his dignity away until he has no choice but to hide himself in her. She should take him, every bit of him, and not care who watches her do it. But she doesn't. She pulls him close and holds him gently, and finds this dark stranger the perfect size and shape to fit inside her embrace.

"I'm a busy woman," her voice is cold now, and heavy with the weight of a dozen burdens piled awkwardly on top of each other like a game board, "But until I tell you otherwise, you belong to me. Understand?"

Go on and nod, little pet. Go on and stand on your tiptoes to kiss her neck, if you understand and dare. Go on and trust her, if you're stupid enough to want that. Go on, then. Go on.

Or go.
Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Picture Skotia, held in the arms of the Praetor. Picture his golden mask, perched on his nose, its eyes flushed hot pink, its fringe drifting down his neck like a pretty silk veil, changed from a confident disguise to something demure and humiliating with one careful talon. Picture the way he holds himself to avoid flashing the flesh of his well-shaped thigh, or worse, the delicate lace, the bow now half undone by a probing thumb, knowing that Bella could nudge him open with careless ease, fingers pressed to his lips. Imagine the adoring, wondering look in his mismatched eyes, how he stares up at Bella as if he had known her all his life, had known her as simply Bella the maid, Bella the pet, and suddenly sees her as Bella the woman, Bella the Praetor, Bella Triumphant.

And even so, Skotia hesitates. He does not blurt out fealty, but considers Bella for longer than she would likely care to be considered. Aphrodite’s eyes, on the pair, are hot coals, hotter than the stub of his cigarette. In a moment like this, words have meaning. Oaths that cannot be broken are made in moments like this.

Imagine being seen for who you are, the song goes. Imagine being accepted anyway. Imagine being chosen, over and over again. Imagine being given a second chance.

“I belonged to you the moment our eyes met,” he concludes, finally. “And if the Rift slipped between our arms, I’d still be yours for as long as it took us to cross. Because I am yours until you release me, my Praetor.” And he does stand on tiptoe, and the fringe of his mask is such a thin thing between the heat of his lips and Bella’s neck, and he mouths her name like a hymn. Bella.

(And it is not a promise to follow, and it is not a promise to obey, but it is a promise to belong. Let his wife weep, let his dogs howl; he will never be free of Bella. But consider—)

“But I have competition,” he continues, as the Praetor’s hand explores the hidden places of his back. “Or so the rumor goes, from that privateer ship. When the Imperial Princess had word you were dead on some Hermetic wreck, she fell to pieces. She sang to Eleuthereus and had to be restrained, or she would have made her whole ship your funeral offering. Now that you are here alive, she likely means to kidnap you and keep you on her ship so she does not risk losing you again. Forgive me for waiting to tell you. I… I wanted you to want me, first. No. Needed you.”

He looks up with a vulnerable lift of his neck, like a submissive little kitten, and waits for his punishment. And there’s more than one kind, isn’t there? Her iron talons pressing against his throat until she has cut off his breath and holds his lungs in thrall. A bitter word, a refusal to ever love the princess who abandoned her again, confirmation that Redana never meant anything to her but a ward to be resented. Or, worse, a longing cry, a boy forgotten, a wailing collapse at the Princess’s feet—

Because that’s your game, isn’t it, Skotia? That’s how you’re playing the Praetor. The terrible clarity of Aphrodite suffuses you. If the Praetor condemns the Princess, then you are damned in turn, born in immaculate conception from her roots; if you seduce her, you carry out a long and cruel betrayal. If the Praetor adores the Princess, who you once were and are no longer, then you will be damned in turn, punished in Tartarus as you deserve, a mirror of Bella’s past as you watch and serve and long for her love.

But if the Praetor is conflicted, if she is torn, if your words roll over her in waves, then maybe, just maybe, you can make everything right. You can perform a miracle tonight. Redana Claudius, perfected, better than she ever was or could have been, will continue her quest to save humanity. Praetor Bella will continue the chase of someone she could have cared for, if things had been different. And with her—

A second chance. No crown to come between you. The dreams you once had, entrusted to someone who deserves them more. The girl who suffered for the person you once were, now soothed, now worshipped, now allowed to be wanted. An apology carried out every morning and every night, a secret plea for forgiveness. A service from a servant who was never destined to rule.

The name you were given tonight will not last forever. You will need a new one. Maybe, if you are lucky, it will be Princess. A joke and a power play and a gender and a comfort all in one. If you sail between Scylla and Charybdis. If there is a chance she might accept you and your need that Redana Claudius was never allowed to express, most of all by herself.

Picture Skotia, placing his heart in Bella’s talons, frightened by his own plan, but unwilling to step away from it under the eyes and name of Aphrodite. Picture Skotia, ready to be unwrapped, his hidden lace whispering against his skin, his heart shining full of the power of a mean girl. Picture Skotia, throwing his whole being into a desperate plan without thinking about it, again, because his heart won’t fit in his chest and he doesn’t know any other way to live than following it where it pulls on his leash.

Picture the places where Skotia fits perfectly in his Bella’s arms.
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This is not a negotiation, to be clear; this is a demand, a show of force, a demonstration. There is to be no neutrality for the creatures of Poseidon, no chance of a sudden attack from within. The high walls bristle with Alcedi warriors, waiting to drop like hail. The very air thrums and pulsates with the force of wings flapped in unison. Know your place, fit where you're told, and you can serve with us. Fail to join or, gods forbid, oppose Molech?

Alexa clutches her spear, and wishes they'd just hold still for one second. Let the thunder of wings die away, and give her a chance to think. Or! Better and better! Leave entirely! Let her face the court alone!

Quietly, she proffers the spear to one of the more intricatedly-carved battlecrabs.

The noise above her grows louder as the murmur of angry, dissatisified soldiers joins the beating of wings.

"For all it matters," she says, taking a seat across from the Assistant Secretary, "I hate this as much as you. But surely you can see that neither of us are able to stand against this? Better to work together than shed each others' blood to no end?"
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She fights because Bella is dancing. Already she sees her. She sees her, and her memories gain another mortifying perspective. So this is how she pranced for a room full of Hermetics, now many her colleagues? Minus the chains, of course...

No. No, she will not answer. She must not answer. If she lets herself slip, if she lets herself drift off on wordless songs and memories of regret, the road back to the present will extract a heavy toll. If she returns at all. She didn't have her past then. She doesn't have her past now. The battle of that one, terrible day looms ever larger, and if she is to survive it, then she must defeat a yet more ancient foe.

Hera, purge the lightning from her nerves. Open wide the path back to Lakkos. And by all that is sacred and holy, keep her eyes from the dancers.

************************

He fights because Bella is dancing. Dancers do not partake in refreshments heavier than sips of wine and light hors d'oeuvres. His hearty soup is out of the question. But no dance lasts forever. Bella's motions are. Physical. Demanding. She will surely need more substantial refreshment soon.

He has until then to decide what he will do if she expects him to serve her. (She will choose either he or vasilia. Please, do not shame him, and ask him how he knows this.) The lives of everyone he loves hinges on his wise answer.

How could he possibly drift off at a time like this?

[Rolled a 10 to Overcome.]
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Alexa!

"Did you know," said the Assistant Secretary of Fear and Doubt, "that I wrote my graduate thesis on why the Eater of Worlds should fear Molech? Part of my argument involved you, Ms. Alexa! It was very well received, and although Hubris and Action ultimately blocked it from entering the Agenda, it did lead directly towards the development of a specialized strain of battlecrabs designed to resist what were perceived to be the Emperor's favoured tactics. Not a bad result, if I do say so!"

You've never really been able to get over how well dressed Poseidon's monsters are. The Assistant Secretary looks more like an Emperor than even Molech did, enthroned upon a towering coral chair, flowering in technicolour atop an elephantine battlecrab's back. Rolling silks and encrusted veins of gold and silver garland the sea monster, raised claws in a mirror sheen. The tendrils of the octopus-like Assistant Secretary are dashed with feathers, and his hat is towering, rectangular, and dangling with dozens of scrolls covered in kanji of some strange language.

It must be emphasized, even through that, that these are monsters. When Poseidon Earthshaker wishes to bring disaster upon a planet he unleashes his strange deep space fleets. They descend from the void and bring indiscriminate ruin to everything in their path. There's no negotiating with them. Even the Assistant Secretary, as reasonable as he seems, is not so much a person as he is a single brain cell, a fragment of a creature unknowably vast, subject to pressures and currents as alien as those that command you must seem to him.

"But you're right," he said, turning so that a single black eye fixed you directly. "Both that you hate this, and that we should talk. It seems to me that, as this ship's authority on fear and doubt, you are filled with both. So you should work for me!" He laughs, a plump and wheezing sound, a happy creature's laugh. "I certainly don't stand a chance otherwise!"

Vasilia and Dolce!

You get... tips?

One Azura nobleman gives you a letter. Another gives you an intricate mechanical watch. A third gives you a handkerchief. The gifts keep coming, from everyone you encounter, just absent smiles and whatever treasure happens to be in their pockets.

It's not until you tune into the music that things start to make sense.

"Oh, my heart is in your pocket,
Won't you take it out and show me?
Oh, my heart is in your pocket,
Won't you take it out and give me?
Oh, I'm trapped inside your pocket,
Set me free and I'll be yours..."


Even with the shield of strong aroma preventing her from being literally hypnotizing, she's still so captivating she's metaphorically hypnotizing. The notes that she can wring out of that throat are unreal, impossible. This is the song left by Artemis' arrow cutting through the air, Aphrodite's curse as a murderous weapon. You have to look away.

And when you do, you notice you are not alone. There are other serving staff here, mouse-servitors dressed in drab dark blue uniforms moving about. They are carrying empty plates upon which they are politely collecting the various possessions given to them by the Azura nobility. One in particular - you do not know her name, but she is Jil, Lanternlight of the Anemoi - stands obediently by the Satrap's side as she absently hands her a strange, glimmering violet coin. Its light briefly flashes through the room but it vanishes up the mouse girl's sleeve just as quickly. This, you have no doubt, is what they are after.

Bella and Skotia!

Jil just got the coin - but from all around, you see and hear shivers and groans from the Azura aspect knights. They saw something and their lulled brains are awakening them to danger. They will soon arise from Beljani's spell - unless you do something to seize control of this situation and demand their undivided attention.
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The gods are cruel. To have given her these special senses, these eyes, these ears, this nose, this tongue, and a mind of her own to process the world around her with and then to shackle her with duties that demand she ignore most of what she notices. To have given her a heart and filled it so full of desires that she couldn't chase any of them without losing the others forever. To have kept her alive, against her own wishes, and guided her to such a specific place only to put it to her again: friends? Lovers? Or family, Bella?

If the gods are cruel, then time is crueler still. In a single flash of a coin, what had once been an entire night to explore every possibility becomes a splinter of precious moments, swiftly draining away to nothing. And even those, she is obliged to share. Her ears and tail strain to their tips and her fingers flex and curl uncontrollably. She rolls her neck without a single crack or pop. Her shoulders strain against her dress.

She gives two of her dwindling moments to Skotia, the dark stranger who made her feel desired and beautiful. She holds him tight against her in the way that he was made to fit inside her arms, so that his ear can feel the frenzied pounding of her heart against her ribs. Her muscles feel like lumps of tangled wires against his body. The tips of her claws press into his arm and his back, and it's only through raw willpower that she keeps herself from piercing him.

Bella uncoils, and pushes him away. She opens her mouth to say something, but only shakes her head. Her eye burns like a fire as she stoops down to put her lips to his, instead. The kiss is not long or lingering, but it is hot, hungry, and full of teeth. She marks her territory with the desperate power of a huntress out of time to choose her moment. She must be swift, or she'll lose herself forever. She must be brutal, or she'll be forgotten. She brushes the blood from his lower lips with the tip of her thumb and licks it clean in front of him. And then she turns away. This is not your fault, Skotia. Your plan is not to blame. Bella's just a woman out of time.

Her eyes scan across the ballroom, marking targets. The guests. The Satrap. The guards rousing from the slumber Beljani placed them under. And then she reaches Jil, and she freezes. They lock eyes for one second. Just for one second. But for a friendship formed in the darkness and deep quiet of the Anemoi, that's almost good enough. Bella's posture shifts, and her expression softens. This is pride. This is trust. Her tail flicks as she walks forward on clicking heels, and this buys them one moment more.

Jil's hand finds Bella's arm as they pass each other. The touch is fleeting, delicate. But this is enough. Good luck. I trust you. I'm glad we found each other again, before the end.

Before the end?

...Before the end.

They split. Bella turns her head again, and her face hardens to diamond in a flash.

Three times. Three times she's come to a place, and Vasilia has found a way to stand right in her way. Three times she's seen those eyes brush past her to a treasure that should belong to Bella. Three times. It's enough to know that look. Enough to know that she's made a connection somewhere in that stupid head of hers. Beautiful put her here to trust her instincts. Her eyes flick back and forth between Vasilia and the guards. Then once to Redana. She scowls. Every bird, one stone. That's how it's done, Bella.

"No."

Her voice is jarringly loud against the backdrop of Beljani's singing. Every step is the snap-crack of a knife being driven into the tile beneath her. Her right arm swings with hypnotizing smoothness against her swinging hips. Her left is held out to her side, palm up, jeweled talons glinting dangerously in the light. She passes into shadow, then light, then shadow again, at the same agonizing and horrible pace.

"That's my friend," every word is like a needle dripping with venom, "And I don't appreciate the look you're giving her."

Even this delicate dress of lace looks dangerous on her. It clings to her so perfectly that every ripple of muscle is immediately apparent to the naked eye if you're looking for it or not. It's hard not to watch the way she glistens under its silky embrace. Her mouth is full of teeth, and her eye is full of fire. It would be easier to look at without the alien deadness of the Auspex next to it. Bella tilts her neck upward and sneers.

"You think I'll let you have her? Criminal. Fugitive. Scum," she hisses, "I've had enough! If they don't teach you manners on whatever stupid little rock you crawled out of, I'll just carve them into you myself!"

Lines of visible electricity crackle across her body as her ELF thrums to life from a dozen different nodules worked into her jewelry. It bursts across her back in a terrible flash that makes her look like she's grown wings that burn two charred holes into the ceiling. She tenses, curls forward, and howls while her field condenses down across her arms and chest. Arcs of lightning climb the spots between her talons. Her tail flicks once in warning: here she comes.

Her claws cut the air in front of her like thunder. Her eyes burn with insane zeal in the darkness she creates, until they're all that lights her face. Here she is again, Vasilia. The Imperial Praetor: this unhinged, vicious animal. What do you do?

[Keep Them Busy: 10]
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The stage remains silent.

Bella forces a spotlight on her, but this isn't a play, it's an excuse. A paper thin veil, that a rabid animal might look back later and tell herself she was justified. The latest in a proud tradition of lies, carrying on the family business of holding her together. Reasoning was exiled generations ago; it won't find any welcome here.

As to her audience, she says: What audience? The chief qualification of an audience was that they held a scrap of care. Who here will shed a tear if a lioness is cut to ribbons before them? The Azura? At best, they might grouse at the indecency of foreigners, staining the floors with their scandalously red blood. The assassins and their helpers? Someone else is bleeding, which means a fine day's work for them. The gods? Not without calling on their favor first, and now that the moment is here, no name springs to her lips. No, there's no performance to make here. No decision other than if she will bleed holding her sword or her glaive.

...no. No, that's not right.

Amidst the whine of charging ELF, and a nightmare in talons and silks flying towards her, through the burn of the spotlight, one soul sits in the front row. One who watches her with all their attentions. One who needs to see her performance.

The glaive springs to her waiting hand, erupting in shining blade and rippling gravity. She leaps, and at the flex of her fingers it pulls her through three different trajectories, all away from the demoness' first strike. She will get no closer than a glaive's length. The room echoes with her battlecry, a song for the one watching her, and gasping.

"Not! This! Time!"

So she swears.

Go, dear heart. The mission needs you.

[Vasilia is kept busy by Bella, while Dolce sneaks off after Jill. The Pair are now Working Alone.]
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Alexa smiles in wonderment as she studies the crabs with new appreciation--notes, past the rippling silk and glistening jewels, the notches and cutouts in the armored shells. Of course! If you know you're facing airborne troops, you need to be able to reach and face in different directions! And the bulk of the armored legs is much thicker--all the better to absorb the thunderblow of a divebombing Alcedi! Troops, purpose-built to counter her own!

Wonderful! Oh, this makes things so much easier!

She leans across the desk conspiratorially. "I feel it only appropriate to let you know that I have standing orders to immediately murder anybody plotting against Emperor Molech. I take no pleasure in this! But I must warn you to mind carefully the words you speak--if you set off the geas, you will probably win the battle, but we all lose.

"So with that in mind: Molech wants you working for him. You want me working for you. Consider me intrigued. Do fill me in on your meaning."
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Skotia takes a moment to recover from that kiss. How could he not? It stole his breath, his sense, and his composure all at once. His lip throbs a one-two beat, an ache that sends his mind reeling. Bella is strong, fierce, and possessive. No small wonder that the loss of the imperial princess hurt her so much; she is desperate to hold onto the things she has.

The hiss of ozone makes old memories stir in his head, and for a moment his blue eye is cold as ice as it sketches the paths of lightning. The Ianuspater does not judge Skotia the way that it would judge Redana Claudius, and so its impression of the room is different. After all, Skotia is an agent of love— and that is what unfolds for him. The red strings, the tapestry of desires and needs and bindings that hold everyone here.

Skotia, the dark stranger, marked by the maid of Tellus, sees as no one else here can. He sees not just the clash of arms but the hearts that beat underneath each blow. He sees the great well of gravity that Bella has become, and knows he is tumbling fast into it. And he sees clearly the shape of the war of assassins, for they too work in desire…

[Miraculously, Skotia managed a 10 on Look Closely. So tell us about the war of assassins, and how it could hurt or help Skotia’s quest to make amends, about what secret lies hidden or askew in this scene, and— if you have the time— of Princess Redana and what she will do next.]
Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by Thanqol
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Alexa!

"Oh!" said the Assistant Secretary in surprise. "Oh! I was hardly expecting you to take my words seriously. What have I to offer? Despite your faith in my abilities, my tides are still young and I would humbly not see them tested in battle against those backed by an Emperor. Besides, I am no general myself. I am a humble bureaucrat in service to Poseidon and the nations that devour the void in his name."

But those tendrils rub together thoughtfully. The black eye watches you, dark as the void and as bright as a glass star.

"Besides, no mortal could defeat Molech on the field of battle. Not truly! Only a fool would try," he went on. "But I do recall from my ancient lessons and contemplation that while Molech loved one god and despised another, to most he was simply indifferent. He sought the favour of Athena, of course, she who was his icon. But to the rest, he simply allowed an apparatus of high priests and the resources of empire to ensure they were properly respected. One would imagine that he lacks the full power and protection of an Imperial court and state religion. So this is my advice, Alexa. I understand you've lost the favour of Athena, and you will make a poor servant to our Lord without her blessing. But there are more gods than she, and were you to catch their eyes it would be an act of filial loyalty. Imagine, returning cloaked in the grace of the gods! Perhaps," and here that eye sparkled especially, "you might learn from one of them the secrets to being a dutiful daughter, those Olympians who are renowned for how they honoured their parents."

The Assistant Secretary clacked a golden staff against a large gong, sending out a ringing sound that made his battlecrabs lower their raised and clacking pincers. "You will, of course, let the Emperor know that my tides are at his disposal. Even the beasts of Poseidon have no choice but to be tame before his mighty hand."

Dolce!

It is in the servant's corridors you catch up to her, as she moves with the exaggeratedly steady walk of someone carrying a box of high explosives. Jil's eyes dart around as she sees you, a golden-doored lantern hanging from her fingers, marked with the sign of Apollo. The little golden spark burns in the caged air with no wick, its gentle and fragile light much like the girl herself.

She is a mouse as you are a sheep; rounded ears and whiplash dexterity and eyes wide against the dark. Cute as a button in the light, but were she to let that lantern light fall who knows what she might become in the dark?

"Excuse me," she said politely, "this passage is for servants only. I'll have to ask you to return to the main hall, Lord Captain."

Skotia!

You were once, and perhaps are again, a creature of romance novels. The aesthetic of the Azure Skies was never far from your distant imagination. Those stories have their own languages, of wicked viziers and clever merchants, but one of the most endlessly recurring were the tales of the Djinn - and the wizards that sought to bind them. What wizard would set themselves a lesser goal?

A Djinn is, at its most basic, the essence of fire and heat. They dwell within everything from candleflames to roaring Engines or even the stars themselves, as the Naiads oversee water or the Thuellai move the winds. Azura history and theology is tightly interwoven with these creatures and their ancient history, but that was not deemed relevant to your education. What you were taught is that the Djinn are powerful strategic weapons employed by the Azura military. You were taught how to identify imbued rings and lamps. You were taught that Command Seal technology operates using the same principles as Djinn binding.

And what you saw the mouse servitor steal from the Azura Satrap was undoubtedly an imbued ring.

Many stories begin with such a theft, but none end that way. Azura assassins hunt ring thieves to the edges of the galaxy (unless they fall in love with their quarry), the Djinn threaten to destroy entire cities in their wroth (unless they fall in love with their mistress), and Shahs will imprison and interrogate guests they suspect of hiding magic rings (no doubt falling in love with their prisoners in the process). The overwhelming point to all of this, other than the romantic complexities of being a thief in the Endless Azure Skies, is that Azura high society is ready for such thefts. It's ready in shifting and treacherous and unpredictable ways and would-be thieves will inevitably be captured, no matter how elaborate their preparations.

This is not to say that you understand the full context of the shadow war being waged between Thelis Thist and Beautiful - but that is how the Auspex boils it down for you. Across the vision of your artificial eye you see an owl, a nightingale and a cat caught in the coils of a serpent, struggling in futility against constricting sapphires. A mouse escapes with a ring to be startled by the stomping hoof of a ram, who rears because he has pricked his hoof on a rose thorn.

And when the ring falls, fire. Fire and burning roses. A hedge maze all aflame, walls of jagged thorns and raging heat. And at the centre of the burning maze a chameleon princess meditates, face wet with tears, even as the flames reach her.

The vision breaks suddenly, your mind racing and your heart pounding as you process the flicker of divine wisdom that entered your mind through the golden eye. You can see the shades of thorns, the promise of future fires. Your eyes have opened and you have realized that this is no garden at all but a labyrinth, a prison, a trap.

And you see them both. The Master of Assassins, Sagakhan, the ancient hag who curtsied to Redana in the Imperial Palace on Tellus, is right there, dancing in the thick arms of Thelis Thist. They spin and coil in the same hostile, loveless rhythm that Bella and Redana were in as you arrived. They writhe and twist and smile daggers at each other, and then they part and head their separate ways to begin setting their murderous plans into motion. Thist's eyes are on Bella, Sagakhan's are on Redana-Mynx.

[Response Level: 9

The Response Level has been hidden due to the influence of one of the Bosses.

Location Stats:
Maze, Civilized, Outpost

Location Moves:
Dark Secret
Separation
Guardian
More Than It Seems
Stalker
Invaders
Hidden Danger
This Land Is My Land
You Need To Leave]
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Phoe
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Vasilia!

You fought with Bella once before, deep inside the Eater of Worlds. Back then, she threw herself at you like an animal breaking out of a cage. She foamed at the mouth without a shred of decorum and fought against your firearms with her claws. Just a reckless, arrogant, above all stupid creature with no regard for her own safety. And yet your instincts have always told you that you were the lucky one to get away unscathed.

This time is nothing like that. Bella does not fight like an animal or even like a monster might. She stands still for an unusually long time in between each explosive movement with her spine held so straight and rigid that you can't help but wonder if she's letting her ELF run under her skin to shock her into the posture. And then she snaps in a direction, and her body turns into a blur that inevitably kills the next thing it touches.

Sometimes it's a table or a bench. Sometimes she craters the floor or tears a hole in the ceiling. Her claws rip a stone column in half, and the aftershock of the effort blows the whole thing into little chunks that rain down with indiscriminate malice. Like before, she dodges nothing. There's no need; lightning incinerates everything before it can touch her. Her body is lit in a halo of destructive energy that makes her dangerous just to stand near.

Previously you fought Bella: servant of the Empire. Her Royal Highness Princess Redana's bodyguard, using arts she was accustomed to even if she'd rather they had been kept secret. Now you fight a creature that has been told in no uncertain terms that its next failure will be its last. Her teeth clench hard enough inside her mouth to draw blood, which runs from her lips down to her chin in tiny rivers. Steam hisses from her escaping blood and the extremities of her trembling body. How hot must she be burning herself to generate this much power? How much does it hurt her? You don't have time to do more than register the thoughts before you have to zip out of the way again of another deathblow.

This is like fighting a storm. And like a storm, it doesn't care what it hits or how much collateral damage it might cause while its rage burns down. This is power that shouldn't exist at a human scale. This is strength to threaten even a god, given the right opportunity. Your only consolation is that she either can't or won't direct it all directly at you. Not that it means you don't have to dodge and tumble just to stay alive, but it means that you can. That's a blessing right now, no matter how you look at it.

Bella's claws smash the ground with a crash that drowns out every noise around for hundreds of meters. Her leg snaps through the space where you used to be and throws a shockwave that splinters a mural depicting the taming of the first djinn. You let your glaive pull you at odd angles through strange gravity, and she chases after you with raw stupid strength. Or she doesn't, and just stands there letting so much raw electricity roll off of her body that the now quickly rousing guards have no choice but to turn all of their focus on her. Only on her.

Like it matters where they're looking. In another minute if things keep going this way there's not going to be a building left for them to guard. Bella screams, and the sound she makes defies description. It splits the room with thunderous force, inhumanly loud and inhumanly horrid. Rage, terrible rage, and something underneath it that's much worse. The wetness in her eyes burns faster than it can fall, so when she rushes at you there's no way to tell if it was tears or blood.

All of a sudden she's on top of you. You bend out of the way the grace of your gravity arts, and she snaps several bones in her arm following you anyway at what should be an impossible angle. Her iron clawed grip snatches round your ankle, and it burns. It burns so much you want to scream too, though of course you don't. In this last and worst of moments, your brain takes the time to stupidly register that despite all of the destruction she's wrought in this short while, and for all that it's pattern seems obscenely delicate, there's not a single thread out of place on Bella's dress. You should pay your compliments to her tailor, if you and she live long enough to meet each other.

Bella snarls, and throws you like a discus at the now advancing Azura guards. She plants her feet and reaches across her body to wrench her elbow back into place, and squeeze her forearm until the shattered bones realign into useful shape. The ELF quiets, and focuses into more of a cage-like accessory than the brutal storm-wings she'd let it be till now. Her eyes are mismatched pools of trembling anger, but her shoulders are heaving with exertion from her effort. Fresh steam pours off her skin from every pore. So she watches.

Roll to Overcome, if you would, and tell us what fresh technique you used to save your life. Why are you alive, Vasilia? Why. Are. You. Here?!
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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It is inhumane to keep an echo in a cage too small for it. Echoes, after all, are creatures of wide spaces, grand vistas, imperial opera houses. They aren’t made to be crammed into a ballroom one after another, until they’re biting and clawing at everyone, too distraught to be safe. The ear, overwhelmed, rebels; the breakdown in communication causes riots in the feverish brain, even for those looking down and away from the arcing, spitting ELF lines. Even so, in the midst of the chaos, the Alcedi make a ring of death around their princess, proof against any mortal assault.

A shame, then, that Bella no longer may be counted as a mortal foe. She is become a thing that no spear may pierce, and around her there is ruin and catastrophe, and death without intention. The spear-ring breaks when a pillar collapses around them, struggling to reform, and as Redana calmly calls out orders that cannot be properly heard over the tumult, a stone table is sent carelessly end-over-end, hurtling towards her at desperate speeds. Not, of course, that Bella intended such a thing to happen; she simply did not care to see what happened to the table she tossed aside.

The table smashes through the far wall and into the corridors beyond. Redana lies on the floor, wreath fallen almost carelessly past her head.

Skotia lies on top of her.

“You’re being played, your highness,” he breathes in her ear, the dulcet words cutting through the chaos like the spear after it leaves the fingertips. “The Imperial Assassin, Sagakhan— she plays a dangerous game.” Nuance, pared down into words with their desperation cloaked by chivalry. “The flame is roses and the smoke is briars.

He half-heaves himself up, leaning on one elbow. He leaves a dark, wet stain on the side of that beautiful white dress. Haven’t you noticed it’s dangerous in here?

“I’ve got her,” he mouths carefully, knowing it’s understood. “Save yourself.” Then there is an arm hooking under his shoulder and he is tossed aside by an Alcedi veteran, landing roughly in the remains of a mural. The Imperial Princess accepts a hand to help her to her feet as her retinue closes ranks around her once more.

It remains to be seen whether Redana will accept the command of a handsome stranger; it remains to be seen whether she, alone, recognizes him. Or perhaps, once she is in the dark, and she hears the snap of the growing flames, only then will she know the remembered eyes, the taut voice, the hair falling loose at his jaw.

And it remains to be seen how Skotia can possibly fulfill his oath without dying in the process, as Bella gives full throat to her rage.
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Nothing quite so refreshing as flying helplessly through the air to be maimed or murdered.

No exit to furiously search for while staying steps ahead of her doom. No form-fitting dresses to creep into her awareness and incite washes of shame on reflex. No good that a blessed pistol might do, if only she could find the target to aim for. The world reduced down to the question of what a flying lioness will do with the moments she has left. For the first time this fight, since she landed on this planet, she's

empty again

The glaive leaves her hand. The guards raise their shields. And the glaive raises the guards, a sudden well of gravity dragging them up in the weapon's path and out of the way of hers. The throw’s momentum sends her corkscrewing, and she will not waste it. One hands strikes the floor. One hand taps her belt. No plume of smoke marks her passage and yet she rockets to the ceiling, past guards, past glaive, no weight to stop her ascent.

No weight, that is, save for an astronomically attractive glaive.

The ceiling filling her vision, she slows. She stops. She falls, into an orbit circling her blade, tighter and tighter until she lays hand on it. There it freezes. There about she swings. And the two land upon on an ornamental outcropping not yet blasted by the storm.

There, she stops. There she breathes. There, she watches, for the split-second warning she will have before you strike again. She is here, because for the first time in her life she was looking for the path that did not end in blood. Hers, or another's. And not even lightning can blind her eyes.

If she wasn't doomed, she might consider that a victory. If Redana could direct an ounce of care to her plight, she might consider celebrating. Lucky for her, she'd grown so accustomed to disappointment, she hardly felt a thing.

[Rolling to Overcome: 6 + 3 + 1 = 10. Paying a Price by erasing Vasilia’s bond with Redana.]

*******************************************************

Dolce inclines his head to the mouse, his Captain’s hat remaining undoffed thanks only to the near-empty pot he juggled with both hands. ”I'm terribly sorry for startling you. But I’ve volunteered to cook for the assembly today, and we’ve run out of soup, and I must return to the kitchens to fetch some more.”

Of course he must use the servant’s corridors to restock. What if he ran into a dignitary and splattered their carefully blue robes? Unthinkable disaster, far too perilous to risk, and both of them know it.

“Please, accept my apologies for intruding unannounced upon your corridors.” The pot shifts suddenly, and he might have splashed her spotless robes but for the skill of his hands. Not a drop spills on her or the floors. Not even when his hand darted to her sleeve, and a ring vanished into his coat. “I won’t be in your way at all.”
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Balmas

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Alexa sighs, lays a cloth over the bowl of dough, and starts meticulously putting things back in place.

"… He told me I should be a dutiful daughter."

By rights, the kitchen should be a mess. Each ingredient should have been decimated after its brethren had joined the bowl--the sack of flour rent in twain, the delicate jar of starter shattered against the wall, the salt bin splintered. The room should bear witness to her frustration, leave a lasting testimony of her anger.

But that's not a luxury she has. There should be no evidence she was here--nothing to tie her to this conversation, nothing to make the Emperor wonder what his chief agent was doing.

"I thought that would work, once upon a time. That by doing what he asked, when he asked, willingly and helpfully, I could unlock some secret that would let him love me."

It's simple work, but gratifying. The measuring cups get rinsed and scrubbed out and hung back up on their hooks. The sourdough starter gets a small helping of flour. The counters shine under her hands. Inch by inch, the room starts to sparkle.

And so long as her hands are busy with something else, she can talk without thinking too hard about what she's saying.

"… Why is it my task to love him? To be loyal to him? He does not love me--does not even think of me as a person. He stole my childhood, hurt my friends, and now he seeks to steal my future."

She stares at the bread dough, before finally meeting Hestia's gaze. "How did you do it?"
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