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Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

A Brighter Tomorrow, Chapter 1: Grand Strategy

Rain.

When anyone thinks of the Starlit Fields, they think of the rain...and ash.

It's always a torrential downpour with them. One or the other. A war between the gods' efforts to create the perfect breeding ground for prayer they can grow fat on and the earth's refusal to heal, to move on from the trauma its wayward children inflicted upon her thirty years ago. It was a battle that set the fields ablaze, and rent the skies with its ferocity. When it ended, nothing was the same anymore. The military men and women retreated, safe in the knowledge that they hadn't lost face, that they hadn't given ground, and left all the rest of us behind. To suffer.

...The rain falls. Soon it grows heavier, choked with ash. The cycle continues, with us trapped in-between them. Same as it always has.

Out there, a boy takes a lost girl by the hand and sells her sanctuary, burning a searing memory of bliss into her she'll carry for the rest of her life, unaware he'll be gone with her coinpurse when the dawn breaks tomorrow.

In another place, a patrician stops by his favorite library to buy a book of bawdy love songs dressed up as poetry. He stows it in his coat, unaware it'll save his life when a pair of muggers rob him for all he's got and stab him for good measure. One of them knows this is supposed to be an assassination. The other one doesn't. They'll both be hanging from the walls by next week, all because the would-be assassin's mother needed some extra money this month to pay for her medicine.

In one of the city's clinics, a mother lets out a sob of joy as she cradles her baby in her arms, unaware that the little thing'll take her last breath within five heartbeats. The joy becomes a wail of despair as realization dawns on her that she's lost another child. She'll soon follow her, out the window and to the Lethe, for another turn at the wheel, another chance at redemption.

Life goes on. Life continues to be suffering. Same as it always was.

In the most devastated part of town, a flower blooms. It spreads out seeds of light when no one's looking. They fall into the dirt beneath the ash and burrow, ready to germinate when the sun comes up tomorrow. This is their story.

---

"Chi! He's gone!"

The door to the communal bedroom burst open, disrupting Chi's perfect focus as he tried to imitate the amazing maneuver he'd seen Sun pull off last night. Startled, he dropped the sword he'd sneakily snuck out of Brother Lono's armory. It clattered to the ground with such an awful racket it could've been heard all the way back at the treatment centre. Frantically, he scrambled to pick it up before his mother or one of the brothers and sisters of the Flower came knocking, a taste that was made all the more difficult by the trembling of his hands and the way Kai was pulling at the sleeve of his robe.

"H-hey! Calm down, I'm listening! Just let me pick this up first and we can go see where Haku is and—"

"No! You don't understand! He...he..." Kai's lower lip trembled, as he struggled not to cry. Suddenly, Chi realized something was very, very wrong. His little brother (by only a few minutes, but still!) never cried. Screams were one thing, but he hated to show anyone tears, lest they think he was a baby in need of protecting.

"Chi? What's wrong?" He asked, his own voice wavering a little from the concern. But his little brother didn't answer. He just gulped and pulled at his sleeve again. "T-This isn't funny. C'mon, talk to me. You're scaring me..."

"The swordsman in training is right, little brave." That wispy, throaty voice that reminded Chi so much of the fortune teller up in the Graveyard his mother had told him to stay away from was coming from the doorway. When Chi saw who it belonged to, his heart sank.

"Only a fool or a beast leaves family to worry. You are neither." Alai Shai Chen stepped into the dormitory accompanied by no sounds, bar the quiet whisper of her robe. The lenses of her featureless mask stared deeply at the troubled child, inscrutable as ever, but her voice was soothing as she knelt down beside them. "Brother to a subtle thief I've been tracking down, yes, but that is no fault of your own. But that is for later. Come, tell us what worries you. Who's disappeared?"

Kai looked back and forth between his older brother and the inscrutable Shining One, who never showed her face. Hesitation and a desperate need for comfort warred for control behind his eyes as he slowly began speaking.

"I was...I was learning my letters with Brother Rean. Master Lin Zhen came in and told him he'd have to make time to pick up a couple more students. He asked why, and Master Lin Zhen said...she said...she said Zeidh was gone!" The last few words came out choked, Kai's body trembling from the effort to keep his composure.

"Suns sink in the west only to rise in the east once again the next day, little brave," Alai said, gently. "Zeidh has left us before. He will return, and soon. Do not worry about it."

"N-no." Kai shook his head vigorously. "She said, she said he'd be gone and she didn't know when he would...she said she didn't even..."

And then, the dam broke. "...She said she didn't know if he'd even come back! Bwaaaaahhh!!"

Dimly, Chi noticed his hand fell lighter. When had the sword fallen from his grip once again? It was very strange, just like Zeidh being gone. Hadn't he promised he'd talk with Sun about teaching him some moves when Mom wasn't listening? But how was he supposed to do that now that he wasn't here anymore?

In his sorrow, Kai had thrown himself into Alai's arms. The little poet was so stunned it took her several seconds to register she was being touched before pulling away with a strangled hiss, as if burning metal had brushed against her flesh.

"Listen to me now," she said, and her hoarse voice cut through the haze of confusion like a knife. Such was its intensity that Chi couldn't help but stare at her, and pay close attention. "I must go speak with the Master now. Find your mother, and bring that blade with you. Tell her Shai Chen says we will need many more like it, and soon, to make up for what we've lost. Let no one else know of this, not until the Master herself lets it be known. Not even your mother, you understand? No one!"

She waited only long enough to see the children nod once, and then she was gone, like a white shade. As the door shut behind her, Chi felt a weight press against his chest. He couldn't understand why, but the air of the Flower Amidst the Ashes felt different now, heavier. Something had changed.

---

'Like traveling upstream through the Tien' had become a popular way of expressing foolhardiness amongst the northeastern ferrymen of the Blessed Isle for the past thirty years, and with good reason. With shifting rocks that changed in position dramatically from one voyage (and sometimes, one moment) to the next, it was all but inevitable that an enterprising boatman would eventually find himself shipwrecked and washed ashore, if the treacherous current didn't do him in first. And yet, Kon the Daredevil persisted in plying his trade, shouting like a man possessed as he egged his rowers onward. Once they made enough headway against the current, Ineffable Grace in Upheaval finally understood why. Past a certain point, the water stopped flowing towards the ocean. Instead, it began flowing in reverse. As soon as the current took over, the rowers stopped struggling with a grateful sigh, and the boatman's work truly began. With only split seconds to navigate the traps the river had laif for him, Kon focused entirely on his duty -- and performed it flawlessly. They covered miles in what felt like moments, and even time seemed to pass faster, as soon as the skies began to darken. It took Grace a moment to realize it wasn't because it was getting late, however. Up above, massive black clouds stretch out all the way to the horizon, casting a dark pall over the buildings of Starlit Fields, the place that would soon become his new home. As he turned his attention towards it, something brushed against his cheek. A fleck of ash.

---

From the Tien, to the Shiohana docks, to a small two-storied teahouse not far from the shoreline. Tranquility Teahouse was what it was called, and the name couldn't be more misleading as he struggled to make his way through the throng of citizens clustered within. Most of them seemed to be engaged in a massive debate that repeated itself across several tables, too chaotically and messily to catch more than brief fragments.

"...Bunch of bullshit if you ask me, Prefect should just cut out the middleman and choose himself for—"

"Don't bet on it, you fool, I'm telling you it's all rigged, you should put your money on candles—"

"...Gonna try and see if I can earn myself a spot, the qualifier rounds don't have a minimum investment—"

Beyond them, a stairway led up to the second floor. His destination. The place where he would receive his mission.

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Bouquet
Jul 14, 2001



A Brief Debriefing
Scene: Tranquility Teahouse, Second Floor, In Council

"Money is the root of all evil. So say the thinkers on the cutting edge of philosophical theory. It is the quintessential object of desire, a token that can be something concrete and everything at the same time, provided one has enough of it. It is power, and the rules of society made compact and expandable. Yes...it is a mighty force, and the arguments the great thinkers present in favor of its influence upon man make a great deal of sense at first glance."

Master Lin Zhen's weathered face, aged before its time, narrowed into an expression of utmost contempt. "They are fools. Man is the root of all evil, this much is plainly apparent to anyone willing to look at the world and the causes behind its current state of decay. The assignment we are gathered here to discuss involves money and the root of all its evil. Do not make the same mistake these theoreticians did by confusing cause and effect."

Two strong, decisive taps on the floor upset the pile of parchments lying on top of a bowl, sending them sprawling all over the far side of the table, where her Solar and Lunar students sat. As the documents spread out to encompass all the available space, she continued speaking, her delivery precise and swift, wasting no time with unnecessary asides or words.

"A few days ago, the Dragonblooded Deliberative passed a motion authorizing the allocation of two million silver dinars from the Realm's coffers to the city. Their purpose is to fund the reconstruction of the Nepenthe." The blue light district, a large sprawl none too distant from the Graveyard of Fireflies, and a neighborhood that was barely doing any better -- one could argue it was perhaps in an even worse state of disrepair, considering how similar the living conditions were in spite of being under the open, constant auspices of a god. "The stated aim is to transform and modernize the area, turning the exoticism of the city's living conditions from a drawback to a draw. By turning the area more palatable to the noble class, the Deliberative hopes to revitalize the region's economy, and return the city to its former glory. The hidden intention underneath it is power, as it always is."

The master paused for a moment, waiting to confirm that the lesson had sunk in before continuing, her voice soft as silk, slow as the ebbing tide. "This power is as-yet unclaimed. The funds are allocated, and may not be taken back, but a contractor has yet to be appointed to helm the project. As a result of the fierce competition to present the most compelling bid, the Deliberative has opted to allow the challengers to determine who the chosen candidate will be by themselves. To prevent matters from escalating to open violence, however, the Deliberative opted to determine the battlefield upon which this war would be waged. It is to be a tournament of Gateway, waged upon the stage of the Daoshang theatre, before an open audience."

Wry amusement crept into the master's voice as she continued. "In this, the dragons showcased remarkable foresight. The last bidding war sparked by the Deliberative left no less than a thousand bodies in its wake, peasant and noble alike. While this one is sure to be equally treacherous, it should also be far less bloody. None of their faction leaders wish for this particular renovation to become a flashpoint. And so, to provide an illusion of legitimacy, they've instated an entry fee of ten thousand dinars -- and a set of qualifying rounds, open to all, for the impoverished and the greedy to try their luck with."

Once more, she tapped the floor, demanding her students' attention. Her voice was low and forceful as she continued. "We cannot stop this bidding war from taking place. Your duty is not to disrupt the dragons' plans completely. Instead, your task will be to control the proceedings, and ensure the contract will go to a victor who will use these funds for the benefit of the people. Ours, and the Nepenthe's. That is all. Remember your goals, and adapt your methods to achieve them. These documents bear information on the location, prospective candidates, and their aims. To ensure you can make use of them, I have had an expert on strategy brought in to assist you..."

Suddenly, Lin Zhen paused, raising her head upwards, as if to confirm something she had heard. Then she nodded once, confidently.

"Ah. And there he is. Welcome, Ineffable Grace in Upheaval," she said, exactly at the moment Grace came in. "Your comrades have been waiting to meet you. They will explain the situation to you...assuming they have kept their minds and ears open." After acknowledging the new arrival, she sat down, laid her cane aside, and raised a bowl of smoking tea to her lips. "You have until I finish my tea to ask questions, young ones. Make the most of it."

Boulder noted the remarkable organization of the papers upon the table, then focused his attention on the section of each competitor’s description that hinted at motives. First, establish who it might be worthwhile to help.

The list of candidates was marked as incomplete, and yet even so, it spanned many pages. Each candidate was listed with a brief rundown of their circumstances and presumed motives, alongside prospective locales where more information could be found on them. Three candidates in particular caught his eye:

quote:

Ilscha, Kalina
Status: Realm Patrician

One of Ledaal Zina’s envoys of peace. Volunteered a significant portion of her fortune to participate in the games, to the surprise of her social circle. Has been active in the Nepenthe for a decade and a half, becoming one of the rare members of the aristocracy allowed free passage through the district by its criminal syndicates. Suspected to be acting to protect an illegitimate child she left behind in the district, though the rumours concerning the child’s identity and father have yet to be substantiated. Target has no noted connections to major business interests.

Leads: Jain Tower, Foundation District (Residence); Wordweaver’s Alley, Nepenthe District.

quote:

V’neef, Valeth
Status: Imperial Dynast (Disgraced)

A Dynast in exile, kicked out of his house for his refusal to engage in its political endeavors. Has taken up residence within the Nepenthe, as an artist and architect of some renown. Has led restoration efforts within the district in the past, to mild success, largely due to a severe lack of funding. It is suspected Mnemon Stynfalia, Prefect of Sorana, sees him as a House V’neef agent playing a long con. Well-regarded as a peaceful neighbor by the denizens of the district, though noted as dramatically eccentric. Expected to participate in the qualifying rounds, due to his lack of personal resources.

Leads: Viridis Townhouse, Nepenthe District (Residence); Laojun Academy, Temple District (tutor for the wealthy students of the city)

quote:

Linnea, Aurea
Status: Patron Goddess of the Nepenthe District

The de-facto ruler of the Nepenthe, nominally known as the Goddess of Thieves and Whores. Responsible for overseeing the duties of her faithful, she has not announced her candidacy officially yet, but is expected to do so soon, as the rules of the event do not prohibit the participation of deities. A flair for the dramatic may be to blame for the delay.

Leads: For more information, refer to Jacek’s report, number XXIII.

Boulder opened a small case he had placed on the table upon arrival. He held up a white stone. “Investigation requires knowledge of spirits.” A blue stone. “Investigation requires ability to make friends.” A yellow stone. “Sneaking.” Black stone. “Remove from tournament.” The snakeman placed a white stone on the paper of Aurea Linnea, a blue stone on Valeth V’neef, and a yellow stone on Kalina Ischa. “Other possibilities exist.” He shrugged.

Rook leaned forward, scanning the documents spread on the table. “No chance of putting forth our own candidate, I take it.” It was more of a statement than a question. “How long do we have?” There was a beat. “And perhaps more importantly, who don’t we want to win?”

“The qualifying rounds begin tomorrow night,” said the master, staring at him over the edge of her bowl. “Once they do, you will have to work with what candidates you have. As for your other question...”

She took a long, long sip. Silence set in, only to be broken by her voice moments later. “It is a misaimed question, boy. I could talk until my tea ran cold and not run out of candidates who could cause us no end of trouble. But the intent behind your words is clear. The candidates who could cause the most trouble are the two put forth by Sesus, the daughter of Mnemon, the Prefect’s catspaw, and the King Amidst the Ashes’ protegé. Any of those succeeding would introduce a new, hostile power to the city, or serve to entrench a preexisting one irrevocably. See to it that they do not.”

If the subtle rebuke bothered Rook, he was careful not to show it. “Who hasn’t moved that we expected to?”

“Mmm. A more discerning question, that one.” Master Lin Zhen was never effusive with her approval. Coming from her, such a form of acknowledgement was high praise. “It was unexpected that Ledaal Duc Jiang chose to act through a proxy instead of participating as a player himself. He was a frontrunner to secure the contract. He must be playing a secret game — one to which we are not yet privy.”

She paused for a moment to seize a rice cake courtesy of the owner, whom she’d befriended long ago. It disappeared in mere moments, as if such an indulgence were not allowed to her, and needed to be disposed of with great haste. “There is also the matter of the Immaculate Order. Though abbess Felicity has shown little interest in wealth, it is a given that she would send someone to participate, if only for the chance to save the poor unfortunate souls of the Nepenthe from their lives of sin and that goddess she likes so little. With official backing, they would have no choice to bend the knee and listen to her sermons. There must be a mandate at play preventing her from taking action.”

Wandering Sun wasn’t in his element in these sorts of strategic meetings, but that was something he hoped one day would change, so he always paid close attention. He focused and let his mind cough up a few potential dangers or things to consider - he had no doubt they were simplistic or incorrect, but that was fine. He would compare his ideas to those of his more experienced teammates and try to understand what he’d overlooked so they’d be better next time.

“The qualifiers, it will be a pretty big gathering, right? A big prize with lots of people applying, and I’m sure they’ve all got friends watching. Crowds usually means injuries or people overindulging in drink or drugs - can we send a delegation from the hospital to be present on compassionate grounds?” He didn’t sound like he lacked confidence, per se, but he definitely sounded like he was inviting someone to tell him if it was a bad idea, or that it had already been considered and dismissed for reasons that hadn’t occurred to him.

“We could try. Without permission from a suitable functionary, however, they would be afforded no special privileges, and would have to work from within the crowd.” The response was swift, borne from a wealth of medical experience on the field. “Cramped quarters make for poor -treatment. If you wish to aid the ailing, they deserve better than that. And as the guests of honor are likely to bring their own medical retainers, it will be difficult to persuade those in charge of organizing the event to allow a rag-tag brigade of quacks and volunteers to oversee the proceedings.”

Difficult, but not impossible. When the master wished to communicate that a task was beyond his reach, she was always quick to do so. This was simply a word of caution, nothing more.

"If I may."

Grace took this time to speak up, before getting too lost in that plan. He'd also like a cup of the tea the master is drinking but this comes first.

"I'd like to show an observation: If the prize of this tournament outweighs the cost, our... unknown opponents, and key players would benefit from fielding additional players of their own to bolster their chances. Not just any of their own people, but anyone who would be keen to play and lose on their behalf. This extends to these three players. If we're backing them, I urge we need to ensure that nobody else has their hooks in them."

Silence… Well, good for everyone else to catch on to that at least. May as well move to other questions.

Bouquet
Jul 14, 2001



A Brief Debriefing, continued

“Do we know where the tournament and qualifying rounds are taking place?”, asked Grace.

The Master of the School of Medicine did not dignify that question with a response. Instead, she continued enjoying her fireleaf tea at her own leisure, sparing her students a sideways glance as she did so. It is the responsibility of the advanced pupils to educate their less-learned fellow students was a common refrain at the School’s tutoring halls. All responsible for each other’s growth — that was how she liked to teach.

“Daosheng Theater.” Heretofore as silent and motionless as the statues she made, the Graven Icon of Fidelity spoke at last. Her gray eyes flicked to the pile of documents, scanning over the characters. “Dame Ilscha’s generosity seems...conspicuous. Might she be acting under compulsion?”

“It is possible. Her actions are not unexplainable, but ten thousand dinars is a hefty monetary sacrifice for a simple patrician.” The master’s cane came up to point at Fidelity. “Who do you suggest is behind her?”

“I have not enough proof to level accusations,” Fidelity said, inclining her head, “but two notions come to mind. If she is indeed a skilled player, then she might be made to remove another’s rivals before forfeiting herself. If she is not, then her entry fee might in truth be a ransom payment.”

Boulder grunted into the pause as the others considered Fidelity’s statement. He had been continuing to distribute his colored stones across the papers as the discussion proceeded. He held up a green stone. “Can ignore.” He carefully placed it on the last of the descriptions. “Died yesterday.” It was the only green stone on the table.

“Thank you, child. Your recordkeeping is appreciated.” The softening of the master’s tone was almost imperceptible as her gaze shifted toward Boulder’s handiwork, but it did not go unnoticed by those with keen ears. Just as much as she valued carefully considered action, she valued efficiency. Using the periods of time in which one was not speaking to put down notes was both.

“Blackmail, or a firedust martyr,” Lin Zhen mused. A quiet ‘hmm’ escaped her pursed lips. “Plausible, yes...will you take it upon yourself to investigate this matter and uncover the mastermind you suspect to be behind the patrician’s candidacy, then, silver sage? Or is this duty to be handled by another?”

Fidelity stiffened slightly at the unspoken charge. A valiant mother and a forsaken child - might you not be too close to this one? “I would seek the truth of this matter,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. It was not quite a challenge, not quite seeking permission, and left open the floor for any who might elect to join her.

“Pardon, Master, Fidelity” said Boulder. “Unless he,” the Lunar nodded at Grace, “is skilled at dealing with spirits and gods,” Boulder continued without pause, seeing little about the new arrival to suggest he might be skilled at dealing with spirits and gods, “we might need her focused on another task.” He glanced at the stones on the table.There were not many white stones on the table, but still enough to suggest at least one expert might be needed.

“Aurea Linnea?” Fidelity asked, in a tone that sounded slightly less appropriate for a divinity than for an as-yet-unidentified stain on one’s boots.

“No other can see her or any of her spirit minions if they are dematerialized. There are other such tasks, if feelings intervene.” The snakeman said. His closing qualification was said gently, with no judgement.

“I trust, then, that this other mystery shall be handled with equal care,” Fidelity said, and was silent once more.

“Rook might shadow Ischa to uncover the truth of the rumors of a child or other possible levers being used against her,” suggested Boulder.

Rook nodded. “I can take responsibility for that,” he paused, glancing at Fidelity. “If that is acceptable.” His attention returned to the files on the table and he frowned. "Forgive me if this is a foolish question, teacher, but... Do we have any idea who the Spider is backing? I find it difficult to believe he would remain neutral, yet I see no hint of him."

“No. And that, most of all, is concerning.” The master’s face twisted into a frown, her face scrunched up with tension as though she were bracing for a sudden impact. “He has no interest in this prize for himself, of this I’m certain. It is too loud, too obvious for him. But his complete lack of action is unlike him. If there is one man who can be counted on to have designs for the tournament itself, it is him. Keep an eye on him at all times. His is a fine web, and easily overlooked until it is far, far too late.”

“Humans dislike and notice me,” said Boulder. “I might observe the Candlemakers’ guild hall in less noticeable forms. It is centrally located, which would let me coordinate our efforts.”

“Does the committee organizing the tournament have an emergency location in case the theatre is unavailable?” At this time Grace thought it’d be time to explore something Sun suggested, a place to start.

“They must. Possibly more than one. Our spies have not been able to find it, however. Only the Prefect and his fellow event organizers are aware of the backup’s location, wherever it might be. Tch.” The master clicked her tongue, displeased. “There are only so many skilled enough information gatherers we can spare. Not enough for my taste.“

Boulder grunted softly to gently remind Lin Zhen that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

"I'm thinking that pushing the Prefect to use this backup location might give us that in," Grace gestured to Sun. "He was hoping for. Convince them a plague had been released in the area. Even if the key players have their own medics on standby, this Prefect couldn't afford another plague scare. It would also make our... unknown opponents look to each other for a stratagem for the prize they're competing for."

Lin Zhen quirked an eyebrow. “And how do you suggest staging a plague scare?”

Grace had to bury the pit forming in his stomach. This is like Maduka Shin's tests…

"... One way it could start... is with someone catching it in the City, or showing its symptoms... Someone notable, who's seen by so many. Someone who works in the theatre... in order to make people think it originated there, and not anywhere else… No… strike that… Someone who’s in contact with those working in the theatre... like an acting company from abroad, so people would look at them, while cordoning the theatre off. That’s at least how it should look. The… better alternative is the same, but conflating a safer disease for a more dangerous one." He had to think of something else…

“If we mean to benefit the people, then staging a false plague, causing fear and panic, the closing of shops and mistrusting of neighbors, is hardly a plan worth considering,” said Fara Li. He’d been silent so far, but at the mention of a ‘plague scare’ his brows had knit into something resembling a thundercloud. “The tournament will already be a disruption to the lives of many, we needn’t make it worse.”

He rounded on Grace, hands tucked firmly into his white sleeves as he looked down his nose at the newcomer. “This is a place of healing. Perhaps such tactics were considered appropriate at Kether Rock, but here our mission is to purge illness and staunch wounds, not spread it and cause them. That said…” He took a breath, exhaling his anger with it as best he could. “There are other methods of making the Daosheng Theater an inauspicious place to hold the tournament. Of course, if we do, we’ll be going in blind to the new venue. Were we to discover the fallback, it would no longer be a gamble, and forcing a shift in location later in the tournament could give us an important advantage. But I would advise we keep that card in hand for now.”

Fara Li stroked his thin beard. “I volunteer myself for the task of persuading a functionary to give us space for a tent, or use of a nearby building. There’s much to be learned from talking to the people, especially those betting their life savings on the matches… and if I might add one more opinion, it’s that we don’t back a single player, at least not until the field narrows. The more cards we have in hand the stronger our plays will be, especially considering there are at least five strong opponents who must be knocked out in order for us to benefit. We don’t need to rely on one blessed champion to win every match. If several acceptable candidates can win a key match each that’s just as good and far more likely.”

Boulder had retrieved a sheet of paper after distributing his rocks. He added two items while Fara Li spoke, and the paper now read:

quote:

Beware prior arrangements with other competitors to win/lose at key moments
Avoid unnecessary casualties due to panic, etc.
Advance multiple satisfactory candidates when possible

Grace, chastened from Fara Li and Lin Zhen, shifted gears. “In that case, I’d volunteer for reconnaissance on the Theatre, and officials the rest of you could work over. With something like this in place, I suspect there may be a weak link in the committee.”

“And it will be a chance for you to get acquainted with the city’s power dynamics,” Lin Zhen reasoned. “Good. I see most of you have chosen your tasks already. That leaves you, brave child. Have you decided how best to lend your strength to our efforts?” The weight of her eyes on Wandering Sun was as heavy as lead. The teacher had called him to stand before the class to answer. It would be best to put forth nothing less than an excellent effort.

Wandering Sun was not really prepared to venture an answer quite yet, but the battlefield didn’t wait for you to prepare and neither did Lin Zhen. The rest of the group’s plans seemed rather delicate, and they hadn’t requested armed backup, so he wasn’t going to offer where it wasn’t needed. He didn’t have much in the way of contacts either, or any experience in investigations. Still, he was committed to not being useless, even if he wasn’t as useful as the others.

He knew he had to leverage his strengths. Mostly it was combat, which wasn’t going to be useful until things started to go drastically wrong. But he could perhaps use his secondary strength, which was looking like someone whose main strength was combat. “Everyone seems to be getting involved in the tournament, which means a lot of them are going to be short on people. The gangs at least, they’ll probably be looking for cheap muscle, and I seem like I come cheap.”

Indeed, very little about his appearance (other than the incredibly valuable sword which he seldom showed in public) indicated that the hospital paid him more than a pittance. “I know there are a few teahouses in the city where people with my skills go to get jobs. I thought I would visit a few of them and see who seems especially desperate to hire.” He tried to sound assured, but it was clear to anyone with a bit of perceptiveness that he was waiting on Lin Zhen (and the rest of the circle’s) approval or disapproval.

“So you expect there to be trouble of a more physical sort.” The master considered his plan carefully, her fingers forming a tent before her face. “Where do you expect your services to be needed? At the theatre itself, or elsewhere, taking advantage of the distraction offered by the tournament?”

Of course a simple answer wouldn’t be enough to please the master. She always insisted that it was not enough to do something, but to understand why it had to be done, and what consequences it might have. That she had not rejected his plan outright was encouraging, but he was not out of the woods just yet.

Wandering Sun was always expecting trouble of the physical sort, but fortunately, a moment’s thought told him that it was probably justified in this case. “I think too many people have an interest in the event itself for there to be an open attack planned...anyone who wants the prize would have to be really desperate to escalate things to violence. There’s too many ways it could blow back.”

“But outside of the tournament, well...” He gestured at the assembled group. “Five of our best have been assigned to deal with it. What would they be doing if we didn’t have this to worry about? I can only think that important things that were going to happen won’t be anymore. And I don’t think we’re the only group postponing vital work. People will be taking advantage of that.”

“Spoken like a strategist and not a footsoldier.” The master bowed her head in a low nod. “I chose you well for this assignment. Your analysis is correct, Wandering Sun. While your brethren move to secure a bright future for the Nepenthe, you will be charged with protecting its present. Do whatever you must to ensure their efforts will not be for naught.”

Retrieving her bowl, the master lifted it up and drank deeply from it. When she put it down once again, it was empty.

“My time with you grows short, Shining Ones. I must depart to address some urgent business elsewhere. You may ask one final question of me. Think carefully, and choose wisely.”

Boulder added one more line to his list: “Avoid damage to other ongoing projects in city” and slid the paper to the center of the table where all could see it easily. It was oriented such that Wandering Sun and Grace had the best angle.
On a second sheet, he added one last line:

quote:

Fidelity - Assess Aurea Linnea’s intentions and machinations
Rook - What is Kalina Ischa’s secret? Why is she paying so much of her money to join?
Boulder - Observe Mu Min Cho to determine what his play is, coordinate efforts to investigate additional competitors or support ongoing investigations as needed
Fara Li - Acquire space to operate near the tournament on the day of
Grace - Case Daoshang Theater
Wandering Sun - Address chaos caused when the gaze of the powerful turns away from their daily duties
He slid this one to rest next to the other.
That task complete, the snakeman began copying the information on the contestants into his notebook, his writing encoded in one of the Cult’s lesser ciphers. His pace did not seem to be slowed by the task of encoding the words as he went.

Bouquet
Jul 14, 2001



A Not Particularly Brief Debriefing, continued

While the others had asked their own questions, Fidelity’s attention had been drawn by another matter. That the money might be misused was no secret, but it was how it might be spent that interested her. She picked up and perused some of the denser documents on the table - the latest census in particular - and began to perform basic arithmetic using the colored stones from Boulder’s game. There were six different colors, which she used for ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten-thousands, and hundred-thousands as she estimated the costs of food, shelter, medicine, for every soul in the city.

Then a new commercial hub. Then sealing off the essence leaking from the shattered manse. Then resettlement fees for thousands of new laborers, and their own material needs. Then an Immaculate temple, with a shrine worthy of Aurea Linnea should the goddess win. All of this, she could comfortably tally on Boulder’s six colors of stone. She took an inkstone, wrote down the amount that remained, and asked her final question - not of the Master, but of Ineffable Grace in Upheaval.

“For how long could you field a legion on this budget?” Even if they restored the Nepenthe - even if they restored all of Falling Ashes - it was north of a million pieces of silver.

“How much are we talking about?” Grace leans in.

“Two million silver dinars is the contract award,” answered Boulder.

His eyes jumped at the number. Certainly a pretty penny. He closed his eyes, trying to picture the money and numbers in his head.

“I’d say it’s enough to pay anyone who wants to join that army. But feeding them? Drilling them? Equipping them so they don’t break before an enemy?... Anyone who joins would expect that their commander would provide those things for them, not spend whatever they’re given in order to have their armor and weapons… And here? You would have to hope there are farms or pastures here, or failing that a food trade. And housing.”

This was stuff that had been drilled into his head by the Aloof Strategist, but what he knew of Fallen Ashes was little.

“You think this city can house a legion without straining its surroundings?” When no answer came, Grace had to pull more from his teachings.

Rolling Int+War 5, paying 5m for War excellency, 2 dice from stunt. @AnonymousIdiot, you rolled 1,1,2,3,3,3,3,4,6,6,7,9 for a total of 2 successes

“You could field an army for a year, but it will be mercenaries, not a professional retinue loyal to you. They’ll demand high pay, and they’ll have little reason not to loot or pillage the countryside for more gains... That’s how fortunes are made in war.”

“That’s for two million. You calculated somewhat less,” Boulder indicated Fidelity’s inkstone. “Army possibly of some concern,” said Boulder.

“Honestly that money could be better spent elsewhere.” He finished.

“A House thinks they will win,” stated Boulder.

Grace looked to Fidelity, who hadn’t said anything about his answer. “Are you thinking… you might be seeing that in the future?”

“I am certain that Sesus and Mnemon can arrive at this conclusion on their own,” Fidelity said. “So long as this prize might be theirs, they will fight over it.”

“Indeed…” Fara Li glanced to Lin Zhen. “If I might ask our final question then, Master, at the beginning of this meeting you said that the Deliberative passed a motion allocating the money. Who proposed the original motion, and who supported it? Starlit Fields has been a scar on the Blessed Isle for long enough to generate some sympathy, but this sum is clearly over the mark. If it’s being used as a means to transfer dinars from one hand to another while earning the goodwill of the people...” He nodded to Boulder. “Our scaled friend is absolutely correct. There’s a strong possibility that the game itself is a smokescreen. A House thinks they will win.”

“All of them do, Hand of Solace.” As the Shining Ones had debated the situation, Lin Zhen had closed her eyes. With their lights unable to be seen, she looked small and tired, crushed by a weight on her shoulders as heavy as the world. Her voice came out slowly, with a cadence like a meditative trance. “It is evident that a motion proposing the disbursement of such a major sum for a forgotten city could never have passed without the support of all the Great Houses. A wide-ranging confederacy voted in its favor, and the amendment that stipulated that the contractor would be determined through Gateway met with unanimous approval. The motion was drafted by Nellens Zarghidas, a bleeding heart who leapt to protect the city where he had been born and raised in its hour of need. It was not he who brought it to the attention of the Deliberative, however.”

She exhaled deeply. Each word clearly took a toll on her. The knowledge must have been a heavy burden indeed, to drain the usually indefatigable Lin Zhen so.

“Unable to find seconds to back his attempts at restoring Starlit Fields to its former glory, Zarghidas was overcome by despair, and committed suicide. He has been dead for the past twenty-eight years. The motion was brought forth by his seconds in his name, to honor his memory. The first was Tepet Shallya, an opportunist and desperate survivor, seeking a miracle through which to restore her House’s power and honor. The second...”

Moments passed, and Lin Zhen did not speak. She never did without being certain of what she was saying, and of the way it should be said.

“...The second is one of the most dangerous minds within the Greater Chamber, a master manipulator who knows the damning secrets of half its senators. She was the one who joined wit to desperation, who provided the motion of a long-dead man with ironclad legitimacy. The second was Senator Mnemon Oroth, the left hand of Mnemon.”

“Well then,” said Li, after a moment of stunned silence. A wide grin crept over his face, the first he’d worn that evening. “It sounds like we have our work cut out for us.”

“More than you can imagine, child.” Reaching out for her cane, the master of the School of Medicine stood up. “This is a power play the likes of which have not been seen since the Empress’ grip on her Realm was fragile. Its scale and complexity are both incalculable. I do not know if anyone truly understands the web of machinations that will soon begin to unfurl, not even the true mastermind behind this plot.”

She strode past her students slowly, the tap-tap-tap of the cane against the wooden floor filling the air. It resembled nothing so much as a clock ticking, inching closer and closer to the moment its bells would ring. When she reached the door, she turned around to stare back at the Shining Ones she had gathered there.

“This is a task unlike any you have faced before. You will face enemies that you know nothing about, and who appear to anticipate your every move. There may be plans afoot that shall be beyond your ability to disrupt. There may be great sacrifices you will be forced to make for the sake of victory. Do not act rashly, children. In this great game, every move will spawn a countermove, and there will be no takebacks. Question everything. Challenge everything. Protect everything, even that which you would sooner tear asunder, lest it turn out to be a vital lynchpin to your strategy you cannot afford to lose. Be all-seeing. Be brave. And when the web of schemes collapses and brings the Houses’ tower of lies down with it, be gone.”

Without another word, she disappeared through the doorway. The soft impacts of her cane, so clearly audible moments earlier, could no longer be heard.

Some silence passed before Grace spoke up, “I think it may be a good idea to pair up, and handle our tasks together. Another pair of eyes might spot what one doesn’t.” He paused for a bit, turning to Rook. “Mind if I come with you in regards to Ilscha, and later we case the theatre?”

Rook's mouth quirked ambiguously. "I don't object... Though I admit I am somewhat more accustomed to working alone." He paused for a moment, frowned, then inclined his head slightly in Grace's direction. "I apologize; that came out perhaps harsher than I meant it. I agree that a second perspective would be useful to both of us, and, well..." He trailed off for a moment. "Master Jacek keeps telling me to expand my horizons- I would be quite interested in hearing your thoughts as a fresh observer on whatever we find."

Boulder nodded at Grace’s suggestion. “Wandering Sun? Candlemakers’ is centrally located. Good for response to rest of city.”

Wandering Sun nodded, grateful for some assistance in his assigned task and all too happy to provide some manner of backup to Boulder. “I’m happy to help. And if people need backup, we’ll be able to get there fast.”

“Which leaves…” Li glanced across the table to Fidelity. Fate seemed anxious to push them together, if they willed it or not. “I suppose I don’t mind helping out with troublesome goddesses, if you can stomach the boredom of dealing with the local bureaucracy.”

“Boredom is a burden best shared,” Fidelity said. Her body language wasn’t always the easiest to read, but she seemed far more animated than before at the prospect of working together. “Mayhaps we shall find a way to hasten the process.”

With the pairings addressed, Boulder spoke: “Let’s address signals. I propose…” Boulder proceeded to outline signals the others might use to let Boulder in raiton form that they wished to interact, that they needed Wandering Sun’s assistance, or that they were being followed.

With signals arranged, Boulder made another statement. “I can carry extra clothes for altering appearance or some other useful equipment. Tell me any special requests.”

As the meeting drew to a close, Boulder had one last word of advice. “Our safety and stealth are most important. Losing here is a setback. Being revealed a disaster.”

Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Foundational Permits
Scene: Founder’s Command, Foundation District

The Founder’s Command was an ancient building. Built three centuries ago by Sesus Ikoris, who established the city itself as a mining outpost, it had stood practically unchanged since that elden time. The perpetually open front doors gave way to a spacious atrium, from which dozens of passageways branched out in a circle, leading to the offices of the individual civic departments that oversaw various developments within the city. The place was well-organized, with a map on the ceiling and each office clearly signposted on the walls. Perhaps because of this, the Founder’s Command had spawned a dreadful enemy, enough to make the blood of the most reckless hero freeze: endless queues. The place was jam-packed with people, young and old, rich and poor (moreso the latter than the former. The rich could afford to send executors and agents to stand in for them), all of them waiting for the glacially slow-moving lines to bring them closer and closer to their goals.

A quick assessment revealed a disheartening truth: each step forward took at least five minutes of patient waiting to be won, if not longer. And there were many, many steps separating them from the Office of Infrastructural Concerns and Planned Festivals, Events and Festivities. If they waited in line, it’d be nightfall before they even saw a chance at speaking with a clerk -- if they indeed got a chance at all instead of being told to come back early tomorrow. Most likely, they would have to find another way to reach their goal.

“Doctor Fara,” Fidelity began. She had dressed in the sterile linens and silken veil of his understudy physicians. “Forgive my presumption, but this does not seem conducive to gaining your permit.”

“Doctor Li, please. No need to be so formal.” Li hadn’t even bothered joining the line, it was that hopeless looking. “It seems like our options are reduced to ambushing someone at lunch or forgery, and I’m sure we aren’t the first to think of either.”

Fidelity perked up at the word ’ambushing’. “No...but your attention might be more welcome than another’s. You are familiar with the local wildlife, yes? Including that which broke free of Ragara Mifaru’s private collection?”

“Only by way of treating the injured who’ve had the misfortune of encountering the leftovers,” Li said. “Why?”

“Because there is no privy in this building. Only outhouses.” She glanced at the row of clerks, taking dumplings and tea at their desks as they worked. One of them would need to leave soon. “Cobra, I think. Do you have the appropriate antivenin?”

“Not with me,” Li’s brows furrowed. Should I start carrying it…? “I could fetch some from the clinic but wouldn’t it be more than a little suspect if I just-so-happen to be carrying the cure when it’s needed? Not to mention that gratitude may not extend to favorable treatment, even low-level bureaucrats can be sticklers about such things.”

“Indeed, though I see no better option for reaching the head of this queue.” She scanned the crowd, watching the fortunate few at the front who had come away with everything filed and in order. “We could acquire a permit that has already been issued, although I mislike what that would entail…”

Li nodded sagely. “I agree. Resorting to bribery always makes me feel dirty.”

“...yes. That is what I meant,” said Fidelity, who had in fact been considering an option which Vanira and other Lunars employed with relish but the thought of which still turned her own stomach.

Just then, Li saw a tall, broad-chested guard speaking briefly to a young boy clad in a blue tunic, fancily adorned with several badges. The boy nodded, smiled, tipped a nonexistent hat, and moved aside to let the guardsman who’d been speaking with him take his place. He knew this man...his name was Ramet, one of the men working under Sikra Zem, a tireless patrolman who had never uttered so much as a complaint while in the presence of his mercurial captain anytime Li had seen him. What was he doing here?

“Ah… Look, there. It’s not bribery if line-holding is a profession,” Li said excitedly. He doubted it would be that easy but it was always worth checking. “Would you mind checking the prices further up the queue? I’m going to ask the guard a few questions.”

“What price are we willing to pay?” she asked.

“What do you think the hospital would be willing to cover?” Li countered. “I’d sooner go with cobras in the privy than dip into my personal funds.”

“As you will, then.”

---

“Good morning Ramet!” Li said, approaching the man with a wide smile. “Nice to see a familiar face in this sea of humanity. Why, they had to put the map on the ceiling, or you’d never be able to find it!” He chuckled lightly. “It’s my first time here, so I’m trying to get the lay of things. Seems like it’s not as simple as just joining the end of the line, but then, life rarely is. But now you’ve got me curious. What brings the guard out to the Office of Infrastructural Concerns and Planned Festivals, Events and Festivities this fine day?”

“Master Li!” The guardsman’s face lit up as he saw him approach. “It’s a pleasure to see you again. What a coincidence that the fates drew us both here! This is my first time visiting this place too. The boss needed someone to come down here and get a requisition order rubber stamped for the upcoming Gateway tournament, and it just so happened I drew the short straw for it!” After taking a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, Ramet leaned in to whisper into Li’s ear. Bulky as he was, the effect was only mildly comical, to his credit.

“Just between you and me, captain Zem has been even harder to work with than usual. When I saw a chance to get away from him for a while, I jumped on it. You know how he gets when things aren’t going his way.”

“More than most,” Li said, sharing a conspiratorial wink. “But I’m still surprised that you have such a late requisition. I’m late as well, of course…” He sighed dramatically. “But my lateness is due to someone suddenly having an idea that should have been proposed a week ago. Alas, certain details were too important to leave to an assistant.”

“It’s not by our choice. Our ‘guests’...” The word was so firmly accented upon there could be no doubt about Ramet’s thoughts on them. “...They’ve cordoned off the theatre where the games will take place and several blocks around it. It was a miracle that we managed to persuade them to let us in, but even then, they refused to just let us into our quarters. ‘Find your own, we’ve got more important things to do than take care of some lapdogs’, they said. Bloody outlander bastards...”

“But aren’t you providing security for the event? How do they expect you to do your jobs if they kick you out of your quarters?”

“That’s what we wondered about too. We spoke with the imperial detachment at the city, you know. Figured if this was some kind of interservice rivalry, they could help straighten it out. But they got brushed off too! Apparently the new imperial talons have authority straight from the deliberative to oversee the proceedings, which means our role is just to keep the peace elsewhere and not poke our noses into it.” He snorted, angrily. Ramet was a good-natured man, soft-spoken and genial. The fact he was willing to make his discontent so clear spoke volumes about how deeply the new arrivals had stung his pride. “Fat chance of that. Just because we’re not proper military doesn’t mean we don’t have our pride. Captain Zem was of a mind to just stick it to them any way he could, and I, for once, could not agree more with him.”

“My sympathies,” Li said, tucking his hands into his sleeves and shaking his head sadly. “It’s truly a sign of the times. Why even bother dedicating so much money to the restoration of the city if you can’t trust the people who live there? It makes no sense...”

The wheels were turning in his head though. He’d been hoping to leverage his friendliness with the guard as a back up plan if he couldn’t get the papers stamped, but it sounded like that was a dead end. This whole endeavor might be a waste of time if the imperials had the area around the teahouse so thoroughly locked down. It meant he didn’t have an in, which was annoying, given the amount of time he’d spent rubbing elbows in the city. Plan ‘cobra in the privy’ sounded more appealing by the moment.

“No, it doesn’t. It’s not as if the outlanders could properly isolate the theatre, anyway — they’ve got soldiers, but everywhere else, they’re understaffed. I served in the military once, Master Li. You’ve heard that an army marches on its stomach, right? It’s true, but it doesn’t cover even half of the whole story. An army marches on its stomach, but with its cooks, medics, and transporters supporting its every step. These people don’t have any of that. It won’t even take days before their discipline begins to slacken due to a lack of personnel, just you watch.” As he recounted the new arrival’s failings, Ramet’s expression darkened. “The only thing that pisses me off more than not being able to do my job is watching someone else do it poorly. Honestly, what are they thinking…?”

Now that’s odd, and worrisome. Li didn’t know much about soldiers, his hometown of Dei Ajna was too remote to see much in the way of troops passing through. He’d have to ask Grace about it later. It was a possible in, though, if they needed cooks and medics… but only if they were willing to accept local assistance... which didn’t seem to be the case.

“Hmm. Well let me ask you Ramet, since you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. The hospital is trying to set up a temporary aid station as near to the theatre as possible, to take care of any small injuries from fights, provide relief for those who’ve drunk too much, that sort of thing. Do our part to help keep the peace. But I’m not sure where the best place to put the tent would be, and we’ve only got a day to try and get the permit- which is why I’m here. Where would you want us stationed, if you were in charge?”

“Hmm. Now that’s an interesting question.” Ramet stroked his beard, thoughtfully. “As I understand it, the plan is nominally to allow a crowd into the theatre, but keep them well away from the contestants. They’re important people, and the legionnaires don’t want them to face any risks. I’ve heard rumblings about replicating the games via spotters for the crowd, as a compromise for not being able to see anything happening on the elevated stage — if true, that’s likely to happen in the streets. Which means businesswomen will find ways to set up shop there, to cater to the crowds. Normal work’s going to be almost impossible...so if I was in charge, I’d look into taking over a notary’s place, or perhaps a bookmaker’s. Someone who’d be happy to accept a daily stipend and a long-awaited holiday instead of showing up to conduct some dwindling business while the tournament continues.”

“You know I was thinking the very same thing, but the problem is that if I spend all day waiting in line, I won’t have time to do it, or… well, I’d have to cancel all my afternoon appointments. Normally I wouldn’t be too concerned but the Captain was due today and if I push his treatment to tomorrow, well…” Li frowned. “Let’s just say he’s going to have a painful evening, excruciating really, and I wouldn’t want you to have to deal with that.”

He let the bait sit on the hook for a few seconds, letting his uncertainty show clearly as he pulled the paperwork he’d brought out of his pocket.

“Neither do I.” Ramet shivered just imagining his superior’s temper flaring up again. “Not to mention he’d be unable to put his best face forward when dealing with the legionnaires, which we’ll need if we’re to have a chance at convincing them to let us do what we’re here to do.”

He didn’t say anything for a few moments as he stared at Li, thinking about the matter deeply. Then, he let out a long sigh. “I suppose I could take care of it. It’d mean several more hours standing in the queue, but that’s nothing I’m not used to. There’s just one problem, Master Li...”

“Oh?”

“The dragons-damned line-boys! There’s no way I can get that permit stamped before closing hours without opening my coinpurse, and the little buggers’ asking price for a reasonable spot in the queue is two and a half dinars. Two and a half, can you believe it?!” He said, throwing his arms up in the air. “That’s most of my monthly pay! I’m sorry to demand this, Master Li, I truly am, but I can’t do this without having someone cover the expenses for me. Do you think you could find it in your heart to finance a poor guardsman in his endeavors? ”

“It’s a price I was going to have to pay anyways, and saving me the time is doing me more of a favor than I deserve,” Li said, sighing. He handed Ramet the documents and fetched his coin purse. A risk, using his own funds now, but he was sure he could recover at least a portion from the cult…

It was a shame about the cobra in the privy though. He’d been warming up to the idea of playing the heroic doctor in front of everyone. Still, this opportunity was too good to pass up. If he managed to find a shop that hadn’t already sold their space, that was. Two and a half dinars for an “if” sent a shiver up his spine, though if he couldn’t manage to find a place he might be able to get back in time to stop Ramet from spending them.

He held out the money, ignoring the drop of sweat trickling down his brow. “Think of it this way, Ramet, at least you get to dodge the Captain until I’m through with him. Now I’d better go make your sacrifice count.”

“Did you not wish to hear the other prices, then?” asked Fidelity, who had arrived just as Li had mentioned the possibility of the Captain’s excruciating evening and been standing completely motionless directly behind him, quite confused as to which plan Li had finally chosen.

Li froze for a moment, took a shallow breath, and then turned to include her in the conversation. “Apologies, Ramet. My assistant here has been scouting the line-boys while we spoke. Perhaps she’s returned with better news than two and half dinars?”

“Sadly not, although several of them appear stricken with Grey Lung. They might be persuaded to barter their places in this queue for a promise that they’ll be at the head of yours.” Fidelity inclined her head slightly to Ramet. “I am Ceto,” she said, using her mother’s forename. “I understand that you have troubles of your own?”

“A fair amount of them, ma’am,” Ramet answered, nodding his head in acknowledgement. “Finding a decent location from which to operate while this tournament runs its course first amongst them, but it’s a busy time for a guardsman even beyond that. The city is abuzz with activity, and where there’s people, there’s crimes and misdeeds to be found. Assassination attempts, disappearances...and that’s not even taking the Goddess of Thieves and Whores’ little crime syndicate into account.” His nose wrinkled in disgust. “We’ll find a way through it, I suppose, as we always do. I just hope things don’t keep getting worse.”

“The spirits are as they are, but that they should be corrected,” Fidelity said. It was a common Immaculate proverb, but the dogma insisted that it should be Dragon-Blooded performing the correction, while her tone suggested that she had someone else in mind for the job.

“Let’s see if the children can be persuaded, then.” He smiled at Ramet apologetically as he put the dinars back in his wallet. “It would save my friend here from a second run through the queue, and my wallet from gathering moths until the next payday. We’ll be back if it doesn’t work out.”

“I’ll be praying for your success then, Master Li. If anyone can convince these children to listen to reason, I’m sure you and Lady Ceto will be the ones to pull off the feat.” Clasping his hands together, Ramet gave the pair a bow. Then, he turned his attention back to the queue — which had, by some miracle, managed to start moving again. Perhaps the God of Civic Requests was smiling down upon them today.

---

“No child being paid two and a half dinars a day for standing in line has Grey Lung,” Li said, once they were out of earshot of Ramet. “So they’re working for someone, and that person isn’t going to let them throw away that much money for medicine. Their lives probably aren’t worth that much to whoever is holding their leash.” He couldn’t keep the disgust out of his voice now that it was just the two of them.

“Then we sever the leash,” Fidelity said matter-of-factly, “and let them decide the value of their own lives. First and foremost, however, we must remedy the illness before us.”

After a momentary pause, she realized that had probably been more cryptic than she’d intended. “I mean that we should treat their Grey Lung first, even if it earns us no favors. If it does, we may have an inroad with one of Aurea’s devotees.” She let out a hiss to show her own disgust. “This reeks of her influence.”

“On that subject you would know better than I,” Li shook his head. “I’m not against treating sick children regardless, but we’d need to bring them back to the hospital or my nurse’s clinic for the proper therapies. I should have some of the herbs on hand but it’s not a limitless supply…”

“I will bring more from my own garden,” Fidelity said, “and purify the water for aspersion.” She had told Li of her hearthstone and its powers, and used it to assure a steady supply of clean water for the teahouse and clinic. “Once we have cured one or two, the rest will come in time, and we may bargain for your permit in a matter of hours rather than days.”

“The rest?” Li blinked. “Fi- Ceto, how many do you think there are?”

“Too many for a small clinic,” she said. “But not for a licensed medical tent with official support.”

“We aren’t getting a medical tent,” Li said. “The dragons have control over the streets and they’ve pushed out everyone, even the local guard. That’s what I was talking to Ramet about. He suggested finding a shop nearby who’d be willing to rent the space, which was something I’d also considered… But there’s no way a shopkeeper would consent to hosting a temporary Grey Lung therapy clinic. The place would reek of rosemary and cinnamon for months.”

“We could find one that already reeks of herbs, but I imagine that spice shops and teahouses will be doing brisk business,” Fidelity said. “Although...is that not strange, do you think? That they would evict the local guards?”

“It is,” Li said, and proceeded to repeat what Ramet had told him about the situation.

“...yet they permit merchants to remain,” she said. “That seems an egregious oversight, but then, nothing about this affair is sensible. Very well,” she sighed. “We may take up your friend on his offer. Unless you wish to go straight to cobras in the privy.”

“Now hold on a moment, just because we can’t heal all the urchins in Falling Ashes tomorrow doesn’t mean we can’t make a deal with one today. It just has to be a transaction rather than an open invitation.”

“They’re street urchins, Doctor Li. A transaction with one is an invitation for all,” Fidelity said. “I only meant to prepare us for that eventuality.”

“You’re right, but when they do show up we’ll be better prepared, and we can plan to take care of them across the city from the Gateway match. I wouldn’t want to treat children so close to that nest of…” An almost imperceptible pause. “... hornets.”

That actually got a little smile out of her. “Then let us make our preparations while we can. This queue isn’t getting any shorter.”

mistaya
Oct 18, 2006

Cat of Wealth and Taste



A Frank Exchange of Favors
Scene: Founder’s Command, Foundation District

It didn’t take much effort to spot the line-boys plying their trades across the building’s various queues, and finding one coughing loudly was barely even an extra ask. Catching one that wasn’t busy negotiating with another person, on the other hand, took a fair bit of effort — in spite of their role, they seemed rarely content with simply standing in place and moving with the line. Eventually, however, Fidelity and Li managed to spot a youth with sandy blond hair and a deep blue tunic who was busy coughing up a storm while waiting in line. As they approached he took an elaborate vow, barely ruined by another coughing fit at the end of it.

“‘Ey, gaffs. Looking to do a, *koff, koff*, little bit o’ business today?” He said, as he straightened out, his tone genial and brisk.

“Indeed we are,” said Li. “What would the going rate be today?” A negotiation had to start somewhere, and it was the seller’s privilege to say where.

“For this here spot? Most days we’d be talking two ‘n’ a half dinars, but it’s promised to someone else already, a representative of one of the Old Lines, gaff. Squarin’ things with her would be a hassle, so it’d be…” The boy fell silent for a moment, counting wordlessly with the aid of his fingers. “...Three ‘n’ a quarter, yes sir. Three sharp if you pay right now so I can start working on it right away. What’s it gonna be?”

“THREE AND-” Li bit his tongue, closed his eyes, and recited a short prayer to collect himself. “Ahem. Can I have your name, before we come to any agreements?”

“Dutiful Nightingale, gaff, at your service for...” He stopped, interrupted by a nasty spasm that wracked his chest. “*...Koff, koff*, for whatever you might need. And yours? Wouldn’t want to have to call out to you by shouting for the man in the nice hat if anything comes up, you know. People might get jealous.”

“I’m Doctor Li,” he said, smiling to show he appreciated the compliment. “And I’m sure you were well named at some point, my boy, but a nightingale should be able to sing, not croak all the time. Here…” He reached into the pocket inside of his robe and came out with a square of dark green cloth, stuffed with aromatic herbs. A face mask, his personal one for protecting himself from the ashfalls that caused Grey Lung. “This ought to help a bit. Just hold it against your mouth and breathe in a few times.”

Nightingale eyed the mask warily. “If this is supposed to cover part of the fee, gaff, I gotta make clear I don’t—”

“This is just so we can talk without interruption,” Li said, offering the mask once more. “You’ll give it back when we’re done. Alright?”

“...Alright, why not. Just gimme a moment...” Gingerly, Dutiful Nightingale took the mask and placed it against his mouth. He coughed a couple times at first, but it wasn’t the same as the long, sharp coughing fits from before. With their shared expertises, both Li and Fidelity could see his chest, which had previously heaved noticeably with every breath, begin to relax.

“...Bloomin’ ashes, gaff, you weren’t joking. Feels like someone took a stone off my chest.” Though his voice was muffled, Nightingale’s surprise was still clear in his tone. “What is this thing?” he asked, pinching the mask to emphasize his question. “Could really use one like it I think.”

“It is an aromatherapy mask,” Fidelity said, insinuating herself into the negotiations. “The ashfall bears toxic essence that weakens the lungs. These herbs cleanse that essence.” It was a woeful oversimplification, but as much as the boy might understand. The slow, inner petrification that gave the condition its name was just one of nearly a dozen ways that it was killing him by inches.

“In larger quantities, yes,” Li said. “The mask is intended to prevent the toxic essence from ever entering the body. Once inside, well…” He shook his head. “It will still provide some temporary relief, but it’s a bit like throwing a single bucket of water on a house fire. These herbs are, as you might imagine, very hard to get ahold of in the necessary amounts for a true cure. But I have some set aside this month... just enough for one.”

“And that one could be yours truly. Is that what you mean?” Nightingale stared at the mask, then back at the two customers. His eyes were very pale blue, almost silvery, and constantly shifting back and forth, taking in new details. “Alright. Let’s say I’m interested for now, doc. What do you want for them? I know nothing’s for free. ‘Specially nothing as pricey and special as this.”

“One dinar for the spot, to pay off the previous buyer, and the name of your employer,” Li said. Fidelity was right about paying them a visit, and he doubted it would be a pleasant one. “I could have sought someone who hadn’t been bought yet, but yours is the worst cough. It felt only fair to offer you the first chance.”

“You should see my sisters back home if you think mine’s bad, doc. Compared to them, I got off lightly.” Nightingale took off the mask for a moment to stare at it in the palm of his hand. His youthful face looked thoughtful now. “They’d love this kind of thing. Do ‘em a world of good.”

He grit his teeth. “I can’t take this, though. The boss has his rules. We never take bribes, and we never step out of line without his say-so. If I told you about his boss without permission, he’d rip my balls off and kick me out. I can’t afford that, gaff. No dice.”

“A shame,” Fidelity said listlessly. “We had hoped to obtain a license to operate a clinic. With such a space, we could have provided far more treatment than a single, borrowed mask. The medicine is not difficult to produce, for a skilled physician, but the necessary ingredients and infirmaries have been seized by the state or hidden away by the black market. Tell me - does your boss suffer from Grey Lung?”

@Thesaurasaurus, you rolled 1,3,3,5,6,7,7,8,9,10 for a total of 6 successes

“You mean Mauro? Nah, not him. But he does know a bunch of us have it, and it pisses him off that we can’t buy a cure even though we’ve got money to spare.” Nightingale bit his lip. “Hnn...you know what? I can’t tell you anything, and I wouldn’t even if I could, but I can take you to see the boss. If he says we can do business, I’ll take you up on it.”

Nightingale then brought two fingers to his mouth and whistled, startling the bystanders in line. It only took a couple moments for another line-boy to come running.

“Hold me my spot for a minute,” he said, taking the new arrival’s shoulder and swapping places with him. “These guys need to see the boss. C’mon, gaffs,” he said, gesturing at Fidelity and Li as he took off at a brisk pace. “Follow me!

Nightingale’s trail took Fidelity and Li back to the central atrium, to the surprise of no one, and then down the passageway that led to the Office of Taxes, Tributes and Tithes. What was more unexpected was him moving all the way past the front of the queue and taking a staircase up to the second floor of the Founder’s Command, then doubling back towards the center of the aisle before rapping his knuckles on a nondescript, unmarked door.

“‘Ey! Mauro! It’s me, Gale! I brought visitors!” He called out, sotto voce. Moments later, a soft-spoken, charming voice answered him.

“Don’t keep them waiting, then. Come in!”

The office beyond the door looked like it belonged to an everyday bureaucrat, with its desk and shelves and a pair of uncomfortable, government-issue chairs, save that it had been completely ransacked of anything of value. The shelves were empty, and the only things that graced the desk were the pair of well-tailored boots lying on them. They belonged to a smiling youth with chocolate skin and a messy mop of white hair, who raised a hand in recognition as they came in.

Nightingale cleared his throat. “Right then. Gaffs, this is Mauro Fra, captain of the line-boys brigade. Boss, these are Doctor Li and his companion. They wanted to sell me on a bribe of herbs to deal with Grey Lung disease, and said that if we gave them a hand, they could help us get our hands on a supply for everyone else and not just me. Figured you should know about this.” He shuffled in place a little, worried for the first time Fidelity and Li had seen. “...Did I do that right, boss?”

“Like an imperial usher, Gale,” the young captain (no more than a few years older than Nightingale himself), replied, his smile widening to reveal a set of pearly white teeth uncommon in Falling Ashes. Magnanimously, he gestured at a corner of the room where a mattress lay. “Take a seat. I think you earned the right to witness this audience. You too, of course, Madam, Sir,” he said, gesturing at the government chairs before him. “Let’s discuss this comfortably. So, you’re aware that we get bountiful offers like these almost daily, I’m sure. What makes your proposition special?”

“The fact that we can deliver on our promise, I suspect,” said Li. “My name is Fara Li, I’ve been serving as a doctor in Falling Ashes for several months now at both Beating Heart clinic and Starlight Relief Centre. If you haven’t heard of me you can have one of your men check my credentials. My companion is Ceto, a nurse assistant. We came here to get a permit for a temporary clinic, but the lines are… well, you know what the lines are.” He shook his head. “I simply don’t have the time to wait around today and when I noticed that young Nightingale and several of the other line-boys were suffering from Grey Lung, I made my offer.”

Li stroked his beard thoughtfully, as though he were just now considering the situation fully. “As it stands now, I can promise a full cure for one, in exchange for a decent spot. It needn’t be his, as I understand someone else had laid claim to it, but something that will get us to the front desk in two hours or less. I realize that may seem a poor trade now, but seeing the plight of so many has stirred Ceto’s heart and she plans to open up a more permanent treatment site specifically for Grey Lung, which we might as well get stamped while we’re here.”

He took a breath. Now for the actual pitch. “For your trouble, I will see to it that any of the line-boys-” he glanced to Gale “-or their family members, can jump to the front of the line and may receive treatment for Grey Lung at our new clinic at a discounted price. Are these terms amenable?”

“Very much so, Doctor,” said Mauro, nodding in agreement. “Your connections to the Guard, however, not so much. Sikra Zem has complained (quite loudly, at that) about not receiving preferential treatment for his guardsmen when it comes to cutting in line for quite some time now. Is there a reason we should give one of his most trusted confidantes an in on our little operation? I’d hate to give him a chance to seize my boys’ earnings from their very hands under the guise of a security tax.”

The young man’s smile never wavered as he laid out his suspicions. If anything, it widened, just a little bit. It was at that moment that Li realized just how tightly controlled his reactions were. He wasn’t simply enjoying himself, he was keeping his guard up, and very effectively.

“If Sikra Zem hopes for his own men to receive treatment - preferential or otherwise - in the clinic, he will accept it as neutral ground,” Fidelity said assertively. “Naturally, these terms cut both ways - but I doubt that any of your wards are foolish enough to pick a Black Helm’s pocket.”

“Pick pockets? Please, Miss Ceto,” Mauro said, raising his hands in mock offense. “We’re not thieves. That’s a job for people with small imaginations and a taste for danger. Our work is much more reputable.”

“You may be misunderstanding the nature of my relationship with the good Captain,” Li said, with a smile just as controlled as Mauro’s. “It’s unwise to threaten a physician, and Zem knows better than to try it when I hold his men’s lives in my hands more often than not. Whatever your troubles with him are, they will not be exacerbated through me. This I can promise.”

“Which means you are looking to cut a singular deal, not start a persistent partnership,” Mauro reasoned. “We get you a premium spot in the queue, you set up your clinic, and we receive preferential treatment there -- and future collaborations will have to be negotiated on a case by case basis. Correct?”

“Yes, though I would like to come straight to you if such a case were to arise, since we’re already acquainted.” Li said.

“A reasonable request. I wouldn’t want to waste my time going through the motions if I were in your shoes either. Very well then. There’s a chance you could renege on this deal, but I think it’s a risk I’m willing to take.” Taking his boots off the desk, the captain of the line-boys stood up. “Gale, Tithus is still holding that spot in the queue near the front, isn’t it?”

“Sure is, boss. I’ll go talk with him right away.” Without another word, Nightingale bolted for the door, so quickly it was hard to believe he’d been there at all.

“Let’s shake on it then, Doctor, Miss. To a deal well-made, and perhaps more to come.” And with that, he offered Li and Fidelity his hands.

Li offered his in return for a firm and satisfied shake. Mauro probably thought he was getting the better end of this deal, and in many ways he was, but for healers who were trying to stamp out an illness, willing patients who would be able to help them trace the source of it were invaluable. And while he would normally have concerns about costs, Fidelity seemed confident in her medicine supply. It was truly a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Fidelity shook on it as well, her skin smooth and dry, her grip cold and hard as stone. “To Starlit Fields.”

“The city that once was?” Mauro tilted his head slightly. “An interesting toast. I never got to see it. All we’ve got now is the ashes, and all the illnesses they bring.” He sighed dramatically. “Ah well. It is what it is. Will that be all then?”

“Almost,” Li said, producing a quill from somewhere in his robes. “Can I borrow your desk for a moment? Wouldn’t want the clinic requisition to get rejected based on something as trivial as bad penmanship if I have to do it standing in the queue.”

“Of course, Doctor,” Mauro said, stepping aside with a grand bow. “We all know full-well what sticklers bureaucrats can be. Bypassing their rules is, after all, what my line-boys are here for.”

Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Come Into My Parlour...
Scene: The Candlemakers’ Guild, The Heart of Falling Ashes

The Candlemakers’ guild was tainted neutral ground. A large, squat building with three floors that could’ve passed for a transplant from the Storehouses, the perfumed headquarters nominally swore allegiance to no merchant prince, and its members were free to sell their services to whoever they wished. But it was Mu Min Cho’s home away from home, and that meant those in the know most often opted to treat it as his territory. Their influence and economic investments would be safer that way.

The Cult’s intelligence was confirmed as Sun and Boulder approached the building -- a scale of Realm Legionnaires conducted patrols all around it, ensuring its safety. This was not done for the Grandmaster Spider’s benefit, though he had pulled strings to ensure this detachment was stationed permanently within his turf -- in Falling Ashes, man-made light was precious, and all the more ever since the Candlemakers’ ashling candles had taken the city’s markets by storm. It was a revolutionary invention that consumed ashes to emit fire, thus providing a torch that would not be extinguished within moments of stepping outside one’s home...and great riches to those in charge of their circulation. Such was its value, that neutral forces had taken to overseeing the building’s protection, to curtail any attempts at blackmail, espionage or industrial sabotage. The man who had most benefited from this invention was inside the building now, most likely preparing his next move…

Wandering Sun wasn’t much for stealth or disguise, but he wasn’t really a known figure in the city so it hardly mattered if he happened to wander near the Candlemaker’s guild. Of course, that meant he couldn’t stick around, since there wasn’t much business he’d be able to justify his presence with. Still, he traced a slightly extended path past the front and sides of the guild, and kept his eyes peeled for anything. He knew Boulder would have far more access than him with his abilities, but he could at least keep a literally grounded perspective from the outside.

Boulder flew back to the Candlemakers’ Guild from Flowers Amidst the Ashes, all manner of useful things in and attached to a wicker backpack that had vanished when the Lunar assumed his raiton form. He had, alas, left his armor behind under his bunk, but a raiton encased in a blood-soaked spiked moonsilver shell with skulls dangling off of it seemed like it would make it difficult to blend in with the city’s other scavengers. The innocent raiton circled above the Guild to assess for any immediate threats or curiosities and establish a baseline against which he might monitor behavior over time.

Boulder rolls 5 Per + 3 Aware + 4 Exc (4m peri) + 2 Enhanced Senses + 2 Stunt = 16 dice. 10 sux, plus one from Ever-Wary Fox Technique in certain circumstances

It only took a few minutes for Boulder to calibrate his expectations for what the daily routine at the Candlemakers' Guild was like. From his vantaged viewpoint, he determined:

-That the important work was conducted away from the building's windows. Through them, he saw accountants working on the Guild's ledgers, cooks preparing food for the Guild's artisans, and trainees comparing their fledgling attempts with the light of the sun, but no master candlemakers.
-That there were more legionnaires within the Guild itself, keeping watch for intruders. Most seemed rather bored, but even so, they manned their posts and conducted their patrols diligently all the same, checking up on every single room at irregular intervals. A startlingly complete security detail for a simple merchant guild.
-That most of the doors seemed to be locked, as he heard the sound of locks turning before many of them opened, only for them to snap shut once again soon after.
-And lastly, though no less importantly, that something strange was occurring at the exact centre of the Guild. It was only by chance that he saw it, as there was a hole in the roof, through which a bright orange light leaked through. Almost blindingly bright, in fact, in spite of flickering in and out of existence...

It was difficult to suss more details out from without. To learn more, he would have to find a way into the building, ideally without attracting attention.

Boulder flew closer to the roof and then curved away. He had seen tiny glittering orange stones between certain brick sets here and there and also noted the absence of birds on the Guildhouse roof, despite an abundance of birds on nearby roofs. Landing on the roof might not kill him, but it certainly seemed suitably warded to keep all the normal birds well away. The Lunar found Wandering Sun and signalled him to take up the prearranged loitering spot a little way away from the Guildhouse. From there, he flew high enough above the massive building that he had a decent change of seeing anyone coming and going from any entrance and circled. He dove down from time to time, pretending to have spotted some dead tidbit below or a rival raiton to squawk at, but then returned to his vigil.

An hour passed as Boulder and Sun continued their vigil, seeing no changes. The legionnaires continued their patrols, couriers moved in and out of the Guild with their blessing, and the bright orange lights lit up the insides of the guildhouse once in a while...and then Boulder heard a strange noise. It was an explosion, but so very subdued it was as if it was coming from underground through multiple yards of stone and dirt — a kind of sound he wouldn’t have been able to place, had he not listened to exactly that kind of noise when an explosion rocked the Flower’s laboratory, once upon a time. The orange stones glittered in the sunlight, and he could have sworn they shone a little bit brighter now than before.

Boulder reacted instantly to the change in the stones, diving as close as he could safely get to the roof to detect any faint hint of magical resonance before it slipped away.

Stunting to include Wits in Charm dice cap. Rolling Per 5 + Occult 3 + 7m personal for 7 Exc dice + 3m peripheral for Penumbra Witch Mastery for 3 dice plus reroll 1’s until they fail to appear + 2 from stunt = 18 dice + 1 WP for autosux: @Bouquet, you rolled 1,2,2,2,5,5,6,7,7,7,7,8,8,8,9,9,10,10 for a total of 13 successes. @Bouquet, you rolled 1 for a total of 0 successes. @Bouquet, you rolled 10 for a total of 2 successes
16 success total


The moment Boulder got close enough to the roof, the nature of the orange stones made itself apparent. A wave of hellish heat slammed into him, as if he'd just dived inside a building on fire. The air itself quivered and wavered, begging for mercy...and yet, the roof's bricks did not seem to be affected at all. Clearly something was containing the heat, dispersing it in a very precise and controlled fashion, and there was only one thing that could be responsible for that. What his natural senses suggested, his mind confirmed: though faint from containment, the wisps of fire-aspected essence were unmistakable. A tremendous discharge of power had just occurred below, and it was likely the strange lights from earlier were connected to it -- smaller releases, possibly. The Candlemakers' Guild was experimenting with powerful forces, underneath everyone else's noses, and with full military backing, no less. Curious…

---

At the same time, Sun’s surveillance was suddenly interrupted by a deep, instinctual feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was being watched...no, sized up, by a skillful eye. Someone perfectly capable and willing to do violence, if the need arose. His eyes scanned the area, but he didn’t see anyone who fit that bill, as the current of people traveling through the street was too thick, until the crowds parted for a moment. In that instant, he saw the empty alley opposite to his spot. Strewn with debris and trash, it was completely unremarkable, save for the deep, deep shadows that enveloped it, more fitting for a dreary winter night than the hot Ascending Fire day they were dealing with. In that unnatural darkness, he saw a pair of deep blue eyes, staring intently at him. Then, the crowds thickened once again, and he saw no one once again, though the feeling of being observed lingered nonetheless.

Sun felt a prickle at the back of his neck, and knew he was being watched by someone skilled. He wasn’t much of a spy, and a fairly average scout, but there was a certain transcendent warrior’s knowledge that told him he was being tailed. Still, he tried not to give any indication he realized he was being followed. Instead, he wandered into a nearby open(ish) air market, seemingly on a whim. He made his way through casually, but he stopped at a stall where an old seamstress sold lengths of fabric and bought a ribbon in a rather lovely shade of green. He whimsically wrapped it around his arm and continued onward - he’d been a little skeptical when Boulder had laid out his system of signals, but it was clearly paying off now. Green fabric around left arm meant ‘I’m being followed’, and hopefully next time Boulder saw him he’d take the warning. He kept walking, heading for a quieter part of the city, figuring his tail would stand out more, both to him and Boulder. Plus, if it did come to violence, they would alert fewer people.

As he ventured into the Heart’s side streets, the crowds disappeared, giving way to stray passersby and then to empty silence. All around Sun, tall buildings surrounded him, casting long shadows, serving as a wall to isolate him from the rest of the world. It was an open space, yet as secluded as a private garden. Thus, it came as no surprise when a dagger wrought of blackened steel, embedded itself deeply in the ground before him. Attached to it was a pierced piece of parchment, upon which a few lines in fine cursive were inscribed.

quote:

Strength of body and soul are great gifts, to be used diligently and cleverly. Why, then, does the sword grow dull in its sheath? Who do you wish you were, and why have you not become him yet?

PS: Meet me at the Tethers Storehouse in thirty minutes. Please come alone.

Beneath them, there was a black circle, so finely burnt into the parchment that from a distance it appeared exquisitely inked.

Wandering Sun had his own knife halfway drawn when he saw the movement out of the corner of his eye, though he stopped when it embedded itself into the ground. He wasn’t entirely sure if he would’ve been fast enough to block it if the attack had been in earnest. He read the note and tucked it away into his pocket, then hefted the knife itself to see if there were any clues to be had there.

--

Boulder banked around and circled the Guildhouse for a few minutes, thinking furiously. Unfortunately, he came to no firm conclusions and no direct connections to the looming gateway tournament that was the primary mission, so he resumed his intermittent, random movements that happened to take him in a circle every ten to fifteen minutes.

When the Lunar arrived at the location he expected Wandering Sun to be, the Solar was absent. Boulder didn’t panic, he simply went into a spiraling search pattern as previously agreed. When he found Wandering Sun, the Dawn caste had just plucked a dagger of blackened steel from the ground.

The Lunar gave the raiton calls that indicated he was present and aware of Wandering Sun’s message but would remain hidden for now.

Wandering Sun instinctively looked to the sky, but didn’t see the raiton. Still, he knew Boulder had to be close. He took the knife and turned it over in his hands, and experimentally tossed it into the air a few times to get a sense of the balance. His knowledge of weapons was admittedly more on the…practical side, but you could definitely pick up some useful stuff from that. Judging by a cursory inspection and the weight distribution, this was definitely a weapon intended to be thrown. It would take an excellent knife-fighter to utilize it properly in close combat. The steel flakes falling off from the knife’s blade were quite unusual, however, not seeming to serve any specific purpose he could recognize, particularly as the craftsmanship did not seem to be shoddy in the slightest. Most likely it had been crafted to the user’s specifications, to serve a certain purpose.

With that done, he considered next steps. He couldn’t be sure he wasn’t still being watched, so a meeting with Boulder was out. He had to communicate his intent without giving too much away. He took the note out again, along with a piece of charcoal he used for note-taking or marking objects. He scrawled ”please return” on the note, and then used the blackened knife to pin the note back into the ground, making sure it was visible from the sky and that he made a bit of noise while doing so. Then he took off towards the rendezvous point at a bit of a jog. If someone was still watching him, hopefully they would be stuck trailing after him instead of waiting around to see a bird steal a letter.

Boulder inspected the piece of paper from his perch. He noted the black circle with curiosity and took a brief moment to see if it sparked any ideas. His knowledge of written communication and the mechanics of writing suggested that the black circle was a full moon. The way the burn wasn't totally uniform (the circle was filled in first, then blackened) confirms as much. Had the writer wanted to represent something else, the penmanship would have been different, to subconsciously push forward another connection. Boulder cursed silently. If an unknown Lunar was here and attempting to subvert Shining Ones, his job had just gotten a lot harder.

Boulder flew in a wide circle around the warehouse and landed in an empty alleyway and shifted into the form of a mangy looking gray alley cat. He slinked toward the warehouse warily. It seemed dangerous to attempt to join Wandering Sun directly, but if he was close enough to hear any fighting erupt, that might make the difference between a good and bad outcome.

Bouquet
Jul 14, 2001



Dangling by a Thread
Scene: The Tethers, Storehouses District

When Starlit Fields blossomed from a small mining outpost to a bustling city, the question of civic infrastructure naturally came up. Where would new settlers be hosted? How would they be organized so they could perform their duties efficiently?

The ruling aristocracy’s choice was simultaneously ruthlessly pragmatic and surprisingly non-obvious: the people would live with the goods they were supposed to set up for transportation. Consequently, the massive warehouses where Starlit Fields’ exports were stored were subject to a hasty redesign, and a system of aerial walkways and sleeping rooms constructed near their ceilings. The end result was a densely populated aerial commune, which a solid quarter of the city’s people called home. Over time, it expanded, first downward, conquering the empty space that separated the skyhomes from the ground, then horizontal, creating bridges that connected each storehouse to each other. The Tethers was one of the warehouses which comprised the commune, so named for the multicoloured ropes that dangled from the bottom of the skyhomes, used by its people to navigate its perpetually packed ground floor.

Upon entering the warehouse, Sun immediately picked up on a light scent of jasmine that seemed to pervade the ground floor. As he looked for its source, he caught sight of a familiar symbol: a full black circle, burnt onto the side of a massive crate, easily thrice his height and many times wider. There was enough space to squeeze between it and its neighbor comfortably, should he choose to do so...though it led to a turn with a blind angle, something his warrior instincts cautioned could be used to set up a nasty trap.

Sun wondered if the diplomatic thing to do was to walk around the corner with weapons sheathed, but ultimately decided that was foolish. With all the mystical symbolism and whatnot involved here, he didn’t know whether the mysterious letter writer knew he was a Shining One or not. But he’d been invited here via thrown dagger and sent to a seemingly empty warehouse. To not be visibly on his guard would be incredibly foolish.

As he approached the blind turn, his hand drifted down to his dagger and closed around the handle. The blade wasn’t unsheathed, but it was in his hand and effectively at the ready. He took a moment to settle himself, and stepped into the blind angle. He was calm, directing his gaze to maximize his peripheral vision, just in case a sudden strike came.

Thankfully, no unseen assailants took their chance to strike at him as he stepped into their line of sight. Instead, Sun encountered another burnt sigil. More signals to follow, deeper and deeper into a twisting maze of containers.

The world seemed to quiet down as he explored the labyrinth, muffled by the dozens of walls all around him. Whoever had written the letter clearly wanted to speak with him in absolute privacy. By the time the tiny, claustrophobic passageways widened into a larger clearing, the world was all but still.

The first thing Sun noticed as he came in was the sword. Wrought of the same blackened, flaking steel as the knife had been, it rested at the center of the room, establishing a clear divide between its two halves. All around it, the warehouse’s stone floor had been blackened so deeply, it almost appeared to be coal. All this, he caught in an instant. What lay beyond the blade was far more important.



Standing on the far end of the room, there was a woman, wearing the most extravagant dress he had ever seen. Its tip rested comfortably against the floor, and when she shifted slightly to take in the sound of his footsteps, the way the dress shifted in response revealed weaving so fine, it seemed almost like a second skin. He could not see her face immediately; The black veil she wore concealed her completely. When she finally turned around, it hid her eyes, even as he caught a glimpse of skin as pale as porcelain, and raven hair that went past her shoulders with ease. What it could not conceal, however, was her smile as she took him in. It was serene and fleeting. Just as her dress did, it revealed something of her, while concealing almost everything else.

“Welcome, warrior. We finally meet face to face,” she said, quietly. “I’m surprised to see you chose to accept my invitation. Did curiosity get the better of you? Or did you come here expecting to find a monster for you to slay?.”

Whatever Sun had been expecting, it certainly wasn’t a pale woman in a black dress with an ashen sword. Any two of those things, maybe, but not all three. Still, she wasn’t actually holding the sword, so he carefully released his own knife handle and spread his hands to show he was unarmed. “Curiosity, I think. Was it a job offer or something?” Sun wasn’t much for concealed intent and veiled meanings. On Rook’s advice, when he was trying to appear to be something he wasn’t, he tried to keep his words short and as close to the truth as possible.

“A job offer?” She repeated, tilting her head quizzically. “No, nothing of the sort. The same reason that brought you here is what drove me to step out of the shadows. Ever since you slew Brother Tobruk, you’ve been a little less yourself than in the moments before your conflict. While your comrades celebrated, your shoulders slumped, and it left me wondering: you chose to fight and survived, and yet, you treated the battle as a loss. I would like to understand why you didn’t bury your ghosts with the bodies of your fallen brethren.”

Wandering Sun didn’t recognize the name, but it seemed oddly familiar to him...and then it came to him, a flash of memory from a time he wished he could forget but refused to allow himself. One of the Immaculate Monks he’d fought had called that name, just before that Dragonblooded had properly joined the fight, though he hadn’t made the connection before now.

Of course, the fact that this complete stranger also knew that name, and his reaction to the man’s killing was its own set of problems. His hand returned to the knife’s handle. “Who are you?” His voice sounded a little shaken, but his body moved with practiced smoothness.

He looked at the woman once more, this time with far more focus. He’d had occasion to spar with many warriors while training, in dozens of styles. He’d sized up his foes beforehand each time, looking for their strengths and potential weaknesses. But Sun wasn’t looking at her like he had the others; it was a look that he’d given few others, mainly the other Shining Ones that Lin Zhen had gauged sufficiently skilled to have serious sparring matches with him. His gaze betrayed an active question - ‘if it came down to it, how would I kill this person?’ He wasn’t attacking, not yet. But the atmosphere made it clear that was very much a possibility. His highest duty was to protect the secrets of the Illuminated.

“I am a wandering knight, sent to this world to cleanse it of all its evils...” The words came out with the singsong repetition of a mantra, yet laced with such mockery no one could have thought she believed in them sincerely. “...But that isn’t what you wish to know, is it? Call me Black Moon. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Wandering Sun, warrior of light. Before we continue, though, please, make yourself at ease. I mean you no harm.”

She raised her hands up, splaying them wide open so he could see there was nothing in them before clenching her fists once again — and then, Sun heard six cascading tink sounds, as more blackened knives landed all around the edge of the burnt circle surrounding the sword. A less trained eye would have failed to see her move at all. As is, he had managed to see her hands blur as she withdrew them from her sleeves and tossed them out, with a tremendous economy of motion and dazzling speed.

“These are my weapons. You can take them to disarm me, if that is your wish.”

Wandering Sun made no move to approach the knives or the sword. He could absolutely be deadly at this distance, so there was no reason to assume this newcomer was not either. “I think it would be best if we both stay where we are. I can hear you just fine.” Ironically, as the tension ratcheted up, he was finding an inner sort of calm. They were dancing on the edge of violence, and that at least was a situation he understood.

“Well met, Black Moon. Since you brought me here, I imagine there’s something you want?” Wandering Sun had very much noticed she’d referred to him as a ‘warrior of light’, but since he didn’t trust himself to convincingly lie or make up some sort of denial, he hoped simply ignoring and moving past it might work.

She nodded. “I wish to hear your answer to my question. Why does a man who fights and kills to protect those he loves and then survives to tell the tale bear regrets? Why did you look so torn on that day?”

“I am a warrior, not a monster. I don’t relish killing those who are just doing their jobs.” Wandering Sun forced himself to relax - the more he focused on Black Moon specifically, the more likely he’d miss a crucial detail. “Why do you care about my regrets? And why does a dark Moon know the name of a monk?”

“You remind me very much of him. So brave and ready to fight to protect what he believed in, yet unwilling to shed blood unless strictly necessary.” Though the veil covering her eyes made it difficult to tell what she was thinking, Black Moon’s expression had become downcast. “He used to sing songs for the fallen, you know. He said it helped pacify their spirits, and sped them along on their trip to the Lethe and their next life.”

She shook her head, slowly. “He could have been your friend. I like to think that might have been the case, at least. But you believed in different causes, and that set you on a collision course from which neither of you could escape. To stand down would have meant ceasing to be yourselves. It would have meant the death of your souls if not your bodies.” She raised her head, and Sun could feel the weight of her gaze upon him. “You still stand so ready. To strike, to fight, to kill...would you kill me too, if you thought I was a threat to that cause you so dearly believed in? Right here, right now?”

“Is that an offer?” Sun could tell there was more going on here than there was on the surface - Black Moon knew too much - about the monk, about himself, and yet if she were with the Immaculates, he didn’t know why she was talking to him. “I would, yes, if I thought I had to. And from the way you throw those knives, I know you would too.”

“No, I would not,” she replied, with surprising firmness. “Tobruk would have done that, but Tobruk is dead and I am here. My cause demands you die, and yet, I will not kill you. Do not presume all courses are as set in stone as yours, Shining One. Some of us would rather unmake ourselves to become other, better persons than remain true to our regrets.”

With that, she turned her back on him. Everything was as it had been when he’d come in -- everything, except for the knives surrounding the sword, and the coiled-up tension in her figure. In an instant, she would be gone.

Wandering Sun felt like he should strike her, should put Black Moon down and be done with this. But while he was willing to kill for his cause, it was far too ambiguous now. He didn’t know who she was, why she confronted him. She clearly knew Tobruk, but if she was truly after revenge, she could have attacked, she could have warned the Realm, she could have used her knowledge and her weapons to inflict harm on the people he cared about a hundred different ways.

Sun had struck down Tobruk and his companions in open battle because they were a clear and immediate danger. He couldn’t put a knife in someone’s back on suspicion. At least, that thought was what caused him to hesitate enough for her to vanish. As she disappeared, he tried to make sense of it all. He’d been watching her face when he’d talked about Tobruk, had she let something slip without him noticing?

Over the course of their conversation, Black Moon had done well to keep her emotions under control. Even so, her involuntary reflexes had betrayed her, albeit for fleeting moments. She’d been sorrowful when talking about the lost Immaculate, but not furious, in spite of speaking with his killer. She seemed to have mourned him well, enough to look at the past without her judgement becoming clouded. Her guard had only been lowered for a moment, when Sun had dared compare himself to her. That, and her persistent remarks about not remaining tied to one’s regrets suggested some sort of reflection, an attempt to understand a complex dilemma through him..Judging by how much she knew about him, she could have done this at any time. Something must have forced her to act now, then. But what could drive someone like her to rash action…?

Something thudded onto a crate near where Sun was standing. A moment of scrabbling later, and a gray cat leapt down from the crate to Sun’s side, once again landing heavily. Boulder stood, shifting into his humanoid form as he did. “Interesting,” said the Lunar.

Wandering Sun was snapped out of his reverie by the cat’s entrance, though it transformed back into Boulder before he could wonder if it was friend or foe. “I’m glad you were here to back me up. But that woman leaves me with more questions than answers.” He wondered if he would live to regret not attacking her.

“I only arrived to hear her departing remarks. What else did she say?” asked Boulder.

Wandering Sun laid out the conversation in as much detail as he could remember, including his thoughts about her motives. “There’s too much here that I’m not seeing. But I have a feeling this won’t be the last we see of her.” He looked obviously troubled, still unsure if he’d made the right decision in letting her get away.

Boulder placed a hand on Wandering Sun’s shoulder and looked to where the woman had left. “The possibility of a friend is better than the certainty of a dead or vengeful enemy. Let us walk, I have seen interesting things as well…”

Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Internal Affairs
Scene: High Hopes Clinic, Storehouses District

Black Moon’s departure left Wandering Sun with more questions than answers. Disregarding her interest in him, their brief conversation had made something abundantly clear: she was onto the Cult’s true nature, and that of the Shining Ones. That meant somehow, somewhere, their security had been compromised. An investigation was in order, and there was time before the city’s gathering spots for hired thugs opened. The High Hopes outreach clinic, situated within the Storehouses themselves, made for a good starting point for his inquiry.

The first thing Sun noticed upon arriving at the clinic was the smell. The air was thick with the smell of spices, which completely masked the usual odors of a medical facility. Coupled with the uncharacteristic bustle of chatter and the muscular men going back and forth carrying large crates, it painted a picture of a location where work was all but impossible.

Wandering Sun picked his way through the crowds and made his way into the clinic, squeezing past a large man with a large crate going in the other direction. He was recognized by most of the cultists he passed by, though obviously they couldn’t treat him any differently here in public areas. He had a few short and vague chats with receptionists and nurses, until finally he was shuffled into a nearby empty office.

Soon, he was joined by a man he recognized, but didn’t know too well. Honorable Garnet was the doctor nominally in charge here - as far as Sun knew, he was a competent doctor (if nothing else, Li would not allow an incompetent one out in the field), but he was more of an organizer than anything else. The clinic was there to gather information as much as treat people, and while Garnet didn’t do much spying himself, it was his sigil on all the compiled reports that made their way back to them.

Sun gave Garnet a careful bow - despite having grown up in the Cult, he was one of the more formal Shining Ones when it came to relating to the mortal members. Formality was distancing, but it also helped both sides of the conversation avoid accidental offense. “Good tidings, Doctor. Things seem to be a little busy here today.”

“Very much so, glorious one,” said Garnet as he clasped his hands together and bowed deeply at the waist. “It’s a most unusual day at High Hopes. We are trading the teamsters’ guild a favor for a favor. Part of me balks at the thought of canceling our operations, even for a short while, but the benefits seem well worth the headaches they are causing us at the moment. What brings you here today, if I may ask?”

Wandering Sun considered how much he should disclose - obviously Garnet was trustworthy, but repeated lectures about secrecy from his mentors and fellow Shining Ones told him that compartmentalizing information was important. Ultimately, though, organizers like Garnet needed something to do their jobs properly. “I’m checking in to see if you’ve noticed anything unusual going on. The chaos in the city, we believe people will be taking advantage of it. And I worry that we’ve caught the eye of some of those people.”

Garnet pursed his lips, nervously. “You mean...you believe we are compromised?”

Wandering Sun gave him a serious look, calm but still concerned. “It’s a possibility, but we don’t think it was by the Realm. Whoever it is has been sitting on the information for a fair length of time, the only thing that’s changed is now we know they know. I simply came to check if you’ve noticed anything unusual over the past few days. Perhaps related to the tournament, perhaps not.”

“Heavens be praised.” The relief in Garnet’s sigh was palpable. “For a moment, I worried we would have to scuttle the entire clinic and scatter our people to the winds. Allow me a moment to think about this, great one, if it’s not too much to ask.” He began pacing around the room, his hands behind his back. “A few of my nurses have been unruly as of late. Youthful Wing has been sneaking out of the clinic late at night, but I am certain that the dunderhead is simply visiting a local girl he has fallen for. I believe he hopes to convert her to the faith before introducing her to us. Who else...ah, there is Blossom of Daybreak, too. She has been remarkably active about performing intelligence work as of late, much more so than in the past. Something must have lit a fire in her; In fact, I was considering suggesting she be considered for a position of greater responsibility, such is the difference from the time when she used to take up every excuse she could to slack off, months ago. If she can sustain this level of enthusiasm and discipline, I believe she could become a great asset to your holiest efforts, great one.”

For a moment, Garnet paused his pacing, as he ran through a quick mental checklist to see if he had forgotten anything else. At last, he spoke up. “There is also the matter of the young Wen Kao. He has been nervous and on edge for the last few days, and no one has been able to convince him to speak up about what ails him. I asked one of the novices to tail him when he went out, just in case. He’s been visiting a small office at the edge of the district, where it meets up with the Gem Road. What he does there, I cannot say, but it doesn’t seem to do any good for his mental state. Perhaps being addressed directly by one of the Shining Ones could help coax the truth out of him.” He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “I believe that is everything of note, great one. Was any of this information of any use?”

Wandering Sun nodded, clearly still absorbing the information. “Yes, it was very useful - your service is greatly valued. I will look into some of these leads when I have time.” He considered what he would need to do next, when he remembered the busy scene on the way in. “Before I forget, you mentioned trading a favor for a favor with the teamster’s guild? May I ask what the favors are?”

“Of course, glorious one. Recently, the Immaculate Order requisitioned one of the Storehouses for their private use, and requested all its contents be removed as soon as possible. The teamsters have been scrambling to find any free space to put the warehouse’s contents in, and as it so happened, we’ve been going through something of a dry spell of visitors as of late. As such, I thought it prudent to offer them the clinic as a temporary storage space, in exchange for their cooperation with transporting some of our more sensitive chemical shipments...as well as a place within their guild for a ‘nephew’ of mine.” A sly smile spread across Garnet’s face. “The latter request was something of a mask for the former, but few embody the toil and trouble that the people of this world face daily better than the teamsters. I figured some of them might be receptive to our teachings, if only they were put into a position where they might hear of them.”

“That is an excellent idea, honored sir.” Wandering Sun gave him a polite bow once more, but there was clearly warmth in it as well. “If there are no other matters you feel should be brought to my attention, I should continue my duties. But you have been of great help all of us.”

“None that come to mind, glorious one. I will make sure to keep you informed of the teamsters’ reception to our teachings,” said Garnet, bowing back in turn. “Should they prove receptive, I can scarcely think of a better representative of the Shining Ones to fully win them over to our cause than you. ”

Wandering Sun could certainly think of several Shining Ones who would make better representatives to win over a crowd of workers, but he also knew that he had to put forth the face of a confident destined hero and avoid public self-deprecation. “Well, we all serve where we are able. But I am glad to leave this matter in good hands.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence, glorious one. I will not let you down. May the heavens guide you on your trials, now and always.”

Chaos Triangle
Dec 9, 2007
DO NOT TRUST

The Lady and the Augur
Scene: Audran’s Antiques, Fortune’s Junction

Audran’s Antiques was a bit of an odd duck. Tucked inside an alleyway at the very edge of the Heart district, where it gave way to both the Gem Road and the Storehouses, it counted as one of the town’s ‘reputable’ businesses, but only just. The lighting inside was dimmed, as if the owner were unwilling to broadcast his prosperity, and littered with knick knacks and curios brought from the four corners of the Blessed Isle, ready to be sold at a reasonable price after an utterly unreasonable amount of haggling.

“Welcome to Audran’s Antiques, how can I help—” The words of the servant boy manning the counter died in his throat as he realized who the two visitors who had just stepped inside were. “W-welcome inside sirs, I mean, great ones,” he began, stammering over his words as he bowed deeply to them, his eyes filled with admiration, barely-restrained curiosity, and possibly even some fear of disappointing his visitors. “M-masters Jacek is in the backroom, do you need me to announce you before you come in? Or, pray to you, or anything else?” The last part was added quickly, and more than a little fearfully. Rook didn’t recognize his face. He must be very new, a recent addition to the Cult.

Rook’s jaw clenched, but he kept his tone even. “No need. Just keep tending to your duties, and if anyone comes in asking for Master Jacek before we are done speaking to him, tell them he will be back shortly.” He sympathized with the boy- it hadn’t been all that long ago that he might have been in his place- but he was still unused to the attention his new status conferred. There was no time to waste, though. He swept past the back curtain, trying to ignore the feeling of eyes digging into his back. “Sorry to disturb you, Preem. Do you have a moment?”

“Well! I was wondering when you’d come around, boy. It’s been some time.”

The man speaking was seated behind a small desk, surrounded by piles of parchments so massive the top of his head could barely be seen through them. Delicately, a gloved hand slipped between the towers and pushed one aside, revealing a face lined with age, which bore a small, satisfied smile.

“Let’s see now. Something must have brought you and your foreign companion, whose acquaintance I’m pleased to make...here, no doubt. Let me guess: work, the completion of which requires information that only I can provide. What is it that you’re looking for? I’m afraid I’m fresh out of prophecies today, unfortunately, if that’s what you’re after.”

"We'll not keep you for too long, sir." Grace piped in. He noticed the stacks of paper and did not envy whatever kind of work the man had to be wrapped into. "We're looking into two things, Nepenthe and one Ilscha Karina. Our trail begins there."

“Ah, yes, that one,” Jacek replied, his mouth twisting into a frown. “A confidante of the City’s greatest philanthropist, and a noted benefactor of the poor and needy. Also a fallible human being, just like the rest of us...present company excluded, of course. Give me a moment to remember where I put her information...”

Leaning forward, the augur tented his fingers before his face, in a gesture Rook had seen many times before. The man who’d raised him was putting the vast reservoir of information within his head in order, seeking a specific, singular datum relevant to the matter at hand.

“Here.” His hand darted out, seizing a scroll from the middle of the pile to his right. It wavered unsteadily, threatening to collapse, but his other hand grasped the top of the pile and pressed down, stabilizing it for a few moments until it could stay standing on its own once again. Graciously, he offered them the prize he’d managed to retrieve from the great beast.

“That’s one matter taken care of. You’ll have to be more specific about the other, I’m afraid. I could fill several shelves with the information we have on the Nepenthe. As a matter of fact, I’ve done so already, even.”

Rook cleared his throat. “Our focus for now is on Dame Ilscha, sir, and tracing connections around her. I assume- and correct me if I am wrong- that her known personal connections will be mostly covered in her individual file, but I seem to recall that she has specific ties to Wordweaver’s Alley, as well? That seems like a good place to start.”

“It’d be a good place to start when looking into just about anyone, boy,” Jacek said, accentuating his words with a quick nod. “Business might flow through the Heart, but good information always arrives at the Alley eventually. You’ll want to look for Lizeh, the rumormonger. Wide dame, cheerful, loves the color green...if anyone might have something to add to the file’s details, it’ll be her. And if you think there’s any reason to doubt her information, seek out Yunru. He hates her so deeply he’ll take any chance to ruin her reputation by proving she deals in falsified information. Just be careful not to find yourself dragged into one of their little power games, hmm?”

"Does this happen often there? The… misinformation attempts?" Grace piped in.

“Misinformation yes, attempts, no.” Jacek extended his hand outward, as if to display something in his palm. It was a gesture Rook recognized, and which meant his guardian was about to begin a lesson. “You have to understand, stranger, being known as an information market means Wordweaver’s Alley is also the perfect place to distribute false intelligence from. The information brokers do their best to make sure their information is accurate — no one would buy from a seller reputed for offering poor quality products, after all — but sometimes certain pieces of counter-intelligence slip through the cracks. In those instances, rivals looking to discredit the seller benefit clients, as they provide a ready source of verification. This way, every rumormonger has an incentive to stay sharp, they’re forced to sell their information at a higher cost to offset investigative expenses, and the clients can be certain they can act on it with reasonable confidence. Everyone wins, wouldn’t you agree?”

Grace forced back the distress he's been feeling. The man in question is being as helpful as he can be in his line of work. Ain't his fault.

"I'd say it depends on where you stand in it, but you make a good point... I suppose I have another question. Would you know if people have been buying property in Nepenthe lately?" He asked. Of the idea that, ‘everybody wins’ the only way it made sense to Grace’s mind is if they approached the Gateway Tournament from the opposite angle.

“Can’t say I’ve heard of any major movements in the real estate market as of late. Of course, ‘as of late’ only extends as far back as before this last week. Since then, the district’s been flooded with offers from the city’s business moguls and construction syndicates, seeking to buy the residents’ homes at any cost. They have yet to see much success, however. The Goddess of the Nepenthe has issued a terminal ban on such sales, and few of its denizens are brave enough to defy her word.”

Grace nodded, and thought on what the old man was saying. It sounds like this goddess will be calling the shots after the tournament ended. The would-be contractor would have to contest with her to make any kind of progress. Grace couldn't be sure, but he had an idea that someone had to have talked with Linnea Aurea beforehand. Maybe the architect of the reconstruction project. maybe his partner. Or Mnemon. Someone had to, or the contractor would be sitting on their cash with Dragons circling the hoard. Like wolves around its prey.

Still, that’s just one angle.

“The people in charge are fine with this?” He knew he should just stay quiet, but questions keep forming.

“Even if they object, I can’t see anyone truly being willing to pick a fight about it at this moment.” Rook nodded to his mentor, a small apology for interrupting. “We already know Linnea Aurea is likely to enter the tournament herself, but…” He frowned. “It seems out of character for her to put her foot down so strongly- not unheard of, but I would say rare. This wouldn’t go unnoticed...” He closed his eyes, clearly reviewing information in his head. “If anything, I might say this is favorable to any major players who might be already looking ahead; leaving the markets open to speculators would only increase the chance that some outsider- or worse, one of their rivals- gets lucky.” He nodded. “I think what we can conclude from this is that the Goddess herself is confident in her position, even if she doesn’t win- she’d rather negotiate from where she already was than gamble.” He glanced at Jacek. “Would you agree?”

“Perhaps…” Jacek drawled. “Or perhaps she fears the unknown, and dares not risk anything, when the tournament itself has placed her livelihood in jeopardy. Tell me something, boy, how long do you think the city’s powers have known of this contract?”

Rook’s face flushed and he cast his eyes downward. “I’m… Not sure, sir. Longer than it’s been official, I’m certain, but…”

At least twenty-eight years, Grace thought. After the contract's rejection and bogging down before being forced through, and flipping the table… long enough for everyone involved to be scrambling for a new plan.

"You think what she's doing isn't a knee-jerk reaction?"

“The opposite, actually. Given the timeframe we’re dealing with, it’s unlikely to be anything but that. It is a rare trait to become more aggressive when caught off-guard. Most people try to retreat and stabilize themselves instead, and I believe our goddess is no exception to this norm. Do you follow me, stranger?” Jacek asked Grace, fixing his eyes on his face.

He nods. Sounds like one game is being played between the goddess and some unseen opponent. How many other players, and other games?

"Hence her forbiddance on deed sales. But if she opposes what's happening, this would only be a delaying tactic. There'd be ways to circumvent this."

“Precisely. The countermove would naturally beget its own countermove, and this would continue until one of the opposing forces secured an unanswerable advantage -- and most likely, that’ll take the form of the renovation contract.” The augur clapped his hands, as if to emphasize that’d be the end of the matter. “We cannot be certain of what the Goddess’ goals are at the moment, but what we can be sure of is that she is scrambling to achieve a better position, one from which she can actually take action to pursue her agenda. Learning what her moves might be, who she is struggling to hold off, and what her overall plans are…that, I believe, is a job best suited to our little cells premier agents.”

Another nod. That would be up to Fidelity. But whatever she and the doctor find out will need to be seen as improving her position against her opponent. Though something nagged at Grace, the perceived desperation.

"I think I have one last question. What do you think she'd do if she lost?"

Rather than answering, Jacek furrowed his brow. Moments passed and became minutes, and still he didn’t move. Just as he seemed to have settled into imitating a statue, his hand darted out and seized one of the reports in the pile. He read it quickly, then let out a sharp snort of disgust.

“Smitings? Divine plagues? Curses? Your guess...is as good as mine.” The words came out grudgingly. It was obvious, even to someone not familiar with him, that he hated admitting there was something he did not know. “We have no records of the Goddess of the Nepenthe being pushed to the brink in such a way. I will investigate this matter. You, meanwhile, should hope this does not come to pass. Even a lesser god’s wrath is no laughing matter.”

Grace wasn't sure about what a goddess would do, but a sore loser with power? That he could imagine.

He looks to his companion, Rook, wondering if he had something on his mind.

Rook, who had been staring intently at the floor, relaxed suddenly. “Something is bothering me, sir. Do we know if anyone has reached out to Linnea? Regardless of one’s backing or convictions, it seems… Strange, to me, to leave the goddess whose domain you might be forcibly reshaping in the dark.”

“Not officially. There’s been a conspicuous lack of prefectoral emissaries visiting the Nepenthe as of late. Unofficially, only the Goddess herself can say...but my instinct is there’s been nothing by silence. Why do you ask, boy? Any suspicions?”

“Just a hunch. If she’s being left to dangle…” His mouth twitched. “Either she truly has no place in whatever designs are being enacted, or someone wants her to think that. My guess is the latter, but I couldn’t say who- there are too many possible candidates for now. The important detail, for now, is that she’s probably looking for allies.”

’But wouldn’t all that suggest she had no idea of the original contract from long ago? Or the architect, who wanted this to happen?’ Something about this isn’t adding up for Grace…

“And if she is, she’ll want to make sure they’re true,” Jacek finished, nodding in agreement. “When in a precarious situation, the only thing worse than having no allies is trusting a false friend. When will you make a point of speaking with her?” ‘When’, both exalts noticed Jacek had said. Not ‘if’.

“What do you think, sir?” Grace tried his best not to sound as curious as he could be. Whatever he knew would pale compared to the old man who’d been here all his life. Check the corners of his mouth, and where his arms may be reaching for. He did that last time, and Grace thought that there’d be a page containing something that’d remind the old man...

[@AnonymousIdiot, you rolled 1,2,3,4,4,4,9 for a total of 1 successes

“I think you know your own goals, stranger,” Jacek said, a lopsided smile dawning on his face. “And if you wish to make good on them, you should act, sooner rather than later.”

‘Nothing… I guess it’s our move.’ Grace thought. “It’ll be someone else’s task, but that one may want to have this knowledge shared. We came seeking a connection with Nepenthe and Ilscha, and it seems we’ve lingered a bit long.”

“And without even reviewing the dossier, I might add,” Jacek remarked, cheerfully. “If she is your target, you’d do well to make some time to go over it.”

“Regardless, sir, we’ve taken enough of your time for the moment.” Rook turned to Grace. “I can make sure our compatriots are informed of Aurea Linnea’s situation while you look over the documents- does that sound acceptable?”

“Hmm. Right!” Grace says. “Thank you so much for your time, good sir. Good morning!”

“We have some space in our backrooms you can use, stranger. Take the door to the right of this room’s entryway, follow the corridor to its end, then go through the door on your left. Feel free to use it for as long as you have to. Now it’s time for you both to depart, shining ones.The city’s future rests on your shoulders.” He waved his hands in a slow sweep, theatrically shooing them away. “Spread your wings now, and remember: be swift. Be excellent. Be gone!”

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Bouquet
Jul 14, 2001



Rendezvous at the Heart
Scene: Heart District, A Few Blocks from the Candlemakers’ Guild

After following Sun to the Storehouses, Boulder returned to patrolling the Candlemakers’ Guild without incident. Things were quiet inside, with no more orange flashes taking place, though security remained just as tight. Approximately half an hour after his return, however, something caught his eye -- Fara Li and Fidelity, approaching from the direction of the Foundation district and bearing the signal to meet.

Boulder swooped past the doctor and the...whatever the proper name for Fidelity might be, cawing twice to indicate they should follow. When the pair had joined him in a promising alley, Boulder returned to his human-ish form and bowed politely. “Would you like to listen first, or speak first, my friends?”

“Our news is good, but little of it is pressing. What have you found?” Li asked.

“Perhaps not related to tournament, but Mu Min Cho’s Guild unleashes much Fire Essence, hidden from outside with strong wards. Guildhouse protected within by many of Dikona’s troops. The ash candles are miracles and this must be related. The amount of energy involved and alliance with Dikona makes me wonder if the candles have more sinister purpose.”

“It is Mu Min Cho,” Fidelity said flatly. “Of course it is sinister. I would look upon this work myself.”

Boulder shrugged, “Candles are the most valued luxury now; hard to find. Guildhouse is guarded by extreme heat trapped within perimeter wards and many soldiers. Perhaps another day when time less precious.”

“Perhaps so,” Fidelity said. There were others who might shed light upon this mystery, for those with the skill to ask. Little could disturb the area’s geomancy, but that its native elementals would take notice. “Meanwhile, we have learned that the soldiers sent to oversee the tournament have evicted the Black Helms. Why, we cannot say, although I doubt that it bodes well for any of us. Aurea Linnea might know more of their motives...if we can persuade her to speak of them.”

“I would keep locals far away too for a fair tournament. Many hooks sunk in them,” replied Boulder. “More important, perhaps, than candles or guards, is the person Wandering Sun met here while watching. She is named Black Moon, and....” Boulder related all he could remember of what he had seen of Wandering Sun’s encounter with Black Moon and the things the Dawn had relayed to him after.

“...well that’s grim news,” said Li. “A stranger that we know nothing about, who knows far more than is comfortable about us, and moves with a speed that rivals our best warrior. I don’t know if we should try to find her again or hope she finds some reason to leave on her own.”

“Might not the Master know more?” Fidelity asked.

“She should be told, at least,” Li said. “Sun would be best, since he spoke to this stranger directly.”

“On this, I agree. We have our own business to attend first,” Fidelity said.

“Yes, though before we leave-” he turned to Boulder and outlined what they’d learned from Ramet in more detail, along with the news about getting the permits stamped and the new Grey Lung clinic.

Near the end of the doctor's explanation, a cough from the rooftops above cut him short. The trio froze, looking up at the source of the noise, ready to fight or flee, only to recognize Rook's silhouette raising his hands as if to show his intent. Without ceremony, he tumbled down from the roof to the street with an acrobat's grace, assisted by the awnings stretched over the handful of alley windows, landing softly. "My apologies- I didn't mean to interrupt," Rook said, brushing himself off. He looked directly at Fidelity and Fara Li. "Have you spoken to Aurea Linnea yet?" His eyes flicked between them, and in the absence of an immediate response, he continued. "No, I take it? Good, because I learned something interesting..."

Boulder listened carefully to the Night’s description of the freeze on real estate transactions. “Do we know how much land the goddess controls directly, indirectly, or where she would get a percentage of sale? Maybe she seeks to prevent anyone who officially owns property on her behest from attempting quick sale and departure?”

“It will be a volatile market for some time while the worth of the land is re-evaluated,” Li commented. “Even an offer one couldn’t refuse could end up well beneath what the Nepenthe’s value will settle on. Also, speculators parceling out what they buy to whomever pays the most will make things quite difficult for those who live and do business there currently… If she does plan to enter the tournament then the land is an excellent bargaining chip to ensure her own victories, while remaining a fallback in the case of a loss.”

“Mmph,” grunted Boulder in a way that acknowledged Li’s point and suggested that further discussion would be too far into the realm of speculation to be useful.

“A map showing our path, torn to pieces, but we begin to recover them,” said the snakeman. “Inform the Master about Black Moon after today’s task are done, I think,” he mused. “I will fly higher than before. Close enough to see signals, high enough to see more city.” He looked to see if the others had any objections, and seeing none, shifted into his raiton form and hopped into flight.

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