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Refracted Light

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She stood at the edge of the roof, hands clasped, and stared out over the streets of Ladylake. Those streets were all but deserted - dawn's first light had yet to touch the horizon, and those people of the city who lived at night had returned to their homes - but she found it comforting. The guild owed no allegiance to any land, had traveled all over the world, but Ladylake would always be her city, and at times like this it was possible to pretend it was still the same. In the daytime you couldn't escape the listlessness in the streets, the spark missing from behind the eyes of the people. Even now, with the Sacred Blade Festival approaching for the first time in years...

She closed her eyes briefly. Thinking about the festival was less than helpful. The part of her that treasured the contents of the book hanging at her hip, that held to hope in the old stories no matter how often Felice and Talfryn gently teased her about it, wanted to believe in the legend of the festival, in a chance for hope and redemption for not just her city but the whole world. But the part of her that led the Scattered Bones couldn't help but wonder: did the princess herself believe? Or had she just pressed for the festival's return in some cynical attempt to advance her own personal agenda? Every year, the world grew darker, and yet the seraphim remained silent. And as long as that was the case -

A gust of wind ruffled the edge of her hood, and with it she sensed both the approach and the identity of the man who had joined her on the roof. "Eguille."

"Boss," the older man replied. He came to her side, but focused on her rather than the city. "Are you still thinking about the contract?"

"Yes." She sighed. With many other members of the guild she couldn't let her mask drop, but she knew that Eguille could always be relied upon. Not just to accomplish his missions, but to remain unaffected by the awareness that his leader was, so often, just an uncertain young woman beset by so many doubts. "There are... a number of unanswered questions."

"Are you sure it's a good idea to put Lunarre on answering them?" Questioning her decisions was another thing they could only do in private, yet it too brought her no end of relief. "He's always been a loose cannon, and we both know he's been getting worse."

"I know, but I fear I have no choice. We're going to be stretched very thin with the festival and he's our best tracker by far. We need some answers. What's she really doing when she leaves the city?" Unconsciously, one hand reached down to her side, seeking the comforting feel of the Celestial Record. "Everything about her is a contradiction. She's distantly removed from the throne and supposed to be unwilling to ever act like a princess, yet she's also said to feel far more of a sense of duty to Hyland than the rest of the royal family put together. An idealist surrounded by cynics, or a fanatic surrounded by pragmatists. I just don't know."

The conversation from that afternoon came back to her again.

"The princess is known as one of the most consistent anti-war voices in the government. Are you saying that's only a mask?"

Chancellor Bartlow sighed heavily. "If only it was a mask, she'd be easier to deal with. Her Highness truly believes in her ideals, and in a different time they would be admirable, but the degree she's willing to take them to is sheer madness. She would let Hyland and all its people burn rather than compromise her precious purity in even the slightest way."

The note of disgust in his voice was hard to ignore, and again she felt a certain suspicion for the man seated before her. But the enmity between the chancellor and the princess was hardly a secret, and it didn't inherently make his concerns invalid. "Still, though. Treason? You sincerely believe she would go that far?"

"For someone who holds war in such disdain, any other measure is considered justifiable. To her mind, helping Rolance conquer us, no matter how much continuing devastation it causes, is the lesser evil next to a longer conflict. Particular when she may already have hidden ties to the empire."

She exchanged a glance with Eguille. His face was hidden behind his metal mask, but he gave a single nod. The view of war was one that was very familiar to her own heart, and these supposed connections still needed investigation, but neither of them could disagree with Bartlow's assessment of what even a clear-cut victory could mean. After centuries of conflict between the empire of Rolance and the kingdom of Hyland, conquest would just guarantee continued resistance, suffering, and loss of life. Maybe even worse than open war, terrible a prospect though it was.

"Your concerns are serious ones, Chancellor," she told her prospective employer. "For the Scattered Bones, though, taking a life is not a mission we undertake lightly. Honor demands that we investigate further before accepting your contract."

Bartlow offered a practiced smile. "Of course. Your famed integrity is one of the reasons the council has turned to you rather than some group of petty cutthroats. I only ask that you make your decision as quickly as possible.

"If Princess Rose is not stopped soon, I cannot even think of the tragedy that could occur."

In the east, the sky had begun to lighten ever so subtly. She took a last moment to look over the city, reminding herself of what was at stake here. All of those people, just living their lives, even in a world grown more and more uncertain with each passing year. She had a duty to protect them - even, if necessary, from their own leaders.

"I suppose standing around up here will solve nothing. We should get back to the others."

Eguille paused. "You're sure you're okay, Boss?"

"I don't believe I have the time to be anything else." Alisha doffed her assassin's mask, closed her eyes for a moment to focus, and put on the one she wore as leader of the Sparrowfeathers merchant's guild. "Come on. It's going to be a busy day."