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3 yrs ago
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The aesthetic is all wrong.

Rain is supposed to be heavier than this. It should smell cleaner, full of... dust washing away and a clean wet feeling that promises purity. It should be unbearably tense, permeated with the threat of ozone, lightning, thunder, and above all the din of battle. Rain is a thing beloved of Zeus, and a place for battle and omens. It's where blood washes away as fast as you can spill it, so there's no way for it to choke her. But this is musty, city-rain. A thing so absurd it shouldn't even conjure an image. The gentle trickle is too even; it should be a downpour that demands everyone fight just to stand on their feet underneath it. It spatters on a windowpane and runs like the fountain it actually is, carrying with it faint traces of brine dragged up from the depths of the ship where the Tides overwhelm everything around them.

The neon should be loud. The buzzing should be unbearable, insectoid, insistently pressing until she is obliged to to cut it from her senses. The lights should be bright and gaudy and difficult to look at. Neon is a precursor to pain and abandonment, a weapons system the architecture of war wears as a dress. Harsh. Uninviting. Dangerous. This is... soft. Weak. It hums, but barely. The vibrations are even almost tantalizing. The little flicker and the pop when they struggle to keep shining through the power fluctuations is actually charming. The lights are soft but colorful in a way that simply shouldn't be allowed. Not enough light to see by, not anymore than could be seen in the dark. Certainly not in this "rain". Only enough to mark a presence that by all rights should be fighting to keep itself hidden.

The smell of cigarettes is also wrong. Because that surely, even if everything else about the wrongness of this place was simply a matter of caked on biases...the smell of a cigarette is supposed to be an unholy, rotting thing. It is death itself. Bones and flames and dirt wrapped inside a perfume of drunken spice that only serves to make each each breath of it more perverse than if it had been the naked intention and nothing else. But this... while noxious in its own right, face curling, carries only the tang of burning leaves. Death of a different sort, then. None of the horror of Hades nor of Aphrodite, but simply a toy to be puffed out into the air as if it aided the narration.

The sights and the smells of this place. All wrong. But the girl... the girl was just right.

Beautiful moves exactly the same as before. The intensity and lust for life of a creature who knows on an instinctual level she is never afforded much time to enjoy it, as fluid as if she could predict the flow of time and as jerky and erratic as if the burdens of perceptions cast too wide for the eye to follow had swallowed up her capacity to focus on silly things like walking. At every moment she seems at once untouchable and as though she is going to walk straight into a wall in the same moment. The promise of death, but wrapped up in paper that would tear with the barest provocation. She invokes a need to stay away and a need to protect her at all costs with every flick of her wrists and roll of her shoulders.

That perfect, golden hair that begs to be braided like royalty. Even if its owner has forgotten she should ask for it. Did ask for it. Those violet eyes... as deep as the universe and more precious than gemstones. The glimmer of genius inside of them makes them come alive that in Bella's opinion they are the envy of starlight itself. This is what stole her breath away the first time. What made her call the Ikarani Beautiful in the first place.

For five days, they'd danced. For five days, they'd spoken, less and less each time. Taking more and more from the exchanges. For five days they'd understood one another. For five days they had been best friends. Perhaps that was only possible because they both knew it couldn't last. The smile on her face says it could be again. The strut in her step says it might be better not to. The sparkle in her eye says but wouldn't it be wonderful? The theatrics of the smoke say that things will always be different now. That they should be. It's right for things to change between them.

A preview of the Lethe, then. At least in small doses. The things that might survive, and the ways someone could be completely different for all of the many ways they're still the same. Bella shivers when she's touched, and says nothing. Memories of stories and crab rangoon drip as insistently as the too-even "rain" outside the makeshift office. She brushes her palm up and down the length of her arm, feeling the softness of her own fur as a substitute for sliding back into the itch and habits her claws demanded from her.

She glances toward Redana for a moment. Even forgets to look stern or severe. They really... the pair of them truly are so very much alike. Bella sighs, and looks away again.

"Last time it was me asking you that question. I guess you don't remember it. But then again, I stuck you pretty hard with that vial. Your idea, by the way. You were very full of stupid, batshit, suicidal... fucking brilliant ideas. It was all Beljani and I could do to keep up. Do you remember at all? Even shadows? You had a bunch of those before, at least.

"You said that... you couldn't be given a name. Something about it needing to be derived from context. So I guess it's whatever the fuck makes sense to you. Doesn't matter what I say. But even so, I still. Still... think that you're Beautiful."
There is. A lot. That could. Be said.

There is. A lot. That should. Not. Be said.

No change of expression registers on her face as Mira accepts the furstick. She does offer a deep, sweeping bow that very nearly causes her to spill out of her suit. Is that an unfortunate coincidence attached to a gesture of thanks? Is it meant to be teasing? Flaunting? If so, for which pair of eyes? Or, is she simply testing Seven Quetzal's sincerity? When she lifts out of her pose, her movement is as graceful and fluid as her eyes. There's a frown fighting with a smirk on her lips. And she turns away.

She tosses the furstick up into the air above her, not bother to watch it twirling through the air. It could land anywhere. She could let it fall or hand it back. But she catches it with a deft swipe of her hand as she walks away. She lifts that same hand to wave over her shoulder as she goes, twirling the stick between her fingers.

"Whispered Promise," she calls out without turning her head. Her voice is high and clear to be heard over the din of mealtime, "You have a right to that much, Seven Quetzal."

Because, indeed, she was right. This is not difficult information to acquire. And yet, it is better to be handed the information than to be forced to take it for yourself. A trade of star names, between cultures. And maybe, just maybe, this second name would shake some memory of a news article loose in that sweet little brain. Maybe it would draw a real reaction out of Smokeless Jade Fires, when the goddess had done such an admirable job to this point of keeping her presence... ah, "hidden". Maintaining the veil of propriety, at any rate. But if it manages anything, it is not immediate. And Mira does not wait around to see.

There is. A lot. That could. Be said.
There is. A lot. That should. Not. Be said.

Touch up her spots. Of all the things she could have suggested. She picked the one that. Well. She picked. The element. She'd assumed they'd have in common. After all, it is not as if this girl kept beauty products on hand in the off chance she met another cat who needed them. Unreasonable assumption. Too rare a brand. Too... nngh. But still. But still. As if it wasn't the first thing she tried. As if she hadn't practiced with 'touching up her spots' every day until she had become a professional in the art. As if that hadn't been the thing that had pushed her into fashion in the first place. And as if. As if any brand or style or degree of expertise had been enough to cover her disfiguration.

The mistake, in fact, had been trying to cover it up at all. The better she got at hiding it the more the stares and muttered comments followed her, and the nastier they became. One thing to be ugly. Another thing entirely to dare to fix it. She'd had her eyes treated as a response to that feedback. That, of course, made her even more controversial. Not universally despised. Merely a magnet for strong opinions. Far worse. Unignorable. An enigma. Mysterious. Controversial. Poison.

And if beauty. If beauty. Were measured. By the heart, then... yes. Inevitable conclusion. For an insatiable heart. Like hers. That demands so much. And gives so little. That forms such tangled nets. Such knotted nests. And wanders away. Expecting things to stay in stasis. Until she is no longer bored. She is. If anything. Isn't she? The things she does. Make her. Far uglier on the inside.

She could be insulted. Should be insulted. Or at least hurt. There are. Many things. That could. Be said. And yet. She does not say them. Thoughts swirl inside her mind and do not find the necessary purchase to complete. She casts them off into the void, these imperfect creatures.

Because. Her heart is swelling. Because. As she walks away. She is on the verge of real tears. Because. This Seven Quetzal. Mainlander though she is. Responded to her testing and her teasing. By opening herself up and reaching out for Mirror. To blindly touch this thorny heart. Her smile was something. Truly incredible. Beauty enough to spark no lust. No curiosity, in fact. And yet. To make her feel the attempt. Instead of the impossibility of her success. Language. The spark of someone who might speak to her. Who did speak to her.

The numbers flit through her head. Lock in place. It was good she stuck around that extra moment. Good that the silly girl lifted her breasts. Ha. In solidarity. It was good that she turned in place. The way she had. All of it was good. Because Mirror had her measurements. Enough to compare them against official biometrics. Video data.

In fact. In actual fact. Mayze Szerpaws had four dresses on commission. Time would tell where inspiration went.
"You're asking...? Uhhhhh, hmm. It's? Probably fine? Is that what you?"

Beljani has no idea what to do with her hands. Is she allowed to touch a princess? Is that a sin? Is that something you do when you comfort people? Maybe a shoulder pat or a... oh no, no no no, she doesn't know this girl well enough for a hug! What is she thinking? Gods, this is so not fair. This is, like, you could not have made her live a life that would have left her less prepared to handle the whole 'comfort and support' thing. She didn't even have her letter writer with her!

What a... man. This would be so much easier if she just spread into Redana. You know, a little. To give her a nudge. But that's... bad. That's a bad thing to do. It is bad to infect the girl your sister has been openly pining for with your pheromones right in front of her. Behind her. Whatever! She attempts the next best thing which is... reaching out and shaking Redana's hand? Ugh, kill her now, please. No wait, no no, don't!

Cringe. Cringe, cringe, cringe. Beljani sighs.

"Ok, can I be honest? I don't really know a lot about how the temples work, either. You know, when we were- when Bella, and Mynx, and Beautiful and I were kids, there were... more of us, right? We had teachers, almost. But then they got marched off on some sort of mission and just never came home again and it. Uh. It was just us. And Mother. And, you know, she's got that whole garden philosophy thing going on and, let me just say, understanding the ins and outs of how we actually work? Not a priority for her. Wasted education. Gotta... trim those leaves, so they only grow in the 'proper' direction."

She shudders, in spite of herself. Come on, 'Jani. Mother's gone now, you even found your in with Bella. You are supposed to be becoming the universe's coolest wingman right now, why are you getting flustered by the memory of someone who's out of your life forever? Because she was in your life forever, duh. Ugh, why was it so hard to know what to say? If they were going to call her an 'Oratus' couldn't they at least have taught her some basic public speaking skills?

She pinches her cheek. Not hard, mind you. Nothing about her life since Sahar has made her fall in love with pain. Just... a little thing. To remind herself that it's there. That she's there. And who all in this big empty stupid hallway she had to thank for that.

"Do I think Bella will ever forgive you? Dunno if that's even relevant. You're not... you're not the one she's having problems forgiving. If you think it sounds bad being a bioweapon just imagine being her. Nobody even told her what she was until it was too late to do anything with that information. I don't know if Mother erased it or just disguised it all or what, but she put a lot of work into Bella that she didn't bother with for the rest of us. But that kind of effort comes with... expectations."

A sigh. This feels like the sixth best version of an explanation that seemed to be taking her all day to give while still leaving out two thirds of the best or most useful information. But she couldn't stop talking. As stupid as the words were, there wasn't anybody else around to save them. And honestly, gods be damned? If she was committed to plunging through a bathtub full of Beautiful's forgetfulness potion and turning into goo on the other side? She'd at least walk into that last goodnight knowing her tongue had accomplished one good deed in the galaxy. Her tongue. Not her virus. Her.

"If you think Bella sounds like two people to you, I think... we all agree. I don't know how many people Bella thinks she is, or thinks she has to be I guess, to keep everything going, I just know she expects every single one of them to be flawless at all times. It's not a great way to be. I mean, I wasn't there but, I... heard. That she killed Mynx on the battlefield, while she was Trēdecima. Or at least, she tried to. And that'd be bad enough, but she did it thinking it was you the whole time. That's a lot, right? You think so too, right?

Just... I don't know. All I can really tell you is that Bella and I are family. We both agreed and that makes it true and I dare you to tell me otherwise. So I'm... I'm with her, until I can't follow her any further. And she's with me, until we run into the same wall. And we were, honestly, horrible people to each other before this, so... no. I don't, I don't know.

She... just. The way she chased after you. The way she dragged the rest of us into it. It was not just a job to her, even though jobs are basically supposed to be all she has. I don't know what to tell you, Princess. I just don't. I feel like... I mean, well, I wrote her a really nice letter, that seemed to work pretty nice. You want me to hook you up? Might as well, right? Not like we've got time to hesitate anymore, right right?"

Beljani does her best to smile bravely. She definitely succeeds at smiling, but whatever kind of smile it is she is much too nervous to figure it out for herself.
"Ah. Hm. You know? It is..."

The smile flickers on Mira's face, on off, on off, on off, on. The complexity of the thought wars openly with her amusement at being put in this situation. And it is a complex thought. Has this squeaking priestess already pulled the mask off her persona without ever having even met her? What does the compliment imply? Perhaps her wearing of the dress was more praiseworthy than the dress itself. Perhaps she simply has nothing else to praise.

It's normal for mainlanders not to know who she is. Mira is a relatively common Fisher name, even if her armor should be famous in its own right. Well. It's a blessing and a curse. Easier to keep opponents off kilter when they don't know her history. Her entire arena strategy functions off the assumption of anonymity. And yet. The difference between a pilot and a model. Why was it that so many compliments people paid her were coded as insults? It's a worthy mystery. Perhaps she needs more training. Perhaps she needs a better, less dysfunctional mind.

"Rare, to be paid a compliment as a model. Unexpected. After all, I'm not the mind behind the dress. You are a sweet little sunspot to skip complimenting the dress just to make the butt that filled it feel a little better, aren't you? Ms. Szerpaws designed it specifically to highlight my... deformities, did you notice? And not just my spots, the structure of my ribs, as well. And can you see with this stupid suit on? My breasts are misaligned. Misshapen as well. Ah, you do see. What do you think? I'm much less attractive on person than I was on the runway, aren't I? I see it in your eyes, you want to go back to your Terenian. That's all right, I'm not insulted. Thank you. For... letting me feel attractive for a moment. Sincerely."

Her smile is not mixed this time. It is glinting with hard edges, while her eyes stare holes straight through the priestess. So this is the game they were playing? She can feel the youth permeating the aura of Smokeless Jade Fires. They really thought they were being subtle, didn't they? The pair of them. They're as ridiculous as they are clever, and their limitations only serve to make their power more apparent. Is that really how she does it? Total sensory perception without full contact. A hidden fantasy that's meant to be invisible to anyone without the password.

Well. It is at least invisible to anyone who isn't looking. But to have this darling, inexperienced thing march straight over here in direct contrast to the invitation, and to her own spoken intent and explanation, and then to become so distracted? Smokeless Jade Fires must really think that Mira is an idiot. Or... no, that's not quite it.

She's dealt with vanishingly few pilots before. This goddess, she won't be used to anticipating the observational patterns of someone both used to rapid, minute, detailed observations who is not already directly under her thumb. Or, perhaps more accurately, bound by her collar. She would have a cult, of course. There were enough Hybrasilians with ties to the old religions to take the advent of a new goddess seriously enough to worship her. Even if her manifestation was unorthodox. An expanded Pattern, perhaps? Could also have been a Crystal Fire manifestation or... no. Irrelevant to the present topic. Regardless. She had worshippers, and she clearly had her priestess and even the other little huntress presently cooing over the trussed up sacrifice on the table over yonder. These people, Smokeless Jade Fires barely needed to stretch herself to wrap them up completely.

And yet. The total need for control. The immediate response to a threat above and beyond the terms that threat had stated. The inability to let her priestess control the conversation. Presentation, according to aesthetic. Aesthetic, still identifying itself. Concerned chiefly about erasure. Confidence projected as a defense mechanism. Insecurity, defined by inexperience. Pressure, amplified by duty. Familiar.

She would learn the art of a softer touch, in time. Sooner rather than later if she had a proper teacher. Was it presumptuous to think a goddess needed a Mirror? Perhaps. But it's more fun to think about how much she could snatch from this goddess while posing as her reflection. Treasure, opportunity, respect, power. Information, more valuable by half than all the rest put together.

Mira shrugs.

"It's a shame about your goddess, though. If only I had been enough to catch her eye I'm sure I could have avoided this... misinterpretation. Alas, this is the fate of unworthy, ugly creatures such as myself. When you commune with her next, tell her. Mmm. No, you had best not. But I will tell you, as a secret between us girls: I will not fight your goddess as I am. It would not end well."

She smiles with a supreme confidence that reaches the depths of the waterfalls inside her eyes. In this tiny instant, she is a being of power. Real and terrifying power, the kind that would name her mecha something like the Gods-Smiting Whip even before she thought to test herself against the Gods of Zaldar when they came for her home. Confidence like a creature who would swallow a star the second its back was turned. And not because she thought she could, but because she had once before, already.

"But~! I am in the process of forging chains to bind my Nine-Tails. And while my armor is sufficiently bound and all of its primary weapon systems are functionally offline? I think that would be enough of a handicap that I wouldn't mind testing myself against Smokeless Jade Fires. But I-- oh, sorry. I'm keeping you from dinner. That's the one thing I explicitly did not want to do. That's why I was waiting for, no no, go on. Thank you again for the wonderful compliment. If I see Ms. Szerpaws again I will tell her what you said. I think she'll take it as an even greater praise than me. Your heart is like a treasure bright enough to be the inviting glimmer at the bottom of a lake. Goodbye. I hope we meet again, and if we do I hope this time I'll earn your name."

Mira rises from her seat and takes the priestess by her hands before there's time for any replies. She places a long, soft, lingering kiss straight on that glove she's wearing, before releasing her to her own devices.
"Hey woah woah woah, hold up hold up!"

Bella is silent and unmoving. She is staring at her hands where Redana touched her, and can't look away even for a wish from a god. The intensity in her eyes carves lines into her face, and she makes no indication that she even heard the voice that suddenly echoes through the hallway. It certainly doesn't belong to her. She wipes her bloody palms on the hem of her dress as carefully as if she was braiding her princess' hair.

"I said hold up!" Beljani says, "Don't you go running away just yet, Princess!"

She's spitting sparks. Beljani half-jog, half-stalks her way up from behind Bella, taking a second to squeeze her sister's shoulders as she passes. She doesn't puff or gasp for air, she's in much too good of shape for that now. But even so, her breaths are loud and greedy. She needs them to shout. She is confident, and aggrieved, in the way of someone who has finally managed to express herself a single time and now is much too certain she has mastered the art completely.

"You said you had how many bodyguards? Excuse me?? One? Two?! Put some gosh darned respect on my name, Your Highness!"

She gets squeakier the closer she gets. Her arms wave above her head for want of something to do with all the energy surging through her body, as genuine hurt, bratty indulgence, and clever insight play across her face in almost exactly equal measure. She doesn't seem to trust her hands enough to actually grab hold of Redana, but she's got confidence to spare to cut in front of her and bar her way, at least for a moment.

"You really have no idea, do you? How dangerous a life you've been living? Just Mynx! Just Bella! Oh Artemis, save me from sillyheads! Listen here you little dummy, you can't throw a rock on Tellus without hitting someone who wants you dead! Oh, uh, not because you did anything wrong, understand? It's your mom. Erm, your mother. Her Most Regal Imperial Majesty Nero. Put as many pretty smiles as you want on it, give out all the sweet treats you can find, but how many people have you found on your adventure who love their jailor?

I'll give you a hint in case you didn't run into any, I honestly have no idea what you've been up to. But... yeah. Take a look at what happened to Mother. Mine, and Mynx's, and Bella's. Beautiful's. Sa... nnno I can't say it out loud. I thought writing it was gonna kill me. Sorry, I-- but you know who I mean! Didn't work out for her so hot, did it? And she was way better at, erm, I mean, she had a lot fewer people to control than Nero!"

Embarrassment starts to creep into her voice and her posture. Beljani self rubs her arm in a self conscious way, and looks back toward where Bella is standing, as if salvation could be found inside her sister. But all she does is stroke the palms of her hands with her fingertips until they finally stop coming away red. Beljani sighs.

"The... the point is, pretty much anybody you can name has you on their kill or kidnap list. Are you kidding me? Nero's 'pwecious widdle baby?' Honey, she couldn't buy you enough guards if she tried. And she did! I mean like, did you think the Temple was gonna waste rookies like us on the tiny handful of missions that took anybody off planet? Ok yes Beautiful did plenty, but she's the exception. The rest of us were glued to you! Who do you think kept you safe when Bella was too busy crying about being such a disaster that she couldn't show you her painting or whatever it was? Me! Who kept you safe when she and Mynx knocked each other out in training? Me!! Who... look, I don't wanna go on about this all day[1] but I saved your glorious little behind at least three times that I can count! I worked overtime for you! I got out of bed for you! And I'm not in love with you like Bella is! We're not even friends! I should get a fuh- a ffffffreaking medal for all I've done! And what do I get instead? 'oH, I DiDn'T KnoW I hAD mOrE tHaN oNE bOdYGuArD!' Bah! So if you're gonna... if you're gonna just run away the least you could do is apologize first! Sheesh!"


"Gah! Moonlight and oaths, Bella, when did you-- don't do that! Warn a girl when you're gonna un-coma, please!"

"...I know what you're trying to do."

"What I'm trying to? O-oh yeah? Well what am I trying to do then, Miss Smartypants?"

"It's not going to work. Let's just follow. We've wasted too much time as it is."

"Bella? S-sister, you're... giving up? That's not, no! That's not like you! Just look at how far you've--"

"I asked her. To her face. And all she said to me is that she wanted to talk to Beautiful. I don't know when they would have met, but... I have my answer."


"Enough. I don't care. If they're safe, that's plenty. It's more than I deserve."

[1]The single most obvious and bald-faced lie in the history of Empire
There is always time to pet a cat. Just a minor bit of indulgence, and really not even that. Her people need bonds like this, the give and the take. The soft touch and the hard carry, is how her mother once described it. Matty's purrs, and the weight of her body on Mirror's lap are deep therapy. They smooth out the pathways of her thoughts, make following ideas and feelings and plans a simpler process on a day like this where her heart wants everything to be an unsolvable knot of tension and confusion. Her claws slide down the length of Matty's spine and play with the spot just below the base of her tail.

When the world was young (the story goes) and cats had only just discovered they had claws, the bloody-fanged Goddesses of the Hunt sprung up from the sea, from the ground, out of fires, and down from the skies. The precise nature of these goddesses is a riddle with many answers, depending who you ask. They might have been great cats formed from the primal elements of the universe, or they might have been machines from some great precursor society. They might even have been a plague that floated in from some other planet to nest in some unlucky few; granting them power and wisdom in exchange for devouring their minds and personalities. There are many theories, but all came later. The ancient cats of Hybrasil only knew that that these were goddesses, and that they were beautiful and dangerous. These goddesses saw that the children of Hybrasil lusted in their hearts for violence and glory, and said that this was good. They taught cats the secrets of the ways of the spear and the net and told them to conquer the world around them.

The fury and vibrancy of the goddesses lifted cats toward supremacy. They fought the stones on the ground, and split them into pieces they could arrange into grand temples rising up out of the mountains or the forests to better catch the goddess' eyes. They fought the great beasts that roamed the planet, killed them and ate their flesh to become mighty. They trapped the rivers to steal their power, and turned it toward the earliest concepts of industry. And the goddesses smiled, for this pleased them greatly, and descended once again to demand the payment they were due.

The Huntresses quavered with fear, but they were devout before a community, and they turned their blessings on each other. The goddesses demanded tribute, and Hybrasilian blood ran down the steps of the temples in reply. But how not to be chosen? Now, this is a legend, and depending on how you count the star charts you might have heard it differently, but here is one telling: the avoid selection, one had to make themselves indispensable. However names were drawn and hearts were crushed, whatever will drove these decisions, it never happened to the best and most prolific Huntresses. Those who hunted the mightiest beasts and came back alive also kept their lives thereafter, always. And what else would this have lit in the hearts of young catkind but competition? Greed, some might say.

It was the tendency thereafter for cats to be solitary creatures by nature. Their tools and skills were up to the task, so why share? Why want company? There was the kill, and by making the kill you saw the next turning of the moons. Jealousy rose in the heart of every cat, and they split farther and farther apart. Temples fell to ruin from lack of interest in the skills needed to maintain them, for even the priestesses were roaming to hunt. The rivers broke free again, and flooded places long since turned to other purposes. Forests fell and species died off in their dozens. Fires burned across the lodges of Hybrasil, and the goddesses saw this and were not pleased at all.

Who, exactly, among them had courage and wisdom enough to demand the first bride is an accounting left to experts. It hardly matters so far as this story is concerned. Because when the goddesses began to seek sacrifices to woo instead of eat, ears around the planet perked up from their hiding places in the reeds and the grasses. Up on the mountains and down by the lakes, cats gathered and dreamed of being brought up to live in the harems the goddesses were building. Their bloody deities one by one washed their mouths and turned to their people and said:

I love your fangs. I love your claws and the way you move when you spot the potential for the kill. I love your muscles and your power and your skill, and these will always please me. But more still, I love the softness of your fur. I love the warmth of your bodies and I love the sweetness of your voices. Harden your spears, but soften your hearts and train forevermore in the arts of the veil and the bath, and in this way you shall have my blessings always. Divine intervention had lit the fires of war and creativity in the Cats of Hybrasil. And now divine intervention had awakened in this same people a deep love of grooming and a desire to hold and be held by their peers. Cities grew again, and cats taught themselves to live in harmony with the world around them, though they never quite lost their taste for power and the finer things it could bring them.

So it was, and so it went, and entire lodges were held together through the sharpest disagreements almost entirely off the back of this single instinct, whether planted in their hearts by a divine will or no. Amusing, to be thinking in these terms now, all of a sudden. To be dreaming of goddesses on the day she was called one for the first time. Funny to even want justification for the desires of her heart. It's not something Mirror normally bothered with or worried about. But this, she supposes, is a day for vulnerability and revelation. Maybe, then, it's normal to worry that she shouldn't want to feel so full from this behavior she has never let herself participate in ever since she grew too large to fit comfortably in her mother's lap. Not as the soft one, or the hard. Neither bride nor goddess. But maybe... but maybe...

Hm. A Sacrifical Bride's gown. Now that would be a fun piece to draw. Oh, she needed to write this down, to hold onto it long enough to find the time to sketch it out. Busy, busy, busy. And from that thought flits another: how to explain to her crew what had happened tonight? She had only left to get information, so far as they knew. And only minutes after giving them that information, she had betrayed them. She'd given away secrets she'd sworn them all to secrecy about. This... could not be a memo. But from her own lips? There were too many ways to tell the story. And besides, to this point, she had nothing to bring back but orders. She was not finished working tonight, not by half. Hm. Hmm.

Slowly, Mirror straightens her legs until they form a ramp. She loosens her grip on Matty, and lets gravity take over. A few more soft touches and, yes, there you go little darling, back on your feet. She's gentle about it. Careful to guide the technician back onto her shaky feet, and hold her there until her brain starts to turn back into a solid.

"And now our time tonight is over," she says through soft purrs and whispers, "I have work to do tonight. And in fact, I believe, so do you. But we're not done with each other, are we?"


"That's right cutie, no we are not. In fact, I have a special task for you, when your shift here is ended. Go to the hangar at these coordinates, and announce yourself loudly so the crew can hear you coming. Wear a bell, if you have one. You are to find Slate, can you do that? Find Slate and tell her that you are in her care while I am not around. Tell her who you are and what you're there to do. Tell her who you are to me. Tell her anything you like, on that front. And then let her rage. Do not let her chase you away, but stand quietly in the storm. It is her right to be angry. You are to be one part of my apology. So when she calms down again, obey her. I will be back in the night to see if things are well, and you may decide then if this is a life you want or not. Can you manage all that?"

It's difficult for Matty to speak, still. And difficult for her to even nod with her cheeks all squished in Mirror's hands. But she manages a silly smile and pushes her face forward so Mirror's hands can feel her consent. Her reward is a tender kiss on the middle of her forehead.

"Good girl~"


Smokeless Jade Fires? Well, it certainly didn't take long at all to find a suitable prey to hunt now did it? The goddess, Smokeless Jade Fires. The first new goddess of Hybrasil to rise in... well. Who could say how long? The goddess that claims to inhabit her own mecha frame. The goddess who claims not to need a pilot. Who, rumors say, can inhabit any space she pleases, cross any boundary that she wants, manifest in any form whatsoever if it pleases her to do so.

Ha! There's a lot that could be said about all of that, now isn't there? Is that her priestess? Her, hmhmhmhm, bride~? Hahahaha! It brings a twisted grin to Mirror's lips. Certainly, this is a being she might be able to consider a peer. Certainly this is something to test her teeth on. And most importantly, Smokeless Jade Fires represents another expert voice to ask about infiltrating places that should not be possible to infiltrate. Even if she's not forthcoming, there are secrets that could be... mmmm, pried out? She licks her lips and slips through the crowd after the procession, into the grand hall.

Her promise to eat dinner falls forgotten from her mind.

"The stars send their greetings, Honored Priestess. Congratulations on your hunt, was this... creature a worthy hunt? Or are you mainlanders as bored out of your skulls as you look?"

Dolly, there's a cat at your table. On your table, actually. A tall, snowy creature in an all-black neural mesh suit that has been... aggressively unzipped down to her belly button. She's apparently trusting to her curves to keep the clingy material on enough to keep her from getting kicked out of these public, mixed-species zones. She squishes Angela's face between her fingers and turns her head from side to side with curiosity openly etched onto the features of her face, even if it doesn't reach all the way to those cold, watery eyes of hers.

A moment later she hops down off the table and dips into a wide, sweeping bow. You would be forgiven for not recognizing her, under the circumstances. She probably doesn't seem quite like the shy, drunk girl who must have been working with Mayze Szerpaws on that wonderful dress. But that's exactly who she is, and that's exactly who is leaning forward to share the full glory of her body for a saucer-eyes Ksharta Talonna right now. Her tail flicks with mischief behind her, and her smile is full of teeth.

"Don't worry, I'm not here to interrupt your, ah, meal. Lucky girl that she is. I simply could not help but overhear you outside. And I was wondering, hnnn, who should I be addressing, exactly? Which one of you little cuties is in charge here? Speak up, if you please, I would like to know the price for a conversation with your goddess? Oh, I am interrupting something, sorry. Go ahead, finish up. Talk amongst yourselves, kittens. Enjoy your night. When you're finished, Mira of the Gods-Smiting Whip will be waiting right over there~"

And with a swish of her hips, Mirror turns in such a way to hit all three of you in the face with her long, bushy tail, and saunters off to find an empty table of her own.

Bella comes to a sudden stop in front of Redana, so stiff and so sudden that there's no avoiding a collision. The Princess bounces off her back, and only doesn't fall backwards because Bella spins around and catches her by the wrist. Her grip is crushing. Her fingers are turned carefully toward the ceiling to keep her claws away from Redana's skin.

"Would you. Just. Shut. The fuck. Up?"

She squeezes harder as she lifts Redana fully back onto her feet, and then off of them again to hold her up in the air. At eye level, for once. Her Auspex glares bitter red into Redana's. Her cat's eye shimmers with light fierce enough to match them both. Her iris trembles. Her bared teeth glint inside her mouth, and her tail whips hard enough behind her to crush stone.

"You don't fucking... what the fuck even makes you think you're in charge anymore? Because you're royalty? Go suck a wolf off, Your Highness, if there is a single gods forsaken person on this ship who is NOT making that crossing, it's you. After all this time, you... you really think that... ghhhhk! Rrrrragh!"

Their violent dance carries the pair of them to the far wall, where Bella slams Redana against a mural hard enough to leave cracks. Their faces are touching, now. Eye to eye. Matching breath for breath. The smell of it washing over each of them in turn. Bella's blood smears on Redana's skin, but she's too far gone to care. Her lips part. Her eyes shut. Her head tilts. Her mouth draws closer, and closer, and closer to Redana's.

And at the last instant, she pulls away. Drops Redana to the floor and spins away, striking her in the face with an angry tail. She makes it a full dozen paces away before coming to a sudden stop again. She stands there stiffly, statue like if not for the severe, trembling effort of her own breathing.

"You moron. You really think stuffing me in a closet again is going to make things better? Fuck off. It's your turn this time. You stay behind. You worry what might be happening. You find out what it feels like to look up at the sky and know somebody's forgotten all about you. I don't...

I don't get you, Redana. Do you love me or hate me? You never fucking leave me alone, but every time we're together all you do is try to get rid of me. Which is it? Which one is the real you? The one who won't stop fluttering her eyelashes at me, or the one who kicks me in the stomach before she runs away? Are you the girl who took naps with me in the garden, or the one who couldn't stand the idea of my touch after wrestling? Are any of them real? Or are they just... masks that you wear when it's convenient? Because I don't know. I don't know a single fucking thing about you. Fuck off."
Mirror's claws are clipped short as a matter of practicality. Her daily life sees her working with too much thread, touching too many screens, and most importantly pressing too many buttons in too precise of sequence to give up even the momentary disorientation of a knife point where she doesn't expect one. For her inputs to be anything other than automatic while piloting would be terrible beyond imagination.

It's a cat's choice to trim or to grow, as a matter of course. Fashion trends come and go, as they tend to. But it was rare to see another pair of hands with claws as clipped and blunted as Mirror's, wherever she went. They barely protruded past her fingertips in the first place, and since she favored tapping on hard surfaces over traditional meditative practices they weren't even the slightest bit sharp. No one ever judged her for it, of course. Not to her face. But it was never hard to notice the moment when another Hybrasilian saw them for the first time. The little finger twitch and the sudden burst of calculus that showed in their eyes while they worked out whether or not it was ok to ask if she was sick were very difficult to miss. And when they did, she would inevitably respond 'Oh, yes. Very. Thank you for noticing.' As if the conversation was a favor to her.

But there are... advantages. Beyond the practical. Mirror's fingers are buried deep in Matty's thick hair to play at the base of her ears. She digs them deep and lets them trace circles and other, more intricate patterns on the back of her new partner's head, pressing her claw tips into the skin with gentle intimacy but nevertheless far greater force than a longer, more pointed tip could get away with. Long, soft strokes of her hair end in claws scraping the skin at the base of the neck, and instead of a sharp breath and a squeak or a tiny drop of blood, she is rewarded with the deepest and most full bodied purr.

Matty turns boneless in Mirror's lap. She has to slide her other hand around Matty's butt and hold it firmly to keep her from sliding onto the floor. She listens to the gasp turn into a moan laced through with still deeper purrs, and feels the exact moment when her stubby, blunted claws erase all useful thought from Matty's brain. Just a flicker of the ears, a slight turning of her head, and then it's nothing but the sensation of facial muscles rearranging themselves into a wide smile as they push against the cushion of her breasts. Mirror's own purr is a quiet thing that can normally only be heard in very quiet rooms, but here it's immaterial. She joins this chorus of two, and as a pair they let their happiness seep into one another.

Sometimes, a thing is simply meant to be. Sometimes, a connection forms more quickly than one could ever anticipate. Soft whispers of Good Girl and Sweet Little Willow join the purring as Mirror holds Matty safe and secure in her lap. This one, she thinks, might be worth the risk. This one can be sat down and explained to. They will both of them complete small corners of each others' puzzles, insignificant but essential. If. If, if, if. If she did it right. If she explained herself correctly, if she promised to keep this place on her routes, if she did not become absorbed in the other fragments of her life, if, if, if, if, if. If. If she could just be perfect, forever, then she would be allowed to this. A connection she had no idea she was missing, because it could only define it when it started to fill in.

But for right this moment, she lets herself look past the future and over the top of Matty's head. Trosta watches her with an amusement that reminds her of Solarel only by how much the two of them contrast. Solarel would not find this exchange amusing, or likely even cute. She would become entranced by it, asking ten thousand questions about the ritual and how it could be applied to war. If Mirror's answers resonated with her, she might even take notes. And if she were asked about the question of payment and who she fought for...

"I fight with the blessings of Mother Hybrasil, yes," she says, still stroking Matty's hair and neck, "But this is a secret project. I promised them victory in the end, but the means are mine to achieve. It is not their business how I bind or free myself, and yet they will ask. The cost may be prohibitive, but I will take it onto myself. This is my dream. My burden. I will carry it, and everyone who is part of it, by my own power.

Anything less would only prove me unworthy to be myself. Like your rod. The shape of our work will determine its end result. So I. Will preserve that. Break, bargain, or take what you will. I will not diminish. Does that..."

She trails off, and lets the question flutter away into the air around her.
The Plousios is a place of rust and death, but only where it's been swallowed by the sea. It is loud, groaning, echoing, and constantly shuddering with tortured sighs, but it's only noticeable in the places where the ship is emptiest. And it is empty: every hall, every maintenance tunnel, and every single room regardless of function give off a sense of scale too grand for the people here to fill it. Nothing so much as the Prison Planet Tellus and its cramped billions of citizens, but a city more than any vessel nevertheless. A city picked clean of its people and left to float across the stars, shedding pieces of its former grandeur at every place it came to rest.

For hundreds of years, it shrank. And for hundreds of years, it grew. What had been a city filled with gamblers and their dreams so big it took the God of the Dead to see them true fell victim to the machinations of a second god, and the Master of Assassins. It was only natural a garden would grow in its place.

It only took a moment of quiet walking, for once, to see the truth. The revelations of the gods. The inevitability of the Assassins. Bella curls her fingers toward her palm, but stops short of making a fist when here claws bite into her skin. She lifts them up to stare at them with horrified fascination.

This is not Mynx's garden they walk through. The trees are sparse, but the flowers are everywhere. Brilliant bursts of red, purple, yellow, pink, blue, and green greet every flicker of the eye. The walls are faded stucco murals and chipped statuary made whole again by the defiant blossoms. No, not made whole. They've been made into new images, new stories and conquests entirely. Flowers triumphing over steel and the ambition of the Human Empire. Every now and again, a foot crunches down on some opalescent and shimmering gemstone that the mind wonders at until with a start it realizes this is bone. Here were lovers. Here, friends. Here, uneasy companions brought together by desperate circumstances. All of them dead. Betrayed or picked off or the losers of honorable combat, what did it matter? The Temple of Artemis was built around four pillars. Four disciplines that contained inside of them every possible way to commit murder.

And from those murders...

The air is thick with humidity and the smell of pollen. Grass. Nectar. Underneath it, stone and metal, and in the distance the ever present bite of salt.

Bella does not speak. Her footsteps are swallowed by the deafening curtain of this garden of death, that the Plousios could no longer even muster people enough to direct it to some purpose, let alone fight against it. She prowls over leaping blades of grass like the ghost she truly is, a monster and a corpse and a bomb amidst a wellspring of teeming life. Behind her, the heavier footfalls and deeper breathing of Beljani, equally awed but trying much harder not to feel frightened. To her right, Redana walks in equal silence and equal noise. Not awkward. Not brave. Not graceful. Not cruel. Not a princess or the hero who saved her from the Hydra or the treasured friend that betrayed her to a life of endless yearning and chasing. Nothing at all. Just a girl. That's all she's ever been.

Redana's scent carries into several breaths, carrying the kinds of calming notes that make Bella's claws bite deeply into her wrists. Drops of crimson feed the flowers as she passes them without acknowledgment. She tries to look at Redana, but it's like staring into a star. Bella swallows: a noise much too loud for all the effort she's put into keeping silent. She turns her head away, as if to hide everything. Her fingers stretch insistently and push her claws into the air to flick away the blood.

It is not a question of whether or not she should make the crossing. That much is certain. The question how many murders she will need to commit to make certain she is the only person who does so. The Temple is inevitable. Mother is inevitable. The only good that she can do with her useless unlife is seal away the people in her heart on this side of the Rift, to try and make something of the journey on her own.

Because in the Realm of Demeter, she would inflict far crueler and more terrible things to her family than death.
This conversation, like ice. Held in her mouth. The unexpected shift. The surprised crunch in response. The reflexive swallow. Sharp. Cold. Sliding down the throat. Hitting the stomach. Sudden surge. Creeping chill, like ink in a bowl of water. But then? Ease. Pleasant; the desire to bite down on a new shard and feel it all again.

Stupid. Thinking herself clever enough to say so much and still hide the truth. And this was the truth, pinned as though by a needle, if expressed in culturally biased terms. Certainly Mirror did not view herself as a god. But if the gods of Zaldar were the animating forces of that people's great machine beasts, then... yes. The concept technically applied to her as well. Already in the short time she'd been here Mirror had let multiple secrets be pulled off of her like layer after layer of teasing silks.

And yet... huh. A moment of tension, and then her body relaxes into her seat. Muscles unclench almost all the way into jelly, releasing their secret toxins into her body. The secret lessons of Colony Clans' fashions: exposure would set you free. Function as an expression of form. This is... pleasure? Yes, this is pleasure. The comfort of expression reaching another soul. Nevertheless, admonishment. Successful communication when unintended had consequences. There will still many, many layers she could not afford to have plucked from her. Not here, and not by this craftsperson.

"...I will," she chirps, "Address your comments in order."

Immediately, she drops out of using the hand language to supplement her speech. Her hands are needed for more important things. She pulls her screen back onto her lap and lets her fingers resume their dance. This time the contents of the screen are not for the people in the room. She sends instructions to Slate for inquiries to follow up on. To delegate or take the task herself as she sees fit. An invitation to play with a new toy soon, though not until permission is acquired. She takes a moment to order dinner for the entirety of her crew, to reward them for working so long and so hard with so little direction today.

She switches accounts and starts making inquiries about cultivars of flower. Roses in red, pink, yellow, and white. Hibiscus, noncommittal. And perhaps... ah! Well, this would be expensive. The [Starlight Yearning], the so-called "Chroma Lotus" as humans called them. Ridiculous name. But perfect flower, absolutely tailor made. She'd need petals in #ffd217, #17cfff, and #1790ff and... ah. Ah. Designs are already unfolding in her head. She shoves them aside and turns off the device entirely. She's taken more time than she's realized.

"Your apology is unnecessary. My story is my story: I do not control who tells it or how. You do not control what you hear, and there are precious few sources you may have heard it from. My own people, on down to my family mock me for what happened. I will not say they are wrong to do so. We are speaking together now, you may decide the truth about me as you will. The conclusion you come to will do me greater good than any apology you could offer me today."

Mirror shrugs as she uncrosses her legs. She smooths her fur with her hands and a small smile directed at Matty. A playful, yet tender expression for the flustered sillyhead. This would not last. Could not last, in fact. But that did not make the girl any less beautiful, or the nervous way she claws at her pants any less soothing to Mirror's heart. She was a creature of many needs who needed many hearts to fill them. Every connection, and every kind of connection she could fill was good for her, and if she had the chance to at least leave them fuller than she found them... that was charity enough to make it worth it, surely? That was enough... to make her something other than slime.

"Your assistant," she begins sharply but with a lick of her lips, "Does not interest me in any professional capacity. I have explained this. I am... my crew is perfect. No addition, no subtraction. I told Slate I would never replace her, and under no circumstances will I break that promise. What I was referring to was. Well, Matty? Come here, little ripple. Be a good girl for me and show your boss what it is you're so excited about. There's a sweetling, come along~"

The curl of her lips is suggestive. The curl of her finger, even more so. When she pats her lap in sweet condescension she crosses from simple suggestion into demand. And promise. Come be safe. Come be loved. Come let yourself be adored, and taken to a place beyond caring who sees it happen. She pats her lap again, full of encouragement, and sets fire to the bomb.

[Mirror will immediately spend her String to compel Matty to come snuggle into her lap and accept pets while the shop talk continues, like a good kitten should]

"To the last," Her voice and face are stony and serious now, regardless of what other behaviors she might presently be engaged in, "I am... surprised. By your guess."

That's an understatement. Even now her spine tingles from the shock. Her tail tip curls and flicks unconsciously above her head.

"I will not call myself a god. I am not of my peoples' faith, not exactly, but the. Context. Of the wording. The claim. Disrespectful to people I care about very much. So I will not do it. But in the way that you mean it... hrm. Here is what I will say. The name of my armor is the Gods-Smiting Whip. And there is no one, anywhere in the galaxy, that can fight inside it but me. Fewer than one in ten could even compel its arm to move. And even if by some miracle you found someone enough like me to make my [Nine-Tails] stir... they could never, ever, dance the way that I do. The chains must be built to fit the armor. But I assure you, they are for me. My hands, my mind, my heart. Me.

If that still seems an honor to you, then cost is of no concern to me. I will move what I must to make it happen. I'll devote as much of my time as I can spare, and my Slate's when I cannot spare any. And of course, I want little Matty to take her work seriously. In fact, I'm excited to see her connect with roots she wasn't aware of. Don't work her so hard she hurts herself and we'll be fine. Is all of this acceptable?"
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