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mistaya
Oct 18, 2006

Cat of Wealth and Taste



A Frank Exchange of Favors
Scene: Founder’s Command, Foundation District

It didn’t take much effort to spot the line-boys plying their trades across the building’s various queues, and finding one coughing loudly was barely even an extra ask. Catching one that wasn’t busy negotiating with another person, on the other hand, took a fair bit of effort — in spite of their role, they seemed rarely content with simply standing in place and moving with the line. Eventually, however, Fidelity and Li managed to spot a youth with sandy blond hair and a deep blue tunic who was busy coughing up a storm while waiting in line. As they approached he took an elaborate vow, barely ruined by another coughing fit at the end of it.

“‘Ey, gaffs. Looking to do a, *koff, koff*, little bit o’ business today?” He said, as he straightened out, his tone genial and brisk.

“Indeed we are,” said Li. “What would the going rate be today?” A negotiation had to start somewhere, and it was the seller’s privilege to say where.

“For this here spot? Most days we’d be talking two ‘n’ a half dinars, but it’s promised to someone else already, a representative of one of the Old Lines, gaff. Squarin’ things with her would be a hassle, so it’d be…” The boy fell silent for a moment, counting wordlessly with the aid of his fingers. “...Three ‘n’ a quarter, yes sir. Three sharp if you pay right now so I can start working on it right away. What’s it gonna be?”

“THREE AND-” Li bit his tongue, closed his eyes, and recited a short prayer to collect himself. “Ahem. Can I have your name, before we come to any agreements?”

“Dutiful Nightingale, gaff, at your service for...” He stopped, interrupted by a nasty spasm that wracked his chest. “*...Koff, koff*, for whatever you might need. And yours? Wouldn’t want to have to call out to you by shouting for the man in the nice hat if anything comes up, you know. People might get jealous.”

“I’m Doctor Li,” he said, smiling to show he appreciated the compliment. “And I’m sure you were well named at some point, my boy, but a nightingale should be able to sing, not croak all the time. Here…” He reached into the pocket inside of his robe and came out with a square of dark green cloth, stuffed with aromatic herbs. A face mask, his personal one for protecting himself from the ashfalls that caused Grey Lung. “This ought to help a bit. Just hold it against your mouth and breathe in a few times.”

Nightingale eyed the mask warily. “If this is supposed to cover part of the fee, gaff, I gotta make clear I don’t—”

“This is just so we can talk without interruption,” Li said, offering the mask once more. “You’ll give it back when we’re done. Alright?”

“...Alright, why not. Just gimme a moment...” Gingerly, Dutiful Nightingale took the mask and placed it against his mouth. He coughed a couple times at first, but it wasn’t the same as the long, sharp coughing fits from before. With their shared expertises, both Li and Fidelity could see his chest, which had previously heaved noticeably with every breath, begin to relax.

“...Bloomin’ ashes, gaff, you weren’t joking. Feels like someone took a stone off my chest.” Though his voice was muffled, Nightingale’s surprise was still clear in his tone. “What is this thing?” he asked, pinching the mask to emphasize his question. “Could really use one like it I think.”

“It is an aromatherapy mask,” Fidelity said, insinuating herself into the negotiations. “The ashfall bears toxic essence that weakens the lungs. These herbs cleanse that essence.” It was a woeful oversimplification, but as much as the boy might understand. The slow, inner petrification that gave the condition its name was just one of nearly a dozen ways that it was killing him by inches.

“In larger quantities, yes,” Li said. “The mask is intended to prevent the toxic essence from ever entering the body. Once inside, well…” He shook his head. “It will still provide some temporary relief, but it’s a bit like throwing a single bucket of water on a house fire. These herbs are, as you might imagine, very hard to get ahold of in the necessary amounts for a true cure. But I have some set aside this month... just enough for one.”

“And that one could be yours truly. Is that what you mean?” Nightingale stared at the mask, then back at the two customers. His eyes were very pale blue, almost silvery, and constantly shifting back and forth, taking in new details. “Alright. Let’s say I’m interested for now, doc. What do you want for them? I know nothing’s for free. ‘Specially nothing as pricey and special as this.”

“One dinar for the spot, to pay off the previous buyer, and the name of your employer,” Li said. Fidelity was right about paying them a visit, and he doubted it would be a pleasant one. “I could have sought someone who hadn’t been bought yet, but yours is the worst cough. It felt only fair to offer you the first chance.”

“You should see my sisters back home if you think mine’s bad, doc. Compared to them, I got off lightly.” Nightingale took off the mask for a moment to stare at it in the palm of his hand. His youthful face looked thoughtful now. “They’d love this kind of thing. Do ‘em a world of good.”

He grit his teeth. “I can’t take this, though. The boss has his rules. We never take bribes, and we never step out of line without his say-so. If I told you about his boss without permission, he’d rip my balls off and kick me out. I can’t afford that, gaff. No dice.”

“A shame,” Fidelity said listlessly. “We had hoped to obtain a license to operate a clinic. With such a space, we could have provided far more treatment than a single, borrowed mask. The medicine is not difficult to produce, for a skilled physician, but the necessary ingredients and infirmaries have been seized by the state or hidden away by the black market. Tell me - does your boss suffer from Grey Lung?”

@Thesaurasaurus, you rolled 1,3,3,5,6,7,7,8,9,10 for a total of 6 successes

“You mean Mauro? Nah, not him. But he does know a bunch of us have it, and it pisses him off that we can’t buy a cure even though we’ve got money to spare.” Nightingale bit his lip. “Hnn...you know what? I can’t tell you anything, and I wouldn’t even if I could, but I can take you to see the boss. If he says we can do business, I’ll take you up on it.”

Nightingale then brought two fingers to his mouth and whistled, startling the bystanders in line. It only took a couple moments for another line-boy to come running.

“Hold me my spot for a minute,” he said, taking the new arrival’s shoulder and swapping places with him. “These guys need to see the boss. C’mon, gaffs,” he said, gesturing at Fidelity and Li as he took off at a brisk pace. “Follow me!

Nightingale’s trail took Fidelity and Li back to the central atrium, to the surprise of no one, and then down the passageway that led to the Office of Taxes, Tributes and Tithes. What was more unexpected was him moving all the way past the front of the queue and taking a staircase up to the second floor of the Founder’s Command, then doubling back towards the center of the aisle before rapping his knuckles on a nondescript, unmarked door.

“‘Ey! Mauro! It’s me, Gale! I brought visitors!” He called out, sotto voce. Moments later, a soft-spoken, charming voice answered him.

“Don’t keep them waiting, then. Come in!”

The office beyond the door looked like it belonged to an everyday bureaucrat, with its desk and shelves and a pair of uncomfortable, government-issue chairs, save that it had been completely ransacked of anything of value. The shelves were empty, and the only things that graced the desk were the pair of well-tailored boots lying on them. They belonged to a smiling youth with chocolate skin and a messy mop of white hair, who raised a hand in recognition as they came in.

Nightingale cleared his throat. “Right then. Gaffs, this is Mauro Fra, captain of the line-boys brigade. Boss, these are Doctor Li and his companion. They wanted to sell me on a bribe of herbs to deal with Grey Lung disease, and said that if we gave them a hand, they could help us get our hands on a supply for everyone else and not just me. Figured you should know about this.” He shuffled in place a little, worried for the first time Fidelity and Li had seen. “...Did I do that right, boss?”

“Like an imperial usher, Gale,” the young captain (no more than a few years older than Nightingale himself), replied, his smile widening to reveal a set of pearly white teeth uncommon in Falling Ashes. Magnanimously, he gestured at a corner of the room where a mattress lay. “Take a seat. I think you earned the right to witness this audience. You too, of course, Madam, Sir,” he said, gesturing at the government chairs before him. “Let’s discuss this comfortably. So, you’re aware that we get bountiful offers like these almost daily, I’m sure. What makes your proposition special?”

“The fact that we can deliver on our promise, I suspect,” said Li. “My name is Fara Li, I’ve been serving as a doctor in Falling Ashes for several months now at both Beating Heart clinic and Starlight Relief Centre. If you haven’t heard of me you can have one of your men check my credentials. My companion is Ceto, a nurse assistant. We came here to get a permit for a temporary clinic, but the lines are… well, you know what the lines are.” He shook his head. “I simply don’t have the time to wait around today and when I noticed that young Nightingale and several of the other line-boys were suffering from Grey Lung, I made my offer.”

Li stroked his beard thoughtfully, as though he were just now considering the situation fully. “As it stands now, I can promise a full cure for one, in exchange for a decent spot. It needn’t be his, as I understand someone else had laid claim to it, but something that will get us to the front desk in two hours or less. I realize that may seem a poor trade now, but seeing the plight of so many has stirred Ceto’s heart and she plans to open up a more permanent treatment site specifically for Grey Lung, which we might as well get stamped while we’re here.”

He took a breath. Now for the actual pitch. “For your trouble, I will see to it that any of the line-boys-” he glanced to Gale “-or their family members, can jump to the front of the line and may receive treatment for Grey Lung at our new clinic at a discounted price. Are these terms amenable?”

“Very much so, Doctor,” said Mauro, nodding in agreement. “Your connections to the Guard, however, not so much. Sikra Zem has complained (quite loudly, at that) about not receiving preferential treatment for his guardsmen when it comes to cutting in line for quite some time now. Is there a reason we should give one of his most trusted confidantes an in on our little operation? I’d hate to give him a chance to seize my boys’ earnings from their very hands under the guise of a security tax.”

The young man’s smile never wavered as he laid out his suspicions. If anything, it widened, just a little bit. It was at that moment that Li realized just how tightly controlled his reactions were. He wasn’t simply enjoying himself, he was keeping his guard up, and very effectively.

“If Sikra Zem hopes for his own men to receive treatment - preferential or otherwise - in the clinic, he will accept it as neutral ground,” Fidelity said assertively. “Naturally, these terms cut both ways - but I doubt that any of your wards are foolish enough to pick a Black Helm’s pocket.”

“Pick pockets? Please, Miss Ceto,” Mauro said, raising his hands in mock offense. “We’re not thieves. That’s a job for people with small imaginations and a taste for danger. Our work is much more reputable.”

“You may be misunderstanding the nature of my relationship with the good Captain,” Li said, with a smile just as controlled as Mauro’s. “It’s unwise to threaten a physician, and Zem knows better than to try it when I hold his men’s lives in my hands more often than not. Whatever your troubles with him are, they will not be exacerbated through me. This I can promise.”

“Which means you are looking to cut a singular deal, not start a persistent partnership,” Mauro reasoned. “We get you a premium spot in the queue, you set up your clinic, and we receive preferential treatment there -- and future collaborations will have to be negotiated on a case by case basis. Correct?”

“Yes, though I would like to come straight to you if such a case were to arise, since we’re already acquainted.” Li said.

“A reasonable request. I wouldn’t want to waste my time going through the motions if I were in your shoes either. Very well then. There’s a chance you could renege on this deal, but I think it’s a risk I’m willing to take.” Taking his boots off the desk, the captain of the line-boys stood up. “Gale, Tithus is still holding that spot in the queue near the front, isn’t it?”

“Sure is, boss. I’ll go talk with him right away.” Without another word, Nightingale bolted for the door, so quickly it was hard to believe he’d been there at all.

“Let’s shake on it then, Doctor, Miss. To a deal well-made, and perhaps more to come.” And with that, he offered Li and Fidelity his hands.

Li offered his in return for a firm and satisfied shake. Mauro probably thought he was getting the better end of this deal, and in many ways he was, but for healers who were trying to stamp out an illness, willing patients who would be able to help them trace the source of it were invaluable. And while he would normally have concerns about costs, Fidelity seemed confident in her medicine supply. It was truly a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Fidelity shook on it as well, her skin smooth and dry, her grip cold and hard as stone. “To Starlit Fields.”

“The city that once was?” Mauro tilted his head slightly. “An interesting toast. I never got to see it. All we’ve got now is the ashes, and all the illnesses they bring.” He sighed dramatically. “Ah well. It is what it is. Will that be all then?”

“Almost,” Li said, producing a quill from somewhere in his robes. “Can I borrow your desk for a moment? Wouldn’t want the clinic requisition to get rejected based on something as trivial as bad penmanship if I have to do it standing in the queue.”

“Of course, Doctor,” Mauro said, stepping aside with a grand bow. “We all know full-well what sticklers bureaucrats can be. Bypassing their rules is, after all, what my line-boys are here for.”

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mistaya
Oct 18, 2006

Cat of Wealth and Taste



Pleasure to Make Your Acquaintance
Scene: The Princess’ Providence, Nepenthe District

The Nepenthe had always stood in stark contrast with its sister neighborhood, the Graveyard of Fireflies. Even before the Calamity of Blossoms’ advent (as the locals had taken to calling the overload of the city’s nearby manse) had yet to occur and the district that would become the Graveyard was known as the Artisans’ Quarter, the Nepenthe was already known as a rambunctious locale, in stark contrast with the peaceful stolidity of its neighbor. Since then, their reputations had only grown more distinct. Outsiders knew the Graveyard as a grim place, full of difficulties and bereft of hope. By contrast, the Nepenthe laughed in the face of misfortune. Its citizens had painted their houses in brighter colours, partied harder, and invented new games to keep each other busy amidst the ashfalls. Of all the placesp in the area, the Princess’ Providence was perhaps the one that best embodied the Nepenthe’s spirit. Its stained glass windows twisted the moonlight into something more intoxicating and otherworldly, and gilded animated sculptured embedded on the edifice’s walls chronicled the journey of the mysterious princess that gave the building its name -- from blissful riches, to poverty and a thousand maladies, to a new life as a child of the slums. A great revival if there ever was one...assuming one shared the owner’s sensibilities, at any rate. This was the home of Aurea Linnea, the goddess of the Nepenthe, known amongst her detractors as the Goddess of Thieves and Whores.

The front doors were free for anyone to access. Inside, a bright-eyed, pretty girl manned the front desk of a spacious lobby. The room was brightly lit, empty, and surprisingly, dead silent. It was as if the building was cut off from the outside world, almost.

“Welcome to the Princess’ Providence!” With a practiced motion, the receptionist stood up and greeted Fidelity and Li with a bow. “How may I help you tonight, madam and sir?”

“We have come to speak with the lady of the house,” Fidelity said. Since their visit to Founders’ Command, she had changed into less-modest garb: a himation of yellow silk, with a necklace and earrings of amber to match. It was the color of prosperity and commerce; red would have been unwisely-presumptuous, while blue would have signalled a different kind of supplication. With spirits, it was always important to strike exactly the right tone at the outset of negotiation.

Li had, with much reluctance, been persuaded to put his hat away and wear a robe of the same color. It was borrowed, as he didn’t have anything quite so... tacky... in his closet. He simply nodded when Fidelity spoke, privately hoping he wouldn’t be recognized. It would take some explaining if Shoji found out he was seeing the Goddess of Whores with a mysterious unknown woman.

“The Goddess is currently busy. Do you have an appointment?” asked the receptionist.

“We do,” Fidelity said, to Li’s surprise. “My seal should be in your register.” And so it was - a new row had appeared in between two others, as if by magic (which it absolutely was).

Fidelity activates Crossroads Walker Entreaty, AKA the Lunar version of the Eclipse diplomacy power. She exercises her divine prerogative to make an appointment!

“Oh! There it is. Please follow me, Miss and Mister. The Goddess will see you right now.” With a bow, the receptionist turned around and departed through the central door, leading Fidelity and Li down a corridor lined with a red carpet and lined with unmarked doorways. At its end awaited a door painted in purple and coated in gilt. Reverently, the receptionist grasped the door handle, then traced a circle around the goddess’ symbol on the door. A flash of light emanated from it, and moment’s later, a rich, sensual voice spoke out from the inside.

“Don’t keep me waiting. Come inside...”

The Goddess of the Nepenthe was alone inside her chamber, resting on a divan at the center of the room. She held a book of poems by the famed Bai Hsu in her hand, which she carefully set aside as the guests came in. She wore a dress of purple and and white that clung to her figure tightly, save for the shoulder pads that provided a hint of hidden strength. Her pale face was a masterclass on the understated use of power and wealth, with gold dust and light makeup accentuating her eyes and lips, and pendants of amethyst and gold hanging from her ears. Just before she turned to look at her visitors, her face stood relaxed in distant focus, gentle and attentive — and then, sharpness overtook her features as she raised a hand in indolent greeting to her visitors.

“Apologies for interrupting you, Mistress. These are—”

“The Lady Ceto and Doctor Fara Li. I am aware. You can leave us now, Kei,” she said, the greeting turning into a dismissal in one fluid motion. Her servant bowed, and hurriedly departed. Only once the door was closed did the Goddess continue.

“Mmm.” A perfectly manicured violet nail rested against her gilded lower lip as she considered them. “I don’t recall asking for anyone’s presence today. Let’s set aside how you got in here without causing a ruckus for now, shall we? Tell me what brings you here and we’ll see if I’m in the mood to bestow blessings today.”

“And we did not ask for this ’tournament’,” Fidelity said, “yet here it is. Such are the vicissitudes of fate. Greetings, Aurea Linnea. We would speak to you of the folly that has been visited upon our city.”

A wide grin pulled up the corners of the goddess’ lips. “And what a grand folly it is, isn’t it? The entire city in upheaval, every single plan disrupted...anarchy under our very noses, enforced from on high! It’s enough to keep anyone entertained for the foreseeable future. I really must extend my commendations to the Deliberative. They’ve managed to create a magnificent mess, and all without setting foot into our fair city.”

“It is grand entertainment,” Fidelity said, “provided that one has the luxury of observing it as such. Alas, we do not, and so must needs concern ourselves with the proceedings and their outcome.”

“One does not preclude the other, darling,” the goddess said, as she reached out to pick up a few dates from a nearby plate. “Great upheavals like these are so traumatic, all you can do is laugh at them or cry. I happen to think laughter’s a better medicine than tears, and I’m sure your friend here would agree too. Now, as far as the tournament is concerned, what do you plan to do about it? It’s not exactly part of my, mmm, jurisdiction.”

“It’s not? I had heard rumors to the contrary,” Li said, speaking up for the first time. “Or at least that you had planned to make an exception in this case.” He was more unnerved at being recognized than he’d like to admit, but he hid it well.

“Oh, there’s always rumors,” the goddess said, flipping a stray lock of hair back into place. “To hear mortals tell the tale, I run a convent of nuns who moonlight as assassins, secretly wrested the title of Goddess of Commerce from its previous owner at a game of cards just a few months ago, and am currently in the middle of a sinful, oh-so-ardent relationship with the Immaculate Abbess.” She flashed them a bright smile. “Rumours tell all sorts of tall tales, love. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”

“...which is why we came to ask you directly,” Fidelity said. “Do you intend to participate in this tournament?”

“My, how pushy...but I suppose there’s no harm in confirming what will become known to all come tomorrow.” Sitting up a little straighter, the goddess took a moment to arch her back before continuing. “As a matter of fact, I am going to join the tournament, yes. My fee’s already been paid, and tomorrow my name will be added to the rolls of players automatically qualified to participate in the main tournament. Why would a couple as odd as yourselves be interested in this, though? The Nepenthe is not exactly one of your regular stomping grounds, after all.”

“Are we so odd?” Li asked with one of his winningest smiles. “Surely you see all sorts of couples coming and going. Ceto and I share similar interests in promoting wellness and have been exchanging techniques- I’m sure the details would bore you to tears- but actually we had hoped to ask you about the Nepenthe more generally because while it isn’t our regular stomping grounds now, once the tournament’s purse is in the process of distribution… Let’s just say that the hospital is very interested in how things are going to change, in order to best serve the citizenry of course, and we thought there was no better person in the city to ask about that than the goddess of the Nepenthe.”

Read Intentions! 6 sux on 15 dice, exactly enough for the threshold.

The subtle furrowing of the Goddess’ brow told Li that Aurea Linnea was anything but convinced about his claims. As a doctor, and thus master anatomist, it was easy for him to tell that she was not yet tense enough to be suspicious of the purity of their motives...but she was a stone’s throw away from asking some very, very pointed questions. Her violet eyes fell onto him like a leaden weight, and for a moment, he could see the goddess trying to piece a possible truth behind their visit…

One good scout deserves another. Suspicious about Li’s excuse, Linnea spends 8m to add 3 successes to her Read Intentions action, plus 1wp for one success. Li defends by raising his Guile to 6 and then to 7 with Shadow Over Day, for a total of 3m, but the goddess gets 12 successes, pitching a piercing question at him: “What truly motivates you to barge into my house uninvited?”. Li’s answer, for lack of a more pertinent intimacy, is ‘Loyalty to ??? (the Cult of the Illuminated)’.

Even someone as adept at hiding his secrets as Li could not easily deny the Goddess of the Nepenthe.

“You really shouldn’t waste a lady’s time with excuses, honey,” she whispered in his ear. How had she managed to close the distance between them so quickly? “We both know the hospital doesn’t have a single reason to look into a locale so far away from home. If you wanted to expand, it’d make far more sense to venture into the Heart or the Storehouses, not the little playground for the forsaken I hold court at.”

She placed a single finger on his shoulder, then slowly slid it up his neck towards his cheek. “I don’t mind people keeping quiet and not answering questions, as you two have since you came in. This house was built for discreet conversations, after all. But telling lies? That’s over the line. Why don’t you and your darling come clean now and us all the trouble of security coming in to escort you out? Maybe we can still have some…fun together, after all.” On his cheek, her finger lingered, as light as a feather, yet so hot it burnt like fire.

“He speaks no lie.” The proverbial feather became leaden; fire turned to ice. The tone of ‘Lady Ceto’ was polite as ever, but now there was a force behind it. “Our hospital’s concerns are as many as the troubles afflicting our city, with which you are intimately-familiar. Even the most-recent troubles, it seems - enough that you are willing to risk Immaculate censure to involve yourself. We had hoped to learn why, for the answer surely portends much of concern.”

She wasn’t buying it, any of it, and Fidelity had only dug the hole deeper. Li gulped. “Expansion isn’t the reason, you’re right,” he said. “I’m not a man who enjoys dancing around falsehoods, my lady. Perhaps it would be best…” he sighed. “There are things that we cannot say, but you deserve more of the story than we’ve offered. I suppose it’s clear enough by now that we’re representing an interested party, one that prefers to remain nameless. That party seeks to know what Lady Ceto has asked, and anything else you can tell us about the Dragon’s plans for the city. Our goal is simply to make sure that Falling Ashes is the actual benefactor in all of this, rather than a cover for the money to be funneled into the pockets of yet another High House funding yet another war somewhere in the satrapies… I hope that you can forgive us the veil of secrecy, given the might of our opponents. We had hoped to find allies in this endeavor, other interested parties, you might say.” Here he smiled up into her eyes and though Fara Li was not a match for her beauty he still had a way about him. Gently he rested his hand against hers, still on his cheek. “If you’d still like to have a little fun, that is.”

“Better,” the goddess said, squeezing his hand reassuringly. “Much better.” The slight smile on her face was as comforting as a ray of sunshine now, a far cry from the danger Li had seen in her eyes mere moments ago. “A single truth attracts more interest than a thousand lies, honey. Now that we’re past that awkward phase of courtship where everyone’s trying to draw interest out without committing to anything, let’s talk a little more openly, shall we?”

Delicately, Linnea withdrew her hand from Li’s grasp and moved towards a nearby glass table, beckoning Li and Fidelity to follow her. Upon it was a game of Gateway, along with a stack of missives as tall as the visitors’ forearms.

“It’s no secret that the tournament is a danger to my position,” the goddess began, tapping the top of a general piece, adorned with a little purple bow. On all sides, enemy pieces surrounded it, some near, some far. “You’d think that whoever won the tournament would have to seek my favor to perform whatever renovations they desired, but the stakes of the game have changed that. Have either of you ever stopped to consider just how much capital the funds allocated to the restoration of the Nepenthe represent? It’s not a simple reconstruction fund, darlings. With so many dinars, any functionary can be bribed, any prying immaculate monk redirected, and thousands upon thousands of prayers bought to secure the cooperation of any god.” Her soft, honeyed tone turned harsh and venomous at the last few words, but only for a moment. When she continued, her voice was as melodic as before.

“The prize is more than a sum diverted from the Realm’s coffers. It is the Realm, and all of its authority, in every way that matters. So as you can see, it is a simple matter of survival. If the lovely goddess standing before you cannot secure these funds for herself...”

With a deft motion, the goddess of the Nepenthe unraveled the ribbon on the general piece and clenched her fist. When she opened it, a fine purple dust fell away. “...She’ll be crushed, and that will be that. And now you know why I wish to join this tournament, darlings. I know you wish to hear stories about my prospective enemies as well, but it’s so dull to talk for hours on end when well-accompanied. Why not share something of what you know as a show of good faith now, hmm?”

“Very well,” Fidelity said, then turned to Li. “Dr. Li, would you be so kind as to give us some privacy?” She smiled in a manner that tried for ‘disarming’ but on her was just unsettling. “I wish to speak to the goddess, woman to woman.” It was a little condescending, but the only way that Li could pretend ignorance, and of the two of them he was the better at such deceptions.

Also if Linnea’s hands went any lower on his person Fidelity might have to bite her.

Li bowed his head graciously, though privately he hoped she knew what she was asking. He gave Aurea Linnea a longing look. “If I must,” he said as he moved to leave. “Such is the way of things in these uncertain times. We keep secrets even among colleagues.”

“Interesting…” The goddess of the Nepenthe didn’t so much whisper as she purred. “Go with our blessing, then, our little honey. We’ll call for you as soon as this little interlude is done.” Rather than wave him goodbye, she blew him a kiss on his way out.

The door slid shut.

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