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Strike for strike, then. Weakness for weakness. Dolce’s docile, innocent smile can weather long, grueling hours, legs about to collapse, a heart so full of pain he might burst, but never has he trained to endure the honest, body-shaking laughter of a friend. His nose twitches, shaking to hold back a grin that would surely stretch from ear to ear were it turned loose. But he is a professional. He will not give the ground so easily, and shame his name. With the grip of a practiced expert, he holds himself steady on the line. The scrunched-up half-smile, like the tiny silhouette of a ship against a massive star, may only serve to make his joy seem all the larger, but he holds himself steady all the same.

“I can help you with that, if you like.” He is the calm. “My time in office has dulled neither my culinary skills nor my hospitality. I would gladly stand before you,” he is not looming. He is much too short for looming. “Hat in hand.”

He is the very picture of humble servitude and that was a professional snort he’ll have you know.
This, then, is Empire. The Armada around Tellus. The curious gravity of Lakkos. The Manor’s picket fence. A sheep could clear a fence with a running start and good form. But never could you leave. Her Highness had run from a goddess, sacrificed her entire future, and if you listened closely you would hear a whisper of titles trailing in her wake. Because that was what one did, for a Princess. And for a Captain, one would do quite a bit, to ensure their attention could rest fully on the matter of keeping a ship running. No matter how many quiet dinners you’d shared together; a Captain was still a Captain.

Then again. There’d already been one mutiny today…

“Jil. What am I about to do is completely unrehearsed, and could not possibly be a signal. No one will harm you or yours. Please don’t stab me.” No sudden movements. His hands rise to lift the ornate hat perched atop his head. Up it goes, clearing ears and wool easily. No difficulties, no accidents. Down it goes, to rest on his lap, turned to face him in all its glory.

And he takes a bite. Tears off the Captain’s insignia in one go.

(Broth. This belonged with a soup of some kind. Perhaps soaked in seasonings for days, weeks, to soften it up and add flavor, and then draped alongside some noodles, eggs, chopped vegetables, fish, make up the nutritional deficit…)

“No Captains.” He says, swallowing. “This is not an Imperial ship. This is our ship. And whoever is going through the Rift ought to decide how it runs, together. And. If I’m not really a Captain, then you can’t be having a mutiny. At best you can kidnap me, as a friend, for my own good. And I can tell you why you don’t have to, and you can decide if that’s good enough. So.” A bleat slips out, and it’s okay, because friends don’t ambush friends with assassins and gods. A sheep can bleat, and no one has to bleed for it. “So do you have a problem with that?
If he was a Temple Assassin, he dearly wished someone would have the decency to tell him so. Now seemed a rather insensitive time to raise the question.

“Nothing so grand, terrible, and straightforward as that. I’m afraid I’m just a sheep.” He starts, hands folded carefully in his lap. No fidgeting. “And a chef. Then a runaway, and a pirate. Now, a Captain. I did stumble into that one, but, to be fair, I was already thinking of trying something new.” Not even a nod. He’ll furrow his brow, and that’s plenty to tell her he’s giving her due consideration. “I’m not sure what that makes me now. All of them? None of them? It’s difficult to say.”

She searches for the strike she fears is coming. Generations of instinct, running on finely-tuned genetic hardware, wind her body tight with adrenaline. This close, he can hear her heart thundering, fit to burst. How much must it hurt, to stand so still, when your nerves are screaming death, death, death comes for you! Run! Flee! Scurry! Save yourself!!!

It isn’t fair. To complain about a knife in your ribs after you’ve drawn your sword. That’s not a rule, at least not one he’s familiar with, it’s just good sense. But. It makes it difficult, to hold your sword steady, when there’s blood running down your coat, and steel jabbing at your lungs with every breath. Put down the sword, and the wounds can be tended to. Put down the sword, and lose what you took it up for in the first place.

It’s isn’t fair. But he holds himself steady. No movement that could possibly be a signal. The most he can do, all he can do, is leave her no doubt if he swings. If.

Because the choice is still hers.

He swallows hard. “But whatever I am, I want to be the sheep that makes this the last voyage. I want it all to stop. Not just good people throwing their lives away year after year, and half the galaxy growing dim. The Spear of Civilization. The Atlas Cultural Sphere. The universe shattering over and over again, falling apart, and broken people without a chance to put themselves back together again. Enough of it. It has to stop.

“I know I could try and get…on with it, and live a happy life. I’m glad you want that for me. But how am I supposed to live a quiet, happy life with Vasilia, knowing what I know now? The universe is in dreadful need, and I have a chance - maybe the only one I’ll ever get - to help set things right. Maybe everyone could pull it off without me. Maybe it’ll be just a little bit better if I’m here. I don’t know. But I don’t think I’d ever be able to live with myself if I didn’t try.”

They may need all the help they can get, to stop the one behind it all, the one he is wise enough not to name aloud.

“So. I want to go. That’s my choice, Jil. Mine. And not anybody else’s. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’d have a problem with that. But I can’t do any of it if I get overthrown and stuffed in an escape pod. So.” He holds himself steady. He whispers a silent prayer. “So do you have a problem with that?”
Piripiri!

Han walks into the trap beautifully. She charges right through the dust cloud, into the waiting embrace of your net. A wave of heat and Essence carries you on your way to Lotus, and as you sweep the demigod off her feet the two of you are bathed in the glow of flash-powder and the howl of Han’s rage.

Turn, and return to the dance. Your shield has become her camouflage. She lurks somewhere, blinded, in the depths of that cloud of dust. You take one step. Two steps. Lotus takes no steps, but attempts an awkward hop. She tries, but cannot keep up with you. You pull away. And Han bursts from the cloud like a comet. You duck back from a vicious overhead swing, and at once she follows it up with a wide swipe, a back kick, leaping slash, a raging river of heat and violence and are her eyes closed?!

She has no time to wait for her vision to recover. Her rival stands before her, when she could be bashing her into the ground, and she cannot bear to wait. She hears you. She smells you. That’s enough to throw swing after swing at you, and you can’t dodge her forever. You’ll make mistakes eventually. You’ll get tired first. You have to. She has to beat you. She’s going to beat you. She’s just got to beat you.

You cruel, cruel dragon. An agent of the Dominion, she might’ve crushed in the jaws of the Vermillion Beast. A pretty spy, she might’ve broken all advances on a shield of stubborn rudeness. But the moment she followed you into this duel she lost her greatest weapons. The fire that burns in her knows only how to break, to maim, to dominate. Now victory intertwines with the heart of her opponent, and she is lost. What else did you expect? All her life’s been a fight, and never a dance. For the hope of beating a rival, she will blindly hurl herself on your blade until she can no longer move. In defeat, she will curse her weakness, sitting atop a well of strength that could level cities. Who could be satisfied with a victory like that? Not a dragon. Never a dragon. For dragons are greedy, and want the best fights, the best victories, the best kisses.

And no dragon could resist a chance at all three.

Let your joy be made complete, o Daughter of Heaven. Reach into her heart, give her the sword your blazing eyes hunger for, and you will have your best fight.
"That's what I'm saying. It is your choice."

He flicks an ear. Three javelins whistle through the air to glance off the deck a step away from the Alcedi. Each from a different direction. The churning chaos around them presses on without missing a step.

"I don't suppose you've seen my wife...? No, you wouldn't have. It's best you hear it from me anyway." He wheels forward. The Alcedi do not stop him. A flock could be obliterated entirely in a mutiny gone wrong. And still, he is unarmed.

"Jil. I'm going through the Rift. I can't say if I'll make it to Gaia, but I swear I will try with everything I have and everything I am. If you want to push me out of this, I'm the one you'll have to go through." His brakes squeal as he stops before her. A pace outside her cutlass' reach. "Is this how you want to do it? Behind my back? Ganging up on me, when I can't even walk? This close to the Rift?"

Jil, have you heard the stories of Sahar, when Demeter raised her hand against Dolce and Vasilia? He would never speak of such things, lest he take honor that was not his, and bring shame to the goddesses name. But some say they left the field untouched, while Demeter was left chastened, abandoned, bloodied, even, by Olympus. For the crime of overstepping her bounds.

Do you know where you stand? When you meet the eyes of the captain you are deposing, do you smell the cigarette smoke? Hear the scratch of the Hunter's pen? See the light of virtue flicker, but for a moment? How thoroughly - really - have you prepared for this?

"Tell me why you're doing this, Jil. Please." He begs. "The choice is still yours."
Crowds surge, crates lurch like icebergs, and a solitary sheep wheels his way steadily through the hanger. Gaps in the whirlwind open before him, and close in his wake. Never pushing. Never quite stopping. Always where he ought to be, when he ought to be there. And now he is before Jil, armed only with a frown.

"Were the choice mine, there would be no difficulty at all," he says. "Why?"
A part of Han could no longer swear to what she would find if she ripped off that mask. A bed of leaves could hide a yawning pit. A false step could lead to disaster.

The rest of Han roars.

Running hot on the power of a demigod’s faith, she plants her feet, and the guttural roar of an apex predator erupts from that compact frame. She speaks a promise of doom to every sense of the body. Blooming flowers wither to brown in a blast of terrible heat, where they grow too close to her. Hearts too, should they stand before her unprepared.

What of yours, dragon-daughter? She will beat an answer out of your blade. At once she rushes in, following the storm of sound with a rain of heavy blows. None aimed for your body; all fall upon your umbrella. Again and again, until you break.

You think to hold a truce with her? Hold your own, first. Stand in the ring with her, and just see what happens. Pull out every trick and fancy technique you’ve got. It. Won’t. Matter. She’s strong enough to take it. She’s strong enough to beat you. That’s all there is to it.

She doesn’t need to trade when she’s got all she needs to beat you.

[Han gives into the desire for a duel. Piri takes another string on Han.]

[Han also rolls to Figure Out a Person: 6 + 3 - 2 = 7. Two questions, and a bonus question by doing it through combat:
-What are your feelings towards me?
-What do you hope to get from us?
-How could I get you to kiss me?]
The universe compresses all around you.

The Lanterns melt into the steamy mists, stepping back once, twice, and they exist no longer. Your heartbeats will drown out the patter of feet, directed silently to the nearest exit. Trays vanish, leaving drinks scattered around the pool. This one, like a cool mountain spring, to pour down a hungry throat like a waterfall. This one, rich, and just a smidge too hot. Sip carefully, as you catch your breath. Each one resting on the grass no less than the length of one arm, stretched to the full.

Your sisters. Your friends. Each will look up, in turn, and there will be a sheep. He will gesture with perfect clarity. He will carry a sign for those too tired to understand. Blink once to remain. Blink twice for a tasteful, silent exit. Whatever their choice, they will not see him again. Perhaps they are here. Perhaps they are only here, in your hearts. You know them, better than anyone. You will know where they are.

There is but one addition to this world.

The song sneaks in, under the cover of running water, of hearts overflowing, of sounds swallowed whole. Soft. Sweet. It has traveled far; through an open door, an empty hallway, past two rooms, at least. The pianist offers every tender note for love, with love, and so the song must keep playing, for love alone will outlast all things. Every silence will be comfortable. Every note will have its harmony. Nothing will dare compete for your attention.

Take this moment, both of you. A gift, from a sheep, with mice for legs, and mice for eyes, and his own hands clasped tight over his mouth. He will not gasp, or bleat, or some incredible mixture of the two. A good servant is neither seen or heard. And a friend may be there for you, by not being there at all.

********************************************************

You don’t have to.

Bit by bit, his hands close around the piping bag. Each flourish removes a little frosting. The volume shrinks. The pressure falls. He must make up the difference. The pressure must remain constant and unbroken.

“You know. It’s nice, when you find something to do for someone that they never asked you for. It’s a wonderful surprise. Not having to worry about it, not having to think about something. Knowing you were watching, and thinking of them. Do good things, as you see them. It works rather well, most of the time. It earned me good marks. At the Manor.”

He saves the bottom layer for last. Bad enough, the dawning realization that you might, truly, almost be done. No need to strain your focus any further with a balancing act.

“I. Know this is different. It’s just me, here. Nobody’s asked me to cross. No one would hold it against me if I did nothing. If I had to say, it’s...I think? I think. I would rather leave all over again. If I had the choice. I’d rather sneak out of the Manor, to hop on a spaceship going heavens know where, feel the hull buckle under Poiseidon’s fury with no idea when or if we’d arrive safely. I wish I could live that over again. Instead of the Rift.”

He has to make his hands unclench, when he’s done. He has to tell them that they can tremble now. His shaking fingers rap and tap at his wheels, grasping at the rims, to roll himself closer to the goddess he’d spent so long following after. One sleeve at a time, he shrugs off the warmest hoodie he’d ever known. His folding is without crease or wrinkle; as befitting such honored raiment.

He leaves it on the kitchen counter, and leans in to hug the honored goddess of hearth and home. An offering, the firstfruits of the loving warmth he has tended in her name. A prayer, that one too weak to stand might yet find strength. A declaration, in her honor, that she never spoke falsely or tried to lead him astray. Even at the end.

“Thank you.” He sniffs, once. “For everything.”
Han clears nine paces before Lotus can finish crying out. Her patta traces a glittering arc through the sky; a late-falling star with deadly aim.

“You want me to just surrender?!”

And down. And through. And swipe and slash and through and through and ever forward. Han calls forth an avalanche of steel, churning the ground to mud in her wake. Let slip from the mountain heights by an innocent demigod’s cry for help. She is unstoppable. She is indomitable. All her body is a weapon, and no one can stand against her.

(But not her left arm. It hangs by her side, only sometimes shifting, for balance. Not the vaulting, free-flowing ideal of violence she was before.)

“You want me to take a damn vacation while you steal my home out from under me?!”

She opens herself, and the Essence comes roaring in. With every slice of her blade, the midmorning air turns to reeling clouds of steam. A sword of justice, wielded in defiance, barring the way to Lotus with the power of Heaven that was her birthright. And she takes in more, and more, and more still.

(But not to her zenith. Not so brightly that the Beast comes forth. Not so hot that she burns all around her. Not with Lotus still so near.)

“You want her. I don’t know where she fits in your plans, but you’ll fit in a stewpot when I’m done with you. And you thought, you thought-!” She snarls, and her own sword creaks in her iron grip. “You thought we’d just go along with you?! You stupid, swaggering, Dominion rat! Save your breath and spare us the wilting speech!”

Such as it has been. Such as it is. Such as it always will be. The Dominion comes to steal, to corrupt, to own, and she stands against them. The Dominion will fight her, from their fortresses to their luxury barges, from their soldiers to her own neighbors. They may wound her. But they will not break her. They cannot break her. She will give her body and mind and soul to this war, and when the ash settles it will be her standing. Her!

(But not her heart. Her heart has no place in this battle. So. It cannot possibly hear the longing in Lotus’ cry. Or wonder at the strange, curious picture this Dominion spy paints, of quiet time, of true hearts unfolding, of fun.)

[Rolling to Fight: 5 + 4 + 2 = 11. Choosing to:
-Inflict a Condition, with cutting words or violence
-Create an opportunity for Lotus
-Provoke Piri with a harsh rejection of her goals, and take a String on her.

Piri chooses 1 option in return.]
Bella! Redana!

One might grow tired, taking an inventory of every waterlogged room aboard the Plousios. There are only so many ways to say a room is filled with crabs, saltwater, and crabs (in saltwater). Barely any are crab-free. Fewer still boast fresh water. And of those, perhaps only one gets its supply via waterfall.

By some miracle of Engine, evaporation, and the inscrutable whims of time and gods, a seemingly endless supply of piping hot water flows from overhead, glittering as it splashes down a rock face and into a pool below. Just deep enough to sit upon the smooth stones that make its bed, and rest your head on its banks. The air hangs hot and hazy here, wisps of steam curling as they float by. The pool drains out of a long stream, fast-flowing, but shallower still. By this supply, grass grows green and soft underfoot - though you will hardly feel it yourself, borne here as you were on stretchers. Overhead, a solitary tree stretches out its branches, and flowers drift lazily down to settle on the water’s surface. Above, the ceiling glitters with some trace memory of Hades’ treasures. The light is warm here. All is warm here.

What luck, that a sheep should stumble on such a place many months ago, while out for an evening stroll. A fine spot, for hearts to meet. And now, to mend.

Awake, o dreamers. Awake, and feel the stream running all around you, washing your wounds clean, and carrying away the grime of battle. Awake, to the careful hands of Beautiful and Beljani, your sisters, your companions, peeling away layers of shredded, matted clothes. Sit in the pools together; there is room enough for you all. Watch the shining lights of the Lanterns reflected in the rippling waters. Call to Jil, and you will have many hands to help you in, out, across, to wherever you please. Mouse or marble, they are here for you. Stretch out your hand, and Dolce will be there, with a tray of ice-cold beverages in a rainbow of colors and flavors. Each one ready to help replenish your broken bodies. Keep the tiny umbrellas, if you like; we have plenty. And don’t worry if you mistake him for a towel. When next you see him, his wool will be as fluffy and light as ever.

You have fought so hard, just to hold yourselves together. To hold each other together. Now, you need not even fight to keep warm.

Sit. Drink. Rest, all of you. Four sisters, and the princess who is their center. If your efforts have not earned you a hot bath, then there is no justice on Olympus.

************************************************

Finishing touches. Always takes longer than you’d think. Inch by inch, Dolce turns the cake on its pedestal, piping out decorations as he goes.

“I hadn’t forgotten.” He stops. Closes one eye, to sight his aim. “Just. Hadn’t thought of it in the same breath, yet. My birthday’s in a month. We cross the Rift in a week.”

He has an entire palette to choose from, each in their own piping bag. And only so much counter space within reach. He wheels to the side. He selects another. He wheels himself back. “I know the day will still come. But, it’s not the same. If you don’t remember to make it special.”

If you don’t have people in your life to make it special.

"...the Master would be 26 that day."
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