Masque, Shadow, & Blade

Letter #24 - Recovery
11/24/2019 - the Sealing Ritual

          He had warned her it would not be a good idea. Matteo and Lupe had backed him. The Abbot backed him. If the Second Son of the D’Angelos had not had to return home for business, he knew she would have backed him too. The Lord Caligara may even have been able to sway his wife from going to the crypts but he was still on the island, dealing with the aftermath of the attacks. In retrospect, it would have been futile. All knew once Melisende made a decision, there was little that could stop her. And now he watched her from the shadows, surrounded by the grey muslin wrapped bodies of the dead that she could not save. Her shoulders shook in the dim candlelight, the shadows dancing on the cold, stone walls. Sobs filled the chamber, echoing throughout the inner Basilica catacombs. Damien knew that the preparation room was in general not a sad place to be. The Priests of Persephone that cared for the dead took solace in the preparing of bodies as it was a sacred ritual and duty. It was a time of quiet and inner reflection, of respect. Melisende herself had always enjoyed the peaceful silence. She could sometimes be found down here instead of the Gardens or her office. But now – now it only served as a reminder of her failure. 
          The monk observed the cardinal on the floor of the chamber with her arms wrapped around herself as her tears carved rivers down her cheeks. Her journal lay forgotten at her feet, half open to a scrawled page. The preparation chambers were filled to capacity and then some as those that survived the onslaught of Merrow finally fished bodies out of the receding ocean covering the Docks. Those that did not survive and could not be revived due to lack of money were laid here, waiting for their families to claim them. It was a staggering amount of common folk and an unjustly accusatory amount of death. Damien stepped forward into the candlelight, his heart wrenching for his charge. In other situations, the cardinal was a force of nature to be reckoned with. She had survived Revenants, assassination attempts, the high noble society, and now a near-world ending attack by monsters. She was brash and sometimes rude, but so full of energy and a world-liness akin to individuals twice her age. But in this moment, as she sat there, he is reminded that she is younger than he is – than most of the nobles she took company with. She was barely into adulthood and already had so much responsibility. 
          A particularly harsh sob forced him forward and to her side. As the monk murmured soothing words to her and pulled her into him, he prayed to Persephone for guidance. She collapsed into him immediately with a choked sigh, hands bloodied where the sharp edges of her symbol of the Dread Mother punctured her skin from the force of her grip. Incoherent words fell from her lips as she struggled to breathe. He grasped one of the Sending Stones he carried on his belt, quickly sending a message in hopes that help would come.

~~

          It has been a few days since the Ritual and the city is barely beginning to uncover the full loss we had at the hand of the Army and the Coven. We did it. We completed it and sealed away the Coven and their Lord, but not without heavy costs. The island I hear was completely ravaged with very few survivors who now grace our fair shores. Graziano has stayed behind to handle matters with the help of Catalina, though now I believe she retains on sabbatical – well deserved if you ask me. Especially with the vicious rumors circulating about whose fault it was for the attack. Formal letters and remarks have already been made to the Senate. I myself returned to the city immediately following the completion of the ritual along with Tessa. The aftermath was and is staggering though the assault only lasted for 10 minutes. For the city, the Docks are still heavily submerged though the ocean is at last beginning to recede. Bodies come by the cart load to the Basilica. Some we’ve been able to revive through our Second Breath ceremonies once families have provided the necessary funds. Most however, were too poor to afford such luxuries. This morning I had to turn away a grieving father and I had never experienced such heartache. He pleaded with me, begged on the stone steps at my feet with hands grasping my robes. All I could do was sit with him and hold him while he cried. Despite the havoc, the law and the Church were firm on the price of the ceremony even though bodies of children fill my Basilica. The fact that the majority of the dead were of the common folk has not gone unnoticed. An emergency wealth tax has been placed on the nobility, much to the dismay of some and happiness to others. I fear that Cas is right in that the high society will attempt to take over the docks in this chaos.
​​​​​​​          My heart hurts at the mention of her name honestly, though I cannot tell what emotion I am feeling fully. I haven’t seen her since the day this all happened – when she found me in the Inner Gardens and yelled at me for hiding. I admit, I purposefully haven’t sought her out either. I don’t know what to say to her. Or to Cameron. Or to anyone for that matter. Despite all of the eyes looking to the Church, to me – I have no more words. I am angry, my soul burns with a cold fury I have never felt. I equally want to scream but also weep for my tongue needs to be held in trying times as this. The Abbot already chastised me for saying what I have already and not having a united front for the people. I still have yet to find a balance between Melisende the person and Melisende the Cardinal. I am not mad at Cas for her words. She is just and true in her emotions. I am mad because I cannot do anything without choosing a side in this stupid feud between the nobles and the people. And if I were honest, I do not want anything to do with it anymore. 
​​​​​​​          This city is cursed by avarice and lies. The brutish nobility is a plague that eats from the very core out. I have dedicated my life to this hellhole because I can see the good parts through the rot covered lenses. My cause has never been to serve the nobles who play their games from their high houses filled with ichor blood, but to the people – the “common” folk of my home. They are the life of this city, the foundation upon which all 100 noble houses have built their empires. Yet they are treated as lesser than with little thought beyond something “to be ruled.” I sit here surrounded by bodies of my people, my flock – men, women, young, old…children. This morning I wanted nothing more than to provide that father with the life of his dead son. The spell is easy, the ceremony quick. My heart yearned to do this one justice for this man. But I couldn’t. Social rules and hierarchy demanded that I don’t on the sole reason that he is too POOR to afford it. The system protects those that do nothing but abuse it. How can I be someone with so much power yet be so completely and utterly powerless to fix that which is broken? 
​​​​​​​          What is my purpose then? To live and to die by the city that hates itself? To play the game of the nobles, be a countess and have children who will become cogs in the very system I hate? Rule and demand those beneath me to adore me? If I cannot bring back an innocent child from the dead, if I cannot protect my people – then what is the fucking point? 
​​​​​​​          They tell us we are free, the gods tell us that we possess free will and the capacity to create change. Persephone herself represents that unending cycle of change. But I am beginning to lose sight and lose faith. She no longer answers me though I can feel the bone cold touch of her fingers in my heart. 
​​​​​​​          I have never felt so stuck and alone. 

~~

​​​​​​​          Determined footsteps echoing in the halls caused Damien to look up from his spot on the floor. He still held Melisende as she softly sobbed into his robes. Cecily Renata-Tempesta di Solana stood at the threshold of the chambers with Lupe at her side. She wore a traveler's cloak over her clothes, most likely having rushed from whatever the older monk had called her from. Her eyes took in the scene in front of her – the collapsed and bleeding Cardinal, tossed aside journal, and the monk's own face. She nodded towards him in acknowledgement. Damien saw the briefest hint of bone-weary exhaustion before the mask of the First-Born Heir slid into place. Her eyes became sharp with a fierce protectiveness as she slowly approached the pair. 
          "Melisende, the Lady Cecily is here." He murmured quietly, glancing back to his cardinal. Her sobs quieted but she made no move to look up. Cecily knelt down on the floor next to them, her skirts not surprisingly artfully splayed around her. 
          “Mel?” her voice was soft and calm, as if speaking with a frightened animal. The younger woman sniffed quietly and wiped her face with the back of her hand, wincing as the motion pulled on her injured fingers. Cecily gently grasped both of Melisende’s hands before working her fingers free of the bloodied necklace. She placed it off to the side and stared intently at the cardinal, her thumbs rubbing soothing circles into her wrists. Melisende slowly opened her eyes but still stared off into space. 
          “They’re all dead.” she murmured, her voice cracking from stress and disuse. 
          “Who are?” 
          “Everyone. The city.”
          “What makes you think they are all dead?” Cecily pulled one of Melisende’s hands to touch her knee, “I am here and I am very much alive.” 
          “I couldn’t save them…” the cardinal’s eyes began slowly filling with tears as her voice rose from panic, “They’re dead because we forgot….something….somewhere….somehow. I keep thinking how we missed it. How everyone missed it. How did Graziano. Catalina. Myself. We promised the city would be okay. The people are angry because we – I – messed up. I promised I would protect the city. We thought we were protecting the city. We thought we were protecting the villages on the island. We worked so hard. I haven’t slept. Barely slept. So much effort and just. We lost. We lost it all. We saved the city but at what cost? This city hates itself, hates us. And so many are dead. Everything and everyone is dead. And I didn’t keep my promise!” She ripped her hands away from Cecily and covered her face as her shoulders shook from her fresh sobs. The Lady Renata-Tempesta pulled the cardinal away from Damien and into her chest. She murmured soothing words as she ran fingers through Melisende’s hair. Her other hand wrapped around Mel’s shoulders and rocked her gently back and forth. It was a few minutes before the cardinal calmed down enough to hear Cecily. 
​​​​​​​          “You did nothing wrong. You did everything you could. I swear.” she said, “None of us saw this attack coming. No one. Those who judge you did little in all of this, those who say it is your fault are trying to absolve themselves of blame.” The older woman gently pulled Melisende’s hands away from her face and cupped her chin, staring intently into her green eyes, “You. Did. Everything. You. Could. Be happy for the lives you DID save. You helped save the WORLD.”
​​​​​​​          Melisende swallowed thickly and nodded without a word, the last bit of tears escaping down her cheeks. She moved to wipe her face, surprised only a little to find her skin free of tears or marring. The tingle of Cecily’s Prestidigitation left her skin feeling slightly tender as the magic danced away. Next to them Damien jumped to his feet and offered a hand. The Lady Renata-Tempesta released the cardinal and stood with his assistance. She brushed her skirts as Melisende got to her feet next, hands nervously grasping themselves. 
          “Have you eaten yet?” 
​​​​​​​          The cardinal was quiet for a moment before answering, “No.” 
​​​​​​​          “Then come. Let us find something to eat and we will discuss your dress for the D’Angelo debut.” Cecily held out an arm and raised an eyebrow towards the younger woman who smiled slightly before taking the offer. The older woman smiled in turn, leading Melisende out of the darkness below. 
​​​​​​​

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True Game Begins
A Cas interlude

And now the true game begins…" Cas thinks to herself as she comes home from a late night with Oliver.
A night of singing, persuading, and making her once small voice heard.
As she lays down to bed she strokes Chonk's chin affectionately.

"This isn't what I wanted. This is what I ran from, but it appears that no matter what I am forced into the game I wanted no part in."

She's bone weary, emotionally drained, sad beyond all measure, and Chonk can tell as displayed by how readily he burrows under her arms in his display of comfort.

"I didn't want to be a player. I wanted a simple, if fun she smirks, life where I could be me and not what was intended and drilled into my head as a small child."

Her hands move towards his belly and gets that one spot he likes just beneath the armpits.

"Graziano believes that the gods are what guide us. Should that be true, they are sick, sadistic bastards, and I still want no part of them. But what can I do, but fight? The battle has brought itself to me and while I once was small I will continue to fight for the other small voices that are never heard. The voices that are the foundation of our home. And I will fight all that stand in the way."

Chonk tries to stealthily reach for the cookies that he knows are almost always in her pockets, but she stops him before his greedy hands get too far.

"I'm sorry my love… Those were given away. Here."

Reaching into the nightstand she pulls out a particular favorite of his (peanut butter). He knows they're there, but respects his lady enough to not try and take them when not offered.

"We both need the fortification love…
Oi! Don't get crumbles in the bed, yeah?!!!"

As Chonk finishes his special treat Cas lays down, flings her arm to side, waits for Chonk to settle in as a rotund bundle stretched across the length of said arm, and falls into a very uneasy slumber.

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Lady Cascabella's Debut
An event between sessions

A universal event all player characters would have attended or been aware of:

A week after The Sealing Ritual, a fete is held at the De’Angelo estate to celebrate the debut of Lady Cascabella De’Angelo of Cotos. When the Lady Cascabella arrives, coming down the stair case arm and arm with Lord Jean-Baptist, some are shocked and some are not to see that it is the shop girl, actress, fencer, and seamstress Cas.
The celebration has lively music, and dancing. A feast is served buffet style with delicious, rich, yet hardy foods. There is also a charity collection box, for guest to donate envelopes of credit notes, and golden coins to the cause of rebuilding the Docks District and the surrounding communities. It is an entertaining evening, and Lord Edgar De’Angelo will serve as a gracious host on behalf of his distant cousin.

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Diary of Cecily Renata Tempesta di Solana #10 - The Lines We Cross
11/24/2019, The Sealing Ritual

Excerpt taken from the diary of Cecily Renata Tempesta di Solana, First Child of House Renata Tempesta, Matron of the Sun’s Rest, Spymaster, and renowned artist behind the nom de guerre Cecil Storm.

Many things about this period in history are shrouded in mystery, and the events of Cecily's life are no exception. One of many stories, and this author's personal favorite, tells us that the journals she left behind were originally written using a spell commonly known as Illusory Script, and thus appeared to be mundane musings about daily household maintenance and local gossip. Supposedly, following Cecily’s death, Claudia Solana -Third Child of House Solana and the rumored love of Cecily’s life – dispelled the books on a whim sparked by Cecily’s predilection towards hiding tokens of affection in plain sight behind magic in many of her works. They were lost – or possibly purposely hidden – for a time before making their way to a historian for publication with the blessing of the descendants of House Renata Tempesta.


Cecily heard her sister arrive home before a servant came to notify her. There was a heaviness to Catalina’s footsteps that immediately set Cecily on edge, although she worked to keep her consternation to herself. She caught sight of Catalina taking a direct route to her bedroom and followed behind, the fleeting furrowing of Cecily’s brow the only immediate sign of distress in reaction to her sister’s state. Wordlessly, she dismissed the servants and closed the door behind them.

Catalina was a bundle of nervous energy, glancing around the room and darting from place to place, gathering the possessions required for a journey of undetermined length. Watching silently, her arms crossed over her chest, Cecily awaited the break of the dam. Eventually it began – a rush of words edged in self blame and grief, Catalina’s frustration giving way to a frenetic, repetitive rant. Cecily nodded along, offering encouragement and making efforts to subtly shift Catalina’s perspective towards one more stable and productive. Above all else, Cecily wanted to keep Catalina talking, to take the worst of her little sister’s emotional burden on as her own.

She wasn’t smart enough, Catalina insisted. She should have noticed someone had moved the city’s defenses. It’s her fault, she continued, that so many people are suffering. She should have done more. She should have planned better. She should have, she should have – the words growing louder, more stressed, with every repetition.

Cecily endeavored to point out the inaccuracies – the utter failure of others within the city to communicate their plans even a tenth as well as the Renata Tempestas endeavored to. How imperative Catalina’s knowledge of magic, ritual, and abjuration were. She reminded Catalina that Cecily had been present at the meeting with Tiberius, and mentioned he had been told explicitly they absolutely expected other attacks. The need for vigilance had been stressed repeatedly. Above all else, Cecily repeated, Catalina did all that she should have. Solandris should be grateful – the implication that they would be; Cecily would see to it.

Catalina continued on, her voice hitching mid-sentence, and Cecily moved to her side, pulling Catalina down to sit on the bed. Cecily wrapped her arms around her sister and let her cry, her fingers tracing a soothing pattern over Catalina’s scalp as she sobbed. They sat together like that until Catalina had exhausted herself and smoothly stood, straightening her skirts and resuming her packing in a more systematic fashion. Cecily waved her hand in a surreptitious casting of Prestidigitation, and magic soothed Catalina’s puffy eyes, tousled hair, and dampened face in an instant.

The conversation resumed in calmer tones, although the themes remained the same. Cecily suggested items she knew would bring Catalina comfort – a favorite, well-loved book and a piece of jewelry Cecily bought Catalina when they were children. Catalina finished packing and the sisters had arrived at a plan that would benefit the family and the populace, and allow Catalina to take all the time she needed to recover in peace.

Cecily opened the bedroom door and called to the Captain of her guard. He was given express instructions and immediately set about choosing guards to accompany Catalina who would meet Cecily’s exacting specifications – a combination of house guards and those from The Sun’s Rest. She nodded in passing at Thorn, who had watched Catalina’s harried entrance with placid interest and kept silent watch over the closed door, and the sisters, from the hallway. The women disappeared with several guards in tow into the library.

“Twice a day,” Cecily said, the reminder gentle. She wrapped Catalina in a firm hug which was held a moment longer than necessary, then took a graceful step back and away from the Teleportation Circle. Looking towards the guards, she straightened her posture and stifled a sigh. “Take care of the Lady Catalina, and obey her as you would myself. If anyone – and that includes suitors and family – endeavors to visit or contact her,” she paused for effect, letting the heaviness in the air bolster the warning in her tone, “you are only to inform them they may instead speak with me.”

She stayed and observed the spell, ensuring Catalina had arrived at her destination safely via a Sending. Once she was alone, Cecily seemed to fold in on herself. She took a shaky breath and closed her eyes, a shudder running through her as she fought a battle to control the whirlwind of emotions and exhaustion that plagued her. “She’ll be fine,” Cecily murmured to the empty library. “And if she isn’t, I’ll salt the earth.”

Spinning on her heel in a determined whirl of turquoise and crimson skirts, she walked back into the hallway, heading for her office. Her unsurprised gaze fell once again on Thorn, who hadn’t moved in the long minutes since she’d disappeared into the library. “Catalina is…,” she stopped mid-step as her voice caught in her throat, “…taking some time away.”

“Oh, to where?” Thorn asked. “And why?”

Cecily regarded him silently, and for a brief moment he was able to see how young she was, how heavily her responsibilities weighed on her. The glimpse behind the curtain was over almost before it began, and a mask slipped back into place whose visage was modeled on years of carefully structured respectability. "Would you like some wine, Thorn?" she asked, resuming her progress down the hall.

“Wine is always appreciated, Cecily, but the question stands. What’s happened to cause our dear Catalina to flee?” he said, his voice holding the promise of violence.

"Renata Tempestas do not flee. Lady Catalina is taking some well earned time away following the Sealing Ritual, and she is safe." She caught a servant’s attention with a glance before opening the door. "No more questions, Thorn. Only wine."

He cocked an eyebrow at her refusal to elaborate but remained silent, following her inside like a protective shadow.


*
This city is a curse, and I find myself wishing deeply that it had fallen, screaming and helpless, into the bottomless sea. Solandris does not deserve our care, and yet we pour so much gasping effort into it. We wrench the most desperate dredges of empathy from our souls and feed them into a gaping maw which cries ceaselessly for more.

We are surrounded on every side by people who know so little, yet talk so much. Is there a Silence spell large enough, I wonder, to dampen the mediocrity rife among my supposed peers?

Likely not.

The last few days should have been an exercise in triumph – the name Renata Tempesta elevated to even greater heights among the other houses who were prepared to sacrifice everything in order to prevent the oncoming apocalypse.

Instead, despite our part in the journey to Kalantar, despite Catalina’s unerring expertise in her field – to say nothing of her ceaseless assistance with both the planning and casting of the Sealing Ritual – and despite my unparalleled financial, intelligence, and battlefield contributions, we are disregarded. I suppose our efforts would be more notable if we had a cryptic, cobwebbed spell placed in our minds some dozen generations past to grant us supernatural access to an ancient cypher, or a bloodline favored by the elves.

All this work and Solandris remains unable – no, unwilling – to balance its ceaseless nepotism with recognition that matters.

I will find out exactly who went to the Senate and upended our plans – who silently allowed my sister to take the blame for their mistake. Then I will speak to Tiberius, as a friend and peer, and show him the error of his actions – embarrassing Catalina was far from honorable, and I know I can make him understand that. If necessary, I will speak with his mother, with whom I’ve built a most useful rapport.

And then – what to do about Darien? I had hoped, upon meeting him, that he would be an ally. It seems I was uncharacteristically incorrect in that assessment. I believe it is time to speak to Marguerite and gain the further assistance of someone he respects before he tests my patience any further.

He foolishly assumed Sophie would not tell me what he had said to her. More than likely, he also didn’t predict she would get so upset as to toss him out of her shop entirely.

People may say about me whatever they like, but they underestimate the amount of loyalty I inspire at every turn. One day they’ll learn.

And Sophie is loyal. She’s learned, I think, that I am the only person who has always wanted what was best for her. I am the one she can trust. It’s a difficult lesson to learn – one that’s hurting her, in light of recent events in particular, but one she has taken to heart.

Sophie came to Solandris with a pocket full of ill-gotten gold and a lilting voice that set her targets at ease. And that’s what we were, make no mistake – targets. She caught my eye and during our very first fitting, she made efforts to steal from me. And what did I do? I took her into my home, my bed, and eventually my family. I patroned her and set her up with appointments in every noble house worth the effort.

As if I would do such things for a broodmare.

Writing about Sophie and family only brings me back to the subject of Catalina. I will not detail where she is until she has returned, but already I miss her – and I am seething somewhere deep in my bones at the world which broke her heart. If we want to wonder about danger, and what sort of monster I am – Solandris will certainly find out if it does not do right by my sister.

And Cameron? He is not a suitable match. He is not the remarkable scion of a respectable family – he is a naive, idealistic child. One should choose their allies carefully, but also their enemies, and he has failed at both despite my best efforts. Catalina will not be marrying that boy or his misguided notions of love and loyalty – not as his behavior and ties currently stand.

That much I know for sure. The rest will come together, as it always does.


There had been a note from Adaele, a commission to memorialize the battle which nearly swallowed Solandris whole. Cecily understood the spirit of the request and considered her task, waiting patiently for a surge of inspiration to take her. An idle sip of wine drew her focus towards the swirl of opaque liquid in her glass and she nodded to herself, downing the rest of it in a gulp and rising to her feet.

Cecily began by painting a chaotic coastline darkened by churning waters and ominous storm clouds drawn from the shadows themselves. She continued from memory, creating a different perspective of the battle to refresh the Sealing Ritual than the one which honored only one man above all others. Working for days and taking only minimal breaks, she endeavored to create a masterpiece which would inspire whispers of awe and outrage towards any who would shirk the notion that Solandris was saved in a cooperative effort. When it was finished, she flung her paintbrush to the ground and lifted her chin in defiant satisfaction, the sensation of red paint ricocheting across her bare feet only encouraging the triumphant grin which brightened her features.

In the center of the painting stood Ambrogio Aieta, but the viewer’s eye was drawn away from him. It instead pulled towards Catalina Renata Tempesta, a vision of young vitality and skilled wizardry – a woman secure in her place, her ability, her unsurpassed heroism. Artful shadows created a path for the observer to follow, delicate brushstrokes provided a visual guide detailing the sum of courage displayed in the face of waves of ruthless enemies. The epic tale next followed Sophie Renata Tempesta,  Johana Lumera di Elesio, Melisende Alessio di Caligara, Graziano Caligara, and Tessa and Jean-Baptist D‘Angelo. It concluded with Cecily Renata Tempesta, a regal beacon of hope on the battlefield, at turns bolstering her allies and exposing weaknesses in their enemies to help turn the tide.

A number of other nobles and participants are portrayed, but an unsurpassed level of skill weaves a sense of importance around Catalina, Melisende, Johana, Graziano, Sophie, and Cecily in turn. The difference in rendering is almost imperceptible – a work of subtle perspective scholars would ruminate on well past this generation’s lifespans.

Cecil Storm offered this latest work as a gift to the city, to be displayed in a place of honor for all to enjoy its collective triumph.

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Aftermath (Catalina post-Ritual)

Once things were appropriately settled on the island following the Sealing Ritual and the devastating battle, Lady Catalina Renata Tempesta returns to the city of Solandris without much fanfare. Having already been in communication via magic with her family, she first stops at the Arcane Academy for a brief period before returning to her room at Cecily’s estate. Once there, she begins packing. Her sister soon joins her, and the wizard begins rambling as she moves about the room and continues her work. 

At some point without Catalina noticing, Cecily dismisses the servants so the pair have privacy. Catalina’s ramblings circle around a few themes as she grows increasingly upset: “They’re right, I wasn’t smart enough…. That was why the ships from Tysha and Nortram were arranged to close in, they just weren’t enough… We specifically talked about how the city might get attacked, we thought from Mystra but still, if I hadn’t been so solely focused on the ritual preparations then maybe I would have noticed someone pulled the entire militia and city’s defenses and had something done… The entire coast was devastated, I don’t even understand how they hit everywhere so fast… The people are going to be suffering everywhere and it’s my fault, yes yes I know we had to do the Ritual or else it would have happened anyways and then they’d all be dead not just some but that doesn’t change anything… I’m so tired of everyone, the bickering and the distrust and the spite… what the hell is wrong with all of them… I need to be smarter, there’s more coming, and I need to be smarter… have to do something to help them, I owe it to them, and it’s our responsibility… “

Finally, Cecily will quietly moves close, pulls Catalina down to sit next to her, then just wraps her arms around her. The nineteen year old’s voice trails off, and she bursts into tears and sobs in her sister’s arms for several minutes. She then gets to her feet, straightens out her skirts, and resumes packing and rambling. Cecily surreptitiously uses Prestidigitation to set her appearance back, removing the evidence of tears and puffiness, restoring the image of the regal noble. Cecily nods and chimes in with appropriate words, and helpfully packs particular things she knows Catalina finds comforting – a well worn book, a piece of jewelry Cecily bought her for a birthday when they were children. 

Catalina takes the time to dash off a couple letters, hug her sister, and find her little niece to deliver a kiss on the head. And then as quickly and as quietly as she entered the city, she heads out.

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Diary of Cecily Renata Tempesta di Solana #5 - The Things We Do For Family
10/5/2019, And So Arrives Autumn Twilight

Excerpt taken from the diary of Cecily Renata Tempesta di Solana, First Child of House Renata Tempesta, Matron of the Sun’s Rest, Spymaster, and renowned artist behind the nom de guerre Cecil Storm.

Many things about this period in history are shrouded in mystery, and the events of Cecily's life are no exception. One of many stories, and this author's personal favorite, tells us that the journals she left behind were originally written using a spell commonly known as Illusory Script, and thus appeared to be mundane musings about daily household maintenance and local gossip. Supposedly, following Cecily’s death, Claudia Solana -Third Child of House Solana and the rumored love of Cecily’s life – dispelled the books on a whim sparked by Cecily’s predilection towards hiding tokens of affection in plain sight behind magic in many of her works. They were lost – or possibly purposely hidden – for a time before making their way to a historian for publication with the blessing of the descendants of House Renata Tempesta.


[Some time ago…]

“I’ve grown fond of you, Calistar, but you know I am in love with your sister,” Cecily reminded him, looping her arm through his.

He looked down at her as they walked, a slow smile brightening his features. “For now. Give me time.”

“Time,” she mused. “How much do you suppose you’ll need, Lord Solana?”

“How does the rest of our lives sound, my lady?” Calistar paused mid-step and smoothly turned her to face him.

She gave an involuntary gasp at the motion and laughed, her hands reaching for him as she steadied herself. “For some reason this arrangement isn’t enough. You expect me to love you!”

“It’s only fair,” he delicately ran a finger along her cheekbone. He caught her gaze, eyes searching for something in her own. “Shall we?”

Cecily’s eyes widened at his implication. She gave a dazed nod and returned to her spot at his side, her mind a whirl of emotions.

They continued walking for some time in amicable silence, Cecily’s thoughts turning to romance and the tentative hope of a life she’d always considered too irresponsible to wish for.


*
What does it mean to be dangerous?

Is it measured by cleverness, or ambition, or the company one chooses to keep? Is it something weighed in secrets kept, bargains struck, knowledge gathered? Is it marked by a willingness to make plans, amass allies, to do what needs to be done?

Am I dangerous? I do not know.

The only thing I endeavor to be is prepared – perhaps to some that is the same thing.

Perhaps the true danger lies in my lack of remorse regarding the decisions which have brought us here. In the confidence, in the absolute clarity, that I was correct to choose as I have. And, to be sure, I would do it all again.

Oh, ‘M.’ Just wait until I discover who you are. Coward.


Cecily rose from her desk with practiced grace. She breathed in a sharp hiss at the motion and gripped the edge for support, her knuckles turning white with effort. “I’m fine,” she managed between clenched teeth as Claudia looked on with concern, both women silently acknowledging it was a lie.

With a sigh, Cecily pulled her hand away from the large gash on her side and found her fingers darkened with fresh blood. “Another potion and a bath and I’ll be fine,” she amended with a wince.

She looked up as Claudia closed the distance between them. Cecily took the offered glass bottle and drained its contents, closing her eyes in relief as the healing magic began to ease the pain. She felt a gentle tug on her arm and offered no resistance as Claudia pulled her close.“I’ll be fine,” Cecily said again, unsure whether she was trying to convince Claudia or herself.


*
Breakfast was what I wanted. I took it in my office, some instinct telling me I would appreciate the temporary solitude by the time the day was over. Thorn knocked and I invited him to join me. He’s a relatively fast learner and is beginning to understand why I do things the way I do them – a promising sign.

There was another knock. It was a servant, announcing Janessa’s arrival. This was immediately concerning – we were not due to meet for hours, and she’s not one to arrive first thing in the morning cloaked in theatrics and all but wringing her hands.

It seems one of mine has been killed. It’s unacceptable – and I liked this one, he possessed no curiosity about who he truly worked for or why. Knives need not know who wields them, is my philosophy, and it is safer for all involved if such things stay that way.

The Hidden Hearth’s leadership is afraid, and so they are lashing out. The rest of the team who dealt with Mercusia has gone to ground for their own safety. I wonder how many golden needles I will collect before this is all over?

I set Janessa about a number of tasks, and no sooner had she left than there was another knock at the door. The same servant, rightfully appearing distressed at interrupting me a second time, announced Magda Stanewald.

Now, I haven’t written about Magda overmuch. He was a child when I met his mother, Adaele, and like my own siblings he will eternally remain one in my mind’s eye. It was immediately concerning, however; that he would approach my estate alone, truly, I can not recall him ever visiting without her. When he came into my office he looked quite the sight – all wide eyes and mussed hair and distress coming off him in waves. He clearly hadn’t slept and was still wearing clothes befitting the Twilight Court. There was a letter clutched in his hand which he shoved at me with very little preamble beyond telling me his mother was missing and he’d found a note with my name on it.

Cecily,
I know what you have done. I have your precious fence. If you wish to see her alive again, come to the catacombs beneath the Golden Hall at the witching hour.
M.

Magda, to his credit, didn’t balk when I made very clear to him I had any number of enemies who would enthusiastically target those close to me. He didn’t ask many questions, instead reaching for his blade and brandishing it in my direction with quite the flourish. Thorn, of course, took issue with the action, but the misunderstanding was quickly dealt with – and then my trusty bodyguard went about scouting the location. We had very little else to do until the appropriate hour, in any case.

Thorn returned with some curious information. Namely, he reported that the Golden Hall was being evacuated by members of the church. Beyond that, he’d gotten caught on his way out the door, but seems to have been able to play off the misstep. Something we’ll need to work on, it seems – brothel security is eagle eyed, and it certainly won’t be the last time he’ll need to go about one unseen.

As the day passed Magda did manage to get some rest, and I took it upon myself to have his clothing and some other personal effects brought while he slept the day away. Marigold was quite frustrated at the questionable state many of his garments were in – Adaele has complained about how hard he is on his clothes for years. It was as good a time as any to ask if Magda wanted to be taken on as an apprentice, and he agreed with far less reluctance than I had anticipated. Perhaps he is growing up after all.

At the appropriate hour Magda, Thorn, and myself approached the Golden Hall with several guards. Unexpectedly, we also stumbled across Darien, Jean-Baptist, and Tessa – all three looking to make their way into the catacombs. Darien made some effort to disguise his mission, going through a number of languages and settling on speaking with Jean-Baptist in Celestial. Fortunately, there isn’t a spoken language in existence that I’m unable to understand, and I heard the entire thing. Darien had been sent to clear out infernals from the catacombs – hence the church evacuating the area, just in case. 

The D’Angelo presence was explained by their receiving a similar letter to the one sent to me, save that it was their younger brother who had been taken. Jean-Baptist was quite curious why a merchant friend of mine would be kidnapped, but reluctantly agreed when it was pointed out that the best time to speak on such matters would likely not be standing outside in an alley, preparing to meet with an enemy.

We proceeded with no issue, due in part to a map, and primarily due to Thorn’s expert abilities as a scout. M had fashioned themselves a gauntlet of assassins, who were dispatched in the blink of an eye. A spell gave me the location of Adaele, and we carried forward until I could just see the door to the room where she was held – when we were surrounded by magical darkness.

M had quite a lot to say for an individual who is lashing out in fear. I suppose that makes sense – monologues are the death cry of the desperate and injudicious, a means of buying time while scrambling for the specter of a plan. They are amused, it would seem, that I have everyone fooled. Further, they are quite taken aback at anyone being able to disrupt their efforts in Solandris.

I should note, perhaps, that you do not have to fool anyone if your cause is righteous. At my core, I operate under exactly the motives everyone assumes I do: I will protect my family at any cost. There is no price too steep, no action too unpalatable. My family will thrive, and anyone who possesses an ounce of sense will join us or get out of our way.

It’s a remarkably simple concept, M.

We were then attacked by a trio of devils as M directed them towards Tessa and I. Vicious creatures – not nearly vicious enough, though, ultimately. After discovering we were surrounded by all sides, I directed Thorn to clear the room with the hostages, and grabbed Magda by the wrist and dragged him there via Dimension Door lest he be struck down before I was able to reunite him with his mother. Both Adaele and Cameron were near to unconsciousness, having been beaten quite soundly, but I was able to rouse them with a small amount of effort. One devil followed me – and was dispatched by Tessa and Thorn, just as the rest were.

M, of course, was gone.

Adaele was beside herself with worry, and so I made efforts to redirect her focus to more positive things, such as her son finally taking his role as a bard seriously. She was rightfully concerned about the status of the most recent painting I had sent her, but fortunately the thing is safely within my home. Some prodding on the way out of the catacombs brought Adaele around to agreeing to come stay with me until all of this unpleasantness is past us. 

Darien disappeared immediately following the battle – Sophie insists he is seeking a family, but he seems reluctant to behave with any loyalty to someone he so recently referred to as cousin and attempted to build a rapport with. It’s a shame, really. Tessa and Jean-Baptist requested we reconvene after making efforts to clean ourselves up, and the decision was made to resume conversations within my estate.

I confess this may have been foolish, but I needed to see Claudia with my own two eyes to believe she was truly whole. It was one of the rare nights we hadn’t planned to spend together, and I appeared at the Solana’s gates in the grip of a measure of anxiety I can only hope wasn’t written all over my face. She came to meet me in the garden, and it was only when I processed the look on her face at the state I was in that I realized I was still gravely injured. I found quite a bit of comfort in her worry – it isn’t often anyone considers me, or seeks to take care of me, and I enjoyed the novelty of it.

She wanted to talk about all the things we can’t


Cecily paused mid-sentence and peered curiously at her handwriting, rubbing at her temple with her free hand. With a sigh, she crossed out the last line she’d written, going over it twice more as though hoping eliminating the words would soothe the roiling emotions running through her.

Claudia had spoken of marriage, of things that might have been if only such a thing were possible. If same-sex marriage were permissible, if a law seeking equality passed a vote, if inheritance were no longer an issue – if only such things had been possible when they’d first met. She went on about her plans in optimistic tones that hummed with larger implications of lasting love – akin, Cecily realized, to a proposal of her own.

The words rang in Cecily’s ears in a discordant loop, shards of disappointment and loss working their way to her heart with every breath. The impossibility of the thing wounded her in a way she would never give even a whisper of a voice. She couldn’t.

Wiping absently at her eyes, she moved to a clean page and began again.


Claudia accompanied me home, and saw to it that I was healed and cleaned up before returning to discuss the evening with everyone. We met back in my office – Thorn being dismissed after working an inexcusably long day, which he accepted graciously.

The focus of our conversation relied squarely on the Hidden Hearth and what they might want. I expressed the likelihood that their leadership blamed the nobles present during Mercusia’s interrogation for her death, and we discussed next steps. Jean-Baptist asked Cameron about his captivity, and he wrote down a number of questions that had been asked of him by M.

How was Last Breath captured?
How was it discovered that Mercusia was Last Breath?
Who is Lady Cecily Renata Tempesta di Solana working for that possesses the ability to kill Last Breath and frame us for the job?

This last question, curiously, was for my eyes only – hidden behind one of my favorite spells. After some more talk – namely, Jean-Baptist warning me that the D’Angelo’s have enemies who may be moving against them in the senate, and my asserting I would look into such matters – we all said our goodbyes.

Cameron was the last to leave, and I took the time to tell him I had gained a bit of respect for him. He waited for his siblings to depart and then said, with a not insignificant amount of venom in his voice, that someone had to protect them from me. He said I was dangerous – to which I replied if such a thing was true, better to be someone I consider family than someone I view as a threat. He has made a number of assumptions about me, it seems, and allowed a mutual enemy to sway his loyalty both to his own siblings and to myself and – whether he yet realizes it or not – Catalina.

My sister has feelings for him, certainly, but our conversation has made it abundantly clear to me that Cameron does not know who she is. We are learning who he is, though, and the revelations are troubling.

Adaele was asked a number of questions herself, which she revealed to me just this morning.

How was Last Breath captured?
How was it discovered that Mercusia was Last Breath?
Who does Lady Cecily Renata Tempesta di Solana work for?
Are you one of her agents?
How did you meet?

She, of course, gave them no information. There’s a reason we’ve worked together as long as we have.

I keep considering the question of who it is I work for. It would be easier for M, I think, if they could trace my knowledge back to some larger organization, if there was someone powerful who could bring me to heel.

Opponents are far more devastating when their causes are their own, rather than someone else’s.

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Letter #23 - Dark Thoughts
11/11/2019 - Garden of Fire

(The journal pages are damp with smeared ink. The handwriting is shakey and uneven, as if written in a rush)

          I had another dream tonight, I worry what this might mean. It's been over a month since the last one. And this was no different than before – a field of endless flowers, the plants swaying gently in the wind. There is sun, endless blue skies dotted with clouds. I can feel him behind me, I can hear his laughter and that of a child. I feel at peace until my name is called. I turn, expecting to see him with OUR child, but it as if the world is switched off. The flowers crumble to dust under my fingertips, two desiccated skeletons tumbling to the dead earth. The sun disappears and the sky turns dark, thunder rumbles in the distance and lightning strikes only a few feet away. I fall to my knees in the dream, midst their bones, my heart overflowing with grief as I sob clutching their skulls. It ends where it always does – a pale, cold hand cupping my cheek and the rasp of bone against flesh echoing in my ears as my head is raised to the sky. I wake up at this point, in cold sweats and crying.
          I am scared. Truly. Absolutely. To the depths of my soul.
          Of what I may bring upon any children of mine. 

          The abbot has assured me repeatedly in the past few weeks, as the wedding drew closer and my impending future obligations rose to the surface, that what happened to me would not happen to my child. Should they be born under Persephone’s blessings as I was, then we will teach them what it means, I will teach them to not be afraid. My mother will have no hand in their raising nor influence on mine or Graziano’s decisions. They will have a choice where myself and my siblings and so many others did not, I swear it. 
          But how can I preach bravery when I am so very scared? 
          My bones ache with cold every morning now, even when the sun is warm against my skin. I find myself drifting away in thought more frequently than before. The Contessa has spoken endlessly of grandchildren at every meal since we returned from our trip, though Graziano has been a godsend in turning her attention to other topics. He is beginning to realize that something is wrong and I have no idea what to say. I told him finally, recently, of what…blessings I have acquired from the Dread Mother. We have yet to really speak of it, what this means for us, what this may mean for any children we have. My family has always worshipped the Mother. There are rumors of past blessed in our line, but much like my own mother did to me – they are usually erased from memory, having gone moon mad or disappearing altogether. I have poured over books in the Collegium library, prodded the Abbot for answers, but I still have no idea what any of this means. The Abbot likes to akin me to Marcon the Blessed, I laugh. Persephone speaks to me, of course, but she does with all of her devoted. I am no more special than the next priest, except for my hands bring life…and death…with a touch. 
          I recall, in my discussions with the Abbot, how difficult it was as a child to understand what this ability means. It was even more difficult to learn to control – much of my childhood was spent obsessively wrapping my hands in layers of muslin and cloth to avoid accidentally bringing back my dinner. It was a lonely existence. Most when they are devoted to the Church, arrive as young adults or teens – they have been raised with their families. Only the very rare occasion is a child given to the Church, even rarer one under the age of six. I was four, barely able to understand up from down before my entire world was thrown off kilter. I love Graziano and I know that he loves me, our vows confirmed that. We have decided to travel this life together, no matter what is ahead. But our very society is built upon the backs of heirs and inheritance. While I rest semi-easy in knowing that only the Priest King has the power to annul our marriage if provoked, Cecily’s words yesterday have latched onto my soul. If I cannot give what is expected of me, what will this mean for our marriage in a year…five years…ten years? 
          I do not want my child to fear death, nor do I want them to fear living…but I am so scared. To touch anyone. All the time. I can barely get close to my own husband without worrying I’ll turn myself into a widow on accident. What of a child? They have no protection against the terrible things of this world. How can I protect them when I AM one of those terrible things? The ladies at lunch yesterday talked about the joys of motherhood and the expectations of a wife of an heir. I laughed and jested, but underneath I felt like…I can’t even place it into words. On some level I wish to experience the joys of motherhood, yet I cannot shake the foreboding whisper these dreams leave me with. I dare not ask the gods for I am so incredibly terrified of the answer. These dreams have their claws in me so very deep. How can I ever explain to anyone these fears. I am a pillar against the coming storms, I am meant to hold the city up and together. But I cannot keep my own worries at bay. They have trapped me in an endless cycle of sleepless nights and daydreams that turn into nightmares. I feel as though I am losing my mind, barely able to keep my head above the metaphorical waters. 

          I…feel so alone… 

 

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Abjuration & Integrity
Lady Catalina Renata Tempesta's views on abjuration, as conveyed as a TA at the Mage Academy...

Abjuration & Integrity 

The School of Abjuration emphasizes magic that blocks, banishes, or protects. Detractors of this school say that its tradition is about denial. That it is about negation rather than positive assertion. Ending harmful effects, protecting the weak, and banishing evil influences, however, is anything but a philosophical void – and the manner in which abjuration works is the same.

At its core, abjuration is not about negation, although it is easy to mistake it as such. Rather, abjuration is about true strength and integrity. Integrity is the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished. It is the quality or state of being complete or undivided. Abjuration does not truly work by denial of something else. It works by reinforcing the core of what something is, thus strengthening it against outside influences.  

So, why are abjuration spells able to cause “denial” magical effects such as Dispel Magic and Counterspell? Simple – it is because magic seeks to cause a change upon the existing world through a spellcaster’s will. By strengthening the core of the world as it exists and as the abjurist wishes it to be, we are able to reject that change. We strengthen the integrity of the world and magic as it is, so it can shrug off attempts to alter it. 

What about spells that act upon other magic, such as Glyph of Warding? Again, abjuration works by strengthening what something is – and thus, it enables other magic to be sustained longer. It prevents the degradation and loss of magical power, thus enabling spells to have their magic preserved until a later time when a triggering event takes place. 

Protective magics are no exception. Think of abjuration spells as a bar that can be placed across a door. When someone attempts to force open the door, the addition of the bar helps the door to resist against the force. The bar is not really doing anything to prevent the attack itself, but is reinforcing the integrity of the door’s frame so that it may sustain itself, remaining unchanged and resisting damage. Blade Ward is a perfect example of this. So is Protection from Good and Evil – although there are aspects of abjuration which give that spell even greater power. You may note that despite the common name for this spell, it does not actually do anything in regards to the inherent good or evil nature of person – it guards against attack by types of creatures not of our Physical plane. Their very existence on our plane is foreign, and so magics which reinforce the reality of this plane are more capable of rejecting attempted attacks by such creatures. 

Abjuration lends itself well to magics of protective nature, although that is not its only feature. Viewing it as only protective or only as a means of negation is limiting and unnecessary. A clever spellcaster will find a great amount of utility if they approach abjuration magic not as a way of saying “no”, but as a way of saying “yes” from a different perspective. In short, abjuration is the school of magic that seeks to support things as they are and as the spellcaster wishes to bolster them. It is not the school of negation, but the school of integrity.

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Letter #22 - Devil's Night
10/30/2019 - All Hallows Eve

Melisende yawned as Damien finally exited and closed the door behind him. She ran a hand through her loose hair while making her way over to the spacious bed in the center of the far wall. Night robes wrapped around her, she dimmed all but one lantern before climbing under the blankets. With a small sigh, she pulled her journal from the nightstand into her lap and began to write…

          It has been roughly a month since I’ve had the chance to sit and breathe, I think. My time has been spent between my duties as Cardinal, seeing to the safety of my friends, and traipsing about with Cecily and the Contessa for wedding planning…which is not surprisingly tomorrow. I sit currently in my temporary rooms at the Caligara estate, “resting” for whatever that is supposed to mean. Apparently returning from Devil’s Night in the city covered in one’s own blood is a tad unseemly and unladylike according to the wide eyed stares the staff gave me. I barely had a moment to bid Graziano a good night before Dante, Damien, and the horde of pestering hens assigned to my care whisked me away. After being properly chastised, scrubbed, and whatever else the maidens of the Nine Hells deemed necessary to within an inch of my life I’ve finally been left alone. 
          To what’s happened…there is so much. 
          With the descent into the dark half of the year, the Order has been busy with regular keeping of the peace between our realm and the spirits. As with every year, there is a general rise in ghosts, ghouls, banshees, and more. Against my better judgement and on threat of being shackled to my desk, I have not personally seen to every case across the city and her outlying communities. The Abbot expressly forbid it and informed me repeatedly that my trait of running right at danger would land me into an early grave. As the only one of us pair who’s seen the Dread Mother already, I laughed but understood and respected his points. I learned from him as well, that my suspicions of Ombra were correct. He is one of our Order which brings me a surprising amount of calm if I were to be honest. I met him formally as one of my priests at a ceremony in the Basilica in recent weeks. I look forward to hopefully working alongside him more within the Order and Church. 
          Given the rest our enemies have seemed to give us, our friends took the opportunity to throw Graziano and myself two rather fantastical parties in celebration of the upcoming nuptials. It wasn’t necessarily by choice either, at least on my part. We were having a private lunch in my office – a time I’ve come to treasure since I rarely make it to the estate or to the Academy, when the thundering gaggle of noble ladies and lords we call friends arrived. The Abbot, the betrayer, allowed them entry into the Basilica in favor of forcing me to leave my work for even a moment. Cameron and Catalina led the charge with the likes of Sophie and my own brother as support, Tessa and Cecily not far behind. We were ushered to the steps of the cathedral, where to the many hoots and whistles of his bravossi and my own court of ladies that waited, I bade him a proper farewell and was promptly pulled into a carriage. What followed was undoubtedly the heaviest night of drinking and shenaniganry I’ve ever had – but it was the best fun. At times throughout the night, we had narrow run-ins with the opposing stag party which not to my surprise had turned into what could only be described as a mortal Wild Hunt. Cheers and the occasional whistle were had before we ultimately parted ways again. I awoke to a mess of my closest circle – Cas, Sophie, Catalina, Tessa and not unsurprisingly Ambrogio and Oliver who had joined us sometime in the evening, in various states of unconsciousness across my bed and the floor of my rooms. Cecily arrived within minutes of my terrible return to the living, looking as fantastically put together as ever. Thank the gods for magical hangover cures. 
          Speaking of my captain, Tessa is finally back in port for more than a few days. In rare moments of quiet, I’ve absconded away to the Swift Fate for drinks and freedom. I’ve felt blessed by the gods that our relationship has developed to the point it has. I trust her absolutely and completely. It also pleases me to see her embrace the title of “Lord Protector” quite vehemently. I had meant it as a joke among our friends, but we’ve both seen the power of titles here in Solandris. So if being the captain of the Cardinal’s Guard (which is befitting of such an esteemed Second Son) will help in our mutual endeavors, then so be it. Tonight she saw my safe return to the estate, cursing all the while given the events of the shop. 
          Revenants once again move among us and against us – at least this time we seemed to be better prepared. Upon arriving at Cas’s shop for a brief respite from the activities of Devil’s Night, we were promptly attacking and myself nearly murdered again by the remaining two creatures and a slew of mercenaries.  We dealt with them quickly, interrogating the two we caught alive before releasing them to the militia. They were idiots but we learned a little bit about how the remaining Revenant was planning to attack. Graziano had captured the soul of the other and has plans of turning it over to the Arcane Academy for proper disposal. Cas seemed rather upset at the end of the interrogation and I honestly couldn’t properly understand why. From what I gathered, she was cross that we had let these mercenaries go while killing the last who attacked us in Finches’ Fineries. She accused us, accused me of not caring and just exuding our will as nobles whenever we deemed it necessary. That…hurt. If there is anything I try to avoid, it is an abuse of power that comes with the Alessio name or even that granted to me as Cardinal. I have never wished to push my will upon others, especially those deemed socially lower than me. That is what makes me so angry with the nobles that do that. Abusing your status causes hate and discontent, which is not something I wish to nurture in my own flock and family. It is what I tried explaining to Cameron as well, after the Devil attack on the ship. Regardless, those of us present respected Cas’s wishes and left the shop not long after. Given the weight of what had happened, our group split up to go our separate ways. Thanks to potions given by Korim Tor and Damien, I wasn’t as hurt as before. Graziano used the prayer beads I had given him and further healed me as we made our way back to the estate. Dante and Tessa followed, both chastising my refusal to run from the Revenants. 
          It is here where I have caught up, I think. Upon arrival, I was whisked away and -

Melisende jumped as a gentle knock drew her attention from the worn journal in her lap. She glanced around the spacious room, eyebrow raised as she caught sight of nothing amiss. Soft rumbles from the door told her that both Dante and Damien still stood outside – protecting her honor or whatever that means. She rolled her eyes with a small smile and turned back to her quill. A second soft knock and the roll of magic down her spine pulled her attention towards the heavy wardrobe in the corner. The priestess felt her smile grow wider as she placed her journal to the side and slid from under the blankets. The wood floors were cold under her feet but it didn’t faze her. She carefully approached the oak doors of the wardrobe and opened them softly. What clothing she brought with her for the stay at the estate greeted her gaze. She reached out to touch one of her dresses and quelled a small shriek in her throat as a warm hand grasped her wrist. Graziano chuckled softly, pushing her clothes aside enough for her to see his face. 
          “What are you doing here?” she whispered, unable to keep the smile from her own lips. 
          “Checking on you of course, I feared you may be in danger.” his eyes sparkled with mirth and laughter, “There are many enemies afoot.”  
          “I highly doubt I am safer no place else than here, good sir.” she replied, “What with your tower and all.” 
          “My lady, are you making fun of my tower?” 
          “Absolutely not, I would never dream of it. Though I may if you don’t answer my question, my lord.” 
          “Come with me and you’ll see.” 
Melisende bit the inside of her cheek to avoid smiling too hard, “We’re not supposed to see each other until tomorrow, I believe. Traditions and all that. Rules, even.” 

          “Since when have you ever let rules keep you away from doing something?” he tugged gently on the wrist he still held, “Why -” 
The priestess didn’t give him any chance of continuing that thought, preferring to use that wrist to pull him close enough for a quick kiss before pushing him away. He released her in silence. 

          “You have me convinced, one moment.” She turned around and made her way back to the bed. Melisende placed her journal in the hidden pocket of her robes laying over the chaise before pulling on the soft boots she usually wore.
          ~ Please keep people out of my chambers until morning, I am retiring for the evening…just not in this room. ~ she sent to Damien through her Message spell. Her monk’s reply was swift. 
          ~ Of course, my lady. I will inform that you are resting and will not be disturbed until tomorrow. Be back by 9 o’clock.  
The priestess avoided doing a small dance of success as she quietly approached the wardrobe after turning her final lantern down. He still waited patiently, smile gracing his face. A hand reached for her as she stepped within his view. 

          “I have to be back by 9.” She warned goodnaturedly, “Lest we desire the wrath of Cecily, your mother, AND my own as a wedding present.” 
          “You worry too much,” he chuckled, pulling her up and through the wardrobe with him to the secret passage that lay behind. The door shut gently behind them. 
          “Well someone has to in this marriage.” 
~~~~

          True to his word, Melisende found herself back in her chambers the next morning with just enough time to shuck her boots off and jump into bed. She sat up and yawned as if well-rested (though that was entirely the opposite) when the door opened, revealing Cecily and the retinue of handmaids behind her.
          “Good morning! Sleep well?” There appeared to be a knowing twinkle in the older woman’s eye, one that the priestess caught as she yawned again. 
          “Yes.” 
          “Oh good because your robes are inside out.” 

 

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Diary of Cecily Renata Tempesta di Solana #4 - Honor Thy Sister
9/23/2019, The First Winds of Autumn

Excerpt taken from the diary of Cecily Renata Tempesta di Solana, First Child of House Renata Tempesta, Matron of the Sun’s Rest, Spymaster, and renowned artist behind the nom de guerre Cecil Storm.

Many things about this period in history are shrouded in mystery, and the events of Cecily's life are no exception. One of many stories, and this author's personal favorite, tells us that the journals she left behind were originally written using a spell commonly known as Illusory Script, and thus appeared to be mundane musings about daily household maintenance and local gossip. Supposedly, following Cecily’s death, Claudia Solana -Third Child of House Solana and the rumored love of Cecily’s life – dispelled the books on a whim sparked by Cecily’s predilection towards hiding tokens of affection in plain sight behind magic in many of her works. They were lost – or possibly purposely hidden – for a time before making their way to a historian for publication with the blessing of the descendants of House Renata Tempesta.



*
The utter, unmitigated gall of some fourth children. To approach and harass my family and my establishments during such a sensitive time is unconscionable – not that there is ever an appropriate time to make wild accusations and cast spells on my favorite sister without her express consent. A joyous occasion almost spoiled in every direction by petty, vindictive philistines who assume they have even the specter of a chance of outsmarting their betters.

Loyalty, above all, should be to one’s family. There is no god, institution, or circumstance which supersedes that inarguable fact. One does not have to like their family or everything they do – but loyalty? That is sacrosanct.

How many feuds can be traced back to arguments within families? This sibling doesn’t like that one, this third child craves the wealth and power of being an heir, this heir behaves like a spare because they can’t handle the pressure, this sibling acts on their own without concern for the consequences – all of these things lead to alienation, bickering, and a family full of power vacuums and ultimately lacking a direction. Not my family, not ever again. It is unfortunate enough that my father feels envy towards my aunt and readily allows it to inform his every decision – and their situation makes it little surprise that Father continually attempts to sabotage my and Antonio’s relationship.

I saw what was happening, and I got Catalina and Antonio out of there as soon as I had the ability to do so. I’ll do the same for my other siblings the moment it becomes necessary. Being heir means having the wherewithal to take control when it is required, rather than waiting for it to be given. It means cultivating the willingness to put everyone else’s needs and wants and wellbeing above your own.

Why is that so difficult to understand?

My life is not my own, and I have processed this fact as well as I am able. I only truly mind when it feels as though my sacrifice has meant nothing to those I am responsible for.

As of yesterday, I have both a niece and the surety that my brother is beginning to accept the realities of our roles. My plans were successful and numerous safeguards secured. In spite of this, I remain possessed by a heady, roiling anger which has not yet had the time to temper into a weapon I can use properly.

Catalina and I had gone out together for the morning – I had a number of things to check on after being gone for so long, and we rounded things out with lunch at the Sun’s Rest. We returned home at the same time as the rest of my acquisitions from Kalantar were being unloaded, and so I rounded up several servants to assist me in bringing Sophie her gifts.

Sophie had become quite rotund, and developed a habit of piling pillows in my sitting room. The servants were initially aghast and made expert efforts to return the decor to rights any time she would leave – I had to give explicit instructions for her nest to be left as-is for the duration of her pregnancy. Pillows and cookies to stop the weeping, as it were. Things to remember the next time she is with child.

A call to Sophie told me that’s where she was, and as Catalina and I went to join her, we passed Ombra in the hall. Now – I know him by reputation and description, but hadn’t expected him to turn up at my estate. I certainly hadn’t anticipated the cold demeanor with which he carried himself in my presence. It seems unwise to endeavor to go unseen amongst many only to solidify one’s place in memory by shirking social graces, but what do I know about such things?

Ombra had given Sophie bolts of Elven silk for a commission – suspicious, given he was not on the expedition with us. Perhaps he has contacts aboard the Swift Fate, or more of the rumors about him are true than I initially anticipated.

I, of course, was not to be outdone, and Sophie was beside herself when presented with what I’d brought her. It is time she focus again on her talent – I’m loathe to break in a new seamstress, it brings her a fair amount of joy, and no family of mine will be relegated to second best by a pretender.

It’s come to my attention that Sophie may not understand the damage our bond has suffered this last half year or so. I loved her deeply, took her into my bed, fought for her place at my brother’s side – just to be tossed away for more impulsive friends who, ultimately, haven’t the ability to protect her from herself. She fared better when she took advantage of all my friendship has to offer.

Even now, I take risks to soothe her soul while she fights me at every opportunity – while she rebels against the sparse requests I make of her in return.

I wonder at times if she was only using me as a stepping stone to other things.

Sophie was upset I didn’t bring her along for the journey to visit the Vanir. It is true that she and I used to go on any number of adventures together, but that was when I trusted her. She’d come clean about her past, kept me supplied with all manner of information after I helped install her as the choice seamstress to the nobles of Solandris, and – most importantly – she treated me as a friend rather than an employer or meddlesome relative. What I told her instead, though, was also true – it didn’t seem prudent to bring a woman ready to give birth at any moment along for a voyage that could have taken over a month.

The so-called Poet of Solandris had also made himself quite at home, along with Ambrogio – who truly seems to have an incredible amount of leisure time available to him. They brought with them a man named Trent, dressed in ill fitting clothes so outdated their style had managed to come around again to relevancy. There are a number of things which are interesting about him, not the least of which being the sordid details I’ve managed to gather about his family. When piecing that particular puzzle together, it becomes obvious why his clothes don’t fit – the Abano heir’s family was killed some time ago, with some upstart second born brother taking over in his stead. I had thought this included all of the heir’s children, but clearly this is not true. Now, it stands to reason that a noble who conducts business in his father’s clothes and takes care not to allude to his scintillating personal history is one who is in desperate need of something – the question, of course, being what exactly that is.

Trent allowed me to look more closely at his necklace – an amulet which, at first glance, looked to be carved from wood. The details weren’t carved, though, instead they seemed to have been shaped using magic. A tribute to Gaia, mother of all the gods, including the Fallen Stars. It was a quick leap to determine the man is a druid, part of the Circle of the Shepherd, who lean towards the uncouth and animalistic by all accounts. Certainly it’s not unheard of for nobles to become druids, although it is incredibly rare as Golden Book families do not encourage their children to seek worship beyond the conventional church hierarchy.

Now, he was friendly enough, if inebriated beyond the point of politeness. It further seems no one taught him when to stop talking – one of the few things both Father and Aunt Gloria taught me was to allow pauses in conversation, as the untrained will continue talking to fill the silence. It is incredible the amount of information you can discover during such moments. After a while I grew concerned he would damage my rug and suggested that he investigate the gardens outside – with a gentle implication that I knew exactly what and who he is, although it’s unclear if he is astute enough to pick up on the subtext I provided.

A servant notified me that Aunt Janice had stopped by, which was curious. After her introduction, she asked for a more private conversation. The men left with little complaint, the curtains were drawn, and Aunt Janice revealed herself to be Marguerite in a clever disguise. Marguerite had news of a sensitive nature, and clearly took our recent conversation about family and communication to heart, as she wanted to speak to both Sophie and myself before moving forward with any plans.

Darien, who so recently claimed to understand my request for all parties to stay out of the situation with Guilliman, entirely disregarded his word and instead made efforts to seek out an alternate arrangement for Sophie’s child. His plan, according to the letter he sent Marguerite, was to negotiate the newborn’s transition into a temporary ward of the Twilight Court. The church itself agreed so long as Sophie suffer through limited visitation for a year, upon which time she can assume custody.

Now – it’s not that this is a bad idea, or one I hadn’t considered myself. The issue, as it ever is, is people’s determination to not leave well enough alone when I have assured them that the situation is in hand. It’s a simple concept at its core, and yet its lack of intricacy seems to encourage ordinarily intelligent people into dismissing its importance. Thankfully I was prepared for someone to do something well intentioned if inexcusably stupid, which is why I was notified about the arrangement via back channels.

We told Marguerite to go ahead and agree to the arrangement, and Sophie has said she is going to speak to Darien about never doing anything like this ever again. She claims he is a man who desperately wants a family, and I nearly lost my temper in telling her that actions such as this one are absolutely not a way to convince me of his abilities or loyalty. It’s a pity, really, as I liked him well enough on the Swift Fate – now I’m reminded of exactly how wary I must remain.

With that unpleasantness behind us, Marguerite mentioned there will soon be another city wide bardic competition. She asked if I had any intention of competing, and I find myself unsure. There was mention of spending time at the Twilight Court during the festivities if I decided not to, and the subject set my mind adrift.

Briefly – truly, for the most fleeting of moments – I considered what it would be like to simply run away to live out my days with the Twilight Court, what would happen if I simply never came back. I am certain I’d be able to convince Claudia to join me, and Anastasia would thrive there. I allowed myself to wonder if Marguerite would accept me, if I’d be given my own performance space, if the magic and art I have to offer would be a suitable draw. Just as quickly as the fantasy began, though, it was replaced with reality. My life is not my own.

There are two up and coming bards to be on the lookout for, according to Marguerite. Both need mentors – one plays bagpipes and is apparently a pirate; one is Magna Stanewald, Adaele’s son. It’s about time I shared some of my knowledge, I think, and I imagine Adaele would be overjoyed if I took her son under my wing. It’s unlikely she’ll ask me directly, though, so I will just have to pursue the subject myself.

It was shortly after Marguerite left that Sophie began suffering labor pains. At first she made efforts to hide her discomfort, then insisted it was false labor, but I am familiar enough with such things at this point to know it’s better to not tempt fate. She and Catalina were sent ahead to the Sun’s Rest, and I then informed Antonio of what was happening – and gave him explicit orders not to drink. He, Oliver, Trent, and Ambrogio set themselves up to wait at The Flower Pot, and I sent several guards with them just in case.

Somewhere around the fifth time that I reminded Sophie she does not have the authority to fire my staff, there was an authoritative knock at the front door. Guilliman, the cad, had decided his best course of action would be to approach the Sun’s Rest with an extensive and fully armed entourage, as well as my spoiled, naive sister-in-law, Lilla. It did not slip my notice that fully half of the pawns in attendance were women, likely seeking to circumvent my policy on strange men wandering the halls.

Still, I denied them all entrance – because I can.

Guilliman, this being the first time in life I have addressed him directly, was exceptionally rude. Upon being informed he would not be allowed inside, he asked after Antonio and then took most of his people with him to The Flowerpot. What sort of person harrasses a man waiting for news of the birth of his first child? Catalina engaged Guilliman in conversation and escorted him towards our brother, allowing me to return to Sophie’s side. Two acolytes remained on my land, and they were left standing in the rain and carefully watched.

The following series of events takes a turn towards the unapologetically chaotic. I had checked on the other baby, then made my way back to Sophie, who was in fine form shouting expletives and taking full advantage of the soundproofing carefully put in place in her room. My time for the next few minutes was spent in equal parts reassuring the midwife that she was certainly not fired and rubbing Sophie’s back. There was a sending from Catalina – Cecily, how quickly can you get here? – and the look on my face had Sophie demanding I not leave her. Of course, I had no choice.

I didn’t respond to Catalina, instead making use of Dimension Door and appearing at her side on a frustrated sigh. The inn was completely empty, and a glance out the window showed a number of patrons and members of the priesthood waiting outside. Catalina looked as annoyed as I’d ever seen her, and Antonio was nowhere to be found. Apparently, Guilliman had decided to antagonize my brother – asking about names for the child, shooting barbs cloaked in a pleasant tone of voice about pettiness and what a joyful occasion it was. He allowed Lilla to attack both my character and that of my sister, and then they both made efforts to cast Truth spells on Catalina without her consent.

Catalina was asked if she knew of any plots to interfere with the child, and she – brilliant woman that she is – replied she knew of at least half a dozen. She also pointed out, in all honesty, that I have consistently and emphatically said the situation was settled, telling everyone to stay out of it and expressing my concern that meddling would only make things worse.

Eventually, Antonio had apparently had enough – and in this instance, even I can’t blame him for that. He ordered the doors of the inn closed and locked and prepared to kill every enemy in sight. As Catalina was telling me this, Antonio reappeared and seemed surprised to find the room empty – my sister had apparently defused the situation and bought herself some time by sending him to another plane of existence. Inspired, really, and likely fortunate neither of us knew that spell when we were children.

Antonio explained himself, saying he had made a real effort to pay attention. He’d put together several factors – my influence over the owner of The Flowepot, the number of guards I’d sent him, my request he abstain from drinking – and came to the conclusion I was preparing him to win a battle. He wasn’t wrong, and I told him as much, but he was premature in his action. How would it look for us if he did such a thing without first being attacked? Catalina and I pointed out that this is likely exactly what Guilliman and Lilla were hoping for – more reason to punish our family, another way to make us look bad or divided or unstable. We win the day by not giving them what they want, and being in all things better and smarter than they are.

I am pleased, though, that he’s finally developing real faith in me. ‘My sister is a genius,’ indeed.

Emilio, the innkeeper, called down the stairs asking if he could rejoin us. He informed me he was prepared to die to protect my family, and I bit back the urge to inform him he only maintains his status as owner of The Flowerpot because of his unfailing loyalty. Instead, I offered to pay him for any lost income due to my family’s affairs, thanked him, and left before anyone else became aware I was there at all. There were no more instances of high drama, thank the Stars.

Sophie gave birth to a perfect child who did not inherit my brother and father’s unfortunate ears. The babies were swapped, unbeknownst to the down on her luck teenager who will never know such a change took place – only that next week a grieving Sophie will adopt her child, who will never want for anything. And so, one baby is awaiting her mother, the other is safely in the hands of the Twilight Court.

One delicate puzzle is behind us – with multiple precautions taken in several directions, both magical and non-magical, to protect what is ours.

I am exhausted, and there is still so much to do.


Cecily spent hours in her studio painting by candlelight, lost to a call of inspiration that shirked the precariously balanced wellbeing of its target. With one last stroke of the paintbrush, she finally took a step back and took in her work. Two paintings – portraits of infants, their features nearly identical to the undiscerning eye. Each child was swathed in the turquoise and crimson of the Renata Tempesta house – one stretch of carefully rendered fabric bearing a quill to mark the heir, the other a sword.

She yawned and stretched, looking towards the door and considering the empty bed responsibility dictated she return to. Cecily sighed and wiped absently at her eyes. The idea of sleeping alone weighed heavily on her in a way she was ordinarily capable of ignoring. It was a handful of steps to another fresh canvas, a matter of minutes before she channeled the lonely ache in her bones into something else entirely. When the sun rose, Cecily made herself stop painting and allowed the sensation of drowning to overtake her as she overlooked her garden.

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