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No detail is forgotten. All are marked. All are filed away and kept close. But none are responded to, none followed up on. Not just yet. Because these are ancillary pursuits compared with her real reason for being here. Her unpredictability necessitated covering every base. Everything needed to be perfect for her. For


Mirror has handed you a rose, and that is a victory. She was holding it, though it did not go with her outfit, and under the pressure of your stare she gave it away without thinking. Without even a word. Flowers as a gift is on the whole a very Terenian custom, but in Hybrasil giving away anything when you have very little is considered a declaration of love on par with a wedding proposal. And it was not planned; you can see that by her snatching fingers just after, that she covers by quickly busying them with her ribbons. Long strokes.

< Go ahead and look. It is all for your benefit. >

Now her fur darkens in her equivalent of a blush, where your eyes alone hadn't quite shaken her. She had not intended to sign in this conversation, but she defaulted to the stiff and over-rushed language she learned while she was your slave. Your comfort and your rules before her, and all because she lost a staring contest. You put your eyes where hers can't follow. She does not know what to do with that.

Speak Not, you told her. And she complied. But she has so much still to say.

< Yes. For your benefit. Because it is all your fault. What am I meant to do? I owe. I owe. I owe. I owe. I serve. I serve. I serve. I serve. I cannot seem to fit my dreams inside my hands anymore. They have grown, and I have not. >

She has surrounded herself with other cats. If you have been keeping tabs on her in any way, you will know that these are her family. But plainly, none of them understand the language she is using to speak with you. Anything she expresses will be a secret kept from them, unless you chose to break the spell. That too is a victory. You are in control. She cannot help herself around you.

That's why she's never won. Not ever, at least in her mind.

< Are you. Doing well? Are you. Excited? Or are you. Like me? Because I >

Her hands go quiet, folding themselves placidly in front of herself. Fingers tucked in, claws politely hidden, a kind of meekness that's unbecoming of the woman who calls herself Mirror. Mira Fisher, however, was like this all the time. She has a secret. Or more accurately a concern.

And she would like you to pry it out of her, if you can.
Mosaic's head tilts, the way it always does when she's surprised. She frowns, and gently drags a claw tip across her jaw in deep contemplation. Her tail uncurls and drops down to her feet, and she takes several loud sniffs of the air looking for... not lies, really, but mistakes? Confusion and uncertainty have a grassy aftertaste like very bitter weeds, but if there's any present in the air today then it doesn't really line up with this situation.

"To the Surveyor, really?" she asks, "The whole town? Must've found something big I guess."

Tap tap, tap click. Her claws slide over one another in a new rhythm that has already forgotten her whistled song. All around her the Lyrii are slowly giving up on carrying it on without her. The air washes itself clean a few breaths later. Silence, except for the bustle of town and the murmuring of this new crowd. Clean, except for the scent of the markets and of food, in particular the crab scent she carries with her and will continue doing so until her hands become sufficiently covered in dirt to obliterate the aura she's soaked them in all morning.

A normal day, in other words. Completely ordinary and devoid of the magic that made the walk down here feel so special. Mosaic stands alongside Sunflower, just watching the crowd. She says nothing for a very long time.

"...Hukou. Hmmm, hmmmmmm. Certifications like that don't just fall from the sky, though. And there's the whole issue of space and accommodation where we're not exactly empty ourselves. Right? I wonder how many we can take in..."

And then she shrugs, as if sloughing off the weight of some difficult burden onto the ground at her feet. Her spine straightens again, lifting her several extra centimeters into the sky. Her shoulders lighten and her eyes flash with a divine spark of promise. Her smile is as full of teeth as ever, but with the shadows lifted off her face at this new angle it is dazzling where a moment ago it might have seemed dangerous. She had been a creature, and now she seems again the child of a god. Her muscles quiver in anticipation of the work even as her skin itches worse than ever with the threat of her hunt remaining unfinished for even longer.

But really, she'd said she was going to be hauling stone anyway.

"Nothing for it then. I need to get moving if I'm gonna get everything done in time. Let's see, let's see... forty heads. Call it sixty to be safe. That's... seven or so tons of material? I'll clear the trees on my way. I'm not particularly great at architecture, but construction is just shaping and placing. If they're really from Rosedam then they can take it from there no problem. You think so too, right? Tell them, won't you? They shouldn't be asking for hukou. If the mayor gets annoyed he'll have them gone before I can finish."

She tosses her head back and laughs, and the echo of her happiness hangs in the air where she herself had been a moment ago. Her legs strike the cobblestone like bolts of lightning, doom, doom, doom. Already sweat is beading on her face, but she doesn't care at all. There's a need for quickness, now, and running has always felt the best among all her talents.

She gives no thought to what the Mayor or the Royal Surveyor or anyone else might say against her plan. Always easier to ask forgiveness than permission, she's always found. And even if they wind up saying no, someone will be able to find a use for a new neighborhood eventually right?
Music opens its jaws wide enough to swallow her, and she steps inside without a care. The accordion piles on atop a lyre, a flute, a the beating of some drums, and now a fiddle before several bright voices add their lyricless melody to the all-consuming chorus that has taken the town over. Mosaic's ears twitch to capture every harmony. She feels the vibrations of it all in her bones, feels the changing of the air press against her skin, these subtle changes in pressure that mean spirits are lifting higher with every moment she is here.

But the most incredible thing about music is the smell, actually. Happiness in Beri is a warm scent sometimes, and a cool scent sometimes, and each of these are constantly swirling together like a cocktail of cinnamon and mint in a glass that bubbles all over with mineral goodness and nothing else to get in the way of any of it. Every breath of it is refreshing, and makes her want to take another one. Every step is rejuvenating, and even in this heat her fur glistens in the ever-present light of the sun.

Every step deeper into Beri greets her with new scents shaken free by the music. Kassj is spicy, enough to overpower their food. Tittering, blushing, hiding-behind-a-book-she-isn't-reading-because-it's-upside-down-and-backwards Allanna is extra flustered today, and that gives her an airy aura made of pure sugar that melts in Mosaic's mouth and leaves an aftertaste that will still be tinting her palate come dinnertime. Dolemon is dirt-and-grass with no salt whatsoever in a way that Mosaic has always found intriguing. And so on down the road, and so on through the town. There are so many people to smell and each of them adds their notes to the chorus until even Dolce couldn't make a broth this delicious if he had a week and access to every viable ingredient on the planet.

It feels better than a full night's sleep. Nearly better than the burn in her legs and the rush in her heart when she runs. Mosaic wades into the beating heart of the town that welcomed her so freely, not bothering to measure her steps or check her pace. Every footfall is perfect, regardless. The clump of her boot matches the pounding of the drums, and the swing of her hip fits the rise and fall of the flute and the chorus. Her tongue darts from her mouth and she licks her lips in pleasure; Allanna's scent spikes above all the others.

Mosaic's arm appears as if by magic to catch her by the shoulders before she can hit the cobblestone street. Now a tittering of excited oohs and ahhs sweeps over the heartbeat of Beri until she silences them with a single lifted finger.

The smell of happiness grows richer, and when it does it builds in complexity until she has to pause every few steps to keep picking it out. One-Eye's permanent brine soaked aroma runs through with iron and a touch of mustard today. Katherine's pheromones grow cooler and sweeter; they remind Mosaic of the pungent fruit that grow on the trees just the north of town, the ones that have to be plucked in summer or they'll be encased in a shell so tough the best sword in Bitemark would blunt itself on it.

Her pace is unhurried. She makes good time anyway. The tip of her tail curls behind her as she passes. This is both hello and goodbye. Her muscles swell and stretch when she waves, and this too is music. Every casual little flex and flick is lyrical, every step is confident to travel unbroken through a thunderstorm.

She has come. And she was starving. And ah! What a feast they have brought for her, her many friends and coworkers. Her smile lights the streets around her even in the full radiance of the day just imagining how things will be here when her labors today are finished.

Her eyes lift to the horizon. Mosaic's body flows to and fro along the golden path stretching endlessly toward the mountains in front of her. She allows herself a twirl, and grins with full fang at the burst of fresh intensity that washes over the town. Chan-barra-chan, she whistles once more.
There is arriving early. There is arriving fashionably early. There is arriving early enough to make it embarrassing because you clearly got the time wrong.

And then there is whatever the fuck Mirror is doing.

She has shown up hours ahead of the gala. Hours and hours, in fact. So incorrect that it is preposterous, so eager that there are still workers arranging the final decorations when she invokes her pilot's privilege of entry at the time of her choosing. They ask her to leave because she's making it harder to finish. They ask her to leave because they think she'd prefer the dance floor when it's finished, wouldn't she? They ask her to leave because they are, frankly, embarrassed to do their jobs while a VIP watches them with laser eyes.

She refuses. She stays. Matty, the only member of her entourage at the moment, is burning brighter and hotter with every exchange. Soon she will melt a hole in the floor, or possibly make herself into a suitable replacement for a Crystal Fire Drive when it comes to energy output. Her poor tail is thrashing about and her ears keep pressing into her skull so that Mirror has to spend another five minutes coaxing them back up with gentle, soothing pets.

This is all according to plan. This is... mostly according to plan. Ideally Matty would be less flustered, just very slightly less of a frightened kitten clinging to her mother for support. Or if she was going to be that, to have it be more intentioned and playful. But she is being brave, just like she promised to be. That earns her a kiss on the head, such a good girl. In any event, all according to plan.

Slate is with Kiriala. Both will be entering with the contingent from Hybrasil proper. Both have been asked to dress themselves, but both have been asked to stick together even if they clash horribly. Which of course they will: Slate owns exactly one dress and she's worn it to every formal occasion she's ever been forced to attend for the last ten years. Her teal and coral diving suit with the silk fringes at the hips and shoulders, and the belt of plain weights she always wears with it are a gorgeous compliment to her fur and her frame. A lovely example of Fisher chic, if exceptionally outdated. But her chances of pulling it off alongside whatever her new Squire thinks is appropriate wear for the day? Not worth considering, out of courtesy.

That is fine. It's good if they stand out next to each other, actually. Kiriala gets to feel like she is showing support for the Motherland she still believes in, and Mirror gets to show her that she trusts she still belongs too, by sending her oldest and most trusted friend to walk beside her. The Knight does not demand split loyalties be shattered. Who you are is who you are, and that should be celebrated.

Nervous staff offer her a courtesy drink. Matty takes one just to make somebody somewhere feel slightly better about themselves. Mirror refuses. Her shimmering liquid eyes are locked on the entrance, where the first people will (eventually) come trickling in, and then more and more intentionally and importantly so. She will not miss a single head that shows up, from the least powerful to the most. Her ribbons flutter majestically in the slight current the ammonite-shaped room naturally generates. The lilies on her head waver, but hold firm.

She has arrived. The first. The strongest. Able to survive any implication and any supposed embarrassment. She is there to challenge every single pair of eyes that enter this latest arena and dare them to stare back at her. She is there to witness every smile, every gasp, and every whisper that Mayze's (that her) dresses generate. She is there to note who flinches, who blushes, who leers, and who ignores her. She is there to wait for Solarel, who cannot be trusted to stick to a schedule if the lives of a planet depended on it. She is the knight that guards the bridge, and none shall pass without her approval, the most important among them least of all.

But above all else she is here with Matty even though she would surely cut a more imposing figure standing by herself. That is not the point of it. She has come with her family. She is here, before the before the before, to prove that she has something no one else does. She has let the bonds of fate grown tangled and distant. And hours from now, she will finally uncross her arms and shift her weight for the first time since she posed here to begin with.

When she does, she will be surrounded by soulmates. The true center of the universe, whatever complex math was spent on this place to bring it into alignment with the three great empires.
There is a particular melody to the hollow crunch-cracking of a crab shell when it shatters under pressure, and today her house is filled with it. The soft strain of the carapace as it shudders underneath her fingers, leading into the harsh snap right as it gives way, ending with a rough but gentle crumbling as the hard bits of shell meet empty air.

The house has been filled with this little symphony for the better part of an hour, only broken up by the scratch scratch scribbling of a quill pen on paper. Mosaic has been very busy today. Crush a crab, separate the meat, sort the lot, write it down. That's how it is when you hunt enough for the entire town at once. It's tedious work but especially in this heat she can't really say she minds it. It's nice to have a break sometimes.

One black-tipped ear bends at the sound of a low moan coming from the next room over. She sighs. It's been a bad week for Vesper, hence all this bothering about accounting. Most of the time her sister would handle all of it, but as sick as she's gotten that's asking too much of her. So until she finally got enough sleep in her to recover that divinely gifted mind of hers, Mosaic had to pick up the slack.

Crunch, crack, scribble. The process all made sense if you stopped and thought about it. You couldn't eat meat unless you hunted it. How would you, even? What were you gonna do, live off the fresh cloud of viruses that might pop out of food you unjustly slaughtered as it converted itself into unique, fresh biomass? No thank you. It was only by Lady Artemis' blessing that killing a crab got you crab meat and useful shell for barter. And the Goddess was very clear that if you were going to kill something then you had best at minimum take enough pride in it to have a thorough enough accounting to name everything you'd hunted.

"Wait, that can't be right. Can it? I'm one short? Shit, I think I'm one short."

Mosaic's mismatched eyes flicked over her carefully (mind numbingly) sorted piles and baskets. Her golden eye watched her list while her deep purple one bounced madly between all the bits of shell and pushed the number inside of her skull with enough pressure to give her a sympathy headache to go with Vesper's. Not that she needed the God's Eye to tell what the itching on her skin already did: she was missing a kill. Precisely one less than she'd promised at the start of the morning.

Everywhere she looked there was nothing but pathways back outside. And one leading deeper in. She rubbed at her eyesocket with the back of her knuckle and wrote a few more things down on a second sheet of paper. Then she picked up a plate of meticulously arranged and pre-plucked crab legs and carried them inside.

"Don't try to move," she said, "Don't say anything. It's fine. This is just dinner for whenever you can pick yourself up enough to eat it. And I wrote down the size and weight of everything there so you can figure out the volume in case you need that today."

She set the plate down and took a step back toward the door.

"I'll be gone for a while ok? They're behind on quota for the new building project in town, so I'm headed up to the mountain to drag some stone down myself. I've got an errand that needs taking care of anyway, so it's just no big deal. I'll be back tomorrow probably, so don't go looking for me. Just rest."


"What is it?"

"You hunting wolf again? Don't forget your invocations or she'll turn you inside out while you're eating her~"

Mosaic stared into the lopsided grin of her half-sister in total silence. Shocking violet eyes meet Gold-and-Royal-Purple without blinking. As one being, they snort until they're choking on laughter.

"Don't know why I was even worried about you. Be well, Vesper."

"Be safe, Mosaic."

A nod, a click, a closed door. Mosaic peeled off her all black suit jacket and hung it neatly on a rack just outside the door. A shame to take it off after so little time in it but in the heat of the day she'd just grow to hate it anyway. The tank top she had on underneath it suited the work in front of her better anyway.

And besides, was it so wrong to be looking forward to the compliments on her muscles she'd get for exposing them like this? They've been coming in nice, of late. Hardly any signs of the lopsided development she'd washed ashore with almost five years ago. With a shrug and a final look back, she left her little cabin and set off toward the mountain trail that gave Bitemark its name.

The itch of a job undone still crawled its way across her skin. But in the light of the sun, she smiles. Even whistles an old nonsense tune as she walks, chan-barra-chan go the words she does not speak. Missing crab or no, this was still another day in paradise.
Here at last. The end, and the beginning. And her, undefeated in spite of her best efforts. Well. By one metric. Point of fact winless by a different and more reliable one, but it's not her fault the witless, whisker tweaked administrators were so fixated on pointless things like whose machine was still in one piece at the end of a fight.

Mmmmmm, no. Unfair. Incorrect. Correct, rather: from this moment forward that is the only victory condition that matters. Dreams are not paid out to the one who falls if they only display a novel enough technique on their way down. No wishes are granted to the one who exits with the moral high ground or to the pilot with the fortitude to destroy themselves for the sake of protecting a valuable secret. The winner walks away, the loser is carried out by drones.

At the final point, it always seems to come back to the Huntress' way of doing things.

But regardless of the official narrative of events, she is here. Loss piled atop of loss, and her plans in ruin. More secrets traded than intended, and the perception of power has been pinned irrevocably to her ear. How much easier would her life have been if she'd managed to properly swim underneath the waves the way she had intended? Utterly unremarkable, barely slipping through qualifiers with several easily exploitable tendencies, the allure of her terrifying Gods-Smiting Whip set against the disappointment of her mediocre piloting skills.

She should be free to move as she wills, free to reveal swords as they suited her, free to surprise and frustrate without any need to rely on cheap, low quality tricks. All she would need to do is start being what she is. Instead she is here, away from her mecha, away from her team, away from her carefully cultivated circles and support.

All alone. Wearing a mask. Surrounded by dresses. With more miracles left to perform than she's got hours left in the day.

"I will admit," said Mayze Szerpaws, "Waging a war on this many fronts at once is more difficult than I imagined it would be."

The infamous fashion designer clicks her tongue against her fangs and circles slowly around the mannequins in her portable greenhouse/studio. The light and the heat in here are sweltering, but that just makes it feel like Mother Hybrasil. Just another reminder why fisher cats and their thick fur grew to love the water so much before they grew to love the cool kiss of space just as much.

She frowns at a rose and pulls a small pair of shears out of a jacket pocket. Snip snip snip, she clips individual offending petals until the arrangement of the dress stops making her tongue itch. She puts on silk gloves before she tugs the fabric into better alignment on her doll, the one that is a perfect match for the body of the most powerful woman in the Consortium, and takes five precise steps backwards to take in the new state of her work.

"This one is... a failure. It won't sing. I'll have to-- ah! Wait a moment."

The sharp and measured clacking of her heels follows her back to her workbench, where she retrieves a bottle of water and a misting attachment. She dims the headlamps over the rose dress by sixteen percent and lightly coats the dress until it drips as though kissed by morning dew. Suddenly the enhanced petals unfurl and deepen ever so slightly in color. Mayze sighs in relief.


A wooden dowel is a necessary tool to guide her tetrachromat blossoms, which are so sensitive to particular oils found in Hybrasillian skin that even through a work glove her attempt at guiding them up their robe would result in their wilting and falling to the ground dead inside of an hour. Difficult to do precise work like this, but necessary. She chose them for how they would behave alongside cybernetics, not flesh. When she pushes pins into the fabric to adjust the slack she has to do it with the anxiety-induced precision of a bomb disposal. The stitching is even worse. She jumps the brightness over this one to maximum capacity and wipes her forehead with a smartly pinstriped sleeve.

"If I ever have to do this one again I will kill myself on the spot. That is a promise."


Mayze's fingers twitch while she floats them over a lighter. The temptation to torch Maelia Dahlia's hibiscus dress into ashes (dahlias! why did she not consider working in dahlias?) grows by the second. Watching it sit there, literally perfect unless it isn't makes the blood pool inside her brain until she's sure the migraine is going to split her in half. She steps into the shadows of a corner opposite her workstation and turns the mister around on herself just for a break.

There is a flaw in the construction of this dress. Somewhere there is, she can feel it. But just to look at it is to be swallowed by the yawning maw of anxiety and, and, and -- she's never had a word for it. Not exactly. Her 'paralysis' if you must be so uncouth. The little snippets of indecision and negativity that build up in the face of uncertainty that make it so that even when she's reached a conclusion or come to a decision, her body does not move toward her goals. She could lose an hour like this. Six. Seven. A full day if hunger does not reach her in time.

"Disaster. What a terrible thing to have gambled on. Oh I regret not digging into this deeper. What would it have mattered if my other projects suffered for it? Had I not already resolved to tank those in the first place? If you do not turn up at this gala as expected I will have to hunt you down and shove this entire ensemble straight through your skull. After I've re-optimized it to make your corpse more lovely, of course."

Her hand is shaking, but it moves. She unties two stems by hand and plucks a full blossom from the chest section, opening the window to more fur, more allure, and more... the dress bounces in response, hypnotizing in its motion even without its intended wearer's particular gait to spur it along.

Mayze stumbles backwards and finds a bucket. She spits three times inside of it. Her cure to prevent vomiting. A sigh of relief. The fridge cracks open and she downs three quarters of a ginger beer before she even tastes it.


Little Dala Hunters' gift was finished forever ago, by comparison. Her lone piece of work that hadn't needed growing in this session, it was simple to put together just as she had drawn it. Inspiration hadn't moved her hands elsewhere, alterations had not been necessary, and her informant had gotten such... precise measurements that despite the relative anonymity of her subject and her total lack of awareness of what was coming that she was unusually certain every last thread was precisely where it needed to be.

"I should have held onto that one, rather than sending my courier off with it so soon. If only I could run my fingers across it one more time and imagine her inside of it... ah well. I have other comforts to slake my thirst. I only regret listening to my model's advice on a choice of delivery. This 'Matty' doesn't strike me as well suited to a task like this, but little Mira insisted. Enjoy my work, Miss Dolly, your friend has paid a pretty price for it."

A toothy, slightly evil grin splits the face under Szerpaws' featureless black mask. She turns to a nearly unadorned mannequin with a body shape suspiciously similar to her own.

"Speaking of whom. Not many miracles left for my champion. My favorite model. My Mirror. But there is a gala to attend, and your heart will be there too. I cannot let you go without a new piece to go in. It is my work that people will see when they look at your body, and maybe then they might understand it was not the flowers I wanted them to see. Sundrunk simpletons."

And yet, there are flowers in this dress. A crown of them, in fact, in red and pink and orange and above all else shimmering golden yellow. Toxic lilies for the mightiest and most fearless warrior in attendance. Yes, this is how it must be. Mirror had clad herself in the title of Strongest and so that is all that she may be given to wear.

All. She may be given. To wear.

The crown of lilies sits atop the head. A single long, red ribbon ties about the neck. The two trails of it drape down, cloak-like, against the contours of her body but these are all Mayze Szerpaws has given Mira Fisher to cover herself with. Her spots laid bare, her body a marvel, the forever fluttering ribbons covering and revealing what they will by their own whims whenever she moves, whether it be to drink at the bar or to dance with a lover.

No more masks. No more hidden agendas. Not for her.

Mayze snorts and turns her neck to stare at a camera she's set up close to her workbench. She gives it a nod.

"And soon..."

She speaks the word with reverence. Her breath imbues it with power. An almost nostalgic warmth gives it kindness. The sharpness of the final syllable fills the title with lethal precision. Here is a woman who will not miss. Here is a woman who cannot miss, because her spear has already struck true before she has even thrown it. Here is a friend, a confidant, and the keeper of what was lost.

If Mosaic's voice has any kind of power, then a Praetor should stand above a Princess. Even an Empress would hitch a breath at the mention of the name. While kings and petty nobles are locked in useless dreaming and far off gazing at the horizon that they reach for with greedy hands before their eyes have even comprehended the wonders they seek to control, a Praetor will have defended everything already worth loving. The weak made whole and the strong cut down whenever their strength is misapplied. Where the roaming judge walks, justice blossoms in her wake.

And what could be more injust than this endless dream of nothing? This cycle of misery and the wheel that lifts all-powerful kings over their peers only to keep on spinning and crush them again beneath the ego of the next comer to the scene? This infinite plain of misery and squalor that looks upon a stagnant, sterile world and brags, "Ah! I have conquered death itself!"

"Praetor," she says the word again with even greater respect and strength, "When you throw..."

They lock eyes, if only for a moment. Jil's eyes are shining daggers in the dark. Mosaic's are like her name: a patchwork of uneven pieces that shine with a beauty called determination. They draw strength from one another, and this is how it should be. What they mean to do would be impossible without a bond like this. A bond earned on the back of journeys either of them at best only half remembers, but the sword in Gemini's hands glitters in approval. This is enough, it says. This is love beyond love. Maybe someday a scholar will give it a word less tainted by association, but today they make do with their limited understanding. It, too, is enough.

"Remember what you're aiming for."

And she leaps. Mosaic cuts a graceful arc through the storm as she leaps off of her perch and leaves the safety of the ship for the sake of the ship itself. The wind billows inside of the longer portions of her suit. Her claws cut through raindrops and spark with power that lightning refuses to strike. She lands on the sea, but it suffers her to walk across its surface. Bits of flotsam and shattered vessels that dreamed as deeply as hers but less successfully are her silver road. She flies across them in singles bounds, and her feet barely touch against a plank, a barrel, a rotting scrap of sail before she's skyward again and heading ever farther away from comfort.

It is a Princess' job to lead the way. It is her power to buy time for the miracle to happen, and her place to trust that it will. All she needs to do is survive. She is one tiny speck in a storm, standing against the might of a hundred devoured planets. The Leviathan could swallow her whole and not even notice.

And yet.

(Keep Them Busy (Alone, Briefly, Against the World): 9)
Smooth, the grain of the wood against her palm. But when she squeezes it she feels a bite on her skin, sharper and sharper teeth gnawing on her until the pressure of her fist crushes the railing in on itself and the only sensation left is a jagged roughness, and calm.

The wind whips at her magnificent half coat and sets the intricate braid of her hair lashing with the same intensity as her tail. It pulls the heat from her body and slams the driving rain against her body like a trillion tiny arrows. Each of them nothing, but together a torrent of icy stabs that numb the body and dull her wits. The air is full of salt and blood and the special burning tang of ozone; just to breathe it is to taste it, and to taste it is to struggle. The wind howls and pushes the brine down her throat against the pace of her own breathing, choking her with the very air she fills her lungs with.

Lightning flashes all about her, and the thunder roars after with a booming voice so loud she could not say if she is listening to the storm or the beast. The light is blinding, but it is the only thing to see by. The sound is heavy, and together with the storm it tries to press her to her knees.

Mosaic stands straight and unbroken against it all. The pounding of her heart means nothing except that she is alive. She is alive, and if that is true it must be for a reason. The burning salt on her skin, the weight of her soaking clothes, the sticking of her sodden fur are only proof of the adrenaline coursing through her veins.

This is not fear. This is excitement. She flips over the railing to perch atop the prow. Atop her head, a crown flashes like starlight in the darkness. She is the beacon that her ship may steer by, even if the only place for it to go is down. Into the depths of the storm, but not alone!

Her claws itch where they meet her fingertips. Her fingers curl into fists, squeeze, and relax again on a loop for want of something to hold in them. Her kingdom for a sword, a spear, for anything but the gifts the gods have given her instead. For a hero to fight a monster, a tool is required. And yet.

Her lips pull against the wind into a grim smile. All about her the gale swirls and her clothing billows dramatically even despite how heavy the rain has made it. She watches the water for signs of white foam that mean rocks and coral and bits of other less fortunate ships have left footholds for a crossing. From step to step they lead on, tethered together by silver thread that sets her spine tingling. Thrill. This is not fear, this is excitement.

Leviathan is not a large enough word for this colossal fish swimming in front of her. All the infinite sea she has traveled across for what feels like half her life would not be enough to swallow it. No planet, as much as the word has any meaning to her, could be enough to even slow it down. The earth must break against its scales and the seas must part in deference to its gravity. Its teeth shimmer like prisms. Rainbows that scythe through cities in a single, swift bite. Its eye larger than her ship, its gaze vast enough to track the movement of the stars and yet so focused that she knows without asking that it has spotted her, specifically.

She tosses her head back, and she laughs. Mosaic laughs against the howling of the wind, against the shattering of the thunder, against the roiling of the sea that smashes hundred foot waves against her overmatched ship. She laughs like a madwoman, like a girl possessed, and yet it is a clarion call. It is the sound of bravery that lifts up the hearts that listen to it. It is a bark of defiance, screaming to Zeus and Poseidon and Hades alike that they are not the dead, these few, no matter your rage.

"This is a test!" she cries, "And if it's our last or our first then what's it matter?! It's nothing more than a trial, and those are only given to be overcome! Are you watching, O Gods? We are coming through! We will match our might against you will, and if it please you we are crossing! I have not come this far to turn aside now! I have not brought this many with me to lose them now! I, Mosaic, offer my name to this storm as the proof of our convictions! Take it! And show us what lies beyond the end of everything!"

Her tail twitches. Her muscles coil, ready for a pounce. Her tongue laps at her fangs, and finds them sharp enough to match an Eater of Worlds.

If there is any meaning to the blue in her hair, let it prove itself now. If there is any meaning to the stories others have told her about herself, let them bear fruit now. If she is right, if her heart is true, if she is in face any kind of princess at all (even of a broken and mismatched house, of a patchwork people with nothing else to unite them), then let her show her colors here, or never again.

Because here in front of her, at last, is a vessel worthy of crossing the spaces that no other vehicle thus far has been equal to. Here is a creature that can bear them past the end of everything and into whatever wonders that lie beyond.

All she has to do is conquer it.
As if in answer to the guess, the Gods-Smiting Whip meets the Ginger Tiger's charge with bristling aggression. The spear drops to the floor. Kiriala takes a knee. Four floating tails find her neck with tips flaring up threatening lethal energy release. Two more mounted on the arms join the display with plasma blades peeling more and more paint off with every dangerous spark.

No blow falls. There is no blast of laser fire shredding apart a naive opponent in her moment of vulnerability. There is no vengeful gouging of claws or sudden motion to rip a crystal fire drive straight out of the chassis of the mecha it's powering. She holds the pose, but it is all threat and response to threat, no action. No definitive bite.

In other words, a confirmation.

"This match is... a loss." says Mirror.

Tails Three, Four, Five, and Six snap back to their neutral floating positions, and the blades created by Mirror's secret technique retract into the dangerously over-hot Tails One and Two. They detach shortly thereafter and join their sisters in a halo about the Gods-Smiting Whip. The finger's on the mech's right hand curl and tilt upward, lifting the Ginger Tiger's head with the index and middle digits.

"I gave too much away. Patronizing. Apologies. But you reached the center of my first riddle and found one of my conditions admirably. More accurate: half found it. I was also protecting the arena this entire time. Did you notice the difference in my combat technique relative to past matches? I could much more easily preserve this frame by vaporizing yours. But. This field deserves to be napped in. I have kept it suitable for such. That is all."

She smiles as she lifts Kiriala back on her feet. It's a sad expression that doesn't reach her liquid eyes, more wistful than amused. Wasted opportunities, over-simplified play. Over direct. One two three, four five six. It affected her thinking after all. Poor strategy and tactics, simple marching in a straight line toward the goal. Even in the tallest grasses only an idiot would fail to track her movement.

Solarel would... Solarel would have failed this challenge. But she would have done it while cutting Mirror in half. Which thought makes her feel worse?

"My second condition, you have not named. Nonetheless you have defeated it. The match is over and I have not triggered it. Not come close. Disaster. Disaster. Absolute misplay. Equivalent of health investment, absolute disgust. Thusly you are victorious. I will request this match be officially recorded as a draw. And I will take you into my service, but in honor of your wishes. Not mine.

"In the time that is given to me I will... show you. The difference between a Hunter and a Fisher. The way star charts map new paths if you but name them differently. I will. Show you. How something can be. Forbidden. Without, without, without... without needing to declare it. I will teach you how far I have fallen.

"But. My token of knighthood. My. Chivalry. To my new squire. I will. Choose. To believe I am already saved. I thank you. From the bottom of my heart."
Water in and of itself is clearer than crystal. A glass in a person's hands or a basin to wash those same hands in might as well be nothing more than invisible, sloshing veil between the space that mortals are doomed to occupy and the divine. It is pure and perfect; the only things that can be seen are what is given to the water to show.

That small basin feels ordinary to look upon. Plain and more than a little bit boring. For all its striking clarity, the water merely sits there, waiting. It pools into the curvature, taking the shape with the same gracious acceptance as it takes mineral impurities, content for all time to accept, accept, accept, and never to reach.

But the water is always taking. And the more it takes, the more it shows. When the basin overflows into a pool it becomes a mirror like no other: the rippling surface will take a person's face and show it back to them though in the same breath it permits their eyes to look straight through themselves and into the silty surface this water has accepted as its new resting place.

The more water pools, the greater its power. More water accepts more. Never takes for itself, even in infinite amounts, but invincible in its humility. The pool accepts the warmth beating down from on high, this gift from the sun that could drop a mortal woman to her knees if she tried to accept it in the same way that water would. The pool simply warms. When it has accepted the sun's warmth beyond its limits, it simply accepts a new form, lifts away, and allows itself to be gathered elsewhere.

It falls as rain. It falls upon the sea. And at last can human eyes behold the true and terrifying power of humble acceptance. That which is offered freely is enough to transform a body completely. The impossible heat and majesty of the sun dwindles to nothing inside the body of the never ending ocean. What heat there is gets absorbed so deeply that a hand brave enough to plunge into it would freeze before long. Now there is no gift great enough to satisfy it, and yet it does not ask for more.

Here the choppy waves are crested with white. And here the unfathomable reaches of the water have turned from mirrored crystal to the deepest and most impossible blue that could ever be beheld. Gems pale in comparison. The skies quiver with jealousy. Only the sea may accept enough light to give back a color this pure, this entrancing, this... beautiful.

The color, she notices, reminds her of her own hair. It is of course much bolder and brighter here, reflected back at her and yet no matter how her mind turns away from the comparison she is drawn straight back to it again. The sea is not like her hair, but her hair is like the sea. And that is something. Vesper may have known what she was talking about after all. She peers over the deck and her own pristine face and fluttering hair shine back at her as they race ahead of the ship's wake. Her reflection smiles.

She breathes, and the air is salt. She breathes, and the air is sweet. She turns and walks away from the glittering, frozen, impossible blue and returns her attentions to the decks. There is so much work to be done to keep this thing afloat and moving forward. Briny air fills her lungs and is expelled as breath in the form of orders. She directs, much as she has ever done, to keep the work flowing as evenly as the seas beneath their feet. It is not entitlement that compels her; in fact her own hands and eyes are busier than anyone's. There is simply work to be done, and she has sight enough to follow the path to doing it.

Mosaic stands beneath the mask. She is alone and yet...

She is surrounded by beauty. This ship, her Argo. The sea rushes beneath her, and in front of her, behind and to every side deep past the horizon without ever breaking or offering a sight to navigate by. All around her is breath, is laughter, is singing, is storytelling, is calls to supper, is questions, is an offer of an embrace, is promises.

Is love.
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