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“Plundering Fang is right,” Princess Alpha Ember says, cheerfully. (After all, Plundering Fang has renewed her oaths of loyalty to the pack; feuds can shift and fade as circumstances necessitate. And they’ve both been Mosaic’s pet, anyhow.) “If we carry out the proper rituals in honor of Mars Wolfkeeper— the strike team, the flatbread for the auxiliaries, the line of communication— we will be as victorious as we were following Bella’s lead against the Crystal Knight.”

Quizzical looks. Princess Alpha Ember thinks back over what she’s said. Rituals? Flatbread? Or—

“…by which I mean Mosaic, our pack lar,” she smoothly corrects. “It is the prerogative of the divine to accumulate titles; this is one which she has recently revealed. Our Lady of the Bells. Sagetip, be sure to add some to her shrine. And all of you— she will look even more favorably on us if we use this name for her.

“Like when we fought the Crystal Knight, the forces of the Azura are only as strong as their leaders. If we can eliminate this Liquid Bronze, we clear yet another threat from our board. Quick, surgical, and under the Wolfkeeper’s auspices, under the blessing of Bella Victorious.

“But Summerkind— if we must meet them in the field, can we drown them? We’re still dredging out the lower levels; we have water and to spare. What are their mobility capabilities? Luring more void-horses to our side might allow us to strike from unexpected directions. That might also be worth consideration for Liquid Bronze’s drones; if we cannot strike at him directly, we can feint and make him commit his drones too early, let them all burn out fast— multiple feints, if necessary. We do not burn out. We are Ceron!

“Sagetip: analysis?”

[Filling Her Belly with Bella has allowed Ember to heal her Sense stat.]
Eclair!

This couple, they are— well, they are a little frazzled, but in a way that is likely familiar to any proper Maid-Knight. It is the frazzlement of people who have been given orders in a crisp, authoritative, but polite tone. (The Maid Voice, as it is sometimes known.) Most people don’t think of themselves as being just another part of the furnishings, at least when it comes to certain arrangements— such as arranging photographs, or forming queues, or defending them from things which go bump in the night. (Every child growing up has some story or another about a friend’s friend who really did have a goblin under their bed or in their closet.)

They accept the tablet back, slightly stunned, and look at the bold colors— still developing, ripening, in front of their eyes, as the cold thoughts of the moon turn to highlights and depth of shadow— and there is a moment where they both recognize the artistry involved. The spirit tablets have many strange capabilities, the methods of which the Lunarians refuse to explain, but their automatic pictures do not paint anything but what is in front of them. This means that there are two compositional styles developing at the same time: an improvisational one so giddy at the prospect of art on demand that it overwhelmingly emphasizes the candid, awkward and impulsive, and a formal one that errs towards being stiff and extremely deliberate.

Yet you’ve managed to infuse the careful planning of the formal school with a sense of spontaneity, as if you could step into the picture and catch what this man is about to say to his wife, some private joke in the midst of the celebrations. On the woman’s face, you catch for a moment the wish that she could hang this up in her house.

(But of course, she can’t. The tablets are miraculous, but the cost of hiring an artist to copy its results onto canvas are prohibitive. Naturally, this means some of the Nagi mercantile families are already doing it, and there’s an artistic bounty out for anyone who can take an aerial photo of the Sapphire City of Aestival and produce a canvas equivalent.)

Then the man’s eyes focus over your shoulder. It does seem that a tumult has been growing in that direction while you fussed over getting this picture just right.

“We should probably—“

“Thank you so much,” the woman says, tugging you over to one side of the street. “Do you charge?”

“Do people do that? Charge for taking tablet paintings?”

“Well, they should. That’s a job if you ever leave the Maids, right?” Her laugh is a little awkward, and she glances to you. “I’m Mel, by the way, and this is Jaks—“

“And she’s brought her entire bloody retinue through the Outside to show off,” Jaks— says. “Wonder what the snakes are going to make of this…

Ready to see what’s coming, or do you already know?



Cair!

The oddest people get drawn to Heron. There’s actually deep magic lore to this; Tsane would probably be able to explain this to you. Something something law of sympathy, something something magnetism, something something nails driven through cloth. But you are not the metaphysics gal. You are Miss Appraisals.

So, here’s an appraisal for you: the armored bodysuit’s putting you in mind of a lovingly patched jacket. Speaks to someone who either takes pride in what they own or who can’t replace it, but refuses to let go of their dignity. It’s a rich green, with plates (or shell?) the texture of lacquer, and its ridges brighten to orange where they regularly protrude. The ones that are worn by Lunarians are immaculate, seeming to repel dirt around them, but this one has lost that impossible luster. One kneepad is scuffed, and several plates are missing, particularly on the fingers of the left hand, leaving only the skintight suit underneath. A pink sash is pulled tightly around the right bicep, suggesting… well, suggesting that the suit’s infamous integrity may have been compromised. Too strictly knotted to be a prize or decoration.

Shoulderless sleeves, a tabard, and loose trousers, all in faded pink— this is where the sash came from, cut from one sleeve. Very revealing by Lunarian standards; they prefer vast, sweeping dresses with long trains. The sleeves are long, flowing, but do not inhibit full range of motion at the wrist. Tsane probably knows whether there are winds on the moon, and if this was meant to flutter in the breeze or to simply hang still and emphasize the way that Lunarians can just stop moving completely.

Like all Lunarian helmets, this one is oblong, sloped, narrow. It is cloudy, impossible to see more than the shape of a face through. Patterns move across it, and even you know enough about the night sky to note their similarity to both star charts and the background patterns of spirit tablets. Things which might be sigils spread and fade over the face— over wherever eyes might be— like frost on windows.

Above the helmet float two long silver-and-pink objects of unknown purpose. One is, unusually, crooked— no, crumpled. The angle at which it floats is crooked. There we go. You likely have your own theories about their purpose; plenty of people do.

“You are the managing of materials for the Reoccurrence.” Now this is interesting. You’ve heard Lunarians once or twice before, maybe, just because of the circles that Heron can— well, not move in, but pop into without repercussions. Their voices are pleasantly, sweetly monotone, never rising above a polite conversational volume, with a reverberating echo buzzing beneath the words. This one?

This one sounds hoarse. The buzz is harsher, not jagged but still pointier than the all-smooth-edges voices of the moon. Like thistles and daisies.

“I am fallen far.” No. Add the capital letters. Fallen Far. “I am requiring the use of a Shaping Matrix. It is impossible for dirt to possess a Shaping Matrix. Therefore only the impossible are possessing one. You are the managing of materials for the Reoccurrence. You are dictating how this occurs.”

…it’s possible that Heron might have whatever she wants. But not in the regular stacks. Not unless a Shaping Matrix is a really fancy term for a paintbrush. You’d need to commune with the Tent’s deeper parts in order to dredge up something, assuming you give this alien the time of day.



Yuki!

>[.rockamt]
>Hey, gals. Something’s come up. Somebody’s stalking a nun.
>Gonna get to hand out a righteous asskicking. Litrally.
>Enjoy the ceremony for me.

>[.praxispacksis]
>Hurry back if you can! Everything I have heard says that tonight will be unforgettable!
>Yuki and Sulochana are going to be there, right? You really won’t want to miss it!!
>O, that I might join you all through some sort of miracle!!


Sulochana has her own tablet out, pulled from her purse. She keeps glancing up at you and smiling as her nails clack over the tablet’s face. She’s properly lounging, too.

A palanquin like this is all pillows and gauzy curtains over a very firm mattress, and it sways from side to side like a ship as the Nagi bear their Princess along. But because her human half is sinking into the pillows, her tail is free to wrap around you casually, giving you a comfortable headrest, making sure not to restrict your arms so that you can pull out your own tablet in turn, and while you wait, there’s the message from Aadya. Kind of a disappointment, right? Whoever she’s going to beat up sounds like they have it coming, though.

“…I can’t get over that name for your world,” Sulochana says as she types. “You might as well call our world Fire, or Light, or Colors. ‘Earth.’ Not even Mud, which has its uses, but plain old Earth. What was your creator thinking?” The tip of her tail strokes your cheek fondly, a cool touch that lingers.

Oh, a new DM. Sulochana is watching you expectantly, even as she continues to type.

>[.realsuloarju]
>This is a secret that even I’m not supposed to know.
>But I think the goddess wouldn’t mind, since you’re not from Thellamie, and since I know you can keep a secret.
>She’s going to remake the Crown of Light tonight, and I think the reason she’s here of all places is because she’s going to offer it to me.
>This is extremely important, Yuki. The Queen of Light isn’t anything like Azaza. She brings prosperity, fertility, facilitates construction, stabilizes land that’s been eroded by the Outside…
>You haven’t seen Thellamie as she could be. I haven’t, either. But the first slither to changing that is going to happen tonight.


As you reach the end, the tip of her tail shifts position, lying over your lips. She winks, and then tugs you towards her. But lying down like this, it’s awkward for her to pull you into her grasp, bordering on impossible; no, it’s an invitation. A request for cuddles as you ride. She’s still a giant cuddle bug, and she probably wants carefully worded reassurances that she’s going to make a good… generic leader, doing generic leader things.

As for the market— you clever thing, you remembered that Whitemarket is on the way. It is one of the best luxury marketplaces in Thellamie, situated in the middle of the wealthy residential area which lies below the Viperiat. Most of the goods which line the winding sub-streets of Whitemarket are display pieces, and you are intended to commission a bespoke product after inspecting them, barring several specialty import shops. Between you and me, it’s largely notable for being expensive and having prestigious names attached to the pieces, and most of its “specialities” should be purchased elsewhere.

It’s got a markup on glasswork almost everywhere, for example, claiming that bringing pieces all the way up from the lower city and choosing only the best materials for clients justifies a larger price, but if you actually know what you’re looking for and how to judge glasswork, you can get much better deals in the Market of Refractions downcity. The same goes for perfumes; unless you want to strictly buy local or want to be assured that you’re buying only guaranteed masterpieces of scent, you’d be better suited by going to the Cosmosial near the Welcoming Plaza and buying straight from Aestivali perfumers, or better yet, going all the way to Chalcedony off the Sapphire Hub. The biggest monopoly on quality you’ll find here is on Nagi furniture: the long lounging couches, the wall hanging poles, the recessed beds, the sunbathing benches, and even the installation of basking pools.

Between you and me, chances are good that you’re going to pull over here at least once to pick up a gift that Sulochana has prepared for you.



Hazel!

Lamb is delicious, isn’t it? Soft. Yielding. Toothsome.

Especially when it’s smothered in a rich, creamy sauce, with a hint of heat in the back of the mouth. Green and purple vegetables— roughly similar to lettuce and tomatoes— are included, wrapped in a flatbread brushed in a garlic-based oil. The whole is wrapped in a triangle of wax paper for ease of eating and walking. Keli and Seli have already finished theirs by the time you get to the foot of the broad stairway that leads up to Cesus’s garden. (It was so chivalrous of you to pay for all three. What a good, good boy you are.) But you’re still lingering, aren’t you? Really enjoying the taste, the texture.

A silvery note rings out, and both Keli and Seli perk up, suddenly as intent on that note as they were on you a moment before. The note is followed by a voice, singing: “I— I— I—” A pluck of strings joins in, and you finally catch a glimpse, there, on the canyonward side of this square: three people, standing together.

The first, the tallest, the most obvious, is a Nagi in a sequined dress, silver on deep indigo, and— oh, it’s based on the night sky, isn’t it? That magical sky where the stars move faster and all the colors are sharper. She’s the one hitting that note, and as she turns her head, you see silver threads woven into her black hair, elegant and time-consuming. Which means it’s all right to stare, doesn’t it? She meant for you to look.

The second is a Kel, plucking the strings of an instrument like a violin crossed with a harp, tucked under his chin. Unlike most of the Kel you might have seen today, he isn’t wearing sunglasses (or, more accurately, starglasses). There’s an actual, literal twinkle in his eyes, a glint of trapped starlight. Yuki will have, of course, told you about how prolonged direct exposure to starlight is intoxicating, how it can change people’s eyes and thoughts.

The third is another Nagi, wearing a top that looks like it was made out of panes of stained glass. She’s holding her hands to her chest, and between her palms a light grows, soft rays leaking between her fingers. She exhales, pushes her palms outwards, and the light (like a bubble) bobs outwards, over the heads of onlookers, and passes through— right through— your left antler.

Seli is making some sort of hand gesture at the singer, who’s laid her eyes squarely on Seli. And, yes, the singer makes a gesture back, almost hidden inside of a flourish. Seli steps forward, and Keli takes a half-step, and then the two of them look back at you, and then at each other, and then at you again.

Keli guides that last bite of gyro up to your lips, even as Seli undoes a sash around her hips and wraps it at each end around her wrists. “Come on,” she says, her voice lilting in puckish delight. And then, even as you finish chewing, she’s pulling you out in front of everyone.

—and I, too,
I turn for you,
my darling pole-
star.
The chill wind of night,
the whirling delight,
I’ll share these with you,
We’ll cut you right through…”


And Keli has your hand, fingers interlaced, and she’s raising it. “Just follow me, pretty boy,” she whispers, barely audible above the song. A white-yellow light passes right through your chest like a budding flower.

She takes the lead, guiding your steps, forward, back, down into a dip that nearly leaves your antlers scraping the glass tiles, and—

And for a moment, her veil covers both your lips. It’s very clearly not a kiss, certainly not, but there some cheers and whoops from the audience. You feel more than see her tongue, a hair’s breadth away from your lips.

Then she maneuvers you upright into a spin, and you’ve got one arm twisted behind your back, and from the crowd’s cheers of approval it looks good. Keli steps back, and you have to follow. Keli steps forward, and you have to advance. She turns you again, and guides your hand to her hip, even as she raises your other hand interlaced with hers.

And all the while, Seli is whirling around you, elegant, like a moon, except the Moon here is still and fixed in one place. Think instead: like a constellation. You’re lucky that the song demands some stateliness from these two.

—and you are mine,
sing it out,
let it roll through the air.
You’ll find me there,
beneath the arc of stars…”


[Keli’s pulling a String here; if you do your best to obey, receive XP.]
Ember stares. Her hands are balled in her lap. She is twisted about in her seat, staring so hard that a guilty conscience might be pricked by the remorseless gaze of her mismatched eyes.

“Then what the fuck are we waiting for?” She bushes up as she says that, nearly rising out of Bella’s lap. “Why haven’t you given me the orders to have the Silver Divers hunt for information? This is a quest from the gods, Mos—“

She flinches, droops her ears. Disappointed in herself.

“Bella. I’ll do anything to see it through. Forget hiding in suns. Forget the Azura. We’ll defeat them all if we have to. I swear to you, as your— as your knight. We’ll find it together, and then, and then… if you’ll still have me…”

Because she’s not the Princess Redana, she doesn’t say. Because she’s just Ember, Alpha of the Silver Divers. Because you command me and handle me in a way that makes me thrill. Because we’re so fucking obviously in love. Because the thought of wearing a bride’s white gown is a thrill that makes her want to jump up and run laps. Because I would do anything for you.

Her tail is thumping into a plate of crab, repeatedly.
Breathe, Dany. Breathe. Don’t inhale crab. Don’t choke on the crab. The strings of her are pulled taut, and— for a moment she isn’t sure which self she is. Ember is being handled by her lover, but this Princess Dany must have felt like this when Bella touched her.

How they must have played, Princess Dany and Admiral Bella. In her mind’s eye, Ember pours Bella into a tight spacer’s jacket and thigh-hugging leggings, chest resplendent in medals, boots reaching her knees, holding her cap emblazoned with the golden trident of Poseidon with the quiet confidence that she holds Dany’s chin. “We will keep to my heading,” the Admiral tells the pouting princess, “and you will hold your tongue or I will have you escorted to your quarters.” And it’s a challenge, and a promise, and the implicit threat to make sure she stays in those quarters to await the Admiral’s pleasure…

What else could she have been? The obvious strength, the command, the control. The confidence as Captain of the Plousios. And there’s one surefire way that a polity can keep an ambitious, Mars-blessed warlord loyal.

Ember manages to swallow, having been helped to chew. She leans her chin into Bella’s hand, and draws from her deepest reserves of personal courage to ask the gloating, charismatic demigoddess before her: “…how long were we engaged? Do you remember?”

If only she could remember, in turn. She would have worn white, with a red flower at her breast, for the imperial engagement. Her hair in a bun like this[1]. A bell at Bella’s ear, silver to complement naval black. A dance, her own small hand resting in Bella’s.

Yes. A dance. They’ve danced before. Or— did she watch a young man dance with Bella? Or did they watch a reel together, about the dances, Bella’s little head resting on a child’s shoulder? It’s all a mess, all a tangle, and she doesn’t know, she can’t know, what this commanding warlord remembers of promises or chases—

Chases.

“…did I run away from the wedding??



[1]: further proof that Bella remembers, at some level. Her fingers know exactly how her bride-to-be should look.
Amah Vess-Mekel!

[Amah. Come.] You flinch guiltily as you feel the thumps through the floor, filled with the sudden irrational fear that you are going to be chastised for staring at the Maid when everybody else stopped to do it, too. The face that Leiksh pulls at you says that she’s thinking the same thing, and you make a face back before turning and slithering over to Mistress Anesh, who is still working that cloth the Maid gave her in her fingers.

“Yes, ma’am?” Your voice cracks in the middle of the yes, and you take a moment to imagine the floor yawning beneath you and sending you plummeting down to the Demon Queen Hell, where presumably there is only torture by furious ifrits instead of the unbearable awkwardness of being alive. Must be nice, comparatively.

“Take your apron off,” she says. You know, the nightmare scenario. But before you can throw yourself to the floor before her belly and beg her to give you a second chance to prove yourself, she continues. “Go to the Sidewinder’s Arms in Uptown. Sister Tammithyn Murr needs to know that she was right about the Maid Knights. I will stall this one for as long as I can, but she does not have much time. Can you remember that, Amah?”

nod nod grateful nod life is beautiful again the birds are chirping isn’t it so great to be alive and employed

“I told her,” Mistress Anesh continues, to herself, with you right there listening. “I’m not getting involved. Didn’t I tell her? I’ll do my duty to Blessed Civelia, but asking me to fight those— why are you still in your apron, Amah?



Eclair!

dum-te-dum, dum-TE-dum, dum-te-dum-DUM…

You know the song that the child was humming to her rabbit. It’s going to be running in a loop in the back of your thoughts until you can remember the name, isn’t it? An itch in your fingers, aching to be pressed against the keys of a piano, to hunt along the ivory until you’ve caught it like an errant Outside goblinmouse trying to get to the cheeses.

The simplest explanation is that it’s one of the songs that Madeline is always playing off her newfangled spirit tablet. She’d explained to you, gushing, that it’s the latest fad, inspired by Yuki Edogawa: a simple program on the tablets lets you treat the screen like an orchestral room, playing each instrument in turn and then replaying each one together, and then you can mail the resulting songs to your friends. She’s got her face smooshed against hers on every break, going on about music packages she’s been mailed.

The click of the tablets’ picture capture function is a new addition to the sounds of the city, and everywhere you turn, some lucky owner is using one to trap moments from the Festival of Light, giddy at their new ability to make art with the press of a button. What do you make of that, Eclair? And—

“Pardon me, ma’am? Milady? I, ah… would you be willing to help us out?”

He’s Serigalamu, but there’s a hint of an Avel lilt to his voice, the kind passed down by a parent. His companion (no, look at her necklace, wife) is more obviously Avel, but her skirt is the long, wide-hipped sort still popular among western farmers. He holds out a spirit tablet, set into a protective fur case. An expensive luxury, given their Lunar manufacture, but one that more and more people are managing to get their hands on— especially with the Festival sales, and the Princess’s success in negotiating with Kel.

With that in mind, it’s easy to deduce why this man, barely prosperous enough to afford this wonder of the Moon, is asking you to use it for a photo. Out of anyone in the city, surely a maid-knight’s the only one who wouldn’t be tempted to walk away with it. Behind the two, the Golden Arch — a masterpiece by the goldsmiths of Crevas in honor of the goldsmiths of Crevas — rears against the bright sky.



Yuki!

"Purnima Karn-Pana,” Princess Sulochana Arju hisses. You might think there’s not enough sibilant noises in there for a hiss, but trust me, she manages it on account of being a Nagi. “She’s from one of the client branches of the Karnashas, but Humash Karnasha selected her as a successor, presumably because she’s going both blind and deaf, which is the only reason— anyway, Purnima seems to think that the leadership and courage I displayed during the Azaza Crisis isn’t reason enough for me to have received this position, and she’s making an absolute crow of herself in the Lower Chamber, trying to build a coalition of anyone who feels slighted or that they’re not quite prospering enough under my leadership, and… well, after tonight, she might get what she wanted.”

The way she says that, though, isn’t defeated or seethingly furious. It’s impishly haughty, the sound of a Princess laying a trap. She sneaks you a sly glance.

“But enough of that! Tell me about your summer camp and the fencing! You don’t have Heartblades, so you must have been fighting like Maid Knights! It must be so difficult not having yours to hand when you’re back in Yukis— in your world.”

As you head down to the outer stables, and the palanquin waiting there to carry you down to the Welcoming Plaza (after Sulochana considers and then rejects the idea of riding there on an exotic tamed goblin almost like an elephant, just with six legs)— go ahead and consider how you feel about Earth becoming known as Yukisworld in Thellamie. Even if you tried, at this point, you’d probably only be able to get it known as “Yukisworld, sometimes called Earth.” Or, you know, Yukisearth.

(This is actually Keli’s fault. You are vaguely aware you may be owed royalties the next time you see her.)



Rurik!

“We will have need of your indomitable heart,” Civelia continues. “Your puissance shall be the lens through which my light is filtered for the benefit of all Thellamie. So you must be ready in your Tent by dusk, I humbly beseech you. Even if you find something of exceeding interest. Please.” The subtext is clear: Heron needs to be ready to take her place in the ceremony at that time, however the Handmaidens need to wrangle her. Not that she can express displeasure with the Hero of Ages, but she’s had a long time to practice guilt trips, and she always makes sure to tip Heron well for a job well done, tips which inevitably trickle down. When Heron’s around, that is.

Which is something of a sticking point.

Because nobody has told Civelia that Heron is in the Heart of the Moon right now, trying her damnedest to stop it from falling out of the sky and shattering on the peaks of Kel.

“It’s fine? Don’t worry her about it,” Heron had said to you, buckling her travel pack on before she jumped through the portal, deep in the Outside. “Like. Imagine I cause mass hysteria, right?” The lunar wind was tousling her hair; she stood in silhouette against its silver light. “We evacuate all of Kel, and then I come back and it was nothing? She’d finally snap.”

In that moment, as you all stood there, the Hero of Ages had stared for a long moment, flashed a sign of peace at you all, then jumped through and didn’t look back.



Lovely Hazel!

Oh, darling. Oh, you little sweetie.

You have made a fundamental mistake in dealing with these two, and that is—

“But you just got here, yah?” Seli trills, putting one finger up to her veiled chin in thought, and then glancing over at Keli.

“Yah, so you can’t say for sure,” Keli replies, nodding. (She has sensed the Bit. Even if she was just scolding Seli for scaring you, she has to play along.)

“You don’t even know about the Market Wars,” Seli continues, tail swishing behind you. “You’ll stumble right into their intrigues and get all. wrapped. up. in them.”

“Beguiled by their golden eyes, their sinuous swaying, lured close until it’s too late to escape…” Keli lets out a fluttering sigh at the same frequency as the butterflies in your stomach.

“So you’re right, they don’t usually scoop people up at random—“

“—just cute boys who have seen too much—“

“—innocent, unable to explain he’s not a familial agent—“

“—under their spell—“

“—under their coils—“

“—dragged away—“

“—to be buried alive!!!”

Keli gasps and bats at Seli, reaching over you to do so. Her perfume comes with her. “They do not! She’s winding you up, darling.”

“I have been buried alive by Nagi before, yah?” Seli says, and waggles her eyebrows in a way that makes Keli gasp, then snort.

“Nooooo, not like that, look at him, he’s gone as red as Carmine Street! You are wicked~!

“But I’m not winding him up about the Market Wars.”

“She’s not,” Keli admits with a theatrical shrug, her hand almost, almost close enough to touch you.

“Which is why I cannot, on my honor, allow you to wander about without guidance and protection,” Seli concludes, and her arm has snuck its way around your arm, and her sleeve is really soft and gauzy and also she’s not letting go.

“Oh, wonderful, yes!” A second arm shoots its way around your other arm, and Keli gives you a little squeeze with the crook of her arm. “You simply must see the gardens of Princess Cesus—“

“—who was actually a man, you know, like you, and what do you think, Keli, do you think he could ever be a Princess?”

Keli considers you, and you’re standing up now, pulled to your feet by the vulpine scoundrels on either side of you, and maybe your legs go a little weak when she shuts her eyes and says, with a voice like the most sincere sunbeams: “Yah~ <3

And I shall share with you a secret, lean in close to listen:

Seli thinks your voice’s wavering is attractive; it makes her want to see what else she can make that voice do, the ways she could make it squeak and break and fail you. But Keli thinks that you have a very cute face, and would look just darling with your mouth, ah, handled properly, if you know what I mean. Just because she’s the sweet one doesn’t mean she’s not thinking about Gagged Deerboy Noises right now, as her tail’s tip curls and trembles for just a moment.

Don’t give me that look. You did ask.

[Seli takes the string: “Flusterable Little Thing, Isn’t He?”
Keli takes the string: “Pretty Little Thing, Isn’t He?”]
The first months of training with the Silver Divers were physically and psychologically intensive, and one of the first lessons is that control is something that can be taken, won, used as a prize. Control of a body, control of a hormonal system, control of a heart. Control wrenched away over and over until she was strong enough to keep it. You do not belong to yourself, Ceron says: you belong to the pack.

Ember melts into how Bella handles her with eager gratitude. The way her stomach twists as she’s tossed up in the air; the way that she is crushed against the full and supple flesh of, of Bella; the way her hair is attended to. You do not belong to yourself, Ceron says: you belong to Bella[1].

She hums[2], eyes shut, basking in Contentment. The kind of scent usually only released during cuddle piles. Safe, soft, secure. Caught again. And again, and again, and again. Woven like strands of hair into a braid, into a crown.

A crown.

“…is that why I became the alpha of the Silver Divers?” A furrow in her brow. “But I didn’t want to. It’s just that no one else could have done it and stayed loyal to your commands. Shouldn’t that have come naturally to me if I was a princess? Did I lose that with my memories, too?” Underneath, unspoken: was I a good leader? Am I broken, lesser than Dany was? Am I worthy of being your dream?

By the gods, I want to be worthy of being your dream.




[1]: and Bella belonged to you, and Bella saved you, and you saved Bella, and love is a spiral of shared belonging. You are hers. She is yours.

[2]: the Ham-Scraper’s Lament, first introduced as a leitmotif in Rage of the Batrachomyomachia.
DRAMATIS PERSONAE

PROTAGONISTS

YUKI EDOGAWA
Heroine of the Azaza Crisis, the outlander

HAZEL
Yuki’s ordinary friend

ECLAIR
Investigative Maid-Knight from the Order of the Aurora

RURIK VESARI
The Hero’s Seneschal

TSANE VESARI
The Hero’s Librarian

CAIR
The Hero’s Factorium

SAYANASTIA “YANA”
The Hero’s Navigator

INJIMO
The Hero’s Lictor

KALENTIA PIOUS
The Hero’s Companion(?)



SUPPORTING CAST

HERON TISERIAN
Reincarnating hero of ages, presently in the heart of the Moon

CIVELIA
Goddess of civilization, reincarnating head of the Civil Church

SULOCHANA ARJU [.realsuloarju]
Princess of the Nagi Mercantile Consortium, Yuki’s friend

PURNIMA KARN-PANA
Member of the Lower Chamber, Sulochana’s rival

TIMTAM
Renegade Maid-Knight

KELI
Entertainer, Sugar
Hazel: “Pretty Little Thing, Isn’t He?”

SELI
Entertainer, Spice
Hazel: “Flusterable Little Thing, Isn’t He?”

MORNING, NOON AND EVENING
The Dreaming Dragons, mistresses of the Order of the Aurora

AADYA, THE ROCK UPON A MOUNTAIN [.rockamt]
Competitive Paladin of Kel, Yuki’s friend

SISTER JUNIPER [.praxispacksis]
Civil nun, with a parish in Khaganate territory

FALLEN FAR
Lunarian in exile




THE INCIDENTALS

ANESH VESSENMER
Maker of dyes and paints, runs the Vessenmer workshop

AMAH VESS-MEKEL
Anesh’s youngest apprentice

LEIKSH
A Vessenmer apprentice

SISTER TAMMITHYN MURR
A Civil nun.

MADELINE
A Maid-Knight and hobbyist tablet musician.

MEL
Western farmer who received a picture from Eclair.

JAKS—
Western farmer who presumably has a longer name.
Eclair!

Even as you study, you are studied. Anesh Vessenmer is tall— or more accurately, since you are the sort of girl to worry about that sort of thing, she lifts herself up off the ground further back on her tail than some other Nagi do. Isn’t it interesting how height is a choice among these people? It’s not intentional; she barely even notices that she’s above you. She’s just used to it.

She sees your discomfort. She sees the flinches. You see the seeing. You see the consideration.

“I can do that for you,” she concedes, closing her hand on the swatch. “But by the Swallow, girl, it’s the Festival of Light! We’re closing in an hour so that I can send these hatchlings off to see Civelia’s performance. Supposed to be something big.” She’s seen big before; she thinks she knows what big looks like. “I was going to coil in the back with my books anyway. Come back in the morning and I’ll tell you what I’ve found.”

She softens, suddenly, unexpectedly— like glass becoming water. “For Heron’s sake, girl, go enjoy yourself tonight. You maids are allowed to do that much, aren’t you?”

The streets outside are loud and tumultuous, true, but they’re not being here for another hour. The choice, as ever, is yours— and speaking of which, do you celebrate the festival at the Mansion? This day of celebrating the many colors brought into the world by Civelia’s sacrifice, the peace and prosperity that the Queen of Light once brought, and the light that we all bring to each other’s lives.

I mean, surely this would be an opportunity for oneupsmaidship, at the very least.




Yuki!

“Duel?”

They say it at the same time, and they harmonize— the same note of surprised realization that, yes, they were very much about to duel. There is a fleeting moment where a song could start, an elegant duet of animosity. But then the Nagi on top of you scoffs and tosses her head, sending her pigtails swaying.

“So that’s your game, Sully!”
(“Shut UP that is NOT my NAME—“)
“You lure me into position like the chess piece—“
(“YOU barged in on ME—“)
“All so that you can ambush me with your vicious trained assassin!”
(“Her NAME is YUKI—“)
“Well, I shan’t have it! Do you hear me, Sully?! I shan’t! The whole city shall know of your perfidy!!”

She flicks her way down the corridor, dragging the length of her red-and-black tail over you, the agitated tip leaving you a ringing slap to the cheek as a farewell. Sulochana doesn’t chase after, but instead insists on helping you up, her fingers covered in rings and delicate chains.

“Do you happen to moonlight as an assassin, dearest?” She asks through bared teeth, doing her best to smile. “I have a pain in my coils that I need shipped on the slow wagon to Aestival.” She brushes you down, hands as sure as ever, turning your chin this way and that to make sure she gets all the bits of rug fluff out of your hair. “Crammed into a small barrel. How much are you charging?”

She barely gives you time to answer before she’s wrapping you in one of her massive hugs, coils looping about you, hands on your hair, kissing the top of your forehead affectionately. “It’s been too long,” she declares with the authority of an empress and the gentleness of the friend who convinced the Consortium to follow you to war. Her calf-soft skin is warm and her polished scales are cool, and there is lavender oil worked into her raven-black hair. “What took you? We’re barely going to have time for dinner at the Ox’s Eye, I have a private booth reservation for us and Civelia after—“

She stops, goes stock-still, stares into your face in growing horror. “Oh, stonecracks, Civelia! Is she here yet? That— I’ll stuff Purnima in that barrel myself!




Handmaidens!

On Yukisworld, they have someone who reincarnates, too. Every time he dies, his Civils watch for children who choose to play with the right toy, and then they know they have found their hero come back around again. That’s never been a problem for either Heron or Civelia, though. The Snare always responded to Heron’s return, and the Outside roils when she comes back around these days.

But Civelia’s always missing her arm. That’s how the Civils know.

Paladins and Civils— name a more iconic pair— glimmer into solidity before the Stone. Many of the Paladins are being used as packmules, carrying luggage and chests without blinking an eye. The Civils, meanwhile, are all in their formal habits: white and blue, their left arms pinned to their sides and covered with a flowing cloak. Terrible balance for dueling, and it means they need the Paladins to haul for them, but it conveys what it needs to: that like their goddess, they are not duelists. They are the helpmates of the world.

The Plaza holds its collective breath.

When Civelia appears, for a moment there is always the Miracle of Appearance. For a moment she is a statue, haloed in cold crisp dazzling starlight, her eyes brimming with it, diamond tears running down her cheeks, the way that she was when Heron first met her, when they first fought against the Dark Dragon. Then the light recedes, and the mortal body of the goddess is what remains. And what remains now, today, is an ancient woman’s soul battling the body of a gangly young woman, barely Yuki’s age, which is itself battling stress acne.

(It is likely that dying in her sleep at her desk two decades ago caused significant delays to this project.)

Hair-un,” she enunciates grandly, sweeping forward and locking eyes with Sayanastia for a moment before, satisfied that the Dark Dragon is behaving, offering Rurik her hand. “We are honored to once more put ourselves in your care. May your valiant heart be at ease, for I shall safeguard and succor it as twere my own.” Her smile is as subtle and refined as she can manage right now; Rurik is quite possibly her favorite of the current crew. She diplomatically does not bring up Sulochana’s absence.

Behind her, one of the Paladins offers Yana a cheeky wave and grin from under the pole holding up a sacral chest, one stamped with the floral crest of Queen Anagesica. The energy is very “what up, go ahead and try something <3”. Next to her, a Civil rolls his eyes and adjusts his cravat with his free hand. Not too surprising: the Paladins fight the goblins of the deep caves a lot, so their view on Yana tends to be either that she’s basically the same thing as a horror of the Outside, or that she’s proof of Heron’s ability to whip even dragons into line and is thus thoroughly defanged.




Hazel!

It’s the perfume, first, and the jangling of bangles— but the perfume most of all. Light but earthy; jasmine and cedarwood. It’s like being wrapped up in a scarf made of soft and flower and girl.

“First time in Crevas, yah?” The way she pronounces that last word makes it sound like there should be a J in there, wrapping its thighs around the H. “It’s the way you’re staring at everything like you didn’t imagine like colors could be like this. Such a tell.”

Glance over at her face, look down shyly, and then snap right back to her face— go right ahead, we both know that’s what you’re going to do. Go ahead and stare at her eyeshadow, and at the flick of her perky ear, and at the veil. It’s hard not to look at, isn’t it? Rich, sumptuous purple, like her eyeshadow and her silks, thin enough that you can make out the shape of her nose and mouth under it, but patterned with subtle fractals of ivy, drawing the eye in. That’s by design, so you can go ahead and appreciate it.

“Yah, you’re lucky that a treat like you hasn’t been snapped up by an enter-prize-ing serpent.” A similar perfume, with hints of brine, hits you from the other side. As does a hip, sending you scooching closer to your left, right up against the obliging bare shoulder waiting there for you. The woman to your right is almost the same, but instead of that rich purple, she’s chosen a bright sea green, edging into white here and there. “You know, when they get their coils around a cute little thing, they know how to squeeze and not let go? Strong enough to burst entire melons, but—“

“Stop it,” Purple says, raising one glittering-nailed hand to her hidden face, “you’re going to scare him, Seli~”

And it all clicks into place. Because Yuki’s told you about those two girls, slightly older than she was, mischievous and conniving, who sold her out to Azaza and claimed that her victory was all part of their plan. It’s just that now (don’t look back down that top, you are doing such a good job of being a good boy) they are still a little older than Yuki, and thus a little older than you, because that’s how time works, yah? Yuki said they were like matching matchsticks, but the two girls flanking you are more like driftwood.

“But really, I remember my first time here,” Keli says, dripping sincerity, her lashes thick with mascara. “It’s a little overwhelming, isn’t it?”

“Bet you haven’t even seen the statue of Sarkez,” Seli says, leaning back, voice grinning for her. Your purse is still there. Quit worrying about it. “They say if you rub her tail, you’ll be lucky in love, yah? Like Han and the Lotus.”

“Or the— ah, careful!” Keli stops the last of the ice cream from melting right out of the little cone, pushing it back towards the center with her fingers, which come away wet.

Those fingers disappear behind her veil, and the little huff of breath she lets out is all the more agonizing for being almost certainly innocent. Surely a girl would not make a noise like that on purpose. The world would not make sense otherwise.
The look of distressed puppy all over Ember’s face melts into confused relief as Bella laughs. She dares to join in with a chuckle, but her brow is furrowed. She might as well be trying to defuse a Vesuvian Crab with a knife. A Vesuvian Crab that she longs to kiss, to hold, to be loved by[1]. That longing is the shape of Ember, and that longing keeps her hoping that she hasn’t done something wrong, something that proves she isn’t the princess that Bella remembers. That somehow even the gods themselves got it wrong, and that other self will come back and apologize for the inconvenience, here’s your real princess, Bella!

And that tension softens as Bella speaks about the Princess Dany, but it doesn’t entirely leave.

“…the first time I saw you,” Ember manages, pulling her hand back, pushing her hair behind her ear, “it was like being punched. Right here.” She demonstrates: her sternum, between her svelte breasts. “I couldn’t get the thought of you out of my head. I sleepwalked through training exercises. I volunteered for scouting missions hoping to get close to you, to be caught by you, to smell you, to touch your hand. And I did. Your pet, your loyal alpha, your Ember. That’s me. But I’m…”

She struggles for the word[2], scrunches her face up exactly like Redana. “…written on top of her. And I don’t know if you can… if I can… the Plousios was our ship, wasn’t it? I know that. I know that. And we had a brave captain who was so soft in my arms, and a daring— or was she the captain— and a garden but I was dancing there with a pack[3], and…”

For a moment she almost has it. But it’s as impossible for her to hold onto as the word. She slumps, disappointed, a disappointment. Crab falls limply from her fingers back onto her plate.

But Bella’s seen that exact slump before, a hundred times, a child frustrated that she can’t keep dinner manners straight in her head.




[1] Claws of Danger… Maxillipeds of Passion!!
[2] palimpest.
[3] her cheeks flush, unconsciously, and she shifts where she sits like a flick of a hip.
“Bella, then.” Do you hear that, Bella? This must really be your princess come back to you from across the impossible gulfs of memory, saying words like that: as if she’d simply chosen how the future would be, and pivoted herself accordingly. Bella is the name that makes you happy; Bella you will be. That’s what she owes to Mosaic lying naked with her in the moonlit flowers of Beri.

The timing is, naturally, wrong. Bella looks up; Ember is looking down, arms up to the elbow in the basket, unearthing the Rex Carcis buried underneath the purple crab tins. Some crabs gain space by having overly long, singularly unnerving limbs; the Rex simply grew a shell the size of the Shield.

Have you asked her about what happened? Will you ever ask her? Do you suspect that she allowed herself to be shot in the hopes of finding her way to you? But that would be as foolish as diving into the Lethe and hoping to find your heart on the other shore.

“Do you think we’ll actually be hungry enough for this?” Ember lifts the Rex, holds it before her, and if you took away the roughness underlying the voice, ignored the small strong claws, and just listened…

It’s like you never left, and it’s just the two of you back in the garden, that small room attempting to be as large as possible, that playplace of farce and arena for assassins. Except the ceiling’s been opened up, and the prim and proper outfit is gone, and the princess on the other side has been devoured by a wolf.

She lowers the crab and meets your eyes, on accident[1]. She sees the tears.

“…I’m doing it wrong. Am I supposed to sit like this?”

And she tucks her legs in and straightens up and curls her tail in, managing to look incredibly unlike Redana Claudius, who was never able to achieve even half of this. And she looks at Bella, the demigoddess of Beri, for approval: hands in her lap, chin lifted regally, ears cocked hopefully.




[1]: naturally.
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