Most Dasaka who were ever born had committed the unspoken heresy of being jealous of the goddesses; their beauty, their wisdom, their power - and their freedom, the greatest wish of all the castes, were all targets of a down-on-her-luck Dasaka at some point in her life. Umbraline Desdemona had a different sort of envy. She longed only for the patience of the divines - the knowledge of how she could make Yumiwa, her opposite in all regards, love her as dearly as Zuto Nui loved her wayward Zataka.
The sisters had been through a very turbulent day together. Hanako was sick with something that the healers insisted was not harmful, only nastily contagious; Inokio forbade them both to go and visit her, yet the girls had united briefly to insist that they would not undertake any lessons until such time as they were allowed to tend to their shared confidante. Faced with the indomitable will of two sisters, yet also under orders from both Yusanora and Rayuke to protect the health of the princesses, the Korae Battlemaster had suggested a compromise - Inokio would tutor Hanako from her sickbed for the duration of her illness, ensuring that she would not be left behind in the prodigious wake of the Umbraline sisters...as long as those sisters performed their own lessons in private, giving the patient time to rest and working together to try while they honed their use of the difficult Mindarm discipline. No doubt Inokio had intended it to be a learning exercise of a different, more improvised sort; a lesson in unity, perhaps, that would do the sisters some good and prepare them for the day they would run the Empire together.
tInstead, Yumi and Desde were fighting like stray dogs. The source of their ire?
"You got to cut the halves!" Des complained, deep blue eyes smoldering as she matched Yumiwa's pout with an absolutely precocious effort of her own. She was just reaching adolescence, yet so far she had only been through a growth spurt or two; her tall, willowy figure was still almost completely swallowed by the blanket cocoon she had made herself the epicenter of. Only her delicate face and stuck out bottom lip jutted out from her makeshift layers of shawls, glaring at Yumi reproachfully. "You get to cut, I get to choose. That's how it works."
Yumi scowled. Her sister was older than her, and was already growing up to be the kind of beauty that Des knew would be envied even in the hearts of the Vilda. It was very hard for her face to make a look that wasn't somehow attractive, but the complete look of disdain that she held for Desdemona's rule on fruit sharing was up to the challenge.
"That's never been how it works. They bring our food pre-sliced."
"Nuh uh. Quiet, sticky."
Desdemona, glowering, let out a shriek of frustration that was muffled by the blankets. Simultaneously, a cup of juice that was resting precariously on the silver tray Rayuke had brought for them. Perhaps if it had not been so close to the edge of the platter, nothing would have been amiss, but whoever had given Rayuke the tray hadn't been very careful with the cups. Des' psionic outburst had been enough to send the glass teetering over, sending citrus liquid splashing all over Yumiwa's feet and the crystal armor on her calves. There were stains at the very fringes of her red garment. There was such a sudden hush in the room that Des was scared to break it. Instead, she reached out with her mind.
The word was spoken aloud. Yumi hated feeling like she couldn't defend her mind from her sister.
"Don't..." she trailed off. "Worry about it."
Desde's dark eyes widened in shock, but Yumiwa was concentrating hard on something.
"You want the bigger pear, Desde? Fine." Yumiwa sauntered over to the bed and plopped down, careful to put her feet on the ground to prevent any juice from dripping onto her comforter. "We'll make it an exercise. We'll each reach out for a half. The first one who can drag theirs over to their side of the room first without dropping it can have the big half."
The younger princess blinked. It was unlike Yumiwa to do anything that could even be construed as playing a game without Hanako as an impartial referee, but...to say so aloud was almost begging for Yumi to rescind her challenge.
Or...maybe not. The Chojo had true fire in her eyes, a look she'd seen Mother wear in court sometimes when she needed to be assertive in dealing with the glib, callow Dastana Yomiken or defend herself against the sneers of Fursic Nera. It was a look that the Umbralines had been blessed with since the days Zuto Nui had first blessed their bloodline.
"Okay." Desdemona straightened her back slightly to look more regal beside her sister, and allowed the first hints of a competitive grin to grace her face. "You're totally on."
"You bet I am. Just remember that when you're eating that teeny little half of pear--"
"--maybe I'll let you have a little bite out of the big half if you promise not to cry--"
"--please, I saw you sniffle when the juice spilled on--"
"Aaaaargh!" both sisters exclaimed in unison. "You're such an ugly Brakas!"
Another hushed silence fell on the princess' training room. Yumiwa was staring at her sister with an ashen face...before a giggle slipped out of her mouth, and a lush smile spread on the Chojo's face. Des cracked a wider grin. The pears were momentarily forgotten; each sister's display of humor only made it more impossible to get words out than it had been before, and each little hiccup sent the other princess into greater hysterics.
It was Inokio that killed the moment.
The Battlemaster, trailed by Rayuke and half a dozen guards, opened the door to the training room suddenly, and the warrior's keen eyes took everything in at a glance as Yumiwa and Desdemona tried helplessly to straighten up and act casual. If they had thought that their sudden return to stoicism was fooling the tutor, they were sorely mistaken - but Inokio was eyeing one very particular item, still rolling around on the ground. The way he lifted the crystal goblet and righted it on the platter with a single thought was performed with the same ease as a flick of the wrist in a game of catch - the same ease both sisters fervently dreamed of wielding one day. Inokio's eyes fell on the bed, across the room from the cabinet the tray rested on, and with a fidget of his head he gestured back to the cup.
"Who spilled the juice?" he asked.
Both sisters were deathly quiet, focusing on protecting their minds from Inokio's wrath. Des was focusing hard on reinforcing Yumi's own barriers, adding an unbidden layer of protection to her big sister's thoughts. The distraction proved fatal.
She opened her mouth to give a cautious answer--
--and hiccuped loudly.
The jig was up; Yumiwa snorted in an attempt to repress her laughter, which quickly grew into the heinous cackle of a forest witch. Both girls heard the heavy bass of Rayuke's chuckle behind Inokio, and a few of the guards were laughing softly. One, who wore a thin crystal film over her eyes, had let her posture relax in the closest thing to a slouch that decorum would allow, with her arms crossed beside a cane. She was grinning at Desde approvingly.
"I...did," Desde admitted carefully, trying to hold her breath to prevent another hiccup. "I'm sorry, Inokio, I meant to pick it--"
"I'm not going to chastise you, Desdemona," Inokio said, holding up his hands to assure her. "Did it with your mind, did you? A good effort, Princess. Good work. It will come more naturally as you get older, if you have the true gift - which I think you do, just as much as your sister. Keep practicing and you two will be unparalleled one day."
It had been the wrong thing to say, though perhaps he didn't know it. Desdemona had shrunk down slightly again as Yumi had tensed up, and the princess realized that the words had reminded Yumi of her own goal - to be the best. Not to share the spotlight with her willowy, psionically potent sister.
Suddenly, Des was the enemy within hugging distance once again.
"I came to retrieve Yumiwa," Inokio said, either unaware or unconcerned of the wounds he had helped pick open between the sisters once again. "Her mother is holding court with the Ageru Toroshu this afternoon. She wants the Chojo to see how a good Rora deals with her allies, as well as her rivals. Afterwards, I have permission to bring you to see Hanako. Would you like to come, Desde?"
"Nah. I'll stay and practice." The words were raw in her throat, but a good princess didn't cry in front of others. "Should be easier now that the cup's empty. Tell Hana hi for me, Inokio?"
"Of course, my princess." Inokio bowed low, the image of chivalry, as Yumiwa stood and moved beside him. "I admire your determination. Keep at it; I believe in you."
"Sure. Bye, Inokio. Bye, Yumi."
"Bye." The word was thrown over her shoulder as an afterthought as Inokio escorted the Chojo out of the room, followed by his contingent of Hogo. But Rayuke hung back to give Desdemona a reassuring smile, and blow the little princess down a big familial kiss, before he too disappeared. And the guard with the crystal film didn't even budge. In fact, she sighed in relief, finally allowing herself to slouch against the wall and stretch her feet out, arms uncrossing to rest behind her head.
"That girl," Umbraline Masayoshi observed haughtily, "is s u c h a little shitbird."
Desdemona's cackle tipped her uncle's assistant off that the insult, perhaps, might not have been suitable for her present company.
"A what?" she asked incredulously. "What in the name of Zuto Nui is a shitbi--"
"Sssssh," Masayoshi hurriedly hushed the princess. "Sssh. I'm not going to let Lord Rayuke hear that I taught his niece about--"
--Des, still young and impressionable, was still incapable of determining a quick lie at that age--
"--the legend of the shitbird."
That piqued Desdemona's interest even more. Masayoshi was the coolest person that the young Dasakan princess had ever known. A phenom in the yards by the time she was Yumi's age, she had been blinded in a training accident that had embittered her and left her incapable of serving as a Menti in most positions. Unsatisfied and passionate, she had taken a job as Lord Rayuke's assistant, and quickly proven to be the best servant that the office of Imperial Justice had been graced with in centuries. On one occasion, when Mother and Yumi were away and Rayuke needed to conduct his business, he had sent Masayoshi to watch his beloved younger niece. In those days, Masa had been fresh off her accident and still surly around royalty; she had walked into Desdemona's room with a disinterested slouch much like the one she was propped up in now, and seemed anything but interested in being stuck inside babysitting some thin, dorky Menti who was unable to leave the thoughts of those around her alone. Somehow, through good fortune (or black magic) that Des had never before been privy to, the older Menti had taken a shine to her. Older than Hana, younger than Inokio, she had adopted a sort of makeshift role of confidante and mentor for a girl who had never had a full-time claim to someone who could be called either. She would often find the time to read Desde stories when she had grown too old for Mother to do so herself, she would entertain the girl with techniques and stories from the Yards, and sometimes, when she was particularly drunk and Des was in need of more sober guardianship, she would even bring up her pet cat up for the lonely girl to play with.
The age gap between them meant that, obviously, Des couldn't be privy to everything that went on in the assistant's life - she had no idea of any other friends or connections that Masa had, and knew it was selfish of her to say with any certainty that the Menti was hers. But...that's what she was.
She was all Desde's. It was a distinction that the young, fiery Menti shared only with the tower they stood in.
"There's...a legend about the sh--"
"Ssssssssssh," Masa finished, raising a conspiratorial finger to her lips. "Of course there is. But you're not supposed to say its name aloud. And if you can be a good girl and stay quiet through the whole story, maybe I can tell you why."
Desde searched Masayoshi's eyes for a few seconds and then nodded in agreement, like they had both agreed to some sort of secret coup against the other adults.
"O-kay. Yeah, sure. Now get over here and tell me about the sh-"
Masayoshi, glaring strictly through her visor at the young princess, walked over and plopped down on the bed in the makeshift training room, drawing the girl towards her in a loose, affectionate hug as she kicked back on the bed irreverently. Des, for her part, drew herself deeper into the cocoon and looked up. Her dark eyes rolled back to try and watch Masa's face as the story was told.
"So, the legend begins a long, long time ago, when a brave little angel--"
"--Desdemona?--" the princess butted in, wondering excitedly whether she had somehow yet to hear a story about her favorite Valkyr of legend.
"--Uh, sure. When a brave little angel named Desdemona wandered far from home, deep into a place of darkness..."
Desdemona woke up shivering.
Kozu wasn't much different from Sado in terms of climate; if anything, the place was a little warmer than Sado, with its cold crystal walls stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. Yet somehow, in the throes of sleep last night, the Imperial Chojo had felt like her entire body was on fire, unable to find comfort when everything around her felt so arid. Perhaps that was just psychological, because she was shivering for a certainty...but she didn't feel cold. So maybe it was hot after all. Or maybe it wasn't that, either. She had always been sickly. Maybe she'd picked up a fever over the voyage from Sado that had just now broken overnight. It would certainly explain the sheen of sweat that glistened on her body.
She had left her favorite blanket on Sado. It was one of her trademarks, and obviously couldn't be brought on a clandestine mission like this one...but she still missed it. It was a present from her father, the main who had given birth to her and Yumi, the man their mother had loved so passionately from the days of her youth. Yumi had known him a little bit better than Des did, but not by much - and after his loss, Mother had never, ever talked about him. That was a pain she'd held in her heart up until the moment that an assassin had blown it straight out of her chest. All that remained of their parents were memories...and, in Des' case, a beautiful indigo blanket. Both were growing more distant by the day, replaced respectively by questions and starchy inn sheets.
Des clutched them both to her bare chest, and focused on her deep breathing.
She hadn't discovered anything in the first shanty town she had visited, so she had marched alone and determined to one that was slightly more inland. This little fishing inlet was closer to the Fursic estates, but was more inconveniently placed for trade and rarely received boats from Sado. It was worth a shot, though; if she could form concentric circles, slowly moving inland towards the center of Kozu, she would eventually find the people - or answers - she was seeking somewhere. It was the closest thing to a gameplan she had.
Sighing, the incognito Chojo drew herself out of bed and padded over to a washbasin, doing what she could to wash any signs of distress away from her slender body before she went out and about into suspicious territory. She had brought some old garments of Yumi's - red was always her color - but she knew that there was more to disguising herself than just the physical. Desdemona was an anomaly among Menti, a power the likes of which had not been seen in generations, perhaps in recorded history...and that was seldom something she could disguise from the people around her.
But it was also that power, that singularity among her family, that meant she had to do this.
Walking back from the washbasin with the pleasant tingling of warm water on her skin, Desdemona bent down to begin getting dressed when her heart and mind ground to a halt at once. She had been letting her mind wander - or, perhaps, it had been wandering while she slept - and she felt her own presence brush psionic elbows with something vaguely familiar.
She had felt a tell like that once before, when the Fursic delegation had arrived at the party where Umbraline Yusanora, may she sing with Zuto Nui, had met her name.
Her mother's killer was in the area.
The princess, who had fancied herself a hunter, was most likely being hunted.