The carriage was a fine one, cast in copper plating.
The animals that hauled it were fine animals, elk with pure white fur.
The company was fine company, a woman of stunning beauty.
Dawn had exchanged her warrior robes for a formal party gown. Beautifully sculpted legs appeared from within the folds from time to time. Her curly platinum hair had been painstakingly plaited and arranged atop her head. From head to toe, from inside out, the young woman exuded the air of a princess… that is, except for the sword she held close to her chest.
Even attending a banquet, Dawn wouldn’t be without a sword by her side. The long and wide blade was embraced by a gem-encrusted sheath to match her regal appearance and she held it close. The pressure squeezed her full bosom, resulting in an eye-catching display.
Cloudhawk sat across from her, rigid and uncomfortable. His fear was only in part because they were on their way to meet Arcturus Cloude. The rest of it came from the hard glare Dawn had been giving him ever since they left the commander’s mansion. Her glittering jewel-like eyes seemed to pierce right through him.
At last she spoke. “Let me ask you a question.”
When the tension broke, Cloudhawk breathed a sigh of relief. “Go ahead.”
Dawn sat up straight, forcing her chest to jut forward. “Do you think I’m attractive?”
It was not a question he expected from a woman like her. “You’re pretty.”
Her eyebrows shot up in indignation. “What kind of answer is that?!”
Cloudhawk didn’t understand this lady. What did she mean? Did he give the wrong answer somehow? Maybe she didn’t like compliments, she was mostly crazy after all.
“’Pretty’ is the only word you have to describe someone who looks like me?” She spoke to him with accusatory and demeaning tones. “’A beauty to overthrow mountains’, or ‘as gorgeous as the faeries of legend.’ Maybe ‘a face that would shame the sun’, or even just ‘unparalleled beauty’ would do! That’s how I expect you to answer the next time. Otherwise, you can expect me to beat the shit out of you.”
Cloudhawk just scowled.
He’d known more than a few shameless people, but no one like her. If he had thought it wouldn’t end in his immediate death, he’d reach out and smack her in her big mouth.
“Alright, now that we have that out of the way I have another question.” Her displeasure with his first answer was only half-hearted. She went on. “Do you think I’m more attractive than Selene?”
What kind of fucking question was this?! How was he supposed to answer?
Before he could make up his mind Dawn’s hand went to the hilt of her sword. A dangerous light burned in her eyes. “I advise you to think very carefully about your answer, otherwise…”
What was the point of asking if she was just going to threaten him? Was she actually mentally unstable?
Physically, Selene and Dawn were about the same. If he were forced to choose one, Cloudhawk still had a preference for Selene. After all, the two had spent a significant amount of time together out in the wastelands. Beyond her outward beauty, Selene also had an inner charm he’d uncovered. Of course, right now Cloudhawk was afraid this she-devil would stab him with her sword if he gave the wrong answer.
“You are, slightly.”
Slightly?! This was not what she wanted to hear!
“And between the two of us, which one has more ability?”
“I can’t answer that question, I’ve never seen you fight.”
Dawn realized he was right. When she fought with Frost de Winter, Cloudhawk was already unconscious. Anyway, how could anyone tell someone’s skills in such a short skirmish? Regardless, Dawn was certain she was better than Selene Cloude. She was hiding out in the wastelands because she was too scared to answer her challenge!
“Not bad. At least you’re honest!” She peered down her nose at him. “If you make it out of Hell Valley you can be my manservant. That’ll annoy that snobby harlot to no end. What do you think?”
She knew that Cloudhawk’s relationship with Selene was more than just a passing acquaintance. Stealing him away would be a good way to piss the bitch off.
Cloudhawk was just confused. What sort of grudge was going on between these two women? He could almost hear Dawn grind her teeth any time Selene was mentioned.
He guessed that she must have been insulted by Selene somehow. Winners didn’t bother with the ones they beat, only losers held on to resentment. Especially arrogant people like her.
“What was that? Say it again!” Dawn’s good mood soured in an instant. “Do you think that old man back at the house is a softie? Heaven knows what sorts of suicide missions he’d send you on. As my manservant, not only would you have the pleasure of seeing an incomparable beauty every day, you get to live in the lap of luxury like me. It’d be better than pointlessly risking your life every day.”
“I said no. No means no!” Cloudhawk would have none of it. A manservant? Slave would be more like it! Putting aside the fact that she looked down on him like an insect, arrogant people like her were precisely the kind that Cloudhawk couldn’t stand.
Dawn couldn’t believe this insufferable bumpkin would refuse her. “There are very few people in Skycloud City who would dare refuse me. Do you understand the consequences of turning me down?”
Cloudhawk had always been a feisty one, and neither was he the sort to fold easy. With things as they were he stood steadfast by his opinion. “It doesn’t take any skill to push people around all day. What gives you the right to make anyone serve you?”
Dawn’s mouth nearly fell open.
Just the fact that this lowly wastelander cretin is sharing a carriage with me is a gift from the gods. On top of that I’m ready to make him my sidekick – people would line up for the chance! And he says no!
I simply can’t believe that me – a lady of House Polaris, the youngest templar in Skycloud history – isn’t enough for a redneck like you. Well, just you wait and see!
Their carriage arrived at the governor’s mansion. The sky was already dark as they stepped out.
The mansion was lit up by a host of light. Above in the night sky one could see the faint outlines of winged seraphs, flying to and fro like busy worker bees. These puppets left behind by the gods had no capacity for thought aside from maintaining the city. Any time a building was damaged they showed up and set to work repairing it.
The fire damage to the governor’s home was extensive. It caused more than a little irritation to its occupants.
However, it wasn’t irreparable. The seraphs worked diligently and the parts they finished looked good as new. Damage to the items inside was also nothing to be concerned about since Lord Arcturus was a fastidious man. There were backup copies of every important document held off site, so the impact of losing the originals was minimal.
The mansion’s main gates were open and an inviting red carpet led the way inside. House guards stood on either side like statues. At the entrance a portly middle-aged man with squinty eyes and a kind smile was waiting to greet the guests as they arrived.
“Welcome, mistress Polaris. Please, come in.”
“Thank you, uncle Clay.”
The amiable man was manager of the governor’s mansion, Clay Cloude. He was an important man in the mansion who typically preferred to handle things out of the spotlight. He was always seen with a welcoming smile like his face just wasn’t capable of expressing anger. In truth, even the likes of Skye Polaris feared him a little.
Simply put, it was never safe to scorn a member of the Cloude family. 
Dawn gave Cloudhawk brief introductions of the people they passed while she led him into the banquet hall. To him it felt like a dream, just yesterday he was running through the halls setting things on fire. Frost de Winter and Arcturus Cloude had almost killed him. Now he was waltzing in through the front door. It didn’t matter who you were, that was a hard shift to get one’s head around.
The mansion’s banquet hall was huge, it took a total of one hundred and forty lanterns to illuminate the whole thing. Each of the mystical light sources produced a different image, but the largest was in the center. It released a sea of glimmering sand that roiled overhead like clouds.
People took their seats in accordance to status, perched on beautiful chairs carved from purple heart wood. All manner of delicacies had been arranged on the table and attendants stood patiently beside each guest. Meanwhile, a group of musicians entertained the crowd as beautiful women danced.
All of it just made Cloudhawk more uncomfortable.
Shit, we’re just here to eat some food. What’s with all this nonsense?
Cloudhawk’s eyes landed on a grey-headed man at the head of the table. Despite his simple attire and a lack of any sort of aura, Cloudhawk knew right away he was Skycloud’s governor.
Lord Arcturus regarded everything with a perfectly even gaze, like the mirror surface of an ancient well. There wasn’t even a hint of anger in them, in fact he looked as though he was enjoying himself.
Smile never once faltering, the mansion’s overseer led Dawn and Cloudhawk to their seats. They had places arranged on the left side of the banquet table near the front. “Please,” he said, indicating the chairs.
“It seems everyone has arrived.”
If Cloudhawk was half a moron he’d still recognize how strange this whole situation was. He’d gone from a public enemy to a guest in his accuser’s home. Ten other people had been invited to attend, including the one face Cloudhawk was entirely sick of seeing, Frost de Winter. Also present was Old Thistle’s killer, Augustus, who he loathed though they’d never personally met.
There were no ordinary folks here. Cloudhawk could feel the pressure bearing down on him from all sides. If Lord Arcturus decided to stop this farce, there wasn’t anything Dawn was going to do to stop him.
“You don’t need to worry. If I wanted you dead you’d have stopped breathing already.” Lord Arcturus stood with a smile on his face and a drink in his hand. “Cloudhawk, is that right? I’m surprised at your age. Today we’ll share this cup and put aside our quarrels.”
Once he stood everyone else also rose to their feet. Frost de Winter never took his cruel eyes off Cloudhawk.
The banquet officially commenced and they set about eating without any concern, just like any other feast. Cloudhawk couldn’t sense an ounce of threat, not from Lord Arcturus at least.
Is he really gonna leave me alone? Cloudhawk wasn’t inclined to believe it.
It went on for an hour. Although all the food was spectacular, Cloudhawk’s heart wasn’t in it. Suspicious, he hardly ate anything by the time their dinner started to wind down.
Lord Arcturus addressed him. “It’s still early. Let’s take a walk in the garden, what do you think? We can discuss this matter between us.”
When she heard the suggestion, Dawn wanted to rise in protest.
Governor Arcturus passed his eyes over her in the briefest of glances, but it was enough to steal the protests from her throat. Cloudhawk, on the other hand, had a litany of questions he wanted answers to. Lord Arcturus was strong enough that he could kill who he wanted without the need for dancing around. Now that the invitation was given, Cloudhawk wasn’t going to disgrace himself by being timid.
The two rose and left the banquet hall together.
1. ‘The petite cloud family had no fuel-efficient lanterns.’ So according to some guy on the internet to describe someone as a non-efficient lantern harkens back to the days before electricity. Lanterns that used oil were exclusive of families that had enough money to waste oil on lights. In a round-about, then, describing someone this way denotes them as a person of means and ability. Chinese is f’in weird, yo.
(Xiao Lai is now on twitter and instagram! Follow him @xiaolaiwxw for insights into translating and Chinese medicine theory.)
This should be an interesting conversation.