Fires on the Edge of Forever
On the far side, connected to the palace proper, a covered dais rose 5 yards into the air giving the ruler of the Ruby Court an unobstructed view of the domain. On the near side a covered corridor masked petitioners from the eyes of all but the Duke as they came forward to present their requests. Between the two, circling the open area, was a chaotic forest of marble pillars. It was here that the witnesses of the court would gather to view the business of day. Most of the session would be little more than a waste of time to these observers. Still it was not uncommon for something to rise above the din of the mundane to provide information, power or just plain entertainment.
From the collective intake of breath that followed Eyes of Destiny stepping out into the open air courtyard it was clear many thought this would be that event.
As the small fey woman walked out into the shifting light of the roiling fire storm above, Mnemia, still standing within the covered walkway, turned to look back at the girl that was responsible for getting them this far.
“Having second thoughts?” the newcomer asked, noticing Mnemia’s gaze. The fey woman looked like any mortal 12 year old girl (though one with an ever present contingent of four competent looking bodyguards), but such appearances were deceiving. Hakasane was a political manipulator of the highest order and one of the primary points of contact between the Fair Folk and the Guild. She had provided passage, introduction and advice; all for one almost insignificant favor…
“Of course she is.” Zuko mentioned from the shadows nearby. His role for this particular plan was more backup than anything else, remaining close in case anything went poorly. “The island princesses would hate to sully their new locks with blood. It could stain.”
Mnemia rolled her eyes at that, but Hakasane looked a bit confused. Zuko’s delivery had been almost deadpan despite the absurdity of the statement.
“We are hardly about to stop now, not when the fun part is about to start.” Zis added, the excitement clear in her voice. “Though,” she began as she looked at Mnemia, her eyes moving up and down the solar’s body in a very obvious and deliberate fashion. “a brief delay could prove equally enjoyable.”
“Focus.” Mnemia said, snapping her fingers in front of Zis’ face as she spoke. “We have some business to attend to first.” For this particular stunt neither of them was wearing anything more substantial than their silken armor, which looked striking similar to lingerie, if providing significantly more protection. Strips of actual silk were wrapped and tied around their bodies to frame their silhouettes as they moved, but they were hardly more modest with them than without. Both of exalts had also dyed their hair blond for this, the duke having a thing for blonds. Finally, Zis once again bore temporary Tya tattoos. This time though the ink was designed to mirror Mnemia’s markings, promising a powerful connection between the two of them and hinting that they did everything together.
“Very well.” the Abyssal purred, letting her gaze linger a moment longer before turning back to the pavilion.
“Esteemed Duke Aral, citizens of the Ruby Court,” Eyes of Destiny called out once she had stood in the center of the pavilion for a moment. “I am Eyes of Destiny of the Opal Court of the far East. I am here as the voice of two of our greatest fighters. Born in the West, they have fought across all of Creation before ending in my care. Now they come here, their sojourn leading them beyond Creation. They seek the honor, as granted by Duke Aral, of challenger. And should they emerge victorious they would ask a boon of your grace.”
“Let us see your champions then, Eyes of Destiny.” Aral responded from the raised platform, a hint is disdain in his voice. The ruler of the Ruby Court was a handsome man, if a bit unspectacular. But where his face failed to impress, his garb did not. His clothing was of the finest quality, spun of strands of colored glass, and he was adorned with a wide variety of gems. It was said he never wore the same jewelry twice.
Even as Eyes of Destiny turned to introduce her warriors a voice spoke over the ornament of messages Mnemia has resting behind her ear. “He’s more interested than he lets on.” Ioni relayed. She was among the courtiers, ready to manipulate either those around her or Aral himself as needed. “Either Eyes of Destiny is lying to the court or you two actually represent a power from the East. In either case he has no reason to believe this won’t be interesting.”
“All honor to the Ruby Court, I introduce the Sisters of the Talon!” Those words, spoken by Eyes of Destiny, was the invitation Mnemia and Zis were waiting for. Weapons in hand, Mnemia carrying only her wavecleaver and Zis her bladed chain, the two women stepped out into the open. As they crossed the distance they could sense all eyes upon them. Yet, despite how Eyes had played them up, there were no cheers or calls. They may be about to turn this space into a gladiatorial arena of sorts, but this wasn’t a sporting event. Yet…
As they reached the center of the pavilion they both looked up upon Aral, a statement of power and conviction. Aral on the other hand seemed more interested in picking at a bowl of fruit nearby. He forced the court to wait for almost half a minute before he finally turned his attention back to the Sisters. “There it is…” Ioni spoke up again, apparently reading something in his body language. “You ladies definitely have his attention.”
“The right of challenger is a bold request for a newcomer to make in my court. Should I grant it your two warriors could choose any of the fops that surround us and I would be forced to grant their unnamed boon. No, I reserve the right of challenger until your two pets here can prove that they are worthy of it.”
“As you wish.” Eyes of Destiny said with a bow. Once she was upright again she took a few steps to the side. These were still her champions, but her role in this fiasco was likely done. The Duke would decree a means by which the two could prove their worth, and they would have no choice but to accept it if they wished his favor.
“Lady Hishinia!” Duke Aral called out. “It would seem our guests feel they have sufficient combat prowess that they can duel for a boon. Let us see if that’s true.”
“As you wish." a woman dressed as a leader of soldiers, her armor and weapon both beautiful and functional, responded from the elevated platform. “Sulan, Ynnes, Dophanin, Jei, Edena; test these two ladies if you will.”
Appearing through the crowd as if from a deep fog, five armored warriors pushed their way through the courtiers and stepped out into the central space. Each of them wore armor similar to Lady Hishinia and while most of them also favored the long sword, one of them carried a spear. Once within the courtyard they gathered to share a few words. Then, with their preparations complete, they spread out along the edge of the circle, surrounding the exalts. Once in position they bowed briefly before falling into combat ready stances.
For their part Mnemia and Zis simply watched the preparations unfold with a detached interest, letting Ioni keep them appraised while they made a show of ignoring the impending threat. Their role was that of champion, and only five on two spoke to Hishinia’s confidence in her own troops. The exalts had expected 10 on 1 odds at best. Eyes of Destiny also seemed disinterested in what was going on, though she still stood within the circle. She was taking her safety into her own hands by remaining put, but she also represented the Opal Court, and to flee from the pending melee would reflect extremely badly upon her and her home. Besides, she was more than capable of keeping herself out of the melee.
Even as the five soldiers waited for the battle to begin the exalts refused to react. Hakasane had briefed them on the protocol of the duel and the pair were intentionally refusing to follow it. In doing so they were telling the court in no uncertain terms that they considered themselves above the pomp and circumstance that was normally attached to such proceedings. It was an expression of pride, confidence and power and was intended to provoke; and in that it was successful. Growing impatient Hishinia finally made a motion, commanding her soldiers to attack, honor be damned.
Apparently directing the others, the spear wielder let loose a sharp whistle, a signal that set all five rushing forward. Though the distance between them and the exalts was not large, Mnemia and Zis did not respond right away. At least, not obviously. Mnemia was quietly judging the attackers, determining how best to break up the charge. And with the soldiers halfway to their marks the solar finally moved.
With a twist Mnemia moved around Zis’ left shoulder, stepping forward to bring her blade up to meet the first attacker’s. The parry was efficient and quick, but not particularly flashy. As she stopped the man’s attack she felt the pressure on her blade lessen significantly. That would be the smoke hearth stone at work. In the span of a heartbeat he had been fatigued as if he had been fighting for 10 minutes. Each time their blades met his would grow heavier until he could no longer hold it. That was, if Zis didn’t get him first.
Her first defensive reaction complete Mnemia spun around again. As expected, seeing both of their backs exposed, the next two attackers had increased their speed just a bit. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to continue to fracture the charge. Even as she turned to face those two Zis’ chain shot out at the soldier whose blow Mnemia had just parried. Zis had been asked to not kill any of these men, but they weren’t going to be pulling punches either. He would have to dodge away if he was going to keep his life. Sure enough, he attempted to fall back. Unfortunately, the coordinated move between the two women had been unexpected, and the abyssal’s weapon tore into his side. Mnemia only caught this out of the corner of her eye though as she stepped into the second attacker, parrying her strike before moving up to meet the third. And as with the first, she quickly turned away, letting Zis perform the necessary counter attacks.
This dance continued unchanged for another half minute or so. Having successfully staggered the attackers Mnemia was easily finding the rhythm necessary to continue to protect both herself and Zis. Not only would this conserve her strength and weaken them, but it was also empowering her, infusing her and Zis with overdrive essence. For her part, Zis was keeping to her word, refusing to follow up on the growing number of openings that would have given her killing blows.
After the first attacker had fallen back, switching to a spear himself, the other four had been more cautious, but that caution was quickly falling away to fatigue. The outcome was becoming so obvious that Eyes of Destiny, who still managed to find a way to be in the middle of the melee without actually being directly involved, finally addressed the podium.
“If your grace so desires, this demonstration can continue until it’s obvious conclusion is reached. Alternatively the lives of these brave soldiers may be spared.”
As steel continued to find orichalum and soulsteel continued to find flesh Aral turned to Hishinia. “Are these men worth saving Lady Hishinia? They seem to have tired very quickly.”
“Yes, my lord.” she almost hissed. To surrender like this was embarrassing, but she also recognized that something was very wrong here and letting her people die would be foolish. “They have talent. Their endurance regiment simply needs to be doubled.”
Aral considered his general’s words for a moment before turning away and waving a hand. “Very well.”
And with that motion the fight was over. The five soldiers walked, or in some cases crawled, away from the two women that had so thoroughly beaten them. Mnemia’s defenses had been perfect, leaving both her and Zis untouched, but their opponents had only survived the melee by virtue of the larger scheme and the misdirection it required. They had to impress Aral enough to earn their challenge, but if they didn’t catch their true target by surprise the situation would become difficult quickly.
“How very unfortunate.” Duke Aral continued once his men were finally clear. “I am a man of my word though. Very well, pick whichever poor soul you wish to beat on for your boon. Let’s get this…”
“Shusai of the Immaculate Blade!” Mnemia called out, her words causing the courtiers to go silent and Aral’s eyes to widen. “The Duke has granted me the right of challenger and if you do not face me here I will come up there after you.”
If Shusai was surprised by the challenge she didn’t show it even if the rest of the court did. The fey woman’s love of the duel was legendary, as was her skill and viciousness. It was often said she killed more members of the Ruby Court than its enemies did. And though what Mnemia and Zis had done was impressive, if that’s all they had they were already dead.
Finally looking away from the exalts Aral turned to face Shusai, then back to Mnemia. The women had locked gazes a moment before and both refused to back down. The stand off was finally broken as Shusai started walking towards the edge of the platform before gracefully dropping to the marble floor. And with her silent acceptance the court erupted into noise, everyone began to talk at once.
For Mnemia’s part she turned to Zis, making no small show of asking the other woman to step down. A fair duel should be one on one. Shusai had fallen for the bait though and waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t be so quick to turn your ally away. You will certainly need the help if you are to have any chance at all. Though I suspect it will do you little good.”
Mnemia turned back to Zis again, shrugging. “Very well, if you are willing to face both of us.”
Shusai laughed aloud before coming to a stop a few yards away from the exalts and dropping into a martial arts stance. The short and powerful looking redhead carried no visible weapons and seemed to wear no armor (though with Mnemia and Zis adorned with deceptive protection themselves they refused to believe her vulnerable). “Idiot children, you two have just made the last mistake of your short lives.”
Neither Mnemia nor Zis responded to the barb. Instead the both started slowly walking in opposite directions, seemingly trying to place their new opponent between them. But before they reached the point where the other warrior would not be able to see both of them at once, which would force her to attack, they stopped. Once in position both women appeared to drop into battle stances of their own.
The first move belonged to Mnemia. With a short, quick motion she tossed her wavecleaver into the ground almost equally between her, Zis and Shusai, the razor’s edge on the weapon combined with the force of the throw driving the tip of the weapon into the marble. It didn’t have quite the same impact as “bang”, but it served the same purpose. Even as Zis started to move Mnemia reached into elsewhere, drawing her chakram and throwing both at Shusai before then calling to hand both her glorious solar grand daiklave and her adamant beamklave. As the essence weapon came to life the solar also activated the essence shield on the gloves of martial readiness. And finally, as she charged the fey woman she flared her anima banner, going totemic at the same moment Zis was doing the same.
Mnemia’s skills with the chakram were not insignificant, but her initial attacks were not meant to do more than throw Shusai off balance. And in that regard they were successful; the force and accuracy of the attacks demanding that the fey woman not ignore them. Reflexively she warped the rules of the Wyld as she dodged out of the way, avoiding the first entirely and only taking a glancing blow from the second. But as she turned her attention back on her foes her face fell. From one side came a woman with a golden aura streaked with crimson wielding weapons seemingly made of radiance. From the other came a woman with a dark red aura with streams of gold running through it and blades of the darkest night. They were equal and opposite, light and dark, life and death.
Though they were both roughly the same distance from Shusai, it was Zis that attacked next, the range of her chain allowing her to follow up the chakram almost immediately. Again the champion of the Ruby Court pulled on reality, moving herself in ways that would be impossible otherwise. She had to dodge no less than three attacks this way as the blades of the abyssal’s dire chain danced back and forth. As she did she tried to move away from the solar, but Mnemia had closed the distance rapidly, jumping off of the pommel of her own wavecleaver daiklave to clear Zis’ chain attacks. As the solar came down the fey once again empowered her swiftness to avoid death, the marble where she had been standing half a second before turning into a rain of stone shards.
It had all been an ambush, and Shusai had fallen for it. But she was not lost yet. The golden woman seemed to have over extended herself. The force of her attack appeared to have put her off balance, and Shusai felt it unlikely that the solar would provide another such chance. Rising up she brought her hand high, ready to drive it into the skull of the exalt. But even as she brought the attack down she caught the the slight grin on Mnemia’s face. Moving in ways that shouldn’t be possible the Tya brought up her adamant beamklave to parry the attack. Even as the essence blade seared and burned Shusai’s arm, tearing through her bracers like they weren’t there, she could feel herself weakening. The pain and fatigue clouded her thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate. And by the time she recognized the sweeping counter attack coming from the solar’s other weapon it was too late. No amount of shaping would save her this time. The glorious solar grand daiklave struck the woman at the hip, passing through her body easily before exiting near her shoulder. As the fey woman split cleanly into two pieces the light faded from her eyes.
Covered in gore Mnemia slowly returned to an upright position. Even as she dismissed her weapons back to elsewhere, including calling her wavecleaver to her hand before banishing it, her eyes remained on the lifeless face of the woman she had just killed. This was it, this is what Hakasane wanted. Though Duke Aral was supposedly the leader of this court, he was little more than a figurehead. The true power of the court lay with Shikuzi, a master schemer and crafter of curses. But Shikuzi had little physical strength; for that he relied upon Shusai. The pair were the true rulers here, and with one of them now dead Shikuzi was vulnerable. Hakasane had assured the circle his fate would follow his partner’s within forty eight hours.
For her part Mnemia was still uncomfortable thinking of herself as an assassin. But that didn’t make it any less true. Even before today her and her circle had solved problems with violence and death. This was no different. At least, that’s what she told herself. She had no idea if Shusai or Shikuzi deserved this fate or what would happen to the court in their absence. She didn’t care. She was here for the golden liquid fire, and the sooner she was free of this place the better. But there was still one more thing to do, and if Hakasane’s words remained accurate she would soon be adding whore to her list of new found titles.
Finally turning away from the corpse Mnemia returned her attention back to the raised dais. “Your grace, I have no desire to force the hand of this court. I am not here to obtain my desires through deceit and subterfuge. For my boon I simply ask for a private audience where I may humbly present my request. It will be by your will whether or not I see my wish fulfilled.” The final part of the ploy. If Aral felt that he had been cheated the boon Mnemia asked would be worthless. Upon the hostile and twisted reality of the middlemarshes Mnemia would face an ambush of her own, and her ability to survive outside of the freehold would be much more difficult. Aral had to be appeased.
As before Aral did not respond immediately, his eyes moving between the two exalts. But even from here Mnemia could see the lust in his eyes. His response was clear even before he opened his mouth.
“You have done everything the court has asked, so how could I not do otherwise? It would be my pleasure to entertain your request.” The Duke turned his head a bit, addressing someone Mnemia did not recognize. “Please see that they are lead to the sitting room at their earliest convenience.” Then, turning back to the rest of those gathered, “The business of the court is concluded.” And with that he rose to his feet before quickly disappearing into the palace.
• • •
Rolling away from the two bodies next to her Mnemia swung her legs over the side of the bed, her feet coming to rest on the comfortably warm tile. Nearby her daiklave lay discarded, and even as she bent over to retrieve it she couldn’t help but remember how it had ended there in the first place. As Aral had made love to her he had asked if she could call her weapons even then. When she said that she could the Duke had insisted that she do just that. With the deadly weapon in hand his lust seemed to intensify even further. And when she allowed the weapon to slip from her fingers to clatter against the floor he had almost finished then and there. Here was the woman who had just struck down the greatest warrior of the Ruby Court and he had disarmed her. The mixture of lust and power had made him very agreeable.
Shaking the unpleasant thought from her head the solar rose to her feet, banishing the weapon before pulling her silken armor back on again. She had only lain with a man once before, back when she was a teenager and before she had taken the ink of the Tya. The women of the western seas were not celibate, but they would rarely enjoy the touch of a man. Initiates were encouraged to partake of such an experience at least once before they turned away from their femininity. That had been awkward and uncomfortable, something Mnemia felt she would never miss. But what Aral had done had been anything but. It would seem he had at least one skill.
Mnemia slowly made her way to a nearby set of double doors that pushed open to reveal a balcony looking out over a sea of red, orange and yellow flowers. Aral had little interest in the garden, but his many conquests were often smitten by the sight. And while the solar didn’t approve in its use she could hardly fault its beauty. Especially here underneath the thin wisps of fire that now darted through the night sky. The furious storm of the day had passed some hours ago, leaving these fiery dancers in its wake.
“Did the show meet with your satisfaction?” Mnemia asked of seemingly no one.
“Rather boring actually. The set was nice, but the actors left a lot to be desired. It seemed to me the male lead had some… timing issues to work out? The supporting cast did seem to rally support from each other enough to muddle through the VERY short second act however. Not that I paid it any attention of course.“ a male voice replied.
“How dreadful it must have been for you.” Mnemia said as Zuko seemed to materialize on the balcony. “I know we can’t all be squirrel girls, but was there truly nothing to be excited about?”
“It’s not like it’s a show I haven’t been forced to witness before. Zis acts like her very salvation lies betwixt your thighs. I often wonder how much essence you must push towards fending off Zis’ wandering hands in public.”
Mnemia shook her head but couldn’t entirely suppress the grin. “It’s more difficult keeping her wandering hands off of others.”
A silence passed between them for a moment before Zuko spoke again. “So, is he going to give you the help you’re looking for?”
Mnemia nodded. “Yes, he fell for the act pretty hard. I’m getting the guides I need but his grace also insisted that I take a bottle of speaking sand that has captured the music of the Dune People, a bronze scimitar stolen from the Blade Mesa and something called a yasal crystal.”
“Fell for it?” Zuko prodded. “First off, you were the one falling on her back, secondly you do need his help and he does hold power over you because of it.”
Mnemia gave Zuko a disparaging look. “Are you okay? That almost sounded insightful.”
“Hey even Kadon does something funny once in awhile, I think I’m allowed my moments.”
Mnemia took a moment to try to chase away the words that disturbed her more than she let on, eventually deciding a change in topic would help. “What of the others?”
“Ananasa brought the Envy into the way point shortly after you and Zis entered the palace. Ioni is about as uncomfortable here as you are. Except where for you the problem is the dryness, for Ioni it’s the heat. The girl hadn’t been further south than Whitewall until she met us. Poor child, she hardly knew trees…”
At that Zuko only smiled and turned his attention to the garden. As he did Mnemia followed his gaze a moment before seeing a bit of movement among the flowers that wasn’t quite natural.
Mnemia laughed a bit, glad someone was having fun.
“I’d best return. Who knows how his grace would act if he caught me speaking to another man on his balcony. We should be leaving the freehold shortly so you can probably return to the Envy as well. It should be much easier to move to and from the Envy once we have entered a journey.”
“Are you kidding? Do you know how much loot I got off those courtiers while they were staring at your fight all slack jawed? Let alone from the royal stores while his majesty was occupied? This place is a pickpocket’s paradise.”
“Good to know you were there to back me up in case the fight went poorly.”
“I had that pompous bitch in my sights every moment of your little performance. Assassinations were part of my focus you may recall. By the way, while you unsurprisingly failed at subtlety and stealth, judging by the faces in the court you definitely won on surprise. I’d give it two and a half stars for a first assassination… you’re coming along decently.”
“Good night Zuko.” Mnemia said as she turned back into the room and returned to the bed.