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Too much. There's too much happening all at once. Pay attention to the fabric being used on stage. Unusual material, very fine stitching. The attention to detail speaks to a mindset completely separate from the attitude displayed by Prime Couture. The embroidery, the glorification of culture and mythology, even the cut of the robe is such that the thick, covering garment manages to glorify the body underneath it more than it obfuscates it, somehow. She'll need to buy several pieces from this line, wear them around for a while. She doesn't understand it. She doesn't

What is Valentina doing what is she doing what is she doing what is she doing how many different ways does one person need to turn conversation into ritual was the whole Consortium like this it's exhausting it's obnoxious just give in already just push her away already just let this stop being work just let her rest just let her have her night just let her give you yours just, just, just, just, just

Gold and pink, the coral colors of the dragon. Silver the foam washing over the tides they rest under. The sash tied tight around the waist gives the model the kind of sharp silhouette that draws attention to the curves of her body as much or more as nudity could manage. It is possible through the mind's eye to see the blemishes on her skin, hiding under the breath of the dragon. It is alluring to imagine where her body is soft and where it is strong. It makes the palms itch with want to touch the shimmering fabric and cinch it tighter around her and feel her bones and her muscles and the rustling, stimulating material all at once. Every step another shift, every shift a mesmerizing shimmer. There's more here than

Anime. Solarel. What does a brute need to train in heart magic for, anyway? Isn't the obnoxious power of her God more than enough to make her invincible? As if every advantage in the world wasn't enough already, now she needs to take the greatest secrets of human martial arts into herself?

[Stars Blotting Out the Moon], that dress fits her well. She fights like she's worried about it breaking. It fights like it wants her to shine. She could be a Priestess. But she would look better in a swimsuit, undoubtedly. And even better in nothing at

"Annoying," she says, with unintended venom and a voice loud enough for the entire bar, "Distraction. Distasteful. Annoying."

Mirror blinks. Her eyes flicker all across the (coral) room and the many faces that are now (coral, coral) watching her. She licks her own wrist and (coral) rubs the cool fur across her (coral, resting under waves) forehead before she (coral, coral, coral) clears her throat and sticks her hands in her pockets. It's possible (coral, coral) to hide the curling of her fingers from the safety of the suit. No one can see her center herself. No one can figure out how off balance she is. No one will realize how much is happening. How too much is happening.

Nobody except the one who should be wearing coral. Sink her teeth into those scales. Grind her fangs into those muscles. Her teeth are sharper, her technique is better than some Tigress'. Doing it wrong you moron, weren't you watching her hand? She called out the name of her Heart Technique! Idiot girl, she handed you every advantage, are you too hopped on on the smell of that cream to see the opening? Disgrace disgrace disgrace, you're an embarrassment to cat kind! Step back and let a professional handle it!

She breathes in slowly through her nose. Holds it, one, two (coral, coral, coral), three. Lets it out in sharp puffs, two, three. One hand comes free from her pocket and wraps itself possessively around Valentina. She pulls the other woman close, as close as she's allowed to without having to use force. Threading the needle, finer than embroidery. Strength without force. Strength applied with consent. Let Ms. de Alcard keep her dignity, if it's that important to her. She'll take it later, in privacy and darkness. Her breath feels hotter in her chest when she thinks about it.

"I don't appreciate these kinds of displays," she says with the same loud voice she'd snapped out before, though every word feels careful now. Thoughts pushed through mesh. Filter them till they're 'normal', "Don't you think so, Milady? If these are the forms she chooses for courtship, she should choose her battlegrounds better. She's making a mockery of these sacred arts. I'm sorry you have to watch this, I would much rather be paying attention to the walkway. I didn't think I'd enjoy it, but I--

"What are you doing, you idiot?! The base of the neck! Are you really going to let her beat you without a fight!?!"

In her pocket, Mirror's knuckles squeeze together. That should be her. But she has so many other things to do tonight already. Her tail is bushed out to maximum floof, but if she notices it she doesn't show any sign. Too much. There's too much. Coral, coral. Everything is coral. Something please, break the pattern. Someone please, understand her.
She doesn't have it in her to laugh this time. It's the same joke on repeat out here, too soon to be funny again. She doesn't have it in her to keep shouting, either. Not to a half broken, twitching sheep that half looks like he's about to fling himself sobbing onto the floor, where he'll need someone to pick him up again after. Bella's shoulders roll. Her muscles twitch all along her arms. Her anger, her irritation, her scorn, her amusement, and her fear: all of them have nowhere to go. No correct expression, so they push out of her all at once in a single disbelieving huff. Not half a chuckle, all of it breath. That's all she's left with.

Bella shakes her head. Her smile is wry and toothy.

"...I was such an idiot back then," she sighs, "If I'd had any sense in me at all I would have let you dipshits capture me the first time I laid eyes on you. I would have had the Princess back on Tellus before Her Majesty's bathwater even cooled."

There's tension in that thought. Desire, even. Bella's face turns hard, and she covers her face with one hand and its outstretched, squeezing fingers. From in between the knuckles of her index and middle fingers, the baleful red glow of the Auspex fixes its unblinking gaze on Dolce. Cold and ruthless. She watches him watch it for several seconds until the good Captain summons up the power and the courage to look directly at it. She blinks a moment later, and lets the moment drop with a casual toss of her hair.

"It's really you? They put you in ch-- no, of course they did. Who else is there? Fine then if you're in charge then use your f-- just actually think about it for ten seconds, would you? You put the manifestation of a leviathan's terror after Odoacer put a damn ship through its brain in charge of Zeus knows what and then... what? Took it at its word? Let it be, as long as it kept the crabs pointed basically where you wanted them?"

Bella's teeth are grinding. She reaches up and scratches at her face with enough force that the only reason she doesn't tear her face half open is that the fingers she's using have had their claws torn out. She quickly realizes what the gesture is showing and folds her fingers into her palms faster than blinking. She folds her arms across her chest and tries to lean on her back leg, but apparently that's still too exposed because she puts her hands behind her back entirely a moment later, only to swing them free again and dip into what can only be described as history's rudest curtsey.

"Gods, why did it have to be you? I need this like I need another round of 'Beautification' procedures. But fine. Since you asked so nicely, I'll tell you exactly what's going on. Your so-called Assistant Secretary of Fear and Doubt has built himself a tiny empire of paranoia and death. He needs more nodes to handle the functions he's lacking, so of course he's spawned them. But they're all of them a threat in his eyes, so he pushes them about through his waves of bureaucracy. He pits them against one another, coaxes the fresh ones into killing the older ones, and shuffles them about through an endless chain of pointless bullshit, the only real point of which is to keep him safe and in power. Which of course he's done. What the fuck else would he do? This took me ten minutes of looking to find out. Fuck, first thing he did was beg me to be in charge. It's obvious to anyone with eyes the Tides as they are miserable and don't trust the systems around here, and apparently I come highly recommended. Or maybe that's just because I'm the first one to go visit their brine soaked hellhole.

"...Look, I don't want to turn this into a whole thing. Like I said, I don't want to be here and I know you don't want me anyway. I've given you your report, so let me out of here and we'll both be happier. Right? Right."
Finally. This is much closer to how a ship should sound.

The waves of thousands of slow breathes washes over the corridor and wipes away the sloshing of Bella's feet as she picks her way back out of the shallows. Soon, her bare soles touch dry flooring again and even as the meditation of the Tides recedes behind her there is a deep and abiding sense of calm in place of the frantic, tapping echoes of her footsteps that hounded her all the way down here in the first place.

She pauses to take in the echoes. Her hands clench into fists faster than she can pry them apart. She scratches at her scars violently enough to tear holes in the back of her dress. Her tail flicks water every which way as it lashes about like a whip. Teeth bared for the world. She can feel her body growing hotter as the urge to murder something builds inside of her. This at least has the effect of drying her dress out, not that she especially notices or cares. She drags her claws along the edge of a wall, leaving the deep gouges that have so often marked her terrible moods out here in space. She stares at them for a long time. The distant sounds of the Tides' deep breathing still follow her. Bella snarls.

Her steps fall faster now. She stomps on the floor without consideration for who might hear her, all thoughts of avoiding people forgotten for the moment. Fuck them. It's not even funny anymore. If this is how this ship is run, then everybody on it deserves what's going to happen. Bastards. Fucking bastards. She's sprinting now. Hundreds of empty corridors in varying states of disrepair watch her pass by, and offer nothing but echoes and groans to stop her.

Bella's right ear twitches. She can hear shouting. And underneath that... yes, she's certain of it. She'd know the flutter of film being fed through a camera anywhere. People. Crew, fucking about while the ship collapsed around them. Or maybe... nngh. She'd find her answers soon enough.

"Who!"

She shouts at the top of her lungs as she bursts onto the set of what looks suspiciously like a Prion Paula movie. She pays it no mind. It's only the basic tact of a lifelong maid that keeps her from kicking over every set piece and bit of equipment as she stomps through the room with her tail lashing in permanent attack threat.

"The fuck!"

Her golden, bloodshot eye roams over a bunch of Coherent. Some in costume, some too much themselves to ever be able to tell. She watches to see which of them flinch, but all of them do. They part like an honor guard revealing a princess to a ball, a wall of bodies like an inverted phalanx. Revealing openly what they should be protecting. Her iris consumes her entire eye when she sees him, and shrinks to a furious slit a moment after. The sheep. The one from the Eater of Worlds, the party on Salib, and the battle. The one who said her name.

"...You." Her original booming accusation falls discarded at her feet. She hisses instead. Her fingers curl, and only her uncovered, scarred fingers keep her from seeming (entirely) like she's fully reverted to being XIII, come to finish the kill, "Tell me who's running this gods forsaken rust bucket. I thought it was the Princess, but no. So tell me. Who let the Tides on this ship? Which idiot thought it would be a good idea to shove them in a dark corner and let them torture themselves? Tell me who I have to--"

She squeezes her wrist and pushes the thought down into a frustrated groan.

"Tell me, and I'll be out of your hair. I don't want to sit here staring at you any more than you do me, believe me."
There's more to unpack in these responses than can be managed in a single night. Such a fascinating mind. Such an interesting creature. Such an unusual culture.

Call and response, the ritual dance of society. Greetings, farewells, and various social and politeness markers were a commonality among every known spacefaring species (and as an aside, it was far preferable to classify lifeforms by their ability and/or willingness to travel the stars, much more so than labeling them as "advanced" or not. Depending how you tilted your head, you might wind up lifting up one species but find another was sinking beneath the horizon in response. Language, culture, self awareness, dreams... these never turned out to be unique. Even the nomenclature 'multiplanet species' fell short of useful. But intentionally crossing and linking the gateways? That was useful distinction), but Valentina clearly had them drilled into her at a level that would be unthinkable living on a Hybrasil research station. Even mainland religious ceremonies tended to fall short of this level of calcification.

She knows it's unasked for. Discouraged, in fact. Mirror has been putting down hints with increasing levels of aggression all night, and Valentina has responded by imbibing larger amounts of liquor and displaying needy, openly vulnerable body language. But even at these levels of inebriation and desperation, all attempts at small talk are filtered through the ritual process. What sort of significance must it have inside the Consortium? It's almost as if TCers weren't capable of reading the extra languages of Posture, Pheromones, and Terrain Control. Poor things. Quite the difficulty to overcome on a societal level. No wonder Valentina was so locked into her stock responses that she could be visibly seen thinking across them despite three glasses of quite boozy bubbly and an impending trip to the bar.

And then the content of her answers! Proximity to the center, the tens of billions, each milling about in their 'how do you do's and 'oh, but you wouldn't be interested in's as they march step by step down their infinite steel pathways shoulder to shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, wearing their restrictive and stuffy clothing. Individuality, expressed through conformity. Social creatures in the extreme, with only limited ability to communicate. Total chaos. Such beautiful, fascinating chaos. It was no wonder so many clever ideas originated from their space.

And yet, how sad. How typically... human. To be firsts to a new frontier and only see the way it differs from their point of origin. To speak in terms of the dimness of the light and the hue; specifically how these things made it somehow unpleasant to be there. How much of the talk was about resources? What could be taken from this planet, what was its manufacture? She never said a word about fish that swam in its waters, the birds that glided on the breeze. If these things thrived or ate metals to survive or who could say what else? No mention of the flowers, and which were for warding and which were for eating and which were for display. Only metallurgy. What it meant to the economy, to the push and pull of that grand societal tide, the products it created. Beautiful pride, nevertheless discarded after only a single setback to a superior opponent.

Tilt head upward, allow eyes to half-shut. Show trust, allow closeness. Skin contact at the head, hold. Touch her back. Long strokes, adjust pressure. She makes the first move. Take the second. Hand on hip, squeeze. Hand on elbow, guide. She'll think she's leading. Ideal. She'll think you're reciprocating. Correct.

Take her hand behind your head, push her fingers into hair. Part lips, wait. Breathe. Two intervals. One. Lean in, connect. Ah, a spark. Hold close, hold steady. Do not tense. Do not flinch. Tail about her waist, hold her here until the flavor of her lips becomes sense memory.

Her lips are soft. Her breasts are soft. Her body is warm. Mirror kisses with the chaste softness of a maiden surrendering to a conquering knight for the first time in her life, even as her body nudges and manipulates her date's to push her where she wants, to be held the way she wants, to feel contact the way she wants. And what she wants is not chaste at all. What she wants is a tangle of legs, want she wants is a repeat of the end of their duel in the arena. She wants to feel it this time. What she wants is to ruin that pretty dress, to expose what's underneath so she can prove her fingers and her tongue and her technique and her entire body are talented enough to conquer Valentina de Alcard completely. This is the meaning of [Whispered Promise[. To make craft of this woman to send home to Hybrasil Prime. They'll make weapons out of her sighs. They'll make armor out of her screams. They'll weave art from the way. She'll.

Ah. But up there. What fascinating designs. Sublime use of neural mesh, so clever and creative to hire someone to go out and experience the universe like this. So thorough to canvas such a wide swatch of the known galaxy. These are dresses that will mean something slightly different on every body that wears them, both to the wearer and to the observer. The shape of each body changes the meaning of the landscapes, changes towering mountains to subtle hills, makes the forest rigid and foreboding or the prairie into the most inviting sun-dappled napping place. This could be home. This could be a horizon you'll never cross yourself. This could be nostalgia so strong it hurts, or the infinite promise of a tomorrow that's just around the corner.

Impressive. Truly. But so very wrapped up in the same chains that bound Valentina's tongue even more thoroughly than Mirror's could. This... couture was a series of masterpieces, but its supposed theme was the expanding of boundaries and possibilities. How were they supposed to manage that with their own growth so deeply stifled? Mayze's newest lesson was necessary after all. A knot in Mirror's back unclenches, and it has nothing to do with the curious fingers currently kneading it. She'd written the correct speech after all.

Mirror pulls apart from Valentina at long last, still on the precipice between the conqueror and the prize so very richly one. Her breathing is deep, hot, and as excited as she can push herself to show. She arches her back to push her chest out for display, and at the same time takes Valentina's hands in both of hers to guide them down to where she cannot be touched. Not here, and not yet.

"Is this what you hoped for? she asks, without clarifying what she means.

[rolling Entice, which is an 8]
"Mmm." says Bella, because that is the noise that she can make without the croak of fear slipping into her voice.

Her body feels slow. Every muscle in her back, shoulder, and arms is clenched tight enough that basic movements seem to cost her twice the time and triple the effort that they should. Even breathing is a conscious decision she has to make, and remember. Her ears bend painfully in search of new sounds in the waves, and her tail crashes against the surface of the pools with a shock that's at once painfully loud and pathetically soft.

The salt in the air is saturating into her skin. Every little shift of her rigid, overamped body builds fresh waves of itching and discomfort that beg her to leave, or at least scratch until the blood let out and coated her with something like relief. She looks down at her claws and the mutilated stumps where her most useful fingers end for what feels like the millionth time. They ache to be whole again. Even the cool, metallic kiss of a good set of talons would be a blessing. Her neck twitches with all the effort of standing there, and pushes a headache up through the back of her brain.

She sighs.

"No, I suppose you're right. That's no way to live at all."

The riddle unfolds inside her mind with the pressure of a physical thing. It might just be the headache, but it feels more like a parasite. Clever phrases, grand speeches, ideas that point ten thousand toward the designs of a single mind. She saw it on the Yakanov and in the Armada. It was all over the Endless Azure Skies, even if half of it was reduced to ghosts and phantoms. This was a puzzle for someone like Beautiful. It's too much for Bella. All she'd wanted was to get Redana and go home. She'd never intended to change the Anemoi, she just needed the ship to fucking work in the first place if it was going to keep chasing. Whatever the Lanterns thought of it, that wasn't her fault!

She's not breathing again. She pulls an extra long sniff of briny air through her nose and holds it for another long moment before letting it all back out through her mouth in a fresh sigh. She shrugs, and shakes her head. She watches Eyes of Coral for a long time without saying anything, clever or stupid or otherwise. If this place was Tellus, then these... people felt especially like temple assassins. The thought makes her feel heavy; she sits down.

"Let me show you something. This was a lesson Apollo taught me himself."

Bella sinks into the water. It's warm and feels somehow slimy on her fur, but she ignores the sensation. Every inch of her dress that drinks in the waves clings unpleasantly to her skin and turns from pure white to useless translucence, but she pays it no mind. The brine and silt turn what had been a discomfort on her back to actual agony after only a few moments, but she keeps her posture and pays the feeling no more mind than a single frustrated snort. She straightens out her back as she crosses her legs underneath her and lays her arms palms up on the bed made by her knees. She tilts her head so that her face stays above even the largest surges of the tide pools, and closes her eyes.

"I'm not one of Apollo's chosen, I don't know why this happened. I don't worship Poseidon either, so I don't know why I'm here for that matter. Zeus ignores me, I haven't seen a single sign or token from Hera in the longest time. I was made to be a body for Artemis to inhabit, if she ever needs to crush a planet. But I've never spoken to her. I don't even know how."

She floats there, breathing steadily between her thoughts, letting her body be pushed and pulled gently back and forth along with her hair and clothing by the motion of the water. Her voice is calm and placid, almost bored. In her mind, she traces a pattern of golden light through a belt of rocky asteroids, crossing between two stars.

"I am alone. Everything I knew, or thought I did is gone now. I had a chance to get it all back, but I lost that too. In fact, I threw it away like a fucking moron, so don't go expecting anything from me. But I have this, and not even the gods can take it away. I can sit here like this, and focus my mind on the sounds I'm hearing in the room, or the feeling of the clothes on my skin, or a smell, or anything I fucking want, and the entire rest of the universe will fall away from me. I can be alone, with nothing at all to hold me down."

She stands up abruptly with a splash and a crack of her neck, and any sense of mystic wisdom or divine insight disappears in a moment. She's nothing but a broken Servitor again, from some nameless race she doesn't even know, and soaked to the bone at that. She shrugs.

"Anyway it helps. Maybe give it a try. Actually, that's an order. Work on this until it means something to you, however the fuck that has to work. When I come back you can tell me how it felt, or what you saw. Whatever. But if none of you can manage this, you're a waste of my time."

Bella flicks her tail across the water as she tosses her hair behind her with a wet slap. The further away she walks, the worse she feels. The water stops reaching her ankles before she notices she can walk normally again. She briefly contemplates the empty, hollow corridor but quickly shakes her head. Not here. The smell will drive her crazy. And if she doesn't find something for her back she'll rip her own spine out soon. No choice, she'll have to risk it.

So she slinks through the shadows of the Plousios, wishing it were as dark and quiet as she knows a ship can be. Should be. Dripping and cold and with her whole body on display, as if she were taking some ritual test of purity for Artemis. Her teeth flash every time she opens her mouth, as she looks for a new place to hide.
She can feel the pressure of that fan pressing up against her all over again. The coolness of the casing and the tender brush of paper caressing her throat. How soft it is against her neck, and how firm it is beneath her chin. That insistent pressure inviting her to press the weight of her head down into it, to submit forever, or to be a brave girl and lift her gaze where it directs and look the Empress of All Humanity in her dazzling starlight eyes. Her smile was like staring directly into a star: more beautiful and divine than anything you could fit on a planet and so terrifying it could make a heart forget how to beat.

There was so much tenderness in everything Nero did. Every breath and gesture that she deigned to share with someone was a miracle. It was impossible to look at her and not feel your chest well so full of hope that it felt like it might crack open and spill all of your secrets out on the floor. The promise of Redana, fully realized. You were safe when you with her, so long as you didn't stray too far from her side. It was comforting. And somehow too terrifying to contemplate. There was so much misery in everything Nero did. The pressure of having her sight turned on you could burn you to ash in an instant.

Everything she did made Bella want to cling to her skirts and never leave their safety. Everything she did made Bella want to run as far and as fast as possible. The demand, to submit. The challenge, to rise up. The offer, to speak one's mind. The threat, to disappoint her. It was all in those eyes and in that smile and in the lifting of that fan. And all of these... all of these, she'd put to Bella first. She'd left the theater that night and hunkered in her tiny bed under the oldest most threadbare blanket imaginable, warding off the darkness and the thoughts that were too big for her brain until the demand of her nightly chores finally forced her out of her cocoon. She knew as soon as she slipped away that she'd be beaten that day.

That fan was here with her, in this room. She could smell it. The taste of roses replaced the salt on her tongue, and it was all she could do not to cry. Whatever the answer of the riddle might be, it was surely unbecoming of a Consul to show tears on her first day at the job. But who was she to try and outdo the greatest mind that ever lived? Who was she to take the challenge of a god?

Bella licks her lips as she crosses her arms over her chest. Her tail swipes from side to side in agitation. Gods, but she needs wine. She shakes her head. There's a spark burning in the back of her eye, and an itch inside her chest. She scratches her fingers across the open folds of her prayer dress, then slips off the wall she was perched on top of to wade through the uncomfortably warm waters. She ignores the feeling of her fur as it mats and sticks to the hem of her skirt. She carries herself with her back held straight and every swaying step immaculately placed and timed.

She may, in fact, possess all the bearing of a Princess herself. Or she may not. Her regalia is nowhere to be seen. Only, her crimson eye tells the squids she walks among that she comes from no less than Nero herself. Her heart pounds furiously with something that could be terror as easily as it might be pride.

"I understand well enough about how this place is run. I don't care about that. Tell me," she pauses and frowns, looking away to where the Assistant Secretary is already hiding himself away again, "Tell me about you. And the crabs, whichever one of you speaks for them. Or whichever one of them can speak, whichever fucking way it works. Away from that asshole up there, I need to know what you're capable of. And while you're at it, tell me what you want. The Lanterns made it obvious enough; I can't do shit here unless I know you like I know them."

The scars on her back itch; the seawater is bad for her. She rolls her shoulders back and ignores it as best she can. She'll need to leave to scavenge some ointments soon, that's all it means. But then she takes a breath, and she feels the fan at her throat where her skin tightens. The pleasure of the pressure, and the deadly threat. She could swear she feels a breeze as it flutters open, and pats her on the cheek.
Her hand takes Valentina's firmly. Her fingers work magic; these soft, sliding touches massage every crease and bend in her digits without ever seeming to move themselves. Her hands are very strong. Her fingers are very talented. Her claws are short and neat, do you see? She makes promises for the end of the evening (if she likes what she sees), without ever opening her mouth to speak. Not to interrupt, and not to answer. Her eyes are trained up on the stage. She is watching the river dancing across that model's chest.

She could defend the show, of course. It's trivial to take the time to explain why these young artists deserve a chance to try things for an audience full of glitz and expectations enough to draw the eye of the rest of the galaxy. Innovation was sewn from the threads of a thousand, a million different failures, this was true. It was further the case that poorly targeted criticism could sometimes upend a creative's desire to continue creating, and further true beyond that that a party like this one was capable of attracting at least one or two incautious critics. That was fair, right?

But it did not follow that unproven talent needed to be walled off and weeded out before it was presented to the public. On the contrary, so-called experts were extremely vulnerable to biases built up over a lifetime of work and displayed marked tendencies to pass over the transgressive in favor of what their experience taught them which could set a field of exploration back decades or even lifetimes. Wisdom of the Reeds, went the saying. Well, the shorthand. The full aphorism was 'I hide myself among the reeds, to surprise my prey. My prey hides itself among the reeds, to hide itself from me. We watch the thousand heads bobbing, and together go hungry.' An expression with many interpretations, to be sure, but the relevant one at the moment was that information imparted by a large (often overlooked) source was typically richer than what your own instincts or history taught you. Though really, it depended on who you asked.

The point, of course, was that these young artists deserved the wisdom (and the test) of the reeds. For them, the benefits outweighed the risks. For them, locking them away until they'd cleared a pleasing shape out of their fields for easy viewing would be criminal. For them, those stars who blazed brightest would inspire and light the way for the minds that were to come in after them, and that could only happen in the place where every eye was gathered. I can do this, too. I could do this better! And then it will be my name worn by all the pretty girls, nyaha!

Mirror doesn't say a single word of this out loud. She's watching the drones flit about this model's body. She's envisioning the platinum dress as interlocking plates of alloyed armor and imagining herself piloting it. How does it differ from her Nine-Tails? How is it the same? Were there advantages to way this artist had gone about replicating her -- if indeed she was replicating anything -- what lessons would she bring home to Slate in the morning? Ah. Champagne. The afternoon, then.

Mirror plucks two flutes from a passing tray with her free hand, and through the magic of incredible finger strength doesn't drop either one of them. She finally turns her eyes away from the stage to look her date in the face as she passes one drink to her with another promising squeeze and a smile that only mildly threatened the use of teeth. A thought pops into her head, or rather it comes rushing back to the surface after having dived down a moment earlier to make room for unspoken conversations and eccentric dresses.

Aha! So 'Milady' was correct after all! After Valentina's reaction to the honorific in the battle she had been worried her grasp on TC linguistics was weaker than she thought. But not the case! How exciting, to discover nuance! A whole hidden dialect tucked away on Alcard somewhere with rules for politeness and situational use that sounded positively [The Stars, Bound In Chains] compared to the dusty drawl and spicy bursts that average humans were famous for! What a fantastic treat after what had been a deeply trying afternoon. She should really say thank you.

"I think..." she says instead.

They're the first words she's said in several minutes. She speaks them with deliberate slowness, as if the meaning of them was more important to convey than it was to explain why she'd been practically ignoring her date since they'd said hello. She looks up with her flowing, liquid eyes that are so similar to the patterns that had been playing on that dress before it left the stage. Her lips curl into an enigmatic and appropriately catlike smile.

"This is wonderful!" she finishes, pushing the drink on Valentina with slightly more deliberateness, "That means you'll have my full and undivided attention during your favorite part of the show. I'm working as a model tonight, you see? And I'm not to be called to perform until the third act. Since that won't be until after the fashions you're excited for, I'm sure you won't mind at all, right? We'll only be parted for a short while, and you'll get a much prettier date out of it in exchange."

Mirror drains her glass from full in a single flourish, and twirls the empty flute about her fingers. She snatches it up with her paw and drags her tongue along the surface of the glass, never once breaking eye contact. The most important part of the evening was yet to come, but first she wanted to see this woman, and be seen with her, by everyone she could come across.

"Come on, let's walk. Let's talk. I'd love to know all about your home, for instance. You must have so many occasions to wear a ballgown, I can't even imagine how magical that must be. Oh! And as the night carries on? You mustn't be afraid to kiss me, dear heart. These lips are yours tonight. You sure you want to waste them~?"
There's no mirth or kindness when she laughs. But when she tosses her head back to hear it echoing off the cavernous walls, there's no stopping it either. It's cruel, mocking, and seemingly endless. Every time she seems about to run out of breath, or at least run the joke to the end of its course, Bella takes another look at the squid miserably clutching its finery and she doubles over all over again.

But can you blame her? Gods, can you really blame her? This is too perfect. If someone wrote it as a story to explain the exact curve of her life, they'd choke trying to find a better metaphor than this. Not only did Redana run away to a disaster cruise where she needed sea monsters to fill slots that should be staffed by a proper crew, she couldn't even get the right monsters! It'd be a mercy to kill this ship. It'd be a kindness to scuttle this entire voyage before the gods got bored and let them all fall into a star or something. It could only be a matter of time.

And yet, her tail is still. There's no itch filling her claws, no desperation to her breathing as her laughter finally quiets. Her blood doesn't quicken with the urgency of a hunt. There aren't any names left on her skin, so what was supposed to push her forward. She was the monster who hunted monsters, but these ones sniveled and begged for her help, in the name of her... of the Lanterns. What was she supposed to do?

Bella's face turns serious as she watches the crabs shuffling about the tide pools. There's patterns to their movement: the sort of thing she could have spent weeks staring at as her life slowly crumbled around her. Not that things felt much better now. She means to huff, but winds up sighing instead. Around they go, in circles, into lines. Carrying treasures from the deep. Guiding and guarding. Not unlike phalanxes, if you just put shields in their claws. Again, so very like home.

"Don't call them 'mice'," she snaps, "Jil and her Lanterns are strong. Much stronger than your fish fry brigade could ever hope to be. All I did was recognize that. There's no magic in it. You're stuck hiding on the wall waiting for a miracle that's never going to come. You're pathetic. Worse than trash."

Bella stretches out her neck until it crunches, and rolls it around until she feels the tension finally leave her alone. She pinches her nose between two fingers, closes her eyes, and drinks deep of this soup of brine, toxic fear, and incompetence. She needs a new project, that's the only reason why. If she's not going to be dead, something has to take over for the useless arts and crafts now that she can't just steal an entire ship's worth of materials whenever she feels like it. Besides, one spare shaving out of this place and the whole fucking ship would probably collapse in on itself. So there wasn't anything left but this.

Her tail flicks with annoyance. Her eye glitters with amusement. Her lips part in a smile that's almost kindness. Not that she notices at all. It melts into a smirk before it can register.

"So you're demoted, starting now. If I'm stuck on this piece of shit tub I'm not going to have it running like it's trying to catch fire. Which, by the way, you're doing a great job of even with the salt bath you're running down here. This ship is carrying the Imperial Princess across the stars; you could have lived a hundred lifetimes inside that rotting filth you called home and not tasted honor even a tenth as sweet. So fucking act like it. If I find you hiding while there's work to be done again I'll kill you on the spot, and that's my last warning. Even Apollo loses his patience in time, and your god is much less forgiving."

Bella wades through the waters as crabs part around her. She meets the Assistant Secretary's one visible eye with the crimson glow of her Auspex, and flashes teeth when it flinches.

"I am not accepting your offer, by the way. I'll do this until it gets boring, and then I'm ditching you. Better take notes. Now, run me through everything. Forms, function, capability, don't leave anything out."
The Gods-Smiting Whip looks like a towering monument in the repair dock. Without a pilot or an active power source, the overwhelming impression the swift and fluid mecha gives off is that it was never made to move in the first place. It looms over the team of cats scurrying about its feet like an ancient god long since fallen out of worship. Even in this place that smells of grease and grinding metal, it is easy to imagine it grown over with a tangled growth of vines and flowers after a hundred years of neglect or more. These could be children scrambling and swinging around its limbs, laughing as they sing their working songs. Those mighty tails seem like discarded relics of some old building, maybe nothing more than a passing traveler's garbage littering the forest floor as they lie scattered about the ground with their paint flaking to reveal the dull metal underneath.

You'd have to be an idiot to think this was a machine of war. You'd be a fool to call it a labor of love of a work of art. It is a mess, plain and simple. The vulnerable carcass of a dream that died long, long ago. Nothing more.

"Mm. Bad. Insufficient. Start over."

"You're not serious, boss? I thought we were almost done! You can't even tell there was a hole anymore, and Tail Five is testing at ninety seven percent optimal capacity! For one night's work after all you put her through I'd say that's pretty--"

"Hm? Ah. No, no. Not you. Not... This. Personal project, sorry. Last minute revision, always tricky."

"You ever wonder if maybe the reason your dates always end on fire is because you keep calling them 'personal projects'? You don't make kittens with spears."

"...As if you have any idea how I handle a spear."

"I mean if it's anything like how you handle a welding stick, I don't really need to."

"Slate."

"At least as far as these delicate human flowers go, your technique's rough enough to break them every time you make it past the door. For a Zald I bet you're perfect, but for the sweet little thing you're chasing right now?"

"...Slate."

"Well, really when you're ready to stop messing around, I guess I've seen you with a wrench too. I'd be happy to suffer through a shower if it'd get those fingers of yours inside of me like I'm your precious Nine-Tails~"

"Slate!"

"Oh. Uh, s-sorry boss. I take it too far?"

"Distraction. Leave."

"No I know, I know, I thought we were doing the routine she I just, well, got a little carried away, please say you're not mad!"

Mirror curled her fingers toward the top of hey palm, and held them there until the muscles quivered from the effort. She lifted her arm and wordlessly gestured toward the gate. Slate's calico pattern ears drooped, and she leaped several steps back as if pushed.

"I'm not... fired, am I?"

"Finish on my own."

No more words passed between them. Slate shrank into herself and slunk away toward the safety of the rest of her crew, gathering them up and gliding away in total silence. It was the only way she knew to patch things up. Mirror twitched her tail and pulled her hand along its length to soothe the ruffled fur. It took four passes before it took.

The Gods-Smiting Whip looked just as lifeless as it always did without the crystal fire drive plugged into the conduit at its main tail unit. Just as discarded, forgotten, and incapable of judgment as could be. And yet, the way its head sat tilted like it was, it seemed to Mirror like it had been watching her the entire time. It offered no advice or comfort, not even as she forced open the cockpit and climbed inside.

"...A rough technique. Possible solution. Mayze profiles as aloof and brilliant. Interviews rare and generally exclusive. By design. Easier to maintain. Know all this, of course. Am this. Reviewing facts. Stupid Slate. Regardless. Short leap to... what is the word? Crazy. But, different. Implied intelligence. [Starlight-Kissed]. Eccentric! But a rough technique. Rough."

Without power, the dance of her fingers on the controls was pointless. But she adjusted each switch and stomped the foot pedal with so much force that she could hear the shriek of dying metal and the roar of her spear drinking from the drive of another mecha. To her mind's eye, it looks just like the Lonely Star.

"Cruelty, as an art form. No. Incorrect. The goal is violence. The Huntresses, turned to creation. Understood, commencing audio-only imprint."

Her voice turned sharper and faster after a cough. One false start. Two. She curled her fingers again, and the voice of Mayze Szerpaws filled Mirror's cockpit.

"You were expecting me tonight, weren't you? Poor darlings, maybe next time! But I am here, in a much realer sense than you understand. Pull your eyes to the stage, and gaze upon my latest true form!"

The laughter meant she was doing it right. This would work out after all. Only the ablative plating left; Slate and her team would handle the paint. That left just enough time for Mirror to focus on herself. A perfect date ended one discarded layer at a time. And she never let a date end imperfectly. She crawled out of the Gods-Smiting Whip, and made sure to leave the lights on as she left. Slate would understand, just as soon as she was brave enough to come and check.

******

Her eyes light up when she sees Valentina. Mirror crosses the distance of the room as if gliding on a patch of ice, so smooth her head hardly seems to bob despite how quickly she's moving. Her smile is playful, her tail raised in delight. She bows deeply in imitation of (some semblance of) TC etiquette and takes her date by the wrist as she rises. Her lips brush against the back of that hand, soft as a drop of dew on a lily. Her sandpaper tongue is rougher as she drags it all the way up to the wrist, but her cheek is downy soft again as she touches it where the gesture ends. She tilts her head up to look her date in the face, as tempting as it might be to keep her gaze at her natural level. Her own face wears a look of deep seriousness and concentration bordering on a scowl. Only her eyes are smiling.

She has come dressed modestly, for her. A fitted suit and vest clings to the curves of her body in a deep, monotone burgundy fabric that shimmers in the light of the room but otherwise does nothing to excite the senses. Her body is the only star of the show, and that a tightly covered secret. She flashes no hint of her firm chest, having buttoned herself all the way to the neck, where she's clipped a bright red collar decorated with tiny, dangling golden chains to complete the effect.

At some point she'd cut out the elbows on her sleeves to allow for a tiny flash of her snowy fur patterns, as well as diamond shaped gashes from the top her ribs to the middle of her waist on either side of the vest and jacket. Stuffy. Positively prudish by the standards of her own public record. But there's a certain debonair charm to the way she carries herself just the same.

She's painted her claws pink, lavender, yellow, and white, and drawn a simple glyph under her right eye in red dye: two prominent dots, which in the language of Fisher culture means she is here to win a battle. Depending on the tradition, they might be a window to the soul to expand her consciousness and grant her special prowess in combat, or they might mimic an eye so that something watching her as if through water would be fooled about exactly where she's looking at the moment. Ask he which tradition she belongs to some other time, and if you're lucky enough to do it in a bed with her arms pressed tight around you, she might even answer.

She has not worn heels in an attempt to compensate for her small build. For a Hybrasilian, Mirror is on the taller end of the register at nearly five foot even, and she will not insult her pride by adding height where none exists. Not here, in any case. Indeed, she's come nearly barefoot; her only footwear is a set of black lacquer straps that wrap around her ankles and the soles of her feet, leaving her heel and toes exposed where they can respond to all the subtle curves and scraps of information dotted about the floor of The Jungle. This is the simplest way in any estimation to make yourself into the kind of shadow you have to use your eyes to see. You can only watch, or she'll vanish without a trace.

Her snowy hair is pulled into a strange ponytail made of two wide loops, with another pair of locks kept loose to frame her face on either side. She fidgets with a onyx ring on her left hand, and directs her sight as directly as she can to Valentina's eyes. This, again, is her smile.

"Good evening, dear heart. I should warn you, I'm here working tonight. Sorry I didn't tell you sooner; I couldn't figure out how. I might be stolen from you later in the night, but don't worry about a thing. As beautiful as you are, I very much intend to steal you right back."

Her expression hasn't changed at all, but she takes a single step closer, where Valentina can hear the purr creep into her voice.

"I have to say, I'm curious. I didn't have you marked for a, how do you say it? A fashionist? I don't know much about this sort of thing, are there... artists you are looking forward to tonight?"
"Ah? The fashion show. I see."

Unexp... well, no. Quite expected, actually. A large part of the motivation to suffer through all of the networking and politicking to put her work in the show in the first place was the promise that "anyone who's anyone" would be there. And since by definition everyone alive today was in fact someone (fully synonymous with anyone she was certain, the vagaries of human linguistics notwithstanding), it stood to reason that everyone would, in fact, be present. Which naturally included the very lovely Valentina de Alcard.

Nevertheless, problematic. Mayze Szerpaws was meant to be in attendance, to give a talk over newest designs even, which implied that Mira of the Fisher Clan, whose star name is Whispered Promise could and would not be. In actual fact, a disaster. Mayze's presence was absolutely essential to the continuing and advancement of the work. To reveal the nature of the dual identity would be to completely erode the point of establishing the identity in the first place. So much effort, absolutely wasted. Untenable. A disaster of myriad proportions.

And yet.

The Gods-Smiting Whip lifts slightly and its cockpit unfolds in a theatrical but wholly unnecessary burst of steam. Its uninjured arm reaches into its chest and plucks its pilot delicately out. It raises Mirror on its outstretched palm toward the Lonely Star's face, where Valentina's perception would be the clearest.

Her hair falls like a snowy avalanche behind her. Her jumpsuit has been strategically slashed full of holes across her arms, chest, and legs to bare her most striking fur patterns. The clingy material shows all much of her as it hides, maybe even more. Her signature watery eyes dance with delight as she flashes a flirtatious grin and dips into a graceful bow.

"It would be my pleasure, sweet maiden. Let the models dance how they will; we two will shine the brightest of any stars in the sky. A date, then! You don't yet know what you've purchased with your prowess and your beauty, but you will. I promise you, my darling. I will leave you burning hot enough to forge a new pathway between our worlds."

Her smile widens, flashing dangerous and pearly teeth, and Mirror backflips onto Nine-Tails' arm before she scrambles boldly up onto its shoulder. There were things in life worth risking the world for, and one of them was a woman's sighs. Her screams, mmmm, those were worth even more on the right night. The work was exhausting; play must go twice as hard to cover the difference. Besides, this was a wonderful opportunity to test her macros. She lands lightly on her mecha's shoulder and tosses a tiny wave backwards as she starts to fly away.

"Your evening may not go the way you are envisioning, Valentina de Alcard. But if you're a good girl and play along with what I have in mind, that might not be a bad thing at all~"

Seven tail modules form a stairway to the heavens, and Mirror climbs it until she vanishes from all but the most determined cameras in the arena.
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