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The word is countdown.

Painted faces watch their every move. Painted minds judge their every sin. Paths clear one moment, only to suddenly fill with hideous bands wielding unfathomable instruments playing a respectable rendition of Pop Goes the Weasel, almost drowning out the screams of the weasel. Everywhere she looked, Jackdaw saw only danger, and danger that had yet to appear. No rhyme, no reason, no patterns, no timing, no matter how hard she looked or how hard she tried to hold the entire carnival in her head at once. They had to go. They had to go now.

“Hey!”

Jackdaw waved her arms furiously. Had to keep her attention. Focus on her, Wolf, focus on her!

“...no clowns?”

She pointed to the mirror house. And kept pointing. And kept pointing. Oh please let this work let this work let this work

“No...hunters?”

Yes! No other hunters! You’d be the only one! All the food there, yours! No one would bother you! Safe! Good! Go now? Please???
“Thunderer, who crowns the mighty with glory and victory, hear us this day.”

Zeus’ temple was paved with none other than the shining hull of an Armada flagship, bestowed by the grace of the Empress for the good of her allies in Baradissar. Every day, servants wrapped head to toe in cloths polished its surface to a mirror sheen. No one was permitted to step upon it without a rigorous foot-washing, and to be anything but barefoot was to hurl yourself into the servant’s pits. When you knelt, no cushion or carpet came between you and the bond that knit together an empire, the Empire.

Vasilia touched her forehead to that cold metal floor, and at once nearly nodded off.

“Smile upon your servant, let all who stand in her presence know they stand before one who holds your favor.”

Focus, Vasilia, focus! Don’t falter now. Fill your mind with something - anything! - to keep from going still and stupid. Anassa. Anassa was visiting from Skollis. The first to make the journey in two generations. Guest of honor. Pay her your respects. Interests included raising goats, floral arrangements, and - rumor had it - local beverages of high renown and higher proof. Keep that last one in your pocket, wild card if you need it. Theonymphi and, and… (Sunlight Reflects Rivers Flowing North) Narcissa! Were no longer speaking. Direct them at each other for instant comedy and diversion.

“I offer to you an outpouring of finely aged spirits, and an outpouring every night until the moons are three once more, if you will grant her victory this day.”

You could not walk a block without seeing Markos’ face. His was the name on everyone’s lips and the face of their dreams to boot. He might fear loss, and turn to desperation if backed into a corner. He might think loss impossible, and any defeat a minor misstep from which he would soon recover. He might not think at all, and a greater gift he could not give her.

“And could you grant her a reprieve from Aphrodite’s charms, that she would stop trying to court her glaive? Honestly, she could do so much better.”

You! What! Clarisa!!!!!

The tigress in question (utterly unrepentant of the blasphemous lies she spouted in Zeus’ own temple!!!) finished her prayer smiling, and retrieved the beloved glaive from the shadow of Zeus’ altar. She threw it to her with an easy toss.

“Knock ‘em dead, Vas.”

Vasilia caught it with a single hand, and a grateful smile of her own.

“I’ll try not to; I still need an undersecretary.”

Half an hour to showtime. Time enough to drill the forms one last time. No matter what the riffraff thought of their love.


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

Bolin was their ticket in. At first, they did little more than hang about by his side, listening politely, making introductions where they could, and learning every name that passed back and forth. Sooner or later, there came the mutual topic. The knowing remark. The fellow appreciation. The timely joke. And they were no longer just at Bolin’s side.

One by one, Dolce marked off the priests they’d spoken with. One by one, they learned rank, they learned position, they learned respect. Symbols turned to information. Information turned to patterns. Patterns turned to currents.

In the right hands, currents turned to waves.

[Rolling to Look Closely: 6 + 3 + 2 = 11. How might Vasilia win the hearts of all (or most) present?]
“It would be our honor to attend, Pilate Borin. What unforgivable waste of fortune it would be, to pass by another so well-studied in the Azuran ways.”

It’s games everywhere, isn’t it? Never so simple as one rung above the other.

“I have always wondered on the nature of chess; was it created for the harems, or were the harems created for it? Had there been no chess, would there be harems? Or would they have settled on another activity to satisfy their interests?”

How would you keep your subordinates in line? Wouldn’t you run games of your own?
It had taken all of five minutes for the cloaked and clanking enigma to scuttle back to the depths of Lakkos from whence it came. Leaving behind a pouting young lioness, and a not quite as young lizard, his dignified chin pouch wobbling as he shook his head in sympathy.

“Ahhh, you mustn’t take it to heart, young one. On the contrary, I’d say you did rather admirably, for a first try. You can’t expect those walking science experiments to understand pleasantries so easily.”

“Hmmph.” Vasilia drew herself up indignantly. “If that’s how you really feel about her, then I shan’t invite you to our teatime next week.”

“Can you imagine! What would you even serve them?”

“I’d tell you, but I’m afraid that would breach a sacred trust. Sworn to secrecy. Can’t say.”

Every passing moment he stared in silence made it harder to school the satisfied smile from her face.

“...wait, you’re serious?”

“Don’t look so shocked, darling. They’re really quite the pleasant sort, once you learn to speak their language.”

“But, I, just now - you were speaking our language...?”

“Oh please, you’re too much!” She giggled, patting him on the back. “I’ll only say this; you don’t walk around so obviously covered, head to toe, day in and day out, if you don’t enjoy the game of it at least a little~.”


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

“Ah, the winds! Who among us can count them, much less name them. Where they come, and where they go, only the gods know, and yet! We are all of us carried along by them. Never understood the saying myself, if I must be honest. Would we not find where the winds go, if we only kept following? And yet, there is always a stopping. Curious, don’t you think?”

We venture from unknown to unknown, farther and further into the Frontier, further than any have gone before.

“You know who I would ask if I could? Hermes. Obvious answer, I know, but that doesn’t make it any less right. Unless...no, if I really wanted to cheat, I’d say the gods, but really, I like to think we’re better than that. You hear tales of the poor fools who ignore the gods, but how many are there of those who think of them too much? There’s a literary niche there just waiting to be filled, mark my words.”

The gods, plural, have taken heed of our journey.

“The ant stores for the colony, the bear for the winter, the home for the homecoming, and what does Hades store away for? What notes did he write for the great Daedalus’ eyes only? If they found their way to pockets familiar, whose eyes would they reach next?”

Our away team seeks architectural curiosities from the time of Molech, or even earlier.

And if you’d like to join in this dance, I could do with a partner.


[Auto-success on Speak Softly: Vasilia wants to get to know Borin better. What’s their place on the ship’s hierarchy, and how do they feel about it?]
What? Oh, no. No, that’d be ridiculous. Wolf survived for _ages_ in, um, well, you know. It was hard, but she’s alive, so, she knows what she’s doing. Besides, could you imagine it? Wolf - Wolf, of all people! - following after her - her, of all people! - like a little puppy. Trotting along at her side, growling at anyone who got too close, taking treats right from...her...paws......

Oh.

Oh no it was all her fault.

Oh no she brought her to the clown festival?! What was she thinking?

Answer: She wasn’t thinking. As usual.

Okay, well, start thinking! Now, Jackdaw!!! Before they stick her in a fryer, or paint her face with bad dreams, or worse, and if you could leave it at ‘or worse’ for once maybe you’d be able to find a way out of this mess! Remember every book you’ve ever read about clowns. Look at everything you can see, and imagine everything you can’t. Check, double check, triple check, where’s the safe places? Where can you run? How can you get a malnourished wolf out of the clutches of one or several clowns?

Think, Jackdaw, think. Before it’s too late.

[Rolling to Look Closely. 5 + 3 + 2 = 10. Jackdaw wants to know two things: Where here could they be safe? And how could she get Wolf there, in a pinch?]
Well-spoken, acolyte! Well-spoken indeed. You bring honor to this crew just as you bring a smile to your Captain’s eyes. Just be sure you bring back that uniform in one piece, yes? It would be a shame to lose such a fine piece of craftsmanship.

“I appreciate the enthusiasm, but I’m afraid there will be no volunteers this time. Not when we’re spread as thin as we are.” But your enthusiasm has been noted, and gladly. “Alexa, you are with me, and Epestia, you are with Alexa. You have free reign to break off from the retinue as you see fit, but do not let yourselves be separated. We don’t know what we’ll be walking into there, so be on your guard, and keep your eyes open for opportunity.”

Do you notice, Alexa? Do you catch the half-step missed as she turns to you? Do you spy the price of the miles she’s bought you, in the pause to catch a breath? And when she speaks, do you hear how she’d pay it all again, without question? “I’m counting on you, Alexa. We’re outnumbered, and we need every able body who can navigate one of the Order’s functions.”
The Chef Mate dipped his head without looking from the viewport. “Thank you, sir, for that gracious assessment. I will be sure to keep it close to mind.”

Which earned him a loving ruffle of his wooly ears from the Captain.

Six place settings, two tables. Near-infinite combinations to choose from, and nevermind what Dolce might tell you about figures and combinatorial claptrap. Practically speaking though, how many decisions did she have to make?

Just one, as it turned out. All the rest had been made for her.

Iskarot could not go the Yakanov without causing a scene. He must go to the planet.

She was the Captain of the Plousios. To not visit the Yakanov would be to deliver a grievous insult, and raise questions of their true motives here. She and Dolce must go to the Yakanov.

Galnius and his hoplites would provide stability and respectability - and it was proof positive of their dire predicament that they needed them for the latter - and they numbered far too few to make a difference on the surface. They would accompany her to the Yakanov.

Epestia and Redana were problems in the making, but Redana might be capable of keeping a lid on it so long as she didn’t fall in with a bad crowd. Or over-eager Ceronians with more scythe than sense. The two of them must be kept apart.

Alexa was sensible, capable, reliable, and already got on well with Epestia. A grounding force that would stick close by her side. The two of them needed to be paired up, for all their sakes.

Which left one decision, upon which all the others hung:

Would Redana be better off by her side, or apart?

Vasilia took Redana’s measure; tone of voice, sharpness of stance, consistency with time, state of dress, so on, and so forth. She would not be rushed to speak. “You will accompany the good Hermetician to the surface. From a distance, you will be just another priest with their acolyte, and no one will be any the wiser. You are to explore the planet, make contact with the Alced, and lay the groundwork for taking them onboard.” And if there was a hint of fondness in her eyes as she sent Redana off on the adventures she so craved, well! Then take it as you may. “Am I understood?”

In the end, hardly much of a decision at all.
“Here. For friend.”

Jackdaw held out a fresh - well, as fresh as fair food got - caramel apple to Wolf. Near enough to be offered. Far enough to make a run at her coleslaw tins impossible.

“Still warm.”

This was a trap in three parts. First, it got a little more fruit into Wolf’s diet, which was rare enough down here that neither of them could pass up the opportunity. Second, it was absolutely impossible to store for later, and best enjoyed immediately. Third, it occupied an entire hand and more than an entire mouth. No one, not even Wolf, could scarf one of them down quickly. Good for the digestion. And, well, for not careening towards the line of bad manners with respect to coleslaw tins.

She looked over Wolf’s coat again. Pockets were holding, which was a relief. It’d been a miracle to find enough material to fix up the worst of her ragged old coat. And. Well, that was something, wasn’t it? At least they had her to mend clothes when they went poorly.

Well. Those of them that still needed that sort of thing.

Without looking at Ailee, without looking at their guide, and definitely without looking at poor Coleman, Jackdaw quietly nodded her assent, and padded along in the back of the group. As silent and small as she could make herself.
“In other words,” Vasilia continued her place at the helm. “They’re only a military force if we approach them as a military force. Resist their efforts openly, and enough will unify to swat us out of the way. And so, we shall approach them as nothing of the sort.” A brief meeting of eyes told Galnius to mark it well. A more pointed stare, that Epestia would mark it thrice. “They are priests of mystery and cunning, off for a holiday on a planet that cannot hope to oppose them. We too shall be from, ah, out of town, here to mingle amidst all the excitement. A fated meeting of the gods, yet another mystery on the path of mystery.” How could they possibly resist? “And once we have a better lay of the land, well! Then we shall see what opportunities present themselves.” It would take a subtle touch, yes. A very subtle touch. And, at last tally, Alexa might be able to spell subtle. Redana, she may have skipped that lesson too. But the plan was far more preferable than discovering, exhaustively, what all those eccentrics did to a body.

Dolce, meanwhile, stood at her side, staring out at the Yakanov, brows sternly furrowed, as if he could shame the great ship into quietly packing up its things and leaving.
Later That Night

The hours weighed heavily on Vasilia. More heavily, it seemed, than they did on Dolce, which was a trick she’d yet to figure out. What she had figured out were several delightful ways to make up the difference, which was why he was fast asleep in her arms, and she was awake to savor it.

Rest, dear heart. Rest at last. You’ve worked so hard today, haven’t you? She couldn’t turn her back without you finding another five things to add to your list. Did you think yourself so stealthy, she wouldn’t see? Did you think, for a moment, that you’d slipped from her notice? See where that hubris has brought you! How the mighty have fallen into a warm, smiling, wispy lump of bubbling joy. You are defenseless - defenseless! - as she teases that one curl that droops across your forehead. You are hers, to have and to hold, to kiss and to cuddle, for now and forever.

Defenseless.

You are...you are hers. Forever.

He didn’t know.

Sleep. Sleep, dear heart. She will join you soon.

You gave him the wedding oath. You made him say it.

Just. Just let her look at you a while longer. Yes?

He didn’t know any better.

Let her see you happy, for a while longer.

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

The morning greeted Dolce brightly. More brightly, it seemed, than it did Vasilia, which was a problem he’d yet to crack. Always had to factor in a little longer for waking up and, ah, extricating himself. The edge of the bed was fiercely guarded, and he would not be suffered to pass lightly. Which suited him well.

Sleep, Lady. Sleep. Enjoy this gift of time he’s made, just for you. Soon the day will begin, and you will fight your thousand battles all over again. You will take your next steps into the stars, to do the impossible. But here, there will be no fight. No struggle. Take him in your strong arms, and hold him close. You have him! You have him, and he is yours, and for now, that will be enough.

The chef’s love is to be his art.

Hold him, Lady. Take hold of what’s yours.

And his love will be complete in it.

The day comes later. This moment is yours.

The chef has no designated partner.

Please. Let that day come later.

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

Days Later

The steady tread of Vasilia’s boots echoed down the long corridors, passing by the doors she had yet to open. Rooms she had never seen before, but already knew what they would hold. Here, she stopped. Took hold of the door mechanism in both hands, and with one powerful yank threw it open.

The sight was the same, and the task unchanged. Rows upon rows of bunks, flanked by lockers, divided by walls into smaller groups. All of them, empty. All of them, to be counted. If she assumed this room to be the same as all before it, then, naturally, it would be the first to break the pattern. Again, she began the circuit.

Hundreds now. Hundreds to go.

Not for the first time, and not for the last, her hand drifted to her coat pocket. One she had her Dolce tailor special, just above her heart, where now lay a little metal talisman. Her fingers caressed the edges, the needle-sharp point of the arrowhead, and the promise that it bore. The arrow that flew straight and true accomplished all that it set out to do, without fail. So said the Hunter.

The rooms would not be empty for long. She would see to that. So, it did not bother her to walk through empty room after empty room. The silence would break, and so it was not worrisome. What reason did she have to feel lonely, when their ship would soon be full to bursting? And maybe they could all get a little rest for once? That would be fine by her. Just a little longer now, and it would be smoother sailing again.

Hundreds now. Hundreds to go.

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

Dolce could not keep the smile from his face as he laid his dish before Hera’s altar. He wouldn’t dare demand that she appear to take it in person, and yet...how he wished he could see her face! It’d taken a healthy bit of experimenting, to make something out of their limited supplies that carried a hint of her favored flavors, but oh, it had been worth it. And, see! While the dish was still fresh, he’d drizzled the sauce in the shape of a peacock feather! He knew that would make her happy.

He was dawdling. Again. Far easier to imagine Hera’s delight than to think of why he was here in the first place. When he closed his eyes, he saw the Armada. When he bowed his head, he felt the heat of Molech’s terrible machine. When he opened his mouth, he was silent in the face of the infinite tragedies that might await them on their next stop. How could he wish them all away? How could he pick just a few to pray against? Had he the time to go through them all, he would have done so in a heartbeat.

In the end, he prayed for hope. The hope that they might, finally, leave better than when they arrived, with neither scarred bodies nor scarred hearts to remember the passing.

Please, kind Hera. Just this once.
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