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Secrets Revealed

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The green sun beats down upon the terrible-yet-beautiful expanses of the Conventicle Malfeasant, flesh-geography of the demon princess Lilunu. There is a party without compare in Creation going on here, where the decadence might shock a jaded dynast and melt the mind of a naive mortal. And within one of the grand halls is a beauty of the world, sprawled out on a divan as she consults with her peers and the terrible demon princes that she serves.

She is very bored.

“... and the next item on the agenda is coordinating efforts to weaken the Western aspects of the Realm Merchant fleet and so harm the finances of Princess Vanefa,” says Pelepese Anadala. He is a pudgy looking man, whose features are none too handsome and were not even before his eyes turned jet black and his mouth filled with rows of teeth.

The Realm Merchant fleet does not venture south of An Teng very often. But Keris Maryam Dulmeadokht is stuck here, in the Enlightened Board of the Warm Oceans of the Stolen Realm, because she’s one of the regional directors. That means she has to be here to attend as her directorate is part of the general board that handles the affairs of the southern part of the West. She’s here with Anadala, the vicious Western pirate-queen Kasteen Akwilia, and... shudder, Deveh.

((A chance for you to describe Keris, because this is right after the bragging session and she’s waiting to get to a party (and Sasi’s arms) but she’s stuck here in a meeting. So she’s still wearing what she wore to the bragging session, and she’s going full decadence here given she’s been playing the corruptor and temptress this year.))
((Also, importantly, it annoys Deveh.))
((The most critical reason.))
((In fact, the clothing, if chosen properly, will be a stunt bonus to a “Piss off Deveh” roll.))
((Okay, so she’s basically Anck-su-namun, but her tattoos are less symmetrical and patterned and also give people Mood Swings (Lust {In My Presence}) if they stare at them for too long. She’s also wearing her own feathers as extremely minimal “clothing”.))
((Per + Pres, +3 dot stunt for “infuriating Deveh”.))
((4+5+3 Temple-as-Body Style+3 stunt+4 Pelagic Muse Artistry autosux for the tattoos=15. 6+4=10 sux. Mwaa haa, I no think Deveh liek her muchly. And that was without Excellencies, to boot.))
((Keris: “Who, me? I’m not trying to annoy him. I’m just innocently sitting here doing nothing.” :3))

She takes advantage of the opportunity afforded by everyone looking at Anadala to stretch. At least she’s not too hot. Since she knew she was going to have to put up with this sort of thing in advance, Keris chose to dress for comfort. Since she had Sasi egging her on - and, yes, okay, since it would piss off Deveh - she chose to do so by not dressing in much at all.

Which is why she reclines on the satin-wrapped divan in an outfit comprised almost entirely of bare, dusky skin. Tattoos of gold and silver wind all over her - real precious metals laced into the soil of flowers to be absorbed into the dyes. They’re hypnotic and organic in how they follow the lines of her body; asymmetrical and maddening. Those who stare at them too long will find their lusts raging out of control and their reason waning.

Her sole nod to modesty is a pair of garments that give her the very least limit of decency; a breechcloth and low-hanging necklace comprised mostly of her own feathers. Other than those, she’s wearing only jewellery and body oil, which gleams in the light of Ligier and tints the gold in her tattoos to a greenish hue that will no doubt please him to see. She’s certainly attracting the attention of that pudgy Realm bureaucrat Anadala. Deveh is not looking at her. In fact, he’s trying to avoid even looking in her direction, as he sits there. The cheek! He’s barely wearing more than her! He’s wearing a long skirt and baring his slender, pale chest that’s been painted silver.

And then there’s Kasteen - her dreadlocks bound in tainted jade, her brass breastplate a dented demonic maw, her oversized jagged saw-edged cleaver propped against her throne. She’s looking at Keris with disdain. The disdain of a raider and pirate for someone dressed like a Yozi-priestess and decadent.

“Look,” she grates at Anadala. “It’s simple. Tell me when they show up, and I’ll plunder them. That’s all you have to do.”

“It’s not so simple,” the bureaucrat says. “There’s only so much information I can feed you - and while I’m building my spies, the Dragon-chosen can track down such leaks if they know to look for them. You need to build your own intel sources in Western ports.”

“Listen, you pasty-faced shit...”

“He’s not wrong,” Keris puts in, amused. Kasteen is... well, Keris hasn’t ever really been very social with her fellow Infernals. But she’s pretty sure she hasn’t seen the woman before. A directorship in her first year is unlikely, so she probably came to prominence sometime in the year before last Calibration and did something impressive to land her current seat.

Or to put it another way, she’s the only one in the room not aware of how horrifyingly lethal the decadent Yozi-priestess she’s been sneering at is capable of being. Because Anadala is - Keris vaguely remembers his pudginess from the last Calibration she actually attended properly - and Deveh is fully aware of how much havoc she’s wrecked on Sasi’s orders.

“If you start blindly hacking at everything he can feed you and make no progress anywhere else, they’ll put a magistrate on the case,” she continues. “A real one, not some idiot who got his position on family connections. I’ve gone up against two. They’re like sharks. They can smell blood in the water from miles away, and they never stop moving and looking for prey.”

Keris smirks. It’s not a pleasant expression.

“At which point whoever they task to it will cast a wide net and narrow down where you’re getting your targets, and then drop the All-Seeing Eye on his end,” she jerks a thumb at Anadala, “and send a fleet to yours that’ll lure you into a trap. You need to get information from a hundred different streams, not one pipe they can follow.”

Anadala looks somewhat surprised at this, and appreciative - well, appreciative in a sense that isn’t just the way she’s dressed. “Indeed,” he says thankfully, smiling widely. “And you might not be aware of it, but we have to balance the orders of more than a few Unquestionable ones. Iasestus and the Shashalme both have interests in An Teng, Yuula has declared an interest in the Anarchy, and that’s on top of the standing orders we have from the Prince of Leeches to build him a fleet worthy of the greatest pirate in Creation.”

Ah yes, that name rings a bell. The greater self of Asarin is showing an interest in the West? There’s a hint of pinkness on Kasteen’s cheeks at his title. “Why are you going on about that?” she demands. But Keris suspects - well, uh, guesses based on Asarin’s complaints - that she might be burning a candle for the Prince of Leeches. “We have our orders!”

((Keris notices that she has a positive principle towards Balanodo, though not what rank it is or its precise context))

“Because the Unquestionable, in their great wisdom, sometimes see more clearly than we mere servants are able to,” explains Keris, the sarcasm light enough to be deniable should anyone ask - or pick up on it. “Specifically, in the matter of which orders we should follow when they give edicts that seem to conflict.”

She glances over towards Anadala. “Speaking of which, I’d heard about Yuula declaring interest, but not the details of her stake. Has she given any?”

“By my understanding, cultists and rich unguents and...” he coughs into his hand, “... fine wines of Creation.”

There’s a sneer on Deveh’s face. “Nothing to concern me, then,” he says. He holds his hands in front of him, as if cupping an unseen sphere. “Wise Iasestus gives me guidance. That is all I need.”

Keris rolls her eyes. “I’ll be able to handle Lady Yuula’s indulgences,” she says. “And I’ll be doing some damage to the Merchant Fleet economically over the course of the next year by muscling them out of their profits from trade in the Anarchy.” She raises an eyebrow at Anadala, ignoring Kasteen as though she were a sulky child. “I assume you can make use of that?”

He nods to her, and shows her the compliment of his eyes meeting her face. “Yes. If you can limit their safe harbours, I can work with this. I want to stretch the Navy, not force them to give up areas yet. If you can do that, we can set up a sorcerous channel to exchange reports on fleet movement.” He tilts his head. “I’m very interested in how your Hui Cha can be of use. I think we can get some mutually beneficial arrangements set up.”

A nasty little smile crosses Keris’s face. “Stretching them I can do. They’re already on the outs with the magistrate branch due to a...” she grins, “nasty little embarrassment last year. And I can start hitting their harbours from a few different angles, too. We’ll talk later about what I want in exchange.”

Spies in the Realm fleets, Keris is aware, will be worth their weight in silver. She’s been wanting a good hook into the affairs of the naval superpower for a while, and it sounds like Anadala can provide them.

There’s an ugly expression on Kasteen’s face. “Her pathetic little pirates? Who’d want them? I’ve heard of them - hells, I’ve killed their ships. They can’t fight for shit. This soft-bodied wench isn’t worth a cowrie.”

((Heh. Does Keris know how long she’s been an Infernal?))
((She thinks this is her second Calibration.))
((Haha. And Keris missed the last one. So Kasteen isn’t aware of how fucking lethal Keris is. Amusing.))

“I’m worth quite a lot of cowrie, actually,” Keris says in a deceptively mild tone. “And my flagship could turn your entire fleet into splinters, so perhaps you should mind your tongue and learn from those more experienced.”

She glances at Anadala and Deveh, amused at the conflicted way she hopes the latter is feeling. On the one hand, he despises Keris. On the other, he probably doesn’t think much better of Kasteen, and he’d also probably agree with her point about listening to those with more experience if it wasn’t her saying it.

Kasteen's hand goes to her brutal, cleaver-like weapon. “Oh, you wanna fight?”

Anadala rolls his eyes. “Not in the meeting. Do it in the arena, if you must.”

“I’m quite bored of this,” Deveh says. “This... posturing is ugly, and not how things should be.” He shifts, as if he’s about to walk out. “If you two women will not take this seriously, I don’t think there’s any point in me being here.”

“But we still have several items to cover,” Anadala protests.

Keris puts on a disaffected sigh, internally cheering at the thought of getting out of the fucking meeting. “I don’t think we’re going to get anything else done while our junior member is chasing a fight,” she points out. “I’ll take her to the arena to work out our differences, and we can finish our business at a later meeting.”

“I suppose it was too much to hope we could get all the meetings done today and then head out to parties,” Anadala says wearily. “Very well. Deveh, you can go. I think I’ll follow these ladies and admire the spectacle. Perhaps lay a few wagers on the outcome. I do hope Lady Yuula attends.” From his faint smile, he’s gambled with her before.

“I’m sure you know where best to lay your bet,” Keris agrees, sharing a smirk with him. “Come along then, Peer Kasteen. You can show me how well-equipped you are to fight off an Immaculate master when the Dragonkin send a brotherhood of them after your fleet.”

The silver sands of the colosseum within the All-Thing are no stranger to violence. Blood sports are a great entertainment for many of the Infernals, both watching and partaking in them, and this would be far from the first time that two directors have come to a clash that can only be settled with violence. In fact, there is a protocol for it - they choose whether to fight to first blood or incapacity, and there is a Priest whose duties include stopping the fight if it looks like one of them might die. The victor gains both bragging rights and a favour from the defeated.

“I want to see her flat on her fat ass,” Kasteen snarls to the Priest. “Fight to incapacity.”

“Incapacity works for me,” Keris says cheerfully. She hasn’t changed outfit, and the silver dust stirs around her feet and the trailing end of her braid. Iris coils happily on her arm, having flitted out on their way to the arena with an invitation to Sasi to come and watch. The fighting pit is a grand place, and the titanic basalt stands are filling fast. The demonic hordes here have heard that two of the princes of the Green Sun are fighting, and such a spectacle is something to see.

Green fire burns all around the walls of the pit, in great brass braziers which sit upon the sand. There are angyalkae by the hundreds, positioned around the upper room so the whole arena is filled with the music of the fighters which shifts and swells as one gains advantage over the other. Beasts the size of yeddims turn mechanisms which add hazards to the arena. Blood apes beat drums that mean the whole space beats like a heart.

The Priest has a throne, where it sits to watch the fight and make its judgements. This one is unusual; it wears a dented and half-melted jade helmet over its hooded fire. Blue burns from the eyesockets.

“Two princesses come here to resolve a dispute. They have chosen to fight to incapacity. By the law of the Desert, the stronger one is right and the lesser will fall before her and serve her for a task.” Its burning gaze sweeps over them. “Keris Dulmeadokht; Kasteen Akwilia; do you understand accept this, knowing that cruel tortures will fall upon you if you breach the rules of this sacred combat?”

“I do,” Keris agrees solemnly.

Kasteen leans on her cleaver - this monstrous weapon as wide as a man’s torso. “Yeah,” she says.

The priest raises its hand. The drums stop. “We offer prayers to the All Makers,” it says, “and honour them with the blood shed here. We offer curses to the traitor gods, whose eyes will never profane this place. We offer veneration to the Unquestionable who watch us here.”

It rises from its seat, and bows to the grand spectacle boxes before it. “Princess Lilunu, Princess Yuula, Prince Balanodo, Prince Fossyi - what is your will?”

Lilunu is up in the spectacle boxes - so is Sasi, beside her, a tiny figure. “I have nothing to say,” she says, a tense note in her voice. It echoes around the stands.

“Ha! Make a good fight of it! I’ve got money riding on this!” Yuula adds.

“You can do it, Kasteen! I believe in you!” Balanodo shouts. Keris narrows her eyes. This is the first time she’s seen him pay attention to her. He wears the form of a young man of the Scavenger Lands still in the first bloom of youth. His coal black hair merges seamlessly with the black spiked horns that protrude from his crown. He dresses simply and humbly as a peasant, wearing a white tunic and black trousers. Despite his power and authority in the legions of Hell, the eye naturally skips over him.

And Keris can hear the squirming leach-mouths he has in place of pupils rasp their teeth against one another.

Keris rolls her shoulders comfortably. “You know,” she says in a friendly sort of way, “if you drop your sword now and grovel, that’ll probably count for incapacitation. It’ll save you a lot of trouble and pain.”

“And if you get down and kiss my feet, I won’t scar you up. You won’t be much good for getting laid once I’m done!” Kasteen snaps back.

Keris shrugs, and realises with delight that the way Kasteen’s eyes follow the motion is more than just a fighter sizing up a foe. Either her mind is so defenceless that she has no way of resisting the lust-inducing magic of Keris’s tattoos, or she didn’t realise they were something she needed to guard against.

Either way, with the drums stopped and the statements made; they’re free to fight. The only reason Kasteen hasn’t attacked is because - hahah - she’s too captivated by Keris’s almost nude body.

“Suit yourself,” says the Wind-Kissed. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

She’s lunging before the last syllable is even formed. The huge, ponderous cleaver - not even jade, made from some strange western metal - rises as Kasteen swings it up at Keris, aiming for her chest.

Keris feels the world slow down, sees in red and white and blacks - and laughs as she twists out the way so casually that the metal slides against her skin peeling off a layer of oil and snags on her necklace, snapping it. Silver feathers scatter down around them in slow motion.

Then her heel comes around in a perfect arc and she smashes it into Kasteen’s nose. Her slick hands take full advantage of the weakness in Kasteen’s grasp from the sudden pain, and now this monstrously heavy weapon is in her hands. She continues the spin, transferring the cleaver into her hair to build up speed and leverage as it spins round. But she doesn’t aim it at the woman. Instead she lofts it away on a ballistic arc towards a gnashing grinder-pit of burning Isidorite spines that pulls everything nearby towards it with a sucking gravity. It flies straight and true, aimed directly at the heart of the pit. Kasteen won’t be getting it back anytime soon.

Especially since, as her heel touches down, Keris calls on Vali’s explosive speed and follows the flying weapon. Anima-light explodes around her as her feet crackle with blue-black lightning, and the sands are blown away in a ten-metre circle by the blast of force.

Caught completely off-guard by the sudden move; Kasteen takes the full force of the force-pulse to the face. But it doesn’t send her flying as it should. The explosive ripple of force bounces back and slams into Keris, a ripple of transparent force that tries to lift her off her feet.

But Keris is already running, and nothing - nothing - can interrupt the wind in motion. She doesn’t ignite her own soul; merely sparing the furious pirate a mocking glance over her shoulder as her quickened steps take her up onto a whirling dervish of blades that looks like someone took the gear system from the watermill at Baisha, stuck a bunch of extra shafts and wheels onto it, and covered them all in sharp objects and the occasional firewand opening.

Disarmed and abandoned in the middle of the arena, Kasteen screams; a sound of raw undiluted rage that echoes through the fighting pit and bounces off the walls. She throws back her head and yells to the whirling stars of Malfeas as she ignites in a terrible bonfire of black and green. It’s a pillar that rises up to the heavens, and her hair dances around her head, dripping fire. Behind her rises a great mandala of black stone, and the same stone wraps over her covering her forehead and arms, as bat-like wings sprout from her back.

Keris whoops as she dances up the death-wheel with ease; her feet light on the lethal surfaces, her balance impeccable as she runs along the turning, churning components. She keeps up a constant barrage as she does; imperceptible locks of hair among the three-metre curtain streaming behind her flicking slingstones, knives and poisoned needles at her foe. Now and then she spares another glance - in order to bring up toxic vines and snarling brambles beneath Kasteen’s very feet. Kasteen doesn’t seem to care about the traps, and the blades and needles and slingshots that Keris directs at her as she dances away only fuel her rage. Her leathery wings serve as a shield, protecting the parts of her body that the brass cuirass doesn’t cover. She charges at Keris, ignoring the spinning death blade in her way. It shatters against her thigh, and with a berserk yell she tears it up from the ground and throws the broken shattered mechanism at Keris.

With an almost casual hairstand, Keris flips over the scything blade - a leaping salmon painted gold-green and silver - and kicks it out of the way. She trails echoes of herself in anima-flight as she lands, and whips a needle at Kasteen. It pierces all the way through her wing, and the muscle goes limp. Poisonous vines and barbs spring up around the taller woman, snarling her legs and trying to trip her as they dig in. She tears through them, snapping new growth with terrible force.

With a scream, the other woman starts punching bursts of cutting desert sand that howl and shriek. Her yells are staccato bursts. But flowing Keris backs away, stepping in and between them - and worse, posing more for the crowd than her enemy. Flowers bloom around her, tossing up their petals to add to her beauty.

They’re cheering her name in the audience. Hollering it. Beating their chests. “Ker-is!” they scream. “Ker-is! Ker-is!” She’s putting on a show and they love it. They love her. They want her. It’s more than Kasteen can bear. Back arching, she slams both fists into the ground. “Devil Tyrant Avatar Shintai!” she screams.

Fire envelops her, and her anima-mandala swells and swells. There’s the sound of breaking bones as she rises; a basalt behemoth twice as tall as she was - three times taller than Keris. Her armour is rent asunder, and six arms swell from her back. Her feet burn the earth and the sand is pounded into stone.

“I’m going to fucking murder you!” she roars, exploding forwards as she sheds the needles and barbs from her colossal wings.

“You’ll die trying,” Keris laughs, her hair drawing a song to match her words and the chorus of her kin as she slips around the monster.

And then her own soul ignites; a cyclone of scarlet light and sharp-edged silver mirrors whirling around her in a vibrant symphony. Her po emerges from her hair; a predatory serpent with scything wings that coils around her and hisses at the foe. Behind her, her own mandala forms; inscribed with the names of her souls in emerald radiance.

She lunges in the blinding light, dancing around Kasteen’s hulking form and setting her hair against the extra arms this monstrous transformation has granted the other Infernal. All she needs to do is get onto Kasteen’s back for a grapple and choke her out. With an even limb-count, the Shintai isn’t improving Kasteen’s performance nearly as much as she’d hoped it would - and those in the stands are whooping at the tiny woman going toe-to-toe with the enormous monster and holding her own. It’s not the first time Keris has fought an enemy bigger than she is - actually it’s rare she doesn’t, grr - but it’s not the first time she’s fought one bigger than a human, either. And the secret is; it’s easy to beat foes like this. They’re just too big. Too ponderous and slow. Only idiots think size is a positive in a fight - in reality it inhibits speed, makes gravity work against you, tilts the odds away from your favour when you’re trying to strike a smaller, faster target.

The fists are tetsubos, coming in to smash her. They slam into the sands of the arena, missing the lithe form that dances between them, flitting to and fro. Kasteen screams, an explosion of molten glass erupting from all around her - the wind cuts through the glass like it isn’t there, beads dripping off her skin and blackening the oil. The last of Keris’s feather-wrap joins the glass as the strings burn through, but she doesn’t have time to care about that as she throws herself back from the other woman’s hooked wings that lash out like blades. Her entire body is a weapon now. Her wings are swords, lashing out; her eyeless face of black stone is full of gnashing teeth.

Rolling away from a descending fist, Keris spins and kicks the arm. She feels the impact through her bones. Kasteen doesn’t even sway back at all - she’s as immobile as the black boar, but Keris knows she’s not really hurting her. She can’t be hit; but she can’t hurt. Not up close. And Kasteen is much stronger just from her size - a pin might not be as easy as she thought. Especially when she’s still oiled up.

“Ker-is!” go the crowds. “Ker-is!” With a furious roar, Kasteen pounds the ground with all six arms. The arena shakes like an earthquake has hit it and the stadium floor splits asunder, breaking open the hidden space full of mechanisms and pipes and grinding gears below. Something catches fire; something else explodes.

“You seem angry, Kasteen,” Keris laughs, despite her mild annoyance that she can’t get onto the damn woman. “Tell you what! I think you’ve earned seeing my spear!”

The crowds cheer - an announcement like that, echoing the way Ligier consents to fight seriously only when his opponent has proven worthy, is a staple narrative of the kind of fight songs are sung about in Hellish drinking houses. And they cheer again as Keris reveals her spear with a flick of her hair, the deadly elinvar length jumping to her hand in a flash of crimson lightning.

She backs up from her close-range position, darting sideways and starting to run rings around Kasteen’s enormous form. Her bare feet skip across broken driveshafts and fountains of acid that jut and jet from the shattered floor of the arena; her jumps and leaps take her soaring over rents and chasms above the churning pit of death below. Kasteen’s rage hinders her now, as the environment becomes too unstable for her enormous form to navigate – while Keris is as free to move as ever.

But despite that, Keris has lost her easy win, and that annoys her. So fine. If she can’t choke the bitch out, she’ll bleed her onto the ground instead. With her spear, she can hit her from ten metres away - and with her speed and the chaotic unreliable footing of the stadium, she can keep that ten metres, and circle to stay behind her foe no matter how much she lashes out. The chains between sections of the staff extend as Keris starts to whirl it, and the deadly, poison-coated blade flickers out.

In light of the fact that she’s not technically meant to kill her co-workers; they’re non-lethal venoms.

They’re still going to hurt like hell unless Kasteen has some means of resisting them, though.

And suddenly the tables turn, as Keris starts trying. Green fire plays over the tip of her chain-link spear, but that’s just a distraction from the oily sheen that coats her body as much as the spear. Her hair, her limbs, even her feet play with the chain-link weapon - a kick to a segment sends it whipping around to smack into Kasteen’s jaw, then in her hair it’s suddenly coming in from the other side to stab her in a shoulder, cracking the stone.

She’s not fighting to kill. She’s fighting to humiliate. Her impossible ability far exceeds Kasteen wing-assisted jumps, and Kasteen can’t land a single hit on her. She stabs the other woman in the elbows, the wing joints, the flanks; she breaks her stone fingers with blunt strikes. And all the while, the poison is taking its toll. The basalt titan stumbles, wavers, wracked by agonising poisons.

And then Keris stabs her in the kneecap. She screams and falls to one knee as Keris shatters her stone bones.

So Keris shatters the other one, too.

Kasteen hits the ground with another earth-shaking impact. The brass mirrors around the arena shatter. Stone pillars crack. She screams, still wreathed in black and green fire, back contorting as she shrinks again, stone falling from her skin and leaving her - once more - mostly human.

She looks up at the slight woman who approaches her, wrapped in her own burning soul, her chain-spear now the only thing she wears.

“I’m... I... you’ll pay,” Kasteen grates out. “I’ll show you! You... no one does this to me and-”

“You did this to yourself,” Keris says scornfully. “You were arrogant and insolent, and you couldn’t back it up. The only person to blame for this is you.”

The spear slashes a vicious red line across the junior Infernal’s eyebrows. The wound blinds Kasteen as blood trickles down into eyes - and shows that Keris could easily have blinded her more permanently.

“Your knees are shattered, your fingers are broken,” Keris shouts for the arena to hear. “Your body is wracked with poisons and your Shintai is lost! Stand and fight, Kasteen, or admit your failure!”

She offers a bare foot to Kasteen’s lips; dust-stained from the running she’s been doing, but unmarked. The intent is clear. With a snarl, Kasteen lunges for the foot with her teeth bared. Her hand comes up as she puts the last of her strength into lacerating, green-tinged fire-glass aimed right at Keris’s groin. The spite, the envy, the hate is palpable.

Keris actually sighs as she sidesteps.

And then, because she’s quite looking forward to Sasi jumping her after this and does not feel at all sympathetic to this upstart bitch who doesn’t know when to give up and accept she’s lost after an attempt like that to rob her of any enjoyment in being jumped, she whirls her spear and brings both ends slamming down.

The blunt weighted ball takes Kasteen full in the mouth and knocks out most of her teeth.

The blade hits her right between the legs in a gout of green fire.

“Overseer!” Keris calls over the agonised scream. “My opponent is incapacitated! Will you proclaim this match decided?”

The Priest just watches, and waits until the black and green fire has died down before raising one hand. “Keris Dulmeadokht is the stronger, and the correct one in their contest,” it announces. “This contest is over.”

The crowd erupts in cheers that seem to Keris to shake the earth as much as Kasteen’s fall did. “KER-IS!” they scream. “KER-IS! KER-IS! KER-IS!” Thousands of demons are screaming her name as she raises her hands in victory.

They come to carry away Kasteen and bedeck Keris as the victor, marking her brow in the other woman’s blood, draping gifts and gems upon her - for there are many up and coming demons who long to see such a champion wear their favours.

All around her she can hear the people wanting her, wanting to be her. It is a good feeling. No, it is the best feeling. They love her. They adore her. They worship her body. The celebrations are already starting as fire burns in the sky in the shape of her anima-banner - a gift from Lilunu.

She luxuriates in it, letting them lift her off her feet and carry her across the cheering masses on a wave of hands. A few lucky demons - the ones who bestow the finest favours on her - she blesses with her attention, or even a momentary smile.

((Compassion roll - 3 sux))

Eventually she sweeps her hair around and is set down just outside the arena, her hips rolling as she walks towards the exit from the Unquestionable’s viewing box. Now that her blood isn’t up and running hot, she’s starting to feel a little guilty. Not for the fight itself, but that last move... yes, Kasteen had tried to mutilate the same way, but she could have just kicked her teeth in and used the weighted ball on her crotch.

Kasteen is an Exalt, so she’ll heal. But the spearblade might have been a bit of an overreaction.

Slightly ashamed of her behaviour, Keris waits for her mentors and her love to emerge from their box - the guilt increasing a little at the realisation that Lilunu might not have enjoyed seeing two of her Infernals fighting so fiercely, even if she likes Keris better. The faint worry doesn’t show on Keris’s expression, but her hair fidgets a little as she hears Sasi, Lilunu and Yuula approaching.

((Rollin’ Yuula’s gambling sense... and fortunately she got 1 success, and didn’t bet against Keris))
((W-what was Yuula’s “gambling sense” pool?))
((Was it 1?))
((It was 1, wasn’t it.))
((It was 1.))
((oh my god, yuula))

The first to greet her is the tall, dark-skinned and mercury-stained figure of Yuula. With her tattoos, Keris looks more like her than she had before. “Nice one!” Yuula crows, throwing her arm around Keris’s shoulders. She smells strongly of spirits. “Y’know what, I nearly, I nearly bet against you ‘cause they were offering 5:1 odds and that’s better than 2:1, but, but, but, Lilililililunu said I should be’ on you and I won! I won! Wooo!”

“Respected elder,” Lilunu says, brow creased, “all I did was inform you of their combat successes when you asked.”

“Well, I got a nice payout today!” She lets go of Keris, leaving her hair laden with mercury. “Woo! I’m going drinking to celebrate!”

“I’m glad to have served, my lady,” Keris grins. “I might come join you later.”

“Well,” and here Yuula’s slightly bleary, heavy-lidded gaze turns sharper, “you had fun, didn’t you? The roots in your blood are getting thicker. I can feel the change in you. More seeds and more roots, sprouting from your core.”

“Alms, alms, alms,” cry out the snakes following her, and she gives them a kick, “Shut it, I’m tryin’ to explain summin’ to Keris here, y’dumb snakes!”

Keris blushes a little. She was riding a bit of a mercury high in that crowd. All of them adoring her, envying her, wanting her. She can feel the quicksilver in her blood gaining more depth, reflecting more possibilities. Ways to get people loving her like that again with other performances - or even static art.

“I guess I can’t hide anything from you, can I?” she murmurs respectfully. “It was fun, yeah.” Her eyes flick over to Lilunu and Sasi shyly. “And the audience loved it too,” she adds, with the faintest edge of a questioning tone.

“It was a thing to see, Keris dear,” Lilunu says, still frowning. She’s dressed in shimmering, radiant green picked out in bronze, and the diadem that frames her face only accentuates her unease. “The way you ended it was a little... excessive, but until then, it was quite the pleasant spectacle.” The roar of the crowd can still be heard from all around. In fact, Keris’s ears can pick out that large amounts of the stands have turned into an impromptu party. And carnal event. “And don’t think I didn’t notice your little prank with the tattoos.”

Sasi says nothing; her face is a mask. She is still wearing the demon-mask of her own face she donned for the All-Thing, for she dressed in the manner of the decadent tales of the Anathema of her childhood, and what traces of golden clothing she wears only flaunts her blasphemy against the Immaculate Order. She had been very amused by Keris’s tales of the Calibration parties of Saata, and what she wears is what one might wear to one of the more licentious events there.

Focusing on Lilunu instead of letting her nervousness at Sasi's reticence take over, Keris issues a little smirk. “Prank?” she asks with faux innocence. “What prank? If people happen to get a little hot under the collar after seeing me in all my glory...”

She spreads her hands in a gesture of blameless irreproachability. “Well, that’s probably just because of how stunning I look,” she finishes impishly. “But I’m sorry for using too much force at the end there. I overreacted.” She bows her head contritely in penance.

Lilunu sighs. “She’s going to hold it against you,” she says seriously. “I do hate it when my dear princes and princesses fight. Kasteen isn’t an awful person. She’s just a little... touchy. And short-tempered.”

“Well, I’ll try to keep it from getting too heated,” Keris offers. “As much as I can, anyway. And I’ll be more gentle if it comes to this kind of thing again.”

Iris coils up from her arm and blows a little puff of flame shaped like a stern face, then nips at a finger. It gets a snort out of Keris.

“And Iris will ride herd on me to make sure I behave,” she adds, amused at the temerity of her little dragon-familiar.

Lilunu rises gracefully. “Well, I believe I will be taking her with me,” she says, holding out her hands to Iris. The little dragon flies into them, with a happy exhalation as she nestles there. “Now, I believe Yuula and I will go,” she says, with a hint of a small smile. “You and dear Sasimana look like you might want some privacy.”

“Thank you, Unquestionable Lilunu,” Sasi says softly.

“And if you don’t, there’s controls to display the image of the box to all the stands!” Yuula crows crudely, before taking another swig from her clay jug.

“That is up to them,” Lilunu says. “Keris, dear, do stay for a few days after this is over. I want some time with you myself so I can pick your brains about certain renovations I want to make.”

“Of course,” Keris chirps, happy to spend time with her mentor. She waits for them to leave, then turns to Sasi.

“So, um...” she starts.

Sasi gestures first, inviting Keris to enjoy the luxuries of Lady Lilunu’s box. The divans are sinfully soft, there’s a gemstone-covered control bank, and there are kneeling servants by the door ready to bring any indulgence of her choice. One of the divans is quite ruined from Yuula’s presence, but there are others - and wines, spirits, and food on the tables.

“Sit,” she says. “You look tired. Your brow is still burning and she made you ignite all-out.”

“She didn’t make me,” Keris objects. “I could’ve finished that fight at second-tier, if I’d wanted to. I only flared to full so I could match her unarmed in her shintai without getting anima-burn.”

Nonetheless, she does as she’s told, and sits. Sasi’s being strangely guarded, and it’s making Keris nervous.

Sasi sighs. “My love,” she says. She crosses and uncrosses her legs, cradling an overly-large glass of chalcanth. From its lilac hue, Keris thinks it’s neomah. “Did you have to do that? In your very first Directorate meeting, you picked a fight with one of your peers - and then you show-boated! You fought her, naked and unarmed for most of the time, and only pulled out your spear right at the end!”

“... I won, though,” Keris mumbles. “And she’s the one who picked the fight.”

Sasi sits up, pulling off her mask. Underneath, her eyes are reddened. “And you didn’t think how worried I was out there, you naked and unarmed and her turning into a giant monster?” she snaps, voice cracking, shoulders shaking. “I... I know you’re good, but Keris, I screamed when that first blow nearly hit you and tore off your necklace! I know... if just one of those punches had hit you, you’d have been down with broken bones. And that disgusting pirate woman is exactly the kind of fool who’d go too hard and accidentally kill her opponent!”

“Sasi...” Keris says, now feeling rather more guilty. “Sasi, love, I wasn’t in any danger.” She pauses. “Well, not much danger. Maybe a little at the start there, but once I got her sword off her I was fine. And I have my own Shintais, you know. If I’d felt at all threatened I’d just have ramped up to the same level of effort she was putting into it and crushed her instantly.” She scoffs. “That’s basically what I did do; you saw how fast she went down once I pulled my spear out.”

She takes Sasi’s hands, squeezing gently. “Come on, you’ve seen me fight. You know how good I am. No second-rate pirate bitch is going to put me down. Trust me a little more?”

Sasi smiles then, and her smile is like the sun breaking for Keris. “Of course. You’ll always be my champion,” she says. “But forgive me a little for worrying when I saw that.” She pulls Keris closer, examining her arms. “Look at you! You’ve got soot marks on your skin and little bits of melted glass in your hair!”

Perhaps not coincidentally, this gesture also leaves Keris’s hands resting on her chest. Keris bites her lip at the contact, automatically caressing the swells under her fingers. “W-well,” she stutters under Sasi’s beaming expression. “I could’ve done it w-without getting dirty if I’d gone straight for my spear, b-but I, um...”

She’d had a reason, definitely. It just seems a long way away right now with such a gorgeous woman so focused on her - while, Keris remembers, she is completely naked. Not that she hadn’t already been aware of that, but it suddenly takes on whole new vistas of meaning under the heated look in Sasi’s eyes.

Sasi leans in, and there’s something darker, something more wicked in her smile. Less the sun, and more the whispering night. “You didn’t even put your armour on,” she says sweetly, lips hovering just before Keris. “Nor anything else. Could it be, my love, that you loved the feel of the eyes on you? That you wanted everyone to see you beat her senseless while you were dressed for the bedroom, not for war? That you can hear all those rutting demons out there, driven into an orgy just because they watched your display? That they saw everything and it felt good?”

Dusky cheeks darken red, and Keris bites her lip.

“You know what?” she says, rather than admit the answer is ‘yes’. “I think the victor deserves a reward.”

And then four hair-tendrils that have been slinking around Sasi from under her field of view tighten around her hips and thighs, and Keris lifts and swings her onto the nearest hard surface, which happens to be the gem-studded podium. Her remaining two hair tendrils plunge down to the floor and lift her up into the gap between Sasi’s legs, until she’s looking down on her love; faces close together.

“Offer me some suggestions,” she whispers with dark promise, and claims a fierce kiss.

“I loved watching you,” Sasi murmurs when they break for air, as she shifts against her. “The fear made everything sharper. And the magnifying lenses let me see everything. That moment when the blade missed you. The way your muscles flexed as you side-stepped her. The fact that you were having so much fun.” Questing fingers reach in. “You’ve been soaked since this started. Since you knew I was watching.”

“I always am when you’re watching,” Keris murmurs. “Now about that reward...”

Out in the stadium, the celebrating demons feel their eyes drawn almost beyond their will to the great displays flickering on. The demonic fires burn brighter, as the accidentally-nudged control systems begin to display what is happening in the box.

It is said that to view the couplings of the Yozis has a terrible effect on the minds of lesser beings. Perhaps it is true. Certainly, the thousands - tens of thousands - of lesser demons who see what happens in that box have their lives changed forever, their minds enthralled by the second great entertainment their champion puts on for them this night.

Chapter Text

Twice a day, marking the dawn and dusk of the stolen world of Creation, the demons known as tomescu scream in the dreadful knowledge of their coming end. Such screams mark the passage of time in the Demon Realm; count out the beat of its days and years in the endless trickle of centuries that the Yozis have suffered in their imprisonment.

This one, to those near a certain townhouse in the Conventicle Malfeascant, comes a little early.

“WHAT?” Keris shrieks, eyes wide and hair lashing in horror. “But... when... how...”

She shakes her head, circling around to another part of the catastrophe. “How many citizens?”

It really is amazing how one sentence from her adjutant can contain so many different things to be mortified about.

“Compliments from who?” she whines, dragging her hands down her face and keening in agony.

Her butler bows sinuously, unfolding a very long list. “The names are very extensive. Of the Unquestionable, Balanodo sa Elloge, Kuara sa Isidoros, Esterve sa Oramus, and Ipithymia sa Malfeas - and an invitation from her to perform with Lady Sasimana in her greatest theatre. Of the Lords of the Second Circle; Tereki sa Iasestus of the Hierarchy, Karapeshka sa Ululaya sa Kimbery, Mara sa Erembour of the Shadow of All Things, Viscero sa Iudivavisse shin Cecelyne, Lelabet sa Noh of the Shadow of All Things, Ianade and Bittesse, both of Balanodo, Mazah sa Sima shin Oramus, Claudia sa Ipithymia sa Malfeas and her brother Quintus-”

Keris slides off the chair, moaning pitifully and hiding behind her hair.

He clears his throat. “There is also a handwritten note from your daughter Haneyl sa Keris. The message is as follows: ‘Nice’. She has also drawn a picture of a hand with its thumb raised.” He turns it over. “She adds ‘I heard you made Mother very happy. Well done’.”

((o haneyl))

The helpless mortified puddle of abject humiliation on the ground lets out another whimper.

“Is there anyone,” she mumbles, “who doesn’t know what- wait.” Her head rises slightly. “Did anyone get an account of Peer Deveh’s reaction?” There must be some kind of silver lining to this, she reasons. Somewhere.

“No account, my lady, but we can make queries,” he says with a bow. “My lady, it will - I believe - be simple to rebuild your crew for your ship after this. There are demons outside the gates waiting for just a glimpse of you.”

“Do, on both counts,” Keris murmurs, pushing herself upright. Urgh. Zanyi must never, ever find out about this. Ever. From anyone.

It may be necessary to gag Haneyl when they go back to Saata, but that’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make right now.

“I’m,” she croaks, and clears her throat, willing the bright red flush to recede. It doesn’t. “I’m going to see Unquestionable Lilunu and spend some time on artwork with her.” In private. Away from anyone who might recognise her and... bring up her performance. Possibly forever. “Where are the children?”

“Which ones, my lady?” Mehuni says promptly. “Your babes are still within the area you set aside for them, with your body duplicate caring for them. Lady Asarin took Eko and Rathan to a party and they have not yet returned. Haneyl is, I believe, in the baths, and I believe Vali was visiting Peer Testolagh.”

She nods absently. “I’ll take the twins with me, then.” And avoid the baths. Hopefully Haneyl hasn’t ordered any of the servants to notify her of her mother’s return, because that conversation would probably make her drop dead with embarrassment on the spot at this point. “Lilunu will be happy to see them.”

((do de do, time to see if fortune favours Keris.))
((It... does not. 2 successes on rolling Haneyl’s raw Cog.))

Unfortunately, her second daughter is a vicious, malicious predator who knows about hunting. She’s waiting in there when Keris arrives; mock-wrestling with Kali and teasing her with a lock of freshly washed hair, while Ogin naps on the bed. Haneyl beams up at her mother as Kali bats at grey locks, and Keris pre-emptively turns bright red and squeaks, eyeing the windows and door like a hunted animal.

“Say hi to mama, Kali!” Haneyl says playfully.

“Hi mama!”

“Hi mama indeed! Mama is on holiday right now, like we all are. That means we’re in Hell.”

“Green sun!”

“Yes, Kali, green sun means Hell! It’s a really good sun, and doesn’t burn Big Sis Haneyl! Yellow sun is naughty there!”

“Grr,” Kali growls obediently.

“Exactly!” Haneyl glances at Keris. “Does mama need to give Kali a feeding time?” She’s showing no signs of embarrassment, but also none of gloating. No smugness, either, and Haneyl likes being smug normally.

“Mama was, um,” Keris says, grateful at this non-teasing but also deeply suspicious of it, “going to see Lilunu, and thought her babies might want to come. How about it, Kali? Do you want to see Lili again?”

Kali throws her arms wide. “Lili Lili Lili! Mama! Mama! Will Lili be Tiger Lili?”

Haneyl beams. “That’s a great idea, Kali! We should get her tiger lilies as a gift! You’re a genius!”

“Yay! I’m a gee-nus!”

Keris can’t help but smile; charmed by her daughter’s adorable charisma. Venturing fully into the bedroom, she scoops Kali up and cuddles her, giving her a kiss on the forehead.

“Alright then,” she says, looking over to find Ogin already alert and looking at her. A hair tendril gives him a path to climb up onto her shoulder, and she tilts her head to nuzzle his cheek with her own. “Come on. We’ll set off as soon as big sister Haneyl makes some pretty tiger lilies as a present.”

Haneyl fusses as she finds the right pot, and starts to cultivate the plants. “It was really sweet of you to do something like that for mother,” she says conversationally, as she focusses on the growing lily. “She’s really been missing you while she’s been stuck in the Realm. We had a chat on the way over, and she finds everything so ugly without people like you or Testolagh around. Even the prettiest dragonblooded don’t compare. So she’s probably feeling really beautiful and much happier now.”

Her face goes very red again, but Keris manages a cough and a mumbled affirmative. “She, um, seemed to enjoy it,” she agrees. “Though I wish I hadn’t... oh, gods. I’m going to have to go through the crowd at the gates, aren’t I?”

Haneyl beams at that. “You’ve done a wonderful job of making allies, mama! All these demon princes and lords wanting to make your acquaintance! It’s much more effort than you’ve ever put in before at Calibration! You should have told me that you were planning to do something like this. So devious! And I heard you showed up some upstart bitch!” Her accent swings to the Nexan.

“Bit',” chirps up Kali helpfully.

Keris whimpers slightly. “It... wasn’t exactly planned,” she mumbles. “Oh, but yes. One of the new princesses who,” she smirks, “was only on her second Calibration, so she didn’t know who she was challenging and thought I was someone like Sasi.”

“Dumb cow,” Haneyl says, shaking her head. “Okay, it’s a little rushed, but these should do it, mama!” She pats the pot. “Oh, by the way, keep away from the gallery hall baths for now.”

“... why?” Keris asks warily. “Is something wrong with them?”

“No, not at all.” Haneyl beams. She runs her hands through her - for once almost straight and emberless - hair, clearly enjoying the five days a year she gets as nearly pure human. “It’s just that Kuha mentioned to me and Elly that we were nice and all, but she was missing men, so I’m setting her up with Rounen too. And he’ll probably get all embarrassed if you wandered in and ruin all the work I put into that. Well, I say all the work, but it was... well, an hour or two and cooking them a nice dinner.”

After some blinking - and a wince at the memory of the last time she caught Kuha in the baths here - Keris elects to not think about that very hard. “Okay,” she says. “In that case, on to Lilunu.” She pauses. “By anyaglo,” she adds firmly. Nothing but nothing can get her to go through the crowds at the gate on foot right now.

Haneyl rolls her eyes. “And before you say anything, I’m not Calesco,” she says, giving Keris a kiss. “She got all flinchy about ‘you know it’s not love’ and stuff like that. She’s a friend, just like Elly and Rounen.” Haneyl pauses. “By the way, mama,” she adds, just before Keris leaves, “you probably want to clean yourself up. You’ve still got glass in your hair and sootmarks on your skin.”

“Ah?” Keris glances down at herself. Not only is she still dirty from the fight; her tattoos are still showing. Haneyl is ignoring them, and the twins are too young to be affected, but…

“Ah. Right. Yes.” She clears her throat. “You... watch the twins. I’ll go do that.”

And also get dressed properly, she decides. She’s feeling more than a little exposed now, after finding out about her accidental display.

“Ker-is! Ker-is! Ker-is!” shout the crowd as she flies over, along with more lewd suggestions and pleas. Her angyalo is crimson red, and matches her cheeks. It was thoughtful of Eko to...

... well, at least Eko is the one person she’ll be able to talk to without this hanging over her. Because she’ll have forgotten it as many times as she needs to.

Keris finds, though, as she nears the centre of the All-Thing, that the parties are still ongoing. In fact, the... uh, particular party she caused is still ongoing, and in fact intensifies as she flies over and they catch sight of her. The name Keris is on a thousand lips, prayers of demonkind directed up towards her.

And it seems likely that Lilunu will be in congress with the Unquestionable or communing with the Yozis, she realises when she sees that the main chamber is surrounded by legions in brass armour and flying crystal-lancer corps. Maybe there is somewhere else she should go, after leaving a message with the gate-guards.

Sighing, but bowing to the inevitable - Lilunu is always incredibly busy this time of year - Keris twitches her hair-reins and guides her steed over towards Sasi’s estate. The twins will be glad to see Aiko again after several days without her, and Kali especially will no doubt be eager to fill her in on everything she’s been doing since arriving and babble happily about the light of the green sun.

Plus, Haneyl did have a point. A happy Sasi is a Sasi Keris likes spending time around. Even if it will be mortifying - and there’s likely to be a crowd at Sasi’s gate too.

There is, indeed, a crowd at Sasi’s gate is there, but smaller - and they cry out “Ker-is!” as she flies over. Touching down, she heads into the dark and cool of Sasi’s manse.

Sasi greets her with a happy kiss, and then kisses Kali and Ogin too. “I expect you two will be wanting to see Aiko, won’t you?” she asks.

“Yep!” Kali says, nodding seriously in unison with Ogin. “Sasi, we got flowers for Lili but she didn’t see us.”

“Oh, she’s very busy this time of year,” Sasi says seriously. “You’ll be able to see her soon. And what nice flowers. Did Haneyl make them for you?”


“Wasn’t that nice of her? She’s Aiko’s big sister too, so you three are basically sisters and brothers already.”


“Sasi,” Ogin says seriously, “why is everyone around calling out mama’s name? They’re shouting Ker-is.” His mimicry is perfect, a sound much too loud for a baby this small.

“Because they all think mama is the best,” Keris tells him. “Mama had a big contest against another lady, and won, so everyone is very impressed right now.”

Ogin considers this. He nods.

The babies are let into Aiko’s lavishly appointed bedroom filled with toys. But then again, that is Aiko’s life, isn’t it? For all the toys she has, she’s delighted to see the twins and she immediately gives them hugs. “This is Kali’s pillow and this is Ogin’s pillow,” she says shyly.

Keris puts them both down in their places, and scoops her... niece-slash-foster-daughter up for her own kiss and cuddle. “Hello little princess,” she says warmly. “Have you and your mama been having fun?”

Aiko nods so enthusiastically there’s some worry for her neck. “Mama’s back!” she says. “And Daddy, too! We got to eat together and they both hug me and you’re here too Aunty Keris and we’re all being a family! And since Haneyl is my sister and she’s also Kalianogin’s sister so we’re basically family too! This... this is the best best best time of the year!”

Keris kisses her on the nose again. “I’m happy you’re happy,” she smiles, and sets her back down. “Why don’t your mama and I have some tea brought in, and you can let me know what you’ve been doing?”

Keris gets a long and rambling story of everything that Aiko and Daddy and Cousin Cally - no Kali, Shadow Cally not Kitty Kali - did when they were on a scary scary boat and how Daddy has a black fortress in the jungle and then they got on Aunty Keris’ shiny boat when she picked them up and then Mama was there when they got off and it was really fun and she loves it.

It’s a reminder of how quiet Aiko often is, and how much she opens up when she’s surrounded by her family and feels safe. Keris listens with one ear, and trains the other on Sasi. Her love really is happier - she can tell - and in here with Keris and her daughter she’s not as guarded as usual either. It gives Keris the opportunity to observe her quietly, and judge how she is - and how the last year has worn on her.

Sasi is... heavier. She’s been eating more, putting on weight. And there’s more coldblood and more hunger in her. Her face looks just the same, but then again, of course it would. There’s more than enough colourless fire in her to smooth away blemishes. And there’s a deep sadness in her eyes that creeps to the surface when Aiko talks about how much fun she had with Daddy and Shadow Cally. Shifting over slightly, Keris takes her hand below the table and squeezes sympathetically, leaning into her as a comforting support while they listen to the little girl speak. Sasi looks over at her with her iridescent eyes, and after a moment they soften.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she murmurs to Keris. “Can we leave them to play? I want to talk.”

Keris nods, waits for Aiko to reach a relative stopping point, and coaxes her into introducing her collection of toys to Ogin by name and rank while Kali plays pounce with some of the sturdier ones. With the little ones entertained, the adults draw away into a private room, and Keris coaxes Sasi down onto a divan.

Sasi joins her, lying on top of Keris with her head on her chest. “Thank you so much for taking care of Aiko this past year,” she says, arms wrapped around her girlfriend. “I... I would never have thought I’d trust my child to you when we first met. But I’m so glad you did. She’s... she’s clearly really loving it. I’m so happy for her. So happy I fell in love with you.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Keris says honestly. “She’s a sweet little girl, and... I’m happy to have her.” She avoids mentioning the loneliness. With Sasi this fragile... no, something like that would put her off-balance to dangerous levels. “I’ve... I’ve been worried about you. All alone in the Realm - tell me honestly, how bad is it there? How are you holding up?”

Sasi sighs. “I’ve done it before,” she admits. “But... but last time, I wasn’t leaving anyone behind. I wanted revenge. On people from... my old life. It’s... harder. Harder when I wanted to be back in my villa in An Teng, with my daughter and you. The Realm... I travelled a lot. Did things to find people’s secrets, lure them into honeypots, bring them into the faith of the rightful lords of Creation.” She pats Keris’s cheek. “Don’t worry, I kept the number of break-ins I did to a minimum. And only did them as the skulking shadow.” She wriggles up to Keris. “This year, it should be easier. I have the groundwork in place, and a new trick for being someone else. I should be able to take at least one long vacation to come see Aiko and you.” She worms in, rolling Keris up so she’s lying on Sasi instead. “Sorry, you’re bony. And look at you! You’ve really been a big woman this year! All on your own!”

Keris preens, and can’t resist the chance to brag. “The Hui Cha are all mine now,” she singsongs. “And Haneyl has contacts dotted all through the far South. I can ensnare Ca Map pretty easily with the medicine Yuula can teach me, and I’m starting to get hooks into the rest of Saata as Cinnamon.” She wriggles happily. “Soon I’ll have my hair spread all through the Anarchy.”

With a smile, Sasi strokes her hair. “It’s long, gorgeous hair,” she says with a kiss. “Doesn’t everyone want it?” She kisses her again, “I’ve been trying to work out Eko’s notes on demons. I’m not entirely there, but I think I’m putting things together.  At least, when I can find the notes.  My souls keep stealing them.  I don't think they're doing any better at understanding Eko.” Sasi shakes her head. “That girl is disgustingly intelligent.”

“She’s taken in some of the coldblood you have,” Keris murmurs happily, dazed by kisses. “Learned to, mm. Hide backstage and hide as minor characters. She can talk when she’s just a nameless guard or messenger. S’made her happy.”

“I live in fear for what she will get up to,” Sasi says. “On business - you didn’t anger Anadala when you were making enemies, did you? I have to work with him.”

“Nope,” Keris says happily, nudging her for more kisses. “‘xactly the opposite, actually. Backed him up ‘gainst Kasteen when she was bein’ dumb ‘bout spywork, and we’re gonna meet later’n’talk about how I can squeeze the Merchant Fleet by takin’ over from the Three Flame ‘ciety. Plus he was getting hard lookin’ at me and I’m pretty sure he made some money off my win.”

“He’s solid,” Sasi says. “Very fond of the ladies and pretty men, but he’s a solid administrator and excellent spymaster. Better than me, in some ways. I’m much better at acquiring agents, but he’s like a spider sitting in his web. If you can work well with him, you’ll do well.  Watch out, though - he holds grudges.”

“Spies in the Realm Navy, whoo~” Keris coos, stroking Sasi’s face. “He’s not much to look at though. Poor Sasi, surrounded by ugly people and Immaculate assholes.” She presses a long kiss to Sasi’s lips. “D’you know when you’ll be finished so you can come back to the Southwest?”

“Years, probably,” Sasi says hugging Keris close. “Cainan might die of old age, but I wouldn’t even risk you in the Imperial City, let alone any of my agents.” She strokes Keris’s shoulders. “I have certain... contacts with the Dead. They’ve lost a Dead Exalt they sent against him. I might have taken more risks a few years ago, but I’m willing to go slower and more cautiously even if I stay away from you longer if it means it’s more likely I’ll see you again.”

Keris wrinkles her nose. Years is far too long, and the way she clings to Sasi possessively marks her unhappiness with the idea.

“I’ll see if I can make a spell that lets me create portraits like mine,” she promises. “So that you can see Aiko in the evenings. Maybe even one with an inner world, too.”

Sasi sniffs. “She’s gotten so big already,” she says, hugging Keris close. “We’re a strange little family, aren’t we? Aiko loves the idea that Kali and Ogin are her brother and sister.”

“Well, aren’t they?” Keris says. “We are all a family. One clan, one kin. Maybe not a normal one, but...” she nuzzles Sasi’s neck and draws a squeak with a teasing lick, “we’re not normal people, either.”

They lie in peaceful silence for a while. Then; “Are you angry with me, my love?”

“What?” Keris jerks back a little, shocked. Has... has she realised about Kalaska? Has she seen the frightening thing coiled up inside Keris that she hasn’t dared let out? “No!” she objects desperately. “Why would you think that?”

Sasi looks into her eyes. “Keris, dear, I know you have a crowd outside your gate even larger than mine. I was just wondering if you were resenting or blaming me, because... well, you know I like the attention. And we have a lot of attention. Have you received the invitation from Unquestionable Ipithymia?”

Oh. Well. Phew. She’s not been seen through. But... Keris groans and covers her face with a free hair-tendril. “Yes,” she mutters. “And the list of congratulations. I stopped Mehuni after the tenth citizen. But...” She sighs. “I’m pretty sure I was the one who pinned you to the control bank, so... technically my fault.”

Her cheeks shade red as she remembers what they’d done on the control bank. The fact that she’s lying on top of Sasi at the moment in a fairly thin silk dress doesn’t help dull the vivid recollections.

Sasi giggles. “I made sure I got a copy of the crystal-imprint from Lilunu,” she says. “We can watch it again some time. Maybe even see if we can get it working on the devices we found on the Royal Yacht.” She takes in Keris’s expression, and rests her hands on her cheeks. “You’re not happy.”

“I’m... awkward about this stuff,” Keris admits. “In public, anyway. Eko gets it from me, and you know what she’s like.”

Sasi strokes her face. “Was it any worse, any different from the fight?” she enquires. She seems genuinely interested. “You weren’t wearing any more - and this was a sign of love, while the fight was violence. I’d rather people know me for loving the woman I love than inflicting pain on others.”

Keris opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again, and hesitates for a while.

“... I dunno why,” she mumbles. “It just feels different.”

“You don’t get the same rush to think of all those eyes upon you, adoring you; worshipping you?” Sasi kisses her. “I do,” she admits. “It turns me on in the same way as watching you in the ring, without the fear you could get hurt.” She pauses. “And didn’t you mention in one of the dreams you sent me that you were doing veil-dances in Saata? I remember that dream fondly.” She smiles. “You demonstrated for me. It was a pleasant night.”

This gets another blush. “That’s... the lights are down when I do that. They don’t actually see me without the veils,” Keris protests. “Just a silhouette and their imaginations. That doesn’t count.”

“Well, then,” Sasi whispers into her ear, voice softly tempting, “can you think of something that would please the Street of Golden Lanterns that you would be happy with? I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable, even if I don’t understand why - but we do want her to like us. Remember what we want for our souls. And she is... petty when turned down. Not necessarily immediately, but we should put some thought into it.”

Keris bites her lip. Damn. She’d been kind of hoping to quietly ignore that invitation, or possibly pretend it had never been sent. But... Sasi has a point. When the Unquestionable give requests, their subordinates take them as orders.

“I’ll think about it,” she agrees wearily, the Zanaran part of her mind already starting to flick through acceptable options. “And give you an answer in the next scream or two.”

“That’s all I want.” Sasi kisses her bitten lip, right on the wind-scar. “And for what it’s worth, I loved it. And you. And I am glad you showed up when you did. I’m expecting Testolagh to show up before the next scream. I’m wondering where he’s got to. But I did want to talk to the two of you about how things are going and check about Aiko’s living arrangements for the next year. I’d like to take all of Wood off, you see.”

Keris’s eyes widen with interest. “I’d been planning to come back here for Wood next year, along with Zanara,” she murmurs thoughtfully. “Spend some time with Lilunu outside of Calibration, work on Sorcery, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, that has real possibility,” Sasi says. “And if you need someone to cover for you in Saata, I can pretend to be you if you need. I’ve heard a lot about the pleasures and wickedness of Saata while I was in An Teng. That sounds like an enjoyable holiday for me.”

Keris smirks. “It’s my kind of city. And you’ll love what I’ve done with the place. Alright, we can talk about that later.” She frowns suddenly. “Ah... Testolagh didn’t hear about our, um, performance, did he?”

“I haven’t seen him yet, so... I suspect he will have,” Sasi says tactfully.

A sinking feeling overtakes Keris, and she winces.

This isn’t going to be fun.

Testolagh shows up late - almost at the time of the scream, and there’s very little chance to say anything. Fortunately, what he does say doesn’t... uh, mention certain things. At all. Even if she can read him, and she knows he knows. Instead, he gives a fuller description of the small far South West island he seized at the head of a band of pirates joined by Calesco, taking a rocky island with little trade that had previously been a pirate cove.

“Calesco suggests that it might be an idea to base the owlriders there,” he tells Keris. “She says the air currents from the volcano makes them good for lift-off, and as scouts they can keep an eye on the sea lanes without them getting out of shape.”

She nods cautiously. “I’ll want to see it first, but a flight corps on the southern trade routes to keep track of who’s going where would be useful,” she agrees. “How goes the army?”

“I’ve seized the docks on Rua, though they fired them when we attacked. I’ve been working on getting them repaired.” His eyes are lingering on Keris, she notices - more than usual. And though it’s hard to tell from the lighting, he has a certain pinkness to his cheeks. “My thought is that it would be best to focus on controlling the pirate fleet harbours. You mentioned on the boat ride here something about Ca Map?”

“Yes.” She speaks briskly, and can feel her cheeks flushing. Hopefully her skin tone hides it, because ordering the treacherous things to stop still isn’t working. “From, uh... f-from what Haneyl tells me, I can hook the Despot fairly easily with the usual blandishments, then use him as a puppet ruler. The Shogunate weapons of that city were enough to break a Realm fleet; once they’re in our control we have a lot more options for setting up a powerbase the Navy can’t touch and denying them any routes south.  Not just the Realm.  The Zu Tak, too.

“And-” There’s a pause from everyone, as the scream of the tomescu echo across the lands, raising even over the noise of the demons revelling outside. Keris winces, and waits for it to be over. Once the noise falls back to its usual levels, she makes a cutting gesture with her hand.

“It’ll have to wait,” she says with an attempt at an apologetic tone that comes out more as relief about having an excuse to escape the awkwardness. “I have a meeting with Unquestionable Lilunu, and her schedule is busy enough that I can’t risk being late. Oh- the twins are playing with Aiko, so you’ll have to pry Kali off again.” There’s enough Ligerian fire in Testolagh that Kali reacts to him as enthusiastically as she did to Ney - a lesson learned when he first arrived in Silver Lotus.

Sasi rises, and sees Keris out. She leans down to kiss her on the lips. “Try not to get in any more fights with our peers,” she chides Keris, tapping her on her nose.

“I will do my best,” Keris promises with a grin, “but if Naan gets wind of my newfound popularity and feels insecure, I can’t be held accountable.”

Punching Naan in the face would be a nice way to relieve some of the embarrassment right now, she can’t help but think. Unfortunately, he’s probably too drunk to have heard yet, and isn’t likely to be en-route to Lilunu anyway.

Sasi kisses her again. “I love you,” she says, wrapping her arms around her before sending her on her way.

Keris slips out away from the entrance, leaping the fence and stepping backstage so people don’t look for her. She runs past the parties and the celebrations, pausing to return to reality until she’s let past the brass-clad soldiers and admitted to see Lilunu.

As is not unusual for these moments when Keris squeezes time with Lilunu at Calibration, she’s made time for Keris when she’s changing outfits. She’s half-way out of a shimmering dress made of snake-scales when she sees Keris, and she dismisses her servants. “You can help me change and we can talk in private, as I suspect you want,” Lilunu says, waiting for the servants to go. “I wish I could see more of you during this time of year - and your darling souls. How are they?”

“Zanara is very put out about not being able to come for Calibration,” Keris tells her; starting with the youngest and the one she knows Lilunu will want news of the most. “They wanted to come visit you for Wood, actually, but I’m afraid I roped them into a grand performance to fool a Dragonkin. Next year for sure. Vali is determined to be the best big brother he can for the twins and Atiya, and Calesco has been spending time helping Peer Testolagh.”

She smiles fondly. “Haneyl’s been invaluable helping me act as division head - you were right, when you told me that. Rathan’s as charming as ever; he’s been helping keep us under the eyes of House Sinasana. And Eko’s taken some coldblood into her nature, and is having far too much fun playing different roles.”

Helping Lilunu out of the rest of the dress, Keris carefully hangs it up and takes the next down; flicking a finger warningly at Iris when she expels a curious puff of flame and tries to lick it.

“And yourself, my lady? How have you been?”

“Oh, quite well, Keris, quite well.” Her hair lengthens, taking on an indigo hue with white tips like sea-foam, and she sags down upon her dressing room chair, sprawled out with an unladylike lack of care. “I might have to shout at you, Keris. Just a little bit.”

Keris bites her lip. “Is it about Hermione?” she asks guiltily. She’s been anticipating this moment since about an hour after she found the mirror-dragon had hitched a ride with her.

“Yes, Keris.” Lilunu crooks her finger at her, commanding her to put down her dress, and summoning her closer. “It is about her.”

“In, um,” Keris says, obeying, “in my defence, I did not realise she had snuck into my amulet-sanctum until I was already back in Creation, and I’m fairly sure that if I’d tried to send her back, she would have mutinied or poisoned me or both.”

“Keris...” Something drips from her hair. It sizzles on the ground.

“I’m sorry!” Keris yelps, shifting instantly to ‘grovel’. “I’m really sorry, I know I should have sent word back, but she was so happy to be out in Creation with a mirror-world all her own and I was worried that if I sent a Messenger back it might not be secure and I didn’t want her to get in trouble because she only wanted to explore and I know Unquestionable Orabilis is strict about your souls and I didn’t want her to get chained up to stop her ever doing it again and just... not mentioning it seemed like the best way to protect her?”

She glances up nervously as she runs out of babble; eyes pleading.

Lilunu winces in pain, and her left arm spasms, dark veins suddenly visible. She takes a gasping breath. Then the dark veins retreat back to her core, and her hair turns a silvery grey. It’s strange, but she looks even more like Sasi than usual - and there’s already some similarity.

“I... suppose that’s fine, Keris,” she says slowly. A single bead of mercury drips down from the corner of her left eye. “What would you do if I ordered you to bring her back? Be honest.”

Keris hesitates. It’s a slight hesitation, but one that betrays her.

“... would she be safe?” she asks, then winces. “Right, sorry, Unquestionable. Um. I would... I...”

On the one hand, if it’s Lilunu asking, Keris wants to say that of course she’d do it.

On the other... she remembers Lilunu’s fears about Antifasi being chained. Remembers Zanara whispering about Lela, who’s never light and never free.

She couldn’t damn Hermione to that kind of fate. She just... she couldn’t. Any more than she could fly.

Keris winces again, her hand going to her temple as a pounding headache forms. “I’d... want to?” she tries. “As... as long as she wouldn’t be punished.”

((Roll me 4 dice, please))
((2 sux))
((Oh Keris. More loyal to Lilunu than the other Unquestionable.))
((... haha. Honestly, Lilunu is Beloved, and Hermione is her daughter so she counts as well. And Lilunu knows Keris has MBD. She may well realise that Keris literally couldn’t do something she saw as betraying Hermione or endangering her safety.))
((The Yozis kind of shot themselves in the foot on that one.))

Iris rises up out of Keris’s arm, and flutters over to Lilunu. She curls around her neck, and brings her head up to Lilunu’s ear.

Lilunu freezes, her expression profoundly mixed. Then she rises, and brings Keris into a painfully tight hug as red starts to creep into her hair and her eyes for a moment flicker. “I d-don’t know... you would put yourself against... the others if they ordered that be done? For me?” She’s shaking in Keris’s arms.

“You’re clan,” Keris says simply, trying very hard to focus on the words and not the fact that an almost-entirely-naked Lilunu who looks a lot like Sasi is hugging her very tightly, even as she hugs back with arms and hair and tries to comfort her mentor. “Clan and kin. I won’t betray you, ever. Even if it... causes me problems.”

“Th-then,” Lilunu manages, voice tight, “... I suppose you don’t know where she’s got to. Maybe she might have hitched away with you, but she f-found her own way out. Would you swear an oath to me that you didn’t steal her away from Hell?”

“I so swear,” Keris says formally. “On my family, and the clan we share. She found a way across the Desert on her own, and nobody knew her route until she was out.” She pauses. “I can also honestly say I don’t know where she is right now, if asked,” she adds, relatively truthfully. She can make guesses, but Hermione is prone to sneaking around in secret, and Keris is well aware she’s done things Keris isn’t aware of over the course of the year.

Lilunu grits her teeth, cupping Keris’s face with her hands. “But,” she says meaningfully, “you would swear an oath that you didn’t steal her from Hell, so I can tell anyone who asks that you did not take her from me?”

Keris nods, understanding her point. “I would, my lady,” she says. “I did not take her from you, and I don’t know her location.”

Lilunu slumps down, shaking. “I d-don’t like lying to them,” she whispers. “It... hurts. To know I’m deceiving them. They made me. I... I love him, Keris. I don’t want to lie to him, but... I love Hermione for all that she resents me and... and she’s right to because I... I can’t make anything healthy.”

Iris exhales an angry, finger-wagging flame shape. It draws a weak chuckle from Lilunu. “Apart from maybe you, Iris.”

“If it helps,” Keris says tentatively, “she seemed healthier, out in Creation. I think it’s been good for her. Maybe just...”

She bites her lip, unsure what to say. Keris has never had any particular issues with lying to her superiors. Or inferiors. Or peers and rivals. Or with lying in general, really.

People like Testolagh make their lives entirely too complicated, in her opinion. Getting hung up about that sort of thing is just wasted energy.

“Maybe just think of it as being able to do your job better if you’re healthy,” she says lamely. “And not getting into a big pointless fight about how you’re getting there.”

“I wish.” Lilunu lets out a pitiful sigh. “You’re so strong, Keris. You... you can do so many things I wish I could. And I remember what you told me about your life before my gift found you.” She rests her hand on her midsection, and there’s a little flare of varicoloured light. “You’ve had to fight for everything.”

“Not just fight,” Keris says on autopilot, eyes going wide as she recognises that gesture. Is there a keter-soul like hers within Lilunu at the moment? She didn’t take a count of Infernals at the Althing boasts - but maybe she should start.

“I... had to lie, too,” she picks up, belatedly remembering what she was saying. “I’m strong now, but I was weak back then. When you’re powerless and trapped in a city full of bigger, richer people, you can’t always face your problems and fight them. You have to hide from things that threaten you, trick or deceive your foes when brute force won’t work. I lived by my wits, not my fighting skills.”

Lilunu lets her head hang, her hair falling in front of her face. “I’m awful at lying,” she admits. “I try, but... I go to pieces in front of the others. I can manage it to other people, but that’s... that’s different.”

Keris purses her lips.

“Well...” she says, “if you’re interested - in purely academic terms - about what some of your princes and princesses do in Creation, so that you can better understand their successes and challenges... I could walk you through the ways I took over the Hui Cha or outwitted the Realm’s magistrates.”

“I would love such reports - but later, Keris,” Lilunu says, peeking out from behind her hair. Like a child, Keris can’t help but feel, after she’s seen Aiko make an identical gesture many times. “Oh, we’ve waited so long and I only have so much time for my next costume change. Can you see that suit of crystalline armour? That’s what I’m wearing for the next ceremony.”

“Oh, wow,” Keris nods, moving over to it. “It’s gorgeous. Oh, and while you get dressed, I did have a report of my own to make. About the Zu Tak. And the chance of a deathlord in the Southwest...”

Keris helps her dress - and uses the chance to give her a scalp-massage and do her hair, too - and as she adjusts the silken sash, Lilunu nods over to her dressing room table. “Oh, I was leaving this for later, but I thought I would get you a gift. Take a look.”

It’s a book - of sorts. Rather, it’s a book of sheer black silk pages, with the words and illustrations painted onto the midnight anhule web. “I thought I’d store some of my thoughts in a book,” she explains. “On the arts of beautification we adore. It’s the first book I’ve written, and I thought it was much prettier that way than Orabilis’s glass books.”

Gleeful sounds come from her assistant as Keris browses through it. Every page is black silk - so thin and sheer as to be transparent when held up on their own - with the words embroidered in beautiful flowing silver Old Realm. There are even illustrations; stitched in so lifelike a style that they seem to be more windows than pictures.

“It’s beautiful,” Keris enthuses. “I’ll take very good care of it. And...” she flips through it quickly, taking in the chapters. “Oh, you even included a section on my painting! Thank you thank you thank you! This will be perfect for trying to make a spell to create lesser versions of it for my spies to make reports with. And Zanara will adore it.” Her mouth twitches. “In fact, I might need to chain it to my desk so it doesn’t get stolen,” she adds, half-serious.

Lilunu claps her hands together. “I expect to see some of the principles of the art therein to be displayed in your own flesh,” she says. “I’ll want to see all of it, Keris. It’s the first full book I’ve written, so keep it safe.”

Keris helps get the breastplate secures, then curtseys deeply. “As my mentor commands,” she says fondly. “I’ll be a very dutiful student; you have my promise.”

Stepping back as the last pieces go on, she looks Lilunu up and down critically. “Hmm,” she says thoughtfully, a smile playing on her lips as she purses them in faux-thought. “It’s gorgeous, but the sash could just use a little...”

Her left hand reaches out and caresses the sash, Iris playing about her fingers. And as the little dragon spreads her wings, the silk changes; colour and material shifting around Keris’s touch and spreading until it’s made up of hair-thin woven amber strands that catch the light and shimmer entrancingly.

With an impish smile, Keris nods. “That matches the armour better,” she says happily. “A gemstone sash for a set of jewelled armour.”

Lilunu’s mouth opens wide. “Keris!” she exhales. “I... I’ve never seen any of my sweet peers do something like that. That... that felt like... like me. When I lose control. Only... under control...”

Keris bounces happily on her heels. “You remember the last chakra-knot I took in? Once Iris unravelled it and I took it in properly, it let me transmute things. Like I did the wall, but with more precision - I can change things between the materials of those Makers I’ve internalised, as well as those of my souls.”

She motions at the sash. “That’s Calesco’s amber. It’ll look beautiful in the light - though be careful not to let it tear; those fibres will be razor-sharp if they break. I’ve been making shrines in Saata with this gift; bedecking them with all kinds of materials I’d’ve had to import from Hell otherwise.” A sharp grin appears. “I’m pretty sure it’d let me corrupt the magical materials of Creation too, if I wanted.”

Iris exhales a smug face, and Lilunu shakes her head in wonder. “You never cease to surprise me - or Sasimana, either. It’s one of the things she loves about you.” She smiles. “Yes, we have talked about you. And it was mostly good. She was very worried about that fight you got in with Kasteen. But I suspect you’ve already talked that over with her.” She pats Keris on the shoulder. “Just... try to get on better with your peers, Keris. I know you and Deveh bicker, and of course you had that break-up with Orange Blossom and... well, I do love you, but you do seem to make enemies.”

Keris ducks her head. “Naan likes me,” she defends herself. “And I was getting on well with Anadala, too.”

“Just... try, Keris. That’s all I ask.” She leans in, and gives her a chaste kiss on the brow. “Now, off to another meeting.” She turns to leave, and pauses. “And by the way, Keris, if you want copies of your little playtime with Sasimana, I can get them for you. It was very cute of you two to entertain everyone like that.”

“Tha-” Keris squeaks, caught off-guard by the sudden subject change into deepest humiliation and going from defensive to dying of embarrassment in a pinpoint turn. “That’s f-fine! I’ll just... um... I’ll let you g-get on with your business!”

She bids her mentor a hasty, respectful goodbye, and then flees before the beautiful older woman can reference anything specific from the... performance.

Yuula, Keris decides. She can go find Yuula. And get very drunk to try and erase that image from her memory, or at least punish her treacherous brain for coming up with it and still not obeying her commands to stop blushing so much.

She finds the demon princess in one of the bars within the All-Thing building itself. The air pulses with power. There are several demon princes in here, drinking while they wait for meetings or to see others. Keris recognises Imre, Adorjan’s archer, with his great white jade wings, eyepatch, and bow that - she realises - is all too similar to Calesco’s.

She shudders, and tries not to think of it.

Yuula is napping at the bar, her head surrounded by empty clay jugs, sitting amidst a pool of mercury that’s slowly growing around her.

“A round for me and for Lady Yuula,” Keris orders, seating herself beside the medic; accepting a fizzing concoction distilled from desert-glass and the leaves of Szoreny. “My lady? I see you’ve been enjoying your winnings.”

She takes some nudging to wake up, and blearily stares up at Keris. “Oh. Huh. ‘S you.” She screws her eyes shut, as something more of her wakes up. “Ha! You took my idea! Didn’t think you’d actually do it!” She breaks out in uproarious laughter, even as she sobs mercury.

Dammit. Keris turns bright red again. “I didn’t... it wasn’t...” she stutters, and hides her face, whimpering. “Can we not talk about that?” she begs plaintively. “Please?”

“Don’t see wha’ the big deal is,” Yuula says, rolling her shoulders. She stares down at her drink, swirling it in the hope more could appear. “Back in the day, me an’ Ully would do it every Calibration. ‘Cause that was the one time when Ligier and that bastard Sun weren’t in the sky, so everyone could see us.” She throws the dregs back. “Of course, back then she wasn’t such a shallow bitch and I wasn’t a scarred mess. We were beautiful and young and...” she sighs, gesturing for another drink. “I’d make it rain cinnabar-red petals across the world, for our lover’s bed, and those who ate ‘em would... you know, be better from all illnesses.  And stuff.

She glances at Keris. “Take care of all the good times you have with your girl,” she says bitterly. “When you look back and she’s changed, you’ll wish you'd made all the fun you could.”

Opening her mouth to answer, Keris can’t quite find the words. She nods instead, rather than mention that Sasi’s already changed, in some ways. Before Keris even knew her.

“Fuck the silver moon and fuck the stars,” Yuula mutters, as her drink is refilled. She chugs it down, wincing as her too-violent motion opens old scars from the adamant cuffs around her wrists. “So. What do you want? Someone hurt you just need me to heal?”

“No,” Keris says immediately; well aware of how that would go down. “I just wanted to have a few drinks with you, my lady - and maybe a lesson or two, if you felt like it.”

“Huh.” She downs two drinks in silence, then - swaying slightly - notices something. “What’s that book you got?”

Keris’s arm tightens around it as she blushes again. “It’s from Lilunu,” she admits. “She’s my mentor in artwork and beauty, so sometimes she gives me lessons and things to study.”

Yuula grins. “You want a bet, then? My lessons vs your book. You’re probably wanting to learn the secrets of immortality. Humans always do.” She snorts. “Am I right?”

Keris’s eyes widen, and she bites her lip, hugging the book protectively. Is she willing to lose it should she fail?

... is she so insecure that she thinks she might?

“I suppose you wouldn’t take any other stakes, if it’s a lesson for a lesson, huh?” she asks. Yuula smirks, and Keris sighs. “Thought not.” And now that she’s shown how much she values it, Yuula will probably find a way to get it off her if she backs down. She wouldn’t be able to tell an Unquestionable “no” to her face if Yuula said she wanted it in front of all her peers in the bar right now, after all.

Keris breathes deeply. “Okay. Okay!” Slamming her fist on the bar, she squares her shoulders. “I won’t lose to you! Lilunu gave me this and trusted me to keep it safe, so I’ll win whatever challenge you set me!”

“Ha!” There’s something deeply unpleasant in Yuula’s voice. Does she just want to hurt her because Keris has a girlfriend and this is reminding her of when she had Ululaya, which is something to think about in its own right? “You got guts, girl. You’ll lose, but at least you’re not boring.”

She sticks her hand into a pocket, and pulls out four stoppered brass vials, held between her fingers. “This one cures blindness,” she says. “This one, regrows an arm. This one, undoes liver failure. And this one, the taste of it brings youth and health once more. Just four of my medicines.

“If, in one week, you can brew all four, you win. And if you can’t, I get that book.” She grins, mercury trails framing her mouth. “Or are you not good enough and think you’ll lose?”

For a moment, Keris hesitates.

But only a moment.

“Ten screams,” she growls, swiping another drink with a hair-tendril and downing it in one shot. “I’ll do it in ten screams, not a week.”

That gets her bared teeth. “Cocky, are we? Well, I’ll take that bet!” She lays the vials out, then taps her drink to Keris’s. “See you in ten screams, then,” she says, downing the drink.


The demon princess essays her a little wave, the snakes around her chuckling. “Well, care to stay for a few more drinks?” she asks in cruel merriment.

Keris looks mutinous, but she can’t refuse. If she leaves now, it’ll be a sign of weakness - an implication that she thinks she’ll need every second of those ten screams to study and pour over the vials and desperately try to replicate them.

Which is admittedly true.

But she remembers Old Calley, and despite the disparity in power between them; the old alchemist and healer she used to know back in Nexus isn’t so different in some ways from this demon princess apothecary. Keris knows without needing to ask, in her bones and in her gut, that Yuula has taken students before. And she knows that they tried to meet her expectations, and prove equal to her demands, and break even with the work she set them.

And one by one, she crushed them all. Either until they burned out and dropped, or turned bitter and hard like her.

No, if Keris is going to succeed as Yuula’s student, she can’t settle for being good enough to measure up to the lessons of the Weeping Handmaiden. She has to exceed them, and make it look effortless.

Which is why, despite every part of her hindbrain screaming at her in panic, she casually crosses her legs and leans on the bar, motioning for another round of drinks.

“Sure,” she agrees with false cheer. “I’m in no hurry.”

She’s going to win this bet even if she has to rip the secrets out of the Silver Forest itself, and then Yuula will have to teach her.

“So, let me get this straight, Aunty,” Oula says, sitting by Keris as she flips through Lilunu’s book with silken gloves on. “You’ve already wasted half a day drinking with her, you’re going to be missing most of the rest of the Calibration parties due to your self-imposed deadline, and you don’t know how to do this.”

Keris’s workroom in her townhouse is baby-proof, but not catty daughter-in-law-to-be-proof. Acid bubbles in the corner. Burners flicker with green flame. Ice steams from the tanks.

“Shut uuuuup,” groans Keris, clutching at her head. The hangover is as brutal as the last one she suffered after drinking with Yuula. “Just... get Rounen to copy it down, okay? If I do lose - which I won’t! - I don’t want to have nothing to show for it. And Yuula only bet that specific book.”

Oula sniffs. “He is in the baths, with Kuha. Again. It’s disgusting. I was going to take a bath with Rathan since he’s looking a little hungover from the parties and I want to take care of him while making it clear he deserves to suffer for not taking me.” She turns the page. “And... I don’t know. This is beautiful. Maybe I should focus on this, rather than on the sorcery. I’m not sure...” she trails off.

“Hey!” Keris snaps, rapping her hand with a stirring rod without looking up. “You’ll do both, and you’ll excel at both, because you’re my student. And also future daughter-in-law. Got it? No putting yourself down.”

Oula looks up at her, clearly uncomfortable. “But... I’m not one of your souls. I’m... just a serf, like I heard someone say at a party.” She scowls. “ Of course, I put mercury in that bitch’s drink, let me tell you that. But... maybe... your first student should be Rathan. Or maybe Haneyl, but really Rathan.”

That makes Keris look up. Look up, and despite the pounding in her head, get up and kick a stool across to sit in front of the younger girl.

“Oula,” she says seriously. “Listen to me. Okay? If you learn one thing from me, just one; let it be this: you will never get any power or safety in the world if you accept the place it makes for you.” She squeezes hard to underline the statement. “Ever. You get me? Understand this - of all my students in sorcery right now; out of Rathan and Haneyl and Yuu and even Hermione; you’re the one closest to achieving it right now. You’ve journeyed. You’ve been humbled. You’ve mastered what I’ve taught you. You’ve faced your fears.”

Grey eyes lock onto crimson and silver. “And now you’re facing a choice,” Keris says; more gently but still relentless; still not giving Oula any slack. “And it’s scary. I know it’s scary. I’ve done it twice, and it’s terrifying. You don’t know what life will be like if you take that last step. You don’t know what will change. It’s a door you can only go through once, and the other side is dark.”

A hair tendril fetches her a notepad, and she sketches on it; quick and sure. Sorcerous notation - a Salinan proof that describes a spell she’s never taught her students. A spell she made herself; the Wave-and-Fire Rite that lets a human and a demon cast off their natures and become something else; the union of two beings in one. She leaves it incomplete; a missing gap in the equations that took her weeks to fill when she was struggling to create this working, and turns the pad around to face her student.

“I can’t tell you what to choose,” she says simply. “I can only make you admit this. That door; that choice - that wall you’re butting up against. Is it good for you, Oula? Or is it holding you back?”

Slowly, unstoppably, she pries Oula’s fretting hands open and puts the ink-brush in them.

((OK, Per + Expression, let’s see if your pep talk can give her the courage to help her make the decision. And I will roll her willpower.))
((Hee. 4+5+3 Prince of Hell+2 stunt x2 Hidden Depths Temptress {“make a choice”}=14. Haha, 10x2=20 successes.))
((And she got, on WP...))
(([10 9 7 7 6 6 5 5 3]))
5 successes. Niiiiice. : D))
((Yep, that was enough for her to take the next step and Awak... I mean, initiate into Sorcery.))

Oula swallows. Her silver pupils contract. And then they open wide, wide, until they nearly take up her whole eye.

“Of course,” she says simply. “I... I love him.” She balls her fists. “But loving him doesn’t mean I can’t be better than him.” She looks Keris in the eye. “You chose me as your pupil, Aunty. You said I was ready. So I’m ready. I... I don’t have to hold myself back anymore. I can do anything I want. And if I try and I fail, I’ll just have to find another way.

She lets out a soft sigh. “I can see it all, Aunty,” she says dreamily, even as her pupils contract again. “It’s beautiful. You made this. A way for a human to take the power of a demon. And for a demon to take a human’s form, its place in the world.”

And then she bursts into tears.

Setting the incomplete proof aside; its purpose served, Keris gathers her student - her student! - into her arms and soothes her. The first glimpse of the world after opening your eyes again is always a bit traumatic, she knows. It’s not quite a Third Breath - for both Keris and Oula have had a First and a Second - but it’s not far off. Everything is different, and comes with the knowledge that it’ll never quite be the same again.

“I’m sorry, Aunty,” Oula mumbles into her. “I... I don’t know why I’m crying. It’s just...”

“I know,” Keris hums to her. “I know. I’ve been there too, remember. It’s okay. I’m proud of you.”

She lets out a little burble that’s almost a giggle, almost a sob. “No... no wonder Rathan and Haneyl haven’t managed this. It’s... well, it’s a big change. I... I wonder if we’ll be better at learning it. Keruby, I mean. We’re used to thinking differently and growing up.”

Keris smiles. “Well then, I suppose you’ll be the one to found the school,” she suggests. “You can work on it whenever you go back to the Domain with Rathan for a season or so.”

“It’s your school, Aunty,” Oula says. She swallows. “I’m just your disciple.”

“Then you can run it for me,” Keris smiles. She thinks of Salina, and huffs a soft laugh. Her mentor would probably get a kick out of her first student being Oula. Not one of her souls, not another Exalt - a First Circle. One of the masses, with a heart too big to remain meek.

“Now, get that book copied out and go over your studies of the Messenger. And think about what you’re going to use as a conduit. Now that you’re a sorceress, I’m going to make use of you, young lady!”

Oula smiles a little smile. “Is this just you making sure I’m too busy to get pregnant?” she asks.

Keris gives her the eyeball. “It’s a bit of both,” she says warningly. “Now, scoot! I have alchemy to do.”

Oula bows. “Yes, teacher,” she says, taking the book. “As you wish.”

Chapter Text

Vitriol bubbles. Occult flames hiss under vessels of brass and glass and silver - not just the green fires of hell, but strange flames that flicker and shift and cast opalescent light. A half dozen beakers of blood line one countertop; bright red mixed through with quicksilver swirls. Mortars full of strange powders dot the bench next to them, and thick pastes and oozes squirm against the inside of sealed jars along a line of shelves.

Scents and sounds fill the air with alien texture. The acrid sharp tang of vitriol mixes with metallic blood-scent and the sweet perfume of cinnabar petals. A sickeningly rotting undertone leaves an unpleasant aftertaste on the tongue. Carefully calibrated flames snap and hiss, the bubble and trickles of liquids moving along thin pipes sounds almost musical, and two voices confer in low murmuring tones. Arcane secrets of health and vigour and eternal youth are being plumbed in this strange laboratory, and its mistress has long since lost track of time when she hears the door click behind her, and soft steps sashay in. High heels click against the stone floor and a scanty silk dress slinks against her skin.

“Keris,” the visitor says from the doorway. “Where did you get to? You left the twins with me and then I find you here! I thought we had a party together tonight!”

At Sasi’s entrance, Keris jumps and jerks her head round belatedly - a reaction that speaks to how absorbed she was; to miss her love’s approach until she was past the door and well within her space. A little bit of her brain notes that Sasi still uses the word ‘tonight’. She’s been chosen by Hell even longer than Keris, but such things are hard to shake.

“I did?” she asks. “We do? Wait, no...” She shakes her head, glancing back at the glass test tube she’s been poring over; decanted from a small brass vial. There’s less of it than she started with; drop by careful drop sacrificed to different attempts at analysis and replication.

“Double the mercury content and let it simmer,” she orders Oula, who nods demurely and sets to work. She’s not an alchemist of Keris’s skill, but this is art done with mercury - it’s similar enough that she can do the menial work that needs only nimble hands and a basic knowledge of the equipment.

Keris herself turns the rest of the way to face her lover. “Sorry Sasi,” she says. “It’ll have to wait. I kind of screwed myself over and now I’m, uh...”

She gestures vaguely at the humming workshop.

“... busy. And on a time limit.”

Sasi doesn’t stop her approach, draping herself over Keris. She smells, Keris realises, somewhat drunk. And she’s been with Testolagh. “Aww, come on, dear one,” she slurs slightly. “That’s no fun.” She pouts like a child, rubbing herself up against Keris’s silk dress. “You know what is more fun?” Her hand rubs against the small of Keris’s back.

“... what?” Keris asks nervously, which is not what she’d meant to say. She’d meant to quip something like ‘not losing a bet with an Unquestionable’ and shoo Sasi out of her lab before the evidently-rather-drunk woman can talk her into anything.

Dammit, she’s really going to have to find a way to punish her brain if it keeps betraying her like this.

Pulling a face, Sasi scoots to perch up on Keris’s workbench, her loose robe riding up to expose reaches of pale thigh. “You’re being really unfun today,” she says sulkily. “Kiss me.”

Keris can hear Oula roll her eyes.

“Sasi, I...” Keris stutters, hands drifting to caress Sasi automatically, rubbing up her thigh just high enough to tease before retreating again. “I’m busy, I got myself sucked into a bet with Yuula; if I don’t learn what she’s asked for I’m screwed. Can we... just... later? Please?”

The plea loses some impact from the way she doesn’t actually stop touching Sasi or try to push her away.

Sasi might be drunk, but she’s also very curious. “Oh, Keris, what did you do now?” she sighs. She blinks owlishly. “Do you need help? I can always make time for you if you need my help, my tiny and adorable love.” She giggles, and puffs herself up, trying to look serious.

It’s a reminder, a cold and somewhat distant bit of Keris’s mind notices, of how generous and large and giving Sasi’s heart is. The less cold and distant part of her mind is noticing more that Sasi wandered over here only wearing a short thin robe, loosely belted, and it’s open enough that she can see what else is also large and generous and lies above aforementioned heart.

“I... I don’t need help,” Keris stutters, then sighs. “I just... Yuula offered to teach me something and then roped me into a bet that I could master four of her medicines in a week, or give up the book Lilunu gave me. Her first one she ever wrote. And then I kind of got pissed and told her I’d do it in ten screams. And then wasted one of them drinking with her to show I wasn’t panicked about it or anything.”

“Even though you were,” Oula puts in. A lock of hair whip-cracks at her, and she hastily goes back to minding the burner. Keris shrugs.

“So now I’ve got eight screams to figure out four magical remedies, and I’m making progress on the first one but it’s slow going and I need to put everything into this or I’m not gonna make the deadline. And I really, really need to make the deadline.”

Sasi huffs. “No wonder you get along with her,” she says sulkily. “You both make terrible bets.” She crosses her legs. “Now, are you planning on sleeping at all, or are you going to just shut yourself in here and waste all of Calibration?”

“... uh,” says Keris, because she gets the impression that ‘um, the second one’ isn’t the right answer. Or at least isn’t the answer Sasi would consider so.

“Well, I refuse to let you shut yourself away and stay up for four days, inhaling mercury fumes! You’ll go mad! Madder than you are for wasting all this chance for fun.” She looks over at Keris, heartbreakingly winsome eyes wobbling. “I hardly got to see you all year. And now you’re in here, and I’ll have to leave soon, and then it’ll be back to the Realm for me and... and...”

((8 successes on compelling Keris to offer to make it up to her, UMI, playing off Keris’s principle of being Sasi’s loving protector.))

Keris bites her lip, looks over at her workbench, and then back at Sasi. She’s silent for a long moment.

“... two screams,” she says eventually. “I can give you two screams, Sasi, but that’ll be cutting it to the absolute razor edge, and if anything unexpected comes up this will fuck me, you get me? Please - I know you’re good at talking me into things, but please don’t try to get me to stay past that. You probably could, and then I’d lose this bet and hurt Lilunu and Yuula will never teach me anything, ever again.” She stares into Sasi’s eyes, letting her sincerity burn. “Promise me?”

“No, no, no,” Sasi says, looking her in the eye. “I know that’s important to you. I’ll be around sometimes to make sure you get some sleep, or I might just get Haneyl to do it. But if you really want to make it up to me,” she bites a lip slowly, “well, no one says we can’t have a party of our own when this is all over. A very, very exclusive one. It’s just I’ve missed you. So, so much.”

That draws a smile. “That sounds good, yeah,” Keris agrees. “And I’ve had a few ideas about the kind of thing I’m willing to do for that performance in the Street of Golden Lanterns.”

“And, well,” Sasi continues, a smile on her lips, “I’ve been talking with Tessie. And he and you have been getting on better and Aiko adores both of you - she’s been wondering where Aunty Keris has been, just like the twins - and, well.” She leans in, the alcohol on her breath tickling Keris’s nostrils. “He’d be willing to share me with you for one special night. As a Calibration present for me, before I have to go away again and barely see you two all year. Just me, you and him.” She kisses Keris on the nose. “Please?”

Again, Keris hesitates. Testolagh... well, there have been a few moments, and physically there’s potential there, but he’s not really her type...

... but if it’s a special present for Sasi, well.

She kisses Sasi back. “Whatever you want,” she agrees. “We’ll make it extra special for you.”

Sasi wraps her arms around her shoulders. “It’ll be wonderful,” she breaths. “And since you’re so busy, I’ll handle the side of things with keeping the Street of Golden Lanterns happy. I’m thinking... well, there’s a genre of short opera in the Realm which are meant to be things warning people about the evils of sin and vice and demons. Which are things we’re both rather into. And both of us can sing and dance and between me and you, we can make up a whole orchestra and cast. You can do your beautiful veil dance and I’ll be some poor innocent woman of the Realm lured into wicked decadence.” She hiccups. “I’ve heard rumour that the demon princes find twistings of the Immaculate plays to be hilarious.”

Keris smirks. It appeals to her, too. “Oh, Sasi, love,” she murmurs, hugging her. “You always do come up with the best ideas.”

That produces another giggle. “I’ll deal with Ipithymia and you deal with Yuula. But I’ll take on the greatest burden. Keeping the twins entertained while mama does silly things with mercury.”

A wince. “Yeah. Thank you for that. And my deep, deep sympathies.” Keris brushes a kiss across her cheek, and glances at her workbench again. “Oh!” she adds, remembering something. A quick hunt around finds a little glass spray bottle, and she drops it in Sasi’s hands. “Aiko was asking about perfume,” she explains. “So I made her this. It’ll shift in scent as she wears it to suit her mood - mostly florals and some spices. Not much of it, but I think she’ll find it fun.”

Sasi sprays some on her wrist. “Oh, very childish,” she observes, and winces. “I’ll have to keep it away from surfaces that Kali can knock it off of. Well. You want to come and give me an extended goodbye kiss, while we leave your faithful assistant working? It’ll help clear your head.”

With a nod and a few more orders to Oula concerning their attempts on the other vials, Keris follows her out. The cool air of the corridors is a shock to the system after the steamy heat of her workroom. The noise of Hell is much louder with the clanging of gongs and fireworks and other forms of revelry away from Keris’s soundproofed workroom, but the air is much cleaner.

“Well,” Sasi breaths, kneeling, “since time is of the essence, we don’t really have time to go find a bedroom, do we?” She runs her hands up Keris’s dress, rolling it up to her waist. “So we’ll kiss goodbye. And maybe I’ll use some tongue.”

It is a pleasant distraction.

It’s maybe a quarter of an hour later when a mussed Keris slinks back into her workroom, her silk dress torn at the seams and with dust on it from where it was used as an impromptu thing to rest on. She coughs, and puts her mind back to alchemy.

Oula doesn’t say anything. Loudly. Not until, “You humans are weird. And Sasimana gives her heart away to all-comers.” The disdain is clear in her voice. “She says she loves you, but she wants to share you with someone else. At the same time.” Keris hears the muttered, “Not really love.”

Keris gives her a withering eye. “It’s not your kind of love,” she says. “But she does love me. Sasi has a big heart, and...” her face twists, “while I’m not totally happy about it, I accept that she can love many people. And that it doesn’t make her love for me any less.”

There’s a pause.

“... even if I do want to punch Testolagh sometimes,” she admits.

“You should carve out his heart and crush it under foot,” Oula advises, woman to woman. Her pupils are not heart-shaped; they’re little silver knives. “That way he won’t get in the way. It makes me sick to watch her drag you into sharing the woman you love!”

Keris sighs. Oula’s certainly grown bold from their closeness. Bold and mouthy. The steam of the laboratory swirls around her; hair gently coiling and twisting in the air as she regards her student.

Her student. It’s still a little strange to think of Oula like that. Oh, she’s been so for a while, but now... now she’s a sorceress. Part of Keris’s lineage; another link in the chain that was passed to her by Salina. A legacy.

She’s starting to fidget now, and Keris realises she’s been staring - perhaps a little severely - for too long without replying. Now Oula thinks she’s angered her teacher - which isn’t really true. There’s a hint of frustration and irritation, but she speaks out of concern and according to her nature. Hastening to correct her error, Keris opens her mouth and says the first thing that comes to mind.

“You need a name.”

“Aunty, I have a name. It’s Oula.” At least that’s enough of a surprise for her to blink her pupils back to roundness.

Keris shakes her head, the thoughts assembling in her head with a kind of hurried clumsiness, as if embarrassed that they missed their cue, hoping nobody will notice them sneaking in and taking their places.

“Not that one. You’re a sorceress now. You’re part of a lineage; a smaller family within the bigger one. You need a second name. A sorceress’s name. Something that ties you to your art, that’s more than just you and you alone.”

“Well, I’ll take Rathan’s family name when you let us get married,” she says reasonably-in-her-eyes. Opalescent light from a burner plays across her face from below.

Keris flicks her on the nose.

“That will have nothing to do with your sorcery,” she chides. “Your Station of Choice was accepting you can be more than just tied to him. Pick something for you.”

Oula puts down the mortar and pestle, with a sigh. “Aunty,” she says. “Do you remember the first time we met? Well, the second. Both of them, really. But more the time you summoned me back in Taira.”

A smile curls the edge of Keris’s mouth. “You looked adorable in your make-up,” she teases. “Yes, I remember.”

Her cheeks redden. “Yes. But I was a kid. A... a feral kid, honestly, who ran around bossing around the kids in my gang. I was the boss partly because I was good at fighting and partly because I knew how to keep everyone pointed in about the right direction, and beat the crap out of anyone who got uppity. And I spent my time trying to impress Rathan. All the gang bosses wanted to get his attention. He made me a general because I was the only one who got basic ideas like having half my gang hide so they’d advance and then the others would jump out on them.” She swallows. “And then there was the make-up and... Aunty. Can you really see the kid I was in me now? You keep on making me more than I used to be, but I look back at who I was, a dumb kid who was obsessed with justice, and now... I don’t really recognise her. And she wouldn’t recognise me.” Her pink hair knots itself; she wrings her hands together. “How am I meant to know who I am? To know what’s right for me?”

She’s right, Keris realises with surprise. She’d been a feral gang kid when they’d met - oh, a cute one with a crush, sure, but still. And now she’s a beautiful young woman; an occultist and a student of the arts who covers Rathan’s weaknesses and who Keris will be proud to call ‘daughter’ someday.

... and she’s not just talking about Oula, is she? If Keris looks back at herself before learning Sorcery; the Hell-Chosen street rat who’d brought death to Matasque and sought cold revenge in Nexus...

What is there left of that girl in her now?

She’d taken “Dulmeadokht” before her Emerald Sacrifice, but she hadn’t lived it until accepting herself as a princess. She’d walked away from Taira with ‘Maryam’ in her name, because her mother had been the one to open her eyes and force her through the trials. Nobody had named her, and so she’d named herself inexpertly; scrabbling for meaning in the identities of those who’d been crucial to her new way of looking at the world.

She doesn’t regret it. She’s grown into the roles. Keris Maryam Dulmeadokht is who she is, and she’s happy as that woman.

But what might it have done for her if Salina had given her a proper way to explore her new identity? One tailored to who she was, to her future, not her past?

“... you’re right,” she murmurs, smiling. She’s heard once that teachers learn from their students as much as the other way around. It had never quite made sense before today. Resting a hand on each of Oula’s shoulders, she brushes a kiss against her forehead.

“Oula Montressa, I name you,” Keris says, and the words have the quiet, resonating weight of sorcery behind them. “For the moon-dipped tresses that hold your power, and the ways of mercury and growth you use to shape it.”

“Montressa,” Oula says, tasting the word. She smiles. “Ha! Take that, Rounen! Also Yuu! Especially Yuu! I’m the first kerub with a special name.” She giggles. “Maybe I should make Rathan take my name,” she says, sounding like a naughty schoolgirl.

That gets her another flick on the nose, and an amused look. “You’re not a sorceress in full until you’ve mastered a spell,” Keris points out. “Get that under your belt before you start gloating. And don’t mention that idea to Rathan, or he’ll pass a law... saying... you...”

Her smile freezes on her face.

“... shit!” she curses. “Shit shit shit, what am I thinking, this is a disaster!” Her wild eyes catch Oula’s. “You’re a First Circle sorceress in Hell. That’s in direct violation of Cecelyne’s law! The Priests will murder you if they find out - and if Orabilis sees you, you’ll be thrown into the sky!”

Oula pales under her tan skin. “I don’t suppose this is the kind of sky-throwing you could catch me from?” she checks. “No. I don’t think so. You wouldn’t be so worried if it was. Um. What do we do, Aunty?”

Keris tugs at a hair tendril distractedly. “Fuck, um...” She paces, antsy and nervous. “Right. Yeah. Okay, yeah, safest thing is for you to get back home. I’ll call you out when we’re back out in Creation, but it’s too dangerous for you to be here otherwise.”

“Except then you’ll be doing your alchemy alone,” Oula points out. “I’ve been speeding things up for you. You need me to stay out at least until you win the bet.” She stays firm and resolute in the face of Keris’s glare. Brave. Or perhaps foolish.

Still, Keris can’t deny her point. “Fine,” she says. “Then you stay indoors. No going out, no going near the shrine, no demonstrating or practicing sorcery around anyone of Hell. And the second we’re done, you come back inside for your own safety. Clear?”

Oula nods, and swallows. “That... that also means I have to be very careful around your boat,” she says carefully. “Or any other hellish demons. Or Asarin.”

“It does,” Keris nods gravely. “And do your best to avoid even being seen by the Eyes of Orabilis. I don’t know how well he can pick up on lawbreaking just from laying his gaze on someone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was within his power. Obviously there are limits to it,” she gestures to herself wryly, “but let’s not put it to the test.”

After a moment, she lets out a half-sigh, half-chuckle. “It figures,” she adds, “that you’d learn my habit of doing things that will get you in deep trouble if anyone in power finds out about them, as well as the more official lessons.”

With a flick of her hair, Oula snorts. “Well, Aunty,” she says, cracking her knuckles. “Fuck that.” An ugly sneer crosses her face. “No wonder all the demons here are trapped and useless when their stupid laws pass over power like this.” She holds out her hand, faint red and silver sparkles forming there. The beautiful tattoos covering her shoulders glow crimson from within. “And that’s why keruby are just plain better than the worthless demons of Hell. You don’t need them when you’ve got us!”

Dulmea lets out a piteous moan. “Oh no. Not more like that. Child, why are your keruby just as awful as you and your souls are?”

And all Keris can do in response is laugh. Laugh, until the task at hand drags her back into her desperate work to beat the ticking clock.

It’s an awful Calibration for Keris, locked up here in the dark with mercury fumes and Oula to keep her company, but she’s had worse. She’s not sleeping rough in Firewander while hobgoblins look for children’s souls to eat. Haneyl and Sasi each venture into the depths to drag her out and force her to eat and sleep. And since things are going somewhat better than expected and she makes sure to let Oula nap when not much is happening, her disciple is fresh enough that she can carry on the work while Keris has a bath.

Her head’s still spinning from mercury fumes and her blood feels heavy and cool in her veins from how much she’s ingested from self-testing. But this is it. The test.

She mixes together ground charcoal, sulphurous compounds and her own blood, heating them together until they form a thick sludge, then shaping the black mess into a pill.

“Here goes,” she mutters, and pulls out Ascending Air, opening a gaping, bleeding wound along the back of her right arm. She gasps, head reeling, and pinches it shut to stop the bleeding. But there’s still an ugly wound from wrist to elbow.

She pops the pill in her mouth, and swallows.

It feels like someone’s scraping hooks inside her flesh. She grunts, and slams her arm into the table, trying not to scream. And when the pain is gone, so is the ugly livid wound. There’s still hurt inside, she needs time to heal, but the skin is unmarred.

“Well, how about that?” Oula says, as she carefully dries up Keris’s mercury-rich blood to save for her own work.

Keris grins a bloody, mercury-stained grin. “And that’s four, bitch,” she snarls, pain still ricocheting through her. There’s dizzy nausea too, and her hands shake from the amount of quicksilver she’s imbibed. Still, she’s done it. And with a few hours to spare, even. Enough to get cleaned up and looking her best before going to meet Yuula, so that she can play the whole thing off as effortless.

First, though, she has to deal with the little matter of being poisoned.

“Pass me the extra silverdraught we made,” she orders, and Oula hands over the little vial. Keris downs it gratefully, and sighs as the shakes and lightheadedness fade away. “Okay,” she smiles. “And now we are going to the baths, and getting me cleaned up and looking my best to shove it in Yuula’s face that I succeeded. You can take a nice long bath and pamper yourself while I go meet with her, then return to the domain when I get back.”

Oula cracks her knuckles and her hair. “I’m going to see where Rathan is. I’m just so cramped up and aching from sitting here working over a flame for so long. And my arms are tired. I need his help to wash my back,” she says, with false patheticness that almost reminds Keris of Sasi. Maybe it's from Sasi. After all, she was here to watch her display - and Oula has always been very good at learning tricks from Keris.

“Just remember,” Keris orders flatly, “you do not leave this estate. If he’s not here for you to find; if he’s out in Hell somewhere, you wait for him to get back. Understand?”

“I know,” Oula says, hunching up her shoulders. “You explained what the stars are here. They’re not like the ones back home. They’re evil. No one should punish a demon for reaching above their station! That’s what stations are there for! To exceed!”

Keris smiles, and kisses her forehead. “Good girl,” she whispers. “Just remember to be smart about it. And don’t let anyone here know.”

“In a few days’ time,” Oula whispers back, “I’ll be back in Creation and they’ll be locked up here. Who’ll be laughing then?”

Keris has a grin on her face as she heads out. She really does love that girl.

She finds Yuula in the spectacle box of the fighting pits, watching Naan tear into a great boar-like monster with too many legs. There’s already the smeared bodies of lesser demons spread across the arena - a leg there, a chest here, an acid-scourged skeleton halfway out of the bubbling green pits. The great drums pound like a heartbeat, and with each punch flame-jets shoot up from the station walls.

“No, you fucking stupid pig!” Yuula screams, slamming her staff into the ground. The stone splinters. “Gore him! Gore him!”

“My lady,” Keris greets her, appearing beside her with a book tucked under her arm and an artfully downcast expression on her face. “We had a bet going? It’s been ten screams.”

“Ha!” Yuula kicks her snakes out of one of the seats, and pats the chair with a grotesquely mock-maternal manner. “Come in, sit down, have some wine!” As Keris watches, another snake slithers from one of the withered cinnabar-red blossoms in her dark hair.

Keris sits, and drinks. Her hesitance is a performance; a facade of trying to put off admitting a failure for as long as possible. She’s going to enjoy playing this winning hand. Yuula’s grin widens, showing mercury-rotted teeth. Were they better before? Keris can’t recall. “So you’re here to concede and give me my book?” she asks, toasting Keris. The adder-eye bindi on her brow blinks.

Meekly, Keris reaches into a pocket of her gown and takes out four stoppered brass vials, each as full as when Yuula gave them to her. She sets them out on the table in front of the Unquestionable, alongside the book.

And then, as a grinning Yuula reaches to claim her prize, Keris reaches into her other pocket, and takes out four glass vials.

With four little clinks, she matches vial to vial, and grins.

“Ten screams,” she boasts. “I told you I could do it.”

Yuula freezes. Carefully, with hands that are steady even though she’s a drunken mess, she takes the nearest of Keris’s vials and breaks it open, sniffing it. “Hmm. Little too much charcoal. The healed limb will ache in wet weather.” She tries the next one, coming up with little criticisms for each one. “Far from perfect,” she says. “But still you thought you’d come here and challenge one of the demon princes with your silly little game?”

“I won your game,” Keris says, instinct warning her against backing down. “You didn’t say get them as perfect as yours; you said replicate them. And I did. So yeah, I thought I’d play a little game of my own.” She grins, and if there’s an edge of nerves to it, she hides it well. “And now you owe me a lesson.”

“The demon princess glances over at the book. She pulls a face. “A lesson. Yeah? Okay.” She delicately pours herself more blood-red wine. “I think I’ve just taught you to grant men eternal life and heal the maimed and sick,” she says over the brimming-full bowl, face shaped by the silvery streams of mercury from her eyes.

There’s a pause, while Keris gapes at her.

“... wait, no, but...” she says after a moment. “No, that... that was the bet! You can’t do that!” Her composure is gone, in favour of indignation. “That’s cheating!”

Yuula downs half her bowl. “Would you have learned this without me?” she inquires. There's an aristocratic little smirk playing on her lips; smug and spiteful.

Keris’s mouth works soundlessly, before she gives up and fumes. “You are infuriating,” she accuses. But her mouth is twitching slightly. She’s pissed, but she can admit that while Yuula lost the bet, she won the bonus round. That was sneaky.

“Life isn’t easy, and there’s no such thing as a free gift. Think of it as me teaching you,” Yuula says, before drinking again. “Now, shoo. You’ve been some fun little amusement while I... oh come on, you fucking useless pig, I had a gold statue riding on you!” Down in the arena below, Naan is beating the boar monster over the head with its own leg. Keris notes with some pride that he isn’t getting as much cheers as she was. “Yeah, well, this day is ruining itself after this amusement.” She glances harshly at Keris. “So unless you and your lady friend are willing to give me another public spectacle, scram.”

Keris goes bright red and almost drops Lilunu’s book on her foot. That was a low blow - and Yuula knows it. She was never going to let her get away unscathed. But Keris rallies admirably. “We might be,” she shrugs, with an attempt at casual unconcern that is, okay, yes, absolutely terrible. “Ipithymia invited us to perform for her. I’ll make sure you get sent an invitation when we decide a time for it.”

She retreats before Yuula can capitalise on her embarrassment any further. She’ll take what wins she can get.

Of course, fortune is not so kind. As Keris runs home at a full on-sprint, she is a little distracted. She’s worried about Yuula and thinking about what she’ll do with this new trick and maybe thinking a bit about Sasi and the play and...

Well. She’s jarred from her distracted sprint when she runs head-long into someone who she could swear hadn’t been there half a second ago.

She falls, and lands heavily on her bottom. Her head is aching from where their skulls collided.

“Ow,” a male voice says. Demonic flame burns in the skies above from the revelry, and stars fall in wondrous displays.

Keris glances over to see who she ran into, still clutching her book to her chest. It’s a young man, with coal black, spiky hair, dressed in a simple white coat and black trousers. His eyes meet hers, and the world goes slightly soft and fuzzy.

She recognises the man, the fuzziness and the source all in the same instant, and laughs nervously to cast off the venom’s mind-numbing influence, rubbing the back of her head. “Unquestionable Balanodo,” she greets Asarin’s Greater Self, picking up her book and climbing back to her feet. “My deepest apologies; I should have been looking where I was going. I hope I didn’t hurt you?”

He’s already on his feet, rubbing his own head. “It’s... uh, quite all right.” He sounds nervous, though in an oddly charming way. “Peer Keris,” he says, offering her his hand. “Where did you come from out of nowhere?”

“Oh, I was just coming from meeting Lady Yuula,” Keris says, clutching the book to her chest and shaking his hand with a careful hair tendril rather than her bare skin. She’ll have to clean that before letting it touch her again. “She was at the... uh... arena...”

Too late, she remembers that he’d been there. And seen the... display that she and Sasi had put on. Her cheeks, which had been fading back to their natural colour after Yuula’s taunts, go bright red again.

He blushes too, not as intensely as her, but still enough that it seems to somehow moderate your own embarrassment. “I saw the fight, yes,” he says. He squares up to her protectively. “Did you have to hurt Kassie that bad? She’s not a bad girl! She’s just been treated badly by her precious people in the past. And you were acting like the villain!” The scent of ink and cold blood is overpowering up close. She can hear the drip-drip-drip of unclosed wounds. And this youth, this barely bearded boy who looks a year or two younger than her, is a rival. An equal. There’s no envy in him, but what there is is the roar of ten thousand and more voices, all cheering his name.

((Ellogean essence, E9. Most pride in Followers N/A (such an insanely vast number it’s made up of different Followers 5 fanclubs.)))

Keris bows. “I am sorry for hurting her at the end there,” she apologises. “She picked the fight, but I shouldn’t have ended it so harshly. If she’s willing to call it square, I have no more quarrel with her.”

She won’t, of course. Keris knows she’s made a bitter and hateful enemy there. But it sounds good; like she’s being the bigger woman.

... figuratively speaking.

He steps closer and has her hand in his before she can react; squeezing it warmly. “Yeah! Trust each other! That’s how we can do it! We just have to work together, to put aside our old grievances and hatreds, and communicate! Communication is the key, Keris! We gotta learn to talk to one another, and when we do that, we can take back the world! I got a vision, and we all got to pull together behind it!” His eyes sparkle with honest glee, his expression gazes through her as if he’s seeing a better world.

((The touch is a sedating venom that’s Poison keyworded and as an Emotion effect makes her willing to agree to everything she says. It costs 2wp to resist its UMI for the scene. His speech is 12 successes to draw her to his cause of TEAMWORK and NAKAMAS and WANTING HIM.))
((Good goddamn.))

Her head is swimming. Keris can tell that it’s him; that his venom is in her blood and in her mind. But he’s talking about reaching out to people, putting aside hate and strife, working as one. The part of her that’s kind and doesn’t want to harm or hate people, the part of her that’s lonely and just wants to be loved... they flutter under his genuine, open sincerity.

So she lets it be.

“It’s a beautiful vision,” Keris smiles, a dreamy edge to her voice. “A world where people understand each other, and see they don’t have to fight or hate or squabble.”

“You’ve been hurt before, haven’t you?” There’s heartbreak in his voice. “I’ve talked with lots of you. Ligier’s princes and princesses, I mean. A lot of you have been hurt. Who hurt you, Keris? Do you need my help to make it better?”

“It’s okay,” Keris reassures him. “She’s dead now. They all are; Kasseni and everyone else who owned me. I closed that part of my life last year, and I’m better now. And after that...”

Her smile tinges with sadness. “The bad bits that came after I got away from the ones who hurt me, there’s nobody to punish for those. You can’t punch being hungry and cold in the face.”

He wraps his arms over her shoulder, guiding her to a carved stone bench by the side of the road. Lilunu has shaped a stream by it, and planted cherry trees that grow green petals. Many-coloured firelight plays over their faces. Keris looks around in a foggy haze. Everything looks... cleaner. Nicer. And with his arms there, she feels safe. Protected.

Dulmea isn’t saying anything. Probably because this is an Unquestionable who has his arm around her shoulder. But she’d be saying something if something was wrong, so it can’t be wrong.

“You’re Asarin’s friend, aren’t you?” he asks, letting her heavy head loll against his shoulder. “We’ve been friends for a very long time. You mortals wouldn’t really understand the relationship between someone and their souls. But it’s like she’s a little sister for you humans, or maybe a friend from childhood.”

“She really loves you, though,” she mumbles. “Gets all sad’n’upset when you don’t pay ‘ttention to her as much as the others.”

Then she giggles. Hee. He thinks she doesn’t understand about souls. Well, he has half a point, at least. She wouldn’t want to date Haneyl or Sirelmiya. That would be silly. She’s not Sasi, who sleeps with her Seresa.

“It’s really complicated.” He looks pitiful. A wind blows through the trees, bringing with it a scent of something that isn’t quite cherries. “And she shouts at me and yells at me all the time and says really harsh things. I don’t think she likes me.”

“She does!” Keris hastens to assure him. “She’s just bad at sayin’ it. Like me.” She sighs mournfully. “She gets scared of bein’ vulnerable. So she yells and puts up walls and pushes people away, ‘cause...”

She frowns, trying to think properly. “‘Cause...” she slurs, “... she wants someone to... get past her walls. An’ prove they love her ‘nough to put in the effort of... of tryin’ until she lets them in. Otherwise they don’t deserve her. If they can’t handle her at her worst, they haven’t earned her at her best. You know?”

“I don’t think you’re bad at saying it,” the Prince of Leeches says, coaxing her with little nudges to snuggle up closer to him. “I think you and your cute friend are really good pals. I’d like both of you on my team. I’m forming a super elite team of princes and princesses, you see. The best. Only the most beautiful, the best fighters, the ones who understand how to work together and who can form bonds with their special people. And you, Keris, I bet you’d be great at it. You know? The world hurts us. All of us. My first memories were pain, when the bastards of the Sun and the Moon cut up the Sphere of Speech. And you feel that same pain.” He touched over his heart, then over hers. His hand is pleasantly cool, and the skin is soft - like he’s never swung a sword in his life. “That’s why there’s some of us in you.”

Keris grins, thoroughly amused. He’s wrong, and it’s really funny. That’s not why there’s coldblood in her. It’s ‘cause Eko put it in there with her alchemy. She opens her mouth to explain it, but it’s all complicated and the words get tangled and confusing, so she doesn’t bother.

“That sounds nice,” she hums instead, a light blush on her cheeks.

“You were super amazing in the fight with Kassie, and I’d love to see you and her make up,” he says, leaning in. “You can join me. Be with me.” She’s vaguely aware he isn’t letting go of her chest. “How about it, Keris? If you’re one of my closest friends, I can do all sorts of things for you. Things you’d like a lot.”

“Mmm. I’m already taken, though,” she points out, not entirely sure who she’s talking about but pretty certain on that point. The thought just... ripples into her foggy mind like it's been nudged there, tasting like gleeful red whimsy and white light in the warm dark. “She loves me. She would’n like it if I abandoned her for someone else.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I saw the show you put on with her,” the Prince of Leeches murmurs, leaning in for the kiss. His breath is cool against her cheek. “You two are open-minded. She can join in too.”

Keris’s head lolls as his movement shifts her, and his kiss misses her cheek, just a little. It lands on her jawbone instead.

And she remembers what she meant.

The clamour of Hell is ever-present. The music of angyalkae, the clashing of gongs, the rumble of the City and the turbulent weather systems of the demon sky. Tomescu scream at dawn and dusk, blood apes holler their savage cries, the soundscape of the demon realm is an almost physical mass of noise - beautiful in some parts, harsh and grating in others, but always present in any inhabited area.

The Prince of Leeches pulls the pretty redhead closer, and presses his lips against the white scar running down the sharp, dark curve of her jaw.

All the noise cuts out.

There is nothing. No sound at all. The voice of a demon prince is rendered mute. Their breathing, the babbling of the stream behind them, the gongs and fireworks in the sky... all of it continues as if from behind a glass screen. Hell’s endless cacophony is nowhere to be found, for within a circle ten metres across, the air is still and carries nothing.

It is a place of perfect silence.

Perfect silence, save for a quiet, joyous, terrible little giggle.

Balanodo’s lips touch the mark of the Wind-Kissed, and he senses the blood behind it. Not the blood of a Green Sun Princess, and not the cold and stagnant blood of his progenitor, but blood that is hot and bright and freshly shed; an endless ocean of it without end or bottom. He senses the scything wind that caused it; the infinite cuts and gashes made by a gale that fills no sail and turns no vane but only kills. He feels the inhuman, impossible emotion tied to this thing; this unassuming cicatrix; the streak of white against dusky skin. The mad, obsessive, overwhelming love of a titan to whom reason and moderation are nothing.

The Wind-Kissed raises her head, and issues again that terrible little giggle.

“You want Her to join us?” she asks, and there’s a simple joy there; a happiness and love and gratitude for his offer of inclusion. “She’ll be so happy! I should have known you’d understand. It’s all about communication, right?”

The prince of Hell, the Unquestionable one, falls off his seat in the scramble to get away from the woman. His skin is ghost pale, his eyes wide, his leech-mouth pupils have closed entirely and there’s just irises there. On his hands and legs, he back away, almost crab-walking in his terror. Not of what she says. Of what she doesn’t say. Of what he cannot hear.

His breath comes in rasps. Except he can’t hear it. His heart pounds like it hasn’t before. Except there’s no beating in his ears. He tries to protest, to say he hadn’t meant to, that he had thought he was talking about Peer Sasimana. But his words are cut off, as if his throat had just been cut.

The happy, giggling woman cocks her head at him, and then raises her eyebrows in realisation. Slowly, tentatively, the sounds creep back in - muted at first; terrified by the silence enforced on them, the death they suffered in this terrible aura of an unseen patron.

“Sorry,” Keris says, her cheeks flushed as she laughs at herself for being so silly. Of course he can’t answer when the noise is gone! “I don’t always have control over that, especially when She visits my dreams or listens through my scars.” She runs a finger along the white line, and taps the one on her nose. Then cocks her head, innocent and confused. “Is something wrong?” she asks, with what seems to be complete sincerity.

Balanodo clutches his heart, breaths rasping, something squirming at the back of his throat. “I... I... I need to go,” he says, as he pulls himself upright. Dusts off his black trousers. “You... you...” Rests with his palms on his knees. “You can call her. Draw... her attention, so it falls upon a,” he swallows, “upon someone?”

“Uh huh!” Keris says cheerfully. “She visits me sometimes, and teaches me things. It’s good to have a teacher, don’t you think?” She pouts. “But lord Ligier says I can’t go to his layer in case She shows up there again. Even though he likes me.”

“I’ll...” his voice comes out as a croak, “I’ll be your friend, do things for you, just do not let her attention fall upon me. Please,” he begs.

“Mmm,” Keris hums, tilting her head and tapping her lip thoughtfully. She has to be very careful not to flex her anima again, because that would be dumb - hee! Dumb, because it would stop her talking! She giggles at herself again, before remembering about being halfway through a conversation.

“Aww. I guess you changed your mind, then?” she asks rhetorically. “Oh well. I guess I can just not mention this to Her if you’re really embarrassed about it, or something. Oh oh oh, but I meant to say! If Kast... Kas... if Kassie doesn’t like my sorry, can you sort of stay on the sidelines and not get involved? I think it’d just make things all worse if she wanted to keep fighting me and asked you to help her with things an’ stuff. We shouldn’t get bogged down with... whatsit... with in-fighting! Right?”

“Of course! Of course!” The Unquestionable bows - to her! - and retreats off backwards. Leaving Keris standing on a street of the Conventicle which has now emptied out entirely. Her head is starting to clear as she thinks about how weird he was acting. Pieces come together.

Oh. Oh. He had... and she... and then she’d...


He’d been making a move on her. Only he’d gotten her too drunk to remember up from down, and she’d forgotten her learned terror and remembered only her first love from Hell. Or... maybe been prompted to it. That nudge of a stray thought into her foggy head... the idea might have been vicious Ekoan whimsy and the way Calesco likes hurting people to teach them; but the way it had been fanned into her drunken mind at just the right time had felt distinctly po-ish, in retrospect. And the result had been that from Balanodo’s perspective, she’d turned out to be... what? What compares to this? The happy, sweet-natured girlfriend of the most terrifying gang boss in the city, maybe. The friendly ditz not quite aware of the terror her protector inspired in others; who'd had a terrified boy on his knees in front of her, begging her not to tell her lover of his flirting lest he be horribly killed. An Unquestionable, begging her for his life.

... thinking back... Keris likes that image. She takes a moment or two longer to bask in the pleasure of having just... yeah, honestly, there’s no other way to put it. She just terrified and bullied an Unquestionable.

And it was beautiful. A sweet nectar, after spending so long bowing and scraping at their feet.

Keris basks for a few glorious moments. And then, head still foggy, she sternly reminds herself not to get used to that feeling, because the Silent Wind is not a card she should ever rely on, and even the threat of calling her down deliberately risks drawing more attention than even she can survive. From the Silent Wind herself or the Unquestionable’s reaction; it makes no real difference.

A moment of gloating, a moment of chiding. And then a quiet satisfaction in cutting Kasteen off from her backing. All in all, her takeaway from this encounter is not half bad for a few minutes’ work. Especially given she spent half of it drunk.

Keris nods to herself, and goes home. Where the hangover from the poison hits.

OK, it might also have been the hangover from what Yuula was drinking.

Plus the hangover from days of being shut up in an alchemical workroom, breathing in dangerous amounts of mercury fumes along the way.

Regardless, she’s suffering.

“Well, well,” Dulmea says mercilessly to her when she tries to seek maternal tea and sympathy. “This is entirely your own fault.”

“Ngghhh,” complains Keris weakly. She considers trying to push her regeneration into overdrive to fix this, but then remembers that doing so would make it hurt even worse.

She’s not sure what ‘even worse’ than this head-pounding agony would look like, but she has no intention of finding out. Whimpering, Keris stumbles in the rough direction of the baths, picks a room at random, engages in some rapid grabbing, dunking and throwing, and then crawls into a small dark soft nest of cold, damp towels.



Fortunately, by the time she goes to seek out Sasi - who, in fairness, is much more used to hangovers than Dulmea is - it’s mostly faded. And Sasi, sprawled out on a divan in her lingerie and having clearly put effort into waiting for her girlfriend’s arrival, lets a frown crease her pale brow as Keris explains things. With perhaps a few bits left out concerning how much she’d enjoyed it.

“That nearly went very wrong,” she says to Keris. “Why did you let him get so close?”

“He came out of nowhere!” Keris protests. “I ran into him! I mean, I literally ran into him; I bounced off him hard enough that I wound up on the ground!” She frowns. “And I could have sworn he wasn’t there the second before, too,” she adds, puzzled. “I’m normally really good about hearing stuff in my way. I have to be, with the speed I move at.”

“This is a problem,” Sasi says seriously, sitting up. She steeples her fingers in front of her nose, fingers twitching as she reviews unseen records in her mind’s eye. “He works like... well.” She glances directly at Keris. “Like you. I can deal with the Shashalme or Ligier, because they have urges and drives that you can satisfy. But the Prince of Leeches wants you to love him. And he’s as lazy as anything. So how things work is that he does nothing while his devotees handle satisfying his whims. Or what they think his whims could be.” She shakes her head. “Keep away from him. I... considered him as a patron before I realised the cost. I can’t lose you to him.”

Keris purses her lips thoughtfully.

“You won’t,” she says at length. “Can I show you something? Something private, I mean. Something secret.”

Sasi’s eyebrows flute up and she smiles wickedly, shedding her concern like water off a duck’s back. “You’re going to ruin my fun by not immediately taking off all your clothes, aren’t you?” she accuses.

“It does actually involve taking my clothes off,” Keris says archly. “I don’t want to ruin them. But not here. Hmm... the baths, I think. I can do it in there without breaking anything. And I haven’t had a chance to really enjoy myself in water while using it before.”

They decamp to the bathroom - one of the larger ones - and Keris strips, talking as she disrobes.

“I sent you a dream while I was in Taira,” she says. “About how I’d learned to become the wind. How I understood why you found it beautiful to be the shadow. Why you could feel so natural in another form, because you were as much that as you are flesh and blood. Yeah? And you can just... do it whenever you feel like it?”

“Why, yes,” Sasi says, wriggling out of her undergarments and lowering herself into the water. She melts away herself, into a tarry vaguely feminine shape that oozes up the side of the pool. “Like this. It’s a little tiring, but it has its uses.”

Keris smiles, shucks her last garment, and strokes out her hair. The silver feathers shine in the low light. “And you know,” she continues, “that I got in touch with my po. That I took part of her nature into myself more fully. Learned to be comfortable in her territory, to use her senses.”

“You said, yes,” the tarry shadow says.

Keris nods, and brushes a kiss to her fingers that she presses to the shadow. “Don’t be scared,” she says, and slips into the water, propelling herself out in the pool-sized bath. This, here - this wide expanse of water - this is large enough for her to take her other form without scraping gouges into the floor or carving gashes into the walls.

Keris reaches into herself and finds the hissing, coiling part of her soul that’s utterly and essentially human. She bleeds into it, and it bleeds into her, and she feels herself expand and grow and lengthen in the still waters of the bath; feels her armour cover her in silver feathers and her hair turn white and her teeth turn sharp.

She opens her eyes, her serpentine body moving with easy, natural grace to support her in the water, and purrs.

The tarry mass is behind her shoulder, not-quite-solid arms feeling them. “This isn’t the Devil Tyrant,” Sasi whispers into her ear. Now she’s in front of her, flowing over Keris’s shoulder like ink in water. “Nor is it the Demon Emperor. In fact, it doesn’t feel like any of the All-Makers alone.” A pillar of shadow with no real legs puts her hands on her waist, squeezing it in impossibly thin. “Keris, have you gone and done something impossible and illogical and nonsensical again?”

“A Ssshintai is jussst joining to sssomething with power to take on a new form,” Keris explains happily. “My po is powerful. Ssso I joined with her.” She flexes, powerful coils skimming them across the pool with a single flick of her beautiful tail, and pulls a graceful turn just before colliding with the side. A wave of displaced water is sent out to drench the wall by the sheer size and speed of her body, and she laughs happily with a hissing undertone.

“Thisss is me, Ssassi,” she explains. “My human sssoul. My rootsss. I worked really hard to underssstand it. It isn’t a form for fighting. It helpsss me recover. Any magic or mutations or mind-warping on me get ssstripped away. Thisss form cutsss away everything but me.” Even as she explains it, she can feel the pain as her unnatural body reacts to the presence of the thoughts and desires that the Prince left in her. There’s a creeping pain under her skin from how he played with her heart, and peeling burns where he touched her.

((1A from this.))

“To be so in touch with your lower, most base self,” Sasi breaths. The tar peels away from her, slinking back down into her shadow and leaving her pale and exposed. “Such a thing to do. How can you bear it?”

“My lower ssself is beautiful,” Keris says sympathetically. “You sssaid ssso yourssself.”

She curls around Sasi, carefully carefully carefully, keeping her feathers flat against her flanks and their edges curled inwards so as not to cut her love. Winding around her turn by turn, Keris wraps Sasi up and surrounds her with great coils of feather-clad muscle, and when she’s all snug and safe in the centre of Keris’s self, her human bits have just enough slack to nuzzle up to her, enjoying this moment of them being the same size.

“You sssee?” Keris whispers. “You’ll never lose me to powers like his. I’ll always throw them off and come back to you.”

Sasi reaches up with a soft hand and brushes Keris’s jaw. “You’re so beautiful like this,” she whispers. She pulls a face. “And I was going to be good today,” she mutters. “I was going to have us work on the play. On setting up the music and running the script past you. But then you put me in an impossible situation like this. How am I meant to focus on dramatics when my girlfriend is a giant impossibly beautiful snake woman who wants to wrap me up in her coils and put that long, forked tongue to use?”

She sounds perfectly honest. She sounds as if she was actually meaning to get work done today. But somehow Keris is certain she’s lying.

The fact she was waiting for Keris in her lingerie is probably a major contributing factor to her doubt as to Sasi’s honesty.

“It’sss true,” Keris grins, her tongue flickering out to taste Sasi’s lips, pleased that her love isn’t scared of her gorgeous lamia-form. “I’m terrible for tempting you like thisss~”

Sasi grins impishly. “Probably just stay human for my going away party, though,” she says. “I want my wicked snake-queen captor all for myself.”

“Wrong way round,” Keris hisses. “You’re the one who’s all mine~”

And she proceeds to demonstrate it, too.

Chapter Text

The threat of another displeased Unquestionable does wonders to focus the mind, and over the course of the next few days Keris and Sasi get down to work. Keris gets started on reviewing the music Sasi has sketched up, adding some of her own fair to the borrowed Realm music and lyrics, while Sasi returns to actually writing the script. It’s hard work, even as the Conventicle empties again with the end of Calibration. Pages and pages of altered and discarded scripts start to accumulate around any place Sasi sits for an extended period, while Keris starts to get sulky and bad-tempered as she struggles with unfamiliar Realm styles of music and the constraints of their operettas. Sasi gets several vile-tongued rants at the limits of the form directed at her. If only Zanara was here, Keris could just hand all the work off to them!

Gods, to think a couple of years ago she didn’t understand how useful it was to have souls to delegate to. Now she feels crippled because they’re not here to help.

Lilunu, interestingly, is willing to put off spending some time with Keris when she finds about their project. “I want to see it unspoiled, without knowing about the previous versions of the scripts and the songs you scrapped for not making sense,” she says, smiling, as she and Eko play Gateway against each other. Haneyl is sulking because Lilunu thrashed her. “I actually like this time of year. There’s enough of my princes and princesses around that I’m not bored, but Calibration is just so hectic. I wish I could share some of the work.”

Sasi and Keris are busy workers, and between the two of them, over the course of a week they manage to throw together an okay script and some catchy tunes.

Well, objectively it’s actually the kind of masterpiece that the great mortal playwrights of Creation might manage once or twice in a lifetime, but neither Sasi nor Keris is quite pleased with it. It tells the story of a Realm legionary, Elanora, far from her husband on a long term posting. She sings of her loneliness, of how she misses him, of her faith. Sasi has tweaked this from the original to make her far more pompous and hypocritical. Then she starts attending a dance-bar with friends, when she sees an unnamed dancer covered in arcane tattoos who does a dance that captivates her. She tries to keep on with her life, but she grows obsessed with the dancer and attends again and again, trying to catch another sight of her. She begins to see her everywhere.

Then comes an intermission.

The second half of the play covers Elanora’s descent into madness, as she sees the dancer on the street and finds the same Yozi-blessing tattoos on the other woman’s body appearing on her own. The dancer is no longer in the club, and Elanora wanders the streets looking for her. A monk tries to save her, but he turns out to be a hypocrite who only has interest in her body - she kills him, but he is gone when she looks back. As she loses her mind she starts to emulate other things of the dancer; degrading herself by dancing for strangers and the like, and in the end she pledges her souls to the Yozis in a dramatic and lyrically inclined cult ritual.

It’s now the date of the play on the Street of Golden Lanterns, and the first act is just over. Keris bounces up and down on her toes behind the curtain, pulling off her costume for another one. Sasi is sagging, looking tired. She’s been having to keep her soul ignited to provide the grand orchestration; the scenery all images and shadows in the light of her soul.

“I think that went well,” Keris reassures her. Keris herself had great fun towards the end of the act and is looking forward to more of it during the start of the second; using Gales to be wherever Elanora looks and stepping backstage every time she grasps for one - for while most the onlookers can’t tell the real Keris apart from the Gales at a glance, Sasi only has to be sure to always reach out for the beautiful one.

Wilting, Sasi sprawls out on cushions, breathing deeply. Only her brow is burning now, but the effort of the first act has clearly cost her. “We can do this,” she says, more to herself than anyone else. She grabs a handful of candied lemons, and starts munching on them even as one of her idiotic extras born from coldblood magic brings over her next costume change, for when Elanora is wandering the street in rags.

“Keris, can you see how the crowd is reacting? Once you do that, I need the tattoos for the next act then I can get dressed.” There’s a planned moment coming up where her rags are torn off her, revealing how far the Yozi praise now covers her body.

Keris edges up to the edge of the curtain, and steps backstage. Safely there, she can look at this vast audience - perhaps half the size of the ones who had seen her fight against Kasteen, but that’s enough that this grand theatre lit by dim golden lanterns is overflowing. Demons are packed into the aisles and they’re crowding at the entrances.

She and Sasi are famous. People have come just to see them.

Meanwhile, of course, the ones who matter are in the boxes. And there are many demon lords and princes there. Keris smiles as she sees that Lilunu has made a rare trip away from the Althing to see the play, leaning against Ligier, while in grand centre place is the golden form of Ipithymia herself. The patron seems enthralled, and Keris heard her laughing raucously during the first song of comic hypocrisy, where Elanora sang about her virtue while being an awful Immaculate.

Keris scans the crowd, looking for anyone else she knows. Yuula is there, as are a few other demon lords and princes of her acquaintance - including Lelabet. And ah, there, wearing a suspicious hooded cloak and clearly trying not to be noticed, is Asarin, sitting with a servant of hers. Keris can’t help but smile. She knows how hard it must have been for her friend to even step foot onto the Street of Golden Lanterns.

“We’re doing great,” she reports to Sasi. “The aisles are packed, the entrances are clogged with more demons wanting to get in. We’ve got half a dozen Unquestionable watching at least, a bunch of peers, more citizens than I can count... wait, fuck, I think that’s a Priest. What in the Makers’ names is a Priest doing here?” She boggles for a moment, then shakes it off with a shrug. “Anyway, yeah, they’re loving it. Ipithymia is certainly having a good time.”

Asarin is probably not going to enjoy the second act as much, Keris suspects. It is, to use a phrase from Eko, entirely too l-lewd. But Keris’s parts are mostly just more cabaret stuff; it’s Sasi who’s a little more risqué. But not too much. Keris has her limits - and she’s not going to let Sasi go too far just to please the demon princes. That might help a little, or at least make the False Sun less embarrassed when she and Keris next get to chat.

“C’mere, let me help you with those tattoos,” Keris says, and gets to work.

The second act is even more popular with the crowd than the first, and the Street of Golden Lanterns leads the applause at the end. Then come the offers of more ways to entertain them and an extended run, demands for encores, and the generosity of pleased Unquestionable.

Keris can’t even process it, and she’s more worried about Sasi who’s basically asleep on her feet. Fortunately, Lilunu comes to their aid and politely requests the aid of her princesses in getting her back to the All-Thing as her chakras are feeling a little bit unstable and there are just so many breakable things in the area and...

Ligier quickly agrees, and tasks Keris in making sure she gets back safely.

They settle down in Lilunu’s great ornamental palanquin, and she opens a bottle of wine for the three of them. Sasi is curled into a ball, napping.

“Well, that was very wonderfully done, Keris,” Lilunu says, beaming. “In fact, that was delightful! So funny in parts! And the music was yours - no, don’t deny it, I recognised it!” She coughs. “I did notice the two of you slightly wilting under the attention of all the others, so I might have... exaggerated slightly how ill I’m feeling.”

“Thank you,” Keris says gratefully. “Sasi was having to keep her soul flared the whole time, and...” She casts a rueful, half-sympathetic, half-teasing look down at her lover. “Well, she’s not built to exert herself for that long. Even I would’ve been tired after a whole play spent with my soul bared. And she was tiring herself out physically too, with all that dancing.”

“It did amuse me greatly how you did so much with so few actors who weren’t one of you,” Lilunu agrees, sipping her wine. “How did you even stage her scenes? And who was that handsome young man with the golden horns who served as the Yozi priest for the final scene?”

That had been some work to arrange. Keris didn’t really want to play that role - and needed to be herself for her final dance anyway - and Sasi’s blood-figments couldn’t take such a major role. They’d nearly cut the cult-leader entirely, Keris recounts, until she’d remembered about Nyquan, the grown-up one of Vali’s keruby who’d been serving in a bar. They’d paid him to take that role - quite handsomely - and he’d really perked up after eating those coins.

“My goodness,” Lilunu says. “I had thought it was maybe one of your own wind-copies, Keris, just modified... uh, very extensively.”

“Honestly, we really would’ve had to cut it otherwise,” she admits. “A Gale wouldn’t have been good enough, and I needed to be in the last dance. Still, Nyquan did well. I think the skill of his kind is related to how...” she winces slightly even as she says it, “... how well they’re paid.”

Lilunu leans back in her seat, shucking her outer layer of robes for the softer, pale turquoise one underneath. “You know, Keris,” she observes, “if you don’t mind me saying so, you’ve really grown up over the past year or so. Ever since you had your adorable little twins.” She sighs, and there’s a hint of melancholy in the noise. “Motherhood suits you.”

Keris glows happily. Talking about her children is always a reliable way to bring her mood up. “Not just motherhood,” she corrects. “Kinship. Being part of a clan again. And you’re part of that; you know you are. You’re family to me.”

The other woman - demon princess - smiles. “You know, you’ve actually done a wonderful job with the entertainment, too, this year. Your grand fight, and your two entertaining spectacles with Sasimana. Did I hear right that Ipithymia is granting you a manse as payment for your services she’s so pleased with the performance?”

Keris’s eyes open wide. “She did?” She vaguely recalls something about that, but she had been distracted by Sasi and there had been so many people talking on and on and...

“Oh yes! I might have suggested that you would really appreciate a place with good connections, and she wants you to like her. You have a real talent for making - and hosting - grand spectacles.”

“Well...” blushes Keris, flattered. “You know. You taught me well, and all. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“Well, darling, I do have an offer for you. The Calibration parties and the Althing have grown to a level that I sort of can’t handle it all,” Lilunu admits ruefully. “If my souls were healthy... well, I could delegate work to them like you do to yours, but... that’s not on the table. No, I do actually have a limited budget for calling on the help of my princes for arranging such things, but I don’t know why I’ve never really used it.” She leans in. “Keris, how would you like to be my Mistress of Revelry? You’d be in charge of the grand entertainment for two of the five days, give or take, and you’d have the resources of my lands at your disposal. My servants would answer to you. All you’d need to do is give the people grand spectacles, sweeping dramas, and sport.”

Keris’s eyes widen as she takes the offer in. It’s...

... it’s a pretty big offer.

“Um,” she says. “I... uh... give me a moment.”

Mistress of Revelry. It’s a pretty-sounding title. And a powerful one. Oh, it might seem like just an meaningless bauble to some, devoid of any armies or manses or potent weapons. And it’s true, there’s not much there she could apply directly to most problems. But... full control over the grand entertainment for almost half of Calibration? It would be a level of soft power that would rival a major division head in some ways - on top of what Keris already has. She could use it as an excuse to do missions explicitly for Lilunu, claiming them as ‘entertainment tasks’. She’d have more resources and backing, the ability to sway more of the Unquestionable to her side; far more latitude in hiding her... less legal activities. She could take some of the strain off Lilunu, make waves among the other Infernals - even start normalising the attitude that serfs and souls made by Infernals are perfectly natural, nothing to get censured over or opposed or chained up.

And then, of course, there are the downsides. It would be work - a lot more work on top of her division head role, even if she could delegate some of it to her souls. It would put her in regular contact with dangerous, unpredictable Unquestionable like Balanodo or Ululaya whose very presence would try to sway her. She’d be under massive pressure to perform well every year. And... well, Lilunu isn’t saying it. But Keris knows that this little play she’s just performed would not be enough in the long run. If she took this role, she’d have to include - and probably participate in - performances more along the lines of the other show she and Sasi gave.

“Can I... can I think about it?” she asks. “It’s not that I’m not... deeply, deeply flattered. It’s just, on top of my role as head of the lower south-west, I’m not sure how much time I’d have, and it would be a lot of pressure...”

She bites her lip. “I’ll answer as soon as I can? But I don’t think I can give one now. Not without thinking it over a lot.”

Lilunu sighs. “I understand, Keris. It is a lot to ask of you - and you’re already always so busy. “ She glances over at Sasi. “Where should I drop you and her off? Her place is nearer. I think she needs a bath and bed.”

“Yes please,” Keris says. “I’ll visit you soon. I, uh. Should probably talk to you and lord Ligier about that deathlord problem in the southwest and how I found out about it. But that can wait; it’s not urgent.”

“I suspect it’s somewhere in the pile of reports I haven’t had time to look through because of all of the demands of Calibration,” Lilunu says mournfully. “But Keris, this time of year, I can always find time for you.” She leans over and strokes Sasi’s hair. “And Sasimana, too. Take care of her. She’s one of my eldest.” She looks Keris in the eye. “There aren’t many left of you who... who were from the first wave.”

Leaning over, Keris gives her mentor a hug. She’s never asked if someone held her Exaltation between Yamal and herself. She suspects so - it seems unlikely that Lilunu held onto it for the four years between Sasi and Testolagh Exalting and Keris taking the Second Breath.

She doesn’t know the name of whoever fell before her, and she doesn’t want to, either. The idea is unsettling, and she tries not to think about it whenever it comes up.

Lilunu sees them to the door, then heads off alone. Keris carries Sasi in the door, and-

“What’s the matter with her? What happened?” Testolagh, wild-eyed, stares at Keris carrying the cradled Sasi. His one human eye’s pupil is very small; his hair is flattened on one side like he’s been sleeping on it. He’s dressed only in shorts; his torso shows off the scars. “Is that blood on her? And where did all the new tattoos and piercings come from?”

“Calm down, calm down,” Keris tells him. “She’s fine, just tired. We were putting on a play for the Unquestionable; she had to keep her soul flared for the whole thing to give us an orchestra. That’s why she’s out like a felled tree. The tattoos were part of her costume; I’ll take them off once I’ve got her into a bed. I’m… not sure about the blood. Hmm. But she doesn’t look cut, and there were a bunch of demons crowding around to congratulate us. Might’ve come from one of them.”

He bunches up his shoulders, and breathes through his nose, but doesn’t act immediately. He hovers over her shoulder as she takes Sasi to her dark, deep baths - and ignores her suggestion that this is a woman’s place and he should give them some privacy.

She’s lying, because Sasi doesn’t split the baths by sex in her place, but he should at least listen when she says that.

It doesn’t take long for his looming to get annoying, and she snaps at him to at least sit down while she gently bathes Sasi - though honestly she could have tipped buckets over her while marching a full brass band past and she doubts Sasi would have woken up - and removes the tattoos and piercings one by one with root-like fingers.

Then, lifting her up again without a hint of effort, the two of them with their trailing third retire to a bedroom where Keris tucks Sasi in and drops a fond kiss on her forehead.

They sit there in the dark room for a while; the man of brass and fire and the woman of wind and water; their sand and shadow lover nestled in deep, soft sheets between them.

“So, she tells me she convinced you,” says Keris after a while. “I bet that took her a while. What did she have to say to talk you into it?”

He has the decency, at least, to look away for a moment. “It’s not just one thing. Some of it is that... yes. Over the past year, I’ve seen you be a mother to my daughter. And to your own children. Aiko loves you, and she talks about you a lot. She talks about your children like they’re her siblings, or at least cousins. You’re part of my family’s life. I can’t pretend you don’t exist. And she does want us to get along. She... she said she wants me to be happy when we can’t see each other, so if we give it a try, it might work out better than the...” he sighs, “the stress on our relationship when we see each other a few times a year and she’s sleeping with other men and women.”

Keris holds the look for a moment longer before taking pity on him. “I can agree with making her happy,” she agrees. “And Aiko is a sweetheart. You’re a good father to her; she adores you.” She rolls her eyes. “Even if she obviously gets her stubbornness from you in spades.”

She sighs. “We’ll try it. But I have a condition, okay? Aiko doesn’t find out. I’m ‘Aunty Keris’ right now, and she’s happy with that. We don’t know if... anything more will work out long-term, and she’s as manipulative as Sasi in her own way. A lot more transparent and adorable about it, but if she finds out we’re... ‘in love’, she’ll jump straight to ‘you’re marrying daddy so you’re my mama too’, and then if things fall apart it’ll break her heart.”

“No kisses, only sex?” he asks, raising his left eyebrow - the one with the scar running through it that crosses his brass eye.

Keris grins viciously. “The last man who kissed me fell off the bench and crawled away screaming in terror,” she says. “If you really want to, you can try.”

“... I’ll take that as a no to kisses, then.” He crosses his hands in front of him, back hunched. “What did Sasimana do, though?” he asks, a catch in his voice. “I haven’t seen her in this state since... well. Years. When I had to track down where she’d fallen unconscious after drinking and smoking too much. Before we got involved.”

A helpless shrug is his only answer. “It was only a play, Testolagh. There was some sex in it - just her dumb coldblood figments in the background to make it seem more explicit than it really was, not us; I asked not to perform like that in front of everyone.” Her face shades red. “There wasn’t anything special in the story, I think. Realm legionary falls in lust with an exotic dancer - that was me - starts seeing her everywhere, goes mad, winds up abandoning her faith and pledging herself to the Yozis... you know the kind of thing. I think this is just because she kept her anima going through the whole play. She’s not like you and me. We’re strong, we’re tough. We can keep going longer before exhaustion bites. Sasi...”

She strokes her lover’s beautiful grey hair again, and sighs sadly. “She’s not really built to endure.”

His knuckles whiten. “She always puts too much of herself into anything she does,” he says, so softly that Keris can barely hear him over the music and noise of Hell. “She doesn’t leave anything in reserve. Especially if she thinks she’s going to be impressing those damn demon princes. I used to think it was her honour, that she’d sworn to serve them and so she would do that. Something understandable like that. But no. She gives too much away. She probably acted her heart out trying to make the lords of Hell approve of her.”

“If it’s any consolation, they did,” Keris says. “And yeah. She wants... she wants everyone to be happy. To enjoy themselves. So she tries to help them do it.” She motions between them with a hair tendril. “S’why she wants us together.”

He doesn’t have any answers or retorts for that. “In a state like that,” he says instead, “she’ll probably sleep for a day at least. Maybe I should see if Aiko’s asleep, and if she is, move her into her bed. It’ll give her more time with her mother, even if she’s out cold.”

Keris nods, then hesitates and shakes her head. “You stay here with Sasi,” she says. “I’ll go find Aiko. It’s been a while since she’s seen me, so she’ll be happy if she’s awake. And I want to see my twins.”

On silent feet, Keris creeps into Aiko’s bedroom. The lights are off in here, and only the soft green glow of Aiko’s nightlife casts shadowless illumination. Aiko is asleep, cuddled up with Kali who has quite notable stains on her face which suggests Sasi has been indulging her demands for treats. But where is...

Silver eyes gleam, and Keris sees Ogin up on top of one of the cupboards, peeking out from his little cushion nest.

“Hello, mama,” Ogin says softly. “Where have you been?”

“Hi, sweetie,” Keris murmurs, lifting her hair up to form a slide for him. “Mama was learning medicine to make people better. I’m sorry I wasn’t around for a while. Did you have a nice time with Aiko?”

Ogin crawls forwards, to grip onto her hair. He’s growing so fast. She hasn’t seen much of him in only a few days - a week, tops - and she’s sure he’s bigger than the last time she did this. Scooting down, he flops on top of her head, snuffling as he does it.

“Mama,” he says thoughtfully. “You smell like sweat and blood and ink.”

“Well, after I learned my medicine I had to put on a play for the big people,” she explains. “And Sasi helped, and she uses...”

She pauses.

“... blood and ink magic,” she finishes slowly. “Fu- uh, funny you should mention that, moonbeam. You just made a very clever point, and I think I know why Sasi was so tired she fell asleep right away after we finished. Shall we go see her?”

Slipping down the back of her head, Ogin wraps his little arms around her neck, and hangs from her back. His tails wrap around as far as they reach. “Yeah,” he says into his mother’s ear in a tiny whisper, a voice that no one other than her could hear.

Shifting her hair to support him and smiling goofily, Keris gently rolls Aiko and Kali up in their blankets and picks them up. She’s careful not to jolt or jar them as she paces back to Sasi’s room, Ogin’s weight hanging behind her and his little arms wrapping around her temples.

“You worked out how good mama’s hearing is, didn’t you?” she murmurs, low enough not to wake the girls. Ogin’s own hearing is sharp; he can easily parse her words. “My clever little moonbeam. Well done.”

“You hear us doing things when Rathan or Haneyl don’t,” he explains in the same hushed whisper. “So I tried making noise until you didn’t hear me”

She chuckles, low and soft. “Eko can, though. Her ears are as good as mine.”

Ogin nods, clearly storing the information for later. And maybe that’s a mistake. Other people think he’s the well-behaved one of the twins. Keris, as their mother, knows better. In some ways he’s worse because unlike his sister, he can delay gratification.

As she sneaks into Sasi’s room, Testolagh is leaning over her, adjusting the sit of her wet hair with a single finger. She pauses there, watching - just as her little moonbeam does. She’s never really seen him unguarded around... well, around Keris at all.

Eventually, though, Kali snuffles and shifts form in her sleep, stretching out as a tiger cub and lashing her tails contentedly. Neither she nor Aiko wake up, but it catches Testolagh’s attention and gets Keris moving again. She slides the girls in beside her and waits to see if Ogin wants to climb down after them.

... no, as it turns out. He’s apparently quite happy to continue being mama’s little head-monkey.

“I think it might not just be exhaustion,” Keris murmurs in the quiet of the bedroom. “She might have overused her gifts from Elloge. Coldblood powers make you bleed for them sometimes.” The sheets are organic, so her root-tendrils can slip through to see if she’s right without needing to pull them back and expose Sasi to the cooler air outside her nest of blankets. Her questing fingers dig in, and below the flawless skin, that’s where she finds the micro-scars. On the hands, the lips, the interior of the nose, the eyes, down below - everywhere where the skin is thin. Oh, Sasi’s treated them, covered them up, hidden them where you’d need to be able to dig in and check like Keris can - but they’re there. Marks of where her cold blood has escaped her, laden with meaning.

And right now, she’s notably anaemic. Of course it doesn’t show; she’s always very pale, but she’s lacking iron in her blood.

“Yeah, thought so,” she murmurs. “Alright, I’m going to make her something for when she wakes up - she’s anaemic, but I can brew something that’ll put iron back in her blood and boost her bone marrow for a few hours. I assume you’ll stay with her and the girls?”

He rubs the back of his neck. “My sleep cycle is not in synch with this,” he admits. “I might have to go next door so I can read, because Aiko tends to wake whenever there’s light and she needs her rest.”

She nods. “I’ll leave Iris to keep an eye on them, then, and I’ll be down in the kitchens if you need me. Ogin? Do you want to come with mama or stay with the girls?”

Her son turns his head away from Testolagh. “With you,” he whispers.

She nuzzles her head back against him and lets Iris launch off her arm, circle twice and then paint herself across the ceiling, blowing out happy little puffs of flame. A mental nudge is all it takes for Keris to get a second sense of vision, looking down from above on the three sleeping bodies.

She smiles, nods to Testolagh, and makes her way downstairs. Sasi’s estate doesn’t have a proper alchemist’s lab, but she has tools in her soul and it won’t be much trouble to whip up a few simple blood-boosting pills before Sasi wakes up. And rich soup is simple, given the very-well-stocked pantries here.

Sasi’s servants have most of the things she’d need, but not everything. Keris decides it’d be faster to go and get the missing ingredients herself, rather than rely on them - especially since her servants want to go through her butler and argh, it’ll just take too long.

So she dashes off, heading home to grab her things. She vaults the fence and crosses the dome, dodging the crowds of adoring - lustful - demons waiting outside both of their townhouses.

In the gardens of her own place, she finds that Eko and Asarin are sitting there under oversized frilly parasols, drinking... well, Asarin has tea. Eko doesn’t. But both of them have whole platefuls of very tiny and sugary cakes. Asarin is wearing a soft yellow morningrobe with her hair done up elaborately in (probably Ekoan) ribbons, while Eko herself is in an abomination of frills and is drinking her blood with a straw though the mouth of her mask. Asarin must have headed here from the Street of Golden Lanterns.

“Oh!” Keris blinks, landing just short of them from a jump and pacing off the momentum. “Hi Asarin. Sorry to, uh, drop in on your tea party.” A few quick orders to a nearby servant send them running to get the ingredients she needs, and she checks on Sasi and the girls through Iris’s eyes. Still deeply asleep. Content that she has time to spare; Keris seats herself to spend a few minutes catching up with her friend and daughter. “How’ve you been?”

Asarin turns bright red at the sight of Keris. It’s really an impressive display. It starts at the cheeks, but swiftly spreads across her whole face until it’s at her browline. And it doesn’t stop there. There’s red tinges in the burning brown fire of her hair. “H-hello, Keris,” Asarin stammers. “Uh. Lovely... lovely... lovely... sun we’re having.”

Eko vanishes silently. Keris can’t hear her, but she’s probably directly behind her so she can avoid looking her in the eye.

Keris winces.

“Can we, ah...” She clears her throat, aware that she’s also going red. “Fight! Uh, I mean, not that we should fight. But you heard about the fight I had with Kasteen? The new peer on her second Calibration who,” she rolls her eyes, “is infatuated with your Greater Self, the hussy.”

“H-have a seat,” Asarin says quickly. “Um. Yes. Yes.” She takes a breath, and her hair flares up as her expression shifts - covering embarrassment with anger. “And yes! She’s just another one of his flunkies! They always show up! I’ve seen so many over the years! Dragonblooded and moon chosen and nonsense like that! Idiots! All idiots! And...” she trails away.

“He came to me,” she says, more softly, hair dying down. “H-he... he said you were dangerous to be around, Keris? That... um. That you are involved with the Silent Wind.” She peers over Keris’s shoulder. “No, Eko. I’m going to say it! Eko says that... that she’s the daughter of the Silent Wind. That you and her are... um. ‘Good friends’. And that’s where Eko and Calesco come from.

“That’s... that’s just Eko being... imaginative again?”

Keris bites her lip. She’s quiet for a moment.

“He showed... interest in me,” she says slowly, and quickly holds up a hand. “Not that kind, I don’t think. But I wanted to head it off just in case and make it very clear to him that he shouldn’t be chasing after other girls; that he should be paying attention to you. And I did tell him so,” she adds, smirking. “So I scared him a little. But, well. I might have played it up a bit, but he wasn’t wrong, no. I’m a Scourge, after all. She’s my patron.”

She forces a tentative smile. “Don’t be scared,” she... it’s meant as a reassurance, and comes out more like a plea. “She rarely comes to me, and so far the only person She’s ever hurt during her visits is me. I don’t call on Her. You won’t be in any danger.” She shrugs. “He won’t be chasing my skirts ever again, either. And I think I convinced him to drop Kasteen and treat you better in future. Can you... be okay with that?” She meets Asarin’s eyes nervously. “I’m still the same person you’ve been friends with. Eko’s been Her daughter all along. Nothing’s changed.”

They talk further. And maybe if Keris’s words taste of the deep sea and there’s a light in her eyes like that of the blood red moon, that’s why Asarin can be talked down. But maybe it’s just because Keris is making senses. And because, of course, she’s making it quite clear she’s not interested in the Prince of Leeches.

“I don’t like it,” Asarin admits, looking between Keris and the Eko who’s presumably just over her shoulder. “But... I’ve known Eko for a while. She’s a strange girl, but she doesn’t kill everything she comes across. I...” she swallowed. “I think... I mean, I believe I can take this on trust. Though it makes me nervous.”

“I know,” Keris says. “But hey! Look on the bright side! He’s going to drop Kasteen now, or at least not back her anymore. You have the Lionesses, and access to Shuu Mua’s ruins - as well as any others I go exploring in the Southwest. And-”

A torrent of giggles comes from behind her, and she turns, frowning. Nothing she’d been saying was particularly funny...

... wait. She’d been focusing too much on her conversation with Asarin to really notice it, but the lump on the back of her head had been shifting a bit. And the sound of her own voice could easily have masked a quiet enough whisper, where someone staying silent might have heard it...

“Ogin?” Keris says delicately. “What exactly did you just tell Big Sister Eko to make her laugh so hard?”

Ogin pokes his head around, smiling like a smugly self-satisfied baby who’s got one up over his mother. “Nothing,” he sing-songs.

She pinches the bridge of her nose. “Eko...” she warns. “‘fess up. What’s so funny?”

Eko skips around. She’s not talking to her disgraceful mother, she informs Keris with a snippy fingerwag. Firstly she gets in a really cool big fight without even calling on Eko once, then she disgraces herself, then she vanishes for all of Calibration because she l-lo-loves Oula more than her own children. Eko starts ticking offences off her fingers. Then she has a giant play in front of lots of people, then she doesn’t tell Eko or Asarin about it or get them invitations, then they have to sneak in to watch it in disguise, and then - Eko shakes her head gravely - it was all lewds! She jabs her finger at Keris. Lewds!

“That was why I didn’t send invites and oh godsdammit of course you were the servant she had with her,” Keris groans. “I assumed the both of you wouldn’t want to see it. Though I’m flattered you came anyway, despite the, uh, venue.”

She turns wounded eyes on Asarin. “Both my children are bullying me, and I’ve hurt your feelings by accident,” she mourns. “Can you possibly ever forgive me?”

Asarin holds her hands over her flaming cheeks. “I shouldn’t have gone,” she mutters. “People pr-propositioned me on the way there! And back!”

Eko stabbed the ones Asarin didn’t hit with her disguised hammer, Eko contributes helpfully.

“And I saw much more of you than I wanted to - and I’ll never be able to look Peer Sasimana in the face again! Or any other part! Because... ah!” She bats at her own cheeks. “Eko is right to be mortified!”

“I am sorry,” Keris says, bowing her head. “But Ipithymia demanded a play, and... well, when the Unquestionable ask, you don’t say no. That was about as... un-lewd as I could make it - and believe me, I had to spend a whole morning shooting down ideas that were worse.” She cringes lightly. “You know how the Street of Golden Lanterns is. Have sympathy for me, and be glad I got to keep at least some of my clothes on.”

The demon lord shakes her head. “Anyway, yes. I did want to say I’d be interested in keeping up our arrangement and heading out with you again on your very comfortable boat.” She sips her tea. “In all honesty, I was a little worried coming back for Calibration. There was a risk some sorcerer might summon me, but perhaps the fact that they haven’t been able to find me while I was with you means they’re assuming someone else has me bound. I’d really rather leave for Creation at least five days before the next new moon, though.”

Keris nods. “I can arrange that. Most of my work here is done already, I just have a few things left to tie up.” Ogin pokes his head over her shoulder again, and issues a shy wave to the demon lord, which earns him a fond kiss on the cheek and a wave back from Asarin.

“Ah,” Keris adds, hearing demonic footsteps approach. “And here’re my ingredients. I’ll let you get back to your tea party.” She rises, stretches, and accepts the box, rising to her tiptoes as she prepares for the sprint back to Sasi’s estate. Back in the bedroom, Kali is nuzzling Sasi’s ear in her sleep and jerking her leg in a way that probably means she’s disembowelling something in her dreams, likely in one of her other shapes.

Only one thing gives her pause before she sets off.

“... wait. How in the hells do you disguise a giant hammer?”

The question of heading back to Creation is starting to press on the minds of the green sun princes who remain in the Conventicle. Sasi takes a few days to recover, in which neither Keris nor Testolagh wind up raising the question of what exactly she had been doing to herself for the play.

Keris can guess, though. From the way Sasi had acted, she seemed to believe that she was Elanora. She was a good liar, but that good? It’s a concerning question, and one she tries not to give much thought to. If nothing else, she consoles herself, whatever gift it is will probably make Sasi safer in the Realm.

In the meantime, Keris takes a good look at her new manse. It’s a peculiar place, called the Topless Tower. And that name surprised her, because it clearly had a top from the outside - a gold-walled five storey tower with amethysts embedded in the walls. It’s located fairly close to the casino where Keris had made her fortune from Yuula; not far from the gate into the Conventicle. She sighs. Well, you can only expect so much from the Street of Golden Lanterns. The inside is a lavish golden interior, lit by the titular lanterns. After flopping on the very comfortable bed she finds, she heads upstairs.

Things are totally different. Below was a decadent golden palace; the second floor is rich with many brightly coloured wall hangings. The beds are topped with furs of strange creatures from the Endless Desert - the sound has changed and she hears different music from the outside.

And she’s on the ground floor. Having gone up a floor. Opening the door, Keris stares wide-eyed at the towering mountain range of the outer walls of Malfeas, a pass cut through a collapsed section that leads out into the endless desert.

Huh. But. She. She screws her eyes shut, and heads downstairs. Only to find her somewhere else entirely; a basement full of eyeless gold automata working around the hearthstone room. She attunes to the place - her new manse - then heads back into the desert floor, frowning.

She takes the stairs up again. Another ground floor. The walls are pulsing meat; the air smells of sweat and sex, and the curtains are golden hair. Outside is a distillery district, where strange alchemical brews are made from a chained-down behemoth. And she heads up again, to find an entirely too lewd level where every wall is a graphic mural and there are countless explicit statues demonstrating demons coupling. And again, this time into a strange echoing space of white stone which is shockingly sparse and bare.

Finally, the next floor up is the one she started on. Having climbed up five storeys, to wind up where she started.

“My head hurts,” Sirelmiya mutters in her head. Which is also hurting.

Dulmea sighs. “It is merely a curved space within the Street,” she explains. “Pay no heed to it. The Unquestionable one snakes through Hell as she wishes - and she has said that this tower opens onto many places. It is a fine gift, child. I can see many uses for this place - think how fast you can get back to the Desert now, without having to rely on Ligier’s sky-bridges.”

“And I can see many uses for those beds in pleasing Sasimana,” Sirelmiya contributes helpfully. “And those fascinating devices left lying around.”

Dulmea sighs. “Not a place for the children, I suspect,” she says.

Keris nods, as she stares out the window. Definitely not a place for the children. Not that Eko would willingly come here.

… when she puts it like that, she can already see the benefits.

Sasi had scheduled her departure for the sixteenth of Ascending Air, and so the question of her Calibration present hung in the back of everyone’s minds. Then came the suggestion that Keris offer an invitation for ‘an intimate party’ where Sasi was clear in suggesting that Keris arrange childcare for the twins. Staring at herself in the mirror of the lavish bathroom of her new manse, she gets ready.

“I’m not nervous,” the woman in the mirror says to her. She has a few new piercings - a particularly pretty vitriol-silver tongue stud that Sasi is going to love, a thin ring through her low lip that accents her scars, and... a few lower and more intimately-placed ones that should enhance sensation.

So she’ll probably enjoy this physically, no matter what else happens; good or bad.

“I’m not,” insists the mirror-woman again. She’s gathered a truly extortionate number of gifts and trinkets from her many admirers on this trip to Hell. She’ll need to see about keeping such pretty things available back in Creation. Maybe make herself a pretty bathroom and dressing room where she can hide her Hellish accoutrements. Keris spares a moment to be thankful that Hermione is still in Creation. This would be exactly the kind of time she’d show up and poke at how...

... okay, yes, fine, she is kind of nervous. Testolagh’s place in Sasi’s life is one that Keris generally tries to avoid thinking about entirely, and while there’s been a certain amount of chemistry there ever since their celebration of Aiko’s birth, acting on it is threatening to throw the careful structure of compartmentalisation she’s set up out of balance.

She brushes down her dress. It’s red and gold, with silver accents - a variant on her first and fondest dress from back in Nexus that she’s worked Harbourite additions into. It’s also tight enough around her upper body that Keris had to weave herself into it; showing off the presence of two of her new piercings to a perceptive eye. She made sure to design it with deliberately weakened tear-lines for easy removal, that she can easily fix up later if she ever wants to wear it again.

The toll of the door is sonorous. One deep breath, and she nods to herself. “Okay,” she tells her mirror-self. “Here they are. Wish me luck.” She blows herself a kiss, and retreats before her reflection gets any funny ideas about replying.

She sweeps to the doors, throwing them wide open. Sasi sparkles in a snow white dress that almost seems to glow in the golden light all around them, while Testolagh - looking slightly awkward - is in sleek black. She strongly suspects Sasi dressed him, because it shows style that he simply normally doesn’t show.

“Oh, Keris,” Sasi says fondly, as Keris kisses them both in greeting, then takes them to the seats and pours the wine. “So nice of you to invite us... to an intimate little soiree in your beautiful new manse. You look ravishing, my love.”

Testolagh nods, biting his lip fractionally as he looks her up and down. “You look very beautiful,” he says. A glance down indicates that if he wasn’t already enjoying Sasi’s company, he’s appreciating her.

Keris embraces her love, and then - a little more hesitantly - him. “You too,” she says, the statement covering both of them without having to compliment him specifically. “Are, um...”

She bites her lip, and jerks a little in surprise as her teeth find the thin ring of silver. Sasi laughs quietly, and Keris blushes.

“Oh, I have an exotic itinerary for us to explore,” Sasi says with a smile, turning to reveal to Keris that her dress is backless and dips low enough to reveal she’s wearing nothing under it. “Like me. And you. And Tessie. Do you like the dress?”

“Makers, yes,” Keris exhales.

“A gift from Ipithymia, just like this place. And my my, I can see very pleasurable things that came with this princely reward. We should try them out.” She eases Keris into her seat, then sits between her and Testolagh. “But first! A toast each!” She raises her glass.

“To us! To the three of us, and long may we have happiness together!”

Testolagh nods. “To families,” he says, “even if they’re strange.”

“To kin,” Keris says simply. “And the clans of kin, and the bonds that tie us together.”

They drink.

Then Sasi leans over, and presses lips that taste of wine to Keris’s, kissing her deeply. She breaks it off, then leans the other way, to kiss Testolagh just as deeply.

“Shall we?” she asks, a little nervous catch in her voice.

Keris spreads her hands across Sasi’s back, feels the soft layer of fat and the play of muscle under the skin. Her hair moves like a nest of snakes; sinuously winding around the three of them; pulling apart pale thighs and capturing battle-scarred wrists.

“Let’s take it to the bedroom,” she whispers.

Several hours later, Keris is lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Some of the things they did earlier are painted up there. Sasi is facing her, asleep on her left arm, lipstick smeared over her face. From the other side, she can hear Testolagh’s louder breathing as he spoons his... her... their girlfriend.

Keris is too tired to bother lifting her head and look, so all she can do is try to judge from his breathing and his heartbeat whether he’s awake or not.

... nope, dead to the world. Men, honestly. Sasi might be - in the best possible way - a complete physical wimp, but he’s got as much endurance as her. But noooo, a few orgasms and he’s passed out and useless.

Well, okay, fine, more than ‘a few’. She hadn’t really been keeping track of the exact number, but she supposes she can give him a pass this once. She yawns a little, shifts away from a jutting elbow, and then very carefully and deliberately doesn’t freeze, or gasp, or stiffen, or tense up, or react in any way whatsoever to the prickle along her spine.

There is someone else in the room with them.

Keris is certain of this. It’s someone who isn’t breathing, someone who has no smell, someone she can’t see in all the shadows and the incense-haze - but someone is there. She can feel it in the way the hairs on back of her neck are raising on end, and in the sudden flush to her cheeks.

Without sound, the hooks and knives and needles in her hair slide out. Calling on her spear or Ascending Air would betray her knowledge of the lurker - the flash of light would give her away, and without a pinpoint location she can’t risk a single attack. But Keris is never completely unarmed. Not even at a time like this.

She rolls over, a little murmuring sound giving the impression she’s still asleep and sated; dead to the world and entirely unaware of her unannounced guest.

Then she rolls her to feet in an instant and a hail of poisoned steel and silver fills the room.

It’s surprisingly quiet. But then, there are no great crashing clubs or hammers here - just needles pinging off the painted murals and knifeblades sinking into cushioned seats. Keris herself aims towards the corner she’s most sure about; hands gaping with fangs and slamming shut on...

... nothing.

No sounds of anything hitting flesh. No body for her teeth to find. The strange and certain presence still there, but devoid of any form.

She gulps. Could this be...

“... my lady?” she tries. Her voice is quiet. Careful. Tense.

Something warm embraces her from behind her, too many limbs settling into just two, tarry warmth becoming skin that rounds out to breasts that are pressed into her shoulders. “Please don’t scream,” a honey-soft, Realm-accepted voice whispers, a voice rich with seductive promise. A voice that sounds like Sasi in her most self-indulgent. Rounded lips brush her ear. Dark-skinned hands hold her tight, one of them creeping lower. “You’ll wake my lady. And I’ve wanted to meet you for so long, Keris.”

Keris does not scream. She does, in a fluid motion that shouldn’t really be possible for something with a spine, slide out of the embrace and whirl around to pin the woman. She has the stranger up against the wall with all four limbs hair-pinned out against the stone before the voice registers and the words make sense.

“... Seresa?” Keris whispers in a leap of intuition, looking her prisoner up and down incredulously.

She’s tall; she looks like a negative of Sasi, all dark hair and dark skin and bluish lips that smile widely. “She does so appreciate how clever you can be,” Seresa says, twisting in the embrace with seductive grace. She can’t escape, but she doesn’t want to and the motions she’s making aren’t actually helping her get free. “Mmm. Don’t stop.”

Blinking at her, Keris casts a wild look at Sasi, then back at her prisoner. Her naked... shapely... gorgeous... squirming...

Keris looks back at Sasi. It’s safer that way. “She said she hadn’t even figured how to make lesser demons!” she hisses. “How the hell are you out here?”

Seresa smiles a little too widely. It has something of Haneyl’s smiles in it. She has more teeth than Sasi does. “She might not have realised how to do it, but we did,” she says. “Eko’s notes were very useful. Even if,” she shrugs, “it was a little scary to find there were sections directly addressed to me and Kalaska in them. And then, well.”

She looks over at the sleeping Sasi and Testolagh, then overtly eyes up the post-coital Keris.

“You made the earth move, and cracked a wall in our prison. You called.” She licks her lips. “I came.”

Keris blushes. “Let’s... take this to another room,” she mumbles. “And put clothes on.” Her hair is what’s holding Seresa to the wall, and as she pulls it back she closes the fanged maws her hands have become and lays the left one on the woman’s cheek.

“I don’t think the clothes are necessary, really,” Seresa says, copying Keris’s gesture. “They’ve fallen asleep, and I just can’t bear to see you lying there awake.” She roles her name around, “Kerisssssss.”

Keris can feel the creeping shadow, tainted by hunger. Seresa is an oozing thing, a creature of hot nights and strong appetites. She’s as powerful as Keris’s own souls, too - and the outer layers feel a lot like Calesco. But while Calesco is piercing brightness under her shadows, Seresa is nothing but accepting, warm shadows all the way through. Accepting like a mouth, or like... well, other places.

And that’s what she is; appetites. She’s Sasi’s hungers given form. If Haneyl wants wealth and Zanara loves art in all ways, every move from Seresa screams that she wants to indulge. She wants Keris, and she wants to taste Keris’s cooking, and she probably wants to finish off the last of the wine they’d abandoned back in the other room.

No wonder she escaped here, in this manse. The entire place is almost a temple to the part of Sasi she represents.

((TED essence flavoured with Metagaos, E6 - Urge: Indulge in all Life’s Pleasures))

If it were any other day, any other time, it might have worked. But Keris is as sated as she’s been in... well, a week or so, since the Unquestionable’s box, but months before that. Her libido is curled up and purring in happy contentment; its interest at an all-time low.

She steps back.

“Okay,” she agrees. “But this is your first time out in the world. You might still have a caul on you - and if you’ve worn it away, you’re exposed to Hell’s environment for the first time ever. Don’t you want some food for your first meal out in the world, and a massage to get you over the birthing pains? I bet it wasn’t comfortable getting out through the cracks.”

Seresa pouts. “Damn. Sasi had all the fun. She’s so selfish.” Shadows roil around her, and she’s now a different woman with midnight-blue waist-length hair, wearing a silk dressing gown. It’s golden, to match the general themes of this place. “And yes. I had to squeeze myself down so small to creep out the cracks. And got caught several times.” She smiles. “Your shadow was a very comfy place to nap to recover, though.”

Keris smiles as she leads the way out of the room, stooping to pick up a silk robe on the way. She takes her up two storeys, back to the golden level - far enough away that the others won’t hear them talk. “Haneyl complained about the same thing. Here, take my hand. I can learn a bit more about you.”

There is not, it transpires, a caul on Seresa. Or even any trace of a recent one, which Keris takes as evidence in favour of them forming when the soul is born, and not when they’re externalised. Keris won’t be getting her own as an ingredient unless Sasi births any new souls - or unless she does, she supposes.

Regardless, she gets the demon sat down in a sinfully luxurious armchair, tasks one of the golden automata to give her a foot massage, and gives her a bowl of grapes to tide her over while Keris cooks.

“So, you and Kalaska have worked out demon-making, then?” she starts with. “What kinds? Anything special?”

Seresa flaps a hand in her direction. “Oh, Kalaksa has her silly glass foxes. I don’t know what’s up with that girl. But I made some just darling living shadows that eat shadows to find a place to hide. I’m calling them the Inky Spies. They say I need a more fancy name, but I don’t feel like that.” She wiggles her toes. “Oh, I have dreamed of this,” she says, pouring herself another glass of wine. It’s her third.

Keris’s eyes narrow a little at the mention of Kalaska. But she doesn’t let it enter her voice as she puts pans onto heat and digs root-fingers into ingredients and shakes spices into pots with her hair. “And the others? Sasi’s told me about your siblings, but it’s been a while, and she’s always very sparse...”

It’s not hard to get Seresa talking. In fact, she turns out to be something of an extrovert, and goes on at length about Marenolo’s incessant questions and Moneha always thinking about tiresome things like money and deals, and how La is such a frightful bore, honestly...

The servitor is dismissed as Keris comes back to sit next to Seresa, and offers a bowl of rich cake swimming in chocolate sauce and cinnamon and cream. The bowl is made of solid gold, but then again all the bowls here are like that.

“You poor thing,” she murmurs. “It must be terrible cooped up in that... what did you call it? That prison.”

“Well, I don’t know what else to call it?” Seresa says. There’s an inconstancy to her face as she examines the cake with wide eyes, as if her mouth can’t quite decide how big it wants to be. Delicately, she pops a bite in, and actually, literally, moans. “Oh, Keris, that’s scrumptious! Just scrumptious! The best food I have ever eaten!” Her voice quavers, and she immediately takes another bite, letting out another moan. “Oh, I haven’t thanked you and Haneyl enough for teaching Sasimana how to taste like this, but trust me, I will!” She swallows, melting like the chocolate. “And it’s certainly a prison! I have one room, Keris, smaller than this! And no cake like this! No, no, not at all! And trust me when I say that visiting La for booty calls gets tiresome when he insists on praying to the Yozis when he’s meant to be focussing on pounding you!”

Keris’s face is sympathetic. “Her coadjutor,” she murmurs, remembering how her own Domain had shrunk so when she’d been on the outs with Dulmea. “Sasi doesn’t... get along with him? You and Kalaska and La, you all just have one little room in there?”

The demoness is more focussed on the cake. “If you can call it a room! I couldn’t even fit in a proper sized bed! It only fits three! And Mu Nenra is such a whiner. Which I suppose is appropriate because he’s a wasp, but he’s also some idiotic jousting champion or something. Always wanting her to be more rash and getting on my back just because I want Sasimana to relax and enjoy herself.” She sniffs, and takes another bite of cake. “I’m the only one who cares about how she feels,” she mourns melodramatically, draping herself back as her other hand goes to her brow. She sniffs. “Of course, he’s a mere First Circle, and has ideas quite above his station,” she adds, peevishly.

“Mmm,” Keris says. “You know what, Seresa? I think I might be able to help you out there. My inner world is huge - maybe Sasi’s told you about Haneyl’s Direction? If I gathered up materials from every Direction in my domain, and a chip or two from the arcane map at its centre, and maybe a few other bits and pieces... do you think you could talk Kalaska and Marenolo into studying them, and keep the others off their backs while they do? Or even get all of you working together on it! After all, if they figure out a way to reweave the laws and rules that govern Sasi’s inner world, you’d get out of that poky little room and have kilometres of space to play with; all your own.”

Seresa’s eyes light up at that, and she sticks her forkload of cake in her mouth so she can clasp her hands together. “Oh, darling, that would be wonderful,” she exclaims around the cake. She tilts her head. “And I do believe I should really be coming with you to that very fun-sounding island of Saata,” she adds. “After all, Sasimana got Haneyl as an assistant, so it’s really your turn to get one of Sasimana’s souls and I’m here now. Oh, there’s so many wonderful things to learn about the world. Things that would get very un-fun if horrid Dynasts decided to get in my face just because I’m a demon lady. “

Keris tilts her head and considers the demon before her.

And she is a demon. That’s what Keris has concluded over the course of this conversation - Seresa isn’t like Calesco or Haneyl. She’s like Sirelmiya. She’s like Asarin. There’s none of the humanity to her that Keris’s children have; she’s very much a spirit. Concerned only with her own domain, melodramatic and a little selfish - though prone to kindness and sympathy as long as it doesn’t interfere with her pleasures.

It’s... oddly unsettling, Keris finds. Like seeing Sasi drunk or blissed out of her mind on sex; a side of her that’s completely exposed and open without anything to counterbalance it. Is... is that what Sasi’s souls are? Keris’s children are born from parts of her self - her joy, her greed, her compassion. But Sasi’s... Keris thinks Sasi’s might be the faces she wears instead. Sasi the frightened child. Sasi the blasphemous priestess.

Sasi the self-indulgent decadent, here in front of her now. She’s not a child of Sasi; part of her mixed with part of something else. She’s... one of the masks that Sasi wears. One of five or six that all fight over the same face.

“I don’t see why not,” Keris says, her lips curling in a smile. “But I’ll need to summon you for that. Either by asking Sasi for permission, or just getting it from you.”

Seresa smiles at that. “Oh, darling,” she says. “Don’t worry about that. I’m very good at persuading her. The only risk is she might be desolate without me - which is of course entirely the correct way to feel when stripped of my magnificent presence - but for a season or two before her visit in Wood, it should be a triviality!” She smiles. “Keris, trust me, you’ll be able to summon me any time you want.”

Keris grins at her. “Excellent,” she says. “Now then, how about a massage once you finish that cake?”

“Darling, I’ve seen what your massages do to Sasimana. Do you really think I’d turn that down?”

Not all things are so pleasurable in the run-up to Keris’s departure from Hell. She has one meeting she’s been putting off. And off. And off.

Ligier sits in his throne, glorious in brazen armour. Beside him Lilunu has her place, in a dress woven from rainbows. Keris kneels before them.

“Do I have it quite straight?” Ligier says, in a voice that is icy cold. “That ship I wrought for you, that masterpiece that nothing in the world We have been denied should be able to match, has been damaged by wretched Dead things?” His eyes burn. “Do I hear you correctly, Keris?”

“My lord,” she says, prostrating herself, “it came under attack by a terrible force. Four of the Greater Dead, leading a force of lesser ghosts and yidak, all empowered and given direction by the yoke of a new and hungry Deathlord. There are no legends about it in the area, no stories to account for its presence - I estimate it has come to power within the last fifty years.”

She dares a glance up. “Even so, despite the numbers, your work prevailed, my lord,” she adds. “The Baisha fended off their ambush; the Greater Dead monster that boarded was slain, and their fleet was diverted and weakened by the battle. Had the creatures not hidden themselves within mortal bodies, the damage would have been even less - and that tactic will not work as well a second time, now that we know to guard for it.”

The aura in the room is still not pleased. She gulps, and ventures a little further. “Not only that, but we know of the threat now. A deathlord who can field forces in that number, and hide them so deviously? A deathlord so young, too, who has not had time to gather power or lay down heavy fortresses. It is...” not ‘good’, good is not the word for this disaster... “valuable information to have gained, my lord.”

“Well, then.” Ligier smiles, but there isn’t much humour in it. “What will you do, Director Duleamdokht? Because this is in your area of operations, and I do believe that these wretched rotting things have insulted my work.”

Keris bares her teeth.

“I’m going to murder them all,” she snarls. “I’m going to wipe out their entire pathetic tribe. I’m going to smash their homeland and gut their patron and turn the whole Anarchy against them. And when I’ve reduced them to penniless vagabonds drifting on their raft-cities without a shore to go back to, I’m going to set the fleets of Saata against them and drive them north into the teeth of Triumphant Air. Let the Realm do something useful for once, and bleed its Navy out on the rotting Dead.”

That’s when Ligier smiles, and when Lilunu sees that she smiles too, with a hint of relief. “Strong words, little Keris. Strong words and pretty ones.” He leans towards her, one elbow resting on a knee, chin resting on the back of his hand. “You are quite skilled at putting on pleasing entertainment. But will you be able to deliver?”

Rising enough to bow again, Keris meets his eye. “I will deliver vengeance for the insult to your work, my lord,” she says. “And I will bring you back a brace of hearts carved out of the Zu Tak Greater Dead as recompense. My word on it.”

Lilunu clears her throat. “So where will you start, Keris?” she asks.

Keris purses her lips and thinks about it for a moment.

Then she smiles, cold and vicious.

“My lord, my lady,” she says. “There is a city in the Anarchy so vile; so drenched in sin and scum that even the dregs of Saata look down on it. And yet the pirates dare not move against it, and the sea lanes pay it taxes, for it has weapons that broke a Realm fleet a century past. And now its lord is old and frail and would do anything, anything at all, to prolong his life a little more.”

She tosses her hair and smirks.

“I’ll start with Ca Map, on the doorstep of the Wailing Fen. A staging point to crush them from, and stop them fleeing south.”

Chapter Text

Ca Map!

Den of thieves! Warren of vice! Wretched cesspit of the Anarchy! Below, an artificial island of lashed-together boats and debris heaves with human misery and suffering. Atop, ancient platforms of antiquity gleam with wealth and gardens and trinkets stolen by the pirate lords too awful for Saata.

From atop one of the floating platforms of the rich, Keris shields her eyes against the setting sun and looks out across the Anarchy. The sparkling waters shimmer in the sun, clear in places, choked with sargasso in others. For a moment, she imagines that she can see the ship Rathan and Haneyl are using for their voyages down South. Oh, her babies, all off together with no one there but Haneyl’s handpicked Lionesses and the owlriders and various disreputable pirates she’s picked up.

She hopes they’re safe and getting on and not trying to kill each other. And eating well. And getting enough rest.

Behind her, a lushly curvy Tengese woman sips on a drink. Keris has bound the demoness within her authority over the Tengese triad, and this has put certain limits on her. But Seresa doesn’t mind too much - and she gleefully seduced a minor pirate princeling to get them access to the upper layers. Keris decided to take her with her so she could be useful, but also because she didn’t trust her left alone on Saata. She had been sulking ever since Haneyl turned down her propositions with a disgusted “But you’re part of Mother!”.

Delicate harp music plays - the work of Teveya, Dulmea’s student - and Oula and one of the new dragon aides play a dice game. Everything is quiet and peaceful up here.

Too bad Keris can hear the city down below.

“We should burn this place to the ground,” she grits out, bearing her teeth. “Or do what I did last time. Let the red wind come again and slaughter them all.” Her hair stirs restlessly, hooks and needles sliding out from where they’re hidden in locks and braids.

Oula abandons her game, rising up to wrap a comforting arm around Keris’s shoulder. She’s cooler than a human would be. “Remember the plan, aunty,” she says softly. “We need this place right now to pen in the Zu Tak. And once you control it, you’ll be able to put spies in here. You’ll be able to find who actually profits. This place overlooks the coast and can slowly choke, slowly poison the slave trade. But if we go openly and disrupt things, they’ll rally the for-hire dragonchildren and the gods who profit from this and they’ll take this place back. Or ruin it. Or worse, the Zu Tak might take it.”

Keris bares her teeth. “I still don’t like it,” she growls. Erda - Rounen’s dragon aide - doesn’t seem as upset or empathetic. But then, that’s why Rounen selected him for this. He’s more like Testolagh than Keris - he has his virtues, but a soft heart isn’t one of them. A place like Ca Map won’t drive him mad.

Digging her nails into her palms, Keris opens them as mouths and bites down, letting the pain in her flesh distract her from the pain in her heart.

“Fine,” she hisses. “They get to live. For now. But once the Zu Tak are gone, we will strangle them to death.”

“Your majesty,” Erda says, with a flip of his sunflower-yellow hair, “please, you can trust me at this. You won’t have to think about this place. Out of sight, out of mind - yes?”

She purses her lips, but agrees. “Yes. You have my orders on what to encourage and stamp down on? He’ll be loyal to me - and dependent on my drugs - so you’ll have plenty of levers to pull if he starts getting out of hand.”

“Of course, your majesty, of course,” he says with a gracious bow. He gives a happy shiver. “Your majesty, I am the first and foremost of your servants here. I will handle this man for you. Why, I’m second only to perhaps Rounen in...”

Oula smiles.

“... Rounen of my kind in how useful I am to you.” He nods, and adjusts his dark Spiresglass shades. “You can trust me in this.”


Keris allows a faint smile to drift onto her face, and gives him a regal nod. “This posting will be critical,” she agrees. “You will keep watch on the sea lanes and prompt the Despot to deny the Zu Tak any passage south - and to destroy any of their disgusting Dead-ridden fleets that come too close. Penning them in will be a key part of our war to exterminate them.”

He shivers again in pleasure at the thought of that.

Seresa smiles. “Well, Keris, darling,” she says, fanning herself. “What I’d like to know is how you managed to get all the most fun bits of the operational area from Sasimana. I love this place, just like Saata. Why did she wind up in dull, dull dull An Teng, where they have to keep everything interesting behind closed doors or reserved for the tourists?”

Frowning, Keris sighs. “Technically, she did have this area. Sasi was in charge of the whole Southwest - I’ve just got the Lower Southwest. She set up in An Teng, but this was meant to be her turf too. I was working for her when I was in Saata at first. She stayed in An Teng because it was the major power along the coastal trade routes, I think.”

She sighs morosely. “N’then Deveh got her kicked out and took An Teng for himself. Dick.” The lethal weapons in her hair rustle again, before quickly withdrawing as she hears a servant approach.

Oula, for her part, is leaning over the edge. She’s clearly having similar thoughts to Keris earlier. “I wonder where Rathan is right now and what he’s doing,” she says. “And whether Haneyl is bullying him.”

Keris smiles fondly. “I doubt she can afford to bully him too hard,” she points out. “After all; he’s the one steering the ship. If she upsets him too much, she won’t get to go to all the dens of vice and villainy she wants to sink her roots into.” She cocks her head. “Can you feel where they are? He has your heart, after all.”

Oula nods immediately. “That way,” she says instantly, pointing roughly south west, at an angle to the setting sun. She smiles faintly. “I can hear the song of my heart still. It would be so easy to return to it. To see him again.” She sighs.

“Huh.” Keris thinks on that for a moment. “Can you feel a way to get back to the Domain, too?”

That not only gets her a look from Oula, but also from Erda. “Of course,” Oula says. “I can always feel the way home.”

“It’s... it’s always there,” Erda adds. “You mean you can’t?”

Keris smiles fondly. “I can’t go there myself, remember?” she points out. “I can meditate my way in, but my body still stays out here. It’s within me, after all. You can’t put a box inside itself.”

She tugs a braid thoughtfully. “Still... that’s interesting,” she adds. “If you can get to Rathan by going to your heart, and get back into me by going to the Domain... with a summoning, that’s a one-night turnaround for you to get from me to him and back. It might be worth practicing that later. It could prove useful someday.”

There’s a gleam in Oula’s eyes that suggests that she’s very interested in the prospect of that - and boyfriend time.

“Well, are there any messages you want me to send before you make the offer?” she asks enthusiastically, with the glee of the new-trained sorceress who’s just been taught the Infallible Messenger. “Any last moment warnings or orders?”

Keris rolls her eyes fondly. But nods. “Send him a Messenger filling him in on our progress here and when we expect to leave,” she orders. “And tell him to remind Haneyl not to get so caught up in enjoying herself that she forgets she’s down there to build contacts.”

Oula nods, spreading her arms wide as she leans further over the side. Her tattoos start to glow from within, moving under her skin like living things. Her hair sways in an unseen breeze, and she traces a glowing red circle in the air that hangs there.

The empty circle. The mark of what Keris is.

“Upon the will of my mistress, I have made you. Now seek out Rathan, my love, my heartbearer, prince of the red moon, and tell him this; Rathan, my beloved, your mother and I are in Ca Map. We are working to-”

Seresa has a pout on her generous lips as she sees Oula cast. “You can learn too, you know,” Keris murmurs to her, watching approvingly as Oula instructs her cherub. It glows with a shifting light whose patterns mingle Rathan’s pinkish moonlight refracted through her tattoos with the bloody hues of Keris’s anima - steadily brightening as it absorbs the message and grows close to being sent off.

The demon lord only sighs extravagantly. “She’s already more powerful than she’s meant to be,” Seresa says sulkily. “Very well, let her be a sorceress too! Why not?”

Keris favours her with a long, evaluative look that has a silent weight to it.

“For someone so insistent on everyone being allowed to enjoy themselves,” she murmurs after a moment, “that’s a strangely restrictive attitude to take. Weren’t you just complaining about how dull An Teng was, that they have all those rules about what people are and aren’t allowed to do or be?”

Seresa only sinks deeper into her seat, slurping her drink. “That’s completely different, and you know it,” she mutters, but it’s clear she has no interest in arguing. Keris already knows well that Seresa doesn’t like confrontation. Almost as much as she dislikes being denied things that other people have. But not in the same way Haneyl does.

Haneyl is also not exactly happy that Oula is the first of Keris’s sorceresses, but that’s led her to redoubling her efforts and reading everything she can find - or steal - about sorcery. Not sitting around pouting.

Keris lets it go, and watches as Oula completes her spell and sends the glowing empty circle shooting off - to the south-west, just as she’d said. When she turns back to her teacher with a beaming smile of pride, Keris favours her with a nod of praise, and she glows.

“Good work,” she says. “And with any luck, Rathan will come back with some spellbooks. There are some that I’ve heard of that’ll be a lot more useful to you than they are to me - Stormwind Rider, for instance, to give you some travelling speed. And there’s probably one for disguising yourself behind other faces like I do with my shadow.”

Oula claps her hands together. “Yes, my teacher,” she says, with a pretty little curtsey. “Now, I think it’s time for you and,” she glances cattily at Seresa, “the decadent over there to get to work. Who knows what wonders you can achieve? I await a display of the powers of a demon lord with utmost anticipation.”

Perhaps it might be time to gently remind Oula she should stop sassing demon lords who aren’t Keris’s souls.

The querulous wheezing of an old man is the only sound in the small room. The Depot of Ca Map, Tuyet Alka, was once a feared scavenger lord and pirate king. But to look at him, such things are long in the past. This man who burned a Realm fleet and who tricked the secrets of this lighthouse complex from the gods is as bald as a boiled egg, his watery eyes behind bottle-thick spectacles. His inner sanctum is rich with extortionate treasures, but he can no longer walk and spends his days in his bed and his wheelchair. He is nearly blind - and palsied, too, with a hacking cough that will not heal. His pet sorceress - an oni of the south - keeps him alive, but his body is dying even while his mind remains sharp.

And he has not told anyone of the note that was left. This note that promises him so much. Perhaps it is another trap - but the universities of Saata and the secrets of the Lintha alike haven’t saved him from this fate. He is desperate. Desperate enough to call upon necromancers.

Desperate enough to sit up in his sanctum, staring at the candleflame, reading his books by touch as he waits for the midnight hour.

A cough interrupts him - a hacking, wheezing thing, from a throat as old as his own. The balcony. He looks over, squinting through his glasses.

There are two women there, which should be impossible. After all, they’re at the top of a sheer-walled tower, and the balcony itself is warded against entry. And yet, there they are. Two women - ancient crones, with paper-like skin and stringy hair and milky eyes; sharp-nosed and toothless, bent-backed and leaning on canes. One is pale-haired, the other dark grey, and they both wear roughspun cloaks of undyed cloth.

“Despot of Ca Map,” croaks one. His eyes aren’t good enough to tell which.

“You seek youth,” coughs the other. “Vigour renewed. The secrets of immortality.”

“We can offer this,” the first continues. They talk like they’re one being; passing the sentences off to each other with perfect fluidity.

“But what will you pay?”

((Keris is using Heartwood’s Patronage.))
((His price is immortality and eternal youth. Quite a high price, the fucker, but he’s already found that just extended life without youth sucks.))
((Smart man, heh. Not that it will help him against Keris and Seresa being the dramatic hoes that they are.))

He breaks into a hacking cough. “Pretty words, crones,” he says, wiping his mouth with a shaking hand. “But that hasn’t done much for you hags, has it?” His accent is thick and northern, from the Hook.

Two rasping chuckles meet his words.

And then the pair of them throw off their cloaks, and with them their years. The steel-haired, hunchbacked one straightens until she stands tall and womanly; decadent curves traced out in dark skin and ink-black hair. The frail and wispy one fills out; strength returning to her petite frame as her white locks turn long and rich and red. They are young and strong and beautiful; the scents of honey and cinnamon filling the room, and they saunter across to him with a seductive sway.

“Are you so sure?” asks the redhead, her tone both mocking and promising as her companion drapes herself across his table.

He’s holding surprisingly strong. “Wouldn’t be the first time a trickster spirit thought to get something out of me.” He breaks into a wheezing cackle. “You gods still haven’t forgiven me!”

“Oh, we are not gods,” the dark-haired beauty on his desk purrs, tracing his cheek with a smooth, warm finger. “You’re right. They would never offer such a thing as this.”

“But if you doubt,” said the petite one, “take this free of charge, and see that we tell the truth.” She produces a vial, downs half the contents to demonstrate its trustworthiness, and offers it to his mouth. “It will cure your eyes - restore them to the sharp sight of youth. And if we can do that... why, the rest of you is not beyond our power, is it?”

He takes a breath, swallows, and drinks.

It’s a thing to watch, cataracts melting away from a man’s eyes. They’re clear once more, no longer misted over, and he barely grunts in pain. With a shaking hand, he pulls down his glasses - and lets them fall from his face, to smash on the ground. “Ach,” he breaths, looking at their faces. Focuses on them. “How long has it been since I saw like this?”

“Decades,” murmurs the dark-haired beauty - and she is a beauty, he can see that now; gorgeous and lush and alluring. “So long, since you gazed on the pleasures of the world.”

“And now your eyes are as they were when you were a young man,” the redhead smiles. She knows she has him. “Wouldn’t you like to have your old strength as well?” She removes another silver vial from somewhere in the tight sarong she wears, dangling it tantalisingly between her fingers.

((Lol, 6 successes on his Reaction + Occult. Clearly his ability to see is helping.))

His now-clear eyes narrow. “There’s black in my candle flame,” he says, staring at the almost unseen halo that sits around the light. “And you, woman - you have angyalka-blood. Or perhaps you’re pretending to be merely a demon spawn.” He fumbles for a jewelled monocle in one pocket, and holds it over an eye with a shaking hand. “As I thought. Demons, I name you.”

Annoying. But not unplanned for. Keris tilts her head, and lets Rathan’s moonlight halo her.

“We are,” she agrees. “But when the gods cursed you to age and frailty, and we offer succour - when the Realm looks down on Ca Map, yet fears to approach it... what do you care for our nature? We are here to offer you youth, vitality, eternal life. Will you refuse, oh Despot, when the cure to age you’ve sought for years is right in front of you for the taking?”

“What’s yer price for this, demons?” he demands.

“Oh, nothing you will hate to give,” purrs Seresa - so tempting, so good at lulling men into degeneracy. “We will not ask for your power, or your sovereignty, or your wealth. We will not take precious things from your vaults, or bid you stir from your throne.”

“We will require only this,” says Keris, something fierce and dark and hungry in her eyes. “That you bar the loathsome Dead from passing south, and destroy any Zu Tak ship that sails near your port. That you allow them no quarter to the sea lanes you guard, and purge their fingers from your city.”

“Do this little thing - who cares for the Dead?” Seresa whispers. “And you will have all you wish, and more.”

He laughs at that, which turns once again into a hacking cough. That damned wyldgrowth in his lungs. “Cheat the Dead to cheat death? Fine, then! Fine!” And Keris feeds him the youthdraught; distilled from her own quicksilver blood, the plants and poisons that in another brew make up age-staving cordials, and the sap of long-lived trees.

His head flops back. His back arches. He goes into convulsions.

And the great work of decades reverses itself. At first it is slow; lines pulling themselves tighter, skin plumping out, his too-thin wrists gaining weight. But then his egg-bald head starts to sprout hair again. It’s like watching a child grow up in a weird way, as he goes from a bald, helpless creature to a man in his late middle years. There’s dissipation and cruelty in those old eyes, in that aquiline nose - but it’s not finished. Younger and younger he gets, wiping away years like sand and dirt from a fresco.

Until the man who sits in the chair is someone in the prime of youth, jet black hair hanging shaggy around his face, a nose that’s squint from being broken and healing, a healthy plumpness to his cheeks. Sitting up, he sheds his sleeping robe to reveal a scarred, yet youthful torso. Only the faded old tattoos are a sign that he’s had those marks for nearly a century.

“Well,” Alka says, before ruining it once again with wheezing. He jabs the air. “Haven’t... felt like this in fifty years. Maybe longer. Though you didn’t cure the wyldgrowth.”

“No,” Keris says. “That will take more. I have such a drug - but it will cost you. And while you are young again through our arts; the Loom of Fate is cruel. You will need more drugs to maintain that youth against the riptide of the gods - who hate to see mortal men with the deathless youth they guard so jealously.”

She smiles. “So, Despot. For the wyldgrowths in your lungs, and to keep your youth from being stolen back - I will leave you a servant. One like me; though you must never name him as such. He will keep you supplied, serve you as a bookkeeper; aid you in all things - and you will let him. And when he passes on a... request? You will see to it.”

Another pair of vials - one for the wyldstuff, and the other - not that Alka knows it - for the mercury in his stomach. She smiles, sharp and inviting.

“Have we a deal?”

Alka rises, and stretches, working his once-tired bones. “We do. Yes. Yes.”

Tilting her head, Seresa looks him up and down. “I am actually impressed. When he’s put some muscle back on, he really could be something to look at.”

Keris grins, her teeth a flash of white between red lips as she gives him the vials to fix his lungs and suppress the mercury poisoning he doesn’t know he has. “Well, that could be seen to,” she hints. “I have no such drug on me right now, but I could make one. Strength of limb is not beyond my arts.” She glances over at Seresa with a subtle wink that the Despot cannot see. “And I do know how you like such men, my cousin.”

In the gloomy room, Seresa’s presence swells, and the man seems captivated. “Could you?” he asks. “After all, there are people who would want rid of me - and I’m no use to you dead. I didn’t win this place through brains alone. I had strength too, back then.”

Too, too easy, thinks Keris. And with four or more doses of mercury in him, the symptoms if she ever cuts off the supply of suppressants will be crippling. It’ll be a good hard lesson for him when he starts thinking he can defy her.

“Why don’t I retire to another room to make my brew,” she suggests, “while you entertain him with... possibilities, cousin?”

“One last thing,” the Despot says, already admiring Seresa. “As we are now good friends, there’s a Zu Tak witch and her entourage here. A necromancer - one of the ones I called here to buy me more like. But I don’t need her anymore. Do you want her, or should I accuse her of trying to poison me and have her cast from the side?” He says it in such a plain, simple manner that she doesn’t doubt he’s done it before. “Although a witch could fly...”

Keris narrows her eyes. “Give her to me,” she says darkly. “I will have questions for such a witch. But,” she adds, her expression shifting to a smile, “that can come once your strength is renewed. Cousin? Do keep him entertained.”

Keris gets to work with her hair wrapped around her ears, while Seresa... well, gets to work.

“That was nicely done, child,” Dulmea praises her from within her head. She chuckles. “It has been a very, very rough road, but could you imagine what the you from when we first met would say if she could see you now?”

A soft snort sounds in the little side-room Keris has set up. “Probably a lot of swearing,” she murmurs. “She’d barely recognise me. Well...” She pauses as she titrates some iron solution into the blood-mixture. “That, or the kind of noises I make around Sasi when she turns the Seresa-ness up full blast. I could wind little-me around my finger, probably.”

“Child, you were small, constantly angry and afraid, and very, very petty.” Dulmea sighs. “I had to spend the best part of a week talking you out of just staying in Nexus and stealing small value items.”

Keris pouts. “Wasn’t my fault I didn’t know what a proper score looked like,” she mutters. “If you’d led with the kind of thing I’ve stolen since, I’d’ve been way more open to going along with you.”

“And I was an assassin who’d never talked to humans before - or ever left Hell,” Dulmea points out. “I’ve changed too. And endured one entirely unwanted pregnancy,” she adds in a disgruntled tone.

“I have apologised about that,” Keris pleads. “Like, a whole bunch of times.” She purses her lips at the bubbling brew. “Hmm. He’s as weak as a kitten, for all his renewed youth. In fact, he’s probably weaker than a kitten - I bet Kali could take him. He’s as weak as a Sasi. It’ll take more than one dose to get him up to something mortals would call ‘strong’. Two, do you think? Or three?”

“You know more about these doses,” Dulmea says. “Of course, you know this already. You just want to talk to me while you think.”

“Yeah,” Keris admits with a grin. “You know me so well, mama. Hmm. Three, I think. It won’t get him as strong as he could be - four to five is where he’d start to hit the point of diminishing returns. But compared to most mortals he’ll be a musclebound hulk, and it’ll give him room to feel inadequate and come begging for more. Plus, with six doses of mercury in him... yeah, he’s only gonna try and rebel against me once.”

She slashes a wrist and sets the next tincture up to heat, humming idly to herself. A thought occurs.

“Mama?” she wonders. “Do you want to learn sorcery? It’d mean you could understand when I go on about it - and if my way doesn’t work for you, I bet Sasi’s would. We could probably get some texts in her style for you to read - I still have them hanging around somewhere from when she was teaching me.”

Dulmea hums to herself. “I don’t really see the point of it,” she admits. “Quite apart from the fact that I’m still not comfortable with practicing it myself, it’s not much use for me. I can already shape this world, and it’s not like I can be like little Oula and serve as a message-caller for you.”

“The theory can still be useful, though,” Keris points out. “And your Chords might know it if you did, if you got some of them strong enough. You could help me with research, too.”

When Dulmea makes no response, she shrugs with artful carelessness. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. But I’ll help if you ever do.”

It’s the early hours of the morning in Ca Map, and the stars twinkle in the black sky. Keris sits on the roof of a building, kicking her legs. Oula is with her, and so is Teveya. She’s in her monstrous form. Teveya has already scouted this area for Keris, while she was working on the drugs.

“This is the embassy of the Zu Tak,” Teveya says, voice a soft growl. “It is a long hall, build around a garden, and it smells of death. Many people have died here. Their remains still move. There is grave earth on the floors, and many ghosts.”

She recounts to Keris, who puts it together. It seems a small Zu Tak tribe is here, and they have taken some of their ancestors with them - and used the free access to slaves down below to raise the dead and bind their ghosts. They must have been serious about getting control over the Despot, one way or another. Maybe just waiting for him to die so they could trap his ghost. Keris estimates that without more help from that oni, he might have had maybe six months to live.

Hands coated in mercury, Oula carefully removes one of the roof tiles, reshaping it away without a sound.

“Alright,” she murmurs. “We don’t know what we’re going into here, so we stay quiet and unnoticed for as long as possible and see if we can’t learn some starting information by eavesdropping. If we can take the witch alive, we do - I want questions answered - but she’s a witch, and they’re tricky, so if it comes to it we’ll just kill her and eat the loss. I’ll deal with the ghosts so that they don’t take any reports back down to the Underworld. Got it?”

“Do you speak their language, Aunty?” Oula observes in that very obnoxious tone she uses sometimes.

“...” says Keris. “It... might be a dialect of Firetongue I know.”

“Also, it’s the early hours of the morning, and unlike you, both me and the people down here didn’t have a nap in the pool. So they’re probably not too talkative. The ghosts might be, but they’re probably more moaning and wailing and complaining about why they’re dead. Or whatever they do. Ghosts are stupid,” says the demon. “Just kill them all and be done with it, so I can go to bed.”

Keris trades an exasperated look with Teveya. “If we can understand them, we’ll sit and wait for intel for as long as it takes,” she tells her student. “A few hours of waiting in return for some useful dirt on the Zu Tak is a fine trade, and well worth giving up bed for. An assassin should be-”

“Willing to wait days or weeks if necessary to get a clear shot at her target, I know, aunty, Rathan’s told me all about Queen Dulmea’s lessons,” Oula whines. “But really? Now? They’re just a bunch of dumb ghosts and savages, and I’m tired.”

Keris levels a withering look at her that communicates, in no uncertain terms, to suck it up. Flicking Oula on the nose, she slides herself through the hole in the roof and drops silently down into the halls of the cannibal tribe.

Unfortunately - and it is unfortunate to Keris’s slightly irked mind - Oula was right about the language issue. While there are some Tengese-sounding words in the Zu Tak dialect, she can’t really make much out that isn’t people grumbling about the food, the weather, or being stuck up in the sky which isn’t natural. She slinks through the barely lit halls - only the occasional glowing part of the floor from the platform providing light.

But the interesting thing she does find is in a little temple within the halls. It reeks of blood. Stale blood and fresh blood and rotting blood. It’s a charnel house of polished bone, made - no doubt - from slaves down below.

The necromancer-witch is here. Young, and beautiful in a cold, dead way. Arms red to the below with the blood of a slave she’s been using for auguries, who lies cut open and dead on the table before her.

And it is a Dead way. Because Keris can feel her. Her Sirelmiya-strength. That rotting darkness on the tip of her tongue, wrapped up in a preserved shell of meat. Kept almost fresh by her magic.

((E5, necrotic essence - Keris thinks it’s a weak Greater Dead Nemissary))

“Ffffff-” she breathes, whisper-silent and wide-eyed. “That is not a mortal necromancer. That’s one of the Greater Dead. Puke and plague, how many of those things do they have?”

Her fists tighten and she grimaces, nose wrinkling at the smell of the butchered slave. Her teeth bare.

“... alright,” she murmurs to Oula and Teveya. “I’m going to put her down and rip her heart out. Keep the others off me while I fight, okay?”

“We should get out of here so you can cut loose,” Oula whispers back. “I can’t fight that number of ghosts.”

Keris grimaces. A retreat and re-infiltration is a hiccup to her plan, which has already been thrown off by the fucking nemissary. And while she’s sure she can take the Greater Dead thing in a woman’s skin, and even do so while being assaulted by dozens of angry lesser ghosts... she might not be able to do it quietly.

“Can you get out the way we came in?” she asks, still quiet. “Without being spotted? Or do you need me to help you back?”

Oula rubs the back of her neck. “I don’t think so,” she admits. “I’ll... just go to my heart. And I’ll head back into you soon, so you can call me out again.”

Keris nods. “Warn Rathan and Haneyl,” she orders her. “Four Greater Dead against the Baisha, and now this. Granted, that was a major raiding party and this is Ca Map, but it still says the Zu Tak have enough Greater Dead to put them on anything important. They should watch for them in the south, and be wary.”

Oula nods, and leans in to kiss Keris on the cheek. “Sorry,” she says, before collapsing into a pillar of mercury that splashes on the floor. It starts to effervesce and melt away, vanishing into thin air.

“Weak,” Teveya growls.

“Before you start saying that,” Keris says. “Can you kill ghosts? Whether they’re immaterial or not?”

“I can tear their heads off. What is death to the Dead?”

“Hmm.” It’s a short, evaluative sound. “Their ghostly forms won’t be a problem for you? You can hit them even when they aren’t solid?”

“I was just going to shed materiality,” the demon says.

Keris nods. “Alright. Keep them off me, then, and make sure they don’t interfere or wake the nemissary. I’ll put her down with poison, help you clear out the rest, then cut her heart out - you’ll be on guard while I carve. We don’t know how many there are here, so if you start to get overwhelmed; warn me.”

“Understood.” Soft. Quiet.

The lights in the hall flicker, and the ghost in the woman’s body mutters to herself, in a language that Keris knows nothing of. It is not Old Realm; it is not even the almost-Tengese of the people outside. But each word is a flickering sound that makes the candles gutter. The guts in the eviscerated slaves squirm like worms.

And then they stop.

The woman turns, glassy eyes gleaming. “I can taste you on the air,” she says softly, vaguely, in rough and thick Old Realm. “Yours is the power of the deeps of the marshes. They warned me.”



Keris hesitates for a moment, then gives Teveya the signal for ‘hold ready’ and steps out of her hiding place.

“And yours is the power of the Underworld depths,” she replies in the same tongue. “Who warned you? Your ancestors? Your bound slave-ghosts?”

The witch smiles, lips splitting at the sides, too wide. Her neck tilts a little too far. “They did,” she says.

With a shrill ululation, she howls like some creature, hands twisted into claws.

And around her, the bones twitch to life. Or unlife.

Keris lunges for her. Her spear comes out, her hair rushes forward, and toxic vines burst from the ground under the nemissary’s feet; snarling her in place for Keris’s strike. The poisons coating her Lance are agonising, but non-fatal. This monster’s heart will be a good first gift to Ligier in payment for the damage done to the Baisha. She turns pale and savage as she moves; white-haired, slit-eyed, sharp-toothed and bestial. Even as she takes on the terrifying mien of a Pekhijirite Fang, though, Rathan’s light haloes her with innocence and harmlessness. It’s a brutal combination when used against weak minds that can’t handle something being gutwrenchingly terrifying and heartbreakingly vulnerable at the same time.

The dead are rising, bringing the scattered bones to life. But they’re weak, and they’re drowsy and Keris is a knife spinning around as she scythes through the disoriented dead. When she splinters their bones, they hold themselves together - as best they can - but she’s just too fast, too strong. Where she strikes, hungry flowers and vines tear out of dead bone to snag and snare.

And there’s an acidic scent in the air now, overpowering the rot.

With a spin-kick, Keris caves in the skull of a grasping corpse and turns the motion into a leap that ends with her spear through the Dead woman’s throat. She screams - and her back tears out. Something black and awful and with too many legs tears its way out, fleeing back through the wall behind her. Snarling, Keris gives chase. Her Lance shoots forward with bone-breaking force to gouge the wall, and green fire licks out around the cut, beginning to eat away at the Shogunate stone. Too slow! Far too slow for Keris, who smashes into the ember-ridden surface spear-and-shoulder first, bulling her way through on sheer power the same way she did in Malra and scattering green-burning rubble into the room on the other side as she emerges; poison spearhead already flicking out like a snake to strike at the nemissary’s many scuttling legs.

It’s dark outside. Or at least it should be. But behind Keris, the ancient stone of the wall is crumbling, eaten away by the fire of Keris’s hate. Of her envy. Haneyl’s flame licks behind her, casting a halo around her lashing hair.

And her brow with a hollow ring, like a pupil-less eye.

The ghost screams, shedding her rearmost segment in a burst of black blood. Her body is like a millipede, but her face is a crone of a woman. And yet there is a certain kinship to the body she wore. Not just the same face aged - but perhaps a granddaughter. Or a great granddaughter.

Scuttling and squirming, she crawls up the nearest wall and onto the roof. There’s a fraction of moon shining down - not enough that she’ll suffer in Luna’s whim - and the stars gleam and glisten on her wet, oily carapace. “My slaves will tear your demon apart,” she hisses back at Keris from the roof. “Go on, let them die.”

Keris’s ears prick to the sounds of the conflict within - and snarls again at the realisation that Teveya is hard-pressed against the masses of ghosts. There are even more of them than Keris had thought, and while the killing prowess of the angyal is reaping a deathly slaughter within; sheer numbers are going to turn the tide against her soon.

“Teveya!” she yells, swearing to herself as the nemissary uses the chance to scuttle further away. “Retreat! Back within me, now!”

Then she throws herself after the retreating ghost with a roar.

They’re up on the ancient rooftops now, where sleek black stone arches of the former lords of Creation - and their Dragon-blooded usurpers - still hold sway. From up here, they can see some of the lower reaches of Ca Map below, the sounds of the wretched city drifting up from the lantern-lit boats. Keris is having problems tracking her down - the scuttling sound of her legs echoes wrong.

“So,” the ghost hisses. “Who sent you, servant of the Old Gods? Also come for the old man? They might not know what you are, but I can smell it. Your masters made the old world we claim, and left the dregs to the first people.” She can climb on these surfaces as well as Keris, and could be anywhere in the shadows. Against anyone else, it would be a devastating tactics. But Keris doesn’t need to see her. She first learned to find the immaterial and invisible by hearing it, and her ears are as good as ever. They prick in the darkness, and the ghost’s own words betray her; the pattern of echoes resolving behind closed grey eyes to pinpoint the source.

Which Keris targets with a poisoned spear and a barrage of scything hair and hooks and needles.

The spear takes the ghost in the oozing, wet chest, breaking her carapace. Her many legs are squirming, twitching, pinned down by the blades. Her ancient face is twisted in agony. “Oh crows, eye-eaters, come to me,” she begins, pinned against the lighthouse tower.

Keris feels the gathering power, feels the essence beginning to take Shape, and even if she doesn’t recognise the spell itself, she recognises the intent. She’s trying to escape. Trying to throw herself into a spell and get away.

But Keris knows sorcery too.

Break,” she snarls in Old Realm, and feels the half-formed spell shatter; stifled in its crib. “Be not,” she cuts off the nemissary’s attempt at a recovery, squashing her fumbling efforts to reform her dissolving escape route. Keris leans on the spear, keeping the thing pinned - but while she’s busy applying her Lance’s blade to countermagic, she can’t spare the attention to finish the creature off.

Some of the ghost’s substance takes form as crows - but they get not one blade’s length away before they collapse down, sloughing away as they rot quickly. The spectre lets out an agonised wail, clawing weakly at the pinning blades. That chase seems to have taken nearly everything she had.

Then she lets the mask drop, and spits something vile and hissing at Keris. Who slides out of the way and dodges it as easily as she did Kasteen’s poorly-thought attack, made from almost exactly the same situation.

And then, much as she did with Kasteen, she moves in for the kill. There’s no pretence of elegance now; no elegant spearwork, no graceful snakelike motions. It’s just savage, feral violence; stabbing and pinning and gouging and choking and getting her hooks and needles into whatever body parts look soft and tender.

After only a few moments; the ghost is limp and subdued. Panting; Keris stands back, leaving it pinned, and cocks an ear to the lesser ghosts below. The horde is released and howling. Mad monsters on the loose. Some of them are going after the Zu Tak. Others... well.

“Child,” Dulmea observes, “you know, you did say that the pirate lords of this city are awful. Perhaps you shouldn’t intervene. And such an atrocity of Zu Tak dead going after these lords... well, the decisions of the Despot will be very justified here, no?” She audibly sips her tea. “Perhaps you should simply move this creature off the open space and get to your bloody work.”

Keris’s eyes widen in interest. She takes stock - the Despot and Erda up in his warded tower, Oula gone to Rathan, Teveya back in with Dulmea...

She grins. It’s not a nice expression.

“Mama,” she says lightly, “sometimes you have the very best ideas.”

The next morning finds Keris in the Despot’s frankly excessive... well, no, Keris can’t actually say that, she’s a little jealous of how lavish they are... apartments, drinking tea with Seresa as she shows off her newest acquisition.

A jet black gem the size of a chicken’s egg, that gleams as if constantly wet.

“Oh, what a gorgeous thing,” Seresa coos over it, feet up on the table as she drinks wine with her breakfast of fish paste and honey. “This has been an enjoyable little trip, hasn’t it? He’s very vigorous.” She leans in towards Keris. “Thirty years of unwanted abstinence does that to a man,” she confides.

Keris shudders delicately. “Even so,” she says. “Well, I suppose it gave him a chance to test out his new muscle. How is he, physically? In,” she adds hastily, “clinical terms, please. I don’t need the intimate details, just the medical ones.”

“Better stamina than you might think. I suppose that’s some blessing from that pet sorceress of his,” Seresa observes. “She’s quite a cute mound of muscle. A fire elemental spirit, chained with that orichalcum binding collar of his.” She shakes her head. “Foolish thing got drunk and then he snapped it on her fifty years ago. His mind is very sharp, too. Well, when he’s not distracted by,” she rests her hand on her chest, almond-shaped eyes crinkling up, “my glorious beauty. And his fingers are very nimble.”

She smiles. “I think I might be getting a shrine as a night goddess out of this,” she adds. “I’ve wanted a cult for so long.”

“Oh, well done,” Keris compliments. “Very neat. And my activities last night have given him more than enough justification to turn the Zu Tak out and blow them to splinters if they come within range.”

Seresa smiles. “That’s nice,” she says, without asking any questions. “He seemed quite upset when the servants came to fetch him. I wasn’t really listening. I was,” she yawns, “really very sleepy. Of course, they were also surprised to see what he was like, but then again, there are enough old paintings of him that someone got a clue. And of course, the oni still had to obey him.” She shifts to flomp next to Keris, letting Keris’s head rest on her shoulder. It’s oddly not-exactly-like sitting next to Sasi. “You must be exhausted, poor thing. So much hard, boring work.”

“Oh, it was exciting enough,” Keris murmurs, leaning on her. “Won’t argue with the hard, though, even if I’ve fought harder.”

Her lips purse. “Might have to see about that elemental, though,” she adds. “She seem like she wanted that collar off?”

“She’s an oni,” Seresa says with a weary yawn. “They’re usually drunken, violent brutes. Whether they have a divine mantle or not.” She wraps her arm over Keris. “She probably wants the collar off so she can go around attacking people, getting drunk - and if she’s a sorceress too, doing all kinds of awful things with her magic. Sasimana’s handled a few in her time. They’re just a pest. And start fires everywhere.”

Keris snorts. “Well... I’ll keep an eye on her anyway. He’s mine now, so he can’t complain.” She smirks. “How was it? Your first time turning someone to clay in your hands?”

Seresa kisses Keris on the cheek. “I knew coming with you was an excellent idea,” she says happily.

Keris doesn’t head straight back to Saata. She decides to take a few days to check up on Testolagh and what he’s up to with Calesco and Vali. She is his director, after all, and she wants to see what he’s up to.

It’s not just that she’s missing her darling - albeit prickly - Calesco.

Testolagh’s island is far south of even Alahi, right at the edge of the world. Auroras are seen every night, and the world has an almost greasy feeling to Keris’s left hand. She can feel the want of the air to be something else, something other than what it is.

But the air around the looming volcanic island where Testolagh has made his home is different. It doesn’t feel chaos-tainted. It feels like Hell. This looming island, with its oversized, cyclopean spires and rough uplands and neat lowland rice fields that look more like the Scavenger Lands than anything Keris has seen down in the Anarchy... feels like Hell.

Testolagh’s fortress is a towering thing of black stone and brass that is built into the caldera. It’s not graceful; it’s brutal and blocky. It makes no attempt to hide what it is. It is a “Fuck You” screamed at the face of the world.

And it has a landing pad in one of the inner courtyards, lined with dragon statues. Keris brings Cissidy down onto it, looking around in a combination of approval and mild horror. On the one hand, it’s a fortress, and just from a glance she can tell that assaulting it would be a nightmare.

On the other hand, concepts like ‘subtle’, ‘discreet’ and ‘under the sightlines’ seem to have been ones Calesco has tragically failed to imprint on Testolagh’s worldview.

“The maps this far south are not reliable,” Dulmea observes, as Keris dismounts from Cissidy, “but I can find no sign of this place. Someone would have noticed such a fertile landscape, surely? And it is basalt and granite here. Surely this is not some transitory isle?”

Keris knocks on the ground twice with her left hand, and shrugs. “Feels real,” she says. “Hellish, but real. But you’re right, this place is... weirdly convenient. And even with the powers of the City, I’m impressed he managed to get this fortress up in a year. I’ll ask him how he found the place.”

A dark figure approaches, sweeping out with a hint of flounce. Calesco is dressed again in the Realm-style robe she seems to be coming to like more and more, closed with her blood-red obi, her figures behind a mist-fine veil. “Oh, hello mother,” she says. “What are you doing here?” She shifts her attention over to glance at the demons accompanying her - before settling on Seresa.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” says Seresa. And Keris’s hackles rise, as she realises the two women really aren’t dressed too dissimilarly. Seresa’s Realm fire-robe is much lighter, with a green-grey leaf pattern, and it’s open at the neck to bare her cleavage. Her veil is off her face, tying back her hair. But still. “Who are you, cutie?”

“Um,” Keris says, already wincing at the upcoming confrontation. “Seresa, this is my daughter Calesco. Calesco, this is Seresa - one of Sasi’s souls. Her indulgence and her kindness.”

“Charmed,” Calesco says, her tone clearly indicating which one she thinks is dominant. “But yes. What are you doing here?” she demands of Keris. “There’s no need for you to-”

A thunderous boom nearly deafens Keris and blows Seresa’s veil away from her hair entirely. A ballista hits Keris in the chest. “Mum!” Vali says, arms wrapped around her. He’s grown again, and is now her height. Or maybe taller. “What are you doing here, is there a problem, are there bad guys we need to punch, oh oh oh did you see this place, it’s so awesome, did you know Testolagh can make dragon bones I mean they’re made of stone but still...”

“Wai-wha?” Keris wheezes, startled and with half the breath knocked out of her. “Dragon bones? Bad guys? Huh?” She hugs back, but it’s only automatic reflex doing it as she recovers from the dizzying sound and impact.

Vali lifts his mother up, swings her around and puts her down again, slightly too hard. “Come on, let’s get out of the heat,” he says. “I got stuff to show you. And I’ve been punching faeries and monsters and it’s so fun!”

“Vali, do you mind?” Calesco snaps, every inch the older sister. “I’m trying to-”

“Don’t care! Come on, mum, there are even apple trees here because I made him make them and so there’s apples and the people here make cider and he’s missed it and oh, oh,” he leads her into the chiaroscuro halls, where deep dark shadows are cooler than the patches of light, “how are the babies are they all okay?”

“You’ve seen Aiko during Fire,” Keris tells him, not... entirely unthankful for the chance to put off Calesco shouting at her. “The twins are as madcap as ever - they’re getting big, and doubling down on the mischief. Ogin’s worked out phasing his tails through things deliberately, though he can only do one at a time. And Atiya’s much healthier - she had a little cough during Fire, but she got over it just fine. I think her eyesight isn’t so good, so I’ll be making her some glasses.”

Leaning over, she kisses him affectionately on the forehead. “Now, what have you been up to? Show me these apple trees! Calesco, you can come too; tell me what you’ve been reading. Have you been helping fight fae?”

“Yes,” Calesco says, and nothing more.

The story comes out piecemeal from Vali. He has more than a little in common with his cousin when it comes to distracted retelling.

Keris finds it hard to believe at first. But Calesco validates it.

Testolagh made this island. This whole island. It was once a wyldpool, ruled by a wicked sea-witch. Then he went in and killed her and her servants (“We helped too, it was so awesome, I even managed to turn into a dragon!”) and then did something that let him turn the chaos into... this. This island, made from the stuff of Hell - a little slice of the Scavenger Lands on the edge of the world.

“I don’t understand,” Keris says, after cross-questioning has the story hold up. “Was it sorcery? I don’t know of any spell that could... hmm. Well, I guess maybe something that works on similar principles to my world-making spell...” She trails off, lost in thought for a while, then shakes her head. “But he’s never mentioned knowing anything like that! I thought he was just a bare-basics sorcerer - Messenger, summoning, maybe a few other common ones.”

“It was like when we change our land,” Vali contributes. “You know, when I’m like ‘fuck off, Eko, I’m putting a new volcano on the border’, I just do it, you know?”

“... huh,” Keris replies. That sounds more like one of the Maker’s gifts than structured sorcery. “I’ll... have to ask him about that, I guess. Hmm.”

She nods. “Right. Well then, Calesco? Come here, love, let me hug you. How have you been? Oh right, you wanted to know why I’m here - Seresa and I were setting something up for the war against the Zu Tak Dead, and decided to stop by and visit.”

Calesco scowls at her. “I’ve been just fine,” she says. “I’m sure you’ve been enjoying yourself in Hell. Vali said you beat someone up in the arena just to be ‘cool’.” Her tone is acidic.

Keris wobbles her hand. “She was a savage, vicious pirate queen with an ugly temper who challenged me because she didn’t like me pointing out that aimlessly wandering all over the West raiding any port she could find was stupid, and demanded we fight to incapacity because she wanted to spend longer hurting me than first blood would allow,” she expands. “So yeah, I showed off a bit at her expense.”

That just gets her glared at more.

She sighs. “I’m sorry, Calesco. Do you want to come back to Saata?” She’s not going to mention Adelia outright, but she can guess that Calesco is missing her, and that might well be what’s making her snappy. “You deserve a few months off, I’d say. Some downtime spent with your books and your bow.”

“It’s you that’s the problem, not here,” Calesco mutters sulkily.

“You sound upset,” Seresa says, voice gentle. “Do you want a hug?”

“No, I don’t want a hug, you indulgent pile of tar!”

Keris sighs. This may, she’s forced to admit, be a little bit because of some of the things she’s been taking advantage of Calesco’s absence to do. Calesco might not know about them consciously, but she’s born from a part of Keris, and some part of her could well be aware that Keris has been doing things she wouldn’t approve of. It would certainly explain her attitude.

Still, Keris squares her shoulders and keeps trying.

“Well, I’d like it if you came back to Saata for a bit,” she says. “The twins have been missing you, and Kali’s been wanting to show off her new feathers to someone who can appreciate you. Atiya’s doing much better, as well.”

Calesco huffs. “Well, I suppose. But only for the babies. Not for you.”

“Oh... oh, right, Keris.” It’s Testolagh, more tanned than before, and wearing a light shirt and shorts as he walks with some of the people who look like they’re from the same people as him. “When did you get here? And...” he looks at Seresa.

“Seresa. One of Sasimana’s souls,” she says, eyeing him up without any shame.

“Greetings. Is there a reason you’re here, Keris? Has something come up?”

“No. Just en-route back to Saata from Ca Map. I’ve subverted the Despot, and he’ll keep the Zu Tak from heading south while we crush them.”

Keris looks him, and Calesco, in the eye. “This isn’t a war we can put off. There was one of their necromancer-witches there - except she wasn’t a witch. She was a nemissary from the Labyrinth. Another of the Greater Dead - that makes five now, all behind one savage little tribe of ancestor-worshipping cannibals. They have a deathlord backing them; I guarantee it - and they’re expanding. Fast.”

She frowns, looking away. “Annoyingly enough, they’re kind of like... well, me. Powerful backer of the Adamant tier holding what would otherwise be a bunch of warring clans together, a bunch of strong subordinates who are kept on pretty loose leashes, dens and raft-towns and boltholes scattered all over that don’t stay still and haven’t got any firm structure to smash up. Fluid, adaptable, opportunistic and way too good at concentrating force on things that get in their way. If we don’t stop them soon, they’ll grow really, really fast into a threat we can’t easily take.”

Turning back to Testolagh, Keris gestures at him. “Which is why your tasks from me this year are going to be related to the war. I gave you last year to set up, but this year I’m gonna need you to help smash what central powerbases they do have, and if possible to hunt down and kill whatever Underworld horror is pulling their strings. I’m not keen on letting it keep pushing them outward any longer than I have to.”

“Hmm.” Testolagh pauses. “Very well. Any season in particular? At the moment, I’m getting this place set up - and seeing if we can get the Wyld to form sky-rocks like it did up north. And dealing with some angry princes of chaos, of course.”

“Not Air,” Keris reassures him. “I’ll want to do some setup first. Maybe Water for the first strikes - I’ll let you know. And speaking of that, can you tell me more about how you made this place? That sounds like something that’d be useful to know, especially given how much of Shuu Mua is chaos-tainted.”

“Oh, this?” Testolagh shakes his head. “We can talk more over dinner, if you want. It’s a complicated subject. Perhaps we can further that conversation we were having with Sasimana at that new manse of yours.”

Keris realises that he is asking her on a date. And also trying to be subtle. She’s not sure which is scarier.

((lol, burn))

She considers it for a long moment. She wants to know how to carve out reality from the Wyld, of course. But, more than that...

... Sasi had asked them to try. It’s probably why he’s even asking.

“Alright,” she says lightly. “But I’ll cook. I doubt your chefs here live up to Haneyl’s efforts, and I’ve grown too used to being spoiled.”

That night, Keris crawls out of the hot, sticky bed - Testolagh snoring - and wanders over to the grand sweeping window that overlooks the western side of the island. She leans over the balcony, eating an apple she saved from dinner.

Before they’d headed upstairs for... well, she’s had better. He’s vigorous, certainly, but... he’s no Sasi. No N... no Rat. Yes. No Rat.

Before that happened, he’d talked about how he’d made this place. How it was sort of like sorcery, but... more so. That through will he’d reached into the sea-witches domain after he’d burned her to a crisp, and hammered, forced the substance of chaos into unchanging shape. That he’d made the island and filled it with people - “Proper people, like back home” - and it had taken shape because he had refused to let the chaos be anything else but what he wished.

Flopping over the balcony rail, Keris groans. It’s going to be an utter bitch working out the trick from that. It always is, when she wants to learn something specific. Picking things up naturally is how she’s used to learning the All-Maker’s gifts; letting them grow in her like seeds and discovering them when they bloom. Planting them deliberately... well, she’d managed her Gales, eventually and... with the Silent Wind’s help. And she’d been able to work out Yuula’s medicines mostly on her own. But it gives her a headache every time, and this is less intuitive than most. She’s not even sure if it’s a Malfean gift or something more general.


Sirelmiya ruffles her feathers in her head. “It would be easier if you loved him too,” she suggests gently. “You did not enjoy that. You just lay back and thought of Sasimana and pretended.”

Keris purses her lips. This again.

“I could,” she admits. “It would be easy. I’d just have to want to.”

She pauses, listening to the sounds of the night.

“But... do I want to?” she asks. “Has he... I mean, I love Sasi. I’ve seen Sasi at her strongest and most beautiful and glorious; casting sorcery and out-talking demon princes and spinning cities on her fingers. And I’ve seen her at her weakest and most broken; scared and shaking as everything fell apart around her. She trusted me to see her that weak. That vulnerable.”

Finishing the apple meditatively, she flicks the seeds out with a casual sweep of a hair tendril towards what sound like patches of soil amidst the granite.

“Testolagh... I’ve opened up to him. He’s seen me crippled and crazy when my souls matured. But... okay, he told me his story like I told him mine, after Sasi made us talk. But apart from that, what’s he done to open his heart back?”

She sighs morosely. “Urgh. Ada- ah... Asarin has opened up to me more than Testolagh about that sort of thing.” Keris bites her lip, hoping Sirelmiya didn’t notice the last-second substitution. “I’m just... not sure he deserves it. I’m not sure he’s earned it. Love is important. It shouldn’t be given away lightly.”

The cat-bird-demon in her head simply sighs. “I want to see Sasi happy because the three of you are chained in love,” she says. “But there are so many things you let complicate your life. Love would simplify everything. It always does.”

“Excuse me!” There’s a sound of Dulmea opening a door. “Sirelmiya, what are you doing there? Get away from that mirror! Child, don’t listen to her advice. She knows nothing!”

“I know the ways of love.”

“Quite so, nothing.” Dulmea settles herself down. “Honesty! I leave to give you some privacy and she uses the chance to get in and start giving poor advice!”

“It’s okay, mama,” Keris chuckles fondly. “I think she helped me decide something anyway.” She stretches morosely. “Calesco seems upset. You think she got wind of what I’ve been doing this past year somehow?”

“Perhaps. She is a difficult one, child. You said when she was newborn, she fought against being your child, and sometimes she shows something of that. Knows things she shouldn’t.” There is the sound of Dulmea putting the kettle on. “For my part, in the hundreds of years of my life, I have never seen a need for romance - or sex, for that part. You make such a big deal about it, but it means nothing.”

Keris smiles fondly. “Maybe it’d be easier that way. But...” she shrugs helplessly. “I’m a creature of passion, mama. I wouldn’t give my loves up if I could. It feels wonderful to be head over heels for someone like that.”

“If you say so,” Dulmea says wearily.

It is cooler up north in Saata. Which is possibly the first time Keris has ever said that.

When she gets back, though, she finds part of the docks are cordoned off and there are red crosses on the doors in areas as separate as Memories of a Golden Land and the places around the university. Back at her mansion, Zanyi is home.

“Keris,” she says, when she enters.  The family is in one of the living rooms in the central annex, waiting for dinner. “The temple’s shut for the moment. There’s been an outbreak of scarlet fever and they’re keeping classes shut until it passes.”

“Yeah,” Zanara agrees. He’s sitting sprawled out on a divan, reading, holding a book in three arms. “Hi mama.”  The curtains are new.  It's probably his fault.

“Well, it could be worse,” Xasan says. “At least we’re far away from the city here. I bet that’s one of the reason so many pirate lords here live in the mansions. Pretty good deal if you can decamp to the countryside and escape plagues.”

“Scarlet fever?” Seresa asks, frowning.

“Nasty disease,” Keris says, shivering. “There was an outbreak in Nexus when I was thirteen. R- me and my partner, we... well, I wanted to go take advantage. He all but barricaded us both in the squat for a month and made us drink from the safe well four blocks away instead of the one down the street. We were fine, but the Blue Knuckles just over from us all came down with it in the first week. Zizi and Fanger died.”

“Well, how was your business trip?” Xasan asks. “And are you still thinking of sending me and the giantess back out while things are still cooler? A bit cooler, that is.”

“Yeah... Testolagh gave me a few ideas there,” Keris agrees. “I think I might be able to learn how to twist wyld-tainted land into something real. And not just real - designed as I like it, with people and buildings and stuff. A hidden city deep in the mainland somewhere, as a fallback to retreat to if things get dicey.”

She greets her uncle. cousin and brother with hugs – Hany is missing, presumably playing somewhere. “The trip went well,” she answers, getting comfortable in an armchair next to Zanara. “Ca Map’s going to stop the Zu Tak heading south while we smash them - though I found another Greater Dead thing waiting there with a bunch of bound ghosts and probably-nasty plans for the place. Killed it, but it’s not a good sign that they have so many powerful Dead.”

Turning her attention to Zanara, Keris eyes him up and down, confirming something she’d caught on entering the room. “Hello sweetheart,” she says. “Have you... grown, over Calibration?”

“You said you had done some really cool things, but you didn’t say what and then you got distracted with seeing Haneyl and Rathan off and then you heard that rumour at the docks that the Despot of Ca Map was dying and rushed off,” Nara says, feet up. “And now you notice I got bigger?”

“Hany hasn’t forgiven Zana or Nara for suddenly getting so much taller than her,” Zanyi says with a smile.

“You were still looking Two-Opalish when we saw Rathan and Haneyl off,” Keris protests. “I wasn’t sure if you were just adjusting the disguise, or... hmm.” She considers. “Well, I guess it’d make sense. You probably grew in response to what I did over Calibration. So!” She claps. “Who wants to hear an only-slightly-edited story about how I duelled a pirate queen? No names or mission details, but the rest is true; I swear it.” She holds up her hand in a mock oath, and Iris rears off it and blows a little exclamation mark of excitement to back her up.

Zanyi clucks her tongue. “So much fun you’re having without me.” She smiles wickedly. “So when am I going to get to see this place you keep on cryptically hinting at?” She pauses. “Yes, obviously, fun stories too. I am my daughter’s mother, after all.”

Keris purses her lips. “I... was kind of thinking about going in Wood,” she allows. “With Zanara, during their holidays. It should be safer than any other season then - some early arrivals for Calibration show up during Fire, and some hang around after, but Wood’ll have the Conventicle pretty empty.”

She considers it.

“... we’ll see,” is her decision. “But Zanyi; if you do come, you listen to what I say and follow my rules, okay? Hell isn’t a safe place. Xasan can tell you that much. You’ll be safer there with me than anyone else, but still don’t do anything... risky.”

Zanyi smiles.

“Keris, no,” protests Ali. “I don’t want my wife to go to Hell.”

Keris glances at him sympathetically. “Oh, she’s got some convincing to do,” she assures him. “I’m not happy about it either yet. But I’m also not convinced she won’t talk Hermione and Zanara into helping smuggle her into one of my pocket worlds and stow away for the trip when I go if I say ‘no’. For what it’s worth, though, I won’t take her willingly unless she talks you into agreeing.”

“I can’t say I wouldn’t help her,” Nara says helpfully.

Zanyi crosses her arms. “We know how this is going to end, dear,” she tells her husband.

“With you putting that silly idea out of your mind?”

“Think again.”