First Ones 18, 6104 RTR (22 Aug 2000) Willow finds time to speak with "Subject #42", the Nagai Emperor, and the Archon.
(Space) (Test of the Archon) (Willow)
Primus Pavilion, Archon's Palace
Humble and new compared to the other Pavilions representing other worlds of the People, this roughly spherical modular chamber is built along the outer rim of the Archon's orbital palace, and sports a small sampling of Sinai, Abaddon and Arborea – with a focus on the Savan. In the center of the floor is a shallow dome of thick, transparent material that provides a window view outside, as the stars spin past, and the hazy edge of Zion can be seen to one side. Above the dome hover colored spheres representing the Primus System, reminiscent of the holograms in the Gateway Tower. Steps lead up to tiered platforms that radiate out from the central theatre, past the beginnings of a garden and occasional samples of Sinai artwork and Abaddonian statuary. Unfinished murals and mosaics attest to the status of the chamber as being still under construction.

Although the Primus System is – despite Light-of-Star's ambitions – not part of the Empire of the Silent-Ones, it is still home to significant settlements of the People, and thus has earned itself a representation amongst the Pavilions. On one level, it is an exhibit, and pilgrims so blessed with the opportunity to visit the Palace of the Archon take several days to tour the Pavilions, usually taking extra time to visit that of their own homeworlds.

On another level, the Archon occasionally holds meetings in one Pavilion or another, when meeting with visitors from member worlds – The premise is that they might feel more comfortable, despite being in the presence of the Archon, if in familiar surroundings.

In either case, a single chamber is quite inadequate to capture the look and feel and smell of an entire world, let alone several worlds in a star system. Considering that the Primus Pavilion has the task of representing Sinai, Abaddon and Arborea, it is unlikely that the end result would resemble any one of those three worlds. (Although, granted, it just might evoke the chaos of the Bazaar in the end, only a lot quieter, and with many more plants.)

Most of that on display has been confiscated from the prior holdings of "Light-of-Star" (apparently also known in some circles as Second-Prince Khoman) – some plants that have been identified as coming from Sinai and Arborea, and only a few scrubs from Abaddon. Luminescent bulbs sprouting from clinging vines run down pillar supports, supplementing the glow of the artificial lighting, and a trickling (artificially cycled) stream tumbles past clusters of tiny multi-colored Arborean mushrooms.

A single sample of Sifran crystal is on display in a clear case, but it doesn't glow, it doesn't pulse … it doesn't really do anything interesting at all, though an informative plaque touts its remarkable material strength. The rest of the Sifran crystals have been put away somewhere for safe storage – with the possible intent of returning them to the people of Sinai, once the Archon can decide in what manner such an exchange should take place.

A display case shows a Creen-flute, a chiga trap carved to look like a flower bud, and a casting of a section of a relief carving depicting a procession in the City of Hands. Another case has a model of an Abaddonian Titan – little more than an antique version of the Titans used by the space-faring Silent-Ones, save that it has undergone a certain amount of ritual decoration and refitting for more primitive (if oversized) weapons, as Abaddonian Titans have served from generation to generation, requiring new innovations to keep them running … and acquiring new ornamentation to commemorate their millennia of service.

Wall sections here and there have markings on them and some tiles where mosaic murals will be constructed, and there are signs of other areas still to be constructed, and boxes yet to be filled with plants. Most of the seating is not quite authentic to Sinai or Abaddon, out of necessity, since there is little in the way of furniture just yet, and the only alternative would be to sit on the floor.

The artisans are away, letting work on the Pavilion wait until some more convenient time, as it presently serves as a meeting place for Lady Willow Dack of Kroz, of Sinai, and the palace guest suite reserved for the Dack Family isn't far removed. The only way out of the Pavilion is up, going along stairways and tiers up to the domed ceiling, though there are also elevator platforms that make the way much easier for those so inclined.

Above this chamber and presently out of sight is a wide corridor that seems to stretch on forever … and, in a way, it does, since it runs a complete circuit about the rim of the station. The other Pavilions descend from that corridor – that is, they are affixed to the outer rim of the station, like gems studding a crown – and other passages and lifts lead into the various parts of the palace. Privileged pilgrims often use that great corridor to tour the palace, but there are no "tours" for now – There is the very serious business of dealing with the troubles left behind by Light-of-Star, so there are no curious interlopers to disturb Willow.

Lady Willow DackWillow fusses quietly with a small black kitten's clothing and hair in the way that nervous mothers are prone to do. Nene looks perfectly fine, but Willow is still working her up to her first meeting of the day since her return and delaying herself by checking Nene's clothing an extra time or two is serving her purpose for the moment. "Now remember, we're meeting with a special lady Savanite first and I need you to be on your best behavior. She's shy and a little sad, so we need to keep her happy if we can. If you get bored I've got a picture book and some cards for your Creen game." She tugs at the kitten's hem one more time for good measure.

Nene points at the display case, mewing, "Iwanna play the flute!"

Meanwhile, a rush of air and a soft hum alert Willow to the descent of one of the elevator platforms.

The Skreek stands up and hands the kitten the end of her tail. "It's a Creen flute I think. You want to sound like a Creen?" Her fur bristles slightly at the sound of the platform and she hastily rubs a hand across the back of her neck to lay it back down again.

Nene grabs Willow's tail, and mews, "Tee tee tee tee tee!" That's her impression of what a Creen might possibly sound like, something akin to a child hearing someone go "bow wow" to emulate the sound of an excited Gallah, and then going, "wawa wawa wawa!" to the confusion of anyone not in on the history of this unique entomological development.

As one of the elevator platforms descends, Willow can see a lady cheetah in bulky robes that somewhat serve to obscure the fact that she has two extra pairs of arms folded about her back, where they aren't as likely to get in the way, and a circlet about her forehead.

Her daughter's laughter manages to lighten her spirits somewhat as Willow pulls the kitten behind her and somewhat out of sight for the moment. ( I forget that Ring Day is coming up in a few weeks. Sebazhan had better remind me to get something for Nene's birthday… ) Willow swallows and straightens herself. One hand is planted against Nene's head just as a reminder that the kitten is still there.

The platform hushes to a stop at the bottom of its descent, which places the visitor a few tiers above Willow's spot. She looks about, then wanders along the main path, which leads toward the center of the chamber – and therefore, eventually, toward Willow's location along the way. She seems rather taken by the distractions of the decor, but Nene makes it very easy to home in on the location of the Dacks. When the cheetah finally reaches them, she smiles politely and bows in greeting. Her hands are still hidden underneath the folds of her emerald green drapery.

Willow bows back, but keeps her head hung instead of rising back up. "Thank you for seeing me. These past few weeks haven't been easy for either of us, and you did an amazing job at the satellite raid. I know you're anxious to get home, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you – er… but first I should introduce you to someone."

Nene, at mention of the word "introduce", immediately knows just who needs introducing, and steps forward, and, while still holding onto Willow's tail, half-curtseys, using the other hand to grab her skirt as she ducks down. "Pleased to meet you!" she mews, with well-practiced words.

The cheetah bows to Nene as well. "Hello," she says in a quiet tone, in words heavily accented.

The Skreek tousles the kitten's hair, mussing up the work she'd done to neaten it earlier. "This is my daughter, Jezebel Nene Dack. She's going to be four soon. I … I got married in New Year's after the meeting at Gateway. I didn't think I'd end up getting preggers so soon after getting married, but things sort of happened that way. Sebazhan and I don't regret a minute of it." She jerks at the sound of the cheetah's voice. "I … I wasn't sure if they'd told you about … " Willow pats at her throat, not sure how to put what she wants to say into words.

The cheetah looks querulously back up to Willow, then registers recognition and nods. A hand – one of her favored pair of hands – slips out of the folds of her robe, and signs, "Yes, I was told about the vocal chords. In some of my dreams, I spoke. But I sound horrible. For now."

Nene just seems to take this all in stride, not the least bit surprised by a talking Savanite. "My birfday is coming!" she mews. "I'll be FOUR!" Just in case the cheetah wasn't listening the first time that was mentioned.

Willow runs a hand through her hair. "The second order of business is the apology that I owe you. Khoman's menagerie had worn my reserves to shreds and I'd been brewing nightmares about it before I ever came there. During the preps, he'd messed with my head and almost caused me to really hurt my husband. When I saw you, it all came bursting out, and instead of focusing my anger on him I focused it on you. I dearly hope you can forgive me."

The cheetah bows her head, then signs, "I understand. I know what he is capable of."

"Have … have you decided on what you want people to call you yet? I mean … The reports tell me that you really are Third-Vision … but I also know that after people go through big things like this they decide to go by some other name." The Skreek rubs her wrist with her hand. "I did after mine at least."

The cheetah pauses to nod and smile at Nene, then is still and silent for a moment. At last, she signs, "There is much I must consider. What would my return imply for the Savan? Jade-Eyes is a ruler now, but her claim is because of my death. Would my return be a threat to her rule? And what role would I have there? I do not know, and I do not think that I could find a life here easily, either."

"I think you need to get yourself straightened out before you even consider it. A lot has happened in the past four years." Willow straightens herself up and draws in a breath. "I would be most honored if you would come with me and Sebazhan to the Dack lands. I was going to see about calling Moon-Brow and Testament-Blaze there. But … er … the reason why I mentioned a name is that I'd like to suggest one if you'll allow me. I don't want to call you 'Number 42' or 'The Clone' or anything like that."

"Inri." The Skreek closes her eyes and swallows. "It was the name of my oldest sister. It's … a very pretty name."

The cheetah blinks a few times, then her face creases in a self-depreciatory smile. "Certainly. 'Hey you' just wouldn't have the air of dignity. Would you mind terribly if I borrow that name for a time?"

"I doubt she'd mind." The Skreek eases herself down in one of the chairs of the chamber. "The reports told me that you'd been fed false memories to cover up the true ones. Have you been able to tell which are which yet? I was going to send for Twilight-Wing to try and help you out, since during my little religious crusade time in Safar he seemed trustworthy enough … but folks keep telling me not to trust a mind mage. The two of you were close, and it's your head, so the decision should be yours."

"In-ri," the cheetah says with careful enunciation, then she signs, "I like it. It is pretty, short, and easy to pronounce." She gives Willow's question some thought, then signs, "I have trusted Twilight-Wing since my first ambitions to lead the Savanite people. He has given me no cause to distrust him … though I cannot sign the same for the rest." She sighs, then blinks as if surprised at the sound, recovers, and adds, "I am still sorting out my memories."

Willow digs her fingers into the arm of the chair. "I hate to ask you this question, but it's something I realized that I didn't think much about. Your memories of the attack … your husband. Do you know whether or not he might have ended up like yourself? Or could perhaps be a prisoner somewhere on Sinai?"

Inri takes in a deep breath at this, and signs, "No. Light-of-Star wrote him into the Darkness." Her eyes sting, and she unthinkingly frees a third hand to cover them, causing Nene's eyes to widen in wonder.

"I couldn't accept that," the cheetah signs. "A mistake on Light-of-Star's part."

"I'm sorry for speaking of it." Willow clasps her own hands together, thinking of her own husband. "I'm going to suggest that Jade-Eyes disband the Twelve once we return to Sinai and I set her to cracking heads. If they want political power, they can form their own scruddy nation." She shakes her head. "You know, I'd have never married Sebazhan if it wasn't for our meeting. I stuck with the Star and stood up to Dagh, then I tried to free him from Dagh as well. After that I never left his side."

Inri frowns at mention of the Twelve, but when Sebazhan is mentioned, she smiles faintly. "I see that I have a great deal to catch up on."

Inri then adds, "I will be very reserved in regards to advice I give to Jade-Eyes. I am not even comfortable accepting whether or not I am her sister. But from what I have heard, I am confident she will do the right thing, even though it may be hard."

Willow nods. "You'll like the Dack lands. Although I'll have to warn you about my relatives … er … but that should be saved for another time." The Skreek pats the kitten's head again. "I need to go see someone else, and then I've asked the others to meet us here, but I don't particularly trust meeting the next fellow with my daughter in tow. Er … would you mind … watching her for me?" Her question holds a tone to it that seems to be asking for something more, or meaning something deeper. Nene is her only daughter and her dearest treasure, and asking someone to guard her is no simple thing.

Inri looks surprised by the request, then breaks into a smile. She signs, "I would love to."

The Skreek stands up and brushes a strand of black hair from her eyes. She just stands there for a bit, unsure of what to do next and finally walks over to the cheetah and takes one of her exposed hands. It's the first time Willow has touched her or even come this close during the whole ordeal. "There's a lot more I want to say, but I'm afraid to. I'm afraid it won't be you or you won't be who I've thought of you as these past four years. We were only together for a day after all – but, I'm hoping that spending some time in Dack together will help us both. She's in there, I can almost feel it … and I want you to tell me everything about her, everything we didn't get to say on that one day together."

Inri smiles faintly, though there's a pain to her expression. "I shall try not to disappoint. Please forgive me if I cannot live up to whatever impression I may have made years ago. I do not wish to use my ordeal as an excuse, but this is very difficult for me."

"Do you still believe in the Star? When I heard you had died there was a time when I hated the Star, I screamed at it in my prayers and argued with every priest I found and demanded that he tell me why the Star would let such a thing happen. Having Nene helped me rebuild my faith, but my ordeal was nothing compared to yours. Your faith was so strong … it burned me." Willow droops a little. "I'm worried that all this has killed that strong thing that I felt in you."

Inri signs, "I don't feel very bold or very strong. But I do believe in the Star. Strong enough that I saw the false 'Star' in my dreams, and knew, 'You are not my Star'. Beyond that, I do not know what to tell you. I have been in a place of dreams for so long. We shall see how well I hold up in the real world once more."

The Skreek nods and releases Inri's hand. "Why did you stop to talk to me that day in Gateway? That's the one question I never quite understood. Later they'd told me that I'd helped your faith. But … all I really remember is being really confused and scared and catching up on ten years of crying."

Inri's brow furrows curiously. "I … I don't know why I would not."

"Was I that pitiful?" Willow shakes her head and chuckles dryly. "I don't know if I would have stopped to talk to myself, back then. I was such a bitter little thing. I still am, except I've learned to bite down on it … most of the time. I'm sorry, it's just … well, we all want our miracles explained I suppose."

Inri signs, "I'm sorry. Light-of-Star has polluted my memories of that time. But I remember you. The way you really were. I saw myself in you, if that does not sound presumptuous. And I have always been bitter. It was a hard thing to control it, and in Light-of-Star's dream-world, eventually I stopped trying. I am having to unlearn bad habits."

The Skreek nods. "Four years … you fought him for four years. I almost wish I could have given him exactly what he wanted. Chunk him down the pool at the Pantheon in Olympia and let Dagh jump up and down on him for awhile. The gods on Sinai aren't as strong as they say they are. I should know, I'm related to half of them." Willow winks conspiratorially and then hugs Inri's shoulders. Her grip is clumsy and her hands are sweaty and shaking, but the sentiment is still there. "Thanks for remembering me."

Inri's hands slowly move to grasp around Willow's shoulders, as if she's deliberately controlling the movement so she doesn't accidentally move another hand or two with the same action, and then she gives Willow a firm hug – maybe a tiny bit too much of a squeeze for comfort. "Thank … you … ," she says, then adds, in a querying tone of voice, "Lady … Foxfire?"

The Skreek nods. "You've earned the right to call me that. And I think you have a beautiful voice, Lady Inri."

Nene looks between the two with wide eyes, until Inri lets go and stoops down to look better at Nene. She signs, "Would you like to see the Pavilions?"

Nene has a look that suggests she hasn't a clue what the sign for 'Pavilion' means. "YAAAAAAAAA!" Not that it matters.

"I'll leave you to get acquainted." Willow lets her breath out and heads towards the lift. ( I don't think my next meeting is going to go as well. )

Willow's journey through the palace takes her to the guest chambers … and, for now, certain of the clones from the Orbital Palace of Heavenly Delights are being treated as honored guests of the Archon. (The rest are receiving fairly good quarters as well, though not all on board the same station.)

"Come in," booms a voice behind a door, in flawless Imperial, at Willow's arrival and call.

( Try not to look edible… ) The Skreek opens the chamber door and enters, respectfully dropping on one knee and not making eye contact just yet. "Greetings. I am Willow-the-Wisp Dack and I would like a moment to speak with you to see how you're doing," she hisses in her slightly accented version of Imperial.

A large part of the chamber is taken up by the coils of a huge, golden serpent, draping over this and that protrusion. It looks as if pieces of furniture and cushions have been moved into the chamber for the express purpose just for him to drape himself across them to his comfort. "Greetings. I am fine, in light of the present circumstance. I shall be doing even better once I am home once more."

Willow pulls herself up. "Your physical health is not my concern as much as your mental health. I understand you were held a prisoner of Khoman for quite some time and it appears that he has tried to turn many people into believing he was some kind of god."

The mouth of the Emperor wrenches itself back behind his eyes in the ways that snakes can do, and forms something approximating an attempt at a smile. "It was quite an impressive act, but I am no stranger to the powers of the Sphere of Mind. It is a matter of pride amongst the Nagai that they are the most proficient spellcasters in that area. And, accordingly, it befits me to know as much about it as possible. Khoman may have used a form of 'technology' instead of magic, but to me it is much the same thing."

"Do you know what happened to you then?" The Skreek's tail switches nervously. Talking one to one to such a giant serpent feels much like talking to a dragon or some great sea monster.

The serpent flicks his tongue at the air, then says, "As it has been explained to me, something akin to the Learning Machine of Rephidim Temple was used on me, in an attempt to purge from my mind the memory of the treachery committed by some of my wrongfully trusted aides. I have also been informed of their ineptitude at trying to take my place." His expression sours, even for a snake. "A Kavi. Phhh."

"I was wondering if you'd been told that or not. The Emir has taken some of your lands, and the rest has been divided up into smaller principalities." Willow rubs her nose. "I'm from Sinai. My husband and I were the orchestrators of the force that brought Khoman down, although I wasn't expecting to find you there among his prizes."

The snake makes his oversized smile again. "Once I restore order to what is left of the Empire, I shall see that you are suitably rewarded. You have performed an admirable duty. It will not be forgotten."

"Is this one of those favor things? Like what you offered that minister that set all the Savanites free and then vanished off the face of the world?" The Skreek tilts her head to the side and smirks.

The Emperor's grin melts a little. "No, I shall see that you are rewarded, but until the Empire is united again, I shall not be granting any boons."

Willow shrugs. "I don't want one, but I'd like you to consider something for me instead. You were saved because I wanted to do something about the Savanite Empire on Sinai, I didn't want to see it destroyed, and you were revived, tended to, and returned back to Sinai by the same people. I know you'll be cracking your own heads when you get back, but when you do reunite your empire, I'd like you to leave the Savan out of it and call off any more scraps that might remain of your war." The Skreek folds her arms. "I don't know how great a thing I'm asking for, but if you consider this that would be the greatest reward you could give."

"The Savan?" the Emperor says, with an expression imitating an eyebrow-raise. "The whole of the Savan is that of the Nagai Empire. But if you are referring to the jungles of Xenea … I am willing to make peace with our new 'neighbors'. In future generations, the Xeneans will see the error of their ways, and the superiority of Imperial rule and the order which it brings. So far, their independence has only brought them under the sway of an impostor."

"An impostor of their deity, no less," the snake adds, flicking his tongue.

The gray rat smirks again. "But you won't do anything to hasten this opinion? I see that as a very benevolent way of thanking those who risked their lives to rescue you. And … I'll keep my mouth shut over my role in this. I doubt anyone would believe you were saved by a Skreek any more than they believe you were killed by a Kavi." She keeps her tone light, making a point of trying to phrase the latter bit in a way that the snake won't take offense to. Her concern about her name getting out runs deeper than she's letting on though – mostly images of assassins going after her family out of revenge for the great plan failing come to her mind.

The serpent's smile widens. "Ah yes. Your friends amongst the Savanites might not be fully understanding if they were to hear that you had assisted the Nagai Emperor. Very well, then. There shall be no fanfare or parades. And Xenea shall be left to its own devices. For now." He furrows his brow. "I do not make promises lightly, and I will not tolerate any acts of sabotage from my new neighbors. If you have the ear of the Xeneans, let them know that, for I doubt that their ambitions will let them long be content with their own land, while their brethren 'languish' in Imperial territory."

"You couldn't possibly have been brainwashed by Khoman. You talk far too much like a Naga." The Skreek's expression sobers. "I cannot guarantee that there won't be petty independent squabbles. After all, all of this started by folks who didn't stay in their allotted authority. But I intend to speak with Queen Jade-Eyes soon and I'll make sure that your point is made perfectly clear. I'll suggest to Jade-Eyes that if anyone violates it then they will be brought to you for punishment."

The serpent's smile grows back. "That is quite reasonable. Is there anything else?"

Willow looks down at her feet in thought. "Just that you might also consider breaking your allegiance to Babel when you return. It wouldn't surprise me if your aides learned alesson or two from the back-stabbing bats, but I've got nothing to base that off of, unless the Sabaoth or his son that kicked off are undiscovered in one of the vats here." She shakes her head. "As for the rest, the Archon made friends with quite a few Titanians. If you need help regaining your throne, I can see about asking around for help. If you're true to your word, then as much as I can't believe I'm saying it, I'll want you back in power and Khoman's friends dealt with very quickly."

The Emperor nods. "Your concern is … what is the mammal term? Heart-warming. I shall take your offer into consideration."

The Skreek puts her hands in her pockets. "In that case, I believe we're finished. We're still working on a plan on how to bring everyone home in a way that might let us catch the troublemakers fast and clean before they can hide or stir up more trouble. If you've any suggestions, then be sure and let me know. Meanwhile, I need to go speak with the Archon." She bows. "It was quite an honor and a unique experience speaking to you, Emperor. We'll try to get you back to your palace soon."

The golden snake nods imperiously. "Good day, Lady Willow of Dack."

In the audience hall of the Archon – built like the Pavilions off of one of the rims of the rings forming the habitable areas of the rotating station – there are gathered several cheetahs. The Archon himself is seated in his throne, with Storm-Born at his right hand, and Anchor-Point seated at a chair appointed with a desk nearby. Jade-Eyes and Inri are each seated. Nene, tired from her day's adventures, is off with Sebazhan in the temporary Dack quarters.

The Archon looks over to Willow. "Lady Dack," he signs, "how did your meeting with the Sinai Nagai Emperor go?"

"Either he's an impressively good liar, which doesn't fit in with the bubbly-dumb happy attitude as the rest of Khoman's followers, or he's the same fellow he was when he was first brought here." The Skreek bows to the assembled cheetahs and then flops on a chair, worn out from the day as well. "He's agreed to leave Xenea to the Savanites as long as they don't go kicking him while he's down, and I don't think there'll be any loopholes in it like there was with his previous declaration. The only thing is that if one of the people ends up causing trouble in his land, he'll want to deal with them himself. Although I'm sure that the agreement can go both ways."

Jade-Eyes nods. "I appreciate your effort. Should he regain his position as Emperor – and I am almost certain he will – I will take care to maintain diplomatic relations, so long as there is an opportunity to do so."

Anchor-Point signs, "Forgive my cynicism, but I would take his promises with greater weight once they are delivered from his own throne room, surrounded by his own guards. Surely he fears that if he is less than accommodating, he may be seen as a threat – and not allowed to leave."

"This is the one who followed through on a 'boon' that freed slaves in his nation," signs Storm-Born, "despite many incentives not to do so. I take him to be an honorable leader – if not a completely conscientious one."

Willow steeples her hands. "What do you intend to do about the Twelve? Wrangle up the troublemakers and have them tried for treason? Exile them? Or just dissolve the Twelve altogether?" She nods at Anchor-Point. "He wasn't completely accommodating, mind you and talked down to me every chance he got. I think he'll keep to his word. He's got bigger fish to fry right now."

Jade-Eyes signs, "I believe I have a clear enough picture of those who present a threat, and those who do not. I have not yet decided just how I shall present the truth to the People, but it will be presented. I do not know whether I should reveal all I know about the larger expanse of the People beyond Primus, however. This may be too much, too soon. But for now, I have some house-cleaning to do. I will not be swayed."

"Some of them are still waiting for that 'angel' to appear. We just knocked down one false god, and announcing a civilization beyond the stars will probably just set up another one." The gray rat dips her head. "You're a queen, and you have enough power on the Savan that I know you'll handle it just fine." She glances at Inri. "Is Twilight-Wing trustworthy? I think he might be able to set some of her memories straight, not to mention help us confirm the reports."

Jade-Eyes signs, "I now believe that Twilight-Wing is trustworthy. He is not as strong as I wish he would have been, but I do not believe he would lie for the sake of the others. I will certainly retain his services, but there will no longer be a 'Twelve' or 'Twelve-times-Twelve'. There is no sense in some arbitrary number of exalted priests and advisors. It encourages the filling of spaces simply because of the need to do so, rather than the merits of those who might hold those positions."

"It sounds as though you're on the right track." The Skreekfolds her arms across her chest. "Jade-Eyes, I think that we really have Third-Vision back. Would Moon-Brow handle it all right if I asked her to come to Dack and meet us? I know that the fellow she's working with is a spirit hunter and all that, and I'm worried that she might think I've brought her to Dack to show her a ghost or such-like." The Skreek's ears droop. "It's adifficult question and a touchy topic, but its also one I'd rather not dance around on."

Jade-Eyes glances to "Inri", then back to Willow. "I think it would be all right. It may not go smoothly at first, but Moon-Brow has seen a lot. Besides, she has a right to know."

"I'm going to leave it to her to break the news to the rest of her family. It's the daughter I'm worried the most about … but that's something Moon-Brow and I should discuss on our own." Willow shakes her head to rattle the next thought loose and then looks back to the Archon. "What's going to happen to Khoman?"

The Archon signs, "Trade-Lord Khoman – his father – is denying any ties to this, and distancing himself from his son. The message is clear - This is our mess to deal with. Either that, or he is being handed over to us as a sacrificial lamb in hopes that we won't find a larger conspiracy amongst the Khatta. In any case, the punishment for so many offenses is clear. He is to be executed."

"Let the Star deal with him. I think it's what he's earned." The Skreek rubs her nose again and looks at Storm-Born. "Do you think the People should cut off relations with the Khattas because of this? Maybe encourage them to weed out their own problems in return for a good trade deal?"

"That will be a delicate matter," signs Storm-Born. "The Khatta are not united under a single ruler – at least, not in truth. They are scattered families, of varying pride and power, making and breaking allegiances with each other, as it suits them. When pacts are made with the Khatta, they are only worthwhile if there is a monetary incentive involved." He shrugs. "That may sound cruel, but this is how it is, at the level of the Princes and the Trade-Lords. The Shekel is the bottom line."

Willow nods. "But that means that there won't be a great united Khatta army rising up against the people anytime soon. That works for me. Not that I hold a personal grudge against the Khattas, mind you. My husband happens to be one." She lets her breath hiss out from between her chiseled front teeth. "Will we be taking the trade gate on Abaddon home or is it possible to get us back to Sinai by some alternate means? I'm also curious how many folks will be returning with us."

"At present," signs the Archon, "I understand that the Gateway is the only safe means of passage to Sinai, so it shall have to be by means of Abaddon, or some other world with a Gate. By our previous arrangements, Abaddon is still the best choice at the present time."

Jade-Eyes signs, "I plan to return at my first opportunity." She glances toward the Archon with an almost apologetic look, then looks to Inri/Third-Vision. "And I gather that you will be anxious to go home as well."

Inri nods agreement.

"I'd like to keep Inri's identity secret for awhile. One of the Twelve might take this as a chance to accuse us of blasphemy against the Star and taking their goddess captive, or that Light-of-Star really was real because she's back. She'll be going to Dack with me for awhile." The Skreek smiles to the Archon. "I hope you can visit us again, although I gather that this won't be for awhile."

The Archon smiles back. "I am truly sorry, but that may not be for a long time. My attentions will be in great demand, and I sincerely hope that a situation such as that which prompted my predecessor to travel incognito will not arise for a long, long time."

"Well, maybe we can visit. At least there's a clumsy means for communicating between here and Sinai now. I'm going to be looking forward to kicking polys around in the Dack castle for awhile and celebrating Nene's fourth birthday, but I also hope that if you need me for anything that you send word my way." Willow puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out a handful of little silvery black chitin rings with five slashes etched onto their sides, like the mark under her eye. "I give these to all of my friends. I'd like everyone here to take one – as a memento."

The rings are passed around, and Inri sticks one on a finger on her favored right hand. Jade-Eyes puts one on as well. Anchor-Point is a little more reserved, accepting the gift politely, though he doesn't stick it on a digit.

"Thank you, Lady Dack," signs the Archon. "Rest assured, none of this will be forgotten."

"I'll snag a bauble in the market tomorrow. I always keep a piece of my favorite travels with me just to remind me that I was there." The Skreek holds up a hand, showing a different ring on each of her fingers. "Thank you for letting me come and cause all the commotion I did. I originally did this for Sinai, but I'm glad that I was able to help all of you. Khoman is going to face justice, so I'm quite pleased that all of this Star business is over with and the folks on Sinai that started it all will be feeling it in the tail soon."

The Archon nods. "Yes, but even when the truth is revealed, there will be those who don't want to believe it. No matter how convincing the evidence, there will always be those who wave 'conspiracy', and claim that it is all fabricated. And even those who do not make such claims may secretly harbor some yearning for the heretical teachings of 'Light-of-Star'. This is by no means the end of all the trouble he has caused … but it is certainly a promising beginning for the process of repairing what damage can be mended. For that, I thank you, on behalf of the People I represent."

Jade-Eyes smiles. "And I thank you on behalf of the Xeneans." Her smile mellows a bit. "I regret so soon having to leave this place, and I wish the distance were not so great … but I am nonetheless anxious to return home. Though I am dreading the trouble the Twelve Times Twelve may cause, I cannot bear to leave things be any longer, and I am confident that – in the end – things will be better than before."

Willow's expression sobers. "True. For all we know, Khoman's got a clone of his son he's going to pop out once word gets out of his execution. But at least the power he has is gone." She leans back. "It's a shame X has gone all domestic now. He'd have been happy to rush to Xenea and bop all the troublemakers for you. But regardless – remember that you have allies. In Testament-Blaze and Son-of-Thunder and my little cult that I've raised up in Safar. Just spread the truth, they'll help you."

Jade-Eyes smiles sadly. "Yes, I'm quite aware of your little 'cult'. Please put in a good word for me with them?"

"I'm sorry if they caused you trouble. I just needed to get my message out." The Skreek points to Jade-Eye's finger. "Show any of them that ring and they'll know you as my friend. I don't go blindly tossing those about. Testament-Blaze also would dearly like to speak to you again. He loves you almost like a daughter."

Jade-Eyes signs, "Any trouble they caused was mine. I won't let this happen again, to make such things necessary."

"Forgiven and forgotten." The Skreek waves her hands. "Now let's start figuring out how we're going to get the big Naga through the trade gate. Hopefully I'll be home by Ring Day … I have two sisters that I need to start to prepare for. A lot of my family only seems to be able to visit me on holidays." She smiles sheepishly and pulls herself up from the chair.


GMed by Greywolf

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Today is 13 days after Harvest Tide, Year 25 of the Reign of Archelaus the First (6124)