Blackness, followed by a hazy view of a beige ceiling with colors fragmenting across it in a fractal design; at each bend in the pattern, the fractals change to a different color. Voices, from a long way off:
"Think … be fine," an unfamiliar one says.
Closer, to her, another voice that she almost recognizes says, "Good." A queer buzzing fills her ears for an unknown about of time, then she hears, "I do not trust that serpent."
Feeling fuzzy-headed, Envoy tries to focus her eyes on the colors.
The lines of the fractal design get sharper, and she can see the gradations between the colors as they shift to infinity, while everything else fades away. The voices continue: "Nor do I, Cyprian, but this wasn't," more buzzing, then, dimly, "chaos magic and mind magic … wasn't tuned for her alien biology. That's all."
"As you say." Envoy's vision blurs, then clears again, as at the center of the fractal pattern two intense green eyes form, pulsing like a heart, and growing with each pulse to overwrite the fractals from the inside. "Don't let him use any spells around her, whatever he says."
The green eyes consume the ceiling with their glow, melting into each other. Then, a blink, and everything goes black once more.
The beige ceiling is back, but this time the pattern on it is butterfly wings in silver and red. As she watches, the wings flap in counterpoint first red, then silver, open, close, open. The same unknown voice as earlier is saying, "I sympathize with your urgency, Dean, but I won't risk your spells interfering with mine."
A deeper voice says, "There's no risk it's… " The butterfly flapping grows louder, or the voice fainter, because she can't hear his next words.
Chaos and Mind magic, Envoy thinks. That explains much.
Eventually, the first voice says, "No," and the single word echoes in her head, over and over and over again. A white and gray blur looms over her for a few moments, then it leaves, and she hears just a slithering sound that grows fainter, as of a snake departing.
A silver Naga fairy pops into view, hovering in perfect focus inches from her face. "Do you think it still sees me?" the creature squeaks in its Shirley-Temple voice.
"I don't think it sees anything." Then, she doesn't.
The ceiling seems closer this time, and something blue lurks on her right side, at the corner of her vision. "Envoy? I do not know if you can hear me… " A tinkling of bells overlays the female voice, drowning out the next few words, "… do all that I can to remedy this … situation. Be strong; you are not alone."
Envoy tries to bring the blue blob into focus, which also means attempting to turn her head.
The blueness vanishes faster than the Aeolun can turn her head, leaving the Earth mage gazing at an expanse one side of which is brown and fuzzy, the other side of which is tan and fuzzy. As she watches, a whiteness washes over both of them, and the sound of bells grows louder, resolving into the chime of a tambourine. Then it is accompanied by other music: a lute, a pipe, and a drum. The world vanishes behind a white sheet.
Palace in Paradise
Just past the palace's drawbridge lies a vast open area like a courtyard, enclosed by pastel blue and green crystal walls and roofed by translucent faceted crystal, tinted gold, and sparkling with the soft glow that fills the area. Flowerbeds and whimsically shaped topiaries abound, both on ground level and on a number of elevated crystal tiers that float like miniature sky islands, some tethered by slender crystal spires, others unsupported. Elegant crystal sculptures twine and writhe around the courtyard, most in abstract forms reminiscent of vines and flowers. At the center, however, an alabaster fountain features a fifteen-foot tall crystal statue of a beautiful Eeee. In her left hand she holds aloft a cornucopia from which sparkling wine gushes, as red as blood. An opulent and revealing dress adorns her, dripping with jewels, one sleeve falling charmingly off her right shoulder. In the fountain's basin, fruit and pastries in dishes like white lily pads float upon the surface.
Envoy blinks at the sudden transition, and looks around for Seeker.
Seeker stands a little behind her and to her right, roughly where she remembers him being. He smiles as she looks at him, but his smile dims around the edges. "Are you all right?" he asks. In the background, she can hear the music that played over Elise's voice a lute, a fiddle, a simple drumbeat, and the rustling chime of a tambourine.
"I'm … have I been here the whole time?" the Aeolun suddenly asks the draconian.
The golden draconian tilts his head to one side. "No, we just left the Library. You were going to sing in here, where there's more of an audience."
"Ah, of course," Envoy says, nodding, and looks over towards the small group of musicians … but then focuses her attention onto the crystal statue of Inala rising up from the fountain. "But I think I only need to sing for myself and the Goddess … and maybe for you." She walks to the edge of the fountain, and looks up at the graven image of the lovely Eeee.
Seeker follows her, dropping a few paces behind. The throng of milling guests parts for her quite naturally, as if they simply don't feel like being where she happens to be walking; some eyes turn to follow her progress, and as she reaches the fountain, the lute and the fiddle fall silent, leaving only the drummer's beat and the jingle of the tambourine, keeping slow, patient time.
Closing her eyes, Envoy tries to clear her mind, even pushing the cadence of the real world as far back in her awareness as she can. Pulling up one of her earliest, pre-sentient memories, she concentrates on it as if she were casting a spell. Pre-dawn, the first day of Spring. She feels the crystals of frost woven into the soil, the stillness of a forest still sleeping, and does her best to transform this into sound. She begins with a flat, cold, keening whisper.
As the sound pours out of her, it's like a touch of frost over the crowd, and all go quiet. The whisper touches the two remaining instruments, and they still without further murmur.
The dry keening shifts into a deeper, more liquid rumble as Envoy visualizes the rising sun. The rumble deepens as she remembers the tug of it, and her voice begins to rise in depiction of the warm wash of light, and the crack of melting frost. The volume increases, as the Exile tries to sing the warmth straight into the bone and blood.
The courtyard floods with a sudden rush of pure sunlight which seems to emanate directly from the Aeolun, bright enough to cut through the soft haze of the regular ambient light. All around, the plants and flowers perk at her voice, stirring and arching towards the warm sound and light, while the guests shade their eyes. The red wine of the fountain sparkles from the light.
In her mind, the warming soil stirs. Seeds burst and struggle up towards the light, and Envoy's song struggles with them; one voice deep and cool, for the soil, while the other rises in fits and starts until it drowns out the first.
Flowers and vines, alien to Sinai but native to Envoy's world, suddenly burst from the ground and the sky islands, all angling towards her, soaking in her radiance.
Envoy's voices continue to unfold to match the petals of the flowers, but soon a deeper rumble takes over, deeper than any other, as she feels the slow wakening of the trees. The rise is subtler this time, but hints at something powerful building beneath it. Lost in the memory, it is not blood that she feels moving through her, but thawing sap, forcing its way up the towers of wood with ever building pressure.
The hidden pressure bursts, and Envoy's song rushes along with it, following the branches of the trees, and then dancing around them as leaves spring forth, each one having its own sharp note. It sounds like a rain of crystal bells.
The topiaries stir, leaves trembling in their artificially shaped forms, then burst out in a riot of growth, surging taller and broader like the proud, wild trees they were grown from, shedding the whimsical, unnatural shapes imposed upon them by clipper and wire.
The pace continues to quicken, and takes on the quality of a heartbeat … or dozens of different heartbeats. Envoy remembers the stirring of the small animals, coming out to see the sun, some of them for the first time. The beats begin to overlap, merging into a single, larger percussion.
The frozen figures of the guests start to move all at once, and they look at each other. Their half-spoken words form a single soft murmur that pulses to the same time as Envoy's song.
More cadences appear, as Envoy adds new layers. One for the birds, one for the water, and even a subtle, barely audible one for the fungus in the soil.
Each layer blends into the others, until there is only one voice now, one song. Envoy sings of the forest, as if it were a single being. It stretches, wakes, and reaches up for the sun.
Even as the song rears up, it starts to fade. But echoes of other songs fill in the space, as Envoy tries to express that the great song is just one of a chorus, all connected. Her body shakes as she pours her feelings into the effort. This is my joy, this is the joy that exists all around you, the joy of life itself.
A crackling sound echoes through the courtyard, as the carved crystal designs of flowers and vines suddenly break free from their casings, becoming live things that writhe and reach like her song, growing and tangling together in a riot of color and greenery all around them.
The Aeolun's voices reach their limit, as they simply can't wrap around something so big, just as her own energy drains. The song ends, and Envoy falls to her knees, feeling light as a feather. Euphorically empty.
As the Aeolun sinks before the fountain, the statue at its center suddenly shatters, into a million fragments that drift to the ground like so much harmless glitter. It takes a moment for Envoy's eyes to focus through the haze of tiny crystal bits where the statue on the fountain had been,
When she does, she has just one thought: This is what people mean when they say "Divine." The female figure standing on the pedestal looks like the statue in the same way that a woman looks like her child's drawing of her: it was but the crudest of copies, and could never capture the impact of the original. Words falter in their efforts to describe her: if her fur could be called white, then new-fallen snow must be the dingiest of grays. If her eyes are blue, then The sky on a summer's day must be as gloomy as winter. "Beautiful" does not touch her. She is so radiant that the riotously living courtyard around her seems pallid and dim by comparison. Inala looks down from the height of her dais towards Envoy, and She smiles.
Envoy blinks slowly up at the Goddess, who seems more real than reality. She is at a loss for words, but forces herself to whisper, "Hello… "
The Goddess smiles again, and Envoy feels that she has never before seen such warmth, such pure pleasure, in a smile. The expression wraps itself around her like a warm fuzzy blanket. "Hello, little one," Inala says, and her words are the perfect song that all other music is just an echo, a refraction of. "I understand you wanted to see me."
Envoy smiles and lets herself float in the Goddess' attention. "Yes," she sings. "I wanted you … I wanted you to be free. I wanted freedom for my friend."
"How kind of you," the Goddess says. She steps down from the dais, and Her bare toes dip into the wine, which seems the richer for Her touch. She lets Her dress drift on the surface of the liquid as She glides towards the Exile. "Did you come all this way to free Me, little one?"
"Not at first," Envoy says. She can't even think of being anything other than truthful in this situation. "I only wanted to free my friend. But freeing you may serve the same purpose."
"Oh." The Goddess seems disappointed, and it's as if the sun vanished behind clouds, leaving a wintry chill in its place. Envoy's body shivers, forlorn, regret suddenly filling her. "A charming motive, no less," She continues, and the cold ache dulls, soothed by the Lady's words. "And your friend, whom you have risked so much for, is?" She looks around, a half-smile playing on Her lips.
"Morpheus, the God of Dreams," Envoy says, after she recovers from the chill. "Ambitious fools enslaved him, and hope to control You through him. They think they created You, and believe they can use You to enslave Your followers."
"A male God?" the Beautiful Lady smiles again, Her eyes sultry at the mention. "What an intriguing notion you have, My dear … but I think I know who you mean. Ah yes, indeed, I do. But these ambitious mortals you speak of … them I do not know." Her eyes darken, and although the expression isn't meant for Envoy, she still shivers at the look. "Fools indeed, if they think to control Me."
"Your Sister knows them," Envoy offers. "Barada." She wonders to herself if Morpheus really counts as male, anymore than she counts as female.
"Ooo, that naughty girl," Inala says, though her musical rebuke has warm tones of amusement in it. "She does so love to keep things from Us. What a sweet child you are, to tell Me what My dear sister tries to hide." She bestows another radiant smile on Envoy, warming the Exile to her toes.
Envoy smiles brightly, as if basking in the approval of a parent. "The others also have holds on Morpheus, because they are still weak and need his power. You are the strongest now."
"I am the oldest, and I have always been the strongest." Even Her slightest smile still lights up Her eyes. She steps out of the fountain and settles Herself onto the lip, hands fussing with the folds of Her dress as if it might somehow be less than perfect upon Her. "But first things first, My little one. You seek a boon from Me; do you know what you must do before I will grant it?"
"I … I do not know," Envoy admits, feeling ashamed. "What must I do?"
"You have done well," and Her praise is the caress of a long-absent and much-missed lover, that leaves one aching for more, "so far, My little one, and there is but one more challenge you must pass. If you win, you will be granted your heart's desire. If you lose," and here her expression saddens, making Envoy's heart ache in sympathy, "then I must give you to my second-born Sister."
Envoy certainly does not want to make Inala sad. "What is the challenge?"
"Since you have called My attention through music, that will be the battleground for your final challenge. But this time, you will have a competitor." Her smile turns knowing as She watches Envoy for the Aeolun's reaction.
Envoy blinks. "Another singer?" she asks.
"Oh yes. And I have just the person in mind," She tells the Exile. Her eyes scan over the quietly watching audience, hesitating for a moment on Seeker, then continuing until She spies the forgotten quartet of musicians. "Come here, My passionate fox," She cries out, with a tone of command that cannot be defied.
A foppish fox in an incredibly frilly and ridiculously sequined costume stumbles forward. He adjusts the glittery frames of a pair of … shades? … on his muzzle, lifting them so he can look between Envoy and … Her … with a look of utter disbelief. "Ah … I don't believe this is … in my contract," he stammers, as he reaches in his frilly coat and pulls out a long scroll that he unrolls, such that the bottom hits the ground and rolls out for a few feet. The scroll is visibly covered with many long words … though it seems as if, for the most part, it's a repetition of "Legaletarious Gobbledygookius Blah Blah Blah" and things to that effect.
Envoy's mouth drops open, but she recovers quickly and asks Inala, "What will happen to my competitor if I win?"
The fox's ears cant forward, as he is quite obviously interested in the answer to this as well.
Inala stands, and moves with the grace of flowing water to take up the end of the vulpine's scroll. "It's right here, My darling," She assures him, pointing with a long, immaculately manicured nail, to a paragraph about half way down. She looks to Envoy. "Why, he shares the same risks you do, My child, and will merit the same rewards." She turns Her heart-melting smile on the fox, and touches his cheek with Her free hand. "He has not endured the same trials you have, but the journey has been difficult in its own way for you, has it not, My darling?" She coos sweetly.
The fox looks incredulously at the scroll … but then his eyes go goo-goo at the cheek touch. "Ga ga … da … uh huh?" he blabbers.
Envoy's eyes widen. "I … I don't think I can do this then," she whispers, and slumps. "I can't help Morpheus at the cost of another's wellbeing." Her eyes begin to tear up.
The Beautiful Lady strokes the fox's cheek tenderly. "There now, I know," She says, and Her voice soothes, the softest of lullabies sung by a mother to her first-born babe. She drops Her hand, and stands back. Suddenly, She seems regal and powerful, a Queen to be obeyed in all things. "You would refuse Me?" She says to Envoy, and Her voice is ice, splintering through the Exile, sharp and stabbing with cold.
Envoy buckles over from the cold and shock, and she whimpers, "Forgive me, but … yes. I will not sacrifice one friend for another."
"And you, My fox? Would you defy Me?" The Goddess of Pleasure turns Her stern gaze to the fop musician.
The fox babbles, waving his hands about vaguely, "Well, uh, you see, uhm, it's like … you know? And, ah … I … and You … and her … and … it's like … you see … ah … "
"You come to My lands, and into My castle, to speak defiance to Me?" The Beautiful Lady rages, balling Her perfect hands into perfect fists in her anger. "I offer you your heart's desire, and this is how you would repay me?" Suddenly, Her eyes fill with tears, and Her sorrow is more painful to behold than Her anger. Envoy's body aches all over with the need to soothe it. "Don't you want to please Me?" She whispers, huskily. "I know I wish to please you." She smiles again, irresistible in Her radiance.
Envoy cries out in torment, "I c-can't! No pleasure is worth it!"
The foppish fox casts Envoy the saddest and sorriest of looks, as he worries the rim of his hat in his lace-gloved paws.
The Goddess tosses up Her immaculate hands in dismissal. "Fah! I suppose I must give you both to My sweet Sister, then, for you are not fit for My realm if you would refuse Me even in this simplest of things."
The fox's eyes go wide. "Bu-bu-wa-su-na-wa-wa-duh-buh?"
"I beg you, ask for something beautiful, and I will give it!" Envoy pleads. "But how can you want something so ugly as betrayal?"
"Ah, My little one," the Goddess says, favoring Envoy with another of Her sad, wistful smiles. "How would you recognize Beauty, if you never saw Ugliness? How can you ask for rewards, if you will not accept the risks? Nothing valuable comes without a price, My little One for it is by the price paid, that you understand its worth."
"I accept the risk," Envoy says, "but only if it is mine alone to face."
"And what risk would the fox then be taking, My little one? What reward might I then offer him, to ensure that he plays at his very best for Me?" the Goddess asks.
The fox pops his hand up, waving it around vigorously.
The Goddess quirks an eyebrow at the little fox, and leans forward. "Yes?"
The fox leans over toward the Goddess, and puts up a lacy glove to his muzzle, whispering something in the direction of Inala's exquisitely large ears.
The Goddess's eyes widen for a moment, then narrow in thought. With a delicious sigh, She shakes Her elegant head, causing Her hair to tumble delightfully around Her shoulders. She starts to decline, then laughs at another whisper, and shakes Her head again. "And if you lost, My precious Fox? I do not think it will be the same."
The fox bites his lip anxiously, fidgeting. "I give my honest promise on my word as a Fox and as a Bard that I'll do my utmost best?" He gives the Goddess the most eager, pleading look he possibly can.
The Aeolun blinks and looks between the two, wondering what the fox's scheming little mind is coming up with.
At that, The Goddess laughs, and the sound gladdens the hearts of all who hear it. She beckons him forward, and whispers into his own ear. When She is done, She flicks her tongue across the edge of his ear, and leans back to look at his face.
The fox's ear flicks, and he swallows hard, the insides of his ears paling visibly. "Uhm … ah … that's … quite … ah … fair … " His tail twitches nervously.
The Goddess claps Her hands together with girlish glee. "Then it's settled. Your fox friend has made me an offer which I have accepted. He will play against you, but he will not share the same risks as you nor, alas, the same reward." She looks sorrowful at this last, and strokes his cheek. "But I am convinced he will do his best for Me. Now the rules of the game!"
Envoy relaxes slightly, but pays close attention to the rules.
The fox sticks his index finger in his frilly collar, running it about as if his lace is suddenly strangling him.
All business, She outlines the rules in her musical voice: "The contest will take three parts. First, each of you will perform a song in concert with others of your choosing. Then, you will each perform alone. And at the last, you will perform a duet together. I, of course, will judge the event, and decide the winner." The Beautiful Lady beams at Her two contestants. "You may arrange your venue as you please. My dear fox will go first in each round, and then you, My sweet Exile. If there are no questions, I will give you a few minutes to prepare yourselves." A few attendants have carried a throne into place behind Her as She speaks, and when She finishes, She sinks back into it, smiling beneficently at Her two players.
Envoy swallows, and nods.
The fox gulps … then begins scampering about in a cartoony flurry of activity, setting up clouds of dust and flashes of red in his wake, covering up sounds of construction and chaos. When the dust settles … a stage has been set up, and the fop fox's band assembled…
Envoy blinks at all of the activity…
A big banner hanging across the back of the stage reads, "Happy Guy Fox Day, Inala!" and several racks of fireworks and exploding Guy Fox dolls are precariously stacked up on the edges of the stage, ready to go for the big finale, no doubt.
The fop-fox, attired in impossibly garish clothing covered in frills and sequins, wearing a pair of outrageously oversized and glitter-framed shades, skips around the stage with a lute crafted of redwood and emerald, with golden fittings. Behind him, a raven-haired, brown-furred Eeee in zolken blouse and billowy trousers of black and sapphire topped with a wide-brimmed, ribbon-tied hat of similar color scheme plays on a double-flute, while a happy-looking Vykarin plays drums and a trap set. A little winged … Aeonian? … who bears some faint resemblance to Envoy's Child form plays an outlandishly complex-looking Chronotopian organ The little organ-player is adorned in a moonstone gown decorated with flowers that seem to grow from the gown itself, and ribbons that fluidly blend with the shapes of leaves and vines.
The Loveliest Sister reclines comfortably upon Her throne, watching the process with an expression of pleased self-satisfaction on Her face. As the show begins, She leans forward slightly, in anticipation.
The fop-fox executes a deep bow with an exaggerated sweep of a hat that almost looks large enough for him to hide in should his song find disfavor. "Greetings and salutations, and many well wishes for your pleasure on stage tonight, we present some musical dishes!"
Envoy can't help but smile at this.
The foppish fox plops his wide-brimmed hat back on his head, his ears poking neatly through a pair of holes, and the feathers bobbing slightly. "Victor Reynard, Master Bard, Player to Kings and Queens Player of lutes, player of flutes, player of many things! But it's a special night, a special sight, I hope you will find it gay … So I say to you, without further ado, come band, let's sing and play!" And then he strums on his strange lute, as his band picks up with their first set… "Lady of the skies,
- I look in your eyes,
You turn away and giggle.
"Whisper and a sigh,
- I don't know just why,
Your love is always fickle.
"But that's the way
It's supposed to be
From olden day
"Beauty beyond compare.
Why do I even dare?
"Or do I have a choice?"
… Then, the foppish fox and his band play a short interlude … and go into the next verse:"Lady of the light,
- and shining so bright,
My eyes hurt just to look at thee,
"Try as I might,
- can't avert my sight,
Even though you're blinding me.
"But that's the way
It's supposed to be
From olden day
"Beauty beyond compare.
Why do I even dare?
"Or do I have a choice?"
The interlude is a little longer this time, featuring an electric lute solo by the fop fox, as he runs across the stage (nimbly avoiding tripping on the cord that dangles, attached to his lute), then drops to his knees and skids up to the edge, holding the lute up high. He goes through several deft moves, running his fingers skillfully back andforth across the instrument, the music building in intensity … and then, head ducked and lute held high, he lets a wailing note trail off to silence…
… "Lady of desire,
- of hearts' burning fire,
Love has naught to do with you,
"Do you never tire,
- as we all expire,
From all the tests you put us through?
"Is that the way
It's supposed to be
From olden day
(And the song changes key… )
The Goddess's eyes burn with an almost frightening intensity as the fox bard sings for Her and to Her. She does not move during his performance, nor does Her expression change, except, perhaps, for the growing radiance, like captured stars, within Her eyes."You will never
know or understand,
What it's like to
toil with mortal hands,
"To many this is your charm,
No cause for false alarm,
Choose whom you'll bless or harm,
Touch or strike with an ivory arm,
The musical accompaniment halts."Or do you have a choice?"
And with that, the foppish fox's head bows forward, a large floppy feather bobbing forward and bouncing a few times as he does so.
Envoy's mouth hangs open in amazement.
For several moments, no one responds in any way to the fox's conclusion. All eyes turn towards their Goddess, awaiting Her response; but She remains as still as the statue She burst out from inside of earlier.
Then, She moves … and places Her delicate hands together to applaud, and the sound of her clapping is like a hundred thousand people roaring their approval. It washes over the fox, and the rest of the audience joins in, their enthusiasm obvious, but their mortal applause far less in impact.
The fox looks up, sheepishly grinning at everyone … then tips his hat nervously in Envoy's direction, giving her a "your turn" eyebrow waggle and shrug.
Envoy closes her mouth, and blinks, wondering how to compete with something like that. I'll have to try for a completely different effect, she thinks.
When the applause dies down, Inala turns Her attention to Envoy, watching the Aeolun with a pleased, expectant smile on Her lips.
The Aeolun stands, and selects an area near the fox's stage to work on. Something more … somber, she thinks, and imagines a megalithic half circle with a stone altar at the focus. Obligingly, huge weathered stones rise up to form a smallish grotto. The ground sinks and floods until the structure is standing in a shallow pool, with a single boulder rising up at the center. Envoy adds lichen and hanging vines, and a low hanging mist across the top of the water.
Envoy's own costume shifts from the blue gauzy wrap to the pale white dress of a sacrificial virgin, as she seats herself upon the boulder. Shadowy Eeee-like figures rise up out of the water between the megaliths, each bearing a gold or silver instrument, mainly flutes and small harps.
Reynard raises an eyebrow, reluctantly impressed … but then gulps a bit as the sacrificial imagery finally hits him.
Clouds close in to cast the stage in shadow, with a single ray of sunlight breaking through to shine on Envoy and the boulder. The Aeolun assumes a praying position, kneeling on the rock and clasping her hands in front of her, while looking up into the light. As the ghostly orchestra begins to play softly, Envoy sways and sings."Rising and fall-ing … lighter than air … "
"Silently call-ing … but no one is there … "
"Oh, bird that is fly-ing … so high and so free … "
"Closer to heaven, than you and me."
The Goddess, as She did during the vulpine's performance, leans forward just a little, and watches the Exile through Her astonishingly blue eyes, making no other movement, no sign of expression to betray Her thoughts, a perfect alabaster statue."Voices of strangers … keep me from sleep … "
"Guardian angels … watch over the deep … "
"A ship that is sail-ing … way out to the sea … "
"Closer to heaven, than you and me."
The background music takes on a deeper, harsher tone now."Visions of rain fall out of blue skies … "
"Rivers of tears flow out of dry eyes … "
"Answer my question, tell me no lies … "
"Is this a real world, or a fools' paradise?""Wind that is blowing, so wild and so free … "
"Closer to heaven, than you and me."
"Closer to heaven … longing to be."
"Closer to heaven, than you and me."
Once again, the music takes on a softer melody."Love that lies sleep-ing, wakes in the night … "
"Secrets for keep-ing, that won't see the light … "
"I look to the future, and I hope it will be … "
"Closer to heaven, than you and me."
The music stops now, as the figures drop their instruments and produce knives. Quietly, Envoy sings on."Closer to heaven, longing to be."
"Closer to heaven, than you and me."
The ray of light dims, and Envoy is left alone with the armed shadows, her voice trailing off.
After a few moments, Envoy steps away from her stage and bows to Inala, trying to not show too much nervousness.
Inala's radiant eyes follow the Aeolun closely as she approaches and bows. After a moment, She responds to the bow with a gracious nod of Her own, and when She applauds, it is now Envoy's turn to bask in the dizzying glow of her approval, so intense it makes the Exile light-headed, drunk upon it.
Envoy actually shies back a few steps from the onslaught.
The Goddess smiles, warmly, and the applause subsides. She motions for Envoy to take her place on a cushion at Her right side, while She gestures for Reynard to leave Her left side, and take the stage.
The Aeolun sits down, and watches Reynard.
Reynard gulps again, and clambers on up to the stage once more. He takes his spot, plastering a big showman's grin on his muzzle as he takes up his glittering lute. He strums, and then starts crooning along … but his face twists into a most curious expression as he sings, as if somehow, something's a little out of place… "You win, you win,
You can never lose,
You win, you win,
No matter what you choose.
When it's what you
Declare yourself to be.
"Winning is losing,
Losing is winning,
It's in the choosing,
It's in the sinning.
"Play by the rules,
Or make up your own,
Who are the fools?
Who must atone?
There's another musical interlude. While he plays, the fox has an even deeper look of concern on his face … but quickly fakes a grin when he realizes that people are still looking at him.
Envoy blinks, and wonders what is wrong with the fox; he doesn't seem to be quite himself.
The fox forces his usual showman's grin on, and hurriedly rushes into the next verse… "You win, you win,
You can never choose,
You win, you win,
Even if you want to lose.
When it's what they
Want you to be.
"Winning is losing,
Losing isn't sinning,
What's for the choosing?
That you are winning?
"Win by the rules,
The game is done,
Lose to the fool,
Back to square one.
If you win?"
The music stops, and the fox, quickly hiding a nervous expression on his face, doffs his hat and makes another sweeping bow. "Thank you! Thank you very much! You've been a lovely audience! Simply fabulous!"
Envoy blinks again. That was one of Morpheus' messages, I'm sure of it, she thinks.
This time, Inala's reaction is less neutral than before. Her eyes narrow as the fox sings, and they hold a tint of disapproval. The crowd holds its breath as She does not take action, then a sigh of relief when She finally applauds, albeit less enthusiastically than before.
Reynard hurriedly scampers off the stage, instinctively looking about however in vain for good prospects for hiding places.
Envoy furrows her brow as she tries to decipher the song.
The Goddess bestows a smile on him as the fox looks for somewhere to hide, and motions graciously to the cushion by Her left foot. Then She turns Her attention to Envoy, waiting.
The fox plasters another grin on his face, and strolls on over to the cushion as if, after all, that's precisely where he was heading anyway, really.
The Aeolun gets up and returns to her own dark stage, where she perches on the boulder. After a few moments of consideration, she hunches over and spreads her wings to cast an even deeper shadow, and crosses her arms across her knees, with her hands curved to mimic talons. In a voice that sounds like it comes from the bottom of a stagnant well, she begins to sing.
The Bright Lady tousles the fox's hair affectionately as he takes his seat, to all appearances having forgotten Her peevishness of moments ago, while she keeps her eyes and ears focused on Envoy."Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a being of death and pain."
"I've been around for a long, long time, stole many a man's soul and fate."
The fox looks positively torn, as this is precisely the sort of attention that he would normally be gushing for, but … it's somewhat different, when the person in question is quite capable and willing to subject you to a horrible fate."And I was 'round when the last Priest-King had his moment of doubt and pain."
"Made damn sure that the Twelve-Times-Twelve raised their Hands and sealed his fate.""Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name."
"But what's puzzling you, is the nature of my game.""Stuck around Sylvania, when I saw it was a time for a change."
"Killed the Czar and his ministers, and let Necropolis gloat over her reign.""I rode a sky-tank, in a general's rank,"
"When the Plaguebringers raged, and the bodies stank.""Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name."
"What's puzzling you, is the nature of my game.""I watched the gleam, while the Nordikan kings and queens"
"Fought for ten decades, but still fell to Bosch.""And I shouted out, 'Who killed the Astromancer?'"
"When after all, it was you and me.""Let me please introduce myself, I'm a being of death and pain."
"And I plotted course for the Sabaoth, when Himar was split in twain.""Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name."
"But what's confusing you, is just the nature of my game.""Just as every cop is a criminal, all the sinners Saints,"
"As I end this tale, just call me 'Fate',"
"'Cause I'm in need of some restraint.""So if you meet me, have some courtesy,"
"Have some sympathy, and some taste."
"Use all your well learned qualities, or I'll lay your soul to waste."
Envoy finishes with a hideously high-pitched cackle.
The Goddess of Pleasure watches her performance through narrowed eyes, with the Her hand on the back of Reynard's neck, ruffling his fur in apparent reflex. The motion is pleasant enough, but there's a certain tenseness in Her body that only makes the fox fop more nervous. At last, Inala releases him, and sinks back into Her chair to applaud desultorily, and once more the relief in the audience is palpable.
Envoy meekly returns to her cushion.
The fop fox nods to Envoy as she approaches, then drums his fingers against each other nervously.
"You have played the first two rounds … well, My darlings," the Goddess says, her voice a song as evocative as any yet performed for her. "And now it comes down to the finale. I give you leave to choose your performance and parts alone. I would not want to … ruin the surprise. You may return to me when you are ready," She claps Her hands together over Her head, and suddenly the palace vanishes, leaving Envoy and Reynard alone, on a peaceful green sky island, still sitting on their cushions.
"Er," Envoy begins, "Any ideas? And what happened to you during your last performance?"
Reynard takes a moment to adjust to the sudden shift, then throws himself at Envoy's feet. "WAHHHH! SHE'S GOING TO DO ALL SORTS OF HORRIBLE THINGS TO US!"
Envoy blinks three times before placing a hand on the fox's shoulder. "Well … that is what the Sisters do, isn't it? I don't suppose you can tell me what you agreed to risk?"
Reynard bites his lip, then shakes his head. "No, no, Fox's honor. I can't tell you a thing. Oh, Envoy! Morpheus is going to kill me! After the Sisters do, that is. I'm not supposed to be doing this! I'm just supposed to sing these little ditties and riddles and go my merry way! And I'm ruining EVERYTHING now!" He whine-sob-wails loudly.
Envoy tries to pat the fox in a reassuring way. "Don't be silly, Morpheus isn't going to hurt you. Can't you just … vanish … if you need to?"
The foppish fox says, "The vanishing part didn't seem to work as soon as Inala noticed me. She isn't even supposed to know I'm here! Nobody but you and the others are supposed to be able to understand what I'm singing, or pay the least note of me. Something's terribly wrong!" He pants and puffs, then says, "And … as for the song … I was trying to sing, and … it just came out. I suppose I could thank Morpheus … but he didn't provide me with an interpretation to give you."
"The bonds between him and this realm must be weakening then," Envoy comments. "That should be a good thing. We still have a chance to win, though. Both of us."
"How can we both win?" the fox asks. "She stated the rules quite clearly. It's me against you. Oh… " He gets teary-eyed. "… and that was so heroic and noble of you to ask that I not be killed as a result of this!" He sniffs, wiping his cheek. "That was the most considerate thing… "
The fox quickly adds, "I shall most certainly have to compose a new ballad singing your praises … as soon as we're out of this fix."
Envoy thinks. "The rules, exactly. We're tied now, I think. But we either both win or both lose the duet. If she likes our performance in that, then why shouldn't we both win? The rules didn't say that someone has to lose."
The fox drums his fingers on his chin. "Well … uhm … that's the trouble. I suppose we haven't really any sort of score kept here. Inala can do as she pleases. And, really, there's nothing even holding her to honoring what she's agreed to. You see, in Babelite myth, there are all sorts of tales where a goddess makes some sort of pact, and she manages to twist the intent of it in a way that, really, isn't the least bit clever. Ahem. Not meaning any offense to Inala, of course!" he quickly adds, scanning the air.
Envoy frowns. "What else can we do though? If we don't play by the rules, then for sure we'll lose."
The fox chews on his claws. "But … if we play by the rules, then … ah … OHHH!" He claps his paws up to the sides of his muzzle. "Winning by the rules Inala sets makes her stronger … but is that a good thing for certain? Not that I'd advocate losing. The consequences are obvious enough for that."
"It seems to make her more real," the Aeolun agrees. "And that means she won't be using Morpheus' power as much, and should be harder for the mages to control."
The fox frowns. "How … do you know this? I mean … I'm just a messenger and all, but I've been delivering these songs for quite some time now, and they never just said, 'Win, win, win, and above all else, win!' Nor did they say, 'Lose, throw the game, go say howdy-do to Sunala', either."
"Morpheus told me before any of us even entered these realms," Envoy said. "He felt that visiting each goddess would give him a moment when he could break free of them."
The fox slumps. "All right. I'll follow your lead. You're the hero, after all. I'm just the bard. But pleeeeeeease don't get us killed! Or tortured or maimed or subjected to any other typical Seven Sisters unpleasantness."
"Hmm, can you play an … electric guitar?" Envoy asks, tapping the side of her muzzle in thought.
The fox ponders. "Well, I play the electric lute. I am well-traveled, you know."
"That should work, as long as it's loud enough," the Aeolun says. "I'm thinking of something close to a drum-beat with strings."
Envoy huddles close to the small fox, and starts working out details with him.