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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.

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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.”

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…”

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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