Icelight walks with Kaela through the City of Hands, the thickening jungle shrouding the stones. Vines push blocks upward near the outer edge and erupt in untamed flowers, gaudy orange-black blooms casting perfume through the air in a heady breeze. "You are troubled," the older white-robed cheetah signs to the young one.
Kaela gives the elder cheetah a rather scathing glare. "Whatever gave you that idea?" She looks back forward without waiting for a reply.
Icelight flicks his tail. Then puts his hand on Kaela's shoulder to stop her, signing in the formal language, "Pay attention."
Kaela looks up at him. "I'm the only one who IS paying attention! The rest of you don't even CARE that you're considering making a Priest- King of someone who sold her family into slavery, and who still wants to lead you into war against everyone else!"
Icelight frowns. With both hands, he signs, "She is a forceful person. Very clever. Very ambitious. Some of us say that we will need strength to make the Savanite empire once again a power to be respected in this world… That we need that respect if we are to survive. Yes, I am sure that she has done terrible things in the past… " He pauses, then motions for Kaela to follow him up a course of stairs. "There is something I wish to show you, here."
Kaela looks up at him, her hands moving in wild, animated gestures, unable to contain her signs any longer. "Her 'strength' was her betraying her family! How could you possibly think to trust her as a leader? I had thought that the Twelve times Twelve would be wise… that they would know what was best… and who to trust and who not to trust… And that being confined in stone to contain an insane Priest-King would make you think twice about doing it again… But you're not… you're just kittens with magic… and… and… " She swallows a bit, fidgeting.
"Come with me," Icelight bids Kaela again. He leads her up the stairs and to a short tower that overlooks the the outskirt of the city. From here, within the illusion magics that shield the City of Hands from the outside, the crumbling ruins can be seen… And beyond the walls, the thick jungles, rolling on to the horizons. Icelight gestures toward the horizon. "This is where we are. And this is where we are, in another sense."
Kaela says nothing, just standing at Icelight's side.
Icelight continues, "We are born into a world that resembles that jungle. For all we know, it is the common thing to do that one betrays another in the politics and empires of this world. Perhaps only strength, only the power to silence and control others will allow our small band to survive. And yes, it is small, for though we are twelve times twelve, how many millions dwell on the world of Sinai? But… Perhaps the world is not so badly gone as that." He touches Kaela's shoulder, his eyes seeming tender.
Kaela begins to insistantly sign again, "Even if it is common, that doesn't mean it's right… and if no one knew we were here… and no one else could see us, we could live however we wanted… But you're letting Jezebel advertise us to the whole world!"
The white-robed cheetah continues, "Perhaps this is a world where kind hearts may prevail. Where we may find allies, friends willing to help the Savan cause." He pauses, watching Kaela's hands, then signs again, "Shall we huddle in this stone city within the jungle, keeping the ancient codes and barring the way to all who may come for help? Is that what you ask us to do?"
Kaela lowers her gaze and moves a bit away. "Jezebel sold us as slaves when I was three," she signs. "I've been a slave my whole life… she took my freedom… she took my sisters from me… she stole my mother away when she came here… All I want is a safe home… " She pauses for a moment to wipe at her eyes.
Icelight looks moved as he lays a hand over Kaela's shoulder. He signs, "I am sorry to hear that, Princess. Perhaps… " He pauses, and then lifts both hands again. "Do you wish to give up your candicacy? We will make you a place in the City of Hands where you may remain here. Your mother, Abana, heiress of the blood of Malachite, will be part of our sanctuary as she is not part of the testing. I am sure that your sister will abide by our decision, if you wish this."
The white-robed Savanite studies Kaela's face intently.
Kaela's face moves through a number of different emotions, none of them pleasant. "Jezebel would become Priest-King?"
"That would be contingent upon her own testing," Icelight signs. "But yes, if she is found satisfactory, then we would agree to follow her. I know you distrust her, but if you ask us, the Twelve-time-Twelve for sanctuary, I feel confident that we will grant it, and shield you from your sister's ill wishes."
Icelight continues, "However, you should know that our protection would not extend beyond the reaches of this city… That is the limit of our law, for this time."
Kaela shakes her head softly. "Watch your own signs… you would follow one who bore ill wishes towards the royal family? Her own family?"
Icelight signs, "If we believe her vision is the correct one to follow. If we believe that she has the strength the belief to take up that vision and make it reality. If we believe that our path lies through domination of all others, as indeed we once dominated the Savan and its bordering lands long ago. We are not rulers, we of the Twelve-times-Twelve. We were trained to serve." His eyes turn bleak as he looks back from the tower to the sundered city, and the crater where once there was a palace. "If we do not all agree to follow one leader, we will fight against each other to prove our own thoughts correct… And I for one can feel no joy in my heart at such a fate. We must have a strong leader."
Kaela again signs, "Kittens with magic. Perhaps it's time you learn a better way to settle disagreements. Or I do not belong here."
Icelight's eyes glint. "Do you wish to resign your candicacy? You may accept our sanctuary and be well cared for here, Princess. Or do you wish to continue… And perhaps show us that your own way of doing things is the way that they should be done?"
Kaela sighs. "Please stop calling me 'Princess'… Will the kittens agree to change?"
Icelight raises an eyebrow.
Kaela sighs some more. "Or are they going to insist on fighting to the death every time there's a disagreement?"
"We are hardly insisting that you fight your sister," Icelight signs. "It would be an unequal contest, I suspect, considering your respective ages." His ears do not wiggle however, as they would normally for a witticism. "We are asking that you show us that you have true beliefs that would exemplify a true leader… And the strength of will and character to carry through these beliefs. We must look for the best leader who can unite us, rather than fall into chaos." He pauses, then signs again in Formal language. "Do you reject your candicacy?"
Kaela signs, "I… I told you before… I don't want to lead you… but… if you'll all follow Jezebel unless I do… then I don't have much choice."
Icelight lets out a breath. "Ah, little one," he signs. "You are too young to have to face such harsh challenges. Even should you reject candicacy, I must remind you, it is possible that Third-Eye may be found unfit for the position. And if she is indeed fit, she has promised before our circle of the Twelve times Twelve that no harm will come to you from her. Are you certain you do not wish to accept sanctuary instead?"
Kaela abruptly sits in the corner, shaking her head several times. "If… if I don't… it'll never change… it'll all happen again and again… "
"Let me tell you a story about Emerald-Eyes," Icelight signs as he kneels down by Kaela.
Kaela wipes at her eyes, but doesn't move away.
"Long ago, her father, the Priest-King, had decided to take her on a tour of the provinces, where he would receive the tributes of the people. He hoped to show her the wonders of these lands that were part of the Savan Empire," Icelight signs to Kaela. "It was a huge airship, a mile in length and with paintings of gods casting down demons upon the walls of its airbag, and richly furnished and decorated in all ways. As was his custom, he sat at the center of the airship where his servants could attend him, and his guards lined the walls of the ship to protect him from any harm. But one day, he called and Emerald-Eyes was nowhere to be seen. He called his servants and sent them to look… Can you guess where they found her?"
Kaela shakes her head softly.
"Well, they went to the kitchen and looked, but the cook said that even though they had made the candied pastries she liked, she was not there. Then they went to the lookout post and looked, but the navigator said that even though he had the best view of all the lands passing beneath, she was not there. Then they went to the magicians' quarters, but I said that even though she was due for another lesson… " Icelight smiles. "She was not there."
Kaela watches the Priest-Mage quietly, at least mildly diverted by the story.
The white-robed teacher signs, "So finally, they went to the front of the boat, where there was a great Savanite head carved, and they found her there sitting on its forehead, between the ears. And they asked her, 'Princess, come down from that dangerous place! Why are you there?'"
"And she signed, 'This ship is going to many lands, does it not?' They nodded in agreement. And she signed, 'Well, this part of the ship gets there first. That's why!'," Icelight finishes. He smiles briefly, remembering the precocious green-eyed kitten he taught so long ago.
Kaela nods slowly. She watches him, as though waiting for him to continue.
"There are many qualities that define a good leader," Icelight signs in a more professorial tone. "But one of them, perhaps not as obvious as it should be… Is that a leader must lead. He, or she, must look ahead and see where her people are going, and guide them to a safe harbor at journey's end. It is difficult to be a leader, because there are many things that must be balanced against each other, and people are often reluctant to follow, but… " Icelight shrugs. "Someone must lead, else the ship will flounder and go nowhere."
Kaela nods softly. "I just… I wish Papa was here… "
Icelight looks briefly nonplussed as if wondering if Kaela spoke of the Priest-King, then signs, "I'm sorry, Emerald-Eyes. I cannot bring him here for you, even if I knew where he was. But I am sure that he is safe and well."
Kaela sighs a bit. "Can't you just follow Mama? She'd be a really good leader, once she gets better… "
Icelight signs, "She does not wish to be a leader."
Kaela nods slightly, sighing and closing her eyes.
Icelight stays silent.
Kaela sniffles a bit. "I… I'll do it," she signs. She rubs at her nosepad for a bit, not looking particularly happy.
Icelight signs patiently, "What is it that you will do?"
Kaela looks up. She signs, "I'll keep trying… but… it won't matter if Jezebel keeps telling everyone we're here… "
Kaela signs, "I know you wouldn't let me destroy all the city's defenses to keep Jezebel's plans from working… please give mine the same protection… "
Icelight signs, "The role of guarding the city is not one new to us," with a slight ear wiggle. "Leave that task to us. If it becomes necessary, we can rebuild elsewhere. But as a leader, you will be expected to weather storms. Your decision will not be fair sailing throughout the year. Are you ready to take up this challenge?"
Kaela fidgets a bit. "I… really don't want to be a slave again… "
Icelight signs, "You are only a slave if you believe in your heart that you have no choice but to obey."
Trying to be more reassuring, Icelight signs, "I will be with you, young one. You will not be alone."
Kaela nods a little bit. "Will it have to be for very long?"
Icelight signs, "That depends on where you lead us both in your testing year." His ears twitch.
Kaela nods a little bit, sighing. "You can't do much when you're a slave… except what you're told to do… "
"And you wish to save others from this fate, do you not?" Icelight signs.
Kaela nods several times.
"Then you must go where they are to rescue them," Icelight signs. "Someone must go… "
Kaela nods a little bit. "That's true… "
Icelight signs, "What is your decision?"
Kaela signs, "I'll do it… "
"Then put your heart into it, not your tail," Icelight signs. "You must be like Emerald-Eyes of my story and ride on the front of the airship." His lips curve up slightly into a smile however, as he continues. "Do you want to look for your father first, when we go to Rephidim?"
Kaela swallows a bit. "I want to… but I can't," she signs.
Icelight looks quizzically at Kaela.
Kaela shakes her head a bit. "I escaped… they do bad things to slaves who try to escape… if anyone finds out who I am, they'll kill me… if I'm lucky."
Icelight signs, "Then we must make sure they do not find out who you are."
Kaela nods… "They'll kill you, too, if they learn that you know magic… "
A raised eyebrow. "They seem rather intolerant, these masters of yours," Icelight observes. "Are you certain that Jezebel's solution would not be better?"
Kaela sighs. "Kill them all? How would that make us any better than them? Will we never stop being kittens?"
Icelight signs, "We must find a way that will work." He stands. "Let us pack for your trip then. There is undoubtedly a great deal more that I will need to know in the way of… 'survival'."
Kaela quietly signs, "Can you change how I look? My eyes, especially… they all know of me by now… "
"Of course," Icelight signs. "I shall speak to the Dancers of Life tomorrow." His ears wiggle as he continues, "It is too bad we must do so; your eyes are very pretty. Still, have you thought about a new name? 'Emerald-Eyes' will be… unsuitable."
Kaela shakes her head. "Our new master will give us names. Spoken names. They don't care about our true-names."
"Then you do not wish a new name by which you are to be called, while we travel?" Icelight inquires.
Kaela pauses. "I… suppose that wouldn't hurt… but what name would I use?"
Icelight suggests, "Something that reflects a quality you admire."
Kaela nods softly. "I'll think about it," she signs.
Icelight nods. "Do not think too long," he signs with a smile. "Otherwise we will still be thinking when we dock with that sky island."
Kaela nods slightly. "I'll pick before we leave… "