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How she hates the blindfold.

It wasn't so bad in the bridge. But here, as she hears conversations stop and breaths catch in throats! If it weren't for safety's sake--if it weren't for Molech's injunction!--she could look around. Could see whose words falter, whose eyes can't help but trace her as she goes!

And if she's moving her hips a bit more than usual, so the gown has a chance to move, catch the light, listening for the sharp inhales of breath when a hint of thigh flashes through the slit up the side, well...

How she'd gasped, when she'd first seen it! Admired the way each movement sent ripples and shimmers across the fabric! Each motion is a wave of sequins and silvered threads, each hem a crest of seafoam against the lapis and cerulean of the dress! Blushed and stammered when she saw herself in the mirror! How she'd sat, and wondered, and marveled, and again decided that she needs tear ducts! What a world, where she can have things as nice as this!

She shivers, and can't resist, even now, giving a little twirl of joy.

(Behind her, a Coherent chokes on her rations.)

Her back still aches, just a little. The Coherents had listened to her embarrassed description, looked at each other, and nodded. Then one had picked up their chisel, and another had heated up a crucible. The stylized dove's wings down her back, though, are worth the pain. The gold filigree gleams between the panels of the backless dress, a delicate gold pattern flying over a sea of blue.

Wings, for freedom. A dove, for Aphrodite. A reminder for herself once she makes it out of this.

She wears the sea on her front, the future on her back, and around her neck, the present: a silver chain, each link a symbol of those around her. A scarf. A tail. A tentacle. A scale. Reminders of friends, comrades, past and present. They sit against her, constantly close to her heart, a reminder of how and why and for whom.

For love. For her friends. And for herself.

And thus attired, Alexa goes to battle.
Alexa does not need to see the god of the dead appear to feel the chill in the air, hear the gasp of oaths, feel the press of bodies drawing away from the command table. Is uncomfortably aware, suddenly, of how uneven the bench is, and isn't that strange? Is suddenly glad that she doesn't have hands right now, cannot run her fingers along the bench, feel out the shapes?

Nor does she need to see Jil's face to hear the determination that lives there. What would Alexa do for a leader that had freed her from Molech? No, she doesn't need to answer that, because she already knows: what she's doing right now, for Redana. How far will the Alcedi go for her?

(Oh dear, best unpack that thought later on.)

And she doesn't need to see Mynx's face to know that she's not enough here. Oh, she's welcome, yes. But her help, her acknowledgement, isn't filling the void.

The air clangs with the sudden silence, and she doesn't need to see to feel the pressure of eyes on her.

"Bella has..." She frowns with the weight of thought. "Your forgiveness, Jil, but she has hurt all of us. Nearly killed Mynx once. Nearly killed Vasilia twice.

"I know that 'she could have been worse' is cold comfort in the face of that. Wow, she should receive forgiveness for not murdering all of us in cold blood. But she had three adepts. Three assassins, pardon my saying so, to use. And she didn't. She's held off, held back, hasn't killed us.

"And..."

Alexa sighs.

"I do not want to see her hurt. She's hurt us, yes. But I still find it hard to divorce her now from the friend she was on Tellus.

"Surely, we can afford to show her some mercy, if the chance arises?"
The worst thing about being blindfolded on top of armless is knowing a friend is in need, and being able to do nothing about it. She can hear Mynx, but not see her, not go to her, not find her in the tight, overcrowded quarters of the bridge. Can't risk stumbling and knocking the blindfold off, or tripping against the corner where she knows the palanquin is. She fidgets against the chair, stares around sightlessly as if she could magically triangulate to Mynx without knocking anything important over.

But what could be more important right now? She can hear everything that Mynx isn't saying--the pain, the bitterness, of knowing just how important it is that they get the ship back. No, not the ship, the person inside the ship. Of hearing how much people are stressing over someone else. The other person who grew up with you, who cared for you. You know, the important one.

She doesn't realize how tense she's gotten--how her shoulders clench, her teeth grind, her breath halts in her chest--until a hand gently lands on her shoulder and it's all she can do not to pop out of her chair like an unwinding spring. The hand draws away, startled, but comes back insistently. No fur, no peach fuzz, so not Isty. Mechanical slithering from below. Ramses, then.

She takes a breath, swallows, and manages to bite out a hushed, "Mynx needs--Help me to her. Please." Anything to help tell Mynx that no, you're not alone, you're not invisible, I see you, I hear you, you're important, too.
If she stares at it hard enough, maybe she'll see the detail that will suddenly make it make sense. If she can just find what doesn't make sense and pick at it, examine it from every angle, she'll find the clue that will suddenly recontextualize everything.

But that's just it. None of this makes sense.

Alexa huffs, puts the blindfold back on, and turns away from the window.

"She is sacrificing every other advantage she can take, any other trap she could lay, all so that she can see us coming. She could have chosen any place, set any trap… and she chooses an empty planet where we have to approach in plain sight. Only the Kaeri to back her up, with no benefits of subtlety, disguise, empire. Why?

"It is possible she knows something we don't about this planet--perhaps it is an abandoned weapon of some sort. But even if it were, I struggle to see how it could be more effective than her own talents, especially in a more opportune planet. So why here?

"No doubt she knows the commands Molech has placed on me. Having taken the Plouisios, she cannot help but find him. Perhaps she hopes to exploit them to sow discord in the ranks, or counts on me following them in predictable ways. But she can use that knowledge somewhere else. So why Sahar?

"Why does she want open sight lines above everything else? Does she have a weapon that must be aimed? Does she want to guarantee that Redana is present before committing to an action? Does she simply want to guarantee that she can see everyone, have a commanding view of a battle?

"And most important to understanding this, I think: what does she want? What is her win condition here? Does she want us dead? Does she want Redana home? Does she hope to barter?

"What does she know that we don't?"
Dolce!

Alexa wishes she still had arms. They were tremendously useful, you know. Could do all kinds of great things with them. For instance, right now, they'd let her reach out and hold Dolce close. Let him sit in her arms, let her be an anchor of stability. She could sit there, hold him tight, block out every outside worry, let her squeeze him until he can't feel anything but how precious he is, instead of just sitting here like a lump.

Still, she does her best to scooch closer, as if just by being there, she could banish the demons.

"Do you know, I did the same thing? Any time I hurt someone, I did my best to learn about them. To fix them in my memory. If I could just remember them hard enough, if I knew them well enough, it would be like they… like they hadn't died."

She hadn't been fast enough. How many people had she never been able to learn about, afterwards? How long was her list?

How long was Nero's?

"The fact that you're trying to remember them says a lot about you, Dolce. You care, You care so much. But--

"Look at me, Dolce. Please, this is important.

"You aren't responsible for remembering them all, Dolce. You just had the grief of a god--the pain of watching a galaxy slaughtered--shoved through your heart like a flaming lance. Sitting and stewing in that agony isn't helpful or healthy. You won't bring them back, and you'll burn yourself out trying. Not being able to remember them all doesn't make you a horrible person. It makes you a person, mortal, normal. It makes you a better person than I am.

"And more than that, it makes you one of maybe five people in the galaxy I trust without reservation."

She stares at the piece of paper with its one name and sighs. There's a lot of tension in that one question mark.

"I wish I had an easy answer for what to do with Bella, Dolce. She's hurt all of us, but you and Vasilia most of all. If it were my wife that came back from a party beaten half to death, I'd have no qualms dumping her on the nearest planet for good but…"

She sighs again.

"Back on Tellus… I was… I lived too much inside my head to really become anybody's best friend. Too withdrawn, too worried I'd hurt or get hurt, to allow myself to get attached. But Mynx and Redana and Bella… It would mean a lot to them, I think, if there were a way for all of them to come out of this in one piece."

She stares at the ground before admitting, "It'd mean a lot to me, too."

Alexa's silent for a minute before huffing to herself. Look at her. Trying to help and just giving him more things to think about.

"I trust you, Dolce. I can't tell you how to solve this problem, but… you'll find the answer, I know it."

Vasilia!

Alexa doesn't laugh, but one corner of her mouth quirks up. "No, no it's not. If he were here, he'd probably start with ordering me to kill enough of the Alcedi that the rest fall in line out of fear, and then close enough of the loopholes in his commands that I couldn't 'rescue' him ever again."

And those really are the stakes, aren't they? Saying it's life or death makes it seem so dramatic, but…

She stares at the blur of color out the window.

A lifetime of servitude, or a lifetime of exploration and self determination.

"I've… It feels weird to realize that if this works, I can actually have a future. I have surpassed what my father intended for me and… now I'm off the rails, in uncharted territory."

And here, she does laugh, and leans companionably against Vasilia.

"Good feeling but… still weird."

Redana!

Alexa grins as she watches Ti'jm.

The young artist hasn't stopped dancing ever since she got back with Redana's response, and keeps borrowing the letter to show it off to one friend or another. Beautiful! Beautiful, the princess said! She's jealous, the princess said! Oh, she's gonna start working on another one right away and really knock her socks off!

And Redana'd even had time to find a blindfold. Probably best not to test the commands in so lethal a way, but…. She misses her too.

Ordering to ignore orders. What a simple idea. Why didn't she think of that? It's such a silly concept, and she's been so worried about killing Redana, that she hadn't even let it cross her mind. No wonder Molech had wanted her to kill Redana and steal the seal--it'd remove one weakness in her programming.

Maybe it'd be worth it after all fo risk it.
Dear Redana,

The Alcedi who flagged you down and pressed the letter to your hands is now doing her best to look like she's not reading over your shoulders, and failing badly.

This isn't Alexa's writing. You know how Alexa writes. You've seen her notebooks, each chunky serif letter inscribed with the precision of a printing press. But the words on this page swoop and dive, each letter an experiment, surround themselves with doodles and impressionistic flowers, almost more art than word.

The letter continues:

There is no easy way to say this. Molech has obtained a command seal and bound me with certain commands. It is best we do not meet; he has commanded me to kill you on sight and bring him the other seal.

I am working to subvert the commands given me as best I can. For this reason, I've asked Ti-jm to act as my scribe. If you know the commands by which I am bound, you can act more safely and we can work to "rescue" my darling father.

First, and most damning, is the command to obey him. It is important I keep as far away from him as possible, so as to limit the number of new commands he can give.

I cannot harm him. And, frankly, I'm finding that I maybe don't want to? For so long I thought that was the only way I could be free of him, but if I don't have to kill him…

Which is good, because if he dies, I am to kill myself. I am unsure what this would entail or how it would trigger or even how I could do it, given getting handy with a melting core didn't do the trick. If you do learn he's dead, I would ask you never to tell me.

If he's lost or captured, I am to find and join him. Thus far, this has been held at by by telling myself he's not lost or captured yet, and besides we're getting to him as fast as possible, but I'm unsure what will happen once we find out the situation aboard the Plousios.

If I hear anyone discussing how to overthrow or kill him, I am to kill them on the spot. Thus far, I've instructed all the Alcedi that we are rescuing him, which is not technically inaccurate. Still, it would be good to spread the word about this.

And finally, he told me to call him Molech, preceded by one of three appropriate titles. Unlikely to be useful or a hindrance, I think, not unless I can annoy him into making a mistake by using the wrong title enough.

If you can think of any more ways to subvert these commands, please, let Ti'jm know and she'll take the response to me. But please, more than anything:

Stay safe.

P.S. Ti-jm worked very hard on this letter--she wants to be a painter, she says, and wow, it shows. I imagine it'd mean a lot to her to get a princess's thoughts on her work?


***

Dolce!

The knocking at your door has the air of someone who's mindful you might be asleep and doesn't want to wake you, but also won't be satisfied with knocking once and leaving.

Sure enough, the door creaks open just a crack--just enough for Alexa to peek one eye around the corner, see you sitting up, and slip the rest of herself through the door.

"I brought tea," she says, shrugging a thermos on a strap onto your bedside table and taking a seat at the bedside edge. "Mint, with a hint of lemon and more than a hint of sugar. Unfortunately, I cannot serve it for… obvious reasons, but it should keep warm until you're ready for it."

And for a time, that's all there is to it. Just the two of you and a quiet, companionable silence that does not need to be broken to be enjoyed.

But break it she does.

"… Would you like to talk about it?"

***

Vasilia!

"You know, I have to laugh. The first time I overthrew my father, it was for a girl."

Alexa leans against the railing, and stares pensively out the window at the stars blurring past.

"The doom laser helped hasten the decision," she admits. "But it was because he hurt someone dear to me, really. And now I find myself doing it again, and again it's because he's going to hurt someone else."

She still doesn't look at you, biting her lip with thought.

"I do wonder about that, sometimes. I was made to protect and… I talked a big game about freedom and being what you want. But then I turned around to do just what…

"I have to believe that I'm doing this because I want to. But I still worry, just a bit."
Alexa stares at the elder as if seeing her for the first time, and then looks away.

"You will have to forgive me, Elder. I have never been eloquent--have always been slow of speech, of a slow tongue. And it pains me to remember things as they were, so I may halt in my telling. But it is important that I say this as clearly and unmistakably as possible:

"Humanity--Molech--created us, yes. Had purposes in mind, built us to spec. But we are not their tools.

"Molech knew what he wanted when he breathed life into me. I was to be his enforcer, his weapon. I was to be the living embodiment of Athena, the Pallas Rex, the goddess in the service of the king. I was to stand at his side, a constant symbol of his power, a reminder of what befell those who dared oppose him. Anything which did not directly contribute to that was stripped away

"And so he made me according to those designs.

"And for the longest time, I thought that I must be broken. Because if I had been made correctly, why would I struggle so to do the one thing I was created to do? If I was meant to be a weapon, why did I flinch from hurting others? If I was meant to be silent except when delivering orders, if he insisted that I must talk clearly and without abbreviation, why did he need to forbid me from talking? If I had to be strong, why did I dream of--of wearing pretty dresses, of being a homebody, of a simple life? Why wasn't I like the others--the ones I saw rushing the foe with battle in their eyes and joyful cries in their throats? The ones who weren't broken, who were properly made?

"Until I found Ma'hti."

The bead-laden first victim brightens up, and Alexa nods at her.

"She probably did not intend for me to find her. No, I know she did not want me to find her, because I was the Pallas, and the official charge for what she was doing was desertion, and carried a death sentence."

Alexa shakes her head scornfully. "Desertion. By the end, anything but marching dutifully to your death was desertion. Obey orders, serve Molech, die in battle, or die to me when I find you.

"But Ma'hti was not running. She was scared. We faced Vatemoral in the morning, and she had found a place to have a quiet cry. And rather than kill her, as I was ordered, we talked.

"There were others, of course. A soldier wwounded who babbles in their delirium about how they don't want this. A quiet confession prised from lips loosened by a mug of scumble. But I remember Ma'hti the most, because she was the first. The first, I thought, who was broken like me. Someone else who took no joy in their role, but went on because…

"Because we thought it was the only option, and because we thought we were the only ones. We can smile and laugh and do what we're supposed to. And if we do well, If we just fake it enough outside, nobody has to know how much we're broken inside.

"I did not realize, at the time. It wasn't until I met the Coherents--met them, learned how they are able to pick a goal and work towards it, realize it--that I was able to put the pieces together! None of us are broken or selfish for wanting to be ourselves!

"Your princess labors under the chains of leadership! She was born for a purpose--to lead the empire! And how she studies, and stresses, and works to bear up that load which was assigned her before she was born, all for a task she does not want!

"Your captain was born a chef. He had his life planned out for him! And yet here he is, leading a ship, because he questioned whether that was what he wanted!

"What a world we create with 'destiny' and 'purpose!' We know our oaths, yes, because they were decided and given us by someone else. We know our call, because we've had it shoved down our throats our whole lives. We have had purpose thrust upon us by our creators--we are laden with their hopes and dreams and decisions and never allowed to question what we] want! We're told from birth what our purpose is! We're told that we have a neat slot into which we will fit, if only we trim off all the pieces of ourselves that matter!

"Well, I don't fit! Neither did your ancestors, your companions, your captain! We don’t fit, don't match our purpose, because the ones who created us cannot assign what is not theirs to give! Because they created us, but we are not their tools! We are our own! We are people in our own right! We think, we feel, we grow, and we decide what our purpose is!"

She's panting, and realizes that the only reason she's not pounding the table is her arms are gone. She carefully sits back in her chair and surveys the people around her.

"If you discover that being a warrior is what you want, by all means, do it. Be the best warrior you can. Defend the weak, the helpless. Serve. Gain honor. But don't do it because Molech decided you were born to fight. Ask the question. What is it you want to be? What purpose do you want to have? Make your own purpose, and live for yourself.

"Because nobody else is going to do it."
The first meal together after a battle is always somber. Too many seats that should have faces in them, but don't. And when it's a meal together with the people that, a few hours ago, were the reasons for some of those missing faces?

The interim leader of the Lanterns, Jaquelyn, has been a good host. Her Lanterns have shared their food, offered shelter. And now they cluster as far away from the troops of the Plousios as the imperial mess will allow them. The Alcedi cluster together with her, the Tides click and snikt amongst themselves, and only a rare few Coherents break ranks to wander amidst the tables.

And here she is, surrounded by Alcedi and completely alone.

She wonders, if she were to pluck the air, whether it would twang.

They won't talk to her, is the thing. She's the hero of the day--the one who destroyed herself to save the ship and all of their lives. They can't talk to her, are you crazy? Mere mortals, with her? What could they even have to talk about? Already, she can see the new myths forming. Remembers the stories the people of Molech whispered about her, when they thought she couldn't hear. Remembers the silence, spreading like blood whenever she drew near a no longer chatty bunch of soldiers. And you know, what?

Turns out, having people not talk to you because they admire you is worse than them not talking to you because they're afraid of you. Blow that, she's stopping this before it starts.

Conversation dies in the mess as she approaches a table, knees a chair out for herself, selects a victim, and blurts out, "By any chance, do you have a mother, or maybe a grandmother, named Ma'hti?"

***

The Alcedi have been relentless, but this might be her toughest challenge yet. She studies the warrior across the table--notes the definition of the muscles. The body of a sprinter. The beads woven in her feathers--awards for speed, precision. The familiar hooked beak. The fiery eyes. The plume, no doubt a crimson ribbon at speed.

Alexa nods, her decision made.

"Hoji! You were born of Hoji, the famous messenger, I'm sure of it!"

And more join to see the reason for the whoops.

***

"Oh, the stories I could tell you! You've never met a brigand faster at raiding or with a better eye for where the good stuff was than your great-uncle! I don't have the recipe written down--not here, anyway--but now that I have a tongue… Jaq, I hate to impose, but could I trouble you to show me where the cleaning supplies are kept?"

And a few more people are drawn in. Alcedi run off with Lanterns to fetch supplies. Coherents and Tides are dispatched to find something distillable. Nothing fancy, no barrels, nothing like the wine on Tellus or Barassidar, nothing you'd find sold in a shop. Only soldier's drinks, something that can ferment in your pack, something quick and easily concealed.

Private Polly's Paint Stripper is a rousing success. So is Colonel Shad's No. Nine, and Ma'hti's Bushwhacker. They even find some apples for the scumble.

***

There's a certain unique silence that happens when a hundred intently listening ears suction all sound out of a room at once.

Poor sap. She'd known the question was going to come up eventually--had been placing mental bets on whether it'd be Alcedi, Hermetic, or Lantern to pop the tension over the group. But as the young warrior fidgets, and does her best not to look around at the silently expanding ring of people clearing the blast zone around herself, Alexa can't help but feel a little sorry. You could hear a pin drop, and easily imagine a boot right behind it.

She sighs, and offers a wry smile. Set them at ease. Nobody's in trouble, we're all friends. You should never be afraid to ask a good question.

"Yes, Arth'na. I was the Pallas Rex."

It feels strange to be able to say that without wincing. To say it without a disclaimer, a layer of separation, a defined line between herself and the Pallas. For so long, she's done her best to distance herself from it. That was a different time. She was a different person. The person who carried out all those orders, hurt all those people, was dead, would never return.

But the thing about being dead is the dead don't learn.

"And that is exactly why I must convince you not to follow Father Molech.

"He would have you believe that he brought order, and peace. I say nay! Under his orders, I brought terror to the galaxy. I was his enforcer, his right hand, his pawn. I obeyed every order, killed at a word, slaughtered hundreds in battles. When a message needed to be delivered at the tip of a spear, I was the one holding the shaft.

"And do you know what I found when I was done?

"No honor. No glory. Only a pile of bodies and Emperor Molech, unhappy that the pile was not large enough."

"And lest I am not clear: the bodies were our own. Ridenki, turned to ash. Barassidar, a graveyard of the abandoned and destroyed. Emperor Molech ruled through fear, first and last. The Pallas was his sword, waiting always to decimate the weak, the failures.

"Do not, my friends, make my mistake! There is no future for anyone following Emperor Molech but that of an expendable corpse! Father Molech created us, yes--created us to serve, created us to die, to be used up in his plans! He will not care for you, will not reward you, will not know your name!

"And even if he did… Even if he did, you should not follow him. We will never be more to him than what he made us.

"Friends… there's so much more. You can be so much more. The life you make for yourself will always mean more to you than the life somebody else picks.

"I will not stand in your way. But please... make a better decision than I could. Learn what, for so long, I did not."
[ignore this, wrong thread]
There is an eye in the storm, eventually. No sense can scream forever.

Anguished nerves that sent panicked signals--Cried! Shrieked! Threw up every alarm possible! Warned her this isn't safe, this can't last, she can't last--first drop to moans, then whimpers, and then blessed silence. Pain has worn itself out, given its all, and now must rest.

She takes a step. Pushes forwards. It's just her, the floor, and the Weight.

Muscles that burned and threatened to seize have long ceased their protest. There's nothing to spare. Everything has been pushing in the same way for so long that the very idea of something that is not that is unthinkable.

Sight was useless even before she made contact. Her eyes screw shut against the light, but she's almost certain that even if she opened them, she'd see the same thing. She'd still see nothing but the orange and green afterimages of eyes too burnt out to see anything else. It's unimportant. She doesn't need sight to push.

She takes a step. Pushes forward. It's just her, the floor, and the Weight.

Even touch is meaningless. She knows her feet touch the floor, because that is how she is pushing the Weight. She knows that she must be touching the Weight, because there is still resistance to push against. But her hands long ago ran molten, coursed down her side, puddled on the floor, and she's pushing with parts that were never meant to see day.

… The Weight has stopped. She redoubles her efforts. It can't stop, she won't let it stop, because everyone is counting on her. Feet grind and shriek against metal floor, piercing the silence. She throws herself against the side of the molten block, and new nerves cry out at the sudden impact. She has no hands, no arms, and so she kicks, finds new muscles to exercise, new joints to take the impact. Steps back, squints away the specks of light still painting her vision, and realizes there is a vision to see.

The Weight still burns with heat, pulses with light. But it's subdued, dull. Constrained. It sits flush with its containment, happy, glowing with energy, but no longer threatening to tear itself apart.

Well, that's good, then.

She takes a step, falls forward, and then it's just her, the floor, and the wait.
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