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Days of nothing but tramping through the mud and rain. Long nights spent staring at the sky and waiting for it to brighten. Moments of flaring terror whenever imagination broke through her concentration and whispered terrible possibility in her ear. Fuel. All of it. Tossed into the furnace of her heart, stoking the flames and bringing her back to life. At last, she has an answer. She knows something. Melody is alive and well and rescueable and every muscle vibrates with coiled energy and now’s the time for leaping and racing off to go get her!

Or, it would be, if there wasn't a comforting arm wrapped around her and a voice telling her nice things in a warm, familiar tone. Somehow, she just. Can’t quite. Work up momentum. Mrgh.

So she sits. So she quietly burns.

(And burn she does, Giriel. As you read the perilous fate that's befallen her poor Melody, she never broke with your breathing. She kept the pace, even as her chest swelled to take in larger gulps of air. The fire deep within her rose higher and higher until you could feel it on your arms; a prickling heat that only grew with each passing minute. Until you stopped. Until you held her tight. The earth rumbles and steams, but it does not erupt. Not yet.)

"Yeah we are." Grin, snort, and is that a puff of steam? "Nobody's going to lay a finger on her. Not if they don't want it bitten off." In addition to any bitings already owed to the terrible Ven, who definitely had it coming. "But, huh. Really? A goddess? So priestesses can't all walk on water? Damn. I was gonna give sis an earful over that one..." She still could, though. It's not like she warned her that goddesses sometimes signed up to be priestesses. Who forgets to mention a thing like that?! "Still..."

(She sighs. Lava roils.)

“Gonna be a pain running with...ugh, knights. Sure would be a lot quicker if I went and kicked the crap out of Ven and those demons by myself."

How does that sound to you, Giri, when your little Han speaks it like she was telling you “if you go outside, you'll get wet?” Hard facts, without enough room for braggadocio to play. (Though if you give her a minute, maybe she'll have some more boasting lined up too. Just as soon as she puzzles out the the possibly literal punchline between Ven and Ven-geance.)
The stage remains silent.

Bella forces a spotlight on her, but this isn't a play, it's an excuse. A paper thin veil, that a rabid animal might look back later and tell herself she was justified. The latest in a proud tradition of lies, carrying on the family business of holding her together. Reasoning was exiled generations ago; it won't find any welcome here.

As to her audience, she says: What audience? The chief qualification of an audience was that they held a scrap of care. Who here will shed a tear if a lioness is cut to ribbons before them? The Azura? At best, they might grouse at the indecency of foreigners, staining the floors with their scandalously red blood. The assassins and their helpers? Someone else is bleeding, which means a fine day's work for them. The gods? Not without calling on their favor first, and now that the moment is here, no name springs to her lips. No, there's no performance to make here. No decision other than if she will bleed holding her sword or her glaive.

...no. No, that's not right.

Amidst the whine of charging ELF, and a nightmare in talons and silks flying towards her, through the burn of the spotlight, one soul sits in the front row. One who watches her with all their attentions. One who needs to see her performance.

The glaive springs to her waiting hand, erupting in shining blade and rippling gravity. She leaps, and at the flex of her fingers it pulls her through three different trajectories, all away from the demoness' first strike. She will get no closer than a glaive's length. The room echoes with her battlecry, a song for the one watching her, and gasping.

"Not! This! Time!"

So she swears.

Go, dear heart. The mission needs you.

[Vasilia is kept busy by Bella, while Dolce sneaks off after Jill. The Pair are now Working Alone.]
Han snorts in defiant triumph. This round goes to her. She's chased off the dumb knight, and everybody else got the message. Don't mess with her. Go away. Don't bother her. Don't open your mouth unless you're you've got something useful to say. Like the server! Who had demon swords and knew where castles were and stuff. Which was weird, but that's good. That's something. She can take those swords, or maybe go to the castle, or, no, first she needs the rain to stop, what if it's already too late, she's waited long enough, she doesn't know what she's doing to her she's got to go stop it now she's going to find her she has to find her

Tea. Just a little hot. But not too hot. It forces her to sip it slowly. The way it's meant to be enjoyed. A trickle of warmth flows down her throat, carrying with it the sweet, gentle touch of flowers. There it lingers, in her belly, on her tongue, seeping into her with every fresh taste. There is a deep magic in tea. Magic enough to give even the wildest hearts pause.

Tension. A start, when hands come to rest unexpectedly on her shoulders. A moment where no one in the tea shop breathes. But only a moment. The tension can only live a moment under Giri's hands. Gently, she kneads. Always felt, never pushing. Do not be alarmed, little Han. You're okay. You're safe here. Lean back into her chest. Let your breaths become as one. Do not forget your tea; it's still perfectly warm. You're okay. You're safe here. Breathe.

Quiet. The witch takes her hand in hers. She wraps her other round her shoulders. She envelops the little flame, and Han falls back, back, further back, letting go and falling deep into Giriel's embrace. The tea shop melts away. No more prying eyes. (Everyone knows you don't look directly out of which at work. You keep her in the corner of your eye, while thinking of all the great embellishments you'll add when you tell your friends about this later.) They are alone. Nothing will disturb them now.

Words. Slow, and careful. Dredged up from the depths of a battered heart.

"Melody of Silver Bells. That's her fancy priestess name. Her hair's blue. Real blue. Maybe...from the coast? She wears it short, no longer than her shoulders. One of those short cuts that kinda curls a little? It's got a name. I don't know. Then there's the glasses. She wore big round glasses. Real glass, I think. And. Her eyes were...brown? More than brown. More different browns. Like."

Stuck. Lodged tight. Squeeze her carefully, and it works itself out.

"Gems. Gems that you can't see anything through, it's just. Deep. And. Sparkling, they sparkled a lot. Her. Eyelashes were. Long. Fluttering. Kinda... And, she paints her eyes too, with. Uh. Colors, and stuff. Dunno about the rest of her face, she always had one of those blue veils on. With the silk? Not sure what the design was, it was just all fancy embroidery and soft when..."

Questions. Hanging thick in the air. Realized for the first time.

"Uh. She gets excited about, like, everything? Taking her through a market takes hours. She wants to pick everything up. She wants to hear every story the shopkeepers want to tell her, even the real obvious scams. I don't know. Maybe she was seeing something I couldn't? She wouldn't stop trying to show me things. And. I guess, if you heard her, you think there was something special about them too. Even if you had no idea what she was talking about.”

”Didn't like crowds either. Always wanted to go around or hide behind me. Little bud. She's so small. And slender, like. I could pick her up with one hand. I don't know how she doesn't blow away with a stiff breeze. And she's.... she's...."

"She's the only priestess in the whole flower Kingdom who isn't terrible. She. Actually. She tries, dammit. Even when no one else will. But it's her first time out in the world, she hasn't got a clue what she's doing, and-"

Flood. Hold fast, Giri. Do not let it swallow her whole.

"And that. Stupid Ven. Grabbed her right out from under me. She trusted me. She asked me. To watch out for her, and now."

"And now I have to get her back."

[Han clears Afraid.]
[wrong thread, sorry]
She fights because Bella is dancing. Already she sees her. She sees her, and her memories gain another mortifying perspective. So this is how she pranced for a room full of Hermetics, now many her colleagues? Minus the chains, of course...

No. No, she will not answer. She must not answer. If she lets herself slip, if she lets herself drift off on wordless songs and memories of regret, the road back to the present will extract a heavy toll. If she returns at all. She didn't have her past then. She doesn't have her past now. The battle of that one, terrible day looms ever larger, and if she is to survive it, then she must defeat a yet more ancient foe.

Hera, purge the lightning from her nerves. Open wide the path back to Lakkos. And by all that is sacred and holy, keep her eyes from the dancers.

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

He fights because Bella is dancing. Dancers do not partake in refreshments heavier than sips of wine and light hors d'oeuvres. His hearty soup is out of the question. But no dance lasts forever. Bella's motions are. Physical. Demanding. She will surely need more substantial refreshment soon.

He has until then to decide what he will do if she expects him to serve her. (She will choose either he or vasilia. Please, do not shame him, and ask him how he knows this.) The lives of everyone he loves hinges on his wise answer.

How could he possibly drift off at a time like this?

[Rolled a 10 to Overcome.]
“I don’t know if I like working for her.” He finally says, keeping his hands busy with stirring sauces. “She won’t harm us, and she’ll protect us. I know this. But. Bahhhh. I don’t know.”

Which to the trained ear, meant that he did know, and he did not like the answer. So Vasilia keeps silent a while longer.

“I think that.” Gradually, working himself up to it. “If it got her a better result, she would not hesitate to let us or our friends come to harm. I know it’s awful to say, before she’s even had the chance, but, the thought is there, and I can’t ignore it.”

“You don’t have the choice she has, Dolce.” She offers, now that he has the thought out in the open. “We’re against an Ikarani. If we don’t follow her plan, we’ll be dead without ever knowing what killed us. Whatever her plan may be, it’s her plan. You’re not vouching for it, and you certainly don’t have to like it or her. You’re doing the only thing you can to save us all.”

“But the Housekeeper was special. To H'san, and Jalia, and Fangst, and all of them.” He stares long into his bubbling pot. “And our crew’s special too. I know it. Whatever an Eater of the Dead is, whatever she knows, she doesn’t know that.”

“So. If she's wrong there. What ought a good Captain to do about it?”

Now where did all this come from? Usually, he just stopped at whatever thought was bothering him, but then again, he also usually didn’t wear a hat of high office. Just what had Zeus been teaching him?! Or was it Hera? She hopes it was Hera. Easier to thank her. “For now, we serve dinner.” She sets a great silver-and-blue tray atop a floating sphere. “If the moment comes...I trust you’ll make the right decision. And in any case, you can always come to me for poor advice.”

“Vaaas!”

“You stand upon a vast treasury of mistakes, and I will not have my husband and Captain acting the miser of such riches.”

They left the kitchens, off into the unknown. Whatever would follow next, nothing would negate this truth: He is giggling, and she is the richer for it.
The server stands by Han’s shoulder, waiting. Perhaps she feels the waves of crackling heat blossoming off the highlander. Maybe she hears the creak of a table, suffering in her white-knuckle grip. To her credit, she still waits.

“Orchid oolong, use 3 grams leaf to 236 mL of water. Awaken the leaves by rinsing them with near-boiling water first, then infuse them in fully boiled water for one and a half minutes. Steep a second cup for 3. I’ll take both." She jerked her head to Petony. “Her tab.”

Anybody else want to cut in with any more stupid questions? No? Good.

“While we’re in a sharing mood: I’ve been out here, hunting down some wilted creep who likes dark cloaks, big straw hats, and kidnapping priestesses with demon magic, and the only damn clue I have is a stupid coin she left behind. Which would be plenty, if I had one thorned minute to get me a divination done. Which I can’t get because you’re second-guessing the damn Witch telling you you’ve got fairy problems, like you’d live anywhere close to a daisy-brained clue what she’s talking about, because you’re sore your tournament got called off. Oh, I’m sorry, it wasn’t even your tournament in the first place. Why the hells are we talking with you anyway?!”

She towers over the seated company, her chair long past able to contain her.

“Go drink your stupid tea and quit wasting our time. King’s Crown, maybe then we’d get something done around here.”

[Han displays instense emotions society would rather she didn’t. Her Feral is now at 1.]
“Wait.”

She’s sworn the highest oath she can, without being asked to. Her credibility in this matter is above reproach, and they must follow her quickly if they are to survive this. And yet.

“I have one more question, before we go.”

One question still eats at him. In no answer he can imagine can he see the sense in it. Or, rather. No answer settles his unsettled heart.

“You knew the Housekeeper lived like this. Why didn’t you do anything?”

Please. Can you explain it to him, Thellis Thist, Eater of the Dead?
She thinks of a conversation that runs through her mind at least once a day. His hands had frozen, folded together in polite subservience, perhaps the only thing he remembered how to do in the wake of her story. His lips had trembled; he was never able to stop them. When he spoke, he spoke clearly, as if he were asking what she'd like for dessert. ”You don’t...fancy her, do you?”

He still hadn't told her what it was he was really asking about. And she had taken too many chances to try asking again, before he was ready to tell. Silence was one thing. Not knowing, and to hear him apologize for it, far worse.

So she wears a disgusted sneer, ruminating on the impossible probabilities of life and meeting, that her face might not be a lie. No one here needs to see her tap the the bundle at her belt where a tightly wrapped dagger lives. He does not deserve to see her scratch at her neck.



He thinks of how long it will take Alexa and Skotos to return from their trip. He will have that long to decide if he will tell her. Hera did not pose the question to him, but it was before her altar that it first came to him. Neither had she told him that there would be a time limit to these deliberations. Would it have made a difference? Perhaps it only would have made him more...

He ought to be happy. His prayers were answered. Someone important to someone important was alive, against all odds. But right now, all he can think of is the strategic likelihood of who might end up in the same room as her, and none of the figures reassured him a bit. If he hadn't wanted it, then why had he prayed for it?

This is not the question. Or, rather, it is not any of the questions that boil in his heart. So instead, he picks one he does know, and starts with that:

What do I feel about Thellis Thist?



“How does an Eater of the Dead take her prey?” His own card, unstamped, lies plain on the counter for her to see, if she cares to. "If we are already being hunted, then it can't be helped; we must defend ourselves. But I have to look out for all those aboard our ship, not just the two of us. If we are to help, then I'll have to know what will be asked of all of us."

"If we are already being hunted." Vasilia added. "All we have to trust in is your word. Which, with a few gold and some sincere apologies, might be enough to buy a sandwich." Not that her word valued much higher. But from one fraud to another, the point stood.
"Giri?!"

Fact: Sound travels faster than highland hooligans.

Fact: This has never helped anybody, ever.

Your ears ring, but she is already upon you, skidding to a halt from her mad sprint. She bears the bruises of hard battle, the muck of hard travel, and also a knight that she picked up from goodness knows where, but no. No it must be Han, yes? What a coincidence, to find an old, familiar face here...

"Okay! Perfect timing." She doesn't waste a breath. Can't waste a breath. "I gotta know where the bastard who left this coin is hiding."

She gives the shoulder-slung knight a thorough shaking. "Hey! Where's that coin?!"
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