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Grimmholt

Swordbreaker Chronicles 9: Storms and Stars

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Claire waved to Sai as she left him to work on the seemingly inexhaustible supply of paperwork. "I'll be back in a bit." She held up the letter from the Greys. "I'm going to send a message to Audric and Mia and make sure they sent us the right info." She smiled, but it had been gnawing at her all morning. The numbers didn't match what they were supposed to. True, it was certainly an account at the right bank, and it was certainly written in Mia's hand, and even sealed with the crossed spears and sword of the House of Grey. 

But it was not the account for the Forge. Did something fall through with the loan? Or did they simply wish to keep this as a personal loan rather than rely on the assets for the Forge to make it happen. She furrowed her brows. They'd never risk it, though. And if we can't make the Swan profitable.. it would hurt them twice as hard. 

She made her way through the halls until she found herself outside, at the courtyard. She settled down beneath the tree, and began to write in her short, precise script. 

"Mia, Audric,

We got your letter this morning, but there was something off about the numbers you gave us. Is everything okay with the business? Should we put the reconstruction on hold? I can possibly speak to my father about some help, in the interim, but I don't want to inadvertently do something that hurts you all in the long run.

Love, Claire."

She pricked her finger with a pocketknife and drew a short rune that would seal the letter. It would also ensure that only a member of her family could open it. These days, it simply paid to be careful. Claire sighed softly, and leaned back against the strong trunk of the tree. Above her, the afternoon wind whistled through the leaves, and a few blew loose, meandering down to rest in her lap. It was peaceful here, and the Chibas were truly a welcoming family. Amy and Florica seemed to be fine with her company, and she actually found herself wishing she could stay just a bit longer. But every moment she stayed was another that Nate burned alone in the Castle. It was another moment that Nero found himself moving closer and closer to the shadowy forces that still sought to ruin them. The guilt was a heavy weight on her shoulders. 

It was all good and well to play Lady Claire here in Weland, but she had other, more important things calling to Claire Grimmholt, de Sande's prodigy. 

She took in another deep breath of the sweet, peaceful air, and then she forced herself to stand and stretch. Time to do some work.

 - - -

"Hey, I'm going to head out an see an old friend. I'll be back in a few hours," Claire said, leaning through the doorway. She heard a grunt of acknowledgement from Sai as he pored over the documents.  "I'd bring you back something, but I can already smell Cook's dinner brewing and I can tell you're going to love it." She grinned as she slid her cavalry sabre through her sword belt, wearing it Welander style rather than allowing it to hang normally. She wore a black blouse and a pair of dark trousers, figuring she would be able to move easier in them than anything more traditional. It would make her stand out, but then again, her blonde hair and silver eyes would do that for her, anyway. 

"Be good. Keep an eye on Florica for me," she called as she left. 

It took the better part of an hour to locate the small, rather plain shop in the West Quarter. It looked more like a modest home than anything else, sandwiched between a seamstress's place and a rather large ramen shop that seemed to be doing excellent business in the late hours of the afternoon. Her stomach complained a little at being subjected to such deprivation, but she had little time to stop and wait for some food. 

She stepped up to the sturdy wooden door and rapped on it with her knuckles. 

Hijikata Knives and Cookware, read the sign in fine calligraphy. 

There were the faint sounds of hammering inside, but they stopped as soon as she rapped on it a little louder. "Sojiro!" She reached out to tap on it again, but the door swung open and a short, middle aged man in an oversized brown leather apron peered owlishly out at her. He had a shock of wiry black hair that stuck up at odd angles, and the scent of sweat and leather, smoke and steel came pouring out. "Claire? That you?" he said, in perfect Mirian. 

"The one and only," she said, smiling warmly at him. "You going to keep me out here like the rest of them or are you going to invite your favorite customer in?" 

He laughed loudly, and stepped aside, waving her in. "Come in, come in. It's been so long. You'll stay for dinner, right?" 

"Well, I hadn't meant to, but" - her stomach grumbled - "I could be convinced." 

The inside of his shop was warm, and the walls gleamed with the hanging designs of fine cooking knives of all shapes and sizes. An immense glass counter formed the far end of the shop, and there were pots and pans stacked neatly against that wall. She only passingly saw some of the prices, but they were easily two or three times what one might expect to pay - even if they were fantastic tools. But, one could never accuse Hijikata Sojiro of being merely a knife maker. Or of being a Hijikata. "I've brought you something. A puzzle. I know how much you enjoy those." 

He grinned back and made his way around the counter. His hands reached behind the counter and produced a fine black cloth, which he laid atop the glass for her. "Show me," he said, tapping the cloth. 

She reached behind her and slid the dagger free of its sheath. The metal glimmered in the light, glowing faintly crimson along the runes as she set it down against the cloth. He peered at it, leaning down to inspect the blade in greater detail. "May I?" he asked, although he was already picking it up and tilting it. He frowned after a few moments, and set it back down. He leaned back and crossed his hands across his broad chest. "Claire," he said chidingly, "why have you brought me something like this? It's beyond me to repair, or even to sharpen. It's.. definitely a spell-eater. Hardened a lot, too. Looks like some kind of stunning and shocking spellwork inlaid into it." 

She gave him a winning smile that bounced harmlessly off his stern countenance. Claire grew more serious. "That's some serious hardware, Sojiro. I need to know anything else you can tell me about it. It.. might be a matter of life and death." 

He snorted. "With you, lady, it's almost always a matter of life and death." 

"Hey," she said, "that was one time, and I paid you back. I even treated you to dinner!" 

"I can't hear you over the twelve stitches it took to put my hand back together," he said, laughing gregariously. "But this is something beyond even me. Or the other me." His expression darkened. "I don't know where you got it, but this.." he held up the blade by the tip of the handle, looking almost disgusted with it, "is some kind of crazy complex spellforging. Almost like a Grey blade, but you'd have told me if it was." He shook his head. "And I know your cousin's work. This is.. some nasty stuff. Damaged, but even still it could seriously hurt a mage if it got near the vitals. Might even prevent one from healing for some time. Long enough for bleeding to be fatal." He set it back down and slid it over to her. 

"It's a butcher's weapon." 

"I was afraid of that," she admitted. Her hands closed around the warm handle and she slid it back into its sheath at her back with an audible click. "That's how I know it's not one of ours. Which means there's someone out there with the skill and precision to make something like this. Someone that wants my family dead." 

Sojiro looked back at her with a grave look on his face. He glanced around at the knives on the walls, and the pots and pans behind him, before he looked back to her. "I can't help you, little lady. As much as I want to." He shook his head. "I'm out of that business now. It took a lot to do it. But I paid off my debts and made my peace with the Twelve Clans." 

"I know," she said, resting a hand on his. "I appreciate everything you've done for me." 

He gave her a bitter smile. "Does the old man know you're working again?" 

Claire snorted,  and shook her head. "I think he'd probably lose his mind. No, I've done a lot to keep him from finding out. It broke his heart when one of us left for it, I don't know that he'd survive knowing I did too. But someone important to me is going up against the people that used this knife. Something tells me that's just a party trick compared to what else they might have up their sleeves. Keep your eyes open for me, and let me know if you see anything else like this in the market. Both this one, and the other one." 

Sojiro fell silent for a moment, and then nodded once. "I left my life behind for Tomoe." He rubbed his wedding band. "But for you, I'll make an exception this once. Leave me your sword. I'll see what I can do to help it." She shook her head vigorously. "No, no. You're out. You made a promise, and I'd be a bad friend if I asked you to break it. Or let you, at any rate." She patted the handle of her blade gently. "It's no Brutus, but he'll do just fine for me." 

"You'll stay for dinner, though? Tomoe will be very happy to have you. And to pick your brain for some new recipes, I imagine." 

She grinned. "After you, then."

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[the letter that arrived a few days later...]

"Claire,

Thank you for your concern. Everything is fine, please proceed as planned with the account number most recently provided.

We have had to drop a few projects as a result of Audric's injury, but the Swan will not be one of them. Not after everything Sai has done for our families. I'm sure you can understand that.

Love,

Mia."

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The streets were alive with the nighttime bustle of a weekend night. He walked among them, his gait stiff and unwieldy. His long black cloak was ripped and torn away in places, revealing the stained charcoal of his dueling shirt and slacks. His left hand rested uneasily on the hilt of an ancient looking rapier, and his other hand was wrapped in layer after layer of white and crimson stained gauze. His lone blue eye was the color of a winter sky, and blazing with anger as it scanned the area. His right eye was covered by a thick mess of gauze and surgical tape, with dried blood in fine streams down his cheek. 

But he had lived. It seemed to be the story of his miserable life. The bitch had put up more of a fight than he had reckoned. It has cost them three of their precious Vanguard bastards, but the price he had paid was severe indeed. So damn tired. Just five minutes. Five minutes of rest. But he trudged onwards. He had to make sure she was safe. Then he could die.

Claire was out that evening, Amy was spending time with Aki and their son, and Sai was still buried in paperwork. Florica found herself left to her own devices after dinner. Even with Thorn at her side, she didn't quite feel comfortable venturing out into the streets of Weland alone, so she confined her wanderings to the Chiba family courtyard, taking the time to appreciate the carefully tended, sprawling garden, open in some parts, maze-like in others. All the paths eventually led to the family shrine at the centre, and she found herself standing outside of it, looking in curiously. In the evening dimness she could faintly see some painted portraits and some carved figures. It reminded her, in a way, of the Vault, with the statues of their ancestors observing and judging the present. Thinking back to the ceremony, she idly thumbed Thorn's hilt.

Despite his condition, the residence itself seemed to have little to no security. He managed to work his way up onto the roof where he could observe most, if not all of the small compound unimpeded.  He nearly slipped twice as he crawled along the roof edges, taking care not to let his sword or any of the numerous knives in his cloak make too much noise. 

Not that it would matter much. The household itself seemed to be so active even at night he wouldn’t be surprised if he could just fall flat on his face without anyone paying too much attention. As he watched, a lone figure made her way from the interior of the home out into the garden, a sword at her side. “Either it’s Claire or you. And I don’t have much else to lose at this point.” He let out a groan and fell, curling into a ball at the last second and rolling to his feet. He made his way though the garden, stopping just short of the shrine. “Don’t be alarmed.”

Hearing the voice of a stranger behind her, his accent anything but Welander, Florica spun around, her hand grasping the cold dagger's hilt more firmly. Then she gasped and let go of it, took a step towards him, and then froze again. The dusk and his partially-obscured face had played her for a fool; she thought at first it was her brother, appearing with another collection of wounds for her to heal.

More slowly, she started to reach for her dagger again. "Who...are you?" she demanded, holding her chin high and studying him with her fierce green eyes.

“A dead man,” he said simply. “But I was once a Caesar.” He rested his good hand lightly on his own weapon, resting the other on his chest. “I needed to see if it was true. If he really did take the oaths. If he really did make you one of our damned number.” He coughed harshly.

"Fiat justicia ruat caelum," she answered simply, but then winced sympathetically as he coughed. "You're h-hurt," she observed, taking a step closer again, well within range of his weapon now, almost daring him to attack, if that was what he had come to do. But that possibility was far from her mind. All she could see when she looked at him was another Nero; another wounded eagle who had landed in her path. "Will you let me h-help you?"

"Fiat justicia," he whispered. You damn fool, Nero. Dragging another innocent into our bloody little disaster of a family. He grimaced as she stepped closer, seemingly uncaring of the rather obvious weaponry in his grasp. You're either extremely confident, or have zero self preservation instinct. Or I really do look like a dead man. He coughed again, harder this time, and stepped back shakily. "Why.. would you want to do that?" 

"It's what I d-do," she replied simply, but didn't step forward again. She would not force her help on someone unwilling. She had had a lifetime of that in Eshdraemoir, and it was as sickening in its own way as murder.

He laughed bitterly. "I should be dead. Dead a long time ago with my mother and father. Dead with my uncle. Would have died with my brother, too." Marcus shook his head. "But there's no damn justice in this world. And now he's dragged you into it." He felt his knees give out, and he managed to fall forward, desperately clawing at the ground as he struggled to get back up to his feet. Part of him hoped she would just let him rest here, and drift off to whatever version of Tartarus they had in this wicked world. But he was a Caesar. He would die on his feet, one way or another.

Florica's eyes widened as she realized this wasn't some far flung apple off the family tree. Nero has a brother. I have a brother. She reached out helplessly and winced as the large man fell on his face, an impact she felt in the ground beneath her feet. Bloody Caesars and their bloody pride, she thought, exasperated.

She came forward again and knelt beside his head, extending her hand palm-up beside his, leaving the choice to him whether to take it. "Please," she said again earnestly. "Let me help you...brother."

"Fine," he said after a moment of struggling to rise. "Fine," he repeated, and extended a hand to her. Anything was better than passing out here in someone's garden, dying after being beaten by a halfway decent witch. "But you call me Marcus. Not brother." He wheezed into the dirt, somewhat undermining his complaint.

She raised an eyebrow at that, but there were more pressing concerns than what he wanted to be called. Wordlessly, she took his hand in hers, letting their auras join.

He felt...bitter, and old. Far older than he looked. Whatever life he had led up to this point had aged him beyond his years. But he wasn't evil. Not even close. Proud, angry, and hardened, but not evil.

Satisfied that he would not pose a threat to herself or the Chibas, Florica set to work. Before anything else she shouldered his pain, halving it in the space of a heartbeat, pressing her other hand heavily into the dirt to stay upright and gritting her teeth. And then the work of healing began. Burns and cuts on the hand opposite the one she held, deeper wounds in his chest, blood where there shouldn't be blood. She scowled in concentration through the pain, pouring her mana into him, directing it to setting things right. The minutes trickled by, and one by one, the pains began to vanish, letting them both breathe more easily.

She saved his eye for last, so that she could give it her full attention. "Sit up," she prompted gently, tightening her grip on his left hand and pulling him up to sit back on his haunches. She shuffled forward with him, kneeling directly in front of him, and placed her hand over his ruined eye, closing her own eyes and furrowing her brow in concentration. After a moment she sighed in defeat, shaking her head. Bloody nerves... She repaired his eye socket easily enough, but the eye itself was another matter. She brought it as close to wholeness as she could, remembering the diagrams she had studied in Ashville, but the magic of sight itself was beyond her.

Still, at least the pain was gone. She finally let go of his hand and face and dropped her hands to her lap, offering him a satisfied smile.

He had been healed before, many, many times. But it was always.. wrong, to him. The feeling of another's aura working with his, even as his pain receded and his injuries began to recede, the sensation of being utterly laid bare before another's eyes was.. hard to deal with. It was a necessary evil in this case. He did not ask what she saw, or what she felt, simply allowing her to work until she pulled him up. 

Gradually, he felt the pain around his eye begin to slip away to nothing, but he knew it was beyond saving in its entirety. Whatever power had been in that woman's weapon had shattered the Hex Magnum and burned him with a fire that refused to stop eating at him for long after he had escaped. He was not yet fallen to the point where he had forgotten gratitude. Marcus leaned forward and bowed to her, whispering his thanks. 

He shifted back to sit on his haunches, still grimy, one eye the color of a winter sky, the other, far paler and blind. "Hail, Lady Caesar," he breathed. "It's true. You are a good healer. I didn't believe anyone could bring someone back from the dead, but you really did it for him." Marcus shook his head. "And he's left you here, alone. That idiot."

She sat back on her haunches as well, studying his face. "I had h-help, with that," she replied dismissively, but there was a proud twinkle in her eye.

She frowned at his criticism of Nero. "He knows what he's d-doing," she said staunchly. "And I'm n-not alone. I have f-friends here."

Marcus laughed bitterly. “I’ve been watching him fall into one bad situation after another. Smart move would have been to keep everyone together. Keep you safe and where he can keep an eye on you.” He gingerly flexed his fingers, admiring her handiwork. “Although he made a good choice of bodyguard. She’s... pretty good at what she does.” 

“Still, I thank you for saving me. There really aren’t that many of us left on the right side of Mir.” His expression darkened for a moment. “I expect he’s going to try and find me, after the Swan. But he shouldn’t. Not right now. My pursuers have momentarily lost me, but they’ll be back. I can’t give them a shot at both of us in the same place.” 

“Or at the others.” He reached es deep into his coat and pulled a small cheesecloth package free. He unwrapped it carefully, and took a bite of the plain sandwich within. “Really takes a lot out of you, doesn’t it.”

"You're w-welcome, Marcus," she replied, studying him with a tilted head. She nodded her agreement at his assessment; healing was always hungry work, for both the healer and the recipient. "...Why d-don't you want me to call you b-brother?"
 

After a moment he broke the sandwich in half and offered her a part. “I’m not anyone’s brother anymore.” He shook his head slowly. “Not after what I’ve done. What I’ve had to do to survive. Pretty good odds your brother will kill me when he finds me, anyway. There’s always a price to be paid, for us, especially.” 

He narrowed his eyes. “Don’t let anyone else know you’re here. I think you’re far enough removed from our enemies, but word spreads faster than you think.”

She accepted his offering and settled into a more comfortable cross-legged position to eat, her long, loose skirts easily accommodating the more Banjari-like style. "We do what we have to d-do," she replied softly, no judgement in her tone. "You're n-not the only Caesar in this family with a h-heavy past."

“No, I’m not,” he admitted. “But I stole the future from enough of them. Even him.” He took another bite of his sandwich, finishing it off. Marcus met her eyes, and then he glanced off into the household beyond. “We had a home like this once. Big garden, lots of trees. Just the four of us back then. That was before our parents were..“

He looked back to her. “You tell yourself there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for your family. You know it without thinking about it. But then you realize you would do anything. And the things you’ve done can never be forgiven.” His voice wavered for a moment. “But what is done is done. The four of us are all that’s left of the Caesars. I’ll do everything I can to keep Nero out of the worst of it. But he’s pretty determined. And so are those behind the thing from the Holt.”

"The four?" Florica inquired eagerly. "Th-there's another?"

Marcus laughed bitterly. “You and I are the only ones that know, now. She’s not like Nero and I. Or you. Never really been welcomed into the fold, so to speak.” He began to unwrap some of his bandages. “But she’s one of us, by blood, if not name.” 

“There’s a lot he doesn’t know. That any of you don’t. She’s our uncle’s daughter. I’ve managed to keep her away from things after he died. She’s about as safe as can be, under the circumstances, but I dare not pull her into this if I can help it.” He pulled the last of his bandages free and stuffed them into his pockets. “She doesn’t know how to use her own power yet. It’s probably the only thing keeping her from being discovered.”

Florica felt a surge of affection for Marcus at his brief explanation, and she reached out to briefly touch his knee. "Thank you," she said sincerely. "For p-protecting her." You're a good man, Marcus, she thought to herself. Even if you don't think so. She wanted to ask what her new cousin's name was, but she supposed that if Marcus wanted her to know, he would have told her. She felt as though she were speaking to a shadow, one that would disappear as soon as she brought a light to see it better. There was so much she wanted to ask him; so much she knew he would refuse to tell her if she did. A brief silence fell between them as she watched him unwind his bandages.

"I wish you could stay," she finally said, softly. "It would be nice to have m-more family."

"I couldn't save any of the others," he said, and pain rang through his voice. "... Protecting her was the least... I could do." He slid a dagger from his cloak and inspected the edge. Small flakes of ash and rust fell from the ruined metal. He turned and wordlessly flung the useless thing away into the grass where it shattered into a a dozen glittering pieces. There was something alluring about what she said. About being able to look his brother in the eye, or talk to their new sister, or welcome Hallie as a Caesar and   give her the place she always deserved. But it could not be. Not so long as there were threats in the dark that would happily use him to turn them all against one another. 

"I wish.. I could too," he answered honestly. "You seem rather nice, for one of us. But I heard about what you did at the ceremony. Repairing my mother's dagger and sending a message." He laughed. "That was a nice touch." He brushed some of the grime and ash dust from his face with the edge of his sleeve, revealing a myriad of small, fresh scars along his right cheek. "I wish for a world where I could know you better." His smile faded. "But for now, I'll have to settle for one where you all are alive and well." He carefully shifted to kneel before her, and then he rose, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword. 

"Don't tell Nero I was here. I need time to do what I must. And to make sure Hallie's safe." He glanced down at Thorn, and a flicker of recognition crossed his features. "Keep that nearby. Don't trust anyone." 

He slid the narrow rapier blade from its sheath, and leveled it in front of him in a duelist's salute before he turned to go.. "Hail, Lady Caesar."

"I won't," Florica promised with a rueful sigh. I'm a Caesar now... I suppose it was only a matter of time before I had secrets of my own to keep. She didn't like the thought of not telling Nero about Marcus and Hallie, but she understood the importance of letting him focus on the fight at hand. Standing up, she returned his salute with a graceful fist to her chest, her old scars gleaming in the moonlight. "Stay alive, m-Marcus. Our f-family is small enough as it is."

 

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The pale sunlight had just begun to pour through the windows as she made her way down the hallway to where their rooms were. She carefully balanced the two steaming mugs of coffee in one hand as she reached out to rap against the wood portion of the door with her knuckles. She was dressed practically today, in a plain black hakama skirt and a charcoal shirt. Her sabre rattled gently against her side where it hung freely, the right way, for once. In a concession to the nature of things, she'd pulled her hair back into a high ponytail. "Mana of the gods for you," she called. "Hot and fresh. And there's something I wanted to borrow you for."

After a few moments, the door slid open and Florica's face appeared, sleepy but smiling as she ran her hand through her wild bush of bedhead. Not feeling quite awake enough to talk yet, she gratefully took her mug from Claire and stepped aside, inclining her head in silent invitation for the pretty blond to come in.

Once she was in, Florica slid the door shut again and held the coffee up to her face, enjoying the scent for a long moment before she took a tentative sip. Her smile broadened. Mana of the gods indeed, she thought. Briefly, her thoughts travelled to her two brothers, wondering where they were this morning, hoping they were well. "Good m-morning," she murmured finally, her voice mellow and breathy with sleep. "Th-thank you." She waited to hear what Claire wanted to 'borrow' her for.

Claire grinned as Florica seemed to enjoy her coffee. “Least I could do.” She leaned back against the wall, taking care not to let her sabre make too much noise. “Back at the Castle, you did something with Nero’s dagger that none of us expected. I mean, we knew you could heal, but those were some serious ice shards you fired. According to Audric, just a shade below True Ice and Everfrost.” She had a mischievous smile cross her lips as she patted the chain around her neck. 

“I’m guessing our favorite blockhead didn’t show you that. From the look on his face, he wasn’t expecting that either.” Claire took a long sip of her own cup, savoring the rich flavors for a moment. “So,” she said innocently, “I figured I might teach you how to aim it.”
 

Florica smirked a little at the memory as well, and shook her head. "Julius told me how," she confided.

She blinked in surprise at Claire's offer, grateful but not really understanding that there might be more to aiming than just gesturing in a general direction, as she had done with the ceiling of the Vault. "Don't I just point it?" she asked naïvely.

Claire burst into laughter, nearly spilling some of her coffee in the process. “I... no..” She eventually managed to stop and regain her breath. “Okay, not quite.  There’s a.. little more to it than that.” She took another, full swig of her coffee and set the empty mug down on the nearby shelf. “We probably shouldn’t practice here, though. You up for a little field trip?”

Florica grinned sheepishly at Claire's laughter, blushing a little, though after a moment she started giggling as well. She didn't know why what she had said was so funny, but the woman's laughter was infectious. Taking another sip of her coffee, the Banjari girl nodded, setting it aside. "Sure, just l-let me get dressed." She started going through the drawers of the small dresser, pulling out one of her usual long-sleeved blouses and Banjari-style skirts. With her back turned to Claire, she pulled her nightie off over her head, briefly revealing the maze of deep, pale scars criss-crossing the bronze skin of her back before the embroidered blouse slid down to cover them again.

Her smile slowly faded at the patchwork of scar tissue crossing the younger girl’s skin. Claire’s fingers tightened audibly around the leather of her sword before she realized and released it to clatter against the wall. She leaned her head back, groaning inwardly at the noise. She forced a smile back onto her face as Florica turned back around. The world has been far less kind to you than I thought. Shame and pity mingled as she remembered forcing her to heal her after Nate had been taken. And for the hundredth time, she wondered how exactly Nero had found the puzzle calmly changing in front of her. “We’re going to go see an old friend of mine, today. I think you’ll like it.”

* * *

She knocked on the door with the pommel of her sword, casually waiting for the sounds of hammering to stop. “Sojiro and I are.. old colleagues. He makes good steel, some of the best knives I’ve ever used.” Some of them I’ve actually used for cooking. Claire smiled warmly as he swung the door open, sliding his round spectacles over his brown eyes to peer at them both. “Oh, Claire, you’re back. And who is this?”

“This is Florica, she’s a good friend of mine. I’d like to borrow your testing area to teach her a few tricks.” She grinned, patting her sword for emphasis. “We’ll be careful, I promise.” 

He laughed and waved them in. “Of course, of course. I still have some of those old -“ she cut him off with a wave of her hand. “No need, we’ve brought our own, today. Besides, you’re mostly retired, remember?” 

Sojiro chuckled, and led them back behind the counter into the small residence tucked into the building. Claire waved at the petite woman chopping away at vegetables in the kitchen, and she waved back eagerly. “Tomoe,” she explained to Florica as they went downstairs into the basement.

It was well lit, with modern concrete and handsome steel shelves through most of the side walls, all of which were heavily laden with fine pots and pans, wrapped packages and wooden boxes. The far wall was a rugged looking brick face with human silhouettes carved into it at regular intervals. Faint glowing runes showed up every few feet in the brick and dotted the human shapes in dense spirals. 

“I set this up for him... probably about five or so years ago. After he retired.” She pointed out the details of the runes. “Those red ones are for resilience. They form a small barrier over the surface of the wall and absorb shock. The green ones are structural. They run into the wall and through each of the bricks, tying each one together and increasing durability. As for the blue ones.. you’ll see.” 

“I’ll leave you to it, Claire, Florica-san. Please let me or Tomoe know if you need anything at all.” He bowed deeply, and then made his way back up the stairs. Claire waited until his footsteps faded completely before she turned to Florica, smirking. 

“Alright, now it’s time for the real party trick.” She held out both of her hands, drawing power to the very center of her palms. At once, the runes began to glow brightly.  She focused on the shapes set into the wall, on the form and depth and most importantly, weight she wanted them to have. Slowly, she poured her mana into the air, sending it fully towards the blue runes in a stream of energy. The air blurred as three humanoid dummies began to materialize near, far, and at middling distance from then. “And now we have our targets.” She beamed. “Alright, lets see what you’ve got, Caesar gal.

Florica gasped as the dummies materialized, her eyes widening at the feat of magic. She had known Claire was a talented magic user, but this was the first time she had seen her do something other than fireballs and wards. She looked from Claire to the dummies, marvelling, wondering what else the pretty cook had up her sleeve. Summoning something from nothing like that was no mean feat, even with all the preparation that had obviously gone into it ahead of time. "W-woah," she commented, returning Claire's grin.

At Claire's instruction, she pulled out Frost from beneath the cloak Nero had given her. She looked at it for a moment, watching the cold steam drip from the blade, and then pointed it at the nearest dummy. "Shatter!"

The bolt of ice flew over the dummy's shoulder to explode harmlessly against the wall. Florica wrinkled her nose in embarrassment.

Claire chuckled, and shook her head. "Don't worry, it takes a little time to learn." She made her way to stand next to Florica, and slid a long dagger from its sheath at the small of her back. "Throwing, that's typically what one would do with something like this. But Frost is a magical weapon. It's tremendously capable of doing damage without ever leaving your hand." She flicked her blade through her fingers, first into a reverse grip, and then into a more traditional one. 

She extended it in her hand, aiming carefully at the target. "When you're trying to cut someone, you'd hold it how you are now, with the edge inline with your arm, thumb over your index finger. That'll make sure you're cutting in a straight line, nice and clean." She moved her thumb upward, until it pointed in the same direction as the tip. "When you're still learning to aim a spellblade, though, I'd recommend holding it like this. Just imagine the target being where your thumb is pointing and will it to fire when you're there." 

She took a deep breath, holding it in as she focused on the head of the furthest dummy. "Eviscerate!" A starlike burst of white energy flashed across the distance and struck true. The head of the dummy splayed back into a storm of tumultuous blue particles while its body collapsed beneath it and jerked for a few heartbeats. "Like that," she said, and held up her other hand, pouring some more mana into the intervening space to reform it. 

"Now you try," she said, beaming as her target faded back into existence.

Florica watched carefully as Claire showed her how to hold the dagger properly, shifting her grip obediently to match. 

She wasn't sure what kind of spell she expected Claire to demonstrate, but the utterly destructive burst of energy that sprung from her dagger to level the furthest dummy was not it. The Banjari girl stared with wide eyes at the twitching, headless dummy, feeling a little green. Even though the dummies didn't look particularly human, those death spasms were... realistic.  A sudden memory overwhelmed her, crowding out her awareness of Claire and the basement around them. 

She found herself back in Eshdraemoir, among the crowds of Kharn gathered to watch the fighting pits. One of the masters had a stake in a few of the fights, and had brought her to make sure his fighters were in peak condition. So she had gone around to each of them, mending their hurts, as she was bid. Learning each one's spirit by heart in the few seconds of contact.

Most were humans or creatures of the darkness, but today there was an Elf among their number. Not a Kharn, but a true Elf - a Veldamari. He sat with his head bowed, dirty and shirtless, the enchanted collar around his neck preventing him from using his own magic to heal the gash on his muscular left shoulder. Long tangles of black hair obscured his face. He didn't look up as she approached, laid her hand over the wound, and began to mend it. But his soul reminded her of things she had already begun to forget - open skies and summer fields and ocean air.

As she finished, he lifted his right hand and placed it gently over hers in wordless thanks. There was nothing that either of them could say; no words of comfort that would mean anything in this place. Florica nodded and pulled her hand away, shuffling back to her master's side with her head carefully bowed.

The Elf's fight did not last long. He was agile, but he lacked the killing lust that his opponent, a great minotaur, displayed. A well-timed blow of the beast's massive morningstar caved his head in, while the crowd roared and jeered in approval. All eyes were on the great beast as it raised its fists in triumph, but all Florica could see was the broken body lying on the ground, dead but still twitching as though in pain.

The Lady Caesar's eyes had gone glassy and unfocused, unable to hear or see what was around her, her face slack and pale.

Claire waited for her to fire off another shard of ice, but none came. Nerves? She turned to the Banjari girl, opening her mouth to offer some reassuring advice, but the look on the Lady Caesar’s face killed her words before they left.  She knew that look, hated that look. That was the startled deer expression she had seen one too many times on someone reliving the horrors of times past. Her silver eyes flicked back over to the  dummies, standing straight and blissfully ignorant of their fate.

I might have overdone it there, she thought, dropping her arm. I should have considered... what I saw earlier. She walked over to Florica, and moved in front of her, blocking her view of the dummies. “Hey,” she whispered, unsure what she could do to snap her out of it. “Hey, Florica. It’s okay, they’re not real. Wherever you think you are, you’re not really there. You’re safe. You’re here with me now.” She slid the Spellbane dagger back into its sheath and placed both her hands on Florica’s clammy cheeks. Claire closed her eyes and sent a gentle wave of heat through her palms. “I don’t know what you’re seeing right now. I’m sorry. I don’t... know exactly what happened to you. I saw.. your scars. I know you don’t get them from a kind life. But you’re safe now. It’s okay.” She felt the buzzing of Florica’s aura at the edge of her fingertips. 

She gritted her teeth and allowed them to connect just for the barest of moments, forcing herself to think of the happiest memory she could find. 

Warm sunlight streamed through the branches and leaves of the creaking tree above. She sat with her back to the elm tree, leaning her head back as Nero read aloud from his book beside her. Audric dozed in the grass at her other side, lightly snoring with his charcoal stained hands making a mess of his shirt. In her lap, Nate sat, playing idly with a wooden sword he’d gotten for his fourth birthday, already nicked and chipped with the day’s activities. She smiled, brushing a hand through his thick brunette hair.

Claire's words started to come into focus, along with the comforting hum of her aura, as Florica returned to reality. The Banjari girl took a gasping breath, dropping her dagger and flinching. Her hands came up to grasp Claire's wrists, but she didn't pull the blond's hands away from her face. Blinking rapidly, she found herself staring into Claire's warm, concerned eyes. Her cheeks heated in a deep blush, and she looked off to the side, at the three dummies, feeling like they were staring at her as well. "S-sorry," she stammered, not having any words to explain what had just happened, feeling a little like she was going mad. Keep it together, Florica. That was another life. "I d-d-d-don't... I j-j-just g-g-got d-d-d-distracted..."

 

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Claire stayed where she was as Florica stammered a response. “It’s okay,” she repeated, taking a step back and bending down to pick up the dagger. She came back up, twirling it between her fingers in a casual motion as she followed Florica’s gaze to the dummies. “Bad memories, huh?”  She flicked Frost up and caught the blade between her fingers, keeping it there for a moment before she made up her mind and held it back out to Florica. 

Florica nodded slowly, her skittish gaze sliding back to the graceful swordswoman, surprised and relieved that she understood what had happened. It made the former slave feel a little less like the monster in the room. But she still felt a strange sense of reluctance as she accepted the knife back. Her gaze flickered to the dummies again. Now that she knew something of how they would react, she wasn’t sure if she had it in her to fire at them again, to commit, even in theory, the kind of violence that she had spent her entire life thus far alternately fleeing and healing others from.

“It’s different when you’re the one doing the hurting,” Claire said quietly. “But it still winds up being hard to watch. It gets easier after a while. But you never really forget what it feels like.” Her silver eyes glinted in the light like naked steel. “My first was in the Holt,” she said, and her free hand slowly began to blossom into warm, red and orange flames. “With magefire. But it was easy then. So much easier when you were desperate just to survive. You don’t think then. Just burn and burn until it’s over. They don’t look real when you’re done.” The fire slowly died away. 

She placed Frost into Florica’s hand and closed it with hers. “Steel is different. Ice is different. More personal. Harder to do.” She fell silent for a moment as memories of a hundred different faces  drifted through her mind until it settled on one. A handsome young man with laughing brown eyes, a luminescent tattoo of a dragon swirling around his left eye. A blade plunging down towards his neck as his smile turned to horrified recognition. Ahead, a bloodied giant stumbled into an alleyway. “There are.. terrible.. people out there. People who want nothing more than to see you and Nero, the last of the Caesars, dead. Disgraced. Or worse.” Something cold drifted into her voice. “And you might be the only one that can stop them. So stop them, Florica, Lady Caesar.”

The Banjari's grip tightened on the dagger, taking it out of Claire’s hands, and she nodded, steeling herself. For herself, she might not be able to – but to protect her family, she would do whatever it took. She looked down at the dagger, remembering the vows it stood for. Leave no blow unanswered. Her thumb slid up to align with the blade, as Claire had shown her. She thought of Marcus, and Hallie, and Nero, all counting on her to uphold the family strength. And she remembered the cost when she had not – her aquila’s body, broken and dead at the Holt.

Rage filled her, as cold and precise as the dagger in her hand. She brought it up in a smooth motion and pointed with a straight arm at the chest of the nearest dummy. “Shatter,” she snarled, pouring the strength of her feelings into the blade. A bolt of ice as long as her hand burst from the dagger and buried itself from tip to stern in the dummy’s heart. Over the space of a heartbeat gleaming ice crawled over the figure, and then with a resounding crack it shattered, crumpling to the ground in a thousand ice-covered pieces. Cold steam rose from the pile of rubble.

Claire arched an impressed eyebrow as the dummy crumbled away into a small pile of glittering, steaming ice. She shivered a little as the temperature in the room dropped noticeably. "... well, that was.. a lot more than I was expecting." She grinned. "I figured you'd just use it as a projectile, but.. that's brilliant." Claire clapped a hand on Florica's back. With her other, she flicked a blooming rose of fire spiraling gently through the air towards the wreckage. The ice hissed and began to melt away as white hot petals fell among it until there was nothing left of either.

"You did good," she said simply. "Just being able to fire at something is.. half of the battle. The other half is hitting it. You're winning both of them." She stretched out both of her hands, pouring more of her mana into reconstituting the dummy again. But this time, she focused hard on adding movement to it, walking, running, dodging. The other two began to do the same, moving along the room in simple, easy patterns. "They won't always be standing around waiting for you, though. " She slid her knife free again and took aim at the furthest dummy, watching as it ducked and weaved, and launched into a sprint. "It'll take a moment before whatever you send their way lands. You're.. going to have to guess where they will be and aim there, rather than where they are right now." 

She flicked the blade in an s shape, drawing light and heat and joy into the very edges of the metal. "But in a pinch," she grunted, focusing on setting her blade alight with thick, bluish purple flames that wobbled with every movement. "You can get a little.. creative!" She lashed out, suddenly, and a stream of liquid fire slid in a wide arc across the room, spreading across the floor and forcing the targets to skid and stumble as they tried to avoid it. "And now you control the area. Maybe without having to hurt anyone."

Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and she leaned forward to catch her breath. "It's a little tiring. But it might be easier than trying and missing a few shots."

Florica was listening closely to the lesson, her brow furrowed in concentration. There really is a lot more to it than just pointing, she thought, remembering her before-coffee comment sheepishly. She watched the dummies stumbling back and forth, and then raised her dagger again, pointing at the nearest one, following its movements with her hand. "Shatter," she commanded, but the bolt of ice whizzed harmlessly behind the dummy as it ran. Scowling in concentration, the Banjari girl tried again, pointing a little ahead of the dummy this time. "Shatter!" 

Her efforts were rewarded as the bolt of ice embedded itself deep in the dummy's shoulder, knocking it off its feet and into the pool of flame that Claire had left. Florica grinned, and turned her focus to the other two. They were still running around, but only in a narrow area between the flames and the wall. Florica considered for a moment, and then raised the dagger again, pouring her magic into it without immediately releasing it this time. She could feel the pressure of it building in the blade, which began to crackle with white, cold energy. She let it gather for a few more seconds, and then lashed out as Claire had done, sending out a burst of frost that cascaded onto the floor, forming a river of slippery ice that ran parallel to the magefire, neatly trapping the two remaining dummies. One of them tried to leap across it, but stepped down on the ice and slipped, falling heavily to the floor. The other backed up until its back was to the wall.

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Good!” Claire clapped as Florica’s second shot struck home and sent the dummy careening into the flames. “Takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it’s almost relaxing.” A little less relaxing when they fire back, though. She felt a swell of pride as Florica sent a spectacular burst of ice and rime sliding across the floor and forcing one of the other dummies to trip and fall heavily to the floor. Broken tailbone or hip there, she thought, smirking all the while. 

She rather enjoyed teaching her. But this was a part of her that she had taken great pains to hide. It was barely enough to teach the Banjari girl before her to defend herself against other monsters. Like the ones who gave you those scars. Something tells me Nero chose his words well when he made his vow. Leave no blow unanswered indeed. 

Claire raised her dagger and whispered. “Eviscerate.” A small starburst of white light streaked across the room and plunged into the heart of the last dummy. It juddered and dropped like a marionette whose strings had been cut. “Dispel,” she said a moment later, and waved a hand across the room. Her own magefire began to dim and flicker away, the dummies starting to crumble and flake into nothingness as she willed apart the ties that bound them together.

She moved to stand next to Florica, admiring her form. “You could be good at this, in time,” she remarked, tilting her head to the side. “You have the fine control of a healer but mana reserves a battlemage would kill for.” She shook her head, and then moved to ruffle Florica’s dark hair beneath her scarf. “But no battlefields for you.” She smiled softly, and reached down to take hold of Florica’s free hand. “You are a fine healer. And a good sister. I wanted you to be able to defend yourself if you absolutely had to, but if you ever get in trouble, promise me you’ll come find me first? No matter how bad it is? We’re family. No matter what anyone else has to say about it,” she said with utter sincerity etched into her features.

The little Banjari smiled warmly as Claire ruffled her hair, chuckling gently. "Th-thanks, Claire," she murmured, nodding. "I will," she promised, looking into the older woman's eyes, and her smile broadened as Claire declared they were family. "Family," she echoed in agreement.

Edited by Song Sprite

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Sai’s mountain of paperwork only ever seemed to grow; for each form they submitted to the city offices, they were given two more to complete. The preliminary forms for re-establishing him as a living person had been completed, and although they still needed to wait for those to be ratified next week, they had been given some forms regarding inheritance, building permits and re-incorporation of the Swan to get started on.

It was the third day of paperwork hell, and Sai was having a hard time focusing. It didn’t help that every time he glanced out the window he saw Chiba Amy, sitting alone on the bottom step of the shrine, taking refuge beneath its eaves from the light rain as she read a book.

“You should talk to her.” Tomoko’s smooth, amused voice broke through his reverie, and he glanced over at her smirking face before redirecting his gaze firmly to the form in front of him. It might as well have been written in Old Mirian for all the sense he could make of it.

“Sai-kun,” she said, gently chiding.

A hundred excuses tangled with each other on the tip of his tongue. She doesn’t want to talk to me. There’s nothing to say. She’s married. I’m no home-wrecker. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I can’t do that to Aki. 

I’m too late. Years and years too late.

Sai scowled at the paperwork in front of him. “Not you too,” he complained.

Tomoko raised a thick brown eyebrow. “And who else?”

“Claire-san.”

“Hn. That girl has a head on her shoulders.”

Sai considered pointing out that Claire had been drunk at the time, but found he couldn’t quite bring himself to be that uncharitable. Instead he grunted, making a show of studiously examining the paper in front of him.

“Sai-kun. Look at me.”

He looked up unwillingly, his dark eyes pleading for her to leave it alone.

Tomoko studied his face for a long moment, and then she tilted her head to gaze past him, out the window at Amy’s slender figure, half-hidden by the veil of misty rain. “Kimura Sai… You’ve always had that, if nothing else. A family name. Honour. All she ever had was you two, and dancing.”

Sai shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and looked out at his childhood sweetheart again. “Well, she’s a Chiba now. It’s a good name.”

“Sai-kun… do you know how old Chiba Sai is?”

“I don’t know; a few months? Why?” Sai looked back at Tomoko, confused by the change in topic.

“Five months,” Tomoko said deliberately. “And do you know how long ago Amy-chan and Aki-kun got married?”

The room suddenly felt cold. “I… Last year, Aki-kun said.”

“Hn. In September.”

Eight months ago, Sai thought, realizing the implication against every effort to ignore it. Which means Amy… “She wouldn’t,” he whispered, leaning back in his chair.

“Wouldn’t what? Marry, to give her child what she never had? A good name, a future? When have you ever known Amy-chan not to do what needed to be done?” Tomoko asked sharply, tilting her head to demand Sai’s gaze. “Sai-kun. Talk to her.

“And say what?” he demanded, staring at her helplessly.

“An apology would make a damn decent start.”

Sai raked his scalp with his fingers in frustration, a few strands coming loose from the tie at the nape of his neck. “I… Fine. Fine!” He stood up so abruptly that his chair clattered backwards over the woven mats, and strode from the room, shoulders hunched defensively, feeling like all the women in his life had decided to gang up against him.

* * *

Apart from Amy, the Chiba courtyard was deserted. Not bothering to find his shoes, Sai strode out into the rain, aggravation in each long step. Seeing him coming, Amy stood, closing the slim novel and hugging it between her crossed arms.

Stopping in front of her, the Welander boy fell into a deep, rigid bow, his hands clenched into fists at his sides.

Confused and a little affronted by the annoyance radiating off of Sai, Amy let out a long, quiet sigh through her nose. “What do you want, Kimura-san?” she asked stiffly.

Staring at the ground, Sai flinched a little at that. He opened his mouth to tell her how sorry he was. “Do you love him?” His eyes widened in shock as he heard what he had just said. Oh shi-

“How dare you,” she snarled, and her slender fingers gripped her book until it creaked in protest. She took a step towards him, having half a mind to beat him over his stupid, handsome, bowing head with it. “After everything you- That’s what you ask? You think you have a right to ask me that?”

“No.” He straightened, and looked down at her gravely, raindrops gathering on his head. “I don’t.” He tried to focus; tried not to think about how stunning she looked, even in her anger. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant to- I was out of line. I won’t-”

“No,” she cut him off.

He paused. “...What?”

“No, I don’t love him,” she said, her voice strangely calm, detached, as though commenting on the weather. It’s you. It’s always been you. “Gods know I’ve tried.” She sighed heavily and looked away, towards the little home she had made with him. “He’s like a brother to me.”

“But you married him.”

She nodded, and leaned back against the pillar behind her, moving with the same fae grace she’d exuded on the first day of their classes together. “Yeah. I did,” she said tiredly. “What was I supposed to do? We… we got pregnant, and you weren’t here, you big idiot,” she said helplessly, her voice cracking with emotion. “What was I supposed to do?” she repeated, while the tears began to fall. “Wait forever- wait for a ghost?” She gestured angrily behind her at the shrine, where, near the entrance, a single toro sat apart from the rest, the traditional characters for Kimura inscribed on its base. “Well, I couldn’t do it. I’m sorry. I had to live.”

Every word she spoke was a coal, placed with a physician’s accuracy on Sai’s spirit, methodically burning him alive. His own eyes were red, his cheeks wet with more than just the slowly falling rain. What could he say? The gulf between them was so much wider now than just lost years; he was powerless against it. But I’m here now, he wanted to scream. I’m right here! Choose me! Choose me like you always did before! Words he could never say. The time to say them was years ago. He had chosen his grief and his pride over the chance at love, and he would never get it back.

He fell to his knees before her, placed his hands palm-down on the wet grass, and pressed his forehead to the ground between them. “Amy-san, I-”

“No,” she snarled, cutting him off again. “Get up. Get up, damn you! You do not get to just waltz in here and apologize now. Get up!” She stepped forward into the rain and kicked his shoulder with enough force to knock him back from his obesiant position, and then grabbed both his shoulders and hauled upwards. “Stand up, Sai!”

Shocked, he slowly picked himself up, flushing up to his ears with half-strangled emotions starting to slip. Since she seemed determined that he not speak, he just stared down at her again. She had let go of his shoulders once he started to rise, but she was still so close that he could see every shadow in the deep wells of her near-black irises, could feel every angry breath she took as the warmth of it brushed over his damp kimono like a caress. Her nearness was dizzying, dangerously intoxicating, and for the briefest of moments something real flashed over her face, and he knew she felt the same.

The rain fell harder.

She shivered, and the spell was broken. She took a step back, and then turned and hurried away, head bowed, clutching her book to her chest like an infant.

Sai watched her until she left the courtyard, and then fell to his knees again, feeling numb.

* * *

Claire watched from the shadows of the hallway, one hand resting on the wall, the other held out to warn Florica not to move. The rattle of rain on the roof drowned out much of what they were saying, but she could tell from their body language that it wasn’t going particularly well for Sai. She cringed as Amy kicked Sai and dragged him back to his feet. Part of her wanted to interrupt, to charge in and rescue him from it. 

But this was something wrought from his own choices, her choices, and the cruel work of fate. “I had to live,” she repeated quietly. 

“I should go,” Claire said to Florica, smiling wryly. She stepped out into the rain, and warmth flowed through her as she instinctively drew fire to her. Warm emerald flames lit the ends of her hair and her shoulders, sending raindrops hissing away as they landed on her. She knelt down beside him, and laid an arm around his shoulder, taking care not to let her flames burn him. 

“You don’t have to talk about it,” she said quietly. “But I’ll stay here with you for as long as you want me to.”

Sai leaned into Claire's side with a heavy sigh, raising a shaking hand to brush tears and rain from his face.

More fell.

"...I really fucked up, Claire," he whispered brokenly.

* * *

Standing beside Claire, Florica watched the confrontation between Sai and Amy play out to its foregone conclusion. She thought of Nathaniel, about the last time they had spoken to each other, on the balcony above the sea. Some things just can't be fixed. She stared up at the cold, unfeeling sky as Claire headed out to try to pick up some of Sai's pieces. She considered doing the same for Amy, but something told her that the proud young woman would rather not know she'd had an audience for all that. Florica sighed, her breath misting in the damp air. She looked out at Sai again, glad to see the glowing figure of Claire descending upon him like an angel against the storm, guarding him against the worst of its chill. The afternoon had turned out to be rather miserable, after all.

A thought occurred to the Banjari girl, and she turned and strode away determinedly towards the kitchen.

 

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"I know," she said, hugging him tightly. "I didn't see all of it, but.. I know it must hurt. It's a hard thing to see someone you thought you lost come back to life. I.. can't imagine what it must be like for her. But she made the only real choice she had." Claire glanced back in the direction of Florica, but the girl had vanished. "It's.. hard not knowing if you'll ever be forgiven for something. I've done something I don't know I can ever be forgiven for. Even if the person I wronged doesn't seem to hold it against me."

"It cost us so much, that stupid mistake. My brother. Nero. My cousin's hand.. my swordmaster's leg." She tilted her head against Sai's. "Nearly got you in it too." She closed her eyes. "I spent the next decade trying to make up for it. Still don't think I ever will." She rested her hand into a puddle beside her, and it flashed to steam that tried valiantly to rise amidst the never-ending deluge above. "But we have to try. We owe it to the ones we failed. Even if they never grant us absolution, we can't give up on trying." 

Her silver eyes opened and glanced at the shrine, at the toro with his name inscribed on it. Another reminder of a life left in ashes. She turned on her knees and placed her hands on the sides of his face. "You didn't die with the rest of your family. So live for the ones you have now." Claire stood and offered him a hand, willing her fire to fade away and leave them there in the dark and wet. "Come on. I'd be a poor business partner if I left you out here to melt."

There was little space in Sai's spirit for the hopeful tone in Claire's words. Without Amy, it all felt...pointless. He look her hand and stood, but his face remained sombre as they headed back inside to dry off. He could feel something dark and bitter taking root in his soul, full of hard edges and dead spaces, and for the first time, he had no desire to try to dance it off.

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Balancing the tray carefully in her left hand, Florica rapped quietly on the sliding panel which separated Aki and Amy’s rooms from the rest of the Chiba property.

“Go away!” came Amy’s voice with surprising strength.

Florica raised both her eyebrows, thoughtfully sucking her lips into her mouth for a moment. “I h-have sake,” she called back coaxingly.

After a moment, the door slid open, and a red-eyed Amy reached out and grabbed the slender neck of the bottle of sake, unceremoniously bringing it to her lips and taking a swig, ignoring the cups on the tray.

Florica smiled and turned to go, but was stopped by Amy reaching out with her other hand and grabbing her wrist. The Banjari girl glanced over at Amy questioningly, and then squeaked softly in surprise as she dragged her inside and to the right, into the kotatsu room they had visited in a few days prior. Little Chiba Sai was passed out, sprawled on his back over a few of the cushions, his breath rising and falling steadily. Letting go of Florica’s wrist once they were in the room, Amy closed the door behind them and slumped down in the nest of cushions, taking another long swig from the bottle. 

Following more slowly, Florica placed the tray on the table and slid down beside the slender Nikaidan, sitting close enough that their flanks brushed together. There wasn’t much else she could offer by way of comfort.

“So… you saw that,” Amy stated bleakly.

Florica nodded, wrapping her arm around Amy’s shoulders and gently rubbing her shoulderblades. Amy took another drink and then wordlessly offered it to the Banjari girl. Florica took a small sip before carefully placing it on the table in front of them. “I’m s-sorry, Amy-chan,” she said softly.

Amy scowled, her face twisting as fresh tears welled up in her eyes. “It doesn’t matter. None of it does. He made his choice; I made mine.” She glanced over at her sleeping son, and then looked away guiltily, clenching her jaw. “It is what it is.”

Florica continued to rub her hand in small circles into Amy’s shoulders, glancing over at little Sai as well. The innocent child’s chest continued to rise and fall in deep slumber, oblivious to the drama in the adult world around him, at least for now. Amy’s bitter words from the other night echoed back to her. A Kimura Sai of my very own. Such a heavy burden for the child to bear. But at least he-

“I wish he’d just stayed dead,” Amy slurred venomously, interrupting the Lady Caesar’s train of thought. “Things were easier then. Simpler.” She had picked up the sake again.

Florica sighed and tilted her head gently, a gesture of acknowledgement that wasn’t quite agreement. “Easier...” she echoed thoughtfully, her smooth brow wrinkling. Easier, but maybe not better. She thought of when Nero had pulled her out of the brothel. That had been anything but easy, for either of them. But it had been worth it in the end.

But he's my brother, not a lover. She looked back at Amy. This… is much more complicated, she acknowledged to herself.

"Gaia, did I really kick him?" Amy groaned, aghast.

Florica couldn't help but giggle softly. "Yeah. You d-did."

Amy took another long swallow of sake. "Fuuuuuuck," she moaned, rubbing her blushing face with her free hand. "And I bet you're not the only one who saw it, either. I'm such an idiot. I'm never going to hear the end of this."

Florica considered that for a moment. "I think p-people will understand," she offered gently.

"Oh, sure, they'll understand," the slender Nikaidan scoffed. "Just like they understand me marrying Aki. Just like they understand me having no dowry, no name, no family to stand with me at the wedding. I'm so bloody sick of everyone's understanding!" she snapped, and took another swallow of sake, letting her breath out in a rough gasp as the alcohol burned its way down her throat.

You hate being pitied, Florica thought with a pang of sympathy. She took the bottle from Amy and took a sip, suddenly realizing that Amy was well on her way to finishing off the whole bottle on her own. She kept it in her hand as she replied. "I know a l-little of w-what that's l-like," she murmured. "I mean, I w-wasn't always a Caesar." I was a whore, she thought, but she wasn't quite brave enough to voice the words.

Amy glanced over at her for the first time, and nodded. "Yeah, you're a gypsy, aren't you?"

Florica cringed inwardly at the slur, but nodded, keeping her expression neutral.

"How'd you get to be related to the blue-eyed blond crew, then?" Amy continued curiously, drawn out of her own sorrows for a moment.

"Nero," Florica simply. "He ch-chose me as his s-sister. I… still d-don't feel like I d-d-deserve it, m-most days," she confessed, taking another sip of the sake and putting it back on the low table. "He… d-doesn't pity me," she murmured, half to herself. "He n-never has. B-but the others d-do, s-sometimes. I d-d-don't think...they c-can help it." She looked away tiredly, studying the simple, graceful paintings adorning the walls of the small room.

"Fuck em," Amy advised, and Florica giggled despite herself, glancing back at her warmly and squeezing Amy gratefully with the arm still slung around her shoulders.

Amy smirked and leaned her head on Florica's shoulder, letting out a long, sake-scented sigh. "You're really...sweet," she slurred affectionately.

"So are you," Florica replied.

"Nahh," the Nikaidan scoffed. "I'm sour. Like lemons." She chuckled dryly, and Florica laughed as well, shaking her head.

"You've always been sweet to m-me," she pointed out.

Amy chuckled again. "Yeah, well… you're… different." She half-shrugged, raising an eyebrow as she glanced up at Florica sidelong. "Person'd have to be a real monster to be mean to you."

Florica just shook her head, smiling wryly. "I've m-met a f-few," she murmured.

"You'n me both, Rica-chan," Amy assured her drunkenly. "You...and...me...both." She groaned with exasperation as her mind returned to the fiasco in the courtyard, and she slumped down, laying her head and arms in Florica's lap. "Why can't things just be simple?" she whined abruptly, her eyes filling with fresh tears.

Florica sighed and gently petted Amy's head, brushing the hair out of her pretty, freckled face. "I d-don't know," she answered honestly, her thoughts turning to Nate again. She swallowed hard and reached for the bottle, taking another mouthful of sake, though there wasn't much left. Simple… She sighed again, shaking her head, and continued to gently pet Amy's weary head.

Distantly, as though in a dream half-erased by daylight, she thought she remembered someone doing the same for her, once. A mother, maybe, or a grandmother. She could no longer recall which. But she remembered gentle hands on her hair, the creaking of wagon wheels, and a woman's voice singing a song of the road that was as old as the Banjari themselves.

Closing her eyes, Florica tried to cling to the memory before it faded again, her brow wrinkling in thought. Softly, she began to hum the song, recalling as she did so that it was a lullaby. The words still eluded her, but the melody grew more clear in her mind, only a few short phrases long, rolling over and over upon itself like the wheel of a painted wagon.

She hummed it for a long time, while Amy snored quietly in her lap.

Eventually the door slid open, and Aki poked his head in, offering Florica a hesitant smile. She returned it, and then watched it fade from his face as he took in the sake bottle, the tear-stained face of his passed-out wife, and his slumbering child. Little Sai's foot kicked in his sleep, and he started to squirm, disturbed by the noise of the door.

Aki entered the room, and picked the baby up with more gentleness than it seemed possible for such a large young man to possess. Sai whimpered, his face scrunching up, and Aki inserted a knuckle between the baby's lips, letting him teeth on it to quiet him, though Sai's first few teeth had emerged enough to give quite a sharp pinch.

Retreating to the doorway again, Aki gave Florica a silent, uncharacteristically sombre bow, and then stepped out into the hall and closed the door with one foot.

Reaching over, Florica grabbed a few more pillows from the sides of the kotatsu and set them beside her shoulders so that she could rest her head upon them. It wasn't as comfortable as her bed, but it felt right to continue to watch over Amy's drunken slumber. She felt a sense of companionship with the girl, an almost sisterly affection of equals that she had not truly felt for another woman since leaving the small, broken sisterhood at the brothel behind.
 

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[a few days later...]

Sai and Claire were working in the office space the Chibas had provided for them when the morning mail was brought in, along with a tray of hot breakfast and refills of coffee. Most of the mail was addressed to Sai, and he sat back down next to the window and started going through the correspondences, though he stole a curious glance at the lone letter that was addressed to his business partner.

Claire took a steaming mug of coffee and relaxed in her chair. It had been two days since Nero had last written. The edges of the spellpaper were damp, and one part of it had smudged their fingerprints away entirely. But he had taken a moment to write safe in a dry corner, just barely legible. She sighed, letting the warm coffee soak in her fingers for a moment before she took a deep sip and appreciated Cooky's handiwork. Worry edged away most of her appetite, but she took a plate nevertheless as Sai surveyed the array of envelopes that had arrived.

She arched an eyebrow at the one he did not immediately begin to open, and reached across to pick it up. It was addressed to her in Mia's fine script, and as she flipped it over she could feel the weight of the Grey seal in silver coated wax. "That was.. surprisingly fast," she murmured, cracking the seal with a quick twist of her hands. 

It was a brief one, arguably as much so as the concerned post that had preceded it. Claire grimaced as she read. Please proceed. Had to drop a few projects. Her lips moved into a thin line as she read, reread, and read again. There was no code. No cipher. Not even a hint of energy to it besides the faint signature of Audric's blood worked into the wax itself. It was authentic. It was troubling. She was torn between bitter worry for them and anger at the senseless waste that Audric's maiming had been. A thin curl of smoke curled from the paper where she held it. 

The acrid smell forced her to let it go, where it fell between a book of warding engrams and another sketch of the updated blueprints for the Swan. Guilt sank deep into her shoulders, a physical force pressing her back into the chair. I could sell some things, she thought, idly reaching for her mug before she thought better of it. My neighbor's been pestering me to sell the restaurant... but even then. Her silver eyes slid across the drawings of the Swan before she snuck a quick glance at Sai, hard at work. But even then I don't know that it would be enough. This.. has to be done right. If we don't do it right, we'll just end up screwing over a lot of good people in the process.

She leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands, wondering how to even find the words to tell Sai. I can't even do that, she realized with grim solemnity. The last thing I should be doing right now is making it clear just how bad of a situation 'Ric and Mia are in. And it was all her fault. Her and Nate. She tilted her head to the side to look at Sai as she spoke. Her voice was quiet, but frank. "Got the approval from Audric and Amirah. We can start whenever you're ready." She gave a tired smile.

"Oh, good," he replied with some enthusiasm without looking up from the sheaf of paper he had been leafing through. A few days of working on their plans seemed to have been enough to pull him out of the dark mood he had been in after talking to Amy on Saturday, though he seemed perhaps a bit less ready to laugh than before, and dark circles lingered beneath his eyes more often than not. "We can go to the bank after lunch. I should have everything ready by then." He finally looked up, smiling boyishly. But something in her expression gave him pause. "...Everything alright?"

“Yeah, that’ll work,” she agreed quickly, looking away as he asked a damnably perceptive question. Before the fight at the Swan, a lie would have been the easy way to let the question die where it stood. Another little white lie, dyeing her the colors everyone expected to see. Instead she met his gaze and gave a slow, pained nod. Lies had simply deferred the pain until everything exploded all at once. It hadn’t done a damn sight of good for Nate. Or Nero. Or Florica. Or Audric. 

She slid the letter over to him with the fingers of one hand, resting on the other and observing him as he read. “I don’t know that they’re doing too well,” she admitted softly. “I think.. Audric’s injury hurt business a lot more than we thought. I.. I mean I thought he might... get better. That things would stay the same long enough for that.” She looked down at her blueprints. “Best laid plans.. but we have to do this. We have to make the Swan work or it’s all for nothing.”

Sai picked up the letter and read it, the last remnants of his smile fading away as he ran his eyes over and over the text as Claire had done. He leaned back slowly in his chair, feeling cold, the colour draining from his ruddy face. Everything Sai has done for our families. He shook his head slowly, running his free hand through his long, dark hair. Swallowing hard, he forced the words out. "Claire... You said it isn't their company account. It's... their own? I don't... I don't deserve that. The Swan doesn't deserve that."

She rested a hand on his shoulder. "If you are willing to risk it and stand with us even knowing that, then I will do whatever it takes to repay that debt. You stood with us, knowing what might come." Claire smiled wanly. "You saved my life. Twice. Even the Swan - the spirits of your family - helped." She shook her head. "You have earned it. And we keep our promises.”

Sai rested his large hand over hers, searching her face with troubled eyes. The world of finances was largely mysterious to the young Nikaidan. This didn't feel quite right to him, but he trusted the conviction in Claire's tone. After a long moment of internal struggle, he nodded. "...Alright."

She watched the conflict play out on his face, wondering which side would carry the day. It was a bitter, painful truth to suffer with. She was grateful for the warmth of his hand. No matter what had happened, they would keep their word to him. She knew that much. But that did little to ease the pit of worry in her stomach.

Claire gently ruffled his hair, smiling wryly as he nodded his assent. “I don’t like it either,” she said. “I don’t know what happened. But I’m going to find out. I’ve got ... some connections in Athynia’s banking system. I’ll see what I can learn. But they aren’t the type of people one sends a letter to.” She rubbed the back of her neck uneasily. “They’ll talk to me. But only in person.”

Sai chuckled as she ruffled his hair, pulling it further out of its tie, and he ran his fingers through it again afterwards, pushing back a few stray strands that had started falling in his face. "Alright, partner," he said trustingly. "Should I wait until you get back to start setting up the finances?"

“No,” she answered honestly. “We should get things rolling now. But we’re not going to take all of it. We’ll draw upon half of what they’ve given us. The rest.. I’ll have to see what I can do.” She gave a half smile. “We’re going to make the Swan work. I promise.”

Sai nodded his agreement with the plan, glancing down thoughtfully at the papers, mentally starting to prioritize where the money should go. "It's still more than I ever thought I'd have to work with," he said seriously. "Perhaps the Chibas would be willing to invest as well. And there are other old families I can ask." Going around asking for money isn't something I ever thought I'd find myself doing... but if it will make things easier for the Greys, it will be worth it. "And we can lean harder on the mayor for those.... incentives, Tomoko-san called them?"

“Well,” she said, sitting back in her chair, “we did say we’d be doing it for the community, too.” She tapped her fingers on the desk thoughtfully. “Oh, there’s an idea.” A mischievous smile stretched across her lips. “Nero and I talked... briefly about the Mayor. Perhaps we can indeed convince him it would be a wise measure.” She picked up her mug of coffee, mulling over the thought. “... I might know someone else that can help. I don’t know if he will, but...” her voice grew sterner. “He owes me.”

Sai grinned wryly at the tone in her voice. "I'm glad he's not me," he quipped.

Claire grinned back at him, setting her mug back down. The tips of her hair ignited into cold blue flames as she smirked. “Lucky you,” she laughed, and the flames died back down as she rose from her seat. “I’ll need to see an old friend before I get an audience with the Mayor. They go... way back.” She gave him a quick hug and headed for the door.  “Be good, try not to disappear on me.”

Sai chuckled, glad to see her laughing again. Whatever the situation with the Greys was, he was confident that they could get through this together. "I'll do my best, Claire-san," he promised wryly. There's a.... pretty long list of people who would kill me if I tried a stunt like that again, he thought, and the thought warmed him. It was hard to believe that only a month ago he had been totally alone in the world, he presumed forever.

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The cold autumn rain came down heavily, slapping against his cloak and hood and pouring from the angled Nikaidan rooftops in wide streams. The streets were littered with fine detritus, leaves and twigs, scattered by the wind that occasionally picked up and sent his cloak flapping noisily around him. The hour was late, and few others seemed willing to brave the torrential downpour, especially not without an umbrella or some hardier protection than a badly torn cloak. He ducked into an alley lit by the pale yellow light of a shuddering paper lantern, and took shelter beneath the small overhang the roof provided. 

So tired. 

But he had something to do. A family to protect. 

The wind and rain were nothing in the face of the vicious power Alicia aimed right at the only people he could call his own. And, he thought, it’ll make it much harder for those Vanguard bastards to track me

Losing his eye had been… unfortunate. But a necessary sacrifice. Words my life has been lived by. Bitterness. Gratitude. Florica had done much to restore him, her healing skill shown most beautifully in the pale scars criss-crossing his right hand and face like spiderwebs. He could vaguely make out shapes, like shadows against rice-paper, but fine detail was lost to him altogether. 

He reached into the depths of his cloak and slid a long, straight dagger of black steel free. It shimmered crimson in the swinging light above. There was power in this. Such incredible, chaotic power straining to be free of its binding. It felt almost like he was holding the wrong end of a poker fresh from the fire. 

He slid it back into its sheath. 

Marcus had gambled his very life to get this fragment of power. In the end, it had nearly killed him. But still, I live and breathe. He leaned back against the wooden wall, letting cold drops of water trickle down his nose.

The temptation to sleep was very, very real. But if he fell asleep here, the storm might very well pass by dawn, and his pursuers would be that much closer to stopping him before he could make it back to the others. 

Or worse. I run into Nero again. He had made sure to track him until he had secured a horse and left the town, but… his brother had developed a disconcerting ability to surprise him over the last few years. I’m sorry. I know you have questions. But I can’t have you going off to fight her without knowing we can even beat her. Let me make sure they’re safe. Then… whatever happens, happens. 

He heard the sound of hooves clopping along the cobblestones, echoing through the alleyway and growing louder by the second. Someone growled a command in a language he didn’t understand. The slow scratch of steel being unsheathed from leather came faintly to him, setting his teeth on edge. 

Damn it.

He exhaled deeply, forcing all of the air from his lungs, and then drew in a full breath as he rose to his full height. Marcus glanced back around at the alleyway. It was close - just scarcely wide enough for him to touch both walls at the same time. It ended abruptly about ten or so paces behind him, and the wall was fresh, solid wood. There would be no escaping that way, not without punching through it and endangering anyone sleeping beyond. 

He had another eight paces before him to the street itself, and that way was almost certainly going to be the harder option. Damn. Probably not enough room to maneuver a horse here, but they could certainly chase me down if I made a break into the street. At the same time, I’m as good as dead here if they come for me. 

He ground his teeth together and strode forward, keeping his hands hidden beneath the dark cloak. 

Three men stood together conversing with a fourth on horseback. They wore long, black coats slick with rain and buttoned tightly against the downpour. Their faces were obscured by dark masks, but he could see the bright glint of drawn swords in the pale lighting of the street. 

The horse was tall, dappled with black and white, stamping irritably in a puddle of what must have been cold, cold rainwater. He took stock of things quickly, with the ease of long, bloody years of practice. 

Four red, one white, three blue, and two rather dangerous looking green. Alright. Looks like I’m borrowing a horse. 

He stepped out into the street, making sure no one else was behind him as he strolled towards the men. 

“Evening,” he called, slipping his hood back and giving them a moment to piece together his scarred visage and appearance. 

“Caesar,” answered the horseman cordially, tipping the edge of his straw hat. “You’ve gone and pissed off the lady something terrible. She wants you back, dead or alive. Although between you, me, and my horse’s cold nuts, I think you and I both know which one she really wants.” 

The other men chuckled and Marcus joined in. 

“Well, Zareth,” he said, his smile fading, “it wouldn’t be the first time our Lady asked for something she couldn’t have. Are you sure you want to do this?” He eyed them all, sizing them up. “That’s Jordan, on the left. Van, center. Knoll, on your right. Seems your heavy hitters are still… indisposed.” Marcus’s eyes narrowed as he fixed Zareth with a cold stare. “You could walk away. She’d never be any the wiser. But I swear to Gaia if you come at me now, I’ll kill every one of you before I come for her.” 

Zareth laughed boisterously. “Please. You might have been able to make that threat once, but you’re a wounded little rat now. No backup. Three on one. One good eye, one good hand.” He patted the side of his horse, and moved forward a few paces, towering over Marcus. “Come quietly and we’ll treat you well. I swear it, on my house.” 

“Are you a gambling man, Zar?” Marcus asked mildly. His fingers shifted beneath the cloak. Blue, then red. 

He exploded into motion, flinging the right side of his cloak aside and then lashing out with his left, flicking his spellblade with calm precision. They all surged forward an instant later. 

His aim was true. The black steel of his dagger plunged into the puddle at their feet and exploded into a cloud of crackling ice and hissing cold vapor, forcing them back in surprise. The horse and Zareth screamed as its hooves slid on the slick surface and careened past him to crash into a stone wall beyond with a sickening crunch. Marcus’s fingers closed around his second blade as Jordan advanced, bringing his longsword up and in a ready guard. 

Behind, short Van and heavy Knoll maneuvered to his sides, intending to flank him and take him down in short order. 

Marcus drew Memento Mori smoothly, letting the brilliant white steel of his rapier shine in the light before it darted forward towards Jordan’s throat, forcing the other man to meet steel with steel in a desperate parry. Without slowing, Marcus flung his second dagger underhand towards the man. It tumbled in the air, bursting into bright crimson flames. 

Jordan twisted sharply to dodge it, blinking at the sudden flare of light and heat.

Marcus plunged Memento through his chest lengthways and spun, ripping it free in a spray of blood, his black cloak flaring around him with the motion, white blade stained dark red.

Knoll roared in his garbled mother tongue and charged at him, raising a heavy looking broadsword that would almost certainly snap the narrow rapier like a twig if it struck true. At his back, Jordan collapsed with the sound of clattering steel and wheezing breaths. Van rushed forward, menacing with his twin swords. 

Marcus snarled, whipping Memento across Knoll’s face as he advanced, letting Jordan’s fresh blood spatter right into his eyes. He pivoted sharply towards Van and lunged suddenly, driving the tip of his blade into the shorter man’s throat before he could react. He felt the shock of impact as Memento struck bone and danced backwards as the man fell forward silently, his features growing pale and expressionless. 

Knoll wiped his eyes with one hand, slashing around wildly with the other as red tears streaked down his ruddy face. “Where are you, Caesar whoreson!” Marcus stepped back slowly, avoiding the clumsy strokes. “Coward! Murderer! Traitor!” The heavyset man roared in anger, and then again in agony. He fell to his knees, his sword clattering to the side, his hands coming up to claw at the skin around his eyes as it turned red and then darker still. 

“You’ll never see again,” Marcus said quietly, wiping the blade on his sleeve. It shimmered pure white in the light. “That poison will destroy your senses bit by bit, starting with your sight. Then your sense of touch. Taste. All of it. Hearing’s the last to go. You’ll still be able to talk, I’m told.” 

He glanced back at the pile of horseflesh and man crumpled against the wall. 

“If you manage to live long enough to make it back to her,” he said, sliding Memento back into its sheath, “tell her Marcus Caesar is coming for her.” 

 

* * *

 

The afternoon breeze came softly through the window, stirring the shelf of crumpled pages pinned to his desk beneath a ledger. Faint notes of sea salt and autumn leaves swept into the room, mingling with the scent of drying ink. The desk and shelves were made of fine ash wood, stained a deep black and lovingly adorned with layer after layer of tasteful, barely touched books. It was as much an accessory to Sir John Howe as the finely tailored grey waistcoat and trousers he wore, or the elaborately carved walking stick currently at his side as he strolled through the gardens with one of Hammersmiths’s barristers. 

But if you looked hard enough beneath the veneer of erudite speech and charming smile, pried away the facile grace, and scrubbed hard at the thickly applied sociable polish, one saw him for what he really was. The maid who now entered his office knew it, knew better than any of them who John Randall Howe was beneath the mask. She glanced around, her hair shone black in the light from the window, threaded through with fine silver, kept back out of her face in a modest bun.

She moved quickly, dusting with one hand as she deliberately adjusted the highbrow books he had moved out of place to suggest he had read them and replaced them with far more banal, or dull ones.  It brought a smile to her face, as few things did these days. Her bright green eyes slid across the room as she worked, taking in the details of the office, searching for the telltale marks of another clever trick or diversion. She paused as she saw the sheaf of papers. It couldn’t be that easy, John. 

She cast a glance out of the window and saw him in animated conversation with the red headed Hammersmith man. Nothing ventured... She picked the book up and moved it, but kept the pages pinned with the fingers of one hand. The first was utter garbage, plans for another of Alicia’s little toys. The second, third, and fourth were the Hammersmith contracts. And thus does the House of Aurelius fall. 

The fifth was a simple letter in Alicia’s own hand. “Our little pet has escaped his cage and flown away. He left me four little scratches, but I hope he’ll be back. Let’s set something out for him and see where he alights.”

Marcus. She felt a sharp sting of worry. Something had to have gone terribly wrong for him to abandon his post as Alicia’s favoured blade. Delia let the other papers flick back down and replaced the book atop it. She glanced back out of the window and her blood ran cold. The two men were no longer there. Shit. She grabbed her duster and moved swiftly to the door, placing the palm of one hand atop the smooth surface of the wood, sending a slow thrum of power into it. After a moment, she felt it come back. Good. Nobody there. 

She swung the door open- and stepped back as John gave her a polite nod. “Good afternoon, Del. Found what you were looking for?” He smiled unassumingly, eyes bright with smug satisfaction. “I did try to make it easy for you.”

She let out a breath and smiled back with almost genuine mirth, if one ignored the thinly veiled hatred in her eyes. “Well, I hope you make these little games harder for your Mistress. She does seem to get bored of men like you rather quickly, doesn’t she?” She stepped forward, and he shifted aside to allow her to pass, smiling pleasantly all the while. 

“I’d be a poor host if I didn’t make my guests comfortable,” he answered coolly. “But a little bird told me we might have company sometime tonight. Perhaps it’s a good night to let yours stretch her wings.” He turned to head into the office, pausing just before he pulled the door closed. “And Del? Take the night off. She’s hungry for feathered prey, tonight.”

She waited until the door was shut, and padded over to it. “Thank you, John.” 

Behind the door, he rested his head against the wood and waited for her to walk away. Gaia, he was going to need a bloody drink.
 

Edited by Song Sprite

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