A Handful of Jade (Book One: Second Breath)

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Chapter One

In the crook of the foothills east of Port Calin stands a large estate. Gifted to the Cathak family almost three hundred years ago, the Scion who tends to it has modeled the land into a gracious living space envious of the finest tracts on the blessed isle. Quaint by Realm standards, but not without its own rustic charms. Containing enough of the rich finery come to be expected of dynastic dwellings, the local populace would be forgiven for thinking it existed as an example of the most opulent abodes the Cathak’s owned. It is not, but, it is one of their favourites.

A home away from the politic of the Patrician courts, magisterial offices, and intrigue of the throne - Calwall Manor serves as an edifice removed, and its caretaker, Cathak Norim, plays host to a churning calendar of his family’s highest blood and branch lineages. This summer was no different. 

A parade of sixteen lineages were to be marched down the gravel pathways - meticulously raked each morning, midday, and afternoon to achieve rigorous orderliness - and served in the five wings of the manor. Each wing possessed a devoted staff of servants and maids, cooks, farriers, bakers, and more. Enough rooms to house a small army- and with a Cathak get together what else could it be considered?- and luxury amenities to while away any hour they saw fit between joining hunting parties that combed the acreage for good quail and pheasant, perhaps the modest buck or deer for sport.
This summer, while no different to any other, not on the whole, sum, or part- at least as far as the Lord would have the servants admit- would nonetheless test the sureness of their service as a small cadre of V’neef would be joining the Head Family. Just six such women- half a dozen being barely a trifle- the matriarch herself, four daughters and a granddaughter. Rumours, were they to be believed or purveyed, states that such a retinue were visiting away from the isle to cement a long worked-for alliance. Signed in marriage and to be sealed in many generations of scions. If, of course, one stopped to listen to rumour. 
Unfortunately for V’neef Jade, youngest granddaughter of V’neef, Matriarch of her Name, and Youngest Scion of her Royal Empress, long may she reign; rumour was the most charitable manner to describe the predicament she found herself in.
It was bad enough her mother and grandmother were here to oversee her first outing from the isle- but into the very homestead of her dear Rohan. The young Cathak had been born away from the isle and, though he visited rarely, it carried for him fond memories. It was, perhaps, some of the adventurous stories he would tell her of his time spent amongst the fields and forests that endeared her towards him in the first place. But, even as close as they were now and free of the pervasive eyes of the Magistracy, the Ministries, and squabbling dynastic families, an awful sadness clouds the spaces between them. 
Rohan is often away from her side, tending to one family request or another. He had been stationed as her chaperone for about as long as she could remember, tasked with her safety which was a charge he took very seriously. But here in the heart of a territory they considered their own, the Cathaks felt she no longer needed such duties to be afforded to her and so their time together was short. 
Rohan had breathed his second life two years ago. A late bloomer by most standards of the Dragon’s blood, but nothing compared to her own seemingly endless stasis, nor that uncommon for one of his particular family. For a V’neef though, nearing her twentieth birthday and still no signs of the essence fever, if the shame of not Exalting didn’t kill her she felt that somehow she might be sent away permanently, if it served the family’s image of absolute purity. Maybe that was why they had brought her all the way out here? Only a few days left before it would be certain she would never join her family in the Dragon’s Grace. The first of her line to fail so utterly.
At the current hour, Jade found herself secluded in her room. It adjoined a library and hobby hall with all manner of craft tools, wool, scraps of parchment, beads, empty journals; the kinds of things her mother knew held her disinterest. It was clearly a sign of her dissatisfaction but, how Jade had managed to anger her, she wasn’t sure. Given that her balcony overlooked the yard where Rohan and his brothers were training with swords, she could suspect that their dalliance had not gone unnoticed. 
Jade sighs. She could go and speak to her mother in an attempt to divine her current mood, but felt sure that her presence would not be welcomed at this hour. That was the way it was with most things- Jade had been able to assess that from a young age. Those who deigned to speak to her did so out of forging alliances with which to capitalise upon should Jade prove worth the effort in time. There was little authenticity afforded to her. Though she respected and honoured her family she didn’t truly know them- raised as she was by an ever turning door of nannies and tutors, lest she form ‘inappropriate’ attachments. There were hopes that it would be different, once she drew second breath, but time marched ever onwards and the great chasm of difference between herself and those she longed to love had yet to be breached.
And it would remain that way, unless she took matters into her own hands.
Jade looks about the room at the inane tools provided to keep her hands preoccupied. Wool, parchment, beads, journals. The things provided. She turns and takes the room in more. The silken sheets, the gauze of the bedposts, the goose down-filled pillows. The intricately woven rugs. A lot of padding for the stone walls. Grabbing an edge of the linens she pulls it back and begins tying the ends together, pulling tight on the knot and attaching one end to the bulk of the wooden bed frame. Once long enough, she opens the balcony doors and flings out all but two of the oversized cushions onto the ground in the hopes that if she failed it would break her fall.
She takes a deep breath of the fresh jasmine-scented wind, grips tight on the silken rope and climbs over the banister. She was going to join the fighting. Maybe, just maybe, she would exalt on the field of battle rather than the medical tents like her family. If not, well….at least this got her closer to Rohan.
Affording her just enough length to slowly lower herself to the ground, Jade’s sheets billow in the wind once she lets go and her weight no longer holds them down. The ground here is grassy but towards where the boys and men were at play with their training weapons it had been trodden into a light muddy paste that left dark marks at the base of their boots.
Cathak Koran, Rohan’s older brother shouts a halting command to the group as Jade approaches, crossing the distance between them in a few long strides such that he stands over her a full foot taller. His gaze is… kind? She guesses? His features were naturally hard and angular as if a permanent scowl had been blown onto it by changing winds. Even so, it at least appeared to be making the effort to soften his eyes.
“Jade.” He says her name sternly. “An unorthodox entrance. Can we help you?”
Rohan hovers in the back of the group. His eyes meet Jade’s and she can sense his unease, like she was nearing a pack of jackals and the stiffness of his arm clenches his grip against the wooden sword’s hilt. 
“Yes, you can. I was never very good at swordplay, but I’m fantastic at dancing.” She does a little twirl in the muddied ground, and leans around Koran to address the group as a whole. “I would like you all to spar with me. I will try and avoid your blows. I think its best that if I show no skill in wielding a blade, I should at least learn how to dodge one.”
The group shift around uncomfortably, it’s clear none of them were enthused by the idea of taking a weapon, even a fake one, to a visiting dignitary. 
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Koran resonates with authority.
((Koran makes a persuade roll on his fellows, succeeding with 4 successes))
The group start turning away from Jade and returning to their drills, only Rohan is reluctant - pressed between duty and devotion.
“Jade-” Koran pauses momentarily, seemingly considering his words and opting for something more polite, “-perhaps your time would be better spent getting ready for the mid-morning meal. I’d love to see your footwork inside where it is clean. Perhaps, even, I could join you?”
“Why is it not a good idea, dear cousin?” Jade presses, and politely puts him in his assigned place- fond relative. “I’ve already committed to ruining these fine shoes, going inside now will not unsully them. It would be a waste to go back knowing that they will be tossed, having scarcely been worn...are you afraid of hurting me?”
She looks around to the others cheekily “- are you incapable of showing restraint?” She all but pokes her tongue out at the fire-aspected dynasts.
((rolled 6 to influence dynasts to play with her, attaching intimacy ‘teaching of hesiash/restraint’ from the military training she knows they all have))
There is a further shuffle in the ranks of the men, Rohan’s not so subtle smile favouring one side of his face more than the other. Koran grunts with annoyance, turning to face his men with a withering glare but he could not help the uprightness of Jade’s inferences.
“Blast you, Jade- fine.” He cracks his wooden blade against his hand like a madame would a leather crop, “Tanan, Josef, you’re up.”
The group moves aside, leaving ample area in the centre of their number for the chosen fighters to lock each other in trial combat. Tanan, the larger of her two opponents had doffed his tunic when they had arranged teams whereas Josef was part of the shirted team. Each was of physical comparison to Rohan, though Koran’s frame was half again as tall and broad, so Jade could be sure that they were likely of similar strength to her bodyguard. Their skill, however? Jade knew that Rohan would have been considered a prodigy had Koran not already trod the same path and out done him by a hair. Maybe trying her hand against a couple of the youngest of the Cathak brood would be a decent test of her own training.
((Join Battle, 2 and 1 for 5 and 4 initiative, Jade 7))
She starts with the feet together, keeping the knees straight and lifts the heels high enough so all of her body weight is on the balls of the feet. Jade then bows to both Tanan and Josef. “So, how do you usually decide who wins? First to be knocked down, or first to submit?”
Jade slowly lifts one of her legs, her other foot sinking slightly into the mud. When it is roughly two-thirds in the air she spins it fast down and around, to knock Josef at the back of his knees.
Jade’s graceful footwork lifts Josef’s leg instinctively rather than using force to pull it away from him. The poor young soldier tumbles backwards, sloshing through the mud and caking his white shirt in the muck before rolling up to standing, just barely catching his footing as his shoes slip in the slick.
Tanan frowns a little, moving forward with his wooden blade to lightly strike her in the same place.
((roll 3 to hit, not enough to surpass Jade’s Evasion.))
Continuing her movement, Jade pirouettes away even as Josef finally finds decent footing and clumsily lunges forwards with his boffin.
At the sight of the oncoming boffin, Jade grabs the rail of the training area fence and lifts her weight up of the ground, her legs solidly out of reach. "Allegro! Grande Jeté. It means fast, big, jump!"
((roll 5 to hit, not enough to surpass Jade’s increased Evasion. New round, Jade’s action))
What goes up, must come down. Tanan’s turn. “Are you out of breath? No one has answered me yet. Do I get to decide?” 
Utilizing her hold on the bar, she pulls back both knees and kicks out hard into the chest of Tanan, aiming for Tanan to collide into Josef and hopefully dirty them both prone in the mud.
(decisive kick on Tanan)
Twisting her body with her hands and arms, Jade swings out a round kick against Tanan’s chest far harder than he was anticipating. The blade of her foot snaps against his ribs with all the force of her leg and arms behind it, pulling back at the moment of impact to leave all the force behind. He hurtles backwards, crashing through the mud as all the ari escapes his lungs, sliding to a stop just past Josef, forcing the other young blooded to hop over his friend and risk slipping in the mud himself.
“I yield...” he says, weakly, still panting and having a hard time catching his breath.
Josef snaps a glance between them, backing away and raising his blade above his head. “Know when I’m beat, miss.”
This elicits a round of cheering from the rest of the group, a few laughs at the loser’s expense and a cry of victory from Koran.
“Hah! Amazing! You have proven me very wrong this day, V’neef Jade. I should never have doubted you.” Now Koran’s features truly did turn softer, Jade could swear she saw a slight tinge to his cheeks. Somewhere under all the cheekbone, heavy brow, and hard set jaw, he was blushing.
“Thank you, Sir Cathak Koran,” Jade does a little curtsy, giddy with excitement. “However, I am not satisfied. I spot two clean shirts. Koran and Rohan, I challenge you both!” She does a little dance on the spot from one toe to the next.
Koran laughs, at first thinking it was a joke- but his fellows start to cheer in Jade’s favour, wishing her well and praying she can show their sargeant to the mud. “I hope you do not forget yourself, Jade.” Koran steps forwards, that long stride of his taking him impossibly close to her in an instant.
Rohan, crosses the span as best he can without drawing upon his blood, concern crossing his expression even amidst the joy of watching Jade prove her martial might.
((Join battle, Rohan 8, Koran 10 Jade- 7))
Koran, upon Jade almost faster than she could see, flicks his training blade up under her arm. Using it as a hook, he brings the flat of its length against her back and rotates from his hip, sending her stumbling forwards.
((withering attack, 12 dice to hit))
Jade lets out a surprised squeal, a little “eeei!” as she’s moved. Rather than fight the momentum she tries to move with it, curling her back as she grabs hold of the wooden blade for stability to support an evasive bend. 
Jade goes slipping through the mud, still able to keep her footing well enough to avoid tumbling over into it. Rohan locks in step with Koran and brings his bidding up defensively. Koran risks to himself, unhappy with his little brother’s lack of pressure. 
((Full defence))
“Rohan has discovered my evil ploy! Do you think your measly shield will protect you?!” She cackles playfully and grabs a handful of mud, careful not to let any spill down onto her sleeves. “hiiiiiiYA! Death to the Clean Shirts! For the Empress! V’neef PRIDE!”
(withering mud attack against Rohan :P)
Rohan’s eyes widen as his trained reflexes move his blade for a perfect party, that is, were he trying to parry a blade. The mud ball splits in two as his stick passes through it, splattering him with dirt and causing him to flinch backwards. 
Koran laughs more, stepping into jades’s personal space and ducking low behind her, trying to catch her on his shoulders and lift her up above his head. 
((Attempt at a grapple gambit!!))

“Eeep! No, no, no, no, no!” Jade chants and moves around the fence, laughing as she tries to take some kind of cover. The sleeves of her gown swish wildly as she bats at the air to keep him back.
(spending WP making it 7)
Koran hefts Jade up with his shoulders but the lithe woman is able to roll with the motion and bring her feet back to the ground without losing step. Without the expected weight of Jade to slow him, Koran ends up knocking his frame up against the fencing. 
Rohan seems to see his chance, darting forwards and dragging his bottom tip along the mud to bring it up against Jade and toss the muck up at her. 
((Withering attack, 12 dice))
Jade sees the sword coming and swoops in to meet Rohan before the tip leaves the ground, pressing her ankle down to try and pin the motion and ramming her body into his, the battle for the blade commences! Who is master of the mud?! 
(clash! 14 damage +crash bonus)
Rohan’s momentum is unceremoniously ended as Jade’s foot expertly catches the tip of the blade, sending him twirling into the ground. The wooden sword shifted with Jade’s motion to catch most of the muddy refuse and knocking it away to the ground leaving her pristine while Rohan ends up a few feet away, face down and sopping wet with the muck. 
((New round, Jade's initiative is now higher than Koran’s, her action first this round))
“Tanan! Josef!” Jade calls exuberantly, retrieving the wooden sword from the mud and flicking off the grime. “What will you gift me if I win? The odds are against me, but the dragons have favoured me thrice far this day. Who dares bet against the sargent?”
“Sarge said the worst performer has their muddy shirt flown on the mainmast!” Josef calls out. 
“Josef will clean your chamber pot!!” Taman wheezes out, still winded from her blow. 
Koran is not impressed, a fire lit in his eyes and a soft red glow emanating from his body. He was motivated now, and Jade recognised the signs of essence welling in his anima. Whatever he was planning next, she would need all her strength and wiles to overcome. 
Jade laughs gleefully and raises the sword, placing a hand on the back of the hilt. “Rohan owes me a ride on a Cathak stallion...if I’m conscious. Mela, pray speed thy stroke!”
She runs full force towards him with the sword pointing at his chest. At the last moment, she risks bending backwards to slide underneath him and the gap in the fence, abandoning the practice sword. She then brings the blades of both fists into the crook of his knees.
Jade’s attack takes Koran directly in his knees, buckling under the force, he stumbles back while doubling over, his mass and weight used against him as his head cracks hard against the fencing. Flipping back, his body goes limp as it hits the ground. 
Everyone stares in dumb disbelief. 
“V’neef Jade!” The sharp tone of her mother’s disciplinary voice cuts through the silence like an explosion. Sure enough, glancing behind her, Jade can see V’neef Rose and her two aunts hastily striding towards her with as much poise as they could manage. Rohan and the others snap to attention, bowing their heads towards the oncoming ladies. “What. Is. The. Meaning. Of. This!?” Her mother demands. 
There was a bee? Thinks Jade. No, lying to her mother was an incredibly risky proposal, but the high of having won was still beating through her body. 
“I have heard stories from my friends, tales, of how and why they felt their second breath come upon them. They were challenged, and they bloomed.” Jade has the decency to look contrite. “I know it cannot be forced, Mother, but the Cathak family were upholding the promise of hosts to cater to my needs. I...needed to be challenged.” What you provided for distractions were not inane or petty enough, she thinks. 
Jade’s mother glares at her with such disapproval as to wither the very grass she stood upon. 
“Inside. Now.” It brooked no argument and she didn’t even stop to watch over her daughter, assuming rightly so that her command would be obeyed. Instead, Jade’s mother busies herself with ordering the younger Cathaks around, making sure their eldest cousin was seen to. An especially gracious nod of her head to Rohan. Jade was unhurt after all, so technically he had performed his set duty exactly. 
Jade spares a look to them all. She knew they understood, hoped they understood. Poor Koran. She should probably feel something other than glee. But she had managed to beat three of her trained cousins. She could fight if she had to. They may not have been trying to hurt her but that boost that she could overwhelm even them was…heavenly. She dons the mask of obedience and goes inside, carefully removing her shoes before doing so.

The roads leading towards Port Calin where paved well, especially the high road leading from Sijan. His menagerie trundled down its wide paths effortlessly, stopping occasionally to allow other merchant wagons by as the bulk of his company would take over several such roads if he felt inclined to behave like a totally spoiled noble. 
Sagacious Hand is seated atop the Pachyderm. A nice cool wind blows through his long red locks. The soft scent of salt slowly joining in the breeze as they neared their destination. It was serene, except that the almost dull intonation of Ylva’s voice recounting the last performance metrics and profit projections. 
It was less that Hand hated numbers, he just largely didn’t understand them. This was a ritual, however and one he was required to endure no matter how much he’d love to skip it over. He knew, somewhere in the back of his head, the numbers would add up and balance- a kind of trust in himself to make the right decisions as he had always managed before. 
“-and lastly, we received a raven from Governor Norim. He’s ‘requested’ that we divert our dealing to his staff rather than Pastar like usual. The Empire seems to have taken an interest and wants us to set up closer to their estate rather than the usual spot.”
Sagacious Hand takes the canestick he was idling chewing out of his mouth and sits upright to look at Ylva directly. “Excuse me, what? Do you mean ‘I’ve done something vaguely offensive and they want us gone’ or ‘I’ve done something extremely offensive and they want us dead’? Our show isn’t really….they’re not the target audience, Ylva. Can we afford to pretend we didn’t get the raven?”
“Hard to say.” She replies, “Our contacts mention rumour of some big to-do taking place unlike anything the bucket-heads has bothered with before. No normal hunting and high sport, they are entertaining someone important.” She idly taps the back of her pen against her lip. “Still, that isn’t to say someone doesn’t want your hide. You still owe Stone Upturned your tab from our last visit, even if you took a dislike to him, a debt is a debt.”
“Bah, well it’s all the same direction.” He tosses the spent canestick over the side of the mechanical beast. “Give me some time to think it over. I’m not opposed to the idea of a location switch, it just means an extra hour or two to assess the lighting rigs. Maybe a change in routine to something that can be packed up swiftly in case things go awry. Do you remember that unit in Lookshy last season? Morran is still trying to laquer that wood. You can’t hide Dragon’s fire, that stuff stains everything when they get drunk and ornery.”
“Which reminds me…” she sets aside her giant ledger and produces an equally large book full of loose pages, cuttings, annotations, and what else only the Maidens knew. “Miss Karal was wanting to increase the premiums relating to investment insurance-” and on she goes again. 

This is a play-by-post performed in the comfort of Google Docs, presented as it was written without much thought put to editing. There is only one Player, controlling both V'neef Jade and Sagacious Hand, and the Storyteller (me).

In our play document we bold and un-bold to differentiate who has written something, but I'm unsure if that formatting is suitible for reading by others (comments and opinions on that welcome). I also include mechanical notes in the document which are italicised and bounded by double-brackets (are these distracting? or is it nice to know what's goign on behind the scenes?) We are mostly sharing just because we've written so much already just for our own amusement, and it seemed a waste to leave it languishing on a server somewhere.

I'm putting a [NSFW] tag on this, becasue the story covers some themes that are heavy (one of the characters is suffering under a lot of social abuse); but the story isn't exactly R18+ or anything. One character in particular uses especially colourful profanities some might not be comfortable with (a lot of c-words and heretical analogies), and while there is space we leave for physical intimacy, so far there's really only two scenes where anything of significance happens and it's fairly light on the details.

There is currently 2 'books' completed and we are working on book 3. It isn't written with planned chapter breaks in mind, I've just done a quick break up of each story into rough 'sessions' and those tend to average around 3k-4k words. In total everything together is around 87k words. I'm planning on sharing a chapter every week or so until we catch up to where we are right now, and will maintain a master post in the collections forum for easy reference.

As it turns out, we're writing more content a bit quicker than I expected, so I'm instead going to post up a full book every few weeks until/unless we slow down. The Master post in collections will have expected release dates for each upcomming book.

Any questions or comments are welcome :D
Last edited by ElKovash on Fri Jul 16, 2021 1:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Thanks for sharing and welcome to the site!

I've never heard/thought of playing on googledocs like that before but kinda dig how it makes things more of a collaborative writing exercise than other games and how easy it seems to make playing more than one character. It seems a really nice approach for a single player and ST.

Do you find the temptation to go back in and tighten any of this up so that it's all in on being a fiction without the rolls and stuff documented, since it's already 90% of the way there. Really curious how much back and forth and editting and re-writing you do with it and 87k words is an insane feat of writing no matter how you've got to it

. How do you keep the documents manageable, is there a structure where you do one for each 'session' or is it all one big unbroken document?
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Hoi boy ;)

1) not a huge temptation, no. We used to play all sorts of RPGs over instant messaging years ago (MSN mainly, I could never figure out AIM) and have a bunch of stories documented from saved logs that we have later tried to turn into novel-like documents.

I am painfully incapable of drafting whenever I write, so I kind of just belt it out as you see it and never go back other than to read.

2) Mostly it’s just written out like it was a play by post; even when we play with others over Discord (or MSN back in the day) we write the same way. Just habit I guess? ^_^

We do chat outside of writing, mostly to make sure we’re on the same page, or for me to clarify rules and help make suggestions for charms that could be used in a scenario to perform whatever actions the player has in mind.

3) The document was SUPER unmanaged at first. We just kind of locked ourselves away for a few days and bashed it out hyped up on coffee. It was huge, and Google docs was having trouble loading it all which made waiting for updates really painful.

I’ve since gone back through and split bits out (hence the ‘books’) and spaced out some rough chapters based on word counts and where it felt natural to end a scene.

Ultimately, I’m just happy to share it- I think my player does some real good work and the back-and-forth makes it way easier to keep the world consistent and colourful.

Nice to see some people have liked it while we were at it =D
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Chapter Two
Jade finds herself standing in one of the drawing rooms adjacent to the grand library. Her mother had forced her to fully bathe and undergo a complete change in attire before presenting herself to Lady Cathak Yu. Rohan’s grandmother had been appointed associate Matriarch for their family, and while they were away from the isle she would be speaking with the weight of her entire clan. 
Jade’s mother hadn’t stopped fussing over her headpiece, carefully pinned and wound around her ample hair. However, she had been waiting only a few minutes before one of the servants gently opens the door and announces them. 

The grand library is true to its name. Almost four whole levels of the manor devoted to their vast collection of literature, not counting the half dozen smaller reading rooms littered about the estate. Lady Cathak Yu is seated at a small table, being served a fresh pot of piping hot tea. Her enormous dress puts much of Jade’s wardrobe to shame; it would be at least sixteen layers of regalia and the old Dragonblooded woman moved about in all the clutter effortlessly as if she were wearing nothing but a shift. She gestures to two seats near her and smiles to Jade as the younger girl approaches. 

“Oh my dear, what a vision you are.” She gestures to the impossibly thin cup in front of her and the footman pours Jade some tea as well. “Sugar? Cream?”

“Thank you, both sugar and cream.” She responds politely. Oh no. This was awful. Sixteen layers meant trouble.

Lady Cathak Yu personally adds the small dollop of cream and spoon of white sugar to the tea, delicately stirring it with a tiny silver spoon and gently tapping off the excess. 

“My Lady.” Jade’s mother starts, “I beg your indulgence-“ Yu raises a hand to silence her and Jade’s mother obeys instantly. 

“Never you mind about the little mishap in the yard. Why, I remember when Koran himself was taken by the fever, his father almost lost an eye that day. These things happen and we should instead focus on the joyousness before us.” Though she addresses her mother, Yu’s eyes never leave Jade’s own. “The second breath is a blessed thing, and it could come at no finer time. Don’t you agree?”

“I pray that I am worthy.” Jade intones. She had enough social training for it not to sound mechanical, but it was a stock standard response of most dynastic children. 

“Gracious and humble. A true student of the Way.” She pats Jade on the hand. “And, you’ll be pleased to know that the young man has taken quite the liking to you. I wouldn’t dare call him a brute but, the fire runs hot in him you see, and the trouncing he received has gone a long way towards endearing him to you quite considerably.” She takes a sip of tea. Jade’s mother follows suit, not wanting to interrupt the senior woman. “And it is good that you’ve taken a liking to him too. It’s so rare that these things work out so neatly. Building a strong family from a foundation of mutual admiration and respect- oh!” Ah seems almost giddy at the prospect but… what was she saying? “I hope you don’t mind but I’ve discussed it with Koran already and I think it’s best if we part from tradition and have you take our family’s name. The children, you see. Very important that they grow with a strong backbone to their names.”

Jade feels cold. Numb. The tea sits unsipped before her. “....Koran?” 
Like the grinding of stone, it takes an eternity to turn and look to her mother, who was deferring to the Matriach. 
Jade struggled to think of further words that wouldn’t offend or compromise her to the pits of damnation in both families eyes. She didn’t want to marry, not yet, and not Koran. If it had to be a Cathak, why not Rohan? Did he know? Did he know about this and not warn her?

A strong backbone? Were she to exalt that strong weight would be carried by V’neef, not Cathak. Should she speak? Could she? 

“I value tradition and innovation both, Lady Cathak.” She says carefully. “I feel, though young, the V’neef family is as strong as Cathak. In deeds, if not yet name. If I were to wed, I would insist upon my name, in honor to my grandmother, of course.”

There is a slight tightening of her upper lip. Lady Yu takes a sip from her tea and waves a hand dismissively at Jade. “Of course, dear, your mother and I shall discuss everything so you needn't worry your little head.” She turns to Jade’s mother who breaks out in a large smile, the two of them conspiring over plans for festivities to mark the occasion and future plans for the proper ceremony on the Isle itself. Almost completely forgotten, Jade is left to sip her tea in silence. 

Jade stares at the two of them conversing. Did Cathak Yu think she was already exalted? Going back over it in her mind, it surely seemed like it. A faulty assumption, or had someone lied to her? Was not correcting this assumption deception in itself? 
She analyses her mother. Did she think Jade had drawn second breath? Was her mother attempting to decieve Cathak Yu?!

(6 success read intentions V’neef- what is she trying to do in this scene?)
(7 Cathak Yu- read her feelings about Jade/what does she want from this)

Jade’s mother was being oddly deferential. It was clear she considered that there was a lot invested in the marriage proposal and was mostly busying herself with making sure Yu was satisfied and that, overall, a good impression had been made. Jade got the feeling that, at least in her mother’s reckoning, the proposal was still not writ in the Imperial Ledger, so to speak- and anything could happen. Best to ensure all concerns were addressed at least until the fateful day was passed and there was no going back. 

Yu is a lot harder to read. Jade couldn’t help getting the impression that the older woman was just happy to be seeing her grandson marry someone he loved. Though if that were true, Rohan surely wouldn’t be out of bounds? But the younger scion never appeared in their conversation so it was impossible to know how she truly felt about it. 

Jade considers it deeply. She had not lied, but it seemed that the assumption of her exalted nature would be...perhaps beneficial. Honestly, what aspect did they take her for? Did they even know? If Cathak Yu did not inquire further, if this gossip had spread.... Did everyone think she had exalted?! 

Could she fake it?

Clearly the first step would be finding out the reasoning. Did someone else lie, and she was perpetuating it; or was it an assumption on Yu’s part that had yet to be dissuaded? If this was true and she failed to be the one to alert her of the error then the further this went the worse it would become. Only, if she didn’t exalt of course. Otherwise, it would be considered right and good. 

It was just the wrong one. Why did Yu think Jade had taken a liking to Koran? It was no more than any of member if the family besides Rohan. 

After several moments of consideration Jade comes to a plan of action. The assumption of her divine nature, though a lie, afforded her opportunities otherwise closed to her. For one, it kept her mother preoccupied. If it was assumed Jade and Koran were sweet on each other, then perhaps she could roam freely to go visit him; and ask for him to dissuade his mother of this nonsense. An excuse from him would be better than an explanation from her, surely? He could change his mind. It appeared Cathak Yu did not think much of Jade’s ‘pretty little head’.

“Excuse me,” she politely interjects. “I would like to visit Koran and the others, if I may. Perhaps bring your grandson some tea, while you converse. I promise there will be no more trouncing this day!” She smiles sweetly, as if her winning was entirely a fanciful little accident, tee hee. ( 0_0)

“Of course dear.” Yu waves Jade away. Her mum is all smiles a Yu, but spares Jade a ‘don’t you dare start any trouble in this place’ glare when the opportunity arises. 

Jade makes her way through the weaving corridors and courtyards to come to where she would expect to find Tanan, Josef and Rohan. Koran might still be, uh, recovering. She scans as many people on the way as she can, sure to keep her head held high. Was she being treated any differently as an exalt to that of a dynast? 

(6 read intentions or perceptions on treatment of her)

If the assumption that Jade had Exalted was disseminated amongst the manor staff, it wasn’t evident that they were behaving differently. At some point though, there is only so far a person can gaze upwards before everything above them seem contained within the same view, all degrees between them banished by the lowest of perspectives. 

Cathak Yu said she had already spoken to Koran. Speaking to him first might not be such a great idea. She wanted to speak to Rohan. Under the guise of talking to all three younger military men, she might just get an answer. 

She rounds the corner, takes a deep breath and knocks on the doors of the private recreation room. 

As Jade enters the room, she finds it a mixed array of tables, shelves, comfortable chairs, and a large fireplace flanked by two grand windows that look out over the gardens below. There are boards set up for various games, areas cleared of furniture for exercise, and padded mats to ease the crash of body to the ground of two members felt like sparring. Rohan and the others were hunched over a table playing at cards and dice. When she enters the door echoes through the room instantly drawing their attention. The rush at which they stand and offer bows to the newest scion of V’neef speaks of her status as an Exalted member of the family. If she had drawn the dragon’s breath, she would technically out rank them due to the shorter line between Jade and the empress. Even if such things tended to be ignored in favour of seniority of years lived with ignited blood, here at least she was being treated with a respect she had never known to come from her peers, let alone the patricians she now stood over - even if she knew it was a lie. 

As is the formal manner, the men wait to be addressed before rising from their bows. 

Channeling the air of her grandmother and the grace of theirs, Jade gently sweeps into the room to confidently stand beside them. Well, pretending at confidence. This was actually quite terrifying. Was it illegal to perpetuate this idea?! 

“Cathak Josef. Cathak Tanan. Cathak Rohan,” She gives all appropriate honorifics and etiquette appropriate bows in an attempt to instill friendship. “I hope you pardon the intrusion. I had such fun earlier, but have been rightly admonished for acting so irresponsibly. I would like to apologise for my behaviour, and endeavour to show restraint becoming of our respective houses.”

(4 success)

All three of them return the polite introductions, though they end by standing around a little awkwardly, not sure how to follow up such introductions. 

Eventually, Rohan breaks the silence, “Is there something we can do for you, V’neef Jade?”

“Could I play with you for a time?” She asks politely. Taking the initiative to move a chair, completely by happenstance, specifically next to Rohan’s. 

“Of course.” He offers, directing the other two to sit and collecting up the cards. “What is your preferred game?” He knew damned well what she liked. 

“I’d like to play cards. Empress and Espionage?” She suggests. “I know the shorter version of the  rules. Whoever has the Empress when we finish drawing wins, and whomever has the Spy has to give the winner a favour. Though I believe I’m already one up on all of you…” she reminds them cheekily. “Someone still owes me a shirt.” 

Josef and Tanan try really hard not to look at Jade directly. Rohan just laughs a little and begins to flick cards to each player one by one. The first few hands pass on fairly predictably for Empress and Espionage. Very little given away by any of the players as they each rotate out pairs and try to avoid drawing too often. On the fourth hand, though; Jade draws the Empress card. Most the last few hands had been passed in silence but as Josef begins to fidget just a bit more, it became obvious there was something bothering him. 

(Read intentions -6,goal for the scene?)

“So, where’s Koran?” Jade asks casually, offhandedly. “Mother mentioned they spoke. He’s not upset with me is he?”

“He’s just resting in his chambers.” Rohan says, dropping a four of crown on the discard pile then drawing another from the deck. He smiles a little and slips the card he drew and another form his hand into his scoring pile then turns to Jade. “Far form offence, he seems to have taken a strong liking to you.”

Josef flicks his eyes between the familiar way that Rohan addresses Jade and his hesitation is made clear. No one, so far as Jade was aware, knew of their budding romance- this uncomfortable shifting was far more likely the young man trying to get used to the new pecking order. By order, Rohan was not really any more senior than his friends, but Jade’s familiar address and choice to favour him put Rohan at a decided advantage when it came to the social standing between them. At least as long as he held Jade’s favour. 

“Gosh, I wish it was as easy to make friends at the Spire.” She says, steering the conversation to pigeonhole Koran. “Everyone is so focused on academic performance, to the exclusion of most else. A game of cards always devolves into a game of faces, where losing a hand is equivalent to letting down your entire family line…”

She draws another card. “I enjoy the air of the Cathak estates. There’s a freedom here. I know I do not understand all the dynamics of your family,” Jade addresses Josef specifically, “but was it not fun today? A relief from the pressures of court, to just enjoy each other’s company?”

(Instill- Jade is fun to be around 6)

“Um, uh, yes…” Josef mutters a little, not fully committing to his answer. A redness tinges his cheeks and he tries even harder not to meet Jade’s eyes. He seemed a little embarrassed, perhaps feeling politely admonished for thinking about status when the gracious lady of house V’neef was merely trying to be friendly. Yu would have called it a master stroke. 

“Then, would I have your permission to fail at a task set by both our families?” Jade pushes, looking at the three of them earnestly. “At least, in the privacy afforded to us?”

(read intention 7, Tanan- are we friends?/intamacy to Jade?)

The three of them exchange a look, Josef and Tanan favouring Rohan’s thoughts more. Their cousin seems to be on friendlier terms with Jade and they both were clearly trying to echo the sentiment. “Of course, My Lady.” Rohan says, taking the opportunity to switch a card with one from Jade’s hand - he tsks a little, not making a pair. 

“I promised to show restraint,” She explains conspiratorially, “to stop acting impetuously, but I have taken a strong liking to you all as well.”

Jade leans across the table and puts her finely manicured hand softly over Josef’s, the other on Rohans. He felt warm...and touching two people at once hid how much she just wanted an excuse to feel that warmth.

“I don’t like the divide that is rising up between us. Can we just exist as we are without expectations other than friendship? I’d take your hand as well, Tanan, but you’re on the other side of the table and it may be inappropriate to do, but you should either take your cousins hand, or we all touch toes. I don’t want to just be polite extended family. Do you?”

Rohan coughs, as if clearing his throat was somehow an answer. In the moments after her hand touches his, she could feel that warmth increase. The blood of the dragons didn’t touch the cousin’s features as strongly as it did Rohan’s so the shift in heat was imperceptible to any who were not already familiar with his hand. 

The cousins agree, however. Bursting out into laughter when Rohan almost choked on his own coughing. The sudden release in tension such a palpable catharsis it was hard not to just laugh along with them as Josef and Tanan begin to recount each other’s awkwardness, sparing a few moments to mock Rohan for finally failing his social mask when lightly brushed by Jade’s hand. 

Jade joins in, sharing her own stories about the journey to the estates with her fellow cousins, and blatantly cheating at cards in order to call them out for not calling her out on it. She sets herself about demolishing the pecking order until all that remained was a friendship. Secret or not, she wanted to forge memories of laughter in private and jokes only they now shared. Was this how sworn brotherhoods were formed?

Spending the rest of the day with Rohan and his cousins, Jade is left feeling more connected to them than many of the companions she’d had in the Spire. Long hours of debate argument over strictures, laws, and legislation replaced with open discussion on life, feeling, and the best ways to cheat in cards. Occasionally though, the conversation turned to Koran.

The warmth and camaraderie to which they spoke of him echoed the feelings Jade now shared with them. But, it was all very different from what she expected. Rohan had always described his brother as, while ultimately an upstanding soldier, still tightly bound to the ideals of the Empire and a willing participant in the cutthroat politics that had sent so many of his cousins to death. Koran was, as Jade understood him, a charismatic sort that used a polite face to hide a vengeful hand. This was a way of living he had undoubtedly learned from his family, and growing up being told he was some kind of chosen scion to lead the family in its darkest hours must have had some effect yet unwitnessed by Jade that she could not consolidate with the gentle and kind man that was now being described to her.

She didn’t know how long he had been there but, Koran reveals himself by responding to one of the many stories told about him.

“Rohan had a habit of getting himself into trouble.” The cousin turn at the sound of his voice and leap up to embrace their friend, like some kind of hero returned from the front lines. “Isn’t that right, little brother?”

“Koran feels I choose my companions unwisely.” Rohan explains for Jade’s benefit. Some old argument between them that he hadn’t shared up to this point.

“Family bonds tend to be the strongest, and wisest choice.”

“And I disagree, brother. Can we let it be?”

Koran rounds to Jade. He was wearing some bandages that wrapped his head where it had struck the fence when he fell. “Great mother tells me we are to be wed?”

Rohan winces. He hadn’t been told.

“Goodness, I hope not!” Jade smiles and laughs, pouring herself another cup of tea. “For your sake, we should not let that come to pass. You’ve got much to bright a future to be tied to someone as flighty as I.”

“Don’t act stupid, Jade. You’ve already tried to dictate terms.”

“I did no such thing,” Jade carefully puts the teapot down to hide her shaking hands. A little fury, a little fear. “I take offence at the insinuation, but I’m flattered that it is presumed that I can navigate such waters. I expressed that should I wed, whomever that might be, that I would expect them to take the Vneef name with pride.”

His eyes bores down into Jade. That sense of gentleness they had just spoken of now a distant memory. “Rohan. Take the V’neef child to her chambers and stand outside her door.”

Even keeping her eyes on the pot, Jade can see Rohan’s knuckles go white. 

“Now. Younger brother.”

Slowly, as defiantly as he could, Rohan stands and lays a hand on Jade’s shoulder. “Come now, lets leave.”

Jade sniffs indignantly and grabs her shawl adjusting it as if leaving was her own choice. “Thank you, Cathak Rohan. I am worried as it seems your brother cannot ascertain whether I am a bride or a child.”

Don’t do it don’t do it don’t do it….

“He must have hit his head harder than we thought.” She adds scathingly, herself maintaining the mask of polite concern. 

She moves as swiftly as she can. 

“Before you leave.” Koran adds, just as Jade gets to the door. “Brother, perhaps a game will calm my ire.” Koran moves to the mats and removes his shirt. 

Rohan hesitates. 

“Ire, dear cousin? Are you angry at the idea of marital union?” Jade asks, searching his body language for intent. “If that is the case, then may your heart be assured that I will decline the offer for the sake of your happiness. You need only to speak to your grandmother, I can whether the displeasure of my mother.”

(Read intentions/ motivation for fighting Rohan. And intentions- what intimacy does he hold for Jde?
Nah 3 success yikes)

“Corporal Cathak Katar lectures on husbandry for the cavalry.” Koran unwinds the bandage on his head and instead winds it around his right hand. “One of the more challenging tasks is breaking in the fillies to accept the chosen stud.” Flexing his hand inside the bandage, Koran gestures to Rohan. “I won’t repeat myself, brother.”

The NERVE! The utter disrespect and self aggrandising displays of status!

“How... fascinating? I thought that would be the horses decision, and not something to be forced.  Though, I concede that I am not as familiar as you on the topic. I do think everyone deserves love.” She smiles sweetly then summons up her courage “-but no one is entitled to it. Not even horses.” 

He was going to hurt Rohan, Jade surmises. She had to do something quick to change the pace of where this was going. Koran has full control of the situation, by virtue of blood and hierarchy. All in the room must defer to him except….except enough people now thought she was touched by the dragons. Which places her highly due to her steps removed from the Empress. 

Jade considers swooning. That would work with Tanan and Josef, but what if Koran insisted on taking her to the rooms?? They couldn’t deny him and then she’d be stuck...but Rohan would be safe for now. 

Was saving Rohan now from whatever could happen worth what could happen to her?

Jade has value. It was unlikely she would be hurt irreparably. But too many Cathak cousins never came back from assignments by their peers. The younger brother did not have such immunity from political machinations, and was to noble to refuse. 

That seals it. “Goodness- Dear cousins, I feel most unwell.” She looks to the ground, and clasps her head and stomach. “I….I….”

Aaaaand KEEL! Jade staggers a little and folds like a flower into Rohan’s arms, breathless and fluttering eyelids.

 “I think it best someone escorts me to the Vneef wing. I am-“ deep sigh, “-sorry for the inconvenience.”

Koran seems about ready to insist again but Tanan and Josef finally leap into action. Each of them rush over to Rohan and Jade, offering support. Koran is left to seethe, but Jade isn’t entirely happy with it. Josef speaks concern, and it certainly is painted on his face, but a hushed exchange between Rohan and his cousin reveals his feelings. 

Jade should, by Josef’s estimation, not push Koran too far, that there was talk of a treaty riding on a marriage between a scion of both houses and it was for the better. 

What stung more, was Jade’s mother gave her the same lecture once they had absconded back to her rooms. The elder V’neef goes on at length about how their family needed to break ground. With the northern campaign nearing boiling point, aligning themselves more closely to the military might of the Cathak would protect them against reprisal from Tepet and Peleps. That this had been decided years ago and she was being selfish and… and a hundred other reasons she should stop the trouble and resign herself to being Koran’s wife. After all, the matriarch effectively has control of the family line and what little indignities she might have to suffer would still elevate her to a position in the Empire enviable to any other house scion. It was a gift, so she put it, and Jade was being a reckless child. 

Her mother finishes the tirade by laying her daughter’s head in her lap and gently brushing out her voluminous hair. 

“I just want what’s best for you my dear. Why can’t you see that?”

“I know mother,” Jade says softly. “But did Koran really ask his grandmother for my hand? He holds no warmth in his heart for me. You should have heard the way he addressed me, mother, it was so brazen and cold. Should I marry a Cathak for the sake of the family, could it not be one of my choosing?”

“You insulted his proffering.” She replies, as if the brute’s mood was somehow her fault. “Koran is strong with the blood, as are you. You only really need to tolerate him once every five years or so.” There is hesitancy in her voice, like perhaps maybe she was trying to convince herself as much as console Jade. 

“Mother-“ dare she speak the truth, “I am being undervalued. I tried as diplomatically as I could to not insult Cathak Yu- to whom I felt it was more important not to cause distress. Mother, they think me exalted. I do not think I have drawn second breath, surely I would know?! And yet the assumption that I have...I didn’t realise it was a held notion until it was too late. An assumption that might have been perpetrated by Cathak Koran. I could not call into question something the Scion of House Cathak may had said. I want what is best for the family mother, and if I can bowl over a trained military man with no more power than a patrician, then, well...is his seed worthy of us?”

Her mother waves a hand as if dismissing the thought. “There is no need to gloat, my dear. Koran went easy on you and was unprepared for the breath to take you in that moment.”

Jade frowns. “Then what aspect am I?” She knew of the strength of Hesiash, and that those blessed by his grace struggled to master restraint. Perhaps she was muted compared to others? “I don’t know how to draw upon the Blood, Mother. I do not feel what I thought I should feel.”

She almost laughs, a restrained chuckle. “Do you feel pressured to action? Like you’re about to crawl out of your skin if you do not change you circumstances?”

Jade considers it carefully and nods softly in her mother’s lap. 

“Then you feel as most do, there is no should or ought about it. These things take time.” She finishes brushing Jade’s hair and gently stands. “Think on it dear. I expect your hesitation is just the blood running hot, as it does is all newly woken. Don’t worry so much and…” she smiles, patting her daughter on the cheek. “Find your way to apologising.”

“....Yes, Mother.” Jade resigns herself. “Thank you for your patience and time.”

Her mother swans from the room, the brief moment the door is open, Jade can see Rohan standing guard outside. It clicks shut, though and perhaps it was better not to pick things too soon. Glancing out the window, Jade takes a moment for herself. The sheets had long been retrieved and changed. The courtyard below was now empty of even servants and… she had to look twice but was sure she saw a giant elephant wandering past the trees at the bottom of the garden. 

Jade opens the doors and moves out onto the balcony, her eyes scanning the trees. What on earth?
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Chapter Three

A fantastic procession of what appeared to be huge mechanical beasts parade down the wide garden paths, loop up around the manor’s entrance where carriages would disembark and then back down the garden path towards the periphery of the estate grounds, rounding together and collecting into a group off the path and set up in the meadows that served to separate the estate grounds from the outskirts of Port Calin. 

The whole parade is set to a symphonic musical number with clashing symbols and chanting choirs. Jade has never seen its like in her life, let alone heard of it. 

Atop the elephant was a man, firy hair all in curls about his head and handsome jawline. He was dressed, well, Jade was unfamiliar with the fashions outside of the realm, but best she could tell he was about eight seasons behind, all gaudy and hard on the eyes for all the pomp it afforded. 

The two briefly meet eyes as the elephant makes its circle by the carriage house, but the man's attentions seem more focused on the gathering of Cathaks and Her grandmother and cousins down by the manor’s front doors. 

Jade wants to go see, but she’s already escaped one situation by feigning illness. It wouldn’t be clever to reappear so soon after. She looks along the banister and considers scaling down again, except this time making her way to the back of that elephant. 

But if she does that and is caught, Rohan would have failed in his assigned duty to protect her. But, the Cathak family had been rather lax in assigning anyone as her chaperone. Koran had assigned him to stand at her door, not come inside. She could, technically, sneak out and no harm come from the action. 

She considers all the variables carefully. Would someone come get her to see? Was this some secret, a surprise? 

She goes to the door and carefully opens it a crack. “Rohan…” she whispers, “why is there a bard atop an elephant at your front door?”

“A… uh… what?” He whispers back, keeping his eyes on the hallway, doors, and stairs at its end. “Is someone visiting?”

Jade nods then realises he can not see her. “It seems like it. Our families are assembled out the front. It looks like they’re setting something up in the meadow.”

She pops her head out the door. “Do you really know nothing about it?”

“Nothing.” Comes his curt reply. Then he seems to think a bit harder, that pulsating muscle in his jaw that she knew as one of his tells giving him away. “Did you want to go and see?”

“I’m pretending to be sick so I don’t actually throw up in my mouth.” Jade replies honestly with a touch more brutality than was necessary. “Yes. I want to go see. But if I go it will signal I’m fine now. They’ll expect me to apologise.”

Jade sighs. “Am I even allowed out of the room?”

“Well, he didn’t say to keep you here.” Now he turns to smile at her. “Besides, all you need is a good vantage and I know where all the best ones are.”

“Well then, give me a moment to change my shoes.” She smiles back at him. 

She moves back inside quickly, and writes a note to slip into her bedpan that says “smelly smelly poo poo” for Josef, and adds “don’t let Tanan forget he owes me a shirt”. 

After changing footwear Jade grabs the random assortment of craft tools and journals to prop up the pitcher of wine she slips in her bag. There wasn’t room for glasses, but it would be fine. Her lips would touch the glass that touched Rohan’s. She blushes at the thought, and then slips back outside to meet him. 

Keeping an eye down the hallway, Rohan clasps Jade’s hand in his and leads her down towards the servants passage. Going through the servants passages is relatively simple as the cacophonous noise outside has drawn many wonderous gazes away from their duties to gaze. 

However, Rohan warns, they had to avoid making a sound as they ascended. the area which looped past the secondary sitting room was his grandmotherd preferred spot to play afternoon Gateway, and though Jade had spotted her on the ground floor there was a risk that her head attendant, Nora Li, was still around and could stop them. 

Nora was loyal to Yu specifically and anything seen or heard by her immediately found its way to the ear of the matriarch. 

The doorway that led into the passage was disguised as regular wall panelling. Rohan presses against it until it clicks, and swings open soundlessly. 
They start down a passage closing the door behind them. It’s dark at first, unlit in the late afternoon, but their eyes quickly adjust. 

They Make their way slowly up the staircase, each footstep of Rohan’s mimicked like Jade was learning a new dance. Each careful footfall avoiding the known squeaking stairs or nefarious tripping spots. Rohan’s Hand suddenly raises in alert at the sound of heavy footfalls from the end of the passage. They couldn’t head back along the stair, and they couldn’t move further without being spotted. 

Jade hears nothing, and is surprising when Rohan’s Hand raises and she suddenly finds herself pinned against the wall, the bulk of Rohan blocking her view of anything beyond his chest. Jade feels her breath quicken at the closeness and warmth. She looks up at him in the dim light, the faint outline of his jaw, the delicate lashes of his eyes, all directed away from her as he listens intently to something other than the increasing beat of Jades heart. 

She lifts her hand slowly and trails her fingers along the ridge of his hand, softly over the knuckles, to coax him to look at her. 

He looks down at her, the proximity of his eyes to hers surprising both of them. Rohan seems to remember himself and pulls away.
“I think the hall is clear. We can continue.”

Jade smiles and lets her hand trail back down into his for her to be guided. 

The path he takes her leads up and around another two flights of stairs. At the crest of each he stops again, leaning her back against the wall while he listened out for the possibility of other servants wandering around. Their journey isn’t interrupted, however, and Rohan is able to lead Jade up into the observatory. 

The space was another large room dedicated to a singular pastime. Astrolabes, telescopes, maps, and other charts sit around the space. Everything is neatly arranged and packed, meticulously dusted and kept immaculately clean. It was hard to tell if this room ever saw use. 

“Over here.” Rohan’s voice pulls Jade from her thoughts and she crosses the room towards the window he was leaning against. She could see the meadow from here, but they were so high up and far away that it was hard to make out any details. 

“What can you see?” She asks. “It looks small from here…can I use a telescope?” 

He looks over his shoulder at her, a massive grin crossing his face. “I mean, if you want to.”

Jade grins back and rummages through the area, finding one that wasn’t to heavy for her to hold by hand. She makes her way back to the window next to her bodyguard. “I have a suspicion you have used these for activities other than star gazing…?”

He unlatches the window and swings it opens, offering Jade a hand as he half steps out onto the small ledge beyond. 

She gently takes it, sweeping up her skirts so as not to trip on a hem. 

He gently spins Jade a little further than she thought he was going to, leaning her back and resting her shoulders against his outstretched arm, tucking his free hand under her legs and sweeping her up off the ledge. There is a moment of wind whistling past her, clothes flapping indelicately and then the world seems to lurch away from her. Next thing Jade realised, she was sailing through the air in Rohan’s arms. The look of concentration on his face could not hide the satisfied grin. Another gust of air and she feels their descent slow and Rohan’s feet meet the grassy meadow softly. 

They had landed near a large tree that looked old. It’s bark knotted and rough, but it’s branches splayed out like the arms of one of Jade’s court fans. They made something of a spiraling pattern to make their early ascent easy and then about halfway up the trunk a number of long branches forked out and twisted together to create a platform they could stretch out on. 

Still holding her in his arms, and moving swiftly before any of the visiting crew noticed them, Rohan hops up the branches, taking two at a time before gently placing Jade’s feet down against the twisted platform. 

From her vantage, the leaves seems more a sheer veil than dense canopy and viewing what was beyond became a simple matter. 

“Rohan!” Jade whispers but is filled with excitement and joy. “You are marvellous.”

She stretches a hand out to touch the bark reverently. “This tree seems older than you, but you took those branches like you’ve done so a dozen times prior. Is this...is this a secret spot of yours?”

He shrugs a little, “Wouldn’t call it a secret. Just never had anyone to share it with till now.”

“Speaking of sharing,” She smiles and opens up her bag, waggling wine bottle in the air cheekily. “Ta-da! I do not have any glassware but I hardly think it matters. We could, um, take turns? While spying on the party.” 

Jade can see Rohan look to the bottle, then glance at her lips, then back to the bottle. That little pulsingusle in his jaw starts working away. “Yeah. I mean. Why not?”

“Do you want me to list reasons, because you know I can.” She replies, trying to take a gentle,!noble sip from the bottle. When done she moves forwards and places it into Rohan’s hands. “Head of the debate team three years running.” 

“I remember.” He smiles, taking the bottle and hesitating only briefly before taking a swig himself. “What do you think they are?” He gestures to the teamsters unloading equipment and working over the giant mechanical animals. 

“I don’t know! It looked like a real elephant from the window, but now it seems more mechanical. But that’s obscene, that would cost an enormous amount to maintain and move.”

Down below, a woman of regal bearing wields a large leatherbound book that seemed almost as large as her own torso. Her hair pinned up in a graceful sweep that collected at the back of her head and splayed out and downwards like a waterfall. She gestures around with a long, featherless quill like a conductor’s baton. 

“Hand wants the seating to begin from there, and stretch to there. Maximum six rows, divide it into four sections. The tree will be the audience’s backdrop and-” she consults something in her massive book for a good two minutes. The work crews seem accustomed to the pause and simply waited for her to start speaking again. “-we’ll need two acoustic sheets prepared around the perimeter of the canopy facing inwards. Mask them with the standard meadow render- nothing too unorthodox, these are dragon’s chosen we’re performing for here tonight. Anything too complicated and we run the risk of being found out long before we start.” She continues to direct the workers, two dozen in total; a series of questions and answers fired back and forth between them demonstrated the fluidity of their operation.

Rohan swigs on the bottle again, handing it back to Jade. They had yet to be discovered and no one seemed to be looking for the moment.

“They’re talking about seating,” Jade relays. “Something else about acoustics, which is sound, but I have no clue what a meadow render could be. Perhaps some sort of set design for a play? Whatever it is, it looks like it is for you, um, us...I think.” 

Jade frowns and moves to take the bottle from Rohan, pausing to let her hand linger over his. “How did you know you were chosen by the Dragons? You’ve told me before, and it all seemed so...beautiful and regal and Definitive. I’m afraid I’ve fallen for the poetry.”

“Oh, well...” he actually blushes this time. “It was a rush, I guess, and a heat. Like fire, literal fire. I felt called. As if there was some purpose I now had that I hadn’t before but I didn’t know what it was. Confidence, power, a rush. Honestly, talking about the second breath now it seemed kind of dangerous. I had, um- grounding. To keep me sane.”

“Grounding?” Jade presses.

“Yeah, you know. A task to perform that helps keep your head focused.” Rohan maintains his gaze on the workers below instead of Jade. He was hiding something but she wasn’t sure what.

Jade takes the bottle fully and raises it drinking deep. More than a sip, at least a full glass worth of wine. “I do not *hiccup* I do not have grounding. Mother said I should feel urgency to change, or pressure to act. Which, I do, I suppose, but nothing that is new. I do not feel any different now than I ever have. I suppose I thought I’d feel...special?”

“I’m not an expert.” Rohan admits, “Maybe you should consult the Immaculates in Port Calin.” He plucks the bottle from her and matches her swig. “I mean, maybe you exalted years ago and just never noticed.” He laughs a little at the thought, “Miss Jade, child of V’neef, too prodigious to recognise the dragon’s power flowing through her.” Then he leans up a little, striking a dramatic pose and playing with a stronger declarative voice that is nonetheless a whisper, “By degrees, our Little Jade outstrips the Immaculate Dragons! Their power is as nothing to her! Like a breeze wafting about one’s ankles it affords a chill at best!” He laughs again, handing back the bottle.

“Shhh!!!” Jade waves her hands about, trying to stifle her own giggles. She knew that if anyone devout - or with a mind for cruelty- heard even half of what Rohan just said they’d both be bound to the temple for months for daring to even jest. Her smile falters as her thoughts turn to the cruelty of Koran, who uses his position as a bludgeon. 

“Little Jade.” She searches Rohan’s face. Was he mocking her? How did he really feel? “Do you…? Rohan, am I....? Am I, uh, child, to you?” 

Rohan almost gags on his wine. “What? No! I uh, I was meaning in comparison to the mighty dragons.” He doesn’t do a good job of hiding it, but he’s deflecting. Rohan, in his heart, most likely adores Jade- but there is a sense of youth to his affections. V’neef was a young family, the newest and it probably stemmed from a regimented appraisal of a house’s worth engrained from his years of Cathak tutelage. At least it wasn’t personal, but Jade got the impression that many in the Empire likely felt the same.

“Maybe I did.” Jade concedes. “Is there a way to, gosh, I guess I want you to teach me how to ignite the tapestries in the great hall, but guise it under teaching me how to avoid doing that. This tree is probably a terrible setting, I do not want to destroy it, I just...I trust you, Rohan. I love….that you….defended,” she says slowly, “when we fought today, you shielded. You believed I could, well, I could anything.”

“It’s complicated.” Rohan offers, tapping her chin with his finger and smiling at her. “Of course you can do anything. And you’ll get this thing too, you just need to apply yourself and stop thinking of it like arcane wizards tossing about fireballs and stone golems. Sorcerers are… different to us. The dragon’s help us achieve. Their power flows through you and into the things you do. If you were, say, a soldier, it would likely manifest as some kind of superlative skill in combat coupled with discrete effects that compliment your intentions. A bureaucrat would be much the same, except their skill isn’t so easily visualised. Words could carry a heavier weight, a blade strike just a little surer; it’s not magic any more than your own thoughts are spells and incantations.” He gestures to the workers below who had made great strides in their work, such that it was difficult to tell what exactly it was that they had done.

The wild-haired firey man Jade had seen on the elephant earlier ceoms over to join the lady with the book and go over everything, asking for a few adjustments and- that there. Something shifts at the base of the tree. Jade hadn’t seen it at first because it was disguised so flawlessly, but it looked like the workers had erected some kind of soft barrier around the periphery of the tree facing towards the giant mechanical creatures. This shifting is brief, however, and as soon as it stopped moving Jade found it impossible to pick out the edges of the contraption.

“There is something down there.” Jade says, distracted from the point at hand. “A device, near the base of the tree, something hidden!”

More wine, and when Rohan leans down to look Jade takes the opportunity to slide her hand into his. 

“Something is going to happen here. Should we hide somewhere else? I am not eager to return to either family, but I do not want to cause you further trouble.” She squeezes his hand in hers, and turns to look at him directly. “I don’t want to risk losing our friendship but I’m thinking of doing something horribly reckless. I’m scared. You’re not my chaperone here in Port Calin, not technically, so...so if you want to divorce yourself from me I understand. Politically speaking. Or, I suppose you could talk me out of it, or into it...oh, oops there is that wine rushing to my head I’m using to many words.”

Rohan chuckles a little and rests his free hand on Jade’s shoulder, still giving her a little squeeze of support with his hand wrapped in hers. “Okay, take a breath and talk to me.” His smile is childish and playful, like maybe he couldn’t possibly imagine Jade doing, or even suggesting, anything so outrageous that he would fear the consequences. 

Jade takes a deep breath, and lets it out slowly. 

“I do not want to marry Koran.” Jade says directly. “No one is hearing my polite ‘no’. What do...how would you feel if I said it louder?”

“Well…” Rohan doesn’t disengage from their almost-embrace, but she can feel a consideration inside begin to distance him from her. “It would not change anything for me. My family is used to getting what it wants, so you’d need to be prepared to fight.”

“I understand that. I do not object to a marriage, just...the choice of brother.” Jade licks her lips and looks up at him earnestly. “I have fallen for more than just poetry.”

Rohan radiates desire. Nothing carnal but, like all his dreams had been made manifest before him. Still, that chasm between them opens a little wider. “I would fight for it if you wanted me to.”

((Read intentions on the chasm lol 6- Read motivation))

Rohan seems singularly focused on ensuring Jade enjoys herself to whatever extent she desired. 

“It would make us enemies.” Jade insists. “I mean, respectively, not us enemies. We’d be...together.” 

Jade raises their entwined hands up to her lips. She was terrified. Was he just saying what she wanted to hear? Ever the perfect gentleman, what about him? What did he want? Probably what she wanted. Clarity. Something said so outright and blatantly that it couldn’t be denied. Proprietary withstanding of course. 

“I want you.” Jade whispers and gently presses a kiss upon his wrist. “The way I feel would survive a duel with both houses, if you would want me in return.”

“Then it shall be.” He says back, returning the kiss to her hand. “We will be a united front and nothing shall stop us.”

Jade beams at him and nuzzles into his chest, moving her own free hand around his waist.  An unorthodox proposal but all she had thought of since the flutters had begun. 

“We will speak to your grandmother first.” Jade begins to plan. “I...feel like crying, or laughing, or both! There was something you were not saying, was this it? How long have neither of us said anything?”

“I have long contemplated that my desires might endanger you beyond what I thought tolerable, Jade. That you are aware and willing to face those dangers on your own behalf, and willing to take me with you is- simply, divine.”

Jade smiles even more. It was even worth apologising to Koran. In this instance she really should. Not a bride, or a child, but as a sister. Perhaps she should be more reserved though so as not to alarm Cathak Yu. Jade knew herself well enough that there was no intention of waiting five years between ‘tolerable’ meeting! Many children, raised with love regardless of the strength of their blood. A future of two families truly as one, and happy! Paving a way free of expectations, no social games, just…(eee!) love.
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Chapter Four

Watching the workers completely setup took several hours. The giant machines were moved to flank the assigned seating in an arcing auditorium. Each unfolding in places to reveal even more wonders within. There was no word for what Jade witnessed, and wrapped in the arms of Rohan, his warmth flowing through and around her, there were no words to even say if she could find them. 

The rest of their family contented themselves to spy from a distance, probably so as not to mingle too much with the common folk. As it stood, based on the conversations Jade overheard between the red-haired man and the woman with the book, whatever it was they were preparing for was not scheduled to begin until the next night. There was discussion about entreating with the estate holders to open up their - ‘attractions’ they called them - to the public from Port Calin but the red-haired man seemed disinclined to speak to anyone from the families and spoke rather dismissively of their Dynastic heritage. This man truly didn’t care who they were, only the trouble they could bring down on his head. 

As the sun disappears over the western horizon, the machines bloom with a light of their own. All the colours Jade could imagine sparkling before her like the constellations of the firmament have chosen to come down to creation’s floor and dance for them personally. One bottle of wine wouldn’t be enough to fully appreciate all this place had to offer but, as the hour was late it became increasingly likely they would be caught away from her rooms. 

For his part, Rohan seemed content to just soak up her presence. He wasn’t going to initiate any cessation to their truancy. 

“Could we go down and look without going back to the rooms?” She asks. “That man doesn’t seem to care about divine hierarchy, maybe we could pretend to be commoners? Oh, but what if that insults him if we’re caught?”

Jade spins back to face Rohan. “When should we speak to your grandmother? Tonight? Tomorrow morning?” She blushes, forgetting herself and seeming much to eager to begin their lives together in private. 

Jade apologises and takes a deep breath. “We should go. It’s up to you where that is.” 

“I think we’ve trespassed on the fellow’s personal space enough. Mother will be wondering where we are and Koran no doubt pitching a fit in the most affable manner he can manage.” He sweeps Jade back up into his arms. “Going back won’t be as easy as getting out though. We’ll have to go in through the front door.”

Jade bites her lip. “I can sneak if I have to. Not well, mind!” She holds on tightly in expectation of the trip down. 

Rohan doesn’t say anything, just smiles again and picks a path out of the tree’s canopy he could leap without disturbing those below. 

In moments, they are hand in hand half running, half stumbling up the garden path towards the main entrance. A pair of lanterns are lit above the main passage and standing by the door is Hershel, the manor’s senior butler. He seemed to have been waiting for them. Rohan greets him with a little mock salute and Hershel sniffs at him. Fraternising was not looked well upon by the serving staff. Many who worked here, indeed in most places Jade had visited, felt that there was a particular honour to their profession. The name of the manor, hall, or whatever establishment they tended, was the word to their own dignity. By skirting the wishes of his madam, the Matriarch, Rohan and Jade has sullied his own worth- inferring that the manor was unworthy of respect and, by extension, those who worked within it. 

It was a very telling sniff. 

Rohan stifles a chuckle. He didn’t seem immune to the effects of the wine. 

“Her ladyship will see you in the lower parlour.” Hershel practically grunts out. “Second on the left underneath the grand bannister.” He adds, directing it towards Jade. The politest scorn he could muster- being overly helpful as if she was incapable of remembering or something. 

“Thank you, Hershel.” 
Jade holds her arm out to Rohan. Was he coming with her? 

Rohan nods to Hershel and takes Jade’s arm a little more firmly. Hershel sniffs again but the pair are able to make their way inside unaccounted. 

Moving through the main foyer and around the grand staircase towards the lower parlour, Jade can hear the sounds of argumentative voices coming from behind the oaken door. 

Jade looks to Rohan with concern and tries listening in at the door. 

The voices belonged to Jade’s mother and Koran. There was disagreement on Jade’s commitment to the marriage and her Mother was trying desperately to assure Cathak Yu that Jade knew her duty and would come around in the end if she was just given the chance. She isn’t able to catch more than that as, once her mother’s voice dies down there is a brief silence followed by Cathak Yu’s voice announcing Jade’s presence. 

“And speak of the lords of hell and they will appear before you.” And old saying, and not entirely appropriate but, given her stature she could get away with it. 

Dragons help her, they were off to a smashing start. Jade squares her shoulders of pushes the doors open. “Honoured mother, Distinguished Mother Yu. I was unaware my presence was requested. I have been diplomatically engaged this afternoon.” She offers as explanation. 

The room was not as large as the other meeting places Jade had visited in the manor. An almost quaint affair with a single table at knee height and a half dozen chairs arranged around it. There were two larger lounges lining the walls, sitting on one was Cathak Yu. The older woman was leaning back very casually, one leg kicked up and folded over her other knee. She had a fan in her hand and was lightly waving it at herself. 

Jade’s mother was on the same lounge but was instead perched at its edge, like Jade was used to seeing her. So dignified. 

Koran was standing against the far wall near another doorway, but he was facing away from the group and his hand folded at the base of his back tended with every footstep Jade took into the room. 

“Don’t worry yourself, dear.” It is Yu who speaks, “Come, sit, tell me of your afternoon and the good company my grandson has afforded you.”

Jade can feel Rohan stiffen a little, but true to his word he follows Jade in stride for stride. He was not going to abandon her. Not even in the face of this. 

“I was most concerned after our meeting.” Jade begins, “I sought counsel from Cathak Tanan and Cathak Josef to steady myself as my mother suggested. Their kindness and nobility is something to aspire too. I hold hesitations, through no fault of Koran,” that was a lie, but a small affordance, “- and thought it in the best interests of both families to address the matter as soon as possible.”

She takes a deep breath. “My hesitation is gone. If our families are to be joined, I would wish to do so through the man I know has been charged with my safety. Koran does not care for me. I would marry Rohan.” 

She says it with certainty but feels terrified. It’s been said aloud in front of others. This made it more real. 

Her mother’s eyes go wide. V’neef Rose finds it hard to keep her incredulity from sparking towards her daughter. This was not at all the behaviour they had discussed and she felt a little betrayed at Jade’s stubborn refusal. 

Koran seethes over in the corner but, probably because he had been scolded and ordered to keep out of it, he doesn’t intervene. 

Yu, however, just laughs. “And shall I command the sun and moon to cease in their incessant race across the heavens as well?”

Jade opens her mouth and then hastily closes it again while mulling over the answer. 

“Yes? Moved to action, I believe you could do so if you wish. I would myself, for the happiness of those I love. I would expect as much if not greater from yourself.”

Yu chuckles which intensifies into a louder laugh. “It is gratifying to hear the fever so thick within your voice, dear. I wonder if you comprehend the implications, however. Is this rush of emotion your own or brought on you by the breath? I have no doubt you care for my youngest grandson, but have you considered the revelation of its intensity?” She smiles at Jade though, it is a self-assured one. This woman believed every word she said more completely than Jade her own name. 

“The… revelation?” Jade queries, scanning the room to look at Koran and her mother. “This feeling will persist. Perhaps the breath has only brought clarity. Koran and Rohan both would say they care for me out of familial obligation and duty, yet Koran, though upstanding in his own right, is not...well fit. A union of houses should begin on a strong foundation, and I feel disrespected by Koran. This is a better more stable path to future happiness between us all.”

“Why do you persist with this fantasy of marriage precluding love and affection? Marry Koran, provide him with the prestige of your hand and Rohan can remain unattached for your fancy.” She shrugs. It was so simple. 

“That... w-would be a-a large insult to Koran.” Jade sputters out. “I intend no disrespect or ill will and would never seek to cause such grief. Koran deserves love and affection, a gift of greater prestige and worth than any.”

“Do you honestly think he is capable of finding what you feel so ardently for his younger brother?”

“Of course.” Jade responds. This felt like a trap? (Read intentions- motivation of Yu towards Koran 4)

“He loves you, his family, most dearly. I am certain that he would choose blood over all. Were you but to release him from the perceived obligations, I am sure that the fire within him would burn even brighter for House Cathak. Why risk both families on one union? Koran and I can work as one for the benefit of all, just not, together.”

“Koran is not used to having to give up on something he had decided he would have.” She smiles, this time a little more warmly, “and homestly, neither am I. Tell me then, if Koran cannot have the Exalted scion of house V’neef as his bride to revivify his household with the blood of the Empress, long may she reign, what party shall we have to treaty with your family. Rohan is a dear, but he is no scion, I can’t well present him as fit for stewardship under his holiness, Cathak Cainan.”

“I obviously disagree with your assessment of your youngest grandson.” Jade replies and looks to Rohan. Was he still alright? “I also disagree that Koran in any way desires my hand in earnest. His love and respect for you precluded him from voicing disagreement. I do not disagree, honorable mother, just offer an unseen alternative. If Koran is unaccustomed as yourself, then...perhaps so too is the honorable Cathak Cainan, at having to compromise. Presented with honor and faith, I am sure Rohan would be accepted.” 

She purses her lips, thinking. After a moment she speaks soundlessly and rights herself on the couch. Even if she looked aged, her body had not lost an ounce of its youthful vigor. As she begins to stand, the door behind Jade clicks open and Hershel enters with a decanter filled with a sweet smelling wine and a silver tray arrayed with four glasses. 

He sets the entire affair down on the table and pours out each glass with practiced precision. Not a drop falling astray. 

Yu gingerly plucks up two glasses and rises from her seat in the same graceful motion, crossing the short distance towards Jade. She pauses again, tilting her head in consideration. “And if Cainan says no?”

“Then...I should employ the tactics I have skillfully acquired from yourself, ma’am.” Jade bows. “Have so much planned in advance that it would be foolish to do otherwise. I am a young Scion and afforded the...allowance. Cathak Cainan would not be.” 


Yu grins happily, seemingly satisfied. “Well, Koran will be most disappointed, especially after this sagacious display.” She finally hands Jade the wine glass and turns on the spot, her dresses whisking outwards a little as she waltzes back to the lounge. She gestures at the tray and Rohan and Rose snap into motion, taking a glass each. 

“To V’neef Jade.” Yu offers as a toast.

Sincerely?? Jade takes it eagarly and holds it aloft. “To House Cathak, and a blessed union.” 

Her mother, now obviously relieved joins the toast and Rohan just beams all the loving pride he can muster. Koran leaves without saying a word, only the soft ‘click’ of the door signals his absence. 

The wine was of a much older stock than Jade had sampled before, but she recognised the mellow tones of the Arjuf vineyards. Yu, wishing no more discussion of marriage or treaties instead insists that the pair sit themselves down and regale her with all their stories of young love, burgeoning feelings and the journey they have taken to get here. Any protest is met with more wine, any hesitation met with a story of her own from one of the seven husbands she had chosen to unite with. Rose, for her part doesn’t share much, she just slowly samples the wine and watches her daughter with a pride Jade hadn’t seen from her before- not this sincere anyway. 

Jade smiles brightly at her mother, already affected by the bottle shared previously. She chooses not to elaborate on to many romantic exploits- few as they were. They were still hers and Rohan’s. But eagerly presses for more from Yu on her many husbands and loves. 
Last edited by ElKovash on Tue Jul 13, 2021 1:48 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Chapter Five

Bloody Ilva was supposed to be his employee, but Sagacious Hand found himself dancing to her tunes a little too often for his comfort. I mean, sure she always made a ton of sense, and she never tried to force him to do anything he wouldn’t have eventually figured for himself but… it was the principle of the thing, surely? 

Regardless, Hand finds himself approaching the Manor to request public access to the Menagerie.

Approaching the door, he gives it a few round knocks and waits. And waits. Ten whole minutes later, the door finally creaks open to a man dressed in the local livery. A black and white affair, jacket and trousers over a crisp, white tunic that looked to have been starched into an uncomfortable, cardboard flatness. 

“Yes?” He asks. 

“Good evening,” Hand bows low, and his hat bounces down along his arm before landing in his palm with a flourish. “Sagacious Hand, pleasure to make your acquaint.” 

He raps at the side of the doorframe. “I need some official permissionaries from the higher ups. Of grand import, or I wouldn’t be calling.”

He narrows his eyes in annoyance. “His lordship is detained at the current time, you can wait if that suits you.” There is a slight pause, as if he were considering just closing the door and not letting Hand in. But he thinks better of it and instead pulls it open further and ushers Hand inside. 

The inner appearance of the Manor is both as much and more than Hand was expecting. Fabulously rich, no surface wanted for polish or shine. Anything that could be tastefully gilded was so. Massive vases flanked the main stairwell, a giant crystal chandelier hangs over the entrance way, providing illumination for the whole space. Marble stonework, art affixed to walls or just out on display behind cases of glass, or placed atop pedestals where they could be admired away from the main thoroughfare. 

At least it wasn’t gaudy. Ball-peen would probably approve if he didn’t know it was an imperial establishment. 

“This way, sir.” The butler had moved towards the right and around the stairs. When Hand follows he is shown into a little parlour. Red carpets grace its floors, shelving for some books, a lounge to recline and a small table set aside with six chairs, probably for tea or something. “I will return when his lordship is ready to receive you. Please. Do not wander.” With that, he bows and walks out, closing the door behind him. 

Right then, fair to assume another ten to twenty minute wait if the speed of the front door was any indication. Might just get out of here by mid-year...Joy. Hand sets himself to perusing the books on the shelf, lounging on the love seat and flicking through the pages. He was willing to wait for a reasonable timeframe. 

Much to his surprise, he barely had time to leaf through the first chapter of ‘Forsaken’s Folly’ when a side door to the room opens and admits a striking personage. 

The man who walks in was at least seven feet tall, broad shoulders that looked like they belonged on a labourer and the rough angular features Hand had come to recognise belonged to the citizens of the blessed isle’s more noble families. His hair was an auburn red, though the tips of it looked to glow white in the low light, casting odd shadows across his face and appearing more severe than he would under more generous lighting. 

He stops when he notices Hand lounging, like he hadn’t expected there to be anyone in the room. He doesn’t dither, though, closing the door behind him and striding across the room to seat himself opposite where Hand was. Hand knew that walk, the stiff regimented stride of a military man, it only took half a decade to become so present in the formation that it followed you wherever you went. He wasn’t armed, but probably didn’t need a weapon to kill, and would likely know a dozen or more flourishes to boot. 

The man decides that sitting wasn’t as comfortable as he wanted, agitated by Hand’s presence but too strong headed to admit he’d gone somewhere wrong or awkward. He stands, paces around the room three times and then stops, looking over Hand. 

“Who are you?”

Hand raises and waves his hand in a country greeting, fingers splayed wide. He removes three off the oversized rings and juggles them in one hand. With the still open book Hand flicks them into the pages, where they stay securely with magic. He then turns the book over and fans out the pages, showing that the rings had indeed vanished, before throwing it up in the air. When it descends he passes a swift arm past it and it vanishes too. 

“You stand witness to the Admiral of Mirage, and Prime of Prestige.” Hand puts on the stage voice to make sure the military man fully realised that, in this at least, he was not mocking any warrior of rank. Hand was the best there was in the profession, and had damn well earnt his title. Well, earnt some of them. If you rattle enough off sometimes no one notices if you slip weird ones into the introductions. 

“I am not-so-simply the astere gent who’ll be performing in the meadow. And you, sir?”

“Scion of the house.” He says back, a little terse and clipped. It was hard to tell what the man was thinking, but he was clearly agitated about something. “What are you doing in my parlour? No one announced you and I didn’t send for you.”

“The bouncer let me in.” Hand says casually as if it were a prestigious club in Nexus. “Gave me several which ways of a glare, and looks vaguely like a piebald tapir? All black, white, and round, with a rod so far up his backside I’m sure if he stands still you’d mistake him for something taxidermed.” 

Hand smiles brightly and flicks himself up to standing. “I didn’t catch his name, but I’m hoping a colourful description will suffice as he was meant to be finding me, you. I assume, of course. He parked me in your parlour while he trundled off to find the Lord of the house. I wanted to discuss some permissionaries, which you hardly seem in the mood for. Just a quick chat, and I’ll be off. Would you indulge the intrusion, sir Scion?” 

This Scion guy doesn’t take kindly to Hand’s vaguely flippant attitude. He steps in close, hips and torso all telegraphing a punch that never comes. Instead he looms in the periphery of Hand’s personal space and twists his neck one way, then the other, taking in as much of Hand as he could with wild, vociferous eyes. And then, something changes in his expression, a thought that occludes the darkness and Hand is left with a little emotional whiplash. 

“It seems you’ve been left a little cretinous of our hierarchy.” He’s suddenly all polite and gracious host, even if his choice of language was a little… colourful. “I am amiable to showing you through our propensity for hazy corridors, and instead save you perhaps the rest of your evening in pointless discussions with naught who would make an ounce of decision.” He steps aside, finally leaving Hand’s personal space and gestures to the door he entered through. “If you would indulge me, I shall spirit you to the matriarch of our abode and you can get the word of law from the divine herself.”

“Aaaaah?” Hand sways on the spot for a moment. This guys got a temper and a scarier mask over the top. So. Taking from that onslaught of syllabic intent, sir Scion didn’t have the power to make decisions? That is an interesting tidbit of information. Judging by the masked inferno underneath it wasn’t a good idea to press this guy any further. “Thanks? I appreciate it.” 

He leads Hand to the door but stands aside such that Hand would have to walk through first. The trip down the corridor wasn’t really all that long. By Hands estimation the only distance they crossed was equivalent to rounding the grand staircase into what would assumably be another parlour, twin to the one they just left. But the whole time the Scion is radiating a barely concealed intensity that Hand could feel prickling at the back of his neck. 

Somewhere, deep down, was a confidence that things would work out if it came to a scuffle. But, there was always the nascent concern of ‘what if this time?’ Hand had always scraped through even the most dire situations, and more often than not he had no idea how he’d managed it. This time was no different, something lurked just beyond his reckoning that dwarfed even the vehement anger that crowded the air around him. 

“Here.” The man says. Hand had gotten a little distracted from his counting and moved past a door on his left. The man had stopped and held a hand against the wooden frame. Once Hand turned, the man pushes through the door. It was odd to see but that mask fell once again, all the thick hatred evaporating in an instant and his motion being meek, like a cat inching its way through a threshold and testing the air beyond with its whiskers. 

The room beyond was, predictably, a parlour much like the one he had just left but this one was occupied. Two older women sat on a lounge, one teeters on the edge, perched like a bird. The other is leaning back against the cushions with one leg kicked up and crossed over the other - very relaxed. They were both dressed in some assortment of fine imperial gowns, one favouring green and the other scarlet like the Empire she swore allegiance to. 

There was a younger couple standing by the wayside, it looked like the four of them had been conversing but no one had been speaking when Hand entered so he wasn’t sure what about. They are all sharing a decanter of drink poured out into crystal glasses and it smells mostly of robust fruits and the heavy tone of wine. Not one he was familiar with though. The young lady seemed demure at first, but her almond eyes and olive skin identified her as a native from across the inland sea. Curiously, though it was woven into braids and plaits so that it rested around the middle of her back, her hair must have been several feet long at least. Her partner looked much like the man who has escorted him except younger, perhaps they were brothers. His hair swept back over his ears like the wings of a bird, while a number of curls lay across his brow that resembled the talons of some hunting bird. 

Unlike his brother, there seemed no darkness about him - either he was incredibly drunk or… 

“Excuse me, Lady Cathak Yu.” The older woman doesn’t lean forwards in the lounge but offers her gloves hand to her new visitor regardless, “and you may be?”

“The Shogun of Shenanigans, dear Lady.” Sagacious Hand bows deep until almost falling over. His nose touches the floor, but his hips never bend, so it really looks more like he just folded himself up. “You are visions of loveliness, all. I am Sagacious Hand.” He rises and takes her outstretched hand in both of his, giving it a gentle squeeze then blowing gently upon he knuckles. He meets her eyes and gives her a quick wink before gently moving to reveal a living, fluttering butterfly now resting in her palm. It’s gentle blue wings accompanied her dress perfectly. He had a white one had she been wearing blue, but it never got quite the shock of wonder. Too moth like, perhaps? 

He Watches her for a reaction, keeping mister grumpy pants in his periphery just in case. 

“Oh, a provincial gentleman.” She retorts his address. “You have the pleasure of esteemed company, Mr Hand and, as you can see have interrupted my evening. Were it not for my grandson escorting you in I may have responded to the intrusion differently.” She laughs a little and that smiles she gives him is… considering? He’s seen ladies look him over before but none so brazenly, nor so… aged… “to what do we owe this introduction?”

“Minor permissions needed, written preferably,” Hand begins waving his arms around as if by doing so it would disperse the horrid smell of paperwork. “Satrap Norim has requested the Menagerie be diverted from its usual location, but doing so means a further walk for the citizens of Port Cailen. I’m here to request public access.”

Should he go for it? Yeah, why not. “If House Cathak would like a more private show, I’m sure I could provide an evening of pleasure in these, your unique and intimate settings.”

“That might be worth considering.” She glides to standing, “follow… me…” she does a little twirl and strides away to the other door, wine glass still in hand. The butler from earlier appears out of some hidden entryway as soon as she nears the door so he could open it for her. 

The rest of the group don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. 

“I saw the Menagerie setting up.” Jade looks to Koran over the rim of her wine. How was he faring? Insulted? Relieved? Upset? “It seems like quite a large affair. What is the special occasion set for tomorrow night?”

((3 success, daamn))

Koran appears the regal, stone-faced warrior that Jade imagines most people see when they regard him. He does seem to notice her attention though, his eyes briefly returning her gaze and lingering a little longer than Jade’s glance does. She could feel him watching her for the moments afterwards, but the next time she spares him a look, he is back to standing at attention with his eyes fixed on some invisible spot on the wall.

Jade feels incredibly awkward. She looks to her mother. Should she apologise to Koran or not? She had been told not to gloat, and jade feared anything she would say could be taken as further insult. Accustomed as they were to getting their way, Jades efforts has been well received. 

“Is Lady Cathak coming back?” Jade whispers. “She just twirled and left with that handsome...lord?” She’s not sure what to call him, but Shogun was out of the question!

“No.” Rose says, curtly. “I think we should all retire and leave the madam to her own business.” She spare Koran a glance but doesn’t linger. “Come, Jade.” She takes her daughter by her hand and begins to lead her away from Rohan and his brother. 

“Yes, mother.” Jade places the glass on the table and bows farewell to the two brothers, lingering on Rohan. 

Meanwhile, Sagacious Hand finds himself standing awkwardly at the door to Lady Yu’s room. She had brought him to a sitting room that looked more like a study for papers, business and…

“Come, Come.” She says, waving him over to the desk, she produces a parchment and fussed over which quill she wanted to use (she had sixteen). Eventually she settles on one absurdly long one, the feather all black and glistening in the low lamplight, it’s tip ovular and looking roughly patterned like an eye staring at him even as it swishes about. “You wanted some paperwork?”

“Mm, public access.” Hand repeats and sits on the desk beside her, lifting a hand out to stroke the quill. “Gorgeous...but, yes, something written so that my people can talk to your people and the Port Kay authorities. If you felt like generously loaning some carriages to the populace I’m sure it’d go down a treat?” He asks hopefully, then drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “Not sure how much luck I can push, so I’ll take what I can get.” 

She giggles at him, watching his hand trace the soft vanes of the feather. “I think you could push your luck pretty far.” She begins to scratch out a letter to the governor who would answer to the Satrap and liaise between the household and the civil government. Her writing lingers on every curl of a letter. Languishes along each line of her calligraphy. The pen strokes move like a sweeping dance across the page.

Hand could imagine himself moving to the rhythms of the penmanship. A swooping line like running his hand along her arm. A staccato tapping of punctuation like rapid, passionate kisses. A curl like cupping her breasts. A long line like slowly lifting his shirt over his head. Image after image, passion after passion until- her pen taps the end of the message and Hand is ripped from the revelry of his fantasy a few moments before it crested its crescendo. Feeling himself a little short of breath, he couldn’t help but notice the satisfied look on Yu’s face as she lifted a well and let the thick wax ooze over its lip and drip down onto the base of the parchment. She smiles wider with a flick of her eyes to his crotch and the tightening of his pants. 

“Are you okay, Mr Hand? You look flushed.”

Hand is not sure how to react, having only a moment to briefly consider the options. He could try to collect himself, and brush it off, but he was feeling the vibes of the household where everything was barely concealed. He was that unique oddity, rare and exotic. Concealing things in this household would be mundane, and he couldn’t think of anything worse than that. 

Hand lets out a breathy shudder, visible and obvious. He was someone who held no importance to her or threat, really. So no harm he could see in going further. 

“I found myself enraptured by your rhythm, Lady Yu. Such ease and grace, would you dare to tutor me? I’d strive to match you, stroke for stroke.” He licks his lips and picks up one of her spare quills, a long and tufted thing. He touches it to her lips, and slowly, softly, trails it along her cheek and towards the exposed collarbone. 

“I’m afraid I’m a slow learner. Should I close the door to contain the sounds of fervent study?”

The absolutely comical look of faux shock and outrage would have made Hand laugh, it it weren’t for the sharp nib of her quill pressing up into his throat. “Why, Mr Hand- I think you have gotten the wrong idea. I couldn’t possibly… you can’t meant to think…?” Her free hand clasps the feather he had trailed down her cheek and plucks it from his hand, leading him away from her desk with the sharp implement. In a few stumbling strides he found his back to the wall, a slight sting on his neck as the nib bits down just a fraction. She whirls around, that playful laughter again, sounding this time a mite more menacing than last. Her twirl takes her back to the desk, and she fiddles with a few of the rings on her hand, plucking them free and fitting them together to form her seal before pressing it down into the cooling wax. 

“Content yourself with the permissary writ you came for.” She says, sliding it up off the desk and holding it out to him.

“Content? No.” Hand rubs at his neck gingerly before reaching out to take the letter. “Disappointed, yet respectful. Thank you, Lady Yu.”

“A word of advice, shogun-” she chuckles at the title, “-she is a jealous sort and won’t have you cavorting so freely.”

Hand tilts his head inquisitively. “Who’s a jealous sort?”

She smiles mysteriously, waving to the door. A pair of guards step through and make motion to lead him away by the arms if necessary. “Long may she reign.”

Jade and her mother make it to her rooms, pausing in the hallway momentarily to see the Sagacious Hand being muscled back towards the grand stairway, slipping the grip of the guards each time they tried to grab him but following along without protest otherwise.

The rest of the evening is spent with her Mother talking Jade through several court traditions and preparing her for her inevitable presentation. Some congratulations on her handling of Cathak Yu and somewhere in there tucked an apology for doubting her, and a commitment to let her spread her own wings and flaunt the edge of the nest. Just the edge, mind, Rose was not yet fully committed to letting Jade go entirely. 
Last edited by ElKovash on Tue Jul 13, 2021 1:48 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Chapter Six

The next morning, Hand is tasked to oversee some parade of the populace from Port Calin. Ilva’s messengers had moved quickly in the night and there was a great procession of attendees already milling about the fields outside the Cathak estate grounds. The imperial guards were doing most of the heavy lifting when it came to filtering his custom however, and the crowds are parted to allow several rich carriages through first. 

Hand rubs at the back of his neck, thinking. He really wished that the Crane was ready, but that mechanical monster kept encountering technical difficulties. It was never going to be easy to build a three-level tall moving automata, but the cables for the wings just never seemed to work out right. Adjustments had to be made for fluctuations in temperature, weight distribution, and all manner of things Hand himself didn’t have the head for. The upshot, if one looked at it optimistically, was that enough rumors of the automata being haunted or cursed had circulated that he could plan a ghostly theme if he wanted with minimal effort. If the idea was already present in the audience, if they were already thinking about it, all he had to do was provide some narrative clues to follow through.

Of course, the downside was the need to overcome all that if he wanted to push any other theme.

The Pachyderm of Patient Prosperity was Sagacious Hand’s home, the only set piece that was officially his to sleep, lounge, plan, and play in. Hand dresses from the ‘offensive level six’ rack, and goes upstairs to the top of the Pachyderm to better survey the crowd. He spots Striking Ballpeen having breakfast on his own caravan rooftop, and takes a couple of striding leaps to dexterously sail through the air and land beside him.

“Pretty nice turn out,” Hand begins. “We’re going to start slow, let them mill a bit closer and get the Spider and Qilin moving. Apparently ‘Brasia has some new recipe for the smoke she wants to test out, cinnamon scented- can you imagine? Got a sister up north apparently, so the excess stock of Sijanese apples can be spent, and we’ll swap out for the Cailen grapes for the next show.”

Hand does a twirl on his heel for his longtime friend and associate. His personal tailor since puberty, he trusted his advice on a level only rivaled by Ylva. “I’m rocking your red’s today. Vermillion, Crimson, and a splash of poppy. I’ll switch out to the purples for the grape days. Do you want to come check out the personage? I heard of a place by the docks renowned for wrapping the rice in sea salt and weeds. We’ll be back by midday show, I’m just hoping to incorporate a little more of Calin into the work, you know? Make it personal.”

Striking Ballpeen is mid-attempting to take a bite when Hand first addresses him. It looked like he had assembled some greasy morning meal out of some fried meat, egg, and potatoes sandwiched between thick slices of roasted bread. It slops grease onto his plate each time he shifts it to take a bite. Hand’s cadence and rhythm leaves no room for Ballpeen to answer, but keeps lulling him into the notion that he should. When Hand finally finishes, Ballpeen just takes a large bite of his meal in protest, chewing it loudly at his employer.  

Hand gasps in melodramatic indignation and takes a seat. “Good morning, by the way.”

Ballpeen busies himself with several more bites of his breakfast before bothering to give Hand a response. 

“Right, so. Yes, okay, I guess, if you say so, the reds are a good choice, if you think switching to the purples for ‘grapes’ of all blasted things is what you wanna do them I’m sure as cythera’s tit not gonna stop you, why not? And, Calin is a rough spot for your sort so take a couple of the labour boys to keep you outta trouble, yeah?”

He bites into his breakfast again, chomping away. 

“Pffft, I’ll be fine.” Hand scoffs at the suggestion. “What, they got something about redheads on the docks? Oh, shit, they just might, eh? I know some tales from the Inland Sea, something about red headed women scaring away the Storm Mothers. But, a port city means a beach, and last time we swept through here it rained for five days. If the weather holds I’m gonna go check it out, and I don’t need chaperones, I need my best man. Open invitation.”

He finishes his meal as Hand talks, sucking the stray yolk and grease from his fingers before picking up his sweatcloth to wipe his mouth clear. “You’re a damned fool, is what I think. But, I have an old friend I’d been meaning to go visit.” Rising from his seat, Ballpeen clutches his cloak and swings it over his shoulders, fastening the buckle even as it settled around his body. “He doesn’t take kindly to prissy sorts like you, so, it’d be good to have you along, keep ‘im on the back foot.”

Hand smiles and pats an excited beat out on the desk. 

“I’m not sure if you meant prissy fabulous or prissy pristine, it feels borderline insulting, so give me the signal and I’m outta your hair.” His eyes drift to ballpeens baldness. “Figuratively speaking.”

He stands, preparing to make arrangements with the ground crew for the planned 2-3 hour slow burn and full kick off at midday. It looked easier to ride than try to walk or carriage. Just a quick trip, no tarrying, or it would throw off the whole schedule. Stupid re-location. He’d need to get the Murakan geldings, strong and sturdy. Hand had tried riding smaller breeds but they always tired quickly. Ballpeen suggested that they couldn’t heft anything the size of Hands ego. Ballpeen was, at heart, a low-key asshole. Hand, at heart, fucking loved him. 

Other than the lack of promontory walls, Port Calin is as much like Lokshy as any other major city Hand had visited. It held a complicated history and the attitudes and vices of its people tell them like the pages of a good novel. 

Centuries ago, the Kingdom of Calin had been a tributary of the Realm and all that had entailed. But, three hundred years ago they had achieved independence from the Scarlet Empire and joined the Confederacy of Rivers. The ceding from the imperial throne hadn’t taken a war. Some agreement had been struck between the Satrap of the time and the Magistrate court that allowed the bloodless transfer of power to a local military commander and a council of nobles. Though the ‘shogun’ was a fairly symbolic position and held little in the way of actual, temporal power it had become a source of great pride and vindication to the general populace that they were treated as a celebrity of the highest calibre.

The Cathak manor was a relic from those centuries past and, so long as the Realm made no aggressive motions to the kingdom the family was tolerated. In reality, there would be little the Kingdom could do about them even if they wanted to, risking a full armed conflict and undoing hundreds of years of libertary traditions simply wasn’t worth it. The Cathaks mostly kept to themselves and acted as a convenient depository for any young Calinites that showed signs of the dragon’s breath. Rumor had it that the council routinely purged its storied historical records to erase any connection of lineage between Outcastes and Calin’s ruling classes. It wasn’t the craziest conspiracy, but it was just a rumor.

Port Calin was laid out in sweeping streets that curled around the natural rises in the land as it backed away from the ocean cliffs. Accessing the docks required descending a carved subway that sloped down through the rock walls of the promontory. Huge shafts had been sliced into the rock face such that descending the subway featured scenic views of the warehouses and tall sailed ships gently waving to the tide’s currents. An ancient magic had been worked over the window arches that allowed the passing of air and breeze but obstructed passage by creatures.

The buildings of the capital showed the slow inching towards progressive styles fighting against a more conservative tradition of maintaining heritage sites and structures wherever possible. Exiting the subway from the docks one would be met with the merchant’s quarter. Modern stone businesses lined promenades where the clean lines were broken haphazardly by more ancient handworked reliefs. It was hard to escape the immaculate iconography. 

The Farquarter sloped up towards the northern flats and overlooked the ocean. Many of the richer nobles and visiting dignitaries called it home, their estates each stretching into every available space. The promenade running across the length of the quarter served as a favoured spot for the citizenry to gather for recreational activities; meeting along the parks and trails that stretched on from its eastern edge. A monastery was also maintained here but the monks who dwelled there lived more insular lives than the itinerants that graced many other parts of the Riverlands. 

On the southern edge of the Merchant’s quarter rises a series of plateaus that served as the city’s government district. Traditionally referred to as Dragon’s Roost, the upper echelons of the city diplomatically refer to it as the Royal Quarter to avoid offending any guests they may be entertaining, however. A fort that is the city’s oldest building, more ancient than even the stonework in the lower city left behind by the Empire’s artisans, peaks the rise and stands indomitable above the whole sprawling metropolis. The entire building is said to be wrought from a single, huge stone, or even carved directly from the rising cliff itself. Regardless of the truth, there is no brick or brace evident anywhere in the entire fort. It now serves as a modest palace for the Kingdom’s military lord and thus has no strategic value whatsoever.

The merchant road that lead into the eastern side of the city is hemmed by a wall that stretches no further than sixty feet in either direction. As the only main road wide enough to commute anything larger than a single person, the extended defence is not necessary. The tight alleys and dense urban sprawl of the Merchant quarter serves as deterrent for anything worth taxing from entering.

Ballpeen sits a little awkwardly on his gelding. His back had been bothering him recently and he was showing signs of getting worse. Too stubborn to admit his age might be getting the better of him, Hand could suspect that he’d reach some crisis point and give in, attempting his darndest to subtly confer with Ylva for medical aide without letting on to anyone else. The guard at the gate isn’t kind enough not to comment, which earns him a couple silvers stamped into his helm by Ballpeen’s boot. 

Once they were inside, Ballpeen makes a beeline towards an establishment he had obviously frequented in the past. A small ‘hole in the wall’ pub serving exactly one drink. It smelled heady and thick, almost sweet if it wasn’t for the bitter sting to it. Thick and black with a dull amber froth crowning the top of the glass. Ballpeen orders two, and they are slid over to him but he makes no motion to offer one to Hand. 

“So what did you want to accomplish on this errand of yours, anyway?” He says, taking a long draw from his first glass, almost completely downing it. 

“Don’t need to accomplish anything,” Hand replies, looking around at the interior of the pub. “See the sights of the city, fall for the tourist shit, fail to get mugged- the usual. Just wanted to do it early in the morning, preferably with you before some noble tries to steal you away tonight with a thousand pieces of silver. Which I don’t mind, take whatever contracts excite you, I’m just feeling particularly clingy and wanna make sure I’m meeting all your needs.”

Hand waves dismissively. “Don’t make it weird, man, I just mean I wanna see you happy.”

Ballpeen narrows his eyes, staring at Hand intently. He polished off the first glass and then begins to chug down the second, his eyes maintaining contact with Hand’s the entire time. Once he’s done, he lets out a belch and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. 

“You running from something, lad?”

“What? No.” Hand replies sternly. Was he? Hand feels compelled to now examine all his life choices. “No. Just had a run in with the BloodyBlood’s last night and wanna not be ‘that guy’. I wholly admit to being a self -centred prick at times, but their shits on another level.”

“What kind of run in?”

“Scion of House up in my face, I’m waiting for a punch that didn’t come then suddenly the gates slammed closed on it all, and I’m getting a tour of the estate and introduced to his grandmother. Murderous rage with a tablecloth thrown over it. Grandmother giving mixed signals like it’s a weird game where she can kill me anytime she wants and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Weird power trips. Weird comment about someone being a jealous sort, and ‘cavorting freely’, and it’s enough to put me on edge. I’m not running, just have an urge to not be where I’m supposed to be. I wanted to get a lay of the land and people here in case things get...I dunno, creepy?”

“Oh right. No problem, then.” He shrugs off the glare and returns to smiling. He slings and arm around Hand’s shoulder and leads him away from the dive and down the sunny promenade. “You see, I had a feeling you were gonna go weird on me. You know I can’t stand the shit you get into. But as long as it’s just the fuckin’ Realm you’ve got gunning for you this time, I’m sure it’ll all turn out alright. Okay?”

“I do not get into shit,” Hand protests. “Name one time where it was actively my fault?”

“Two words, Great. Forks.”

“Fuck. You. Would you look at that? Another two words!” Hand slips on a pair of tinted glasses as the wind picks up, causing his cheeks to redden considerably. It was the wind, dammit. “Where’s your friend at? Noticeably absent for those two pints you sculled.”

“Alright, alright. No need to get all tetchy.” He makes a grand gesture towards the sea. “He’ll be grubbing about down at the docks. Not like to be up at this hour like most of the bilge rats. But let’s not talk about him for now when we’d got a nice sunny walk ahead of us, yeah?”

The pair of them shoot back and forth for the rest of the saunter down the promenades and into the subway. There were plenty of other people about, milling on the roads and picking through the merchant wares. The docks are a sprawling mass of warehouses, cheap inns, food dives, and muck filled streets. Ballpeen continues leading Hand around, occasionally stopping at an establishment to ask a few questions and then move on to another and ask more. It’s nearly an hour of searching before they come to a run-down stable that doesn’t look like it’s seen use in years. Ballpeen kicks the door open and wanders inside. 

The roof is in tatters, the light of the morning sun beaming down in shafts. The shadows cast by what is left of the structure create pools of inky blackness scattered about the floor. Ballpeen tests the supports before exploring too much, but decides it seemed sound enough and plumbs its depths. The stalls are all empty save for one in the rear, the muddy ground left by rotted straw and dirt stinging Hand’s nose. 

“Stitch.” Ballpeen calls out to a man sprawled in the muck, not wanting to get too close. “Stitches, you still alive you rotten pirate?”

“Stitch? You’re the Thresholds greatest tailor in centuries and you got a mate named Stitch?” Hand tiptoes around the supports carefully. “I’m a Glass house over here, throwing stones with ‘Hand’, but that’s pretty funny.”

 Ballpeen just gives Hand one of those ‘don’t you fucking start with me’ looks and snatched up a discarded bucket that had collected rain from a few nights ago. Tossing it at the body, the cold water sloshes over Stiches and the man jerks up to sitting, spluttering and cursing. 

“What in the hells was that for!?” Hmm. Hand notices that Stiches has a very similar accent to Ballpeen. 

“Get up you reeking dungheap, bath’d do you good.”

Stiches shakes his head, trying to get the wet hair from his eyes and peers through the dirt at Ballpeen and Hand. “Who’s the fruit?”

“Don’t you mind him. Get the fuck up.”

Hand stands back and watches silently, trying to pick up where the accent might be from. He knew Striking Ballpeen spent a lot of tears round Lookshy, but that place was such a melting pot accents tended to slip and merge over time. 

He didn’t really have much to say if offer, but was curious about the unseen side to his friend. 

The man finally picks himself up and tries to dust himself off, but kind of just manages to get the grime cakes on his clothes smeared a little more. What he was wearing looked like it may have once been fairly decent stock from a store, perhaps something a gutter criminal might buy to make themselves look the part of an upstanding sort. Ballpeen has an eye for fine craftsmanship but Hand had known him over two decades now and hadn't once seem him dress up in his own cloth, always preferring just large comfortable tunics and coats. 

For all his experiences, Hand hadn’t met many people who talked like Ballpeen. Whatever the accent was it seems ingrained pretty deeply, never seeming to budge even surrounded by others who spoke with more refined articulations. 

“Is this about that debt I owe ya?”

“What’s it look like? I come all the way down here, in the filth and shit you call home, and I’m gonna offer you a pint? Catch up on old times?”

Stiches laughs, “yeah, I’m rolling in it right now, Balls.”

Ballpeen sniffs, “Yeah. Rolling in something alright.”

“Fuck you, Balls.”

“You passed out drunk, pissed yourself and chucked up what looks to have been a fine dinner.” Ballpeen gestures to the sick Hand had smelled but not noticed amongst all the other grime. “Looks like you had a good night, even if it ended in the same sorry crap you always do. So I want me silver, and I want it now.”

Stitches checks both of them with his eyes. Hand knew that look, he was likely to try and run. 

Must be a fair amount of silver, thinks Hand, for Ballpeen to press it. Then again, Hand was pretty sure there was a general ‘ask Hand’ protocol with the Menagerie. It’s not like Ballpeen would be short of cash. Which lends itself to being the principle of the thing. 

“Wouldn’t try it.” Hand warns. He still wasn’t sure the level to which this concerned him. Guy seemed down, but it sounded like chronic bullshit. 

He puts his hands up to protest his innocence and then, he moves. The grimy bandit was fast, faster than Hand had seen anyone that wasn’t, well, him. He ducks into the frame of the stall and pushes off it, hopping from wall to wall until he was a level above them and darting off through the rafters. 

“Whoa!” Hand whoops a bit in excitement. He’d never seen it from this angle. “Did you know he could do that?!”

“Yeah, yeah.” He waves at Hand, “go and get him!”

“Him, or just whatever’s in his pockets? Cause I’m 80% on the way to offering the sod a job.” Hand asks. He wasn’t sure if he could let the guy get to much of a head start, Stitches knew the area better than he did. Unless he took the promenade, Hand had already got the cast of the shadows there.

Hand makes his way up the same path stitches did and pushes upwards through the rafters to balance upon the beam. His shoes were handcrafted by Ballpeen. Sturdy yet flexible, soft yet waterproof, and best of all- designed primarily for the stage and making minimal noise. Stitches didn’t know who Hand was. So he wouldn’t be expected a fruit ninja.

The building was, despite appearances, extremely stable. Stitches makes his way across what was left of the beams, but Hand was better at taking the unseen paths. Ducking up and over the broken slating that would have made up the roof, Hamd is able to shortcut around the beams and with just a tinge of risk, slaps down onto the loft floor a good few seconds before Stitches could get there. 

There was a ladder leaning up against the loft door that could take him to the ground, a door that lead out towards the rafters where Stitches would likely be coming in and a few holes in the floor that had been hastily patched over. 

Hand kicks the ladder down with the heel of his boot. Nope, no secret slide down allowed. 
He looks at the holes in the floor, considering. He didn’t want to hurt the guy, they were pretty high up. But how do you slow down someone as fast as him?

Probably, by impressing him.

Hand takes a moment to pop his collar up dramatically, aware that his mark would be entering the scene where seconds prior Hand and he has been on the ground. Cool, nonchalant, and collected. Hand didn’t run up here, he wanted to appear as if he just willed himself up in disregard of the laws of space. 

((Respect commanding attitude lol))

Hand looks down at his fingernails, inspecting the quicks while he waits for the eternity he wants it to seem Stitches took to catch up. 

The filthy man scrambles in through the doorway and almost bowls Hand over, like he wasn’t watching where he was going. He catches himself before he collides with Hand and stumbles backwards, falling on his rear and staring up in disbelief. “What.. the.. fu-?”

“Hey, how ya doing?” Hand replies casually and leans over, resting his arm on his knees in a squat over the man. 

“You’re pretty spry considering you just woke up. Ever wonder how you’d track if you were running on a good night's sleep? I could lay on either a hard of soft sell, but I’d rather cut to the part where I’m offering you a bath, a meal, and a legal pay check. You gonna listen, or give me some morning cardio?”

Stitches continues gawking. “You… what? I…” he tries to collect himself, scrambling up to standing and backing away from Hand. “Whatever he’s paying you, I can double it- triple!”

“Triple?” Hand pauses pretending to consider it. “Why pay me when you could just pay your friend? How much do you owe?”

He glances away, that didn’t seem like information he was keen on sharing. “What does that matter to you, either you’re rich or just a paid hound. What’ll it be?”

“How much is rich?” Sagacious Hand asks seriously. “When I was little, it was seeing people eating whatever they wanted. Clean clothes. Soft bed. The paid hound sentiments a bit too binary. I’m going to choose rich, because it makes things quicker, in the end all you’ve really got of value is time.”

Hand stops philosophising. “I think this spun in an odd direction. I was offering you a job, and now you’re trying to buy me off. It’s weird. You don’t want to share the shady shit you’re in, fine. But how about you get to telling me what your triple rate of pay would buy me?”

He scoffs. “I got the capital that makes kings look like beggars, kid. You say how much he’s paying you, and I can guarantee my triple rate blows your fucking mind.”

“So you’re going to give me that for what, letting you leap off the roof?” Hand asks skeptically. “For letting you go? Or is that the roughing up price?”

Hand steps closer, still pretending like he was considering it, but generally intrigued what this guy was into. A surreptitious rifle through the pockets should give some clue. 

((9 success))

Despite Stitches’ general awareness of the grift, Hamd is too well practiced lifting from even the most paranoid of customers for his illusions. A pat down and passing inspection benefits him a small packet of powder and a long silver needle. 

Ballpeen finally joins them, panting a little as he had been forced to clamber up the packing crates and shimmy around the rafters. Stitches immediately backs up, casting a glance towards the exit and the lack of a ladder to ease his descent. 

“I’ve had enough of fucking chasing you, Stitches. Gimmie the silver and you can just walk away.”

“I don’t have it, Balls, sold it years ago. Paid for some fucking good wine, I tell ya.”

Ballpeen scowls, “Bullshit Stitches, no way you didn’t keep it just to fucking piss me off.”

Hand is going to palm it and gesticulate so Ballpeen can see it, bringing him in on the grift. 

“I’ve been offered triple what you’re paying me. That’s certainly...a number. Care to counter, or am I following Stitches now? Maybe finally solve the mystery of your accent?”

Ballpeen is about to answer when there is a rumble in the air. The ground and building shudders as something immense passes by. The sun shafts blink out one by one, a huge shadow crossing over the top of them as the world shakes. 

Their quarrel almost immediately forgotten, Ballpeen and Stitches lean out around the building's broken roof to take a look. Stitches is quiet, but instantly ducks back into the loft and huddled in the corner. Ballpeen just swears a foul oath and gestures to Hand. 

“We got trouble, Hand.”

Leaning out to take a look, Hand can see an enormous contraption floating past through the sky. It looked like the underside of a ship, keel and hull shaped like a pointed arrow. From his vantage beneath it, it was hard to see what kept it aloft, but it groaned through the air like the sound his menagerie made when it whirred into motion. Scarlet Red, sporting the insignia of the Imperials, and bristling with what looked like ballista poking from hatches in its hull; what else could it be?

“We should get back, leave the low life to his mess. I can rough him up later.” Ballpeen looks really spooked, but not as much as Stitches. They both clearly recognised it, whatever it was. 
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Chapter Seven

The morning started slow, but as the hours pass and the sun travels west, the activity of the staff begins to intensify to the point where the normally invisible teams begin spilling out into occupied areas. 

Jade had waited most of the morning to unite with Rohan again, but something always came up that demanded her attention. Some discussion on her future plans for the magisterial postings, an opinion sought over a cascade of dresses for her cousin, her mother fussing over what could turn into wedding plans and the best rearing schools for young Dynasts to attend on the isle. It was like getting the approval of Yu had suddenly thrown her life into fast forward and there was so much left in decided that suddenly required her immediate attention. 

When the pair finally do meet, it is in the luncheon grounds. The first sky Jade had seen all morning, they picked away at several extravagant platters under a small canopy tent while the horses were tested and trained in the paddock adjacent. 

Rohan seems worse for wear, like he had received a similar cavalcade of important business needing his attention. He was less suited to those kinds of matters, however. There was a small pleasure in watching him be set upon by two of his female cousins, pressing for details on policy that he had no means of fully understanding. His glance to Jade with a pleading face signalled her time had come to intervene. 

“Rohan,” Jade calls. “The morn grows late. Will you take me riding? You did promise.”

That was her charge for having thrashed the Cathak boys in the games. Truly, she had only suggested it as a way to spend more time with Rohan. Simple little things that, as a guest, were unfamiliar to her. A different style of buckle, that would mean he’d have to hold her securely to make adjustments. A different terrain, so they would have to ride slower to compensate, allowing more time to linger in his presence. Small touches, small glances, and gratefully now no longer necessary as the only contact. Riding would no longer be an excuse, but singularly enjoyable. 

He pulls himself away from his cousins and pardons himself from at least four more who try to intercept him on his way over to Jade. 

“This is a different experience.” He admits, hand on her back as they walk away from the pavilion and towards the meadow. “Thank you for saving me.”

“It is no different than the training at the House of Bells,” Jade insists at a whisper. “When one is approached unsolicited, the first thing one must do is determine if they mean harm. Beyond that, one then watches for an opening, should one wish to seize the moment and strike first.”

She slides closer to him, enjoying the hand on her back. “Which is tragically awful. I am sorry. Please do not try to master the art, I fear the dance forms calluses in the heart.”

Jade hopes that it doesn’t end that way for her. 

“Shall I abandon the sword as well, then?” He jokes, “Mars save me, I would be rightly useful then wouldn’t I?” Rohan had a habit of invoking the names of gods in her presence. The faith was not compulsory in the Empire but the separation of church and state was not so clear cut and heresies tended to be frowned upon, even minor ones. “A hardened heart so I couldn’t feel, and hardened hands such that my touch would be as rough as Koran’s demeanour.” He shakes it off and pauses to open a gate of Jade to step through first.

The field they had crossed into wasn’t where the mounts were being trained - too dangerous for persons now as significant as they - but a quick whistle and wave from Rohan has one of the stablehands trotting off to go fetch their steeds. Jade had left Falcon in Arjuf as the trip across the inland sea would have been a difficult upset for the southern bay. It had been a gift from some distant aunt, whom Jade had heard was a Mnemon, that had been fed some kind of alchemical draught that had slowed its aging to more closely match a growing Dynast. The pair had practically grown up together and the natural intelligence and hot bloodedness of the southern breeds made it a fine companion for someone as frenetic as Jade. 

Rohan’s personal steed was stabled here, however. Stouter than the kind Jade was used to, its breed was a mix from one of the Dragon Steeds common to the eastern blessed isle and a southern mare. It’s flank and head were broad, but it’s neck and legs were lithe and toned. Other examples of the breed were prone to accidents if they were risen too hard or far so, despite their speed it was not the kind of horse that saw much practical use. Rohan seemed to love it though, taking care of it. He had once said that it was his own self-imposed training to emulate Heseish. 

It takes a few minutes to saddle and bridle but Jade and Rohan has barely enough time to finish their conversation before their horses arrived. The stablehand leading them had picked out a little, sorrel gelding for Jade. Rohan swings himself up onto his horse and brings it around, waiting for Jade to be ready. 

Jade puts her hand out to the attendant to hold, as she pushes herself up and into the saddle. She wasn’t as athletically inclined as Rohan, and though she could ride beautifully, it was always getting on and off the horse that caused difficulties. She thanks the man and gives a flick for the gelding to slowly move forward. 

“I believe whatever event is happening in the meadow will not be until late afternoon. Would you want to show me further afield? Any other secret arbors?”

“Sloping hills.” He says with a wide smile, “Far as the eye can see.” He kicks his horse into motion and Jade finds herself needing to urge her own mount harder. 

Clearing the estate’s rear fields they enter into the hunting grounds, a heathland popular with several bird species that make pleasant eating. The horses canter through the soft ground, largely covered with grasses, and patches of shrubs and weeds. Flocks of pheasant take wing as the pair pass by their feeding grounds, a colourful fluttering of wings surging around in the air. Rohan points out a few quail, clinging hard to the ground and not taking wing like their larger kin. Once they had ridden for a good hour, they crest a large hill and Rohan wheels his horse about, pulling it to a stop and hopping down. He helps Jade down and flicks the horses’ reins around a short post to keep them from wandering off.

Rohan takes Jade’s hand and leads her a little further, gesturing out with his hand at the eastern countryside. The hills continues for miles, trees and other dry brush becoming more frequent. He points out what looks like a few farms taking space along the distant hills, just before the air grew too thick to see through. He had watched these people claim the land years ago and had tracked their progress taming more and more of it as the years rolled by. He explains that the  hill they were on marked the farthest edge of the Cathak land. Posts, like the one he had tied the horses to, formed a dotted line across their border and stretched for miles in each direction. But, the best he had saved for last. 

Turning Jade back around, he holds his cloak up around her shoulders to protect her from the wind. Gazing back down the foothills to the west shows a land that gradually stooped down to give way to the sea beyond. She could see everything from here. The hunting grounds, the fields, the manor, the road meeting up with the merchant’s passage. Port Calin stretched out the length of her palm before the sea took over the rest of the horizon. Tiny black dots like ants scurried about the roads and streets she could see from here, tiny white shapes flapped about in the bay that must have been the sails of ships vying for passage into the docks. She could see the coast stretch down towards the south, following the line to her right and disappearing at the edge of sight.

Rohan beams down at her. A face full of adoration. But, something shifts. He looks past her and down towards the city. Following his eyes Jade turns and sees it too. Peeking over the lip of the horizon was a large dark shape. A blob of darkness wavered a short distance below it, which must have been its shadow? It was flying. It was large. Over the course of a minute it gets larger in their vision and soon they can make out the whole shape - three large cylinders like stretched eggs flanked by two pairs of wings stretching from the sides and base of its body. Neither of them had seen it in person, but they had learned about it in their various studies at the spire- The Utmost Pledge of Victory. The largest, most powerful artifact of the time before in the whole Realm. The flagship war craft of the Empress’ own fleet of airships. It had not been deployed in the last hundred years and was never seen fielded unless the Empress herself… They had probably ought to get back as soon as possible.

“...” Jade looks to Rohan, the very core of her gripped by awe and terror. 

Why was it deployed? Was the Threshold surrendering? Or worse, had tensions escalated and full scale war imminent?
And now that she drew second breath, would she be expected to fight?!

Jade runs towards her gelding. 

Thundering back down the slopes, the pair can see the Pledge making it way inland, passing over the city and slowing as it reaches the manor. They arrive in a rush, slipping down from their horses and quickly handing them to the stablehand so they could respectfully hurry across the lawn towards the household. 

A congregation of servants led by Yu and other major players of the Cathak house are arrayed in wait near the entrance to the house. The V’neef visitors scramble to prepare themselves for reception but the shadow of the massive artifact slowly spreads its chill across the entrance meadow and porch before they are able to assemble. 

Six platforms clatter into place around the airship’s rim followed by the creaking of tightly bound rope, and steel grinding on steel. The platforms descend and touch down softly against the manicured lawn and gravel pathway holding aloft five scales of troops, the final carriage conveying a regal assembly of six, seven servants tasked with carrying the wide train of the robes belonging to the final personage. 

Standing at six feet, her entire body engulfed by what looked like twenty layers of scarlet cloth, a mantle, and headdress that arched upwards adding another foot to her size; The Scarlet Empress herself stood before the gathered Cathak head family. 

Arrayed around her, three to each side, is two personal bodyguards in Jade armor, two winglords dressed in full, formal military regalia, and two monks in the finest of robes that their ascetic vows would allow.

Everyone bows. 

Jade bows. She thinks her eardrums might burst from the pounding of her heart. 

It’s hard to see what transpires from her bowed position, but Jade can at least hear the clear and commanding voice of her Empress, and the equally direct responses from her retinue. 

“I don’t see V’neef’s colours.”

“They are still inside, your grace.”

“That one isn’t. Bring her here.”

Jade hears the tromp of boots approaching her. 

Jade tentatively looks up. Gods help her! 

Two of the soldiers had peeled off from their units and made their way over to Jade. They don’t lift her up, but the expectation that she stands and follows is evident. Keeping her head down as she was thought, Jade follows the pair towards the Empress and is stopped a few dozen feet away. 

The others had all begun disembarking their platforms and the cream of rope and grind of steel signals their rise again. It’s at this point a nervous butler peels out the front manor door, quickly surveying the scene and opening it fully to make way for Jade’s cousins, mother, and grandmother to file out and take up positions. 

The Empress doesn’t acknowledge their arrival with anything even passing as a glance, instead Jade can feel her eyes taking in all Jade was. It was hard to fight the urge to look back, but all her training had told her to never meet the Empress’ gaze, and the phantom feeling of cold steel against her neck provided sufficient focus to maintain her gaze on the ground in front of her. 

“Invoke your name, little egg, I wish to know who among the V’neef possesses the sense to present themselves in a timely manner.”

“V’neef. Jade.” She says with as much courage and clarity as she can muster. She was standing before the Empress herself. This was momentous and terrifying. The grass blades and dirt embedding intself in her memory. She didn’t want that to be all she saw. She spares a glance to the Empress’s feet, the long train, the swirls of fabric layers. This should be remembered in beauty. “Daughter of the Honorable V’neef Rose, Granddaughter of Esteemed Matriarch V’neef.”

“You do your mother honor.” She replies. Jade hears the swish of fabric rubbing against fabric and suddenly the delicate hands of the immortal leader of the Scarlet Empire are upon her shoulders. “Rise, V’neef Jade, I grant you permission to speak to the head of your family freely and without fear.” The slow rise of her head across Jade a detailed inspection of the Empress’ robes. 

Each layer remained some shade of red, and were embroidered and hemmed with gold. The shape billowed out about her hips and legs which gathered into the long train behind her. Cinched at the waist with the wide ribbon belt common amongst Dynastic fashions, it opened out at her chest in a fan of fabric, layers and hues of red to expose the top of her breasts and clavicle. She was not adorned with jewellery of any kind, but a wide mantle rested over her shoulders adding another layer to the robe’s train. Her neck seemed to stretch on for an eternity and then… her features were soft, oval. Almond eyes that shone bright gold, a wide forehead over a manicured brow and slim nose. Her cheeks were evident, but soft and without blemish. The line of her robust, red hair traced a perfect arc across her face, dipping just before her ears into twin spirals of hair that dropped to frame her face. The headdress was gold, twin fans of metal arches that resembled the antlered horns of the elemental dragons, rising a foot above her head and leaning out the same on each side of her head. 

It all looked massively heavy, but the Empress didn’t seemed remotely bothered by any of it. No a bead of sweat, not a smudge on her makeup that blended the soft tones of her skin with slightly darkened cheeks and the rich, scarlet red on her lips. 

“I suspect there has been some dissent amongst my dear eggs, squabbling with each other. Perhaps Cathak Yu was looking to put your honoured mother on the back foot, hmmm?”

“I-” Jade begins slowly. This was a dream, not in the desired respect of the word but the ethereal unbelievable nature that this was actually occuring in the waking hours. She had permission to speak, to gaze, to be heard by her?! “Esteemed Cathak Yu has a sense of humor, Honorable Mother. It puts many on the back foot, just as she pleases. Luckily for myself, she is even tempered when someone pushes back. If there is dissent, it would be fleeting; for mutual respect outshines such darkness.”

“I’m glad you seem to get along so well. It will serve you well in the coming decades as you become closer as one lineage.” She smiles at Jade. The woman was obviously older than her, but other than the drastic colour of her eyes, Jade could almost swear she was looking into a mirror image of herself. The likeness was uncanny. “Are you pleased with Koran? I have high expectations for the two of you.”

Jade’s breath catches. She sends out her senses as much as she can. Could Cathak Yu hear this? Could her mother?! 

“Cathak Yu, my mother, and I discussed that ...though expectations are high, Koran and myself would best serve the Empire separately, rather than united. Cathak Yu has granted permission for Koran’s brother to carry the responsibility and honor of his house, to ensure strong ties going forth.”

The smile vanishes. “Discussed?”

Jade gulps. “Amicably, yes.”

I feel confident-?
I pray-?
Nope. Any suggestion of ‘meeting expectations’ ends badly. Best to end it there.

“And at any point in this discussion, were you advised that I had personally arranged this union, almost two decades ago? Were you further uninformed that Cathak Cainan has chosen Cathak Koran as the next Scion of his house? Perhaps, also woefully mislead that the purpose of this union was to strengthen the ties between your two houses in a manner desired by scheming mothers, instead of specifically directed by your Empress for the good of the whole Realm?” Her eyes slowly move from Jade to somewhere past her. Jade could be certain Yu was being glared at. “No matter. The point is made clear now and you will have no further obstacles preventing you from fulfilling your duty. I shall speak with the deceitful child and settle accounts on your behalf.” This time her eyes move to Jade’s right, back towards Rohan. “You shan’t be saddled with inferior stock.”

“She lied to me?” Jade asks softly. She can feel the pinpricks of tears and outrage behind her eyes, her nose and throat burning and clenched from holding back the sob of anguish.

 “Why? Why would Cathak Yu act so cruel as to entertain any other notion than your will?” Twenty years? “My mother? Was she aware?”

“That would depend if Yu had bothered to let her know.” She croons, raising her hand to brush away a stray tear from Jade’s eye. “The court can act cruelly. Trying to deny you what is yours by right. Don’t you worry dear. It has been set right. Yu will be scolded, and when you are head of her house you may do whatever you wish, scold whomever you wish, and favour whomever you wish.” She turns from Jade and makes a motion to leave, the soldiers move ahead and clear her passage. “Was there anything else you’d like to say before I part?”

Head of her house? When would that be, a hundred years from now? A hundred years of misery, and games, and being party to further cruelty? Conniving, so any freedom she had was stripped and worn away? Making plans with her grandson. Undermining her House.

Rage boils in Jade, to have been treated so poorly, so incredibly insulted.

“I will never be head of house Cathak.” She seethes. 

Images of downing an entire pot of maidens tea fill her mind, poisoning her bloodline so the plans are ruined. Scenes of instead poisoning Cathak Koran, gelding the scion of the house. Of a wedding day in which she poisons every last one of them, decimating the House and extinguishing the burning flame of their blood. Her chest shakes, her lip quivers, as she breathes out in shudders to release the rising vitriol. Rohan did not deserve that. Not Tanan, not Josef. Not even Koran.
She did not deserve it either, to have a family taken from her. A hundred years of her future children on battlefields, dozens dying under the red and gold, under Yu’s command. Or Koran.

This rage stemmed from more than just Rohan, though the suggestion of him as inferior could be naught else but a lie. She couldn’t bring attention to him, couldn’t name him, or press it in case of retaliation. Gods above, the stupid court!

“No child of yours should be consigned to misery.” Jade pleads. “Waiting, rather than rising to be the best we can be, in your name, is a dishonor and disservice to the Empire. You mean to scold a member of the court, whose gross negligence has denied us all the opportunity to serve our Empress and the Realm to our utmost?”

Everything is fire. Her eyes, her throat, her chest, burning, her jaw barely moving beyond the shake of overwhelming emotion. 

“Twenty years. Twenty years, a union  p er s o n a l l y  arranged, and you…f a i l e d... to notice?!”

“That. Right there.” She says, gracing Jade with a turn of her head. “That is what I want from you, that fire you share with your betrothed.” The smile she wore now was not a kind one. “But hail to how you speak, my patience extends only so far.” And with that Jade is left behind, the entire procession moving inside the manor. Most of the troops remain outside, taking formations around the residence. 

Only one other spares Jade a single thought. One of the monks approaches her and offers a small cloth to wipe her face of tears and rage. “Be careful, little one, Lest you invite demons into your heart. Her Imperial Majesty, long may she reign, has only your best interests at heart.” And then he too passes by, leaving Jade alone in the courtyard. 

Turning to look for Rohan, she doesn’t find him waiting for her, just the dust rising from the long drive towards the commoner’s road where two men raced onwards to the manor at a full gallop. 

Vengeance. Cruelty in turn would be fair. If she wanted it, if she was willing to hold onto it for years, she might finally achieve catharsis. The first thoughts, from a lifetime of training in the Spire. Now, comes the second. The chance that is not how she would react, but how she would respond. She didn’t know why Cathak Yu did as she did. Her mother had been cowtowing to her, trying to please the entire trip. In a way, Yu wrung 20 years from her mother in favors sought to win an affection that was never given, but demanded of her. Her mother, who had tried to convince herself more than Jade that ‘every 5 years’ was tolerable. How long has she been waiting, to rise up when it would become convenient?

Jade needed to see the brighter side of this, but the explosion was still raw in her chest. She needed to focus on fixing, rather than tearing apart. Not even the Empress would control the courts cruelty, apparently. It needed to start somewhere. It would start with her. 

But maybe in thirty minutes? Or tomorrow? She numbly walks to the nearby horse and takes off as fast as she can to the hilltop. 

Distant as she had made herself, Jade would have no way of knowing what transpired in that household below her. Left to her thoughts, she watches the sun soar through the heavens, shadows in the lands below her growing longer in the afternoon. No one comes to find her, no whispered messages or surveyance carried on the wind. No one for hours of lonely reflection. No one, until Rohan. 

He had no steed, but instead had climbed the hills on foot. The heat of the day lay upon his shoulders and she could see the gleam of sweat covering his face and neck. When he notices her, his step livens. Bringing himself up to the crest where she was waiting and throwing himself down onto the grass beside her. 

“Come… here… often?” He jokes between breaths. 

Jade turns her head to look at him, then the numbness gave way to tears. She couldn’t even feel them begin to form, they just fell unbidden, Jade unaware until altered by the wetness of her cheeks. Even those muscles were exhausted. She leaves them. Not worth the effort of raising her arms. She tries to think of something to say, but trying would only form hollow sounds now. 

“I came… looking for you.” He starts to better control his breathing. “The corps pulled me away to discuss assignments. Apparently I’m to be stationed soon but they haven’t told me where yet. I wanted to talk to you about it. No one knew where you were, so I asked mother and… I was told something happened.” He sits up as best he can, shuffling closer to Jade. “What’s going on, Jade? What has upset you so much?”

“Imperial decree,” Jade feels devoid of inflection. Her energy spent on turning anger away from hatred, of letting the sadness wash over her like a tide. Like the tide, it would recede given time. She focuses on that steady motion of water, back and forth against the rocks, to keep her steady. For Daana’d to give her strength. “Cathak Yu lied.”

He looks confused, not comprehending. “What do you mean? Lied about what?” Heat rises from his skin in the cool afternoon. She can feel the anger rising in him - he didn’t know how, but he knew she had been wounded. That was enough to incite him to action. 

“Cathak Koran and V’neef Jade were arranged to be wed twenty years ago. Cathak Yu neglected to tell my mother. Or, perhaps she did, and I am not as good at reading people as I thought. How can they say I am so valuable and treated as worthless?”

He stiffens. “I… I am sorry.” It was small comfort, perhaps, but Rohan positions himself on behalf of his family. A family he did not get along with. A family he was consistently undervalued by, put down, and treated as less-than. A family that valued his older brother more than him, that constantly pushed him aside to make room for more and more of his brother’s ego and prestige. A family he would, none-the-less, die to protect. Rohan’s loyalties had always lay with the Host as a whole. The Empire was stable-ish, but a far better notion than the chaos that transpired outside its borders. To serve and protect all he called kin, every blooded mortal, every dragon to have taken the breath. But, beyond even that was a single minded devotion to Jade. Personal, real, intimate. He saw a potential in her to conquer all that lay before her, urged her on to greater heights, whatever would serve her purpose. 

In truth, she knew it was just that simple for him. That no matter how much it pained her to lose his hand, he would never truck with anger or jealousy so long as what Jade got was what she wanted. That he would take on the burden of his family name and apologise where they would not. 

To see her despair, it was all the permission he needed.  

“I’m sorry Jade. You are the best of us. This cannot be the end.”

“Thank you... for saying that. No, it is not the end. I have just been trying to ascertain what exactly it means to be V’neef Jade. It would be so simple,” She says, looking out to the posts that marked the boundary line. “V’neef Jade is engaged to be wed to Cathak Koran. By Imperial Decree that will happen, as V’neef Jade loves the Empress, the Realm, and upholds her duty to all of creation, as is the duty bestowed by chosen grace of the Dragons. But engaged is not married, and would it not it be a shame if someone perhaps didn’t bother to tell V’neef Jade the actual date of the wedding?”

She looks to Rohan gauging his reaction. “After all, it took Cathak Yu twenty years to mention the engagement. It might take twice that long for a message to reach absent minded V’neef Jade. How unfortunate would it be if further details are also forgotten…? Young, flighty V’neef Jade, a child not as grounded as the Matriach of House Cathak, one could imagine it being rather difficult for her to also remember such trivial things. Of course, V’neef Jade will marry Cathak Koran.  She is honorable, but...slow. So sloooow.”

She looks again to the boundary post.

“Are you asking permission?”

“No. I am just vocalising. Does character assassination, when done to oneself, become suicide? Because that would be giving up on a bad hand. I don’t want to give up. I want to keep fighting. Then, about two hours ago, when I was thinking of all my friends and family, that I sound like Tepet Yusef when he spoke of House Cynis and the gambling dens. ‘If I just hold out a little longer, my luck will change’ he would say. And it would, minutely, enough to convince him after a long time of despair that there was still hope. Not much, but after that much bad luck he would take what he could get. He focused on himself. His luck. But- and this came to me in the last hour- The house always wins. The system, not the players. The more who keep at it, ground to the point where even such little progress seems worthy of celebrating….its a trap. Rohan, the realm as it is, is the House. Pulling in more players, creating them, teaching them the ‘rules’ because that is the way it has always been done. We are told that this is the set of rules one must follow to survive. We are told ‘this is what is important’. We are told that the Dragon’s Chosen have a heavy burden...what if it is all lies?”

“I cannot run from my duty, as it is my family who would suffer. Family is important, we are told. Koran believes he can only trust family. You and I know that not to be true.

You…Rohan, I...I am in love with you. I’ve had feelings for you for a long time. Aren’t they lucky? Anything they want me to do, if I fail to do so, you will be threatened. Whether you feel the same or not, whether you….whether you were in on the plan or not. I could not let you come to harm. Which they know. Which they will use…The game is rigged. Keep playing, to keep your precious pieces. And everything becomes smaller as each individual focuses on themselves...”

Jade takes a deep breath and smiles sincerely at Rohan. “The court can be cruel, she said. Yes, it can. It can also be so much better. I just need to figure out how to show them that. The only way to Break the House is to play, right?”

A burning sensation in Jade’s gut reaches a crescendo. Where the setting sun and the silver throne that was the moon meet at odd angles the world is suddenly plunged into darkness. A shadow opens its maw and swallows the daystar, but in so doing is crowned with the silvery light of the sun shining through the threshold. Unable to be contained, it’s light only thrives in a different, more beautiful and compassionate light. The Realm was like that moon’s shadow, moving around her to swallow the V’neef named Jade into an oubliette Of acquiescence. But her star would not be contained, and in the dark, would find a way to shine through. 

The burning sensation spreads through her body, terrible but great. A vast intake of breath wracks her lungs as the pain of revelation scratches at her temples and pierces her brow. Adulation of the soaring crane erupts to life around her, a brilliant golden shower of light and essence. She is empowered, strengthened, renewed. She had power and her mind could do naught but grasp it in reflexive ecstasy. 

The world is lit once more, but not from the sun in the west, now dipped beneath Creation’s skein, but lit from her hill, lancing her will and desire like shafts of light borne by the most mighty god in heaven. She was the sun. 

Rohan’s eyes almost explode from his head, the shock and fear slashing through his emotional visage suddenly snap into solid determination. He lunges at her, crashes his body against hers, and sends them tumbling down the hill. 

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The MG
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Joined: Mon Jul 19, 2021 4:59 pm
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I'm just posting here to remind myself to check this out properly, once I have some time to spare. It looks interesting.
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