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saga juliet

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  1. Her name was Rue, as in the flower-herb, most likely, and not as in, “’You’ll rue the day you turned your back on me,’ Sobriety warned”, but by now the weight of the provenance of names had long been lost on her. For all the good it had done her, she might as well been named Tragedy, or Hope. Neither sounded much different from the other here, in the acoustics of echoes beneath rain pattering upon the rusted roof of a corrugated tin lean-to. The alleyway outside pressed the wind close, made it squeal. Or perhaps it was the rats. Rue cupped her hands, held it beneath the gentle trickle coming down from one of her skylights, and watched the water fill up, a little in awe and a little in confusion. She tried not to rotate her head. Her eyes had started to run like a movie reel after the come-down – twenty-four frames per second, blur round the edges – and too much motion made her stomach lurch. She brought her mouth low. She had to drink. This much, she kept in her mind, since all the details of the body’s automata had fallen out of her like so many busted-up gears. Anything that went down was going to come back up, and her mouth ran like a hydrant, and drinking made her feel bloated, but she had to drink. She hadn’t drank in a day, hadn’t eaten in two. She’d been strung out something fierce and her body was still riding high on pretend. She wasn’t up to eating, yet. So she just drank, like a dog if necessary, panting and lapping it up with her tongue. A memory of a desire came to her. Rue had always wanted a dog. Since she was a child, she always loved the things, their naivete, the way they were happy, so bravely…and here she was now. Rue lifted her chin, barked, lifted too much, stumbled backwards and landed flat on her bottom into the mud, giggling to herself. Maybe she could find work as a dog. Maybe some little girl would take her in and love her. No, no, that wouldn’t do. Then they might look at her and point at her and say, “Mummy, I want to be a dog when I grow up!” Even if those possibilities were real, little girls couldn’t know of them, no. Little girls had to dream. Was she a little girl, once? Did she have dreams? She did. But what were they? And where were they now? Where was she? She had been left here, something left her here – Life, lensing like a straight track in two-point perspective. Rue had loved drawing those angles the most – the dramatic ones, where men and women put their faces right up there against the globe, observing themselves, as the streets veered off the edges to either side. So small a thing, so short a distance, commanding all the frame. And here she was now, past all that glory, in the footnote of her own history. She always hated that line, that nobody knows what they got until they lose it. For some people, they knew exactly what they had. It was the having it, the impetus energy and momentum of a rising star, when the road is straight-shot green for miles and miles and doors open one after another – you get this sort of nervous energy, you start sprinting through it all, because success is measured in thresholds crossed and records broken, heights achieved and people known – and suddenly, it’s all behind you. Gravity’s rainbow – if the rise was a promise, then the fall was fulfillment. Birth and death. It wasn’t as if you never had it, because you did, you had it all, which makes its abrupt, self-caused absence all the more painful. She still had memories of a young woman, full of it, sitting before an easel, now lying in some trash heap, and touching the canvas and seeing things happen – and when the euphoria set in and it got bad enough, she even still painted with her fingers, in the waters of imagination. Drew swirls in the patterns of time and space, saw everything around her dissolve into fundamental shapes, and she could make them anew, remake them, but better, reflected through the lens of her mind. God, she missed that, didn’t she? What she had been born to do? Rue, who hadn’t slept for two days, tied off a strip of rubber on her upper arm, squeezed the bubbles out the tip of a syringe, flicked it once for good measure, found a vein, and prepared to be born and to die again.
  2. “There’s nothing I want, Madon. I was just observing your lot. We are siblings-in-arms now, aren’t we?” She touched Madon’s shoulder as she passed by, squeezing a tight smile. “Always business with you.” Madon seemed to keep a little of his guard, however much they were meant to be comfortable with one another. Once her presence was noted by the rest, backs straightened up, chatter grew more strained. Of course. The new spook comes round the block, nobody wants to be the one to screw the pooch by mistake. Madon had his own thoughts to deal with, as Olivia had hers, each concerning the other. And however much weight the Princess carried in Glia, she was the foreign agent here. She tried a disarming smile. “Though you’re right, this is business of a sort. I’d like to get to know my allies, and I’d like them to know me. You’re the people I’ll be trusting my life to. I’d hope you’d do the same.” She tilted her head towards Madon. “I’d just come from speaking with one of your small questions, Crystal. Pleasant enough woman, though a bit...optimistic.” Owend stood straight to attention as she passed by, clicking her boots. A sharp-featured young woman, darling beloved of sister Severa, two-time deserter. Blinkstrike strapped across her back, tip glinting like a beacon. There were two other platoons of pegasus knights on the two other barges down from Glia, but the platoon on this one, led by this girl, was special in all ways right and wrong. Despite everything, she had the peace of mind to stay cool. Olivia looked her up and down. “At ease, Lieutenant.” Tolok eyed her too, standing beside the pegasus knight. Now this was a new face, one who’d Severa spirited away for some reason or another. “I don’t believe we’ve met.” “A stray cat that Owend picked up,” Madon offered, a ghost of a smile on his lips. Owend stared straight ahead, downright professional. Tolok might’ve startled – the knight, it turned out, did have a face for cards, whatever emotional tides she had showed under Severa. Unlike with the Princess of Grey, however, she had cause to use it here. “A conscript, Princess Madam. We picked him up in the Valley.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, “One of many.” “That treacherous den of turban-wearing rats?” She touched a hand to her lips. “Pardon me. I’m rather outspoken when it comes to those wise-asses who squirrel themselves away in the Valley. Your name?” “Tolok,” he said, seemingly bemused. “Tolok. Certainly. Well, stray-cat Tolok, do care to be gentle with the Lieutenant. Despite her exterior, she’s quite delicate, and I happen to know a Princess who’d have your head for scratching up her favorite toy.” She came to the vista on the other side of the railing. More of the same, more interminable fields of grain and patchwork forests. The fertile bounty of Erasmia, by the presence of which Glia once exerted immense economic force across the nation. Nowadays, with advances in agricultural science and, in Zenith’s case, indefagitable excursions into the thicket jungle of the Coppice, the other nations had developed a degree of self reliance. But Glia was still the breadbasket – Glia, and its former lands now called Dodon and Isore. A shadow of a seagull fled overhead. Olivia motioned Wymp give her the crossbow, a beckoning that he nearly refused at first, before Madon nodded imperceptibly. She noted all this, and more. A microcosm prediction of what her treatment may be. Sighing, she received Arbalest with a nod. That thing sang in her hands, it did. Wood hard as steel, old runes inscribed on the surface and deep within, where wood-scribe could not touch. Things of power were so often beauty inherent. Beautiful because they are powerful, and not so much the other way. She put the stock to her shoulder, aimed down the sight, and two whizzing shadows collided with a squawk a little ways out on the water, ending with a plunk. “Such a fine thing.” She admired the weapon for a little while longer, then shrugged. “Yours, good Father.” She tossed the thing to Wymp. “Seagulls, I’ve never heard anything of. But I have heard that albatrosses are embodiments of sanctity, of the will of the gods, and to shoot one is to curse an entire voyage to damnation. I’ve never seen one outside pictures in books, but I don’t know if I could tell the difference between a seagull and an albatross.” She gave Wymp a smile. “Still, there must be some great sin in approximating the messengers of the gods. Or so I’d think, anyway.”
  3. Basics Name: Suzie Kingfisher (legal: Suzerainty Kali Kingfisher) Age: Mid-twenties Gender: Female Details Appearance: Average height, average build, and particularly well-fed - so beginning to put on a little weight over the past few years. She takes good care of her hair and appearance, as when she was younger and sillier a soldier told her that wounded men healed faster when tended to by a pretty nurse. (Said soldier was subject to discipline by the more senior nurses who were in charge of sticking the needles). She likes to smile, and does it often. Personality: Whether or not it's true that nobody's ever loved or valued her, it is true that Suzie was an orphan from a young age. Her upbringing has taught her that there are too many important things in the world, and nobody can have everything. So as long as they have a smile and at least half a leg to stand on...She's a good person, with strong convictions and a decisive manner, and with a skew set of priorities and anxieties geared towards ensuring that the maximum number of people harbor the minimum amount of ill will towards her. She'll believe in anyone as long as she thinks she likes them; and even if she doesn't. Goals and motivations: She has been learning doctoring from a senior in her dispatch unit, and hopes to open her own clinic one day to tend to the disadvantaged. Background Birthplace: Unknown. Her earliest memories, however, place her in the Orphanage of the Twice-Blessed in one of the impoverished shanties of Andelusia that popped up in the outer city ruins after the Tyrant King took power. Current Place of Residence: N/A, Corinth. She is part of one of the travelers' troupes of LUNA doctors, and might well be in any of the towns, villages, or wilds of Corinth. Current employment / role: See Affiliations. Family / close associates, if any: As an orphan, she has no family. Outside of her job, she has no ordinary friends, but has a pen pal in Misral that she has never met. If she were to ever retire from medical work, it is a dream of hers to meet them. Affiliations (guilds, businesses, noble houses, etc.): Suzie is a nurse of the Laconic Observers of Northern Andelusia (LOoNA, or more colloquially, LUNA). LUNA is a Corinth-based doctors'/nursing guild founded by a wise-ass doctor. The guild has a stated mission of providing medical care to anyone in need, anywhere. LUNA attained original notoriety for dispatching armed detachments of nurses and doctors to known sites of conflict, treating soldiers with no regard to their affiliation. Currently, their standout program involves seasonal circuits around the island, providing urban-quality medical care and assistance to the scattered towns and villages of Corinth that may otherwise lack access to high-quality medical care. Mastery of dominion, or examples of uses of dominion, if any: Dominion III: The power to command the actions of any being within which one's blood flows. Suzie is entirely unaware of her own power and its providence. Its passive nature, however, pervades throughout her medical work. Suzie is one of many Special Blood Donors, identified by the nonexistent rejection/failure rate of her blood transfusions. This is the subject of some small interest within LUNA, with some believing it to be sourced in magic, while others pose radical scientific theories of "blood type" as the root cause. Whichever is the case, it is a fact that recipients of her blood transfusions report excellent health and almost no complications with their various surgeries and conditions. Unbeknownst to anybody, this is due to the Third Dominion's power - victims become subject to the user's desires and commands. Suzie's fervent desire for good health and recovery to her patients manifest strongly in her blood transfusion targets, and their bodies are compelled to heal more thoroughly than ordinary. In addition, those who receive her blood donation tend to be overwhelmingly favorably predisposed to her, regardless of their disposition towards other doctors, nurses, and former disposition towards her. Whether this is due to Suzie's secondary anxieties of needing to be well-liked, or due simply to grace of swift recovery - who knows?
  4. The truth was that there was no good truth. No convenient excuses, in the end. Life is only pretty when smoothed by the passage of time; in the moment of, awkward jitters between the frames predominate. Roland’s waking came not as a shock but a relief to her, because that meant that she would not kill him. It meant that he could stop her, that with a flick of his finger or a bat of his eyelid, the brute could knock her over, away, across the room, make victim of her like he’d made victim of just about anyone else – and then he didn’t. “Lily –“ Roland started, putting his hands up against the backboard, then wavered. Composing himself, he started more calmly. “I thought you and I were beginning to become friends.” Roland regarded the knife at his throat warily. He gave a wan smile. “I must have been wrong.” It took everything she had not to laugh through the tears. Can’t be done, can’t wake up the world over a silly tantrum over a man’s life. The door was still shut at the corner of her eye. She had even forgotten that she’d locked it. As if the very act of locking, closing, was worth a damn. Nobody’s listening in, nobody’s trying to escape, that’s all posture and pretend so that she could believe that she was alone with him, and so that she could believe that two people alone can reveal their truehearts to one another, whatever that meant. Was there anything true about what she felt? What did she want? Not to die, but not apologies, either, not the sort that he started stammering out so perceptively. It positively reeked of anticlimax. Everything that she had worked herself up for, and whatever that everything was it could not have been this. Her thoughts all came in a jumble, but this raw anger, too, was all posture and pretend, a closed door with a sliver of light coming out beneath, and shadows dancing all over that sliver. She was angry, but why? “F-friends is a fine jest,” she said. “We have nothing between us. I’m a p-prize and you’re a hunter. Isn’t that right? You can quit your twopence act. You don’t have to pretend to care for anything at all. You can just keep on going through this world taking whatever you want.” Came the dawn. Thus enlightened, Roland shifted in place, and Lily jerked, pressed the knife harder into his neck. The man froze. Droplets of blood eked out round the edge. If she weren’t careful, he’d die by accident, and then nobody would be happy. Nobody in the entire damn world. Lily would reflect later that life isn’t a zero-sum game after all. There are some scenarios when everyone loses. Roland breathed shallowly, swallowed. His face morphed into something resembling intense, sad patience. “I do not wish to lie. But what choice did we have, Lily? Would you rather we had hurt them, or killed them, taken the food we needed by force?” “You think I’m a stupid little girl, as if I knew nothing of consequences or choices. You can stand to eat their bread knowing that you might as well have gored his brother, and that you might anyway? You can stand to look these people in the face when a hundred thousand of Isore’s sons and daughters are dead?” “I don’t like killing, Lily,” he said quietly. “The first man I killed…” He started. Excuses, excuses. “By God...and I don’t believe in this war, either. War makes orphans, and a child shouldn’t have to grow up before their time, Lily.” “You don’t have to convince me of anything. I won’t believe it, anyway. Those are all pretty, washed excuses. I could ask you what you know of my horror, but you’ll tell me you’ve been through it twenty-fold, because you’re a soldier and I’m a stupid little girl. The only logical conclusion is that people like you are born with some absolutely fucked defect, because if you’ve known it twenty times as much as I have then how could you see it through again?” All this, and he hardly flinched. On the contrary, he was deathly calm, which could have brought her to more tears if she were not tired of crying at that moment. “This is for survival, Lily…it is kill, or be killed. Kill them first before they can kill you.” He closed his eyes. “What of you? Yours is the hand that holds the knife. If you believe I should die, then go for it. It’d be easy enough for you to disappear, or explain away my – “ “Don’t you kid me. You know that I won’t make it to the Ebon Knight without you. And that killing you means an end to my own journey. I need you to fight the more important war, and you are fully aware of this. But unlike you, when I do things I must, I hate it. I hate everything that must be done. And I’m no killer.” She threw across him, where it nicked the wall before dropping onto the floor. “I hate you, and I hate men like you. I’ll live to see your ilk learn that surrender does not mean forgiveness.” Lily rolled over. After a little bit, Roland called out to her back. “You know your friend, that Exarch? He lives, still.” As if clockwork, Lily rolled over again. Roland was dabbing at his neck with a moistened cloth, wincing. Charcoal flecks of blood came away onto the linen beneath the moonlight. “This is what you missed at dinner. He was in Glia a little while back, rallying support there. And in time, he will go to Dodon.” Roland sighed. “He’s looking for justice for the fall of Isore, and he will bring retribution upon Byrn, if he has his way.” Her face was blank, inscrutable. Eyes puffed up red, Roland couldn’t tell exactly what emotions swam inside that gale-wind mess. Still, he ventured forth. “I thought perhaps it might comfort you to know that your friend is still out there, working toward what he perceives as his ideal of good.” “Why?” was all she asked, and when Roland hadn’t an answer, she turned away from him once more.
  5. I did end up backtracking on that, and I brought this up to Wade, but so as to make it more public: My conception was that the powers were divided into two classes - direct conflict resolution (combat/in-thread conflict) powers, and roleplay opportunity/strategic (fluff) powers that are effectively unusable in the action of a thread itself. This distinction is fine, and after a very brief period of thinking about it, I decided that the sizeable blood costs on fluff powers plus their delivery requirements (needing a full blood transfusion setup) were even perfectly acceptable. In balance, however, I would have liked to see certain aspects of the fluff powers be boosted so as to facilitate roleplay plot-building. Making an example of Power 2: any dead body is likely to be grievously wounded. Reanimating such a corpse, and then healing it, would represent an enormous expenditure of medical resources to provide a single soldier that only retains its original skills. From a combat/resource gathering point of view, a player character might as well spend money to hire a mercenary and receive a resource of equivalent value. However, if it were made so that it was a full thrall, and retained all memories of its former existence, the power suddenly becomes a very potent roleplay tool - espionage, information gathering that cannot be otherwise replicated, and so on. It is a unique power with a unique application that generates unique roleplay opportunities beyond the equivalent of hiring a mercenary. (This was just an example! I'm not advocating for changing others' powers at all, and any alterations should certainly be left up to Jiv'undus and Csl on this front). My suggestion for Power 3 would have been in the same vein of striking off the duration, as durations turn strategic powers into tactical ones, and the idea of thralling is certainly more interesting from a plot-driven perspective than a conflict-resolution perspective - who has been infected? Who can be trusted? The Power-Bearer, being weak and frail themselves, are suddenly not so much a source of danger themselves as a prize to be held, or a puppetmaster to be worked against in the largest terms. Given that I'm intending to create a frail pacifist character to suit, I'd like to see those sorts of roleplay opportunities opened up. The difficulty of use only complements the plot-centric application of the power. Fluff powers are only fluff if they serve no purpose either strategically or tactically, and some of them are kitted out such that it's difficult to use them in either capacity.
  6. “Things are as they are,” Olivia repeated. She sipped at her flute of wine, made an expression. “Just a fact of growing up. Is that so?” A man who acted upon preconceived notions, and formed them of nature and not of concerted thought. Did that make him harmless, or more dangerous, being set in his ways? And if he ever came to the realization that nothing was as it seemed? Olivia had grown up the same way, being told how things would unfold, understanding the expectations that were her life – simply of nature. There had still been immutable truths about the world, as natural as butterflies and daisies – about her own position, the relationship between the wealthy and the ordinary, the ideas of virtue and vice. When her entire family was killed to the man, things took on a slightly different light. Suddenly, anything could change. No fact was true enough to evade alteration. Those who underwent that catalyst tended to come out the other end as dangerous as anyone. But she preferred those types, anyway. Talk drifted to Anselm. Mason certainly had his handful of thoughts on the matter. None of it unexpected from someone so foreign and who had never ruled. “You’re presumptuous, Mason.” The Princess set her wineglass on the railing. “You know what Madon wanted to be, when he was young?” She giggled at the memory. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. What does it that Isore’s burned and its people, dead. Dreams and wishes and all those petty desires of the heart – even love – aren’t worth a damn to people dying on one another’s swords. For us, there really only is duty. To protect, to give our people peace, and to save them all. Anselm does what must be done, as we all do.” The wind sang mournful all round its rim. Then she dumped the rest of the wine over the edge. She had had enough. “No more deceptions.” Olivia frowned, as she turned to depart up the stairs. “You may keep your secrets, your anachronisms, your idiosyncracies to yourselves. Your foreign presence is tolerated amongst this force by Madon’s grace. But deceive us once more with no good cause, and I’ll execute you personally.” Then she put on a gentle smile, eyes soft as hot lead. “I am certain that will not happen, you being the man that you are.” With that, she swept up the steps, leaving the disguised man to reconsider his allegiances.
  7. In this way hearsay traveled from one end of the world to the other, borne upon the fleeting wings of chance encounters. Good news, bad news, so long as it’s rumour it flies all the same: the farmer was only too happy to relate the survival of the Exarch, and his renewed fervor in pursuing a dream of justice, a pursuit unto death as it were. And damned if he hadn’t the support of his god-fearing, king-beloved people. Even now he was caterwauling through Glia, and though the word had been mum they all knew that Dodon would be the destination eventually; for in Dodon all things would be decided. Neither Dodon nor Glia would stand with Byrn. Roland would find all of this interesting, and unbeknownst to both him and her, so would Lily have. Did she think of that man, still? Did she worry whether he lived? And would the world, by the light of this news, seem to dispel its mean, common darknesses, its hanger-on desperate promises of – what was that thing she was so afraid of – a fate inexorable? She came awake; it was dark. Roland lay slumped in a heap on his own bed, just a scant few feet beside hers, and she looked at that body of his for a long time. The peaking crescent moon threw its bastard light through the window, landing in slats upon his chin, neck, chest, leaving his face in shadow. That told a story, it did. Marks indicated slight scars, scratches endured across a childhood of rough-and-tumble, an adulthood of hunting. Years spent in the rough – with his brother as partner, or in a platoon they called family? – terrified eyes peering down the sights of a crossbow as beasts crawled across the Mercurial lowlands, until they finally lost that fear, replaced by that confident, caution-in-the-wind smirk that the man wore so often. A familiar, don’t-give-a-damn smile that she’d seen plenty before. It made her think of that dark archer who’d ambushed them outside of Isore. All hard men who never needed to have killed to be good at it; it had been taught to them by the land. Nobody ever understood by reading, but she had read enough to understand that they didn’t make them like that in the Valley, or Isore, or Glia, or anywhere but that barbaric country of Byrn. He snored, mumbled something into his pillow. When he slept, he looked young. He must have only been a few years her senior. Lily got up. She went to the kitchen, poured herself a measure of water, stood outside the homestead. They were north now, north of Isore by at least one or two hundred miles, made apparent in the air: Isore had been cool, but this was cold. Chill enough to brace her nerves, underscoring the distinction between within and without. She felt like an oyster clasped closed, instinctually protecting some pearl allegedly worth protecting, from the intrusion of cold, alien waters. Two hundred miles! When she’d never left the Valley ever before in her life, and now she’d gone there and back again, and once more – not for the last time – she was out into the world that she owed nothing, and as she was quickly coming to understand, felt the same about her. She had been used to sleeping in the rough all her life, but everything else about this rough was different. She hated all of it. Vagrancy was a game and nobody starved or froze to death in the pleasant nights of the valley. Urchins entertained themselves well enough. All of those things, petty miseries to what Isore was, now, because men were willing to kill each other for reasons unstated. Reasons unstated! Roland hadn’t said a goddamned thing to her. Went along as if it was the most natural state of events in the world that a hundred thousand people were dead, and now she had to come along to help these killers. Lily’s hands trembled as she remembered herself, asked herself those questions again. Did she make a mistake? What was it? It must have been a mistake coming all this way. The farmer and the housewife, stretched so thin already in relative poverty, thankful only that they had not died and blessing freely to all travelers that were escaping the fate of the same. Opening their doors to displaced fathers without sons, mothers without daughters, who ran through the plains like trickles of tears out of the eye of the tragedy at Isore. And here she was, in Roland’s fine company, shut-mouth absolutely without words as he smooth-talked his way into their house by fiction. Cold killer through and through. The more she thought of it the more she felt that it wasn’t her fault. It was not her mistake. It was his, and all those in Byrn. The end of the world was around the corner and these people turned on themselves, they took advantage of the world and trampled over each other in hopes of being on top. Was now not the time to unite? To love one another and hold each other until the end? All business to Roland, it was. Ordinary hypocrisies and offenses against one another...and he had even laughed his way through dinner. Pleasant food, pleasant drink, pleasant company, pretending that he was some friend to these people, that their generosity was a gift. By god, it was, but they had no idea how foul of a gift. Roland must not have been evil but he had such a selfishness, an absence of good in him, that he might as well resemble the dark in the absence of light. She touched her heart, found herself out of the breath. Lily went into the kitchen, left the mug drying on a sill, and paused. She made eyes at the rack of knives leaning against one wall. Blood pounded in her ears. The more she turned the thought in her head, the hotter she felt, until it was almost burning and her heart ran races telling her, all in a frenzy, that it was a good idea. But no – better angels kept her back, willingly, and it would be so easy to listen. But she could make a difference. God, how many had he killed? Even if he hadn’t, how many would he? By fire, even. He had been willing. By fire! The throat was a mercy in comparison. If it suited Byrn, he would burn this farm to ashes. No qualms looking some family in the face, knowing that all their poor misery was the soldier’s own doing, and receiving charity when it suited him. Her nails dug pits into her palms, so tightly did she grasp the paring knife. Hardly even a dagger, but sharp – oh, plenty sharp. She imagined grasping his head, thrusting the knife into his eyeballs, over and again. Her stomach turned. Her heart churned. Great heaving breaths. She wasn’t going to do it – surely she wasn’t. But god, it would serve him right. She came into the room. Roland grunted, still exposing his neck to the moon. About as pale white as it got, white as frost. Blood roses on white frost. Did she see a painting like that once? She raised her arm, held it there. She trembled like a loose wagon-wheel. Relaxed, tensed. She took in all of this, deep, sat on the edge of her bed looking over Roland’s body. It was as if her entire body was a heart, winding up like a spring every breath, waiting to expend all this energy. One stroke, if necessary; but if she had the choice, so many more. Between the ribs, into the lungs, eyes nose mouth across the stomach. Every time the pressure got to be too much her eyes went dark, and those wounds were the things she saw. Just imagine it! Wouldn’t it be a good thing? Wouldn’t that serve them right? Wouldn’t good triumph once more? Yes, yes, yes. Yes. She put the knife against his throat. Her hand was deadly steady. And if she pulled now? She started to cry.
  8. He spoke and she listened. The boatswain came into the midst, stammering for attention with an ice-bucket refreshment in hand, and the princess gave it; and he left, but not before wringing up two chairs for two, now seated where the salt spray bit at the heels of the sweet-wine and from which meter by meter of the swarthy old country could be seen vanishing into the distance. The bulk of the upper decks loomed over them as they talked. Oh, what about? Any number of chatty things. Idle thoughts. Two perfectly cordial women had a perfectly cordial conversation, sunning themselves upon the river. Suppose Mason looked the man that he insisted himself to be? What then? Would those fishermen or those pasturers on the distant sward, looking at the passing ship and seeing them, assume things of this pair? They would not then be two people, but a man and a woman. There were understandings and misunderstandings about this. But no; two friends, sharing a pleasant afternoon, not a man and a woman after all, and all was well. It was of this that Mason spoke, and Olivia was content to listen to the man bleed like a bad hand of cards. Talk of virtue and virility. Talk as if it was clothes that made men men, or the rough turn of voice, or even – even their very speech. Marvelous ideas that were so deeply wormed that by his own admission he was slave to them. “Is that important, ‘manliness’?” Olivia asked. “You keep saying that word. I don’t rightly know what it means. What is it that makes a man a man? And what makes it so worth protecting?” “Now I’ve got to know what you think. Do you believe that Anselm is a man, then? A woman? Does it matter, when a country’s at stake upon our actions and decisions?” The Princess smiled. She started to slip. If Mason looked at her now, he would be able to tell. Eyes on the past that was her future. “I never really thought of myself as a woman, you know. We were destined to be Princesses, anyway. And that’s what I am. A Princess, before anything else.” “But you, you’re a man, aren’t you? You’re proud of being a man, and you want to protect that part of you, even though you’ve done nothing more than being born into it.” She didn’t pause. “Truth be told, I never quite understood it, so you’ll excuse me while I’ve got you here. Why? Dresses or kilts, I don’t care, so long as it does not interfere with my duties. But you?”
  9. The reason why lying works, Lily mused, is because humans love one another. Lily and Roland had been set up on a bench in the shade. Bustle from the house indicated the preparation of food for the two travelers. In front of them, two girls peered at them curiously, while an older boy – perhaps even as old as Lily – wrestled with an enormous vat of water spilling to the brim, moving it to the fire. When he noticed them watching, he bobbed his head deferentially. “These days, soap and such are too hard to come by, so I hope you don’t mind bathing in the laundry water. Sir, lady.” He was quick to excuse himself. “Course, you don’t need to if it’s too low-class –“ “It’ll be fine,” Lily said softly. Her eyes lingered on the boy a few moments, causing a flush to rise to his cheek. And though he couldn’t place what it was, looking back at her, he felt too a twang of sadness. Lily bowed her own head. “Thank you.” He mumbled something and kept on with the tub. “Well, I think that went rather well. Fortune smiles, eh?” Roland spouted off cheerfully to her, even as glum as Lily looked. The man got up after a little while, gave an enormous stretch that cracked every bone on his back. “The lad looks like he could use a hand. Not much bigger than you, is he?” Lily watched the two men – boys, really – trip over each other all the way across the yard. A voice sounded out sharply from the kitchen, seemingly admonishing. The boy jolted, nearly dropped the end of his tub. Roland caught it and somehow snapped a salute with just his chin, grinning widely. “No worries, Mum, it’s all under control.” Evening came and went. The farmer and his wife had ultimately insisted they stay overnight. “So many poor wanderers nowadays,” she said, as they finished a dinner of bread and chicken. “We get people, once, twice every week the past month. All of them trying to get north and west, see. Every town fifty miles of the border’s got a big winged shield over them, so we’re lucky to be shut of all the Byrnians. So we have to share our blessings, poor souls, I say. All running from the dreadful business at the capital.” “Dreadful business,” the farmer said. “And the roads!” She ruffled her napkin indignantly. “Brigands everywhere. Though I’m sure you know all about them. It’s not safe, I tell you, for a little girl wandering round at night. Even if she is protected by such a strong man as her brother. No, even two people – it’s better you set out in the morning.” The farmer finished his drink. “And you, girl.” Lily jolted up, looked as innocent as she could. “Brothers are a precious thing. I tell you, I had a brother at Isore. Barely made it out alive, just in the nick of time. And you know what the damn fool does? Goes right back into it. He’s at Monzia now, right with the best and the rest of them.” The way he talked, eyes shimmering with pride. “They’ll give the dogs an ass-kicking, he says. Pay them back a hundred-fold for Isore.” Lily excused herself. She felt sick.
  10. “Don’t say you’re not interesting,” is what Mason decided upon. Carrying the nicety through. Olivia arched her eyebrows. Gone were the abrasive comments that she recalled not a few days before in court, the questioning of her mental state, her decision-making capability. It did make her wonder. The man must have had a good helping of courtesy spoon-fed him by Anselm while she was not looking. Or some other change of heart. “My sisters are a little bit more traditionalist than I am,” Olivia explained, looking out toward the river fading behind them. Glia stood in the distance, pale spires rising not centimeters off the horizon. The Tower was a stick of chalk. So much for perspective. She flashed a grin at Mason. “Severa’s accustomed to being a big shot. Used to be one in Byrn. And Anselm – well, she told you about her humble beginnings in Isore. Fear of god and love of country runs in the blood of those people. As for myself, I can’t say that I was a nobody before all this, but I certainly wasn’t somebody.” Half of somebody, maybe. “Besides...hiding behind a mask is called deception, but when it’s your words and intentions that are masked, we suddenly call it etiquette. So I prefer to speak plainly. I find people easier to stomach that way.” The princess was trying to be human, pedestrian. Olivia traced whorls in the rust, pretending a little shyness. Believe any of it? She believed a little of it. At that moment, at least, she believed what she was saying. “On that note, I have to ask why you’re still keeping up semblances.” She touched a finger to her lips. Her voice dipped into a gentle murmur. “Who knows? Committed to the bit? Or perhaps you find yourself enjoying it, Mason?” Another slight smile. A curl of the edge of her mouth. "And another thing - it does make one wonder, when allies deceive, omit, and lie to one another. Don't you think?" She laughed. "Not that we are greatly bothered by something so harmless."
  11. And after all that, such idolatry, worship, almost, and reminiscing of simpler, darker times, all Roland got from Lily was a brief “huh”, and then nothing. Plenty to think about. Nothing to say. What did she have to say to a man like Roland? He was a convinced man. Words to a convinced man mean nothing. Oh, she’d heard it before. In the old annals, there are always tales of the hero-kings, the benevolences who dole out bread and circus to the peasants and are loved for it. For the minimal generosities that they bestow upon the poor, for the single acts of mercy by which they are define. Here, they pardon a criminal, and are lauded in the name of fairness. There, they adopt a starving boy and his brother, and make of them spies and scouts. The traces and imprints they leave in history are much all the same. What do they end up doing? War. Always war. Riding under banners of justice, not because of their cause, but because they consider their own selves to be just. Trampling the infidel. All of that – the tired and hired bullshit – was like reading fiction and seeing it come now to life. Who needed a prophet when we had history? At last, Lily said, “He sounds like a man most honorable,” and smiled tightly at Roland. They kept walking. Two hours brought them to a break in the woods. Sky and sun broke above them. Clouds roamed across the rolling blue like herds of sheep. There were livestock here, marching in little woolen clumps across grassy hills. A little huddle of wooden shacks, one a house, others resembling a shoddy barn and stable, stood a little ways out in the grass. Two horses tromped around their little pen behind the stable. Little dots indicated a woman and child doing laundry on the porch. The dirt road wound out before them a yellow ribbon, past the house and vanishing where it crest the hill. Classic pastoral. “Wonder if the people here have any hospitality left,” Lily mumbled. She touched the bag. “How far are we, anyway? Do we have the food?”
  12. One more day, the helmsman said, and we would see the island ports of Onstade rise, locks upon the keys, on the horizon. Until then, he said, I would have to be disappointed. He had a nervous manner to him – but I told him, it matters not whether it be one day or twenty. I am a creature of infinite patience. Why, if that didn’t terrify the man out of his mind. But it is true! Delusion is so elegant; so often is it its own punishment, measure for measure. The wide waters of the Long Hethon parted beneath the prow. The waters were slow, mirror-like, and the day golden green. Forests bobbed in the breeze. I rested my hands atop the rail, watching other boats ground upon the distant strand, fishermen and fishing-boys frozen, like toys perched atop boulders and bobbing in dinghies. No luck. It was pillow-warm, and the fish and the men alike were too lazy to bite. We drew looks as we passed, but they did not linger. I waved; the captains of smaller vessels waved back. From afar, we were just another cargo ship, and I, just an ordinary passenger. Perhaps the searchlight reflection off the armor and spears of the knights gave away that it was the military being shipped now downriver, but that was no news to the people of the fields. War was a distant concept, from which they had faith they would be sheltered. Ordinary men and women did not dream of war. Why, if only it were true that if we should not imagine ideas of such turmoil, nor dream of them, then nobody should have to suffer. And then the meek shall inherit, and blessed be the meek. It was the fourth day of the fifth month of the nine-hundred-and-ninety-seventh year, Anno Naeddrensis, and nothing was happening, and if only this moment could last forever. There was another woman at the prow. She wasn’t a knight I knew, nor one of the Lieutenant’s women. I wracked my brain, came up with a memory of whispered jokes and jests. Anselm could hardly contain herself when she’d returned to the chambers. I got it. “Mason,” I ventured, and when that didn't hold, "Crystal." Bullseye. I went over. One of Madon’s many small questions. “No need to turn around. I’m not so interesting, in comparison,” I said. Directly out front was the wide expanse of the river, winding straight for a long time and opening up, distantly into the beginnings of a bay. Gulls wheeled and clouds drifted like slow whales. Sloops drifted patchwork between either bank, flags of particolored nations bloomed in bunches and rows. “I don’t get to leave the palace often. Less than you might think. So don’t think I’m joking, I do love being able to get out. See a little of the things we don’t have as much of in the city. So long as it’s not quite familiar, it’s endless fun.” “Speaking of things that are rare,” I continued. “I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of meeting, unlike as with my sister and yourself.”
  13. Lily came awake, groaned. It felt like someone had gone to town on her eardrum with a hammer and chisel. A cloth-wrapped package fell onto her stomach. She sat up. “If you’re hungry,” Roland said. The scout was shirtless, stood braced against a rock wringing his shirt. He was well-sculpted, though not a bulky man. A puddle of water formed under him, seeping up from dampened soil. Aftermath of a storm. Sunlight cut through the canopy now. How long had it been since they had been airborne? Dymbuss was nowhere to be seen, either. “Sent him packing.” The scout shrugged, slipped into his shirt. He wrinkled his brow. “They’ll be looking out for a wyvern rider. Flying’s off the table, now.” “Uh-huh.” Lily unwrapped the ration. Bread, slightly damp from the rain. She tore off a piece, ate the inside of the crust clean, and then tossed it aside. Then she worked on the next. Roland watched her eat, an expression akin to amusement on his face. “There’s a safehouse, quite a ways in the northwest of Isore. We shouldn’t be too far away...we’ll head there, meet up with Rolliam.” He chuckled. “Didn’t think I’d have to end up seeing him like this, but here we are.” They broke camp. Each slung a bag over their shoulder. Roland made sure Lily took the lighter of the two. The chivalry was lost on her. As for her, her mind seethed. What little placidity it had before had now been jolted into turmoil by the pain in her ear. Once she had been guided by the beacon of purpose, and even now it hung overhead as sure as a second sun: she would be ferried back and forth across the face of the world by parties who misinterpreted her, but all this to an ends. The Ebon Knight? One of the generals of Byrn, undoubtedly. He knew of the dragonstones, and knew enough to prevent their accumulation under powers that were not his own. The Wizards had the same approach. But she had one, and that made her just as valuable as anyone else. Just as powerful. It had crooned and whispered to her in her dreams, and every time she closed her eyes, she could see them speckle in the distance. Seven polestars, seven missions. But that was all high concept. Men and women know of things of high concept but they don’t feel them, they don’t believe them in the moment-by-moment. Lily wasn’t thinking of any of that – not seriously, anyway – she was thinking of the long road winding beneath and wearing at her feet as surely as a river weathers sandstone. It reminded her of walking among high dunes of sand, and sleeping under the stars, subsisting on bread given out of good will. Back when she was just a storytelling vagrant without a care in the Valley. People like that were never destined for determination. She suddenly felt a longing towards that home; not the home of the Valley, which she had abandoned not three or four hours ago, but rather the home of carelessness. “This way,” Roland said after a brief glance at the sky. They had come across a footpath in the forest, clearly well-traveled. The going became easier. Lily had the sense that she was walking in the wrong direction entirely. But she had always had that sense. “Roland,” she said suddenly. “Who is the Ebon Knight? You’ve mentioned him as your commander, and the Wizards handed me over to him since I might be useful to him. But I don’t know what he’s like, really. And what does he want with me?”
  14. The night turned the covers, and at noon of the new day the three Princesses gathered them all in the throne room again. Messengers had been sent overnight to all the garrisons, and would return over the course of the day bearing news from every corner of the aged empire. For now, the stone cast had yet to strike the surface of the water. No violent explosion, no ripples that would engulf the temporary placidity of Erasmia. But anyone in the know held their breaths just waiting. Severa appraised them all of the situation. The Last Company of Isore was now conscripted into Their Majesties’ Royal Service, under the direct overwatch of the Princess of White herself. Make no mistake: they were now a proper army, and properly marching to war. Their action would be premeditated and their purpose, renewed. That afternoon, the company pulled rank and asserted itself into a semblance of a fighting force, then made preparations to board flatbed prams down the Hethon. A circuitous route would take them down to the port city of Onstade, where they were to retrieve a cargo of materiel, which they would protect and distribute to the garrisons on the way up the Dade river until they reached the citadel capital of the plains, that glittering gem beneath the sun, Dodon. As they sailed down the Hethon, any feelings of unease that had lain itself upon them redoubled, then halved and vanished. War was declared now but it had been a waiting game. If Byrn wished to take the world by force, then it would have to show its own hand. Days passed and no news came. For now, they were content to wait. Troops hardly massed on the borders. A lesser man, or a man less driven than Madon, might have interpreted it as hopes for peace. But the company still went about its business into Onstade. Unknowing entirely that the next time they saw Glia, circumstances would have altered, permanently, for a changed world.
  15. The wyvern plunged into the clouds and Lily started to feel sick again. Electric winds ripped at them from every side. Were they free-fall? Free-rise? The breaths of the cloud were ice cold, and then hot summer thermals, sprays of water where the twain met, soaking the wyvern and its riders. The clouds twisted in every direction until it was impossible to tell which was up. Bolts of lightning forked around them in distant arcs, some closer than others, and the sound of breaking thunder could nearly break bones. As they hurtled forward a sensation coated their skin, a tickling, rising static pinprick. Winds parted around them, water droplets dodged past them in the shape of a static sphere. Electric charge built up as surface tension on a sphere encapsulating. Roland grit his teeth, pushed through the wind on the miracle wings of some impossible instinct. Roland and Dymbuss navigated themselves in a sea of no direction. Lily, she held onto the saddle and kept her head low and tried not to fall. She felt herself becoming sick again. Rain pounded into their skins, their clothing. She tried to think of better things. The static sphere rose about them. It made it hard to think. She welcomed that, too. She found herself at the saddlebags again, focusing hard on it to block out all else from her mind, and to ground herself in a world rapidly losing cohesion. She closed her eyes tight. When she opened them again...dimly, she found herself digging through bags, coming up with the clay fire-bomb. She felt an inkling of anger. Of hatred. Fear, too, but more of the earlier two, if she could feel anything at all in this chaos. She had never seen anyone die before. Never watched it close. But even she understood that anything else would be better. Nobody deserved to burn. No… She threw it now, straight down in an arc towards the earth beneath, where the rain must have been coming down in sheets and where no fire would live. It didn’t make it so far. As the clay pot crossed the static barrier that had mounted about them, the static charge vanished, all at once. An enormous crack – so loud that Lily slumped forwards, blacked out. But before that sound, a sword of light forking from the impossible heights of the cloud, down right at the clay vessel, and the blossoming explosion of brilliant flame before the rain and moisture instantaneously snuffed it out. So loud, that all thunderbolts thereafter must have seemed like pops in comparison, and so bright that they could hardly make out the shadows from the echoed pale sunlight in the clouds. Such that they did not notice the black blot soaring far above them, riding forth on the lightning and wind, doing little else but watching their procession.
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