Reckoning 4, 6106 RTR (22 October 2006) Umeko and Lilac meet up with Gibson and learn some startling secrets.
(Legend of the First Stone) (Jadai) (Lilac) (Master Long Tooth) (Umeko)
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After a hectic evening at the residence of Umeko's "husband to be", the Tsuguri manor, even with the Lord's tendency for bellowing, has been a much needed respite. Thankfully, there's been little questioning, and since it's been difficult to sleep anyway, breakfast is skipped at the manor in favor of an early morning visit to the Blushed Pala to meet with the mysterious black Lapi from the night before. Welcoming smiles are waiting at the house of comfort; Mitsuko's among them in the house's greeting area.

Mitsuko ushers Umeko and Lilac into the perfumed halls, giving the nearby Master Tooth an odd look. "We have the pleasure of your company early, Lady Tsuguri. Have you eaten yet? Someone came last night and mentioned your name, we've put him up in the back."

"Ah, good, he did make it. Can you describe this man, so we can be sure it is whom we expect?" Umeko asks as she bows and smiles to Mitsuko. "And as for food, no, we have not eaten yet. It has been a busy night and morning for us."

"Well, we're back here again," Lilac says, in Standard. Her ears perk, and she leans over to tug Umeko's robe. "Hey Umie, should I act like a servant again?"

The house matron nods, waving the small group to follow. "A tall black Lapi, rather strapping for his kind. He looked a rough sort, but I have confidence in the company you keep, my lady."

"Umie?" Umeko asks Lilac and arches her brow a bit. "Just be polite and defer to the Jadaians and you'll do fine," she notes as she follows Mitsuko. Turning back to Mitsuko, she asks, "Have things been peaceful since that unpleasant evening? Have your girls recovered?"

Lilac nods good-naturedly, smiling. "You don't like Umie, Lady Umeko? I though it was cute, and, well, we've done a lot together, so … Um." She shrugs a little, then looks away. "It looks like the teahouse has been fixed up. I wonder if that man is all right?" Her tail wags lazily, as she looks about the room.

"I've never been called it before," the dragon notes to Lilac. "I don't dislike it, I was curious where it came from."

"Oh, I just shortened your name, that's all. You know, bard and all, we do that sort of thing – especially if we think it sounds good. Umie is cute," the human explains.

The matronly Kiriga glides down the Blushed Pala's carefully shined floors, passing through the area the fight occurred. "It's back to business as usual, my lady. The girls are doing fine… they're a resilient sort, for all their delicacy." Indeed, much of the damage has been repaired already, all the torn screens replaced or at least removed so as not to stand out, and no trace of the blood spilled. In the very spot the mercenaries were drinking before, a much more civil bunch of businessmen are quietly chatting. Past a few more sliding doors, Mitsuko brings the trio to a small private room, tastefully decorated and with a table being set with fish cakes, wrapped rice balls, hot soup, and tea. Kneeling at the table, the black Lapi is dressed in a comfortable-looking robe. He smiles warmly as Lilac and Umeko arrive.

"I did not realize Jadaians were cute to others," Umeko admits, sounding quite honest about it and not sarcastic. Upon seeing the Lapi, she dips her head towards him, saying, "You look well today, Gibson. I hope your remainder of the evening was relaxing? May we join you?" Looking to Mitsuko, she says, "Thank you for allowing him to stay. He is a good fellow and was recently helpful to Lilac and myself."

The human woman shrugs again, tail wagging a bit more quickly. "Well, they're not, at least, I don't think so. But, you're Lady Umeko, and Umie is a cute name, so, well … Oh, nevermind." She lifts a hand and waves to Gibson, wagging her tail for him, too. "Hello, Gibson!"

The Lapi laughs good-naturedly, gesturing at the unoccupied pillows. "I wouldn't say 'relaxing', Lady Tsuguri, but a good sight better than it would have been if it weren't for you and your friend there. Thank you for making up for what was apparently a very poor exit plan on my part."

Umeko arches her brow at Lilac as she selects a pillow near the Lapi and settles down. "Ah, so we are hideous to your kind, then?" she asks in complete deadpan. Looking to Gibson, she says, smiling, "Well, there is a cost for helping you develop an exit plan, of course. I wish you to satisfy my curiosity as to why you were there and what you were trying to get… "

The Lapi's ears swivel. "Fair enough… I've gotten accustomed to how business is done in the Empire. I have to confess, I'm kind of curious about your motivations myself. I'm sure you can understand my confusion."

Gibson adds a friendly, "Hello, Lilac!"

"NO! No, that's not it. You're very … exotic. At least, you're exotic to me. I don't know what the people at home would think of Jadaians. Your culture and people are very different from us." Lilac takes a seat near Umeko, propping her head in her arms as she watches Gibson. "Oh, I don't think I mentioned this, but: the mercenaries said they're heading to Rephidim – and they sound like they had a mind for violence." She smiles at Gibson. "And, thank you again for helping me."

"Oh, do not consider my request a part of doing business! I was trying to … banter? Yes, banter I believe it is called. I am not so good at jokes, as Lilac can probably tell you," Umeko admits to the Lapi. "I would rather you consider me a friend and not just someone to do business with. We have the scrolls you wanted with us and you are welcome to them. As for my motivations … well, being someone's wife to be does not always include that you wish to be that person's wife. Every instinct I have about him tells me he is up to something that endangers myself, my family, and our lands."

Master Tooth settles on one of the cushions, joints creaking. One of his large, bony hands lays the stolen scroll case on the table.

"Lady Umie is really not. Last time I was asleep, she put a collar on me and thought it was funny," Lilac confides in a semi-whisper as she leans forward towards Gibson. "Then I told her a joke from Rephidim AND one from Sylvania and she didn't get them at all."

Gibson holds his paws up. "Oh! Well, not to worry. You and Lilac saved my life, and more importantly, saved my mission. I'd say you're entitled to know what's going on… I figure after all the effort you went to, you've no intention of throwing a wrench in the works." Mitsuko quietly begins filling cups of tea, one of which Gibson takes up, and after a sip he continues. "I can begin with Vandringar. We've dealt with him before, at least indirectly."

"He's Chronotopian, isn't he?" Lilac takes up her cup of tea, too, and after blowing on it takes a sip.

Umeko lifts her cup and takes a sip. "Who is 'we'?" she asks after her drink. "He speaks well and can be quite charming if he tries. If I had not known better, I would not have known he has a dark heart."

The Lapi nods to Lilac. "By origin, and he has a lot of holdings there. I guess you recognized the style he wears?" Gibson has a glance around, hesitating briefly, then says, "We're Curators. Members of Sinai's Museum."

In response, Lilac nods. "I've seen people dressed like him before. I'm from Sylvania. Lilac, the Flower of Sylvania! Traveling bard." She then blinks at Gibson's real occupation, head tilting as her ears skew. "I didn't know curating was so dangerous!"

"You're collectors of old things? Is he looking for a Jadaian item, them?" Umeko asks as her head tilts a bit to the side and her eyes narrow to slits.

Gibson grins at Lilac, takes another sip of his tea, and then sets his cup down. "Something like that, Lady Tsuguri. Sinai's Museum is something of a secret… honestly, I probably wouldn't have said anything if we weren't in need of help, and you're the first sympathetic faces I've personally found in Imperial territory. We do collect artifacts, but of a specific sort. The kind Vandringar is after is older than Jadai, and it's the kind that does more than collect dust or look pretty."

"Then what is he looking for and how does it involve the artist Hakuu?" Umeko asks as she reaches over, then pulls the scroll case over to herself. "Perhaps I am being a bit paranoid, but I suddenly had a feeling that whatever he is looking for somehow involves me. But it may just be coincidence that Hakuu selects me and Vandringar shows up at his home.""

"But why would someone keep a museum secret?" Lilac switches hands, moving her head from one to the other, which also causes her ears to splay opposite of their original position. "Oh, wait, I know: you're talking about artifacts from the legends, aren't you? Like the Light of Nala, or the Shadow."

The Lapi shrugs helplessly. "I wish I knew that particular detail, Lady Tsuguri. I can at least say why he's here with Hakuu." He indicates Lilac with a paw, and continues, "You're exactly right, Lilac. There's a lot of things about Sinai we don't understand, and things turn up that work in ways we can't explain, but have power. These are the kinds of things the Temple sends the Inquisition after, so nobody takes them lightly… and everyone understands they can be abused. Especially Vandringar."

"And I then assume you are associated with neither and your group tries to keep them hidden?" Umeko inquires as she undoes the latches on the scroll case and removes the contents.

"I didn't think any of them actually existed. I mean, I tell the stories, but I've never seen one." The human woman leans back eyes wide, clearly impressed. "Wait," she blinks, frowning suddenly, "does this mean we're against both Hakuu and the Temple?"

Gibson nods. "That's about the size of it, Lady Tsuguri. Some have been hidden, some have been contained, some have been studied, and some have even been destroyed, but all the ones it's been in our power to obtain have been kept safe from people like Vandringar. As to why he's here… well, we're not the only members of a secret group. The Society of Cinders is made up of social elite from all across the face of Sinai. They're well heeled, so it hasn't been difficult for them to keep to themselves or to find resources wherever they may be, even here in Jadai. Hakuu must be working with them, but I don't know what his plans are. I was seeded with those mercenaries on a tip, but I only knew what we were told, which wasn't much."

"And this 'Society of Cinders' is out to … collect obscure artifacts for their own personal gain, or is there more to it?" Lilac inquires.

"Then let's see what the document you stole contains. Perhaps it will answer both of our questions," Umeko replies as she unrolls the document on the table before herself and the Lapi.

Gibson leans over the table, in part to nod again at Lilac, and to see the sheaf of papers that come out of the tube. "The nobles and merchants that join pay lip service to certain ideals, but they join for a lot of different reasons. Some enjoy the influence the Society's network gives, some see it as a means to expanding their power. Vandringar's plans might be more grandiose, but really, I can't be too certain of what goes on in his head. They've got a superiority complex, that much is sure."

"Nobles? With a superiority complex?" Lilac chuckles, then shoots Umeko an apologetic look. She reaches over and pats her knee consolingly.

"There is no true insult when what is said is true," Umeko comments quietly to Lilac as she starts looking through the papers and hoping it's in a language she actually knows. "I am as guilty as any at times in acting like I feel myself superior. We are brought up that way; it is … a hard habit to break."

"Well, if it helps any, you do have money! And power. And, um, some fame. Servants! A coach … A fancy house … Nice clothes … " Lilac ticks off things on a hand. "And, well, I have … Um … " she hovers a counting finger over unraised digits, hesitating as she counts what she has compared to a noble. "I have my health? Oh, and my fame."

"And I have no freedom and a future of marriage to that … man," Umeko manages to hiss out, then shakes her head a bit. "But then, we have been over this and I doubt Gibson wishes to hear of my ills."

"Awww, I'm sorry, Lady Umeko." Lilac pats the noble again, smiling. "I'm sure we'll find a way to stop all of this, sooner or later."

Gibson begins going through the papers as well. He squints at them and frowns. His sheet, like any others, is full of some rather esoteric looking information in various languages. Charts, drawings, what look like rubbings from old plaques, some things that look vaguely like maps but are missing a lot of the features usually associated with maps. They seem to come from all over the globe.

"Some of this I understand. The language used is old, but nobles are expected to learn the old symbols and structure as part of our education," Umeko comments, "But it doesn't make much real sense. It refers to a 'state of being', and the continuity of order. It points to places I am passingly familiar with in the empire as well … but as to what it points to, I do not know. Does that phrase hold any meaning for you, Gibson?" The Kiriga looks up and over to Lilac, then back to the Lapi.

The Lapi scratches his head, ears lopping over. He peers at what Umeko points at. "My Imperial is only so-so, but… 'state of being'. The way it's said here is like… like it's not a state of being, but that 'being' itself is a… state? I dunno, this is pretty well over my head."

"Oh, I know some of these. Hmmmmm." Lilac leans forward as well, scooting a map closer to herself. "This is Sylvania, but … " she scans the map again, " … I don't see any boarders. How old is this map? Oh, and this," she pulls forward another document, "is an old song. A sad song, actually. It's really the sort of thing you sing when people want to cry, which is usually the last thing I want my audience to do. It's about a woman with an empty heart, and how she acknowledges that emptiness has a place both in her and in the universe. I always thought it was about death, given all the wars we have. And this … " she points at another document, " … just says something about emptiness. Emptiness, as an object? 'Nothing as something.' It's like they're talking about an object that's also nothing. Void incarnate?"

"I'm not sure if that is an accurate translation or not. It has something to do with maintaining order. Perhaps the order of the Empire. But then you said these items are often older than the countries that exist today," Umeko comments. Her head then tilts towards Lilac, brow furrowed. "In the ancient arts of battle, the culminating forms or attack, the ultimate techniques, were always said to be associated with the element of void. The void being the all-encompassing element that binds the others together. It is nothing and everything at the same time. The still point."

"That's deep, Umie," Lilac admits, ears flattening.

Gibson looks, if anything, even more perplexed. He riffles through some more of the pages. "Being and void… Khattanese, Boschian, Vartan, Savanite pictograms… by the Star, there's a little bit of everything here. I can't make sense of much of it, but it seems interrelated. Whatever this is about, it's touched on a lot of places, had a lot of influence."

"Gods," Umeko comments and her claws scrape across the teacup she just picked up. "It couldn't be related to that… "

The Lapi's ears perk up, swiveling forward.

"It sounds like whatever they're looking for has traveled a long ways, or, at least, people have been looking for it over a very long period, over a long distance," Lilac suggests. She takes another sip, then rests her cup in her lap.

"There is coming a time where all noble families of Jadai must present to the Emperor. Hakuu has said what he intends to present something the world has never seen and all will be in awe of his greatness. If he speaks truthfully, it could gain him great power," Umeko explains and sets her cup down. "Now, you mentioned each of these documents touch all the major lands. What if what it speaks of left fragments in all these lands and this Society of Cinders is now making a move so that one member in each land obtains this item, then position themselves in a place of power. That society could, in effect, take over the world. This is mere guesswork on my part, of course. But it may explain Hakuu's involvement; that he would be the Empire control man. But of course, I could also be completely wrong; I am just trying to connect events."

Lilac blinks at Umeko's suggestion, then asks, "But, wouldn't a society like that just end up fighting each other to rule the world? And, what happens if all these parts come together? I mean, what is this object? When legends speak of artifacts like this, they either save something grand, like the Light of Nala, or they're doing the opposite: the cause of great woe."

The Lapi's black fur fluffs up, Gibson's nose wiggling nervously. "That's a really disturbing theory, Lady Tsuguri… but it's disturbingly plausible," he admits. "On one level, it sounds absurd, but Vandringar has proven he's taken these things very seriously, and while I hate to say it, the man is not to be trifled with. I didn't know Hakuu made that claim, and I didn't know about that presentation either. They must be pretty sure of what they're after." He turns to Lilac. "You said they're heading to Rephidim next?"

"Oh, yes. They said they'd be leaving very soon. In fact, they seemed to be packing to leave before we, um, disrupted all that. We may have even delayed them." Lilac turns to Lady Umeko and asks, "Do we still have the object I … 'borrowed'… ? Maybe we can use it to locate Hakuu's airship. If what the mercenaries said is true, whatever they're going to do will be violent."

"I have another question, the other documents, the other events, do they all refer to a person? Like Lilac's story of a woman without a heart. The state of being, and so forth," Umeko asks Gibson.

Gibson shakes his head, glancing over the sheets to check one more time. "As far as I can tell, no… some refer to people, but not any particular individual that I can discern. Still, I can only understand a fraction of this, and what I can understand doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

"I'm not expecting a particular person, but perhaps a group, or a family," Umeko notes then waves her hand, "But pay no mind. It was merely a random thought." She then looks to Lilac and says, "You were to return that. We have the copy still. I do not know what you did with the original when you carried it back into his home."

"Oh, I returned it. I meant the copy. I was just leaving when Gibson was also trying to leave. I saw him run from the upper stories, and went to find you in case something had happened. Good thing I did, too," Lilac explains. She glances between the two others, and asks, "Is there a map of Rephidim here? Or a mention of anyone in Rephidim? I think, maybe that's where they're going next?"

Gibson tugs his whiskers, glancing amongst the pages. "Hmm… not as such, but… no, wait, here's something. A lot more recent, and in Standard to boot. It looks like a list of names. I recognize a few… scholars and historians."

"Well, in any event, I think this settles something," Umeko says and takes another drink from her teacup.

The Lapi nods. "I think so. I'm heading for Rephidim."

"And we are going with you," the dragon notes, then smiles to the Lapi.

"'WE'?" Lilac gives Umeko an incredulously look, then slumps her head back on her hand. "Oh, well, it's not like I was going anywhere else. And, I did promise. Plus it'll be an adventure … " She reaches up to her neck, tugging at something buried under her robes.

"Unless you do not wish to go? I thought you wanted off this island and to places where you can make a better living," Umeko notes to Lilac.

"I do, I do. I'm just not used to chasing off after dangerous men. I mean, it sounds very exciting and adventurous and all, it's just a little shocking to actually go and do it," the human explains. She takes another sip of tea, peering at her reflection in the wavering water.

Gibson looks a little taken aback. "You are? Not that I'm complaining, I appreciate the help you've lent us… I'm just worried. If I understand right, and you leave this island, you're going to be in some major trouble."

"And if I stay, I am dead. The artist Hakuu kills and stuffs women for art, Gibson," Umeko notes quietly as she takes another drip from her cup. "I also fear I am somehow part of his play for power, which I cannot allow to occur. And besides, if either were not true, my heart is not as still as my Father would wish it to be. I have always done things that were not approved of for a woman to be doing. Case in point is Master Tooth, here. He has trained me to fight, and I believe I have become a fair warrior in my own right." The Kiriga then sighs and looks into her teacup. "I would also be lying if I didn't say I wasn't afraid of what will happen to me in the greater world. I will be leaving behind my family and the only home I have ever known."

"Well, I don't know if Hakuu kills women and, um … stuffs them. I just saw the … the stuffed ones. And, the woman without her tongue … " Sounding less and less convinced, Lilac finally admits, "Okay, he's just a monster no matter how you look at it. I don't want you to get in trouble, Umie, but even I think you should go. I said so before, even."

Gibson glances dubiously at Master Tooth, whose head has slumped down. The old Kiriga snores softly, a teacup cradled in the hands in his lap. Tea creeps up the whisker that has begun soaking in the cup.

"I will spar with you, if you wish, Gibson, to prove what I say," Umeko offers to the Lapi. "It would also grant me some experience with other species. I would not mind a chance to examine a Lapi in detail."

Lilac suddenly giggles, but covers her mouth and stares intently in to her cup.

The insides of Gibson's ears flush, and he coughs. "Erm, well, I'm not sure if… I didn't mean to imply… it isn't necessary to… not to say I wouldn't spar with you, you understand." Tooth snorts, and blinks a few times, squinty eyes cracking open.

"And I do mean spar, as in combat," Umeko notes flatly, her eyes flicking to Lilac briefly. "Knowing the anatomy of an opponent is helpful in knowing how to defeat that opponent. For example, my rough knowledge of mammals taught me that a well placed kick between a male mammal's legs will cripple him for many an hour. That knowledge saved my hide when I took down that Jupani."

At this, Gibson lays his ears back and cringes. If he weren't kneeling on a pillow, he'd probably cross his legs. He coughs, and continues, "Well, uh… sure, I guess. You're going to have to promise not to use that kick, though."

"Oh, um … " Lilac giggles again, shaking her head. "Oh, Lady Umeko, you really are going to have a time of it in Rephidim." She smiles at the other woman, and asks, "So, what did happen during that fight? Did you really kick him there? It's still fuzzy – I think one of them hit me rather hard." She reaches up and rubs her head, as if it were still sore.

"Of course not. I do not wish to hurt you, merely learn everything about your anatomy," Umeko says with a smile to the Lapi, completely oblivious to how much that sort of topic might make a male cringe. She looks back to Lilac and nods. "I did, including the use of my toe claws. He fell over and vomited. I'm pretty sure he cried, too."

Gibson appears to be gritting his teeth, and his nose wiggles a lot, but he says, "Well, um… I've been to a lot of countries, so I pride myself on having an open mind. I'm happy to oblige."

"Oh, ow. Do you have any idea what you did to … " Lilac trails off as she looks into Umeko's face, reading her reaction. "You don't, do you? I'd say 'poor man,' but they deserved it."

Umeko looks confused by both their reactions. She ends up shrugging and shaking it off. She returns to smiling to Gibson, noting, "You will get a chance to learn about Kiriga structure, as well. It should be educational for both of us, of course. Now, back to the matter of leaving, would you be able to arrange passage? I will need to go in disguise, of course."

"I wonder if we could just take his ship? Or, I don't know, use his seal to charter ourselves a ship in his name," Lilac wonders aloud. She taps one of her dark nails against her teacup, then shakes her head. "That might just make it easier for him to know we're coming. I think we'll need to be fast, though. If we're not, they'll get there before us. It sounds like he has a lot of people going, so, hey may need a large vessel or multiple vessels. That'll slow them down."

"Trying to go under his name is not likely wise. It would be easily traceable," Umeko agrees. "There is an alternative, but I would rather not use it. That being, I do actually marry him and use the influence to take a ship out. But, I imagine that once I am married, whatever he intends for me will be put into action."

"Oh, yuck, don't marry the lunatic. Let's go with Gibson. I can sneak back and get whatever you need from your home, and meet you at the docks. Or, if you want, we can head to your estate and I'll find you something to disguise yourself with," Lilac insists.

Gibson begins carefully rolling up the documents to put them back in their scroll case. "Well, I've made arrangements, so it shouldn't be necessary. I didn't fly here with just my arms!" The Lapi grins. "As long as we can get to the docks, we can get out of here. The Curators don't have anywhere near the resources the Society of Cinders has, but we have some meager means."

Umeko looks to Gibson, then asks, "Where will we stay once we reach Rephidim? Outside these islands, my status will not likely hold any meaning. Perhaps I can find work as a mercenary, myself."

"Oh, um, and what about me? I work for you now, Umie, but … can you really pay me, after we leave?" the human asks.

Gibson sits back on his pillow. "Well, my sister lives in Rephidim. My folks run a tavern there, so we should be okay staying. As for work… well, since you're willing to do all this, I think I could get you membership with Sinai's Museum." He pauses. "If you'd be willing to commit to that."

"I need to go back and get some things. I need to borrow my Father's best swords, get some robes, some disguises, various things, really," Umeko counts through the list in her head. She then looks to Gibson and asks, "What would the commitment require? I could not agree to something without understanding everything it would imply."

"I'd like to hear, too – if that offer extends to me, I mean," the human insists, tail wagging.

Gibson smiles. "I guess you've already been trusted with a certain amount… we've told you we exist, after all. We'll ask you to promise to keep the Museum's secrets, to agree to our charter of working toward Sinai's greater good… it's not really all that binding, but we only extend membership to people we think we can trust, and we don't trust everybody with all the privileges right from the get-go."

"That is certainly something I can agree to," Umeko says with a firm nod of her head. "We also have time over the trip to discuss any particulars that I should also know, of course." The dragon then frowns a bit and notes, "It is also possible my family, or Hakuu's family, may send a group to retrieve me. It may be dangerous to be around me."

"Will we get paid?" Lilac's brows and ears perk. "Oh, and the greater good sounds nice, too. It's just, … I've slept in a lot of really uncomfortable beds these few years."

The Lapi laughs, and takes up his teacup again. "You're not going to get rich with us, I'm afraid. But I'd be sure you wouldn't go hungry." He shrugs at Umeko. "We'll probably have Hakuu's men after us anyway, it would appear. Your… family isn't in on this, is it?"

"Not to my knowledge, but my Father does not speak much to me on family matters," Umeko comments, then looks to Master Tooth. She nudges the Kiriga, trying to see if he's still awake or not.

"Well, I can take care of myself when you don't need me. I do, after all, have my own goals. But, like I said, I could use the extra money." Lilac takes another sip, finishing her cup, and places it back on the table. "And besides, this is all wonderful story material. I'm sure I could write a song or two about it all."

Tooth snorts again, his head jerking upright. He blinks blearily. "Hmm? Oh. Jes. I agree."

"So long as you leave the Museum out of it," Umeko notes to Lilac. Looking to Tooth, she asks, "Did my Father mention anything regarding a group called Cinders, or a man named Vandringar?"

The old Kiriga shakes his head, white mane wagging.

"I'll think of something. Songs are as much about style and meaning as truth. If I wanted to write truth, I'd become a scribe," the human insists.

Umeko nods. "It looks like we will be leaving soon. Off to save the world, or who knows what," she notes. "Will others in Rephidim know more about what these documents may mean?"

Lilac gestures towards Gibson, looking at Umeko. "Don't you think someone from the Museum ought to know, Lady Umeko? They sound like scholars," she suggests to the other woman.

"I think so. I hope so," says Gibson, having a bit more of his tea. "As Lilac says, we know some scholars, and it worries me that I know a few of the ones on this list. At the very least, if Vandringar is going there, we'll have a chance for more information."

"That's why I asked. Also, are there many Kiriga like me in Rephidim?" Umeko inquires, looking somewhat hopeful. "Or will I be … out of place."

Gibson reaches over the table to pat Umeko's hand. "Not to worry at all, Lady Tsuguri. Rephidim is a place where lots of cultures meet. There's Naga, Eeee, Rhians, Lapi, Humans, Gallee… almost any sort you can think of."

"Humans," Lilac puts in.

"All right. I am sure it will be … hard at first. But then all things are in the beginning," the dragon notes and finishes the few remaining drops in her teacup. "I will need to decide on a new name, at least, in case people do come looking for me. Unless you feel it won't be necessary."

Gibson nods. "However you feel most comfortable. Some of us take on assumed names."

"They're more dramatic," Lilac insists, having changed her own name for just that very reason.

"I may, until issues with the Artist and my Father have been dealt with," Umeko notes. Tilting her head a bit, she looks back to Gibson, "Can you tell us a bit about your sister, since you were going to take us to her? I assume she is also a member?"

Lilac leans forward, ears swiveling forward and perked. "Is she as big as you are?"

"Is there something odd about his size?" Umeko asks as an aside to Lilac.

"Oh, no… " Gibson answers. "To both questions, really. Anisa's a short li'l sput, but she's probably as strong as I am, if not more so. I haven't been home in a while. She's not a member, but she helped the Curators before I joined. It was the first time we dealt with Vandringar."

"He's just very large for a Lapi. The Lapi in Sylvania are much smaller. Shorter than me, even," the human replies. She glances at Gibson, and asks, "What was he doing back then, if I may ask?"

"He's large? But, he's shorter than I am," Umeko notes, her head tilting a bit again. "Very odd, but if you say so. I guess they would look taller with these… " The dragon then reaches over and lightly takes one of Gibson's ears between her finger and thumb.

"Some Lapi have perked ears, others have the flopsy sort." Lilac, too, reaches over – but she gentle swats at an ear instead, making it sway.

The Lapi patiently sits and lets his ears be twiddled. "I'm about the same height you are, and I'd guess a bit heavier" he points out. "But yeah, I suppose I'm pretty big for a Lapi. We're not known for bulk or brawn, but we can take care of ourselves." He does look pretty well built, all things considered.

Umeko taps her chin as deciding something. "Lilac, Gibson, I am going to head back to my family estate and gather the items I wish to take and perhaps write a letter of goodbye to my parents. Why don't you two verify we have travel arrangements?" she says as she gets up and smoothes out her robe.

"I'll find you something to disguise yourself in, Lady Umeko. You can pay me back later," the human replies. She pats the dragoness' hand, then wags her tail. "If you don't meet us here in a few hours, then I'll come looking for you."

"Alright," says Gibson, smiling again. He holds his paws together and bows in place respectfully. "Thank you again for what you've done and will do for us, both of you. Sinai may never know the full extent, but the Museum is grateful, and the world will benefit. We can leave as early as today."

Umeko bows back to Gibson. "A good day to you both. I will see you later," she says. She taps on Master Tooth's shoulder to indicate for him to follow, then slips out the door.

"Snergk!" Tooth startles into consciousness again. Seeing Umeko beckon, he gets to his feet with some cracking and popping, then shovels a few riceballs and fishcakes into his mouth before he slouches out, kinked tail dragging after him."

Lilac watches the two leave, then suddenly flops back against the unused pillow. "So, you're from Rephidim, Gibson?"

The Lapi waves after Umeko, leaving just himself and Lilac. He nods, ears flopping. "Oh yeah, I was raised there. Our whole family, really. I'm the eldest kid. I got the bug to travel early on."

"Me too. I mean, the bug to travel. That's why I left Sylvania – to see the world. It's why I'm here." The human folds her arms on her belly, getting comfortable with her wings splayed out like a leather carpet behind her. "Did you get the whole, "Stay at home, we need you," "the outside world is dangerous," and, "you can make a better life for yourself another way," arguments, too?"

Gibson laughs, slapping his knee. "Oh yes! For a little while, they thought I was the one they were going to hand Snowshoe's off to, but restaurateuring wasn't really in my blood. It'll probably go to my brother Quinn, he's the pragmatic one. Anisa works there, but she's got the same longing… it's kind of what got us mixed up with the Curators in the first place, actually."

"Is that what it is? Because, I woke up in Jadai and I have no idea how I got here. Now, I'm involved in a world-wide conspiracy, with a rogue noble and a spy," Lilac says with a bit of a laugh. "It's fun, but I think I like the food and the bed more, some times. They were right: it's a lot rougher than I thought it'd be. Interesting, though."

Gibson grins, and looks down into his teacup. "Might want to ease back on the drinks, if you don't remember how you got someplace. The hangovers taught me my lesson. As for roughing it, well… you get used to it. If you've got the guts to stick it out, to make it through the hardship, you find yourself growing in ways you never could back home."

Lilac nods, her tail wagging slowly. "That's so true. I mean, I was in bad shape at first, but I made it this far! And now I've been hired by a noble, and maybe I'll even get into a secret society! I think that's something. I'm going to miss working for Lady Umeko here, though," she admits. Her ears swivel, and she glances at the Lapi curiously. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Well, treat it seriously," says Gibson, smiling. "You've really helped me out, and I have a feeling I can trust you both, it's seldom failed me before… but this business means a lot to all of us, and it can be dangerous. I wouldn't blame you at all if you wanted to just keep on your way." He sits a little more upright on his pillow. "Sure, what's on your mind?"

"Oh, don't get me wrong, I understand this is a serious matter. It's just, I don't like taking life too seriously. Too intently. It makes me uneasy, I think. I didn't start traveling just because I wanted to be a famous bard; I also wanted to see the world and enjoy my travels." After a deep breath, Lilac asks, "Have you ever … " she gestures vaguely at her swaying tail, then at her ears, " … met anyone like me?"

The black Lapi studies Lilac thoughtfully. "I haven't," he says. "I have to admit, I was curious, but I thought it rude to ask. I assumed you had some exotic parentage… I've seen some very different kinds of Vartan before."

"I'm not a Vartan." Lilac rolls over, so that she has her head propped on a pillow as she stares out the door. "I'm just a human, that's all." An awkward silence later, and she asks, "Do you think Snowshoe's would appreciate a bard? I play the flute, when I'm not getting dragged into world-saving plots by secret societies."

Gibson tilts his head. "You're pretty exotic, for a human. But I wouldn't want to pry. I've seen all kinds, just in Nagai itself. Have you been to the Empire? Winged lizards, snakes with six arms, burly quadrupedal reptile men, every shape, size, and color. Are you worried about something?" The Lapi levels his gaze out, smiling warmly again. "And hey, everyone loves music. 'Specially with a meal. You'll be plenty welcome at Snowshoe's."

"That's good. It'll be nice to play in a tavern that doesn't have fighting, and men with wandering eyes plus grabby hands," the woman says with a sigh. She lets her head sink against her pillow, and her tail slowly stops wagging. "And," she glances back, but only briefly, "I am a little worried, but it's nothing, right? I mean … it's not bad, is it?" She murmurs the last part, almost to herself. In fact, only the Lapi's superior hearing keeps her voice from entering in to mumble range.

Gibson grins. "You don't have to worry about that at Snowshoe's. Anisa works there as a barmaid. She's a cute one too, so she's had to put up with jerks before, and she doesn't tolerate it." He raises a strong right arm, and slaps the bicep. "And she's more of a scrapper than I am! Mom doesn't like it when patrons leave with black eyes, but Anisa doesn't take garbage from anybody."

"What … ? Oh, the bar! Oh, that's fine. I'm sorry, I was just thinking about something." Using a hand, Lilac pushes herself over and sits back up. Her nose twitches as she sniffs, and she says, "Well, you don't smoke or drink, at least not recently." She tilts her hear, ears flicking, "She's tougher than you? And shorter, too? You must have a very interesting family."

The Lapi smiles and looks away, as if finding some spot on the horizon that Rephidim must sit on. "Oh, you can say that again. We've been through a lot, but especially little sis and I. She's the only girl our folks have, and with four brothers she had to be tough to grow up." He looks back at Lilac, and reaches over to pat her shoulder. "It's normal to worry. I worry all the time. If you don't let the worry rule you, you can live with it. Still, if you think you're in over your head, here or in Rephidim, I'll see that you get set up comfortably, for a while at least. It's the least I can do."

Lilac smiles at the Lapi, and her tail wags again when he pats her. "Really? Do … Do you think I could talk to the scholars that you know, some time? There are, um, questions I need – want to ask." Then she shrugs a little. "But you're right. I just have to not think about it, and enjoy what I do have. I'm looking forward to returning to Rephidim, anyway. It's always an exciting town."

"So you've been there before! That's good! It'll be easy for you to get around," enthuses Gibson. He looks Lilac over again. "Hmm… from what you've been asking me, I'd guess you'd like to ask them a bit about your… features. You don't know much yourself, do you?" The hand on Lilac's shoulder gives a sympathetic squeeze. "I don't know who you might talk to, but Rephidim's so full of different people, I'm sure that someone can point you the right way. If not one of our scholars, then someone they know. They tend to know each other."

Lilac's ears wilt, and for a moment, looking up at Gibson with that frowning face, she really does resemble a lost puppy. "Is … Is it that obvious? I didn't want to worry Umie, I needed her job, but we saved you and you've traveled, so … " She shakes her head, looking down at her hands. "I really don't know! It happened a year or so ago, but I can't remember how, or why, or even where I was. I just woke up naked, and, well … I stole some clothes and it wasn't a fun time in my life. I really don't know how I adjusted. I think it was flying. Flying made it okay, and where else could I go? I had to keep going, but I couldn't … " She shudders. "I'm sorry. You have enough problems, you know?"

"Hey, shhh… hey, it's okay… " It's the puppy look that probably compels Gibson to hug the dog-eared girl, a protective embrace. That healthy, clean fur scent that Lilac picked up is all the stronger up close. "If it happened to me, I'd be scared. It must have been a really strange thing. You read the Sylvanian stuff… you said you're from Sylvania, didn't you? There's a lot of strange stuff that happens out there. I wouldn't doubt there was some expert we could talk to. It couldn't hurt."

"Strange stuff," Lilac sniffles, burying her head against Gibson as she gives him a hug. "Yeah. Strange. Stuff." Her tail tucks, and she shakes her head, breathing in deeply. "Okay, I'm okay … I … I'm used to this. It doesn't bother me anymore. I'm all right," she tells herself. After a bit more sniffling, she just leans against Gibson tiredly. "I was scared, but I couldn't go home! Not like this, they wouldn't understand – I'd be a failure too! I, I left Sylvania, my people … We don't trust people like me."

The Lapi leaves his arms wrapped around Lilac, letting her rest against his broad chest. "You have family back there? I don't know about yours, but if I came back to my folks penniless and strung out on dragon's tears, they'd take me back into open arms, even while they scolded me. Family loves, Lilac. It's what family is there for." He dips his head, touching his nose to the bardess' shoulder. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't presume. I don't know what's waiting back there for you. You can fix it, though. You can make any life you want."

"I don't want to go back. I just left one night, because I thought if I didn't go then I'd never get out. And then, this happened! It's be a laughing stock, if they didn't drive me out of town," the bardess explains, quietly. She leans back then, tilting her head. Her eyes are moist, but she at least hasn't started crying. "Besides, I said I'd help Lady Umeko. If I help Lady Umeko, and stop this Society of Cinders, won't it have been … worth it? I'll have done something right?"

One of Gibson's big paws comes up to cup Lilac's face, a fuzzy thumb brushing at the corner of the young woman's eye. "Lilac, it'd be more than worth it. I don't do this for just Mom and Dad, or my brothers and sister, though thoughts of them keep me going. I do it because it's for Sinai at large. Maybe you'll discover yourself with us… just, please, don't go into this only with something to prove."

"But all I wanted to do was see the world and play my music! I never wanted to save the world, or be that important. I would have settled for mildly popular in a few countries," Lilac sniffles. The absurdity of her words must have caught up with her, because she sputters a laugh. "It's… it's pretty absurd, isn't it?"

Gibson smiles again, a simple one instead of one of mirth. "It's not absurd, Lilac," he says. "Before I was a Curator, I did much the same thing, and it was for myself as much as it was for the scholars. You can still see the world and play music if you want. You can do that at Rephidim, if you like. Like I said, you don't have to prove anything to do things for yourself or for others. We'll get ready to go later today. You can stay on Jadai, or come with us to Rephidim, and no matter what happens you'll be welcome with us or to part ways with some food in your pack and a place to stay if you're ever back our way again."

"But, did you end up like this?" Lilac reaches up and pulls at her ears, the fuzzy lengths of them stretching. "What's worse, I … I'm having a hard time telling what's me and what's this. I feel like I've changed, but I can't help it and … " She breathes a sigh, letting her head butt in to the man's chest. After a pause as she seems to gather herself, she stays with a steady insistence. "I'm going with you. Dwelling on my problems won't help anyone. Not you OR me. And, it's not so bad, you know? I can fly, I can see in the dark, I think I actually gained some grace, unbelievable as it may be, and I can smell everything." She takes a whiff to demonstrate, pulling in the bucks scent, then suddenly blushes furiously. "Ohhh, um … " The blush might well be invisible, if Lilac's inner ears didn't also turn red.

The Lapi strokes those ears, showing he's not afraid of them or what Lilac's become, his smile widening just a smidgen. "It's not bad at all," he affirms. "I've seen all kinds of people. I've seen different kinds of beauty. I appreciate the beauty of a fine Lapi maid. Umeko's beautiful in her way, all golden and sleek. You're very striking in your own way too, with your bright violet eyes, pure pale skin, and expressive ears and tail. We'll see what we can learn, huh?"

Lilac giggles nervously as she leans back, her ears askew. She opens her mouth to say something to the buck, then suddenly grins awkwardly, blinking the tears out of her eyes. Reaching over, she taps his nose. After a moment, she says, "You're a very nice person, Gibson Snowshoe, do you know that? Then she tugs at his ear again, before tugging at her own. "I think I feel better about it. Me, I mean."

Gibson's ear lops down when it's tugged, and his thumb smoothes away traces of tears again, the Lapi wiggling his nose and giving Lilac a buck-toothed grin. "I try my best, and it's worth it to see you smile. We'll see what Rephidim brings, eh? We better get things ready."

"What? Oh, ready." Lilac grins a bit wider, then stands up again. "The matron is going to wonder what we're doing, me crying and you … Well, you-ing." She giggles, nervously then shrugs. "I'd better go find Lady Umeko something to wear. Knowing her, she'd pick a platinum Zolk robe and a golden tiara or something. She's very cultured, but I don't think she's ever seen a dirty ship."

It's Gibson's turn to pinken a bit in the ears, and he coughs. "Yes, well… we did have a breakfast to finish," he says, gesturing at the food largely untouched on the table. (Except for the portion Tooth managed to scarf down.) He laughs, and lets go his hold, giving Lilac one last squeeze on the shoulder before standing up. "Sounds like a good thing to help her with. I'm sure she'll get acclimated quickly… she strikes me as a much hardier woman than she lets on. We've got our work cut out for us, at any rate."

Lilac looks down, blinking at the food as if just noticing it. "In my hurry and, um," she glances at the buck, " … well, I forget about the food. Now, I wouldn't say this around the lady, but since it's just us travelers … let's eat it all. The minute we get on that ship our dining days are over." She sits right back down again.

The Lapi seems apt to agree with such a reasonable idea, and kneels on his cushion again, taking up the teapot and grinning. "We'll eat for Lady Tsuguri too, then," he says, filling his teacup and Lilac's with his other hand. He raises his cup. "To your health!"

"To yours, and to better times," Lilac agrees. She clinks her teacup to Gibson's, then leans forward. "You know, ever since this happened to me, I'm only hungry now and then? This morning, though, I'm starving. I don't even know what this is, but I'm going to eat it." She picks up a rice ball, eyes it for a moment, shrugs, and chows down.

Gibson sips his fresh cup of tea, then takes up a rice ball and some seaweed cakes. "It's no surprise, we had a busy night. All the better to keep our strength up." The rice ball is fluffy and warm, and seems to be stuffed with a mix of fish and clear rice noodles, with flavorful sweet and spicy oil.

"This is delicious. I don't know what it is, but it's delicious." Lilac chews happily, content, for the moment, in her meal and in her company. Tomorrow may be a trying today but at least, for now, she's happy.

---

GMed by Bambridge

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Today is 3 days before Day of the First Ones, Year 25 of the Reign of Archelaus the First (6124)