Unnamed Story

BY : Roaming_Firefly
Category: Final Fantasy VII > Yaoi - Male/Male > Sephiroth/Vincent
Dragon prints: 2604
Disclaimer: see full disclaimer below

Warnings: Archdaemons talking to each other. Hope it's not a confusing mess :P

 

 


Chapter 19 - Tea


It would seem that the seasons in Hell worked in much the same way as on Gaia. With the passage of time, the days gradually grew warmer, and the Archdaemon's councillors and staff grew busier with the opening of the Summer Vortices. It appeared that these vortices meant that travel between the various parts of the Axis was much, much easier now than any other time of the year, and so inter-Axis trade, diplomatic activities and tensions were at their peak. Tah'rh was becoming very busy attending meetings with various demon lords, as well as with dignitaries from Heaven and the Spirit Realm, and so had less and less time to organize larger-scale entertainments of the Circle Stadium.

The rioters from Sunless Harbour had by now recovered from their injuries, and Tah'rh wasted no time making them pay back the damages that they've incurred on the harbour, as well as their hospital fees. They were given a choice between working with Totosai, bringing in a steady income from the smaller-scale shows centred around the stadium's beasts on top of their regular jobs, or spend some time in the Archdaemon's torture chambers, bringing in an income that way. Neither Vincent nor Sephiroth knew nor cared to know how exactly were income generated in the Archdaemon's torture chambers, but apparently it was quite lucrative. Tah'rh had given the leaders of the rioters no such choice, and made it mandatory for them to pay their dues in the torture chambers. Originally she had wanted to do the same with all the rioters, but Nami talked her out of it, saying that the harbour will need a certain amount of physically and mentally fit workers in order to function properly. And so, between the "Duel & Screws" and whatever the Archdaemon was doing in her torture chambers, enough money was raised to get Sunless Harbour back into working condition in time for the opening of the Summer Vortices.

All of that for Vincent and Sephiroth, meant that their duties were shifting away from the shows and the beasts of the Circle Stadium, and instead, their days were now focused mainly on Tseng's etiquette lessons and Tah'rh's formal meetings. And inevitably, those formal meetings began to involve Archdaemons from other Circles.

The first Archdaemon that they met in one of such meetings, was the Archdaemon of 5th Circle. Apparently the wealth of Hell was centred around the Mid Circles, and it showed in those Circles' Archdaemons.

The Archdaemon of 5th Circle appeared as a strikingly beautiful woman, and though she appeared young, no older than Tah'rh, she carried about her an unmistakeable air of confidence, power and dignity, befitting of nobility or even royalty. Her posse of councillors, servants and slaves seemed to have also come under that aura of hers, and held themselves in much the same way, and even...sparkled a little... Sephiroth wasn't sure, but the space occupied by the 5th Circle delegation just seemed...brighter somehow, than the rest of the room.

Tah'rh and her councillors however, startled in surprise at the sight of the 5th Circle Archdaemon. Tah'rh especially, her mouth went agape and her brows furrowed in concern.

"Tamako! I heard you've been feeling unwell lately but...are you alright?"

Vincent and Sephiroth would later learn that an Archdaemon addressing another Archdaemon by name, was a sign of close friendship. The Archdaemons normally addressed each other by the number of the Circle they ruled.

"I've been busy testing and implementing new technologies and policies to improve production and trade efficiency in the Circle, in time for the opening of the Summer Vortices, and so have not had much time for meals or sleep." the Archdaemon of 5th Circle explained as she gracefully sat down with Tah'rh in the tea room, the first place where Tah'rh receives her guests, before moving to Tah'rh's office or the banquet hall, or where ever else was appropriate for the type and nature of the meeting.

"It's no matter, it's only a temporary thing," the Archdaemon of the 5th continued as she daintily sipped the tea that Vincent and Sephiroth, as the host's slaves, had served her, "what is more important is that everything has been done on time, and are now running smoothly, I shall be able to relax again soon. And I have also completed a new proposal for our trade agreements. I find that an update to the terms is necessary. In light of the new advancements made in agricultural production and shipping, many things can be improved for the benefit of both our Circles. I also wish to discuss with you on the ways to best implement the new technologies to existing trade routes and trade ships. Policies and situations differ between Circles, I believe that the best efficiency can only be achieved when changes are tailored to benefit both parties."

She then made a subtle gesture at her Circle Treasurer, and the bespectacled, unassuming-looking young man stepped forward to place a very...VERY thick book on the table between the Archdaemons.

"You will find all the details of my proposal written here. Please review it and feel free to inform me of any inadequacies." the Archdaemon of the 5th nodded at the gigantic book.

"...Your work ethic is impeccable as always." Tah'rh stared at the book, her tail slowly drooping behind her.

The rest of the meeting went smoothly, easily, from Sephiroth's point of view anyway. He and Vincent were still new to the many, many rules to serving an Archdaemon, and he knew that they made many mistakes through the duration of the meeting. But the Archdaemon of 5th Circle made no comment on their mistakes, though she had surely noticed them. Her own slaves moved through their tasks with well-practiced, well-disciplined ease, contrasting sharply with Vincent and Sephiroth, still novices in their role. Several times, the 5th Circle slaves darted nervous glances at the two men, and exaggerated their own movements, hinting them to the correct way that they should be doing things. And some of those darting glances were also aimed at Tah'rh, who was no less a novice at being a slave owner, than Vincent and Sephiroth were at being slaves.

At the end of the meeting however, Tseng politely cleared his throat and asked the Archdaemon of 5th Circle if she had noticed any shortcomings in Tah'rh's new slaves, and if she had any advice. The Archdaemon of 5th Circle then took a long look at Vincent, Sephiroth, and Tah'rh, and launched into a long lecture, listing every mistake that slaves and slave master had made with brutal honesty. There were no malice behind her words, however. Sephiroth wondered if Tseng and Tah'rh had purposely arranged it so that Vincent and Sephiroth's first meeting with another Archdaemon would be with Tamako of the 5th.

As for the Archdaemon of the 7th, subjected to a long list of all her faults, Tah'rh scowled and tossed an accusing glare at Tseng. Tseng only answered with a pointed look of his own, and Tah'rh slumped in her seat like a teenager being lectured by her parents.

A week went by before they saw Tamako of the 5th again for the finalization of the new trade terms, and yet in that short time, the beautiful Archdaemon seemed to have gained a tremendous amount of weight, and now was almost egg-shaped. Her head had lost almost all visible bone structure, and was now but a round canvas for her still fine features.

When Tah'rh and her councillors saw that, they smiled smiles of relief.

"Tamako! You're looking much better! I'm so relieved to see that your health has recovered." Tah'rh exclaimed as she warmly invited the other Archdaemon to her seat. And the Archdaemon of the 5th sat down with every bit as much dignity and grace in her new egg-shaped body as she did in her previous visit.

Sephiroth stole a glance at the 5th's Archdaemon, and indeed, in her now rather obese body, she had more colour on her cheeks, sat straighter and stronger, and seemed to glow even more brightly than before.

The meeting went as smoothly as before, Vincent and Sephiroth did their best to implement all the training that Tseng put them through since the 5th's previous visit...least they have to go through Tseng's training again... And at the end of the meeting, Tseng once again asked Tamako for her observations and advice, and once again she candidly listed their faults, though the list was now shorter, and she noted their improvement when she finished.

Before she left however, she found opportunity to pull Tah'rh aside.

"I heard that you have not yet taken your slaves to bed, is that true?" she whispered.

Tah'rh visibly tensed, but nodded.

Tamako sighed, "I am not passing judgement on your actions, nor do I presume to guess at your intentions, but in my honest opinion, I think it's best if you take them as soon as possible. You can't dodge it forever, one of the others will ask for them sooner or later. It's better, kinder in the long run, if you are their first, that you show them what they are to expect from an Archdaemon, teach them how to serve, before the time comes when you must send them to another Archdaemon's bed."

Tah'rh pressed her lips together and was silent for a long time before she finally nodded, but that nod seemed to be only for acknowledgement instead of agreement, for days passed and more Archdaemons came visiting, yet she still made no move to bed her slaves.

...

"Another riot, my my! You gave us quite a scare, Seventh. Our sincere apologies for our uncharacteristic display of poor etiquette earlier, we were simply agitated and concerned for your wellbeing. Pardon our inexperience, but we at the Fourth have not seen a riot in centuries." the Archdaemon of 4th Circle dabbed at the fleshy folds of his neck with a clean white handkerchief in an overdramatic display.

Somehow, Sephiroth was not surprised that the Archdaemon of 4th Circle turned out to be a demon version of President ShinRa.

Back when he was still with ShinRa, Sephiroth had once been an accidental witness to an argument between the then-new Turk Reno and the then-Turk leader Veld. Reno had just returned from a mission that clearly did not go well, and the young Turk, in pain from his wounds and half drunk out of his mind, had remarked loudly despite all of Veld's efforts to quiet him down, that the top ShinRa executives whom the Turks were assigned to protect "do nothing but flap their lips in long-winded conversations that go nowhere, and knew nothing but to preen in front of their large expensive mirrors and prance around in their fancy silk suits". While the young Turk had plenty of reason for his rant—he had been dragged into the office, injuries and fatigue and all, just to fill out the reports on the mission for the ShinRa bureaucracy—it still wasn't wise to say such things, and this loudly, while inside ShinRa headquarters. You never know who might just happen to hear what you said. And as Reno's un-luck would have it, it just so happened that one of the "top ShinRa executives" that was involved in this mission was Rufus ShinRa, who just so happened to have stepped out of the elevator right behind the arguing Turks right at that unfortunate moment.

Everyone at the scene thought that Reno was for sure done for, including the redhead himself. Insulting the future president of ShinRa Electric Power Company was never a smart move. And so Reno defiantly stared down the boy president-to-be in his customary slouch and his ever-wrinkled, unbuttoned Turk uniform, no doubt thinking that if he's to go down in flames anyway, then he'll go down in flames in style. But Rufus, the boy president-in-waiting, in his ever-neatly slicked-back blond hair and ever-pristine white suit, only stared back cooly into Reno's bloodshot eyes and said in a deadly quiet voice that the "lip-flapping" was as much a battle as those fought with guns and blades. And the "fancy silk suits" were as much armour as ones made of leather and steel.

If that was true, then, both Archdaemons of 4th and 7th were armed to the teeth. Tah'rh very much disliked the stiff and heavy cloths and overly elaborate weavings of gold and silver and precious gems of formal Archdaemon robes that weighed her down and hindered her movement, and often complained quite enthusiastically about it in front of Tseng. And yet here she was, in full Archdaemon regalia, heavy layers of meticulously embroidered robes were draped over her petite frame, and solid gold ornaments with large gemstones were carefully arranged in her dark red hair.

This was the first time that Vincent and Sephiroth had seen her dress in as much dark coloured clothing as the demon lord she's facing. She even wore shoes. Uncomfortable-looking ones too.

In all that uncharacteristic finery, she did well to not show discomfort in front of the other Archdaemon. Archdaemon-ShinRa on the other hand, did not seem to at all mind his own pompous costume, and was in fact, clearly quite proud of it.

Vincent and Sephiroth too, were "heavily armed". Virus and Trip had really outdone themselves this time. Stiff cuffs of black cloth, embroidered to match Tah'rh's robes, were fastened around their necks and upper arms. Long, thin chains—gold for Vincent, silver for Sephiroth, were connected between those cloth cuffs, and draped down their shoulder blades, shimmering along with the jewels embedded in them over the two men's sides and backs as they moved. Their translucent black pants where also heavily embroidered and jewelled around their ankles, and so were the stiff black cloths that were wrapped around the soles of their feet.

Virus and Trip had tied Sephiroth's hair, from temple to mid-back into a loose, sectioned ponytail. The layers of tied hair then provided anchors into which the two clothiers had woven delicate ornaments of fine silver and little white jewels that shimmered blue and green under the light.

For Vincent's wild tangle of jet black hair, Virus and Trip had long given up on taming it, and decided to work with its stiff stubbornness instead. They attached the two ends of a thick strip of embroidered red cloth at the ex-Turk's temples, and of course Vincent's hair then immediately attempted to swallow it. But the cloth was too thick to be completely hidden, and its red colour and its gold embroidery still peaked out from between the black strands as Vincent moved.

Formal slave-wear for humanoids was designed to have nothing between the slave's lower chest and knees. The slaves were also vigorously trained to move in such a way so that their hands remain within the bounds of that chest-to-knee area, and they were taught to NEVER move their hands anywhere near their head, neck, shoulders, back, upper arms, and lower legs. Those areas are where their masters pile on the pretty baubles and silks and lace and whatnots to show off their wealth. And as such, they were areas where weapons, poisons etc., could potentially be hidden.

Archdaemons, being some of the most powerful demons in Hell, were typically a resilient bunch, and it was highly unlikely that a slave could really cause them harm. However, there had been an incident in the past where a slave of the host Archdaemon had supposedly attempted to poison the visiting Archdaemon. The slave was discovered right on the spot and of course, died a slow and horrible death, but that wasn't important. Neither was the fact that the visiting Archdaemon was never in any real danger, and the "poisoning attempt" had many holes and couldn't have succeeded anyway. What was important was that war broke out between the two Circles. Someone had wanted that to happen, and they succeeded.

Sephiroth carefully mentally reviewed all the etiquette lessons that Tseng had given them. While they were getting ready for the meeting with the Archdaemon of the 4th, Tah'rh had hurriedly instructed Vincent and Sephiroth to follow all etiquette as closely as possible, and to "put on that poker face of yours."

"But still, even if you were the best behaved slaves in Hell, it probably won't matter," Tah'rh had scoffed, "this one is not here to play nice."

And indeed, the Archdaemon of the 4th had been throwing punches even before he walked in the door. He had suddenly arrived in 7th Circle with little word beforehand, forcing Tah'rh, her councillors and household to scramble to get ready for his visit. He and his entourage had also acted the impatient bully when they arrived, loudly indignant about having to wait for Tah'rh to get ready while being served with the "inferior service of lesser beings". By the time that Tah'rh arrived, several of the pigeon maids were being browbeaten to tears. The young Archdaemon of the 7th looked like she wanted to punch demon-ShinRa in the face, but Tseng smoothly stepped in with his usually calm and diplomacy, and diffused the situation, claiming that an earlier riot had left Tah'rh away and busy, and not enough experienced servants in the palace to see to the visiting Archdaemon. The "riot", in truth, was but a small skirmish. Ever since Tah'rh sentenced the leaders of the Sunless Harbour riot to her torture chambers, the number and frequency of major fights in the Circle drastically went down. But that was enough truth for Tseng's lie to be convincing. His interference had also given Tah'rh the precious few minutes to calm and collect herself in order to face this foe.

The fact that a demon version of President ShinRa would be no friend of Tah'rh's was unsurprising. And also...a little reassuring — if Archdaemon-ShinRa was in any way similar to the President ShinRa that Sephiroth and Vincent was all too familiar with.

"Ah, I admit that I've been most uncharacteristically rash, but were it not for the awful things I've heard...rumblings from those loose-mouthed minor nobles..."

And he was. Exactly like President ShinRa, even down to the dramatic gestures he puts on display when speaking with his business and political rivals, pretending to chit chat over non-important, mundane matters, before he unhinges his jaws and strikes like the venomous viper he is.

"Rumours heard from court chit-chat? Surely you would not take those seriously." Tah'rh daintily stirred her tea.

"Of course not, but as one would learn after some centuries of experience dealing with such chit-chat, there is always a touch of truth in the most outrageous rumours. And this one has such serious potential to damage your reputation as Archdaemon, that I cannot simply sit by and let such poison spread. And that is why I have come, to confer with you on this matter."

"And what exactly is 'this matter' that you wish to confer with me?"

"Ah, bold and to the point, most admirable characteristics! Very well, then I shall get to the point also. It is about your newly acquired slaves."

"Oh?" Tah'rh glanced disinterestedly at her two slaves, who were at the moment busy preparing tea at the far side of the tea room.

The serving of tea is a staple of formal meetings in the Axis, and is one of the primary duties of the host Archdaemon's slaves. Needless to say, one of Sephiroth and Vincent's first etiquette classes was on the proper way to make and serve tea. In the short time that he had spent in 7th Circle as Tah'rh's slave, Sephiroth had learned more about tea than he ever thought was possible to learn about tea. All the different kinds of tea leaves, the season and time of day during which each kind should or should not be served, the optimum water temperature for each kind, how many times each kind can be steeped, how many seconds was best to leave the tea leaves steeping the first time you pour hot water on them, how many seconds for the second time, how many seconds for the third time, what temperature the water should be when served to each different Archdaemon...

The former general of ShinRa Electric Power Company had attended tea ceremonies in Wutai during more diplomatic times, and he found that tea service in Hell was similar to that in some ways. During his time with ShinRa however, he never paid much attention to the tea itself, and certainly never thought that he might one day be the one serving it in similar settings. He quite enjoyed the ceremonies though, back then: the feeling of solemn calm, the artfulness, and the subtle aromas of the carefully prepared tea. And he still enjoy it now, despite it being part of his duties as a slave. And Vincent was clearly no stranger to tea ceremonies either. Sephiroth wondered if the blood of Wutai aristocracy flowed in the ex-Turk's veins, for he certainly looked the part as he sat quiet and poised before the low tea-table, the fragrant steam from the tea wafting about his graceful, nimble hands and fine-boned face as he gracefully poured the tea from a large cup with the tea leaves, to two smaller, empty cups for the Archdaemons, not spilling a single drop of liquid onto the table in the process. It was something that Sephiroth had yet to master. The large cup with the tea leaves had a lid that must be held slightly ajar with the forefinger, leaving just enough space between the lid and the edge of the cup for the water to come out, while not leaving a big enough space for the tea leaves to escape also, and at the same time, the middle finger and thumb are to hold the large, heavy cup full of hot water by the rim, and lift it up above the small empty tea cups and then down again in gracefully movements. Sephiroth had never held something that way before, and found the whole thing very awkward. He had yet to manage it without either spilling significant amounts of tea or letting tea leaves escape into the smaller cups. And so Vincent did most of the steeping and pouring, while Sephiroth prepared the tea leaves and did most of the leg work, bringing the tea to the Archdaemons.

"I heard that you have not yet taken them to bed, is that true?" demon-ShinRa eyed his host's two slaves while they worked over the tea set.

Tah'rh glanced at him, then casually sipped her tea, before replying, "You came in such a hurry, Fourth, I thought you had matters of great importance to discuss with me. But are you saying you're here for gossip about others' bedroom matters that minor demons whisper in the toilets? If it's impotence you're worried about, fear not, us of the 7th Circle have never known the problem, as I and..." she looked over at her councillors and bodyguards standing behind her, and several either looked away blushing or smiled back warmly, "...several in my company can attest. Is it such a big topic in the 4th?"

Demon-ShinRa's eyes darkened slightly at Tah'rh's mocking, but he smiled politely nonetheless, "Of course, 7th Circle has strong Currents and strong citizens...but the rumours are not about them, they're about your slaves. It is not wise to underestimate the importance of slaves, Seventh. Their behaviour and presentation are direct indications of an Archdaemon's knowledge of millennia of history and tradition, as well as his or her ability to command her subordinates. Who can say they can command a Circle, when they can't even tame slaves?"

Tah'rh glanced over at the 4th Circle slaves, lined up, kneeling silently against the wall, "Is that why you always have such a long line of slaves at your heel? Even for impromptu visits such as this?"

Demon-ShinRa chuckled disarmingly, "I was on my way to a meeting with the Sixth, actually, only I happened upon some vortices leading to your Circle on the way. With the Summer Vortices keeping us all so busy, we have not been able to meet as frequently, and this was a rare happenstance where I had some extra time between meetings, it would be horrible of me to not make use of it and pay you a visit, especially not now when there are such malicious rumours circulating about you."

"Is that so?" Tah'rh sipped her tea, "Then I must thank you, for taking time out of your day for your concern for me."

"Of course, of course! We are all Archdaemons of Hell. Those jackals in Heaven and Spirit Realm will take any sign of weakness from Hell, and try to latch their teeth onto our throats any chance they get. if one of us is compromised, all of us will be affected."

"I see, I shall try my best to not compromise anyone else."

"No no no, Seventh, you take my words too harshly! I only meant that it is only natural that we try to take care of each other, nothing more."

When both Archdaemons were no longer looking his way, Sephiroth stole a glance at the 4th Circle slaves. They were indeed numerous, certainly meant to inspire envy and fear for the wealth and power of their master. And their dress followed the traditional dress code for an Archdaemon's slaves to the letter. Demon-ShinRa's line about "an Archdaemon's knowledge of millennia of history and tradition", was a thinly-veiled jab at the much less tradition-abiding outfits that Sephiroth and Vincent wore.

Sephiroth wasn't one to pay much attention to clothing, but looking at the 4th Circle slaves, he was glad for Tah'rh's disrespect for this particular tradition. Tah'rh had claimed that traditional formal slave-wear made the slaves look like "plucked cockatrice". It was a rather fitting description, thought Sephiroth as he recalled those vain bird-lizards that he and Vincent had worked with in the Circle Stadium. The 4th Circle slaves had a massive amount of colourful fabrics and jewels wrapped around their heads, neck and shoulder area, and ankles, but were completely bare everywhere else. They indeed looked like a cockatrice would when it proudly puffed up its colourful plumage — if the rest of its body were shaved or plucked.

It was not until these meetings with other Archdaemons that Sephiroth realized how lucky he was to have pants, translucent as they were. Apparently Tah'rh and Tseng had fought long and hard over it. Tah'rh had vehemently insisted that "that ankle crap" had been out of style for centuries ("I'll have them wear those things IF and WHEN they come back to style, but not a moment sooner!"), and that low-riding pants that showed off the "V" shape on a male's hips were now all the rage. ("Plus, they're much sexier.") It was a long battle, but Tseng eventually yielded, but only because there had been precedents of Archdaemons dressing their dancing slaves with translucent scarves around the waist.

Sephiroth had planned to discreetly retrieve his gaze from the 4th Circle slaves before anybody noticed him. Before he could, however, he found himself locking eyes with the slave that knelt closest to Archdaemon-ShinRa.

He was a wolf youkai, like Fenris. Sephiroth didn't know how he was so sure of that, but that slave...felt...similar to Fenris, somehow. The slave did have a wolf tail dragging behind him, though he had pointed human-like ears instead of Fenris's wolf ears. He looked to be around Fenris's age, and also had black hair and blue eyes like Fenris, though his hair wasn't spiky at all, but was tied neatly in a high ponytail.

The wolf youkai cooly regarded Sephiroth, his expression unreadable, then he dropped his gaze back down to his lap as if nothing had happened.

Like Sephiroth, Tah'rh was studying the 4th Circle slaves also.

"Speaking of reputations, you seem to have rather...unique ways of taming your slaves," she said quietly as she eyed them, "those tattoos on their necks, if I recall, those are mind-controlling hexes that the slave-trafficking crime rings are known for."

Sephiroth had noticed those tattoos too. Though they were mostly hidden behind the fabrics and decorations and slave collars, it was still not difficult to notice the solid patches of black with a dash of something reddish on several of the 4th Circle slaves' throats.

Demon-ShinRa gave another chuckle as he idly stirred his tea, "Ah, it's understandable that you do not know, you haven't been Archdaemon for very long, and you Inner Circles have always concentrated your energies on your duties as assists for the 9th. But us of the Mid Circles, we have the major streams of the Currents flowing through our realms, and must look after all the different races and factions that travel and trade on them. Managing them is a very complex task, and require more finesse than simply chasing down clear targets like escaped prisoners. Some of the things that the crime-rings do are certainly deplorable, but we of the Mid Circles can not be so rash as to simply beat them down and cart them all off to jail. It's neither unusual nor new for us to have some diplomatic relations with them, for the good of all our realms. The Archdaemon of the 5th had long maintained relations with several different crime-rings. The Archdaemon of the 6th is himself the head of a crime-ring family."

"That much is true." Tah'rh sat her tea down on the table again and folded her hands neatly beside it, "But the 5th only ever associates with those crime-rings that affect the trade routes and economy of their Circle. 6th's family has long controlled the flow of money and power in their Circle, it was only a matter of time before one of them becomes Archdaemon. But both of them keep those crime-rings involved with the slave trade at arm's length. After all, consorting with those too closely do bring implications of interfering in the mortal realms..."

Demon-ShinRa laughed dismissively, "Those tattoos are but some small trick, anyone of any competence who had seen something of the slave trade can learn it. I'm simply borrowing the technique to tame some unruly slaves. But associating too closely with Watchers, Seventh, is also ill-advised. It could bring one's loyalty to Hell into question..."

Sephiroth wondered about demon-ShinRa mentioning "associating too closely with Watchers". Before his sudden arrival, Tah'rh had indeed been in a meeting with representatives from Spirit Realm. The former general did not know the details of those meetings though, for Spirit Realm does not use slaves, so Vincent and Sephiroth's presence were not required for those meetings.

Tah'rh smiled back politely, "The Inner Circles have long held diplomatic relations with Spirit Realm and Heaven in high importance, it is crucial for our duties to keep the Axis safe from dangerous individuals that might escape from the 9th. Surely, you understand that we of the Inner Circles must make certain compromises too."

"Ah, pardon me," smiled demon-ShinRa, "I may have spoken too harshly. But those rumours about you, Seventh... You're still young, and they whisper that your close association with Spirit Realm might have impressed upon you some of their warped views on slaves."

"Oh?" Tah'rh questioned lightly.

"Their Watchers constantly pester us, trying to tell us that keeping slaves is 'wrong'. Humph! Ridiculous!" demon-ShinRa's face grew red in real emotion as he began to speak with more and more passion, "These are lesser beings, they live for but a brief flash in the best circumstances, and they replicate themselves by the millions at the drop of a hat. It is their great fortune and honour that ones as lowly as them are able to serve us. They are fed our food, sheltered in our buildings, taught our good manners and proper behaviour, instead of rolling around in the diseased mud piles that they call 'home'. They are weaklings that got themselves caught by the slavers. The slavers work hard for their living, and we pay good Jin for their work. And since we paid our hard-earned Jin for our slaves, then why should we not expect returns for the Jin we paid? And yet many of these lesser beings are too stupid to understand that, completely ungrateful, unruly. When they disobey us, their masters, their betters, of course we should punish them in the ways that their primitive minds can understand!"

"Primitive minds they may have," Tah'rh sipped her tea nonchalantly as she eyed those black tattoos again, "but from what I heard, some of the methods that the crime-rings use can be quite dangerous, There have been numerous incidents where what little minds the slaves had were permanently destroyed."

"Ah, well, some slaves are just hopeless, despite our best efforts. When that happens, what can you do? It'd be a shame to waste all that Jin, we're not throwing our money out for charity here. Without a mind, they may not be smart workers, but they're obedient workers, and the crime rings, you must admit, are quite good at wiping away all the unnecessary things, whittling their primitive minds down to just what they need to perform their functions. At least this way we can get a decent return for our investment, should we have the misfortune of having invested in a troublesome slave." demon-ShinRa waved dismissively before he too picked up his tea cup and took a sip.

Sephiroth stole a glance at the 4th Circle slaves again, and noticed that the wolf youkai was looking discreetly at the slave beside him from under lowered eyelids. The slave beside the wolf youkai was another young male, with red-brown hair, olive skin, and what appeared to be a pale-green, tear-shaped tattoo under one of his light-green eyes. Those eyes of his though, were strangely unfocused, and his face was slack, completely devoid of any emotion, any personality. Sephiroth's eyes glanced down at the slave's neck, and there it was, that strange blotch of solid black with something pink or red, peeking out from under the ridiculous ruffles of jewelled cloth around his neck.

"Humph! Those Watchers should keep their noses in their own business! They are nothing but trouble! The less we associate with their kind, the better, wouldn't you agree, Seventh?" demon-ShinRa peered at Tah'rh from behind his tea cup.

Tah'rh slowly stirred her tea while she silently watched the other Archdaemon.

"What are you trying to say, Fourth? Beg your pardon, but we of 7th Circle are a simple, blunt bunch, intricate word-play are sadly lost on us."

"Oh, no, no, you misunderstand me," demon-ShinRa gave another disarming chuckle, "I mean no offence. I'm simply trying to warn you of the slander being used against you. Spirit Realm after all, is not part of Hell. They have they own agendas, just like Heaven. I understand that diplomatic relations are important for controlling the convicts of 9th Circle, but with one with your talents being Archdaemon, surely that means we can be a bit less dependent on those outsiders? Isn't that why your Circle chose an Undying as its Archdaemon?"

At that, the air in the room seemed to freeze. Everybody's eyes turned to Tah'rh.

Tah'rh sat unmoving in her seat as she regarded ShinRa. Behind her, her councillors seemed to have collectively stopped breathing as they looked nervously to their Archdaemon.

But then, Tah'rh smiled graciously, "I am flattered that you hold me in such high regard, Fourth, but I'm not nearly as 'talented' as you say. I'm just one person, my power alone isn't enough to negate all the assistance that Spirit Realm and Heaven have given us."

"You're too modest, Seventh! Isn't it said that the Undying..."

Behind ShinRa, a demon version of Heidegger loudly cleared his throat, and too-obviously leaned down to whisper in his Archdaemon's ear. The Archdaemon of the 4th's eyes then widened comically.

"My sincere apologies, Seventh! Look at me! Forgetting all about that incident! Ever since then, you lost your... Ah, please forgive me, I meant no offence, it was just so long ago that it completely slipped my mind!"

Tah'rh smiled a bit wider and subtly adjusted her posture, "Really now? I was under the impression that I've made quite an impression on the Axis, if my sentence in the 9th was any indication."

ShinRa's exaggerated apologetic smile immediately faltered, but he quickly gathered himself again.

"Ah, my deepest apologies! Of course, your deeds can be said to be legendary, but I as Archdaemon of one of the Mid Circles, never presume to pry too much into the businesses of the 9th, or the rest of the Inner Circles. I only know of the larger strokes, not the finer details. And with the opening of the Summer Vortices, I've been so very busy, have so many things to attend to for my own Circle, that I've let slip some details about other Circles. Again, my sincere most, sincere most apologies!"

"Understandable," Tah'rh nodded, "even we here at 7th have our hands full with the Summer Vortices, I can't imagine how things would be this time of year for the trading ports of the Mid Circles. Must be hard for one who has so much to mind as you, Fourth."

"You are too kind, Seventh," demon-ShinRa squeezed the corners of his mouth a bit farther apart, and gestured to Vincent and Sephiroth, "the tea I've brought you must be ready by now. We at the 4th very much appreciate the diplomatic relations between our two Circles, and this gift was meant to be a token of our wish that our good relations continue. I hope it is to your taste. And I hope it can be of some compensation for my blunder."

"Mountain First Frost, a most rare and precious tea indeed," said Tah'rh as she too looked towards her slaves, "your gift is much appreciated, Fourth. I only hope that the novice skills of my slaves will not do it injustice."

Hearing their cue, Vincent poured two cups of tea for the Archdaemons and placed them on a tray. Sephiroth then took up the tray and made his way towards a demon-version of Palmer that waited a few paces behind demon-ShinRa.

The 4th Circle evidently had a much more rigid social hierarchy than the 7th, Tseng had taught them about that. Slaves there could not serve or speak to their masters directly because the gap between their social status was too wide. Interactions between slaves and masters must pass through special chamberlains — people who are below the masters, but above the slaves — to bridge that status gap.

Sephiroth and Vincent therefore could not bring the tea directly to the table, or it'll be considered a grave insult to the 4th Circle demon lords. Instead, they must bring the tea to the chamberlain, who will then bring it to the Archdaemons at the table.

Sephiroth mentally went over Tseng's lessons again: walk with your back bowed, your arms stretched reverently before you, clearly displaying the objects you bear; keep your footsteps small and demure, your head lowered, your eyes down, only seeing enough of your path to bring you to your destination, and you must never look at anyone in the eye. With someone like President ShinRa here and obviously bearing ill intent, the former general was careful not to make any mistakes for vipers to latch their teeth onto.

When demon-Palmer stretched out his hands to take the tray, Sephiroth made doubly sure that his hands did not touch the chamberlain's, that the chamberlain had a firm grip on the tray, before letting his own hands fall away.

CRASH! The tray and the cups of tea smashed onto the ground, splattering hot liquid and pieces of porcelain onto Sephiroth's legs.

"INSOLENT SLAVE! HOW DARE YOU DROP THIS TEA! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MUCH JUST ONE DROP OF IT COSTS? MUCH MORE THAN YOUR INCOMPETENT LIFE!" demon-Palmer screeched.

Sephiroth's eyes snapped up in surprise, and outrage. The chamberlain had dropped the tray on purpose, and was now trying to frame him for it.

Before he could do anything however, somebody was instantly beside him, bumping into him. A calloused hand locked around his forearm in a strong grip, and pulled him towards the ground as that somebody knelt.

It was Vincent. A thought of resistance flashed through Sephiroth's mind, but was abandoned, and the former general followed the ex-Turk down, allowing his knees to bend and touch the ground.

As soon as they were both on the ground, Vincent released Sephiroth's arm, bent forward in a full bow, touching his forehead to the ground, ignoring the spilled tea and the broken porcelain pieces, and let gush a loud stream of words of apology and self-depreciation.

Sephiroth forced his body to copy Vincent's posture and his tongue to parrot Vincent's words, but his blood boiled. Vincent was right, this was the best thing, and the only thing that they could do. Archdaemon-ShinRa could admit that it was Palmer who had dropped the tea, or diplomatically "forgive" Tah'rh's slaves, and the incident could be over just like that. But of course, he wasn't going to do either. He was making no moves at all in fact, but was simply sitting there, sipping his tea, watching demon-Palmer make a show of berating Sephiroth and Vincent. He was blatantly waiting for Tah'rh to make her move.

Even if it was obvious to everyone in the room that it was Palmer who dropped the tea, not Sephiroth, if Tah'rh defended her slaves against the much higher-status 4th Circle chamberlain, especially when it involves dropping the gift-tea that the Archdaemon of 4th Circle had brought as a token of goodwill — as he had so loudly proclaimed just moments before — then she would be openly breaking relations with 4th Circle, and risk war. From all the word-battling that she and ShinRa had been doing, it was clear that the two Archdaemons hated each other. And yet the ever-hot-headed Tah'rh was making a serious effort to keep up the appearance of diplomacy. There had to be a reason for it, a very important reason. She would not throw it away for the lowest of the low of her realm. Her slaves will have to be punished, no matter what.

"My deepest apologies, Fourth. My slaves are clumsy and have not fully completed their training, but I have not expected them to disappoint me so." As expected, Tah'rh made no effort to dispute her slaves' guilt.

Tseng hurriedly instructed the household staff to clean up the mess and see to the 4th Circle chamberlain, then he too, apologized profusely to demon-ShinRa.

To everyone's surprise, demon-ShinRa only chuckled and waved dismissively, "They are your first slaves, Seventh, and you've not had them for very long. It's understandable."

Sephiroth felt Vincent, kneeling so close to him, subtly tense. And he agreed. ShinRa had put a lot of effort into orchestrating this "accident"; to "forgive" it so easily...whatever he was planning can't be good.

"This however, is an example of why we should have our slaves learn the bedroom service as soon as possible."

It indeed did not take long for ShinRa to make his move.

"Will you have them rise up a bit? I'd like a better look at them." requested demon-ShinRa.

Tah'rh exchanged a glance with Tseng, then nodded at demon-ShinRa and instructed her slaves to rise. Vincent and Sephiroth then rose from their full bow on the floor to an upright, kneeling position, wisely keeping their eyes lowered the whole time.

Demon-ShinRa studied them for a few moments, then hummed sagely, "Hmm, the black-haired one seems obedient enough, but your Silver, he's like a wild horse that still needs to be tamed. Slaves with too much spirit, unwilling to learn, unwilling to obey, like this one, are the exact thing that the bedroom service will gentle. Delaying it for too long will only let that spirit run unchecked, like wildfire, and may eventually ruin the slave, make them too wild to control."

"My utmost apologies for making you witness such a disgraceful display, Fourth," said Tah'rh with an apologetic nod, "I am indeed a novice at slave training. I shall punish them severely for insulting you and your chamberlain. They will not make this mistake a second time."

"No no, that won't be necessary," demon-ShinRa smiled as he waved, "as I said, slaves with stubborn spirits are most effectively and efficiently tamed with the bedroom service. May I make a proposal, Seventh? You are new to slave training, but one of your slaves happen to have a difficult temperament. I on the other hand, have dealt with many like him before. If you would exchange his night with one of mine's, then I will personally train him and give you back a slave befitting of your status as Archdaemon."

Sephiroth gritted his teeth and willed his heartbeat to remain steady. The act of demon lords sending slaves to each other's beds was called "exchanging nights". It was a social practice done for relation-building and diplomacy, almost like exchanging gifts. The "exchanged" slaves would stay with the demon lord that they're sent to for anywhere from a few hours to a day, during which their sole purpose was to please the demon lord in bed, in order to curry favour for their owners. The former general had noticed the other demon lords trying to bring this up with Tah'rh, and he had always known that one day she will do the "exchange" — she has all the reasons to do it and no reason not to. But now that it's actually happening, it still feels like a punch in the gut. Especially with a demon version of President ShinRa... From where he knelt, Sephiroth could smell the sharp, artificial mix of of cologne, cleaning detergent and some kind of smoke coming off of that bloated, unwieldy body. He imagined that body pressed close to him, and that smell surrounding him and forcing its way into his nostrils... He stole a glance at Archdaemon ShinRa's baby-soft, sausage-like fingers heavy with jewelled rings, and imagined them running over his bare skin...

His stomach turned.

His eyes darted over to Vincent's hands. Though one was a bit deformed: having tough, purple skin and savage claws, both hand's fingers were long and thin, but held tremendous strength and were heavily calloused from years of fighting. Those were hands that had once helped bring Sephiroth's insane, almost god-like self down from the sky. Currently though, Sephiroth found them curled into tight fists at the ex-Turk's sides, their knuckles turning white. The puzzled former general glanced up at Vincent's face, but found it impassive as always.

He had to quickly direct his glance back down to the floor however, for there were eyes on him. Tah'rh was studying him with her brows slightly furrowed as she hesitated to answer the other Archdaemon.

Seeing Tah'rh's hesitation, demon-ShinRa gave his chamberlain a meaningful look. The demon version of Palmer then made a harsh sound at the olive-skinned slave kneeling beside the wolf youkai, and made a quick gesture towards Tah'rh.

Without a word, the slave got up obediently, walked over to Tah'rh, and knelt at her feet.

"This is one of my favourites, I trained him personally." introduced demon-ShinRa with a confident grin.

Without needing to be prompted, the handsome slave began to gently nuzzle his head against Tah'rh's knee.

Tah'rh watched him for a bit, then she reached out a hand and stroked the slave's red-brown hair. The slave leaned into her touch and began to nuzzle her with more enthusiasm. Tah'rh's hand then slid down the side of his head to his cheek, then to the vulnerable pulse on his neck, then down past his collarbone to his chest. The slave responded with submission and pleasure, arched his body into every touch, and let out a small sigh. His eyes though, remained green pools of nothing, no matter what his body did.

"What do you think, Seventh?" asked demon-ShinRa, his confident grin growing.

Tah'rh let her hand trailed back up from the slave's chest to his chiseled jaw, then she hooked her taloned fingers around his jaw bone and lifted his chin. Her eyes turned gold from the centre, pushing back the dark red colour of her irises and revealing slitted pupils, much like they did when she had examined potential slaves at the slave market where she had bought Sephiroth and Vincent.

The entire room seemed to hold its breath, waiting while she studied the 4th Circle pleasure slave's empty eyes. Then, a smile of approval appeared on her lips.

 


Additional Disclaimers: Tamako of the manga and anime series "Gin no Saji" (Silver Spoon) belong to Hiromu Arakawa (yes, the same mangaka as Fullmetal Alchemist). Though their names were not mentioned in this chapter, Koga of the manga and anime series "Inuyasha" belong to Rumiko Takahashi; Mizuki of the visual novel game and anime series "Dramatical Murder" belong to Nitro+CHiRAL. I do not own them and make no profit from them. I'm only borrowing them for a bit :P



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