Imrama , posessed of the inklings of a plan, once again braves the ever-shifting passageways of the Cascade, in search of Belladona.
Imrama His travels throught the manse are still somewhat disjointed and awkward, but after much trial and error, he eventually stumbles into the presence of his quary.
alsoquin Belladonna has her own room that generally hovers near 13's quarters, but it's empty at the moment; he eventually tracks her down in what she has decided will be her new office, a room that previously Markuran had put to some unknown purpose. The scent of wet fur still vaguely lingers, but otherwise the room has been rendered pleasant:
alsoquin a small desk, with several unusually shaped crystalline paperweights, sits amongst elegant filing mechanisms and stacks of reports. Belladonna herself has adopted a look that's common for her: perfectly frazzled. She's pouring over several colorful sheets of paper, flipping back and forth rapidly, when Imrama enters.
Imrama (OR) "Oh, Dame Belladona; please forgive my barging in - I'm never sure which rooms will be private and which public in this place."
Belladonna looks Imrama over for a second, a single curl of hair falling across her face and prompting her to blow it away. She responds in the Old Realm tongue: "Oh. You must be Imrama. Welcome. Come in." She continues to flip through the pages, though without seeming to pay especially close attention to them.
Imrama bows low in a somewhat hurried way and pulls up a chair. "I have come to speak with you in your capacity as Military Intelligence Czarina."
Belladonna curtsies politely. "Ah, good. As you can see, I've been... busy." She gestures at the mountains of papers that surround her. "I don't know how they got along without me. I'm not sure anyone ever even read these reports before I showed up."
Imrama pears with interest at the reports and then produces a map of the Sunlands and ajacent dominions. "I have been studying the political divisions of the South East; my studies have produced at least one point of interest which I thought I should take to you."
Belladonna perks up one eyebrow. "That is interesting. I am still, uh... becoming acquainted with the local geography. What are you referring to?"
Imrama "The Sunlands currently has a thoroughly militarized, expansionistic state on its frontier carrying a strong enmity towards our Empire. It seems to me to be clearly in our interest to resolve the matter of Harborhead as soon as our resources and circumstances allow."
Imrama indicates the area on the map where the borders of the two states touch.
Belladonna "Hmm. You are not mistaken. According to what I've caught up on, it seems like some efforts were taken to deal with them before... but certainly it doesn't seem like anything came of them."
Imrama frowns, and looks ever so-slightly exasperated for a moment. "Yes, I understand that certain...direct approaches were taken in prior dealings between the Circle and Harborhead. I believe, however, that a more subtle approach may now be called for."
Belladonna pushes her hair back and spreads out a local area map. "I'm listening."
Imrama "I have come to inquire, first, if you currently have any assets opperating in Harborhead. If you do not, I would politely and humbly suggest that it would be in our national interest to insert or acquire at least two: one to survey Kirigast and one to reconoiter the hinterland."
Belladonna nods. "Our network is currently somewhat... sparse. I have a variety of Sunlands agents in the field and we're tapped into freelance intelligence available from mercenary spies in several areas, but we need far more agents than we currently have. But you're right: we should install someone -- or several someones -- in Harborhead right away."
Imrama smiles and nods. "I do not need to be right, but I am glad that you agree with my assessment. I have an idea for how we might address the issue of Ahlat and Harborhead in the future, but it won't mean anything until we know more, and I have a chance to discuss the idea with Thirteen and the others. Until then..."
Imrama "I have one suggestion for topics to explore in Harborhead: a certain footnote in the theology of the Cult of Ahlat that I remember noticing in my father's library: the Ishadhi."
Belladonna stops. "I haven't heard that name."
Imrama "My understanding, based on long out-of-date almanacs of the religions of Creation, is that there is a minor religious tract in the Ahlatian cannon which prophecies the coming of the 'Ishadhi' - the son of Ahlat."
Belladonna is clearly quite intrigued. "That is very interesting. What does it say about him?"
Imrama "It may or may not even be true; I haven't seen the book in question. He is supposedly a messianic figure, destined to rise from the far South. There are some over-written predictions about his control over fire and lightning, but other than that." Imrama shrugs.
Imrama "But if this prophecy still has purchase anywhere in Harborhead, I believe there might be a way to make use of it."
Belladonna idly flips a writing instrument with her hand. "That is truly devious. I like it."
Imrama , who doesn't like being thought of as devious at all, stifles a frown and nods. "Again, I am glad that you see some promise in my idea. Perhaps when we know more, we can see if Thirteen Blooming Flowers feels the same way."
Belladonna nods, as she idly flips through some other papers. "Yes, I've got some other conclusions I need to share with him anyw..." she trails off as she stares at something on the latest paper she's upturned. "Hmm. That's odd."
Imrama displays all the curiousity of a small child or household pet. "What?"
Belladonna hands over a piece of paper. "I can't say that I'm entirely certain about the details of Realm politics, despite staying up all night to study up on them, but... it's odd. The second elder statesman Dragon-Blood has disappeared in as many weeks."
Imrama makes a visible, self-conscious effort to compose himself. "Oh...that is odd. Who's disappearing, and is there any indication of the cause?"
Belladonna "Well." She pulls out an older piece of paper. "Cathak Cainan suddenly ceased making public appearances two weeks ago, but I didn't make much of it based on the other older intelligence I've caught up on. His house's military actions in the civil war were underwritten by the Red Lily. However."
Belladonna pulls out the paper she took exception to. "But the latest report we purchased from the northern network says that Tepet Arada vanished after some sort of confrontation." She pauses. "He used to be one of the Realm's foremost generals."
Imrama , who understands the Realm only slightly, as a reflection of something far away in a foggy mirror, looks confused for a moment, and then adopts a resolute expression. "If powerful figures within the Realm elite are disappearing, perhaps we should inform the Circle that some fresh danger is afoot across the Inland Sea." Imrama rises with purpose, as though posing for an artist who is not there.
Belladonna "I agree." She flips through some other pages. "Quite a few strange things appear to be afoot at the moment."
Evil Marku Within a short time, Imrama and Belladonna have relocated to the War Room, and the summons has gone out to the other Solars to meet them there.
Thirteen enters first, mouth drawn in a grimace. "Imrama. Belladonna. What emergency requires my attention?"
Belladonna makes the tiniest trace of a pouty lip. "We are waiting for EVERYONE to begin the presentation."
Thirteen "Donna. Our time is precious and we have much to do before the eclipse. Please do not distract us when we are working."
Zahara arrives more or less when she feels like it, her face displaying a stern lack of emotion. Every once in a while, her fingers move, to rub against the sun tattoo on her middle finger.
Belladonna 's lip sticks out further. "Perhaps if you had hired someone to follow up on intelligence when you BEGAN a war I would not need to interrupt you with important news when you are trying to FINISH it."
Birds wanders in, chatting animatedly with one of the gardening boys until she catches sight of the other Solars, at which point it is as if he never existed. The boy slinks off dejectedly.
Thirteen "Until very recently, our intelligence capacities were solely in the hands of Cerin the Wolf. You may make your complaints to him at your leisure."
Zahara stops at the door, and considers walking back out. She sighs minutely instead, and continues to her place, where she seats herself with studied grace.
Imrama greets each of his new compatriots as they enter, standing off to the side, having no designated seat at the table. "Good day, Tactician-General, Empress, Poet-Baker Laureate."
Belladonna nods at Thirteen. "Fine. I will." She straightens out her posture and composes herself.
Zahara nods politely to Imrama. She eyes Belladonna and her attitude and considers, as she leans back, whether she finds the girl amusing or irritating.
Imrama "Belladonna, Thirteen is quite correct that time is in short supply; perhaps you should be satisfied with a quorum, and proceed."
Belladonna looks over the group and makes a mental calculation. "Alright. We'll start now. Luc will have to catch up later."
Zahara "I'm sure Thirteen can fill him in." she says drily.
Belladonna unrolls a large sheaf of papers that she's carried with her and places them on the table. "So, since you put me in charge of intelligence, I've done everything I can to get caught up on the current situation. That includes extensive research on the Meru political situation, spot checks on the Sunlands' capabilities, and utilizing the funding made available to me to purchase black market intel." She pauses.
Belladonna "Since your own spy network is smaller than I would have expected"
Belladonna "I've also read back through all the reports you've received over the last six months before familiarizing myself with the most recent intel."
Birds "The bulk of it is otherwise occupied at present, yes," murmurs Birds.
Belladonna "As a result, I've got a number of significant matters to report on."
Zahara idly decides that running kingdoms is not as fun as it looks. in fact, it is sort of irritating to keep up with everything.
Belladonna "First, as I was just discussing with Imrama, within the last two weeks, two prominent Dynasts have been accounted missing: Cathak Cainan two weeks ago, and then Tepet Arada today, after an altercation in the northern village he was staying in."
Thirteen "Of course. The Realm's recent attack on Chaya, in combination with the Lily's plan to assault, are expected to result in not less than five and not more than seventeen major assassinations."
Thirteen "The chances of success are not as easily measured, but I am not thus far surprised."
Belladonna nods. "The report indicates that a survivor from the northern village claimed that he was attacked by two anathema."
Birds "Do said anathema have names?"
Imrama "Or descriptions?"
Belladonna "The peasant in question didn't say."
Thirteen "What an unhelpful peasant."
Zahara finds her mind wandering to how she can make things work better, and require less direct intervention, in case she's gone longer than intended. Something...like... yes. She feels the knowledge of how to run her irritating government start to coalesce in her mind, considering it from all angles, and noticing for the first time exactly where she can inject a touch of essence here, a royal decree there... and clean up some
Zahara ...and clean up some of the tangled mess it has been.
Belladonna continues. "Secondly, there are a variety of other events that have caught my attention. We have reports of at least three Deathlords marshalling forces within Creation. The aalorai have extended a border of two hundred and ten miles around their island, through which any passing ship is instantly obliterated." (...)
Belladonna "Furthermore, while our assault on Gem decimated the Lily's presence in the South and the loss of Crystal essentially halted any further progress in the North, they have fortified their position around a combined conquest that includes all of Halta and Linowa with behemoths, and only the aalorai and the Deathlords seem to be standing up to them in the West."
Zahara rubs her arm absently as Bella talks.
Thirteen "Yes. This information is known to me. Are you suggesting a unified pattern of some sort?"
Zahara "Where is their main base currently?"
Belladonna "Actually, yes. As of two days ago, they have fortified their positions and ceased additional aggressive actions."
Belladonna "Zahara, it's difficult to say. They are using Essence communication and the gate network for transit; I would have to estimate that their central planning is being done off-world."
Zahara frowns slightly. "I must find where Lai and Akuna are now. Hmm I suppose one or the other would do."
Thirteen "The Lily has fortified, or all three groups?"
Belladonna "The Lily. The Deathlords appear to be operating on a different schedule -- their troop buildups began earlier, while the aalorai's increased radius of attack is more recent than either."
Zahara calls to Reaver, to come join them.
Belladonna The tiny baby hundredfold skitters over to Zahara and sits upon her shoulder.
Belladonna nods. "Were there further questions?"
Zahara studies Reaver, wondering if he could pull off being an ambassador yet.
Imrama is distracted by the interesting creature perched on Zahara's shoulder.
Zahara conjures up a particularly tasty bit of metal and offers it to him.
Belladonna Reaver devours it with glee, sending tiny scraps flying in every direction.
Thirteen "How does this measurably affect our approach to this situation?"
Thirteen "Our primary objective is, and has been, the Realm. The other targets in Meru, while important, can be safely left until after the ultimate foiling of Lai's plan."
Belladonna "It depends on our short-term tactical goals."
Belladonna "Then you can presume that this cease in hostilities indicates that Lai is also shifting his objectives towards the Realm."
Thirteen "Not surprising, since it is also his primary objective, as it is the key element in his plan."
Belladonna "There is also one last thing."
Zahara "Isn't there always?"
Imrama mumbles "I've never seen one alive before."
Belladonna "Shortly after I began this meeting, I was telepathically informed that a messenger from the Red Lily has arrived within the nation's borders and wishes to address the rulers of the Sunlands."
Thirteen "Then let us show him the respect and attention that is due to him."
Lucent walks into the room, walking at a very leisure pace... "I hope I am not too late. I was... busy. With... things." He nods, taking a seat next to Birds.
Zahara "I informed Akuna that we no longer kill or maim messengers on sight. I suggest we keep to that."
Birds "Shall we have him meet us in the hall of thrones? It has been long since we used it."
Thirteen "Did you? I am most interested as to the context of that conversation."
Thirteen "For now, though, let us have him wait upon us in the audience chamber."
Birds pretends that the circumstances of this aren't hanging heavily on her mind.
Zahara shakes her head, "I do not wish to meet him inside the inner manse." she looks over at Thirteen, then back to Reaver, whom she feeds another bit of metal to.
Zahara "The audience chamber will do."
Birds nods. "Then let's get dressed."
Zahara and Reaver retire to her rooms
Thirteen coughs. "Perhaps, Birds, you might be able to assist me in choosing appropriate wardrobes. It would appear that color is an important issue in dressing oneself."
Birds puts a hand on his shoulder. "Of course. The nearest dressing room is...that way?"
Lucent "... well, that tells me wether I am not too late..." He sighs, "Oh, I can help you if you want, 13."
Belladonna The Solars gather in the audience chamber.
Belladonna The messenger -- an unremarkable man, but in an elaborate Red Lily regalia -- is ushered in by the manse staff.
Zahara is seated in the audience chamber, completely hidden within a long dress, and a hooded cloak. Both are the color of ash and rust.
Birds has taken a cue from Zahara, and is arrayed in a shapeless cloud of black feathers.
Imrama stands while waiting for the messenger, his arms folded in a military pose that hasn't seen use in one thousand years.
Lucent is dressed in a regal white and gold robe, with ten buttoms, golden and silver both. Hunting scorpions can be seen in the patterns of the robe when he moves. He chose a white and emerald suit for 13, with a regal black and green cape... the emerald seeming to bloom flowers with falling petals that never strike the ground...
Thirteen shifts uncomfortably in his unusually complicated clothing.
Red Lily Messenger bows courteously and addresses the group. "Greetings, esteemed ruling council and unquestioned lords of the Sunlands."
Zahara "Welcome to the Sunlands," she addresses the messenger in a slightly raspy voice. "What message do you bear?"
Red Lily Messenger "I bring word from Lai Misuna, stating that he wishes to speak in diplomacy to the nation of the Sunlands and end the conflict between our peoples."
Lucent allows the Mercury orb to come out of the coronal, and wills it to create a scepter for him. Half traveling staff, half religious scepter. In honor of their most steemed messenger. He does not take Marku's throne. It is not his'.
Zahara "Where, and when?"
Lucent smiles. "That is great."
Thirteen "And what does he offer us in good faith, that we may trust his pledge?"
Birds "Perhaps we can hold our meeting under the auspices of an impartial third party? I understand that the lions of heaven are incorruptible."
Zahara reaches up and touches something around her neck, a glint of gold leaf. "Neutral ground on the Isles of Glass, then?"
Red Lily Messenger "He is ready to parley at a time of your choosing. I will convey your request, if you but name the time."
Birds "Oh, the Isles! Yes. It's been too long."
Birds makes a calculation. "A quarter of an hour hence will be acceptable."
Red Lily Messenger nods. "I will return and inform him immediately."
Red Lily Messenger The Solars emerge into the hanging rope-course that forms one of the Isles of Glass, on a particularly large and stable board.
Zahara assumes that lai will appreciate the irony of their choice of Isle, as she walks across the board that holds the gate.
Birds adjusts her mask of dirt and straw. It's hard dressing up as the dead. And itchy.
Red Lily Messenger After just slightly longer than is entirely comfortable to wait, the Celestial Lion Selonis leaps downward from far above, rocking the platform dramatically as he lands.
Imrama allows himself a second of awe at the marvel of the isle, so close, so very close, to Heaven. And then he forces a severe demeanor, takes out his pipe, and lights it.
Zahara touches her new ring, and informs Thirteen silently, ::You may wish to include this in your plan.::
Lucent looks around, not particularly surprised, and sighs when looking at Birds. "That again, Birds? Least you have no tombstone on this time..."
Birds hugs Selonis and scritches his chin. "I missed you so terribly!"
Thirteen 's mouth tightens, just slightly, as Selonis approaches, then relaxes.
Thirteen ::I believe the details of execution are your affair, Zahara.::
Zahara "Selonis. Thank you for coming."
Lucent "Hey, Selonis. Been awhile."
Selonis nuzzles Birds' head with his vast lion mouth. "I am very happy to be here. I was not certain whether I would be able to visit with you again."
Birds murmurs to the lion, pitched like no one is supposed to admit they overheard, "This may be the last time. Take care of yourself."
Zahara "We ask only that you oversee the parlay between ourselves and the Red Lily." She is still dressed in the robes she had worn to meet the messenger.
Selonis "Hello Zahara, Lucent, Thirteen. It is pleasant to see each of you again." He turns his head, and adopts a look of lion-y surprise. "Is that... is that... Imrama Stormfound?" He blinks a couple times.
Imrama gives a three-form bow to the Celestial Lion and addresses him with formal respect. "Blessings on your mane, Centurian."
Zahara steps to the edge of the platform and gazes out over the edge at the myriad others.
Imrama "Much has transpired since last we saw each other. I have been Chosen, for instance."
Selonis nods excitedly. "What a fortuitous meeting! Please send my greatest regards to your father."
Selonis looks at Imrama much as one might a friend's small child who, in the intervening years, has grown, married, and founded a successful merchant empire.
Imrama smiles and inclines his head slightly. "I will do so."
Selonis blinks twice more and then turns to Zahara. "Yes. I will oversee this meeting. That is why I was permitted to journey here." He backs away from the group and settles down in an impartial position.
Zahara "Permitted by whom?"
Selonis closes his eyes partway and says, "Please do not make me discuss it further, Zahara."
Imrama determines that it would be unprofessional to ask Selonis for one of his trademark piggy-back rides.
Zahara "As you wish."
Thirteen walks idly to the center of the board, his footsteps not shaking it, and leans on his spear, waiting impatiently.
Selonis A few moments pass before the gate on the opposite side of the platform whirrs to life, and two figures step through. In the lead is the tall, thin man, clad in the red military uniform. From when the Solars last saw him -- in his address to Creation -- he looks far more haggard, though he also has the beginnings of a grim smile of victory. His red rapier hangs at his side. (...)
Selonis Behind him, in the formalwear of the deep south -- formal vest and loose pantaloons, in this case executed in black silk trimmed with real silver -- steps Akuna Ravdash, looking in no way more harried than when Zahara last saw him, and, if anything, far more smug. Zee can recognize his moonsilver swallow, even in the form of a thick metal bracelet.
Zahara turns to face Akuna, though her expression cannot be seen, her voice is low and steady. "Good to see you again."
Selonis Akuna speaks up, his voice as smooth and slippery as his expensive silk clothes. "Hello, Zahara. Perhaps you should remove your hood, that I might say the same to you."
Zahara "Perhaps another time."
Thirteen "Ah. This must be your friend, Zahara."
Thirteen "You did not tell me he was so influential. He must be second only to Holbar and Shikaya."
Selonis Akuna: "A pity."
Zahara "Of course. Thirteen Blooming Flowers, meet Akuna Ravdash."
Selonis Lai grits his teeth at Thirteen's words, though Akuna only smiles devilishly.
Thirteen "I regret that I can say neither that I am charmed, nor that it is a pleasure."
Lucent "Lai Mitsuna, Akuna Ravdash." Lucent nods in acknowledgemet. "Thank you for coming. I hope we can find things to agree on today. This has gone on too senselessly thus far."
Selonis Lai nods. "It has. That is why I have called for you today."
Birds "I hope you will forgive my forthrightness, Lucent, when I suggest that I have seen sense in this. But yes, please, let us sit, and talk of affairs."
Zahara "Shall we continue to exchange pleasantries, or actually discuss business?"
Imrama sits, puffing away at his pipe, and guestures for the guests to join him.
Selonis Lai definitely seems all business today. "Let's move on."
Lucent "Of course I forgive it, Birds, and you are right. It was... a poor choice of words..."
Lucent sits, tapping the table
Birds considers the efficacy of dramatic gestures here, and decides to abandon them. She happily sits between Selonis's ears and braids bits of his mane.
Zahara sits, as well. As she does so, the hood flares slightly, and that same flash of gold leaf from before shows itself as she reaches up to pull the cloth down further.
Thirteen remains standing, idly shifting his spear from one hand to the other.
Selonis Akuna seats himself, and snaps. The gate behind them whirs to life again, and a demon servitor runs out, bearing a wine and cheese platter which it sets up within only his reach.
Selonis As Zahara pulls down her hood, he can't help but show a little surprise.
Zahara chuckles softly. "More games?"
Selonis Akuna: "I expect these negotiations make take some time." He smiles, and Lai shoots him a daggered look.
Thirteen immediately walks over at the appearance of aperitfs and eats several pieces of cheese and a bottle of wine.
Selonis Akuna bests Lai's look with an even harsher one at Thirteen, but he says nothing.
Birds hums a jaunty tune.
Selonis Lai speaks up. "Enough!"
Thirteen seems unaffected by Akuna's glare, for some reason.
Zahara "I apologize on behalf of my companion, I assure you that I would never eat the food from your plate while you were eating in front of me."
Birds "What do you want, Lai?"
Birds "And who invited your tame dog?"
Lai Misuna straightens up, though his teeth remain gritted. "We have been at one another's throats for so long."
Lai Misuna He continues.
Lai Misuna "Both of us have our own ambitions. Our own desires. And in the past, those have drawn us into conflict." He pauses. "And we have each suffered for it. But we need do so no longer."
Zahara listens calmly, though she is in truth rather tense. within the voluminous sleeves, she rubs the place where Cerin's ring once sat.
Zahara "What do you offer to mend the wounds?"
Lucent "Actually, we kind of wanted to save the world. I don't usually equate 'ambition' to that..." Well, there is the part about taking down the sun, but it doesn't count.
Lai Misuna "That we... end our hostilities here. No longer fight one another. Enter a truce." He bends his head a little. "We each have our own territories, and any strikes we make against the other will only worsen the situation for both of us."
Thirteen ::Zahara, I leave this to you.:;
Zahara "That is not enough."
Thirteen ::Everybody else, follow me.::
Thirteen "You are a fool, Lai Misuna."
Birds ::Have you a plan?::
Thirteen "My ambition is simple and straightforward. It is to see you die."
Thirteen "You have killed my people and slaughtered innocents, and while you live, there can be no peace, and no safety for Creation."
Zahara raises a hand to Thirteen, and speaks, "Truce is possible, but only if you return what you have taken from me."
Thirteen "There is no truce."
Lai Misuna grits his teeth even tighter. "That is unfortunate, Thirteen."
Thirteen "You command the empire, Zahara, but I lead the army."
Lai Misuna He turns to Zahara. "What I have... taken from you?"
Birds "You have -eaten- our brothers and sisters and fed their souls to traitors, Lai. There is no truce available to you. Not with Birds-of-Trinity." She inclines her head to Zahara. "I hope this will not interfere with our friendship."
Thirteen "You have taken the hearts and souls of our people and turned them to dust and to worse than dust."
Thirteen "There is nothing to say."
Thirteen "I think that this discussion is at a close. I have much to prepare for our next assault on Halta."
Thirteen "I apologize for wasting your time, Selonis."
Imrama "You are the agent of the traitors to exiled, scourned and plotted to assassinate my father. I can offer you no peace, and no quarter."
Zahara "I thought you had better control over your subordinates than that," she snaps to Lai. "Perhaps you should speak with Akuna." She stands, and glares at her companions. "Stop being foolish."
Lucent shrugs. "I was trying to be diplomatic before, but... she is right. You are an abomination against heaven, against everything we stand for. You should not exist. My drive for peace made me not think of those things for a moment. The moment is gone. Zahara, they are abominations."
Thirteen "Cerin is dead, Zahara."
Thirteen "Do not attempt to convince yourself otherwise."
Thirteen turns on his heel and walks back to the Gate, snagging another piece of cheese on the way.
Zahara "He is not." She pulls a sword from the air and levels it at Thirteen's retreating back. "I should never have let you cross my borders!"
Imrama follows Thirteen to the gate, shooting a scornful glance back at Lai and then turning up the collar of his coat.
Birds unhooks a key from her necklace. Giving Selonis a last hug, she drops it at Zee's feet and follows the others.
Thirteen stops before stepping through the Gate. "A most excellent display of your leadership acumen, Dreambreaker."
Thirteen "And will you so threaten everyone who fails to accede to your whims? And what will you do if they do not bend their necks?"
Lucent gives Zahara one last look... a sorrowful one, before following suit
Lai Misuna Lai watches the exchange with bemusement.
Thirteen "Not all of us are as Cerin and Markuran, Zahara. Not all of us are willing to compromise with hell."
Zahara starts to scream threats at them all, and then stops, cutting herself off with a strangled noise. She leans down slowly to pick up the key. "Leave, then. I don't need you."
Zahara throws her sword at him, at that last comment
Thirteen reaches out and neatly catches it by its hilt, the point inches from his eyeless face. He calmly shifts his hand and swallows the sword.
Thirteen "We will have much to discuss when you return to the Cascade, Zahara."
Zahara "If I return."
Thirteen "I assure you that you will see it again one day."
Thirteen "Excuse me. I would not want to interfere with your diplomacy any further."
Zahara "No doubt."
Thirteen steps through the Gate.
Lai Misuna Akuna speaks, drily, "I thought you had better control over your subordinates than that."
Lai Misuna Lai allows the slightest hint of a smile to play at the corner of his lips. "So tell me what you wish of me, Zahara."
Zahara watches them go, stiffly. When the last of them is gone, she takes a step backward, and turns away from the gate, which unfortunately leaves her facing her two nemeses. "Everything has changed, hasn't it?" she pulls her hood back, revealing little more than she had shown with it on. Her face is swathed in long strips of a cloth that Akuna would recognize, It has been washed, but stains still show on the cloth of true l
Zahara ...cloth of true love that she had sliced into bandages. The golden collar still hangs around her neck, atop them.
Lai Misuna looks at Zahara's face without satisfaction. "It has."
Zahara looks at Lai, "You have taken much from me. The others..." she turns her head and spits on the platform. "They have no idea. It seems your ploy was exceptionally effective." She rubs her wrist absently. "There is little I can offer you, now. On my return, as you can see, they mistrusted me. They thought you had won. Until now, they were not correct."
Lai Misuna lets his smile grow a little broader.
Lai Misuna "We did not choose you on a whim, Zahara."
Zahara bows deeply, perhaps more than any have seen her. "I assure you, I feel incredibly lucky to be the chosen one of your schemes."
Lai Misuna Akuna laughs lightly and takes a bite of cheese.
Zahara "I cannot join you. I wish I could - they do not deserve my assistance, but they have bound my soul tightly against such a thing." She laughs, sharply. "I am, perhaps, more of a prisoner at home than I was in your gracious hospitality."
Lai Misuna "It is a far fall from the heights of empire."
Zahara "And I can no longer fly." she agrees.
Lai Misuna looks Zahara over, head to toe. "So why are you still here?"
Zahara "Two things. First, I wish to know what you were offering. Tell me of this truce so that upon my inevitable return to the Cascade, I might prevail upon them to meet with you again. They may not trust me, but they still may listen to me. We have been friends for a long time. Such bonds do not die as quickly as they might hope."
Zahara paces restlessly
Lai Misuna nods. "I can do that."
Zahara "Then please do."
Zahara "We will address the second half when we are finished."
Lai Misuna "I know that we are alike, Zahara. We both have the same ambition. And as long as two live with that ambition, neither may achieve it. I harbor no illusion that we will not eventually come to one another's throats. But until we do, casting ourselves at one another.... it can gain neither of us any benefit."
Zahara "Tell me, Lai, do you have any memories of the one whose shard you shattered to become who you are now?"
Lai Misuna 's eyes flash as Zahara looks at him. "The only memories I hold are my own, Zahara."
Zahara "Then you can surely understand how it feels to one such as I, that you assault not only our lands, but the legacy of ages. You did not take only power when you accepted your Exaltation. I want you to know that. The spark you carry was once not a single life, but a multitude. Memories meant to be passed on to the next mortal deemed worthy. Blasphemy of the highest order." she pauses. "But you and I are alike."
Lai Misuna "We are more alike than you think, Zahara." He smiles.
Lai Misuna "But what is the legacy of the past, besides ashes in the wind?"
Zahara "All of us who remain here are willing to do whatever it takes to get what we want. The legacy of the past that I mourn for is not the lives, but the knowledge that they held. The past is ash, and blood. The future is blood and fire."
Zahara "What would you do with a truce between us?"
Lai Misuna looks at her carefully. "I would leave the Sunlands be, and I would turn my gaze to what I truly desire."
Zahara "What is that?"
Lai Misuna leans back and shakes his head. "Not so easily, Zahara. You stayed fast where your companions deserted you for a reason. Speak it aloud to me."
Zahara "I told you, I want back what you took from me."
Lai Misuna leans forward again, and the fire is back. "And I say to you again... what did I take from you?" Akuna says nothing.
Zahara "Three things. My artifacts. My love. And my revenge - although I would not presume to demand Akuna from you." She reaches up to touch her face. "Markuran will do."
Zahara studies Lai, attempting to discern if he truly did not know.
Lai Misuna smiles. From beneath his feet, he lifts up an unmarked sack and throws it -- with some effort -- onto the table, where it makes a loud clanking noise. "These I have here with me." Akuna grins and sips at his wine. "But as for the other two...." Lai speaks. "If I asked for Thirteen Blooming Flowers, or Mnemon, or... " -- he grits his teeth again -- "Holbar and Shikaya in trade for them, could you give them to me?"
Lai Misuna Lai speaks. "If I asked for Thirteen Blooming Flowers, or Mnemon, or... " -- he grits his teeth again -- "Holbar and Shikaya in trade for them, could you give them to me?"
Zahara "Given proper motivation."
Lai Misuna laughs, though without mirth.
Zahara reaches up, and in front of her palm, the outline of a gold disk fades into view, though not completely. "Such as this."
Zahara closes her hand around it, and it disappears again.
Lai Misuna looks at it and one eyebrow rises up on his face.
Zahara "Loopholes are wonderful, aren't they? They forgot to bind me from trading with you."
Zahara "I can guarantee you this will no longer be the case when I return. So I advise you to make this deal today."
Zahara "Perhaps you should call them and see if they are willing to return with me in return for the Seal, and perhaps assist me in...encouraging the others to pursue a truce.
Lai Misuna looks at Zahara. "I am not a puppeteer, Zahara, to pull at strings and dance your lover back into your arms. He left you of his own free will. But I can do this." (...)
Zahara bows her head at his words. He did leave of his own free will, though it was for a price.
Lai Misuna leans in and speaks loudly, clearly. "I swear to enter a true pact with Zahara Zhan. In exchange for the Seal of Twilight and no aggression against our set borders, we in exchange will respect the borders of the Sunlands, grant back to Zahara the possessions set before me, and withdraw all constraints that bind Cerin and Markuran against returning to her and from communicating with her." (...)
Lai Misuna "From there, it shall be upon her to see whether they choose to return."
Zahara "You can bind them to yourself, but not to me?"
Zahara "Without their physical return, I will have given up much for very little."
Zahara "And I fail to see how Markuran would willingly come with me so I can visit upon him the pain that I suffered at his hands."
Lai Misuna stands up from the table. "Nor do I see how an ally would willingly submit to my request that he give up his life to such a cause. Why do you not contact Birds-of-Trinity and ask her to submit to my justice for the death of Holbar?"
Lai Misuna leans forward.
Lai Misuna "I desire that Seal in your hand, Zahara, but I think you desire Cerin's return more. And if you do, then what I offer you is the only way you might have it."
Zahara "There is always another way."
Lai Misuna "As there is for us," Akuna said, rising to match Lai.
Zahara turns, and walks towards the gate. She looks back over her shoulder. "If I die, how will you retrieve the seal?"
Zahara faces them again, "It will take a very long time for my next incarnation to be able to take the fifth of my weapons from Elsewhere. That is, if the shard remains whole of course."
Lai Misuna "If I want what is in your hand, Zahara, I can have it, whether I take it from your hand or find you just as you enter another life and carve it from your soul with my bare hands.
Lai Misuna "And if you truly want war and bloodshed, to sacrifice your people in vanity rather than have your so-called 'love' returned, then you shall have that. I can offer you that as well."
Zahara "are you willing to wait that long? Because I am."
Zahara "I'll be interested to find out if you can 'carve it from my soul with your bare hands.' She smiles, a hard glint in her eyes. She grits her teeth, and a tiny crack echoes loudly in the silence.
Zahara closes her eyes for a second, coughing. Then she straightens again, and smiles. "A mixture of exotic poisons," she says conversationally. "They should kill me in between five to ten minutes. I suggest you decide how much you want the seal within that time period." she licks a fleck of blood from her lips.
Lai Misuna Akuna grins and begins to very visibly count with the fingers of one hand, otherwise unconcerned.
Zahara matches Akuna, finger for finger.
Lai Misuna Selonis, who has remained utterly silent throughout the negotiations so far, suddenly displays signs of concern.
Lai Misuna looks over at the lion. "Aha. I doubt our chaperone here will allow you to follow through on such a threat, Zahara."
Zahara "It's funny, how much depends on this little disk, isn't it? Plans, on both sides." She pauses retching a bit. "Selonis cannot interfere. He is impartial, and none have raised their hands to the others here." She walks over to him, and touches his mane gently. "I'm sorry. Please convey my regrets to the ones I used to call friends."
Lai Misuna looks grim in the manner of one whose day has been altogether too long, but not worried. "I think you would regret allowing this to pass, Zahara. As would Cerin, after he went through so much effort to save you once." He looks at her strongly.
Lai Misuna "You have a few more moments of life, Zahara, and it can all be easier for both of us. One word from you, and you can know that Cerin will speak to you again. Or one other word, and we will walk away, and you will not be the last Sunlander to die at the hands of the Red Lily."
Lai Misuna Akuna follows him:
Lai Misuna With one hand he holds up a ring that once sat on Zahara's finger. "This."
Zahara slides to the ground, leaning against Selonis. "I told him then, as now, that he should let me die." She blinks hazily, "My ring."
Zahara "Bring them here. Let them choose."
Lai Misuna "In the few moments before you expire? I think not."
Zahara "I will neutralize the fastest-acting of the poisons. But don't worry, I brought extra."
Lai Misuna shakes his head. "I grow weary of this. You have thirty seconds. At the end of that time, I am done with you. If you wish to ever speak to Cerin again, you may freely assent in that time. Otherwise" -- the grim grin returns -- "none will mourn your passing."
Zahara closes her eyes and lays back. "You have been a worthy opponent. I am sorry that neither of us can win today." she counts down from thirty softly.
Lai Misuna "It doesn't have to end like this, Zahara," Lai says softly, as Akuna without remorse says "ten... eleven... twelve..."
Lai Misuna "You will have a meeting with them when next the sun sets. I add this to my promise, if you give the word."
Zahara rolls onto her side, to think. ::Thirteen can you hear me?::
Thirteen ::Yes. What is happening?::
Zahara ::Their offer is to release Cerin and Marku from all constraints for staying with the Lily and to set up a meeting with them, and return my artifacts, if we work out a nonaggression pact for the borders and give him the Seal. Apparently he cannot control them as his subordinates.::
Zahara ::It is that or nothing.::
Thirteen thinks the sound of a heartfelt, irritated sigh as carefully and precisely as he can.
Thirteen ::Take it.::
Lai Misuna Akuna watches Zahara with a close eye.
Zahara sighs, and pushes herself up from the ground weakly. She pulls an array of phials from her robes, selects one that looks pretty much exactly like the others, uncorks it, and pours it into a small, hand-carved wooden cup. She tosses Akuna the empty phial, and drinks the antidote, coughing once more. (...)
Zahara wipes the blood away, and uses Selonis' shoulder to lever herself to her feet, then walks shakily over to Lai, and hands him the cup. It's not the same one that Talmuda had given Ymir. This one, in the center of the bowl, contains the same inscription that the ring she had given to Cerin does. "Give this to Cerin, when you arrange the meeting."
Lai Misuna takes it and looks at it for a moment. "Then it is agreed."
Zahara "Just a moment." She empties the sack, and checks to see if everything is there.
Zahara "And I would appreciate my ring back." she says with effort. The world is still spinning.
Lai Misuna Akuna tosses it casually to her.
Lai Misuna Everything Zahara had on her -- excepting the Eclipse Seal, of course -- is fully intact and in the bag.
Zahara almost catches it, but it bounces from her fingers. She laughs wryly, and picks it up from the ground. "I can only attempt to bring about this nonaggression pact, you know. As you cannot control Cerin and Markuran, so I cannot entirely control the others." She takes a moment to breathe. "And I suggest that it not be indefinite, that if it is re-negotiable after a period of time if you wish me to be able to convince my.
Zahara ..fine compatriots of it... at all."
Lai Misuna nods. "I understand."