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Generated: Aug 13, 2022 1:37 AM
Post last updated: Aug 13, 2022 1:37 AM
palette knife
A Sable and her Ship find their Crew
Permalink Mark Unread

It's always nice, trading at the Cumaean Canal. She spends the morning sipping coffee in town while she catches up on surface gossip. She collects various bits of intelligence about who's up to what. She keeps in touch with a few friends.

And then around midday a surface barge makes it through the canal. A Tanned Merchant that she's made an ongoing arrangement with brings a hold full of surface produce, and she has a matching load of darkdrop coffee beans for him. She and her crew haul pallets of beans up from the hold of the Heart's Handbasket, her ship, and wait at the staging area as the Merchant's deckhands unload their cargo as well. She walks up, apocyan and irrigo streaks bouncing gently in her currently peligin curls, and clasps his wrist with quiet smile.

"Pleasure doing business with you as always."

He grins, leathery fingers wrapping around her wiry wrist in turn. "Likewise, carissima. You and yours have been well?"

"As ever," she replies with a smirk. "My ship is one of a kind, and we keep each other safe." She snugs a living wooden sculpture of a woman into her side.

"Good, good. Perhaps one day you two will finally come have a drink with me in Naples."

She shakes her head with a chuckle, dark feathered wings spreading briefly behind her. "And perhaps one day you'll remember that the sunlight won't be as kind to us as it is to you, and instead come down here early enough to get lunch with us."

He laughs, and they exchange various bits of news. The various crews start transferring pallets while the two captains finish their chat. No one notices two stacks of mirrorcatch boxes being exchanged, tucked away among the lettuce and the coffee.

When the conversation wraps up, both captains and the wooden beauty start hauling pallets as well. The job is done soon enough, both holds full once more. The boxes disappear into a hidden compartment, lost beneath pallets of fruit and vegetables.

And then she dismisses her crew for the rest of the day, and resumes chatting and hearing people's stories.

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Several hours later, when she's long since switched from coffee to cocoa, and she's listening to a poet recite a tale of lost loves in a fathomless fog, a messenger bursts in.

Apparently her crew is in jail. The runner stammers something about a bar fight.

She shakes her head, gives the kid enough of a tip to buy a meal, and strides off to hear first the constables' and then her crew's versions of the story.

When she finally speaks to her hired hands, as they plead for bail, she's fed up. Her hair is gant, all color drained away save violant curls that drip like old blood and twine around two streaks of apocyan. She will not let them forget this lesson.

"This is the third drunken fight in as many ports. This is the third time in a row you've asked me to spring you from lockup after insulting the locals and getting in over your heads. I can't afford to keep enabling this. I'm done. Beg the constables for mercy instead."

And she turns on her heel and stalks out.

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When the Skipper comes aboard, the Fierce Figurehead of the Heart's Handbasket has settled up the tab at the café and is there to meet her with a gentle embrace.

"You gave them every chance. You gave them every warning. It's okay, love."

She guides her captain back toward their quarters, and reconnects herself to the rest of the ship as she passes the end of the tether.

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That night, someone climbs up onto the ship from the zeeward side. 

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The Handbasket creaks idly, as ships tend to do. She is also aware of the child-weight presence stepping onto her deck, which is a rather less common trait.

For now, the Stowaway is merely silently observed.

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The Stowaway pokes around on deck for a bit, locating the entrances to the crew quarters and the cargo hold. 

And then she creeps into the cargo hold, investigating for any discreet gaps in the crates. Whether she finds one or not, she slowly, very carefully, starts to arrange as hidden a cubbyhole as she can. 

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The hatch to the hold is unlocked, and its hinges do not creak; it swings silently open. The pallets and crates of surface produce are fairly tidily arranged, and stacked two high toward the back. With a little bit of scooting things around — the crates slide surprisingly easily and quietly across the deck and each other — she can arrange serviceable nook for herself under one crate supported by two others, all the way to the far side from the hatch. If she looks around attentively, she might notice a stack of soft blankets off to one side, used for padding delicate artifacts.

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...Tempting. But they might have counted the blankets. Better not. 

She curls up in her cubbyhole and is soon fast asleep despite the objectively uncomfortable conditions. 

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The Figurehead smiles sadly in her captain's quarters. This one seems harmless. Decent instincts, avoiding the blankets, but it's a pity the child will have such an uncomfortable surface to sleep on. She returns to her half-sleep, arms tenderly around her love.

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She wakes slowly at first, and spends a few moments gradually accruing self-concept as her mind sloshes to life. A slow, peaceful smile stretches across her face, shreds of dreams slipping away and awareness settling.

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And when selfhood has finished settling about her, a kiss is pressed to her cheek from unnaturally soft wooden lips.

"Good morning, love. We'd best shove off toward London, and we're making breakfast for two today. We acquired a stowaway — child-weight and seemingly harmless — during the night."

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"Well. That certainly starts today off interestingly. Didn't get up to mischief?"

She sits up and starts carefully preening her feathers.

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She helps with the harder to reach ones, and rubs her shoulders.

"Not a bit. Arranged a little nook out of the crates aft of the hold, either didn't trust or didn't notice the blankets, and went right to sleep."

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She stands with a nod, stretches, and gets dressed: underwear, sturdy trousers, socks, boots, blouse, and a long black coat — the last two items with slits for her wings. She cracks her neck and gives her ship a kiss on the cheek.

"Cast off while I start breakfast, and we'll greet the ragamuffin together?"

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She nods and smiles, and sets about untying the moorings and firing her engines. The ship is soon underway.

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Breakfast is made, a lid is placed down to keep it warm, coffee is brewed (one mug being sipped from, the other as a peace offering), and Skipper and Figurehead quietly walk into the hold and over to their Stowaway's nook to observe for a moment.

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She is sleeping...peacefully might not be the right word. She looks uneasy even now. 

She's definitely not a small child. A little short for her age, yes, and more underweight than can possibly be good for her, but she's definitely a teenager a ways into puberty. 

 

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Lucky ragamuffin, then, that she chose this ship to stow away on. The Skipper crouches down, considering things. She probably needs clear expectations, clear kindness, and few if any demands. And she definitely needs someplace she can call home. A welcoming, patient smile stretches across her face at the thought, and a few cosmogone and viric streaks blossom alongside the streak of irrigo in her peligin curls.

She holds the still-full mug forward just a bit. The savory aroma of fresh coffee wafts toward the girl.

"Wake up," she says gently. "I've got fresh coffee for you, and we can talk over a hot breakfast."

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Her eyes snap open, and she freezes, staring at Sable like a rabbit looking down the barrel of an elephant gun. 

 

"Okay," she says cautiously, taking the offered drink with trembling hands. 

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She's careful as she lets go, watching to be sure the girl doesn't spill any on herself.

"Best have a sip or two before you get up, or pass it to me when you do. It's still pretty hot. There's sugar and powdered milk in the galley if you want some."

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She sips it. 

It's REALLY bitter. 

She doesn't make a face. Any kind of generosity has been far too rare to be picky. 

Asking for sugar and powdered milk would probably be risky, but...sugar and milk are food, she's not sure she can afford to turn that down when she has the opportunity to get some without stealing. 

 

 

"Yes please."
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She nods with a smile, and scoots back to be more thoroughly out of the way, then stands. "Up you get, then. I've got a hot breakfast, with enough to share, under a lid in the galley."

She holds out a hand at an angle that could just as easily help the girl up or hold the coffee for her.

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She cautiously takes the hand, still holding the coffee in the other.

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And a gentle but strong tug helps her to her feet. The captain lets go of her hand once she's steadily vertical, and turns to walk out of the hold and toward the galley.

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She follows her cautiously, looking out for a chance to bolt if it presents itself. 

The dismay when she sees they're already out at zee is swiftly hidden. 

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Nope, escape attempts were predicted and disallowed. If she wants to leave after hearing them out, they'll gladly let her off in London, but they're not mentioning any of that until they've made their offer.

The hatch to the galley swings smoothly open as they approach. The Skipper and Figurehead step inside and sit down on one side of a small, booth-style table, just big enough for four people, or six if they're cozy. The captain pulls the lid off a serving platter in the middle (which rests in a convenient indentation in the table to keep it from sliding), revealing a steaming pile of scrambled eggs, with melted cheddar and bits of sausage mixed in, and fresh scones on the side. A jar of preserves sits in a divot next to the platter, alongside two glass dispensers for sugar and powdered milk. A plate, fork, and knife rest on each side of the table (again in little dips).

She sets her own coffee in a safe spot and serves herself a big helping of eggs and a scone.

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"Dig in, and tell us a little about what you're running from, or to, when you're ready," the wooden woman adds with a smile as her Skipper starts eating.

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...Is that woman made of wood??? --Probably it's just very elaborate body paint let's go with that. 

She digs into the food with the kind of what-if-somebody-takes-it-away that leads to refeeding syndrome. 

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After finishing a sizable portion of the eggs on her place, the Skipper picks up her scone and starts spreading some preserves.

"I rather suspect you've had a rough time of it. So let's clear a few things up to hopefully make this safer for you. First, you're sleeping in a bunk, tonight, in your own quarters, with a proper hatch to ensure your privacy when you wish it. I'll not have a girl in need sleep on the bare deck in my cargo hold." She shakes her head at the thought.

"Second, you're eating proper meals so long as you're aboard my ship. You've quite obviously missed far too many meals, and I decently enjoy cooking when I have someone to share it with."

She takes a bite of her scone, smiles softly, chews, swallows, and continues.

"We're not here to hurt you or demand anything of you, and we're not going to snatch the food away from you mid-meal. Take your time. You're the only person other than me who eats at all here. We've got plenty of time."

And with that, she wraps a wing around her Figurehead (who snuggles happily in) and resumes eating.

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"Why?"

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"Several reasons. For one, I've been a teen with no resources before. I was not a fan. I find it satisfying, now, to be the girl I wish I'd known then. Also, if you're in a situation where you need to stow away on ships, the best you can typically hope for is benign neglect, and the worse options include rape and slavery. Wouldn't be living up to my own standards if I let you go risk that again, after you got lucky enough to stow away on my ship."

She shakes her head, then sips her coffee.

"On top of that, I find people absolutely fascinating. I love the chance to talk to new people, hear their stories, nudge their plot arc in a warmer and safer direction than it otherwise would have gone. And I have the resources to afford it, here and there."

She shrugs.

"It makes me happy to make people safer and happier."

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The Figurehead shakes her head and smiles. "Oh my Captain... Her 'saving people thing' has ever gotten us in trouble, but we can handle trouble fairly well. There was one boy who played innocent for a whole week before flooding my engine," she shudders at the memory, "and trying to strand us for pirates to board."

She looks over fondly at the Skipper. "We came through well enough, though. She came up behind him and plucked the flare from his hands right when he was about to signal them, and asked if he was ready to tell the rest of his story finally. The poor boy fainted, and she talked with him for hours when he came to. Wound up dropping him in Gaider's Mourn with a pirate friend of ours, rather than in London, at his request."

She shakes her head and swats her girlfriend's shoulder. "And she still won't tell me how she knew."

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She laughs and shakes her head. "Can't explain it properly. Regardless, you're welcome and safe here, for my bleeding heart madgirl reasons."

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"...Oh. Thanks. Um, I don't know much about ships, but I can try to earn my keep..."

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"We'll be glad to show you a little of how things are done. It'll take us just under a whole day to get to London. Once we're there, you can decide if you like shipboard life so far, and either stay on with us for a while longer, or leave us and I'll give you a few options to help you get your feet under you."

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"Personally, I'd recommend staying aboard. My Captain has quite a few contacts in London, though, so that's certainly a viable option if you'd prefer."

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"Whatever you choose, your only obligations until you feel steadier are rest, heal, and learn."

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She kisses her captain's cheek. "Love, you're very sweet, but I think you forgot to introduce us."

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"What, really?"

She shakes her head at her forgetfulness.

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"I'm the Truthful Skipper, and this is my ship, the Heart's Handbasket," she says, finishing with a sweeping gesture.

"Or, in her more personable aspect, the Fierce Figurehead," and at this she gestures to the wooden woman cuddled into her side, who waves and smiles.

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"--So you're--really made of wood???"

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"Mhm!" She says with a nod and a smile. "My captain built me herself, and I can separate my figurehead body from the rest of the ship to walk around and interact with people. I'm aware of where everyone and everything on board is at all times."

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"...Oh," she says, flushing slightly in embarrassment as she puts together that this means her attempt to remain hidden was always doomed. 

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She reaches across the table, gently taking the other girl's hand, interrupting the nervous fidgeting. Her fingers really do feel like wood, though rather softer and warmer than wood has any right to be.

"It's okay, dear. You don't need to hide from us. You don't need to prove anything to us. We're not mad at you, and we're not going to be mad at you."

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"I don't understand." 

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The Skipper reaches across and takes her other hand. "Whatever you're running from, whoever and whatever hurt you, they're not allowed on my ship. It's over."

She gives the girl a bittersweet smile. "You've spent the past months or years fighting to live through whatever this broken world was doing to you. You've been hiding, and weathering, and running, and it's all been far too much for you, but you made it through anyway, despite the damage it did to your heart. And now here you are," she squeezes her hand, "on the Handbasket, facing two people who are offering you more kindness than probably anyone has even bothered lying about to you before. It's confusing. It's overwhelming. But it's also the end of your very lonely war. If you need to talk, we'll listen. And if you need a hug, we've plenty of those to share."

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"I--

I--

No one's ever--"

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"Then it's long past time."

And with that, the Skipper and Figurehead both get up from their seats, pull the girl gently up from hers, and fold her into a warm embrace between them, arms and wings wrapped snugly around her.

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At first she just freezes, not sure what to do. 

Then she starts trembling. 

Then she starts crying, tentative hiccupy sniffles at first, and when this fails to elicit a negative response, her sobs get stronger until she's full-on weeping on them, supported more by ship and captain than the chair she's sitting on. 

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They hold her tenderly while she cries, stroking her back and her hair, and humming softly and encouragingly, for as long she needs.

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Eventually--a long eventually--the sobs taper off and she just sort of huddles there, not really wanting to be let go of. 

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After the sobbing subsides, the Skipper scoots the girl further into the Figurehead's lap, pulling away gently. The Figurehead tightens her embrace around her, and murmurs in her ear, "Captain's going to clean up the leftovers, and then we'll all go sit up on deck together. How's that sound?"

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Nod nod nod. 

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And for a few minutes there is bustling and clinking and washing, but as promised the hug does not stop. And when the Skipper comes and kisses the Figurehead on the cheek, strong wooden arms scoop the girl into a princess carry, and she stands up.

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Eep!

It's a good eep, though. 

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Good eeps get warm smiles from both captain and ship, and they head up and out.

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The hatch opens silently ahead of them, and closes behind them after they step through.

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Her eyes go wide at this but she doesn't comment. 

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Out they step, up onto the main deck, and the Unterzee unfolds around them. The false stars shine overhead, and the water zips past to either side. Off in the distance, to the starboard side, a gold claw briefly splashes free of the the waves.

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She gasps. "What was that?"

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"Auroral megalops, young form of a giant zee-crab," the Skipper says with a smile. "Even comparatively small like this, they're still big enough to eat a pony."

After a moment, they approach a cozy bench near the bow, and sit down, setting the girl across both laps, and wrapping their arms and the Skipper's wings around her.

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She continues to gaze fascinatedly out at zee. 

After a little while: "What are those?" she asks, pointing up. 

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She looks up, then says, "False stars. They're not enormous balls of dangerous law-light, like true stars, but they twinkle prettily on the roof and give us what passes for a sky in the Neath."

They both keep petting her gently while they hold her.

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"They're not...what?"

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"This isn't very well known, but stars, including the sun, are living things, and they shine a light that defines what they will allow in their world. Anything beyond that — such as living ships, near-humans, or people who come back from the dead — is lethally unwelcome under their light."

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Blinkblinkblink. 

"--The Sun kills people?"

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"It does. For an example, death doesn't stick very well in the Neath. There are people who've died, and then gotten back up. But if any of them step foot into sunlight, they're dead once more."

She shakes her head for a moment. "I don't know what sunlight would do to me, and I don't plan to find out."

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"I hope Abigail and Louis stay on the surface forever." 

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"We do too," she says with a nod. "Are they the ones who hurt you?"

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Nod. 

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Something about the Skipper's expression stiffens, for a moment, and every drop of color drains out of her hair. Streaks of violant blossom amongst the bare, gant tresses, and a few curls of apocyan burn with intent and memory.

"They will not touch you again."

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SNUGGLE.

 

 

 

"...What's your hair doing?"

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And just like that, the colors wash back in, and she snuggles the Stowaway tightly with a smile. "It shifts with my moods. It started one day after I'd been experimenting with some esoteric studies of biology, you could say, and I decided to have a drink to wind down. I lost track of time, and how many drinks I'd had, and that's my last memory of that night. Next thing I knew it was the morning after, I was hungover hard enough to kill a surface girl, and my hair was a riot of neathbow colors."

She shakes her head with a laugh. "Swore off alcohol after that."

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"Enough to kill? I, uh--am a surface girl--I think--"

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The Skipper hums thoughtfully, then shakes her head. "It's more about where you are and where you're going than where you've been. It's not that being from the surface makes you more vulnerable, but that — despite all the myriad dangers — there are things that you can only survive in the Neath."

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"...I think I'm glad I didn't grow up down here." 

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She strokes her hair. "Why's that?"

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"If I died there would be questions. It held them back more than none."

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Sudden protective squeeze.

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She squeezes her Captain and Stowaway both.

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A slow breath, then, "At least you're here now. And never seeing those fools again unless it's to watch me pitch them overboard."

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"They stay on the Surface," she says firmly. 

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"Surface it is," she says with a nod.

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Huggle. "Your hair is pretty."

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A warm smile, a faint blush, a tight squeeze, and more snuggling. "Awww, thank you! You're rather pretty yourself."

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Wince. "I know." 

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Shit.

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A hissed breath in and a protective squeeze. "Sorry for reminding you of them."

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"--Oh, my guardians didn't do--anything like that--and once I got away from them, I could run away from whatever. It's just people haven't always been polite about telling me I was pretty is all."

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She almost growls, for a moment. "They should have been. You deserve better."

She shakes her head ruefully. "Going and educating them all on this obvious fact would cost time I could better spend taking care of you or teaching you about zailing or making you smile, though, so I'll have to leave them be."

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"--Do sailors down here not whistle?"

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"I've definitely known plenty of zailors who whistle shanties while they work, yeah. Always envied them a little, 'cause no matter how anyone tried to teach me, I can't whistle."

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"No, not shanties, whistling at girls."

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"...They do what now?"

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"They whistle? At girls? Like--" she does a credible imitation of a wolf-whistle. "And sometimes they say things."

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This gets another protective squeeze and a headshake. "I have not encountered that before. Sounds like some entitled foolishness, treating girls like that."

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"I don't know about entitled...they didn't seem to expect the girls to come over, even when they said to."

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The Skipper huffs, shakes her head, snuggles the Stowaway tighter, and scritches her. "No, I mean the assumption that their comments are even welcome at all. They act like they're entitled to express every desire they have, to anyone, regardless of how it might not be appreciated. Yes, it's sad that they don't have people sharing love with them, but that doesn't make it everyone's problem, or mean that any random girl on the street will appreciate their attention."

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"I don't think...love...is the thing they wanted."

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"No, I rather suspect it isn't. It's brighter and truer than they even know how to want."

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"Maybe they're sun-damaged."

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She giggles. "Could be! I've never heard of that effect of law-light before, but there are always more things to learn."

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"Would that every failing of society could be truthfully blamed on light poisoning~."

She snuggles both her Captain and Stowaway with a fond smile.

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Snuggle. 

"What failings of society does the Neath still have?"

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"Liars, cheats"

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"The Masters of the Bazaar, Seekers, serial killers, factionalism"

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"Exploiters, abusers, rapists"

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"Violent bigotry — though about species rather than sex — and senseless rules about rationing immortality"

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"Spirifers"

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"Ugh, yes, the trade in souls."

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She tenderly squeezes her captain.

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She takes a breath, then smiles lopsidedly. "So yes, people continue to find ways to be awful, and still give in to the poison of what's been done before. But we try to make the best of it, and keep fixing what we can."

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"I don't know what all of those things are."

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"The Masters of the Bazaar are our local corrupt authorities, imposing censorship and terrible constables, and hiring thugs to break up strikes. The Seekers of the Name are a violent and murderous cult."

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"Spirifers are those who extract souls from people and sell them. It's an awful business, made worse by the fact that the soulless can walk and talk and interact, so the vulnerable think it's safe. It's not. Effects vary, but I've known people to change an awful lot after their soul was removed."

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She shakes her head and snuggles her ship and her new friend tighter. "Any others you had questions about?

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"--I mean, isn't it better for them not to be dead, even if bad things happen to them...?"

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"Death mostly isn't the alternative there. There are devils trying to market the loss of one's soul as a good thing, and buy them from people who don't understand the effects it can have. There are other ways to get money than losing a part of who you are."

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"I mean--if the Devils are powerful--I guess the Devils might not be powerful..."

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"Hell is not so powerful that they can demand souls from the unwilling en masse. The vast majority of souls are extracted as legal and contracted sales from the ignorant and desperate."

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"There's--there's two questions. There's, can the Devils approach London and say, 'give us all your souls,' and there's, if you're poor and powerless and alone, do you have any defense against any Devil who takes an interest in you."

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She smiles softly, "Oh, you're just a delight, clever and thoughtful and asking good questions. They didn't remotely deserve you, on the surface." She gives the girl another squeeze, then impulsively kisses the top of her head.

"To the first, no, Hell is not nearly strong enough to threaten London. There was an attempt at an invasion of Hell, shortly after the Fall, but it went terribly wrong. As it stands, London is not strong enough to conquer Hell, but hopes to be eventually."

"As to the latter question, Devils are roughly on par with humans in terms of physical capabilities. They don't have any particular advantages, and must rely on their cunning. This is why they use lies and trickery to convince people to give up their souls, rather than taking them by force. It ever happens, but usually only to an already-incapacitated human."

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"...But if they have money, they can pay people who are strong."

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"Hell may have money, but most devils don't have enough money to hire thugs, nor does Hell have enough money to stop London from gathering as many allies as they can and crushing them if they become that much of a threat. Hell is satisfied with the current balance, and can't afford to destabilize it."

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"But if people weren't selling their souls, the equilibrium would be different, and Hell wouldn't like it as much."

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"London lost its attempted invasion because it wasn't prepared, not because Hell is strong enough or rich enough to contest a truly dedicated effort to crush it. There are more human cities in the Neath than just London, and if Hell becomes an open threat to humanity as a whole, they're quite aware they won't be able to stand against that much attention. So even if people became wise to Hell's tricks and the flow of souls slowed dramatically, Hell would not be able to pick much of a fight about it."

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"I guess I would have to know more about Devils and the War before I speculated further," she says dubiously.

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This merits another kiss atop her head, in the Skipper's opinion. "You're welcome to take a look in my little library here aboard the ship, though I don't think I have any of my books on the Brass Embassy on board right now. I'm sure I have some good ones from different perspectives back at my base in Port Carnelian, though, and if you decide to stick with us that long you can absolutely have run of the library next time we stop there."

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"I want to stick with you," she says immediately. 

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"Eee, really? Good! We'll have to outfit you better, having the only outfit you own be the clothes you escaped in just isn't good for you, and I don't think you're either of our sizes, and we'll have to teach you a little of everything and see what you like doing best, and we've got to show you everything, there's so much to the zee and you deserve to see it all!"

She pauses, catching her breath, squeezing the girl tightly, then adds, "Oh, and my name is Sable Crawford, and this," she nods indicatively at her wooden girlfriend, "is Maya. If you're really sticking around you get to call us Sable and Maya."

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"I'm Anselma Sumner." 

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"Oh, Anselma is such a pretty name. I'm so glad you're staying, we're going to have such fun teaching you and showing you around the Neath." She snuggles Anselma tighter with a grin.

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Snuggle!

"I want to learn everything. Starting with how to be useful on board this ship. This...you. This body of yours? I'm not sure how to talk about it, this doesn't come up on the Surface."

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Maya giggles. "It's okay to call me a ship. I am a ship. Sometimes we just say 'on board' or 'aboard' to be very short, or we'll reference my registered name — the Heart's Handbasket — to refer to my ship form separate from my figurehead body. So you might hear us say 'aboard the Handbasket' or 'back to the Handbasket'. She combs her fingers tenderly through Anselma's hair. "Your love of learning is so delightful."

"As far as ways to help out aboard, there are three main jobs that aren't best left exclusively to Sable and I, apart from general hauling and tidying which we'll all help with. First, you and Sable both need to eat, so someone has to to cook. Sable enjoys it well enough, but you're welcome to give it a try. Second is gunnery. I have two guns on board: a forward gun and a deck gun. I can aim and fire the forward gun well enough, from the eyes painted on my hull in front of it, but I don't have as good a view from the deck gun unless I stand there in this body, and I can't reload either gun other than manually. So we'll definitely train you in loading my guns, and on aiming and firing the deck gun. Third, there's medicine. Injuries do happen, and it's worthwhile to have someone who can patch you two squishy humans up." She smiles fondly and strokes each girl's cheek.

"The last major role is more sensitive, for me. I can't repair myself properly. It's," she pauses and bites her lip for a moment, "it's a bit intimate, working in engineering. You're the first person we've considered training to help Sable with that."

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"I want to help any way I can," she says solemnly, nodding at the import of it. 

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Sable nods. "Then we'll start training you on the guns tomorrow, maybe today if you feel up to it. I want you to focus on healing up from your escape, though. That's the top priority."

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"Healing up? I'm not hurt."

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"You're dangerously underweight, hon. You're malnourished enough that you don't even realize it, because you're just used to it." She shakes her head for a moment.

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"It's not really lunch time yet, but let me know as soon as you think you could handle a snack or a meal."

And she protectively snuggles Anselma some more.

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Hug. 

"...I mean, I knew I was hungry. And skinny. But being skinny isn't...a...wound?"

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"Health is about more than just cuts and broken bones and infections, hon. Being malnourished means your body doesn't have the energy to keep operating, and so it starts burning parts of its own structure for fuel. That's why people get really skinny when they're underfed — their bodies are using up things that would normally serve a functional purpose."

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"It would be like if I used pieces of my decking in my engines, dear."

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"...Oh." 

So that's one more thing they stole from her. And she didn't even know they were doing it.

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Maya and Sable both squeeze her and nod. "You can bounce back, though. If you eat well and stay active, you'll build yourself back strong," Maya reassures her.

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"Yeah."

But also fuck those guys SO MUCH. 

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So Much.

Also, much hug.

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"Will it help me get better that I'm down here?"

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"It will! There is a mountain on the southern continent — also called the Elder Continent — that shines with its own special kind of light. The Mountain of Light shines with a light that is life, instead of law as the stars do. That's why it's possible to bounce back from death in the Neath, and why people heal quicker here as well. I quite suspect it will help you heal as well. Conveniently, our home-base is on the southern coast, and thus much closer to it, meaning you'll get more exposure to it with us than the average London resident would."

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"Oooooh. How does it do that." 

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"We don't fully know! The Mountain of Light is considered by many to be one of the three gods of the Neath — Stone of 'Stone, Storm, and Salt' — and there's anecdotal evidence that attracting Stone's attention positively can grant you better health and resilience, but all of that is just speculation about what Stone does, not how. I'd love to find out, but unless someone learns to properly talk to the Mountain and gets close enough to ask, we're not likely to find out."

"We do know that pieces of the Mountain retain this property. A shard of the Mountain was shoved into the chest of the man who became the King of Polythreme. He's called the King with a Hundred Hearts, and he is extremely immortal. He is also why objects come to life on Polythreme, and in turn why I built Maya there."

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"So the Mountain of Light is why you're alive?"

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She nods and smiles. "It is!"

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Snuggle. "I like it, then."

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Such snuggle. "We do too~"

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So much snuggle.

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A few minutes later, Maya looks up, ahead, and slightly to port.

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Then she grins warmly. "Oh, you'll like this one. Hurry to the rail, dear, port side."

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She hurries over to the port side rail. 

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Sable and Maya follow her, and after a moment, Maya points to a faint glow visible beneath the waves.

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She peers down, eyes wide. 

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Glowing beneath the the murky peligin of the unterzee is a small squid — only barely as big as she is — with vivid apocyan spots and irrigo eyes. A pale blue tentacle briefly splashes out of the water as it zips to the north alongside them, though they're gradually overtaking it.

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"--Oh wow, that's so pretty and cute..."

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She wraps an arm around Anselma, hugging her close. "Isn't it just? Probably one of my favorite zee-creatures, and one of the only peaceful ones. You usually see more of them around the Principals of Coral, but now and then one turns up over here."

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Maya wraps her arm around Anselma from the other side, snuggling in with a soft smile.

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Snuggle snuggle snuggle. 

 

The zee is beautiful, but Anise would like to start learning how to be useful before they reach London. 

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She may appreciate this, then. After several minutes more of glowing fish, Maya looks up.

"Jillyfleur, Captain. Hasn't spotted us yet, but it will."

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And if Anise follows Maya's gaze and looks ahead, and a tiny bit starboard, she'll see a jellyfish as big as a mastiff, with a cap that resembles a woman's face.

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"--Whoah. Why does it have a face."

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"No one's quite sure, but if you'd like to learn about gunnery, and maybe dissect it afterward, now's your chance."

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"--Yes, absolutely!" Bounce bounce. 

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And with a smile and a nod, Sable leads the way to the Handbasket's deck gun, a short distance aft of of where they'd been sitting earlier.

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There is a steel case secured to the deck, right next to a small platform for a gunner to stand, with two control wheels (labeled "Pitch" and "Rotation"), each with a perpendicular handle for easier turning. On the side of the barrel, is a screw-fastened breech block. Mounted on a nearby bulkhead is a reference table, matching distances in feet down the side and arcane shorthand labels along the top to angles in degrees. Strapped down to a nearby rack is a long device with two eye-pieces near the center, two lenses at the far ends on the opposite side, and a knob. 

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Anselma peers at the reference table, trying to see if anything on it matches obviously to anything on the gun. 

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It does! The angles in the intersections of the reference table are all two-digit numbers measured in degrees, and the pitch dial has a little two-digit display measured in degrees as well.

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And then Sable unlatches and opens the steel case, revealing stacks of ammunition, each stack labeled with one of the shorthand labels along the top of the reference table.

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Anselma's eyes flick between paying attention to what Sable is doing and trying to figure out which items in the reference table best match the current situation. 

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The ship slows to a halt.

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Sable unscrews and opens the breech, pulling out a block as wide as the cartridges. "I make all our shells myself. We have different loads for different types of targets. Given that jillyfleurs are on the small side, for zee-beasts, and are organic creatures rather than armored ships, we want a 'light flensing, type one', or LF1, shell."

Sure enough, there's a column labeled LF1, and a stack of shells labeled LF1. Sable pulls one of the shells out and fits it into the breech, then slides the block in, then clamps it down with the screw.

"We have to get the breech clamped down nice and tight every time, because that's what keeps all the explosion going out the end of the barrel, rather than out the breech and in our faces."

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"I assume that would be bad," she says, paying close attention. 

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"It would! I'm not a fan of bursts of fire in my face, for sure, and we need all of that explosion to be caught behind the shell itself, carrying it out the barrel."

She then unstraps the long object from rack. "This is a rangefinder. I've done this enough that I can eyeball it decently, but this lets you get fairly precise distances from you to any given object on the zee. You look in these two eyepieces here, point it at the target, and twist the knob until everything overlaps cleanly in your view. Then, when you look at the side of it, it'll show you how far away the target it."

She demonstrates this, and points out the resulting range. "This is the range, which you can use in combination with what cartridge you're firing to get the pitch you'll be firing at. And then you spin these wheels to line up the shot."

Sable dials in the trajectory carefully, making minor adjustments as she goes.

"The angles in this table are approximations for ideal conditions. Over time, you'll learn a sense of how to adjust them for wind, or the target's motion."

Every so often she tweaks the dials just a bit.

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Anise pays close attention the whole time, especially to the dial tweaks. 

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The dial tweaks seem to be about raising and lowering the pitch very slightly when the jillyfleur gets closer or farther away, and rotating the whole gun minutely when it moves side to side.

"So, would you care to do the honors? You'll need to pull this spring-loaded piece back until it latches, then unlatch it."

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"Yes!" 

She takes hold of the piece quickly but carefully, not wanting to hesitate too long to lose the jillyfleur or act so hastily she fucks something up, and pulls it back, and then unlatches it. 

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When she unlatches the hammer, it springs forward and taps the back of the barrel, and suddenly there is an enormous BOOM! Smoke and fire burst from the muzzle of the gun, and a moment later there is a great splashing thud as the shell punches through the jillyfleur, which falls still.

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"Whoah." 

 

"So did we just need that thing to not attack us or do we want to scavenge it for parts."

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"Yes."

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"And good job!"

Sable kisses the top of Anselma's head, smiling.

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Eeeeeeeee.

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Sable and Maya snuggle her tightly between them, grinning happily.

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Happy rescued cutie: best thing.

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The engines start back up, bringing them closer to the fresh kill.

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Snuggles only make the rescued cutie happier!!!

When they reach the jillyfleur's remains, Anselma peers out to see what she can see. 

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She sees a slightly deflated-looking jillyfleur cap, with a pattern of markings that distinctly resembles a woman's face.

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She also sees a pair of long, round, dark purple tentacles, with feathery bioluminescent patterns on them, stretching down from the ship, carrying a net. The net is scooped under the jillyfleur and hauled back up, where the tentacles turn out to be coming from Sable's back, just below her wings.

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Uh

What???

Whoah

Anise is having some feelings about this! Anise has no clue what these feelings are. 

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"Oh, um, yep. I have tentacles. There's a bit of a story in that."

She carries the jillyfleur over to a table, sets it down, and starts looking it over while she grabs a large knife from a nearby rack.

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"They're so pretty."

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Sable blushes happily. "I'm glad you like them! I spent a lot of time trying to get them right."

Finding the jillyfleur corpse satisfactory, she starts cutting it open, carving some pieces out and putting them in a one of two small trays, and occasionally tossing a piece overboard. Her tentacles are liberally involved in this process, holding some spots open, moving carved-out pieces around, and flinging away the waste.

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"...Is the story the kind that could happen to someone else."

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"It is, as a matter of fact, the kind of story that could happen to someone who asked very nicely and was very patient and helped with the design work."

Cut, cut, chop, cut, toss, cut.

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Tiny wiggle. "Design work?"

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"Mhm! Design work. I had to completely design how I wanted to rearrange my body."

A wing wraps around her and snugs her close while Sable keeps butchering the jillyfleur.

"How much story do you want, Anselma?"

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"Maybe not the whole thing if it takes a really long time?"

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"It's not a terribly long story, just somewhat personal. What do you know about transgender people?"

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"No...thing? What's that?"

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"Sometimes people are born with a soul that doesn't quite match what society calls them based on their body. A child might look like a little boy, and be called a little boy by society, but really be a little girl, in her heart and her soul and her mind."

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"Oh. Did that happen to you? I'm sorry."

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"Yep. My mom was decent about it, though, before she died."

Sable snuggles into Anise and Maya both.

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"That's good. Nobody ever said I wasn't a girl, but--they said other things. There are things people shouldn't say." 

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"There are things people shouldn't say. There are also people who are very lucky that they're not close enough to have some sense knocked into them."

Protective squeeze.

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She shakes her head and continues. "Eventually I learned about a a special trick that doesn't work under law-light, called red science. With careful use, one can use it to alter a body in all sorts of ways. So I trained up very carefully and gave myself the body I was supposed to have. The wings are original, but I modified just about everything else."

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"Oh, cool!" she enthuses. "So you designed those tentacles yourself? They're beautiful."

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"Thank you! Yes, I did. My wings are original, my hair is an accident, but everything else about me is quite deliberate. I modeled the pattern on my tentacles after the feathers on my wings, actually."

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"That makes sense. I might do something else, then...maybe something amber? I'm mostly, you know, human colors, so autumn colors would probably work for me..."

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Sable nods and smiles. "That makes sense. I think amber could look quite nice on you. The tricky part about tentacles is that you have to figure out where you're going to store them when you're not using them, make room for them, and make a path for them to emerge wherever you want them to pop out."

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"I don't store my arms when I'm not using them..."

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"Fair point! That's a matter of personal preference, I suppose. I've gotten attached to being able to surprise people with them, perhaps. They see my wings and hair and figure that I'm just a colorful bird-girl. They make assumptions that I can take advantage of. That, and perhaps I'm just a fan of making things that transform."

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"Oh. I see. I don't...I don't like having to be small."

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Another protective squeeze. "I'm the opposite, in a way. I spent a lot of time and effort trying to make sure I wouldn't be forced to become big and strapping and hairy. But I get it. I made my able to tuck away because I like having the option. Whether or not we design yours with an option to retract, on my ship you'll always have the right to stretch as tall and as far as you want."

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"...Yeah." 

Small nuzzle. 

"Plus if you're the bird girl and I'm the girl with the glowy tentacles nobody's going to expect you to have glowy tentacles."

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Giggly forehead kiss. "Oh that's excellent. Clever cutie."

Snuggle some more.

"There's a bonus to not making them retractable, too: we don't have to make room inside you to store them."

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"--What would you take out???"

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"I mean, there are some unnecessary things, like the appendix, and some things can be optimized enough to take up less space. Plus, the design I settled on for the internal structure of the tentacles can collapse down to a fraction of it's extended volume."

 

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???

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"Oh. Y'know what? I just remembered I'm partly filling the tentacles from fluid in a pocket dimension that I can't give you a copy of. At least I don't think so? Well. Maybe. It would be very very difficult. And take a lot of research. Which would be fun, but in retrospect that makes it a very good thing you've already expressed a preference for not retracting them."

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"Oh...kay..."

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"Are you okay???"

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"I'm just realizing why I was so ditzy just now."

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"You mean why you forgot you had fluid sacs inside you?"

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"Why I forgot they weren't normal, replicable biology, but yeah."

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Maya looks at Sable, smirking, and then starts giggling.

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"Oh, that makes more sense. So why, though?"

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Maya just giggles harder.

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Sable huffs at Maya, then turns back to Anselma, blushing. "Um. I usually only get ditzy like this when I'm distracted by how much I like someone."

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"And you like...me...that much?"

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"Um. Um. Yes. And I feel complicated about this because I'm literally the first person to be nice to you in years, and you're currently depending on us for everything, and I wouldn't use that to make you do anything you didn't want but someone in my position could, and I really want to do right by you."

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"Something I don't want...like...what..."

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"Well, a less scrupulous girl in my position could say something like 'if you don't sleep with me, you get kicked out at the next port', and I really value relationships not being based on threats of homelessness, y'know?"

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"Sleep with--did you keep the boy parts?"

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"Anselma, before we get into questions of anatomy, have you not heard of lesbians before? Two cis girls — cisgender means the opposite of transgender, someone whose soul matches what they were labeled — two girls can sleep together just as easily as a girl and a boy."

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"I was under the impression that sex was the thing where a penis enters a vagina."

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"Sex is more properly any activity where two or more consenting parties collaborate on some or all of them having orgasms."

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"What's an orgasm?"

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"It's a sometimes-overwhelming climax of pleasure reached during sexual activity, including solo (which is called masturbation)."

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"What makes that...happen."

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"Mostly it's from physical stimulation of genitalia, especially the clitoris, and the head of the penis. There are of course mediating factors of emotions and mental states and context, but it's rare that one can have an orgasm without any physical stimulation at all."

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"What is the clitoris."

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"Extremely sensitive little nub nestled in a hood at the top of the labial folds. Extends backward to partially wrap a band around the vagina, near the entrance but not all the way there. Can be overstimulating to the point of pain if touched directly when you're not aroused yet. Can also be utterly amazing."

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"Labial folds?"

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She's not even surprised anymore. "The sensitive folds of skin around the entrance of the vagina."

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"Huh. Okay."

How did they get here again? She rewinds the conversation in her head. 

"And you're...worried about pressuring me to sleep with you."

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"Yep. I'm worried about a situation where the mere fact of my being interested in you while also being your source of food and shelter creates pressure on you to keep me happy, even at the expense of your own boundaries or desires. Pressure that could wind up being subconscious. If I had wound up realizing this situation in a way where there hadn't already been obviously visible effects, I likely wouldn't have even mentioned it until after I'd ensured you had clothes, money, a suitcase, and safely marketable skills, so that I'd be more confident in your ability to tell me no without fear of unfortunate consequences."

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"But...I want to make you happy anyway."

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Sable gives Anselma a worried smile. "Well, um, I guess the best I can do here is let you choose what, if anything, happens as a result of all this, and keep prioritizing making sure you've got all your clothes and necessities, and pay you for the work you do. Which I was already planning to do, but now it does double duty in making sure there's less of a power imbalance."

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"Okay. I promise I won't kiss you unless I decide I want to."

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"Okay. Good. I appreciate that."

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Snuggle. It has not occurred to Anselma that snuggling might be affected by this conversation. 

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So much snuggle. Sable is determinedly not reading into anything. She kisses Anselma's cheek.

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Maya snuggles as well, and kisses her other cheek.

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After a moment though, her expression falls, twisting to embarrassment and shock.

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She hides her face in Anselma's shoulder and hair.

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Suspicious squint. 

"I didn't even say anything!"

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"Oh Gods, I just explained the bees and the bats to my crush," she whines.

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"The what?"

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Muffled mumbling, then, "That's what we call the sex ed talk down here. Usually a parent is supposed to give it. I got mine from the first officer of a ship I was on."

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"Oh. I didn't have anyone like that. My foster mother hit me when I started my monthlies because I got blood on some stuff."

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"It certainly wasn't your fault you didn't get the explanation. Your foster mother should consider herself lucky that I can't go to the surface, though."

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"...I still can. I wonder if there are any interesting Neathy weapons that would still work in sunlight...no, better not to have to ever see them again."

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"They mostly don't, I think. There may be some that do, but I don't know what they are. And yes, it's better to stay down here where you can have a more interesting life than they'd ever even dream of, without ever seeing them again."

 

"Even if it would be very cathartic to force them to experience the emotional weight of what they put you through."

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"That would definitely take more time than I'm willing to spend in their presence."

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"Yep. Unless we used a Neathy shortcut, but again those mostly don't work on the Surface."

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"So I guess we're just settling for having fascinating lives they can't even dream of."

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"And outliving them. Like, a lot."

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"Damn right. The three of us are going to be as immortal as I can safely make us, if I have anything to say about it."

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<3

 

"Is unsafe immortality much of a concern? ...I mean, I assume it's not hard to not shove a chunk of mountain in your chest..."

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"Becoming a Tomb-Colonist, for one. If you get too wounded at once, or let aging catch up too close, without healing it off before it gets too far, you can become a fragile, decrepit being, held together by bandages and and stubbornness."

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"Let's not do that!"

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"Definitely not. Lots of Mountain-light exposure for us to heal up better from any injuries, and and nail down an aging solution before we age much, and avoid the whole tomb-colonist mess altogether."

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And after some more snuggles, the clock chimes noon.

"Lunchtime. I'm not hungry, but I bet you two are." Maya leans in and pecks Sable on the lips, then kisses Anselma's cheek.

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Anselma blinks when Maya kisses Sable but makes no other reaction. 

"I'm hungry," she agrees. 

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"I feel like sandwiches. Use up some of the fresh bread, some of the tomatoes and lettuce. And we've got plenty of smoked beef and cheese we can slice up."

She stands up, playfully scooping Anselma up into her arms as she does so. She pecks a little kiss to her forehead. "How's that sound to you?"

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Ee!

"Sounds good," she says meltily. 

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Meltily, eh? Well, Sable had been considering putting Anselma down, but now she's just going to get carried all the way to the galley.

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Gooooosh. 

Anselma is not going to have words about this but she is going to have FEELINGS. 

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Sable can't claim to have planned for this outcome, but she sure as salt endorses it.

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When they arrive, Maya sits down in a spot with a good view of the rest of the galley.

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Sable pecks a kiss to Anselma's forehead and passes her into Maya's arms, then sets to preparing the sandwiches.

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Maya pets Anselma's hair and holds her tenderly while their Captain bustles about, arms and tentacles whipping across the galley, vegetables being chopped, condiments being spread.

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"You guys are the best," Anselma mumbles into Maya's lap. 

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Maya snuggles her delightedly and keeps petting.

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"Awwwwww!"

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"Taking care of people we like is one of our absolute favorite things."

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Blush blush blush. 

"Why aren't there more, then? Am I your first stowaway?"

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"First we really wanted to keep," comes Sable's answer as she makes lunch, "and the first who wanted to be kept."

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"Who didn't want to be kept?"

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She takes a slow breath, hair burning apocyan and gant and violant and viric with memory and regret and unforgettable costs and surreality, then sets two enormous sandwiches down on the table, one for herself and one for Anselma — they're gorgeous, too, sliced beef, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, mustard, all on sourdough buns.

Sable sits down across from Anselma, a sad smile on her face, tears running down her cheeks. "The ones too hurt to ever trust again. The ones who're in too deep and think they have to hurt others now or they'll keep getting hurt. The ones who've been been chewed up by the simple human horrors of the world and figure any kindness must be a threat. The ones who don't know how to stop running and fighting, anymore, because they never had a break and so it broke them instead."

She takes a bite of her sandwich, face still tear-streaked, and sighs sadly.

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Oh no. Hugs. 

"I don't...know how anyone could not trust you. I thought I was too hurt to trust, but then I wouldn't've believed someone like you could exist if I hadn't seen it."

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Hugs! Hugs and tears and bright, lopsided smiles. And good food.

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So much hug.

"Our Captain really is something special. Love you, Sable."

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"Love you too, Maya." She sighs warmly and snuggles both girls.

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"So...you two are...a thing...and you, Maya, do not object to Sable wanting to kiss me."

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"We are a couple, yes. And no, I do not object to Sable wanting to kiss you. For that matter, I am also interested in kissing you. Affection is not subject to scarcity or conservation laws. Love has no need to abide rules about only loving one person at a time. We dislike the idea of obligation, or jealousy, or restriction. You can date neither of us, or one of us, or both of us. You can start with one and then try dating two, or you can dive head-first into both at once. This area of relationship types is called polyamory, and the only rules are that we put in the effort to communicate honestly and that we all value each other's happiness."

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"There is so much stuff I've never even heard of."

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"We're quite glad to take our time and teach you what we know and learn the rest together. It's okay not to know these things yet. It's certainly not your fault."

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"I don't feel guilty, I feel annoyed. I want to know the things!"

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Sable cackles. "Damn right you do. The world has never been good at keeping secrets from me, Anselma, and it's not about to suddenly get good at it now. And if you're sticking with us, then I'm damn well going to share all that learning with you as we go."

She gives a mad grin, tearstreaks still drying on her face. "Where's the fun in stealing all the world's secrets if you don't get to share 'em with people you like?"

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She gives her a look of wide-eyed awe, then her face shifts to something more thoughtful. 

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"What's on your mind, cutie?"

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"--Well, I'm pretty sure I want to kiss you, but since you were freaking out about it earlier I want to be really sure."

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Well, after a moment of shock, how about Sable just blushes vividly and (poorly) hides her enormous grin by eating more of her sandwhich?

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...Oh no, cute. 

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Sable's had to cope with Anselma being unfairly cute all day. It looks like unfair cuteness is just something this ship and crew will need to learn to cope with.

 

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Maya grins smugly at Sable and pets Anselma some more.

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That perhaps brightens the blush a smidge.

"How 'bout after lunch we pick you out some quarters and let you look at my mini-library?"

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"--Library?"

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"Oh it barely counts, not in comparison to what I've got in the base in Port Carnelian, but I have a shelf or two of books here in our quarters. You're welcome to pick out any book you like from there."

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"I like books!"

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"Oh good." And presently she finishes the last bite of her sandwich.

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Anselma takes slightly longer to finish her sandwich because she has switched from the "if it's already in my stomach they can't take it away" trauma reaction to food insecurity, to the "crumbs going to waste is a sin" trauma reaction to food insecurity.

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This is extremely valid and Sable is quite content to just be delighted about successfully putting a second hearty meal into the girl.

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And once she's very thoroughly cleaned her plate Anselma is VERY EXCITED about the mini-library. 

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Then Maya washes the plates off and Sable leads the way belowdeck, past crew quarters, to a hatch at the end of the corridor, which swings open as they approach. Inside is a small office, with an elegant wooden desk, two comfortable-looking chairs on this side of it, and an exquisite-looking swivel chair on the far side. Behind the desk is a large window, looking out onto the zee behind the ship, and on the wall to the starboard side is a modest bookcase, latched (but not locked) to keep books from spilling out. Through the glass, Anselma can see three small shelves. The top shelf appears to contain reference material, with titles that mention "Correspondence", "Ballistic Engineering", and "Red Science", among what look to be a few mechanical engineering references, navigational references, and a few journals and notebooks. The middle shelf covers histories and biographies, including a book on London, one on the Khanate, and one on someone called The Last Curator. The bottom shelf contains fiction: Faust, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, The Count of Monte Cristo, Oliver Twist, Grimms' Fairy Tales, The Three Musketeers, Passionate Trials, Dinner with Love, Swashbuckling Sarah, Sarah's Swashbucklers, Red Riding Hood: Revisited, The Mage Battery, Diaries of a Vampiress, The Scrivener, Nancy and the Knife Thrower, and The Witch's Feast. The books on latter half of the bottom shelf seems to have just a bit more wear than the rest, with the exception of the reference books.

"Tada, my office, and the books I've currently got on board. You're welcome to read anything you'd like."

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Anselma scans the titles of the books and picks up the Red Riding Hood one on the grounds that she has ever heard of Red Riding Hood. 

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She... totally forgot half that shelf was erotica, didn't she?

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Sable blushes again. "Um. Fair warning, that book is erotic literature. Everything to the right of The Three Musketeers is, actually."

The cover art features a slim but buff wolfman, looking down at a sexed up Red Riding Hood and licking his lips, while Red is biting her lip and looks almost more aroused than scared.

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"Oh!" 

Anselma, whose priors on this sort of thing have been warped all to hell, does not think to connect the fact that Sable has a crush on her with erotic literature and come up with "embarrassment" as an answer. If she had been looking at Sable, she would have seen the Faces, but instead she has flipped open the book and begun reading. 

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She's not sure why she didn't expect this outcome. She should have expected this outcome.

“If you'd like to just start reading, you're welcome to one of my chairs, or we could pick out quarters for you."

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She sits down, still reading. It has been too long since she got to read an actual book. 

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Well, then Sable will grab one of her references on red science and start making notes on ideas for Anselma's tentacles.

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Red Riding Hood is a thoroughly described and sexy older teen, and she's packed a basket of potently healing muffins for her auntie, who's quite sick, in the hopes of saving her auntie the trouble of limping to the next town over to see the healer. She heads out, and is surreptitiously stalked briefly by a Wolf. The Wolf gets nearly as much description as Red does: ten feet tall, muscular, powerful jaws, and much more. He smells the distinctive scent of healing potions in the muffins, and runs ahead.

Eventually Red gets to Auntie's house and lets herself in. She looks for Auntie, finds a note instead. She'd just left for town the day before. Red flops onto Auntie's couch, and wonders aloud what she's going to do with the muffins now.

And that's when the Wolf emerges from the other room.

Red looks quite delicious, the Wolf explains, and he can think of a use for the muffins.

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Is the use for the muffins that he's going to eat part of her and then heal her so he can do it again??? Eesh. 

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If he's planning to eat her, Red asks, why does he bring up the muffins? That doesn't sound like a very fun time for her, in either case.

But this, the Wolf argues, is exactly the point of the muffins. As is, she's just one morsel, not quite filling for him. But the muffins mean he could keep eating until he was truly full, and and they twist pain around as part of their magic. Plus, an eager meal who's having a good time is so much more fun, in his opinion. And, the rare times when he's had healing magic like this available, his meals have always gone home very thoroughly satisfied.

It's at this point that Red notices one of the Wolf's other attributes.

And she stops and considers for a time, biting her lip.

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If Anise were in Red's position she would brain the Wolf with the most convenient heavy object. He's a stranger and she has no reason to trust him. 

But this is a story, and as a story, it might be going somewhere interesting. 

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That would certainly be the sensible thing to do, wouldn't it? For reasons that only make sense in erotica, Red decides that, since she does remember this property of the muffin recipe, she's going to give this a try. She takes a preemptive bite of muffin for the pain-twisting, and tells the wolf to fuck her first.

He turns out to have a cock that necessitates a bite of muffin all on its own. He is quite a considerate lover, and spends quite some time warming her up, licking her and teasing her and playing with her, and then she spends the whole night moaning in delight, both from being fucked and being dinner.

There are no muffins left come morning, and Red has resolved to beg the recipe from her mom when she gets home.

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Well. 

It isn't not hot. The biting to the point of actually removing flesh is maybe not so much her thing. But it's certainly not enough to spoil the rest, and the rest is...yes. 

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Well, if Anselma would like to find out how much the rest is indicative of her Captain's taste, there remain another nine books worth of data on the subject.

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Or she could report her findings so far. Sable is flipping through two references on red science and making lots of notes in a notebook.

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"So I think I have discovered that I am not a huge fan of flesh being, like, removed."

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Sable looks up, blushes, smiles. "That is useful self-discovery! Probably rule out Dinner with Love and The Witch's Feast then. And there's a scene you may want to skip in the second Sarah book, Sarah's Swashbucklers."

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"I didn't, like, actively hate it, it just wasn't appealing. Biting without removing flesh is really good though."

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That gets a grin and more blushing. "Noted. I'd probably suggest Diaries of a Vampiress, then."

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"Okay!" 

She has any idea what a vampire is and that does sound much better. She goes off to investigate this book. 

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Diaries of a Vampiress follows the adventures of a vampiric lesbian named Lilah. The book follows an epistolary format, made entirely of excerpts from her diaries over her very long life. It opens with a caveat that she is reconstructing her first two decades of unlife after the fact, and a regret that she did not realize the value of it before her thirties.

The first entry is when she's seventeen, a hundred years or so before King Arthur's time. She runs away from home after her family arranges her marriage to a much older man, only to be found by a vampire named Leander. Leander turns her, and uses mind magic to compel her loyalty and sexual favors. She learns much of being a vampire from him — including, eventually, how to defend her mind from intrusion. This backfires on Leander, though not immediately. She takes her time, making sure she learns everything he knows, and then waits to catch him unprepared.

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Wow what an asshole! Oh she is so in favor of things backfiring on this guy. 

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Leander meets the sun when Lilah is twenty-three. Lilah forces herself to stay awake and watch him burn to ash, bundled up in several layers and under the roof of the gatehouse of his her castle. It's the most cathartic thing she's ever experienced.

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AW YIS. 

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From then on, Lilah doesn't kill her meals as often (Leander had insisted on doing so), and almost exclusively drinks from women. She learns basic healing magic, and spends three years in a convent putting it to use covertly on behalf of the nearby villages. She takes great pains to reconstruct her memories of her first lover — the first she'd chosen, anyway: red hair, green eyes, slender, a fellow nun, freckles all over her chest and arms (she checked). It was with this first girlfriend that she learned to make feeding pleasurable.

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Awwwwww. 

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Eventually, a witch-hunter hears rumors of her work as a healer, and comes to hunt her down. The convent is burned down, and her lover perishes in the blaze. Lilah barely escapes.

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Oh no!!! Lilah's poor lover!!!

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She spends a decade wandering the British countryside, mourning, and then returns to reclaim her castle. This catches her diary reconstructions up to the present day, and she remarks that her next goal is to find a safer way to get meals and give back to the populace without drawing the attention of a witch-hunter or a vampire-hunter.

She spends a few years doing a convincing impression of one of the High Fae, making use of her vampiric speed and subtle touches of mind magic to keep from being tracked or recognized. At this point she starts using the name Morgan in public, and eventually discovers a good-hearted mortal mage named Myrddin Emrys. She challenges him as hard as she can, pushing him to learn and grow, but otherwise stays out of his way. She's quite proud when he picks and helps Arthur. Unfortunately, someone catches wind of her scandalous romances — being a lesbian is almost more shocking than being a vampire — and convinces Arthur and Myrddin that she's evil, and the resulting fights go down as legends.

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Wow. 

Anselma is not so well-read that she had ever heard of lesbianism before, but she is certainly well-read enough to have heard of King Arthur and Merlin. 

Why would lesbianism be more alarming than vampirism??? This version of Merlin and Arthur are pretty dumb. 

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It's implied that Lilah doesn't blame Arthur and Merlin for this so much as whoever was whispering in their ears, but powerful men do have a history of being dumb sometimes. They seem to care an awful lot about heirs and inheritance.

Lilah is forced to abandon Britain for a time, and her entries over the next three decades are scenes of debauchery as she sleeps her way across the convents of Europe. She hones her skills as a lover — and as a healer, because many times she scratches and cuts her lovers in the throes of passion. She kisses with hints of trailing fang, teases along her lovers necks, lets them playfully bite her in return — though never enough to draw blood, because she's not ready to turn any of them.

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This sort of makes Anselma sad about Lilah's first lover again. 

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After this, she picks up a hobby of finding abusive husbands, draining them dry, giving their widows a night or three of passion, and then vanishing into the night leaving a bit of money behind. A decade passes like this, before she decides it's time to return to Britain again.

She reclaims her castle (again), and then probes nearby towns for cute lesbians, for clever girls who long for more interesting lives than being married off to some petty farmer. She finds two, and whisks them off to her castle. They study literature, philosophy, science, magic, and each other's bodies.

After several years the girlfriends start craving a return to the sunlit world, and she sets them up with money in towns that can make use of their intelligence, then spends a few years fucking and drinking her way across the island again.

This cycle repeats twice more, transcribed to her diaries in lovingly graphic detail, before something unexpected happens: she falls in love with one of her mortal girlfriends.

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Is the castle associated with Morgana's legend? Do stories arise as a result of the drained husbands?

(Gosh the porn is hot.)

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There are tiny hints that imply the castle might be a secret one that Morgana was known to have but no one ever found, but it's never outright stated.

Lilah is bewildered, feeling things she's never known before. This girl, a pretty brunette named Amber, is whip-smart, incessantly curious, and absolutely devoted to Lilah. After a year, they start talking about maybe turning her.

And then a convent of vampire hunters, nuns who'd been mentioned in passing during some of Lilah's wanderings, track her back to the castle.

The nuns arrive in force. There's a pitched battle. They nearly kill Lilah twice, and even almost kill Amber.

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Hot take but people need to stop trying to murder Lilah!!!

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Lilah kills most of the sisters, and captures three. For the first time since Leander's death, she uses mind magic in anger. She rips the knowledge of the convent's secret base from the minds of her prisoners, then finally accepts that she's overdue to turn Amber. They spend the night together, and Amber drinks Lilah's blood, her heart beating its last beat as she lies in Lilah's arms, and reawakens to her new unlife and first lays eyes on her love.

Amber's first meal is one of the captive nuns, and then they go to the hidden convent and destroy it together. When they return home, Amber has an ambition to learn to extend the healing magic to affect aging as well. The Sisters of the Hunt had only discovered Lilah on her wanderings outside the castle, she argues, and so if they could keep mortal lovers alive indefinitely, they could avoid leaving a trail of suspicious bite-marks around the countryside every decade or two, and avoid ever attracting more hunters.

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YAY DESTROYING THE HIDDEN CONVENT!!!

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Lilah is impressed, and the two vampires set to researching. They experiment on the captive nuns, and over the course of two decades they unravel the mystery. Their studies accidentally kill first one nun, then a second, before they finally figure it out.

They spend the next two years carefully exploring for a mortal lover, and keeping their nun alive as a food source while they search. Eventually they find first one, then two, then a third. They drain the nun, and savor their new lovers. Over time they have to set a few girls up in new lives elsewhere, as chemistry fails to connect or romance fails to spark fully.

But eventually they fall in love with three mortals, and show them the magic of reversing age.

And they live happily ever after. There are a few entries here and there showing how they've all settled happily into their sexy new life together, little hints that they still linger and dabble in mortal science now and then over letters, gradually trailing off and wrapping up the book.

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Hm. 

It's good, but...it feels like there's something missing, almost? She's not sure what. 

Maybe...it's the part where their good ending involves hiding better. They shouldn't have to hide. 

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Maya steps in a moment later. "Okay, darlings. You two need to eat. I made chicken stew, it's in the galley and ready to be served."

She steps 'round Sable's desk and starts tugging her to her feet.

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"Wha—"

Sable looks up, having clearly lost track of time. Several pages are now full of formulae and diagrams detailing how to create and attach a pair of tentacles to a girl about Anselma's size.

Her stomach growls a bit.

"Oh. Wow, it has been a while. Stew sounds great. Thank you, love."

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"I'm so glad you're a person and there's someone on it when all the squishy humans are distracted."

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She laughs. "It does come in rather handy, doesn't it. Honestly, it's nice to have two to take care of now."

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"Having Anselma here is nice." She stands and stretches and twists. "Okay, off to the galley with us."

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"So," she asks as they walk, "did you like this one better?"

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"Yes! It was overall really good. The ending was disappointing, though."

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"Oh? What would you change?"

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"The ending was that they got really good at hiding. They shouldn't have to hide!"

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"Oh you're so right! I hadn't event thought of that, probably let my suspension of disbelief run away with me a bit. Now I wanna see that version! How do you think they manage it?"

She tugs Anselma into a delighted hug.

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"I don't know, I don't understand what they're hiding from. Like--King Arthur was more weirded out by the kissing other girls thing than the drinking blood thing? And they weren't hurting anyone, so why were people trying to hurt them..."

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"Well, I think in Arthur's case specifically it might've been pretty close, but overall people have a history of not liking things that challenge their control, especially women. Girls who prefer girls are girls who might not want them, and might not want to raise their precious noble heirs, you see, and that threatens their need to continue their legacy and authority. And once you've been labeled 'evil', for whatever reason, it's very easy for people to decide that not hurting anyone is just a great big 'yet'."

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"That doesn't--make more sense."

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"Which part?"

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"The--'evil' part."

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"Ah. That particular bit of garbage. So certain groups — nobility and church leaders on the surface especially — have a tendency to use loudly professed moral divides as the foundation of their authority in their communities. 'We're virtuous because we do this and not that.' At its core it's tribalism again, the old human drive to know that your tribe is the best. Typically when this happens, community leaders declare that the things that keep the community going the same way it already is are the virtues, and that leads to everyone who isn't like that being seen as sinners. If the community is mostly full of the 'traditional family with a strong father', then lesbians, independent women, people who defy gender norms, and other such differences get treated as wrong."

She sighs. "And then the rest of it follows from the human tendency to generalize from categorization. This person did something 'bad'? Once you believe that, it's easier to believe other 'bad' things about them, and harder to believe 'good' things."

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"I don't have any idea how to fix that."

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Sable shakes her head. "Honestly, same. Only way I know is slowly teaching people to think more carefully."

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"That's also why we live out here on the Zee: anyone who has a problem with us can simply be left behind at the port and not met with the next time we dock there."

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"If I were rewriting the ending I would just have them beat up everyone who tried to make their obnoxiousness the protagonists' problem."

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She laughs brightly and nods. "That would be more satisfying. Branch out into some more combat magic, fortify the castle to hell and back, unapologetically declare to the world that they're here, and they're sharing their scientific and magical research, and anyone who doesn't like the family they've made — whether because they're gay or because they're witches or because two of them are vampires — is welcome to refuse the benefits of all the medical research different members of the family keep getting interested in from time to time."

Then she grins and adds, "And anyone who tries to pick a fight with them over bigoted nonsense quickly finds that while Lilah's family doesn't start fights, they certainly finish them."

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"Yeah!!!"

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"And that," she adds, "is why Sable keeps investing in upgrading my guns and crafting better ammo for me."

And as she says that, they reach the galley to find rich, savory-smelling chicken stew simmering on the stove, and a pair of warm sourdough rolls to go alongside.

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Mmmmmmmmmmmmm oh wow that smells amazing. 

"I was just about to ask how well fortified you were."

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"Very," she says as she ladles out two bowls full of steaming stew, handing one to each girl along with a roll and a spoon. "Quality materials are a big part of what took Sable so long to save up to build me. She used the best steel she could get her hands on to armor my hull."

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Nod nod. She takes her food with a very appreciative inhale. 

"What is there that could still hurt you? And what are their weaknesses?"

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She sits down next to Anselma, petting her hair softly while the girl eats, considering her answer. "With enough rounds fired, any shipboard gun could eventually breach my armor, as could any beast with enough time to batter at me. The biggest risk is a fight with something or someone that we can't put down or escape from before they can punch through.

"Any ship smaller than a dreadnought and without an aft gun we can likely handle. I can outspeed and outmaneuver most ships, and stay out of their firing arcs for the most part. Even a dreadnought can be brought down in most cases, though it takes longer than I would like."

She shakes her head. "For some reason most ships don't bother with an aft gun to complete their fire coverage. In my case it's because I can keep anyone else off my tail, but it seems foolish for the others. Perhaps they can't afford the space, or the crew. Regardless, their mistake is my advantage."

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"As far as weaknesses," Sable adds, humming delightedly at the first bite of stew, "that's why I've made the wide variety of different shells that I have. There are different cartridges loaded for steel armor, flesh, or airborne targets. I'm still working on something optimized for crystal, to better handle when we get the attention of a lifeberg, but those we can typically outrun, and they lose interest soon enough. Also something for exoskeletons."

"Having you aboard and training you as a gunner does give us an advantage in fights, too, because that lets Maya put more of her attention toward maneuvers."

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"What is a lifeberg?"

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"Enormous, ambulatory, angry mounds of ice and crystal, lifebergs are found in the far north of the Zee, and attack by ramming ships that come too close."

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"What are they angry about?"

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"As far as I'm aware, it's unknown. I try to avoid fights with them in case they really are sentient and their anger turns out to be justified."