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Chen first looks to herself. She has been stretched out, carried, and flung about and she's tense. With her bonds loosened by Cyanis, she stands, gathers her scarf into a nice fold that she places down next to her reverently, and does some stretches. She rubs her wrists, then her ankles, reaching all the way to her toes. She lets herself luxuriate for a moment in the feeling of loose muscles after tension, the warmth of the sun caressing her face, and the cool springy feeling of the grass beneath her feet.

She's ready to change of course, she made the deal, but Cyanis isn't moving. As Chen draws out her stretches and keeps expecting Cyanis to turn around, another blush slowly begins to creep up on her and overtakes her calm routine entirely. "W-well?!" she stammers, expecting Cyanis to get a hint that is a million miles above the innocent little fox's fluffy black and white head. When there is no response, she looks point blank at the fox and adds "a-aren't you going to turn around. S-so I can change?"

When Cyanis responds with a slight cock of her head and a confused "uh, why" Chen quite nearly explodes! "Because! B-because it's n-not. You s-shouldn't! You can't look while...I...er...um." Chen looks away, unable to meet those bright teal eyes as she imagines Cyanis looking at her while she changes. She's not a little kid, she doesn't need somebody to watch her while she's putting her fancy dress on in case she needs help! But she can't quite say it because the rapid beating of what is clearly her little rabbit heart is getting in the way of finishing her sentence and in her mind she's imagining Cyanis do a little more than just watching as she changes, and the thought of those fluffy tails curling around her leg as she's working on the dress is just...eeeep!

Chen cuts through this entire train of thought by flinging her arms out in a last strong stretch, straightening her shoulders, and before anyone can stop her, least of all her own brain, she pulls her silks off, strides up to the dress in nothing but her underwear and throws it over her head! She only slightly struggles with getting the neck on that way, and pulls it over, starting to smooth and place some of the ruffles in the front. That is when she notices that there are some fastenings along the back for a tighter fit beneath all the ruffles and, with the absolute and utmost mortification, utters in a tiny voice: "Um, C-Cyanis, c-could you help me finish putting this on?"
Robena and Tristan

The lady Sandsfern keeps a comforting, warm hand on Robena's shoulder. The heat of her, the life, the strength can be felt even through your armor and your padded jacket, and it brings back memories of travel with her on the road. Of times when you would get in far over your head and the Lady Sandsfern would delight as few could in the impossibility of it all and the freedom to simply act. What has it been like since you've lost that connection?

Though her touch is for Robena, her gaze is, for the moment on Tristan, and it is measured and thoughtful. The look in her eyes is worldly, a woman who has seen the skills of knights and knows few enough with a steady hand and a quick enough eye to make the throw that Tristan just made so smoothly. You can see her eyes flash and her brows furrow as she updates her calculus as to how much the man in front of her fears death in combat.

Her look passes in an instant, and she offers you a fanged smile, Tristan. "Very well, I've known many a religious knight all across the world. I do not think my dear Robena is in such a rush that you cannot have a moment for ritual and contemplation while she and I catch up on old times."

Constance

"Damn fool. You'd offer yourself to a dragon hoping to be saved? What then, when no knight comes save to meet their end in fire while the people starve?" Merlin scowls and his hair flaps loosely as he sets his feet to start into a rant. "What then if the dragon takes the sword and hides it? Or merely kills you and secrets away to their lair? Even if you assume a knight comes to save you, what if they can't draw the blade, will you waste your grandmother's magic on such a soul?" He's speeding up, gesturing widely with his arms while ignoring Cath pressing at his leg. "And what, do you expect me to tell all the world of your contest while you're imprisoned, hmm? And what if Uther or his knights are your savior? He's mad, but that doesn't mean he's not destined! Or what if the dragon turns out to wield the sword, have you thought of that?! And all that's assuming you can even find a dragon. Why the only one I know..."

Merlin stops suddenly, giving you a coy look that makes you wonder whether he isn't playing you directly into this decision from the start. But he says nothing more and waits for you to persuade him. It seems he does know a dragon. What will you do to win his support?
"Mmmph!" Chen says once, confirming to Cyanis that there are plenty of other princesses in the area and making her only contribution to the negotiations. She was listening of course, Cyanis was underselling her and could obviously tell that the two thieves were nervous and ready to buckle under pressure. Shrewd. But the grass was also comfy, and so was her scarf and it was easy to just lie back to the sound of those two excitedly wagging black and white tails and imagine them brushing over her face and maybe daintily over the back of her neck with the lightest little touch, oh wouldn't that just feel amazing?

She is brought back to a more pressing reality quite literally with Cyanis using her as a foot rest and she lets out an indigant eep that is instantly cut short by the brightest blush suffusing her whole body, which has also gone stiff. How did she know?! She had only done that one time with princess Ishan when she'd first been out training and had stumbled upon Ishan's pirate fleet. Why Ishan had a maid costume in her ship they had never discussed, but both of them had considered it a fair deal to have Chen clean out Ishan's entire personal cabin dressed in it in exchange for secrecy about the location and existence of the fleet!

Okay, well, there was also that one other time when she had briefly captured Ishan herself a year later just before Qiu's big move and Chen still had the maid costume and it just seemed like a nice thing to do for her captive to make her comfortable, plus Chen's room in Ysel had been so dusty since she didn't visit that often. But it had only been two times!

Well, unless you counted the time that Chen had disguised herself as a (quickly captured) handmaiden to infiltrate Yin's kingdom for information before escaping, but that one hardly counted because maid costumes were not see through and they had to have a little apron to really count, thank you very much. And anyway, that was only three times, so how could Cyanis have possibly known about this?!

Chen squirmed uncomfortably and her blush did not go away as she looked at Cyanis. She was tied and gagged, she could just moan and protest but she'd never been very good at lying that way. Her talent for deceit was in the exasperated groan and the "get off my back" eye roll that made all activities equally suspicious and unsuspicious at the same time. But directly lying when confronted, that was hard and Chen had a million tells for her discomfort. So, presently, she gives Cyanis just the smallest nod amidst her blush that yes that sounds fair and then immediately looks away and tries to pretend that if she can't see that beautiful little fox, she must not exist at all!
[Reputation: 3+4+2=9. Cyanis has heard that Chen is particularly gifted with the sword, plus one more from the MC side.]

Chen smiles at the pretty fox resting her head at an impossible angle in the car's window. It's a real smile at first, a little giggle when Cyanis shakes her bound hand and plays with her scarf, but it leaves her eyes when the fox asks if she's the "megaprincess" and instead there's a tiredness to her view. For a moment, she doesn't answer. She considers lying, telling Cyanis that she's not the real Chen and she led on the thieves. But she's still got the real Chen's sword under her bindings and it would only take a call to her parents to prove she was real, it would just be twice as embarrassing, and not in the good way.

When the fox starts to look a little uncomfortable, Chen breaks her silence. "Yes, I'm the real Chen. Princess of the Northern Wind. The future leader of the soon to be reunited Hot and Cold Alliances, twin shard heiress, master swordswoman, and..." here she brightens despite herself "aspiring painter." Chen is really liking including that as part of her intro now and it shows in her focus, attention, and attitude. That smile becomes a grin that she can't entirely hide.

Her attention renewed, Chen looks Cyanis through the car window. Actually looks at her. She's cute! Those teal eyes so eager, happily shouting "I'm new!" and that white hair turning to black, that looked really good. Chen blushed and squirmed trying to straighten herself up in the car. She was suddenly conscious of her own state still wearing the thin silks that Qiu had made for her, Rose's scarf binding hiding only enough to show off the skin and translucent silks.

"They didn't capture me" she says, more defensive than originally intended. And was that a pout? Surely not, Princesses never pout! "I got captured by a powerful ancient huntress who is definitely following this car and is probably setting up a sneaky ambush at this very moment just as soon as she finishes herding an entire flock of sheep! She was trying to help all the travelers in the road and these two, who have promised me that they are honorable gentlemen who had nothing to do with the wandering sheep, jumped on the opportunity to steal me away since I was already bound by this old-world seal." Chen helpfully wiggles her ankles to demonstrate Rose's very high-quality binding work.

Before Cyanis can do more than nod thoughtfully, Chen continues quickly, a thought suddenly occurring to her and making her eyes light up mischievously. "Oh, and I guess they did see your flyers because they said right away that they were going to trade me to a fox, so they already knew about you. And this really must be my lucky day because an up and coming fox is just who I need to see too! You see, I'm really, reaaaally hoping to find someone before any of the other Princesses in the area pull it off and maaaaybe you could help? Cyanis Two-Tails, right? Maybe you could grant a Princess's simple little wish?"
Tristan and Robena

"Merlin?!" The Lady Sandsfern's scoff is quick and incredulous. Whatever her loss to Robena, it has not seemed to dim her energy nor the lustre of that fiery hair, and you'd swear there is steam coming off her as she breathes disdain. "You'd give that two-bit charlatan the time of day? Please. Even if he could make a true soothsaying as opposed to sending the woman haring off for his own reasons on a flimsy excuse, how would you know whether his prediction wasn't precisely meant to lead them to combat this day?"

She turns and puts a reaffirming hand on Robena's shoulder. "Sir Robena called to drive Uther's retainers from the land and you say to her 'here's a party of them in front of your nose. Like as not cursed. Ah, but they were kind to me today, so not them, never mind, why did I even mention them?' Is that the truth of it or are you just showing your cowardice, boy?" Sandsfern's eyes burn with passion and her voice cares not one whit who overhears you. Perhaps she invites the confrontation with her challenge.

How do you both respond?

Constance

"A dragon?!" Merlin's eyes go wide and he coughs, once, twice before recovering himself. "Dragons got us into this mess and you want to find another one? Sea and stars woman, are you entirely cracked?" The black and white fur rises on Cath Palug's back and she hisses in your defense, and indeed you have not been spoken to with such disrespect in years. Not since you were a small child found by your family by a shattered pot of honey with a sticky hand. But then, perhaps that's the point and Merlin seeks to throw you from your course with his outburst. Does the wiley old seer know more than he's letting on? Perhaps you ought to press him. Or at least call him on his disrespect. Cath Palug seems liable to back your next move if it comes to it.
Chen claps with pleasure at the story! Or, she would, but she's still got her wrists bound. It's just, there's a moment while she's learning all about local Buddha adoption customs and the gods who live in them where she kind of forgets all that and her eyes are sparkling and her arms flex and pull at the bonds and she realizes she can't move and twists her whole body instead and finally settles for a very very faint sound from tapping the edges of her fingers against each other that's sort of like clapping.

Chen's voice pitches up a little as she's talking through the story for herself. "Oh, that's so sweet! I really like how people get to choose what's best for them each year! I hope that most people are realistic about it, oh do you get any training for how to pick your Buddha so you don't get stuck in over your head? Oh gosh, maybe I could visit for New Years sometime, oh I'd love to make a painting of everyone combing through the beach picking out their Buddhas for the year!"

Chen lets silence settle into the car for a few heartbeats, her eyes looking upwards at the velvet ceiling of the fancy car, or at nothing at all while the scene plays out in her head. Elkibrant and Vogodoris are too polite to interrupt a Princess engaged in that sort of fantasy. It's how you can tell that they're gentleman thieves and not rude interrupting thieves with no respect for anyone else's heart. Which is a lucky thing for them because rude thieves wouldn't get any business from Princesses, whereas they're making a great sales pitch right now.

Presently, Chen focuses her eyes back on them, looking first at Vogodoris, then at Elkibrant, who seems to be the more talkative by quite a bit. "Well, fair's fair," she says, her face still turned up in a slight smile. "Truth be told, your kidnapping was a blessing because I was terrified of being picked up by Princess Kikil, and the technomancer said that she had called her." Chen's whole body does a little shudder when she said terrified and she looks pointedly at both of the thieves. "Kikil's really scary, she has all that old-world knowledge and the big mask with the spike designs at the bottom, and I was worried that she'd make a whole thing out of it and I don't know what to expect from her, which is kind of the scariest thing of all! Compared to that, I'm really not that worried about Yin. She's really loud and has her whole shiny knights and monsters thing, but if she picked me up she'd listen to what I had to say after she'd had her fun and I wouldn't really mind owing her a favor. I mean, she'd ask for a lot, but she's all about showy shining knights and I could do her thing no problem, I'm actually one of the best swordswomen in all the nine kingdoms." There's a little swelling with pride when Chen says that, her scarf even stretches a bit, but she says it in tone that's calm and measured, the confidence of someone who worked really hard and feels proud of that work, not the bravado of someone trying to show off.

"As for who I'd like to be kidnapped by. Qiu, maybe, but we have a prior arrangement, so you probably shouldn't try to negotiate that one with the foxes. Also she's supposed to be my arch-nemesis." Chen sticks out her tongue briefly, again looking at both of them to get across what she think of that. "Maybe Jezara. I've hung out with her a little, but she's never kidnapped me and I'd really like to pet her and have her nuzzle me, which maybe could happen in the right kidnapping, you know?" Chen blushes, but a deal's a deal. Also, this part is way easier than the part she's been putting off and it's much more fun to think about Jezara in fluffy kitty form rubbing up against her than anything else here.

Eventually, she gives a little sigh and settles into her seat, now talking without looking directly at either of her two kidnappers. "Also, you probably know already that Hestia and Ysel are my Moms. So, you can ransom me to them and get a good deal to avoid giving any of the other kingdoms a leg up on us. I'm sure the fox you're taking me to will already know that, and I'd really rather you didn't, but we made a deal and you told a great story, so it wouldn't be fair if I set you up to undersell me. I'm worth a lot if you start playing off the kingdoms against each other." Chen lets out a deep breath that turns into a long sigh and if she were looking at the two thieves, they might see her roll her eyes at the thought of it all.

Another few beats of silence hang over them for a minute, much less joyous than the first before Chen gathers herself and breaks it. "So, who's the fox around here anyway? I didn't know there was one."
Once she has the attention of the two thieves, Chen stays still and makes eye contact while Elkibrant makes his pitch. There's a slight blush when he puts his card in her gag, but he doesn't have that teasing tone in his voice, so it's not the same as if Rose or Qiu were doing it. Just going through the motions didn't really get Chen's heart beating when it was obviously a sincere business offer. Instead, this sort of business arrangement put her in mind of her training and guidance from her Moms. Mom always said never to pass up an opportunity, and these two were, if not trustworthy, at least acting like their motivations were pretty straightforward: make them a better offer than the competition and don't put them at too much risk and they'd do what you wanted. There were plenty of people in the world who just wanted to get their next meal, and at least a few who wanted that next meal to be extra fancy and there was nothing wrong with that if it was what made them happy. Well maybe. Unlike Mom, Mommy always seemed to have some disdain for people who she didn't think really enjoyed what they were doing. Chen remembered her moms fighting about that a couple times.

When the gag comes off, Chen swallows to get the fuzzy taste out of her mouth and looks between the two thieves kidnapping her. "I'll be happy to take advantage of your services if I ever need them. I assume your card says how to get in touch if I need you?" She looks at Elkibrant, who's clearly doing the talking here, but also gives Vogodoris a nod of appreciation for his care. Both her moms always said it was important to make sure everyone felt included in a group.

"I don't know if I should just tell you who I do or don't want to get kidnapped by though" Chen says, a little bit of mischief in her eyes and her smile. "I mean, that's the sort of thing I'd want to know if I were hiring you, so I don't think I should just give it away for free. How about this. I'll tell you which Princesses I'm interested in after you tell me something useful first. Your choice, though if there's time I really want to know about Vogodoris here and how you two started working together. I've met a lot of ancient spirits today and they all seem so interesting!" Chen gives the two of them another warm glance, totally innocent. "Or if we're short on time, you could say who put you up to blocking the road with that herd of sheep."

Chen isn't really sure they did that, but they might not know when she and Rose first spotted them or the range of their skills, so she's ready to try a bluff and watching both of their faces to see if her guess gets a reaction that proves her right.

[If this kidnapping is substantial enough, I'm intending this to be the moment for them to reveal something they hope to gain from Help Me!~~ If not, I could roll either an Entice or Figure Out depending on what seems most appropriate here.]
"Thhhhp!" Chen shouts, bumping and rolling on the suited thief's shoulder with a mixture of fear and almost wild glee. No princess Kikil! No crazy fantasies. She was on some sort of wild adventure instead and Chen could handle wild adventures way better than she could overbearing technomancers and terrifying mask Princesses! (Oh gosh, perish the thought there could be more than one terrifying mask Princess!).

She's not even protesting as loudly as she could. There's the scarf of course, but also the parts of her that are still covered in only thin and revealing silks from Qiu's little costume change are rubbing against this very nice suit and that is some nice fabric. It's very comfortable and Chen is appreciating that she's dealing with some excellent mischief makers today. Mom (Hestia) always warned her against letting her guard down, but being carried by strong arms and pressing into fine clothing was great! She nuzzled the thief's back with one cheek before being tossed into the car like a sack of (softly bound) potatoes.

She gave the thief a pointed look and a "mmmmmm" that said "ungag me this instant you fiend!" without actually using any words, but he wasn't having it, so she settled into her seat. This was nice enough. Chen had actually ridden in a car before. Mommy Ysel had one in Ys for times she felt like getting around in style. Finding the fuel for one was expensive or time consuming, but that just made it all the more grand. Ysel had painted hers a bright sparkling red because it was her favorite color and would occasionally take it out for show. It had struck Chen how easy it was. It wasn't quite as fast as sword-flight (at least for an expert) but it didn't take focus or concentration really, especially for the passengers. It was really hard to transport people using magic. Not as hard as herding sheep (Chen still couldn't believe Rose had done that!) but definitely something that took training and care and required the passenger to pay some attention and not be a problem. A car ride, you could just relax and look out the window.

So Chen did, looking out at the fields and twisting and squirming to get a little bit of a view behind her. That's when she saw Rose, her fence-mending finished suddenly leap into the air, braids flying behind her, sword hilt gripped in her outstretched arm for all the world like a golden eagle about to swoop upon them. Then the car crested past a little rise and Chen lost sight of Rose and the trees behind them as the incline rose up behind her to fill her view with rolling low grass.

Rose was coming for her! Chen blushed and couldn't help bouncing a little in her seat, wiggling her knees back and forth in excitement. This was so much fun! Her new friend was keeping her word, or at least trying to, she wasn't getting swept up into permanent Princess exile, she got to ride in a car, and she was still confident that they'd find Yue and she could turn this into a win! Never give up, never surrender, right? Right!

Trying to settle her beating heart, Chen glanced forwards, towards the driver, looking to see what they were doing and whether there was any sign of a destination before them. The technomancer had said a fox, right? Chen knew foxes a little. Tricky, but her mothers couldn't keep her from learning about them when they were everybody's informants, spies, and cute little fluffers wish granters in a pinch. Chen had been carefully supervised when she met her first fox, not allowed to make any wishes but just to help Ysel negotiate some kind of scouting thing, maybe? She didn't remember it that well because she had stumbled through the words while wishing in her heart the entire time that the fox would understand that she just wanted to be whisked away and maybe tied to a wall in the fox's lair (f-for plausible deniability later) while she was brushed and tickled with all four of those big fluffy tails. ...Chen blushed a lot harder thinking through this.

That wasn't going to get her anything though. She needed to get the driver's attention and get him to start talking so she could figure out what the right play was here. "Mmmph!" she shouted into her scarf, twisting and sliding her legs and her butt across the car seat so she made a swishing sound across the fabric. "Mmph, mmphh!" "Mmphm, hmphhh!" hey, pay attention to me back here!
Robena and Tristan

Not to be outdone, Lady Sandsfern slams down her own beer. The others in the bar are watching your gathering with awe. Most probably expected one or both of you to crawl off to a room to lie down, or at least to sprawl out on a couch by the fireplace after a fight like that. That you're just sitting at the bar, having drinks, your passion no less dimmed by the exertion seems to have truly awed the patrons. Meanwhile, the barkeep busily fills more mugs and begins her washing, seeing that she's going to sell quite a lot of her stock tonight.

Sandsfern herself is quiet. Her face and the brightness in her eyes says that she has much to say, but if you glance to her, for the moment she offers only a nod and a look to Tristan as to Robena's outstanding offer.

Tristan, what do you say?

Constance

Merlin stands and gathers his hat. It's not graceful, and Cath Palug glares at him the entire time, but he nevertheless comes to you and, placing his hand over your own, opens the box. Inside it is a vial of water, purest blue. Beautiful and so pure that you wonder now whether all the water you've had for the past year, at least, hasn't been tainted.

Then, right here in the road, with Cath Palug pointedly ignoring him while she cleans her side, he tells you a story:


"No it is not sorted!" is what Chen wants to shout, but of course she can't because Rose from the River is an expert at bindings and has tied Chen with bindings of memory and nostalgia, far too strong to be broken by even the most valiant Princess. So instead, she strains at her bonds without breaking them, lets out a muffled shout that says "nnnnnmm, iff nntt!" and gives the technomancer an imploring look.

In Chen's mind a thousand different fantasies and terrors play out. She imagined Kikil, arriving with her burrow visage and crackling with lightning while cackling at her new prize. She would string up Chen like a fresh-caught fish and pose with her while doing some kind of victory stance to commemorate the day. Then she'd pull out a magic tracker to attach to her phone, easily pick up Yue and offer the both of them to Qiu to be new handmaidens in training. The very thought of it made Chen burn with shame. The hot and cold alliances would lose so much face! There would be jokes among the princesses and handmaidens about Chen's "demotion" even after she was ransomed, and her mothers would get suggestions to send her back to novice training with the children until she learned how to properly slip a knot. If they didn't just suggest that she quietly go into another career as an artist running a little studio. She imagined handmaidens and aspiring princesses, maybe even the rare countess would come in and she'd collect a few coins in exchange for doing a regal-looking portrait. They'd share some stories and behind her back people would talk about how she was once an heir to two sunshards before pictures of her tied up in her own scarf became everybody's wallpaper. Someone cheeky would even offer double her normal price for her to paint the scene of her delivery to Qiu and she'd toss them out of the shop while blushing the whole time.

Chen was supposed to be imagining her worst nightmares, so why she was almost chuckling to herself instead?!? Here was she, trapped like a sheep with its head in a fence with a technomancer who obviously knew who she was and hoped to get in good with Kikil, and she was smiling at dreams of being humiliated and forced into a new career.

Chen closed her eyes and let out a breath slowly through her nose, the warmth filling the wool and tickling her face. The rhythmic sound of the technomancer chopping pumpkins was relaxing and made Chen think of a spicy pumpkin soup that Princess Ysel would make sometimes. Hestia always said it was too spicy, but little Chen really liked it. Even one time when Ysel overdid it with ghost peppers and Chen had tears streaming down her eyes, she absolutely insisted she was enjoying it. Chen resolved to ask her Mommy for the recipe the next chance she got so she could make it herself.

With a little bit of calm, Chen decided to relax. She had trusted Rose for this journey, and she just had to continue trusting. If not, well, she'd figure something out with Kikil. She knew some things about the demons floating around and their target. Even the technomancer had let something slip about what Princess Yin had been up to, and Chen doubted it was a total coincidence that a powerful ancient huntress was suddenly running around when Yin had been poking around in an ancient waterway. Still though, she had never seen this Rose at Yin's side, which was odd.

Chen stretched out as best she could given the scarf wrapped around her and looked off at the horizon, past the sheeps being herded and to the distant blinking radio towers like giant one-eyed titans. She let her mind wander, thinking about how she'd like to learn more about those too. Her mothers had been so focused in their education that Chen sometimes thought she didn't know anything about the real world because she had spent so long on princess politics and magic. If she got lucky, the technomancer would at least have the heart to offer her some pumpkin and radish soup. Right now, something warm and hearty like that sounded like the best meal in the whole world. Chen did blush a little at the thought of being fed by this woman who was already having fun at expense, but even that would be a little pleasant. She had decided she was going to relax for this, so she would darn well relax!

With that, Chen lay back, settled her neck comfortably on part of the scarf, and wiggled her toes in the grass as she waited for something to happen.

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