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The word is steady.

Hold the bowl with both paws. Always both paws. No shaking, no matter how long it’s been since you had a proper sleep. If you must shake, let your toes and tail do it for you. When you nod and smile to your friend, you think about it first, then you do it. Slow and deliberate. No risky moves. None.

Jackdaw took a long smell of her portion. There were flavors there, sure, but...well, of course there were flavors. There’s always at least one, what did she think there would be? But she never had the nose for picking out the particulars of food. To her, everything blended together into a mouth-watering, rumbly-inducing scrumptious.

And the first taste was hers.

“Thank you, very much. I really appreciate it.” She gave him a weak smile and regretted it immediately. She ‘really appreciated’ it? No! That’s what you say when somebody loans you a pencil, not, not, this. “Um, I mean it, it’s...truly, it means so much-” Oh, sure. Be vague about it. Nothing said gratitude like tired platitudes, right? “Everything’s very hard down here, and, this makes it a little easier…” But you didn’t see anyone else complaining about it, did you? “I’m, very glad, of all the groups travelling here, this is, the, um...” Off-topic! Hurry! Get it out! You’re ruining the moment! “It’s...I...”

She tucked her head low, letting her cloak fall over her stupid face. Slow and deliberate, of course.
This was not a time to be clever, this was a time for decisively striking while the opportunity presented itself. The last thing their escape needed was a surprise phalanx cutting off their retreat.

It was, on paper, a hideously unfair rout. Vasilia, standing above the chaos with rifle leveled, directed Dolce and the others to any Ceronian making an effort to gather their weapons and stand. Any out of their reach received a bullet for their troubles. Keep the pressure on, and eventually there would be one soldier who gave up. That was the trick to dealing with Ceronians; they stood as one, and they broke as one. No in-betweens.

Only, these soldiers did not break. Shot after shot, slash after slash, they would not yield. Their shields were broken to uselessness, their formation was a shambles, they were bruised and bleeding and cut to ribbons, yet they showed not a trace of fear or exhaustion. They rose, and kept rising, even as their ambush force tired and her rifle jammed.

Vasilia felt the sneaking suspicion that something here was terribly, terribly wrong.

[That’s a 1 + 4 + 2 = 7 on Finish Them (with Grace) Vasilia spends her rifle’s Reload for the scene to damage Shieldwall.]
The only warning the Ceronians had was an empty barrel thundering down the hallway.

As one, they wordlessly rose, closed ranks, leveled spears, and shut the gate of adamantium. This did not even count as a clever trick; this was a tired training exercise. Entire Olympic events were built around shield walls resisting ever-larger, ever-heavier impacts. The hollow wooden barrel disintegrated into firewood on impact, and did not move them back an inch.

Which was when two figures leapt from the blind spot behind the ruined barrel. Dolce slid beneath the outstretched spears, and with a quick slash knocked them off-target. In the breath before they brought them to bear again, Vasilia thrust her glaive at the heart of their formation, the space around its tip seemed to warp, and-

-wrrrrrkBOOM-

The enemy scattered like tenpins, their shields crumpled.

[Rolling to Overcome: 4 + 6 + 2 - 1 = 11]
-tink tink tink-

Stonework. Apply the chisel at the correct angle. Tap gently, but insistently, until the surface is relatively level. Apply sandpaper to smooth. Repeat. Precise work, but simple work.

Work that he could do right.

-tink tink tink-

Do you know the story of the little lamb who tried to fly? When no one was looking, he slipped away from his chores, and snuck to the master bedroom, where he was never ever supposed to go. From the great balcony, he could see the skies stretching out to the horizon, and they wove a spell over the naughty fellow. Come, join us! Swim in our depths! Be as the clouds! He was so taken that he leapt off the railing at once.

He fell like a stone. Had the gardens not been in full bloom, the story might’ve ended there. As the house nurse carried the crying lamb to the infirmary, he sobbed out apology after apology. He would do better next time. He would train hard. He would study the winds. Next time, he would get it right. The nurse shushed him gently, drying his eyes and soothing his hurts. For it was not the silly little lamb’s fault that he would never fly.

-tink tink chrnk-

He froze. She winced. “My apologies,” he murmured. “The angle was-”

She didn’t even look at him. Cut him off, told him that she shouldn’t have overreacted. That it wasn’t his fault.

Then, it was finished. Holes patched solid with bronze. Solid, strong, ready to soar to the field again. Perhaps if saving a Princess required slipshod stonework or an artful cheesecake, he would be ready too.

The steady tromp of boots heralded the arrival of Vasilia, with Galnius and their comrades marching close behind. Dolce shot to attention, giving a slight bow to his Captain, sparing him a few moments of those hideous, ghostly claws rending her spirit. “I’ve finished repairing Alexa, we’re ready to-”

Which was as far as he got before a clawed hand cupped his chin, and she planted a loud, lingering kiss on his cheek.

“Thank you, my dear.~” You know, perhaps she meant to whisper that, but if she did, she forgot to say it quietly. “Careful on our advance now, there’s bound to be guards in the dungeon. Alexa, Galnius, the front is yours.”

He was walking beside her, which was good, because it meant that he wasn’t frozen in place while he tried to put his heart back together. Was that...good? Was he good now? That felt a little good. And not normal. That wasn’t usually how that went. So was that bad? How could it be? But why now? Why here? Did everyone have to see that? Why did she spare a quick glance to Galnius? Was it okay for them to see that? What did it mean?!

A confused and agitated bleat fought in vain to escape his throat, but he studiously kept his mouth clamped shut and his eyes ahead. They were on the march, and there was nowhere else to go but forward.
She couldn’t forget. She just couldn’t forget. It’s just-

It hurt. The breathing, it hurt. Hurt her middle, hurt her head, it made her want to fall over, and not get up again. Then there was her...other thing. The two things for holding. One of them hurt too, there were these little dotted lines of...color? What color is that? Red? A little loop of bad red spots, and they hurt. And the smell, the smell! The smell was like the...wet, below them, but here, and worse, bad, very bad, and all she could remember was that she couldn’t. Forget. With a frustrated...frustrated noise, she held herself with both arms until they crinkled and-

Wait, hold on?

She thought she remembered arms not crinkling, usually. No, they didn’t, but this little bit of paper in her...paw? That did. How’d that get there?

Unfolding it carefully, she saw somebody’d drawn a little picture on it. A thin, scrawny figure wearing a big thing; was that supposed to be her? She was wearing a big thing, after all. And look, here, there’s an arrow pointing to one of its pockets, no, something inside the pocket? What a coincidence, she had something in that pocket too! Then, another arrow, and the thing from the pocket flying at those...bird things.

Signed, Jackdaw.

...was that her name? She couldn’t remember. But...if that was her name, and she made this, then it must’ve been important, right? If this was all she’d written down, then…

Slowly, Jackdaw reached into her pocket, and pulled out a book. Though she felt a strange, perilous pull to open the cover and see what was inside - the thing she couldn’t bear to forget, perhaps? - the note was clear. The book was not for her. The book was for over there. It was important.

With a pang of regret, she threw it to the antisirens.

[Rolling to Finish Them with Sense: 6 + 6 + 2 = 14]
Alexa, you truly are too kind.

He didn’t ask for any of this. He made quite sure that he hadn’t asked for any of this. (No, his attention had been, well, had been rather focused on Vasilia, he couldn’t have possibly given any sort of signal to her.) Yet, here you were. Holding him when he was too lost to stand. Speaking soothingly when he couldn’t get his thoughts together.

Trying to take the duty he was too incompetant to carry.

Frankly, it was a touch...ah, worrying? The depths to which you’ll strive to steal this responsibility from him. Why would he ask you to destroy yourself for his mistakes? Wouldn’t that be the greatest failure of them all? He softly nuzzled under her chin - a perilously rough patch, for those with less natural padding - and eked out a relieved sigh. “Thank you, Alexa.” For what, he studiously didn’t say.

But don’t you see? He was well now. He was better now. He wrapped his arms around her as far as they would go, and patted her back. Once. Twice. The hug had gone on long enough, and you were free to let him go. “Let’s get you patched up, yes?” He offered with a bright little smile.

You’ve done enough. Now, it was high time for him to get back to work

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

Can you taste that? It’s an old recipe; powerful, yet subtle. A masterful blend of anxious looks shared between close friends, the scuffing of boots inching away from the firing line, the clenching of spears, of muscle, of breath. And it only gets better the longer you let it sit. And. Steep.

That, my dears, is the delightful taste of honesty.

“Mmmm. One of their finest hours.” Vasilia mused, eyes half-lidded, swimming in insults left unanswered. “So tempting, to let history repeat itself. You’d look fetching in silks and veil.~” Her eyebrows danced suggestively, and oh, what a delight it was to let Galnius stew in implication. See the gears turn! Surely, she wasn’t serious? Where would she get the outfits? Unless...did she have them on her person this whole time...

“But not today,” she sighed, and what a pity that was. “Something’s off about this Admiral, and I don’t like it.” And if they couldn’t see that, she was in no hurry to explain herself. “So instead, we move the Eater of Worlds, break her hold on the Ceronians, and rescue our Princess when they make a run for the shuttles.”

She paused. Frowned. “...tell me; what do you think? Should I add some more treachery? Have I sufficiently dishonored myself?”
Vasilia didn’t bother watching them go. She knew a lie when she heard one. She knew what they’d be speaking of. And it was fine! Ideal, even. Maybe if Dolce had better luck than she, Alexa would finally dispose of the bowing and scraping. That song was old, and the steps wearied her.

“Because.” She fell into a chair and draped herself carelessly across the nearby table. “She just appeared, alone, took command of the Ceronians, and demanded Redana and one of the Imperial agents brought before her. Gagged and chained, very particular on that note.”

Is this making you uncomfortable Galnius? Be honest; you’re not wearing your good parade face because she’d saved your life twice over, it’s because you’re bothered. Does that make you a better soldier? Is that what keeps you in the phalanx line?

“Go on then, out with it.” She cast a lazy eye over him. “Why did you think I asked?”

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

Dolce, you will pull yourself together this! Instant!

You have a job, you silly, silly sheep! You have so many jobs. Much to do, much to do! How can you hope to get any of it done if you need Alexa to keep you from falling apart?!

So, just...just stop shaking. Stop leaning on her, and stand on your own two legs. Tell her you’re fine. Tell her what happened, and-

“She won’t tell me.”

And. Oh. That’s not-

“I couldn’t stop Jas’o. I couldn’t get the Ceronians on our side. I took too long to get back to her.”

Slow down! Get your words in the proper order, then-

“Everything’s gone wrong, and she...she…”

Open your eyes, you useless, useless-!

“She won’t tell me.”

Dolce. Please. Pull yourself together. You’ve got to.

You’ve got to do your job.
There was a terrible, terrible moment, where Artemis stood thoughtfully over Vasila’s shoulder, and all could see the equations running in her head. Bows and rifles. Thunderbolts and ambush. Ordained victory and the mission.

She was considering it. By all above and all below, she was considering it.

Then, the moment passed. Or it never began. Or it never ended, and she’d set it aside for later. Guess, guess, as if the answer mattered a whit. “I’d have you clean yourself up. You look like death,” she curtly replied, and walked right past her. Clapped her roughly on the shoulder, before moving on to Galnius. “So, your former Admiral; has a taste for chains and gags, does she?”

Beside her, Dolce winced with a shame she could no longer possess.
Oh no! The word is snort! Loud, undignified, and impossible to hide!

W-well, it was really good! That was really smart. She, um, she liked it, and…

Jackdaw huddled beneath her cloak in her latest failed attempt to disappear forever. A cloak which bulged with a few recent, stomach-turning additions.

She didn’t believe in the Shadow King. That word needed a knowledge she simply didn’t have. Perhaps no one did, but that wasn’t a thought she rested on often. She liked to think it was out there. She liked to hope in the Shadow King. Hope that somebody extruded this lure for a good reason.

For whatever hope was worth to her.
“So. Admiral Odacer has some...strong preferences regarding her prisoners.”

“She explicitly mentioned gags.”

“And chains. Twice over. For that cat-whoever she sent, too.”

“Who she is...very excited to see again.”

“...”

“...”

“...I don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on. Do you?”

“Not at all.”

“But that’s bad, yes? A lusty Admiral with an army of loyal hounds? Not an ideal situation?”

“Not at all.”

“Okay! Yes. Something to start with. We make for the palace, arrive before them, rescue everyone, sail off into the sunset. How does that sound?”

“I think there may be some missing steps.”

“And it is our job to fill them in as we go. Come, come! They’re fast for old dogs.”

Vasilia tossed Dolce his sword, and raced off without another word through the now-abandoned village. What choice did he have but to follow in silence? The talk was over, the job had begun, and he'd been equipped for service.

If he didn't want to suffer yet deeper shame, then he'd better make it work.
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