Shoat of the Mire studied Cricket's sleeping visage with something not unlike pity. The woman had draped a pale arm over Shoat's small form, and the girl removed it gently before slipping out of bed. She closed the door quietly behind her, slipping through the hallways like some sort of frail shadow towards the basement. She hesitated for a moment at the door, but need won out over desire, and she descended the steps into the space below.
The basement in the Eventide mansion was a place of contradiction; upon first inspection the basement seemed more elegant and well-kept than most, decorated in the fashion of a small, comfortable shrine-- with a bed in the corner, lucky for Shoat. Despite these amenities, however, the space seemed more solemn and barren than most places, which brought a smile to the young girl's lips. It appeared the basement was a small shadowland, and this was probably where Dust Moth came to revitalize herself. Shoat had made sure to lock the door at the top of the stairs behind her, just in case. Black Essence swirled about her for a moment, and a small black butterfly with a seemingly human head appeared before her.
"I am safe, Mother. The girl you sent me to is close to trusting me, I think. She likes me a lot-- she brushes my hair and puts me in uncomfortable frilly dresses, as if I were some sort of doll. She suspects nothing." Shoat fidgeted for a moment. "There's a man with her.. I don't remember his name. He's.. I don't know. He's just around a lot, I think. I don't like him. I'm not sure what to do about him. Anyway, I'm in a secure place for the next few hours, should you wish to contact me. Mother."
The cherub flew away; a few moments later, a new one returned. The meticulous voice of Shoat's mistress made the girl flinch as the messenger began to relate the response. "My child, you speak long of dresses and the girl and some man whose name escapes you, but you have said nothing of the necklace I seek."
Cricket and Kestrel
The Sagacious Breath of the Heavens stifled a yawn as he strode across the marble floor of the Court of Hours; the echoes of his sandals filled the air in such a way as to make him feel small, insignificant. This place had always discomfited him when he was first involved with Sauda; now, after their last meeting, the cavernous manse made him feel even more uncomfortable. The space was filled with a light that danced with gold and pastels-- a lovely marvel which was apparently lost on the Sidereal's bleary eyes. A large, imposing figure sat on the alabaster throne which was elevated above the long table with 23 chairs, however, and this was not lost on the man at all.
"My, my," the figure called out in a cold, deep baritone. "If it isn't the Salacious Breath of the Heavens."
Breath-of-Heaven reddened slightly at the old nickname. "Greetings Asa, God of the Dawn and herald of light. You are as warm as ever," he added curtly, reaching the foot of the throne.
Asa's body nearly glowed with the light of his station as his skin changed soft hues of pink and gold. Had he been lowered from the throne, he would have been called beautiful; atop his alabaster perch, he would have frightened anyone lesser than the Chosen standing before him. Eyes of molten copper bored into Breath of Heaven, completely negating any soothing effect Asa's smile could have had. "Enough with the formalities, Chosen. Why are you disturbing me at my hour?"
"My apologies, Asa. It was the only time I knew you were guaranteed to be alone. I need your help."
The god barked a quick laugh. "Why would I help you?"
"Because it would hurt Sauda."
The words rang against the stone walls of the manse as Asa sat in frozen silence. "Go on."
"She has been meddling in the affairs of my bureau, attempting to kill my friend and to frame me for the 'blunder' that caused it. I remembered your dislike of Sauda, and hoped you would swallow your distaste for me, and answer enough questions for me to call an audit down upon her lovely, traitorous head."
Asa twisted his body to fully face the man below him. "If I could leave this chair without stopping my hour, Chosen, I would bludgeon you once for each of the myriad of mistakes you just uttered."
Breath of Heaven blinked in surprise. "What mistakes, sir?"
"You think I hate her so much that I would wish her to fall even further than she already has? How foolish. It was you, barely more than mortal, who had earned my enmity."
"And what atrocity did I commit that caused such intense feelings from you?"
"You blasted, blind bookworm. I loved Sauda. And love her still."
Cricket stretched luxuriously as the light from the window called her to waking; a faint smile kissed her lips. It has been so long since I slept that well..
"Wake up, my Shoatling." She went to pat the girl next to her, but she patted the bed instead.
She bolted upright, scanning the room. Shoat wasn't there. Panic began to set in. Forgetting to even grab a robe, she rushed into Kestrel's room without knocking. "Kestrel! Shoat's gone!"
Kestrel had been lying half-asleep in bed, heavy lids fluttering as half-dreams played out in his mind. The sound of Cricket's voice so filled with panic brought him to full wakefulness in a moment, and he leaped out of bed. "Cricket, what's wrong?"
Tears welled up in the young woman's eyes. "Shoat. She was in bed with me last night, and now she's gone. I promised I wouldn't let anything happen to her, and now.."
Shoat walked by the door, fully-dressed, carrying a glass of juice. She blinked at the hysterical scene going on inside the room. "Grownups are strange," she commented, to no one in particular.
Cricket whirled around, her heart nearly stopping for a moment. "SHOAT! Don't ever scare me like that again. I was so worried about you.. I woke up and you were gone."
Shoat cringed, backing away slightly, and began to stutter. "I.. I'm sorry.. Please.. Don't be mad.. I just.. I was hungry, and.. I'm sorry.. Please, don't.. I'll be good, I promise!" The girl began to cry.
"Shh.. Come here, Shoat. It's okay. I'm not mad at you." Shoat came forward timidly, as if she expected some sort of physical punishment; Cricket hugged her instead. "I like you, Shoat, and I was worried about you. I didn't mean to scare you." Shoat looked up at Cricket, tears wavering in her eyes as if uncertain they should fall. "Why don't you get changed, and we can go on a picnic to make this up to you." Cricket smiled.
Shoat grinned suddenly. "Sure! Bye, Cricket!" She dashed off to her room, forgetting the juice she had set on a table in the hallway.
Cricket blushed profusely. "Kestrel.."
He smiled. "No need to apologize. It makes sense that you would worry, with everything that has happened recently." He scratched the back of his head, a bit of sleepiness returning as the adrenaline left him, and blushed a little himself. "And besides.. I sort of like that, of all of the people in this house, you came to me for help."
"Well, of course. I mean, you're stro.." All of a sudden, Cricket was painfully aware that the handsome young man she was speaking to happened to be shirtless. "Right next door. You're right next door."
Kestrel chuckled slightly, bemused by her change in attitude. "Yes, so I am."
Cricket looked down at the floor. "I'm just going to go get dressed now.." She blushed slightly.
Ohh, that explains it. Kestrel averted his eyes from Cricket as well, seeming to examine a painting on the far wall. "Of course."
"Meet us downstairs for the picnic?"
"See you then."
"Good. I'll go now."
"You said that."
"Right." Cricket slipped out of the doorway, leaning heavily for a moment on the wall outside. Her face flushed with anger and embarassment. Wow, I am an idiot. And what's worse, I'm an idiot for feeling like an idiot.
Kestrel sat on his bed and grinned, shaking his head.
"So you were angry at Sauda because of me," Breath-of-Heaven stated flatly.
"You were so obvious in your machinations that it was embarassing to watch; unfortunately, Sauda can stay blind when she chooses." The Sidereal laughed briefly in astonishment and went to speak, but Asa cut him off. "She cared for you so deeply, and when you looked at her you saw nothing more than a means to an end-- you saw this powerful entity who could get you in to all the right parties, introduce you to the right gods." his skin glowed like burnished copper in his anger. "You didn't climb to the top of the Faction, you made her carry you."
The amused disbelief on the Chosen's face washed away in a heated wave of fury. "Whores and asses are made to be ridden, Asa. Who's riding you?"
"Don't fling trite insults at me, you mortal maggot. Your own conduct has spoken worse of you than you could ever speak of her."
"I have not wronged Sauda in any way that was not retribution for her backstabbing puppetry. Don't think word hasn't gotten back to me-- she has a reputation for bedding servants of the Maidens, I know. And how many of those servants do you think came to me shamefaced, admitting she had pumped them for information about me? Her seduction of Kestrel seemed to be the final straw, but then, Sauda can always sink lower than I estimate."
"Of course she can. She needs to, with the power she has lost in the eyes of her fellow spirits. All because of you, Breath-of-Heaven. If you had ruined a mortal's life, it would be a heartbeat of pain before everything ended. But she has eternity, Chosen. Forever, she will be less than what she should be, because you broke her heart."
"I have no particular duty to her simply because we shared a bed."
Asa laughed, and the hair stood up on the back of the Sidereal's neck. "You're even more odious than I recalled. You think that means you have no duty to Kamaria?"
Shoat's laughter rang across the entire meadow as she proudly held up the three flowers she had linked together. "Look, Cricket. I did it!"
Cricket grinned, working on her own ornate crown of flowers. "That looks wonderful, dear. You'll have a crown fit for a princess in no time!"
The girl screwed up her face in concentration, finally linking a fourth flower onto her chain. "I could be the princess, and you could be my mommy, the queen!" Shoat did not notice the stricken look on Cricket's face as she happily prattled on. "And HE could be.. well.. the jester!"
Kestrel, who had been lying in the sun pretending to nap, opened a single eye. "What, I don't get to be king?"
Shoat shook her head sadly. "Nope. You're too lazy."
Cricket burst out laughing. "She's got you there, sleepyhead."
Kestrel sat up, indignantly brushing a few blades of grass out of his hair. "I ate too much, that's all. Your friend has an outstanding cook." He sat up, putting his hands together in entreaty. "Please, Princess Shoat, may I be king?"
"Wellllll.." Shoat examined her supplicant closely. "It's up to Queen Cricket, I guess."
Cricket grinned, tying off the last flower in her crown. "I suppose he'll do." She turned to Kestrel, placing the crown on his head. "There, King Kestrel. Don't you look pretty!" She grinned mischeviously.
"I don't know." Kestrel tilted his head slightly, causing the crown to sit at a rakish angle. "I think my queen is far lovelier than me." Cricket blushed silently as their eyes met.
Kestrel cleared his throat. "I mean, I am pretty, there's no doubt about that." He grinned facetiously for a moment. "But you.."
Cricket raised a pale brow. "You don't think that speech is going to work, do you?"
Kestrel sighed. "Would you just let me finish, Queen Cricket?"
"There was more?"
Kestrel blushed, his manner no longer polished. "I was just going to say.. I may be pretty, but you.. you don't need a pretty king. Or a king at all." He looked away, almost as if pained. "You don't need a protector to keep you safe, any more than you need a crown of flowers to make you beautiful."
Cricket swallowed hard. "Maybe it's less about what I need and more about what I want."
"What do you want, Cricket?"
"I.." Foggily, Cricket wondered at what point her face had gotten so close to Kestrel's. Then she realized she didn't care.
"HA HA! You're in love! You're in love!" Shoat jumped up and started pelting the couple with the flowers from her ill-made chain, dancing around them. "You loooooove her, you looooove him!" she sang, giggling.
Cricket and Kestrel edged away from eachother, looking profusely embarassed.
Cricket began to pick up the dishes and place them in the picnic basket with shaking hands. "Er, I think it's time go go home, Shoat."
Despite the absolute fact that his life depended on the perfection of the symbols he was painting on his body, Liuwen Mortwright's hand shook from withdrawal. He dropped his paintbrush noisily onto his desk and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples with wasted fingers. He glanced over at the diagrams of the wards, crumpled and maligned in such a way that they would never work against any sort of spirit. A gruesome smile crept over the thaumaturge's face as he remembered his lover tossing the drawings aside before rewarding him for agreeing to this job in the first place.
He picked up the brush again, his hand steadying a bit more-- the memory of sating his addiction keeping the craving at bay.
"It's a shame your friend wasn't up to joining us on that walk, Cricket." Eventide stood on the steps of his home, looking up at the setting sun. "He's missing quite the view."
Cricket's blush was hidden by the warm light of sunset. "He ate too much at dinner after eating too much at lunch. I don't blame him for going to bed early."
Eventide opened the door and gestured for Cricket to go in before him. "It's quite extrordinary that he can eat so much, and yet, remain in such wonderful shape." He raised a brow somewhat teasingly and glanced sidelong at Cricket, who stumbled over her quiet words.
"Er, yes, he does have a wonderful-- er, is IN wonderful shape. And he eats. Yes."
"Cricket, I think you may have spent too long in the sun today. You're crimson as an apple."
"I should go to bed," she finished desperately.
"I was hoping you'd join me in the study for a talk. We haven't really gotten a chance to catch up, you know. And it's more comfortable than the foyer."
Well, he doesn't want to embarass me by speaking of this in public. If he REALLY didn't want to embarass me, he'd just let it go. Cricket let out a slow exhale and smiled. "It would be a pleasure."
Kestrel laid on his large bed, staring at the ceiling as he had been for the last hour or so, wondering if it had been a good idea to let Cricket go off alone with Eventide. What are you more worried about-- that she'll forget you, or that she'll get some sort of crush on the rich man who's giving her a place to live? He sighed, shifting on his bed, when the sound of quiet conversation caught his ears.
"So you're telling me that there's no attraction on your part." Eventide's voice made Kestrel's blood run cold.
"I.. I'm not saying that at all, Teirel." Cricket sounded pained. "I wish there weren't. And I swear on the soul of my mother, if you hadn't been so kind in letting me stay here, I'd be denying it with the totality of my existance." She let out a small, edged chuckle. "It's not polite to be so insistant upon honesty in these matters."
The Sidereal felt numb, unable to move.
"I just worry about you, Cricket. I mean, what do you know about this man, besides the fact that he came to town and bad things began to happen?"
"Nothing, really. Except that he's kind, and that he has risked his life to keep me safe."
Kestrel's eyes widened in realization.
"So the mysterious man wins the naive girl after all."
"That's not fair," snapped Cricket. She laughed, and it was a pained, horrible sound. "I have not been naive for many, many years and you know it."
"I.. I'm sorry, Cricket."
"Yes, everyone's sorry for poor Cricket. They pity her because of the horrible things that have happened to her, because her tendency to be sweet and caring and trusting hurts her again and again. But isn't it good that she's so strong? I don't want your pity and if that is truly your opinion of me, I don't want your hospitality."
"Don't go, Cricket. Please. It was unkind of me to make such a snide remark."
There was a pause, and then Kestrel heard a small, ragged sigh. "It was unkind of me to attack you as well. I do appreciate your hospitality, and I apologize for losing my temper."
"What's an occasional outburst among friends?"
Another long pause. Kestrel had begun to think that perhaps Cricket had left silently when he heard her voice once more. "You don't have to worry about me losing my heart to such a man as him," she murmured. "We both have too much to hide."
Kestrel heard the study door close. He waited for gentle footsteps to fade, for the door to the room next to his to open and close. He rolled onto his side, and prepared to sacrifice yet another night's soft dreams to hard thoughts.
Liuwen Mortwright roused from his nap, and seemed momentarily startled to find himself in the Underworld.
As the thaumaturge shook the cobwebs from the edges of his mind, his manner became more confident. He stood, popped his shoulders, and looked at the circle of ghosts surrounding him. "If you don't mind, I have a previous engagement not too far from here. So if you'll excuse me.." He began to walk towards the ghosts, and they involuntarily shied away from the huge wards cerimonially painted all over Mortwright's wasted frame.
One of the ghosts hissed at the living man who dared to walk in the world of the dead. "You will join us soon enough."
Mortwright chuckled. "But not tonight." The delapidated building which was the dead mirror of the Eventide estate stood in front of him, and he opened the door, greeted by the faint smell of life. He silently congratulated himself on such impeccable timing; indeed, it was right before the sun finished setting, and therefore, the last few moments before he would be trapped in the underworld for the evening. He quickly descended the steps to the basement and opened the cellar door.
Shoat of the Mire looked up with disgust and small traces of fear at the naked, painted man. "You're not supposed to be here. My parents won't let you hurt me."
"And where are your parents?" asked Mortwright.
A dark aura surrounded Shoat for a moment, and a soulsteel dagger appeared in her tiny hand. "Right here."
Slamming the large marble door to Sauda's manse was a near-impossible task, even for the Chosen of gods. According to the Committee of Dramatic Gestures, it was a feat that had only been accomplished three times-- once was by The Sagacious Breath of the Heavens as he stormed into the manse a few hours before midnight. "Sauda, I swear on every cursed yozi in Malfeas.."
Sauda appeared next to him, her face softened in mock injury, while her dark eyes burned with anger. "You'd better not, that sort of thing can get you censored. To what do I owe this displeasure?"
"You have more than censorship coming your way, Sauda." Breath-of-Heaven nearly shook with rage. "If I have my way, Sauda, I swear to you.."
"You keep swearing, but you never say what you're swearing about. That's a rather roundabout way of getting out of the oath, isn't it?"
"What in blazes are you talking about, Sauda?"
"I'm just saying," Sauda continued, her honeyed voice becoming icicle-sharp, "If you are going to swear something against me, you had better swear it, or else it's no fun when I make you break that oath."
"Where is she, Sauda? Tell me or I will kill you where you stand."
Sauda drew herself to her full height, rays of starlight pouring coldly from her eyes. "Do not threaten me, mortal."
"Then tell me where she is."
"Where who is, lover? You seem to have neglected to mention that."
"You know full well, you bitch. My DAUGHTER, Sauda, my DAUGHTER. The one you neglected to mention I HAD. Where is Kamaria?"
Shoat had meticulously washed the blood off of her pale skin, wincing the entire time, and found herself staring at the sleeping form of Cricket. Shaking, Shoat crawled into bed next to her. She laid there stiffly for a while; eventually Cricket turned over, sleepily brushing the form of the young girl. "Shoatling, come here," she murmured drowsily. Shoat scooted closer, and Cricket draped a pale arm over the girl's frail form and kissed her gently on the head. "Sleep well, lovely Shoat." Shoat swallowed hard and closed her eyes, her face slowly softening into one of true content.
"Hm, that certainly is odd."
Shoat rubbed her eyes sleepily, slowly coming awake. The morning light made her squint. "What's odd, Cricket?"
"The flowers," she murmured.
Shoat opened her eyes and looked around. The pots and pots of fresh flowers they had picked just yesterday were withered, decayed almost to the point of dust.