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continued from Breath of Earth
Guest Palace
Renny Zero Davonae Mukyu Vors
“...Indeed, Davonae and Clement could, through a few umbrella pines, see a colonnaded entrance to a large palace, the road the carriage had traveled on and they now walked on foot ending in a large traffic circle with a fountain in the center of it, the water shooting high into the air. The fountain was in the shape of a dragon, the water emerging from its upturned mouth.”

Zero watched Davonae and others arrange tables while she tracked the many other Lost from the corner of her eyes. Vors was certainly concerned about her and why not? She'd made a fool of herself. She'd never unraveled like that in the field before, only a few times once safe back in quarters. Zero cleared her throat and finally looked at Mukyu again, "I thought I was keeping up with the Strange in all this, but...," she gestured to the cushions, "please sit near and we can be more social." Zero eased herself into a sit, thankful it looked graceful.

Vors aided Renny in getting the tables together, so that the five could sit together.

Mukyu nodded and tucked a stray purple lock behind an ear as she sat beside The Other. "Zero, right?" she asked. "I'm Mukyu." The bow was from the waist, even seated. She wondered if the exegesis translated her name as Infinity and if Zero's was something more graceful in her own tongue. She reached into her robe and produced a metal canister with script that read LUBRICANT on one side and set it on the table. Turning it about she exposed the word SOCIAL to Davonae. "The something stronger that," she hesitated, "I'm sorry, I don't know your name, but I think you suggested previously."

"Davonae." The girl responded as she eyed the container. "That seems like it might help us all relax a bit. Shame we don't have any coconuts."

The two tables now together, Renny threw in "I'm Renny" with a grin. She looked around to see if there were any handy glasses. Renny spotted some glasses across the room, dashed over, grabbed five of them, and brought them back to the table, just in time to catch what Zero was saying.

Zero nodded to each person and said their name, just to fix it in memory and check for errors. She did the same with Vors, so everyone knew the roster. Her eyes lingered just long enough with him to add, "I'm better now." Zero gave a small summary with pointing to Vors and herself, "We were contacted a few days ago. My world... is in sorry shape, the Imperials will help us as we help them. We're here to make it happen. I'm very confused. My family...," Zero looked at Mukyu with better composure, "is all dead."

Then Zero reached across the distance and pointed to the ghost script that was and wasn't familiar, "Social. Lubricant." She titled her head and looked at Mukyu. "I have never had that. It sounds peculiar."

"It's my wingman's attempt at being humorous," Mukyu explained, "a play on words." She accepted the glasses Renny had procured with a smile of thanks and arranged them before her in a pentagon. "Home brewing on the platform is against regulations, but it's one that's not regularly enforced if the proper steps are taken."

The pilot uncapped the canister and considered the others at the table, recognizing this as a moment of import. She continued to explain as she poured into the four glasses that mirrored the seats of her dinner companions."So, of my own family I have no recollection. The man I called Grandfather since I can remember, though... he was one of the better distillers in the Alliance, and a master mechanic. He always had a bottle of /shochu/ stowed within his toolkit, and that's where I carry mine as well, along with actual lubricants for repairs and maintenance."

Zero's eyebrows rose. "Ah." Lubricant. Social Lubricant.

"Ah," Vors said, "Ethyl Alcohol."

"Dawn, my wingman, had this bottle relabeled for my birthday, well.. the day I celebrate such, two years ago," Mukyu finished for Zero. "She joked that she was always concerned I'd drink the wrong one, wasting good liquor to degrease engine parts instead of killing brain cells." She indicated the cups and said, "Please."

Zero reached and laid a hand gently on the flask. She raised an eyebrow to Vors in question, not because she thought he'd know what she was thinking, but because she thought that was what would happen at this point in the holodrama they were in. This entire puzzle was an enigma box constructed of dreams and jade worn smooth by years of faith and meditation. If she was half right, or half remembered something that was fully right, the fifth cup must be poured by someone other than the Warrior. Zero saw no objection on anyone's face, so she filled the Warrior's cup as carefully as the other four vessels. She set the flask back down precisely where it had been. For a moment, she did not know what came next, then Zero recalled her favorite childhood adventure holodrama, the Shadow Doctor. She smiled at one and all, "Cul sec!*" She raised her glass.

Davonae raised her glass and gave a nod. She tossed back the drink without hesitation. Clearly Davonae had consumed more than her fair share of strong alcohol. "That's interesting," she said wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "I imagine it has quite a kick."

Renny, who had also downed hers in one swallow, gave Davonae an astonished look. "You IMAGINE it has a kick? Sure, it's not as potent as Aunt Aoibheann's poitín, but it's got an unmistakeable kick, right?" She considered a moment. "Nice aftertaste, too." She gave Mukyu a little salute.

Zero tossed down the half shot and started to ask Davonae to explain her meaning and then Zero's insides went into melt down and it was a moot point. Zero's eyes watered. She groaned. The burn tasted of such flavors!

~Alert. Toxic increase of stomach content. Irregular sliding heartbeat. Install medcomp for analysis.~

Zero grinned around a small hot wheeze. ~Cease monitor functions. Go to sleep comp!~ Zero nodded with some wonder and delight at Renny, but speaking was too much for the moment.

Vors took his own drink carefully, sipping it in tiny bursts. The mentat tried to remain composure, and only managed it by holding up a hand and focusing his will to make it so.

Mukyu nodded to Renny. "I think this batch was mostly sake lees and taro as base starches with some barley and carrots for good measure. That's what gives it the earthy warmth and nutty finish," she explained. A small shrug and a glance down to the glass was intended to be self-depreciating, "I'm not a brewer, but I aided my grandfather enough to know the basics."

The pilot lifted the canister to pour a second round, but hesitated. "Perhaps we should sample some of the food before another?" Mukyu asked.

"I think it would be wise to eat some food to avoid the overly deleterious effects of drinking on an empty stomach." Vors said, putting a couple of the dumplings on a plate.

Zero just nodded and hid a smile. Whatever that was, it was no drinking she'd ever done. She was impressed the Vors seemed to know of it.

Not interfering, the chamberlain sat nearby on a table of his own, sipping his green tea and watched and listened. His intent to read and monitor his guests was evident, as he cocked his head time and again. He seemed somewhat surprised by Mukyu's impromptu drinking party, but only raised a cup of tea and sipped it.

While Renny was eager to do another toast, she had noticed Zero and Vors' responses to the drink, and decided Vors' words were wise. "Food!" she exclaimed, suddenly realizing how hungry she was. She rapidly filled her plate with dumplings, noodles, meat, and even a bit of rice. She wielded chopsticks like someone confident and dexterous yet still a novice.

Davonae responded with a giggle and attempted to follow Renny's lead. The use of chopsticks did not come naturally and her food slipped all over the place. Her smile never faltered though and she appeared to be enjoying the ordeal. "You are one who would enjoy the feasts of my people," Davonae said to Renny. "And they would appreciate someone with so much passion. And if you can't tell, we mostly eat with our fingers." Davonae let out a little gasp as a dumpling escaped and rolled across the table. She shook her head and laughed. "Seriously? Who invented eating with little wooden sticks?"

"Given this culture, there is likely an ancient historical and traditional reason for it. They do seem to be prone to such baroque forms. Do you not agree, Zero?" Vors said. Zero nodded at this.

Mukyu smiled and snatched the dumpling before it rolled off the table with the deft movements of someone that had used little wooden sticks her whole life. "Try using them for soup," she offered as she replaced it in the islander's bowl. "That's when you know you've mastered them on my world."

Zero tried the foodsticks but it seemed a bit pointless to her. Still, as weapons they'd be easy to hide. A thought for later, perhaps. Zero dished herself some of everything present.

The pilot had taken a portion of rice, some of the vegetables and a much smaller serving of pork. Mukyu seemed impressed by the amount of meat in evidence, and wondered if this was an extravagance to awe the newly found Eggs. She tested the first bite by itself, and then decided on the green paste-like condiment to accent the next.

"If you like it spicy," Mukyu offered, sliding the mustard smelling condiment toward Zero and Vors first.

Vors gratefully took the mustard and spread a bit of it on a piece of meat. His eyes blinked in surprise. "You did not exaggerate" he said to Mukyu.

"Speaking of 'On my world', maybe that's the way to get to know each other," Mukyu suggested after another bite. "We could each mention something we think might be interesting about each of our homes."

Zero used her fingers on the food, as there were no familiar utensils. She spoke after several bites, "Well, I'll name three things and we can all follow with questions and such. Ka El has one city inhabited now, a consolidation of our retreat in the face of overwhelming force. The eventual inheritors of our planet may be the cryptotech, nanodroid servitors that seem to have found a program of survival in the face of the wreck of the world. That might change depending on how badly the Empress needs help or how long it takes to learn the necessary Imperial secrets of resistance. And for three... " Zero paused, "I thought I liked home cooking, until I ate this food. This is marvelous."

"It would not be fair or balanced for me to give three more things about Ka El," Vors said. "I would not wish discussion of our city state to overly dominate our table."

Renny frowned at Zero's first words, and occupied herself spreading a bit of the condiment on a slice of pork. When Vors had finished speaking, Renny spoke up. "Zero, I take it your world is " --she grasped for words-- "very good at making very sophisticated machines? It seems that all the worlds I have heard of like that have been under fierce attack."

Renny took a bite of the pork, and her eyes went wide and then a bit watery. She coughed a little, but otherwise held up stoically, and then a smile broke over her face. "That's actually quite good, but I think I'll take much less next time."

Zero looked surprised for a moment. It only now occurred to her that everyone at the table had the same struggle she'd been worrying over with the Imperials. Exegesis was a particularly vexing thing. Lorinne and Glandive had made things seem... easier. She nodded at Renny. "Yes. My words were careless. Nanodroids are tools that are instructed--or taught-- from the atoms upward in scale. Cryptotech is a recent word for us, describing the unknown transformation of servant tools into something wild and sometimes feral."

"Your world sounds fascinating." Davonae had given up on the sticks and was now also using her fingers to partake of the feast. "There is very little machinery in the village where I was raised. We lived off of the sea and the land. Except for the occasional quarrel between villages, it was very peaceful. I can not imagine the place you are from."

Zero smiled, imagining such a delightful place as Davonae described.

Renny picked up the thread. "And my world has some machines --steam engines and the like-- and we know some war, yes, but it is merely between the nations of the world, without interference from elsewhere."

Mukyu had moved onto the rice. She rolled Zero's terminology over in her head even as she made the comparisons. "Ka El reminds me of my world in several ways," she admitted, "but I don't even live on the planet. Our war has been three centuries of ravaging by what the Imperials believe are a servitor race of their Dwimmerlaik enemy. There are numerous human enclaves that survive, but the military political structure Third Alliance for Humanity is stationed upon a..." Mukyu hesitated and nodded to Zero, accepting the form of breaking down unfamiliar terms, just as she had previously with Renny, and continued, "A moon, if you will, further from the planet and locked in a stable position in the heavens, held between the attraction of the planet and it's primary... sun."

"I'd appreciate somewhere we could live off the sea and land," Mukyu admitted. "Where each batch of shochu didn't depend on what ration surpluses could be bartered for from the quartermaster's hydroponics division. Nutrient infused water to grow our vegetables because our moon has no farmland. And I suppose that's three for me."

Zero swallowed and tried not to stare at the Warrior. Three hundred years of Dwim attacks? The weapons and tenacity of such a Resistance were hard to imagine. She felt hard pressed to express how impressed she was, so she let the food occupy her while she thought.

"I wish to explore what you said, Captain" Vors said to Renny, putting down one of the small spring rolls and filling in the conversational space ceded by his kinswoman. "Is it a pattern, then, or just a statistical coincidence that worlds high in technology are the worlds the Dwimmerlaik have been targeting. Perhaps we need more data points to infer a trend." He picked up the spring roll again and began eating it.

Renny agreed. "I'm certainly don't know that many worlds yet, so perhaps it is coincidence. But I find it worrying, because my world has been developing more sophisticated machines in recent years, and I would not want to see the trend continued there."

[Then from beyond the table where they all sit]

In the meantime, Kido looked down the table and raised his voice. "Cathak Fawsi, might you speak on the matter?"

Fawsi nodded, raised his voice. "You really need a Ledaal or a Mnemon to explain their nature, but I was given to understand that the Dwimmerlaik are from some space and place not connected to the Stair at all. They 'break into' the Stair, and marshal forces, allies, servants to attack other worlds. They cannot, though, break into worlds such as ours directly. When they came here, they and their troops came through a now-destroyed Door near the Imperial Mountain."

Zero fit that news into the swirling knowns and hints from Glandive. Added to the Warrior's comment about three centuries and it seemed the Dwims were never after resources or expansion. The motives seemed to be exactly what Lorinne told them, complete destruction of the worlds they could break into. Zero pondered how such primitive motives could hold unless the Dwims were ruled by a theocratic tyranny or even a telepathic class oligarchy. It would explain how all conversations and overtures of diplomacy had failed on Ka El, even when the Dwims sat down to talk. The were not really interested at all.

Zero wrinkled her nose in thought and stopped eating. So why destroy high tech worlds as a priority? So why kill all cats? Were cats actually telepathic? Or did they resemble some other race within the Stair that were effective enemies of the Dwims? She shook off the question and glanced sideways at the Warrior.

Zero cleared her throat and spoke directly to Mukyu, "Your resistance to the Dwims is amazing. I would think your combat experience and techniques would be a great advantage to the Empire. But if I may comment, none of us should let them divide us and negotiate with us as individuals. The Houses here will seek to pluck us up as if the only strategy is replacing their losses and preventing other Houses from gaining undue advantage. We should act in concert, as a group, if possible."

Mukyu regarded the Other across the table, her gaze flickering to Vors, Davonae and Renny. Apparently Zero was better at dealing with this Strange than she had suggested. "A collective bargaining agreement among the rare and limited resources that the Empress has spent so much expense to gather?" She chuckled.

"Seems almost cruel," the pilot admitted. "But, a point in favor of maintaining our own interests against being swept up by the duty to the Empire propaganda." Mukyu considered Penter's disappointment as she poured herself a cup of steaming tea.

Davonae shrugged. "I can honestly say that the twins of House Peleps​ have been nothing but wonderful to me. They have helped me so much since coming to find me and shown me many great things." She paused for a moment, considering. "Of course, I was never really lost. My parents tucked me away for safe keeping. So even though I remember very little of my life before my Island, all of this has been more of a homecoming for me. It is more about finding answers than forming questions. I think that puts me in a strange place. But, with that said, if it would help everyone, I would be willing to stand together."

Renny wanted to agree with everyone. "The Cathaks who came to me have seemed straight with me, and I think we have much to learn from the Imperials. But I feel very strongly that we" --Renny looked meaningfully around the table-- "should stick together. I would be sad to see any of our worlds end up like the Field Marshall's."

"There are, as they say, five sides to every story." Vors said reflectively, sipping some of the tea. "There is clear advantage, though, no matter what their motives for the Empire to divide us amongst Houses,to see us inculcated to their way of thinking, their beliefs and their culture. I have already suspected that they in part chose those whom they made contact with to try and maximize this." He nodded to Davonae. "You might not be a truly Lost Egg, but to send two charming and talented twin sisters was wiser than, say, an older, less approachable man. House Mnemon sent a war party to us, and one skilled in the lore of Second Breaths and esoteric arts to ensure their impossible abilities would come to the fore. You," he nodded to Renny "had an airship captain like yourself find you. And you, Mukyu, had a group of soldiers with high magictech that superficially resembles your own gear come find your world. I do not think that these are accidents. There is much unexplained." He gestured against to Mukyu and Zero "much that perhaps the Imperials themselves do not understand. But we should present a strong front, to at least see our worth to this Empire."

Mukyu nodded, agreeing with the unexplained and the fact that she felt targeted by the Empress if not Penter and his Talon.

Renny said, "Not accidents indeed. They were prepared with scouting information on each of us before they came to our worlds. I saw the write-ups on myself, Mukyu, and others, though I could not read their writing."

[Then from beyond the table where they all sit, again]

Vors quieted, as Fawsi began answering questions posed to him. the questions were too quiet to hear, but Fawsi's resonant voice made his answers plain.

"No, the Door was broken *after* they forced a previously functional one, Field Marshal" Fawsi said to Tamas. "Whether they broke it themselves, or it was broken in the heat of the battle, having one less conduit to the Grand Staircase is a disadvantage.

"The creation and existence of Doors is quite the contentious topic, Clement" Fawsi said, nodding down to the older man. "We do not have the capacity or the capability to create Doors, that appears to be a function of the Staircase itself. Destroying a Door, is, unfortunately, rather more of a possibility for mortals such as us. The Empire is fortunate in that it still has a multiplicity of Doors, allowing it excellent access to the Stair. Of course the more martially minded will note that means there are multiple areas to defend."

“It would be better” he said to the young woman, Mari, at Tamas's table “For her Glory to explain the entirety of the Lost Egg project, its goals, missions, and where you come in. I believe she is coming to meet you all here tomorrow. We do need your help, even as some of your worlds need ours in turn.”

Zero nodded at the Imperial comments, as if the Lost Eggs needed any clearer indication that the House Agents were not up on the real reasons behind the current priorities, the Empress was coming herself. Zero suspected this would not surprise Senator Lorinne.

But Zero turned to Renny instead, she pointed, "You haven't told us three things. Your clans are in war. Your crafters are building with steam power. What else is precious about your world, Renny?"

Renny looked at her with a smile. "In my home in mid-November, if you go north past the group of scraggly pines that cling to the rock against the cold breezes of the Atlantic, you can find the best patch of partridgeberries in all Talamh an Éisc, nature's last blessing before the cruel winter sets in."

Zero found herself smiling at Renny. It could be the voice, or the smile, or the strange echo of exegesis laid upon Renny's words. Certainly, the crisp throaty words Renny used were charming. Much more charming than the meanings she 'heard'. A berry patch called bird berries in a Land of Fish. It increased the already titillating sense she'd hit her head and was in a deep coma, her mind acting out a holodrama.

Zero glanced at the Warrior, Vors, and Mémé Davonae. She needed to take this all seriously, but not get lost in the puzzle parts. This group was entirely too full of social charms, pretty faces, and graceful mysteries. Zero felt her lack of social grace by comparison. Her social time as a soldier consisted of speeches she did not write, drinking synthehol with teammates to bond through downtime, and snatching snog time with some likely scout who was not intimidated by her reputation.

That last started a line of thought Zero squashed.

She looked at Davonae. "I think that leaves you to tell us three things of your paradise world."

"Hmm, let me think," Davonae's eyes darted back and forth as she considered her answer. "My world is made up of many islands floating in a blue ocean. It is always rather warm but breezy, especially on the beaches. After the sun sets, there isn't much to do, so we spend the evenings telling stories, drinking fermented juices, and keeping each other entertained. I truly did grow up in a paradise."

"So jealous," Mukyu admitted. "Although, not surprised that Renny's would involve food." She pours herself a second cup of tea and one for Zero without thinking about it.

"Hey!" Renny retorted in mock offense. "Everyone mentioned food or drink in their three things, you mentioned BOTH." Mukyu's smile spread as she offered a slight bow from the neck, as if acknowledging a sparring partner's touch.

Zero noticed the quiet tending to her cup. She winced. Then wondered at her headache and guessed at something: it was not just the shock of meeting Mukyu face to face, or hearing Davonae's familiar voice, or feeling attracted to Renny, it was feeling everything in full. Zero had not felt this sense of connection in years. She had done everything in her power to fool the doctors and had fooled herself as well.

"What Lore is there in the Empire" Vors wondered aloud "To explain this" he said, watching Mukyu's gesture for herself and for Zero. "To judge from the subtle reactions of those here, rather than direct interrogation." he lowered his voice, only the local table could hear him at all "it seems that the presence of twins who are not twins, and yet are both chosen of the very real and very powerful beings who these Dragons are is of significance as yet unguessed. Perhaps" he showed mirth as he looked at Zero "you should ask one, yourself."

Zero sighed. Mentats as friends were so hard to live with sometimes. She nodded once at Vors, then told him evenly, "While I appreciate your zest in exploring all avenues. The very last thing I want to think about right now is asking a Magic Lizard Queen if she is my mommy." She held up a hand lest he think she was being more a senior officer than a friend, "You're right. I'll do it. But give me some time...," she found you could not complete the sentence.... 'to feel all this.' She shrugged with a tired smile. She put a hand up and rubbed a finger against her sternum.

"My apologies, Zero" Vors replied.

Renny looked to Davonae. "It sounds like your home's weather is much warmer than mine, but we both have evenings to while away with stories. Do your people sing and dance as well in evenings?"

Davonae nodded. "That and drumming. Lots of drumming. Some other instruments too. I was always too distracted to learn to play one though. And I'm a terrible singer." The smile turned to a grin as she finished.

Mukyu nodded in agreement and arranged the glasses again. She didn't pour right away. She smiled at Vors and said, "I'll admit, I thought you were suggesting she just ask one of the twins, not the Magic Lizard Queen, meaning... well... me."

Turning to Davonae, Mukyu remembered, "Didn't you say something about Imperial twins earlier?"

"Yes. The twins of House Peleps. They found me and escorted me here. They are quite lovely," Davonae replied.

"The white haired ones." Vors said with a nod. "I will hesitate to engage in exploring avenues of theory in regarding the empire." he gave Zero a smile; then pitched his voice in the direction of the watching Chamberlain, "I will say this, I look forward to meeting this Empress of theirs, and more people from all walks of life. Perhaps we will be allowed to see places beyond these walls?"

Kido offered, "I believe that excursions and exploration are going to be afforded to you by the delegations of the various Houses. Lest, of course, Her Glory has ideas of her own."

Zero knew little to nothing about twins. It was a less than a one percent incident on Ka El and she'd never researched it. Neither did it figured in any holodramas, fantastical or historic. She surveyed the other tables, her gazed arrested on the Dark Fox again. The Creature did pantomime with the mature fellow at that table, indicating both had some high language skills. That was a theme here; lots of skills, extensive experience with war and life, and yet... as Vors saw too clearly, Imperial commentary on this coterie gathering would be useful.

Zero hmphed to herself, the Lost Eggs effort wasn't just this room. There could be another such gathering in a month or a week. Too much at stake here, guided personally by the Empress, to have all the eggs in one plastseal. Zero smiled, 'Her Glory'. The Imperial language was well suited to tradition and drama and operas.

Zero nodded. Change was scary. There were Imperials that would oppose what the Empress was introducing into this traditional mix. Zero found her own fears ebbing. She recognized in herself she didn't like this kind of change---weird and unknowable---but here she had banter, laughing, smiles, and the pleasant thought of saving a world of warm beaches with drumming and drinking and happy people that did not know war. That would be plenty for her. She scraped out some more food for her bowl and offered the platter around the table.

Zero tried for a joke, hoping it would translate, "No apologies, Vors. I'm more than a little off balance, therefore cranky. If ever you stop analyzing, I'll know you are possessed by an opera diva sure to poison me in my sleep in the final act."

Vors inclined his head toward Zero.

"Opera?" Davonae cocked her had to one side and tried to hear the word again. "What is Opera? I have never heard of this and that whole sentence just lost me." She smiled and shrugged. " I've been getting lost a lot lately."

Mukyu smiled warmly at Davonae, accepting that the young woman was just voicing what they all were feeling. She looked to Zero and Vors for something less than permission before offering her reassurance. "I'm uncertain that even knowing what opera is in my world, that I would know what one is in Ka El. For me it's a drama, a play of sorts, but with singing and music."

The pilot tilted her head to the left as she gazed at Vors. "A diva, well, Vors doesn't match much any definition of the word to which I've been exposed."

"No. I am not a diva." Vors agreed. "If I am a part of this Opera, I am the aria di sorbetto, the part that is relatively small compared to most of yours. I am a Lost Egg, but a Lost Egg Dragon Blooded, not a Warden. You are the Divas, not I."

"And I don't know that word at all," Renny agreed. "Maybe just because we don't get much exposure to operas in Talamh an Éisc? I've seen the Begger's Opera, heard a few Handel arias, and that's pretty much it." She looked sympathetically at Zero, knowing how awkward it could be to explain jokes.

Zero shrugged and then chuckled. "Meh. I'm an idiot and not good with this language thing yet. Every thing in its time I guess."

Renny caught Mukyu's gaze and nodded significantly at the flask. "May I?"

Mukyu offered the simplest of nods.

Zero repositioned her cup where Renny might refill her while pouring, her ear cocked to catch some of the cultural byplay going on with the Chamberlain and various tables. All the Lost were going to be barbarians to the nuanced Elite. It would be more of an obstacle than talking to each other was. Apparently there were cultural divides to remind the classes where they stood. It did not sound as if she would find it easy or comfortable.

Seeing Mukyu's nod, Renny poured for the other three women and Vors, going around the table in order in an effort not to make him seem any less than the others in this. She did not pour for herself, though she did carefully leave enough for another glass to be poured.

"Thank you" Vors said to Renny.

Mukyu picked up the cylinder and finished it off in Renny's glass with a pleased smile, glad that her social cues could be picked up by a friend. It gave her hope that this group of individuals could be more. Her right hand brushed at her sternum, or something under the kimono and a realization crawled across her face and she looked closer at Zero's suit.

"Another toast?" the pilot asked.

Zero nodded with careful enthusiasm. "Yes, please."

Renny rose her glass, paused a beat to give the others a chance to do likewise. "To new friends -- may we save our worlds together! Sláinte!" She downed her drink.

Zero followed the forms, letting the searing brew flourish on her palette before the swallow. Her nose tingled. It was most entertaining. She nodded to the others. "Cul sec!"

Vors raised his glass, stared at it. "We are consuming alcohol at a non-trivial rate. However, it appears to have its effect to bond us closer together, even as the rest of the room eats its meal." He did give a lingering glance at Zero and Mukyu.

"Non trivial, but limited," Mukyu agreed. "I expect none of the Dragon-blooded to crash and burn after just two rounds." She tipped her glass toward the others and offered her own, "Kampai," with a wink toward Zero. The warmth slithered down her throat like a fiery dragon.

"To hear the Chamberlain" he said, indicating Kido. "Our social rank is high in the Empire. We knew this, but it may be higher than I initially calculated. This is doubtless of advantage to us. We should make use of it."

"You, Vors, remind me of a Commander I once had," Mukyu offered. "He also liked to remind me of my ability to focus in on my immediate surroundings and disregard the larger theater of operations." She replaced the cap on her cylinder and tucked it aside, wondering how much sarcasm would translate into Imperial. Deciding it was like communications circuits on the HERA, she reined herself back.

Vors alertly turned to listen to Mukyu.

"I agree that mingling with the others might be more productive than an intense discussion here. I agree that there are too many variables unknown," the pilot admitted. "But I've only been aware of magick and other dimensions as something other than fiction less than a day. This focus of mine, it might be a defense mechanism, it might be a weakness, but I need to know my ZOC is clear before I can worry about broadening my horizons in social circles."

"Right now, I'd like to find a second, third, or maybe even fourth friend to match the one I've already made," Mukyu explained with a smile for Renny. "Pilots don't last half as long without a wingman."

Renny favored her with a nod and a smile back.

Zero concentrated on the sensation of the exegesis now, instead of letting the slippery quality bother her. Zeeohcee meant something tactical, like a sweep or patrol. Mukyu, much like herself when she first met Vors, was uncertain of the social cues of the mentat. His commentary was so dry. So coupled with the comment about friends, well it would be like having someone at your back. And a 'wingman' would not be a mechanic or crafter, it would be a partner. Zero offered, "There are so many unknowns, but I can tell that I want to know more about the Warden of a world where you can hold off the Dwims for three centuries. Consider me, more than intrigued." She tapped her glass on the table twice for emphasis. It seemed like a reasonable offer without betraying any promises yet made.

Renny considered. "I've never really been part of a two-person team. Sometimes I've had to go crosshanded. But usually I've been part of a crowd." She looked warmly around their table, as if to say, This is a crew I'd be happy to serve with.

Davonae's expression became serious. "I have always been the outsider in some ways. I was not born of the people and most of them truly believed that I was given to them by the Gods. Some thought I was not truly alive because I did not need to breath when under water." She shrugged. "I suppose those mysterious have been solved. But for as kind and loving as the people in my tribe were, I always thought that they were a little afraid of me. It would be nice to spend time with equals for a change and to have the chance to truly get to know each of you."

At the admonitions from Zero, Renny, Davonae and Mukyu, the Mentat simply nodded in agreement.

Zero kept her eyes on Davonae's expression and her own face calm. Kido expounded in the background, and various Lost were asking polite but pointed questions Zero could barely make out.

Outsiders for Life. And now the Imperial culture with clear ideas about giving them a surface veneer of respectability. Certainly the uniform of Imperial authority would make daily life easier. It was a class society without apology. Yet Lorinne understood Zero's first duty was as ambassador to Ka El. Was an ambassador expected to dress in local fare and play at fitting in? Zero fingered the smooth edge of her cup.

Zero leaned into the center of the table and lowered her voice. "Davonae is right. We need each other just for balance in this coming storm. I, also, have struggled more of late with being the Outsider. I was willing to hide that to further the role given to me by my leaders. Things must change now. I'm tired of being the ...Chosen Warrior. I need to touch life again and believe."

Vors looked up, regarded Zero, and shifted slightly as he caught Mukyu out of the corner of his eye.

Mukyu reached out tentatively, before laying her hand atop Zero's on the cup. The hand is roughened from hours of weapon practice and gripping control collectives even gloved but it is a soft, gentle, and light warmth. "Believe in us, Zero."

Zero saw the move arrive with mild surprise as the warm rough touch settled. A flicker of something rumbled through her chest, and it seemed loud enough someone would comment on it. But no one flinched or added anything. Inside her head, the second thought was 'that doesn't feel like my hand at all', and the third thought was that she felt her inner dream child go heavy with sobs of relief. She bit her lower lip, disappointed that well informed doctors had not helped her as much as this collection of strangers might. Had she just begged for someone to touch her? Was that what she meant? She blushed. "I would be honored to make it so," she whispered in a calm even voice.

Davonae laid her soft hand atop the other two. There were no words to add so she simply nodded. Sisters were not always born of blood, the elders used to say. Sometimes they were born of experience.

Renny laid her hand on top of Davonae's. Like Mukyu's, it was rough, product of long years of gutting cod, hauling nets, and more than a few pitched hand-to-hand battles. She smiled warmly. These two warrior women may have come from very different cultures than Renny's, but she felt like she understood the basic shape of their cores of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice. And sweet Davonae, who seemed like the water itself; Renny wondered what storms she could throw up if the mood fell upon her.

Renny made sure that Vors could join in this bonding if he wanted. She didn't really understand him at all, but she gave him a little look to let him know he was welcome too, without trying to make him feel forced either way.

"I came here by accident" Vors said, placing his hand on top of Renny's. "As Zero can tell you, the Senator and the Warrior came looking for her. I brought Zero to them thanks to my role within the government, but there was no indication that I was to be anything more, until they ran their test." He swallowed. "At best, I thought I might be here merely as observer, and not as Lost Egg. This unexpected status and the events on our journey have disturbed my equilibrium." His tone changed to a slightly self-depreciating one "Perhaps you have noticed so." He regained his > composure. "I will not, however, abandon the tentative bonds being forged here. You need the flowing path of possibilities and information." he smiled. "And I need your friendship. I cannot stand alone, and would not."

...beat pause and then enter the Fox from another table

Aranwen trotted up behind Renny, stopping just short and warbling quietly. She stretched out a paw and if she might tap the young woman, but didn't actually make physical contact. When she took a step back and sat, waiting.

Renny squeezed Davonae's hand beneath hers, and gave her table mates a small nod, as if to say "Excuse me." Without taking her hand from the stack of them, she turned her body and head until she could make eye contact with the fox. "Yes, Aranwen?"

Davonae peered around Renny. "Perhaps the fox wishes to join us?" The girl smiled brightly, clearly amused by the thought of it.

"It is possible the fox wishes for a drink of alcohol." Vors suggested, but in a tone that Zero would pick up as his attempt at a jest.

Mukyu maintained her calm, pleased that the world hadn't exploded in some zen-like montage scene from a tridee drama in that instant when she touched Zero's hand, and at the same time, perhaps she found herself a bit disappointed. The unity of her tablemates seemed a suitable substitution.

"One must be careful when dealing with tricksters like the Kitsune," Mukyu offered with a widening smile. She too hadn't broken contact from the pile of hands, almost afraid to break the solemnity of the moment, despite the conversation moving on.

When Renny turned, and Aranwen was certain she was paying attention, she sat up and neatly tapped the sides of her front paws together. Then, as she had with Tamas, she put her paws down and waited for Renny to respond. Renny looked apologetically at Aranwen. "I'm sorry, I don't understand?" She seemed to be treating the fox as an intelligent peer with whom she had some communication difficulties.

Zero tilted her head in consideration of the Dark Fox. She glanced back at the table with the ongoing discussion of Imperial propriety, for it was obvious that the Fox was observed from several parties. Zero offered, "Fox may not want drink but be glad of some food. Although in the stories, strong drink attracts them." Zero did not move her hand. The rumbling inside gathered pleasantly, expanding along her shoulders.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Renny said, as she realized she had forgotten something. "Aranwen, this is Zero, Vor, and Davonae." She gestured with her free hand so the fox would know which was which. "B'ys, this is Aranwen. She came with Field Marshall Wolfe." Renny nodded in the direction of Tamas's table.

Aranwen waited, mostly patient, looking politely at each face until she realized they were all connected. She sat up, excited, settled herself squarely on her hind end to sit up and carefully repeat the very deliberate double tap of her front paws. She watched Renny, waiting for recognition, scooted a little closer and repeated the action again, slower this time.

"She's saying 'friend'," Clement called over from his table, obviously watching from his table. He demonstrated the hand movements. "Looks like I need to expand my signing lessons. I wonder how much I should charge?"

~Aranwen.~ Zero watched the alien patiently wait on Renny. This was a marvel. Zero nodded to Clement across the distance, some kind of acknowledgement of his comment and his notions of an agenda outside the Imperial mandate as well. She offered a small smile.

Renny gave Clement a friendly nod as she called "Thanks!"

Renny turned back to Aranwen, grinning. "Now, friend, I understand that sign. How may I help you?"

Aranwen tilted her head sharply in a question of her own and then she glanced at the joined hands, the collection of people around the table, and scooted to the side an inch, careful not to crowd the next human. She sat up again, as tall as her diminutive frame allowed, brought her paws up almost level with her nose and extended toward Renny, and repeated the gesture.

Renny tried to intuit what Aranwen meant. "Are these my friends?" Renny gave them all a fond look. "Yes." She looked back at the fox to see if this was what she had been asking.

Aranwen lowered her paws, gaze searching Renny's face, ears shifting to track all the sounds, as she considered things. She answered with a low, uncertain sounding warble that lifted up to a higher, more positive note and ended in a little sigh as she looked around the group, craning her head to look up at the human mostly behind her.

Vors looked down at the Fox and furrowed his eyebrows. "I do not understand" he said, looking at Aranwen. "You seem uncertain about what is being asked here. Yes, we are friends, Aranwen."

The fox tilted her head, regarding Vors from beneath one raised brow, her ears eschew.

...enter Keys

At this point, Vors turned, as a servant brought in a Warden and a new Lost Egg. Zero could see his eyes narrowing, studying, listening, calculating, his focus intent on the newcomers.

A staffer said, "I present to you Lord Veron of House Ledaal, and his Lost Egg"

The Ledaal, an older dark haired man (casting call: Dylan Baker) nodded. Kido rose in a bit of haste and rushed over.

"I am sorry, milord." he said. "I had no idea there were more yet to come this evening. Will you do the grace of introducing me?"

"Yes" Veron said. "This is Keys, from the City of Sigil, from a Gossamer World that is attached to the Labyrinth itself. Keys, this Kido, the Chamberlain of the Guest Palace and has been for a number of years." Veron's eyes wandered from the interaction and scanned the room, nodding to Fawsi and Kevarian and studying the various Lost Eggs.

"We are toward the latter portion of the meal." Kido said. "My sincere apologies. More food can be brought,of course." His worry and concern, Keys noted, was as solicitous to her as her patron.

Keys looked around. "Don't sweat it, Kido," the white blond haired young woman said cheerfully. "A plate of the house and a cup of the same will garnish me just fine.

"Oh... do I need slippers here?" she asked Kido playfully, glancing down at her legs. What looked like blue leggings from a distance were actually lizard scaled legs. With a pair of large lizard like feet attached at the bottom. "I did wash them today," she added helpfully.

Zero looked back at Renny from the byplay and introduction of the new Lost. She smiled then at Fox. "Oh we are a jolly equation."

When she saw Kido's legs and feet, Renny made a conscious effort to calmly look away, scanning her friends at the table to see their reactions. Very, very quietly she muttered, "Cloven hooves I know about, but what is this?"

"Lord Kido seems rather surprised as well." Vors said quietly. "So, too, the sponsors that are here. So they can be surprised."

"Makes more than one of us, but in a multiverse connected to some Stair-like spine, why not literal children of Dragons?" Mukyu wondered aloud.

Aranwen noted the newcomer, standing to watch Kido and the others, and then glanced at Zero. She replied with a low chuffing sound, walked her front feet back, and sat again, closer now to Renny than Vors, and turned to watch the new people better.

Renny casually positioned her free hand down at Aranwen's level, giving the fox a chance to put a paw on it if she'd like.

"Dragons..." Kido stopped and stared frankly at Keys' legs. "What..."

At another table, the older man raised his wine bowl in welcome. Zero marked that as a sentiment she could well agree with. Then the entryway conversation added:

"Lord Kido, Keys is a Warden and a chosen of the Dragons. She also has some unusual ancestry. The Dragons choose who they will choose, right?" Veron said.

"Y..yes, milord Veron." Kido said.

"It's all right." Veron said to Keys. He gestured to the tables. "Pick a spot, sit down, let's get to know your fellow Lost Eggs."

Zero looked at Renny and Arawen and said louder than needed, "Yes, this diversity is promising but hard for the Imperials. Our Senator Lorinne made note of several surprises quite honestly on our way here, and Vors and I are rather tame compared to what we see now. Fascinating, really." Zero used her thumb to massage the hands of Davonae and Mukyu twined with hers. Yes, things were looking up. There could be a real set of changes from all this.

Mukyu smiled at the pressure as it calmed her without any idea specifically why.

Aranwen tracked everything in the room, gaze bouncing from person to person, noting reactions as her ears twitched and adjusted to follow the conversations. She lifted her nose, catching as many smells as drifted to her, and then she gave herself a shake, turned to Renny with a chirp and playfully placed one velvety black paw in Renny's upturned hand. Renny acknowledged this with the slightest bow and a big smile.

Zero had only taken her eyes off the Kido and Lost Egg conversation for a half a moment, but of a sudden, the pale blonde with dragon legs arrived with a bounce right next to Aranwen.

[Keys joining the thread with Aranwen... imagine a half lizard woman bouncing delightedly toward the fur ball...]

Zero shifted her balance and leaned closer to Renny, Aranwen, and the newcomer, Keys. Zero followed the enthusiasm in Keys' gaze upon the dark fox. "Welcome, we can make room. Pull up a cushion. Try the rice." Zero introduced the table starting with Aranwen and moving around as the clock, "Aranwen the Fox, Captain Renny, Ambassador Vors, Lt. Mukyu, I am Ambassador Zero, this is Davonae. I think we need more wine at this table." The last was said loud enough to carry.

Keys could plainly see that the entire table's company but for Aranwen had joined a hand in the middle of the lacquered wood. Zero pointed at a servant staring at Keys and made a gesture of drinking with her free hand to encourage action.

By this point, the servant had moved to get another carafe of wine, and more drinking bowls.

Mukyu rolled her hand out from beneath Davonae's and slid it under Zero's, cupping it in her palm. Her free hand she laid atop the pile and smiled. "I agree with Zero. More wine for my new friends, my new allies, and," she kept herself from calling them family, despite the instinct, "Our new visitor." With a simple smile she then released the combined hands.

Renny gave Aranwen's paw a very gentle squeeze and released it as well. Aranwen glanced up, took her paw back and settled to watch.

"Keys!" the blonde announced. "Wine is good!" With a grin she looked around. "Not sure about the allies part, but I'm always up for a party." She looked around, grabbed a cushion and dropped onto it, her blue legs folding indian style in front of her, her short blue tail curling around her hip to rest against her. "So.. you all these lost eggs and wardens that Veron was telling me about? Even you, fur face?" Keys asked the fox directly.

Aranwen's answer was a silent head tilt.

Keys nodded to the fox in response, looking a little impressed.

Davonae let out a laugh but quickly gained control. "Actually, that's quite a good question. I've seen a racoon manage to open a door once but that's about it. I will admit to never having seen a fox before though. They only exist in legends where I'm from."

"Doors don't need hands, just the dark of how to open them," Keys replied. "Seen a door opened by carrying a finger bone. A door that opened if you sang a note. A door that opened for you if you wore a shade of red. Doors have their own rules in places. And the doors on your stair just seem to need the will and the power. What you call a Warden." The blonde looked around for a cup or jug.

Renny quickly scanned the room until she found an unclaimed jug of wine and a suitable drinking cup, and dashed across the room to grab them. Returning to the tables she poured a glass for Keys, then filled anyone else's glass who wanted some, and finally filled her own. Lifting it, she nodded to Keys and said, "Cheers."

The servants returned with the wine, bowls, and cushions. Veron took the cushion that Keys did not and nodded. "Well met." he said, looking at the group assembled in turn. "I am Veron, of House Ledaal. But I have gathered that Her Glory is preferring that all of your various finders aren't all here hovering over dinner. With a few exceptions I note."

"I think that the Fox is a familiar of the military officer." Veron addressed Tamas. "Forgive me, you're clearly a military man, but I can't read your insignia and so do not understand your rank."

Keys' words were not passing the exegesis with full meaning. No surprise now. Zero realized her senses were not as advantaged as the Fox. She was just barely keeping up with tracking gestures and voices, and if only she could pivot her ears she might be able to do more. Zero found herself smiling in a particularly strange way at Davonae's laugh. Zero shrugged. In scouting, sometimes the best days were rolling with the punches Fate doled out. Rao said, 'in every proposal, Fate does not disclose all terms'. Zero felt a trickle of giddy sneak into her thoughts then, for almost, almost it did feel like the small group had just agreed to something monumental and intimate. She tingled and could not explain the excitement.

With a tiny huff of breath--the 'mind wind' koan--Zero gracefully accepted another refill from Renny and enjoyed herself. Perhaps this Marshall Tamas would teach them all to speak Fox.

[at a nearby table...Tamas Wolfe]

Tamas looked at his dinner companions. He said something softly to them as he stood up. Turning to directly face Veron, Tamas stood still and then bowed slightly while pitching his voice to be clearly heard.

"I am called Tamas Wolfe;" he said. "On my homeworld, I was a Duke and a Field Marshall in my kingdom's armies." Here, he paused and his gaze grew distant. "My unit, Wolfe's Dragoons, and I have been in combat with the Dwimmerlaik for over a century. Once, I had overall military command of the world's military forces; millions of troops." He sighed. "Now, we are but isolated pockets of resistance, tiny spots of light in the sea of darkness that is the Dwimmerlaik." He sat back down then.

Aranwen turned as Tamas rose to his feet and trotted over to join him. She surveyed the occupants of the room attentively, turning her full attention to Tamas only after he sat back down.

Tamas scratched her head between the ears and nodded at her. "We're fine;" he told her. "I just want to get moving. We have a war to fight."

[still at the table...]

"Thank you" Veron said. He seemed to take this gravely, frowning at Tamas' words.

Renny snapped to attention at this. She had understood Tamas's earlier words to mean there was no one left on his world. But if there were still people there? Then there was still hope. Even if it was just hope to evacuate them somewhere safer.

"Dwimmers ain't goin' nowhere. Not tonight. Bagged one myself on the way here," Keys smirked even as she accepted wine and a bowl. She took a swig of her wine, wiped her lips with the back of her hand. "Nasty buggers... anyone heard of this... Second Conclave? Dwimmer had a big mouth and thought there's no one to ask or tell," the blonde asked, looking around the table. Then she grabbed a handful of food with her fingers and shoved it into her mouth.

"Try the green stuff on the meat," Renny suggested to Keys. "I've not heard of a 'Second Conclave', or even a first. But then, we only arrived here this afternoon."

"What is a Dwimmerlaik?" Davonae asked with the innocence of one never exposed to the hardship of war. "I have only heard the word in passing and never thought to ask."

"Didn't meet one until I got the job," Keys said around her mouthful of food. "Dwimmer that is... Nasty berk. Brain eaters have a special place in my deadbook." She licked some drops of sauce from her fingers.

Mukyu swallowed another bite of rice and shook her head. "I've only ever fought their servitors if the Talon that picked me up offered accurate intel," she admitted.

Zero let out a soft breath, she could not keep the table joy of the circle of friends and think about Dwims at the same time. Tamas' words meant a lot, but the frank coolness of the Dragon Keys, with her colorful language did not fog the passion under her words. Davonae deserved an answer, as Zero could make it short, "Dwims. Dwimmers. Dwimmerlaik. They are a warrior race from a realm not dependent on the Stair for existence. They invade what the Imperials call, Gossamer Worlds, and break them and scatter the bits. They killed my family."

"They intend to destroy all of Creation" Veron said. "The Field Marshal's world, Lady Zero's world, the Empire. All worlds. The Dwimmerlaik seek complete annihilation, and a return of the stair and all connected it to the void that they come from."

Zero studied Veron for a beat, but found herself sweeping a look at the eyes of everyone at the table for longer. No one flinched.

Keys rolled her eyes. "Can you get any bleaker?" she asked Veron with some exasperation. "Seriously! There's wine and food and nice smelling people here! The Dwimmers ain't going away, but they ain't here. So drink up!"

"See any dragons yet?" Keys asked the group. "I hear there are dragons around here. Can't wait to see some!" she added.

Zero considered that the Dragon Keys had seen no Dragons. True enough, her own Second Breath involved nothing of Magic Lizards either. But thinking about the temple and Vors explosive transition there, Zero decided that she did not look forward to actually seeing One.

Zero saw from the corner of her eye that some people were leaving dinner now. She hastily added food to her bowl. Then she squeezed Davonae's hand. She leaned closer to her friend, but spoke at volume that everyone could share, especially Keys and Veron, "Keys is very right. The Dwimmers are not here, nor are they going to be here anytime soon. This merry company may, in fact, be a reason it never happens at all. Who can tell, eh?"

Renny gives Zero a fierce look, as if to say, Damn right we will stop the Dwimmerlaik. She might not have known what it was like to fight these creatures, but she had a solid conviction that, working together, she and her new friends could defeat them.

"Indeed" Vors said. "Perhaps we will be the difference required." He turned to look at Keys. "I did make contact with one of the Dragons," he said to Keys. "It is an experience that was, in the end, unwisely destructive. If not for timely assistance, it would have been even more so."

"But the value and confirmation of my Imprint made it worthwhile," Vors added. "However, Lady Keys, I do not think it is a technique that you should replicate, or not without greater preparation and support."

"Are there Dragons of other kinds, Lord Kido?" Vors asked. "Dragons other than these Five? Dragons that Keys might meet?"

"There are lesser Dragons" Kido said. "As one heads toward any of the five elemental poles, lesser Dragons might be met. But to progress toward one of those poles is only safely done by a scion of that particular element. And even then, such journeys are rare."

"That's what Veron told me," Keys said with a touch of disappointment. "Seen dragons before. Nothing like running from an angry rust dragon to get your blood moving. Met them in human form, too. There's a tea merchant in Sigil that smells like one... but he never fesses up to it."

"Rust Dragon?" Kido said, confused.

"There are many kinds of Dragons in the Gossamer Worlds." Veron said. "They may not be Divine, but they are Dragons."

"Not a lot of dragon gods," Keys agreed. "Unless you get into the Celestial Realm. Even then you don't really want to meet them," she said sagely. "And I'm not here to 'imprint' or anything," Keys took a drink of her wine. "Just here to see what's where and map it. That and Veron hired me to come here to see what's up on this side of the stairs."

Fawsi gave Veron a disappointed, withering look. Keys noted the look, didn't say anything. She gave Veron a sympathetic glance.

Zero realized at last that Dragon Keys spoke in meter or slang of some sort and it was a vivid poetry. Her appreciation of the exegesis range went up several notches. Zero sipped wine to wash down the rice. Keys would be the bard then, if the holo-drama form of all this followed Keys being here to record, map, and then return to her world and describe the Imperial position and need. So Zero asked the natural question, "Do tell us of your world and journey, Keys. Perhaps you could share three things that make your own world a place to savor? We are all newly intrigued by the wonder of an Infinite Stair."

"Seen stairs like this before," Key replied. She dipped a piece of bread into her bowl. "Sigil's the City of Doors. Center of the Multiverse. On your side as well as mine I guess," she shrugged. "The door to it is in the center of the Labyrinth. And Veron says that's the center of your stairs. You're all Primes? New to Doors? We have places like that on my side. People that don't know the dark of the planes. We usually call them clueless. The look on their mugs when they realize there's more than their world." She shook her head with a little grin.

Keys popped the bread in her mouth and swallowed. "But I ain't seen cars before. Or blasters. Or replicators. But I seen lots of magic. Worlds of drones and rust. Endless winds that'll drive you barmy. Armies of demons and devils that go on forever. Places where it's always twilight and never night or day. Anything's out there for the looking and finding, if you know how to look and find."

"That's why I'm Keys," the blonde said with a grin. "I know how the looking and finding and openings work. For a price, of course."

Renny grinned ruefully. "I was your 'clueless' last week, and neither do I know magic nor blasters nor replicators, whatever they might be. And I'm thinking you already know the things about Doors that the rest of us are here to learn."

"You're only clueless once," Keys grinned at Renny. "I say enjoy the surprises before they start to try to kill you."

"What can I say?" Renny continued. "I know how to fish, fly, and fight. And those are probably common enough things in all of our worlds."

Mukyu finished a bowl of rice smiled up at the airship captain. "I can't fish, but it's common enough at home. Cars and blasters, I ken them as well, but true replicator technology is still beyond the Alliance's means."

The pilot finally decided to pour herself a glass of the local wine, a short one which she swirled in the bowl before sniffing at it.

"The world we come from, Zero and I, is similar to Lieutenant Mukyu's." Vors explained to Keys. "We are...discovering magic. It is a learning curve, especially for a Mentat like myself."

Zero nodded at the understatement.

[at the entrance...enter Zavier and Dr Garibaldi]

At that point, two figures entered into the room, a man escorting a woman.

"Greetings. I am Ledaal Zavier. I would like to present to you all the Lost Egg Dr. Carla Garibaldi, of the Gossamer Realm of Earth. He moved inside, and gestured so that Carla might enter. "Carla is a specialist in ancient civilizations and cultures" he said proudly.

Zero turned to watch the dark haired Lost as she was introduced and commented to her table, "A specialist in cultures is a good idea for Stair travel. Perhaps she will give lessons."

"It would be excellent knowledge to acquire" Vors agreed.

Renny's attention was caught by the mention of Earth. Could it be? Then Clement spoke in French-accented English to Dr. Garibaldi, and the newcomer responded warmly. Surely any world with both the English and the French was not that different from Renny's?

Zero set her drink down. Anything is out there for the looking and finding. A sister? A twin? A grandmother in younger form? And magic, such that not even the imagination of the dramatists could match. She closed her eyes for a moment and performed a mindful exercise on the smells and sounds of the room.

Zero discovered anger smoldering at the edges of base desires and a need for action. She surprised herself. Carefully she examined it and nodded slowly. Perhaps Vors and she had been expertly played, but then again, she intended to play the part. Ka El might be a more hopeless position than even Imperial strength could assist, but the Empress had many cards yet to be played.

Zero put a gentle thumb down on the table surface without opening her eyes and squashed the rage into darkness.

Keys looked slightly puzzled. "Is that like a Blood?" she asked Veron. "Someone you'd go to before entering a ruin or a tomb for the Keepers? So you know the traps and Jink?"

"I am unfamiliar with a profession such as hers," Lord Kido admitted. "I think perhaps she is a scholar instead?"

Zero squinted and failed to parse Key's meaning well enough to respond.

Mukyu sipped the wine after lifting the bowl in a slight acknowledgement of the new arrival. A small sip, she swished in her mouth for a moment, letting the flavors play on her tongue.

After swallowing and logging the palate in her mental wine diary, she tried to decipher Keys's jargon from context. Unfortunately, the question that occupied her mind was the arrival's origin, and Tamas's, and Renny's, and apparently Clement's, and perhaps her own. Even in a multiverse, could there be such coincidence?

"In my world, they recover the past to understand the present," the pilot answered.

"The study of the past seems to be also the case in Doctor Garibaldi's world as yours, Lieutenant Vors noted to Mukyu. "If people such as she are trained in ancient civilizations and cultures. Have her people have had a fall or a loss of knowledge?" he speculated aloud.

At another table, they all overheard Clement say, "Someone has to teach those Acadian Quebecois how life in a French city should properly be lived." Acadian! Quebecois! Two words rooted solidly in Renny's own part of North America. And then Renny's mind was going along the same track as Mukyu's. She quickly glanced around the room, looking at Clement and Dr. Garibaldi and Tamas and Mukyu. She decided to address the question directly to Keys. "Do you know of London, Paris, or Rome?"

Keys looked up at the ceiling for a moment, thinking, before she answered. "I know 'bout the Via Romana," she said distantly. "The Caesers use it to take their armies up and down the planes of law, from the heavens to the hells. Like that?" she asked, tilting her chin down to look at Renny with pale blue eyes. "You have to be a Roman to use it without a toll."

Renny considered. "Via Romana, the... Roman ... Way? And the Romans were ruled by Caesers, indeed. But what is a 'plane of law'? A place like Heaven or Hell?"

Mukyu remembered her own first assessment of a Talon and the comparison to her Romans, but held her tongue.

Davonae had been sitting quietly, listening, trying to sort it all into her mind. She shook her head and sighed heavily. Under her breath she whispered, "I think I may remain clueless for quite a bit longer. The girl picked up her full wine glass and drained it in one long gulp.

"I've never heard of any of these places," Davonae said with a mirthless laugh. "I think I may require a very patient private tutor who doesn't mind an endless stream of questions. It's like aging in reverse. Or perhaps I'm just hopeless." She finished with a genuine smile though her frustration remained apparent.

Keys gave Davonae a sympathetic look. She grabbed a pitcher of wine, stood and half stepped on the table with a large blue lizard foot. Then refilled Davonae's glass. "The drink of wine gods is always a good way to sleep."

Keys stepped back down, refilled her own glass before putting the pitcher down. "No one ever knows all the darks," she told the young woman. "No one ever know everything. You only know what you can do. And what others want of you." Keys glanced at Fawsi. "Knowing is half the battle." She flopped back down in her seat. "Never give it away. Don't sell it for cheap," she added.

"The Ledaals amongst us know about selling and controlling information" Fawsi said. "And any Warden knows the power of knowing routes on the stair. Shortcuts, key Gossamer worlds, secrets."

"This is true" Veron admitted.

Keys gave Fawsi a side glance that said she was less that impressed with the words.

"You should not be dismayed, Miss Davonae" Fawsi said. "You show clear desire to learn. That is the beginning of the path of knowledge."

"Certainly we should hold dismay for another day, once we know more about the future offered to us," Zero agreed with the Imperial. Zero watched all their faces. She recaptured the familiarity, memorizing them all now as she might the faces of a new team. It was a valuable thing, memory, but only as long as you had hope. In this case it was even more than hope fueling her mindfulness. Zero was certain this was a new chance at family and purpose. The magnitude might be just too much and slightly mad. However, the other choices were worse. Zero felt the cold flutter at her chest again. In this moment she knew that it was important beyond any words. The feeling was not her imagination, or anxiety. No. Fate filled her heart and cinnamon twigs flamed in that dead place. The memory of ashes went dark and this memory for these faces sat in it's place.

Zero felt more real and that was good.

Mukyu shook her head, laying a reassuring hand on Davonae's shoulder. She didn't explain that they were a team now, that they would face this together.

So Zero eyed the small remainder of the wine in her own cup. "A cup shared with friends is a happy memory and time well spent. There is something here that is not explained yet. It is not coincidence nor do I think our recruiters hold back." She sighed. "If the Empress chooses not to explain it, or cannot, it will be a nasty little mystery to unravel. If the Stair keeps all these worlds in order and separate, then how do so many of our stories echo an intimate meaning?"

"Whaddaya mean 'echo'?" Keys asked, leaning back in her seat. "Sounds like you're all egg spawn to me. Scattered like wheat across the planes, bein' harvested now for your bloods. I mean... you know who your sires are? For reals?" Keys took a sip of wine. "Powers have a way of getting around. Their proxies, too."

Zero blinked but gave a terse nod. The idea was weird and distasteful both at once. Keys probably was not trying to be so insulting.

"No, something is definitely odd," Davonae said then took a long sip of wine. "There is a familiarity and certainly an uncanny resemblance between these two." She gestured to Muyku and Zero. "I thought they were sisters or even twins."

The pilot poured herself another drink. "And we've never met before this meal," Mukyu explained.

"And you are from worlds with no prior contact, I take it." Veron said to Mukyu and Zero. "No odd chance of genetic manipulation or something like that."

Zero thought carefully through the words and realized her homeworld terms would scatter interpretation before the winds. So she tried to keep it simple, "No prior contact. Our blood lines are well documented, as is my parentage. Also I resemble my family. Oddly the echoes are even more strange, as that distinguished fellow over there speaks my Clan language while no one else in my world does because my Clan is gone." Zero pointed in Clement's direction. Zero decided to mention the other thing, "And I've seen pictures of my grandmother from before my birth as a young woman. Davonae resembles her most strongly, even to voice tones. Definitely odd. Unexplained by anything said to me so far." Not to leave it there, Zero added, "And Vors is not my Clan or my adopted Clan either. He is yet another mystery of blood. So unless my entire world, ten thousands of years ago, was a colony project of this Empire, which all our records forgot, it just doesn't add up."

Zero thought to herself, ~And maybe it doesn't have to. The dread reality of the Dwimmerlaik is still there.~ Perhaps that's why she felt uplifted instead of chilled by all this ...confusion.

"Isn't any berk hearing what I'm telling?" Key said exasperatedly. "You're Blood. Same blood. Don't matter if you're from different worlds. Gods and Powers can make it happen even if you don't kenn it. And these are proxies for that power." Keys gestured toward Fawsi, Veron and Kido. "You're here to fight Dwimmers." She put both her blue lizard feet up on the table, ankles crossed.

"It's the blood war on a different plane. The Eternal War. And you're getting drafted." Keys tossed back the rest of her drink.

Renny frowned at Keys, having a hard time making sense of her words. "'Blood war'? 'Eternal War'? 'Drafted'? We're getting ... drawn? Pulled? Like cider from a barrel?"

"You are being asked to help." Fawsi corrected with a sharp tone. "Her Glory has made it clear that there is no indentured servitude here. If you do not wish to stay, we will NOT force you to."

Renny looked to Zero and quietly said, "Est-ce que la langue de cette famille?" [OOC: "Is this your family's language?" Google translated, so possibly bad, but then, so is Renny's French.]

Zero's face flushed a bit. She nodded once. Vors cocked his head, listened.

"Is not the simplest explanation, then, that your clan was founded by a Warden from a world with a France? We know all our worlds have two things in common -- they were visited sometime in the past by a Warden, and the Empire thought that we would make good recruits now. So certain commonalities in our worlds should not be surprising at all."

Zero's expression took on a wilder mien. She pushed back a bit from the table. "France? I have no clue what that is. A hidden creche of warriors? With such a threat as the Dwims loose in the Stair, why would this Ancestor Warden decide to 'hide' resources by starting a Clan on a world already older than the Empire? And how would the genetic potential survive the entire history of Clan Tolerance? Over fifteen thousand years." She shook her head. "Magic blood? Gods, at least is a word I understand, not that I believe these Dragons are Gods." Zero only realized how undiplomatic that was once it was out of her mouth.

Zero lowered her chin a bit in deference to the Imperials sitting near. "Not exactly what I intended to say." She sighed and tried again. "It is easier by far to believe Keys idea that I am a magical blood dragon princess than it is to believe that my entire Clan history is a subterfuge to hide secret warrior blood for a future strategic crisis." She shrugged, "I'm a skeptic."

Renny smiled. "It doesn't have to be some complicated plot. A Warden slipped into your world looking for some resource, fell in love, and decided to settle down. She must have been pretty exceptional, to found a clan which lasted thousands of years."

"There are those here" Veron said "who have manifested as chosen of the Dragons who have not had a Dragon Blooded ancestor for centuries. Granted, it is far, far more common that a child of the Dragon Blooded be chosen by the Dragons than a distant descendant of one. Common enough that alliances and marriages of bloodlines are important here. But it takes, it would seem, but a drop of, as Keys puts it, magical dragon princess blood for one of the Five to see you, and believe in you enough to choose you."

"There have been questions for years about my own parents, having been found among the ruins of a Scourge attack," Mukyu admitted. "And the Empire now tells me that our Scourge is but a Dwimmerlaik servitor race."

"It bothers me almost that my Earth has seen three centuries of war and yet seems not worthy of their true attention," the pilot added after another sip of her wine.

Keys turned and gave Mukyu a long look as she described being found. "Funny dark, that," she said thoughtfully.

"The Dwimmerlaik." Fawsi replied. "heavily use their proxies, and do not commit their own people unless they have clear advantage. Its easier to spill the blood of a servant race than one's own kin's." he said. "Would that the Dwimmerlaik make an appearance on your Earth" he said "would be a sign in their confidence in their battle against your world. That they do not is a heartening sign that you are a tougher nut to crack than they expected."

Renny looked to Mukyu for clarification. "Your parents were the survivors of the Scourge attack, or you were?"

Mukyu looked up from her almost empty cup, eyes brimming with a decade of self-doubt, searching for reassurance in Zero's. "I was found at a site of an attack. The only apparent survivor," she explained obliquely as if she questioned the answer herself. Perhaps she considered, she was closer to Davonae's origin story than the Other's.

Zero tried not to overreact to this obvious pain. It would not help. She saw something that cut right through all the hours of her own therapy and guilt; awareness that her own survival with her family a part of the disaster was something that Mukyu had not gotten. There was a ladder of suffering and Zero understood she was not at the bottom of it. She took a slow cleanse-breath. Her hand went out and settled like a feather on the pilot's shoulder. "Perhaps the Imperials have scholar magics that will prove Keys' point. We could be related in significant ways. Perhaps the Dragons see a dimension that is beyond time and space and there is an explanation waiting."

Fawsi looked at Veron and Zavier expectantly at Zero's prompt.

"This strange occurrence is certainly Significant." Veron said. "Are you thinking what I am thinking, cousin?" Ledaal looked at Ledaal and both nodded.

"Clearly, we should arrange a visit for the two of you to the Heptagram." Zavier spoke up first. "That's our magical center of learning and research. Its either that or we talk to the Mouth of Peace, and get a religious opinion."

"Or we go and talk to a Dragon. Or try to." Veron said. "Although those who do that, do not always get what they expect. Although we seem to have to have that already. I wonder if the same Dragon has chosen the both of you."

"I almost think it must be true." Zavier said.

Mukyu offered a non-committal shrug. "If it's not in a treatise in the House of Bells, I'm not likely to understand anyway." The attempt at self-deprecation helped her push the anxiety back below her surface.

Again Zero felt in her bones the Imperials were honestly baffled. It made her own confusion steady and calm. Paradoxically, this firmed her sense that all of them were in for a surprise when the Empress debriefed them. As hard as her own expectations rejected the notion that Keys, perhaps the Empress also, were more interested in this Universe Blood War, whatever that was, Zero thought nothing further could be gained by involving scholars at this time. Zero silently agreed with Davonae, there was little to add at this point. Zero wanted a bed and some downtime. If she had to bet; no single Dragon had called to Mukyu and herself, or even Davonae. But she'd been wrong a lot lately.

Zero made a small murring sound that meant 'sure' or 'understood', an acknowledgement she did not stop to think made sense to her comp and herself, but not to anyone here. Zero was unaware of the quirk. Days of solitude in the field led to such language shortcuts.

"Why is it so important that some dragon chooses anyone?" Keys asked, refilling her glass yet again. "I know... your gods... " she nods to Veron and Zavier, "but... if someone's got the knack, that's what's the jink." She leaned back. "I mean Dwimmers have berks with the knack, too. And they're not chosen. Right?"

Renny was relived to have a question where she had a notion what the answer was. "They believe that being chosen by one of the five Dragons grants power over that dragon's element. I saw a demonstration of the Air power that was quite impressive. Having the power to open Doors --I believe that's what you mean by 'the knack'?-- is an additional power on top of that."

Mukyu seemed convinced that Renny was on target. "And I think Keys, you're suggesting 'knack' is the equivalent of what the Empire has referred to as being a Warden of the Cosmic Staircase."

Keys gave Renny and Mukyu a nod. "Yah... I call it my 'keyness'. Don't think I'm owning anything or watching them like some Warden. I just can find 'em and use 'em."

The pilot pushed away her wine glass, wrinkling her nose as she pondered the idea of Wardens and more importantly, dessert. "Sergeant Chu, on our hike here, suggested that there are Wardens without being Dragonblooded, just as Vors here is 'Blooded without being a Warden, save a much different statistical deviation." She let her eyes wander to the table of food and tried to appraise the relative sweetness of its offerings at a distance.

Vors nodded in agreement to Mukyu.

Zavier looked at Veron.

"We chased a Dwimmerlaik from Sigil to another Gossamer World." Veron explained. "The Dwimmer was very interested in Keys here, which is a problem of its own merits." he said. "But to the point, the chosen of the Dragons are first and foremost manifestors of the element of the Dragon that chose them. Only a few of those are also chosen to be Wardens."

Keys shrugged at that. "We'll see if your gods are interested in me. It's like the Lady's shadow. Not sure I want what goes with the worship."

"And make no mistake." Veron added, looking at Keys, Renny and Zero. "The Dwimmerlaik have some power on the Stair, but it is a power devoted not to protecting it, preserving it, or exploring it, but destroying it. And nothing better. They do not have the favor of the Dragons. They favor only their ends of ending the Stair and the worlds along it."

"Peace, cousin" Zavier said, holding up a hand. "A religious exhortation is not what our new friends are here for, tonight."

"But is what the Dwimmerlaik do the same?" Vors asked. "They open Doors as we can?"

"They can open Doors," Zavier admitted. "However, they have been found in worlds where they have not had a presence on the adjacent portions of the Stair. They have other methods than simply opening Doors as we can. And many allies, more allies than them themselves. Those allies, at least, seem to depend entirely on the Dwimmerlaik to gain their access. Unless those who have fought them know differently." He looked at Zero and Mukyu inquisitively.

Zero looked at Mukyu in deferral to her combat experience, if not her culture's greater experience with the Dwims. She did not withdraw her hand from the Lieutenant's shoulder.

"How many of 'em you fight?" Keys asked Zero and Mukyu. "You fight them? Or their armies?"

"It was Peleps Penter that first even suggested we fought a servitor race," Mukyu admitted, shaking sweets from her mind. "I've flown 68 missions as a pilot of a mecha, fighting what we called Scourge-mecha or providing support to marines, often in combat frames... powered armor for lack of a simpler term."

"While there were wild speculations of 'things from beyond time and space', we knew nothing of Doors or Dragons or Dwimmerlaik." She resigned herself and poured another bowl of wine, smiling gently at Zero's pressure on her shoulder. "I'm a tactical commander, but I'll share whatever strategic insights I might've gained."

Zero cleared her throat and added in a mild tone, "And I'm a scout, never commanded more than a team of twelve. I've never been at Council strategy level. The promotion to Ambassador was... unexpected." She hesitated more than a few beats, "I've fought the Dwims directly, their flyers, their warframes, and even their patchwork nanobeasts. I used to keep track of mission counts but that was years ago."

Renny gazed at Zero and Mukyu. She knew she was quite accomplished for a woman of her age and culture. But it was nothing, NOTHING, next to what those two had done, and Renny knew it. She had nothing to offer in the way of experience fighting the enemy. Would the knowing how to swoop down on an a French vessel be worth anything in this new world? All Renny really had to offer was her skill with a blade and magic powers she knew very little about.

"This is where we also need the insight of your sponsors" Veron said to both Mukyu and Zero. "Her Glory gave us all information to try and find you various Lost Eggs."

"Assignments" Zavier said. "Those Wardens who answered Her Glory's call were given information on a, err, target. Her Glory knows more than any of us, since she gave me information on my lost egg..." he looked down at Carla "who not so coincidentally lived on the Gossamer World I have interest in. It is possible that her Glory might be willing, and certainly capable, of answering more questions along this line. Perhaps even...," he gestured at the twinlike Mukyu and Zero.

Zero almost rose to the provocation of the unsaid but set her mouth instead. This Zavier confessed his missing info and to being manipulated by his own expertise. Yes, that fit the entire pattern. He was also kind enough not to push the assumption of religion.

Zero looked at Renny and then Keys. Keys seemed a 'hard facts' sort and that was a valuable thing in the current waters. It helped that nothing seemed to phase Keys whether gods, magic, or tech extreme. Zero tested and examined the exegesis meanings of 'worship' as spoken by Keys and compared them to things Lorinne and Glandive shared the day before. 'Temples' then did not mean meditation houses, it was something more like 'personal conduit to a god'. 'Worship' must be the allegiance aspect, similar to an Oath of Clan Archivist. So Lorinne seemed pleased that the Air Dragon had graced Zero's dreams with manifestation. Zero would find out why later.

Zero wondered that the Imperials would be angry if the Lost did not accept this allegiance to the magic Dragons. She sighed mentally. She really did not know if she could pretend to understand religion. It seemed a bad idea.

Keys might help with that. Zero asked, "So Keys, since even the Empress is probably working to the Dragons' plans, what have you heard about the gods of the Dwimmerlaik? A Blood War has two ....motivations? And who is this Lady?"

"Don't know about Dwimmer gods." Keys shrugged, picked up her bowl of food. "Only met the one Dwimmer. Name was Jaime Kryst. Said he was Sixth Rank or something. Was looking for someone for a Second Conclave. Now he's just a Ledaal prisoner."

"We have him confined one of our outer outposts." Veron confirmed and then let Keys continue.

"Blood war... Demons verses Devils. Fighting for control of the lower planes. So they can control all the armies and run them against the angels and archons." Keys leaned back in her chair, bowl under her chin as she shoveled food in between sentences. "Been fighting for as long as anyone knows. Except maybe the Lady."

She licks her lips. "Now the Lady... she runs Sigil. Sigil is between all the angels and devils and demons and archons. Perfect center. City of Doors. Doors that go everywhere, to all the worlds and planes. Even your stairs. Anyone can use them, if they can find them and open them." She flashed Zero a quick smile. "That's where I make my jink."

"Now the Gods... No doors to Sigil for them. Lady keeps them out. No god can enter Sigil. Their proxies can, but they're kept out. The dead god? He tried to crack the cage, tried to get into Sigil. He's dead now. No one crosses the Lady. Dwimmer thought he could. Killed a few of her Dabuses. So I put him down. Hard. 'Cause the Dabus hired me to find out what was out here, and if I work for them I'm on their side till the job is done. Plus they don't bother me opening the cage when I want. And least they don't sign so."

"Sigil, and the planes beyond it, are all beyond a single Door, as far as I know, in the Stair" Veron said. "In a rather special and strange part of the Stair called the Labyrinth. Although the idea of an infinite stair having a single center violates the laws of mathematics, if the Stair does have a center, its The Labyrinth. Its a difficult area to navigate, and there are not many Doors. Some rather dangerous worlds, Keys' world among them, connect there."

Davonae sat listening intently. These people were so different, so interesting. She felt a little sorry for them though. "Don't any of you come from places of peace? All this fighting and war and death. It's very sad."

"You appear to have been extremely fortunate in that regard." Zavier said, looking at Davonae. "Singular, even." There was a note of envy in his voice.

"The way of Peace is an honorable one, Lady Davonae" Kido said, nodding his head toward her. "May you be able to practice it and show us the way."

Mukyu nodded in agreement. "It is, and despite the wonderful stories of Gods and Dragons and Conclaves and Blood Wars I can't seem to believe that we'll find all the answers tonight."

"Peace is boring," Keys announced. "Been to peaceful places... made my skin crawl." She shuddered slightly thinking back on travels.

"We should do something fun," the pilot declared.

"Dum vivimus vivamus," Zavier said with a smile.

"Truth," Zero nodded. She was sure that neither Vpop nor 9tags would be available, so she puzzled over what to suggest. They were all from very different ....Zero brightened. "I don't suppose there is swimming under moonlight?"

"There is a stream near to the Palace" Kido said. "It is suitable for cooling off in the heat of the Fire months. I am unaware of it being used for moonlight swimming, although I cannot see there is a reason against it."

Renny stood up decisively. "Please point us in the right direction." Then she had a thought, scanned the room, and fetched back two bottles of wine to take with them.

"I will have a servant to escort you." Kido said. He said something to one of the servants in the room. The man rose and walked to the door and waited.

Keys used her bread to shovel the rest of her bowl into her mouth, a little sauce dripping down her chin. "Coming!" she said around a full mouth as she stood, put the bowl down.

Mukyu shrugged and offered a smile first to Zero and then Davonae. "I guess it's become an expedition."

"I'm thinking those attuned to Water Dragons will have an unfair advantage in any races," she added.

"Likely" Vors said, rising. He walked toward the door and awaited Zero, Mukyu, and Keys. "Is anyone else coming?" he asked and then waited for the servant to lead them out.

Azara paused to glance over the group and ask them curiously, "You're all going somewhere?"

Zero smiled at the lady, "Yes, a stream where we can idle a while before the night closes." She glanced at Vors and Keys, then gave Azara a simple hand wave beckoning her to join.

"A stream?" Azara repeated, puzzled. "Why not visit the garden here? I expect there is a fountain."

Zero re-examined her assumptions. Fountains? Yes, no one usually objected to children playing in a fountain, but the Imperials seemed much more formal. Zero shrugged and responded, "You are probably right, but I did not think a swim in the fountain would please our hosts. Kido suggested the stream, join us if you like."

Zero pointed at the doorway where Kido's man waited to guide them.

"Swimming?" the young woman said, visibly shocked, her glance going toward Vors and then back again. "I - no, thank you. Good evening." She backed up a little to let the rest of the group pass more easily.

(all ashore who is going ashore!)

They all moved on and Zero nodded in agreement with Mukyu and Vors. Yes, of all the Dragons, it seemed a water affinity would be the most advantageous across the board. Never to know thirst; always fluid in the face of force. That was something to envy. She eased to her feet to follow the others moving to Lord Kido. Zero processed Keys heartfelt comment a few more times, 'my skin crawl'. She tried to assess herself: would peace be the heady thing she remembered from childhood, or a bane draped across her senses, never able to shake the feeling the Dwims were just waiting to renew their violence?

And in the Empire? After hundreds of years opposing the Dwimmerlaik, did they even know what end result was preferred? Keys was full of interesting perspective.

Zero eased past Kido and sniffed the night air. It did not smell like Ka-El. This was crisp and full of plant scents. It was actually nice without the layered tang of ozone from years of heavy plasma fire. The air here was primal and it soothed her more so than the harsh liqueur still on her tongue. She grinned at the stars. Or maybe she was just intoxicated.

Zero poised on the group gather at the doorway, eager now for the water frivolities.

Keys reach back and grabbed her leather satchel, swung the strap over her neck and followed Zero out. She glanced up at Zero, then looked around. Quietly she took a long, slow deep breath through her nose.

Zero laughed. She nodded at Keys in admission of how pleasant the evening air was. "I'm sure it is different than your own world?"

Keys nodded, not looking at Zero. "Yah... I'm used to the smoke of the stacks, the heap of the Hive, the stench of the Wards, the sweat of the tieflings, the sulfur of the lowers..." She drew in another, slower breath. "Almost smells like the Lady's Ward. But not as deep as Brux..." she said. "Too... clean."

Too clean? Zero found that idea odd, then again, Keys had a poetic way with words. The scent felt fresh. She drew a deeper breath; wet earth, charcoal hint, kitchen spices, a lovely jumble of plant scents... she could not put Ka El names to the feeling of it.

"You can't smell the sea," Renny observed. "I've never lived anywhere you cannot smell salt on the breeze."

"Perhaps maps to where the sea might be located could be found, later." Vors said seriously.

Keys flashed Renny a grin. "Never lived anywhere I couldn't smell the stench of civs. Want to though," she added wistfully. Keys followed the others, slightly lagging behind. Her gaze darted around as if she didn't trust the locale.

...see next A River Runs Through It

*cul sec = 'dry bottom', a very old KaElese expression
*sláinte = 'health' from Talamh an éisc
*kampai = 'dry the glass' from the TK7 gossamer world
*dum vivimus vivamus = 'while we live, let us live.'

Page last modified on August 22, 2016, at 04:38 PM