Actions

Work Header

A Very Saatan Coup

Chapter Text

((OK, what’s Keris’s assumed starting point for when she’s prepared to get home. How strong does she want Atiya to be before she tries the trip across the Desert?))
((Hmm. Well, they’ll be going in the Baisha, which is nice and comfortable and well-protected, and she’s keen to see Sasi. So not long, really, since the stress of the trip isn’t a factor and she can spend the whole time caring for Atiya in a nice warm room in between bouts of chasing the twins as they try to investigate parts of the ship they’re not allowed in.))

The sight of the Baisha is not entirely sweet for Keris. Lord Ligier’s orb is a nagging reminder of the debts she owes him - and how he expects repayment.

She leans over the side, and sighs. Her children are all back. Asarin accompanied them, and Keris asked a favour of Lilunu to help her sensitive ally feel appreciated and respected. In the meantime, she has to decide what she’s doing with them.

“Rathan,” she starts, since he’ll likely be the easiest. “Do you want to stay out as we go back to Creation, or are you feeling like going back to the Sea with Oula?” He comes up behind her, wrapping his hair around her shoulders.

“What would be easier for you, mama?” he asks.

“It’s been lovely having you with me,” she admits. “But I’m getting a little lonely in there, and I could use my Amulet back. Plus, Calesco could probably use someone to vent to.”

“Vent to?” he asks, raising his fine eyebrows.

“She and Kuha...”

Keris pauses. “Well, Oula was there. She can explain. But yes, Calesco’s far from happy and could probably use a sibling or two. Which,” she adds, “is why I’d like you to go back too, Eko.”

Eko spreads her hands in shock and outrage. But Mama promised she could stay with Asarin until Calibration, she fumes.

“I promised no such thing,” Keris says. “I said you could stay with her a little longer. Which you have. And your little sister needs your support.”

This is so unfair, especially after everything Eko has done for her! She’s so underappreciated, Eko indicates with a flick of her hair. From the goodness of her heart - and getting a broken arm in the process - she went and got Mama the way to pay for her new baby! And what does she get for that? Oh, hi new baby, she waves at Atiya. But yes! What does she get from that? She gets packed away and sent back home!

Keris sighs. Her eldest is always most annoying when she kind of has a point.

Thank you, Eko,” she says, half sincere and have exasperated. “Really. You really have been helpful, and I’m very grateful to you for helping with Atiya. But while there will be a point where I invite you out into Creation to play, that point isn’t now. Besides, the Ruin is missing you.”

Eko pouts, but a bit more sadly. But she wants to hang around with her new friend and do each other’s hair and kill monsters and overthrow other lords of Hell and try on pretty dresses and go to dances, she whines.

“I’m not saying you can’t ever,” says Keris patiently. “But I’ve been missing Haneyl for months, and I want all of my babies together for a while. Maybe next year you can have an internship with Asarin the way Haneyl has had with Sasi.”

Eko wobbles her hand. Is this really worth a favour to get to stay out, she asks herself.

Keris raises an eyebrow. “Eko,” she says warningly. “If you call in that favour now, your odds on another one in the future start dropping. And Calesco is sad and heartbroken, don’t you want to go hug her and cheer her up?”

This is outrageous, Eko blusters. The use of threats and blackmail and extortion to stop a poor innocent girl from using a favour to spend time around her best friend!

“Oh, shut up, Eko,” Rathan yawns. “This is boring and it’s gone on long enough. And Mama’s already snuck a hair tendril around your sleeve, so if you try to run, she’ll just suck you in.”

Betrayal, Eko exclaims, throwing her arms out widely.

“Yes, yes,” Keris sighs. “Now, in.” She tugs, and Eko unravels into sulkily complaining ribbons that twine around and into Keris’s hair until they’re all gone.

Keris offers a hand to Rathan. “You too? Oula went back in a little before you arrived - she has a surprise waiting for you. Possibly several surprises.”

Rathan scratches his chin. “As long as I’m not missing any nice goodbye dinners or presents from Lady Lilunu,” he says with a casual shrug. “Then fine.”

“You’re not that I know of,” says Keris. She hugs him, stretching up on tiptoe and pulling him down a little to get her arms over his shoulders. “Thank you so much, darling,” she murmurs. “You were invaluable on this trip. The whole time - in Baisha, in Terema, in Malra. I couldn’t have done it without you. You were perfect, and I am so, so proud of you.”

Rathan hums happily. “Yes, I was, and I am perfect,” he says, with a flick of his hair. Keris giggles, and pulls him in gently, sending him off to the Sea and whatever surprise beyond her tattoos Oula has waiting in his moon-palace.

Then she turns to Vali and Zanara.

“So then,” she says. “You two. I assume you want to stay out and come to Saata and help me there?”

Vali cracks his knuckles. “Yeah!”

Nara flutters his butterfly wings up to perch on one of the ledges. “Yes, mama.”

“Alright, well then we need things to anchor you both. Zanara, I guess you want the-”

Keris hasn’t even finished the sentence before Nara has grabbed the Amulet Rathan left behind, and she chuckles indulgently. “So that leaves Vali. Great as the red-jade dragon armour is, it’s a bit bulky to wear all the time. But I think I have some hearthstone bracers from Yamal’s tomb; would those suit you?”

Vali scratches his head. “Guess so,” he says. “If something else works better, I guess we’ll find out.”

“I’ll dig them up on the way, then. Now, Mehuni and Neride are getting the Baisha ready to depart, so while we wait for that, you two can meet your newest little sister properly.”

Vali reaches out with a big finger, and hovers over Atiya’s face hesitantly. “She’s so tiny,” he says. “And she looks so ill.”

“The way we made her... it was difficult,” Keris admits. “She’s premature - born too soon. Her lungs aren’t strong enough to breathe well yet, and she’s not got much resistance to illness. Even less than most babies.” She kisses the crown of Atiya’s head tenderly. “I hope it won’t hurt her health as she grows up, but... it might.”

Vali’s jawline tenses. “She’s going to get strong,” he promises. “I’ll help her and keep her safe until she’s strong enough that she doesn’t need me. She’s going to fight every bit of hurting and illness she gets and she’s going to win!”

Nara’s eyes widen. “Are you sure you want to prom-” he begins.

“Yes!”

Keris knows exactly how seriously Vali takes his promises. She blinks in shock for a moment, and then smiles and leans down to kiss her son on the forehead.

Good boy,” she says. “You’re going to be such a good big brother for her, I can tell. While we’re travelling I’ll tell you about how to help look after her, okay?”

Vali nods. “Yes.” He looks Keris in the eye, his tawny orange eyes bright. “You told me that I needed to be a good big brother for Kali and Ogin, and Atiya needs me even more. I’ll keep them all safe and teach them things.”

Hugging her son again, Keris allows herself a moment of pride and comfort before throwing herself back into preparations for the trip.

---

Lilunu of course makes sure she’s well provisioned - and gives Zanara in person a gorgeous little set of paints that Keris is more than a little jealous of.

Captain Neride is... less pleased to see Keris, or rather less pleased that Keris has shown up after half a year of leaving her sitting in port with nothing to do. She considers it an affront to her dignity, Keris decides by a day into the trip. The Helmsman... doesn’t care, and the Priest is, as usual, inscrutable.

Of course, Keris has things to hide from him.

((Cog + Subterfuge to decieve him about Vali and Zanara, announce charms in use too))
((Hahaaa, fuck, using Carmine Mantled Emissary, Beauty Over Truth and Haar-Hidden Dealings to throw a +3 external penalty up, cloud any suspicion from Keris’s past actions and make Keris’s very much deliberate efforts to keep the Priest away from her children seem totally justified.
3+5+2 stunt+8 Kimmy ExD {secrets, kept with guile}=20. 12 sux.))

Keris makes sure to keep her children - all of her children - well away from the Priest for the entire journey; resorting to Rathan’s innocent light when her excuses and arbitrary refusals start to stretch thin. She enlists Zanara and Vali to help, and even Kali and Ogin seem to understand the need to be quiet and not launch escape attempts when the blue-fire-robed-thing is nearby.

Keris thinks it’s enough. Hopes, at least. She's fairly sure she’s got away with it. The stalking figure seems content that she’s simply paying attention to her purpose and her tasks - and has some dry words to that effect.

In the mean time, Keris has to split her time between caring for Atiya and keeping the extremely excitable twins under control. And by day three, Vali is also starting to be a problem as he’s feeling confined by the ship.

“Two more days, darlings,” Keris repeats, until the words lose meaning in her ears and she wants to throttle something. “Just two more days and then we’ll be out in Creation.” She enlists Vali to try and repair some of the Shogunate armour she took from Eshtock, on the grounds that it’s at least something for him to do and she took a fair amount of it. The twins are rather harder to keep contained - and on the Calesco front, there’s been only worrying silence.

She does manage to stop in at the quarters of her mortal entourage - Piu, Xasan and the Tairan girls - at least once a day to see how they’re doing and lay Rathan-haloed words of reassurance down where necessary. And, occasionally, to enlist help in keeping Kali from running wild when Atiya needs all of her attention.

It’s honestly a relief when they surface in the South West, in a sargasso-laden sea under a bright blue sky. The heat and the humidity wash over everyone as Keris leads travel-weary people out onto deck to get some fresh air and sunlight. Atiya needs it - she’s jaundiced.

“Still better than the desert and all that sand,” Xasan says, pulling off his boots and sprawling out on the still-wet deck. “This is nice, Keris.”

“I know,” moans Keris, sprawled out on deck and almost purring in the fresh air and the salt smell. “Gods, I want to go swimming.” She eyes the ocean water longingly, but sighs and returns her attention to Atiya, smoothing some more sun-guard ointment over her delicate skin. “We’re not far from An Teng here - maybe four hundred miles, uh... that way.” She assesses the distant hovering peak of the Imperial Mountain with a glance and then sticks a hair tendril out at right angles to it.

“And then that way,” she adds, another hair tendril gesturing directly away from the needle-like spire above the Centrewards horizon, “is Saata, if you keep going for fifteen hundred miles or so and slip between Nightfall and whatsitsname; the one that looks like a bit like a frog on the maps.”

With a flop, Ogin collapses down onto the wet-but-warm hull, and spreads his arms and tails out. He coos and looks like he’s going to sleep.

“Gin! Gin!” Kali points down at him and how his smock is already drenched. “Mama, Gin wet!”

“Yes, he is!” Keris coos. “That’s because this is the sea, little feather. It’s a big wet. A big, big wet. Like a river, but instead of going just one way it goes everywhere!” She stretches out her hair to demonstrate.

“And look! The sun is all bright and warm here! Isn’t that nicer than freezing cold and snow?”

Kali squirms around on Keris, looking over the water, and even squints up at the sun. “‘ellow!” she declares, pointing at the sun. “No gree’!”

“No, this is a Ney sun, not a Ligier sun,” Keris says, not voicing an opinion on which she prefers. “You can growl at this one if you want, baby.”

“Grr,” Kali says obediently. Then her daughter grins at Keris, and spontaneously kisses her on the nose. “Sun!” she says happily. “Sun sun sun sun!”

It seems Kali missed sunlight in the Baisha. She doesn’t seem to care much whether it’s Creation’s sun or Hell’s. But then again, she does draw from both solar and infernal natures.

Keris enjoys the kisses and affection from her daughter until with a pop and a squawk they’re replaced with pecks, and then uses a couple of hair tendrils to fly Kali around in figure-of-eights as she flaps her stubby little wings and carols gleefully.

Atiya, meanwhile, gets a careful hair-veil that lets enough sunlight through to help with her jaundice but not enough that she risks overheating, and Ogin gets gently stroked and some tail-combing while he’s too sleepy to squirm away from it.

Blissfully occupied with her children, Keris sits on the deck of her demonic flagship as it bobs among the sparkling blue waves, listening with half an ear to the activities of her shipboard companions.

Eventually, though, she’s dallied for long enough.

“Iris?” she says lightly. “I need you to carry a message for me, darling. Actually, wait, no. Let’s keep you a surprise.” The little dragon quirks her head at Keris and seems to shrug, settling back on her hand as Keris sends Rounen off instead with a message to Sasi that they’ve arrived back in Creation and are on their way.

A few commands to Neride and the Helmsman have them taking a covert route towards Sasi’s country house, and Keris reluctantly retreats back inside the Baisha, out of the sun for the few hours it will take for them to get there. She grins when she emerges. Someone has dredged the channel since the last time she visited Sasi’s country estate, sailing up the river - and yes, when she gets there around sunset, she finds there’s a hidden submerged dock that’s still got the clean lines of fresh-cut stone.

“Aaaaand we’re here,” she says. “Uncle, if you could take Kali and Ogin? And Rounen, stay close, I may need to hand Atiya to you for a moment when I throw myself at Sasi. Vali, Zanara, come on. Haneyl will be there with her, and I know you’re both eager to jump on her and talk up a storm.”

Keris ascends a hidden staircase, and slides the door open. Ears perking up, she hears that Sasi isn’t in the house - and neither is Haneyl.

When she remarks that, Zana immediately grins. “Let’s go rummage through Hanny’s bedroom and see what she’s managed to pick up,” she says.

“Don’t-” she starts, but it’s too late. With a sigh, she reclaims the twins from Xasan and follows, hoping to at least avert some of the damage. A nod to Rounen has him stay back to organise everyone in the more publicly accessible areas of the house and see about finding some food after their long trip.

“Hmm,” Zana says critically, thumbs hooked into her sash as she strolls the corridors. “Well, I mean, it could be less pretty, but I don’t think much of the colour scheme here. And the architecture is way too straight and bleh.” She grins. “Although this,” she says, sprinting over to a collection of miniature trees, “this is Hanny’s work. It’s great. She’s clearly been trying to bring more life to the place. And,” she perks up, sniffing the air, “that means that Hanny’s room is probably... this way!”

Keris isn’t sure what logic Zanara is using, but she gets there in one or two goes.

“Hanny is going to put plants along the places she goes the most,” Zana says with a shrug as she kneels by a double pair of doors, picking the lock with her hair. “She’ll make plant corridors where she sees the most. Bet you a talent that this is her room.”

Keris doesn’t need to bet, of course - she can smell her daughter’s spent a lot of time here. The fact that there’s probably thirty different kinds of plant - including ones that only grow in the Swamp - on the other side is a bit of a clue. And there’s other hints, too.

Zana gets the lock open, and swings the doors open. “Oooh, pretty,” she says approvingly.

And it is pretty. Haneyl has taken the Tengese look of the room, and layered on aspects of the Realm and of Nexus and the Swamp in it. Of course there are plants everywhere - little bonsai trees she’s working on and has placed around (probably so she can have snacks if she wakes up, looking at the size of the apples growing from the small trees). They’re all either blossoming or bearing fruit.

There’s paintings on the wall - a mix of fine Tengese collections and some things Keris recognises as being her daughter’s own hand, and a balcony that’s a jungle in minature, with plants channeling rainwater from the roof’s gutters into a storage plant that’s flooded a dammed off area.

Of course, Keris smiles as she rifles through Haneyl’s walk-in closet, her daughter has apparently amassed a truly impressive wardrobe in a few months. Some of them are unfamiliar and are probably gifts from Sasi, but a good number were clearly woven herself. Those ones have Zana the happiest.

“This is great!” Zana says, spreading her arms wide. “She’s not wasted her time! Oooh, this weaving is so thin! She has to show me how to do it!”

Haneyl’s bed is of course massive - big enough for four, and full of plumped up pillows and soft throws. There’s more plants growing on her bedside table - tea, coffee, Maiden’s Tea...

Keris stalls, twitches slightly, moves on, stalls again, moves back, and picks up the plant pot.

“Wh-why is this here?” she chuckles, another faint twitch crossing her face. “Why does Haneyl have Maiden’s Tea on her bedside table? She hasn’t said anything about a boyfriend in her tenday messages!”

“Huh?” says Zana, who’s still rifling through her sister’s wardrobe and has started pulling down some garments and trying them on. They don’t fit, of course, and not just for height. “Blue Hells, Hanny’s boobs must be huge now. Way bigger than yours, Keris.” She presses the dress against Keris. “This wouldn’t fit you, with how much loose fabric there is on you when this is clearly so cut to be figure hugging.”

“...” says Keris. “Right! Okay then! We are leaving Haneyl’s bedroom now! Because if we are here when she gets back, there will be screaming and fire instead of hugging and questions!” She shoves the... honestly, it’s not even a very good dress, it’s... it... the cut is...

... anyway, Keris shoves the blasted thing back in the drawer and drags Zanara back out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her and relocking it with a hair tendril.

She then realises she’s still holding the Maiden’s Tea, and almost drops it in her haste to shove it onto a hall table.

“Aww,” Zana whines. “What’s the big idea, Keris? I was going to find her diary once I’d finished checking her clothes!”

Keris glances back towards the room speculatively... and then remembers the Maiden’s Tea again, and imagine what might be in that diary. “Haha,” she laughs with a shudder. “No. Nope. Not happening. We are going downstairs, and you can help me cook something that’ll bowl Haneyl over with how good it tastes and make her really impressed.”

It’s then that Keris hears a familiar song - a Nexan one from the streets. Well, from the music halls, in fact, drifting in from a long way away. When she focuses on that, though, not only can she hear the sound of someone with shears, but the song has Haneyl’s heat in it.

Oh, of course. The sun is still up, but it’s cooled down. She’s probably out in the gardens. This is Haneyl, after all.

“Ah,” she says knowingly. “She is here after all. Just out in the gardens. Come on; let’s go and say hello.”

Sweeping downstairs, Keris collects Vali and Xasan, leaving Rounen with the mortal girls, and leads her little parade out into the beautiful jungle that Haneyl has made of Sasi’s country house grounds. She presses a finger to her lips as they approach, winking at Vali to get him in on surprising his sister.

Away from the noise of the household, Keris can also hear Aiko’s laughter - and if Aiko’s there in that shaded veranda, then Sasi is also there, quietly reading notes while a servant reads a story to her daughter. They’re closer than Haneyl, who’s down by the river’s edge.

Keris’s eyes light up as she sees her love, and she carefully hands off the twins to Xasan and Atiya, very gently, to Vali.

It’s sort of adorable seeing him so intently focus on supporting her head right.

Then, with a kiss for all five of her babies and a conspiratorial grin, Keris sneaks into the veranda and leans against a pillar a little way behind Sasi. She checks her clothes quickly - the Harbourite dress, all reds and yellows and browns, with her hair up in a set of interwoven ponytails and her arms and shoulders bared.

She takes a deep breath, nervous butterflies dancing round her belly. And then she speaks.

“Hey there, stranger,” Keris says lightly. “Long time no see.”

((And yes, that was a Ney entrance.))
((He left an impression~))

“You know, dear,” Sasi says, turning a page in her book with a crisp sound, “that might have actually surprised me if I hadn’t felt you enter my personal space.”

Keris feels the unseen butterfly-kisses of her senses running up and down her skin. “Well, look at you. As beautiful as ever. And you’ve had the babies. And picked up... something in your arm.” Sasi tuts sadly. “I can’t leave you alone for any time, can I? Obviously you’ve got into all kinds of wild adventures and probably had your children in some kind of backend place and left me worrying sick.” She still hasn’t looked at Keris, adding archly. “And all you spare me is a ‘hey there, stranger’? No romantic declarations of eternal love?”

Keris pouts, dances around the seat and seats herself across Sasi’s lap, snatching the book up and out of the way with a hair-bookmark at Sasi’s place.

“I missed you every single day,” she murmurs, flexing her arms as she drapes them around Sasi’s shoulders. “I thought of you over and over, I looked forward to seeing you again for months. There were so many times I wanted you there with me, to share what I’d found with you or show off what I’d done for your approval, or just so you could be brilliant and perfect and you.”

She looks up into Sasi’s eyes, batting her own forlornly. “If I don’t seem serious about how good it is to see you again, my love, it’s only because I think my voice would break if I tried to put the depth of it into words.”

Sasi smiles at that, meeting Keris’s gaze with her iridescent eyes, which twinkle. “Now that’s more like it,” she says. “Well-met by twilight, my demonic princess. Returned from your far off hellish lands to ravish me and corrupt my mind with wicked things?”

“Oh, so many. But first, my gorgeous sorceress-queen, I have some very special people for you to meet. Come on out, now!”

Her little group trickles into the veranda, and Keris beams, sliding off Sasi’s lap to hug Vali and recover her infants. “This is Vali; Haneyl’s brother, and these are- where’s Zanara?”

“Snuck off to surprise Haneyl before you could so she’d be the first thing Hanny saw,” Vali informs her. “She waited about two seconds after you left before going. I’d’ve gone too, but I had Atiya.”

“...” says Keris, and sighs. There may be a subvocal mutter of “brats” in there, not that she’s telling.

Anyway,” she picks back up, trying to salvage the moment. “This is Vali, who takes you as a parent just as Haneyl does. Zanara you’ve met, and these are Kali and Ogin, my twins. Who... were, yes, born on a freezing cold mountainside in rural Taira. It was awful, and everything you told me about birthing Aiko was lies.”

She’s smiling as she says it - or at least only pouting playfully - so there’s no sting to the words. “Then this is my little Atiya, the baby of the family, and my uncle Xasan. He...”

Her face flickers for a moment, closing with grief before reverting to the happy smile as she refocuses on Sasi. “He was my mother’s brother,” she finishes. “I found him in Taira - along with...!” Reeling herself in, Keris clears her throat. “Ah, well, that’s a story for later. It’s kind of long. Darlings?”

She plops herself back on the seat beside Sasi, gesturing Vali closer and directing her attention to the twins. “This is Sasimana. Sa-si. Mama loves her very very much, and you can always trust her. Isn’t she pretty? Say hello!”

Ogin, of course, doesn’t say a thing. He just stares at Sasi with his cool silver eyes.

His sister has no such constraints. “Si!” she chirrups. “Si!”

“Ahem!” a little voice demands. It’s Aiko, thick brows furrowed, head poking out from behind the wicker chair she’s sat on. Her emerald eyes are narrowed as she glares at Keris. “You are all loud. This is my reading time and mama is going to make me go to bed soon!”

Her jet black hair - the same colour as Atiya’s - is cut neatly into a little princess-like hime cut. Her skin, though, has changed - it’s faded from the inhuman black she was the last time Keris saw her. She’s still darker than her father and her lips remain as black as ever, but she can pass much more normally as a human girl. Keris wonders whether it was something Sasi did, or some reaction to sunlight.

Her attempt to be a dignified young lady is of course ruined when Sasi sweeps her up with a grunt, and carries her daughter to meet the newcomers. “Aiko, this is Keris! You’ve been waiting for her to come back. And look, she’s brought her children along so you’ll have lots of people to play with! You like Keris, don’t you?”

“Do not!” Aiko is a scowly little toddler. “Only Rou-Rou.”

Keris is, for perhaps the first time, actually charmed. Somehow, Aiko being able to talk instead of just scream and interrupt her time with Sasi - her being a tiny person instead of a loud ruiner-of-evenings - makes her adorable even when she’s being sulky.

“It’s lovely to see you again, Aiko,” Keris greets her with a smile. “I actually have a present for you if you want - all the way from the other side of Creation! And Rounen is here too, and he has lots of stories saved up from where we went travelling together.”

Aiko pouts. “Better be good stories,” she informs Keris seriously.

Vali sidles up to her. “Are you really a dragon?” he asks.

Aiko glares at him. “Huh?”

“I’m one too. Dragons are the best.”

Keris feels Iris squirm out of her arm, swimming through the air as a two-dimensional shape. The little tattoo-dragon nods seriously at that, and Aiko’s eyes go wide, then there’s a blush on her dark skin as she smiles widely. “Look, mama!” she squeals. “It’s so pretty!”

“Ah, yes,” says Keris sheepishly. “I forgot our last introduction. This is Iris.” She lifts her tattooed hand and lets the many-part dragon play about her fingers, slipping onto her skin and then launching back off it again to curl around Aiko’s shoulders and offer up her occult flame of Yozi essence for Aiko’s attention. Aiko lets out a high pitched squeal that has Sasi almost leaping into action, but then it turns into giggles and they realise that Iris is licking Aiko’s neck.

Sasi, of course, leans in towards Iris in a way that Keris has only seen before a few times. Something has grabbed Sasi by the curiosity.

“Fascinating,” Sasi breathes. “A creature - ink and flesh and skin - made of blended Yozi powers. It’s living in your arm? And,” she reaches out, “look at it, it’s like a moving image that... ow!”

Iris has bitten Sasi in the finger. She retreats back to her protective position around Aiko’s neck.

“That’s not a demon,” Sasi says firmly. “Demons can’t attack me.”

“She’s...” Keris starts, then thinks better of it. “Lilunu was involved,” she says instead. “I’ll tell you the whole story somewhere private. And, uh. then the story that came after it, which is just as interesting but which may make you groan at me.”

Sasi licks her finger. “Ow,” she says, rubbing it. “Is this the kind of story that means I’m going to need a stiff drink to calm my nerves, or is this the kind of story where you’re talking about something you did that make me think you’d probably had too many stiff drinks to start with?”

Keris considers the question for a moment.

“... yes,” she decides. “Both of those things. Anyway! Vali! I think Haneyl and Zanara are wrapping up, so come over and meet your... other mother?” She glances at Sasi to check her reaction to the description. “... ah, before you start wrestling with your sister and bragging about the dragon armour. Which, please don’t do, or she’ll want a set as well.”

Vali perks up. “Oh yeah, Aiko’d look great in dragon armour!”

“You got your hands on dragon armour?” Sasi asks at the same time. “And no. Just... no.”

“Why not?” Aiko demands, on the grounds that it sounds like a present.

“It’s too big for you, darling,” Keris puts in. “Way too big. My size. And it’s also very heavy. But...” A flick of her fingers produces a little morsel saved from Malra - a few blocks of chocolate. “You can have this. Your mama might recognise what it is, if you haven’t had it before.”

While Aiko gets to work on the chocolate - which she likes a lot - Sasi takes in Vali. Seeing the two of them together, the kinship is more obvious. There’s something about the shape of the eyes and the stubborn jawline, even if their colouration couldn’t be more different.

“I mean, hi,” Vali contributes. “I dunno what Hanny sees the big deal as being. I guess you’re pretty. But since Aiko’s another sister, I’ll keep her safe too. But I mean, Atiya’s all small and ill so she really needs my safe-helping more than Aiko.”

Sasi blinks, and looks to Keris for help.

“Atiya is premature,” Keris explains, her mood dampening a little. “Vali promised to look after her and help her get strong and tough and not ill or frail anymore. He takes being a big brother and looking after his little siblings seriously.” She smiles proudly at him.

“And if Hanny’s been a pain, I’ll just punch her in the face for you,” Vali offers generously. “She’s a big sister. She doesn’t need to be protected like the little ones.”

Keris is watching and sees the little flicker on Sasi’s face. It’s not just amusement; that’s what she hides it with. It’s a little bit of honest temptation. “I’ll bear that in mind,” Sasi says. “And on that note, Keris, walk with me alone for a bit. I just want to talk to you about Haneyl for a bit so you know what to expect.”

“Right,” Keris says, slightly uneasily. She hands Atiya back over to Vali and lets Xasan take the twins. Her uncle hasn’t said anything yet - he’s been watching Sasi; taking the measure of this woman his niece is besotted with.

That can wait, though. For the moment, Keris gives Sasi another hug and a kiss as they stand, and lets herself be led off into the garden, away from where Haneyl and Zanara are.

Sasi leans in to kiss Keris. “I really have missed you, dear,” she says, after coming up for air. “And you are looking much happier than you were when I left for Calibration. Motherhood suits you - and finding an uncle too?” There’s a softness in Sasi’s eyes. “It’s a wonderful thing to be surrounded by one’s family.”

“An uncle, a brother, a sister-in-law cousin and a niece,” Keris beams. “The others are on their way by ship - I didn’t want to take them through Hell. And... yes.” A blissful smile splits her face. “They’re perfect. My perfect little babies. I didn’t know I could love anything this much...”

She sniffs, tearing up a little at the feelings and hugging herself, spinning on a heel with glee. “Oh, and there’s been so much, love. I don’t even know where to start... though,” she adds in a faintly peeved tone. “On the side of what’s happened here, I’d quite like to know why Haneyl has Maiden’s Tea on her bedside table.”

“Because any girl should always have some close to hand,” Sasi says casually. “You can’t trust men to want to take it.” She pauses. “Although yes. I suppose it was sort of inevitable. She’s my daughter and your daughter, and your greed on top of it all. Haneyl has quite the appetite.”

“...” says Keris. Her expression speaks volumes. “Um. What... what do you mean by that? Because she didn’t say anything about a boyfriend in her letters...”

“Well, I wouldn’t say she has a boyfriend, exactly,” Sasi says, sitting down on a bench below lemon trees. “I suppose her most stable relationships are either with her maid, or a handsome young man who’s one of the gardeners.” She raises her hands placatingly. “Don’t worry, I made sure to pick a pretty girl from a Yozi cult who liked girls to be Haneyl’s handmaid.”

“... most... stable?” Keris croaks, not wanting to know and yet not able to stop herself asking.

“This is, ah, where the controversy comes in, and the little,” Sasi makes a tiny separation between her fingers, “issue might arise. She is, ah, not welcome at court anymore in An Teng, and I had to pull some strings. She’s, ah, effectively under house arrest in my household due to certain...” Sasi looks for words, “... indiscretions. And the Tengese are so tiresome with their lack of understanding of the human heart, I don’t exactly blame Haneyl for falling afoul of some of their more boring standards. But I do think it would be better for you to take her home with you to Saata, at least until the scandal dies down.”

Keris is silent for a moment, processing that.

“Sasi,” she says, at length. “What in the fuck did she do?

The story comes out, with Sasi showing very little shame - and even some approval.

So, it appeared that Haneyl had fairly quickly taken up with her handmaid and one of the gardeners - with Sasi’s encouragement as she viewed them as good ‘training’ and ‘practice’.

That had apparently seemingly only whetted her appetites, and once Sasi introduced her to the Tengese social scene as a young debutante her horizons had broadened. Her conquests then had included a young nobleman who was part of one of Sasi’s cults, and a young countess with an older husband who had excellent gardens on her land and Haneyl and her had been ‘discussing botany’ at length.

“I did warn her away from Viscount Sukhothaya,” Sasi says firmly. “I know she wanted to get into his private library, but I put a stop to that. He’s too old for her.”

The... drama had happened, though, when Haneyl had made her grand entrance at one of the greater parties of the season, and over the course of the night seduced both Prince Prawat, the third son of Prince Laxander of the Shore Lands, and his fiancee, an heiress and the great niece of the prince of the Middle Lands.

“Both separately, and together,” Sasi notes, a faint smile on her lips. “Of course, ah, the problems started when the three of them were caught and the Tengese got rather upset. And also rather desperate to keep things quiet, because the wedding is scheduled for next season and Tengese nobles aren’t meant to be intimate before their wedding, especially not with another unmarried foreign woman about their age present.”

There is a long silence after she finishes speaking. Eventually, Keris makes a strangled noise.

“I...” she stutters. “I... I...”

“You should probably keep an eye on Vali,” Sasi advises casually. “In a few years - or at least when he’s aged as much as a human would, he’ll probably be as passionate. He’s still a little boy now, but both of us have generous hearts and like the finer things in life. Our children do take after both of us.”

“I said teach her!” Keris bursts out, finally overcoming paralysis at the idea of having this conversation about Vali. “Not... not let her sleep her way through... she’s not even old enough to start... does she even love any of them?” Her hair cringes and twitches as she shies away from, yet can’t actually forget, all that she’s learned about her daughter’s sexual exploits in the past few minutes. And the fact that her daughter’s other parent seems fully aware of them and actively approving of parts, which... Keris can’t even begin to parse. She doesn’t want to know what Haneyl does in her bedroom with other people, and isn’t comfortable with it happening at all - especially one-off flings. Rathan and Oula are at least deeply in love.

Sasi looks confused; even hurt. “She won’t learn if she doesn’t practice. And Keris, dear, she’s a teenager - at least mentally. She needs time to work out what - and who - she wants in life. So I made sure she was introduced to people about her own age who wouldn’t mind experimentation with a beautiful foreign girl with divine blood. And kept her safe from the Viscount.” She smiles. “I have scolded her about seducing the prince and his fiancee - and punished her - but I am rather impressed too. Both the prince and the heiress have spoken in her favour.

Keris makes another strangled noise, squeezes her eyes shut, and takes a deep breath.

“Okay,” she says. “Okay. I don’t want to... to ruin our reunion by arguing. And I really don’t want to know about my daughter’s... gahh. Don’t want to know. Don’t want to know at all.” She shudders. “We’ll just... revisit this later.” She hugs Sasi again, and kisses the corner of her mouth. “I love you. Always. Even... always.”

Sasi kisses her cheeks. “You are adorable when you blush,” she says. She glances at the setting sun. “Tonight I’ll make those cheeks even redder,” she purrs.

Taking Keris’s arm, she walks her towards the riverside. “Oh, another thing about Haneyl,” she adds. “Something you hopefully won’t be upset by. It turns out she tans. Very heavily.”

Keris’s eyebrows quirk. “Yeah? Huh. Alright then.” Her ears quirk, and she rolls her eyes. “It sounds like she found Vali. Or he found her. They’re wrestling. Looks like I’ll be the last to see my little girl again. Come on.”

Keris’s little girl really isn’t so little. She’s put on even more height, and more than a little weight. She’s still shorter than Sasi, but only by a bit - and her curves have filled out. Her bright green eyes sparkle in the dusk, hinting at the inner fire within.

And Sasi was right to note that Haneyl tans. She’s no longer ash pale; she’s only a few shades lighter than Keris herself. Combined with her silvery-grey hair and her bright eyes, it makes her even more striking. Keris can immediately see how the brown-eyed, golden-skinned, dark-haired Tengese fell for her. She must have stood out among all the other young noblewomen.

She’s even moving with more grace and maturity, even as she side-steps her brother’s roughhousing, delivering playful slaps to the top of his head with a smirk. She’s only dressed for gardening in a backless top and a belted-in skirt, but she’s almost managing to look like a lady.

Haneyl,” Keris... okay, fine, it’s a sob. But a joyful sob! She flies forward and wraps herself around her little girl... who... is no longer so little. She stands considerably higher than Keris now.

“... all my babies are growing up too tall,” Keris complains, from somewhere in the region of Haneyl’s chest. “Kali, Ogin! Promise you’ll never grow taller than mama!”

To her left arm, Haneyl is almost scalding hot to the touch, and there’s a constant squirming below - teeth, eyes, new organs of all kinds. Her skin isn’t soft - it’s like sandpaper or sharkskin, trying to tear or sear off the top layer of flesh. Keris isn’t surprised. She knows what her daughter is at her heart. And that’s not all of who she is.

“Oh, mama,” Haneyl says - and even her voice is a little deeper, more womanly. Keris can hear the cracking within as she tries to avoid slipping out of her pretended High Realm accent into her real Nexan. “Look at you. Where did you get that dress? It’s gorgeous! And apparently I have three new little brothers and sisters and a great uncle and a cousin, aunt and uncle.” Haneyl glowers. “And Zanara says my name belongs to my cousin so I need to change my name.”

“Please do not get into a fight with your three-year-old mortal cousin over your names being similar,” Keris groans, laughing. “It wouldn’t be very fair. She’s a toddler, and you’re a deva lord. And oh, look at you!” She spins around, hair rushing out. “You’re beautiful! And yes, yes, come meet your new siblings and your great-uncle.”

Bringing the twirling to a halt, Keris plants two big kisses on Haneyl’s cheeks and leads her over to Xasan and the twins. “Haneyl, this is Xasan, my mother’s brother. Well, half-brother. Kind of. It’s complicated. And this is Kali, and this is Ogin. Say hello, babies! This is your big sister Haneyl!”

With a “Hanny!” Kali throws herself at her big sister.

“Aren’t you an adorable little thing?” Haneyl tells Kali, rubbing noses. She tests her jaw. “She’s got teeth coming in. I’ve got some jerky in a pocket somewhere. Should I give her some so she has something to chew on that isn’t people?”

“Om nom nom!” Kali shouts, shamelessly enjoying being the centre of attention.

“Om nom nom,” Haneyl agrees. “And...”

Ogin is shyer, hiding his face.

“Oh, is he shy?” she asks.

That gets an outraged “Excuse me!” shouted from Aiko’s chair. “Haneyl! It is reading time! Stop interrupting it!”

Haneyl adjusts Kali’s position on her hip - holding her with practice, Keris notes - and nods to Aiko. “Are you sure you don’t want to meet and play with my little sister, Aiko? Both of you are my little sisters.”

“She’s just a baby!” Aiko insists. “I’m not! I’m reading books! Like an adult!”

“You’re being read to,” Sasi points out. “But you’re trying, aren’t you, darling?”

“You keep on interrupting my reading and that means I can’t follow what’s going on and I don’t want to talk to her,” she jabs a finger at Kali, “because she’s just a baby and can’t talk and doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Kali glares back. “Grr ba blah blah ‘ko!” she argues back, and then blows a raspberry.

“Jerky would be good, yes. Though speaking of food, for you,” Keris adds, “I have some chocolate from Malra; in the highlands of Taira. Think you can work out how to make more if I give you the samples I kept for you?” A few more brown squares appear like magic in her hair. “I made sure to keep some for you when I got given it.”

Haneyl looks away from the growing argument between Aiko and Kali and frowns. “Well, of course I’ll find a way eventually.” She takes one with her hair, and pops it in her mouth. “I’ll need more, of course,” she says quickly.

“Of course,” Keris smiles. “And Aiko? How about I get Rounen to come out of the house and say hello? He’s grown up a bit and matured, so he looks different, but he’s still Rou-Rou.”

Aiko considers this. “Only if it doesn’t count towards bedtime!”

Sasi sighs, picking her daughter up. “This is the problem with infusing knowledge into a little girl so she can tell me what she wants and have things explained to her,” she says, with a fond if weary smile. “I’m getting a five year old’s bedtime arguments early. You’re still very little, Aiko. You should be going to bed early.”

“But I’m not tired!”

“Yes you are, you’re tired and grumpy.” Sasi pauses deliberately. “Now, on the other hand, since it’s a super special occasion and Aunty Keris is back from travelling and might even have presents for you, I think you can stay up a little later. But only if you play nice with Ogin and Kali. How about that?”

“Okay!”

“Then we have a deal. And we keep to our deals, don’t we?”

“Uh huh!”

Not like stupid mama, Eko grumbles from within Keris’s head.

“Iris,” Keris hums, bringing her hand up as if to let a bird land on her wrist. “Could you go and get Rounen from the house for me?”

The little dragon launches herself from Keris’s skin again and flies off - and Keris startles a little as Iris goes out of sight for the first time that isn’t aided by sorcery, at the revelation that she can still see where Iris is. Or... no. No, she realises. The view she’s seeing is the view through Iris’s many-coloured eyes.

“... how very interesting,” she murmurs to herself, watching second-hand as Iris darts into the house, loops thrice around Rounen and then flutters towards the door with a beckoning flick of her tail. “I bet that’ll come in handy.”

“What will, dear?” Sasi asks. “And I was going to move this inside. The kitchens should have dinner ready, I think we’ll want to get the small children settled and ready for bed even if they’re not going to go now, and of course, Haneyl gets tetchy if she gets hungry.”

“Mother!” Haneyl protests, blushing.

“Haneyl, dear, everyone knows it. It’s who you are.”

“I mean, I wouldn’t say no to food,” Haneyl says, trying to sound as high class as possible.

“Wonderful. Now, since you’re a big girl, Aiko, you can help me pick the best room for the babies...”

As this is a place that Sasi lives in, the food here is a mix of Tengese and Realm cuisine. That helps Xasan somewhat, who’s very dubious at the sight of all this strange food and who finds the Tengese things altogether too hot for his taste buds.

Aiko, Kali and Ogin all find him desperately gasping for water to be hilarious.

Haneyl is - surprisingly - late, but it all makes sense when she descends having clearly quickly washed and changed from her gardening clothes into a formal Tengese figure-hugging white dress.

“I see you’ve been rummaging through my things,” she says quite sharply to Zana.

Zana tries her best to look outraged, but Haneyl’s not having any of it.

“She didn’t get far before I hauled her out again,” Keris puts in, amused. “And argh, I’d forgotten how hot Tengese food was. Rounen doesn’t do as much of my cooking now.”

“In my defence, ma’am, I’m quite caught up with trying to handle your legendary ineptitude with filing,” Rounen says, delicately eating with a spoon the hot chilli sauce that’s meant to be a flavouring for rice. “And of course, administering my area of the Princess’s lands.”

“... I’m not... there aren’t legends about me,” Keris mutters, blushing. “Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, even if I miss you being my chef. Just... mentioning it.” Belatedly, she realises that she hasn’t actually introduced the new Rounen to people.

“That’s the evolution of Haneyl’s keruby that you mentioned?” Sasi says, leaning in. “Fascinating.”

Haneyl is also leaning in, with just as much curiosity but a rather more predatory gleam in her eyes. “Oh my, yes, he is fascinating,” she breathes. “I am very pleased that my adorable little keruby can grow up into handsome young men like that. I’ll have to see everything he can do. Later, of course.”

Aiko looks around in confusion. “Rou Rou?” she asks, thick brows furrowed. “But... he’s not on fire! Be on fire, Rou Rou!”

“Um,” says Keris, looking nervously at Haneyl. “Elly and Saji are nearly there, too. I think the only thing holding them back is they haven’t been around you much - Oula matured because she spent so much time around Rathan in Taira, and... Vela was with Calesco when he grew up. Saji’s aspected to your fire, I think, and Elly’s leaning more towards your plant and hunger side. Rounen got the humanity.”

“Vela?” Haneyl asks. “Whose is that? Did someone beat me? Or has Rathan managed to get two maturations?”

Rounen waves at Aiko. “Hello, Aiko. Yes, I’ve grown up. So have you! I’m surprised you remember me! Now you’re a little lady and you’re talking!”

Aiko preens. “I wouldn’t forget you! You did fun things with fire! And read me stories! And were a plant!” She sniffs. “You’re boring now,” she accuses.

“Hurt. Hurt. You’re hurting my feelings, Aiko,” Rounen says, smiling faintly. “How can I get your forgiveness?”

“Stories,” Aiko decides.

“She’s easy to keep happy,” Sasi says softly to Rounen with a smile of her own.

Keris smiles too. “Yes. And no, Haneyl. Vela... Vela was one of Calesco’s mezkeruby. He matured... very recently. Just before we left for Creation. It, uh... I’d rather not talk about it, honestly. Besides, we have more important things to talk about! How have you been doing at Sasi’s finishing school? What have you learned?” She leans forward, smiling easily. “Tell me everything.”

There’s a smirk on Haneyl’s lips. “Everything?” she asks. “Are you sure? And I think you owe me more. Like why you’re showing the snake’s feathers in your hair. I thought they were decorations at first, but I don’t like the idea of it getting a say in things.”

“... maybe not everything,” Keris agrees, cringing. “And Pekhijira and I came to an understanding. She’s me, and I’m her, and I had a dream in Terema that made me remember that. I’m a lot more in touch with her now - and I can use some of her gifts.”

She pauses. “Speaking of which,” she adds in an aside to Sasi, “I’m pretty sure her sense of touch is as good as yours, so I’ll be, uh, showing you that later. So we can compare.”

Haneyl pours herself and Keris more wine, and sits back, swirling the glass with practiced ease. “Sasimana is quite the slavedriver,” she informs Keris, “and when I told her that I’d tell you how she can be, she laughed and said it was a complement.”

“And it is,” Sasi says gently. “I like to think I raise my children with the best traditions of the Realm.”

Apparently including Dynastic sexual morals, thinks Keris, in comparison to which cats look prudish. But she doesn’t voice the thought.

“Well then, how about a story for a story?” she asks instead. “You run me through the things you’ve learned and the adventures you’ve had here, and I’ll tell you about Eshtock, Baisha, Terema and Malra. And... well, maybe not the Street of Golden Lanterns.” She glances at Aiko. “That might have to wait until it’s just me and Sasi, since it’s part of the Iris story.”

Haneyl gets started recounting what she’s been up to. Which apparently includes multiple private tutors, massive amounts of set reading, not being allowed to go to the gardens until she’s finished the work for the morning, and Sasi being a merciless slave driver when it comes to matters of etiquette and discipline.

“Indeed,” Sasi says, not contradicting a single thing.

After a month or two of brutal slavedriving, Sasi seemed to consider Haneyl up to speed enough to start involving her in social matters. That saw her introduction on the local social scene - Keris winces at that - and making sure she was present for Sasi’s cult affairs. At first she was just watching unseen, spying on people and stealing things, but later on that saw her being “summoned” as a demon for operations that Sasi didn’t want to risk leaking intelligence back to Hell.

“I am apparently excellent for delegating matters to,” Haneyl says smugly.

“To stop her getting too pompous, I would say that she has a pronounced habit towards... creative improvisation,” Sasi says a little more sharply. “If left alone for too long, she tends to complicate things.” She smiles warmly at Keris. “But then again, she is your daughter.”

Keris picks up the uncomfortable noises from Xasan as Haneyl and Sasi talk shop about cult organisation and manipulation.

“Well, speaking of creative improvisation,” she puts in before her uncle gets too unsettled, “Guess who pulled one over on Lookshy and Thorns at the same time, and got paid four times for it in the bargain?”

Sasi sits back. “Rounen,” she says. “Definitely Rounen.”

“... correct!” says Keris, laughing and rolling with it. “I was personally in awe of how he out-organised them both. It was stunning. But yes, there are some bits I can’t tell you of that one, so would you prefer that story, or,” she grins, “how I found my birthplace and settled my debts there? Because that’s where I met Xasan, so he can help tell that one.”

“I think so,” Haneyl says. “I mean, if I have relatives, I should know more about them.” Haneyl looks over at Kali and Ogin, who have been shifted over to a cradle where they doze in each other’s arms. “And those two are adorable,” she says warmly.

“Atiya, too,” Keris points out, shifting her youngest on her lap. Little Atiya dropped off to sleep even earlier than the twins - which Keris hopes means that the sun and salt air are doing her some good, and she’s resting and getting healthier.

“So, after my work in Eshtock, Orange Blossom gave me the details of where Baisha was, and we set off for it - Kuha, Rounen, Cissidy and me. There was a temple we stopped at along the way; set in the godsmark of this giant face carved into a mountain, and one of the nuns there was from Baisha too, so she pointed us the rest of the way in return for taking a letter to her parents. But when we got there, we found the gate guarded...”

Keris paints the tale vividly, pulling Xasan in at the point Ali introduced them to describe how she’d shown up and what the scuffle with the Vakotans had looked like, along with growing back his hand and the fight with the naib. Rounen interjects a few times too, though Keris is fairly sure Sasi at least notices the slightly frosty tones Keris uses when Kuha enters the story.

The meal goes on late into the night, and before desserts - “Fruits that Haneyl’s been growing - she’s been a real help there” Sasi says in a none-too-quiet whisper - there’s a pause to allow the mothers to put their children to bed. Atiya is staying with Keris because she’s not willing to let her out of her sight, but the twins need their rest and so does Aiko.

Xasan scoops up Kali while Keris takes Ogin. Sasi tells Haneyl where in the house the babies have a place prepared, and she leads them through the oil-lamp-lit corridors.

“You’ve been very quiet, great-uncle,” Haneyl says softly, green eyes glowing a faint green for a moment. “And more than a little scowly at times. Do I not meet your approval? Or is it Sasimana you dislike?”

Xasan harumphs. “You’re not very much like your sister. A little more like your brother.”

Haneyl chuckles. “From your tone, you’re talking about Rathan and Calesco. You’re not talking about the twins - or probably Vali or Zanara. I am like the twins, though.” She smiles broadly, showing a few more teeth than a human would. “We’re all adorable.”

“Believe me, Haneyl is every bit as much my daughter as Calesco,” Keris says. “Just in different ways.”

Haneyl puts one hand on her hip. “Let me guess. Is it perhaps because I’m much more open about my feelings than Calesco, and don’t stop people thinking ill of me, unlike Rathan?” She leans forwards, her eyes nearly at the same level as her great uncle. They’re both so tall compared to Keris. “Or just that I embrace culture and nobility,” there’s a little smirk as she says ‘embrace’, “while Rathan coasts by on natural talent and Calesco is a sulk who deliberately shuns the civilised standards of behaviour?

She rests one hand on her chest. “And perhaps seeing this beautiful young woman with an affinity for the aristocracy gets your hackles up, my dear great uncle?”

“Haneyl,” Keris says warningly. “Being prickly about being scowled at is one thing; deliberately needling people is another.”

“But Mama, I really want to know,” Haneyl protests, then sighs. “And yes, perhaps I am a little bit annoyed at being told I’m not welcome in An Teng so I’m perhaps taking it out on others. But I get the feeling from Uncle Xasan that he’s intimidated by me.”

Xasan frowns. “Not intimidated. Just... wary.” He catches Keris’s glance. “She’s much more... demonic than the others.”

“He really doesn’t like it when my eyes glow,” Haneyl informs her mother.

“It’s the same colour as that terrible never-setting sun in Hell,” Xasan says with a shudder. “And she - and your... your... Sasimana - they do things with wicked cults and the like.” He lowers his voice. “You didn’t say anything about that, Keris.”

“Honestly; I kind of forgot,” Keris admits. “I mean, I didn’t forget forget, but I’ve never really been involved in Sasi’s work with cults, and I only ever made two. And one of those was a way to attack one of the Realm-friendly families in the Shore Lands, while the other was basically an excuse to get the misbegotten an island of their own, because the Tengese were abusing them horribly. Cult-building for the sake of having cults...”

She shrugs. “For most of my time in An Teng, I wasn’t good enough at charming people to do it, and I never saw the point. Still don’t, in a lot of ways.”

“Anyway,” she finishes, shaking her head. “Haneyl’s fire is similar to Ligier’s, yes, but Rathan’s light is a bit like the Red Moon in Hell - you just never saw that. It doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same; they’re still their own people.”

Xasan backs away awkwardly. “You’re... not even going to try to excuse that?” he says, face wrinkling up, clutching Kali protectively. “Demon cults... Keris, they’re bad!”

Haneyl harrumphs. “I don’t go telling you whoever you worship is bad,” she says. “Even though they probably are.”

“Uncle...” Keris sighs. “I don’t... urgh. Look, I’ve met a bunch of demon lords. I’m even friends with one or two - mostly Asarin, who barely cares about Creation at all and has no interest in claiming lands here. They’re not human, no, and all of them are crazy by human standards in one way or another, and a lot of them are terrible and awful and callous. But honestly? I haven’t seen many who are worse than a human with that much power could be.”

She spreads her hands. “We even just saw an example! Seriously, what’s the difference between a cult to Sondok and the flesh-markets owned by the princes of the Guild, where everyone worships the dinar and sells people like me or... or papa, to fill the pockets of the fat merchant-lord running the place? Because the biggest difference I can see is that Sondok’s cults get attacked by Immaculates when they’re found, and the Guild slavers get invited to high-class parties. Demon cults can be awful, yeah, but not much worse than what humans manage all on their own. And Sasi doesn’t make the kind of cults that feed people like meat into a grinder, anyway.”

((Per + Pres, and that is running into a bunch of stuff of his. All Keris’s lies and putting off telling the truth about some things to him are soooooooort of biting her now))
((poot))
((Though didn’t she tell him a bunch of the truth of what she did?))
((She’s always been lying/misleading/prevaricating about things as far as I’m aware. Some people take “being lied to with technically true statements” poorly. And Rathan and Calesco don’t really set the expectations right for how Haneyl can be, especially when she’s been talking shop about being a demon lord for cultists. :p ))
((I mean, there was that bit where she was distraught and spilled Literally Everything that happened in Taira. But, hmm. Yeah, I guess that was just her stuff, not Sasi’s.))
((Yeah, that was my assumption. Keris wasn’t being very “Infernal” there, and Sasi and Haneyl are rather more... um, classically “evil cult leader” and “demon”. Also, Xasan had only just got used to the idea that Keris had a fling with Ney and now finds she’s got this weird demonic family with a demonic cult leader noble.))
((‘Cause class stuff is coming up here too - Sasi and Haneyl code as noble, especially to Xasan, while Ney just coded as a Harbourite asshole.))
((I mean, Ney was a Harbourite asshole. :V))
((Fair enough then! 4+5+2 Eternal Matriarch+2 stunt+9 Kimmy ExD+3 “Hurting is Easy, Caring is Hard”=25. Keris will... actually not use BOT, even though it might bite her, because she’s trying to be honest with Xasan here. Aaaand... 15 successes! Not bad. Hopefully enough to overcome his contrary Principles.))

Xasan scowls. “I don’t like it,” he says darkly, but he doesn’t act.

“I know,” says Keris sadly. And that seems to be the end of that.

They put the babies to bed and head back for dessert. Now the babies are out of the way, voices can be slightly louder, and Zana is doing everything she can to be the centre of attention - including pestering Sasi to find where she keeps her musical instruments so she can entertain everyone.

“So, Rounen,” Haneyl says, leaning over towards him, “I am fascinated in how you’ve changed. Are you enjoying your new status?”

“Yes, your highness,” he says politely.

“Oh, no, no,” Haneyl says, “you can call me Princess Haneyl. Or just Princess.” She smiles. “Did you decide to look Tengese-Dynastic, or did it just happen?”

“I’m not entirely sure, your- Princess Haneyl.”

“Well, I like it a lot. Don’t change.” She takes a slightly larger bite of melon than is perhaps proper, tongue darting out to lick her lips clean.

“You know,” says Keris, on the basis that Rounen may be in need of rescuing from her daughter, “Sasi was interested, but I don’t think you gave me your opinion of Iris, Haneyl.” She flicks her fingers, letting the little tattoo-dragon spring off them and flit about in the middle of the rough circle the group has fallen into. “She’s Lilunu’s work, you know. Zanara helped her with the ink and I formed the canvas, but Iris is mostly her child.”

Vali grins. “She’s almost as awesome as me and you, Hanny.”

Haneyl sighs. “Is it because she’s-”

“Because she’s a dragon!” Vali exclaims.

“You’re such a baby.”

“Am not!” Vali crosses his arms. “We’re also awesome and we’re dragons too!”

Haneyl shudders. “I’m only one seventh dragon,” she mutters.

“Well, cool, I’m better than you because I’m all dragon!” Vali says, orange eyes bright.

“... little brat.”

“Ahem,” Sasi says, and Haneyl sits straight up.

“Anyway, as for Iris...”

“She’s a dragon ‘cause Lilunu loves dragons ‘cause all her souls are dragons too,” Vali exclaims, and Sasi’s eyebrows flute up at that.

Shit, thinks Keris.

“Vali, Lilunu doesn’t like people talking about that,” she says. “She only told me because she trusts me a lot. Please keep it a secret and let her and them decide who to tell?”

“Keris, dear,” Sasi says mildly, “I might suggest that you need to perhaps take a bit of care with Vali in Saata. It is technically a satrapy and Immaculate, after all.”

“I mean, the Immaculate Dragons are pretty cool,” Vali opines. “I mean, the Immaculate people at least have got the idea that dragons are awesome right. Also, dragonblooded, ‘cause they’re all like ‘woosh’ and then they wreck things.”

Sasi actually shudders at that. “That’s a... a unique position,” she says weakly. “A… uh. A theologically novel one.”

“Why? I think it’s just common sense. Of course having dragon-blood makes you pretty awesome.” He grins. “I bet dragonblooded can turn into dragons really. They’re prob’bly just not trying hard enough.”

“I see. Please don’t preach it to any Immaculate monks.”

“I’ll... be sure to keep an eye on him,” Keris agrees. “And I don’t suppose you could quietly forget that little bit you just heard, could you?”

“Which bit would that be?” Sasi asks.

“The bit about all of Lilunu’s souls being...” Vali begins, before Haneyl tosses a melon rind at his face. “Hey!”

“Idiot! She was... gods, you’re really so dumb.”

“Wanna fight?” Vali growls, lightning sparking around him.

Keris ignores the developing tussle in favour of kissing Sasi on the lips and whispering a thank-you.

“So...” she murmurs. “I have a few other things from my travels, as it happens. One in particular you’ll want to see - something Orange Blossom was very keen to get her hands on, if I’d been willing to let her. A scrying crystal that whispers what others are saying about its owner.”

She smiles lazily. “I’ll probably be keeping it, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t loan it to a certain gorgeous sorceress to make use of now and then - or just study to figure out how it works. Care for a look?”

“Vali! Hanny! Stop fighting! You are ruining my concert!” Zana screams at them, and extravagantly bursts into tears.

“Yes, I think people are probably getting tired,” Sasi whispers back. “I mean, you’re probably all adjusting back to Creation time after spending time in Malfeas.”

Amusingly, Keris notes that Xasan is watching the incipient three-way Zana-Haneyl-Vali argument with less wariness. Probably because right now they’re being a bunch of siblings.

“You may be right,” Keris acknowledges. “Alright, everybody! Time for some well-earned rest, in comfortable beds that aren’t the bunks on the Baisha.” Which, while not entirely awful, are certainly not as pleasant as the kind of furniture Sasi has no doubt put in place for her country home. Keris looks down at Atiya, and purses her lips.

“I’ll summon a szulo to look after her and leave a Gale to supervise,” she says after some thought. “That should be enough to keep her safe - and one of them can come get me if I’m needed. Though I should warn you that we’re going to wake up to Kali and Ogin bouncing on me; no matter how hard you try to keep them from getting in. I haven’t found a crib yet that can hold them.”

“It’s after sunset,” Sasi points out. “The szulo will have to come tomorrow - just a Gale tonight.”

“Mmph.” Keris grimaces... but capitulates. “Fine. And I have been looking forward to being with you again.”

“I was worried you’d have gone off and found some exotic beautiful ladies to keep you happy,” Sasi says archly. “And then not shared them with me!”

“No foreign ladies for me - though, ah, you remember that bitch of a Lunar who stole my plate in Nexus? I ran into her again, by accident. She’s still annoying. But fair’s fair, I think I kind of screwed her out of what she was in Saha for, so I won that round.” Keris smirks proudly. “Chalk another win for me up on the Eshtock board.”

“Well, let’s get people off to bed, and then you and I can get comfortable in my new bed,” Sasi whispers.

Keris makes a Gale to care for Atiya, then helps her settle her into her room.

“You know, you’re getting the fun side of things,” the Gale complains. “She’s going to wake in an hour or two.”

Keris can see that her other self isn’t actually as complaining as she acts. The fragment of herself she spun off shivers as she brushes Atiya’s brow. Keris’s love for her tiny fragile baby is her reason to exist and she feels it.

Then she goes to tuck in her other children and make sure they’re off to bed. Vali basically just flops onto his bedroll and is basically fast asleep, while Zanara gets a bedtime song and some words about not redecorating Sasi’s house in the night.

Keris lingers with Haneyl, at the threshold to her room. Away from her siblings, Haneyl is looking a little more emotional.

“I have missed you, mama,” she says, her eyes damp.

“I missed you so much, love,” Keris assures her. “There were so many times I wanted you there to show you things - like Malek’s plant-manse, or the Ever-Fire Gardens of Malra, or Orange Blossom’s place so you could have turned your nose up at it with me.”

She embraces her daughter again, her hair’s reach making up for her height deficiency. “It’s really good to be able to hug you again. And I’m so proud of how much you’ve grown up! My little princess isn’t so little anymore.”

Haneyl - showing off - lifts her mother up. Keris can feel that while Haneyl is shaped more like Sasi, she’s got her own muscle hidden under the softness. A thorn for a rose.

“I’m not actually heading straight to bed,” Haneyl admits. “I’m going out to check on some night-blooming flowers I’m trying to grow on the north side of the island, and then I have a bath waiting for me.” She smiles smugly. “And a girl, too.”

Keris winces. “Please spare me the details of your bed partners,” she begs. “I got enough of that with Rathan and Oula. I’m glad you’re happy, but I really don’t want to know more than that.”

“Aww,” Haneyl says, putting Keris down. “But you’ve got someone waiting for you too.” She leans against her door. “Now, shoo. Mother’s probably getting dressed up nice for you. Don’t keep her up all night,” and she grins, showing too many teeth, “and you might like a little something I taught her.”

Quirking a curious eyebrow, Keris kisses her daughter on both cheeks, gives her another hug and lets her go off back to the gardens.

Then, with a few adjustments to her tiger-dress, she makes her way to Sasi’s room.

“Don’t come in yet!” Sasi calls out, and Keris feels the unseen brush of her hands. She can hear the whispering of cloth within, and she grins. Mark one point for Haneyl, right?

Eventually she’s allowed in, and Keris finds a charmingly deshabille Sasimana waiting for her on the bed, artistically sprawled out. She’s taken the chance to adjust her hair, wash her face in rosewater, and change into a delicate black demonsilk negligee.

“Who is this stranger, intruding upon my boudoir?” Sasi asks, in a feigned Nexan accent.

It’s a pretty terrible attempt at one. The High Realm syllables shine through her try, making her sound Lookshyian at best.

“Oh, a dreadful, wicked thief,” Keris grins. “Here to steal everything you have. Clothes, purity... heart.” She blows a kiss. “I’d tell you not to scream, but I fear it’d be pointless.”

“Oh no, the horror, my precious purity,” Sasi says in a voice of utmost honesty and sincerity. “But I was saving myself for marriage.”

That lasts about five seconds, before she snorts and breaks out laughing, completely ruining her careful posing.

“I didn’t say what purity,” Keris says piously. “I’m sure I can find something new to introduce you to. Of course,” she adds silkily, moving closer and eyeing Sasi up and down, “it may take lots and... lots of trial and error. But as a dedicated thief of principles,” she walks her fingers up Sasi’s arm, “I’m willing to go the distance.”

Sasi wipes her eyes. “Oh, you. I love the dress, by the way. It suits you. I’d look washed out if I tried to wear those colours, but you can make it work.”

Keris spins gleefully. “Right? It’s Harbourite - highlander. My mother’s people! So it’s designed for me! I met a man from the same sort of area who had a gigantic...” she pauses for a second, smirking, “... wardrobe. Helped myself to this from it. Uh, and also another in the same style, but that one kind of got... mauled.”

“Oh my. So it wasn’t a pretty lady you met. It was a handsome man with a large collection of dresses.” Sasi rolls her eyes. “Did you also plunder his virtue, my thief of hearts?”

That gets a hesitation, and an uncharacteristic shy nervousness. “Um... k-kind of? I mean, I was missing you so much, and I felt lonely... I love you more, though! So much more.”

Sasi looks at Keris over her pale lashes. “Keris, dear, seriously.” She pats the bed beside her. “Come on, let’s have an adult talk.”

Pouting a little at the implication that adult talking is something abnormal from her, Keris sits. Her hair, accompanied by insecure hissing at the back of her mind, curls around Sasi’s waist and shoulders and clings.

Sasi kisses her. “I do not care if you have men on the side,” she says. “You love me. I know you love me. If I was blind, I’d know you love me just by the way you sounded when you saw me again for the first time in months.” She touches Keris’s chest. “We can’t control what our hearts do. If you were lonely without me and fooled around with a man, I’m happy for you. Really, genuinely happy.” She kisses Keris again. “I’d be the worst hypocrite if I demanded you save yourself for me. And I wouldn’t impose that on you. Sex is fun, Keris. Have fun.”

Keris blinks tentatively up at her, searching for trust and faith in the love they share in the subtle microtells she’s so familiar with, but hasn’t heard for so long.

For once, Sasi is being honest - and that makes her so much easier to read even if Keris can’t help but feel that she’s not as convincing as normal.

((Keris picks up on Sasi’s 4-dot Principle of ‘A Love of Self-Indulgence’ - that she loves it, not just in herself, but also in others.))

Sasi really does have the morals of the common house cat, a nasty little bit of Keris thinks. It sounds like Calesco. She’s indulgent, and likes to see others indulge. She gives her love a watery smile, dismissing the faint unease the sentiment stirs deep down in favour of relief and joy.

“Well...” she drawls, “I may have gotten him to finally shut up a few times while I was in bed with him. So I had fun twice over.” Darting forward, she nips at Sasi’s lower lip. “Still, I bet we can beat what I did with him, if we try.”

“Hee. I’m sure we can.” Sasi rolls onto her side, looking Keris in the eye. “How long are you going to be staying around here, my love? Before heading back to Saata? Because I’ve missed you - and maybe a bit of me wants to introduce you to the Tengese court looking as beautiful as you do now. So all the lords and ladies can be jealous.”

Keris purses her lips. “I really do need to be getting back,” she muses. “But I think I’ll at least wait for Atiya to be a bit healthier. She’s premature by the date Little River started showing, too, so it won’t be surprising that I stayed away longer to make sure she was healthier.” A sly smile crosses her face. “And it might be useful to debut Cinnamon here, as long as nobody remembers Lady Sareh’s companion from a few years back.”

“Cinnamon?” Sasi asks. “That spice is well known here, Keris. It grows in the far South West natively.”

“Oh, I don’t mean the spice,” Keris says smugly. “I mean the courtesan; Tenné Cinnamon.” She flashes a wicked smirk at Sasi’s raised eyebrow. “Like a lot of good ideas, it all started with a way to piss off Orange Blossom...”

Divesting herself of her dress in a slow, languid striptease, Keris explains the origin of her Cinnamon identity, the amount of fun she had using it to needle Orange Blossom, and how she put it to use in Malra. It’s great fun to see Sasi’s attention waver between what she’s saying and what her shoulders and upper arms are doing.

“... and using her as a high-class entertainer here - or in Saata - would let me get at all the pirate lords there, not just the Hui Cha. ‘Cause she’d be a neutral party in the politics, see?”

Sasi blinks. “Keris, please,” she says plaintively. “Talking business while acting like you’re ready for pleasure makes things very, very hard for me.” She pinches her brow. “I do think that’ll be good for you. You won’t be able to do everything you want to as a land-locked Tengese woman. Plus,” and Sasi smiles lavishly, “the Tengese get so boring to look at after a while, but no one looks quite like you. You’ll have exotic value on Saata.” She reaches out with unseen hands, and brushes Keris’s side. “But what’s this here? A scar? And a big one. Someone hurt you badly. I felt it when you showed up, but I didn’t want to upset Haneyl by making a fuss about it. Keris, my love, what happened?”

Keris’s sultry demeanour melts away, and she looks down. Her hands come up unconsciously to wrap around herself, one of them tracing the line where the Maryam-yidak’s jaws had bitten deep. That same soul is in Atiya now, she thinks briefly. She’s happy it’s not wrathful and twisted and murderous anymore, but... she’s not entirely comfortable thinking about it.

Sasi is expecting an answer, she realises, and bites her lip.

“Mama...” she murmurs quietly, trailing off for a moment as she tries to find words. “... Mama didn’t want Lethe. She fought.”

“Oh.” Sasi doesn’t say a thing for a while, but instead reaches over to brush Keris’s side. “It’s just… I’ve never really seen you hurt before. Not like that. I can feel the scar tissue, going deep.” There’s fear in her eyes; fear that has the snake crooning in Keris’s eyes. “How close was it?”

Leaning into her love, Keris lets her head rest on Sasi’s shoulder. “Not... not that close,” she says. “It... I wasn’t outmatched, like I was with Rosseah’s yidak in Nexus. It’s just... this one was what mine was born from. It fought like me.” She sniffs. “It didn’t last long after I went snake, but before that... it caught me by surprise. Both times I fought it.” She cranes her head to look up at Sasi without moving away from her warmth. “I’m good at doing that to things that are stronger than I am. I... guess she was where I got it from.”

Sasi sniffs, and wraps her arms around Keris. “Don’t scare me like that,” she whispers, hugging the smaller woman close. “I know I should have… should have found some demon lord I could have bound to keep you safe, or… or something.” She shivers. “I’d never go back to the Realm if I could avoid it - and my mother is part of why,” she says, voice barely a whisper.

Keris cuddles her back, pulling her composure back together and twining hair-tendrils around Sasi’s shins that wind and curl upwards until they’re wrapped around her thighs as well. “Don’t worry so much,” she whispers. “Like I said, she went down in seconds after I got serious. Anything that could press me when I’m fighting all out wouldn’t be phased by a demon lord, and if I found anything I thought could, I’d just run instead of trying to stand my ground.”

She runs her hands up Sasi’s back, feeling the decadent texture of her negligee. “Now, back on more enjoyable matters,” she croons, “Haneyl said something about a present she taught you?”

“Trust her to want to brag to you about that sort of thing,” Sasi says, slowly peeling back her negligee. “Sorry for… for ruining the mood. Nearly. Let’s just put those things out of mind. And I’ll give you something more fun to think about.”

She leans over, and kisses the fingers of Keris’s left hand.

The touch is strange for Keris - there’s soft, warm, oozing stickiness to Sasi’s mouth, but sandy grit as well and underneath a crystalline smoothness. Those flavours dominate - underneath are lesser ones, including a tackiness that feels like clotting blood.

((Hellish blend - dominant aspects are TED, SWLIHN, Cecelyne, detects a minor Ellogean aspect))

“Why don’t you help me out of this, and I’ll show you,” she whispers.

Iris lifts her head up, brushing her face against Sasi’s lips, and Keris strokes her crest. “Go watch over the twins for me, darling,” she tells her little dragon-tattoo. “Sasi and I are going to be very busy with adult things for a while, and you’re still a baby dragon.”

Keris uses the trick she found she had to make sure Iris actually leaves - and last she checked, the ink dragon was curling up by the twins’ feet and/or tails like a family cat would.

Then she stops really paying attention, because the view in front of her is much more interesting. Silk pools on the bed as Sasi leans in, lips pressed against Keris’s, her warmth up against Keris’s chest.

“Dragons, I’ve missed you,” Sasi whispers. “Every day.”

She shifts, pushing a thigh between Keris’s legs, rubbing against her. Keris squeaks - and squeals again when she feels the kisses against her inner thighs. Sasi smiles, lips still locked, but her tongue pushes out of her mouth to explore Keris’s. It’s much longer than it was before.

Keris squeaks. “What... wait... no. No! Really?” She’s positively eager by the end. “You can do the...” She opens a mouth on her palm questioningly.

Sasi leans back, tucking her tongue back in. “Keris,” she whispers, “I’ve spent months eating some of the best food I’ve ever had, and bonding with our daughter. I always have loved food. I’ve put on weight since Haneyl moved in. She hasn’t just been learning from me. I’ve been learning from her.”

She licks Keris’s lips. “I really like your taste. You’re delicious. I don’t know why I didn’t learn to do this before.”

Beaming, Keris leans down. “Well, if I taste so good, I think it’s only fair that I throw you a banquet.”

There’s only a tiny sliver of moon in the sky when Sasi disentangles herself from Keris and walks over to the balcony, throwing the shutters wide. In the already hot nights of An Teng, she doesn’t bother with a nightgown.

“Sasi!” Keris whines. “No, come back to bed~”

“It’s hours until the dawn,” Sasi says. “Come on, love. Drape yourself over me. There’s something I want you to see.”

Grumbling, Keris drags herself out of bed and winds herself around Sasi, offering a tempting distraction by kissing up her lover’s neck as far as she can reach. Sasi returns the kisses.

“If you’re going to be staying for a few weeks, we can probably finish getting the marriage set up for your Hui Cha pirate lord,” she observes. “And use the chance to take a little trip down there together, just the two of us. I will miss being able to use Haneyl as a babysitter.”

“She’s been getting along with Aiko, then?” Keris murmurs, distracted by all the pale, kissable skin on display. “S’good. What did you want to show me?”

Sasi takes Keris by the hand, and carefully guides her until she’s leaning on the balcony, legs spread. Her hand snakes lower, playing with Keris. “Look at the garden,” she whispers into Keris’s ear.

Keris looks again, and her eyes widen - and not just because of what Sasi is doing with her fingers. In darkness of the night, she can see flowers; flowers glowing like pale flame, in greens and whites and golds. Haneyl’s favourite colours.

Sasi gets behind Keris, leaning forwards and embracing her from behind. “I thought we could admire our daughter’s green thumb,” she breathes into Keris’s ear. “Look at the sight.”

“It’s beautiful,” Keris whispers. She smiles tearfully. “She’s beautiful.”

Her eyes swing to Sasi. “You’re beautiful,” she murmurs lovingly.

“It really is,” Sasi agrees. “And so are you.” She cups Keris’s chin from behind with wet fingers. “Look at the traitor-Moon, hiding her face because she knows you’re more beautiful than her. But she’s still peeking. Because she can’t keep her eyes off you.”

Keris blushes. “You make me feel that way,” she admits. “Whenever you look at me.”

Sasi kisses her fiercely. “Just for that,” she says, “I’m going to make you scream. Let the moon watch. Maybe she’ll learn something.”

Chapter Text

Keris wakes before Sasi. That much hasn’t changed. She checks on the twins, and finds that they’re missing, having somehow escaped the sleeping Iris who opens one eye when Keris looks in.

Fortunately, she finds that they escaped to Vali’s room, and she finds Kali and Ogin snuggled in with their big brother. Kali is sprawled across his chest, while Ogin is hugging onto an arm.

Ogin opens one eye sleepily as Keris pokes her head in the door. “I’m hungry,” he says clearly.

... Xasan may have had just the tiniest littlest bit of a point, Keris thinks. It’s a bit disconcerting to hear him speak like a boy years older.

It’s only a faint feeling, though, under the fondness. “Well then, we better feed you, shouldn’t we?” she says, picking him up a dropping a kiss on his temple. “Come on, moonbeam. Did you have a good sleep with Vali?”

Ogin considers the question. “He’s warm to sleep on,” he says, after a significant pause. Keris cuddles him, basking in his warmth and the little beat of his heart and his baby scent.

“My clever boy,” she murmurs, and sets about getting him fed and clothed for the day. Kali is still snoozing, and Keris let her stay that way for the moment. Sleeping Kali is a great deal easier to wrangle than awake Kali.

The house slowly wakes up. A mussed and groggy Haneyl stumbles downstairs in search of coffee and food, and given one of Haneyl’s big joys in life is cooking, she promptly kicks the servants out of the kitchen and makes food for everyone. Including the servants.

The servants seem entirely used to this.

“Breakfast is,” Haneyl yawns, one big strand of hair sticking up on end, “served. The fruit is all grown by me. You’re welcome.”

“My brilliant daughter,” Keris praises, pleased. She has Atiya in her arms, nursing, and has relinquished Kali and Ogin to the tabletop, where they’re crawling around and peering into every cup and mug. She’s not sure what they’re looking for, but Ogin seems satisfied with whatever he’s seeing and Kali is moving in lockstep with him and not dashing around screaming excitedly, so she’s willing to leave them to it.

“Oh, Haneyl!” Keris says, a memory sparked by the way Kali is crawling around as if she’s a kitten despite being a little girl. “You asked me to get something for Kalaska? Well, among other things, I just so happened to rescue a rather pretty Shogunate painting of a fox pack in a Second Age city from Eshtock - the only one that survived in the art gallery I found there. Dulmea has it stored somewhere; do you think she’d like it?”

Haneyl’s face falls, and she glances over at Zanara and Vali. “Probably, if it’s got a fox on it,” she says with a seemingly carefree manner. “I’ll want to talk to you about that later, though.”

Vali doesn’t notice anything, because he’s too busy stuffing his face with melon. Zanara does, though. Nara is half orange and half blue today, with four arms, and he rests his chin in two of them as he stares at Haneyl. “What aren’t you mentioning?” he asks, voice soft.

Keris frowns slightly, and gives a slow nod. “I have some time right after breakfast,” she offers. “I’ll have Dulmea bring it out and you can look it over to see if it’s good enough. In private, so we don’t spoil the surprise.”

“I want to be there,” Nara says. He smiles easily. “For the art. And the secrets, but mostly the art, right?”

“Me! Me too!” Kali chirps up, having garnered that something is happening and possibly that there might be presents or honey involved.

“Haneyl?” Keris asks. “Is it a private mama-only thing you want to talk about, or can Zanara and the twins hear it?”

Haneyl shoots a filthy glare at Nara. “This is just a thing about art, mama,” she says. “Of course Zanara can be there for looking at the art thing, as long as she promises not to ‘make it better’ or ruin Kalaska’s present.” She reaches out, and ruffles Kali’s hair. “And you’re always welcome. Can she have a little bit of beef, mama?”

Keris had been meaning to ask about that. Beef is not traditionally part of a Tengese breakfast. Haneyl is being rather unorthodox about it, but she and Vali seem to like it.

“Make sure it’s tender, and only feed it to her in scraps,” says Keris. “She’s not so good on swallowing big pieces yet. But yes. She likes it rare - not raw, but close.” Reaching out with a hair tendril, she tickles under Kali’s chin. “Don’t you, kitten? Say ‘ahh’ for big sister Haneyl! She has food for you!”

“Grah!” Kali replies happily, snapping her teeth and crawling over to Haneyl’s plate. “Rah rah raaarh!”

“Mama, of course it’s tender,” Haneyl says, sounding shocked. “Do you think I’d overcook food? And... no, Kali, don’t eat my finger. I can bite back better than you, little girl.” She demonstrates by her nail peeling back and snapping hidden teeth at Kali.

Kali of course takes that as a challenge and snaps on her finger.

Vali falls off his chair laughing.

Keris can’t suppress a snort of her own, even as she tickles Kali’s ears and gets her to snap at the hair instead of Haneyl’s now-bleeding appendage. “Kali, what did we say about biting people?” she says warningly. “No biting. Bad girl. Say sorry to Hanny, or no beef.”

“‘Ry,” Kali says, with a beaming grin. She clearly feels that she showed that finger not to challenge her biting.

Haneyl sighs. “Vali, you’ve corrupted her!” she accuses.

“Yep!”

“In fairness, I’m pretty sure she’d have done that before meeting Vali, too,” Keris points out. “But yes, go ahead and feed her. I’ll work on making those apologies a bit more sincere later. Ogin, sweetie, what have you found there? Grape juice? You want some of that?”

Ogin dips a tail in the juice, and licks it. He tilts his head, then nods. Keris sets him up with a little cup, and breakfast totters on. Sasi, she knows, won’t be seen until somewhere south of noon unless she has pressing business to attend to, which means that she’s safe to spend an hour or two extracting the painting of the foxes rummaging through bins from where Dulmea had it stored and show it off to Haneyl in the gardens.

“So?” she asks. “Think it makes the cut? Ah!” She pulls it back from a questing finger. “This is Kalaska’s present, Zanara. No eating it.”

Nara looks sweet and innocent. “I wouldn’t even think of-”

Haneyl cuffs him over the back of the head. “No!” she says warningly. “And I think it’s very sweet. It’s so... real looking.”

That’s enough to set Nara off on speculating how the Shogunate made it. Keris indulges him for a few minutes, yielding the painting to Haneyl and drawing her youngest soul up onto her lap as they debate brush patterns and respectively make and deny the case for whether wax fixing might have been involved.

They could examine the painting closer to find out, of course. But the debate is half the fun.

Once they’ve more or less settled the question, Keris turns back to Haneyl, wrapping her arms loosely around Nara and allowing kitten-Kali to climb up her hair from behind. “So,” she says. “You had something else to mention?”

“Of course not,” Haneyl says blithely. “I just wanted to make sure it was something she’d like.” She looks Keris in the eye, not blinking.

“Hmm. Fair enough then. I’ll pass it along to Sasi when she wakes up.” Keris slides it back into her hair. “Now! Sasi showed me your garden last night, and I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure some of the brighter beds were ones I saw crops growing in. Have you been tweaking food plants? Show me, show me!”

She glances over to Zanara, banking on them not wanting to wade through mud and listen to gardening talk even if they see what she’s doing. “Zanara, mind staying here and keeping an eye on the twins? And maybe introduce them to fingerpainting, if it’ll get Kali to sit still.”

Nara reaches out and grabs her wrist with a hand. “Just make sure you tell me all about the thing Hanny doesn’t want me to know about,” he says sweetly. “I’ll keep them entertained!”

Keris smiles. “If there’s anything you need to know, I’ll make sure you know,” she replies, extracting Kali from her braid and plopping her onto his before following Haneyl into the foliage.

Haneyl heads up to the north end of the island in the river, into the long marsh grass, without a care for the buzzing mosquitoes or the barbed plants. She emerges beside some old overgrown stone - the remnants of a jetty, Keris thinks. “Let’s get to work trimming some of these growths,” Haneyl says. “I’ve been trying to make sure this flowers. I think it’d be a lovely place for mother to hold dinner parties on a boat, if I just adjust things a little.”

She hands Keris one of the machetes she brought along, and they get to work clearing things.

“You know,” she says, after a while, “you’ll have to promise not to tell Zanara. Or make a big fuss about it in a way that’ll upset Sasimana.”

“Well, that definitely sounds promising,” Keris says, grimacing. She thoughtfully slashes at branches and saplings for a few moments. “You think it’s likely I’ll make a fuss and accept Sasi, then. And I don’t like upsetting her, which means it’s something bad enough or that I feel strongly enough about that I’d do it anyway. And it’s related to Kalaska.”

She rubs her nose, wondering if maybe Ney rubbed off on her a bit more than she’d thought. “Hmm. Okay. I’ll promise that... I won’t take any action until tomorrow, including telling anybody else. How’s that? And I’ll hear you out first so you have a chance to calm me down.”

Haneyl swallows, and sits down on the jetty, letting her legs dip into the water. She sits back, her green jade earrings gleaming in the light. Keris recognises them - they were her gift to Sasi, the ones with the power over crops - and so they must be what are anchoring Haneyl to the world.

“You know mother isn’t a happy person in many ways,” she begins.

“... I like to think I make her happier,” she says cautiously, which isn’t an answer and yet is all too much of one.

Dipping her hand in the water, Haneyl sighs. “We... I mean, me and my brothers and sisters, you love us all, right? Even when I was little and you screamed at me about that place I made where I was trying to be like Lilunu, I... you love us.” She wraps a hair strand around Keris’s waist. “You act silly sometimes, but you’re at peace with the idea that being ludicrously rich and well fed and all those things is wonderful, right? Even if Calesco gets on my back about wanting to give things away, you like what I like.”

“Yes. Of course I do.” Keris frowns, confused, as the conversation turns away from where she’d expected it to go. “Is this... are you worried Calesco’s been talking to me about you while we’ve been away? Because believe me, she saved most of her verbal arrows for a mix of what I was doing and who I was doing it to.”

Haneyl sighs again. “Mother isn’t the same,” she says softly. “She doesn’t like a lot of herself. She can’t stand her version of Dulmea. I can hear the scorn in her voice when she talks about him. And that means her entire soul dream is smaller than my tree. I think she has seven souls in there - her po too, it doesn’t stay hidden in the fog - and Kalaska hates most of them and they hate her and they all hate and fear the po and Mother doesn’t like that she has Kalaska because she hates being scared.”

Keris’s arm pauses about ten words into the explanation, and she stands still for a while, staring at a sapling that’s been temporarily spared death as she processes.

Insects hum in the marsh grass. Birds chirp in the trees. There’s a plop as a fish leaps out of the water near the jetty and splashes back down into the water with a fresh meal of mosquito or mayfly.

“You’re saying,” says Keris after a while, “that Kalaska’s trapped in a small house with other souls that... Sasi favours more. Who bully her.” She pauses for a moment. “And the po is in there with them. Which is as strong as Sasi is, and they’re... still not even demon lords, because she can’t summon them.”

“I don’t even know if she favours them more,” Haneyl says softly. “I, uh. Sort of get the impression that Moneha, for example, is all linked into her issues with her mother. And, uh. She was spending a lot of time with Seresa because she was missing you. A lot of time. Bedroom time.” She pauses. “Just remember that mother’s souls aren’t her children,” she adds quickly. “She doesn’t even think of Kalaska as her daughter. She just looks mostly like mother did as a child. Which is, I think, some of the reason she doesn’t like her.” She hugs Keris closer. “I’m really glad you gave me such a happy and free childhood,” she says, biting a lip. “Mother seems to have been very sad in hers.”

Keris hugs her instinctively, still far away. Her own childhood had been far from happy, she thinks. But doesn’t say it.

“Happiness is a gift we give our children,” she says. “Okay. Okay. So... okay.” She bites her lip, feeling herself tremble. She feels... weird. Her heart is beating faster, and strange flutters are bouncing around her gut. Tension coils cold tendrils around her upper arms and shoulders. Her fingertips itch, and her hands clench automatically. She’s not sure what name to put to it.

“I did promise,” she says, still staring at the sapling. “What... what do you think I should do?”

“I don’t know,” Haneyl admits, blushing. “I might be a beautiful young woman, but remember, I’m not yet two. Incidentally, don’t forget my birthday. But the point is, I’ve never had to handle something like this before. And you always look after me when I’m upset. Eventually.”

Keris presses kisses to her cheeks. “Okay. I’ll... I guess I’ll talk to Sasi. Prod her into uplifting her souls so she can summon them. Maybe... maybe see if she can expand her Domain the way I expanded mine; that would give them all more space. And let her move bigger things in and out; she’ll like that.”

“I don’t think she’s ever going to get on with the agata in her,” Haneyl opines. “Kalaska says he’s a fighter, like a cataphract. Mother doesn’t respect that.” She looks at Keris. “I did talk with mother a lot about how I shape the Swamp and how my tree works. And I sent notes on that to Kalaska. Maybe she can make her own tree without needing a central Dulmea-tower.”

Keris narrows her eyes, thinking. “Or... hmm. I did a lot of work on the nature of the coadjutor. I probably understand them better than anyone who isn’t Lilunu and the others involved in creating them. I wonder if it would be possible to, mm, replace him? With a demon better suited to her?”

She purses her lips, then blanches as she realises what she’s saying. “Oh. But, uh, wow, that would be... really illegal. Though I guess no more so than stealing Dulmea was... hmm. I’ll think about it.”

“... you did what?” Haneyl demands.

“... ah. Yeah.” Keris clears her throat. “So... remember what we said about not making a fuss about things in a way that will upset Sasi? I’m going to need you to make that kind of promise now, except instead of ‘making a fuss’, it’s ‘telling her at all’. Things got... complicated, when I found my home village in Taira.”

Haneyl looks at her mother judgmentally. “The Yozis have been very good to you. And they did make the world in the first place,” she says to Keris. “The Unquestionable are meant to be in Heaven, not the usurper gods. They’re going to win in the end - and me and you are going to do very, very nicely out of this.” She smiles at Keris with bright, almost feverish eyes. “I’ve been drawing up plans for how we’re going to own the whole Far South West, mama.”

Keris is reminded that she’s left Haneyl alone with Sasi for half a year. And Sasi is nothing if not convincing. She winces internally, and gnaws a hair tendril.

“Do you remember that spell I designed?” she asks. “The one to put coadjutors in my Gales. Orabilis took credit for it, you remember? He also threatened to kill me if I learned any more than what he felt I was permitted to know. And, well, the stuff I told him I knew, he said brushed right up against that line. And I didn’t tell him everything.”

She strokes Haneyl’s cheek. “The first rule I ever learned in Nexus was this: always have a way out. Stealing Dulmea and keeping it secret doesn’t mean I’m not still working for them. It just means I’m guarding my back from someone like Iasestus or the Blue Glass Maiden deciding to knife it. My spell lets me command people I’ve placed demons in, Haneyl. Ligier and Lilunu are trustworthy - but not all the Unquestionable are like them.”

((Per + Pres))
((Oh Keris. This kind of quiet, corruptive sowing of doubt is what she’s built for. 4+5+2 stunt+9 Kimmy ExD {undercurrents of distrust}=20, popping Beauty Over Truth. 13 sux, 12 on the BOT roll.))

Her daughter hums. “I suppose that makes sense,” she says. “I mean, yeah. Lilunu is so beautiful and clever and Ligier is the same and they’re the ones who matter really. Just don’t blow this sweet deal we’ve got going on right now.”

“Of course not. Though, something to think about,” Keris adds idly. “The second rule I learned? Know who you’re dealing with. Ligier and Lilunu follow through on their promises, but if Orabilis took the spell... what makes you think we’d do so very nicely out of any deals with him?

((Goddamn, this would be a good time to have that charm that made social attacks linger and repeat themselves in dreams as people think back to the words uneasily.))

That gets her back up. “Hey, I remember that deal,” Haneyl counters. “You agreed to provide him with the spell in return for getting able to use his libraries and being allowed to work in the nearly illegal bit. And you worked really hard and invented it, so now we can use it - well, you can use it, but mother’s started me on sorcery lessons so I’ll certainly be able to use it too in a year or two!”

“That’s brilliant, baby!” Keris enthuses, letting it go. There’s no point digging in deeper and pointing out how Orabilis took credit for the idea - it would just make Haneyl suspicious and maybe remind her of Rathan’s grudge-holding.

Which isn’t to say that Keris isn’t holding a grudge. But it’s best to stay light and airy and not look like she’s attacking the Unquestionable directly. Not yet. Sasi’s had two and a half seasons to work on Haneyl, and bulling into that headfirst will accomplish nothing but making her root herself more deeply. Planting the idea of the Unquestionable not following through and dispensing their promised rewards... that’s something Haneyl will think over some more, later. And that’ll be more effective at making her start to doubt than any amount of appealing to conscience and compassion.

“How far have you got so far?” Keris asks, squeezing Haneyl’s hands proudly. “Oh, is she teaching you her Devonian logic? With all the Silurian notation? If you’re finding that hard, don’t worry, I hated it too. But I do have a spell you’ll love when you finish learning - it lets me make vehicles out of plants! Boats and carriages and even airships. I used it a fair bit in Taira.”

Haneyl pouts. “She says it’s natural to find it hard,” she says. “I just need to work harder and I’ll get it! And I’m better at maths than you anyway! I’ll learn to cast like she can! And that boat spell sounds really really amazing! Show me, show me!”

“Alright, alright,” Keris laughs. “What do you want? A little leisure boat? I need something jade to anchor it in, though.” She tilts her head and grins. “I bet Sasi has something. She’s still asleep. We could go relieve her of something small for a few hours and I could give you a lesson on how I cast things, out on the water. Make it a picnic, even!”

Smirking, Haneyl crosses her arms. “I’m not lazy like Rathan,” she says. “Of course I’d accept more lessons. He’ll be so jealous when I’m a sorceress and he’s not!”

Keris takes things easy for a few days while they re-acclimatise to Creation’s sun. It’s nice to sit around in the warm and look after her children - and Aiko, too, when Sasi has to go.

Of course, she enjoys the entertainment Sasi makes for her. Part of Sasi’s day to day life seems to be going to an inordinate number of parties, and she takes Keris to some of them as a guest.

((Per + Politics, Diff 3, stunt what you’re trying to do at them - i think you mentioned bringing Cinnamon into public view))
((Keris is being exotic and foreign, but not too foreign - her manners are always perfect and any fads she introduces are non-rule-breaking, her stories flatter the Tengese, etc. She’s using Flowering the Fairer Face, and occasionally supplementing it with Attention-Holding Grace and Beauty-Over-Truth in limited amounts so as not to overplay her hand. I’m assuming that Sasi will be helping her avoid any Realm attention.
4+1+3 Exotic Beauty+2 stunt+5 Kimmy ExD {playful waves of beauty, charm and poise}=15. 11 sux, lol.))

She’s initially nervous, but as she is now - hair intricately styled and decorated with feathers and fine ornaments, wearing an assortment of dresses in Nexan and Harborite fashions, her face painted with makeup and her manners perfect - there seems to be nobody who remembers the brief, fairly reclusive lover of a merchant princess some years ago.

So, growing bolder, Keris has fun with it. She sweeps into parties in glittering splendour and turns heads all over the room. She speaks of the Scavenger Lands and of Taira, of the Northwest and of Harbourhead. She flirts and flatters and favours the Tengese nobles who are drawn to her.

And of course, despite her foreign dress and mien, her manners and bearing are impeccable. Despite her vivid stories of exotic far-off lands, she always seems to phrase them to flatter the Tengese. And despite her flirtatious, sultry air, she never quite oversteps propriety. Yes, she’s a foreign beauty from the other side of Creation - but she’s one who brings spice and perfume to the Golden Lands without offense and while still letting them feel themselves superior.

“You did wonderfully,” Sasi tells her after one of these gatherings. She smiles, wrapping her arms around Keris’s waist and sweeping her into a low kiss. “I remember how you were when we first met,” she says, when they come back up for air. “You’d never have been able to sweep them off their feet like that - or play at being a beautiful and risque foreigner.”

Keris beams smugly. “Well, I did most everything Cinnamon-style in Taira. It was good practice. Ooo, did I tell you about how I helped Xasan kill the naib?”

“Yes, darling,” Sasi says patiently, having been given that recounting at least thrice. Keris kisses her again, still beaming.

“Well, you can see how I got so good at it, then. Oh, and speaking of beautiful things, how is Kalaska liking her painting?” She’s been making an effort to bring the girl up slightly more often - not enough to be suspicious, but hopefully enough to keep her in Sasi’s thoughts in a positive sort of way. “Has she hung it up somewhere to admire?”

Sasi smiles at her. “She adores it,” she says. “She’s hung it up in her bedroom. I think she’s about as bad with foxes as Vali is with dragons. The floor in there is covered with the glass foxes I use for messenger spells.”

“Oh my,” Keris chuckles. “You should look into learning how to let her and the others out. Rathan and Calesco were really helpful in Taira. Oh, or grow your inner world like I did, to give her more space for her pets. I bet you could get some use out of the way it lets you move bigger things in and out.”

“I would like to learn that sort of thing - but Keris, dear, remember that we learn things in very different ways. Haneyl tried to talk to me about growing plants and trees, but the way she shapes your soul dream seems entirely intuitive and unlearned.” She runs her hand along Keris’s thigh. “She is very much your daughter.”

“I suppose,” sighs Keris. “It’s annoying how it’s hard to talk sorcery with you. We need someone who can understand things both ways. Rathan, maybe, if and when he learns to cast. Or one of your souls.”

“Life as a sorcerer is always a little lonely,” Sasi says, looking out at the night. Night birds sing and the reeds rustle. “Other people don’t understand the choices we make - and we all make different choices.” She snuggles up to Keris, resting her head on top of Keris’s. “That reminds me - how is your study of the Saphire Circle going?”

“... oh. Yes.”

Keris clears her throat.

“I, uh. I actually... achieved it. In Malra. So... very successfully, I guess?” She tries a careless laugh, which withers and dies at the memory of that night.

Sasi kisses her. “Oh. No wonder you seemed a little different.” She doesn’t ask anything further, though.

Keris clings to her for a while, feeling that strange sensation again as she thinks of Kalaska. Worry, perhaps? She shakes it off.

“How, um... how are the marriage plans going? I mean to take the Hui Cha this year, so another blue sea master in my corner will be very helpful.”

“The negotiations have largely concluded at my end,” Sasi says. “The girl is a little older - her parents are still reluctant, but their debts are pressing. You’ll need to seal the deal at the other end - and likely make sure the wedding is suitably lavish and respectable if we’re planning to make the family our respectable link between your pirates and Tengese society. After a performance like that at court, though, I think you’re capable of it.”

“Naturally. Oh, that reminds me.” Keris wrinkles her nose. “I have... let me see... a lot of precious gems from Malra, along with a fair amount of silver and other crap from Taira in general. And an obnoxious amount still banked in Hell, but I can ignore that until Calibration; it’s the stuff from Malra I need to get banked and turned into usable money here.” She runs a hand through her hair. “Urgh. I hate the pawning-things part. Could you do that for me? And... mm, I’m going to need a place in Saata. Probably better to have it sooner than later, too. Plus checking up on the Gullites.” She chews her lip thoughtfully. “So much to do.”

“Hmm. Well, it’s too late for that tonight,” Sasi says. “I’ve just spent the evening with my girlfriend breaking the hearts of men and women at court, and my heart itself feels all fluttery. We can talk about the money tomorrow. For now, I think there’s a better use I could put your mouth to.”

---

The next morning - okay, it’s just before noon really - Sasi and Keris head through to one of Sasi’s studies. Sasi sits down in a very padded chair, adjusting her soft white gown, and pours wine for the two of them.

“So, what are you looking to launder? And how much?”

“Um...” Keris reaches into her hair, having prepared a box for the gems she’d stolen from the naib overnight, and removes one of them. “Most are uncut, but if I finish them... quite a lot. As in... really quite a lot. Probably enough that I shouldn’t launder them all at once, because I’ve got enough potential here to fund several fairly big purchases.”

Sasi plucks one out with her mind-hands and leviates it up, angling it this way and the other while examining it with conjoured vari-coloured light. “Very nice,” she says. “A fine garnet, this one.” Another one joins it, orbiting around. “And this isn’t truly a gem, but it’s an excellent amber. Hmm.”

She picks up more and more of the gems, orbiting them around one another in a complicated shape. “I can make use of some of these in my own spells, or as bribes for nobles. But there really isn’t the market for them here in An Teng and too many questions would be asked if you’re not very, very careful. Most gems here are mined in the High Lands, and questions will be asked of their origin and whether the taxes have been paid - especially if they’re uncuts.”

She reached out, and plucks out a diamond from its orbit. “The best place to sell these in the South West would have been Buk Moi, but... well, it’s gone now. In its place, it might well be Saata. Plenty of gems from the Far South West pass through there. But I can’t take the time out to make the deals there.” She looks at Keris. “I can take some of these off your hands - and I’ll pay in silver and jade. But most, you should really sell in Saata.” She leans back. “Haneyl really does have an eye for profit,” she adds.

“Hmm. She’s chafing, confined to the house. Do you think she’s...” Keris searches briefly for a word, “... experienced enough for us to send her to Saata ahead of me? To build up some funds with a few of the gems and see about buying a residence?”

She pauses, frowning. “Or... two residences. Mmm. Damn. Little River and Cinnamon are going to need different ones. Irritating. Though... I might be able to get one out of whatshisname; the one who... Dulmea, wasn’t one of the blue sea masters in debt or something? He probably still has some properties. Maybe I could work something out where he generously gave Little River an estate and I generously gifted a friend with some rare and beautiful gems.”

“You could send your Rounen with her,” Sasi suggests. “He seems to have shaped himself into being the sober, responsible, boring assistant you need to make sure you don’t go running off after distractions.” She’s smiling when she says it, though.

“Yes, but I like Rounen. I’m not sure I want to subject him to the way she was eyeing him like a rich steak.” Keris is grinning as she says it, but not entirely joking. “I think as soon as I summon Elly or Saji for her - or as soon as she goes back to the Swamp - they’ll mature too. It terrified me when Rounen did. I thought he was dying at first. And then... seven days, and the whole time he looked like a shrivelled, wilted corpse.” She shivers. “Not pleasant.”

Something occurs to her, and she cocks her head. “Have you learned to make your own demons? It might be that starting to make their own breeds is what helped push my souls to demon lord status. And they’re useful and interesting - the keruby especially, since they were the first breed from me.”

Sasi shakes her head. “Again, Keris,” she says, a hint of irritation in her voice, “I’ve tried. I have really tried. I watched Haneyl make all kinds of demons, but it’s intuitive for her and her explanations are usually just full of gardening metaphors.” She pouts. “I still don’t understand how writing a story about a sziromkerub makes it come into being.”

Keris bites her lip, thinking.

“What demon species do you know best?” she asks. “Probably... agatae, maybe? You use them a lot. It doesn’t matter which, but can you... does your, your Devonian casting have to way to sort of... describe them?” She waves a hand vaguely.

“Like how I could draw a picture of a horse and show how all its muscles attach to its skeleton and where its organs go and how it gets pregnant and how the foal grows and that sort of thing? Or how I’d note down the essence-melody of a spirit and how that describes its nature and the flavour of its power and what it can do?”

“I’ve tried that, Keris,” Sasi says, and yes, she’s definitely irked now. “And describing the composite essential forms of a being is much, much more complicated than the intuitive method that both you and Haneyl seem to make work for you. Not all of us are savant prodigies at demonology. Some of us have to work very hard to memorise things.”

Also, Eko points out in Keris’s head, it was Eko who worked out how to do it first. So there, horrible mean mama.

“No, but that’s what I mean,” Keris defends. “You said you had to give up on copying me and just build your inner world from scratch, piece by piece, designing the whole thing yourself instead of just letting it form. It’s probably the same here; how we do it won’t help...”

She shakes her head. “And... yeah, you probably already knew this, so just... I’m sorry.” Wrapping her arms around Sasi, she kisses her lover’s cheek. “I’m sure you’ll get it.”

“Mmm,” Sasi says, leaning in. “Well, yes. Is there anything else beyond the gems that I might have an interest in? I’ll give you a fair price for them.”

Keris runs mental feathers across her treasure trove, and grins.

“Well,” she croons, purest glee lighting up inside her, “there were some particular gems you’d like. But I’m afraid I won’t sell you them outright - only loan you them for a while, in a season or so.” A twist of hair, and the collar with the adamant jewels appears in her hand, along with a giggle she can’t quite suppress. “Aren’t they lovely?”

Sasi’s eyes widen. “Oh Keris, that’s beautiful. First Age Solar Deliberative artisanal work, by the look of it. That’s... how do you find so many gorgeous things?”

“Well, in this case, by breaking into a heavily guarded Solar fortress-pyramid and sneaking past a secondary layer of alarm wards into the secret antechamber behind a tapestry in the uppermost trophy-museum that was full of sentinel-automata,” Keris boasts. “Though this little prize was easily the best thing in there. The idiot naib can’t have known what it really was, or he’d never have left it so lightly guarded.”

She smirks. “I, on the other hand, clocked its real worth in seconds. And made off with it without tripping anything. And then broke into his innermost sanctum and stole from that, too. And then went snake and busted my way out.”

The quicksilver smugness in her veins purrs at the memory, and her smirk turns positively vicious with self-satisfaction.

((Oh Keris. Never actually got rid of that EH Principle.))

“You, dear, are a born thief of all kinds of precious things. Like wonders of the high first age. And,” Sasi smiles, “my heart.”

Keris leans up to kiss her deeply for a long, wonderful moment. “Easily the most precious thing I’ve ever laid my hands on,” she whispers lovingly. “I doubt I could find any treasure to equal it, even if I scoured Creation.”

“You say the nicest things,” Sasi says with a smile, sliding her thigh between Keris’s legs. She shifts a little. “The nicest things.” Then she pulls back, with a nasty little smirk that draws a whine from Keris’s lips. “Remind me to thank you for them later. I’ll look through the gems, and we’ll speak at lunch.”

“Make sure it's a thorough thank-you,” Keris singsongs, tucking the collar away with a hint of glee. Sasi obviously hasn't noticed the gems are anything more - she'll have to show them off again in a few months and tease her lover about missing the sorcerous lore within. Leaving Sasi to the gems, she turns her efforts to finding Haneyl, out in the gardens. She finds her lounging by the pool, wearing a broad brimmed hat, dark glasses, and only the bare minimum otherwise. There's a very large drinking bowl of fruit juice and a plate of apples next to her, which she is having as a small pre-lunch snack.

And of course, she’s positioned herself so she can watch the shirtless gardeners working on the terrace below.

“Enjoying yourself on the grounds, since you can’t enjoy yourself off them?” Keris asks knowingly, coming up and settling herself beside her daughter.

“Trying to even out my tan,” Haneyl says with a sigh. “It was awful the first few days. I looked like I’d dipped my arms and face in brown dye. I had no idea I’d react like that to the yellow sun.”

“You don’t mind it, though?” Keris asks with a note of worry. “I think you look beautiful, but that might just be pride talking.” She reaches over with a hair tendril and tweaks Haneyl’s nose playfully. “You were practically a cutting of your mother when you were all pale. Now you’re much more clearly my daughter as well.”

Haneyl shrugs, and rolls over onto her front, slipping off her breastband. There’s a line of paler flesh there on her now-exposed back. “I was really freaking out at first, mama,” she admits, “but it’s been months now. I’m used to it. And the Tengese really like the way I look. It’s exotic.”

“Yes, they like me, too,” Keris says happily. “Still, I bet you’re starting to feel like you’re outgrowing your pot here, since you can’t go out. What would you say if I offered you a chance to sink your roots into new soil? Somewhere that won’t care about any little scandals that happened over here.”

Haneyl’s eyes glow green as she looks over the top of her dark glasses. “I’m listening.”

“Well, you know I’ll be moving back to Saata soon - but I want to wait until Atiya is ready to travel. And yet when I do move there, I’d like a residence ready, as well as some funds. Either for Little River or Cinnamon - or maybe both. Now, I can’t be in both places at once... or rather I can, but a Gale wouldn’t be enough there and I’m not willing to leave Atiya without my medical skills.”

Keris smiles slowly. “But it occurred to me that I do have a young, brilliant prodigy who can pass as, say, a niece or cousin of Little River who has more Realm blood, who knows how to handle money, and who’s been taught to handle herself in society by an expert. Who could probably go there ahead of me with a parcel of valuable gems and turn them into a place to live, a foundation to build on and a solid cover story.”

Haneyl clasps her hands together. “Oh, mama. I’d love to. Saata looked wonderful when I was staring at it through your eyes, and mother’s trained me well for managing things and being a lady. Tell me what you want and I’ll get it done.” She pauses. “Though I probably shouldn’t be a relative of Little River,” she adds. “I don’t think I should be trapped into being a Tengese woman. They have so little freedom. I’ll buy something myself and then I can rent it to Little River - I’ll just be her landlady.”

Keris quirks an eyebrow. “Well, being related to Little River would let you pretend to be Dragonblooded,” she notes. “Or... hmm. We could instead have you be a cousin to Cinnamon. You have the looks for it - and that would let you pretend to be godblooded.” She taps her chin thoughtfully. “We’ll see. I’ll get back to you with what exactly I need tomorrow - and I might have you take Rounen with you to help. He’s an excellent assistant.”

Haneyl rolls back onto her back and stretches out, muscles shifting under her softer frame. “Hmm. I’ll probably need at least two anyaglos if I’m going to be carrying anything heavy.” She grins. “I’m a big girl, mama, and ribbon-horses are made for skinny sorts. I don’t want to have to swim the rest of the way. And I’ll need to take at least two trunks of clothing and other such things if I’m going to be being a rich lady. Probably safer with three or four angyalos. And I’ll want to bring some friends. Elly and Saji, so I can give them orders about how to handle my lands while I’m busy.”

Rolling her eyes, Keris nods. “Yes yes, you can have a small herd. We’ll get Sasi to help come up with a good cover for you that can connect you to Cinnamon.” She taps her daughter on the nose again. “Just don’t get distracted, okay?”

“Oh mama,” Haneyl says, green eyes glinting, “don’t think so little of me. This is our first chance to own a real place in Creation. An actual house that no one gets to take away from us. We’ve never, ever had that before.” There’s steel in her voice. “Ever.”

“No,” Keris says softly. “We haven’t. So this one is going to be really good, and the one Little River will get from the Hui Cha will be glorious. Ah!”

She raises a finger. “That reminds me. There’s a blue sea master... Lucky Wolf, I think? He’s in debt, or something, so I’m thinking Little River might generously give him a valuable set of gems or something and he might respectfully offer her one of his estates - he has to have a few - and that arrangement will see him in a better financial position, and in return he’ll fall in line when I assume leadership.”

Her hair rustles, feathers sliding over one another as she runs one over her lips thoughtfully. “So... don’t make any moves or approach him, but see if you can scope out what he owns and find out if there’s anything we can buy for more than it’s worth to clear up his money troubles and get Little River an estate and his loyalty. Something conveniently placed relative to Cinnamon’s place, but not so close as to be suspicious.”

“If I have time, I’ll break into his countinghouse and look through his papers,” Haneyl says smugly. “Paper likes me. It knows it’s made from plants.”

That gets a laugh from her mother, and they fall back into basking and light conversation for the remainder of the afternoon, throwing idle ideas back and forth about what the residence will need and exactly how many people it will need to house. In fact, Keris was up late enough and it’s still some time until lunch, so she chooses to have a nap. She’s been avoiding dealing with some of the things in her soul. Especially her worry over Vela - his actions and nature as a starlight maturation of the mezkerub he was, Calesco’s grief over what he represents, and whatever reaction Eko might have to him on top of that. So perhaps it’s no surprise that she emerges on the border between Ruin and Meadows, where the rust-red dirt and yellowish prairie start to thicken and darken to dark soil, green Meadowgrass and bubbling tarpits.

It is something of a surprise, however, that she arrives in the middle of a dust storm blowing in from further spinwards. A dust storm that a troupe of sugar-bandits have apparently decided to use as cover for a raid.

How grand, Keris thinks as she sputters and tries to claw sand out of her eyes and hair.

The slopes of the borderlands here are scraggly dark grass growing on sandy red soil. The caves that are common in both the Meadows and the Ruin seem rarer here - perhaps because the wind tends to block the entrances.

And so the result is that a sugar bandit szelkerub slips and slides down a sandy slope, smashing into Keris and bouncing off. Though she superficially looks cute, she’s got embroidery on her arm ribbons and two vicious knives at her belt. And lacerations that bleed red fibres from the white cloth, scarring her face.

She’s running. Fleeing. From the Meadows.

Oh dear, thinks Keris.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. “Here, look, I’m the All-Queen. What’s going on?” Calesco’s people, last she heard, did not have many soldiers or fighters. Which means she may have found Vela; whatever exactly he’s become.

They’re cheating, the szelkerub gestures irately. How dare they! That’s not how the game goes! The raiders have to try to get as much sugar as possible and the defenders have to try to hide it! They’re not allowed to fight back or cut people or show really scary things!

“I think the game may have changed,” Keris murmurs. “Where’s the scary thing who cut you? Which way is he?”

Prob’bly still at the wood things, doing stuff to the ones who couldn’t get away, the szelkerub indicates, before resuming her fleeing.

Keris heads that way, worry churning in her gut. She does find Vela there. He’s found some clothes at least; a white loose garment which has a black handprint stain above his heart. And what he has is a number of tar-covered szelkeruby, tied up in ropes and dangling from branches, He’s taken away their knives and coated them in tar, and watches with a blissfully innocent smile on his face as they struggle to escape.

“Vela,” she asks, voice both concerned and warning. “What are you doing?”

He turns his head one hundred and eighty degrees to catch her eye. “Tarring the bullies. They torment the innocent ones to steal sugar. So I think we will tar them, and leave them here until someone who cares for them lets them down. We will feed them sugar, blood and water so they do not starve, but they cannot leave until someone cares for them enough to release them.” He smiles a wide, wide smile. “Or they become mezkeruby, of course. That will be their fresh start.”

Keris opens her mouth, and then closes it, hesitating. She tries not to interfere in the day-to-day running of her Empire, except to make sure that all her citizens have certain rights - and this doesn’t violate any of them, as well as not being quite as cruel as she’d feared. None of them are being harmed, just... held. “And if a group of szelkeruby came to try and free them?” she asks. “Would they be freely allowed to? Or would they have to risk being tarred themselves?”

His smile doesn’t waver. “It depends whether they’re criminals and bullies too. I have spoken with Princess Calesco. She feels that this has gone on long enough. I have helped her draw up a law code, and posted it publicly along the border on both sides.”

“... very well,” Keris says, unnerved enough by that full half-twist to his neck to back down. “Then if you’ll direct me to your lady, I’ll leave you to your... duties. Magistrate Vela.”

“Magistrate. yes. I like that. Now if you-”

There’s a splash of tarry water as someone silently stomps behind Keris.

What is the meaning of this, Eko demands, marching past Keris. Her finger is pointed at the scene before her; her entire expression vibrates with shock and outrage.

Very quietly, Keris swears under her breath.

“Maybe we should go see Calesco instead of having this out here?” she suggests to her furious daughter. “Also wait, you’ve been in here for more than a week, how have you not...”

She pauses.

“... wait, are you angry about the tarring or that one of Calesco’s mezkeruby matured? And if it’s the latter, did you... did you forget it happened so you could be outraged again?” She glanced at Vela questioningly.

Definitely about the fact that her little sister cheated and got one of hers to evolve first, Eko snaps. She doesn’t care about szelkeruby hanging from trees. It’s their fault for being silly enough to get caught, and honestly it’s kind of funny. But that! That thing that used to be a mezkerub isn’t funny at all!

“You’ve been in here more than a week, how have you not... urgh.” Keris palms her face. “Vela, how many times has she turned up and been outraged at your existence?”

“This is the fourth time,” he says, smiling. “I think she enjoys it.”

Liar, Eko snaps with a rude gesture. This is an outrage!

“You really need to find some way of recording things outside your own memory,” Keris advises her. “Look, at least don’t forget it this time, then?”

Eko flops down, spreading her arms out. Why won’t those stupid idiots evolve, she sulks, pointing at the dangling szelkeruby with her feet. She invented the keruby! Why aren’t her ones doing it! It’s not fair! Not fair! Not fair!

This goes on for a while as Eko throws a tantrum.

“Maybe they’re... saving the best till last?” Keris suggests tentatively.

She knows almost immediately that it was the wrong thing to say, as Eko’s tantrum takes on a theme about how mama is horrible and cruel and makes fun of Eko.

“Oh, honey...”

Keris crouches down and strokes Eko’s hair. “Come on. Come visit Calesco with me. You can complain to her, if you like. Or ask her how she did it.”

Eko burrows her face in Keris’s neck. Sure, her hunched shoulders seem to say.

Calesco is back in her full mourning clothing - in fact, it’s thicker than usual. She’s working on a small vegetable garden outside her cave, singing plants into being.

She pauses when she sees her mother and sister. “Oh,” she says bluntly. “It’s you two. I don’t want to talk to either of you very much.”

Well, Eko counters, she doesn’t want to talk to Calesco either. She just found out her little sister betrayed her and evolved her keruby and didn’t even tell Eko!

“I told you. Three times. Go away, Eko.”

“How are you feeling?” Keris asks gently. “Vela told me you and he went over a code of laws. His punishments don’t seem cruel. And he’s keeping the border safer for your people.”

“How do you think I’m feeling?” Calesco says bitterly. “My first love cheated on me and never loved me in the first place, my big sister is being a huge bitch-”

Hey, Eko gestures. That’s mean!

“- about the fact one of my sweet little keruby suffered a lot and became something I never wanted for them, and my other big sister is the same kind of harlot as Kuha. And you’re being soft on her about it.” She spits the last words.

Keris could defend Haneyl’s nature as being different from Calesco, or explain why she’s trying to stay out of her affairs, or try to cheer her up about Vela not being as cruel and cutting as she’d feared he would be.

Instead she just nods sadly.

“I’m sorry you’re hurting,” Keris says. “Is there any way I can make you feel better? Besides going away or yelling at Haneyl? I’ll leave if you want me to, but if there’s anything else...”

Calesco spreads her wings, black as the sky above her. “Honestly, I don’t want to talk to either of you very much,” she says. “I think I’ll go visit Rathan. He, at least, understands me. And sympathises. And agrees that I’m right about Kuha.” And with that said, she kicks off, a dark shape in the night’s sky, flying towards the red moon.

What’s gotten into her, Eko ponders, shaking her head sadly.

“Kuha sort of broke her heart,” Keris sighs, and relates the bare bones of the tale.

“... and you know how Rathan is about things being fair and paying back in kind. I’m not surprised he sympathises with her. She got a lot closer to him on the trip; they don’t hate each other now,” she finishes. “Ugh, what a mess.”

Eko sighs. Calesco clings to her unhappiness like her tar clings to everything in it, she indicates, poking a tar pool with a stick. She’s not going to let go of it easily. Eko looks at her mother. She doesn’t want her darling little sister to be unhappy, but, Eko shrugs, love is a bird in the hand. If you try to hold onto it when it wants to go, you’ll crush its fragile bones.

“I know,” says Keris sadly. “But finding out it never thought you a nest at all can’t help but hurt, and Calesco can’t shake off that kind of pain like you or I.”

Eko pulls a face. She’s really bored, she indicates. Her little sister is a grump, Rathan is being loud with Oula so it’s super embarrassing being in the same direction as him, and her stupid keruby aren’t evolving unlike everyone else’s. She pulls her hair. She needs something to do.

“You know, I got some adamants in Taira,” Keris says casually. “They have spell-matrices coded into them. Some sort of projecting thing, I think. But they can’t project anymore, so I’m stuck working out what’s in them by listening to what’s been carved into their insides and deciphering it. They’re adamant, so your touch wouldn’t damage them - and it’s sorcery; all complicated and headachey. Do you think you could take a look at them when Sasi gives them back at lunch?”

Eko flops down again. She’d do anything for something to make her less bored, she huffs. She’s probably forgetting that she knows about Vela because she’s just so bored.

She raises her head to glare at Keris. Mama should have left her with Asarin, she pouts.

“I’m sorry, sweetest,” Keris sighs. “Maybe after Calibration, okay? Why do you want to stay with her so much? I mean, fun and running around and stabbing things, obviously. But is there something else in it too?”

She gives her daughter a searching look. It’s a shot in the dark, but it’s an educated guess, not an entirely blind one. “Have you worked out something clever that you’re doing this in aid of?”

Asarin is fun and she’s someone not related to Eko and her land is huge and there’s space to run for hours and hours and see new things, Eko gestures, deliberately not answering the question. Eko didn’t know how much fun it was being somewhere else until she finally got out and realised how tiny this world is.

“... we’ll ask her about hosting you when we see her at Calibration, then,” Keris decides. If Eko isn’t going to share, she can wait for the year’s end. She's shaken awake before she can talk more with Eko, though. She finds her three Tairan girls here - Fatima having shaken her awake.

“Sorry, lady,” she says, dipping her head, “but Lady Sasimana sent us to find you because it’s lunch soon.”

“Who are these?” Haneyl asks, looking over the top of her glasses with an evaluating eye. “They’re sort of cute.” Her eyes linger on Kashma, and she takes a deliberate deep breath, sticking her chest out. “Surely we don’t have to go to lunch immediately. Come on, sit.”

Kerid does have to admit they look a lot better than they did when she picked them up. They’re fully healed, and dressed in good quality yet simple clothing. The horrible burn scar that would have ruined Fatima’s looks forever is like it never existed, and Heba’s hands show no sign of ever being broken.

“Haneyl, these are Kashma, Fatima and Heba,” she introduces. “Calesco rescued them in Taira, and they travelled with us for a while before deciding to come with us to the southwest. Girls, this is Haneyl; Rathan and Calesco’s sister.”

She tugs on Haneyl’s hand gently. “A quick word, Haneyl?” Leaning in, she drops her voice low enough that the girls can’t hear. “They don’t know everything,” she murmurs. “Avoid the more dangerous topics, please, and don’t come on too strong. It would be cruel to frighten them.”

Haneyl sighs. “Tell me these things ahead of time, mama,” she retorts. She wriggles until she’s more comfortable, and gestures over to one of the other seats. “Come on, sit down,” she says. “Yes, I’m Calesco’s half-sister. I can see you’re thinking we don’t look much alike.”

Fatima - who’s always been the bravest of the three - hesitantly sits on the offered chair. “You’re... not worried that there are men down there working in the gardens?” she asks Haneyl softly. “What if they see your body?”

Haneyl bites back what she clearly wanted to say. “It’s the culture here in An Teng,” she says. “Wealthy women can do this - probably because it’s just so hot and humid. The men down there would suffer horrible consequences if they approached me without permission.”

Fatima groans. “Urgh, the heat and the humidity is awful. I can’t believe it’s still only Wood. It’s worse than the height of Fire.”

“Well, if you want, I can help you find something that fits you better,” Haneyl offers. “I am a weaver myself. I made everything I’m wearing, apart from the glasses.” She pauses in her gloating. “Of course, that would mean more normally,” she says, with a casual shrug.

“She’s as fine a weaver as I am,” Keris puts in. Praise always makes Haneyl happy, especially when it’s fully justified. “And I know you’ve seen the dresses I’ve made - for you and for myself. She may even be able to sew some little magic into them to help you deal with the heat and humidity... hmm. Or maybe necklaces?” She plucks a silvery feather from her hair and brushes her fingers along it; Iris coiling off them to give the barbs a curious lick. “Well, I’ll look into it. Thank you for reminding me.”

The conversation is interrupted by a gurgling sound from Haneyl’s stomach. She blushes bright red. “I think we should go to lunch,” she says quickly, picking up her breastband and putting it back on.

Heba cocks her head. “What is that? It’s got structure in it. It cups the breasts, rather than just binding them to the chest.”

“A Realm design,” Haneyl says casually, rising to pick up a very light and thin cotton robe, which she loosely belts. “They use copper wires or whalebone for the support, but I use cultivated bamboo. It’s meant for people like me.” She glances over at the girls. “You, the oldest one...”

“Heba.”

“Yes, you could probably do with one, but the other girls don’t need it so much. Talk to me and I’ll see about fitting you.”

Keris eyes the thing and glances down assessingly. “Not much point in me having one,” she grumbles. “And I’m bigger than usual at the moment, from nursing. Tch. Well, I’d just have to fumble it off every time Atiya needed feeding, so... pssh.” She flaps a hand dismissively and stalks ahead, trying not to look put out. From the quiet giggling behind her, she doesn’t quite succeed.

For once, Haneyl is not cooking - because she spent the morning sunbathing and talking with Keris - and so the food isn’t up to the standards of ‘personally cooked by a demon lord who really likes her food’. Still, it’s a satisfactory rice dish with spicy bean curd and mushroom.

Keris notices - even while Zana babbles at her about statues and finding her an embroidery teacher - that Kuha and Piu are sitting together and seem to be closer. After a thought, that actually makes sense. Piu is someone who has no real connection to Calesco and... well, the others have been sort of shunning Kuha. Which is... well, Keris has mixed feelings about it, but it’s probably best that Vali hasn’t bulled in to either try to make her love Calesco again or some other terrible plan.

She grins, and looks over at Vali, who’s taken over the job of helping feed Aiko plain rice while telling her stories about the Spires.

She’s still not... pleased, exactly, with Kuha. That numbness is still filling up the fondness she used to have. But she’s barely spoken to her since... since, and Piu deserves her attention too. So after promising Zana lessons in embroidery as soon as they can be conveniently arranged, she shifts around the table to Piu’s other side and ruffles her hair, offering Kuha a cordial smile over her head.

“How are you handling the heat?” she asks. It’s a safe topic, and one Piu doubtless has opinions on. “I was cursing the gods of humidity by the end of my first day here, when I first arrived.”

Piu shrugs. “I was living in your fancy home for years, lady,” she says. “That was always hot outside. And in some parts of inside. It’s not so bad here. It’s by the river. It’s almost like some well nobby bit over in Bastion or summin’.”

“Or Cinnabar,” Keris agrees. “We’re going to have to teach you Firetongue, though, if you’re going to be my understudy. You and Kuha can share lessons.”

“Urgh, another language,” Piu whines. “I swear, everyone should just speak proper like they did back home. My tongue still feels like it’s trying to tie itself in knots when I speak that stuff Mehuni’s stupid people made us speak.”

“Get used to it,” Kuha says glumly. “There’s another language everywhere. I know three so far and I bet Kerishyra’s not going to stop at four.”

“I might!” Keris protests. “Though... I guess Watertongue would be useful if I start heading north to trade with the Western island chains. And I really need to get around to learning High Realm one of these days so I know what Sasi’s talking about and can eavesdrop on Realm traders without having to run everything through Haneyl for a translation... okay fine, you might have a point.”

“Told you so,” Kuha says. Her eyes drift over to Rounen, who’s fastidously eating small amounts of rice with chopsticks with a cloth he brought to the table tied around his neck so he doesn’t get anything on his clothes. “So how long are we going to be here, Kerishyra? I feel like I haven’t flown in ages. But I’ve scouted out the island and mapped the area from what I can see and there are villages around here. So you will probably not want me on Cissidy.”

“I think,” says Keris, “it is time for us to start looking for long-term options for you. How do you feel about looking over the birds in this region and seeing which ones we can alter to be riding-size? Albatrosses might be good for long-range scouting. Or sea eagles, maybe? Testolagh owes me a flight corps, and I want to at least start looking into setting something up to receive them.”

Kuha pulls a wryful face. “I’ve probably gone soft with Cissidy,” she admits. “It’s so much easier to handle a mount when it can talk to you. Compared to Cissidy, owls are dumb. Honestly they’re kind of dumb anyway. Their eyes are so big they don’t have much space for a brain.” She pauses. “So if you want a flying thing of once-twigs, we should find a bird that is not as stupid as owls. They will be easier to train too.”

“And you can train the smaller breed; the normal-size ones, too,” Keris agrees. “Alright, I’ll get you some books about what sea birds are in this region and once you’ve picked out a few we can go catch some for you to get to know. I’ll trust your expertise on deciding which we’ll use as our base to grow and mould into a steed.”

Kuha tries to smile, but there’s worry in her eyes, and more than a little awkwardness. She clearly wants to say something more, but doesn’t.

Piu notices nothing. “Training giant birds to fly?” she asks. “We tried keeping pigeons once, but they escaped. But Yelm...” she pauses, pursing her lips, “he found a way to get cheap glue from the market an’ then you could put glue sticks out and some grain and catch the wild pigeons when they went for it!”

Keris laughs. It’s a little choked. “Yeah,” she says, wiping an eye with a sleeve. “Yeah, I remember that trick. Ra- someone I used to know, he wanted to train them to go for people’s faces and steal food. Never really worked.”

“Yeah. And Firewander birds ain’t good for eating too if they look at all weird,” Piu says with the air of an expert. “That’s why if we weren’t too hungry, we’d kill the bird and put it out for the cats and dogs and eat them instead when they went to try to get a free meal.”

Sasi, at the head of the table, is looking slightly green at this. “This is... fascinating, really,” she says. “But Keris, dear, perhaps this isn’t the place to talk about it.”

“It ain’t the place to talk about food?” Piu asks, frowning.

“Sasi doesn’t like hearing about street life,” Keris tells her, patting her hand. “She’s never been there, so it upsets her a bit. Don’t worry, you didn’t do anything wrong. But it might be better to move onto something else for a bit. Like, say, dancing lessons?”

That draws Piu’s attention. It also draws Zana’s, who literally knocks her chair over in her enthusiasm to hear about it.

“So, as Cinnamon I’m going to be an entertainer,” Keris says. “Haneyl,” she nods over at her, “might be helping with the business side as a cousin or some such. But any great performer needs understudies. So, Zana will no doubt insist-”

“Yes!” cheers Zana. “I’ll do it I’ll do it I’ll do it! I’ll be the best and everyone will look at me and...”

“And Piu will also be one,” Keris gently but firmly continues. “Which means we need to get your dancing skills up a little higher so you’re as good as you possibly can be, and teach you how to pretend you’re from high society and get all of the rich Bags eating out of your hand. Zanara? Would you mind giving Piu some lessons to bring her up to the right level? She’s got plenty of talent, and I know she’ll give you her full attention and work her hardest to develop it.”

Zana’s mismatched eyes are bright. “One on one lessons? Her just paying attention to me?” she says, sounding delighted. “And both me-us and him-us can teach her? And can we make her prettier too?”

“No alterations,” Keris says. “Lilunu said, remember? First Piu needs to develop her natural talent as far as it will go. Only then can we start thinking about - if she wants one - a magical tattoo or something to bring her up further. But otherwise yes. If Piu wants those lessons?” She glances to her side to check Piu’s reaction.

“I mean, I guess.” Piu looks at Zana, and sighs. “That fire dance she did was super pretty. Like the best harlots at the festivals. I’d like to be able to dance like that.”

“Wonderful,” Keris nods happily. “Hmm. As for the girls...”

She debates, briefly, sending them off with Haneyl to Saata. In some ways it might help - it won’t take long for Haneyl to acquire a property, and helping around it will give them something to do. But no. They’re still too shy and uncertain, and Haneyl is... Haneyl.

“Well then,” Keris says instead, ruffling Piu’s hair again and moving around to sit beside her love. “Sasi, we spoke about sending Haneyl ahead to Saata, and she seems very, very eager. Let’s talk details, shall we?”

---

There’s a hint of salt in the air on the day of Haneyl’s departure, the winds blowing in from the shore up the river estuary. It’s a reminder that the ocean is always there, waiting - and it’s well into Earth; hurricane season. Elly, Saji and Rounen are gathered around the small anyaglo herd getting ready to depart.

“... and be careful, watch the horizon for storms and let no ships see you,” Keris is telling her daughter tearfully. “Be sure not to get on the wrong side of House Sinasana - avoid them if you can. Oh... maybe I should send a Gale with you? Or... well, no, you have Rounen, but... oh, I’ve only had you a week or so and now you’re flying off again.” She hugs her daughter again, sniffling.

Haneyl flicks her hair. “Mama,” she says, “almost no one is going to be be able to get at me on the way there. Mortals aren’t going to be able to see us, and everyone else can’t catch us. A Gale will just make us more visible. And I can do this. If something goes wrong - and it won’t - we can just return back to your dream world. I’m in no danger.”

Keris kisses her on both cheeks and pulls her down to drop one on her forehead. “Fine, but I’m still going to worry,” she says firmly. “And we need to see about teaching you Sorcery so you can keep me updated by Messenger.” She glances over to see how Sasi is taking their daughter’s departure.

Sasi for her part wraps Haneyl up in a hug. “Remember to write,” she orders Haneyl. “I’ve set up a man in the docks you can send mail to on the trading routes. I know I won’t get the messages for months, but it’ll make me feel better. And as soon as you set up someone, I’ll be able to write back. And of course, I’ll expect you to come back at least once a season. You’ve got those ribbon horses, so you can travel quickly. My home is always open to you.”

Haneyl nods. “I’ll make you proud, mother,” she says, her eyes getting teary.

“And,” Sasi says, passing over a pouch, “here’s a little something for you. There are bankers in Saata who’ll accept these credit notes. I want you to be living properly! Not in some hovel! There are standards you have to maintain! I’d die of embarrassment if someone thought my daughter was living in a slum!”

“And remember you’re picking out a home for me as well as you,” Keris puts in. “I trust your taste, so I expect to be impressed when I get there.”

“Of course, of course.” Haneyl pats one of the bags strapped to an angyalo. “We spent those evenings talking about minimum sizes and locations and so on. I’m not going to forget it.”

“Of course Haneyl will do that for you,” Elly says. She really does look older, Keris notes. She’s the size of an eleven or twelve year old, and she’s starting to get curves - and she’s plump to start with.

“Yeah, whatever,” Saji says. She’s still tiny and child-like, but her fire is as bright as Keris noticed before.

“I also have a copy,” Rounen contributes. “Don’t worry, ma’am. I’ll be there to remind her of your needs.”

There is a certain look in Haneyl’s eyes that indicates she’s thinking of her own needs vis a vis Rounen. “Of course, of course,” she says airily. “Trust me, mama. I’ll make sure there’s plenty of room for the babies and everything is comfortable. And we'll have a rooftop garden that no one can peer into. That’s important. Our family needs our privacy.”

“Leave room to expand downwards, too,” Keris throws over her shoulder, hugging Rounen briefly. “Will you be alright?” she asks him quietly. “I’ve got no worries that you’ll see everything sorted out perfectly, but Haneyl can be a bit... overwhelming. Remember that you’re my aide, alright? You can stand up to me when you need to, and the same goes for her.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine, ma’am,” Rounen says. “I knew her when we were little, after all. She’s basically a childhood friend. And this is an important job I can do for you that,” he puffs up his chest, “you can only really trust me with.”

Keris smiles proudly at him. “And with you going along, I can sleep easy knowing it’s in good hands. Keep notes on what you do there so I know what I’m walking into when I get back, and good luck.”

“Of course, ma’am.” He saddles up, and waits patiently as Haneyl says goodbye to her siblings, and a crying Aiko who doesn’t want Hanny to go and leave her all alone and other extravagant excuses that Aiko’s inventing for why Haneyl can’t go.

It’s actually kind of touching for Keris to watch. Aiko has clearly bonded with her big half-sister, but her display is a reminder that she’s a lot younger than her mental age and while Haneyl is there she’s progressed from a crying baby to someone who speaks like they’re five or so.

The twins are less torn up about it; Kali not really understanding and Ogin giving his big sister a solemn little wave. Atiya, carefully shaded from the sun and kept cool in the humid heat of the morning, is asleep.

Keris drifts over to where Aiko’s tears are reaching their peak as Rounen checks over the baggage and Haneyl swings herself up onto her ribbon-horse steed. With only a little fumbling, it’s easy enough to let kitten-Kali use her elbow as a perch from which to purr and rub her head against Aiko’s cheek. Aiko wraps her arms around Kali’s neck, and smushes her face into the tiger cub. Fortunately for Keris, Kali doesn’t take this badly. Maybe it’s because she can see the other girl is upset, and Kali doesn’t like that. Instead, she just gives Aiko a lick from chin to brow, that seems to interrupt the tears out of sheer shock.

“You can stroke her, if you like,” Keris offers quietly. “She likes that, and she’ll purr more.”

Ogin flops out of her hands bonelessly, trusting her hair to catch him, and then tugs on it until she swings him round to investigate his sister’s new discovery himself. Between them, her twins manage to quieten down Aiko, and as the angyalos rise up, shedding ribbons, Keris and Sasi coax the babies into waving goodbye to Haneyl.

“You know,” Sasi says very softly, “I fear we might have only delayed the tantrums until you take Kali and Ogin away.”

“Hopefully not,” Keris whispers back. “But we can see if we can find a way around it when that day comes. A kerub friend, maybe?”

“Hmm. Maybe. Haney did offer to make her a sziromkerub, but I wasn’t sure that was a good idea.”

“No? They’re sweet little things, for the most part. Only mezkeruby and Zanara’s clay-cherubs are less active.”

“Yes, but the one time she made one, it depopulated several of my fish ponds and ate all the cats,” Sasi says back.

“Ah.” Keris chuckles. “Well, maybe a clay-cherub, then. They’re sedate little things, and they mostly care about looking pretty and playing with different types of art. And they can cook almost as well as sziromkeruby. No maturations yet, either, so you don’t need to worry about it growing up for a while.”

“I don’t know.” Sasi sighs. “I might just look to finding her some human playmates. She needs to learn how to deal with humans - ah, but she’ll find children her age boring while children she can talk with will find her very small and strange.”

Keris hums thoughtfully. “A tutoring program?” she suggests. “If there are any families you can trust, you could bring them up to her level. Though... I suppose that might be hard for them to conceal.” She bites her lip. “Well, it still might be worth thinking about. And of course I’ll bring Kali and Ogin over for playdates whenever I can.”

“Of course, of course.” Sasi smiles. “It’s much easier having another mother around. That was... one of the downsides of where my husband lived when I was having mine before.”

“Where... did you live?” Keris asks tentatively. “You don’t speak much about Before. Though, uh, if you don’t want to tell me that’s fine, of course.”

“Oh, one of the satrapies along the southern coast. East of the Lap, but west of Chiaroscuro,” Sasi says vaguely. “Those satrapies aren’t like the northern ones - the local petty princes and warlords are allowed to rule themselves. My husband’s role was to stop them warring with each other and made sure they paid their tribute on time. Which... well, was honestly my job most of the time.”

Keris huffs a quiet laugh. “There’s an irony. My Lionesses are taking a route along the Southern coast to get here. My family might put in to resupply in or around that area.”

She sighs. “Gods, I can’t wait until Ali and Zanyira are here. I swore I’d get them to the Southwest, and some days I feel like going out and meeting them... urgh, but no. I swore I’d get them homes here, so it’s more important to make sure they have something waiting for them on this end. And... while I’m on that point, I should ask your advice about Xasan.”

“Go ahead.” Sasi looks up. “Well, inside. Come on, my little dragon, you and Kali and Ogin can go play with blocks.”

Once they’ve set the children to playing - or at least Aiko methodically sorting the blocks by colour while Kali gnaws on a stuffed animal and Ogin watches Aiko’s patterns with wide silver eyes - Sasi tilts her head. “So what about your uncle?”

“He’s not happy with the cult stuff,” Keris sighs, leaning forward and putting her head in her hands. “He accepted Hell’s aid when I gave him his hand back - said the gods had done nothing for him and his vengeance. And I had a bit of a breakdown and spilled everything that happened in Malra to him, so he knows what kind of person I am and what I do.”

She grimaces, looking up. “But the cults - and you, and to some extent Haneyl... he’s not comfortable with it. Not to mention the girls still don’t know anything - they were moon-worshippers, and they think Calesco is a goddess of some sort. I don’t want them all inducted into Yozi cults and full-on worship, but... I’d really like for them to at least know the truth about what I am and who I work for, and be okay with it. This many secrets from people I’m close to is exhausting, even for me.”

Sasi leans back against the wall. “I’m not sure there is a way,” she says with a hint of sadness. “Keris, dear, keeping secrets is how we live. It’s what we are. Openness is a privilege for those who aren’t chosen by the true makers of this world.”

Keris remembers something Testolagh said once; that Sasi clings to the Dragon more than he’d like. She’s seeing that now.

“Xasan is family, though,” Keris complains. “And the girls are going to work for me. I mean, I don’t mean to tell them everything, but...” She sighs. “I dunno. It’s hard, Sasi.” She leans against her lover’s shoulder. “It wasn’t meant to be hard.”

“Doing the right thing demands sacrifice,” Sasi says, a hard note in her voice.

“I know,” Keris sighs. “I just... wish it didn’t have to apply to the people we love.”

“Me too,” Sasi says, wrapping her arms around Keris as they watch their children play.

---

Atiya is putting weight on quickly as Keris makes sure she gets plenty of sun and that she’s fed and rested. This mansion on an island in a Tengese river is a good place for a baby who needs quiet and comfort - much better than almost-noisy, always-bright Hell - and Keris has Sasi here to help her with her youngest daughter.

And other things are going on. Sasi has always been a better Infernalist than Keris, and she taught her sorcery in the first place. Keris returns to her first teacher to learn how to summon and bind demon lords. Sasimana has a rather large library of occult texts and demonic secrets, hidden away, and Keris spends many a hard-working evening down there with her girlfriend.

((What anchor are you looking for? With Sasi’s library, you can basically learn anything that’s “Hellish”.))
((Probably the same one as for First Circle Summoning - her Infamy/Backing as someone with authority over demons.))
((Do note that as a CCS spell, it needs a 3-rated background.))
((... ah yes. Hmm. Then... sigh. Quite possibly her Mentor rating. She calls on her teacher Lilunu, who speaks for the Yozis, to send her student what help she needs.))
((Mmm, yes, she can certainly get one that invokes the demon princes to bind their souls.))
((Hee. And that means Iris spreads her wings dramatically and Keris’s left arm twinges and feels the nature of the incoming demon lord as she summons it.))

Of course, such things come with a cost. Sasi might phrase the things she asks Keris to do as ‘things to get the Priest down in the ship off your back’, but Keris knows Sasi well enough to know that she’s benefitting from the thefts and murders she has her carry out. Most of them aren’t challenging - stealing papers, making sure Realm agents of the magistrate die in their sleep - but there is one challenging one.

Count Vrasi is holding a grand ball towards the end of the season, and Sasi wants him dead in scandalous circumstances at his grand party. His estate is up in the Middle Lands, among countless peach groves, and he’s a well-known hedonist whose parties attract the rather edgier kind of Tengese noble. From what Sasi says, he stumbled into something that she really, really doesn’t want him to know from cultists of hers who attended one of his parties. He needs to be silenced - and more than that, discredited.

((Pool depends on Keris’s technique for murder, Diff 9, charm use can lower it.))
((Hmm. He’s a hedonistic degenerate who leans towards the edgier sort of party?))
((Yes - but seemingly not at all interested in Sasi’s lures.))
((Hmm. Then Keris will set things up so that he’s found in the stables by some of the more gossipy servants, with signs of having taken more alcohol and/or recreational drugs than usual, his ribs caved in by a stallion kick and his pants around his ankles. And use Passing Off Blame to, uh. Have them draw their own conclusions.))
((OK, Phys + Subterfuge, Diff reduced to 6 by POB. Stunt as you wish.))
((5+5+3 EH-boosted stunt+3 Mendaciloquent Maverick+5 Kimmy ExSux {spiteful suffering, shameful truths, disturbing art}=16. 9+5=14 sux.))

Nothing discredits a man quite like a scandal, and so in the choice between madness and humiliation, Keris picks the latter. She scouts out the man’s estate - and feels the sour, cold stirrings of envy bloom as she takes in his properties - as she devises her plan.

It’s no great effort to kill him, getting him alone as a flirtatious attendant at his party and unceremoniously caving his chest in with a fist to his ribs. Dragging him to the stables unseen is only a little harder - and there, she funnels rather more alcohol into his stomach and bloodstream, splashes a little around his robes and stains traces of stimulants around his mouth and nose.

Then she undresses him enough to make it look like he came in with certain intentions, and lays him out behind a stallion’s stall, leaving the door open with the horse facing the other way. After a moment’s thought, she lets the bottle of wine fall and smash on the ground as if dropped.

Then she ghosts out, quietly nudges a couple of the more gossipy servants in the right general direction, and sits back to watch the chaos unfold.

((POB roll: 3+5+3 stunt+4 Kimmy ExSux=11. 4+4=8 sux.))
((gonna be pretty hard to investigate))
((oh keris))

Keris is pleased with her night’s work - and so is Dulmea. She makes Keris one of her finer teas, and praises her for such an elegant little scheme.

And the envious murder seems to turn a little key in Keris’s mind. In the oilslicks in the waters of the Isles, Keris starts to see the desires of others reflected in silvery scum. Zanara seems happy with that too. She returns to Sasi happily, riding the high of glorious victory and bragging about the artfulness of the kill. He’ll be discredited and shamed for this - and indeed possibly shunned by his family, with the oh-so-pretty estate and extensive stables broken up or distanced from him.

---

The weeks pass by, and Atiya grows and grows. She can feed on her own now, and she’s a healthier colour. Her lungs are still weak, but she doesn’t wheeze in the same way. Not all the time, at least.

And Vali, for his part, is starting to get impatient. Sasi asks Keris several times to stop him making booms when he starts jogging, and he starts mutinously muttering about going off to see how Haneyl’s doing.

It’s probably time to move on.

“Sasi, my love,” she sighs wistfully one night as they’re recovering from mutual pleasure. “I... I think it’s time for me to go. Atiya is doing better, and Haneyl will have gotten up to who knows what, and Vali’s impatient...”

She shifts closer, hugging Sasi’s arm. “I don’t want to run off and leave you. But it’s time I get back to Saata and move forward with my plans.”

Sasi sighs. “It’s been nice to have you here, but at least you’re not on the other side of the world this time. We’ll be able to see each other more.” She kisses Keris. “I’ll come visit you when you have a home. I’ve heard a lot of Saata, that den of decadence and pirates and corruption.”

“I know,” Keris purrs happily. “Isn’t it great? I feel right at home there.”

“Oh, you,” Sasi says fondly.

Gathering up her children, her uncle and her wards takes up much of the next day, but before long they’re back on the Baisha, ready to sail off for the Isle of Gulls. Keris embraces Sasi fiercely on the dock, kissing her until she’s breathless.

“I will visit you,” she promises. “Often. And you must meet my brother and his family when they arrive.”

“Well,” Sasi says when she gets her breath back, “are you sure they won’t be shocked by my disreputable ways? That I’m leading you into sin and vice?”

“Oh, I’m sure you can make a good first impression,” Keris purrs. “Anyway, Zany saw you in my sketchbook and thought you were gorgeous. Proving,” she adds smugly, “that she has eyes.”

She kneels down to Aiko. “I’ll miss you too, young lady,” she says. “And when Haneyl works out how to make chocolate, I’ll make sure to send you some, if you want. Does that sound good?”

The little girl isn’t happy, but Keris overheard Sasi talk to her about not embarrassing herself and she’s trying her best not to cry - even if her new playmates are leaving. “‘s,” she says.

“And when I visit Sasi, I’ll be sure to bring Kali and Ogin so you can teach them new games to play and show them how clever you are,” Keris promises. “Do you think you can be a good example for them?”

Aiko mutely nods, bottom lip wobbling. Ogin slithers down from Keris, and wraps her up in a big hug, kissing her on the brow. That just turns on the floodgates of tears.

“Oh dear,” Sasi says. “I think someone’s tired and will need a nap after that.” She smiles. “I hope this isn’t her first crush.”

Keris picks Ogin back up and kisses him on the forehead. “His father was very charming,” she agrees, smiling sadly. “Rathan got it from him, so maybe Ogin will turn out the same way.”

She takes a deep breath.

“I’ll miss you,” she confesses. “Even though I won’t be as far away. Do... do you want to keep my painting? It’s wasted on the Baisha, and... it might make you feel better to have it.”

“I couldn’t take something like that away from you,” Sasi says, hand going to her mouth.

“How would you be taking it from me?” Keris asks, her mouth curving up even as her eyes go watery. “It’s part of me, and being with you is exactly where every part of me wants to be. I can’t think of any better place for it than with you.”

“Oh, if you say so...” Sasi says, “then I’d love to.”

Keris has it brought out - her offer wasn’t quite as spontaneous as it had seemed - and leaves it gently in Sasi’s care; covered over to avoid the sun.

“Well then,” she breathes, stepping back onto the Baisha’s deck. “Goodbye, my love.”

“I love you,” Sasi calls out, picking up Aiko with a grunt and lifting her up so she can see Keris and co off.

Keris waves, as her flagship slides out of the dock, and keeps waving long after the pier and the people on it and the manor have disappeared out of sight down the river.

Then, with a sigh, she goes inside to settle her children and wait for their next stop.

Chapter Text

The Memory of Baisha cuts its way through the clear waters of the South West like a knife. Within it, its hellish sun-engine unleashes terrible forces, only contained by the black metal that shields its core.

“My lady,” says Captain Neride, looking back at the owner of this vessel who sits sprawled out on her command throne, playing a counting game with the feet and tails of her young twins, “the listeners can hear ships overhead. Sailing ships, heavily laden. You wished to be notified of such things.”

Keris’s eyebrow rises, and she pauses at four with a tail in one hand and a little hand in the other. “Interesting,” she hums. “How many?”

“Five vessels, my lady. A three master, two two-masters, and two small ships.”

Tattooed fingers shift to drum on the arm of the brass throne. After a moment’s thought, Keris stands, depositing the twins on the empty seat.

“Do we know whose they are?” she asks. “If not, I’ll go out and have a look. Oh, and bring us around to pace them; this is worth a short detour for.”

“We don’t believe they’re Realm,” Neride says, holding her arms behind her back. “There’s no sound of jade on the ships and the listeners say the hulls are shaped differently to the Realm vessels we’ve encountered before.”

Keris smiles.

“Well then,” she decides happily. “A nice opportunity to add to my fleet. I’ll take a quick look to make sure they’re not Hui Cha ships, and if not we can surface and claim them.”

She pauses. “I’ll be settled in Saata for the next while,” she tells Neride. “But I mean for the Baisha to stay on the move, scouting south down the coast and hitting targets of opportunity. I’ll give you a full set of orders and priorities in a few days, but you’ll be operating with a fair degree of independence. Will you need anything you don’t already have for that kind of work?”

“What of fuel and our operational bases?” asks the snake-like demon, bluntly.

After a moment’s thought, Keris nods. “You won’t be staying out there indefinitely. The first trip will first be a scouting expedition to find islands like the one we used during our season of piracy - natural harbours, sheltered bayous; places we can exploit. There are enough hearthstones for a month or so of that.

“Once we know where they are, I can supply a demon lord and architects who can handle the construction of a network of bases - which I can come out personally to hide and empower with the Great Mother’s gifts.”

Neride nods. “Finally. What you hired me for. I’ll order us brought about.”

Keris leaves the babies with Vali and her Gale, and leaves out the airlock, rising up to the surface.

It’s a scorching hot day up on the surface. Heat haze shimmers over the water. Under the blazing sun, Keris spots five black ships.

She also sees that Neride’s report was not quite accurate. The vessels aren’t junks - not like Realm ones. She’s seen similar ones to these black ships in Saata, though. They stink of death and mud, and polished skulls hang from their masts like fruit.

It’s a Zu Tak fleet - not one of their raft-forts that are sometimes as large as a small island, but the ‘three master’ is a number of vessels lashed together, with war canoes stacked up on the deck ready to be deployed, escorted by four smaller ships.

The Zu Tak are cannibalistic death-worshipping drug-addicted raiders, and Keris has absolutely no hesitation in darting back down to the Baisha and signalling through the viewing window to attack. She externalises and slides into her armour on the outside deck as it rises upwards through the water. Her Helmsman, she sees with glee, has aimed them right for the middle of the small fleet; the prow spike cutting towards one of the small guard-ships.

((What’s your objective here? What are you seeking to do?))
((Keris has signalled Neride to launch a hard raid - which is “kill the entire crew, claim all treasure, destruction of the ships is an acceptable loss”, as opposed to a soft raid where taking the ships intact is a priority rather than a pleasant bonus. She’s not as bothered about taking these comparatively lower-quality war barges and outrigger canoes as she would be more sophisticated vessels.))
((But she’s an opportunist and she’s quite happy to get rid of some death-worshipping cannibals and claim some treasure in one smooth naval engagement.))
((Oh, though - does Keris detect any notably strong Dead things on the ships?))
((Nothing exceptional. There’s quite a few Dead on the largest ship - below decks, near the oars - but they’re all sort of pathetic to Keris’s firey senses (E1-3).))
((Cool. Then ATTACK!))
((Cog + Command for Keris sneak attack vs their Reaction + Awareness.))
((... can she have Neride command the attack? In fact, isn’t Neride commanding the attack?))
((Yes, but this also incorporates the tactical use of Keris and her orders she passed in to see if she hits them unaware, or whether they notice the shiny ship.))
((Ah, cool. Then 3+0+2 Dread Pirate+2 stunt+3 Malfeas ExD=10. 8 sux! But srsly keris buy some command.))
((lol, I was actually hoping you’d run into the fact that they got 4 successes on 5 dice.))
((but alas))

It’s brutal, cruel, and mean. And very, very quick. The Baisha all but surfaces right into the middle of the Zu Tak war barge and breaks its back. Green fire surfaces from its side from algarel-throwers, and then as it sails away from the sinking barge Neride orders the harpoon-ballista to anchor onto the other ships. Keris contributes by cutting down the sails of the other ships and cutting apart the canoes that launch. It’s less than ten minutes, all told, before the clear waters are ablaze with patches of algarel and there’s black smoke rising from the sinking ships. The Baisha is untouched, with at most some soot on its hull. Clad in silver armour and panting lightly, Keris bounces on her heels in satisfaction.

“Well, that was easy,” she says happily. “And none of the Dead escaped. What did we get? Did we lose anything to the seabed?”

“Lost a few to the ghosts,” one of the blood apes grunts, adjusting his eyepatch. He’s stolen a hat from one of the Zu Tak, who probably themselves stole it from someone else given it’s not their style. It looks Tengese, like what the rice-farmers wear. “Got some captives. Priest wants them. Also got their supplies. Fresh meat an’ water. Some furs. And bags o’herbs and stuff. Summ’one said they’d be valuable.”

“Hmm. Show me.” If the captives are just Zu Tak cannibals, the Priest can have them, unless there are any young children or pregnant mothers there - which Keris is inclined to doubt. She’s more interested in the herbs; the alchemist in her perking up at the prospect of new materials. The captives are all fighting men - or at least teenagers - hopped up on drugs.

By contrast, the herbs are probably a mix of their own stash and things that they want to sell to others. She doesn’t recognise any of them, but just by tasting them she can tell that they’ve got all kinds of pharmaceutical properties. Stimulants, anti-coagulants, anything you care to mention. They’re probably native to the Weeping Fen.

“Do as you want with them,” Keris absently tells the Priest, waving a hand as she sorts through the herbs with interest. “Just keep it confined to the shrine, please. And Neride, resume course to Saata, if you would.”

She can make a gift of these to Haneyl. No doubt she’ll be able to cultivate them, and Keris will have some new plant stock to play with. Excellent.

“And now...” she sighs as she tucks them away and surveys the empty throne. “To find out where the twins have gone.”

---

A few days later they’re approaching the Isle of Gulls, the sunset setting blood red over the west.

There’s been a change of the set-up. Coral is growing around the waters, in the Metagaos-influenced waters she set up as a trap. There’s a washed up ship there, snarled up in mangrove trees that are growing from the coral. Keris flits out of the ship again to check on it, nodding in approval of the mangroves - they’ll protect the shore and disguise the fact that the island is inhabited. Climbing up onto it, she scopes out the deck and cabins, rifling through what’s left and scanning for bodies or emblems to identify where the ship was from and how long it’s been here. And whether there’s anything left to loot.

She’s not sure what happened here. But now she looks inside, she can see there was a fire onboard, that seems to have consumed the evidence. Shrugging, she has the Baisha settle outside the coral while she checks in on the island. The idea of sailing up in a little flower-boat comes to mind, but... ach, no, the dragon armour is still her only way to anchor that spell. Swearing quickly, Keris makes a note to get her hands on a jade ring or something - she should have asked Sasi for one, she thinks.

Still, in lieu of that, she swims up to the island and dons her disguise of Riyaah MuHiitiyah - not a huge change, but enough to look more like goddess than moral. Ghosting up the beach stealthily, she takes in what the misbegotten have been doing with their new home before revealing herself; heart in her throat and hoping they’re well.

The misbegotten here seem to be thriving. The Isle of Gulls now looks like a Tengese coastal village, and they’ve built new structures from wood and stone and whitewashed them.

Keris grins at the sight of the stone statues of herself by the pier. Someone - probably a child - has dropped a ring of plaited flowers over her statue’s head.

The waterfront is alive at sunset, with fishermen sorting their catches and men drinking in the teahouse. But they all fall silent as they realise she’s here, and in twos and threes prostrate themselves before her.

“My people,” she smiles. “How fare you? Where is my priestess, Darling Yellow? Show me to her.”

There’s a silence. The kind of silence when no one is quite sure what to say.

“Goddess,” a woman murmurs. “She... she died a few months ago. When we came for morning prayers, she was sitting before the altar. We thought she was meditating at first. It was only later one of the flower gods told us she was dead.”

((... oh, Keris. :c))

It’s like a knife to Keris's heart. Like a punch to her gut. It sucks all the air out of her from shock, and might actually feel worse than the pain of being savaged by the yidak in Malra. Keris hadn’t realised the old priestess as worked her way so deep into her heart, but nonetheless she actually staggers back a step at the words; Calescoid pain and love reverberating through her. Tears begin to trickle down her face; the shadow-guise making them smell of brine and mangrove fruit.

“Dead...” she breathes in a heartbroken whisper, and it’s Keris saying it, not Riyaah MuHiitiyah - the lie forgotten in the shock of grief. Her voice cracks on the word. “I face down two of the Greater Dead and win, only to find that death has taken my priestess from...”

She cuts off abruptly, remembering herself. Remembering who she is at the moment. But... no, she didn’t reveal anything that would break her cover. If anything, part of her behind the looming grief points out, it’s a valid cover story for where she’s been and why she didn’t know already.

It’s an effort. But she composes herself.

“Show... show me her memorial,” she says quietly. “And her successor.”

There is a little graveyard on the hillside. Darling Yellow isn't the first to have died here, but it’s still empty here, in among the trees. They’re building little family shrines in the Tengese way, with niches for the ashes of the deceased.

Here rests Darling Yellow, in a little clay urn.

The goddess - beautiful, unearthly, with hair like blood and a dress of flowers and mangrove roots - approaches the little urn. She kneels, head bowed, for a long moment before standing again.

“Was her passing peaceful?” she asks the reverent attendants. “Were her last days happy? I have been far from this island, working against the monstrous Dead.” She looks in grief at the ashes of her priestess. “I should have returned sooner. I would have, had I known.”

But she’s not Saturn, she thinks miserably. She didn’t know. A death of old age is one she can’t accurately predict - and she’d thought Darling Yellow still had a few years left in her, on this peaceful little isle.

“As far as we can tell, she just... didn’t wake up from meditation one morning, lady,” one of the attendants says. “She seemed well until the end.”

Keris musters a sad smile. “Good,” she says. “I am glad she had the peace I promised her.” A breath. “Where is her successor? Who leads you now, and attends my shrine?”

“It is One Leaf,” the attendant says. “She is in the shrine now. The gods on this isle are... vocal.”

“They are my servants,” Keris replies with a flicker of damp amusement. “They often are.” She’s shown to the shrine - which has been improved on like all the rest of the structures here - and takes the opportunity during the walk to glance down at her somewhat-battered fleet in the harbour. Everything still seems in place, and there’s a surprise waiting for Keris in the shrine. The new priestess is praying there, but sprawled out on the altar - and wearing a rather short robe that shows long legs and bare feet - is a woman with Tengese features, bright red hair, and green eyes. Embers glow in her hair on top of flower petals. But there’s also something domestic about her, almost maternal despite her youth.

She’s smirking as she listens to the prayers, chin propped up on her hands and a very smug smile on her lips.

The newcomer is weaker than Keris - but stronger than a kerub. And yet she feels like Haneyl - but not just Haneyl. There’s also something divine about her.

((E3, Haneylish-Divine hybrid essence))
((... huh. So one of the sziromkeruby got pushed to mature, and beefed up on cult essence. Interesting. Does she read as a dragon aide, or is she a unique divine sziromkerub maturation?))

Keris enters the shrine, and all eyes turn to her. Riyaah MuHiitiyah, in all her glory, is unmistakable.

She, in turn, examines the spirit lying on the altar. Obviously one of the sziromkeruby she left here, and with similarities to Rounen’s new form looks... but divine essence, and embers in her hair. Is she looking at a dragon aide with the backing of a cult, or... is this some new and different divine maturation of a petal-cherub?

Oh. Keris sees what happened. The god-like layer is just a surface thing. Clothing worn over the top.

Knowing sziromkeruby as she does - and knowing her daughter and herself if she had to really admit it - she suspects that this dragon aide stole a god’s power in some way. And made herself into a temporary goddess or something.

((lol))

“I would speak to my servant alone, priestess,” she says quietly. “And then to you, also.”

One Leaf leaves, and the dragon aide pouts, rolling her eyes. “Couldn’t you have waited?” she asks. “I was enjoying that.”

“I’m sure you’ll have more time to be worshipped when I leave again,” Keris says. Part of her wants to smack the spirit around the head for her presumption, part of her notes that a dragon aide will make for a capable, fairly loyal and intelligent subordinate and point of contact here... and okay, most of her is reluctantly amused by her creation’s initiative.

“Who did the divine mantle come from?” she asks, keeping her voice low as she stalks up to the altar. “And what are you calling yourself to them? Congratulations on becoming the local goddess of the island, by the way. Good initiative, as long as you’re still a servant of Riyaah MuHiitiyah.”

Rounen likes to be praised and for his decisions and actions to be validated. Keris guesses this dragon aide is no different. Her aide likes to be rewarded, too - she’ll have to think of something to keep this one loyal.

The dragon aide dusts herself down, crossing her legs as she sits up on the altar. “Can’t you remember me, Keris?” she asks, sounding hurt. “I’m Molian. You summoned me to look after these people. Well, I did that. And then I grew up. And this goddess showed up about two weeks ago, and was very, very rude. She called me and the others a very. very bad word.” She smiles, but she’s obviously covering remembered pain. “She’s gone now. And I took her robe. It fits me nicely.”

She claps her hands together. “I also took her home. Do you want to see it? It lets me in and I can do her paperwork. In fact, I’ve cleared her backlog almost entirely. She wasn’t really doing her job.”

Keris narrows her eyes. “Good. Well done on disposing of her, Molian. Did she say where she came from?” She purses her lips, considering. “Bishop Molian, I think. You deserve a title for your actions. And yes, show me your home.”

Molian struts out, leading Keris towards the town centre. She chatters as she does - mentioning things about everyone she sees heading home as the sun sets. She - and maybe all the sziromkeruby here - do seem to be keeping track of who’s who.

Her new house is in the market square, by the statue of Keris that serves as the centre. Molian throws open doors that weren’t there before, and leads Keris into a smallish set of rooms, closing the doors behind her.

She can tell that sziromkeruby frequent here. Quite apart from the fact there are lots of books and paper trees growing, there’s also an entire room set aside to being a kitchen where a gaggle are standing around arguing over fish stew.

Keris showing up produces some “Wow”s, some greetings, and a redoubled argument about what they’re going to serve the All-Queen.

Molian, however, leads Keris through into a smaller room with an ornate writing desk that she sprawls out on. “I’m a hearth goddess,” she says smugly. “I read her papers. She was meant to be looking after the misbegotten, but it took her seasons to realise they were missing. Now I’m doing her job and I’ve cleared all her paperwork, look! The desk is all clear! Did I do well?”

“Hah!” Keris applauds. “You did! This is wonderful work, Molian. Was she the goddess only of the Gullites, or of the other misbegotten still back in An Teng?”

“She’s a goddess of cast-out hearths, but not the goddess. I’m a goddess of the First Rank now! But I answer to Ma Ren, Goddess of Misbegotten Homes, who’s a goddess of the Second Rank!” Molian says promptly. “I’m not sure if she’s even reading my reports. And I think she reports to the Warden of the Misbegotten, who’s also of the Second Rank.”

Keris purses her lips. “Interesting,” she muses. “Very interesting. Stay here for now, Molian... but see if you can gather some information on your superiors. We’ll want to move carefully so that Heaven doesn’t notice and come down here spouting cruel and horrible accusations... but within the next year or two we may be able to get you promoted to Ma Ren’s spot, and fill this office with one of your siblings. And perhaps even promote you again from there.” She smiles invitingly. “Would you like to climb the chain of rank like that?”

“Of course!” Molian says, green eyes bright. “I’m a much better goddess than her. How dare she call me a demon!” and there is is, the way Keris can see her slitted eyes, the second row of teeth. She’s breathing deeply, and the fires in her hair are surging. She exhales. “But I am a goddess, after all. And I’m going to show the others,” she nods to the other room, “how to transcend and become like me.”

“Well then, hearth-goddess Molian,” Keris smiles. “Well done. And now for...”

She sighs, sadness returning as her thoughts turn to the priestess - and thus the absence of Darling Yellow. “I’ll be coming at some point in another identity to claim my ships - setting up an alliance between my goddess face and my Tengese one. The story will be that Little River helped Riyaah MuHiitiyah fight off and destroy a pair of Greater Dead who were threatening another part of her territory. I’ll tell One Leaf and I’m sure you can handle it when I arrive in my Tengese face to collect them.”

Molian shivers with pleasure at the way Keris is tasking her with direct responsibility. “Of course, Keris,” she says, perched on her desk. “Anything else only I can do for you?”

“One thing,” Keris nods. “I saw the ship out on the coral - who was it, and what happened? I bet you’re already keeping records of any foreign contact with the island, but in future I’ll have them collected at regular intervals so I know what’s happening here.”

She should probably, she realises, create some kind of courier-demon. Something that can carry messages at speed, for those subordinates of hers who need to send small physical things or who can’t use Infallible Messengers. She puts the thought at the back of her mind to simmer.

“Oh, that? That was months ago. Before I grew up. They were bad men, Keris. We,” she gestures over to the other room, “we heard them talking after we swam over to see if they had any nice things on board. So we set the ship on fire. They tried to get away. The sharks got them.”

Keris nods. “You defended the island. Exactly what I left you here for. Thrice well done, then, and I’ll make medals for you and your siblings as rewards. Now...” she sighs. “Let’s get this talk with One Leaf over and done with.”

One Leaf is... well, she’s fine enough, Keris supposes. But she’s not Darling Yellow. She’s just not the same. She’s a self-taught street preacher and wise woman, but she’s not the determined former nun that Keris had looked up to.

It’s fine.

She sighs, and goes back to the ship. She’ll need to think what to do here before she heads to Saata.

---

“Well, well, well,” Dulmea says in a reserved tone that night, while Keris feeds Ogin. “That was... interesting, was it not, child?”

“She was my first priestess,” Keris says in a small voice. Here in her chambers, in privacy, she huddles close around her children, Atiya held by a pair of hair-tendrils with her head in the crook of Keris’s shoulder and Kali kneading at her thighs in worry from her position in her mother’s lap.

“The first person who believed in me,” Keris continues. Her tone is quiet and lost and hurt. “Who trusted me to provide for her. She... she put her faith in me. A-and now she’s gone.” A sniff. “She’s gone and it was p-peaceful so she won’t have left a g-ghost, b-but she’s gone through Lethe and now I’ll never see her again. She was my first, mama. And I wasn’t even there.”

Tears brim as she thinks back to the last time she saw her priestess. Just before she left for the Althing, at the end of last year. She’d shown them the island... Darling Yellow had wept for joy. She’d introduced the sziromkeruby and stomach bottle bugs... and her brilliant, dedicated priestess had recognised the latter as the demons they were, and promised to watch them for her goddess.

“‘Live happily, and with my blessings’,” Keris sniffs. Her lip trembles. “That’s what I said to her. The... the last thing I ever said to her. That’s... that’s good. For her to remember as the last thing. But it wasn’t a proper goodbye.”

“Oh, child,” Dulmea says sadly. “Death is always hard. But she got the quiet, peaceful death that many demons only dream of. I would not have thought that you would have preferred that she linger.”

“I know,” Keris agrees, blinking rapidly from how her eyes won’t stop watering. “I’m glad it was peaceful. I’m glad she was happy. I just... I wish she could have lasted long enough for me to be there with her. One last time.”

Dulmea doesn’t say anything, just leaving Keris in peace while Ogin suckles. In the peacefulness, Keris finds herself drifting asleep after her exhausting day.

She opens her eyes in the gnarled wood at the edge of the Swamp and the Meadows. The trees here are tall and block out the moon. This time, though, she can see figures moving in the woods. Little figures, their eyes burning bright, as they hunt the peaceful creatuers that stray over the border from the Meadows.

The trees here are fortified treehouses, inhabited by sziromkeruby and other Haneylish demons. Keris knows Elly’s lair is somewhere around here, but she’s with Haneyl now.

Her ears perk up as she hears a melancholy song drifting over the tar pits and hillocks of the Meadows. Sniffing a little as the song tugs at her bruised heartstrings, she follows the sound - belatedly keeping low as she remembers Calesco probably doesn’t want to see her right now.

Calesco is sitting not so far from the border, glaring at the Swamp. And specifically at the sziromkeruby tree forts. And sziromkeruby cooking pits.

She’s also glaring at some of her mezkeruby, who - from Keris’s eavesdropping - have apparently been selling honey and sugar to the sziromkeruby in return for trade goods. Which Calesco does not approve of.

After a brief scuffle, melancholy wins out over hesitation, and Keris trudges up to sit down next to her. Calesco sees her coming, of course, but either she’s cooled off enough to tolerate Keris again or is too invested in her glaring contest with the border to fly off in a huff.

Keris can see the moment Calesco notices the teartracks on her mother’s face, though. It’s subtle, but there’s surprise there, as Keris crosses the last metre or two and sits down on her right.

“So, this time we’re going to talk about what I care about first. And why Haneyl’s stupid keruby are corrupting mine and tricking them into selling them things by giving them worthless things, just so they can honey-roast my creatures,” Calesco says, but her heart isn’t in it. She sighs. “What is it, mama? Misery shared is misery increased, after all.”

“Darling Yellow died,” Keris says. And somehow stating it out loud like that, so bluntly, brings the pain of it crashing back. She bursts into tears again - quiet, shuddering sniffles, as she chokes out the details of when and how.

“Oh, mama,” Calesco says, sighing as she rests her head on her shoulder. “Love hurts, doesn’t it?”

Keris nods, leaning into her daughter and enjoying the contact for a while.

“I... I was wondering,” she says. “If you’d like to stay with them for a while. Away from... her. And, well. M-me. Spend some time somewhere peaceful with people you can help.”

Calesco slumps down. “So you want to get rid of me,” she says darkly.

“No!” Keris gasps. “No, baby. If you want to stay here I want you here.” She pulls Calesco closer with an arm around her, pressing her cheek against Calesco’s temple. “I would miss you as much as Haneyl. But you... you seem miserable here. And I feel like maybe it’s because you need space. And something to do that’s just peaceful and good.”

Turning slightly, she kisses Calesco on the forehead. “It’s your choice. I’d like you to stay with me. But if you want to... to take some time to yourself, and heal... the Isle of Gulls is close enough to Saata that you could come back easily, or I could pick you up. And it’s safe, and it’s thriving, and it’s... a reminder that good things are possible.”

Calesco sighs, staring down at her gloved hands. “It’s... true,” she says reluctantly. “There... there were good times outside.” She pauses. “But you’re only going to summon me just before you leave, and she stays away from me. Unless you want me to be Rathan and her to be Oula.”

She lets the image sink in.

“Also. One more thing.”

“What?” Keris asks, heart in her throat.

“Make that fucking snake give me back my bow,” she hisses.

“Ah,” Keris says. “Right. Yes. I’ll... go deal with that now.”

---

Keris stays around until the next new moon, making sure to help things out, explore the area, and make sure that the land is stable.

And technically speaking, Atiya is the rightful queen of these people. It’s a good place for her to rest and grow a little more.

((Which was the charm you wanted to learn? You have time to learn it now.))
((Well-Reputed Grotto? Heh. Which is fitting for being learnt in a secret place like this.))

“Hey, mama,” Vali says one day. “So, me an’ Zanara talked. We should use the time to work on practice-building a palace place for you. Where we can stay! And stuff!”

“... I did ask Oula to design me a seabed docking point for the Baisha that I could connect to somewhere on land,” Keris muses. “Back in Taira, when she was having trouble with her new nature. Hang on, let me see if she finished the designs.”

Vali glares at Keris. “I can’t breath underwater, mum,” he says.

“I can,” Zanara contributes, “but I don’t want to have to lift rocks and stuff. That’s Vali’s job.”

“Some of my crew from the Baisha are fine underwater, though,” Keris points out. “And we’ll still have the land half of the plans, which is the bit you can work on making. Oh, and Zanara can help me make a shrine to me to go inside it!”

“I mean, I guess,” Vali says. He doesn’t sound very enthusiastic.

“Yeah, I’m down with that!” Zanara says much more happily. “Shoo, mama. Go get the stuff off Oula.”

Oula is happy to see Keris when she pops in, and looking very good in a pink and red version of Keris’s tiger dress that’s been cut to expose her entire back and arms.

“I have to use glue to keep this on,” she says ruefully to Keris, “but Rathan likes it a lot.” She sorts through the scrolls in her chambers. “I might need to talk with Zanara about this and I can help for a day or two if you summon me out,” she says, tapping her teeth with the plans, “but you’ll have to do something for me too.”

“Everyone seems to have things for me to do for them,” Keris complains good-naturedly. “What happened to being the All-Queen?” She smiles. “Alright, what do you want?”

“Egie hatched yesterday,” Oula says, staring up at the moon from her island. “He’s the second and he’s like me. I want him out of here. He keeps on trying to give his heart to Rathan, and I can’t allow that. Take him somewhere else. Let him give it to Haneyl or Calesco if he wants, but he needs to keep away from my Rathan.” She whirls and her red irises are knife-like slits.

Keris purses her lips. “I’m not sure...” she begins. Then smiles. “Actually,” she changes her mind as Molian comes to mind, “I know someone who might match quite well with him. Alright, niece. I’ll summon him tonight. But there will be others, and I can’t summon all of them out of your way, so you need to think of a way to get them to exchange hearts among the citizens instead of offering them all to Rathan.” She pauses. “A way that isn’t murder,” she adds.

“Look,” Oula says bluntly, “aunty, things will work better when there are more adults around. Right now, there’s not enough.”

“Not my fault!” Keris protests. “But yeah, fine, I’ll see to it. Now, gimme those plans.”

It looks pretty solid, after Keris looks it over with Zanara, and it certainly gives Vali something to do until the new moon. Keris appreciates that. He’s not quite as hyperactive as Eko, but he needs things to keep him entertained.

And then comes the new moon.

Keris advises Kuha to take Cissidy and go on a night flight with some of the gulls she’s been using the time to train, so as to see how they do in the dark. Then she prepares for her first act of Sapphire Sorcery. The sky is dark above her as she waits for the right moment; no moon visible amidst the stars as the sun’s light fades.

As the daystar crosses the horizon, Keris summons her power and holds her left arm high.

“In Lilunu’s name I call you,” she intones. “By the mark she made on me I summon you. In your own name I open the way for you. Come now, oh Midnight Whisper, oh Veiled Star! Come now, Eighth Soul of mine! Come to me, Calesco!”

Sensation explodes through her arm - not pain, exactly, just the rushing surging flare of essence. Iris rears off her skin, wings spreading wide, mouth opening in a sibilant cry. Her eyes blaze with rainbow hues and her occult flame flares for a moment to the height of a man.

A black oval splits the world. It opens like teeth. And Calesco steps through, veiled and with her hands folded in front of her. She looks demure. Placid, even.

It’s a lie, Keris is sure.

“Well, look at you,” Calesco says to Iris. “You’re a sweet little thing, aren’t you?”

Iris nods, and crawls onto Calesco to writhe around on her skin.

“That was easier than having to fly out through a hole in the sky,” Calesco informs Keris. She takes a deep breath. “It’s nice to breathe in the air with my own lungs.”

Keris can’t answer, as she’s breathing hard and clutching her upper arm. Her eyes are wide. If Emerald Sorcery kicks like a mule, she thinks a little hysterically, Sapphire moves like a fully-loaded clipper - slower, but with vastly more mass and force behind it. The difference isn’t additive. It’s not even multiplicative. It feels more like orders of magnitude.

The Adamant Circle, she can only imagine, must feel like Hellish layers colliding with every casting.

“Y-yeah,” she gasps, right hand spasming slightly on her tingling left arm. “Yeah, just... gimme a minute. Whoa. Hoa. Wow. That was... something else.”

Iris raises up her head from Calesco’s body, and heads over to Keris. She licks her face.

“It’s okay,” Keris reassures her, petting the odd-feeling head of separate-floating two-dimensional parts. “Didn’t hurt at all. Just... Makers, that must be what a valley feels like when an avalanche goes through it.”

((Hee. I really do like that reaction and analogy.))

Keris takes Calesco to introduce her to... well, her two new subordinates, she guesses. And the younger keruby, of course. But Molian and Egie are the ones clearly in charge.

She’s not sure if child keruby are made to be subservient to the older ones, or they just sort of defer to the fact they’re willing to do boring things.

Keris finds the two grown keruby sitting on the hillside, watching the post-sunset sky. Molian is sprawled out, lying on Egie’s lap, while he braids her hair. They’re being very sweet together since she took his heart. It sits in a little box on her hip that Keris made for her.

“Princess Calesco,” Molian says, wide-eyed. “Why are you-”

“I’m watching over this place, at least for a month or two,” Calesco says. She swallows. “I need the locals to worship me as...” she looks to Keris for direction.

“You might be able to take on Riyaah MuHiitiyah’s mantle directly,” Keris suggests. “If you could play the role, it’ll be useful later on. Or you can be an immediate, high-ranking subordinate of hers, or an allied goddess. I’d prefer the first so as not to split their worship up too much, but it’s up to you.” She frowns. “Only issue with being her directly is not being able to heal like she can - but that’s a miracle, and a rare one. Not one they need much nowadays, either.”

Calesco smiles, and her shadow ripples over her, taking on an appearance that nearly looks identical to Keris’s own divine appearance. Nearly. Not quite. But she thinks it’ll be close enough.

“Do you give me permission to subsume this lie?” she asks.

“I do,” Keris says formally. “As the bearer of Riyaah MuHiitiyah’s mantle, I give you, Calesco, leave to wear it as you see fit, as a shield and cloak against the harshness of Creation.”

She takes Keris’s hand, and it tingles. “Well, we’ll see how this goes,” Calesco says, with a deep breath.

---

Keris leaves the next day. She doesn’t want to risk Calesco seeing Kuha.

“So,” Zana says, lying back on Keris’s bed as she lets Ogin clamber over her. “What now, Keris?”

“Now, Saata,” Keris says firmly. “Atiya is strong enough to handle it, and Haneyl’s been there more than long enough to get us lodgings. And on that note, Zanara, I’m going to need your help with something.”

Ogin sits on Zana’s chest. “Your eyes are not the same colour they were yesterday,” he says, after long and careful consideration.

“Yep! I get bored,” Zana agrees. “What do you want, Keris?”

“Calesco’s lies are great for one-offs,” Keris says slowly, tickling Kali behind the ear and rocking Atiya gently. “But for long-term, permanent things they’re a pain to maintain and renew all the time. And they’re fallible. Little River is a face I’m going to be using regularly for ages. It needs to be something that can’t be picked up as a shadow stretched over skin; something I can shift to and from that’s a real physical change.”

She takes a deep breath. “I need to fleshcraft myself a second face and hide it under my skin, along with a way to change between the two at will. The best person to help me with that is you.”

Zana scratches her head. “I mean, if they can see your colour, they’ll know what you are even if you change your face,” she says bluntly. “Only Cally can scrub away colour with blackness.”

“I know,” says Keris. “But I can get an artifact to hide that. I think I have one - the necklace I got from Malra. Another face will cost less than using shadows, and be the same every time I use it so I don’t need to remember details as much.”

She wrinkles her nose. “If I’m flaring my soul I’ll need to use the shadows. But for everyday, a second face is better.”

“Well, I mean, if I’m the only one who can help you,” Zana says, trying to sound like it’s a great imposition and failing, “I guess I can make you some prettier makeup on the trip to Saata.”

---

The broken statues at Saata’s gateway loom above Keris, after several days of travel. She left the Baisha behind to travel ahead, because she doesn’t have a docking place for a giant demon-wrought ship. It’d draw attention.

Saata is always noisy, always bustling, and there’s always food for sale near the docks. Keris crawls out from under a peer, vanishes up onto a roof, and drops down the other side perfectly dry.

((What’s she wearing, what does she look like, and how is she presenting herself? And what’s she doing, too?))

Wearing Little River’s face - a shadow-guise, since she may be called upon to show her Aspect markings in this first return - Keris breathes in deep, taking in the sights and sounds of Saata. She’s wearing travelling clothes of admittedly fine quality - cotton shalwar and a tight-fitting top, with sturdy sharkskin boots. A bright mangrove flower is tucked behind one ear, and a silver dragonfly hairpiece rests above the other.

In her arms, she holds an infant babe.

((She’s brought Atiya - partly because she needs her for the cover, partly because she wants to get her settled into Haneyl’s townhouse rather than leaving her back on the Baisha and mostly because she’s not willing to let her out of sight. She’s dressing well and as though she’s come back from a period of adventuring, with a couple of pretty tokens to mark her alliance with Riyaah MuHiitiyah.))

The first question is how on earth she finds Haneyl in the chaos and merchantile avarice of Saata.

“And whether she’s managed to get herself in trouble again,” Rathan quips from inside her head.

“I could just send her a messenger,” Keris muses. “But honestly, it’s Haneyl. I’ll listen in on the local gossip, and I’ll bet you half a dinar that she’ll have made enough waves for me to find her.” She sighs. “I should probably visit Little Bird and Pale Branch, too. Tell them I’m back. But that can come after I’ve got Atiya settled.”

((Reaction + Politics, Diff 3 to track down your wayward daughter))
((5+1+2 Coadj+2 stunt=10. 4 sux.))

Atiya complicates things a little, because Keris cannot and will not take her still-fragile infant daughter to any bars. But teahouses are just as good for gossip, and let her take the weight off her feet while she listens in on the gossip and accepts compliments.

It’s easy enough to redirect any unsolicited congratulations over her newborn daughter into a casual admission of having been away from Saata for the birth - and from there, it’s only natural to playfully ask what she’s missed.

Fortunately, Haneyl’s distinctive appearance works in her favour. Mention of a beautiful green-eyed woman with grey hair and dark skin draws Keris’s attention, and she finds out that the woman in question recently purchased an entire apartment-block on the edge of the Yellow District.

“Odds are, she’s some merchant princess who came into a nasty shock when she found out how expensive the estates out in the country are,” opines one woman. “I see that place - it ain’t cheap, but it’s not in the classiest district. Too close to where the students live.”

Keris has a rather different perspective. Her daughter, she is willing to bet, is looking to enrol in a Saatan university. Which could either be a very good idea, or a very bad one, depending on how it’s handled. Still. A full apartment block is certainly workable as a home.

Bringing the conversation to a close after a little more small talk and gathering up Atiya, she makes her way towards her new residence.

The block is one of the old Shogunate structures that exist on Saata, or at least part of one. What remains of the original building is two storeys high, but there’s another, more modern structure built on top of the existing one. By the looks of things, it’s a ring-shaped building, built around an inner courtyard. Keris peeks through the gates, and grins.

Yes, Haneyl is certainly here. The inner courtyard is already a jungle, and there are plants sprawling up the inner walls. The rest of the building needs much more work, though - and there’s signs of extensive and crudely patched up fire damage in parts of the building. Keris slips in without anyone seeing, and follows her ears to figure out where her daughter is. Hopefully she’s home.

It’s not Haneyl she finds. It’s Rounen who’s up on one of the rooftop terraces, sitting under a parasol and working on accounts. The vines twine over new wooden struts, forming a roof here, and the white stone of the newer structures has clearly been scrubbed clean.

He looks up from his work. “Ma’am,” he says, seemingly without a hint of surprise. “I presume you were delayed by waiting for the new moon?”

“Yes,” Keris agrees. “I left Calesco on the Isle of Gulls. Dar-” She breaks off, takes a breath, and forces herself to continue. “Darling Yellow died peacefully, a few months ago. I stayed for a while to make sure they were thriving and she chose to stay on there and take some time to herself.”

She glances around. “This is a very nice place. And it’ll be even nicer once Vali fixes up some of the stonework. How much did it set Haneyl back, with you helping her?”

“Less than you might think.” Rounen smiled. “The princess is quite tight fisted, and also broke into the former owner’s house, wove her tendrils into his flesh, and... ahem, acquired certain of his debts so he was forced into a fast sale.” He pauses. “It is not as fine as some of the other places we saw,” he admits, “but she feels it has potential given it quite close to the Daimyo-and-Yellow market, when rennovated. And also because it is called the Seventh’s Rise.”

Keris snorts. “I can see why that would appeal, yes. And she also wants to go to university, right? We’re near the student residences.”

“I don’t believe so.” Rounen leans back, shielding his eyes with a hand. “I think she’s had enough education for the moment after two seasons of Sasimana. She wanted this place for proximity to the market - and the foods and spices sold wholesale from across the region. She likes the way people assume she’s a merchant princess.”

“Hmm,” is Keris’s only comment. That may be the case now, but she still suspects university will tempt Haneyl eventually - especially if she decides the teachers there will be less exacting than Sasi. She’s as greedy for knowledge as she is for anything else - and Keris has heard stories about student life that will probably attract Haneyl like a... well, like a Haneyl to food.

“Where is she now?” she asks instead of voicing this. “And do I have a room set up here?”

Rounen presses his hands together. “Yes, ma’am. Rooms have been set up in the more habitable part of the structure, although on my advice she has hired no servants yet. We can’t be sure of their loyalty, but this does make things rather less comfortable than they could be. As for where my princess is, she is...” he pauses, “stealing books from certain healers. But now you’re here, we probably won’t need them!”

“Are either of you injured?” Keris’s voice is sharper, now. “Did you need healing knowledge? Or does she just want to know in case?”

Rounen bites his lip. “Uh, ma’am, on the night of the new moon, Saji caught fire and burned to ash, and Elly collapsed and rotted into leafmould. My princess has been frantic with worry ever since. I... I have tried to advise her that I believe they are also maturing to adulthood - shocking though it might be that either of them could grow up, but...” he raises, pacing over to the balcony to look over the city. “Well. It is not the same as myself, Oula or Vela and those were the ones in your notes.”

“Ohhh...” Keris winces. “Okay, yes. That’s not good. Where are they?”

Rounen heads over to the other side, and points down into the central courtyard. “Elly disintegrated down there, while I shovelled Saji’s ashes into one of the fireplaces just to make sure they weren’t blown away.”

Keris checks on Atiya again - still sleeping, good - and has Rounen show her both of Haneyl’s friends. She can see how it must have been terrifying. Rounen had been a shrivelled, dry, papery carcass during his transformation, but Elly is just a wet pile of rotting mulch, and Saji’s ashes are still faintly burning; pale white flames flickering lower over the yellowish dust that fills the fireplace.

Happily, when Keris takes stock of their essence, things look rather better - and when she brushes each one with her left hand, they look better still.

((6 sux on sensory roll for IEI and TDH.))

She can taste that they are what Rounen lacks, compared to a sziromkerub. Elly’s mulch is hungry, gnawing and bloody, while Saji’s ashes surge and glare and want to burn the world.

By the time Keris is done, there’s the sound of the gate slamming open and Haneyl appears. She doesn’t look very princess-y right now. She hasn’t been eating enough, and her eyes are wild.

“Haneyl,” Keris greets her, tenderly passing Atiya to Rounen and opening her arms. “Come here, darling. Everything’s going to be okay.”

Haneyl throws herself into her arms. “I don’t need your reassurance, stupid,” she mumbles, leaning down into Keris’s shoulder. “I know everything is going to be all right. Why wouldn’t it be? They’re my friends. If they weren’t, they’d be failures.”

“And they’re not,” Keris reassures her. “Which is why they’re both moving towards the other two aspects of your nature. Their essences are getting stronger, just like Rounen’s did. One week from the full moon, they’ll come back. You’ll see.”

“Well, duh.” Keris can feel Haneyl’s muscle, no longer covered by the fat. All her fancy low-cut dresses she got while at Sasi’s place won’t fit her anymore. It comes as a surprise to Keris. but when underfed, Haneyl is shaped like a taller her. “I don’t need your reassurance.”

“Well... you get it anyway,” Keris says firmly. “And well done on this place. It’s very nice - and it’ll be even nicer after some renovations. And I hear you got it for a shockingly low sum, hmm?”

“Of course I did.” Haneyl doesn’t lift her head. “It’s mine, after all. Mama, I want a cult. Full of people loyal to me. I want servants, too. I wanted to make some demons but I knew you’d shout at me if people saw demons in this new place, but I don’t have anyone to run my baths and I can’t even make a hot spring like I could at home. I’m having to go to public baths...”

Keris recognises that tone. It sounds like Sasi when she’s feeling upset about having to ‘slum it’.

“Easy, easy,” she soothes. “You’ve been very brave tolerating it here all on your own. We’ll get some servants and make this a nicer place to live, and we’ll see about getting you a cult of your own, too. And, you might be pleased to hear what one of your sziromkeruby has been doing for you.”

Rounen seems to have noticed the state Haneyl is in, because he’s there, easing her off Keris’s shoulder. “Come on, my... Haneyl, let’s show ma’am to her rooms and then she can go and fetch the others while I take you out for some food. You’ve just been working so hard to get everything ready so you’re hungry.”

“You’re paying,” Haneyl mumbles instantly.

“Of course I am.” He looks at Keris. “Anything else, ma’am?”

“No, thank you Rounen,” she says. “That will be all. I’ll start work on your symbol of office once I’m back at my silver forge, if you’ve decided on what you’d like.”

“Yes, ma’am. Now, if you’ll just follow me...”

---

The rooms are up in the newer buildings built on the old Shogunate structures - “They were using the halls below for cloth-weaving, so they’ve gutted them,” Rounen explains - and they’re far from as luxurious as Sasi’s place or the Baisha. Still Keris can see Rounen’s hand in how he’s methodically bought everyone she listed as essentials for the babies, and the walls are whitewashed and clean.

Keris thanks him, and sees the two of them off. She has been trying to hide any sign of how she can smell Haneyl on Rounen and Rounen on Haneyl. And they’re certainly not acting like Rathan and Oula, or even Molian and Egie.

Rocking Atiya gently so as not to wake her up, she settles her baby’s head against her shoulder and looks out of the window.

“Well then,” she murmurs. “Here we are, baby girl. Our new home, for the moment.

Atiya doesn’t reply. Obviously. But she’s not struggling for every breath anymore, and her quiet breathing is soothing.

“It’ll need some touching up,” Keris admits. “But I really do think it’ll be beautiful once we’ve done so. And if the halls below us are already gutted and opened up, we can turn them into stage halls and performance rooms, hmm?”

She chews a hair tendril and - after a quick consultation with a couple of landmarks she can see and her mental map of Saata - glances roughly northeast. “Ali and the Lionesses are still on their way,” she says softly. “I’ll need room for them when they get here. This place won’t be big enough, apartment building or no - not for three or four hundred of them... mm. I’ll need an estate. But, eh. I was going to get one for Little River anyway, wasn’t I?”

Atiya snuffles softly, turning her head slightly in towards Keris’s neck. She’s stronger now than she was, but the pressure is still so very light; her weight on Keris’s collarbone so very small.

“Well then,” Keris breathes. “In that case I better get a move on and introduce you to your future subjects, hadn’t I?”

Chapter Text

The grand meeting hall of the blue sea masters is a lavish structure in the centre of the Yellow Point neighbourhood. Not that anyone there would call it that; the district’s name is Memory of a Golden Land to the Tengese here. The white stone here is built into something that to Keris brings to mind one of the palaces she saw back when she first lived in An Teng. Those structures, however, were ancient beyond belief.

By contrast, Thrice-Blessed Citadel By Water is new enough that the stone hasn’t been weathered and the fresh paint stands out. It reeks of money. New money.

The hall where the blue sea masters meet is deep inside the citadel, and it has no windows. It’s stifling hot in this place of fine blue and yellow silk banners, and the air is thick with the perfumed smoke of the cigars and hash that these old men smoke.

They want to see her - Little River Hui Cha, their dragon in the nest, returned after a prolonged absence. One much longer than she was meant to have.

Little River is shown in. She isn’t happy. Atiya was invited too, but she’s had to leave her daughter in the care of other women. There is no way the little girl’s sensitive lungs will like this smoky room, and the men don’t really seem to want a little baby in there.

The six men are in here, their chairs arranged to surround the supplicant. Keris bows to each of them in turn, taking them in.

In his early middle years, Red Leaf is a gaunt man whose skin is stretched tight over his bones. His lips are almost always puckered, like he’s always got half a lemon in his mouth. His sword at his hip is well-made, but unadorned, and Keris can see that his right arm is more developed than his left. He’s likely still a fine swordsman. He dresses more plainly than many of the others, but everything he wears is solid and well-made, and more than that, cut with an eye to mobility and comfort. Red Leaf is one of the younger men on the council, and neither he nor his wife were born to money – he was one of Jade Fox’s captains who clawed his way up with the patronage of the old man, and in many ways he seems to consider himself the man’s protégé – and rightful heir. But there are the whispers about him – he’s a vain main whose jade earrings and rings show his tastes, and more than that, he’s cruel. A fine match for his wife, who was vicious enough to serve on the ships after her first husband died.

Peaceful Wave, by contrast, is as fat and bloated as his rival is gaunt. His father was a great captain, and he married well. That money seems to feed his vices. To Keris’s trained eye he doesn’t look well – he’s young, but he has gout and his breath wheezes. Still, he’s not kept onto his position just through nepotism; he might not be the hero of the Hui Cha his father was, but he’s a solid commander with a sizable trading fleet. Indeed, his lack of heroism has only increased his wealth – he’s focussed much more on the spice trade than on gallant heroism on the high seas. His jacket and cap are dyed with expensive purple and blue dyes from the far south, and each finger has a ring with a different coloured gemstone. Keris can hear the chime of protective spells and wardings from each of them.

Keris’s attention drifts to Strong Ox, Pale Branch’s husband. The old man has a slightly fancier chair than everyone else, and while on paper the blue sea masters are equal, he’s the first among equals. Or at least he was. He’s nearly bald, and his wispy white beard reaches his groin. And in all his splendour and gold-trimmed robes, the man himself is shrivelled and dry, like fruit left out in the sun. He’s dozing in his throne-like chair, dribbling slightly on his collar, and even when he was awake he just seemed confused.

Keris remembers Jade Fox from the time they met before, and he nodded to her with guarded respect. He certainly seems to be a figure of stability and calm on the council, giving off a patrician-like air that’s only somewhat ruined by his old scars and tattoos. He dresses like a Tengese noble, with a colourful under-robe but a sober brown jacket over the top, and he keeps the old ways too – no fancy embroideries or the like shown in public. Keris had flagged him as a conservative when she first met him, and seeing him compared to his peers only makes that more clear. He’s a stabilising influence – but she’s a force of instability who wants to ‘corrupt’ them. And who certainly wants to claw out a role for a woman to sit among these ranks.

Look at the surface, and all one sees of Sea Eagle is a grandfatherly old man with wispy white hair. He doesn’t look like a vicious lord of the Hui Cha triad. His robes are fine, but slightly worn and the shades of blue between his trousers and his overjacket don’t quite match. Ah, but in his eyes, there’s something mercurial, something you can better see if you know the rumours about him. He’s the one who took the unconventional path to his seat in this room, the one who studied with the priests of Saata in all manners of subjects and married into wealth and killed his brother-in-law for his fleet. He’s the unpredictable one, the gambler, the one who wagers big and enough of his bets pay off that he can cover the debts. The rumours from the women Keris hangs with say that there’s more women in his fleets than anyone else’s - but also that he hates anyone who isn’t Tengese, and no one knows why.

Last, and definitely least, is Lucky Wolf Hui Cha - whose parents dared the Fates by naming him that and found that those cruel ladies have no sense of humour. His fleets are tattered remnants of what they were when he inherited them, and he’s an old man, gripping on to his life’s work with salt-stained fingers. His fine many-coloured silks are thin and threadbare, and his jewellery has pewter and brass mixed into it. The girls down at the tea-shop seem almost sorry for the old man - he’s a good leader to his men and incredibly loyal and forgiving compared to some of the others. Haneyl’s analysis, though, is much less generous - he’s loyal to a fault, rash, and worse has an inflated opinion of his own skill. In her words, he was born into fortune and he’s lost it through stupidity.

These are the lords of the Hui Cha, the masters of the blue sea, and they want to see her. To know what she has been doing. To see if she has betrayed her oaths to them.

Little River walks into the room like the tide drawing in - peaceful, unhurried and without spectacle, but unstoppable in its own quiet way, and with the memory of tidal waves in every gentle lap of surf on sand.

Rathan’s light haloes her invisibly; a shield against their judgement that holds off the emotional impact of her late arrival back in Saata. Zanara’s petals hide her thorns, allowing her to effortlessly hold to custom and know what they expect from her.

And the mercury in her blood glints like the silver in the Isles. Whispering to her that all she need do is reflect their selves, and she’ll know what price might buy them each.

“Lords,” she greets the sextet with a bow. “I’m glad to have returned.”

((Keris is walking in with Carmine Mantled Emissary and Flowering the Fairer Face active and Heartwood’s Patronage ready to go.))
((Roll to activate thine effects.))
((CME: 4+1+2 stunt+5 Kimmy ExD {beauty, charm, poise}+4 CME autosux=12. 6+4=10 sux. They rationalise, brush over or simply forget things that would negatively impact their judgement of her.
FtFF: 5+1+2 Coadj+2 stunt+4 FtFF autosux=10. 7+4=11 sux, hah, wow. Yeah, she can read them like large-print books. With illustrative pictures.))
((Oh, and WWOF is cheap enough that she probably never turns it off, so I’ll ping ‘em with that too. 5+5+2 stunt+2 Coadj=14; 8 sux.))

These men, these rich men, they expect respect from her. They expect her to kowtow and show her neck and do what they want - and they’re each watching for their so-called allies to try to get their hooks into her. They want her to like them, and to be scared of them, and to obey them.

The old man Sea Eagle sits back in his chair with a chuckle, chin propped on his hand. “You came back. The sudden appearance - and disappearance - of a dragon born to our beloved homeland worried us. Yes, yes, it did.”

“Where were you?” the fat Peaceful Wave says, piggish eyes narrowed.

((Heartwood's Patronage costs 5m, 1wp a pop, so it’s not a passive thing she can just use on them in turn, just fyi.))
((Yes, I know - that’s why I said she knows she can do it, but isn’t popping it on all of them right now.))

Little River’s face is a mask, her thoughts all but impenetrable behind it. “As I said when I left, my daughter’s dragon blood needed a place of strong essence to nurture it,” she says. “For the first few months, I was meditating on my heritage and acting to ensure her health, when she came. But apparently the Pale Mistress wasn’t content to leave me there in peace. Two of the Greater Dead appeared in the region. I was forced to battle them - and they both now lie slain. But the strain brought my Atiya into the world early. I had to stay away longer than I would have liked, until she was well enough to travel.”

((Per + Politics to lieeeeeee, lie lie))
((Technically not lying! Well, not exactly lying. Borderline lying at most.))
((4+1+3 Mendaciloquent Maverick+2 stunt+5 Kimmy ExD {secrets kept with guile, shameful truths}=15. 8 sux, and the Difficulty to accurately read her motives is further increased by 4 from FtFF.))

That takes the edge off the tension in this sweltering, smoke-filled room where the haze lies heavy on the room, and after a few more questions - testing her answers, checking things out - things seem to lighten up.

Strong Ox starts snoring in his chair, and Red Leaf looks at Keris, lean, almost hollow face watchful. “And what will you do now, Little River? Go back to your forge?” He smiles, his expression slightly rictus on his emaciated face. “That’s not a healthy place for a young sick baby.”

Jade Fox raises a hand. “Careful, Red Leaf. That’s woman’s business there. Not to be interfered with.”

“I did not fight the Dead alone,” Keris replies blandly. “A goddess helped me - or I helped her - and she pledged an alliance in return for my aid. She mentioned she might gift me with a boon in thanks.” She smiles quietly. “I think gaining the Hui Cha another divine patron might occupy my time nicely.”

((Establishing and solidifying an alliance with a new goddess... actually is very much woman’s work, and is something that they’ll probably approve of if I’m remembering Tengese social mores correctly. They’re pretty whatever-they-can-get in terms of worship, and women are the ones connected to the land and the spiritual stuff.))
((Yes.))

Keris sees the gleam in Sea Eagle’s eyes at that, though Jade Fox grumbles. “Talk to the priestesses and priests before coming to any agreement,” he says. “Don’t get us in hock to anything with suspicious motives.”

“A goddess of what?” Red Leaf asks, eyes hungry - yet also suspicious.

“The ocean, the wind and the mangroves that guard the shore,” Keris replies smoothly. “Her name is Riyaah MuHiitiyah. She was eager to be generous - hungry, I suspect, for more worship. We can make good use of that.”

“An ocean goddess?”

“Yes, that’s fine!” Lucky Wolf blurts out. “Go straight ahead and-”

“And do not rashly risk angering the gods or any of the other spirits who bless us,” Jade Fox says firmly. “Such a god should bless all, brothers. Not be greedily grabbed for just one.”

There’s a rumbling, but no one seems to want to contradict such words. At least in public.

And once that’s happened, the crime lords seem content to exchange a few pleasantries and snipe at one another.

Rathan yawns as they make barbed comments. “They’re so useless,” he says. “It’s hardly difficult to have them think well of you. Each of them just wants you as a weapon. Well, apart from that Jade Fox. He seems to have bigger plans. Or... smaller. Different sized plans.”

‘Mmm,’ Keris thinks, following the discussion. ‘They all have their issues. But Strong Ox will be mine once Pale Branch is, and I can get Jade Fox and Lucky Wolf in my corner easily enough with a couple of deals. It’s the other three that are going to be tricky.’

She watches the men speak, keeping up her polite mask. ‘I may have to kill one of them,’ she thinks. ‘As a show to the others, once I’m ready to take over officially. If I have five of them in my corner, I can let the last one be an example. Peaceful Wave is a prosperous merchant-lord, and I can probably get him through his health... so that means either Red Leaf or Sea Eagle. The ruthless pair.’

There’s a doubtful pause from Rathan, and Keris considers who she’s talking about.

‘The more overtly ruthless pair, then,’ she amends. ‘The cruel ones. I guess it’ll come down to which one I can control better, and get rid of more easily.’

She can hear Rathan’s smile.

The argument of the men has woken Strong Ox, who bangs on the arm of his chair with his withered arms. “Silence! Silence all!” he wheezes. “Have you no respect! I was sleeping!”

Peaceful Wave grins foolishly. “Just a lively debate.”

“Well, debate elsewhere! Why are we all here in this hot room!” He crosses his arms and pouts like a child. “Pale Branch! Where is Pale Branch? I want to go home!”

It would almost be childlike, if this wasn’t a cruel and vicious crime lord who’s killed so many over his life - some in person, others more casually ordered.

That’s enough for the end of the meeting, and the crime bosses disperse, to talk to one another or go back to their bodyguards. The tension in the air is thick.

From the outside, Pale Branch enters flanked by bodyguards, dressed in layer upon layer of alternating blue and white diaphanous silk that shushes like the sea as she walks. Her eyes light up as she sees Little River. “What is it, my husband?”

“I want to go home!” he insists. “It’s hot in here! And I’m hungry!”

Keris gives Pale Branch a respectful nod - not subtle or surreptitious or hidden; just a perfectly expected gesture of respect to the wife of a blue sea master from a rising dragon of the Hui Cha.

If her hand happens to brush against the wrist she once sliced open and held to the other woman’s, that’s not something anyone would take as meaningful. But Pale Branch’s eyes glint nonetheless at Little River’s smile. She smiles back. “I see you’ve lost all that weight from the pregnancy,” she says to Little River. “Lucky you. You look glowing.”

“Thank you,” Keris says, flattered. “Though my poor Atiya came early, so she’s still weak and frail. She’s beautiful though, all the same. We must share tea and a meal at some point soon, so that you can meet her.”

She claps her hands together. “Well, I will be heading home with my husband, so you could come with me.” She smiles to Keris in a way that reminds Keris that Pale Branch is a vicious mafia princess, not some noblewoman. “These men should do their men’s things, but women should get to see each other’s new babies.”

“Yes.” Keris returns the smile. “Let me fetch Atiya, then, and we can spend the afternoon talking of children.”

There’s a look in Red Leaf’s eyes at that, but he can hardly get in the way of the way Pale Branch has framed things. If it was one of the men, yes - but everyone knows Strong Ox is senile. There are advantages to Tengese social mores.

Keris collects Atiya, who fortunately slept through the meeting. She sneezes at how her mother smells of smoke, however.

“You’ll have to follow behind,” Pale Branch says as they emerge into the heat and bright light of Saata. “I have to make sure my husband gets rest.”

“Pale Branch, Pale Branch!”

Her expression twists in annoyance, but she composes it and goes to coo over her husband as the two of them climb into their palanquin and Keris walks with the Hui Cha bodyguards. It’s a strange sight - these hulking muscled triad thugs and one small woman carrying a baby.

By the time they travel the distance to Strong Ox’s townhouse, Atiya is tired and wet and Keris has to take her aside to clean her up while Pale Branch takes her husband upside. She comes back down while Keris is cleaning Atiya up with the help of one of the maids. Rocking her baby and shushing her tenderly, stroking her cheeks and the black fuzz of her hair, Keris soothes her quiet fussing from the discomfort, dries and changes her into a warm, clean blanket, and rearranges both it and her jacket so that Atiya can have skin contact as she rests against Keris’s chest. She dismisses the maid with a nod, swaying gently for Atiya’s benefit.

“Well then,” she sighs. “I’m sorry for my long absence. But your little medical problem is one I’m now equipped to fix. Atiya can have a playmate, given a couple of night’s work. And your other problem...”

She feels the quicksilver in her blood ripple as she looks at Pale Branch. Really, looks at her, holding a mirror up to her soul and reflecting it into Keris’s view.

((Heartwood’s Patronage. 4+1+2 stunt+5 Kimmy ExD {discerning eye, brokering deals, demands payment}=12. 5 sux; minus half Pale Branch’s [Per+Pol].))

Oh, Keris barely needs Zanara’s eyes to see what drives Pale Branch. She wants to keep control of all of her husband’s wealth, and she’ll do anything to get it - and anything for the one who gets her it. The child, that’s just a way to do it as the mother of his heir.

Pale Branch sends out her maid, and makes sure the room is empty. “You see how frail he is?” she asks rhetorically. “His mind is going and his heart could stop any moment. My time is running out. I swear, if he drops dead, I’ll send a hundred men to murder that bitch and say she poisoned him.”

“Don’t worry,” Keris soothes. “If the worst comes to the worst, I can probably get you with child just using some samples from his body. But as it is, I’ll find a way to get at him tonight and give him enough of a healing to keep him alive a little longer. And... heh.”

She smirks. “Once you announce you’re pregnant, we can get her out of the way and discredit her at the same time. It won’t even be a lie to say that she was trying to deny him an heir by taking rash action against you out of jealousy. You’ll look all the better by comparison.”

“Yeah. Yeah. That’s good, that’s good.” Pale Branch nervously rubs her hands together, then forces herself to smile. “But come on, let’s see the little one. She’s so small! And Atiya, you say? What a strange old-fashioned name. It’s like something from one of those ancient plays.”

Keris shifts her beautiful baby girl to let Pale Branch see her. “I couldn’t decide on a name until I saw her, and then it just came to me. She feels like an old soul, you know? There’s a sort of nobility to her.” She laughs. “Or maybe that’s just me seeing through the eyes of a doting mother. Here, you can stroke her hair if you’re careful - she’s more fragile than most babies because of how she was born early.”

Pale Branch leans in, with her long-painted nails, and nimbly works Atiya’s fingers. “Look at her nails! They’re so tiny!” She cups her head with the other hand. “Do you know if she’s... like you?”

“No way to tell yet,” Keris says ruefully. “But I’m hopeful. Her blood is strong, and... well, I got a fair bit of essence into her before the Dead attacked.” Her hand flies to her mouth, artful in her shock at letting a detail slip. “Oh, but I didn’t explain that yet, did I?”

“No, you didn’t.” She lets go of Atiya. “Come, come, let’s go to the roof.”

From the roof, the noise of Saata is everywhere. The voices Keris hears all around are mostly Tengese, but it’s a constant roar in the background of tens of thousands of souls engaging in the vices of this city - and always the sound of the docks and the shipyards.

“The first part of the pregnancy went well,” she says, staring out towards the sea. “I meditated on my heritage, treated myself right to strengthen her essence, all that. But then ill fate struck. A pair of the Greater Dead struck the region. I was forced to fight them alongside a goddess who’d been courting an alliance, and while we won and slew them both... the strain brought Atiya on early.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes. She was painfully premature when she was born. That’s why I had to stay away so long - waiting for her to be well enough to travel.” Keris sighs morosely. “At least the goddess forged an alliance with me. And said she had gifts to offer if I chose to encourage her worship. I’ll be pursuing that for the next season or so, I think.”

“You seem to have so much fun.” Pale Branch sprawls out on a wicker bench. “Ah, your dragon blood frees you from the rules other women have to live by.”

“I seem to recall us saying we’d change that, if I took over,” Keris smiles. “And now I can get started on holding up my side of that bargain. If you’re still willing to hold to yours...”

She kisses Atiya’s head and flashes Pale Branch a grin. “Then maybe little Atiya can grow up with us as an example of how she can shrug off those restrictions, hmm?”

“Hah, yes.”

---

It takes some time for Keris to get settled back in Saata, especially when she’s worrying about the twins. And also about Vali and Zanara on the Baisha when the Priest is there. She sends orders to Neride to approach the coast of Shuu Mua - away from the eyes of any customs officers so she can collect her.

“Now, ma’am,” Rounen asks over breakfast, “we will need to talk about the plans for renovating this place. I am afraid we are going to need human labourers - too many questions will be asked of demons. And this place must remain above suspicion.”

Haneyl huffs, feet up on the table. “So annoying! I suppose we could rent a smaller secondary place for everyone who can’t hide what they are to live in while work is happening here.” She pouts, viciously cramming a wrap into her mouth. “Stupid humans,” she says with a full mouth.

“Look into that,” Keris agrees. “And one or both of you can come with me unseen when I talk to Lucky Wolf to see if I can get an estate off him. For renovations...”

She chews her lip thoughtfully. “Spread the work out a bit. This place has no direct ties to the Hui Cha, and nor does Cinnamon, so we don’t want to play favourites with the workers. Haneyl, do you know if there are any cellars? Especially bricked-up or flooded ones. We can have the crews leave those alone and renovate them ourselves in secret.”

Haneyl nods. “The roots are growing down past old stone. I don’t know how many layers there are down there, but there’s at least one. But they’re all collapsed and filled in with earth. I mean,” she rests one hand on her chest, “I could just burn it out, but that might cause subsidence and I paid a lot of money for this place, mama! I don’t want it collapsing!”

Keris cracks her knuckles. “Perfect. Don’t worry, we’ll leave it for now and do it carefully and slowly after the renovations. With Vali helping to reinforce the walls and floors. But it’s good that we have them. So, short-term goals, I need the rest of us off the Baisha, you to find us short-term lodgings while the work is going on, Zanara to help me plan out what this place will look like and Rounen to organise a work crew to do it.” She leans over to plant a kiss on Haneyl’s cheek. “I know you’ll have no more trouble than you had with this.”

“Anywhere in particular you’d like this place?” Haneyl checks. “Because I’m not renting. I’m buying. I still have enough money from mother’s gift that I think it’s a good idea to have a fallback place.” Haneyl’s eyes narrow, her Nexan accent thickens. “Never have just one den,” she says bitterly.

((On your Saata Map, whereish is the current place?))
((So, the current place is in Saata proper, in the university district, not too far from the Daimyo-and-Yellow. Which is not on the map. But it’s not waterside - it’s just in the city. I need a better map of Saata and its districts.))

“Good girl,” Keris smiles approvingly. “Hmm. Somewhere closer to water, I think. If you can find another place with cellars - especially flooded ones - I can make a little tunnel out into the bay.”

“Do you want it to be in the Tengese district for Little River, or will it be one of my things?” Haneyl smiles. “Because if it’s for Little River, I’ll add it to your bill.”

“Wicked little thing.” Keris grins at her, unable to hide her amusement. “I get no respect from my babies. None at all. Hmm... yeah, put it in Memory of a Golden Land, then. Little River needs a place to stay until she can talk to Lucky Wolf.”

“All right.” Haneyl taps her face with root-like fingers. “I’ll go make myself look Tengese and see what I can get.” She grabs Rounen by the arm. “He can be my darling husband, because the Tengese can be so boorish about single women. And I won’t have to burn off anyone’s face if they start showing me unwanted attention.”

“Of course, my princess,” Rounen says, smoothing out his rumpled sleeve. “All the attention you desire is strictly wanted, no?”

She flicks him on the nose. “Don’t think too highly of yourself,” Haneyl chides. “I’ve had better.”

Keris cringes. “Haneyl,” she complains. “Please don’t make me listen to things about your... um... partners? It was bad enough travelling in close quarters with Rathan and Oula for weeks.”

Haneyl rolls her eyes. “Fine,” she says. “Anything else you want done by me, because I’m the best around?”

Standing and leaning over, Keris kisses her on the forehead. “Decide what you want for your birthday,” she says. “It’s coming up in a couple of months, and I don’t doubt you’ll have a list.”

“Mama!” Haneyl seems outraged. “Of course I do! And I heard you got Calesco a super powerful magical bow, so it needs to be at least as good as that!”

---

As it so happens, the tides and travel lines up so that Keris is away collecting the others from Shuu Mua on the day that’s seven days past the new moon. Kali and Ogin are delighted to see their mama again and the childcare gale is delighted to get them and Vali away from the ship.

However, as they fly in low and fast on angyalos, Keris sees fire rising above the city. Of course, she’s no stranger to that.

But this smoky orange fire, of all the worst luck, is coming from her damn building.

“Fuck,” she says, almost calmly. Then, with a lot more vehemence; “fuck! That’s my house! Shit...”

She glances down at the twins and then across to the other anyaglos. “Shit shit shit! Fine, Vali, Xasan, take the twins and find a rooftop to wait on. Girls, Zanara, stay with them.”

Passing the twins off to her uncle and son with her hair and making absolutely sure they’re secure before letting go, Keris swings herself off Cissidy and lands running; bolting across the rooftops to the burning building with a litany of muttered curses.

She sees Rounen down the front, giving snappy orders to people standing around and reinforcing them with coins. He’s managed to get a bucket chain going, spreading water around.

And then there’s a flare of green up top, and she’s drawn to that. Skipping up, Keris sees in more detail that the fire is localised to one part of the building. Where she saw Saji was left, in fact.

Oh.

Haneyl is up there - clothes falling to ashes and soot, streaked and sweaty as she strides through the fire - and she’s there, setting more things on fire. But it’s not accidental or circumstantial. She’s fighting fire with fire, using her own green flame to burn away everything flammable and isolate the fire of Creation.

And next to her, billowing, blooming, a monstrous figure of yellow flame the size of a tyrant lizard, hiding in the fire.

“Haneyl!” Keris yells, dropping in beside her. “What’s going on? Saji?

“You didn’t warn me that keruby growing up did this sort of thing!” Haneyl snaps as she burns away a wooden staircase. “And yes! Saji just whoomped alight!”

“I’m really sorry, Hanny!” says the giant flame-lizard-thing, sounding morose. “It just sort of happened.”

“Just stay standing on stone and don’t touch anything that isn’t stone!” Haneyl snaps over the roar of the fire.

“Hold still,” Keris snaps, and reaches out with her left arm. She brushes the yellow flame; trusting in her steel-hard skin to protect her. Rounen has a transformation between his normal self and the draconic shape with teeth and slit eyes. Oula can turn herself into a dolphin and back. Whatever Saji is now, there must be a way for her to not be a tyrant lizard made of fire.

All Keris has to do is find it, and hope her guess isn’t wrong.

Saji doesn’t burn Keris’s left hand, although the rest of her body feels drawn-thin by the flame. Iris coos, and wriggles out and onto Saji, a patch of darkness in the flame. She’s a naughty dragon; playing while Keris is trying to work.

But she thinks she can feel the... the shape of Saji. She’s running out of fuel already. This flame form is not something she can sustain. Which means either she’s going to die soon, or - hopefully - there’s something else she can collapse into.

It’d be really bad if she died. Maybe there’s a... a lantern or something she can trap the flame in. Haneyl would be devastated about losing her friend. Keris thinks very, very hard for a moment, quirking her ears to make sure that nobody sounds suspicious about the hints of green among the flames and that the rest of her group is still on-

... the rest of her group.

“Saji,” she says urgently. “Do you think you could possess someone?” Kuha still has the demon-hosting tattoos, she remembers. They’re set up for Calesco, but there’s enough space in the ink-mudra that Saji’s comparative lack of power should let her overcome the contradictory design. And once she’s in, Keris can adjust it to suit her.

“Do you think you can hide your flames inside a person?” she repeats, fierce with haste. “If they were willing?”

“Um.” Saji tilts her vast head. “I dunno. I think I might burn them? ‘Cause I’m on fire. And that’d be really sad!”

She pauses. “I mean, you’re really strong! I could try it on you!”

Keris hesitates for only a moment. Her very blood is toxic. But Maryam had been able to possess her without harm. Then again, Maryam had been her mother... but isn’t Saji one of her descendants?

... would she be helpless again; taken over by a stronger will? The thought sends icy chills down her spine, despite the heat, and dread pools thick and ugly in her stomach.

((Rolling Principles: caring about Haneyl vs trauma-born fear of possession.
... 2 sux each. Lol. In that case, related Principles swing it - and Compassion is the highest relevant one.))

The thought of having her flesh taken away from her - and ripped apart from within again - makes Keris physically shake. But... it would be dangerous, to let anyone else try this. She has the best chance of surviving it. And she doesn’t want Saji to die.

Calesco, she thinks, would want her to face her fears for Saji’s sake.

“Do it,” Keris says before she can think better of her decision, and steps forward into the flames.

The yellow flame comes apart from its giant form, flowing towards Keris. It surges into Keris’s nostrils and mouth, and there’s a moment of scalding pain. But only a moment - the heat fades quickly to a hot drink. It’s not comfortable, and Keris feels an almost overwhelming urge to exhale and force this invader out of her body.

She resists. Barely.

And then Saji is all in, and Keris lifts her hand. She doesn’t feel any different. She can feel Saji’s presence in her, that heat of Haneyl, but that’s all it is.

“I think it worked?” a voice says in Keris’s head. No, not in her head - a voice echoing inside her body, heard from the inside.

It did. And Keris is overcome with a sudden urge to laugh, so she does, tears coming as she giggles with the overwhelming glee of success.

“What’s so funny?” the irritable Haneyl demands. “At least she’s not adding to the fire anymore. What’s funny about that?”

“I don’t... hee,” she giggles helplessly. “I’m just really glad that worked.” Wrapping her arms around Haneyl, Keris hums happily and nuzzles her. “I’m really happy you won’t be sad now,” she sniffs, the overwhelming happiness turning to almost heartbursting love for her daughter. “I love you, sweetheart. You know that, right?”

“I’m kind of... whoa.” Haneyl glances at Keris, then her eyes linger. “Your eyes are... you’ve got her fire in the black bits. Just in the centre. Like little stars.”

Keris is unspeakably amused by that image, and starts giggling uncontrollably again. “I think...” she gasps out between the laughter, “I think she’s, um, making my emotions b-bigger. Like how you feel things more when you’re all fiery!”

Haneyl holds blackened fingers to her temples. “Well, I think I’ve got as much cleared as I can. Let’s get out of here. I need clothes, and... well, I’m just glad you took Atiya with you to pick up the others.” She backs away from the fire, peeling off the ruined clothes and tossing them into the flames as her skin fades to match the background. “I’ll go check the area to see if there’s any risk of the fire spreading, then find something to wear. Can you see if Elly has appeared yet?”

Keris masters the giggles, puts on a very serious expression and tilts her head to listen for her.

She’s still down in the garden, and there’s the sounds of... something coming from where her body fell apart. Or maybe underground just under it. She sounds like she’s hatching. Or doing whatever she’s doing

Leaving Haneyl to her search, Keris hops down to the pile of rotting mulch, crouches down next to it, and makes conversation with Saji while she waits.

“What does it feel like in there?” she murmurs. “Can you feel my Domain? My other souls? Can you see what I can?”

“I think I’m just in your body,” Saji says, after shouting a bit and trying to see if Dulmea responds. “I mean, I don’t know if you’re hearing her talk back. I’m sure she’s saying nice things, though!”

“I’m not saying nice things,” Dulmea says dryly.

“Neither am I,” Firisutu agrees. “It is just like the keruby to catch fire in ways that destroy your possessions. They are a self-centred breed.”

Keris doesn’t listen much to their grousing, though. She’s listening to what’s under the mulch. And she thinks she can hear a woman’s body. Elly has been growing down here. Like a root. Or a-

Her thoughts are interrupted as a ghost-white human hand rams its way through the earth, spraying dirt over Keris’s front. The nails are long and almost clawlike, and the arm it’s attached to is strong despite its slenderness.

Keris looks mournfully down at her charred, dirt-smeared top and sighs. Things were much easier when she had her Amulet.

‘Dulmea, remind me to work out a way of not losing so many clothes?’ she asks. She makes no move to help Elly as she claws her way out. The newly born deva isn’t showing any signs of struggling, so Keris just watches and takes in the taste of her essence carefully.

Even through the layers of smeared mud and leaf mould, Keris can see that Elly’s milk-white skin is the same colour as her former petals, and her hair is the same pale green as her hair. Rounen can pass as human - Elly will stand out in the street.

“Look at her showing off,” Saji grumbles.

And there’s a shock to Keris when her features become more obvious. Rounen looks sort of Tengese with Realm blood. Elly doesn’t look like that. Elly has some Realm-like features, yes.

But the others remind her of Eko. And by Eko, Keris really means Adorjan.

Well. Um. She did use to be a szelkerub - and one of the very early ones who Eko made herself.

Elly stretches out her legs, sitting on the ground. Her stomach grumbles. “Flesh,” she says. Her voice is mid-toned, and soft. “Not vines or petals. That doesn’t make - ah!”

The reason for that is very clear. as thorns and petals burst through her skin, and she rolls over onto all fours, bones cracking.

“Hungry,” she says in that same soft female voice, even as she grows and shifts, her human skin tearing to reveal the flowers and thorns underneath.

“Crap,” says Keris, and has to force down a far-too-strong wave of panic - which only gets worse as she reacts to how it's being unnaturally amplified. “F-food!” she forces out, a sick feeling starting to form in her gut at the way Saji's presence is warping her moods by force. “I can get you food! This way!”

They’d had a reasonably full pantry, courtesy of Haneyl. A fair amount of it is charred now, but it’ll do for a hungry Haneylian... crocodile-canine thing? Elly’s alternate form looks like a swamp dragon and a wolf had a baby the size of a horse made entirely out of flowers and thorns and teeth.

Whatever, Keris thinks, trying to hold off the dizzying curiosity and not quite succeeding. She keeps it down to just some intense staring, though. Closer examination of these two can come after Elly is fed and the building is no longer on fire.

Elly wolfs it down, tearing into it with a sound like a blender. She doesn’t change back.

A wisp of yellow fire seeps out of Keris’s nose. It’s unpleasantly hot.

“Oh, for goodness sake, put your flowers on the inside,” says Saji. “We all used to have them. Just ‘cause you kept them doesn’t make them impressive or nothing. Go pretend to be human and stop being such a drama queen, yeah?”

“You.” Elly says, voice soft. “So you’re also-”

“There’s no also about it, Smelly,” Saji says. “I’m Hanny’s fire, so I’m the best. You and Rou have to pretend to be human. So go on. fold your flowers back inside and we can go meet up with Hanny and co.”

“You are insufferable,” Elly says, but there’s a cracking of bones and she shifts from being a quadruped to a biped again, clawed paws becoming long-nailed hands, as her white flowers merge together to become milk-white skin. She meets Keris’s gaze with two green eyes that stayed the same in both her forms. “Lead on, then. I suppose it doesn’t matter much whether I have clothes or not.” She gets up. She’s almost as tall as Haneyl, and she’s solidly built. Her green hair is filthy, but surprisingly short - even if it is prehensile with how she adjusts its set. “We’re all women here. Lead on, my queen.”

It isn’t the same note as how Rounen says it. Rounen says it like a human says to a queen. Elly here sounds, despite her soft voice, like a predator acknowledging a superior predator. She hasn’t argued with Keris, either. Just obeyed.

((Did Haneyl get the new place in Memory of a Golden Land during that week?))
((Yes.))

Dragging a palm down her face as frustration swells and anxiety swirls... Makers, she’s not had Saji in her for ten minutes and Keris already wants her out. Having her emotions fed and magnified like this is exhausting.

She shakes herself, throwing that thought out. She’ll deal with it for however long she needs to. For now, she has a still-burning apartment block that they were admittedly going to renovate anyway, which needs to be put out. She has a group of people who she needs to get across town and cram into their fallback residence. And she has to find some clothes for Elly, because despite her words it very much does matter if she’s going to be walking around in public - even at night.

“Fine,” she groans. “This way, then. Let’s find Haneyl and work out what to do with all this.”

---

Keris tracks her daughter down to a nearby bathhouse. It’s quite predictable and lucky. Haneyl is almost obsessive about keeping clean, and it’s passed down to her keruby, The Swamp is full of hot springs and the bathhouses built around them.

Plus, it does mean there’s a good excuse for why Elly has no clothes. And she can steal clothes on the way out.

Haneyl is floating in one of the smaller side chambers, but her eyes light up at the sight of Elly.

“Well, look at you,” she almost purrs. “You’ve turned out nicely.”

Elly smiles, dropping to all fours, and showing the back of her neck as she kneels. “Yes, my princess,” she says in her soft voice.

“Elly, we’re old friends. You can still call me Princess Haneyl. Now, get in the bath with me and we can scrub that dirt off you.”

“Princess Haneyl, I can-”

“I’m doing it. I’m not letting you walk around dirty.” Elly drops into the water next to Haneyl, who positions herself behind Elly, leaning on her. “It’s so good to have you back. You made me worry and I can’t forgive you for that! Now, mama, how are you feeling? Is Saji hurting you?”

Keris doesn’t feel all right. She’s feeling as emotional as the babies make her, and hot like she’s running a fever. “I’ll manage for the moment,” she says with a hint of strain. “But as soon as possible I want to fly over to Shuu Mua, find a patch of bare rock and have a better look at them both.”

She’s trying hard not to think about Saji’s fire in her eyes, in her heart - about how Saji’s presence is forcing things on her mind and feelings that aren’t hers. Every time she thinks about it, the panic starts to well up and she has to breathe out hurriedly and switch to another thought track, or else risk a panic spiral. Even with Eko's help in cutting the anxiety away when it starts to surge, there's a squirming feel of steadily-growing unease at how the thing riding in her flesh is forcing her to act in ways and feel emotions that aren't hers.

“W-we need to get everyone to the fallback house, finish putting the fire out and then go,” she adds. “Tonight. I don’t want to delay this.”

The bathhouse is roofless, with only canvas awnings to keep the rain off, and there’s a nest of sleeping parakeets up there with bright green feathers. Haneyl sees them, and her eyes narrow.

“Saji.”

“Yep, Hanny!”

“Can you possess one of those green birds? So you have a place to stay that isn’t in mama?” Haneyl seems to tolerate ‘Hanny’ from Saji, presumably because that’s just how she is.

“Uh... I can try. Open your mouth!”

Keris feels the heat well up from within, and it’s opening her mouth or burning her lips. Saji surges out, in a wave of dry heat that Keris swears scorches her eyebrows, and then flows up into the parakeet.

Its eyes snap open, burning yellow.

“Yep!” it - Saji - says. “Doesn’t feel the same, but I’m more in here.” She flutters down, perching in Haneyl’s hair. “I... uh, think I sort of set its mind on fire, but it’s just a bird. It wasn’t thinking very strong thoughts.”

Haneyl grins, resting her head on Elly’s back. “Feeling better, mama?” she checks. “No side effects?”

Keris sags back down into the water. “Oh. Oh, that’s... so much better. So much.” She shivers. “No offence, Saji. I just... don’t have good memories of being possessed.”

“Sorry!” Saji chirrups, spreading her wings. “I just needed somewhere to stay for a bit. But I prefer being a bird. I couldn’t really move in you. Oh, Hanny, I can probably go in a chell or some kinda weird body thing you make for me when we get home.”

Haneyl pauses in her washing of Elly. “Hmm, yes,” she says, eyes going unfocussed for a moment. “But later. Mama, you can leave me to steal clothes and meet up with Rounen if you’re going home to the other place. I can see to things here.” She looks up past the awning. “Looks like a storm is coming, so that’ll make sure the fire is under control. But you’ll want to make sure the babies are under cover.”

“Right. I’ll get the others home, then.” Keris leans over to kiss both of her daughter’s cheeks. “You did really well today,” she tells Haneyl. “Responded fast, kept anyone from noticing, used your fire in a smart way to limit the damage. I’m proud of you.”

“Of course you are,” Haneyl says. “Now, shoo. See to the babies.”

---

Keris’s apartment building in the Tengese quarter is... respectable. Very respectable. It’s facing onto a small square where there’s a market every day, and it’s whitewashed stone. Technically speaking Little River only rents a few rooms on one floor, but actually Haneyl owns the whole building. As a result, there’s rooms here for her family and followers. Getting everyone there is a task, but she manages it without being seen or anything else catching fire. Vali and Zanara get rooms next to her own, Xasan gets his own, Piu and Kuha share another and the Tairan girls have a third.

With everyone settled, Keris draws her babies into bed with her, holds them close and falls gratefully and deeply asleep.

Her dreams are unsettled. For once she’s not in her Domain; they’re normal dreams - or rather, nightmares. Her body isn’t her own; tugged and pulled this way and that like a puppet. Her emotions surge and swell; foreign feelings forced on her by outside influences. Sibilant words whisper to her, indistinct but carrying the horrible certainty that they’ll twist her mind and memories.

She wakes suddenly, with a hiss. And finds, to her surprise, that she’s not the first one up.

Tucked against her side, Ogin looks up at his mother from where he’s examining Atiya; cradled on her chest and still fast asleep. One of his tails is tracing along the side of Atiya’s impossibly tiny foot, with its minuscule, perfectly-formed little toes. His eyes reflect the fraction of moon in the sky, shining an inhuman silver. “It’s still dark, mother,” he says, after a long pause.

“That’s right, baby,” Keris agrees. Talking to Ogin is always... odd. He’s so articulate for his age - which is a sign of how brilliant and clever he is! But it somehow makes him a bit of a cipher. She’s never as sure of what he’s thinking as she is with Kali.

Still, in this case she can guess. “Were you looking at Atiya?” she asks, shifting to let him crawl up on top of her too. “You can touch her if you want. Here.” Gently, gently, she guides his hand to rest on Atiya’s back, where he can feel the faint beat of her heart and the second-hand warmth she’s stolen from Keris by being snuggled up to her all night.

He crawls closer to her. It’s a real reminder of how much bigger he is than her. Kali’s caught up with him - she was smaller when they were born - but Ogin and Atiya don’t look like their birth dates are as close as they really are.

“She coughs,” he contributes, letting his hand rest there. “She is small.”

“She’s...” Keris starts, and pauses, considering. Ogin is clever for his age, but ‘premature’ is probably too complicated for him. “She was born too soon,” she says instead. “So she’s not as big or strong as you and Kali.” She strokes his tails affectionately, grinning as they wrap around her fingers on reflex.

“Are we going to be loud and shout at each other?” Ogin wonders, his eyes a mystery as he runs one chubby finger along Atiya’s back.

Keris lets her breath out in something that’s not quite a huff of laughter. “No, moonbeam. Rathan and Calesco - and Haneyl and Vali - all want different things. That’s why they fight. But you and Kali work together for things, and if you look after Atiya she’ll always like you.”

“Zanara and Vali fight,” Ogin says. “Zanara said that Vali was a bully who was stealing her paint and he called her a selfish pig and said he was more fun when he was a boy. And Haneyl and Zanara fight because Zanara took Haneyl’s clothes.”

Keris is reminded that her son is very observant and has, despite how young he is, apparently memorised the arguments between his siblings that he’s seen.

“Fighting and saying mean things doesn’t mean they don’t love each other,” says Keris after a moment. She can’t think of any way to explain the inevitable conflicts that come from separate parts of a soul hierarchy to him, and honestly it’s not really relevant to what he’s asking.

“But I promise, moonbeam, if you never want to fight with Kali or Atiya then nothing says you ever have to. And then you can show your big brothers and sisters how much less shouting you three have to do.”

Ogin considers this duly, little face screwed up in concentration. “I think we’ll fight,” he raises one tiny hand, fingers held close together, “a little bit. Not too much. But enough that things are fun. The others fighting are fun to watch, when they’re not being too loud.”

Keris chuckles. Ney springs to mind, involuntarily, and she grins. “A little bit of fighting can be fun, can’t it? As long as it’s not too much.” She ruffles his hair fondly. “My clever boy.”

Though with her mind on Ney and the memory of Haneyl’s fear over Elly and Saji, it occurs to her... she’d just disappeared, hadn’t she? She’d left him Akhmi, but not much else. Maybe she should send him a dream. Just to let him know she was safely home and whatnot. Stop him worrying.

... maaaaybe taunt him a little about the theft.

Lying back and letting Iris raise herself off her arm to play with Ogin, Keris considers her options and enjoys her babies’ company.

---

Next morning, Keris and a certain subset of her family members gather for a council of war slash Haneyl-cooked breakfast. That is to say, she takes her family members who can be useful for her scheming, and then also the babies and some other demons and...

Well, there’s a lot of people on the roof that Haneyl’s taken over.

Rounen clears his throat. “My princess has called you all here to eat, but mostly for long-term planning. As it is early in Wood, while my queen’s family is arriving at the end of this season, it is important that...”

“Oh, put a sock in it, everyone knows it’s important,” Saji shouts at him, yellow flame surrounding the parakeet’s head.

Elly is taking the chance to eat everything she can before the other two get to it. Her hand goes too close to something Haneyl had her eyes on, and Haneyl raises one eyebrow. Elly moves back, inclining her head.

“Yes,” Haneyl says. “I mean, my building in the University district is going to need work, so I’m going to want Rounen for that and no doubt mama is also going to want him. So we need to clear these things out.”

“I wanna go around the markets!” Nara contributes.

“Okay, everyone quiet!” Keris calls, banging the table. Kali babbles happily and starts pounding the table in imitation with her chubby little fists, giggling hysterically.

... Keris leaves her to it.

“First of all we need to work out jobs, and match them to people, right?” Keris asks. Nobody disputes this, so she continues. “Starting with the apartment block in the university district that... okay, you know what? The... uh... the dance hall. We’re calling it the dance hall for the moment, since it’ll be Cinnamon’s place and that’s easier to say.”

She cracks her knuckles. “So. The dance hall. Haneyl - and, yeah, Rounen - need to hire people to rebuild it and supervise and all that stuff. We also need to work out what it’s gonna look like - Zanara? You up for helping me with that?”

Nara smiles. “Of course!”

“I don’t have infinite money and we can’t make raw materials out of nothing here,” Haneyl says quickly. “So no, you can’t cover it in opals.”

Nara pulls a face. “But it’s meant to be pretty!” he argues.

“Not when I’m paying for it,” Haneyl counts.

He screws up his face. “Mama...” he begins.

“We’ll work it out,” she promises. “It’ll take a while to rebuild the walls and stuff before things start getting decorated, so we can take our time.” She claps. “So! That’s one thing down. Uh... Vali! What are you thinking of doing?”

Vali nods solidly. “Keeping the babies safe!” he says, chopping his hand into the table and making it leap. And also sending a spoon flying off to hit the wall behind him. “Also,” he glances over towards the atmosphere-blued bulk of Shuu Mua. “Probably go up there. Take a look around. Fight bandits. Find neat rocks. Stuff like that.”

Keris snaps her fingers. “Ah! Yeah, that’s a good plan, actually. I was thinking of making a little hidden town or something on the mainland - not the coast, I mean, like, fairly deep in where nobody could find it. Somewhere safe and protected that I can put people who, uh... I don’t want to get hurt.” She frowns, vaguely feeling like something was wrong with that sentiment, and then shrugs.

“Anyway, Shuu Mua has a bunch of Wyld zones, and I know from Sasi and Ligier that there’s a way to hammer chaos-places into being real places that look like whatever you want. So I could use that to make a nice defensible valley. Could you and uncle Xasan look for somewhere like that?”

She glances across at her uncle, smiling shyly. “You were the one who told me about how the fortresses in Taira meant the valleys were really safe, so... it seems like something you’d know about,” she explains. “You’re the expert, and all.”

Xasan frowns. “Keris,” he says bluntly, “I can have a try, but I’m not a young man and I’m not going anywhere near some goblin-filled warren. And those mountains over there are massive. Even at my best, I wouldn’t have wanted to go up places like that. They look as bad as some hills south of Perswha where we lost good men to the mutants up there.”

“That’s what ribbon-horses are for, uncle,” says Keris patiently. “You can take Cissidy! She’ll like the running, and she’s pretty level-headed. And if you’re in the air, nothing can get at you, and you can just look at where the Wyld zones are and not go into them.”

She pauses. “Also, if anything tries to hurt either of you, Vali will probably explode it with punches. Though,” she wags a finger at Vali, “no taking risks, okay? Bandits and wyld mutants are fine, but strong raksha that could hurt you aren’t. And listen to Xasan.”

“Ma’am,” Rounen points out, “didn’t you stumble into a wyld zone accidentally last time you went up into those mountains?”

Rounen, Keris realises, is a fussy traitor who always has to get the last word in.

She glares at him. “That... urgh. You suck. Anyway, I broke out of there again! With Vali’s powers! So he can probably do it too.” She pouts and adds in a mutter, “also Xasan probably has a better sense of direction than I do, so he wouldn’t get lost in the first place.”

Elly taps her index fingers together. “Maybe Xasan should focus on hiring guides and seeing what the existing map-level of the area is like. I could come for some time too. I would like to hunt in those woods.” She glances sideways to Haneyl. “I will inspect the wildlife and fauna for you. We will need supply lines and crops if the queen wishes to build a lair in those mountains.”

Keris nods happily. “That would work. Oh, and Vali? I’ll be getting an estate for Little River at some point, so I’ll want you after that to add some sneaky underground extras to it. Same with the dance hall, once the renovations are finished.”

“Yeah.” Vali seems happy with that. “I don’t mind spending some time here, but living all my time here sounds like living in the City with Dulmea watching me all the time.” He shudders. “No thanks.”

Keris refrains from commenting on that, and turns to Zanara. “Okay, so you’ll be helping me design the dance hall - and also my estate, I guess. Are you going to keep giving Piu dance lessons, too? And maybe Saji, if Haneyl can make her a humanish body.”

Nara nods, putting his spider-like legs up on the table. “Yep! And another thing! Hanny said that she might see if she can get her-me some kind of reputation as an elite clothes-maker for-”

“Zanara!” Haneyl snaps.

“What?”

“That was meant to be a... a thing that we didn’t need to bother mama about!”

“A clothes-maker?” Keris raises an eyebrow. “It sounds like a good idea, as long as you have something to disguise your...” she eyes the spider legs, “... differences. Why would it bother me?”

“Because she’s doing it because she wants money to-”

“Shuddit!”

Keris turns slowly to regard her elder daughter. “Haneyl?” she asks gently. “Is there something you need? You can tell me if you’re lacking anything, you know. I don’t want you to be unhappy.”

Haneyl flinches away, then crosses her arms. “I told you I wanted a cult,” she mutters. “And this city is full of temples. They won’t notice another shrine being built.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Keris shifts over to hug her. “I mean...” She shoots a faintly guilty glance at Xasan. “You... probably would be a better goddess than most of the other ones people worship. You certainly wouldn’t let anyone go hungry, and you like your people to be the best. Can you wait until we’ve got the dance hall fixed up so Sasi can visit and give us some advice, though? I have a few plans it might work with.”

((Per + Pres, trying to persuade her to delay her Greed))
((4+5+3 Eternal Matriarch+2 stunt+9 Kimmy ExD {thinks she is fair, charm}=23, playing to her Principle for Sasi and using Hidden Depths Temptress to enhance. 10x2=20 sux.))
((Bwaa haa, success-doubler-fu.))

Haneyl has never been a gracious loser, and even with Sasi’s training the best she can manage is a pout. “Fine,” she grumbles. “But only so I can get mother’s advice. She’d know better than you.”

“She would,” Keris nods, happy to agree with this. “So, you’ll be working on the dance hall. Can I also ask you to try and cultivate me a herb garden? I have a bunch of samples from the Northwest, from Malek, from the Zu Tak, the chocolate from Ney... all of them have uses in alchemy or medicine or food, and some of them are used to growing in the cold or on mountains or whatever. Do you think you can either set up special greenhouses for them all or convince them to grow in this climate?”

“No.” Haneyl sits back in her chair. “I have other things to do. And something like that is a very, very expensive project.” Her eyes gleam green, flickering. “Coolhouses like that would need... well, glass is expensive, and more than that, so would the air hearthstones I’d need. Mama, are you even thinking of the running costs? And as for coaxing plants to grow like that - well, I could do it back home, but something tells me they wouldn’t like me spreading my power and tearing a block apart.”

“Hanny!” Nara whines.

“No! I know you think it would be pretty, but what I need here is money. Money and more than that, a secure income. So we don’t have to rely on smuggled things from Hell which risk us getting caught and losing all the things I’m going to get here.” Haneyl crosses her arms. “And that’s that.”

“Mama!” Nara immediately appeals to Keris.

“Don’t Mama her! She’s listening to you and Eko and being all flighty and spreading herself super-thin. What we should be focussing on is getting the dance hall up and running, getting a secure income, and getting mama into the Hui Cha so she can get us a mansion. And we need the income so we can pay for the mansion, which won’t just be a one-off payment!”

Vali yawns. He’s paying no attention to this, and is instead mock-wrestling over a wooden spoon with Ogin.

((Keris’s greed and love of art are clashing internally. The love of art is trying to push her to these grand projects.))
((Oh, Keris. Heh. That was my intent, yes.))

Keris chews a hair tendril with a hangdog expression. “It’s just... like you said, this is going to be our place. A proper home. The first one we’ve ever had. I want it to be perfect.”

“It’s going to take years to cultivate,” Haneyl says pitilessly. “And you’re going to have to focus hard on your Hui Cha cover identity and get control of the triads. Because that’s your job. For Ligier and Lilunu. So you can focus on that, I’ll look after Zanara and focus on getting the dance place up and running so we can start making money off it, and Vali can...” she clearly pauses and says something other than her first intent, “... Vali can be differently useful and scout out the larger island.”

She pauses.

“After all, mama,” she says, “there’s some snow right on the top of those mountains. If you want cold weather plants, see if they grow up there first before you start planning to have to keep on buying airstones.”

This combination of invoking control of the Hui Cha and promising mountaintop coldhouses mollifies Keris enough to get a sigh of agreement, though she’s still morose about the amount of work she’ll have to do.

“Fine,” she mopes. “I’ll do the planning for the dance hall and stuff with Zanara, but for the most part I’ll focus on winning over the blue sea masters. Which,” she adds, perking up a bit. “Means I get to go heal Strong Ox of what his horrible sister did to him so that Pale Branch can have a baby of her own!” Bending down, she drops a kiss on Atiya’s forehead, then another two on Kali and Ogin.

Kali grins, wearing one of the empty cups as a hat, and kisses Keris back.

Unfortunately, it was not an empty cup when she put it on her head, and thus Keris has a juice-soaked baby on her hands. She sighs, and goes to clean her up. Kali is sticky and already attracting flies.

As she rinses her daughter off in a barrel of water that she had the foresight to get specifically for this purpose, there’s a stomp in her head. It’s Eko. She sounds like she’s in a bad mood again.

“I did have an idea for you,” Keris murmurs to her before she can start complaining. “When I mentioned Sasi. But I’d have to ask her first, so don’t take it as a given!”

Betrayed! Betrayed by another one of her little sisters, Eko gestures melodramatically, because she’s clearly been holding it in and isn’t going to be dissuaded. Clearly it’s all Haneyl’s fault! She’s so cruelly stealing Eko’s evolutions! She now has three different kinds of grown-up keruby, and Elly is even stealing Eko’s looks! Betrayed, she gestures again for emphasis.

“Well,” Keris replies, forging ahead with her idea. “Firstly, Elly probably looks like you because she’s one of the ones you made - so it’s more like your workwomanship is showing through. And second, maybe you could work out how to encourage your keruby to evolve by helping Sasi make her own? Like I said, she’d have to agree... but Haneyl couldn’t help her work out how to make her own demons. Do you think you could do better at explaining it to her?”

Well, duh, Eko immediately answers with a perking up of her head. She is massively clevererer than Haneyl. So no doubt she could solve the teeny tiny problem that Sasi is having. Also, show Sasi how the keruby are the bestest best demons ever. And... she sighs, leaning her brow against the glass of the window, her presence close enough to Keris to whisper - if the concept makes sense - well...

... she wants mama to be happy, and mama is sad-angry at Sasi because of Kalaska and Sasi is sad-scared-wound up like Calesco but worse so she wants Sasi to be happy so mama is happy. But don’t tell Haneyl. Or Dulmea.

“I’m right here,” Dulmea observes, putting down her tea with a clink.

Then grandma shouldn’t tell Dulmea either, Eko adds wisely.

((... I really do adore Eko.))
(( She is the comic relief, even when she’s a slightly tragic figure.))

“I... I know,” whispers Keris. “I haven’t decided what to do ab- wait, angry?”

That fluttery, trembling, nauseous feeling is back at the thought of Kalaska. Keris glances down at her hands, which have curled into fists again, and her hair, which has wound itself into tight knots and is lashing from side to side.

... oh.

She... she really is. She’s angry at Sasi. She’s angry that she’d leave a little child like Kalaska in a home like that and not see how she was hurting. She’s angry that Sasi would avoid the issue and neglect Kalaska just because she doesn’t like that part of herself. She’s...

She cuts that train of thought off, wide-eyed and shaking. She’s angry. She’s angry at Sasi, and that scares her, because... because what if shouting at Sasi makes her lover hate her? Or... or worse, what if she gets too angry and hurts Sasi? Like in the nightmare! Sasi’s not a fighter! She can’t defend herself if Keris... i-if Keris gets s-so angry that she loses sight of things a-and hurts the people she loves and...

Curling up around a sticky Kali, Keris wraps her hair around herself and trembles, her breathing fast and shallow.

Kali looks up, head tilted, and pats mama’s cheek with one hand. “Mama?” she asks, reaching up with her other hand and turning Keris’s head so she’s looking at her. “Bad?”

“I-I-I,” Keris stutters. “N-no, little feather. Mama’s j-just...”

Her throat locks up before she can finish - not that she had any idea of what she was going to say - and she buries her face in Kali’s warmth, feeling the slightly-inhuman heat of her and the softness of her little fingers on Keris’s cheek, inhaling the spicy, sweet, soft baby smell of her. An idle thought has her sense of touch magnify and intensify, and Kali’s fumbling touches become immeasurably more calming. Soothing music filters into her awareness; Dulmea focusing on the most reassuring melodies she can play.

After a few moments of just... breathing, Keris feels capable of speech again.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” she murmurs. “Mama just got scared of nothing for a bit. Thank you for petting me.” She kisses Kali on the cheek and turns her attention back to Eko and Dulmea. “Sorry,” she murmurs ashamedly.

Eko sighs. Mama carries burdens with her that Eko doesn’t. But mama has to carry them or else she’d be like Eko and Eko wouldn’t have her brothers and sisters. So mama has to be unhappy sometimes so she isn’t carried away by whatever breeze comes her way. And Eko can live like that, but it has its own problems, and mama can’t. Kali can’t be carried on every last wind.

“My goodness,” Dulmea says, slightly surprised. “That was very... un-Eko-like.”

Yep, Eko agrees, she’ll probably be feeling better in a while and won’t have to think these sad thoughts anymore.

“Much as I am loathe to say it, Eko is... Eko is right,” Dulmea says reluctantly. “This is why Ney was good for you. The way he could hurt you was only physical. And you can deal with that. Sasimana is more complicated.”

“... yeah,” Keris sniffs. “I still love her, though. And. Well. I’ll send him an ‘I’m okay’ dream tonight.”

She gulps, regaining some composure. “But that’s not what we were talking about. If, uh... if you’re happy to go help Sasi, I’ll send her a Messenger to ask if she’s okay with it. With Iris, I guess.” She taps the little dragon on the nose. “You up to visit Sasi?”

Iris lifts her head off Keris’s hand, smoothly moves her neck to dodge Kali’s instinctive pounce, and gives Keris the best quizzical expression a tattoo-dragon can. As far as Keris can tell, she seems to think Keris is missing something obvious.

“Well as much as I’d like to visit her, it’d be pretty pointless to swim all the way to An Teng just to tal-” starts Keris.

And cuts off, as the world dissolves and reforms around her.

Keris is not a woman anymore. She is pigment made of blood and bile. She is canvas made of skin and hair. She is a painting of a woman, made of a woman. She looks out with flat eyes from a flat world.

It’s dark in the place she’s looking into. Keris’s eyes dilate as she adjusts to the gloom, and then it strikes her. She knows this place.

It’s Sasi’s bedroom.

Iris appears in front of Keris’s vision, a two-dimensional dragon moving through three dimensions. She tilts her head, watching Keris’s eyes track her, and then nods definitely.

Then she flies over and nuzzles the pale shape on the black silk sheets. And when she doesn’t move, gently chomps onto her ear.

“Mmm,” Sasi groans. “No, no, Aiko, it’s sleeping time now. Mama needs to sleep.”

“Um,” says Keris, in confusion. She’s pretty sure what just happened, but the ‘why’ is taking a bit longer to catch up.

“No, Keris, I’m trying to...” Things eventually seem to work their way through Sasi’s head, and she sits bolt upright, throwing off her thin covers. “Keris?! And... Iris... let go of my ear, you wretched thing!”

Iris flies away, and exhales a cloud of many coloured flame that looks like a smiling face before dissipating.

“So... I’m my painting?” Keris tries. “Well, obviously I’m my painting, but I’m... in my painting now? I was thinking of talking to you and... then I was here.”

She frowns. “Huh. Lilunu said it was magical. Could I do this the whole time? Why didn’t I... oh, right. It was on the Baisha the whole time. And I... never really thought about talking to the Priest or Neride.”

There’s a short pause, as Keris considers her new discovery and Sasi... wakes up more, presumably.

“Hang on,” says Keris, breaking the silence in offended tones. “Does that mean I could have seen you and talked to you whenever I wanted the whole time I was in Taira if I’d just given you my painting at Calibration?”

Sasi stalks up to Keris. She sleeps naked, but that just means she’s a ghost-pale shape in the gloom and thus easier for Keris to see. “I’m not sure,” she says. She glares at Iris. “Maybe it’s something to do with that pest. How did she even get to An Teng?”

Sasi does not appear to appreciate being woken up by being bitten in the ear. At least by Iris. She hasn’t minded it a few times from Keris.

“Well, she lives on my skin,” Keris says reasonably. “And this is my skin. Isn’t she on me in the painting? I mean, when I’m not in it.” She tries to look at her arm, which proves remarkably difficulty in two dimensions. “I guess she can go from my skin to here about as easily as she can go from my arm to my head. Or possibly I brought her with me. Um... sorry for waking you?” she adds belatedly.

“I... think I’ll forgive it. Just this once.” Sasi smiles, and steps a little closer, until she’s just a finger’s width from the painting. “And you’re stuck in here?” she asks. “You can’t do what she’s doing and step out of it?”

Keris tries. Keris fails.

“Looks like a no,” she says with a rueful smile. Which immediately switches to lascivious. “Or believe me, you’d be back on that bed right now, and a lot happier about forgiving me.”

“Ah,” Sasi says, “but you can see and hear. But can you feel?” she asks, running one finger along the forearm of painting-Keris.

The startled breath that Keris draws in, and the way her eyes get very wide, indicate the answer is ‘yes’.

“Well, isn’t that a thing?” Sasi says with a smile, leaning in to press herself up against the painting, lips against Keris’s. “I did always think that there had to be some reason Lilunu made the artwork you in every way, as beautiful as you are.”

Keris rather forgets, over the next few minutes or so, what her reason for ending up here had been. She can vaguely sense her body, too, still cleaning up Kali absentmindedly and getting her redressed.

Unfortunately, that means things have to stop before they get really interesting.

“Hang on hang on hang on,” she babbles, gasping and blushing. I-I... um... I’m with K-Kali at the moment, s-so... while we’re d-definitely continuing this later t-tonight, no more for just this moment. I, um...”

She tries to pull her composure back together - Sasi has to be cheating somehow to know so many places that feel so good on her - and remember why she came.

“Oh, right,” she recalls. “Um, I had a thought I was g-going to send you a Messenger about later. But I can just ask you now?” She’s trying to keep her attention fixed on Sasi’s face as she says it, and failing. Visibly, if Sasi’s smirk is anything to go by.

Sasi leans back, just slightly. just enough that she isn’t touching, but Keris can feel her warmth. “Oh?” she says, lips curled up.

“I, um...” Keris stutters. No! No, she will not be distracted by her lover’s... teasing... smug... gorgeousness! “W-we were working out what we were going to be doing for the season - and Eko is annoyed since Saji and Elly matured. It occurred to me that she might be able to help you work out a way to make your own demons,” she says. “She’s the one who made the keruby in the first place, after all. Before I made anything, even. And she’s smart, and she likes you, and she’s usually better-behaved when she’s got a complicated project to work on. Also she’s only a bit less lethal than me, so she can keep you safe.”

Sasi takes a step back to consider this. “Keris, darling, I’m not your childcare,” she says. “Haneyl was one thing. I have met Eko before - and unlike Haneyl, she can’t pass for human during most of the year.” She pauses. “Although I have to admit, there is the advantage that she wouldn’t have troublesome affairs.” She blinks. “And that little white-and-green kerub I met last year has grown up? Like Rounen? He seemed very useful.”

“Differently,” says Keris. “Elly went the route of Haneyl’s hunger. She’s a thorn-wolf-crocodile thing when she doesn’t look human, and a lot more... predatory. And Saji, uh...”

She coughs awkwardly. “Saji sort of turned into a tyrant lizard made of fire and nearly burned down our new tower block,” she admits. “But it was fine once we worked out she could possess people so as not to be a fire-tyrant-lizard. Uh, well, fine once we worked that out and then she got out of me and into a parakeet. Not sure what she does yet, besides stoke my emotions when I was hosting her.”

“I... see,” Sasi says brow furrowing. “Hmm. I do have to say, having demons loyal only to me would be useful. I’m just not sure if... well, like I said, I met Eko. I’m not sure I can trust her to behave. And not ruin my cover.”

Keris winces. “Well, yes. She’s generally controllable while you’re awake and with her, but if you have to leave or sleep she... gets her own ideas. But she is usually better-behaved when she’s concentrating on a problem she finds interesting! She gets bored easily and doesn’t like staying still, is all. And she likes you and looks up to you - and she behaved for Testolagh. Also...”

Her mouth twists. “She wants something. I don’t know what, exactly, but she was really intent on staying with Asarin, and she wants to hang around you a lot too. She’s worked something out - probably related to her keruby maturing - and she thinks being around you or Asarin will help with it.”

She shrugs. “I’m not saying keep her for a season, but... a short research project or two? She’d appreciate the chance to get out even if it were only for a few days, I think. And she really is brilliant. As smart as you are. Just think of what you could learn if you worked together!”

Sasi frowns. “I suppose we can try it out for a little bit. After all, I can banish her if things don’t work out. But Keris, I do have a lot to do. Haneyl at least could contribute something, but we can’t just keep doing this.”

She sounds a bit stressed, although this is Sasi and she may be faking it.

“You don’t have to,” Keris rushes to say. “I mean, she’s... not exactly happy in my Domain, but she can stay there. I just thought she could help you. Not just with your own demons, but maybe expanding your inner world so it’s not so small in there anymore.” She pauses, weighing up what she wants to say and flinching away from the part of her that wants to shout. Though... maybe shouting like this is the best time? She can’t hurt Sasi from a painting, after all.

... it might still make Sasi hate her, though.

“I think you might be less stressed if your souls had more space,” she risks tentatively. “They’re parts of you, and I know the All-Makers hate being locked in Hell because they’re so cramped in there. And I got more stressed and upset when my inner world shrunk in Taira.”

Sasi rubs her nose, stretching. “I... like I said, we can give it a try. If she’s on her best behaviour. I might have to ask you for some help with some matters because I’m always, always busy, but,” she blinks heavily. “Not too soon until Calibration,” she says. “A chance to unwind.”

“I’ll have a good report to make this year,” Keris says gently. “With Orange Blossom giving me a glowing account for what I did in Taira and taking the Hui Cha means Southwestern trade will follow. You’re my superior, so that’ll make you look good.”

She smiles proudly. “I’ll make sure to have those proud pirate lords eating out of my hand by Fire. Though I may have to kill one of them when I take over.”

Sasi smiles at that, and leans in, kissing Keris on the lips. “I like that. Yes, we can give Eko a go. And on that note, I’m going to bed. It’s far too early to be up.” She pauses. “Don’t you dare say that I could get more done if I got up earlier!”

“Actually,” says Keris impishly, “my body just finished changing Kali, and she’s playing with her siblings under Vali’s supervision. I’m in private.” She grins. “So instead of things, let’s talk about people you could be doing.”

Chapter Text

((OK, some offscreen resolutions. Firstly, roll me Cog + Bureaucracy + Green-Eyed Merchant 1 = 8 dice for Haneyl’s efforts at rebuilding. She’s doing nothing out of the ordinary and she has the Resources to enable it, so it’s Diff 1 passive, but someone is trying to shake her down in the process so it’s contested with 4 dice. 1 contesting success.))
((Oooo, that greedy little fucker! Well, pah. They’re just human. And Haneyl’s 5 successes is proof that she, as a demon lady, is clearly superior and the better merchant-princess. Hmmph! *flips hair*))

It’s early in Ruling Wood when Keris decides to take Atiya out for a walk and see how big sister Haneyl is doing with the work. It’s a hot and muggy day, and it feels like rain is coming soon. It rains most days in Saata in Wood.

But right now, the white stone buildings are drying from yesterday’s rain and green and yellow parakeets are perching on the roofs, squawking raucously. There’s steam in the air, and the smell of Saatan street cooking. There’s a festival going on in the next street over as they let off firecrackers to praise a wind god, and this evening they’ll be lighting paper lanterns down at the docks for a fertility goddess. Keris definitely plans to be there, because one of the famous dancers, Oliana Green-Eyes, will be dancing for her there.

She hasn’t seen Xasan or Vali in weeks. They - and Elly, too - are off over in the distance-blued bulk of Shuu Mua to the north. She wonders what they’re up to. And Eko is off, too. Three days ago, Keris had a very enjoyable day with Sasi and then a rather more fraught night as she summoned her eldest daughter and bound her to this world.

She... uh, hasn’t had any “OK, I can’t take this!” messages from Sasi yet. It’s probably, hopefully, going well.

But here and now she’s checking on Haneyl, and the girl herself isn’t at the site. Who is, however, is Rounen, who’s dressed lightly and watching from a raised wooden tower as men lift stone into place and rebuild part of the upper floors of her - well, Haneyl’s, her daughter insists - building.

“Rounen,” she greets him happily. “Good morning. Things look like they’re going well here. You’ve had no problems?”

Rounen runs his hands through his turquoise hair. “Some, ma’am, some,” he says. “Many of the workers are linked to some of the lower-level Saatan gangs, I’m sorry to say. They tried to, ah, renegotiate with Princess Haneyl. To increase the price. Dramatically. And made various dark insinuations as to what would happen if their price wasn’t met.”

“Oh dear.” Keris looks concerned for a moment, stroking Atiya’s hair and shifting her slightly on her shoulder. “What did she do to them?”

Rounen smiles, a little brittlely. “She wanted to set them all on fire. It took both me and Prince Zanara to remind her that an excess of fire had caused this problem in the first place, and setting her workers on fire would only cause problems.” He shakes his head. “She was not best pleased by my interference in bringing this to the Prince. I... well, ma’am, suffice to say that she has been a little. Volatile. And perhaps we can leave it at that.

He clears his throat.

“Anyway, after that, she and Princess Zanara went and had a talk with certain leaders in the gang, and they appear to have moderated their demands with few to no injuries. Although Princess Zanara was very smug about things that I felt best not to enquire further about.”

“... I see,” says Keris dubiously. “Well, if you have the names of the gangs in question we can deal with them later. And I’ll talk to her and see if I can calm her down. Thank you for holding her back from killing anyone; I agree that’s for the best.”

She breathes in, happily savouring the salt air and the mingled scents of the city as she eyes the structure. “So, apart from idiot gang members; you’ve been handling the rebuilding well. What’s your estimate on when the building will be finished enough for us to get started on the decorations?”

“Well, you can see the progress,” Rounen said, spreading his hand out towards the structure. “As of the moment, they’re rebuilding the second floor. I want to get the roof finished before monsoon season really hits. And after that, I suspect we’ll need to dry it out before we can start with much of the interior decorating. I am afraid, ma’am, that Saata has a real problem with rot if water gets into bits of buildings. The wood just falls apart. It’s why they build everything out of stone if they can.”

“Mmm.” Keris wrinkles her nose. “And varnish only helps as long as things stay intact, without getting burnt or broken. Annoying. Though we might be able to speed up the drying-out somehow.”

She sighs. “Well, it’s still excellent work. Do you think we can have it finished by Fire? I’d prefer not to have our new leisure house open on or around Calibration; that’s the kind of thing that can give a place bad luck.”

“Hmm. By current plans, the full work won’t be done until next year, ma’am,” Rounen says promptly. “Yes, I want to get the roof finished before the monsoon, but remember, large areas of the building were hollowed out when they used it as a textile workshop. We have many layers of floors to build inside. We’ll have liveable areas before then, but,” he blushes, “with all due respect, ma’am, a construction site is not where I thought you would want to live. It would be a trifle loud.”

Keris laughs. “You know me so well,” she teases. “Yes, I’m already looking for another place - a proper estate this time, rather than a townhouse. And for Little River and Atiya, not Cinnamon and her twins. Speaking of which,” she adds, shifting her daughter around to let her squint at the shock of turquoise hair atop a fuzzy not-mama-shape. “Say hello, Atiya! This is Rounen! Rou-Rou! Isn’t he clever?” She glances up at Rounen with a smile. “She’s mostly breathing normally now, and I think she’s starting to focus on things. Though she might be having trouble with colour. Time will tell.”

((Atiya is at this point about four months old, or about one month past her due date for developmental milestones.))

Rounen smiles at the baby girl, and takes her in his arms. He has done this a lot. In fact, there was one alarming bit where someone saw him with her and thought he was her father. After all, he does look Tengese...

“Yes, ma’am. Hello again, Atiya. I haven’t seen you in a while. You’ve gotten much bigger, haven’t you?”

She doesn’t really respond, but does turn her face and open her mouth. And then sneezes. It’s a tiny high pitched noise.

“Well, if it isn’t my delinquent mother and adorable baby sister,” Haneyl says, scaling the ladder up to the tower three rungs at a time. She has food. Of course she has food. “They were doing some really nice cinnamon-and-cardamom flavoured fried dough things over at the festival,” she says, traces of grease around her mouth. “I only bought one back for Rounen, but I suppose you two can share it.”

She offers it to Keris, as Rounen has his arms full.

Keris takes it gratefully, breaking it in half and savouring one piece before trading the other to Rounen for her daughter. “We came to visit and see how well you’ve been making a name for yourself in business,” she smiles. “Atiya’s very impressed with her big sister. And I’m happy to hear you dealt with your workforce problem without burning anyone to death. Well done.”

“Hmmph!” Haneyl flips her hair. “No thanks to that traitor!”

“Me, princess?” Rounen asks mildly.

“Yes, you! You and Zana and Nara! Insubordinate dog!”

“Surely I am equally obliged to follow their orders as yours, as you are both royalty.”

“See, it’s that smart mouth of yours that meant I made you sleep in your own bed for three whole days!” Haneyl fumes. “And it would have been longer if I didn’t have that mouth well trained.” Rounen turns bright red, averting his eyes from Keris, and Haneyl grins like a predator. “And if you didn’t look adorable when you get embarrassed.”

Keris blushes too. “Ahem. Y-yes, can we not?” She kisses Atiya’s temple. “Innocent young ears here.”

Haneyl clasps her hands together, and does an extravagant mock curtsey. “Oh, dearest apologies, little sister. How could I talk about such things? Now, mama, how did your efforts to get Strong Ox’s shrivelled dick working again go? You said you were going to give that a try last time we met up for coffee.”

((Cog + Occult medical roll for Keris, trying to cure a Crippling effect. That means she needs to Self-Seed the old man and do Diff 5 internal surgery, which is a 15 hour operation. In addition, she’s going to need to work out a way to let it happen and get into position, or otherwise somehow do it sneakily which will require other rolls.))
((Okay, so FWT lets her cut that down to 45 minutes. What’s the over/under on her just sneaking into his home in the night and doing it while he’s in bed?))
((With Pale Branch’s tacit agreement, she needs a Diff 3 Reaction + Subterfuge.))
((Yeah, okay, she can pretty easily pull that off. Heh. Is Maiden’s Tea close enough to the northeastern plants she knows that her herbal knowledge would help here? : P))
((Yes.))
((Stealthystealthy roll: 5+5+3 Silver Willow+2 stunt=15. 8 sux.
Fixin’ cripplin’ roll: 3+5+3 Frozen Florist+2 stunt+8 Kimmy ExD {endlessly giving, patronage and kindness are real, demands payment}=21. 10 sux.))

“Oh, that all went well,” Keris replies blithely. It had been easy, really. She’d snuck into the old lord’s estate - barely even needing Pale Branch’s tacit permission - in the clothes of one of the servant staff; drifting through the halls and doing a few minor chores on her way to the main bedroom. She’d actually surprised the other woman when she’d lowered her hood and shown her face, and Pale Branch had then left her alone with her husband for the hour or so she’d needed to worm tendrils into his flesh and leech out the poisons.

That part had gone fantastically. Maiden’s Tea grew all over Creation, even the far northeast, and it had been one of the drugs known to the owlriders, albeit not one terribly important to the brews that kept them small. Still, Keris had studied it anyway, and the sterility and damage left by overly high concentrations of it wasn’t that different to the ways that foxglove residue and other floral toxins built up in the bodies of Kuha’s kin.

“Very well indeed,” she adds, smirking faintly as she remembers the little grey tumour she’d planted under Strong Ox’s heart. Planted... and not removed. He’s all but senile, and so childish that it’s unlikely to raise any red flags in his behaviour - and it’s a useful little bit of insurance, as well as a potential way to get rid of him when the time comes for Pale Branch to take over in truth.

Haneyl gives Keris a hug. “Oh, good,” she says happily, before getting more serious. “You’ll need to be careful. This isn’t the most difficult part. I’ve been keeping an ear out among the students when I go spying on them.”

“Drinking with them and getting them to buy you food,” Rounen murmurs.

“I will send you back to your own bed, don’t think I won’t!” Haneyl snaps, and then clears her throat. “When gathering information, Pretty Peacock is... well, she’s one of the richest women on the island. I’m really impressed by what I’ve heard of her. She’s the big player in the Hui Cha insurance works. Do you realise how much money she must have to do that - and how much she must earn from it? And she can give much better rates because she can discount her brother’s ships - and really any other Hui Cha ones - from attacking her clients.

Haneyl shakes her head. “I don’t think you’ve been entirely looking in the right place for power in the Hui Cha, mama,” she says. “From my point of view, Pretty Peacock as good as rules it. Me and Zana reckon she’s richer than any two blue sea masters. Rich enough she can just... hire them to protect her clients. And I think she’ll fight to the death to not lose the fact she effectively controls a seat at the table. She can’t get one because she’s a woman, but she uses her brother as a mouthpiece to,” she glances at Rounen, “influence the men and stop them fucking everything up.”

“Mmm. Thing is, though, if she’s that powerful already, she’s not going to want to give it up,” Keris points out. “Any of it. And yeah, I could get around that by... forceful convincing, but she’s used to power and wealth so she’ll always see me as the interloper. The one who came in and took over. And she’s the kind of woman who’d feed her own brother an overdose of Maiden’s Tea to sterilise him, which does not make me feel happy about trusting her with my back.”

She shrugs. “Whereas with Pale Branch, I’ve got someone who thinks like me, who has an equal claim on Strong Ox, and who’ll see me as the one who helped her up to that level. Though... hmm. You have a point about Pretty Peacock’s wealth. I’ll need to make sure I don’t lose that, one way or another. Can you look into where it would go if she died? I’m not going to move on her soon, but it’d be useful to know for planning.”

Haneyl rolls her eyes. “To her daughter, of course,” she says. “It’s land-based wealth and she’s Tengese. Therefore, the insurance business and all her investments and the property she owns here and on other islands passes down the female line. Men just keep ships, ‘travelling goods’, and ‘wealth from war’. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you. From my point of view, sure, the men are pretty flowers, but the women here are the roots and the trunk. They can just grow more men. The men would be nothing without the bits the triads do that isn’t piracy.”

Keris pouts. “Piracy is more fun, though,” she mutters under her breath. “But yes, I’d guessed that. I mean in more detail. Just one daughter, or does she have some younger ones who wouldn’t inherit? And what’s the girl like? That sort of thing.” She gives Haneyl an encouraging smile. “I’m sure your ‘information gathering’ is up to the task.”

“I suppose I can take a look, but I’m kind of busy here,” Haneyl grumbles. “Anyway, I need to head off again. I’m having lunch with Zanara and Piu. Actually, you should come with me too. See them, see how things are, that’ll be nice.”

“What about me?” Rounen asks plaintively.

“You can starve, you treacherous dog,” Haneyl says.

Keris raises an eyebrow at the banter, glancing between her daughter and her aide. Is this just more of Haneyl’s playful haughtiness, or is she still harbouring a grudge for not getting to cut loose on the workers who’d tried to extort more money out of her?

“This is disgusting,” Dulmea grumbles in Keris’s head. “And it’s all your fault. She’s acting just like you did with your Ney, so she gets it from you.”

“I don’t act like that with Ney!” Keris denies immediately. It’s true, too. There’s more smugness and gloating and empty-circle games in how she interacts with Ney. The dream she’d sent off to him had been particularly heavy on the first two. “Anyway, I think it’s sweet. As long as she doesn’t start giving me details again.”

“She will,” Dulmea says morosely.

---

With Haneyl and Rounen occupied with the rebuilding, Keris turns her attention back to her own task for the season - getting more of the blue sea masters under her sway. With artful subtlety and elegance, she arranges to meet Lucky Wolf in a pleasant but private restaurant for a little chat.

She has things to talk about with the poorest of the blue sea masters; beset by hard times as he is.

He shows up with his bodyguards; big neckless men who look like brick walls, half fat and half muscle. He’s an older man, and Keris notices that his garments are fine but worn. His fine many-coloured silks are thin and threadbare, and his jewellery has pewter and brass mixed into it.

Still, he’s still a lord of the Hui Cha, still a blue sea master, and the Tengese staff at the restaurant bow and scrap as he shuffles into the private room and takes off his many-coloured scarves, hanging them over the back of his chair. “So. You wanted to meet with me, girl,” he says, pulling out a pack of cigars. He offers one to Little River and lights his own.

Little River declines the cigar gracefully - “Atiya’s lungs are still a little weak for the smoke,” she says, shifting her sleeping daughter to her lap and resolving to keep an eye out for Lucky Wolf’s own cigar causing her problems. Eyeing him from behind the Tengese dragon’s face, Keris relaxes her mindset and lets the information pour in.

((Okay, so Keris is using FtFF to eye up what he expects from her in terms of reactions and motives, WWOF to see if he envies her and what he takes the most pride in, and HP to get his price. Oh, and... can she use PoEU to guess at how much he’s worth? Value of a good or service... his service? Hmm, maybe not. Your call. She has FtFF and BOT running.))

Ah, this old man clings onto what he has. He might not envy Keris, but the fact he’s a blue sea master means everything to him.

((WWOF tells her his thing is his Status 5 (Hui Cha).))

And he's wary. Keris after all was using flim-flam distractions to get him here without any of the other lords knowing of their meeting. He’s watching for betrayal for her - and half-expects her to go for a knife or admit she’s working for his rivals.

He reminds her of some of those old coves back in Nexus - old pickpockets and muggers with too many enemies and stiff legs who’re twitchy because they’re not sure they can run for it.

But, ah, in the gleaming of her eyes she can feel that burning desire in him, the heavy metal weight on his soul that’ll lead him wherever it goes. He’d do anything for someone who could rebuild his fleet, that thing that means he’s a blue sea master.

((His price is “rebuild his fleet to be worthy of a blue sea master”.))
((Heheheh.))

“I did want to meet with you, yes,” she acknowledges. “Now that I’m back with the Hui Cha to stay, I should get to know the leaders of our fleets.” The acknowledgement of him as a blue sea master is a minor thing, but it’ll still warm him to her. “And from what I hear, your men are loyal and think highly of you.”

Haloed in Rathan’s light and the flowering petals of Zanara’s social jungle, Keris is safe from the malice of others. But she knows both from observation and the instinctive knowledge of taboo and culture that she can’t just come out and offer him a lump sum that will help restore his fleet in return for an estate. She needs to ease into it - and make him think it’s in part his own idea.

“Hmm. We should talk more. Over drinks, and food. It is not good to do too much too early on. Meals should be savoured,” he says. “Is that not so, Hui Cha Little River?” he asks, clapping to call for the servers.

He speaks with them - they clearly know him well - and he makes sure to order drinks and food for his bodyguards, both the ones in this room and the ones who are waiting in the main room.

“And,” he concludes, “serve well and quickly, and your fine owners will know my thanks.”

“Yes, my lord,” the server says, gratefully accepting the coin he presses into her hands.

“You’re generous,” she notes, settling the little blanket-wrapped Atiya-bundle into a nest of cushions on the seat beside her. They make a little small talk as drinks are served and the first course comes out, and Keris waits for the pause as the first set of plates are cleared away to bring up her first point.

“So,” she says. “Hui Cha Lucky Wolf. You were interested in Riyaah MuHiitiyah, when I spoke of her in front of the council of lords.”

“Any man would wish for the favour of the gods,” the old man says.

“Of course,” Little River agrees with a dip of her head. “And I am working on making a relationship with her, beyond the gifts she granted me for my aid against the Dead. Well, that and looking for a more permanent home for Atiya to grow up in,” she adds, motioning towards the baby and keeping an ear on her breathing.

“Ah yes. The home is, of course, a woman’s duty - while a man’s life is beyond it, winning fortune for his family upon the high seas. I’ve never concerned myself much with such womanly things,” the old man says, rather pompously.

“Though, speaking of fortune,” careful, thinks Keris, careful; she needs to hit ‘sympathetic’ without going into ‘pitying’ or getting his back up, “the gods have not been kind to you of late, have they? Maybe that can change, going forward.”

“We can but pray,” he says, even as his eyes narrow fractionally.

“Perhaps,” Keris says. “Perhaps a little more than pray. It saddens me to see divine favour turned against our people, and I feel I should give back to the Hui Cha for taking me in.”

She pauses, considering. If she makes some show of giving something to each of the blue sea masters - she can probably spin her aid with the marriage as her ‘gift’ to Jade Fox - then it should be enough of a justification that it won’t be seen as making an alliance with any one of them, but rather a respectful display of loyalty. And then anything they give her - like, for instance, an estate to live on - will just be taking care of a valued new member of the family.

((Just running that past her FtFF knowledge of Hui Cha taboos and formalities.))

It’ll be complicated, The blue sea masters are, after all, violent and cruel men who have never got where they are by following all the rules all the time. And so much of it is based on what isn’t said.

And of course, the blue sea masters are used to getting gifts all the time. People don’t deny them things. She need to make sure she has some weight in her corner so it’s a gift rather than tribute.

“I mentioned the goddess rewarded me for my aid,” she says silkily. “Two of the Greater Dead combined were a threat beyond her power alone, and my help tipped the scales. Her domain is the wind and waves, and the mangrove swamps that mark the shore. Many valuable things are lost there.” She shrugs; a rippling motion. “I am a mother with a vulnerable baby, though. An estate would have been a better gift than gems - but that, she couldn’t give.”

“Ah, women’s things,” he says, attention passing to his drink. “If you want to know about such things, talk to a woman. You should dine at my estate some time. I’m sure my wife would love to see your daughter.”

“I would be glad to,” agrees Keris. That, she suspects, is as close as she’s going to get to an acceptance from this man. The deal itself will be made with his wife. “And in the meantime, you can tell me of some of your victories at sea.”

The lunch passes and Keris uses her powers of multi-tasking to chat with Rathan while Dulmea does the listening to the man’s talking. It’s nice to spend time with her son. And of course, she still says all the right things.

((Per + Pres to see the effects on him of the meeting))
((4+5+3 Falling Petals+2 stunt+4 Kimmy ExSux {beauty, charm, talent for temptation}=14. 6+4=10.))

They part on good terms, and Keris can see that he trusts her more - he thinks she’s trying to suck up to him, but he expects that.

‘That’s the soft-touch well underway,’ she notes as she leaves. ‘I need to placate Jade Fox a bit with the Tengese-side arrangements, and then do something to remind them that I’m dangerous. Maybe arranging to get my ships redone and passed off as new builds. Suddenly having a fleet will be a shock to their system and remind them I can’t be walked all over.’

“I... thought you were going to gift the ships to that stupid man as his price,” Rathan observes from Keris’s head. “Tell him the goddess showed you where they were washed up, take him there, secure your deal away from prying eyes?”

‘I was considering it,’ Keris admits. ‘And I can still do so tonight, after getting some more information from his wife. But I’m not sure I want to make him that powerful. My full fleet would put him at the top of the blue sea masters... and Haneyl has a point. He did lose his last one. The gems I took from Malra are enough to fund the rebuilding of his fortunes, and they’re... safer, I think, to trust him with.’

Rathan grins. “Well, then, mama,” he says, “who says he needs all the ships, right? He just needs enough to be an equal to the others.”

‘... you have a point,’ muses Keris. ‘And I could move them away from the Isle of Gulls fairly easily. Hmm. You know ships better than I do; can you work out how many of the smaller junks I’d have to give him to put him back up to par? Not the large ones, though - we’re keeping the four- and five-master for ourselves, once we get them repaired. Or rebuilt, in the five-master’s case.’

“Hmm. If we can get a look at the records, me and Oulie and some of the others can prob’bly put something together,” Rathan says thoughtfully. “But it’ll need to be done quickly. It’s almost the Season of Fire, and that’s hurricane season. We don’t want to lose these ships getting them into his hands, right?”

‘Definitely not,’ Keris agrees. ‘Alright, see if you can get that ready for me by tonight, and if not I’ll just be vague about exactly how many washed-up ships the goddess told me of. We’ll see if we can get him moving in the next week or two, all quiet-like and sneaky.’

“Right, mama. That was nice. I like our talks.” Rathan coughs. “By the way, I’m having a banquet and Oulie is hosting this evening, so if you’re not doing anything, you’re more than welcome to attend.”

‘I’d love to,’ Keris agrees happily. ‘Up on your moon, or an island somewhere?’

“Oh, Oulie is hosting, like I said, so she’s holding it in her duchy.” Rathan yawns. “It’s nice and quiet at the moment. Just me, Dulmea and that silly monkey of yours. It’s amazing how things are when you don’t have Eko trying to throw ribbons over your moon.”

‘Hopefully she’s not causing too much trouble for Sasi,’ Keris thinks, amused. ‘I’ll check in via portrait tomorrow, maybe. Just to see how they’re doing.’

“Mmm. See you this evening, mama,” Rathan says.

A few days later, late one evening as rain beats heavily on the roof and Keris lies in her bedroom with her babies, she gets a message. It’s an invite from Graceful Petal, Lucky Wolf’s wife, to come to his estate to dine. Keris reads the message and thinks about it.

Ogin uses the chance to clamber up into her lap, and takes the paper in both hands, staring at it with wide silver eyes.

“Hello moonbeam,” she murmurs, giving him a cuddle. “What’s your sister up to?”

Ogin considers this, turning the paper around in his hands several times. “I’m not an adult yet,” he says deliberately. “I can’t hear the words that adults can.”

((... what languages do the twins know, come to think of it? What do they use with Keris?))
((Well, they know what Keris chose to teach them. They probably use a mix of Nexan Rivertongue and Old Realm, as that’s mostly what Keris and their siblings use))

“Do you want to learn to read?” Keris asks, mostly rhetorically. “I suppose we can start you on learning, then. Let’s get some sand trays to draw the shapes in, shall we?”

Ogin frowns. “But will that help me hear the words from the paper?” he asks. “They use special words that only old people can hear. I can’t hear them. When do you learn how to hear them?”

Keris smiles, and kisses his cheeks. It’s adorable when he shows how little he still knows. Though he sometimes gets huffy about having things explained to him. Her little moonbeam seems to prefer picking things up himself to having to ask how they work and displaying ignorance.

“The paper-words are things you see, not hear,” she explains. “You see the shapes on it? Each of them is tied to a sound, and if you know what shapes mean what sounds, you can tell what words they mean. The word-shapes are writing, and when you look at them and see what they mean, that’s reading.”

Ogin crosses his arms. “Mama,” he says seriously. “Things you see don’t make sounds. Things you hear make sounds.”

“But if you see a picture of a bird singing, you can imagine what it sounds like in your head,” Keris cunningly points out. “This is just a way of going ‘this shape is tied to this sound’. Like this,” she taps a word on the paper, ‘means ‘dinner’. And I know that, and other people know that, so if I can’t go talk to them I can send them a bit of paper with this shape and some others on it and they’ll know it means I want them to come to dinner.”

Ogin frowns like his life depends on it, brows furrowed in an adorable little expression of concentration. Before he can ask any more questions, though, Kali’s voice drifts through from the next room, where she had been napping. Or at least had meant to be napping.

“Mama! Mama! San, San!”

“Oh?” Keris rolls up onto her feet, letting Ogin clamber up onto her shoulder as she goes to see what her daughter wants. “Uncle Xasan?” she calls ahead. “Are you back?”

Now that she knows what to listen for, he’s outside and coming up the street, limping and being half-carried by Elly and Vali. He hasn’t got here yet. Her daughter has ears that are... impressively sharp.

When Keris heads down to help him, he scowls at her. “It’s fine. Just broke my foot,” he says angrily. “Stupid pathway slipped under me.”

((So, Xasan only got 2 successes on his Diff 3 action. So he failed, but failed forwards and broke his foot. They’ve got some mapping done, but haven’t really done anything other than some basic scouting now that he’s injured.))

“Bad luck,” Keris agrees as an excited Kali determinedly pulls herself along Keris’s hair to get close enough to fling herself at her great-uncle. “Let me take a look at it and get you walking again. Did you see much of the island?”

Xasan growls. “Not much. The land there - it’s so damn vertical. Up and down, up and down. It took us days to go a mile or two.”

“It’s like the Spires,” Vali agrees. “Well, not quite. But there’s so much of it. The world’s real big, mum.”

“Where is Princess Haneyl?” Elly enquires. “Both you and her will like some of the feathers and claws from toothbirds that tried to eat me.”

“Haneyl’s been busy with the rebuilding of the dance hall - you can find her later tonight, I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you,” Keris says. “Vali, Xasan, I’m guessing you want to go back out once you’re healed up? Take a couple of ribbon-horses to help you with the ups and downs.” She grimaces. “It’s really that bad? I mean, I knew there were plateaus and canyons and a lot of cliffs, but...”

Xasan makes a disgusted noise. “It’s like the land is a wet parchment someone crumpled up and barely unfolded,” he says. “I haven’t seen anything like it before.” He glances over at Elly. “And she isn’t wrong. Seems there’s sicklebirds everywhere. We got far enough that we could see a plateau that seemed smoother and there were farms up on it. Probably only ten miles away from where we got to, but it would have been weeks to get there for any of us. In the heat and with mosquitos everywhere. I swear, Keris, if you want a hidden city, you could get one there easy. The problem would be getting to and from it.”

“And yeah, we’re not going straight back out,” Vali says. “The ground’s like home, but it’s as hot and humid as the Swamp. It’s like me and Hanny got together to make a place.”

“I quite liked it,” Elly observes.

“‘Course you did,” Vali retorts. “Me, it was getting too hot for.”

Keris purses her lips. “This is... good, honestly. If it’s that vertical, then we can fly out into the centre and make a place that’s all but impossible to get an army into. Then just use canvaswings and ribbon-horses - or tunnels - for any movements in and out.”

She hums thoughtfully. “And I still have the thing from Eshtock. It was doing something with the climate there; I’d be willing to bet anything I could get it to do something here. Fix the weather over our valley to exactly how we want it - maybe even control it on command.”

Keris spends the rest of the evening seeing to her uncle - and treating the fungal infection in his wound that seems to be overcoming even the regeneration she granted him. By the time she’s managed to put a hyperactive Kali who’s fussing over an injured San to bed, she’s exhausted.

She’s also had to simply tell Haneyl to go and take Elly out to the baths as a cheap trick to get the two of them out the house, because she wants sleep. And she’s not going to get sleep if she has to listen to the two of them in the bedroom.

So by the time she’s got into bed - and changed Atiya again - she’s exhausted. She sinks into true sleep, and then she dreams.

She dreams of a black isle where midnight gulls fly, and tar rains from a star-speckled sky.

Blinking, she looks around, trying to place where she is in the Meadows... and then realises, and smiles.

“Hello Calesco,” she says happily. “It’s lovely to hear from you. Are you well?”

Calesco drops down from one of the trees as a panther, and then her form flows up into her more normal form. She’s wearing a Realm kimono again, in a slightly lighter shade of grey, and maybe that’s a good sign.

“A little better, I think, mama,” she says, still pacing like a cat as she approaches Keris.

Moving forwards to meet her halfway, Keris gives her a hug. “That’s good to hear. How have you and the Gullites been? We had a little trouble with one of the buildings Haneyl built, uh... sort of burning down when Elly and Saji matured in it, but we were going to have to tear out most of the lower floors and redo them anyway.”

Calesco smooths down her kimono, and perches on a rock. “It’s been quiet. Peaceful,” she says. “There’s a reason my lands are as they are. I don’t like big cities, mama. The Isle of Gulls is about the right size. Small enough for everyone to know everyone else.”

“Little villages. Like Baisha,” Keris agrees, taking a seat next to her and slipping her hand into her daughter’s. “I can see the appeal. What have you been doing with your time, then? Archery? Is your bow still straining your shoulder?” She tries to resist the urge to fuss. Much.

Calesco smiles at that. “Bees,” she says. “They didn’t have any beekeepers. Or any bees. I flew off and found some wild bees on another island and introduced them.”

“Oh, clever,” Keris praises. “I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll have to get some for wherever I end up living in Saata. And whatever town I build in Shuu Mua.”

“How is everyone?” Calesco asks. “How are the babies? Is Atiya doing well in that unhealthy city?”

“Atiya is doing much better,” Keris reassures her. “She’s past her due date now, and she’s breathing more easily and starting to focus on things. She might be having trouble with colour, or it might just be that she’s lagging behind a little and only picks up on things with a lot of contrast - I’ll have to wait to find out. Kali and Ogin are doing well, too - I’m going to start trying to teach Ogin to read soon. Probably by getting some bigger books and reading to him while he can see the words.” She pauses thoughtfully. “Kali will probably not be interested in the learning part,” she admits. “But I hope she’ll like being read to anyway.”

“She’ll probably chew on the books,” Calesco says with a smile. “You know, like Haneyl.”

“Hey now!” Keris protests, nudging her. “Haneyl wouldn’t chew on books. Other things, sure, but not the books.” She grins. “She seems to be happy enough playing merchant-princess and supervising the rebuilding. Some of the workers tried to shake her down for more money, but Rounen and Zanara stopped her killing any of them. And Vali’s been happily exploring Shuu Mua. I think we can build something safe and peaceful there, if we put it deep enough in the interior. The terrain makes it virtually impassable - weeks of effort to go miles, without flight.”

Calesco perks up at that. “That’s good,” she says, but slumps down again. “I feel sometimes that the world is so corrupt and wicked that all we can do is make little places that are safe from it,” she says sadly.

“Well, if we start with the little places, they can get bigger,” Keris says, hugging her again. “Oh, that reminds me. I might be coming by to pick up some of the smaller ships from the harbour. And possibly to ask you to play Riyaah MuHiitiyah for one of the blue sea masters. He’s a fairly good man, as pirate lords go - looks after his men, fair-handed, generous to those who work for him - but he’s fallen on hard times recently. So I’m going to ‘gift’ him with something, and hopefully wrangle his support and an estate out of him in return.”

Calesco crosses her arms. “You’re not letting the pirates find out about this place,” she says firmly.

“Nope,” agrees Keris smugly. “That’s why I’ll be coming over to pick the ships up first. I’m thinking the goddess can have told Little River where certain ships were wrecked or lost or abandoned - since the wind and waves and mangroves are part of her domain. Then I just need to leave them in out-of-the-way places the Hui Cha can get to, and he can pick them up.”

Calesco nods. “Maybe you could leave them all on one of your fake islands made with Haneyl’s plants,” she suggests.

“Yeah... hmm. Good one,” Keris acknowledges. “How’ve you been handling Molian, by the way? Is she getting on your nerves? Though, heh,” she grins. “I bet she appreciates the honey.”

Calesco sighs. “She’s like Haneyl, but less... Haneyl,” she explains. “She’s conceited and vain, and...” she sighs again. “She is pretty. And her thing with Egie is beautiful. They really do care for each other. It’s... it’s not fair.” She hugs her knees, staring up at the sunless sky. “How’s Kuha?” she mutters.

“... she’s well,” Keris says carefully. “She’s been working with seabirds, looking through different breeds and seeing how they respond to training. There’s been a lot of swearing about how dumb they are compared to anyaglos.”

“Hah. Yes.” Calesco sniffles. “I’m... I’m glad she’s... she’s fine.”

Keris shifts to draw her into a proper hug, and pets her hair as she sniffles.

“Have any more of my sweet innocent ones turned into monsters like me?” Calesco asks softly.

“None that I know of,” Keris says softly. “And they’re pretty noticeable. Oh, and Eko’s out with Sasi, since the last new moon.”

That produces a soft chuckle. “Have you decided to hurt Sasi, then?” she asks. “Because she likes everything in its right place and Eko... have you ever seen how she leaves things in one of her caves?”

“I’m hoping she’ll behave,” Keris says, wincing. “She’s helping Sasi work out how to make citizens of her own, and that’s a complicated enough problem that it should keep her from getting bored. And she likes Sasi. She behaved herself for Testolagh, too.”

“She always has her own ideas,” Calesco says morosely. “She’s up to something. I know my sister.”

“Oh, definitely. I think it’s the same thing she wanted from spending time with Asarin. But whatever it is, she wants it enough that I think she might behave in order to get it,” Keris points out.

“Anyway, enough about Eko. Tell me about your hives. How many islands did you have to search to find a strain of wild bees that weren’t solitary?”

The time with Calesco is nice, and Keris wakes up... um. Well, shortly after midnight when Atiya wakes up crying, and sets off Kali who also bursts into tears, who sets off Ogin. A good half hour is so is spent consoling them all, cuddling all three to her as she tries to work out what set Atiya off and soothe the twins. Motherhood is hard, alas.

Keris has a disturbed night with grouchy babies and Ogin refusing to lie down and sleep. She doesn’t need this. She has to be in her forge tomorrow in the morning to get some work down, and then this evening she has dinner out in the country planned. And she needs to pick out clothes and dress up Atiya for that and she’s going to be tired and argh!

It’s a tired Little River who’s working in the forge the next morning, trying to catch up with work orders that have piled up. She has orders from all the blue sea masters, and needs to choose who to prioritise.

Since she’s made inroads on three of them already, it’s best not to alienate the others. Sighing, she moves Sea Eagle’s orders to the top of the pile and begins work, grumbling sullenly under her breath as she goes. Apprentices, she decides. She needs to train some apprentices who can do this sort of work for her; the kind that needs skill but is still within mortal reach.

Yet another thing to add to her To Do list. Sigh.

In the noise of the forge, Keris has wax in her ears while she works. It’s for that reason that she misses she has an onlooker until she turns around to put some fresh silver bars in for heating.

It’s a flat-faced woman with dark skin and tightly curled black hair. She’s wearing many layers of thin silks, as is the style for the wealthy here, and through the silks Keris can see the white jade dragon tattoo that curls around one leg and up onto her back and neck. Her eyes are dark, and her nails are painted red. There’s a certain mischievous sly look to her expression; she’s the sort of woman who gets called ‘vivacious’ rather than conventionally beautiful.

And under all that, there’s more strength than a mortal and the hardness of granite.

((Earth aspected, E4))

Keris jolts, and is moderately thankful that the bars she’s holding were going into the furnace rather than coming out of it. Signing for the woman to wait a moment, she pulls open the thick metal door, arranges them under the baking heat, and swings it shut again. Then she tips a sandglass over, checks everything is at a stopping point, and motions for the Dragonblood to follow her outside.

“Hello,” she says cautiously. “I’m Hui Cha Little River. What brings you to my forge?”

The other woman chuckles. “Sinasana Ba-le,” she says, curling her hand up - and Little River only realises after a bit that she’s offering her hand. The other woman might dress finely, but she has callouses on her palms and fingers. “I suppose I’m just seeing the... scenery in this neighbourhood.”

Oh. Keris has heard of her. She was born to one of the Raraan Ge families - the Baltoo, invested heavily in the opiate trade - and would have inherited as their diluted dragon blood bred true in her. But she eloped with Sinasana Colira, grandson of House Sinasana’s matriarch, without her family’s permission. It was quite a scandal - but of course, the Sinasana are untouchable to a family with no Terrestrials, even a wealthy one.

Shaking her hand, Keris nods. “A pleasure to meet you. Are you here for me, or to have a look at my forge?”

“Oh, both, both,” the other woman says with a wicked smile. “You’ve been hiding away from our illustrious society, you know. I had to track you down and show up here. If you came to parties, I could have just drifted into you as if it was an accident.” She giggles. “But then again, this way I get to see your workshop. I love to see people working in metal. I haven’t played around with silver much myself, but gold is very friendly for that sort of thing.”

“I’ve done a little with gold, but I do prefer silver,” Keris says, smiling as she falls into shop talk. “It’s better at purifying, and it likes the subtler magics more than gold does. Though I’ll admit not having to worry about tarnishing would be nice. What do you prefer to work with? Gold? Or some of the stronger metals?”

“Gold is for play. What I really like,” Ba-le says, leaning against the wall, “is engraving jadesteel. Now that’s a challenge - and hard on your tools, too.”

“Ah, now you’re just teasing me,” sighs Keris. “I don’t have the funds to work with materials that valuable. Not yet, at least. Still, engraving is one of my strengths, even if I’m used to softer metals. What do you use for it? Pure jade tools?”

Ba-le laughs in a slightly patronising way. “Oh well, that’s what you get for being with the Hui Cha. If you ever want to join the winning side, we’re open to adoption. It takes special tools, yes. All kinds.” She deliberately doesn’t say what she has. “I’ve been having some luck with shark-goddess skin for polishing, too.”

“I can imagine,” Keris murmurs, opening herself up to the other woman and letting her pride speak for her.

((WWOF to see what she’s proudest of.))

She’s not the sort to be jealous of Keris - not yet, at least. And for all that she gloats about her tools and her crafting skill, what she’s actually proud of is her quick mind.

((Not jealous. Proudest of her Reaction 5))

As quick a thinker as Keris herself is, Keris realises. Interesting. She leans back. “Well, I’m happy enough in Memory of a Golden Land. But you have a point about the parties. I might have to start spending time with people in Saata beyond my fellow Hui Cha.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of us around here. It’s one of the nice things about being on Saata.” She grins. “And if you’re looking for a husband, this is probably the best place if you want some Dragonblooded dick,” she adds wickedly.

Keris blushes - not entirely genuinely, but there’s a certain amount of truth under the exaggeration - and waves her off. “Please, don’t be so crude! And... well, perhaps. There’s so much to do, finding time to meet people is... difficult.”

“You have to make time for these things,” Ba-le says. “You can’t let those squalid little Hui Cha gangsters stop you enjoying life.” She flashes white teeth, and Keris is reminded that she was born a Raraan Ge princess - or whatever the term is for the scions of the pirate-nobility descended from the Blue Monkey Shogunate. “Perhaps you could visit me and my husband some time. If you want an excuse to your gangsters, we could easily afford a few pieces of good quality silverwork!”

Inwardly, there’s a rapid consideration. On the one hand, Ba-le is prejudiced towards the Hui Cha, a Sinasana Dragonblood who could be genuinely dangerous in a way that Pretty Peacock or the blue sea masters never could, and is definitely trying to poach Little River for the ruling family of Saata.

... on the other hand... she’s a brilliant smith who can no doubt actually keep up when Keris talks metalworking, cheerful and friendly with the same edge of interesting viciousness as Pale Branch, and something more closely approaching a peer than the mortals of this island.

And it’s better to keep an eye on threats than snub them or let them run around behind your back.

I happen to be one of those Hui Cha ‘gangsters’,” Keris points out, archly but with a playful lilt to her frown. “But it is a tempting offer. Would I get a peek at your workshop, if I visited?” She smiles. “I might bring my little Atiya along to say hello, too.”

“Maybe, maybe,” Ba-le says, fending her off. “Oh, and do bring your daughter. How old is she? I didn’t hear you had a child.”

“I’m not surprised. She’s... well, she’s about four months old now, but she was born early. So she’s about a month past her due date. And I couldn’t bring her back to Saata for a while after the birth; she was too frail to travel.”

Keris eyes the woman as she speaks. Either that was a good guess at Atiya’s gender, or she’s lying about not having known.

“Aww. Well, bring her along.” There’s a little smile. “If it isn’t too presumptuous, we really have to give a birthing gift to you and her as a sign of our - I hope - friendship.”

((She is - Keris doesn’t know whether it’s deliberate or not - hitting Keris in the Greed))
((Keris isn’t going to contest that; she is perfectly happy to accept gifts. : P))

“Well, I’m not going to say no to a new friend.” Keris smiles, and holds out a hand to shake. “I’d be delighted to come by when you have the time.”

Ba-le smiles. “Wonderful.” She turns giving Keris full sight of the white jade dragon tattoo on her back, but twists her head back. “And I must know where you got that tattoo,” she adds. “Mine is larger, but which artist enchanted yours with such power?”

Keris glances down at her arm, where Iris is partly reared up and staring in fascination at the fellow dragon on Ba-le’s skin.

Damn, she thinks. Well, that just means that Iris will have to be a Little River thing rather than a Cinnamon thing. Not a major problem, just something to remember once Cinnamon makes her debut.

“Ah, well,” she says in answer to the question. “That would be telling, now wouldn’t it?” Stroking Iris’s head, she lets her familiar leap off her skin and fly around to perch on Ba-le’s back, one claw cupping her little occult flame, the separate pieces of her nose nudging the white jade curiously. “This is Iris. And I’m afraid you’ll have to get much further into my good graces to learn the story behind her.”

“Oh, aren’t you a funny little thing,” Ba-le says, reaching out to pet Iris’s head. “Do you want my tattoo to be your girlfriend?” She smiles at Keris. “And I look forwards to finding the name of your artist. I’ve been looking to get a new one done and one that could do that would be perfect!”

“I suppose we’ll see, won’t we?” Keris smiles.

---

It is the next Sunday when Keris’s dinner with Lucky Wolf is arranged. The weather is not auspicious. Heavy tropical clouds cover Saata and hammer down their thunder and lightning. It is a reminder and a taste of the typhoon season that is almost here.

At least Lucky Wolf sent a carriage to collect Little River and her daughter. It will keep the rain off them both as it rattles its way down south, out of the city and into the only partly tamed lands where the pirate-princes buy their estates. Lucky Wolf’s palace is in a surprisingly expensive place for a man who is so in debt that he is forced to mix brass in with his gold rings.

How wealthy must he have been when he bought it? Did it drive him into debt? And if so, why hasn’t he sold it?

Of course, Keris muses as she heads south and checks her make-up again, she isn’t travelling quite alone. The carriage is a little heavier than it should be. There’s a Haneyl on the roof, and an Elly too, sitting there immaterial and letting the rain fall through them. Haneyl insisted on accompanying her mother, to take a look at this place and its surrounding areas.

She’s dressed up for the occasion, in a beautiful ornate sarong. Rathan and Dulmea are watching from behind her eyes as she looks out at the semi-wild lands in this part of Saata. It’s not the untameable trackless wilderness of Shuu Mua, but she’s still a little surprised to see that it hasn’t been put to use on this busy island.

Then again, the pirate lords who own estates here like their privacy. Perhaps it’s not surprising after all.

They certainly do. The road running south even has berms of earth built up around it where the old ruins that cover the wild parts of the island don’t obscure the view. The Sinasana lords must have done that to stop their pirates feuding over who’s spying.

But the placement of the gates and the off-roads are surprisingly regular. Yes, the Sinasana must have cut up the southern parts of their island and sold off bit of land after land to the highest bidder. This isn’t truly wild. This is a money-spinner for the Cadet House.

Eventually they reach the right gate - guarded by Hui Cha thugs who huddle under their watchpost - and head down the road, rattling towards the coast.

Away from the road, there’s been some clearance of the forest and mining of the white stone from the buildings. There’s even what Keris recognises as old - as opposed to ancient - ruins of what was probably a village. Oh, that makes sense, she thinks. Yes. The Sinasana must have cleared out the local peasants when they sold off the land to pirate-lords.

And then she clears a hulking, shattered remnant of some great Shogunate structure, and arrives at the true estate of Lucky Wolf. There’s a wall here, a second one of low white stone that couldn’t hold off an army and was clearly built for aesthetics - yet inside it, trees are starting to grow and things are getting overgrown.

And past it, there’s a rocky rise that leads up to Lucky Wolf’s compound, built up on a strangely circular hill where the waves dash against. Lucky Wolf’s mansion is the size of Baisha, a many-winged central complex that clearly hasn’t been repainted in too long, surrounded by what is almost a village in its own right of smaller buildings. There’s farms here, that are ill-maintained, and there’s blocky structures that look defensible and sound half-empty. All the buildings are connected by roofed, wall-less corridors that allow the inhabitants to move between the structures without being rained on.

Haneyl’s whisper comes down from up above. “We’re getting off now,” she says, as the carriage pauses at the gate to the compound. “See you later, mama.”

The carriage bounces on its axels as the two demons slip away into the rainy late afternoon - and Little River is driven up into the covered area., where Lucky Wolf is waiting for her.

“Time to blow his tacky robe off,” Rathan says softly.

Little River exits the carriage with the poise of a princess and the deadly grace of a killer. Her sarong is a royal blue to match the wavecrests in her dark hair, adorned with silver pieces of her own design. She gives Lucky Wolf a carefully calibrated dip of respect; enough to be courteous without a hint of submission or obsequiousness.

“Welcome to my grand palace, sister of the Hui Cha,” the old man says, back stiff. He gestures, and his men form up to escort him and Keris back inside. “Come. My wife expects you.”

Ah, she can feel his touchiness. He expects respect, and should she ask questions about why he’s greeting his own guests, then he will not take it well.

Where are his servants? This estate seems half-empty. There are few lights on in the windows, and she can hear that one of the wings of the house has only rats and birds living in it.

“I’m grateful for your invitation, brother and lord,” she replies, following him without further comment.

At least he is not so penured that close to the entry hall, he cannot make an impression of wealth. There are many lavish things of the Far South West here - tiger skin rugs, hardwood furniture, trophies galore on the walls taken from tribes - even a grand tyrant lizard skeleton, wired up and in grand place in the main hall.

But the furniture is too sparse, and it’s worn. And there are places where clearly once things of greater value sat, and they are now gone, likely sold off.

Graceful Petal, his wife, greets Little River in a room that’s painted a disgusting shade of mustard-yellow, with worn crimson carpets. She’s an elderly lady, the same age as her husband, with thick frown lines and wrinkles that her layer upon layers of makeup cannot cover up. Her nails are long and painted black, but Keris notices the writing callouses on her fingers that suggest she’s no stranger to a pen.

And the look in her eyes when she sees Keris. It’s a mix of wariness, fear, and hope.

“Greetings, younger sister, and welcome to my home. My arms are open to you, and your daughter,” she says, spreading her arms.

Ah, Keris sees, she expects a kiss on each cheek, and a respectful kiss on the hand from a younger woman - a social inferior, too.

Rapid calculation takes place as Keris approaches her. She could keep to courtesy, play the inferior role... or take a bolder stance, and subtly declare herself an equal. Her offer will probably be enough to back it up... but will it turn them off before she can make it?

No, she decides. Better to play at politeness for now, and reveal her real strength as a surprise. After all, she already made that very same transformation when she showed herself to be Dragonblooded. It’s something Little River is known for.

Shifting Atiya as she steps into the old woman’s embrace, Keris kisses her on both cheeks, raises her hand to kiss that too, and shows a hint of cheek by gently pressing Graceful Petal’s fingers to Atiya’s lips as if her daughter, too, were honouring her status.

“My thanks for welcoming us into your home, honoured sister,” she smiles. “My daughter here is Atiya.”

“What a beautiful girl - and with such an old-fashioned name,” Graceful Petal says. “Come. Let us leave my husband to his affairs and talk of women’s things.” Keris eyes this elderly woman up as she dips her head and follows, not fooled for a moment into thinking she’s harmless because of her age. Graceful Petal is a pirate lady every bit as much as Pale Branch or Keris herself, and if she wasn’t dangerous she wouldn’t still be here. The question is how she’s dangerous... and what she wants.

The narrowing of the old woman’s eyes is word enough. She thinks Atiya’s name is... pretentious. A name of the old nobility of An Teng, given to a child. The act of a mother who thinks too highly of herself.

Ah, but she’s off-balance, and that means that Keris gets a glimpse of what’s underneath. She’d do anything for someone who get her out of debt to - Keris’s eyes widen - well well, Pretty Peacock. And more than that, there’s envy in those old eyes. Yes, she’s jealous of Little River; young, beautiful, chosen by the Dragons. And what she takes pride in is the fact she’s the one holding what remains of their trading empire and fleets together.

((Envies Keris, Bur 2 +3 speciality Money-Grubbing Seabird Style, specialising in finding any way you can to make money - a “scavenger” management style. Note that her price isn’t quite the same thing as her husband. He wants his fleet back and his status secured again - she wants their debts to Pretty Peacock cleared.))
((Sadly, murdering Pretty Peacock probably just means those debts get passed on to her daughter. Stupid inheritance fouling up perfectly good murder schemes.))
((Yep. And that implies that if Pretty Peacock has that kind of debt over their heads, then that woman has her strings in what they do and say in the Hui Cha councils too.))

Keris hums inwardly with interest, but doesn’t voice her newfound knowledge. Instead she follows Graceful Petal as they leave the public areas for a more feminine retreat where they can speak of women’s matters. Like deals, and bargains.

Ah, the women’s space is a little softer, a little more luxurious, a little better than these tired worn halls. It makes sense. If her hand is on the purse, she’ll save better things for herself - and of course, the women here hold the purses on land.

“Sit, girl,” Graceful Petal says, settling herself down in an overstuffed high backed chair after she carefully lights three oil lamps. It’s not enough for the room, and leaves it dim, shadows dancing over her face. Her old, pale-makeup-caked face shifts. “What might a friend of yours do for you?” she asks.

Inelegant, but maybe she’s desperate.

“It’s beautiful out here, on the southern shore,” Keris says; careful not to reference the manor directly and risk it coming off as a backhanded jab at its state. “I have a residence in the city, of course, but it’s so loud there, and privacy is hard to come by. Someone who helped me come by an estate on this side of the island would be a true friend indeed.”

She strokes Atiya’s hair tenderly. “And there are things I might share with my friends.”

“Oh?” Graceful Petal doesn’t even hide her interest. “I’m sorry, but I hadn’t heard you had come into such wealth. I thought you were a - graceful, skilled - silversmith, and though your talent is already famous among our family, I would not think you could compare with the princes of this isle.” She looks Keris in the eye. “And as one sister to another, be wary of the loans of Pretty Peacock. One talent swiftly becomes ten, no matter how sweetly she talks.”

“Oh, believe me, I’ve already heard of her,” Little River says. “As it happens, I did come into... well, a number of boons recently. Atiya’s frailty was the cost, and I would trade them in a heartbeat for her health... but I cannot, and so I have them. While I was away from the island for the birth, my preparations were interrupted by a pair of the Greater Dead. I aided a goddess in slaying them, though it brought the birth on early... and she rewarded me for my help.”

She leans back in her chair, a subtle smile playing over her lips. “A certain degree of wealth she gave me, that is true... though likely not enough to challenge the princes of this isle, I will agree. But she also gifted me something perhaps more precious - and more of interest to your husband.”

“Ah,” the old woman says dryly. “So you’ve come into money recently.” Her smile is fake. “How fortunate.”

“Fortune should be spread, should it not?” asks Little River. “I don’t like to see a woman like Pretty Peacock sink her talons into others among the blue sea masters. And just as important as money, elder sister... ships.”

Graceful Petal glances at a candle clock. “I believe we still have an hour or so until the servants will call us for the meal,” she says carefully. “Perhaps... we can talk about offers.”

((OK, this is a Per + Bur bargaining thing, and Keris should try to make her case - and state OOC what she wants out of this bargain, what she expects to give, and what the maximum she’s willing to give is.))
((... heh. PoEU, how much would Graceful Petal value clearing her debts with Pretty Peacock? Hee. That makes for a very effective way of sounding out how much people owe, as long as Keris knows they’re in debt.))
((High end Resources 5 - from the rumours Haneyl has picked up and what Keris has seen here, she suspects that Lucky Wolf’s thing is basically floating in debt rather than water, to the extent that they owe more than the value of this mansion - and yet they’re too proud to even sell it to bring down the debt. Especially Lucky Wolf, because even if he doesn’t have a proper fleet, he has a mansion of a pirate prince... even if he can’t afford it.))
((Hmm. Interesting.))
((So, OOC, Keris’s maximum offer is enough single-mast 15-metre and double-mask 20-metre junks, of which she has nine and seven respectively, to bring Lucky Wolf’s fleet back up to par with the other blue sea masters, along with a one-time “gift” of gemstones whose value is roughly equal to their debts to Pretty Peacock. She’s not going to mention that she can magically grab both of their loyalties with that, so she’s going to want fair recompense for what is genuinely a considerable expense on her part - that’s a notable fraction of both her fleet and her funds. A southern-island estate will cover one of them, but for the other she’s going to want something of equivalent strategic value - such as support in taking over the Hui Cha, and a strong say in what his newly restored fleet does.))
((Rathan has presumably told her how many ships that’s likely to be, and while she’s going to vaguely hint that she may know the locations of more, she’s not going to admit to anything.))
((OK, so roll me Per + Pres for bargaining, contested by her Per + Bureau, and Keris is at +2 autosuccesses from PoEU.))

“The goddess’s name is Riyaah MuHiitiyah,” Little River divulges over the course of their cautious negotiation. “A spirit of the wind and waves and mangroves. When ships are lost at sea without their crews and drift into the swamps, they enter her domain. And of course, she has little use for them, or their cargo. She has made me aware of certain locations - Realm ships; strong junks made for ocean travel. They would need to be refitted and disguised, of course... but they could still do much for an ailing fleet. Or the gems and silver and other such wealth they were carrying might clear away a debt. Perhaps even both.”

She folds her hands on her lap, Atiya nestled in the crook of her arm. “Of course, those gifts belonged to the goddess. She asked for worship when I accepted them - and furthermore, I bled for them against monsters of the Underworld. My daughter was born too early as the price for that victory, with costs to her help. I would not give them up for nothing.”

((4+5+3 Prince of Hell {Little River is in fact a scary bitch who can kill Greater Dead monsters}+2 stunt+2 PoEU autosux x2 Hidden Depths Temptress=14. Lol, (10+2)x2=24 sux.))

In the face of the tidal wave of Keris’s presence and the fact that she’s offering everything her and her husband want, Graceful Petal doesn’t stand a chance. She heads out, to talk to her husband, and Keris can hear her making Keris’s own case to Lucky Wolf.

She has her. Hook, line and sinker.

Keris sighs. “And I know you’re there,” she says.

“You’re overpaying for this place,” Haneyl says sulkily, from behind Keris’s ear. “I’ve looked around. It’s been neglected for five, maybe ten years. And then there’s the fees you’ll need to pay to the Sinasana since they make you pay to transfer these houses and...”

“I know,” Keris murmurs. “But I get both of them in the bargain. They’ll be loyal to me - truly, genuinely loyal. They’ll support me when I take over the Hui Cha. And that means I’m not really selling the ships. I’m buying crews for them. I’ll still have a say in where they go, what they do - and you just saw how easily handled they are; any say works out to be a deciding one. The wealth they bring in will fill the coffers of the Hui Cha, and soon enough those will be my coffers.”

She shrugs. “The gems for the estate; yes, that’s overpaying. The gems for the estate, the lord, the lady and a way to get my ships refitted and brought into service instead of lying at anchor - as well as worship for Riyaah MuHiitiyah on top of that...”

She grimaces. “Well, I’m still not entirely happy about giving them up. But I can live with it.”

“Hmmph,” Haneyl mutters. Keris barely hears her leave, but her daughter isn’t happy at all.

Well, hopefully she’ll cheer up later when she has a mansion to live in.

And of course, Lucky Wolf has to come through and Little River talks to him about the goddess and he smiles, actually smiles, and breaks out the good Tengese wines and everything is cheered up.

---

And a few weeks later, she and Lucky Wolf are on a boat heading out east, towards an island that didn’t exist until Keris spun hair and blood into a mass of vegetation growing out of a sandbank.

The sweltering sun beats down on the ship, and the sails flap in the breeze. Lucky Wolf stares at the island with wide greedy eyes.

“All my years,” he breathes, lost in the sight of the washed-up ships that Keris had the Gullites sail and abandon here. “All my years this island was here, and I never knew! I never saw it, and I’ve sailed here a hundred times!”

“The goddess is mighty indeed,” Little River agrees. “And- look there!”

She’d arranged this with Calesco too. Not a true meeting, not yet - but a glimpse of divinity; a sign. Riyaah MuHiitiyah stands on the deck of the largest ship - a twenty-metre long double-master. Her hair is a curtain of blood, her fingers are roots, her features Tengese and her dress a thing of woven seaweed and bright mangrove flowers.

She looks at them and meets their eyes. Meets Keris’s eyes.

Then the angle of their approach brings the forward mast between them and her for a moment, and she is gone.

Chapter Text

It is on the first of Falling Wood when Keris moves into her new house. The sale went through quickly, because Lucky Wolf needed the money, and the old man has decamped to his townhouse.

Leaving the stripped-bare and degraded country estate to Little River.

She stands at the entrance way, holding Atiya and looking over her lands. She owns everything up to the wall that wraps her estate, and more on top of that. There are Shogunate ruins here, fields, buildings for her staff, more than enough space to hold her family and the Lionesses on top of that.

And the labourers who live here and work the overgrown fields aren’t gone. They’re tied to the land, even if their numbers are clearly depleted, and while Lucky Wolf has moved out, these labourers are renting and have their own contracts with him. Which have now passed to Keris.

Zanara, standing next to Keris, hugs Iris like a girl would a pet cat, and sighs happily. “This is nice,” she says. “A mess, but it’s a canvas for us to paint on. Ooo! Ooo! Bagsie a room looking out to sea!”

Vali scowls. “Nuh uh! You can’t do that! Oh yeah, mum, gonna make a bunch of friends to live here too.”

“Yeah, me too! And I can!” Zana says.

“Alright, alright, hang on,” says Keris. “First, I need to make sure all the labourers here are loyal to me. And can be trusted.”

She sighs, putting her hands on her hips and looking around. It could be grand, this place. It will be grand.

But there’s a lot left to do before that point. “Let me make friends with the people already here before you start making your own, Vali, yeah? And then we can start rebuilding.”

Zana salutes Keris mockingly. “Right! I’ll be a cute little girl and ask them things and find the spies that were totally put here to spy on Lucky Wolf! Give me a moment to change my hair colour and I... hey, Iris, can you be a cat?”

Iris looks up at her, and spreads her paws. She exhales a question mark of flame.

“Well, people will look at me in a not good way if I have an ink dragon, but not if I have a cat!”

Iris shakes her head.

“Okay, so no, Iris can’t be a cat! Vali, hold her! I need to be the prettiest little Tengese girl that everyone trusts and loves and stuff and junk,” Zana says.

Keris briefly debates whether Zanara is entirely trustworthy in this, and concludes after a moment’s thought that she’ll probably get more amusement out of foiling Lucky Wolf than causing trouble for Keris. Especially since she wants to keep this place and rebuild it.

“Fair enough,” she agrees. “Talk the locals into trusting me, then. Vali and I will take a walk around and see what we should work on first.”

Vali scratches her chin. “Uh, who are we to Little River?” he asks. “‘Cause I can’t look Tengese and Zana, you aren’t gonna be like that all the time ‘cause you’d get bored. And same about the girls and Uncle and Kuha and stuff. And Ogin and Kali I guess, too. I mean, you might’ve explained this all already. I prob’bly wasn’t paying attention.”

“That would be why we need the people here loyal to us,” says Keris. “We have to keep us and Little River a bit apart in town, because you’re right; they aren’t really connected. But this place is private enough that if we get all the locals onto our side, we can take the masks off unless people are visiting. We can’t really handle a long con here, not without them cooperating and keeping our secrets, so we need them to be loyal enough to want to.”

((So, hmm, can Keris basically put Zanara as her diplomat FFtF/HP soul onto making a... well, basically a cult, here.))
((Because for “winning long-term loyalty” they’re probably competitive with if not better than Rathan there.))

Zana raises her hand instantly. “Oh, I’m a poor orphan girl abandoned at the docks,” she says. “My father was a drunk and my mother was one of the girls in the brothels and they both hated me and beat me, and I was left on the street to live on my own. I started off living in the piers and on rooftops, but there was a nice monk who took me in. Well, I thought he was nice, but he was actually a slave trader working for the Steel Dragon society! Well, I ran away from him, and then pretended to be the long-lost daughter of a noble family, but then they found out I was lying and tried to kill me! And then when Little River was on the docks one day, she saw how steady my hands were when I was painting on a wall and you took me in as a ward and now you’re teaching me to be a silver smith. I like Little River, but I still don’t entirely trust her because,” she wipes her eyes, “everyone in my life I thought trusted me has betrayed me!”

Vali rolls his eyes. “Draaaaaaaama queen.”

((9 successes on her Cog + Expression tragic backstory. It doesn’t work on Vali because he has a big brother Principle and thus it resists the brattishness of little sisters.))
((oh my god zana you melodramatic little shit))
((Now, what impact does that story have on Keris, especially the bits that rub a little too close? :p ))

Keris, by contrast, flinches a little. “B-beat you?” she stutters, feeling unaccountably hurt. She knows that it’s just a story; no different from the multiple-choice pasts and faces she herself has donned and doffed at a whim. But still, the mention of Zana’s mother hating her and beating her...

“I wouldn’t,” she says, very maturely and levelly in a voice that definitely isn’t a whimper at all. “I would never hurt you like that. You know that, don’t you?”

“Pfft. You’re not that ugly,” Zana says with a shrug. “Now, I gotta go sew myself up something to wear as your ward, and then change my looks so I can be an adorable little waif and stuff! Oh, but Little River, please please please don’t beat me because... b-because I was born at Calibration and I’ve turned out strange because half my hair is white and that’s why my mother kicked me out and also my eyes are different colours!”

“... okay,” admits Keris, only flinching a little at the mention of beating, “that’s actually clever as hell. And a good explanation for- oh, you little fiend. If anyone gets freaked out at how you’re odd, they won’t just blame it on that - your story will make them feel bad and guilty for blaming it on that.”

She narrows her eyes at her youngest soul, and grins. “Wicked little thing,” she compliments. “That’s a beautiful idea.”

Zana stands up on tip-toes and kisses Keris. “Precisely, aunty!” She grins. “Also, don’t think you’re getting away with not letting me in your shop! This way you have to keep me with you!”

She skips off, and Vali rolls his eyes again. “She’s such a brat,” he tells Iris.

Iris considers, and shrugs.

“Well, yeah, I know she made you, but she’s still a brat.”

“Given Iris’s tendencies, I think having helped create her is proof she’s a brat,” Keris puts in. “But she’s a delightful brat when she’s pointed at other people. Come on, let’s see what kind of condition the stairs and basements are in, then go up to the roof for a better view of the estate. I’m already thinking we’re gonna need to do a few things to the wall when we have the time and resources. And a bunch of wings of the manor have been sitting empty for ages, so they’ll need renewing.”

“Yeah, sure thing mum,” Vali says happily. “Can I hold Atiya?” He scratches his chin. “Plus, you know, the hill this place is built on is super circular. It’s probably rubble or an old building or something. And down there, you can see all the foundations and stuff.” He holds out his arms to take Atiya. “I bet this whole place used to be a city once. There’s probably filled in basements all over the place.”

“Plenty of fun, then, eh?” Keris grins at him with a wink. “And yes, you can. She’s breathing a lot better now - the sea air’s been good for her lungs. Here you go... got her?”

Vali nods, carefully supporting his little sister’s head as he cradles her.

“Alright then. Let’s go survey us a First Age foundation, then!”

((What should Keris roll for making a critical evaluation of the estate, the ruins, the foundations and so on with Vali’s help?))
((It’s going to be an extended project to do this stuff, but she can spend a morning on it, rolling me (lower of Cog and Reaction) + Occult for surveying))
((3+5+2 stunt=10. 4 sux for the initial pass.))

The morning passes and Keris is pretty sure Vali’s initial assessment was correct. No wonder the fields here don’t do well. They’re a thin layer of topsoil on rubble and foundations of ancient buildings. She thinks the well near the centre of the fields is built on an ancient foundation at the centre of some plaza - or maybe even a grand hall.

“Hmm,” she murmurs as they’re looking out at the lands they have within the wall from the roof of the manor. “I mean, it’s useful having a whole underground complex, once we dig everything out and drain it and connect it up. But long-term I might see if Haneyl can do something about the fields. Thicker topsoil, maybe?” She hums thoughtfully. “Well, it can wait a few years. Think we can get a nice little forge set up for Ali before the end of the month?”

“I mean, I was gonna make one anyway, mum,” Vali says, hands dirty as he roots through the soil. “If they don’t got one already, we’ll need somewhere that can make nails and stuff like that rather than having to go into Saata to buy ‘em.”

“Yeah, but we wanna make it extra good for your uncle,” Keris says happily. “And his family. Are you looking forward to meeting your cousin? Or,” she adds with a vein of amusement, “seeing Haneyl meet her?”

“I mean, she’s a baby cousin, so she’s basically a little sister,” Vali says seriously. “You’re gonna run me tired with so many babies to protect, mum.”

“It’s worth it, though,” says Keris, smiling fondly at how responsible and protective he is. “When they grow up big and strong and fierce and brilliant, it’ll be more than worth it.”

Keris’s first week in her new house is a blur. She has babies to look after, and a house to make safe for them. Her new mansion is too big for the people she has here. It’s a house for tens - hundreds - of staff, and even degraded as it is, Lucky Wolf had far more employees and bodyguards and thugs living here than Keris does.

It feels almost like she’s camping out in a ruin.

She doesn’t have staff. She doesn’t have someone to take care of things like making sure food is bought and carted out for everyone. Her mansion is mostly unfurnished, and Lucky Wolf sold off his stocks of supplies - as was his right.

“It’s so unfair,” Zana sulks. “In Hell you got Mehuni, but here there’s no one for that kinda stuff!”

Zana is wearing her new face and is sprawled out on some of the furniture that Keris and Vali have put together. She looks Tengese, but touched by something unnatural. The left side of her body is albino - pale skin, pale blue eye, white hair - while the right side is a normal golden-skinned, black-haired, brown-eyed Tengese girl. She definitely draws attention when she wanders among the village, talking to people and spying on them.

And she’s certainly been spying. She thinks she’s identified at least three renters who are reporting to other people. She says that as a centipede-boy, the other her has been creeping into their houses and looking for hidden writing material and things they might be making reports with, and listening to their chats.

“So what’s the plan? Deck ‘em?” Vali asks.

Zana rolls her eyes. “No, of course not! We gotta wait until we find them all. And then we gotta see if we actually want to remove them. We might want to use them to feed reports to our enemies.”

“Hmm,” Dulmea says approvingly. “Well, she is my daughter. And she’s right. You need someone you can trust to manage this place. I suppose you could call Rounen back for that, but I suspect you’d need to fight Haneyl for that.”

“What else’s on the to-do list?” Vali ponders, petting Kali who’s sitting in his lap and purring up a storm. Ogin’s on the ground in front of him, playing with painted wooden blocks Vali made for him. “‘Cause I’m kinda bored of making furniture.”

“I’ll see if there are any other dragon aides in my Domain who have Rounen’s approval,” Keris decides. “This place probably needs a full-time majordomo anyway; Rounen is my aide and adjutant. That’ll be enough to get things a little more organised. From there we need to start with restoration and getting this place ready for the Lionesses.”

She threads her fingers together and leans her chin on them, tangling her hair tendrils together in mimicry and pursing her lips in a soft, silent whistle. “That’s the other thing we need to start thinking about. Ali, Zany and Nandi’s whole mercenary force will be here in about a month. Maybe as soon as the full moon, maybe as late as a couple of weeks into Rising Fire - I could go out and see where they are if I had time, but I don’t. So I need the estate in a fit state to house them - which isn’t too much of a problem since they can just set up their own camp on my land - and a plan for how to justify inviting them to live with me to the rest of the Hui Cha.”

“Just do it,” Vali contributes with a shrug.

“Yeah!” Kali agrees. She probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but she likes making contributions.

“Oh no no no, Vali, adults are talking.”

“Zana, you’re my baby sister.”

“Am not! It’s him-me who’s your baby brother! I’m your half-aunt! It’s-oof! Keris! Vali threw a pillow at my face!”

Dulmea sighs. “I’m not sure a dragon aide is necessarily the best choice,” she says. “They look a little bit too much like Dragonblooded - and they’re not part of the Hui Cha. I think you need to find someone you can make loyal to you from the Hui Cha who has connections and isn’t another outsider.”

Keris hums. “I mean, ideally I need a loyal, respectable member of the Hui Cha who can do what dragon aides do,” she mourns. “Maybe via the Wave-and-Fire Rite. But that’ll take time, and finding a willing coadjutor, so... yeah, I suppose I’ll have to try hiring instead.”

She rubs at her nose. “Okay then! Vali. You’re going to start clearing out the underground areas. Please try to keep it as quiet as possible. We want a safe set of cellars where we can keep things we don’t want visitors or work crews seeing. Anything interesting you find down there, show it to me and unless it’s super-valuable you can do whatever you want with it. It’s a Shogunate foundation, so there might be some interesting machines or tools.”

Vali nods. “Got it.” He sighs. “Plus, because I don’t want to make you mad at me and make me go home, I bet you’re gonna ban me from making some friends for it. Right?”

Keris considers. “Two friends, if you promise they’ll follow the same rules,” she allows. “Your keruby are good at fixing things, so they can help you out.”

“I mean, I can’t promise for them,” Vali says, crossing his arms. “That’d be wrong!”

“No, but you can promise you’ll ask them to and do your best to convince them,” Keris says. “And if they don’t want to, I can put them back in the Spires and we can see if there are any others who are willing to promise to it. Are there any friends you want me to summon who you think would go for it?”

Vali scratches his hair. “Yeah, I guess I can think of some people,” he said.

“We can do that come nightfall, then,” Keris nods. “Zanara, Dulmea? How to justify hosting the Lionesses? Something like, mmm... wanting to make sure the new mercenary force has a positive view of the Hui Cha, and also scout what they’re capable of? Even Sea Eagle might let up on the hate for non-Tengese for pragmatism’s sake.”

Zana runs her hands through her hair. “So, hmm. I mean, I guess, how long are you planning to keep them here. They’ve been travelling for a bunch of time so they probably want to rest up for a bit, but what about finding jobs for them in Saata? Or, like, sending them to go take over some small island which has something valuable? I mean, Haneyl would tell you they won’t make you any money when they’re sitting around eating your food.”

Dulmea hums a melody. “The Hui Cha and their bigotry is becoming more and more of a problem. Would they believe you if you told them that your Harbourhead women were just renting land because you need the money?”

“Believe me, I’m going to work on it,” Keris mutters. “Honestly... yeah, they probably would. Haneyl’s not entirely wrong; I spent more of my funds than I’d have liked to bail out Lucky Wolf. Gonna have to watch him to make sure he doesn’t lose that much money again; however he lost it the first time.”

Steepling her fingers, she thinks back to Nandi’s forces. “Let’s see... I’m gonna have to do surgery to heal all of her crippled women anyway; that was part of our bargain,” she muses. “So they’ll probably want a period of light work while I do that. I might be able to play it as, hmm... Little River offering them some land for rent because she needs the money and claiming that it’s to put them on good terms with the Hui Cha and get a look at what kind of threat they are in case we ever come up against them.”

She considers for a moment longer. “Yeah, I think that’ll work. The other lords will see through the justification and go ‘hah, it’s because she’s running low on money’ and think they’ve solved it, but they’ll also hopefully agree that my ‘excuse’ does hold water and that knowing about a four-hundred-strong mercenary force that’s just moved into the region is useful. And I might be able to use them as a labour force to help refurbish parts of the estate in the bargain.”

Zana grins. “And you can use the chance to in-doc-trin-ate them,” she sings.

“Well, obviously.” Keris smirks. “It won’t be their whole force, but it’ll be a pretty big chunk of it who are loyal to me. And that means Nandi has a lot of voices saying ‘stay with her; we want to work for her’ when she’s making leadership decisions.”

“Oh,” Vali contributes, “and prob’bly you can get at least ten or twenty of them working for Hanny. She probably needs thugs and stuff, and she isn’t Hui Cha.” He grins. “And then she has to pay you for that.”

“Hah. Yes,” Keris grins. “That’ll be fun. And whenever I bring Cinnamon into Saata, I can build her up to the right level and then have her hire them on permanent retainer as her bodyguards.”

Whatever sinister conspiracy might have been going on is interrupted by Kali waking up and hearing a rat, and then sprinting off. But it was a productive meeting.

Keris nods to Fatima as she brings her troublemaking daughter back. The three Tairan girls have taken up a role as her maids and seem happy enough here. They’re country girls, after all, so they know their way around tools - and they’re being fed every day.

“Oh, by the way,” she says in passing to Keris. “I had a look around the fields, like you asked.”

“Ah, good,” Keris says, accepting a wailing, desolate, rat-less Kali back and tickling her feet to get her to stop fussing over the malicious escape of her rodent prey. “How did you find them?”

Fatima pulls a face. “They’re awful,” she says vehemently. “The soil is thin, full of rubble, and where it’s not a thin layer over rock it’s swampy. You couldn’t grow anything worthwhile here. No wheat, no rye, no saffron! Useless worthless lowland soil!”

“Damn,” Keris says. “I was afraid of that.” She drums her fingers on her knee, smiling fondly as Kali forgets her sobbing fit in favour of grasping at Iris with her tiny little hands. “Haneyl’s busy in the city at the moment, but next year I can probably pull her back here and have her spend a month or so on the fields. She’ll be able to drain the swampy ground and break up the rubble, though the rock underneath will be harder. Still, better than nothing.”

“I’m not even sure you could grow saffron here,” Fatima says firmly. “It wants loose, low density, well-drained clay soils. This is boggy or stony. And urgh, it’s so humid here. You need dry summers for a good harvest. Drying the saffron here would be a nightmare.”

“Malek did something to make saffron threads grow in other flowers, though. I bet I could get them growing in poppies with a bit of effort,” muses Keris. “Two products for the price of one, hah. Alright, thank you Fatima. I’ll think about what to do with the fields here. Have the locals been giving you or your sisters any trouble?”

Fatima winces. “We can’t really talk to them,” she admits. “I mean, you taught us the language, but their accent is very hard. And the men are scary. I’ve seen Zana going out and skipping around and just talking to everyone. I don’t know how she does it!”

“I’m not sure Zana understands the meaning of ‘fear’,” Keris says dryly. “And she’s one of my children, so attacking her isn’t likely to go well for whoever does it. Anyway, in a month or so my brother’s family will get here, so you’ll have some nicer company. Zanyira will like you, I think. Though fair warning; she’ll probably rope you into babysitting my niece.”

The other woman - girl, really - smiles, and tickles Kali. “The babies are exhausting, but at least they’re an easy part of the job,” she says. “Not like cleaning this place. You know we found a room where the floor was just covered in wine stains, everywhere!”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” Keris sighs. “Once I’m not overloaded with work and the estate is more liveable and everything has settled down, we need to sit down and have a talk about your future. Think it over, would you? If you want to train to be head of staff in one of the residences I get under other identities, or learn a trade like silversmithing, or become a priestess for Calesco or whatever... you have options, okay? Teaching isn’t hard to arrange, and we might be pulling a too-big boat with too-few tethers right now, but once we get things moving it’ll move smoother and we’ll have more time for other things.”

Fatima curtseys. “Thank you, my lady. As you say, we shall see.” Her smile is sad. “May the moon bring you fortune.”

“And you,” Keris returns, turning her attention back to Kali as she leaves. Slumping back in the comfortable armchair, she heaves a long, exhausted sigh. She should probably let the girls in on a little more of her nature at some point - certainly if they’re going to spend time around her souls, or Zany. Who also needs to be told about her ties to Hell, since she doubts Ali’s let on about that during the journey.

Urgh. So much to do. And letting people in on the ‘Anathema’ thing always makes her stomach churn to contemplate. Sasi makes it look easy to get people worshipping demons for a thrill, and somehow never has them freak out and call down a Wyld Hunt. Keris isn’t quite so confident.

That night, Keris makes sure her babies are tucked away safe and sound with a Gale to watch over them and Iris sleeping in Zanara’s (messy) bedroom, then sneaks away down to the shoreline. Unfortunately, the one thing she might have asked for more here was a beach. What she has instead is a rocky shoreline made of the remnants of long-forgotten buildings. The waves wash up against skeletal structures of white stone, painted silvery by the half moon.

She can’t help but imagine what this must have been like, once upon a time.

Then with a swan dive, she’s into the deeper water offshore, looking at the sunken remnants of buildings under layers of sand and gravel and thick seaweed. She lies back, and thinks of her love.

Once again she is a painting. Sasi is here. She was afraid she would be missing her again. Her beloved is lying naked on her silk sheets, sprawled out. It is not a seduction, though. She’s reading a book by moonlight with a bottle of wine by her bedside table, and her posture is chosen more for comfort than attractiveness.

“Hello, my love,” Keris greets her warmly. “This is a lovely sight to come in to.”

Sasi freezes up, and hastily rearranges herself. “You should warn me when you’re showing up,” she grumbles. “How long were you there?”

“Only just got here, honest!” Keris promises. “Though now that you mention it, maybe I should’ve stayed quiet and watched for a while. You’re a beautiful sight.” She grins teasingly. “Would you really begrudge me the simple joy of seeing you?”

“As you well know,” Sasi retorts, “there’s a difference between a night alone with a book and a bottle of wine, and one which has a visit from my girlfriend in it.” She rises, lighting oil lamps - for Keris’s benefit, not hers - and the room is no longer so gloomy. Sasi sits back down on the bed, legs curled up.

“You know, looking after Eko is incredibly stressful,” she observes. Sasi pauses deliberately. “My hair has turned grey because of it.”

“Oh no!” Keris gasps. “And it was so beautiful before! But don’t worry, my darling. I think you’re utterly gorgeous like this.” She punctuates her flirting with a blown kiss, and giggles.

“In all seriousness, though, how’s she been?” she adds as her smile fades a little. “I know from experience that’s she’s, uh... a handful. I was banking on the fact that she behaves more for you than she does with me, but if it’s proving too much effort keeping an eye on her...”

Sasi presses her hands together. “A handful is right,” she says ruefully. “But I hadn’t seen before how a lot of it is because she’s possibly the most intelligent person I’ve ever met, in sheer raw untamed brilliance. It’s part of the problem, honestly. I have to pause while I think through some of her explanations - and then she gets bored.” She sighs. “She spent all of yesterday working on something that turned out to be the... the smallest szelkerub she could make. It’s toddler sized, and can barely walk - only run. She made it for Aiko.”

“That’s Eko for you,” Keris agrees ruefully. “I only channel her in flashes of insight. She’s like that all the time. Though it’s cute that she made a friend for Aiko. Did it go down well?”

“I think she concluded Aiko needed someone to talk to, so... made a mute ribbon demon,” Sasi says, with a sigh. “But Aiko has very much clung onto Prita - what Eko called her. She,” Sasi winces, “she’s very much been missing Haneyl, Ogin and Kali. So I’m letting her keep her for now - though if she starts being a danger to my daughter, I’ll send the demon back to you.” She refills her glass of wine, drinking heavily from it. “How have you been? We haven’t talked in a while. Messengers are so much effort when this is an option.”

“Urgh. Urgh,” groans Keris. “Things have been... hectic. Very, very hectic.” She runs a hand down her painted face. “Okay, so I told you about the fire, and Haneyl’s been dealing with the rebuilding there. While she was busy with that, I went to target Hui Cha Lucky Wolf with an offer...”

Glad to have someone to talk to, Keris recounts an abbreviated summary of the past month or so - Sinasana Be-la’s veiled offer of friendship-rivalry, her dealings with Lucky Wolf, the explorations of Shuu Mua and the preparations for the arrival of the Lionesses in a month or so.

“... and I’ll also speak to Jade Fox before then and confirm that all the arrangements for the marriage have been made,” she finishes. “I’ll be offering to fund and host the wedding, so I want at least part of my land set up for a grand wedding before I do that. Urgh. I know this won’t last forever and that once I’ve finished the refurbishing and setup it’ll get easier, but I still can’t wait for the waves to settle and give me some more free time.”

Sasi rises, approaching the painting, and kisses it on the lips. “Oh, dear,” she says softly. “You’ve gone from nothing of this nature to too much. I suppose you’re just learning. Has Haneyl been helpful, at least?”

“Haneyl has been a gem,” Keris says fervently. “Apart from the bit where she nearly set a bunch of her labourers on fire. And in all fairness; they were asking for it by trying to extort her out of more money and making comments about how easily her building could have an accident and burn down again.” She reads Sasi’s expression and shakes her head quickly. “It’s okay; Rounen stopped her before anyone died. Or got horrible burns or bite marks. But yes, bar the occasional outbreak of temper she’s been very helpful.”

“That’s lovely,” Sasi says, with her own sigh of relief. She looks Keris in the eyes, then leans against the painting. “She - and Eko - are very willing to resort to violence. It reminds me a bit of how you were when we first met. Back when you were a little feral thing. You’ve grown up.”

“Now now, I’m still willing to resort to violence,” Keris says proudly. “I’m probably going to end up killing Red Leaf or Sea Eagle when I make my takeover official. I’ve just got other tools as well now.”

She lets the smile break out and beams at her lover, giving her an appreciative up-and-down. “You are being very mean, leaning against me like that when I can’t reach out and touch you. I feel unbearably teased.”

“I am?” Sasi asks, her tone that of girlish ingénue. “Oh, and you wouldn’t believe what Eko said when she saw this painting. The mouth on that girl!”

“Yes, I’m sure she turned the air blue,” Keris responds dryly. “Oh, wait, do you mean she worked out what it does? Hah! She’s known about it since it was painted - yeah, I’ll bet she was pissed about not realising how it worked.” She chuckles. “That must have been entertaining to watch. It’s not often she misses things, and she doesn’t like it when it happens.”

Sasi snuggles up to the painting, pressed up against it. “She asked if I’d been inside you yet, then turned bright red, and ran away,” Sasi breathes.

Then she presses through Keris, sinking into it. She’s no longer in the room. Sasi is gone. She can’t hear her, she can’t feel her, she can’t...

Keris feels soft hands against her back. “Turn around, my love,” Sasi whispers into her ear.

Keris yelps, spins, and gasps; her eyes very wide.

((What do you want the sanctum to look like? You should probably describe it - and what Keris looks like in here.))
((hang on, giggling too hard at Eko’s accidental innuendo.))
((poor eko))
((poor, poor eko : P))

She stands on a warm shore at the edge of a sparkling lake. The half moon hangs in the night sky above them; silvery light tinting the golden sand to bright electrum and highlighting the water that would be shockingly clear blue by day. The scene is one of tranquillity and wonder; a border-place between land and water that matches the lakeside Lilunu had painted her on.

But where that had been Kimberyian water and a Conventicle beach under the skies of Hell and the light of the green sun; this vista reflects where Keris is now. The skies and terrain of Creation. Some gut instinct - perhaps born from the way that this painting is her and she is it - tells her that the background will always reflect what realm she’s in. Should she ever set foot in Heaven, her image would no doubt stand on the edge of some divine lake, and who knows what would light the skies above her.

But the surroundings aren’t important, because Keris is naked; a perfect copy of her flesh-and-blood body in every detail with her anima burning behind her. And in front of her is Sasi. Likewise naked. Looking at her hungrily - and so, so beautiful now that she’s right there where Keris can touch her.

“Well,” says Keris, feeling a blush rise to her cheeks as she reacts, as always, to her love’s proximity. Elation, love and a shocked sort of shyness all twine around each other and trip up her words. “Um. H-hi.”

Sasi smirks. “Well, would you look at that? It can’t be your first time, because I fit in perfectly.”

Keris groans; half at the terrible pun and half in second-hand mortification for her daughter. “Poor Eko,” she murmurs - though not without a hint of amusement. “Still, I think this is my first time trying this position,” she adds with a flash of a grin. “While you look right at home. Maybe you should show me how it works.”

Sasi, for her part, cruelly and meanly walks away from Keris. She feels Sasi’s mind-hands brush over her, and sees sand dance and shift as Sasi feels out this place. “You do so like worlds within you,” Sasi murmurs, approaching the water’s edge and perching on a rock as she dips her feet in. “And you didn’t know about this place? Does it connect up to your soul?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, there aren’t any keruby in it, and they get everywhere,” shrugs Keris, following in a way that... alright, it might be a little like a besotted puppy. “Hang on...”

She cocks her head as she sits down beside Sasi and sends out a thought-pulse, similar to how she estimates the size of her domain and feels the wheel of its Directional essences. The echo comes back almost instantly.

“Nope,” she concludes. “Also, wow, this place is small. Smaller than my inner world was when it was just Dulmea’s neighbourhood. This feels like when the Old City blew up and the core of my Domain collapsed down to just her Tower. The size of a large manor, maybe. I think it’s just this lake and the beaches round it. Maybe the far shore as well? I can see it, I just dunno if we can get there.”

She eyes the lake suspiciously. If she were going to put a Cloud-Wall border into this painting, she’d probably do something like making it so that no amount of swimming could get someone further than halfway across the lake. But she can try that later, when she isn’t leaning into the warmth and softness of a naked Sasi.

((Oh Keris. Speaking from her experience there, and forgetting how small Sasi’s domain is.))

Sasi guides her down, until Keris’s head is resting on her lap. “This is nice,” she says, kicking her feet in the warm water. “More than that. This is wonderful. Just me and you. No crying babies. No nasty little ear-biting dragons. Unquestionable Lilunu is mighty indeed to make something like this.” She runs her fingers through Keris’s hair, brushing against her scalp.

“Mmm. We’ll have to make it something regular,” Keris purrs happily, arching into the touch. “Every week, or something.”

“I get so tired sometimes, Keris,” Sasi says softly. “Never enough time for myself.”

Reaching up, Keris returns the touch, tracing her hand along Sasi’s forehead, her cheek, her lips. “You work too hard,” she murmurs. “You shouldn’t have to take so much onto yourself. With me in Saata it’s basically just you for the whole of An Teng - Deveh’s useless at best and more of a problem than a help at worst. S’not fair for you to have to do so much. You deserve to relax and be pampered and given luxuries to enjoy yourself.”

“I do,” Sasi groans, her hands drifting from Keris’s head to her chest. “But we’re the priests of the Yozis, Keris; their exarchs in Creation. They made this world. To serve them is the highest joy and privilege. They gave me everything, my love. They gave me you. And Testolagh. And from that I have Aiko and Haneyl. The Realm would destroy all of that. All of you. You’ll only be safe when An Teng serves its true masters and when the Realm can’t touch us.”

Keris hides her discomfort under humour. “I wouldn’t say highest joy,” she hums, turning her head slightly to press her lips to Sasi’s stomach. “I can think of quite a few things right now that’d give me more joy and feel more privileged.”

A hair tendril loops around Sasi’s hands, pulling them insistently back to Keris’s hair. “But yeah, I know. You won’t hear me speaking anything against Lilunu or Ligier or the Shashalme or... well, I guess I’d have liked it if Orabilis could’ve let me see just a few more texts from his libraries.” She wrinkles her nose. “S’really annoying when you think you’re onto something and then the Eye goes ‘nope; not allowed to read anymore!’ And if Deveh’s anything to go by, I can’t say I like Iasestus much either. Serving is one thing; but being a hollowed-out Pyre-slave isn’t my idea of a good time.”

She nudges her head back into Sasi’s hands sleepily. “Mmm... still,” she adds around a yawn. “Our patrons are good ones. Best bosses I’ve ever had.”

((Shifting the tone away from srsness with some flirty humour, and then making a couple of careful prods at Sasi’s curiosity and control freak aspects to point out how certain Unquestionable are opposed to them - without actually questioning the 3CDs so much as just complaining a little about them being the rules that she has to follow.))
((Per + Politics sneakiness.))
((4+1+3 Social Saboteur+2 stunt+5 Kimmy ExD {undercurrents of distrust and dissent, striking once and holding back while afflicted victims weaken, elegant practicality}=15. 11 sux.))

Sasi leans in and kisses her. “Well, with limited time, we can always help more the ones who...” she shudders, “aren’t the sort of people Deveh would like. You’re right. Some of them clearly aren’t thinking of the greater picture. I do,” she giggles, “tend to be a little creative with the orders that are clearly one Unquestionable acting against another.”

She shifts, laying Keris down on the warm sand and moving so she’s straddling Keris. “We should go to more parties together next time we’re in Hell,” she says. “Some of the more... wild ones. Maybe go to the Street of Golden Lanterns together, just you and me.”

“Mmm. As long as we don’t let Lilunu find out,” Keris chuckles; her hands moving to Sasi’s hips. “Last time didn’t end well.”

“Oh, her coming along wouldn’t be something I’d want. Not unless she wanted to join in what I’m planning to do to you when we’re there,” Sasi says sweetly. She chuckles. “I wouldn’t say no. She’s Unquestionable. And gorgeous.”

“Nuh uh,” Keris mutters, having finished sneakily weaving her hair behind Sasi’s head. “Not sharing you with my mentor. Mine.”

And with that said, she pulls Sasi down for more enjoyable activities.

---

It’s hard to tell the passage of time in this place. Time doesn’t feel... real in this painted world. But Keris guesses it’s about an hour or two later when she finds herself lying on the sand in a world made from her flesh and blood and paint, her lover asleep in her arms.

She wonders if any of the sand sticking to both of them will be carried back to the real world.

Sasi is fast asleep. She looks softer when she’s asleep. Gentler, more innocent. And she frowns less. Or... not quite frowns. But all the little muscles that keep her face controlled relax. There’s so much less tension in her.

Of course, Keris helped relax a lot of that tension.

“Hey, mama,” Rathan says in her head. “Are you busy... oh!”

Keris manages, with great effort, to not squawk or startle in a way that would wake Sasi up. Which admittedly wasn’t much of a possibility, because Sasi sleeps like a log, but still.

‘R-Rathan!’ she manages inwardly, turning her face determinedly away from her naked lover. ‘Uh... p-pretend you didn’t see that. But she’s asleep, so I can talk. What is it?’

She can hear the luminescent blush. “Um. Not much. N-not... uh. Give me a moment.” She hears him walk out of the room, close the door, then open it again and walk back to the viewing window.

“Hi, mama. Are you busy? I hope I’m not disturbing you,” he says clearly, with an embarrassed cough.

‘Hello darling,’ Keris responds with a faint snicker. ‘I’m with Sasi at the moment, but she’s asleep, so I can talk,’ She suppresses - barely - the urge to point out how many times she caught more of him and Oula than she’d wanted to during the trip through Taira. It’s still mortifying to have him walk in on her like this, but at least there’s some amusement to be had alongside the awkwardness.

“Not much. I just... well, I got a report from someone that they’ve found something like one of the chrysalis-pearls in a sweep of the shores of the Undersea. We’ve picked up a few more of them. Oula doesn’t seem happy about it. Not sure why. But this one isn’t a pearl. It’s a rough mass of ice and horn. I think... I think it’s probably a different kind of adult kerub. You don’t have to come see it now, but you might want to look at it tomorrow or something.”

‘Hmm. Interesting. I will, yes. Any word on who went into it?’

Rathan nods. “Yes, mama. It was Viscount Mele. One of my best friends. He used to be a sziromkerub - one of the ones Haneyl made - but he came to work for me and then realised how much better I was. He still likes books a lot, though, so he’s also lord of my libraries. I hope he gets better soon. He’s the only one who can handle those sziromkeruby he has working for him.”

‘Well, hopefully he’ll be an overnighter like Oula was, then,’ Keris says. ‘The longer ones have taken a month, right? And a few that are taking longer than that?’

“Yeah.” Rathan sighs. “I asked Eko just before she left because she was staring at the pearls and she said she probably thought that Haneyl’s ones were always going to be seven days because she loves sevens, but mine were probably going to be one of something. So one day, one month or one year.” He scowls. “She said it was because I’m lazy, because she’s mean.”

‘Well that’s just silly of her,’ says Keris. ‘It’s because you’re a moon. Moonrise to moonrise, moon phase to moon phase, and Calibration to Calibration. The three cycles the moon moves in.’

Rathan perks up. “So she was wrong?” he asks happily.

‘She was wrong about that, yes,’ Keris reassures him. ‘I’ll look forward to seeing what Mele’s new form is like tomorrow.’

“Cool. Cool.” Rathan coughs. “Um. Should I go now?”

‘That might be an idea, yes,’ agrees Keris kindly. ‘And in future, consider putting something on the door when you’re with Oula to stop it happening in reverse.’

“Yeah. Yeah. Um. See you tomorrow, mum. I’m going to... uh. Not mention this to Oula so she doesn’t get jealous. So don’t mention it to her either.”

‘Whatever you say, darling,’ Keris thinks, and retracts her attention from her inner world, back to... uh... her other inner world.

... this is going to get confusing, she can tell.

She stares up at the star-speckled sky, the warmth of her girlfriend in her arms, and smiles. It’s at moments like this when she remembers how good she has everything.

Really, when you think about it, five years ago she was homeless, living in a squat in Nexus. She just bought a mansion. Legitimately! With money she legitimately stole from the sun-chosen lord of an entire country!

Madness. Utter madness. But wonderful at the same time.

Sasi snuffles in her sleep, wrapping her arms tighter around Keris. She murmurs something in Old Realm, something that Keris isn’t paying attention to.

Then she says something else. “No,” she whispers in accented Old Realm. “No, no, I will not sit next to that cruel, jaded sociopath! And you’re stupid if you think that’s a good idea. I don’t care if that’s the seat I’m meant to have now that Thrice-Shining Aleno is dead. I won’t sit next to her!”

“...” says Keris. “Um. Sasi?”

She pauses. That accent jogs a memory, and it takes her a second to place it. When she does, her eyes widen and her volume rises.

Salina?

“This is awful,” Sasi - if it is Sasi - mutters. “This is what they’ve done to my parties. I wanted to... they had a purpose! They were meant to be fun. People were meant to get together and we were meant to not stand at attention and all of us were meant to be equal and...” she mumbles away, incoherent until she chirps up, “No, I’m not drinking too much this early in the night, shut up! I just need a l’ddle pick-me-up...”

“Oh gods, of course you had Lilunu’s alcohol tolerance,” Keris mutters. “What is it with me and really powerful, really nice mentor figures who can’t hold their booze for love or money?”

She pauses, remembering the third powerful figure who’s taught her things, and then shakes off that line of thought as far too disturbing to continue.

Shaking Sasi’s shoulder gently - and then rather harder after remembering that while it might be Salina in there mentally it’s still Sasi’s body regardless - she tries to rouse her. “Sasi? Sasi! Come on, wake up, rise and shine, see the pretty painted moonlight...”

Sasi opens her eyes, and there’s a terrible moment when there’s someone else looking out. Then she blinks and focuses on Keris. “What is it, love?” she asks. “I...” she yawns, “... just needed a nap.” She kisses Keris. “You wear me out.” She kisses her again.

“... nothing important,” Keris says after a moment’s pause. “Apparently one of Rathan’s keruby is maturing into something that isn’t like Oula. I’ll take a look later and tell you what I find.” She wraps her arms around Sasi as best she can. “Go back to sleep if you’re still tired. I’ll stay here and hold you.”

Sasi smiles, but there’s a look of pain in her eyes. “I don’t get this from anyone else. People don’t want to hold me when I sleep,” she says weakly. “Well, apart from Testolagh. He’s such a long way away. I... miss him. Like I missed you. And like I miss...” she trails off. “I love you,” she says awkwardly. “I... I don’t deserve you.”

She’s not crying. But she’s not crying because she can’t cry real tears.

Very seriously, Keris cradles Sasi’s face between her hands, looks her in the eye, and kisses her firmly.

“You deserve everything,” she says, with gentle, unstoppable conviction. “And far, far better than what you have now. I love you, and nothing you can do will stop me loving you, and I will always, always be here for you.”

((Per+Pres: 4+5+1 Firebrand Demagogue+3 stunt {TLA}+9 Kimmy ExD {patronage and kindness are real, endlessly giving, beauty}+3 “Sasi” Principle autosux=22. 11+3=14 sux - and I forgot earlier that Keris subtracts her Compassion rating from her TLA-loves when socialing them, so that’s -4 to Sasi’s MDV.))

Sasi kisses her fiercely. “I love you,” she tells Keris when she comes up for air. “I do. I do.” She sob-giggles. “I’ll need to see if I can get a bed in here. I’m sure we’ve both got sand where it shouldn’t go. And this is my real body. What time is it?”

“Uh... judging from the angle of the moon and the clocks I can see... no idea,” Keris says. “Pop outside and find out?”

“Mmm. But I’m comfy now.” Sasi wriggles into her, and kisses her again. “Maybe just a bit more fun. Then I’ll need to go check on Aiko and make sure she’s sleeping properly.” She sighs, hugging Keris closely. “Maybe I should just let her sleep in my bed. But I have guests enough that it’d disrupt her routine to be sleeping somewhere else when I have company...”

“A little more fun, then,” Keris purrs, wrapping her hair around her. “I can agree with that.”

---

At the start of the next week, Keris makes the trip back to Saata proper. She can’t spend all her time in her mansion - she needs money! - and she has silverwork orders to catch up on.

But first she takes the chance to have tea with Little Bird, who shows up to the tea house in a lovely gold-trimmed yellow robe that must have cost a considerable amount. Keris knows the other woman always has her finger on the pulse and she’s someone who gets things done.

“So, I heard you came into a fortune?” the other woman says, lighting incense on the table. “Oh, don’t act surprised. The rumours are everywhere. How could you afford Lucky Wolf’s house?”

“I fought two of the Greater Dead alongside a goddess, and she rewarded me,” Little River replies; something complicated and pained and proud passing across her face. “Though there’s more to it than that, of course. I’m a little surprised that story hasn’t spread. It’s why Atiya was born early, and why I had to stay away so long until she was healthy enough to travel.”

“But still, a whole mansion? Even if it was Lucky Wolf’s... I heard he had debts so he was probably looking to part with it, but still...” Little Bird shakes her head. “And how is your daughter? I suppose the air is better for her out there than here.”

“She’s improving,” sighs Keris. “But I’m not sure she’ll ever be as healthy as other children her age. And the mansion is...”

Her lips tighten slightly. “Well, there’s some work to do there,” she says with strained brightness. “You know how it is when people move into a new residence. Even under the best of conditions, there’ll be things to change for simple differences in tastes.”

“Oh my, yes.” Little Bird eyes her up. “How are you finding it?” she asks reasonably. “You weren’t born into money, so you’re probably not used to it.”

Keris is learning the social rules of the Hui Cha in earnest now; tutored every time she goes out by the expectations and thoughts of those around her. There’s a formality to these tea-and-coffee-house chats, and far more business than she’d thought is done here; over pretty little tables and hot strong drinks.

Keris sips at her tea and eyes Little Bird evaluatively. She hasn’t forgotten that it was this woman who was sent to bring her into the triads in the first place. Oh, it seems she’s looking for two levels of things here. Keris thinks she’s after information - she’s always after information, she’s that kind of woman - but she also suspects Little Bird is looking for personal profit. She’s one of the Hui Cha’s brokers, yes, but she’s low ranking enough that she goes to interview a new recruit. You don’t see Pretty Peacock doing that.

And Little River is a rising star now. And she clearly has money. Money enough to afford even a decaying mansion - and contacts to make a deal with Lucky Wolf, who’s infamously proud.

“It’s been... a learning experience,” Keris says carefully. “Between my silverwork, looking after Atiya and moving into a new estate, I’m being stretched thin - and there’s no good help to take any of the load off me.”

She slants a meaningful look at Little Bird over her cup as she takes another sip. The woman is a professional mediator; connecting people who want jobs done with people who want jobs to do is how she makes her living.

There’s a glimmer of envy in her - not much, but there’s something there in the pricking of Keris’s eyes. And Keris is right - she prides herself in who she knows, which seems to spread through Saata.

((Low level envy principle towards Keris 1-2 dots. And she prides herself in her Contacts 3.))

“As the saying goes, ‘the path to fortune is easier with friends’,” Little Bird says.

“True, true.” Keris leans forward. “Are you such a friend, I wonder?”

“I could be. I could be. It all depends on what you’d need. I could probably find a friend of mine all kinds of useful people.” The woman smiles, deep red lip paint perfectly framing her mouth. “I know people.”

“Be careful with this one, child,” Dulmea says. “You should get hooks into her beforehand, let her think it’s her idea to work for you directly rather than just putting you in contact. Perhaps a gift to chain her with obligation - or one of Haneyl’s fleshseeds.”

“Perhaps we can talk more about it later, then?” Keris smiles back, already considering a range of possible gifts. “Once I’ve taken stock of what I need.”

“It is seldom good to rush these things,” Little Bird agrees. “Now, another coffee?”

A few days later, Keris is sitting in a coffee-house with Haneyl and Zana. They have a private booth - one that Haneyl apparently has been using as her office and main working place when she meets with people for her business work. Zana is just enjoying the strange looks she gets in her half-albino Tengese form.

She tells them about the progress with her mansion and how they’ve managed to get some living quarters properly furnished - thanking Haneyl for the help in finding a rug-seller - and then moves onto the topic of Little Bird.

“So, you’ve secured the deal, mama?” Haneyl asks.

“Oh yes,” Keris says smugly. She swirls her coffee, appreciating her time with her daughters (and Zana is her daughter, no matter what she claims). “I’ve made her a gorgeous amulet. She hangs it around her neck. Every time she looks at it, I worm deeper into her heart. She’s going to be mine.”

Haneyl and Zana both look equally delighted at that. “Yes,” Haneyl breathes. “Wonderful.”

Zana, if anything, then beams wider. “Sooooo,” she says smugly, “is it time to get her to swear her loyalty and paint it into her flesh?”

That gets her glares from both Haneyl and Keris. “Do what?” Haneyl asks.

“Oh right, didn’t I tell you how absolutely amazing I am?” Zana wraps both hands around her cup. “So, I was playing around with people and thinking about how to make sure they obey us. And then I realised - wait! All we need to do is get them to say they’ll obey us, swear loyalty, and then wrap that up in ink or flesh and etch it into them. It’s so pretty! So very pretty!”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Haneyl objects.

Oh, but it does. To Keris, it immediately does. And she grins in delight at what it means.

Chapter Text

It’s at the end of Falling Wood when Keris finds herself with Rounen to review her current progress. By which she means, making him do all the hard writing that she doesn’t want to do. That’s what he’s useful for - and he’s delighted to do so.

She doesn’t even think about the fact that she is now unfortunately aware that Rounen has some weird triangle thing going on with Haneyl and Elly - especially given he and Elly don’t seem to like each other. But are still sleeping together. She shudders. That was all her fault for coming around to check how her daughter was doing in the evening.

Of course, she’s feeling quite happy and loved too. Being able to see Sasi every night is doing wonders for her mood.

She blinks, as she realises that Rounen is waiting for her to begin. “Ma’am?” he asks. “I asked you to describe your current status with the Hui Cha.”

“Right! Right, yes.” She clears her throat. “So, things are going well. I cured Strong Ox’s impotence, so Pale Branch is probably pregnant by now - and an heir will get her a strong claim over his wealth when he dies. She’s not bound to me in the same way Lucky Wolf is, but I’m giving her what she wants and we can mark her down as being pretty firmly in my corner. I’ll need to get rid of Pretty Peacock to push her all the way in, but I was going to do that anyway. And she’s totally on-board with taking over the triads and giving women a better voice at the high levels.”

She cracks her knuckles. “Lucky Wolf and his wife are mine. I basically singlehandedly pulled them out of bankruptcy and ruin, and gave them each their heart’s desire. When I make my play for leadership of the Hui Cha, I’ll have backing from that corner as well - he’ll support me so long as it doesn’t damage his pride, which means all I have to do is make a thing of being the official leader but still trusting my blue sea masters to blah blah blah whatever; we’re good there.”

“Jade Fox, now...” Keris blows out a breath that inflates her cheeks for a moment. “Sasi’s had the An Teng side of things ready for a while now. I’ve been delaying tying it up because, bluntly, I need to generously offer to host the wedding for him. And for that, I need somewhere that’ll look good to host it. But the estate I got from Lucky Wolf is kind of a ruin. He’s been trying to marry into the Tengese nobility for years, so a delay of a few months won’t have hurt things too badly - especially since he’s a stuck-up who’ll be pleased at how I’m, urgh, ‘stepping back and taking a more traditionally feminine role’ with all the money stuff I’ve been doing. Call him a work-in-progress that I need to make a move on soon.”

She frowns. “Aaaaand then there’s the other three. I haven’t done much to any of them yet, but I’m guessing I can get Peaceful Wave whenever I need to through vice or healing or getting rid of Red Leaf. Him or Sea Eagle I’m going to have to kill, and whichever one I don’t is gonna be my biggest problem, which... might be made harder by how I’ve left them until last. But, bonus, I can probably use killing one to intimidate the other into not challenging me directly, when I get that far.”

Rounen writes almost as fast as she talks, in his clean, flowing hand that’s a lovely thing to read compared to Keris’s own sometimes messy scribblings. “Are you sure she’s already pregnant, ma’am?” he checks. “By my understanding, I didn’t believe it was so reliable.”

He pauses.

“And Princess Zanara has been making quite a big deal about something she taught you and bragging about it endlessly. What did she do?”

“Well, if she isn’t she will be soon!” Keris huffs. “But yeah, fair point. I’ll visit her to check and offer some herbs to make a pregnancy more likely. And, hah. Zanara worked out a wonderful little trick. If I get someone to swear loyalty to me, I can ink it into their flesh and seal it there. If they try to go against me after, it’ll hurt them - and keep hurting, no matter what they do to try and soothe it, unless they gouge it out or cut it off. A nice little stinger to go with my honey.”

“Very well,” Rounen says, making further notes. “Please continue.”

After an hour, Keris rises to stretch, pacing over to the windows to stare out to sea. Outside, it is dark, with only the stars to light the sky. The moon hasn’t risen yet, and even if it had, it would only be a sliver in the sky. The waves crash against the white stone ruins that make up her coastline, and the building wind makes the jungle croak and moan with its force.

“What is it, ma’am?” Rounen asks.

“It’s the new moon soon,” she murmurs. “Ali and Zany and the Lionesses are due. I’m... not sure what I’m going to say to Ali. How... how do I explain...”

She gestures vaguely, encompassing everything that happened in Malra after they parted ways.

“I’m sure you’ll find a way, ma’am,” Rounen says sycophantically. “And Xasan will be able to help too.”

“Here’s hoping it’ll be a help,” murmurs Keris with a sigh. She shakes off the bleak mood, folding her arms behind her and staring out of the floor-to-ceiling glass at the jungle coastline. The dim lights in the room and the clear starlight renders her an amorphous silhouette against the backdrop of the natural vista; her hair writhing and coiling around her as she thinks.

“How go the renovations to the dance hall and the estate?” she asks. “Are there any areas where we can host a wedding in the near future, or should I try to push for a long engagement?”

((why yes I am taking that anime-villain setpiece and running with it; why do you ask?))

“I don’t believe we’ll be anywhere near ready until at least the new year,” Rounen says, after checking some of his other notes. “I might suggest that we might wish to hold the wedding in An Teng if you wish it to be done rapidly. Perhaps Lady Sasimana could arrange for certain respected individuals in Tengese society to be there, to provide Jade Fox with the desired ego boost? But then again, that might risk that,” he shudders, “they might whisper something about an upstart pirate that he might here. But on the other hand, his son is marrying the girl of this family, yes? By the Tengese thing, isn’t the son marrying into nobility and joining her family?”

A blood-red braid lashes out at a fruit bowl on a low table, spearing clean through an apple and coming back with it spitted. Another pair of hair-tendrils wind around it like snakes; peel and flesh disappearing under latticed rows of teeth.

“Sasi has a lot on her plate,” Keris says meditatively. “And calling in favours to populate the guest list - as well as running interference so he doesn’t come away with his ego bruised - would stress her. I’ve already left her handling Eko for a month, and that’s as far as I’m willing to push her generosity. No, hmm... if I’m going to ask something like that of her, I’d want to pay for it with something that’ll reduce her workload. And I’m not sure I have the time for something like that, so close to Calibration.”

The last of the apple core disappears, and the whip-fast braid spears a second, along with a small mango. “Maybe Cinnamon could make an appearance at the wedding?” Keris muses. “She won over some of the nobility before leaving ‘to tour other parts of the Anarchy’, so that might draw in a few.” She chews her lip thoughtfully. “Might have to play it carefully around Jade Fox, though.”

“Well, I think given the necessity to hold off until the new year, a little more waiting won’t matter,” Rounen says thoughtfully. “If I might say so, ma’am, my notes do make a point that the family considered the girl a little on the young side. As long as the wedding has a date set, I dare say he’ll stay happy enough. Especially if you can butter him up some other way.”

“Hmm. Yes, alright. I’ll talk to him at the next opportunity and regale him with how everything is set up, and make sure to get a date arranged for the wedding by the year’s end.” Keris hums thoughtfully. “And I’ll see if I can be there when the bride and groom are introduced. See if I can’t smooth the way to them falling in love, you know?”

Rounen shakes his head. “It’s so inconvenient, this arranged marriage business,” he says. “I’m surprised you can tolerate it - you certainly don’t have any time for it.”

Keris turns, wrinkling her nose in distaste, then smiles at him. “It’s annoying, yes,” she agrees with a soft huff of laughter. “And if there’s one thing I’m not looking forward to when I take over, it’s the fact that they’ll pressure me to get married. Maybe I’ll be able to wave the dragon’s blood as a flag and argue that no mortal man could keep up with me... but maybe not. Which would be a pain. I don’t want a husband.”

She pauses.

“Not even Ney,” she adds defensively. Rounen isn’t giving her a Look, or even a look that indicates the presence of a concealed Look, but she feels nonetheless as though he has the air of someone suggesting that a Look could happen, should certain annoying goat-herding spymasters be brought up.

... crap, now he is giving her a Look. Maybe she’d been imagining it a moment ago.

Rounen smiles dryly. “Perhaps you could get Lady Sasimana to cut her hair, wear chest bindings, and affect a deep voice,” he suggests. “And perhaps a false moustache might finish the display.”

She glares at him. “Hush, you,” she says. “And don’t you dare mention that to her. He’s still slumming it with Mr Giant Gold Ego-Affirming Pyramid back in Malra, and that’s that.”

Spinning back around to face the window with a ‘hmph’, she looks out at the coast and the shallow, rocky fields of her estate for a while, before a thought occurs.

“... huh. Hey, Rounen... you remember the manses we found out west of Shuu Mua, about this time last year?”

Rounen blushes. “My notes are a little... uh, patchy from back then,” he says. “I was rather bored back then so I was a little,” he coughs, “creative with some of my stories.”

“You were the one who spotted the one in the divine court,” she teases. “I’ll allow you a little fanciful writing on that score. But it’s the other one I’m thinking of - the one out in the ocean. It was inactive and covered in... gods, probably metres of dried bird shit. Which isn’t pretty or proud or something my pirate lords would want to sully their hands with... but I know plants, and guano like that is magic as fertiliser. A little of it here would boost our crop yield - and the rest would be worth almost its weight in silver. If we can put someone on harvesting it, we’d have an income stream.”

Rounen pauses, steepling his fingers. “Hmm. Ma’am, if I might suggest, we might find someone who makes a business of such things, and then take them over?”

Keris cocks her head, considering that. Then grins.

“You know, Be-la was saying that it’s about time I start going out and getting involved in more than just the Hui Cha parts of the city,” she notes, amused. “A good idea, Rounen. A very good idea. Yes, I think that will do quite nicely.”

Rounen shuffles his papers. “Wonderful, ma’am. I,” he coughs, “I might also add that you might look for Elly’s assistance in this. She’s very... greedy. In both senses. And good at acquiring things to sate her greed.”

There’s a brief moment before Keris catches what he’s not saying, and cringes a little.

“I’ll take that in mind, Rounen,” she says. “Thank you.”

The next day, Keris heads into Saata again, leaving a Gale to look after her children. It’s nice that it’s a quick little jog for her, while everyone else thinks she’s in her mansion.

She shows up at where her apartment block is, and heads up to the penthouse, which Haneyl is staying in. She clambers in through the window, and is confronted by an already-dressed Elly who’s just unpacking fresh bread that she’s clearly bought when it’s straight out of the oven.

Elly goes to snarl at her, sees who it is and immediately drops to one knee, showing Keris the back of her neck. “My queen,” she says softly, green hair falling around her milk-white face.

“Hello Ellyssivera,” Keris says, preening at the instant respect and submission. “I have a task for you. A very, very profitable one.”

“Yes, my queen,” she says. She pauses. “What do you require my help with? And will you be staying for breakfast?”

“I will, yes.” Keris is definitely enjoying this. Not that Rounen isn’t great to work with! But something about the lack of any backtalk rubs her po the right way. She can hear happy hissing in her hindbrain at how Elly so clearly knows and understands her place.

“Before I explain; fetch Haneyl,” she says. “She should hear this too, and while she’ll probably be too busy with the reconstruction to take part, she might want to keep an eye on things from Saata.”

Elly rises, and heads through to the bedroom. A loud Haneylish “Mmmawake!” swiftly follows, and a mussed, naked, and having-a-very-bad-hair-day Haneyl shambles out.

She blinks at Keris with pale green eyes. “This is too early for you to be so awake, mama,” she says, before flopping forwards onto one of the overly cushioned couches.

“My princess. What do you wish to eat?” Elly checks.

“Stuff,” Haneyl mumbles. “Should have some of the stuff from yesterday left. In the cool room.”

“Well, well, well, isn’t that familiar?” Dulmea says cattily. “How much she takes after Princess Sasimana.”

Keris gives her daughter a few minutes to get herself together and devour a plateful, and when that doesn’t prove sufficient to rouse her to wakefulness, she steps in with something that will.

“Money,” Keris says. “Lots of. Free for the taking. Only needs some shipping and a corporate takeover. Interested?”

“Mmmph.” Haneyl glowers. “Yeah. I guess.”

Elly swiftly moves in. “Princess Haneyl is just feeling a little burned out, my queen,” she says. “She will no doubt be feeling more up to it in a day or two. She has just been working very hard and needs a few days to refuel.”

“Yeah. That,” Haneyl says, yawning. She’s shedding ash from her roots-gnarled hair. “Elly, go do what mama wants. I’m having a me day.”

“Oh, honey,” Keris moves in to hug Haneyl gently. “You’ve been working so hard. I’m proud of you. Have a nice relaxing time to stoke your fires again, okay?”

Planting a kiss on an ashy temple, she turns back to Elly. “So then. Back around this time last year, I scouted out the oceans west of us; beyond Shuu Mua, and found two manses out there. One of them was inactive and covered in dried guano. The caked-on layers are metres thick, and worth their weight in silver as fertiliser. Find and acquire me a business that specialises in dealing with such things, and which can get it from somewhere on the western coast of Shuu Mua to here discretely.”

She tips Elly’s chin up, looking her in the eye. “The guano is a steady income stream that will pay very well for as long as it takes to remove and sell it all. The manse, if I can get it reconnected, is a beautifully-positioned naval base, shielded from Saata by the bulk of the mainland, that allows access to the rest of the Anarchy west of us. We need to keep its location dead secret; emphasis on dead. Our people - by which I mean from the Domain; maybe Vali’s keruby since they won’t care about the smell - only.”

Elly’s green eyes flicker from left to right, as if she’s tracking unseen prey. “Yes. I see, my queen. There are two options. We could either sell it in the Daimyo & Yellow, or find some lord who needs it and come up with a contract. You are right to believe it would be better to sell it in the Daimyo & Yellow, I think.” She nods. “There are plenty of haulage traders. I believe we can do this. Though I think we would want to make an arrangement with one of the smaller lords on the coast to set up a warehouse there. I presume we will be using a loyal ship to transport it to the destination?”

Keris marvels a little at how Elly has come alive when talking about this. She was shy as a little girl, and she’s soft-spoken in a dangerous way as a woman, but now her nostrils are flaring and her muscles are corded in her neck. It’s like she’s about to kill something.

“I still have a small fleet at the Isle of Gulls,” Keris says. “We can either refit one of the larger junks from there, or just compel the loyalty of a captain. I can brand oaths in the flesh of those who swear service to me, if needed.”

“That will serve for that transportation, my queen,” Elly agrees. She smiles shyly, calming down. “I like it. It’s profit, but without much risk. Which face will you want the profits linked to?”

((... god, I really love that line. The casualness of having many fake identities just so perfectly sums up Keris, and it’s also villainous as fuck.))

“Little River,” Keris says. “Which makes things trickier - I don’t want her having ties to Haneyl beyond renting property from a brilliant, wealthy, successful landowner.” She grins at Haneyl, hoping the compliments will cheer her up a little. “So it needs to go through channels that she can be seen using. Plus side; she has a perfect reason for doing it - she’s been out and about in the seas for the better part of a year while pregnant, so it’s easy for her to say she found the place while travelling.”

Elly frowns, hands busy as she works on preparing more food. “A little more complicated, but still doable.” She nods. “I cannot pass as Tengese, at least without some reshaping, but if we need to hunt this prey, I surrender myself to your hands. It is,” she coughs, “easy for me to shed changes to my human form, we have found. They are gone if I take my true form and then regrow my skin. It is of no concern if you want me to look Tengese.”

“Useful trick,” Keris nods. “Very well then. I’ll work with you to come up with a fitting disguise, and you can hunt an easy prey worth a lord’s feast. And since it’ll be your project to organise and run, I’ll let you take a slice of the profits to please your princess.”

“As you wish, my queen,” Elly says, licking her lips. Her tongue is long - inhumanly long - and red. “I can taste the profit already.”

---

((OK, roll me 12 dice, Diff 3, for Elly’s efforts))
((8 sux! Whoo! Legendary threshold, lol.))

Elly is incredibly easy to sculpt - and not at all human below the skin. The whole monstrous wolf-crocodile is folded up in there, and all Keris has to do is repaint her petal-like skin.

And of course, it’s so easy to pick the right clothes for someone when you can adjust their colours. Keris picks out the silks and yellows and browns of a Tengese trader for Elly.

“Hug! Kiss!” Haneyl demands before they can leave, which Elly dutifully offers. Keris looks away, then Elly follows her out.

“My queen, Princess Haneyl has made sure I know certain bulk traders because we intend to have smuggling as an option. I believe I know of one who is more honest, for this. Please, I do not wish to offend you, but for this you are my client and I will not call you by your title,” Elly says, bowing, palms on her thighs as she bends perfectly at the waist.

“I’m not at odds with secrecy, Ellyssivera,” Keris smiles, shifting with a ripple of flesh into her other skin. Her hair feels dull and lifeless like this; motionless and far too short. But it’s a necessary thing to live with. “Call me Little River. Both of us know the truth.”

“Yes, my queen,” she says with a soft smile.

For all the melodrama, it’s over surprisingly quickly. Elly leads Keris through the busy streets of Saata, into a small set of offices near the docks.

There’s a man called Liu Cao there, who apparently does haulage across the Anarchy. He’s a man in his fifties, with some Realm blood somewhere in him, and he’s blunt and to the point. “What’re ye looking to carry?” he asks.

“Dried guano,” Little River replies. “As fertiliser. Lots of it.”

“Hmm.” He calls over a scribe, who’s carrying an abacus. “Volume and frequency?”

Elly takes over there, talking about how her client Little River has found a potential source of it, and then brutally haggles Liu Cao down price-wise from his initial cost-per-volume-per-distance prices to something considerably lower. Keris can hear the whisper of the waves for how much something is worth, but Elly seems to have the same talent and numbers come to her in a way they don’t for Keris. They leave with a contract signed - and payment is on delivery, so there’s nothing up front.

Gods, Keris can’t help but think. She could have done with an Elly back when she was fencing loot on the streets.

“My queen?” Elly asks. “You are pleased?”

“Very pleased,” Keris smiles. “Now, back to the penthouse and our maps.”

A little while later, Keris has a beautiful silk map of Shuu Mua and the local seas spread out across a table, and is pouring over the marked winds and currents with glee.

“Here,” she eventually decides, after almost half an hour of consultation with Dulmea about the course she’d taken from the first tower. “Somewhere at or about here - it’ll be easy enough to spot once you’re close enough. So that puts it... eight hundred miles almost directly west of Saata, across the island. Ten hours by anyaglo. With a good current and fair winds, going around the island by ship instead of over it by ribbon-horse...”

She screws up her face, thinking hard. “... two weeks?” she ventures. “Something like that, anyway. So that just leaves us with the question of where we put our warehouse for the pickup. I trust you can handle that part?”

“I’m sure that between myself, Princess Haneyl, and,” she pulls a face, “Rounen, we can work this out. When the Princess is feeling herself again, we can take a trip to one of these places and barter for the land rights. Maybe she’ll feel better; new things to see, new things to eat.”

“Here’s hoping. And you know...” Keris adds lightly, “Rounen was the one who suggested your name in particular for this. I’ll be glad to tell him that he wasn’t wrong to put faith in your bargaining skills.”

Elly sniffs. “Well, at least he’s good for something,” she says archly. “Beyond squealing when I put...”

“Elly!” Haneyl calls through from the bedroom. “I want a book!”

Elly rises. “Yes, my princess.”

“And cuddles! I want you to get me a book and then cuddle me! I’m sore and achy and it sucks!”

There’s a very brief moment, while Keris’s mind is still in the ‘I don’t want to know’ flinch reflex, when she thinks back to how she’d felt at times during the pregnancy and very nearly has a panic attack.

Then she remembers that of all her children, Haneyl is by far the most equipped to tell whether or not she’s pregnant - having been the one to notice Keris’s children in the first place - and that the only reason she doesn’t hold the title of “least likely to get pregnant” with all the Maiden’s Tea she grows is because her sisters are Eko and Calesco.

So all in all, that was a totally unnecessary jolt of adrenaline that’s still coursing through her system. Fantastic.

“I’ll be heading back to my estate, then,” she says, rising and heading for the window. “Give Haneyl an extra hug for me, and tell her I’ll be back in town officially soon. I have a pirate lord to speak to.”

Elly bows. “Do not think ill of her. She’s always unhappy when her time of the month coincides with one of her down-swings,” she says softly. “She’ll probably be back to normal in a few days.”

“I understand,” Keris says. “And I could never think ill of her for this. Give her my love.”

She slips out of the window, and is gone.

There’s a rustle in her head as she grabs some lunch from a street vendor. “Hey, mama,” Rathan says. “How are things?”

“Things,” Keris says in self-satisfied tones, “are going quite nicely indeed. I’m making good ground on getting the Hui Cha under my thumb, and just worked out a very profitable shipping dea- oh! Yes, I almost forgot! Did Mele hatch yet?”

“Not yet, mama. That was part of what I wanted to talk about. It’s going to be soon, if it’s a month. A week or so. I’ve had them return his cocoon-thing to the Undersea, in case taking it out slowed the process down.”

“Hmm. Here’s hoping, then. Have Oula’s tattoos given you any ideas what he’ll look like?”

“Pale, I think.” Rathan sniffs. “Paler than me. And larger horns than Oulie. And that’s another thing, mama. Do... do you need Oulie’s help for anything?”

Ah, thinks Keris. So that’s it. Rathan’s in need of a break.

“As it happens,” she says lightly, “I have come into ownership of a very large, very run-down estate that needs a lot of work done on it. And even if it was in perfect condition, the style isn’t quite to my taste so there are things I’d want to change. A talented architect would be quite useful to me, if you were willing to let her come help for a while.”

“Oh, no, I really hate to see her go, but if you need her, I really can’t say no to you, mama,” Rathan says, all in one rush. He pauses. “Not that I don’t love her,” he adds hastily. “I just... I just need some time away from her. She’s just so active. And she’s travelling all around the land and wants me to come along and she’s somehow learned to cry on command and that’s not fair because that’s my trick!”

Keris tries, she really does, but she can’t quite suppress a snort of laughter.

“You poor thing,” she manages once she’s got herself back under control. “Using your own tricks against you. However have you been coping?”

“It’s been hard,” Rathan says, without a trace of irony.

Biting her lip in amusement, Keris forces the edges of her mouth downward. “Well then, I’ll summon her tonight,” she says. “Thank you for your noble sacrifice in letting me employ her help with my estate. I love you, darling.”

“Thank you, mama,” he says.

---

Oula is happy to see her mentor - and just as happy to see Zanara. “Hello, prince,” she tells Nara, who’s sketching Keris’s summoning circle when she steps through the portal from the Sea. “How are things?”

Nara grins, showing a gap in his teeth. “They’re good! We’re having lots of fun! And she-we discovered a new trick!”

“That’s good.” Oula turns to face Keris. “Rathan mentioned you were interested in the coast, and also making things in your manor?”

“I have a niiiice big estate that’s horribly run down,” Keris nods. “It’s down among the southern coastal jungle bits and needs a lot of tender loving care. But if we can get it up to par, it’ll be a beautiful, elegant fortress. And the coastline is rugged enough that with a bit of help, they’ll never find the underwater docks we can make even if they go looking for them.”

“Excellent. I’ll take a look in the morning. And my room, aunty?” She smiles. “We’re not in a barge anymore, and I am a duchess.”

Thankfully, Keris had thought ahead. “You have a nice big one all to yourself, which you can use whenever you’re here and Rathan isn’t, since I don’t doubt you’ll be staying in his whenever possible,” she says. “The girls have settled in nicely as house staff; please try not to terrify them.”

“Oh, Aunty,” Oula says, smiling to share in the joke. “Why would I? There’s nothing bad between us. And,” her red pupils go to pinpricks, “they’re not a threat right now.”

Keris sighs tolerantly, and hugs her. “Just be good,” she orders. “And stay low-key. Zanara’s doing good work, but until I’m totally certain we’ve rooted out every spy the other blue sea masters have put here and stolen them all, I’d rather limit the number of obviously non-Tengese people seen wandering around my estate. If you want to explore the local coast, though, you have my blessings. I haven’t had the time to have a good proper swim around out there yet.”

“As you wish, Aunty,” Oula says dutifully, and heads out. Nara works away with charcoal on his paper, leaving Keris to think.

“The adult keruby are seemingly calmer than the child ones,” Firisutu observes, “but that is a lie. You’re collecting quite a few of them, aren’t you? What do you see in them, your majesty.”

“They all have their skills and focuses,” Keris thinks idly. “Even you can’t deny that they’re good at what they do. And most of them can pass for human. That’s useful, when I want to stay low-key.”

She wanders up to one of the high-ceilinged rooms on the south wing that overlooks the coast, and hops up the wall and into a hammock strung up near the ceiling where nobody without superhuman athletism could get at it. Lying back in the kordroma-spun silk, she twirls a lock of hair around her finger.

“The Gullites are doing well under Calesco,” she thinks. “I’m renovating the estate, I’ve got a steady income stream set up with the guano and next year when I’ve got the locals’ loyalty and she can work freely I can set Haneyl to improve the soil in the fields here. Two in six of the Hui Cha lords are mine, and I can start reeling in a third when I go back to the city in a few days. But... ach. There’s still more to do. Always is, it seems.”

“That is your duty, as Creator,” Firisutu reminds her. “You must do right by that which you make.” He sighs melodically. “Even the keruby.”

That night, Keris has strange dreams as she lies in bed, snuggled up with all three of her adorable little babies making a shell of softness around her. She’s not in the Domain - not quite. But then again she is a creature of Hell and the new moon is a time when Creation is weaker.

In her dreams, she’s curled up in a pile of blankets in some kind of carriage. She can hear the creaking of wood and movement, at least. Or... maybe it’s not a carriage. The rocking sway feels almost like being carried, and the sound... reminds her more of the rumble of the waterwheel at the forge in Baisha. Someone’s cooking something, too, and the smell of grilled lamb and saffron sends her back to her childhood.

The wind is howling outside of wherever she is, but that doesn’t matter. They’re going somewhere to meet her brother and cousin and cute little niece and welcome them to their new home, just like she promised months ago. She’s safe and she’s warm, and she can hear szulok around her - a dozen of the felid apes at least, crooning to little keruby in their two-tone voices or else helping whoever’s cooking with the meal. It’ll be a big one, dream-Keris thinks blearily, unwilling to open her eyes and wake up. Big enough to feed... mmm... the whole family. A big meal... all... together...

The rest is hazy blackness and vague feelings of comfort and warmth.

---

The next day, Keris heads back to Saata, and gets some work done in her forge while the city cleans up and recovers from hangovers from the new moon festival.

And the next day, she’s dressing up nicely before she heads out to Jade Fox’s estate.

She takes a pair of chunky silver rings with her for the lord, and with Oula and Vali watching the twins she brings along a fleshwoven Gale as a maid to look after Atiya while she talks to the pirate lord. Oula has promised to try and convince Ogin of the merits of the written word.

Keris wishes her luck, and keeps her expectations low. She certainly hasn’t made much progress on that front. Her little boy is remarkably stubborn when he wants to be.

Jade Fox’s townhouse - so to speak - in Yellow Point stands out now Keris has more experience with Saatan prices. It’s not an apartment like Keris’s - he has a wall around it, and gardens. It’s like a smaller version of his country estate, the one she’s already seen.

She’s greeted by the women of the household, who offer her water, help her get the dust of Saata off her robes, and coo over Atiya. The little girl is focussing better, but Keris is very much feeling the difference between Atiya’s rate of development and the inhuman development of the twins.

She indulges their cooing, tells a few stories of how frail Atiya was at first and how far she’s come, and accepts a drink along with the usual pleasantries and small talk. Little River is the very soul of decorum, with impeccable manners - and if she’s a little mysterious about what business dealings have brought her into the money to refurbish her estate, well. That’s only prudent of her, as a woman of the Hui Cha should be where matters of finance are concerned.

And then it’s time to see Jade Fox, in all his plain-overrobed, staid, boring him-ness.

Keris can’t help but feel that the voice in her head that’s making that commentary on one of the Blue Sea Masters sounds like Zana. It’s definitely what she would be saying if she was here.

The two of them kneel on either side of a low table, on rush mats. It’s started raining gently outside, but the screen doors are open to bring the cooler air in and the scent of the gardens., and so the sound of falling water is everywhere.

“I must congratulate you on your fortune. The gods act in mysterious ways, and to smile on someone is,” Jade Fox smiles, his scars creasing up, “an act of most uncommon generosity on their parts.”

“One goddess in particular,” Little River notes with a smile. “And while it was generous, I’d say it wasn’t unearned, either. Still, that is in the past - and my blessing was only one act. The rest I have invested and worked for.”

She makes civil small talk for a while, gracefully following the formalities that this conservative man so values. Offering him the rings as a gift, she takes the chance to size him up in her heartblood’s reflections. Keris is fairly sure of what secret desire she’ll find coiled around Jade Fox’s heart, but she wants to confirm it and be sure.

Keris sees it in the reflection in his eyes. Oh, he wants to be respectable in the eyes of Tengese society. That’s what he wants. Someone who can offer that will buy him.

((He wants respectability in the eyes of proper Tengese society.))

After an appropriate amount of time has passed with small talk, she brings the conversation around to her travels while pregnant.

“As it happens,” Little River says calmly in response to a question about what she’d been filling her time away with, “before the unpleasantness with the Dead, I did stumble across a chance to get in touch with a few people I knew back in An Teng. Too many doors are closed to me there to go back, but I still have a few contacts - and they were a lot more willing to help now that I’m Exalted.”

She smiles. “In short, I can very soon introduce your son to the eldest daughter of the Joyful Wave family - a coastal viscounty far from the Dragon’s Teeth. Their lands have been hard-done by from a bad storm two years ago, and with the aid of my contacts they’re quite willing to meet and discuss an marriage. Though the girl in question is only sixteen, so a longer engagement might be wise - to ensure propriety is met and the young couple are comfortable together.”

He nods. “I know. I have already been in contact with them by letters.” He frowns. “Such a strange number of people you know, for someone who claimed to flee An Teng in shame.” He pauses for a moment, then smiles. “But I welcome the chance. Stone Fox is a strapping young man - and his poor wife died a month after they married, when scarlet fever hit. He has been mourning her long enough, I say!”

((... ha ha ha, he botched his Investigation roll to try to read if Keris is hiding something.))
((Lol))

“When they feel ready to wed, I would be pleased to help arrange for the wedding,” Little River offers smoothly. “Either here in Saata - I’m sure I can find a worthy venue - or perhaps back in An Teng.” Keris allows faint concern to crease her face. “It would be delicate...” she murmurs, “but he is marrying into nobility, after all. It would be proper for it to take place on mainland Tengese soil, upon the land her family is bound to.”

There’s an approving nod from Jade Fox. “Yes. A proper marriage in An Teng. I will be sad to see him go, but... well, I hope my new in-laws will be amenable to trade.” He smiles. “And I would certainly appreciate your assistance in the proper silverwork. My wife is very impressed with the necklace you made her. She says you are most skilled.”

“I have been considering a workshop,” Little River muses. “A larger one than my current forge, with space for other masters, and some journeymen and apprentices to train. I’ve discovered I can teach, with my powers, and silver warding amulets are valuable things. If the Hui Cha controlled a reliable means of making high-quality ones, that would give us an edge over our rival fleets.”

“Hmm.” He strokes his beard, as thunder rolls outside. “I think that would be an excellent use of your skills. I would like to offer my help in setting up such an enterprise.”

Keris smiles lightly, though she’s grinning under the mask. Jade Fox isn’t as hard to read as he thinks he is - and she can tell that he likes the idea she’s proposed more than he’s letting on. It’s the usual unspoken way the Hui Cha does things. He’s offering his help, but there are strings attached. His help means giving him a stake in how things go, making sure to prioritise him as a client. And yes, he expects it to calm her down and keep her busy, too. So she doesn’t go around making trouble.

Part of her - the serpentine part that coils around her treasures and hisses at anything that comes near them - wanted to reject his offer and the barbed hook of control hidden within it.

But, honestly? When she’s going to hook him in turn, with a much more subtle line? There’s no real harm in letting him help her set up another income stream and take some of the burden of organisation and contracts off her hands, even if he takes part of it and gets priority on jobs. And if it means he thinks he has a measure of influence over her, that’s a little less he’ll balk when the time comes for her to take over the triads.

Little River smiles winningly at the pirate lord sitting across the table from her.

“I would be most grateful for your aid,” she tells him. “Great things will surely come of it.”

All in all, Keris had to consider when she headed back to her townhouse - in a palanquin so generously loaned by Jade Fox - things were going well. They were progressing. She had things under control.

And she managed to keep that idea in her head, right until her family showed up.

Chapter Text

In the early hours of the fourth of Rising Fire, Keris is woken by three wailing babies. The first thing she realises when she opens her eyes is that her room is lit up with bright green. A bright, Hellish green.

There is a sun floating over the table. No, it’s not a sun, she realises as she blinks the tears out of her eyes. It’s Ligier’s brass and crystal orb, floating above her desk, covered in burning bright words.

KERIS it reads when she groggily crawls out of bed, rocking three babies who are making their displeasure known at the top of their lungs.

YOU ARE TO GO TO TRIUMPHANT AIR, BY MY WILL. THE REALM MAGISTRATE HAS SEIZED AN ICON SACRED TO ME FROM ONE OF MY CULTS. THE ICON MUST BE RECLAIMED FROM THE DYNASTS, OR DESTROYED IN ITS ENTIRETY IF IT CANNOT BE SAVED. DANADU MARA WAS THE HEAD OF MY CULT. HE IS UNDER SUSPICION. EXTRACT HIM, OR TERMINATE HIM IF HE HAS TALKED. HE KNOWS TOO MUCH ABOUT CULTS ACROSS THE ANARCHY.

SO SPEAKS LIGIER

After Keris reads it, the words cease to glow, and the orb sinks back down to the table. Keris is left in the pre-dawn darkness, holding three distraught babies. She stands there considering this development for some time.

“... fuck,” she says at length. “Now? Really?”

Then a wailing Kali sinks tiny little talons into her arm, and things become a hectic mess of soothing her children and waking the household up and preparing.

Triumphant Air, she thinks as she darts around from task to task. Triumphant Air. She knows a little about it from Sasi - up north, old volcanic island, Realm naval base. Sasi had described it as the actual Dynastic power in the Anarchy, contrasted to the tightly contained pleasure-centre for visiting patricians that the satrapy of An Teng made for, or the dirty, barely-acknowledged pirate hub of Saata that was ruled by a house too common and low for the Realm to do more than accept its tithes at arm’s length.

... which is useful, certainly, but not nearly as much as Keris would prefer to know about the place. And she has a feeling that going to Sasi for advice by Messenger or portrait, even if she could afford to wait for her lover to wake up all the way, would not go down well with Ligier. This is a private mission. He’ll want her to do it herself.

“Rounen!” she calls sharply. “I need everything you have on Triumphant Air, now!”

Rounen - unflappable and disgustingly awake - is there, with papers in hand.

“Ma’am, it is the primary naval base of the Realm Navy in the northern Anarchy,” he says, shuffling through his notes. “The three squadrons that patrol the region operate out of it. There’s also an Immaculate temple - Sasimana’s notes indicate the abbess is young but a hardliner from the Realm. Triumphant Air is famed for its hot springs and its graceful basalt towers, although its role in the sugar trade has collapsed over the past few decades as larger plantations to the south took over. It used to be a major trade hub during the days of the Blue Monkey Shogunate, but Saata has taken much of the role it once had.”

“Ffffff-” Keris hisses. “Immaculate hardliner, right. There’s a magistrate there too?”

A horrible suspicion falls over her. “Oh. Oh fuck. Please don’t tell me it’s the same magistrate as that Earth Aspect back in An Teng. The one with that utter bitch of a Fire Aspect among his friends. Whatshisname...”

She snaps her fingers a couple of times, searching, until Dulmea supplies her with what she’s looking for. “Nellens Niramono! Urgh, gods, it probably is. Even if he’s not there in person, it’ll have been him who took the damn thing. And his fucking friends will probably be guarding it, with my luck.”

Behind Keris’s back, her hair makes throttling motions around the neck of an imaginary Dragonblood.

Rounen searches through his notes. “I can’t say, ma’am,” he observes. “My apologies. Now, I believe you will wish to go there alone, yes? And certainly not as Little River. Perhaps Tenné Cinnamon - she does have a certain amount of fame in An Teng, and you can have the excuse that you were going for the hot springs...”

“No,” Keris cuts him off. “No, I won’t be going as either, I think. Or at all, publically. This is going to be an off-the-books mission by water. Sneak in, do the job, get out. Preferably without anyone knowing I was there. If I have a public face in the area at the time, that’s just a potential trail for them to follow.”

She bares her teeth. “Shit. I’m going to need to leave soon. Today, probably. Ach, and with Ali and the others due to arrive within the next couple of weeks.” She chews a hair tendril. “At least it’ll probably be a fairly quick mission. Succeed or fail, I doubt it’ll take longer than a day or two once I’m there.”

Rounen makes a few notes. “Very well, ma’am. Then I believe we will need one of your extrusions to hold down the fort - or if more prowess might be needed, I suppose Princess Haneyl or Princess Calesco could pass as you...”

“A Gale should do, I think,” Keris says. “Haneyl has a lot of work to do, and Calesco is still recovering. And doesn’t know the Hui Cha that well. I’ve seen Jade Fox already, so there shouldn’t be too much to do. If needs be, I can just pretend Atiya’s come down with a cough and seclude myself until I get back.”

“As you wish.” Rounen wrinkles his nose. “Now, since there is no chance of me getting back to sleep until the children are settled again, is there anything you wish prepared before you set off?”

Keris purses her lips. “I don’t think we’ll need it, but... make a small room back at the estate ready for a guest. Short-term stay. I may be coming back with someone, and if I do they’ll need somewhere to go unnoticed for a little while before leaving again. Somewhere nobody will notice them, mind. And before that, find me a map that’ll help me get to Triumphant Air.”

“Right away, ma’am,” Rounen says, heading off and leaving Keris to say goodbye to her babies.

Ogin tilts his head at her expression, and pats a still-tearful Kali on the arm. Gold and silver eyes both stare at her. Then, “Huuuuuuuuuuug!” insists Kali. “Hug!”

Keris scoops both of them up and spins them around, holding them close in her arms and nuzzling them lovingly. “My babies,” she whispers. “Mama will miss you very very much while she’s away, okay? Even if she’ll still be here. So be good for the mama that’s here, and send kisses to the mama who isn’t! I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

Atiya gets a gentler goodbye, too young still to understand what’s happening. Keris tucks her into the crook of her shoulder and lets her rest there for a moment; skin against skin, stroking her hair tenderly.

“Be strong, my precious little princess,” she murmurs, pressing a soft kiss to her smooth little cheek. “Let your brother and sister look after you. And stay safe.”

“Tiya!” contributes Kali, her nose running. Ogin, for his part, squirms along Keris’s hair to hang upside down in front of her eyes, staring at her intensely.

Then he yawns.

Keris puts the babies back to sleep, breathes out a Gale to look after them, and then she’s collecting her resources from Rounen and headed out. One real advantage of her new home, she thinks as she dives off the cliffs, is she’s straight out into the water.

Then she’s speeding up again, looping around Saata - past the still blaring noise and light of the city - and past the hook of Shuu Mua and headed north. Rounen helpfully provided her with a map, and she follows it as best she can. “North” isn’t too hard, if she looks for the Imperial Mountain and makes sure to point herself diagonally to the left of it, and there are a few islands she can use as rough landmarks.

Also the ships. The ships help a lot, as she starts getting closer and can afford to slow down to the achingly boring pace of the junks and follow them in.

The sun is past its zenith before Keris gets to Triumphant Air. They say the island looks like a crab and it’s highly volcanic - or at least Rounen’s notes did. Keris can’t see the crab in more than the broadest terms, but she can recognise the volcanism. Neatly stepped terraces line the interior of the caldera, dotted with farming villages that huddle within the many natural magma tunnels that riddle the island. The exterior is more wild, with bamboo forests and natural hot springs interspersed with the estates of smaller landowners and the holdings of freedmen.

There are two major cities in the natural harbour. One clearly must be the Imperial naval base. Nowhere else would have so many red-sailed ships and such heavy, blocky, fortified construction. Someone sat down and carefully designed this place to protect the ships and be proof against raiders, and they did their job well. The other, therefore, must be the capital, Rising Steam. Keris admires it from a distance, head above the water as she paddles. The basalt spires and carefully carven geometrical architecture reminds her of the Spires somewhat - Vali would like the way it looks, even if it’s tamer than he’d like. It looks like the city was once bigger from the worn-down stumps surrounding it. And - Keris frowns - all the buildings look fancy and nobby. There are no slums, no poor places - every building looks prosperous and healthy.

She’s here to find two things; an icon sacred to Ligier and a cultist named Danadu Mara. It... would be helpful if Ligier had given her a description of either. But he didn’t, so she’s going to have to play it by ear. On the plus side, he said that Mara was under suspicion, not that he’d already been taken in by the Immaculates. It’s been ten days since that information was good, but it’s possible he’s not yet in a cell under an Realm fortress, and if she can find him he’ll be able to give her a better description of what else she’s looking for.

With that in mind, Keris dons the guise of a man aging out of his middle years and advances. Cautiously. Agenete is suddenly fresh and raw in her memory, and she has no intention of being caught out like she was there by lack of official papers and whatnot. For the moment she lurks and listens to the talk of the town, seeking opportunities to ask a few quiet questions.

((Per + Investigation))
((Dammit. I miss Ney.))
((... I cannot believe I just said that.))
((And am in fact vaguely horrified that the words came out of my mouth. :P))

The town might look beautiful, but Keris finds where the dirt is hidden. It’s underground. Literally. The rich and middle classes have these ancient basalt towers, but the poor live in caves and houses build in the magma tubes under the city, and that’s where Keris gets talking.

It’s gloomy down here, with smoky whale-fat lanterns and the occasional crack letting light in. The air smells of cooked fish, rice, and marijuana smoke. And the lower classes aren’t happy. So the story goes, but a magistrate showed up out of nowhere, arrested a bunch of nobles with the help of the temple, and now he’s bullied the satrap into all kinds of onerous requirements that are slowing trade to a stop. He seems to think - so the story goes - that someone’s trying to escape his hunt. And because of that, there are all kinds of travellers who are stuck here, so the city and smaller towns are crammed to full. The only way out is personal inspection by the magistrate and he’s a busy man. As a result, there are Tengese traders, weirdos from Nightfall Isle, a crazy pack of women with black skin and shaved heads, and even some tyrant-lizard cultists who no one wants to go near!

“Danadu Mara?” says a woman selling seaweed wraps when Keris pauses to buy something. “He’s one of the Danadu landowners. Their taxes are something fierce, my sister says.”

“Is their land worth it, at least?” Keris jokes, angling the conversation to find out exactly where they’re situated. But part of her mind is hanging back, circling around one of the other points she’s heard.

A crazy pack of women with black skin and shaved heads, huh? That sounds uncomfortably like a group she knows. And while there’s nothing on her family that the Realm would care about, she’s not sure how well their story will bear up if the magistrate pays close attention.

Double fuck, Keris thinks, and adds another task to her to-do list.

“Well enough,” she says.

“Mara, yeah, I’ve heard of him,” chips in the Tengese-looking woman on the next stall over, selling meat dumplings. “Feckless layabout, that’s the story. Throws parties all the time, travels a lot, don’t know the value of money.”

“Well now, that sounds like something a man could turn a profit out of,” Keris says, letting greedy interest shine through the false face she wears. “Where d’you think I could find him, if I wanted to try and convince him to spend some of those riches he’s so free with?”

The Tengese woman looks Keris up and down, taking her - or, rather, her male garb - into account. “You’re not local. I don’t know what your landowners are like, but ours don’t even want to see us.” She gestures around. “This is where they put us. Down in the magma tubes. Land with sunlight’s too pricy for the likes of us.”

“I’m not, no,” Keris agrees. “Stuck here by the trade bans, so I’m looking for things to pass the time and make up some money with. We don’t have tunnels back home.” She snorts. “Some things are the same everywhere, though. Lords hoarding all the good land for themselves.”

“You said it,” the woman agrees. “So, if you’re looking for something to do, why not try our meat buns? Caramelised chicken and chilli’ll put a pep in your step!”

Keris happily pays up - and she actually does pay; these aren’t the kind of people she steals from - and then heads upwards. It’s not the best of leads, but a feckless decadent layabout on Danadu land should be easy enough to find, if she shifts to a richer-looking lie and asks around about events and parties.

And from what it sounds like, he hasn’t been taken into custody - or at least it’s not been made public if he has. People would be talking, like they’ve been talking about the other nobles who were arrested. If he’s still free, it’s probably down to the reputation he’s spread as a self-indulgent member of the idle rich. Someone like that isn’t a threat - and certainly wouldn’t be easily suspected of being a demon-worshipping cult leader with connections to Hellish worship across the whole Anarchy.

The chaos in the nobility here is a thing to behold. They’re scared. Retreating to their estates, not going to parties - yes, the magistrate has them terrified. This Ragara Midari is a dangerous man, willing to upset the local landowners - and patrol the streets with marines from the Navy. Sensing an opportunity, Keris listens in on a few conversations between the marines. The grunts on the streets won’t know anything of worth, but they’ll give her a sense of what the attitude of the magistrate’s forces are, and perhaps let one or two things slip about the direction of the Realm’s efforts. The two women are tired and hot. It’s not rained yet today, so in their armour they’re baking and they’re also bitching about how they can’t take their sleeves off.

That’s about all Keris can gather, and most of it is from body language and attitude, because they have the bad manners to speak in Low Realm in front of her. Which she doesn’t speak.

Flipping them a rude gesture from a nearby alley that they don’t see due to Keris blending into the shadows like a ghost, she sulkily resumes her search for Danadu Mara. If she can just find his home, that will be a good start. There’s a fair chance he’s hiding there like the rest of the terrified nobility here. And if not, it’ll at least give her some leads.

By the late afternoon, as the sun creeps slowly towards the mountain, Keris has found Mara’s estate. It’s up on one of the little terraced areas, surrounded by farms and bamboo, and has a blocky basalt wall around it.

It also has watchers. Watchers not from the inside. People watching it from outside - two marines in a shelter, people in a nearby village who have telescopes that there’s no way they could afford normally. The magistrate must have set a watch on the estate.

Grimacing, Keris watches the watchers; listening in on them and hoping that they, at least, have the decency to speak in something she understands.

... okay, so it’s not likely the marines will. She can still hope. And scope out their set-up before going in, so she knows what angles they’re watching from.

((Cog + Command, Diff 3))
((3+0+2 stunt, really missing Ney here, urgh. Hmm... I don’t want to waste motes here. I guess I’ll chance it and just accept the lack of info if I fail. 5 dice... 3 sux! Nice. ^_^))

Keris grins. It’s a shell game. Which is the person spying on him? The obvious marines? The spies in the village?

Well, Keris knows these kinds of games. She looks up the mountainside, up to where the Immaculate temple is and - ah, there, the glint of the sun on glass. Of course. There’s a monk or a nun up there, patient and careful and probably meticulous watching everyone who comes and goes. She cracks her knuckles and combs out her hair, plans forming in her mind. Taking out the watchers would be a crude tactic. Better would be disguising him with a new face and smuggling him out. Two servants going out on a boring errand - carrying empty wine barrels away to be reused, perhaps - won’t raise eyebrows.

But first, she has to get in unseen and corner him somewhere private. And find out if he’s talked, though the watchers lead her to doubt it.

Dulmea hums. “Will you go in as a princess of Hell, once you corner him?” she enquires. “Perhaps a cultist who fears you and owes you his life - and you can get that grasp on him - would be very useful.”

“You could just kill him and say it was too risky to get him out and you thought he talked,” Rathan says with a yawn. “Less effort.”

“I’ll see what he’s like and how difficult getting him out is likely to be, first,” Keris thinks. “But yes, I think a combination of ‘scary hell princess with the personal favour of Ligier’ and ‘here to rescue you from the Realm and their many, many horrible ways to force information out of you’ should work.”

“And now I expect you’re going to go back to a different settlement, perhaps find somewhere to sleep, and then show up again at his place at night,” Dulmea says dryly. “Because going somewhere during the day makes your skin creep.”

“Now we’re going to go check whether those dark-skinned crazy women are my Lionesses,” Keris corrects her. “But yes, we’ll wait for nightfall to move in on him. It’ll be easier to slip in unnoticed and get him out of there.”

Fortunately, the rumours of the crazy black-skinned all-female band are easy to follow, and Keris tracks them down the coach to a fishing village that is practically overflowing. One of the local landowners has apparently said “fuck that” to preserving the natural beauty of their landscape when money is to be made from the people trapped on the island, and a small village by the sea is now practically a brand new town made of green-wood house and hauled-in boats overturned and made into roofs. Some of the people here are living in simple tents made from sail canvas pitched over masts hammered into the ground.

It doesn’t smell great. Keris suspects they’re having a problem with disease here. Anyone would, so many people crammed into such little space.

Howler monkeys gibber out in the bamboo as Keris stalks the muddy streets, a late afternoon rainstorm slashing down like tiny pebbles. Thunder booms out in the blackened sky. And there, up ahead, is a food stall clearly run by a Harbourite woman. And there, more and more traces of her mother’s people. Reverting to her normal appearance and a kebaya-sarong, Keris wraps a shawl over her braids where they spill down her back and tugs it up into a sun hood up to cover her distinctive hair. Then she heads in the direction where the Harbourites seem to be the most concentrating.

There’s an order to this part of the rain-streaked camp - refugee-camp, almost - that there isn’t to the rest. The dark-skinned women who fill these streets - eating under canvas, sewing torn clothes, in some cases caring for babies - have an order here. When two of them get into a screaming argument about whose turn it is to do some chore and fists fly, an older woman is there to bash heads together.

She’s following a noise - the sound of a hammer on metal. And there, outside a bamboo and canvas tent-hut, is her brother - working on short boot-nails while a Harbourite woman works on fixing a broken boot-sole.

There’s a little more white on his temples, and he’s put on a little weight. But it’s him.

She hesitates. This is actually scarier than showing herself to Sasi, because with Sasi she was sure of a warm reception. Ali... Ali takes after papa. He doesn’t like adventure or risk. And he’s travelled halfway across the world on her say-so over the past eight months. Who knows what he’s seen and done? Maybe... maybe he won’t...

A faint pressure on her finger draws her attention downwards. Iris is nipping at her, looking up in confusion. Keris breathes in, breathes out, strokes her little dragon’s head, and puts her feet forward.

“Ali?” she calls softly as she approaches. He looks up, and flinches in shock.

“Keris?” he almost whispers, laying down the nailhead he’s cold-shaping. “You’re... you’re here?”

She takes a few quick steps forward and throws her arm around him, hugging tight. “It’s good to see you,” she breathes out in a rush. “So good, you have no idea. You’re alright? Zany and Hanilyia are okay? The journey wasn’t too hard?”

Ali shakes his head. “You are a madwoman,” he informs her. “Dragged all across the world, so many different places, ship after ship... we got attacked by pirates twice! And I find you’re here already?!”

Keris shrugs. “Believe me, you took the safer route. The paths I take to travel across the world so fast go outside of it, and back in again. Besides, I had to get here before you so I could set things up for you to arrive.” She frowns. “Though I’ll admit I didn’t bank on you getting stuck at a Realm naval base under a trade lockdown. How long have you been here?”

Ali looks around in disgust. “Three weeks,” he grumbles. “Getting rained on. And I’ve heard from some of the girls who’ve picked up some of the local language that it’ll be hard getting ships in Fire, given it’s typhoon season and all.”

“Yeah,” Keris sighs. “The year’s-end storms are a bitch down here. But, ach,” she shakes her head and claps. “We shouldn’t just be standing around talking. Show me to Zanyira and Hany! My niece needs a hug, and I’ve got something pretty to show... uh...”

She trails off, looking at her bare left arm. Then at Ali. Oh. Damn. “... her,” she finishes, suppressing the urge to scold Iris for sliding off her skin to explore Ali’s like that.

... then again, Iris is an insatiably curious little creature, and feeling flesh that was almost like Keris’s must have been a temptation she couldn’t resist. Urgh. Fine. Keris supposes she’ll let this one slide, as long as Iris doesn’t pop up and terrify Ali too much when she gets bored of doing loop-the-loops between his shoulderblades. Presumably she’s excited at having so much more space than is available on Keris’s slender frame.

Her brother looks at her, wondering what the matter is, but shakes his head. He says a few quiet words to the shoemender beside him, then heads into the hut where Zany - her hair cut as short as the Harbourite women, which makes her look delicate and almost elfin - is cooking along with another woman. Hany is in the corner, playing some game which involves a lot of giggling with another child with similar skin-colour to Keris and Ali.

Zany looks up, catches her husband’s eye and smiles at him. The smile vanishes in shock when she sees who’s following him in.

Keris sweeps over and draws her into a hug, too. “It’s good to see you,” she says fervently. “I’m so glad you made it here alright.”

Zany laughs, lifting up her cousin. She’s fared better than her husband in the travelling - she’s actually put on muscle, and is not the still-weak-from-being-bedridden woman she was. “Finally you showed up. I can’t believe it! Travel all the way across the world and get stuck here just before the finish line!” she says. “You look well - and so thin! Where are the babies?”

“At home in Saata, well looked after,” Keris assures her. “And probably causing their minders all manner of stress, but Vali can handle getting chewed on a little. And you! You look incredible! The journey did you some real good, I see.”

Zany rubs her cropped hair sheepishly. “Well, I was bored on the ship so wound up getting involved in their training,” she says sheepishly. “They made jokes about how I needed to be stronger because my daughter is one-quarter Harbourite and so she’d be able to snap me in two when she gets older if I wasn’t. And suns bless, I always used to wonder why Harbourite women had short hair, but if it’s anything there like here no wonder they cut it! It’s so hot and humid!”

“I’d say you get used to it, but you don’t.” At least not without it being part of your nature, Keris thinks to the tune of a smug hiss from the back of her mind. “I can probably make you a pretty silver amulet that’ll help, though. And speaking of my niece...”

“Yes! Hany!” Zany sweeps her daughter up, pulling her away from her playmate to some protests. “No, no, baby girl, no, look who it is! It’s Aunty Keris!”

Hany stares at her. “Where’s all her hair? Did she cut it like you? Mama cut her hair. She didn’t ask me before doing it!”

Keris laughs. “Don’t worry, I’ve still got my hair. See?” She flips her hood down and frees a tendril from her shawl. Her feathers chime together softly as she uses it to wave to the little girl.

“Are you a bird, Aunty Keris?” Hany demands.

“... maybe?” Zany frowns. “Can you turn into a bird, Keris? Because that would be wonderful!”

“Please don’t,” Ali says weakly.

“I can’t turn into a bird,” Keris says. “But! You remember I told you about your cousins, Hany? My babies, who I had inside me when you last saw me? Well, I had them while I was looking for your grandparents, and one of your cousins can turn into a bird.” She pauses. “And has a terrible habit of doing it at dinner time,” she adds with an eyeroll. “Which did not make feeding her before she was on solids an easy task.”

Hany screws up her face. “That’s not faaaaaaaaaaaaair!” she wails. “I wanna be a bird! I wanna I wanna I wanna!”

“Oh dear. I’m cooking, Ali, see to her,” Zany says. Ali hugs and picks up the tantruming toddler. “Keris, come on, help me with this. This is Aaden, by the way,” she adds, gesturing to the woman who’s helping her. “Aaden, this is my cousin and sister-in-law, Keris. We’re next door and she has a little boy so things are easier if we cook together and let the children play. So how long are we going to be here, Keris?”

“The trade ban’s in place because the magistrate is cracking down hard on cult activity,” Keris says. “That... may well change soon, if he goes haring off after another target, but if it doesn’t we may have a problem. Smuggling three people out, I could do. Three hundred would prove... trickier. And I didn’t bring anyone else with me who could help organise it.”

Zany pulls a face. “Bleargh. Things weren’t so bad, the chance to be off a ship for a bit. But right now things are very cramped and not too clean. Me and Ali can cope, but if things get bad I might ask you to get Hany off. She’s already been ill from dirty water. She’s not as tough as an adult.”

Keris grimaces. “I’ll see to it, if it comes to that. But I won’t be able to stay long. I have some other business here that I’ll need to take care of, and then head back to Saata and make sure everything is set up for you to arrive. I can take her with me then, if need be. Maybe you and Ali too, if your absence wouldn’t be noticed.”

“So you can’t stay for dinner?” Zany says sadly. “Oh well. I can’t stop you with your magical bird powers and your wriggly hair. Good luck with whatever bird things you have to do!”

It is very hard to tell when Zany is being serious. Keris vaguely recalls that was always a trait of hers. “I can manage dinner, I think,” she grins. “My bird things can wait until nightfall. And I need to retrieve my little friend from Ali before I go.”

Dinner is simple and honestly smaller than it should be. They’re not starving here, but food is limited. Still, Zany is delighted when Iris makes an appearance and the little dragon seems fascinated by Keris’s cousin’s green eyes. She tries to make her own flame-eyes green, but can’t hold it for more than a few breaths. Keris tells some stories to Hany about her new cousins and in particular Hany finds the revelation that she can have both a cousin and a kitty at the same time to be mind-blowing.

Keris is affectionate and tolerant and avoids the question of what her “other business” on Triumphant Air is. As well as the fact that it’s the real reason she’s here, and that she didn’t actually come here for her family or indeed know they were here until she arrived and found out by fluke.

It seems like it would make the meal awkward. And also raise inconvenient questions about what she did come here for, which she wouldn’t be able to answer.

She also avoids questions about what she did in Taira after they parted, delaying her answers until they’re settled in their new home on Saata. But that’s for entirely different reasons.

No, Keris keeps the topics of conversation light, and spends her time planning while others talk. Cissidy can probably hold Ali and Zany, at least over short distances. And Keris can carry Hany if she runs on the water. She could probably slip them out at night and get a distance of a few islands; then summon another anyaglo... but for the damn cultist she’s here to extract. She’s not putting both groups where they can get wind of each other; that’s a recipe for disaster.

Which means either two separate extractions, or giving the magistrate a reason to think his last target has flown the coup and escaped the city. Having Mara simply disappear won’t necessarily do that - Ragara Midari seems like the kind of man who might assume he’d just gone to ground, and leave enough forces to maintain the quarantine on shipping and scour the island’s hiding places. He’d have to be reasonably sure that the cult leader he’s searching for has genuinely fled, and that there’s no more worth in keeping the harbour gates chained up.

It’s still raining by the time Keris finishes up with her family, but the sun is down. The night here is hot, humid, and wet - and dark. Very dark. The thick clouds are blotting out the sliver of moon and the stars.

With her eyes helping less, Keris can hear the island below her as she returns to the estate of the man she’s looking for. She can hear the hiss of steam in the depths, and she gets momentarily distracted by the heated warmth of a natural hot spring that’s bubbling up. This is a beautiful island, in its own way. Haneyl and Vali would probably both love it here.

Of course, she’d never let them anywhere near a Realm and Immaculate place like this.

Under cover of darkness, she makes her infiltration attempt on the house, quite aware of the hidden onlookers. Who are still there. Still watching. But while they watch, but they don’t see. Mara’s estate is surrounded by bamboo, which readily bends aside for Keris without a sound. Like the leopard and the owl and the river dragon, she approaches her prey silent and unnoticed; blending perfectly into the jungle until she gets to the wall, and slipping over it with ease as a cloud momentarily blocks the light of the moon.

Then it’s into a woven lie of servant’s garb to infiltrate the estate; just one of Mara’s staff among many.

The rural estate reminds Keris vaguely of Sasi’s country estate in An Teng, though it is obviously smaller and less pretty and worse in every way possible. It’s a collection of low wooden buildings connected by covered walkways, with heavy shutters to protect the house from the frequent storms. No one is out this late in this weather if they can avoid it, as thunder booms yet again overhead, and Keris slips in through the servant’s quarters, drying herself off before silently stalking through the beeswax-smelling polished wooden floors and flimsy paper walls. She doesn’t need a candle, and she moves into the more expensive parts of the house, picking her way through the structure until...

... ah ha. There are hollow places under the structure. More of those magma tubes, no doubt. She wonders if the magistrate knows about them. Maybe he does. Someone willing to fake-out a watch like that is likely the sort of man who wouldn’t do anything if he knows about your secret escape route and way in and out of the mansion.

But she instead follows the sound to where a man is still awake, working by candlelight in a study which - unlike most of the house - has glass windows. There are many candles alight here, placed on every surface, to give an almost constant golden glow. Outside, the landscape is periodically lit by flashes of lightning, illuminating the terraced slopes down to the shoreline.

The man himself - she sees, peeking through a slit in the door - is in his early thirties, but dresses like a younger man. There’s ink on his fingers as he works on a letter, and he wears cotton wraps around his forearms to protect his silk gown from the same fate. He’s got clear Realm blood, mixed in with a more Tengese appearance. His brush flows as he writes and writes.

((Do the windows give an angle to the watchers?))
((He’s facing away from the mountain, so certainly not the Immaculates.))
((Hmm.))

Keris opens the door and slips inside.

“Danadu Mara?” she asks softly.

He starts, one hand going to the sheathed sword on his desk. “Who are you?!” he demands when he sees she isn’t one of his servants.

Keris gives him the same unimpressed look she gives to Kali when she throws a tantrum about not being allowed to chase rats into the spaces under the floorboards. “Our lord sent me here,” she says, her voice still low. “Where can speak in privacy? There are at least three groups watching the estate, and this room has too many windows for my liking.”

“What lord is that? The satrap?” His hand doesn’t leave his sword.

((Read Motivation, diff 4))
((5+1+2 Coadj+2 stunt=10. 11 successes, holy shit. Three tens, and only two dice that weren’t successes.))

Keris purses her lips slightly and narrows her eyes. So much for the hope that Ligier had let his cultist know she was coming in a similar way to how he’d given orders to her. So then, that makes this difficult. She’s not only going to have to extract the man, she’s going to have to convince him to come first. She lets the silence hang for a moment as she considers him, making no move from her position by the door. He’s lying, of course. She can see it. He’s keeping up a brave facade, but he’s terrified that this is some fake-out trick to get him to blurt things out. And from the way he bears himself, it wouldn’t be the first time.

“I speak of Ligier,” she says, lifting a hang in a casual motion to prevent her lips being read through the window by any unnaturally observant onlookers. “The Green Sun, crown prince of Hell, the greatest craftsman alive and the rightful lord and ruler of all. Show me to a place where we can speak freely, and I will show you his favour, so that you know you can trust me.”

He licks his lips. “I know of no such thing,” he says loudly. “Are you threatening me to come with you?”

Keris tilts her head and checks again for hidden listeners, while evaluating him with more ephemeral senses. Either he’s been flipped and this is a trap for her, with some concealed ambush waiting that he’s talking to... or far more likely, he’s covering his ass in fear that there might be enemies listening. After all, he doesn’t have hearing like hers. In which case, her answer is simple.

Keris smiles, chillingly. “For the purposes of this conversation, yes,” she says pleasantly. “I am. Now take me to a more private room, or I will drag you out of this door and find one myself. You have no choice in this.”

She reads him as she speaks. Evaluates what he expects from her. What he values. Oh, this man is a political animal indeed, and proud of it. He might pretend to be a wastrel, but he’s a keen monster of innuendo, threats, and subtle ploys. And he’s expecting her to threaten him and keep up his pretence - and then, if she’s telling him the truth, to make all his problems go away.

((He has Politics 3 + 3 dot style))

She raises an imperious eyebrow. “Well?” she asks impatiently. “Or do my knives need to come out and convince you further?”

He leads her down to his cellars - cooler, hewn from volcanic rock - and then a barrel of wine turns out to be a hidden tunnel into the magma tubes. It’s dark in here - pitch black. The only light is the candle he bought with him. But he knows the way, and leads her to a hidden grotto, where there are residual traces of fires and quartz glitters in the walls.

“Who... or what... are you?” he asks, face lit from below by the single flame in here. “And why do you speak His name?”

By way of answer, Keris lets the burning green brand on her forehead light up in an empty ring of Ligier’s fire.

“I stand among the highest ranks of his servants,” she says, the soft, low tone from upstairs replaced by imperious force. “Blessed by his fire and tasked with carrying out his will directly. I am a princess of the Green Sun, Danadu Mara, and my lord sent me here to extract you if you were faithful... or to kill you, should I find you had betrayed him.”

((Per + Expression, 2 dot stunt for being a dramatic bitch.))
((4+5+3 Prince(ss) of Hell Style+2 stunt=14. 11 sux, lawl.))

The man flinches back with a squeak. “One of the Wretched,” he gasps. “An anathema, one who has taken the power of the gods! So it is true and it is possible!”

Keris’s eyes narrow sharply.

“‘Wretched’?” she echoes in a tone that is superficially pleasant in the same way that the light reflecting off a knifeblade can look pretty. “‘Anathema’? Is this how you address a princess of lord Ligier’s domain? A peer of Hell sent to judge your loyalties and be your salvation or your death?”

“W-well... th-that is what the... the dreadful, heretical, evil, self-righteous curs of the Im-m-maculates call you,” he stammers. “If I h-have offended, my... your holiness, I... I wish to only m-make amends.” His words are falling over themselves, and he seems on the verge of fainting.

Keris folds her arms. “Will you swear your fealty to me, and to lord Ligier through me?” she demands. “Will you prove beyond doubt that you have not broken your faith; that you hold your oaths and loyalties true?”

He clasps his shaking hands together, down in these basalt caves. The sickly green of Keris’s brand paints his plump features and makes them look even queasier. “Of c-course! I haven’t talked to the m-m-magistrate! I know he’s watching me! And it wasn’t even my fault! He somehow knew to r-raid one of our caves and took the icon. The Immaculates st-stoned my cousin, because it was hidden in her estate. They suspect me - but that madwoman abbess doesn’t know for sure or I’d be dead, and the magistrate is still investigating. In s-some ways he’s scarier. It was that f-fucking alchemist he followed, I’m s-sure of it!”

Keris reaches forward and catches his wrist, pulling it towards her and pressing a thumb to the outside of his forearm. Her thumb teases into his flesh, reshaping and tinting it, and when she lifts it a moment later there is a thumb-sized mark there. A tattoo of a green eye carved on a stone throne, high enough on his arm that long sleeves will easily cover it. The sort of thing that might just be a meaningless piece of art, if someone without knowledge of demonic iconography saw it. But they both know the truth.

“So you have sworn,” says Keris. “And in your oath, I will trust. Now. Tell me of this icon.”

He talks. He damn near well sings. It’s an emerald statue, he says, something granted to the cult by a potent demon who one of their forefathers met at sea. A forearm-sized emerald of a handsome man with a ring of arms fanning out behind them. They’d kept it in a hidden temple under his cousin’s land, until the magistrate came and rooted them out and the Immaculates stoned, burned, drowned, and otherwise slew the cultists they found. And he blames the alchemist from An Teng for bringing this trouble to their door. The magistrate killed him himself, so they can’t even get revenge on this man who swore blind that he’d found a way to steal the power of the gods once again.

“The alchemist,” Keris prompts. “This man from An Teng who was your people’s doom. Tell me about him. He thought to steal the power of the gods?”

Mara nods. “Yes. He had his potions and his rituals and his formulae. He had found p-power, yes.. It seemed to work. We agreed to shelter him in return for his teachings and some of his texts, but the magistrate followed him here.”

“Hmm.” She cracks her knuckles. “Did he have a family name? A group, or a school he learned from? This affront should not go unpunished.”

He swallows. “No, I do not know. He was Tengese, or at least had their look, and said he was called Third Duck, but I do not believe that was his name.” He pauses. “If his books would help you...” he suggests, “... then I would willingly give them to you when I am saved from this dark fate.”

Keris considers this for a moment longer, and then nods. “Very well. Let’s talk about you, then. Since you remain loyal, my mission is to extract you, and not to kill you. The magistrate is suspicious enough of you that staying here is no longer an option. What contacts do you have who can shelter you once we’ve left?”

He shivers. “There are people... others I know. But... he will come for me. If I run... he tracked the alchemist. And my connections and my wealth...” Hugging his arms around himself, he asks, “Can’t you pin the blame on someone else? Make it look like they were framing me?”

She purses her lips again, keeping her smile inside. “You ask a lot,” she says, with the air of someone willing to be convinced. “Whoever it was would have to be killed trying to escape capture. They have ways to tell truth from lies when men protest their innocence. And to frame another noble well enough to fool the eyes of the Realm is more difficult than simply retrieving one from within their reach.”

“I can d-do more for you here,” he suggests, trying to hold himself together. “I’m a man of power and influence. I know p-people. Even if I have to leave to go travelling to let the suspicion die down, w-wouldn’t it be more useful to have someone loyal to you on Triumphant Air? This is the Realm’s naval base - and I have contacts among people who sell to the Navy. And House Danadu has allegiance to Tepet, but they’re weak now. The satrap here isn’t even dragon-chosen, and they’ve adopted the Cadet House and taken most of them off the island. Who’s left - one senile old woman living up in her sorcerer’s tower, and,” he nods, “Lilina Timkul - and everyone in the know is fully aware that Joni Timkul is a cuckold and all his children are the satrap’s bastards. Yes, I know that sort of thing. Things I can do for you here!”

Stroking her chin, Keris lets the silence hang in the air for juuuuust long enough that he starts to sweat.

And then she smiles, slowly.

“That is valuable,” she agrees, letting the mercury in her blood reflect his heart. “You know much about the rest of the Anarchy too, no doubt. Tell me, then. Who on Triumphant Air would the traitor-dragon of Earth believe to be a servant of our lord, who has reason to want you unjustly ruined? Who would you have fall in your place, that the Realm’s spies and monks would believe?”

((HP on his greatest desire, which I figure at this point has a high chance of being ‘save me and let me keep my wealth’.))
((Roll it, Diff 3 - reduced by how desperate he is, lol :p ))
((Hee hee. 4+1+2 stunt+3 Kimmy ExD {talent for temptation, darkest desires}=10. 6 sux.))
((Yeah, saving him and his wealth is his price right now.))

Oh, he has a suggestion. Yes he does. Leidang Xu, a retired Navy officer who owns a sizable estate next to Mana. Yes, he says as he lays things out, they might not want to believe a pensioned off Navy veteran would do this, but the two of them have bickered over land for five years now and both of them have lawsuits before the satrap right now. If Keris blamed this woman, she’d certainly have motive to try to take him down as that would win her the case - and likely secure her more of his land.

She turns the target over in her head, examining the con from different angles. It’ll be tricky to pull off, and she’ll have to get the magistrate to think it was his own investigation that rooted out the evidence she’ll plant... but it seems possible. Yes, definitely possible.

“In that case, Danadu Mara,” she smiles, “I believe we have a deal.”

Chapter Text

The dawn chorus is singing on Triumphant Air. The sound of the call to prayers from the Immaculate monastery is audible from where it rises over the bamboo forests and sugarcane of the slopes. Sounds are starting to come from the villages and towns on this volcanic island, as the animals wake the farmers. Even this early in the day, it’s already hot - it’s going to be scorching by midday.

A demonic anathema hears the pure voice of a nun calling her fellows to prayer, and smiles to herself. She spoke more with Danadu Mara over the course of the night. She knows more things about Leidang Xu, a woman who once sailed to the furthest reaches of the Anarchy with the Imperial Navy and fought pirates and raiders and terror-bird-worshipping cultists in long-forgotten islands, but now is a grey-haired landowner.

And she has a plan.

“So then,” she hums to Dulmea, curled up in a seat of bent bamboo within the impassable thickets. “This is going to be about even with Eshtock, I think. Less direct combat, but they’re more on-guard. I’ll work out the order later, but I’m thinking I can tattoo Leidang Xu and a few of her ex-Navy friends with a nice clearly demonic brand somewhere concealable, put a demonic shrine in her cellar, plant some kind of link to Danadu’s group to explain how they were working together, steal the idol and get seen doing it, and then lead the pursuers back to her without seeming to notice. Oh, and mutate her like that gambit I used back in Matasque, so she turns into a horrible demonic monster when they bust the door down and they kill her.”

“Hmm.” Dulmea plays melodically within Keris’s head, thinking. “I wonder if there is anything you can use in her past to give a just-so story as to how she was called to the worship of the Yozis. I am afraid, child, that this abbess and this magistrate might know too well what they are looking for. Gaps in the story might lead them to believe they have found two rival cults, rather than the origins of the real one.”

“Ooo, good idea!” Keris wriggles happily. “I’ll do some snooping, then. Bah, this means I’ll be here another day. I’ll have to do the shrine and the tattoos at night, and I need to figure out where the icon even is.”

She sighs.

“Well then, prep work it is. Find where the icon’s being kept, and figure out when Leidang Xu became a cultist.” With a graceful sinuous motion she twists out of the cradle of bamboo stalks, paying no attention to the way they all sproing back upright, and sets off towards Rising Steam once more.

“Child,” Dulmea’s voice echoes in her head. “Why must we rush? A mistake here would be severely injurious to your goal from an Unquestionable - and your own personal greed to steal one of his faithful.” There is a distinctly chiding note in her tone.

“... because the magistrate isn’t going to wait forever?” Keris suggests as she moves through the bamboo; thickets bending obligingly out of her way to let her past before returning to where they were with barely a rustle. “I’m loyal to Ligier, so if one of his cultists is loyal to me that just means he’s better kept-on task and I’ve got more resources to do my job. And also Ligier’s jobs. But if Mr ‘Let’s Shut Down An Entire Island’ gets impatient from me waiting too long to give him something else to bite and grabs Danadu for deep questioning... you know how fast the one in Agenete caught me out. And then I’d have to rush in and kill Danadu to keep him quiet with even less prep time. Which would lose Ligier a cultist.”

“Mmm. Perhaps.” Dulmea plays a melancholy tune. “But he is expendable, child - and rushing this risks revealing to the magistrate that there is a greater conspiracy. As it is, he believes he knows what he is dealing with. But this magistrate might dig deeper if he is not convinced. That might be more dangerous to you - and to the greater cause of your mission here.”

“... fiiiine,” Keris sighs. “As long as it takes to do proper set-up. But no more than a week. I don’t want to leave Atiya alone for too long, and Kali and Ogin will already be getting up to mischief.”

“You are always so hasty, child,” Dulmea says. “And this is not Eshtock, not a ruin occupied by jumpy soldiers where - even if things had gone wrong - you could just leave your mess behind with no risk of the men of Lookshy finding you. This is your own area of operations - and only blood apes defecate where they will eat.” Keris can hear the wrinkled nose.

“I know, mama,” Keris sighs, hanging her head. “You’re right. As usual.” She pauses long enough to convey an appropriate level of contriteness, then cocks her head. “So... reckon the idol is in the big Realm fortress?”

“It is a blasphemous icon to those heretics,” Dulmea says. “They will not keep it anywhere where it might be at risk. Does the magistrate have secure quarters? Maybe? Maybe not. But I would say that the monastery is the most likely place, given that this would permit them to surround it with trained monks away from those who are not indoctrinated into the false faith of the Immaculates.”

Keris eyes the faint shape of the temple on the mountain through the morning mist, crinkling her nose. “I’ll... go find Leidang Xu’s estate first, then,” she decides. “Framing her is the start of the plan, so getting information on her should come before poking the protections around the idol.”

It’s simple enough to find her estate. After all, Keris knows it’s next to Mara’s one. Perched up a cherry tree - that sadly only has as-yet-unripe green cherries - she peers down into the lands.

Leidang Xu has clearly done nicely for herself since she left the Imperial Navy. She has a sizable manor with two stories and three wings, built in the Realm style out of local materials. A clear mountain stream runs into a small lake, and she has many fields growing what look to be a mix of rice in the upper reaches and sugar in the lower reaches. Keris’s eyes narrow. She even has her own private hot springs - though on this volcanic island, they are common.

This early in the morning, the workers are out in the fields and clearly have been so since long before dawn, doing what they can before the real heat of the day hits. And there - ah ha, on a rooftop garden on the manor house is a silver-haired woman, sitting under a red parasol. Keris can’t see much more detail from here, but she’s willing to bed it’s the lady of the house. She’s much paler than the workers in the fields.

Her eyes flash green as she observes the woman, suppressing an uncomfortable shiver at the resemblance to Sasi. This frame job just became a lot less palatable, she thinks with a sour note. Though this woman is just human - nothing special about her there. Nice and weak.

((E0, no aspect))

That’s a relief. So then. Keris cracks her knuckles. How to find out about this lady’s past? She could break into her office and read her private diaries. She could listen to rumours on the streets and ask around about the ex-marine’s career. She could even, theoretically, layer Rathanite innocence over herself and go ask directly, though that is not something she is going to do when she’s deliberately trying to avoid leaving a trail.

After a few moments of thought, Keris decides to combine plans A and B. She can scope out the manor while she’s here, peek into the office and scout around to see if there are any convenient cellars a shrine would fit in. And then, if that doesn’t give her enough, she can put on a disguise and talk to some of the locals. She's entirely used to this kind of thing. It is her stock in trade, more than about anything. Keris crawls through the fields on far too many limbs, noting approaches and paths and any interesting things she finds. She takes the chance to take a dip in Xu’s hot springs, just because she can. And then she’s scaling the wooden wall, crawling in between two half-open shutters, and the monster is in the house. Hunting.

((Dramatic action to snoop and info-gather! I’m gonna EH her with what I find here.))
((What are you envying about her?))
((Her cushy position and actually-well-furnished manor that she got from her years of Navy service. If she still has Realm Backing then that, otherwise her property and life of comfort.))
((Keris’s manor is probably bigger but not nearly as nice. :c))
((Yeah, you’re envying her home and assets and stuff here, so the bonus applies to studying them too. Take your heartsap dose and gain your Principle.))
((Mwaa haa. +4 sux, “Leidang Xu is a Rich Realm Sellout”.))
((OK, now roll Investigation to investigate her stuff.))
((5+1+2 Coadj+2 stunt+4 EH sux=10. 5+4=9 sux.))
((God, Keris you are a terrifying investigator when it comes to people you’re envying.))

The lady’s house has smooth waxed floors of cherry wood, and elegant paper walls painted with abstract art in the Realm style. It’s not as lavish or expensive as the house of Strong Ox or Jade Fox, though - but Dulmea seems almost to prefer it for its restrained nature. Reading some papers on her desk, Keris finds that Leidang is in fact a Lesser House of the Realm, which makes a lot of sense - this is the house of a member of the lesser nobility of the Realm, who probably retired to the South West because she had grown used to the weather... but also because her money goes much further here. Keris recalls what Sasi has said about the price of land on the Blessed Isles. She’s living like a wealthy noble here, when she'd probably have far less comfort in her homeland.

In the basements Keris finds that just like Mara’s house, this place is built on volcanic rock. When she taps the ground, she hears the echoes underneath. Xu hasn’t expanded her basement beyond what she has, but there will no doubt be hidden caves somewhere on her land - and if there aren’t any already, she can probably make an opening to one.

But it’s in the personal museum that Keris finds the very interesting things. It’s a trophy room of things the woman has collected over her life. There are tiger skin rugs on the floor, feathered cloaks made from terror birds and tyrant birds, and all kinds of triumphant things seized from her old victories. There’s damaged armour, broken spears, and obsidian-edged clubs. There are facades of old ruins that she pried off and has now hung on the wall, and there’s a collection of shrunken heads behind glass. There’s a Tengese battle-mask and a polished jade cat figurine.

Bitter, seething envy squirms in Keris’s gut as she sees all the lovely things the woman has taken in plunder or bought over the years. There’s a hissing in her ears as her po feels the same biting hate-envy-want. She must have been all over the South West!

The worst part - the really infuriating part - is that Keris can’t take any of it. It would be noticed missing - and not just by Leidang, but it would also foul up her frame job if the magistrate noticed. Seething spite and resentment bubbles in her gut as she surveys the hoard she can’t claim, and her mouth contorts into a snarl.

... on the other hand, the thought occurs to her, worming its way in through the back of her mind... a lot of this stuff is wooden, or once-living. Like... those bone masks mounted above the feather cloaks, which must have come from tyrant lizard skulls from the size of the solid bone chunks they’re carved from. She could reshape those easily. And the clubs, too, are just volcano glass in wood. The shrunken heads would be easy.

It wouldn’t be hard at all, Keris considers, to make subtle little adjustments to a number of these trophies that imply they’re linked to Hell. Demonic symbols on the inner face of the bone masks, vitriol-treatment for a single broken spearhead among the others, anathemic slave-brands on the tongues of the shrunken heads. It would look like her proud collection had been built up from finding places demons had taken hold. Like she’d been gloating by showing them off, secure in her arrogance that nobody would know enough to spot the subtle signs of what she knew was there.

The very hoard she was so smugly proud of would be her downfall. Keris croons to herself, very taken with the idea. Oh yes, oh yes, the irony there would be delicious. And who would be able to tell? After all, her roots reshape things with inhuman skill. The marks and glyphs would look like they’d been there all along.

((So, Cog + Occult, Diff 5, for this kind of very nuanced subtle forgery. Incidentally, creating icons of the Yozis is an act of depravity by both Realm and local law, so is valid for Passing Off Blame. Will this be conventional art, or are you using any Charms in the effects, etc?))
((This is what Pelagic Muse Artistry is made for. Keris will imbue all the ‘improvements’ she makes with inhuman alien cadence via the success-adder, and give a few of them warping effects. Mostly Delusions; that demons already rule the world, that the sun is a traitor trying to destroy Creation, etc. Only a few, though - the idea will be that most of them have lost their power or never had any in the first place, and Xu only found a few with genuine magical effects.))
((3+5+1 Utz Semivir Style+2 stunt+4 PMA sux=11. 2+4=6 sux, geez that was close. Activating Passing Off Blame as well. Fictional series of events is that Leidang found relics of demonic cults in her travels and collecting spree, and was seduced into worship of the Yozis by them.
POB roll: 3+5+3 Mendaciloquent Maverick+1 bonus {forged evidence}+2 stunt+4 Kimmy ExSux {vile art, elegant practicality, curses}=14. 10+4=14 sux. Lol, just try and see through that.))

Keris does her alterations quickly and quietly, so perhaps they’re not quite as beautiful as she could make them if she tried. That’s okay though. These are meant to be things made by scattered cultists from across the Anarchy - a little artistic crudeness is to be expected. She makes sure to scatter a few bits of Lintha iconography among the seagoing pieces and pops Ligerian glyphs along the face-down side of a broken spearhaft, as a special present for the magistrate.

She also ensures that a few of the ‘improvements’ are maddening glyphs that will paint delusions into the minds of those who study them too long. Crazed fantasies that demons already rule the world, or that the Sun is traitorous and harmful to Creation. There are only two or three of those - few enough that they look like lucky finds among the merely mundane relics of Yozi worship. But they’ll paint an enlightening picture as to how a loyal Realm marine might have ended up worshipping demons after a collecting spree across the Anarchy.

By the time she is done, it is past lunch time and the buzz of conversation and clatter of chopsticks can be heard from somewhere down the hall. She might have guests over - or might just be eating with family. Keris isn’t sure. Either way, she’s made her fake art. Time to think of what else to do - she thinks to the not-yet-sated hiss of her po. After a last check to make sure none of the changes she’s made are obvious, she slinks out and up onto the roof, thinking.

“Okay,” she murmurs to Dulmea. “So that’s the just-so story. And unless she actually picks up some of the things in there she won’t notice anything even if she has it all memorised; none of my changes are visible with how they’re set up. So that’ll keep, if I want to wait longer.”

Lips pursed, Keris stares up at the illegal sky of Creation and ponders.

“So... next step would be an evil demonic shrine somewhere on her property that they’d find if they searched,” she thinks. “That’s probably safe to do now too. If I put it in a hidden cave, she and her servants won’t find it, and it’ll fill the space until tonight. It’s the tattoos and the theft of the icon that’ll tip things over into playing out.”

“Mmm,” Dulmea agrees. “And perhaps you should make sure that the other Realm navy people are similarly compromised.” Keris can hear the smile. “As you showed one of the Unquestionable, when playing tiles it is best to ensure that your set is known to win before you play it.”

((OK, zoom out a bit. Roll Cog + Occult to build a fake Yozi shrine somewhere on her land - and then roll to cover it up with PoB, then roll me Cog + Subterfuge as a Minor Strategic Action to set up similar framing on the rest of the targets. and reinforce the stories while also cleaning up the links that Mara has. Remember, no Excellencies for Strategic actions - it’s serving to enable Keris’s scheming. This strategic action will be contesting the magistrate’s strategic investigation action, so consider how you want to enhance it, channelled principles, etc.))
((Oh, Keris. She is a spiteful little thing. Okay, hmm. For the shrine, amusingly, I’m pretty sure Temple-as-Body Style applies.))
((Yes. It’s OK.))
((Hee. So, construction is 3+5+3 TaB+2 stunt+4 PMA sux=13. 7+4=11 sux, obviously enhanced by Well-Reputed Grotto. Shrine is to Kimbery, with elements of Ligier-worship added on top. POB roll for the shrine is the same as before, which come to think of it gets a 3-die stunt because it’s fucking over a subject of her envy, so 15 dice; 5+4=9 sux.))

Keris spends the afternoon making a shrine to Kimbery.

She breaks into one of the hidden caves on the grounds and carefully erases all evidence of passage through it. Being deliberately intensive means that any traces of how many people have entered are gone, but the signs of someone having scrubbed the footprints and tracks thoroughly are there to an experienced eye. Sometimes a total wipe is as telling as an incomplete one.

She constructs, within the cave, a lovely, awful thing. A shrine to the Great Mother, made of driftwood and bamboo warped to look like coral and vitriol-marred stone. It pulses faintly, like a heartbeat, and she knows the alien cadences of its aesthetics will prove addictive if visited often enough. Around it she scatters other things - little metal idols reforged from stolen, broken trinkets to mimic the look of the many-armed emerald man the magistrate took. The shrine is to Kimbery, but Keris makes sure to litter about evidence of Ligierian worship as well.

The Great Mother for the waters of the Anarchy, and the Green Sun for success and wealth and fame, she thinks. Two different demons worshipped, likely due to contamination from two different cultist tribes. Both would make sense for an ambitious Realm noble with naval ties - ocean travel is critical here in the Southwest, and the Green Sun is strongly tied to warfare, wealth and authority.

((And now the strategic action. Hmm. So this is the one I want to do really well on.))
((So, I’ll obviously enhance it with a third Passing Off Blame, and also channel my spite towards Leidang to add 3 dice to my roll. Or... hmm. Can I channel the Love of Art for this beautiful Zanara-invoking performance?))
((Hmm. I’m going to allow it, if you want to accept that “Love of Art” is also going to shift a bit to reflect “Being a Melodramatic Bitch”.))
((Zanara is probably 100% OK with that, unfortunately.))
((...))
((I mean))
((It’s not like Keris isn’t a melodramatic bitch))
((so what does that actually change, in practice?))
((Precisely. But I mean, it’s not just a love of art, it’s going to compel showy, melodramatic actions unless resisted by another Principle. :p))
((Hmm.))
((Yeah, fuck it, I’ll go for it. She’s a coward, but that’s a Principle that will resist it when it’s not safe. And she went for showy melodrama even in Eshtock.))
((Heh. Shift Love of Art to something like Love of Artistry and Dramatics.))
((I mean, we can just keep it as “Love of Art” with the understanding that Keris’s opinions on “Art” are Zanaran.))
((Mmm.))
((Okay. So, Strategic Action roll is 3+5+3 Mendaciloquent Maverick+1 “forged evidence” bonus+3 stunt (EH)+4 Love of Art=19. 6 sux.
Enhanced by POB - do I get to apply Excellencies to that? Hmm, probably not. So that’s just the base 15 for... 9 sux; nice.))

Evidence firmly planted in Leidang’s estate, Keris goes off to find her friends. It’s getting late now - she spent six hours or more on the shrine, so the sun is low on the horizon as she stalks the city in search of the other ex-Navy officers Mara told her about. They, too, get subtle signs of Yozi worship planted in their homes. A scroll here detailing a ritual prayer to Ligier. A painting there that has a Kimberian behemoth painted on the other side where it can easily be flipped around to face the room; a many-tentacled monster with strange proportions and unsettlingly human eyes creased in a recognisable smile of joy.

By the time she’s finished with the third place, it’s getting genuinely late, and people have gone to bed by the time she’s finished. She pauses after exhausting the last of her list, mulling over her options. All she needs now is a convincing link - besides the clear evidence of Ligier-worship she’s left behind her - between this cult and the members of the real one the magistrate has already caught. And then, the tattoos and the theft.

Hmm. Planting evidence is easy, but manufacturing a consistent shared history with the real cult is going to be trickier. This, Keris thinkg resignedly, may take a while.

((OK, his strategic roll is 13 dice, plus 4 autosuccesses from having the Immaculates as “tools”. 8 + 4 successes = 12, but his difficulty is raised by 9 from the Passing Off Blame, reducing him to 3 successes.))

As the first week, then the second passes by, Keris comes to know her rival better.

Ragara Midari is a dangerous man. A very, very dangerous man who knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s not some fat noble who investigates crimes like a hobbyist. Behind that unassuming frame, that slightly shaggy dark hair, those sky blue eyes is a mind that is a cruel and pitiless machine.

He’s soft spoken. He gives his orders in a voice that barely rises above a whisper, and everyone obeys. The local nobles complain behind his back about what he’s doing to trade, but they don’t say it out loud. Because they’re scared of him. They’re scared of his little meetings, where he invites someone in to the room in the satrap’s house he’s working out of, and he offers them wine and talks to them. Just... talks. About small things. Pleasantries. And then he drops a few things that let them know how much he’s put together, and offers them a chance to confess. Sometimes they do.

And if they’re lying when they confess, he often knows. He’s a terrifying man. One who doesn’t just accept the easy answer.

Keris can barely keep ahead of him. And it’s only her elaborate chains of forged evidence, her carefully placed insinuations, the fact she murders a few cultists in ways that she passes off as natural causes before he can get to them, which keeps her careful edifice of spinning plates intact. If she’d been a few days later, he would probably have rolled up the whole case.

Dulmea is much too admiring when she and Keris talk about how to stop his latest play, his latest move. And that’s the right metaphor, because sometimes he plays Gateway against the satrap - and against anyone else who will play him. He doesn’t lose.

Honestly, Keris hasn’t felt so alive since Malra. And she hasn’t felt so scared. No one on Saata, not any of those fat, lazy blue sea masters, have been a threat to her like him.

((What Aspect is he? Did you say?))
((I didn’t, but he’s Air - hence the sky-blue eyes. Enlightenment 5.))
((Passing Off Blame is really, really pulling its weight here. If DBs had something that just let them ignore external penalties, Keris would be fuuuuuuuuuucked.))
((PS Ney has something that lets him just ignore external penalties.))

The shark, Keris takes to calling him by the end of the first week. Oh, his nature is Air, but she thinks of him as a shark. He’s quiet. He lurks under the surface, unseen until he isn’t, always swimming, never stopping, his cold eyes watching remorselessly and his senses picking up the tiniest hint of blood in the water from miles away.

By the third day she’s sent Iris as a Messenger back to Saata, telling Rounen and her Gale that she’s going to be occupied for a while. By the end of the first week, she’s half-forgotten about Ali and Zany. As the second rolls to a close, even Danadu Mara has almost entirely slipped out of mind. She just doesn’t have the focus to spare for anything that’s not the frighteningly brilliant player on the other side of the lethal game she’s playing. Her nerves are buzzing, her senses are sharper than ever, her muscles tingle and her hair twitches. All her energy, all her attention is focused like a Ligerian sunlance on a foe who doesn’t even know she’s there - and who’s still nearly winning.

It’s a rush like nothing else.

She’s enjoying it so much, in fact, that it’s Dulmea who tells her she needs to end this - now.

“Child,” she says, hair wrapped around a mug of tea. “We need to close this up. This man is... he’s like a demon lord. Is this what it’s like to go up against Lucien? I fear it is closer than anyone should know. I have told you delay, but I believe now we must act.”

Rathan, sitting beside her, nods. “I don’t want that mind aimed at you, mama,” he says. “He scares me. He’d probably hate you even if I put everything into protecting you.”

“Fine,” Keris sighs. They’re right, she supposes. She’s known where the idol was since the turn of the week, and she has the tattoos all planned and ready. “Tonight, then.”

It’s fitting, Keris supposes, as she sets out. The moon is nearly full, and shines brightly over the island. It casts halos across the sky, from the clouds from the rain earlier today. Howler monkeys call out and in the bamboo and the cane there are croaking amphibians and buzzing insects. It’s still warmer here than it ever got in Taira, but at night it’s fresher and less muggy.

All in all, it’s a lovely night for some breaking and entering. Although she might wish, in fact, there was a little less moonlight.

It’s a busy night, even before she hits the shrine. She does Leidang Xu first, hearing the hiss and bubble of the metody guarding the shrine as she enters the woman’s estate. Leidang is asleep, and she doesn’t react as Keris creeps up to her bed. Pulling back the covers would risk waking her, so she doesn’t bother. Instead, Keris teases root-fingers straight through the covers and paints directly into skin; a leering demonic face in vibrant green the size of her thumb on the underside of the woman’s breast.

Pigment isn’t the only thing she deposits. There’s poison there too; lots of it, in deep mutative blues and violets. When Leidang’s heart starts to beat too fast, when she’s terrified for her life, the other form beneath her skin - scaled and muscular and a quarter as high again, with rending talons and no voice except a chilling shriek - will emerge. Explosively. As will a furious intemperate rage.

That should take care of any protestations of innocence nicely, Keris reckons. She makes her other little visits, heading to the houses she’s identified over her time on Triumphant Air. She’s carefully made up the narrative behind this cult - Imperial sailors corrupted by something they found in the South, lured into darker practices over time, and she’s planted her evidence. With Mara’s help she identified the weak points in his cult, and reshaped them so they pointed to this lot.

And now? Now she’s nearly won. The rush as she plants the tattoo that will discredit this woman and lose her lovely house and all her lovely collections of precious things and her tiger skin rugs... oh, the rush is worth the fact she’s been so busy she hasn’t had time for Sasi.

Then she’s up the mountain. Up to the blocky, austere Immaculate temple.

This isn’t the first time Keris has hit Dragonblooded. It’s not even the first time she’s hit Immaculate Dragonblooded. But it is the first time she’s hit an actual honest-to-the-dragons temple of Immaculates.

She is justifiably wary.

It takes not one, not two but three loops circling the place before she even decides on her entry route, and she is, if anything, even more apprehensive than the baseline taut-bowstring tension she’s been working under for the last fortnight. Some part of her suggests that this is probably an overreaction for a temple that may only have one or two Dragonblooded... but Keris ignores it. She’s right at the cusp of winning. She’s not going to relax until her fake cult is wrapped up and she has idol, Lionesses and family all back safe in Saata.

((Reaction + Command to study the layout and defences.))
((FLGing the Leidang EH Principle, EHing the abbess for her Backing (Immaculates) to replace it. 5+0+3 stunt (EH)+2 Coadj+4 EH autosux=10. 1+4=5 sux.))

Her resentment spikes as she plans her approach. She’s killed gods and ghosts and demons. She’s splattered the gore of princes of chaos across their innermost sanctums. She’s run with the Silent Wind and weathered the ire of the Green Sun himself. And yet so dominant, so monolithic is the Immaculate Order that she has to skulk and cringe and hide from them.

Even as her enmity towards Leidang Xu gutters out with a satisfied sigh, a brand-new spiteful hatred for the abbess of this outpost of fucking monks takes its place.

The monastery itself reminds her somewhat of some of the fortresses she saw back in Taira . Its walls are solid stone, well-grounded in the earth, and unlike the nobles down on the plains the Immaculates didn’t build on hollow magma tubes. No, they built this place to last. Keris reckons it’d take an army to siege it, and no doubt they’ve got plenty of supplies in there, as well as kitchen gardens.

In fact, it looks like the temple has been built up in the past few years. Keris can see parts where the stonework has been repaired, and others where the walls have been thickened. She frowns. Thickened and old decorations mortared over to cover them up.

But it’s still a temple, and though it could be a fortress, it’s not being one right now. There’s no one patrolling the walls. There are still people up and about, but Keris sees it’s five robed monks and nuns, sitting around a burning fire in the centre under the cover of a pagoda. They’re meditating, but as she watches one of them gets up to check on the fire, and feeds it more fuel. Probably something religious about keeping the fire always burning.

Inside the walls, beyond the fire, it’s kind of... pretty, in an austere way. The buildings are simple, but harmoniously shaped, and the gravel gardens have been freshly raked after the rain earlier today. There’s a fish pond catching the run-off for springs, and by the smell of things the koi in there are how they dispose of scraps from the kitchens. It’s all... elegant. Not a thing out of place.

((What are the general Enlightenments of the people she’s seeing? Heh. E9 lets her spam IEI for free, just a charm activation action, so she can use it extensively nowadays.))
((E0s and E1s of the monks and nuns around the fire. No one else is really up ‘cause it’s the early hours of the morning.))

There’s nobody particularly powerful that she can see. Nobody who feels like a threat. Paranoia tempered but not entirely checked, Keris moves in, giving the fire a wide berth in favour of the more solid-walled rooms where, for example, a dangerous demonic idol might be locked up. She can afford to take her time for the moment as she searches... but not for too long. She’d really rather not have to get away in broad daylight.

There’s chanting coming from within one of the larger, more solid temple structures. Keris crawls up a wall like a spider, and squeezes her head through a gap in the shutters to peek in.

The first thing that catches her eye is the giant dragon stone statues in this room. In the candlelight, they flicker and waver, almost like they’re moving. She frowns. They almost resemble the blue jade dragon she sto- bravely rescued back in Eshtock.

The second are the chanting monks and nuns. They’re letting out a long, slow, droning chant that reaches a crescendo before falling dead silent and building back up again. There’s quite a few of them, in their many coloured robes. Some of them are awakened to essence; others are not.

The third is the shaven-headed nun at the front, who positively burns compared to the rest.

((E4, Fire aspected))

And only then does she see the forearm-sized emerald statue, sitting on a stone plinth and covered in prayer strips and wax seals and hanging charms of string and jade beads.

((Reaction + Occult to study the ritual, Diff 3))
((5+5+2 Coadj+2 stunt=14. 4 sux. 4 sux?! Urgh, fine, 4 sux.))

Hmm. Keris peers at it, waiting. She... she thinks this is a purification ritual of some kind. Trying to get rid of the demonic taint. But from the traces of old wax she can smell under the newer, fresh wax, she thinks it’s probably a repeat attempt. This isn’t the first time they’ve tried it. Maybe they’re trying to wear it down, so to speak.

Regardless, she suspects they’ve been at it for a while. Some of the monks and nuns at the back are shifting around to try to maintain blood flow. And as she waits and watches, two more nuns step in, one holding a vessel of water and a dipper, and the other fresh herbs. To the droning chant, they scatter droplets of water across the statue, then toss the herbs onto it. They retreat, and join the chanters.

And then the nun who burns steps up to the front, lays her hands on the statue, and there is fire.

She ignites, her burning soul surging forth with terrible fury. It entirely envelops the statue and her, and the flames reach up and up. Wrapped in a bonfire, she holds the statue in both hands...

... and all the fire around her surges down into white hot heat from her hands. Keris feels her face dry and she recoils back. She has no idea how the merely mortal monks and nuns stand it.

Slowly, blinking away tears, her vision returns. The statue is still there in her hands, but everything around it has melted off. Even from this distance, it’s making an audible plinking noise as it cools.

A gong is sounded, and the lesser monks file out.

“It is still here,” says the water-sprinkler, who smells like the gods.

“Yes,” says the burning nun, whose eyes still glow like red hot coals. “But it is weakening! I can feel the demonic power in it grow weaker each time! We will purify it! I am sure of it! I will do that, and we will have destroyed this potent icon of the most wicked cults! It will be done!”

Yeah, Keris thinks sadly. This is probably not going to go down well with Ligier. And it looks like a rescue is in the cards.

... wait a second. Young Immaculate hardliner. Strongest person in the room. Leading the ritual. Determined to destroy this demonic idol.

And hadn’t Mara mentioned offhandedly that the abbess here was one of Fire? Or... possibly that she’d arrived in Fire. One of the two. Either way, this is probably that bitch of an abbess, which means that if Keris steals the idol now, she’ll be able to recover it safely and also additionally get to punch her in the face as a bonus.

... of course, she might do the same thing the Fire Aspect in Agenete had done and light her feet on fire to go faster while chasing Keris out. Or have other mean cruel totally unfair tricks in store.

Pursing her lips, Keris weighs her options and veeeery reluctantly decides against jumping down there at once to smack the smug self-righteous bitch in the face. All the other monks are gone, so it might be that they’re taking a break or resting before the next ritual - in which case the abbess herself probably won’t stay and guard it. Which will make it a great deal safer to steal.

She’s reverting to the punching plan at the first sign of any more ritual stuff, though.

The water sprinkler bows to the suspected-abbess, and then pours the remaining water over the top of the idol. “I pray it will be so,” he says, to an eruption of steam.

The three of them turn to go, and as they leave, the abbess happens to glance in Keris’s direction.

((Contested her Reaction + Awareness vs your Phys + Subterfuge. 5 successes for her.))
((...))
((...))
((Uh. So. Relevant question. Given Keris is just poking her head through the window and peeking in, does she count as having cover bonuses?))
((Yes. +2.))
((Oh good. 5+5+3 Lurking Predator+2 stunt x2 HPC=15. +2 cover bonus is also doubled by HPC to make +4.))
((... 2x2=4 sux. 1x2 sux on cover bonuses = 6 sux total.
((I literally would have been spotted if not for cover.
((Dice fairies.
((Seriously.
((Why.))
((They’re my allies. They want drama.))
((Well then they got it. That was probably, uh, the most terrifying roll result this arc.))
((I was like “it’s cool, I only need 3 sux on 15 dice, and then rolled 2 and sort of sat and stared for a moment.))
((I was about to post “well, I’m fucked” when I remembered HPC doubles cover bonuses and almost cried with relief.))

Keris freezes. She wasn’t expecting them to turn and look towards the corner of the room she’s sticking her head into through the window. And because she wasn’t expecting it, she’d craned through a bit further to get a better view - and to prepare to pounce, in the moments she’d considered leaping down and punching the woman. She’s out of position, her head is exposed, and all she can do is hold perfectly still and pray that her hair and her camouflage break up her silhouette enough against the sky and the frame of the window to disguise her.

Her burning eyes pause on Keris. Right on Keris. She frowns. Opens her mouth.

“Tell One Rock to stop leaving the shutters open,” she says, slumping slightly. She looks tired, though she’s a proud woman trying to hide it.

There’s a faint ringing in Keris’s ears as she watches the Immaculates turn and leave. Her heart is hammering so loudly that she’s surprised it hasn’t given her away, and she’s covered in a fine coat of cold sweat. Distantly, she registers that her hands are shaking. Her hands - her thief’s hands, her pickpocket’s hands - are actually shaking.

Numb with adrenaline crash and a kind of peaceful, serene sense of horror, she very carefully waits until they’re gone, pours herself in through the window, huddles behind a convenient dragon statue and hyperventilates for a while.

Dulmea is going to rip into her for that, and she can’t even complain.

Dulmea says nothing. Dulmea, quite deliberately says nothing. The volume of her saying nothing is deafening. Keris is equally silent, and their mutual mutenesses hold a rich and tapestried conversation that’s probably very interesting and full of witty and eloquent dialogue, and which feels about as far away as the rest of the world does right now as Keris comes down from the near-panic attack.

Makers. If this is what Sasi feels like when her plans fall apart, no wonder she’s shit at improvising.

Taking a deep breath and pulling her shadow over herself, Keris takes on the form of a dark-robed figure - with, perhaps, a hint of silver hair escaping from the hood. Peeking round the leg of the dragon statue serving as her cover, she rolls out, warily approaches the idol, and - after a moment’s consideration spent checking for traps - swipes it.

For a moment, the world slows as Keris’s hand approaches the idol. Wait why is that, what’s the danger, she wonders to herself oh wait maybe it’s someone behind her no that’s not the crimson she tastes, not the danger that keeps her nerves humming oh yes it’s the statue itself something about it something she’s forgetting but what is it oh wait no right she remembers it’sstillreallyreallyhotsheshouldn’ttouchit.

((Warning from her surprise negator not to touch the still very hot statue))
((She will still do it unless she spends 1m. :V))

Hesitating, she wrinkles her nose, hisses out a quiet curse and grabs it anyway. Emerald holds heat well, and she can’t wait for this thing to cool down. It’s just a burn. She’ll heal.

((Diff 3 Endurance + Athletics to resist the environmental effect.))
((... haha.))
((Flip a coin. I call heads. Or 1, if you roll a 1d2.))
((1))
((Keris is ambidextrous. She grabbed it with her left hand.))
((Her left hand that’s immune to environmental damage. :V))
((Which she did not know about, until now.))
((Lol Keris bracing for the pain, and then, uh. Nothing. Just a pleasant warmth and Iris cooing happily.))

Keris feels... warm. Kind of warm. And... ah yes, the emerald statue feels like both holding her hand in the sunlight in Hell and holding it close to a fire.

It’s not burning.

Huh.

((Mingling Fire and Ligierian essence in the statue.))

Iris sticks her head up from under the shadow disguise Keris is wearing, and tilts it. She breathes out a fiery question mark.

“I’m... pretty sure this is hot enough to char wood,” Keris tells her, somewhat confused. “It should be burning me. Why... why is it not burning me?”

Iris nuzzles her hand, coiling around her shadow-covered flesh playfully. She’s either trying to explain something, or she got bored.

Gods, this is just like dealing with Eko when she was really young.

“... fine, never mind, work it out later,” Keris decides pragmatically. “For now, running. And being seen running. Back under the shadows, babygirl, mama needs to be clever and artistic for this bit.”

Iris puffs out her cheeks, but reluctantly complies. She’s probably feeling neglected and will need some playing with if she wants her to behave.

... also she’s probably missing Zanara. Iris does seem to love her creator.

Keeping the idol in her hand in lieu of anywhere to put it - and because being seen running off with it will honestly help her case here - Keris sneaks back out of the building, heads towards the edge of the monastery, and considers her options for getting seen. Hmm... yes, one of the five around the fire, she thinks, glimpsing her out of the corner of her eye as she slips between buildings. She can angle her hand just right to let the moonlight reflect off the idol as she rounds a corner. And then run for it when the shouting starts, avoiding the spies in the village and the location of the marine hide watching Mara’s house but acting as though she’s not aware of the telescope outpost up here. That’ll let them see her go into Leidang’s manor.

((OK, we can zoom out to more narrative time, so roll Physique + Expression for how Keris sells her DRAMA QUEEN theft))
((5+5+3 stunt {EH attacking the Backing of the Immaculates for losing such a valuable seized artifact this time}+3 Mendaciloquent Maverick+4 Love of Art {and Melodrama}=20. 7 sux.))
((And do I need to activate POB for this as well? Hmm. Yeah, probably. 15 dice+4 Kimmy autosux; 9+4=13 sux. Mwaa haa. Oh Rathan. He has been very helpful on this job.))
((Rathan is sitting back in Keris’s head, looking smug but also starting to miss Oula.))

All things considered, Keris views herself as an artiste. And this was art. Yes, art. She shivers in pleasure as - safely away from the manor - she watches the angry monks march on the land. They don’t stop. And oh, look, there’s the whoomph of fire as the abbess kicks down the door, her feet trailing flames.

You know what she could do with, Keris thinks, listening to the shouting and the yells, and the angry accusations from afar. She could do with an apple. Yes. Or maybe cherries. They’ll be ripe soon. Fresh cherries. Lovely. Mmm mmm... oh, there’s the bestial shriek from Leidang Xu.

That’s cut off almost immediately. Only gurgles remain.

She can hear the shouts of the abbess, yelling at her - probably tired and on edge - monks and nuns about demons. And she orders them to get everyone lined up outside, and that no one is leaving, and “... by all five dragons, someone get me the magistrate!”

Keris basks in triumph for an appropriate period of self-congratulatory gloating, then slinks into Mara’s estate to give the man the good news. That she’s delivered him from damnation. That his rival is dead, and her ‘cult’ will be wrapped up over the next few days.

That he owes her. Big-time. He’s hers now.

She takes one last chance to sit back and watch the magistrate at work, too. Partly to gloat in her success. Mostly because holy shit she’s terrified he’ll see through it.

((Reaction 4 + Investigation 5 + 3 dot Ice-Hearted Inquisitor Style + 1 Style + 2 + 4 dot “Find the Truth, No Matter What” = 19 dice, Diff 3 investigation, -13 external penalty. He needs 16 successes.))
((... you’re taking ages to post, this is torture.))
((He gets...
... 13.))

He wraps up her convoluted set of leads and clues with petrifying speed. The abbess is his chasing hound, and he’s the houndmaster who finds the tattoo she left for him, recognises the demonic art in the gallery, and tracks down the demon grotto based on his certainty that it has to be here somewhere.

Within a week, the fake cult Keris has manufactured have been taken down - and most of them are dead. They turned into monsters when stressed. Some killed themselves first - perhaps because they turned from the stress before the magistrate came for them.

All in all, it’s quite a nice little story. Demon cult among Imperial Navy veterans crushed by magistrate. And the local Navy is suddenly being much less cooperative. Much less willing to lend their men to him. Funny, that.

Keris waits until it looks certain they’re going to lift the trade ban, and sends Iris flitting off to Saata to tell Rounen and her Gale she’s on her way back - with Ali, Zany and Hany in tow and the Lionesses soon to follow.

She’s in the crowd as the magistrate is celebrated for his victory, though. One face among many, nothing special - she even makes sure to cheer for him extra loudly and throw a flower.

She smirks at his back as he returns to his ship. Oh yes, he may be feeling satisfied with his success here, but she’s the one who won. And while she may be seeing him again in future, she knows him now. Whereas he doesn’t even know she was playing.

Then it’s a quick process of touching base with Nandi to say she’s taking her family on ahead to prepare for the Lionesses’ arrival, getting Zany and Hany up on a summoned anyaglo, putting Ali on Cissidy and slipping - with considerable relief - into the warm waters of the Anarchy.

“Home,” Keris whispers happily, and sets off alongside her family.

---

Saata is much like she left it. That is to say, compared to Triumphant Air it is a wretched cesspool of vice, corruption, sin, mercantilism, and a surprisingly large number of priests. It’s always so loud here compared to the volcanic island, and there aren’t the same neat, orderly fields - or surplus of hot springs.

Still, Keris likes it. It’s like Nexus in all the best ways.

“And then we went on another ship, but this one had red sails,” Hany explains, recounting the story of their journey to Keris. She’s been at it for a while, and keeps on forgetting where she’s got to or getting distracted and starting again. “And I saw a bird. It was really big and it had huge white wings. And then we had to go ashore again and then we went on another boat and it was painted green and it had a naked lady on the front and one of the sailors said you needed to rub her for good luck but Mama told me to get down from there and...”

“I... I think that’s enough story time for Aunty Keris,” Ali says. He’s slightly green in the face, and hanging onto the ribbon horse’s neck. He is not a natural flier, unlike his wife and daughter. “Are we there yet, Keris? Please.”

The estate is just ahead as they come in low, barely skimming the waves to keep away from watchful eyes. Ali is not appreciating being closer to the ground and so fast.

“Almost,” Keris agrees, skipping over the waves on light feet as they come in to the coast. “Okay, and come in... there we go. Off you get...”

Her hair lifts Ali off Cissidy with offensive ease - she managed the dragon statue in Eshtock; he’s nothing by comparison. “Aaaaand off you get,” she finishes, bundling Hany up as setting her giggling niece down at her father’s feet as Zany dismounts smoothly. And then she staggers.

It's like the click of the last pin in a high-end lock under her fingers, and the safe door swinging open to reveal shining piles of silver. It's like the crunch and crumpling of bone at the end of her fist in a brawl, and her last opponent going down. It's like a support pole sliding home into its housing with a jarring thud or getting a horse stance just right and feeling the solidity and stability slam into place with a suddenness that almost makes you lose it.

She's done it, Keris realises in the ringing stretched-out moment of completion. She found all the members of her family who wanted to come with her, and got them out of Taira and across Creation, safe and unharmed, to a new life here in the Southwest.

She has held to her oath, and fulfilled it, and now at last the letters etched into her bones slacken their grip and release her from her self-imposed binding.

“... whoa," she whispers breathlessly, clinging to Cissidy's neck for a moment to hide how her legs feel like water. Fortunately, she recovers quickly. “I... that was... yeah. Okay. Off you go, Cissi. And thank you, too; I release you from your service,” she adds to the other ribbon-horse. Both of them lick her hand, and disperse into ribbons as they return to her Domain.

“... alright then,” Keris says, clapping her hands. “Up to the estate, and we’ll find out how much chaos brewed in my absence. Also, Hany gets to meet her baby cousins. This way!”

Ali collapses to the ground, hugging it. Zany looks down at her husband slightly pityingly, then helps him up, head never stopping moving as she tries to take it all in. “Is this... all yours?” she asks, mouth open. “There’s all these ruins and there’s farms and there’s a house as big as a village... though not as big as some, oh my goodness Keris, we went through Chiaroscuro on the way here and it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, all these buildings made of glass and in the sunlight it gleamed and glimmered like nothing I’ve seen before...”

“Shiny city!” contributes Hany.

“It was, it was so shiny! And so large! It went from horizon to horizon, everywhere, this ancient glass! And...” Zany pauses, possibly for breath, but no, it’s just to wave at Xasan who’s emerging from one of the back doors, his arms outreached.

Keris giggles. “I bought this place with some lost ships I found around the Anarchy - it used to belong to one of the pirate lords here, but his fleet was suffering, so I traded him the ships I couldn’t crew for the estate he couldn’t keep maintained. It’s... kind of a work in progress.”

She glances at the dilapidated, overgrown walls and empty outbuildings, the still-rundown wings of the manor they haven’t got around to clearing out and refurbishing yet, the poor-quality fields and anaemic crops.

“A major work in progress,” she sighs. “But, give it time and it’ll be beautiful. Now come on, my quarters are up this way.” She gestures them in through a back entrance and ushers them upstairs to the richly decorated wing (“these are the bits he was able to keep in good nick, so we’re kind of squatting here while we fix the rest of the place up”) where she keeps her quarters. It’s not hard to follow her ears towards the sound of two troublesome little twins being very stubborn about eating their dinner. Winking at Ali, Zany and Hany, Keris puts a finger over her lips and stalks forward. Wait for it... waaaait for it....

“Argh!” yells her Gale from around the corner. “Kali, no, come back here-”

Now. Keris lunges around the corner, scoops up her fleeing, cackling daughter and spins her round and round and round. “Who’s being a mischievous little monster, hmm?” she demands. “Who’s being bad for mama? Is it you? Are you being naughty, little feather?”

Another hair tendril lassoes Ogin as he launches himself at her using his tails as a spring, and she smothers his face with kisses. “Hello, moonbeam,” she coos. “Guess what mama brought back with her? Do you remember who I told you was arriving soon?”

Ogin considers the question thoughtfully. “You said that uncle and aunty and... c-cousin,” he tries the unfamiliar word, “were coming. You said they were late. And that you didn’t know what other you was playing at, vanishing off like that, honestly why don’t you have the decency to send a message to yourself...”

The Gale blushes. “Moonbeam, that’s enough,” she says.

“No, that’s fair,” Keris acknowledges in an undertone. “I just spent three weeks playing a lethal game of Gateway against a Realm magistrate. One who’s even better at his job than the one in Agenete was. I barely had time to think about food after that first messenger, let alone anything else. But,” she adds, “no need to explain it. We’ll reunite once the reunion’s done, so we can fall over properly, yeah?”

Her Gale nods. “I’ll fetch Atiya,” she says, and backs out of the kitchen through another door.

Keris turns to the one she came in through. “You’re right, moonbeam,” she tells her son, kissing him on the nose. “Very well done! Ali, Zany? Come in and meet your niece and nephew!”

Kali, of course, is immediately beaming as soon as she sees her relatives. “San! San! Look! Look!” she shouts for Xasan.

“Yes, Kali, I can see them.”

“Hug!” she demands, spreading her arms wide and wriggling in Keris’s grasp until she can get a hug from all the newcomers. “Huuuuuuug!”

Ogin is shier, and turns his face back to Keris, hugging up against her. He doesn’t want to look at the strangers.

“My goodness,” Zany says, eyes wide. “They’re... are they really the ones you were pregnant with? But she’s already talking. And... the boy, was that him? He was talking better than Hany.”

“No!” Hany insists. “No one’s better than me!”

Keris cuddles Ogin soothingly, stroking his hair and kissing his cheeks.

“I was pregnant with them for longer,” she explains, “so they were more mature when they came out - on a frozen mountainside halfway to Malra in the middle of a blizzard, I’ll add. You can ask Rathan or Calesco about it; they were there. And then I have some magic that lets me teach people better, so I got them talking as soon as I could because... well, because clever babies like Ogin here who can just tell you what’s wrong or what they want are much easier to look after, and get more hugs and kisses, don’t they moonbeam?”

She lets Kali escape her grip and clamber along a hair tendril to flail her arms at Zany in hug-demandment. It’s sweetly adorable how naturally her children use her as furniture and support - the way that they just trust, absolutely, that she won’t let them fall. It warms Keris’s heart every time she sees it, which is part of why she lets them keep doing it.

“Huuuuuuug!” Kali demands again, flailing at Zany, before apparently deciding that she’s not getting hugs because of being the wrong shape. With a startlingly bird-like chirp, she pops into tiger-cub form with a little puff of dusty flame, and chuff-meows at her aunt delightedly, twin tails waving in happiness and pride.

That’s something that gives Zany pause. “Um,” she says, staring at her hug-demanding cub-niece. “Uh.”

Hany has made her own conclusions. “Kitty!” she declares.

“Kali!” Kali insists. She seems momentarily offended by someone getting her name wrong.

“Kitty?”

“Kali!”

“Kitty Kali!” concludes Hany.

Keris sighs. “Yes, she is,” she agrees, just knowing she won’t be hearing the end of that alliteration for at least a fortnight. “Do you want to give her a cuddle, Hany?”

Wide-eyed with wonder, Hany nods so furiously her head looks like it might fall off. Keris decides it’s probably safer if they’re both on the ground, and carefully sets Kali down, keeping a firm grip on her. Kali sometimes gets too excited and bites Mama - and unlike Mama or Vali, Hany won’t shrug off a tiger bite.

“Um,” says Ali. He’s clearly not entirely comfortable.

“Kali,” Keris says firmly, holding up a finger to stall him, “Hany is like Atiya. You have to be careful with her. Okay? Remember the no-biting rule.” She glances at Ogin. “Can you help, moonbeam?”

((Rolling Valour... fail.))

Ogin shakes his head, rubbing it into Keris’s shoulder. He probably needs a nap, and to be more carefully introduced to strangers. Her darling little boy doesn’t like sudden change or unexpected people in his personal space.

Kali, on the other hand, loves new people a little more than perhaps is wise. Her tails thrash away in sheer joy at having someone new to play with.

“Oookay,” Keris says, winding hair tendrils around her between her three sets of legs and picking her up again. “Kali sometimes gets a bit excited, so Hany? Why don’t you come sit next to me on one of the lounging chairs and you can stroke her, and Ogin can build himself a little cushion fortress and have a nap.”

She smiles reassuringly at Ali and Zany. “And I can explain some things about what happens when you put too much power into a child in the womb. Don’t worry, by the way; Kali doesn’t bite very often. When she does it’s usually just because she’s overexcited, and it’s me getting bitten. She’s rarely bitten Rounen, and never one of the girls. Precaution, nothing more”

A little later, Kali is happily purring and cheeping away as Hany strokes her - and they have concluded she is Cheepy Kitty Kali - while Ogin has vanished under the cushions into the dark. Fatima has appeared, carrying tea and cakes for everyone. She’s wearing a new many-coloured dress that’s form-fitting up top but voluminous over the legs, and she quietly tells Keris that Zanara insisted on making uniforms for her and the sisters ‘So they’d be proper maids’. Ali is still recovering from the flight, while Zany talks animatedly to both Xasan and Keris, gossiping and catching up on things.

Xasan is saying more at the moment. Keris is trying to talk to her relatives while being able to hear everything in Vali and Zana’s quiet argument about how dramatic their entrance needs to be, and whether they should just appear or whether they should start by throwing glitter in and doing a dance. Since they don’t seem to be planning any actual property damage, she decides to let them have their surprise, and continues sharing the trials of a child who likes turning into a bird at feeding time and making mama pull on her hair in frustration with Zanyira, who seems rather appreciative of her own experience of motherhood by comparison. At least Hanilyia can’t leave teeth marks in metal chew toys.

“This is dumb,” Keris distinctly hears from Vali. Then there’s a loud thud as he kicks the door open, and accidentally kicks it off its hinges so it crashes to the ground. “Hi,” he says, wandering in, hands jammed into his pockets. He beams at Keris, giving her a double-thumbs-up that she can tell is for how she's held to her promise, and then belatedly glances at the door. “Ooops. Thought I made them stronger.”

“Vali!” Zana snaps. She’s wearing her face as Little River’s ward right now, so she’s a Tengese half-albino. “You ruined everything, you stupidhead.”

“I said oops, didn’t I?” Vali says. He glances at the surprised faces of his relatives. “Hi. Vali. The brat’s Zana.”

“I’m not a brat! You’re the brat, brat!”

Keris gently puts her face in her hands.

“My children, everyone,” she sighs. “Ali, Zanyira, these are... uh... Vali, and Zanara.”

There’s a brief silence, in which Keris becomes self-conscious enough to blush.

“I, uh, named them on instinct,” she says, even though she knows she’s explained this before. “Before I remembered Baisha. The names just came to me.”

“Oh.” Zany looks from her husband to Vali, and smiles wickedly. “Well, I can see the family resemblance, but clearly that’s as far as it goes. You wouldn’t kick down a door, would you, darling?”

Vali raises a hand. “I’ll get around fixing it some time. I’m fixing most of the stuff around here.”

Ali looks at Zana, who is pouting. “She doesn’t look much like you, Keris.”

“Well,” Zana begins, and Keris just knows she’s about to launch into an explanation of how she’s Keris’s sister and possibly the daughter of the Queen of Hell.

“Zanara can change shape,” she says quickly. “They can make themselves pretty in a bunch of different ways, and I actually used a lot of their gift for artwork while I was on Triumphant Air.”

She fixes Zana with a Look. If Zana keeps quiet and doesn’t spill anything, Keris promises inwardly, she’ll tell her youngest soul absolutely everything about the masterful performance she pulled on the Realm and Immaculates. And maybe let Nara be there for explaining to Zanyira about the whole “Hell” thing, too.

Hopefully, Zana will be able to read that in her expression, because if she doesn’t follow Keris’s lead, this is about to become a very awkward conversation.

“Yeah,” Zana agrees, spinning in a pirouette before dropping into splits. “I’m an artist. Faces are just another form of art. But since we’re being family... everyone, close your eyes!” She flaps her hands at them. “Go on! Do it! It’s so rude to look at a girl changing.”

Keris decides to humour her, and the others obey. She hears Zana calcify, then clay breaks and she’s in front of them again. It’s the face she wore for Lilunu - the one with the bright eyes and the two-toned crimson hair.

And Iris recognises it too, because she wriggles straight out of Keris’s arm and all-but throws herself into Zana’s arms.

“Aww, there there, Iris,” Zana says, picking her up and spinning her around. “I’ve missed you too, baby. Did Keris take good care of you? Did you get to explore new people?”

“She slid her way onto Ali, for sure,” Keris grins. “Also it turns out she protects my left arm from heat, which is useful to know. Like, metal-bar-straight-from-the-forge heat. I’ll have to do some tests and see if there’s anything else she makes it safe for me to touch. But!” she adds, hearing her Gale hovering outside with Atiya. “There’s one more baby for you to meet. Hold on a moment...”

Ducking outside the room to retrieve her youngest daughter - her Gales are a thing she really doesn’t have the time to explain right now - she returns and sits back down next to Zany with Atiya cradled tenderly in the crook of her arm.

“This is Atiya,” she says. “She’s not like the twins. She’s pure human, so she’s lagging behind a bit in development. But she’s still my precious little princess, aren’t you, darling?”

They grow up so fast. It hasn’t even been a month, but Atiya is bigger than she was last time Keris saw her. She’s bigger and more alert and a little more rounded - though her breathing doesn’t sound so good. Keris thinks she’s picked up another infection.

But for now, she lies there in Keris’s arms, barely aware that she just got swapped from a Gale to Keris. She makes a clumsy grab for one of Keris’s hair locks and misses.

“Aww, she’s so tiny,” Zany says.

Ali nods. “Very young. What happened to her mother? It’s good of you to look after an orphan, even if you have your own babies to care for.”

“Ah,” says Keris. “Well. That’s where things get a bit complicated.”

She rubs her nose thoughtfully.

“Vali,” she says, “it’s been a tiring trip back. Could you and Fatima and,” she nods her head at the door behind which her Gale is waiting, “get the twins fed and put to bed, and Hany with them? I’m sure she won’t complain about getting a bedroom all her own next to her new friend Kali, right?” She directs this last at Hanilyia.

“And Zanara and Xasan and I will stay down here and talk about some boring grown-up stuff with your aunt and uncle.”

Vali nods soundly, and claps a hand on his uncle’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he tells his uncle firmly. “She’s my baby cousin and that’s basic’ly a baby sister really ‘cause I only got one full sister who can look after herself. So I’ll keep her safe like she’s my sister.”

“Uh. Thank you?” Ali says nervously.

Vali nods, and digs through the pillows, recovering Ogin. “Come on, Ogin. Big Bro Vali’s here to smash anyone who’s horrid to you.” Ogin wraps himself around Vali’s waist, a small smile on his lips. Kali leaps down, to twine around Vali’s ankles, while Fatima picks up Hany. “Off we go, then,” he says. “I bet if you want to all share a room, I can totally add another bed to it.”

“Sleepover!” shouts Hany. “Yes!”

“Okay, okay, okay,” Fatima says - and Keris realises she seems a little more comfortable now that Keris’s relatives are around, because at least they’re Tairan. “Come on, children.”

They leave, and the adults - and Zana - are left.

“Yes,” Zana says happily. “Time for adult talking. Not with little kids around, like Vali.” She nods meaningfully. “He’s only older than me chronologically,” she imparts, bouncing off her seat to occupy Ogin’s abandoned pillow fort.

“Mmm,” Keris agrees. “Do you think you could show Ali and Zany your other half? They’ve seen two she-yous, but no he-you yet.” And please let it be a mostly human Nara, she thinks. Nara is exactly what she needs for this talk. Well, bar maybe Rathan. But she can’t wait for the new moon, alas.

Zana nods. “Yeah, OK.” She gets up again, and finds a nice empty spot of wall, before sinking into it to form a painting from which a red-haired girl smiles out of.

“Goodness!” Zany says.

There’s a clatter of feet on the stairs, and Nara emerges. Keris hasn’t ever seen him look like this before - the perfect marble statue of a winged boy, made of living stone. He looks like the kind of thing she’d seen on temples back in Nexus - some foreign sky-god or something. Or... wait, maybe... the hawkmen? Something like that. Keris hadn’t paid much attention to them because they didn’t do soup kitchens.

“I-we am also Zanara, just as she-we is,” Nara says, taking a place on the edge of the room. Except... Keris isn’t sure, but... is Nara even a boy here? His features are more rounded, more feminised than usual, and his voice is higher pitched.

Well, huh. She’d thought that there was a male body and a female body, but was that really a rule, or just more of a guideline?

She beckons... Nara, over. “Hug,” she commands, and he obliges. “Yes, so,” she explains to Zany, “Zanara has two bodies; Art and Artist. Zana and Nara. They only control one at a time, and the other one turns into art when they’re not using it - a painting, or a statue, or a piece of music playing itself on a nearby instrument. It depends. Zana’s usually a girl and Nara’s usually a boy, but...” she glances down, “apparently that’s more guideline than actual rule. Still. Nara’s good at helping explain things. And... there’s a lot to explain.”

“She-we likes being a girl more than I-we do. I-we don’t really care, but she-we does, so I-we usually let her-us have her-our way,” Nara explains, and pauses. “That was probably too in-depth,” he says sheepishly. “Sorry, mama. Where do we start?”

Keris takes a breath, and blows it out slowly.

“Good question,” she says, looking between her brother and her sister-in-law. Cousin. She really needs to pick one and stick with it, she thinks vaguely; it’s getting confusing using both.

“I have things to tell both of you,” she says slowly. “Ali, you need to hear what happened in Malra, with mama and papa. They were your parents too, and I came back without them, and you deserve to know why. And Zany... you need to be told the real story behind Dulmea and my powers. We kept it from you while your heart was still weak, and I’m guessing Ali didn’t tell you on the journey because I wasn’t there to help explain, but neither of those reasons apply now.”

Zany looks over at Keris, green eyes gleaming. “Oh? Family secrets?” she asks teasingly. “I love secrets!”

Keris smiles uneasily. “You might not like this one,” she says quietly.

Looking at Ali grants her no help, and Xasan just shrugs at her. She rolls her eyes.

“This might be easier if I could bring out a Dulmea Chord to help explain... um... okay, you remember what I told you about when I got my powers? I was in the cell in Nexus, and Dulmea came, and she offered me her help and the powers she carried. And I took her into myself through my godsmark, and she was the seed of my powers, and as they grew I budded other souls for the new powers that bloomed from me.”

Zany nods, though given it’s been eight months Keris kind of doubts she remembered it clearly.

“What I said wasn’t a lie. All of that did happen. I just left out one detail, which is exactly what kind of spirit Dulmea was. Ali and Xasan already know, and they’re satisfied that I’m me...”

Keris tugs a lock of hair, stops beating around the bush, womans up and cuts to the point.

“... she was a demon, Zany. An angyalka. A harpist of time. That’s, ah... that’s where my powers come from. Sort of. Mostly.”

Zany doesn’t say anything. She just listens, eyes painfully bright.

One hand on her chest.

“I’m...” Keris continues haltingly, “I’m not... not a slave of Hell. They, uh, the demon princes actually couldn’t if they tried, I’m too powerful for that. It’s why they gave me these powers in the first place; they don’t think anything less is enough to get them what they want. But it means they can’t just enslave me and make me their creature. And the powers I get from them aren’t... they’re mine, once I learn them. Not theirs. They can’t affect what I do with them.”

She’s speeding up as she talks, sounding defensive. “Like... like healing you, that was one of the powers I got from them that let me do that, yeah. But... but it didn’t leave anything in you, you understand? I, I made very sure of that. There’s nothing demonic in you or about you or anything, my powers don’t taint everything they touch like that. The princes of Hell have no claim on what my actions touch. They don’t even know about you or Ali or Hany, and they won’t be able to find out.”

She keeps talking, not really hearing what she’s saying in between pleading looks at Ali and Xasan. That twitchy, tense feeling from Triumphant Air is back again, but this time without the thrill of playing against a worthy opponent. Just sick dread and worry in its place.

Eventually, when she and Zanara fall silent, Zany speaks.

“That’s... uh. That’s quite a secret,” she says, an odd gleam in her eyes. “I. Goodness. Whoosh.” She screws her eyes shut and opens them again. “So... Calesco is your familiar spirit?”

Keris breathes shakily. “Uh, no. Not... well, uh. You know how demons- well, no, you don’t. Um... you know how people have two souls, yeah? The one that thinks and can become a ghost, and the one that feels and can become a yidak?”

She waits for the nods. “Well, powerful demons are weird. They have seven. And their seven souls are... also demons; who can think and walk around away from the one they’re a soul of and everything. That’s what the Circles of demons mean. Since my power is, um, demon-flavoured, I’m the same way. Rathan and Calesco - and Vali and Zanara and Eko and Haneyl - are my souls. That’s what I meant when I said new spirits grew inside me for the new powers I developed, after Dulmea.”

She pauses, seeing that they still look slightly lost. “Okay, um... imagine if you liked artwork and beautiful things. Really, really loved them, I mean. The kind of passion for them that you hear about in the heroes of stories, whose love for their city or their wife pushes them through a whole adventure. And now imagine that love of art and beauty was so strong it could think for itself and have opinions and thoughts separate from yours and could walk around and do art things.”

She points. “That’s Zanara. And at the same time, they’re my child. Because I’m human as well as a thing with demon-flavoured powers, and when a human makes a little child that’s half them and half something else, that’s called being a parent.”

“Oh. Hmm. Okay.” Zany’s voice is carefully flat. “What’s Calesco, then?”

Keris smiles, slightly pained. “My compassion,” she admits. “She spends a lot of time shouting at me about how I should be a better person. Usually I try to listen.”

“Huh. Huh.” Zany sighs. “I think I would have liked to meet her. And Rathan?”

“Um...” Keris has to think about that one. “They’re their own people, you know. Just because they’re... they’re parts of me as well, doesn’t mean that’s all they are. I told Calesco, when she was little - if she was just my compassion, she’d be like my arm or my leg. A daughter can argue with you. Your fingers can’t.” She chuckles mirthlessly. “I’m not used to thinking of them as what parts of me they are, I guess.”

“Rathan is your sense of justice,” Nara says serenely. “And fair play. He gets very upset when things aren’t fair,” they add to Zany. “And since you were going to ask about the others, Vali is mama’s stubbornness and refusal to bend to the demands of others, Eko is her joy and whimsy, and Haneyl is her greed and want and her drive to better herself.”

“Hmm. Yes. I can see that,” she says, clearly thinking back about the time she’d spent with Rathan on the slow trip down to Terema. “This is... a lot to take in. A lot of secrets.” She glares at Ali. “Which my darling husband was keeping from me.”

“Don’t blame him,” says Keris, despite thinking yes, blame him. Ali was the one who didn’t explain it all back after she’d healed Zany and left it to her. But, urgh... “Back in Taira your heart was still weak and you were recovering,” Keris defends. “And it was safer for you to go through Realm territory when you had no idea who you were related to. And, let’s be fair here, breaking it to you on the journey without me around to help explain would have gone much worse than this could have.”

Zany sits back, eyes bright. “I don’t... this is a lot to think about. My cousin, my sister-in-law, who saved my life, is a servant of Rigeru, the Traitor Sun.” She gulps down a breath. “It’s... it’s a shock to the system.”

Keris wrinkles her nose. “Do you have to say ‘servant’?” she complains. “I’m not a servant. I’m, like...” She pauses, considering. “A mercenary, I guess?” she hazards. “I guess that’s closest. I do work for them for pay, like... like stealing back stuff that got stolen from their cults or murdering fae monsters out in the Wyld, but it’s not like I kneel in front of them and clean their houses. And there are some jobs I’d refuse to do if they asked them of me.”

“But... why? Why work for the Traitor Sun and his demonic allies?” Zany demands.

Grimacing, Keris runs a hand through her hair.

“At first? Because they saved my life,” she says. “Without the power Dulmea brought me, I’d have been worse than dead. Think of the kind of horror stories that got told about what the shahbanu did to traitors in Terema. Then... well, then it was because I’d grown up poor and ignored and they praised me and gave me massive amounts of money and food and servants and crap.”

She flops back into the lounging chair, glancing over at where Atiya is resting on her cushion. “Then I talked to... someone who pointed out some things, and a few bits and pieces opened my eyes some more, and I realised that a lot of them are awful, horrible tyrants who should never be let loose on Creation,” she says. “But - and I know this’ll be hard to take - it’s not true to say that they’re all absolute monsters, either. Asarin’s not bad - she doesn’t care about Creation, really, she just wants to rule a domain in Hell and pretend to be a highborn Shogunate lady. And my mentor in art, the one I showed you in the sketchbook; she’s actually really sweet. Which is probably because she’s really young for a demon, and hasn’t ever even been to Creation.”

“Why do I work for them now? Because I do have friends there, impossible as that might seem, and because the ones I’m not friends with terrify me. If I rebel; if I turn on them and abandon them and cut ties... they won’t let it go, Zany. Ever. And they could kill me. They really could. I’m powerful, I’m deadly... but I can’t fight all of Hell on my own. Nothing and no-one can. Not anymore. Besides, like I said. I get some level of choice in picking my jobs, and nobody cares if I go hunt princes of chaos out in the Wyld and deliver them to Hell to be burnt up or eaten. Nobody important, anyway.”

There’s a long silence, broken only by the sounds of children upstairs. There’s a smashing noise, which is undoubtedly the fault of someone whose name ends in “-ali” and starts with a K or a V.

Zany runs her hands through her light brown hair, green eyes screwed shut. “I’ll... okay. Okay. This is a lot to deal with, but... okay.” She rises. “I think I’ll just go see what that breaking was, and... and probably have a nap myself, honestly. I’m saddle sore and things weren’t great on Triumphant Air.” She glances back at Keris. “We’ll talk later. I promise. I... I want to see if there are any more secrets before I make a final decision.”

Keris nods slightly, shrinking a bit. “Um, Zany?” she asks, before her cousin leaves. “The, uh, the girls - Fatima and Heba and Kashma. They don’t know yet. I’ve been waiting to break it to them gently when they’re more settled. Please don’t mention it to them.”

She nods, and leaves.

Xasan sighs, and slaps Keris on the shoulder. “Could have gone worse,” he says gruffly.

She nods faintly, leaning into him. “Okay. That... that was probably the worse one for me,” she says shakily. “But... Ali. I’m afraid this story isn’t going to be much fun either.” Her mouth twitches slightly. “At last it casts me in a better light than that did. It started when Rathan, Calesco, Xasan and I set off back up the river from where we waved you off...”

((Per + Expression to break the news to him, announce any other charms you’re using to enhance it / avoid blame / whatever.))
((... I mean, tbh Keris does actually come off looking quite good in this story. She won’t tell him as much as she told Xasan, but... yeah, she tried her very best to help mama find peace without letting her murder people, she avenged her death, she put her down when she turned rabid and butchered a whole estate, and she left papa to live his peaceful life that had no place for his older children anymore.))
((Hmm. Yeah, no avoid-blame charms, even though Ali might not react well. Keris isn’t inclined to use them. And also has Xasan to back her up with “I was there, and yeah, Keris basically more or less did right”.))
((Hee. She will play as she tells the story. Time-Strung Harpist can be used “to enrapture an audience and to glean information about them, or to amplify the echoes of history. It can also support actions to use this understanding through the emotive power of the music itself.” It’s just a pity she doesn’t have Darkling Grace Complete yet, or she could provide hologram clips as she spoke. : P))
((4+5+3 Time-Strung Harpist+2 stunt+9 Adorjani ExD {inevitability that bad things happen, catastrophe and calamity, crucible of tragedy}=23. 8 sux.))

Keris begins to pluck at the air as she talks, playing the melody of the hard journey up through the mountains, the rescue of the girls and the laborious birth of the twins. She sketches the airship with her hair as she plays the rising tones of its ascent, and she switches to minor chords and chilling scales when the yidak first appears.

Her song turns sombre as she breaks the news of Maryam’s long-ago death, and from that point on the morbid refrain is a constant chorus in the background as she details, in short sentences, the slow journey up through Malra with the help of a local sun-chosen, the clues she gathered and Maryam’s increasing recklessness. All the way up to the climax of Maryam’s abandonment of her and the chaos in Malra’s capital.

“... and that’s where it ended, really,” she finishes. “Outside his door. He had a life there - one built on the same system of slavery that tore us apart, in an empire that’s headed for inevitable war with the shahbanu and probably the Realm or Lookshy given time. I couldn’t live there, you were already halfway here, and... he was content. Without us.”

She sniffs. “There was some more,” she admits. “I was injured, so Ney had to patch me up. And I kinda pulled a massive break-in theft on the naib out of spite. But it pretty much ended outside papa’s door, in the snow.”

Xasan nods. “She’s telling the truth.”

Ali clasps his calloused hands together. “Gods,” he says sadly. “What a mess. A real life ghost story, and you got caught up in it.” He reaches out and squeezes Keris’s hand. “You should have just come with us. Not got involved in all that tragedy.” He shakes his head. “What a mess.” He rises, stretching. “Uncle? Want to go with a walk with me? I just want to clear my head. Thank you for that, Keris, but... I just need some time. To think about this.”

She nods again, stroking Atiya’s hair. They’re probably going off to talk about her in private, but she can’t bring herself to care, or listen in. In fact...

“Uncle,” she says softly. “Remember my range.” He’s spent enough time around her to have a good sense of how far she can hear clearly, so if they want privacy that’ll remind him to get enough distance before starting to speak. She shifts over to scoop up Atiya and lies down full length on the lounge, beckoning Nara over.

“Make some music for me?” she asks. “Something to make me feel better. I’ll tell you all about what I’ve been doing these past few weeks I’ve been gone.”

Chapter Text

In retrospect, it was her fault.

Wait, no, that’s a lie. It’s the fault of her little brats. But it’s her fault for forgetting what a little bunch of brats they are. And yes, she was sort of exhausted when she got back and wasn’t paying as much attention as she should have.

But the lack of attentiveness has its limits. And those limits are met when she walks into what had been Lucky Wolf’s dining hall and thinks for a moment that she’s walked into the Isles. The Isles, with more than a touch of the Spires.

The walls are many colours and she can smell how expensive the paints from the Daimyo and Yellow are, painted in murals of within her soul. The white Shogunate stone has been used to build grand, intimidating pillars and wall-nooks, and the ceiling has been knocked out to give more vertical space. A dragon sculpture wraps its way around the room, painted in gold leaf and black. Oh, and the floor has also been knocked out and flooded, and a new floor built atop it. And all of the art is obviously, clearly out of the ordinary. Her demons leer down from the walls and lean out of the pillars.

Keris has one thing to say.

“Vali! Zanara! Get in here!” she screams.

Vali confesses immediately. Wait, no. “Confesses” isn’t the right word. “Brags” is. He doesn’t see anything wrong.

“We made you a better dining hall,” he says, nodding firmly. “It’s got dragons. And it’s pretty.”

“It’s blatantly obviously demonic!” shrieks Keris, who... may not have had time to reabsorb her Gale yet and get hit with a month of memories. She’d had time right after filling Zanara in, but hadn’t wanted to deal with the headache, so she’d delayed, and...

... yeah, that’s maybe starting to seem like a bad idea now.

“Anyone who sees this will- well, no, okay, the dragon is good,” she concedes. “Little River’s a Dragonblood. And I love the water-floor. But the art! Demons! Murals of the Domain! This is like a giant sign saying ‘I’m an infernalist, send a wyld hunt’! Why?”

Vali shrugs. “It’s just pictures of home,” he says with a casual shrug.

Zanara smiles. “We just wanted to feel... homey,” he says with a winsome and very Rathanite smile. “Aren’t you proud of who you are, mama?”

Keris looks around helplessly, tugging at her hair. “I am, but other people aren’t. Look, when we get our own place in Shuu Mua; a secret city all our own, we can decorate that however we want. But this is a Little River place. If people start thinking she’s an infernalist, everything on Saata falls apart.”

She walks over to the dragon, stroking along its scales with po-sensitive fingers and feeling the work Vali put into it. “This is all gorgeous,” she admits. “But it can’t all stay here. Not where people who aren’t ours will be able to see it.”

((Rea+Awa to investigate the dragon; 14 dice. 8x2+4=20 sux.))

This isn’t Vali’s work. Not all of it. Not most of it, either. She can see the bits which are his work, because they’re the cruder bits of patchwork under the paint. This isn’t his style, and he can’t work in stone like this. Most of this dragon is Shogunate - he’s just turned fragments of what must have been parts of many dragons from many buildings into one long thin room-encompassing snake-dragon. But he’s made the crudeness of his work in this Shogunate stone its own thing, and painted the join-lines in gold leaf. This dragon is a survivor, a fighter, a creature that’s been hurt time and time again - and wears his scars in gold. Considering it for a while, Keris smiles.

“We’ll keep the dragon,” she decides. “And... Zanara? I’m assuming the floor was your idea?” Vali may have done it, but the environment of the Spires is more altitude than anything. He’s not the one who would want to feel like he was on an island. She kneels to briefly examine the see-through sections of floor that separate the room from the water lapping in the flooded cellar beneath.

“I wanted to set the water on fire, but we couldn’t get any of Hanny’s fire,” Vali chips in. “It’d be super cool to have the green lighting from underneath.”

“Always with the green,” Zanara mutters.

The glass in the floor seems to come from many origins. There are bits and pieces of ancient glass from the old Shogunate city, but that’s often cracked and curved and so they’ve been forced to use more modern bits that have to be kept small.

“We also put something under there so you can go down and float candles on the water!” Zanara contributes. “I wanted to cover all the walls in nacre, but that’s super expensive. It’s so unfair.”

Keris beams at them. “It’s wonderful,” she says honestly. “And I’m definitely keeping it like this. Maybe remodelling a few other rooms the same way. But,” she holds up a finger. “The demon-statues and other stuff from the Domain need to be moved. They’ll be great in one of the secret cellars, but not up here. You can help me make a properly artistic shrine down there as well. One that’ll make people less suspicious of the estate.”

Zanara stomps his foot. “You’re ruining the aesthetics!” he shouts at Keris, glaring up at her with three eyes.

She pinches the bridge of her nose. “So will House Sinasana if they come and level the building,” she points out in strained tones and crouching in front of him. “Zanara, honey, I promise we will make this hall a beautiful place. A place that will bring tears of awe to anyone who sees it. But there are ways for it to be beautiful that will not get Immaculates coming to murder us. And we’re using one of them. That’s that.”

“I hate you!” Nara shouts, storming out. “You’re ugly.”

Vali sighs. “I guess you’re gonna want me to tear down the wall stuff?” he says. “‘Cause, I mean, I don’t mind getting to break stuff...”

Keris glances around thoughtfully at the grand pillars, easy-to-hide-in wall nooks, alien murals and leering demonic statues.

“... leave the structural bits,” she says, after brief consideration. “And if you can, take the demon-statues and murals off without breaking them, like you did with the dragon fragments. We’ll move them down to one of the cellars. They’re pretty enough that it’d be a shame to just smash them, and you two did work hard on them all.”

“I mean, I worked hard,” Vali harrumphs. “Nara just did the painting and did some stuff with paper stuff in the markets for money. It’s not like he went and had to dig all the biiiiiiiiig holes over the estate for stuff like I did. Or go off into the jungles and pull bits of dragon off old ruins!”

Keris freezes momentarily.

“... when you say he ‘did some stuff with paper stuff’,” she says in tones of dawning dread. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“I mean, it was mostly Zana who did it,” Vali says, sounding profoundly disinterested. “She just went in looking like a pretty lady... an old one, like, older than you... and then got money from somewhere.”

Oh no, thinks Keris quietly. So, considering how she’d do it with Zanara’s skillset... prooooobably forgery. Yeah. Some forged bank papers would let her take out a few payments supposedly between... oh, say, a rich group of Saatan traders or merchants or moneylenders with reason not to like each other. Do that two or three times so they all think they stole from one another, walk off with the money...

She sighs. Hopefully Zanara at least ran their targets past their big sister to do it without breaking anything important in the ensuing flurry of accusations and grudges.

“Fine,” she groans. “In that case, I’m going to visit Haneyl. Could you start moving the demon statues into one of the secure cellars, and make sure Zanara doesn’t do any art in a sulk or a temper tantrum? And if you want me to tell her anything, I’ll pass it along.”

Vali scratches his head. “Yeah, sure, mum.” He gives her a hug. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said. “I’ve never been away from you for so long. And that scale of you ain’t really you. She only really cares about the babies.” He turns, muttering about where he left his tool kit, then pauses. “You taking uncle and aunty and my new cousin with you to see Hanny?” he asks. “She’d prob wanna see them and them her. Plus, maybe Aunty and Hanny can... like, bond over having green eyes? I dunno.”

“Hmm.” Xasan had been... less comfortable with Haneyl than he had with Rathan and Calesco. Ali will probably be the same way. But...

“I think my brother will want to stay here for the moment and recover from the trip - and he’s a blacksmith, so you can go talk to him about metalwork if you want,” Keris says, hugging back. “Just... don’t let him see this place until you’re done, please. I’ll see if Zany and Hanilyia want to come along, though. Good idea.”

She squeezes him close and presses a kiss to his temple. He’s really shooting up in height. He’ll probably wind up taller even than Haneyl, when he’s full-grown. “I’m glad to be back too, sweetheart,” she murmurs. “It was a scary three weeks. I’ll try to give more warning next time I have to leave.”

“Kali helped with the painting,” Vali informs her. He points at the bottom of one of the walls, where there’s a little set of hand-prints, paw prints, and bird-feet marks.

Keris chuckles. “Of course she did. Well, I suppose we can leave those in place too. Anything you want me to tell Haneyl?”

“Uhhh. Tell her not to be boring, I guess,” Vali says. “And that she needs to visit more.”

“Alright. Have fun, darling,” Keris kisses him again, and goes off to find Zanyira.

... and her Gale. She really needs to reabsorb her Gale, even if it will give her a killer headache.

---

In the end, she gets such a bad headache from the re-merger with her Gale that she decides she needs a rest day to calm down from all the past few weeks - and of course, see to her babies. Her new memories tell her she caught Kali standing up with the help of a table leg, and taking a tottering step before she fell flat on her face. Her adorable little babies are growing up!

The next day, Zanyira is wary, but open to meeting her niece. Ali is spending the day in bed - he seems to have come down with a minor case of food poisoning - so she doesn’t even need to come up with an excuse not to invite him, but Hany is having too much fun with Chirpy Kitty Kali to want to leave her. Xasan promises he’ll look after her, though, so with her cousin on her back, Keris heads out. Past the hole-covered mess of her estate that Vali has made.

Many of the holes have flooded from the rain, but it’s still a mess.

“Is this whole thing a giant ruin?” Zanyira asks, looking around as Keris speeds through the jungle.

“My estate? Yeah, basically,” Keris says. “The island? Uh... also yes, I think. From what I can tell, back before the Contagion this whole place was one huge city. That weirdly circular hill my estate’s built on? Probably a single tower, hundreds of metres high.”

She diverts onto a river, skimming down it on light feet to save Zany the annoyance of branches and leaves whipping past. “From the ruins I saw in Eshtock and the way Asarin builds... the Shogunate really liked their huge, landscape-scale buildings. And that white super-stone, too. They loved that stuff; used it everywhere.”

“How did they make it?” Zany frowns. “Or did they not make it? Where did they dig it up from, then?”

Keris shrugs, which is an interesting movement with a grown woman on her back. “I think they must have made it, because I’ve seen it used in Taira, the Anarchy and even the far Northeast,” she replies. “So I’m guessing some kind of formula, like how you mix up Maiden Tea or make plaster. But the ingredients and however they cooked it to make it so strong... just another of the things lost in the fall of the Second Age. Same for that chunk of glass road I picked up from Malra. Maybe I’ll get Eko or Vali or Zanara to try and figure it out.” She pauses. “Or Asarin might know, I guess.”

They’re coming up to the fields and the farms at the edge of Saata, as well as the smaller rural estates of the not-quite-as-rich, and Keris has to pay more attention to dodging attention and eventually has to have Zany dismount. A quarter of an hour later they’re at Haneyl’s home, and find Rounen reading peacefully there. Keris checks in with her aide and introduces Zanyira to him before finding that Haneyl has bought out a countinghouse and is at work there now, along with Elly.

“He seems nice,” Zany says softly as they pause by a road, waiting for a parade of white-feathered dancers banging drums to pass by. “But is he a...” she drops her voice, “demon?”

“... he’s not from Hell,” Keris says. “But he’s not human either. He’s... mm... you know how powerful gods have lesser spirits who serve them? Powerful demons are kind of the same way; they make lesser demons. Whole races of them; the commoners of Hell. Things like the deer made of worms that Ali had to kill. Demons of the First Circle.”

She shrugs. “Rounen - and Elly - are lesser-spirits who come from Haneyl. He, uh, gets very angry if people call him a demon, so don’t. But he’s a lifesaver. Does all my paperwork and organising, and he used to be an adorable little flower-petal child who cooked my meals for me and wrote stories about what I did when I was travelling around.”

Zanyira grins at Keris. “Well, he’s quite the hotty,” she says, mouth curved wickedly up as she looks sideways at Keris. “No wonder you keep him close to you. If I wasn’t a married woman...”

“Nnnargh!” Keris says, cringing. “No no no! Bad Zany! I knew him when he was a kid! Besides, he has a... thing, with Haneyl and Elly. That I try not to think about. At all.” She shudders, and realises just a little too late that displaying weaknesses like ‘topics that can reliably make her cringe’ to someone as impish as Zanyira is probably a bad idea.

“So is there someone for you?” Zany asks, pushing on as they cross the street. “Or are you going to die an old spinster? Should I... well, I can’t set you up with my friends because we left them all back in Taira, but should I make some new friends so I can set you up with one of them?”

“There’s Sasi,” Keris sighs happily. “I showed you her in my sketchbook, remember? Haneyl and Vali’s other mother; the gorgeous Realm one. And...” Her cheeks redden a little. “I... may have had a... fling, I guess, while I was in Malra. With a... I guess you’d call him a rival? Sort of?”

Zany smiles, eyes twinkling, but says nothing. She quite deliberately says nothing. Her saying nothing and her smug smile is a void into which Keris’s words seem drawn, inviting her to blab her secrets.

((... lol. Per 3 + Pres 2 + Babbling Brook Gossip Style 2 + 1 Style bonus = 8 dice => [10 10 10 8 5 4 4 1] = 7 successes.))
((... goddamn, Zanyira.))

Keris has a girlfriend. A beautiful, brilliant romantic one who she talks to as often as she can. But she’s never had platonic girlfriends before; women her own age to gossip with and share secrets and giggle alongside and trade advice about men and makeup and the many trials of womanhood.

Or, well, that had been the general theme of the conversations between Nexan harlots she’d spied on as a kid; jealous of their easy friendships and social groups that went beyond two pre-teen street rats huddling under the same blanket.

Point is, this sort of thing is strange and foreign territory to her; rife with unexplored geography and rules she’s not familiar with. It’s tantalising and exciting and also kind of scary in an out-of-her-depth sort of way. So perhaps it’s that, or perhaps it’s Zany’s fearful powers of married-womanly-ness and teasing-older-cousin-ness that allow her to drag a rather-larger-than-Keris-intended part of the whole Ney fling out of her, albeit one that avoids the nastier bits of Malra. She even winds up expounding on the keruby when she mentions Oula and Rathan being together and has to explain how Oula grew up.

And, yes, there may be a bit of bragging involved. Both about how she pulled the wool over Ney’s eyes for the heist... and also how she totally won the bedroom sparring on both the first night at the border and then the last one in the capital.

Somehow, Zany manages to extract far, far more on that subject than Keris had ever believed she’d feel comfortable disclosing to a family member, with no more than a meaningful “so how was he?” that was packed with innuendo and then some coos of delight and not-so-subtle prompting whenever it looked like Keris was starting to listen to what she was saying.

“So the Jackal is your beau,” Zanyira concludes, with an impressed look on her face. She laughs, running her hands through her hair and seeming to only remember part way through her motion that it’s cut short and she can’t. “In a little way, that makes me feel better about you,” she says, jabbing Keris in the chest. “There’s the rumours I heard from some of the Lionesses that he’s a sun-chosen holy warrior. So you can’t be all that bad - that, or you’re so good at corrupting people that poor little me doesn’t stand a chance and I should just give in and enjoy the ride~”

“He’s not my beau,” Keris mutters, blushing. “He’s annoying. And nosy. And doesn’t know when to stop poking at people. Besides, he’s back in Malra. Being annoying.”

She points accusingly. “And you! You talk about me corrupting people! You’re a... a gossip-witch! Gods, I should be employing you as a spymaster; I’m the one who didn’t stand a chance just now! How’d you even get me to say that much about... about...”

She blushes again; cheeks pinking in a glare at Zany’s laugh. “I’ve spent a lot of time in bed being ill,” her cousin points out. “Talking to people is something I can do without getting tired. Plus,” and she smiles at Keris with a slight edge of malice, “I’ve always liked knowing other people’s secrets, Kiss.”

Oh dear. Mentioning the annoying nickname Ney gave her was a mistake.

Keris waves her pointing finger at the gossip-witch, as though it contains arcane or demonic power that will hold off her tyrannical blandishments. Sadly, Iris comprehensively fails to deliver.

“No,” she says slightly desperately, searching for a way to forbid that nickname from ever seeing the light of day again. None comes to mind. “No,” she repeats, just in case this will help matters. “Don’t you dare. I will... I’ll...”

She waves the finger again, this time with an air of faint panic. Thankfully, Haneyl’s countinghouse saves her.

“... oh, wait, look, we’re here!” she interrupts herself in relief. “Let’s go see my daughter, shall we?”

The countinghouse is located in a respectable merchant district. Keris knows her daughter and the appearance of respectability is very important to her. So is the fact that there’s a street of food sellers within smelling distance. They’re shown in, and head upstairs past the hollow hall full of scribes working away with their brushes and abacuses. Haneyl’s office is positioned so she can look over the main hall, with closable paper windows. It faces north and the slatted blinds are closed, casting patterns of light and dark onto the hardwood desk. There are, of course, bonsai trees on it.

Haneyl sits behind her desk, feet up on a footstall, dressed in a fine gold-trimmed green gown that shows more cleavage and more thigh than Keris is entirely happy about her teenage daughter showing. Elly has been tweaked to pass as human, and she kneels beside her princess on a mat, filing her own nails.

“Well, look who finally decided to show her face,” Haneyl drawls when her mother shows up. “I was almost thinking you’d forgotten I existed.”

The gravity-drop fan on the ceiling slowly unwinds, its counterweights descending and lazily moving the air in this hot office.

“Sorry darling. I had to go to Triumphant Air on urgent business,” Keris apologises, raising an eyebrow at Elly’s place on her knees and leaning in to kiss her daughter’s forehead. She’s only able to reach because Haneyl is sitting down.

“And on that note, remember how I said Ali and his family would be here around the end of Wood? Well, they got delayed up at the Realm port, so I brought them back with me. Meet Zanyira; my cousin. Sister-in-law. Uh... both?”

Keris frowns, and glances back at Zany. “You know what? I’m just going to use ‘sister’, if that’s okay. And this is Haneyl; my seventh soul and second-eldest daughter, and her friend Ellyssivera.”

Haneyl looks at the woman, eyebrows rising. There’s... heh, Keris thinks, a little similarity in the appearance of the two women, beyond the shared features that Haneyl gets from Keris’s Tairan side. They have similar skin tones and Zany’s hair is a very light brown. Their eyes aren’t the same shade of green, though - Haneyl’s are a bright, almost unnatural green while Zany’s are much more muted and normal-human; if Haneyl’s are the bright green of Ligier, Zanyira’s are the soft, gentle green of ivy and other evergreen plants.

Then Zany smiles. “Oh my, you were so much smaller in the pictures Keris showed you. You were all tiny and adorable.”

That prompts a dark blush on Haneyl’s cheeks. “Mama!” she protests. “Did you show her my childhood drawings?”

“She did,” Zany says, before Keris can deny anything. “I’m Zanyira. And yes, like Keris says, I’m her cousin.” She perches on the chair opposite to Keris. “Is this place all yours?”

Haneyl quickly orders Elly to put the tea on. “Oh yes,” she brags. “I’ve been busy. I realised when mama was away that I needed someone to handle my affairs here when I was elsewhere or had other things to do. So I found this woman, Indah Mataiya, who’s a graduate-priestess of one of the local temples and owned a counting house. I made her acquaintance, and,” Haneyl smiles, showing her teeth, “hired her. Although we’re really very good friends. Honestly, she’d work for me for free.”

“Nnnargh,” comments Keris, dropping her face into her hands as her cheeks go dull red again. “Haneyl! I don’t want to know about your... conquests.”

She sighs. “Is she trustworthy, at least? Wait, never mind, if Elly tolerates her she must be. Good job then, sweetheart. Well done. Oh, and Vali says to not be boring and that you should visit more. He and Zanara have been decorating my estate.” She pauses. “Speaking of which; did your littler sibling come ask you for help getting their hands on some money recently?”

Haneyl frowns. “No. What have they been up to?” Her eyes narrow. “Elly!”

“She wasn’t stealing from you,” Elly says, as she kneels by the kettle. “I’d have smelled it. The Prinz has a distinctive odour anyway, and theft mixed in with that... no. Nothing like that.”

“Oh dear,” Keris murmurs. “Well, I’ll work out exactly what they did later. Do you have time for a meal?” She grins, already knowing the answer.

“Of course, of course!” Haneyl springs to her feet. “Elly, I’ll see to the tea. I want you to go to the Seventh Duck and inform them that my reservation for lunch will need four, not two.”

“Yes, my princess,” Elly says, rising with predatory grace. She bows to Haneyl, and then to Keris, and leaves. Haneyl takes the tea in hand, serving it with practiced skill.

“Is there a reason she kneels?” Zany asks.

“She prefers it,” Haneyl says, with an easy shrug. “I’ve offered her a chair. She prefers her padded mat. She says chairs make her spine hurt and her teeth itch.”

Keris raises an eyebrow, but... supposes she can see that. Elly’s a crocodile-wolf in her natural state. Maybe her instincts just don’t feel comfortable on furniture.

“So, then,” she asks, sipping at her tea. “Besides your new countinghouse - very nice new feather for your hair - how have things been? Did you get the dance hall finished?”

Haneyl sighs. “Like I told you, mama,” she says wearily, “nagging me won’t make it go any faster. I’m not my dunderheaded brother who can just throw stones on top of each other. I have workers who are doing it, and they’re a bit behind schedule. Monsoon season is slowing things down. Still, the roof is mostly fixed so at least the building isn’t flooding each time it rains. Just as I told you last time, it won’t be ready until sometime in the new year.”

Keris looks slightly guilty. “Worth a shot,” she shrugs, playing it off. “Other than that, then?”

“Things are quite fine.” Haneyl swirls her tea thoughtfully. “I’m enjoying Saata. I do love mother dearly, but it’s nice to be out from under her thumb. And the city is wonderful. There’s so many things to see, so many things to eat, so many things - and people - to do. I might head off for a little holiday sometime in the new year, though. Part of the reason I hired Indah is so I can leave her doing this kind of work for a season or two. I will want to pop off home for a bit, just to check on the place and see Saji. I should probably tell her I forgive her in a bit. And of course, a month or two sailing off down south sounds like a wonderful time. At the very least, I want to find some of those spice islands and harvest crop samples. The price I have to pay for nutmeg at the market is criminal! I want some of that profit!”

“Oh, huh. Speaking of sailing down south, the Baisha will probably be done with their scouting of the region,” Keris realises. “I need to talk to Neride about what to do next. And, uh, also fuel. They’ll be running low. Hmm.”

Zanyira seems a little lost as Keris and her daughter move into discussion of politics and business. But she doesn’t interrupt and doesn’t even ask questions. She just cups her hands around her tea and listens to them, eyes wide.

Then...

“I do have a question,” she asks Keris over lunch. “You keep on talking about priests... but not as priests, if you follow me? As if they’re people you hire?”

The restaurant is an expensive coffeehouse, serving fish and rice dishes alongside a range of coffees. The walls are dark wood with hanging drapes separating the tables, and bronze mirrors reflect golden light around in the smoke-filled air. The conversations in here are too much for Keris to track, not just in volume but also in number and in details. No wonder Haneyl loves this place. Keris didn’t understand how much of the business here, away from the Tengese quarter, seems to happen in coffeehouses.

“Oh, right, yeah,” Keris nods. “That confused me too at first. Saata is wonderfully close to Nexus in a lot of ways, but there are still some differences, and this is one of the big ones.”

She snaps up a yummy spiced pastry thing made with ginger and nutmeg and takes a sip of cocoa-coffee before continuing. “So the thing you need to understand is that basically anything that involves teaching in this city happens as part of a temple. ‘Priest’ doesn’t mean ‘holy man’ here - or, well, it kind of does, but it mostly means ‘educated person’ or... or ‘journeyman’ or whatever.”

She waves a hand, illustrating her point. “So there’s a temple for finance and bureaucracy that Haneyl’s new accountant graduated from, a temple for working with firedust-related stuff, a temple for dancing, a temple for ship-making... if you want to learn a trade here, you go enrol at a temple. And if you want someone trained in something, you hire a priest.”

“I... suppose that makes sense,” Zanyira says thoughtfully. “Because back home everyone knew that the priests of Shamsun up on the mountain knew things no one else did.” She smiles. “If I hadn’t been ill, I’d probably have tried to become an initiate there.” Her smile vanishes. “Well, and... and if I wasn’t the last of my branch of the family. The priest down in the village - I paid attention and made sure I knew how to read because a few of our books survived the fire. Did I mention there was a map of all the world in one of the old books? And one of them was a diary. You know I think our family used to be minor nobility before a dam broke and we lost our land? That was before the empire, though - before Taira.”

Keris’s eyebrows rise in surprise. “Really? Huh. I don’t suppose you brought those books and maps along, did you?” She grins. “I like maps. They’re useful. And help me not get lost.”

“I think they’re somewhere in the bags,” Zanyira says, vaguely surprised. “I mean, if Hany didn’t tear them up. She might. We have to keep her away from paper.”

“Sorry, what?” Haneyl demands.

“Oh, yeah,” Keris remembers. “Your, uh, cousin also came with Ali and Zanyira. Her name is Hanilyia.”

She waits.

Haneyl crosses her arms, and glares at her mother. “Really? Really, mama? You couldn’t show any more imagination when naming us?”

“... hey!” Keris objects, not having gotten the indignant name-claiming reaction she’d expected. Her teasing comparison of Haneyl to a three-year old mortal child withers on the vine. “I... I named you by instinct! I thought I was using my imagination!”

“She just named you after your grandmother,” Zanyira informs her traitorously.

Haneyl sighs. “Really? Really, mama? By that logic, you might as well have called me Nemone. And then I’d sound like some kind of sea creature.”

Keris, beset on two sides by a coordinated assault, pouts.

“You used to be much more adorable than this,” she complains. “I remember when you were still asking me why the sky was that colour and why people wanted to live in houses that weren’t trees.”

“I was the most adorable,” Haneyl agrees. “Now I’m the most beautiful. That’s what happens when a girl grows up, mama. She stops being adorable and becomes beautiful.” She flicks her hair. “Like me.”

Zanyira nods. “You are very pretty,” she tells Haneyl. “By the way, which part of Keris’s mind do you represent?”

Keris hesitates. Briefly. Compassion is one thing, Art and Justice fairly non-offensive... but...

“Zanara said greed,” she says quietly. “And the drive to better myself. Haneyl’s the one who pushes me to be better than I am. To keep striving for more; like my estate and her countinghouse.”

She narrows her eyes at Zany. “Which you heard. You were there. Why are you asking now?”

Zanyira smiles. “Because you seemed much more wary about her, but she’s an interesting girl. So I thought I’d ask her.”

“... wait.” Haneyl glares at Keris. “Are you embarrassed of me?”

Keris looks hurt. “Of course I’m not! I’m worried for you. It’s hard to blame Rathan for anything, and Calesco can say she’s Compassion and a lot of people will take that to mean she’s nice.”

She pauses, considering that for a moment. “Well, people who’ve never spent much time around her when she’s in a bad mood will take that to mean ‘nice’, at least,” she amends. “And Zanara sounds pretty inoffensive as ‘Art’ if you haven’t seen the sheer power they can put into their paintings. But you don’t have that kind of protection against people thinking bad things about you, and I don’t want people to assume you’re horrible just from hearing what part of me you’re linked to. That’s not fair.”

“Mmm.” Haneyl settles down. “Well... just so we’re clear...” She glances at Zanyira. “And I’m not really a part of mama. That’s not how it works. I’m me. She... she gave birth to me because of that seed, maybe, but... it’s complicated. I’m her daughter. And Lady Sasimana is my other mother. My cousin isn’t part of you, is she? She’s just born of your flesh. So I was born of mama’s mind. See?”

“... I think I do.” Zanyira nods. “This is excellent coffee,” she adds, and the conversation moves onto lighter things.

---

The heat of Fire grows and grows as the year approaches its end. Mosquitos buzz in Saata, and even the bats and the brightly coloured birds can’t eat them all. It takes some effort, but Keris manages to calm Zanara down with the promise for Zana to get to go to one of the Saatan dance temple-colleges and take Piu with her. Keris carefully frames it as an “I’m sorry” gift, rather than a way to hopefully get the second most troublesome of her souls to behave for a bit, and Zanara seems to buy it. Maybe they’re fooled, or maybe they just want to go to dance-temple that much.

Vali’s hanging around the estate, doing handy work and being Keris’s attentive face to her family. Vali gets along with them, which is something she’s really happy to see. He’s forthright, fairly laid back when around squishy mortals, and he loves Hany - and she loves Cuz Vali back. Keris mentions to him it might be an idea to do something nice for Ali so he can feel useful, and helps him get his forge set up. There’s an added benefit there, because Vali’s always been self-taught and Ali at least can give him some formal teaching.

Haneyl seems to have delegated herself into mild boredom. That’s presumably why she’s so amenable to looking into Pretty Peacock for Keris. That and the offers of bribes of some of her wealth when Keris takes her rival down, of course.

But it’s at the new moon when Keris summons Rathan, who emerges sparkling and flawless and only slightly irked that Zanara is refusing to give up the Amulet to him.

“Sorry, darling,” she says. “But this time I’m not summoning you for beauty or as a herald. I need you to be a guardian for me.”

With a grin, she produces a long, lethal line of shining silver; the curve of the blade like a serpent’s fang, and balances it for a moment in her hands. Then she flips the two-handed blade - as long as she is tall - to present it hilt-first to Rathan.

“I think you recognise this, don’t you?” she grins. “Bear it well in the defence of my manse. I don’t expect you to get your hands dirty yourself, so I’m sending you and Oula with some of Vali’s keruby who were once wave cherubs. Get the harvesting of the guano underway and the shipments sent to the warehouse Elly set up. Guard the manse. And see if Oula can work out how to get it reactivated next year.”

Rathan - straining slightly - hefts the blade. “I have actually been sort of practicing,” he admits. “It was a bit embarrassing last time how Oulie took it off me.” As his hand gets more used to the blade, Keris can see pink waves in the metal, and it reflects his light, not the stars of Creation. “If we’re going to be sailing there, you should summon Viscount Mele too.”

“Oh! Of course!” Keris shakes her head. “I got so caught up at Triumphant Air that it slipped my mind. He hatched, then? I’ll summon him tomorrow night. And,” she grins. “You can show me how you’ve improved with that before Oula comes and drags you away.”

Keris’s family is happy to see Rathan again. After all, he was there with them for the long trip down from Baisha. Ali invites him out to go fishing again, while Zanyira coos over him and gets him blushing bright red with talk of how he’s grown and whether he’s eaten enough.

She gives Keris a wink when she turns away. Her cousin is a very dangerous woman.

“Oh, by the way, Keris,” she says. “Me and Ali have been talking.”

“We have,” her brother agrees. “About...” he squares his chest, and tries to steel himself. “We don’t want to just be your poor relatives living on your money without a shahi to our names. I can earn my keep when we get that forge up and running. It’ll be good to be working again. But...”

“But,” Zanyira takes over, “... look at me, Keris. I’m a peasant farmer who can’t farm because I was always ill. And I was thinking about that lunch I had with you and Haneyl. And how I wanted to take holy orders serving Shamsun when I was younger. We’ve been talking and we think it’s a good idea that I study at one of the temples.” She smiles. “I can live with Haneyl during the week. Keep an eye on her for you. I am one of her relatives, after all.”

Keris nods firmly. “Good,” she says with a smile. “I was hoping you’d set up a forge again, Ali. That’ll help the estate, and I want to see if it’s possible to rebuild something like the waterwheel from Baisha. And Zany, what were you thinking of studying? There are a lot of temples to choose from.”

Zany takes a deep breath. “Well, uh,” she says, showing unusual lack of confidence. “I don’t know exactly, but I did talk with Haneyl a bit about this, because she lives in the main city - and likes showing off. And... uh. She gave me a list of names, but one that mentioned was that... well, Windswift College. I know I... I probably won’t get in, but my horoscope said that I should take a chance and good things might happen, and that I should at least try to sit the entrance exam. Haneyl said they have all kinds of tests that try to see if Mercury smiles on you and my horoscope said I’d be lucky if I tried something new, so... even if I fail, I want to give it a go.”

“Windswift, huh,” Keris whistles, eyebrows rising. “Trade and winds and semaphores. You don’t think small, Zany.”

She blows out an impressed breath. “Honestly? Go for it. You’re smart - probably smart enough to get in, especially if Rounen and I give you some help preparing for the exam in the evenings. And I’m not gonna lie; if you get in and graduate, I’d hire you in a heartbeat. There are more ways an adept of Mercury Wind-Swift could help me than I can even count.”

She steps closer and squeezes Zany’s hand, looking her in the eye. “I believe in you, sister. You can do this.”

It winds up mostly being left up to Rounen. Unfortunately, Keris doesn’t have as much time to help out as she likes, as several things come up that get in the way. Chief of them is the Baisha. It takes longer than she’d like to track it down, and when she does, Captain Neride has harsh words for her.

“... all in all, the fuel situation’s severe, and you still have left us on scouting missions that this is overkill for,” she concludes. “My recommendation is we head back to Hell to try to secure fuel while we still can, because if we run out in the Desert, we’re all dead and your ship is lost to Her immensity.” She pauses long enough for it to be borderline insulting. “With all due respect, of course.”

“I would have contacted you back in Wood, but when you get direct orders from an Unquestionable you don’t argue,” Keris snaps. “And sticking a knife between the Realm’s local magistrate and its navy took up all my attention for the past month. Your reports on the region?”

She accepts the thick stack of paper. Whooph. Another job for Rounen. Flicking through them quickly, she nods.

“Good. Permission to return to Hell granted. Next year you’re going to be on search-and-destroy duty. I’ll give you your list of targets at Calibration.”

The mention of orders from an Unquestionable are enough to get the captain flinching back slightly. And she has got what she wanted. “Yes, my lady. I will await you in the docks in the All-Thing.”

Keris turns to leave, but on her way she is stopped by the blue flame-face of the Priest. “Orders from an Unquestionable?” it asks in its bone-dry tone.

Keris doesn’t bat an eye. “Ligier himself contacted me,” she says. “You are aware it was his skill that made this ship, yes? I owe him for that. He sent me to Triumphant Air to deal with a threat to one of his cults, where I proceeded to fool a dangerously sharp-eyed Dragonblooded magistrate and get him to execute a dozen Realm navy veterans as cultists. Which means he thinks he’s wrapped up all the local Yozi worship, and the marines he was relying on as enforcers are now furious at him and will be a lot less willing to help him in future.”

She cocks her head. “My orders from the Reclamation are to attack Dynastic interests in the Anarchy, are they not?” she asks rhetorically.

“To question one of the Unquestionable would be blasphemy,” the Priest rasps. “Your devotion is... admirable. That is all.” And it turns and leaves, trailing sand as it goes.

Keris counts that as a win, feels annoyed again at the fact that it’s getting sand all over her ship, and leaves them to head home.

---

It’s two days after the new moon in Ruling Fire when Keris, Rathan and Oula head down to her basements just before sunset. Oula is deliriously happy to be out in the world with Rathan again, away from the apparently quite persistent mercurial architects who have started showing up.

The basements of her estate aren’t much to talk about. They’re a mix of new stonework and a few patched up rooms from the old Shogunate structure underneath. And they’re full of trash. Unfortunately, both Vali and Lucky Wolf seemed to have got into the habit of dumping things in them. It’s going to be some work to clean them out.

“... and then I went to bed, only to find that she’d broken in and was waiting for Rathan in our bed!” Oula concludes, almost vibrating with rage. “Well, of course, that couldn’t stand! I exiled her to the City! Queen Dulmea can handle that nasty little piece of work!”

Rathan pats her on the shoulder. “Anyway, mama, are you ready? I know I told you not to peek, because I wanted him to be a surprise.”

“I’m ready,” says Keris. “Mele, right?” She focuses on her authority over her Domain and all the citizens who reside within it.

“By name, by descent, by citizenship I call you,” she intones, her anima flickering and flaring around her in vivid reds and silvers. “I summon you by the authority I wield as All-Queen! Come, Viscount Mele of the Sea!”

The world splits open, and an icy Sea wind blows in through the slit. In strolls a pale young man. No, not pale like a human. Not even pale like Rathan. Pale like ivory or marble. He looks like a statue carved from delicate materials. Two bull-like horns sprout from his forehead, rising from among his white hair. The only trace of colour on him is the smudge of lip paint on his cheek. He’s dressed in Isles-made oilcloth that shimmers in the candlelight, and his features have a certain softness to them, belayed by the cutlass loosely belted at his hip.

“Oh, I must have lost track of time, my prince,” he says in an affable mid-toned voice. “I’m sorry. A rather handsome young man was making his best efforts to persuade me to take his heart. Very enthusiastic efforts. I might have even accepted in a day or two. You know how they can be.” He glances over at Oula, who is making an audible grinding noise from her teeth. “Something the matter, your grace?”

“You know quite well what I object to, Viscount,” Oula says in a tone of voice which suggests you could replace the title of nobility with something a lot coarser.

Keris raps her spear on the ground, drawing attention back to her and cutting off the argument before it can develop. Her eyes flick over the new arrival and she hums to herself thoughtfully.

“So you’re Mele,” she murmurs. “The other wave cherub path. Come here, then. Let me see you.” She offers her left hand for him to shake or kiss; absorbing the feel of his ivory skin as he takes it. “Oula is an architect,” she adds casually. “Where do your skills lie?”

He flicks his pale hair - a motion that, thanks to the prehensile nature that seems ubiquitous among her children and the keruby with hair, lasts for a while. “Why, your majesty, I’m the second most dashing captain in all the Sea - second only to Rathan himself. I’ve built a goodly number of boats to distribute the things I’ve had my sziroms write, and of course, unlike the good duchess herself,” he flutters his eyes at Oula, who glares back, “I haven’t lost most of the skill I once had with a blade.”

His cool, hard lips brush against her left hand as he floridly bows - and then takes the certain liberty of trailing a few further kisses up. Just like Oula, he feels like Rathan - but when she’s cool and flowing, there’s something a bit more rigid about him, even if it bends under pressure. If she’s cool mercury, he’s ice. But those are just different notes emphasised in the overall, common Rathanness.

Keris raises a dangerous eyebrow at his assumption, and smirks when Iris objects to it by biting him sharply on the nose. “A shipbuilder, hmm?” she responds. “Interesting. I may have tasks for you, then. After this one.”

She nods at Rathan and Oula. “You will accompany them to the manse-tower west of Shuu Mua. Rathan will be keeping the island hidden from prying eyes, and Oula will be working on the geomancy to find a way to reactivate it. Which leaves you with the defence of the island, and the shipping of its resources to the warehouse Countess Ellyssivera has set up on the mainland for collection. I’ll supply you with a junk for the transport, though it will need repairs made.”

Mele brushes off his nose. “Oh, my queen, my radiant empress, I will of course be delighted to be of such use to you. Your thanks are like a radiant blossom upon the icebergs, and your red lips as you smile are as beautiful as the moon. Please, beautiful one, if you have any further use for me, you need only ask.”

“See, this is why I like him,” Rathan observes with a fond smile.

“Yes,” Oula says through gritted teeth, “this is why he likes him.”

Keris gives her protégé an indulgent smile. “Do be sure to keep them both in line, now,” she orders with gentle amusement; one woman to another. “I know Rathan relies on your support and counsel, and you’ve proven yourself trustworthy in Malra. I want to reactivate that manse next year, so get to know the local dragon lines and map out what we’ll need to do to reconnect them to the structure.” She clasps Oula’s shoulder firmly. “You’re perfect for this job. I know you’ll succeed.”

Oula curtseys, her long white dress flowing around her and drawing eyes to the red tattoos on her chest and shoulders and back. “Of course, aunty,” she says dutifully. “I suppose if we need to message you, Rathan can make a lesser demon and it can return to you. Rounen Secondborn was boasting about that idea, and it does sound useful.” She pauses. “As a question, how long will this be? Are we to return to hell with you for Calibration?”

“It depends,” Keris tells her after a moment’s thought. “I’ll check in to see how you’re doing before I set off, and we’ll see what the situation is and decide then.”

Oula smiles. “Well, if we do, me, you and Unquestionable Lilunu can have another girls’ night out.” She aims her words partly at Mele. “I had a lot of fun last time. And after seeing the beautiful creature on your arm...” Iris sticks her head up, and preens, “yes you are beautiful, aren’t you... I would like a tattoo from her. Or maybe some piercings. Zana was raving about her talents in that field.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Keris promises. “Alright, you have the route? Oh, and Rathan? That’s around where we saw the orcamen tribes, so if you want to make contact with them... I’ll allow it, but don’t leave the manse. And don’t tell them too much. Alright?”

Rathan flaps his hands in her direction. “Fine, fine, there’s no need to be a nag, mama. I know what to do.”

Keris pulls him down to kiss him on the forehead. “I know you do, darling. Have fun, and stay safe.”

He hugs back. “I’ll probably need a break after running herd on a group of fems,” he says, with a smile. “Oulie is right. It would be nice to spend some time back in Hell... but on the other hand,” he winces, “I’d really rather that Noh not show up again out of the blue.”

Kissing him on the cheek again - and not making any promises she may not be able to keep - Keris claps her hands.

“Alright. We need to get going in a hurry if I want to drop your junk off and be back here before morning. Mount up, people. Let’s go.”

---

With Rathan holding down the manse to the west, Keris focuses on business at home. She’s got a silversmithy to set up in her remaining two months here, and then transport across the Desert to arrange. At least this time she can grow a bamboo sandship and not have to carry anyone who’s coming with her.

((OK, Reaction + Investigation as a strategic action to find a place to site her baaaaaaaase.))

Sadly, the site of her current smithy won’t work. It’s too small. For what she Keris planned, Little River is going to need a much more expansive premises - something that can support multiple journeymen and even a few masters. Not quite a temple-college in its own right, but certainly a large property with multiple shared workspaces.

And she wants it on a river, too. She’s not sure if Ali will be able to recreate the intricate, cunning mechanism that her grandfather or great-grandfather or whoever had set up on the family forge back in Taira - and he’s had years to familiarise himself with it, so he might well have a better chance than her - but she can certainly manage a simpler waterwheel-driven trip hammer or drill. Not to mention that she’s going to own the place as Little River, and what’s even the point of advertising if she doesn’t lean into the name?

((5+1+2 Coadj+2 stunt=10. 5 sux.))

Unfortunately, things don’t go as easily as she might have liked. The specificity of her site is rare, yes, but... that rare? There are rivers in Saata, there are places next to rivers for rent, but they seem suspiciously unwilling to sell to her - and the one time she seemed about to close the deal, someone else bought the land for a higher price.

Keris suspects someone is fucking with Little River. She’s not happy. Not happy at all.

((Fail - Diff 3 for what she was looking for, but she thinks someone was contesting her and imposing an external penalty - but she doesn’t know who.))
((However, with fail-forward as a rules guidance...))

It’s nearly the end of Ruling Fire when she gets her break. She’s in her forge, working on the particularly intricate detailing on a shrine for the temple of the Golden Lord when she hears a knock at her door. She can hear from the weight and the fine fabrics that it’s Sinasana Ba-le, even before she yells out, “Hey, Little River, you in there?”.

She’s been showing up every week or so since the first meeting. Sometimes they chat. Sometimes they go out for a drink if it’s the evening. She’s not a friend, but she’s certainly an acquaintance. And looking away from her work, Keris realises how late it’s got. It’s already twilight outside.

“I’m here,” she calls, focusing back on the inscription. “Give me a minute!”

She finishes the character she’s etching with a carving tool barely thicker than her hair, blows the dust off, and locks the in-progress piece in the thick, heavy safe under the floor before heading outside.

“Ba-le,” she greets with a graceful nod. “Later than you normally show up.” She glances westward and frowns. “Later than I usually work, for that matter. I must have been distracted. How are you today?”

“Back from a little break, actually,” Ba-le says with an easy shrug. “My husband’s second cousin has a yacht and we borrowed it for a few days heading around the Shuu Mua coast. Fresh air... well, it would have been, but the marshes up north stink. Then we stopped over at one of the family’s costal retreats. It’s nice to get away from the noise of the city sometimes. You?”

Keris frowns. “I’ve been trying to set up a silver smithy, but I’m having difficulty finding a site. Or rather,” she adds in rather peeved tones, “securing one. Somebody is deliberately interfering.”

She quirks an eyebrow at her acquaintance, training her keen senses on the woman’s breathing and heartbeat. “I don’t suppose you’d have any idea who might be that petty, do you?” she asks idly. She hasn’t forgotten that Ba-le originally tried to poach her for the ruling house here. Nor that they’re closer to rivals than friends.

Ba-le laughs. “Who wouldn’t be that petty, you mean? This is Saata, darling, even if you’re still a Tengese hick right off the boats. It’s the grandest, pettiest, most spiteful city in the world! Maybe you cut someone off in a crowd and they’ve vowed eternal revenge!”

((Does Keris notice any sign that it might be her? Though admittedly I doubt she’d be remotely ashamed.))
((No sign, no.))

Huffing in annoyance, Keris closes up her little forge. “Petty,” she repeats. “And annoying. Well, when I find out who it is, I’ll drown them.” There’s not much heat behind the threat, but she still feels a little better for saying it.

And she definitely suspects Ba-le might be involved in some sort of campaign to stop her setting up a proper smithy. House Sinasana would have more than enough reach for it, and it would work as a tactic to pressure her into their ranks. Eyeing the Dragonblood out of the corner of her eye, Keris lets her more refined senses stretch out and judge how much Ba-le would charge for helping Little River set up her own silver workshop, independent from House Sinasana. And how much she’d give for aid preventing the Tengese dragon from doing so, should Keris offer it with another face.

The prices are much of a likeness. It’d be notable either way. It’s probably not active malice, but on the other hand...

((Resources 2-3-ish for both.))
((Hmm.))

“Anyway,” Ba-le says. “Want to go out for a drink?”

Weighing the values in her head, Keris tentatively decides that whoever’s behind this scheme, it’s probably not Ba-le herself. She may well know who it is, and it might even still be House Sinasana. But it’s probably not her personally.

“Yes,” she sighs. “I suppose a drink would be nice.”

The ladies decamp to an open-air bar under wide palm leaves, where a live band plays and two oiled up men dance together on a stage. Ba-le returns with a jug of rice wine and two small cups. “I still owe you for last time, so now we’re even,” she says, pouring Little River a shot. “You look down.”

“Somebody is deliberately... blocking me,” says Keris, barely refraining from vulgarity. She’s built Little River into a refined sort of woman who holds strictly to her manners. Not the kind of person who’d say someone was fucking with her, even if they were. “It’s frustrating. And Calibration is coming up. Bad spirits lurk around during that time, and Atiya’s still frailer than I’d like.”

Ba-le downs her first shot. “Well, go on. Maybe you’re just a fuck-up, Little River. Sell me on your business proposition.” She pours herself another one.

Keris gives her a narrow-eyed glare. “I’m looking to open a smithy,” she says. “A silver workshop; larger than my current one. Somewhere I can have apprentices and journeymen under me. I can teach, better than any mortal, and Saata’s fleets are always in need of more protective charms. If I staff the place with competent employees, it will bring in money - and I’ll be able to expand to working in gold and gems if I pick up any jewellers. All I need is the site and a contract. And I would have the first already were someone not deliberately stalling me.”

She throws back a cup of rice wine in an angry swallow and sets it back down on the table with a sharp click.

((Per + Pres to make your sale case))
((4+5+2 stunt x2 HDT=11. 5x2=10 sux.))

“Hmm.” Ba-le swirls her cup. “And what about funding? Can you really afford that kind of expansion, especially before the revenue comes in?”

“Yes,” says Keris calmly. She has Jade Fox’s backing, not that she’s going to divulge that when it’s not necessary. “No need to worry on that score; I have enough funds to cover the gap.”

((Hmmm.
*rolls*
6 successes.))

“Yeah,” Ba-le says after some thought. “Yeah, you’re being fucked with. Seems solid enough to me.” She looks around. “And the scenery here is cramped. Want to go find somewhere else to finish this wine off?”

“I wouldn’t have put it that way,” Little River murmurs, “but yes, I think I am. Which does not please me. I can’t say I think much of the band here; where did you have in mind?”

“Just go find somewhere better,” Ba-le says, with a shrug.

She tosses some coins out for the jug and cups she’s taking, and the two women head off. For all her claims to just be wandering, Ba-le clearly has somewhere in mind, as they head up the slopes away from the shore. From up here, Saata stretches out down below; a warren of misshapen stone, glowing paint, and the fumes from the forges.

This area is run-down, one of the outer districts away from the commerce and the vice of the water. A place of runaway slaves, smallholders, and workers. There’s a potters’ street here, where the white stones have been splattered with grey and red clay, and a slaughterhouse that handles meat coming in from the smallholdings. It really isn’t a scenic place to drink. The buildings here are mostly Shogunate ruins, patched up with wood and bamboo rather than rebuilt, and there are wide open spaces of rubble and grass where structures have been hacked apart to feed the building materials of the richer parts of the city.

Ba-le slumps down on a grassy river-bank half overgrown with bamboo. “Ah, back to nature,” she says with thick irony. She pours out two more drinks. “Cheers! How about this place?”

Keris looks around, raising an eyebrow. “For my smithy? It’s... less reputable than I’d like. And I’d have to build almost from scratch.”

“It’s my husband’s land,” Ba-le says. “Sinasana land.” She grins. “Women like us, we can afford to think for the long term. I love him dearly, but he’s too much of a man to think over decades. Of course, that enthusiasm is his charm, but if I left him up to things, he’d just sit around and read. The way I see it, within a few decades Saata will sprawl up the slopes.” She throws back a shot. “Then this’ll be prime estate away from the city mess and the sailors off the ships. And in the present, you’ll never get anything this big down in Saata proper.”

“... you have a point,” Keris murmurs. “And you’d be willing to arrange for me to set up my shop here? What would you ask for it?” She casts an eye around the plot again, judging its value.

“Oh, I’m not talking about selling,” Ba-le says, leaning back against the bamboo. “I’m talking a long term lease. A century would be normal for this sort of thing. I couldn’t sell it, anyway - which is the reason Colira still has it. The House has laws about areas where property can be sold and this is House land. Which might sound like a downside - but think of it this way, Little River. Here, you don’t have any risk of someone else buying out the Provostry for your district and changing the laws on you. You’d just be under House law, not House law plus whatever your local provost says- and if you’re renting from me and Colira, it’d be bad manners for anyone else to interfere in your stuff.”

((For a Resources 1 rent, she could easily get something the size of her current place. For Resources 2, she could get a sizable complex - take one of the old Shogunate halls or something.))

Little River considers. Her hair falls over her shoulder as she thinks, shading her eyes and casting her face into an eerie mix of shadow and ghoulish light reflected from the city below.

“It does sound like a perfect offer,” she admits after a moment or two. “Stable, sizeable, safe. Given we’re in Saata, I’m tempted to ask what the catch is.”

“A catch? Why would there be a catch?” Ba-le asks innocently, pouring Little River another shot. “From my point of view, I’m not getting any money from this land. I have expensive tastes. You’d be a tenant - and one who’d be good about paying every month. And I heard rumours about what you get up to in that rundown estate you bought cheap. Seems you have a taste for trying to get cheap things and making them nicer. So a century, maybe half a century depending on how the contract works out - yeah, that means money for me and cheaper land than you’d ever get down in the richer districts.”

“... you’re using me,” Little River says in amused realisation. “You’re banking that I’ll draw other tenants in once my shop gets up and running and the land value rises. Or just rent residences for my workers near the shop, and improve them the same way I am with my estate. You’d be getting me to renovate your land for you, and to pay you for the privilege.”

“Hah! Well, you know.” Ba-le smiles wryly. “I was born a Baltoo.”

Little River relaxes at the bald admission. Now that she can see what Ba-le is gaining from this, she’s a lot less wary.

“Very well,” she says, an undercurrent of laughter in her voice. “I think we can come to an agreement, then. But if I’m going to be improving your land for you, I’ll expect that service to be reflected in my rent.” She downs another shot of rice wine. “We can meet later this week and talk terms.”

“And I’ll talk it over with my husband...” she smiles, “but I doubt he’ll object. He also has expensive tastes.” She stretches. “That reminds me. Falling Fire 6, there’s a festival to Akhanammu. The priests always throw one hell of a spectacle - fireworks, parades, and there’s a Sinasana ball there since my husband’s aunt has a mansion that perfectly overlooks the fireworks from the temple. You should come.” She pauses. “The most eligible bachelors are there,” she teases. “And a lot of young men and women who aren’t at all interested in marriage for now...”

Little River’s smile is a subtle little thing.

“We’ll see,” she says. “We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

Outside, it is raining. The winds rolling off the Great Western Ocean stir the windchimes and prayer wheels. Howler monkeys shriek out in the jungle. Jade Fox’s shutters are down, though, and the blue sea master sits on a low chair beside his wife. The golden light of many candles within paper lanterns casts soft shadows across the room. Atiya dozes in a crib beside Keris’s own chair on this reed-matted ground. It is early in Falling Fire, and Calibration is coming soon.

“We have closed the deal with Sinasana Be-le,” his wife, Tranquil Pool says to Little River. “The land deal is signed - and I will serve as guarantor.” The implicit threat is clear there. “My husband and I hope that you soon will have operations up and running. This is no small amount of money I have ventured on you, and it is not good for friends - like ourselves - to have debts between one another.”

“You need not worry,” Little River replies calmly. “The smithy will be successful, and bring honour to all of us.” She dips her head towards Jade Fox. “Your fleet will, of course, be the first to be outfitted with warding charms and talismans. I will see to the licensing and construction this season, and with luck we can open early in the new year.”

Jade Fox makes a satisfied grunt. “I pray that day comes soon,” he says gravely, then nods. “Once typhoon season is over and the bad spirits driven away by the turning of the year, me and my boy will head up to the old country on one of our trading ships. It is good for the parents of the husband and wife to speak to one another properly.”

“I wish you good fortune, then,” Little River says politely. “And I will keep space open in my work for a special commission, should you wish to take one with you.”

He seems pleased with that, and the conversation moves on to other topics. “Oh, yes,” mentions Tranquil Pool, “I had heard rumour that you have taken in a foundling from the docks. A most peculiar child, if the tales are true. What possessed you to do that?”

((Hmm. Did we actually settle on what Zanara’s name as Little River's ward was?))
((...))
((... is it Two Opal?))
((I don’t think we did, so yes, you can name her as you wish.))

Keris allows a fond smile to cross her face. “Ah, Two Opal. Yes, you heard right. I suppose it was... a number of things, really. Her misfortune reminded me of why I had to leave the homeland, a little - though her story is more tragic than mine. And she loves the arts. When I first met her, she was painting a godsblessing on an unattended wall - amateurish, but remarkable all the same. And then she followed me all the way down a quay just to ask who’d made my hairpieces.” She fingers one of the silver dragonfly clips that she’s wearing today. “She didn’t want to steal them, you understand. Just to know how they’d been made, and whether she could learn. Talent and passion like that deserve to be fostered.”

“Mmm. Well, charity is a respectable goal for a respectable organisation, like the family.” Tranquil Pool glances over at Atiya. “Just be careful that you do not neglect your own flesh and blood in favour of a foundling. And be aware - her behaviour will reflect on your own.”

“Of course,” Little River returns, sounding mildly offended. “Atiya is still my priority. Two Opal is happily enrolled in the Orchid’s Grace College.” The dance temple-college she picked for Zanara isn’t a purely Hui Cha one, but it’s one with a large proportion of Tengese graduates that’s positioned near the edge of one of the more respectable areas in Memory of a Golden Land. “She’s thriving there, and despite her upbringing her attitude has been perfectly respectable so far.”

Tranquil Pool perks up at that. “Ah, yes, I know Third Shell well. She is a fine lady, with no time for nonsense. My third daughter is considering studying under those priests.” She nods at Little River, an older woman respecting the younger’s choices. “You have a keen eye for raising a child. I pray this will serve you well.”

Dipping her head in graceful acknowledgement, Little River echoes her hopes, and returns the compliment with flattering praise of her as a hostess. Then it's just small talk and formalities until it's time to leave.

“That went well, didn’t it baby girl?” Keris says to Atiya as she heads back to her townhouse, a proper Tengese lady with a waxed cloth umbrella and an oilskin over her fine dress. Atiya nuzzles the side of her face with her head, and makes a bubbling noise. “Yes, yes it did.”

An icy wind blows through Keris, and she feels as if there are knives being stabbed into her skin. She can’t breathe, just for a second.

And then a tension she didn’t realise was there is gone, and her ears pop.

“Ah, child,” Dulmea says dryly. “Eko is back.”

“Guh,” Keris manages, swaying. She shakes herself hard. “I, uh. Noticed. Eko? Are you there? What happened?”

Okay, okay, okay, Eko gestures with a distinctly peeved air. She just wants to say that all of this was a maaaaaaaaaasive overreaction by Sasi. A massive, massive overreaction from Keris’s best friend.

“... what did you do?” Keris asks, already dreading the answer.

Nothing, Eko insists. Nothing at all! Really, she was just helping out Sasi by getting rid of people that she told Eko, she told Eko to get rid of them! And then maybe, yes maybe, Eko might have realised a way to help out Sasi by implementing her orders better, but she didn’t have to be so mad about it! Or tell poor innocent Eko that she’s even worse than Haneyl when it comes to “improvising”!

“Oh gods,” Keris mutters. “What did you do that Sasi didn’t tell you to? Am I going to get a Messenger about this? Is one already on its way?”

She calculates. An Teng is a bit under two thousand miles away, an Infallible Messenger would take... a few hours? Or Sasi might just be waiting for Keris to enter her painting and ask what happened. “Uuuurgh,” she mutters. “Fine, I’m getting back to the townhouse and seeing what she has to say about this.”

The story comes out. Of course it does.

“... and so she decided that certain of Deveh’s agents he had sent down to the lowlands were a threat to me, so she butchered them all,” Sasi says, pacing around the beach of Keris’s soul-painting. “And we’re not talking quiet butchery. She went through them like a hot knife through butter! And then set everything up so they looked like they’d been trying to summon a demon!”

Keris runs through several possible responses, discarding each in turn. ‘Did you forget she’s Adorjan’s daughter?’ would definitely not go down well. She doubts ‘at least she framed them in a way that’ll keep attention off you’ is what an angry Sasi is looking for. And while Keris personally feels that ‘are you sure they weren’t a threat to you?’ is a very valid question under the circumstances, given Deveh’s... everything, it would probably just send Sasi into a panic even if it worked.

“I’ll talk to her,” she says instead. A nice, safe, neutral option. “Did she at least manage to help you before that?”

Sasi runs her hands through her long grey hair, pacing back and forth irritably. “What? Oh, mmm. She is... she had some interesting ideas about how one might weave a demon from nothingness. She likes words a lot and now half my library is covered in her scribbling comments in the margins of books. And she and Aiko get on alarmingly well. Aiko loved it when she showed off that she could individually stab every mosquito in a cloud.” But her mind is clearly still on politics.

Keris watches her pace for a while, considering. With Calibration and the Althing fast approaching, a squabble with Deveh and his backers is a problem, and Sasi is already under enough stress. Upset-Sasi is bad enough, but if this turns ugly it might push her all the way into Breakdown-Sasi, which cannot be tolerated. Not with Keris a full day’s swim away and thoroughly tied up with her own business dealings in Saata.

No, something needs to be done to nip this in the bud. Keris purses her lips, considers, and decides to deploy a weapon she’d been saving for the new year.

“Say,” she hums thoughtfully, “you know how you knew what my Ascending Air was when I stole it in Nexus? Are there other famous Realm-y pieces of art like that? Collections and suchlike?”

“Of course there are,” Sasi snaps. “Keris, that doesn’t matter right now. There are much more significant problems going on right now.”

“I know,” says Keris innocently. “I just wanted to check. I have something to show you at Calibration. Something I found in Taira.”

She lets that hang in the air alongside the unspoken ghosts of other things she’s ‘found’. Things like the great shard of Pyrian crystal, or the naib’s whispering jewel. Then she leans forward.

“So. Deveh is pissed. My report from Saata is going to be glowing. Is there anything I can do to help you from here? He may go whining to Iasestus, but Ligier is very happy with me right now, so we’ve got that in our corner.”

“Just do your job, Keris,” Sasi says, still pacing. “If I can show my subordinates are working effectively, I won’t have to put up with Deveh going crying to one of his many sugar-mamas.”

Keris salutes, which Sasi doesn’t seem to notice in the midst of her pacing. She’s scared, and feels like things are going out of control. The thought makes Keris think of Kalaska...

... but no. Having that fight now will send Sasi into a full-scale breakdown.

She reaches out with a lock of hair and tugs Sasi over gently, reaching out to hold her lover in place with firm hands on her hips. The way Sasi has to look down from this close means she has a perfect view of Keris’s shoulders and biceps as she flexes deliberately.

“This is meant to be a place away from the worries and cares outside,” Keris soothes softly. “My report this year will be stellar. You’ve made great progress. Deveh’s complaints won’t amount to anything. Outside this little world, you can plan to your heart’s content, but while you’re here?”

She reaches up and runs a finger down the centre of Sasi’s forehead and the bridge of her nose; smoothing out the wrinkles of a frown there.

“Relax,” she whispers as her painted anima brightens into full colour around her, “and let me take care of you.”

((Playing to Seresa, and possibly a bit to Kalaska in Sasi’s desire for a safe place. Enhancing with her TLA Principle and Hidden Depths Temptress.
Per + Pres: 4+5+3 Cerulean Paramour+1 bonus {target believes you sincere}+3 stunt {TLA-boosted}+4 Compassion TLA autosux+9 Kimmy ExD {endlessly giving, beauty, talent for temptation} x2 HDT=25. (13+4)x2=34 successes, lol.))
((Also she has -4 MDV from TLA, and My Dark Lady may also apply.))
((Plus her 4-dot principle of self-indulgence for another -4 to her MDV.))
((Indeed.))

Sasi barely resists. Up this close, within this world made of her own flesh and blood on canvas, Keris is as beautiful as the wind and as intoxicating as the ocean itself. And she knows about so many of Sasi’s vices, and how to play on them. The first kiss is all but enough to silence Sasi’s fretting, and one kiss becomes two, then three and many more.

Keris leads her lover down a winding path of indulgence, until she’s got no room in her mind for anything other than sensation. When she’s done, a mussed, flushed Sasi is largely insensate in her arms, and Keris is all but alone within her painting world, to fret herself.

But while Sasi is not all there, someone else is. She whispers. She mutters. Half-formed phrases in Old Realm escape, mentions of names Keris knows nothing of and concepts she’s barely touched. Between the stress that’s obviously been gnawing away at her and the ecstasy Keris drowned her in, Sasi’s brittle self-control is all but gone. Keris strokes her hair, worried, and doesn’t try to wake her this time. She’s concerned. Sasi is walking right along the edge of snapping, and while their time here in this secret place is helping her keep her balance, it won’t hold forever. Hopefully after Calibration things will settle down, but... she can’t be sure of that. And if the Althing doesn’t go well, it’s not going to be pretty.

Sasi opens her eyes. Exhales. Inhales. Looks around. “Where am I?” she asks.

It’s not Sasi. Keris has only heard that accent once before, but it’s familiar.

“... also, why am I naked?” Salina adds. “And... oh Sun, I hope I didn’t... wait. Wait.” She blinks. Looks up at Keris. “Keris?” she says, sounding like she’s straining for a hard-to-reach memory. “Yes, that was... you.” She pauses, stretches. Doesn’t get up from Keris’s arms. “I’m aching all over. Was that all you?”

“Gkkk!” squeaks Keris, and scrambles back from her mentor. “Um. Maybe?” She pauses. “Yes,” she admits, with mortification but also a considerable amount of smug pride.

“Mmm.” Salina stretches. “You can continue, if you like,” she says, eying Keris up speculatively. “You’re looking cuter than before. How long has it been?”

“... it’s nearly Calibration, so... huh,” Keris realises in surprise. “Almost two years. Wow.” Her raksha-hunting in the northeast, her pregnancy and Adorjan’s gifts, Calesco, Vali and Zanara, raiding on the Baisha and getting settled in Saata, her souls becoming demon lords, everything that happened in Taira...

“... a lot’s happened,” she says weakly, scarcely able to believe how much her life has changed since the last time she spoke to this woman, who’d changed her life. “A lot has happened, since.”

“Two years. Two years of... not being. Of forgetting.” Salina holds her hand out. Clenches it. Relaxes it. “Where am I?” she asks. “You never answered me.”

“Oh, right.” Keris looks around, and smiles impishly. She’s never going to get a better chance to use this. “Me,” she explains happily.

Salina’s eyes light up with a very Sasi-like curiosity. “Oh?” she asks, sitting up. She sways, as if dizzy, and rests her chin on one knee, looking down at Keris with her head tilted to one side. “How?”

Keris beams. “Well, this isn’t my actual inner world,” she starts. “I still haven’t found a way to get anything living in there that didn’t come from it. But my mentor in art made a magic painting from me that I can possess and talk to, so I gave it to Sasi to hang in her chambers, and then it turned out it had this little sanctum inside. It’s basically just the lake and beaches around it, but it’s a nice private place for us to meet in the evenings when we work a day’s travel apart.”

She holds her fingers up and rubs them together, turning her hand back and forth to show off the fine brushstrokes that make it up. “See?”

“Ah, I see.” Salina says, eyes lighting up. “Like Fire Orchid’s Fifth Kartina. Except, of course, the procedures here are significantly different, the,” she uses a word in Old Realm that Keris doesn’t understand, “are not at all woven in the same way.”

“Wait, you’ve seen this sort of thing before?” Keris asks in surprise. “Like, done by sorcery? Because I’d love to be able to make places like this myself. And do it differently to how this one was made, since I doubt most people would survive that way.”

“Well, it’s a natural evolution of the Fire Orchid Quartets. It’s ancient knowl... oh, I suppose so much has been lost that you might not recall it,” Salina says, looking distant for a moment. The way she sighs is peculiarly un-Sasi-like, even if the heaving chest does distract Keris all the same. “But Creation is Essence, Keris, and she is alive. The ancient Primordials knew that only a living thing could endure the vicissitudes of the chaos outside the world. To bring life to a small world is no small feat, and beyond the Dragonkin, but any moderately accomplished sorceress of the Sun, Moon or Stars can do it if they choose to study it. You just have to cultivate a world in rich soil. I have woven small realms from the faith of mortals, from the authority of the Deliberative, from jade and from moonsilver and orichalcum and all things that are good - each time trying to make a world where the Hierarchy’s law does not hold true and nature does not form a pyramid that crushes all below it.” Again she sighs. “And never once a true success.”

Entranced by the descriptions of a lost time, Keris thinks of her Domain. Of the way that - while it may have rights - her souls still rule there. Even despite attempts otherwise.

“Calesco tried that,” she murmurs sadly. “Didn’t work for her either. Though she wound up close enough to be content with it, I guess.”

“Calesco?” Salina frowns, head still resting on one pale, sand-encrusted knee. “Who is that? She sounds admirable, if she tried that. Chosen by the Sun, or the Moon?”

Keris smiles fondly. “Neither,” she says. “She’s one of my souls. Showed up the Water after you did. She tried to make her corner of my inner world into a fair and peaceful place where laws were decided by everyone voting - which, uh, backfired when her sisters moved a bunch of their own people in to try and have them vote en-masse for the laws they wanted. So then she sulked for a while and changed it so that she had a veto over any laws that were trying to game the system and there was a bit of a scuffle as she kicked all the newcomers out, and that’s pretty much how it’s stayed since. Relative fairness under a powerful protector who stops anyone from abusing the rules.”

Salina’s - Sasi’s - pale, iridescent eyes go wide, tears welling up at the corners. “Oh, poor her,” she says immediately. “I know exactly the feeling. That is exactly what annoying self-righteous Night-chosen or malicious old war-hound Dawn-chosen do when you try the same.” She reaches out, patting Keris on the arm. “That at least one of your souls would fight against such a terrible law of nature is beautiful, Keris. Even if other parts of you try to abuse those self-same efforts.” She pauses. “Perhaps you might find one of these old spells useful, if you are also trying such things,” she suggests. She looks around. “If I write in the sand, will it stay? It is quite a bit to take in. You can tell me of the world and what the tyrants of the Prison of the Exiles have you do while I write,” she suggests.

((Salina is offering to create a record of Sanctum of the Sorcerer in return for talk and the like from Keris - and more chances to try to sway her, Keris suspects.))

“It should stay,” Keris says, pursing her lips. “It might be tricky to explain to Sasi, but I can probably transcribe it before she wakes up. And I’d like to talk more. You...” She pauses. “You had some... good points, last time. Not all. But some. I don’t think it was... coincidence, that Calesco was the next soul to show up after I met you. My Compassion, who keeps me from hurting people. And then Vali, who hates the idea of being forced to do things by orders or hierarchies or other people’s rules.”

Salina smiles, and laughs a tinkling laugh. She reaches out, and touches Keris’s breasts, right where her heart is. “How wonderful, to have one’s own compassion as a guide on the way of life. To be able to speak to one’s heart, and know its feelings as words rather than felt sympathies. Even if the Exiles have done dreadful things to our sungifts, perhaps there are things that are not so awful if one could do such things.” She pauses, incidentally not moving her hand off Keris’s breasts. “Do you think... who I have become could cultivate such compassion?” she asks, voice quavering. “I would not like... I would not like to think that I was reborn as an unkind woman...”

Keris tilts her head, twists her mouth, and sighs.

“My compassion is strong enough that the daughter born from my mind by it became a deva lord,” she says. “And I think... from what little I know of her before I met her, I think Sasi was as kind as I am before she was reborn. Maybe kinder, honestly, because Calesco’s compassion is an arrow to the hearts of the cruel and powerful - her empathy is a light of agony that blasts away the lies people tell themselves to justify their sins.”

She sighs again. “But... that was long before I met her. The Realm I told you about? The ones who say any Exalts that aren’t Dragonblooded are Anathema; demons with stolen sun-power who need to be killed? Sasi grew up as one of them. When she took the Second Breath... I dunno how she reacted, but Testolagh says she was broken, when she first came to Hell. She rebuilt herself using him as her support, and her compassion... I think it became Seresa. Sasi likes being nice to people, in quiet little ways she doesn’t need to get acknowledged for. It makes her feel good. I think that... just turned into anything that made her feel good, as she recovered.”

Salina rises to both knees, then crawls towards Keris. “How about an agreement?” she offers. Her expression is... peculiar. Much more like the one Sasi often has than Keris is comfortable admitting. “Help her. Help her become strong enough to care again. Help her remember that the hardest thing in the world and the reason we were chosen is to care, to protect the ones who were not gifted with such unearned power, and that power does not make one right. It only allows one to make people suffer if they disagree with you.” She leans in towards Keris, face very close. “I know you don’t think that the demon princes are righteous, or that the world that they would build is one that you would want to live in. You’ve seen the wastes of Hell, haven’t you? Where endless spirits suffer because the Yozis are so cruel and vicious that they make living beings just to torture them.

“Help her become better, and in return... she’ll be a better person. Someone you can love without feeling guilty. Someone who won’t obey the dictates of cruel, uncaring masters.”

She smiles warmly at the look on Keris’s face.

“Did you think I was going to promise you a reward? Did you think I was going to have you sell out the woman you love for scraps and trinkets of knowledge that I’d drop in your lap? Keris, I’m not like too many of my contemporises. If I had to bribe you to help your lover to care, to nurture, to love... you wouldn’t be someone I would teach.

“We must be better. All of us. We must be better, and make a better world.”

Keris breathes in.

She breathes out.

She tries not to let Salina see how deeply her comment about the demon princes hit home and resonated with Keris’s own words to Ali, back in Taira.

She’s pretty sure she doesn’t quite succeed at that.

“I’ll try,” is all she says. “I was already planning on trying to help her in other ways. I don’t know if I’ll succeed... but I promise I’ll try.”

“If we all had tried, Keris,” Salina says sadly, “my era would not have ended in blood and sorrow. Maybe we deserved it. If only they had listened to me... but you don’t want to hear me gripe over old sorrows.” She rolls away from Keris. “I’m still not used to this body,” she says light-heartedly. “She’s taller than I was. And how does she cope with such large breasts or being so pale?

“Well, never mind. Where’s a flat area of beach I can work on? I’ll try to get everything down I can, and meanwhile, we can chat. So, how are things going with you...”

---

By the time Salina finds herself fading, Keris has the whole spell written on the sand of the beach in her world, and she carries Sasi’s body to somewhere out of sight of the sand. When Sasi wakes, she’s in a better mood - almost as if a knot of stress has left her - and she apologises to Keris. They make up, make out, and then make love again - this time more gently, a coupling of equals. Sasi is tender enough, gentle enough, loving enough that Keris feels somewhat guilty for hiding that she’s plotting with the long-dead woman who lives in her lover’s head who Sasi hates and fears.

No, ‘plotting’ is a nasty word. An unfair one. She’s just... acting in Sasi’s best interests. She’d never betray her, after all.

Sasi returns to her world, and Keris starts desperately trying to copy as much of the sand writing as she can before an unfortunate wave or gust of wind erases it.

She is interrupted by a hammering at the door of her townhouse. It’s Haneyl, and Keris silently curses as she looks out at the setting sun and realises she’s lost most of the day. How could she forget that Haneyl was coming around?! Even if she’s feeling both intellectually and sexually sated, her daughter had scheduled this. And Elly is here with her, and both of them are carrying a lot of luggage. Because Haneyl is headed home this evening.

But of course she’s insisted on having one more dinner out with mama. At a very, very expensive restaurant by the Anubalim, the district of the palace of the Sinasana. The towers here rise tall and thick, built by countless architects over the years, and elements of modern design blend with an ancient looming Shogunate complex of milky stone and crystal spires.

The prices here still make the street rat in Keris blanch. They are literally more than she’d have seen in an average year on the streets.

“It’s been an... interesting year, mama,” Haneyl says. She’s been made up to perfection, with her nails painted with gold leaf, her lips are a deep crimson, and her low-cut gown with thigh-high slits is drawing attention she is revelling in. The slits are revealing she has brand new vine tattoos, curling their way up her legs and blossoming under her skin. “Definitely an interesting year.”

Keris knows what her daughter is dressing like, even if Haneyl might not herself. She’s modelling herself after the highest grade of Nexan courtesan, the ones Keris saw at a distance when she was a poor pox-scarred girl and envied with burning bile. She doesn’t mention it, though, instead complimenting her daughter’s makeup and hair warmly before replying.

“Are you glad you took it?” she asks. “You were so nervous before you went off with Sasi for finishing school. And now look at you! All grown-up and glamorous and confident.” She sniffs theatrically. “I almost feel unneeded. Have you outgrown me, my little flower?”

It’s mostly in jest, but there’s an honest thread of sincerity in her question. Haneyl is so independent and mature now. And Keris is proud of her, she is... but some part of her can’t help but miss her adorable little girl with the too-big crown who sat up in her tree imperiously overseeing jousts and demanded to be picked up and carried by her mama.

Haneyl, to her credit, at least contemplates the question. “Of course I am, mama,” she decides. “A plant can’t grow to its full height in a small pot. You wouldn’t want me to be a bonsai tree, would you?” She pauses, leaning forwards. “You’re still my mama, though. You’ll always be my mama. And we might fight and you might get on my back about your silly obsession with pirates when the real money is to be made in trade, but you do know I love you, right?

“It... it might have been nice to be a child a little longer. Little girls seem to have a lot of fun. But my body decided it was time to grow up, so I did.” She pats Keris’s hand. “You’ve still got Atiya and Kali to be your baby girls, at least for a decade and change.”

“I know,” Keris sighs. “But Kali’s not exactly a dignified little princess.” She shares a grin with Haneyl as they both contemplate the image of Kali in Haneyl’s childhood court, and Keris breaks into chuckles first.

“I love you too, darling,” she says. “Always and ever.”

“I’m not going away forever, mama,” Haneyl says, primping herself up. “It’s just a month or so back home. Maybe two, if the keruby have made a mess of things and I need to get things in order. Then you can summon me again, and I’ll have refuelled and I’ll be ready to really get serious.” She grins, showing two rows of teeth. “We’ll cut this island into tiny bits and eat it,” she gloats.

Keris returns her savage grin. “Now now,” she chides playfully. “Remember your manners. We need to spit and roast it first.”

There is a look in Haneyl’s eyes. “Oh, I’m a fan of spit-roasts,” she says, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Keris’s grin lingers for a moment as the words hang in the air.

Then the double meaning hits her, and the grin freezes and slides off an expression of utmost horror.

“Why?” she moans, dropping her face into her hands. “Why would you say that to your poor mother? You’re doing this deliberately now! Did Zanyira put you up to it?”

“She might have,” Haneyl says mildly. “I like her. She’s proposed living with me during the week, and I think it’s a good idea. We get on well - and she’s clever. Really clever. If she does some work for me, I’ll pay her fairly.” She grins. “And also because you are a hypocrite, mama. I can see Kali and Ogin don’t have the same father. You must have had fun making them.”

“Th-that was a dream!” Keris says defensively. “That doesn’t count!”

“I do dream of being sandwiched between two men,” Haneyl agrees seriously. “It very much does count.” She lets Keris simmer in mortification for a few moments. “Incidentally, I have a proposal for you,” she adds. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with sex. Well, not directly. I want a fair number of your Lionesses when they’re rested up and healed up. Sometime next year, once I’m back. I need some muscle, because I think we need some hooks into the organised crime in this city. I’ve checked the law. As long as we do it the right way and pay Sinasana the right tax, we can just walk in and supplant a gang or two. And they’ll be the leg-breakers who protect my investments. People won’t take me seriously unless I can enforce my claims and protect my turf. I’ll pay them, and it can be a long term job that’ll get them off your estate, eating your food.”

Keris grins. “Perfect,” she agrees. “I was wondering what to put them to work doing, and that’ll be a good start. I also want to teach them to sail - though, hah. Rathan’s new keruby might be able to handle that, instead of paying to put them all through a temple-college.”

“Mama, do you know how to sail yet?” Haneyl enquires archly. “And no doubt Rathan is gloating about his keruby. What a shame I have more. Incidentally, one of the things I’ll do when I’m home is spend lots of time around mine. We could all do with more of mine as adults, as they are of course the best.” She sits back. “I’ll break them in, make sure they’re properly trained. With Elly there to help, of course.”

“Rounen’s been setting up a library-complex in the Garden City,” Keris tells her. “With a bunch of szirom understudies who are leaning in his direction. So you’ve got a good start on that. And yes, more of your breeds will be useful - Rounen is priceless, and Elly’s a big help with trade and hunting.”

Her eyes mist over. “Oh wow, entire days with nothing to do but sit around and read. I... I need that, mama,” Haneyl admits. “My burn-out cycles have been more and more often, and lasting longer. I’ve been working myself to the root for you. To the root,” she adds, with maudlin self-pity.

Keris squeezes her hand. “And I appreciate it, darling,” she says gently. “You get that from your mother, I’m afraid. She’s been stressed recently too.”

Haneyl sighs. “Take good care of her, mama,” she says sadly. “Like I told you, she’s not a happy person. Maybe get her to take a holiday.” She shakes her head. “This is depressing. Sad things shouldn’t be around food. Food is for happiness and... oh, mama? I’ve still got her piercings.” She taps the green jade in her ears, and flashes her tongue, showing more jade there. “They’re what’s anchoring me. I’ll need to take them out before I can leave. Though...” she wrinkles up her nose in inner torment. “Mother didn’t say she wanted them back, did she?”

“How about you leave them with me when you go, and I’ll talk her into reserving them for you whenever you’re in Creation,” Keris suggests dryly; a compromise that doesn’t require Haneyl to relinquish the precious jewellery except when she’s not around to use them.

“I... suppose...” Haneyl says slowly. “And...” Something distracts her, and she glances down at her legs. “Wait, what?”

Her vine-tattoos have been... chewed. Something has taken bites out of them, and eaten all the flowers off her left leg.

“What is this?” she demands, voice rising in pitch. “Do you know how long I spent on making those?”

Maybe an hour or two, Keris internally estimates. She eyes the savaged body art assessingly, and remembers the hug they shared when they met. Haneyl’s dress dips low in the back as well as the front, and Iris is missing from Keris’s arm.

She sighs.

“Iris, you terrible little lizard,” she whispers in an undertone. “Get back onto your mama. I know she feels like me, but you’re still not meant to wander without permission.”

There’s a slither, and something retreats back onto her leg. Keris glances down at Iris, who is looking very pleased with herself - and also has somehow got a daisy crown of ink flowers around her head. This earns her an unimpressed look, and a raised eyebrow.

“Really?” Keris murmurs. “I hope those were tasty, young lady, because you’re going to be told off for this once we’re back home again.” She pauses, narrowing her eyes. That looks like a very neat flower crown for a baby dragon’s first try.

“... has Zanara been feeding you art?” she asks suspiciously. “Hey, hey! No squirming away to hide! Answer the question.”

Unfortunately, grabbing her elbow doesn’t stop Iris slinking along her skin wherever she likes. She’s a very difficult dragon to keep in one place while she’s on Keris’s body. Iris considers the question, and nods happily as she escapes onto the small of Keris’s back.

“Urgh,” Keris sighs. “Sorry Haneyl. Your little sibling is a bad influence on her. And I think she likes the taste of your flower-dyes.”

Haneyl is rather put in a sulk, and this lasts until she orders the largest steak on the menu, rare, and then eats it all. That cheers her up somewhat, and she’s in a much happier mood when her and Keris retreat to a bathhouse to soak while they digest their meals. It’s nice to talk with Haneyl, and Keris does sort of see the advantage of having a more adult daughter. Even if Haneyl has quite a few of Zanyira’s bad habits.

The sun is down, so Haneyl sighs comfortably and removes all of her piercings. “Honestly,” she admits, “I’m just going to go straight home and drop in a proper hot springs, not one of these baths. You can probably send me home now and have Elly carry the rest of my stuff. I can’t be bothered to get dressed into wet clothing when I’m going straight back in the water.”

“Will you be happy to get your crown and robes back?” Keris asks, amused.

“Oh, mama. Of course I will.” She pauses. “Although I’ll need a larger wardrobe. I didn’t realise how important it was to have a wardrobe that’s a room in its own right just filled with clothes until mother showed me it. I can’t just wear a beautiful lotus crown and golden robes all the time. And I learned spinning!”

Was it really Sasi, though, Keris wonders. Because Haneyl is her greed - and Keris had seen Ney’s costume place in Malra.

“Who knows?” she says lightly. “I might commission you for a few pieces of my own. After all,” she grins, “I’ll need two full wardrobes. At least.”

Leaning over in the blissfully hot water, she hugs her daughter close, accepting the piercings with her hair. They stay like that for a while; Haneyl taller and broader than her petite mother, but submitting obediently to being cuddled.

“I love you very much, sweetheart,” Keris murmurs eventually. “And thank you for all the hard work you’ve done for me. Come back home and enjoy yourself for a month or two. You absolutely deserve some time off.”

“I love you too, mama,” Haneyl says. She’s wiped away all her carefully done make-up, and up close, when she isn’t keeping up her masks, Keris is reminded how much her daughter looks like both her and Sasi. When she was younger Keris thought she looked more like Sasi, but the tanning that Creation’s sun has done has revealed the Keris-like aspects she hadn’t seen. Even if she sometimes wishes her daughter hadn’t inherited Sasi’s attitude towards her love life.

It... it’s nice. To have someone who’s part her and part Sasi. A surge of motherly warmth fills Keris’s heart for her big, strong, clever daughter who’s leaning on her shoulder. She wraps it around her little girl - who might be taller than her and all educated and cultured and... adult, now, but who’ll always be her little girl. She swaddles her daughter in that blanket of affection, and tugs gently.

That’s all it takes, with Haneyl leaning against her like this. The gentlest of tugs.

It’s much, much more comfortable to accept one of her souls back into her than have her be banished. Haneyl is a gentle warmth soaking into her bones, a feeling of fullness she was missing, a sharpness of the senses.

Keris stays in the baths for a while, relaxing, then heads home.

---

The next few days progress, as they do. Vali also decides to head home, because he’s missing it - and wants to actually spend some time around Hanny, he says - and that means that suddenly Keris’s inner life is much more active while her outer life has more time for the others. Only Zanara is with her in Saata, and she and Piu appear to be enjoying dance-temple. She gets more time with Zanyira, who’s working hard with Rounen on studying for the entrance exams in the new year, and she gets to spend time around her niece and her brother while he gets set up in his new forge.

“I still don’t trust you,” the little forge-goddess says, gripping her tiny hammer tightly with her iron hands. She pauses. “But at least you kept to that bit of your promise.”

“Amphelia,” Ali says, pumping the bellows. “Is there anything else you require? Any offerings to make this better suited for you?”

The tiny goddess examines the forge set up with a sceptical eye. “I’m going to have to scrub it all over to get the smell of demon out of it,” she grumbles. But then a thought strikes her. “In the old days, you used to keep a record of all the smiths who’d served here,” she says, eyes glazed over with memory. “You lost the scroll. It burned in the fire. I’d like you to start the practice again. So I can remember you, even after you’re gone.”

“Any materials you need to try and recreate the waterwheel, I’ll see that you get,” Keris promises her brother. “Also, uh, on a more practical note, half the window hinges in the south wing are rusted to uselessness, so you’re not shy of work.”

“That sounds more doable,” he says, with a wry smile. “Hinges, I can do.” He finishes pumping the bellows. “I... I probably have said this already, but... thank you, little sister. Even if... even if things haven’t gone anything like they should have. Thank you.”

Keris hugs him. “You’re welcome, big brother. And hey! Nowadays you don’t have to worry about watching me and making sure I don’t wander into the river or try to bring grass snakes home!”

“I’ve seen you throw yourself into the ocean and Zana bragged that you can turn into a giant snake,” her brother says dryly.

“Which is why it’s good that you don’t have to try and stop me anymore,” Keris returns, grinning up at him impishly. “And I wouldn’t have to throw myself into the ocean if I had a halfway decent beach. Hey Rounen!” she calls out through the open door of the forge. “I want to get a proper beach set up next year! Make a note!” She pauses. “Also, have someone find out how the other lords got pretty beaches for their estates! I know they can’t all be natural!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Rounen calls back. “I’m sure there are books about that somewhere.”

He’s either being serious, or poking fun at her. She’s not sure which is worse.

---

Of course, the fourth comes with annoying news. There’s someone in the Saatan docks she pays to keep track of any messages intended for Tenné Cinnamon, and when she checks then she finds a message for her from General Nandi Zwiswayo. It’s characteristically brief, like the woman is being charged by the letter.

“Tenné Cinnamon,

Bad weather - typhoons. Can’t find captain of large ship willing to risk it. On Shuu Ama, waiting for new year.

General Nandi Zwiswayo “

This prompts a visit to the Map Room, which is already one of Keris’s favourites in the wing she’s slowly reclaiming. She’s working on a sculpture of the Anarchy as a whole; a grand hardwood table ten strides long and five wide whose surface will be blue-dyed wood, with islands raised in relief all across it from the shore of the Wailing Fen all the way up to the northern reaches of the Anarchy.

But that’s not finished yet. The accurate maps the Baisha brought back will let her get it right, but she hasn’t had time recently. So for the moment she just spreads out a thick paper map across the uncarved bit that’ll be the Silent Crescent under An Teng and searches for Shuu Ama. It’s about fifty kilometres north of the northern coast of Shuu Mua - though small islands like that aren’t all that accurate on this map. Makes sense. If they island-hopped from Triumphant Air, given the fact it’s typhoon season, they might have wound up there - and then it’s late enough in the season that a good number of captains aren’t going for bluewater crossings.

Fuck.

She sighs in annoyance. Well... fuck it. Fine. She’ll get her Lionesses in the new year, then. After considering for a few moments, she sends Iris off to the Lioness’s witch with a message of acknowledgement, and shapes the angle of the shore down to the Wailing Fen on her map-table.

Unfortunately, she’s in an irritated enough mood that art-for-work just leaves her feeling more annoyed. And Keris likes maps. She doesn’t want to spoil this one by making the process of coaxing it out of the wooden slab into a chore. Giving it up as a bad job, she goes to play with her babies instead, seeking out some more relaxing stimuli.

It is not relaxing. Ogin is teething. Kali is teething. Atiya has wind. None of them are happy. All of them are screaming.

Keris winds up having problems remembering exactly why motherhood is so wonderful. She never thought she’d say that, but why couldn’t they be more like Haneyl?

It’s a relief when the reminder note comes from Ba-le, checking if she remembers about the festival of Akhanammu on the sixth and the party she’s invited to. At least it’s something else to think about rather than the screaming from Ogin who’s refusing to talk because his teeth hurt too much and the attempts of Kali to chew on her brother, her mother, and chairs.

“Yes,” she sends back by messenger. “Yes, I will definitely be coming.”

She’s frazzled enough that she doesn’t even bother including the formalities.

Zanara has the next day off because the temple’s closed for rituals, so Nara is entirely willing to help his mother choose what to wear for the party - and help her make it.

“Sooooo,” he drags out, bouncing a sulky Ogin up and down on his knee and trying to distract him with his pretty butterfly wings, “what are you looking to come across as, mama?”

“Urgh...” Keris complains. “I dunno. Uh... Little River... cultured, refined and elegant. Formal, mannerly, traditional... you know, the kind of stick-up-her-ass who insists on all the etiquette crap. Patron of the arts. Dangerous, under the politeness. Beautiful, talented; a rising star who’s worth signing on with.”

She waves a hand vaguely, glaring at Kali when she jumps from her position on an increasingly torn-up expensive cushion to snap at mama’s fingers like she’s been repeatedly told not to. “Not too much like Cinnamon,” she adds, suppressing her irritation. “I’m going for the formal thing with Little River ‘cause following etiquette all the time lets me cheat with your sense for hiding in the flowers of conversation, and I’m better when I have a script to follow.”

“It’s a religious thing - in theory,” Nara observes. He measures out Keris between his four hands. “I think... a deep scarlet, figure hugging but full body, with golden trim. Wait, no, wearing scarlet to a party with so many Sinasana in it might be considered hostile. And blue is the colour of a harlot. Pale pink with flower patterns on the sleeves would be non-controversial, but black is always in for water-aspected Dragonblooded...”

“Black with pink flower patterning?” Keris suggests. “If we make them a pale pink around the sleeves and have a stripe of them up around the body like floating blossoms on a river current, they’ll stand out and draw the eye. The black’ll match Little River’s hair, but the pink will keep me from being too monochrome. And I can wear an actual blossom on a comb to set them off.”

Nara nods. “Pretty, mum,” he says. “Now, hmm. You’re going to need to be careful not to make the Hui Cha think you’re getting too close to the Sinasana, but you are a guest there and they’ve probably got really pretty things there. Also, obviously, don’t let them sign you into any agreements or stuff.”

“Well, I am meant to be licensing my new smithy,” she points out. “I can get some level of excuse just out of networking to smooth things over with the right people to make it quicker and easier. And possibly scoping out the latest firedust weapons in case the Hui Cha fleets decide to get some more flame weapons.”

“Oooh, yes, you need the best silverwork, mum,” Nara agrees happily. “You could probably grab Zanyi back to look after Atiya, and then we can spend all day working on making you just the prettiest!”

Keris grimaces. “Think she can handle all three of them, though?” Then pauses, remembering that her sister had been the one to put Haneyl up to that deliberate mortification.

“Actually,” she says sweetly, “you know what? That’s a wonderful idea. I’ll just go get Zanyira and tell her that her nieces and nephew are eager to spend time with her, getting to know their aunty.”

((REVENGE))

Some people might have considered first use of teething akuma babies as a war crime. Not Keris.

And that gives her time to work on her fashion.

---

“Well, well, well, look at you!” Ba-le says, spinning Little River around to admire her. “Don’t you clean up nicely when you’re not standing around in your hot forge in a sweaty shift!” Little River has met up with her for pre-party drinks at her townhouse, which is a tower in the Anubalim. The other woman herself is dressed in sheer white that’s fog-thin, and which shows off the full extent of her dragon tattoo. “Isn’t she gorgeous, Colira?”

Ba-le’s husband is a lanky, stretched-out-looking man who looks like he weighs as much as a healthy man a good twenty centimetres shorter. He has to be breaking two metres, and he towers over Little River. He’s more northern in origin than his wife, and looks like he has some blood from the Hook, north of An Teng. His smiling orange eyes remind her of banked fires - and she feels the same heat coming off him. “Not as gorgeous as you, my love,” he says.

((E4, Fire Aspected))

“And look at you,” Little River returns with a smile. “I see you’ve dressed down for the heat as well as up for the party.” She eyes the sheer thinness of the cloth Ba-le wears and how little it hides. “Perhaps a little too far down,” she adds blandly. “Do you need the dress there at all, or is it just a formality?”

Iris lifts her head up off her arm and lets out a soundless chirp of greeting to Ba-le’s dragon tattoo; clearly excited to see it. Her flower-crown has mostly withered away or been eaten, though one lone blossom still remains between her horns.

“Darling,” Ba-le says, “even the dock workers can afford opaque cloth. Something this sheer takes a master weaver.” She smiles at Iris. “And look at you! You’re wearing a flower too, oh yes you are.” She shakes her head. “Brilliant, Little River. Coordinating your outfit with your tattoo. Just marvellous.”

“You’d mentioned your friend’s tattoo, but I hadn’t thought it was so... impressive,” Colira says, unfolding as he stands up to tower over Little River. His short red hair is under an ornamental headdress of bird-of-paradise feathers, while his white cotton shirt is only fastened at the navel. “Even at Windswift, I only saw one other living tattoo like that - and that couldn’t leave the man’s body. Are you a sorceress too?”

“She’s not actually sorcery,” Keris says truthfully. “Her creator... ah, now. How to say this without spoiling it for Ba-le? She’s eager to work it out for herself, you know.” She smiles teasingly. “Well, I’ll say that her creator isn’t human, and used magics other than sorcery to bring her to life. And yes, I recently discovered that she can move other tattoos. And eat them. And make them into little crowns for herself.”

Her smile twists; becoming slightly wry. “Iris plays rough, I’m afraid. Most other tattoos can’t survive her for long. I imagine the idea of a playmate that can is part of what she likes about yours. Well,” she adds with a note of humour, “that or she still hasn’t quite learned that not all tattoos are like her.”

Ba-le defensively goes to protect hers. “She couldn’t eat mine, could she?” she asks her husband.

“I don’t know,” he asks mildly. “I’m sure it’d be fascinating to watch, though. Do you mind if I take notes? I could probably get a paper out of it at Windswift.”

She swats at him, and Keris suddenly sees how this couple wound up together - even if it took Ba-le eloping and getting disinherited for her troubles.

“If you can woo Iris by the end of the night, perhaps,” Keris smiles. “But come! We’re missing the festivities. And I’d like to show off my work.” She’s bedecked with silver to offset her outfit - a gorgeous necklace of stylised flames in honour of Akhanammu, a variety of flowery hairpieces around the silver comb with a real lotus-flower pinned to it, a set of matching rings and some chiming earrings. “After all,” she adds with a grin to Ba-le, “I need the licensing for my smithy to go smoothly if I’m to set up and get it running early next year.”

“Well, that’s something I’m in favour of,” Ba-le says, offering one arm to her husband and one to Little River. Honestly, comparing their builds probably both of the women could snap Colira in half. “Let’s go, then.”

It’s only a short walk through the Anubalim grounds to the place where Colira’s aunt is holding the party. The Saatan night is alive with explosions, because fireworks are going off all over the place. There’s the crackle of firecrackers, the scream of prayerwheel fuses, and from over the walls comes the sound of the massive street parties that are going on. Fortunately for Keris, Atiya is back home - because the air is thick with firedust smoke and steam and it wouldn’t be good for her lungs.

She can already see why her companions are dressed as they are. It’s nearly the hottest bit of the year, and it’s so very humid. Both of them are already sweating.

“Dragons save us from you wretched water-bloods,” Ba-le grumbles, seeing how Little River isn’t sweating at all.

Colira’s aunt’s place is an ancient Shogunate structure that’s been renovated from its original purpose and turned into a palace. It has lavish roof gardens that rise up over the top of the city, allowing a clear view of the thronging streets outside the Ala district and it’s over the smoke and steam to see the temple of Akhanammu to the north of the city where the best fireworks are launched from. There’s a mule-driven lift that takes the guests from street level up to the garden heights, and two family members and their well-dressed guest are immediately welcomed and let in.

Up in the heights, it’s full of lavish - though skimpy - clothing on both sexes, fine wine, and food. Keris can feel the power in the room. There’s no small number of Dragonblooded here (ten at least, maybe twenty or more), and some of them are powerful indeed. The woman on stage is nearly as powerful as a demon lord, and as she raises her voice over the sound of the drums she’s playing illusions and strange figures dance in the smoke, telling tales of the gods and folk heroes.

((Lots of DBs, of all aspects and enlightenment ratings. For example, the woman on stage is E5, Wood Aspected.))

Keris can’t help but falter - the last time she was in a room with multiple Dragonblooded, they were preparing to kill her. But on the other hand, there’s attraction; the draw of being around people who get it, at least a little. Who understand about what it’s like to have power, to be set apart from humanity and mortality, who can survive her at full blast.

Ba-le catches the hesitation. But happily, she’ll just put it down to Little River being... what’s her word for it? A ‘Tengese hick fresh off the boat’; drawn to the glamour but uncertain of her place here. Before she can make a witty little comment, Keris firms the line of her shoulders and glides forward into the room.

“... on stage, that’s Leinani, she’s adopted too, but she’s maybe the best dancer and singer in all of Saata right now,” Ba-le chatters. “To the extent that the other ones don’t even count her in their ranking because she’s been first for fifty years now. Those two over there are from the Steel Dragon society - don’t talk to them, they’re frightful bores like all Imperial Navy sorts - and then over there is Masaati Meixu, I studied with her... Meixu!”

The woman who comes over is has a pinch of divine power. It’s enough to give her serpents in place of hair, which have been painted with gold leaf that matches her lips. She’s wearing a loose silk robe decorated with thunder patterns. “Ba-le,” she says warmly. “I was wondering when you’d show up. And Colira... oh, you’re always so tall, no need to bend to kiss me and... who’s this?”

((E1, Divine essence))

“Hui Cha Little River, a newcomer to our corrupt and wicked city,” Ba-le says with a smirk. “Also my new tenant.”

Little River dips in a precise and picture-perfect greeting-bow. “A pleasure,” she says. “You studied with Ba-le? May I ask where?”

“Oh, we both went to Rising Branches to learn to read, write, and other kiddy things,” Meixu says easily. “But then again, that’s to be expected. We’re both Raraan Ge... or, we were.”

((Cog + Politics, Diff 2))

Keris eyes her, listening to the subvocal cues there. If they’d been childhood friends, that puts an interesting spin on their relationship - this is one of the family Ba-le left behind when she joined House Sinasana by elopement.

((3+1+2 stunt=6. 1 sux, bah.))

Keris can’t really follow the names dropped. From what she says, the Masaati are probably another member of this often-Dragonblooded pirate nobility, but she can’t pin them down. There’s a lot of them.

“You’re staring at her hair,” Ba-le says, with a smile. “Her mother was a snake.”

One of Meixu’s hands go to the serpents. “Snake-goddess, thank you very much, as you well know.”

“She hatched, you see.” Ba-le’s smile widens. “Look down. No belly button.”

“... I have one, you idiot, as you also well know.”

“Yeah, but she believed it. They believe anything up in An Teng,” Ba-le says wickedly.

“We do no such thing,” Little River says primly. “And I have met goddesses with stranger traits than serpent-hair. If you must know,” and here she turns her attention to Meixu, “I was admiring their colour and wondering how you take care of... them? Caring for my hair can be a chore; I can only imagine how hard it must be to find oils and soaps for scales.”

“Honestly, they mostly take care of themselves,” Meixu admits. “Snakes are very clean animals and one advantage is that I hardly sweat - unlike that grinning dog over there.”

“Hey! That’s offensively accurate!” Ba-le contributes.

“I just need to be sure to oil them occasionally and make sure they don’t dry out. It’s honestly much easier.”

“Ah, yes.” Little River smirks. “Not sweating in humidity is certainly a lovely boon in this city. Is it always as entertaining to listen to other people complaining as I’m starting to find it?”

“Very much so,” Meixu agrees. “And look at you two. You don’t even have drinks yet. That’s a real waste. There are people out to drink all the good stuff first.”

“Like her,” Ba-le interjected.

“You didn’t have to say it,” the other woman says archly. “You should go get yourself something. I’ll see you around. I love the dress, by the way... Little River, yes?”

“Hui Cha Little River,” Keris responds, with another shallow bow. “Until next time, then.”

“Hmm,” Ba-le says, as they drift through the crowd towards the drinks table. “You really aren’t shocked by someone with snakes for hair. That doesn’t sound much like the An Teng I’ve heard of...”

“I didn’t come straight here from An Teng,” Keris says darkly. “And I was mortal when I had to leave. It was a long and eventful journey.”

“Ah, you and your puzzles,” Ba-le says.

“Well,” Little River says, shrugging and tossing her hair over her shoulder with a smirk. “You wouldn’t like me as much if I didn’t pose a challenge.”

The singer ends her song, then shifts to a stringed instrument. She starts to play in a minor key, her voice raising up into the upper registers with a purity that is more than any normal human could manage. Her song sounds like eagles in the heights, like far off mountains and memories of home, and in the smoke above phantasmal birds whirl and spin, widening their gyre as they dance and play in the fire-lit night.

There is polite applause from the audience, and a few wet eyes. Little River applauds too, polite and even sincere. The performance really is beautiful. But her thoughts are full of another face she plans to wear in this city - the face of Tenné Cinnamon - and its role as a performer and entertainer.

It wouldn’t be strictly true to say that Keris is mentally cracking her knuckles and eyeing up a rival, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth either.

“I can’t believe I missed this party,” Haneyl grumbles in her head. “Urgh! Shows what I knew! It’s like... it’s like broken karma! I did all these nice things for other people and then didn’t get the reward of going here!”

“I’ll see that you’re properly rewarded to balance it out,” Keris thinks warmly. “I’ll be going hunting for a tyrant lizard skeleton to put in my foyer at Silver Lotus. It won’t be hard to get two of them, and then you can have one of them to use its feathers in some pretty clothes and grow flowering vines around its skeleton and cook the meat for a feast.”

Haneyl makes a happy noise. “I had some while in Saata,” she informs Keris. “It tasted slightly gamey and a bit like chicken. A very lean meat - you’d want to simmer it for a long time to break it down, or otherwise get one of the fattier cuts. And I talked to the seller and she mentioned they do have a problem with parasites...”

Haneyl chatters on about food for a bit, because it is one of her favourite topics.

((OK, does Keris have any plans for what she wants to get done here, any group or people she wants to seek out, or is she just here to have a good time and watch fireworks?))
((Hmm. She’ll try and schmooze a bit to grease the wheels for the licensing of her smithy, and also keep an ear open to see what the state of firedust tech is since the Burning Tiger Halls are an obvious topic of conversation. And, heh, Keris is fond of arson, occult secrets and also drugs and body mods - which firedust can be used in.))

Little River drifts among the partygoers. She stands out - for her Tengese looks, and for her modest clothes, for the way she shows no signs of suffering from the heat. Her manners are impeccable, and a general perception of her starts to circulate through the party - a bit hung up on etiquette and standards like some of the more traditional Tengese tend to be, but less obnoxious about it than many, and a witty, clever, charming conversationalist besides.

Along the way, Little River makes herself known to the great and the g-, well, mostly just the great of Saata. She meets Raraan Ge pirate lords, fat merchants from the docks, the swaggering Ju Padua - a loud-mouthed, extroverted braggart who tries to flirt with her - and several members of House Sinasana.

She finds herself next to a loud argument between two men. One of them is Sinasana Tamar, a man whose anger crackles around him like lightning, while the other is more Tengese in complexion and her eavesdropping reveals him to be Andu of the Bakalong family, a student at the university. Both young men are dressed like peacocks, both are armed, and they’re right in front of each other’s faces.

((Tamar - Air Aspected, E3))
((Andu - Wood Aspected, E4))

“You’re a popinjay, a braggart, and you think you’re so good just because your bitch of a pirate great-aunt gives you an overlarge allowance,” the aggrieved Tamar snaps.

One of Andu’s hands goes to his mouth in laughter, while the other stays on his sword. “Oh, that’s rich, coming from you. Do you think that just because I actually study, I’m not man enough to meet whatever challenge you offer?”

((What group is Bakalong Andu part of? Does Keris know of any Hui Cha links he has, or is his Tengese blood just ancestry and not linked to where he stands politically?))
((Bakalong is one of the Raraan Ge families, and no, Keris doesn’t think he’s really Tengese - he just has blood. It means he’s probably from the north of the Anarchy, where they’re ethnically more related to the Tengese, though a bit darker-skinned and with more often curly hair showing up.))
((Hmm. What does FtFF say about etiquette re: “fighting at parties” and also “intervening in an argument between others”?))
((It’s socially acceptable for a woman to intervene to try to calm down hot-headed men. It also says that if they want to duel, they should take it to a proper duelling ground and get people to witness, not just start fighting out of the blue))

“Gentlemen,” Little River interrupts smoothly, stepping between them and raising her hands in a smooth warding gesture. “Please, remember where you are. This is a celebration of Akhanammu, not a duelling ground. If you have issue with one another, there are places for that.”

She pauses deliberately. “And were you to fight tonight, flamepieces might be more appropriate than blades,” she adds with disarming humour. “Given who we are here to honour.”

Sinasana Tamar glares at her, nose wrinkling up. “Hui Cha bitch,” he mutters, softly enough that if Little River wasn’t Keris she wouldn’t have heard him. “Oh, don’t bother. I got better things to do with my time.” Puffing up his chest, he rolls off.

“Sinasana dog,” Andu says to Little River. “Thinks that just because he’s the son of the matriarch, his shit doesn’t stink.”

((Reaction + Awareness, Smell-based))
((5+5+2 Coadj+2 autosux=12. 7+2=9 sux.))

She can smell the touch of a demon on him. In the oils in his skin, in his hair. Neomah, she thinks - or some related breed. Her eyes flicker over him quickly, assessingly, taking in his nature, and she purses her lips.

“And louder with his muttering than he thinks he is,” she says, ice in her voice and a dangerous glint in her eye for a moment as she glances at Tamar’s retreating back. “Someday that will get him into trouble.”

She looks at this man, this over-educated man, who’s so very proud of his sorcery. And she can see how beautiful it is that he envies her. He wants something she has - or maybe he wants her, or wants to be her. She can’t tell the notes of flattery apart. But she can read that he’s not expecting much from her - politeness, perhaps, and some sexual interest. But then again, he’s a man - and a lot of the men she’s met have thought she must have wanted them just because she was single.

((Pride in his sorcery, envious - yes.))
((Hoo hoo~))
((Fun. : 3))

“Well, apart from a few cruder attendees, this is a delightful party,” she says with a smile. “Were you enjoying yourself before he interrupted?”

He smiles at her. “Trying to stop my mother getting into trouble,” he says wryly. “She doesn’t like Saata much, but she’s here for business and she was invited as a guest.” He looks her up and down, eyes lingering in certain places. “You are Little River Hui Cha, yes? You were talk of the town for a while with how you came out of nowhere and bought one of the southern mansions.”

“Tch,” Little River tuts. “So much talk about my home, and none about my art.” She tilts her head, letting the silverwork in her hair gleam and the flame-necklace catch the light. “Well, perhaps I’ll gain more fame as a silversmith once my smithy is up and running. And you study at one of the temple-colleges?”

“I’m not with Wind-Swift, but I’ve made a deal with the seminarians and the archivists for some access to their libraries. I’m actually studying the history of the Anarchy - working on a treatise on its history during the time of the Shogunate,” Andu says, in a deliberately off-hand manner.

“Ah?” Little River - and Keris, under her mask - look genuinely interested at that. “Back when Saata was all a great city of white stone? I can see the signs of what this island once was in the ruins left behind, but you’re expanding that to the whole of the Anarchy? That sounds fascinating.”

“Oh yes! In fact, from the widespread coastal damage that reaches as far north as the Hook and as far south as places like Alahi, there was a major tsunami around 1500 years ago that wiped out entire islands from the map. Can you believe it? Some of the old maps I’ve found suggest that there was at least one major island - Shuu Mua sized, at least - which simply vanished from history!” Andu says enthusiastically.

Little River blinks at him. “Impossible,” she says in disbelief. “Shuu Mua is five hundred miles across - I’ve sailed along it. No tsunami could sink something that huge, it would...” She shakes her head. “What could even cause that kind of destruction?”

“I have no idea.” He spreads his hands. “Perhaps it wasn’t totally destroyed. There are some indications that something survived until the invasion of the fae - but that’s another topic that’s just as cataclysmic. Those monsters carried away entire islands, sweeping them off into the tides of chaos.”

Little River purses her lips. “True... and I suppose if something of it survived, it would be on the seabed.” Her mouth quirks up at the side slightly. “Perhaps I’ll go looking someday.”

“Hah, yes, I suppose you do have it easy.” He laughs, not entirely with humour. “Not being at home underwater is a barrier to my research sometimes. And my great aunt doesn’t care about such things. Neither does my mother. Although... at least she appreciates what I can find back home. I stumbled on a few jade seams while digging up the ruins of a city I found had been buried by a pyroclastic flow, so I’m in her good books for once.”

“Well, history isn’t one of my strengths, but geography is,” Little River offers. “If you ever find a spot in the ocean that looks promising, I’d be more than willing to help look for a long-sunken island.”

A gaunt woman approaches them - much taller than Keris, with prominent acid scars all the way down the left side of her face. And likely the left side of her body, because her clothing is asymmetrical and covers up that side much more than her right. “Andu,” she snaps. “Where have you been?”

“Just socialising, mother...” he says softly. “This is Hu Cha Little River, chosen of the Water Dragon.”

She turns on Keris, and Keris can feel how weak she is, a tiny blossom compared to Keris herself. Her eyes narrow and she clearly evaluates the smaller Tengese woman.

((E4, Water Aspected))

She tenses just a little; unnoticeable beneath the perfect flowers of social poise she’s shrouded her thorns with. For all that this woman is weaker than Keris, she is in truth what Keris pretends to be - equal in both power and aspect to the lie of Little River.

Gracefully, the younger water dragon dips a respectful courtesy to the elder. “A pleasure,” she greets the woman. “Your son was telling me about some ancient history. It’s interesting listening.”

And like son, like mother, she feels that this woman also envies her. But she’s proud of her blood, of her water-dragon-granted power. Keris can see the curling waves around her upright, acid-scarred posture a. “Hah,” she says. “Well, at least someone is interested in it. Wasting his life on such things. And you - you’re the lucky girl who stumbled into one of the rare mansion openings on Saata. So young and with no effort doing so. Well, some people have all the luck.”

((Yes, envies Keris - proud of her nature as a Dragonblood.))

“Luck is fleeting, and dooms those who rely on it,” Little River replies with calm modesty. “I was lucky to get my mansion, but keeping it will be a test of my skill.”

“Hah. That it will, girl.” She clicks her tongue. “Come on, Andu!”

He gives Little River a wry smile behind his mother’s back as he trails after her.

“Hmm,” Keris thinks inwardly. “Well now. A demon-summoning sorcerer looking for Shogunate relics all across the Anarchy. Blackmail and bait in one shiny package. I think we’ll be seeing him again in some form, don’t you, mama?”

“I don’t like his mother,” Dulmea says softly. “She reminds me of...”

She doesn’t say the next word, but Keris can guess what it would be.

“... well,” she says after a moment, “I won’t have to deal with his mother. Just him. And if there is an old Shogunate island lurking somewhere on the seabed, it might still have shiny things on it.”

She sighs happily and looks around. “Now,” she thinks, “let’s work out who among these Sinasana princes will be useful in smoothing the way to getting my smithy licensed, and go chat them up.”

As Little River mingles once more, she’s drawn to a sound of little bells and a raising of voices. There’s a...

... that’s a man, yes. It’s hard to tell, though, because he’s so grotesquely fat. He’s dressed in orange robes, has a shaven head with stretched out ear-lobes, and he’s already acquired a drink in hand.

“Blessings be upon this party!” he calls out.

Raising her eyebrows in mild horror, Keris gives him a dismissive once-over... and then hesitates, as she realises what those robes and bald head mean. Shit. Monk. She’d known Saata had an Immaculate temple, but not given it much thought after hearing the abbot was massively corrupt. This must be him, though she can’t remember his name offhand. Attention snapping back to him, she gives him a rather more in-depth once-over, suppressing the urge to wrinkle her nose in tell-tale distaste.

((IEI, WWOF and FtFF. 10+4 autosux for the latter; 5+4=9 sux.))
((Journeys Essence, E4. No envy, Politics 5, 3-dot Throne Shadow Style.))

The fat man, the obese man, the man with the bright golden eyes - strangely similar to Kali’s - is an insignificant worm. But he’s a worm who’s stronger than any mortal - and he’s stronger than some of the Dragonblooded around here. She watches as he downs his drink and takes a second one - and there’s none of the admiration of envy - no, he’s a clever man, and all so proud of his mastery of the political arts.

And what he expects is to be offered drinks, bribes, and favours in return for favours of his own. This is a political animal. And a very bad monk.

Something trips in Keris’s brain, and she stares openly for a few seconds before hurriedly restoring her mask. What... what the fuck? That man - that man is as strong as her lie of Little River, as strong as the bitch of an abbess on Triumphant Air, as strong as most of the stronger Dragonblooded in this room.

But he’s not of the Dragons. His essence isn’t even of Creation. He tastes like travel. Like faraway places and Zany’s wonder as she described the shining spires of Chiaroscuro and the occult whispers that flit between the semaphore towers of Windswift College.

He tastes like journeys. And that’s the scent of the stars. The sound of Mercury. Could... could he be a starry-eyed one?

No. Keris dismisses that thought immediately. Yamal’s memories tell her that... that the Star-Chosen had been equals to those of the Moon. Salina had agreed, from what she’d said about sorcery. He’s too weak to be a star-chosen - and anyway, he’s the head monk of an Immaculate temple.

So... what? A child of... of some god who works for Mercury? Keris stiffens. Shit, she realises. That’s... that’s very possible. The Temple of Mercury Wind-Swift undoubtedly has a minor god or goddess of its own, and may be visited by higher-ranking ones, being a major temple to Mercury with influence that spreads all across the Anarchy. Is that what he is? Does he have direct ties to Heaven through his divine parent?

Shit, Keris thinks again. This is exactly the kind of thing she was hoping wouldn’t crop up a few short weeks before her return to the Althing.

“A blessing for you... a blessing for you... a blessing for you,” the abbot says, tapping person after person on the brow. “Ah, hell! Blessings for everyone! Come get your blessings, as long as you bring a tithe of drinks! And some of those little snacks, too!” He slaps his engorged belly. “I’m just wasting away here, don’t you know?”

((... oh my god he’s amazing.))
(( : D ))

Keris hesitates... but she supposes she’s not going to get more information on this man without going closer. And hanging back might be suspicious. So Little River scoops up a particularly nice drink and a small bowl of snacks, and drifts over to greet the obese man with a bow and a smile.

He’s taken up a seat on one of the large viewing couches with a good range of the fireworks - “It’s my duty, you know, to make sure no one is worshipping any naughty naughty gods without permission,” he says, mouth full of pineapple - and is letting people by with a “I bless you” and “Remember to go to temple more, my child”.

“Father Abbot,” she smiles when her turn comes up, and offers the tray. “Might I trouble you to take a few of these off my hands? They’re terribly heavy.”

“I am a charitable man, so of course, my child,” he says benevolently. “Have you committed any terrible sins recently? I do hope you haven’t. And... ah, yes, you’re Little River, of the Hui Cha. I haven’t seen you at temple at all. Naughty girl.”

She bows. “I’m truly sorry, Father Abbot,” she says contritely. “My daughter and my estate are no excuse. I’ll pledge to be better behaved in the new year.”

There’s a twinkle in his eyes which suggests that he doesn’t believe a word she’s saying. “And I hope you raise your daughter the right way and don’t get up to any criminality or the like,” he says.

((Roll me 1d10))
((... why do you make me do these things that make me nervous. :c))
((1. Botch. Shit. I hope that was him rolling to notice something.))

“And I notice you have a little visitor on your arm,” he adds with a genial smile. “Look at you, small one.”

Iris, who has slunk her head out and has it stuck in the tray of snacks, peeks up at the abbot with sugared dust around her mouth. She tilts her head quizzically.

((Goddammit Iris.))
((She has Temperance 1. She is just a bebe.))

After a frozen instant too quick to be noticed, Little River strokes the little dragon’s head. “Perhaps honouring the dragons with my little friend here will grant me some measure of forgiveness for my failure to attend services,” she says lightly, internally vowing to paint her familiar yellow tonight for outing herself like this. Still, maybe she can just play it off, maybe if she acts as though Iris’s nature isn’t anything to exclaim over it’ll seem like there’s nothing suspicious there. “Though she hasn’t been attending either, I’m sorry to say,” she adds with a quirked grin, inviting the abbot to laugh.

“Well, I’ve seen how the Raraan Ge like their dragon tattoos, but I wasn’t aware it was a Tengese thing too,” he says, petting Iris and then stealing the food away from her while she’s distracted by rubbing into his fingers. “What a peculiar creature.”

“Iris,” Little River says warningly. “No climbing onto the abbot. She eats tattoos,” she adds, looking up at him. “Or shreds them when she tries to play with them. Still, she’s a clever little friend, when she’s behaving.” She reaches out to wave her hand through the space Iris is occupying, pulling her back onto skin, and brushes against the abbot’s fingers in the process. For the brief moment of contact, while the abbot is still looking at the little dragon, her eyes go slit-pupiled as she takes in the feeling of him through her left hand.

((5+5+2 Coadj+2 stunt=14, boosting for an action with po-touch before dropping it again. 6x2+4=16 sux.))

Ah, with her left hand she can feel what he is more clearly. He is the wind in the sails, the scent of foreign lands, and the gleam in Zanyira’s eyes as she recounts her tales. And there are more, more transient washes over that - fiery food, the herbaceous touch of a medicine, and, ah, just a touch of blood-shedding battles and athletic strength.

((He’s dominated by Journeys, but there’s also traces of Fire, Wood and Battles on him))

“How you got that little thing must be quite an interesting tale,” he says, eating grapes one by one.

((Reaction + Politics))
((5+1+2 Coadj+2 stunt+4 Kimmy ExD {secrets, discerning eye=14. 6 sux.
Also redoing the FtFF roll for what he expects: 10+4 autosux; 4+4=8 sux.))

He’s talking to two women, not one. Little River; playing a friendly game with him when they both know neither of them care about her lack of Immaculate worship and she’s dancing around her tattoo for personal reasons. And Keris, razor-alert and tense beneath the lie, every sense focused on him as she darts backwards and forwards in the conversation, going over everything they’ve said for hidden hooks and trying to predict what he’s thinking and where their dialogue will go next.

He’s not at ease, though she can’t read any more. And she only knows that because she can’t read him. But she knows, she knows that if she keeps to her manners and plays by the rules of the meeting, there’s a good chance that he won’t be able to read her either.

“Oh, certainly,” she agrees. “But rather a long one. And I’d hate to take you from your sacred duties for as long as it would take to recount it all.” Belatedly, she remembers she’s still holding the drink she’d snagged with the hand she’d brushed him with, and offers it. “Perhaps some other time?”

He smiles at her, eyes going to Iris. “Of course, of course.” He taps her on the brow. “Bless you!”

With a grateful bow, Little River leaves him the tray of snacks, and escapes as fast as propriety allows. Shit, she thinks for the third time. She got a lot more information from that touch, but... argh. She’d have been much happier if Iris hadn’t outed herself in the process of getting it.

“You are in a lot of trouble, young lady,” she hisses quietly as she heads out to the balcony to get some air and watch the fireworks. “A lot of trouble.” Iris coils around her hand, an obviously quizzical expression on her face. She breathes out a tiny, sad-confused coil of many-coloured flame within Keris’s skin.

“... alright,” Keris sighs, checking quickly that she has enough privacy not to be overheard. “Not entirely your fault. You’re still little. But when I tell you to stay put for an evening, you need to listen, darling. It really is important.”

Iris exhales a sad face, sulkily swimming up Keris’s arm and nestling in her cleavage. She seems to have associated it with Keris cheering up the babies by feeding them. This at least puts her under Keris’s dress, so Keris pets her lightly through the cloth, and then rests her hands on the balcony and sighs.

The point of coming here tonight was meant to be getting away from the stress, dammit.

It’s at this point when the first wave of rockets streak up from the temple, detonating in the sky and shedding vast waves of red and orange sparks over the city. The booms are the queue for the singer to start a new song, and for everyone to rush over to watch the display by the priests.

Keris is in a good position for that, at least, being at the balcony already. She has a good view - and no annoying tall people in front of her - as she watches the performance, and for once she lets herself just relax and enjoy the display; half-formed ideas about asking around for what kind of innovations the Burning Tiger priests have made with firedust slipping away in favour of simple appreciation of art.

The firelight washes over the city, lighting up the night. There’s torchlight in the streets below, and men and women dancing. The music rises up, as clouds of smoke form clouds through the sky.

She loses focus, as she thinks of festivals in Nexus. There had been no fancy parties back then, no balconies full of high-class Bags or expensive drinks or pretty dresses. But she’d still liked the festivals. Not just for the opportunities that crowds of drunk revellers gave for a pickpocket, but because she and Rat could get a little tipsy on stolen booze and watch the pretty lights and listen to the singing and forget, for a while, how shitty their little lives were.

She’s come a long way since then.

She shouldn’t miss it.

“First time to see this, hmm?” While she was caught in memory, a woman approached her to lean on the balcony next to her. She’s a tall Terrestrial woman, who looks like she’s from the Hook. She’s curvy, almost maternal - but no, that’s a mask. There’s muscle there, under her layers of loose silk that have been carefully chosen to be subtly different shades of blue with traceries of white in the outer levels. She looks like she’s wearing the ocean itself. She’s bedecked with jade and gems, wrapping around her limbs in bands. Her left hand below the elbow is a carefully carved green jade replica, which moves and flexes as she adjusts herself.

She’s attractive. Not just because she’s powerful. Because she’s powerful and attractive and wears her power and confidence like a cloak. She looks over the city before her like there’s nothing there that can hurt her.

And she’s old. She must be old. Because she’s a Dragonblooded as powerful as a demon lord, and she has crow’s feet under her makeup and Keris can smell and taste the dye in her hair.

((E6, Water Aspect))

“Hui Cha Little River,” the woman says. “My grandson mentioned you.”

Grandson. Keris has only made a strong impression on two men with Terrestrial grandmothers today, and this woman - annoyingly - could be either Colira or Andu’s grandmother. Keris- no, Little River bows, her eyes widening a little before she gets herself under control. A young Dragonblood, confronted by an elder and superior.

“I hope his impression of me was a good one,” she answers, frantically trying to assess what the woman wants from her. Keris is leaning towards Sinasana Colira’s grandmother just from the wealth, which means... which means this may in fact be one of the high-ups of the ruling family of Saata, if not its head. “I assume it was at least interesting, if it led you to seek me out.”

“My granddaughter-in-law likes you,” the woman says. She looks up at the fireworks. She expects Keris to try to stand up to her. She also expects her to break when pressure is applied. Because everyone always does. “Hmm. You haven’t come to any of our parties until she invited you.”

Yup, Keris thinks. Sinasana. Damn. Luckily, she has a ready response for that in the form of Little River’s propriety.

“I hadn’t been formally invited,” she answers primly. “And recently I’ve been too occupied with business to have time for pleasure. Your granddaughter helped me resolve that issue, so of course I accepted her invitation.”

“Hmm.” Fire washes over their faces. “Let me just say something. And you will listen.” Spark candles burn down below. “This is my city, Hui Cha. Mine and my family’s. We have rules here. You’re playing by them right now. You’re doing it right. That’s how we do it here. We give you a safe harbour, we let you come to our markets, we let you avoid those savages in the Wailing Fen. You’re renting from my grandson.

“So keep playing by the rules. Because I’ve met a lot of young men and women who think that just because their grandpa was some philandering Dynast, they’re the dragon’s own gift to the world. That isn’t how things work here. Play by the rules... or I will break you.” The old woman smiles, flexing her green-jade hand. “That’s the thing. As long as you don’t deal with demons or attack Imperial ships, I don’t care what you do. You can keep on raiding other people’s towns. You can burn their ships. You can plunder the Far South West and I’ll invite you to dinner parties. I don’t care how you make money, as long as you follow my few rules. Play by them, and you’ll be wealthy, comfortable, and this will be a safe place for your daughter to grow up.

“And that’s what I ask of you.”

In the city beyond, a great rocket explodes, firedust falling in the shape of a great tiger’s head. Gongs and bells and chimes clang all at once. There’s a quiet pause in the silence after the explosion, as the tiger’s head descends on the city. Little River meets the old woman’s eye, and doesn’t disguise the flash of deadly intent when the matriarch of House Sinasana mentions her daughter’s safety.

She doesn’t buckle, and she doesn’t bend. She accepts the words into the black depths of still waters, and apart from that single ripple, there’s no hint as to what currents run down there in the deep.

“You’ve spoken,” she says, after a charged moment. “And I have heard.”

It’s not submission, because the Hui Cha are proud and private and even their more cosmopolitan members would balk at grovelling at a foreigner’s feet. But it’s acceptance, and no hint of outright challenge. Water flowing around an obstacle it can’t wear away.

((She got 12 successes on her Per + Presence roll, fortified by Stern Dragon Approach, to create a 2-dot Principle of Respect in Little River))
((... you know what? Keris is actually going to accept that. She looks down on demon lords, but - hah - she tends to treat DBs as if they’re three or four Enlightenment dots stronger than they actually are, by dint of Exalt-wariness. She can see this woman is a force to be reckoned with, and she’ll make up her mind to work around her rather than ever trying to challenge her directly.))

“Mmm. See that you do.” The woman straightens up. “If you go to the bar, you’ll find I picked something out for you. I hope we can get on.”

And with that said, she departs to mingle with others.

Sinasana Medala, matriarch of House Sinasana. She’s over two hundred, if Keris recalls. A very healthy two hundred, if that’s really true.

She stays there on the balcony for a few moments longer, recovering from that encounter, and then heads to the bar to see what the old dragon left for her there. That is not, she decides, a woman she intends to go head-to-head with if she can help it. Old dragons are forces of nature, and that’s not something Keris wants to put herself up against.

---

A few days later, Keris has an important family meeting. For the demonic part of her family. She has Zana back from the temple, and she has Rounen and even the demons in her soul in attendance. And of course, she has three upset babies who are still grouch.

She has Calibration to plan for.

“So,” Zana says, feet up on her chair. “What’s the plan, Keris?”

“I’m taking you,” Keris says. “I’m taking the twins. I’m... leaving Atiya here with a Gale, Zany, Ali and Xasan. She’s healthy enough now that she’ll be able to handle two weeks without the main me, and between the trip to Hell and the amount I’ll need to do there, taking her would be a risk for no reason. I’m only taking the twins because Lilunu will want to see them.”

She drums her fingers thoughtfully. “Eko, Haneyl and Vali are within me. I’m going to ask Calesco if she wants to come back to the Domain before I leave, and visit Rathan to see how he’s doing. Sasi will be going at the same time, so I’ll grow a sandship for us and we can take the trip together.”

Haneyl clears her throat within Keris’s head. “Mama, you... did tell Mother that she wasn’t getting to use the Baisha?” she suggests.

“...” says Keris. “Um. Well. It can be a really nice sandship?”

Eko giggles audibly at that.

“I think... could you have Calesco come back to Saata for this?” Zana suggests. “Because she can pass as you, and you might want to stay in Hell longer.”

Keris purses her lips. “I’d thought about it,” she admits. “It depends on how recovered she is, and if she wants to play the role.”

“And she might want to make sure her people on the island are kept safe in Calibration,” Vali adds in her head

“Quite,” Keris says. “I’ll ask her, and we’ll see what she says. As for once we’re there... well. Like I told Sasi. My report will be good this year.”

Zana pulls a face. “Because... um.” She looks torn. “I really, really, really want to see mother. But temple says we have to be there aaaaaaaall through Calibration. Me’n’Piu are meant to be doing backstage stuff for the temple dances and the parades, and going out and looking cute to collect donations and stuff. Which is... this sucks.”

Keris purses her lips. “Well,” she decides after a moment, “one of the things I’m planning to ask Lilunu for is a self-portrait. One like mine, so that hopefully she can talk to us without having to leave her body empty for ten days as her mind crosses the Desert. If I do that, you’ll be able to talk to her more from here - so maybe it would be best to stay back here and give Calesco advice on how to play Little River and not lose your place in dance school, so that you can keep learning and show Lilunu what you’ve been learning next year.”

“Yeah.” Zana’s lip wobbles. “I can... I can probably go to visit her for the Wood holidays, maybe?” she tries.

“Yes,” Keris encourages. “Yes, that would be good. We can definitely arrange that.” She hugs her daughter. “You’re being very mature and brave about this,” she soothes. “I’m proud of you, sweetheart. And I’ll take Iris with me, so you can tell her to say hello to Lilunu for you, and pass on all your love.”

Zana wants a hug, and is willing to shift a sulky Ogin out the way to get it. “You have to promise you’ll look really really pretty for everyone at the Althing and you need to make sure everyone is watching you!” she insists.

“Don’t worry, tell her I’ll make sure you don’t let us down,” Haneyl says firmly.

Chuckling, Keris passes the message on, and kisses Zana on the forehead. “Anything you want me to tell Lilunu that Iris can’t pass on with little dragon-kisses?” she asks.

“That next time I see her I’ll have all kinds of pretty things to tell her about!” Zana says, voice fierce. She wipes her eyes, and pets Kali. “And... c-can we go shopping together today or tomorrow? So we can find the best things in the markets to give her as presents. All the pretty things. She needs a pet, Keris. She really likes Iris but Iris needs to be out and about so we should get her a pet instead!”

Keris grins. “I think we can manage that, yes,” she says. “A nice little pet from Creation to keep her company.”

Of course, the sentimental moment is ruined by Kali deciding to scream “Wanna wanna wanna Vaaaaaaaaaaali!” at the top of her lungs and throwing herself on the floor, kicking and screaming for no good reason.

But it was still nice when it lasted.

Chapter Text

Down in the basements of Silver Lotus, unnatural light surges and flickers, casting a rainbow with too many colours over the walls. Keris sits, necklace of orichalcum and adamant in her palm-up hands, her hair angled in like claws. She’s naked here in her circle, having scrubbed herself nearly raw and bathed herself in pure water and done everything she could to shed all external essence. Now it’s just her. Her and the power that she wears, her anima clinging to her skin like a dress.

The tip of each lock glows with a colour of light. With each pulse of her heart, it arcs from the hair and into the necklace.

She’s not breathing. Breath would distract her from how she’s coaxing the hellish power within her. Pulling it apart, strand by strand, so instead of it being a mess of several flavours it flows more naturally, untangled, and layers itself into the adamants. Like plaster around a wax sculpture, it takes shape, taking form from the power of the Yozis. And she layers it on. More and more and more, she layers it on.

Was this how she built her soul world in the first place? She wondered this when she took Salina’s notes and studied them, realising they were exactly what she needed to patch one of the corrupted spells in this sorcerer’s necklace she stole from the naib of Malra. Is she just replicating what her body did, but over much less time and in a less permanent way?

But there’s no time for such questions now. Because it’s nearly complete. The surging waves of anima-essence are dimmer now, for she’s fed so much into the necklace that it’s barely a flicker in the air. She takes her first breath in six hours, and her hair moves like a hundred hands, weaving the threads of essence shut into a many-coloured bow that sinks into the foremost crystal.

It’s trapped in there, gleaming like a tiny sun.

Keris rises, legs stiff. She fastens the necklace around her neck, letting the glowing adamant settle down in her cleavage. It crackles like amber in a storm. She places her hand on the door, and turns it the right way.

The door doesn’t open to the stairs. It opens somewhere else. To an antechamber of adamant and orichalcum, where the prismatic walls shine like her anima and the air is abuzz with sorcerous secrets even she can’t truly hear.

“Oh,” she croons happily. “Oh yes. This will do marvellously.”

She looks around happily, running a finger down the shining walls. Her red and silver light, she decides, accentuates the orichalcum in just the right way for it not to be as tacky and gaudy as all the gold the naib of Malra had thrown everywhere. And oh, the way it refracts through the adamant is gorgeous.

Yes, Sasi will be very happy in here on the trip back to Hell. And as a bonus, this little sanctum might actually be capable of holding her twins for more than an hour without them escaping!

She’s not willing to bet anything on that, but it’s worth a try.

A little exploration reveals that it’s furnished, too. It takes ten rooms before Keris realises that this sanctum is the same shape as the collar; rooms and halls connected by concealed passages and hidden doors to form a ring.

The furniture follows the same aesthetics as the architecture; all golden and crystal, with shaped essence-fields in place of fabric. The beds are grand, gorgeous things with flickering spreads of red and silver light that - when Keris takes a running dive onto one - turn out to hold her weightless in their grasp as if she was cradled in water or sunk into the softest of mattresses. The seats and chairs in the living rooms and lounges are similar, and the dining room boasts orichalcum plates just like the one she lost in Nexus, with golden cutlery and adamant glasses to match.

There’s even, she’s pleased to note, a nursery. With gleaming toys that whisper secrets and essence-fields over all the doors and walls. Good. Hopefully that will keep the twins contained.

It’s the culmination of a couple of weeks of hard nightly studying, the only free time she could get from her babies and her position as Little River. It’s the early hours of the morning, and she pulls herself upstairs, rubbing her eyes. Her days have been filled with trying to get the licencing arrangements done for the silver smithy, making offerings to the temples and trying to make sure the local Tengese gods are happy, too.

((Cog + Bureaucracy, Diff 4))
((... crap.))
((Is the Metagaos Excellency disqualified by the “prudent planning” clause, or is it okay because Keris is trying to get herself a business toot sweet?))
((I mean, I think she’s rushing it, so as long as she’s sufficiently Metagaos-themed in her stunt she could probably get away with it))
((3+0+2 stunt+3 Metagaos ExD {false familiarity, insidious influence, seize offerings}+1WP=8. 5+1=6 sux.))

It’s only been by heavy reliance on her perfect flower-petal mannerisms that she’s managed to get as far as she has. But luckily, Little River is as Tengese as they come. She’s respectable. She’s traditional. She’s formal and proper and picture-perfect in the little rituals and customary ways things are done.

If it weren’t for how well she blends into the social jungle of Memory of a Golden Land, she’d never have been able to rush things so much - but now that she has the land, she can take advantage of all the little shortcuts and ways the Hui Cha see her as being one of them to fast-track the paperwork through. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know - and with Little Bird as a friend; Little River’s network of acquaintances is spreading.

((Making much use of Flowering the Fairer Face, and also notable use of Falling Petals Style for formal ritualised proper ways of doing things, Golden Lands Lorist, Jupiter’s Embroidery and Shining Silversmith for being a cultured artistic Tengese lady who knows very Tengese-themed art styles, and Perfumed Smoke and Wolf-as-Lamb Style to sway opinion and play the part. The first four especially will be known things about Little River.))

It’s all pretty much signed and sealed now, though. Ready for the new year. She can leave safe in the knowledge that everything is worked out.

Thinking about that, she pauses at the door she’s passing, and knocks at it.

“Come in, mother,” Calesco says.

Calesco’s room is lightless. She’s chosen an interior room and blocked off the skylights. The only illumination in here is a single moonstone she took from home, which gives just enough dull red light to give depth to the shadows. Calesco is a beautiful pale shape in the gloom, sitting in bed in only a shift as she carefully embroiders a black dress.

Her daughter is here to watch over Zanara, cover for anything that has to be done, and also... Keris sort of wants her to have an enjoyable Calibration, even if she doesn’t come to visit Hell with her. Which she has absolutely refused to do. Just in case, though, Keris has made sure that Kuha is in Saata right now, and will be following her north. She trusts Calesco enough to not hunt Kuha down. She doesn’t trust her to be in the same room. Or even the same city.

“Will you be alright?” she asks. It’s nothing she hasn’t asked before, of course, but she can’t help but repeat herself. She’s a mother. She worries. “Remember not to go into the north wing; it’s still unstable. And I told you about the notes on everyone Little River knows, so you’ll be okay even if Ba-le decides to drag you off somewhere - not that you should let her if you don’t want to! And... and I briefed the girls, so you can be yourself around them, and they’ll help keep people away if you need some alone time. Xasan will keep you company too, and... and you can get to know Ali and Zany and Hanilyia!”

Keris becomes aware that she’s babbling, and stops, venturing into the room and sitting down next to her daughter.

“I just want you to have a nice time,” she says, forcing herself to be calm. “And to feel better. You are feeling better, aren’t you?”

Calesco glares at her, eyes red in the scarlet gloom. “Well, no. No, actually,” she says firmly. “Because my heart was broken.” She puts down her embroidery, and runs her hands through her white hair. “But you’re taking that neomah-lover away from me, so... maybe. I’ll try to go to some Calibration parties.” Her lips wobble. “See if there are... are any pretty girls who... who aren’t like her.” She smiles, then. “And not have to see the horrors of Hell. Even this sinful city is less cruel than Malfeas.”

Mustering up a smile of her own, Keris hugs her daughter. “Spend some time with Hany and Atiya,” she advises. “They really are adorable. And they’re untainted by any sins or cruelties. Zany is looking forward to meeting you, too. In fact,” she sighs, “if you tell her about looking for pretty girls, I imagine she’ll volunteer to help.”

She pauses thoughtfully.

“Actually, what am I saying? She’ll find out through her gossip-witch powers anyway. I’m surprised she’s not already beating down the door.”

Calesco frowns. “She’s a... an interesting woman,” she says carefully. “I think she’s the sort who’d tried to find out what I have under my veils - and do it in the light.” She spreads her arms. “Not in the dark like this. Maybe I should show her me like this, just so she doesn’t get too hungry for my secrets.”

“I’ll leave that up to you,” Keris says, and drops a kiss on Calesco’s temple. “I trust you to make the right choice.”

“Yes, mama.” Calesco sighs. “Now, what were you doing up so late? And so naked, I might add.”

Keris bounces proudly. “Sapphire Sorcery!” she boasts. “I made another little world, inside my collar.” She taps the only thing she has on. “It’s all orichalcum and adamant and prettiness inside. Sasi will like it as lodgings on our way across the Desert. It’s a really good trick, this. I may have to work out ways to anchor these little realms to other things.”

Calesco smiles. “Oh, mama. You’re very fond of making worlds, aren’t you?”

“There’s nothing wrong with world-making,” Keris says in faux-offended tones. “And we should have a conversation about where I got the lore to learn this particular trick - or at least patch up the holes in the spell the collar had in it.” She considers. “Might be better to wait until after Calibration, though,” she hazards. “It’s not a small thing.”

“Yes, mama.” Calesco shakes her hair out. “The idea of sorcery scares me. To give up something for power is... a scary thing.”

“Alright. When I get back, then.” Keris folds her into a hug again, and leaves her with another kiss on the temple as she goes to prepare for the trip. “Have a nice time, darling. I love you.”

---

There’s less time than she would have wanted. By the time she and her family in tow arrive at where she’d arranged to meet Sasi, it’s only a week until Calibration.

“Keris,” Sasi says, from in the shadows of ruins on the small island west of An Teng where she’d been waiting. “It’s good to see you - although I didn’t expect for you to arrive by ribbon horse. And-”

“Kali!” hollers Aiko, leaping up from where she’s sitting. “Ogin! Look! Look!”

Kali perks up. “Ko!” she shouts back, gleefully bouncing up and down in Keris’s arms, trying to get free. “Kooooooooooooo!”

By now wise to the fact that her twins will gang up on her and coordinate their efforts to escape, Keris tightens her hold on Ogin, wraps Kali in a hair tendril, and carefully brings Cissidy to a halt before dismounting and depositing her children beside their friend.

Kali immediately leaps onto Aiko for a hug, rubbing her delighted little face into Aiko’s tummy and giggling as her legs kick happily. Keris smiles fondly at them before turning back to Sasi.

“The Baisha’s already gone back to Hell to refuel,” she says. “I’ll make us a sandship out of a plant for the trip, but don’t worry. We won’t have to stay on it.”

Grinning, she taps the collar she’s wearing. “I have a better option,” she brags proudly. “I worked out how to make little sanctum-worlds tied to artifacts. You’ll like the inside of this one. It’s even nicer than the Baisha was before it got refitted. A moving manor worthy of you, my love.”

It probably isn’t strictly necessary to end her little boast by kissing Sasi’s hand, but that doesn’t stop Keris from doing it.

Sasi still scowls a little. “What do you mean, you mishandled the fuel?” she asks. “But I suppose...” She looks over Keris’s little group. “Is that all you’re taking with you? None of your souls?”

((Oh wait, did Rathan decide to come?))
((Hmm. Roll me his Conviction 3))
((1 sux.))
((Yeah, he’s actually staying because he has things to finish, although he miiiiiight make a god-appearance at a mortal island to party.))

“Well, you know where Eko is,” Keris shrugs. “Haneyl needed a month’s relaxation and recovery, so she went back around the end of Crowning Fire. Vali came back too; he’d run out of things to do. Rathan’s overseeing one of my operations west of Shuu Mua, Calesco’s covering for me in Saata as Little River and Zanara had to stay there at their dance school, so...”

She shrugs. “Just me, Kuha and Rounen. And Rounen’s in my Domain with his library-project at the moment. Now come on, stop scowling at me and let me show you where we’ll be staying for the next five days. I promise you’ll love it.”

Sasi smiles. “Oh, Keris. I think you’ve done wonderfully in raising your souls to be useful. We can eat more over a midday meal - and let the children get some of the energy out of their systems before the long ride to the entrance to the desert.”

---

It is a long ride, and Ogin is playing up by the end of it. Her precious little boy is less accepting of minor discomfort than his sister, which is just as well considering how many bumps and bruises she finds herself getting. He’s crying into her shoulder as Sasi leads her through the hidden island portal at sunset, emerging into an empty, chilly salt plane in Cecelyne.

“Do your thing,” Sasi says, shifting around as she lets Aiko down onto the sand for her maid to play with. She’s looking nervously around the desert. “I don’t want to linger here too long.”

“Right then,” Keris nods. She takes out the green jade jewellery that had been anchoring Haneyl and grins sheepishly at Sasi. “I, uh, won’t be able to return these until we’re there. I can only anchor this spell in jade at the moment. But...”

Taking a branch from a palm tree that will serve as the rudder for their ship, she arranges the piercings along its length; pushing them into the bark. Then, bit by strenuous bit, she begins shaping and layering essence-fold after essence-fold into the wood, pinning each one in place as she forces in the next; working towards the keystone that will make this little branch blossom into a vessel.

Not a very large vessel - it won’t need to be, with the world inside her collar. But one sturdy enough to make it across the Desert, barring unexpected catastrophe.

Her anima flickers and flares as she concentrates, and with half an ear she hears her babies cooing appreciatively as she shapes the spell... before finally bringing it to a close and slamming the last binding in place. The green jade piercings pulse, and the end of the branch bulges, and then blossoms, and then bloats out into immensity; a fifteen-metre deck with long runners and a living mast taking shape under Keris’s feet while her hand remains locked on the rudder.

“Oh my,” says Sasi, smiling. She brushes her hand against the generously female figurehead of the ship, which prominently wears the full matching set of the piercings. “You have been missing me in person, sweet one.”

“Hello, ship lady,” Aiko says to the figurehead, curtseying to the figurehead with a wobbly curtsey. Next to her, Kali tries to pull herself upright to copy the gesture, but can’t manage to stand upright and falls flat on her face. Since this leaves her face down on a salt plane, she tries licking it. The taste is not to her liking, and she spits it out and starts to snivel.

“Alright, my sweet darlings,” Keris coos, hopping down and scooping up both son and daughter. “I think it’s time to go into our special house that mama has a secret door to. Come on now.”

She carries them up to the desk and touches one of the adamants on her collar. The light of the essence-bow shines through the central crystal, projecting the shimmering outline of a portal in red-and-silver anima light. Keris grins.

“Shall we?” she asks, offering Sasi her free hand.

“Oh my,” Sasi says, stepping inside. She looks in the sparkling halls. “Keris, I didn’t think you had it in you. Where on earth did you find this spell?”

Keris grins and taps her collar. She’s been waiting for this. “Oh,” she says airily, “did I not mention? The adamants in this have spell-matrices carved into them. The silly naib didn’t know they were there, but I heard them. I did tell you this collar was the best thing in that trophy-museum of his.”

Her grin turns positively wicked with smugness. “I did show you them before,” she crows. “Did you miss the writing on the insides of the gemstones?”

“Really?” Sasi asks, eyes wide. She reaches down, holding Aiko’s hand. “Come on, my little dragon, let’s get you settled in with Copper Hand and Kali and Ogin. Maybe they’ll have bunkbeds!”

Aiko’s eyes go wide. “A sleepover?” she enquires. Honestly, it’s probably more of a demand.

“Maybe!”

Aiko gasps. “Kali! Ogin! Sleepover!”

“Slee’over!” Kali mimics. She doesn’t know what it is, but she wants one.

Ogin considers this. “I’m not tired,” he concludes after a long while.

Sasi whispers, “We can put them away, and then we can go to our own beds. And after we say hello, you can tell me more about this.”

Keris tousles Ogin’s hair lightly. “Can you be a big boy for me and make sure Kali doesn’t get lost in here, then? It’s a big place,” she teases, “and there’s lots of secret doors and hidden places. Kali and Aiko and Copper Hand will need someone who’s very good at spotting things to find their bedroom and work out all the clever things inside.”

Ogin looks upset and wobbly, and doesn’t want to talk. She thinks he thinks he made a mistake and that’s upsetting him.

Bending down to pick him up - and reaching out with an absent hair-tendril to stop Kali and Aiko from charging away - Keris sets him on her hip where he can wrap his tails partway around her for stability. “It’s okay if you’re not tired just now, darling,” she soothes. “You don’t have to go to bed yet. And you know Aiko, don’t you?” Oh dear, she realises with a frown. It’s that he doesn’t know what a sleepover is, and he’s feeling left out by the way the girls are up for it.

“A sleepover just means you all get to sleep in the same room,” she whispers quietly. He doesn’t really like being told things instead of working them out, but he’s willing to accept it from mama. Usually. “So you’ve had them before with me, haven’t you? When you all cuddled in with me. That means you know what the rules are.”

That’s enough to get him to relax. He nods.

“Okay then. I’ll be in to say goodnight. Have fun, moonbeam.”

She gives him a kiss and sets him down to go over to Kali and Aiko, quietly relays the directions to the maid, and watches proudly as Ogin points out the first hidden door with barely any prompting on where to look.

Then she turns back to Sasi, smirking.

“So,” she purrs. “Does this little world of mine meet your standards?”

Sasi drapes herself over Keris’s shoulders. “I was worried when I found out we couldn’t use the Baisha,” she says, letting Keris support most of her weight, “but I feel things are looking up.” She nips Keris’s ear with her teeth. “Carry me to your quarters, you cruel and vicious pirate queen. I am imprisoned here as your concubine, trapped in this hidden sorcerer’s fortress with you for the next few days. Who knows what dark lusts you will use me for?”

“Maybe I’ll never let you escape,” Keris grins, hair winding around her limbs to lift her off the ground and march her off towards the master bedchamber. “Maybe I’ll keep you here forever - as the most beautiful jewel of my hoard - unless you win your freedom. Not,” she adds, sliding through the door and setting Sasi down on the sinfully comfortable weightless essence-field, “that I intend to make that easy for you...”

---

The diversions in the sorcerous pocket world are, while not endless, entirely sufficient for the first few days. The children have each other. Keris does have to get out of bed to dig the children out of the storeroom where Lilunu’s presents are, and Kali managed to somehow get into one of the cages where one of the pet parakeets Zanara had got her were. Keris only finds her when she’s napping by a half-eaten, half-plucked bird.

“... how did you get in here?” she asks, bewildered. “And how did you get up to and into the cage? And... little feather, I love you, I really do, but did you really have to do it in your human form?”

Blood and feathers smeared across her chubby little cheeks, Kali beams up at her mama and holds her arms out for a hug. “Birdie!” she chirps. “Sunny mama!”

Keris sighs. Her daughter is... very partial to the mix of orichalcum and anima-light in this little pocket-realm. It’s become possibly her favourite place ever, though admittedly any new building she hasn’t explored before which contains food is capable of claiming that title within a few minutes of Kali charging into it. New things are a constant joy for Kali, especially people.

“I know, sweetheart, but these are Lilunu’s things. They’re for Lili,” she says. “If you eat them you’ll make her sad. Be a good girl and come back to your playroom, okay? Aiko is probably wondering where you are.”

Keris really has to wash her messy little daughter before doing that, and then decides that she might as well help her dry off by taking her up on desk. It’s a hot part of Cecelyne they’re passing through, and she’ll dry off in the sunless heat.

“Aww,” Kali says as Keris leaves the sanctum, onto the small ship manned by the sand-creatures of Cecelyne twisted by Keris’s magic. “Sun fun! Sun fun! No sun!”

There is no sun here, under the black sky of the Endless Desert. Just endless glassy wastes here, the ship tacking to and fro on the cracked landscape to avoid the terrible ruptures that split this broken land.

It’s certainly warm out here, and Kali dries out quickly as Keris near the back of the ship, watching the landscape go by. She uses the chance to grab bits of blue-tinged glass from behind the ship. Maybe they’ll be of use for something.

“Mama,” asks Kali after a bit. She’s twisted around and is looking over Keris’s shoulder. “What that?”

Keris turns and bites back a curse.

Out of nowhere, a horizon-to-horizon sandstorm is blocking out the area. She’s only just hearing it now, but she hadn’t heard it before - and that’s suspicious in its own right. As she watches, bright blue lightning cracks... then thirty seconds later comes the boom of thunder. And another. And another. This black-grey cloud is growing more and more intensely lit by the blue lightning it’s kicking up. The sails flap the wrong way, the ship losing speed as all the air is drawn towards this massive, colossal, Saata-swamping stormfront.

Keris stares wide-eyed at the layer-drowning natural disaster sweeping in towards them, and fails to bite back another curse as dots connect in her head. It’s a glass-storm. And sailing into this would be madness. They can either try to outrun it, or simply anchor down in one of the cervices and accept that they’ll lose their sails and repair the ship when it passes.

Either way, they have maybe ten minutes before the storm front arrives. She should grab Sasi.

Bundling Kali back through the portal, Keris screams for Sasi. She’s not best pleased at being dragged out of bed, and is even less pleased at seeing what’s bearing down on them.

“If we take down the sails and bed down in a crevice and all pile into the Sanctum, the ship should survive mostly intact,” Keris says. “Or I could release the casting and take the branch back in with me and just leave the collar in a crevice until the storm blows over; recast it again once it’s past. But if we try to weather it... this thing is huge, Sasi. I don’t know how long it’ll take to pass over us.”

She gestures down at their dinky little ship. “But the other option is trying to outrun it in this. I’m not sure how fast we can get, especially with the wind bearing towards it.”

Keris can see fear in her lover’s eyes. Sasi takes a deep breath. “Bring us to a stop in the shield of one of those cracks,” she orders. “I can protect the ship.” She’s already scooping sand off the deck of the ship, and with a flare of light in her hands transmuting it to... fresh blood?

Commanding her sorcerous constructs, Keris has them pull the ship in behind a jagged glassy cliff, and watches as Sasi marks herself with the blood, then scatters it over the ship’s decks with prayers to the Yozis. She pricks her fingers, and lets her own blood mix with the transmuted blood, which seeps into the hull. Her anima wraps around her, blue and black and silver spiralling out to cover the hull in a glowing, shimmering bubble-barrier that wraps the whole vessel.

“Get below,” she says, panting from the exertion. “That should... should stop it giving way. At least unless someone stronger than me breaks it. Or directly tries to destroy it.”

Keris nods. “Keep the children inside the sanctum. I’ll put my armour on and stay out here. Worst comes to the worst, I’ll grab the figurehead so we don’t lose the jewellery and just run for it with you in the collar. And I can kill anything that tries to break your spell, too.”

She hugs Sasi close and kisses her, then opens the portal for her to retreat back to relative safety.

“Crew!” she calls out. “Take down the sail and store it below decks! Don’t come out until I give you the order!”

By the time the storm is upon them, the ship is silent and still; its deck empty but for a demonic silver figure sitting in the shadow of the figurehead.

The storm is screaming loud. The cracks of thunder overhead are deafening. Molten glass hammers at the dome like sleet. The malevolence of the gale is an oppressive, crushing force. Keris can feel it. It hates them. It hates anyone who tries to cross the desert.

But that’s all. There’s nothing out there she can hear. Just a storm of molten glass and cutting sand and winds that would flay a human to the bone in seconds.

Her grip on her spear relaxes somewhat, and she watches from behind the featureless silver faceplate as the maelstrom rages. Few get to see a sight like this - the fury of the Yozis cast across their bodies as seen from the inside. Keris is something of a connoisseur. She’s run with the Silent Wind, danced through the glass-storms of Cecelyne, tiptoed across the treetops of hungry Metagaos. There’s a strange, terrible beauty even to the murderous rage of the Makers, when witnessed like this.

... all the same, she’d rather not experience a layer collapse from the inside, or see the Demon Sea swamp a Direction she’s standing in. She’s pretty sure she could escape or survive either, but she could still do without being forced to.

She sits and watches, and makes no move to leave the protective bubble as the spite of the Endless Desert lays waste to the landscape.

Nothing happens. For hours. And hours. And hours.

Sasi emerges from the shelter, this time wrapped up in a dressing gown. “Any sign of it passing?” she asks.

“No,” Keris says.

She sighs, and leans against Keris. “I don’t like this, dear one. I don’t like this at all.”

Keris sighs. Even just sitting down, her armour isn’t comfortable to spend this much time in. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, fine. I don’t think this is going to pass - I think this is a layer-swallowing storm. So we’re going to have to go through it.”

Sasi sighs. “Are you sure?” she asks.

Keris shrugs. “I don’t want to,” she says. “I’d much rather spend another few days in bed with you. But we can’t risk being late, so... running through a glass-storm it is.”

She sighs, gesturing at the howling fury of the desert beyond their little bubble. “It won’t be so bad,” she says. “It’s kind of beautiful, from a place like this where it can’t hurt you. And you’ll be nice and safe and comfortable around my neck.”

She kisses Keris. “Dear one,” she says. “You forget. I don’t need to worry about the desert like you do.” She drops her dressing gown, steps out of the bubble, into the skin-flensing glass-storm - and nothing happens to her. She stands on molten glass in her bare feet, winds whipping her hair around her and hammering her with razor-dust - and nothing happens. “You needn’t look down on me,” she says, stepping back in. Molten glass rolls off her skin like oil. “I am a desert creature.”

“... I’m not gonna deny that’s really impressive,” Keris says, her eyes glazing over slightly at Sasi’s casual display of invulnerability. “And. Uh. Really, really hot. But, um... I need to move fast to stay immune to it, and you’re kind of...”

She searches for a way to say ‘painfully slow’ without actually saying it.

“... not fond of running long-distance,” she hazards.

“Dear one,” Sasi reminds her. “I’m the one who taught you sorcery. If you want to run alongside me, you can - but I’ll carry the ship in a stormwind.”

Keris blinks.

“Wait,” she says. “You can do that? Without breaking the bubble? You said it was fragile!”

“I dare say it’ll be more tiring than usual, but this is the desert.” She looks over Keris’s shoulder. “Unlike you, I can see through this sand as if it was as clear as day. Clearer, actually. Day is too bright. And it is fragile, but not that fragile.”

“Well then, my sorceress-queen...”

Keris kisses her quickly, then steps back to admire the show.

“I’m not missing a chance to watch you cast,” she grins lasciviously. “Show me how strong you are. Let your power shine.”

“I think first we should see to the children and explain what’s going on,” Sasi says, putting her dressing gown back on. “And probably make sure there’s a Gale of yours who can look after them if something goes wrong. This feels... suspicious to me. I’ve never seen a glass-storm so big in all my crossings - and I made sure to sacrifice to the Desert before we departed.”

All the affairs are seen to, and Sasi makes sure to bring out plenty of cushions and blankets that she spreads out on the deck before making herself comfortable against the mast. She takes a deep breath.

And then she exhales, silver sand coiling out of her mouth like something alive to wrap the ship in its coils. The sandstorm of her own begins to spin, opposing the flow of the hostile storm, and the ship rises up on blue-tinged sand, which makes the hull shake with a whomp-whomp-whomp.

The whole vessel tilts forwards when she starts to move, skimming low across the surface on their heavily laden stormwind.

Keris watches in awe and wonder as her lover flexes her metaphysical muscle. She always likes seeing Sasi cast. It’s a reminder that even if her girlfriend isn’t any good with a sword or spear; she’s a destructive force to be reckoned with if given time to cast. Not as lethal as Keris, but deadly and glorious all the same.

Yet part of her is worried in the same way as Sasi. This doesn’t feel like random chance. This is something else. Something that’s drawn special ire from Cecelyne to block the way from Creation now - perhaps even something directed at them.

Or perhaps it’s not the Endless Desert in full. Perhaps it’s one or more of her souls. Keris thinks of Ligier’s promise to back her souls’ status in the hall of the Unquestionable, of Orabilis and the Blue Glass Maiden who would see her children leashed to Hell’s yoke and command, and trembles a little inside.

She’s not too proud to admit a little regret at not waiting out the storm in full. Days spent with Sasi in the sanctum seem a great improvement over whatever might await them at the centre of the Demon City.

They travel for eight hours, then Sasi needs to rest. The next day they do the same. And the next.

The storm still blows. And there is no sign of Malfeas. After six days in the desert.

“Something’s fucking with us,” Keris says darkly. “This is a trap. We’re being held here, in the Desert. It’s not letting us in.”

Sasi is huddled up by the mast, hugging her knees. “Perhaps the Desert has decided those hours of pause to wait out the stop makes this a new journey,” she says in a tiny voice. “Keris, we’re going to miss most of Calibration. Even... even if I’m right... we will miss three days of it. Maybe more if you’re right. And...” she swallows. “Keris, dear one, send your Iris to Lilunu. Tell her. Apologise.”

Keris nods. “I’ll do more than that,” she says. “Take the piercings and the children. Get into the sanctum. I’ll take us the rest of the way - no stops, no pauses, no breaks. I can run forever if need be. I’ll send Iris while you get everything packed, and then set off.”

“This is the desert, Keris,” Sasi retorts. “Your speed makes no difference to her. And,” she flinches, almost reflexively, “I am a better navigator than you. If we are trapped in some loop, I’ll fare better to get us out.”

“And if we keep having to stop, it might keep setting us on new journeys,” Keris fires back. “We don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s not natural. It might be something planned. Fuck, it might be... I dunno, Deveh whining to his master and making some deals to delay us. I’m hard to predict and even harder to stop. I carried you across Cecelyne before, remember? Let me do it again, instead of exhausting yourself. Let me take care of you. Please.”

Sasi grits her teeth. “Then tell me what you need to help you get across this place safely,” she says softly. “What would help you most?”

Keris narrows her eyes and thinks hard.

“Direction,” she decides. “You can survive in the storm and see through it, and my armour should block out the worst of it even if I slow down to a walk. It won’t be stopping the journey if I slow down and let you out to sight my way by the stars. That way we get your navigating, and make ourselves a smaller target than the ship.”

Sasi takes Keris’s head in her hands, touching her head on both side as she kisses her deeply. There’s blood on her lips; cold, stagnant blood.

((8 successes on Manip + Lore + Half Enlightenment - using Casting Coveted Crowns to transform Keris’s love for her into a heroic role principle of “Sasimana’s Loving Saviour”. It’s unblockable and an unnatural Illusion, and costs 3wp to shrug off))
((Keris won’t reject, because it’s Sasi. Though, hah. If she’d had Bound by Blood-Red Strings active, that would have bounced as the TLA Principle would have been inviolate.))

Swaying backwards and touching her lips, Keris blinks hazily at Sasi. “Wh-what did you just...” she slurs, trying to reconcile what’s changed. “Sasi?”

“Trust me on this,” Sasi says, with bloodied lips, draping her arms around Keris’s neck.

And then words roll out over her skin, wrapping around her like ropes and squeezing her tighter and tighter, until her pale flesh bulges and flattens itself. Her eyes stich themselves shut, and a check pattern forms like bruises on her skin. She’s getting lighter and lighter, thinner and thinner...

... and by the end, she’s a long silken scarf in black and white check, trimmed with sky blue, draped around Keris’s neck. It’s the kind of long scarf that might form a burnoose or some other desert garb, that could cover the face - and also add a dashing flair to an armoured figure.

Keris blinks. The storm is outside... but it doesn’t matter. She can see through it, like it’s a mere greyscale shade. Her flesh tingles, and she no longer feels the desert heat. Sasi’s power suffuses her. And she can feel more than that. She can feel everything around her, every thread of the fine weave of Sasi’s new body. She blinks, and she moves, a flickering jump.

((Sasi has activated Hero’s Treasure Shintai and become a fine desert burnoose, granting Transcendent Desert Creature, Sand Slip Technique, Invasive Exteroception Technique and Distance-Eliminating Translocation. Keris is automatically attuned to her.))

“Don’t you look dashing, draped in me?” Sasi’s voice echoes in her mind teasingly.

“Makers, Sasi,” Keris breathes in wonder. “This... this is amazing!”

She flicker-jumps to the prow of the ship, then the stern, then the prow again, laughing at the feeling. Removing the jewellery that anchors the ship, she stashes it away in an inside pocket and lets her creation shrivel, stroking the collar where her babies wait with a Gale.

Then she cracks her knuckles.

“Iris, baby?” she sing-songs, and her little friend rises off her left arm. “I need you to carry a message for me to Lilunu, okay? Say this unto her: ‘Honoured Lilunu, it’s Keris. Peer Sasimana and I were crossing the Desert together, but a layer-drowning glass-storm has trapped us - and our journey is taking longer than it should. We won’t be there in time for the beginning of the Althing - and I’m not sure when we will arrive; the storm is fierce. Please give our apologies to the Unquestionable. I’ll see you as soon as I can.’“

Iris’s wings are rainbow-hued and her eye and flame blaze with occult fire. Keris blows her a kiss.

“Go in my name, and speak with my voice,” she commands.

And then; her flickering steps lengthening and lengthening until each one carries her twenty metres or more, she begins to run.

---

Keris runs and runs, Sasi around her neck, flapping behind her in the wind. The desert wind doesn’t bother her and neither does the glass-storm. Without it blocking her sight, she can avoid whatever she wishes - and without having to take steps, she can simply flicker over the chasms it’s cut in the ground.

And of course, Sasi is there with her, her voice in her head. She has Sasi wound over her face, and every breath she chooses to take brings with her the scent of her girlfriend.

She does love her so much, Keris feels with sudden strength. She loves her and she’s going to save her from whatever trouble she’s in.

So she runs. And runs. On the second day of running she emerges from the glass-storm, onto a plane that’s coated in fresh glass and radiates heat that means nothing to her. When she gets hungry, the sense of the desert she now has lets her realise that all she has to do is beak one of the fresh glass slabs and there are desert creatures under there, that taste like cinnamon and pepper and lemon zest.

Then she resumes her run.

But by her reckoning it’s the fourth day of Calibration when the war-torn walls of Malfeas appear in the distance before her. There are armies swarming over them, and great plumes of fire. She can hear the screams of the wounded as the broken stone itself gives way under the weapons being unleashed.

They’re late. Very late.

((5+5+3 stunt (boosted)+3 Friagem Serpent+10 Adorjani ExD=26. 12 successes to get past the warzone.))

Keris is not in the mood to be slowed down. She is not in the mood for patience, or diversions. So she ignores the armies and ignores the plumes of fire and runs right through the middle of the war-in-progress. She doesn’t know who’s fighting, and she doesn’t care who’s fighting. She has an Althing to get to and a lover to save.

Not surprisingly, some among the warring combatants notice the silver-clad demonic figure charging at them out of the Desert with a red-and-silver whirlwind swirling around it. And take issue with their battle being interrupted. And try to stop her.

It’s a bloodbath.

Keris is furious, frustrated and greatly in need of something to vent her feelings on. She goes through demons, buildings and hellish war machines like the Silent Wind in miniature, taking no prisoners and not slowing or deviating from her course in the slightest. Green fire consumes entire structures in Haneylian flame. Blood-hued wind takes form in her afterimage, cutting down anything within range. Elinvar coils snap and bite and tear at throats, hungry devil-weeds erupt from the ground and snarl blockades and interceptors. A glowing brass cannon gets in her way, and is rent asunder as she flickers past it. The explosion vaporises a full platoon. Her wake is a charnel house, littered with corpses and burning rubble; a straight line of devastation drawn across a warzone.

Both sides are left fleeing from the monster as she heads deeper into the City. Keris runs on, heedless to the carnage behind her.

There is silence from Sasi, blood-splattered and heavy around her neck.

---

A scream passes before she can make it to the Conventicle. She was far (why so far?) from the nearest of Ligier’s light-bridges. At least the guards at it recognise her name immediately, and she is put on an impressively direct path to the Althing

Eventually she is there, and the great doors of the Conventicle open for her - open into a party that by now has been going for four days. She is aching, tired, blood-splattered, and this figure in faceless silver armour, a black-and-white check burnoose around her head and neck, draws eyes.

She heads for the centre of the celebrations, foregoing subtlety. She’s hurting too much to bother with niceties right now - and if that storm was sent by anyone, she needs to get to her patrons as soon as possible. Lilunu or Ligier - or both - are her best options here. And during the Althing, Lilunu is always at the centre of things; her love rarely far from her side.

What follows next is an unfortunate coincidence of conflated orders. As far as Keris can understand, Ligier had set standing orders that Keris was to be shown to him as soon as possible and made sure all her staff knew about it. On the other hand, Ligier had taken his lady into her bedchamber and had given equally firm orders that they were not to be disturbed unless it was vitally important.

As a result, there was a brief discussion between the guards and they decided that the former order overrode the latter, as ‘as soon as possible’ was ‘vitally important’.

The long and short of this is that Keris was shown in to find the Green Sun and the Conventicle Malfeasant in very vigorous bedroom activities, under a skylight through which the full force of the mad green sun was hammering through.

Ligier looks directly at Keris, without breaking his pace. “You better have a very, very good reason,” he says, teeth clenched. “I had planned to praise you. You embarrassed me with your absence.”

Tension, fear and fury actually overcome mortification, and Keris goes down to one knee. “My lord,” she says, “Peer Sasimana and I were caught in a layer-engulfing sandstorm on our way across Cecelyne. It seemed unnatural, even by the standards of border weather, and the Desert itself rebelled against our crossing. It took us ten days to reach the edge of the City, and even then we found ourselves further from your layer and lightbridges than I've ever been before, spat out into a warzone as if to block our passage. I made all haste to reach you as fast as possible, and I offer my humble apologies for my failure to arrive on time.”

Ligier makes a disgusted noise. “Wait outside,” he says, seemingly noticing for the first time that Keris is still blood-splattered. “I will be with you shortly. And take that armour off and clean yourself up.”

Keris bows again, and leaves - not without some relief. Outside, she has the servants lead her to a changing room, and carefully, delicately removes the burnoose.

“... Sasi?” she asks tentatively. Her love hasn’t spoken since they hit the edge of the City.

“Yes?” It’s soft, hushed.

“Are you...”

She’s not sure what to say. Mechanically, Keris opens up the back of her armour and steps out, hissing in pain at the brassy sores and basalt scabs built up all over her.

“Are you going to turn back?” she asks tentatively. “Did I... is something wrong?”

“I’m just... a little terrified,” Sasi says softly. “I don’t want to face the Unquestionable. And... did you have to. Kill. So many?”

Keris winces. “I... they were in the way,” she says. “I didn’t... the ones that were smart enough to run I didn’t kill. I had to get you here.” She traces Sasi’s fabric lovingly. “I’ll always save you. You know that, right? I... I’ll take the blame for us being late.”

“You won’t do that!” Sasi says firmly. “I... I can’t lose you. It was just a storm. Just... one of the perils of crossing the Desert. Cast no blame. Make no enemies with things we cannot prove.”

She sighs, and with the sigh she starts to inflate again, gaining width and texture, losing her checked pattern as she becomes no longer a scarf and now once again a woman. A woman who’s bleeding from her lips and whose travel clothes are splattered with demon blood.

Keris hugs her. “Did... did I scare you?” she asks in a small voice. “I didn’t mean to. You know I’d never hurt you, don’t you? I’d only ever fight to protect you. I promise.”

“Of course you didn’t scare me,” Sasi says, without any trace of fear. “Surprise, maybe. I didn’t expect that. Or to be splattered with demon blood. But I could never be scared of you. My saviour.” She sighs. “I am worried about what the children are getting up to,” she admits.

((Keris is juuuust going to fact-check that as best she can.))
((Reaction + Politics.))
((Hah! I have Politics 2 now! ^_^))
((5+2+2 Coadj+7 Kimmy ExD {secrets, discerning eye, undercurrents of distrust}=16. Bah, 4 sux? Well, at least Keris will be happy.))

Eyes intent on Sasi’s face as she speaks, Keris searches for any signs of dishonesty, hesitation or fear.

She finds none, and visibly sags in relief.

“I love you,” she sniffs, hugging Sasi tighter for a moment. “And yes, me too. But... well, my Gale is going to have to deal with them for a little longer. We can’t check on them until we’re done here.”

“When this is over, we can go leave them in your townhouse and party like there’s no tomorrow,” Sasi says softly. “I just want to forget this week.” She tugs at her clothing. “Maybe I should take off mine too. I’m a mess, I don’t have time to change, and it’ll help us look subservient to him.”

Keris wrinkles her nose, quietly wishing she was more in the habit of wearing clothes under her armour. “I wish I still had my Amulet,” she mutters. “But you’re right, we don’t have time to change.” She pads over to a chair and sits down in it with a groan, shifting her hair to give herself some modesty and cover up the scabs and bruises. “I suppose all we can do is wait, then.”

With unseen mind-hands Sasi unweaves her clothing, vanishing it into her shadow, and then works to clean herself and Keris up. By the time Ligier emerges, a blanket draped over his shoulders but dressed mostly in unquestionable self-confidence, Sasi is kowtowing before him.

He raises one pencil-thin eyebrow. “When did you arrive?” he asks Sasi.

“My lord, I was carried by Peer Keris,” she says, not looking up at him.

“Hmm.” He sprawls out on one of the seats opposite to them. “At least you did show,” he concedes. “I was... short out of irritation from being disturbed, but I had set up orders you were to be shown to me. I had thought that you two had felt that you did not need to attend the Althing.”

“My lord, never!” Sasi swears. She does seem to know what he likes. The obvious subjugation, the fact that both of them have stripped off and Sasi has cleaned off the blood - he likes that. They’re humiliating themselves before him and that’s exactly what they needed to do to quiet the anger of the mad green sun. Levering herself off the chair with a wince and an internal sigh, Keris joins Sasi in kowtowing before him, shifting her hair back to trail behind her. The bruises and scabs are brass and basalt, not blood - and serve both as a sign of her weakness compared to him, and also the effort she put into getting here with all due speed.

“We wouldn’t dream of defying you, my lord,” she adds her voice to Sasi’s. “The Desert is treacherous to cross; and the storm hit us without warning. I beg forgiveness.”

It’s a flippant gesture from him. “Such things happen,” he says, and it’s such an easy, genial tone that Keris could almost forget the blade-focussed intensity and barely contained rage of ten minutes ago. “I would have appreciated some explanatory message, though. It would have eased my mind - and worried my lady much less. She has been concerned about you, Keris.”

Keris blinks. “I... sent a message, my lord. With one of my familiars.” She frowns. “Perhaps... oh. I sent it from the Desert. It must have been the start of a new journey - and we rode the lightbridge faster than a Messenger can travel. It hasn’t reached her yet.”

She feels rather like thumping her head on something. Dammit, this is the same thing that happened when she tried to send Rounen to Orange Blossom. Poor little Iris has been travelling for five days for no reason. Keris is going to have to apologise to her with something big. Maybe a full-back tattoo for her to nibble on and play with.

It is, of course, at that moment when Keris hears Lilunu’s “Oh!” and her own voice from the next room over, with the message she had sent... five... days ago...

Now she has a headache.

There’s a clatter of feet, and a mussed Lilunu emerges in a thin silk robe, holding Iris in her arms. “Oh, Keris,” she says, smiling. “Get up, you silly. You didn’t take account of Lady Cecelyne’s nature with your message, did you?”

Iris exhales a ball of flame that looks like a frowning face, but it turns into a more smiling face as Lilunu strokes her head.

“There was a giant storm raining burning glass on us,” Keris says sheepishly, pushing herself to her feet. “It sort of slipped my mind. A-and I wasn’t sure how long it would take us to get out. We’d already been stuck in the Desert for six or seven days by then. I wanted you to know if, you know, we’d been trapped somehow.”

Lilunu puts her hand on Ligier’s shoulder, and gives him a look. He pauses, and nods. “I think I will hold a debriefing on the day after the end of the festival,” he says. “I expect the two of you to be on time for that one. But as it stands, for the remainder of this time, eat; drink; be merry. And prepare for the new year.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Keris says gratefully with another bow. “We will do as you say.”

Sasi rises gratefully. “Thank you, unquestionable ones - your mercy is glorious.” She flatters Ligier like this for a bit, and then they are dismissed. As soon as they're alone, Sasi lets her face sink into her hands.

“I’m trembling,” she whispers. “That could have gone much worse.”

Keris hugs her close. “You’re safe,” she says softly. “You’re safe, and I’m here, and it’s going to be okay. I promise. Come on. Let’s check on the children. And then I can help you work out that tension you’re so wound up with.”

Sasi hugs her back more closely. “We don’t need to bring the children out yet,” she says. “They’re safe. I... I can’t worry about them. Not right now.” She slumps. “I can’t deal with anything,” she says pitifully. “I exhausted myself with the sorcery and doing thing for you as your scarf. Just come with me. We’ll go have one good day, before we take care of the children...”

Keris looks at her like she’s gone mad. “Aiko is in there,” she says incredulously. “And Kali and Ogin. With just a Gale and your maid! They’ve been there for five days! We need to go reassure them it’s safe!”

“Keris, they’ll be fine. She’s looked after Aiko for longer when work has taken me away.” Sasi kisses her again. “And your Gales have looked after them for such a time before. They’ll be fine - and they’ll be safer in there than in here for Calibration.” She hugs her. “Do you really want Kali going out looking for Lilunu when everything is like this?”

((13 successes on her social effort, both traits of My Dark Lady apply so it’s UMI that costs an extra WP to resist. And she’s exploiting “Sasi’s Loving Saviour” and that’s treated as being 1-dot higher.))
((She’s also fighting Mother Before Daughter’s efforts to make this an unacceptable order. Hmm. I assume she’s trying to argue that it’s not a betrayal?))
((Yep. She’s arguing that both of them have left their children alone with these people to look after them for this long before, so it won’t make a difference and isn’t a betrayal.))

Keris squares her jaw. “That was when they were at home,” she argues, but her voice is weaker and less certain. “When it was planned. We wouldn’t have to let them out, but we could at least go in and let them know we’re still alive.”

Sasi sighs. “I suppose so,” she says. “We can stop by at my place, check on them, get changed and then head on out.” She smiles. “Or we could just go out like this, if you want,” she teases.

That wins her a blush. “I... think I’ll be fine going out with clothes on, actually,” Keris says hastily. She fumbles around in her Domain for a moment, and comes out with a spare outfit for childcare days that will fit her, and...

“... I don’t think I have anything that’ll fit you,” she admits sheepishly. “Can you veil yourself in shadow again for the trip back to your townhouse, or are you too tired?”

Sasi sighs wearily - in a way that Keris suspects she’s only bothering because Keris is nagging her - and pulls out a Realm robe from her domain, shrugging it on and then telekinetically doing up the long sash. “Come on, them,” she says, pinching her cheeks.

Wearily - but happily - Keris accompanies her love back to the grand hellish manor that she was given by the princes of Hell. And braces herself for three unhappy children when they get there.

---

((Heh, Sasi’s maid rolled 3 successes))

Surprisingly, the babies are actually fairly happy. Between the maid and Keris’s gale and Kuha, they’ve had people to look after them - and the sanctum is plenty large enough to keep them entertained and stop them getting closed in. Kali is actually amazingly happier than she had been last time she had to travel in the Baisha, because she’s not suffering from the lack of sunlight - between the orichalcum around her and the feeling of mama’s soul, she’s almost happy as she is when she’s left to play out in the sun in Keris’s estate.

“See,” Sasi says, as she fastens up her little black dress in her bedroom. “You did make an excellent choice for that place.”

“I... I guess I did,” Keris says, smiling. Almost two weeks’ worth of ‘playing with adorable babies’ has lightened her mood considerably, and she actually picks Sasi up and gives her a quick spin. “In that case, I suppose we should move onto the celebration part of the day~” she purrs.

That they certainly do.

---

Keris wakes. She’s still somewhat tipsy - which tells her just how much she had to drink to make sure Sasi couldn’t drink herself into a coma - and she’s pleasantly aching. And sticky. And has a Sasi sprawled over her thighs. And is sleeping on Lelabet’s arm. And there are other demons around her, equally naked and equally mussed.

Oh. Yes. That happened.

“Child,” Dulmea says softly. “That was... not like your usual tastes.” She pauses. “To think that this was what you guided Sasimana to, rather than what she wanted. I am worried about her, child.”

“Nglgrk,” responds Keris, squinting up at the fiendish and unfairly bright lights. “Hggg... h-how much...?”

“Enough that it is clear you are Haneyl’s mother,” Dulmea says dryly. “Incidentally, I am still hearing the aftermath of the party that Eko and Haneyl held in the Swamp to take advantage of having their Calibration forms. Did you know that Eko is a singing drunk?”

“Not... all tha’ surpr’sd,” Keris admits. Then pauses as a wave of sadness sweeps over her. “... m’ssd them. ‘ko’s f’v days.”

“You were too worried,” Dulmea says. “I made sure to do things for the children. And at least Eko, Haneyl and Vali were all here - and a goodly number of keruby, including pretty much all the grown-up keruby across the entire domain. Haneyl made sure to invite them all.” She clears her throat. “And a certain... ah, new guest made her appearance when Eko started to get mopey.” Dulmea clicks her tongue.

“Oh?” Keris mumbles, rubbing at her eyes and trying not to think of whatever the stains on her hand are. “New, mm. New kerub? Did Eko fi’nly get hers?”

“I think we can deal with that later,” Dulmea says firmly. “I don’t need you distracted. Right now, you need to get you and Sasimana up, awake, cleaned, dressed, and prepared for dealing with the Unquestionable. You have reports to make and need to be focussed.”

“Urgh, right,” sighs Keris, shaking herself and letting her caste mark flare to wake herself up properly. “Gah. She’s not gonna thank me for waking her, you know.”

Nonetheless, she shakes Sasi gently - and when that doesn’t work, rolls her eyes and picks her up in a bridal carry. Getting somewhere away from last night’s orgy before waking her will probably help, especially if it’s somewhere dark.

“You going already, ‘Ris?” Lelabet calls out softly, stirring. “And taking your very cute girlfriend with you?”

“‘Fraid so,” Keris replies. “Lots to do, you know how it is. I’ll try to catch up again before I head back to Creation, though!”

Lelabet smiles. “If you two want to drop by again, my bedroom door is always open.” She glances at Sasi. “I like her. And you.”

Keris smiles, and nods, and retreats with her sleeping beauty. Who is... less beautiful right now. Perfect effortless good looks right out of bed are not something Sasi has mastered yet, it seems.

“Come on, love,” Keris urges her, playing fingers down her side. “We need to be up for our report today. There won’t be a get-out-of-trouble-free civility for us if we miss this one.”

The bright green light is enough to wake her. “Dragons, my head,” she groans. “Coffee. Need coffee.”

Wise to her ways, Keris has a cup waiting. She hands it over wordlessly.

Sasi downs it, and shakes her head out. “Right. Right. All right.” She clasps her hands together, suddenly infused with a manic energy. “Washed and dressed, now!”

---

((Cog + Expression for Keris’s outfitting for the meeting of the two of them with the Unquestionable - this is an artistic social attack made by her clothing, so she needs to choose what social attack she’s building into her costume choice.))
((4+5+1 Spirit-Charming Supplicant+2 stunt+9 Metagaos ExD {false familiarity, fertile decadence, lurks in plain sight}+4 Pelagic Muse Artistry autosux=21. 10+4=14 sux.))

Keris goes conservative with her choice of outfit. She goes very conservative. She embroiders herself a dress in the skin-baring demonic style that she’s normally not so fond of, and she stitches it with the symbols of the Yozis she’s internalised. She tailors it to suggest the lines of armour and make clear her deadliness, but without going too overt and making it a threat.

Four days late to the Althing has already put her in hot water, and so for this awkward meeting Keris sucks up her protests and daubs herself in an outfit that proclaims her loyalty to the Yozis and the Unquestionable and the cause of the Reclamation. A dress for a woman of great power and considerable wealth and startling subtlety... but who is nonetheless ultimately a servant. Sasi’s thoughts obviously run in the same direction. She is every inch a priestess of the Yozis in her silver garb, bedecked with their sacred jewels and wearing an exarch’s diadem.

“Are you ready?” she whispers, before the grand door where the demon princes wait. The door shimmers with opals and nacre, and fire in alcoves in the long tunnel leaving up to it so the frame seems to dance and twist in the air.

“As much as I can be,” Keris murmurs. “I think I prefer doing this when we’re just two among fifty.”

“It reminds me of the old days,” Sasi says softly. She straightens her back, bites her lip, and takes a deep breath.

The doors swing open, and the wave of symphonic music nearly flattens them. The Unquestionable are not all here - there are many gaps in their great grand circle - but perhaps a third of them are and their attention is not split between fifty. It is only split between two. There are some familiar faces up there, in the grand hemicycle. Keris gets a tiny nod from Yuula, sitting in her silver and red throne. A broken-faced marble giant holding a silver bident sits in a colossal chair on the edge of the ring. There’s Ululaya, perfect and smiling and looking much like Lilunu, and there’s Jacinct - who’s always been a good ally to them - and so on and so forth.

But there are four Unquestionable set apart from the others. Four who are first among equals. Or perhaps three, and their tool.

For below the grand ring, in four thrones, sit Lilunu and three fetich souls.

Lilunu sparkles in white, and there’s a mix of worry and happiness in the smile she directs at Keris. It’s probably reassuring? There’s no such hope from Ligier, who entirely the cold, distant prince of hell. There is none of his genial air - not here, not now. And a surprise, an unexpected one - Noh, sitting on obsidian and onyx, lascivious yet reserved, her white mask totally blank.

The fourth is not a demon princess Keris has seen before. She has the bearing of a young girl, younger than Keris, with long blue hair tied up in braids. Her dress is white and blue, and frilly to an extent that even Eko might consider it and its laces and its silks to be overdone. At the side of her throne are propped a bow and arrow; despite her dress she wears blue glass bracers. Her features are much akin to Ligier’s; like those of a sister, or a cousin.

But her eyes. Her sky blue eyes are older than time and deep-lined with cynicism. She looks down on all she sees, judges it, and finds it wanting.

The two late green sun princesses are called on to make their reports. Sasi makes her first. It doesn’t come across well. No matter what she says, it doesn’t sound quite right. She’s nervous. Even Keris can hear it. Off balance. And maybe still hungover, Keris suspects.

((6 successes on 25 dice - Sasi got hit with bad luck again.))

And then it is Keris’s turn.

((Did she get a chance to confirm exactly what the aftermath of Eshtock was?))
((Hmm? What do you mean there?))
((Like, checking the Orange Blossom made a good report on her activities, checking with a certain morbid curiosity what the fallout of her framing Thorns for it was, etc.))
((Because if she started a war between Lookshy and Thorns, I’m gonna gloat.))
((Yeah, she checked back when she was in Hell last time. Orange Blossom had come through, and while there isn’t a war, there are much-increased tensions and Lookshy has been pulling forces back to face the approach to Thorns and Lilunu said there had been some low tempo skirmishing.))

“My lords, my ladies,” she introduces herself, suppressing her nervousness as much as possible. “My year has done much to advance the goals of the Reclamation. Peer Orange Blossom, I hope, has spoken of the aid I gave her in Eshtock; striking a blow against Dead and Dragonblooded alike and turning them against each other, while at the same time opening the city’s treasures to our forces.”

She turns this way and that as she speaks, letting them all get a good look at her, but it’s mostly the four at the centre that she addresses.

“I took a brief sabbatical to initiate myself into the Sapphire Circle,” she continues, “allowing me to release lords and citizens into the realm of traitors, and terrorising an arrogant child of the sun as I did so. On my return to the Southwest, I set my ship to map out the Anarchy in detail, reinforcing our knowledge of the region. I have set myself into the pirate city of Saata; and will soon control the Tengese triads there.”

She spreads her arms. “Lords. Ladies. Honoured Unquestionable. Once the triads are under my thumb, I will be able to push them to replace the gutted remains of the Three Flame Society and become the dominant trading power of the Southwest. The wealth of the Anarchy will flow through our hands, and we will deny it to the Realm and the Dynasts who grow fat from it.”

Warming to her topic now, she speeds up and her gestures get more lively. “My spies will spread across every island, cults will blossom in your honour, and the demesnes and relics of the Shogunate that lie on the southwestern seabed will be ripe for the picking. The regions of the Wyld and the raksha within them will be farmed and harvested; their creations ferried across the Desert to serve a purpose beyond meaningless chaos. And those who challenge this growth - they will be crushed. By the pirate fleets of Saata, the floating temple of the Yozis or myself; your servant.”

She bows low. “All glory to the Reclamation,” she finishes with a flourish.

((So, this is... Per+Expression? And do i get a 3-die stunt for shameless bragging? :V))
((Yes and yes, declare enhancing charms, channels, etc.))
((Using Carmine Mantled Emissary to suck away any negative judgements they might make from things like ‘showing up late’. Also using Flowering the Fairer Face to make it harder to read her real motives and let her follow all the taboos.))
((4+5+3 Perfumed Smoke+1 bonus {target’s perceived superiority}+3 stunt+9 Kimmy ExD {impossibly high standards, drowns all opposition, charm}+4 “Be Loved”=29. 17 successes.))

They really seem to react better to Keris. Her speech comes across much better than Sasi’s. She just has more... more concrete things to brag about.

There are more questions, interrogations, but Keris has Ligier in her corner and both of them know it. She did an excellent job for him in Triumphant Air, and he is grateful there.

Lilunu leans forwards. “There is a reorganisation planned for the South Western Division,” she says, voice clear. “The evidence and the analysis of the reports from Peer Keris Dulmeadokht have revealed to us that the South West requires reorganisation at a divisional level to increase the capability of Creation’s true masters to act there.”

Ligier nods. “Yes. Keris, we intend to split the South Western Division into the Upper South West and the Lower South West. And with your seniority, you are suited for leadership of a small new Division. Your responsibility will be manage the Lower South West - the so-called Anarchy and below - and coordinate cult activity as requested by our gracious selves. As needed, you may be called on to train junior peers and to manage other, non-Exalted assets - including summoning demon lords when needed.”

Urk, Keris thinks. Urk. She manages - barely - to keep from throwing a terrified glance at Sasi. She doesn’t know how to lead a division! That’s Sasi’s job! Keris doesn’t lead, she just... just... okay, so she has kind of been leading and coordinating her souls, but... but that’s different! She can operate solo or with her children, but she can’t do Sasi’s job!

... and yet... faced with these imperious, terrible, powerful faces, there’s only one response she can give. Sinking to one knee, Keris bows in supplication.

“I am honoured, Unquestionable,” she says. “Thank you for finding me worthy.”

“Of course you are honoured,” the other fetich says. The blue eyed girl, the one with the ancient, cynical eyes. She smiles unpleasantly. “Let it never be said that we do not reward our servants to their true worth.”

Iudicavisse. The Blue Glass Maiden. Keris knows little about her - but what she’s read terrifies her. This is one of the few beings in all of Hell that is legitimately stronger than Keris is, who is known to be a warrior of terrible skill, and whose infamous bow of blue glass is the closest thing Keris has found to a genuine counter to Keris’s fighting style.

And she’s a bitter, cynical monster who would chain Keris’s souls if she could. Wordless with fear under that malicious smile, she bows again, keeping her eyes on the floor and hoping desperately that the blue-eyed gaze will leave her soon.

The ancient monster clasps her hands together girlishly. “And Sasimana, dear sweet Sasimana,” she says, in a lilting tone barely short of mocking. “We have come to the conclusion that your talents are wasted in An Teng. Your skills are so developed, so unique, so effusive we have decided that you are to be promoted to a special directorship - one with crucial importance to the fate of our efforts. You are familiar with the current state of the Blessed Isles and the Scarlet Realm, yes?”

“Of course, Unquestionable one,” Sasi mouths.

“Well, you are aware that the Minister of War, Cathak Cainan, has by vote of the Upper Deliberative been elected to fill the vacant spot of the High Lord of the Treasury. Making him, in essence, the one who holds the Realm’s purse strings and thus the closest there is to a replacement for the sadly, sadly missing Scarlet?”

Sasi pauses. “I was not aware of that development,” she says. “When did that occur?”

“Why, in the last sitting of the Upper Deliberative before the Calibration break!” Iudicavisse claps. “You, dear Sasimana, are to be promoted to a special Directorship with sole responsibility for ensuring that the position is emptied, and that the Realm does not unify behind such a force. Isn’t that just a purpose worthy of your skills?”

Sasi is silent. “Unquestionable ones, I have updated you on the current progress of ensuring that the heirs of the Tengese princes are brought into your worship. I cannot do that if I am to be relocated to the Realm.”

“Oh, that task is obsolete!” Iudicavisse smiles. “We have been very impressed by the reports from Peer Deveh as to his actions in the High Lands of An Teng. He is to be the new divisional chief for the new Upper South West Division!”

And now, Keris cannot stop herself from gasping. The thought of Sasi - Sasi - in the Realm... and fucking Deveh in charge of An Teng...

It’s a suicide mission. It’s a suicide mission to the place Sasi fears above all others, which will ruin An Teng in her absence, and Keris throws a desperate, wide-eyed look at Ligier and Lilunu as the words hang in the air. Her hair twitches in its braid. She feels numb.

... no, wait. Not numb. The other thing.

Murderous.

There are other words, but Keris isn’t listening. It’s only when Lilunu calls to her that she pays attention once again.

“Keris,” Lilunu calls her softly, hands held out at waist height. “I know you haven’t done this before, but kneel before me.”

“But... Sasi,” she says, struggling with every muscle in her body not to leap the length of the hall and ram her spear clean through that horrible monster masquerading as a little girl. “She... it’s not... I can’t protect her on the Blessed Isles, I-”

“Peer Sasimana has operated in the Realm before, before you were chosen,” Lilunu murmurs, as Keris approaches. “She knows what she is doing. And she will still have the authority to ask a division - such as yours, headed by you - for assets if she needs them. And you, at the moment, are your main asset.”

Keris kneels before her, feeling her long-fingered hands on the side of her head. “Keris,” Lilunu says more clearly. “Know this - your race was given life and purpose by the Unquestionable, and now a purpose is given to you. No longer will you strive to ruin the dynasts who earn wealth from trade with An Teng.

“Keris, now you are to dissolve the Realm’s grasp upon the Anarchy, so that none will heed its call and its greedy hands will no longer reach such wealth.”

((Urge switch - new Urge is Kimberyian, Urge to Drown, of “Dissolve the Realm’s grasp upon the Anarchy”.))

Looking up at her mentor, Keris’s eyes are troubled, torn, terrified. More than a little betrayed.

But she makes the choice to trust. And it is a choice; a conscious effort visible just to the two of them, Lilunu’s hands on her cheeks blocking her expression from the watching princes of Hell. Only Lilunu sees the conflict play across her student’s face and come very, very close to some internal tipping point before clearing and resolving into uneasy faith.

“As you say, my lady,” Keris murmurs back, ducking her head away from Lilunu’s cool-fingered hands in an obedient, but not quite happy, nod.

“Once we are done here, I will see you next scream to help you get prepared for your new role,” Lilunu says kindly. “Don’t worry. Many people are scared by these new responsibilities and by having to handle things like this for the first time.” She leans in, and kisses Keris on the brow, her caste mark flaring to life. “And I will make sure to check in more on Sasimana. She is one of my eldest. I would feel awful if I lost her.”

“Thank you, my lady,” Keris mumbles. The nervous rush of presenting her boasts and the slightly more terrified rush of being promoted are gone, now. There’s just the sour taste of Sasi leaving, Sasi being forced out by fucking Deveh, Sasi being sent to the fucking Realm to work in the middle of ten thousand Dragonblooded and the remnants of her past.

Keris just wants all of this to be over. To leave this awful chamber and go back into her sanctum and wrap herself around Sasi and never let go. To forget all of this ever happened.

There are more formalities - and for Lilunu to do the same thing for Sasi as she has for Keris - and then they are permitted to leave.

The doors slam shut behind them, and Sasi stands there. She doesn’t walk. Keris doesn’t either, for a moment. She just stands there, shaking with terror and fury. Forcing herself to calm.

“T-townhouse,” she croaks after a moment. “We should... go to the townhouse. Privacy.”

“Keris,” Sasi says softly. “I... will you be able to look after Aiko? Just for a while. Until I secure somewhere safe to live.” She swallows. “I’ve operated in the Realm before, but back then I was... I was single and didn’t have anyone to look after. Aiko needs a stable place to live, and she won’t be able to live with me in the Realm until I have a very private place for her.”

“Of course,” Keris says quickly. “Of course, Sasi, anything. Anything you need.”

They walk on out. And it’s only once they’re away from the chamber of the Unquestionable that Sasi snarls, and punches the wall. Hard enough that Keris hears something snap.

“I’m so weak,” she growls, more at herself than anyone else. “I’m a failure. I... I should have been preparing for this. Pulling strings. Canvasing my allies. Getting warning, talking to Jacinct and the others. But no! I had to go out and get high and drunk in your arms! No wonder they don’t think I can handle An Teng!” There’s blood oozing from her fingers.

Keris... doesn’t know what to say. How to help. She wants to protect Sasi, to save her... but how can she save her from this? Anything she can say will sound like a platitude.

Well, almost anything.

“Deveh won’t be able to handle it, will he?” she says quietly. “He’s not subtle at all with those hollow people he makes. He’ll get found as soon as he moves towards the Shore Lands. Or just toss the rest of Reclamation over in favour of the Whispering Pyre. Maybe even both.”

“Yes,” Sasi breathes through clenched teeth, clutching her hand. “He... he’s flashy. He gets obvious results. That’s probably why. It’s much easier to point at what he’s doing.”

“It’s going to blow up in his face, and they’ll burn half of An Teng down to root him out,” murmurs Keris. “Makers. This is going to be a disaster. If we’d gotten here on time...”

Then it wouldn’t have happened, she thinks. Sasi would have caught wind of it - Keris would have caught wind of it, and they could have convinced the Unquestionable not to make the choice. They could at least have tried. But no, they just so happened to get cut off by a freakishly vast sandstorm at exactly the wrong time. So that they never had the chance to even try.

Keris remembers Iudicavisse’s mocking smirk of triumph as she’d given Sasi that new role. Remembers the blue lightning over the silver stormfront, a storm vaster than Sasi had ever seen, even after a sacrifice to the Desert. Hatred coils in her belly. She can’t prove it... but she knows.

“Let’s go home, dear one,” Sasi says sadly. “I... I think I’ve broken something. I never normally lose my temper and do something like punch a wall. I haven’t done that in years. And I... I have to spend as much time with Aiko. Before I have to... to leave her behind.” She swallows. “I’ll also have to return your painting,” she says, with false brightness. “It would be a shame to let the Immaculates burn it as a representative image. Even if Vali would argue that it’s a picture of a dragon as it’s a picture of you and he’s part of you.”

“Perhaps I can get Lilunu to make one of you,” Keris suggests sadly. “I... I don’t want to stop meeting for our nights together. And that would let me... know you were safe.”

“I won’t be settling down in the same way,” Sasi says, touching her arm. “You can’t get away with that in the same way in the Realm. If... if I do this right, it might only be for a year or two. And I’ll definitely try to spend at least a season next year in Saata with you.”

“I’d like that,” Keris sighs gratefully. “Just... promise me you’ll be careful. Please. I... I know you will be, obviously, but... please say it. So I can hear.”

“I’ll be careful, Keris,” Sasimana says, holding her wrist. She swallows. “I’m too terrified to take risks there. And there are too many magistrates to be rash.”

Keris nods. “Deveh won’t last,” she reassures them both. “You’ll be back soon. They’ll see that they need you there. He won’t last.”

And whether that’s a prediction or a promise, neither of them dares to ask.

Chapter Text

There is no rain in Hell. Not as Creation would know it. But when Keris wakes the next day, Sasi in her arms, it is dark outside. This is not the darkness of the Dragon, though. And when the lightning comes, it drains light from the bruise-coloured world.

The Typhoon of Nightmares is raining atop the Conventicle Malfeasant, above the dome. When Keris comes to the window, the landscape is cast into mad colours by the light. A landscape meant to be lit in green shows ill-favoured notes.

Zanara would probably love the way things look.

Keris sniffs. She can smell something delicious. Better than the usual fair within her townhouse, and that’s saying something. She drifts towards the nearest kitchen, tasting the air with her tongue, and finds Haneyl there, in a sweltering heat that feels like it’s hot enough that bread should be baking even outside the oven. She’s by the stove, working on yet another dish while behind her Elly works on the coffee. Neither of them is wearing very much in this inferno - basically just breastbands and aprons - and by the looks of things they’ve been working here in this tremendous heat for several hours, labouring away at breakfast.

“Oh, good morning - such as it is - mama,” Haneyl says, turning when she sees her mother, and rushing forwards to embrace her with floury hands.

“Hello darling,” Keris says, and gives her a hug. She herself isn’t wearing much either - a backless yem and loose, thin silk trousers. “Did you get out last night?” she asks, using the opportunity the hug affords to sneak a bite of the meal-in-progress with her hair while Haneyl isn’t watching.

“Yes,” Haneyl says, turning back to the... something she’s making from deep-stewed hellish fruit and sugar. “Grandmother said you’d be needing my help and someone has to make sure you and mother eat properly. Elly!”

“On it,” Elly says, taking her place at the pot while Haneyl extracts light, fluffy almost air-like sugar-globes from one of the ovens.

“Yes, she said I’d need to help you out and make sure you’re both well - and of course, I had to make you both the best meal I could on such short notice to reward you for getting such amazing promotions!” Haneyl whirls on Keris again, tossing her a sugar globe full of sweet, savoury smoke. “Mama,