No Surrender

The capital city of Anaxas and the seat of the government.
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Ava Weaver
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Tue Jul 16, 2019 5:19 pm

After Hours, 32nd Hamis, 2719
Woven Delights, The Painted Ladies
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T
he note came for Anatole Vauquelin at his residence, addressed to him in a neat, curling hand on a tradesman’s stationary – nice enough to be carried into a galdor’s home, but not too thick, not too expensive. It was not signed, not exactly, but Woven Delights was written in calligraphy across the top of the paper inside the small creamy envelope, with the address tucked beneath in smaller letter. Across the middle of the page, in delicate, clear, rounded script, the note read:

Your order is ready.

A signature at the bottom of the page, hardly legible but the short first word began with a large sprawling A, and a W for the longer second one.

There was nothing else: no details, no instructions, just those four words, the name Woven Delights, and the signature.


Cutting silk was a wonderful pleasure and a dreadful chore. Silk pooled, it ran, it slid away from the most experienced fingers. Left to its own devices, it puddled on the counter, slipped this way and that, shifted just at the worst possible moment as the shears approached. Taming it, cutting it into its desired shape, required a strong will, surprisingly deft fingers, and – most of all – careful preparation. At the first Ava excelled, and she was good enough at the third to make up for any deficiencies in the second.

Ava had small weights, little things she’d bought for the silk specifically – not so heavy that they would crush the delicate fabric or leave any sign of their presence once removed, but heavy enough to keep it from shifting as it was so wont to do. For the dark blue-green silk with its wonderful watery feel, Ava carefully placed the weights on the far end of the strip of fabric, then back where it rested against her cutting edge, with a few more at the top and bottom to keep it from slipping. She had special shears as well – she had invested in them, carefully, deliberately, as soon as she had decided she would sell silk (and she had never not wanted to sell silk). With the weights and the sheers and two years of practice and slow, careful deliberate movements, Ava Weaver cut Tom Cooke’s blue-green silk into the right amount and shape for a scarf.

That the task was challenging, however, wasn’t the reason it had taken Ava well over a month to finish the order. Perhaps she would have done it earlier, if not for the dramatic events of early Hamis and all that had followed. Perhaps she wouldn’t have done it at all, if not for all those things. Ava didn’t think there was much to be gained from thinking too deeply about it; instead, one night she found herself finished with orders before she was too terribly tired, and – so – she had gone to the shelf, taken down the blue-green silk, like waters swollen with the rainy season’s storms, placed the weights, and cut it.

The delicately folded fabric had sat in one of her drawers a few days after that, and, then, first thing in the morning, before Will came to pick up her packages and letters, Ava had penned a simple note and addressed it to Anatole Vauquelin. She had handed it to Will unafraid, but by the time he had left the shop her heart was pounding in her chest; she could feel it, steadily, beating hard beneath her breastbone, beneath the smooth soft fabric of her dress, the chemise beneath, all those layers that did so little to protect her.

Yet, somehow, with the cutting of the silk and the sending of the note, Ava’s life didn’t end. After she’d cut the silk, days and nights passed as normally as usual. Days were full of customers, of smiles and laughter. Nights were kept busy with the preparation of the next day’s orders, the balancing of her books, the careful navigation of the stairs up to the bedroom and the awkward maneuvering required to keep her little gray cat from escaping down into the rest of the shop. He was free to come and go as he pleased, a little delicate rigging of her window allowed him that without opening up the entire house, but he always seemed to be there when she came up for the night; sometimes, if Ava lingered overlong, she would hear his soft demanding mews coming from the little studio apartment.

And so it was too with the sending of the note. The bell rang – Ava’s first customer of the morning entered – and she was every inch the smiling shopkeeper, ready and, honestly, happy to help. There was no faltering or hesitation, no awkwardness in her face or voice; it was very nearly as if the note had never been sent. At least, that was what Ava told herself, though the knowledge of it weighed on her, a little heavier than she might have liked, pressing down on something deep inside her and leaving her, occasionally, a little breathless.

And then – he sent a note back.

Will come tomorow night

The gorgeous, thick, expensive paper with its sloppy, chickenscratch writing was a visceral shock. Ava should have known – of course she should have known – and the very moment she saw it, with the single r where the two should have been in the midst of the word tomorrow, Ava had understood, had realized that, of course, inhabiting someone else’s body didn’t give you their handwriting, didn’t give you their knowledge of spelling. She’d had to stifle a strange, strangled giggle that had risen up from her chest to her throat and threatened to bubble out of her mouth, smoothing it into a polite smile and a tip for the delivery boy.

Ava hadn’t worked that night; she hadn’t thought she would sleep, but somehow she’d at least lay down, because the cat was on the bed and she’d just meant to pet him a few moments, and she’d woken up to the dawn light streaming in through the window, already late to start her day. She’d washed her face in cold water, choked down half a slice of dry toast and a cup of tea, arranged her hair, painted on her eyeliner and lip color, and dressed herself, with all those necessary awkward contortions to get oneself into a dress meant for someone with a maid, the new, summery, silky pale green a cheerful reflection of the less rainy days here at the end of Hamis, of the warmer months to come. The dress had wide sleeves, flaring at the bottom with little curls of white lace peeking out over Ava’s wrists, a rounded detailing of the same style of white in trim across the front, with two little rows of white fabric buttons down either side. It tucked in neatly at the waist, and from there the dress fell narrowly to the ground, a little straighter and more confining than much of what Ava wore, but still with that gently sloping human hem at the bottom, pointed softly at the front and the back.

Ava wriggled awkwardly through the hatch, narrowly managing to keep the cat out of the shop below, and descended. The day felt as if it passed in an awkward haze, and more than once Ava felt herself lightheaded. She knew that Tom would come either at the end of the day or during the evening after the shop had closed, but every time the bell rang, starting from the shop’s very opening and stretching all through the day, she looked up expecting to see Anatole Vauquelin striding into the shop. Striding? Tiptoeing, maybe, edging his way back inside; she thought of Tom as she’d seen him last, sloppy with drink and more than a little shame-faced and, she thought with a pulse of gratitude, blissfully as alive as he’d been before she sent an assassin after him.

In the end, all she could do was wait, an odd, painfully familiar sensation. And so Ava waited; she smiled, she laughed, she greeted, she sold, she soothed, she wrapped, she cut, she showed, and she waited.

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Last edited by Ava Weaver on Wed Jul 17, 2019 4:26 pm, edited 2 times in total. word count: 1457

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Tom Cooke
Posts: 251
Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
Race: Raen
: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Tue Jul 16, 2019 10:10 pm

Woven Delights The Painted Ladies
during the evening of the 32nd of hamis, 2719
Wasn’t mung, whatever everyone thought of him. Whatever he thought of himself. This time, at least, that wasn’t something he could hide behind. He’d never admitted it to himself; the thought’d existed, oes, in the back of his mind, but it was an indistinct cloud of a thought, the kind of vague feeling you stomped down or pushed away before it hurt too bad. Now, though, it was solid, and he’d looked at it, and it’d looked back. They’d acknowledged each other, and they’d never again be strangers.

Tom knew he had a problem.

Loshis and Hamis’d swept him along on the currents of their rains and whipping winds. He’d gone to endless meetings, where he kept his mouth shut and his head down; he’d entertained endless guests, skewered by Diana’s eyes, mimicking a dead man’s soft, sneering laughter; he’d signed endless papers he could only halfway read. He’d had the nail of Anatole Vauquelin’s name hammered into his head, time after time. Now he knew its secret meaning; he couldn’t pretend he didn’t know. The Vyrdag was a whirl of masks, he knew, hiding monsters.

Much as he’d liked to’ve said that night with Ava and Caina had put him on some kind of warpath, it hadn’t. For all his bluster and his righteous rage, Tom Cooke was a right coward. The time he hadn’t spent propped up in parliament like a corpse or a mannequin, he’d spent shitfaced. He’d halfway-hoped that silk’d never get cut.

That night was a drowned dream, and now, he saw it only in vivid snatches. He wondered, lying awake, what it’d been like for her, after she’d tumbled down the stairs in a whirl of silk, slitting her foot on broken glass. Hearing her name in his voice, and then seeing him, and then smelling the whisky all over him like a galdor’s heavy field. What had she thought, underneath that ironclad – ne, silk-clad composure? Felt? He burned with shame, and he hoped with half his heart that he’d never have to look her in the eye again.

Then the letter came. Only after Diana went off to sleep, after silence settled over the house in a chill, humid blanket, did he open it. He took it up to his study, where he settled himself in the seat of the tall, broad window behind the heavy mahogany desk, small and shivering in Anatole’s housecoat. He’d already had a glass of brandy, and he was nursing another – staring down at the envelope that lay unassumingly across his knees, nestled in thick green brocade.

Took him two and a half glasses to get the damn thing open. The mystifying brevity of it yanked a breathless laugh out of him, the macha signature another. He had to set his snifter down on the seat beside him so he didn’t spill any. He wiped a single tear out of his eye with a shaky hand, and before he knew it, he was sitting there, face cradled in his hands, forcing himself to breathe in deep and slow.

That night, he stopped at two and a half glasses. The next morning, he sent back to her quick as he could. Wouldn’t do to keep her waiting. (But was it tommorow, or tomorow? Ah, fuck it, that’s what.) That night was a sleepless hell, but by morning, somehow, he hadn’t had a drop to drink. Even half a glass of whisky and he wouldn’t have the will to stop – so he stopped before he started.

He didn’t know how long it’d last, but he reckoned he owed the day that much. Still burning with the shame of his drunken dishevelment, he’d made up his mind to clean up good, and by the morning of, he had. He kept his head down, and he didn’t think twice about it, not until that evening. As he was throwing a light coat on, preparing to slip out the back way, he caught sight of himself in the mirror.

There he was, cleaned up, freshly-shaven, sober for as long as he’d been in months – and there he was. Neat and respectable. Staring at him with those chilly grey eyes. His hand itched for the liquor cabinet; then, it itched for a pen and paper, for a missive to send to Ava Weaver: sick, cant come today, something else mung like that. I’m too presentable to be presentable, he thought drily.

Best to make a decision and stick with it. If he stayed real still, if he made everything that was all tangled up in his head small and quiet, he thought he could hear his heart. Do better, it whispered. So it was.



It was after hours, by all rights, the city full of mist, the buildings throwing long shadows down to the streets. Not long after hours, though; by his reckoning, the shop must’ve just closed. Tom found the door unlocked, as he’d (dubiously) hoped. At the jangle of the bell, his heart leapt to his throat, fluttering there like a trapped bird. He swallowed it down, stepping over the threshold. His shoes tapped on the hardwood; he took off his hat, tucking it under an arm.

Woven Delights wasn’t as bright this time of day, the soft pink of twilight barely trickling in between the fabrics on display in the bay windows. Still, warm lamplight washed over a whirl of color. The guard’d changed, he saw, forgetting himself for a long moment: that careful, suspicious look he always wore drained off his face, replaced by something like pleasant surprise.

Flowers – that was the first thing he noticed. Benny little flowers, cornflower-blue and pink and forest-green, dancing across rolls of good, reliable cotton. Rich, detailed flowers, entangled in vines, unfurling across hanging displays of silk: deep crimson, rich burgundy, green like emeralds, brown like kofi har. As he moved through the shop, steps still tentative, he reached out and brushed a shaky hand over a ream of silk light and dry as a breeze in Yaris. It stirred underneath his fingers.

A nerve jumped around his left eye, fluttering.

Movement stole his attention. For the first time, he looked toward the desk, eyes alighting on a familiar shape, wrapped in the light green of a meadow. That faint, peaceful smile faltered; he tensed, brow furrowing. His lip twitched, mouth moving like he wanted to say something, then clamping shut – he shot a quick glance round the shop. Making sure it was empty.

When he looked back at her, he gave her the warmest smile he could muster. “Beggin’ your pardon, madam,” he said softly, dipping in a low bow; when he rose, he looked at her head-on, looked her in the eye. He took a few cautious steps closer. “’S’like walkin’ into a garden, Ms. Weaver. Fair benny.”
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Ava Weaver
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Joined: Fri Jun 07, 2019 11:17 am
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Wed Jul 17, 2019 12:43 am

After Hours, 32nd Hamis, 2719
Woven Delights, The Painted Ladies
She watched him come across the threshold, slow and careful, tucking his hat under his arm. He stopped; he looked around, pleasure lighting his face. There was no twisted sneer on his lips; this expression wasn’t pulled sideways by the lines someone else’s life had etched into his skin.

Tom Cooke looked around at the cottons and silks hanging from the ceiling, the flowers Ava had carefully strung across them, working painstakingly late into the night and early in the morning, burning precious oil, hanging and re-hanging, again and again, until her eyes ached with the strain and her legs were sore from climbing her little ladder over and over. He looked, and Ava told herself she could see something lighten in his soul.

She shifted behind the counter, swallowing the urge to speak, not wanting to break the odd grace of the moment. But it was too late anyway; he turned and looked at her, and Ava watched the smile fade off his face, watched his brow draw together.

He was clean-shaven, now, looking more like - looking more put together than he ever had. He looked tired too, Ava thought; there was something haggard and aching in his eyes. She wondered, not for the first time, how the Vyrdag had been for him, what it was like wading through all that, unsure what was happening and unable to ask.

Perhaps it was easier drunk.

He looked away, almost as if he could hear her thoughts, and Ava wondered what he was thinking about. Wondered if it was those words she’d used - not words, word, she knew the one - that had made his face sink like that when he saw her. Wondered if she ought to have simply sent the silk, and no note. She had thought about it, and more than once too, but it felt like the actions of a coward.

Nellie Tucker hadn’t been a coward. How could Ava Weaver do less?

Tom Cooke looked back at her, and he smiled. This one wasn’t his; this one was crooked, with a little sneer at the edge of his lips, his clean shaven chin beneath it, smooth cheeks twitching faintly. Ava watched him bow, silent, still standing behind the counter, one hand resting softly on it. He looked at her again, looked her in the eye, and Ava didn’t know how to read him.

She didn’t curtsy. Ava felt perhaps she ought to - that she should step out from behind the counter and curtsy in the tight green silk skirt. She could; the motion wasn’t beyond her skill. She didn’t.

“Thank you,” Ava said, quietly. She didn’t smile. Tom’s words, at least. It was always easier when he spoke. She thought of all the words he’d hurled at Caina, all that Tek, frantic and stumbling and drunk, as if he could summon her back to him with them. Perhaps it was himself he had wanted to summon.

Ava lowered her gaze for a moment, down to the small soft hand on the counter. Why had she sent for him, she wondered, if this was how she had meant to behave? Hardly fair, was it? But Ava didn’t feel fair; she felt raw and bloody, worse than she’d expected given that it had been more than a month. For a moment she longed to shout at him, to tell him that she was bitter and angry and beyond all else disappointed. She was disappointed in him.

There was plenty Ava could say. She could laugh and tell him something about making the space, but she was afraid she couldn’t make it genuine. She could ask how he had been - simple but fraught, and she didn’t have any desire to answer in kind. She could smile at him, even if she didn’t know what words to call up, smile at him all warm and friendly, make him feel whole and welcome.

Instead, Ava opened one of the many drawers behind the counter, unerringly finding the one where she had put a small wrapped parcel earlier that day. She drew out the package, gently, and laid it on the counter, wrapped in ribbons, perfectly tied across the top with only her own hands to guide her work.

“Your silk, Mr. Cooke,” Ava looked at Tom Cooke, standing there with his hat under his arm in Anatole Vauquelin’s body. “If you would like,” Ava said, softly, “you may take it and go.”

Ava didn’t stay to watch him decide. She would give him that, at least, the privacy of choice. Instead, slowly, Ava turned and walked away. She didn’t look at Tom again; she didn’t use her careful deliberate walk, the one he’d seen in the Vauquelin house, the one that let her never turn her back, the one she’d worked so long to perfect. Instead she turned away, and she walked the few feet from the shop to the back door. Ava opened the door, stepped through, and left it hanging open behind her like an invitation. Like a challenge.

Inside the back room, carefully, Ava settled onto one of her couches. She held, utterly still, face soft and smooth and almost blank, like a mask painted over her features, and she waited, just a little longer.

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Tom Cooke
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Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
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: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Wed Jul 17, 2019 10:12 am

Woven Delights The Painted Ladies
during the evening of the 32nd of hamis, 2719
Felt like there was a wall between them – ne, one of them sheets of gauzy cloth. Felt like he could see some, but not enough. Felt like she was seeing precious little of what he wanted to get across, and what she did see was warped by the shifting silk. She hadn’t given him a smile or a curtsy, and that was well enough; he hadn’t wanted them. But he couldn’t see anger in her delicate face, either, though he searched it. With another step forward, then two, he kept searching it.

When she turned away, he didn’t move or speak. She was out of the room by the time he stepped up to the counter and started to take the package. The paper rustled as he slid it across the wood, pausing with his hands on it. He could feel the soft bundle of silk underneath, and he could almost picture it, feel it, like a breeze off the bay.

Tom was glad she’d gone. The shame that flooded through him in that instant was something he couldn’t keep off his face, and as he bowed his head under it, he thought hard about leaving. Sometimes, it was easier to burn a bridge than to cross it. In those soft, neutral tones, she’d given him permission. She’d even called him Mr. Cooke, so he knew whom she was addressing. If he left, it’d be his decision; it wouldn’t be because the sight of Vauquelin’s face was too much for her, or because he wanted to give her space. It wouldn’t be with the assurance he’d come back, or she’d send for him. In no uncertain terms, she’d shown him the twine and handed him the shears. She’d given him that terrible gift, and then given him the dignity of figuring out what to do with it in privacy.

She’d left the door to the back room open, but from here, he couldn’t see her. He didn’t know if she’d already gone upstairs. He didn’t even know, not really, if she’d left the door open for him, or if she’d just simply left it open. He put the thought out of his head: Ava Weaver never just simply did anything.

Setting his hat down on the counter, he wrestled off his coat, folding it over one arm. He picked up the silk, pressing the crinkling bundle close to his chest.

When he moved to the back door, he saw she’d already sat herself down on a couch. Straight-backed, she was, sitting among the scattered pillows, surrounded by a dizzying wall of hanging textiles hiding gods knew how many doors. Tom stood there in the doorway, overwhelmed by all that cloth and all those secrets. Felt like he was St. Grumble looking at the godsdamn dragon. His mouth set in a deep frown, but as he looked back toward Ava, he raised one eyebrow.

“I’m a drunk, madam,” he said sharply, “but I ain’t a coward.” This time, when he took off his shoes, there was no tipsy fumbling. One, then the other, side by side. He pushed them to one side of the door with his heel.

Tom padded out into the room, and he was cautious, but he didn’t cringe or hesitate. He moved like he – himself – always had, like a fighting man, like a big man who was used to having to keep track of where he was. When he’d been sober, proper sober, he’d always been good at that. Graceful, maybe, in his way. A heavy blow, but a light touch.

Setting the package down on the table between them, he lowered himself into the seat opposite her. He’d been on his feet awhile, so he was stiff; however else he moved, he sat like an aging politician. When he’d got settled, he folded his hands almost demurely over the bundle of his coat in his lap. He looked levelly at Ava. “You wanted me gone, you’d’ve kicked my toffin erse out by now. Leastways, I trust you to.”

His voice’d gotten softer. When he said those words, I trust you, unexpected even to him, a smile tugged at his expression. He could feel the sneer in his face; it wasn’t the right kind of smile. It’d never be the right kind of smile, but it was his, for better or worse. Honest and unbidden. You make do.

“If you got somethin’ to say to me, I want to hear it,” he said, and didn’t look away from her face.
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Ava Weaver
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Wed Jul 17, 2019 11:43 am

After Hours, 32nd Hamis, 2719
Woven Delights, The Painted Ladies
I
never thought you a coward, Tom Cooke, Ava wanted to say, watching as he entered the room, but she kept it locked behind her still, smooth face, kept it down somewhere in her chest, tucked away behind layers and layers of cotton and silk and all her skin besides.

The first time, Ava thought, she had thought his fumbling with his shoes for nerves. She had been nervous too, the first time. The next day’s night and there was no mistaking it, no mistaking him. This time – he pulled the shoes off firm and neat, nudged them to the side. He came cautiously across the room, carefully, as if he didn’t want to intimidate her, as if he knew every inch of his frame and as if it was still as big as it had been. And Ava felt that, too, in her chest, and kept that, too, locked away.

She kept her gaze on Tom as he crossed the room – not warily, not as if he scared her, but just simply letting him know she was aware of him. She sat, perched on the edge of the couch, back perfectly straight, hands resting together in her lap, not a single wrinkle in the smooth silk of her long green skirt.

He sat like Anatole would have after a long hard day, and Ava kept the memories that stirred at bay, because whatever else might be, they weren’t Tom’s fault.

His words were his, though, and more than anything else she’d wanted so far – more than she’d wanted to scream at him a month ago, more than she’d wanted to welcome him back to Woven Delights, more than anything she’d wanted to say, Ava wanted to return that smile and the trust that lay behind it. She wanted it, with an aching desperation that she was shocked to recognize as loneliness. The feeling left her desperately afraid, and with that fear her mask grew a little harder.

“What makes you think you deserve to?” Ava didn’t look away either. She gave him nothing – not a single clue – no gently raised eyebrow, no soft twitch of her lip, no restrained tightening of her cheeks, no faint widening of the eyes. There were only the words, and her eyes looking into his. Whoever had said that eyes were windows into the soul was a fool, Ava thought, and the only greater fools were those who repeated it. She knew perfectly well that Tom couldn’t see anything she didn’t want him to in her eyes.

She knew better, Ava told herself. She had felt a connection between them; she had thought she had seen something, in Tom, some echo of herself, and she had wanted it to be more. He trusted her? She had trusted him, and he had left her to bleed herself out in an alley. He was sorry; not in words, but in actions, and he wasn’t drunk. Ava wasn’t close enough to know, wasn’t close enough to check his breath, and she wouldn’t have anyway, but his hands were still, he was steady and smooth on his feet, and something about his eyes –

She couldn’t learn anything from the eyes, Ava told herself. And they were Anatole’s, or maybe they weren’t.

“I had no right to expect anything of you,” Ava said. There was a softening; something like life came back into her eyes, vulnerable and faintly wet, and her lips trembled. Now she looked away, blinking softly. “But I – ” her voice caught somewhere in her throat, and Ava took a soft, shaking breath that she wished she could have controlled, and her eyes fluttered shut for a moment. No tears, she told herself, and she found that she could stop them, that she could keep them from falling a little longer at least.

Ava brought herself back under control, opened her eyes again with no sheen of wetness, looked back at Tom. What was it she wanted from him? From all of this? She had wanted him to prove himself; she had made him do it twice. Not just to come to the shop, but to choose. She looked down at the small package on the table between them, back at Tom. What did she want? He couldn’t take back what he’d done; no one could. It was behind them, and it was up to Ava what it meant to her.

What did Tom want? He had to know there wasn’t much she could tell him about Anatole, not really. She could help him, if he wanted help. She knew what his mask should look like, nearly as well as she knew all of her own. Was that why he’d come? Or was he, too, lonely? Well, why should either of them have to choose?

“I did,” Ava said simply. A drunk, but not a coward. True enough. What Ava wanted from him – and she did know, she knew if she let herself think on it longer than a fragile, hopeful heartbeat – wouldn’t be possible drunk. Ava had never been a drinker herself, and she understood well enough that Tom had plenty to cope with. All the same.

She teetered, at the edge of the precipice, and then Ava Weaver, or maybe somewhere inside her it was still Nellie Tucker, steeled herself, took a deep breath, and leapt.

“I want to again,” Ava said, quietly. “Words are just words, maybe they don’t – mean anything. Maybe they do. But you represent a chance, for things I never dreamed might be possible, and there is much I’d need to tell you if we’re to risk it. So,” Ava took a deep breath, shaking, and let it out, let her posture soften – just a little, shoulders settling, hands clenching in her lap then relaxing, smooth as the soft silk fabric. Two times she’d made him come to her, and now a third.

“What do you want, Tom Cooke?” Ava asked, meeting his eyes again. “Why are you here?”

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Tom Cooke
Posts: 251
Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
Race: Raen
: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Wed Jul 17, 2019 3:16 pm

Woven Delights The Painted Ladies
during the evening of the 32nd of hamis, 2719
I don’t, ’course, he wanted to say. I don’t think I deserve it. But we rarely ever get what we deserve. Tom stayed quiet, took it without so much as a wince. He didn’t even look away, although there wasn’t much to be gained from looking at her face; she was too good for that, too adept at a sort of poetry of her own. The mask was well-painted and well-fitted. Still, the words were hard to misinterpret, hard to take any other way than how he took them.

She spoke again, and he looked concerned. When the words stuck in her throat, he sat up in his seat, shifting forward, his coat bundled up against him. He held it there, watching the breath that shuddered in and out of her chest. No tears. Not even a wrinkle in her pale green silk. She opened her eyes, and he tilted his head.

What did words mean? Not a whole hell of a lot, as far as Tom’d ever been concerned. Words dug you deep, and actions dug you out, if you could dig yourself out at all. That’s what he would’ve said in the days when he’d leave Ishma sitting alone at the house, quiet and riven, asking for connection that never came. Now, he wasn’t so sure. The thought that he represented anything to Ava Weaver made him more than a little scared; the thought of meaning anything to anyone’d always made him feel like he was being skewered. Trapped. Held down.

Funny how meaning something to her, now, felt so different. Maybe that was why he’d come, or part of why. At first, if he was being honest, he didn’t understand the question. She’d called him; he’d come. Simple as that, hey? But it’d been a choice he’d made, even if he hadn’t seen it that way. It’d been a choice he’d made to track down Woven Delights in the first place, even though he’d been tipsy even then. Today, he’d made more than a few choices, and he’d made them with his head intact and aching.

The mask of her face’d smoothed over again, and he studied it.

“You believed me,” he said simply, “right off. Whatever else you think of me, that ain’t never been in question.” Looking down at the table between them, he set his coat aside and scooted himself forward, to the edge of his seat. When he spoke again, it was soft and low, almost absent-minded. Numb, maybe. “Madam, I’m what’s called a raen. Means my soul’s fallin’ apart ’cause it’s slipped out of the Cycle. Ye chen? I spent – must’ve been – a month, maybe two, without a body, right after I died. I lost bits of myself I ain’t got back. I’ll lose more, before all this is over.”

He reached for the package. His hands flickered over the bundle, fingertips skimming the brown paper, tracing the ribbon. He tugged at the ribbon, the paper crackling as he undid one bow, then another.

“An’ I’m losin’ plenty enough of myself even in a body. Wake up not knowin’ who I am. Don’t have any proof. Sometimes I think I’m him, after all. That I’m jus’ moony,” he continued, all the while. That’d been hard to say, and had nearly stuck in his throat. “You call me by my name, Ms. Weaver.” Without tearing it, he found the edges, unfolding the outermost layer slowly; then he did the same with the papering underneath.

For the shaky hands of a raen, it was a godsdamn delicate operation. Even Anatole’s hands, which’d been so deft in life – they still looked like hands meant for writing, for gesturing poetry, for surgery, for any life Brunnhold’d get you – were laid low by the broken Cycle. Tom’d snapped quills, torn pages out of books. He’d knocked over inkwells and drenched journals: his most recent one had the scars to show for it. He’d spilled and dropped and broken dozens of wine glasses before he was even drunk.

Right now, despite Ava’s even, dark gaze, those old golly hands were steady enough. He’d learned to make do with them like they were his. Not once did he tear the paper, though he came close. “With the time I got, I want to help. I got to have somethin’ to hold onto. Keeps the soul strong. If there’s anythin’ I can do with this existence, with this body I got by accident, I got to do it.”

The sea silk peeped out from the unfurled paper now like the vibrant feathers of some hatchling from a fairytale. Tom Cooke had never bought silk. He was twice as careful as he drew it out, grey eyes for just a moment full of unabashed wonder. He looked taken aback, and there was something almost sad, rueful, about the twist of his lip, pleased and melting and mournful all at once. He held it up in his hands and looked at it for awhile.

It was raw and untailored, of course, but he took it up and draped it round his shoulders. He met Ava’s eyes again. “You expected something of me, and I want to expect something of me, too,” he said finally. No broad Old Rose accent, no Tek, no posturing. Some of the consonants were soft, maybe, the vowels a little long and low, but he wasn’t forcing himself to try. He wasn’t putting on anything. “If you want a selfish answer, there you have it.”
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Ava Weaver
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Wed Jul 17, 2019 4:11 pm

After Hours, 32nd Hamis, 2719
Woven Delights, The Painted Ladies
Ava was patient; she had learned patience long ago, and it was second nature to her now. She sat, and waited, and listened, letting Tom find his own words, his own voice, without any interruptions. She didn’t speak, no matter how long the gap between his words. She didn’t move, not even when his hands trembled against the paper and it looked as if he might rip it; she let him catch himself, instead, smooth it out and continue finding the edge.

And if she longed to reach out and adjust the blue-green silk for him, to make it drape smooth – Ava didn’t do that either.

The word raen was new to her. Ava wasn’t so sure about the Cycle, about all of it, but she supposed there had to be a name for what he was. Had she thought he was the only? Ava, if she were honest with herself, hadn’t thought about it at all; she hadn’t known what to think. There were things so foreign that one couldn’t take the slightest grip on them, and the cause of Tom’s life-beyond-life had been too much of a mystery to even begin to think about. Selfishly, Ava wasn’t sure that she really cared about the why, although she understood why Tom might.

And Ava didn’t reassure him, when Tom’s throat went tight and he forced himself to say he might be a moony golly after all – not just any moony golly either. But neither was there any panic on her face, not the slightest hint of concern, nothing but a soft gentle look – not quite a smile, but not the blank mask he’d faced before either, somewhere between them instead.

At Tom’s last words, Ava drew in a soft, deep breath. Ava nodded, once, slowly, deeply, then again, a second time, a little shallower.

Three times she had called him, and three times he had come. Words didn’t mean anything, but truth did, and Ava couldn’t help but know that Tom spoke truth.

“I wasn’t always Ava Weaver,” when she spoke again, those were the first words Ava said. She wasn’t ready to name Nellie Tucker aloud again, not to Tom, not when the name itself had no meaning for him. “I can’t claim to understand what you must be going through, but I know more than a little about losing your name, and I know what it’s like to wake up not knowing who you are.”

Ava was quiet, again, a long soft moment. Something to hold on to. The world before her seemed to narrow to two paths, two different secrets, both held so close to her heart. Ava knew what she should do, the right course to take. Tom’s fight should be the resistance, the thing he held to the cause that Ava believed, fiercely and desperately, all humans should hold to. It was how she herself had survived.

But there was a longing in Ava’s heart for something else. Maybe Tom could find the resistance on his own - maybe he already had - maybe, for once, Ava could take what she wanted, something precious and dangerously, impossibly, out of reach.

How to begin?

Ava found and discarded a thousand threads that she might pull, searching through them in her mind. Each one, when she tried it, seemed to stretch and then snap, breaking away without unraveling in the slightest. Her shoulders were trembling, and her hands tightened softly on her lap. She couldn’t see how she would get through it, even though she had told him she was ready, she had called him to her.

Ava squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment, then opened them again, taking a deep breath. “If it’s all the same,” she began, slowly, and there was warmth in her voice now, and something of that same friendliness she’d offered him – before, “I’ll keep my eyes open this time,” the smile that spread across her face was slow and soft and more than a little sad, but it filled her eyes.

Ava let go her thoughts, her plans. She sat back, finding a cushion behind her, resting into it. The silken skirt of her dress pulled with the motion, creasing over her legs, and she smoothed it away absently – but not fully, the faintest trace of it left behind by her hands.

“I was brought to Vienda at twelve,” Ava said, simply. Easier to leave Old Rose Harbor behind again. What did Tom need to know, but that she had been a little girl who had loved the rain, who sailed boats down the streets and didn’t know better than to be unafraid? “There is a galdor here, a woman. She deals in human girls for the galdori men who…” a slow, careful breath, “will pay for that.”

Ava paused, pushing at the skirt against her thighs, leaving more wrinkles behind in the fabric of the skirt. “She is dangerous. Her clients include galdori like Incumbent Vauquelin, powerful, wealthy, in secular and magical ways.” Ava was quiet, hands tightening against her skirt. Enough, she thought, enough to start. She left the thread hanging from her heart, its slow unraveling barely just begun.

“I do not know how to do it, yet,” Ava said, quietly, looking at Tom. “But if you want something to hold on to, something you can use that body for, Mr. Cooke, I'd be grateful for your help in bringing her down.”

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Tom Cooke
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Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
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: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Wed Jul 17, 2019 5:42 pm

Woven Delights The Painted Ladies
during the evening of the 32nd of hamis, 2719
Didn’t surprise him, exactly, that her name hadn’t always been Weaver. Being honest, he hadn’t thought of it, and now he wondered why.

‘Ava Weaver’, he’d always reckoned, was a hell of a convenient name. He’d never thought it sounded like the name of a little girl in Old Rose. That little girl who sailed boats made out of cloth and twigs, who’d ridden over the floodwaters in a basket – he’d never thought of that lass as Ava, but he’d never known what else to call her. The name sounded human enough, oes, and the lass could’ve been called that, but it just didn’t connect. Even now, it was hard for him to wonder what her name had been. Did it matter? Did he have to know? She didn’t seem keen to tell him.

Tom didn’t know what to do with the way her face softened, but it seemed appropriate; he’d made himself soft, too. He didn’t know what to do with her sympathy, but then, he supposed sympathy wasn’t something you had to do anything with. He was grateful he hadn’t cut the twine after all. The connection he’d felt with her had a definition, too: it wasn’t just their mutual unwanted intimacy with Vauquelin.

There was pain in all this, unbearable, tsuter pain, the kind of pain that either broke you or bent you into a new shape. He didn’t know what it was doing to him, but he knew she’d been through it. If he dared to hope for anything, he could begin to hope he wouldn’t have to go through it all alone.

“I’ll keep mine open, too.” He adjusted the silk round his shoulders, smoothed it just like she’d smoothed her skirt. “There’s nothing here I don’t want to see. And I don’t have anything to hide from you.”

With a ghost of his earlier smile, he settled back into the couch, wincing a little as he tried to get comfortable. It was hard, relaxing here – harder than it’d been before, with her eyes on him, even after all they’d shared – but he managed, resting against the cushions behind him. It was softer than he’d remembered, or maybe he was more tired. He felt jellied, all hollowed-out of his feelings. Even the low light in here was a little too bright for his headache’s preference, and he wanted a drink more than anything in the world, but he stayed himself. To that end, he took a pillow from beside him on the sofa and held it in his lap.

When Ava spoke again, it was hard not to wince. Wasn’t like he didn’t know about this shit; he’d halfway grown up in a tumble hut, after all, and he’d been Hawke’s man, and he knew what went on all the way up the chain. He kept his face blank, but when the word twelve came out of her mouth, that nerve in Anatole’s left eye jumped, the eyelid fluttering. Still he watched her without looking away, without a twist of his lip or a narrow of his eyes, without anything other than that twitch of his host’s.

She finished talking, and he nodded once, stealing a brief glance at her hands in her lap. Even small as that gesture was, he’d never seen her do anything like it. “I don’t know, either,” he replied. “I know I’m – I haven’t – no woman like that’s been in touch with me. But that don’t necessarily mean nothing. You say you hadn’t seen him in two years, not hide nor hair, not ’til I came down while you were showing fabric. Lot can happen in that time.”

An idle hand played with a tassel on the pillow. He hesitated. There was a hell of a lot he could tell her, but he didn’t know it’d be much good. There were names, ’course, names he knew but didn’t know how to tie together. Dangerous names to know.

“I think he got in with some important toffins,” he said, a little more soft, fair important,” and couldn’t help his uncomfortable frown, the frustrated crease of his brow. “Uptown’s – laoso to its roots, but you already know that. All those benny white streets, and that palace, old and rotten. Fair deep, that rot.” He took a deep breath. “I’m safe right now, because people see what they want to see. Nobody’ll question who I am, but they might question my loyalties. Or my sanity, more like.”

Tom laughed softly. It was a frayed kind of noise, and he let go of the tassels on the pillow suddenly, realizing he’d been twisting them ’til he was white-knuckled. Instead, he ran a hand through his hair, letting out a tattered sigh.

His frown deepened. “Thank you,” he said finally, running a hand over the silk at his shoulders and his throat. “There’s a lot I could tell you, too. Notes I could share. Places I got access to. I don’t know yet, either,” he repeated, “but I want to be that resource, and I will be, however I can. I’ll – bend myself into his shape, if it’ll fool that woman, if it’ll put a stop to all this. Nobody ever hired me to think for them, but you give me a job, and I get it done. Like to think so, anyway.”
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Ava Weaver
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Wed Jul 17, 2019 6:22 pm

After Hours, 32nd Hamis, 2719
Woven Delights, The Painted Ladies
Ava followed Tom’s gaze down to her lap. Slowly, carefully, she slid her hands apart. Slowly, carefully, she smoothed out the wrinkles from the green silk, trying one gentle brush of trembling hands, then another, shifting her weight ever so slightly against the soft cushions until the dress lay flat again. Slowly, carefully, her hands came together in the center of it all again, clasped together but not gripping too tightly.

There was a moment where Ava thought of interrupting. If he was to see her, he would need to know what Ava knew about Genevria Trevisani. Much more than she was supposed to know, of course. And she knew more than a bit about why Anatole Vauquelin wouldn’t have seen her; some he had told her himself, smug and pleased, some she had pieced together. She watched Tom twist the tassels on her pillow, tangle his fingers in them like he needed to be doing something with his hands.

There was a sense between them – something odd, Ava thought. You give me a job, Tom said. Ava pressed her lips together for a moment, let them come apart and soften again. People see what they want to see. He wasn’t wrong about that, and he wasn’t wrong that it would protect him.

“There are some pieces I can fill in as well,” Ava said. “Not about the last two years, but some of what came before,” she smiled wryly at Tom. She didn’t suppose the how of it was something he wanted to know about, and, truthfully, it wasn’t something she wanted to speak on either. She had done what she had to, and done it as best as she could. Ava didn’t feel ashamed, exactly, but she did feel angry and raw and a thousand other things, and she thought it best not to open more wounds than necessary.

“Genevria Trevisani,” Ava said her name, slowly. The name wasn’t like Anatole Vauquelin for her, not exactly. Maybe she could have hidden the little shiver of fear that it sent through her, now, still, forever. Maybe. She didn’t try; she let Tom see it on her face, let him hear it in her voice, let her shoulders tense together. He needed to know, she thought, what they were up against. “He had… something on her, at least for a time. I never found out what, but she…” Ava paused, although this time her breath stayed smooth, her hands too, her body still once more.

“She didn’t want to give me up,” Ava said, flat and direct. She should name him, she thought. Naming gave you power. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. “He made her. He was proud of it. It must have been difficult. She was – angry.”

Ava was quiet again after that, sifting through everything he had said, turning it over again in her mind. She sighed a little.

“You made it through the Vyrdag, at least,” Ava said, the word as easy on her tongue as any of the Tek Tom had heard from her, almost hopeful. “That’s something, I suppose. This year must have been difficult, with the Symvouli about to shift,” she hesitated, searching his face for something she couldn’t name. Bend myself into his shape, Tom had said, and Ava wondered what she was asking of him – if she had any right to take a man who had confessed that he was scared of losing what made him him, and ask him to put on another’s face.

“You do lose a part of yourself,” Ava said, looking at him. “Perhaps lose isn’t quite the right word. Perhaps it’s not the same for everyone, or perhaps it’s not the same for anyone. But…” Ava sighed a little. “It isn’t always something you can put off and take on,” she looked up at Tom through dark lashes. “You have his shape, that will help you. These galdori are dangerous. Rotten is a good word for it. They’re – ” Ava stopped.

Ava took a deep breath, and came around to what she really meant. “I can help you.” She swallowed, hard. “I won’t enjoy it, and perhaps I’d – better take my eyeliner off first,” she smiled at him, as if there was something to smile about, inviting him to try and lighten the mood with her. “But with what I’m asking, I – I’m offering.”

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Tom Cooke
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Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
Race: Raen
: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Wed Jul 17, 2019 7:47 pm

Woven Delights The Painted Ladies
during the evening of the 32nd of hamis, 2719
He hadn’t asked. Might’ve said it was because he didn’t want to press her, not this fast; might’ve said he wanted the name, and the offer that went with it, to come up when she was ready. Wouldn’t’ve been true, if he’d said that. Would’ve been chroveshit. It was because he halfway didn’t want to know – ne, more than halfway – being honest, he didn’t want to know at all. He wished he could return her wry smile when she said some of what came before, wished he had the smallest fraction of whatever strength it was let her smile about that. In the same breath, he wished nobody had to have that kind of strength.

When Ava spoke of Genevria Trevisani, his eyes widened. It wasn’t the name that took him aback. He’d never seen a shudder like that pass through Ava, not even the one time she’d said Vauquelin’s name. He knew her silk-strong composure, her control over every inch of herself; he knew he wouldn’t’ve seen that if he wasn’t meant to.

So the name had the intended effect.

And what could Anatole’ve possibly had on somebody like that? He knew how this shit worked well enough, and he didn’t think somebody whose name carried the weight of this Trevisani woman’s would be easy to get the drop on. He blinked a few times, eyelids fluttering, glancing down. He was thinking, it was clear, and thinking hard. Gods damn this headache. He hadn’t thought this clearly in months, but the throbbing in his skull seemed to want to snatch away everything he tried to hold onto.

The word ‘Vyrdag’ rolled off her tongue like Tek, and he looked up at her again, raising his eyebrows. “Barely, madam,” he replied, with a little humor, “but nobody’s ever accused me of being a bad chroveshitter.” As she went on, he stared at her levelly, but something in his eyes grew guarded. He chewed the inside of his lip.

If the incumbent’d known something, had possessed some currency that in Trevisani’s eyes was worth something as precious to her as Ava… The dead could speak, Tom knew, and not just raen; the dead spoke in the gap they left behind. He was in that gap, if only he knew how to listen.

That was her offer, he realized. She could teach him. He felt a thrill of dread. She was still talking. Her words were still tumbling through his head, faster than he could keep up with them. You do lose a part of yourself, she said. Isn’t always something you can take off and put on. You have his shape. Won’t enjoy it. Take off my eyeliner first. I’m offering. Before he could hold himself still, a violent shudder tore through him.

“Right – now, hey?”

His voice cracked in the middle; it wobbled terribly.

Embarrassed, he cleared his throat, but he didn’t look so steady even then. “’Course, uh” – his fingertips dug into the pillow in his lap – “it’s” – he forced himself to smile, a spasming wince of a smile, searched for the humor with that white-knuckled hand, searched for the humor like he always did – “it’s – I’d – you’d, uh, best, or I’ll be…”

Tom’s throat felt godsawful dry. Fucking hell, he thought, what’s wrong with you? Be a man, Cooke. This was important, he kept thinking. He had a job. He sat there, staring at her, head aching. He realized he’d gone stiff in his seat, and he had no idea what kind of expression was on his face. “Or I’ll be cryin’, too,” he finished lamely, slurring in a hasty and vain attempt at his old accent. Ain’t funny, you kenser’s erse. Do something. He had been a useless drunk, and this was the least he could do.

He tried to laugh, but it stuck in his throat. It wouldn’t come out. His hand flinched away from the pillow, stiff, and he pressed two fingertips to his left eyelid. He paused a long moment, breath coming a little too quickly, shallowly.

“’Course,” he said gruffly, trying to salvage himself. “I’ll do what I got to do. I’m ready. I am. You give me a job,” he repeated, but this time with that strange, strained note in Anatole’s deep voice – with his other hand all a-tremble on the pillow, though he tried to stop it, “an’ I get it done.”
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