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About Jaliqai

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    Pun Princess
  • Birthday August 21

RP Related

  • Main Character
    Ghoa Mankhad
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    idek mang
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  1. The moment that Ghoa’s back hit the water’s surface, the breath came rushing from her lungs and a blinding white exploded behind her eyes. Yet just as quickly as it came, that lightness in her vision was swallowed whole by the deep dark of the sea. Just as soon as she regained her wits and her bearings, the Mankhad’s arms and legs began kicking against the water to try and propel herself back to the surface. Though no matter how hard she swam and fought, she only seemed to be moving ever downwards as if a heavy anchor were pulling her towards the sea floor. The harder she strained against the current, the more her lungs began to burn with the effort until what scant breath remained to her escaped in a small shower of bubbles. Though she had never feared the sea before, Ghoa could now feel the fear and panic welling up within her breast as the cold, briny seawater filled her lungs. As the darkness grew deeper around her like the walls of a shadowy coffin. You need not be afraid, child. A voice called out to her. At once it seemed to echo within her head and all around her, from everywhere and nowhere. Yet for its strangeness, it seemed not in the least ominous. The voice was warm and matronly. None shall harm you here, the presence cooed to her. Within my arms, you are safe. Yet it was not only the words the reached Ghoa now, but sensation. What felt like two arms wrapped about her slight form, holding her in within their grasp. With it the feeling of sinking came to a gentle stop, and so too did the breathless burning within her chest. The oppressive, frightening darkness began to pull away from the edges of her vision. Now, looking upwards, she could see – even if still murky and distorted – the surface above. Her brow furrowed in confusion. It felt as if she had been sinking for so long, and even more perplexing was the way her chest had begun to rise and fall with breaths once more as if she wasn’t beneath the waves. The bone-deep chill of the water receded like low tide from her body, replaced instead by comforting warmth. Queer as it all was, a deep and soothing veil of peace had fallen over her. Her eyes batted closed, and now she could feel the heaviness and fatigue in her limbs from her struggle just moments ago. Oh, how she wanted to sleep here now, wrapped in the sea’s loving embrace. Rest, the voice coaxed as if it had read her very thoughts. I shall watch over you, child of the sea. Somehow, she felt she could trust this voice at its word, and so Ghoa allowed her eyes to fall shut and for the tension to fade from her body. Perhaps only seconds had passed as the sea craddled her, or maybe entire bells. Time seemed a remote and meaningless triviality this deep underwater. But eventually, before she could fall too deeply into the rest it afforded her, the voice called again to gently rouse her. You must awaken now. Her brows furrowed as she felt a tender caress to her cheek, but her brow furrowed and her eyes stubbornly stayed shut. Reluctance swelled within her. Why would she ever choose to release her grasp upon the sweetest peace ever to take her? You cannot stay here. Why would she ever choose to leave this place where she felt so safe, so far removed from any who would ever do her harm? She hadn’t felt this deep sense of security since she was but a young girl, when she had still naively and mistakenly thought herself protected by old traditions and those whom watched over her. Look, child. That phantom, formless hand brushed her cheek once more and then gently guided her head upwards. Despite her own stubbornness, curiosity eventually won out as her eyes blinked open once again. In the water above her, she could see a shadowy, unclear figure above her. A figure that seemed to slowly grow larger as it drew nearer. But still, even as the distance between them closd, she could make out no details as to their identity. You cannot stay here, the voice repeated, its tone ever patient and gentle. Go with them. The figure loomed closer still, until finally a hand outstretched towards her came into focus. There was a pause before she shifted her gaze then, trying to peek past the splayed fingers beyond to the face of whomever to which it belonged. Yet even as they drew near enough for her to touch, their visage remained frustratingly hazy. Even so, despite knowing not their identity, she felt within her a sense of familiarity and trust that had her reach out her hand towards them. Yet it stopped just short of taking that hand. She was hesitating. Though something wordless and indescribable urged her to reach for them, a voice in the far reaches of her mind whispered to her. Why leave this idyllic, peaceful place? The world beyond the waves could be so very cruel. She could stay here. No one would ever hurt her here, as the voice had said. She was, at last, safe from any who would seek to harm her. You harbor doubts. Once again, that motherly voice seemed to read her thoughts just as if she had spoken them aloud. You have suffered much, I know, and you have held fear in your heart that your path has led you beyond our sight and mind. You worry that we have forgotten you, or worse, forsaken you. But know that though you have wandered far, all water returns to the sea in time – and so too have the tears you’ve shed. I have beheld them and wept for you, longing to bring you home to my arms for succor. The Storm, she has raged for you, howling and thrashing at those who would harm her beloved. Our love for you has never faltered, my child, and when the time should come that you return to us for good we will welcome you gladly and with opened arms. Yet until that time, you must walk your own path. To walk it is to endure suffering and fear and doubts, yes, but so too is it to experience love and laughter and joy.. And though you may wander far from us along this path, you need not walk it alone. Look again. Closer. Once more she felt the unseen hand guiding her gaze, this time back towards the figure whose hand she held loosely onto. The indistinct face she had not been able to make out before began to slowly clarify into a familiar visage, and with it a name. Arasen. No, wait.. as she blinked again, the face she saw belong to Anchor. Again, and it was Batuhan. Nabi. Shael, even. Your friends and allies walk beside you, and it is to them that you should turn when doubt threatens to overwhelm you. Lean upon them when you want for support, cry upon their shoulders when you are pained, but also share with them in whatever happiness and moments of peace you find. So you cannot stay here, my child. You need them, just as they have need of you. They’ve their own paths, their own trials and sorrows and triumphs. You must be there for them as they are for you. Now go, the voice coaxed. Go with them, and go with our love. Ghoa paused at the gentle push, but not from reluctance. Rather, despite being underwater, she could feel tears welling up in her eyes and rolling over cheek and scale alike – not of sadness, but of immense relief. She wanted to say something, to say how much it meant to her to hear those reassuring words, but every word at the tip of her tongue felt wrong or woefully insufficient. But deep down, she knew that it didn’t have to be spoken aloud; the sea would know her heart and her mind well enough without words. Indeed, as if in answer, Ghoa felt what could’ve been the soft brush of lips against her forehead before slowly the feeling of those arms around her began to drift away. Yet still, though they parted, their warmth and comfort remained. Once more, she turned her eyes towards the surface. Yet this time, her hand tightened on the others’ and her feet began to kick and propel her upwards towards it. Up, up, and up.. and when she finally broke the surface again, once more her vision was overwhelmed by blinding light.
  2. HEARTBREAK ; - - - - [TRIGGER WARNINGS] Rape mention, domestic abuse mention, abortion, and just generally not a happy, feel-good drabble. Take care in reading if you proceed!
  3. Once the door clicked softly shut behind her, Ghoa leaned against it, letting her head tilt backwards and her eyes fall shut. A quiet, drawn out sigh escaped from between her parted lips. The arm from which the bag of foodstuff hung shifted to let it gingerly slide down to rest on the floor by her feet, and then returned upwards to clutch tight around the small box she still held within her grasp. For a moment, she simply listened intently for any sounds of life present in the apartment. Yet the only sound that reached her was the almost inaudible ticking of a clock hung upon the wall nearby. Her eyes batted open again a moment later to look around, to find the space just as bereft of movement as it was sound. “Lehko'a..?” the Xaela called softly, uncertainly, and waited.. When a few ticks passed and the silence and stillness continued, she was convinced that the other must have stepped out for a time. And for that, for having the apartment all to herself for a short while, she was relieved. Ghoa still had secrets of her own, things she hadn’t told him. Things she didn’t want to tell him, though not for lack of love. There were skeletons in her closet that she didn’t care to dwell upon in her thoughts, much less breathe life into all over again by speaking of them aloud. Yet Arasen’s prodding but a short while ago had her doing just that very thing, and now she needed some time alone to think, to stuff all the skeletons back into the closet they belonged in. And she could not do that with Lehko'a about, with how well he could read her even when she was trying her best to put on a front. She couldn’t pack everything back into the boxes they had come out of if he was there, worrying over her. Even if he wouldn’t push her to tell him what was on her mind, she wouldn’t be able to handle the guilt tying her stomach into knots if she once more subjected him to such concern without telling him why. Not when her botched attempt at dealing with the aftermath of the ruins by herself was still such a fresh, barely healed wound between them already already. Finally pushing away from the door, the petite Xaela grabbed the bag from its resting place by her feet and moved to the small kitchenette, setting it down again alongside the box of reagents atop the table. She would worry about sorting everything away into its rightful place later. Right now, she felt the water – with all its safety and warmth and comfort – calling for her. Hurried footfalls brought Ghoa to the bath, and there she wasted not a single tick in turning the knobs of the ivory tub to get the water going. With the temperature set, she added a healthy pour of bath oils and soaps coax it to life in a fragrant froth. It took but a moment for her to peel off clothing and toss it haphazardly aside, and only once the bath was almost too full did she slowly, carefully step inside and sink into its depths. A soft sound of contentment left her as she leaned back comfortably, until her head came to rest against its edge. Warm bath water may not have been the same as the cool, refreshing touch of the sea against her skin, but it was a comfort nonetheless, not to mention far more private. Her head tilted back further still until her eyes, half-lidded, were staring upwards and unfocused towards the ceiling. Her mind began to drift back to the conversation still fresh on her mind. To the request that had been made of her: convincing Nabi to return with her cousin to the coastlands to avoid the ill fate he had forseen. To convince her that the pain of choosing to leave those she cared for now would be far less than the heartbreak of losing them for good, and knowing that she could have prevented it by leaving them sooner. Yet somewhere in the back of her mind, a distant little voice tried to coax her to reconsider. ‘Haven’t you already tried that very thing before, yourself?,’ it whispered.'Don’t you remember how poorly that always ends?’ Her brows furrowed at the thought, at the uncomfortable memories that those silent words tugged at. 'Don’t you remember..?’ But then there was Arasen’s voice, following quickly on the heels of that faint flicker of doubt. “I… sense that you have experienced something similar. You survived. You are a stronger woman,” he had told her. “My cousin… she is a delicate thing. I don’t know if she would live through this.” He was right, of course. Ghoa had survived Ino’s death and all of the guilt that it had laid upon her shoulders, though the process had been far from easy and certainly not pretty. She had had to flee the memories to another land, spending several moons – cycles, even – just barely coping. And there had been no few times then that she had wondered if there would ever come a time that she no longer felt the crushing weight of guilt and sadness upon her. On more than a few occasions had she laid awake at night and wondered if it were even worth trying, if giving up would hurt less in the end. But she had come out of it eventually, even if the scars it had left behind were still tender to this day. Could Nabi survive that same ordeal? It was hard for Ghoa to imagine. Her stubbornness and ever-present refusal to just lay down and suffer quietly had eventually carried her through it. Yet would Nabi have that same instinct, or would doubt and sadness swallow her whole like it had almost done to her? Somehow, the latter seemed more likely an outcome. So, Arasen was right again, it would seem. It was best that Nabi go with him, for her own sake. Yet that didn’t make the thought of her leaving them any less painful. She was a dear, dear friend; at this point, she might as well have been family to Ghoa, or the closest she had ever gotten to having one. And to think that she would be encouraging Nabi not only to leave them, but to go somewhere that she would be right under the nose of two of the men that Ghoa hated and feared most. Men whose cruelty had left her with injuries that, over ten cycles later, still showed no signs of healing completely. What if she encouraged Nabi to go, only for her to befall some similarly foul fate at their hands? The thought of that alone terrified her, making her stomach roil with nausea. But.. Arasen’s plan was a solid one, admittedly. Sow the seeds of anger, suspicion, and humiliation between the two most powerful and influential of the Kharlu, and let the chaos that ensued provide a distraction to keep their eyes upon each other, rather than Nabi’s presence. And the lie – or, for all she knew, potential truth – that Ghoa had given him to use to instigate the conflict was a solid one. The likelihood that it would work was high, she felt. And though she herself had never really lusted for vengeance or justice from either of them, it was still oddly cathartic to think of the possibility: to weaponize the hurts they had inflicted upon her to not only put them at odds with one another, but if all went to plan, indirectly leading to their downfall once the yearly war was ended and peace reigned. But most important of all, without a doubt, was ensuring that Nabi was safe and protected. Still, as she lingered upon the thought, the frown she wore began to tug the corners of her lips further downward. Her brow knitted, and after a moment, there was a faint trembling to her bottom lip. The hurt was beginning to blossom anew in her chest, even keener than before. All of this was too much. Arasen might have complimented her strength earlier, but even Ghoa had her limits. Now that she was alone with everything – the pain of a loss that had not happened yet, the uncertainty of what it would bring, and the sickening phantom feeling of hands upon her body – she could feel that defensive wall quickly beginning to crack under pressure. Yet before Lehko'a made it home, she would be sure to put that back together, too. And then, come the next day, she would find the strength to do what needed to be done.
  4. Another Ghoa piece -- this time done by yours truly! I'm just a lazy occasional hobby artist that literally gets the drawing itch maybe once a year, but I'm pretty proud of this simple little portrait! EDIT : Swapped it out for the improved, much less lazy version I did!
  5. I recently got back an amazing commission piece from the super talented EQUN0X on tumblr, inspired by the drabble above, and I'm just... floored. It's been days and I still find myself pulling it up and just looking at all the tiny little details in starry-eyed awe. @__@
  6. Did somebody say... character art? Here's just a couple of my pieces of Ghoa! (Commissioned from FeliceMelancholie.) (Traded by Hutarin.) (Giveaway prize from sunhiskies on tumblr.) (Commissioned from Snarksonomy on tumblr.) Last one under a spoiler tag because it's semi-nsfw for pin-up / underwear. (But nothing actually explicit, pretty much just some collarbone and tummy and a lil' thigh showing.)
  7. The darkness of night blanketed the Azim Steppe like a heavy shroud, lit only sparingly by the glow of the stars and moon above. It seemed a peaceful time, where the toils of the day faded away under the Mother’s loving gaze. Yet any child of the Steppe knew that, no matter how calm and quiet the night might seem, the creatures that prowled in darkness were no less deadly. While that knowledge would normally have stopped Ghoa, tonight it found her joining the ranks of those brought out by the rising moon. After Akhutai had escorted her back to the camp earlier in the evening, Ghoa hadn’t said much. There wasn’t much to be said, in truth. Akhutai had told her a little of what had transpired, but still she felt compelled to find out more. But not tonight. She could only imagine how distraught and upset Nabi must have been, and she wouldn’t upset her further by prodding at fresh wounds. She had, however, spotted the parcel that she had given the other Xaela earlier in the evening. Only then had it struck her that Batuhan’s absence from the meeting meant that it could not be delivered. In truth, it relieved her to see it then, that it hadn’t been passed into Arasen’s hands. That the man would have found the four vials of antidote inside wasn’t the problem; the proof of her ‘death’ that she had included with them for Batuhan to take back to her husband, however, very much would have been. Or would it, now? Would any sort of proof matter now that she had made such a stupid mistake? That she had allowed herself to linger overlong and had gotten herself spotted when Arasen had approached made Ghoa’s stomach churn uneasily. She had done her best to hide, and her face had been shadowed by her cowl. And a decade was a long time to remember the face of someone you had only met incidentally, was it not? Not that she could ever forget his face, in a sense. It too strongly resembled that of another, one that she had tried and failed to cleanse from her memory. If Arasen had recognized her, then his words before the meeting hadn’t betrayed it. Though the look that he had given her on his departure, brief as it was before she looked away, had made her skin crawl. She had no way of knowing whether or not he had figured it out, but the ever-paranoid Mankhadi woman had a terrible feeling about it. But still, without proof that the lie was dead upon arrival, there was a flicker of hope that it yet lived. That was all that was needed to feed Ghoa’s motivation – or perhaps, her desperation – to take the package and sneak back to Reunion, back to Batuhan’s tent. For a mercy, the brief jaunt back to Reunion was uneventful. Though it was the matter of skulking about there that proved more tricky. When she had reached the site where Reunion’s many visitors had set up their tents, large and small, she had slowed her pace and cautiously stuck to the shadows as she moved along. It didn’t escape her how uncomfortably familiar the feeling was, and her heart was certainly pounding no less rapidly than it had the night of her escape. Save now it wasn’t a horse she was looking to steal, but what was hopefully the key to her freedom that she was leaving behind. Finally, Ghoa had made her way to Batuhan’s tent. Though judging by the cold ashes that remained in his fire, it had seemed that he had yet to return. That had worried her as much as perplexed her. He had always returned around sundown during this last week that she had been watching him. Despite the unease it gave her, however, she still left behind the package for him to find – set right in the same spot as she had placed his returned knife and the woven box of buuz only suns prior. She didn’t linger long this time. As soon as the box was placed, she was sneaking back through the tents, through Reunion, and out past the gates once more. But her return to their camp didn’t come immediately. Sleep seemed an unlikely possibility that night, despite how long and draining of a day it had been. Ghoa’s mind was buzzing with thoughts and worries and memories. Rest wouldn’t come until she had tired her mind out as much as her body, and for that she needed to be alone. Her sights had landed upon the empty watchtower just outside of Reunion where the archery tourney had been held only bells earlier. It seemed as good a place as any. With a huff of effort, Ghoa climbed the awkwardly steep stairs, arms aching by the time she reached the top. But as she turned to cast her eyes outwards, the view was well worth it. And with no small bit of frustration at herself for even entertaining the thought, she wondered if perhaps being even a touch closer to the heavens might make it easier for the gods to hear her pleading to them. A few steps brought her closer to the tower’s edge, until the Mankhad carefully lowered herself to sit with legs draped over the side. The gentle, cool breeze blowing had her eyes falling shut in contentment. Her head tilted back towards the sky, and she reached up to the cowl covering her head, pulling it away. Her brows furrowed and her lips pulled into a frown as the wind brushed past her again, this time stirring the the uneven, choppy strands of inky blue hair that now hung haphazardly around her face. It felt awkward, unnatural, uncomfortable. Her hair had been long all her life, never sheared any shorter than it had been at at the start of that sun. It had been a hard decision ever since she had decided upon it shortly after her last conversation with Batuhan. Hard enough that she had balked every time she had brought the knife to her hair, hands shaking, until she put it away again. Tomorrow, she would tell herself. I’ll definitely do it tomorrow. But she didn’t know why it even bothered her so badly, and each time 'tomorrow’ came, it played out just the same. But the final day, the day of the meeting, was different. She had left the tournament early to mix the antidotes and, once she was finished, had found herself sitting there with the knife in her hand again. She had tightened her hand around the hilt until her knuckles turned white, trying to stave off the shaking. But the harder she fought it, the more pressure she felt building up behind her eyes. And as she finally lifted the blade and began to saw at the base of her braid, those stinging tears had begun to fall. Ghoa had felt foolish. It was only hair, and it was the only way. Every article of clothing, every piece of jewelry or pretty bauble that she had owned during her time with the Kharlu, she had sold or traded or burned away. She had to give Batuhan something as proof that Bayanbataar would know at a glance to be hers, and the poisoned warrior had said it himself: her hair, 'born of the sea’, was unmistakable. With the time of the meeting quickly approaching, the woman hadn’t had the luxury of time to mope overlong. After wrapping the long bundle of blue-silver hair in a cloth and placing it in with the antidotes, she had wiped her eyes dry, pulled her cowl back on, and hurried back to Nabi. Though now as she sat on her perch, alone with her thoughts, there was no more need for her to put on a strong face. As she sat there, replaying the day’s events in her head, the tears began to well in her eyes once again. Her hands rose to press the heel of her palms to her eyes, stubbornly trying to stop it, though it only pulled a soft sob from her instead. Yet this time, it wasn’t only her hair that had her in tears. When she had made the decision, Ghoa had convinced herself by saying that it would be the last piece of her that the Kharlu would ever take. With it, her husband would count her as dead and give up his search. In time, her hair would grow back, and with it her freedom from a past that she had never quite been able to escape before. But now, after having been caught up in the meeting that she was not supposed to be seen at, Ghoa was terrified that she had been wrong.
  8. [ NOTE ] I’m going to stuff this bad boy under a spoiler tag, not only because it’s long but also because it deals with some very heavy content. So if you decide to continue reading, be warned that there’s potential triggers like: mention of spousal abuse, implication of sexual assault, and mention of suicide. If this sort of content will cause you distress, please take care of yourself and avoid reading this one!
  9. FAREWELLS [ PART ONE ] Delivered but a few suns after the chaos at the fighting pits, a small parcel would be waiting for Nabi’s return to the clinic. Though there’s no return address listed, a faint but familiar scent of spiced oriental perfume clings to the simple wrappings. Inside were only two small items: a folded letter and a small cloth pouch, containing a pale white linkpearl. Unfolding the letter, it reads: [ PART TWO ] There could be nothing sweeter than the taste of victory, but the ornate gold and sapphire ring on her finger was a close second in Saya Mifune’s mind. It had arrived at her door about a sun ago, and almost a week after she had met with Nei Uzuka and Elam Grave to share what she knew. That meeting had been a sweet one as well when she had been brought into the room where Ghoa waited, seeing the look of panic in her eyes when she realized the predicament that she was in. So satisfying it had been to see the smirking bitch’s terror written so plainly across her face, to watch her plans fall apart before her as she feared for her life. That satisfaction had been momentarily shattered when Grave had told the Xaela that she might yet earn her freedom if only she cooperated to his satisfaction. The idea of her going free – again – had filled Saya with anger and her own hint of fear. Not only was the thought impossibly frustrating, but it was dangerous. She had made her move intent to see the woman either dead or detained. If she was let free, if she went back to her husband and told him of her involvement.. However, all seemed to be going back on the rails when she had expressed her concern after that night, once Ghoa had been led away. Grave had assured her that it was all part of the plan, just to convince the Xaela that there was hope. And so, she had had no choice but to believe him. Waiting had been almost impossibly difficult for her, with no way to keep herself apprised of the situation. The initial meeting alone had been a huge risk for her. She couldn’t risk getting herself any further involved with how big a price she would’ve paid for discovery. Nor did she have any trusted contacts on the mainland to go in her stead. A day had passed since the final fight was supposed to have taken place, and Saya had begun to wait eagerly for news. Two days passed, and still nothing. Dread had begun to twist in the pit of her stomach when, on the morning of the third, the letter had arrived. “Your problem won’t be returning to plague you any longer,” the note had read. “Take this as a token of appreciation for your help. Its former owner no longer has need of it.” Saya’s lips twisted into another satisfied smirk as she lifted up her hand in front of her, admiring the way the last rays of the evening sun made it shine and glitter. Though the letter hadn’t been signed, it seemed obvious to her where it had come from and who the ring’s former owner had been. Ghoa always had an affinity for pretty baubles, which Hisanobu had indulged her in far more often than he had his own wife. The letter had been short and sweet and shorn of detail, but simply knowing that she would no longer have to suffer the Auri woman traipsing about her home was enough for her. That and her trophy, of course. She brought her hand on close to her face and closed her eyes as she inhaled. Perfume clung to the ring still, a indulgently sweet floral scent unlike anything that she had ever smelled before. Soon it would fade away, but for now she would enjoy every last reminder of her victory that she could. As she went to exhale in a contented sigh, a brief tickle caught in the back of her throat, causing the hyur to cough. Once she started, it took a moment for the spell to pass, finally leaving Saya lightheaded and her lungs aching in its wake. [ PART THREE ] Hisanobu sat as still and quiet as the moonless night sky beyond his bedroom window, the silence of the room broken only by shallow, wheezing breaths and the occasional stirring of movement. A few fulm away in their bed, Saya lie struggling for each gasp of air. At her bedside was an older hyuran man, a physician who had been tending to the ailing woman since she had taken a turn for the worst some four suns prior. Tirelessly he had worked to ascertain what manner of illness had taken hold of her and to cure it. Yet each treatment he had tried had been as fruitless as the last, and each sun she seemed far weaker than the previous. Now, as he finally turned his age and fatigue lined face away from her and back to Hisanobu, it seemed he was at a loss. “Whatever this foul sickness might be, it is unlike anything I have ever treated,” the man admitted with a grimace. “I fear that I know not what else to do other than give her relief from the pain. At this rate..” He paused to look down to Saya, before stepping a bit closer to Hisanobu and dropping his voice lower. “At this rate, it seems doubtful that she will see the morning.” At first, there was no reaction. Then as the seconds continued to tick on in silence, Hisanobu finally looked away to his wife and bobbed his head in a slow nod of understanding. Wordlessly, he started forward to move past him, only for the older man’s hand to find his arm and stop him. “Perhaps it is for the best that you not stay here, my lord,” the elderly physician whispered. “We still do not know what caused this, nor if it is contagious. It–” “I won’t be leaving her here to die alone,” he interrupted, eyes narrowing. “That is.. very honorable,” the man sighed. “However, my lord, if the sickness should spread to you, I cannot–” “My place–” Hisanobu cut him short again, and this time his low voice was as hot as the coals smoldering in the nearby fireplace. “–is at my wife’s side.” His eyes narrowed as he quietened for a moment, as if challenging the man to speak again. When no more words came, he lifted a hand to motion dismissively to the door. “You’ve done all that you can, I understand, and for that you have my gratitude. Leave us now, and let us spend what time we have left in peace.” “As you wish,” the doctor answered with a respectful bow of the head. “I will stay nearby should you call for me.” He received a grateful nod in kind before he turned to gather his things and then make for the door. Once the door had shut again behind him, Hisanobu’s eyes flicked forward towards the bed again, and slowly he stepped forward until he was standing at its side. Truth be told, he had never thought Saya to be any sort of great beauty. She had always had a plain sort of look about her, in his opinion, and he had always had a taste for the unique and the exotic. If he hadn’t had need of her family’s trade connections to supply his own business, he wouldn’t even have given her a second glance, much less have agreed to marry her. But now as he stood over her, he couldn’t help but feel a slight ache in his chest to see just how awful she looked. In just four short suns, the illness had left her ravished. Her skin had always been light in color, but its rosy glow had faded and left her ghastly pale. Her lips had started to take on a blue-purple tint, the same as her hands. Her eyes were ringed with dark circles and her cheeks were beginning to sink. If it weren’t for the shaky wheezing breaths, one could’ve been forgiven for thinking she was a corpse already. “Hisanobu..” Her voice was a hoarse, strained whisper, and the effort it took to speak sent her into another dizzying coughing fit. When it finally passed and she settled again, blood stained her lips and chin. “Don’t speak,” the druglord murmured as he pulled a chair close and sank down into it. Once settled, he reached out for one of her frail, discolored hands. Even on her deathbed, she seemed surprised at the sudden and unexpected show of affection. When the surprise melted away, what was left behind was a shaking smile and tears shining in the corner of her eyes. She looked so innocent then, that girlish vulnerability almost beautiful in its own way despite the awful failings of her body. Almost. As the memory came back to him, his expression darkened again. The hand wrapped around her own began to slowly tighten. “After all, I’ve heard that you’ve been doing a great deal of talking lately,” he scoffed. Saya’s brows furrowed together in a look of confusion then. “What.. are you–” She had barely managed to squeeze out the words when that grip on her hand suddenly tightened to a painful, vice-like grip, pulling a cry from her. “I said,” Hisanobu snapped venomously, his voice a threatening growl. “Don’t speak.” Saya’s bloodshot eyes searched his face for an answer to the sudden shift in his temper, until finally, the realization seemed to dawn upon her. When it did, those eyes began to widen in horror. Only then did the man let go of her hand with a sneer as he pulled away and began to reach inside his haori. “A package came for me this morning,” he explained as he pulled a small box free from an inner pocket, holding it up for her to see. “There was a letter inside, and in it I learned a good deal about what you’ve been up to lately. And, as a matter of fact, what you’ve tried in the past.” He paused to watch her reaction. From the look of pure panic in her eyes, he could tell that the letter’s contents were true. She knew exactly of what he was speaking even without having to name specifics. Kami take her, this vexing woman had always been pathetically easy to read. If only he had cared to pay her a bit more attention and thought her capable of anything more than petty spite, perhaps he would have stopped her plots before they had even come to fruition. As he felt the anger bubble up in his chest, Hisanobu’s hand shot out to grab hold of her other hand. This one, however, he held firmly but carefully. Careful to avoid touching the ring of gold and sapphire still perched on her finger. “Smart,” he muttered under his breath, before letting her go and returning his gaze to her face. “She knew you wouldn’t be able to resist a trophy like this.” Her expression seemed to only grow more agonized by the moment, with each and every word, and now he was relishing in it. “She poisoned her own ring and sent it to you, knowing you’d do the hard work of killing yourself for her.” With another scoff, he returned his attention to the small box, pulling the lid from the top and reaching inside. When he pulled away, it was with a small vial held gingerly between his fingertips. “This was also in the package: a single dose of antidote. Even though she could have just let you waste away, she sent me this to let me decide what happens to you.” He started to hold it out to her, watching as one of those shaking hands tentatively began to reach up for it. But just as her fingertips brushed the glass, he jerked it away again. “Do you know why she didn’t come to me all those years ago, to tell me that you’d tried to ship her away to the highest bidder?” Hisanobu paused for an answer he knew he wouldn’t get, and shook his head. “She was concerned for me and my business. She thought that if she told me, that I would’ve killed you. She assumed that I would’ve strangled the life from your neck and ruined the Mifune’s business when your family learned of it and withdrew from our arrangements.” The Hingan suddenly pushed himself up from his chair and to his feet, starting to wander slowly but purposefully across the room. His narrowed eyes never left Saya and hers never left him, until he stopped at the fireplace. “She was right. I would have ruined it all to make you pay for what you did.” His voice was as cold and sharp as bared steel. “But this time, I won’t have to worry about ruining anything. Everything thinks an illness has taken you, and that I’m a husband stricken with grief. Your family will suspect nothing foul and so our arrangement will continue, and they’ll supply me with all the things I need to start production on the formulas that Ghoa shared with me.” His lips twisted up at the corner into a dark smirk. “And doing this will be almost as satisfying as killing you myself.” His hand, still holding the vial of antidote in his grasp, started towards the fireplace. A ragged cry came from the bed, stopping him just short of releasing it. “H-Hisanobu, please..” Saya pleaded breathlessly, fighting for every breath and every word. “If you.. have any love.. for me still..” She swallowed hard, suddenly lightheaded from the effort. “Don’t.. do this..” For a moment, he lingered there in silence, seeming to consider the plea. What was only seconds seemed like hours passed in tense silence between them, until finally what broke it was a harsh, humorless bark of laughter. “If I have any love for you still,” he repeated her words with derision. “I never have.” His fingers loosened and the vial tumbled down into the fire, the thin glass shattering and the chemical concoction causing the flames to surge and dance with flickers of pale blue-green sparks. He watched as Saya collapsed back onto the pillow in a fit of sobs and coughs, until finally he turned and marched silently back to the window. Once more, Hisanobu’s mood turned dark. He had lied once more, just to wound her further. In truth, there was no satisfaction to be found in listening to the dying woman’s sobs and curses. Whether or not Saya died, it wouldn’t change the fact that the lover he longed for was now hundreds, if not thousands of malms away. It wouldn’t the final lines of Ghoa’s letter to him. “Whatever choice you make, know that this is farewell for us. I’ll treasure the memories, and keep the lessons that you taught me close at heart.” And it ended as no other letter he had received from her had ended before. “With love always, Ghoa.”
  10. There was little that made Ghoa more anxious than uncertainties, and this day of the final fight was teeming with them. She was unsure if Saltborn would win his match. She was unsure of what Shael and Tserende were plotting. Worst of all, if all of the planning came to naught, she was unsure of exactly what manner of unpleasant fate Elam Grave had in mind for her and her treachery. Though if one thing was certain, it was that the Mankhadi woman was going to fight tooth and nail before she let anyone take her life or her freedom away from her. That unease had weighed on her from the time that she had first opened her eyes that morning, settling like a heavy stone in the pit on her stomach. Despite its weight, she had carried herself well, just as she had been instructed to never let on that anything was amiss. No one could know that beneath her usual calm, polished exterior and coy smiles, she felt almost nervous enough to retch when she took her place on the dais between Elam and Hikomoro. No one could see under the gloves that she wore just how white her knuckles had become as she closed her fists tight, watching Saltborn's fight. She couldn't help but feel dread watching that monstrous opponent of his, even knowing that the poison of her making coursed through his system. Would it be enough..? Then, with that final thrust of the blade through the beast-like Roegadyn's heart, it was ended and -- at the same -- everything began to happen so very, very quickly. "The victor of the final match!" the announcer cried. "Saltborn of the Cove!" Ghoa's eyes followed Elam as he rose triumphantly from his seat upon the proclamation of victory, and with the motion her eyes moved past him to someone else. To Nabi, whose golden eyes were filled with an unspoken warning. But she barely had any time to linger on it before the compromised linkpearl activated and Shael's voice was in her ear. "Ghoa. I want you to stand perfectly still. I have Grave in my sights." Still she was unsure of exactly what the woman was planning, but between Nabi's urgent look as she tried to slip away from the dais and the former code of opposites that she and Shael had spoken in.. Gods, she hoped she was interpreting it all correctly. In her position so close to Grave and with him undoubtedly having heard Shael's message all the same as she, she knew there was no way that she could possibly rise and sneak away like Nabi had done.. Or had attempted to do, at least, before Nei had stopped her. For her, it was now or never, and hesitating even just a second longer would put her at risk. And so, wasting no time, she pushed herself up onto her feet -- and she ran. No one stopped her until she reached the exit to the dais, where the guards were waiting in her way. Her mind was already racing, trying to figure out a way to get past them, when she heard Musa's voice calling out on the dais behind her. "Let them pass." Surprised, she chanced a glance over her shoulder at the man, confusion striking her not only at the order the older sponsor had given but the fact that he was now, it seemed, in a standoff with Nei. Had the two not been working together? Just what was happening there..? Yet she hardly had the time to ponder it now before another voice was calling out. "Torrad," Elam growled. "Stop her." Ghoa's head snapped around to find the tongueless brick wall of a man stepping up between her and her chance at freedom. Her heart was racing, a hissed curse leaving her lips, before she steeled her nerves and started forward to try and dart past him. It was a move doomed to fail from the start, as Torrad's hand wrapped tight around her thin wrist like a manacle, yanking her harshly back towards him. But that left her other hand free, and that would be his mistake. When she had dressed that morning, she hadn't even bothered trying to think of a way to smuggle in a weapon. Even before her intentions had been discovered, the guards at the entrance had thoroughly checked her person before each match. Now, she knew the scrutiny would only increase. It would be impossible to sneak in a knife or poison. She hadn't even risked bringing her ringbands, just in case. But she was nothing if not creative when backed into a corner. Prepared for the backwards tug, Ghoa's free hand snapped up to the furs around her neck. Her fingers wrapped around the golden flower brooch that held the white fur mantle in place about her shoulders and tugged it free. Using the momentum of the pull, the Xaela spun in on Torrad with purpose. In the back of her mind, she could hear the advice Edric had once given her when he had tried to teach her how to defend herself. And as soon as she spotted an opening in the man's armor on the underside of his arm, she buried the sharpened end of the pin as deeply as she could -- which still, admittedly, wasn't terribly deep -- into the man's bicep. The retaliation had seemed to surprise the man, though didn't deter him in the slightest. His hold upon her tightened as he scoffed, and before she could even try to twist out of the way, his armored hand had come crashing across her face. The force of the blow made stars rise and burst behind her eyes. She could taste copper on her tongue, though she wasn't sure if it came from her lip or her nose. Both, perhaps. Dizzily staggering, only Torrad's grip kept her upright as he spun her around to march her back to Elam. For a moment, she couldn't help but wonder if it was enough. Had she sunk the pin deep enough? She hadn't even had time to see before the man struck her. If she hadn't, if it hadn't worked, then she.. She felt the man's steps slow, almost causing him to stagger. He didn't make it another step before he fell to a knee and his grip around her wrist loosened. The pin, laced with the same Mankhadi paralytic poison that had laced the gifted knife that Nabi had once used against Elam himself, had struck true. There wasn't any time to celebrate or to feel relief. Her vision was still blurred and her head swimming when she found herself freed, but she lurched towards the exit again. The first few steps were swaying and unsteady before she seemed to find her feet again, bolting into the crowd below scrambling for the exit amidst the chaos, the violence, and the sound of gunshots. But if she had survived and escaped the dais, the panicked mob wasn't about to stop her now. She squeezed her petite body through whatever narrow gaps she could. When no spaces presented themselves, she made them by shoving, kicking, clawing, even biting her way through. The Xaela was nothing short of hellsbent on getting out of that hellish nightmare of a place, on surviving, and no one and nothing were going to stop her.
  11. DOUBLE OR NOTHING No sooner had the door closed behind her in her room at the Bokairo Inn did Ghoa collapse back against it, the strength all seeming to leave her legs at once as she let out a shaking, gasping breath that felt as if it had been trapped within her from the moment that Elam asked her how she was planning to poison him. Now that she was alone, that nervous trembling caught up to her with a vengeance. Trying to will it to stop, and with no prying eyes around to put on an act for, she slowly pulled her legs up to her chest, circled her arms about them, and buried her face against her knees. But try as she might to summon up courage or calmness, the only thing that came forth were more tears. It was hard to judge just how long she lingered there as such. Half a bell? A whole one? Longer? She had trouble settling on one emotion or coherent train of thought, much less judging any passage of time. All she could do was sit there, curled into as tiny of a ball as she could manage, and try to get every last tear out that she could. Eventually they slowed, and even more slowly they stopped, and though she was still trembling ever so slightly, Ghoa was able to wipe her cheeks dry and push herself unsteadily up to her feet again to wobble her way over to her desk and pull out a drawer. It wasn’t what she was looking for, but the three glass vials tucked away in the corner drew her eye first. All the trouble she had went to, to set that plan in motion, and it had died in the cradle now that Elam was wise to her scheming. There was no way she would be able to go through with it now. At least, none that she could think of offhandedly. But even if she could surmise some sort of alternate plan, would she? The stakes had been high before, and she had lost. Double-or-nothing was for winners. If she tried to push her luck any further, and if she failed again.. She shuddered violently, thinking back to that hand wrenching her head back by the hair, the fist that had slammed into her stomach, and not least of which, Nei Uzuka’s smirking face. No, losing again wasn’t an option. Still, disposing of the poison or turning it over to Elam was likewise unthinkable. She would have to try to hide them somewhere just in case, as a last-ditch contingency. But that could wait for now. Instead, her eyes kept searching the drawers contents until they found what she wanted: a small case of cigarettes. But as she reached for them, her hand hesitated at the sight of the small linkpearl resting next to it, one whose match she had once given to the Keeper in Ul'dah that she had craftily pilfered those smokes from. There was a part of her that wanted to pick it up and turn it on, to reach out to Rhe'ir. There was another part that reeled at that desire to seek him out for comfort and reassurance. There was another part still, the last of all, that recalled their last meeting before she had returned to her business here. That memory caused her brow to furrow and her jaw to tense, and finally her hand to close around the tin alone before the other angrily slammed the drawer shut. Turning sharply on her heel, she marched back to the table by the door, the small hearth meant for tea flickering softly at its center. She sunk down, if not defeatedly, onto the bench and plucked one of the cigarettes free of its case to hold it out to the flames. Once it lit, she brought it to her lips for a deep inhale, holding it in her lungs for as long as she could before exhaling slowly, closing her eyes and letting her head slump forward until forehead rested in her palm. “You’ve really fucked up now, little bird,” she murmured under her breath to herself, and fell silent and still as the rest of the cigarette burned away to ash in her fingers. [ A DAY (ISH, YAY TIME) LATER ] Ghoa turned the linkpearl over and over in her fingertips, gently and carefully spinning it as her mind itself turned over the choices that laid ahead of her. None of them easy. All of them potentially deadly, whether for herself or others. Immediately following her meeting with Elam, the Xaela had allowed herself to break down. As cunning and cocksure as she tried to make herself seem, her confidence in the face of the complicated scenario they were all entangled within was but a paper thin bravado. When Elam had caught on and called that bluff, that cool-headed façade had readily given way to the truth underneath: that she was just as afraid as the rest of them, but perhaps even more cowardly. That was a humiliating blow itself, to have such timidity put on display not only in front of Elam, but Nei and – perhaps most frustratingly – Saya. She still had no idea just how that vile woman had come to know the particulars of her situation, despite the bells she had spent agonizing over where the plan had went wrong. Try as she might, she couldn’t connect the dots. Hisanobu was the only person who knew the particulars, and he was loyal to her and careful to a fault. His men were loyal to him and, even if they weren’t, he never would’ve relayed such details to them for Saya to intercept. It made no sense.. In the end, whatever the case, figuring out the ‘how’ would not change the fact that it had happened. And just the same, moping about and wallowing in humiliation wouldn’t serve her moving forward. She had real, immediate problems suddenly thrust in front of her and they needed her mind at its best to solve them. Still, even once she had put herself together, Ghoa had struggled to decide what to do. At first glance, it seemed quite obvious; she was caught and she had alerted Elam to the fact that there was a plan. Her linkpearl was rigged, her every move was being watched, and her orders to cooperate had been given. It seemed she had no other recourse but to flip her loyalties once more. The longer she had thought on it, however, the less clear the choice became. Her orders had been to try to lure Shael into a trap before the fight or to at least figure out the details of what her plan was. The first option, she knew would never happen. Shael seemed too careful for that. No amount of coaxing would convince her to meet. The second option, simply going for information, seemed more likely.. But still only remotely so. She would have to come up with something truly compelling for that, and nothing she could think of seemed like it would be both dire enough and believable enough not to have her lie called. But none of that mattered to Elam, that much was evident. Her fate at the end of this nightmarish scenario wasn’t tied to how hard she tried. It was tied to results. She could try as hard as she could, and unless she cracked Shael – which she doubted she could – then it didn’t matter. It would all be for nothing. If she was lucky, Elam would kill her and be done with it. If she wasn’t, then… Yet even the case that she did somehow manage to succeed didn’t ultimately seem any more of a relief. She had been told that if all went well and the plot was successfully foiled, she would be allowed to live in relative comfort. Relative comfort. Ghoa figured that being allowed to live under Elam’s definition of said phrase didn’t equate to a happy ending, but something relatively preferable to the alternative of being given to Nei as he had threatened. That was certainly the worst case scenario, but there were plenty other possible outcomes only marginally but still relatively better. So the chance of him relenting and letting her go, to give back her freedom at the end of this were abysmal. After all, his own man Torrad was proof enough of how little loyalty meant to him in the wake of betrayal, and just what manner of twisted alternatives he could come up with. In truth, that meant precious little had changed in regards to her predicament. Elam was still a danger to her that needed to be removed. He was just more dangerous now, and her own hands were tied on how to deal with him. She had been defeated, but there was still hope in whatever Shael and Tserende had up their sleeves. She had to believe there was still hope.. Only the question of how to proceed had changed. It was no longer how could she convince Shael to fall into her trap, but – even more complicatedly – how did she manage to set one convincing enough for Elam to believe that she was cooperating while purposefully avoiding having the other woman fall into it? Could she find some way to let Shael know that she was compromised, without letting those who compromised her be any wiser? It was possible, if only she could word herself just the right way – and if Shael was just as sharp as Ghoa hoped she was. It had been a handful of hours since Torrad had come to her, returning the now-bugged linkpearl. It had taken a good deal of time for her to work through it, to come up with a feasible approach, and to muster up whatever fragments of courage that she had left to make another move. Double or nothing, and this time if she lost, there was no coming back. She looked back down to the pearl in her fingertips, frowning as her hand trembled. First, she closed her hand tightly around it, squeezing hard as she tried to banish away the nerves. Then, she lifted and activated it. “Shael..? Are you there..?” She paused, taking a second to swallow and steel her tone even as her throat suddenly seemed to go dry. “It’s Ghoa and.. and it’s an emergency.”
  12. STORMBANE : Ghoa Mankhad “I have one more favor to ask.” Ghoa’s words were hesitant, as if expecting that they would invite ire from the man sitting across from her. After all, she had only just finished convincing Hisanobu to track down the reagents for the poison for Musa’s champion. She simply couldn’t risk any of the other sponsors having eyes or ears in Kugane, taking notice of what she was doing. If she hoped to make allies of them, their learning that she was actively attempting to poison one of their champions very much had the potential to sour those relations. Such was a complication she could ill afford, and so she had to remove herself as much from the process as possible. Despite the reasoning, the Hingan drug lord hadn’t been thrilled with the idea of being given a shopping list of items of varying levels of illegality. All the risk and little reward. If that had been a sticking point, then she could only imagine that he would be equally displeased with her next request. Maybe moreso. Sure enough, a hint of wary exasperation reached Hisanobu’s face as he looked up to her from the list he held in his hands. But he relented, giving her a nod. “Ask it, then.” “There’s a second poison I’m making for a different target, even more sensitive than the first. But to make it, I need a very specific item.” She hesitated again. “Something that you’ll never find on the markets, I should think, here nor anywhere else.” The look on the Hyur’s face was somewhere between frustration and intrigue at that. There was a small pause, but ultimately he offered no protest – for now, at least – and simply nodded for her to continue. “There’s a plant that I need,” She kept her face as neutral as she could manage. “So far as I know, it can only be found on the eastern coastlands of the Steppe.” It had been difficult coming up with a formulation for poison for Musa’s champion, going off of only a verbal description of him without seeing him or what he was capable of firsthand. Yet even that had paled in comparison to the other conundrum that she had faced in the question of how she would deal with Elam – and the “accident” that she was supposed to be staging. Ever since her meeting with Hikomoro, she had tormented herself with the question of what she would do, how she could pull it off. She had spent countless bells coming up with plans and plots, only to dismiss each one. Too unreliable, too risky, too obvious.. Then one evening, she had let her mind wander too far until it had stumbled upon a memory from what seemed to be a lifetime ago. A memory of beautiful round flowers, with large petals as soft as silk, white at the fringe with vein-like patterns of dark red-purple bleeding out from the center. She could remember their scent, more sweet and richly fragrant than any man made perfume she had ever smelled. Most of all, she could remember her mentors explaining just how deceptively treacherous of a plant it truly was. Stormbane, it had been named, after it had once taken the lives of a great many of the still fledgling clan of Shuurga. When they had found the flowers growing, they had naturally been drawn to their beauty. Flowers had been plucked to decorate homes and to gift to lovers. When people began to suddenly fall ill with gradually rising fever and hacking, bloodied coughs, their loved ones brought the flowers to wish them well. When the sickness had ran its course over the span of about a week’s time, they laid the beautiful blooms on their grave. The clan had almost dwindled to nothing before they realized that it was not a plague that they were afflicted with, but the flowers themselves and the highly poisonous yellow-green sap contained in their stems. Once discovered, they had set fire to any patches of Stormbane they found, but had saved a handful of the plants and quietly entrusted them to their udgan. In the hands of the stormcallers, who held all of their tribe’s poisonous secrets, they would be protected. Now, she doubted most of their tribesmen even knew that the last patch of Stormbane remained. But as an apprentice, Ghoa had had the rare opportunity to see them herself. It seemed a perfect solution to her problems, yet rather than embrace it, she had continued to think and think even after it had come across her mind, desperate to find anything else. Anything that meant that she could continue to leave the past buried exactly where it was. But try as she might, she always came back to those deadly, sweet-scented flowers from her memory. Finally, she had relented. Reluctant as she was, it was her best shot. “There’s a small clan that cultivates them in one of their summer camps. But this time of year, they should be in the southern part of their territory, leaving the plants unguarded,” she explained carefully. “There’s a river that one can follow from the central Steppe that goes directly to one of their currently unoccupied camps on the sea. I can come up with a map, if you can just find me men willing to make the trip.” She didn’t receive her answer right away as Hisanobu continued to watch her, his expression having begun to slowly change from exasperation to curiosity. Yet he said nothing at first, only continuing to watch her. But finally, he bobbed his head in a slow nod. “I can find men for the job,” he began, paused, and then added. “But why can’t you go yourself?” “I don’t have the time,” Ghoa lied, the answer ready for the question she had been certain was coming long before she had ever broached the subject to begin with. One she had practiced over and over in her head already. “I have to be working on the first poison and time is already short. I can’t afford to waste even a single sun on a trip into the steppe.” “Fine,” he agreed with little fuss, and inwardly she was relieved that he didn’t press the subject any further. “Get me a map and instructions of what they should be looking for, and you’ll have this plant you need so badly.” “Thank you.” Her voice perhaps betrayed a bit more relief than she had meant for it to, surprised but grateful that he had not needed any more convincing. It was unlike him to let things go so easily, but she would not question the unexpected gift of his easy cooperation. “Just be sure that the men you send are the trustworthy sort,” she added. “All I need is one plant and the rest should be left untouched and unspoken about. They’re a closely guarded secret, so it wouldn’t do to suddenly have them showing up on black markets and creating a demand.” As her words trailed off, none rose up to answer her in turn. At first, that didn’t even strike her as odd. Perhaps he was only thinking about who to send? But as the seconds ticked on, and as he watched her with an increasingly pensive look, the silence began to weigh heavier and heavier upon her. It began to make her nervous. “Hisanobu? What’s wrong?” She asked hesitantly. “Is there a problem..?” “It is a closely guarded secret, you said?” His words were more curious than accusation. “You seem to be awful knowledgeable about it.” Ghoa’s stomach churned suddenly, sickly, at the realization of her misstep. She grappled for an answer to explain it away, but could not find one quickly enough. But her silence was telling enough of an answer for him to continue. “They’re your people, aren’t they?” He asked in fascination. Once more she failed to answer, and he kept pressing. “I’m also guessing that it isn’t time that’s keeping you from making the trip yourself. It’s that you don’t want to go, right?” Another pause, more silence, and he pressed again, more insistently. “Or is it that you can’t go back..?” She could tell that it was only his curiosity driving him, the delight he always took in figuring out people and their motivations, but he still may as well have been wielding those questions like a knife. And at the last supposition, she couldn’t stop herself from flinching as if he had truly reached out and struck her. Wordlessly, she rose from her seat and walked around the desk, stopping beside him. As he turned his head up to look at her, she reached up to gently place a hand on either side of his face. Her touch was soft, but her hold firm, keeping his eyes on her own. “Don’t–” she began, voice quiet but tone adamant, pausing just long enough to let the emphasis settle before finishing the thought. “–ask anymore questions about where I come from. Not if you want to see me again once this is over.” Those words weren’t a request, but a warning. But seeing the shock at her boldness in his eyes, she relented with a tight smile and leaned in to steal a quick and tender kiss from him. When she straightened, it was with softer, whispered words. “Please, Hisanobu. Just leave it be.” Her hands fell away as she stepped back, allowing the other a moment to gather himself and choose his next words. When he did, they were mercifully clear of bothersome interrogation. It seemed the point had sunk in. “I’ll choose who to send today,” he stated quietly, almost awkwardly. “Bring your map and your instructions by daybreak tomorrow, and I’ll send them on their way.” “Thank you,” she sighed, bowing her head in gratitude as she turned to leave, eager to leave the awkward tension of the room behind and to busy herself to keep her mind from returning to how uncomfortably close the man had come
  13. ((GUESS WHO IS BEHIND ON CROSS-POSTING DRABBLES, IT'S YA GIRL GHOA. WHOOPS.)) ENEMIES OF MY ENEMY : Ghoa Mankhad After seemingly countless bells spent hidden away in the belly of the mountain, Ghoa relished the caress of the ocean breeze on her face and through her hair. Her eyes closed as she breathed deeply the scent of sea and salt, willing herself to let her worries be carried away with the gentle winds blowing over the deck of the ferry. For a moment, she felt better, somehow almost lighter. Her shoulders, feeling as tightly wound as a spring, slowly began to ease into a slump. Her brow smoothed from the furrow it had regularly worked itself into over the course of the evening. Even the muscles in her legs had been tensed, instinctively ready throughout the course of the evening to make a last-ditch effort to run if the situation turned bitterly sour. But now they too had started to relax at the ocean’s ever-comforting presence. Yet as her eyes finally opened again and once more settled on the slowly shrinking Yanxian shore, as her gaze was drawn to the movement of the carriage that had borne her to the docks now leaving them again, it was as if the winds suddenly shifted. The tensions returned to her all at once, with such a weight as to make her stomach churn uneasily. These weren’t the sort of troubles that one could simply run away from, after all. They may as well have been a ball and chain locked tightly around her ankle. But every lock possessed a key, and damned if Ghoa wasn’t intent on thieving it away to free herself. Of course, that too was rapidly becoming much more difficult and risky of a feat the longer this game of theirs continued on. New players had set up on the board. Ieharu Musa was perhaps the most deadly of the new contenders, given his position of power upon the dais and his beast of a champion. Squared up directly against Elam, she might have been tempted to think of him as a potential ally. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying went. But she knew too little of him to make that call or pursue that potential avenue. There was one other matter besides that gave her pause, and that was the elder sponsor’s connection to Nei Uzuka. The brothel mistress certainly had no love for Elam herself, but there was something about her that deeply bothered the Xaela. Perhaps they might have possessed similar desires to see the Eorzean knocked off the perch he had taken from her, but Nei seemed a risk. She wasn’t at all the quiet, controlled type that Musa seemingly was. Rather, she had fallen into her trap of provocation when Ghoa had tested her, taking the bait and biting back at the slight. That wasn’t even to mention how unclear her motivations and ambitions were. A vain woman prone to lashing out with ultimately unknown motives simply didn’t seem to be the best ally to make in this highly delicate ordeal. However, if her intuition was right, there may have been a third option for allyship. Hikomoro had said time and again that he held no ill will towards Elam, but he had seemed intent on asking her about him all the same. Had it merely been for gossip, or was he perhaps not as indifferent towards the ijin newcomer as he claimed? She wasn’t sure, but even if it were true, there was perhaps an opportunity there. The silk lord didn’t need to have Nei’s rancor or Musa’s frustration to potentially be useful to her. If he was indifferent, that only meant he needed a gentle nudge in the right direction to turn him. And so far? He had been quite receptive to her nudging. Naturally, if it worked out the way she hoped, the Xaela knew there would be a price to be paid for that allyship. Nothing in this world, and especially not in its seedy underbelly, ever came free. She would have to hear a price before committing, but she would venture a guess that whatever the Roegadyn would want in exchange for his aid and protection would be far more manageable than Elam’s black, vengeful, violent temper when he was denied something – or someone – that he wanted. Time would tell, and she figured she had at least a sun or two of it before Hikomoro called upon her for a private visit to his estate. It would give her a chance to think it all through, to come up with her stories and to get them straight. To cherry-pick what information she could feed him, and to rehearse lies for the rest until they sounded truer than the truth itself. OPPORTUNITIES : Saya Mifune Saya Mifune had no idea what manner of business that her husband’s whore of a lover had left on this time, but she could only assume that it had been delicate by the relief that flooded Hisanobu’s face when one of his men brought the news to their bedchamber in the middle of the night. The bedchamber where she currently lie curled against him, content. Yet one glance at that face of his caused her rare buoyant mood to sour like curdled milk, even before he had ordered his man to bring Ghoa to him – and for his wife to leave her own marriage bed. Her temper burned hot at that insult, and though she had left in an irate storm of hissed curses and slinging of robes as she dressed, she had complied. It served her none to disobey his orders, especially where that vexing siren of a woman was involved. The only thing to be gained from argument were bruises, if past experiences still rang true. Besides, there was something more for her to gain by leaving. Much more. Her steps carried her down the hallways, to a side room of her own. Each side of the room was filled with dressers, shelves, and racks of clothing. These she passed, moving to the very back of the room to a large, elaborate vanity packed with boxes and bottles untold. Taking a seat atop the stool, her hand reached for what seemed like just one of many jewelry or makeup cases strewn about. Yet nestled within the container were three lines of linkpearls, each one a different pastel color. The beginnings of a smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. When a merchant had gifted these odd contraptions to her some moons past, they had told her that she might put them to use in the Mifune family’s business. The drug trade could be treacherous, as he said, and it would benefit the family much to know what truths people spoke when they thought that no one was listening. He had asked her to pass the gift along to her husband, that he might take a liking to the devices and order more from him. But the one-way linkpearls had never made it to Hisanobu’s hands. Instead, his wife had kept them hidden amongst her things. She had thought that perhaps she would use it as a means to keep tabs on Hisanobu’s womanizing ways. Unlike the way he flaunted Ghoa in her face, the rest of his lovers he at least had the decency to try to keep secret. Not that it ever stopped her from rooting them out and finding ways to chase them off. The pearls would only make it easier, and so she had hidden them about their home in all the places she knew he was likely to take his trysts. One such place? Their own bedroom. However, it now wasn’t the identity of his lover that she wished to know, but the reasoning for her even being here. In the past few years after she had left, Ghoa had only turned up on their doorstep when she needed something. Usually, that was money for her next jaunt across the world or to use their business connections to get her hands on some sort of reagent she needed. But this time was different. She was sticking close, for far longer than she had in times past. Not only that, but they were going to great pains to keep Saya out of whatever they were doing. If it were only money or sex or simple business, they had never been so shy before. No, there was something more.. Her hands plucked a peach-colored pearl from the box, activating it and raising it to her ear to listen. At first, there was only silence, with the occasional sound of movement. After a few moments, there were distant footsteps, growing louder. A voice – that of the man who had brought the news to begin with – announcing his return with Ghoa in tow. Permission was given to enter, and there was the sound of the door sliding open then shut again, and more footsteps. Only once they were gone did the voices begin. It began as one would perhaps expect, with teasing flirtations and relief at having returned safely. Yet not long after such pleasantries were exchanged, as well as a few tender embraces that the Hingan woman couldn’t help but picture in her mind’s eye much to her displeasure, the topic swiftly turned to business. And merciful kami, what business it was.. Saya’s heart raced as she listened to the hushed exchanges, quickly come to realize exactly why Ghoa had tried to be so secretive. It would seen that the Auri woman was in serious trouble with this dangerous new business partner of hers and the illegal Doman fighting pit that they had become involved with. Even Hisanobu hadn’t seemed pleased with her as she recounted the happenings at the fight she had attended. Part of her hoped to hear the all too familiar crack of his hand hitting her cheek as his temper spiked, though it never came. Such irritated her, of course, that Ghoa so easily escaped his hand when used it so readily against her. But even still, with the wealth of information that she was picking up from her spying, even that bitter thought didn’t bring her down from her high. Eventually, the conversation began to lull away from business and with it went Hisanobu’s annoyance as they returned to lover’s talk. When she had heard the first wanton gasp, Saya reached up to deactivate the pearl. No more information of worth would be had for now, but she had plenty to think on as it were. Once before, she had tried to rid herself of Ghoa’s presence in her life. She had had her captured, stuffed in a crate like a dog while one of her own family’s business associates come to collect on his new purchase. Only at the last had the plan fell apart, and fallen apart spectacularly at that. And yet while the Xaela had had every chance to reveal to Hisanobu what she had done, knowing as well as she did that he would’ve killed her for it, Ghoa had kept the secret and chose to flee instead. It was a decision that had vexed her more than relieved her, in a sense. But now, the whore had backed herself into a dangerous trap of her own making, and she had unwittingly given her all the information she needed to see that it was sprung. Of course, such would have to be done carefully to ensure that no fingers came back pointed at her. This couldn’t be like the last anger-fueled attempt at disposing of her. But if ever there were a real opportunity to be rid of this annoyance for good, it was now. She doubted a more fortuitous chance would ever come her way. There was much for her to think about.
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