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Requiem of the Moth #4
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This is not good at all.
Yun frowns at the glass eye in his hand. It stares back unseeing, its orange iris brought to life by the fire behind him. He keeps staring at the eye instead of looking for its twin in the box. The puppet on the table lies waiting.
"Were you lying after all? It's more likely that you did, for any one of countless reasons."
The glass eye doesn't answer.
"If you were being truthful, why? Commoners gossip. You must know that my standing isn't that high. Yes, I was appointed Vessi but only very recently. My office is a heap of dead stone, it doesn't grant political power like other titles do."
You will claw your way to power soon enough, the eye whispers.
"Right now, I'm not more useful to you than any other Noe. Probably less, in fact, but you can't possibly have that much insight. So, why? Are you betting on my potential? By the Deep, what do you see in me?"
The eye is silent. The puppet on the table is silent.
He cannot understand. Sighing, he abandons the eye and looks up. Thankfully, it is Zhiven who stands guard by the door today. His sister would've given timid advice by now, offered to help in any way she can. Zhiva is so eager to help, he has to wonder what went wrong during her breathing.
No matter. He'll know for certain soon enough. Momentarily comforted, he starts rooting through the box for the second eye, dismissing delicate ears, noses, and fingernails. When he has two orange irises, he prepares the tools for mounting them.
Several stalactite drips later, Yun leaves the workshop and changes in his chambers before heading to the treasury.
Noe Vylira greets him at the door. As usual, she is graceful in her white robes, fingers adorned with silver, nails painted the same magenta as her eyes, and head crowned with an obsidian-studded circlet. "Come, come, I've just had a delivery of fresh hibiscus tea."
Her office is spacious and warm. In front of the fireplace are rugs, cushions, and low tables for lounging and conversing with visitors. The metal desk, laden with ledgers, lists, and brass scales, looms at the back like an afterthought.
Yun sits on the cushions in front of the fireplace, hiding his unease about how well she knows his preferences. "The first explorers have come back, then? No difficulties?" Every year, Kandamsin anxiously awaits the return of the Silvedhri explorers. They are the only ones braving the surface, venturing out of their mountain range to scavenge and trade, bringing back luxury goods and news.
As Vy sits next to him, her servant offers two steaming tea cups. It's Yvara, her pale, lavender-streaked hair pulled back into a neat bun.
Yun accepts the first cup and sips only when his cousin does. The fresh tang of the hibiscus caresses his tongue and he sighs. Vy has always had impeccable taste. It would be a pity to lose her hospitality but if Usira's accusations are true, something will be cut.
"There is talk of unrest among the Hangao but that is hardly cause for concern. Those squishy blood haters would never fight among themselves." Vy clicks her tongue. Like any true Sedrivar, she believes conflict to be the spice of life: Theft, violence, even murder is perfectly acceptable, as long as one can get away with it.
"Thank the Deep," Yun mutters and takes another sip of tea. Their wood and plants are sourced in large parts from the Hangao. If anything were to happen to those trade routes, the clans would be beside themselves. "If you think about it, isn't our reliance on imported goods a little worrying?"
Vy manages to flick a lock of hair over her shoulder without spilling her tea. "Try telling Zakiva to give up on her cozy little fireplace and hand soaps. She would throw you out faster than you can say 'conifer'."
"What's a conifer?"
Vy grins. "Something for the treasurer to worry about. Tell me, have you come across any juicy stories lately? What are the spiders whispering into our honorable Vessi's ear?"
Yun snorts. "They haven't whispered much of anything yet. I'm still in the process of earning their trust, proving I work for the good of the city." Unbidden, a white braid and pale blue eyes come to mind. "There has been one surprising visitor."
"Oh?" Vy leans forward, trying and failing to hide her curiosity behind the rim of her cup.
Yun eyes her for a beat, playing up the tension. "The rest is confidential."
She smiles, still dismissing how badly she wants to know. "So it's something concerning the clans."
"I didn't say that." Yun mirrors her smile. The thrill of the game is seeping under his skin and he welcomes it. This is when he is at his best: senses crystal clear, mind sharp and working at capacity, hunting for messages between the lines, traitorous body language, anything that will give him an advantage over his opponent.
"Let me guess." She sips her tea, feigning nonchalance. "It must be us or close to us, otherwise you would tell me just to gloat. Has our figurehead finally cracked and revealed her brittle heart to all?"
Zakiva was ferocious when new to power but it's an open secret among kin that she hasn't used her fangs in years. For all Yun knows, they might've been filed off by neglect or some of their more eager relatives. "If she has, I wouldn't tell you."
"Nor I you as I still enjoy her protection and would undoubtedly know long before the Vessi's little spiders reached his ear." Her rich magenta eyes twinkle. Is there more to their banter than Yun anticipated? Since his appointment, he hasn't kept track of the clan's ongoings as carefully as he should have. He makes a mental note to catch up with other relatives soon.
"You are far too isolated in that dusty office of yours. Not even a proper fireplace! I don't know how you stand it," Vy continues.
"Voluntarily." He grins. "The others can whisper behind my back all they want but I'm as devoted to our family as ever."
"You have always kept yourself apart." Vy sighs. "Of course, they only notice now."
The accusation is faint but he catches it—echoing the veiled disgust that has been thrown his way ever since he was old enough to notice. Of course, back then, it was "he's too timid" or "he'll never amount to anything". Now it's "he's too strange" and "he isn't one of us".
Yet no one has ever produced a puppet as lifelike and independent as Zhiva and Zhiven. Not one in their family, so proud of their puppetry. Laughable.
"What would you have me do?" he asks, genuinely curious. So far, Vy has kept a tight lid on her true intentions. Not a hint of what the moth catcher spoke of. Time to try another angle.
"I've helped you before. I can do so again," Vy says softly. Her half-drunk tea sits forgotten on the side table.
What she doesn't say is: Trust me, rely on me. I'll take care of everything for you—if you give me what I want. And what does Vy want? The same thing they all want, he suspects.
Again, the moth catcher intrudes on his mind, passing judgment. Suddenly his own family seems terribly dull to Yun. "You are a genius with people," he muses, drawing out the words, biding time, "and I thank you for your generous offer…"
"Believe me, I would do it gladly. As you've said, this is my only strength. I don't have your talent." She glances toward the door as if sensing Zhiven waiting outside. "More importantly, I hate to see the others misunderstand you, Yun. Let me be your advocate."
"To present a unified front?" he asks. Oh, she never uses his name.
"A unified front," she confirms.
Yun sighs. Vylira has been like this with him for years—he can't tell anymore whether she is genuine or lying to his face.
A commotion at the door saves him from having to answer. "Patience, please," Yvara pleads. "My mistress is busy with another visitor right now."
The intruder is not patient. He shoulders past the petite girl and stops on the wool rug. It is Zakiva's younger brother Izo, his bone-pale hair half-up with strands cascading over one shoulder and woven through with silver. The effect is meant to be artful but ends up being gaudy. He's brought a cloying floral scent into the room. "Where's my cinnamon?" he demands.
Sighing, Vy gets up to greet him. "In the absence of a reasonable explanation for your haste, you'll have to be a little more patient while I finish my business with Yun. Your usual, was it?"
Blinking, Izo turns to Yun as if he's only just noticed his presence. His magenta eyes are narrowed, dark with anger. He bows curtly before speaking to Vy again. "How do you know I do not have a reasonable explanation?"
"Something for you to ponder while you wait." Vy sits at her desk and waves Yun over.
Izo isn't content to wait while she writes her receipt to Yun. "You broke your promise. I've been in a tight spot because it wasn't ready two days ago."
Vy eyes him. "I thought the cinnamon was for your personal use."
He splutters. "It is but that doesn't mean…"
Having finished the receipt, Vy gets up again to hand it to Yun not over but in front of the desk—a gesture of trust and friendship. Glancing at the parchment, he realizes she has gifted him a season's supply of hibiscus tea at no cost beyond the usual import tax.
That doesn't stop him from swiping some documents she has surreptitiously shoved under a list of wares earlier and slipping them into his sleeve. Vy is arguing with Izo, Yvara is preparing tea for the new guest. Nobody has seen.
He bids his cousin goodbye, all but ignoring Izo who responds in kind, and marches back to his office with Zhiven at his heel. His expression stays blank until the door shuts behind him.
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As announced a week ago, I'm serializing Requiem of a Moth! Welcome to the first official serial chapter.
I couldn't resist leaving some more worldbuilding crumbs for you to pick up and wonder about. Some story crumbs for me to follow as well. I hope it wasn't too much, on top of meeting Vylira properly for the first time. What did you notice as you were reading? Which questions popped into your mind? What or who are you most curious about? I'd love to know!