Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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Vasilia!

"A harem is where one individual has multiple sexual or romantic partners who are usually in a subservient role," Iskarot said. "Though in some cases, the harem is able to socially overpower the ostensible owner and seize whatever power they possessed. The reigning Azura Shah is little more than a ceremonial figurehead and war leader, as a faction within her harem has seized real political power. They are harsh negotiators, I would advise steering clear of Azura space even if we didn't have an Imperial Princess on board. In a similar vein, I expect you to keep your own harem in line, I do not have the time or desire to memorize an elaborate web of who is topping who."

Once again, the Hermetic's shadowed face and robotic voice makes it impossible to tell if he's serious.

Bella!

That awful gun crashes away into the side of the room and almost no sooner has it landed than a wall compartment opens and a team of the ship's Hermetic cultists lunge forth to grab it and drag it back into their hidden passage. As they swing the panels shut behind them, one of them slides something across the floor behind the Plover - your Auspex identifies it as an "Abductor Mine", though what that means you don't have time to figure out.

As the feral machine catches it's bearings it swings about to look at the space where it's weapon had briefly been and half-flinches as though wanting to go after it. But then its helm swings about to face you - glowing blue visor and a long hideous painted tongue that drips down onto the machine's torso. It rolls its shoulders and with a whine of energy it activates its Electromagnetic Flux generators. Two jagged shoulder electrodes begin sweeping the area around it with dramatic jolts of lightning, flicking back and forth lazily.

"You're a thief," said the machine's pilot, sounding surprised, sullen and accusatory in equal parts. "That was mine and you stole it. What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Power begins to burn around it as its cable drinks deep of the Anemoi's reactor. A ragged volley of solid projectile shots slam into its face and torso - Jil and the surviving Lanternites - but it pushes through without slowing. It roars forwards towards you at full speed and then, just before impact, it burns all of its braking thrusters simultaneously - sending multiple blasts of fire vaguely towards you. The aim is off - the pilot had to target this blind through the solid projectile shot - but the wash of heat and surge of ELF lightning passes far too close for you not to feel.
Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Balmas
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You can't freeze, she tells herself. Breathe normally. Keep those muscles loose. Don't twitch or stare. You're relaxed, calm. Voice steady, eyes loose. You have nothing to hide. Ignore that churning that says to tense every muscle, says to run, fawn, anything to avoid what you know is coming. Remember, if you freeze, give off the slightest hint of being nervous, it doesn't matter what you say, she'll know.

But... she already knows, doesn't she. Or at the very least, suspects. People don't ask pointed questions like that if they don't, in the back of their minds, already know the answer.

It was a nice run, wasn't it? Being able to pretend she was someone else for a change. Imagining she could escape who she was, what she was.

And the worst thing is, maybe Redana's not lying, even to herself! Maybe she really did just need someone to fly the ship for her, to help get the shuttle off the ground, to man the engines. Maybe she doesn't want or need a weapon--

But who could resist the Pallas Rex at your beck and call?

The letter burns in her pocket. This isn't right! Aphrodite himself presented her with the mandate to worship! She-- Isn't that important? Alexa might be able to do that, but the Pallas Rex cannot!

If she's going to lie, she has to do it now, and do it well. Invent some minor bureaucrat. Give them a position in Molech's court, something easy to remember, something she knows. War? No, impossible. Molech would never delegate that job to someone else. Finance? Royal architect, perhaps? Something that would let her into the inner circle of the court, let her be privy to the dirty dealings, give her motive to hate him--

In the end, it's making the mistake of looking at Redana that does her in--of meeting those wide, mismatched, caring eyes, and instantly freezing. Look away, damn you, and she's not sure which of them she's talking about. Be cruel. Be capricious. Give her a reason not to trust you!

She makes several unsuccessful attempts, breath hitching at each one, before managing to choke out, "If you ever find yourself falling from orbit... Find a way to avoid situations where you fall from orbit. I do not recommend the experience."
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Waves of intense heat billow her hair and her tent-like shirt as if she were standing in a hurricane. Bolts of electricity lance so close to her that she can feel her skin tingle and the fur on her body stand up in response. Her nostrils burn all the way down to her lungs with the feeling of fire and the scent of copper spun with sulfur and the telltale bits of denser metals that start to build up whenever you draw extra power from a starship's core.

There in that inferno, Bella stands statue still. The statue traces the lines of greatest danger from the attack as easily as her old eyes would have caught a mouse creeping around in the murk, until the raw fury of having so many thrusters vented directly at her forces her to squeeze her eyes shut for a moment. Her tail flicks in the brief moment between the end of the attack and the cold air of the Anemoi reasserting itself and whipping at her hair and clothes again in the other direction. Her eyes snap open again and flash with anger and disdain colder than the yawning jaws of space. Her jaw clenches tightly as another wave of ELF lightning arcs wildly around her.

She turns her head and spits at the air where it passed.

"I said SHOW ME!"

She leaps, and it feels more like flight. The still air pulls at her body as she tears through it with the gentleness of a crowd of adoring fans reaching out their fingertips just to be able to say they beheld their idol and felt her softness for themselves. She could swim in a pool filled entirely with wine and it wouldn't feel half this good. And even still, not even the shadow of a smile crosses her lips. Not yet. Not yet. There are other pleasures left for her to test.

This is the part where Redana would screw things up. She would realize at the crest of her jump just how she was dressed, and fears for her modesty would pull her back to the ground squeaking and twisting as she fell desperately clutching for the bottom of her clothes until she plummeted straight into the enemy's grasp and needed to be rescued. But Bella isn't considering who might be sneaking a peak at her perfect body. And if she's thinking about Redana at all, her every thought is taken with the other Redana and how she would rise to meet this moment.

Her claws crush down on one of the jagged electrode mounts with the weight of the wicked battle axe that's haunted her dreams all this week and smashes the ELF generator into a crumpled, sputtering heap. Her claws reach deeper in and tear out a pile of greasy spokes and wires as she slides through the plover and lands heavily enough to drop her to her knees. Her ship dutifully swallows the sound of her impact. Without waiting to see the impact of her strike, Bella whirls around on the floor and rises with another wild slash that bursts through the lifelines drawn across the machine's left leg.

The plover topples over onto its back, and Bella flips lightly on top of it to perch on its upper torso. Her lips twist into a sardonic smirk as she scrapes her talons along the length of the grotesque and tasteless tongue painting.

"I guess I expected too much from space trash. Is some part of this raid not living up to your expectations? I'm so sorry, let me fix that."

Bella's tail swishes in anticipation as she slides across the plover's body with the languid ease of an apex predator in a moment of total comfort. She reaches lazily toward the cockpit and starts ripping it open as though it were made from cheap yarn.
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“Oh! My! Gosh!!” Redana’s eyes sparkle, and she shoots up out of the crabs with more energy and vigor than she’s shown this entire time, scrabbling back up Alexa. “So of course you killed Molech! He probably knew secret codes that would turn you back into his killer bodyguard! Oh stars, is that why you’re so awkward, because I’m like my mom?”

She leans into two of Alexa’s arms, carefree. “Because all I want is to prove to Mom that it’s time for us all to see the stars again. I’m not looking for a permanent bodyguard. I’m not going to war or anything like that. Do you want me to call you Pallas, or Alexa? Palexa?”

She beams, heedless of crabs, heedless of pain, heedless of anything but the joy of getting to know a friend better. Or make a friend? Perhaps here is a princess worth fighting an army of crabs for, neon green bangs and all.
Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by TheAmishPirate
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“Yes, Mister Dolce.” Vasilia ground out through a gritted smile. “We’re all rather busy here, so please. If you would. Tell the good Hermetician you were joking.”

Dolce blinked away some visions of deeply unprofessional social dynamics, and unfortunately found himself precisely where he’d been a moment ago. “Well. I would, yes, I would. Very much love to say that...”

“And what. Exactly. Is. Stopping you?”

He took the longest breath of his life. “I don’t know-”

“How can you not know?!"

“It’s - oh. No. Please, it’s, it’s a little complicated, but-”

“I fail to see how it’s complicated, dear. Either you tell me you’re joking, or you tell me who you’ve failed to introduce me to. Which is it?”

“I don’t know if I’ve married anyone else!”

Divine fury crashed into incomprehensible chaos, and the entire room lurched to a screeching halt. “You...what?” It was Vasilia’s turn to be at a loss for words. “How could you not know you’ve married someone? I would think that would be hard to miss.”

“It wasn’t covered in our education. None of it was. We were never taught anything about courtship, or marrying, or harems, or anything of the sort. I,” He stared straight through the deck, to the distant, confusing past. “I never thought of it before you brought it up, but, I’ve had a long service with the Starsong. I only met you partway through. And, I know now there are many ways to court and marry, but. There was such a long time before, I met so many people...it’s entirely possible somebody married me, and I would never have known.” To think; you could marry the love of your life, begin a bright new chapter together, and then wake up one day and they were just. Gone. Without ever honoring the oaths you swore together. He shivered and hugged himself tightly. Horrible. Simply, horrible to think about. “It was never anything to think about before. You came of age, you had your assigned partner, and that was that.”

Vasilia fell back into her chair. The motion would’ve been more graceful had she been stumbling drunk. “Dolce.” She said slowly. “Did you have an...’assigned partner?’”

“Oh! Oh no, no, of course not. ‘The chef’s love is to be his art, and his love will be complete in service.’” He recited from memory. “That’s how it was for me, and the chef before me, and all the chefs before us.”

“Right. Of course.” There was. Entirely too much to unpack there, in a conversation already bursting at the seams. “Now we just have to figure out if you ever...married somebody on accident.”

“It would be closer to unintentionally marrying someone, but, yes.”

“Unintentionally married. Why not?” She closed her eyes, and quietly explored a steady path to some rather high numbers. “Aphrodite?” She finally said without looking. “On the quite likely chance you’re standing there, would you care to weigh in on the question?”
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Vasilia!

"My father told me something once," said Aphrodite, spectacles on as he quietly tapped away on his archaic typewriter in the corner. "To move copy, add a dash of unrequited love."

The Hermetician, rather bizarrely, reached out to pat Dolce's head in a there-there gesture. "There, there," he added in an uncharacteristic tone of voice. "It will all work out."

His hand had a gentle coating of spotted grey and black fur. He quickly withdrew it and hid it back inside his robes.

"These marriages," he said, "must be salvaged. Any combination of components, personnel, or life lessons that can be extracted from them will undoubtedly prove essential to our journey. Navigating the Tear will require as much divine support as possible, and if even one god is displeased with us then the task will truly be impossible."

The Tear - you've heard stories. The great storming rift at the centre of the galaxy. A weapon of Molech? A curse from the gods? It is far, far away from anywhere you have traveled, but only the most distant stories of its nature have reached you here. It is, to say the least, not the sort of thing that people go in and out of.

Bella!

The Empress Nero, in her wisdom, had declared new codes of war. The primacy of surrender was key amongst them - rituals for how violence was to conclude. Overmatched like this, it is not to Big Bone Lick's credit that she keeps fighting - it is a prideful blindness that believes that even now she can pull victory from the jaws of defeat. You see Athena turn her face away in disgust right as you tear open the cockpit and that may as well be the end of things right there.

As the metal comes away you see a gleaming serpent eye in the shadows and then - she lunges! Coiled like a snake, knife gripped in her hand, she flies at you with blade in hand - and jolts short. Amidst the crash and chaos she forgot to unbuckle her piloting harness and just as that blade is about to reach you the pirate queen jolts to a halt against her restraints. The only thing that touches you is her involuntarily expelled breath.

Information flows into you as the serpent-servitor struggles with her harness. You can smell her fears - ghosts, primarily, the data drawn from the click of bone dice on her half-dozen bracelets, charms to Hades. You can taste her preferences in food from the stains on her shirt and hands - marrow stock soup, oily and garnished with spring onion. You can hear her sins from where Apollo has marked them - sloth chief amongst them, so proud of her creativity and skill that she would stab a man who told her she could do better. You can see the chemical formulae of the poison in her fangs and again on her fingernails, enough to let a gentle caress inflict hideous suffering. You can feel her past in the luster of her scales - no child of necessity this, she has the strength and suppleness of a woman who has never missed a spa day her life.

She manages to find a trick amidst it all - pulling on the cord of her ejector seat. Her chair erupts from the wreckage of the Plover and sends her, spinning, half-way down the corridor. It buys her enough time to unbuckle herself, struggle to a vertical position, angle her knife correctly, and say a few words to dig her in even deeper to the war goddess' contempt. "This is fucked up. War is about stuff. My stuff was better, you didn't even have any stuff. I should be winning! What the fuck!"
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Thin wisps of smoke curl slowly off of Bella's palm. Her fingers twitch slightly as they shake off the aftereffects of tearing an ELF generator in half. She sneers, and lifts that same hand to her shoulder to tug her shirt back into alignment. Her hips sway provocatively as she glides down the corridor past her Lanternites to meet her prey. Step and swish, step and swish. Her Auspex burns with ruby light in the dark corridor.

"I guess that means your stuff wasn't worth shit then, huh? But then, my hermeticians were tripping over themselves to get at your gun so we know that's not true. Ah, let's think... it's you, shit for brains. You lost because you're weak."

Her arms swing casually at her sides with every bouncy, silent step. Every muscle in her body sings a song of confidence and safety that draws followers into her wake. She raises a hand to halt them where they stand. This battle is already over, there's only one person who hasn't figured that out yet. Bella pauses a half step out of the serpent girl's range. She stretches her neck, and glances down when her stomach rumbles irritably. Gods, she could eat an entire feast by herself right now.

"Let me ask you, do you know where you are? Do you know who you picked a fight with? This is The Anemoi, you stupid cunt, Her Imperial Majesty Nero Claudius Tellurian's very own dagger among the stars. We chase greater prey than you could even imagine if we gave you a year and a picture book to help you along."

The knife comes at her in slow motion. Bella twists out of the way with a simple pivot on the balls of her feet and snatches the blade out of the pirate's hands as if she were the snake, not even caring that she's grabbing it by the blade. She flips it over and snatches it again by the handle just before she lunges to seize her opponent by the head and throw her roughly against the wall. Bella clicks her tongue with the air of a disappointed teacher as she watches the other woman flop silently to the floor and shake her head to clear the impact. Bella's eyes flicker over to Athena as she carefully watches the war goddess for her reaction.

"Now, I'm willing to chalk this little misunderstanding up to a lack of education. You can't have any good schools so far out here in the sticks, or else... well. Let's fix that, shall we? War's not about stuff. War's never been about 'stuff'. Molech had the Spear of Civilization and Her Majesty crushed him and took his empire just the same."

She scowls. Memories of the museum were all attached to a certain Princess. She flicks them away with the tip of her tail before the name can crawl its way all the way to the front of her mind. She lifts her claws to the knife and shreds the blade to the point of uselessness by way of demonstration, and in that moment she's forced to handle another charge. Bella snarls and snaps a vicious kick across her worthless student's face. The impact ripples down her leg, and when she matches it to the vibrations of the bone impact in that cavernous skull, her Auspex registers an almost certain concussion.

"...We'll make this simpler, then. I'm a stronger than you are, you stupid fucking scum sucking parasite. You're as outmatched here as you are stupid and ugly. Quit wasting my time. I'm offering you your life, dipshit. Pull your head out of your ass long enough to fucking take it already!"

Bella flinches. Despite her best efforts, a memory rolls to close to the surface of her thoughts for her to ignore it. She knows what she's supposed to do here, because she saw her... saw the princess get chewed out a hundred times for forgetting it. So she covers for Redana, just like always, and dips into a courteous bow.

It's wasted on this cretin. But the next attack would be the last, Athena can't ask for fairer than that.
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It only lasted a moment. But, nowhere did it say that surprises had to last long to touch a heart. Or a head, as the case may be. Dolce’s eyes widened, and a knot of tension worked its way down, down, down, leaving behind a wearied, but warm, blob of wool. “Thank you,” he said with a grateful little smile, and didn’t he wish all the more he knew what sort of treat Iskarot might like?

Vasilia had slightly less gratitude or hypothetical treats to give. “That’s hardly fair, isn’t it? We don’t even know if any such marriages exist, and we’ve no useful means of finding out.” She did not glare at Aphrodite. Deafening, the way she did not glare. “Our journey is dangerous enough without going on a wild goose chase around the galaxy. Every day we delay is another day the Armada might find us and swat us out of the skies.” So you see? There was no sense at all to searching for something that would they definitely never find, and so, logically, the only thing to do was to press forward and forget any of this ever happened.

“Actually...”

It was, perhaps, the worst thing she could’ve heard Dolce say.

“If there is someone out there I’ve unintentionally married, and they do remember me, then won’t Aphrodite put them in our path sooner or later?”

Vasilia decided to stop breathing. The ice in her chest left no room for air anyway.
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Balmas
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"Do not--!"

Alexa bites the words in half, and forces a tight smile.

"Alexa. Alexa will do nicely. Please."

She bats a crab away, more to give her hands something to do than because it's a threat.

"I am awkward because..."

What even to say?

"Mistress, I have displayed extremely poor judgement before in choosing masters. I carried out the will of a tyrant, was his enforcer, his weapon, and did terrible things in his name."

There were no codes. She helped, sacrificed, hurt, so that she would not be sacrificed and hurt.

"And then I helped your mother, and she turned Tellus into a prison."

And again, she helped so that she would not be hurt.

"And here you are, bright, shiny, helpful, kind, caring."

Abandoned her own to pursue this. Pits herself against the might and wealth of empire in a suicidal bid for change.

"And I am waiting for the shoe to drop."

And helping isn't going to keep her from being hurt.
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"Ah." Redana understands the saying; she might not have a head for statecraft, but she knows more than one might expect from a sheltered royal. "Well..."

What can she say? That she will never betray Alexa? Even if Alexa turns on her, turns on the adventure, tries to pick her up and take her back home? Even if Bell-- if somebody finds the codes that will turn Alexa into a killer bodyguard and takes command, forcing her and that mysterious somebody into a fight of command seals? Every promise she can think of seems like an invitation for the gods to take it and push her into it to prove her, to make her shine or break. "I'll do my best to juggle the shoe," she says, with a wry little smile. "You should have seen me and Bella playing off-the-ground back when we were kids," she says, and even though it hurts once it's out of her mouth, she couldn't stop the sneaky little thing from escaping! "I was really good at it, you know. So maybe we'll get all the way to Gaia and back before you get sick of me!"

She puffs herself up, and then dives into the crabs with a battle cry. Step aside, crustacean cossacks! Sure, she's over-exerting herself and will be a mess of aching muscles and congestion by the time they turn the tide[1], but to Hades with all that! She's got to show Alexa, and more importantly, prove to herself that when you work as a team, nothing[2] can stand in your way.

***

[1]: pun very much intended.

[2]: well, not nothing. There are still things that can defeat even teamwork. But if you believe that nothing can defeat it, you can defeat things that you very much could not have if you didn't have that faith, and when you come to the things that really no-fooling cannot be defeated, well, you already had a good run.
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Redana and Alexa!

The flow of crabs has trickled to a halt, and what crustaceans have survived this mighty confrontation against the galaxy's greatest warriors retreat fearlessly, clacking their claws in endless defiance.

Your trip here was not purposeless, though. Here in the unexplored lower depths of the ship you have discovered a strange treasure indeed - immense concealed compartments stacked floor to ceiling with orange-green glowing golden bars. They're hot to the touch - intensely radioactive, enough to kill a more fragile creature in hours - but they're the right shape to fit into a number of strange and empty compartments you have seen throughout the ship. Some kind of alien fuel, for some hidden esoteric power of the ship? Even as mere curiosities they are valuable, but will need further research.

Forge a bond with each other as well. You understand each other better than you did.

Vasilia!

Aphrodite raised his mug of coffee in a brief salute at Vasilia in acknowledgement of her lack of glaring.

Still, over the course of this conversation you have made a personal connection to the Hermetician. In coming days he is - well, he is still snappy, but he corrects more than he condemns. You've learned more about his ways and patterns, how he possesses a fixation on unmaking, salvage, and recycling valuables that perhaps rivals Dolce's focus on cooking. He seeks to apply this logic to all things: if something is worth more disassembled, then he will disassemble it and find joy in the doing. Forge a bond with Iskarot.

Bella!

You take your eyes off the snake for just a moment. Your head bows and you look down at the ground in perfect accord with the will of Nero. An act of ritual, an act of vulnerability, an act of dedication to the new codes of war.

And so your eyes are averted during the ensuing act of divine violence.

When you look up there is Hera, Queen of Olympus, flanked by two great golden heifers, flicking a few drops of envenomed blood off her parasol. Athena has knelt, and within moments everyone else upon the battlefield has as well.

She is nothing like her wife. Zeus is violet and dark blue, darkness so intense that to go any darker it has to explode into the purest and most brilliant light. Hera is of silver and rose gold interlaid in chain links that wrap her arms in gleaming sleeves. Zeus is solitary, a creature of the mountain and the sky, as beyond peer as physics, clad only in a simple dress without jewelry. Hera comes with the riches of Olympus, followed by servants bearing plates of ambrosia, fanned by peacock feathers, feet surrounded by purring cats, hand resting upon the head of a brown doe. Zeus is so mighty that she needs no displays of power, for her every act is a display of power. Hera is so mighty that she needs no displays of power, and yet she puts the effort in anyway.

She walks across the corridor towards you - fierce, angry, heartbroken, but still observant of the codes, still protective of your subordinates, still respectful of the gods. For a moment her divine hand comes down and tousles your hair, running around your ear, adjusting the Imperial Tiara into place. She glances around the hall, ensuring there is no mistake in her intent.

And then she is gone, the vision is past, the pirate queen is dead upon the floor and few the sounds of battle that had made their way through even the Anemoi's oppressive architectural silence fade into nothing. Hera has given you victory, Bella. She recognized you and blessed you in front of witnesses, establishing your power over the Anemoi as absolute.

And now a hundred eyes look to you, awaiting command.

Everyone!

Time passes. The Plousios approaches the planet Ridenki, home of "Species AVX-44" - colloquially, the Alced. It is time to take the auguries.

In the candle-light of the ship's Pantheon, the fire burns far brightest around the Statue of Hera. She is the patron goddess of this planet, and it is her will that the Hermetics defy in their harvest. And yet, defy her they do, for the empty altar of Hermes practically blazes with power and footsteps form around its base. The presence of the Messenger is equally strong to the Queen's and you don't need to be a Hermetic to read the signs of his passage here. The third altar to ignite is that of Artemis - those sigils burn cold and subtle and indifferent, providing fair warning of the Huntress' presence and no more.

Hermes, Hera, and Artemis. Tell us which of these gods you seek the favour of, tell us of your history with them. Then tell us of what you hope to find upon this planet.
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Redana sets the loose sheafs of paper down on the altar of Hermes with revenant care. She may still be fragile after what happened on Baradissar, her heart still weighed down with sorrow like lead, but she’s had enough energy to prepare this offering: her handwritten notes on the journey, her observations on the nebulas and the vagaries of Poseidon’s domain, complete with her careful, cramped sketches.

Feeling miserable and sluggish and vulnerable is one thing. Neglecting her responsibilities as a mediator between Olympus and her people is another. She has offered Artemis arrowheads hand-carved from scrap metal, inscribed with her holy insignia, in the hopes that it will blunt whatever offering Bella has made, and as for Hera...

For Hera, her shorn locks of golden hair, braided into grain-sheaves. Beauty and artistry and the kitchen, which is the heart of the home[1].

But this, for Hermes, whose mysteries she is being invited to study? This is special. “Messenger,” she says, head bowed. “Last Guide, Caduceus-bearer. I offer you observation and study, in the hope that you will find within some fortunate insight or information new to you. Please, ease our path and open our eyes to the wonder of the universe, if it should align with your transcendent understanding. In the name of the Threefold Magus, I beg you to accept.”

Then she remains, head bowed, listening to the sound of her heart, feeling the ache of her muscles, trying to quiet herself into something worthy of brief notice by the god of the Saffron Path.

***

[1]: don’t be fooled. Redana is under no illusions that the offering will be accepted. She still has to try. She won’t give her stepmother the opportunity to call her ungrateful.
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The gods have long made themselves clear. Others pray. Others make grand ceremony and offerings, and even ask the gods for favors aloud. But this is not for Bella: her ceremonies are flawed, her offerings are unworthy. Her voice is not to speak the names of the divine, only her body is pleasing to them. If she wishes for the favor of Apollo, she must lead. For Artemis, she must hunt. For Aphrodite, she must...

Bella squeezes her eyes closed and takes the deepest of breaths to center herself. Her nostrils fill with the wafting aroma of gently sautéed steak in sage butter and mushrooms. The warmth seeps through the plate into her palms as her new high heeled boots clack across the marble floor of the Pantheon. Only here does the Anemoi permit sound. She sniffs again, and her mouth waters in spite of how far short it falls of the memory of Ambrosia that still follows her every waking moment. She solemnly walks past the many altars and kneels before the statue of Hera. She sets the plate down as carefully as if handling a priceless treasure, and slides several steps backward on her knees.

It's been so long since she's cooked for anyone.

"It isn't right," she says with a soft voice tinged heavily with regret, "This ship doesn't believe in spices. I wanted to recreate... if I were back on Tellus, I would have made it better. But still. For you."

A moment passes in the gentlest sort of silence, the kind that seems at odds with the oppressive quiet that permeates the rest of the ship. Bella lifts a hand to the soft, loose braid on the side of her head that marks where the Queen of the Gods' fingers touched her and runs her own across the plaits. Her ears twitch excitedly atop her head. Her tail flicks with merriment behind her. Her red eye glints as it catches the telltale threads of the presence of the divine, and her face breaks into a wide smile.

"The reorganization of the ship is going well, by the way. Lorventi's gonna be pissed if she ever drags her ass off that infirmary bed, but that doesn't matter anymore. The lanterns are free and productivity's up across the board. I've got this place running smoother than the Kaeri could even hope to... ahem."

She quickly casts her eyes toward the ground, but the posture of her tail betrays her sense of pleasure anyway. Through the scent of her own inept cooking, she picks up full bouquets of flower scents that fill her with a calm more powerful than the stars themselves. Rose and crocus and jasmine, lily and lavender and orange blossoms, and still more exotic fare that nobody had seen fit to teach her the names to, though the Auspex could now, if it cared to. This is a scent that demands humming and lullabies, that makes her fingers bend with desire to reach out and braid hair, the absolute safety of the garden where even the things that wished her harm would at least wait for her to leave.

"For as much as she was a moron, that pirate woman had her ass parked on an incredible wardrobe. Surprised any of it fits. Do I have you to thank? Never worn pants before. It's... I like it. This whole time I've been running around chasing old memories that weren't worth three floggings. But now, thanks to you, I understand what I'm supposed to be. Watch over me, Protector. I'll make you proud of me, I promise."

Bella bows so low her forehead touches the ground, then rises in a single motion that sees her pivot on her knees. Her ears perk and bend toward the sound of shuffling among the shadows and a clicking that reminds her of her camera. She scowls and sniffs the air again, and then all at once relaxes and rolls her eyes.

"Whatever it is you're up to, Mynx, keep it to yourself."
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Alexa kneels before the alter of Hera, face cool against the tiles, and tells herself, again, that this isn't a snub. She...

Well, she doesn't have that much to give. The only things that she truly, unequivocally owns are her spears, her shield, and a precious piece of parchment occupying a place of pride on Alexa's shelf.

(It took some doing to convince herself it was safe there. That it wouldn't be found, opened, abused or taken. But, well... Well. She'll open it. Soon. And maybe, just maybe, she'll be allowed to make it some friends? Some other memories to put on the shelf.)

To her left, Redana's offering sits there, as if taunting her with how much better it is than her own--simple, heartfelt, symbolically meaningful--even in hardship, the offering of someone bargaining for empire.

She does her best not to look at the plate in front of her. To Dolce's credit, this version survived the oven mostly intact, which is more than can be said of the other attempts currently smoldering in the sink. She makes a note to scrub the charcoal out of the pans after this. It's not fair that the delightful chef should clean her mess.

There are no illusions that this is an acceptable offering for the queen of the gods, of she who walks vested in wealth. But it's all she has to offer, and she just hopes it's enough to buy a small bit of protection for those she cares for. A breeze at the right moment, an eccentric that fails to charge fast enough. Just enough to make sure that everybody who leaves the ship also comes back.
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Later That Night

The hours weighed heavily on Vasilia. More heavily, it seemed, than they did on Dolce, which was a trick she’d yet to figure out. What she had figured out were several delightful ways to make up the difference, which was why he was fast asleep in her arms, and she was awake to savor it.

Rest, dear heart. Rest at last. You’ve worked so hard today, haven’t you? She couldn’t turn her back without you finding another five things to add to your list. Did you think yourself so stealthy, she wouldn’t see? Did you think, for a moment, that you’d slipped from her notice? See where that hubris has brought you! How the mighty have fallen into a warm, smiling, wispy lump of bubbling joy. You are defenseless - defenseless! - as she teases that one curl that droops across your forehead. You are hers, to have and to hold, to kiss and to cuddle, for now and forever.

Defenseless.

You are...you are hers. Forever.

He didn’t know.

Sleep. Sleep, dear heart. She will join you soon.

You gave him the wedding oath. You made him say it.

Just. Just let her look at you a while longer. Yes?

He didn’t know any better.

Let her see you happy, for a while longer.

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

The morning greeted Dolce brightly. More brightly, it seemed, than it did Vasilia, which was a problem he’d yet to crack. Always had to factor in a little longer for waking up and, ah, extricating himself. The edge of the bed was fiercely guarded, and he would not be suffered to pass lightly. Which suited him well.

Sleep, Lady. Sleep. Enjoy this gift of time he’s made, just for you. Soon the day will begin, and you will fight your thousand battles all over again. You will take your next steps into the stars, to do the impossible. But here, there will be no fight. No struggle. Take him in your strong arms, and hold him close. You have him! You have him, and he is yours, and for now, that will be enough.

The chef’s love is to be his art.

Hold him, Lady. Take hold of what’s yours.

And his love will be complete in it.

The day comes later. This moment is yours.

The chef has no designated partner.

Please. Let that day come later.

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

Days Later

The steady tread of Vasilia’s boots echoed down the long corridors, passing by the doors she had yet to open. Rooms she had never seen before, but already knew what they would hold. Here, she stopped. Took hold of the door mechanism in both hands, and with one powerful yank threw it open.

The sight was the same, and the task unchanged. Rows upon rows of bunks, flanked by lockers, divided by walls into smaller groups. All of them, empty. All of them, to be counted. If she assumed this room to be the same as all before it, then, naturally, it would be the first to break the pattern. Again, she began the circuit.

Hundreds now. Hundreds to go.

Not for the first time, and not for the last, her hand drifted to her coat pocket. One she had her Dolce tailor special, just above her heart, where now lay a little metal talisman. Her fingers caressed the edges, the needle-sharp point of the arrowhead, and the promise that it bore. The arrow that flew straight and true accomplished all that it set out to do, without fail. So said the Hunter.

The rooms would not be empty for long. She would see to that. So, it did not bother her to walk through empty room after empty room. The silence would break, and so it was not worrisome. What reason did she have to feel lonely, when their ship would soon be full to bursting? And maybe they could all get a little rest for once? That would be fine by her. Just a little longer now, and it would be smoother sailing again.

Hundreds now. Hundreds to go.

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

Dolce could not keep the smile from his face as he laid his dish before Hera’s altar. He wouldn’t dare demand that she appear to take it in person, and yet...how he wished he could see her face! It’d taken a healthy bit of experimenting, to make something out of their limited supplies that carried a hint of her favored flavors, but oh, it had been worth it. And, see! While the dish was still fresh, he’d drizzled the sauce in the shape of a peacock feather! He knew that would make her happy.

He was dawdling. Again. Far easier to imagine Hera’s delight than to think of why he was here in the first place. When he closed his eyes, he saw the Armada. When he bowed his head, he felt the heat of Molech’s terrible machine. When he opened his mouth, he was silent in the face of the infinite tragedies that might await them on their next stop. How could he wish them all away? How could he pick just a few to pray against? Had he the time to go through them all, he would have done so in a heartbeat.

In the end, he prayed for hope. The hope that they might, finally, leave better than when they arrived, with neither scarred bodies nor scarred hearts to remember the passing.

Please, kind Hera. Just this once.
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They sing as they march across alien sands. "Follow, follow, follow the Path!"

The voices involved are as different as the drums are from the clarinet. Some are synthetic, some are not, some might have once been human and others are definitely alien. But this diverse group has spent a great many years singing marching songs together and, as the clarinet can learn to compliment the drums, so have their voices merged into one glorious harmony. "Follow, follow, follow the Path!"

And it is glorious! It booms out, loud and unambigous, across the beaches, rising above the waves, all the way to the tropical rainforest where it spooks the parrots to silence. As the voices ring out so too do the Coherent of the Order of Hermes stand out dramatically. They do not wear the full brilliant yellow of a true magi - they wear heavy black capes, traced with lines of yellow, and they do not conceal themselves. They wear their augmentations openly, brazenly - bodies furred and smooth and scaled, armoured in black and bronze, synthesis of mechanical genius and organic perfection and as diverse as the stars themselves. Magi regard their bodies as secret, their augmentations hidden knowledge, their bodies private things - not so the martial arm of the Order! They are proud of the shapes that they have made for themselves, their bodies works of art to please themselves and the gods! "Through the storm, follow the Path!"

Each Coherent drags behind her a cable, wrist-thick, leathery and slippery. They trace their ways back and up to an tripod walker the size of a main battle tank, all the more resplendent in its glorious carved beauty for the thick black smoke that pours from it - and the cleaning such a sooty construction must require. Between its three legs hangs a great banner depicting a Coherent warrior gripping a burning moon with one hand and raising her scepter above its head, like a pharaoh of ancient Egypt about to crush an enemy's skull. This machine is a mobile chemical reactor (MCR), condensed Reactor-stuff that allows the Hermetic warriors tethered to it to fire their awesome weaponry. "To the truth, follow the Path!"

"Follow the Path!" the refrain roar comes from behind.

Thousands of voices. These Coherent are not alone - they are merely the vanguard of a much larger force. Hundreds of tripod MCRs, each cabled to eight Coherent warriors like the tentacles of an octopus. Above the army looms three massive War Daises, the mobile operations centres for powerful Hermatic magi and their apprentices. These huge platforms swarm with yellow-cloaked figures and extend mighty robotic arms to take samples from trees, to adjust settings on the MCRs, to even tweak the crystals of the esoteric weapons carried by the Coherent warriors as they march. Atop each War Dias stands a Choirmaster, paragons in black and yellow hazard stripes, Magi of the Order who study the secrets Hermes hid within war itself. "To the end, follow the Path!"

A shadow passes over the sun, for all this in all this glory is but the least fragment of the Order of Hermes. Behind the advancing column soars a great wing of disc-shaped atmospheric shuttlecraft, screaming across the heavens and leaving contrails like bars in the sky. And behind them, silhouetted in solar glory, looming as large in the sky as the gas giant that the planet Ridenki is a moon of, comes the Yakanov. The Galleon Hermetic looms in the sky, engines burning bright, the ultimate expression of the Saffron God's might. "To the end, follow, follow, follow the Path!"

What is a mere planet in comparison?
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The Plousios

The sheer scale of the Yakanov's operations are staggering. This ship alone has given this primitive world the orbital operations of an industrialized spaceport. Swarms of wardiscs flow to every corner of the system, massive macro-conveyors lower mining equipment to the surface and return bearing cargo holds filled with water, ore, and other treasures. The Yakanov itself is a glowing furnace of power, three Reactors linked together to power enormous manufacturing systems, the ship almost a spaceport. This is, of course, nothing compared to the Armada in terms of scale, but in co-ordination it is genuinely shocking. As befits the faithful of the Messenger God the speed and precision of every element at work here is spectacular. To someone who grew up on Tellus, only seeing the Order of Hermes as air conditioner repairmen, barely above the equipment they worked on, to think of them as capable of this kind of spectacular military might is almost unimaginable. It would be like discovering that the nation of mice had their own nuclear deterrent.

Pity Ridenki, and the pity the Alced, with their little wooden boats.

"See there?" Iskarot said to Princess Redana, pointing at a huge crystal spire emerging from the heart of the Yakanov. "That is the Regret Cannon, one of Hermes' great relics. It can destroy time itself when fired, trapping an entire ship - or an entire city - in visions of the past, leaving them helpless. We are blessed to witness it."

Though Iskarot may have bought you here to defeat his rival within the Order, even he can't keep the awe from his voice at seeing that gleaming weapon. Proof manifest of his God's might and presence in the mortal realm. It took him a moment to rouse himself to speak again.

"The Order is here in force, but do not think of them as unified, and do not think of them as heartless," said Iskarot. "Above all, each of them, from the lowest Apprentice to the most deadly Coherent is driven by curiosity. It is the one factor selected for in all our recruitment. No matter how they appear, approach them with knowledge in one hand and you approach them as an avatar of Hermes Zeus-Daughter and they will treat you fairly. These are priests who happen to be capable of war, not soldiers in service to priests."

The Anemoi!

Mynx has been weird.

You know her well enough to know what this is - this is her bodyguarding mode. She's been sticking to you like glue wherever you go in the ship and blithely ignores any sort of polite or even impolite invitations to buzz off. It takes physically shoving out the door to stop her standing and watching you sleep all night, and even then she'll just stand right outside with her ear pressed to the door right until the moment she hears you yawn first thing in the morning and then she'll come right back in.

It might at least be forgivable if she was guarding you against something specific. So far all she's been able to say is "Something feels wrong."

So that's the context for the moment when she walks in to your room not five seconds after your eyes first woke up in the morning, beaming brightly and carrying a plate with coffee and breakfast. "Good morning, Bella~!" she chirps in the voice of someone who literally has no idea what it's like to be tired. "Are you all right? Any soreness, mosquito bites, strange tastes in the back of your mouth? Maybe I should bite you with my antitoxin just to be sure -"
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“In other words,” Vasilia continued her place at the helm. “They’re only a military force if we approach them as a military force. Resist their efforts openly, and enough will unify to swat us out of the way. And so, we shall approach them as nothing of the sort.” A brief meeting of eyes told Galnius to mark it well. A more pointed stare, that Epestia would mark it thrice. “They are priests of mystery and cunning, off for a holiday on a planet that cannot hope to oppose them. We too shall be from, ah, out of town, here to mingle amidst all the excitement. A fated meeting of the gods, yet another mystery on the path of mystery.” How could they possibly resist? “And once we have a better lay of the land, well! Then we shall see what opportunities present themselves.” It would take a subtle touch, yes. A very subtle touch. And, at last tally, Alexa might be able to spell subtle. Redana, she may have skipped that lesson too. But the plan was far more preferable than discovering, exhaustively, what all those eccentrics did to a body.

Dolce, meanwhile, stood at her side, staring out at the Yakanov, brows sternly furrowed, as if he could shame the great ship into quietly packing up its things and leaving.
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Bella's hand clamps over Mynx's mouth before she can finish another word. The shapeshifter's lips are soft and yielding under the pressure of her palm. The steam of her startled breath is almost as satisfying as the feeling of the contours of her jaw against her fingertips. She scowls as she squeezes tighter and tighter, until she feels bones start to tremble at her touch. Mynx's face is hotter than a stove. Bella holds her anyway, glaring holes through her as she keeps her only friend locked at arm's length.

"Offer to bite me one more time," she snarls, "And you're gonna find out how hard it is to impersonate anybody without any teeth."

She can feel the shiver running all the way through Mynx's body go up into her arm. She watches the way that Mynx's eyes grow wider, and then slack. She doesn't let go even now, but for as tightly as she squeezes her fingers are turned so carefully to keep her claws off of Mynx. She growls and throws the shapeshifter away from her... but onto the bed.

She sighs, and grabs the coffee.

"It's too fucking early for you to be this weird. You know normal people do this thing called sleeping, right?"

She takes a long sip of the hot, bitter drink and lets her eyes drift shut again with a gentle sort of trust that makes it seem like that last few moments hadn't happened at all. And maybe it didn't; the longer she sits there on the edge of the bed, alternating between sips and demure chewing of her breakfast, the more she seems like a different person. It's in the way her shoulders relax, the way her breathing slows, the way her eyes barely ever open, as if she trusts Mynx to do her seeing for her. She winces once or twice as she eats, but doesn't even comment on the taste. She does take the plate and wordlessly offer her leftovers to Mynx before flopping down next to her.

"I keep trying to tell you, nothing is going to happen. Least of all on my ship. All your temple friends are well in hand, and even if they weren't the Auspex is tracking everything better than you could."

"Bella..."

"Yeah yeah, whatever. Look, if you're gonna be this clingy at least make yourself useful. You can... ugh."

Bella shifts and drags herself from the luscious haven of a bed full of pillows, with its own blanket and everything, and gingerly plucks what's left of her coffee off the floor. She drains it in a shot and shuffles over to her wardrobe, tearing her pajama shirt up over her head and tossing it carelessly onto the bed behind her. She smirks when she hears the small 'oof' that means she hit her friend with it.

"Gimme your eyes for a minute, I'm still getting used to these clothes. Are these pants too much? They're the same color as my fur, so I thought it'd be flashy, but... And what do I even wear under these? I just don't know."

She spins on the spot, holding the clothing in question over herself but otherwise wearing nothing. Her golden eye is sparkling as she lazily licks her lips.
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"Reconnaissance does seem to be in order," Alexa murmurs, and does her best not to flinch.

This isn't her first war council. Or. Council, maybe? Yes, that has a nicer ring to it. Just here on this random planet at the same time as the Hermetics, totally harmless, no war involved.

But she can't help but flinch when people actually look at her.

She's not... Look. She understands tactics. Grand sweeping movements of armadas. Molech made sure that she understood all of it, and even if he hadn't, she's had centuries to perfect her understanding of his doctrines of war.

But she was just the background, before. Molech gave the orders, the instruction, and she was to sit behind him and make sure none of his counsellors got so ambitious they became a problem. Having someone listen to her is new.

So, to avoid the stares, she joins Dolce in his pensive contemplation of the Yakanov. At this distance, it's hard to make out the details, but she can see the plovers crawling over the massive crystal like ants across a log.

Yes, reconnaissance. Not getting shot with that would be nice.
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