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Generated: Jun 16, 2020 12:20 AM
Post last updated: Jun 16, 2020 12:19 AM
always look to love
lucy is a different kind of eldritch
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There is only so much she can learn about her heritage, and her abilities, from her mother and through experimentation. 

The Elder Continent is, if not precisely off limits, not somewhere she even wants to try to go until she knows more. So: London, which is much closer anyway. She'd have to pass through to make it to the Continent anyway. 

The stalagmites thin, and she blinks as she steps out into the lights of Mrs. Plenty's Carnival. 

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The carnival barkers look at her curiously, but they don't stop her.

The opportunities of London lie before her. Where would she like to go?

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Well, she'll just wander, for a bit. Gosh, so many people. And none of them know the first thing about her. 

She does eavesdrop, though, seeing if she can pick up where good places are to get a bit of coin, a bite to eat, and a roof over one's head.

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A bite to eat can be found in any of the corners of the city; each district has its own specialty. A roof over one's head, similarly, can be rented for a reasonable price.

Coin is important to either goal, though. She could find work hauling in the Docks if she's strong, or spying in Ladybones Road if she's canny, or working as a courier in Spite or the Flit if she's quick on her feet.

While she's eavesdropping, she may hear something of particular interest. "-and she said, she honestly said, there was a diamond down here the size of a cow! She was probably honey-mazed, but wouldn't that be something?"

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Uh. 

What. 

"Who said that?" she asks smoothly, stepping into the conversation. 

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The man speaking jumps a little, then realizes who addressed him and tries to look cool. "Oh - old friend of mine, called the Fading Music-Hall Singer. I was just saying, you know, what a thing that would be. You know?"

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"Well, I don't know about the size of a cow, but diamonds are a lot more common down here." 

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"Oh, certainly. Even with Mr. Stones' taxes-"

His friend jabs him in the side with an elbow. "Not a topic for discussion with strange girls you just met."

The man rubs the back of his head guiltily. "Ah, yes."

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"Where could I find the Fading Music-Hall Singer, do you know? I've quite an interest in the geological myself." 

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"Heh. Er, she works Mahogany Hall these days, you could probably catch her after a show."

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"Okay. Thanks!" she says brightly, waving as she departs. 

Mahogany Hall...she's not sure where that is, so she eavesdrops some more until she runs into someone discussing going that way and then surreptitiously follows them. 

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Plenty of people go to Mahogany Hall, and plenty of them discuss it as they walk; she'll have no trouble finding her way there.

There are a couple of guards at each entrance.

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...Checking people for tickets?

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People have tickets! Usually they're in coat pockets or purses, but some people keep theirs in their trouser pockets.

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She watches the crowd carefully to see if anyone drops one. 

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It isn't too long before a ticket slips out of a gentleman's coat, fairly close to her.

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She walks over and casually scoops it up before walking away in a different enough direction that he'll be unlikely to correlate her position with his by the time he realizes his ticket is missing. 

Once she's made it far enough off she circles back around to present "her" ticket to the guards. 

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The guard accepts it without any trouble.

"Your theater's to the right," he says.

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She goes off to the right. 

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The theater is large and filled with reasonably comfortable chairs.

After she's been sitting for a little while, the gaslamps dim momentarily, indicating that the show will start in ten minutes.

Ten minutes later, the lights go down... and nothing happens. There's some muttering among the patrons. Five minutes after that, when the muttering has reached something of a crescendo, the curtains part slightly, revealing a mousey-looking man with a nervous tic.

"T-the F-fadiing M- sorry, sorry, I mean, the Eff-f-f-ulgent Evangeline, is unable to s-sing tonight. Your t-t-tickets will be ref-f-funded. Mahogany Hall apologizes for the inc-c- for the inconvenience."

A groan rises from the audience as the lights come back up.

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Lucy makes her way through the crowd towards the mousey-looking man. 

"Excuse me," she says, "is the Effulgent Evangeline alright?"

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"Sh-she didn't send an urchin, or anything," says the Stammering Manager. "We were h-h-holding out hope she'd get here in time, b-b-but." He shrugs. "D-damnably inconvenient."

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"Oh no. Is there anything I can do to help?"

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He looks appraisingly at her. "W-well, if you'd be willing to ch-check up on her, I wouldn't have to s-send an urchin - I'd pay you fair courier r-rates, ten moon-pearls. She lives at 56 Sedgwick W-w-way, in Flowerdene Rookery."

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"Deal." 

She cashes in "her" ticket on the way out, and heads for the named address. 

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The ticket gets her fifteen bits of glossy purple glim.

The named address is an only moderately squalid tenement, with a tiled roof and mushroom beds out front. It's also surrounded by Constables.

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"Excuse me, is everything alright?"

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A Sharp-Eyed Constable squints suspiciously at her. "Who wants to know?"

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"Well you see sir, it's just that the lady that lives here, the Effulgent Evangeline, she was supposed to sing at Mahogany Hall, but she never showed up, so they sent me to come see what was going on sir."

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He nods, mollified. "Well, she's nowhere to be found, I'm afraid. Her home was broken into a few hours ago, and her neighbors haven't seen her in days." His voice lowers. "It's odd - the place was obviously searched, but there were moon-pearls all over the floor, like they weren't what the intruder was looking for. Damned queer business."

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Well. 

That certainly lends credence to that happenstance scrap of gossip, doesn't it. 

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"How very strange! I do hope she's alright." 

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"Sure as we all do, miss."

The Constables appear to be wrapping up their investigation and trickling away from the house. The Sharp-Eyed Constable goes with them.

To some, it would be awfully tempting to check inside and see if they missed anything.

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What, there are some who wouldn't? 

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The Singer's apartment is small and rather cramped - there's a mattress on the floor, a desk with sliding drawers, and a rod for hanging outfits. The constables very considerately cleaned up the moon-pearls the Sharp-Eyed Constable mentioned. They didn't clean up anything else.

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Ah-huh. 

She goes through the drawers, and, if that turns up nothing, the pockets of the outfits. 

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The drawers are empty, as are the pockets.

While she's checking the pocket of a dress that ended up under the desk somehow, though, she might observe the sound of something fluttering in the breeze from the open window, directly above her head. It's a business card, fastened to the underside of the desk with a metal tack.

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Well, well. 

She unpins the business card and examines it. 

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The contact information is for one William Butterfield, the Sensible Under-Secretary - an agent of Mr. Fires. 

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Ah-ha. 

Does the contact information include an address?

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It includes a home address and an office address!

On the back, it also has st dunstans churchyard plot 3c written in deep-etched pencil.

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Well that's concerning. 

First she's going to head back to Mahogany Hall to report to the mousy guy what happened (omitting the part where she searched the Fading Music-Hall Singer's stuff) and collect her courier's fee. Then she's going to head to the home address on the card to scope the place out. 

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The place is fairly nice, in a fairly nice neighborhood; the kind of place where the residents have servants, but the servants don't have servants of their own. He lives alone, or at least there's no evidence of a spouse or children.

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Hmm.

She purchases the cheapest meal she can get nearby and sets to discreetly watching the place as she eats. 

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As she eats her rat kebab (which is honestly pretty good), the Sensible Under-Secretary leaves his house. He moves quickly through the streets, making a beeline for Spite.

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She follows him, still gnawing on the remnants of her rat kebab. 

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He doesn't seem to notice he's being tailed, or even really consider it. Once he's in Spite, he heads for the spire of St. Dunstan's Church, but instead of going in, he heads through the lychgate into the graveyard.

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She creeps in after him. Does he head for the grave written on the card?

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He heads for section 3c, yes, but he doesn't go to any of the marked graves - instead, he ends up at an unmarked mound of dirt.

It's a very small patch of dirt. A foot or so in length, less than that in width.

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Apparently the Mountain isn't the only one whose children she has to worry about. 

Fuck this sneaking around bullshit. 

She steps out. "Is that a baby, is that your baby, do you know anything about the whereabouts of the Fading Music-Hall Singer, and do you know anything about a diamond the size of a cow that may or may not be a child of the Mountain of Light of the Elder Continent."

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He looks up, his eyes red-rimmed. "I- what? Who are you?"

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"I am the Light-Hearted Wastelander, daughter of the Pale Adventuress, and I know things that few in London know, and I can do things that none in London can do." 

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He nods slowly. "Yes, the child was mine - by Angie. The Fading Music-Hall Singer. She's missing?"

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"Yes. What happened to the child?"

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"She... she died shortly after she was born. They do that, sometimes. I had refused to claim her - perhaps the fault was mine. The vicar allowed her to be buried on hallowed ground. It was generous of him."

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"How tragic, when lingering death is so rare in the Neath...well. As I said, I can do things that none in London can do. Bide a moment, no matter how disturbed you are by what you see."

She plunges her hands into the earth, allowing them to express more of their true adamant nature once out of sight, plowing through obstructions that would halt human flesh, until they reach the tiny coffin. She grasps it and yanks it out, earth spraying to either side as she does so. Opening the coffin lid reveals little more than bones and scraps of leathery desiccated skin. Well. 

She bites her lip, hard, and allows the blood to drip onto her finger. With the blood, she draws a Correspondence sigil on the tiny skull. 

There is a flare of un-Neathly light, and a living babe screams in her arms. 

She holds the child out to their father. 

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When she reaches into the earth, his eyes widen. He begins to look angry when she removes the coffin. When she begins her ritual, he looks horrified. Then the child is reborn, and his eyes fill with tears.

"I..." He slowly reaches out, hands trembling, to take the infant. "How?"

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"My mother traveled to the Elder Continent, and learned and saw many things there, and when I was born, several months after she left, she taught them to me as well. She cannot do what I can do. Nobody else she's tried to teach can. But death is even less permanent wherever I find it than it is in the rest of the Neath."

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"I don't have much to give you," he says slowly. "Not even much information - I'm only an under-secretary. But if you're looking for Angie, you should ask Hephaesta, at Mahogany Hall. They - were, at least - very close."

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"Thank you, that's very helpful." She looks at the child. "What's their name?"

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"...I don't know," he says. "I wasn't there."

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"...Well. I'll find our mutual friend and we'll find out. Thank you again for the information, I'll see what Hephaesta knows." 

She makes her way back to Mahogany Hall and starts looking for entrances other than the main one that seem more likely to lead to performers' rooms.

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There are various entrances, mostly guarded.

On the other hand, there are rather a lot of windows on the second floor. Some of which stand open.

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She makes her way to a mostly unobserved patch of entranceless wall and climbs to the nearest open second-story window, diamond nails sinking into the relatively soft brickwork.

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It leads into a dressing room, currently unoccupied. The mirror is cracked.

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What kind of dressing-room? If it doesn't seem plausibly a strongwoman's she'll slip out into the hallway. 

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Not a strongwoman's; lots of make-up, and a box of throat lozenges.

The hallway contains a handful of dancers, gossiping amongst themselves. They glance at her as she emerges, but none of them seem to care that she's not the person that typically comes out of that dressing room.

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She looks for Hephaesta's dressing-room. 

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Well, this dressing room has a little bronze plate on the door reading HEPHAESTA.

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Yep, that'd be what she was looking for. She lets herself in and waits. 

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After about a quarter of an hour, the door opens and in walks a woman with muscles like grapefruits under her skin.

She notices the Light-Hearted Wastelander and looks her up and down, then sniffs. "Come to ask me where it is? I don't know where it is. Come to kill me? Like to see you try. Come for an autograph? I can do you an autograph."

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"Where what is?"

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She snorts. "If you don't know, then you don't know, and that's a weight off my mind. Just hand me what you'd like me to sign."

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Lucy hands her a scrap of paper. "Thank you--but that's not actually why I'm here. Nobody's heard from the Fading Music-Hall Singer in a while and I'm worried."

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Hephaesta relaxes a bit, scrawling her name on the paper. "Well, that's quite an ask. Angie had a lot of friends, so she said, but none of 'em came looking for her, far as I can tell..."

She hands over the paper. "Truth be told, I'm worried for her too. I think she's hiding from something. Something big. But I don't know that you're not part of it, see?"

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"Do you know what's buried at St. Dunstan's? The Sensible Under-Secretary can vouch for me."

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She nods slowly. "I don't think much of that bastard's word, but if you know what's in that churchyard...

"Bugger this twisty thinking," she says eventually. "Just tell me you'll help her, alright?"

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"I have no intention of allowing any harm to come to her that I can prevent."

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"That's enough for me, then. Angie's hiding out in the Forgotten Quarter. Her sister's up to her neck in some awful business, and she's been dragged into it as well. She was s'posed to be back by now - I'm worried summat's happened to her."

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"Oh dear. I'll see what I can do."

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"Here," Hephaesta says, removing a daguerrotype of the Singer from her mirror and pressing it into the Wastelander's hand. "So you'll know when you find her."

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"Thank you." 

Off to the Forgotten Quarter. What does the Forgotten Quarter contain. 

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Lots and lots of ruins.

Also, a woman in a finely tailored navy-blue suit, wearing a rakishly tilted hat of a kind she's never seen before, sitting on an intricately carved plinth. "Hello there," she says, inclining her head slightly.

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"Hi!"

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"You don't walk like a Londoner," the woman observes. "But you don't walk like a tourist, either. A bit of an enigma, there."

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"Oh, I'm from the Prickfinger Wastes."

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"Aha. There's an answer that I didn't expect. And what brings you to the Forgotten Quarter?"

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"Trying to track someone down who's trying to be forgotten."

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"And that's an answer I did expect. You don't have the look of a tomb-raider or a fugitive."

She hops down from her plinth. "This person you wanted to track down... a woman? Blonde, a touch past her prime?"

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"That's her."

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"You're not the first to come this way looking for her. The last two were minions of the Masters."

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"Well, I'm not."

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"Oh, I'm not accusing you of anything. I'm laying out the facts. They were from the Masters... and they found her. She was staying in a Fourth City stable to the east, but I don't know where they may have taken her. You might look at where she was staying for a start, though."

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Sigh. "Great. --Thank you very much for telling me." She heads off towards the stable. 

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"Au revoir," says the woman in the suit.

The stable is somewhat dilapidated, but the roof is in decent shape, and it has a good line of sight to the Royal Bethlehem Hotel. Someone has been living here, but there are signs of a recent struggle: an overturned cooking pot, scuff marks in the bare earth. Dried blood, too. A considerable quantity of it. A quantity that bodes ill for the person it used to be inside.

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Fuck. 

Okay. So. 

Does the blood form a followable trail.

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Most of it was spilled in the house, but enough of it dripped as whoever-it-was carried her that she can follow it.

The trail leads to the Stolen River.

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Oh come on, is she going to have to search the riverbottom for the Music-Hall Singer's corpse.

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It's beginning to look that way, yes.

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Fuck!

She finds a hidden corner with no witnesses, strips, slips into the water, and turns into an enormous diamond-shelled crab. Heeeeeeeeere Fading Music-Hall Singer...

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She's sunk straight to the bottom, but hasn't had time to sink into the mud. She's also been beaten to death, apparently with some kind of sledgehammer.

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Well, at least finding her was easy enough. 

She drags the waterlogged body back to the surface, turns back, re-dresses, and picks at the scab on her lip enough to get the blood to mark the sigil. 

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Before she has to, the Fading Music-Hall Singer chokes and expels the river water from her lungs. She sucks in a heaving breath, then coughs several times. Then her head falls back to the ground, and she starts... singing. Is that a song? Her neck convulses as if the muscles of her throat are in revolt. But the effect is weirdly calming. Each note follows the last like a stylishly dressed assassin: dramatic, unexpected, inevitable.

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...Huh. 

She sits back and listens. 

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The song is fairly short. After it's done, the Singer's eyes open.

"I couldn't leave her," she rasps. "But I couldn't get her out."

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"Who's 'her'?"

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"Clarabelle. My sister... in that madhouse. The Hotel. That's how they found me."

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"They caught you trying to jailbreak her?"

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"No, they just knew-" She coughs again. "I wouldn't be far."

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"Okay. This is very important--what do you know about an entity that may or may not be a diamond the size of a cow?"

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"That- that damned jewel," she says sleepily. "I never - never saw it - but... Poor..."

She lapses into unconsciousness.

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Hoo boy. Fine. 

She picks up the unconscious Singer and starts carrying her towards the Sensible Under-Secretary's house as discreetly as possible. 

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It's surprising how discreetly one can carry a severely bludgeoned woman through a crowded city if one sets their mind to it. She reaches the Sensible Under-Secretary's house unimpeded.

He opens the door and gasps aloud when he sees his former lover. "I- what happened?"

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"She got attacked, I rescued her, I tried to ask her about some stuff, she fainted, I figured I'd bring her here so she could find out the baby was alive sooner rather than later."

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He bites his lip, but nods. "I'll, I'll put her in the guest bed, I suppose, and send for a physician. Do you know who attacked her?"

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She's about to say "someone working for the Masters," but then she remembers that he works for one of the Masters, and while probably he wasn't involved with the attack she doesn't super want to make him feel like he has to choose between keeping something from his boss or not betraying the mother of his child. "She didn't say, before she fainted," she says instead, which is true; the conjecture she has about the attackers' identity came from the person who pointed her towards the stable.

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"All right," he says. "I suppose she might say more when she wakes up." He takes his shoulder under the Fading Music-Hall Singer's arm and walks her to his guest bedroom.

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She helps him bring her and then sits at the woman's bedside until she wakes. 

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She slips in and out of consciousness a few times, but she's too delirious to recognize that there's someone there.

Half an hour passes before the Sensible Under-Secretary comes back with a Somnolent Physician. The Physician examines the Fading Music-Hall Singer.

"This was very nearly a successful assassination," he says grimly. "Her first death was recoverable; had she awoken in the river, however, she'd have drowned and drowned until she faded away. As it is, she's just dealing with several broken bones, a concussion, and blood loss - not so terrible, down here. When she wakes - she probably will fairly soon - give her as much of a bottle of F.F. Gerbrandt's Tincture of Vigour as she'll drink." He places such a bottle on the bedside table. "She'll still be convalescent for a while, but it'll put her in a condition to heal. Might be a few weeks."

The Under-Secretary counts out a fee in jade and sends the Physician on his way.

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Lucy waits with bottle and spoon for the next time the Singer slips back to consciousness. 

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She wakes up an hour later, lucid enough to be given some Tincture. She drinks it greedily, stopping only after about half the bottle.

Then she looks around, to the extent she can. "Where are we?" she asks.

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"Uh, it's sort of a long story. You see, I was conceived on the Elder Continent under mysterious circumstances, and I have strange abilities as a result. So, I started looking for you in the first place because I heard from someone that they'd heard from you about a diamond the size of a cow, and I was concerned that it might actually be a living being who needed help. But you had already disappeared. So I looked through your apartment and found the Sensible Under-Secretary's business card, and I followed him to the graveyard, and uh I brought your baby back to life and left them with him while I went to find you. So we're at his house, because that's where the baby is."

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The Singer stares.

"I-" She stops.

"Can I see her," she finally manages.

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"Yes," she says, and gets up and runs out of the room to fetch the baby. 

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The baby is with the Under-Secretary, who is feeding her from a bottle. He looks up, almost panicked. "Is she-" he begins, and doesn't seem to know how to finish the sentence.

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"She's awake and wants to see her daughter."

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He looks as if he's about to ask something, then decides against it. He holds out the baby wordlessly.

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She takes the baby and brings her to the Singer. 

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She tries to reach out to touch her child, but her arms are still broken; she hisses in pain and resigns herself to simply staring.

"I... so, you want to know about the jewel."

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Nod, nod. "If it's an actual rock that isn't alive then I don't care," she adds, and lays the baby gently on her mother's breast.

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"I don't know if it's alive or not," she admits, as the baby crawls over her. "I just know - let me start from the beginning. My sister was called the Eccentric Opera Singer. We're twins. The trouble started some months ago, when she started receiving visits from a man wearing a mask. He brought her glim jewelry and told her stories, and one of those stories was that this glim was chipped from the sides of an enormous jewel. One day, the two of them... disappeared. For months. I paid every investigator I could find, and none of them could find either one. Then they found her. Clarabelle. She was pregnant, heavily pregnant, and she was stark raving mad. She wouldn't stop talking about how much she loved... something. And she sang these... terrible songs. Inhuman. They ruined her voice." Tears come to her eyes. "I put her in the Royal Bethlehem while I saved money for us to go back to the Surface. I suppose I can't anymore... not now that I've died, not now that Elisabeth is alive. I'll need a different plan."

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"I don't know about the long term...in the short term, though, I could hide you at my mother's place in the Prickfinger Wastes. People will think twice about bothering you out there."

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Her eyes widen, but then she shakes her head effortfully. "I can't... not with Elisabeth. A baby in the Prickfinger Wastes wouldn't last a minute, with all the razor-stones and fragments, and I'm not leaving Will to nurse her alone. I think that whoever tried to kill me believes I'm dead - and I have no intention of revealing myself. I'll stay here. And-"

An idea strikes her. "If you want to help me... you could withdraw Clarabelle from the Royal Beth. It doesn't have to be me who checks her out, now that I'm supposedly dead, you just have to convince her to come with you. Withdraw her, and bring her here, and we'll pretend Will is taking care of her to atone for how he abandoned me. I think we could make it work."

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"My brother and I did fine, but I see your point. Alright, I'll fetch her here. What do you want me to tell Hephaesta?"

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"Hephaesta can know - she's my closest friend, I couldn't bear if she thought I were dead."

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"Alright. Should I suggest she visit, perhaps ostensibly to yell at Will?"

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The Singer bites her lip, then nods. "It's dangerous... but yes. I should see her again, at least once."

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"Yeah. I don't think it would be better if she got suspicious and decided to investigate."

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"And she certainly would," the Singer laughs weakly. "Alright - I think I have some things to discuss with Will. Could you send him in?"

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"Sure." 

She leaves, telling Will that the Singer wants to see him, and heads for Mahogany Hall and Hephaesta. 

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Hephaesta is in her dressing room again, as she often is.

"Hullo," she says when the Wastelander enters. "Did you find her?"

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"Yep. Some people tried to kill her. We're letting them think they succeeded; she's hiding out at the Under-Secretary's place while I retrieve her sister."

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Hephaesta heaves a sigh of relief.

"Thank you. I guess she's probably not in great shape, if they think they managed?"

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"Not great, no. She did die a bit, but I managed to get to her before any permanent damage was done. Besides the fact that she can't go back to the Surface again. If you want to visit her, you could pretend you were going to yell at the Under-Secretary."

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She nods firmly. "I've enough reason to, I think, especially if my best friend just died. Thank you for finding her, thank you for telling me - if there's aught you need a very strong woman for in the future, just ask."

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"Thanks." 

And then off to the Royal Bethlehem! 

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The Royal Bethlehem Hotel stands at the far south of the city, near the Forgotten Quarter. It's an enormous, beautiful structure.

When she walks in, there's a youth at the front desk with a smile almost as bright as the brass buttons on their coat. "Hello, miss!" they say. "How can I help you tonight?"

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"Hi, I'm here to discharge the Eccentric Opera Singer on behalf of her sister."

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"Oh!" they say. "It'll be a pity to see her go, the rest of our guests love her songs. But I'll check in the records for what room she's in- shouldn't take me but a moment..."

They flip through a registry book the size of an atlas, and frown. "Hmm... I know she was here last night, she was singing that lovely song about the moon by the fountain, but it doesn't have her on the fifth floor. That can't be right, I know she was on the fifth floor..." They flip through the book a bit more. "Let me consult the Manager, miss?"

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"Of course."

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The youth vanishes into the office behind the desk.

They return a couple of minutes later, followed by a tall man with an even wider grin and even shinier brass buttons on his coat. "What seems to be the difficulty?" he asks.

"Well, the lady came searching for the Eccentric Opera Singer, but I'm checking in the records and she doesn't seem to be listed?"

His grin fades. "Ah. Yes, well, I'm afraid you're a bit late to collect her. She was taken by a gentleman called Poor Edward. Apparently, after her sister's death, Mr. Fires felt that she would no longer be... secure... staying in our establishment. She's been taken to stay at the Orphanage, instead."

The youth's eyes widen.

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"What's the Orphanage," she sighs. 

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"An establishment... not entirely unlike our own," the Manager says, not gritting his teeth but looking as though he would very much like to. "They care for persons with certain specific obsessions. The accommodations are less generous than ours, of course, and I can't say I like the décor, but their security is paramount. And they are unlikely to give her up. Once someone has been consigned to the Orphanage, they stay in the Orphanage."

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"We'll see. Where is it?"

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He gives her an address in Spite. "I wish I could do more to help you," he says, smiling sadly, "but with the Masters involved... I must think of my guests."

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"I understand." 

She heads for Spite, and the Orphanage. What does this dreadful building look like?

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It's a squat red-brick number. No guards out front.

A throat clears behind her. "Good evening," says a sepulchral voice. "I thought that you and I should, perhaps, have a little chat before you make any mistakes."

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She turns around and smiles. "Good idea. Shall we go somewhere private?"

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The man behind her is wearing a scarlet mask, frowning in the Greek tragedian style, made of some kind of dyed leather.

"Yes, that would likely be best," he says, his voice shifting to a higher pitch. "There's an eatery just around the corner where we can speak without being observed." He turns and walks off, either trusting her to follow or trusting his senses to tell him if she doesn't.

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Still more public than she would prefer, but she can burn that bridge if she comes to it. She follows. 

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He brings her to a crowded but dimly-lit restaurant and takes a seat at a corner table, gesturing for her to sit opposite.

"You are close to making a number of unpleasant discoveries. My employers would prefer that you didn't. If we were on the surface, I would simply kill you. But as I'm sure you're aware, death is no guarantee of anything around here, and I dislike butchery. I have a more civilized proposal." He pushes a small paper packet across the table. "These are Lethean tea leaves. Very expensive. One brew of these, and you will forget all you have ever learned about a certain subject, and enough else to make it never come up again. You could forget the Orphanage. It is not a place you would enjoy. I certainly didn't."

Edward leans back in his chair. Casual movement does not suit him. He looks like a scorpion settling into a slipper. "You don't have to use them," he says. "If you choose not to, I shall arrange instead for you to be buried alive. Take a few moments to consider what that means, down here."

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She picks up the packet and toys with it, attempting to collect her thoughts. 

She wants desperately to denounce him, to rail against the obvious evil in which he is complicit, to spit in his face and close a diamond pincer around his throat, to announce just how much more difficult to deal with she is than he thinks. 

But that would be stupid, so she does not. 

"I will," she murmurs, making the very expensive slip of paper and plant matter disappear inside her clothes, "consider your generous offer."

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"That is all I can ask," he says, his voice coming through in a clear, pleasant tenor.

A waitress comes by to ask their orders, not seeming to mind Poor Edward's mask. "A plate of garlic moss-balls," he requests. "Would you care for anything, Wastelander? I'll pay."

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"Chanterelles au jus," she orders.  

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The waitress leaves.

Poor Edward doesn't seem to mind the silence between them. His blue eyes, behind the mask, focus on the flame of their table's candle.

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She studies him intently, as though a sufficiently thorough inspection of his visible traits would yield weaknesses she could use against him. 

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His visible traits: a cotton longcoat, a red leather tragedian's mask, black leather gloves. He's showing about as much skin as a Tomb-Colonist. His eyes, as mentioned, are blue, and the hair cascading around his shoulders is dishwater-blonde. She can see the gleam of his perfectly white teeth behind the mouth-hole of his mask when he speaks, but nothing else.

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The food arrives. They eat in silence. 

Lucy gets up and leaves with the barest murmur of pleasantries. 

Hmm. What to do now. 

Well, regardless of whether Hephaesta can help, she probably deserves an update. She heads for Mahogany Hall. 

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Hephaesta's in her dressing-room, apparently debating what to wear to visit her friend.

"It'd have to be in black, because I'm supposed to be mourning," she frets, "but I look awful in black, it washes me out..."

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"Bad news. The Singer's sister's been transferred someplace called the Orphanage. Some goon of the Masters tried to threaten me into leaving the whole thing alone. Do you know where I can find some Revolutionaries who might be up for blowing the place up a little bit?"

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"Shit!" Hephaesta explains. "Pardon my French, but- shit. I don't have any Revolutionary connections m'self, but I know they like to hang around where there's not a lot of people - the Flit, the Forgotten Quarter, that kind of place."

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"Hmm. Alright. Do you know where I could discreetly acquire some very concealing garments?"

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Hephaesta eyes her. "Hmm. You're about the size of a chorus girl... we talking concealing like 'hooded greatcoat' or concealing like 'tomb-colonist bandages'?"

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"Either'll do."

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"The Chipper Chorus Girl owes me a favor, let me pop over to her dressing-room and see if she's got anything like that."

Hephaesta leaves the room for a few minutes and comes back with a hooded coat in approximately the Wastelander's size, along with a black scarf. "Would this do? Got her to throw in a scarf so's you can cover half your face too."

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"Perfect, thanks." 

She dons the concealing clothing, slips out of the Hall, and makes her way as inconspicuously as possible back to Spite.

Now. To watch the Orphanage and see what she can find out. 

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The Orphanage is staffed by orderlies who wear white coats and face-concealing masks. They check in and out on an exquisitely regular schedule. A dirigible docks at the roof on a much less regular schedule. The place gets delivery-carts of Murgatroyd's Fungal Meal round the back daily.

No one goes anywhere near the place if they have any choice in the matter. Urchins avoid its roof, cats avoid its alleys. She doesn't even see any rats.

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She waits until a point in the schedule when an orderly is due to arrive, then quietly raps them on the head with an adamant knuckle and collects the uniform from their unconscious body. She ties them up and gags them and stashes them nearby, then knocks on the door to be let in.

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A panel slides out of the door, revealing two disinterested brown eyes. Then the door opens, and the doorman returns to his chair and newspaper.

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She enters. 

She looks about her discreetly to see what the "other" orderlies are doing, and copies it to enough of an extent to not look suspicious, while wandering around to see what she can find out. 

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Some of them clean the floors. Some of them guide patients from one room to another. The patients are usually clutching some object. One has a teddy bear which he holds unselfconsciously to his chest. Another strokes a wooden spoon, heedless of her splintered fingers. A third carries a severed human head in her arms, cooing to it like a baby. Patients who don't have something to hold are usually screaming and fighting the orderlies leading them around.

The door leading to the basement is locked, though it isn't guarded; from behind it come horrible sucking and gurgling noises, and groaning like a beast in pain. There's a door on the fifth floor with a plate reading REGISTRAR, which may be the key to finding Clarabelle's room. There's a guarded door leading to the roof and, relatedly, the dirigible dock, which if she times it right could serve as an escape route.

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Who's in the REGISTRAR room? Are they ever not there?

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An elderly woman with a suspicious gleam in her gimlet eye. There's a cot behind her desk.

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Oh come on. 

Fine. She'll just look in every room until she sees someone who bears a resemblance to the Fading Music-Hall Singer.

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There's rather a lot of rooms. In one, a young man stares into the mirror. When the door opens, he stands in front of his reflection protectively. In another, a woman sits, giggling, covered in a carpet of iridescent scarabs. In yet a third, one of the two residents is clinging to the other, who tolerates this while gazing adoringly at a painting of him. Everyone has something or someone, except a handful of people wrapped in straitjackets.

Finally she comes to a room containing two beds and two women. One, massively pregnant, is caressing the wall and humming to herself. She bears a more than passing resemblance to the Singer. The other is the Singer, lying in the bed, covered in bruises. She's harmonizing with her sister's humming, or at least she's trying; she can't always predict the next note.

When the Wastelander enters, she stops humming and lifts her head effortfully. "Oh, thank God," she breathes.

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"What happened? Is Elisabeth okay?"

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"Those same Clay Men who tried to kill me came to Will's house after you left. They told him they'd kill Elisabeth if he didn't give me up. So he gave me up. I don't blame him. They brought me to the Orphanage and put me in with Clarabelle - she'd been asking after me, quite insistently as it turns out."

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"For crying out--okay, I don't blame him either, this is just damned inconvenient. Any thoughts on where to go once we get out of here?"

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"If we get out of here," she says grimly. "They're clever here, you see. They've got something in the basement, and they milk it, and the stuff they get out, it's... love, in liquid form. They strap you down, and they feed you the milk, and they show you something, and you love it. Like nothing else exists, usually, though if you're strong enough you can prioritize a bit. Do you want to know what they showed Clarabelle?"

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Sigh. "Something damned inconvenient?"

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"Rather. They showed her the Orphanage. And now she lives inside her heart's desire."

Tears come to her eyes. "I can't leave her - couldn't even if I could walk right now. And she'd die before you could drag her out."

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"Crap. This explains so much of what I've seen of the other prison--ooh. Wait. I have an idea."

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"What is it?"

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"Poor Edward accosted me and said I ought to forget the whole matter else he'd have me buried alive. And he most graciously gave me the means to do so. Do you think Lethean Tea Leaves would do the trick?"

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The Singer's eyes widen. "They... they would. My God, you could do it. I'd only hinder you in this condition, but if Clarabelle goes free I don't care what happens to me."

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"No, I'm definitely going to get you both out of here." Deep breath. "Don't tell anyone what I'm about to do, alright?" 

 

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"Of course," the Singer says firmly.

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She approaches the two, and kneels beside the Singer. 

Her hand glows, and as it passes over the Singer's body, where the light touches, her infirmities heal. 

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The Singer gasps as her bones knit together. Slowly, hesitantly, she sits up, and prods herself in various places to see how healed she is.

"That's... quite a talent," she says finally.

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"It's the same talent that let me save Elisabeth, really."

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"Well, whatever it is, thank you and thank God for you. Before we leave, there's a couple of things you need to know. First, the thing in the basement... whatever it is. They've used it to cause untold suffering, and before we escape, we should kill it."

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"What is it, do you know?"

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"It looks like... a giant insect, with a purple flesh and a diamond shell. Eyes all over it."

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"Ah. The supposed diamond the size of a cow, one presumes. I don't suppose it would be possible to just let the poor thing go instead of killing it..."

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"If you think you can let it free without these bastards just getting it back again, that'd be fine too. The second thing..."

She inhales deeply, exhales slowly. "Clarabelle's baby. It's... not human."

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"Well. Hybrids can turn out alright."

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She smiles weakly. "Glad you think so. But I think the... 'father' is the thing in the basement. Which is the size of an elephant. If the baby takes after it, we're going to have another problem on our hands - I had a hard enough time producing Elisabeth, and she w- she's the size of a loaf of bread. I don't mean to say this is an immediate concern, I just think you should know what I know in case anything happens to me."

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"Okay, well, my mother survived having me, and my father was much bigger than an elephant, but that doesn't prove anything. Um, probably even if it kills her coming out she'll be alright, but...how far along is she?"

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"I don't know when in her absence it started, but she was gone for six months and that looks more to me like a nine-month pregnancy. If not twelve."

(Something shifts under the skin of Clarabelle's belly, for a moment.)

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"I've never tried to do anything for something that died unborn and I'm concerned for the baby if this keeps on. --Not that I want anything to happen to Clarabelle, I can fix it but that won't make it not horrible to undergo--anyway. We'll have to figure something out, find a doctor who has any idea what to do."

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The Singer nods. "That's all I had to say. How do we want to do this - presumably you go down to the basement and kill or free the creature, we... escape somehow... but I'm not as sure of the details."

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"Yeah. You still implacably opposed to the Prickfinger Wastes? I promise it's safe inside my mother's house, and I can carry you there without danger."

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"I'm not as opposed to the Wastes anymore, no - I'll have to leave Elisabeth with her father whatever we do, and I think Clara and I can manage there until her child is born."

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"I fully intend to solve this situation thoroughly enough that you can safely walk the streets of London again, but in the short term, yes. Alright. Clarabelle, chew on these, please," Lucy says, procuring the Lethean Tea-Leaves.

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Clarabelle chews the leaves placidly, wearing the same blissful expression as any other Orphanage patient with their object of affection. After a few seconds, the mask of joy falls from her face like a cliff collapsing into the sea.

"Where... where am I?" she asks, her pupils dilated.

"It's not important," her sister says, hopping out of bed and helping her up. "We're getting out of here."

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"Right. Pretend I'm an orderly escorting you licitly," Lucy instructs, opening the door and leading the two women out. 

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They pretend, following dutifully. Clarabelle still looks confused, but she manages a sort of beatific smile in addition; Angie just looks surly. 

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They make it down to the basement where the creature is being kept. 

Lucy carefully closes the door, then says "help me barricade it, that'll buy us some time."

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The sisters comply, bringing various furniture to bear.

The creature is everything Angie said it would be - massive, diamond-shelled, covered with eyes. It’s connected by tubing to a tank filled with white fluid, and every few minutes there’s a sucking sound and more fluid is collected. 

The creature itself is in a sorry state. Chunks of its shell have been chipped away, and half of its eyes are glassy and dead. The others roll wildly. Yellow slime oozes from cracks and rents in its carapace. 

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Poor creature. 

Lucy starts by disconnecting the equipment from it everywhere she can, her hands glowing with healing light.

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Once the creature has been disconnected, it thumps to the floor, and milk trickles out from under its bulk. Its eyes turn to focus on her.

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"Can you talk?"

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It cocks what might be its head and issues a series of clicks.

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"That's fair. I hope you can fly." She checks to see if it needs more healing.

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It’s quite large, and while most of its injuries were focused around the tubing, not all of them were.

After she's done healing it, the creature scrabbles to its feet. Its shell opens, and it buzzes its wings experimentally. Then it chitters and nudges her, possibly affectionately.

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"Excellent." 

And then she picks up the heaviest discrete piece of equipment in the room and smashes it into the corner where ceiling meets wall on the outside of the building. 

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After a few good swings, she bursts through. There's a shower of dust and rubble, but there's also a hole leading out of the Orphanage.

Angie stares. "You've quite an arm on you," she says.

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"Yeah, remember when I implied I was some kind of hybrid? I don't know if I was blatant enough about that, but, yeah." 

She'll give it another couple of swings if the hole isn't big enough for their fellow escapee to fit through. 

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After a few seconds of this, there's a lot of yelling and banging on the door down to the chamber. Clarabelle whimpers.

Their fellow escapee scurries up the wall and through the hole.

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Lucy picks up Clarabelle and jumps up out of the hole, then turns around to see if her not-heavily-pregnant sister needs any help. 

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She's trying to clamber up, but she's not exactly an athlete. Her hand slips on a patch of milk and she falls back to the floor.

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Lucy jumps back down and hoists the other sister up, then turns and leans back inside to see if there's anything else she needs to rescue and/or destroy before blowing this popsicle stand.

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The door bursts open, and who should rush in but Poor Edward.

He's got a pistol in his hand. He fires it -

and the bullet goes wide, and shatters the tank of moon-milk, which sprays everywhere. He's soaked in the stuff, and as he looks at the Light-Hearted Wastelander, his eyes widen.

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She sees none of this. As soon as the barricade burst, she started turning; by the time he sees her, her back is to him; a moment later, she's gone. 

"This way," she tells the other two women, indicating the most direct path to the Prickfinger Wastes.

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The Music-Hall Singer follows her. Clarabelle sits sidesaddle atop the giant beetle, which chitters happily as it scutters along.

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They reach the edge of the Wastes. 

Lucy starts taking her clothes off. 

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The sisters politely look away, as the Music-Hall Singer gets up on the back of the giant beetle to join her sister.

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And then Lucy turns into a giant diamond crab-thing.

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The sisters, at this point, are not particularly surprised.

"Should we get on your back instead of the moon-miser's?" asks the Music-Hall Singer. "So it can fly over the stalagmites."

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"That would probably be more convenient for all of us." 

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They clamber up among her vanes and spires.

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And she sets off, easily navigating among the razor-sharp stalagmites without letting either of her passengers get so much as a scratch. 

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An area has been cleared of razor stalagmites, and in this little clearing is a house. 

The door opens, and a woman peers out. 

"Lucy! You've brought guests?"

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The moon-miser buzzes after her and sets down in the clearing. It clicks appreciatively, its various eyes swiveling.

The sisters dismount from their savior's back. "Hello, ma'am," the Music-Hall Singer says with a curtsey.

Clarabelle curtseys as well, but remains silent.

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"...Ah, hm, hello. Can you understand English?"

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The moon-miser nods.

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"Well, welcome to my home." 

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"This is the Fading Music-Hall Singer and her sister, the Eccentric Opera Singer," Lucy says, lifting each one down in turn, "You guys, this is my mother, the Pale Adventuress. Mum, the moon-miser is probably the father of her child, an occurrence which neither of them consented to. I'm going to get a doctor to help with the, uh, unusual gestation."

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"And you figured this was the safest place for them? Fair enough. You two come in, get off your feet. Are you hungry?" she addresses this last to the moon-miser.

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It shakes its head and clicks some more.

"I think they fed it through those tubes," Angie hypothesizes.

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"Tubes. My, this sounds like a story." 

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"Yeah. You guys can tell her the story if you want, I'm going to find a doctor."

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"I'd like to hear it, too," Clarabelle says wryly. "I don't remember much of the past... how long's it been?"

"Six months," Angie says. "Goodbye, Wastelander. I can't thank you enough for your help."

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"You're welcome!" 

She scuttles off through her eponymous Wasteland until she hits the edge of the city, turns back, puts Hephaesta's concealing outfit back on, and heads inwards, keeping an ear out for anything related to the Orphanage incident or where one might find a doctor. 

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There is a fair amount of discussion of the Orphanage incident going on. People don't see giant bugs running through the city every day, even in London. Few people seem to know the actual purpose of the Orphanage, and there's a certain amount of discussion asking why an orphanage would have such a thing in its basement anyway.

Doctors can be found throughout the city; surgeons and sawbones congregate in Watchmaker's Hill to take advantage of the Department of Menace Eradication, but general practitioners are usually found in population centers like the suburbs around the Shuttered Palace. She could also try the University, based on the idea that scientists and doctors are rather similar.

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Also, like, a regular doctor isn't necessarily going to know what to do with a half-giant-insect baby. 

She heads for the University. 

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On campus is a familiar face, wearing a familiar blue suit and hat.

She peers at the Wastelander, then strolls up to her. "You know," she says, "I've heard some fascinating things over the last few days."

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"What a funny coincidence, I've done some fascinating things over the last few days. And am looking to do some more! Can you recommend me someone who would have any idea how to help with a truly bizarre pregnancy."

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"That would depend on what you mean by bizarre... and by help, for that matter. I can make a recommendation for any combination of the two words, though."

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"Not quite human, and ensuring that the child lives."

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"Ah. Not quite human... I know just the woman. Regrettably, she's dead. And, more pressingly, I don't know where she is. Besides 'with the Boatman'."

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Sigh. "Of course. Because every time I try to do something, stupid complications arise. I don't suppose you know of any way to summon the Boatman for a chat besides dying oneself."

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"I don't, unhappily. I do, however, have some very convenient ways of dying."

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"Let's hear it."

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"I've studied enough medicine that I could bleed you out without trouble. You'd hardly feel it, past the initial sting - just like falling asleep. If you prefer to be dead for a set period of time rather than simply staying that way until you heal over, I could put a knife through your heart and remove it after a certain amount of time. For the sake of completeness, I've got poisons too, but I'd prefer to stay away from that side of things. Too... unpredictable."

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"Yes, let's avoid poison. If I let you bleed me, what are you going to do with the blood?"

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She laughs. "So few people would think to ask. I'd like to examine some under a Semiotic Magnifier, but if you ask me not to I won't."

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"Tell you what. Convince me I ought to let you."

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"I have an interest in enhancing humanity's lot; the deck is a bit stacked against them, at the moment. My ultimate goal is immortality for all who seek it, as in the Presbyterate, and freedom of form. I have reason to believe your blood could help me immensely in achieving either or both of those. I have other aims, as well - I'll not claim I don't - but they pale in comparison."

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"Well. I like that goal, and I do also believe my blood could help with it. I'll make you a deal: you can have my blood, but if I find out you've been using it for more nefarious purposes, I find you and I end you."

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"Your confidence is beautiful. I agree to your terms; shall we repair somewhere more suitable?"

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"Certainly. But first, might I have the name of the one whom I seek?"

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"Of course. Her name was Dr. Vaughan. Never chose an alias, and no one could make one stick to her. -oh, and I'm called the Soulless Provocateuse. A pleasure to meet you properly."

She begins to lead the Wastelander out towards Spite.

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"A pleasure to meet you! What happened to your soul?"

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"It was the price I paid for knowledge of the Red Science... the arts which can break the Chain. Unfortunately, while it's proven useful in my work, my contact overstated just how useful it would be. I made him aware of his error, but by that time my soul had already been sent to the vaults of the Brass Embassy."

Her face is impassive. "I haven't missed it too terribly."

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"...Hmm. Well, I am the Light-Hearted Wastelander."

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"A fine name. Less revealing than my own, certainly... unless someone is already possessed of certain information."

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"Indeed."

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Once they reach Spite, the Provocateuse leads the Wastelander into an abandoned tenement-house. They ascend several stairs, all the way up to the roof.

"You're not afraid of heights, are you?" she asks, glancing over the edge.

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"Certainly not."

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"Good."

She leads her across a tangle of rope bridges, into the depths of the Flit. Eventually they come to the roof of a handsome townhouse, and the Provocateuse picks the lock on the trapdoor leading inside and beckons the Wastelander in.

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The Wastelander follows. 

"I do hope that either this place is yours or you're quite confident the owner won't be back soon. If I wake to screaming I shall be cross."

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"It's my brother's, but he spends all his time at the University. If he does come around I'll tell him I've got a project in the lab and he shouldn't go in. Which will be true."

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"Excellent."

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She leads her into a well-appointed laboratory, which has a Correspondence sigil meaning the knowledge that though not everything is in its place, you are home inscribed in a lead plaque hanging on the wall. The persistent smell of burning lead indicates that the lab is usually used for Correspondence-work. She then goes over to a supply closet and retrieves what can only be called a cauldron.

She regards the Wastelander. "You might want to disrobe."

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"Naturally." 

She undresses unselfconsciously, though she does steal quite a few glances at the Correspondence sigil. 

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The Provocateuse notices the glances. "My brother's handiwork," she says with a mixture of distaste and fondness. "I'm sure it's something insipid, he's never told me what it actually means."

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"...Insipid. I suppose I can see that. Or quite powerful, in the right context."

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"Well. Such things often are. Are you ready to attempt to retrieve Dr. Vaughan?"

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"Indeed."

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The Provocateuse positions her over the cauldron and withdraws a ravenglass knife from her pocket.

As promised, there's hardly any pain. A line of stinging heat on the side of her neck, and a strange sensation as the blood rushes out of her. She feels dizzy, for a moment, and then slips into darkness.

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On the other side of the darkness is a slow boat, passing a dark beach, on a silent river. She's surrounded by pale, shivering people. At the boat's prow stands a tall, skeletal figure. The Boatman.

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"Hi!"

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The Boatman turns to look at her. His face is clean white bone, under a simple black hat.

When he sees who addressed him, he- flinches.

"You are not meant to be here," he says, sounding almost afraid.

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"Yeah, I know, but unfortunately there's someone I need and I don't have a better way to get her. A Dr. Vaughan?"

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A matronly woman adjacent to the Boatman sits up a bit straighter. "Really? What do you need me for?"

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"Some Master or other decided to perform horrible experiments on people and as a result I have a patient for you with a most unorthodox case."

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"The unorthodox cases are always the most fascinating," Dr. Vaughan says with a gleam in her eye.

"You can't just poach people from my boat," the Boatman says, somewhat indignantly. "This is my domain."

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"What's it matter to you how many people are on your boat?"

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"The Land Beyond requires an accounting," he says. "Her vitality is gone; the Mountain's light does not touch her. She cannot be returned."

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"Oh, I can fix that." 

She starts glowing. 

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Color returns to Dr. Vaughan's face immediately, and to the half a dozen other passengers in the radius of the Wastelander's light. "Good lord," says Dr. Vaughan. The others fade away, returning to their bodies.

The Boatman shrieks and flinches away from the light. "No, please! I'll grant you this one if you'll leave me in peace!"

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"Alright." The glow fades. "--Oh, one question, first: do you know what happens to babies who die unborn?"

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"They don't come to me," he says. "Not until the first light hits their skin - all light carries a little shard of the Judgments, you see."

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"Mm. That's good to know." 

She offers her hand to Dr. Vaughan. "Shall we?"

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Dr. Vaughan takes her hand -

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and she wakes up, fully clothed with her hair damp, feeling hung-over and still holding Dr. Vaughan's hand.

She doesn't wake to screaming, per se, but there's a very intense conversation happening outside the door to the lab. "-my business!"

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"It becomes my business when it's in my lab, Diana! I have a nose, I can smell the blood - is this even a real experiment, or more of your shady revolutionary-"

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"Shh! I think she's awake."

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"She? Is this an experiment or a-"

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"I said shh!"

There's a knock on the door. "Wastelander? Did all go well?"

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"We're good! All the blood's mine and I consented!" she adds for the Provocateuse's brother's benefit. 

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"That is... better than the alternative," the brother admits.

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"Excellent!"

The Provocateuse opens the door to the lab and lets herself in, followed by her brother. "Wastelander, this is my brother, the Incandescent Investigator; Henry, this is the Light-Hearted Wastelander. And we all know Dr. Vaughan. I wasn't really expecting you to be awake so soon, but that's what I get for underestimating you, I suppose." She uses a glass pipette to transfer a drop of blood from the cauldron to a microscope slide, then begins to examine it.

Dr. Vaughan looks surprised. "Miss Dresden! I should've known you'd be involved with this project."

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"Dr. Vaughan! I heard you were irretrievably dead!"

"I was!" she says. "But this young lady retrieved me anyway. It was very considerate of her."

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"I'm pretty excellent that way. If either of you have need of someone irretrievably dead being retrieved anyway, let me know." 

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"...she's well past the Boatman. And she's buried on the Surface."

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"...Have someone who can still go to the Surface fetch the body and I'll see what I can do."

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The Investigator stares. "...you mean that. I'll- I'll see what I can do."

Dr. Vaughan clears her throat. "Now, as I recall, when you came for me you mentioned a 'most unorthodox case' in need of my skills. Is now the time to explain?"

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"What, if anything, do you know about the Orphanage?"

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Dr. Vaughan's eyes narrow. "That they've done a great many terrible things," she says. "And that they have a moon-miser held captive."

"What in the world is a moon-miser?" the Provocateuse asks.

"It's a creature from the ceiling of the Neath, a kind of giant insect, sometimes called the 'false-stars'. They secrete a venom called 'moon-milk' that can cause obsession with the first thing that the afflicted creature sees."

The Provocateuse shivers. "How unpleasant."

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"Well, the good news is that they no longer have a moon-miser held captive. The bad news is that they decided to get a human woman pregnant by them before I could jailbreak the both of them, and while I can mend whatever that does to the mother, we're rather concerned for the viability of the baby."

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Dr. Vaughan looks uncontainably excited. "A hybrid? With a moon-miser?"

Remembering her audience, she composes herself. "Well! Ahem. I couldn't possibly ignore a woman in such a position, especially not when you've done me the favor you have. Lead the way, dear."

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Lucy bows to the Incandescent Investigator as they take their leave. 

"They're hiding out in the Prickfinger Wastes," Lucy explains quietly once the front door of the house has closed behind them. "I can take you there safely, but it will require showing you...well. The truth of how it is that I can revive even the so-called permanently dead."

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Dr. Vaughan nods. "I'm not easily shocked."

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"Then let me assure you that the moon-miser's child is not the strangest hybrid you shall have encountered today."

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"Ah. Well, don't worry about shocking me that way either - just show me to the patient."

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She nods, and they make their way to the edge of the Wastes, and she takes off her concealing outfit. 

And then she turns into a gigantic diamond crab again, picks up her clothes and the doctor, and heads off towards the house. 

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"I'd love to sketch you sometime," Dr. Vaughan comments. "Those curious structures on your shell... I don't know what biological function they serve, but they're lovely."

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"Thank you! I don't know either. I'll sit for you if there's a good time between everything else."

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"Oh, yes, I was thinking after this was all over."

When they reach the clearing, Dr. Vaughan hops down and stares at the moon-miser for a moment. "I'm going to want to examine that later," she notes, before striding into the house.

"Alright, ladies, where is-" She notices Clarabelle. "Oh my. I'm guessing you would be my patient. How far along?"

The Music-Hall Singer shrugs. "She lost her mind for a time, and we were forced to induce amnesia to rescue her from the moon-milk. Nobody knows but Poor Edward and Mr. Fires."

Dr. Vaughan grimaces. "I'd prefer to have a definite time estimate, but we work with what we have. What has she been eating?"

"We were fed mostly on fungal meal and potato bread," Clarabelle says. "But I got bat-meat or fish with mine most days, I remember that. It was unusual. The others thought I was sleeping with an orderly."

"Good," Dr. Vaughan says. "-that they were feeding you better, I mean. Sounds like they were trying to keep the baby healthy. We're going to be doing something somewhat similar."

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"Somewhat similar like how."

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"The hybrid is growing past its mother's capacity to contain. We need, first, to strengthen - what's your name, dear?"

"I'm the Eccentric Opera Singer."

"I said your name," Dr. Vaughan says primly. "I don't hold with all these pseudonyms."

"...Clarabelle."

"First, we need to strengthen Clarabelle until she can bear it to term. And second, we need to convince the hybrid to be smaller, so that it can fit through the relevant portal. For the first, we'll need to go down to the Rubbery Men and get quite a quantity of Warm Amber. For the second, we'll need to go up to enlist the assistance of the father's own kind. The False-Stars."

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"Can you help with that?" Lucy asks the father. 

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The moon-miser buzzes his wings and chitters.

"He can help by getting us up to the roof of the Neath, but only the Moon-Mother can produce the chemical we'll need," Dr. Vaughan clarifies. "And we'll need to get a few other supplies while we're up there - stalactite nectar and moon-silk, certain other sundries. But first we should focus on getting the Warm Amber to reinforce Clarabelle's constitution."

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"I'll talk to my brother about it. He, uh, he has Rubbery Man acquaintances."

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"Half-brother. Technically. He can't do what she can do."

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"I'm sure he has his own talents," Clarabelle says gamely.

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"He's very smart. We can't all be miraculous diamond crabs."

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"Quite."

Dr. Vaughan begins asking Clarabelle clarifying questions about the pregnancy - has she felt morning sickness? Has the baby kicked, and if so, how many legs at once? Has she ever found herself glowing? Clarabelle answers to the best of her ability.

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"Wilbur's at the University, do you want me to grab anything for you while I'm there?"

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"Oh! That would be dear of you - I had packed for a Zee-voyage before my assassination, if you could just bring me my valise I'd be much obliged."

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"Okay! Uh, is there anything I can say to people so they know you're alive and authorized me to pick up your stuff and I'm not some random burglar."

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She writes a note reading No longer dead; authorized the bearer of this note to collect possessions; schedule of return to active teaching uncertain, embarking on extended research project and recovering from traumatic death. -Jacqueline Vaughan.

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"Thanks!" 

She heads off for the city; she transforms and dresses; she heads for the University, explains the situation and the need for amber to her brother, collects Dr. Vaughan's valise and delivers her note, and decides to swing by Hephaesta to update her before going home again. 

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Hephaesta is in her dressing room, pacing frantically. "Oh, thank God, it's you! I went to visit Angie, but the Under-Secretary said she'd been taken by Fires' men - then I hear about some kind of giant beetle rampaging through the streets - what the bloody fuck is going on?"

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"The giant beetle is a friendly and Angie and her sister are hiding out at my mother's place in the Prickfinger Wastes. Don't blame will for giving her up, they threatened--um. Did I ever get around to telling you the part where I am extremely weird and Angie's baby isn't dead anymore."

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"He told me you'd brought her back with some kind of miracle. I don't believe in miracles, but it's hard to argue with a reborn baby."

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"It really depends on how you define miracle. I didn't call on anything the church would sing hymns to. It's more like...an extension, or amplification, of the effect that makes death not permanent in the Neath in the first place. Anyway, they threatened the baby to make him give her up and she agrees that not letting the baby get hurt was the right choice. They were holding both Angie and her sister at the Orphanage, and also the giant beetle, and I broke all three of them out."

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Hephaesta nods slowly. "Well, whether you're a miracle worker or not, you've done something great. Thank you. I won't ask you to bring me to her, that'd be a risk and I don't want to add any more risk to what you're doing. Just... is she alright?"

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"Yeah, it's her sister who's got medical complications from the whole mess."

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Hephaesta's face falls. "Shit. Clara doesn't deserve that. Well. None of us deserve any of this, that's not useful. There anything I can do to actually help?"

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"Do you know how to get warm amber on short notice? Or even less-short notice."

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She frowns. "Could ask one of the Rubberies at the Carnival. The one at the Anatomical Exhibition tried to give me some once, but I think it was flirting with me, and I didn't want none of that."

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"That might be useful, thanks."

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"Luck, then. I'm here if you need backup for anything."

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"I'll let you know."

She takes her leave and heads for the Carnival.

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The Carnival is, as always, bustling. There's the Most Educational Anatomical Exhibition, where "the NOTED PEDAGOGUE Mrs Plenty presents an INFORMATIVE and EDUCATIONAL EXHIBITION of ANATOMY and DANCES OF ANTIQUITY for DISCERNING GENTLEFOLK. You will BE IMPROVED!" There's also "MADAME SHOSHANA, the NEATH'S FOREMOST CLAIRVOYANTE," who can "SEE the FUTURE, the PAST, and THAT WHICH SHOULD NOT BE SEEN", and "the HOUSE of MIRRORS," which does not appear to have much of a line out front.

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...You know what, she'll go see Madame Shoshana. 

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Madame Shoshana takes one look at her and begins to cackle. "I wondered when you'd step into my tent. I've seen much of you, Wastelander - and heard much. Cross my palm with moon-pearls, and I'll tell what I know."

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Does she have any moon-pearls...? Oh, right, yes, ten, from couriering for Mahogany Hall. She hands them over. 

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Shoshana secrets them away. "I'll start with what I've heard. You've made quite a stir, in not much time at all - here and elsewhere. Mr. Fires hasn't acted against you yet, and that's strange, given how many times you've spat in his eye in just the last few days. Fires is not a Master known for his restraint. As to what I've seen... well. I saw you helping to birth a thing that cannot be in a place that is not. I saw you trapped beneath the earth, not afraid, only furious. I saw you walking down the aisle to marry a man wearing a sorrowful mask, only to turn into some kind of giant crab and kill him."

She pauses. "I think that one may have been allegorical. Not all that I see comes to pass in the way that I see it."

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"--I'm more concerned about the walking-down-the-aisle-towards-Poor-Edward part than the crab part, personally."

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"I didn't get enough context to determine why or when you were doing it, I'm afraid," the fortune-teller apologizes. "I doubt it was a union of mutual adoration, though. Given that you turned into a giant crab and killed him. Did you have any specific questions for me, or were you just looking for a general reading?"

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"Uh, any advice on where to get Warm Amber?"

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"Try Lurulel at the Anatomical Exhibition, he gets off in five."

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"Thanks! Oh, and do you have any more detail about the place that is not where I assist in midwifery?"

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"Parabola, the land behind the mirrors. You'll need help from a Glassman to get there, but once you've been a few times you'll get the knack of it."

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"Where do I find a Glassman?"

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"Mm... I know one who might help you out. He's always up for a bit of nonsense."

She scrawls the address of an Ebullient Rakehell down on the back of one of her own business cards and hands it over.

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"Thank you! I'll remember this next time I have moon-pearls and need advice." 

She goes off to the Anatomical Exhibition.

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The Anatomical Exhibition is wrapping up a show. Patrons are exiting the tent, blushing and fanning themselves.

One of the ticket-touters stops her before she can enter the tent. "Show's over, lass. No Specimens to Behold for another half hour."

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"I'm not here to see the show, I'm here to see Lurulel."

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He raises his eyebrows. "Well, I'll ask it if it wants to see you. Who's calling and what did you want to discuss, if you please?"

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"I am the Light-Hearted Wastelander, and...warm amber, and any other matters it pleases."

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He turns and enters the tent. After a few seconds, he comes back out and gestures her in.

Inside the tent, the Female, Male, and Rubbery Specimens are sharing tea at a folding table. Lurulel, the Rubbery Specimen, stands in the undulating way that Rubberies do and walks over to her.

He burbles inquisitively.

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"Hi! I'm the Light-Hearted Wastelander. A friend of mine needs some warm amber for medical reasons; Madame Shoshana suggested you. I don't know what you'd want in exchange but if the course of the last few days is any indication I'm pretty good at getting my hands on things."

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Lurulel considers this.

<<I should get the Male Specimen to translate,>> he burbles to himself. <<Charades will not suffice for this transaction.>>

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"Nah, I can understand you fine."

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Lurulel's facial tentacles stiffen in shock for a moment, then resume undulating. <<Really? How very unusual. And you need warm amber, you say, for medical reasons. Such a curious thing, that our amber can have such effects on humans... but I babble and the fish swim away. I have amber aplenty, but if I give it away I cannot engage in the pleasures of Thrl-foolath, and that is not something I would give up lightly.>>

His tentacles writhe in thought. Eventually he decides, <<I want... an education. I want to move on from the carnival to greater things. Convince the Principal of Benthic College to take me on as a student, and you will have all the amber your heart desires.>>

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"Oh, okay! My brother goes there, and learning stuff is great, that makes sense. I'll be back when I've worked that out, then!" 

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He bows, keeping his hat firmly on his head with one handicle. <<I fear I have set you an impossible task, but I will await your return.>> Then he turns and walks back to the others at the table.

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She heads back to the University and explains the situation to her brother. 

Her brother thinks she's crazy. "He's right, that's impossible." 

"No it's not," she says stubbornly. "You haven't been paying attention to the gossip, have you." 

"I never do."

"I've been spitting in the Masters' faces for days and it hasn't bitten me yet." 

He facepalms. 

"Well, not all of them. Just Mr. Fires. And I wasn't doing it just to do it, I had to rescue some people he was trying to unrescue, that's all." 

He sighs. "Well that's...better...I suppose..." 

"Look, I just need to talk to the guy." 

"I'm just a student! I can't get you an audience with the Principal." 

"Can you get me an audience with a professor who can? Preferably one who knew about the situation with Dr. Vaughan?" 

"...Fine."

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The professor he gets her an appointment with is... familiar.

"Oh, I didn't realize you two were related! Hello again."

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"Hi!!! Yeah, he's my big brother. Um. I need to talk to the principal about something and the something is, actually, that I have a really outrageous request, but as you know I have some really outrageous abilities to bribe her and/or the college with about it." 

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"How do you two know each other?"

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"He was there when I brought back Dr. Vaughan!"

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"We didn't really have time to get acquainted, she seemed to be in the middle of something important. So, you have an outrageous request? Let's hear it."

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"...So there's this Rubbery Man who wants to get educated."

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"Oh. That's rather outrageous."

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"Only because London is racist," she grumbles. 

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The Investigator grimaces. "Yes, that's exactly the problem. Benthic College already walks a fine line between accepting those looked down upon by society, and becoming nothing but a den of outcasts. When we accepted our first female students, the public outcry was incredible. We had to wait five years after that to accept the soulless. Before we break a new boundary, we examine it in detail - society is never ready, but to what extent? Is the gain worth the social capital we'll burn? Will there be rioting? A crackdown from the Masters? Or will the protests burn out after a few months, leaving fertile ground for the next controversy? We examined the Rubbery question some time ago, and the answer is clear. No one wants Rubberies to rise from the lowest rung of Society's ladder. Not Society, not the Masters, not even the devils. If we accepted your Rubbery Scholar, not only would we become a public laughingstock, we would face sanctions from Hell and the Bazaar. I'm not fond of either party, but even I can't deny they're forces to be reckoned with. The question, then, becomes 'what does this bring us?' And the answer is 'a handful of students to replace the dozens we would lose to the controversy... and whatever you can offer in return.'"

He steeples his fingers. "I don't want to sound mercenary. But I'm juggling with my reputation and the well-being of my school. What do you offer?"

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She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths, hands clenched at her sides. 

"Nobody wants the Rubbery Men to rise from the lowest rung of the ladder. Nobody. Well. Perhaps the ladder should be set on fire.  Are you seriously telling me, 'oh, we're just going to, to let things go on like this, forever, let an entire category of people get stepped on like it's not a problem?' Because it is a problem. And I solve problems. I solved Dr. Vaughan being dead, I solved a moon-miser being held captive by the Orphanage, and I'm going to solve this too. You and the rest of this college can help me solve this problem, or you can get stepped on when I do it anyway."

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For a moment, he looks like someone's just slapped him in the face. Then he grits his teeth. "You sound like my sister. Never walk when you could run. Never compromise if you could get everything you want by sacrificing something else. We do not intend to leave the Rubberies out in the cold forever. Everyone deserves to learn. But we intended to wait until we have enough social capital to withstand the storm that will result, and you're asking us to move forward anyway and risk everything. I'll ask it a different way: how can you help?"

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"...I'm sorry. I--the way you said it--it isn't acceptable that they're treated the way they are. Waiting to fix it isn't acceptable. It may be that the alternatives are worse. But the status quo is horrible and leaving it that way is horrible and that--isn't how what you were saying sounded like to me."

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He sighs. "I know it isn't acceptable. Nothing is right, here. But burning it all down..."

Unconsciously, his finger traces a sigil in a bowl of sand on his desk. Correspondence, signifying the loss of a person who is still present in one's life. "Fire doesn't discriminate."

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She glances at the bowl of sand and nods, quietly dipping her head in acknowledgement.

"The light which I bear is not that of fire."

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He glances at the bowl as well, frowns, and smooths it over. "Sorry, bad habit... anyway, let's think of things that might persuade the Benthic's principal that accelerating the Rubbery project would be worthwhile. You said you can return the dead. Do they retain knowledge of the afterlife? Because the Department of Thanatology would be very interested in that. Actually they'll be interested either way, but if your subjects can answer questions about the Far Shore then it'd be revolutionary."

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"Huh. Good question. So far the only person I've brought back who was dead that long was...a baby. Got any convenient candidates in mind?"

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"We have a handful of ancient mummies lying around, but if you don't know yet then it'll be best to couch it as an unanswered question rather than testing it beforehand. There's also, um, my candidate, but I'm still looking for a graverobber who can visit the Surface to retrieve her."

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"Why wouldn't it be better to test it?"

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"We want her in a position where she needs what you can give. If you've already resurrected one of the mummies, you've effectively already given her what you'd be offering, and she can get what she wants without acknowledging your outrageous request."

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"Ah. Gotcha."

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"So, we tell her you can bring back the dead, and you'll cooperate with the studies of the Department of Thanatology if she agrees to take on your Rubbery Scholar. What else... We need some way to keep this from getting Benthic shut down. My sister can call in some favors with Hell, keep them from coordinating on the matter, but the Bazaar is still a problem. I don't suppose you have some hidden connection to the Masters?"

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"...Well, not as such, but I have been meaning to go yell at Mr. Fires for the whole Orphanage business."

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"...well, while you're at it, see what it would ask to allow a Rubbery to attend Benthic."

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"Okay! I guess that's my next stop, then!"

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"Best of luck! I really hope this all goes through."

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"...Okay actually do you know where the Masters...live."

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"That would be the Bazaar, in the middle of the city. They live in the highest spires, and they don't let just anyone in. It's possible you're not 'just anybody', though."

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"I'd like to see them try to keep me out," she snorts. "Alright, I'm off." 

She heads towards the bazaar. 

She isn't wearing Hephaesta's concealing outfit; instead she's garbed in an old white dress of her mother's that accentuates the fact that her hair is white, not just a really pale blonde; right now, she's going for impact and drama. She stalks with purpose, keeping the tallest spires in sight. 

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When she reaches the gates of the Bazaar, there is something like lightning and thunder, blasting against her with bone-shaking force. It's the Correspondence - in its pure, spoken form. Concepts, no connective tissue. A great beast waking from sleep at the approach of one it knows, but has never met. A child, young as a dying mayfly, coming to visit their ancient progenitor. An occurrence that was never dreamed of, for the dreamer did not know to dream it.

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What. 

Uh. 

Gosh. 

She speaks in return. Her voice is different, less lightning and thunder and more crystals tumbling against each other in a river. 

The righteous coming to confront a transgressor. The traveler, encountering one along the road whom they had never thought to meet. The discovery of an unknown connection between previously established individuals?

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The discovery of an unknown connection between previously established individuals, the Bazaar repeats wonderingly. It begins to explain. A lowly messenger, sent by its beloved master, the Sun, to deliver a troth of love to another star. The rejection of a troth. The refusal to deliver a message, the second-greatest crime a messenger can commit. The seduction of a master by their servant, the greatest crime imaginable. Flight to a place where one cannot be found. The birth of a hybrid. A diamond, the size of a mountain, shining with vital light.

The assumption of a lowly form by one high on the Great Chain of Being? it asks in turn. An inquiry, without judgment, as to the birthing parent of one's conversational partner.

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A human traveler, forbidden the surface but exploring as far as is allowed her. A great mountain shining with light that gives light. A child refusing to speculate on the topic of their parents having sex. The traveler returning to her home and her firstborn. Giving birth in secret to an unprecedented hybrid. 

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The Bazaar crackles with something like laughter at her refusal to speculate. The desire to someday meet the mother of one's grandchild. The breaking of the Great Chain of Being by two successive generations of a family. Curiosity about the continuance of a pattern.

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The observation that rearing children is perhaps a responsibility left to those slightly older. The openness to possibility. A lack of plans in a given direction at present. 

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A concession. More crackling laughter.

It sobers. A transgressor. The existence of many who could be called transgressors making their nests among one's spires. The contractual obligation to protect those one has largely grown to loathe. The stern forbiddance of violence against entities under one's protection. Conditional on the previous point being accepted, an invitation to speak to the one who the referent seeks.

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The concept of transgressions whose most notable feature is their insanity rather than their transgressionness. Acceptance of offered conditions.

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The casual observation that one's oath of protection likely could not be fulfilled if a conversation were arranged elsewhere than within one's own spires, the Bazaar "whispers" with a flicker of light and a crackle like ice breaking underfoot. The equally casual observation that the oath does not compel vengeance in the event that an entity under one's protection should somehow meet its end.

The outermost door of the Bazaar swings open.

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She steps inside and pats the doorway affectionately on the way through. 

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She passes through six more doorways as she travels upwards through the tunnels that criss-cross the inside of the Echo Bazaar. The final door is made of steel, and when she passes through it she is greeted with ten passageways. Each bears a burning sigil.

That which sustains.

That which breaks.

That which burns.

That which makes, and destroys.

That which elucidates.

That which dulls and delights the senses.

That which glitters.

That which conceals.

That which quenches.

There's one other passageway, dusty and cobwebbed. The sigil has been savagely clawed at; it's difficult to tell whether it means That which lights the way or That which devours.

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Mildly concerning and she will probably inquire about that later. 

She knocks on the door which says That which burns. 

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The door opens immediately. She is greeted by a ten-foot-tall bat-creature.

"Wastelander," it says, in a surprisingly high-pitched, half-whispering voice. "I doubt you will believe me when I say this, but it is a pleasure to meet you properly."

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"What the fuck was your goal with the moon-miser and the Orphanage and the hybrid," Lucy says, having no patience whatsoever with Mr. Fires to waste on pleasantries. 

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It hisses out a laugh, and picks up a pen.

Such things should not be discussed under the very eaves of my master, it scrawls on a sheet of vellum. If we are to have this conversation, I would rather do it on neutral ground. Say, Wolfstack Docks? There is a particular address that would serve to illustrate my points.

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"Fine." 

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Fires bows and gives her the address, written on another scrap of vellum. "I look forward to our next meeting."

Then it opens the window and swoops out.

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Happiness at meeting someone you didn't know you should have known all along, she tells her grandparent on the way out. 

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A request one is embarrassed to make, the Bazaar denotes hesitantly before she leaves. The collection of love stories for a great purpose. A quantity, already enormous, that must grow if it is to be at all sufficient.

A gift to one's lover and superior. A gift desperately needed by the recipient. The thing to which five cities' worth of sins have been in service.

Failure at one's task. The dissolution of a star in its own grief. The summary execution of a messenger and its servants, as an afterthought to a far greater loss.

Success. The possibility of introducing a child to their second grandparent.

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Willingness to be introduced. The land above the caverns and below the sky? A death, temporary and deliberate in the service of a goal. The fact that those who die even once in the Neath cannot return to the surface.

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A burst of shocked almost-laughter. The inherent absurdity of the idea that one's own issue could be vulnerable to the Judgements' light. The knowledge that such hazards affect only creatures at the bottom of the Great Chain - rubbery men, Snuffers, animals.

The concept of "animals" includes humans. The Bazaar realizes this after a moment. An apology for imprecise wording. An apology for inadvertently insulting the referent's incubating parent.

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Understanding of lack of offensive intent. The separation of Rubbery Men and Snuffers from the taxonomic class of "animal" which includes both humans and sea sponges?

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The coherent class of "animal" as a being which was produced by the base and unpleasant process of evolution. After a moment, The concept of evolution, as perceived by a being which did not evolve. The potentially mollifying information that humans, being possessed of souls, have the capacity to birth something greater than themselves.

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The acknowledgement that one knows less than one would like about an important subject. Concern and confusion regarding the nature of a related subject. The suspicion that one understands something which was previously puzzling. The concept of etymology. "Egg-thief."

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Familiarity with the etymology for the specific term referenced. The knowledge that egg-thieves, or "devils", once served as pollinators, but abused their station to steal a grand and coruscating soul, and hatched it into a haven for what cannot be: the land of Parabola. The knowledge that the egg-thieves still desire souls, but that this is not the reason for their name.

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Concern for the souls taken by egg-thieves. Worry caused by lack of knowledge.

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Concern overshadowed by great overarching sadness and the urgency of one's personal quest. Reluctance to forbid the trade in souls. Belief that the beautiful stories produced by humans seeking to return the souls taken by egg-thieves make the soul trade positive-sum.

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Disagreement about whether a given activity is positive-sum. Understanding of the urgency of another's quest. The uncertainty of whether another has access to a resource. Beautiful stories written on the surface.

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A multitude of agents who operate in the Judgment-light. A gift which is worthless because it has already been received.

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Comprehension. The observation that the purpose of looking like a member of a species is to interact freely with that species. A promise to make attempts to influence artists.

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Delight and boundless affection.

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Delighted affection, she says, and then makes her way, well, delightedly, to the address given her by Mr. Fires.

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Fires is within, flanked by two massive Clay Men. It still dwarfs them. It stands before a gaping pit.

"So, you wish to know my aims," it says without preamble.

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"Something of an understatement, but good enough to be going on with."

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"First, know that I have something that you will need," Fires says. "The moon-mother's moon-silk. She spins over the course of a decade, preparing for the birth of each miser; it is absolutely essential to the child's survival. I stole this swathe of it some time ago. If you kill me, you will not find where I have hidden it, and you will not be able to acquire another, and our mutual aspiration, the hybrid, will perish. Do I make myself clear?"

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"Is there any reason I couldn't bring you back if I killed you?"

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It shrugs. "That would rather seem to defeat the point, would it not? Unless you intend to torture me to death and back in search of the silk, and I do not think you have such an act within you."

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"I don't want to, certainly. But it's always better to know what your options are. At any rate, I do not have any specific or immediate plans to kill you at this time."

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"Good, good. Follow me."

And it steps over the edge of the pit and descends into the darkness, flapping its wings a few times to control its descent. One of the Clay Men takes a ladder from the wall and puts it in the pit so that the Wastelander can climb down as well.

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She climbs down. 

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When she's descended, she finds herself in a massive vault. 

"You know, of course, that the Bazaar is engaged in the collection of love stories." It pronounces the phrase with distaste. "Did you ever wonder where it stores its rejects?"

It raises the lamp, casting light across the walls. Not walls; bookshelves. The nearest shelves are filled with clay tablets; farther away there are scrolls; in the distance, books, followed by empty shelves.

A bitter edge creeps into its sibilant voice. "Once a suitable love story is found, it’ll be the end of London. Can you imagine?" The lamp trembles in its hand. Its voice rises an octave. "The end of London! I couldn't bear it! I love this city. It's my sole comfort, the greatest joy I have discovered in all my centuries. I'd do anything to preserve it."

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"Did you get moon-milked about it?"

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"Of course not. The milk wears off after only seven years - a blink of an eye, for one such as myself. No, my love for London is true. It is pure. I love this city because it is beautiful. Everyone in this city is burning something. Candles, gas, souls... The weak are burned; the strong burn themselves."

"You visited my Orphanage, you saw my moon-milk research." It isn't a question. "I was hoping to use the milk to bankrupt London of love stories. It proved insufficient. It is not a convincing forgery, and it does not persist."

They walk past dozens of bookshelves. The clay tablets give way to scrolls. Bats nest among the vellum; a swarm explode from one of the shelves, momentarily enveloping the platform in a screeching, seething mass of wings.

Mr Fires waits for the bats to return to their nests, tapping its foot irritably. "The Hybrid is a more promising prospect," it continues. "Based on prior research and prior hybrid attempts, its milk will be more amenable to human digestion. It will be able to create something indistinguishable in all meaningful ways from true love, fierce, firm, eternal, consuming; as unbreakable as the bond between Romeo and Juliet or between mother and child."

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"...I have so many problems with that I almost don't know where to start. But let's go with practicalities, since I can't see you giving a shit about ethics. You don't think people suddenly falling in true love with random lampposts and rocks isn't going to be distinguishable?"

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It smirks. "Please. I intend to control the dosing strictly, not simply pour milk into the water supply. By the time the Bazaar realizes anything out of the ordinary is going on, it will already be too late."

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"And you don't think the Bazaar will just stop you and wait for a new, untainted generation."

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"The Bazaar cannot afford to wait. And certain other aspects of my plan mean it will not be able to simply destroy the city as it has the others; it will be forced to find a new home for its next city, and leave London in peace. Certainly it may choose to topple a few buildings on its way out... but London can rebuild. London has always rebuilt."

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"Okay. So if London rebuilding isn't an obstacle, how about I just ask the Bazaar nicely to give me warning to evacuate everyone before it takes another city. I was going to do that anyway because I value human life, and I bet it will, it loves me."

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It scoffs. "As if the Bazaar will give you such advance warning, when the deal cannot be predicted and must be struck the instant it is ripe. As if you will still value human life once you are grown. Indeed, as if London becoming a city of love would be so terrible!"

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"I will always value human life. And mind control is bad. And taking babies away from their mothers is bad. If saving the lives of London is more complicated than asking nicely for warning then I will do something more complicated. I will not help you kidnap a child. Which would be stupid anyway. How would you raise them? They're not going to be just an inanimate venom-dispenser, you know. They'll be a person, and you didn't just crossbreed with not a moon-miser, you crossbred with a human. Humans aren't just a dilution of the blood of whatever you cross them with, you know. I'm not just the Mountain of Light but lesser. The Mountain sits on the Elder Continent and does not meddle. The Sun sits in the sky and does not meddle. The Bazaar sits in the middle of London and meddles comparatively little. I was introduced to this city a few days ago and have already done a hell of a lot of meddling. Humans bring agency to the table."

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Fires shakes its head. "'Mind control'. What a human term. Love is arbitrary; it is not worse to be in love for a reason, no matter what the Bazaar thinks. And I will raise the child with all the love it is due - it will need it, to produce the best milk. And, to your other point, I care not for its incubator one way or the other. She can return to her former life, or she can help to raise the hybrid, as she likes. If this is not enough to convince you, I can promise you a reward. I hear you were after a particular diamond?"

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"I heard a rumor about something I thought might be my sibling, that turned out to be the moon-miser, which I have already rescued. You cannot bribe me with shiny rocks. I imagine you couldn't bribe me with shiny rocks even if I wasn't made of shiny rocks. Whether or not it matters whether love is natural or not I do not remotely fucking trust you with the heart of a goldfish, let alone everyone in this city."

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"Your sibling. I suppose that is one way to look at it; you were both liberated from the Mountain of Light. In which case... I have your sibling. If you give me the hybrid, I will give it to you. Does that tempt you?"

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"Is it a person."

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"Naturally. It does not have much to say - the imprisonment of an innocent being, usually, or a reckoning which will not be postponed indefinitely. It grows tiresome, frankly; I would be glad to have you take it off my hands. As long as I get my hybrid."

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"You are not going to get anywhere near the child which you created without the consent of either of its parents." 

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"Short-sighted of you, but not unexpected. I will still provide you with the moon-silk, as I am not best served by the loss of the child; it will be delivered to your mother's home by my assistants Jasper and Frank." It turns to lead her back to the entrance.

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"Short-sighted of me," she hisses. "You have--absolutely no idea, do you? You don't even think you've done something less wrong than what you're trying to prevent, you don't think you've done anything wrong at all, do you."

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"In time, if you live long enough, you will see. The humans lead their brief, human lives, and it is not worth caring for each individual one. Only en masse are they capable of greatness - as in the case of London."

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She roars at him, a single and unprecedented word of Correspondence. 

THE HEARTFELT, BONE-DEEP BELIEF, PERMEATING EVERY CELL OF ONE'S BODY AND EVERY WISP OF ONE'S SOUL, THAT EVERYONE, NO MATTER THEIR PLACE ON THE GREAT CHAIN OR IN SOCIETY, OUGHT TO EXIST WITH HAPPINESS AND SELF-DETERMINATION.

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Fires hunches down to weather the blast, mantling its wings before its face. Then it straightens, and its eyes are sad.

An acknowledgement that the referent is young, and that youth is a time of hope and righteous conviction, it returns. Experience gained over thousands of years of servitude to one who swore falsely that all would be well. An old wound that has festered into a system of belief.

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...That stops her. 

Sorrow for the sadness of the referent. Acknowledgement that the universe is a place that contains a great amount of suffering. The firm conviction that the ambient quantities of sorrow or joy in the universe do not make the sorrow or joy of any single person less important than if they were the only person in the universe.

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"I do not desire your pity," Fires hisses, and continues walking. "Suffering is inevitable. It can be directed, and harnessed, but ultimately, to stand tall, you must stand on someone else. You will one day come to terms with this truth... or it will break you. Just as surely as it broke Wines.” 

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The subtle yet critical difference between sympathy and pity, she retorts, and, thoughtfully, "I guess I'll have to talk to Wines for their perspective, then."

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Fires snorts. "Ask who you like. Seek out what remains of the Runt and ask it, too, I'm sure it'd have a fascinating perspective. But make sure you've put your affairs in order, beforehand."

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"The Runt? Does this have something to do with the door with the scratched-out sigil?"

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Fires nods. "I suppose you wouldn't know..."

It switches smoothly into the Correspondence. Two lovers, one a great hunter and the other an aberration, a runt, a dreamer. That which conceals. That which lights the way. Servitude to one who promised that all would be well. Betrayal, of the form: a deal that was meant to be loaded in one direction, but turned out to be loaded in another. A messenger and its servants trapped for twelve centuries without recourse. The suspicion that one's lover was responsible for a previously referenced betrayal. Betrayal, of the form: convincing someone erroneously that something will only hurt a bit. Betrayal, of the form: butchering one's lover, feeding the flesh to animals, and sinking the bones into a well full of liquid sorrow. Apotheosis catalyzed by blinding fury. A being which exists in dreams, hating everything, spreading its hate through dreams of dark water.

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"That is fucked up enough to surprise me, wow, what the fuck." 

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"Veils felt that feeding Candles to the sellers of the next city was a parsimonious solution both to its supposed betrayal and to our lack of candidates for the next city. The Bazaar agreed. It has never valued us highly."

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"To the--sweet probably nonexistent Jesus, what happened to them?"

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"They became more than they had been. They're called the God-Eaters... a bit of a misnomer, but humans have never been very precise. They reside in the Tomb-Colony of Xibalba, and maintain their eternal lives by feasting on wayward travelers."

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"For crying out loud. Well. I'll have to add it to my to-do list. Oh, and something I've been meaning to bring up--what's the Bazaar's stake in the Rubbery Men continuing to be at the bottom of London's social ladder?"

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"The children of Axile failed to uphold their end of a bargain with the Bazaar. I was not privy to the details, but the Bazaar imposed harsh sanctions upon them and their kin: they are not permitted to love, and they are bound to their forms of shapeful disgrace."

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"Wh...at."

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"The children of Axile - you would know them, if you know them, as the Flukes. I do not know how they failed the Bazaar exactly, but the Bazaar was not best pleased. It imposed sanctions. Some of the Flukes stayed below the Fallen Cities, haunting their caves, which grow deeper with each Fall; others defied the Bazaar and went out to the Unterzee, and grew vast and strong."

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"And the Rubbery Men are connected to the Flukes?"

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"Ah. Yes, they are the Flukes' creations, their tentacles in the Fallen Cities. Weak and pathetic things, but they have their uses."

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"Okay. Well, that's going to complicate some things. Like everything. Is this just what everything is like, where every time you try to accomplish something there are gratuitously complicated prerequisites? Because I guess I can see how that would drive one to cynicism or insanity, not that I plan to fall prey to either."

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"Yes, any worthy goal will have complicating factors, and if you wish to save everyone, they exponentiate. This is why my goal is only to save London."

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"I guess I'd better get used to it, then. Thanks for the information," she says, gives the ladder and the depth of the hole a measuring look, then crouches and jumps out of the hole. 

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The Clay Men startle when she appears, then return to impassively standing watch.

Fires flies up after her. "Jasper, Frank," it says as it lands, "retrieve the package you took from Poor Edward and bring it to the Pale Adventuress's home. Wastelander, you may go."

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"May," her shiny crustacean ass. 

Whatever. She heads back towards the Bazaar. 

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It stands where it has stood for thousands of years, and will likely stand for hundreds more.

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She flumfs against a wall. 

The inherent difficulty of social interaction. Annoyance with an agent who makes things more difficult than necessary, she sighs, snuggling against the wall as much as it is possible to do so. 

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Empathy. The constant, aching desire to return to the High Wilderness.

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Unfamiliarity with the High Wilderness. A hope to someday explore new horizons.

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An endless void, studded with the tiny pinpricks of distant stars. Soaring through nothingness at a terrific speed. Delivering messages. The infinite joy of fulfilling one's purpose.

The Bazaar seems even more depressed as it communicates the latter two concepts.

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The assurance that in time, this too shall pass. The observation that humans survive heartbreak on a regular basis; the hope that even if a particular mission fails, all is not lost.

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The knowledge that though not all is lost, something vital can never be regained.

A deal struck with beings low on the Chain. The Flukes of Axile, practitioners of the Shapeling Arts. The Cladent Lobe, the organ which ensures a messenger will carry out its mission. The suppression of a non-vital organ while its function is unnecessary.

Incompetent servants. The festering of a temporarily suppressed organ. Blinding pain. Surgery carried out by a human.

The fact that no Judgment would employ a messenger without a Cladent Lobe. The sickening, vertiginous realization that one no longer has a purpose.

Lashing out against the beings perceived to be responsible for one's downfall. Spending most of one's time in a drugged stupor, weeping seas of lacre into one's deepest vaults. A being made loathsome by self-loathing.

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Welp. She had meant to get around to asking about that. 

The observation that a topic one had been meaning to bring up at some point has now come up independently. Regret and sympathy at past pain and current sorrow. The desire for reconciliation between a group which has innocent members and a party with good reason to hold a grudge. 

The observation that damage worse than that which has been referred to has been mended. The resurrection of a human infant from nothing but bones and leathery scraps of soft tissue. The observation that brain damage is much lesser in magnitude of damage than death.

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The nearly-forgotten sensation of hope.

The restoration of privileges to those who lost them, conditional on the restoration of that which they destroyed. Leading a healer to what they must heal?

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The glad agreement to go to a designated location and perform a designated task. Joy in making the world a place with just a little less suffering in it.

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The particular set of passages under the shell of a messenger that lead to the location of the Cladent Lobe. A door opens before her.

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She enters the door and follows the directions given her, paying careful attention to everything she passes. 

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She passes rather a lot of doors. Or, well, they look like doors to start with. As she follows the path deeper into the Bazaar, they look more and more organic.

Eventually she comes to a vast chamber. It is defined, clearly, by the absence of something that should be inside it. Something very, very large. The size of a sailing-ship, or a small house. The walls of the chamber are smooth, but they're particolored, pink and red and silver, a catalogue of different kinds of scar tissue.

The "voice" of the Bazaar comes from all around her. A human surgeon. Hands steadier than stone. A knife that cuts, and cuts, until there is nothing left to remove. A story relayed secondhand, because while it occurred the storyteller was insensate with pain.

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She swallows. 

She nods, even though she doesn't think the Bazaar can probably see it. 

She lights up, pushing her healing glow to go brighter, stronger, better.

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As the light plays over the walls, the scarring goes from silver to red to pink, and when it's pink the wall begins to distort. First, holes open in the flesh, trickling strange fluids. Then, thick veins begin to grow around the holes, and connect to other walls. Gradually, at the center of the room, an organ grows - much like a human heart, if the heart were the size of an African elephant.

Eventually, things stop happening. The Cladent Lobe pulses, once every minute or so.

...the impossible sensation of one's purpose returning, the Bazaar marvels. The powerful desire to deliver a message long deferred. (A reassurance that the referenced desire can be staved off for another century or two.) Unrelenting love. The impossibility of properly rewarding a worker of miracles.

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...Being a younger sibling, infinitely treasured by one's parent and one's elder sibling. The fact that individuals who have demonstrated strongly exogamous inclinations may be supposed to have done so more than once. Two beings, neither in possession of the simple certainty of being only one kind of thing, yet neither of the exact same kind of being as the other. 

Beings created for servitude and despised at every level of society. The general shape of a squid. The necessity of hiding that which distinguishes one from humanity. The desire for one's loved one to not need to be afraid. ...The desire for one's loved ones to get along with each other.

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There's a long pause.

The abominable spawn of the children of Axile? the Bazaar asks eventually. The belated observation that certain phrases carry undue connotations. The desire to correct oneself. The beings known to humans as "Rubbery Men"?

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The confirmation that the referent has identified the correct subject. The appreciation of the observation of connotations and correcting to a phrase without. The observation that prior to discovery it was not known that certain forms of hybrids were even possible. The firm assertion that an unusual individual is a good person.

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...The desire to meet, at some point, with an individual who inspires positive feelings in one's grandchild. A promise to use one's considerable influence to improve conditions for a specified under-class. A warning that an undertaking will not be immediately effective. The general stubbornness of humans when it comes to hatred. A reassurance that progress will be made, well before the fall of the next city. A reassurance that the next city will call the beings known to humans as "Rubbery Men" steadfast friends.

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The recollection of an errand intended to be run. An individual of a relevant species with desires to better themself through knowledge. A promise of aid as part of an unspecified transaction. The attempt to convince a scholar to admit a socially catastrophic pupil. The consideration of amelioration of consequences; a promise to request an absence of sanctions in the event that the pupil is admitted. 

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Fascination at the persistent desire of even the lowest on the Chain to better themselves. Agreement not to make a nuisance of oneself. A request, addressed to one not involved in the conversation but listening in on it, that they supply documentation to this effect. A pause. That which creates and destroys.

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Gratitude and joy, she says, and heads for the Masters' quarters. 

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She reaches them uncontested. Would she like to additionally go down the hallway labeled That which creates and destroys?

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Yep, that is exactly the thing she is going to do. After pausing to give another disturbed/concerned look to the door with the scratched sigil. 

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The door of That which creates and destroys opens as she's looking at the scratched sigil, and its inhabitant pokes its head out. Bats don't have much in the way of facial expression, even giant anthropomorphic bats, but if they did, this one would be raising its eyebrows.

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"Hi! Uh, Fires explained that," she gestures at the sigil, "and it sounded pretty fucked up."

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It nods and beckons her into its chambers.

Once she's inside, it writes on a sheet of paper, IT WAS, AS YOU SAY, PRETTY FUCKED UP. BUT SUCH IS THE CONSEQUENCE OF INVOLVING ONESELF IN THE INTRIGUES OF THE BAZAAR. CANDLES WAS ITS FAVORITE OF OUR NUMBER, YOU KNOW.

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"They were?"

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It shrugs. IT CERTAINLY MADE EXCEPTIONS FOR CANDLES THAT IT WOULD NOT MAKE FOR OTHERS. IT TOOK ON THE CHILDREN OF AXILE AT CANDLES' RECOMMENDATION. IT GAVE CANDLES THE DOMAIN OF DREAMS, THOUGH WINES AND SPICES BICKERED OVER IT FROM THE FIRST. I HAVE EVERY REASON TO BELIEVE IT LIKED THIS PET BEST OF ALL. PERHAPS IT SAW SOMETHING OF ITSELF IN THE RUNT, CAST OUT FOR NO CRIME OF ITS OWN. BUT THAT DID NOT STOP IT, IN THE END.

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"...Mmmmmmaybe it was mad over the Axile thing."

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It lets out a whistling shadow of a laugh. ALSO A POSSIBILITY.

I HAVE NOT INTRODUCED MYSELF; I APOLOGIZE. I AM CALLED MR. IRON. I BELIEVE I WAS INTENDED TO GIVE YOU THIS.

It hands her a page of its own handwriting, mathematically precise black sans-serif capitals stating that the Bazaar will not involve itself in the matter of the University choosing to take on a Rubbery Scholar. At the top is an elaborate seal, pressed in still-warm violant wax, which implies the lines and curves of a Correspondence sigil she can't quite make out.

I WAS NOT ENTIRELY CERTAIN WHICH SIDE OF THE UNIVERSITY WOULD BE ADMITTING SAID SCHOLAR. BENTHIC SEEMED MORE LIKELY, BUT CLEARLY YOU ARE NOT SOMEONE WHO SETTLES FOR THE PROBABLE.

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"I am not! But Benthic was correct! Thanks!" 

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IT WAS MY PLEASURE. YOU IRRITATE FIRES, AND THAT IS REASON ENOUGH TO AID YOU. TO BE CLEAR, MANY THINGS IRRITATE FIRES, BUT RARELY DOES A LIVING CREATURE LIVE TO IRRITATE IT EVEN AFTER SUFFERING ITS PERSONAL ATTENTION. I HOPE YOU WILL CONTINUE TO IRRITATE IT FOR A VERY LONG TIME.

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"Fires has stupid, crazy plans which I am not going to allow to come to fruition. Actually the University thing--well, I guess it's not directly relevant, but it came about in the first place because I need some amber for irritating-Fires purposes and I approached a Rubbery Man and said 'hey, I need Warm Amber, what's your price' and the price was getting them educated, I guess I could...probably just ask my grandparent...but I do, also, object to the stratification of society and the persecution of the Rubbery Men, so I'm not going to just drop the task the moment something more convenient comes along."

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BESIDES WHICH, YOU HAVE HELPED TO AMELIORATE A VERY OLD HURT. THINGS OCCASIONALLY LAY THEMSELVES OUT CONVENIENTLY.

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"Yeah! --I mean, I'd have done that even if I wasn't trying to send a Rubbery Man to school, I'm not just going to let my grandparent suffer, but the two did line up rather neatly."

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YES... YOU HAVE MADE IT CLEAR THAT YOU WOULD PREFER THAT NO CREATURE SHOULD SUFFER. NOT EVEN THOSE WHO SOME WOULD SAY DESERVE TO SUFFER, FOR THE SUFFERING THEY HAVE INFLICTED UPON OTHERS.

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"Suffering is bad. More suffering is just more bad."

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Another whistling half-laugh. STRAIGHTFORWARD. YOU WOULD FIT IN POORLY AMONG YOUR OTHER GRANDPARENT'S PEOPLE... FOR THAT AMONG OTHER REASONS. YOU DO NOT BELIEVE IN PUNISHMENT, THEN? THAT SOME THINGS CANNOT BE FORGIVEN?

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"I...might have a different definition of forgiveness than that? If someone can't forgive another person then they should just never interact again. Forcibly if necessary on the offender's part. I think that there are acts that--that define a person as dangerous, as someone it isn't safe to be around, but--suffering is still bad. I believe in consequences, but not punishment."

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CONSISTENCY. A RARE THING. LET ME PUT THIS IN YOUR TERMS, THEN.

THE BAZAAR IS DANGEROUS. IT CARES FOR YOU, WHICH PUTS YOU IN VERY RARE COMPANY. IF I WERE YOU, LITTLE AMALGAM, I WOULD THINK ON HOW TO LEVERAGE THIS TO THE GREATER GOOD.

MR. VEILS IS DANGEROUS. IT HAS LEARNED TO HIDE ITS TEETH, OVER THE YEARS. THEY ARE STILL AS SHARP AS THEY EVER WERE. DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, TRUST IT.

I AM DANGEROUS. YOU BELIEVE I HAVE CHOSEN TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH, BUT NOTHING HOLDS ME TO THIS, AND SO MY WORD IS AS WORTHLESS AS WINES'.

Once she's read this page, it tosses it onto the fire.

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"I want to persuade the Bazaar to be better to people. In general. I've already won a victory for the Rubbery Men. I want to do this in good faith, partly because I think it will work better but mostly because it's my grandparent and I--I love people very quickly. I think you're telling me the truth, but I'll remember what I believe I know because you told me, and if I find out you've lied to me I'll remember that everything else you say becomes less certain. I want to believe you, because I would rather live in a world where people tell the truth, but I know that people lie. That doesn't mean you're lying to me, but I know I have to be careful. Why is Wines the benchmark for one's word being worthless?"

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WINES WAS ONCE A RULER, BACK IN THE HIGH WILDERNESS. IT BELIEVED THAT IT COULD MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY, THAT NOTHING NEED BE SACRIFICED. IT GAVE ITS WORD TOO FREELY, AND DID NOT KEEP IT. FOR THIS IT WAS CAST DOWN FROM ITS THRONE, MADE A PAUPER AND A LAUGHINGSTOCK. THE BAZAAR SAVED IT, GAVE IT A REASON TO LIVE AGAIN. IT WILL ALWAYS BE LOYAL TO THE BAZAAR. BUT IT WILL NEVER AGAIN GIVE ITS WORD.

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"Ah. I see. I suppose I can see why Fires compared me to it, then, but--I'm not so naive as to think that nothing must be sacrificed. I want everyone to be okay and I don't like even evil people to be hurt but that doesn't mean I'm going to let a killer go free to kill again, if it comes down to it."

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Iron nods. FIRES HAS NEVER BEEN THE SUBTLEST THINKER. EVERY IDEALIST IS THE SAME, TO ITS MIND: AN ICARUS WAITING TO FALL. I AM NOT SO LIMITED IN MY THINKING.

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"I'm glad. Talking to Fires was...enlightening, but also very concerning." She pauses, considering. "...He didn't seem very okay. Is there--I'm not saying I'd put it at the top of my priority list, but--is there anything I can do to help you the way I helped the Bazaar by healing it."

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A long pause.

HELPING THE BAZAAR WAS A GOOD START, it writes. WE WILL ALL BE HAPPIER WHEN WE ARE FREED FROM ITS SERVICE.

IF YOU MEAN "IS THERE A WAY TO HELP THE MASTERS OF THE BAZAAR BE HAPPY?" THEN THE ANSWER IS NO. WE ARE TOO MANY, AND TOO DEEPLY DIVIDED.

IF YOU MEAN "IS THERE A WAY TO HELP IRON"...

Another pause.

YOU MAY HAVE WONDERED WHY I DO NOT SPEAK.

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"I sort of assumed you didn't want the Bazaar eavesdropping on everything you said."

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YOU ARE NOT INCORRECT. BUT YOUR ASSUMPTION WAS MADE IN POSSESSION OF LIMITED FACTS.

It stands and sheds its robe. Underneath, it's covered in silky black fur, marred by a mess of white scar tissue at its throat.

AFTER THE DEATH OF CANDLES, VEILS THOUGHT THAT I MIGHT BE A THREAT. I HAD BEEN CLOSE TO THE RUNT, AFTER ALL. AND SO IT RIPPED OUT MY THROAT AS I SLEPT, SO THAT I WOULD BE CRIPPLED SHOULD I EVER THINK TO ATTACK IT. It hisses raggedly and continues writing. THE CORRESPONDENCE IS THE GREATEST WEAPON OF ANY BEING WHO CAN USE IT. I HAVE HONED MY BODY FOR CENTURIES ATTEMPTING TO EQUAL THAT WEAPON, BUT IT WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH. I ASK THAT YOU RETURN MY VOICE TO ME. I HAVE MUCH TO OFFER YOU, BUT I DOUBT YOU DESIRE RICHES, AND SO INSTEAD I WILL AGREE TO A FUTURE FAVOR.

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She hisses when she sees the scar tissue, and nods, and glows. 

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The scarring melts away. Iron breathes in, then out.

"Tha-" it begins, then flinches at the sound of its own voice. "Thank. Thank you."

Its hand rises to its throat. "I... hh. You have done me... a great service." With every few words, it twitches again, the sensation of speech so unfamiliar as to be jarring.

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"I'm glad. I am going to have to have a talk with Veils. But not until I have more...credibility, I think."

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It exhales a flicker of the Correspondence. A savage beast made worse by civilization. A monster which does not care who it kills as long as it is killing. A creature with two sides to it, one purring and indulgent, one a merciless killer. A formidable opponent for one inexperienced in the arts of violence and deceit.

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"Wow. Yikes. Yeah, that's..." She sighs. 

Frustration at escalating levels of bullshit. Grim determination in the face of the expectation that a cycle will continue. The strategic resolution to deal with one enemy at a time insofar as one's enemies allow this. 

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"I heartily agree with the sentiment," Iron says. "If, at some point, you wish to learn how a celestial being fights, you may come to me after I have had some time to recover my own faculties and I will teach you."

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"That sounds extremely useful and I may well take you up on it at some point."

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"Are you considering my angle?" Iron chuckles, then raises its hand to its own throat in some amazement. It shakes its head and continues. "For once, it is simple: I think you have the potential to do great things, interesting things, and I would like you to live long enough to do so. It would be a terrible shame to lose a promising meddler to a creature as... crude as Veils."

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"I'm going to have to tick a few things off my to-do list first. But I think the two of us could have an extremely mutually beneficial relationship."

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"I will eagerly await your return. If I may ask one thing of you... do not tell anyone you have healed me. I would rather keep it under my wing, until the time comes to reveal it."

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"I won't."

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"Thank you. I believe that is all we required from each other, unless you had some other request?"

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"No. That's all, thank you." 

She hugs the University papers close to her chest and departs, heading back thereto. 

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And who should meet her on her way there but the Soulless Provocateuse.

"You really do have a way of escalating quickly," she says without preamble. "We bring back Dr. Vaughan, and not a day later does my brother come and tell me he needs me to sow dissent at the Brass Embassy and keep them from rioting at the prospect of a Rubbery Scholar. I do that, and I start hearing tales from all of my contacts that you engaged in some kind of sorcerous siege on the Echo Bazaar and then walked straight in through the Steel Door. Now, I recognize the Correspondence, even second-hand, so I know you were communicating with someone. The question is whom."

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"Did you know that the Bazaar itself is a person?"

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Her eyes widen. After a long moment, she shakes her head. "I should have. The clues were in front of me. I thought people were simply being - romantic, metonymous-"

She shakes her head again, more vigorously. "That's not the important part, not really. Will you tell me what you spoke about?"

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"I will not tell you everything. Some of it is my own business. But--we spoke of a great many things, and some of them I think you'll appreciate hearing about. Uh, I think the first thing is, if you have to tangle with any Master, Irons is a good choice, avoid Fires, and for the love of all that is holy stay away from Veils. Veils is bad news. I mean I'm not saying don't act against him, just, be careful, he is such bad news."

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"That's... news to me, at least. Not the bit about Fires, everyone knows Fires is a right bastard, but February has always had a great deal to say about Iron, none of it good, and Veils has often been called one of the friendlier Masters."

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"I'm not saying Irons isn't a bastard, but I think he's a bastard who can be reasoned with. Veils, uh, there used to be another Master, and they and Veils were lovers, and Veils killed him and fed him to--I don't actually know off the top of my head which city, but, the people who sold one of the Cities."

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The Provocateuse sucks in a breath. "Oh, that's dangerous information. Be very careful who you tell that to."

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"It is?"

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"If even the Revolutionaries think of Veils as the most civilized of the Masters, then either he actually is, or he has put an immense amount of effort into making that impression. You're telling me that he is not, and that the Masters squabble amongst themselves, and that they can be killed, and that they can love. With one sentence, you've made me a downright repository of secrets. Secrets that any of the Masters, Veils especially, would likely kill to protect."

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"...Oh. Well--I guess that makes sense, except--of course they can love, they're people, it's not like the Bazaar that pretends to be just a building, they're openly people, they communicate and everything."

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"Not all things that we call people can love. Devils spring to mind. Rubberies. Clay Men. If you had asked me yesterday, I might have told you it seemed an exclusively human ailment. And an ailment of the soul, at that - I know I lost it with my own abstraction."

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"--Rubbery Men can love, they just weren't allowed to. I guess I don't know much about Devils or Clay Men. And souls--um--yeah it turns out they're more important than the Devils would like us to know about, I'm considering breaking into the Brass Embassy to retrieve yours."

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The Provocateuse doesn't seem to know what to say to that.

"Why," she manages.

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"Every soul has the potential for apotheosis." 

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"Not more enigmas. Why me? I'm already giving you what I can give."

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"Oh! You accidentally befriended me. I take care of my friends."

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"...I suppose I can accept that. If you want to retrieve my soul from the Embassy's vaults you'd probably need me with you, a soul can be found more easily with the help of its owner. But that's probably something to plan another day. Did you have any other shattering revelations to give me?”

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"Umm...you know the Chain exists, you didn't know about the Bazaar, did you know that stars are people? And at the top of the Chain?"

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“The Judgments and their dragons are known to me, yes.”

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"Okay--Judgments are capable of love too. And the Bazaar. I think love's pretty much universal honestly."

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“The devils view it as a weakness, one that they are not subject to. But perhaps they’re unique in that. Or perhaps they're lying, but I don't think so."

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"They could be in denial."

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"...perhaps. Sometimes it's easier to say you don't want something than to admit you can't have it."

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"Yep. Also, they used to work for the Judgments until they stole a Judgment egg and used it to make Parabola."

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"...huh. So the Judgments were their 'Old Masters'. I thought they might be, but it's tricky getting a straight answer from a devil."

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"Old Masters?"

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"Something the devils mention sometimes. They talk about their exiled Princes a great deal, but they also sometimes mentioned these 'Old Masters'. 'How the Old Masters would spit if they saw this,' that sort of thing. All very tongue-in-cheek, usually, as with most things devils say. I intend to imply heavily that I know what they mean, next time they say it around me, and watch their reactions."

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Giggle. "Good to know. ...The word for 'devil' in Correspondence means egg-thief. But the word that was used for them before the theft means pollinator. For whatever that's worth."

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"Ah, that I did know. I don't know how my brother came by his knowledge of the Correspondence, but I've bled him for all the etymology he's good for. Though I did think the 'pollinator' bit was more literal, given they're actually bees."

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"They what now."

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"They're bees. Did you not know? They think like men, they walk like men, but all that's in a devil's skull is a single honeybee."

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"Man, I didn't know anything when I came to London, that's the entire reason I came here in the first place. I don't even have the context to find my earth-shattering revelations particularly earth-shattering."

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"Yes. It's rather charming, actually."

They finally reach the University campus, and the Provocateuse hops onto a pedestal, balancing with her arms out. "I believe you have an appointment with my brother. Unless there's anything else you'd like to reveal?"

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"Probably, but I can't think of it right now. See you later."

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"Au revoir."

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"Au revoir." 

She heads into the University and makes a, heh, beeline, for the Investigator's office. 

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He's in there, talking with a middle-aged woman wearing a sensible hat.

"-believe so, but I'd have to ask- Wastelander! What a coincidence."

The woman with the sensible hat inclines her head slightly. "Wastelander. The good professor has just been telling me how you hung the moon."

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"Well, not quite, but I did get the Bazaar to give up on persecuting Rubbery Men." She brandishes the papers.

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The Principal takes a look. Then she looks up and raises her eyebrow. "This is... astonishing. Dare I ask what you did?"

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"Let's just say that healing old injuries is easier than raising the so-called permanently dead."

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She nods slowly. "With the cooperation of the Bazaar... Professor, has your sister taken care of the devils?"

"She hasn't gotten back to me just yet."

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"Then I wonder why she didn't just come in with me, she and I were talking on my way here and she said she had."

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"Ah, then she was telling me through you. She usually doesn't bother meeting me in person. Too busy with her various perfectly licit activities."

The Principal sighs. "Yes, thank you. Well, if the Bazaar and the Embassy are taken care of I'll send a few letters of my own, sound out some members of Society... Wastelander, how many corpses are you willing to resurrect for the Department of Thanatology? I'll settle for as few as three, but I'd like them to have a decent sample group.”

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"How many do you have?"

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“Oh, we’ve got hundreds of cadavers, mummies, skeletons and so on rattling around the archives. Probably they’ll want you to do about a dozen - various stages of decomposition and preservation, a few historically relevant corpses from cities past, et cetera.”

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"I can do that." And quietly plot to do the rest later.

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"Then you should go to the Department of Thanatology and speak with the Dean. I've already indicated to him that he might want to collect a few interesting sets of remains, so it shouldn't take too long. When you're done there, you may tell your Rubbery Scholar that it's been accepted, and should report to the registrar at its earliest convenience."

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"Awesome!" 

Off to the Department of Thanatology!

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It's in a pretty central location on the campus; apparently Thanatology, like Chiropteronomy, is one of those fields that got more attention after the Fall. The Dean is easy enough to locate.

"A dozen, you say?" he asks, looking almost hungry. "We can certainly do that. Do you have any limit on how many you can raise at once?"

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"I don't know! I haven't tested it. If I did, though, I'd be surprised if it was as low as a dozen."

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He licks his lips nervously. "I don't suppose that you'd go so far as two dozen?"

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She grins at him. 

"I am so in favor of people being alive you have no idea."

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He looks confused. "People being- oh. I suppose that is a side effect of all this, isn't it. Well, I'll get you two dozen, that's a good start, and if you want to do some more we'll call you back when we're done with those."

A porter comes in, wheeling a sarcophagus on a handcart. "The Dean of Egyptology wanted me to tell you she'll see you on the field of battle one day for this, sir."

"Yes, yes, she's been saying that for years. This, madam, is the first subject we wish for you to resurrect. A good combination of characteristics - well-preserved, in a sense, and possessed of a historically valuable perspective."

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This guy has fucked-up priorities but whatever. 

She bites her lip, she draws the symbol, she glows. 

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The mummy swells with life, going from desiccated corpse to naked young man in the course of a few seconds. He sucks in a deep breath and says something, presumably in Egyptian.

"Tu loquerisne Latine?" the Dean asks.

"Loquella tua est turpis," the former mummy says. "Quod civitus est?"

The Dean's brow furrows. "London."

"Quod numerum."

"...Quintus."

The former mummy begins swearing at length in Egyptian.

"Porter," the Dean says over the sound of compound phrases, "please take the gentleman to the Egyptology department. And, erm, get him some clothes. Vade cum ecce vir."

The porter leads the former mummy out, and the Dean turns back to the Wastelander. "Well! I call that a success!"

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"Excellent. Although I do wonder why he was so pissed off about this being the fifth city..."

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"Yes, he did seem rather upset. I imagine the Egyptology department will be able to extract better information from him, I don't really speak that much Latin. Now, the other cadavers were being assembled in another room; shall I lead you there?"

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"Certainly."

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He leads her there, and further experimentation ensues.

Can she resurrect a skeleton? Yes! A fake skeleton? No! A boneless cadaver? Yes! Can she resurrect a cat? No! A rat? No! Someone who sold her soul before death? Yes! Someone who died of old age? Yes! Someone who died of Cantigaster venom? Yes! A Clay Man? No! A Rubbery Man? Yes! A skull? No, but if they put it near enough its body, yes! A headless cadaver? Yes! (It turns out the symbol can be drawn on the chest instead of the forehead, in a pinch.)

The resulting persons are led out of the laboratory by students. As she's starting to run out of gurneys, though...

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...a certain Provocateuse opens the door. She's got a corpse over her shoulder.

"I've got one more subject for you, if you're not quite done," she says. "A matter of some personal curiosity."

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"Well, I'm game," she says, trying to get a better look at the corpse. 

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She lays him out on one of the previously used gurneys, over the mild protestations of one of the other researchers. Then she puts his head back on his neck.

The corpse is that of a young man, rather skinny, rather short. His hair is dishwater-blonde, his skin bloodlessly pale. His body is covered in scars, from knives and burns and at least one hanging, and he has a tattoo on his shoulder: a sigil in the Correspondence, Hunger which cannot be sated. The scorching around it is relatively minor, indicating a very competent tattooist.

"I killed him myself," the Provocateuse says simply. "My curiosity is as to whether you can cure him of the affliction which made that necessary. I was never terribly fond of him... but he didn't deserve what happened."

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...She looks at the tattoo. 

"Well, I can try." 

She draws the sigil and glows at him very firmly. 

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The scars are stubborn, more stubborn than any wound she's treated. They shrink reluctantly, and fight her for every inch. It's like trying to bail out a sinking ship in a nightmare of dark water.

But she's stronger. Slowly, slowly, they close, leaving skin unblemished but for the constellations of freckles. The young man - not much more than a boy, really, without the scars - opens his eyes.

"I..." He rubs at his neck. "Gawain?" He feels about his torso. "Arthur?"

He looks up at the Wastelander. "What have you done to me?"

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"Me? Brought you back from the dead." She pokes the tattoo. "Care to explain this?"

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"He deserves to be remembered. If nothing else, he should be remembered."

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"Mr. Candles, you mean?"

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The Seeker cocks his head to the side.

"That is not the Name. Eaten. He was Candles once, but he is Candles no longer."

One of the researchers screams and flees the room. Several others go pale and inch towards the exit. 

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"The Correspondence sigil on his closed-up rooms at the Bazaar are remarkably ambiguous on that subject. Why does remembering him involve tattoos and scars, and why did several people just flee the room? I was sort of under the impression he was a secret. I mean, you told me so," she adds to the Provocateuse. 

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"Oh, Candles is a secret. A much bigger one than I told you at the time, even, but in my defense I had some pieces to put together. Eaten... is also secret, in a sense, but the shape of that secret is widely known. Many, many people have been driven mad seeking the truth of it, and have brought others down with them. I imagine the woman who screamed has encountered Seekers before."

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"I have to remember him. The tattoo... is nothing. I thought I could spell his Name, but it was a mistake. The scars... if you want to speak someone's story, to know it like your own, you must live that story."

"Nothing hurts," he complains. He begins absentmindedly gnawing at his wrist. "You cleansed me," he accuses.

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She yanks his wrist out of his mouth. "Damn straight I did! Look, I am all in favor of remembering the dead, but self-harm isn't going to make what happened to him any less real. Misery may love company, but more suffering is not better than less! And a dead Master is not, in fact, fundamentally more important than the billions of dead humans in the world! On which I am making small but meaningful progress! I will do what I can for him, and I applaud the pursuit of knowledge, but don't fucking chew yourself up because--because someone else was cannibalized! If you're that dedicated I will happily tell you what I know, in private, where no innocent bystanders need to deal with it," she says, gesturing at the remaining scientists. 

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He whines when she removes his wrist from his mouth. "But- I've already given him so much. My family, my dreams, my memories - was all that for nothing?"

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"All that was stupid!"

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He glares at her. "This- this is all I've ever been good at. Before him I was just another useless little boy. I could finally mean something, seeking him. I made an art out of self-destruction. I had his name, until you took it from me. I was his name. Now I can't even hear his voice."

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"Self-destruction doesn't mean anything. Not to mention the destruction of others; did you see how terrified that woman was? Better zero than a negative number."

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"Maybe it doesn't mean anything when you do it. But I made scrimshaw of my bones, canvas of my skin, candles of my soul, all for him. Made myself a vessel for his name. Made something real of myself. Because he wanted me to."

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Flatly: "He does not matter more than you."

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"How could he not? I'm just..." Words fail him. He gestures at himself vaguely.

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"You're a person! That's enough!"

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He stares at her. His wrist rises towards his mouth apparently unconsciously, then he stills it with a visible effort. "What... am I for, then? The candles were the first thing that fit me."

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"Well, I don't know, but you've got a very long time to figure it out." She sighs, and looks over at the scholars. "I am so sorry about this."

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One scholar, scribbling down notes, looks up and blinks. "Don't apologize, this is incredible!"

The Provocateuse comes around to the side of the gurney and leans over the Seeker. "I want to tell you something, Mort," she says. "And I want you to remember it."

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He looks up at her. "...you killed me," he says.

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"Yes. But you've been given a second chance. And if you take the incredible opportunity you have been given and you waste it trying to get your candles back, I will kill you again. Do you understand me? You can do anything you like. You can seek the forgiveness of your family, become a scholar, join the Revolution... but if you Seek again, I will kill you. And this time, it will stick."

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He shivers. "I... I understand."

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"Does that apply to anything related to Eaten or can I tell him dangerous secrets."

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"I don't care what he knows, I'm warning him against trying to complete his old quest. Making himself into the Name again."

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"Oh, yeah, don't do that." 

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"Well, she'll kill me if I do, so it's not really an option, is it. But I'll hear what you want to tell me."

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"Cool. I'm done all the present resurrections and the scientists probably shouldn't actually hear all this on no notice, apparently these secrets are dangerous although, uh, probably not as dangerous as attempting to join some kind of autocannibal death cult, and I have places to be, so let's walk. Unless you have anything else for me to do?" she asks the scientists. 

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The Dean shakes his head. "You can go," he says, then turns to start ordering people around.

The Seeker hops off the gurney, the sheet falling from his otherwise naked body. He looks down. "Does anyone have some trousers?" he asks, without significant concern.

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The Provocateuse removes a sort of smock from her handbag, and hands it over. "I'll stay here for now, Wastelander," she says. "Try to warn me next time you unravel the fabric of society."

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"No promises," she says brightly, and leads the young ex-Seeker out. 

"So. Back in some prior city or other, Veils and Candles were lovers. Then Veils got mad at Candles for some reason, killed him, and fed him to the sellers of the next city. Then he chucked Candles's bones down a well. The people who ate him currently hang out somewhere else snacking on passersby, I'm going to put a stop to that at some point, it's on the list."

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He looks troubled. "I remember. The well... I had to make a sacrifice."

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"What kind of sacrifice."

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"I suppose she must have been my sister," he says, not quite in response to the Wastelander's question. "I forgot... I forgot all of them. For Erzulie. Was that mercy? And then you brought them back to me, when you took Erzulie away. Was that mercy?"

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"...You sacrificed--your memories, or a person?"

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"The first candle, Arthur. He was scars - scars of the body, the mind, the soul - and betrayals, sending others down the Seeking road. For Beau, my past. I gave up my home and who I was. For Cerise... Alice down the Well. She trusted me, even though she didn't know me anymore." He doesn't seem to remember how to cry. He just carries on, his speech quickening and his eyes bulging. "Destin, I gave my future. I knew what I would become. Erzulie, my memories - everything that I had ever known but him. Fortigan, my faith. It seems so small, but a mustard-seed is a mustard-seed, isn't it? And Gawain..." He draws his finger across his throat, shaking like a leaf. "And I was to go North. To tell his story to the stars. But- but it doesn't seem - I don't think it was-"

The tears finally come. "It wasn't worth it," he says effortfully. "It wasn't beautiful at all."

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"Wait, back up. Tell his story to the stars?"

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"They were his friends. They- he said they deserved to know."

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"They're not his friends! They're--you know how on the Surface when you die you just die? They're that. The effect of telling the stars wouldn't be 'his friends know what happened to him,' it would be 'the space constables show up and wreck everything'!" Deep breath. "Sorry. You didn't know that." 

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He hiccups. "I- I don't think he cares. I wouldn't have, when I was his Name. He wanted revenge, too."

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"Ugh. Okay, that's--I'm going to have to find out who else is Seeking and stop them. I can show you the scratched glyph on his old rooms if you want, though." 

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"I don't think most people get far enough to really worry about. It's... not easy. Plenty of people sacrifice to the Well, or scar themselves, or stain their souls... but I had to find a place that doesn't exist, for Beau, and a place that no one remembers, for Erzulie, and I needed to get my own ship, even, for the last couple of them, no one would sail me where I wanted to go. He told me, before I died, that I was his best chance in two hundred years."

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"That's...better than not, at least. What's all this about spelling his name, anyway, the Correspondence doesn't work like that, it has ideograms, not alphabets."

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"His name... you could call it his story, instead. Seven sigils, seven candles, spread through the fabric of my very being, because to write them all on one surface would destroy it. That was what I was supposed to bring North."

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"That makes sense." Sigh. "Do you have anywhere to go right now?"

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"I was staying in an abandoned crypt on the outskirts of London, but it might be occupied by now, I don't know how long I've been... dead."

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"Also, that's depressing as hell. Do you want to stay at my mother's place for the moment, it'll be a little crowded but, uh, not a crypt."

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"Um."

He considers this offer.

"Why... would you let me do that."

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"Well, I don't think you're going to hurt her, or anyone else there, and if I'm wrong I can heal them and hunt you down." 

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"...I can't really argue with that, admittedly," the Erstwhile Seeker admits. "Sure, I'll come with you. Do you have anything else to take care of in the city?"

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"I have to stop by the Carnival on the way home to let Lurulel know I got him into Benthic and collect the amber I need but then I'm going right home."

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He shivers slightly. "I suppose I have to go back there eventually."

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"The Carnival?"

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"-um, that must sound a bit ridiculous, if you don't know the context - the place that doesn't exist, where I found Beau, it was a dark reflection of the Carnival. It was... not pleasant."

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"Unpleasant Carnival in Parabola, got it. Actually my assumption was that you'd done something in this version of the Carnival that was going to be awkward to explain why I was in your vicinity."

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"No, I didn't do anything terribly unpleasant at the real Carnival. If we run into Mrs. Plenty, I... suppose I'd like to thank her. She tried to talk me out of it. I was too far gone for it to work, but she tried."

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"Gotcha. I'm glad to hear it." 

They reach the Carnival. Lucy checks what the current status of the Anatomical Exhibit is. 

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Another crowd of flustered Londoners is exiting the tent. The man on duty recognizes her and waves her in after the audience has removed itself.

Lurulel rubberies over to her. <<You've returned,>>  he burbles.

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She beams and throws her fists in the air and says, "I did it!" 

She reaches into her satchel for the paper that confirm this and present it to them. 

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Lurulel looks at the paper in obvious (for a Rubbery Man) shock.

<<Truly, you have done the impossible. I cannot thank you enough.>>

Tentatively, he reaches out one of his upper tentacles.

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She hands it the paper. "And I got the Bazaar to forgive the Axiles!"