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Don’t despair. That’s what Redana clings to, desperately. Don’t despair. If you give up now, then Odoacer wins. There’ll be a sham wedding, where the bride hobbles down the aisle while the Admiral preens. Don’t forget, she’ll whisper as the sacrifice to Aphrodite is performed, one word from me and your precious little Servitor will be spaced. Now, be a good princess and say I do. And after that... another gilded cage. A cell deep within the flagship, meals delivered by dumbwaiter, a door triple-locked from the outside, and always the threat: one word from me and Bella dies.

So that has to be stopped here and now. There has to be time. She needs time. The longer she can delay Odoacer, the more likely it is that her friends will come to save her, guided by the wisdom of her father. The gods help those who delight them, after all.

She takes a moment to try and steel herself. It’s not easy. Her stomach feels strange, like she’s teetering in the edge of a cliff, nervous and guilty and tight — and that was before Bella wrapped her warm, soft tail around it. There’s a tension taut at her breastbone and a breathlessness in her head that absolutely, totally only has to do with how any breath through her mouth is wet and slobbery. Is it warm in here? She’s so warm. And tingly. Is that because her body’s falling asleep?

If she squirms out of the chain (and she totally could) she’d just be making Odoacer angrier. She can’t fight with her leg still numb and useless, she can’t run away, and she needs to let Odoacer think she has the upper hand completely. That she can gloat.

So instead she rests her head against her shoulder while Bella furiously wiggles behind her. (Fingers accidentally interlace. She feels guilty for how reassuring that feels. Bella is being a real brathead stinkyface right now. And letting her free so she can kill another person is very much the wrong idea![1])

She looks Odoacer in the eye, and then casts her gaze down and flutters her eyelashes like Cassiothe in Danger on Orion VI when she’s captured by the Azora captain. She groans, huskily, around the leather bit in her mouth; spit bubbles on her lower lip; her toes curl in her boots as she keeps going. Look back up, keep your eyes lidded but let her catch you sneak a look, then push out your chest[3] and moan.

Come closer, she says. I’m helpless and all yours, she says. Tell me everything, she invites, wordlessly.

***

[1]: ”You’ve been a very bad girl,” Redana says, going down to one knee to look Bella in the eye. Her bloody-handed Servitor writhes against the steel stocks, her hair messy, her ridiculous skirt hiked up. “And I’m not letting you back out until you’ve been unmurder-trained properly—“[2]

[2]: this is where Redana’s imagination burned itself out out of sheer embarrassment, leaving her to note that maybe Keeping Bella Contained was a good idea.

[3]: this was, comparatively, much less visually impressive than if Bella had done the same thing. Redana has a bad case of Olympians’ Chest[4].

[4]: “two bronze medals,” as the punchline goes. Or “built for archery,” as the polite euphemism goes.

***

[7 on Keep Them Busy!]
"I wanted you to come!"

This is too much. Everything is too much. Her body throbs and aches and Bella is yelling at her so confusingly, everything is getting upended and she needs time to think through everything that's happening, but Bella sounds like she's mad she got left behind and is blaming her for wanting to go on a magical adventure alone and that's not what she wanted, that's never what she wanted, and the unfairness, the unfairness is burning her up and vomiting up words.

"Why do you think I told you? Oh, Bella, I'm going to save Tellus, be sure to have my laundry done when I come back!" This is such a bad idea. She hasn't even thought through what Bella was saying yet. "You and me! It was always supposed to be you and me and then you hit me and what was I supposed to do, cry and go to my room?? And, and it's not a servitor thing! My new friends are servitors too and I don't order them around! And they can pilot ships too so good for you, I guess, but it could have been us piloting that ship because honestly Alexa was not a very good copilot!!" She's babbling and her heart's going faster than Poseidon's tempests.

Thank gentle Aphrodite that Bella does not move at her, so that Redana does not flinch and make that gentle maid's heart shatter into ten thousand fragments. Instead, Redana gets up, wincing and making a strangled noise when she has to put weight on her tainted leg, but she forces herself to stand up and look Bella in the eye. Her cheeks are that mottled red-and-white that they go when she's trying her hardest not to start bawling.

"So thank you, I guess, for going the long way around and killing someone you didn't have to and yelling at me and pretending to be my friend this whole time, you did a great job until I wanted to stop sitting around being useless!!" A wave of nausea hits her and she doubles over, putting her hands on her hips and nearly toppling over. Okay, Dany, breathe. Through your nose. You're not going to throw up on Bella's pretty boots.
||SHAMASH||


OBJECTIVE: One of the High Gods is visiting. The Annunaki are all abuzz, and there will be a triumphal parade from the landing pads on the far side of the city to the Temple of Ishtar, which has recently stepped up their security. Making a play there is foolhardy. No, what we want is to make a play. Preferably one that doesn't lead to us getting nuked from orbit.

OB1: Acquire one of the Fleet Keys that Shamash carries and replace them with these forgeries. The Fleet Keys are concentrated data shaped into rods instead of tablets, hanging upon their breastplate. If #MAT can take one apart, she'll be able to put together a "skeleton key" - something that identifies you to the ship's systems as having the authority of one of the High Gods.
OB2: Identify what Shamash is doing here. Ideally, figure out some way to get them to leave. We don't need the attention on this city in particular.
OB3: do NOT allow yourselves to be compromised. As long as Shamash is here, this city does NOT have revolutionaries. It is law-abiding and smoothly operational. The reprisal would be terrible if anything were otherwise.


***

The chariots are a host darkening the sky. There are at least fifty of them, heavily-armed and expertly piloted. Work crews in Caphtor Below frantically finish their realignment of the intricate hangar systems as they begin their final approach, after seven times soaring over the city. It is impossible to tell which one is piloted not by one of the Annunaki but by Shamash themselves.

If you are human in the city, you are either collapsed in bed after three days of double shifts or rushing to finish your tasks under the watchful eyes of your overseers. There is a nervous mania in the air: what Shamash has decided to do is almost unthinkable, breaking with centuries of tradition. While it is understood that Shamash must by necessity often leave Babylon, they never stoop so low as to descend upon a planet personally. (Excepting, of course, upper atmosphere dogfights, where the unworthy foe seeks to hide in the winds and the clouds, but even then they do not land.) It is not done.

But now it is happening. (And of course, the Annunaki nervously joke, if any of the High Gods were to do this, of course it would be Shamash, wild and free, touched by the spirit of adventure that so define the ab-Shamashi. Of course it is them, and not Ishtar or Ereshkigal.) The rumors as to the reason for their appearance are wild and excited and impossible.

Name your approaches.
Haman ab-Marduk!

The breeze you ordered comes wafting over the garden wall, curling about your guests as they applaud the esoteric that you got for the garden. It is appropriately exotic. The Macaw chanter and Lynx musicians standing by one of the fountains begin their own performance, performing the Twenty-Seventh Prayer of Celebration. It, in turn, is appropriately familiar and soothing. The entire garden moves like a well-oiled mechanism, and this is just as it should be. You appreciate it when everything does what it is supposed to. When things do not work as they should, you are unfortunately forced to press the issue. It's such a bother.

A successful party like this, tastefully restrained, appropriately indulgent, adds to your reputation. Naturally, you are the Seneschal of Caphtor. Of course you are. Why wouldn't you be? You proved yourself in the Hymissian Reach against the foes of the High Gods, fearsome but ultimately pathetic devils and unholy beasts, leading first a company, then a legion, then an entire Expeditionary Force. You secured spoils and broke every weapon that was arrayed against you in the name of the High Gods. Your promotion to civic administration was deserved, as was your rise through the ranks.

You even had three children, one of whom was actually promising. The most the other two can offer is not disappointing you. Not shaming you. You're not meant to break them, after all. Not unless the Inquisitors are circling.

You take a sip of your black wine and breathe through your nose. Yes. All is as it should be.

"My lord," the Thornback hisses apologetically. Your gaze drifts down to it. Your execrable wife's favorite. Maybe that alone makes it worth breaking. You arch a perfect brow and say nothing so viciously that it digs its talons into its own palms. "You have a visitor awaiting your pleasure in the Eightfold Nave. The honored and esteemed Asahel ab-Shamash of the House of White Steel offers his congratulations on this, the celebration of your incomparable daughter's upcoming examinations, and bade me insist on a moment of your time."

You press your drink into its hands and stride away without a word. Asahel. Now what does the Huntsman want with you? He knows you are busy tonight, and he knows better than to waste your time. He is not the first Huntsman of Caphtor you have seen during your administration, and he has wisely kept his distance.

When you enter the Nave, he is pacing in his ridiculous flight-jacket and boots, his veil close-fit to his face. "Haman," he says, with undue familiarity. There is sweat beading on his forehead. "They're coming here."

You take a breath. Your fingers curl. He will regret every word he has just spoken by this time tomorrow. "Slow down," you bid him. "I fear your wits must be addled by the high airs. Take a seat. I will call for drinks."

"No time," Asahel says. "They sent word by courier, they want a hunt prepared for them, suitable accommodations, we will need to advance their feast days--"

The blood turns to ice in your veins. You reach out and take Asahel by the breast, fixing him with the furious eyes that made your soldiers quail and advance time and again from the trenches. "Asahel. What did you overindulge in?"

He wordlessly hands you what he should have offered you from the first: the tablet, golden and gleaming. The commandments, each one carved perfectly. The seal of Shamash, the Breaker of Horses, who turns the stars in their wheels.

For the first time in centuries, one of the High Gods descends upon the unworthy from the heights of Babylon.
When Bella turns, Redana is already looking at her. And the expression on her face is horrified. One hand covers her mouth; her eyes are wide with shock; her every nerve is frozen and taut. She is prey.

She knows, indistinctly, that Bella was, is a trained bodyguard, a last line of defense for the greatest prize of the Empire. But she has never seen anyone die at Bella’s claws before. Never. Never ever! Bella Oystershell Meowmeow is a fussy little maid who’s always worrying and fixing her lady’s hair and blushing whenever someone makes an off-color joke and does a silly little trot in place when she’s flustered!

And watching that calm attentiveness, that worried twist of her lips, that demure lowering of her lids, slip back onto her face is sickening. Redana’s stomach plummets as if someone kicked her legs out from under her. Everything. Everything she thought she knew about her Bella was a lie.

Was she trained before she ever hopped into that box? How long has she been pretending to be her lady’s friend? Her best friend? How many lies has she told her princess, if she can kill someone and then put on the mask of meekness? Was their whole friendship a lie?

That’s why she didn’t want to let you leave.

No. No no no. Bella can tell something’s wrong. Redana can’t get purchase in the mud, can’t get up on her feet, not with one leg now completely numb. Her scramble backwards is ungainly, panicked, her fear palpable. Let her face a dozen hydras, or a legion of thinking machines, or a void dragon, just please don’t make her face the monster in front of her.

She can’t hurt Bella.

And she doesn’t know, can’t know, whether Bella won’t hurt her. For her own good. Jas’o is a crumpled mess and he was an ass and deserved punishment—

Zeus, father, was this the punishment for Jas’o’s hubris? Bella your thunderbolt? The words won’t come out of her mud-clogged throat. All she can do is gurgle and crack her elbow on a rock as the ground slips out from under her again.

Weak. Vulnerable. Pathetic.
“Justice is what the gods demand![1] We might not understand them, but Laxarus[2] teaches us that the gods abhor injustice! At the end of every story, Olympus brings the scale of Themis[3] to rights, and the wicked will fall,” Redana does not say. She thinks it really, really hard! Bella would be so proud of how that semester of Moral Philosophy rubbed off on her!

What she actually says is “Blrmphl hkklkh grrhhhk.” There is mud in her mouth. There is mud on the Auspex. There is mud up her nose. Her fingers scrabble angrily at the boot but find no laces, no purchase. Her limbs flail like serpents, even the one scored by forbidden science.

How dare he? Here, now? How dare he when she just needs a chance to catch her breath? The Nemean will not come; the strain would kill them both. Bella? Aren’t you coming back?

Her fingers fumble through the incantation to summon Alexa, and... nothing. The seal beneath her skin remains inert. So she does need to do the chant. What a way to find out. She can hold her breath a very, very long time, but it’s still making her unpleasantly light-headed. She’ll be as weak as a kitten when Jas’o claps her in chains and drags her up to be carried back to Odoacer as a trophy...

***

[1]: ”But remind me, Thesaa. If justice exists outside the person of the gods, should we not worship it? For surely only that which is most powerful is deserving of worship, and a justice such as yours must be more powerful than the gods, if they abide by it. And if it does not exist outside them, then is justice merely the will of the gods in their judgment? If that is so, why does any one who lives bother to address the gods in the name of justice? Do they think that the gods will change their minds if we act like persistent beggars who keep pace with them as they go about their business?”
The Testament of the First Teacher, retrieved from the Palatial Library of Atlas

[2]: Laxarus, The Comedy and The Tragedy (abridged edition, printed in Ka’anshou)

[3]: ”To Themis, the fumigation of frankincense and attar. Illustrious Themis Ouranopaide, be invoked. First flower of Gaia, virgin of many ramparts! From your hand we learned the first rites of prayer; from your lips came the first prophecy of what might be, should all align. You make the offering proper and the sacrifice just. Be present in this place, Themis Ouranopaide, and regard us with your shining thoughts.”
— The Ant-Rite of Hermes, translated from High Binharic, II.1-13.
”Don’t look at me like that, Bella. Shhhh. The King of Stones and I have a plan, and we’re going to save Tellus. Ow! Quit it! Bella, this is for you! I’m going to save you and everybody else, whether or not you want to come with me, now stop! squirming! and get! in! the! closet!”

***

“Bella!” The name tears her throat open as if made from splintered glass. “Stay, please!”

But she’s gone. Redana pushes herself up onto her palms and looks up at Jas’o. Being abandoned by Bella a second time hurts just as much as the first.

(Except it’s not, right? She’ll be back. She has a clever plan. She’s sneaking on board Jas’o’s shuttle, or preparing to grab him from behind and pull his weapon from his hand, to smack his neck and make him choke and gasp for air while she brushes down her ridiculous new dress and says something like, “You’re lucky no harm came to Her Highness,” with a sniff and a flick of her tail. She can’t have left. She’ll always come back. Even if she’s angry. She wouldn’t leave. She wouldn’t.)

“I’ll give you one more chance to surrender,” she says, blinking rain out of her eyes. Why did Mom have to ban secondary eyelids? “My cause is just. You don’t have a chance.”
Anathet!

“See that you do,” Auntie Rose hisses after a long and deliberately ominous pause. “I expect nothing but the best work from you after the trouble you have caused this household, girl.” By which she means the trouble you’ve caused her. She is the household. She has worked since she was a sapling to be here. Her pride and anger are entwined, and both are thorned.

Then you are dismissed with a wave of a bony, many-ringed hand, and are free to write. What is your magnum opus, your masterpiece, your tale of Annunaki superiority and human folly?

***

Canada!

By the time you’re finished, having been off on your adventures all night long (and you’ll be sleepwalking exhausted through inventory check today), the main hall looks a tiny bit neater and less ruined. Or maybe you’ve just learned to look at it a different way.

The Cat allows herself the indulgence of rubbing up against your leg, once. “There we are, my girl. Sharpened and tempered. Be a knife that cuts through everything on its way to the heart of the sun! Tear open the world and force your way through! It’s your last chance to be happy.”

[She offers you one more label shift before you fall through the mirror: +Danger, -Mundane.]

In the mirror, you look taller. More like yourself. You look like you’re ready to take on the Golden Snake of Calcutta again, and knock out all of its teeth with one punch. All that’s missing is Asterion to whoop for you, Variance to cluck her tongue, and Tirzah to laugh and say: I didn’t see it, do it again! Funny how she must have known a lot more about what was going on than she let on.

***

Étoile!

The rifle’s barrel rests cold against your forehead. (At this distance, it will be very, very dangerous.) And in that moment, you cast yourself to fate. You’ve done all that you can without tearing Marianne free, for all that she might rage inside you. All you can do is trust in your cards and hope your poker face will carry you through as you simper and giggle.

And then Jezcha cracks. The rifle lowers, drifting down until it points between your knees. And she guffaws.

“Tammie, your pet is so stupid!” She pets your head with all the smothering inelegance of someone who never bothered to learn gentleness. You giggle and nuzzle that hand with a dazzling smile, even though it feels like she’s going to mess up your hair and knock you off balance. “I was wrong!”

Wait, what?

“What?” Your Lady sounds absolutely shocked.

“There’s no way she knew what she was doing,” Jezcha says, squishing your cheeks together. “No you didn’t, widdle dirtbrains! You just need to be kept out of trouble so you don’t make the big mean gun accidentally discharge! You want Miss Jezcha to take goooood care of you, don’t you? Don’t you, little zu?”

You screw your courage to the sticking place, do your best to give her a dazzling smile with your eyes, and oink happily like a space pig for Jezcha.

“Pull the ropes off my useless sister,” Jezcha tells her Macaw. “I’ve got a much better toy now.”
Team Train!

In the world above, there exists a certain island that is dreaded by experienced sailors. It is ringed with jagged rocks, which have been the death of many a fine vessel, and on this island live the Sirens. A common misconception is that they are seductive, luring sailors to their doom with quivering bosoms and honeyed bower-songs. The truth is that their songs offer explanation. Come here, they sing, and we will tell you why. We will reveal the movements of the wheels that turn the world; we will pull back the veil and show you the figures of the gods, great and terrible. We will tell you the future by revelation of the past; we will make everything make sense. Everything that happened to you happened for a reason. Come listen. Come listen.

The things that roost here, at the point of Descent, are not sirens. They are antisirens.

Look at one. Marvel at its burnished skin and its three fine feathered heads, singing in harmony about the freedom of forgetting. About your secret shames and your painful regrets. About all the things that chased you down here. Forget, they sing: forget. The world is meaningless and cruel, and the only way to survive is to forget. Knowledge brings suffering. Forget. Forget.

Then you look away, and—

What were you looking at?

There are bones caught in nets that rattle on the edges of this massive whirlpool, this cosmic drain. They are not bleached, but moldy and cracked, as if something with long beaks sucked the marrow out, and...

Was there a way down?

Look again.

There’s a... a thing. Made up of stone things. Leading to... you know, it’s long and stringy. That thing. Which could go down. Down. Down. Drown.

What were you looking at? Why do your ears hurt? Why are you crying? Why are you still alive? Living hurts. Remembering hurts. Nothing matters, nothing has a reason, and nothing never shatters.

[Storytime: 3/9
Adventure GET: 5/21
Up to Date: 1/15
Something To Deal With 2]

So, Dulcey! You’re coming down Apricot Lane (which, ridiculously, is lined with peach trees) when you see a girl up in the air, teetering precariously as she reaches up for a fresh, juicy peach juuuuust out of reach. She’s got to be just so tall. Too bad you can’t see her legs behind the hedge, because, wow! Those would be some legs, right? Real stunners!

Then she happens to notice you and she gasps! Like a real gosh-to-goodness gasp! Not like someone caught stealing peaches but like somebody who’s recognized you! “I think I see Dulcinea,” she squeaks, and up from her legs floats your favorite voice in the whole wide world: “See? I told you this was a good idea!”

She careens out around the hedge at high speeds, shrieking and trying not to lose her balance, and it is revealed that, in fact, Sessily is sitting on my shapely shoulders! “Heya, Dulcy! If you climb up onto Sessily, we can get to the really high peaches!”

“Rinley,” Sessily squeaks, “weren’t we going to give her the present?” And I gasp and hit my fist into my palm, even as Sessily sways unsteadily.

“That’s right! Dulci! I’ve got the best present in the whole world for you, the kind of thing that would fit perfectly with what you’re wearing,” I say, willing the words to be true. Maybe a splash of bright glittery pink is exactly what all that black needs. “But! You’ll only get it after you make us a giant snake!”

“Doesn’t that make it a bribe?”

“No, it’s a present! She’ll freely get it after she freely makes us the snake for the performance!” This is sound logic. Probably the most logicful logic that you’ve ever heard in your life!

This is the part where you drop everything and beg for the chance to help us. When you’re ready. Just go ahead.
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