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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.
  • Birthday July 25

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    The Never-Never

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  1. "The light, people, sounds." Claire gave Amy a quick wave. "I think that.. might have just reminded me why I don't drink so much any more. But I'll happily treat you all to some tea sometime, the next time we have a girls night." She grinned, patting a spot between her and Florica. "Good morning, Lady Chiba." Amy sat down between Florica and Claire, chuckling as well. "That sounds lovely, thank you. Probably much smarter than my idea... but how did things go with you and Lord Caesar?" she asked, evidently remembering a good deal more of last night's conversation than either of the other two girls. "Oh," Claire said, considering how exactly one might describe challenging him to a brawl, losing, admitting her feelings still existed, vomiting during said confession, and then being hauled off to be tucked in like a sack of potatoes. And that doesn't even include the ring. Or the letter. "It.. went well." She looked over at Florica and stifled a laugh. "We had a very, uh, enthusiastic conversation about our past. And.. and he agreed that we'll talk more when he gets back." She smiled perhaps a little too broadly. The smile said a good deal more than her words, and Amy put down her coffee for a moment to hug Claire with one arm around her shoulders, grinning fiercely. "That's so good to hear!" she declared. "When he gets back, though? When will that be?" Claire returned Amy's hug with gusto, and then pulled back to grab a swig of coffee. "Thanks for pushing me to go," she said, beaming back at her. "I.. sorta thought things were going to stay the same, maybe forever. But.. he's going to be gone for some time. At least a few weeks, maybe months." A poisonous whisper in her mind stated the obvious. Or maybe forever. Her smile turned brittle and she masked it with an other sip. The dagger at her back felt uncomfortably warm. "I'm going to try and do what I can to help him come back home sooner, though. For me and for a certain someone." She nudged at Florica. Florica smiled wryly. "Hey, d-don't p-pin it on me if you d-d-do something rash," she protested teasingly, shaking her head. Claire laughed warmly, and leaned back. Her thoughts were beginning to flow normally again, now that she'd had some caffeine and time to wake up. Some parts of the night, she figured, were probably better off forgotten. Others.. well, she'd hold onto those forever. But there was one bit of unfinished business lurking around in the foreground of her thoughts. Sai. She sighed deeply, and found the strength to pull herself free of the blankets. "Alright, my lovely friends, I must go forth and bother my business partner. Again. I figure the least I can do is help him with some of the "I'm not really dead" paperwork. I'm starting to get used to it, anyway." She leaned down and patted Florica's hair through her scarf. "Be good, you. And if you need me, follow the smell of really good food!" She gave Amy a grin and backed out of the room, hoping to track down Sai before he collapsed under an avalanche of paperwork. She was in luck, for she found Sai in the hallway, sorting through a handful of mail that had just been brought to the house. Most of it was for other members of the household, and he put those aside on the table near the door, but one was addressed to him directly, from the Grey family business. He kept that one in hand to open when he got back to the study. He looked up as Claire approached, looking slightly wary for a moment before offering her a warm smile. "Good morning, Claire-san," he nodded courteously. He was neatly groomed as ever, but there were dark circles under his eyes, several shades deeper than his olive skin. "Good morning," she said, giving him a showy bow as part of her greeting. "Moonlighting as a mail sorter to pay the bills?" She grinned. "The life of an entrepreneur is rough, I understand," she said with as much pretention as she could force herself to do before she lost it and laughed. She took a moment to recognize the familiar insignia on the letter, although the handwriting was far too tidy to be Audric's. And always will be, now. "Well, it seems like we're finally going to be able to order supplies and start paying people." She winked. "Payday's here. Are you excited?" He chuckled along with her, the last of the tension in his stance fading away. So we're not going to talk about last night. Good. "It's very exciting," he admitted. "Though I still need to get my identity back before I can open so much as a personal account, much less a business one. I suppose that's what I get for disappearing for so long." His relief was apparent on his face. She was content to trust him to handle things on his own. She clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Ah, don't worry. Once we navigate the truly obnoxious amount of paperwork to resurrect you, we get to start on the truly obnoxious amount of paperwork to revive the Swan. I'll buy the coffee. If there's anything I can do to help, let me know. I don't have a lot of contacts here, but I can at least help out with the more... boring parts of this. It is, after all, my second time starting a business." Sai gave her a sincerely grateful smile. "You're an angel. Thank you, Claire-san." He turned the envelope over, broke the seal and opened it, pulling out the letter within and giving it a cursory glance. "Yep, banking info," he noted. "I already had this, though, unless something's changed. I guess they're just being thorough." "Sounds like Mia, alright." She glanced over the letter as well, and was about to tell him to discard it when something struck her. "That's not the right account," she said. "That's.. not the company coffers. It's their own...." She trailed off into silence. Oh, no. Audric. You.. would have said something if there was a problem, right? She pursed her lips. "Maybe we should hold onto this," she said carefully. "I can send a letter out to them, just to make sure. I'd hate to mess with Mia's books. She hates it when someone messes with her books." "Okay, sounds like a plan," Sai agreed innocently, folding the letter and slipping it back inside the envelope. "Like I said I won't be able to use it anyway until next week at the earliest. Never hurts to double check."
  2. Florica slid her legs under the kotatsu as well, returning Claire's smile before focusing on the important business of drinking more of the precious, life-giving coffee. Someone had already cleared away their dishes from last night's party, she noted. Some parts of their conversation were rather hazy in her memory, particularly towards the end. Had she cuddled Amy? She remembered looking down at baby Sai, and the warmth of the slender girl's arm around her. But the details of what they had been talking about eluded her. Sake is dangerous, she decided. It had been a frequent treat during her last stay in Weland, but back then she had had no one to protect - no one she would have cared if she hurt. Things were very different now. Like Amy, she had a family name to protect. She glanced up with a tired smile as Amy finally emerged from her room a few minutes later, in a similar dishevelled state to the other two women, and sat down carefully on Claire's other side, gripping her mug like a lifeline. She still looked a little green around the gills, and after she sat down she blew out a slow, controlled breath, pressing her hand over her unsteady stomach. "Morning," she finally managed to utter, glancing at each in turn. "Is it just me, or is the light very loud this morning?"
  3. Florica grabbed her coffee and sat back down on the bedroll, Nero's parting laugh still echoing in the room around her, full of light and warmth. A satisfied smile played around her lips, and she took another sip of her coffee. After everything that had happened, all the darkness and loss they had travelled through to get to this point, just seeing him alive and well and getting to hear his laugh again was a small miracle to her. She thumbed the edge of her mug, remembering their kitchen in Ashville. It seemed much further away now than just a few days' travel; would they ever be able to share again the sanctuary he had built for her? Somehow, she doubted it. Their lives had all changed too much; they had all changed too much for that. But not all the changes had been for the worse. She glanced over at the other mug, and smiled again. The coffee tasted like hope. She stood slowly again, her stomach still a little unsteady from last night's adventures in alcohol, picked up the other mug, and crossed the hall. "Claire?" she asked softly. "I have coffee... Can I come in?" Claire rolled groggily to her feet at the sound of Florica’s voice. “Huh, yeah - just give me a moment.” She glanced in the mirror, wincing a little at the disheveled face that stared back at her. Her hair was still a mess, her shirt had been scuffed and dirtied by her tumble in the courtyard, and she had Gaia’s own headache. But dangling around her neck was the proof that Lady Claire had won at least one fight last night. “Yeah,” she said after a moment, smiling as she slid the door open. “Oh, you blessed angel. You’re too good for this world.” She took the cup and immediately took a long sip. “Mana of the gods. Just the way I like it, too.” Florica nodded in emphatic agreement, wrapping both hands around her own mug and taking another sip. She giggled softly at Claire's praise. "Nero b-brought it. I g-guess you two talked," she observed, grinning impishly. Claire laughed softly, shaking her head. “Why yes, we did.” She took another sip. “Although I can’t.. really remember a lot about what we talked about.” Claire snorted suddenly. “I nearly beat your brother up, though. But then he cheated. Tackled me right into the dirt.” She made a motion like brushing off her shoulder and grinned. “I got an answer of some kind, though,” she said, holding up the ring. Florica's eyes lit up at the sight of it. She remembered Nero showing it to her not long after she first met the Grimmholts. "His g-grandmother's ring," she breathed. This isn't the first time he's given it to you. I hope it sticks, this time. "Yours, if he doesn't make it back," she said, letting it fall back down. "He wanted me to hold onto it... in case that happens." Her smile faded. "But I'll be damned if I let that giant blockhead die again on us." She reached behind her and slid the spellbane dagger free of its sheath. She twirled the blade around as she spoke. "He used it on Nate back at the Swan - it's some kind of spellbane weapon. It's infused with.. some kind of chaotic aura that disrupts spells and enchantments. But they're incredibly rare - and expensive. Even for him. I have a feeling if I can track down who made it.. I might be able to help him survive this." Florica remembered Nero saying something similar about the ring, but privately, she felt that the ring should be Claire's either way. But that's if he doesn't come back. And he is coming back, she reminded herself. She nodded in emphatic agreement at Claire's declaration that they wouldn't let him die again. She watched curiously as Claire swung the dagger around, and explained her suspicions about it. Her dark brows knitted together. "W-why not just a-ask him?" she suggested. “I tried. But he’s not exactly being forthcoming.” She picked up the folded letter from her dresser and opened it. No new message from him greeted her, although shadowy lines had appeared across the page. Crumpling. You’re on the move. Claire sighed, and placed it down. “I offered to go with him, the first time. That blockhead seems to think I’m made of glass. Even though I’m the one who taught him half of what he knows.” Florica took another sip of her coffee. He wants to protect you. It was a feeling she could sympathize with. But more and more, she found herself sympathizing with Claire, as well. She sighed. What a complicated mess of a family. "I'm s-sure he has a r-reason not to tell you," she murmured. "M-maybe you should l-leave it alone, Claire." Her expression darkened considerably. Claire slid the dagger back into its sheath until it clicked audibly into place. "I spent most of my life being told not to do this or that. It wasn't ladylike. It wasn't proper. Can't have a Baroness that runs around and gets muddy, or plays with the boys." She stopped, and picked up her coffee, sipping the last of it down. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter. "I'm tired of being protected." Florica let go of her coffee with one hand, raising her fingers with her palm towards Claire in a pacifying gesture. "I know. S-so am I. That's... w-why I came to Weland. Just... b-be careful, Claire." Claire set her mug down and sighed deeply. “I’ll be careful,” she promised. “I still have other things to do here, and there’s no guarantee my contacts can find out much, I suppose.” She looked down, and then she laughed musically. “Oh,” she said, in between laughs. “My mother’s going to lose her shit when she finds out. There’s that at least.” She grinned brightly at the thought. Florica giggled along with Claire, having a much better understanding of her dislike of her mother after everything that had been said last night. Her thoughts turned to Amy, wondering if she, too, was feeling the after-effects of the alcohol, and if Aki was bringing her coffee. Somehow she doubted it. She looked down at her half-empty mug. "I'm going to go f-find more coffee," she announced. "M-maybe see if Amy wants some." Claire glanced at her empty mug and nodded. "Wait, I'll come with. I owe her as much for last night." She rubbed the back of her neck. "You.. think she's going to be okay? Some of the things she said.. stuck with me." She looked down at her feet. "After Nero left, back then. I had friends, I mean.. my life didn't end there. I had other boyfriends. Some of them were.. even nice." Claire looked up at Florica, her silver eyes shining. "I just.. I see how she ended up where she is now. It's heartbreaking." "Never mind," she said softly. "I'm rambling. Let's go take her some coffee." Moved by Claire's confession, and by her compassion for Amy, Florica reached out and touched the blond's elbow, nodding. "I...know," she said comfortingly, though she felt a sharp sense of the difference between the two of them in that moment. You and Amy... you can probably count your partners on one hand. And they were people you actually wanted to be with, at least in the heat of the moment. She wondered what they would think of her if they knew, if they really knew the path that had gotten her to where she was today. Peter's mocking words returned to haunt her, not for the first time- You've been about everywhere, haven't you? And most of it on your knees. Florica dropped her hand and turned to lead the way to the kitchen, hoping that Claire would leave her blush of discomfort unremarked. Claire gave her a reassuring smile, but something about the look on Florica's face brought back a thought she had had long before. Something bad happened to you. But I've done enough digging into people's pasts for one day. A lot of good it's done. She could faintly remember Sai's face as he strained to hold back what he felt. So I'll let you tell me, if you ever feel like telling me. She looped her arm through Florica's as they walked. It was the best she could do. Florica glanced to the side in surprise as Claire took her arm. She had never known her to be so affectionate before - but then, there had always been so much between them. First Nate's situation, and then everything that had come out of it... For the first time, she allowed herself to hope that maybe, just maybe, they could really be friends. She patted Claire's arm gratefully as they walked, holding the dregs of her coffee in the other as they made their way down the long hallways to the kitchen. Most of the household were still asleep, but when they reached the kitchen they were greeted warmly enough by the cook, a middle-aged woman with a broad, smiling face, already sweating from the heat of the ovens as she worked on breakfast for the host of hungry Chibas who would soon be waking up. "Looking for a refill? Just over there," she nodded towards a table near the door, where the large pot of black coffee Nero had made was still half full. Several clean mugs, sugar and a jug of cold cream stood beside it. Claire grinned at the cook, and quickly busied herself with making a fresh cup for herself. "Want me to make you one?" she called over her shoulder as she stirred her coffee. "And do you happen to know how our lady Chiba happens to like her coffee? I know Welanders have their own traditions about it. I'm pretty happy as long as it's sweet." "Oh, no thank you ma'am, very sweet of you but I'm quite warm enough as it is. Now, which Lady Chiba? There's a fair few of 'em in these parts," she observed with a warm chuckle, bending down to slide a tray of buns into the oven. "Amy-san," Claire answered, picking up a second mug and pouring some coffee into it. "I'm still getting used to seeing so many people living in one place like this," she admitted. "My family's.. pretty small." And getting smaller, it feels like. She glanced over to see what Florica was doing. She smiled. Maybe not forever, though. Little steps. "Ah, yes, it can be a bit of a shock," the cook agreed, closing the oven and standing to reach above her head for the hanging pots and pans, bringing several down to the stovetop at once with an air of comfortable routine. "Black, for young Amy-san." Florica returned Claire's smile and slid her mug over for a refill as well, loading it up with cream and sugar afterwards until it was nearly as pale as Claire's skin. "Thanks," she murmured. The two girls headed back down the hallways to Amy's family's suite. When they tapped on the sliding door separating those rooms from the rest of the household, Aki slid it open, blinking in surprise at the guests. "Oh, Claire-san, Lady Caesar," he rumbled, ducking a quick, sloppy bow while still tucking his shirt into his pants. "Uh, come in, come in," he stepped back, nodding towards the kotatsu room. "Amy-chan's still asleep, but I'm sure she'll be up soon. That for her?" he smiled at the coffee. “Peace offering,” Claire said, giving Aki a bright smile. You’re a good lad at heart. Just making the best of it. “Oh; I’m sorry I didn’t bring you one. I figured you and Sai would be getting an early start on that mountainous pile of paperwork.” She handed him the cup of black coffee. “I hope she and the little one slept well.” And that my duel with Nero didn’t wake anyone else up. I mean, I blunted the sound as much as I could but... I can’t really remember how well I did it. "Aw, that's alright, thanks," Aki chuckled, accepting Amy's mug with a nod. "No, I got my bit done yesterday, thank goodness. Paperwork and I don't get along, generally speaking. I'll just go wave this under the sleeping princess' nose, shall I?" He disappeared back into the darkened bedroom, sliding the door mostly shut behind him and leaving Claire and Florica to wait in the hall or have a seat at the kotatsu. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness, and then crouched down beside his sleeping wife, holding the mug in one large hand. "Amy-hime," he murmured gently, laying a hand on her shoulder, hoping to wake her without disturbing the babe slumbering on the bedroll beside her. "Your friends brought coffee. Want some?" Slowly, Amy's eyes blinked open. She let out a tired sigh as Aki brushed a few stray hairs off her forehead. "...okay," she murmured meekly, not quite looking at him. In the practical light of morning she felt rather guilty about some of the things she had let herself say last night. Why am I like this? Taking his offered hand, she slowly sat up, wincing at the headache that suddenly started to pound. She felt weak and shaky all over. "Ow..." she whimpered. Aki sighed and pressed the coffee into her hands. "Yeah. That's why we maybe don't drink the whole bottle in one night, ne?" Amy wrinkled her nose at the chastisement, torn between giving her husband the middle finger and swearing off rice wine from now henceforth unto forever. In the end she just nodded, and took a cautious sip of her coffee, hoping she'd be able to keep it down. Her stomach gurgled threateningly for a moment, but then subsided. Amy sighed in relief, letting the rich bitterness of the coffee banish the foul taste in her mouth. "Are they still here?" "Yeah. Want me to tell them to come back later?" "...No, it's okay, I'm up. Tell them I'll just be a minute?" Aki grunted his agreement and stood up from his crouch, coming out to find the other two girls. "She'll be right out," he told them cheerfully, and then turned and disappeared further into the little home. Claire chuckled, and sat down at the kotatsu. This time, she slid her legs beneath the blanket, not trusting herself to keep warm through her own power. She brought the cup to her lips and took a deep sip as Aki disappeared into the bedroom. Poor thing. Probably should have let her sleep in, but.. we might as well get an early start today. She glanced over to Florica, somewhat envious of the fact that she was able to wake so easily with the dawn. Of course, you also had Nero bring you coffee. I mean, that's got to help. She shook her head quickly to clear it, and then glanced up as the door slid open again and Aki emerged. "Good," she said. "Have a good day, Chiba-san."
  4. Florica woke with the sun, as usual. What was not usual was the pounding headache. Nor the mouth that tasted like old sawdust. She sat up and rubbed her face blearily with both hands, cursing rice wine in every language she knew. Squinting against the early morning light, she looked around the room. The sight of the empty glass sitting on the table near her bed brought with it a vague, dream-like memory of Sai's presence. Oh Gaia... did he have to carry me to bed? Her cheeks darkened, and she rubbed her face again, groaning quietly. Coffee... I need coffee. She looked up in surprise at the knock at her door, wondering who else might be up at this hour. She looked down at herself. She was still fully dressed, if somewhat disheveled. "C-come in," she called, absently re-centring her headscarf over her tousled hair. She brightened when she saw it was her brother, and brightened further when she saw he came with coffee. "You're a t-true friend to the Banjari p-people," she declared with heartfelt earnestness, reaching for her mug. "Had to earn my token somehow," he said, smiling wryly and pulling a leather loop with the wagon wheel from his shirt. He'd needed a new weight there. This one.. felt right. He set the other mug down on the dresser. "For Claire," he said. "Whenever she wakes up." He laughed softly. "She'll be singing your praises for it, if last night was any indication. Good on you, for keeping up with her. I'm.. rather impressed." He slipped the wagon wheel back into his shirt and leaned against the wall. "Truth be told," he said, resting a hand on her headscarf. "You've become as much a Caesar as I am. I'm proud of you." He fell silent. "I wanted you to hear that before I left. There are.. some things I've learned about our families. Things I need answers to. But one thing you should know. Our family motto. Fiat justicia ruat caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens may fall. I don't know how long I'll be gone. But there won't be any enemies left against us when I return." Florica chuckled softly as Nero praised her for keeping up with Claire's drinking. She'd been half-expecting a reprimand, and she felt some of her embarrassment at last night's drunkenness ease away like mist before the morning sun. I can always count on you to take me as I am, brother. Her grin turned a little shy as he praised her more seriously, only to fall away into a neutral expression as he explained he was leaving. So soon... Did Claire chase you off? But it didn't sound that way. Pushing the light blanket aside with one hand, she stood up, careful not to spill the precious coffee in the other. Precious for more than one reason, now - who knew when she'd get to have coffee made by family again. She had grown taller, over the years since they'd met, but she would always look up to him. "Fiat justicia ruat caelum," she replied, saluting her brother with a fist over her heart. I'll be alright, the gesture said. I'm stronger now. I'm a Caesar. "Somehow, b-brother, I think w-we may always have enemies," she replied with a half-smile. "As long as you do return, I'll be h-happy." Nero returned her salute with a hearty thump. It felt right in the same way that the sword at his side felt right. But there was something bitter about it too. "Well, we can't have things be too easy for the Caesars," he drawled confidently. "Any of us still alive, at any rate." He cocked his head slightly, all too aware of the passing time but unwilling to leave just yet. "You have Frost handy?" he asked. "Don't go anywhere without it." Florica nodded, gesturing to a small box beneath the table. "I won't," she promised with a smile. "W-would be a shame to not have it w-when I need it after I w-went to the t-t-trouble of fixing it." He tapped the elmwood handle of his blade. "That, and it'll help me find you in a pinch, but not vice versa. If you need to find me, then find Claire. She'll know how to get ahold of me no matter where I am." Florica nodded seriously. "I'll remember," she promised with a thoughtful smile. First the coffee for Claire, now this... It seemed like Claire charging off to talk to Nero might have actually done some good this time. "You two t-talking again?" she asked, smirking a little. Nero gave a sly smirk. “Wouldn’t have happened to have anything to do with you girls, would it?” He leaned back, folding his arms across his chest. “I though I’d settled things, but she came for a rematch.” Florica grinned, leaving the question unanswered. "I'm happy for you, aquila mea," she said simply. "You...deserve happiness as much as anyone. M-more than most," she added seriously. She searched his face, hoping he would have the sense to believe her. Nero held his hands up. “I just gave her something to hold onto for me. If I don’t make it back, it’s yours.” He smiled wryly. “If I do.. I guess we’ll see how things work out. I figured she hated me this entire time. The truth.. seems a lot more complicated than that.” "It usually is," his sister agreed softly, thinking of all the things she felt towards Nate. It made her head hurt. Or maybe that was just the hangover. She wrinkled her forehead and took a sip of her coffee, and then set it down on the dresser beside Claire's so that she could wrap her brother in her arms, squeezing tightly and burying her face in his chest. "Come back to us, aquila mea. Or I will break down the doors of the sky to drag you back." Nero hugged her tightly, resting his chin against her head. "I will, little aquila. I know well enough that's not an idle threat of yours," he murmured. He released her, and straightened up. Nero rested a hand on the hilt of his sword, and with the other he saluted her a final time. "Hail, Lady Caesar. Take care of the House. Leave no blow unanswered." He turned and paused at the doorway, turning back one last time. "And.. watch out for lost puppies." He laughed, and then departed, his boots thudding against the floorboards as he left.
  5. Sai turned away to head to his own bedroom, but he had only taken a few steps when another late-night wanderer came around the corner looking somewhat the worse for wear - little Florica, dragging her feet and swaying side to side as she walked, dragging one hand along the wall for balance. Sai chuckled and shook his head. Looks like it was a fun night all around. He noted that Florica was coming from the direction of Aki and Amy's suite, and for a moment, wondered what had been said in there that had made Claire feel the need to try to intervene with him and Amy. But there were more immediate concerns, and he pushed the thought aside. "All right there Florica?" he asked cheerfully, stepping forward. Florica blinked, her steps halting as she tried to focus on Sai, seeing him double for several seconds before her vision aligned. "Oh, h-hello Sai....san," she slurred, taking a few more steps forward before losing her balance with a squeak of alarm. Sai jumped forward and caught her easily before she could come crashing down, steadying her for a moment with an arm around her back beneath her shoulders. When her knees didn't immediately straighten, he shrugged and slipped his other arm beneath her knees, picking her up like a child. "Looks like I'm going to be doing another water run," he muttered to himself, amused. "Which bedroom is yours, Florica?" Florica squinted at the long line of identical doors. "Uuuhh... whichever one is across from Claire's." "You were nearly there, then," he noted, carrying her over to that door and shifting his weight to one foot, sliding the door open with the other. He laid her gently down on the bedroll, and then straightened up. "Try to stay awake for a minute, alright? I'm going to get you some water." She made a noise that might have been agreement. Chuckling and rubbing the back of his neck, Sai spun about to fetch another glass of water from the kitchen, leaving the door open behind him. When he came back a few minutes later, Florica was passed out, as he had more than half expected. He knelt behind her and gently propped her back up in a half-sitting position in his lap, bringing the glass to her lips. "Come on, Florica. Drink this and then you can sleep. You'll thank me in the morning. If you remember any of this," he commented dryly. Florica sighed tiredly, eyes blinking open for a moment. She brought her hand up over Sai's to steady the glass, and drank obediently. "Thanks..." she mumbled. "No problem." He set the glass aside, leaning over to reach the low table against the wall, and then gently shifted her head back from his knees to her pillow. She was asleep again before he finished the maneuver. Girls... Shaking his head and smiling, he stood and left the room, quietly sliding the door shut behind him. It was well and truly late, now, but Claire's words had unsettled him more than he let on. Heading out into the courtyard, he began to dance, pouring all his focus into the movements as he usually did to clear his mind. But tonight, he could not shake the ghostly memory of a much younger Amy, who had so often danced with him across this same lawn. In the end, exhausted but still mentally restless, he gave it up and went to bed.
  6. "Good night, Callie," he said as he dropped her back onto her bed. She murmured something unintelligible before he pulled the blankets over her. "I don't know if you can hear me, or if you'll even remember this. I won't be here in the morning. But I'm going to leave something you can use to get in contact with me. And my will." He gave her a wry smile. "Take care of yourself." She reached out and caught ahold of his sleeve before he could leave. He sighed softly. With a slow movement, he turned to kneel beside her. "You don't have to say it. I know," he whispered. "But if I don't do what I have to do, none of us will ever be able to stop sleeping with one eye open. I don't know when or if I'll be back." He stroked a hand through her hair. "I never wanted to drag you into this world with me. I'm not going to now. You always deserved better than me, Callie." She let go of his sleeve. Nero reached up and pulled the chain around his neck loose. He glanced down at it for a moment, still as a statue. "Good bye, Claire. Keep this safe." He pressed it into her palm. Nero left. Claire's eyes opened. She pulled the ring closer to her, feeling the residual warmth within. Goodbye, Nero. She stayed there for a few minutes, trying to sleep. In the end, she couldn't. She slipped the chain around her neck, feeling the heavy weight there, and then she rose. "Sai," she whispered, and stumbled her way out into the hallways to find him. As it so happened, Sai and Tomoko had just called it quits for the night. The hallways were unlit, but the large moon hung low over the courtyard, streaming in the windows, providing plentiful natural light. Sai was walking towards his own bedroom when he came around the corner and encountered a rather dishevelled-looking Claire. "Claire-san," he said, surprised, looking her up and down with a puzzled expression. "Is everything alright?" Claire ran her fingers through her hair and flicked a few stray leaves loose. "Yes, no." She sighed. "No. It's not okay." She rang her fingers along the ring as she thought about what to say. How could she even bring this up to him? Probably none of my business. It's just.. too sad to let stand. She looked up at the young Welander man - family in her eyes - and set her jaw firmly. "We need to talk. About you and Chiba-san. Not Aki. Amy." She tilted her head in the direction of her room and then looked over to his. "But.. probably not the best place to talk. Choose. Your room or mine, but we have to do this. Before anything worse happens." A deep stillness settled over Sai's frame; the same way he'd responded the first time she tried to probe the broken pieces of his past. Amy... His jaw clenched, eyes growing cool and distant. "Claire..." he shook his head slowly. "No. That was... it's in the past." "I know what it's like," she said quietly, "to be the one left behind. To have to pick up the imperfect shards and try to see the world the same way again." Her silver eyes flashed in the light as they met his. "She's hurting. They both are." She reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder. "You can't keep running from the past, Sai. You have to be better." The clenched muscles of his shoulder felt like ironwood beneath her hand, even through his kimono. "That's what I'm trying to do," he said in a tightly controlled, even tone. Claire nodded. "I don't know the full story," she admitted. "I only know that.. she's where she is today in part because of your disappearance." She looked out towards the courtyard. The broken hilt of her bokken peeked out from the grass. "It's complicated. I know that. But you should talk to her. She needs to hear it from you." "That would not be appropriate, Claire-san," Sai said more firmly. "And she doesn't want to talk to me, in any case." "Can you really blame her?" She sighed deeply. "She hoped. She dreamed. She lost it all when you 'died'. Even then, she named a son after you. Tried to build a life here as best she could." She slipped the ring beneath her shirt and turned back to him. "But those wounds.. they're not going to heal on their own. No matter how much she hopes and prays and wants them to." Her gaze grew distant. "That.. going through that twists you. It traps you in a prison of your own miserable creation. Sometimes you find your way out of it. Sometimes, it drives you to do things you regret. Like threatening a young girl in her own home. Or lashing out at the people you love and care about." She closed her eyes. "Or..." "Or it makes you into a ghost. Hating that you lived. Never able to live among the rest of us because of it." Claire took his hands in hers. "You are smart, and wise. I believe in you. Don't make the same mistakes we did." Smart and wise... He wanted to laugh, to throw her words back in her face. But he couldn't. Not to Claire. He looked down at their joined hands. "I would only hurt her worse if I started meddling again now," he said in a low voice, his tone pleading for her understanding. "And Aki-san. And their son." "Then do what you think is right. And hope for the best." She pulled him into a tight hug. For all that separated them, age, upbringing, outlook, and more, Sai was as much a brother to her as Nate was. He had fought with her. Bled with her. Danced away the sorrows of a cruel world with her. She stepped back and gave him a bright smile. "No matter what, Sai, I've got your back. Just like you had mine." Sai returned her hug, if a little stiffly. He chuckled inwardly at the odour of sake on her breath. So that's why... "Thank you, Claire," he said as he stepped back as well, a small smile playing around his eyes. "I know you do." He bowed slightly, the gesture more playful than formal. "I think perhaps the Lady Claire should drink some water before bed. Shall I bring you some?" She wrinkled her nose and laughed. "I think the Lady Claire would be very amenable to such. The Lady Claire has had an interesting night, and acquired a penchant for speaking in the third person." She returned the bow, stopping just before she would tip over. "She has also lost a fight. But maybe won another," she added after a moment. "And we'll call this one a draw, my student." She gave a dramatic wave. Sai laughed warmly, reaching out a hand in case she needed it, and letting it fall again when she regained her balance. "A draw, sensei," he agreed. He watched long enough to assure himself that she would be able to get back to her room unaided, and then turned to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen, his feet whispering over the woven mats as lightly as any cat's. He had visited the Chibas many times as a child, and still knew his way around as well as he knew the Swan. Walking down the empty halls in the moonlight, he had a strange feeling that he was ten again, sneaking around with Aki to secure a midnight snack. He was always hungry. Sai smirked at the memory. Not much has changed. But he knew that, really, everything had. In just a few minutes he was back at Claire's door, tapping on it politely before he started to slide it open. "Still awake?" he asked, glass of water in hand. The letter in her hands was written in his narrow, angular script, although it calling it a letter was hardly accurate. It was a note, at best, leaving most of the fine, heavy parchment clear. Take care of the little eagle if I don't come back. She rolled her eyes. "Yes, yes," she muttered. Not like Florica really needed much help after her display in the Vaults... "Although, you've already done a will. So, I guess this one's just a to-do list for me, eh?" She turned as Sai tapped on the door, still tracing a finger over Nero's ring. The letter folded easily, and she kept it in her hands as she walked over to open the door for him. "Still awake," she answered, accepting the glass gratefully. "Haven't had that much to drink in a while," she admitted. "Then again I haven't really had much to celebrate, either." She gulped down the water quickly, and set the glass aside atop the letter. A few stray drops slid down the glass and spotted the ink. Sai leaned against the doorframe, respectfully staying outside the room proper. He glanced curiously at the paper, but made no comment on it. "Never been much of a drinker myself," he admitted. "Don't like the taste." "Yeah," she said sheepishly, "I.. probably shouldn't have had so much. Academy days coming back to haunt me." She glanced over at him fondly, appreciative of the fact that he hadn't asked about the letter or any of it. And here I am pushing my nose into his life again. She took the letter from beneath the glass and unfolded it. "A letter from Nero. Just asking me to look after his sister while he's gone." She furrowed her brows. Go to bed. Love, Nero. "That.. wasn't there before." Faint lines crisscrossed the paper, forming a subtle pattern similar to the creases from the original fold. But they were reversed, as though it had once been folded the other way. She smiled, and dipped a fingertip into the wet ink, pressing it against the top edge for few seconds. A moment later, a much wider fingerprint faded into the corner beside hers. "Clever, for a bookseller." She turned back to Sai. "I never did thank you properly for what you did. When you and I ran into each other.. I was.. lost. Hopeless. I'd given up on ever seeing my brother again. Thank you. My family, Nero's, Audric's. We're all bound together. Have been for years. But, for what it's worth, I hope the Kimura and Grimmholt families stick by each other long after we're gone." "I did no more for you than you did for me," he replied smoothly. "You saw how I was living. Or not living, perhaps." He nodded. "I'm sure they will, if there are any after us." Sai chuckled and brushed a few stray hairs out of his face, standing up straight again. "I should let you sleep. It's late. And we have another busy day ahead." "Likewise," she agreed. "Good night, Kimura Sai." She folded the letter and took it with her as she closed the door.
  7. In the silence that followed after Claire left the room, Florica reached over and pulled the sake bottle towards herself. She had been intending to refill her cup, but instead she ended up just looking down at it for a long moment, the world spinning a little. I think I've had enough, too. Leaving it on the table, she got up and stumbled around to Amy's side, sitting down heavily on the cushions beside her, and rested her heavy head affectionately on the dancer's slender shoulder, looking down at little Sai. After a moment, Amy snaked her free arm around the Lady Caesar, rubbing her back. "I'm sorry about you and Nate," she said softly. "Whatever happened, it... it sounds like it must have been painful for you." Florica nodded and let out a long, sake-scented sigh. "For all of us," she murmured. "Nate, he... he's Claire's little brother. We... fell quickly, and hard." She chuckled wistfully at the memory. "But there was... bad magic, tangled up with him. Tangled up with me t-too, for a while." She sighed. "I wasn't... I'm not... strong enough, to be around that. It's... too much like the d-darkness inside. Nate is... he's good, and kind, and funny and... I nearly destroyed him." Her voice quavered. "Nearly destroyed everyone. I can't..." She broke off, remembering the Holt, remembering Nero in the hospital bed, remembering all of it, and she let out a choking sob. "Shh," Amy soothed, turning a little more towards her, rubbing her back and kissing her forehead. "Shh, shh, it's alright, Florica. You're safe now. They all are." Not knowing the details, it was all she could think of to say, but it seemed to help; Florica started to calm down again. Amy kept rubbing her back. Darkness... bad magic... She held her babe a little closer to her chest. What kind of people have you brought into our world, Sai?
  8. "No," Claire replied instantly. "No, no." She shook her head. "Nope, not going to happen." She looked over at Florica and then back to Amy. "I've.. he and I... We've already.." She raised a hand and then let it fall. "Oh, what the hell. Sorry if I make him mad tonight, Florica." She stood up, stretching her tense muscles as she mentally prepared herself. Am I really doing this? Agh. But Amy's right. We're not married or tied down, and there might not be another chance for us to talk. Okay. This is happening. I'm going to do this. I can do this. She let out the breath she had been holding and then took a long step towards the door. And then she turned, picked up what was left of the bottle of sake, and took a deep swig before replacing it. "Okay. Now I'm ready," she said, giving them a quick, confident smile before she left. Just need one thing. She found him standing in the courtyard, gently pruning some of the flowering plants. "Claire," he said cordially, not bothering to turn and greet her. "Blockhead," she replied. Wood clattered against the stones, and rolled against his feet. The curved wooden bokken in her hands was heavier and thicker than what Brutus had been, but its worn grip fit into her hands just as easily. He turned slowly, glancing at the weapon at his feet, and then looking up to her. His expression was blank, but she caught a flicker of amusement in his eyes. "I don't have any more to say, Claire." He stood, and towered over her. "Last night.. I meant what I said." Her sword whooshed through the air in front of his nose. "Claire," he said reprovingly. Nero ducked backwards as her second stroke passed through the space his head had been just a moment before. "What are you doing?" Nero said harshly, before she sent a thrust for his chest. He narrowly twisted out of the way and his fingers snatched up the bokken at his feet. He brought it up in a level guard, stepping back to put more distance between them. "I'm not here to talk about that," she answered at last. Their swords met in a dull thud and parted as they maneuvered around the courtyard. "Why did we," she said, parrying a counterstrike, "never work?" He made a feint towards her head and swiped down towards her shoulder. Claire sidestepped, slashing upwards and forcing him back. "I understood," feint, thrust, parry, "when your parents died," slash, sidestep, "and when Uncle Antony passed," parry, block, block, "but you never came back." Their wooden blades ground together. Nero growled. "You don't understand," slash, dodge, slash, slash, thrust, "anything about me or what my family has been through." They pulled apart, opening the distance. Their breaths came out in warm puffs of vapor. "You could never understand." "You never gave me the chance." She spun, driving a leg at his feet. He fell backwards, and rolled to his feet, abandoning his sword. Claire drove a thrust for his neck, but he twisted out of the way, flinging his arms around her in a rough grapple. They fell in a tangled heap, rolling amidst the courtyard. Her sword snapped beneath them as the world spun. He rolled off, and lay panting on the fresh grass beside her. His shirt had come loose, and a bright gold circlet lay open to the night air. "Still?" She breathed, looking over at him. "Yeah." He closed his eyes. His hand came over and he tapped her forehead. "You lose this time, Callie." She rolled over onto her side and brushed some grass from his tired face. "Nero, I still l-" She turned over and retched. He laughed, and then held her hair out of her way until she finished heaving. "I think you've had enough fun for one night," he said, still laughing. The swordsman rolled to his knees, and then stood up gingerly. "Ass," she muttered, crawling back to a sitting position. He leaned down and picked up from the ground, tossing her over his shoulder with an easy familiarity. "To bed with you, troublesome Grimmholt girl. Before you cause any more property destruction. Or try to make me stay the night." Even if I wanted to.
  9. "Please and thank you, Amy-san," Claire said, gratefully accepting the proffered drink. She sat at the edge of the kotatsu, keeping her legs outside rather than following their host. "I've heard I was too," she agreed quietly. "Although to hear my mother talk about it, I only got worse as time went on." Claire gave a wry smile at that. She took a quick sip of sake, nodding appreciatively at its quality. Her gaze flicked over to the open doorway where young Sai slept, remaining there for just a moment before she returned them to Amy and Florica. "How old is he?" she asked softly. So young to have a child, aren't you? Florica accepted one of the small cups of sake as well, wrapping her fingers around it to warm them, the smell bringing back a host of memories that she was not entirely prepared to deal with at that moment. Banishing them from mind, she focused on the conversation at hand. "Five months, give or take," Amy answered with a warm smile, glancing over at the door as well. "And please, in here, it's just Amy. That goes for you, too, Lady Caesar," she inclined her head and winked at Florica, who sat across from her. "F-Florica," the latter replied with a shy smile, finally taking a sip of her sake. "Florica, then," Amy replied cheerfully. Claire smiled warmly and then took another sip. "Just Amy it is." She set her cup down gently, and then leaned back on her arms. "It's lovely here," she said, looking around at the finely decorated chamber around them. "I hope the new Swan has a place just like it for when you and your husband come to visit Sai. And bring little Sai to see his namesake." She laughed softly. "It's a good name, that. Hopefully he's just as good of a dancer when he grows up." Amy's eyes brightened with pride. "Born of two dancers and named of another, how can he not be?" she agreed cheerfully. "Yes, I'm sure Sai will have a kotatsu room. His family always did." Kotatsu. Florica logged the word away, looking down at the blanketed table. The Welanders had so many idiosyncrasies; though they spoke Mirian, they seemed almost as different from the rest of the gadje as the gadje were from the Banjari. She smiled whimsically at the thought, glancing up at Amy again. Catching her look, Amy returned her smile. "So I know why Claire's here, but what brings you to Weland, Florica?" she enquired curiously. "Oh, me?" Florica glanced at Claire, and then down at her cup. I needed to get away from everyone. Not a nice thing to say. "Just... a f-fresh start," she said vaguely, her cheeks colouring a bit. Claire answered almost as quickly as Florica did. "It's time for our Lady Caesar to see some more of the world," she lied cheerfully. "Her brother is doing some renovations at home, so it seemed like a good time." She gave a well meaning shrug in Florica's direction. "I'm just glad we get to see each other under.. better terms than last time." "I really am sorry." She trailed off. "You know, I thought we'd probably have more to talk about when we met up again. More girl talk." Claire laughed bitterly. "But, you already know the story of my ex. And I know yours." She turned to Amy. "At least one of us made it through the dating minefield intact, right?" Florica sipped her sake again as Claire spoke, grateful for her help, though still slightly frustrated with how she had attacked Nero's suggestions yesterday. She nodded quietly, and put her cup down, starting to feel the effects of it as a tingling over her skin. Amy grinned bashfully at Claire's comment, nodding and looking down. "I suppose I did," she agreed smoothly. "Aki is a good husband. Better than I deserve." "You do yourself a disservice," Claire replied. "Your husband is a good man. But you definitely keep a cool head on your shoulders where he sometimes seems.. out of his depth." She thought of another good man with the same problem, and her expression turned dour. She covered it up with another drink. She'd never been much to drink heavily, but the wine was delicious and the familiar warmth managed to block out some of her worry over Nate and Nero and Sai and Audric. "More please," she asked politely, offering her empty cup to Amy. "You're.. fortunate. My family has a... complicated relationship with the other nobles." She looked down. "My mother never wanted me to marry anyone that wasn't at least a Count or higher. The very concept that someone could want more out of life than a loveless marriage of convenience... just never occurred to her. Probably why she was so happy when... " Claire went bright scarlet and stopped speaking suddenly. "I.. think I've had enough, actually." Partway through refilling Claire's cup as the words 'loveless marriage' echoed in her ears, Amy's hands twitched, spilling a few drops of sake before regaining her tight control and gracefully setting the bottle back in the hot water. She slid the full cup back to Claire, ignoring the pronouncement that she'd had enough, and reached across the table for Florica's cup. "Marrying for love is ideal, of course," she agreed smoothly. "When the option is available." Claire sighed and accepted the drink with a token nod, brushing some of the drops of wine from the edge of her cup. She wrinkled her nose at the phrasing Amy had used. “When the option is available,” she repeated to herself. “When would the option not be available for you, you’re married!” She waved her hand in the direction of the doorway where little Sai slept. “And you have a cute little baby boy and...” lorica, who had been watching the tart exchange with increasingly wide eyes, murmured, "Claire!" in a somewhat desperate tone. Amy still smiled, but the expression had turned somewhat brittle, her own blush rising as the sake took its toll. "I do indeed," she agreed coolly. "A 'Kimura Sai' of my very own." She barked out a bitter laugh and took a long sip of her drink, perversely enjoying the silence that followed that pronouncement. Claire downed her cup as Amy's laugh struck an unpleasant chord. She sheepishly glanced over to Florica, imploring her to jump in and save them all from the uncomfortable atmosphere to no avail. "I..." She trailed off. "Florica..." And again, silence. "My fiancé left me to pursue the family business," she said quickly. "Broke off our engagement. Never wrote." And now he's off to do a lovely suicide mission. She smiled mirthlessly. "Maybe my mother was right. Maybe love isn't everything." And then she held out her empty cup again. "It certainly has a funny way of showing it, if it is," Amy agreed frankly, her cheeks rosy as she refilled Claire's cup. She sighed thoughtfully, her dark brows knitting together. "Men. Pah." Florica took another long sip of her drink, her thoughts travelling to Nate, and then to the other men she'd had the displeasure of being intimate with over her life. She nodded in silent but emphatic agreement, her own cheeks starting to glow. She looked over at Claire, and then at Amy, both of them dealing with the simple, excruciating absence of the man they had hoped to share their lives with. A thought occured to her, and she suddenly let out a snort of laughter. "All three of us...we all loved someone who came back from the dead." The words spilled out smoothly, the anxiety that halted her speech temporarily soothed away by the wine. "Men," Claire agreed, saluting Amy with her cup before she sipped. Her own thoughts wandered to Nero, and the things he kept close to him. The walls that slammed shut even as he kept her just close enough to see them. "Stupid, stubborn Caesar men," she muttered under her breath. Florica's laughter brought her back from the dark thoughts she had been entertaining. It took her a moment to really hear her and understand. And then Claire threw her head back and laughed with her. "Oh, Gaia, you're right. We really did. Some of ours stayed a little more dead than others, admittedly." She wiped a tear from her eye. Claire then raised her cup in a toast. "To our phantoms - those we loved, those who left, and those who came back." And the one who will come back to us. Florica and Amy raised their cups as well. "To our phantoms," Amy echoed. "To the ghosts," Florica agreed. They all drank. Florica put down her empty cup, looking over at Claire. "When we were at the Swan... You asked me w-what... W-why I reacted the w-way I did to the idea of b-being a healer." She took a breath. "While Nero was... at the hospital, I... worked there, for a while." She looked down at her cup. "I... w-wasn't in a good place, in my head. There was this nurse, Peter..." She accepted her cup back from Amy, who had wordlessly refilled it, and took another sip. "We... kind of... dated... I guess..." she finished vaguely in a low voice, her cheeks burning from more than just the wine. Claire nodded along to Florica's story, but something about it made her listen more intently. "I didn't know that," she said after a moment. She rested her cup down and looked at Florica, her silver eyes keen in the light. "Does Nero know?" Three little words, but with a heavy weight behind them. Florica shook her head, pressing her lips together. "He's done enough for me, Claire," she said softly. "It's... it's in the past." Claire nodded. She reached across and rested her hand on Florica’s. “Okay.” She took a breath. “Just.. be careful.” Claire rubbed the back of her neck. “Our pasts have a way of.. catching back up with us when we least expect it. Nero and I know that lesson all too well. I just want you to be happy. Even if it’s not with my Natey.” Florica turned her hand up, gratefully clasping Claire's warm fingers. Her own were chill and clammy, despite the warmth of the wine. "Thank you, Claire," she said, surprised and moved by the woman's concern. "This Peter sounds like a piece of work," Amy observed shrewdly. It didn't take a genius to picture what kind of man would be interested in dating the timid Lady Caesar while she was in a bad place mentally. 'Kind of' dating. She let out a long sigh, shaking her head. "Well, at least you're far away from him now." Florica nodded again, looking down at her cup. "From all of them," she mumbled, thinking of Nate and Nero, and Haidee and Clarissa and all the rest. "Can't do any harm from here. Better for everyone..." “It’s the least I could do,” Claire said softly. “But if he bothers you again, you’re always welcome to let me know.” She grinned. “I’ve got a few tricks for showing the boys how to take no for an answer.” She nodded along wholeheartedly with Amy’s observation about the Peter fellow. She sensed the twinge of sadness in Florica’s voice and scooted over to wrap an arm around her shoulders. “Hey, you’re Lady Caesar now. You’re stuck with all of us - all the way down the utterly insane route our families take through life. But look on the bright side, at least Nero’s not going to stick around to bother you for much longer.” Florica looked over at Claire in surprise at finding her arm suddenly around her. "Thank you," she reiterated, confused but touched by the display of affection. She gave a crooked half-smile. "He never bothers me. I'm the o-one that always gets him into t-trouble. Claire... I'm sorry about Nate." Her heart ached as she spoke his name. "About everything. I don't... I don't think he and I... are g-good for each other." Amy listened curiously, not privy to all the details behind the unfolding scene, but understanding that this Nate person was someone close to Claire, and that Florica had dated him, or something. She swilled her sake around in her cup, mildly jealous of the closeness of the two women. Family... She wondered if she would ever feel that way about the Chibas, or they about her. It was never spoken of, but she knew they all knew why she and Aki had married so suddenly, and to someone of such a low rank. She scowled down at the table, a sudden wave of loneliness howling through her. Claire gave Florica a hollow smile, and for a moment her silver eyes were distant. Story of our lives, it seems. "It's okay," she said reassuringly, hoping it was more convincing a show than what she felt. "It's not your fault we were cursed. You didn't make him fall out of that tree. You didn't make him fall for you." She exhaled slowly. "It's enough that you both made it out alive. Maybe not together, but alive." Claire took her cup back up and took another sip of the cooling sake. "It wouldn't be the first time a Caesar and a Grimmholt didn't work out." Florica nodded, placing her hand over Claire's on her shoulder and pressing down on it in wordless gratitude and sympathy. From across the hall came the quiet but distinct cry of little Sai. "Fuck," Amy blurted, and then covered her hand with her mouth, embarrassed that something so obscene had slipped out. "...Sorry. Excuse me, ladies. He must be hungry again..." She shuffled backwards out from under the table, and without thinking about it offered them the bow that came as naturally to her as breathing, the one she'd always had to perform as a Saito: she pressed both hands and then her forehead to the ground before her, and then smoothly rose and walked from the room to fetch her child, leaving the sliding door open behind her. As she re-emerged into the hallway holding him, Aki entered their suite, finally done with paperwork for the day. "Amy," he greeted her, a little surprised to encounter her in the hallway. "Evening, husband," she replied, forcing a smile. He came over to her, towering over her, and looked down at her, studying her face. His hand rose to cup the side of her face, his broad thumb rolling across her flushed cheek, and he pressed a kiss onto her forehead. "You smell like sake again," he rumbled, sounding disappointed. "Ever since he came back-" "Don't, Aki," Amy cut him off, taking a step back, out of his arms. "Please. Not tonight." Aki let out a long, hard sigh, looking down at the puzzle that was his wife. "Want me to take him?" He glanced down at his son. She shook her head. "He's hungry." "Alright. Coming to bed soon?" "Little while. Claire-san and Florica-san are visiting." Aki grunted in surprise, glancing over at the half-open door and nodding at their guests. "Okay. Well, have a good night then. Love you." "...I love you too." Aki walked past her into the bedroom and closed the door behind him, and Amy returned to the kotatsu, tucking her knees beneath it and rearranging her kimono to start nursing Sai without looking up at Florica or Claire, a bittersweet smile plastered over her face. Claire winced at the exchange between the two Chibas. She was intensely grateful to have Florica there rather than being there on her own. Through the pleasant haze of the sake, she was beginning to understand more of the truth about Amy, and it made her heart ache for her. When the option is available, indeed. From the outside, Amy and Aki were.. idyllic, certainly charming with little Sai. But once that façade fell, the truth of things was painful to see. I wonder if Sai knows what his "death" caused here. Claire shifted to sit a little closer to Amy. Her silver eyes fell to the little boy cradled in the young woman's arms. This one's too close to home. Another loveless marriage. Another little boy caught in the crossfire. She drained her cup and then set it aside near the bottle. "I think that's enough for me tonight," she said cheerfully. "Any more and I might go give Florica's brother a piece of my mind." She held a hand up to Florica to let her know it was in jest. Florica giggled softly at Claire's joke, but she didn't take her eyes off Amy. While Claire had been listening to the conversation in the hallway, the Banjari girl had been mulling over the subtext of the bow that Amy had offered them. It was one she had seen before in Weland - one offered only by the poorest of the poor: the landless, the homeless, the dregs of society. The same category that the Banjari fell into, on the rare occasions when the miada led them to Weland's manicured streets. Perhaps you and I aren't so different after all, Chiba Amy, she mused, sipping her sake again as she watched her feeding her baby. "Doesn't that hurt?" she asked with innocent curiosity, remembering how hard little Sai had been chewing on her knuckle earlier that afternoon when she held him for Amy. "Not usually," Amy replied, starting to relax again, and glancing up at her friends with a smile. "It did at first, but we've gotten the hang of it. Claire..." She looked over at the blond woman. "It's... not my place, but maybe you should talk to Lord Caesar. I mean... why not? It's not like either of you are married..." She offered a wry smile.
  10. Florica watched Nero excuse himself and head back towards the front door with a brief pang of concern. You shouldn't let her get to you like that, brother. But then, she shouldn't be antagonizing you like that, either. She sighed. The barbed words that Claire and Nero exchanged were a sharp, sad contrast to the warm cordiality of the large Chiba clan. We have so little family. She thought of the statues of the Betrayed, who had come to this world as brothers, knowing they would have to stick together to survive. So little family, and so divided... She remembered the words they had spoken to her, their threefold salute. United. She glanced over as Claire excused herself as well and followed after Nero. It was too much to hope that she was going to apologize. Florica sighed again, a long, silent exhale through her nose, and turned to follow Sai and Amy deeper into the house, still cradling the sleeping child in her arms. Keeping a polite distance from both her guests, Amy led them down a quiet wing, her hands clasped demurely before her as she walked with short, shuffling steps, every inch a proper Welander lady. Faintly, as though from a dream, Florica remembered some of the other girls from the brothel teaching her the trick of it. She started mimicking Amy's step, but then remembered that she was a Caesar, and lengthened her stride again. Sai glanced back curiously at her, but made no comment. "So, uh, Amy-san," he ventured with uncharacteristic hesitance. "How... are you?" Forcibly reminded of her ill-advised attempt to talk to Nate, Florica winced sympathetically, a few more pieces of the tableau in front of her falling into place. She looked down at the innocent babe in her arms. Chiba Kimura Sai. Named for everyone except your mother. A gentle erasure that whispered of things best kept hidden. Amy did not immediately turn or answer, letting her nonreaction speak for itself. She knelt down gracefully at the door to Sai's room and slid it open, giving her full attention to the task, as was proper. Resting her hands in her lap, she finally looked up at him. She was blushing again, but her eyes were hard as ironwood. "I'm fine, Kimura-san. Thank you. Here is your room." Florica winced again. At least Nate had had the decency to answer her honestly. But then, Nate didn't have a marriage or a child to protect. She glanced away, embarrassed to be witnessing the scene, though neither of them had said anything remotely inappropriate. Sai stopped and stared down at Amy as though she were a riddle he was at a loss to solve. After a moment he simply bowed and stepped into the room that had been prepared for him. Amy slid the door shut beside him and stood, offering Florica a smile that scarcely seemed forced at all. "Come, Lady Caesar. Your room is this way. Are your arms tired? I can take him," she offered. Florica shook her head and returned the smile. "He's n-not heavy." "Depends on the day," Amy replied, and turned to walk further down the hall, around another corner to where the girls' rooms were. "There's a bathroom at the end of the hall there. Here you go, this is you." She knelt before another door and slid it open, and then stood to take her child from Florica. * * * The next day was a busy one for everyone. Sai quickly discovered that in order to get anything done at the bank he would first have to present himself to a judge with paperwork to the effect that he was, in fact, alive. It soon became apparent that the rest of his week would have to be spent navigating mountains of legalese to re-acquire the rights to himself and then to his family estate, which had been taken into trust by the city in the absence of any heir. He returned home mid-afternoon with armloads of forms and copies of the relevant statutes to go through, only a little daunted by the sheer volume of it all. Even the dullest of paperwork held a certain kind of thrill when it was for the purpose of bringing the Swan back to life. Tomoko volunteered to help him go through it and get everything organized, and they brought it all into a room that had been set up as a study, with several chairs and a large desk, which would become the Swan's headquarters for the next few weeks. Much to his dismay, Aki found himself saddled with his own stack of forms, after innocently volunteering to vouch for the fact that Kimura was, in fact, Kimura. With a few dramatic groans he settled himself into a corner of the study as well, asking his aunt for help about every minute to two as he laboriously began the work. Amy and Florica spent the day with the few children who were too young to go off to school, keeping them out of trouble and coaching them on colours, shapes, numbers, and the beginnings of Welander etiquette, on which topic Florica found herself learning just as much as the little ones. Amy was a kind but strict teacher, with high expectations that even the children still learning to talk eagerly tried to meet. It was lighthearted and satisfying work, and the day flew by. Dinner was a much smaller crowd than it had been yesterday; most of the families were taking their meal in their own quarters today, and Sai, Aki and Tomoko were still cloistered in the study. After the meal, Amy invited Claire and Florica to spend the evening in her room. "The children are lovely, but it's not quite the same as company one's own age," she said cheerfully. "Right, Lady Caesar?" Florica nodded her agreement, smiling fondly. Now that they were sitting down and not surrounded by clamouring young voices she realized how tiring the day had been. Amy led the two other women down the halls, passing through the rows of guest rooms and through another sliding-panel door into a section of the house they hadn't seen before. She deposited the sleeping baby Sai in a cradle in the bedroom, which was larger than the guest rooms by the measure of a few floor mats, and left the door ajar so she'd be able to hear if he stirred. "He usually sleeps through the night, though," she commented fondly. "Such a good baby. My mother-in-law tells me my Shujin was a terror of an infant," she giggled. Crossing the hall, she let them into another room, a small but richly decorated tea chamber complete with a comfortable kotatsu set into the recessed, cushioned floor. Amy sat down and tucked her legs beneath the blanket skirting the table, inviting the others to do the same. "Sake?" she offered, pouring herself some rice wine from a bottle which sat waiting for them in a bowl of steaming hot water.
  11. Made a new friend?" he whispered sidelong, glancing back at Chiba Amy. Florica returned his smile, though her expression was more thoughtful. "Maybe," she murmured back, tilting her head towards her brother. It was too early to say whether these people would like her; but she hoped they would. They were such a big, beautiful family. Sai took the sketch from Claire with a grateful nod, studying it. "Yes, exactly like that!" he praised, tapping the paper with his other hand. "The city should still have the original blueprints for the Swan in their files," Aki's father, Hiroto, commented. "They never throw anything out. Starting from those will save you from having to measure what's left of the existing structure." "But you'll still need to get an appraiser out to see what's salvageable from the structure," Hiro, the older uncle, chimed in from across the table. "I like that you're open to using the local tradespeople for the work," Kei, the younger uncle, added. "I can give you some names to get estimates from." "Perhaps the city could use this as a starting point to coax people back to the area," his wife Tomoko chimed in, pushing her long braid back over her shoulder as she glanced from Claire and Sai to Obasan. "Pitch in with some tax cuts and grants to incentivize it. Really it's the least Mayor Arima can do, after leaving it neglected for so long. And isn't his re-election coming up soon?" she inquired innocently, a twinkle in her eyes. Obasan cackled. "It is indeed, Tomoko-chan. It is indeed. It sounds like we have the beginnings of a plan. To the Swan!" she saluted with her sake cup, and downed the rest of it before standing up. "I'm going to go tell Ojiisan. He'll be delighted." With a polite nod to the rest of them, she tottered out of the room, leaning heavily on her cane but moving with energy and a clear sense of purpose as she headed to the family shrine in the courtyard. Finished with the meal, the rest of the family began to disperse, and two servants, an older woman and a younger one who was perhaps her daughter, came in and began collecting the dishes onto wide, sturdy trays they'd brought with them from the kitchen. Yui-chan gave baby Sai back to Amy, and the crowd of children headed out into the courtyard to play with toys and run about on the lawn on the far side, enjoying the fresh evening air. Florica watched them go with a soft smile, remembering Clarissa and her little games. "You like kids, Lady Caesar?" Amy asked, having come around the table to stand beside her, smiling and looking out into the courtyard as well as she gently bounced her drowsy baby in her arms. Florica nodded shyly. "I think they're w-wonderful," she admitted, glancing out wistfully at the garden. Amy giggled. "I never liked them," she confided with a lowered voice and a wink. "Certainly never wanted one of my own! But now I don't know what I'd do without him." She kissed the top of Chibi-Chiba's head, which was already covered with a thick thatch of soft black hair. "It... changes you. Changes your priorities." She smiled demurely, glancing back at her husband, who was deep in discussion with Claire, Nero and Sai about where they should start in the morning. "Changes everything," she murmured, her eyes liquid, bright and wistful. She smiled at Florica again. "Would you like to hold him?" "Me? Oh, um, o-okay," Florica stammered, inexpertly offering her arms. "Here, that's right, just support his head with your other hand, like that-" Amy maneuvered the sleepy boy into Florica's hands with practiced ease, having already taught most of her nieces and nephews the same lesson. "There. See? He likes you," she chuckled as little Sai's chubby fingers clenched a fistful of Florica's soft dress. Florica gazed down at the tiny life in her arms, astonished by its fragility and perfection. She didn't dare let their auras fully connect, lest she taint him somehow, but even from the edges of his she could feel his radiant purity, like some angelic creature only temporarily borrowing a human form. "He's beautiful," she whispered, awed. Amy beamed. "He is. Thankfully he got his father's good looks," she chuckled self-deprecatingly. Florica nodded, though the baby's facial features had been the least of what she had been referring to. She glanced up shyly at her brother, unable to stop a grin from spreading across her face at the simple joy of holding the child. Amy giggled again. "C'mon, I'll show you all to your rooms." Leaving the baby in Florica's arms, she led the group back through the maze of hallways and around to where the bedrooms were.
  12. It was early evening when Sai, Claire, Nero and Florica arrived at the Chiba family residence, home to several generations of Chibas. It was a large building, built in the traditional style: single-story with an elaborate roof, sliding-panel doors, and flooring of tightly woven mats. A somewhat labyrinthine series of hallways led past the various rooms, with the whole structure surrounding a wide, lovingly-manicured inner courtyard with the family shrine at its centre. They were welcomed warmly by Chiba Amy, who bowed respectfully to each guest in turn, seeming only a tad more shy once Sai introduced “Lord Neromius Caesar and his sister, Lady Florica Caesar”. She was particularly glad to see Claire again, and genuinely sad to hear the fiery swordswoman would only be staying long enough to set up the protective enchantments. If she noticed any of the steady undercurrent of tension between Nero and Claire, she was tactful enough to pretend she didn’t. She led them into the dining room, where the rest of the family was already seated on cushions on the floor around a long, low table laden with traditional Welander dishes. Seated at the head of the table was Chiba Yui, the family matriarch, a small white-haired woman with a broad smile who insisted immediately that they all call her Obasan. To her right were her son and his wife, Aki’s parents, Chiba Hiroto and Yuna, and then Aki himself, and to her left were two of Aki’s older brothers, Hiro and Kei, and their wives, Saya and Tomoko. Aki’s three older sisters had married and gone to live with their husbands’ families, as had his father’s older and younger sister. There was a substantial age gap between Aki, who didn’t look a day over twenty, and his older brothers. His three nieces and four nephews all sat around a separate table, the older ones minding the younger ones while they ate. Aki’s oldest niece, a slender teenager named Yui for her grandmother, held baby Sai, rocking him gently while he suckled his thumb and regarded the blond-haired newcomers with innocent astonishment and a little bit of anxiety. Most of the Chiba clan had straight black Welander hair, except for Tomoko, Kei’s wife, whose long braid was the same warm brown as her eyes. Amy sat back down beside Aki, and cheerfully invited Claire to sit beside her. Sai sat on Claire’s other side, leaving the two cushions across from them for Florica and Nero. Seeming more interested in talking than eating, though she paused every so often to urge the honoured guests to refill their plates, Obasan started out with a brief, perfunctory observation that Sai better not fake his own death again while she was around or she would personally bury him six feet under, and then segued directly into declaring her family’s full support in the venture of getting the Swan up and running again. “Something like that is just what the East Quarter needs,” she declared. “It used to be one of the best parts of town, and it’s just disgraceful that the city has let it go like that. Abandoned buildings, squatters, brothels - in what used to be a cultured neighborhood. Pah!” She snorted and took a sip of rice wine. “Mayor Arima will be hearing from me on this. But tell me more about your plans, Sai-kun.” Setting down his chopsticks, Sai leaned forward and began describing his plans, his voice growing stronger as he warmed to the topic, gesturing with his hands as he painted a picture of what they were going to do. Most of the Swan was going to be restored the way it always had been; but the garden of holy flowers where he had buried his family would be preserved as a courtyard, with a walkway around it, open to the sky above. Then they would need dancers and musicians - guest performers to start, until the Swan was ready to start putting on her own shows again. The residence in the back of the lot would be expanded to house a studio, where Sai could run a dance school. While Sai spoke, Florica ate quietly, curiously observing the other people at the table while doing her best to mimic Amy’s table manners. As a result, she ended up glancing over at the Welander girl quite a bit, and it didn’t take her long to realize that Chiba Amy was far more interested in what Sai had to say than she wanted to let on. Which was puzzling - why wouldn’t she be more openly enthusiastic? After all, she was, from what she had heard so far, a childhood friend of his, and would be helping out with the Swan in some capacity. Florica’s gaze travelled from Amy to Aki as he placed his hand gently over his wife’s, squeezing it. Amy smiled and leaned over to place a kiss on her tall husband’s shoulder, a faint flush rising to her cheeks. Florica recalled seeing that blush not long ago - when they first arrived. She had thought the pretty, freckled Welander was simply shy, but the quiet confidence with which she carried herself belied that. So then, why had she blushed? The Banjari girl glanced back at Sai, smartly dressed and cleaned up, handsome and strong, and with a fire in his eyes and voice as he talked about his dream. Oh. That’s why. She felt a pang of pity for Chiba Aki.
  13. The shimmering heat from the forge was something he had long since learned to disregard - his eyes saw only the subtle hues of orange and gold and red that told him when his steel was workable. Even now, he sat before the crackling heat, his eyes locked intently on the lone ingot still warming up to that bright cherry red he needed. The sweat beaded and ran down his ash darkened face in black droplets. It drenched his workman's shirt and dotted his heavy apron. These sensations too, he had long tuned out. His hammer rested beside him, thin flecks of scale and small specks of crimson dotting the worn grip where he had held on too tightly or struck poorly. Around him lay a dozen failures of the same curved shape, some battered too thinly to be useful, others, cracked from the strain he was subjecting it to. He was simply the thirteenth among them. He scratched the rough beginnings of a beard with his good hand. A bandage was stuck to his chin where an ill-advised attempt at shaving himself had concluded. Some part of him recognized the truth. Like the cracked and worthless iron laying around him, he had been tried in the fires of fate and found wanting. Now he was broken. He had the knowledge of a master. The vision of a prodigy. But his hand would never again allow him to prove it. It was all he could do simply to smash his hammer against the metal and indeed, he was good enough at that. But to create the fine work he had been known for? To craft works of art and science that wrote the destinies of men and kingdoms? Perhaps, in time, he could teach his other hand to do some of the work. Or pass the burden onto little Clarissa, when she became of age to learn. It would simply be a matter of running out the clock until another, more worthy person could take what was left of the Grey masters and forge it into something worthwhile again. * * * The bells announced the Countess' return, and she had never been less glad to hear the noise. It was a discordant jangle in her ears, every note reminding her of the news she brought with her. She glanced down at the ring on her finger, twisting it around and around. She had never seen Audric's stone so dark. Red and orange flickered over midnight depths. Fear tingled through her gut like small knives, wondering if the added strain her news would bring would quench those last flickering flames. She wondered what colour her stone was, right now. She hoped he wasn't looking at it. Looking out the window, she recalled the time when her father had been trampled by a mean horse and had both his legs broken. He had lived, but a few months of being confined to a bed and the better part of a year out of the saddle had changed him into something much darker than she had ever believed he could be, full of bitterness and fermented frustrations that had no outlet in any of the activities he had delighted in. The rest of the family had tried to bear with it, to understand that he was in pain, but... he had truly become something like a monster. Had lost some part of himself much more essential than legs. Please, Audric, she prayed desperately, twisting her ring around again. Please, I can't lose you. I need you. Your family needs you. Please, be bigger than this. The carriage halted, and she took a deep breath before stepping out and going to find her husband. * * * Cherry red. He came out of his chair like a loosed arrow, seizing the tongs and wresting the hot ingot free of the flames. He held it up for a moment, making sure he had really seen it shift. A slow smile came across his cracked lips. There was time still. A hundred and seventeen failures, but this would be it. He brought it over to the anvil and raised his hammer. The world around him slowed. He saw the grain within the iron. It whispered to him of its far off origin, deep within a vein in the southern lands. It had come to him across the seas, laid in his stores for over half a year before he had dragged it from its dark home and formed it into what it was now. There was such potential within it, waiting to serve whatever design he could turn it to. In his mind, he saw what he wanted, the precise curves and lines, holes and solid portions - a horseshoe that would make any of his stable proud to wear it. He blinked, and as he cleared his eyes he could see the glowing outline of what it could be - no - what it would be as he formed it. Audric's hammer struck the glowing iron and rang with the power of each blow. His hand trickled some crimson, spattering it onto the cold steel and hissing iron, but his aim was at least modestly accurate. Little by little he poured some more of himself into each blow, and little by little it began to take shape. A thousand blows later, his shaking hands brought the hammer for one last blow and stopped. A sickly blue color glinted back at him through the grime on his ring. He let the rough horseshoe - the work of an amateur at best - cool on the anvil's surface as he twisted his hammer in his hands. * * * The Countess descended into the forge, its heat bringing a warm flush to her cheeks even from the stairway. She could never understand how her husband could endure the suffocation. It was rare for her to come down here. But she needed her husband. Somehow, they would get through this. Together. Like they always did. Gathering her courage, she stepped into the room, focusing on her somewhat battered husband. For a moment, her other concerns were forgotten. "Your poor hands!" she cried, rushing forward and removing the hammer from his bloody grasp. Her voice snapped him from the forge trance he had been in. He blinked as she took his hammer from him. The world swept back in to fill the void. Gone was the image of a perfected horseshoe. In its place, the dull and disappointing hunk of iron lay cooling. Gone was his moment of focus and serenity. In its place, weariness and the crushing sense of failure. A fourteenth to join its brethren scattered about him on the floor. He turned to her, and something within him snapped like a worn bowstring at the look in her eyes. For what felt like the first time, he looked around at the forge, and at himself. He was coated in ash and coal dust and scale, as dark and grimy as the walls of his forge. His hands were raw and blackened, and pain burned through his sore and straining muscles like a rekindled flame. He saw the failures on his shelves, benches, workdesks, and floor. He saw the untouched and rotting lunches and dinners of a week gone by. He saw his wife, and felt nothing but shame and sadness at the wreck she must have seen. She didn't need their rings to read the shame radiating off him, and she clucked her tongue against her teeth, dismissing the idea that he ought ever to feel such a thing before her. Setting down the hammer, she threw both arms around his neck and pulled him into a passionate kiss, grime and all. He gave a dismal smile as she set the hammer down. I never wanted you to see me like this. This is not what I promised you when we married. And then she pulled him in and the thoughts and protests and excuses were left scattered around the floor in her wake. The dying embers of his spirit found some refuge in her kiss, and though it did not change the harsh reality of things - could not change them, for a moment it was quiet. He brushed some of the grime from her lips as he pulled back. His eyes reflected the light of the forge as he looked down at her, the ash and grime streaked across her face like a visible reminder of his own failings. "I still can't do it," he admitted quietly. "No matter how hard I try, I cannot make my creations right again." She kissed his tired finger as it brushed over her lip, and studied his face, her focus flickering from one eye to the other like an uncertain candle. She wanted to tell him it didn't matter. Tell him that the forges could take a leap off a cliff for all she cared. It was him she married, not the bloody hammer and anvil. But she couldn't so lightly dismiss something he'd loved so well for so long. "We'll get through this, my love," was all she could say, and it felt paltry and ineffective in her ears. "I promise you." He cringed back at the words, knowing all too well that some things could never be restored. Five generations before him had toiled there to build a legacy. He had striven to create, to build, to protect it. But he would be the one responsible for its ultimate fall. Gaia, he wanted nothing more but to turn back the hours and decline to go with them to the Swan. To have dodged that shot, to have been just a moment faster. He wrapped his aching arms around her and held her tightly. Words could not convey the profound sense of grief pouring through him at that moment. “Something tells me it won’t be that simple. “ She winced, having been thinking the same thing but still too proud to say it aloud. For once utterly at a loss for words, she just held him for a long moment, letting the silence envelop them. At length she pulled away. "Come, beloved. Let's get you cleaned up." She led him up to their chambers, step by weary step, and got both of them undressed and into the shower to wash. There was nothing sexual about it, tonight, as her gentle fingers rubbed away the layers of forge-smoke on his skin; only tenderness, a pure and unsullied statement of how deeply she cared for him. By the time they were dried off and in bed, night had crept in, spilling with the moonlight across the sheets. She had put it off as long as she could. Reaching over, she lit the lamp on her bedside table, and sat up, leaning against the pillows with her knees drawn up and her slender, freckled arms resting over them. She looked over to him, and then away, searching for how to begin, uncharacteristically reticent. Searching for a way, any way, to say this without hurting him. This is so bloody unfair. "Audric... Things... did not go well at the office today." He turned to her as she spoke, watching the emotions play out across her features. A slow sense of dread began to set in as she struggled to find the right words to tell him even worse news. He leaned back and his head met the headboard with a dull thump. Audric's eyes closed for a moment. "I can't imagine that they did." He inhaled sharply. "How bad? I know I haven't been around since we got back, but I can... I can head back to them tomorrow. Rally the troops, so to speak." She pictured how that would go - the stares, the whispers, the sympathetic or averted glances. "I... don't think that would help, my love." He fell silent, and then he shifted to face her properly. "What happened, Mia? What.. sort of trouble are we in?" She swallowed hard, and an uncomfortable flush ran across her pale cheeks. She looked away, out the window, at the one unblinking eye of the moon. There is no good way to say this. "We lost the Blairville High Guard. And the representatives from Arcworks and Lunar Edge never showed. Audric… they know. Somehow, they all know that you…” she couldn’t finish the thought. Her words sank in with all the terrible subtlety of a knife to the chest. Blairville, Arcworks, Lunar Edge. Three of our largest contracts. Gone. He lifted a shaking hand to rest on hers. His breaths were shallow, sharp sounds as he processed the full scope of things. And the utter ruin it would bring to them. His lips refused to cooperate as he tried to smile, and instead he settled for leaning forward to rest his face against hers. "They all know the Grey name is... worthless now," he finished for her. "Our friends in the dark have been busy." All of the time he had been playing for was nothing but a fever dream. Oh, they might well keep things running, for a time.. but without his talent at the forge, it would be hard for any company to justify the risk of working with them. No, they would go to more established competitors. Hammersmiths, Vought, and Fisk Forges would eat well and be merry tonight. "How much time do you think we have?" He waved his good hand at the room. "Before we burn through our reserves and it all comes crashing down around our ears?" The bitterness rang in his every word like a hammer stroke. The music and cadence he would hear less and less as the forges closed down. As his competitors and creditors closed in to devour the legacy of his family. As everything crumbled on the fall of a single, well aimed arrow from a dead man's hands. He had been beaten before. He had lost gambles. But this was a defeat he had never before known. No chance to improve, or get better. Only the long, quiet decline of a man who had lost the one Gaia-forsaken thing he knew best in the world with the rest of his life to live through. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against his, dropping her knee and clasping his hand in both of hers. “We’ll make it work,” she promised, though she didn’t know how. This was one numerical problem that she couldn’t just magic away with clever bookkeeping as she had so often done in the past. She took a long breath, and her grip on his hand tightened. “Audric, there’s more. The bank… they’ve changed their mind about the loan for the Swan. I got the letter just as I was leaving. I can go to them in the morning, try to change their minds, but…” "Don't bother," he replied sharply. "If our most important clients know... there isn't much hope with them." Her hand was a tenuous grip back to their world. The only point of light in the grim world he was now trapped in. Audric pressed a kiss to her forehead and then fell back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling with dull eyes. "We made a promise." His voice was rough. "We owe them. The Master would have scoured us all into ashes without Sai and the Swan. We fulfill our vows. No matter what they cost." Even if it ruins us. Despite the circumstances, despite the practical impossibility of it all, Amirah felt a flash of pride in her husband, and she sat up a little straighter. “I agree,” she said firmly, squeezing his hand again and looking down at him. “And it will be a good investment, in the long run.” It’s just a matter of getting to that point. “We’ll just have to use what we have in the Grey accounts. And… economize, where we can.” She sighed, looking away again, her brow furrowing, already mentally going through the list of household staff and crossing some names off the list. His eyes drifted over to her, and he gave her a wry smile despite himself. "We can't sustain our current staff," he agreed. "Nor at the forge." Audric gave her hand a squeeze in return. "You make it seem.. almost possible," he whispered, "to survive this." She looked down at him steadily, and smirked, the corner of her mouth curling up. “You’re alive,” she told him. “I’m alive. Our child is alive. And… Audric, this is our path now. Not the faerie gold of that thing from the Holt.” He laughed softly at that. "Well, going to be pretty hard to feel guilty about profiting from that black bargain if we can't actually strike a profit any more." He snorted. "Or, you know, strike a horseshoe." Audric inhaled, and then he let out a steady breath. "Okay. Alright. Let's.. start planning. We'll make this work. Somehow." He shifted to sit up at the edge of the bed, and for a moment he wanted nothing more than to crawl back into it, pull the blankets over his head, and wait for the world to stop hurling abuse his way. He stood up, and twisted to see her. He extended his weaker hand. "I might need a hand writing these letters, Countess Grey. Probably be a long night."
  14. It was supposed to be a routine meeting. Just one of several steps along the way to finalizing their contract to provide weaponsmithing services for the Blairville High Guard. But when she sat down with Broadwood at Grey Forge & Steelworks’ Ashville offices to begin reviewing the terms they had drafted, the middle-aged, balding gentleman had a distinctly uncomfortable look on his face. “We’ve heard a rumour,” he began. The morning went downhill from there. Somehow, word had gotten out. That the Count had been injured. That the Grey smith who was the basis of their brand was no longer providing his skills. Both of her afternoon meetings had been cancelled, one with a perfunctory note of apology and one who simply stood her up. Three contracts, gone in a single day. She felt at once numb and furious. It had barely been a fortnight since Audric had been injured. How had word gotten out so quickly, and so devastatingly thoroughly? Who would dare drag her husband’s reputation through the mud like this? The fact that the “rumours” were true was besides the point – someone was doing this to them intentionally. The redhead stood and paced back and forth, her anger and frustration building. Into her minds eye flashed a gleaming red stone, and a deafening explosion. If that had been a warning, was this punishment? For helping Nathaniel, sealing the evil inside him away? But who could possibly want that evil to be free to walk Mir? Amirah let out a frustrated sigh, and turned and started shoving the day’s paperwork back into her satchel, not caring that she was crumpling half of it. Useless. It was all useless now anyway. Good for nothing but tinder. “Countess?” came a voice from the door. “In Gaia’s name, what now?” Amirah snarled, whirling around. The girl from the front desk flinched, almost dropping the envelope in her hand. She looked pale and distressed – it had not been an easy day for any of the office staff. Mia sighed, holding her hand out for the missive. “I’m sorry, Melissa. Let’s see it, then.” Gingerly, Melissa stepped forward, holding the envelope with two fingers as though it were a dead rat. As soon as Mia took it, she turned and escaped the room. When Mia turned the envelope over to see the address on it, she understood why. Bank of Ashville was scrawled across the front in precise calligraphy, and above it, a single word was stamped: URGENT. The Countess sat down heavily in her chair, opened the letter, and began to read. All the colour began to drain from her face. Name of the Mother.... how am I going to tell Audric?
  15. The next morning, the castle was a bustle of activity, with Claire, Nero, Florica and Sai all preparing to leave for Weland, their paths at least temporarily converging once more. True to his word, Sai sought out Nathaniel before he left. He found Claire's brother at his usual lookout, staring out at the sea. Stepping out onto the balcony, the Welander stared out at the sea as well, tucking his hands into his deep pockets against the chill. It was a grey morning, but the view was still hauntingly beautiful. "Good morning." Nate allowed his feet to dangle over the edge of the railing, uncaring of the sheer fall below. At the sound of more footsteps, he sighed softly and turned to see whoever had come to disturb him. His eyes narrowed for a moment as he recognized the face. A sharp pain cut through his chest at the garbled memories the young Welander brought back. But he was important to Claire. Enough that they had defended each other against him. "Good morning... Sai." He said after a moment, returning his gaze to the vista beyond. "I'm not likely to be much conversation." Sai grunted his agreement, leaning one shoulder against one of the smooth pillars supporting the balcony. "We're leaving this morning," he remarked. "Claire's agreed to help raise some wards for the Swan and her people, since we still don't know who attacked the Lord Caesar's house in Ashville." "Wasn't me on that one," Nate replied bluntly. But you all get to go off like some big, happy family. Off to find some new adventure. He gave a bitter laugh. "I never would have thought you could get those two to talk, let alone collaborate on something like that. But, I guess where family's concerned.. they're willing to go the extra mile." Sai nodded, glancing briefly over at the bitter young man. Just like they did for you, he thought, but did not say. "Indeed. The Lady Caesar will be staying with us, so of course they want her safe as houses." On that, at least, they could agree. His expression softened. "Better than that, I hope. Didn't exactly end well for her last house, did it?" He turned to face the other man, and some irrational anger began to rise in him. Just being near him made Nate want to do something stupid and destructive. But that would only wind up hurting Claire - in more ways than one. Interloper. But he really didn't know much about the young Welander to begin with. Being pulled and pushed in so many directions was exhausting. He just wanted peace. "I think I might hate you, Sai. For what you've become to my sister. For who you are, when I can't be it." He spoke quietly, words tinged with the cold clarity of honesty. "Kind. Noble. A fighter. Someone like her. Someone not like me." His hands tensed into fists. "I could never have done what you did. Put my life on the line to rescue her. Fight at her side. Fight to protect. It's not your fault, but I hate you for everything that I am not." He turned back to the ocean, watching the slow haze of morning begin to fade away. "Be the person I couldn't be for them. Make them forget me, please." Sai scoffed quietly, looking out at the water again. The person I couldn't be... His thoughts flew to Amy, and Chiba Aki. It's not your fault. He wasn't sure what he had expected Nathaniel to say, but this crisply distilled wisdom was far from it. He nodded slowly. "You will not be forgotten, Nathaniel. But I will try my best to be there for them," he promised gravely. "Better than I deserve. Better than I expected." Nate turned to him and extended his hand. "You're a good man, Kimura Sai. But something tells me you might run into some who aren't. Keep our family's sword sharp, and your skills sharper." Sai took a step forward and firmly grasped Nathaniel's gloved hand, shaking on it. "I will," he promised, meeting the Grimmholt's eyes. Letting go and stepping back, he offered a polite bow. "Farewell, Nathaniel." Nate slid from the balcony onto his feet to shake his hand properly. "Sayonara, Sai. May fortune smile upon you."
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