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Chen!

Princess Jessic has a palace - a place of power, mastery, and the realization of visions. She also has a house. It's a smaller little annex, comfortable and soft, filled with all the pursuits and hobbies that don't fit into her Princessly image. Three walls are shelves groaning to hold the weight of manga books. Some sense of organization was made once in the past but the collection outgrew that system and now surplus books are crammed into every gap, books stacked to fill every inch of shelf space but not quite yet spilling out into the floor. A large central floor heater is ignited with a passing breath of dragonflame causing the temperature to raise sharply before Jessic hurriedly turns it down. An array of couches surround the heater and is that - ah, yes. There are the excess books, hidden underneath the couches. Stories did mention that dragons liked to sleep on top of their treasures.

With a series of quick vocalizations the lights dim and a projector starts to run, covering the fourth and empty wall with a large projected movie screen. A few claw gestures and the screen had resolved to a title: Magical Girl * Ydian!

+This is a good starting place!+ thought Jessic. +It's about - well, I don't want to spoil too much. But I've found it's hard to know how to be without a hero to aspire to, and that's what these stories are about. Heroes, the girls who become them, and the trials they have to go through to get there. Oh and this is technically part two of an ongoing series but the author was really finding her feet during the first part so all you've really got to know is that there was a war where the main character's grandmother broke the Wheel of Reincarnation and now people can turn into demons or reach enlightenment within a single lifetime and an order of fortune tellers was founded in order to predict which would do which and they destroyed the King of Darkness but that was fifty years ago and he's a good guy now. Got it? Let's go!+

And so your education begins.

Rose!

If you were insufficiently endowed before, Rose, you are not so now. Not with all the gems, necklaces and exotic shadowsilks Cyanis has stuffed down the front of your dress. Your arms strain to carry all the paintings that she has placed within them, and she has wrapped you in a heavy cloak heavy with pockets stuffed full with even more treasures. Every so often she finds some new gem or portrait, does some mental calculus, and then empties one of your pockets so that she can replace the contents with higher value items. Sometimes she gets out a phone and tithes to the Scales of Meaning to check prices she's not sure about. Isn't she such a diligent businessfox!

Walking gracefully under all this weight is a real challenge indeed though! Roll to defy disaster with Grace to see if you should happen to stumble and alert any guards!

Yue!

One day of training, one day of rest. One day to sit and watch the clouds pass by at close range, to watch the brilliantly coloured biplanes swirl and dance. One day to listen to the street musicians with their meandering violins and watch the elderly men stain their hands deep with earth so rich it is almost violet as they prepare the city's many public flower boxes for when they will bloom in the spring. One day to taste beetroots that are like an ocean filled with as much sugar as salt and see a community come together to cheer the launching of a new balloon. One day to watch a hackysack game run for an improbably long time, the young men involved preternaturally skilled at keeping that beanbag in the air, and then meet a stranger taking a dozy owl for a walk. One day to rest and you've barely scratched the surface of the ways in which you might rest in the Sky Castle.

One day to spend in blissful harmony with Hyra, your girlfriend, who experiences it all with you there by your side.

When the sun dips down over the horizon and the lights of the Arena come on, announcing your battle is to begin, you are as rested and calmed and filled with light and life as a girl might be. In the distance you hear your name called and hear the rising roar of the crowd and you know that it's your time. As the portcullis of the arena rises before you and bids you to enter, Hyra takes a red kerchief from her pocket and ties it around your neck - for after all, a knight can't go to battle without her lady's favour.
Much has been said thus far about yearning and desire. Enough. We talk instead today about politics.

To operate under the auspices of one of the great Bureas of Heaven is to be an a thread on their lyres. Pulled and plucked and tightened and disrupted or neglected in turn to play a music only the the Sun of Heaven may hear. But though they be a band of five, the Maidens, like every other band, desire nothing more than to subordinate all the others to their creative direction[1][2]. Where Mars seeks to pound the world into a crater with her howling power-ballads and Mercury wishes to inspire everyone with her pure-hearted heroine act, it falls to Venus and her vast and mighty Bureau to put away their niche genres until the second half of the album. Until the singles are over they are to stay on backing guitar where they belong.

So there are disputes. Given that Mars' suggestion for settling the disputes[3] was vetoed, the alternative is to wait until the Pattern Crabs decide that a certain individual has a load bearing destiny. Once located the idea is to make sure that destiny collapses as massively in your direction as possible. If Mars had twisted the arm of Venus while Iupiter chewed upon her ear and breathily entreated her to share her perfect-world ideas for the young princess-knight Kalaya, she might have said "A number of extraordinarily thrilling and ego-boosting low-commitment sexual encounters render her a devilish flirt to rival the Red Wolf, which naturally forms an escalating rivalry between the two until together they break every heart in the Flower Kingdoms except each other's, and at that point they can have True Love". Under the circumstances, though, Venus would simply be happy if the idiot girl simply knocked it off with all this knightly bullshit, or at the very least kept it confined to courtly duels rather than riding around the countryside getting in unsexy brawls with no-name demons.

In case it was not obvious: Venus hates being made happy. If she is going to go through the trouble of commandeering a Celestial Lion and sending it all the way out here to the fucking sticks she expects to get everything she wants and a foot massage. It would arguably be less dangerous to return to the Heavenly City with a straight-up failure under her belt than a partial victory because then, at least, Venus would be distracted by the other Maidens putting her in her place.

"Well observed," said Zhaojun, raising her hand to approvingly scratch Vixen's ears. "Unfortunately I have need of your charms for something other than my own pleasure. We need to boost this girl's desirability until every maiden in these kingdoms seeks to throw themselves at her feet, and we need to boost her ego until she starts using them as foot-stools. Such is the will of Heaven and will no doubt prevent some sort of disaster[4]. You need to seduce her."

She does not bow to the approaching knights - she is in the role of a goddess and will bow to no mortal - but she does, perhaps unnecessarily, let her petting hand form into a grip on the back of Vixen's head and push her down into a deep bow. Her eyes burn azure-bright as the stars fade against the back of her head as she stares at Kalaya; stars, surely, for if it were faerie venom she saw it would no doubt seem entirely different and immediately obvious, for the rakshasa are not subtle creatures.

"Kalaya," she said aloud. "You are expected."

[Figure Out: 6]

[1] Excepting Saturn, that subby bitch.
[2] The fact that desire lies at the hearts of their actions should, in a just cosmos, render Venus the chief amongst them.
[3] Mud wrestling
[4] According to the Bureau of Serenity, Venus not being in charge is definitionally a disaster.
Alexa!

You have asked one of the Coherent about body modification. A door has been opened.

Members of cults, secret societies, religious orders and fandoms all have a common look in their eye when they're invited to talk about the subject of their passion. Ramses is thrilled to have the opportunity to talk in this way and veers between missionary passion and splicer technobabble. Tongues for pleasure, tongues for utility, tongues for weaponry. Do you want to catch arrows from the sky with a frog tongue or be able to taste the air as a snake? Do you want a tongue that can appreciate the most exotic spices and flavours of the galaxy's culinary traditions or one that'll find that same pleasure in licking salt off rocks? Do you want a tongue designed for cleaning fur, or one designed to clean your eyeballs?

The only answer that might confuse Ramses is a request for a 'normal' tongue. That word simply means nothing to him.

Vasilia!

"Unnecessary. Silence is as deafening as headphones," said Iskarot, flipping the fridge back into place. "Sometimes revelation is too distant to hear through no fault of one's own."

He clattered into a seat, mess of limbs arranging themselves around it. "What is your genetic function? The sheep I comprehend as a menial, but you are a predator-kin. You do not appear to be designed for organized warfare and your instinctive mannerisms are incorrect for a pet. Inquisitorial staff, perhaps?"

XIII!

Thist does not argue the point. Instead she switches tack, flowing back into a smile as she surreptitiously produces a box of fluffy linen tissues from desk drawer and pushes them across the table. "So you need to find this Redana!" she said. "At the first instance I'd suggest talking to the Orrery - that's the fleet headquarters - because they manage customs and border patrol. Oh, no, actually that's a good question - do you want to make this an official matter? The Orrery does report to the Party, and the report could go as high as the Shah. The alternative is that you look to hire a Warband. Warbands are, ah, Ares worshippers on the Path of the Mighty, and they're not the sanest of sorts, but I know a couple you might be able to have lucid conversations with."

There are so many points Thist could press, so many attacks she could make on your exhausted and over-extended ideology, but she doesn't. Neither does she question what you have told her or that you would be able to prove yourself as an agent of the Empire. While her lack of aggression is appreciated, it's also coldly galling. Tellus was raised on the stories of Nero's defeat of the Azura. It seemed a civilization defining, epoch marking triumph that shattered this species' power forever. It was a mark of pride for every being on Tellus.

And yet Thelis Thist has no emotional investment in the conflict whatsoever. Tellus seems to her a historical curiosity; your presence as perhaps that of a king from some far distant world - worthy of respect and polite interest, certainly, but not awed by your power or what fearful of what your presence might mean. To her, Tellus, Nero and humanity are simply ancient history, and not history she took the time to study.
Different. Robena has had no shortage of admiring looks the world over. Strength and prowess are eminently easy for people to comprehend and her to demonstrate. She has had knights throw their blades at her feet and beg for mercy, children throw themselves at her feet and beg to be her squire, and maidens throw themselves at her feet and just plain beg. Admiration is almost a natural state of being.

She finds it troublesome now. She is not attempting to demonstrate her skill, she is attempting to rediscover a morality that slipped through her fingers like Syrian sands. How is she meant to tell if she is doing correctly if simple strength wins her acclaim and morality wins her none? But then, she thinks, perhaps that is simply the way of things. Nobody who was ever renowned for being just was not first mighty. Perhaps the answer for her is not in fame against humility, but fame against infamy?

It is deep in such thoughts that she returns to the castle, once more locked in the silent tower of her mind.
One does not visit the intentions of Iupiter. To invest a secret with power is to place yourself in her hands. To seek mystery and revelation is to light your way with incorrect stars. Navigate ever by only one constellation.

Likewise, one does not visit the intentions of Mars. To invest your enemies with respect and strive against them is to place yourself in her hands. To fear and prepare for coming battles is to light your way with incorrect stars. Navigate ever by only one constellation.

By this divine logic, Zhaojun brushes away all concern that may arise from the threats of Six Sounds Starving and priestess Crane. Instead she feels serenity. She feels the serenity of victory, the serenity of having stolen hearts, the serenity of being desired and desiring nothing. She is in alignment with the stars and all outside the stars is simply night time sky.

And so she sweeps the Vixen around the waist and pulls her close. "If we move more swiftly still," she said, brilliance behind the blue eyes of her masks, "she shall be conquered before the moon has risen in the evening. Then, perhaps, I will have time for you alone, little priestess."
Chen!

+...+

Just because Jessic isn't thinking words at you doesn't mean she's not thinking. Her thoughts expand outwards, inhuman and complex, weaving in and out of each other in lines of strange structure as she visualizes everything you have said, the maze of words you have woven for her and seeking some way through. The thoughts flash beige and black and then - vibrant pink.

+... Princess Chen,+ the thoughts eventually resolved into something directed, +There is a point that I want to make here but it's too complicated to express in words alone. I'm going to have to introduce you to something even more powerful than myself.+

She got to her feet and offered her foreclaw to help you stand too. Her eyes are bright with utmost sincerity.

+I am going to have to introduce you to anime.+

Rose!

You are cleaning; you are dancing. The two should be the same! It takes all of your attention to be so oblivious, all of your focus to be so empty, falling down the well of a deeper meditation than your martial masters ever taught you until -

"Psst! Rose!"

The voice of a fox cuts through it all.

"I didn't recognize you at first!" said Cyanis, pulling down her veil immodestly so she can give you a smile and wink ass he wraps her arm around your bare shoulders. "You're looking great! Anyway, so, the thing is, I have some totally legitimate fox business around here and I thought, 'Who is a girl good enough to help a pure-hearted fox move some money around so she doesn't get robbed by corrupt city guards?' and your name came immediately to mind! So how about it, cutie? Ready to help protect a poor, innocent vixen from those cold-hearted fiends who want to imprison her in a harem?"

Yue!

"So, good news and bad news!" said Hyra over dinner. She cooks in the style of the Western Plains; thick, earthy food with potatoes and peas and eggplant and African spices; the flavours of the savannah and red soil. "The good news is that I'm three days away from having a spell that I think might help with this curse!"

She flourishes with her chopsticks, swish-swish-clack! She's honestly showing off a bit with how she can weave them through, but one can't hold that against her given how long she spent without fingers.

"The bad news is that your first arena duel is in two days," she said. "So I figure, one more day of intense training and then one day of total rest and relaxation. You ready to give me your best one more time, Yue?"

When time for training begins, Hyra's style has totally changed. It's so startling that the only possibility is that she's learned a bit about your upcoming opponent and is doing her best to imitate that style. Now she's not flowing, teasing, tricking - she's set her feet solidly and only takes a step when she knows it can't be interfered with. It's nowhere near as powerful as her normal style, at least in her hands, but it does mean you're starting again from scratch when it comes to figuring her out.
The constellations in her mind were foxes and the foxes were running, fox-fire spreading from their tails and igniting the firmament of the night sky in trails behind them like the comets of falling gods. Run enough foxes for long enough and the sky might become a net.

"Do not fool yourself," said Zhaojun, her feet begin to move into a dance - the venom rendered her too unsteady to stay still. Her firewand matched the fae's movements, but she imagined she was leading. "I am here to fit you for a collar. You are to be bought under celestial administration that you might assist with the proper functioning of the world. You are... but a stepping stone for me." Her chest rose and fell, breathing heavier than this slow waltz should call for. "I pursue larger and more important quarry and would have your service. What must I do to bring you to heel, rakshasa?"

[Call upon a toxic power: 4]
Redana!

It is Hades who stands before you now. Hades, blue eyed burning and furious, saying words that you cannot hear. Hades pointing, Hades snarling, Hades unfolding into something beyond being but folding back into a black pyramid paperweight reflected in the shine of Dionysus' mirror-mask.

Dionysus puts its hand around your shoulders. It has got you.

Apollo is next. Appearing meditative, calm - and in the next minute, headless. Dionysus has decapitated him and put his head back on upside-down turning his benevolent smile into a thoughtful and painted frown. Apollo maintains his composure but you can't as the god of solar peace comes to seem comical.

Dionysus pats your shoulder. It has got you.

Poseidon is the last to try and stop you, face dark and storming and patterned with warning of the terrible risks if you venture back into the storm he generously provided to speed your path. The spotlight from Dionysus' eyes cuts right through into the heart of his hood and cloak revealing the layers of space fish and space squid and space seals and space seagulls and the full fascinating ecosystem contained therein, and how cool it is how often those creatures wind up turning into space crabs in the end.

Dionysus gives you a drink. It has got you. It'll pull the galaxy apart for you, god by god, star by star. Don't even, girl. You got this and it has got you.

Tell us of the scene Dolce finds when he finds you two.

Alexa!

"Who the fuck starts journeys with destinations in mind?" said Ramses. "That's not a journey, that's a commute. Journeys aren't about destinations, they're about the ship you choose to take you there."

He takes your hand in his; hard, rough strong. "When I rebuilt this body," he said, "I wasn't thinking if it was the one that was right for me. I was thinking if it was right for right now. So who do you want to be right now?"

Vasilia!

"It requires a narrow band of emotional identity where you have risen to a position of prestige within a tiny bubble without comprehension of a wider external world," said Iskarot, sparks from his welding doing nothing to illuminate his shadowy features. "Stability is constructed on ignorance. Revelation inspires journeys, internal or otherwise."

Dolce!

Different civilizations have different understandings of the Gods. You don't grasp the deep, primal bond the Alcedi have with Zeus and how they can channel her favour so decisively through this ritual. Likewise, they don't understand the subtler, more technical manifestations of Artemis' craft. They worship her in old ways, traditional ways - outdated ways. What are their fetishes and tokens compared to your perfectly annotated paperwork?

They find out the hard way when one of them takes another shot at you, misses and hits Iskarot - who does not miss with his return volley. By the time the Hermetic has concluded his rampage three of the contestants have dropped out of the contest due to injury or fear. The general attrition of the contest drops two more, reduing twelve to seven.

Soon following you get two notices accepting your offer to meet, and five elaborate towering glyph-totems constructed outside your quarters giving you full notice that you are being hunted in full accordance with protocol. Still, though, that means you've got some time - which you'll need, because you just got word that Redana has commanded that the ship turn around and head back the way you came. Write your next address to Redana.

Bella!

Thist's manner changes. Of course it does. She now knows that you are a vessel of Imperial power, in service to the Azurius who rendered this empire unto ruin. She knows that her pitiful civilization exists at the pleasure of the one you serve -

She pulls a plastic bag full of some thick peanuts from a desk drawer, messily scatters them in front of you, then loudly cracks a shell and swallows the nut whole. She gestures at you to eat, and after another moment of rummaging finds a half-finished bottle of a pale blue liquid. It tastes like the chemical byproduct of some industrial process, which is to say: delicious. Unnatural, yes, but filled with the heavy metals and complex elements that your biology craves to build bones that can shatter stone.

You're halfway done with the bottle before you realize that Thist's expression is just thoughtful. Just thoughtful. Lidded eyes, a mouthful of peanut and senth smoke. She's doing calculations, but you can't sense the elevated heartrate or a rush of adrenaline any of the mannerisms that would indicate that she's dealing with a civilizational level issue. Is her body language that alien? Or does she not understand? Or... no. She couldn't possibly understand.

"Regarding the gods," she said slowly, letting the smoke coil around the fork of her tongue. "The sacrifice of material possessions is not the custom here any more. There was a whole schism, but suffice it to say that there are some influential philosophers called Burning Masters who believe that the gods are far better honoured through oaths and deeds than items."

The silence falls again as she returns to her thought and your mind reels that she still doesn't seem shocked. Then she gestures with a coin (you can control it with just a gesture?) and a book is carried to her from across the room. She opens it and flicks through a through pages -

"Oh, shit," she said, eyes widening. "Nero IV? She's still alive? I haven't heard that name since... I think it came up in my Terminus and Party course in college? Wow, that's a blast from the past. You're for real? Uh, so, just to catch you up, basically as far as we're aware the Empire collapsed following the Battle of Watersweld Binary. Annexation teams have been salvaging, raiding and settling former Imperial territory for hundreds of years without even a whisper of opposition. So there's a princess now? Huh. Neat."
Chen!

+So to summarize, you don't really have a strong relationship with anybody yet,+ thought Jessic. +And that makes sense. You're very young and you're also very offline so you don't have history or long distance relationships to call on. You're engaged in a clash of hearts with people your heart is pretty ambivalent about. No wonder you're finding it hard.+

She shifts about, lying down flat across the bench. +And this isn't a problem that's unique to you. Kikil, for example - you're scared of her, right? That's her rep. If you came to blows tomorrow then she would be spooky and mysterious because while you don't know her you do know fear and how you relate to it. It's, like, a handle on her. A sign of how you're supposed to relate to her. And so even if you'd never exchanged three sentences before you'd be able to go into that fight knowing who you were meant to be. And that's what I think this problem really stems from, Chen. You're trying to get under everyone's masks as soon as you meet them. You're not engaging with the stories they're trying to tell you.+

She looked off at the distant arena. +That handmaiden you came with, Yue? She's the opposite. She just buys into everyone's narratives so sincerely that she throws them off guard. They buy into hers in exchange. And if you feel like you're being trapped by other people's expectations, consider that they're trying to support the narrative they think you're telling them. Before today I assumed that your narrative was the unstoppable pure-hearted prodigy and would have proceeded based on the idea that's who you wanted to be.+

Rose!

"Oh?" said Keron, eyes filling with a terrible amusement. "Princess Chen? You think she can save you here? More importantly, you think that when she does she'll find anything other than a perfectly trained slave dancer?"

The handmaiden behind you twists your arms, sending you to your knees before the Countess. She uncrosses her legs and then bends forwards, a long fingernail tracing your ear all the way down to your chin, which she tilts upwards so she can see your eyes.

"You silly little thing," she said, putting her hand on the vein in your throat, "I can hear your heart pounding," her hand slid up to cover your mouth, "I can feel your breath panting," she seized your chin and pulled you up, close, until you were inches away from her. "I can feel your body trembling. You wish you weren't Princess Chen's, don't you? You wish you were mine, you lust-crazed slut. You wish you were mine - and you're too much of a submissive to act on that wish. You won't be mine until I drag Princess Chen in here and make her tell you that you both belong to me, will you? Because you would never disobey your mistress no matter how much you want to."

She flicked you away, sending you sprawling into the arms of the waiting handmaidens as she leaned back in her chair. "So what to do with you until I pull your ownership from Chen's whimpering lips? I suppose I can keep you here. Stay, watch, learn - and that way when your true mistress claims you at last you'll be properly trained. Girls, chain her to the wall, and gag her."

[Keron spends that string: Mark XP if you do what she tells you]

Yue!

You're running. You're running! You're running like it's flying and everything is perfect except you have no idea how to slow down without crashing nose over tail. It's scary and wild and amazing, like the first time getting real speed out of a bike, and maybe if you never stop you'll never have to.

Hyra insisted on this after all the externalities of breakfast and bath were resolved. "Learning how to be graceful has nothing to do with the body you're currently wearing," said Hyra. "Even if you're in a body that's miles away from your ideal one you need to be able to carry yourself like your ideal self. That way when you finally transition into your true self physically you'll have already transitioned mentally!"

And with that the lessons of the previous day had resumed. No swords yet - Hyra wasn't so ambitious she was blind to the fact that you didn't yet have your paws under you. Right now was just about speed and agility. It had started with a gentle jog but now you were flying around the walkways of the Sky Castle. To your left was the infinite vista of the Nine Kingdoms, to the right where the spires and flags and kites of a city made to catch the wind. You are running, and you've left Hyra in the dust, and this enchanted world is flashing past your eyes in every direction.
So it ends.

[Bold: 10]

Should she have shown it mercy? Should she have spared it in its majesty as she might wish that someone would spare her? Would one act of kindness undo a lifetime of hunts? Would an act of gentleness here at the edge of her life somehow indicate that she had learned, that she was ready for change? Or would it be a promise unkept, a larder unfilled, a quest failed?

A priest might know. Robena knows how to hang the deer, cut the throat, drain the blood, flay the skin, remove the organs, sever the antlers, clean the body, and mount the remains on horseback for transportation. Does doing what she knows represent an unrepentant failure to change her ways? Perhaps. But she knows no other way to be. She has lived her life as a knight and to discard the rituals and skills she developed as a knight would be to face death as helpless as a newborn babe. The blood washes away in the pool the deer hoped to drink from. So it ends.

She does not know the rules or the rhyme of these faerie folk, the prophetic nymph whose colt moves with the grace of a unicorn, the enchantment that turns dead women to mist and stars. She knows now that her simple struggles now take place against a stranger background, playing in tune to a song she doesn't know the steps to even if she had the feet to dance. If she had her time again she might not have been a knight. Being a knight, all she can think to do in this moment is conduct herself as a knight ought.

And if she can conduct herself as a knight ought then that, at least, will be change real and true. A sage, a prophet, a mystic she shall never be. But a knight? Perhaps she can manage that. If she is lucky she shall have a few more days to be so.
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