[Ongoing Discord PbP Game] The Songs of the Lamplighter: Edited Gameplay Transcripts

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A large off white cat walked back towards the group, tail held high and what looked like a smirk on it's face. Well you thought it was a smirk. The giant wad of paper in his mouth kinda obscured it. But more importantly then that, there was a ring of ornate and very expensive looking keys hung around the cat's neck.

Cold walked over to Cub, dropped the piece of paper in her lap, shrugged off the ring of key's and then disappeared back into the caravan. A few moments later hidden-reeds face poked out of the caravan and she had the biggest shit eating I know something you guy's don't. Look on her face.

"You won't believe what I found out today," he glanced around to see if there were any outsiders listening in.

"The entire town of Lushfield is trying to placate house Ledaal of the blessed isle. Trying to get their heresy recognized as an acceptable variant of the immaculate fate so they can, in their words. Leave this shithole behind and stop having to associate with the dregs of humanity, They think Cub is a representative from house Ledaal asking for more contributions to an upcoming war effort and they're sending a negotiator called Hondo to talk with you about it."

He scratched his chin. "oh, and the Archimandrite and Vice-Archimandrite are about five seconds away from betraying their immaculate vows and humping each other, well the woman is at least. The guy is still following the scriptures, but he was going to consider his vows fulfilled when they were back on the blessed isle. The Archimandrite is a woman named Celcine. Most likely a fire aspect, while the vice Archimandite is called Rock, an earth aspect."

Cub's eyebrows rise rather higher than is usual at Cold's summary of the results from his scouting trip. Her attention, however, is focused primarily on the now smoothed-out papers he has left in her care.

Cub examined the now-smoothed out pages: To all appearances, it seems to be a draft of the Immaculate prayer calendar for all fifteen months of that year. Each of the three pages contains five months, with small boxes for each of the 28 days of each month. The current date is 8 Ascending Earth, the third month, in the middle of the first page. Inked in very fine, precise handwriting in each box is a list of the gods to which prayer will be offered for that day, along with a small number in parenthesis, which is presumably the amount of hours of prayer allotted to that god.

Cold tilted his head as he saw what he had dragged along with him. "The Archimandrite used the words, disgusting duplicity, to describe that."

"To describe what, exactly?" Cub inquires as she looks back up at Cold. "Unfortunately, the papers merely seem to be a prayer calendar which is unlikely to have the greatest significance to us."

"They used those words to describe the prayer calendar" replied Cold.

“Not...necessarily,” Khī said, suddenly becoming noticeable somewhere a bit behind Cub’s shoulder, “I’d bet there’s a lot this can tell us about the needs of the rulers, and Lushfield as a whole,”

"Good point," Cub says, favoring Khi with a smile. "Can you see a clearer pattern?" She asks, and offers the papers back.

Cold, knowing that papers isn't his strong suit. Picks up the keys and takes a closer look at them. Trying to see if there were any markings on it, or anything else that could show him what they actually unlocked.

The lanyard had three keys on it: A large silvery key, and two smaller dull metal keys. Unfortunately, none of the three had any distinctive markings on them that provided any clues to Cold as to their uses.

Nameless had looked a bit disappointed when the cute cat turned back into a person, but she was polite enough to try and hide it.
She peeked over the shoulders of Persistent Cub and the others to try and see if she could make anything of the clues, but none of it seemed like it was her expertise. If they weren't so hell-bent on not being noticed all that much, she could have at least tried to keep people awake and concentrated by playing a bit of music, but that seemed hardly appropriate in Lushfield.

So for now, the Sword Maiden tried to sort the words she heard by familiarity, but all the differences between dynastic and realm traditions - and how they pertained to Lushfield - she could listen, she could try to reach conclusions, but was actually utterly lost. She inched closer to Cold, and poked at the keys with a thing finger. "Let me guess, keys without a lock?" she at least was decent at reading a room. Even when outside.

"Yeah, they were in the office of the top priest, so they probably lead to something interesting" said Cold.

Khi took the keys from Cold, examining them intensely. Wear markings on some of them, certainly more noticeable than the others. Noticeably greater shine to the handles of some, rather than others. Wear on the end of that one- typically used after some amount of alcohol, or otherwise in the dark. Absently, she traced a finger over the back of one of them, a large, cruxiform key. No knicks. This one was the most commonly held of the bunch. A high use locked area, typically one that someone would grab the keys to open, leaving the others to dangle. Patterns of use emerged before her, the truth opening before her like a flower. It was amazing, really, how much you could tell about a person's routine from a key, and how much the subtle patterns on it told about its use. From the angle, and patterns of wear on this handle, she could tell the most common user's height, although she could also pinpoint the approximate heights of several other frequent users. She'd be willing to bet she could identify the doors these went to at a glance, and it wasn't hard to get a good idea of their use from a glance.

Khi produced a small pair of spectacles from a pocket in her clothing, opening them with a flick of her wrist, before sticking the ends in her scarf. They didn't really fit, but the sides of the frames bent easily- like she had done it before. Holding the calendar up with one hand, she smacked it with the keys held in the other to straighten it out. She flipped through it, rapidly, her thumb turning pages in front of her. There were patterns in this, amendments that were clearly visible, gods whose names showed up with regularity. And, by contrast, curious omissions, places where the calendar skipped a prayer, or allotted less prayer time on a clear festival day than one might expect.

Khi's ruthless, single-minded investigation of every aspect of each of the three keys formed a picture in her mind of type of person who typically carried them, and the types of doors that they would be used to open. She was now certain that, upon encountering that person, she would instantly recognize them as the key-bearer, and upon encountering a lock that would opened by one of the keys, she would instantly recognize it as being opened by one of the keys.

It is the first evening after the party's departure from the port town of Val Rulta and the six Exalts and their lone mortal guild factor companion are alone for the first time since departing Nexus. Persistent Cub approaches Nisalta and says "There is something we must take care of before arriving in Lushfield. You are a smart and resourceful woman, our second confrontation only went as poorly as it did because you misunderstood the situation, and it is in order for us to keep from misunderstanding each other that I must now ask you to swear an oath of secrecy." Her gaze probes the other woman's eyes, face, and gestures to see just how fully she has grasped their nature, "Whatever you may suspect or even know of us, you must not tell it to the people of Lushfield, send word to them indirectly, or alert the forces of the Realm or Lookshy about us. If you abide by this oath, you may be free of us once this journey has ended or we may be of service to one another afterwards if it is beneficial to all. Should you break it, know that the punishment will be swift, certain, and terrible." Now the exiled Dynast's eye bear into Nisalta's with the very force of the Imperial Mountain behind them, fully conveying the gravity of her circumstances. "Do you swear?"

Nisalta assented silently.

---

Khi hemmed, flipping back and fourth across the Immaculate calendar. The prayer rotations were dense, and creations years long. Even now, a greater magistrate than she'd ever been (and, somewhat guiltily, a better magistrate than Sadrica had ever been) there was a limited number of things she could memorize with a glance, and then order and reorder as she pleased. The calendar would need time, and, most likely, some notes. Something about the calendar immediately seemed...off. She couldn't put her finger on it yet, just the gut suspicion of 10 years as a magistrate's apprentice.

She raised an a hand, and snapped "Agāid. You will attend me, I may need you to answer questions," Khi wasn't exactly knowledgeable about gods, and, for that matter, neither really was the demonic librarian, but the Anhule might be able to answer some questions she lacked answers to. She turned on her heels, and quietly walked back toward the caravan, before stopping.

"I'd really hate to be impertinent, but this will take some time. Could someone make tea?" Khi's voice was apologetic, as though she wasn't entirely willing to inconvenience her traveling companions by asking for anything.

Khi spread the calendar out inside the wagon, unbinding it with the exacting precision of someone who fully expected to have to put the thing back together such that a crafty observer wouldn't notice anything. She needed to have the whole thing in front of her, spread out, the calendar vivisected, the organs of feast days and arteries of vespers all spread out before her like an anatomist's diagram.

"Now Agāid, answer this; why are there so many prayer rotations for this Felitrus,"

"I'd offer my assistance," Cub answers Khi's request, "but I must admit that I do not believe I have ever successfully brewed a cup of tea," she finishes with a faintly amused smile.

---

When Persistent Cub leaves the parked caravan behind to explore Lushfield Town and perhaps meet its most illustrious citizens, she looks every inch a dynastic lady. Her well-made, but somewhat bland traveling clothes have been replaced by beautiful, elaborate robes of pure white silk that are embroidered with whirling patterns that bring to mind the element of Air and seem to somehow be immune to the dust of the road and grime of the fields. Though she smiles at her surroundings, it is a smile of ice - as unapproachable for the common man as it is perfect in its radiance.

She has not made any definite decisions about her destination. For now, they have two weeks to find what they seek in Lushfield, so they may as well start out by finding out of it is possible to get a hot bath and a decent meal in this provincial pearl, but if the local potentates want to talk to her, she is more than happy to accommodate them.

Cub's graceful passage through the main street of Lushfield Town seems to prompt some minor commotion. In the close-knit community, the unexpected arrival of the plainly dynastic outsider, shadowed by her diverse retinue, was something unusual and exciting, and rumors had already circulated. For a place where very little out of the ordinary ever happened, something like this was exciting, especially if it had something to do with the whispers about the state of the outside world that they all had heard, but few knew how to process. Shopkeepers poked their heads outside their doors to catch a glimpse of her, while children pressed their faces to upper story windows to gaze upon her shimmering embroidered silk robe. Some of the children had never seen silk before - they didn't have mulberry trees or silkworms in Lushfield. As she passed through the central square, opposite the Immaculate Temple, she spotted what appeared to be an extremely traditional and quaint Shogunate-era Teahouse. For Cub, a modern day (former) denizen of the Blessed Isle, it was a quixotic experience. It was like a museum exhibit come to life. It reminded her of schoolchildren giving a performance in a historical festival.

Keeping the amusement she feels off her face, Cub walks calmly and self-assuredly towards the teahouse. Though her fellows are marked by red headbands, surely nothing in this world would stop her from going exactly where she wished.

As Cub approached the teahouse, the proprietor, an old woman dressed in an ultra-traditional teahouse gown. The style of dress had disappeared long ago in most of the modern-day, sleekly designed teahouses of the Blessed Isle, which now primarily catered to a bureaucratic workforce that didn't have two hours for lunch. Actually, Cub recalled, the style had made a resurgence a decade ago in the Imperial city, in a short, now widely mocked fad that had lasted a year or two when Cub was a teenager. She was guided inside, to the central carved stone table, surrounded by carved stone stools. Behind the table, taking up the entire back wall of the establishment, were carved symbols and engravings dedicating the establishment to the glory of her Majesty, the Scarlet Queen.

Taking the anachronisms and mistitling of the Empress in stride, Cub finds herself a seat and sits down with the expectation of being served swiftly clear in her demeanor.

The old teahouse proprietor rolls out the ornate tea cart and accomplishes the necessary brewing rituals, her slow deliberate pace a surprisingly welcome change. Something about the atmosphere of the quaint teahouse refreshed Cub. It was like being back in civilization. The other, red-headbanded Exalts that joined her on her trip into the town were begrudgingly guided to a less-ornate wooden side table less near to the oddly mistitled edifice in the Empress's honor. A few minutes later, a middle-aged man, presumably the proprietor's son and the chef, wheeled out the dumpling cart, loaded with steaming bamboo baskets. The less noble Exalts greedily dug in, pointing to various dumplings and asking what they were called, receiving the traditional name in Old Realm for each type. Even Cub temporarily broke her serene appearance by selecting a small basket of dumplings, eating them delicately, without a speck of the various sauces that were provided managing to stain her ornate dress. They were really damn fucking good dumplings.

After sampling the tea and the dumplings, Cub offers a nod and a smile to the chef in acknowledgment of his skill.

Just as Cub skillfully lifted the final remaining dumpling to her mouth, her immediate hopes of signaling to chef so that she could order more dumplings were dashed by the entrance of a new visitor to the teahouse. The man was very tall, even for Lushfield standards, and extraordinarily skinny. Dressed in a long white and jade-green Hanfu that went all the way down to his ankles, he distinctly reminded Cub of a string bean. The man approached Cub and bowed deeply. "Permission to join the Lady?" he asked in High Realm in a sweet tenor voice.

"By all means," she answered courteously and directed him to sit with an elegant gesture.

"Your eminent presence in our little corner of creation ennobles even the least among us" the man said, attempting to greatly flatter Cub. "I am Unfettered Willow Honto, and it gives me the most splendid delight to welcome you to Lushfield." He signaled to their surroundings in the teahouse. "I hope you were able to appreciate the small pleasures that we are able to enjoy from time to time." He grinned politely. "Though I'm sure it is nothing in comparison to the daily wonders of the Blessed Isle."

"The Isle will attend to itself," Cub answers, "and what you have here is the loveliest teahouse I have had the pleasure of visiting since I departed those faraway shores," she continues honestly while studying the man before her. His crude flattering would have him laughed out of any salon of substance, but it was charming in its own way, to see him try. "It is a pleasure to meet you Unfettered Willow Honto, you may call me Persistent Cub," she finishes, making it clear that the name she is traveling under is not the one her mother gave her.

"Persistent Cub," Honto repeats, bowing his head courteously, indicating to Cub that she is, for the first time in a long while, in polite company where her mastery of manners does not go unappreciated. "You credit us greatly." He smiles. His demeanor is extraordinarily stoic, and Cub is unable to get a read on the man. "Though I suspect you have not seen an establishment exactly like this in quite some time" he says, with a hint of wry humor crawling into his voice. "Perhaps not even since you last visited the Museum of our Resplendent Exalted Ancestors in the Imperial City, where I am told guests can spend a few hours in a teahouse strikingly like ours. I am assured that the tea there is not nearly as good as Madam Peregrine's" he says, indicating to the old lady who had welcomed Cub earlier. "But I suspect they were being exceedingly polite."

"Similar, to be sure," she admits with a slight bow of her head, "but never quite the same. For one, I believe that even in that Museum, there are no references to a queen, Scarlet or otherwise," she adds, offering him a chance to explain should he wish to.

"Ahh, yes." Honto smiles, glancing up at the inscription on the wall dedicating the teahouse in eternal service to Her True Majesty the Scarlet Queen. "That is a odd peculiarity of our small community, owing to its isolation and the fact that, when our forefathers came here from their homeland, Her Imperial Majesty did not yet prefer to publicly refer to herself as the Scarlet Empress." He continued: "Unfortunately, our people are not well-traveled and are rather set is their ways, so I hope you will not hold it against us or take it as any sort of slight or intended disrespect. In fact, I have been assured by eminent legal counsel that the Empress's titles as the Scarlet Queen of the Realm and as the Shogun of House Scarlet still remain fully legally intact, have in no way been abrogated, and that use of those titles cannot, as a matter of a number of binding rulings in the tribunal of Lèse-Majesté, be construed to denigrate her Imperial Majesty in any fashion.

"Oh, of course," she answers, seemingly unconcerned, "I would never dream of holding something like that against you or yours, as I'm sure her Majesty wouldn't either should she happen to come by to sample your excellent dumplings," she adds with a disarming smile.
"Do you import the tea, or is it locally produced?" She asks and raises her cup while he has a chance to answer.

"Oh" he notes, gracefully receiving a teacup from Madam Peregrine and letting her fill the cup from the clay teapot. "Nearly everything you see in Lushfield is locally produced. I believe Madam Peregrine grows it herself, from a small plot on her family's allotment, just like her mother, who she inherited this teahouse from." He smells the vapors coming off the hot brewed tea and smiles, taking the smallest sip and pondering. "To boast only slightly, our people are renown in the Riverlands for the abundance of their farms and the quality of their produce. It is, undoubtedly, a function of our ancestral heritage and farming tradition. Our forefathers who founded our dominion were originally farmers from the Arjuf province."

"The bounty of Arjuf and the skill of its farmers is famous across Creation," Cub acknowledges as she puts down her cup and looks more closely at Honto. "Though of course that province does have some of the best land in all Creation, I am surprised and gratified your ancestors could find its like in the Riverlands," she says, leaving any speculation unsaid.

He smiled again. "Well, that is why they called it Lushfield." He examines Cub for a moment. "I take it that you're not from the Arjuf province, then?"

"No, I'm city-born and bred," she says, "I would be of little use to anyone in field or orchard," she adds with a smile.

"You should keep that to yourself around here." Honto chuckled. "Every eligible bachelor in Lushfield would surely sell their prized breeding sow for the chance to dance with you at the next fair, but if they found out that you couldn't tell the difference between a sickle and a shovel, you'd be entirely out of luck." He took another sip of tea. "So what has brought you to our small town? Madam Peregrine's tea is certainly exquisite, but I suspect that you did not travel all this way merely to study her brewing technique and to sample her son-in-law's dumplings."
Last edited by Plutonium on Mon Aug 09, 2021 2:54 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Meanwhile, Khi was poring over the calendar that Cold had retrieved. She had a gut feeling that there was something deeper to it that she could uncover hidden within. From Cub's description of the words used: "Disgusting duplicity" - it meant there had to be some sort of mystery that could be solved with the application of enough logical force. But what was it? 420 days of the year, broken into 15 months of 28 days each, plus the five days of calibration. Each day on the Immaculate calendar scheduled into tightly organised blocks of regulated prayer time dedicated to specific gods, to be lead by different officials at the temple. As she pored over the entries, the general rhythm of the Immaculate temple's system became more clear. On any given day, usually two major gods would receive regulated prayer in blocks of two hours each in the morning, following by a midday break. Then, in the afternoon, from eight to ten minor gods would each receive half-hour blocks of regulated prayer.

There must be a pattern, some irregularity Khi could discern. She rapidly began organizing the data, raiding Nisalta's stash of papers, quills and ink to develop frequency tables of all types, working at a breakneck speed, the ink barely having time to dry before she moved on to the next sheet of paper. She borrowed Cold's sewing kit for needles and Cub's hairpins, using them to fasten completed tables to the side of the inner wall of the wagon, turning it into her personal bulletin board. Where was it? Where was the duplicity? All in all, there were 791 regulated gods allocated prayer time. All forms of statistical analysis she applied found no outliers - every one of them received between 2.5 and 8.5 hours of prayer over the 420 days of the year, with a mean of 4.5 hours and a standard deviation of .62 hours. It was maddening. She had to go deeper to uncover the fraud.

If simple frequency analysis couldn't uncover the secret, maybe a correlation analysis then? Khi again raided Cold's sewing kit, pulling out his rainbow bobbins of thread. With the speed and precision only possible in a Chosen of the Unconquered Sun, she plunged into the web of falsehoods to find the strands of truth. She worked at a breakneck speed. She would close - she could sense it, taste it on her tongue. She connected hairpins with different color threads to describe relationships. There were patterns revealing themselves between the variables, things that couldn't be explained by random chance. But it was so much information - it would drive any mortal woman man to hold it all in her head. Trying to take it all in at once it all was like trying to drink all the water coming down an aquaduct. She had to look at it all together, once it was finally complete, to find the true explanation behind the patterns. Finally, the analysis was finished. The inner wall of the caravan was covered in papers, topped by a dense, tangled web of different colored thread. Khi was exhausted. Now to step back and see what she could make of her work.

Khi pulled her mask off, sweat staining her brows, short hair plastered to her face behind her mask. A kind of bone-deep exhaustion suffused her, like she had stayed awake for days, like a woman possessed. But it felt...good. Her heart sang, everything else except the mystery falling away behind her. She could feel the mark of the Unconquered Sun begin to burn atop her brow before she willed it to stop, mind closing around the flow of essence like a vice grip. The demon beside her, unable to keep pace, but unable to sleep, slumped, dematerialized in a corner, worn down to as best it could imitate exhaustion.

Someone had worked very hard to hide their evidence of corruption. Months ago, this would have taken Khi and Sadrica days, if not weeks, to break apart, but Khi hardly noticed. She'd run it through a dozen numerology systems, including several devised by inhuman minds. A dozen stenographies she'd devised, a couple that she toyed with under the assumption the calendar itself was a message, subtexts buried so deep within it that they intimated things only to minds shaped by the correct language, or even by the the thought patterns of certain exaltations. There was a pattern here, she could feel it, sweet and pungent on her tongue, so obtuse that its creators felt themselves safe in whatever corruption they were engaged in. The gall, the arrogance offended her. Khi had something of an orderly streak- to see something consciously pushed out of place, to see the order assigned to these people defiled so subtly for their own aims...

She pushed the hot part of the anger, the part that urged her to Make The Law Heard down, but kept the motivation. This was the end, she could feel it, in the same way she could feel the last of her reserve of power. It was less than she'd like, but she was serving something larger than herself, something more important. She pushed the last of her power out, letting the insight loose. It was like shattering the last bricks of a dam. Insights, connections, finally clicked. The author of this prayer rota, and that pray rota, writing at this angle, only on these certain days, changing the prescribed prayers on regular days, but only regular from a certain numbering...another author...another hair's breadth outside the mean time. The flow of information transcended words, and Khi simply understood what happened. She could trace the leaps of logic, each step that had been taken to conceal her gaze, each time the prayers went too long or too short by only an unnoticable amount, each amendment, they all painted a picture before her.

She slumped back, exhausted, satisfied, finally understanding.

And there it was - the puzzle pieces finally locked into place. Each interlocking condition and variable was compared against every other to discern the underlying pattern. Ten thousand hypotheses were tested and discarded in each heartbeat. But the eyes of the lawgiver do not blink under even the brightest lights. A million little coincidences, and nine-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine of them nothing more than random noise, disproved and contradicted by some other data point. Except for one.

Tramazia the Rhizome, God of Outward-Growing Roots. On paper, entirely unexceptional, a similar prayer profile to dozens of other gods. 6.5 hours of regulated prayer time allotted, all in blocks of 30 minutes. 13 days of the year. Except for each of those 13 days, the Archimandrite or Vice-Archimandrite were scheduled to oversee prayer. In the aggregate, the Archimandrite only oversaw prayers for approximately one in fifteen days and the Vice-Archimandrite one in seven. This could still be another random coincidence – there were in fact 7 other gods that met this criteria. But it still didn’t provide any explanation for the fact that, for every single one of those 13 days, Tramezia’s entry was the first of the 30-minute prayer sessions, to be followed by eleven other 30-minute blocks of regulated prayer.

That’s where the embezzlement was occurring, and that’s how it was concealed. For every day in which Tramezia was allocated 30 minutes of prayer, the Archimandrite or Vice Archimandrite would be managing the altar for the day. When Tramezia’s prayer session was over, they would begin prayers to the next god, but the Archimandrite or Vice-Archimandrite wouldn’t complete the necessary alterations to correctly re-orient the direction of flow. Instead, it would continue to trickle to Tramezia, every time, for the next five and a half hours. Tramezia wasn’t receiving 6.5 hours of regulated prayer a year - He was receiving 78 hours – twelve times as much as he was supposed to, and nearly 10 times as much as any other god on the calendar.

Spoiler
Khi: The keys: I will use ten magistrate eyes to enhance this, as well as crafty observation method, with the aim of recreating their use, and routines in the temple through reconstructing patterns people would walk through based on a logical layout of the temple, an understanding of what goes on in there on a daily basis from the prayer calendar (although with ten magistrate eyes I'll notice if they don't line up) based on patterns of use for the keys. Also, excellency for 9. Spending a total of 17 motes on this because why the hell not. (all from personal, except the 5 mute motes from Crafty Observation Method, which are coming from peripheral.

*rolls 18 dice w/ 1 autosuccess, doubling nines*

Dicebot: you rolled 1,1,2,2,4,5,5,5,6,7,8,8,8,9,9,9,10,10 for a total of 15 successes

Plutonium: I'm going to treat the use here of 10 Magistrate Eyes according to it's alternative function as a "profile character" action on the keys in order to investigate them in a Sherlock Holmes-ian fashion, which will trigger Watchman's Infallible Eye when you locate a probable door that the keys open in the future, or a probable person who uses the keys. Since it's a distinct type of action (profile character), it's not going to carry over to a separate case scene action on the calendar.

Khi: Alright that's fun. Anyway, I'll take the information I got from that to guide where I want to take my investigation for the prayer calendar, Which is, in all likelyhood, facing a similar number of dice. Hopefully, this should tag both people who use these keys regularly and the doors they go to with Watchman's Infallible Eye. (Dice pool being perception 4 + investigation 5 + Excellency 9 + Double nines and a free success from Crafty Observation Method. It's also infallible, but that seems academic). Next charm on the buylist is Divine Induction Technique, because god damn do these excellencies burn through my mote pool. Hm, I could probably use these two with Evidence-Discerning Method to profile the Archimandrite from here...

Plutonium: Alright, so Khi, with respect to the calendar, I'm going to treat it as a collection of thousands of pieces of unexamined evidence (each entry being its own piece of potential evidence). To draw any conclusions from it, you first examine and organize those thousands of pieces of unexamined evidence into a coherent "scene" via an Intelligence + Investigate extended action at Difficult 2, Goal 10, with an interval of 1 hour. In essence, what you are doing is compiling it together into an organized fashion (if this were a movie, this would be the montage where you're pinning stuff up on a big corkboard with the strings between them). Once you've done that, you can case the scene you've created (using whatever case scene charms you want like 10ME) as the "A-HA!" moment to crack the case.

Khi: Doesn’t 10 magistrate eyes cut down the time interval to to seconds?

Plutonium: To case a scene. However, here you have no scene to case yet.

Khi: Ah, okay, checks out. Alrighty. Rolling on this first interval- Dice pool is 4 intelligence + 5 Investigation + 9 excellency. Not supplemented by Crafty Observation Method, regrettably. 18 dice.

Dicebot: you rolled 2,2,2,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,6,6,6,7,8,8,10,10 for a total of 7 successes.

Khi: So that's 5 banked for the first hour. I'll note that I spent 9 motes on that, to avoid glowing. Second roll will be only 14 dice, as I have to keep 5 motes handy to spend on it, it being a 10 magistrate eyes at the end of it.

Dicebot: you rolled 1,1,1,2,2,4,4,6,6,6,7,9,10,10 for a total of 6 successes.

Khi: ONE SUCCESS OFF. (That's 4 Int + 5 Investigate + 5 Excellency from the personal Pool). 9/10. I am being taunted

Plutonium: so I think it's difficult 2, goal 10. So one success for meeting, and one for every in excess. So you got it.

Khi: Oh you get a success for meeting it? TIL.

Plutonium: yeah, so difficulty 2 check. Needs 2 successes to pass.

Khi: Yeah, I just missed that you got the success also for just succeeding. They hid this pretty darn well then.

Plutonium: yeah this portion isn't necessarily so difficult. It just would take a long time if you weren't an investigation supernal. I'll write something up. Now that you've successfully generated the scene, time to case it. Crack the code. If you want to describe your case scene action, I'll give you a stunt.

Khi: I may need the stunt, tbh, I have all of 5 motes left. I'll write it up

Plutonium: this is actually, quite literally something that 10 magistrate's eyes is perfect for.

Khi: Yeah, I mean, it literally cannot fail, yeah

Plutonium: Khi's doing something that would normally required a team of forensic auditors. This is peak exalted. Rorensically auditing the prayer calendar of a suspected heretical immaculate church.

Khi: Yeah, I'll be honest I probably should have read some Sherlock Holmes pastiche before writing a character who's central powerset is Sherlock Holmes bullshit. It's hard to write convincingly. With the key thing I was like 'what's a believable thing someone smarter than me, with extremely specific hypercompetence could pull from this. And settled on absurd wear analysis/

Plutonium: I'll handle that. You can just deal with Khi's mind. Blowing your entire motepool on something like this is pretty hardcore.

Khi: Yeah I may need to sit and drink that tea.

Plutonium: You're becoming one with the math.

Khi: Hey wait, can constantly burning full excellencies on everything that comes her way count as starting training for Divine Induction Technique?

Plutonium: Definitely.
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*Meanwhile, back at the Tea House*

Unfettered Willow Honto's eyes imperceptibly narrowed at Cub's statement that she was truly a dynastic tourist who simply wanted to visit the rural town-state of Lushfield. Honto was born and bred in Lushfield - but he was no bumpkin. He had traveled throughout his years, and gained some knowledge of the outside world and Dynastic society. What sort of Dynastic woman would live out of a wagon, travel more than a hundred miles from anywhere one could get a decent manicure, all for the sake of minor rumors? "Well then," he frowned, polishing off his tea and emphatically placing the upside-down cup against the stone table with a perceptible clink "You found us out then." He shook his head. "Our secret, highly-illegal dragon-breeding operation has been discovered!" he called out to everyone in the room. He giggles, expecting Cub to join in his laughter at the joke, which was meant to break the ice so they could discuss with candor, rather than the endless cycle of social niceties that dominated such introductions.

Cub does giggle prettily when expected, seemingly charmed by the Outcase with delusions of grandeur. "Illegal you say, perhaps I should have brought along an Imperial Magistrate if that's the case?" She looks thoughtful for a moment before smirking and adding, "though likely they would be more interested in your success than your legality."

Honto couldn't get a read on the woman's true intentions. Likely, she was holding back, playing a coy game of 'who will come begging first' as dynasts tend to do in their negotiations. It functioned exceedingly well at setting up a schoolyard-style pecking order, with them on top. It drove provincial-types used to directness absolutely mad. Very well, he could wait a while. "Unfortunately, while I would love nothing more than to luxuriate in your lovely presence and continue to enjoy Madam Peregrine's tea, a town's business never ceases. I am, in fact, the Seneschal of all of Lushfield, and you would be surprised at the impositions on my free time that entails. If you would like to speak to me for any reason, however, my offices are on the top floor of the town's government building. It's the large one - you can't miss it" he says, flashing a smile. "You can call on me at any time, and you, of course, would always be welcome." He stood up and bowed courteously, but did not immediately depart, lingering ever so slightly just in case Cub's resolve would break and she would make whatever her ask was going to be.

"Before you go," Cub answers with a lingering look, "perhaps you could tell me a little about your town? Or at least which sights to see on my first day."

Honto's heels clicked on the stone tile floor as he stopped in his tracks, gracefully turning back to face Cub. He had a twinkle in his eye - his gambit had worked! By making the first request, Cub had conceded defeat in this petty little power battle of theirs. Victory in the first round was his! "But of course! It would be my delight to regale you with the history of our little corner of creation. I, however, was being truthful about the need to attend to my duties. That being said, if you and your guests are amenable, you all are graciously invited to join me and some of the other luminaries of our town for dinner tonight at my residence." He pulled out a small, formal card with his name, title, and address on it, and extended it to Cub in the formal pose of offering.

Cub gives the card a quick look, but makes no move to take it as she turns her gaze back on the Dragon-Blooded. "And what of their visa class? May they speak, or indeed be in the city itself at so late an hour?"

"Ahh, the visa policy, with the headbands is a... convenience we implement for bureaucratic purposes. It is a very useful, to be certain, in dealing with the common people of the Riverlands, which is our normal state of affairs. However, in this situation it may be said to be a tad overzealous. For purposes of avoiding any public affair, your..." he looked at the other Exalts with Cub for the first time "traveling companions should remain with you and comply with the headband requirements while in the town streets, but they may remove them and speak and act as freely as any honest subject once they have arrived at my home. Dinner begins 30 minutes before sundown, so you should encounter no problems on your journey there, and I will task two deputy magistrates to guide your companions back afterwords. You, of course, and your personal maidservant are welcome to remain at my home for the night as my guest, and I shall have bedchambers prepared."

Cub reaches out to take the man's card, "that is a very generous offer, and I'm sure we'll be happy to accept," she answers with a smile.

"Wonderful" Honto says, his heels clicking on the floor as he ascends to his full height. "We shall expect you tonight." He makes his exit from the teahouse. The rest of the Exalts eyed Cub, wondering just what had happened there.

Cub places the card insider her robes, leans back and takes another drink from her tea.

Spoiler
Plutonium: Honto is going to perform a read intentions check on you.

Cub: Come at me! I kinda feel like what I've already written works as stunting Guile. If you agree, that puts my Guile to 8+stunt before activating further Charms, which I can't really afford.

Cold: Already blew your mote allowance Cub? I knows the feeling.

Cub: I shall pay 1 mote for +1 Guile with Shadow Over Day. If he throws Charms at me. If he's just rolling his pool, I'll be fine, I think.

Warden: There's always WP it you are really desperate for extra guile

Cub: Don't think I am. Cub is like the Guilest chargen character who ever guiled. How much info do I have on his roll before I decide my defense?

Plutonium: More specifically, he is going to be activating Auspicious First Meeting Attitude in order to make a read intentions check against you and combine it with an instill action to create a positive minor tie to him, and to have it attack your resolve instead of your guile.

Cub: No fair!

Khi: Well that’s unfortunate

Cold: Ohh, shenanigans. Do not underestimate the DB's

Plutonium: He announces first, so you don't need to activate guile-enhancing responses just yet at least. He's also boosting it with two autos.

Cub: Well, I can't activate the guile-enhancers since the attack is against Resolve.

Cold: well the attack targets the lowest of resolve or guile.

Cub: He does have to overcome my Major Tie of contempt, though, I'll match him and throw 4m at raising my base Resolve to 6.

Cold: Resolve 9 wow.

Cub: Cub is a social character who is not a glass-cannon. Rare, I know.

Plutonium: *rolls 8 dice w/ two autosuccesses*

Dicebot: you rolled 1,1,3,4,5,5,5,8 for a total of 3 successes

Cub: hah! I am not alone!

Plutonium: For the record, I actually botched with Nisalta, on IIRC 6 dice.

Cub: I thought she jumped very quickly to that wrong conclusion. Botching makes sense. Also, for the record: Cub is fully capable of looking down on this guy for being a dragon-blooded and for being an inferior kind of dragon-blooded. She's multitalented like that.

Warden: Lol. Glorious exalted looking down prana

Cub: Superior Solar Condescension. She's got the upgrade.

Plutonium: *Principal Skinner Pathetic.jpg*

Cub: See this is the problem. Though they're technically speaking the same language, Cub and Honto just aren't speaking on the same terms. She can't really imagine being more direct with a stranger. "What do you want from me? To say what I mean? Why don't you also ask me to strip naked and sing?"

Plutonium: Thus the dance of the dynasts.

Cub: Indeed, and leaving like this is unforgivably rude.

Plutonium: Maybe you should barge into his office and demand satisfaction.

Cub: And stoop to his level? Never!

Khi: Wait when he said maid? I assume he means Khi, yes?

Plutonium: Yes.

Khi: Lmao. This will be interesting

Plutonium: He got a full report from the border agents, as any good senechal should

Cub: that part of his offer is one of those things, I believe we can refuse without much cost

Plutonium: Obviously the submissive woman traveling in the carriage with the dynast must be her personal maidservant

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Khi emerges from the wagon, visibly exhausted, mask reattached to her face. "All that, and I never got any tea" she muses to herself.

After taking her time to finish her drink and enjoy the semblance of civilization that the tea house brought, Cub rises to return to the Circle's carriage with news of their invitation to dine with the Seneschal and his closest confidantes. Before actually departing, though, she makes sure to ask Madam Peregrine if it would be possible to purchase a pot of tea and a box to keep it warm so that she could bring it with her, or failing that a bag of the madam's excellent leaf.

Regardless of the answer, Cub leads her fellow Exalts back and presents Honto's proposition to them all.

Scales nods, considering. “It’s possible we could gain key information on the leadership from this. I suggest we go.” If the most important people in Lushfield will be there, at least one must know of the wellspring.

"it sounds like a good lead." Cold speaks up. "Not sure how much use I would be though. Unless you think having a cat sneak around or something could help."

"It is certainly a potentially very useful dinner," Cub nods, "but we should perhaps first consider how openly we wish to interact with them."

"I was rather coy at the initial meeting with the Seneschal, and I do not believe we can come right out and ask them the questions we want answers to, but where in the middle between those two extremes should we place ourselves?"

Warden rubbed his chin, pondering the question. "Somehow, I doubt we will just stumble upon this Wellspring if we don't try to at least bring the topic up. But of course, they might react very badly depending on what it is. Maybe if we found a Lushfielder we can trust or have an in on?"

Khi walked over from the wagon, and spoke only once assured that she couldn't be overheard, "I think the wellspring may not be the only thing of interest here, and certainly not the only reason for the fertility. A local fertility god has been receiving an inordinate amount of prayer- something in the order of ten times that of the other gods. As Cold suspected, the Archimandrite and Vice-Archimandrite have corrupted the prayer calendar for their own means. It doesn't explain the exaltation rates, but it does explain some of the region's fecundity"

“Perhaps this god is using the wellspring to appear more powerful than they really are, resulting in greater devotion."
While gods aren’t human, all too many have human greed, Scales thinks, leaving it unspoken.

"It's possible. I'd need to get my eyes on things to be sure. I'd know the guilty at a glance, and have a better idea of their indiscretions if I were there in person. I am coming with you to this dinner, if it please you, Cub. The man at the gate seemed to think I was your servant. I see no reason to disabuse anyone of that illusion," Khi said, her voice a little less flat than usual. Something in this seems to have...energized the masked woman.

Cold didn't really see the problem with placating a god of fertility so that the people you cared about were able to sleep with their bellies full. He remembered the elders beseech the gods with sacrifice and song to try and get their tribe through hard times. Still, if they were covering it up, there probably had to be more going on.

"Well the Archimandrite and Vice-Archimandrite are also secretly screwing over their vows and doing their best to keep that secret. Maybe you can get them to talk if you blackmail them with it?"

Warden spoke up: "I wonder why it is such a secret. Their wealth is based entirely on their agriculture, surely they could promote an agricultural god to a position of prominence without resorting to such underhanded means."

"Not without breaking with the Immaculate Philosophy," Cub answers. "This is a fraud perpetrated against the citizens, and to a lesser extent the gods they should be praying to at that time, and their fear the backlash from that side."

"I'm curious how long this has gone on. Is this a recent thing, perhaps to make up for the Wellspring weakening, or has it been going on for centuries? As for blackmail, that is a dangerous weapon to use since their credibility is so much greater than ours, it is by no means given that we will be believed if we come out and say that they have been corrupting the prayer calendar."

"Speaking of the gods, wouldn't they know that their prayer is being redirected to this other god? Maybe if we talk to them we can wheedle some information out of them?" Cold offered. "I mean, they probably see like they're being robbed and might be willing to help us out a little bit if it means they get their place on the calendar back?" Cold looked towards Khi, "Are there any gods who got cheated out of more prayer then others?"

"I honestly don't know," Cub muses, "I've never dealt with gods directly." She turns a questioning look to Khi and Warden.

"I feel I should clarify" responded Khi - "to call Tramazia the Rhyzome a fertility god is something of a conjecture. They are, more properly, the god of Outward-Growing Roots. I doubt the other gods are aware of the duplicity at all. The effort to conceal it were significant. I cannot speak to how long it has been going on- although a system as carefully designed as this takes time and intelligence to put together," Khi says, "It has never been my place to deal with gods- that was the duty of my betters,"

---

After reconvening at the caravan paddock and comparing notes on what they had learned, the Exalts' attention turned towards the invitation that Cub had received for the dinner party tonight. According to Cub, refusal to attend would be viewed as grossly impolite, and as she had already inquired into bring along the others, in the guise of her retinue (as befitting her prestige), their failure to attend would reflect poorly on the reputation she had cultivated. Secretly, most of them relished the thought of a good meal after many weeks or months of traveling. However, in order to convincingly pass as a noblewoman's traveling companions, especially given their diversity, they agreed that they must each develop a cover story. Thus, each of them took a few moments to come up with an explanation regarding the role they served in Cub's retinue, including how they came to be Cub's traveling companion, and shared it with the others. Bodyguard, Maidservant, Spiritual Advisor, Bookkeeper, Tutor, Trainer, Translator, Guide, Friend, and more - there were opportunities for all.

*Something simple, but useful. A guide for a dynast traveling the world should work.* thought Scales. "I was hired by Cub many months ago, when she first arrived in the threshold. She needed a guide to the land, I needed money to settle some debts, it was a match made in Yu-Shan."

"Or Nexus, as the case may be," Cub adds with a wry smile. "That makes sense, assuming you can actually fake being a guide to the Scavenger Lands. Presumably these people know the area fairly well, and would be able to ask you about various places."

“A valid point.” replied Scales. He starts rummaging through his maps, studying them to try to pin the eastern threshold in his mind.

“Do you speak rivertongue?” Khī looked at him intently. Behind her mask, Scales could see the faintest glimmer of slate-grey eyes, watching him intently. It’s hard not to get the feeling that the masked woman is taking your disguise apart.

“I do not, but judging by the disdain Cold said they had for the rest of the threshold, it seems likely that they would not bother questioning me in Rivertongue.”

---

"I think I will pretend to be a bodyguard you hired." stated Warden. "A godblooded of some kind, to explain the Daiklave. There's always mercenaries like that looking for pay, especially in places like Nexus."

"Who was your divine parent?" Cub asks, pressing Warden about his supposed background."

Warden stroked his beard as he pondered the question. "Good question. Probably something minor that wouldn't require any obvious manifestations."

"Maybe some kind of minor warrior god?" Cold piped up. "It makes sense that somebody like that could use artifact weapons and would be very good in a fight without needing to have any overt displays of god hood." Cold scratched his chin. He couldn't pretend to be a body guard, not in Hidden-Reed's shape. She didn't look anything like a warrior. The problem was he didn't know if he could pull off a good servant impression either. "I think a normal servant would work for me," Cold eventually settled on that.. "Or poison tester, but that would be a strange thing to have I think."

Warden nodded at Cold. "A minor warrior deity works, yes. Perhaps I'm not even fully aware of my father's exact name and nature. Many spirits don't pay much attention to their children."

---

Khi looked the pale, blue-haired westerner over critically, “You hardly look local, you don’t sound local, you see where even an isolationist might notice something off about a local guide?”

Khī motioned for the necromancer to come closer to her. She wasn’t an excellent accent coach, but she vividly recalled an afternoon with spent with one of the descendants of Elloge, at one of Mara’s little garden parties, where her lover would trot her out as a little party trick. And she’d learned a little party trick of her own there. “That may be a deception that could fool a yokel, but we need to respect that the blood of dragons flows in our hosts. They will be harder to fool than most. Come here. I’ll help you with that accent of yours.”

*I was never that good at deception, while Khi seems to be a master; I should follow her lead on this.* Scales stands up and moves closer. “How shall we begin?”

"Okay, after me; the rain in Sijan falls mainly on the plain. Yes, just like that. Now that 'l'? The Riverlanders pull that a little bit more up into the nose. Okay, again," Khi turned away from scales for a moment, "Warden, don't think you're getting away with just that. You too, over here. Were you a priest before? A monk? Something religious, yes? You carry a lot of that in your posture. Self-assuredness that comes from spiritual practice, and not confidence in your sword arm," The man most assuredly had a lot of both, but, Warden needed a little more swagger and bravado if he was going to come off as a mercenary.

With a slight frown, Warden did as he was asked. At her words, he tried to put more swagger in his stance, to somewhat mixed success. "I mean, I do have plenty of confidence in my sword arm. I do not carry this sword just for show."

---

"I think I am from here", the Sword Maiden offers, "but while I know my way around the Riverlands, I don't know why - so offer me up as a bodyguard or translator." She shrugged. "I mean I do speak Riverspeak. And High Realm. And Old Realm. Between the River Kingdoms, the Satrapies and the odd God of Roads and Travellers, I would've been useful, if our journey hadn't been as easy as it was. And, the bodyguard thing, well" she smiles a crooked smile and points at herself. She's still wearing some lacquered leather armor under her silken robe, and the long, slender sword dangles innocently on her hip. "Probably bodyguard. Then nobody talks to me. I don't dislike that, but..." She shrugs, again.

"I'm not a great liar, is what I've been told when I lost at cards. A lot." When Scales stands up, she's immediately infected by his immediacy. "If our retinue was bigger, you could probably pass me off as the entertainment." The skeptical looks at her continue. Nameless fake-coughs into her closed fist, and eyes the others. "Yeah. Bodyguard. Sorry."

Khi spared Nameless a glance. "The less we have to make any of you lie, the easiest this is going to be. Nothing I can do is going to pass a detailed inspection, so you want to keep things as close to who we actually are as possible. No lies we don't need to make. Our lady brought you along as a curiosity- a master swordswoman with no memory. Just like Warden, you could be a god-blooded or a smaller exigent. Like an extremely deadly desk ornament," Khi's body language relaxes, making it clear she meant it fondly.

Khi turns back to Warden. The man was a brick wall in comparison to her, and he had a head or two of height on the former slave. Khi was used to being physically overshadowed, but even so. "Okay, this muscle here?" she said, touching the small of his back, "I'm going to touch you, please don't take this poorly. Good. this muscle? Relax that. Move your weight a little forward, your foot goes a little more out. Think of it like always being a little closer to combat ready," she speaks rapidly, while adjusting his collar down, and unbuttoning a button, "I was never trained on steel, but I imagine someone who's maybe less skilled carries a lot more...more cockiness with them. I know what it looks like, not what the High Realm for it is. Like you respect me less, because you know you could kill me without much of a thought," She nodded at him, "Do you understand what I mean?"

[b[Warden[/b] tried to put Khi's lesson into practice, squaring his shoulders, then looking down at her with what he hoped was the right kind of glare. "How is this?"

"Oh, I know, I'm certain you could kill me faster than I could blink if you felt so inclined," Khistood, looking back at Scales for a moment,"Okay, again, You're doing great, try to relax your tongue a little while you talk. See how Nameless talks? Nameless, open your mouth a bit while you talk so Scales can get a look,"

Scales also tries to emulate Nameless, to some amount of success.

"Better," Khi adjusts a bit of Warden's posture, and motions for him to come down a bit to tousle his hair. "That should do. Don't try too hard. There's no hiding that accent, so don't try. You're just from the southeast, if it comes up,"

"Almost, Scales", the Sword Maiden gives the Lunar a cheerful smile. "You can swallow your 'R's and 'L's a bit more, try this, after me: 'a loyal warrior will rarely worry while we rule'!" She nods encouragingly.

Khi smiles underneath the mask. This may just work. She'd had her doubts, but chosen, it seemed, learn fast. There was one of her companions left to cover- Cold. For a servant, she held herself high. She knew the beastman had been a king, once. It seemed the body language for that transcended across forms.

"Cub, to ensure you're up to date, you were given me as a gift for services rendered to Ysyr about four months ago. If anyone pries, allude to being in Prasad when a Wyld hunt was called. Ysyr is famous for the quality of their slaves, and that reputation should carry us. Would you prefer Khi aka Cub ar White Hook, or Khi aka Bellara ar White Hook? I don't know which name you gave them," She turned to Cold, fixing him with the same, masked, emotionless stare, "Cold, come here. No one's going to look at you and think servant,"
smiles underneath the mask. This may just work. She'd had her doubts, but chosen, it seemed, learn fast. There was one of her companions left to cover- Cold. For a servant, she held herself high. She knew the beastman had been a king, once. It seemed the body language for that transcended across forms.

Cold couldn't help but feel a slight sense of unease tickling at the back of his mind as Khi looked at him. Eyes glinting behind a featureless mask. He didn't look right. It was like the elders trying to ram some manners and tact into him all over again. He hadn't enjoyed it then and he had no doubts that he wasn't going to enjoy it today. "What do you mean? This form is literally one I took from a servant girl." Cold muttered, but trudged over anyway. Perfectly willing to complain a little, but unwilling to actually screw over the circle's chances.

Khi replied: "Certainly, you took the form of a servant girl, but you still carry yourself like a king. You can look me in the eyes, sure, because as far as the Lushfielders are concerned we're equals. But don't address Cub if she doesn't address you first. Don't talk to anyone unless they talk to you. Don't make eye contact. Head down," Khi walks over to meet Cold, reaches up, gently behind his head and tilts it down, "You need to carry more tension in you. Did your parents ever beat you when you were a child? Remember that feeling. Hold that with you."

"A loyal warrior will rarely worry while we rule. How was that?" asked Scales. *That is an odd analogy. Khi sounds like she's speaking from experience.*

Cold might've not have been beaten by his parents when he was a kid. But he sure as hell remembered the many times they got on his ass when he had screwed up or shirked some kinda chore. He had honestly preferred a spanking sometimes. His mother had a way of wielding guilt and disappointment like a weapon. And his dad wielded embarrassment and consequences just as well. "Fine," Cold grumbles as he follows Khi's advice. Trying to remember the time when his dad had called him out in front of nearly the entire tribe and forced him to explain what he had done. Even now, more then a decade later and with divine power coursing through his soul. It still made him want to slink away with his tail between his legs. Even when he didn't have a tail.
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The Exalts each proposed a suitable cover story, and together they worked to refine their new identities. Together they filled in obvious gaps or incongruities in stories that might come up in casual conversation, refining mannerisms or accents to better fit one’s supposed station in life.

Soon the hour grew near, and leaving Nisalta to watch over the wagon and the belongings they left there, together they begin to make their way through Lushfield town, to the north side where the opulent homes were which marked the small nation’s elite. The streets of Lushfield town were laid out in a precise manner, indicative of being architecturally influenced from the beginning by a highly orderly way of living. The card that Honto gave to Cub had a stylized drawing of the façade of his opulent residence on it, along with a street address which made it easy to locate.

Honto’s residence was, obviously to any student of architecture, built in the traditional East Fuya style – a rectangular compound formed of many adjoining buildings with triangularly-shaped, curved overhanging roofs, surrounding a central atrium garden. Around the residence were dozens of carefully pruned trees, giving the illusion of enclosing the whole residence in a mountain forest, which was amplified the atmosphere provided by setting sun. At the center of the atrium, and rising up above it, was a pine tree that exhibited the characteristic look of having lived its entire life on a windy mountainside, with the trunk and each branch curving nearly horizontally, all aligned the direction that would be marked by the howling winds. Historically, these were called ten-talent trees, for the supposed price that that could be fetched for one that spent its entire life on the side of the Blessed Mountain. Far more commonly, the effect could also be achieved through laborious effort by a master arborist over many decades.

Arriving at the wide open entrance of the gatehouse in front of the main residence, the Exalts were greeted by an elderly servant who bowed to them as they approached. Inside the gatehouse, the obsequious but firm servant approached each of those who were not dressed to Honto’s apparent standards with a plain-but-not-ugly Shenyi robe and a pair of embroidered slippers, lingering to accept their removed footwear and store it with the others in small footwear cubbies – apparently there had been a number of arrivals to the party already, given the number that were occupied.

With the gatehouse-servant’s approval of the Exalts' current state of dress, they were permitted to pass into the open-air foyer beyond the gatehouse, and to approach the square arched gate of the main residence, with its two green-painted iron doors flung open into the atrium and its lavish garden, dominated by the Ten-Talent Tree. There were a number of guests already lingering around, nibbling on hors d’ouevres provided by a number of uniformed waiters and waitresses and making light conversation. The Exalts joined in the smalltalk and/or the snacking according to each of their personalities (or assumed personalities, as may be). Nearly all the guests were excited to make Cub’s acquaintance, and were extremely deferential to her presence, to the point where she felt like a minor celebrity. Honto was nowhere to be seen, nor were Celcine or Rock, the two leaders of the Immaculate Temple that Cold had spied on. Being the chosen of Luna and the Unconquered Sun, the Exalts were able to easily discern that, while these guests were all minor town luminaries for which it would have been impolite for Honto to not invite to such an occasion, none of them were of substantial importance or power. In fact, from their body language and their supplications in the way they treated Cub, it was clear that they already considered themselves her social inferiors.

As the sun was setting, a few servants began lighting candles in multicolored, nearly translucent paper lanterns and hanging them along thin, nearly invisible strings or thin wires crisscrossing the atrium, wondrously illuminating the garden. After perhaps another half-hour of making acquaintances and associated courtesies and smalltalk, and grazing on finger food delicacies, the elderly gatehouse servant emerged from the large, two story main building in the back of the residence, wheeling out a waist-high large brass gong hanging in a wooden frame. He struck it underhand with a heavy cloth-headed mallet multiple times in succession, each new strike arriving as the reverberations from the prior were nearly dissipated. Finally, after five strikes, and when the garden was nearly silent, Honto emerged, dressed similarly to how he had met the Cub in the teahouse, but with a shawl of joined bamboo writing strips hanging from his shoulders, and a polished branched wooden formal crown on his head, his hair tied in a knot inside the crown with beaded strands elaborately passed through the branches of the crown and down his back.

“Greetings, my fellow loyal subjects of her True Majesty” Honto started, speaking from the elevated porch of the main residence building to the assembled town luminaries below the garden. Those in the garden raised their glasses in toast at the invocation of her Majesty’s name, some with murmurs of praise. “I want to thank you all for joining us tonight, at this celebration in the honor of our new guest, who has traveled so far to be with us.” A further round of murmers and whispers circled the room, and Honto allowed them to die away before continuing. “I am told that the dinner preparations are ready, so please begin making your way to your tables.” He gestures to his left and to his right, where servants positioned at the buildings at the sides of the residence pull on cords to open sliding doors, revealing softly illuminated rooms with dining tables set. “I want to thank you all for joining us for this impromptu celebration on a working day, and I hope to see you tomorrow morning, bright and early and sober!” The final line is met with general laughter from the crowd. While Honto was speaking, the elderly servant who wheeled out the gong had approached Cub and her retinue. As the laughter from Honto’s polite joke slowed, the servant spoke: “You and your associates are kindly invited to join the Seneschal at his private table tonight. Please follow me.” He begins heading towards the main residence building.
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An Aside Scene, taking place between Cub's tea with Honto, and, presumably, the circle's disguise/makeover:

[Several days later on the outskirts of Lushfield.]

When Cub, Warden, and Scales return to the carriage from their first foray into Lushfield town proper, Warden is carrying a wooden box of measuring roughly one foot by one foot by two feet. When Cub had left the camp, Khi had just vanished into the depths of the prayer calendar, and from the look of exhaustion visible even through the mask, it is clear that the journey has been harrowing.

"I am sorry we could not be of much help with your investigations," Cub says and gestures for Warden to put the box down. "But as a small measure of thanks, I did manage to procure some tea," she says. She opens the box and reveals a teapot carefully wrapped in cloth as well as a set of fine teacups similarly protected from any jostling they might be subjected to while being transported. She then kneels down on the ground, places the lid between them and starts unwrapping first the cups and then the pot, before finally pouring Khi a steaming hot cup of tea.

Last she pours for herself and offers the other Exalt a small smile while she raises her own cup and takes a delicate sip.

Khi's forehead is still slick with sweat beneath the mask when the tea group returns. She watches Cub with the same stoicism as she approaches most everything else in her life, and prepares to speak, to let her know it really was no trouble, that she had the investigation well in hand, and furthermore that without Cold she couldn't really have gotten started, but the words die in her mouth when Cub somehow produces a whole, hot teaset from a box. A small, traitorous gasp escapes from her lips as she takes the cup of tea and sits silently on the grass. "Thank you," she says, quietly, "You didn't have to go through such troubles on my behalf,"

"No, but I wanted to," she answers, projecting both amusement and earnestness with her voice. "And Madam Peregrine, the proprietress of the town's premier tea house was very accommodating in making this happen."

Khi was once again deeply thankful her mask covered her face, and, in this particular case, her blush, as she took a sip of tea through the carefully crafted wooden mouth. The tea, as it turned out, was quite good. Not in the style of the spiced chais of her homeland, but she could appreciate craft when she saw it. "Should I pay my compliments then to you, or the Madam Peregrine?" she said, a hint of a joke in her voice.

"While I am sure Madam Peregrine in principle approves of foreigners liking her tea, she only acted upon my request and in return for my coin, so while modesty prevents me from requesting it, I cannot say that it would be inappropriate to pay me any compliments you feel appropriate," Cub answers, now clearly more amused than earnest.

"I'm merely saying that it was no great trouble."

Khi chuckles. "Well, take of the fact that I will shortly be asking for a second cup what you will"
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Cold had not been happy when the old man had shoved slippers and a robe in his arms and told him to go change. He had been very tempted to tell the old man to mind his own business. there was nothing wrong the dress he had made himself. Hell he even considered playing dumb and acting like he didn't understand what he was saying.

But that probably wasn't the best idea right now. Especially because the rest of the circle was depending on him not sticking out like a sore thumb. So he took those clothes stalked off and changed.

Even though Cold had changed clothes. The old man still shook his head as soon as he saw cold. "Never seen a woman wear a Shenyi robe that badly," he stated before moving on towards the other guests. "I suppose you can't expect much from some outsiders." mortals might have missed it. But to Cold's enhanced hearing it was just as clear as a shout.

Cold walked back to the group. A pleasant fake smile on his face, but everybody in the circle noticed his eyelid twitching slightly.

Khi aka Cub ar White Hook followed dutifully a half-step behind Cub, completely silent. She'd refused the nicer clothing at the gate, as something that didn't befit someone of her station, but took a moment to adjust Cold's dress so she didn't stick out too much. If the rest of the circle had thought Khi servile and willing to blend in as just another part of the scenery before, Khi in her element was another thing entirely. Despite sticking out with her dark, plain clothing and unornamented wooden mask, Khi barely seemed to register to anyone as anything more than a servant. Her gaze rarely went higher than belt level, and she never spoke more than a few words at a time, and even then only when prompted. She never ate, but that may be something to put down to the mask not being able to allow food through. It occurs quickly to you that the Khi you had come to know was, in fact, at her most open and even social. It seemed hard to believe she'd orchestrated most of your disguises, and even harder to believe this was the woman you'd seen hardly a week ago sic a pair of blood apes on a fleeing group of mortals without blinking.

Khi, for her part, felt comfortable, perhaps more so than she'd been in months. A society gathering, in which she was all but invisible, able to freely examine everyone around her wasn't a situation she'd been in for far longer than she'd realized. There was. somewhere in the pit of her stomach, a turn of revulsion. It took her a moment to really identify it. She was, after all, a slave, and a very good one at that. She should be happy, wholly and completely, to get a chance to come back to the place she deserved to be in. But that was just it, wasn't it. She was being disloyal, wasn't she. Sadrica had barely been a Baidak more than a season and she'd already just attached herself to another woman , following her around like a puppy. Like her master, her lover, hadn't meant anything to her. What a stupid, disloyal creature she was. Yes, that's absolutely it. No other possible explanation. When she got Sadrica back, she'd have yet another thing to apologize for.

She pushed the self-loathing and recriminations back down. She didn't have the time for it, not now. It wasn't doing anyone any good to indulge herself like that. She busied herself by casting a critical eye over the crowd- not a man of them fit her profile for one of the frequent users of the keys, and, based on the way they were clothed, and the way they held themselves, not fitting into her profile, and therefore at most, likely, accessories. Honto, interestingly, didn't seem to be involved with either the keys or the calendar either. The handwriting she'd seen didn't match, and he was the wrong height, and his thumbs the wrong shape to have really contributed to the wear markings.

Warden accepted the change of dress without any fuss, after making sure he could still move easily in the new garments. Playing his role as a godblooded mercenary, he did his best to indulge in the snacks while talking as little as possible, mostly returning to loom ominously behind the back of his supposed employer when not busy with anything else.

Khi turned her gaze on him, unnoticeable with the mask she wore. Exalted, definitely. Carried himself with too much confidence, had too much deference not to be. Used to charming everyone around him. Thinks he's funny. Regrettably is actually funny. Wants something. Invited all of us. Wanted something Cub wouldn't give him. Wants information. Thinks he can pull it out of her companions. Respects Cub's ability to give no signals away. Doubts the others will have the same protection. Suspects something, in all likelihood. Doesn't suspect we're anathema. This is all conjecture, but, Khi thought, I couldn't be far off.

After putting the robe over his usual garments, Scales stays at the edges of the conversations, mainly observing and trying to not draw attention.

Cub had changed the Shifting Cloth once more and arrived at Honto's manor resplendent in robes of cerulean blue threaded with silver embroidery of cranes in flight over a sea of lotus flowers. With Khi's assistance, her hair has been artfully arranged around a golden centerpiece and decorated hairpins studded with sapphires.

Though their manners could hardly be more different, she is as much in her element here as Khi is, reading every word, turn of phrase, and gesture like words on the page of an open book. She has a smile for every man and a compliment for every woman, no one who but interacts with her for a second can help but leave with a favorable impression of her.

---

The elderly head servant led Cub and the group of Exalts with her into the main residence building, from where Honto had emerged earlier and where he had disappeared into. Following him deeper into the building, the wooden hallways lit by small ensconced braziers, they emerged into a spacious private dining room. The walls of the dining room were made of thin translucent paper in a wood lattice frame, generously illuminated from behind to project soft ambient light into the room. At the center of the room was a large, elevated wooden platform, around two feet high. On the platform was a low, long table, with cushions placed on the floor for diners to sit upon cross-legged, five on each side. The table was generously set, with a first course of salad greens already laid out, and drinks already poured.

Seated at the far side of the table was their host and four others. Honto was in the middle. To his immediate left was an aloof-looking, red-headed woman with red jade earrings and wearing an ornately decorated robe typical of the Immaculate order. To her left was a well-built, man with a stoic appearance shaved head, also wearing an Immaculate robe, very slightly less ornately decorated. Cold recognized both from earlier – the woman was the Archimandrite, Celcine, and the man was the Vice-Archimandrite, Rock.

To Honto’s immediate right was a stern-looking woman, who seemed to radiate a no-nonsense type of personality. Instead of a Hanfu, she was wearing ornate scale armor, each scale formed of shiny blue metal. Her hair was cropped short at barely below her ears, except for two long locks of hair at her temple that were braided. A matching helmet was at her side, removed out of courtesy to her host but carried with her. To her right was a grey-haired gentleman with an equally grey beard that came down to his chest. He appeared to be significantly older than the other four at the table, and was smoking a long pipe. His Hanfu was accentuated with an academic patch with an elaborately stylized peacock on it.

The servant gestured towards the cushion across from Honto, indicated that Persistent Cub was to take the central seat of honor. The other four seats, however, did not appear to be assigned, and the Exalts besides Khi and Cub were left to their own accord as to who they wished to sit across, and presumably who would be their primary conversation partner during the dinner. Khi, of course, as perceived by the head servant, was Cub’s attendant, and she would naturally be at the head servant’s side assisting and advising him with the dinner preparations and ensuring any issues with the dinner preparations were resolved as befitting Cub’s exalted station.

Before she walked into Honto's dining room, Cub did not truly understand how much she had missed this. Standing among people who were her enemies, who wanted her secrets and to keep their own, people whom she would make dance to her tune without them ever realizing that she had done anything at all. First, though, it was a matter of understanding them, and to that end her sparkling eyes took in each of them in turn, paying attention to each long enough to make them feel special, but not long enough for the others to take offense.

Cub evaluated the five seated at the table in an instant, as befitting a master of the social graces blessed by the Unconquered Sun. The old man on the far left - he is serene, and whatever he is smoking appears to be intoxicating him in some fashion and elevating him to a slightly higher plane of existence. From his demeanor, this may be his usual state of being. He is unfocused and appears to want nothing.

The woman second from the left - Cub can get an easy read on her. She is bored, and would rather be somewhere else. Presumably, training her body, her mind, or her troops.

Honto, in the middle - he is still a mystery to Cub. She cannot pierce his easy smile and courtesy.

Celcine, the Archimandrite to the right of Honto, she is agitated and impatient. Of all those seated across from the Exalts, she appears most obviously interested in meeting their guests.

Rock, the Vice-Archimandrite seated on the far right - he is curious but reserved, but at the same time he seems like he would be very gregarious and personable in his own element. Celcine's presence, and perhaps to a lesser extent Honto's, is moderating him somewhat, suppressing his personality.

Honto nodded slightly to Cub after the servant indicated the group were to take their seats, reinforcing the instruction. His eyes flitted across the group of Exalts, keenly waiting to see who would sit where, and what he could learn from their choices.

Cub also took notice of Honto's elderly head servant, who had been the one to greet them at the gate, to wheel out and ring the gong, and to escort them to the private dining room. Guided by her instincts and training in the social graces, she also understood the necessity of being attuned also to the flows of those whose purpose was to be invisible in high society, yet to still play important roles. The reaction of an underling often could reveal just as much or more as that of one's conversation partner. Odd for a servant, even an esteemed one, he struck her as exceptionally loyal, hardworking, and proud of his role in Honto's household, almost possessive.
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Warden considered for a moment before he headed for the seat opposite of Rock, the Vice-Archimandrite. He didn't feel fully at ease here, surrounded by Dragonblooded, playing his role. They were not Prasadi, but he knew they would likely react the same if his nature and that of his companions was revealed. He took his seat, nodding a greeting at Rock across from him. Then, after taking a breath to centre himself, he smiled at the priest. "Good evening. Guess you have to put up with me for a little while." He said in a joking, jovial tone. "I'm Warden."

Khī picked up on the servant almost immediately. One person used to facilitating everything around them while invisible to another. He had a certain, clear fondness for the dragon-blooded, the kind that comes from taking care of someone for years. It was a feeling she could relate to. Whatever was afoot in Lushfield, the servant was just as aware of it as his master, even if the master wasn’t entirely aware of the extent. Servants talk, for being such a universal maxim, was also something a shocking number of people forget.

All of the terrestrial exalts in the room were involved. Her gut, and some sort of primordial sense for guilt in the back of her head told her that much. Both the priests regularly used the keys- hardly a surprise, but the woman, based on the shape of her hands and her height, was the primary user. Speaking of hands, neither of them were accustomed to fine calligraphy. Neither of them wrote the prayer calendar themselves, but had been involved in its creation. Too much of it required approval, which, based on the occasional stamps she’d seen on the document, was something they took extremely seriously. The two of them were the chief architects of the fraud, she knew it.

Khī settled in her place- just behind where Cub was to sit, standing, back to the wall.

Deciding not to talk with the Immaculates, Scales sits across from the armored woman. "Greetings. I am Scales."

Since Nameless doesn't really have another plan, and she is officially Cubs yojimbo for the evening, she leans into the role. She would've preferred to sit opposite the armored woman, but on second thought is happy that Scales took that seat. A proper warrior might have questions for a bodyguard, might want to have a look at a sword, stuff like that.

The Sword Maiden then sits across from the Archimandrite - Celcine already seems fidgety and eager to talk to Cub, which means fewer questions for the Dawn - or at least so she hopes. And it also leaves Nameless in the center of her Circle, in case things go sideways. If that happens, she figures she should cut down the woman in the blue armor first, before evaluating who's actually the biggest threat. She seems the most war-like, and immediately moving for the tough guy can often break the morale of an entire unit.
Nameless isn't entirely sure why she knows this.

She sits down, folding her legs in very natural looking motions, pushing her sword a bit to the side, and back, so she can sit down comfortably, back straightened, as she locks eyes with the Archimandrite, whom she gives a polite nod, while maybe making a bit too much eye contact. While Lushfield is sort of weird, this is a culture that speaks to her. The air of the Dynasty is something that is familiar to the Sword Maiden, and they still are in the Riverlands, she knows which tea cup to hold in which way, and not to stick her chopsticks into the bowl of rice. Nameless got this. Though she is already nervously playing with her daiklave's hilt until she stops herself.

Cold sits down in front of the older man who looked like he had drugged himself into a state of enlightenment. Briefly wondering if whatever he had was strong enough to get an exalt woozy, or if he had brute forced his exalted constitution with sheer quantity.

Either way, he was tempted to ask him what he was smoking and if he could get some of his own.

"Good evening," He greets the older man. "My name is Hidden-Reed." He figured the old man probably already known his current shape's name. But it might prompt the stoner out of place in the clouds. He carefully tried to get a read on the person in front of him. Was the man happy to be here? Drugging himself because he found things like this boorish and wished to stay at home with his books?

He really hoped he wasn't going to start talking about scholarly subjects. His own education had been pretty shit.

As her entourage finds their places and as she sees beneath the veneer of the dragonblooded guests - Honto still cursedly escapes her attempts to read him - Cub takes the place of honor at the center of the table. With effortless grace, her magnificent robes come to rest as artfully as if they had been prepared by a team of servants for a showing at court. She nods pleasantly to their host and says, "I must once again thank you for the kind invitation, Unfettered Willow Honto. Your hospitality is as gracious as Lushfield is bountiful."

---

Cold, in his disguise as the girl Hidden Reed, took the seat on the far left, opposite the old man smoking the long pipe. Examining the man, Cold sharpened his senses one by one. Sight - the man's pupils had a faint, light blue hazy ring around them, almost ethereal. Hearing - he could hear the man's joints creak nearly imperceptibly. The old man must be nearly all bone under his academic robe. The blessing of Luna sharpened his sense of smell, and immediately walloped him with a new, unique experience: the minute amount of smoke that was wafting off of the man's pipe. It was like nothing Cold had ever smelled before - an absolutely unique experience. Even that trace amount made him feel a little lightheaded for a moment.

"You are welcome, Warden, replied the man dressed in the Immaculate robe. I am Attenuating Rock, or just Rock for short" the man seated opposite Warden said, introducing himself in a soft, measured tone, with a hint of jolliness in there to convey that he understood Warden's mild joke, even if it was made in his Prasadi-accented High Realm. "I am the Vice Archimandrite of the local temple here. How did you find happen to find yourself in such pleasant company?" he says, guesting to the others seated with Warden.

"Scales" nodded the armored woman in approval, apparently relieved at least for a moment to have a moment of distraction from whatever Honto's machinations were. She clearly felt like a prop on display seated there. "An easy name to appreciate" she said, plucking a finger on one of the dozens of blueish metal scales adorning the epaulets of her ornate armor. "Talonlord Anguilla" she said, matter-of-factly. "From here. And where are you from?" she said, half-asking, half-commanding.

The Nameless Sword Maiden took her seat across from the aloof-looking, red-headed woman with red jade earrings and wearing an ornately decorated robe typical of the Immaculate order. The two women sized each other up for a moment. This must be Celcine, the Archimandrite of the local temple that Cold had spied on. she thought. Cold was very excited to report about how she had nearly broken her vows of chastity with this other fellow Rock, but had little to say else to report about her potential prowess in battle. She was clearly pretty, and perhaps vain too.

Celcine's eyes quickly darted to the hilt of the long sheathed Daiklave at the Nameless Sword Maiden's waist, before she finally breaking the awkward silence between the two of them. "You are in the presence of Archimandrite Lankham Celcine" she proclaimed. A moment of stillness followed. "Not much of conversationalist I take it?", she continued. "You are the Lady Cub's.... what, bodyguard and fencing instructor?"

The old man in front of Cold took a final drag on his pipe, lightly coughing before lowering the pipe and taking in Cold's appearance as the He blinked a few times, and the man's eyes linger on Cold's hair in his shapeshifted form as Hidden-Reed. The disguise was not perfect, and Cold couldn't capture her light brown chestnut hair in its entirety. It was always flawed by a streak of white. "These days everyone calls me Great Uncle Rightness" the man squeaked in his dusty, high-pitched voice, gesturing to his left to the other high-ranking Lushfielders seated at the table. "What is your name, young miss?"

Honto remained seated, smiling in a satisfied manner and watching Cub as she let the others take their seats and make their introductions, before she finally took her seat in the middle. Honto seemed content to remain silent, rather than to immediately take center stage - the whole night was his production, after all, and there was no need to immediately upstage the others before the time was right.

Keenly watching everyone take their seats, the Head Servant and Khi, who were each standing behind their respective master and mistress, locked eyes. The moment each guest was seated, the Head Servant sprung into action according to their training. Khi could perceive immediately what was going on - the Head Servant was competing with her to be more efficient, more precise, better at his job. The Head Servant deftly reached to the table, grabbing and uncorking a bottle of wine, and moved to begin filling each goblet at the table in perfect silence and inconspicuousness, so not to distract in the least from any conversation.
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"My name is Hidden-Reed," Cold began, wondering exactly how high the dragon-blooded before him was. He started with a self-introduction. He was pretty impressed with the skill of the herbalist to create something that could knock the socks of an exalt. Even though this one looked like he was nothing but skin and bones. "it is good to meet you Great Uncle Rightness."

"If I can ask, what are you smoking? I'm not familiar with it by smell. Something that only be cultivated in Lushfield perhaps?" That sounded like enough of a conversation starter.

Great Uncle Rightness leered at Cold is his form as Hidden Reed. "Ahh, it's my little secret." He smiled, a few gold teeth visible in his grin. "Would you like to try some?" he said, mischievously, holding the bowl of the pipe in his hand and turning the stem to face Cold.

Cold knew the older man was leering and it was reminding him way to much of his aunt after a few bowls of hashish. Not sure how good or bad that was to be honest. Cold looked at the pipe and shrugged. Well, he was offered and he wasn't going to be a prude and turn down a good time. He completely trusted his own body to fight of anything too bad anyway.

"Why not," Cold said with a smile as he took the offered pipe. He wasn't familiar with the style of pipe, but in the end with some coaching of Uncle and the fact it was a pipe, which wasn't really tahat complicated. He managed to take a good hit out of it. The smoke ticking in his lungs and mouth as he inhaled. Small puffs escaping from his nostrils before he exhaled a plume of smoke.

If the people cared enough to notice, they could see a very faint blue flicker in HIdden-Reeds usually brown eyes. After his second puff, the colors seemed to leech out of the world, a strangely comfortable chill spread through his body from the lungs outwards a faint flicker of something lingering around the Head-Servant. The third puff brought it into view with more clarity, a dazeling display of blues and muted greens bursting back into the world. Cold had a smile on his face as he looked at the strange display. Now this was going to liven up the party. After the fourth puff. the flicker around the head-servant became well solid, taking a recognizable shape of a woman.

"Huh," Cold tilted his head as he handed back the pipe for now, looking at the head servant for a while before turning back to Uncle. "So Great Uncle Rightness," the words seemed to echo through the room, empty of life and energy. A strangely loud whisper. "Are you also seeing the woman or is that the pipe talking?" he said with an easy smile on his face.

Great Uncle Rightness smiled and leaned in closer to Cold/Hidden Reed: "It's the ghost of Loransa, who was Marwin's wife." he points to the head servant. She passed away four years ago, but sticks around to watch over her husband and their son. She's harmless." he snickers, sharing a secret with Hidden Reed "At least now she is. When we all were young, she was the biggest slut in town. The girl couldn't keep her legs together." He giggles, reveling in the joy that only two pipe-smokers sharing a secret can enjoy.

Cold nodded, the fact he was able to see ghosts both seeping into his brain but also not. Of course smoking a bowl of magical weed was going to allow you to see ghosts, nothing strange or scary about that at all.

"Ah," Cold lowered his voice to match Great Uncle Rightness' whisper. "Yes, we all have our wild days don't we." He grinned. "wither they're behind us or we're still in the middle of them." he said, peddling the wisdom with a clarity only those who have partaken of the pipe could peddle. "It is good that she cares about her husband and son though even beyond death."

"But you say harmless now," He giggled, "That must've meant she was an absolute homewrecker when she was young then? breaking hearts left and right? And the son," Cold trailed of with a questioning look in his eyes. The unspoken question clear. Was the son also the son of the head servant? or a leftover of her wild young days. This brought him back to his day's as a mortal in the tribe. Where if they were caught outside in a blizzard, cut of from their tribe and only had the other members of the hunt to kill the boredom with. Gossip, it was the very foundation of society. No matter how much one hated it.

Great Uncle Rightness merely cackles to himself at Cold's question, blowing a smoke ring and leaving the implication of the dead wife's wild youth mysterious and unanswered.


---


"The roads can be dangerous these days, even for one like my employer." He nodded towards Cub. "Not to mention I believe it is-" Warden straightened up and tried to talk in the most accent-free High Realm he could, to make it clear he was quoting someone from the Blessed Isles: "Appropriate for one of such exalted status to travel with a sizeable retinue."

"It is quite the pleasant company, that's for sure. Good and easy work, as well."

"Easy work, maybe." Rock responded to Warden. "But what rewards come at the end of a life on the roads selling one's sword-arm?" Rock glanced at the plain sword sheathed at Warden's hip and the bundle carried on his back. "Have you ever considered dedicated your life to something bigger than that, bigger than just yourself?"

How ironic, Warden thought. His persona had to pretend to have no convictions beyond the draw of money and now he was being lectured. Quite the reversal of how this usually went for him. Perhaps he could waver a bit from the pure mercenary mindset and engage in some enlightening discourse.

"Considered? Of course I have. But so far, I haven't found a cause worthy of my life's dedication." Let's hear your pitch, old man, he thought.

"Just a wanderer then, drifting from job to job, without a worry for anything but your next meal?" Rock eyed Warden. "A tempting life, to be sure, but far too easy. You're no vagabond. You have the look like a principled man, or at least a man who craves principles. Let me hear of them, or if you truly have none, I could surely provide some for you."

Someone was probably going to complain that he was breaking character now. Warden didn't care. "I've traveled far and wide. I've seen many kingdoms, cities and more. I've seen horrible tyrants just as much as I've seen just and responsible kings. Some claim they deserve to rule purely because of strength. That the one that can hold the throne deserves to rule it, that it is the natural order of things." He took a sip of his wine, then continued. "Others have other justifications. A thing I realized is that...there's a responsibility there. The moment you take control over a man's life, you owe it to him to manage it well. Even the lowliest slave deserves something from his master." He took another, bigger gulp of wine. Perhaps he said too much. He didn't want to be thrown out as a revolutionary. So he quickly added: "But what can I do, really? Try to join some doomed rebellion?"


---


"It is my pleasure to meet you" Nameless answered to Archmandrite Celcine, ever so slightly bowing her head again, back still straight, seated like a seasoned warrior. She's polite, her manners would be outright pleasant in Lookshy. Here, it's a bit off. But she is refined.

The Immaculate opposite her is quite a looker. Fiery hair, red jade earrings. The Sword Maiden isn’t someone to overlook details, and the Archimandrite seemed quite eager to present herself.

“And yes. I guard the Lady, and while I am not a teacher, I do share what I know with those willing to learn.” She nods along with her own words. “The roads can be dangerous, especially in the Threshold, and whenever one leaves the Satrapies, or Lookshyan roads. Creation is too big to not develop some horns, spikes or claws. Metaphorically speaking.”
She smiles politely.

Initially, she’d just hoped to stick close to Cub, but now that she is conversing with an actual Immaculate - this all seems vaguely familiar to her. While not quite like home, this is close enough. Sure, there’s the looming threat of death, there might as well be a flaming Daiklave above all their heads, held up only by a stand of horse’s hair. The entire situation is clearly absurd. But that aside, this is quite pleasant.

A slim smile appears on the Sword Maidens face. “In simpler times, I might’ve just played the flute for a bowl of rice. I am sure a temple’s Archimandrite has far more exciting duties than making a humble procession look unappealing to waylayers.” As she notices the Immaculate’s gaze on her Daiklave, she straightens up yet more, pushing the sword a bit to the side, using complicated movements to fold her silken dress up her arms a bit, so she can take a sip of her drink without seeming improper, or dunking the fabric into the soup, or tea.

Celcine's nose twitched for a moment after the Nameless Sword Maiden responded to her inquiry. The Archimandrite seemed to take some sort of offense at the insinuation that there was something that a dynast, and presumably one of the ten thousand dragons, should be 'willing to learn' from the swordswoman - and worse - one who would that would deign to not properly introduce herself to Celcine with her own name. This woman clearly was presumptuous and didn't know her proper place. A mere hired sword shouldn't presume to be able to teach one of the ten thousand dragons anything. A cruel thought came into her mind...

Nameless saw the Archimandrites sour expression but lacked the context to properly place the emotion. She had assumed that her lack of name would've been obvious, but since she didn't have much experience with the whole situation she was forced to play this by ear. But the silence got mildly uncomfortable, this she noticed. "From what I hear you don't get that many visitors in your beautiful country."

Celcine smile widens in response to the Nameless Sword Maiden's obvious attempt at tension-breaking smalltalk. Celcine didn't like her - it was obvious. For one, though it was hard to determine at a glance, but there was definitely some Riverlander blood in her lineage. Worse, she was pretty - almost as pretty as Celcine - and that was a threat. "Oh no, we get plenty of visitors, too many in fact. They come, from all around, in caravans half-a-mile long, like devouring locusts. I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name. What did you say it was again, and where did you say your parents did?" Celcine continued to needle, keenly aware that the Nameless Sword Maiden had not volunteered either of theses pieces of information.

The Sword Maiden opened her mouth, she had wanted to clear up the misunderstanding, why she rudely didn't give a name, but something in the Archimandrite's demeanor got to her, pressed some kind of button that left her wanting to pour some oil on this particular fire.

"Sure, a half-mile long caravan must look threatening from where you are sitting, I understand the comparison" she picked her drink up with nimble fingers, took a sip, which she clearly savored a bit too much. "Do not worry, you didn't miss anything, I said neither." She calmly set down her drink, and gave the Immaculate a mirthless smile.


---


Scales responded to Talonlord Anguilla: "I am from the southeast, a small place many thousands of miles away from here. From what I understand, a Talonlord is a military rank of some significance, is it not?" Better to deflect the questions back to her; hopefully she's one of those types that love to speak about their accomplishments.

"A talonlord commands a talon" says Anguilla to Scales, matter-of-factly. "There are two talons to a wing, two wings to a dragon, and ten dragons to a legion," She continues. "Through degeneracy and corruption, most legions today are only 5,000 strong, so a talonlord would only command 125 men. However, our legions remain undiluted at 10,000, so a talonlord correctly commands 250 men." Her exactness strikes Scales as one of her principal traits. Furthermore, there is a sense of resentment and inner conflict that Scales detects. Anguilla seems like she must be one of, if not the most senior military commander in Lushfield, and her military bearing indicates a substantial dedication. However, a Talonlord is an officer of middling rank - below winglords in charge of wings, dragonlords in charge of dragons, and generals in command of legions. It is likely that Lushfield's military only consists of a single talon of 250 men at this time, and Anguilla correctly, but resentfully refers to herself as a Talonlord.

"From what I've seen, Lushfield seems a very peaceful land; no doubt the people have you to thank for their safety and security," replied Scales

"The people have themselves to thank for their safety." Anguilla responds to Scales. "In Lushfield, every boy undergoes training in the legion for a year and a day to be considered a man, and thereafter pledges 28 day a year until his 35th year. If I had it my way, it would be three years up front, and every girl too." She evaluates Scales' skinny, short frame, a hint of disdain for his unmanly figure plain on her face. He would make a poor soldier. "And what role do you play in this..." she gestures generally at Cub and the others, waving her hand in a vague motion... "whole thing. You're obviously not another bodyguard."

Scales responded: "I suppose I act as a sort of navigator to these lands; I have quite the skill in finding both the fastest and safest route between two places. The main paths are alright, but Creation grows more dangerous by the day and those paths are where you're expected to go. Much better to avoid the ambushes and the need for guards altogether, isn't it?"

Deflect the questions, give them nothing while taking all they have, Khi's voice echoed in Scales' mind.

"Hmm." The Talonlord ruminated for a moment in response to Scales' explanation. "I do suppose that I can see someone... like you as being useful, military speaking, in the role of a scout. Not much call for that sort of thing in Lushfield, where we train in defensive combat, but theoretically speaking, I can see how that could be handy in certain types of offensive or maneuver warfare."


---


Khī watched the proceedings quietly, occasionally stopping to pour wine for Cub, and ensure she received the best service possible. That Honto's servant seemed to think this was a competition was odd to her. Her role, after all, was rather different than his. She was Cub's personal servant, at least for the night, and he was facilitating this meal. There was, as far as Khī was concerned, no need for competition. Which meant one of two things. Either this was a test, and he was attempting to get the measure of her as much as the Lushfielders were getting the measure of her companions, or, and Khī thought this far more likely, the man was merely prideful to the point of foolishness.

Cold had, naturally, immediately broken half of his cover and was peaceably smoking whatever illicit concoction the old man had offered him. An information hemorrhage waiting to happen. The rest, at least, had stuck with the plan, inasmuch as it could be called one. Cub, she was confident, could steer conversations out of dangerous waters as the situation may be, and Khī planned to provide support, and, if necessary, interference for her.

Now what to do about the other servant. The obvious solution, of course, would be to engage him in his challenge. An obvious solution that, she felt, seemed like a trap. She would learn nothing from demonstrating her dominance over him. She could learn a lot more about him, on the other hand, by letting him win. The central tenets of Black Claw were misdirection- a practitioner can achieve more sometimes by surrender than by struggle. An opponent who has committed to a strike expecting resistance can be easily made to fall if you neglect to supply him with resistance.

Khī took the wine from the man as he prepared to pour for Cub, and inclined her head, as if to say I'll thank you to do your duty, and I'll do mine

As she let the other servant take point on serving the table, Khi took the opportunity to give him a careful once-over, keeping a careful watch on the way the man walked, the way he tipped his hands to pour wine, and even the wear she could see on his fingernails, although she couldn't examine them in any great detail. Something about the man seemed off to her, and she wouldn't put it past her hosts to try to do something...underhanded to get information about their supposed Ledaal guest. She had, herself, played a rather similar role for her master, in better times.
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Honto tapped on his glass a few times, quieting the conversation as he begin to stand up to give a toast. "I just wanted to first say that...." Celcine jumped up, interrupting him, her voice tuned to an even higher, shriller pitch than usual. "A demonstration! We should put on a demonstration of martial arts, in the garden! It would be a wonderful experience for everyone, a real treat! Anguilla, you and the Swordswoman here should spar, with the practice swords! Marwin! Can you grab them from the other room!"

Honto was more than slightly flabbergasted and toughened as his party plans were being ruined. "Cousin..." he was heard to plea, before Anguilla spoke over him. "Well, I was getting bored, it would be an interesting diversion."

"Whatever pleases our gracious hosts, I reckon" the Sword Maiden replied. She gave Anguilla a nod. Her, she would've probably gotten along with.

"I promise to not bore you" she offered to the martially inclined Dragon Blood, before turning to Marwin. "A proper practice sword please, not one of those clumsy things the Scavenger Landers hack at each other with." Though she would probably be in luck. If the weapons were as Shogunate-influenced as everything else here, they would certainly suit her style.

Marwin, the head servant, stepped into the room, hugging the practice swords to his chest and looking at Honto for clarification and instructions, as if to ask "are you okay with this?" Honto glanced at Cub, shrugging his shoulders and giving her much the same look.

Khī leaned over Cub’s shoulder as she poured her a glass of wine. Quietly, but not so quietly that Honto couldn’t overhear, she said “Ma’am, are you sure? We still haven’t determined what kind of exigent she is, precisely,” Khī was making a gamble- that an excuse ahead of time was worth indicating to their hosts that she was perhaps a bit more than a mere cupbearer.

"What better way to find out?" Cub answered Khi with an amused smile, also just loudly enough that Honto can hear her. Her eyes keep their focus on the Lushfielders as she speaks, and she looks every inch the indolent dynast eager to show off what her pet can do.

Khi nods, and returns to serving. "As you wish, Ma'am,"

Seeing no objection from Cub to the prospect of Anguilla and the Nameless Sword Maiden holding a martial arts exhibition in the garden, Honto nodded to Marwin to approach with the training swords. As the group stood up, two other servants opened the sliding doors within the main residence to the garden. Honto, however, first took the opportunity to reassert his authority over the situation that Celcine had usurped. "I shall serve as the referee of the match. A point will be awarded for the first to make a legal strike to the arms or torso in each round. No strikes to the head or below the waist will be allowed, and will result in the deduction of a point. The winner will be the first to three points."

"That sounds like a sensible way to approach this" Nameless agrees, as she strides towards the garden, straightening the silk of her robes with her hands, before checking the bindings on the lacquered leather bracer on her right hand. The piece of armor doesn't have a single scratch on it. Maybe you can learn something, if you watch me closely" she offers to Celcine, who clearly got under her skin - the Sword Maiden would've loved to mop the floor with the Archimandrite instead - but alas, her ally would have to do.

Maybe it was the weight of the training sword in her hand, or maybe it was the adrenaline, excitement, and emotion of the situation, but the Nameless Sword Maiden experienced something in that moment that she had never felt before: a distinct, strong memory:

---

Xavian was ten and she was ten and they were in a training garden and she was holding a training sword and Xavian had a training sword at his feet and he was crying and holding his shattered wrist and they were screaming at him and he was apologizing and he just kept mumbling how sorry he was but they kept screaming at him and calling him weak and they wouldn't stop screaming even though it was her that broke the rules when she hit him after the whistle blew and after he dropped his guard but she was just standing there and they were screaming at him and not her and he was sobbing because he broke the number one rule to Always Defend Yourself and she never was punished because she was Showing Aggression which is Always the Right Thing to Do and they took him to the medics and the next day his room was empty and they never saw him again and they said he would never be a proper swordsman because the bones would heal wrong and it didn't matter because it showed he was weak and she was strong and he kept crying and holding his wrist and looking at them and it was like she wasn't even there at all even though she broke his wrist and it wasn't even his fault and it was unfair and it was Xavien who followed the rules and was her friend and she never saw him again

---

The training. Yes. She remembered that bit. The Sword Maiden had been training from a young age, then. That makes a lot of sense. Explains the familiarity, the rigidity of her style. The sword being the extension of her arm, that it so really is.

Xavian had done nothing wrong, and she had ruined his chances at having a proper life of honor, duty, and purpose. He had been her friend, and she had ruined it for him.

The Sword Maiden felt guilt, balling up in her gut, feeding the anger she was already feeling. She eagerly twirled the training sword in her hand, trying to get a feel for it's balance, it's weight. And she eyed Celcine. She would've really liked to take her anger out on that smug Immaculate. But at least she was about to have some outlet for her feelings.

Cold stood up from his chair and followed the rest of the party to the garden. Despite having been catapulted into a higher plane of existence. His stride was still confident. This wasn't his first bender it seemed. He had half a mind to mock Celcine for making somebody else fight for her. But he couldn't come up with a witty quote right now. And he felt way to pleasant to stoop to her level of pettyness. "Now this will be interesting," Cold said with a placid smile on his face.

Khi investigated every facet of Honto's head servant - Marwin was the name they had used for him. Age: likely late 60s or early 70s. Dress: Conservative, with tendency towards green and brown tones, much like Honto's wardrobe. Well-groomed and fastidious - likely a meticuous man. Subservient to Honto in nearly all respects, but doesn't subtly shy away from him in the manner of a craven or fearful servant, like so many Khi had seen. Nor was he a mere lickspittle or a yes-man. There were small gestures between the two of them that only Khi's probing eyes could detect. This was not merely Honto's butler. No, he was a right-hand man - managing not just the affairs of Honto's household, but likely many of the mundane affairs of all of Lushfield that Honto couldn't be bothered to deal with. His face: definitely the typical Lushfield look borne through 20 generations of insularity. She looked even closer at his face. Then to Honto. Then back to Marwin. More than the typical Lushfield resemblence. Much more. Cousins? No. Closer. De-visualize the wrinkles, tighten the skin, examine the underlying bone structure. Yes. Brothers.

With the duel providing a distraction, Scales sinks into a moment of quiet meditation, closing his eyes and blocking out his other senses to clear his mind and feel the Essence of the world surrounding him; an vast lake of light tinged with colors both Celestial and Terrestrial. Ignoring the stirrings of the duel before him, he follows the swirls and currents, the eddies and ripples, back to their source, the stone thrown into the lake.

As the group of exalts walked out of the main residence, Honto lead the way and cleared his throat, preparing to make an an announcement to the diners that ringed the garden. Scales lingered in the back, intently focused on the flows of essence all around him. The color drained from the rest of the world, and everything was reduced to gold and silver hues. Time slowed to a crawl. The colored paper lanterns that criss-crossed above the garden became little more than faint twinkles, while the stars in the sky vanished from existence entirely. For a brief moment, it was as if Scales were alone in the garden. Above him, there seemed to be nothing except for the moon itself, Luna's sigil in the night sky. Everything was below. The ground itself, for miles around, was as a shattered pane of glass, a million million miniscule spiderweb cracks in it, each crack a thin vein of essence flow. The cracks extended into the ground, deep below, for miles around. It reminded Scales of the capillaries full of blood flowing through the muscles of the animals he dissected. And deep below the surface was the artery that all the capillaries flowed down into. It looked like a beam of essence blasting into the south, narrowing into the distance into a single dot at the vanishing point. Focusing even more deeply, Scales could barely perceive the flow of essence, barely-perceptible pulses in the beam. It was flowing towards him, in the direction of Lushfield.

Scales blinked again, and it was as if nothing had happened at all - the world was back to normal. To him, it felt like he spent at least thirteen slow heartbeats in that parallel ethereal zone of primeval lunar focus, but absolutely no time had passed at all.

"My fellow subjects! My fellow subjects!" Honto's voice echoed across the garden. The dozens of conversations and clatter of dining implements from the tables of the diners slowly began to fade away, but not fast enough for the elderly head servant's taste - Marwin was his name again. The loud gong was banged once - twice, and the lingering threads of unintelligible gossip and clanking of glasses were snuffed out. "For our education, our esteemed guest has suggested an exhibition of martial prowess! With us are two highly skilled and quite lovely swordswomen. They have agreed to demonstrate their abilities tonight, in a best-of-five contest!" Talonlord Anguilla stepped into the garden and under the Ten-Talent Tree, twirling the training sword in a precisely drilled fashion to test its weight and heft. She had found time to strap on her helmet. The crested headpiece fit over her scalp and ears, and was made of the same ornately worked filigreed blue metal scales as her armor, which she had also tightened down to fit the athletic form of her body, which had been hidden before. Flexible, almost fabric-like panels of the scales cascaded down the side and back of the helmet to her shoulders, protecting the sides and back of her neck. Her face was left entirely uncovered - and it seemed different now that she was in her element. In the dining room, her attitude was perfectly inoffensive and her presence pleasant but not extraordinary. But so-armored and ready for combat, she clearly had a type of beauty to her that was entirely her own. She bowed to the west to introduce herself as one of the combatants in the exhibition, and the audience broke into applause for her.

Honto motioned for the Nameless Sword Maiden to also step forward to join Anguilla.

Nameless stepped onto the small improvised arena. She carried the training sword in her hand, held it at her hip, just above her Daiklave that still dangled on her belt. The black leather belt was slung above a slim, brown sash that prevented any chafing, and protected the silk the sword maiden wore over her armor.
The armor was well-made and looked expensive, though it was rather light, consisting only lacquered leather and the odd stud reinforcing it here and there. It was embroidered quite exquisitely however, making it seem like either ceremonial armor, or something a noble warrior might wear beneath more serious heavy duty combat armor.

She had slung the right arm of her kimono-like silk robe behind her back, tying it onto her belt, leaving her right hand completely free, covered only with the leather glove and bracer she always wore.

When the wind hit the Sword Maiden just right, it pressed the silk of her skirt against her legs, making it obvious that her movements were already calculated, and she had already adopted a fighting stance even before anything had happened.

She nodded to Honto, then bowed her head to Anguilla, whipping a strand of her jet-black hair out of her pale face. It was easy to forget that the Sword Maiden was beautiful, considering she tended to slip everyone's mind all the time anyway. But she had a certain chiseled, noble face with angular features and those big, dark eyes, that gave her back some of the femininity her always combat-ready movements tended to take away.
No wonder she'd inadvertently threatened the vain Celcine.

When she saw Anguilla twirl the sword, she smiled, again. Nameless also twirled her sword, letting it twist around her wrists, following the choreographed thirteen-and-seven-and-nine steps masters of the Single Point introduce themselves with. Not that Nameless knew that. But as she moved, her feet kicked up specks of dust and the odd clover, before she came to a perfect stand still, and gave another bow.

The watching crowd had politely applauded Anguilla's entry into the garden - they plainly respected (and perhaps feared) her, and for many or most in the audience, she had likely overseen their training in the basics of combat during their mandatory service in Lushfield's legion. The initial response that the Nameless Sword Maiden had received was different. The men in the crowd (at this point properly lubricated) hooted and hollered, whistling and catcalling the attractive outsider as she removed her robe. A loudmouth in the audience vocally expressed his disappointment at the presence of armor underneath. Her precise footwork and flourishes with the training sword did little to quiet the unskilled audience.

Anguilla, however, was suitably impressed by the Nameless Sword Maiden's performance - this was a formidable opponent, one not to be taken lightly. She raised her fist in the air, immediately quieting the spectators, as she bowed to her opponent and assumed her own combat stance. Unlike the choreographed technique of the Sword Maiden, tailored for duelists engaging in an almost ritualistic performance of death-dealing, Anguilla's technique was more martial, more raw, suited for the battlefield. She also meant to show that she was not to be taken lightly.

The Sword Maiden calmly locked eyes with Anguilla, letting her see plain and clear that she was not intimidated, continuing to smile. Everything about Nameless - right now, at least - radiated that she had cut down more than one raw, martial opponent on different battlefields over the years. Even though she was, unbeknownst to her opponent, purely operating on instinct.

Also, she was of course going to be careful. This was a Prince of the Earth she was facing down. But the Dawn planned on winning nonetheless.

She gave the the loudmouths of the audience a defiant nod, though ironically at least part of her quite enjoyed the attention. Sure, it was brutish, and she had half a mind to spank someone, but at least she was being noticed and admired.

As she widened her stance, shoulders broad, training sword at her hip, she gave Celcine a mischievous wink, before she fully focused on Anguilla.

"Ready", she smiled.
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Honto looked back and forth between both combatants, before slowly pulling what looked to be a pair of metel-sheathed sticks out from under his robes, unfolding it to reveal a green folding fan with the old seal of the Scarlet Queen - now Empress on it. It was a symbol of his authority in the town. He held it up in the air above his head, nodding to both Aguilla and he Namless Sword Maiden to confirm they were ready, before snapping it down with a loud *Crack*, signifying the start of the first round of the match.

Savoring the moment, Nameless listened to the sound of her own heart beat, as well as Anguilla's, which she also picked up on. It was like a pair of war drums, playing a little march for the both of them. The crack of the fan was just the final fanfare, to let lose with this beautiful dance. She missed the familiar weight of the Daiklave in her hand, but on the other hand, a training duel was a great thing. Almost all of the excitement of the real thing without all the death.

The Sword Maiden loved fighting, but she didn't particularly like killing. Life was precious. As still exemplified by the two combatant's heart beat.

Now, she stepped between the heart beats, waiting for opponent to allow herself the pause to draw fresh breath, as the Sword Maiden flashed forward, seizing the slightest lack of focus - even if it was just imagined - to decide the first round before the contest had properly begun.

And she was quicker, as Nameless briefly noticed, as she was the precious half-second quicker than her opponent, as she lunged forward, sword held at her hip. All she had to do in this situation, was follow her instincts, her training.

She Showed Aggression, pressing her advantage, half ducking into her opponents guard, bringing her sword up for an upward slash, or rather that's what she would do, if her blade could cut anything. This was about brute force, and staggering, if anything.

Xavian's cherry-red face flashed into the forefront of Nameless' mind. But the Sword Maiden did not flinch. This was her split second, and using it to attack was Always the Right Thing to Do.

With a flash of speed she brought her sword up, then down hard on Anguilla's sword-hand, the signature move that made training courts her second home. Can't be hit if your opponent can't hold their sword. Always Defend Yourself. Most true when you stop the threat.

Cold watched with an almost predatory eagerness as Nameless moved like a lightning bold. He turned towards Uncle. "so, which one do you think you will win?" He started. "I'll be rooting for our esteemed sword maiden."

Anguilla's eyes grow wide as she brings the training sword up just in time, barely deflected the Nameless Sword Maiden's blindingly quick first strike, the two wooden training swords cracking against each other.

Khi watched silently from behind Cub's shoulder, her mask covering her features in behind an unemotional, featureless facade. As she watched the nameless woman throw off the shoulder of her silk robe, she couldn't help but let a small gasp escape her. She hoped it got lost in the clamor of the duel around her, but she suspected that might have been a little too much to ask. The nameless woman was, she realized, one of the single most dangerous swordsmen she'd ever seen, and that included a number who had had ages to master the craft. Not for the first time, she was glad the mask covered up her staring.

Mentally shaking herself, she let her eyes wander behind her mask, examining the others, both the other members of her little group, and her hosts, waiting for an unguarded moment to see what lay beneath.

The Sword Maiden's mind raced. That first parry was very good, but her strike had been, admittedly, sloppy. But there was yet time to correct the mistake. The wood-on-wood impact had just sent the cracking sound towards her finely tuned ears, as Nameless adjusted, ever so slightly, her stance. The uppercut had failed to connect, and Anguilla had saved herself the embarrassment with skill, instincts, and reflexes, most of all.

Now, the Sword Maiden brought the training sword back down, letting the impact of the parry add to the momentum, as she angled the blade anew, and leaned her shoulder into the down strike, giving it some more force.

It was, again, as it had always been. A test of skill, tenacity, speed. She wanted to win with every fiber of her being, but she also hadn't come up against opponents of this quality all that often.

Though in the end, sword play was mostly about decisiveness. In between heart beats, she finally saw her opening, forming a straight line from shoulder, straight elbow, wrist straightened, iron-hard grip around the wooden hilt. She again went for her opponent's wrist. A hit would either mean disarming her, or winning the round outright. Maybe both. Missing the first strike was bad, but she still held the advantage.

*Alright*, Nameless thought, *whatever your name is, don't fuck this up.*

The Nameless Sword Maiden's second strike came in a blink of an eye, mere milliseconds after the first. She was fast, but maybe not as fast as she could have been. She had to hold herself back, lest she reveal herself to anathema. Again the training swords clashed and the strike glanced away, barely missing Anguilla's shoulder.
She's fast was the only thought Anguilla was able to comprehend, reeling back as the two quick strikes aimed at her arms were both barely parried at the last minute. Being put immediately on the defensive had thrown her off, but her reflexes had saved her from losing the first round immediately, just barely. She had to turn the tide of the fight, to take control of the situation back. Spinning off the momentum of the parry as she backpedaled from the force of the Nameless Sword Maiden's blows, she turned to her first strategy: If your opponent is quick, overpower them with brute force. She aimed a blow at her opponent's side, looking to smash through her guard entirely, and take back the initiative.

The Sword Maiden saw her initial advantage dwindle, and as her opponent took measure, realized she had left her flank exposed. Taking a half-step back, she slid back just as the strike came, flowing with the blow's momentum, seeking to minimally redirect it to just miss her, instead of meeting brute force head on. The training sword flicked upwards, lightning quick yet again, on it's way to intercept the blow before it could connect.

Talonlord Anguilla's blow smashes into the Sword Maiden's raised training sword, knocking her backwards, managing to reverse her forward moment entirely. Each combatant took a quick breath to reevaluate the situation, before Anguilla pressed the attack forward. A dim, red aura of pale fire grew around her, barely perceptible.

Drawing a quick breath, the Sword Maiden re-assesses her situation, white-knuckling her training sword's hilt. She fully expected the next attack to follow right after, now that Anguilla seized the momentum, so she took a wide stance, left foot forward, ready to absorb any incoming force.

Anguilla went high, then low, shifting her stance at the last moment as the fighters came together again. This time she meant to slip the wooden sword under the Sword Maiden's guard and land a thrust into the center of her chest from below.

Exhaling sharply through her gritted teeth, the Sword Maiden met the attack head on, making a step forward, bringing her training sword up, to reduce the distance between the two, to give Anguilla less time to accelerate, to stifle her movement as good as she could.

This was going to be a tough one. But with some luck, she might just be able to once more swat the weapon out of it's way, and regain the upper hand.

With a calm, concentrated expression, at the last moment, Nameless sidesteps the attack, knocking it aside with her training sword that flashed up just in time from by her side. The movement let her hair's top knot sway from side to side, a few wayward strands of the dark hair trailing behind her head.

Big, brown eyes quickly scan the opposition, and she spots a weak spot - just as Anguilla slid past her, she exposed her left flank, hard to reach for her own parry. Maybe now?

The Sword Maiden used the imbalance caused by the parry, let herself almost fall to the side, accelerated by the impact, before outstretching her leg and now standing firmly in place, feet far apart, both hands on the hilt of the training sword, that now made a curious sound as it raced through the air - right at the connection between armor joints, at the left side of the Dragonblood's left elbow, which was still outstretched from the strike. Show Aggression, she repeated in her mind.

The wind whistled as the Sword Maiden's unexpected stroke flicked upward. At one moment her sword was parrying Anguilla's strike with a wooden clunk, and the next it was at Anguilla's elbow, the tip nearly imperceptibly grazing her armor, barely even slowing down as it continued its trajectory. It was a supernaturally fast strike - faster than the eye could see - at one moment the training sword was in one location, and then it was simply in another. The blow had more speed than force behind it. If this was a real fight with real swords, it would have had no chance to penetrate Anguilla's armor, and at best might have left a small scratch. But for the purposes of the first round, it was good enough. "Hit!" called out Honto, raising the fan towards the Sword Maiden. He had a small smirk on his face, clearly surprised, but not necessarily angry at the result. It had been a long time since Anguilla had ever faced a real challenge.

The crowd immediately reacted with a rain of boos - "Horseshit!" someone called out, "I didn't see a hit" a woman yelled. Celcine's smile begin to shift to a neutral expression. Anguilla took a quick glance at her elbow, before looking back at the Sword Maiden, the very dim reddish aura around her fading away. She had underestimated her opponent in the first round - held back her full strength. She wouldn't do so in the next. "Start the next round!" she called out to Honto, her brow furrowing as she concentrated more deeply, her eyes never wavering from the tip of the Sword Maidens' training sword.

The two fighters again assumed their stances, and Honto raised the fan for the second time. "One-Zero, in our guest's favor!" he proclaimed, before snapping it down again to start the next round.

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I've been quite negligent in updating this thread. Collating together out of character discussion and rolls with in-character actions is quite laborious, and we're actually *months* behind where the game actually is now. I'm now sure how many people are reading this, but we're at 3,000+ views, so *someone* out there seems to be enjoying it. I'm just going to post IC stuff for now until we're caught up with the current state of the game.
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By the time the graze on the armor had even registered, Nameless had already returned the wooden sword to it's position at her hip, mimicking the motion of sheathing it after each strike, the way she was accustomed to. Her Daiklave never left it's sheathe for a split second longer than necessary.

"Well fought" she offered to Anguilla, again bowing her head with respect. She then got back into her position for the second round, again her gaze met that of Celcine. She winked at the Archimandrite.

Then she waited for Honto's signal. She fully intended to repeat her success, and striking first seemed to be her best option. She reckoned that it had been pure luck that her guard hadn't been penetrated in the first round, and now she focused all her attention on Anguilla. Watching her eyes, every single muscle of her, every twitch would result in Namless pressing, again, for the advantage. This was tough and she was anything but sure she could do it again, so she was dead-set on not having to parry again.

Cold frowned at the boo's and cries of indignation that came from the crowd. It had been fast sure, but easily visible to his own eyes. Why hadn't they seen it? oh right, mortals and the fact they weren't standing right besides the field was probably another factor. "You go Na-mai!" Cold bellowed out in a very unladylike manner. "Show her what you're made off!" Cold made sure to pretend to look suitably chastised after her outburst, but couldn't help but keep cheering anyway.

Nameless again shifted her weight - not that it was a lot - to her front leg, bringing the training sword forward in a sweeping strike designed to force Anguilla to commit to a stationary defense, which was certainly going to give the Sword Maiden a good chance to get her on the backswing, if that was still necessary. And a hit would be right across the breast plate, for everyone to see. The doubts from the crowd had annoyed Nameless, who very much wished to shove all of this into the Archimandrite's face as deeply and offensively as possible without getting her Circle murdered.

So attack it was. Show Aggression - there were worse mantras for a warrior.

Cold's cheerleading managed to offset the general boos and grumbles that were raining down from the crowd, which quieted down the garden again as Honto snapped the fan. The silence would focus everyone's attention, to make sure they saw the next hit, whoever landed it.

The crowd does not bother Cub one way or the other, they do not belong to her arena of choice, and no doubt the locals have them well in hand. Hidden-Reed's passion does make her smile slightly, but her focus is on Honto. She has so far been unable to grasp what goes on behind that calm facade of his, but now that he is distracted by the duel, she will know the truth! How does he feel about this interruption in his planned schedule, does he want Anguilla to win, and would he perhaps be grateful if the Maiden were to throw her part of the duel?

Cub's gaze followed Honto's expression as he watched the events of the duel. The look on his face when
Anguilla had been hit? Amusement, more than anything else. But was it amusement at Anguilla's loss of the first round, or at Celcine's failure to completely humiliate the Nameless Sword Maiden for having the temerity to be pretty and slightly impertinent in her presence? She would have to learn more as she observed over the following rounds.

Anguilla prepared herself to again receive Na-mai's (or whatever that fellow had called her) onslaught. She had seen her trick already, with two quick blows. She would not be caught unprepared again. As the Sword Maiden again dashed forward to strike, Anguilla's training sword was already moving, intercepting the first stroke and, rather than moving in the normal pattern to strike back, as she had always been trained, instead kept her weapon in alignment with the Sword Maiden's, keeping the two wooden blades close together, aiming to deflect the expected second blow. In that moment, the air around her glowed aqua, this time substantially brighter than the dim reddish glow of the first round. At the moment she deflected the second strike, the anima around her pulsed, and the swords loudly cracked, small splinters of wood flying off towards the Sword Maiden's eyes.

Nameless was disappointed. She had wanted to conserve energy and had not overly exerted herself, but as far as humanly possible, her twin-strike had been beyond perfect. Yet the Dragonblood had mobilized her superhuman prowess and managed a block. Yet the Sword Maiden held firm, and kept the two swords in place by leveraging her opponent's weight. At the same time, she brought her own shoulder and bracer in front of her face, to keep the igniting splinters from getting into her face - and especially her eyes.

The shards of wood that flew from the clash of training swords were deflected by the Nameless Sword Maiden's shoulder and arm, but she had reflexively blinked, and her vision was temporarily obscured for an instant as her bracer flew in front of her eyes. *Now* thought Anguilla, as she shifted her balance and moved to strike decisively. This one had one trick, and she had not been caught unaware the second time. The woman was fast, clearly, but she also could be overwhelmed by strength and pure power, as the first round had shown. Crafty feints to try and get around her shifty defense weren't the way to go here - a dainty little dancer like this one needed to have her guard smashed through. Anguilla moved her second hand to the hilt of the training sword, leveling a two-handed stroke directly at her opponent's side.

Even though the Sword Maiden saw the strike coming from a figurative mile away, as she felt the gust of air tugging at the tiny hairs on her arms, heard the rumbling of the armor as Anguilla's muscles contracted beneath the plates, even before she saw the steely expression of resolve and... Utter intent coming her way.
There was only one thing to do, and it was to get out of the way.

Nameless did a half-step back, and moved her sword into the oncoming trajectory, bracing against it, letting the force of the blow carry her along the ground, hoping she'd just slide along the ground a bit before her guard broke and she got hurt.

The Nameless Sword Maiden's training sword was positioned perfectly to catch the oncoming strike at the precise point to deflect it away from her body and leave Anguilla exposed for a counterattack. And if it were her Daiklave, it would have. But this was a wooden training sword, and a fractured one at that - the shards of wood that flew off the blades earlier had weakened both. The two wooden blades collided with loud snapping sound and an explosion of splinters, halting the oncoming strike. The Sword Maiden's blade stove inward, while Anguilla's blade levered sideways at the point of collision, the two pieces remaining attached by spindly fragments of laminate. The momentum of the broken end swung it around the side of the parrying blade, continuing onward to limply tap the Sword Maiden in the shoulder.

The onlookers and participants were baffled, and looked to Honto for clarification. He stalled for a moment, trying to figure out exactly what happened. "Hit!" He finally said, raising his fan in the air.

Nameless looked from the broken bits of sword in her hand to Honto, who'd just - in her opinion unfairly - awarded a point to her opponent, then back to the hilt that was loosely connected to a bunch of splinters again, which she still grasped tight, her knuckles white.

Then her eyes rested on Anguilla for a moment.

The Sword Maiden tilted her head backwards, and started to laugh, like bells ringing, before she shook her head.
"I guess a draw it is, then? This is highly realistic, you never know what happens on the battlefield. And who would dare stand against a Dragon?"

She again bowed towards Anguilla, before she dropped her battle-ready composure, instantly seeming far more relaxed. "I am sorry I broke your sword."

Cub's gaze had remained focused on Honto throughout the second round. His amusement at the outcome of the first round had turned to concern as he noticed Anguilla's anima banner had dimly illuminated and then receded. When the two fighters faced each other in the next round, the moment he snapped the fan shut to signal the beginning of the round. She following his eyes as the fighters lunged back and forth at each other. Odd - his eyes weren't moving at all. He was gazing straight again, in their direction, but his eyes were rolled back. It was only at the moment of the loud crack that he seemed to return to his senses, slightly disoriented, before waiting a few seconds and signalling a point in Anguilla's favor.

Anguilla sized up the Namless Sword Maiden for a moment, looking at the broken training sword they still held in their hands. Who could stand against a dragon indeed? Two instant strikes at blinding speed, an instantaneous reaction to guard against her little trick with the splinters, following by an immediate return to a guard position? The first round could be written off a luck, a novel technique that she had never seen before for delivering two quick blows in rapid succession, even if the second was rather delicate.

But the second round showed that something was afoot. This opponent made it obvious that she was facing no merely skilled mortal. This was something more than that. "No apologies needed - they're not my swords." Anguilla said, waving the fractured blade in the air and causing the snapped-off tip to flaccidly flop side-to-side. "Honto made them, it's part of his... hobby." She gestured around to the garden, pointing to a few of the delicately built wooden benches, planters, and arches. "Made them poorly, I suppose." She looked at Honto, a bit upset that her moment of sure victory had been tarnished by his poor workmanship. "Well, do you have any extras?"

"Uh, unfortunately I don't have any more training swords" replied Honto, loudly enough for all of the diners around the garden to hear. "I guess we will indeed have to call it a draw then, and return to our dinners." The crowd mumbled depressingly, sad that the entertainment was going to end. Celcine spoke up: "Sure, a draw then, how lucky." She chuckled, speaking loudly enough so that everyone could hear. "If it were real swords, the Talonlord would clearly have won. She wasn't even trying the first round, and when she did in the second, she easily deflected her attacks and hit her so hard that the wooden swords snapped." The crowd mumbled in agreement. Only Honto's frustrated gaze caused her to back down from escalating further - he was clearly more concerned with maintaining good relations with their visitors, and returning to the dining room.
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Nameless started to return to the set dinner with the others, when Celcine spoke up. She knew she should just ignore the Archimandrite. But something about the dumb words coming from that dumb woman's dumb face made it really hard for her.

It was more of a mumble, when she spoke, though it was probably loud enough for Celcine, Anguilla and a few other close bystanders to hear. "I understand it's hard to follow such things when you do not know swords. Maybe Anguilla will teach you one day, she is quite good."

Sensing Celcine might again be provoked by the comment, Rock spoke up instead, addressing Warden in an attempt to defuse the situation, or at least to temporarily prevent a further escalation. "What about you Warden, you seem to be a swordsman as well." He indicated to the sword at Warden's hip. "Did you think Honto's call in the second round was correct, given the rules of the contest and the circumstances?" Meanwhile, Honto was whispering something in Anguilla's ear. As the group re-entered the dining room, Anguilla spoke to the Nameless Sword Maiden. "Sit with me, over here." She pointed to the seat that was formerly occupied by Scales, across from where Anguilla was sitting initially. "Tell me about your double-strike technique. Where did you learn something like that."

Warden nodded at Rock's question, hand briefly resting on the pommel of his sword before pulling it away. "Indeed, I am. Though I don't strike nearly as fast as she does. As for his call...I think it was. On one hand, real swords would not have splintered like that and such a hit would not have inflicted any damage. But I think within the terms of the demonstration, it was a valid hit."

"I suppose the same might be said for the first round as well" agreed Rock. "The blow that was landed seem to barely graze Anguilla's armor, and certainly would not have been of any consequence in a real fight. Alas, it's one of the shortcomings of the exhibition. It was certainly an interesting show, however." Celcine still fumed. However, her anger began to retreat. Partly it was due to the Sword Maiden having been dragged away from her immediate presence by Anguilla, whose Anima still was dimly lit, the glow having receded from its glowing state during the contest. And partly it was due to Rock and Warden's conversation subtly denigrating the Nameless Sword Maiden's achievements during the contest, dulling the insult she had received, and further distracting from the earlier topic. Rock continued the conversation with Warden: "You mentioned the nature of ruling and service, earlier. Would I be right to suppose you serve her" - pointing to Cub - "for silver?"

"Quite an interesting turn of events" wheezed Uncle Rightness to Scales, who was walking with him back to the dining room. "The finale reminded me of watching fights in the old Wraith Arena in Sijan, back a century or so ago, where you could wager on the outcome of duels to the after-death between ghosts armed with spectral blades that would warp around each other and cut at the most unpredictable angles. Would you happen to know if it's still there, young man?"

Khi followed along with the group back to the dining room, walking alongside Marwin, who was carrying the broken training swords that had been shattered into fragments of laminate and varnish. He spoke up to her for the first time, and she immediately noticed the similarity between his voice and Honto's. "How would your mistress prefer to take her veal?"

“My lady has not decided to dine on veal while I have served her, so I am afraid I will need to see the cuts, to specify they are to her taste,” Khī replied, quietly, “I have served her but a short time,”

Khī and Cub had, before departing, run through a list of Cub’s preferences- how she liked her pillows, favorite foods, preparations for steaks, fishes and a handful of other delicacies, hair care routines, wardrobe (apparently the woman’s clothes were of some impressive make, and there wasn’t much that needed to be done there). Habits, even. Khī knew now when to ensure the woman’s breakfast was ready by the time she awoke, and what should and should not be on the plate. The conversation had been mere minutes over tea, but Khī had spent it all letting the barest trickle of her power keep everything in her head, memorizing it in moments. She was beginning to realize exactly how inefficient she was being in the use of her power- if she got comfortable with keeping the flow of essence inside her tightly regulated, she could use it to bolster her mind and perception with a fraction of the effort it took her now.

With Scales sitting down with Uncle, Na-Mai being monopolized by Anguilla, Warden talking again with Rock, Khi acting as Cub's shadow and Cub busy with Hondo himself. there was only one option left for Cold and it was the queen bitch Celcine herself. the one that hated Na-Mai... Who he had loudly cheered for, loud enough to shut up the crowd.

Fuck. Cold had the feeling that Luna was laughing their ever-changing ass off at this turn of events.

He gave her the most pleasant smile he could muster with Hidden-Reed's shape. "that was quite the spectacle wasn't it?" Cold started politely as he sat down. "Na-Mai is the most skilled swordswoman I've ever seen," Cold paused for a bit. "Well, up till now, Never seen somebody move Like Lady Anguilla before."

"Ah" said the Sword Maiden, then sighed. "I was about to explain earlier, before the pleasantries... Suddenly ended" she gave Anguilla an earnest smile, picked up a little kettle, and motioned in the Dragonblood's direction. "Tea?"

She continued talking, no matter the answer: "the both interesting yet boring answer is, I do not know where I learned it. I seem to have lost my memory. Whether it's a god's cursed, or someone got a good blow to my head, I do not know. I assume I am from the River Provinces because of my clothing, but I might not be."
She smiled her trademark crooked smile.

"I do know that it is an ancient martial art, but I sadly do not know why I know this. It might come to me eventually, I hope." She eyed Anguilla again. "You are certainly more than capable of defeating this technique on a good day, I was half-hoping you might know more than me, if I'm being honest." And she was being honest. Rather be open with what she was willing to share, than later be interrogated about that which she wasn't.

Honto stood up, momentarily interrupting the conversations going on at the table around him. "Now that we've all been thoroughly introduced, I'd like to propose a toast to our visitors. He reached behind him to grab a rack of small shot glasses and a bottle of clear liquor, placed the glasses on the table, and in one motion, uncorks the bottle and tips it over, pouring its contents across the ten shot glasses, filling each to the brim with barely a drop hitting the tablecloth. He hands out the glasses, urging everyone to pass them down to those at the ends of the table. Once everyone has one in front of them, he lifts his up above his head. "To Persistent Cub and her companions, may they be graced by her True Majesty's favor!" He looks to Cub to see if she has any words before they are ready to drink.

Cub smiled as she rose in response to Honto's toast, it appeared as a polite response to the gracious words of their host, but in reality she was more than a little amused. The Scarlet Empress was missing and almost certainly dead or worse, even if she were not the only thing she would favor the Celestials with was a swift and certain death, and of course these backwater bumpkins' antiquated forms of address were utterly ridiculous.

None of this, of course, was apparent to the gathered potentates when she answered, "thank you. Her favor and that of the Immaculate Dragons already graces yourselves and the great nation of Lushfield, so there is little my well-wishes can add to that, though you shall have them none the less. May you lead your people with the wisdom and surety only the Princes of the Earth can muster, may the depths of your faith and dedication be given back to you a thousand fold, and may you share in the peace and prosperity that is the promise of Her Realm."

"An entertaining diversion, at least. And a way for people to let off a bit of steam. At least, if allowed to complete." Warden answered Rock's comment as they file back in, returning to his seat across from the man. At his questions regarding Cub, he nods, stroking his beard. "She pays me in silver, yes. But I would not follow her if she did not take care of her responsibilities to those that serve her."

As they walk back to the table, Scales examines Uncle Rightness up-close. Pale skin, faintly blue lips, a slight blue glow to the eyes, his eyes following something that the rest of us do not see, except for Cold, who shared his pipe.

Ghost Flower fits the symptoms perfectly. Him using Ghost Flower and mentioning ghostly gladiators can't be a coincidence. "I could not say; my interests do not particularly align with dueling. Although, witnessing people find glory beyond death does sound interesting. Somewhat related to that, I notice that you seem to be smoking Ghost Flower; do you use it in a recreational manner, or do you use it to help keep the spirits at peace or something of that nature?"

"It's a habit I picked up over the years." Uncle Rightness told Scales. "Most consume the ghost flower in their tea before they sleep, for a rather mild experience, but I've found that if cured and smoked according to a special technique I've developed, the effect can be... focused, refined, magnified. For an experienced fellow like myself, one could say it's a way to recapture my youth. Plus, when you're as old as I am," he chuckled, wheezing, "most of your friends are ghosts anyways."

The other conversations at the table were temporarily paused while Honto gave his toast, and Cub her reply. Honto gave a "Well said!" in agreement, and threw back the shot, smiling and lowering the glass to the table with a small clink, expecting the rest of those at the table to do the same. Most of the Lushfield elite seated there did so - Rock and Anguilla drank theirs down in a single gulp, while Celcine sipped delicately at hers, politely finishing it with a few sips. Uncle Rightness, however, only took a small, symbolic taste, returned the glass to the table mostly full, instead taking another puff of his pipe and blowing another smoke ring.

Cub follows the Achimandrite's example and takes only a delicate sip while standing, but does empty the glass in her own time.

Nameless takes a cue from the folks more closely aligned with her tastes, and knocks back the shot in one go.
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Cold looks at the shot glass that was provided to him and gives a quick questioning gaze towards Cub. They had earlier decided that Since he was going to play the part of some distant relative Cub was taking under her wing for a while. he might as well give that claim a little bit of validity. Cold seriously doubted Honto had any liqueur in his house that could make him even slightly tipsy. Even if he downed an entire barrel of it. But that was Cold, beastman warlord with a constitution of Moonsilver. He was playing Hidden-Reed as a low ranking and slightly sheltered distant relation to a dynast. It would be weird if he began knocking back drinks after drinks after drinks and not feel anything. Since Cub didn't give him any signal not to down the booze. Cold knocked back his shot-glass. With all the grace and restraint of a young dynast who was left alone with somebody else expensive booze without supervision.

Saved by the intervention of Honto from having to answer all too many more questions, the Sword Maiden for now divides her focus between the host, and her opponent from earlier, trying to get a feel for the cohesion between the Dragon Blooded of Lushfield; whether Anguilla would follow Honto's words closely, whether she distrusts the outsiders on principle, or whether she's presenting closed ranks with her brethren. If she would let anything slip, at least. Though she was also starting to feel nice, warm and fuzzy on the inside - that drink sure hit the spot!

As the conversations between the others at the table resumed after the toast, Honto is finally able to complete his introductory duties as a host and focus on the primary goal of the dinner: Ascertaining what Cub and her retinue's intended purpose was in Lushfield, and commencing whatever negotiation was bound to occur. "Now, I assure you that everyone in this room, including Marwin - my loyal retainer..." - he looked around, but could not locate Marwin, who had disappeared to the kitchen with Khi - "can be trusted to maintain the secrecy of any of the affairs you may wish to bring to our attention. You can speak with total forthrightness now. What is the object of your visit? Who do you speak on behalf of?"

---

There is an opening of oneself that is inevitable when asking a question. Even if the question is not of great import, one opens oneself up to the curious eyes of others when taking the step forward and asking a question right out. This is why most high level conversations in the Realm and other civilized empires are by implication and metaphor. Thus, when Honto asks, Cub who has been on high alert for him to overstep himself ever since setting foot in his home looks closely to his every move, gesture, and expression for anything that can be gleaned about him and his thoughts on her.

"There is a rumour," she beings, weighing her words carefully, "in certain circles in the Imperial City, that House Ledaal has found a wellspring of Dragons' Blood and staunch mortals somewhere in the Threshold, a veritable island of civilization in a sea of ignorance. With the times being what they are, House Ledaal are not the only ones on the lookout for every advantage they can get, and so I was asked to see if those rumours were true and if that those resources were firmly in Ledaal's hands, or perhaps they were open to further negotiations."

No one who heard Cub speak could possibly think there was anything significant in her choice of the word wellspring, but if any of the five assembled Dragons were to find it significant, she would certainly notice.

Honto ran his finger around the bottom of the upside-down shot glass, pondering how to respond to Cub's statement. The questions of alliances and loyalty, especially when dealing with the great houses, was a delicate, delicate matter. The consternation on his face was visible - his emotions were anguished as she could see the gears turning in his head. The other conversations at the table paused as everyone awaited what response he may have.

Cub followed every twitch of Honto's eyelashes and movement of his lips, as if reading the progression of his thoughts: She could very well be what she held herself out to be - a representative from another dynastic house that had wished to test the loyalty of Lushfield to House Ledaal, to ascertain what was being offered and given in return, and to see if that loyalty could be swayed. But alternatively, she could just as easily be an undercover agent of House Ledaal seeking to test his loyalty, looking for a way to gain leverage.

Furthermore, Cub could discern no deeper reaction from Honto from Cub's strategic incorporation of the word "wellspring" into her language. She had expected to see some sort of subliminal response, but he seemed to take the word entirely at its face value. However, Cub did notice, out of the corner of her eye, a small twitch from Great Uncle Rightness, seated at the far end of the table with Scales, when she used the word. It could have been nothing - a mere jitter from a lifetime of ghost flower abuse, but it could be something more.

Finally, after a few beats of silence, Honto responded: "That's quite a rumor. " He paused for a second for effect. "As you know, with things the way they are these days, especially with the uncertain situation in the Blessed Isle, you can't ever put too much stock in rumors. Just this last week, I heard the wildest, most heretical tale that Her Majesty - the Empress," he caught himself, "had, through some form of sorcery, impregnated a servant girl on the eve of her disappearance and begat a daughter." He raised his hands for emphasis: "Look around you - we're just a small community of simple farmers - we trust what we see with our own eyes and what we touch with our own hands. We've never been involved in any important matters of the Blessed Isle - we're not even a minor satropy. What, pray tell, does this rumor even envision our small town offering that could make the slightest difference in the great matters of state thousands of miles away?"

From Honto's question, Cub could read between the lines: He wants verification, for her to provide more details of the supposed rumor, to establish that she's speaking in concrete terms, and not merely fishing for information.

"Some sixty thousand souls call Lushfield their home," Cub says simply, "and yet the five of you are all Blessed by the Dragons. Nowhere else in the Hundred Kingdoms could I find myself in such august company. Futhermore, you are not only almost entirely self-sufficient, you also supply foodstuffs from Nexus to Sijan. Some of that is certainly down to your heritage as an enclave of Blessed Islanders in exile, but is it all? Is there some way your success can be replicated elsewhere, perhaps at a larger scale?"

Though she speaks simply, her fellow Celestial Exalts hears another message alongside her words to Honto, "Great Uncle RIghtness appears to know something about the Wellspring. It would be prudent to keep an eye on him".

"Exile is perhaps too harsh a term," Honto replied. "I'm not sure if you're aware of our history, but it is perhaps intertwined with the reason why our... success, as it were, would be difficult to replicate elsewhere. Understand, around 600 years ago, the founders of our community voluntarily left their homes in the Blessed Isle based on differences over the introduction of, well, what they held, and which we still hold to be, unsuitable foreign traits into the sacred bloodlines of the dragons. What you would call Outcastes today. Their - our theory was that, while those not of true Blessed Isle stock certainly could be Chosen by the Elemental Dragons, such an occurrence was, as a matter of divine mathematics, purely a statistical anomaly. The predominant view at the time, and even now I suppose, was that the incorporation of even Chosen foreign blood into dynastic bloodlines would serve to immediately bolster pedigree. However, our analysis came to the opposite conclusion - while there may be certain short-term benefits, in the long term there would be ramifications that would tend to weaken, rather than strengthen dynastic bloodlines."

"Understand, this was systemically worked out 650 years ago by Six Quills the Diamond Pheasant, as a matter of her hexagrammic breeding hypothesis. The short term effects of Outcaste blood could bolster a bloodline for a generation or three, but over time, the pollutants would accumulate, and eventually, it would result in dispersal, rather than concentration of strength. We've organized our society along the lines laid out in her thesis, which is why, after so many centuries, we are so reliably Chosen. I don't understand her work to have been necessarily suppressed or proscribed in the Realm, but rather, is has been largely forgotten and lost. Replication elsewhere, even in the Blessed Isle, to salvage most dynastic bloodlines would be possible, but it would require... a substantial commitment to reorganization of society, involving extensive genealogical research efforts combined with, well, certain restrictions in a number of ways, including on the importation of Outcastes, or at least interbreeding."

---

Cold kept as straight a face as he could both at Cub's hidden message and the stuff Honto was saying. He didn't know a thing about dragonblooded bloodlines and how their inheritance worked. But it all sounded a little bit to clean cut and convenient that it painted everybody who wasn't of their group as lesser and below them.

He glanced around for an opportunity to refill his glass. He was going to need quite a bit more alcohol to get through this conversation. he glanced around, trying to see if anybody else, especially some of the dragonblooded on the other end of the table, were getting tired of Honto's excuses.

Protects-from-Cold also evaluated Celcine's reactions as Honto spoke. The alcohol clearly had some effect in disinhibiting her. From what Cold could tell, Celcine's was somewhat darkly amused by Honto's explanation. She couldn't help but mouth certain choice words he used to herself with a chuckling grimace - "theory" and "pollutants" were two he picked out. Evidently, her view on these matters were more direct, and she thought that Honto was being overly tactful and precise with the language he used, so not to risk offense.

---

While Cold watches Celcine, Scales keeps an eye on Uncle Rightness, searching for any momentary expressions brought forth by the drinks.

Unlike the rest of the dragon-blooded at the table, Great Uncle Rightness's glass was still full - he had chosen not to partake in the liquor, preferring instead to puff on remaining ghost flower ashes alight in the bowl of his pipe. Everything about him - the unfocused eyes with the blue halo around his pupils, the slow, wheezing speech, and his general appearance seemed to indicate that he was in a hazy, dreamlike state of existence. Something told Scales that perhaps this was the way Great Uncle Rightness simply was - maybe a result of some combination of long-term ghost flower addiction and senility. Aside from a minor reaction, nearly indistinguishable from a hiccup, to use of the word "wellspring," he seemed entirely unperturbed by everything else going on at the table, including Honto's conversation with Cub, to which he seemed to show no reaction at all.

---

At Honto's answer, Cub makes sure to look slightly dejected, clearly she had hoped for something simpler and more immediately applicable. "I see," she answers, now smiling pleasantly once more, "that is fascinating and something that the Realm should look into. Unfortunately, few will be able to give up the temporary benefits of the current wisdom, particularly in such times at these. Though the Ledaal are perhaps less concerned about internal politics than the other Great Houses, the massive numbers of Anathema reported across Creation has them scrambling for every temporary advantage they can get their hands on, be that in silver, lost eggs, or ancient artifacts."

Mentioning ancient artifacts so soon after the Wellspring is a risk, but she very much wants to see if Great Uncle Rightness's reaction was a fluke, and if not if he can be provoked into responding to this as well.

"You know, of course, that there are many learned scholars in the Realm who arrange marriages and manage bloodlines to ensure optimal exaltation rates, but most of these are quite dogmatic and set in their ways. An exception to this trend is Cynis Yorifa of the Pangu Prefecture. I know can assure you that she would be most appreciative if you would be willing to part with copies of your records of exaltations, ancestries, and so on. I would of course be more than happy to facilitate contact."

"That is quite interesting." Honto replied to Cub, his attention now piqued by this new avenue of discussion. "Cynis Yorifa, you say? I can't say that I've heard of her, but if she is interested in evidence of our success in implementing Six Quills' theorem of dynastic breeding, a meeting should be arranged. Great Uncle Rightness, sitting right over there" - Honto pointed to Uncle Rightness at the end of the table - "is in fact the premier scholar in Creation on hexagrammic breeding theory, and traces his academic lineage directly to Six Quills herself: he is the protege of the protege of the protege of the Diamond Pheasant. His office maintains all of our records in that regard, and advises everyone in our community on marital affairs."

"Indeed?" Cub says, seemingly delighted as she turns her attention to the senior Dragon-Blooded. "I would be delighted to visit tomorrow if you would allow it, Great Uncle Rightness."

At the sound of his name, Great Uncle Rightness stirred. "Of course, of course, visit any time." he responded to Cub, slightly more loudly than necessary. It is unclear, in his dazed state, if he was fully cognizant of what he had agreed to. "Did I hear we were having veal tonight?" he rambled to nobody in particular, while the attention was still on him. "Marwin knows how I like it, right?" he mumbled to Honto, impolitely leaning around Anguilla to make sure his words were heard. Apparently, the latest hit of ghost flower was taking effect. Anguilla was seen to slightly wrinkle her nose in minor irritation as he craned himself around her.

"Thank you," Cub answers, bowing her head in respect to the old scholar. "I believe," Cub says, now giving Honto what appears to be her full attention, "that you promised to regale me with takes of your city's history. There must be more to a community like this than farming and marriage planning."

"Well," replied Honto to Cub, "In many respects you have heard most of the story of Lushfield already. More than six hundred and fifty years ago, Six Quills the Diamond Pheasant and a number of her acolytes left the Blessed Island to found the Dominion of Lushfield, and ever since we have organized much of our society upon the Hexagrammic principles she set out. I understand that many of our traditions and iconography may seem rather antiquated to a modern-day Blessed Islander, but they bring us comfort, and remind us of our higher purpose in preserving and perfecting the optimal bloodline of the Dragons. We are not totally disconnected from the rest of Creation, but as you may realize, implementing Six Quills' vision of a perfected bloodline requires instituting some amount of control over... the potentially unpredictable impulses of the common Lushfielder. So for that reason we implement strict border regulations, and we refrain from taking sides in any of the perpetual disputes that roil the thousand kingdoms on all sides of us. We call it armed neutrality - show strength towards all, but without entangling ourselves in alliances. It has served us well."

"It is, of course, our ultimate purpose and desire that, when the time is right, Six Quills' teachings will be validated and accepted by the grand experiment shown by our society and it's harmonious ways, and we will be invited by the enlightened to return to the Blessed Isle so that her teachings may be implemented across the entirety of the Realm. That is to be said though, like every other place in Creation, we don't spend all or even the majority our time thinking or worrying about these sorts of things - they're generally in the background. The daily routines of farming and commerce, administration of basic government functions, the proper education of our children, rendering formal prayer to the gods, it's more than enough to occupy our lives."

"Do you know why Six Quills chose this location for her Dominion?" Cub asks, "while there is no denying the wisdom of her choice, was there something that guided her to break ground in a place so relatively isolated?" While she speaks, she lets her hand drift towards her neck where she toys absentmindedly with a necklace that has so far been hidden beneath her robes. "Were I leading an expedition into the Scavenger Lands, I would have almost certainly settled by one of the rivers." As she finishes the second sentence, she moves her hand clumsily, leaving the necklace displaying the mon of House Cynis visible to Honto.

Honto pondered Cub's question for a moment. "Honestly, I never really considered the question of why Six Quills chose this particular location. Certainly the climate is well suited towards our agricultural needs. Regarding water, every farm has its own well - but I mostly deal with the permitting side of things, and not the practical aspects. You might want to ask Great Uncle Rightness that when you visit his library tomorrow - he keeps all of the old documents there. "

"I'll be sure to," Cub answers with a smile. "Are the borders of Lushfield fixed, or do enterprising children break new ground away from their parents' farms?"

Honto took a moment to think, before responding to Cub: "Well, the borders of Lushfield aren't fixed in any sort of legal way, via treaty with the surrounding areas. As you know, the Thousand Kingdoms, as the area we live in is called, have always been locked in a state of endless low-intensity warfare. Minor kingdoms and tributaries rise and fall monthly. If you look at three different maps of its borders made in three separate decades, the effect is much like looking through a kaleidoscope. Have you ever seen a kaleidoscope? I have one, in my study, if you'd like to try it out after dinner?"

"But in this turbulence, we've remained a constant, and our current borders, while they're not technically permanently fixed, have earned a sort of respect. We don't expand them, and they're not tested by any jumped-up wannabe general." Anguilla murmured in agreement at Honto's comment on that point.

Honto continued: "As for your second question, the issue of children leaving, that is really tied together with the borders in a way. You're not aware of this, but in Lushfield, we actually maintain a fixed population. It's managed through Great Uncle Rightness's Office of Breeding, in the same way that suitable marriages are arranged, all in service of Six Quills' dream of a perfected lineage. It tempers the desire for, as you term it, 'enterprising children' to break away or to push towards expansion. What you call enterprising, we call unloved and without a place in creation. Look at the dirty orphaned masses that crowd the streets of Nexus or Great Forks. Here, we take care of our own, none go hungry, and nearly all can expect to inherit something of value. Unlike the overcrowded villages you'll find if you go twenty miles from here in any direction, our people aren't instinctual rutting animals that multiply like rats. Out there, they don't care if half of their children end up dead of hunger or stabbed to death in a filthy alleyway, for want of a place in life."

"I don't believe I have," Cub answers Honto's question regarding this kaleidoscope, "I be delighted to try," she adds with a smile.

As the servants bring out the food, Cub wonders at the provincialism of it all. The head servant interrupting his masters' conversation, the guests being asked to serve themselves, the excessive amount of food as if not starving was a concern for anyone here assembled. She hides her amusement and follows Honto's example.

---

As Honto and Cub were speaking, the Nameless Sword Maiden made sure to evaluate the reactions of the woman who had been her sparring partner just a few minutes earlier. The alcohol seemed to have slightly loosened up her stiff, military bearing. Rather that the disaffected disinterest that she had displayed before with respect to Honto's attempts at flowery speech, she was now more obviously following along with his words , and nodded in approval on more than one occasion. Evidently, she was in general agreement with Honto, and approved of the way he phrased his response and explanation. However, whether it was the overall tone and precision of his carefully-chosen words, the content of his explanation, or something more, it was difficult to tell.

---

Warden had watched the proceedings for a bit, letting the others play their part. A mercenary shouldn't be remembered for the part he took at the dinner conversation, after all. But the talk of Blood Purity, breeding, the reason for their presence here drew his attention onto Rock across from him.

"I admit, I'm not too versed in these things, but you are, right?" he addressed the man. "What's the place of Outcastes in the Immaculate Faith? Are they really a statistical anomaly? I thought the Dragons blessed them? How can they be considered lesser to a mortal in terms of breeding?" He inquired, trying to sound like a well meaning but ill-educated man asking a naive question. And of course, he kept a close eye on his reaction, looking for any lingering, hidden feelings.

Rock bore an oddly dulled expression on his face while listening to Honto and Cub jabber on about the merits of dynastic breeding theory. However, his eyes seemed to light up at Warden's question. He seemed to be entirely disinterested in issues of genealogical records, but engaging him in a topic related to Immaculate Doctrine almost seemed to inject joy back into his life, bringing out his natural charisma. "Warden, if I may call you that," Rock spoke softly, "these topics are mostly unrelated to the doctrine of the Immaculate Philosophy. The Faith isn't necessarily concerned with which Chosen of the Elemental Dragons rule, or whether they are sufficiently pure in blood, but rather, whether they rule correctly, so that the perfected hierarchy of society is followed and maintained. As you said earlier, just as those who serve have responsibilities towards their rulers, so do those rulers have a responsibility to the ruled. The weight of duty is not a light one."

Warden nodded at Rock with a quick "You may" at his question before listening to him talk about duty. "I agree with you, there. I had heard that, even on the Blessed Isles, the heart of the Realm's power, immaculate monks speak out against incompetent or corrupt governors and officials to some success. I'm glad that you, too, take such a duty seriously." He lets that hang in the air for a moment before he jovially adds: "But I expect that such things aren't necessary here in Lushfield, yes?"

Rock replied: "Warden, it is different when you have a smaller, more durable community like this one, where the Immaculate Faith is in many ways a part of the official operations of the community itself. As you may have noticed, the Immaculate Temple here is at the center of the town - if fact - it's at the geographic center of all of Lushfield, to symbolize the importance of the True Immaculate Faith. From the center of Temple, the border walls are exactly 12 miles in every direction. Here, the True Immaculate Faith is very much intertwined as a part of the governance itself. I won't deny the that the image of being a traveling immaculate monk and hunting down corruption in remote communities is romantic, but here we have little need for that."

Warden could help but notice the metaphorical stars in Rock's eyes when he thought of at the idea of being a traveling monk hunting down corruption.

---

Cold perked up as he heard Rock talk. Finally somebody that wasn't nodding along with blood purity crap or outright being considered an expert in the field. How Rock had managed to grow any sense when everybody else was seemingly eager to throw it away as soon as they could, he didn't know. But if you cut away most of the immaculate stuff about the dragonblooded being automatically on top. His words of rulers having to care for their subjects, while subjects obey and serve their rulers made complete and perfect sense.

"That does sound very reasonable." Cold piped up before he looked over at Celcine. now honestly wondering what Rock saw in Celcine if their views split that much. "What do you think about that Celcine?" He gave her an innocent smile. Given that he looked 'homely' at best. He hoped just talking to Rock wasn't going to cause her to flare up in jealousy, but he wasn't really sure. "I'm sure the Archimandrite has wisdom to share when it comes to the immaculate Doctrine."

Celcine turned to Cold in the form of Hidden Reed with a look of minor disdain on her face - what was this plain-looking, unfashionably dressed, nothing girl doing trying to achieve by speaking to her directly? "I'm sorry, who are you again? I can't recall that we were ever introduced." Celcine haughtily responded, blowing off Cold's question

"Strange, I'm sure we were introduced earlier," Cold said with a sugary sweet smile that was simultaneously as cold and inviting as a tundra in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. Cold should've known better, but the heavy haze of the magical liqueur did more then loosen tongues, it also frayed ones temper.

The fact some vapid status obsessed woman whose first instinct was to throw other people under the moose and make them deal with her bullshit was dismissing him was slightly to much for Cold's pride to take just laying down. The fact he had probably scratched up some very expensive furniture as he had ransacked her office was only a small comfort. Next time he saw something she owned while he was in cat shape. She was getting a hairball on it. But now Celcine was acting like she wanted a cat-fight and Cold was pretty okay with giving her one.

"Oh well, the passing of time dulls the sharpest of minds and senses I suppose," Cold said with that same smile still on her face. "My name is Hidden-Reed, I'm Persistent Cub's niece, though you can just call me Hidden." The unspoken, if that is easier to remember, was easy to pick up by Celcine. Cold looked back to Rock and Warden, already visibly loosing interest in Celcine.

Celcine pondered the impetuous girl who clearly didn't know her place. Her plain, even ugly features marked her as a non-threat. A young, immature girl too, probably on her first trip outside her ugly little home town. Still had baby fat on her cheeks. No doubt that wherever Hidden Reed came from, her powerful Aunt gave her the clout to throw her weight around - and glancing at her flabby upper arms - she seemed to carry a little too much of that around too. Just a chubby little snot. While Celcine would have loved to put this dumb girl in her place, both Honto and Rock were embroiled in more interesting conversations, and she wasn't going to take the heat again for ruining them. It took some willpower on her part, but after her discussion with the black-haired sordswoman earlier, getting angry over this seemed rather trivial. The game wasn't worth the candle, so Celcine similarly decided to lose interest in Hidden Reed, leaving her statement unanswered.

---

While the conversation continued in the dining room, Khi had followed along at Marwin's side. While she let the man lead, she kept an arm's distance between the two, their shoulders equal. Or, more rather, as equal as they could be. Khi wasn't tall in the Dreaming Sea, a fact exacerbated by the size of the Riverlanders. As she walked, she tightened her shoulders and loosened her neck, subtly adjusting her posture. Few without Khi's skills would be able to say exactly when the change from confident head servant to a slave out of her element, perhaps loose-lipped in her discomfort, had taken place, but the results were unmistakable. Khi understood the look of a slave vulnerable for a subtle interrogation, it wasn't hard to adopt that look herself, when she knew what to look for.

"How far to the kitchens, then?" She asked, her voice as quiet as ever.

"Just around this corner" replied Marwin, turning the corner and sliding open the woven bamboo curtains that lead to the kitchen, barely dodging a servingwoman carrying a tray of salads. Six cooks were scampering to and fro in the hectic kitchen, putting the finishing touches on the four-dozen entrees that were about to go out to the diners. The older gentleman that ran the household seemed to be calmed by Khi's subservience towards him. "Lushfield isn't known for for its extravagance, but we make do. I'm sure it's nothing compared to what your Mistress is used to however, on the Blessed Isle. Some of the Great Houses, I am told, are unmatched throughout Creation for the splendor of their parties. To what Great House does she belong?"

Khi shrugged, "My lady does not speak often of her house," Khi said, fully intending the servant to read this as though Cub had intended it to be kept a secret, "But I know she often remarks on their soirees. I think it was a Sion, or perhaps that was a city. Cynis, perhaps? The politics isn't really our lot, as much as it is good service," She says, her focus seemingly fully on examining the cuts of veal being prepared, before selecting one with a particularly fine marbling, "That one, by the way, for my lady. She prefers it with a sauce richly seasoned, what were you intending, so I can ensure it is to her liking?

Marwin seemed to pride himself on his abilities as a head servant. Flattering him subtly, while feeding him crumbs, would give her something to trade on.

"An excellent choice." responded Marwin to Khi, signaling to the chef to prepare the selected cut as she had instructed. "I take it you are not a native Blessed Islander then," he stated. "Where do you come from, if I may ask? Were you trained there, prior to coming into your Lady's service, or was your training on the job, as it were? I have noticed that her traveling party seems to be quite a varied lot, from all over Creation it seems."

Khī replied: “My lady is a collector of curiosities. I came into her service following a Wyld Hunt in the Dreaming Sea, but I have been a servant since I was a young child,” it isn’t even necessarily a lie, even if the obvious conclusion was that Cub had participated in the hunt, not that she had been its quarry, “You have served Honto long, then, I take it?” She said, prompting him to talk about himself, appealing to his pride. Khī wasn’t interrogating the man, she simply intended to let him interrogate himself, with him none the wiser. So long as he saw her as someone of equal station, if perhaps a little below him, it wouldnt be too hard to draw him out.

The principals of Black Claw, she reflected, were not actually terribly different than her plans here. To let the enemy believe they have conquered is the essence of exposing their vulnerability. It was true in grappling, but it wasn’t far from an axiom here as well.

"I have proudly served at Honto's side my entire life" replied Marwin. For many years, we worked side by side in the organization of Lushfield's business and governmental affairs. He's been Seneschal for forty years now, and for thirty-three of those, I was his chief of staff. "After my wife passed away, I retired from my day-to-day position in the city's government. Now, I spend most of my days as the majordomo of the household."

“You were once involved in the government? Surely in a place as small as Lushfield, even with those blessed by the dragon, that must have been a great deal of work. What did you do?” Khī said. Ysyr and Lushfield weren’t terribly different places. While supernaturally endowed leaders made decisions, she suspected the body of the day-to-day work was, as it was in Ysyr, handled by the less important.

"Well, to put in a way you can understand," Marwin said to Khi, in a slightly condescending way, "A proper community works in much the same way a proper househouse does. A good master will tell their servant that they're going to host an event, like this one, but they won't need to tell them every small detail. Rather, they work together in harmony. The master focuses on the broad strokes, like when the party is, what the theme will be, and who to invite, while his servant fills in the small details, like how much food will be needed, how many people will need to be hired, and what color the tablecloths should be. Both are important to producing a good party. Similarly, the master of a community runs it in the same way. They make a plan, like how they're going to sell a hundred thousand bushels of wheat that year, and then they rely on their servants to fill in the details, like figuring out which farmers will need to increase production."

Marwin carefully observed the head chef complete the pan-searing of the cut of veal selected by Khi, with Marwin giving minor tips on the correct ratio of spices, sauces, and garnishes as he completed the plating. With a quick clap by the head chef, two uniformed servingwoman loaded up the ten plates of entrees for the ten dignitaries at Honto's table onto a serving cart, and began to wheel it out of the kitchen, Marwin moved to follow. If Khi wanted to probe any further into Marwin's matters, this might be the final moment she had him in relative privacy, isolated from the dragon-blooded masters of the town.

Khi examined the plates, to ensure they were of a quality amenable to her supposed mistress.

"A final question, if you would, Marwin, my lady has an interest in shogunate history, which I think to some extent motivated her visit. I am given to understand you hew much closer to the traditions of her people than they do on the Blessed Isle. I believe she would be very interested in anything dating to that era, she is an afficionado of art and architecture," Which is to say, her 'Cynis Master' might appreciate viewing shogunate artifacts, but wouldn't understand what she is seeing. The tone she took with Marwin was conspiratorial, from one servant quietly seeking advice to another, electing to let the man's pride and willingness to see her as harmless guide his tongue. If something substantial were happening with a salvaged shogunate tunnel bore, it seems likely Marwin would be handling its particulars.

With that said, Khi took up into the train of servants. Hopefully she might be able to poach something from the meal for the servants, but if not she could go a night without supper. It's not like it hadn't happened before, either from scarcity or just from the demands of the trail.

"Hmm, yes, I believe that may be arranged" stated Marwin as the two followed the serving-woman through the hallways. "I have been told to prepare the guest quarters for your mistress and yourself for the night, so a visit to to the collection should provide quite suitable entertainment for tomorrow morning."

Entering into the dining room, the servants conveyed the entrees to the table - pan-seared veal laden with various sauces, and generous portions of side dishes meant to placate the appetites of even the most picky eaters from all across creation. "Dinner is served, Seneschal" stated Marwin, interrupting the conversation while the servingwoman armed with bowls and oversized chopsticks circled the table, allowing each diner to select their favorites accompaniments for their plates.

"Grand, very grand!" said Honto, selecting a steamed bun, obviously pleased with Marwin's performance at organizing the dinner with only a half-day's notice.
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The food is served and Cold can't help but be relieved that the talk of population control and comparing the people around them to rutting animals gets cut off. He really wanted to get his hands on that thesis and see what kind of idiocy it is advocating. But that would have to wait for another day. There are plenty of other ways to find out what insanity was lurking beneath the surface of this idyllic farming village.

But right now dinner, they had been eating dry travel rations for way to long and Cold never had the chance to eat at a nobles table. And while it might look quaint or below standard to cub or other dynasts. To a tundra nomad like Cold, this was a feast like none he had seen before. The smell of the food making his mouth water, his enhanced sense of smell picking up on everything.

Cold simply picked a little bit of everything, quite interested in getting a taste of everything.

With the main course served, the rest of the night proceeded more smoothly. Moderated by the alcohol and cuisine, the conversations turned towards the more mundane. For some at the table, the meal was the best they had in a long time, or maybe ever. For others, it was a reminder of times before. As the final desserts were being served, Honto excused himself to give a final farewell for the night to the other guests who were trickling out in twos and threes. Marwin spoke up, indicating that the escorts were ready to return the Nameless Sword Maiden, Protects-from-Cold, Warden, and Scales to their lodgings at the caravan grounds, and that they were welcome to keep the clothes that they had borrowed for the night, as a gift from the town.

Marwin turned to Persistent Cub, asking if she wished to inspect her and her maidservant's guest chambers for the night, on the upper floors. If she required any of her possessions to be retrieved from the wagon, he would be obliged to send a porter with Khi for them. Otherwise, she was invited to freshen up for an hour, before joining Honto in his study.

"I have everything I need, thank you," Cub answers Marwin. "Please show me to my chambers."

Khī followed quietly behind Cub and Marwin, intently examining everything around her behind her mask. The dinner had been certainly informative, if not quite as much as she would have preferred. She’d overheard much of the others conversations- it was a wonder what pouring wine could do as a platform for eavesdropping.

---

While Cub and Khi stayed behind in Honto's estate. The rest of them were herded out back to their camp. As soon as they were all back in their camp safe and sound. Cold turned towards the others, quickly glancing around.

"So, anybody learned anything useful while we where there?" he said. "All I figured out is that Celcine character could use a fist in her face to loosen the stick in her ass."

Well, there were some more things he had figured out. Uncle was a blood purist, though they all seemed to be except for Rock, addicted to smoking ghost flowers and a bunch of gossip about a man's dead wife. But those were either blindingly obvious or not really relevant.

"It is interesting how Rock wishes he could go out to fight corruption...while participating in that entire god scam scheme after all." Warden noted.

Scales spoke up: "I was able to sense a large amount of essence being drawn from the south in the direction of Lushfield. It's possible that it's caused by the wellspring."

Now that got Cold's attention. "Do you know a more specific location?"

“No, but I have a direction and I believe I will be able to sense the location once I get closer to the source" said Scales. "Speaking of Rock, it’s possible we could use that against him, should the need arise" he added.

"Whether we can use it against him depends on why he's participating in it" replied Cold "If he honestly thinks what he is doing better serves the Immaculate doctrine then not doing it. I doubt we would be able to shift his opinion on it." He glanced the other exalts a wry grin on his face. "Unless one of you knows how to debate Immaculate doctrine well enough to try and engage him about it?"

Quite glad that her opening up to Anguilla - maybe her vocal cords had been a bit lubricated by the aperitif - hadn't led to any probing questions, the Nameless Sword Maiden let herself be escorted back to the lodgings. She was about to refuse keeping the clothes - she hadn't felt quite welcome here, and it seemed wrong to accept someone else's clothes before she knew what her own tastes were, or had been - but then just nodded along politely. She'd eventually fold them up neatly and keep them for Khi, in case the chameleon-like Circle Mate of hers wanted some more options in her disguises.

Nameless herself wasn't really concerned about looking the part, she found that people usually ignored her anyway, unless she did something to draw attention to herself. She then leaned on the wall, behind Warden and Scales, enjoying the cooling evening breeze before she cleared her throat.

"Not really an expert on Immaculate Doctrine, I'm afraid. Or anything else." She shrugged. "The Essence though. It makes a lot of sense, right? I assume something is helping the local agriculture along, and from what we've read, it might just be some sort of artifact lying around in the old tunnel, just focusing essence? Supercharging the dragon lines, perhaps?" She, again, shrugged.
"I'm just repeating what I've read and we've learned so far, sorry, I'm afraid I don't have any insights."

Cold pulls off the robe and just throws it with the rest of his possessions in the caravan, scratching his chin as he thinks about it.

"Also, I think I might have thought of something that might be useful to follow up on. in the documents there was a talk of a sinkhole a good 300 years ago when they were digging a well. Probably because of the tunnel underneath all of it. Maybe one of the wells could be a way in?" Cold didn't exactly know how wells worked. But given that it was a tunnel, it could be possible that there was water in it and that's what the well drew on? Or that some of them came close enough that water from the tunnel could seep into the ground around it or something?

"Either way, we need to find some way inside that tunnel to check out Scales' vision. For all we know the wellspring is some kind of repurposed leftovers from that repurposed artifact ship that they used to dig the channel?"

"We could certainly try?" said Nameless. I mean we have to check it out at some point, anyway, right? I always assumed the 'wellspring', or it's source, would be somewhere along the tunnel, or what's left of it?"

Nameless looked around, they at least shouldn't be supervised if they tried anything. "Not like we got anything better to do tonight. Though is there any way less... drowny than just jumping down random ways to see which one might have a path? Anything concerning certain shapeshifters and certain flight-capable animals, perhaps?"

Warden nods along with Nameless. "I'm afraid I'm not too good at digging holes or swimming in pitch-black wells, though the basic idea seems sound. But perhaps an earth elemental or the like could help us out?"

"I'm fresh out of those, I'm afraid" said Scales. "Khi might be able to summon one, but that would delay our investigation. I am quite a good diver, though."

"I have a few shapes with wings to help." answered Cold. No swimmers, though I have a few shapes that should be able to climb well enough." If not else his own exalted prowess would see him through. He looks at Scales. "Yeah, we can't wait for Khi to come around. I think we will have to make do with what we have."

He waits for any other things that the others could say that would be helpful on their little spelunking adventure.

"Yeah I mean a bit of climbing and swimming is certainly not going to deter me from having a look" the Sword Maiden cheerfully chimes in, "as long as it's not just bunny burrow size labyrinths under here, I'll tag along."

Cold looks towards Warden. "Are you going to stay with the camp or come with as well?" Cold thinks it would be pretty smart to have at least somebody with the caravan in case they checked on them. But he isn't going to order fellow exalts around just yet. He then looks towards Scales, the only one who has any idea which way they should start looking for the stream of essence or a potential way in. "Lead the way?"

Warden shakes his head. "Considering we're all supposed to stay here after nightfall, I will stay here and make sure there's some activity. Besides, I'm not exactly inconspicuous, I'd probably slow you all down."

“We head south,” Scales projected with as much confidence as he could. That seems to be the direction the essence is flowing from.

"Sounds like a good idea." Cold says to Warden. He turns towards Scales and Na-Mai. "Then lead the way." As soon as he finished his sentence his body twists and shifts, and in less then a moment, an off-white cat is standing where Cold stood before. Waiting to go.

Nameless faded into the shadows, instinctually stepping outside the range of lit windows, as she took off the head band announcing her as a visitor. She followed the No Moon, barely making a sound as she tip-toed around any treacherous dry branches, or whatever clichéd obstacle might give her away, head held high to suss out any danger way in advance - the best aid for sneaking was to notice observers first - and the Sword Maiden was very good at noticing when she was being watched.

---

Marwin guided Cub and Khi upstairs to their adjoining suites in the guest wing. Cub's was much larger and more lavishly furnished in the style of the compound - carved, polished wood fixtures lit by candle lanterns ensconced in the ceiling, with a generous, well-stocked bathroom with a large brass tub and running water fixtures. Khi's was more utilitarian, having merely a closet-sized bathroom with a chamberpot. Apparently the rooms had been constructed with just this situation in mind: the primary bedroom for hosting dignitaries, with the room next door reserved for their traveling servant or secretary. A door joined the two bedrooms, lockable via a deadbolt on Cub's side. "If you require anything, like hot water for a bath, the switch here will alert the women downstairs, who will arrive shortly. Please feel free to make your way downstairs to the Seneschal's study at your convenience."

"Thank you Marwin. I will take things from here," Khi said, looking over the room. It had nothing on the splendor of Pinnacle, or presumably the Blessed Isle, but after a month on the road, between traveling to Nexus and to Lushfield, a real bed and a bath was hard to argue with. It had been far too long since she'd had a chance to really flush her gills.

Once Marwin has left the room, Cub walks up to Khi and whispers, "how carefully are we being watched?"

Khi looks around, a critical eye rolling over the room, feeding just a little bit of her power into her search.

Khi observed the shadows cast by the glimmering candlelight and ran her hand along the joints in the floorboards abutting the walls, looking for the telltale signs of small cracks or peepholes, where a spy might be watching and listening. More than once, she had had the honor in her time of observing her Mistress's guests through such artifice, and she knew what to look for - odd panels with misaligned gaps in the wood-grain, unexplainable drafts, mismatched nails that signified the presence of hidden compartments built as an afterthought. But nothing of the sort was present. It appeared, for the time being, they were indeed alone. It was rather pathetic - certainly it would not befit a proper Yrsr master or mistress to leave a guestroom unspied-upon, but they were not in Yrsr anymore.

"Not particularly, it seems. No one seems to be observing or listening in," Khi whispered back.

Cub gives a faint chuckle, "I'm not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed by that," she says with amusement and gives Khi's arm an affectionate squeeze. "Still, no reason to be entirely forthright regardless."

"Is there something urgent we should discuss now that we are out of our hosts' earshot, or can it wait until I've had a bath drawn, do you think?"

“I don’t think I’d ever give you that much trust , if I were in there position,” but, Khī supposed, it was nice to to be underestimated. She had crafted her entire disguise here under that assumption.

“I’m sure most of it can wait. You know Marwin is Honto’s brother, right?” Khī put Cub’s affectionate gesture almost immediately into the set of things she’d consider when she had less pressing things to worry about.

"I did not, but it goes some way towards explaining their relationship," Cub says thoughtfully as she pulls the appointed switch for women with hot water. "No mere servant I've seen, however treasured, would behave as he did towards his master's guests."

“He did run the day-to-day business of the city before retiring to domestic service. He’s as much a mere servant as I am,” Khī says, crossing her arms behind her back.

Cub's gaze whips up to catch Khi's at her words, "he is not," she insists forcefully, "you are better than him, better than all of them, and I will not allow you to forget it."

"Well, yes, clearly," Khi said dryly, "I wouldn't have talked. If I'd had another 15 minutes with him, I'm sure I could have had him giving me the tax records of everyone in the city. My point, that he's no mere servant, I think remains,"

"Were you able to pay much attention to the other conversations at the table? Our exigent friend's ability to cause a scene aside," Whoever the maiden had been in her previous life, a social darling she had not been. Just well. It seemed many of her companions were more the 'cut through men like a wildfire' type of anathema, and less the infinitely-more-dangerous 'topple a kingdom with a word' anathema that Cub was. And, she supposed, she herself could do, with a bit of ground work.

That, she thought, was definitely a thought for later. She could hand Ysyr on a plate to Sadrica, once she had recovered her. It wouldn't even be hard. All she would have to do- she quashed that line of thought. It wasn't productive to dwell on what-ifs and flights of fancy. She'd lose track of her immediate goals too quickly. The wellspring, the lamplighter, then on to Sigareth. Perhaps she might even be able to point some of her new companion's in the demon's direction. Cub could certainly be useful for that aim, and while Protects-From-Cold was hardly a subtle tool, the barbarian warlord wouldn't be terribly hard to point in the right direction when push, inevitably, came to shove.

Cub's eyes linger on Khi's for a few moments. Then she nods. Khi's self-deprication is somewhat worrying and unbecoming, but now doesn't seem the time to press that particular angle. "Some," she answers the question instead, "what is on your mind?"

"Honto's..." Khi trails, off, her eyes glazing over, attuning her eyes to the world of spirits. Sloppy of her not to, knowing Marwin had a ghostly tail, "A moment, I want to be sure of something,"

“Marwin’s wife, her spirit follows him, apparently. I was concerned she would be here. She, however, is not. It seems she’d prefer to follow him around,” Khī said, “I’ll also note I gave him some false information; that you represent Cynis, as we discussed, and that you ‘acquired’ me around the end of Calibration. In case anyone asks, it was in thanks for aid with a wyld hunt beginning on Calibration 3 for a Ysyrian anathema. Which, incidentally, did happen, if they ever choose to verify that. Lastly, I’ve intimated you have an affinity for, but not a deep understanding of, Shogunate artifacts, which I assume you could parlay into information about any ‘wellspring’, either from Honto, or, I assume, from Uncle,”

“I feel that covers the most of it. And, if you don’t mind, I should like to make use of the bath tonight as well. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good opportunity to soak. And the less said about the rivers around here, the better,”

Cub nods in response to Khi's words, "that was well done. I'll try playing that up and see if they want to try impressing me. And of course," she answers her request for access to the bath with a crooked smile, "I prefer my servants well-bathed. Practically, perhaps you should go first, that way I can merely demand more hot water once you're done."

“I prefer my gills un-rotted, so I suppose that does work out” Khī said wryly. This seemed like as good a time as any to let the other woman know about the... irregularities of her body. Cub hadn’t reacted poorly to the sight of Cold, who’s body was considerably more twisted than her own. Something rankled her sensibilities about Cub referring to her in private as her servant, even in private. Khī was, of course, someone else’s property, but less abstractly, the other woman and her worked well together, less as a master and a servant and far closer as a pair of co-conspirators. That was, however, something of a conversation for another time.

“Will you want me with you while you visit Honto? I doubt they’ll question my presence here now, and I’m rather good at passing ignored,”

Cub gives no outward indication of surprise or any other emotion at the revelation that Khi has gills. She does, however, react with embarrassment when she realizes that she rankled Khi's sensibilities. "I'm sorry," she says, once more seeking out Khi's eyes, "I was making a joke when calling you my servant in private. I mean nothing by it, I think of you as my friend, and I should not have said that."

Khi: “It’s alright. I’m still a slave, even if my master is...” dead? Practically speaking? Robbed of her will, remade as a toy soldier in ivory, played in the games of a demon? It was a hard thing to really express, much less give voice to the combination of the pride she took in earning such a high position in her master’s esteem, the feelings mixed up in her and Sadrica’s admittedly extremely complex relationship, the fear and excitement she had in her newfound freedom... She didn’t think she had the words to explain it to Cub, even if she wanted to. Still, she couldn’t help but feel she was probably broadcasting far more about her personal life than Cub needed to, or really wanted to know.

“Even if she’s gone. You had no way of knowing, I ask that you don’t take my imposition personally. I shouldn’t have been so affected, or worried you with it,” Khī said, speaking slowly, choosing her words carefully, “I find that we work well together, and hope that there continues to be good reason for us to do so,”

This conversation was rapidly steering into very personal waters, and her, admittedly complicated, personal life was the last thing she wanted to burden someone else with.

With some hesitation, Cub nods. "Thank you. Now regarding your other question, I think that depends on whether you think you can do something more useful on your own. I'm not too worried about being alone with Honto, and even though you are very good at not being noticed, it is possible he will be more likely to open up if I'm alone with him."

Khi breathed a sigh of relief, silently thankful the other woman hadn’t pressed. “I’m inclined to agree. I think I may be able to find more out given a chance to poke around”

Khi waited, quietly, for the servants to arrive before taking her leave to head down to the kitchens, waiting behind for a while in case the other woman needed a hand in setting up her bath. There would, unless she was mistaken, still be servants in the kitchen, cleaning up after such a feast. Both people she might be able to pull some useful information out of, as well as some food, hopefully.

While Cub does appreciate having assistance while bathing, particularly to get a handle on her hair, she waves Khi off when she hesitates at the door. There is a lot to find out in this house, and they won't be doing any of it waiting around in this room. She does linger in the bathroom, though. This is the first one she's had in a while, and who knows how long they'll stay on friendly enough terms with Honto that she can take advantage of his hospitality.
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