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The Grapes of Azem

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"Hythlodaeus! What are you... oh! You have what I requested?"

Her voice was distinctive to him: bright and happy, full of warmth, no matter that she was as soft-spoken as ever. The sound of it suited the color of her soul perfectly, as bright as it was. And it was her aether he could see in the moment, hidden as she was within the copse of trees, though he was within earshot now. Hers… and another’s, all too familiar.

He was indeed close enough to hear the returning laugh and resultant response. "Well of course I do, dearest Azem. Who am I to refuse such a humble request from a most illustrious member of the Convocation? You filed the paperwork and everything. Properly this time, I noticed."

Emet-Selch sighed, shaking his head. He'd known the moment Elidibus had mentioned it that his friends were up to no good. Or, well... up to a lot of good, but in entirely the wrong way, as it were.

It wasn't that he was upset his friends hadn't approached him for assistance, no, it was that he found out from someone else, and had been warned that Azem risked censure.

Again.

Censure, for being herself. For performing her duties. For fulfilling the role of Azem to a fault. After all, hadn't Venat been just as much of a nuisance, in her own way? And yet she risked censure. Absurd.

"Why, Azem, I do believe we have an unexpected guest!"

"Oh, do we now?" she asked, stifling a laugh. "I wonder who it could be..."

He heaved another sigh before resuming his movement, his lips pressed into a thin, annoyed line as he shot a glower at Hythlodaeus, the first to be visible on his approach. "It's rude to stare," he muttered.

"Tis also rude to eavesdrop, I should think." Unrepentant, Hythlodaeus grinned at him, eyes fair sparkling with mirth. "Come to keep an eye on us, ever watchful? Or are you perchance here to assist in our dearest friend's endeavors?"

Azem herself looked up at him, a bright smile gracing her features. Bright red eyes peered at him, bared for all the world to see. Unsurprising, in truth, for she rarely wore the mask outside of the sanctuary of cities. It hung from her neck, a mark of her station plainly visible to all, but neither it nor the cowl impeded her vision like this.

"I daresay he caught wind of my involvement here. Hmm... who could have... ah!” She snapped her fingers as the answer came to her. “It was Elidibus, wasn't it? He was most curious as to my reasonings." Her grin sharpened. "Have you come to sample the grapes, Emet-Selch? I should be quite glad to take you to them." She brushed a lock of silvery-white hair out of her eyes, her head tilting as she considered him, clearly waiting for an answer.

"Azem..." he began, but sighed again, slumping forward. His lips turned up into the faintest of smiles before he shook his head. "Why do I bother… Yes, please do take me to these grapes you are so keen to preserve."

“Of course, of course! Right this way! I should quite like to show the most honored Emet-Selch that which he has come all this way to see.” 

Her soft laugh made his heart skip a beat, despite that she was teasing him. Or perhaps because she was. The situation must not be dire, then; she had it under control, or was close enough to certain to be able to remain so very her.

Azem led her friends through to the other side of tree-line, revealing the volcano itself in all its glory. He could see with plain eyes that it was nearing its time, ready to spew forth molten rock. The ground here was fertile from past eruptions, he supposed - agronomics was not his forte - and the lushness of the forest alone hinted at that.

He was not prepared for the lush vineyards, as well, though he should have been. Grapes, after all, was the reason Azem had given. She led them to one of the workers, gesturing more than speaking, and received a bright smile and a nod in return, an answering gesture before the worker held out their basket, offering it to Azem.

She took a single bunch of the grapes, thanking them, and turned to offer the fruit to Emet-Selch and Hythlodaeus. “They really are quite delicious,” she said with a sly grin. “Quite worth saving the island for, among other things.”

Hythlodaeus was the first to accept the offering, plucking a few from their stems and popping them into his mouth. He gave a happy sigh at the first bite, a contented hum in his throat. “These are quite good indeed! Oh, you really should try them, my friend,” he said, giving Emet-Selch a nudge.

The other man stood glowering a moment longer, but Hythlodaeus’ cajoling and Azem’s small, expectant smile had him caving sooner than he’d planned. He had just taken a few and was about to take the first bite when a commotion rose up from further in, where the town itself spread.

“Azem! Azem!” A child was calling for her, his robes almost too long for him and causing him to trip as he ran, panting when he caught up. “Azem, the elders have your answer. They are asking for you in the hall.” He realized too late that she had company, and a beat later who her company was. “Y-your guests are welcomed as well, of course.”

“We shall be right there,” she replied smoothly, gesturing for the boy to run on ahead, giving him a nod that she would follow. “Duty calls, then.” But she didn’t move to follow just yet, instead gingerly taking a grape from Emet-Selch and holding it to his lips, looking for all the world as though she would wait until he ate it before all else.

And knowing her, perhaps she would. He wordlessly accepted the fruit, surprise flickering in his expression - what little of it could be seen - before it vanished as swiftly. “Yes, they are indeed quite good. Should we not join these elders for whatever news they have to impart?”

“It sounded important! What was it you asked them, Azem?” Hythlodaeus swooped in and stole another of the grapes, and then another, until he had a little stockpile cupped in the palm of his hand. “Is it about our little volcano here?”

“Yes and no,” she replied airily, taking a moment to replace her mask over her face. Azem adjusted it carefully, the brightness of her eyes dimmed. But she was still her, and her soul shone as bright as ever.

“It was more about where would be suitable to utilize the concept I requested.”

“So that is your plan after all.” 

She grinned broadly at Emet-Selch, pleased to see he had come to at least some conclusion, regardless if it was correct or not. “You’ll see,” was all she said before turning and striding away, her robes fluttering around her as she moved.

It was up to Hythlodaeus and Emet-Selch to follow… and to keep up. 

The hall they were led to was smaller than he’d expected, and the trio waiting within something of a surprise. They were not particularly strong, he noted, but their souls were quite old indeed. These Elders the boy had spoken of, then. It was uncommon to see souls as old as theirs, but this was a thought he kept to himself.

“Thank you for joining us, Azem,” said the one in the middle, their voice deep and rich. “We have reviewed the nearby islands, as requested, and found one that we believe to be suitable for your purposes.”

The one on the speaker’s left piped up then, holding out a map that looked to be freshly created. “We are in agreement that this one should serve well. It is large and rocky. None live there except sometimes birds, but their nesting season is past.”

“It is near enough our island to not be an inconvenience, and far enough to be a safe distance, as you requested,” said the third.

Azem, the head of their own trio, clasped her hands together in a pleased gesture. “Wonderful news indeed!” She accepted the map provided, studying it intently for a long moment before nodding once, decisively. “I shall begin in the morning. With your permission, Elders, I should like to show my friends here around the village.”

The three exchanged brief glances, but he could already tell from their smiles that they were not going to deny Azem her request. “Of course, Azem, they are most welcome. Shall we find accommodation for them, as well?”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary. They can stay with me,” she said brightly, handing the map back over. “We may also go to inspect the island ourselves before tomorrow, to ensure it will suit.”

There were a few more moments of pleasantries before Azem was bidding the Elders farewell. She hooked her arm into both his and Hythlodaeus’, drawing them out of the building and into the street.

Even without the closeness, he could tell she was fairly buzzing with excitement. “So are you going to tell us your plan now?” he finally asked with a fond sigh.

“And ruin the suspense?” was her teasing reply. “I think not! Come, my loves, let us see this island they have suggested to me.”

It was a good thing he was curious enough to follow willingly, else she may have actually dragged him down the street. Hythlodaeus on her other side was giggling, more to himself than anything, and seemed quite happy to be swept along.

They wound through the town, with Azem nodding greetings to those they passed along the way, until they were passing another vineyard, and into more trees that grew thicker and thicker until they thinned out once again, leaving the trio alone on a rocky beach. Azem took a moment to remove her mask once more, securing it on the cord hanging from her neck.

“Something large enough for the three of us, I think,” she said softly, mostly to herself. There was a moment of thought, and then a decisive nod.

Her fingers clicked together in a gesture reminiscent of his own, and a glimmer of aether conjured forth what she had deemed most appropriate to their situation.

Hythlodaeus’ pained groan was all it took for him to realize this was a concept with which he was all too familiar, and her broad - and very cheeky - grin told him that she knew and found it amusing anyway. “Where did you get that one from, Hypatia?” the other man asked after a moment, dropping her title now that they were well and truly alone.

“Oh, I asked its creator if I could copy it. I thought it was a rather delightful concept, myself.” Delightful; in other words, she’d known she could tease Hythlodaeus with it.

He supposed he should be grateful that her efforts were not solely directed at him, but it gave cause for concern at what she might have in store next.

“Hades, my love, are you coming?” she asked, her voice suddenly at his side. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t even realized she’d approached.

Hades gave another sigh, lifting his hands in a sort of hopeless gesture. “You’ll not leave me any choice, so I suppose I am.” But his tone was fond, and he trailed after her without hesitation as she wandered back to the beach where the creature awaited, large enough to fit the three of them upon its back.

Despite having the appearance of an aquatic creature, it seemed this one was capable of some meager amount of flight as well, as it raised into the air to skim above the water’s surface. Hypatia guided its course in contented silence as she leaned against them, a gesture he’d learned long ago was her way of seeking comfort and companionship.

He knew that she was fine without, on her long journeys, but every time they were together in private, she was like this. Constantly touching and teasing, existing with them in a way she did not display so readily to others save perhaps her mentor Venat.

It was not a lengthy trip, the little island she’d been directed to was indeed not far from the main island. He could still see it on the horizon, the volcano most of all, but even the green of the trees was still evident with enough clarity to recognize them for what they were. The creature she’d summoned settled into the shallows of the beach, and Hypatia hiked up her robes as she slid off its back, only dropping them again when she was on the beach.

Or what passed for a beach, at least. True to their words, the island was mostly rock. It formed natural stairs of a sort to the higher ground, which had been windswept nearly flat. 

“My understanding is that they hold gatherings on these little islands. For births, or when one returns to the star. Family and friends get together and they feast and sing and dance.” She turned to them with a smile, waiting as they joined her.

“I asked specifically for a location where the destruction of ifrita would not be detrimental to their celebrations, in case something were to go awry, but I needed it to be free of others-”

“And easy to fight on?” interrupted Hades, crossing his arms as he regarded her with a long look. “That is your plan, isn’t it? To summon ifrita using the volcano’s aether, and destroy it where it can do no harm.”

He shouldn’t feel a warm fluttering in his chest at the smile that she turned on him, so bright and pleased - with him or herself he couldn’t be sure. Likely both. “Were you going to ask for aid in this battle?”

“And deny you the chance to grouse?” she teased, setting off a fit of laughter from Hythlodaeus, whose attempts to hide it behind the sleeve of his robes did little to actually muffle the sound.

“Incorrigible, the both of you,” was Hades’ final comment, though it was without any heat or even true irritation. He would not love them if they were anything but themselves. He knew he was the favored target of their teasing - really their only target. And he knew they did so out of their affection for him, which made it difficult to be truly angry with them for it.

Hades would never admit that he missed it, whenever they were apart.

Hypatia approached, and she reached up to gently, lovingly remove his mask. “Come now, Hades, do you think I would attempt this if I thought it beyond my abilities? Besides, word travels quickly in Amaurot. I knew there was a chance you would come to assist whether I asked it of you or not.” She brushed a kiss against his cheek, her lips curving into a warm smile.

“And this way we’re all together,” added Hythlodaeus, stepping in on the other side and giving Hades a similarly gentle kiss. “Though I’m not much of a fighter, I can at least stand by and cheer the both of you on.”

Hades scoffed at that, but his slight smile betrayed him. “Stand back and let us do all of the hard work, you mean.”

They spent a little longer on the small, rocky island, even going so far as to having a quick spar to ensure that the area was safe and secure enough for a fight. Hythlodaeus, of course, stood off to the side and watched; he always did enjoy the spectacle the others put on.

Of the three of them, it was Hypatia who always went all-in, putting every onze of care and focus and strength into the fight. She gave not a single ilm, making Hades work for what little ground he did earn.

There was a tense moment, where Hythlodaeus imagined perhaps the both of them would transform, to give it their true might, but they refrained. A pity, he rather thought; he always liked to see them at their most magnificent. It was a feat he could not perform, his own aether being not nearly as strong as theirs.

They returned to the big island in time for dinner with the locals. There was wine, of course, and succulent meat and grains wrapped and cooked in grape leaves. Food was plentiful and delicious. The townsfolk were an amiable sort, drawing even Emet-Selch into conversation and earning a rare… well, not smile, per se, but certainly a softening of his expression.

Many more came to speak with Azem, who listened with a warm smile and frequent gestures of encouragement or comfort. That she spoke little around them did not seem to bother anyone; they had clearly had enough time to grow accustomed to her mannerisms. 

She bade them all an early night, excusing herself and her companions with the reminder that they would be up with the dawn to deal with the volcano. She wanted to make as little a spectacle out of it as possible, though undoubtedly there would be some few onlookers from the shore on the morrow.

The trio returned to the building that had been provided for her as accommodation. With only a little nudging, the bed was made large enough for the three of them. They made themselves comfortable, hanging robes up to air out, setting masks on a nearby table.

She drew Hythlodaeus to her first, her nimble fingers removing the tie binding his hair before she began to undo the braid, humming softly as she did, a tune picked up from her travels. Hades settled in beside them, and it was then his turn at her own braid, a far more intricate thing than the simple one Hythlodaeus employed.

Her hair was significantly longer unbound than any might realize, and it spilled down her shoulders, white strands gleaming in the starlight filtering into the room. She laughed, soft and gentle, as her loves briefly fought over who would brush out her hair. Hades won in the end, looking almost smug, but it only meant that she was free to brush Hythlodaeus’ hair out.

The routine was a comfort, a reminder of their love for each other. It was only possible when all three were together. Neither she nor Hythlodaeus would unbraid their hair until all were present. 

Nightly ritual completed, the three sank into the bed together, Hypatia in the center though their tangle of limbs meant everyone was touching, everyone was connected.

None of them needed to say it was the best night of sleep they’d had in weeks.

They were up with the dawn, as she’d said they would be, though it was Hypatia who woke first. An early riser, thanks to her days traveling, and it gave her time to just… look at the two of them, to study their faces, soft in slumber. Especially Hades, who while awake forever seemed to have eaten something sour. She gave them a few minutes longer before she settled back between them, pressing kisses to their foreheads in turn. “Tis time, my loves,” she murmured when they began to stir. “Or do you wish to sleep in and miss the show?”

“A show of yours? I’d not miss it for anything,” murmured Hythlodaeus, rousing from his sleep to blink blearily up at her. 

Hypatia smirked down at him, pressing a kiss to the tip of his nose. “It’s your turn to braid,” she said after a moment, shifting slightly so that he could push himself upright.

Another soft laugh, and he obliged, carefully brushing out her hair and working his fingers through the strands, braiding and coiling it in the intricate way she liked. It kept most of her hair out of her face, she’d claimed, and looked nice when she had to have the cowl down. He couldn’t argue with the logic, though he was glad she only wore it truly down for himself and Hades. Their special something.

By the time he was finished, Hades had risen as well, and he gave the same treatment to Hythlodaeus, brushing and braiding his hair in the looser style the man preferred. Hades then was the only one without a braid - though they had both tried over the years.

The sun was peeking over the horizon by the time they were done, and together the three of them left the abode and made their way not toward the beach, but toward the volcano itself. After all, they would need to draw its aether in order to use it to summon forth ifrita

Between Azem and Emet-Selch, that task was more than simple. His sight guaranteed that the volcano’s aether was properly redirected while she siphoned it. They moved further and further away, toward the shoreline. It was not her this time but Emet-Selch who summoned forth a mount for them, so as not to break Azem’s concentration.

The island was a quick trip - quicker than the day before, with speed paramount now. Only when her feet were securely on land did she hold aloft the concept crystal, focusing and visualizing. Aether streamed through her and into the crystal, and with a sharp click of his fingers, Emet-Selch assisted in pulling forth the creation.

It was a little larger than she’d anticipated, but there was no hesitation as she strode forward, a pair of gleaming discs seeming to materialize in her hands, the weapons she so favored, an art taught to her by Venat.

By her side stood Emet-Selch, sword in hand rather than his usual staff. She tilted her head, questioning, and he gave a soft huff. “I’ll hold its attention for you,” he said, as though it only made sense.

She grinned, and nodded, and was dancing away even before she could make the first move. Azem was light on her feet, aether swirling around her in a display of color that even a layman could see, drawing it forth and sending it out to him, marking him partner. Hythlodaeus, true to his word, was in the back simply watching, perhaps ready to step in should they need it.

Emet-Selch launched his attack on ifrita, claiming the creature’s attention as he’d said, and giving Azem the opening she needed. She was a flurry of movement, using her own body as a focus for aether. He could feel a surge of strength, feel the connection between them humming with power.

Without warning she sent a whirlwind of aetherial blades to strike their opponent, quickly followed by equally aetherial discs. He heard the distinct cry of a bird, saw the illusion moments before it struck.

Azem’s feet were sure and swift, a speed even he could not match as she darted around, nimbly avoiding firebombs, ducking beneath slashing claws and gnashing teeth. Lahabrea’s concept was certainly violent; he could see why this one was stored in the library but not released unto the world at large.

 Emet-Selch did not manage to avoid one particularly large splash of fire, but almost immediately he felt the cooling magic of healing wash over him, a brief interruption in her dance to attend to his wounds - an interruption that she incorporated into the flow of her movement, making it one with the song only she could hear.

And then she was off again, whirling around, a deadly whirlwind of blade and cloth. Her weapons sliced through the air - and the creature - before returning to her on aetherial tether, find weak spot after weak spot, chipping away at ifrita until finally, in a blossom of aether, she struck the final blow.

It dissipated, aether returning to the world, and she whirled one final time, the discs vanishing as she came to a rest. Azem had barely even broken a sweat, and her heavy breaths were less from exertion and more from the pure rush of adrenaline granted by a good fight.

In her excitement, she flung herself at him, and he staggered on catching her, his blade vanishing at the last moment so that he could wrap both arms around her. Emet-Selch gave a soft, almost aggrieved sigh, but as always his smile gave him away. “Are you pleased with yourself, Azem?”

“Well, I am not yet sure, most honorable Emet-Selch. How does the volcano look? Your sight is far and away better than mine.”

He shook his head slightly, but turned his gaze to the island regardless. He was quiet for a long moment, and then he pressed a kiss to her forehead, finally releasing her. “It appears that your plan worked, Azem.”

“That’s our Azem for you.” Hythlodaeus joined them then, now that the danger had passed, and grinned at her. “You always think up the most interesting plans.”

“She’s just as bad as her predecessor,” was the grumbling response. “Venat taught the worst habits.”

“You’re just upset that I didn’t tell you about it from the start,” chided Azem with a smile. “But there’s no fun in that. And besides, you might have tried to talk me out of it if I’d told you sooner.”

There was truth in that, as well. The Convocation had been decided - though not officially - to stay out of it and let the volcano take its course. But that was not the way of Azem - any Azem - and never had been. Nor would it be, he thought.

The seat of Azem was an interesting one, but he was glad - proud, even - to call its current occupant one of his loves.

“Yes, yes, you’ve won this one, Azem. Let us return to your friends and their little island and give them the good news… and then you can return with us and make your report to the rest of the Convocation.”

She had the grace to wince at least a little at that last part. “I imagine I’ll have to suffer a lecture or some-such from Lahabrea for using one of his concepts for something he was so wholly against.” A pause, and then one of her sly grins. “It was well worth it, though. And besides, I went through the proper channels and everything to borrow the concept. He can’t fault me for that.”

“Certainly not. I have the paperwork to prove you suffered the bureaucracy and everything.” Hythlodaeus grinned broadly, accepting the return of the concept crystal with a chuckle. “You know all you need do is ask for my assistance, most esteemed Azem, and I shall do all in my power to aid you.”

“Utterly incorrigible, the lot of you.”

Azem beamed at him, her aether shining so brightly it was almost blinding in its warmth and radiance. “You love us no less for it, my dear.”

Emet-Selch sighed, shaking his head and giving a half shrug. It was a truth he could not - and would not - deny.