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Song Sprite

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Song Sprite last won the day on July 8 2016

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About Song Sprite

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    Nevertheless, she sang.
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  1. @Grimmholt Sai nodded his agreement as Toshiro noted the design and enchantments of the house, grinning a little. "Claire-san's help has been invaluable in bringing the Swan back to life; it would never have happened without her. But the push to make this as much a fortress as a home came more from the Lady Caesar's older brother," Sai noted, inclining his head towards Florica, who smiled and took another small sip of her tea. "He's very protective of her." “I can see that,” Toshiro agreed, furrowing his brows. “Definitely makes my task a little easier. The spacing is enough to throw off anyone using something longer than my kodachi if they’re not aware of it.” He chuckled. “That man never fights fairly if he can help it, does he?” Toshiro slipped his hands behind his back and stretched for a moment, closing his eyes. His hands came back to rest on his sword. “Kimura-sensei, Lady Caesar, thank you. I’ll station some more of my men around here. They’ll stay out of sight, but close enough that if trouble starts they won’t be far behind.” He stood, picking his blades up and sliding them through his belt at either hip. He took a few seconds and adjusted them so they would be easy to draw. “One of them will know how to contact me if you need me.” - Sai stood to see Toshiro out, and after a moment, Florica stood as well, moving with more slowness than was necessary even by the demands of Nikaidan gracefulness. Her limbs felt heavy and sluggish, as though she were moving through water instead of air, and her heart still raced erratically in her chest, making her feel dizzy and breathless. She trailed after the two men, fighting to maintain the appearance of calm, and bowed politely as their guest took his leave. Some words of farewell were exchanged, but they might as well have been spoken in Old Mirian for all the sense they made to her. The door slid shut, and she realized that Sai was staring expectantly at her. Oh dear. Had he asked her something? Taking her best guess, she shook her head and murmured, "I'm f-f-fine," and turned away to head back to the table, uncomfortable with the perceptiveness of his gaze. He caught up with her halfway to the table, and reached out from behind to place a hand on her shoulder. He had opened his mouth to ask again what was troubling her, but the words died before they left his lips as she flinched away from his touch with a frightened gasp. Feeling awful for scaring her, Sai shoved his hands deep into his pockets, where they could do no further harm, and watched as she knelt at the table to clear the tea things, her hands shaking so badly that the delicate cups clinked and clattered on the tray. He approached her again, making sure she could see him this time. "Here, let me," he said very gently, as though speaking to a skittish mare, and took the heavy tray out of her hands. It took her a moment to relinquish her hold on it, and then her hands fell to her sides, and she looked away again. "That was pretty scary when Chiang and his man were trying to make trouble, wasn't it?" he commented conversationally as he turned away to bring the tea things over to the sink, giving her space and taking his best guess at what might have upset her so. "My heart was pounding so loud I thought everyone in the East Quarter would be able to hear it." He chuckled self-deprecatingly. "You seemed so calm, though. I'm glad we got your tree home safe. Maybe after lunch we could plant it." He chanced a glance back at the Banjari woman as he started to wash the tea things. She was still standing where he had left her, but she met his gaze, and nodded. He breathed an inward sigh of relief, and looked away, continuing to wash the dishes. "Good. That will be nice, it's a beautiful day for it." He knew he was rambling, but he hoped the cheerfulness in his voice would help her regain the inner peace she seemed to have lost. "The northwest corner of the garden gets the most morning sunlight, so that could be a good spot for it. That's the closest to your bedroom too, though there's the outer hallway between you and the garden." He glanced over again, only to find that she had padded silently over and was now at his elbow, reaching for the clean cups to dry them with the towel. He watched her hands for a moment to make sure they were no longer shaking, and then left her to the task. They worked in silence for a moment before he spoke again, more quietly. "I'm sorry for startling you just now. That was foolish of me." Florica shook her head, and let out a heavy sigh. “N-n-not your f-f-fault.” She chewed fretfully on the inside of her lip, still wrestling with the irrational feeling of impending doom that had been hanging over her since their walk home. “S-sorry I’m…. l-like this. I… t-t-t-t-try n-n-not to b-b-be, b-b-b-but it….. d-d-doesn’t always w-work.” Sai shrugged easily. “Not your fault either,” he pointed out gently. Florica nodded in response, but the look on her face was still troubled. The Nikaidan boy finished washing the teapot, and set it down, turning to lean with his back against the counter as he gave her his full attention, resting his elbows on the polished stone. She felt his eyes on her, but she kept hers downcast as she focused on carefully drying the delicate tea set. "I want to help you," he said finally, his gentle voice tinged with frustration. Florica smiled crookedly and glanced over at him. "You a-already h-have," she attempted to reassure him. But his words had struck a nerve. I'm so sick of needing rescuing. Sick of using up the people around me. The feeling of breathlessness returned, along with a panicked racing of her heart and a feeling like the room was closing in around her. She carefully put down the last dish. "I'm f-f-f-fine," she said, meeting his gaze and putting as much enthusiasm into the words as she could. From the look on his face, he didn't buy it. "It's okay if you're not," he said, standing up straight and dropping his arms to his sides as he turned to face her fully, searching her face. "Getting threatened by a gang lord would be enough to shake up anybody. It's okay to-" "It's n-not okay!" she snapped, interrupting him. "You d-d-d-d-don't u-understand. I h-have to b-b-b-be s-strong." She felt sick to her stomach, and gritted her teeth against a wave of anxiety-induced nausea. He frowned. "You don't have to be strong all the time," he argued. "The battle's over. We won, remember?" Florica barked out a bitter laugh at the naïve statement. "The b-b-battle's n-never over." Not for me, anyway. "E-excuse m-me, K-Kimura-san." She gave him a sharp bow that somehow conveyed even more bitterness than her stuttering voice, and shuffled past him, retreating to her room and sliding the door shut behind her. She slid to the ground with her back against the door, and buried her burning face behind her cold fingers, letting out a shaky sigh. Why am I like this? she demanded of herself, feeling miserable. The concerned expression on Sai's face was burned behind her eyelids, silently mocking her efforts to avoid dragging others into the endless turmoil twisting beneath her scarred skin. "Fuck," she whispered, and her hands curled into frustrated fists, pressing against her forehead. Not for the first time, she wondered how much easier all her friends' lives would have been without her. If she had never found her way out of Eshdraemoir, or if she had ever had the strength to end things herself. It was a dark, awful thought, and one she knew she'd never be brave enough to act upon, but nevertheless, the idea of ending it all had a way of coming back to her each time she thought she had put it away for good. After all, what was she but a collection of ugly scars and uglier impulses, a burden and a curse upon those unlucky enough to take pity on her? She gritted her teeth, pushing the thought back into the darkness where it belonged. "I am Florica Caesar," she whispered to herself fiercely. "I swear to live unbowed beneath the sun." She took a deep, shuddering breath, and thought of her brother. The effect it would have on him if she took her life didn't even bear contemplating. I swear to live, aquila mea, she vowed. She heard the quiet shuffle of Sai's feet in the hallway behind her, and then a quiet knock at her door. "Florica? Lunch is ready," he called gently. "O-okay," she answered, and after a moment, she heard his footsteps return to the living room. Sai… She crossed her arms over her knees, frowning in thought. He was trying so hard to be a good host, to make her feel at home. Even now, after she had snapped at him so abruptly, his response had been simply to make their next meal. Guilt gnawed at her. I don't deserve his kindness, or his patience. She sighed heavily and rubbed her face. But what can I do? Leave? Where would I go? She thought of the burned husk of the home in Athynia, overshadowed by the spectres of Peter and the Grimmholts. And further back, to Madam Sekhira’s house, and the cloying despair that had hung over her while she worked there. No… there was nowhere for her to go. Nowhere befitting of a Caesar, anyway. She thought of Nero again, and suddenly felt guilty at the direction her thoughts had taken. Was it really so awful to rely on Kimura Sai, just a little bit? We do what we have to do. Words she had spoken to both of her brothers, at one time or another. She remembered the sight of Marcus, lying facedown in the dirt because he was too proud to accept a hand up, and she smiled wryly. Not so different from me, after all. Whatever Sai had made for lunch was smelling delicious. The Lady Caesar stood, carefully straightened her dress and her posture, and opened the door.
  2. The kettle hanging over the fire started to growl as the water inside it reached boiling, and it trembled and shook on its hook. Florica reached out and gingerly rotated the system of rods it was hanging from, swinging the kettle back to the edge of the firepit, and then left it to cool for a moment while she went back to collect the rest of the tea things from the kitchen. She gathered the teapot, teacups, box of tea and tea scoop onto a sturdy wooden tray, and carefully folded the deep purple cloth napkin that was reserved for making tea, tucking it into the slender belt at her waist which supported her dagger. She then brought the tray over to the fire pit, knelt down, and set it on the floor mat for a moment while she used the purple square of cloth to move the kettle over to the tray as well. Bringing everything over to the table, she sat down across from Sai, bowed to the two men, and began to make the tea. First all the tea things were wiped down with the purple cloth. Then the water was poured into the teapot, and then from the teapot into the three cups, to warm the cups and at the same time cool the water so that the tea would not become bitter from over-brewing. In the few seconds while the water sat in the cups, she dropped three heaping scoops of dried tea leaves into the empty pot, resealed the tea box, and balanced the tea scoop back on its lid. Then she poured the three cupfuls of water back into the teapot over the tea leaves to brew, and put the lid back on the pot. Each movement was smooth and deliberate, ingrained through endless practice at Madam Sehkira’s. The other girls had delighted in teaching her such things, both for the novelty of having a ‘gypsy’ perform the tea ceremony, and for the fact that she was so obedient and attentive to the tasks she was given, leaving them free to lounge about idly on the couches whenever the Madam was not at home. After the count of four slow breaths, Florica picked up the teapot with both hands and began to pour the tea. She filled each small teacup less than a third of the way, paused for a moment, and then added another small amount of tea to each cup, moving back and forth between them in a steady pattern to ensure that each serving was evenly brewed. At last, the tea had all been poured, down to the last drops that clung to the sides of the pot. She passed Toshiro-san his cup, placing it into his warm hands with another shy smile and bow, and then did the same for Sai, giggling inwardly at his ill-hidden amazement. At least something good came from my time at that place, she thought wryly, confident that the tea had been brewed perfectly. Toshiro watched from the corner of his eye as Florica moved around, her motions a precise imitation of those he had sat through hundreds of times. He accepted the cup with a grateful nod, taking a sip and nodding. "You're superb. Where did you learn?" he asked, looking at her with renewed curiosity. Toshiro pointed at Sai. "Him, I understand. You were quite the toast of town at one point. Makes sense Claire-chan would find you interesting." He glanced back to Florica. "You, though... she didn't say much about. Only to make sure to stay out of your way if you draw steel." The unexpected question sent a sudden chill through Florica’s veins, and she managed only a weak smile at the mention of Claire. She took a careful sip of her own tea before responding, stalling for time as she felt both men's gazes burning to her with equal curiosity. Finally she put the cup down, but her hands remained circled around it, her eyes downcast as though her tea was suddenly the most interesting thing in the room. “Another...life,” she finally broke her silence, her tone cool. She looked back at Toshiro, feeling Sai’s eyes on her like coals from across the table as she offered their guest a brittle smile. I’ve had too many, she thought, the weight of them pressing down suddenly on her chest, making it hard to breathe. She knew she should say something else, do something to dispel the awkward feeling that hovered between them now, but the panicked racing of her heart made it impossible to think. Sai frowned at the Banjari girl, disturbed to hear her using the same resigned tone with which she had spoken of her nightmares. Wherever she had learned the art of tea, it was clearly tangled up with some unpleasantness from her past, as so many things seemed to be. The glazed look in her eyes worried him deeply, but all he could think of to help was to shift the conversation elsewhere. "You seem to be quite familiar with Claire-san, Toshiro-san," he noted, tearing his eyes off the troubled young woman. "Old friends?" Toshiro winced a little at the brittle smile she gave him. Something about the way she froze troubled him, but the gangster merely gave a polite nod. He was thoroughly relieved when Sai managed to give him a different topic. One he was intimately familiar with. A broad smile crossed his lips. He took a sip of his tea, and then set it down carefully. His eyes flicked back to Florica, and then to Sai. "Old friends. A little more than that, at one point, although it's ancient history now." He stopped to consider his words for a moment. "But we did business together here. She, like you, was the toast of the town years ago. I don't think they knew who she really was. Few of us did." He brought the cup back to drain it, and then took a few seconds to admire the fine details of the cup as was polite. "Beautiful," he noted, before he set it down and proceeded to wipe it clean. "I know she doesn't talk about it much. Whether shame, or just good sense. But she's spent a long time chasing after the ghosts of the past." Toshi gave a wry smile. "Made the future hard to see." Sai nodded thoughtfully. Ghosts of the past... It was certainly an apt description of the way she had reacted when the Lord Caesar had come back from the dead. "Seems like we all have a few of those," he responded seriously, finishing his own tea. Florica's hands had slid down to her lap, and outwardly she looked relaxed once more, but her fingers were digging into her thighs like claws as she fought to listen to the conversation and not be dragged away by the intrusive thoughts and memories warring for space in the stage of her mind. Visions of Kharn, of laughing painted girls, of Baldric and Peter swam before her, leaving her dizzy and ill. "Indeed," Toshiro agreed. He lapsed into pensive silence for a few moments, his gaze focused on the upturned cup before him. "I wasn't expecting him to make a move so soon. He should have been focused elsewhere." Toshi stroked his chin. "I made sure to stir up a little trouble near our borders as a diversion. But he knew where you were. Knew what we were doing. Something about that disquiets me a little." He made a sharp wave. "Forget it. That man's always been hard to read." He turned his attention to Florica then. "Thank you for the tea, miss. It was delicious. I can only hope to return the favor someday." "You're w-welcome," Florica managed to respond, smiling politely. Toshiro folded his arms over his chest. His eyes danced around the room, noting the fresh construction, the quality of the materials, the angles of entry and exit. "Well designed. And intended to wrong-foot intruders from the start. Your doorways are uneven. Off by just enough to catch a swordtip, or trip someone. I can sense spellwork wrought into it, too. Seems like Claire-chan was busy here. You two have to be important to her." He snorted. "She never did any of that for me." Sai nodded his agreement as Toshiro noted the design and enchantments of the house, grinning a little. "Claire-san's help has been invaluable in bringing the Swan back to life; it would never have happened without her. But the push to make this as much a fortress as a home came more from the Lady Caesar's older brother," Sai noted, inclining his head towards Florica, who smiled and took another small sip of her tea. "He's very protective of her." “I can see that,” Toshiro agreed, furrowing his brows. “Definitely makes my task a little easier. The spacing is enough to throw off anyone using something longer than my kodachi if they’re not aware of it.” He chuckled. “That man never fights fairly if he can help it, does he?” Toshiro slipped his hands behind his back and stretched for a moment, closing his eyes. His hands came back to rest on his sword. “Kimura-sensei, Lady Caesar, thank you. I’ll station some more of my men around here. They’ll stay out of sight, but close enough that if trouble starts they won’t be far behind.” He stood, picking his blades up and sliding them through his belt at either hip. He took a few seconds and adjusted them so they would be easy to draw. “One of them will know how to contact me if you need me.”
  3. That done, they headed back through the East Quarter gate, nodding respectfully to the guards as they passed through. Sai had come and gone through this particular gate on his errands often enough that he was given a smile of recognition, and while they stared curiously at the gypsy-looking girl at his side, they raised no objections. The rampant poverty of the East Quarter seemed even more bleak after the time they'd spent in the Central District. The few busy streets were populated with more beggars than shoppers, and the smell of burning trash drifted out of many alleys as they passed. "Stay close," Sai murmured to Florica, keeping a brisk pace as they headed back towards the Swan. - Ikeda resembled a monk more than a street thug, his plain white shirt and dark trousers tied with a length of rope, his head bald and tanned from years in the sun. He was clean shaven, though his face was well lined with the wrinkles that spoke to the thirty five years he had lived in Nikaido. He was no taller than those he moved brusquely through, but the scarred and weathered flesh of his arms was taut with whipcord muscle, and he kept a firm grip on his staff as it rested on his shoulder. At his side, Wufei gnawed noisily at a half eaten chicken wing as they walked, grease and debris smearing his untidy black beard. Here and there a beggar gave him a disgusted or envious glance, but the short, straight jian blade thrust haphazardly through a steel ring at his side gave them pause. His dark red shirt was half open, a mass of ugly scars knitted into the dark skin beneath, but one could still make out the leaping tiger of the Wushin Triads peeking from the left. Ikeda had learned long ago that Wufei cared little for his appearance, but his blade was always clean and sharp, ready to dart and slice the enemies of the Triad at a moment's notice. Frankly, it irritated him that he was tied to such a slovenly excuse for an enforcer, but they had been short-handed for years now. No, Wufei was too good a tool to simply cast aside for some rough edges. Ikeda scowled at him for a moment for good measure anyway, and then he glanced ahead at the woman and the young man with his hands wrapped around a potted tree of some kind. The Kimura family had once been a jewel in the East Quarter, their son, a star pupil of an Aeldamiran master somewhere the city the elves. At least, until the Pox had struck, tearing through the district with the hunger of a ravenous lion until all that was left were the unlucky dregs of humanity. Loud chewing noises beside him drew a growl from his throat. "Throw the damn thing away, already." Wufei gave an amused snort and carried on happily, licking his lips. They were perhaps twenty paces from them now. He gave a sharp nod in their direction and sped up, bring his staff down, using it like a walking stick. As they caught up, he moved to the Kimura man's side, and then he thrust it out suddenly towards the pot. It was time to send a message. Caught by surprise at the jab from behind, Sai lost his hold on the pot. It slipped through his hands, and he was only just able to reach out and grab the sturdy base of the sapling's trunk before the whole thing went flying. He turned to face the bald man, his initial expression of concern and confusion replaced by a hard wariness as he realized this was something more than an innocent jostle. He slid a half-step to the right to position himself between Florica and the two men he now found himself facing, and his free hand fell to Thorn's hilt. "Sorry about that, my pot seems to have got in the way of your walking stick," he said pleasantly, though his heart was pounding in his chest. "Everything alright?" “You should be more careful,” Ikeda admonished, his eyes flicking down to the sword at Sai’s side. “Getting in people’s way can end badly for you here.” Wufei leered at them both, the bone moving animatedly around in his mouth. “You might have forgotten the way that things are around here, Kimura Sai. But the Triad does not.” "I'm not trying to get in anyone's way," Sai said cautiously, studying the man's face. He offered a polite bow, though his eyes lingered on the man's staff, wary of another jab. "Just bring more prosperity to the East Quarter. Surely that is something we can all agree on." Taking her cue from Sai, Florica stayed behind him, and bowed when he did, pressing her clammy hands to her sides. She didn't like the bald man's tone, and the expression on his friend's face made her skin crawl. She shuddered and looked away. "You want to bring prosperity." Ikeda snorted derisively. He leaned casually on his staff as Sai bowed, scowling all the while. Wufei remained uncharacteristically silent, though he did bow fully and precisely, matching the level of respect that had been shown to him. He spat the chicken bone onto the street and came up, folding his arms across his scarred chest. The effect would have been intimidating, were it not for the stray spittle that clung to his messy beard. "A noble ideal," Wufei remarked politely, "but one our masters believe will bring misfortune to us." He wiped his beard clean with one hand. "I am afraid our interests do not align, Kimura-Sensei. Bringing prosperity into the Quarter will feed our families for now, but it will inevitably draw hungrier wolves than we, and I fear to see what tragedy will befall us then." Ikeda blinked hard for a moment. His upper lip twitched. "We tigers have no quarrel with you if you leave. But should you stay, your safety cannot be guaranteed." He glanced meaningfully at the dark girl beside him. "Or anyone else who helps you." His grip on the staff tightened. "You're a good dancer. Don't risk your health. Go somewhere else. Leave this bitter, dead place to its own devices." He could feel eyes on his back now, the watchful eyes of the city guards manning the gates, the eyes of the passers by and beggars wondering if blood would be spilled. "I'm not going anywhere," Sai replied firmly to Ikeda's suggestion. "The Swan has belonged to the Kimuras for five generations. It's my home." Wufei gave Sai a sympathetic look, but then their attention was commanded by another newcomer. "Far from the south side, aren't we," called a cheerful man of mid twenty as he stepped from the corner. He was unmistakably Nikaidan, his eyes a light brown and canted, his long black hair tied artfully in a high tail. He wore a dark blue hakama and a gi with one shoulder hanging bare, and a pair of short, curving blades rested at his hips. His nose had been broken several times and healed crookedly, and he sported an impressive set of dark circles beneath his eyes, but he seemed unmistakably alert as he approached them. Wufei's expression turned grave. The newcomer stopped ten paces from them, well outside of Ikeda's range, but certainly close enough to tower over the other two. "Can't say I appreciate you bothering friends of the Family, Chiang." The man smiled gamely, but there was real anger in his eyes as he glared at the disheveled fighter. "Take your parlor tricks and your little pet somewhere else before we start having problems." He casually rested his left hand on the scarlet grip of his sword. Ikeda slowly turned to the side. Wufei reached up, his fingers appearing to sink into the flesh of his face above his temples before he made a ripping motion. With a sound like tearing cloth, his face appeared to shift and change, and his hand came away with a blackened hanya mask. The man beneath was shaved clean, his hair closely cropped and peppered with early gray. His eyes were as dark as night, his face gaunt and angular. He gave a slow, almost theatrical bow. "Toshi. I'm merely giving our young friend some advice. The advice you should have followed." He scratched his chin as he placed his other hand on the jian's hilt. Sai paused as the newcomer approached, initially eyeing him with as much wariness as the other two. But as the man spoke, it became clear that he saw himself as a friend, though Sai was sure he had never met him before. What exactly is going on here? he wondered, feeling more and more out of his depth as the conversation continued and the bearded man revealed the face beneath his mask. Chiang and Toshi... as in Toshiro? Leader of the Twelve Sons? Why the heads of the two most active gangs of the East Quarter were fighting over him was utterly beyond him, and he could only hope that his confusion wasn't written clearly over his face. The rest of the passers-by were giving their little circle a wide berth, now, sensing trouble. Sai stepped slowly back towards Toshiro without turning his back on Ikeda and Chiang, knowing without looking that Florica was moving with him. Despite the outer calm of the conversation, his heart was still pounding in his chest, and he was ready to drop the sapling and draw Thorn if things continued to escalate. His first priority was to protect the Lady Caesar, as he had promised. He gritted his teeth, cursing his stupidity for thinking they could just stroll through the East Quarter as he had been able to as a child. So much has changed... I should have known. I should have foreseen this. The thought that his poor planning might leave Florica caught in the crossfire made him feel sick. Chiang frowned slightly as Kimura and his friend made their way closer to the leader of the Twelve Sons. "Seems your territory doesn't extend quite as far as you thought, Toshi." He waved a hand to the side casually, his other still resting comfortably on the jian's grip. "You brought real steel this time. Do you intend to settle things here and now, little Tiger?" Toshiro sneered, shifting to stand beside Kimura. "Not today," Chiang answered politely, and he glanced up at the gate walls. Toshiro took a look from the corner of his eyes. The guards at the top of the gate were watching them intently now, and with them was a figure that sent a slow chill down his spine. The black clad figure wore a haori with a single crimson stripe that ran diagonally along both shoulders. They wore a mask of black, polished steel carved into the smiling face of a long dead warrior, and their hands were wrapped around a slim white spear that seemed to shudder ever so slightly in the breeze. The infamous Squad Four. They were too far away for him to see the gold number inlaid into the top of their mask, but he figured it was Number Eight - Hachi. "Not today, Chiang," Toshiro agreed bitterly, standing more straightly. "But these two are under my protection. See to it that your men stay out of their way or we'll make sure they never get in anyone's path again." Chiang gave him a long, hard stare. Toshiro returned it, setting his jaw, his thumb a hair's breadth away from pushing the blade from the spacer and readying it for a strike. But Chiang merely shrugged, and then he made a proper bow to Sai and Florica. "I wish you both luck." His gaze shifted to Toshiro and grew colder. "I already know you'll need it." And with that, he turned on his heel. Ikeda stopped to gawk for a moment before he too turned on his heel. Toshiro watched them as they moved through the onlookers, engaged in what appeared to be a one-sided barrage of questions on the monk's behalf. He slowly removed his hand from the hilt of his sword and let out a heavy sigh, pinching the bridge of his broken nose. "Uncle's going to be unhappy about that. Especially with those numbered psychopaths watching us now." He shook his head wearily. "I'm sorry you had to deal with that. Seems we have a difference of opinion on what's best for the Quarter." He smiled thinly. Sai felt a surge of relief as Chiang elected not to fight, and let out a long, silent sigh, relaxing a little as he sent a prayer of thanks to his ancestors for watching over them. He and Florica returned the gang leader’s bow in kind. It grated on him to bow to someone like that, but if a little extra courtesy could keep the fragile girl behind him safe, it was well worth the cost to his pride. He let go of Thorn’s hilt and turned fully to Toshiro as the leader of the Twelve Sons addressed him, setting down the precious sapling and dusting his hands off on his pants. Florica came up to stand beside him, eyeing Toshiro with silent, wide-eyed curiosity. She looked a little pale, but calm, holding her head high. “It seems we do, Toshiro-san,” Sai replied. “I appreciate you stepping in. I’m sorry if we have caused trouble for you.” Sai’s words sent a flicker of irritation across Toshrio’s features. “No, if anything I think we may owe you one. Claire-chan asked us to keep an eye on you and the Miss, but I think it’s drawn the wrong sort of attention.” He brushed a hand along his stubble, frowning all the while. “It’s been.. hard.. since Sixty Seven. Even the Wushin are hurting. But they seem to think that trying to rebuild will only encourage the other Clans to sweep in and wipe us all out.” Toshiro waved off the thoughts that ran through his mind with an irritable slash of his hand. “Anyway, I’d like to accompany you home. I doubt Chiang will try anything, but his idiots are another story. Rather get back to where my idiots can keep watch on you both.” Sai couldn’t decide what surprised him more – that Claire had requested the Twelve Sons to watch over him, or that its leader referred to her as Claire-chan. An old friend… or something more? he wondered. But under the circumstances it would hardly have been polite to ask. He nodded in agreement as Toshiro noted how hard the last several years had been for the Quarter. “Thank you, Toshiro-san.” He carefully picked up the sapling by its pot again, and the three of them started off towards the Swan. “This is Florica-san,” he added, inclining his head towards her. He wasn’t sure how much Claire had told the gang about his companion, but he figured it was best to avoid calling her Lady Caesar in public. The Caesars seemed to have more than their fair share of enemies, and these streets always had ears. “Florica-san, Toshiro-san.” The Banjari girl peeked around Sai, offering Toshiro a shy smile. “P-pleasure to meet you, Toshiro-san. Th-thank you for c-c-coming to h-help us.” “Ah, the Banjari girl,” Toshiro said, giving her a quick bow. “Pleasure to meet you, Florica-san. I am Yamamoto Toshiro, but you can call me Shiro if you like.” He reached down and twisted his left sword back into a more acceptable stance, with the edge tilted towards him, although he left the other where it was. “Think nothing of it. I owe her more than a few favors, and that goes double for my Uncle. I believe you two have already met.” Florica promptly returned Toshi's bow, and her smile broadened. It was a small thing, but it always made her feel a little more at home when her people were referred to properly as Banjari, rather than the "gypsy" slur that was so common among the gadje. Sai's brow creased in confusion as Toshiro said he'd met his Uncle, and he glanced over at Florica, opening his mouth to deny it, only to do a double take as he saw her nodding. She grinned sheepishly at the look on her face. "B-briefly," she clarified, amusement warming her tone. "I d-didn't realize he was that Sojiro-san. Though I suppose there were c-clues." She looked back up the street, and her expression turned thoughtful as she wondered how deep Claire's involvement with the Twelve Sons ran. Not just anyone could ask them to look out for a friend and have that honoured, and here Toshiro was calling her "chan" and saying he owed her. Something to ask her next time she's in town. “He’s supposed to be retired now.” Toshiro snorted. “Doesn’t stop him from meddling. Or from being too damn loud in the mornings.” He have a broad shrug, and sidestepped to allow an elderly lady to pass. "Well, I hope you'll allow us to offer you tea, Toshiro-san," Sai offered. It still felt rather odd to be associating like this with a gang member, but if Claire trusted him, that was a good enough voucher for him. "If you can spare the time, I'd appreciate some pointers on how to avoid a repeat of that little encounter. I'm afraid my knowledge of this side of 'politics' is sadly lacking." He rubbed the back of his neck ruefully. Toshiro barked a laugh. “I accept. I figure the more you’re informed, the easier it will be to keep my promise to Claire-chan.” Sai nodded his agreement. "Exactly." He shifted the pot in his hands, turning it to grab a different section of the rim. It wasn't particularly heavy, but the gently swaying branches made it a little awkward. He was glad that it didn't seem to have suffered any damage from when he had nearly dropped it before. It wasn't particularly expensive, but Florica had chosen it, and that made it special. He glanced over at the woman walking beside him, wondering what exactly the circumstances of her meeting Sojiro-san had been. The more I learn about you, the more I realize I don't know, little dancer. Feeling his eyes on her, Florica glanced over, answering his puzzled look with another quietly amused smile. "N-not a morning p-person, Toshiro-san?" she enquired, looking past Sai at their new friend again. Toshiro gave a wry laugh. “No, not usually. Business has been rather trying as of late. Particularly during the night.” He met Florica’s glance and chuckled. “I’m probably the last person you expected to see on your side. But this is our home. For fifteen generations, my family has lived here, fought here, died here. I’ll be damned if mine is the last to do so.” “Least until I get some little Toshiros of my own. Then it’s their problem.” He ran his fingers along his chin. “But we need to bring life back here. Bring money and jobs. Then the Quarter lives and breathes again. Chiang is being too stubborn. We might be poor here, but we’re strong all the same.” "It was a surprise," Sai admitted, "but it's a welcome one. Hopefully Chiang-san will come around to your point of view in time." The road they were on sloped gradually uphill, broadening as they neared the Swan. This had once been a thriving business and entertainment district, with large lots apportioned to each property - restaurants, theatres, and the warehouses and store-fronts of merchants, craftsmen and the like. But for the past five years it had been all but a ghost town, as the few business owners who had survived the black pox had abandoned the area in search of brighter prospects. Now, the Swan gleamed with fresh wood and paint, and across the street from it, Gunma Carpentry showed signs of life as well, with the weeds cleared away from the store front and new green shutters on the wide windows. They had been the first after the Swan to take advantage of the new incentives that the government was offering to businesses that were willing to give the East Quarter another chance, lured by the promise that they would be the exclusive supplier for the Swan's extensive lumber requirements. Sai unlocked the front door of the theatre, and they headed back through to the residence. On the way, he gently placed the little tree in the courtyard to let it enjoy the bright sunshine, and then they headed indoors. "Please, have a seat," he gestured for Toshiro to sit at the head of the table, as the honoured guest. He then turned towards the fire pit, but Florica rested a hand on his arm, smiling. "I'll m-make the tea. You sit," she directed, her voice firm in spite of her stutter. Sai blinked in surprise, confounded by the Banjari girl for the second or third time that morning. There was an art to making and serving Nikaidan tea, and where she might have learned such a thing was utterly beyond him. He decided to trust her, in spite of his misgivings about what the results might be, and allowed himself to be herded back to the table. He watched her curiously for a moment as she woke the fire, and then forced himself to look back at his guest. "So... What can we do to stay out of Chiang-san's way?" Toshiro watched the abandoned and decrepit buildings of the quarter as they passed, a taciturn look across his features. His lips drew into a smile as the Swan came into view along the slope, bright and fresh. The workers making their way across the street were fresh faces, for the most part, although he could spot a few familiar figures carting lumber and tools around. They would be the first signs of the revival of this place - like wild grass after a forest fire. And with their money, more business would come back. Food. Supplies. Gambling and drinking, all the things a man could ever want. Opportunity at the right time would draw them like flies to honey. His smile faded as his thoughts dipped back to Chiang's unyielding, stoic belief that their interests were best served by laying low and slowly rebuilding. Some could afford to do that. It would be a death sentence to the Sons and his family. He followed Sai and Florica into the theatre, and paused for a moment to marvel at the ongoing work. It would be beautiful once it finished - different to the Swan of his youth, but no less so. His mother had brought him here to watch a Noh performance when he was only a boy. It had been marvelous, the sights, the sounds of music and laughter. There were some things worth living and fighting for. Toshiro slid his swords free as he sat at the table, resting the kodachi to his left and the wakizashi close near his right leg. "Thank you, Kimura-sensei." He arched a brow as Florica spoke, surprised that the Banjari would know the rituals for serving them. But it had hardly been the first time one of Claire's associates had surprised him. She did keep rather interesting company, after all. Sai's earnest question drew a bitter laugh from him. He sighed, and shook his head. "He believes our interests are opposed here. Chiang worries about a clash between us and the other clans if they believe we might usurp their power and status. They grew as we bled," he added sardonically. "So I can't imagine they're going to be happy about the Quarter's revival." He stroked his chin. "No, I think I'm going to station more guards here. He may resort to more bold measures now. The Sons may need to go to war if we are to survive - the Swan included." There was a grim finality to his words. "I hope it doesn't come to that," Sai replied gravely. "But I will fight for my home if I must. I'm a beginner with this, still," he patted Thorn's scabbard where it now lay on the ground beside him, "But Claire-san has been kind enough to teach me a few tricks." Toshiro nodded, a frown crossing his features. His dark eyes slid down to the sword and he arched a brow in surprise. “Some tricks indeed. That’ll be a nasty surprise should anyone make you draw it.” He gave Sai a quick smile. “Just don’t let anyone know it’s name. That blade has... something of a reputation here.” "I won't," Sai promised. "In the meantime, which areas of the Quarter would it be best for us to avoid? I still have ongoing business needs in Central, but if that gate is a problem I can go via the South Quarter easily enough." Listening without comment, Florica had woken the fire and set a fresh pot of water to boil. While she waited for it, she shuffled over to the little kitchen and put together a tray of some more of the cookies Sai had put out the night before. She brought it over to the table, knelt down gracefully, placed it between them, and then stood just as gracefully to tend the fire again. Toshiro leaned on one arm and picked up a cookie as Florica brought the tray out. He tried one, nodding appreciatively as she went back to tending the fire. “Definitely the South Gate from now on. And I’ll have someone tailing you discreetly when you leave. Central... Central should be safe - I doubt Chiang would dare cross the Mayor at this point.” Sai nodded, and fell silent for a moment, mulling things over. The fact that Claire’s blade already had a reputation in Nikaido didn’t surprise him as much now as it would have a few hours ago, but it still raised a number of questions about his ersatz sister and whatever her relationship might have been with the Twelve Sons and the other gangs. “Is there merit to Chiang’s concerns?” he asked, studying Toshiro. “Will the other gangs move against us?” Toshiro grimaced at the question. "Perhaps," he admitted after a moment. "There is... an order to the way our world works. We don't exactly care to spill blood needlessly, particularly when many of our comrades are also our families." He leaned back, and traced a finger along the grip of his kodachi. "But I admit, they probably won't pass up the chance to take something if they feel like we can't offer any meaningful resistance. Bringing life back to the quarter will bring growth, but... it'll also draw their eyes here. They'll be watching for weakness." The kettle's growling drew a quick glance from him. "Chiang is a shrewd man. His wife, even more so. But I believe we can hold fast here. But I fear we may go wind up having to go to war with him eventually." Toshiro's expression hardened. "We won't let him ruin this. Not when it might bring our home back to life. Even if I have to kill him to do so." Kneeling by the firepit, Florica watched the flickering flames as she listened to Sai and Toshiro talk. Toshiro and Chiang... The two powerful young men had been the subject of constant gossip among the young women at Madam Sekhira’s, though as far as she knew, neither of them had ever paid the establishment a visit. They had been friends once, so the story went, until they both fell in love with the same woman - some highborn from Central. Maya? No, Saya. That was it. Saya-hime, as the envious girls had mockingly referred to her. There had been a lot of sake and commiseration going around the week she married Chiang.
  4. By the time she entered the living room, two cups of tea were cooling on the low table, steam rising from them in lazy swirls. But the master of the house was nowhere to be seen. On a hunch, she headed for the courtyard, sliding open the door dividing the living area from the foyer, and carefully sliding it shut behind her to keep the heat in before sliding the outside door open. There was Sai, standing with his back to her, his arms crossed as he stared in the direction of the holy garden, tension written in the lines of his muscular shoulders beneath the thin shirt, his breath forming a dragon cloud around his head from the biting chill in the air. Florica hesitated for a moment, and was about to step down into the garden and go to him, when he started dancing. She stopped, and hung back in the shadow of the door, watching, her eyes growing rounder as the moments passed. She had never seen him dance, not really. She recognized a few of the movements as forms he had taught her at Grey Castle, but she saw now that they were only baby steps compared to true dancing. He moved with all the grace promised in the elegant way he always held himself, and then some. She forgot there was no music; the shuffle of his well-worne shoes on the cracked paving stones provided a beat as compelling as any drum circle, and the song was held and conveyed in his every limb, in his movements and pauses, advances and retreats. And then, within the space of a few heartbeats, the intensity of his movements redoubled, as though what had come before was only a warm-up. He seemed to fly above the paving stones, no longer tethered to the ground at all, spinning and leaping and slashing at the air as though doing battle with spirits and spectres. It was electrifying to watch. The sinuous grace and speed of his movements reminded her of the Kharn, and she had no trouble believing that his teacher had been of Elvenkin. When he finally halted, panting, steam rising from his glistening skin, Florica let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding, released from a spell that had taken hold of her as surely as any miada vision. She slipped on her shoes and stepped out to join her host in the sunlight as Sai straightened and rubbed the sheen of sweat from his brow. He turned towards her and offered her a grin, half-sheepish, half-proud, and set to retying his long, dark hair into a tail at the nape of his neck while she approached. “Sorry for abandoning you,” he commented cheerfully, his voice richer and deeper than the soft whisper that had comforted her in the bedroom. “I had to… well. I guess you saw.” He shrugged one shoulder, and turned to walk back inside, suddenly remembering their tea. She walked beside him, still trying to digest what she’d just seen. “Th-that was… a-amazing.” The Nikaidan rubbed the back of his neck bashfully. “Thank you,” he murmured as he slid the door open for her. “It’s… really the only thing I know how to do,” he confessed. “I’m relying on Claire-san for the business side of things. My father taught me a few things, but…” He sighed and shook his head, closing the door behind them. “We thought we would have more time.” The wistfulness in his voice lingered over them as they exchanged shoes for slippers and entered the living room again, sitting down to their tea, and Florica found herself curious about the people Sai had lost. They would have been the same generation as Audric and Nero’s parents, and her own. How much richer would their lives have been, if they had parents to guide them into adulthood? Bitterness rose in her chest once more, and Marcus was an easy target for it. You sacrificed the past to save the future… But it wasn’t the future we could have had, if they had lived. She sighed and took a sip of her tea. “W-what happened t-to your p-p-parents, Sai?” Thumbing the rim of his teacup, he remained silent for so long that she thought he wasn’t going to answer, and she looked away awkwardly. But finally, he spoke, and when he did, his voice was calm. “They died in the Black Pox of sixty-seven.” The Black Pox… Florica winced. She had read about it, while she was working at the hospital in Athynia. It had happened the same year that she had first escaped Eshdraemoir and made her way to Wildhaven. No one knew where the disease had come from - some blamed the Ryujin River, while others had pointed the finger at birds or rats, or even called it witchcraft from their enemies in Athynia or Kushan. Wherever it had come from, its results had been swift and deadly, killing the weak and the strong alike, and resisting every attempt at both mundane and magical healing methods. It showed itself in the form of black spots, first on the hands and feet, and then spreading to the tongue and eyes, causing blindness and fever-madness that could last for weeks before the patient expired. It had started here in the East Quarter, and the city had locked the gates, quarantining the entire quarter, sending food and medicines over the walls but refusing to let any citizens into the rest of the city or out into the villages beyond, no matter how healthy they seemed. In the first few weeks, as many were killed trying to escape the death trap as by the disease itself. It had been harsh, but it had worked - the black pox had never spread past the East Quarter. "I'm s-sorry," she said softly. "How d-did you escape?" The Nikaidan shook his head, taking another sip of his tea. "I wasn't here. I was at school, in Selemath. I started for home as soon as I heard what was happening, but... it's a journey of several weeks. By the time I got here, the pox had mostly run its course. They still weren't letting anyone out of the Quarter, of course," he said bitterly, "but they didn't care if someone was stupid enough to want to go in." He sighed, rolling his jaw in remembered frustration. "When I got to the Swan, it had already burned down. I don't know how the fire started - perhaps a doctor had left a candle burning, or perhaps the neighbours did it, to try to stop the disease spreading. From the way the doors and windows were boarded over, I think that's more likely. There are many burned properties in this Quarter." He shook his head, and continued, the words spilling out once they had begun, coaxed by Florica's quiet, wide-eyed attention. "I buried my parents, and became the ghost that haunted the Swan. I felt as though I had died as well, or passed into a dream. It wasn't until I met Claire-san that I began to wake up again." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Five years... just... gone." Florica nodded sympathetically. "I know w-what that's l-like," she said softly. "That's... how l-long I was a s-slave. You l-lose a lot m-more than just.... t-time." "That's for sure," Sai agreed, putting his empty cup down with a sigh. "In some ways, I'm still just that lost kid. I don't know how I'm going to make the Swan successful again, or the dancing school. But everyone's counting on me." He smiled crookedly and shook his head. "You d-don't have t-to do it alone," Florica reminded him gently. "You've got l-lots of help." "True," he agreed. "And I'll certainly have to bring on more staff once everything's up and running. I was hoping Aki-san and Amy-san would be able to help with the school, maybe the performances too, but..." He sighed and shook his head. "Now, I don't think that's such a good idea. They've got their own lives, and I've disturbed them enough as it is." Florica nodded slowly. It was certainly hard to picture Amy being able to work peacefully with Sai, after how explosive their last argument had been. But she knew that Amy wasn't really happy being stuck watching the little ones of the Chiba clan every day, either. The Banjari girl's brow furrowed in thought, and she sighed. "M-maybe you should ask them," she suggested gently. "Maybe," Sai echoed without much enthusiasm. And then his stomach growled, and he grinned sheepishly, dismissing the topic for the moment. "Breakfast?" he suggested, already rising to set the three-legged pot stand over the fire, placing a cast-iron frying pan on top of it to heat up. After a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and toast, all skillfully cooked over the small open flame, they set out for the plant nursery. They walked in silence through the chilly morning with the sun at their back, passing through several streets that all looked similar to the one the Swan was on - boarded over buildings, weed-filled lawns, gaping broken windows where shops and homes had been looted for anything of value. Now that Sai had mentioned it, Florica noticed that several buildings had been burned like the Swan, their roofs caved in and their windows and doors stained black from smoke. She shivered and drew her cloak closer around her, wondering if any of them had been set on fire while their residents yet lived. Crossing through the open gate into the Central District brought them into a whole different world. Even at this early hour it was bustling with life, people going about their days with energy in their step, walking through clean streets lined with manicured gardens and well-maintained buildings. Sai led the way to the plant nursery, and they arrived just as the store was opening its gates for the day. It consisted of a small building which housed gardening tools, seeds, and other supplies, a large glass-walled greenhouse which sheltered houseplants and next year's seedlings, and a large open-air lot filled with rows of hardier plants, young trees, pots, fencing, and statuary. They made their way over to the collection of saplings, and Sai gestured around them. "See anything you like?" Florica walked slowly down the aisle, examining the various species. Some had broad leaves, some narrow, while others had only needles. Many had shed their leaves for winter, leaving only smooth, graceful naked branches stretching to the sky. She reached out and gently touched their branches as she walked by each one, feeling the mana that ran through them. The gentle, pure energy brought a smile to her face. After she had walked down the whole row, she turned back, and knelt before one near the middle. It was a sapling nearly as tall as she was, its slender branches drooping down almost to the ground around its trunk, clad only in the small buds that promised next spring's leaves. "This one," she said decisively. "That one it is," Sai agreed cheerfully. "I've always liked willows. They were my mother's favourite." He bent down and picked up the sapling by its pot, and they headed inside to make the purchase.
  5. The tapping at her door came again, and she realized it was what had woken her from the nightmare. She glanced over at the door as the shreds of the dream slowly began to fade. "C-c-c-c-come.... in," she said haltingly, and then swallowed hard, frustrated by her voice's disobedience. Sai slid open the door partway, and their eyes met. He searched her face. "You alright?" The Banjari girl sat up and nodded, rubbing sleep and tears from her eyes with the heel of her hand. "J-just a.... d-d-d-dream. D-d-did I.... w-wake you?" she asked forlornly, glancing up again. "Nope," he lied cheerfully, stepping into her room and sitting down beside her. He had pulled on his work pants and shirt before coming to check on her. He placed a warm hand over her cool, clammy one. "Want to talk about it?" She shrugged and looked away, in the direction of the theatre. "I w-was dreaming of w-when we.... f-fought n-Nathaniel. B-b-but in my d-dream, he...." She blushed more deeply, her jaw clenching with remembered shame. "He w-won." She shuddered, and swallowed hard. "Well, that's not how it happened," Sai reminded her gently, thumbing the back of her hand as he studied her blushing face. "Why do you think you dreamed that?" Florica shrugged helplessly, her green eyes flickering to meet his for a moment, and then dancing away again. "Dunno. Always have... n-nightmares," she whispered, rubbing her blushing face tiredly with her other hand. She sighed and shook her head. "S-sorry. I'll t-try to b-b-be quieter." "There's no need for that," he admonished, squeezing her cold hand a little. "I'd rather hear, so I could wake you. Anyway, it's morning now. Shall I make you some tea? It's Saturday, so no work crew today. I might do a bit of work myself later, but I thought before that maybe we could stop by the plant nursery and you could pick out a prayer tree." Florica nodded slowly, starting to feel calmer. "Th-that would b-b-be n-nice." She licked her lips in frustration; her stutter seemed determined to get the best of her this morning. "Thank you… Sai. I'll… be r-right there," she said slowly and carefully, wrestling each syllable into submission. The Nikaidan boy nodded, rolling smoothly back onto his feet. “Good, then,” he said with a friendly smile, and headed out of the room, sliding the door shut behind him to give her her privacy. But he paused for a moment in the hallway, his hand resting on the closed door, his smile falling away, replaced with a troubled frown that deepened the shadows staining his eyes. He could not begin to name all the emotions he’d glimpsed lurking behind her tearful face, but the undercurrent of despair in her voice as she dismissed her night terrors as a mere fact of life had shaken him deeply. Rolling his jaw thoughtfully, he dropped his hand and padded softly down the hall to wake the fire for their tea. Florica let out a long sigh once she was alone, easing back down onto the futon to stare up at the neat square of pale, perfect blue sky. Same colour as my mug. She wanted to tell Nero. But he was gone, just like the mug, and the home that had sheltered both. She clenched her jaw, and turned her face to the side, burying it in the pillow to muffle a sob. What am I doing here? She had seen the worry on Sai’s face. Not a full day had passed, and already she was bringing trouble into his life. I have to do better. Have to be stronger. Her hand slid down beside her bed to clutch Frost’s handle, letting its electrifying cold wash over her for a moment, freezing away the hot lump of emotion in her throat. She shivered, and then took a long, deep breath. You can do this, she told herself. You’re a Caesar. On your feet, girl. She tossed the blanket aside, and got up.
  6. “Watch your step, now,” Sai cautioned as he opened the Swan’s front door and stepped aside to let Florica pass in ahead of him. “The floor is sound, but there’s still plenty to trip over.” Florica stepped inside carefully, looking around as she shrugged her small sack of clothes higher up on her shoulder - all the possessions she had left in the world. Gifts from the Countess, mostly. All of her old things from Athynia had burned. In a way, it was probably for the best. Clean start. A clean break. Sai had offered to carry the bag for her, but she had smiled and shook her head, and he hadn’t pressed. She was grateful for it. They still didn’t know each other very well, but she already felt more comfortable around the soft-spoken Nikaidan boy than she did around many whom she counted as family. Of course, the way he had managed to draw her out of herself at the Grey castle, dancing with her until she could stand on her own, had been a big part of that. Letting their auras connect to guide her in the movements of the dance had exposed him to her in a way that she usually only experienced when healing someone, and left her with a certain instinctive understanding of what lay behind his gentle smiles, even if it was nothing she could have put into precise words. She looked around the Swan’s atrium curiously, awed by the transformation that had taken place since the battle. The holy garden was still there, presiding quietly, but it was separated from the front of the building now by flooring and staircases and doors and paneled, Nikaidan-style walls. The workers had all gone home for today, and the space was tranquil and bright, with evening sunlight streaming in through the rows of windows. Straight ahead was a ticketing counter, and to the right a hallway with doors at regular intervals leading into the theatre proper. Sai locked the door and came to stand beside her, grinning with obvious pride and excitement. “Still lots to be done, but… it’s starting to feel like home again.” Not just a graveyard. A living, breathing home. “I wish my parents could see how far it’s come.” Florica offered him a crooked, chiding smile and walked forward, leaning against the railing which ran alongside the holy garden. “They d-do see it,” she answered softly, surveying the soft, mossy turf interspersed with small purple and ivory flowers, glowing with more than just reflected sunlight. She offered a respectful bow to the resting place of Sai’s family, and then straightened and glanced over at him. He was studying her again, with the same look he had given her that morning - like she was a puzzle to him, and one he was determined to solve. But then he returned her smile with a grateful nod and turned aside, heading through the dimly lit theatre towards the back. Florica followed him, picking her way around the neat piles of construction materials, and he led her out the back door of the theatre into the small courtyard, warmly lit by the evening sun. “This all needs to be redone, still,” Sai commented, waving towards the wintering garden and the cracked tiles lining the ground. “Most of it will have to wait, but we could plant a prayer tree somewhere here, if you like.” He flashed her a grin, teeth gleaming in the evening light, and then continued on his way. Surprised by his offer, Florica blinked, and her steps slowed for a moment before she hurried to catch up with him again. “Th-that would be n-nice. Th-thank you, Kimura-s-san,” she said softly, watching him unlock the door to the low, broad building at the other end of the lot. “If you’re s-sure you wouldn’t m-mind.” “Not at all,” he assured her, sliding the door open. The entryway of the home was a narrow hallway stretching away to their left and right, divided by rice screens from the home proper. They both left their shoes there, and stepped into the soft grey felted house-shoes that sat waiting for them - a larger pair for Sai and a smaller pair for Florica. Several more pairs for guests peeked out of a basket sitting nearby. Moving straight ahead, Sai slid open the next door, and stepped through into the main living area, closing the door again once Florica had joined him. It was noticeably warmer here, with the hallway they had just left providing some insulation from the chill outside, despite the thinness of the walls. The room was broad and roughly square, with a recessed cooking pit in the centre. It was circular in shape and several feet across, filled with clean white sand which rose nearly to the level of the floor, raked in a smooth spiral pattern. In the centre of the sand, the remains of an old fire still smouldered slowly, radiating warmth throughout the room. From a metal chain hooked to the ceiling above, a cast-iron kettle hung suspended a few feet above the pit, ready to be lowered when boiling water was needed. Near the four corners of the room, skystone lanterns had been hung, their cold, pure light warmed and softened by delicately folded ricepaper encasements, and supplemented by the last of the daylight, creeping in through the layers of rice-screen walls. Against the wall to the right was a small kitchen, with a faucet and sink, a cold-box, and rows of shelves stacked neatly with dishes and dry foods. A low dining table sat between the kitchen and the fire-pit, though most of the table was covered with paperwork and architectural diagrams, along with a few opened packages of household wares, neatly labeled in the complex, angular Nikaidan calligraphy. Sai had knelt by the last embers of the fire while Florica looked around, leaning forward and tenderly nursing it back to life. Straightening, he brushed his hands off on his pants. “Bedrooms are this way.” He led her through a door on the left, which opened into a short hallway with two doors on either side, and a fifth at the end. “Bathroom’s at the end there. You’re on the left, there,” he gestured to the further of the two doors on the left side of the hall, “and I’m right across from you if you need anything." Florica walked down the hall and slid open the door to her room. Like the bedrooms at the Chibas', it was furnished in the simple, practical Nikaidan style, with a futon layered with thick quilts against the chill, a low dresser with a mirror sitting atop it, a chair, and an empty set of shelves for her use. The only window was a small, frosted-glass rectangle set high on the west wall, looking out at the alley separating the Swan from the next lot. She walked inside and slung down her pack of clothes, resting it on the dresser as she looked around thoughtfully, and then up at the smooth ceiling. She blinked, and looked again. Centred above her bed was a broad skylight, through which an indigo square of starry sky was visible. The Banjari girl chuckled under her breath, and went to stand beneath it, crossing her arms as she stared up at it. Nero… No one else would have thought of it, she was sure. She had never so much as seen a skylight in any Nikaidan building before. Still looking out for me, brother. Despite her resolve to make her way independently, she couldn’t help but feel a surge of warm gratitude for the thoughtful gift. She had a sudden urge to run and find him, to hug his broad chest and feel his arms close around her as she whispered her thanks into his shoulder. But of course, he was gone. She let out a long sigh, uncrossing her arms and thumbing Frost’s cold hilt instead. Wherever you are, aquila mea, please, please be safe. She sniffed and rubbed away a rogue tear from her eye, and then glanced back at the open door, but Sai had retreated back to the living area, giving her space to get settled in. If he noticed her eyes were a little red when she rejoined him a few minutes later, he made no mention of it, greeting her with a quick smile as he carefully poured steaming water from the iron kettle into a waiting teapot. He had cleared off his paperwork from the low table, stowing it on one of the shelves at the edge of the room, and a dish of baked sweets had taken its place. Florica knelt gracefully at the far end of the table, returning his smile as she watched him prepare the tea. The fire was crackling merrily now, filling the room with warmth and casting long, dancing shadows across the floor. "How is your room? Is there anything you need?" Sai asked eagerly, glancing up at her again. "It's p-perfect," she assured him. "Oh, good, I'm glad. Well, if you think of anything, please don't hesitate to ask," he said earnestly. "I want this to feel like home for you, for as long as you want to stay." "Th-thank you, Kimura-san," she answered softly, and then smirked with amusement as he reached forward and grabbed three cookies at once from the plate, gesturing with his other hand for her to help herself as well. After a moment she reached forward and took one, nibbling on it slowly, though she wasn't really feeling hungry. "There's really no need to call me that, Lady Caesar," he said humbly. "Just Sai-kun is fine. Or Sai, if you prefer the northern way." He scratched his chin thoughtfully, glancing over at the shelf where he had stowed his papers. I should probably get a second table for those. Or a desk. "A-alright..." Florica said shyly, drawing his attention back to her. "Th-thank you... Sai. A-and you c-can call m-me Florica, i-if you want. Or Rica-chan, l-like..." she trailed off. Like Amy does. "...Like s-some of the Chibas do," she finished after a moment. "Whatever will make you feel most at home, Florica," Sai agreed smoothly, though he knew well enough which Chiba she had meant. Sitting up a little straighter, he leaned forward and started pouring the tea. He filled her cup first, and then leaned forward to pass it to her before pouring his own. "I hope you won't find yourself too bored around here," he commented while she blew on her tea and took a first sip. "I mean, there's no kids who need looking after, or anything like that." "I'll b-be fine," she reassured him with a smile. "I c-can h-help with m-making food, l-like I d-did when I l-lived with m-my b-b-brother. And m-maybe help w-with th-the Swan?" Sai grinned at that. "Yeah, that could work," he agreed cheerfully. "Another pair of hands is always welcome. There's plenty of little things you could do during the construction phase, and of course once the theatre is running I'll need all the help I can get, especially if I'm going to be running a dance school, as well. But I don't want you to feel like you're obligated to do that kind of thing, just because you're living here. If you ever want to do something else, just let me know, and I'll make it happen," he promised. Florica smiled, a little crookedly, and nodded, taking another sip of her tea. "You're a g-good man, Sai," she told him softly. The Nikaidan boy shrugged modestly, taking a sip of his own tea. "I try. Doesn't always work out, but I try," he murmured, thinking of Amy. Florica wrinkled her nose, grinned, and nodded. “I know th-the f-feeling,” she assured him wryly. Sai scoffed gently. “You? But you’re so…” He paused to search for the right word, and it came to him as he snagged another cookie off the dwindling plate. “Sweet.” The Banjari girl giggled and shook her head ruefully. “D-doesn’t m-mean I h-haven’t d-d-done things I’m n-not p-proud of.” “Mm,” Sai grunted in agreement. “I suppose not.” He studied her curiously again for a moment, and then raised his teacup as though it were rice wine. “To new beginnings, then.” Florica raised hers in answer. “To n-new b-b-beginnings,” she agreed, and they both drank. The next few minutes were spent in companionable silence as they finished their tea, and then Florica rose and stretched. Sai rolled to his feet as well, and went over to the fire. At the edge of the firepit there was a low grate on one side, and on it, two objects that looked like little pillows, only about a handsbreadth wide, though as long as his forearm, sewn of undyed linen. He picked up one and tossed it to Florica, and it made a noise something like rain as she caught it in her hands and the contents shifted around. He chuckled at the confused look on her face. "It's a kairo," he explained. "My family has always used rice instead of ash for them. Uncooked, of course. Take it with you - it'll stay warm for hours under the blankets. These rooms get chilly in the winter." He bent down again to bank the fire for the night, using a small rake to bring the glowing coals together, and then covering them in a low blanket of ashes. "Sleep well." With the hot kairo keeping her cozy beneath the covers, Florica fell asleep quickly, watching the stars drift through her skylight. She slept soundly for a few hours of blissful unconsciousness, before passing into the lighter dream-state that characterized most of her nights. She dreamed that she was back in the kitchen in Athynia, making pancakes with Nero. "So, do you like him?" her brother asked, a knowing smile on his face. "Who?" she asked innocently, though she blushed a little as she busied herself with stirring the batter together. "You know who, Little Poet," he chided. Sai's friendly grin flashed into her mind's eye, but after a heartbeat it was overlaid with another face, far more serious, with silver eyes and a perpetually sheepish look. Nate... "No, I... I d-don't," she stammered, taking a step back. Her elbow caught her coffee mug, and it fell to the floor, shattering into a hundred pieces. She stared down at the pale blue shards in shock. Terror suddenly filled her as she remembered that they shouldn't be here at all, that this home had been destroyed. She looked up to Nero, to warn him, but the words stuck in her throat as he watched her with gentle concern. And before she could find her voice, everything exploded in fire and violence. Florica woke with a start, covered in a cold sweat, her heart pounding. She covered her mouth with shaking fingers, swallowing back a whimper. Her bones felt weak and icy, and the darkness of the room pressed in around her. She held her breath for several moments, closing her eyes tight. Just a dream. It was just a dream. But she could still feel the power of that explosion, could still hear the screeching of wood, metal and glass as it shattered the front wall of their home. With a soft whimper, she pulled the blanket over her head, hiding from the world, listening to the terrified pounding of her heart. Just a dream, just a dream, just a dream… Finally her heartbeat returned to something like normal, exhaustion replacing the terror, and she fell back asleep. She dreamed she was standing in the Swan's holy garden, the flowers whispering around her ankles. Over the railing, she could see the thing Nathaniel had become, lying near death, his blood staining the smooth new flooring. Claire and Nero were bent over him, trying to revive him. "N-no, d-d-d-d-don't, y-" you can't, she thought frantically, fear stealing her voice again and rooting her feet to the ground, though she longed to flee. She watched helplessly as her lover took a gasping breath, and then another, sitting up, his many wounds closing with a whisper of power. And then he looked over at her, and smiled, and she knew that it was the Master. No... With a casual backhand, he slammed Claire and Nero back into the darkness of the theatre, and then got to his feet, limping over to the railing, both eyes golden and hungry. "Come here, slave," he commanded. She tried to run, tried to resist, but her feet moved forward, step after step, crushing the flowers underfoot, until she stood before him, with only the railing between them. He bent down over her, one hand sliding possessively around the back of her neck, and kissed her. You're mine. You will always be mine, he whispered into her mind as he drained her of her strength, replacing it with wicked pleasure and numbness. The world around her faded as her eyes slid shut, and she remained aware of only his lips burning against hers, and a feeling of falling into a bottomless, lightless pit. She woke with a disoriented lurch, her heart pounding again, and stared at the grey patch of sky above her, the last of the stars fading as dawn began to brighten the sky.
  7. For one last afternoon, Florica joined Amy in supervising the little ones while they ran about in the garden, constantly losing hats and mittens as they tumbled around the lawn, playing catch-me to keep warm. The afternoon was almost over before Florica gathered her courage and broached the topic. “Kimura-san is m-moving back to the Swan, t-today,” she said carefully, bending down to tie little Mimi-chan’s green scarf back beneath her ruddy chin. “Mm,” Amy grunted, betraying no emotion as she glanced over at the Banjari woman. “I’m g-g-going, t-too,” Florica explained. That elicited a reaction, as Amy’s dark brows drew together. “Why?” she asked, sounding offended by the idea. Florica blushed a little, and glanced away from the lithe young Nikaidan’s searching gaze. She shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s a-always b-b-been…. Th-the p-plan.” “Well sure, but that was before you moved in here,” Amy pointed out. “Don’t you like it here?” The question came out a little rude, but Florica didn’t mind her candor. The two girls had grown close enough over the weeks that they’d spent together that Amy no longer minced her words around the Banjari woman like she did around the rest of the household, and the girl’s natural bluntness was refreshing, most of the time. The young Lady Caesar sighed, releasing Mimi-chan to scamper off and rejoin the game. She watched the children playing for a long moment, searching for the right words. "It's... n-nice, here," she said slowly. "But..." He needs me more than you do. The thought came unbidden, and was entirely unhelpful. "I'll... a-always b-be a g-g-guest here, Amy-chan." Amy frowned, sitting down on a large boulder and stretching her legs out in front of her for a moment. "Well if that's how you feel...but why would the Swan be any different?" she asked practically. Florica sucked her lips into her mouth, smoothing out the ridges where they had begun to chap from the cold. She gave a small, awkward shrug, sitting down beside her friend. "I d-d-don't know," she answered honestly. "It m-might n-not be...." "So then stay with us, Rica-chan," Amy implored, resting a hand on Florica's knee. "You're so good with the little ones, and it's so nice to have someone to talk to!" Florica smiled wryly, shaking her head. "I'll s-still v-visit," she promised consolingly. Amy pouted at her answer, but her expression was only half-serious. "Oh, fiiine. You better, though," she warned, throwing an arm around Florica's shoulders and hugging her tight for a moment, pressing a kiss into the Banjari's brown cheek. Silence fell in their part of the garden, as parents and older siblings appeared across the yard to collect their little troublemakers for the evening. "I'll miss you, Rica-chan." "I'll m-miss you too, Amy-chan."
  8. By the end of that week, Sai had furnished the main living area of the Swan, along with two of its bedrooms - one for himself, and one for Florica, as he had promised Nero. Rising early the next morning, he went to go speak with the quiet Banjari girl. He was surprised to find she had already left her room. Early riser, I guess. Half-smiling at the thought, he was on his way to the kitchen to see if she was there, when he spied her through a window, kneeling before the trunk of the slender willow that presided over the southwestern corner of the courtyard. Florica was staring up at the branches, but her mind was not on the prayer-stones gathered in her hands. She was remembering another prayer-tree, in a city lot in Athynia's peaceful streets. Where a hurrying stranger had glanced at her, and lost his footing. Despite all that followed, the innocence of that first moment still brought a wistful smile to her lips. Sweet, clumsy Nathaniel. She sighed, and looked down at the stones in her hands again, little prayers of safety for her family. She didn't know whether it would help in any practical way, but it soothed her, and filled time which would otherwise be idle. Leaning forward, she carefully placed them on the ground at the base of the tree, adding on to the spiralling rows of small, smooth stones that had been slowly taking shape beneath her care, branching out from the trunk like whimsical roots. By the Dance, the Road, and the Wheel, she whispered in her heart. It wasn't much, perhaps, but it was all she knew to do for them. And like fae-lights at the corners of her vision, vanishing if she looked too closely, she saw the paths of the miada winding between the stones, sanctifying the little ceremony. Satisfied, she sat back, took a slow breath, and gracefully stood, dusting her hands on her long dress. She turned to head back inside, but stopped when she saw Kimura-san, standing a respectful distance away and watching her like a puzzle, while the morning chill clouded his steady breathing. The Banjari girl tilted her head questioningly, and, after a moment, remembered her Nikaidan manners and offered the young man a bow, along with a sleepy smile. He returned both, and then walked over to her, hands sliding into his pockets. "I hope I didn't disturb your prayers," he remarked, surveying the site. "It's been a long time since I've seen a mendina." Florica blinked in surprise. "You s-speak Banjaro?" He chuckled and shook his head ruefully. "Nothing like fluently, I'm afraid," he answered humbly. "I picked up a few phrases in Selemath - many Banjari tribes follow the miada there, and the mendina around the Mother Tree is like nothing you've ever seen. But I was too busy dancing to learn much." He grinned wryly. Florica returned his smile and nodded, glancing shyly back at her little stone garden again. For someone who doesn't speak it, your pronunciation is amazing, she mused, but, like most of her thoughts, she found she didn't quite have the energy to try to force the praise past her uncooperative lips. Thankfully, Sai didn't seem to mind her silence. After a moment, he changed topics. "I'm moving back to the Swan, today," he said cheerfully. Florica nodded, looking back at him and smiling again. "Do you still want to come live there? I know that's what we talked about originally, but I'd understand if you'd rather stay here. You seem to be fitting in well, and, well, it'll be pretty lonely at the Swan a lot of the time," he explained, trying to make it sound like he didn't care. He had thought, in fact, that it made no difference to him, right up until he opened his mouth to ask her. But now he found himself watching her intently, holding his breath while he waited for her response, hoping desperately that she would choose him instead of Amy and the Chibas. He wasn't expecting her giggle, which was a little too knowing for his taste, yet somehow didn't rankle in the slightest. She met his questioning gaze without a shade of doubt in her green eyes. "I s-still want to c-come," she assured him, amusement colouring her soft voice. "It's.... n-nice here, b-but it's.... n-not...." she trailed off and shrugged. "Home," he finished the thought, nodding, relieved that she felt the same way.
  9. With substantial financial investment from the Chibas, along with several other local families and even the city itself once the mayor had been brought to see reason, the Swan project was back on track. Sai started spending most of his days on site, placing himself under the foreman’s direction and quickly learning the basics of carpentry and masonry. The fine black kimono the Greys had gifted him was left at the Chiba’s, though he still wore it for the evening meal they shared, on the rare days when he was home in time for dinner. At the worksite he wore plain, sturdy grey pants he’d picked up at the market, and a white Athynian-style shirt with a frayed seam, though the latter he’d often shed by midday, kept warm enough by his enthusiasm for the work in spite of the growing winter chill in the air. More than anything, he wanted to be able to move back to the Swan. The Chibas would probably have hosted him forever without batting an eye, but he couldn’t stand to be living under the same roof as Amy any longer. She was a daily reminder of the part of his life he’d never be able to rebuild, having gone back to treating him with the cool, distant respect that was the polar opposite of the fiery, laughing girl he remembered. Many times he looked at her long, or even opened his mouth to try to bridge the coldness between them - but each time, a look flashed across her face that stopped him cold. A look of warning, anger, and hatred. And then she would turn away from him and pour her attention on her child, or her husband, or whomever was conveniently at hand. A few times this was Florica, and he suspected he saw pity on the Banjari girl’s face as she glanced to him before turning to Amy and answering her with a smile. Yes, it was time to move. It felt like months upon months, but it was not yet midwinter when the Swan’s main structures rose proudly in her city lot, the fresh-cut beams gleaming in the sunlight and smelling of forests. Though it was perhaps the less logical choice, Sai had insisted that they prioritize getting the residential suite and studio to a livable state. As soon as it was ready, he wrote to Claire letting her know it was prepared to be warded. The pretty blond Athynian showed up a few days later, but she was not able to stay so long this time - Claire’s Cookery, after all, wasn’t really Claire’s Cookery without her in the kitchen, no matter how good the chefs she hired were. She completed the warding the same day she arrived, stayed one night with them at the Chibas’, and set sail for Athynia again the next morning.
  10. Florica dropped the knife with a frightened gasp, and the vision faded, though the burning interior of the airship was still seared against the inside of her eyelids. She blinked rapidly several times, gasping for breath, feeling disoriented, her heart and mind racing. You stole them from us. From Nero. Though he never spoke of it, Florica knew that that loss had set Nero into a tailspin of anger and grief that had stolen most of the brightness from her aquila’s life. Being orphaned was a pain they shared, one that they never had to explain to each other, because they both just knew. But it didn’t have to be like that for him. Florica pressed the cold heel of her hand against her forehead as a sharp headache blossomed. She felt conflicted, guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t have healed you after all. What would Nero say if he knew? The thought that her brother might take it as a betrayal suddenly terrified her, sending ice more potent than Frost’s bite crawling over her flushed skin. Swallowing hard again, she shook her head, pushing the dark thought away. What’s done is done. And she knew she would do it again, even now. Marcus may have done terrible things, but she knew he was not evil. She could never have just let him die. Nero would understand. Maybe not right away, but he would come around. He was always willing to show her that bit of extra grace. Whether or not he would give his older brother the same consideration was a question Florica could not answer with any confidence, though. The Banjari girl pursed her lips and rubbed the side of her face with a tired sigh, thinking of them out there in the world, chasing each other like daggers in the night. Part of her hoped they would just never find each other, but she knew the chances of that were slim. She grimaced. Just please don’t kill each other, she prayed. There’s few enough of us as it is. She thought back to the glimpses she’d had of Cato and Anne, and a sense of aching longing filled her. In another world, she might have known them. They might even have been like parents for her. She closed her eyes, recalling Cato’s booming laugh, how it filled the room with a fierce, unstoppable burst of joy, and found herself smiling despite herself, despite her headache and the tears still muddying her sight. She found herself wishing she could somehow share that memory with Nero, though even as she had the thought, she felt just as worried that it might only re-open that old wound. She sighed. Maybe one day. For now, she would treasure these precious memories of the elders of her brother’s tribe. Cato, Anne, Antonius, James, and Elise. I will remember you. She nodded, picked up Frost, and stood to face the day.
  11. Cato and Anne were flying. Florica stared out the glass windows of the airship with astonishment, watching the land scroll away far beneath them. It was a dizzying sight, but Nero's parents seemed relaxed and confident, Anne manning the wheel that controlled the flying ship while Cato studied some papers - until from somewhere in the bowels of the ship there came a rumbling explosion, and the ship lurched sickeningly in midair. Anne gritted her teeth as she struggled to control the bucking and swaying ship. A moment later, another woman joined them in the cabin, dragging a teenage Marcus behind her. She joined Anne at the controls at once, her fingers flying across the boards, flicking switches and turning dials with a mad sort of grace. Cato whirled around to confront his eldest son. “What in Gaia’s bloody name did you do?” He grabbed the boy's shirt, lifting him clear of the ground and smashing him back into the bulkhead in an instant. “Damn you, boy! You don’t know what you’ve done! You’ve killed us! And for what!?” Wordlessly, his pale face set in a grim scowl, Marcus lashed out with the pommel of his sword, and it connected heavily with Cato's side as the ship lurched again. A shard of ice pierced the wall beside them. “That’s enough!” Anne shouted. Marcus found himself sliding down the wall as his father released him. They all looked at him with different shades of disgust as he kept going, letting his head fall back against the bulkhead. “They threatened all of us. Nero and the others. Uncle’s child too. It was the only way. The only way to keep them alive.” The ship pitched forwards sharply, throwing him forwards across the floor. His sword clattered alongside him as he rolled into the far end and crashed into a console with a bone-jarring crunch. “Cato!” Anne called urgently, but Florica found her attention fixed on Marcus. The boy had rolled onto his back and was watching the clouds hurtle by above them through the glass ceiling. And he had the same look on his face as he'd had the day she met him in the Chibas' courtyard - like he knew he was going to die, and had no desire to fight it. He seemed on the verge of losing consciousness, but as the ship leveled out for a moment, Cato strode over and hauled him to his feet again. His son slumped to one side, barely conscious. "It’s the only way. One of us has to make sure we get it back to him. Otherwise she’ll have won," the woman helping Anne at the wheel said. "We’d have to hide it pretty damn well. Are you sure, Elise? It’s a gamble we won’t live to see the end of," Cato responded. Elise, Florica thought, her eyes drawn to the tall, proud-looking woman. Audric's mother. "He had a chance to kill me in cold blood," Elise responded firmly. "He didn’t. No, she’s got him wrapped around her finger bad. And Antonius as well. What of your brother having a child? Do you think they know it’s a de Sande?” "Probably not," Anne responded. Her face was pale but determined. "But he was willing to kill to protect her and the others. This is a one way trip. Are you sure the wards are strong enough to protect him?" "They’ll hold," Elise confirmed. "I’ve adjusted the loading to slow him down in… gentler bursts. He’s a good boy, Cato. Just… caught up in our mistakes." "I know. I know. I thought we’d have more time. Hoped to hold my first grandchild. Old codger things like that. I just hope we give him enough of a chance to to avenge us and break the pact for good," Cato replied. He held Marcus with one hand, discarding his black cloak with the other. Smoke began to slip into the cabin from the stairwell. Leaning in, he wrapped the cloak around his son, and whispered in his ear, "I need you to make it right." Marcus' eyes finally snapped open, meeting his father's steel gaze for a moment before the smoke filling the cabin made him squint and cough raggedly. “Make. It. Right. Marcus.” His father’s voice was delivered through clenched teeth. “Anne, now!” Anne raised Frost, her expression filled with emotion as she leveled it at her son. “Shatter!” The shard flew past him and crashed into the wide pane of glass behind him. It exploded outwards, and then a hurricane-like gale ripped him backwards, sending him screaming into the sky, the world spinning into a hundred directions, a sound like thunder deafening him as the ground came rushing up to meet him.
  12. Florica opened her eyes. It was raining again. She could hear it rustling against the shutters, smell it in the damp mustiness of the woven flooring mats. It was a dark morning, and would be a grey day. The slender Banjari girl slowly sat up, hugging her knees with one arm, while the back of her other wrist wiped sleep and tears from her eyes. She let out a shaky sigh. Within a few breaths the memory of the dream was fading, but she clung to the shreds of it stubbornly. She had been on the balcony of Grey Castle, where she had last spoken to Nathaniel. He had been there too, with his broad back turned to her, and she had wanted so badly to call out to him. But every time she opened her mouth, lightning flashed and thunder roared over Rhosund Strait, silencing her. She could still feel the echo of the thunder in the undertone of trembling in her bones. More tears welled up, and she didn’t bother to wipe them away as they fell from her chin onto her knees. Though she had slept soundly, she still felt exhausted, a tiredness shared by both her aching body and her bitter spirit. Why can’t things just be simple? Amy’s words returned to her, and she sighed heavily. Not for me. Never for me. She had family, now, yet still she found herself alone. Who knew where her brothers were, or her cousin. And Claire, Nathaniel, Haidee and the Greys were as distant from her as they’d ever been. As it should be. Reaching aside, she grasped Frost by its handle, wrapping her fingers around it as her arm wrapped loosely around her legs again. She bowed her head, letting the cold of the weapon seep in through her fingers, bringing clarity. I am alone because I choose to be, she reminded herself sternly. Can’t keep stealing strength from others. Can’t keep throwing them in harm’s way when I’m too weak to face my demons. The lonely girl sniffed, and wiped her face dry on her sleeve again, biting back further tears, leaving them to fester as a burning knot in her throat. This is harder than I thought it would be, she admitted to herself, taking another shaky breath. Her grip on the dagger tightened. “Fiat justicia ruat caelum,” she whispered to herself, searching for the strength to face the quiet of the day. “I swear to live unbowed beneath the sun. I swear to always be loyal to the House of Caesar. I swear to leave no blow unanswered. By the Dance, the Road, and the Wheel. Fiat justicia ruat caelum. Fiat justicia ruat caelum…” She murmured the words over and over, like a spell, bowing her head and rocking back and forth. Without warning, she found herself in the cozy interior of a small earthen room. It smelled of elm, and looking up, she saw that the low ceiling was formed of tree roots. Blankets covered the uneven floor. “Fiat justicia ruat caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” the young man leaning against the door was saying. He looked like Nero - especially when he pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a thoughtful sigh. “You’re right. But the world is hardly a just and fair place. Only the justice we make matters here. I’ll stay here until you finish reading all of them. But then I’m taking them back with me, whether you can remember anything you’ve read or not. And you leave the County. If you come back, I’ll clap you in irons and let the Count decide what to do.” “Just like that?” asked the blond woman sitting at the low table, arching an eyebrow even as she continued to flip through the book in her hands. “No blackmail, no attempts to persuade me to thank you for your kindness?” “We’re not all bad,” he replied softly, his stormcloud eyes opening. “Sometimes the right thing isn’t always the just thing. I’m not blind to that. Besides, you have a reason. It seems like a good enough reason. Can’t say you’ll be as lucky if you get caught doing this wherever else you go, though.” She flicked a page. “Anne. Anne Hurst.” “It’s a good name.” She flipped another page. “My mother is sick. It’s a wasting disease. None of our healers can do anything about it.” Flip. “It doesn’t seem to be something native to Mir.” Flip. “But I’ve heard your doctors are talented. And they write everything down.” Flip. “So I figured it would be the best place to look.” Flip. And then she set that book down and picked up another, flicking through the pages until she found what she was looking for. “I see,” he said. “What?” She brought the book down. “Are you actually reading that?” He nodded in the direction of the discarded book. “That quickly?” “Never had trouble remembering things. I only need a moment and then I’ll never forget it.” It was her turn to give a nonchalant shrug. “Mother always said I was blessed by Gaia. But none of your doctors seems to have been blessed with any luck. Another bust.” She dropped her book onto the pile and picked up a third, skimming through it. “Well, Anne Hurst. You’re resourceful. You’re smart. And you’re a gifted thief.” He smiled. “I think we could put those skills to use. And in return, I’ll convince James to grant you clemency and help your mother. The price is one year of your life.” She looked over at him, searching his affable face for a sign of humor, or deception, or, really, anything but that silly good-natured grin. Anne sighed, and fell back onto the pile of blankets in an exaggerated show of defeat. “And I’m stuck working with the most irritating lordling of them all.” She looked over at him. “That’s you. I was talking about you.” “There’s always the other route,” he noted. “But you don’t seem like that bad of a person, and I don’t really feel like putting you in cuffs. Really puts a damper on our relationship.” “I’m still considering it,” she muttered, sitting back up. “But I’ll take it. Your deal.” She licked her lips. “What do you need me to do?” The young man laughed, a rich and booming sound. He flicked her one of his sheathed blades - Frost. “Nothing so dramatic,” he replied. “Just a promise. So long as you work for us, you will be a shield to those in need, a sword against the unjust, and a pillar to those you love.” He picked up another dagger of similar appearance from the ground and sliced it across his hand, motioning for her to do the same. She hesitated for a moment. But then she slid her dagger from its sheath and did the same. He met her hand and shook it. “Partners,” he said. “Partners.” The scene faded from Florica’s sight, and was replaced by the familiar blue walls of the Greys’ map room. It was decorated in a more utilitarian style than she remembered, and the model ships that had adorned the walls were missing. She saw the blond man again, his arm slung over Anne, who held a baby in her arms. Anne… Anne and Cato, Florica recalled the names. These must be Nero’s parents. And that must be Marcus. They were talking to two men she didn’t recognize, though one of them looked like he was related to Cato, while the other bore a striking resemblance to Count Audric. “You have called, bannerlord, and the eagles have answered.” Cato’s smile fell away. “The absence of our serpentine counterparts is also noted. What exactly is going on, James?” he addressed the man Florica now knew was Audric’s father. “Halland has killed Jennifer. As I feared, their old curse is back, and he is growing more powerful - and more unhinged - by the day. We must stop him, at all cost, or the tragedy at the Holt will be repeated on all of our houses, and then across Mir.” Florica frowned, searching her memory for the names. Halland and Jennifer? She couldn't recall ever having heard them mentioned. “You can’t be serious,” the man who looked like Cato said sharply to the Count. “I saw Hall last week. He was fine. They both were.” James slapped something metallic onto the table. He slid it over to rest between them all. It was a shining ring of gold, topped with a gleaming crimson stone and surrounded by the inlaid form of a great serpent. Irregular spatters of crimson dotted its surface. “It’s hers,” he whispered. “I made this for them myself. I pulled this from what was left of her.” Cato moved forward, picking up the ring, an indecipherable storm of emotions crossing his face as he examined it. The iron stench of blood still surrounded it. He placed it back down almost reverentially and looked around at them all. “This would be murder.” His voice was low, and tinged with steel. “A murder on his part. A murder on ours. There has to be a way to save him. Gaia’s sake, James.” He leaned forward, resting his face in his palms. “Our Pact is to protect each other, to fight for our common interest. We cannot simply kill one of our own, especially when… he’s not himself. It’s that damn curse.” “I agree with my brother,” the other man murmured. Antonius, Florica thought. Nero’s uncle. The one who died. “Who’s to say that we won’t end up triggering a blood feud between us and the Grimmholts?” Antonius continued. “Alexander’s not likely to look kindly on us killing one of his precious sons. Especially after Arthur.” “Even so,” James broke in. “If we do not act to stop him now, he will only grow more powerful. The curse will drive him to consume. To build his power. And eventually, to destroy us all.” “Can we not gain the sanction of the Grimmholts to do this? Surely they would recognize the danger.” Anne’s voice was low, just barely enough to be heard across the table. “It could be a disaster for them. And it would reflect badly on our families as well - perhaps enough to inspire our liegelords to take direct action.” “This is their greatest shame. Alexander’s blinded by his loss. He’s not going to believe it until it’s too late, and if Halland takes his power, we’ll all be dead before the next dawn.” James took the ring back from the center of the table, watching as the bloodstone occasionally crackled with a faint crimson glow. “I won’t be a party to this,” Antonius said, pushing his chair back and rising. “Please, don’t do this. Let me try to stop him. We’re friends, I can talk him out of it. Please, Cato, James. We can’t just kill him in cold blood.” “No.” Cato’s voice was sharp. “Antony, we do what we have to do. For the pride and prosperity of the House of Caesar. For all our Houses. We cannot allow Halland to destroy what we have built, nor can we allow him to die a monster. We move to take him down now. If you don’t have the strength to do what must be done, then stay the hell out of our way.” “You’ll stay here.” the Count agreed. “Along with Anne and Marcus. Someone has to protect the next generation. If we fail, they must carry on the work we left undone.” Anne snorted. “If you think for one moment I’m letting you take my husband to his death, you’ve got another think coming.” She glared at James and Cato. “Win or lose. I’m there.” Her amber eyes turned to Antonius, laying a hand on her sleeping baby's curly head. “Take care of Marcus. We’ll be back for him.” The scene faded from the Banjari’s sight, and was replaced with fire.
  13. The village of Faroe sprawled across the hill's leeward slopes, sheltered from the occasional bouts of Tsovinar's furious storms by a bare, rocky face on the other side. The town was one of the larger of the Fayrland settlements, and even with the afternoon sun beating down on the plains he could still see the distant figures of farmers toiling away all the way down to the valley. Faust shifted beneath him, his heavy hooves plodding into the warm earth. Nero reached up and wiped away a stream of sweat. "Yeah, I know, my lord. It's hot. But we don't want to fall into a trap out of haste, now would we?" He gave a wry smile, patting Faust's dark shoulders. They stood on the other crest of the Faroe valley, and he could see the slim trickle of water meandering through a rocky, nearly dried up riverbed. For the moment, it was utterly miserable, but when one of the wild storms came through, it would swell to a swift, raging torrent that would fill the small lake in the distance to bursting. He pulled a small spyglass from his saddlebags and brought it to his eyes, sweeping behind him at first, and then focusing on the small band of travelers currently setting up camp on the windward side of the hill. A lone crimson banner waved in the winds where it had been struck into the earth before the tents. "And there they are," he muttered. Faust stamped away. "Yes, yes," Nero agreed, "we can go now." He scarcely had time to deposit the spyglass in its place before Faust surged over the crest of the hill and the wind blew wildly through his hair. They thundered down the banks of the river, and then turned a small dirt pathway that snaked its way up Faroe Hill's rocky face. Faust's feet found solid ground where they struck and he moved with the surety of one who had been along this path before, even though Nero had never once taken him to Faroe. The mercenary simply chalked it up to Lord Faust's presumptive past as a Rahksh warhorse and trusted him not to kill them both. He busied himself with holding on and looking as though he had absolute faith in his companion until a quarter of an hour later, when they cantered up to the small camp. It was completely deserted save for the lonely fluttering of the crimson banner and the four rather tired looking horses. Faust did not greet them, although he did eventually deign to come to a halt before running into a small flickering campfire. Nero looked around. noting the four sturdy tents that were assembled in a loose semicircle but left open to the air. He could see bedrolls and packs inside, along with a few old swords and an axe tumbled across one tent's floor. Nero dismounted smoothly, his boots thumping into the earth in a puff of dust. He turned, looking behind him once more, watching the trail they'd kicked up as it swirled and faded into the dry riverbed air below. He pulled a fine, polished carrot from his pack - the last of the set, and fed it to Faust, patting his slick sides as he did. "Sure was lucky we managed to find you some carrots, my lord." He smiled. Faust's eye locked with his, and then the big Rakhsh stamped his approval. The other horses seemed ambivalent. They usually were, around him. Nero felt cold steel against his throat and he stopped where he was. He heard the slow strain of a bow being drawn back and more steel scraping from leather sheaths. "Hello, Caesar," breathed a woman's voice in his ear. "Didn't I promise you I'd finish that scar across your back if I ever saw you again?" He felt the curved blade at his neck bite ever so slowly into his flesh. Nero managed a smile. "Hello, Cat. Is it Hawke now, or are you still Shikoh?" The blade came back, and he let out a tense breath. "Hawke," she answered, "but since you weren't invited I can't exactly blame you for being an oaf about it." He snorted. "What do you want? Surely you weren't stupid enough to race into our camp because you expected a warm welcome." "That's... actually exactly what I was hoping for." Nero grinned. Nero around slowly, keeping his hands up and out. Cat was very nearly as tall as he was, but far, far leaner. She wore her raven dark hair in a long braid that fell over one shoulder like a black slash along her tan tunic. Her eyes were a striking shade of amber that contrasted with her umber complexion. A long, thin scar traced its way down the left side of her nose to her jawline like the lone crack in a fine vase. She smiled amiably as she sheathed her scimitar at her right hip. "It's good to see you, Nero," she said, flinging her arms around him in a hug that forced some of the air from his lungs. He pretended to cough as she released him. She laughed throatily, shaking her head in faux disapproval. Nero's eyes flicked past her. On a shelf of sunbeaten stone above, an archer slowly brought his shortbow back down from full draw, a heavy wrapping of pale cloth around his features save for his bright gray eyes. To either side of Cat stood a pair of short, heavyset men, their skin the ruddy red of Green Islanders far from home, red beards and pale blue eyes watching him carefully. They brandished ornate silver axes in both hands and one wore numerous other short and blunt implements of war. "Morris," Nero called, waving out to the archer. "You making the princess greet your guests for you now?" The archer made a motion like drawing his bow and releasing it, and then he reached up with leathery hands to peel away his odd headcover, unwrapping it in a few quick moments. Morris vaulted down from the ledge, landing agilely and swinging his bow over his shoulder. He slung his scarf around his neck as he walked up to join them. "Adi, Hodi, you can go keep watch," he said in a soft, polite voice. Morris's hair had once been pure black, but years in the Fayrland sun had bleached it red and gray in places. He kept it short, along with a fine, curling mustache that shimmered like bright steel. He was of average height, nearly half a head beneath Catherine's height, but he moved with the unmistakable grace of a man born into the saddle. "Protocol, my Lord Caesar, dictates that you two greet each other first." He shrugged with powerful shoulders. "I'm just the hired help." He held out a deeply scarred hand to Nero, and the mercenary shook it easily. "You didn't even invite me to your wedding," Nero replied, wagging a finger. "In my defense, you were in a coma. Or dead." Catherine furrowed her brows. "I mean, not my kind of dead, obviously." She flashed a brilliant smile. "You were good and proper dead, according to my contacts." Beside her, Morris snorted and looked away. "So how did you manage to survive that, Swordbreaker?" Nero's smile fell away for a moment, and then it returned. "Family." He glanced at Morris, who had busied himself with staring off into the distance with an intense look etched into his features. "Found something interesting, Captain?" The ranger's lips curled up at the edges. "As a matter of fact, I think I have." He twirled an arrow in his fingertips. "You didn't mention you were bringing friends, Nero." He looked back at the swordsman, and his eyes narrowed. "Ah. Damn Caesars, dropping in and ruining dinner as usual." "Don't say that too loudly. We wouldn't want anyone to hear and try to follow me," Nero answered dryly. He drew Octavius from its sheath at Faust's side. Almost immediately, it frosted, trailing ghostly vapor behind as he slid it through the air. "Thought your thing was fire," Morris remarked. He unslung his bow, nocking the black shafted arrow with a smooth motion. "Will wonders never cease." Cat leaned on his shoulder, snickering. "I mean, your miserly self can hardly talk. A man of your age wedding? You probably had to pay her a fortune." Morris gave a long-suffering sigh, but he quirked his lips all the same. "My kingdom for a lawyer, Nero. My kingdom. And maybe my horse." Nero shook his head. "I don't think you'd like mine very much. My new friend, though, I think you'd like quite a bit." He patted Faust's side and the big Rakhsh snorted along with him in a pantomime of laughter. "He's just like yours, I think," Nero said. "Little smaller, though. I'd bet he'd give Vanhi a good run on a nice straight. Don't let him see you with a carrot though." He made a bowing motion. "My Lord has decreed them to be the sole property of Faust al-Rahksh himself." Cat strode over, looking Faust over with a discerning expression. He stared her down at first, and then offered her the side of his head. She brushed her hands along his mane, frowning. "Gaia abound, Swordbreaker, do you ever treat him like a real horse? He needs a bath, a rubdown, and a solid meal. We'll take care of that after our new friend. Our," she glanced back to Morris, who shrugged and drew back on the bow. "Our other new friend." Faust shifted around, and Nero swore he was smirking at him. "Can you believe the nerve of her? An old friend shows up and he gets blood drawn. His horse, though," he shook his head as he walked to stand side by side with Morris. Morris glanced back to his wife, and then back to Nero. "It's good to see you, man. I mean that." He sighed. "More came after Zahra last month. My brother's at his rope's end trying to keep her safe while the bastards in the Senate bandy around terms like "negotiation" and "leverage" like she's just a tool to be used and discarded." Real anger flashed in his silver eyes before he swept his bow across the narrow path, bringing the arrow almost to his cheek. "I'm sorry, Mo. I've been... indisposed. I left word with D and V to render all aid we could, but... rumors of my demise have... lessened some of my contacts' willingness to work with me." Nero glowered as the sounds of hooves grew louder. "Some don't have your fondness for working with the allegedly departed," Morris agreed mildly, nudging him in the ribs with his shoulder. (Random Trivia: All Rahksh horses are believed to descend from Rahksh himself, a steed of legend. As such, true Rahksh horses are granted the name al-Rakhsh (arabic for son of Rakhsh) which follows the naming convention for Arabian horses IRL. Queen Sahar was the sole princess of the Tanwar clan, and her dowry was Vanhi al-Rakhsh. He is known as one of the largest Rahksh in recent history, and was Sultan Jahal's personal mount during the fight where he lost his life. He is the only inheritance that Zahra and Ambra have left.) An immense horse with deep red flanks came thundering up the pathway towards them at the head of a cloud of dust. The rider gave a shout in the Kushan tongue, long black hair flying freely behind her. Vanhi al-Rahksh slowed to a trot as they neared the camp, snorting and shaking his head as though he wished to keep running. Behind him, Faust came to rest his head on Nero's shoulder, turning to observe the newcomers. The rider wore a dress of tan cloth that had once been finely embroidered with green thread and beads, now a shadow of its former self. She towered over them as they came up to the group, thanks in large part to the gigantic proportions of the stallion beneath her, but there was more than enough regal demeanor between Vanhi and his rider to stun most onlookers. Her face was covered with a dark mask of fine silk, and her right eye lay covered beneath a black patch. The other eye was a mix of blue and green that seemed almost impossibly deep. Nero fell to one knee, placing his sword at his side in the dirt. Beside him, Morris lowered his bow, inclining his head politely. Catherine simply continued petting Faust, unperturbed. Zahra Shikoh dismounted smoothly, her boots crunching into the dirt as she walked over to them. "Hail, Lord Caesar," she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper. He could see the fine threads of silver through her hair, but she remained much as he had remembered her so many years before. He gave Morris a sidelong look, but the man simply shrugged. "Hail, Princess Zahra. It's.. been a while, hasn't it?" "She figured we'd be safest together," said Cat as she flicked a stray stone from Faust's mane. "So naturally we brought her along." "She's also one of the most powerful mages in the Fayrlands, and prefers that her friends do not kneel before her." Zahra's boots crunched against the gravel as she came to stand before Nero, and she offered him a hand. He accepted it, coming to his feet. She was a few inches shorter than Cat, her skin a shade lighter. "Besides," Zahra stated, "I owe the Caesar family a blood debt of several lifetimes. Both mine, and my family's. Whatever aid you ask, I shall do all I can to provide." Nero frowned, but he nodded his agreement. "So you picked up my tail then?" He glanced at the rope attached to the saddlehorn, following it back to where a bloodied figure lay behind the horse. "You didn't kill him, did you?" Nero squinted. The man did indeed seem to be breathing, although Nero wasn't sure he would be once they were done with him. "Of course not," Zahra answered, looking mildly offended. "I only knocked him unconscious with noxious fumes and then dragged him half a league. I'm not a savage." Behind her, Catherine stifled a laugh. "Besides." Zahra reached up and unwound the loop of sturdy rope, handing it over to Nero. "I figured you'd be the one to make introductions once he's conscious again. You can break bread with us again in the meanwhile and we'll catch up. Hopefully nobody will set the place on fire." She smiled winningly. "After all, I so rarely get to host one of your family." Nero rubbed the back of his neck as he considered the offer. Arguably, the most expedient thing to do would simply be to take the man and persuade him to talk as quickly as he could. But it had been a lonely path since he left Nikaido, and they were the closest thing to family he had in the plains at the moment. He sighed, looking up at the sky. "Alright, alright. But we tie this idiot to a pole and let him smell the food. I figure it'll save me a good bit of work." He kicked a rock down the hill. "And.. I need some information." He glanced back to the Hawkesmesser. "Maybe a lot more than that." The fire crackled away merrily at the center of the camp, shifting hues of purple and green and yellow flames dancing beneath a bubbling pot of something dark and spicy. They sat in a loose semicircle. Nero found himself leaning back against Faust's black flanks as the big Rahksh slept off the day's exertions, snoring slightly with his head turned away from the fire. The other horses had been tied off near the stone overhang, and they seemed to be enjoying a fine feast of fresh Fayrlands hay. They were less than enthusiastic about the bound captive sleeping in it, but if it bothered them much, they did not show it. Morris sat beside Nero to the right, a thick blanket draped over his lap as he leaned forward, stirring the pot in slow, precise motions. Zahra leaned over from Nero's left, sliding the Hawkesmesser back into its sheath and passing it to him reverentially. "I am saddened by its condition, but it is the nature of a blade to be broken in time," she murmured. He accepted it, feeling a twinge of sympathy at the wistful look on her face. Her blue-green eye drifted to his and she smiled wanly. "You owe no apology for it, Neromius. It.. it is a balanced blade, it seems. Cast our lives into chaos and then saved us from it again. I only hope it brought you the same good fortune in its time." "You could keep it," Nero replied, holding it back out to her. "It would have been yours, in time." She extended her hand, resting it on the smooth sheath, and then she gently pushed it back to him. "My inheritance is Vanhi and the life of my sister." The flames cast a deep purple light on her face for a moment. "The rest of it... we'll take back when the time is right." Nero gave a slow nod as he accepted the blade, and then set it aside. "When that time comes... you'll know where to find me." He brought his hand to his chest in a salute. "Fiat justicia." Zahra returned the salute. "Mafish halawa min gheir nar. Don't rush to it." Her expression grew more grave. Zahra glanced over to the others, watching as Catherine and Morris began to discuss the finer points of peppers. "Will you talk to me before we leave? Just you and me." [5:57 PM]Grimmholt:(Mafish halawa min gheir nar = There is no sweetness without fire.) [6:01 PM]Grimmholt:Nero arched a brow. "Aren't we talking now?" She laughed throatily, and shook her head sharply. "Not like this. In private. Some things I need to tell you before you disappear." Zahra looked down for a moment, crossing her fingers together. "About promises made, promises kept, and promises to be broken." The mercenary narrowed his eyes slightly, and then he sighed, resting his head back against Faust's warm back. "Seems everyone's got one of those to tell me, these days. Some of them you.. well, you probably wouldn't believe me at first." Zahra gave him a pointed look for a moment, and then she tossed her head back with a peal of laughter. "Oh, that's rich. Very rich. You'll like this then. You seem to enjoy finding yourself in ironic situations, so you'll feel right at home." Nero snorted, and he looked back to her. "I don't have one of those at the moment. Some people took my survival personally, so they decided to burn it all down." Cat turned her head to him, shrugging in an exaggerated fashion. "Some people," she said, wagging a finger, "tend to take exception to most of us being alive." She thumbed over her shoulder at the man sleeping with the horses. "I'm guessing he's one of them." "Now, now," Morris chided. He sprinkled a fine red powder into the pot, stirring it steadily. "Play nice, dear. He's traveled a long way to suffer at the hands of my cooking and I shan't have anyone else ruining it for me." He gave Nero a winsome smile, and then took a small spoonful of rich stew from the pot, blowing away steam. Morris winked at them, and then he tried it. He turned beetred almost immediately. Zahra laughed, and Nero joined her. Morris groped around beside him for his canteen. Cat chucked it to him, and he swiftly spun the cap off and drank deeply of it. "... Just.. right," Morris groaned, dropping the spoon back into the pot. Nero chuckled. "Still can't stand it, huh?" Morris grinned. "The things I do for love, my friend." Cat dropped down next to him, and began ladling out some of the hot stew into bowls. "There's Adi and Hodi's, and you lot can figure out the rest." She had a wicked grin on her face as she stood up. "This'll keep our friends wide awake for first watch." Morris scooped out a bowl for Zahra, and she accepted it gratefully. Nero took his next, and he could feel the spice almost stinging his nose as he brought a spoonful up to his mouth. It was, all things considered, a surprisingly well balanced dish of wild rabbit and a thick, hearty sauce. Nero arched an eyebrow. Morris leaned back, making sure Cat was out of airshot before he spoke. "She thinks it's funny. And who am I to deny her some fun?" Zahra wolfed her meal down beside him. Nero took a moment to savor it. "So you've been out here the whole time," he said to Morris. "Makes sense. Art can keep the tigers leashed while you keep an eye out for wolves." Morris made a bowing motion, before he continued to eat. "I was hoping you'd know a little more about how the Hawkesmesser was even made. Or how to fix it." He glanced across to Zahra, who wiped her mouth with a rag. "Well," she said, setting it aside. "I'd tell you if I knew." She pursed her lips. "We didn't make it either. It's old, far older than it seems." She glanced at the sheathed blade and then frowned deeply. "Well, now it looks much more like its true age. Truthfully, my father had it passed down to him from his father. And my grandfather passed it to him. It..." she trailed off, looking thoughtfully up at the stars for a moment before she returned her attention to him. "It's at least five hundred years old." Zahra glanced down at the curved blade. "We called it Nishakara, back when it was ours. The palace might have... some records on it, but I can't speak to their veracity." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "I believe it might have once been a ritual blade of some kind, perhaps to celebrate the harvest. There was once writing on the handle, according to Lord Arthur, but he had it removed once it became his, and I don't know that he ever kept any records of it." She turned to Morris, who was finishing his stew. "Mo, do you know of any such thing?" He took a long swig of his canteen. "My father might have kept some documents. But he willed them to Count James when he passed in '56 and Art delivered them personally. Best bet's going to be your pal Audric, if he's kept them. It was probably only a few months before that accident happened, so they may have been destroyed or locked away somewhere." Morris's voice was somber as he continued. "One thing I do remember my father saying about it." He pointed. "It's not a normal blade. It's been covered with all the fancy accoutrements of a ritual weapon, but... I don't think it was always one. There's more'n a little spellwork in there beneath all those sharpening and hardening enchantments, and some of it packs a hell of a punch. Probably a bit less now that you've gone and broken it, but.. maybe when all of that surface stuff fades away we'll see what's really inside." "Secrets within secrets," Nero murmured, picking it up and turning it over in his hand. "What did you say it was called before?" "Nishakara. Night-bringer." Zahra said, waving her hand up at the moon above. "An old name for an old blade. Something tells me it has had many names over the years. As many names as masters, perhaps." She set her empty bowl aside with a measured, deliberate motion. "But for now, it's yours. No longer a Hawke's blade. A Caesar's tool of choice. So name it whatever you like." Nero nodded slowly. "Maybe I'll wait and see what it becomes, first. No sense naming... scrap metal." He drew it in a slow scrape of steel against leather, and it shone white in the light. The edge had corroded further around the tip, ugly red splotches beginning to spread over the steel and moving upward. He rubbed his fingers along the splotches, and they came off in large, abrasive flakes, leaving small pits and marring across the surface. He sheathed it abruptly. "I figure your father might have been on to something." Nero looked over at Morris. "It's not rusting the way it should. More like the outer layers are peeling off now that the enchantments are being eroded. I'll see if Audric can..." Nero closed his eyes. "Never mind." He glanced back to Zahra. She smiled sadly. "How badly was he wounded? I've heard whispers but.. you know well enough how rumors can be distorted." "Bad," Nero admitted quietly. "Even the little eagle that brought me back couldn't..." He opened his eyes, adjusting to the light. "She was able to get him some of the use of his hand back, but we don't know if he'll ever be the same." Zahra's lone eye glittered in the light. "You might be surprised what one can learn to live with." "I might," Nero conceded with a tilt of his head." The horses nickered behind them, and Nero's blue eyes swept up. The bundle of rope, hay, and cloth shifted suddenly. The man within groaned loudly. You must have Gaia's own headache at this point. Nero snorted. "Perhaps we ought to ask my friend what he's willing to live with," Nero said loudly. He stood, brushing some dust from his shirt, and then drew Octavius, letting it frost over in the air for effect. It always paid to be a showman, where interrogations were concerned. "Need a hand?" Morris asked, parting his cloak to show the fine stiletto concealed within. "Or a... less angry looking blade" "Sometimes, the old ways work the best." Nero gave a quick shrug as he skirted the edges of the fire and walked deliberately towards their captive. He sank the tip of the blade into the dirt before him as he inspected him. "Hello, Hamish. You're a long way from home, aren't you?" He glanced southward for a moment, and then returned his attention to the spy. "I see you traded the old nag out for a fine field horse. I told you she wouldn't make it out to Faroe." Hamish glared at him, and made a point of spitting at his boots. He was so dehydrated that the spittle clung heavily to his lips. Nero's eyes shone like cold sapphires in the firelight. "Don't know what yer talkin' about," Hamish spat. "I'm just a traveler. I just thought I'd make the ol' journey up here to see what I could sell." Nero laughed sardonically. "Any farmer worth his salt would have traded south. Faroe's known for its soil. They wouldn't need you out here." His fingers squeezed Octavius' fine leather grip so hard it squealed. "And they don't grow carrots in your supposed hometown. They import them." Nero rested his hand on the elaborate pommel of his sword, focusing for a moment. The air grew colder around it. Nero pulled his hand back as the frost began to seep into the earth and crackling ice crystals began to spread across the dust. "Let's not play the game today." Nero's eyes narrowed. "I could take you apart, joint from joint. Slowly. Deliberately. Burn the wounds shut. Freeze the damaged tissue so you don't die of shock too quickly." His expression hardened. "Don't try me, Hamish, or whatever your name is." "I burned a man to death with a blade just like this. First I cut his ankles apart. Then his legs. And his arms. Just deep enough to sever the muscle tissue and ligaments. Then I burned him from the inside out." He leaned down. "Your employer chose to fuck with my family. The only family I have left." Octavius let out a blast of heat that flashed the ice to squealing steam. "Your. Choice." Hamish paled, but he took in a sharp breath of air. "I'm tellin' ye, I'm just a godsdamned farmer!" Nero pulled Octavius free of the earth, shaking it to dislodge the fine layer of dirt on its edge. He flicked it, scoring a fine line of crimson along the farmer's cheek. Hamish hissed in pain. Nero made another flick over his head. "Farmers out here worship Gaia. Not many gods." The swordsman brought Octavius up in a two handed grip. "Tell me what I need to know. Everything you know. Or I'm going to start with your foot and work my way up." "I don't know any- ARGH!" Hamish shouted as Nero plunged the sword into the farmer's right foot, twisting sharply for good measure. Almost immediately, the temperature began to drop, cold vapor dripping. Hamish screamed as his blood began to freeze around the steel. A thin layer of ice and rime began to build up, crawling its way up his dirty clothing. "You can stop this, any time you'd like." Nero said simply. "Just tell me what you're after. Who sent you. Why me and my family." Hamish ground his teeth together, his hands forming claws and straining against the ropes that bound him tightly. He twisted and twitched, his words slurring into an unintelligible mash of of inhuman groans. Nero ripped his sword free and plunged it into the dirt at his feet. "Couldn't hear you," Nero stated. "You're going to have to speak up, my friend. Otherwise I'm going to assume you're wasting my time." Hamish spat into the dirt, coughing. "... You can't stop us. You and your brother, you're already dead." Nero's lips curled into a thin smile. "Am I?" He rested his hand on his sword. "I think rumors of my demise have been... exaggerated somewhat." Nero pulled Octavius free of the dirt, flicking it to clear some of the debris from it. He inspected it for a moment, and then slammed his boot into Hamish's face. He lowered the point of the blade to rest above the man's throat. Hamish gave a smile through bloody teeth and bruised lips. ".. Kill me if you want, Caesar boy. Won't stop us. We're going to find your fucking brother and run him through like the traitor he is. Then we're coming for you and that whore in Nikaido-" Nero smashed the flat of the blade against Hamish's head, snapping his head to the side. "Bawthers you, don it?" Hamish slurred. "Shame I never known. I'd have.." Nero laughed bitterly. "You think you're the first to throw that in my face? Gaia's sake, you probably won't be the last." His smile faded. Nero's eyes shone coldly in the firelight. "You're hoping to make me angry enough to kill you quickly, aren't you. I'm guessing your employers aren't likely to forgive your, ah, amateurish failure." Nero rested Octavius on his shoulder, letting the blade gleam in the light. "Matter of fact, I don't think you were given much warning I was coming. Probably outpaced all of your friends on the ride out from the city." His smile returned. "See, I think you're not normally out here. This... reeks of poor planning." He turned around, scanning the moonlit plains beyond. "I'd have done a three man team. One like you, two shadows. But they only had you. Only sent you here to track me and kill me." He looked back over his shoulder at Hamish. "Frankly," he sighed, "I'm insulted that they thought a little snake like you could bring me down." Nero turned on his heel and brought the tip of the blade beneath Hamish's throat. "Fuck you, Caesar," Hamish said bluntly, curling up. "Just stick me and be done with it." "Don't think he's going to talk," Morris opined from behind. "Probably better to just.. make a few choice incisions, roll him into the river, and be done with it." "Waste of a good resource." Nero glanced over his shoulder. Zahra shrugged, and set down her cup. "I think he knows something. But he's.. more scared of the ones he knows rather than you. There are other methods of persuasion, you know." Nero sighed, shaking his head. "You know, I didn't really intend on having help on this one." "Ah," Zahra said as she joined him. "Is that why.. you brought him here, knowing we would capture him? And why you're still here, torturing him not ten feet from me? Because I may have misinterpreted that." Her lone eye glittered with amusement. She patted his shoulder. "Let me help you. It's the least I could do." "Alright. But I'm standing with you. Hamish, if you so much as twitch in a way I don't like, I'm going to warm up your leg a lot faster than I did last time." Octavius steamed as he pointed it at the man. Zahra knelt, observing Hamish for a moment. She pulled a small red ribbon from her pocket and tied her hair back in a slow, deliberate motion before she returned her attention to him. "Nero," she said softly, "count to five and then I need you to pull me back. Five. Exactly five. No more." He frowned deeply at that, but nodded his assent. "You know what you're getting into?" "No," she replied with a grin. "But when do we ever?" Zahra took in a deep breath, her fingers coming up to the eyepatch. She ripped it off and leaned forward. Hamish flinched before the crimson light that bathed his bloodied features and then he went absolutely still, lolling forward like a marionette with its strings cut. Nero counted slowly. He reached out for her at four. The instant his fingers touched her she snapped back, gasping in air. Hamish remained where he was, curled and unblinking. A slow trickle of blood dripped from his nose. Zahra closed her eyes, rocking back and forth slightly. "I'm fine," she whispered, reaching out to take his hand and squeeze it. "I'm fine. I'm fine. Don't worry. It's.. always a little frightening. Seeing someone else like that. You didn't give me the full five," she said chidingly, opening one eye to look up at him. "You found what you were looking for, though?" Nero reached out and brushed away a slim line of crimson from her nose, grimacing. He helped her put the patch back on, and she rested back on her hands, nodding slowly. "Nero, you have to go home. Not.. the farm. Home. Inverness." She took in a deep breath. "They're hunting Marcus. They think he's.. he's going after the boss. He's never met them. But Nero? I think they're both there." Nero flinched at the name. "I didn't..." Zahra laughed bitterly. She held out a hand and he pulled her up. Their eyes met and for a moment neither spoke. "You knew," he said quietly. "You knew he was alive this whole time. That's what you wanted to talk about earlier. A promise. To him." Nero clenched his fists, setting his jaw. "You.." he closed his eyes for a moment. "How long? How long have I been the only one that didn't know Marcus fucking Caesar was still alive and well? You knew too, Mo? Cat?" Morris held up a hand. "Didn't know. I'd have told you." He pursed his lips. "No matter what. I owe you that much, Nero." "Guess that makes one of us," Nero said acidly, turning back to Zahra. She stared him down. "Yes," she said. "I knew. And he swore me to secrecy. Because if you knew, you'd try and find him, and all... everything he's done would be for nothing." Zahra took a step forward. "You think you're the Swordbreaker. All fury and steel. You think you're really some unstoppable force. But you're not. None of you are. He didn't want to see you die. Any of you. You don't know what he's been through! How..." She turned away for a moment. "How much it cost him. But if you don't leave now, Nero, you might never find out. The noose is closing around his neck and he's going to try and make them bleed for it." Nero sheathed Octavius. "So what? I just go and find him, and we live like one big happy family? Everything's all good and fine in the Caesar household?" He walked to Faust, patting him until the big Rahksh shook his head and began to stumble to his feet. "Gaia, you don't know what it's been like. This whole time I thought I was the last one. That we were all dead and doomed to die. You don't know what that's been like!" His words rang in the air. Zahra tilted her head slightly, pursing her lips. Nero rested his face in the palm of his head. Zahra sighed, and then she walked over to him. "I know. It's... hard to deal with. But if your family is to have a future, Nero - Lord Caesar. You must get over it. You have to find him. He's probably the best hope you have of finding out the truth. And of beating the ones in the shadows." "And then you and I talk about this." "And then we talk. I don't regret a damn thing. I'd do it for him in a heartbeat. And for you, anything." She brushed her hands along Faust's flanks. "Ride like the wind, Faust al-Rahksh, and ferry your master home." "Goodbye, Princess."
  14. Mary was finding herself ill-suited for what amounted to house arrest. She had thought herself accustomed to relative isolation after living in hiding with her father for a year, but at least in the forest there had always been something to keep her hands and mind busy - some chore or clever little task that would make their lives easier, and, more importantly, bring that proud smile to her father's face when he returned home from hunting to see what she had accomplished that day. Now, there was nothing to do but wait. She was almost bored enough to try her hand at embroidery - there was a basket of supplies for it on one of the shelves, and her mother had taught her a few simple patterns when she was younger. But every time she looked at the basket, she found herself overcome with a terrifyingly intense sense of sadness, the image of their burning home painting itself across her vision. The house had a small library of dry books - just one shelf in a back corner gathering dust - but she had read through them all within the first few days. With nothing better to do, she picked one of them up again and sat near the window to read. She was several pages in before she realized she hadn't taken in a single word that her eyes had passed over. Giving it up with a sigh, she closed the book and stared out the window. She couldn't see the sea in the darkness, but she could hear it, dimly. Mother would have loved it here. The sound of the door unlocking broke her reverie, and she stood and drew her knife with the swiftness of paranoia. After one home burning down and another invaded by thugs, she was constantly on the alert for the next attack, the undercurrent of anxiety never leaving her, no matter how many guards John Howe discreetly placed around the home. Hallie pulled the key back from the lock, and took one final look at the yard beyond. She had perhaps another thirty seconds before the other guard rounded the building and could see her. Less, if he'd decided to speed up for some hitherto unknown reason. She moved quickly, pulling the small bottle of oil from her coat and uncapping it quickly. It took only a moment to pour some of the contents out onto the hinges, and then she swung the door open. It complained a little, but she hope it would be barely heard over the distant waves crashing on the surf. The cabin seemed much smaller on the inside. She stood in a hallway, with a set of stairs leading to what she realized was a small loft hanging over the living room. There were two closed doors on her right, and a third lay open to the left. Light spilled from it into the hall. Hallie knelt, using one hand to lock the door slowly behind her while she rested the other on the floorboards. She sent a slow pulse of mana through the floor, letting it spread in a subtle trickle throughout the place. She could feel the two guards moving around outside at the very periphery of her senses, along with a third person in the room to the left. More troubling, she could feel the slight disturbance around that body, as though something had disturbed it. She frowned. Too loud? I don't have much other choice, though. I have to meet you. She thumped her way down the hall, giving what she hoped was Ms. Cromwell enough warning to be comfortable. Meanwhile, she kept her hand on the small dagger she carried at her hip. If I look like nothing's out of the ordinary, maybe she won't notice, either. Hallie knocked on the door as she entered the room, keeping her borrowed face entirely bored. Standing in the middle of the room, Mary frowned in confusion at the sight of one of the guards, but she slid her stiletto back into its slender sheath at her waist. "Something wrong?" she asked, her posture still wary. Hallie glanced around the room, and then she reached up, feeling the hazy buzz of energy around her face. She waved a hand over the Glamour, letting her features ripple and shift into her village girl’s mask. “Hello. My name is Hannah,” she said simply. “John seems to have a thing for keeping his new friends in places like these. I wanted to introduce myself.” She extended her free hand. “Who do you want dead?” Mary took a step back as the guard before her suddenly transformed into a stranger. Bloody hell. I'm never going to get used to that. She scowled suspiciously, and her hand strayed to her knife again, gripping its handle rather than taking Hannah's offered hand. "Who says I want anyone dead? And how do you know John?" she demanded, sticking her chin out in challenge. Hallie laughed confidently, although part of her was concerned at how quickly she had reached for her knife. "Because, Miss Cromwell, Lord Howe brought me here fifteen years ago. And we want Alicia Grimmholt dead." She kept one hand where it was, and adopted a friendly smile that did not reach her eyes. "We've met some of the others, but he does his best to keep us apart. I, however, thought we should meet. See which names we might help each other cross off the list." Mary's eyes remained narrowed, but she grudgingly reached out and shook Hannah's hand. "Nathaniel Grimmholt killed my father, for the crime of befriending him, trying to help him. Their family is cursed, and they continue to hide the truth from the world, under the pretense that they can control it... no matter how many of us have to pay the price for their pride." "Gaia almighty," Hallie said, taking her hand back. "I'm.. sorry. For me it was Alicia. She had my uncle, aunt, and father killed." Her smile fell away. Another victim to Aval's greed. Another name to add to the list. "So you're here to take him down then? He's.." she tilted her head. "He's a frightening one. I thought he was a decent one, when I met him. But it turns out he's just hiding something dark and twisted within." She met Mary's eyes. "But Alicia's worse, I assure you." Alicia... Nathaniel's mother. Mary recalled how Claire had bristled when John mentioned her parents, and her frown deepened again. What a fucked up family. "They're all equally guilty," she said coldly. "The Baron, the Baroness, Claire and Nathaniel. And anyone else who tries to keep their secret hidden." Hallie kept her face neutral as she nodded. She could feel the hatred emanating from Mary's aura like a wave of heat. It was hard to watch. Even harder to agree with her. If only you knew. "Would you.. tell me what happened? I met him a few times. But he seems so... disconnected from the rest of them at first. I don't know if it's an act or if he's really not sure what's even happening to him. How did you survive?" She rested a hand on her chest. "My mother... she had help getting out. John helped us escape." And he's been using us ever since. "I've... met a few others like us. Either hurt by the Grimmholts directly, or we lost someone to them." Mary gave a short, bitter nod, and walked over to the open window, leaning her hands against the frame as she stared out into the unremitting darkness of the cold sea. The chill in the air was sharp, tonight, and she shivered once. But it felt right, somehow. A fitting match to the cold rage in her heart. They need to pay. They need to be exposed, and they need to lose everything, as I have, she repeated to herself, gritting her teeth. "When he arrived at our house, he was going by the name of Archer. He couldn't remember his past - Claire said it was because she tried to kill him, erased his memories." Mary let out a bitter laugh at the awfulness of it. "While he was staying with us, he was injured, trying to protect us, so we brought him to the hospital in Aythnia. But when we got there... he met someone. Neromius Caesar. He went with Nero and my dad to try to find his lost memories." She straightened, turning her back to the window, and met Hallie's gaze. "But all he found was the beast inside him. He killed my father, and Claire had him buried in an unmarked grave in Nikaido, restrained her brother's curse, and called it a day," she said bitterly. "No good deed," Hallie said bluntly. "I'm sorry." She leaned back against the wall, watching the intensity in Mary's eyes. You could be dangerous. Very, very dangerous for Alicia. And even more so for John. Her heart ached for the woman standing across from her. They had been dragged into the curse of the Grimmholts without any warning, simply for trying to save a wounded man. At least we knew what we were getting into. She nodded again. "So John promised you revenge on them all. Disgrace, trials, the rest of it." But can you trust her to stick to the plan? To avoid letting her emotions get the best of her until it matters? She forced herself to keep her expression utterly dispassionate, playing the role of the cool, confident warrior rather than letting the uncertainty she felt show. She sighed, shaking her head. Part of her wanted to tell her what she knew, to try and convince her otherwise. You want blood for blood. Just like me. And I can't.. I don't want to stop you. Gaia knows we want Alicia to pay. Siegfried, for allowing it. "Be careful, Mary." Hallie narrowed her eyes. "John's... got his own plans. I don't want to see you used and thrown aside when you're no longer useful to him." She smiled wryly. "It wouldn't be the first time he decided to do that. Trust me." She held up her hand, showing her the patchwork of faded scars. "Don't bleed for their quarrel. You could leave. I could help you, even." Mary crossed her arms over her chest defiantly, the intensity in her gaze never wavering. "I know he's as fucked up as the rest of them," she replied shortly. "First thing he ever did was hold a blade to my throat. But I don't care if he uses me, as long as it's against them. My father was a better man than all of them put together. I will get justice for him." Even if it kills me. And you’ll die in the process. Another tragedy waiting to play out in the wings while the rest of the show goes on Hallie was silent for a moment. At last she gave a stiff smile, and made a half bow to her. “I wish you good hunting. I hope you live long enough to savor it.” She backed up to the doorway, keeping her eyes squarely on Mary. You should warn him, she thought. The thought made her blood run cold. He’d probably try to make it right. And then we’re all doomed when he fails. “If you change your mind, ask your guards for three cherry pastries from Avril’s Bakery. She’ll get word to me.” Hallie waved, and then she made her way to the door, her heart pounding. They needed to leave before this woman and John set things in motion. Before everything came crashing down around them.
  15. The sun was setting behind the distant peaks of the Valtar range by the time she finally felt well enough to head out. The morning's excitement had cost Hallie dearly. She still marveled a little at the fine lines of pink scars winding their way up her hands as she walked through the streets, turning them over and over. The first real failure she had entertained as a mage. Almost my last, she thought grimly. And his, too. Marcus had warned her many years ago that there was always a price to be paid for knowledge. At the time, she had simply asked him where he was vanishing off to this time. He had looked at her, haunted blue eyes and slim smile on his face, and warned her gently. She pulled her new coat close to her as a steady, cold wind howled its way through the street. Gaia almighty, it was a bitter sort of cold now, the kind that made her wish she had stayed home with a cup of warm tea. Or bothered Nate for some more coffee. She snorted at the thought. Wouldn't it be nice if that was all we had to worry about now? But larger things called to her attention now. Plans made long before she was born that had to be dealt with. Hallie sighed, and then she set off at a brisk pace, following the somewhat vague instructions she had been given. Now that she knew a little more about the approximate plans Alicia was setting into motion, it was high time that they set out to bring them to ruin. First and foremost was the mysterious person John had managed to hole up in his little cabin at the south end of town. Almost the furthest you could put Miss Cromwell without leaving the territory. She kept a woolen cap on her head, hiding her hair beneath. Tonight, she wore the face of a boy she'd known long ago. He was a bit rounder than she was, his cheeks appropriately pudgy and flushed with the effort of walking along. She had added in a touch of brown fuzz beneath his nose and chin, just enough to give him the impression of age so that she wouldn't be stopped out of hand. It took her the better part of half an hour to navigate the town and the streets at its edge. She had heard of the cabin described as small, but that did it little justice. It was a fairly large structure of logs and brick facade, not quite two stories high, but finely appointed. It stood apart from the other properties on the street by virtue of a freshly painted wrought iron fence that shone black and polished in the fading sunlight. She stopped for a moment at the corner, casually observing the small detail of guards that moved around the periphery. Some were more obvious than others. Hallie waited until she had a solid idea of their movements, and by then the sun had set entirely. The streetlamps blazed away with dull red magefire, just bright enough that one might see the general gist of where they were headed. It was a rather clever idea. It would keep nosy people like herself from seeing what the occupants of the estate were up to at night. She made her move once the third rotation - by far the slowest of them, rounded one side of the cabin. Hallie slipped a pair of flat, black rocks from her pocket as she walked to the fence, pretending that she needed to catch her breath. She bent over a little, and placed the first roughly midway up. It adhered with a little mana, bonding to the metal and resisting her sharp tugs on it to make sure it was secure. She glanced around, and then she stuck the second a little closer to the ground. With her footholds in place, she quickly stepped up and over the fence, and then jumped over to the other side, rolling carefully as she hit the ground. Hallie came up smoothly, changing her Glamour to match that of one of the guards - the quiet, slow one. They were not the same height, but in the dim light of the streetlamps it would have to do in a mix. She hadn't yet mastered the art of changing her height, but once she did... Hallie made her way to the back door, taking care to sweep around to check for any of the other guards, and then she unlocked the door with the spare key.
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