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I call upon the sea

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She cut the waters like a dolphin, twirling and splashing, the waters that she thought woven with sunlight. It was quiet above, in the world below the blue sky without a speck of cloud, and it was quiet below, in the world beneath the green waves, but in different ways. Below was a world of stained-glass-flickers and a green light that poured through your soul. Her arms and legs moved in a familiar, hypnotic pattern. A cold sensation crossed her shoulder. It was, the diver knew, the shadow of one of the two buckets that she used to store her catch. One for food, one for poison. It was good practice to separate them.

The food would be made into a seafood stew, slurped raw on the long way up to the castle, or dried. The abalone shell, which by law should go to the temple, she would throw by the side of the road. No priest would accept an offering from one so deeply stained by death. The poisonous creatures would be dried and ground or, in the case of the spines of a particular sea urchin, polished, sharpened and partially lacquered, for use as throwing needles. 

But that was no longer her concern. Her master had told her that as long as she completed this task, she had the rest of the day off.

At the bottom of the bay stretched a carpet of life as far as the eye could see. Edible seaweed hugged the rocks, while starfish and sea urchins engaged in their slow-motion war. Fish darted past her. Upside-down, she held on to a water-worn log in order to better assess her surroundings. Yellow, spiky, slug-like sea cucumbers lingered on the fine sand, while striped, ribbon-like sea slugs rippled above them. It was all as colorful as the richest embroidered robes of the merchants in Moneymug Alley on market day, or the courtesans accompanying them. There was a black flicker in the corner of her eyes – she turned – a sea-snake, zigzagging away – but beyond a respectful nod, the diver paid it no mind. It had been only two weeks ago that the master assassin had tasked her with recovering venom from the deadliest creature in the water. It seemed far longer. Unable to hold her breath any longer, the diver returned to the surface.

As she foraged, she followed the law of the land: never pick the last of what you see, for there might be no other, and never pick the first, for it might be the last. Alongside, she sometimes picked curios, little triangles of seaglass or pottery, often dropping them back in the sand if she judged them too plain for her collection. Some could be hundreds of years old. The pattern on the pottery shards could be used to date them. Her favorites were the rare grey-and-blue import pieces, on which glaze swirled like waves. She had to be careful, for arrowheads were also common. Although the diver had amassed a small box of treasures in her little free time, to her chagrin, she’d never found a coin. Coins were rare and precious. Not that she needed the money. Her particular situation meant that when she went grocery shopping, no native of the Azure Archipelago’s capital island would ever accept anything back.

This bay had used to be a thriving merchant port, a military base and a cove for pirates and other unsavory people, at different times in history or sometimes the same, but the last shift of the mountain a hundred years ago had narrowed it and shifted commerce to the east side of the island. It could still be used to shelter from the storm by lost sailors or by the few smugglers daring enough to try avoid the Duke’s taxes, but the harsh penalties deterred most of the latter. 

She was thinking that she should start heading back to the shore, when she spotted the shape of a large pumpkin-sausage (a type of sea-cucumber) on the seafloor. Her muscles burned with effort just as she started to shudder from the cold, and yet she pushed herself down once more. The pumpkin-colored ones were especially smooth-textured. She picked it up, careful to avoid its defensive cloud of expectorated goo, and let it go nearly immediately as something dropped from its tube feet.

It spun through the water, something round, yet little more than a glint in the sun. With her lungs burning, the woman reached out and wrapped her tanned fingers against it before it hit the sand. It felt coin-shaped, but the object’s smooth surface took her by surprise. It was made of glass.

A shudder went through her, her consciousness blinking as if her body was a gong that someone had struck. She didn’t see the light erupting from her body, filling the bay for an instant, she didn’t feel the pulse crossing the sea and worrying fishermen up to nearby islands. She didn’t see expertly crafted knots snap on larger ships. Even as she managed to dive upwards, prize in hand and coughing out water as she leaned against one of the floating buckets, her ears were too full of water to notice the cries of birds flying up into the air, all around the island.

“I’ve dived too many times…” The assassin’s apprentice told herself. 

At first she just yearned to feel the ground beneath her feet, as soon as possible. But her training kicked in (‘breathe in. breathe out’) and, with a sigh and a look back, the woman went to tow her catch by the rope strung between the two buckets. As soon as she hit the shore she fell, face on hot sand and heels still in the water, with dark hair stuck to the back of her neck, and skin the color of almonds covered by a loincloth and little else.

‘Breathe in. Breathe out.’

OOC: Honestly I found all the browsing for threads and ooc stuff kind of overwhelming, so here you go. In terms of setting, the Azure archipelago is inspired by the historical Dejima (so, a thriving trade port that connects faraway regions, but this is more friendly). Within the context of the lore, I assume it could be loosely associated with Jigoku, but it’s more of a provincial area. The main political powers are the nobles and the high-ranked merchants (old and new money), with the leading Duke often playing them against each other as well as against outside threats. There are some mild political differences between this province and the capital, such as the recently-introduced ban on slavery. If intrigued, feel free to join!

Edited by Nina

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Jalya huddled amongst the handful of adults, whoever thought it wise to remain, appreciative of what little warmth was spared the gusts of breeze by their tightly knit formation though she herself could think of no reason why she had come, other than to spite the dullness of the village and its rote routines - of which there were a great many. Thus Jalya stubbornly ploughed on with that singular thought in mind, carefully navigating the rocky shoreline and puddled water left by the indents of countless feet before them, pricking her heels on crushed foliage, and inwardly cursing when the wounds which drew blood were submerged in lapping saltwater. It seemed at first like a quarter of the nearby village had forcibly ejected everyone living under those straw-slapped roofs and sent them pattering down to the strip of beach in an excited frenzy, with a horde of bare-footed children trailing wet clumps of sand and tripping over partially submerged lobster traps in their excited rush.

All of this trouble when the sanctity of the village was by far more comfortable than stomping up and down a narrow tract of land resulted in a pitifully small group after a time, savaged by discomfort and chores that had to be done by the day’s end, and consequently dominated by rampaging children overseen by little more than four elders who were hardly more than children themselves. The ragtag mob reached the far end of the beach moments later in this fantastic journey of theirs, and stopping as soon as they had come, as there was little left to see except a half-drowned waif on the sands and the suddenly brutal winds sliding off the agitated sea, flogging at the bare skin of anyone foolish enough to step from the thickly hewn canopy of leaves serving as a barrier to the bay’s violence. 

A man in passing took one look at the apprentice on the shore, debating on whether he could find a cart for the corpse since he knew full well that the town’s surgeon would pay fifteen merlins for an undamaged cadaver and another handful for a drowned soul which had not yet been filled with bloat. He merely grunted when the girl moved, then went on with his day with spoiled ambitions as well as a newly produced scowl.

“Hey, hey Jalya, lookit this.”

She did not want to look, suddenly remembering with what passion she hated the aftermath of shipwrecks. They rarely ever happened here, she could only think back to a handful, spread terribly thin across her twenty-three odd years of life, and only once did it produce casualties amongst the drifting flotsam. The one time it did meant days of putrescent corpses floating in with the tide in a grim caricature of human beings with their sunken faces and engorged bellies flooding their village with horror at the inevitable task of burying the seamen for nobody else would, the nauseatingly sweet smell that came after felt like it could still suffocate her all over again.

“Don’t be so scared, it’s not even a dead one.” The girl-- Tatiana, who looked no older than seventeen said, proud of her deductions. Jalya knew the girl well enough to be teased, though her face still colored at the patronizing tone and wished she had brought her sandal to unleash the bloody vengeance of seniority. Tatiana grinned impishly, wise enough to sidle away at the provocation as she continued: “Your mamam’s a midwife, so she is, so it serves to say that you ought to help.”

Jalya examined the girl from the distance of the dunes and immediately dismissed an intervention, taught more than enough by her grandmother to know the subtle nuances of a drowned person and a not-drowned-person, however many nuances there might be. “She seems perfectly fine to me.”

“You’re telling me the poor little drowned alley-cat didn’t see what happened, she came from the bleeding ocean so she did! I don’t even recognize her!”

An olive skinned boy around the same age of Tatiana spoke, haughty and amused. “That’s because you couldn’t find clams if you tried, so they shut you in with the oven and the lime. The waif’s from the city, at least that’s what Mysaan said when she came trudging through without a greeting of how-do-you-do.”

Tired of the quibbling of the ever shrunken group, now just under half a dozen loitering souls with nothing left to do but to bask in the late sun’s heat, Jalya left behind a trail of flooded imprints to meet this apprentice with an instinctive nervousness of finding something new and shiny in a world that rejected most anything that had to do with a foreign city, foreign lands, or even foreign villages not ten miles upstream. As the distance was closed, the vague resemblances were hard to miss, from the same almond colored skin to black flowing hair and which the resemblances stopped. Jalya was dressed in a belted gown and a simple chemise of linen, her face was round and her nose too sharp, but her mouth and eyes watched the apprentice with a singular kind of intensity that belied an intelligence beyond the look and garb of a countrywoman.

Now that she thought of it, this apprentice looked more like her in some small way than the people of the city with their whiteness and serious faces. Jalya did not know what to make of that, so she dismissed the errant thought in the forthright way she did with most things that she didn’t want to dwell too hard on. “You’re not allowed to drown here my friend, you’d make me have to fetch a cart from the jadoor and I don’t want more blisters.” There was the introduction, though it seemed to pale in comparison to the kindness in which she was taught to embrace all of the archipelago’s children with, so she added in reference to the buckets: “Welcome to our village, distant as it might be, might we help by carrying your burden?”

Edited by Vlamymn

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Sand-encrusted eyes cracked open. With a wince, dark irises struggled to focus on the nearby pair of feet. 

“…jadoor? Wha-“ The stranger shook her head, to get out the water stuck in her ears. Slender fingers dug in the sand, trying to push her up. Light calluses. Hands of a craftsman, perhaps, or a scholar. She had a strange accent that could best be described as ‘a mix of everything’, and features  that stood out among the natives of the Archipelago. Rounder eyes. Finer hair. New and old bruises scattered on her forearm and ribs. When she stood up, her wispy frame would mark her as taller than average. 

“That’s strange-“ Head tilted, she stopped mid-motion, distracted by the cloud of birds and gaggle of children in the distance, behind the other woman’s head. Then her shoulders slumped as she focused back on the task nearby. “Could you help me get these to the shade, please?” She asked in a small voice. Her hand reached to the hilt of the poison bucket. Her other arm raised to shelter her eyes from the sun. “I left my clothes under that rock…or that rock…” The first step she took towards it made the world clatter inside her skull. She tensed. “I might’ve gotten a touch of the bends.”

Joint pain. Numbness. Paralysis. Death. As she inventoried her senses, from head to toe, she couldn’t help but notice that she’d avoided the worst of it. Even the blur in her mind cleared once she was able to sit down in the shade and breathe. ‘In. Out.’ You’d think that someone who learned how to swim before she could walk might know better, she thought. There was only a patch of numbness – inside her right hand, from how tight it had clenched around her treasure. She let it fall in the sand.

It was a heavy, palm-sized medallion. The glass it was made off seemed almost like water, and the diver watched spin for a moment, fascinated. Although details were hard to picture, the way light seemed to refract inside it sketched a wave on one side, and a snake on the other.

The woman put on her clothes, washed-out, loose blue clothes of a fabric that looked stubborn enough to outlive her, detailed with a few patches and mending stitches. She tied them with a sash and a long rope around her waist. It nearly drove the Duke into apoplexy every time he saw her. Last time he’d threatened to burn the most offensive parts with her still in them. Yet the woman would rather risk that than let go of her old life, of the life that had been hers for nineteen years.

It’s not as if she lacked reasons to avoid him. The fact that he’d tried to have her murdered sufficed.

Lost in her thoughts, the stranger hardly realized how silent she’d been. Her cheeks also burned when she’d realized what she’d left on the sand. Her weapons. The narrow sheath of her dagger, with almost no guard, and the wider sheath of her swordbreaker. Its comb-like form had slipped halfway out of its hilt. ‘twas a rare and unusual weapon, that swordbreaker. She turned back to the local woman.

“Thank you. I’m Nina.” She said. She bowed. Overwhelmed by the absurdity of hiding her arsenal any longer, she reached out into the ‘food’ bucket and, with the swordbreaker, shucked a few of the seashells. She picked at one and threw the contents in her mouth. “Clams?”

Looking up the mountains that formed the island, she chuckled nervously.

“Not looking forward to carrying all this back to the castle.”

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The wind carried the smells of the sea, wafting up from the undulations of a rising tide that chased Jayla and the girl as they fled with their buckets towards higher ground. It was not a graceful retreat; though the sand felt cool and damp beneath her feet, Jayla could appreciate little of it in light of the swelling arcing up her ankles. Her bucket banged rhythmically against her leg as she walked and ignored such pains for what seemed like a sliver of eternity, sloshing seawater to be absorbed greedily by the ever parched terrain, but managing all the same to look after this stranger's catch as if it were her own. Jayla too might have had a touch of the bends had she dared diagnose the deep, terrible ache in her joints with the girl's unfamiliar expression, although kept it to herself as they neared the dunes which her two companions from earlier seen it fit to remain. The others had gone by then, progressively dwindling as the remainder of the curious onlookers were chaperoned back the way they came, quickly conducted away from the naked and delirious stranger as both a matter of decency and ill disguised precaution.

It was by the dunes that they found their shelter, amidst great golden waves that had been stopped at the edge of the thickets and frozen for all eternity. The wind came with exhausted gusts now, causing the tops of the knoll to sway and bend in the long shadows of the broiling sun. Her tongue felt swollen, and her head spun with the smells of the ocean, all of which she might have welcomed on another day dedicated to simple pleasures - instead she was taking care of a strange girl made stranger by a nakedness they all had to surreptitiously avoid and not just one, but two swords for what seemed like mere clam diving. It was equally strange then how the girl's silence went unnoticed for a time, with Tatiana in particular forgetting the diver's presence as she reveled in the heat with her shoulders hunched and head held at an angle, her hair a tangled nest of chestnut curls. Jayla was too intent on rubbing down the lengths of her calves with cautious, kneading palms. It came and went-- this kind of pain, despite the dozens of vague remedies tried and touted by old wife's tales and leading nowhere except a temporary respite. They called it all sorts of silly names that she cared not to remember, since it hurt all the same.

“Thank you. I’m Nina.” said the strange girl, beginning to shuck her deposited haul of clams with one of the more curious swords that the local woman could not begin to make a reference to. It was by all accounts a blade well employed with the shucking of shells - except it was nothing she'd seen before and Jayla could only marvel at the dexterity in which the girl utilized it, and she was given the faint impression that in proper hands the sword would make for a deadly tool against more than simple seashells. “Clams?”

She was spared needing to answer by the excited introduction of Tatiana having finally taken notice of the new girl's sudden loquaciousness and matching it tenfold, seemingly forgetting the events that brought them to the beach in the first place. "The castle! You're from the castle, are you?" Tatiana, who had finally noticed the apparel and weaponry, said with a sort of cautious enthusiasm belying the usual impulsiveness Jayla knew of the girl. Had she believed the claim, then the youth, indeed all of them would have all the reasons in the world to worry about whatever came from the place of so much woe. Her eyes were wide as she spoke, but helped herself to a clam all the same. "How's it like living with the fops, are they why you're all the way down here drowning yourself in puddles of water? The marketplace not fresh enough for their tastes?"


"Not that I blame you! I'd be their bloody chimneysweeper for a bed proper-like." Tatiana amended herself hurriedly, clam juice already running down her chin while she hid her eating habits from a girl as close to royalty as they'd ever get. The youth went on asking all kinds of questions she thought best to coerce from Nina in the short time they had: what was it like, why'd they arm a half-starved waif like her with those bloody things, why didn't she eat more, looking scrawny as she was, was it true about what they said about the Duke?

Jayla couldn't help but smile, despite feeling an undeniable guilt about the interrogation for someone who still looked out of her wits as she struggled with her clothes. But she couldn't hope to tamper Tatiana's fervor until she had her say, and to deny her own curiosity would be a lie, so she sat, waiting for the largely one-sided conversation to abate. It was a convenient moment for introspection, not just because of the tremor of the sky that showed no symptoms of returning, but with the girl whom she unashamedly examined with clinical eyes while her victim was presumably preoccupied with someone closer to her age, marking Nina as more than a stranger; foreign. Not of this island, with her wide eyes and straight hair, and not like the people who had come in their boats to ply their trades and dock their ships. To her side was Joao who, noticing he was being watched for the first time, turned and looked away sullenly from the proceedings as if it had little and less to do with him.

Not that Jayla could blame the taller boy looming beyond the three women, knowing he heard the stories and saw the truth in some of them whenever it was his time to return to the marketplace to sell what little his family had earned in the fields. They all had heard those rumors at one time or another and they all had the suspicious distrust of anything to do with a wider civilization ingrained deeply into their closely knit communities, though she couldn't help but think of this Nina as somehow different-flawed in some way that set her apart from the people who had lived in the distant castle. Though perhaps that was simply her poor choice of clothes that looked like they'd fall apart at any given moment, and the way she wore them with an incomprehensible pride.

"I'm Jayla, you must forgive her if you can. Are you a native here? How'd you come to work in the castle?"

She spoke of what was on her mind candidly, forthrightly, with a softness lost on the other girl with her staccato of jumbled words as if she had only a limited time to say everything she felt necessary to be said and may the gods smite whomever dared stop her from expressing herself. Tatiana looked at her with a momentary outrage, but the battle of the wills was short-lived and instead she thumped into the sand between them with an exaggerated sigh of someone who thought she knew just about everything and whatever Jayla was seeking was a waste of effort to even bother asking, since there were far more interesting things to be spoken of like the light that had cut through the sky. But she was compelled to silence by the older girl and thus did not want to seem petulant in comparison so held her silence she did.

Finally, once all of the questioning was out of the way, she would eventually say: "It'll be a pleasure to help you with the journey, it isn't too long of a walk and there's worse things to be doing." Her grandmother's chores would have to wait, and she had no doubt the old woman still had the robustness to do whatever needed to be done and do it better than Jayla ever could in her absence. It was true that she felt less like a partner and much more like an apprentice, if that much.

Besides, it was only a short journey and she didn't doubt it would not take more than a couple hours in exchange for enough gossip of things she saw to nullify her grandmother's anger.

Edited by Vlamymn

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Ah- she’d forgotten, hadn’t she?

“I, uhm,…there’s stuff I can’t easily get from the market-“ The young woman rambled, overwhelmed by the newcomer’s enthusiasm. As inconspicuously as possible, she tapped a poisonous sea urchin with her sheathed dagger back into its bucket, before it could crawl out.

There were things that she could no longer speak of. And things that could be told, but would have consequences.

“The castle? It’s…” Nina closed her eyes. A shudder passed through her lips. “The sound. People say you stop hearing the sound after a while. The heartbeat of the Clocktower. But it’s always there.” Of course, no one would feel the ticking resonate in their mind more strongly than one now living in the lair of the Master of Shadows, two levels below the clock mechanism. The Tower had stood in the center of the castle’s main yard, its dark sundial through the ages, untouchable, even in times when rulers would deny its actual function.

The ticking. The maddening ticking. It was what prisoners would hear, too. Not the common riff-raff. Not the drunkards and the murderers. The ones important enough to waste his time. That’s how Gray had put it, ‘Official Torturer, Assassin of the House of Azure and Executioner For Those Important Enough To Waste His Time.’ He’d smiled. For a while, Nina had nearly gained that debatable distinction.

And her room was beautiful, with a stained glass window and a soft, giant bed, with cheerful, color-coordinated covers, as well as a desk and shelves. Guilt gnawed at her when she thought of how luxurious that would be to her interlocutors. They treated her as one of them, while she was nearly one of the ‘fops’. But she couldn’t forget the way the furniture was either embedded in the wall or simple, polished wooden blocks, with no sharp edges, no legs that could be broken off to use as weapons, no drawers or closet doors that could hide secrets. How the door didn’t lock from the inside, how the covers were either too tough to rip by hand or too fine to hold the weight of a body. It was a cell. That she could leave, as it happened, but it didn’t change its nature.

With a deep breath, she forced her mind to take the four-hundred-something steps down, and step away from the Tower. There’s a reason she’d looked forward to this long journey.

“The castle is beautiful, in its way.” She continued. Her hands moved through the air as if crafting pictures. “Behind its stone walls, there are tapestries of vivid blue silk, stretching between tall windows of glass, lacquered panels and sliding paper doors.” It occurred too late to her that a vagabond like her wouldn’t normally get to see much of it. ‘Just don’t mention the secret tunnels,’ she grumbled to herself. “Very airy. Like a dewy spiderweb sheltering a poisonous spider.” Nina added with a sharp grin.

She placed the weapons back on her person, the swordbreaker at her belt and the dagger along her forearm. They disappeared under her clothes as if they hadn’t been.

“I…These are just tools of the trade.” She explained, when asked about them. Her arms flailed defensively. “And I’m eating! I am well taken care of in that regard.” Again, that guilt flashed through. Even the Duke wouldn’t have a more varied diet than she did. Sure, he had his chefs prepare his dishes on precious porcelain, but did he get to pick his own vegetables from the market stall? I didn’t think so. Of course she was asked about him. It was like asking about the man-eating dragon atop the mountain. Normal gossip.

‘…and when they find out what I am, they’ll despise me-‘

 “The Duke…People say a lot about him, don’t they?” She snorted. Her eyes were cold. “Not that I know that much but, I reckon, if the devil challenged him to a gamble, my money wouldn’t be on the devil.”

She rubbed her cheeks and let out a deep breath. She wasn’t used to talking that much. Her travels tended to be mostly solitary and, these days, she barely dared meet people’s eyes.

“Foreigner. I’m a bit from everywhere.” Nina said. Meeting the older girl eyes, there was almost a sense of gratitude for her rescue. “Been travelling for most of my life. Here…Got someone’s attention, got myself an apprenticeship. Nearly died. Got thrown in prison. Unsure about the order. Would not recommend.” She admitted.

Even with her cutting her adventures down to bare bones, or perhaps because of it, the other woman, the one who called herself Jalya, offered to help carry her burden. 

“I…Don’t think- Wait.” Nina raised her palm. “If you’d forgive my forwardness, when did that happen?” She pointed down. Gray hadn’t picked her for her exquisite people observation skills, but even she could spot that there was something wrong with the woman’s feet. She tilted her neck sideways. It looked like an…infection? And then, more quietly: “Have you managed to see a medic?” It could be hopeless, she imagined, trying to find an actual medic when you might not be able to afford shoes. Nina was uncomfortably aware of her own very serviceable leather boots.

She thought of how it’s not that the Duke hadn’t passed laws which would improve people’s lives, but most of them focused on the city, because that’s where power was, and that angered her.

“I’m no doctor, but you pick things up when you travel alone through the wilderness, you know.” She spoke softly. “Had to set my own wrist in place once, and the paw of the Dire wolf who knocked me down. Not as bad as when I had to extract a botfly larva out of my back, in the swamps.” She winced, and reached to tap a spot on her shoulder. “And these days I’m learning a bit about medicine.” Nina reached out. “May I have a look?” She asked.

The magic. That was one of the things that Gray had seen in her. Very little magic, very precise, apart from the part which could kill her. Her eyes would go blank for an instant, as she traced the blood vessels and the lymph nodes closest to the cuts on the sole. It was like seeing the flow of energy from the perspective of a cell. To her magic, a vein was a river. 

“Hmm…” The assassin’s apprentice bit her lip.

 “That sort of thing isn’t good.”

“Listen. If you come with me, it could be dangerous. People might get the wrong idea. I’m an…untouchable. Worse. But…If I get these things delivered, I’m free for the rest of the day, and I can help find you someone who might help.”



As Nina reached out for her magic, in an eye blink, the coin flared with an inner glow.

In the castle, the Duke stood up, leaving a scroll on tax law crumpled on his desk. He’d read it several times without it making sense. Something unsettled him. Like a sound that had always been there but it was now missing. He paced around, before sliding the screen door at the back of the room to reveal the shrine of his ancestors. His eyes were drawn to the antique blade above it, hanging just below its sheath. It was the sword of his great-grandfather, the first of his dynasty. A strong warrior and a talented general, people were eager to remind him, especially when hinting he should deal more with noble pursuits like hunting and playing go, and less with their tax evasion. People tended not to mention how some trading relationships were still stiff due to his wars of conquest, and they wouldn’t mention the Duke’s great-grandmother, one of the several captive princesses brought back to the Archipelago. In the end, the Duke thought, the old man had taken what he wanted and let others pay for it, just like he was doing. Drawn by an unspeakable feeling, the young Duke reached forward towards the blade, then pulled back.

The blade fell down, scattering the rice bowl left as an offering. As he was still debating the number of whip strikes for the unfortunate soul who hung the sword, there was the faint swish of the sliding door to the corridor opening. With cold murder in his eyes, the Duke turned to see the entwined fingertips and bowed figure of one of his eldest servants.

“My Lord. You should see this.” The grey-haired Head Maid said.

On the inner side of the courtyard, once the sound of his feet faded, the Duke could finally hear it. The silence. The way the Clocktower, the dark heart of the place, was skipping a beat. There was a thread of blood trickling along the side of Tower. Stumped, the Duke realized it was flowing up from the pavement.

Down in the city, a junior clerk got in trouble for failing to write a report, despite previously being appreciated enough that his boss’s family had gifted him an antique writing set. Yet the antique brush would now misspell words in disturbing ways, turning ‘plan’ into ‘pain’, ‘treasure’ into ‘torture’ and ‘generous’ into ‘genocide’.

In the streets, the scion of a noble family yelped and threw one of his bracelets, that had been in his family for generations, into a ditch. The gutter rats who flocked to it were left with burns on their palms from the gold which turned white-hot and sizzling.

In the Temple of the Mountain God, the sacred bronze mirror cracked from side to side.

Edited by Nina

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Jayla had half listened to it all, to all the young woman's answers for the disjointed and largely incoherent questioning, and when it was over she gave the girl such a immediate look of sympathy that she had to laugh at the way in which she was now being regarded by their half-drowned guest, having finally mustered the courage to meet the older girl's eyes when asked of where she had hailed from. It was remarkable how much she gleaned from that fleeting moment's interaction, for she was always told that someone's eyes soon parted with everything the incautious did not think to hide, or hide well enough, and it was obvious from this girl's eyes that she had a lot she wished to hide. To say anything or to merely admit a curiosity over something so readily apparent was unlikely to win any favors, or indeed to win anything at all besides the same practiced deflections. But she wondered all the same. Not about the girl's ethnicity, since there was probably truth in her words that she was from a bit of everywhere - so was she, so were most of the people she had known from the city or mainland and one could rarely expect them to know anything of their lineage in a melting pot quite like Jigoku, and especially not the town of the Azure archipelago where countless numbers of cultures converged into something otherwise unrecognizable for anyone that did not live near such a widely trafficked port.

"There's nothing wrong with a little fat on your bones, it's a sign of Asaal's prosperity. My uncle would agree with me, though I do not want to tell him that it only applies to the daughters of Asaal."

Tatiana had snorted at what had been said, muttering something indecent about the aforementioned uncle to which Jalya ignored for she could not defend against the truth. "A little trip to the castle and you'll be starving, I'll be starving. I don't think her mamam would mind someone else eating her out of house and home, I've been doing it long enough."

Jalya subsequently responded with a sharp rap on the smaller girl's head with bare knuckles, long since utilized for such acts of discipline. She could not complain about sore knuckles as it worked every time - at least in decent company.

Still she wondered, in the way that rats chewed on a bone, gnawing until there was nothing left. Too much of the girl's tales seemed outlandish for a mere servant, and Jayla was suddenly struck by a contemplation utterly alien to her and the life she had so warmly embraced for all these years. How it would've been like to be from a place that was not like her home. It seemed like it would have presented opportunities which she could not see ever happening here in the village's old, proven ways, while the girl's eyes sparkled with a sort of mischief that Jayla could only guess came from a life of wandering, which she knew she would never understand. Nor did she wish to, since it would mean trading her contentment for a life of danger, and in this case she was content to let the thought pass with hardly a second thought.

"Here…Got someone’s attention, got myself an apprenticeship. Nearly died. Got thrown in prison. Unsure about the order. Would not recommend.”

Then she was surprised all over again by how quickly Nina had warmed up to them, as the remark was said in such an entirely spontaneous, abrupt way by the shy girl that this time Jayla laughed with real mirth in her voice. "I don't doubt that. I don't think I would understand half of it either, to be honest with you. You were in prison, you said?" Jayla had replied behind a smile hidden by fingers calloused by years of labor, and she told the truth about her inexperience. To be ignorant was sometimes a virtue it seemed, for their village was rarely truly troubled by all those things the girl had described. Her apprenticeship was essentially passed down from her family, granted to her by sharing in that work from practically the day she was born. As with death and prison - they were exceedingly distant topics that were otherwise divorced from their existence as a whole aside from the passing of a beloved one gone to the sand in their old age, or the latest tidbits of news from the city that they were always eager to hear, as such monotony bred a thirst that was rarely quenched otherwise with the quaint lifestyle her people had lived.

Jalya's whole life was simple like that. Much like her grandmother's, and her mother's. In the morning they would spurn the traditional tea until she had first swept away the old rushes from the mud-hardened floor with a homemade broom of reedy twigs, feed what little animals they had, and spread the ashes they had gathered from their hearth onto a spare planter box so that they could make the traditional chalk for what little decoration their simple cabin had boasted. Then they would pray to the many, multifaceted gods of the seas and the mountains and the hillocks who bore no names except for their constant presence in a peasant's life and that of nature. There were a few gods with names, for sure, they had to be prayed to and acknowledged from time to time as well lest some bald-faced peasant incurred their wrath in some manner. It was a horribly boring routine that Jayla could not be more happy with, but different strokes she supposed.

All that day's happy contentment up until now vanished near instantaneously the second Nina had touched her feet, as though she had acquiesced under a mortal duress, but acquiesce she did. "When did it happen?" Jayla finally repeated, biting off a laugh turned bitter this time and peering out the peripheral of her suddenly disinterested eyes towards the frolicking of gulls long spent idly swaying in the air. Only too often did pain like this come after the sudden inflammation and reddening, sometimes turning her rightmost toes to naught but engorged bruises. Jayla frequently suffered for days at a time no matter what old wife's tale she tried that particular day, while the condition turned her joints to what felt like a stinging bundle of nerves-- all of that and more she now experienced during the inspection, nearly having forgotten about it during their talk. "I was younger than you when it first came. My grandmother didn't know what to think of it, only that it passed in time and so could not be worth the effort of a city doctor with all their promises in return for coin. I simply dealt with it, I always do."

Tatiana had watched the proceedings in her puckish way, her chubby expression only further souring when she had seen Nina's attempts at diagnosing the disease and finding it remarkable that the silly girl was still alive after handling an injury like Jalya's so indelicately. Although it seemed nearly impossible for delicacy when episodes like this came to pass from time to time, and so the best option was avoiding the older girl's moods altogether since she often spoke more senseless, angry words than Tati had ever heard in one lifetime. Her eyes widened even further at the unimpressive display of magic, largely foreign to her aside from the few tricks their people had known to use for everyday convenience. 

"It's worth a try, so it is. I say you stop complaining over a little curse or condition or whatever that bleeding rural healer wants to call it and we go for a trip." Tatiana sought out any excuse, even at the behest of the woman who treated her like a child; because she was curious, and the city was closer, and since she cared. To say as much would be outright anathema to her very being and the small lump of sympathy in her chest felt wrong there, especially for a grown woman who should be handling her own affairs and she did not want it there any longer, so she decided for them. "A little jaunt to the castle doesn't sound so bad, as you were practically begging the poor waif for company before anyway."

"I couldn't impose on you like that."

"Maybe just this once, since we practically saved your life and all if you didn't want to be carted off to the surgeons by some poor dob thinking you were already dead! Or eaten by the landsnarks! Or children! The buggers can get hungry, so you know - Ah!" she suddenly proclaimed, having ultimately noticed the relic in the cradle of sifted sand and the way that it glowed in such a small, soft way that she at first thought it a trick of the waning sun. A teenager's obscene nosiness reared its bothersome head with renewed vigor, her instincts replying to that vigor by taking an almost possessed step towards something that was shiny in her world of mud and clay. But she looked to Jayla and knew there would be wrath from her despite being a gouty cripple, so she left it be.

There was a sudden silence which rested like a death's wreath upon them, if only momentarily as if whatever the coin was it had compelled them to that silence with its deeply dark and deeply disturbing thrumming. It felt like a pulsating heartbeat drumming along to a tune only it could hear, though Tatiana had not touched it, did not even know how she was given the impression.

"That how you do your magick? My pa had plain runestones so he did, for the cooking and watering. Nothing like that!"


Edited by Vlamymn

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“Cold. Damp. So dark that you couldn’t see the bars. Prison. Only spent a few hours, though, was too busy getting myself killed afterward. Or was that before…?”

Intermission: The soft cell
Her consciousness swirled. It slipped past the pancake-like layers of the skin tissue, balanced along the spindle threads of muscle, feeling their tension underneath, it riveted itself into bone – a moment of silence and sanity, before being drawn into the madness that was the circulatory system. Her feet slipped from under her. She was carried along a vein, then thrown sideways into an artery. Nina’s focus clung on to the wall of the vessel as she inched along. Her face grew paler in the world outside, her breathing stiffer, as she struggled not to get sick. The smaller you made your focus, the faster the world moved around you. She had the feeling of cracks all around her, of a cracked world which let floods come through along with shapeless monsters. Yet these lumbering pseudopodial nightmares weren’t like the invaders she’d seen when Gray had made her observe an infected cut. These were the defenders.

The swollen tissue was just a symptom. She had to dig deeper.

It was as hot as in a foundry. She didn’t know how much of that was part of her magic-sense, and how much it was synesthesia from the fingers she’d placed on Jayla’s skin. Nina felt the main nerves like a cobweb, glistening with flashes of sensation. So much sensation. Pain? Yet there was nothing wrong with the nerves, she didn’t think. She retreated for a moment, before re-focusing on a point she could see from the outside – Jayla’s little toe – because it was easy to get lost when a vein is a river, and then, barely managing to give warning with the shard of her mind not engaged in the sensing, she exerted the lightest-

-touch. The flash of pain nearly blinded her. The swelling was putting pressure on the nerves. But what had caused the swelling in the first place? For a while Nina got lost among the layers of tissue. She wasted time tracing over the soles, but the deep cut she was expecting, healed on the surface but rotten within, was not there. Where, then…? Her mind went over the story that Jayla shared, a distorted echo among the blood pulsing like an earthquake. As minutes crawled, she traced the source of the heat, like an adventurer in a labyrinth, at each split taking the route which would bring them closer to hell. She reached into the walls, trying to guide herself by the blinding flashes of the nerves, but that turned out to be more confounding than helpful.

What she eventually found did not make sense.

“Your body is fighting. But there’s nothing there for it to fight.” Pressing the back of her fists against her eyes, Nina tried to get her bearings. In a twisted way, it made sense. An outside infection couldn’t have lasted for years in this manner. She struggled to piece the images she saw into words, her hands moving as if trying to piece a jigsaw in the air. “How do you call…Soft cells. Embedded in that mochi-like substance.” She snapped her fingers a few times before the gripping the words out of the air.
“Cartilage. The gristle which is keeping different bits together. They’re fighting that. As if an empire’s army had a vendetta against its…” she said, raising her eyebrows, “…merchants.”

It didn’t make sense. But, as she soon added, a proper medic would have a better idea. She’d unsettled herself, speaking like this, so despite the sinking feeling in her chest, it didn’t surprise her that the woman would backpedal on the offer. But then the young girl spoke and before Nina realized, she found herself chuckling. Was a kid more emotionally intelligent than she who was supposed to inherit the Archipelago’s intelligence network or die trying?

Obviously she was.

“Please. I’m still feeling a bit faint. I would really appreciate your help.” Nina smiled. She wasn’t lying. Her magic had drained her enough that it was only when Tatjana pointed at the coin that she noticed the light-

“Oh?” Nina frowned. “Just picked it up from the seabed. I sure hope it’s not-“ No, it was glowing all right. Her hackles rose. “I’ll find someone to have a look at it.”

Her exhausted senses reached out, together with her index finger. Still, she could feel…nothing. She, who had gotten sensory overload from magical artifacts. In a way she could not name, it felt unsettling, like a pressure drop in the eye of a storm.

And soon she forgot about it, as she wrapped it safely in a rag and tucked it into a pocket, then went on her way with her new companions.

“Hey. Your village. Can you…tell me about it? Is it a nice place to live?”

It should work, right? Right?, Nina thought, hands twirling absently around the handle of a bucket. Gray could stroll around town with that ridiculously large sword on his back, dark cloak billowing, and no one would bat an eye as the torturer politely ordered one loaf of bread, two lettuces, rosemary, thyme and a pound of fish from the market. By being seen going about his life, he became invisible to most. By talking to so many, the discussions that mattered remained obscured. She wondered whether he’d tried to share that invisibility with her by having her do the grocery runs.


The thread in blood wrote a poem cursing the pirate in clothes the color of poison
    The color of the chrysanthemums in the garden called ‘The Mirror of the Sky’
        Which he had ripped and burnt and turned into dye
            Just enough for himself.

Out of the people in the courtyard, only the Duke of Azure realized the flowing lines were letters. Out of the people on the island, he was one of the few who could fully read them. A few of the poorest magick users along the docks might be able to decipher some of it. It was an old, complex script with overlaying meanings, which once had once been banned on the island under pain of death. Witches used it, the old archives said. The words had power. The current Duke had learned it, because he resented people telling him what to do. Especially dead people.

You couldn’t order dead people whipped. 

If the highest form of culture in a land, writings by priests and dedicates, used a particular script, banning that would ensure that there had never been any culture there. If there is no culture, then surely conquering people who are little more than beasts would be justified. There weren’t even that many people there, you see-

‘We took care of that.’ He thought with a grin. But no, there was no real magic in words.

So the Duke had always thought, but then, why couldn’t he stop reading?!

In the town below, it would be the very rich and somewhat poor who noticed it first. Items kept reacting in unsettling ways, from jewels glinting in the colors of cinders, or old bone, to a fish knife which, when struck, kept complaining just at the edge of your hearing about the repetitive strain injuries you could get when killing people for mass graves. They all had one thing in common. Every one of these objects had been taken from the Glass Archipelago about a hundred years before. Soon, there would be enough of them to be able to draw a pattern. And some people would then remember the legend, of a vengeful witch who controlled the waves, whose ship had been sunk by the Duke’s great-grandfather in a bay not far from there. There had been stories of objects animating back then. Of power which had made the island shudder. Her power, it’s been said, came from a medallion inscribed with the symbols of her gods. The Duke at the time had ordered it found, but no matter how many slaves and free-born divers died in the attempts, it never was.

People would have been more unsettled if they’d known that the ‘witch’ had cursed their island for all eternity as she went down. But every bard who’d dared to tell the full story back then had mysteriously disappeared. It wouldn't do to have your military tyrant lose face.

Edited by Nina

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It was a fruitless venture that ultimately came from Nina's diagnostics, though Jayla drew tepid solace if in nothing else but the well meant attempt Nina had made. There was a quiet intelligence in the girl's actions that surprised her, to see someone so abruptly shift from trivial conversation to very nearly philosophizing about the origins of her ailment in words that were... difficult to interpret, but obviously came from somewhere of surprising knowledge that Jayla no doubt would have appreciated were she not the subject of these analytical musings.

An irony not lost on her that this was meant to be Jayla's practice; the healing of the sick, the alleviation of pains and aches, although more often than not it was the scrapes and bumps of villagers whom had come to her grandmother's cottage for quick, silly remedies to be provided. Her tools were metal scalpels and leather strops, musty herbs and crushed poultices - mortars and pestles instead of magick and unseen illnesses, so she was dreadfully disadvantaged in the end when it was her own condition that became the issue.

Some of Nina's words did eventually make sense to her as she pondered upon them, drawing from her memories of those she treated before as symptoms of an infection lurking underneath the skin, but attacking different tissue than she was used to seeing in patients who experienced such bacterial blights brought on by untreated wounds or polluted waters. Jayla did not know what to make of it, for every case she knew was different in some way and other times was utterly unique in itself, though there always happened to be a solution in time. Something she had given up on for herself.  

"Had I known what it fought, or why it comes and goes when it pleases, then all the rest would have made sense to me." Jayla commented absentmindedly, picking herself from the sands with a hard smile that was more to soothe Nina's mind on the matter than her own. "Some villagers have come to my grandmother for such malaises of the body that can rarely be cured but instead treated, mostly those who suffer pains of digestion, of tired muscles and jaundices, and of women's... bodily concerns, unfortunately we have less success than most would have prayed for when they came to us." 

And that was the unfortunate truth, a reality of life. Had she known more of everything in the world than perhaps some could be helped, or even saved, Those thoughts were like any cancer that must be excised before it spread hopelessness and did more harm than good in the indecision that it might have caused, when sometimes all that mattered in much of life is in the act and not the contemplation. Sometimes. To second guess most treatments was to cause more of a headache, her grandmother had said one time or another in the past - however much Jayla thought to disagree with that theory, she had wisely kept such thoughts to herself in recognition of the irritable old woman's ability. That and her wraths were quite a sight to behold for anyone not accustomed to the cankerous ramblings of her grandmother, and she tried her best to avoid them as the years have neither dulled her tongue nor Jayla's fears of yet another lecture.

"Those pesky merchants, don't they have better ways to make coin than at the expense of others, or is it the army I should be blaming?" she responded with only the smallest smile in her voice, almost as curious for the answer as she was amused by the way the girl had written the narrative. It was a straightforward way to explain the nuances of an infection or other illness of the body, perhaps she would use it for the next time a villager's curiosity forced her to an explanation. Jayla forgot the teasing and any subsequent answer when she took a handful of cautious steps and found the pain almost gone by the time she had reached the other bucket, knowing it'd return later but distracting herself from that inevitable fact by listening to the girl's reply as to whether their help would be appreciated by a drowned waif bedecked with swords like some swaggering duelist.

When it did come, Jayla just laughed at Nina's immediate assent at their assistance, so readily given at Tatiana's goading when the girl at last rose with them. This laughter was despite her own misgivings that were not entirely innocent as not wishing to become a burden upon this girl, and still lurked in the recesses of her thoughts. All this discussion of healing hadn't entirely soothed her suspicions about the trip to the castle with a girl they had just met, had known for less than an hour, and whose identity raised more questions than answers that she might not have wanted to hear in the first place. It wasn't Nina's fault but rather the faults of an inherently suspicious mind gifted to Jayla over the years of living in practiced isolation, deliberate ignorance, and the girl needn't look no further than her village to indulge all that she would have liked for such things.

All the rumors and fearmongering. All the prayer in substitution of cynical minds. It was her reality, yet she demonstrated none of those reservations on her angular, almost tender expression; merely an involuntary frown after she had forgotten to smile, lips pulled downwards at such an angle as to seem like an effortless characteristic of hers. It happened to be an effortless characteristic of hers, but an easy smile was better bed manners than looking ghastly all the time with the face she pulled-- someone told her once and thus did she suffer like a marionette on a string ever since.

"You found that thing? This why they kept me from clam diving, 'cause all you older buggers get to keep the loot to yourselves?" Tatiana said, almost indignantly. The youth had followed them onto the walkway of packed dirt and earth, capering along like a lost child which occasionally took hurried, inquisitive glances over Nina's shoulder. Once they got onto the path, she took a moment to pluck another clam from the bucket in an attempt to both walk and lever it open with her bare fingers. "You never found something like that, or were you holding out on me all this time?"

Jayla was helplessly curious too, raising a thin brow at the prospect. "Not quite."

"So she says! It's another chapter for the saga you'll be telling everyone back at the village for as long as they want to hear it again; which will be forever! You won't understand what it's like there, Nina. Being from civilization proper an' all. It's a sense of awe and adventure at the big wide world until they have to leave their cozy little cottages, then it's all 'let's wait for Kann to come back from the bumper harvest in the city so we can hear it from him, why waste the day walking!' They make me want to spit!"

"It has... tradition. I doubt most would agree that it has anything more, but we're family in every other sense of the world but blood. Sometimes it gets tiring, with all the gossip and grandmothers thinking you're one of their own at their beck and call when it's time for them to fold the linen. They all mean well and we've struggled together every time the times become unpleasant, but it gets tiring." She maneuvered best she could upon the path without her sandals, suffering less than most for how quickly her feet became calloused over the years of village living and the inconvenience of managing the leather straps of said sandals all the time, but liking the experience little all the same.

They walked in silence for a length of time as she tried her hardest not to spill any more seawater on her old brown gown than was necessary, as the last thing she wanted was to catch a cold as the sun fell in the sky. Though she could not see it by now underneath the teeming canopy of leaves and low-hanging branches as their trail progressively diverted away from the beach, and whatever slivers of it was left to be seen through the thickening forest. "It gets especially tiring when you're an unwed woman, disregarding the fact that you're either surrounded by children or those twenty years your elder. You're told the same nonsense every dance and festival by every aunt in the village about how they'd enjoy even more children running around, even though children are dreadfully poor at chores, brushing down livestock, or not being bothersome little things."

Tatiana scoffed, having finally opened the clam with her teeth while making such a noise so that Jayla thought she was choking for the briefest of seconds. "The poor woman is already doomed to a life of spinsterhood, so she is. Must be awfully dreadful to inherit a tidy little cabin and a position of respect reading the veins and only little old me being bothersome! I can see you having it worse there. Not to mention you're coordinating Asaal's festival this year!"

"It's a place of familiarity," she continued. "How was your home? If you'll forgive my curiosity." 

It was evident she meant whatever home Nina had before the castle, if indeed she had one.

And in the indiscernible distance, the cobbled road answered the hooves of horsemen with a cacophony of dull thuds, as the combined weight of rider and their animal caused loose stones to dislodge from the poorly constructed roadway, its presence having deteriorated with every passing mile from the city they rode. There were four men, all armed and armored in the livery of a lord without land and with little else to his name but the recognition of title and heraldry. Their sabretaches clattered noisily against polished leather saddles, draped in grey caparisons to protect the rest of their equipment against the elements, while the riders themselves wore mail and leather and short-trimmed cloaks over their armor, pinned at the shoulder with a silver lizard of some kind. It was a quest headed by a short-haired youth who looked too thin for all of this baggage, too young to be leading a handful of men, and yet his lord had written an order and it was his to obey. 

They listened to the tales as they went, followed an unseen scent of whatever it was that they were after - going forth with naught else but the knowledge of the event which had unraveled earlier today, and the implicit promises of whatever was the cause of it held some degree of power. Therefore it had value to a desperate man.

Edited by Vlamymn

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“That’s a clever thing to ask.” Nina said, thoughtful yet unable to answer Jayla’s unspoken question: ‘Just what exactly is wrong with me?’

There was a hollow in the pit of her stomach as they walked. So many years of pain, hanging in the air behind them, and the nagging feeling that if she didn’t escape the Tower fast enough, she would be made to cause pain as well. Maybe even be made to enjoy it. She walked in the pleasant sunlight, while Jayla spoke of diseases that couldn’t be fought.

“Some ailments are without cure, I know.” Nina answered softly. “But I wonder…I wonder if that’s partly because the knowledge required, or the knowledge that would lead to that knowledge, is so scattered.” She raised one hand to the sky. “Many of the city doctors are so jealously protective of their craft, while being dismissive of the village healers, and that keeps those pieces of knowledge apart. It’s really sad, isn’t it? Male doctors in particular tend to be dismissive of women’s pain and say, that’s just how it is, but I wonder…Before anyone knew how to set bones back together, wouldn’t it be ‘how it is’ and ‘the will of the gods’ for me to lose an arm if I just fell on it funny?”

Her left hand twitched. She remembered Gray dislocating her pinkie when she’d tried to kill him, bringing her howling to her knees. She remembered the countless anatomy books in the library of the Tower. That man wasn’t a bookworm, he was a straight-up book-dragon with a hoard. He’d put her finger back so swiftly that the injury left no trace.

She listened to tales of the village, and felt suffocated just thinking of it. This was what she’d always tried to escape, wasn’t it? That peaceful life. The sort of place to visit, work in, enough for a few meals and a change of clothes, then move on.

“Gr-“ Nina swallowed her words. “Someone I know told me that in these islands, tradition may weigh more heavily than the law.” It was still something that tripped her up often.  Even the Duke, while working on his reforms, would bow to tradition to the point of never wearing a color combination that was inappropriate for the season. The subtleties eluded her – whether Jayla’s expected spinsterhood was a punishment for her illness, or a reward for the work she did – but nevertheless, she did her best to listen. No matter how powerless Nina felt, knowledge remained her weapon. 

Then Jalya asked her about home. Her home. Nina tripped and paused, for a moment, trying to remember what she’d already told Gray. When he interrogated her. She wasn’t letting any new words risk going back to the dark cloak.

“It was…Wild.” She eventually spoke. “In the summer, the sun would not set for days, and the vegetables would grow as tall as me. In the winter, it was so cold, and so dark, and all you could hear was the howling wind. It was like living inside your head for months at a time.” 

There was something in her voice that seemed to come straight from the soul, and a spring in her step.

“I…I guess I wasn’t fitting in from the start. Always longing for the horizon. I…I started delivering post at first. It was a long way to go between villages. Sometimes I wrote people letters myself, and read them to them, because it made them happy.”

In the distance, she caught sound of hooves. From reflex, the girl moved to the side of the road. As the sounds approached, they slowed down, and she looked up. Perhaps it was her past as a travelling painter which put her on guard whenever he didn’t have a clear escape route from people with swords. The clanking of hooves slowed down even more to a walk. She smiled, and nodded in greeting. That blazon…hadn’t she seen it around the castle before? She closed her eyes. She remembered places better than people, but colors and patterns were a close second.

Natamyra. That was the name, wasn’t it? That crest. Stylized white lizard on a black background, biting its tail. One of the Duke’s advisors. Not one especially highly valued, she guessed, but then, it was impossible to tell for sure with the cloying politeness that ruled over most of the court.

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"The practice of healing always seemed to me like a complicated relationship; it feels like a union between what you know to be true and what you've merely heard from your peers which you accepted to be true no matter your opinion on them. There's always a plurality of opposing thoughts and feelings and opinions in this practice, but more often than not there's a conclusive truth decided upon by those who know what must be true themselves. Then due to their wisdom, their age, or their pockets, all the rest of us come to accept that particular gospel as our own too. I fear it's sometimes just as dangerous as if they never told us their ways at all, especially when they claim that something is beyond curing."

"... if that makes sense to you." Jayla punctuated her thoughts with an awkward, embarrassed smile. It wasn't typically within her to wax poetics about these subjects. Not when she knew less than either hypothetical party invented for the sake of argument, and not when she ordinarily followed the widely acknowledged ways without first reflecting upon such things as whether their loud truth was any wiser than the endless multitude of quieter ones lurking in the peripheral of any curative treatment or causation of illness. Nina was also right in the outright hoarding of knowledge in the profession, as some that did know a better remedy too often kept silent about it or were simply lost in the sea of a prevailing opinion on the matter.

It was a story that she heard too many times from the village healers and rural physicians themselves, who had either come to embrace ways which Jayla knew to be false or they simply kept their treatments private and subsequently marketed themselves as the wiser one amongst peers. She hurriedly amended the conversation with: "Thankfully we've learned enough as lemmings to know that despite the will of any gods, broken arms can be mended. I wouldn't like to think about what some individual treatments might entail if they hadn't come to accept the wisdom of the few who decided for once to share their knowledge. It's silly, there seems to be no way to win beyond the acceptance of how to treat broken arms and other, more trivial issues whose remedies have eventually become common knowledge."

Jayla trudged onwards, still feeling the fool for the tangent that for whatever reason sounded so alien for her to say aloud. They were well past their village and the beach by the time their conversation about all the innumerable instances of malpractice in medieval society had ended, making better progress than she would have liked to hope in the sweltering heat. From her peripheral she had seen Tatiana about to say something, opening her mouth to do as much but just as quickly she had closed it and stared listlessly ahead with a practiced ignorance when it came to an adult discussion she was better off not butting into. All she did instead was saunter off ahead of them, idly bird-watching and occasionally looking back mischievously to see whether such dull conversation had ended.

Thankfully it was not long after until Nina had spoken of the island and her home, changing the subject entirely from something nobody wanted to discuss, drawing her attention around again. How Nina now so curtly spoke of these subjects after going into such lengths for their previous conversations certainly raised a brow, but she dismissed it as just another one of the girl's reservations that she had eventually grown accustomed to in the short period of time they've known one another.

Something the girl had said of the islands made her instinctively tense, that same old distrust of an outside world rearing its ugly head again as for the second time in a day it was Jayla herself not wanting to speak of a better undiscussed thing.

"I have heard much of the same, the supposed kindness they do us by observing what little tradition remains here. It's entirely more cynical than that, I'm afraid, but small victories mean everything in a world that's changing no matter how some would like it to remain a certain way. I was raised by those people into believing in the magic of this island, of our traditions which still remain to this day and that some say are testament to that apparent past. There's a long history here no matter what some might think about all the talk of magic and wonder, and not all of it can easily be erased by another land's laws. Not when our past is still held in more reverence than all the progress people in boats brought, who would like to build a temple to civilization over its bones. They've founded an island of their foreign lands in the middle of a country that is different, amongst a culture that is different, and especially amongst people who are very different."

This time it was Tatiana who finally spoke up. "No need to be so dramatic, it's not like she needs that much convincing for you to start telling her all the stories you'd like. I think she's too nice to refuse either way, even if you bore her out of her mind with them like some old dull hag."

"Tati, I swear by all the gods--" 

The two of them bickered for a moment's pass, lightheartedly enough until Nina finally continued her story in a different voice-- almost undetectable but there all the same, causing Jayla's renewed interest to flutter with a hundred different questions left unvoiced in the cloyingly thick summer's air. She had felt a sudden and sharp pang of a nostalgia that was not hers. It was a story of adventure and an easy, ever straightforward path. This drowned girl shared a past to them that seemed like a thing so private and personal but shared she did all the same, causing even Tatiana to listen with an unusual intensity while the younger girl walked in lock-step beside her, their earlier grappling half-forgotten like the arm that was locked around Tati's neck. Somehow the youth had escaped the wrath of the older woman, nudging closer to Nina. 

"Do you miss it? All that dullness back home? You seem to be doing swell for yourself this far from it, so you are. Now you're here living high and bleeding mighty up in a castle, after travelling what was probably half the world if you had any actual winters!" Tatiana, who looked far too curious for her own good said with an expression of thoughtful indulgence. Her eyes were practically glazed over, as she basked a tanned face in the few glimpses of a sun's rays from beyond the thick foliage. Jayla was worried about that look. It spoke of a growing wildness in the girl that couldn't be expressed, or nurtured in a village like theirs and feeding it only encouraged the same feelings of resentment towards their simple ways much in the same way that Nina would have likely felt - judging from her words.

Tatiana's face took an even more colored expression as she continued. "You must tell me one of these days, I want to know more... of everything. It's just like what you said about a doctor's knowledge! It starves a person, don't you think? To know next to nothing about this world when you've been living in it all this time!"

Before Jayla could think to admonish the girl, no matter how selfish it might be to hold her back, she was interrupted by the same hoofbeats that turned Nina from the road-- they followed shortly thereafter, trusting in the instincts of their guide to avoid the horsemen who had slowed to a stroll down the dirt path. She watched these men come towards them, her calloused fingers playing nervously with the spun, fraying fabric of her belted gown in an almost childish way that shamed her, but it was hard not to be shamed when looking upon the well-dressed riders from the city in their freshly dyed cloaks and surprisingly soft features; grown fat and complacent from an existence within the walls. Tatiana moved ahead with shameless curiosity, meeting the riders up the road.

The leading man was a black-haired youth with a hard face, dark eyes, and an alarming intensity in the latter. He dipped his bicorne hat from the perch atop his head at the three women, all smiles as his angular and sunken face studied them with a sort of passive curiosity. Jayla was more interested in the scabbard and mail poking from his finely tailored clothes than of the man's seemingly carefree attitude. He leaned down from his saddle and said something to Tatiana which put an arrogant sort of smile on the younger girl's face as she sharply looked away, not paying him the time of day until the boy had laughed and relented with whatever he had teased before continuing their conversation further.

"... I'm the household captain of my lord's horse, if that's what you meant. You and your friends must be on your way to market then, is that it? It's a shame upon a day like today, when there's so few of them to enjoy this kind of peace. I've forgotten what was it was like in the city. It seems like everyone in it has forgotten what it means to relax, it sometimes feels." 

This time Jayla was not late to admonishing the girl who was already speaking to these strange men with a sharp look, bowing her head with a nervousness she did not know why she felt, though somehow knew that Tatiana had said too much to these strangers "That is the truth, we must give thanks to our prosperity and pray it stays that way. There's never enough simple, kind days like this in the world, and a walk to the marketplace seems as fair as anything else to spend them on."

The leading horseman smiled quietly, although his followers behind him snorted with the same impatience as their horses. A bearded man behind the rest of the three, with a lance tied with a pendent of a flag unseen in the windless day merely frowned at the delay, his sweat-slicked face molded into hard lines which gave an appearance of an eternal scowl. "Then I won't delay it any longer," the captain replied almost kindly, except for the way he now stared at Nina with a look bordering on some realization-- all previous generosity was momentarily forgotten in those blue eyes, but then he finally turned to Tatiana. "It's been my finest pleasure, do find yourselves safe to town. Peace is such an abstract thing and an easy thing to break, to my heart's ache. I have no doubts you'll see those sights in the city for yourself, Tati. It's hard to ignore them if you love the beauty in this world, the old exchange district for one?"

And then they were on their way, leaving Jayla to raise a brow at the girl who now looked at her with those round eyes that spoke of complete and utter innocence. 

Not that she believed it for a moment, but on they walked all the same as the ground beneath them became more solid, finally giving way to cobblestones and signs of civilization. Her mind was still on the foreign men and why they ever would have reason to come this far south, even as she looked to Nina for any evidence as to their intentions or if she had known them at all. Despite whatever the girl happened to give away in that brief interaction, she kept her mouth shut and stared ahead, exhausted by the buckets and from the walking, having not nearly enough energy to even think on it right now. It was becoming difficult to shift the weight of the bucket of clams so that she could brush the fraying strands of hair plastered to her plain face.

"After this, you wouldn't mind taking us on a little tour of the town, Nina? It is a nice day, too buggering nice to sit on our hands with I'm telling you. It'll be fun-- that's still a word in your lexicon, isn't it Jayla? Maybe buy one of those pastry pies, and..."

Jayla rolled her eyes at Tatiana's abruptly renewed interest. Even as she herself was infected with the same strange enthusiasm after the encounter, having to still her pounding heart after a second's rest and ultimately finding herself curiously free of the day's previous fears; as if they were all washed away after her unfounded suspicions of danger in every corner came to absolutely nothing. As if she finally realized that they were only men, and the town was only a town, and so she had little reason to find herself mistrustful of such things.

Only for all those familiar fears to come pouring back to the tune of pounding hooves, she was only dimly aware of how her body tensed and how she involuntarily turned to see the horsemen returning in their direction with reinvigorated purpose. She knew to fear for some primal reason within her, from perhaps a genetic memory of so many others before-- in a world that was not kind in the end, where peace was only an abstract idea after all - Jayla froze, uncertain whether they'd simply ride past. It was clear that they found the information they were looking for in the village, and it was only too likely that the captain tied Nina's face to all of this, but Jayla did not know this yet, for she was stricken with a fear that froze her in a way utterly unnatural to anything else she had felt in her simple, quiet world.

Edited by Vlamymn

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‘During its history, the Tower has been home to a varied array of assassins. Many men and women would specialize in various crafts, ranging from poisons, to disguises, to hand-to-hand combat. My own Master, for instance, may-his-name-be-forgotten, would craft potions that could make minutes feel like hours, or snuff years of life in a second. The historical figure nowadays only known as the Mother of Shadows was outstanding for her espionage network.’

‘In that case, Gray, why pick me?’ Nina grumbled, slightly louder in the memory than she’d originally dared. ‘All that’s outstanding about me is your yet-unresolved death.”

‘Why, apprentice. You have many positive traits. They just need a bit of…sharpening.’

“Go back?” Nina repeated Tatjana’s question. She supposed she missed her grandparents, and worried about them, but she wasn’t about to risk Gray finding out more of her strings to pull. “Who knows. Maybe one day.” She shrugged. “For now I’m more oriented on moving on from the castle.”

The question as to why remained unresolved in the subsequent arrival of the soldiers. In the brief discussion that followed, Nina remained silent, not feeling like she could fend off any possible questions about her accent, or lack of. After the group left, Nina was filled by the overwhelming need to chuckle. Yet instead what she did was to take in her surroundings – the forest on the right, a sharp cliff face on the left, with a tree in the distance hanging on to dear life on what looked like a shelf of dirt jutting out from the cliff edge. She moved in a zigzag across the road, taking everything in very carefully.

“I’d be happy to get you two some snacks,” she said. She doubted that they’d want to eat with her once they found out she’d lied to them. Maybe, just maybe she should tell them now. Nina opened her mouth. For a couple of minutes she remained fairly quiet, but anyone watching her would guess that she was struggling with something.

But it was already too late for that.

As the thumping of hooves on the dirt road behind them returned in a gallop, Nina grabbed the seafood bucket from Jayla’s frozen fingers. 

“Leave this. Go! Trust me on that. Be quiet.” She grabbed Tatjana by an arm, and pushed both of them up the slope. The way the road carved the edge of the mountain flooded the road edge with more light than the forest would otherwise get, allowing thickets to grow. There was still a chance that they’d be missed, with the soldiers facing the sun. “Just go.”

Nina strode up the road for a few more steps, carrying both buckets, and stopped at the base of an old, gnarly tree at the edge of the cliff, with a thick branch growing over the road. Just as the hooves went past the closest turn in the road, Nina scampered up the tree, and rested one of the buckets in the gap between two forking branches. She crouched down on the branch crossing the road. If this was nothing, then she was going to feel supremely silly.

“Look for the others.” The captain gestured to one of the men, and the girl missed being silly.

Nina finally let out her laugh. 

“That disguise outlived its usefulness.” She said. There was something different in her tone, a certain sharp edge. “Besides, this is what you’re looking for, isn’t it?” The captain motioned the soldier to stay.

The coin appeared in her hand. Glowing with a softly pulsating light, it spun between her fingers before twirling through the air, and landing back in her palm. There was a rag protecting Nina’s skin from its touch.

“I see the Shadowmaster’s pawn is meddling already.” The captain coldly commented.

“Unlike the noble Natamyra pawns, who arrive fashionably late to the party.” Nina smiled warmly.

“Just at the right time, it seems.” That dangerous warmth seemed contagious. The captain shrugged, a near-invisible gesture under her armor, and looked up and down the road. There was a certain finality to his words. “There’s no one else here.” He addressed his men. “Secure the area.”

He was considering an ambush, Nina guessed. She would as well. Why else would she be all out in the open? ‘Because you’re an idiot,’ her mind helpfully answered. Well, she was going to keep him guessing. Nina raised her hand beside her lips in a faux-gossip gesture.

“You…told them, didn’t you?” She asked, in an unexpectedly serious tone. “About the Tower. Traditionally, once you belong to the Tower, failure is not an option.” She let that sink in. There was no need to tell them that Gray was hardly traditional in his methods. He didn’t even swat her on the head. She looked at each of the soldiers in turn, as they surrounded her. “It’s not too late. Think very carefully about the consequences you’re willing to live with, beyond just your lives. You can still turn back.”

“Regrettably, you cannot.” The captain said.

And that was the answer.  

“Dead men tell no tales, huh? You’d think that I would know that better than anyone.” As she mused, the captain ordered the soldiers to capture her, alive, ‘if at all possible’, and they got close. Too close. Nina mentally apologized to Tatjana and Jayla for not being able to buy them more time. She stood up on the branch. “I wish Gray would for once let me keep at least a witness. Wouldn’t you agree?”

And with that, Nina kicked the bucket towards the closest soldier, unleashing a splash of water and colorful sea creatures on the only unprotected part of his body, his face. In the next breath she jumped, taking advantage of the distraction to sneak past his now-jumpy horse. Many of the poisonous creatures she’d collected didn’t act by touch, but with a bit of luck he’d have something anywhere from a bad sunburn, to an incredibly painful swelling, if the sea urchin managed to dig its spines in his skin. She broke through to an unguarded area.

As it happens, the area was less guarded because it was right near the cliff face. Nina turned around, saw a lance blocking her escape on one way, a sword one the other, and slowly raised her arms in surrender. Then, she fell backwards off the precipice.

A thump sounded far below. By the time the first of them dismounted to have a closer look (horseback riding making the sharp viewing angle otherwise difficult), there was nothing to see apart from a faint glimmer of blue caught somewhere in the canopy below.

“Go after her!” The captain ordered.

“I saw a goat path just down the road,” one of the soldiers commented, as they hurried away.

Nina listened to the orders spoken above her, feeling like her elbows were slowly dislocating. Was it the coin they wanted, or her? She tried to keep her breathing still. She was hanging on to the roots of the gnarly old tree, which protruded from the lip of rocks and soil just under the precipice. She’d been afraid that they would hear her, but… Gray was right – a large move hides a small move. First rule of magic. It had worked, whether it was juggling with the coin as a way to recover the piece of fabric she’d wrapped it in, or letting that clump of fabric fall. The thump had been accidental, if fortunate – just a rock she’d dislodged from the roots. With difficulty, she moved from root to root, using her chin and nape of the neck to support herself when needed. Despite her training, she didn’t really have the core and arm strength to carry her own weight. Adrenaline was drumming loudly enough in her veins that when she looked down, the deadly depth was simply a metric. At the edge, the roots grew greener and thicker around a round hole just under the road. A drainage pipe, large enough to accommodate the heaviest rains of the season. She’d seen it before, and had thought that the flowers growing from it would make a nice sketch.

It was only after she balanced herself into the pipe, that Nina questioned whether it was large enough to accommodate her.

She had to keep her shoulders at an angle to advance, and in places it was necessary to wiggle herself into the foul slime at the bottom in order to get any traction. When a horse galloped above her, it felt like someone was punching her in the ribs. She remembered that the captain had kept at least one of his men around, patrolling the immediate stretch of road. They didn’t trust her.

Suddenly, the horse slowed down, and the hoof-beats echoed along the length of the pipe, moving towards its mountainside end. Nina held her breath, as her hopes sank. There was no way that she would able to sneak her way out this tight spot once they saw her.

The horse stopped right at the edge of the buried pipe. The girl could hear a man dismount. She saw the glint of armor in the opening, and heard a muffled swear. He was close enough that they could almost touch. She questioned how easy it would be to stab him.

“I can’t believe it…” The man grumbled.

She saw his face for a moment, as he dunked it in a small basin built for collecting rainwater. Afterwards, he splashed it a few times more, and wet a handkerchief for later. Of course. The poison. Had to be uncomfortable. Nina held her breath for a minute, until he left, then waited a minute longer, before pushing herself out.

Full of mud and half-rotten leaves and crawling with things that she didn’t want to think about, Nina made for the forest above, quietly at first, then faster. She kept her eyes open for signs of her unwitting companions.

Edited by Nina

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Jayla didn't just leave the girl to fend for herself, not at first, for she was feeling just as silly for treating the world like such a threat. It wasn't until Nina repeated herself did she even imagine to flee up the slope, still then it took another hurried look in the direction of where they once walked and where the armored men had now burst from the thickets of a less maintained segment of the roadway to confirm that there was such a danger to their lives that they should be running from, and from the way they came upon the three women, an imminent one. 

Her life never practiced much in the way of surrealism, so it was utterly devastating when that realization did come - so much so that when she felt Tatiana's fingers whitening on her forearm, Jayla hardly even felt it, even as they refused to be budged by an unthinking shake of a wrist. She was far too occupied with assessing the purpose of the coming soldiers, imagining them passing by, but growing ever more debased of that notion the closer they approached. They certainly seemed intent on nothing else.

"Come on Jayla, you're not as useless as all that. Come on!"

It was enough to wake her from whatever trance she was in, though evidently not from this nightmare. Jayla spun to action - both within her racing thoughts and quite literally, taking little time to pivot away from the soldiers and towards the path with the younger girl in tow as they staggered further up the peak of the mountain. All of the thickets began to look like a familiar face to Jayla while they made their escape, her mind knitting together what she knew of the topography within its haze and maneuvering as best she could into the forest to her right, which she sincerely hoped would lead to a degree of safety. What little it held was still more than trying for the road or to the rocky precipices to their right, as there was little cover and fewer places to hide.


That was all they could have done judging from how Nina so quickly dismissed them while she led the men away, how her stubborn aching feet refused to obey the simplest of orders during adversity, and how Tatiana was clutched to her like a lost child who could only be led like a duckling procession through the thickening reeds. She didn't even stop for more than a moment to think of the girl they met so short a time ago, or what would happen to her. It was one of the few passing thoughts that survived the distilling of everything else in her mind except survival, the only thing to last long enough to become a conscious thought amidst an endless state of abject terror; drumming out everything else between her ears and eyes, including moral platitudes about said girl. They would have to ignore such things until the fear at last receded and she was afforded the luxury of worrying about anyone else except herself and the ever present Tatiana behind her, someone she had so long thought as a sister.

Only for them to come to a stop somewhere Jayla finally had no recollection of, after having long lost all sense of direction during their headlong flight into the jungle. Tatiana was evidently not far behind, as she didn't pause for a second longer before the girl plowed into her and knocked them both into the brush in a heap of collapsed air and dignity. It was one of the last things to make a sound then. Jayla immediately noticed as much despite her numb nerves and groaning bones while they lay there as quiet as church mice, unconsciously playing a game of oppressive silence with the forest of the isle, each side daring one another to break it all the way up until the welcomed sounds of cicadas drew indrawn breaths from their throats. Jayla much preferred being silly as well.

"Hey, d'ya think...?" Tatiana finally spoke aloud for the first time since their fervent escape, but said nothing more afterwards. Her eyes finally rested on Jayla with a healthy dosage of confusion, bewilderment, and even the same terror they both left unspoken as well. 

"I'm thinking there's no point in seeing for ourselves, Tati. There's no point in returning the way we came either."

She surprised herself with the quick display of logic despite all they'd encountered so far. There was nothing that happened today that she could collate with past experiences, yet the sudden insights came all the same after having finally found an opportunity to rest and look to their options, which were to return either to where they saw Nina last or to their homes and risk the soldiers finding them where the forest narrowed and the road opened, or worse yet-- trailing the two back to their village, especially when any decent tracker could have made easy progress discovering where they went through the mired jungles. There was nothing to be done for the third girl right now, and so it seemed like the last alternative was forward. To the temple of the Mountain God. As ominous as it sounded, it made sense enough for the shrine promised safekeeping and a chance to wait out the insanity of the world that they were so abruptly exposed to in the hopes that men, armed as they were, would still have faith like any other.

"... you think she's going to be alright?"

"I have a feeling that she's more used to this than we are." Jayla had no doubt about that, knowing somehow that the apprentice would have faired better without the two of them holding her back, it was what she hoped nonetheless. She reserved any doubts for Tatiana's and her own sake, knowing those thoughts would do nothing but weigh them down in a time when Jayla had the unique impression that they would need to be focused on nothing else beyond their own immediate concerns. Jayla finally added with as much genuine feeling as outright skepticism: "I'll reserve a prayer for her. I'll try to find the time for another prayer that we're going the right way. There's a temple to the god of the mountains here, somewhere, as if my grandmother did not drag me there often enough for all this praying to forgotten gods."

"If he didn't want to be buggering forgotten so badly, then maybe he shouldn't have picked a mountain to have people worship!"

They paused long enough after deciding upon the temple, to wait for the harsh shouts in the distance to fade away into one direction or another. Some were closer and some farther. That which were closer, the two girls kept wide berths from, no matter how much it deviated them from their intended course. It was only in her determination to get to this place before nightfall that stopped her from admiring her home, everything around her upon this archipelago, in the way that one realizes the beauty of things before the end. She did not think their tales would end here, no matter the doom or gloom, but the looming threat at sword-point certainly helped her perspective of appreciating such small things.

Jayla and Tatiana passed through a positive mélange of different greenery and drooping strangler figs that hung from sunken trees, their legs swarming through fields of persevering orchids and herbs of a dozen dizzying aromas which acted almost as blankets to the forest floor. She was limping by the time their ascent gradually drew the wonders of the forest farther and farther from the peaks of the mountain, how could she not? Some days it seemed difficult to even take a step from bed, much less trek to a temple on long forgotten paths tended to none but the few visitors that left the comforts of the road. She would have liked to assume that others before had done so in situations similar to this to soothe all her many and varied anxieties. It would have been nice to feel that she was not alone, even if the shared woes were in the times gone past. 

Instead she was faced with just another obstacle to feed all those lovely anxieties as the two girls both, without saying a word, ducked under an overhang of thickets at the sounds of someone just a handful of yards over the lip making little precaution to dampen their footfall in the subsequent brush beyond. The younger girl, despite all her bravado, slunk down just as quietly with a stare of what Jayla might only have deciphered as an immense regret alchemized almost solely by homesickness. Had she laughed then, it would have had no issue carrying across the forest to their latest pursuer and within moments they would have confronted whomever waited between them and what sanctuary they could find in this place. As for Nina, she had some explaining to do. That was to say that Jayla had any faith at all that they would meet again, which she did; to be reunited felt like more of a coming inevitability than anything else that had happened this day.

Sometimes foreshadowing was relatively obvious. No matter whether it was for the best or not.

Edited by Vlamymn

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