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This is not a time for punishment.

There is no twitch of irritation or even a flicker of disappointment across Mosaic's face. She does not flick her tail or twitch an ear, she does not glower or yawn to bare her fangs without angling for a fight, she does not flash her claws, and she is hardly so rude as to begin slouching. She smiles, warmly, and though it reaches her eyes it does so only for a moment. The moment is too serious to get lost inside of it.

"You blew up a sphere?" she asks, laughing, "You cut how many cables? Idiot, what are you flinching for? You kicked ass! Everything I asked for, and with style! And then you came back! And you're whole. You were perfect, Ember. It isn't your fault our knight did not return alongside you."

Mosaic leans forward and plants the softest, sweetest kiss on Ember's forehead. A mote of sunshine or a splash of warm rain. A replacement for a charred ribbon that was only ever a symbol of what she really wanted. Her beloved being here again only proves its power.

She steps away, and sighs as she glances out into space for the hundredth time today.

"No. Nothing is your fault," she says, "It's mine. I sent her out. I did not go with you. I did not arm you with a plan or a prayer to ensure your victory. All I did was bind you with an oath. Strong enough for you and your pack, whom I love, but nothing at all to the comet who brings miracles wherever she falls. I'll kick her ass as soon as I've got her safe again, but I'll apologize after. It's my fault. My fault only."

Mosaic walks across the hangar herself, to Ember's plover. She wrenches the lance from its grip with her bare hands; her muscles scream in protest, but she is able to hide the quiver and the strain for long enough to flip it and impale it in the hangar floor, and maintain her posture of invincibility after.

"Which is why I will fix this myself. Those of you who managed to bring their ribbons home, please give them to me now. Every ribbon you return, I give to you as a gift. It is now my duty to return them safely. And I swear by Queen Hera that with these as my armor I will not fail to come back to you. Now hurry. I've got a lot to prepare for and fuck all for time to do it in before I squander the window you brave, beautiful ladies just won for me."

Now she does flash her teeth. Her grin is dazzling. Her swagger could crush a sun into powder. She is Mosaic. She is inevitable. Healing instantly from debilitating injuries in a time of crisis is just one more verse in her legend, right?
The inside of Ember's mouth is hot, and tastes of copper and smoke. Her teeth are sharp and smooth and perfect, perfect rows of cool smoothness within the spice where Mosaic's tongue can lap and find respite, a chance to play with textures instead of flavors and revel in the intensity of the inside of those cheeks all the more for having the contrast. They kiss like two women who have been starving in the desert for so long that the idea of savoring their meal no longer occurs to them.

Her hair is soft and wet, and smells of flowers. Pollen and nectar and the delicate caress of petals all dancing with the crisp burst of raw electricity that permeates Ember's entire being just now. The rich bouquet sets her heart racing and calms it again before the breath can finish. Enticing and soothing, all at once.

The weight of her is intense and densely packed: when it launches at Mosaic like a bullet it takes her a concerted effort to keep from tumbling over and proving how weak her legs have become in payment for her great feat. But Ember is solid. When she is held, all of her presses back without compressing, without sinking or becoming insubstantial for even a brief touch. She is stable and steady enough to be leaned on without needing to do anything more significant than embracing her. A rock lifting out from the sea. A muscle to clench when hers cannot.

It is in this moment, with their lips finally parted and Mosaic's nose buried in the top of Ember's hair, that she watches Hera depart. The goddess offers her a single nod: Mosaic sweeps Ember off her feet until the tangles of both of their hair sweep against the hangar bay by way of a bow in return. She lifts slowly. She breathes steadily. She entwines her tail with her lover's, and feels the ground beneath her feet.

This is possible. Yes. This is something she can manage, perhaps even without the twin swords of pride and spite. At least... right now, she can. She chuckles, and flicks Ember across her nose.

"Have you been remembering a past life, too? Little idiot, we dragged this thing out of the ocean. It's a wonder we even have a ship and not just a void-bound pile of crabs. Don't worry, we'll get to work making it pretty just as soon as we manage to get it to stop breaking as soon as anybody says a mean word."

Mosaic's chuckle builds into a laugh that seems to shake the ship. As if on cue a crack in the marble of a nearby fixture widens into a proper fissure. The Plosious can laugh too. In the groan of metal that follows, Mosaic lets her smile fall. Her eyes do not flash anger, but they are sharp. And they are grim.

"But never mind that, where is Dyssia? Where is our knight and my instructor? And for that matter, what have you all done with the ribbons I lent to you?"
[Going to sleep on a branch and waking on the ground], [Daylight creeps into a cave and the shadows stretch their legs]," says Mirror, "[A Goddess devours she who cannot hunt.]"

Mirror's arms are too buried under the weight of another body to make any gestures either. She closes her eyes instead, and simply breathes. Draw in as she feels Slate's whispers on her neck, draw out when she draws in. She feels the weight of a head rest on the top of her breasts, and breathes into her chest so she can drift away in the sensation of that weight rising and sinking, and the ear pressed close to listen to the beating of her heart.

Slate's fur is different from her own: coarser, stiffer, and shorter than the soft wintery coat it's pressed against. Her fingers stretch across one of Slate's wrists and across her back, just brushing the tips of each strand to delight in the sensation of it pushing back against her. Stimulation. That is the word. She pushes deeper, massaging muscle into bone, and the stiff fur envelopes her hand. It is bliss.

Seconds tick by, until they become minutes. Minutes gather in handfuls and then tens, with no feeling but what their bodies experience against one another, with no sounds but the beating of hearts, whispered little sighs, and a duet of rolling purrs. Slate shifts her weight, and Mirror shifts with her to maintain the position. Legs wrap around legs. Tummies brush against tummies. Tails wriggle free and curl next to one another to form the shape that Terenians claim is a heart. Text form, less than three.

A mystery.

"The mainland is a mystery to me. The so-called High Command moreso. But we lost a war, didn't we? [Sunlight withers grass, prey begins the pilgrimage]. [Fangs in famine bite through stone]. Why? Are you frightened? Do you think that we should quit?"
Mosaic sucks in air through her teeth. She can feel herself cringing, body folding in on itself and compressing to a denser form as though it could shield her from the feeling of immediate failure stabbing through her nervous system. Her arms burn, her legs freeze. Her eyes wince shut and her lips open to show her fangs to... nothing at all. Herself, with no reflection.

Immediate failure. The very first thought that had come to her, as an instinct level reaction, when she'd tried to preemptively tackle the problem of being doomed by anger. Master it, hide it, push it beneath her feet and walk away on it until she could wrestle with it enough that she wouldn't hurt anybody on it. The least clever clever idea in the entire arsenal, and it's the blade she'd drawn first.

The Plosious is pointed away from the battle. The hangar's view is only space. But to Mosaic, it looks like a vast and dreary hallway, filled with impressive and important furnishings that served no purpose other than to remind her that she was beneath the ones who put it there. Her hands attempt to smooth an apron she isn't wearing as her fur lifts off the back of her neck in a rush of pure fear.

There was... a garden. If she walked this hall, she would enter it. If she walked this hall, she would die. A simple glance would turn her to stone and she would be nothing but another warning decoration because she was a failure failure failure failure failure! Her lungs squeeze her like a vice as air stops traveling through her system. She is choking on a memory that doesn't belong to her, she is dying from a terror that isn't hers to feel.

She slams a fist into her own leg, and feels a dull ache wash over the rest of the cocktail of sensations swirling through her body. It draws a snort from her nose, and the spell breaks. She observes the polychromatic-black sea of space once again. She wipes the sweat from her brow before she dares a glance toward Hera.

How could she fight this? There's no weapon mighty enough to slay this sort of beast that can slip through the cracks of even her best intentions. If attempts to hide her mood were the poison that would eat away at the bonds of her heart then... what? Should she give herself over to rage when she feels it? Impossible. But then, if she spends her days binding herself to keep a lid on it in the first place... ha! What, if anger by thy doom then simply feel none to begin with?

Ridiculous. The tighter a leash she kept herself on the less she would be able to act at all. If she kept at it she'd be no different than the statues in that garden, or that hallway. Every special thing about her, the things that Ember and Dyssia and Vasilia and all of Beri were counting on and following her for would die. And her family might very well die along with them. The riddle of strength and weakness looms over her again. It casts a much darker shadow this time, than when it spoke with Zeus' voice.


Mosaic's voice falters as she turns to stand side by side with the goddess. She fights a war to regain her posture; her neck pops loudly in protest as she straightens her spine, and her tail twinges with irritation when she forces it to unwrap from her leg. She remains proud, but now, in spite of herself.

"I see," she begins again with a yawn, "Then I really was raised by monsters. Which parent gave me this, I wonder? Was it the fur and the claws, or the bare skin and the teeth? Was it neither? Is it one of my eyes, instead? I am a -- hmph, haha. I am what I was named for. And I guess that must mean I have another kind of anger that I was given to hold. Fuck you both, mom and dad. I won't let this beat me. I refuse."

She flashes a grin and tightens her muscles as if she were preparing to hunt a crab large enough to crush a plover into a can. The rush of battle soothes her even as the tension wracks her injured body with pain. But this too is armor, and she wears it as well as her dress.
Mirror watches Slate in silence. Her eyes drift shut. She turns away, and takes several steps toward the wall with a heavy breath.

"Boss. I was kidding, you know. Kinda. It's fine if you don't feel like--"



"My answer is an emphatic yes. You should take your clothes off. Or rather, you should take off mine. I. Will remove yours."

She turns around, wielding a smile and a pair of ornate curved ritual daggers.

"With these~"

"Hssstffffftht-- what?! Boss, what? I can't fight worth a damn, that's why I'm a Maker in the first place! If you want training, wait for Kiriala!"

"No," says Mirror, gently pressing the handle of one of the daggers into Slate's hand and curling her fingers around it, "I want you. Right now, only you. I have burned with want for you since the moment you pulled me out of my spiral. I could barely see straight in my fight with Dala Hunters Seven Quetzal for how much I wanted you."

"Yeah but, this? I can't give you... this. And I don't wanna be used as a surrogate for Combat Slu--"

She's halted by a kiss. Mirror is in her face in the blink of an eye, lips to lips, punctuating each lift for air with a soft brush of her tongue across Slate's lips. Mirror does not watch for the reaction, her eyes are practically welded shut. The dagger she did not give away plays with the shoulder of Slate's right sleeve, slicing tiny breaks into the fabric until her shoulder fur tufts through it.

"Not a surrogate. Promise. This is about you. And me. But I need... this. I need. To know. How it feels. I want. To share it. With you. With the one. I trust. My life to."

Mirror backs away again and settles into a loose combat stance, dagger held in front of her. She twirls it playfully, and her eyes burn as she locks them with Slate's. The mechanic's fur ripples in a blush, and the argument is over. Instinct and desire take over, and she pounces.

Their dance is not graceful. It is not delicate. But it is intimate, and it is dangerous, and it is theirs. Mirror fights the same way she did against the Red Band, patience and redirection and control, but as much of that control is about bending her body to take attacks this time rather than overwhelm them. Slate's dagger thrusts are clumsy and aimed too directly for easy cuts, to expose the parts of Mirror she wants to see too quickly and too much. So when she bends to stroke her own blade down Slate's thigh, she twists her body to accept her lover's kiss along the waist of her coat instead of across the chest.

And so on. And so on. And so on. The ritual lasts longer than most mecha fights. With each pass they wear a little less, or a little less well. Extremities and hints at first, then favored spots and stripes, the best places to kiss or to knead, the artifice of exposure that dominates Hybrasil fashions giving way to actual exposure until their stances grow sloppy and their tatters hang as little more than the suggestion of modesty.

Mira tosses her weapon away. It clatters across the ground and sticks in a pile of what had been her business suit. She leans forward, pressing into Selin, and slowly drags her tongue across her partner's collar bone, up her neck, and along the length of her jaw. Selin shudders and clings to Mira to avoid toppling over. Her spine is tingling so much it's made her knees weak.

"This, haaaaa, doin' it for you?" she gasps.

"...More than I imagined. Thank you, Selin."

Her body flushes with intense heat at the sound of her own name. Even alone, she's always struggled with it. It makes her feel exposed and vulnerable in a way that she is simply unprepared for. Alone like this is the only context she can hear it and not instantly melt through a floor, but today, but right now even that is!

"D-d-do you, mmmmmmf, ha, have to say my name?"

Mira spends a long moment doing nothing but stroking Selin's hair. She plants a kiss on the top of her head that presses their bodies close enough together that their fur starts to mingle.

"I do," she says at last, "Because I have stripped you. Nudity is nothing to either of us. Our names are what bare our feelings. My. Desire. Your..."

"I. I know, M-Mira. I know. But now that you've said it..."

"Now that I've said it?"

"Now that you've said it," she repeats, lopsided grin half flustered and half horny, "You're not leaving this room until I've gotten all of what I want, too."
"My, my parents? The Lethe? But I. I don't understand, I!"

Mosaic's stomach turns to ice. A moment later it disappears entirely with a horrible swooping sensation, as if she'd suddenly been dropped off a cliff. She tumbles head over tail into the blackness beyond the hangar, spinning so fast the colors of the room melt into a single into a single indistinguishable blob that is something like the color red, and something like mist and the vague shape of what dreams maybe look like. It feels as though her ribs are going to implode from the stress of it all. She cannot breathe. She is hyperventilating. She is spinning, spinning, spinning, hurtling faster and faster and the air is every smell at once but also none at all and--

She lowers her head, and looks at the ground. She has not moved a single pace. Her knees have not even buckled. Her muscles ache and whine as though she'd run the length of the ship and back again, except... none of the rest of her agrees. Her lungs do not sting with the pleasant exertion of a sprint. Her fur is smooth and her dress is pristine, not a thread out of place. There is no sense of accomplishment, no adrenal rush, no happy tiredness that comes from the use of her great strength. She is pristine. She is the height of decorum. She is


"I had... always hoped. I-- my first memory is of a kiss, and then a breath of air that I'd never tasted before. So I'd, I'd hoped that meant I was as young as my memories. A statue brought to life, maybe, or since everyone always calls me a demigod maybe one of your children built me out of, of, feathers and bones and a, a..."

She falters. Her breath hitches, and to her surprise she feels a spot of wetness rolling down her cheek. She lifts a hand to wipe it away, only to find her fingers have curled in toward her palm and pressed her claws against her own flesh. She pries them open with great effort, and by the time she is able to tend to her tears they have multiplied five fold.

"I think I hate her," she says while looking at the goddess, "This child of monsters. The woman who washed herself clean to make me. How could she have thrown herself away like that?! I shouldn't exist at all! A child of privilege and still! She! Couldn't she get anyone to lover her? She's the reason my heart tears itself in half every time Ember leaves to be with her pack. Or the ship. She's the reason everyone's smallest triumphs feel like rocks scraped over my skin. She... She was a coward. And a bitch. I hope she's dead. I hope I'm all that's left of her."

Her hand trembles as she reaches for the goddess' outstretched fingers, but when they touch she stops as if commanded. Mosaic's grip is more gentle than the kiss of a spring rain on the petals of the flower. She deftly places her fingertips around the jewels and does not disturb their arrangement even one bit. She holds without squeezing. And she begs without speaking.

"I'm sorry. It's wrongheaded and weak to expect that every time a god blesses you with their presence you will be taught something nice. I just, I don't want to be a monster. Even if one is part of me. Isn't that why someone gave me my name? I... please, tell me. Tell me what it looks like. I'm so afraid. I'm so scared, Lady Hera, but I don't..."

With effort, Mosaic chokes a sob down to nothing. She breathes in deep, and releases it in a slow, controlled stream.

"I don't want to end up the way she did."
Mirror looks at Slate. Slate looks at Mirror. In the silence of the moment, a battle unfolds between them that might have meant the end of nations, had they understood the concept in the first place and if they had breathed a word of it into the air. Insufferable smugness clashes with irritated incredulity and the terrifying ordeal of Being Known.

But it dissipates without a word. Each of them shifts their eyes to Matty and smiles. For her sake they set the game aside; if she thought she'd caused her "mommies" to fight it would the work of the entire rest of the day to coax another word out of her.

But still. Any idiot could see that Mirror was correct to court Matty. An essential skill that was missing had been added to the family at the perfect time.
But still. Any idiot could see that Mirror was full of herself if she wanted any of the credit for that. To be taken with a sweet young heart was one thing, but to call it strategic?
But still. There is a measure of talent in recognizing the potential of that shining heart.
But still. No one who knew her thought she was capable of being that cynical about any of this. Don't mix up who absorbed whom.
But still.
But still?
But still!

"That's my girl~," croons Mirror, sliding across the distance between her and Matty without really seeming to move.

A second later, they are face to face. Watery eyes smile as best they can, and then blink shut. Once, twice, three times. Face to face becomes head to head. Mirror's right hand slips behind Matty's neck while her left soothes flustered fingers until they unfurl and drop into her grasp. She plants the very softest of kisses on Matty's forehead and then waits for the squeaks to die down.

"That's just what I expected from you, my brave and clever heart. Of course the flower who took my simplest questions and forged them into chains of power around my armor can open the pathways between the Distant Gate and her kin. Of course she can, of course she can!"

There is a spot on the back of Matty's neck that melts every bone in her body if it is teased in the right way, and for long enough. Mirror's fingers dance through her fur with the same cleverness and determination as they manipulate the console in her mecha. She leans in to catch the suddenly unsupported weight of her kitten and sweeps her out of her chair and into her arms.

There the pair of them stay, with Mirror's arms pressing Matty close against her, feeling the patter of the kitten's heartbeat through her ribs even as she presses Matty's ear close against her own chest to share the same information in return. Strong arms hold her high, and tight enough that she can't do much more than wiggle or flick her tail. But they squeeze her gently, to say that she does not need to.

It is a long time before anyone speaks again with words.

"Any help that you require kitten, simply ask for it. Anything that will help you be brave, except for my presence. I will not be able to be present for your meeting, or it will stop being 'normal weird'. Understood?"

Matty's words are expended. Her jaw seems too loose and flopsy to form the sounds. She buries her face in Mirror's clothing and nods instead. The comforting weight of somebody's fingers in her hair just behind her ears relaxes her further, though Mirror's arms haven't adjusted enough to do this herself. Someone else has gotten involved.

"You can call me, if my voice will help you. And of course you must contact me as soon as it is done to tell me how it went. Oh, I know! I think a courageous and special girl deserves a reward for her super important mission! If you succeed, I'll let you ask for anything you want. Aaaaaannny. Thing. At. All~"


"Within reason," says Mirror, "Anything within my power, of course. You could ask me for a moon, I suppose, but it would take me quite a while to go and fetch it for you. And haven't you also been saying I don't spend enough time nearby, my heart? Even still. If you would like a moon, you have only to ask for it."

Mirror and Slate share a smirk overtop of Matty's head. Their fingers touch under the downy softness of her dangling hair.

Fine. I am very lucky after all.
Fine. You are still good at this.
"Enough? No, I--"

Mosaic's neck droops, and her ears along with it. With nobody to hide her injuries from anymore, the weight of her own body asserts itself immediately. It is the mark of a queen that she manages to lift herself back up when she turns to look Hera in the eye. Her answer clogs her throat, it's so heavy and hollow for the audience it needs to reach.

She clenches a fist, but carefully. And shakes her head.

"I don't want to say it in a way that implies I don't trust them," she says haltingly, "But I never feel like anything I do is enough. It's like poison in my brain. I should have had more words, a reward, a... I should be out there with them. I should be out there instead of them. On and on. No, it's not enough. Something's going to happen and I'll be left wondering which one of these inadequacies would have fixed it."

She stares out again at the vastness of space, with all of its shimmering wonders set against the impossible horizon of her ship. For the first time since she discovered the portholes and saw it with her own eyes, she can't bring herself to see the beauty of it. Every nebula hides jaws large enough to swallow planets. Every rumble of the ship is the moment its massive bulkheads split forever and dump all the people stupid enough to have believed in her into Poseidon's waiting grasp to do battle one last time with voidcrabs. It's a fitting enough end for a people who made their livelihood for so long hunting their seaborne cousins, was it not?

"It is hard," she admits, "Lifting a mountain was at least ten times easier. I only had to do that for a few minutes. If it was only a few minutes. I think I'm still carrying it. Only now if I drop it the whole world ends. Only now if I throw it, the people living on it all die. Only now..."

Her teeth clench around the words.

"I just want them to come home. Is it my fault that they're gone? Is it my fault if they don't come back?"
The sky is alight with colors. Shimmering clouds of blue and pink float in the distance, dusted with the sparkle of stars beckoning young travelers to adventure. Brilliant rivers of green ripple like giant serpents wrapping themselves across the leylines of the infinite void: where their breath mists out of their nostrils the sea turns a violent shade of purple instead.

It had been impossible until now to understand the grandness of the vessel she'd set out on. On Bitemark it was more than half in seawater when she boarded it, or else the coral growths had made it indistinguishable from the bed it had slumbered in. Walking around inside of it was misleading in its own right; the corridors were vast but winding, and her thoughts were so occupied with the people inside of it that she'd gotten no real sense of it beyond 'larger than her village'.

But now Mosaic saw her new home, and it was immense. Standing amidst these massive suits of armor in this space designed to launch them into the infinite void beyond, she could see the mouth of the Plousios at last. And from the mouth if she craned her neck she could perceive the curve of the bulkheads beyond, and the ants swarming all around it gave it something to be huge against that was not itself somehow larger. Her ship stretched to the horizon. No, it was the horizon. Infinite possibility, infinite space. Infinite.

Against it, she was less than an ant. A mote of dust, perhaps. Mosaic tosses her head back and laughs. This was her weakness. Which made it her strength. The air rumbles, the ship groans, and the floor beneath her feet vibrates in emulation of her own purrs. Blast by blast the ship shakes off its coat of sea salt crusted coral. It glitters as she watches it float free and past them.

Mosaic's hair is bound in ribbons today. Dozens of them, in every color of the Great Sea itself. She reaches behind her back and unfurls the first, the one closest to her tips, and beckons for a nearby Plover to approach. The huge machine, both a knight's armor and her mount, drops to its knee in front of her and the force of the air it disrupts billows her skirts all the way back to her tail. The bells around her neck and through her ear sing brightly.

She reaches for the wrist of the machine, and ties the ribbon fast. Another gesture, and the plover rises. She crosses the hangar to the next one, unties the next ribbon, and repeats the gesture. On a finger, around a knee, left as a tassel to flutter proudly on the entrance to the cockpit, she leaves her tokens for her champions who would be doing the work she could not afford to take onto herself. All the while her face is pulled taut in obvious discomfort: the hit to her pride is palpable. The level of trust it takes for the woman who stole a mountain to send someone else on a task is not to be underestimated or taken for granted.

She hesitates when she reaches Ember's machine. Her spine straightens as it kneels in front of her, her beloved, her champion, her best and most precious knight. She looses not another ribbon from her hair, but a delicate red and gold sash from around her waist, and fixes it to the tip of her lance. Now she is the standard bearer. Now she is the hero. Now she is marked. Mosaic nods, and turns away.

Her eyes fall on Dyssia. Another ribbon, this one a shocking green and violet, attached to a shoulder. Her glossy hair falls across her back in loose and messy curls shaped by the braids she's pulled undone to arm her knights. Her eyes gleam in gold and purple fire as she watches the woman who fell from a comet and saved her. Her thunderbolt, the gift of Zeus. This trust belongs to you as well, stranger from a strange land.

"These ribbons," her voice slices through the hangar with the precision of a blade, "Are the proof that I love you. Each of you are irreplaceable. I won't ask you to leave. I won't ask you to fight whatever it is that's buzzing around us and trying to eat our dream. Do what you want, whatever you think is best while you're out there. But you have my ribbons, and I want them back. So whatever else you do, you will return, understood? Bring these back to me. Un. Spoiled. That is my order. I will be waiting for you to fulfill it."

She addresses the room, but her eyes are locked like a sniper's onto Ember and Dyssia. These, then, are the two she trusts the least. And the most. It's the strong ones that need to be looked after most, after all. They're the most likely to do something stupid in the name of not failing. And so she ties her leash. Now go. Get your asses caught for all she cares. But don't abandon her, not ever.
She arrives dressed for Business. No better way to explain to a group without experience than by making a clear visual impression.

That means wearing her very best suit in the Terenian style: a fitted pants/jacket combo in the deepest blue imaginable, more serene than a lake too wide to see across lit only by the distant twinkle of stars as they wove their stories overhead. The shoulders, elbows, waist, hips, and the middle of the thighs have all been cut out in wide diamond shapes to show off her snowy fur and a selection of her very best and most desirable stripes. The back of the jacket has been trimmed down to a series of thin ribbons that wind across her in a perfect helix. She wears no shirt underneath this jacket, the better to emphasize its absolute perfection, and secures only the top button (of three): a stylized thing of shimmering, textured gold that begs to have a finger run across it to feel the stimulation of the outfit's richness.

She wears the pointed shoes of the TC upper echelons, the ones with the pointed heels that raise her a full head and a half off of the ground. She is unusually tall for her kind already; now she is unquestionably a goddess. She has gathered her long hair up around her neck and the back of her head and tied it into a severe but messy, spiky bun held in place with two black prayer sticks dangling golden bells off of their tips. She wears a necklace, a gaudy thing made not with bones and smooth stones or diving weights and bits of fish bone (like one would if they wanted to be beautiful), but threaded of minuscule golden links looped over top of one another so they cascade down her chest like a tiny waterfall. Across her neck is also a tight choker featuring some manner of jet black stone in its center. On her face she wears a pair of large, oval spectacles with an opalescent frame. Looking through them, her genetically modified eyes are even more striking than usual.

She has painted her lips. She has lined hear ears with piercings and rings. She is perfect. She is divine. It is impossible to look at her and not believe she is an expert in the field she has dressed for.

"As you are aware, the Terenius Consortium contains a variety of religious expressions across its borders. But there is one principle god to whom all of their kind pay a special fealty to above all other manifestations, no matter how misfit they may be otherwise or what walk of life they claim as their own. It is a shapeless, formless god entirely unlike the great beasts of the Zaldarians or our own Goddesses, who shape our lives intangibly but nevertheless have made their bodies and their presence quite clear to us. I speak of course of the great god known as... Finance."

In the years since first contact, many (and especially the important) Hybrasilians have received crash courses in the bizarre world of TC economics. Certainly the far ranging mercenaries needed to get very good at understanding basic bartering very quickly if they wanted to be taken seriously in negotiations. Nowadays even most kittens wouldn't tilt their head at the mention of a 'credit' or the idea that it might be exchanged for something like food or a manufactured good without interacting with the complex series of promises and social expectations that underpinned the system of exchanges in their own empire.

But to all but the most hardcore fangirls of the TC worlds the specifics and especially the deeper mysteries of how these people lived their lives was a total black box. The Hybrasilian language contains zero even equivalent words for things like 'finance', 'corporation', 'CEO', or 'profit' and if anyone wanted to express these concepts they needed to use the TC words for them, full stop. The Hybrasilian, and especially the Fisher accent is very maladapted to the sounds these words are comprised of. To the sharp ears of a Child of Hybrasil, the attempt generally sounds impressive, and it has become popular to insert them into the lyrics of popular songs. To Terenians, however, the deficiencies border on insulting.

This is to say that if the likes of Isabelle or Marcina or Angela were here for this meeting they would likely have killed themselves giggling, and Mirror might not have had the bravery to continue. Luckily, her audience was cats. Cats all the way down.

"The currency you have dealt with in your work or mine is a tool to procure hospitality and aid, true, but its true purpose is a talisman of prayer to Finance. A holy man explained it all to me when he offered to help me create a 'bank account' to house the collected rewards I had been accruing for piloting for Terenian causes and benefits: Finance is a fickle and capricious god but it is pleased by strategic applications of this resource, and with enough successful supplications it will intervene on your behalf to grant boons beyond what an individual could offer for your exchange. Essentially, as your number of prayer slips increases, you or a skilled priest working on your behalf can cause miracles to occur. The creation of a new mecha, for example, or the forging of an alliance against historical clan interests. My personal favorite is the sudden manifestation of festivals outside of marked holy days, but supposedly these powers extend far beyond that to the truly devout."

Mirror nods and pulls out several tablets from a bag she's kept at her feet this entire time. She sets them on the table in front of her, displaying a pie chart, a line graph, and a spreadsheet. Each of these were painstakingly crafted by hand, which is to say they contain absolutely zero numbers or labels or identifying data of any kind, but they are all extremely colorful and evocative in a way that Mirror knows is corroborated by several anime she's seen dealing with the subject. It is not difficult at all to make the leap from these displays to a Hybrasilian priestess, even a bride beseeching her goddess for a good hunt with these offerings to dazzle her into compliance. Nor is it at all difficult to imagine certain goddesses absolutely devouring these offerings and assigning High Meaning to them.

"The greatest concentrations of holy power in Terenian society are found inside the grand temples that Finance feels most at home inside of. You have likely heard of Companies, yes? Perhaps by another name, the concept is so important that Terenians have as many words for this single concept as we have for reeds. Corporation, LLC, Conglomerate, Subsidiary, Co-Op, and Collective Bargaining Agreement all refer to the exact same type of temple. They combine the powers of supplication of a great many individuals under a single structure, where power within the cult is determined via a new type of prayer called 'stock'. It is an ascetic demonstration wherein a devout cultist demonstrates her belief in Finance by refusing to spend her accumulated credits on material comforts and instead spend all of it on the company itself. This creates 'stake' inside the temple, and the god rewards those who can deny themselves immediate gratification by returning it to them later multiplied a hundredfold or more."

Now she switches her teaching tools to something truly indulgent, something so wasteful she actually looks around the room for a moment to see if Finance would manifest for her in appreciation for her superior insight into its machinations. She uses paper. One hundred sheets of the creamiest, most beautiful paper she's ever seen, all of which she has spoiled by drawing the exact same flower blossom on. She sighs.

"Whatever anyone may tell you, these temples contain exactly one hundred instances of this prayer. They may require greater or smaller amounts of 'investment', depending on how powerful the temple is among the Cult of Finance, but what you see is all there is. And whoever performs the ritual best and who can make the most stable alliances gains the right to be called this temple's high priestess, though they mostly use other words for it. These priestesses command enormous powers in their society, including the ability to compel behavior against the wishes of the ones they demand it of or creating oaths of loyalty among whomever they choose. They can even cause entire Skyscrapers, those enormous glass spears Smokeless Jade Fires and I fought among recently, to rise up from the ground where they live. This is the power of the Lozano Matriarch, whom I have declared war on."

She gathers the papers together into two separate lots and divides them with a line of string, then does this three more times on the right side of the division until she's created several smaller lots against the one larger one.

"But these powers are not hereditary or inherent to the priestesses' being. Their god will turn on them if they ever grow lax in their duties or prove themselves an unworthy servant by allowing another cultist to usurp their power. If nobody controls the majority of these sheets in front of us, then the temple must ask for consensus among every cultist who has performed the ritual to have one. With fifty one out of one hundred to a single name, a high priestess' power is absolute. Within her temple she may alter reality as she sees fit and her god will enable her without fail. Conversely, if those fifty one sheets align against an individual, her voice goes completely silent. The god will not heed her even if she washes herself in holy water and slays a [Creature of Ten Thousand Mouths] with the droplets still fresh upon her body. Do you understand?"

Mirror pulls the strings away from the smaller lots and lays them across a single sheet of paper on the larger one, changing the arrangement completely.

"The Lozano Matriarch has her fifty one sheets, but she holds them via alliance. Any sufficiently advanced temple usually requires too much of a demonstration of devotion per sheet for a single person to feasibly hold a majority all by themselves. This is one of the ways their great god fosters competition in their society and keeps its children strong. But this woman has held her position for long years, in part by having her children each hold a small number of the sheets she needs to control the magic Fifty One (this being the holiest number of Fiance, you understand). I have been corresponding as best I could since the party to find people with sufficient devotion or at least connections to other holy men like my 'banker' who could be convinced to help buy up the other fourty-nine from their various owners. If I am successful, which is to say if they are successful, all that we need do to topple Isabelle Lozano Distant Gate's supposedly invincible and monstrous mother is to convince even a single one of her children to bargain for the sheets that they hold and her power will be broken utterly.

She will be the high priestess still, but she will need to bargain with a collective in order to continue enacting her will as she has for these many years. I do not believe she knows how. She will sink deeper trying to cling to her rituals without the backing of her god. Even if she manages to recover without shattering herself on her own temple, she will have been taught fear. And that, I think, will be enough proof of sincerity that I will be able to trust the Distant Gate to help me defeat Solarel, even after she fails her own test of single combat. Do you agree?

Mattara? Selin? My darlings and my hearts? Kiriala, my squire? Can you sweet talk a Lozano child out of their alliance for me? I wish to compensate them fairly according to the traditions of their home, of course, but I do not seek the power it represents for myself. I have already contacted Ada Smith, Unseen Goose about the possibility of heading this new alliance within this particular cult. I have done this because I believe it is the funniest result possible, and therefore the best. And that even if she quickly 'cashes out', as they say, she will walk away from our brief partnership with more resources for her family than she could get for herself in a hundred and one raids. I think it is worthwhile, personally. Will you help me? Can you spare the time for my sake? My plans are balanced on a spear tip right now, it will be difficult to adjust without you. But if it is too much for any reason at all... say so. I will abandon my vendetta and search for another way to give you my dream."
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