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Summer Kestrel reached up, touching skin that seemed as if it were the night made flesh; cool and velvety, darker than the deepest dream. He smiled at his lover. "Sauda, stay. Just a few moments longer?"
The Goddess of Midnight turned, her exquisite features obscured in the absence of light, and for a moment, her smile seemed a crescent moon of mysterious sensuality. She chuckled, her voice little more than a whisper. "The Court awaits me, love. It is nearly my Hour."
Kestrel sighed, drawing her delicate hand to his bare chest. "I would stop time, would it mean that Midnight would forever be with me."
The stardust that covered Sauda's blue-black eyes glittered in amusement. "You Chosen and your beautiful words. Come to me when morning is new; before the dew burns away. We will speak of your devotion then." She bent in the darkness, and on his cheek, her ruby lips burnt like a brand.
Kestrel pressed a plate on the wall; soft lights began to glow. She was gone. He scratched his head luxuriously, rumpling his dark locks in a way that was not unattractive, and rolled over in bed. He was always unable to sleep after these trysts; regardless of who happened to be winning at the Games, the night was always longest when he was far from his mistress. He pressed the plate again, calling the darkness; light mocked him, his addiction to her lips and his inability to rest.
Cricket and Kestrel
Pale Cricket toyed nervously with her necklace as she waited for her mother to join her. She quickly glanced in the mirror to make sure she was presentable; a strikingly pale face stared back at her, irises of pale crimson encircling wide pupils, the only darkness the gods had granted her. She smoothed her gray dress, and when she turned, her mother was in the doorway. "Mother. So good to see you."
The older woman smiled warmly, holding her arms open for her child. "Come give me a hug, my little Cricket. Then let's sit and talk."
Cricket allowed herself to be nestled in the arms she knew so well, and reflected with sadness on how her mother never smelled the same as she had before. When she was younger, the smell was so pungent, so full of life-- as full of life as anything could be in Sijan. Now, she simply smelled like the city, and a part of Cricket grieved every time they embraced.
"How have you been, my dear? How is the shop?"
Cricket smiled. "It's going very well, mother. Business is brisk; only yesterday I was commissioned to create the burial vestments for a southern barbarian leader and his closest servants."
Her mother glowed in approval. "That's my girl. Soon you'll be the most sought-after seamstress in Sijan." She winked and trailed a finger over her daughter's forehead, tracing a circle and cutting it in half. "Especially with your talents."
Cricket blushed, an action which almost gave her coloring the illusion of normalcy. "Please, mother.. Can we speak of other things?"
Her mother nodded, settling comfortably on a violet-hued couch. She patted the seat next to her. "Very well, my Cricket. Come sit by your mother, and we shall talk."
Cricket sat next to her mother, smiling. "All right."
The mother's sharp blue eyes focused on her daughter. "So, I'm not going to beat around the bush, dear. When are you going to find a husband?"
Cricket sighed and looked away, frustrated. "I.. It's not so easy to find a husband here, mother.."
"I found your father, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did, and Father was a wonderful man, but.. I mean.."
"Cricket, look at me, child." Blue eyes locked with pale eyes; a bony had reached out to touch the strange pendant at the girl's neck. "This has been passed down from eldest daughter to eldest daughter, back longer than even my great-grandmother could remember. Is this relic going to be passed down, or passed on to the Underworld?"
Cricket shifted uncomfortably. "No one knows the future."
"Maybe not, but you can certainly give it a helping hand."
"I'm still awfully young, mother. There's time left."
"You never know that for certain, child. You never know that for certain. Now be a good girl; I have to go. I'll see you next week."
"I love you."
"I love you too."
Cricket watched as her mother's ghost dematerialized, placed a coin on the coffee table as a tip, and left the Visitation Parlour. As she walked the steets, navigating thoughtlessly towards her shop, guilt plagued her heart.
"Mother, I'm barren." Would it really be so difficult to say?
She kicked some pebbles in the street before unlocking her shop. The bell tinkled lightly as she closed the door behind her, forcing her thoughts to stay outside. There was work to be done, and not much time to do it in.
A spirit servant was helping Kestrel into a white silk over-tunic when a messenger from the manse's door guard appeared. "The Sagacious Breath of the Heavens is here to see you, master."
Kestrel finished straightening his sash. "I'm.. ah, damn it. Send him in."
A young-looking man in tailored silk came in, smiling warmly and patting Kestrel on the back. "Kestrel, my good man. You're looking well."
Kestrel raised a single obsidian eyebrow. "As do you, Breath-of-Heaven. But to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"
The man's emerald eyes glittered with hidden knowledge. "Breakfast, of course. I figured we could take my rickshaw to Shreya's Palace of Culinary Delights. My treat."
"As delightful as that sounds, my friend, I'm going to be late for work as it is."
Breath-of-Heaven laughed. "This is work, my friend. Faction work. I'm sure your supervisor will understand. After all, I'm about to offer you your big chance."
Kestrel considered for a moment; it was far more likely that he could weasel away from his Bronze superior than from his superior at the Beaureau, which meant more time with Sauda. "Well, as long as you're buying." He slapped Breath-of-Heavens on the back in return, and they grinned at each other. "After you." Kestrel gestured to the door, allowing his superior and friend to go first. The rickshaw was waiting outside, as was its driver, and the two Sidereals seated themselves within the golden vehicle.
"So, I hear that you've been spending quite a bit of time with a certain Lady of Midnight," Breath-Of-Heavens said.
"There are precious few secrets in Yu-Shan, it seems."
Breath-Of-Heavens laughed. "There are enough. At any rate, how is the Queen of the Court of Hours?"
"Sauda is... bafflingly sensual, addicting, and quite possessive."
The other Sidereal chuckled. "But you don't mind a bit, do you?"
Kestrel grinned. "There are worse things to be possessed by."
Breath-Of-Heavens looked thoughtful for a moment, then examined his friend's face critically. "Are you in love with her, do you think?"
"In love with her?" Kestrel's eyes glittered with surprise and a hint of distaste. "I'm enamored with her presence. Love, however, is one of the few luxeries we Chosen will never be able to afford." He glanced out the window for a moment before looking back at the other passenger. "I mean, honestly, have you ever been in love?"
"I know what it is to love. And to lose."
Kestrel blinked in unabashed astonishment. "Really? And what would one have to do in order to hear this tale of love and loss?" The rickshaw came to a stop.
"I'll tell it now. Do you remember those pastries that Shreya stopped making? With the clotted boar's cream and a hint of saffron?"
The driver opened the door, and Breath-Of-Heaven sighed heavily. "I used to love those," he said, as he stepped out of the rickshaw and towards the door of the restaurant.
Once seated, Breath-Of-Heaven pulled out an exquisite drawing of a heart-shaped pendant. "It's lovely. What is it?"
"Your mission." He pointed to the intricate filagree on the surface of the pendant. "The shell of the pendant itself is made of moonsilver, chased with starmetal. The catch at the top is made of jade. The heart of it is solid orichalcum. It's called the Pure Heart of Heaven, and it's one of the most powerful artifacts of the First Age."
"I see. And where is this pendant?"
"Around the neck of a Twilight Caste in Sijan."
"Ahha. So you want me to kill her?" Kestrel did his best not to seem bemused by the thought of himself as an assassin.
"Hardly. The girl is fated to die soon enough anyway. The problem is this: if the pendant is not freely given without the use of Essence, it crumbles into dust. It has been passed down from eldest daughter to eldest daughter since the Purge, and all previous attempts to get the item have failed. And now... Well, this Solar is also fated to be the last of her line."
"What happens if she dies without giving the pendant away?"
"It crumbles into dust."
"Let me get this straight. I can't kill her, I can't use charms. All I can do is ask nicely."
"And it's one of the most powerful items from the First Age."
"Then why in Malfeas are they sending me?"
His friend grinned. "Because I asked the Faction to send you."
Breath-Of-Heaven leaned back in the luxurious booth, regarding his friend intently. "Look, Kestrel. You're handsome, you're capable, you don't get attached. You appear to be around her age. You're a good judge of people, and most of all, this is your chance."
"Shouldn't I be the one to decide when my chance is?"
The other Chosen snorted. "If that were the case, you'd spend all of your time doing paperwork as a lapdog to the beauracracy. Don't get me wrong, what goes on in Yu-Shan is of utmost importance," he added quickly. "But if you want to get anywhere up here, you have to do your time working for the Faction down there."
"I don't know.."
"Kestrel, this isn't something you can say no to. This order's coming straight from his illustriousness."
Kestrel let out a low whistle; his voice was barely a whisper. "You mean.. Kejak?"
Breath-Of-Heaven nodded, taking a drink. "Welcome to the big time, Summer Kestrel."
Kestrel shrugged, bewildered. "The big time it is." The pair clinked glasses, and finished breakfast in near-silence.
Sunlight shone through the windows of Pale Cricket's shop; her long hair was in a thick braid, and the light caused it to shine with near-translucency. Essence flowed invisibly through her fingertips, making her work go quickly and with a quality rarely seen in funerary robes, even in Sijan. The bell on the door tinkled, and Cricket looked up from her work with a smile.
"You're working early," Still Sky remarked as she came to the counter.
"I couldn't sleep, as usual." Even while talking to her best friend, Cricket's fingers never stopped their work.
"Well, this should help with that." Sky pushed a ceramic container across the counter. "It's the tea you wanted; I prepared it myself. Make sure you don't let it steep too long, or you might end up sleeping longer than you 'd expected."
Cricket laughed. "I don't know that it would have helped last night. I went to the Visitation Parlour on the Road of Lilacs."
Sky nodded knowingly. "How is your mother?"
"Still begging me to get a husband and have a daughter. She's also itching to see me next week, just to find out if I've gotten married in the interim." Her soft smile hardened around the edges.
Sky's face softened in concern and guilt. "If I had known, you know I would have stopped you. I never should have given you anything, not before I finished my herbalist's training.."
Cricket's hands paused in their delicate work, and she regarded her friend frankly. "Yes, if you had known, you wouldn't have given me the wrong doseage in the first place. But I don't blame you. And besides, what would I have done instead? Kept the child of a man who was about to marry someone else? Been reminded every day when I looked in that child's--" She broke off, her voice quiet and strained.
"You have a pure heart, Cricket." Sky took her friend's hand gently. "You also have a deep capacity for love."
She gently disentangled her hand, taking up her needle once more. "Love is dead in this dead city."
Sky turned to leave; in the doorway, she paused. "But with death comes life; this dead city has taught me that." The bell tinkled once more, and the door shut behind her.
Circket continued to sew, remembering the deep feeling of loss followed by the rush of her Exaltation. She shook her head. Sky was always the wise one.
"How long will you be gone?" An ebony tongue darted out to lick ruby-hued lips, and Sauda regarded her lover intently.
"I'm not sure, my dearest. It's a tricky operation, and one that I can't easily disregard. Apparently, this necklace is very important to the highest eschelons of my Faction, for some reason, and.." Kestrel ran a carmel-colored hand over Sauda's swanlike neck. This is ridiculous. It's like every single part of her is a curve of somesort..
Sauda smiled ruthlessly. "Get distracted, my love?"
Kestrel chuckled. "Always." He looked into her opaque eyes, the blue-black of space with no pupil or iris, just a scattering of silver stardust.
Sauda tilted her head. "Have you ever met a Chosen of the Sun?"
The Sidereal shook his head. "No. I've been busy with affairs in Yu-Shan.. The Bronze Faction has far better assassins than me." He paused, realizing something. "You have, haven't you?"
She chuckled, a dark and silky sound, and moved to the chair on which she had draped her robes of smoke and shadow. "Many times, before the Purge. Vile, arrogant creatures-- so full of light, so drunk with power. Evil little monsters, the lot of them." She placed a diadem of moonstone on her brow. "I have heard that they are weak and lost in these dark times; this one should be bent to your will easily enough."
Kestrel grinned. "Does it bother you that this Chosen is a woman?"
Sauda's eyes betrayed nothing. "No more than it would bother me if you were sent to tame a wild pig that happened to be female." She kissed her lover on the forehead. "Now then, I must be gone. Say something sweet, to make our impending reunion sweeter."
Kestrel smiled. "You are, and shall always be, my darkest desire."
Sauda chuckled. "I knew that already." And then she was gone, floating away on the air.
Striding through the streets of Sijan, Kestrel did his best to disguise his sense of unease. It had been quite some time since he had stepped foot in creation, and the strange quiet that pervaded the city-- even in its most bustling and active sections-- was an unsettling contrast to the bright and busy sounds of Yu-Shan. He turned down a side street, seemingly lost in thought, when he bumped shoulders with someone. He heards the soft thump of cloth hitting the ground, and instinctively turned to help rectify the problem he had helped cause.
Hunched over a pile of funeral vestments was a figure so white she seemed nearly made of light; a barely-audible sigh came from her general direction. Kestrel blinked, said a silent prayer of thanks to the Maidens, and went to her side. "Here, let me help you with that."
Pale eyes glanced up at him, nervous and... something else he couldn't place. "Thank you," she managed, then went back to gathering the pile of garments.
He smiled warmly. "Not a problem; it was my fault, after all." He picked up one of the robes. "This is beautiful work."
"Thank you." She continued to look down, tenderly picking up each garment and brushing off the dirt before piling them back on one arm. "My shop is down the road; if you need--"
"I'm here on personal business," he interrupted. "But thank you."
"It was nice to meet you, but I have to go." She stood, and turned back the way she came.
"Wait.. Weren't you going the other way?"
"I can't bring these to by client looking like this.. I have to clean and refold them."
"Let me come with you. I'll help."
"No.. That's quite all right." She looked up at Kestrel, and for a moment, true gratitude shone through her smile, and something inside of the Sidereal smiled back. But, like the sun passing between clouds, it was gone-- and so was she.
He stood in the street alone, watching where she had gone. That's an Anathema?
Kestrel spent the ensuing weeks in silent observation, avoiding contact with the Solar and watching her from afar. He spent his days writing notes, analyzing her personality and her routine; his nights were spent reading the notes, and coming up with various plans of attack-- all of which he discarded. The Sidereal sighed in frustration, crumpling his latest plans to ingratiate himself to the colorless specter that haunted his every breath.
It's been weeks, and I haven't said a word to her since the morning I bumped into her on the street. Every plan I come up with doesn't seem good enough. He moved towards the window, gazing out into the night. Am I so scared of falling into the spell of some twisted Anathema?
He shook his head. "I need a break."
He left in the darkness, riding into the country outside of Sijan's ancient walls. In the wilderness, he called the Calibration gate. With a nod to the Celestial Lions, he stepped through into the bright brilliance of Yu-Shan. The Unconquered Sun was winning the Games, and he smiled at the feeling of the sun on his face. Sauda would be free soon; he smiled at the thought.
As he waited for the sweet presence of the Goddess of Midnight, one of his servants knocked on the door. "Come in."
"Sir, the Sagacious--"
Breath-Of-Heaven burst in past him. "Do you have the pendant?"
Kestrel shook his head. "It's.. more difficult than I thought. I can't seem to get close to her. Cricket.. She's such a solitary creature."
His superior blinked, astonished. "You don't have the artifact? Why are you here?"
"I needed to clear my head."
Breath-Of-Heaven shook his head, eyeing the other man's robe. "It appears you needed something. How is your goddess?"
"She's not why I returned."
"Very well. I'm going to ask my superiors to take you off the case."
"What? Why? I just need a little more time, that's all."
"It's been six weeks. If you haven't gotten close in that amount of time, you won't get close. We'll just go with our backup plan."
"Don't worry, Kestrel." Breath-Of-Heaven patted his friend on the back. "I mean, I'm disappointed, but many have failed before. It's best that the Solar die and the artifact be lost than for a Solar with such an object of power to potentially fall into the hands of the Gold Faction."
"So you're sending an assassin?" Kestrel's mouth went dry.
"Of course. I'm sure the Faction will appreciate your efforts. You'll get another chance."
Kestrel ran a hand through his hair, nodding distractedly.
The other man laughed. "I'll leave you now. I see your mind is elsewhere-- on the lips of midnight, no doubt." Breath-Of-Heavens turned to leave, and found himself face-to-face with Sauda. The dark vixen smiled wickedly, and the leaving Sidereal's pale face flushed crimson. "A pleasure to see you as always, my Lady Midnight."
Sauda placed a slender hand on Breath-Of-Heaven's arm. "The pleasure, as always, is mine." She slipped by him, wrapping her arms around Kestrel before turning back to the man in the doorway. "I'm sure I'll see you later."
Breath-Of-Heavens nodded, bowed slightly, and left, closing the door behind him. As Sauda leaned in to kiss Kestrel, he placed a single golden finger between his lips and hers. "You'll see him later? What does that mean?"
Sauda nipped lightly at the soft pad of his fingertip and smiled. "It's no concern. Come to bed, and show me how much you missed me."
Kestrel's head swam with visions of promised delight, and was helpless to do anything but obey.
Sauda turned over in bed, tracing patterns of desire on Kestrel's back with her coal-dark fingertips. "You seemed distracted tonight, my love."
Kestrel shrugged slightly, staring out the window. "They're going to kill her."
Sauda chuckled. "Who's going to kill who?"
"My colleagues. They're going to kill Pale Cricket."
"And she is..?"
"The Solar Anathema I was sent to woo."
"What does it matter? Your kind have killed hundreds upon hundreds of incarnations of those decadent Chosen. Killing one more incarnation is no great loss."
"It's just... I don't understand."
"What don't you understand?"
"I don't see how something so evil could be so sad."
"Hm." Sauda's normally burning touch went cold suddenly; in a moment, he was alone.
For once, he was not disappointed by her exit; he had other things on his mind. He tossed and turned in bed for what felt like hours, unable to rest. Finally he stood, calling his servants; they came immediately. "Yes, master?"
"Dress me. Put all of my most important possessions in this satchel; I must leave. Do not let anyone into this manse until I return. All right?"
"As you wish, sir. May I ask why?"
"There's something I have to do-- someone I have to save. I only hope it's not too late."