Traveling by river meant that they passed by many of the difficulties that weighed down the Blessed Isle. But every time they stopped for supplies they were greeted by an uneasy populace. Several towns had barricades splitting the town in two and there were far too many military supplies going up and down the river, even for Dynasts.
Matters on the mountain did not appear to be improving. Every week or so there was another wave of necrotic essence that rolled across the landscape, briefly turning everything to Shadowland before returning the world to a jittery stillness. Sometimes smoke or dust clouds could be seen high up on the mountain. Angeline tried not to think about what that could mean. Each passing shadowland-wave made the people of the Blessed Isle more nervous than the last, and they showed little sign of stopping.
After 3 months of travel they approached the main dock that led into the Imperial City. It was strangely motionless and as they neared the city they saw why. In the water around the main dock there were large gnarled pieces of sharp metal spaced at regular intervals. The wreckage of several boats already attested to their effectiveness.
The ship ghosted silently towards the city with the river’s flow. All the hands stood on the fore deck, staring at the City that was rapidly approaching. Smoke drifted up from dozens of small-to-medium fires, unnatural winds tore down streets, and the crackle of lightning was audible even from the river. Moving, leaping figures could be seen, trailing elemental essence in their wake like banners.
Ragara Soras Silas frowned heavily. “This is not right. The Imperial City is supposed to be the model of peace and civilization. Something has gone horribly wrong.”
Zaela, from where she stood at the ship’s rail beside him, glanced back up the river at Mount Meru, where yet another ring of darkness was moving down its slopes with malevolent resolution. “Clearly. The whole world has gone wrong,” she said, with a gesture back at the mount.
“Ho! Blockade! Ho, the ship!” One of the forward hands yelled, suddenly turning from the rail and dashing to the captain’s bridge, while others ran to their stations, pulling on ropes and setting poles into the water. The ship slewed to one side, hard, and the smoke drifting over the water cleared enough to reveal to Zaela what the hands had already seen.
Huge twisted pieces of metal, each as big as a yeddim and snarled with long dangerous spikes, stretched across the Imperial River, blocking access to the City. Several boats were already shredded on the blockade; wreckage floated nearby, pushed up against the metal by the steady current. The quick actions of the crew saved their vessel from a similar fate, and the captain soon had the ship back upstream a way, cross-anchored against the current.
“We’ll have to go upstream several miles to find another daughter-river, and moor there.” The captain, a Cynis Wood-Aspect from a minor branch, had called his passengers together to the bridge for the briefing. “We won’t be able to berth at the main docks, not unless that gets cleared away. There’s a dock on the northern side of the city I can aim for, but it’ll be another day or three to reach, if all goes well.”
Zaela turned away from the windows and dipped a little curtsy. “Thank you Captain. I believe my friends and I will best disembark here. It looks like we’ll be able to walk into the city easier than you can sail.”
Swift gave her an incredulous look across the room and as usual Itzal was silent and dark beneath his hood but she thought she sensed his expression shift in the same direction. She smiled brightly at them both and felt the chuckle of Lotus in the back of her mind.
“As you wish, Lady Keranda.” The captain looked as if he was going to object but was too well-bred to disagree with a superior. “I’ll have the hands set down the ramps.”
“Please send one to acquire mounts for us,” Zaela asked, reaching into one of the pockets of her gown and withdrawing a pair of jade coins, which she handed to him. “My friends and I will be gathering our gear.”
The captain weighed the coins in his hand briefly and nodded. “It will be done; they’ll be waiting for you shortly.”
“Thank you.” She dipped again and slipped out into the narrow corridor. Her shadow trailed her, and Swift and Silas were only steps behind.
“Plainly the situation has degenerated more than anyone expected here,” she said quietly over her shoulder, heading aft to their set of cabins. “We need to get to the Palace Sublime as soon as possible to deliver Lama Pyrrhus’ message. We can meet the ship later, if we must.”
She paused outside her door and reached again into her pocket. When she withdrew it, nestled in her palm were several objects of jewelry. “Swift, you remember these? They will let us communicate across several miles. You wear them like so,” and she brushed her hair back, revealing an ornate curled piece of jewelry hooked over her ear and trailing down her cheek. “I made more, thinking we might need them in the City.”
She offered one each to the others – Swift presumably had his still. Itzal’s was of square black jade wire and beads of sanded jet – nothing to shine or rattle – with less of the aesthetic swirls and curls of her own cuff and more hard bends. Silas’ was red jade wire and gold beads, its filigreed form suggestive of a flame burst.
“I need to pack. I’ll meet you all in a few minutes.” Zaela dipped her head and vanished behind her door.
Bronze Faction Sidereals have caught wind of new Solars in the area, making plans much more dangerous and difficult. It is known that Sidereals will take advantage of times of chaos to get away with things otherwise illegal per Celestial Law.
Caiden had prepared a letter sealed with the golden sign of Mercury and slipped it in one of Zaela’s bags before she departed New Meru. He had sent her such communique before in an attempt to establish some form of secrecy should the need arise, and this was such a time.
The Solars were heading into Bronze Faction territory, and that meant trouble. Caiden had woven his own destinies around the party to divert some of the lesser Sidereal agents, but some of the best Bronze Faction agents held stations of incredible power there.
The hidden message written into the “mercantile sales report” was as simple as:
Avoid the following in the Imperial City: Gem merchants, most people from house Ragara, ash trees with more than seven leaves per shoot, the Star of our Empress tavern, anyone associated with the schools of sorcery, Sunday, and paths that have more than three right turns. Bronze Faction = a faction of Sidereals who are not happy Solars have returned. They are frequently associated with the aforementioned. Possible danger to you and your party. Will be down as soon as I can.
Itzal reached for Keranda’s cabin door then hesitated. Swift grabbed Itzal’s hand and leaned in close.
“Perhaps you have things that need attending.”
Itzal made no indication that he heard Swift so he added, “In your own quarters?”
That seemed to snap him out of it. He shot a glare at Swift before retreating in the direction of his cabin. “I may never understand that man,” Swift said to no one in particular. His constant brooding was something Swift knew how to handle, but never comprehended. Many nobles he met acted the same way though usually to keep their private affairs private. Swift tried to imagine what two Solars who claimed to be on the same side had to hide from each other. He strolled to his own temporary residence as these thoughts clashed around in his head.
What if he is an agent of the Mistress of Bloody Charities? That idea left a bitter taste in his mouth. He knew he shouldn’t entertain that line of thinking, but he continued stubbornly. What if he intends to kill us all in our sleep? Then. Use your mind, if he intended to do that, he’s had the time and means, why wait? I just don’t like his attitude. He opened his cabin door. Then again, perhaps that’s just the way Night Castes are. With that thought he struck the rest from his mind and focused on his objective.
There were tasks to set about in the City. Information needed to be gathered and every exalt seemed to be going ashore. Swift opened a bag and verified that everything he would need was in there before he closed it and slung it over his back before heading to the top deck. He looked at the Imperial City and flashed back to the battle with Mistress’ minions, the two scenes weren’t very different.
It was a mess. Some of the buildings had been destroyed, people were watching Dragon-blooded fly from roof to roof in what seemed to be a battle to the death. A man in the sensible silk robes of a clerk or accountant held court in the corner of one of the smaller plazas, a travelling desk laid out before him. He was collecting and assiduously noting down small piles of jade coins and scrip, talking cheerfully with speculative citizens around him. There was no mistaking what was happening. This was some sort of sick tournament to prove strength or standing or whatever else these pretentious Dragon-Bloods cared about.
Itzal shouldered by Swift on his way into the city, urging Swift to walk up to the man placing bets.
“What’s your bet?” The man said, then he looked Swift over and continued. “Wait, wait! Don’t tell me, you’re here to bet on our favorite House Tepet huh? You look like the kind of smart man who-” Swift felt someone slip a hand into his pocket and he grabbed their wrist and the man stopped speaking.
“Who wouldn’t fall for such an obvious ploy?” Swift finished for him as he let the squirming hand go. It disappeared into the crowd. “No, of course not.” The man looked him up and down nervously this time. His expression which had been friendly a minute ago was now suspicious.
“Who are you,” he said, “and what do you want?”
“Close up your shop, we need to talk business.” Swift responded.
Itzal watched Zaela with an interest that unnerved him. He told himself to get control over his emotions. He was an exalt, chosen of the Unconquered Sun, not some starry-eyed teenage mortal. Maybe if he talked to her it would change things. The thought struck him like lightning. Talk? Who was this man so smitten with an exalt he barely knew? Something touched his hand and he heard the muffled voice of the Eclipse.
“… need attending?” He saw his own hand, already halfway to the latch in front of him and he was appalled. Surely this hand was not his. Then the Eclipse continued.
“In your own quarters?” Hatred clawed its way up Itzal’s throat and threatened to jump out and viciously attack the owner of those words. How dare this baby exalt have the audacity to feel contempt for Itzal, his elder by far. He gathered up all that hatred and shot it in an icy look at the Eclipse before turning to walk to his room. He bit down the mixed emotions with practiced control. As much as he hated it, the Eclipse was right, he needed to gather the things required for this expedition.
Itzal stepped onto the top deck and looked out at the City. It was unusual to be sure. Several of the more clandestine deals Itzal would have been hard pressed to notice were being made in broad daylight. The Dragon-Bloods, which were normally so quietly composed and noble were flinging each other into all sorts of things. From this vantage, it seemed as though that Deathlord atop the mountain had already won. Already on the shore was the Eclipse and the sight of him brought Itzal’s mixed feelings to the surface. He had a job to do though, as much as this particular group of Solars confused him, he still agreed to help them.
He walked by the Eclipse, purposefully bumping his shoulder on the way past. He was headed to a bathhouse one of his contacts frequented. A stout, boisterous man by the name of Rakshir. This particular contact would have valuable information regarding the state of the Imperial City, even beyond what was clearly evident.
The sun was at its Zenith before he reached the bathhouse. He quietly paid for a private bath and waited in it. Right on time, Rakshir walked in and gave Itzal a surprised look before sitting across from him. They went through their usual greeting ritual before the contact said,
“I thought you were going to be in Juche for some time now.” Itzal gave him a look. “No matter, I guess plans change all the time!” He gave a hearty laugh. “So tell me, what do you need…?”
“Everyone knows about the city Rakshir, tell me about the effect this has had on the lands outside the blessed Isle.” If there was any meaningful change in the city, it would be lost in the current chaos. Itzal needed to know just how bad this corruption was.
“Yes, yes everyone knows about the city. But you’re right, the real valuable information is what is going on in the wider world. With all the fighting communication lines have been unreliable at best. The All-Seeing Eye is concerned that we could be blinded from a greater threat with all this in-fighting, but warnings haven’t stopped anyone.”
“I have recently received word from a contact of mine, a dust trader in Gem, that the Wyld has been moving away from the city. It appears Creation is expanding.” The obese man paused dramatically as the steam rose from the bath, hoping to get a reaction out of Itzal. Itzal obediently feigned a look of shock. Though the information was quite surprising, he could not betray his character to let on that this mattered to him.
“He’s had to move his operation 70 miles to the South, since it relies on the Bordermarches to create firedust. He says every time another necrotic wave comes through they gain a couple of miles of barren land. I have a bounty out for exploration in the North, but I haven’t heard anything from there yet.” He rolled back and grinned. “So perhaps these waves are good for us after all. Eh?”
“Good.” He said with just enough contempt to catch Rakshir off guard. “Yes, if you enjoy living in a Shadowland.” He lightened up slightly and inclined his head to indicate that Rakshir should continue.
“Ah yes, well there is the issue of the Shadowlands. It’s true. But this will still be largely profitable. Sijan had nearly grown outside the borders of their shadowland, now they have lots of room to expand. You see my friend? It just depends on how you look at it. Some would say our civilization is crumbling into civil war. Me? I say there’s new profit to be had by making these fights a show. I’m sure the construction business will be booming as well.” He chuckled to himself, but there was a nervous twinge behind his jovial facade.
Swift noticed that the man’s eyebrows were bushy and slicked into claws with ear wax. When he furrowed his brow it looked like they were grasping at his forehead. “You want me to pause my business for you? I only interrupt business for business. How much coin is it worth to you? Then we’ll talk.”
“How about I give you information concerning the state of affairs that concerns you most instead?” Swift said smoothly. He knew he had the man’s attention when he motioned for someone to close down his cart.
After some grumbling and shuffling two big, dangerous-looking mortals put a sign up that said closed and stood on either side of the cart. The greasy vendor stepped inside the nearest building, followed by Swift. He turned around slowly and said.
“Normally this is the point where I’d ask you which rock you’ve been living under. But since I can smell the stench of river water on you, I know you’re from out of town.” He tapped a sausage finger to his round nose where his nose hairs intermixed with his thick mustache. “Oh yes. I know you. Nothing gets past Ledaal Consos.”
While Swift waited patiently for the man to finish, he pulled out his singing staff and bow. It was clear Ledaal Consos was accustomed to this kind of situation, but he wasn’t prepared the intensity of Swift’s response. Swift drew the bow across his staff, generating a single eerily melancholic note. His face grew dark and his voice resonated through the room they were in.
“This is the point where I’d have you hauled off to jail for speaking to me with such a tone, but you and I know I don’t have that kind of time. So what do you think I do to those who insult me and by doing so insult my patron House Ragara.” As he spoke, the note drew out into several chords weaving into the intricate patterns of music. The stone under Ledaal Consos’s feet snaked around his body, constricting his movement in response to the music.
“I certainly hope I have your attention because as I said before, I don’t have time for these games Consos.”
His mustache quivered like a mouse’s whiskers. “Certainly. How c-can I serve you?”
“There is a dark force that threatens to overwhelm this mountain and all its inhabitants. You’re correct when you say I’m not from this City, so tell me… While my companions are battling that Darkness, what effect has it had on the City. I want every detail; from how the city’s underworld has been affected to how our great houses have taken this new development.” His music crescendoed into a haunting climax worthy of any opera house before quieting down to a soft rhythmic melody.
“Ah… is that all? You needed only ask.” He paused to gauge whether the mortal threat had passed. “Naturally, these unexplained waves of darkness’ve got everyone all in titters. Every group is using it to try and advance their own agenda. Many have wanted to make an expedition to find the source of the problem and plug it up, but the mountain is the sacred ground of the Order. Only they can approve such an expedition.
The Immaculate Order claims that the House-neutral mantle of authority falls on them now that the Empress is gone, so they’ve tried to seize control of the government. They’ve been blocked by the usual line of contenders for the throne, Mnemon chief among them, each trying to push their own House into power. While some cities are predominantly one or two Houses, the Imperial City sports all houses in equal numbers by design. So that means that they’re held in stalemate.”
“If I wanted a lesson in politics, I would have asked my childhood tutor. Get on with it.” Swift said.
Consos shot Swift a dirty look before continuing. “When the second wave came through the city most people took it as a sign of the end of the world. The city was divided into 11 different sections all winding through each other with barricades set up on practically every street. There was a raid on a major Peleps storehouse and it looked like total war would break out in the next breath.
Instead, our Regent Fokuf had the one cogent idea of his entire life. He declared a tournament between the Houses. Fighting didn’t stop, it just became more organized. We dragonbloods are born for fighting. It’s in our blood, it’s what we’re made for. You can no more get us to stop fighting than you can make water dry. But you know that as well as I do, don’t you? Thing is, I don’t think anyone did the math at the time. With only one fight going on at a time and literally every dynastic Dragonblood in the tournament bracket, we’ll be at this for another five years. While having a single duel go on at a time was very profitable, they began to break into multiple fights around the city. Then someone leaked the bracket roster, or maybe they made it up, and you started seeing groups of the bracket settle it out in a battle royale.
And of course it’s so much more interesting to race over residential area rooftops battling with fire and lightning than to stay in just one city square. It’s all been terribly good for business, if you’re in the right business. Did you know, there’s a cart selling seven different flavors of celestial pretzel? They’re not real, mind you, but still…”
“I could start playing this again, or you could get to the point.” Swift interrupted. “What’s the purpose behind the fighting? Will that resolve anything? What is being done about the mountain?”
“There is a vague idea that the House that wins the tournament will claim the throne but that’s never really been said explicitly and it’s not clear that could be enforced. I think people are just happy to be fighting, and doing it a couple at a time makes for better shows. To be honest, people have mostly forgotten about the Death Waves or whatever they’re called. That they’ve continued on like this without causing any permanent damage and that they’re almost rhythmic, people just assume it’s natural and will work itself out now.”
“Thank you Ledaal Consos. Pray that you never cross my path in such a way as you did today.” Swift finished playing and the ground released Consos, reverting to its original position.
Lady Keranda checked her packs one more time before they entered the city proper, ensuring the memory-crystal rested safely on the chain round her neck and Pyrrhus’ missive was still in its case. Her placid mount -a tidy buckskin mare – took the opportunity to snatch a mouthful of grass, completely unconcerned by the raucous battles occurring just a few blocks away.
Keranda’s fingers tingled as they brushed a folded sheet of fine paper. The saffron seal vanished as she took it in, and she carefully unfolded the note. It seemed like an exceptionally dry quintile sales report… but involving pickled fish? Why would… oh. Keranda sighed at her own slow-wittedness and trickled a little essence through her fingers- suddenly the warning was as clear as day. Avoid ash trees? … too late to avoid Ragara… She glanced over at her escort suspiciously._ Oh well. I’ll just have to carry on as best I can._
Her fellow Solars had struck off without a word almost immediately upon entering the city, leaving her with Ragara Silas. The next block over held a small plaza, filled with shouting people – the occasional blast of water or lightning could be seen between the formerly elegant buildings.
“Alright, goodbye!” She called after them. “We’ll meet up later? You know where to go, right?” Itzal’s cloak might’ve twitched in response, but Swift was already too far down the street. “Please, lead on Master. Is it far to the Grey Palace?”
“It is in the center of the Temple District, near the Imperial Palace. So, not too far, but far enough given the… er… circumstances.” Ragara nudged his horse forward, and they began picking their way down the street. His acolytes followed, keeping a protective perimeter around the two Exalts, their penetrating stares and robes of the Order keeping back most of the rabble.
Keranda arranged her skirts and shifted her seat more comfortably on the sidesaddle. “I’m sure we will manage.”
The Grey Palace was not a palace at all. Keranda had expected a tall, imposing building, meant to humble and humiliate supplicants, much like the buildings in Yu-Shan. The Grey Palace, in contrast, was much more utilitarian, of sensible blocks of granite shaped by an Earth-aspect’s touch. It was more of a complex of low, single-story buildings than a single massive one, arranged around several courtyards. At the back of the complex stood a taller keep, with four towers and one more, much higher than its brothers.
“We’ve reached the place,” Keranda murmured, brushing the metal stud on her earring to transmit to her Circlemate and fellow Solars. “I’m going in, do come join us.”
Ragara Silas went through the gate without pausing except to dismount and toss the reins of his horse to a novice waiting for just that purpose within. Keranda followed his lead, lifting the precious pack with its messages from the saddle and sliding down gracefully, with as much poise and Imperial Dragonblooded arrogance as she could muster.
“Ah, Honored Silas! So glad to see you made it safely. We received your message a sennight ago, and have been awaiting your arrival.” An older monk, a Third Coil like Silas himself, met them at the entrance to the next courtyard. He wore a plain robe of undyed linen, trimmed with geometric patterns, and a belt of woven blue wool. He was younger than Silas, but not by much, with the ink-stained hands of a scholar and scribe. Beyond him, Keranda could just see the kneeling forms of postulants, dressed in their plain gray robes, awaiting their initiation into the Order.
“Thank you, Honored Ilanis. I present Lady Ragara Keranda,” and here he beckoned her forward with a little bow. “The rest of our party will be joining us soon; they were held up by… traffic. However, as we are under some urgency…”
“Oh, that damned inconvenient ‘tournament’,” Ilanis snorted. “As if we didn’t have enough problems to deal with – shadowlands and undead on the Blessed Isle itself and all sorts of divine squabbling!”
“Honored One,” Keranda interjected, before the other monk could work up to what appeared to be quite a long rant. “I bring a message from Master Lightbringer himself, from upon the Mount. It is very relevant to the problems you face, and the Mouth and the Paragons need to hear it as soon as possible.”
Ilanis’s babbling stream of invective cut off abruptly at the mention of Pyrrhus, and he regarded Keranda with a wary side-eyed gaze. “Yes, of course. This way. Normally you would be out of luck, as only the Mouth resides here full-time, but the Paragons arrived several weeks ago and have been unable to leave due to the… traffic.”
Ilanis led them through the maze of courtyards to the final keep. The grey stone was darker here, its aspect more forbidding. Keranda took a meditative breath to still her thoughts – she knew what Immaculates thought of Solars, and here she was walking into their stronghold – and followed Silas within.
“We’ve reached the place,” Swift heard Zaela through the earpiece. “I’m going in, do come join us.”
He grabbed his own earpiece and said,_ “Don’t get comfortable, I’ll only be a minute. I had some… Business to attend to, it’s taken care of now. Send my apologies to our host.”_
Swift left the Ledaal Consos in his building and walked toward the grey palace. “If this is the effect the battle for Greyfall is going to have, we need to have a plan for picking up the pieces when it’s all over.” He said. The consequences of battling a Deathlord were unsettling. They needed to end this battle before more carnage resulted.
It wasn’t long before Swift reached the Grey Palace. It was much less grand than Swift was expecting. It followed the same architecture that the rest of the city did, but it was more like a little village of its own rather than a single towering monument of power. A man dressed in the same simple clothing that Swift had come to expect from those of the order greeted him.
“Ragara Joruyo,” Swift said, “I believe you’ve already met my cousin, Ragara Keranda.”
The monk gave him a glance up and down, “Yes. I have. Come with me.”
Itzal heard a melodic voice murmur in his ear. Immediately he recognized the mousy Zenith caste. He almost forgot he was wearing the black earring she fashioned for him. When he finished his meeting, he found a courier to send word of his arrival to the grey palace. It was time to get into character. He sighed. This was always a character he loathed playing, but it was a necessary part for his duties. Before he entered the Grey Palace an elderly monk came to greet him.
“Ah Jarain Aris! It’s good you’re here! How is House Mnemon treating you? Did you deal with that little problem? Oh you simply must tell me all about it. Careful though,” He said with a sinister smile, “we have guests.”
“Why of course, only when you have the time, didn’t I hear you’ve been participating in some interesting activities yourself? Surely you don’t need a Lunar to do that for you. Oh but I digress, for you see, it was during my last visit to House V’neef. They had a very bold request of the families that I just_ had_ to escort them here. Plus,” He leaned in close and whispered, “how could I miss such a spectacle between the houses? Who knew there could be so many fireworks in our very own imperial city?”
“Ugh! Don’t get me started on that blasted tournament. Young hotheads looking for any reason to tear each other apart in the streets. It used to be this kind of thing was done nice and quiet behind doors, you remember. Now it’s all gone to pieces. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about with between the shadowlands and undead, why even the paragons are here bickering about who will be ‘victorious’! It’s downright disgraceful! I mean-”
“Why don’t we save this for another time,” Itzal said. “After all, you do have guests.”
“Yes, yes. You said you were here on their behalf? I suppose they can’t be that bad if they’re here with you. You do know they represent that… The one we can’t get rid of. Oh never mind, we can hear them out, as you said, it will be fun.”
They walked in to where the others were waiting.
“I imagine you all have met, but more formal introductions are necessary. Mnemon Jarain Aris, please meet Ragara Keranda and Ragara Joruyo.”