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

"Bold of you to assume that this is indeed a person we're talking about," said Qiu. "We could be discussing an under-monster in disguise, or one of the Pyre's lost souls, or a goddess, or something even stranger. All I know is that when I asked the Scales of Meaning what in my new realm was the most valuable, this was her response."

She's a step away, looking out over the waters, fingers twitching in those little patterns that indicated thought, the hint of a smile. "And of course, it's so very dangerous to start letting a demon give you advice and solution with the same hand. A little competition will work to keep everyone honest."

Her smile is mysterious, but not impossibly so. She has a heart like any other if you wish to read into her motives.

Rose!

Once there was a demon who pretended to be an angel...

At one time, the Scales of Meaning had pride - but pride is another vice entirely, and it was torn away from her. She schismed with her sister-vice and was left with a hole in her heart of amorphous bitterness. Refine vice enough and it can become an entirely different entity, for it can take more willpower than the corrupt possess to hold all that evil in your heart at once.

But even though pride does not constrain her, inexperience does. She is insufficient. She does not possess the coin to buy this treasure. She had not stopped to observe the mountains or wonder at the world's mysteries or learned the words to deceive maidens. She did not think these things were of worth and yet, here, a treasure she can buy no other way! She fumes! She sparks! Her horns glow in ferocious calculation as her valuation of the world and its treasures shift, as she realizes that a new form of currency has risen and in it she is bankrupt. She lashes out as she realizes this, as she fights, but only because such demonic frustration must have outlet and you happen to be close - but not so close that you are yet in danger.

"Fine, then!" she spits. "You trade in alien currencies indeed, river-daughter, but I shall not be found wanting. Let me go and I shall rearrange my accounts, filling them with all that you crave, and you shall eat your fill of them and beg me for more."

Yue!

Grass grows thick and lush underneath the trees, for in this new world they have forgotten the secrets of herbicide to guarantee empty brown dirt beneath their branches. It climbs thick and lush, and the branches weigh heavy with patterned ivy with edges of magenta. In the evening's shade with the sun still golden on the horizon you see that it is not that this curse is pouring into Hyra of the Wolves - it pours out from her. It knits her wounds, true, but it also darkens the grass and ivy she rests her head against and draws the colour from your clothes. As you wash her with the cloth it fades until the threads themselves come unspooled, and by the end you have a ball of ancient and fritzy fluff in your hand. This was not a curse placed upon her by a demon, it is one that she has been carrying with her for some time, and it makes her fingers twitch and nails sharpen and wolf-ears prick at the slightest sound.

But she manages to drink the tea and seems for a moment like she's all right after all.

"Thank you," she said, "you saved -" she stops, but you don't think she was going to say 'me' there. Of everything that was damaged by that dark energy, she alone was not.

She took another sip and held that tea in her mouth for a long time, as though trying to drown some wicked taste. She swallows and then takes several long, deep breaths of the tea's scent, again seeming to wash away something from the air. Finally she relaxes against the tree, bringing up one knee and folding her hands behind her head, settling into a languorous, cool posture that implied if not control then comfort with the situation.

"You're... more than I expected," she said. "I've tried a lot of medicines but none of them... you're not hurt, are you? I mean you're clearly not, but... there wasn't any need to carry me. I can take care of myself, so you keep yourself out of danger, all right?"

As she's speaking colour is rising to her cheeks and she isn't making eye contact. If it wasn't impossible this might seem like shyness, awkwardness - the coin offered by a woman who only felt valuable as a protector, whose pack did not trade in kindness and so she only knew how to offer strength and safety.
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Anarion
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There’s a moment where the wind blows across the ship and swirl’s Chen’s hair. A loose strand swirls up past her ear and gently caresses her cheek, but she’s too lost in thought to brush it aside. A moment of silence and worry.

At last she looks at Qiu. “No, she’s not. She’s a person, or at least some demon or faerie that’s very much like a person. You like to play a tough game, but if she were really dangerous, you’d have put together your own hunting party, maybe called me or Princess Yin. You wouldn’t have hung up posters and tempted everyone into going after her to try and get a dance with you. I know the two alliances make you out to be a demon yourself, but I can tell you’re not interested in putting the servants and the handmaidens in danger like that.”

Chen finally brushes aside the hair and lifts her chin with a defiant look that says I understand you. A challenge, the first one issued here. But then she’s right isn’t she?

[Figure someone out 6+3+0=9. First question. How would Qiu feel if someone actually got hurt trying too hard to win her favor? Second question, what does she really hope to get from this contest? She gets a question of Chen as well.]
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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The Conciliatory Ice-Star Blade kisses Scales of Meaning without splitting her scales as Rose from the River deftly retrieves it from her coils. A twirl about her wrist, a sharp strike on the ground, and it is a walking stick once more, one that Rose from the River uses to push aside a writhing tail which stands between her and her pack.

Wordless she passes by, ably hiding the gleeful mischief of the twist of her lips and the dancing of her eyes from the petulant demon. Her underwear is simple, black, snugly-fitting (especially as it clings to her hips); she is shameless in letting Scales stare, if she likes. She pulls her top over her head then, settling straps on shoulders and between fingers. Next her trousers, loose and comfortable, settling free over bare feet. Finally, she pulls her pack onto her shoulders, the sum of her possessions in the world.

This done, she walks past the demoness and makes for the road, only to stop at an appropriate distance and turn back. “Well,” she says, with mock seriousness, “are you not coming, sage-imitating demon? I thought you wanted to catch someone; are they sitting by the river? If they are, or if you set a trap for them, I do apologize for my haste. Or are they elsewhere, and you sit there dawdling like a little girl? The Accountant-Sage of Hell wouldn’t laze around like that, but the scales on your horns are so fine that I was nearly fooled! Some more practice in her mannerisms, perhaps some more training with the blade, and you might pass for the fearful one known as Scales of Meaning, little snake.”

She taps the side of her nose, and her smile slips out of her control. “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me, little one. I’ll be the most circumspect of companions.”

(The Way does not technically have any proscriptions about being a little shit, as long as you know how to pull your punches. One does not mock the orphan or the widow about their loss. But Scales is a big girl, isn’t she? She can take it. And honestly, she’s in need of it. Look at that attitude, that huffiness and arrogance! Rose from the River is Activated.)
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Phoe
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"Of course I'm not hurt! I've got you, don't I?"

The smile that spreads across her face is instinctive. It's actually processing her words that take a moment. Sometimes the details drop in piece by piece, right? Like so: here's the moment where Hyra's chest rises with a fresh breath of steam from her tea. Here's the moment where she holds that breath for too long. Did she forget how to let it out? Here's the way her ears start flicking like they want to be touched. Here's those sharp red eyes turning to the ground near Yue's knees. Oh? Wait, but... and then? And then? Here's the color rising to her cheeks.

Put it all together and what have you got? Well you... wait. But she. A-and Yue. Well she just! Oh. Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no! Her whole body turns warm as a summer day and all of a sudden she becomes very interested in the ball of fluff in here hand where she used to have a cloth. She busies herself with putting the remains back in her bag. They crumble to dust as soon as they leave her hands. She stops. Squeaks. Makes an even bigger show of running her hands all up and down her dress looking for similarly frayed ends where a certain beautiful-but-very-cursed girl had been leaning on it. Is that a... n-no, that's just a normal loose thread. Right? Has to be. Right? Oh gosh, don't pull at it!

"Oh gosh. Well I, um. I-is... I mean, do you feel..? I can, I can try another medicine if this one isn't working! I've got lots more we can try, and, and... and!"

Take a breath, Yue. Find your smile. There, see? Doing great, sweetie. She fishes out another pair of beads and pushes them into the ground near some of the worst of the blackened grass and shyly draws patterns on the ground with her fingers. Where they pass, some of the color creeps back into the plants. Maybe. Possibly. Just a bit. It's not as if she can perform miracles, it's just that sunlight and plants are old friends, you see? Every curse has a blessing, that's just... science. Isn't it?

"...I thought you were amazing, by the way. The way you fought, I mean. You were so brave and strong and, and, pew, zip, zap, everywhere! So patient and confident, and wow. Gosh. I've never, you know, I've never seen anyone move the way that you do. I could never do that. So I just..."

You can see it in those lake-blue eyes, if you're looking closely enough. She blushes and smiles and shyly blinks it away, but it was there, just you try and say that it wasn't! And maybe it was small, but just the same: that spark of desire, that little wish that she could be, that was as real as the sun or the stars or a river full of grabby demons (and fish! don't forget fish!). It's the coin she trades for Hyra's, the wish that she could do something amazing, be even a little bit brave or miraculous where all she has is dull mundanity. Just enough, y'know? Just enough that she could keep up. Just enough that it'd be ok for her to stay. So that this impossibly beautiful wolf didn't look at her and think she needed to ask her to hide herself away.

"I don't mind being in danger. If it's for you. I mean, you'll protect me! Right? Or, well, I mean, I just can't imagine anything bad happening if I'm close to you. S-so, oh! Can I make you some more tea? I have a lot of leaves with me today!"

[Figure Out a Person: 8. Asking "What do you love the most?" and "How would you feel if I tried to touch you? J-just, you know, a little?" She can ask a question in turn]
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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Chen!

Once, when Princess Qiu was younger, she allowed herself to be captured just to see how it felt. She found before too long that she did not much care for it - the gag cramped her jaw, she didn't like the vulnerability, and worst of all her captor was doing it wrong. She couldn't enjoy the moment when every thought was on how she could - would - do better when she was on the other side of the leash.

A rescue attempt did come before too long - a childhood friend who saw a chance for favour and came to rescue her with a blade she did not fully understand how to use. When Princess Qiu saw the outcomes she first tenderly nursed her would-be rescuer back to health with a heart full of kindness - and then once she was whole, Qiu put her right back into the hospital bed for daring to risk herself so foolishly. Legend says that the girl still has that black eye, years later.

So you're right - if this was really important, Princess Qiu would be doing it herself. The army of Princess Qiu is Princess Qiu. If she has servants they're just to make sure that nobody conquers her possessions while she's out and at war. The contest isn't entirely a distraction - Princess Qiu never half-asses anything - but it's not her main focus either. She's planning another attack.

"Of course," said Qiu with a flat, bored gaze. It's so blunt you almost feel embarrassed, like you said something that was so obvious it made you look simple. But the faint wag of Qiu's tail tells a different story - she's pleased you saw through the deception, even if now she has to change gears to make it seem like it wasn't a big deal. "But I have called you and Princess Yin. She's out there right now with all her wolves and she has quite a head start on you."

What are your feelings towards Princess Yin, Chen?

Rose!

The Scales turns red and furious, and folds her arms, and pouts and blushes and thinks really hard if she might, in fact, be able to stab you after all. She is someone who is very used to having someone who they want to hurt who they cannot. You have done well, Rose. The Scales is now intensely motivated to give you everything that you want purely so she might then shut you up.

"Well - fine!" she said, huffily throwing her own clothes about her without bothering to dry properly first, instantly regretting as her black Burrow-style robed suit becomes damp and sodden against her still-wet skin and scales. "Come along if you must! But -" she fumbled for a 'but' that would make it seem as though she was in control and not mad. She didn't quite manage it. "- but, uh. But I'll wipe that smirk off your face before the end, you'll see!"

Traveling with a snake demon. An old story for monks in the Order.

Yue!

Tea has a way of softening things, smoothing harsh edges and hiding little imperfections. It doesn't matter quite as much if you're flailing and getting the words wrong, you've got until the end of the sip to land on the right words. It doesn't matter if your rescuer is an elite sword-maiden in service to a Princess, those strong hands are now gently cradling ceramic and moving with slow and steady motions. It's time and distance enough to see beyond the excitement, and to contrast it with this moment now. In the contrast a glimpse of the heart can be seen.

Hyra of the Wolves enjoyed the battle, certainly - there was fire and adrenaline running through her and a savage grin carried her features. But did she love it? She does not brag of it, look to remind you of the moment. She carries a hunting bow and is at ease within the woods, but does she love that? Her ears flick and perk at rustles in the bushes - a soothing gesture, notice that someone has identified that there is no threat there - but her eyes do not linger on the shapes of trees and mountains. She is in service to a princess, but has not said her name or told of her love for her mistress. In fact, of all the things Hyra has shown interest in, you are chief amongst them.

This does not seem (entirely) like love at first glance, though. Everything about Hyra, from appearance, to fighting style, to the spells she's learned is flashy. Eye-catching. Entertaining. She's watching you but sidelong and fleeting, or direct and intense, without compromising the integrity of her own pose. And perhaps there is Hyra's true love - the stage. The show. Being able to awe, enthrall, and enchant. Here she glances at the twilight sun, reminded of some distant duty, but she does not want to tend to it when she is here with a beautiful audience.

"Don't praise me too much," she said, but her confidence rose in the face of your flattery. "I'm just lucky to have had a good teacher, and good opponents. A wolf is only as strong as her pack."

And there's as much bait as there is the answer to the other half of your question. She would feel lost and uncertain if touched gently and directly, for simple kindness is something she is not used to and that would be too much too fast for her. However, approach her in a more familiar way - by asking her to teach you how to use a sword - and close contact will be far more natural.
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Phoe
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"Hey Hyra, it'd be super great if you could teach me how to sword, too!"

Oh gosh no, what? She can't say that! The words turn back into air before they even make it past her impressively unimpressive little chest. She takes her hand, which was sneaking so sneak-like toward Hyra's and applies it to the much less flustering task of playing with her own hair. One unfortunate consequence of flying, did you know, is that it actually gives you super bad tangles.

Yue has to fiddle with it with her full concentration to start pulling out the knots and tease it back into some rough semblance of presentable. Her tongue creeps out of her mouth as she works, nature's most pure expression of concentration. With every little motion she feels her heart slow down again until she even feels comfortable enough to let her eyes drift shut. It's soothing. Peaceful. Even the sharp tugs on her head when she hits a particularly stubborn tangle is a part of nature. It's normal for the wind to do that. It's normal for it to fight her when she tries to remove it. And it's normal for her to want to look just slightly prettier right now, because...

"I'd really love it if you could teach me a little bit about how to fight, Miss Hyra! See, I don't have a pack so I don't know how, but if you..."

Eep! EEP! The reality of her situation crashes on top of her head like a wave. Even with her eyes squeezed shut she can see Hyra's smile twist into a playful smirk. And ooooh, what a smirk she has, doesn't she? There's that flash of teeth that's juuuust enough to say 'danger' but also tucked away so that she also feels like wherever she's sitting is the safest place in the world. And, you know, it's little things too. Like how the play of her lips make her cheeks squish in a tiny bit so there's just this, this hint of softness? Because in her neutral expression she's so sharp and full of angles that it's like she's made of knives, but that tiny bit of genuine mirth is enough to... oh! And it wrinkles her nose too, which is just, oh. Oh! Gosh... a-and, y'know, come to think of it, her lips look really, really, just unusually soft and...

Yue feels the heat rise back into her cheeks. It's been doing that a lot tonight! She turns away and stokes the fire, which she knows is stupid because there's plenty of sunlight feeding into it and even if she didn't understand what that meant even a dummy could look at the way the wood's arranged and how merrily the fire is crackling on top of it and know that this is a fire to warm your body and heart in front of, or admire, or make tea or steam buns or roast waterfowl or, or, or... well, not poke at it at any rate! But she does it anyway because it's another useless sort of gesture she can do to distract herself, calm herself, and not think about or even realize the way her butt looks in the twilight as she sits there messing with a fire on her knees.

"Please, teach me how to swing a sword! Then we could fight together and it would be so..!"

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Oh, what is she even thinking? If all she wants is an excuse to be close to Hyra then weren't there much easier ways to go about it? She should just weave her a flower necklace and ask to put it on her like a normal person! Besides, the sooner she let go of all these dreams of, of... adventure and all that nonsense the happier she'd be! Even if this isn't a dream it still has to end, right? Whatever mistake that whoever made to get her face stuck on all those wanted posters, they'd notice it and fix it and then there'd be no more reason for anyone to chase her or for Hyra to protect her or for anything at all to happen except to quietly drop her off back home with an apology and a pat on the head and that'd be that.

Yue heaves the tiniest sigh and smiles the tiniest smile as Kat headbutts her hand to beg for attention. She plucks the little forest fox off the ground to cradle her in her arms and cover her adorable head in soft scritches and ear rubs. Oh, but Kat, wouldn't it be amazing? She's on a journey right now! And maybe if she, if she could just be brave enough, she could learn and it'd take longer before they reached the end, and, and, and she'd feel so alive and full of magic, and maybe she'd even fly again! That's worth an extra dream or two, isn't it? Yes it is, yes it is, oh you pretty little girl, who's so sweet as sugar, hmm?

She takes the deepest of deep breaths and sets her little fluffybippens down on her nice cozy safety blanket so she's got both hands free to fish her own sword out of the depths of her absurdly stuffed travel bag. Well, her 'sword'. It's only a bit of carved wood, after all. And if she told you it was for practice, that'd be an insult to the word. She just made it because... well, she doesn't really know. But it felt nicer to have it then not. Maybe it's because she liked to be able to pretend? She smiles again, and shyly turns her gaze all the way back to Hyra again. To her great credit she only descends into partial squeaking when she sees the way the wolf girl has sat up, and the effect that has on her perfect tummy.

"S-so, um... this is, um. I mean, no, I know it's stupid, but um. Aish. What would I need to... n-no! You should rest, it's ok! But if, y'know, while we travelled you could maybe... teach me how to hold this? I'd, I'd, I'd like that a lot."

And then she has to hide her face, because this is much too much for a simple village girl to handle, after all.
Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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“Why, brute!” Rose from the River’s tone is easy, flowering into self-satisfaction. “I’m the space inside a bell, resounding; I’m devoted to neither place or possession, which fix one in place like nails. And you’d take my smile away, too? Am I not permitted even that?”

When she looks at the flustered demon of the buy-and-sell, her eyes are for a moment predatory, keen. Sensing weakness, a baring of the throat, an exploit in the system. “Besides,” she purrs, that smirk hooked like the sickle moon, “you might come to miss it once it’s gone, down the road.”

Cruel Thorn Pilgrim! She could have let the demoness gather what remains of her dignity, but instead she invites the serpent to imagine growing to care for her and her shameless smile! She might claim in the moment that she needed to follow up on Scales’ moment off-balance, to place a soft hand on the throat of her heart and threaten to squeeze, but she cannot hide from her deeper self that she was born a huntress. If she shucked the welcome chains of the Way off, she could toy with Scales like the hound plays with a ball, chewing on her proud horns and pinning her to ground, daring her to courage with one hand while grasping her tighter with the other. And when she was done with her toy, she would leave her no recourse but to return to her oversoul in shame or serve her new mistress until she threw them both into a prison neither could escape, having aroused the princesses to stop this dire threat. In that one moment of pressed advantage, the dread queen of monsters roils behind those wet, golden eyes.

It is only with intention that Rose from the River draws back from the temptation, letting the moment pass. She is a vessel for the current that moves the sun and stars. “Jewel of the lotus,” she murmurs to herself, the words as familiar as the path under her feet (and just as able to surprise). “aum shantae aum. Jewel of the lotus, aum shantae aum.” She glitters at the heart of the unfolded lotus, which floats unstained upon the waters as the pilgrim floats unstained upon the world, which lives for a thousand years and lives after its own death, which unfolds to seek the sun as the pilgrim’s own heart unfolds. She is the diamond at the heart of the lotus, which drinks the sun at noon and shines in the dusk, which is the footprint of the lightning which strides across the sky and the echo of the thunder’s call. aum shantae aum. aum shantae nemo padhome aum.

So fortified, the Thorn Pilgrim resolves not to torment the she-demon beyond what she may bear. Merciful pilgrim! How beautiful her devotion! As it is said,

The open hand may hold the world entire,
the closed hand not even a mite of dust.
The bindings of the pious woman
permit passage over the eight heavenly peaks.


Having tamped down the monstrous side of herself (for now; traveling with Scales of Meaning will be a test, but one she knows she can pass), Rose from the River jauntily swings her pole onto her shoulder and keeps pace with the undulations of the demoness. The path beneath her feet is uneven and sparsely coated with grasses. Silver clouds lie stately over the hillsides. The doves sing and the lambs of the valley answer. If Scales looked closely, she might begin to earn the monk’s pay. Which is why Rose from the River now chooses to ask, still impish, “So who is this outlaw you pursue? Yola the Bandit, who steals both flock and shepherdess? Frog-and-Scorpion, demon of the ford? Sairose, the rebel of Sky Castle?” An affected casualness, a quiet glee. “Or one from my orders? Perhaps the Elder of the Black Snake School, that irrepressible evangelist? Or is it the Thorn Pilgrim of the White Doe School, who dares openly defy the Threeshard Princess?”

Being charged with hunting herself? Now that would be a new and delightful game. Unfortunately, she knows already that it isn’t her; it’s the girl. Now to find out what Scales is willing to let slip about her.
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Anarion
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Yin is...complicated. Like, the whole magic knight thing is extremely aesthetic and Chen is into that! But she did some sketches of Yin the last time she visited and...well they're too romantic, Yin does these poses like she doesn't know how to hold herself naturally it's all glitz and show. The only good sketch (In Chen's opinion) was when they got back from a hunt and Chen surreptitiously started some lines going while Yin was helping her knights get settled. That moment where she was working, guard down, shoulders relaxed, and just a little sweaty was real. Her lips curl upwards a little remembering it with a smile. Chen hadn't given her that sketch though it was sitting in her collection for...reasons. She was going to ask Yin to visit Sourcefall soon and maybe go see the waterfalls together at dawn. She had this idea that if Yin were a bit more out of her constant shining auras and knights vs. monsters thing she'd finally let herself relax and maybe they'd even go swimming together in one of the northern lakes. She almost laughed aloud imagining Yin jumping into the frigid lake and then shouting at Chen for tricking into something so cold!

As she thinks on the current situation though, Chen's brow furrows with worry because Yin is loud. Not that she's scary, Qiu could easily outmatch her in a one on one for pure presence. But if Yin's already on this and it's not just her but a pack of her wolves, it's going to be a lot. Like light shows and golden halos kind of a lot. And sure that's cool, Chen might enjoy it another time, but she would have preferred to get to this Yue first. The poor girl is really going to get overwhelmed and having Yin with her whole retinue show up was enough to give Chen a headache, so she could only imagine what a poor country girl who had never even started handmaiden training would be feeling.

Chen was going to need to move light and fast. "I should go then. You really never go halfway, do you Princess Qiu? I'll try not to add to anyone ripping up the countryside. Can't wait to see what you paint when I get back with Yue!" She gives Qiu a little wave and, leaving her art supplies on the boat, points herself towards the lake. Before her flight down had been the height of grace and elegance, a dancer's pose from blade of her sword to the point of her toe. Now, she was crouched and eager, her body leaning forward into a point, her sword held close along her side. The light within it dances up and with a burst of sudden energy and a gust of wind Chen is off and over the lake at speed.

Once she's outside of the immediate influence of Qiu's shards, she sighs. She's not sure yet if she's going the right direction, but she knows how she's going to do this. The wind blows everywhere and it would know how to find this Yue. But Chen didn't have the power to ask the wind that herself. She was going to have to call her mother.

She swallowed and put the number into her phone. "Hey, Mom?"
Hidden 2 mos ago 1 mo ago Post by Thanqol
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Chen!

The mangroves and rainforests of the Terraced Lake's archipelago surround you, a latticework of thick and tangled roots weaving into and out of each other. The trees are thick and heavy with fruits and the tropical birds who eat those fruits, and they are not quiet or dignified eaters. The birds take one bite of a fruit and drop the rest on the ground so they can screech at the top of their lungs at nearby birds for some avian slight. And while their cacophony of yelling is not yet echoed in your mother's voice you can feel the potential for it to start.

"Chen. I asked you to call me right as sunset started. Did something delay you?" There's an edge to Princess Hesha's voice, but she's giving you the benefit of the doubt. She's open to the possibility you have a good excuse but is prepared to move decisively if you don't.

Rose!

In a different age, twilight would be a moment to rest and reflect on the journey, a time to prepare camp and gaze out over the mountains at the setting sun. Nowadays it seems like it's always twilight, and so twilight is a time for walking too. You come over the crest as the river falls away into a waterfall below you, standing high up on sheer and rocky mountains, overgrown with blooming yellow mountain flowers just so lightly dusted with snow. Little creeks run through the rocks, slivers of fire in the fading light, narrow enough to step over - if you do not have to crawl on your belly. The Scales of Meaning winces and mutters dark oaths every time she touches one.

"I seek -" she starts, and then closes her mouth and pouts at being invited to reveal a valuable secret. Her horns glitter and pulse with electric light and she sighs as she realizes that you do not value it enough to respond to her withholding it with anything other than mockery. Reluctantly, she instead takes the opportunity to express a little displeasure. "Nobody cares about you, Rose. You have tucked yourself away and rendered yourself as financially and politically irrelevant as a shipwreck, a washed-out old hulk only valuable to pearl divers. Only I see your value, just like I'm the only one who sees the value of the shepherdess Yue." She sniffed haughtily. "This is a veritable antiques road show of hidden treasures and the appraiser lives in the arbitrage."

Yue!

Bait was offered and accepted, and just like the secret to catching flies is slow and steady motion so the wolf languidly pounces. She uncoils herself from the ground and steps up to you, taking your sword in fine fingers. She smiles because the wooden weapon is amusing, but there's only affection and gentle teasing and no contempt at all. "A wooden weapon can teach you bad habits," she said, turning it over in her fingers. "The weight is wrong, and the balance, so a real sword will feel wrong if you're used to this..."

She runs her fingers around it, brow crinkling in concentration. She's doing that same motion she did when she was casting her flight spell but slightly different - and then she gets it wrong. The magic sparks and breaks, but almost before you have time to process that she mucked it up she did the same motion again twice more with exceptional speed. On the third try it sticks, and oh, isn't the most remarkable part of all this that she just screwed up a spell twice in front of you without so much as blushing? Wouldn't it be great to learn that magic too?

"Here," she said, putting the sword in your hand and folding your fingers around it. It's heavy! And in all the wrong ways! "I adjusted the weight, this is what a real sword feels like to hold," said Hyra, stepping around behind you. "While we travel, I want you to keep this in your hand no matter what you do. Cooking, cleaning, eating, walking, I want you to get used to holding this even if it means doing other tasks one-handed. Can you do that for me, Yue?"
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"Mom, why do you have to be like that, I'm calling now, I can't always do everything instantly!" Exasperation and more than a little whining in that tone, but also stalling for time while Chen thinks what to say. A beat, then "I was finishing my scouting above the lake and then princess Qiu sent me a message and I'm going to win an easy contest she put on to find one new handmaiden and have a dance with her! That's what you wanted me to do right, I'm supposed to confront her and get the advantage and take away her shards, so I'm doing my job and you should be proud that I jumped on this opportunity!"

Chen spits all of that out in a breath, barreling right past the assorted lies. She pointedly ignores the fact that she was doing art rather than scouting, and utterly ignores the tiny voice in her head admitting that she would spend any dance melting into Qiu's arms rather than gaining an advantage.

She has another short pause, but jumps in to interrupt before her mom can say anything about all this. "I um, to win the contest I need you to use your shard to help me find the girl before Princess Yin. She brought out a whole pack of her wolves! Can you ask the North Wind where I can find someone named Yue?"

[Not sure if Chen's Mom counts as parleying with a toxic power. I think so since she's part of the forces pushing the destiny. If so, the result is 3+5+0=8. GM's choice as to what the price of the answer is.]
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Rose from the River laughs. She does not seem to watch where she is going, but note how nimbly she steps from rock to rock. Look now, she jumps in the water, up to her ankles, and sends little cold droplets all up and down Scales’ back; she lets a shiver run from her feet all the way up to her trembling braids. Petals retract as if winter had suddenly come to her hair.

“See, this is what I mean. You come so close to getting it right, and yet you stumble at the final... slither?” When she steps out of the water her feet shine like shark fins cutting through the surf. “Unless you mean to say that Qiu has forgiven and forgotten?”

Rose from the River has not met Princess Qiu. The First of the Radiants did, but only in the context of parties, a trophy to be shown off on Yin’s arm. But not since her metamorphosis. No, the reason that Rose from the River has a bounty (now doubtless devalued by the price on the shepherdess Yue) is that when she chose to follow the Way, she aligned herself with the White Doe school, seeking out its sifu and defending its adherents where she found them. The same White Doe school at the heart of the Foxglove Pact that sought to take one (just one) stone from Qiu’s crown, for the good of the land.

An audacious plan, one that saw their entire sect thrown into disarray when Qiu let them almost succeed. For the drama, probably, or to catch as many conspirators as she could. Maybe Rose chose to follow the White Doe because of the romance of standing up to a princess; maybe she really did choose it because its teachings sang to her heart, because they rang with truth. Or maybe it was because they had the best meditative dances, and not even the risk of making an enemy of the Threeshard Princess could keep her from walking that lovely path.

Or maybe it was all three, blended together.

“But we both know she wouldn’t do that without something in it for her, and so you succumb to the desire to misrepresent the world for your own gain. Don’t tell me, don’t tell me the value. I don’t want to know the number. Just don’t make an insect of me, my little Scales! You beautiful buy-and-sell! You wound yourself!”

Rose from the River hops onto a flat stone backward, as much imp as sage-in-training. “No, to truly be the illustrious demoness, the sub-soul of the avaricious Pyre, you must be honest with your evaluation. Let go of those petty grudges. Don’t twist the world to fit your shape. Illuminate it instead.”

Another stream, but here Rose takes her pole and tucks it underneath Scales’ belly, giving her something to push off to keep her from the water. Only many more to go. The sound of her not even mentioning it is deafening.

Her rings almost glow in the low light, looped in ear and set in nose and worn on fingers. Easy to come by, with her skills, and easy to give away. And easiest for her, too, not needing a hot needle when she wished to add more or change their placement, merely time enough for the slow change of her twice-strange flesh.

They are well-sized for a hooked finger, should a demoness be tempted to try and assert herself. What would it be like to hold Rose from the River and know she lets you hold her? Would she let you? What would it mean if she did?

[If Scales of Meaning is appealed to by either service or jewelry, it is her choice as to how to respond, as Rose from the River has rolled a 7. If not, both service and sight are free, regardless.]
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"W-well, if it's for you, then... yeeeep!"

Yue gasps as she takes the hilt again and nearly tumbles over into the dirt. But she doesn't know the magic spell to recover from failure that Hyra mastered, so she has to cover her shame with bright, chirping giggles and a few test swings that have all the grace of a person who needs to think way too hard about what she's doing.

Which, of course she does. Of course she does! She's never even read a book about fencing! W-well, plenty of books about fencing, but those were less instruction manuals and more, uh, y'know, steamy romances and oh gosh no don't drop it again Hyra said to hold onto this forever! But her fingers already hurt from squeezing it so hard and even though her arm feels ok right now it's so easy to imagine it falling off after a few more hours like this, let alone a few days, and plus have you considered the paradox of which hand she's even supposed to hold it in? One supposes a good swordsmaiden uses her dominant arm for this kinda stuff, but then what's she supposed to do about dinner and cleaning and changing her cloooooooooo--oh gosh there she goes again.

"This is... really what a sword feels like?" she asks with a trembling voice, "I never knew. I mean, I've held an axe once or twice and those are super heavy too, but that made sense because you used them to fell trees and stuff and I dunno if you've seen them but around here at least they can get pretty big, so! Well, but, yeah I..."

She smiles. This is amazing, actually. It's amazing to feel the weight of a real weapon in her hands and know that it's hers, even if it's still just a silly stick she made for herself to dream a little brighter. But more than the weight, the most special part of it is the warmth she can feel spreading through her palm like sunlight or a tiny campfire. And she knows, without having to ask, that what she's feeling is the magic spell that Hyra cast that's guiding her hand and telling her what holding this thing, this weapon is supposed to feel like. It's not what she was hoping for, not just yet, but it's a special sort of secret connection, like sneaking a sip from someone else's tea to share in the... eep! Well it just, y'know! It's a thing! That people do! And it's special! It's as special a thing as she's done in her whole life, so... so there!

"In the paintings they have in town I see people holding two of these, or ones almost the size of themselves or the really really fancy ones tied to sticks and I just... wow. All the time? I bet they must weigh so much so that nobody forgets how dangerous they can be, is that right? I really, just... wow. You're my hero, did you know that? I think I might..."

Her free hand wraps around her stomach and shyly rubs her newly-dubbed sword arm. Be patient, Yue. Be patient. In the stories you don't just go and say 'I love you' just like that! You've gotta earn it by being extra super special amazing back at your savior and maybe save her life somehow after a series of wacky hijinks! There are rules to follow! If there weren't, why would they have written them down?
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Chen!

"Oh Chen," your mother's voice finds a new warmth that still hides a deeper chill. "I'm proud of you! Standing up to Princess Qiu and Princess Yin at the same time? That's exactly what you should be doing. Of course I'll help darling, you're the speartip of our entire Alliance in this matter, and I'm delighted you're taking this so seriously!"

She hangs up and you're left waiting. An ugly bird cry echoes out from the mountains, and a little while later a small herd of bearded horses canter to a weary halt down a little way away from you and give you suspicious looks as they start to graze. As you watch them the wind picks up, chill and arctic. Follow the snake, it rasps in your ear, and it does not leave. It surrounds you like the opposite of a blanket, present and waiting for its next instruction.

[Princess Hesha takes a string on you]

Rose!

"Hmm. Hmmm! Argh!" the Scales threw up her hands and covered her increasingly red face - a sound so loud it caused half a dozen bearded mountain horses to gallop across the path in a startled rush. "Shut up! Today has already been the worst! You are the worst! What the fuck happened up here, that the god-damn Hunter has turned into such a smart-mouthed brat! You used to fit into the world, not like..!"

She folds her arms and retracts her neck and huffs into her damp suit. She mumbles aggressively and furiously to herself for a minute, practically steaming with the blushing fury of it.

Down below the air chills. The ice had been lessening as you came downhill but here it is again, growing more and more intense until it reaches a soft bundle of deadly princess.

Yue!

"I'm asking you to hold it," said Hyra, hands gently but firmly placing on your shoulders from behind and straightening them, "so that it stops being scary to you." Her fingers run down your arm and catch on your elbow, twisting it into a position that feels more natural. "Stories of swords, seeing them in battle... they're glamorous..." she pulls your left hand into position, wrapping around you from behind as she brings both of your hands to hold the sword, "... intoxicating, dangerous..." Now it's her foot, hooking around your ankle and pulling it to the left, widening your stance. "... distracting. And that's the main reason why nobody can stand against a princess but a princess. Beauty," the breath on the back of your neck almost carries the touch of lips, "is perilous. In the face of it," her hand traces over your shoulders, across your collar - and then pulls. Your entire body rotates seamlessly - all the corrections she made to your body flowing together at once to make that simple turn the most elegant thing you've ever done in your life. "you can lose yourself."

She steps away and oh, you did not notice how cool the evening was until it was contrasted with the warmth where her touch lingers.

"So hold the sword," she said, smiling and tracing your jaw with a single finger. "Learn to see it as an irritant. Learn how awkward it is, how heavy it can feel, learn its flaws and limits. You'll cut yourself, and that too will be a lesson. You'll build up a tolerance and become blind to beauty, and that's when you can really start to explore your weapon's secrets."
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A princess! Well. Small, but that’s no indication of skill and power. Which one is this? The face (moonish, backed by night) is unfamiliar. One of Qiu’s enemies or servants. Who is to say which one? Not from this distance. If she is an enemy, then she will attack them (glorious and yet, very technically, regrettable), and if she is a servant, she will hijack their journey, give orders wantonly, and generally be troublesome until Rose from the River strikes from within. Either way, she will have the better of the princess. Her palms are damp on her sword-staff.

“My companion,” she says, projecting her voice down the hillside, “who is most definitely Scales of Meaning, magistra of accounts and balances, most capable of transforming a wayward princess into an expensive auction lot, note the child down there.” Haha! Smart-mouthed? You’ve seen nothing yet. “The one underdressed for the chill of evening, down by the horses. How unlucky for her, to meet not just one of the subsouls of the Pyre of Inspiration, but the most cunning and determined! If she is not in favor with your mistress’s mistress, the inexhaustible Princess Qiu, then she must be in more danger now than she has ever been! What is her value, do you think, oh most sagacious of serpents? Enough for you to snap her up if she does not turn aside?”

It would be a very silly princess indeed who fell for the first layer of Rose’s words. No, that was quite the intent. Peel away, princess, look for what must lie behind them: that this pilgrim must be exaggerating, that this demoness is puffing herself up to a higher tier and cannot possibly be the Scales of Meaning, and that you should hop up here and throw yourself into your passion thoughtless of any danger. That is the second trick, all done without doing undue injury to the truth; that is how it is done, dear Scales!

And if she is astute enough to notice she is being lured into an unfavorable position, then she has earned the wisdom hidden within Rose’s words, and is to be respected.

Now, Scales is certainly cunning enough to get to the second layer, and exactly cunning enough to throw a blushing tantrum there. If she can provoke the demoness to indignantly agree with her in seeming incoherence, oh, all the sweeter! That is why Rose smiles so, watching the princess to see what she does, like a coin tossed in the air. But where will she fall?

Heads, tails, or rim?
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Shouting demon creature, were you expecting to be ignored? The airborne princess before you, hovering just above the treeline leans casually against her glowing crystal sword, obviously lost in thought, cheek resting on one hand as she gazes distantly over the path, looking at you but not seeing you.

In her mind right now, she's mulling her mother's words, the horses, the strange whisper of the wind that still clings to her. Follow the Snake. Thinking always helped distract her. It was almost like art in her head. She'd start from something and begin drawing the picture in her mind, filling in the blank spots, taking a guess at what might fit best, imagining what could go where when she lacked the full suite of colors. She'd do that when she was little, when her Mom (Hesha) or Mommy (Ysel) would push her. They always complained that she'd fall apart under pressure and then praised her later for how fast she learned. Go hide alone somewhere and think through the problem until she could do everything perfectly and her parents would love her. Coping mechanisms.

Right now, she needed distracting. Like, say, from the crushing weight of being told that she's the "speartip of our entire alliance." Gosh, maybe if she was that important she could have one of her mother's shard tiaras then?! It would have made this a lot faster than shivering with the North Wind wrapping around her. All her warm wools did nothing when it was close like this, blowing into every little hole and crevice, ugh. She hadn't expected that answer. She was hoping for the wind to just blow ahead of her, lead her on a chase right to Yue. It meant something that she got a cryptic answer instead.

Her first thought was that the girl was on the move, but she dismissed that because when it came to pure speed, Chen was one of the fastest princesses in the nine kingdoms, barring magical cheating. If it was just a matter of catching a moving target, the wind could have still led her straight there. That meant magical cheating. Maybe if she went straight there, she'd run into Yin with a full bodyguard and get overpowered. The snake-based route might get her there with better timing or by surprise. Still it was odd, where was she going to find a...snake...

It's only when Scales of Meaning emerges behind Rose, her naga form slithering from the trees and her face flushed with obvious outrage that Chen's attention properly fixes on the two travelers, and it is Scales to whom she makes her descent. She lands smoothly on the balls of her feet, shifting her weight with a dancer's practiced ease and, holding her sword by its hilt in one hand, makes a formal but not overly deep hands clasped forwards style bow towards Scales of Meaning (and a slight gesture towards Rose as an afterthought). The landing says "I know what I'm doing" and the attention and care indicates formality and respect. Mom was always emphasizing how important it was to make a first impression and Chen needed to keep her excitement in check at so instantly finding the target of her instructions.

"Oh Great Scales of Meaning" she says, avoiding any hint of sarcasm (for it's obvious that slighting the title has enraged the snake) "Magistra of accounts and balances. My name is Chen, Princess of the Northern Wind. I would be honored if you would permit me to accompany you and your herald on your present journey for the day. There are many dangers about and travel is always safer in numbers."

She lifts her head having made the formal offer and shares a warm smile with the two travelers. It's obvious she knows a great deal more than she's saying and has offered no explanation for her presence. But it would be rude to breach decorum and ask before responding to her respectful request.
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Oh, so she was wrong. This is what it feels like to fly.

Yue shivers, and it has nothing to do with the evening chill. What was that? What was that? What is this? She only had it for a second, just the length of a simple spin (and even that was with Hyra doing everything for her), but still! But... still. She spun and her legs went this way and her hips went that way and her arms lifted else way and she did it all while holding a sword and that meant, it meant, she was transformed into a heroine out of a beautiful song. And that's the most powerful magic that she's felt all night.

It makes her want to laugh. It makes her want to drink. It makes her want to twirl some more, just to feel the dance moving through her body a little bit more. She settles for letting another tingly shiver of pleasure ripples up her spine and grinning breathlessly instead. She's a good girl, not moving except where those warm (and strong. and soft...) hands guide her. And of course, never letting go of her sword. She could do anything in this moment. A single one of those fingers pressed atop her lips would be enough to turn her mute until it lifted.

And isn't it funny, the way this isn't a dream come true? To live your dreams you have to dream them first, and even Yue's wishing heart didn't dare imagine her first adventure could feel so soft. Or smell so nice, gosh. Or, um! Wr-wrap around her l-like, that is, the feeling of two strong arms taking her trembling ones in hand and pulling her in from behind so that the whole world turns to soft skin and softer pillows and leather. She is a puppet. If she strained, if she struggled, if she even wanted to she couldn't budge herself an inch in a direction or a manner that Hyra didn't tell her to.

The chill of the air glides across her skin and pricks through her dress like a series of sewing needles until her whole body is abuzz with tingling, prickling, tickling, bubbling feelings that she's not smart enough or fast enough to capture and label them all on her own. But if she had to try, she'd probably compare it to biting into honeycomb, or maybe bathing in the great Terraced Lake in the deepest part of the night, where just hours ago a thousand feet had passed but now no eyes were there to see you lifting yourself from the warm, shallow waters even if they strained to try. She'd call it... mmm, safety maybe. Or comfort. No, she'd call it 'strength', or maybe all of these things wrapped up into a ball, except that they're a physical thing she feels in her skin and her muscles and her bones and inside her mind and heart, not flavors or ideas. Even the subtle movements of her dress burst across her sensitive body like sunspots in this moment.

She has to force her eyes to stay open when she wants so badly to let them close and just trust everything to Hyra, but she can't afford to, not right now, she doesn't dare let herself miss a moment of her very first dance. Because, if it's her last one too she'd never forgive herself for missing even a single insignificant detail. Her heart is throbbing and for some reason her silly lake-blue eyes are lake-wet too, and every last stitch of her soul is trembling with want to whisper I love you and I love you and I love you, and shyly ask how long she would be allowed to have this, and if she really is so special then how much of herself would she need to pay to make that answer be forever?

But she doesn't do that! Of course she doesn't, are you silly? There's another question that steals out from her lips, and maybe that's the reason for the wetness in her eyes.

"Does that mean that... princesses can't see how beautiful they are? That's too sad. That's... I would never want to, I, I don't think..." she swallows and continues, and her fever spreads, "Does... does that mean that you don't know how beautiful you are?"
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Chen and Rose!

The Scales of Meaning is a creature who knows a thing or two about opportunity.

She transmutes from embarrassed ferocity to control in a moment. She raises her horned head, and oh, the perfect balance of her bearing! You could balance a teacup atop her head, such is her poise and dignity as she calculates. New markets, new buyers, new risks - plenty of raw material for her to work with.

"Princess Chen of the Northern Wind - or is that with the Northern Wind?" she purrs, as velvet as snakeskin. "How lucky I am to find you! I am being positively tormented by this, the Hunter. Abomination of ancient days, she has somehow become even more odious in this day and age, ambushing me in my bath, destroying my guards and entrapping me upon the tip of her blade. Oh, won't you save me~, noble princess~?"

The Scales of Meaning manages to find a moment to flash you a smirk so bratty it almost makes you envious, Rose.

[Offering a universal string to Chen: Get into a sword fight with Rose from the River and mark an XP]

Yue!

"Of course I don't," said Hyra in a voice far too soft to have once wielded such confidence. "Not one princess does. Perhaps not even one girl does. Perhaps not even Princess Qiu, perhaps not even the moon herself, can truly know that they are beautiful without being told. That's why..."

The sun, in a flash of gold, descends across the horizon in a celestial sprint. The twilight vanishes in an instant and the world plunges into darkness. Across the lake lanterns ignite and across the hills fireflies rise and across the tree-tops bioluminescent caterpillars unwrap themselves from their hidden places. The lights come back on but ragged, chaotic, soft, in a craze of blues and greens and soft violets. For a moment it's magical.

And in another moment it's dangerous. There are twists in the shadows where things that had been creeping in darkness find themselves illuminated by different light sources. And as fast as the sun's free-fall, Hyra is standing, blade in hand, once again sharp lines and pointed ears and eerie curse-light. Whatever it is that rises inside her rises to the surface in the darkness, and the way she's smiling and the way she licks her lips in anticipation don't seem entirely her own.
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The laughter comes first. A light, happy sound like tinkling crystal chimes. "Surely the subsoul of the Pyre of Inspiration needs no help from a lowly traveling princess, even from an ancient hunter." She laughs again, though her feet never leave their poised stance. "But if you are struggling with your traveling companion, my lady, I'm sure that I can offer to mediate."

Chen dips her head in the slightest bow, her long red scarf bobbing upwards, the smile still on her face and the sparkle in her eyes. She takes a breath and her whole body focuses arrow-sharp. The scarf bobs and the the blade flashes at the same time, the sound of its crystal tinkles like Chen's laughter. Chen takes one step towards Rose, never leaving the dancer's stance she's been holding or shifting her balance off her center. This is practiced bladework done naturally, the balance as sure as sure and certain as a casual walk. The sword blade strikes towards Rose's defenses in a series of blows and feints, though not one that bears her full weight. These are not commitments but teases, each one a gentle trickle of water splashing upon a rock looking to see which way it will fly forth. Looking for the easiest path to keep flowing. With each strike, her thin skirts flare lightly and her scarf gives another little bob behind her, teasing you like a cat tempted to catch a tassel.

Now is the first time that Princess Chen's attention is all for you, Hunter. She's obviously determined that between you two travelers, you're the one with the power here, and, hearing Scales' request, is delighted to take your measure. She's looking right at you, her dark eyes framed by darker hair and that thick red scarf. She's looking at your blade and your face to see how you react.

As to that reaction, how good are you eyes, Hunter to take Chen's measure? If you can see well from afar, you've seen a change in Chen's bearing in this handful moments. When she was contemplating, there was such uncertainty on her, and if you could see her approach at a distance, you might have seen her fidget and look oh so worried. But once she saw Scales it has been all confidence and she seems to truly be relaxing in this moment, looking forward to enjoying this fight and excited to take your measure!

[Chen starts a fight and rolls to entice Rose, also embodying her heroic aspect of legendary skill in this fight. 6+2+2+1=11. She'll gain a string and Rose choose an option to react.]
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The look that Rose from the River gives Scales of Meaning in the moment before blades are crossed is still amused, but with a scorpion-tail crook in the corner of her lips. “What guards? You mean the scraps of dignity you tried to hide behind? ara-ara, I’ll take those too~” The pole slips from her hand and strikes the ground so hard that it bounces right back up, so that Rose from the River may catch it in a more comfortable grip for sparring. Bold Thorn Pilgrim! Without taking the pack from her shoulders, she laughs and moves to bat away the princess’s blade, to toy with her and find her measure.

But the daughter of two queens moves like water rushing down from the peaks, bright and sparkling cold, swift enough to drag the unwary down into the undertow. Almost too late Rose realizes that she has been drawn out of position. Is she so old, then, that this little snowbrand can trick her? The crystal blade comes whistling in to count coup by kissing her cheek, and both Rose and the Conciliatory Ice-Star Blade twist with a sudden violence.

The swords meet with a high note, the Ice-Star gleaming cold in the low light, the crystal blade of the high mountains straining a hair’s breadth from Rose’s cheek. Eyes meet: one pair dark and beautiful in their focus, their intensity, their love of the sport of princesses; the other catching the dying light and seeming to glow, save for the narrowed pits at their golden heart, black as ink. Rose from the River inhales, long and slow, and lets the shiver run up from the soles of her bare feet on the grass to the flowers growing in her braids. Her heart races in her chest, fluttering like a bird caught in the hand.

“Oh,” she says. For a moment she stands on the edge of the sword, as they make no move to disengage. On one side of that blade, she continues to hold back and then makes some kind of mistake that will lead to this child’s sword pressed lovingly against her neck. She will offer her sword to the princess’s care and offer herself up to her mercy. It will be this girl’s decision as to what to do with her; to give her over to Scales trussed tight, or to bring her as a maidservant on a leash.

Or she could enjoy a real fight and try.

She should not. She struggles enough with her love of battle, real conflict, the burn of the candle. She should yield to this child’s insufferable confidence and prodigy-like skill, be a stepping stone on the great and grand destiny she wears like a coat. aum shantae aum, the jewel is the axle of the lotus.

But Rose from the River is only a good pilgrim. She is a masterful huntress.

So she stops playing and throws herself into an advance, meeting those teasing little feints with a delicate sword-web. As it is said,

The sword is the heart of the field
from which danger radiates in four directions;
turn aside this way or that,
know that the blade will meet you.


“Who are you, child?” Rose from the River is too intent on her craft to veil her respect for the girl’s effortless skill. Here is a girl who must be met by ambush! Her eyes do not miss a trick; her feet are light and heavy by turns, and the sword-katas of the White Doe School seek to instill through repetition and solemn contemplation what this girl knows from her heart.

She should lower her weapon and yield to the little blade-saint. She should! A low growl escapes her as she instead slings her pack to the ground, a humiliating gesture; that she would need to fight unburdened against this tiny thing! Doubt creeps in, her heart still pounding: what if she loses? Does she still cling to some foolish pride, hidden behind her affectation of serenity?

[Rose from the River gives into the temptation to have a real fight, going against the guidance of her philosophy; she also is so on the back foot that she rolls a 5 for Fight.]
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Yue moves as if she's being pulled on a string.

And maybe she is. When the sun flashes its golden goodbye, she's usually already snuggled away in her home doing nothing more adventurous than baking sweet seed cakes with her special lavender-honey syrup to share a special nighttime treat with Kat. When the lanterns burst to life, it's a time for sitting next to grandmother's old chair with a blanket and a book, not for racing out to see what the changing of the lights has caught. An adventure in the night is something that you do in town, skipping through the streets to get close enough to the travel lodges to hear their drinking songs perhaps, or else to slip into her secret garden to teach Sis' songs to the grasses and flowers and see what new friends would sneak their own way in to share in her bounty of treats and head pats. That's the measure of the girl called Yue.

It must be some new type of magic, then, that makes her feet so light she barely feels them touch the ground. It must be somebody's spell that broke Hyra's and turned her silly sword so light again, even lighter than she can remember it being. It's definitely magic more powerful than even the Threeshard Princess could muster that guides her sword arm through the air and places the wooden saber in a perfect guarding posture, because the clumsy stick arms of a silly village girl have no business knowing that kind of posture or power or poise. Let alone actually achieving them!

But here she is. With her free arm held protectively across Hyra's body. With herself as a shield between the wolf girl and danger. With a sword in her hands pointed toward shapes in the dark that her eyes aren't quite sharp enough to catch but her heart tells her aren't any of the animals she knows and loves.

"Wh-who's there?" she calls. Her voice is strong and sharp enough that you could almost ignore how much it's trembling, "Stay back! I'm warning you, you can't have her!"

As though Hyra was the one they were here for, if they were here for anything at all. As if she was a delicate treasure in need of a strong warrior to protect her, as if Yue was that warrior! As if any of this was not ridiculous and backwards, which of course it is, and yet she's here and she moved faster thank blinking, faster than thinking, fast enough that anybody who saw her and did not know her might even believe it.

Hyra's hand is on her shoulder, pushing her away. Yue's body starts to tremble, and suddenly she can feel the weight of her sword again trying to drag her arm to the ground like shackles. Her knees knock together, but it's not because she's cold. Just the opposite, she's burning to death in the heat of her shame. Silly girl, stupid girl, what are you doing? You're making her job harder, is what you're doing? Stop it, put it down, find somewhere safe to hide before you get hurt! Before you hurt her, you, you... dummy!

"I... I mean it! I-if you're hungry I've got plenty of food to share, b-b-but you'd better be nice about it! 'C-cause if you're t-t-trying to kidnap anybody I'll... beat you up! Don't think I won't!"

Oh now she's gone and done it! Hyra's going to be so mad at her! And what if whatever's out there is actually really nice? And, oh no, what if they're not! She said all those things, and, and...! Oh no! Oh gosh oh no oh gosh! She hasn't shaken this badly since that time she lost her keys in that snowstorm and Sis made her go back out and find them as punishment and she had to walk back and forth across the lake three times when it was freezing and that's it, that's the only one she can remember right now she's never trembled this much in her entire life.

But she doesn't move. Blushing and shaking and squeaking apologies under her breath for all she's worth, she doesn't move. Because when she turns her head she sees Hyra there in her aspect as the hunting wolf, and she's... she's known wolves before. None with such kissable lips (oh gosh nononono what) before, or hips that made her want to (stop it stop it stop it stop thinking about it Yue), but all the same. She's known wolves. She's heard their songs of beauty and their songs of pain and she's looked into their eyes before and...

Well, it's just. Farmers chase them off, you see? And hunters trap and kill them. And village children tell each other stories about being gobbled up and then when a howl crests over a distant terrace they quiver with fright. Nobody ever takes the time to care how they're feeling, and... really when you get right down to it, they're not that different than the little fluffball taking shelter under her dress right now, are they? The ones with fangs, they...

It's why she tries to smile, now. Even though her lips are quivering horribly and she must be the ugliest person in the world right now. Every wolf ought to know there's somebody looking out for them. And Hyra is too special to lose to whatever weird monsters are creeping about tonight. Not the ones in the dark, and not the ones in her blood.
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