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All of Ember’s confusion about the way that the world has changed since she departed on her Plover suddenly sharpens to a point, and the point is the sudden threat of disappointing a superior. More than a superior: Mosaic.

“We were separated during the fighting,” she says, ears low, tail tucked against one knee, eyes tactically pitiable. The very model of a demure knight sorrowfully bringing back news to the Daimyo. “She bought us time, but I didn’t see—“

“That’s because you were totally ganging out there, Embs,” Goldie says with a toss of her head, interrupting. Her hair is damp against her forehead, and there’s a bit of holmganga in her eyes herself. “She got flocked. Traded herself for the ship.”

“Oh,” Ember says, trying to read Mosaic’s face. “I… I blew up a sphere,” she says, gesturing over her shoulder. “Cut so many cables.”

“She did. It’s bad, but it bought us all time to scatter, like, off to regroup? Like Ember said?” The pack is coalescing around Ember, the remaining pilots backing her up. As one, we move. As one, we retreat.

Then Ember dredges more words out from the bottom of her stomach. “You want to go back for her,” Ember says. As a statement of fact. But just saying the words makes her stand that much taller, makes her look just a little more like Howl from the Ashes. Her hand cups the pommel of her sideknife.

And she did keep that ribbon, Mosaic. Really, she did. It’s burnt, sure. But it’s what brought her back. To here. To you. Stopped her from overextending and being caught out herself. Is that seen? Is that understood? Or will you stare down the Speaker for the Tyrant until she scrambles to bring it back to you?
It is important to understand that when Dolly nods her head in agreement that she knows what a hippo is, what she is actually picturing in her mind’s eye is some sort of omnivorous crocodile. There is absolutely no doubt in her heart.

“Well,” she says, hesitantly, “I should argue for our hunting, right? Our behemoths, big enough to feed entire villages. Our deep-water leviathans. We are small, and everything else is big, and we had to be the best at catching big things.” She plays with Angela’s curls for a moment, trying and failing to work up the courage to tug on them, to convey the message, to remind her of being caught by two clever kittens. “But. It’s not? Not for me. It’s our biodiversity. There are still species of insect and sub-genuses of plant on our world that remain undiscovered simply because there’s so much to catalogue. To discover. From the tallest trees, like your skyscrapers, to the smallest fungi caps hiding in cave systems, and we still don’t know everything about them, either, no wonder that early religious practice focused on caves as places where it was possible to commune with the world herself, and once our ancestors were down there far enough, tucked into a niche in the rock, covered from above and behind, they would cover their heads with a blanket and fast in order to understand the powers that are older than the world, in darkness and hunger, and all around them, not even perceptible through their cheeks, rich veins of crystal and moss and— actually, did you know that there’s been a breakthrough in growing moss for mass consumption based on Yellow Bean’s research in the X’mot Complex? She’s been able to hybridize strains that should be able to thrive in orbital gardens, looking for both nutritional value and production output, and we’re talking vacuum-sealed, bottled, dried and seasoned, and as viable in a personal garden as on prefab satellite gardens orbiting new colonies! And that’s just scratching the surface! I’m really excited about Doctor Gentleness’s work in synthetic proteins that might be able to replace the need for meat in the diet, which is, as you know,” she says with complete sincerity and faith, “a major logistical issue, because it limits our ability to be self-sufficient on planets with completely alien biospheres if we have to import prey species or rely entirely on the flash-dried stuff you get on stations. I’d bet that one of the Red Band might go an entire year without eating something that hasn’t been cured, dried, frozen, or otherwise prepared for long-term travel, which means they also need iron supplements on a semi-regular basis because they’re just not getting the full nutritional spectrum without having it fresh, and that’s why that soup they gave me was so unbearably spicy, they have to add strong flavors to compensate for the fact that we’re not getting any of the blood, and…”

Moss, blooming in the dark where nobody sees it, brought up into space. Made crucial, made more, hybridized with other strains, thriving, glowing. Beautiful if you understand it. Capable of growing anywhere.

This might be the most that Angela has heard from Dolly in a while. So often she wants to be stopped from being like this, breathless, lost in her own thoughts— but it’s not hard to imagine what that looks like when the topic isn’t so wonderful. When she’s worried, thinking just as fast as this, or when she’s flustered, trying to navigate what’s expected of her, or when she’s feeling small in the shadows of titans. Small wonder, too, that she dreamed of being made interesting, of being put on a pedestal, of being obsessed over, of someone putting her on display just as she might cup a handful of moss and explain why it should be loved.

And then she met her own gardener.
Ember does not walk over to her Mosaic. She runs. She greets her Queen, her lover, her captain, with a kiss, standing on the tips of her toes, hot, hungry, alive, needy, excited, excitable, barely restraining herself enough to stop her from bowling the taller woman over. But she does, just enough.

“We won,” she pants, her tongue pink, her teeth white. “Now we can regroup, prepare, gain ground, and…”

She trails off. Blinks. Looks around. When she flexes her fingers, sparks of bluewhite static hiss between them, remnants of her flight suit drawing off excess. “…what happened? Where’s all the, the, the banners, and the statues, and why is the marble cracked and scuffed and— and why are there crabs in here, Mosaic?”

She looks around, baffled, her old inkmarks charred away. “What happened to our ship?
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
the fever sings in mental wires.

Lifeboats shunt off, spinning slowly in loose orbits around the Sphere. Cable after severed cable lashes madly between them, like a nest of maddened serpents. The flock— what remains of it— contracts to try and salvage their beachhead, their tactical advantage that might yet gain them the secondary prize of the fleeing Plousios.

Here, Ember dances, her enchantment burned away by the rising tide of instinct and battlefrenzy. Flow state, Tides, ecstasy, revelation, Howl from the Ashes. Howl. Howl. Howl.

And Ashes’ spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ares by her side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Howl havoc and let slip the wolves of war!

A pike she rams through the gravitational core, twists it like she works the guts of a boar, and then there is only making her way out without the use of the cable, for the cable is burning, the Sphere leaking its essence into the tumult of Poseidon’s sea. But the flock is scattering, and the Sphere rolls like a dying whale, and only the sight of a ripple of red and gold cuts through the desire to hunt each one down one by one, burn them out, leave them drifting, wring their reinforced spines—

But that is a leash. You will return.

And so Ember waits, and at the moment when the world goes silent she flings herself from the Sphere, firing towards her waiting lady, more for aim than for momentum, because then the Sphere ruptures outwards, and the force shakes her into shaking laughter as she hurtles back, and the startled crows scatter so far that they’ll be days cohering again.

Back to Mosaic. And what will she think of a pupil-dilated, tail-bushing, sense-shifted Ceronian coming back to her from the blossoming force-rose of a dying gravitational core?
“Your heart is not selfish,” Dolly declares, her hands balled up into tiny fists against her shoulders. “Your family comes first, right? With the right family, there’s nothing you can’t do! Alone, mmhm, alone one is small and vulnerable.” Her tail sways like a metronome. Do you understand her, Angela? Dolly can barely comprehend the idea of doing something so big alone. That is a job for many Hybrasilians working in concert. So the place to start is always with the dream, with making the case that together, this thing must be done.

“…what is it like on Valor, Angela? Do you miss it?” She should miss Hybrasil, but being with Jade is like bringing Hybrasil with her wherever she goes. She could be in the heart of the Consortium and never be lost as long as the goddess was with her. All places are one place to her. “Please tell me.”

There is meaning bursting out of that request. And she is so prim and proper, ears tilted forward to listen intently, trying to imagine an alien world that gives birth to creatures like an Angela…
Even with Dyssia's distraction, getting close enough to the Reactor Sphere to steal a new tether is impossible. Of course it is impossible. There are a dozen crows between her and the prize. The moment she sticks her precious little nose out of her shield of plovers, it's all over.

Which is what makes it work. Several of the frozen plovers around her are already spinning in the eddies, and she spins away, lets the current take her, drifting on momentum behind a furious pilot. She is, for a few precious moments, floating in the greatest sea that has ever been, eyes closed, hands adjusting position on her throttle.

Then she opens up her howling engine and feels the acceleration in her teeth, in the back of her eyes, as she hurtles tetherless towards the Sphere. She twists into a spin, into a loop, elegant, reacting on instinct before her slow eyes can catch up with the crackling bolts that she's evading. Her stomach drops like Mosaic's picking her up and whirling her around, and when she finally rips a tether out of the hands of a technician, feet already drumming the enemy cockpit senseless, it's almost incidental.

Because it is, you see. Because Ember's got her eyes on the prize.

Because the flock will have to scatter if a Sphere with an overloaded reactor spins languorously into the midst of them all.

[9 on Overcoming the peril.]
Ember streaks across the sky like a comet, throwing caution to the winds. Or, at least, that’s how it must seem, right? But this is Ceronian pack tactics at work. Our Little Ember takes point, seemingly reckless, and any daring little crow that makes a dive for the tether is open for the teeth that follow her.

She arcs wide, makes for a flank, her ELF lance harmlessly sparking outwards without making so much as a glancing shot, wasting power as she holds the trigger down until it grows hot under her fingers—

But notice how the shots are cutting off retreat? It would be so easy for these villains to make repeated swoops against the Plousios, to fade back into the stars as soon as Mosiac’s knights bare their teeth. No. Ember is a cunning sheepdog, and it doesn’t matter that she will most likely have to be towed back to the Plousios.

For already the other knights set their lances and charge forward into the absolute zone.

[8 to Keep Them Busy.]
"Well, it depends, I had a lot of choice but some families are still- eeeheeeeheeeeeep!!"

Dolly's hands go straight down into her lap, and she balances almost right away. Her ears are all atwitch as she settles into her seat, thousands of years of evolution acting beneath the cruft of consciousness to ensure that she's bobbing up and down in time with the roll of Angela's shoulder. For all that she looks like she's terrified of being dropped, all stiff-backed and wagging-tailed, it's unlikely that Angela could manage to dislodge her if she was actively trying.

"For, well, see, I did go through the selection process for Gardens, I, I was- am? I'm good at it, actually, if Jade asked me for a garden I could make her a vibrant garden that wouldn't look ashamed of being next to one of Mayze Szerpaws' dresses, if you don't mind me saying so, I, I am good at flowers, and ferns, and fungi, and... it's just, you know, a miracle happened, and wouldn't you have done the same thing, Angie...la?"

Her natural state is timidity. No wonder she dreams of exposure. The world all around is full of things so easy to misjudge (unlike plants, which are screaming out their needs if you can just listen the right way), and bereft of Jade's grip on her scruff she is a fussy little thing, uncertain of the space she's taking up, tucking in her ankles and trying not to pay attention to the glances she's getting. (She doesn't even know that, with her bright feathered blouse, she's reminiscent of a parrot.)

She ignores the question about the hunts, however. Maybe there's a little bit that doesn't tumble out of her right away, and what if a careless comment spoiled the reputation of all Hybrasil? "...your body is really strong," she says, turning her face away slightly, tail curling at the space between Angela's shoulderblades. "But... I don't know. We're not very strong, compared to you. That's why we go around, tangle you up, pounce from the blind spots. Jade would know, but that's the experience of being in her body, and she's very good at being like us, because she's born from us, or from our hopes, or... she's the strongest I've ever been, being with her. In her. Hers. If she had a body our size, she'd be a strongwoman, she'd lift you onto her shoulder."

A flick of an ear. A kneading of her skirt. "...did you know about the prize? The wish? What was yours, Angela?" She almost manages to avoid sounding guilty, even as images of that first battle flash through her head. Bagged, Tagged and Gagged! "Because all we wanted was for everyone to see Jade like we can." The second we encompasses more than the first, which only has room for two. A multiplicity. An invitation. A hope.
Like some sort of useless herded animal, Dolly absolutely cannot ask Angela to pick her up (again). There's absolutely no signs that she wants that, to be lifted and squished. Ignore the tail starting to curl around Angela's leg on its own. No, focus on the way she's scrolling up and down the list of components and looking around, trying to find Electronics Collectives. Somewhere where the ceilings are low and the barter is... oh, no, she can't take Angela there, she'd end up on her hands and knees! Or maybe that's why she should take Angela there? No, no, on short notice... they'll have to do Terenian-style shopping, won't they? With the fixed prices and the exchange of credit?

"I'm not just a pilot," Dolly points out, standing up on her tippies to try to get a little height over the crowd and failing miserably. "I'm the High Priestess. I have to do the things that the goddess needs done, that's my responsibility. And it's not like I'm not used to menial, to work? I was a Gardens, you know. You have to start by learning a lot about plants and soil and growth rates, but we also have to keep the gardens running. Sprinklers, lights, heating... we need to know how it works, so that we can fix it, and so that we can tinker with it. I even know some of the things we're buying today, I just... don't quite know where we're...?"

She trails off, then adds, thoughts bouncing off into the weeds, "Thank you for coming, by the way. Even if, you know, we're rivals. I'm sure you'll get your revenge on Jade eventually. It's just that she didn't want me coming alone after everything with the Red Band, and you're actually really impressive? Like, Stones filled me in on you and the Zaldarians at the Gala, and, that was, wow, and, did you really throw an entire refreshments table? I could understand throwing a bowl or something, but an entire table?" The lilt in her voice suggests that she very much wants to hear about throwing the table at the Zaldarian Queen actually please ma'am.
The Plover shines like a piece of Olympus granted to Ceron, resplendent on the black-and-gold marble of the launch deck. It is not strange to only have a handful; everyone knows that exclusivity is a marker of taste and quality. A knife is thrust through her belt as a last resort; a blade as large as a statue sits ready for the Plover and her pilot. The fools don't know what they do, daring the anger of this war-machine, this great and terrible wrath that stands poised to make this flight their very last.

"I'm going to name you... hmm." Ember twists up her mouth in that little way she does, one hand on her hip, looking up at the Plover. "You do need a name. Or maybe you want to earn one? That's it, that's why. After we scatter them into the void, I'll have the right name for you. I'm Little Ember, and I'll be riding you today. Thank you for your service and your loyalty."

She waves with a clash of bangles over at her wingsnake, ears up and delighted, smile tinted coral pink by her silk. "Over here! Gosh, goodness, a real knight of the Azura! What will the terms of our wager be? Don't worry about making it particularly fair, you're doing us a service by joining me anyway. Don't underestimate me, though; even if I haven't piloted one of these before, one look and I know, I know I'm going to be good at this. I'm Little Ember, and I know you, you're Dyssia, aren't you? I haven't had the time to thank you for what you did on Bitemark, that little unpleasantness, what have you thought of the ship thus far? Beautiful, isn't it?"
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