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The joke, of course, is that (with the Ianuspater quiescent) Redana’s eyepatch really is an eyepatch. She’s back to how she was, in her Coherent jacket and eyepatch, but with her golden hair settling around her shoulders, the dye bleached away by coming so close to her father. And the very first thing she does is shove the Magos to the ground, scared and desperate. “That’s my eye,” she yelps. And then she looks around and sees the oncoming battle, and how she might even be a target for the furious Alcedi, and Hera’s threat flashes through her mind.

So she stands up straight, pulls off her jacket, and yells at the top of her lungs: “Coherents of the Saffron Path, Redana Claudius, daughter of Nero, calls on you to stand down and surrender! In the pursuit of blessed knowledge, you have offended the Daughter of Wisdom and the Alcedi who honor her! Surrender yourselves to me, or face their judgment!”

And that’s all she can hope to do. She can’t pry weapons out of the hands of the Alcedi; she can’t make the Coherents drop theirs. All she can do is make her play.

[8 to Talk Sense (very quickly) with Grace. This will likely put her in an awkward position, but stop the Coherents from being overrun and slain to a man.]
Lucien!

Somewhere, The Fairy's Aire and Death Waltz is being played, enthusiastically and with great technical skill, on a pipe organ threatening to come apart from the violence being done to its keys. But that might be the point. Whatever a clown has become has no greater aspiration in eternity than being able to play something that should, by all rights, be unplayable. The band plays on, and the musical assault whines and howls over the chaos of the storm.

"It's downright magical, ain't it?" The Ringmaster has shucked off whatever he once was. It's impossible to say if he was once human or an animal; he looms like a statue, clothing pulled taut over bulging muscles. His buttons are gleaming gold roughly hammered into shape, and his coat is the rusty red of dried blood. His mouth is a nightmare of crooked knives, and his eyes are hot coals under the brim of his hat. "We haven't had a holler like this in too long, too long. We'll have a right sacrament for you, Pilgrim," he says, to the Professor trying to hide behind his book.

All around, grips tighten on pins and clubs and cleavers. In the midst of the storm, the assembled clowns of the Dark Carnival don't look funny at all. They look like monsters born from a cup of blood, wearing joviality and ridiculousness as an ill-fitting suit. They are a final punchline, mocking the world for thinking that anything could matter at the lip of reality's crucible. And the moment that one of the two feuding magicians wins, as soon as there's a winner on one side or another, they'll go into a feeding frenzy.

And only pieces of Ailee and Evil Jackdaw will be left after that. Very small ones. And a pitcher for blessing the man who doesn't want to go through with becoming immortal. You are, once again, the man of the hour. What's the last cheap trick you've got up your sleeve?

***

Coleman!

"Of course I don't remember," Black Coleman says, sourly: not directed at you, that longsuffering bitterness, but outwards. At this madhouse at the bottom of the drain of reality. "For all I know, you're an Angel trying to test my commitment. Or maybe you're the real one, and I just walked out of the Heart with all my memories no more than an hour old. The Vermissian was our stability, Coles, and with it gone, everything's sliding down into the Heart itself."

He squats down on his haunches and gives Sasha a lookover. "Though I've been thinking a lot about how things went down, back when I had to hatch Sasha myself down there. Maybe if I had the thought earlier, things wouldn't have gotten so bad. I thought I had to make her something that could survive the rails. But maybe what we really need is something that makes the rails better."

***

Jackdaw!

The Heart regards you in the dark with... not indifference. A lack of answers. A hole in the world that broken people climb down into to try to find something that's important enough to risk everything for.

In the dark, Wolf pulls you closer. She's still so skinny. So painfully thin. But there's a wiry strength in her that makes clinging to her easy. She strokes the back of your head and silently invites you to let the tears flow. The world is huge and cruel and doesn't make any sense at all, and the Heart is huge and cruel and eats sense for dinner, but the two of you are small and kind anyway. That's the secret, the one that she can't say out loud because she suffers from a scarcity of words just as you have too many, and for much the same reasons.

Two hurt and broken people hold each other, and the Heart watches from all around, in the wet and the dark and the silent. No. Not silent. A low drum. A heartbeat. A pulse in the dark. An absence of words. And in its presence, the boundaries between identities become more fluid. Wolf has opened herself to you, and you in turn to Wolf, and words are unnecessary here.

Roll to Speak Softly with Wolf, or to Speak Softly with the Heart, as you choose.
"Consulting fees!"

Cyanis soars in a graceful arc up into the air, still clinging to a still life. She curls all of her limbs around it for dear life as she comes hurtling back down right into Rose's crushing grip, the monk having cleared a space around them with a two-handed sweep of her staff. She grimly bites down on it as Rose tries to shake it loose from her grip. No! No dropping the painting! It's hers!!

"Oh, really? And what exactly were you consulting on, little thief?" Rose carries her under one arm and runs nimbly down a handrail towards the waiting car where Yue and Hyra are scrambling in. The smile on Rose's face as she sees Yue managing to carry Hyra is the very eye of the storm, so sweet that hearts would melt just to see it. Unfortunately, she is fending off Assault Ribbons and dangling a very naughty fox from one arm, so there's no one there to witness her tenderness.

"Well, as you know," Cyanis chirps haughtily, doing her best to balance necklaces on her tail without letting them fall off, "Princess Qiu intends to conquer the Nine Kingdoms and prove, once and for all, that she is the best! That is some top-notch villainy! So naturally she needed some advice on how to make her dreams come true, because that's all that we foxes do!" She leans her head back and beams pure, distraught innocence right into Rose's forehead chakra. "And then she paid me for my services because unlike some people she knows that all labor should be ethically compensateeeeeeeeeed!"

Up she goes, and back down she goes. Rose catches the frame of the painting and swings it around in a circle, warding off Assault Ribbons with a screaming foxgirl. Cyanis scrabbles on the frame until the centrifugal force is too much, and she is flung yowling into the air. Rose, for her part, tosses the painting to the Assault Ribbon creeping up on her and then races to catch Cyanis before she can hit the ground. She has to dive and curl up around her in a very rough and bumpy roll, but she manages to do it, fulfilling her commitment to both preventing fox crimes and protecting cuties. Then she has to run with Cyanis scrabbling and climbing around her face and shoulders, trying to distract her for the perfect escape, wailing as she trails her consulting fees in her wake, and in general being a huge distraction.

Rose tosses her into the car through a door graciously opened by Hyra. Cyanis doesn't even hit the ground before she's turned herself around and flings herself back out, right into Rose's arms. Rose buckles them both in with the same seatbelt and nods for Yue to hit it, before resting her head on the well-named headrest a moment too soon. Turns out that it's more of a head-smack when Yue's trying to figure out how to drive stick.

"Why in the name of the right path are you acting like this, fox?" Rose said, holding the suddenly very suspiciously unprotesting fox in her arms. "Just because you thought you could steal something from under my very nose? Or did you think you could escape me?" The very thought! Even if it had been a test of all her skills to keep Cyanis in check while also managing to escape, she'd done it. She was the best at fulfilling the will of the Way and the law of the land.

"Should have known better," Cyanis said with feigned grumpiness, tail wagging between Rose's ankles. "Nothing gets past you." Her cutiebeans ears twitch just underneath the name tag: ~Rose~ She may have been caught, but her honor as a fox remains pure. Sure, maybe Rose from the River will drag her off to cutie jail now, but she'll always remember the moment when she realizes Cyanis managed to collar her without her even noticing. She hums, the true mark of the unsuspicious, right up until the car accelerates and slams her head back into soft fluffy heaven.
The spirit that stalks through the dream is not the Nemean, mighty and untamed. She is not a Coherent, shielded with a shimmering shroud of stolen time. She is not one of the predators who make stagnant stasis zones their hunting grounds, a ripple of unscales and clock-crooked teeth. But she is something like all three.

She does not make of her wand of empty space a bow of light worthy of bearing the Astra of Apollo, those war-ending devastations. She takes the shape of the wand and it becomes the shape of that bow, and when she draws it to her cheek, the shining absence of heavenly darts pin the falling ships to the sky and tear through Coherent shrouds like tissue, leaving them defenseless in the time that once was.

The trick, however? Easy enough to eventually pick up on. These are the warriors of the Saffron Order, after all; they know time and its games. Redana is here, and Redana is her mantle. She is not drawing power, painfully, from the quantum possibility of the Nemean, sideways; she is mantled by the Redana who will be. An excellent object lesson in the Twenty-First Mystery. This foreshadowing, this back-cast shadow?

It can last only so long as Redana flits from angle to angle, scene to scene, within this temporal panorama. Simply do the impossible— lay a hand on her— and she will revert almost to her former self. And so the net tightens around her, even as she dances laughing from moment to moment in those tall white boots, her hair following her like a tail, her face harder and harder to look upon for the radiance of her crown and her smile. Fair and terrible she makes herself, a child of the gods—

But every dance eventually ends. Haven’t we heard that lesson once already today?

[A beautiful 5 on keeping the Coherents busy.]
Constance takes the rooms in— more luxury than she’s ever had in her life, certainly. Her own furnishings back home? They’re quite modest. She is a representative of the old faith, not a member of the nobility.

So for his kindness and care, the knight receives a smile as delicate as the snowflake that lands on the back of one’s palm. “Thank you, Sir Harold,” she says. “This is more than I had hoped. May the castle remember your service when we are both departed.”

Behind her, Tristan lets out a little whoop of joy, and Constance exhales through her nostrils in something that is almost, impossibly, laughter.
The collar hits her lap with more weight than it should have— or is that simply Rose’s perception? She’s sitting up now, back to that simple black pillar. One finger runs along the simple, humiliating studs. (As if she were some dog! Not even the fine gold of Ys!) The name is written in the flourish of elegant curves, a reminder of a mistress’s refinement.

Then she is on her feet, and that tattered twilight-orange robe blossoms between the two of them. It takes Qiu only a moment to make a perfect cut right through, but that is moment enough for Rose to pull the Conciliatory Ice-Star Blade from the pillar with a scream of effort. Then it changes in her hands into a staff once more, and the collar swings jauntily on one end of it.

“Your offer is so sudden, your insufferableness,” Rose from the River says, hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. “You can hardly expect me to make a decision so weighty in haste! We’ll call it a draw for now, shall we?”

But both of them know that Qiu won, and that’s obvious as Qiu allows her to disengage, still carrying that collar on the end of her staff. Rose shows her the courtesy of walking backwards, keeping her eyes on Qiu, rather than showing the disrespect of turning and walking away. She might be impish in this moment of defeat, but she’s not that cocky. Not after a display of swordsmanship like that. As it is said,

A sudden hiss, a coming to blows;
then the defeated leaves, tail lowered.
When cats come to blows, they show mercy;
shall their masters show anything less?
"Father Zeus," Pria spoke, under the thunder of the war in Heaven, trapped beneath the cast-off vambrace of the Orleans, which even now reeled from the lance-thrusts through its breast, and its reactor vented in columns of fire speckled with the colors of the aurora, the deep places of the sky; it would come to rest in the deep places of the water, and its honored passages be no more than the road-ways of the fish who gleam with those same colors, for all belong to the Lord of the Depths. "Glorious and great! Spare me, and see me safely home, where I have left my clutch in incubation, and promised to return to them. If I am to live, send me a sign; show me one of the birds of good omen, that I might see it and know I am not meant for the Halls of Hades, where there is only slumber on a dark bed, dreamless and without stirring."

Zeus, Lord of Counsel, heard her prayer. Forthwith she sent the kingfisher, whose breast is smeared with blood and whose wings are the colors of the shallow waters, and the red light of dusk gleamed on the wings of the swift hunter, who darts through danger without misfortune. And seeing this, she redoubled her efforts, and dug her fingers into the sand, straining with the very dregs of her strength to work her way from beneath the ruin of lance-slagged metal. But she was sorely wounded, and her legs twisted beneath her; many weeks would she spend in the care of an autosurgeon, were she to live. And seeing this, Zeus sent forth one disposed to escort those on their way, guide and guardian, slayer of the living dead, player of the electric strings.

Forthwith she bound on glittering sandals, with which she could dart faster than the Hind of Artemis; in one hand she bore a wand of power which was the impression of a shape, with which she could turn aside disaster and say: be not as it was. To look at, she was like a young woman of noble birth in the heyday of her youth and beauty, with the skin of a great lion draped over one shoulder. And when Pria saw her, she took her for Zeus in the form of a youth; but her eyes were shining green and blue.

"Thunderer, save me," she cried; and the champion of Zeus took the vambrace of the Orleans and with a great cry overturned it, as the wild boar hooks its tusks beneath the belly of a turtle. Then she took Pria up in her arms with great care, and said, "Honored grandmother, you do not die today." And at these words, Pria wondered; but then the champion of Zeus touched her forehead with the wand which was not, and sleep overtook her. To the Violet Ward the champion bore her on swift feet, and laid her down on a cot, and she breathed good fortune and renewed spirit into the daughter of Calybe.

Then on light feet she returned to the battle, and without weapon she roamed fearlessly on the beach, and dived into the sea to aid those who fell from the heights of the sky, and wherever the Alced were hard-pressed there she came to bear away the fallen and bring solace to the dead. And her hair was a shroud of gold over her shoulders, and where she came the battle stilled and turned aside, and the Alcedi gave her the name Epimelios, guardian of the flock.
“It is the duty of a knight not to be swayed by dragons,” Constance says, as bitter as yarrow. “No, Tristan, that one will not see judgment here; she has already been judged, and one day— may it be soon!— it will catch up with her. But Robena should have been better. She should have known better. I...”

She trails off, circling self-recrimination again. Then, with the briskness of a winter gust: “Tristan, let us go with Sir Harold and see to the rooms.”
"Tch... you damn brat!"

Impossibly, Rose from the River has lost her cool. The Conciliatory Ice-Star Blade flows through shapes like water, but its tip is driven into the crack between two tiles. One of Rose's tight vine-braids comes loose, the ties around it snapping, and her too-thick-to-be-hair curls like the leaves of a fern in the rain. When she looks up at Qiu, her serpent's slits throb with passion, reflecting the ice-and-fire war raging in her own heart.

"Where do you think you get off... hnngh!" Qiu's blade kisses her cheek, and her fingers fly there just a moment too slow. Another strip of orange flutters to the ground. (Orange she wasn't wearing this morning; blame the stylization. A conical hat lies askew on the tiles; her practical black top peeks through the long gashes in the robe, which is much more striking in its damage, and isn't that what matters right now?) "You think I'm going to roll over meekly for you?"

(No, her heart sings: she's going to take those strips and wrap them tight around you, bind those swordplaying wrists fast and pinch your nose shut so she can cram in...)

Rose from the River makes a sound like a thousand-year-old tree being uprooted, all groan of roots and scream of branches, and darts into a nameless style we'll call Move Like Armies Form. She moves so fast, stones shattering underneath her feet, that she leaves afterimages to surround Qiu in a ring of illusions, only to strike from behind. Qiu stands still and blocks the strike without so much as looking behind her. The wind roars through the pillars as the air catches up to their swords.

Rose jumps, leaping from pillar to pillar, stone crunching under her terrible fingers, and then descends like a broken space elevator, howling. Qiu calmly vacates the landing zone, riding the rippling current of Rose's impact on the buckling flagstones, and makes it look easy. When Rose flings herself after, taking her blade in both hands and swinging it like a claymore, Qiu has already moved out of the way of every swing before Rose so much as makes it, and each swing is punished: hiss, hiss, hiss! Like a wasp, Qiu's sword flickers in and out, stinging Rose's skin and reducing that robe of the twilight sun to nothing but tatters, tatters draped over her like a shroud.

There: Qiu makes to block, and Rose surges forward like a hungry sea to slam her weight, her strength, her throbbing lunar blade, all of herself against this waif of a girl who thinks herself better. And at the very moment it is too late to do anything but follow through with the blow meant to pin her fast against a pillar, to drive the Conciliatory Ice-Star Blade through her dress like a spike and crush the breath out of her pretty lips with shoulder and hip, Qiu melts away, ducking impossibly low, leg swinging wide to unbalance the monk. Rose hits the pillar and then the ground hard in quick succession, and before she can stand up, one high heel presses insistently on the back of her head, pushing her back down. The sun gleams mercilessly on the hilt of the Conciliatory Ice-Star Blade, sunken to the crossguard in the black stone of the pillar.

Her heart is racing. It hammers against ribs and lungs heedlessly, howling incomprehensibly about brats and how dangerous it is to be helpless and how no one is ever going to take her seriously again and how her body is a fire from the skin down to the very marrow, and when she tries to raise her head, Qiu exerts the slightest pressure and the head goes back down. If there is any mercy, let no one be watching.

Then the shoe is removed, and Rose traitorously feels disappointed.

"Well?" This time she stays down. "Please, don't let me interrupt your victory gloating, your most excellentness, your royal pain-in-the-ass!" (No self-reflection on her judgment of Qiu. Absolutely none.) "After all, if the Way meant for you to lose here, it..."

It would have sent someone who wasn't Rose. The realization of her own pride slams into her like a mountain falling on her back. She'd not just failed herself, she'd failed the Way-- unless this was exactly what she was meant to do, meant to learn, and the proper harmony of the universe required her to be...!! (No, surely not, that's her petals doing the thinking for her, wanting Qiu to conquer her properly, to be reassured that she didn't have to choose between her own lust and her duty to the good of all things.) Her thoughts run round and round in circles, barking at each other like dogs, and all the while Qiu looks down at her, face hidden by the light of the sun surrounding her head as a halo.
Redana stands, fingers interlaced with those of the King of Heaven. For a moment she stands, sways, does not fall. Then she pulls Zeus of the Outcasts into a tight and furious hug, the kind that would overwhelm anyone else.

“Thank you for not giving up on me,” she says. “I promise. I won’t give up on them. No matter what it takes. The Alcedi, Alexa, Dolce and Vasilly... I’ll stand up for them.

She releases her father, wipes her face on the back of her hand with a very undignified sound, and then flashes her father a sheepish smile, all vulnerability and rippling will. “King of Kings,” she says, the words a well-worn groove. “Smile on me until the wreath is won.”

And with that, she runs for the door like it’s another finish line.
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