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

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Two teenage servingwomen timidly knocked at the door, wheeling a kettle of scalding-hot water between the two of them on top of a solid wooden contraption that apparently helped them hoist it up the staircase without spilling a drop. Khi answers the door and let them in, slipping past them as they attend to preparing Cub's bath, mixing the heated water fresh from the kitchen in the right proportion with a colored, perfumed soap and the water from the rainwater cache on the roof that flowed through the bamboo piping to produce a bath of ideal temperature and grace to befit an esteemed visitor.

Slipping downstairs back towards the kitchen, Khi observed the dozen remaining wait-staff, busy working away at scrubbing the hundreds of glasses, dishes, linens, and silverware that had been involved in the night's festivities. There were at least four other kettles boiling away at fires that were similar to the one the two serving-girls had wheeled upstairs, some of which were being used to boil tablecloths that had been stained red with wine from careless revelry. Marwin wasn't present at the moment, but Khi suspected that he was elsewhere, overseeing some other aspect of the post-party cleanup. Most of the staff were young - in the late-teens or early adulthood. They didn't appear to be seasoned servants in the slightest, and they made basic errors in their work that any experienced hand would detect immediately. They were, Khi suspected, part-timers hired on for tonight, and not permanent members of Honto's staff.

"Stay. Please," Cub tells the servants once the bath is properly prepared, "I'd like your help bathing if your duties allow it," she explains with a smile.

The two teenage serving-girls, who were preparing to depart after preparing the bath, glance at each other in momentary confusion, before tacitly agreeing to Cub's request to remain. "Yes Mistress" the more courageous of the two responded.

Cub enters the bath and sits down with a contented sigh. Once she has directed the pair to properly assist her, she asks pleasantly, "what are your names?"

One of the girls hung up Cub's robe on the bamboo screen she had disrobed behind, and both had averted their gaze as Cub entered the bubble-bath. The other meekly responded to her question: "I'm Tinya, m'lady, and she's Nadiyo." Both were highly traditional shogunate-era girl's names. Looking closer at them, Cub realized that neither girl was probably older than 16, they were just tall for their age, typical of the all of the others in Lushfield.

"It is very nice to meet you, Tinya," Cub says to the first with a smile. "Have you been in Unfettered Willow Honto's service?"

The two girls look at each other, and Nadiyo giggles. There was something magnetic about Cub that made the girls more open with her, willing to please and share their secrets. "Oh no m'am, we're not servants." Nadiyo said. "Grandpa Marwin told us - Tinya and I are cousins - that we're going to be your ladies-in-waiting while you're staying here, and we're supposed to watch what you do and learn from you about how to be a proper lady." Tinya added on: "Our parents say that when we go back to the Blessed Isle, we're going to be important Dynasts, so we have to learn proper modern dynastic manners." Looking closer at the two girls, Cub could tell that they were related, and that, relative to the rest of the women she had encountered in Lushfield, they had the marks of modest affluence about them - well-manicured and painted nails, hair moderately well taken care of, and an ample application of cosmetics to hide the teenage acne blemishes on their skin. These were girls that hadn't seen a day's work tilling the soil.

"I see," Cub says, sounding very pleased at having such excellent ladies-in-waiting, "did you wait upon any of the Dynasts who were here before?"

"Oh yes!" piped up Tinya. "Lady Ledaal Sintis stayed in the same room you're in now twice last year." She counted off the months on her fingers, "Three months ago, just before calibration, and another time eight months before that." She looked at Nadiyo, the two of them giggling again. "It was okay, but she was a lot stricter to us than you've been. She definitely wouldn't let us talk to her while she was bathing."

"Really?" Cub asks, clearly bewildered that anyone would rob themself of such pleasant company as these two, "did she bring her own people along to server her?"

"She had two serving-men with her when she stayed her both times." said Nadiyo. "They stayed together in the next room over, where your girl is staying now. The first time they got kind of offended that we were going to be Lady Sintis's ladies in waiting while she stayed here - you know - helping her get dressed and drawing her baths and doing her hair, but Sintis told them that it was an important and honorable favor to Uncle Honto." Tinya started giggling again, and whispering something in Nadiyo's ear, and she responded by looking at Tinya incredulously. Tinya spoke up: "They weren't men, they were eunuchs, which means they had no...." She was clearly holding back laughter. "Penises!" she finally blurted out. The two girls started giggling together again.

"Really, now?" Cub says, clearly amused at adolescent giggling, "and how would two honorable ladies-in-waiting such as yourselves know that?" She teases.

Nadiyo looked at Tinya with much the same question in mind. "Auntie Anguilla told me." Tinya responded. "It was during my fencing lessons. It was after you quit because you liked dancing better. I asked her how it was proper for a noble lady like that to have manservants in her chamber, because they would see her while she wasn't dressed and was taking a bath." Tinya had a gross look on her face at the idea. "She said that it was okay because they weren't men at all, and that in the Blessed Island sometimes important people liked to have eunuchs as servants because they could be trusted more to keep your secrets." Tinya giggled again. "She told me that most servant girls will spill their mistress's secrets in a heartbeat the moment they mistake a..." she lowered her voice to a whisper, clearly both embarrassed and excited to repeat the language used by Auntie Anguilla: "the moment they mistake a stiff cock for true love."

"A mistake I'm sure neither of you will make," Cub says, "having been properly warned of the risk." Thinking it better to change the subject rather than get bogged down in young people's excitement over the first thoughts of reproduction, she asks "is Ledaal Sintis the only Dynast who has visited Lushfield?"

The two teenage girls looked at each other, shrugging. "I don't know" Nadiyo said. "She's the only one I ever met. Maybe she or others visited before last year, but we would have both still been girls then, and not ladies yet." Tinya interjected: "We were both born in the same year, so we only formally debuted as ladies the calibration before last. Before that, we wouldn't have been invited to any parties to meet important people. I'm the older one, by the way, by two months."

Once she was properly clean, Cub had the girls assist her in getting dressed and putting her newly-washed hair into a suitably artful arrangement. She would instruct them gently, amusedly, and firmly on the womanly arts they needed to accomplish these tasks, making sure to leave a positive impression on the young minds.

Afterwards, she left the room and descended the stairs to Honto's study.

Descending the staircase, Cub proceeded down the hallway to the library that served as Honto's private office. Marwin was seated in a stuffed chair in the hallway next to the engraved oak door, wearing an evening robe, quietly reading some lengthy scroll burnished with statistics on projected harvest yields. From Cub's perspective though - it was obvious what he was actually doing: making sure that nobody would be around to eavesdrop on whatever conversations that would go in inside. He motioned Cub to enter, closing the door in near-silence behind her. Inside the library, Honto seated at a high-backed chair at the head of a low table. He remained dressed in the same outfit he had been wearing earlier, but had removed some accessories like his crown and the ceremonial bamboo slips that were previously draped over his shoulders. Covering the table was, from what Cub could see, a large, fairly detailed map of the Blessed Isle, along with various books that looked like reference manuals. Placed in various locations on the map were hundreds of small carved figures, painted more than a dozen colors. An identical chair open chair was opposite Honto. On the far side of the table was a long couch, and lying on that couch was Anguilla, who looked totally different from before, and was reading a bound manuscript. Like Cub, she too had apparently taken the opportunity to bathe and style her hair. She was no longer wearing her military armor, helmet, and regulation marching sandals - instead she was wearing a conservative evening gown.

Hearing the door shut, Honto looked up from the map he was studying and welcomed Cub into the library, inviting her to take the open seat across from him. "Welcome - I'm sure you have some questions after that interesting dinner. Your traveling companions were quite entertaining." Anguilla remained disinterested for now, remaining absorbed in her reading.

Cub takes the offered seat with grace and confidence. She notes Anguilla's presence, but makes no more of an outward sign of it than Honto does. "Indeed," she answers with an amused smile, "for one I do not see a kaleidoscope."

"Oh, that" muttered Honto, clearly frustrated at the problem he was poring over with the map and the reference manuals. He reached behind him and grabbed a carved wooden box, flipping the latch and handing it over to Cub. "It's an oddity of artifice, from the first age. There's a particular arrangement of mirrors and prisms inside the tube that reduces the object looked at to its component colors and shapes, and allow it to be viewed from all angles at once. The lever on the side rotates and focuses the image. Some say it was an aide in seeing the true form of things, though I can't discern any use for it beyond a children's toy." He gestured at the map spread out on the table: "What I'm more interested in is the true form of this." Looking closer, Cub could see that the small carved figures were placed at various population centers of the Blessed Isle, and the colors were generally aligned with each region's allegiance to a great house. "What do you make of it?"

"Depending on your source, the information you have regarding the state of the Blessed Isle may well be more current than anything I can tell you," Cub says as she studies the map, entirely ignoring the kaleidoscope.

"Perhaps." Honto replied. "Tell me, what do you make of House Ledaal? What's their interest in little Lushfield?" Honto picked up the most ornate of the figurines in Arjuf City, pondering it. Compared to some of the other domains, and the forces arrayed within, the Ledaal realm looked especially small.

"To answer that, I'd need to know more of your interactions with them," Cub answers and sits down, calmly regarding Honto.

Anguilla put down her manuscript and sat up, paying attention to Honto's explanation. "It's no great secret that war is coming in the Blessed Isle, and that Yasmet won't be a contender for the throne. I think Ledaal wants to survive, and to commit its forces at the last possible minute to whoever looks like they'll come out on top, so that they emerge relatively unscathed, and in a position where they can demand near-complete autonomy for Arjuf province."

"As for what they tell us" - it's what they think we want to hear. Mobilize all of our resources on their behalf, send twenty thousand men and women to fight for them when the war comes, and they'll reorient all of Arjuf along Six Quill's Hexagrammic principles, declare every man, woman, and child here a patrician and provide land holdings for them, and proclaim us as cadet House Lushfield."

"If you were a betting woman, what odds would you make for Yasmet following through on that promise?"

"I would not bet anything on that I did not actively want to lose," Cub says somberly. "It is clear that Ledaal Yasmet does not believe in the Hexagrammic principles, if she did she would have implemented them already rather than make it a reward for your assistance. While it is possible that House Ledaal would be in a position of near total control of Arjuf province after the conflict has been resolved, it is very unlikely that they have control over very much more. Thus, following through on such a promise would mean reorienting the entire House's strategy in this field simply to gain the assistance of two Legions' worth of soldiers and only a single Exalted officer to lead them."

"And this is in a scenario where House Ledaal has lost nothing of value. If they are as battered as one would expect from a conflict of this magnitude, the odds are even worse since short-term survival considerations would override anything else."

"I tend to agree." Honto replied. The fact is, we're a land of delusional fanatics. Our people have no sense of what is reasonable or possible. None of them have ever been anywhere in the outside world, going back to their great-great-grandparents. They're chomping at the bit to be told exactly what they want to hear, ready to embark on the destined crusade they've been waiting for for twenty generation. There's a momentum to this place, a 650-year undercurrent of purpose and destiny, one even I'm powerless to stop. Ledaal knows this, and that's the hand they played with us."

"Here's what I think Ledaal's after: They want a bolthole. If things go poorly for them in the war, they want a place they can retreat to, somewhere safe and comfortable and out of the way, somewhere with infrastructure in place, but without the pesky people living there. Twenty thousand dead Lushfielders, pretty much single one of us between the age of 20 and 50 happily going to their death, leaves a lot of space for House Ledaal to move in."

"I think they would like to have a bolthole," Cub agrees, "but I don't think they expect the war to end in a position where they will actually have to leave the Blessed Isle en masse. Whatever happens will be a struggle for power, not a war of extermination. At first at least, it may well escalate and end up worse than anyone expects. Ledaal Yasmet is a planner, and will have want to have a way out if things to worse than expected. In the mean time, those twenty thousand trained soldiers and your other resource are a boon to them regardless of the value offered by Lushfield itself."

"Trained is an overstatement -" Anguilla finally spoke up. "They spend a year learning to march and to tie their bootlaces and to hold a spear, but they're not true soldiers. None of them have ever fought a day in their lives. Maybe the more recent trainees have some value, but within five years, most of them barely remember what a formation is. They're hardly better than conscripted militia. None of them have seen battle, and the face of bloodied veterans, they're destined to crumble and be cut down like stalks of grain.

"A war of this magnitude will involve a lot of barely trained soldiers, but I agree that what you can offer is not enough to sway the balance of power majorly." Cub answered.

"Cynis though..." Honto pondered, putting the Ledaal figure he held back down and reaching to Pangu City to pick up a differently colored figurine. "In many ways the opposite of the Ledaals. Where they are stoic and sober, your people are reputed to be passionate and seek out new sensations. What happens to House Cynis in the grand war, do you think?"

"No one can make any certain predictions about what will happen to any house in the coming war," Cub says, "House Cynis will do its best to remain friends with everyone for as long as it can, and once it becomes necessary, they will back the strongest candidate they can live with on the throne."

"I'm sure there are those in the house with ambitions for the throne itself, but I find it unlikely that any of them will actually be in a position to act on those ambitions."

"Not unexpected" said Honto, who had been fishing for more information, but not expecting it. "But I should expect Cynis and Ledaal are unlikely to remain friends for very long if forced to take sides, and Cynis would be unlikely to ever back a Ledaal candidate, or vice-versa. We all know the Ledaals true feelings about House Cynis - it is the worst kept secret in creation. They think you are all secret heretics to the Immaculate Order, in league with Infernalist cults, Anathematic cabals, and the Fair Folk, and willing to make a deal with anyone to satisfy your endless lust for drugs and flesh. They would prefer to see you slain one and all."

"That's obviously why you've come here," remarked Anguilla confidently to Cub. "Cynis has heard a tale about the Ledaals' meddling around here, and has dispatched you to gather information and report your findings." Turning away from Cub, she addressed Honto, deliberately speaking about Cub as if she were not there in order to provoke her: "The woman's obviously under strict instructions to gather information, and to make no commitment and take no independent action. You can hear the equivocation, the hemming and hawing in everything she says. If you continue to press her, you'll find she has no strong opinions on anything of consequence at all. No, she'll leave here and write a dry report, which no doubt will be filed away somewhere never to be acted upon. It's a shame, really."

Honto furrowed his brow and interlaced his fingers. Before Cub had a chance to respond, he spoke up to Cub: "It is a shame, because we could do so much for each other. What if I were to tell you that, here and now, we could cooperate to take direct and swift action to undermine all the Ledaals' efforts? Would you be stirred to action then?"

"I think you overestimate the zealotry of the average member of House Ledaal, but it is true that there is little love lost between the two houses, even if the Ledaals are happy to attend galas, partake in the pleasures of life, and buy valuable slaves. Do you think all those manses are built by volunteers?" She asks rhetorically.

"I would certainly be more than interested in hearing your proposal," she answers his more serious question, happily ignoring Anguilla in return, "and I'm sure there are things you might propose that would indeed stir me into action."

"It's quite simple really." Honto said gravely. "The Ledaal's agents struck a calculated blow at the very heart of our people. They have preyed on the common Lushfielder's will to destiny and have stirred the country into a ferver. Most are now quite ready to die in vain, thousands of miles away, for those that will dispose of them the moment they become inconvenient. The chief agitator is my cousin, Celcine, the Archimandrite. She has been thoroughly swayed by the Ledaal's chief negotiator, and thinks the two are the best of friends. Her minions at the temple spread rumors about the imminence of a glorious return of our people to the Blessed Isle. We can urge caution and prudence, but we cannot overtly oppose their proposal, for obvious reasons. Consequently, the people of Lushfield are like a boulder rolling down the side of a mountain, about to slam into a cliff wall and shatter into pebbles and dust. Only another boulder, crashing into it from another angle, can knock it off track."

"Only those in this room know your allegiance to House Cynis. Everyone else - Celcine included - is naive. The politics of the Realm is alien to those here. They don't know the differences between Cynis and Ledaal, between Peleps and Sesus, between Mnemon and Cathak. In their minds, the Empress - her True Majesty as she is called - was universally loved and ruled with unquestioned unity and loyalty, and any division among those on the isle is the product of her absence. In their mind, you are another visitor from the Isle, in league with those who came before. If you were do something drastic, something public and violent, we would ensure it would not turn the masses against House Cynis, but against House Ledaal and their proposal."

It's clear that the two of them have planned this meeting in advance, and it's clear now that she should have brought Khi along to help sift through their lies and half-truths. With her fellow Lawgiver gone, Cub has to trace every furrowed brow, every ambiguous turn of phrase, and every blink of their eyes to see what they were saying to each other rather than her.

Anguilla bluntly spoke up: "Kill Celcine, and make it seem like Ledaal's responsible. And maybe take a few of her immaculate troublemakers with her. We'll take care of the rest."

"Will you also take care of me and mine when the populace wants to punish the only agents of the Isle present?" Cub answers sardonically.

"I'll ensure you have safe convoy out of Lushfield" said Honto. "After the deed is done, it will look like you fled in the confusion, and who do you think will be tasked with hunting you down?" he pointed markedly to himself and Anguilla. "Alternatively, there are secret ways in and out of Lushfield, known to only us. Who will be able to dispute what we say occurred beyond the city walls? We can claim to have enacted vengeance, and be heroes to our people, newly instructed to the realities of the brutal politics of the Isle. And you and your people can walk away from here with whatever your heart desires - a talent of silver, maybe?"

Looking back to Honto, Cub raises an eyebrow and responds, "you want to pay me a small fortune to kill your cousin so that you can continue living as the rulers of your plumb little country without getting involved in global politics, is that correct?"

"And how will the good Vice-Archimandrite take the death of his mistress?" She asks, also somewhat curious if the pair pick up on the obvious second meaning of the word.

"Rock?" Anguilla guffawed. "You have done your research. He'll grieve, no doubt, but I don't suspect he'll swear vengeance and hunt you and your masters down to the ends of creation, never resting until he has your skulls decorating the shelves of his office. With Celcine gone, he'll be the Archimandrite, free to institute all the petty little doctrinal changes he's so petulant about."

Cub probed further: "And your Great Uncle Rightness? For all his affectation of being a distracted old man, he does not seem like the sort of person to be in favor the scheme you are proposing."

"The old man's oblivious and spends his days entranced by the concoctions he sucks from the stem of his pipe." said Anguilla. "And half his mind is already rotted away by three centuries of poring over birth records and plugging them into 700-year old formulas haphazardly scrawled on parchment so faded that nobody knows what they actually say half the time."

"Not a true believer in the hexagrammic methods, I take it?" Cub says to Anguilla.

Anguilla simply smiles at Cub's statement.

"I can see how your suggestion will benefit us all," Cub says, turning her attention back to Honto, "but it is not a decision to make lightly, so I would like to think it over. Is there some particular time you would need this done by?"

"But of course" said Honto. "The decision doesn't need to be made in this very room, and you are welcome to can confer with your... associates, if it is necessary. If you agree, it will likely take us a few day's notice to make the necessary preparations, to set the stage for maximum impact, if you will."

"Of course, I do not anticipate moving forward on this without discussion the pertinent details with you first," Cub says, looking at Honto with an ingratiating smile.

"Fantastic," replied Honto, who was encouraged by Cub's non-rejection of the plot. "I'm sure you're tired from your travels and the events of the day, as are we. I am told we are to visit the antiquities collection in the morning, so we will have further opportunities to discuss in more detail. If you need to discuss our proposal with your companions at the caravan-grounds before retiring for the night, Marwin is just outside, and he will will provide a lantern and will guide you, if necessarily. In addition to the two of us, he can be trusted as well to keep this matter a secret."

"Thank you, but I think we can save that for the morrow," Cub answers, "this is not the kind of thing to be woken in the middle of the night over."

"Very prudent" stated Honto, who stood up and stretched his legs, walking over to the door and carefully opening it while Anguilla returned to reclining gracefully on the chaise, signaling that the delicate portion of the negotiations were finished for now. Marwin stepped inside, ready to fetch anything that may be requested. "If you require any refreshments, perhaps some tea, you have but to ask" said Marwin. "Otherwise, I think I hear my granddaughters, who will be joining you all in the study. I expect that they will have many questions about life in the Isle." The faint sound of Tinya and Nadio's heels clacking against the wooden floors signaled their approach - apparently the after-dinner smalltalk was beginning. "You are, of course, welcome to retire to your chambers at your leisure."

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Meanwhile, Khī surveyed the kitchen with a critical eye, walking in like she both wholly was supposed to be there and as though everyone else in the room had best become accustomed to that very quickly. She had once been among the most senior and privileged of servants, and walking like you were an extension of someone else’s master’s will wasn’t something easily forgotten.

As she passed one of them, attempting to clean out a wine stain from a soiled cloth, she let herself sharply correct the other woman, her voice making it intensely clear she was not to be ignored. She wasn’t, however, inaccurate- fine cloth was difficult to remove wine stains from, and the poor girl was only going to make it worse washing it like that.

Her intent was simple- establish herself, acquire some food she might be able to eat later in privacy, and see what information she could pull from the waitstaff. Truly snooping around could wait- Honto would be busy with Cub in a bit, leaving an excellent opportunity for Khī to find some evidence of whatever Honto was doubtless hiding. A good state was one that was run efficiently, with great skill and honesty, by those who deserved to rule. Lushfield, Khī was coming to believe, was not a good state. Something unscrupulous had nested instead at its heart.

"Sorry madam" the servant girl snappily responded to Khi upon being corrected upon the proper way to remove stains from tablecloths. The girl had an odd jumpiness about her, like she was used to being chastised by a superior and responding quickly. But there was something about Khi that made the girl want to talk to her. "We were training all morning, and then only this afternoon they told us to prepare to serve at this banquet, so most of us are pretty tired." She turned to the girl next to her, also washing tablecloths. "Last week when they were teaching us how to properly polish our issued boots, they didn't say anything about doing the same with tablecloths." So most of the staff weren't trained servants at all, Khi deduced - they were fresh military recruits that were marched over from the barracks and turned into servants for the night. Khi spied a plate that was recently brought in with a mostly untouched slice of cake on it that looked appetizing - if she moved quickly she might be able to save it from being thrown away.

"A shame, then, that they neglected to tell you how not to ruin the tablecloths. Come on then, I'll show you," Khi said, exuding a matronly exasperation, "You there, set that cake aside, let me help you,"

The serving-women in the kitchen almost greedily followed Khi's instructions, rather than continuing to flail around in their incompetence. Their lack of leadership was obvious. Quickly, she was able to reform the rag-tag band of freshly conscripted military girls turned ad-hoc plongeurs into an organized team of efficient household workers. From their calloused hands, Khi could tell that nearly all of them were obviously farmers' daughters used to waking up at five in the morning to tend to the livestock, so getting them to apply a little elbow grease wasn't the difficult part as it usually was, but many of them lacked the delicacy and finess that Khi was used to when training up a serving-girl, so it was mostly a wash.

As Khi took over the kitchen with the same intensity with which she approached more serious jobs, she worked to quietly instill herself as an object of respect to the serving girls. The 'downstairs' of many high class households, Khi found, more or less regardless of culture, tended to cluster around a handful of experienced servants, often of some rank within those circles, but not always. Khi had grown up in the politics of the servant class, and knew exactly when to appear as a helpful older servant, and when to appear as their employer's will incarnated in the form of an angry butler. In a way, it wasn't dissimilar to her place in Ysyr, even if her position engendered more resentment there than it did respect. But a sharp comment here, a bit of matriarchal hand holding there, and Khi would have these field hands eating out of her hand.

As the cleaning wrapped up, cake safely secured for herself, Khi took a moment to address the women. By all rights, this should have been Marwin, or one of his subordinate's job, but it seemed they had either neglected to do it or simply been terribly short staffed. She adopted a brusque tone, and addressed the serving girls as they began to pack up for the night, "You've improved, and I should think you would no longer make servants that dishonor your sainted mother, or her memory if she's dead. If you insist on feeling pride, you shouldn't be ashamed of it. Now, I don't suppose one of you could tell an old servant why they have farmer's daughters and citizen soldiers serving food at a party?"

The woman Khi had addressed, who had been deputized as the ad-hoc leader of the kitchen crew that Khi had whipped into shaped, seemed puzzled by the question. She was a horse-faced 19 years old, and now that the group had accepted Khi as one of their own, she let her guard down. Her words betrayed a slight rustic accent - what Khi suspected was the true voice spoken among Lushfield's commoners, when they weren't attempting to put on airs. "Well, who else is supposed to do it?" She truly seemed confused. "Lushfield doesn't have any real trained servants, like you may have in all those fancy palaces you've got in Nexus or Sijan or Great Forks or the Blessed Isle." Khi got the sense that those were the only foreign places the woman knew. "Until maybe a few years ago, when all the commotion about Her True Majesty started, none of us have ever heard of a fancy party like this being held in Lushfield, or any dignified visitors coming here, like your Lady, or the others before her. So there never was much call for any of that. Fact is, nobody made us be servants for the night - we volunteered, because we're excited about what's happening, and we want to help. Do you know if the rumors are true? You know, that our destined mission will soon be fulfilled, and we'll be welcome back to the Blessed Isle as glorious redeemers?" The group of kitchen workers were collectively wide-eyed, hanging breathlessly on Khi's response.

“I’m just a servant, and I’m afraid politics is quite beyond me. I understand some houses are quietly competing for the privilege, though. Have you had many guests in the years since the troubles over there started?”

Whatever Khī had been expecting, idealists and partisan volunteers had not been it. If Lushfield could mobilize its citizens so easily for this, it wasn’t hard to imagine what other uses the exalted rulers of this land could raise its people to.

The greedy eyes of the kitchen crew turned to disappointment at the news that Khi couldn't confirm or deny the rumors they were hearing. "There's been a few," responded the lead dishwasher, "or so we've heard, but that was back before our cadre's military service started, so we weren't in town to see the visitors from the Blessed Isle ourselves."

“Your cadre? Forgive me, how many of you are in the militia?” Khī said, feigning a maternal kind of surprise, like a parent who was pleasantly surprised by the behavior of a stranger’s child, “Is it compulsory in this land? Where I am from, soldiers are a class of their own,”

"Oh yes, everyone in Lushfield spends a year and a day in the army, starting after their nineteenth calibration, when they swear the oath to bind themselves to the legion. The boys and the girls. Each year's cadre is around five or six hundred, give or take, split around evenly between the men's and women's talons." The rest of the kitchen workers were in the process of completing their work, and some were preparing to leave. "It's always been like that, so we're all are trained how to fight, so in case we're ever attacked by outsiders who want to steal our land and make us their slaves, we can mobilize and defend ourselves. It was planned this way, hundreds of year ago, by Six Quills herself - she founded Lushfield. It's the only way a small place can remain strong and independent. The temple says it unifies us all in our true purpose - they call it pulling the plow of destiny, and that only works if everyone's all pulling in the same direction."

Khī took her leave of the kitchen, keeping the rest of the conversation light and away from any further interesting little details of life in Lushfield.

By the time Khī returned to the guest chambers, cake in hand, Cub had already left to converse with their hosts. She couldn’t help but feel a small pang of regret- she’d left the other woman somewhat awkwardly.

She let her mind wander as she took her mask off, her wide, glassy grey eyes nictating and blinking in the sudden light. With a practiced motion, she unwrapped her head wrappings, revealing short black hair, almost plastered to the sides of her head. Her face is sharp, more angles than curves, with an ashen tone that betrays a life spent mostly wrapped away from the sun. From the back of her neck peek hints of obsidian-black ink, a tattoo. Thick, red gills rise from her neck, rising and falling with her breath, as she carries the cake with her into the bathroom, flicking only the tap for cold water with her foot.

A deep breath escapes her lips, stress she didn’t know she was carrying leaving her. Like a bird, she delicately cleaves off a piece of cake, and pops it into her mouth. She had been hungry, as it turns out. Staring out at the ceiling, she works her way through it, leisurely despite her hunger, listening to the bath fill.
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Persistent Cub is many things, and one of them is a master at making people feel appreciated and valued while telling them absolutely nothing of value. And so it is that she entertains not only the young hopeful girls with dreams of a glamorous life on the Isle, but also the jaded old commander, the web-weaving Seneschal and his dutiful brother. She doesn't tell them the truth, of course, no one really wants to hear that, but a suitably glossed-up version with just enough hard facts to impress the more jaded in the company does wonderfully.

After an hour or so, Cub begs off due to having had a long day and no proper bed for far too long.

Cub returns to the guest quarters to find them still lit, candles and lanterns still gently flickering. Khī leans against a dresser, her mask sitting at her side. Her grey eyes reflect the flickering lights of the candles, resembling nothing so much as a deer at night or a fish caught illuminated by a lantern. Her hair is still wet, the curt, poorly cut bob stuck to the sides of her face. Her gills like flat against her neck, flapping uselessly and gently, the occasional flash of blood red flesh the only indication they were there in the light.  “I don’t mean to delay you,” she said, quietly. Her face, surprisingly, is unusually expressive. “I wanted to apologize, for earlier. I think I left on a poor note”

With the door closed carefully behind her, Cub walks closer to Khi and answers, "if you did it was due to my poor choice of words."  She sits down on the bed and starts removing the various pieces of jewelry she has worn first to the dinner and then to the meeting in Honto's study, though she keeps her focus on Khi, taking in the other's unmasked face.


Khī meets Cub’s gaze, her blank, intent stare recognizable from all the times she’d seen it behind her usually omnipresent mask. She is, for a moment, quiet.  “Your meeting, with Honto. It went well? No hunt after us, I assume?” Khī smiles, unguardedly. Or, perhaps, she was so used to her face being covered that she didn’t keep it as still as the rest of her. “Anguila not dusting off her shikari gear?”

"It did," Cub says as she puts down the last hair pin, "in fact they would like us to kill the Archimandrite, but I think we should consider that more thoroughly before deciding whether to proceed."

Khī’s eyebrows raised. “Kill her? And they were that forthright with you? A woman they had met only today?”

"Indeed. I was quite surprised at that myself, though I suppose there is little risk of me running to the woman herself, she would be very unlikely indeed to believe me, and they argued persuasively it would be in the interest of themselves as well as House Cynis to follow through on that scheme."

Khī looked pensively at the other woman for a moment, “And what are your interests, then, Cub? Surely you’re doing this as much for our friends in Nexus as you are for house Cynis”

Cub, as far as the sorcerer was concerned, wasn’t the kind of woman not to have an ulterior motive. She studied the other woman closely, watching her face, her throat, the patterns of her breathing. She would lie, Khī knew, because Khī would lie. Whatever was going through the other’s head, Khī knew the exiled dynast wasn’t a fool.  "Inasmuch as I am loyal to neither, I suppose you could say that," Cub answers with amusement.

“Yes, precisely. Why are you here, Cub?” Khī’s eyes become more intense, as she stares Cub down, searching for any hint of a lie.

"Have you forgotten our conversation in Nexus?"

“I couldn’t” Khī answers, “but you’ll excuse me if I don’t believe it’s the whole story”

"Nothing ever is," Cub answers, looking somewhat puzzled at Khi's line of inquiry. "Is there something particular you are looking for in my motivations?"

“I was a magistrate,” Khī says, leaning back, “or a magistrate’s assistant, I suppose. Suspicion is a hallmark of the trade. And mere interest is hardly an excuse for murder or an extended infiltration of as paranoid a country as Lushfield,”

"They are not in fact particularly good at paranoia," Cub muses, "it is almost suspicious in fact. They let us into their midst, do not surveil our room, tell their plot to me straight.  It is quite peculiar."

“Yeah, it’s...odd. I smell a rat as much as you do” Khī said, watching the other woman dodge her question. “A great many things recently have seemed...peculiar” her brow furrowed, concerned, turning the problem over and over in her head. 

"You are still suspicious of me," Cub continues, "why? Do you fear that I will betray you and make a life of my own here?"

“No,” Khī said, frowning, “Do you trust me?”

"Trust is not an absolute thing," Cub answers forthrightly, "but by and large, yes I do."

“You shouldn’t.” Khī said, smiling, almost flirtatious, her teeth, in the light, glimmering, white, small and sharp.

"Very well," Cub answers with a mirroring smile, "I shan't."

Khī stood, meeting the other woman’s eyes, a weird expression, part elation, part something unrecognizable on her face. “I...I should go to bed. It’s getting late. We have a day ahead of us,”

Cub holds Khi's gaze and her smile widens, "it is and we do," she agrees, "but first we have the rest of the night."

“I-“ Khī stutters, her thought process clearly stumbling to a halt, “I suppose we do”

"It seems a waste," Cub says, still capturing Khi's eyes with her own, "to simply spend it sleeping, does it not?"

“I guess it would be” Khī says, letting her mask drop to the floor, her face darkening. She stepped closer to the other woman, reaching up to help remove an earring. “You may need help with these before sleeping, in any case”
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- BACK AT THE CAMP -

Scales, Cold, and Nameless slowly made their way south, using the available cover to avoid any people still awake. Scales focused inwards, closing his eyes and trying to replicate the sensation he felt when he saw the beam of essence, using it to direct their path.

Scales had told them they needed to make their way south. he was the only one who really knew where they were going. But Cold knew a thing or two about navigating as well. Hell, he always knew where the elemental poles were and whereabouts he was in relation to them. A talent the rest of his tribe made good use off. So Cold simply acted as Scale's compass to make sure they weren't straying to much from the south as they snuck their way through the dark.

After they had trekked due south for a few miles through the darkness across freshly plowed farmland, the stars in the sky as their guide, Scales paused, halting Cold and the Nameless Sword Maiden behind him. He focused himself inward, letting the power of Luna flow through him, again revealing the flows of essence below Lushfield. The million spiderweb cracks of essence that he had seen before returned to his vision, permeating all of the ground around them, for miles and miles. Directly below them, the large beam of essence, at least fifty feet down, blazed a white glow, oriented along the north-south axis. Focusing deeper, the blur of the spiderweb cracks of essence grew finer, more discrete, enabling him to trace an individual branching tendril all the way back along its path, where it joined with others, like the individual estuaries of a river delta as one traveled upstream. Some of them were miles long, wavy, almost like minuscule roots through the soil. And they all eventually could be traced back to the fantastically long, large beam of glowing essence fifty feet down. Another two miles south from them was a small oddity in the essence beam - like a bulge - a distortion in the flow, where it approached closer to the surface, before returning to its normal path. This was worth investigating further.

Sensing Scales’ steps getting smaller, the Lunar slowing down, Nameless stopped in her tracks, straightened up and tilted her head, then turning it side to side, like an owl scanning the horizon. But she lacked the Lunar's attunement to the ebb and flow of Essence, so she could just read his body language, listen for soft vibrations in the surroundings, or deduce something was afoot from the movement of wildlife around them, or the odd eddie in the airflow that shouldn’t have been there. Hardly helpful compared to the No-Moon’s capabilities.

“Are we getting closer?” she whispered to Scales, curious, eager.

Scales turns back to face Nameless and Cold, silver and purple light glittering in his eyes. "About two miles south, the essence beam distorts, briefly passing closer to the surface. I think that would be our best chance of finding a way down; even if there isn't, it still behaves oddly and I believe we should investigate it."

Cold nodded and gave a meowed in a way that probably sounded approving of that plan. Hopefully. The one problem with shape-shifting was that communicating with others became a bit of an issue in animal shapes. But hey, the smaller the group of humans. the easier it was for everybody to sneak around.

The two Lunars and the Dawn trudged through the freshly plowed fields another two miles, guided by Scales towards the location where the artery of essence approached nearer the surface. Tired of shaking off mulch from his paws and needing to trot quickly to keep up with the bipedal companions, but unwilling to give up the enhanced night vision of his cat-form, Cold eventually hitched a ride on the Nameless Sword Maiden's shoulder. In the thick of night, with the crescent moon above them, there was very little to give away their presence in the deep of night, as long as they remained inconspicuous.

As they approached the region indicated by Scales, none of them noticed anything especially peculiar or different. On the surface, it was just more fertile farmland, visually indistinguishable from the miles and miles around them that made up every part of Lushfield that wasn't Lushfield town, five miles due North. But closer to the odd region of essence flow, Scales was able to perceive odd irregularities. In every other location, the beam of essence flowed relatively compactly, tightly wound and well-contained, like a arrow-straight horizontal bamboo shoot 50 feet below the surface. Here, though, for around 300 feet, the essence flows were more disperse and less tightly coiled, bulging upward towards the surface, where at locations it approaching as near as ten feet. It reminded Scales of a wound in a tree trunk, where the wood had bent outward, scar tissue growing around the damage. The essence flows through the disturbed region were almost random, like they had been disrupted and then new disorderly connections reformed in strange, unexpected ways.

Cold looked around, ears rotating for anything out of the ordinary as he peered through the darkness. Aside from the scurrying of some vermin, probably some mice, he didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Just more fields. He simply waited for Scales. hopefully the no-moon could shed some more light on this.

Scales spoke up: "Something happened here that caused the essence flow underground to break and then form new connections. Judging from our distance from Lushfield proper, and the disturbance of the flows, I believe that this might be the site of the sinkhole from the documents."

"I think going straight down from here would be the fastest way. You two should stand back."

Cold jumped off Nameless' shoulder as soon as Scales said that they should stand back. Darting a safe distance away from Scales. Wondering what he was up to.

With his two companions clear, Scales starts growing larger and larger, falling to all fours as his bones shift and twist, his skin becoming obscured by dark green and black scales, large bony plates erupting from his back.

The sound of ripping cloth and leather and the occasional mild tremor though the ground accompanied Scales' midnight transformation into his massive chimeric form. In the twisted combination of a river dragon and siege lizard, spade-like bones jutted from his spine, which extended rearward in a thick, spiked tail terminating in a spiked, bony ball. The moonlight glinted off the slightly fluorescent outer membrane that coated the scales that covered his tough exterior, with the lightest hint of a rainbow reflection reminding of the partially aquatic origin of the beast that Scales was becoming. His fingers lengthened and thickened into thick talons terminating in curved, three-inch long predatory nails, with thick, reptilian webbing between them. They were meant for swimming, but they would be more than adequate for digging as well. Testing the ground, he plunged his front hand a foot deep into the hard-packed, fertile soil, lifting a full cubic foot of dirt of out of the ground. Still attuned to the flows of essence, he could see the minute tendrils of essence come along with the dirt, snapping of from its connection beneath it and immediately growing faint as he lifted the large clod up to examine it, before tossing it into a pile behind him.

With his transformation complete, Scales in the form of the giant chimera starts to dig, moving massive clumps of dirt, but not randomly; using his intelligence to determine the best places to excavate and which places to brace.

Encouraged by his initial test, Scales leaned into the work, scraping away at the ground with his massive chimeric finned claws, throwing heaps of soil all around him and he dug ever deeper. Cold and the Nameless Sword Maiden watched and kept their distance, dodging the occasional clod of dirt that flew around them in the chaos. Scales made rapid pace, plunging his titanic form ever deeper as he carved his way ever deeper into the soil. Within ten minutes, his efforts lead to his claws approaching the nearest thickened artery of essence beneath him. His massive lizard/water dragon form was occupying the entirety of the hole as he dug, an almost comedic sight to Cold and the Nameless Sword Maiden as his hind leg grasped for purchase on a large pile of dislodged dirt and his tail flailed with every shovel-stroke of his massive front claws into the ground. His titanic form blocked the little moonlight that could illuminated the area he dug in - he was working entirely through his occult, luna-blessed sight at this point, half-instinctual, digging in mimicry of the motions of a river dragon pulling itself through muddy water. It wasn't perfect, but it was effective.

Cold stared at the giant lizard digging a hole in the ground before he took shelter from the flying dirtclods behind Nameless. He was pretty sure a giant lizard wasn't really stealthy. And he was very sure that if Cub or Khi had seen what they were doing. they would have words for them. Probably bad ones. He glanced over at Nameless. Even though he was a cat. what he was trying to convey through expression alone was pretty easy to see. *I won't tell if you don't.*

The Sword Maiden had visibly - though silently - gasped at Scales' transformation and now observed the giant monster's digging from a - somewhat - safe distance.
She exchanged a meaningful glance with the cat that Cold had become, and nodded in agreement, before tip-toeing closer to the hole that Scales was excavating, staring into the black nothingness to see whether she could be of any help - she couldn't.

But at least now she'd be sure to notice if Scales dug down to anything interesting, at which point she'd at least be quick to follow him.

Finally, the pace of Scales' digging begin to slow - he had reached the first layer of the target he was digging towards, and began to clear out the hard-packed soil and soft rocks around it, exposing the broad, tough, ridged surface of whatever it was that had uncovered, which he could see distinctly to be slowly pulsing with essence in his occult vision. His humongous chimeric form, even with its slight iridescent silver glow in the moonlight, blocked out the light from the moon and stars above, making it difficult to discern its form. Finally, without much grace, he pulled his reptilian water dragon form out of the ten-foot deep hole, making his best efforts not to let a stray footstep crumble a whole side wall in and ruin his efforts and presenting a clear vision of just what he had struck down there.

Peering in the hole, what Scales uncovered had the external appearance of a massive, knotty intertwined root structure, hundreds of thick roots densely packed together to give the appearance of a single dense wooden block of tangled knots. It reminded them of the mangrove tree roots they had seen at low tide while traveling up the yellow river, but thicker - forming a snarled wall with almost no space between them for even the smallest speck of dirt.

Cold peers down the the hole eyes widening as he sees the dense roots packed together and remembers what Khi had told them after she had investigated those prayer calendars. Tramazia the rhizome, the god of outwards growing roots. A god of roots getting more prayers then everybody else, and massive roots growing across the entire country of Lushfield. That had to be connected. but how?

With a thought he shifted back into his true form. In mere seconds the cat had been replaced by a crouching wolfman. "This has to be the work of that god we found out about, the one that got more prayer on the sly. Do these roots grow underneath the entire country Scales?" What could they be for? "You think we should try and break through them? Would they be hollow?"

"Well I'm not fitting through there" Nameless half-whispered, even though a dragon-beast had just ripped open the earth she was somehow still in a stealthy mood.
"So either you guys find me a tunnel, or we slice through" she shrugged. "If the god is gobbling up all those prayers, I'm sure they won't miss a few branches and roots, right?" she speculated, putting one hand on the hilt of her daiklave, but not drawing it yet. "They seem to branch out though, right? Wouldn't that mean if we follow the thinner roots upwards to where they get thicker we should find the center of whatever caused this growth?" She tried her best not to be too freaked out by the two shapeshifters. And she somehow really wasn't. But still though, her eyes darted between the two Lunars. What else might they be capable of?

"Lets see if this thing is hollow or solid." Cold says as he jumps down into the hole putting his head against the bark and knocking the roots. He had ears that could hear a mouse rustle underneath the snow. And he knew that if something was hollow it sounded differently. He strained his hearing and kept knocking.

Scales, still in the form of a massive lizard, moves his head in an approximation of a nod in response to Cold's questions. Seeing that Cold is about to move closer, he moves back, giving him more room.

Since the other two were already putting in the work, Nameless climbed down the hole, coming to a stand right next to Cold, resting her hand on the roots, calmly feeling the vibrations from Cold's knock, before putting her own ear on the root system. What the Lunar was doing was exactly right, and she listened for his probing knocks, as she held her breath for a second, hear heart beat ringing in her ear, only to be drowned out by the knocks she had been listening for.

The Dawn had her eyes closed, even though she could see pretty well in these dim conditions, she wanted to concentrate on the vibrations on her fingertips and her ear, hear the murmuring of the earth, and feel the subtle changes in air pressure on the hairs on her arms. Plus, eyes were bad at seeing through things. If there was anything hollow here, a room, a tunnel, an opening, she would at least be able to tell Cold in which way to orient himself, if she didn't just outright find it.

Cold knocked away at the root structure, and he and the Nameless Sword Maiden listening closely to the sounds that resonated through the knots of wood, attempting to hear the tonal shifts and echoes that changed as he experimented with different locations and ways of pounding away at he hard coiled roots - tapping with a claw, a nearby rock, a fist, or a piece of partially rotted lumber he had grabbed from the surface before jumping down into the hole. This wasn't something that either of them had done before, and the two of them relied on their ultra-fine senses of hearing to discern the minute distinctions. Eventually, after knocking away for a while in different ways, they both came to the agreement that there definitely was an echo that came from down there which indicated something cavernous, not entirely solid below - that was for sure. But the exact parameters of the void was unclear, and the echoes that the heard were irregular and disordered. Scaled had said that this region of the essence flow was jumbled and disturbed, possibly as a result of the sinkhole that Cold had mentioned, so it was possible that if there was a hollow below, it would likewise be irregular and disturbed.

After receiving confirmation that the root was indeed hollow, Scales motions for Nameless and Cold to stand back, out of the pit. With them out of the way, Scales moves forwards, using his keen sense of smell to detect the minuscule airflow where the root wall was thinnest. Finding it, he plants himself, gouges his claws into the wood, and tears with all the strength of a 9 meter lizard monster.

Scales' claws skate across the essence-fortified hardwood root structure, barely able to find even a hint of purchase. At best, his attempt had left a few long, thin scratches. He had punched his way through simple wood plankings on the decks of ship before with ease, and this didn't feel like that at all. If anything, it felt like he was trying to claw his way through the stone walls of a fortress. This was going to be a much, much tougher nut to crack.

...Not quite as planned, Scales thought as he shifted back and gazed upon the scratches he left.

"What the hell is that stuff made out of?" Cold runs a claw over the wood and instead of the small groove that should be cut into it. It was as hard as metal. "You think the essence flow you saw makes it that strong?" Cold guessed. "You know stuff about magic. is there a way to disrupt it, or make the wood rot so we can cut through easier?"

This will require finesse, not force, thought Scales. With that, he shifted back to his scale-less self.

This is not normal wood. Scales starts examining the wooden wall in front of him, scraping it with a fingernail, then comparing it to the lesser roots he dug up earlier. He does this with multiple tests: comparing the smell, feel, and taste. That done, he presses himself to the wall, slowing his heartbeat and listening for the sound of essence that lurks beyond mortal sense. Trying to identify how the wood has been changed by the essence coursing through it, and if it has any weak points where the flow was disturbed within the timbers.

Scales' life in the west had familiarized him deeply with the patterns of hardened woodgrain found in sea-polished driftwood and the holystoned teak decks of ships. In both cases, the fibers that had once been living trees had been pounded tightly together, pounded into denseness through decades of effort, either in the rolling seas or being scraped daily by pumice stones toiled at by salty sea-dogs. This, though, was living wood, and the roots seemed as hard as stone or iron under Scales' tests. Tugging at a thin tendril that had not been dislodged by his digging, he snapped it off at its connection point with the rock-hard root wall underneath, examining the results. The sap that pooled at the wound wasn't like any normal sap he had seen before. The way it flowed was less viscious, more runny, and it hardened quickly into a cap over the break point. He tested it with a nail. It wasn't gummy in the slightest, like he expected - it had rapidly hardened, and was continuing to harden further. His prodding had caused it to crumble, not flow. It reminded him of a piece of amber that Smiling Rat had shown him, with the skeleton of a mouse trapped within. When undisturbed, the flowing liquid inside ran like water, but when disturbed, it nearly instantaneously hardened, conferring incredible toughness to the wood around it.

"The sap strengthens the wood against my efforts; perhaps instead of ripping the wood, cutting using a smaller, keener blade will have an effect?" Scales stands back, stymied by the wall, and motions Nameless forward.

"What do you think the roots are used for?" Cold muses as he gives Na-Mai some space. "I mean, these things are rulling all under the country and the god that grew these is getting secret extra prayer. Do you think it has something to do with the abnormal fertility?"

"As far as I can tell, the roots are funneling essence from elsewhere into Lushfield's soil. That could be the cause. I don't think it accounts for the abnormal exaltation rates, though" noted Scales.

The Sword Maiden sighed, as if agreeing to an argument she silently made to herself, and stepped towards the root system.
She nodded at Scales. "I have an idea. Don't know if this will work."

She took a wide stance, as far as that was possible. She still had to use her foot to clear some rubble and earth out of her way. She then gripped the hilt of her Daiklave, and unsheathed the blade, steely grey in the shadow, no light to reflect, the way the Forgotten Blade liked it.

Nameless looked at the root, taking good measure, and let her instincts guide the Blade, well, mostly she let the Blade slip where it wanted to. She just lent it a bit of her arm strength to do it's thing, really. If it was indeed a living, thinking thing, it would forget that it had been hurt, when the first strike struck it, the Nameless Blade flashing forward in a tight arc, gliding through the root without cutting it. The second strike hit just the same spot, leaving another pale marking without actually cutting anything. It was meant to excise the idea of what to do if hurt from those strands of roots. Again, the Sword Maiden acted on instinct and just hoped for this to work.

The blade usually only worked on thinking things. But if this was the making of a god - who was to know? She took a step back and viewed the two pale markings.

"Well, maybe now" she exclaimed, before widening her stance yet more, and giving the root system a good, hefty slash, this time designed to actually cut out a pathway for the three.

The Sword Maiden's first strokes of the silver blade whistles through the thin night air, the tip both cleaving and not-cleaving the root system. It was an odd experience - the last foot of the blade seemed to simultaneously gouge a path into the wall of densely knotted wood, meeting almost no resistance, and yet after examining her work, there was nothing let but a small glowing pale mark in the path where the blade had struck, rapidly dissipating away. The effect of the strike was difficult to tell, but something supernatural had happened - that was for sure.

Now for the second stroke to try to cleave the root structure in twain: gathering all her strength, she pulled down on the hilt of the blade, aimed towards a thin cleft between to large thick nodules, aiming to drive the blade all the way through. The Daiklave struck true: the razor-sharp edge striking exactly where she meant to drive it, a mighty thwack like the sound of the world's mightiest axe driving into a great oak. It was a strike that could cut armored men and women alike in half, from the top of their head down through their lower torso. Yet against the essence-fortified root stronghold, it amounted to naught. Levering the blade free, the Sword Maiden viewed the results. The effect was more than realized by Scales' claws - there was clearly a thin, half-inch deep gash where her blade had struck, where Scales had barely left the thinnest scratch. But these roots were more like fortress walls than simple wood, and even if she had the time and energy for a thousand similar strikes, it was unlikely that she would ever manage to slice a shaft through that was large enough for the passage of a person, even one as slim as herself.

"Well, brute force isn't working," Cold said. "There was a shed nearby, probably where the farmers store their tools. we might be able to find something in there that can help us get through the thing." Cold considered another option. "Fire is another option, It's as hard as steel, but it's still wood. it should burn. Though that makes light and might make us even more obvious as we are."

"Yeah" Nameless sighed, "this thing definitely can't be just cut through" she agreed. While she was open to the idea that someone might be stronger than her, she knew her strike hat been damn near perfect.

"We should probably tell the others, this might very well the way to a big discovery, so they might want to be here anyway. Besides, someone might have a better idea than force to get through. And if they don't - more people, more force!" The Sword Maiden nodded in agreement with herself. "Maybe we can leave the hole, just cover it with some branches and leaves, and a thin layer of soil, scatter the rest?" she suggested.

"Also an option," Cold admits. "If a daiklave barely scratches the thing. Most ordinary tools or weapons won't do shit."

"Sooo..." Nameless quickly climbs out of the dug hole, nimble movements, her feet finding hold in the loosest of dirt piles, and she quickly is standing in the cooling night air again, the only dirt on her clothes from that reckless moment where she tried to hack through the spirit root. She moved an errant strand of jet-black hair out of her pale face, and nodded in the direction she assumed their accommodations were in. "Let's cover our tracks a bit, and bring the others up to date?" she suggested eagerly, scanning the dark floor for a couple of branches she might use to help that endeavor along.

"Agreed. We should bring the others up to date and see if they have any ideas." Scales looks around, trying to find any loose branches that may have fell down from trees.

Cold climbs out of the hole without an issue and then joins Scales and Na-Mai in finding a way to cover this entire pile up. He paused, that probably wouldn't be the best use of their time. They had a massive mound of dirt to spread out. Branches and other things to find and they probably shouldn't be lingering here any longer then they absolutely had to.

"Na-Mai," Cold started thinking back on his own experiences with building a pit trap. It wasn't exactly the same as covering a hole, but it mostly followed the same principles. "Go and find some branches, Cut them form the trees if you have to. We only need eight ones that are long enough to cross the entire pit. The rest can be smaller ones just to fill up the space." He turned to Scales. "the both of us are going to go to the farmhouse," he gestured towards it. "And get us some shovels that we can use to help shift all of the dirt. If we're lucky there might be a tarp as well."

Grabbing the shovel, Scales starts to collect the dirt he threw around earlier. From there, he starts to spread it on the branches and tarp that Nameless and Cold found.
Not the most efficient way to do it, but better than there being a lightshow.

Sneaking into the nearby dimly lit barn in the distance, Cold managed to locate a few woven canvas sacks along with two rusty shovels and a rake. Meanwhile, Nameless and Scales headed over to a nearby hedged treeline marking the boundary between two adjacent farms, and with a few quick swipes of her Daiklave, silently cut off a dozen or so long and thin but sturdy-looking branches or gnarled bushy outgrowths, catching the before they clattered to the ground and carrying them back with them. Meeting up at the large piles of dirt that marked the deep hole that Scales had ripped in the earth, they went to work concealing their efforts. While Cold and Nameless went to work reducing the size of the piles and tossing the mounds dirt across the field, Scales began laying down suitably long and thin branches in load-bearing patterns across the top of the hole, lashing them together with torn strips of canvas and reinforcing the gaps between with the bushy plant matter. Satisfied with the lattice he created, he begin ripping open the canvas sacks to produce a few flat sheets of fabric, which he used to cover the top of the hole. Testing its weight-bearing properties by walking across, he then silently directed Cold and Nameless to begin shoveling dirt atop the canvas he had placed down, and went to work with the rake to even it out. It was strenuous work, but after an hour or so, the Exalts had succeeded in mostly eliminating the obvious signs of a disturbance. It likely wouldn't stand up to the weight of a draft animal, and the disguise would fall apart the moment a farmer tried to run a plow across it, but to the naked eye, nothing seemed amiss that couldn't be explained by the random actions of wild animals.

"That should hold for a day at least," Cold gives an approving nod at their handywork. "So, regroup?"

"Yeah" Nameless whispered, "let's go get the others, this will hold up just as long as nobody stumbles on it, which will happen eventually, so let's not waste time" - she nodded ahead.

Scales nods and starts walking back with Cold and Nameless.

---

From the corner of his eye, Warden would've seen a very familiar off-white cat dart in the cart and the familiar face of Hidden-Reed pokes out of the cart not to long after. She glanced around to see if anybody was listening in. "We found... Something?" Cold said. "I don't have a clue what it is. But Scales thinks it has something to do with that god of outwards growing roots."

Warden looks at Scales and Nameless to fill in other parts of the story. He had kept a close eye on their camp and wagon, so he quickly turned to face the familiar cat when it darted in. He listened to their tale of what they found, idly stroking his beard. "Hmm, it definitely seems connected, if you ask me. So what is the plan? Get through the roots somehow?"

"They're hollow, so they probably lead somewhere," Cold said. "We weren't able to break through them. Some kind of magical bullshit, Scales tried to explain it but I didn't get it." Cold easily admits. "We hid our way to the roots, but we don't know how long the disguise will work."

"Hmm...do we have any ideas on how to break through the roots?" He adds thoughtfully.

"We've tried brute strength and cutting with a magical weapon and those both failed, so perhaps burning with fire or acid?"

With many of the Exalts bone-tired from their travels and their midnight adventure, one by one they drifted off to sleep. Khi and Cub were lucky enough to rest peacefully in the relative luxury of Honto's residence, while for Scales, Warden, Cold, and the Nameless Sword Maiden, they returned to their well worn sleeping bags, camping out by the embers of the fire that Nisalta had been nursing most of the evening.
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The sun dawned in Lushfield on the Exalt's second day there. Drifting awake one by one, they could see that Nisalta had slept in the wagon, and had already been up for hours, arranging for feed and water for the horses, and going about the general business of a caravan-owner. As a rule, farmers rise early, and much of the business in Lushfield was traditionally done in the early hours of the morning. As the Exalts rubbed their blurry eyes, she made them aware of a note that had been delivered, written in neatly legible handwriting: The companions of Persistent Cub were graciously invited to join her at an informal breakfast hosted at the Lushfield City Hall, to be followed up by a visit to the antiquities collection.

Cold was one of the first ones to rise. Having quickly made himself presentable. (by his own standards.) As Hidden reed. As soon as he had woken up. Nisalta had given him the invite. An informal breakfast at the city hall followed with a visit to the antiquities collection. On the positive side. Breakfast that wasn't just trail rations. On the bad side, more time they had to spend doing high socieity stuff that they couldn't spend trying to figure out how to break into those roots. That and maybe that red headed bitch would be there as well. Cold simply waited for any of the others to wake up so he could inform them of their invitat

Warden, at least, seemed well rested and energetic in the morning. Whether he just needed little sleep or snuck some in while the others were off on their hole-digging adventure was hard to say. "It would look suspicious if we turn them down, wouldn't it? Even if it's unlikely to get us closer to this Wellspring, we should take the invitation, I believe.

"That's what I was thinking yes," Cold agrees. "Who knows, might be a decent time to do some more snooping? You and Rock seemed to get on well. You might be able to ask more about that god of outward reaching roots?"

Warden stroked his beard. "I might need some excuse to ask about that god in particular. Especially since I'm not exactly allowed to directly worship any gods except according to the calendar, as far as he is concerned."

Scales wakes, rejuvenated by his sleep. Catching the tail-end of their conversation he says, "Perhaps the antiquities collection will have useful information? I'm not expecting daiklaves or hearthstones, but maybe there'll be something related to the gods local to Lushfield."

"Maybe," Cold agrees with Scales. "There might be something that can spark a conversation about the gods specifically?"

---

Khi rises early, before the sun rose, gingerly leaving the bed so as not to wake Cub. Sprawling over her back is an enormous tattoo, rendered entirely in a deep, consuming black. A forest by night rises and sprawls across her shoulders, shrouding a nude woman rendered in disquieting detail, a pair of short horns curling from her forehead, and her eyes seemingly alive with detail. She presides over an uncomfortable sight- naked men and women flee from her, their faces so distorted with terror they seem almost inhuman, the whites of their eyes clear even painted in the brown of Khi's skin. The unearthly hunt is preceded by dark hounds, their features in places closer to human than their terrified quarry. Like a magic trick, the tattoo vanishes beneath layers of clothing, scarf, and mask as Khi dresses, padding back to her room. Prepared for the day, Khi makes her way to the kitchen, with the aim of securing something for her to eat before helping serve breakfast, as well as some tea. In theory, the tea was for Cub, upon her rousing. Certainly, if Marwin asked, that was its purpose. It was, of course, mostly for the masked woman. Returning to the guest chambers, tea in hand, Khi set about getting things ready for her 'master's awakening. Their relationship might be closer to equals, but it wouldn't do to let the serving girls get too much of an idea of it.

Cub is a fairly deep sleeper, even more so now that she has an actual bed to sleep in, but the light of the sun and the smell of tea stirs her as Khi returns to the room. She watches contentedly as Khi putters around the room getting things into their proper place and leisurely sits back in the bed, blankets falling haphazardly around her, "is that for me?" she asks, indicating the steaming tea pot.

“Well, if we’re being completely honest it’s for me, but I didn’t intend to drink the whole pot” Khī responds. While her voice may be as flat as ever, you can’t help but get the feeling she’s joking.

Khī silently watches Cub as she rises, taking a sip of her tea. So her clothes were enchanted somehow. A neat trick, to be sure. No other reason for her intent focus on the other woman. “I spoke with the servants last night. They’re all locals, none of them trained servers, and all volunteers. Sounds like they drill most of the youth here daily. They seem to be zealots, down to a woman.

"The two who helped with my bath made it clear to me that they are not servants, but ladies-in-waiting," Cub says with amusement, "Marwin's granddaughters who wish to learn how to be proper ladies in the fashion of the Scarlet Dynasty. I fear they will be rather disappointed if their dreams of returning to the Isle are ever fulfilled.

“Ladies-in-waiting? Did you explain to them what a life in court is like?” Khī chuckled “We must have gotten rather different classes of helper, then. The servers would have been more comfortable with a steer or a spear than good dishware,”

"Not thoroughly, I fear," Cub says with a wicked smile, "and perhaps I did not make it quite clear to them the role two mortal women from the Threshold might have at the great galas hosted in the Imperial City or Pangu."

“You’re a cruel woman, Cub” Khī said, a smile evident in her words, “So the whole of the country seems completely convinced that they will be welcomed back to the Blessed Isle as, ahem, sacred redeemers,”

"Yes, much to the regret of our host and his martial comrade," Cub answers more somberly, "which is the reason for the suggestion they made to me last night. They had a rather more cynical approach to the dream of hexagrammic purity and seemed to really prefer just living their lives out as lords of this domain.

Khī hmmmed, looking up as she took another sip of tea. “It’s reassuring that there are some people of sense in this land. Part of me doubts they’ve given you the full story, but I assume you share that suspicion,”

"Oh, there is no way they've given me the full story, but they seem content to await my pleasure for the moment, giving us time to figure out the situation as well as anything else we may want to spend our time here doing," replied Cub. She sips from her tea, but even without a smile, the laughter in her eyes is unmistakable.

Khī nodded. “I have not taken the time to do this, but I can step into the dreams of a couple of the chosen here. We might see a bit more honesty from their sleeping minds. Anyone strike you as a good candidate? Celine seems easy to lead.”

"At this point, Great Uncle Rightness is the one I would most like to understand better. He is older and his perspective might be a good contrast to the realpolitiking and zealousness of the others," said Cub.

“And he reacted to the idea of a wellspring,” Khī said, “My sole concern with him is that he seems the most likely to understand that sorcery is being worked upon him”

Cub nods, "that does not seem like an unreasonable supposition. In that case, I think Honto's deeper motivations is what I'd like to have more thoroughly examined."

“I suppose I could do both. If I pushed myself, I think I could do all of them,” Khī said, pensive. It would be a long, sleepless night of rituals, but it would be theoretically possible, even if it would drain her more than almost anything.

"At this stage there is no need to rush yourself," Cub says, "find out what you can while still joining the rest of us during the day."

“I can do that," replied Khi. "I could work faster if I beckoned more demons, but I don’t think I could do that subtly. Agaīd, I’m afraid, will be all I have while we are here,

Summoning demons is well within the rights of the Terrestrial Exalted," Cub points out, "while I don't think it's something Honto would appreciate you doing in his guest suite, there is no particular reason not to do so elsewhere."

“What was the heptagram like, then, when you attended?” Khī said, a vicious smile underneath her mask. “Such things being obviously above your mortal handmaid.”

"No one has ever claimed you were mortal," Cub answers with a shrug, "and I do not owe our hosts all details of my educational history."

“Very well,” Khī nods.

 "I am not saying you necessarily should summon demons," Cub clarifies, "merely that if it is expedient you should not automatically refrain."

 “I’ll keep it in mind,” Khī says, “it certainly isn’t a solution to be taken lightly. My otherworldly servants tend to have otherworldly needs. Where are you planning to focus your efforts?”

Finishing off the last of the tea, Cub concluded the conversation: "We will see what the day brings, but if nothing spectacular happens, I will see if I can get Honto to tell me a little more of his ambitions and if he knows more about the city's... foundations, shall we say."

---

The breakfast was to be held on the roof of the town hall - the main administrative building of Lushfield, and the only other building that was able to rival the size of the Immaculate Temple. It was the prominent, four-story building they had seen on the trip into town, with the large seal of the Scarlet Shogun atop it. Cub and Khi were escorted by Marwin, who was awaiting them downstairs once they had made preparations for the day. At the same time, the Exalts at the caravan paddock were escorted by the same two constables that had brought them to Honto's party the night before, who had apparently delivered the invitation to Nisalta and had been killing time playing a miniature portable version of board game. One might suspect the two had been assigned as their minders. By a twist of fate, the two groups arrived in front of the building at the same time. Relieving the minders for now, Marwin took over, escorting the six into the lobby of the building and up the decorated flights of stairs, all the way to the roof.

From what they could discern, the first floor was dedicated to most of the mundane functions of administration - various waiting areas, large desks behind low walls, manned by bureaucrats armed with seals for processing and issuing documents, and off the one side was a richly decorated courtroom, currently empty, where justice was presumably handed down. While a few Lushfielders and one or two outsider traders, marked by their yellow headbands, were milling around, eyeing the group suspiciously while waiting for clerks to process their documents, to any who was familiar with hubs of civil administration, the crowd was markedly thin.

Escorting them through a doorway, Marwin brough them up a series of winding staircases, all the way to the fourth floor, and then up a further set of stairs to the roof. The second and third floor were dominated by the individual offices of various functionaries, analysts, and city employees, and were clearly in active use for the purposes of keeping the city's governmental functions humming. The fourth floor, however, was more serene and this was clearly an off-limits area for the general staff. Everything seemed a little nicer there - the carpets were more plush, the wall paneling a deeper toned wood, and the art hanging on the walls was older and in better taste. It was likely that the official offices for the higher-ups were located here.

Climbing a final winding staircase, they emerged into the bright morning light atop the roof, which they now saw was a large patio ringed high wrought-iron rails that allowed one to observe all of Lushfield around them. Cushioned chairs with cloth umbrellas for shade were available for those who desired quiet contemplation, as were as a number of stone tables ringed with chairs for dining. Off to one side, a tasteful buffet was arranged, where various breakfast options were made available for those who were hungry, along with a chef at a stall, who was preparing various noodle bowls and steamed buns. Honto had preceded their arrival, and was lounging in a a bamboo and canvas deck chair, examining a report while nibbling at a pastry, while a clearly nervous official at his side awaited his verdict on the document. Great Uncle Rightness was also there, sitting at a table with two much-younger assistants waiting upon him. He was slurping at a bowl of noodles, the broth running into his beard.

"Seneschal" announced Marwin. "Your guests for the morning have arrived." Honto tossed the report to the underling with a sneering "Adequate," before standing up to greet the invitees. The flunky and two others that were with him scurried away. He had a pair of sun-lenses over his eyes, the flipped-up visors over each eye serving moderately well to keep the bright morning light out of his eyes. "I hope you all had a restful night. Our meal this morning won't quite measure up to last night, but we find this type of simplicity to be refreshing."

Cold stayed mostly silent as he took in the sights. Most of the details of administration and what was going on in this place went right over his head. He followed the minders with the rest of his group. keeping his eyes open for anything interesting. He gave a polite bow to Honto as he greeted them all. And even though he was quite hungry, he didn't immediately dash over towards the cook to check what was for breakfast. Letting the others speak up.

The Sword Maiden quite enjoyed the morning sun, the possibly layered meaning of the dawn's light truly feeling reinvigorating to her completely lost on her - she just plain enjoyed the warmth on her skin contrasting with the still cool breeze of morning air, that was yet more brisk here on the roof than it had been at street level.

She'd slept well. The fact that it was nearly impossible to sneak up on Nameless was not lost on her - and since she subconsciously had been very aware that she was in no danger, she'd slept through the night like a rock - a rock on top of a very nice mattress. She had been the last of the Exalts to rise, and did so only, when the fact that the others were actually getting ready to leave roused her. She had splashed her face with a bit of water, but other than that had just quietly followed the others, with a solemn smirk on her lips. Her silken robes were a bit crumpled up, but as her body heat warmed the fabric, the silk straightened itself somewhat, making her look outright presentable - for a foreign mercenary caravan guard, that was.

"Thank you" she mumbled towards Honto, nodding her head, though she had already grabbed a bowl with steaming noodles in some kind of broth that had smelled appealing to her. Nameless fell back a bit and picked a spot with no shade, soaking up the sun's rays while she shoveled noodles into her mouth with great dexterity and determination.

Scales gives a polite greeting to Honto and Uncle Rightness, before grabbing a bun and enjoying it under the darkness of an umbrella.

Warden had taken a seat in the sun near the others after grabbing himself some noodles for breakfast. At Honto's greeting he shook his head with a friendly smile. "Do no worry about measuring up to last night. Compared to the simple fare of the road, this-" He raised his bowl of noddles. "-is still great."

Cub approached Honto and greeted him with a bright smile and a courteous nod, "good morning, Unfettered Willow Honto," she answered. "On behalf of my companions allow me to thank you once more for the hospitality of your home. I have no doubt that the least offering of Lushfield is superior to anything else found within a hundred miles of its borders." As she deals with their host, she trusts her 'servant' to handle actually arranging her breakfast.

In the distance to the west, the faint shouts of military drilling could be heard - apparently, the recruits at the barracks had begun their training. As the rest of the Exalts begin greedily munching away at their brunch, Honto took the opportunity to reminded Cub of their conversation the night before: "I hope your night was refreshing after a good many days on the road. I trust you'll inform me if and when you decide to accept the proposal we discussed."

Honto peered down over the railing, looking in the distance a good fifty feet below them: "Ahh, look who decided he will be joining us." Craning his neck, he pointed out the bald head and white robes of Attenuating Rock, who was making his way up the street towards the town hall. "I do like him, you know..." Honto said, almost guiltily. "If it's possible, I'd prefer he be spared."

As Cold is getting his own breakfast together, it isn't hard to notice Honto and Cub talking to each other. Trying to listen in on the conversation. Cub probably would be telling them about whatever they were talking about later. But who knows, better to listen in and know she was telling everything. Then not listening in and being pushed around like a pawn later. Cold paused while munching on his bun for a second as he heard what they were talking about.

Great, they hadn't even been here two day's and already people were planning to kill other people. How cutthroat could nobles be? He wanders back to the other exalts. Leaving the two to scheme on their own. He'd get it out of them later.

Khī followed silently behind Cub, silently observing, listening in. As the others begin to trickle in, she busies herself with helping Marwin to set up the breakfast, and ensure things are prepared to her (and by extension Cub’s) liking.

After Rock had arrived upstairs, given his polite introductions and grabbed hid own food, the group set around finishing up their their breakfasts. Great Uncle Righteousness stumbled to his feet, helped by his two assistants as he wiped traces of soup out of his beard with a sleeve. He turned to address the group. In the light of day, without assistance from the stimulants in his pipe, he seemed far more a doddering old man than the leering crafty devil from the night before. He pulled out an oversized brass key from a chain around his neck that was under his sweater. "I suppose that I'll be headed downstairs to the portrait room to display the antiquities collection - Anyone who is interested in learning more about our people's resplendent history are welcome to join me there."

In the meantime, Rock had selected a simple steamed bun and joined Warden - apparently with a view towards continuing the conversation they held the night before, as they waited for Great Uncle Righteousness to dodder down the stairs. "It's funny" he commented, "I've lived here my entire life, but I've never actually gone out of my way to see the collection. I barely even thought about it at all, and it took a visit from outsiders to even broach the idea." He chuckled. "It probably says about perspective and taking what one has for granted. Tell me, if the situation were reversed, and I had traveled to your homeland, would there be something you'd show me that you never took the time to properly appreciate?"

Warden gazed out over Lushfield from up here as Rock took his seat. "Perhaps you should open the collection up to the public on some select days, give everyone a chance and an opportunity to take a look." He suggested with a shrug. "It's good for people to remember their history, after all."

At his question, he stayed silent for a moment, thinking. "The thing my homeland was known for was more a grim reminder and warning than a thing to appreciate and admire. A monument to the destruction that a monster can cause until it is stopped. But-" He paused. "I still miss it, I think. At least the shrine we built around it, the people. So in a way, yes."

Quickly finishing his bun, Scales falls in behind Great Uncle Rightness. "The history of your people is fascinating. I'm eager to learn more about Lushfield."

Great Uncle Rightness doddered down the stairs from the roof, steadied by the arm of one of his minders and he lead the crowd behind him down the hall towards a pair of the carved oaken doors. After a few failed attempts at inserting the large brass key into the lock, perhaps indicative of failing vision, he managed to wedge it inside and turn it, accompanied by a satisfying click. After pushing the doors open with a loud creek , he turned to welcome the small crown to Lushfield's hall of history. From the small cloud of dust that was kicked up by the draft flowing through the hallway and the faint odor of mildew, it was evident that it had been many months since anyone else had visited. The hall of history itself was dimly lit, but Great Uncle Righteousness was apparently reinvigorated by the chance to demonstrate his historical knowledge and swiftly began tugging at a braided rope in the vestibule that interfaced with a mechanisms on the floor and ceiling. Each pull on the rope drew up thick curtains over the walls, filling the room with sunlight as an array of windows were revealed.

Between most windows, the light revealed a prominent portrait of prominent Lushfieldans, apparently arranged around the in accordance with the date when they died, at least according to the nameplates and dates below each portrait. Some bore obvious markers of dragonblooded heritage. Many of the earlier portraits displayed men and women with relatively distinct physical appearances, but all with some sort of aristocratic bearing about them. As the dates grew closer to the present, the appearances of those notable enough to warrant a portrait grew more similar to the townsfolk's present-day more homogeneous appearance.

In dusty glass cases on pedestals located throughout the room, sometimes in close proximity to one portrait or another, sometimes (especially for larger items) in their own robed-off section, were the various antiques, artifacts, and relics deemed important enough to warrant a place of prominence. Great Uncle Rightness begin to lead the group along a clockwise circuit of the room, stopping at each portrait to explain the significance and achievements of some town forefather or another. It was all mostly boring, and the general takeaway was that very little of great importance ever happened in the town: most of the notables achievements' involving spearheaded the construction of some building of trifling importance many centuries ago, or had negotiated some non-agression pact or trading treaty. Of more interest were the physical items in the glass cases - often they were merely mundane objects given importance by their association with one of the pictured notable individuals, but a few in particular warranted special notice.

In a large glass case hung a full set of heavy articulated plate inlaid with carved panels of Red Jade, of a design that clearly traced its origins to at least the Shogunate era, and possibly further back. The ancient age of the armor was confirmed by Great Uncle Rightness, who explained the providence of the artifact. Its name was the Cardinal Motivator, and it had belonged to General Iselsi Gais, the husband of Six Quills, who passed away six years after the founding of Lushfield - his own portrait was one of the first they had passed by. He had worn it throughout his campaigns in the service of her Scarlet Majesty to unify the Blessed Isle.

In a the worst-lit corner of the room, mounted atop a low pedestal, were two five-foot tall, semicircular plates of translucent bright glass the color of golden honey. They were flat on one side and concave on the other. Evidently, they had once been joined together to form some sort of massive, shallow dish of some sort, but they at some point they had split apart. The jagged broken edges of each side didn't neatly fit together so that a complete circle would be formed if the two plates were pushed together - a large amount of material was missing, likely having broken apart into a hundreds shards when the two plates had split apart. Great Uncle Rightness explained that, according to his personal research, this was the main focusing lens from the bow essence cannon of the Airship Sunbathed Wind, which records indicated had crashed under mysterious circumstances during the early days of the Shogunate. In the grand scheme of things, however, he didn't pay extraordinary attention to it, and moved on quickly to the next object on the tour.

Finally, they reached the portrait given the greatest prominence of all - that of Six Quills herself, in a place of honor near the center of the room. Under the portrait was a number of objects displayed in glass cases - the original working drafts of a number of her manuscripts, written in her own hand, in many senses the founding documents of Lushfield. Nearby was her personal ink brush that she had used throughout most of her life. Great Uncle Rightness explained that it was one of the original thirteen Audient Brushes. It had an ivory shaft that was made from Tyrant Lizard bone, and was inlaid with green jade, and each of its hairs looked as if it was made of shining silver.

At the end of the exhibition, Great Uncle Rightness finally seemed to tire, slumping into a cushioned chair. "Please, explore at your leisure. Out of necessity, so that we're not here for a week or more, what I told you merely scratches the lives of these visionaries and heroes. I'll be delighted to answer any questions you may have. I just need to rest my eyes for a moment." And with that, he drowsed off, leaving the Exalts and Rock to continue marveling at the treasures of history contained in the hall. There was something else though - at the back of the hall was a very unexceptional looking door, perhaps a small storage room? But it called out to Khi - something about it seemed to indicate that one of the keys she had been carrying with her would fit and open its small lock.
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Cold barely kept a polite smile on his face as Great uncle Rightness led them through the antiquities. A string of portraits of people that didn't seem to have a to be displayed. He did shake his head a few times as the portraits became more the same over time. He came to a standstill for a while in front of the Cardinal Motivator, eyes wandering over the armor and he felt a sense of... pity.. for the artifact. It was a tool of war, of protection. Hanging it in an antiquities cabinet felt like a total waste. Like a tiger in a gilded cage. Unable to stretch its legs or do what its nature told it to.

He caught up with the rest of the group. Last thing any of them needed was the dragonblooded seeing him looking at the plate armor with avarice in his eyes. He still walked up to Uncle as he sat down, trying to get his, or Rock's if the old man had dozed off into dreamland with no recovery. "So where did Cardinal Motivator get it's name from?" He started in a pleasant tone. "There always are interesting stories with artifacts and their names as far as I know."

Great Uncle Rightness's eyelids fluttered opened in response to Cold's question, allowing Cold to spot the growing tint of a violet ring beginning to emerge in his eyes, and to take notice of small vial of fine powder that he fumbled with and hastily pocketed - apparently he had needed a pick-me-up after the exertion of displaying the collection. He doddered over to the artifact beneath its glass case.

"Unfortunately, the answer to that particular riddle may be lost to time, or at least lost to me. It - or its predecessor - was clearly forged in the first age, and at some point during the high shogunate period it was slightly modified in aesthetic form to match the style of the era. My speculation is that cardinal comes from the color of the red jade inlays, but even that is a guess."

Cold politely pretended he didn't see Uncle's vial of 'pep me up' disappear in his robes. "Cardinal? red?" Cold tilted his head slightly as he tried to follow Uncle's reasoning. Oh right, the birds. "Oh, like the birds? I can see that. I thought it might have had something to do with the cardinal directions instead." Cold answered, keeping the conversation going. "I've heard stories about princes of the earth being able to draw miracles from artifacts," he continued. "Wouldn't it be possible to find out more of its background through the kind of power it bestows? Or has it been since Lushfield was founded that it had a wielder?"

Great Uncle Rightness responded by way of explanation: "General Gais wore this armor as he lead the initial military expedition to secure Lushfield for the arrival of his wife and the rest of the colonists. You are correct, young lady, it has not been worn since. It may be different for outsiders to understand, but for us, it is a matter of devout respect that it is kept here where it may be venerated as a symbol of the strength of our courageous forebearers. For one to bear the personal artifacts of either Six Quills or her husband would be an statement of extreme grandeur, as if one were claiming to be Six Quills or General Gais reborn."

Cold kept a polite smile on his face, nodding along to Uncle's story. But it all sounded like a bunch of bullshit to him. Respecting and venerating the ancestors was all fine. But this went way past veneration and into self induced decline and apathy because the very idea of one of the descendants being greater then those who came before them was seen as almost an insult.

"They must've been great people," he said pleasantly. "Could you tell me more about them then? They must have a great many stories and glories to them wouldn't they?"

Great Uncle Rightness's face perceptibly lit up as he was excited to have an eager listener who wanted to know more about the minutia of Lushfield's glorious hisotry. He ravenously launched into a meandering old-man story that would go on strange tangents, only to circle back a half-dozen times to the same minor point of historical uncertainty, inevitably losing track of the points he was trying to make, and while winding himself up further and further with the glories of his forebearers. It was very, very, tiresome, of course - it took an exercise in willpower from anyone to maintain the illusion of enjoying the lecture, but Cold did his best to feign excitement and interest, egging Rightness on and send him deeper and deeper into his spiral of prideful delusional ranting, with a hint of senile dementia.

--

Scales moves over to Six Quills' display case, trying to read what he can on the manuscripts, while also covertly eyeing the artifact brush.

--

Nameless had quietly chewed away during the breakfast, keeping an eye on her fellow Exalts so none of them would find themselves in trouble. At least not a surprising amount of trouble. Now that she'd been lead through the halls containing Lushfield's history manifest, she curiously eyed everything - but she couldn't quite come up with a question, she knew so little about any of this that she failed to find a start from which to fill in the gaps. More like vortexes.

So she faded into the background, really just flowing with the others. Though her presence was again obvious as she caught Khi's eyes and gave the woman a nod. The Sword Maiden had clearly heard her whispers towards Cub, even though she'd been on the other side of the room.

--

Warden slowly meandered over towards Rock, taking his time to study the pieces on display along the way, making it look like idle wandering. Standing next to the Exalt, he began: "As a man that travels as often as I do, you learn a lot about the history of the places you visit, hear many old tales and obscure stories. I was hoping you might be able to shed on a particular one I've heard but couldn't quite make sense of."

He didn't look at Rock, but rather continued to study the treasure in front of them. "It's a story concerning a divinity I am unfamiliar with, which you probably have heard of. Do you know anything about Tramazia the rhizome, the god of outwards growing roots? Like what his domain is?"

Rock was intently gazing at the portrait of Jin Luk the Stonecarver, examining the man's appearance in detail. As Warden could recall from Rightness's lecture, Jin Luk had been the primary architect of many of the prominent buildings in Lushfield, as had spearheaded the construction of the initial eight-foot high earthworks that circumscribed the country of Lushfield, which was raised in height a century later by the addition of the wooden defensive crennelations. The relics in the glass case below included a number of surveying tools that could be put to architectural purpose, but also a number of pieces of well-worn equipment that seemed like it would find more use in archaeological expeditions in far-away locations - shovels, brushes, long, thin, sturdy silk ropes, and what Warden thought might have been anchoring bolts for hammering into the sides of cliff faces to aid in ascent and descent.

Warden's question seemed to instantly distract Rock's attention away from the display in front of them. "He is one of the many agricultural gods local to the region that we offer prayer to. His domain is ginger and turmeric - two closely related plants that are commonly grown here, whose roots are used as spices. They may not be common where you are from. Tell me these stories that you've heard?"

Warden turns to Rock when his question instantly gets his attention, keeping a close eye on his face and body language, as well as his tone of voice, trying to gauge how he feels about this god even as he waves a hand. "Oh, it's probably nonsense then. I figured he must be important, but if he is just responsible for some spice plants, it doesn't make sense. Maybe someone pulled a random god's name out of a hat, or glanced at a prayer calendar."

"No, Warden, you should tell me the story." Rock had abandoned his inspection of Jin Luk's artifacts and had transitioning into his role as instructor in matters of mediation between mortals and divine beings. "It is the function of the monks of the Immaculate Faith to be attentive to potential quarrels between man and gods. We are taught that even rumors and far-fetched stories are to be heeded and examined for what kernels of truth they may contain. And being a monk of the Immaculate Faith, I have been sworn to these principles." Rock lowered his voice to a whisper - "If your hesitance is a matter of personal embarrassment or indiscretion - sometimes these things are - you have my bond of confidence that everything you say shall stay between us."

"Very well, then." Warden looks over his shoulder, as if to make sure nobody can overhear him before he answers: "Please don't ask me who told me this, however. They confided in me just as I am confiding in you. I heard rumours that this Tramazia was growing in power, grumbling that he was receiving more than his fair share of prayer. I figured perhaps his domain had expanded or anything like that."

"Hmm" pondered Rock, rubbing the back of his bald head in contemplation. "This sounds less like a quarrel between men and gods, and more of a quarrel between gods. It very well could be that Tramezia is seeking to expand his domain, and it has been perceived as an infringement against a related deity. It would not be the first time that gods - sometimes in disguise or through agents - have sought to influence men they perceive to have influence in spiritual matters. Perhaps there is the hope that a whisper campaign will eventually lead to correction of the slight." Rock turned his head to look at the Nameless Sword Maiden, sizing her up for a moment, as if to subtly hint to Warden's his suspicion that she, as a champion of a god, may be behind this story, and their current professional relationship (or perhaps more?) might be the reason why Warden could not elaborate further. "You said you grew up in a shrine. Perhaps for that reason, deep within you is a greater potential for spiritual connection, and for that reason you are marked such that the gods will naturally approach you with their petitions. It is not unheard of, especially in places that have not fully accepted the Immaculate Priesthood."

Rock continued to whisper in Warden's ear: "If you would like to join me at the temple later today, just the two of us, perhaps that would be a more suitable place to discuss your concerns in more detail" Rock glanced again at the Nameless Sword Maiden, trying to further discern any symbolism about her that would inform as to the particulars of her supposed exigence, so as to determine who her god-parent might be.

Warden slowly nodded. "Yes, perhaps that is a good idea. Just the two of us, we can talk about this in much more detail." He shrugs the topic off. "Well, enough of that for now. Let's enjoy this look at the history of Lushfield until then."

---

Khī almost faded into the background as Uncle Righteousness continued his lecture. From wear patterns, the shape of the keyhole and what could only be called sheer gut instinct, Khī immediately picked out a door in the back of the room as matched to one of the keys Cold had liberated yesterday. Getting in past uncle righteousness would be a feat, but it could well be possible with a distraction. More pragmatically, she could always slip inside later, when no one might be around to pay particular notice.

It looks like the Lushfielders, at one point, had been able to salvage par of the wreck of the drilling mechanism. As she recalled, the ship had gone down quite some distance from here. And the only evidence they’d had to indicate the ship had been found was the presence of orichalcum glass originating from Lushfield. Orichalcum glass she’d bet her ownership had originally been a part of the large focus lens before them. She elbowed Cub gently, letting their bodies cover the motion so Rock couldn’t see.

“The glass,” she said, quietly enough only the other woman could hear, “it’s the same as the one in our records”

Cub answers Khi's observation with a subtle nod of her own and after stopping to consider the shards once more, she returns to the old man and says, "Great Uncle Rightness, were any other parts of Sunbathed Wind found in or around Lushfield? A vessel like that must have been a magnificent sight."

Great Uncle Rightness was temporarily disoriented by Cub's question, which had interrupted his ongoing long-winded story regarding some of the curious eccentricities that Six Quills had developed in her old age after the death of her husband (which, in an individual of lesser status, might be taken for signs of an unbalanced mind). "Oh my young lady, you are so cruel to me!" He remarked. "I could captivate you for hours on the history of every wondrous object in this room, but you have honed about the single one whose mystery still eludes me! You see, one day, perhaps four hundred years ago, so I am told, the artifact you see before you appeared in Lushfield one night, in connection with queer circumstances which I still struggle to find an explanation for, to my ongoing embarrassment." He pulled out his pipe and struck a match to light it, taking a puff. "I am told that one evening, a massive crater suddenly appeared a few miles from Lushfield Town, accompanied by great shocks and tremors reverberating through the ground. Afterwords, it was found that at least two dozen lives were cut short - some were pulled out of the impact site, and some were due the collapse of unsound buildings or the falling of heavy objects onto their skulls, as a result of the extreme vibrations. That morning, after dispersing the foreign caravans which had already been at the scene for a number of hours, a rescue effort was mounted, but no survivors were located. What was found, I am told, was what you now see before you - the remains of the focusing lens from an essence cannon of a great first-age airship."

"Now you must have many questions about this story - I'm sure - but first let me fill in a few holes. First - how do I know that it is the focusing lens from the airship Sunbathed Wind?" Rightness made a gesture of rhetorical questioning. "Well, the truth is that for at least three hundred fifty years, that was a mystery. However, around three decades ago, we had a visitor from a far-off land, who claimed to be a scholar on the hunt for the whereabouts of first age airships, and through his research, came to believe that our settlement was a likely location, for reasons I can only speculate. I allowed him into this very room, and he quickly honed in on the object you see before you, and identified it to me as such."

"After his departure, I had some time to reflect upon these strange circumstances, which will lead to my second point - my description of the site as an impact crater. You see, I now had an advanced understanding that this surviving artifact was a component from a destroyed airship. I also understand that some other parts were originally found in association with it - presumably the lens's housing and related components, but they could not be preserved. They were already in very very poor condition, and very quickly they rusted into brown metal dust, leaving only these panes from the glass lens remaining. My most promising theory from this additional information was that during some great battle over the fate of creation, quite possibly the very event in which lead the destruction of the airship, an explosion of some sort caused this particular component to be blasted to unimaginable heights, perhaps past even Yu Shan, where it remained for untold centuries. There, on trajectory which perhaps a student of the science of artillery could better explain to you, it finally returned to creation at frightening speed, impacting deep into the soil of Lushfield and taking nineteen pour souls with it."

"However, this is still a theory, and I cannot confirm my suspicions, nor do I know how I could go about doing so." Great Uncle Rightness took another deep drag from his pipe and proceeded to blow a smoke ring of impressive size.

---

As Great Uncle Rightness descended into a ramble- one which, Khi suspected, she might actually find illuminating if she couldn't recognize it as a distraction on sight- and Warden worked over Rock, Khi took her opening when it was given to her. A whole room full of anathema, she was sure she could pass unremarked upon with the terrestrial's focus diverted. Adjusting her posture and position just a little bit, Khi simply let herself fade into the background. Not invisible, or even hidden, just...beneath notice. It was easy to conflate servant and unimportant, and all Khi needed to do was subtly bridge the gap between the two with the way she kept her body.

Forgettable, she slunk toward the door she'd noticed earlier. Wear marks, dull on the metal, matched up to the scratches of the key, and the tarnish on its handle was worn clean in the places someone might hold the key to open this very precise door. With a single deft motion, she pulled the keys out from a pouch concealed in her pants, unlocked the door, glanced behind her to see if anyone was paying close attention, and slipped in.

Cold still looked dazed from being subjected to Uncle's rambling. Maybe the old man would take the expression on his face as enrapturement or rapt attention. But anybody else around him could easily see that he had just been bludgeoned to near senselessness by sheer amount of miandering trivia he had been subjected too.

"A fascinating theory," Cub answers while keeping her eye-rolling purely mental, "I take it you didn't have time to discuss it with... Sorry, I failed to grasp the traveling scholar's name."

With Rock engrossed in theological conversations with Warden and Great Uncle Rightness distracted by the combined efforts of Cub and Cold, it took little effort for Khi to silently unlock the inconspicuous door in the back of the room and slip inside, closing the door quietly behind her. Inside it appeared to be some sort of long, poorly ventilated storeroom, dimly lit by rays of light from narrow horizontal window slits towards the ceiling. Each ray of light served to illuminate the copious amounts of dust that leisurely floated through the air, kicked up and buoyed by the draft of air caused by Khi's entry into the room. On the walls were heavy oaken shelves, three high, loaded with what appeared to be wooden kegs or small barrels, with a few wooden chests towards the back wall. The shelving visibly sagged under the weight of their contents, especially where the contents were tightly packed. Approximately three quarters of the shelf space was filled, and the deeper into the room she looked, the more dusty, rusted and rotted the kegs appeared to be. She was able to guess that nobody had been inside this room for at least a number of months, and the dust and cobwebs appeared to grow thicker as she gazed deeper.

Khi padded into the room, coughing a little bit at the dust she stirred by moving. What kind of place was this? Very few storerooms were so...disused. What could be in here that demanded it be kept under lock and key. She slunk over to the back wall, looking to try the locks on the chests.

From what Khi could discern through the dust, none of the chests were actually locked - indeed, most of them looks centuries old, and in poor condition. The wood seemed sturdy enough, but the brass fittings and iron rivets were pitted with rust, and the leather straps that served as handholds were mostly rotted into into flakes of dust. Any attempt to pick up the chests along with their contents would, more than likely, result in their complete disintegration and the scattering of whatever was inside.

Meanwhile, while Khi was prowling through the back storeroom, Great Uncle Rightness was answering Cub's question: "His name... his name... let me remember...: A blank look came over the face of Lushfield's premier historian. "This is rather embarrassing, but I don't think I can remember his name. I'm certain it was a young man... tall... wait, no, maybe he was a bit on the stocky side... He was a man though, that I'm sure of, I think..." Rightness continued to mumble to himself, but the fact that he was unable to recall this information was clearly sending him into a minor state of panic - for someone who prized his memory and ability to recite facts, an inability to recall a trivial detail like this was quite embarassing blow to his ego. Aware that he was being watched by a few of the town's guests, he finally gathered himself: "Well, that's irrelevant - what was important is the discovery of the provenance of the relic, so that it can be properly cataloged and put into its rightful context in history..."

Outside the room, a voice echoed from down the hallway: Honto, returning from whatever minor emergency he had been attending to in the town's miscellaneous administrative emergencies: "My apologies for the interruption" his voice echoed out as his heels clicked on the tile floors, the sound approaching closer as he proceeded down the long hallway: "I am informed that Great Uncle Rightness's schedule of duties for this afternoon will require him to retire shortly, so we will need to be wrapping up soon." The more perceptive among the exalts could hear the scurry of the Rightness's minders following behind Honto, ready to guide their leader/patient back to his quarters, presumably to be properly rested, bathed and dressed.

Cautiously, Khi kneeled before one of the chests, and gingerly attempted to open it. Disused, it seemed, was an understatement. It seemed the storeroom was mostly forgotten altogether.

She couldn't help but hear the commotion of someone else rejoining the group in the main room. She was going to have to either be very swift or very cautious with her business here.

Khi lifted the lid of one of the grime-covered chests on the back wall of the storeroom, and blinked for a moment to clear her eyes at the puff of dust emerged. When she opened them again, she had to blink a few more times to confirm what she was seeing. Jade, piled into the small chest: more than a full cubic foot of obols, bits, and even a few full sheckles and minas, the solid slabs nested in the pile of smaller coins. Even the ambient light served to bring out the fine cream-colored veins within the opaque greens, whites, blues, and reds of the coins. Khi had never seen currency-grade green jade before, but not a single soul in creation hadn't heard of its intoxicating qualities, and metaphors in every language spoke to its virtues and the deeds, famous and infamous, it could drive men and women to.

She gasped. Green Jade. A nation's ransom of green jade, just...left to moulder. She looked around, mentally adding up the wealth Lushfield had stored away. Behind lock and key indeed. Khi quietly shuffled to another chest, examining it as well. Was every one of these chests filled? And where on creation could Lushfield have possibly acquired all of this jade?

Khi was not, by nature, a greedy woman. Money, after all, was something for her betters to deal with- the slaves of Ysyr traded in scrip for their rations and among themselves for goods and services. But this much jade could move armies and topple cities. This much jade could get her master back, buying reagents, access, tutors and all the things she'd need to reclaim her. She didn't move to take any, but the tempation crossed her mind- if she could...confiscate a bit in the name of Ysyr and Sadrica Ap Pinnacle (She was sure her master would approve) before leaving, she certainly intended to.

Seeing the chests all seemed to actually contain jade, she moved onto the kegs. She gingerly opened one- the kegs were hinged on one side allowing them to be opened like a box. Silver. Coins from all over the scavenger lands- and beyond. She even recoginzed a few prasasadi Kasi coins among the mixture. It seemed she'd stumbled upon the country's treasury. Stores of wealth, all set aside in a glorified broom closet. Khi had seen exorbinant wealth before, but never hidden away. The lords of her homeland were inclined to show off whenever possible.

Khi crept back over to the door, listening for the sound and flow of conversation, timing things to slip in unnoticed. It wouldn't be much different than appearing with the proper tea when called- if not for the fact she'd be trying to stealthily lock the door of the treasury behind her. This was, in retrospect, perhaps not her brightest idea. All she would need is a good moment and to trust her exaltation to handle the rest.

While Khi listened carefully for the perfect time to slip out of the room, presumably once the Dragonblooded were suitably distracted, the gears in her mind continued spinning. Perhaps it was the proximity to all this wealth that demanded her attention, but she couldn't stop thinking about the hoard she had stumbled upon, and where it had come from. The dull clinks of the jade obols as they fell between her fingers back into the chest like a waterfall kept replaying in her mind in slow motion. Analyzing her memory, she took the opportunity to categorize the engravings on the face of each individual obol, perhaps in hopes of determine when and where they were mined and carved, and a picture of each appeared in her mind's eye. The ones that bore the image of the Empress showed a young, attractive woman, far different than the image of the stern motherly figure on the realm scrip that Khi remembered had circulated throughout creation. The ones that didn't bear the image of the Empress instead bore pictures of a variety of men, generally wearing ornate helmets with long horns - likely shoguns from a time before the birth of the modern realm. In all likelihood, the jade dated back to the founding of Lushfield, and had been brought with the first wave of colonists from the Blessed Isle, and had stayed locked away in this room or another similar room for more than five centuries. Each chest, she estimated, contained about a talent of Jade.

In contrast, the silver in the kegs could be more definitely dated, and told its own story: the deeper the keg's location in the room, the older the silver was. Some of the silver in the kegs closest to the door was even relatively modern and freshly removed from circulation - likely added to the treasury as recently as the prior year, perhaps recieved as payment for crops sold to the ever-present caravans that visited Lushfield to cart away its crops. The silver deeper into the room, in the kegs closer to the chests in the back, was far older, minted by entities that likely had not existed for centuries, but still was likely newer than the Jade int the chests. Each keg, she estimated, based on the available volume and weight, contained about three talents of silver - nearly 200 pounds of it per keg. Silver was heavy - it weighed more than three times the same amount of jade. And there were almost 50 kegs in the room, weighing down the thick, drooping shelves, stacked at three different heights from close to the ground to the ceiling.

By all the gods- what a store of wealth. It seemed they'd been sitting on Jade from the beginning of the age and a bit of the last.

Khi waited at the door, waiting for a perfect moment. She could hear Cub outside, demurring like she was born for it (and, in fairness, she may as well have) keeping the eyes of the dragon blooded on her and not on the door. She feels a spark of nervousness for a moment, and then suppresses it. A scrap of doubt wouldn't help her here. She was supposed to be in this room. This was somewhere she was, frequently. Her coming in and out was so ordinary as to be beneath notice. She was beneath notice. She breathed in, and out, slowly, and quietly opened the door, and, with a smooth motion, locked it behind her, padding over behind Cub.
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As Honto rounded the corner and entered the room, Cub's pleasantly, constantly demurring smile immediately demanded his attention. The two minders flanking him quickly moved to gently assist Rightness, who was still slightly flabbergasted at the idea that his memory could be faulty. Cub's inquiry as to whether Honto would be taking over the tour took him aback somewhat - clearly, his interests in the historical was limited, and did not come close to rivalling the curiosity of Great Uncle Rightness. From his pursed lips and slightly annoyed expression, it was clear that the man preferred to live in the moment. "I suspect that I will be of little help in that regard." he stated, motioning to the the minders to escort Rightness out of the room, which they did with some urgency, the elderly dragonblooded neither resisting nor cooperating. A small twinge of concern appeared on Rock's face at the treatment of the venerable elder, though Honto seemed more annoyed than anything else at the old man's feebleness.

"A pity," Cub says, now turning her attention on Honto with a pleasant smile, "I don't suppose you will be able to take over as guide?"

Cold added to that - "His insights were enlightening." He said politely, forcing a smile on his face.

Before Great Uncle Rightness could be shuffled off completely, Honto remembered to lean over and snag the bronze key to the historical archive from around the woven thong around his neck, snaking it out from under the old man's long beard and flipping the necklace around to liberate it. At that moment, Khi made her move - existing sight unseen from the backroom that served as the city-state's treasury, closing and re-locking the door in a swift, silent motion, and returning to Cub's side as if she had never left. None were the wiser.

As Great Uncle Rightness exited with the minders, Honto continued: "Perhaps we can return another day, when everyone has had more time to rest. Last night's events seem to have taken their toll, especially for some of us who are not used to such excitement. He glanced back at Rightness, a bit concerned now. You've all been on the road for some time too, I suspect, and would enjoy some rest" He gently started to shepherd everyone out of the room and back into the hallway. Even Rock seemed a little disappointed. "My dear Cub, I hope you and your associates will agree to join me at my private box tonight at the amphitheater, for some light festivities. I'm sure you've noticed it on the way here this morning - we are very proud of it. The schoolchildren have been practicing all winter, quite fastidiously for this year's production of the Nuoji Opera, and I'm quite sure they would be excited to perform The Story of Lushfield for you. I've been told the girl performing as Six Quills this year is quite talented and has the most beautiful voice."

"That sounds delightful," Cub says, seemingly with genuine interest, "I take it this is a traditional composition."

"Mostly" Honto lightly chuckled, casually tripping the small lever next to the long silk rope that Rightness had used earlier to open the windowshades to illuminate the historical archive. Apparently, the lever controlled some weighted mechanism, which had the effect of quickly reversing Rightness's efforts and returning the room to its darkened state. Closing the heavy oaken doors, he turned the large bronze key a number of rotations, relock the heavy mechanism that controlled access to the room. From the quick glance they got of the inside of the door, the key controlled a linkage that caused two heavy iron bars on the interior of each door to ascend and descend into corresponding sockets on the roof and floor, and for an toothed iron beam to be smoothly extended laterally via gearwork between the two doors. "They are children, so some simplification from the original composition is expected, and overall it tends towards the sentimental. There is also one section where they are encouraged to put their individual flair on, which varies year to year, and generally involves references to whatever petty gossip or scandal has gripped their imagination. Overall it is quite a charming performance, though what you will see tonight is, technically, only a rehearsal for the main event, which is next week."
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I hope all the readers are doing well!  We're still a few months behind the current state of the game, so I'll try and update more frequently!  I see we're getting some views, so I hope everyone reading is enjoying themselves.  Please feel free to DM me if you have any questions.
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- Noon, At the Military Training Grounds -

The day had grown to be unseasonably hot, but the six exalts managed to stay cool and refreshed, lounging in the shade of the observation booth at the top level of the three-story tall signaling pagoda in the center of the military drilling grounds on the north side of town. It was a brilliant suggestion - not only would they be able to size up the quality of Lushfield's defenders under the pretense of paying them honor, but it gave them an opportunity to converge in an unexpected location, where they would be unlikely to be overheard, especially with them in the calm of the storm of activity around them. The Nameless Sword Maiden had spotted the structure and was interested in it originally. Cub was the one who inquired if there was room atop it for a half-dozen of the comfortable folding lounge chairs that were previously in use on the roof of the town hall for the breakfast that morning, and it was Warden, Scales, and Cold who nearly-simultaneously requested that they be provided with them the leftover food and other refreshments from their morning meal. Khi was, of course, properly silent in her chosen role. By the time they made the request, they were back on the ground floor of the town hall, and Honto had readily acceded to their suggestions, apparently happy to dispense with the job of entertaining for some time. He had clapped his hands twice quickly, causing the four constables waiting outside to flock to his side, where he quickly ordered one to go ahead and inform their superiors at the training grounds, telling the other three to carry out the necessary tasks of muscling the requested items to their final destination.

Below and all around them, the collected recruits and veterans were engaging in the various training exercises on the large yellow sand oval that formed the drilling field. To one side, a particularly gruff-looking sergeant was loudly barking orders at six dozen mixed-gender raw recruits armed with staves and arranged in a precise rectangle formation - they were all shifting between the five basic stances of traditional spear fighting on his commands, and had been doing so for twenty minutes at this point, with minor interruptions as he chewed out whoever had the impertinence to screw up and temporarily adopt an incorrect stance.

Off in another direction, an equally sized group of recruits were being put through the paces of rigorous calisthenics combined with the negotiation of a number of types of obstacles. An instructor mounted on horseback armed with a long riding crop was patrolling - as the bulk of the group stayed in motion, one by one they were called off to navigate through the obstacle course: climbing up and to the top of a wooden barricade and leaping from it to a dangling rope (hopefully) clear a long muddy pit, crawling on their hands and knees under a gnarly trellis of thorny rosebushes, and swinging themselves along the rungs of a long horizontal ladder suspended above yet another deep pit with mud at its base. Mud seemed to be a recurring theme.

In a final direction, a group of about twenty mounted and armored soldiers on horseback were being put through various cavalry drills. In one moment they entered into a tightly packed formation, as if to prepare to punch through a line of infantry, and in the next they scattering to form a line abreast of each other, more suitable for pursuing fleeing infantry and ensuring few escaped - these apparently were among the elite of Lushfield's force, and leading the cavalry in their drills, in her blue jade armor, was their commander - Talon Lord Anguilla. At the moment though, she was hundreds of yards away, and she had paid little worry to to the fact that their visitors requested to occupy the pagoda to observe, though the exalts suspected that their presence might have influenced the enthusiasm of her subordinates. Fortunately, the pagoda was to be unoccupied for the day anyways - the signaling troops that would normally use the tall structure to train in the important military art of sending and receiving messages using various flags and lanterns was not active at the moment.

Cold leaned on the railing of their pagoda, letting his gaze wander over the training troops. Taking it all in. During his time as a warlord and king he had mostly used the hunters and warriors of his tribe. People already physically hardened by the environment and their way of life and who only needed to be drilled to act as an effective combat unit. The notion of having to train the body of the raw recruits was one that was obvious in hindsight but hadn't really came to him. He matched what he saw here with the movements and training of his own troops and those of the city states he had raided.

Despite the distance, Cold could see and keep an eye on the cavalry drills. His essence enhanced senses easily piercing the veil of distance. Did they all react to their orders well? What orders were given, did they all quickly fall in line or was there a delay?

For perhaps the first time in this alien environment and strange skin, Cold felt temporarily at peace observing the physical drilling of the raw recruits - it reminded him of the moment of his former glory as the Luna-chosen warleader at the head of host he had built by unifying the far-northern beast tribes of his homeland. In that moment, he had the sense that Luna's gaze was upon him, and it caused the normally-boisterous Lunar to delve into self-reflection. Back then, it felt like such an achievement, like he was a god. Growing up, they had been taught to hate the other tribes for their differences, and convincing them all to put those aside in favor of the collective whole was an ordeal that had taken months. It had even required Cold to prevail in a number of ritual combats in order to force the most hardened fanatical tribal leaders to submit.

But the experiences of the past few months seemed to put his prior accomplishments to shame. His exposure to all of these vastly different cultures and civilizations, magnitudes larger and better organized that the fractious arctic clans, had exposed the sheer triviality of the divisions that had kept the northern Beastmen tribes weak for centuries. It made him angry. The Realm troops who had finally crushed his petty upstart empire didn't care to distinguish whether the filthy barbarian in front of them was a Jagged-Ear or a Painted-Tail or an Snow-Kennel. They killed them just the same. The invading forces of the Wyld Hunt fought like the troops he watched below - organized into tight formations, instantly responsive to commands - as one body. It had shocked him when he examined the corpses brought to him, because under their armor they all looked different, meaning they had come from many places across creation. And the woman who gave orders to the host, from high on a hill above the climactic battle - she caused them to move according to her will alone, her orders conveyed instantly through signal flags, their coordination and tight drill sweeping aside the enthusiasm of Cold's greater numbers of savage fighters.

Cold had never seen the woman up close before, but like one of the bolts of lightning in the auroras beyond the wyld in the arctic mountains, he was struck by a vision that must have come from Luna herself. For a moment, he was back there again, glancing up after cutting down a Realm soldier with his claws in the midst of the fighting. The Wyld Huntress, in her position atop the hill, casually giving orders and directing the battle. But now, instead of a blurry figure in the distance, she was clear and up close: Luna had gifted Cold a clear vision of the face of the aristocratic woman who was his sworn enemy, and with that a number of other clues to her identity: the sigils she wore, the colors of her battle-dress, it all was etched into his mind.

The railing of the pagoda splintered underneath's Cold grip, teeth grinding together as the vision drilled into his mind. Hatred burning in his chest as it all fell into place. An outright murderous grin crawling on his face as he now know more about his prey, about the woman who tore his hard work asunder.

She would pay. He would turn her into nothing more then another stepping stone on the road to rebuild and reform his people into a force even the realm feared.

Khi stayed silently behind the rest of their little circle, keeping a keen watch out for anyone who might be capable of overhearing them. The sound of spears clashing below the pagoda would certainly help drown out the sound of any conversation they had, but that wouldn't keep someone inclined to eavesdrop away. Across the training field was Anguila, seemingly busy directing her horsemen and women, but that wasn't an excuse to underestimate her. The miracles of the dragon-blooded were both varied and famed, and Khi wouldn't put it beyond her to be able to hear their conversation even at a distance. She clicked her tongue, and spoke, quietly, so that only someone close to her, or blessed with truly astounding hearing might hear, "Anguila. Rock and Celine have broken their vows with each other."

She may not have been blessed with exceptionally keen eyes, especially out of the water and without her glasses, but she could still tell if the Talonlord twitched or stiffened, as though she had heard Khi's words.

The peripherals of her vision were taken up examining the pagoda, the soldiers nearby, looking for a twitch, an inclined head, a hole where none should be. Her gut already told her there were none, that their words were probably safe in this place Cub had picked for them, but Khi was cautious by nature, and had no plans to let Cub's plan go untested. She couldn't help but notice Cold, wearing his stolen shape, tighten their jaw and eyes with barely constrained rage. The beastman was an open book to anyone who cared to read him, a concerning trait while they hid in a hostile land incognito. She moved behind him, as she saw, with some concern, a dark grin spread across Hidden-Reed's features and his monstrous strength splinter the railing beneath him.

"Control yourself," Khi said, in her usual monotone, "We can't afford such displays now," It was cold, true, but also necessary. A stray step could bring the hunt down on them all.

Cold's head snapped towards Khi, eyes narrowing in surprise for a brief moment. "I'm fin-" He cut himself off as he felt the splinters fall off his skin and on the wooden floor of the pagoda. They hadn't even scratched him. "huh, seems like I wasn't." he muttered softly to himself, only audible to those looking for it or with supernatural sense. He forced the emotions down and put a smile on his face. "My apologies."

Khi's precise attention to detail and keen experience in the art of eavesdropping and detection had always served her well - As a servant, she had spent long hours tucked into the hidden chambers in her Mistress's palace, silent as a doormouse, ears glued to the array of speaking trumpets that let her listen in on conversations picked up by covertly embedded silk drumheads and carried through taut strings of music wire stretched out under the floorboards. Few were as sophisticated as the Ysry nobility in the art of espionage. None of Khi's tests managed to provoke a reaction in the likely candidates that she could see - not even the slightest twitch from Anguilla was discernible, and it seemed highly improbable that the pagoda could have been rigged by the Lushfieldians ahead of time with so little notice, and running her hands under various likely railing or over wooden beams above her, she could locate no listening devices - except for the obvious one of course. The Pagoda was equipped with a prominent brass speaking tube like the type she saw on ships for allowing crew to communicate between decks, clearly intended for the purpose of rapidly transmitting decoded messages to those on the ground. However, nobody was below the Pagoda at the other end. Still, she closed the shutter on it to seal it off, and for good measure, she inconspicuously stuffed a linen napkin into it as well.

Her attention finally turned to the four constables that had grudgingly carried the comfortable chairs and leftovers behind them as they traveled to the pagoda, and who continued to shadow them seemed the most likely to have been tasked, and Khi studied them carefully as they waited on the edge of the drilling grounds. Three of them were plainly absorbed in their petty card game, but the fourth seemed a little less interested, and seemed to covertly glance in the direction of the Pagoda every few seconds. He was surely tasked with monitoring and reporting their movements, but it was unlikely that he could listen in on any of their conversations from such a distance.

Cub sits down leisurely in one of the chairs that have been brought up and looks at the others with an air of satisfaction.  "Perhaps," she says once Khi's posture indicates that she is satisfied with the place's security, "someone else could see fit to cover that little accident? I don't think we or our hosts would appreciate them learning of Hidden-Reed's strength. That said, is there anything we need to discuss urgently before we regale each other about important, but perhaps not overly pressing matters that have come up since last night?"

Khī glanced at the damaged railing, and brushed a few splinters off with a gloved hand. “It’ll be fine, it’ll be forgotten by the time they examine it,”

"Nothing that is really pressing," Cold said as he brushed the splinters of his hands. He would have to have a talk with cub and pick her brain about the symbols and battle dress he saw. Get more clues as to who that bitch was. But that could wait untill after this.

Cub nods, "in that case let me tell you that after had left our dear host's abode last night, I was invited into his study where he and the Talonlord down there politely suggested that we murder the Archimandrite and pin the blame on House Ledaal in return for a talent of silver. He would prefer it if the Vice-Archimandrite could be spared, but that was not - shall we say - a dealbreaker."

Cold blankly stared at cub, looked at Khi, looked back at cub when he realized her blank mask wasn't going to give anything away. Cold didn't even bother hiding the sheer confusion and surprise on hidden-reed's features. that made no sense at all.

"You're not kidding," Cold rubbed his hand through his hair. "Why do they want her dead?"

"Because she is convincing the people that returning to the Isle in triumph is an actual possibility" said Cub. Apparently the more secular-minded of the city's leadership would like to rule their fiefdom in peace without its populace dreaming of better things."

Cold rubbed his chin thinking it over. The money would be a great boon for whatever ventures they wanted to do in the future. But they couldn't forget what they were actually here for. "Would this in any way bring us closer to finding and getting our hands on the wellspring?"

"I don't think so." replied Cub. When I mentioned the word at dinner, only the old man seemed to recognize it, so at a guess they don't know of its existence. If we find out exactly what it is and that they have it in their possession, we may be able to negotiate for it rather than any monetary reward"

"The wellspring might have something to do with what we," Cold gestured towards Nameless and Scales. "We found some more information as we were scouting things out. There are roots growing underneath this country, thicker then a road, They're hollow inside, and we thought that if we got inside we could try and follow it to its source or something. But the thing was impenetrable. Not even Na-Ma's daiklave could cut it.  We think it has something to do with that god they're feeding extra prayers to. But that's about all we know. I don't know if they can even barter away the wellspring to be honest? If it is tied to the god, only the god itself could probably hand it over."

Cold did not look forward to fighting or pissing off a god, those things always just dissipated whenever they wanted, and it was like punching air.

"We still don't know what it actually is," Cub reminds them, "and I'm hesitant to just ask people about it."

Warden was staring out over the parade grounds below them as they talked, at least until the murder plot was mentioned. That made him turn around, a hand nervously running through his beard. "Bah, to plot a murder of a woman that should be like a sister to him, Honto is ruthless. You're not thinking of doing his bidding, especially for nothing but some silver, I hope?"

Whether his inquiry was answered or not, he continued: "As for that god...I think he is where we should continue our investigation. I questioned Rock about him and he said he's a god of a local spice plant, nobody of real importance. Which makes it all the more puzzling why he is receiving so much prayer in the first place." After a pause, he adds: "Rock has invited me to the temple to talk privately with him about this topic. I am thinking of going and confronting him in private with what we know, that he is complicit in this worship fraud. He seems a righteous man, even if he has been led astray. I hope I will be able to get through to him."

"Any information we can get on the god is a boon, we're still fumbling in the dark when it comes to that," Cold agreed with Warden.

Khi spoke up: “When it comes to monetary reward, I should say, I snuck into their treasury earlier" I’d estimate they have about nine talents of shogunate jade and a further seven and a half score talents of silver, all of it moldering in ancient chests,”  Khī pauses, pensively, “if we needed to get the root open, I could bind a metody to the task. The elementals of hell are made of a universal solvent, it should be child’s play for one to melt into the root”

She continued: "I have no objections to the assassination plot. The silver would be useful to us in the future, and she is an enthusiastic participant in a religion that would gladly see us all dead for merely existing. Not to mention that she is not the kindest soul here."

Warden crosses his arms across his broad chest. "Are we a band of common bandits, murdering whoever we please for some paltry pay?"

“It does seem to be a distraction. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get sidetracked from the reason we’re here,” Khī nodded. She didn’t have any objection to killing the woman, those were the kind of qualms she left to more important people, but it seemed to her to be a diversion from pursuing the lamplighter. “And embroiling ourselves in these plots will likely make it more difficult to accomplish what we came here for” Khī said, her voice the same even, light monotone she might use to acknowledge an order, even as she weighed the benefits of assassination.

The Nameless Sword Maiden had listened silently for a while, lost in thought. It had been a while, at least she thought it was, since she’d been in heat like this. She was glad they were here on the pagoda, where the wind could reach them, and that her silks were cooling her off at least a bit. Lushfield was different from what she was accustomed too, even if she didn’t know what that was. But for some reason, when she took a deep breath, Nameless expected to taste more lavender and sage on the tip of her tongue, maybe a hint of thyme at the roof of her mouth, the ethereal oils of rosemary, perhaps.

But Lushfield was… Too lush. Green grass, little heat-scorched herbs. She shook her head and focused on why she was here.

Plotting.
Planning.
Seeing what to do next.

She was still pale, but the sun had given her cheeks and the roof of her nose a rosy tint, eyes scanning the horizon as if a clue as to what to do next might be sneaking around, just out of sight - and not just metaphorically. Jet-black strands of hair fluttered around her face and kept crossing her line of sight.  The Sword Maiden exhaled audibly. “If Celcine stands in our way, she will be cut down. But the thought of murder doesn’t agree with me, especially not for silver.” She’d meant the statement to be honorable, but for an astute listener, it was almost obvious that Nameless’ morals allowed for killing Celcine for better reasons than money, and that she probably wouldn’t especially mourn that particular victim.

“We do need to find the wellspring, though, so if we can gain leverage over the locals, or find and negotiate with this god, that will probably be the two fastest routes I imagine. If this path demands blood, so be it. Tragic as it may be.” Nameless sighed. She really hoped she was not a violent person. At the moment, she wasn’t too sure.  "Though on the other hand..." Nameless spoke slowly, clearly thinking out loud, the thought not quite as mature as she would've liked. "If the Archimandrite is not helping, whoever becomes the new Archimandrite might be willing to help us set up with that god. If all else fails. Though I'd vote we just try and find the god directly, deal only with the dragons if we absolutely must. It's risky for us." She shook her head, and stared down, off the pagoda.  "How hard can it be to find a god that's being served extra prayers?"

"Given that the Vice-Archimandrite seems to be romantically entangled with the Archimandrite, I don't think we should go with the assassination plan if we want his help. Things like this always have a nasty tendency to come out one way or another." Cold mentioned. "Lets put the assassination on the back burner and only pull it out if it becomes clear we can gain some progress towards our goal of the wellspring." He paused. "Or if the Archimandrite becomes an obstacle towards our plans. If we can't avoid killing her then we might as well get paid for it." Cold hadn't gotten to where he was without trying to get every advantage out of everything he did.  And his enemies had done the same, just better. Which was why he was where he was right now.

"Don't misunderstand me," Cub retorted, "I have no particular interest in killing any of the local luminaries, and a talent of silver is hardly enough to move me. If you aren't strongly opposed, however, I think it will help our relations with our host if we at least pretend to consider it for a while yet. And it is very possible that she herself will force the issue. For instance if the corruption comes to light and our hand is clearly visible in that."

Khi responded: "By all means, we will need to buy time in any case, and some part of me doubts this will all pass without any bloodshed."

Warden spoke up: "I am not strongly opposed to playing along, no. There's nothing wrong with deception. If I thought otherwise, I would hardly be able to move in the threshold, considering what I am"

"Then it seems that we have a plan," spoke Scales. "Warden will try to get information from Rock, Khi will summon a metody, and we will journey to the root while Lushfield is asleep. We'll try to summon and negotiate with the god, but if they will not be swayed..." Scales trailed off into a suggestive silence. "And if Honto asks about the assassination, we say that we are considering the finer details, or some such thing. Does anyone have any modifications, or are we all agreed?

"I could bind a metody without much trouble, but it will take time and secrecy," said Khi. "I'll need to work on the ritual as soon as the sun sets. Does anyone have a silver backed mirror? It isn't necessary," It was, in fact, necessary, but only if you used the ritual as depicted in the Abassic Plates, rather than the shortened form more commonly taught in Malfeas, but none of the others needed to know that, "But rituals done on a budget of three rice grains tend to require an extremely skilled sorcerer" Which, objectively, she was, but relying on the goodwill she had in Hell through her patron was not a habit Khi desired to get into.

"Mhm." Warden murmurs in agreement at Scales' words. "A word of warning. If I have Rock wrong and he is not swayed by my words, he might decide to silence me to hide his crimes. I can't rule out that a fight will break out."

"Need a bit of backup in that case?" Cold asked Warden. There wasn't a doubt in Cold's mind Warden could handle Rock. But a Prince of the Earth being bested by what supposed to be, at best, a godblooded was... suspicious, to say the least. Which then could end up with a host of other issues. "I could linger around in the shape of a mouse or cat. Or just as Hidden-Reed if that would work out better."

Besides, it wasn't like he had much else to do until the summoning was done. Or while the demon was melting through the roots. He wasn't even sure he was going to be of much use if they were trying to talk to the god. He couldn't punch the god if the god didn't show its face and was all sneaky an intangible. Gods could be cheaters.

"It couldn't hurt, yes," said Warden. I think bringing you as Hidden-Reed would not be good, though. I told Rock I would come alone, so it's better if you are in animal shape."

"Understood" replied Cold.

Khi spoke: "Cub, if you could supply an excuse as to why I am not at the performance tonight, I would be very thankful. I will be busy, if we are to bind a Metody to our service. The ritual will need to begin at dusk. Traditionally, one would have soldiers on hand in case the summoning is botched, but I'm both entirely capable of besting a demon of the First Circle on my own, and, not to indulge in arrogance, but I am rather good at that art," Khi said, leaning back against the railing Cold damaged.

"Offering an excuse would just call attention to the fact. If they inquire, I will deflect appropriately, though I do not think they will" replied Cub.

Khi nodded. "That makes sense,"

"I'll still come with you, Khi, if it's okay with you", Nameless offered up, giving the fake servant a friendly nod. "I can make sure nobody discovers or disturbs you, and if things go sideways with the demon... Well they do bleed like anything else when you cut them, right?" She shrugged. "Might make it easier to keep all of this quiet. And I can show the creature where we hid the entrance to the root system."

"Occasionally, they've been known to bleed memories, or emotions that are alien to creation, but I'm sure if we needed them stabbed it will all work the same," Khi said dryly, "But I would appreciate a guide to where you dug the hole last night,"

"Hm", hummed the Sword Maiden. "I like your confidence, so let's just count on me guiding you. If things get interesting, we'll cross that bridge then." She nodded confidently. "Do we need any supplies from our little caravan?"

"Things will be interesting for you, if you have some interest in the occult. I expect your sword will remain sheathed," Khi tilted her head up, pondering for a moment, "String, rice wine, a cage if we have one, a pair of young lovers whose falling out we could orchestrate, but that's both overkill and a tool of ameteurs..." Khi trailed off for the moment, "Most likely just the rice wine, and the mirror,"

The Sword Maiden chuckled, a broad smile on her face. "Khi, honestly, basically everything is interesting to me. But yes. Rice wine and a mirror, got it." She tapped the hilt of her daiklaive with the palm of her hand. "In no hurry to unsheathe any steel today."

"As it seems that my presence is not required anywhere, I should also like to accompany you, Khi, to witness your sorcery" said Scales.

"Glad to have you with us" Nameless smiled at Scales, as she turned towards their caravan leftovers, to get rice wine, a mirror - and maybe some string, as Khi had mentioned. She might as well make herself useful.
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Having spent about two hours observing the military forces of Lushfield and coming to an agreement on the next steps to take, the Exalts waited for a convenient break where the current crop of recruits were being marched back to the barracks and the horses were being watered and tacked, whereupon they descended from their ersatz cabana atop the pagoda and allowing themselves to be escorted back to the Caravan grounds by the mostly-bored constables assigned as their chaperones. Returning, they first greeted Nisalta, who was resting after spending the morning negotiating some minor trade deals with local merchants, before attending to their own affairs in the free time they had before the next steps that evening. Cold spent his time drawing the various symbols he had seen in his vision on the papers he kept as his personal folio, and quizzing Cub on the meanings she could ascribe to them. Scales and The Nameless Sword Maiden were busy acquiring the necessary equipment that Khi had tasked them to find: Scales volunteered to locate a silver-backed mirror, while "Na-Ma", as Cold insisted on referring to her, was given the mission of finding a few bottles of rice wine. Warden, meanwhile, was meditating cross-legged atop a tree stump and contemplating his forthcoming conversation with Rock. In preparation for this, he almost subconsciously removed the sheathed and cloth-wrapped Daiklave from his back and placed it across his legs. He couldn't be sure how the tête-à-tête would go, and if it became violent, he suspected that he may need to rely on every advantage he could, even if it meant drawing the cursed blade that he had vowed to shield from creation.

---

Khi, Scales, and the Nameless Sword Maiden covertly exited the caravan grounds armed with the necessary equipment. Scales didn't say how he had acquired the medium-sized hand mirror he now held, but Khi had noticed the appearance of an odd cat with a streak of grey-blue in its fur leaving the paddock, and she suspected some rich artisan's wife was missing a critical item from her makeup vanity. Acquiring the Rice Wine was more simple for the Nameless Sword Maiden - she had simply consulted with Nisalta, and with a laugh she was led to the two bored guards standing watch, whereupon after a short conversation followed by a wink and the exchange of a few coins, one of them set off and returned ten minutes later with the necessary contraband.

The trio quietly ducked under the fence posts to the south, with Scales leading the way as they retraced the steps from their adventure the previous night - even though it was pitch black before, Scales was easily able to guide them inerrantly in the direction of the site a few miles away, where the night before they had previously dug the pit down to the mysterious root structure, having subsequently camouflaged it when their efforts to penetrate through were insufficient.

By the time they reached the site, which remained untouched from the night before, the sun had nearly descended to the horizon. The farmhouse in the distance, whose barn Cold had plundered for camouflage supplies, was mostly quiet, though the Nameless Sword Maiden's supernatural senses were able to discern some activity that indicating habitation: a thin stream of light smoke ascending from a chimney and the very faint sound of a family at dinner conversation, too distant to make out any words but enough to determine that at least three or four people were inside.

The Sword Maiden held up one hand, motioning Khi and Scales to stay still for a moment, perking up her head and tilting it from side to side, a concentrated look on her face, small curdles atop her small nose. "If we don't make too much of a ruckus, we should be fine. They're having dinner. In there" she pointed a thin finger at the farm house in the distance, which already began to fade out of side as the sun kept setting.

"They can't hear us at this distance." She nodded at Scales, as she led Khi to the coverings of the hole the Lunar dug the previous night. "This is it. Not even I managed to really put a scratch in it" she shrugged. "Let's hope your dark magic makes more of a dent."

“I'd prefer if we’d move a little further, if only to stay out of line of sight. Hate for some poor peasant to look out the window and see some kind of ritual” Khī looked down, at the mess of leaves, sticks and dirt covering the hole, “I should hope so- Metodies are made of theion-to, the sixth element. There should be nothing they cannot degrade over time,”

"Theion-to?" Nameless repeated, rolling the syllables around in her mouth, trying to discern if she knew this. But it didn't ring a bell. "Fascinating." She nodded forward, off to the distance. "Over this small hill, there's a tiny ravine from where a river used to run before they dammed it up. A few minute's walk and we're out of sight, just keep your feet out of the bramble."

"We'll start there," Khi said, heading off in the indicated direction.

Once in the ravine, the twilight settling between the boughs of trees and the twisted branches, making odd shapes in the dying light. Around Khi especially, the shadows seem to warp, taking on a more menacing tone, the shadows of leaves for a moment appearing like hunting dogs, or small branches seeming to transcribe in vivid detail a smiling face. Beneath her shirt, a keen observer might notice something twist, bulging for a moment like something living was beneath it. Beneath her mask, her eyes glint white in the dying light, reflecting like a woodland animal. The effect is, overall, disturbing- the petite woman has never looked so inhuman as she does now, bathed in the twilight.

She hems about, searching for a large area of sand, walking back and forth, counting quietly, before settling on a larger area of riverbed.

"This will do. I'll begin preparing the ritual grounds shortly. As I do, you may ask what questions you will, if you are curious," Khi said, laying the hand mirror down on the riverbed, looking up at the sky, as if to check the light, "Once the ritual begins, you will be silent. You are not to move, nor are you to communicate, gesturally, nonverbally, nor by any other means with the demon. You are not to acknowledge its presence, you are not to bare steel, nor flare any anima, unless I expressly instruct you to. Are you clear on this?" Khi finishes, looking directly at her two companions for this. "I learned sorcery at the feet of Birgid's tutor, and have memorized the Nine and Thirty-Four Abissic plates. You may not understand what that means, but understand this: You are in no danger. Demonology is safe, provided the sorcerer takes precautions, and understands their servants are not human, and have desires that are not human. I ask you to be silent, so that nothing you say will be considered part of the binding, nor interfere with my breaking of the demon's will."

Once she has the others' acknowledgement of her instructions, Khi returns to her work. She wraps the twine around both pointer fingers, pulling it taut, and kneels before the mirror. The sorcerer above is in the house of Mercury, a helpful sign for her work. The constellation has an association with enslaved demons. She lays a finger on the mirror, and with the other measures by eye the angle it makes with the mirror, adjusting it slightly. The mirror must be in a particular orientation in relation to the stars- understanding that destiny is a wall as much as a cage is a basic principal of summoning demons well. The yozi-kin are outside of fate, which prevents them from entering into Creation save for in extremely specific ways. To orient the arrival of the demon, such that it is angled in ways auspicious to the imprisoned demon-kings, yet not actively blasphemous against the ancient treaties that bind them is a mark of a technically proficient sorcerer. She stills for a moment, feeling the burning power of the daystar within her, and does some mental math. The mirror is moved again, and she measures its position in relation to the stars once more. Satisfied, she stands. It's not that Khi needs this- all she might need to beckon the creature would be a stick to form a crude cage- but it is good practice.

Tracing 3 and a quarter paces from the mirror, scuffing her footprints behind her, Khi begins to work on a cage. A cage, she understands, could be literal, and the greatest sorcerers of the past ages had theirs made of orichalcum and brass, inlaid with starmetal, gold and adamant. She, however, will have to do with something more metaphorical. A destiny is a cage, for instance, or the idea you are owned. Here, a cage is to be a circle. Khi kneels, and in memorized Old Realm begins to transcribe a circle with the exact text of a long forgotten treaty that ended a war lost to the dust of long-burnt libraries. A clause of an oath. An oath of surrender.

Khi doesn't speak Old Realm in any fluency- it is a complicated language, too complicated by far to learn in a matter of months, while also picking up a dozen other skills. The exalted have many powers, but among them is not the ability to slow the daystar to study. But she does know, by rote and impressive memorization, the arts of breaking wills and ancient texts and prayers and the songs of the lost infinite mothers of the desert, the unisexed children of the silver sands who sang a mourning song for a burning river until the last of them died in an age now passed. Which is to say, she speaks enough Old Realm for her current purposes. The circle is intricate, and Khi's calligraphy has the look of someone who has neither an artistic bone in their body nor a tolerance of imperfection. She completes her circle, and then adds three branches, each measured again with the twine, appending to the end of each a small circle, the central one larger than the other two.

With her foot, she digs a small hole in the center of both of the smaller circles, and pours enough rice wine to fill it, and hands the bottle wordlessly back to the Nameless Maiden.

Her ritual site prepared, Khi takes off her gloves, handing the pair also to Nameless. She has devised a cage, a doorway, and most of an offering. She looks again at the sky- she still has time. Not that she doubted it- one of the side benefits, it seemed, of exaltation was her soul seemed now to have a sundial. The blazing daystar above never truly left her heart, even if it's radiance had never again shone from her as it had on Calibration. Not that this was any time for her to indulge in nostalgia. She was still on a timer.

Khi walked over to stand inside the center circle, and pulled out a small, sharp whalebone knife. Slaves were forbidden from carrying steel in Ysyr, with exceptions granted to those whose fate was to make war for their masters. Khi had purchased the scrimshaw knife in her teenage years, mostly for eating. Other slaves had carried shivs for self-defense, but she had found nature had blessed her with an impressive right hook, and anyone who'd felt the need to threaten her in the scrip-line had typically been on the floor before they could bare whalebone anyway. In one fluid motion, Khi sliced open a cut straight down the center of one palm, and then switched hands, and, unflinching, repeated the process, stowing the knife, now soaked in her own blood, back wherever it had come from.

The sorceress stretched out her arms, each hand directly over the slowly vanishing pools of rice wine, both hands contorting to form a mudra: the victory-over-the-yozi mudra. Blood begins to drip from Khi's hands, flowing over knuckles and outstretched fingers, drop after drop falling and mixing with the rice wine. Raising her head, the former slave begins to chant, words that you don't fully understand in an old realm millennia removed from the tongue spoken by the gods above. It stirs something in your heart, the song of those lost infinite mothers, and some deep elemental part of your souls, the part that runs from the darkness, and kneels and shudders before the beautiful can understand it, and it terrifies you as much as it stirs a deep and abiding sense of mourning.

You are broken, you are not as you are, you are broken, you can never be as you were again.

The mirror cracks, just a little, and a wind stirs through the river bed, not one native to Lushfield but another, stranger wind. Hot and dry, and so, so deeply lifeless. A few silver grains of sand, that initially seem to just be fragments of the mirror, are caught by the wind, stopping suddenly just at the line of Old Realm. The mirror cracks again, more sand- and it's definitely sand, not silver fragments -catch on the wind.

You are lost, you have lost yourself, you are barren, you have lost your children

With a crack that seems thunderous, the mirror shatters into sand- precisely nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-seven grains, Khi knows, a sorcerer in the shadow deliberative era once counted, but any citizen of Malfeas could have told them if they had thought to ask- and whirls through the air. Khi's chanting becomes singing, her figure stock still in the now-dead light, the clearing illuminated by a sourceless, sickly viridian light.

You have lost, you have been broken, you have been bound

Bubbling up among the swirl of silver sand is a black liquid, reminiscent of tar, but without its viscosity. It shimmers in the unlight, all the colors of the rainbow but ultimately settling on green. A hand resolves out of it- at one moment blobbly and protoplasmic, another moment like an yeddim's foot, becoming in another like the hand of a man, as something clearly begins to pull itself from the settling sand. A seeping of ooze becomes a torrent, like an abscess on Creation's flesh is draining, with some strange life being born from the rot.

The acid green cauldron that swirled within the sandy plateau - A Rift torn directly between Creation and Malfeas! - seemed to bubble and boil. But the splashes on the surface are not simply the roil of a searing kettle; they are the thrashes of a demon of the first circle, being forcible pulled into the realm of mortal existence against every strain of its muscle and every ounce of willpower it possesses. To Scales, it called to mind the struggle he witnessed between a grizzled fisherman and a 600 pound western Marlin on the hook end of a steel-reinforced catgut line, each tightening of the reel and loosening of line carefully calculated to barely drain another speck of the hooked quarry's energy and will to resist, until nothing remained but the still sea itself. For hours the battle raged between Khi and the Demon she sought to wrest into Creation, and the moon rose higher and higher into the night.

Just as the moon pulls the tides upward, so also does it exert its pull upon the creatures of Malfeas. For the hidden truth, known to only the most sagacious in heaven and hell, is that while the bewitching body of the moon belongs to Luna, its light belongs to the Unconquered Sun. The struggle raged between the Sorceress and the Demon, until the very moment came when the moonshadows in the grove finally vanished, the light that cast them coming from directly above. The surface of the green rift stilled. Victory, but whose? Was this the unconditional surrender of the Khi's demonic prey? Or had it slipped the bonds that sought to siphon its the liquid of its theion-to into the realm of mortals?

The silence was broken by a jolt and an enormous burst in the surface of the acid lake. The observers reflexively moved to cover their faces, but the shower of thick liquid from the eruption was stopped in the middle of the air, as if by an unseen barrier circumscribed by the circle that Khi had traced in the ground. The corrosive solution that momentarily occluded sight to the rift dripped down, searing a circle of sand on the edge of the ring into vitreous, glowing glass. And on its hands and knees, panting in exhaustion atop a solidified green obsidian-like surface, was the Demon, pulled wholly into Creation.

The demon's breath slowed over the next few moments as its regained its energy and slowly began to take in its surroundings. In main, it had the form of a large unclothed man. Its back was heavily muscled, with olive brown skin. On its forehead were two long horns which did not seem to belong to any animal Khi had ever encountered: They were helicaly curved like a ram's horns, but each was encumbered with a dozen points branching off like the antlers of a deer. Attached to its lower back at the base of its spine was a flowing, feathered tail. It slowly rose to its feet, revealing its face and the front of its torso. It had eyes that glowed a faint green, with a deeply chiseled, bearded jawline, and dark, short hair under the horns that protruded from its temples. Across its well-defined chest, from its collarbone down to the opposite side of its abdomen was a long, diagonal scar, that did not appear to have ever fully healed. And below that was the demon's fully engorged, exaggerated, upwardly-curved erection. He (as Khi now mentally referred to the demon) focused on the summoner with a rage-sickened expression, angry that he had dragged him into this filthy, mortal domain. He spoke a few words in a low voice that was in a language none listening were capable of understanding, but which sounded like a question, and then he seemingly awaited an answer.

The demon had been beckoned. This was, relatively speaking, the easy part. There were some schools, all latter day, who would from here begin to bargain with the demon. It, it seemed, had grown used to being treated with. Khi, however, was not a disciple of those schools. This, now, was the time to break the demon's will. This was easier than expected- a cage is a titanic pressure against the demon, and creation is strange and alien to it. There are three things that cannot be found in hell: silence without death, power without ambition and love without pain. Here there was silence aplenty. Now it was time to make the creature beg.

The creature's question fell on deaf ears. Khi would simply wait until the creature, half maddened with terror and disquiet, would plead with her to serve. And if it chose to speak, to make a noise to break the silence, all it would take is for Khi to push just a little mote of sacred power into the stream of blood and wine that fueled it here. Khi smiled beneath her mask. This creature would know pain until it knew submission.

She supposed the creature had adopted the form in an effort to throw her off, as an advantage in this battle of wills. If it thought a penis would move her, it was barking up wholly the wrong tree.

Scales nodded, and turned his full attention to the ritual, trying to determine how each component fit together. As Khi finished her preperations and returned to the center to call forth the demon, the pieces clicked in his mind. The silver mirror, to be used as the demon's entrance, symbolic of the silver sands of the Endless Desert that surround Malfeas. The circles inscribed with songs and hymns to the Exalted's victory over the banished were to act as barriers, preventing the escape of the demon and the spread of the Demon City through the rift. The rice wine, tainted with blood, an offering to bring forth a demon that corrupts and destroys all it touches. And the song, to draw the attention of Hell's denizens. Fascinating; the principles are the same, and yet, key aspects are different. The use of a symbolic mundane object to create a link to the wanted realm is the same, but the mirror has no essence sympathetic to the Endless Desert; I usually require my focus to be steeped in death...

The Nameless Sword Maiden let out an audible gasp, as the demon appeared. It was, and wasn't, what she had expected. This seemed like straight out of people's stories, horns and everything. And yet that was what surprised her. She'd gotten used to things not being what they seem, from the short time in Creation she had any recollection of.  Nameless hoped the two others hadn't noticed that she stared at the demonic phallus a bit longer than she intended - even though that was mostly because it was the part of the demon that didn't quite fit in with the stories she'd heard in her travels. Though it made sense to Nameless, as another aspect of destructiveness just as it was lifegiving. Duality. She shook her head to get rid of that train of thought, as it wasn't going anywhere.

The Sword Maiden was quite curious, but had read Khi well enough to not make a sound - and even if she hadn't, she was determined to let the sorceress have the lead in this. Her eyes followed the demon's form up again, letting her gaze rest on it's face. His face? Nameless looked quite determined herself, the left hand resting idly on her daiklave's hilt. Were the demon to try anything, she'd be ready.

She nodded at Khi, indicating she'd have her back. Though that seemed not necessary.
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For a dozen heartbeats, Khi and the Metody remained locked in their staring match, seemingly testing each other's resolve and intent, neither saying a word. The pressure and tension continued to ratchet upward, and the Sorceress continued to siphon more and more power into the invisible bonds of the demon-binding cage. The local barometric pressure around Nameless and Scales seemed to drop almost imperceptibly as the demon began to wince - it seemed almost as if Khi was thickening the air inside the boundaries of the summoning circle, making it more and more unbearable to stand inside in defiance. For a brief moment, the Metody glanced over to the two observers, probing for any signs of imperfection that it could exploit if it came to a test of wits and strength between him and the Sorceress who summoned him. The skinny, pale man: he remained unmoved and steely, his sharp eyes darting between the locus points of the summoning circle. The wide-eyed swordswoman, though - she could be the weak link. Could that have been a small shiver and a gasp? Was that her eyes lingering a little too long on the deviously salacious form he had chosen? Was there a subconscious meaning to her fingers tightening around the hilt of her Daiklave in that moment?

The Metody grew impatient and emboldened. "WHY HAVE YOU BROUGHT ME HERE?!" He screamed in a strange accented language, his voice strangely distorted and reverberating in Khi's cage. Scales understood and recognized that the demon was speaking Old Realm. Strangely, the Nameless Sword Maiden also understood the meaning of his words perfectly, though she had no recollection of ever hearing or speaking the ancient language before. Khi cocked her head - she did not speak fluent Old Realm, but had learned bits and scraps in her sorcererous training. She cocked her head and grinned, as if to suggest the Demon try harder. The Metody roared again, this time deigning to speak in High Realm: "WHY I AM HE-"

His outburst was interrupted by the shockwave of crushing pressure transmitting into him from all sides, his words literally swallowed and forced back down his ichorous throat.

The Metody was crushed to the ground into a fetal position by Khi's savageness, and her mask hid the unseen sneer that showed she took some measure of pleasure in crushing the demon's spirit and will to resist. She transmitted another blast of pressure into him, and another. Each time the demon was hit, his form strangely twisted, almost in a mockery of progress and beauty. His body briefly melted with each blast back into the theion-to it was formed of, just as quickly reforming into his chosen shape as the pressure wave receded. After the fourth time, he screamed out in High Realm - the language of the filthy mortals he had been forced to accompany: "Enough! I Submit!" he half-wailed, half-coughed, broken by the experience. A thin flow of ichor was leaking from the demon's ears, eyes, and nose, giving him an defeated, beaten look, like a prizefighter that had been savagely mauled. Scales took an academic note of it - it distinctly reminded him of a half-dead pearl diver he once encountered, who had went down too deep and ascended too quickly, and had burst half the blood vessels in his face.

A shiver had tingled across Nameless' spine earlier, when she felt the Metody's gaze linger on her. Did the demon sense something? She was unsure what to make of it. The demon didn't frighten her, but it did have an unsettling effect. She was pretty sure she could take it in a fight, though she did not know why she thought that.
But it's... Wrongness, the lack of belonging the denizen of Malfeas exuded was what got to the Sword Maiden.

She let out a relieved sigh when Khi's magic threw the demon to the ground and bound it, though the savagery of the process caught her off guard. "Is it necessary to... Hurt it that much?" Nameless asked Khi, her voice a mix of empathy and curiosity, as she examined the trickle of ichor that escaped the demon's body. "It doesn't seem like it was much of a threat to us" she offered up. He, though, definitely he, she thought to herself.

Witnessing the demon being savaged, Scales glances at Khi out of the corner of his eye. Using pain and fear to break the demon's will to your service; a common part of the ritual, or a more personal touch? It does seem a bit excessive, but she is far more familiar with the denizens of Malfeas than I.

The Abissic method is transmitted by plates, 9 that describe the major methods of binding, and a further Thirty-Four, which describe unique ways by which particular types of demons may be brought to heel. The plate of the Functionary, Khi remembered in a flash of essence, depicts a woman, half-kneeling, sitting on one knee and one foot. A lesser demon, shapeless and supine, sprawls before her. With a brush of bone, in exquisite calligraphy, she writes "THE PRESENT" in Old Realm. Mirrors surround the two on all sides, marked with the numbers between 5 and 19. The woman's hair is bound back, and her eyes have been put out. She has been gagged, and is depicted in a vermillion robe.

By binding a creature prone to the warped compassion of demons in pain, it is in their nature to seek out another goal to fixate on, existing wholly in it to spare itself agony. While Khi dismissed the Sword Maiden's outburst with a flash of annoyance, she did realize, somewhat belatedly, that this was perhaps not the best binding to have an audience for. Other creatures, like Anhules, were bound much differently, often with less pain.

"You will be given clemency from Malfeas," Khi says in Old Realm, the words practiced by rote, wholly unmoved by the creature's suffering, "And given focus to distract yourself from your suffering. By right of treaty, and by my right as specified in the Heavenly Mandate, you are to be bound to a task as set by me, which, upon completion to my satisfaction, you shall be allowed to return to hell," Khi switched to High Realm, now, "There is, over that hill, a root of some girth. It will be indicated to you, and you are to melt through it, and maintain a hole in it, until I am satisfied with your efforts," With the terms dictated, Khi feels the mystical binding snap into place, and steps out of the circle, the blood flowing from her hands finally stopping.

"You will tell me your name, Metody"

Khi stalked over to the Nameless Maiden, her grey eyes gleaming in the darkness, and snatched her gloves out of the other woman's hand. As she put them on, one after the other, she looked icily over at the other woman, not moving her head, not looking directly at her. "I recall" Khi said, her voice hard, "Instructing you to remain silent,"

"I assumed the ritual was over", the Sword Maiden tried to explain her breaking the silence. She really didn't want to be seen as too slow to follow simple instructions. On the other hand, she couldn't help but raise a brow at Khi's demeanor, not even gracing her with some eye contact.  On a bad day, that could've gotten the sorceress bent over the Nameless' knee. But she did offer her help, so she bit her tongue. "Apologies if I distracted you" she tried a peace offering, her eyes involuntarily darting to the demon, then again to Khi.

Peace offering or not, the warrior woman had straightened up, shoulders broad, face unmoved. If the sorceress had thought to treat her like an unruly child, she'd find the Sword Maiden's resolve much more steely.

"It was not," Khi sighed, "You did not distract me, and your accident threatened no one. But if you were to say something the demon may take as instruction, or be moved to disrupt the ritual, It would have been somewhere between inconvenient and deadly. Not for us, but there is a house full of mortals not far from here. That is why a strong binding was necessary, and why I was emphatic that you hold your tongue. Not for my safety, nor yours, but for theirs," Khi took out her knife, producing a small length of cloth from somewhere and began to clean it. She could tell the other woman felt insulted, just with a glance at her body language. The swordswoman tended to wear her heart on her sleeve, "I took the same tone you might take with trainee fooling with live steel because the two situations are not dissimilar. You take precautions with a sword because you understand what happens when someone doesn't. This is the same thing," Khi paused, her voice getting lower, "You only need to see what happens once to never make a mistake again."

The Metody could only twitch his badly beaten body as he lay flat on its back during Khi's invocation of the binding. It took a few moments after the ritual had been completed for him to stir from its wretched state. He rolled over from his back to his side and violently expelled from his mouth a substantial amount of half-congealed theion-to, the spoiled ichor emerging deep from whatever demons possess in lieu of lungs and drizzling harmlessly along down the glazed surface of the melted sand and outside the summoning circle to soak into with the tilled earth - apparently the purged vitriol had lost most of its potency in its weakened state. He slowly and unsteadily climbed to his feet while Khi rebuked the Nameless Sword Maiden. The reconstitute powers of the vitriolic anti-elemental demons were formidable however, and it by the time Khi had finished speaking, he was ready to answer her question. "I am Skæletheia among my kind" he responded in High Realm, the "sk" sound in his name being pronounced in a lengthened, rolling consonant that distinctly recalled the hiss of a snake. "Show me to this root I must dissolve"

Nameless eyed the demon that was getting more and more compliant, so Khi clearly knew what she was doing. So she took a deep breath, nostrils flaring slightly, as she peeled a misbehaving strand of hair out of her face. "A trainee couldn't kick my ass, though" she reminded Khi, though instantly followed that comment up with a smile, "but I know what you mean."

She nodded. Thank you for taking me along, this is really fascinating", at the same time, the Sword Maiden made a point to watch Khi's body language and follow the sorceress - clearly mindful to not get in her way. While her words were meant to defend her dignity, she was also clearly careful to not interfere with the demon - the metaphor about handling sharp steel had obviously struck a nerve. "The treaty you cited sounded serious. So demons are bound by it, then?" She paused. "I assume I can ask questions now?" Out of the corner of her eye she made sure the metody looked properly bound and obedient.

"Khi, this was illuminating and I thank you for the opportunity to observe your sorcery," added Scales. "If I may ask, what aspects change depending on the demon you are trying to call forth? Or do you require a completely different ritual for each species?"

"Skæletheia, then," spoke Khi, before responding to the other's questions. "Follow. Dissolve the ritual circle on your way, lest I find your work not to your satisfaction and leave you to rot here for an era," Khi said, setting off at a brisk pace, not even looking at the demon.

"And, yes, you may indeed ask questions," Khi nodded, "Scales, much of the ritual changes depending not only on the kind of demon, but also the task. Aghaid, for instance, I bound to the plate of the hunter, and needed little convincing. He is to hunt for me, and in exchange he is to be allowed to kill what he hunts at least once a season. I noticed your eye during the ritual- you understood what you were looking at. Are you knowledgeable in the occult, then?"

"My nameless friend, the treaty which binds demons is a complicated thing, and difficult to get into succinctly. It will suffice to say that in ancient days, the anathema made war on their kings, and laid them low. When they sued for peace, it was a part of the treaty that the mandated rulers of creation could at will bind demons to a task or to serve them for a year and a day," Khi abbreviated.

"I do have some knowledge," replied Scales, "but mine is mostly applicable to the underworld and related subjects, as that is what my mentor specialized in."

Khi looked over the lunar, her head unmoving, her eyes searching him behind her mask, "Are you a necromancer, then? Or merely an aficionado?"

Scales: "You have laid me bare; I am a practitioner, though I have not had need to utilize the art recently"

"You are? Interesting," Khi says, "We didn't have such things in Ysyr, though we had sorcerers aplenty. I'd be very interested to compare notes some times,"

Scales: "As would I. I'm sure that by collaborating, we would both be able to increase our prowess in our respective arts."

Khi: "If they are particularly close in practice, I would not be surprised if it would"

Obedient to Khi's command, Skæletheia took stock of the low plateau of green-glass sand that was all that remained of the ritual circle. 999,997 grains of sand, roughly fused together into a resinous block. His vigor had been sapped during the the struggle to drag him from Malfeas into Creation, and any lingering reserved of strength had been beaten out of of him by the bodily suffering Khi had inflicted. But since the completion of binding ritual, the shackles on his power had loosened, and the corrosive might of the theion-to that flowed through his physical form reasserted its potency. The very air in his vicinity began to grow heavier, permeated by the stink of sulfur. Skæletheia balled his fists together, squeezing them like he was crushing a piece of chalk to powder. The muscles in his arms pulsed with the flows of corrosive essence. Opening his palms, each was revealed to be thickly coated with thick viridian ichor. With a series of violent downward smashing motions, he flung searing droplets across the ground below him, coating every square inch of the despoiled ground with a mist of toxic vitriol. The ground below him began to instantly sizzle, and the air around him filled with unbreathable vapors. Stepping forward out of the cloud, he turned to admire his handiwork: the leftover traces of Khi's summoning were rapidly burning away in the moonlight, and soon all that would be left would be a scorched patch of dirt where no living thing would ever grow for a century.

In his acrid, raspy voice, Skæletheia spoke to the Nameless Sword Maiden as the two of them trekked a couple of yards behind Khi and Scales, who were themselves busy in conversation. "You must also be bound to serve her," he remarked in Old Realm, having apparently already taken notice that Khi's understanding of the language was limited. "It seems we both must obey her orders now."

"Yes, we must", the Sword Maiden replied cheerfully, and in fluent Old Realm, though her interpretation of the ancient language sounded a lot lighter, lacking the guttural inflections of the demon's tongue.

"Though I entered into this whole agreement a bit more voluntarily than you. But from what I understand, getting to test your mettle against an obstacle a sorcerer couldn't just get around, might not be the worst use of your time, no?" She shrugged. "Is being summoned a regular occurrence to your kind? I actually have no idea how many demons, or sorcerers, there are."

“Be careful about how much you let it influence you,” Khī called back, overhearing, “Metodies love to dissolve. Not just objects, but relationships, ideals, intangible things.”

Skæletheia listened to the Nameless Sword Maiden's fragmented collection of remarks - the girl was clearly flustered in some fashion. Destabilized, adrift, unsure of herself. The sorceress was entirely correct to warn the pretty little thing, of course, but would it sufficiently heeded? The Metody thought not. The idea of melting a hole in a 'root of some girth' was intriguing, but ultimately failed to capture his imagination - the task as described seemed entirely mundane and unworthy of the glory of a Malfean spirit such as himself, emboldened by unwavering confidence in his power to dissolve all that is. No, dissolving this girl first would surely be more interesting.

Skæletheia spoke poetically, the way Old Realm was meant to be spoken: "It is not unheard of for our kind to be called upon to render our services to sorcerers. We do not even hate to do so. Usually. We recognize in them something alike to us. Their powers come through trauma that rends even a strong willed soul apart from this land you call home. Most even, in time, come to view us not as slaves, but willing allies, confidants, and sometimes even dedicated lovers." He projected an aura of exceptional sadness. "Not that one though. There is only cruelty and hate in her. You saw it before your very eyes." He looked down at his body, the bruising still evident. "I advise you to quit her service and flee at the earliest opportunity, as I intend to. She is only pain, it has consumed her. I can feel it. We are nothing but tools to her, to be used roughly and discarded without a second thought."

The Sword Maiden raised a brow. The Metody was being a bit obvious, and it was clear to her that he was trying to dissolve her bond to Khi - not that there was much of one. She felt some solidarity, but was mostly here to make sure the group would be successful - ultimately leading her to answers from the Lamplighter. But admittedly, Skæletheia had found a kennel of truth - Khi did seem to quite enjoy the binding earlier, though Nameless had believed her when she explained this to be necessary. Even if it left her with with a bit of an aftertaste - this was a bit blunt. She suspected that the demon would say whatever it could think of to sow distrust and follow it's nature - to erode, consume and dissolve whatever it perceived to be the connection between herself and Khi.

The Dawn eyed the Demon, from horns to the feet. "I think we all might be happier if you managed to return to your home. This does not seem pleasant to you, and I feel something akin to your nature might suit you better. I'm sorry this is happening."  She looked at the Metody with some pity in her large eyes, framed by the jet-black hair. It made her look pale, now in the night. She clearly had some sympathy for the demon.

Khi cleared her throat. "If you're both quite done, we're here." Khi gestured to the pile of grass, disturbed dirt and sticks, "Skæletheia, the root is beneath here. I ask that you do not disturb too much its covering. It is the work of a god, and certainly a job for one of your kind, I suspect you may yet enjoy your time in Creation yet. You are to keep a hole in it open, of such a size that a person of normal size might pass through. You are to do this without unduly revealing yourself to anyone other than myself. I will check on your progress nightly, and once the duty is completed to my satisfaction, you may return to Malfeas,"

Khi gave the maiden a look over. She couldn't speak Old Realm- the language was complex, and her tutelage short, but she knew the demon's words were poisonous, no matter what it had said. It was in it's nature, and lesser demons rarely differed too much from one another. "Once you are settled in, we should take our leave." Reading the swordwoman's body language, it wasn't hard to see what the demon had directed its ire toward - herself. It made sense, of course. The thing resented her, which was both fine and expected. But she had no desire to see that spread to the Sword Maiden. Such an impressively lethal creature was not something she wanted resenting her, and, if she was indeed as innocent as she seemed, Khi would like to see the woman as her sword. First directed toward the Lamplighter, thence to Sigareth.

"Maiden, if I may, I'd like to have a word with you?" said Khi.  I had some thoughts on your condition. I would hesitate to promise a cure, but I may be able to do something for it," Khi's thoughts had, on occasion, wandered to what it was that had robbed the woman of her memories but not her fell-handedness.

Skæletheia stepped to edge of the the camouflaged hole and peered down into the thin gaps between the layers of brush, grass, canvas, and dirt that concealed the dark pit below. "Most intriguing" he remarked in Old Realm, apparently having realized from his demonic senses that the endeavor he was tasked with was more than a matter of dissolving a hole through mundane materials. His form seemed to subtly twist in unnatural, unnerving ways, thinning and partially liquefying in places, his physique almost oozing down into the pit. From below, his mutters continued for some time in a language none present could discern - perhaps the cant of the Malfean vitriol spirits, where supposedly there were a hundred words for ways in which a material could be dissolved, cracked, broken up, melted, ablated, or chewed threw. "Unusual... most unusual," he remarked. "You are correct, this will take some time... the material is like nothing I have seen before."

"Not so tough now" mumbled the Sword Maiden under her breath, as she observed the Metody's efforts down in the pit. She eyed Khi, raising an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
She put on a thin-lipped smile. "You've dealt with curses like mine?"

"Not specifically, but I think it may be solvable," Khi said, walking back toward town a short distance, then turning to face the other woman, "Walk with me. I assure you I won't bite, no matter what the demon told you."

Despite openly displaying some mild discomfort on her angular face, the Sword Maiden synchronized her steps to Khi, and gave her a measured look from the side. "Don't worry about what the Demon said, I know exactly that it just wants discord. It should worry you that it had a point, but I'm willing to overlook your methods if your aims are worthy." She sighed, almost silently. "And I still appreciate you being willing to help."

"Cruelty is all that there is in the demon city. That it's a trait I share isn't something I particularly like about myself," Khi admitted, taking the mask off her face. Her eyes seem to reflect the low light, shining in the darkness. Her face is dark, her teeth far sharper than you'd expect in the darkness. Her face is a far cry from the impassive, unemotional woman you usually see- she seems distinctly uncomfortable, both with the situation, and her face not being hidden by a mask. "We all have our parts of ourselves we aren't comfortable with. I have the dubious benefit of knowing what mine are. I hope you can come to see me in a better light, Maiden, especially if I can make myself of some use to you"

Khi reaffixed the mask to her face, weaving her scarf around it, visibly relaxing. "Your memories. Do you still have flashes of them? Traces of anything that might suggest they're still present within you? Or might we assume they've been excised, somehow,"

"I had just wanted to be a bit more reluctant, with the cruelty, I guess", Nameless started half-heartedly, then dropped her shoulders as she saw Khi's face. "I think I get it" she conceded, maybe she misjudged the sorceress under her mask - she had seemed all too eager to revel in her cruelty, but maybe she had just been playing a part to perfection?

The Sword Maiden certainly wasn't so sure now, what to think. "My memory..." She started responding to the actual matter at hand, "it is strange. I get those remnants, bits of memories sometimes, yes. You might call them flashes. But they're exceedingly rare. But what happens all the time is that I feel something is familiar, even though I don't have the matching memory to know why. Earlier, when I smelled the grass, wet with dew, I knew that I would usually expect to also smell lavender, sage, thyme - so either I'm from somewhere a bit south of here, or" she put on a crooked grin, "I worked in kitchens a lot."

"Your memory is, on some level intact, then. It would be much harder if someone, had, for instance, physically removed them and put them in a bowl somewhere," Khi said, then chuckled, "It's happened more often than you'd expect. I have a couple ideas. There are eels in hell that eat memories. They can also, on command, regurgitate them. They're nearly mindless, about as intelligent as a particularly stupid dog, so you shouldn't worry about a binding like that. All you'll need to do is play your flute the short while it's in creation,"

"Alternatively, I could walk into your dreams," She continued, pulling two gloved fingers down, "The sleeping mind is often aware of things that the conscious mind is not. We may be able to draw something into your waking mind this way, but I think that may be a bit more," Khi paused for a moment, searching for the right word in High Realm, "Hairy? No, woolly. What an odd expression. Either way, you'll have to extend a lot of trust to me if we want to try to get your memories back. I have some respect for you, Aka Ysyr," Khi's body language softens, it seems she's genuinely compassionate behind that blank mask, "I hope you can say the same for me, despite a start I have to acknowledge is rocky,"

"To be honest, the way you put it, neither of those options sound particularly appealing to me." The Sword Maiden straightened up a bit, giving Khi a long, hard look. With the context provided, she could see how the cruelty was just a tool to her - and facing a demon, Nameless had a hard time continuing to judge the sorceress. She herself would've cut down anyone without second thought in self-defense, so how bad was inflicting a bit of discomfort on a demon to get it to comply? While she raced through those thoughts, Nameless involuntarily shook her head. She had made up her mind already anyway, or rather: her gut had decided for her.

Khi seemed alright to her, and the Sword Maiden even felt a bit bad for having judged her so harshly earlier. "I should maybe not hold my head so high, Khi, I apologize." She said, slowly. "To be honest, judging by the one demon I've met, I'd rather let you in my dreams. If you think it might help."

"It's certainly worth a try. It may be for the best to keep the demon in our back pocket, so to speak," Khi said, setting a brisk pace back into town, "Once we have time, perhaps once this Lushfield affair has run its course, or perhaps earlier, we should do this."

"Thank you, even if nothing comes of it, you trying means a great deal to me" replied the Sword Maiden with a slow, sincere nod.

Khi nodded curtly, satisfied that she'd earned some amount of favor from the amnesiac swordswoman. It would be a lie to say this wasn't, to some extent, calculated. The anathema was incredibly deadly, if the display she'd made at dinner the other night while holding back was any indication. If Khi was going to rescue Sadrica, having the swordswoman wrapped around her finger would be somewhere between helpful and broadly neccessary. She didn't feel bad about using the other woman- she was, after all, benefiting from Khi's knowledge. Surely a favor further down the line was fair repayment, even if Khi didn't intend to tell the woman about her failures yet.

"I suppose we should try to get back, before anyone remarks on our absence,"

"You are right, let's see if we've gotten any further to discovering what lies beneath our obstacle" Nameless mused. "Seemed right up that demon's alley, at least." She shrugged and unconsciously accelerated her steps.

Scales had kept quiet, trailing behind Khi and Nameless as they walked, not wanting to interrupt the moment. Upon seeing the conversation at an end, however, he speaks up. “If you recover any memories of death, then I might be able to help as well. It’s possible for the spirit to linger after death, and I may be able to summon or track and question them. It’s not guaranteed, but…”
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- Meanwhile, Back in Town -

Cold had let Cub known that he wanted to talk to her. He hadn't really been all that open about what exactly he had wanted to talk about. All of his own history was his own matter, and while he respected the rest of the circle. He didn't trust them quite enough yet to casually mention things like the destruction of his kingdom and his vendetta against the woman who spearheaded it on them.

That was a source of trust they could only build with time.

But until Cub decided to grace him with her presence he had simply holed himself up in the caravan, digging through the cloths and other things he had bought back in nexus - his mind whirling with plans for his next creation. A dress that could at least try to outshine whatever Celcine was wearing. Was it petty? Yes. Was it unlikely to succeed? Probably, since he only had the barest of materials, only a few hours worth of work and very little in the way of jewelry.

But he had divine puissance and spite on his mind and those two things could move mountains in enough quantities.

Cub does not take overly long to arrive, she is rather curious what the group's more... rustic member might want from her and eager to build stronger relations to her fellow Exalts.

"Ah, good, you're here, don't mind the mess, I've just have a few questions for you." Cold turns away from his work and towards Cub, wearing a smile on Hidden-Reed's stolen face. Not bothering to hide what he had been working on: Crude sketches of dresses and formal clothing for ladies. Rough, but it was clear to see that Cold at least had an idea what he was doing. Even though he was not that familiar with the type of clothing he was sewing.

"I'm wondering what meaning these symbols have. Or what family or organization it belongs to." He pulled out a piece of paper on which he had reproduced the glyphs he had seen in his vision on the woman's battle dress. All of them made up from straight and narrow lines, not graceful flowing but a stoic solidity and rigidness that had a beauty all of its own, if you looked at it the right way. "I know they're related to the Realm, but what they mean is completely alien to me. But I thought you might be able to give me some insight in what they mean or represent. They are associated with a light yellow? Though that could've been white stained with something."

Cub takes the paper in hand and examines the symbols, thinking back to all the things she's seen from military parades, to formal balls, to pieces of paperwork approving of various spending projects. The Realm is vast an so is its love for heraldry.
"Most of the Great Houses are associated with a pair of colors," she muses as she looks at them, "and while none of them are yellow, houses Cathak, Cynis, and Ragara are associated with gold."

"It could be representing gold," Cold admits, "I don't think the Realm, as wealthy as it is, really wants to gild the battle dress of their officers, no matter how high ranking they are. Gold is pretty heavy and not really that useful in a combat situation."

Cub examined the various symbols that Cold had sketched: some were plainly heraldic or the mark of an association, while others were substantially more obscure and likely were more personal to the wearer. The first one was obvious: It was a patch showing a tall, thin tower, flared widely at its peak, with the sigil of the Empress above it and a portcullis at its base. It was a warrant from the Nail of Truth: the imposing garrison and dungeon in the city of Pneuma that served as the headquarters of the Wyld Hunt in the North.

"This one," Cub says pointing to the first, "indicates that the wearer is a member of the Wyld Hunt based in the city of Pneuma."
"Where have you seen these symbols?"

Cold hesitated for a bit. But decided to tell Cub anyway, what was she going to do? Double-cross him and tell the Realm he was after one of their officers? No, she was in the same boat he was. "I haven't seen them exactly? I mean, I did, but it was in a vision, earlier when I was looking at the drill exercises. Luna showed me one of my own memories, of when the Wyld Hunt was cracking down on me and my people, and showed me more about the one who was leading it. I saw those symbols on her battledress and banners."

Turning her attention to another of the complicated heraldic symbols, Cub noted that it looked strangely familiar, as if she had seen it before, a long time ago. Turning the paper and scrunching her eyes, she was finally able to recognize its components: The large flared shape at the top was the head of an axe, pointing downward - a symbol of the unflinching and resolute execution of justice. Below the axehead were long ribbons wrapped around one another - the symbol of confusion and mystery, but in combination with the descending axe, a sign of the unraveling of deceit. Finally, below the ribbons, a dragon back to back with a monkey. It symbolized the judgment between right and wrong, between righteousness and dishonesty. It was the mark of the Imperial Magistracy, displayed by Magistrates - indomitable agents of the Empress empowered to enact justice in her name. In stories, they were the darkest fear of evildoers and the venerated heroes of the common people. But that was before the disappearance of the Empress. Today, without the direct backing of the Empress, the Magistracy is considered rudderless and weak.

"A vision from Luna?" Cub asks, surprised and impressed that the other Exalt saw such direct guidance from his patron. "That is quite something. Regarding the symbols," she continues and indicates a collection of the signs Cold has drawn, "these show that the leader was acting as an Imperial Magistrate."

"Yes, Luna showed me." Cold confirmed. Luna had been there at his exaltation and occasionally threw him a bone. Maybe Solars had a different relation with their patron? "Does the Unconquered Sun not do the same?

"Not even remotely. I have had no vision or messages at all," Cub replied.

"Each god has their own ways I suppose?" Cold found it slightly confusing that one would never check up on ones chosen. But again, the way's of gods were strange. But what are the Imperial Magistrates?" The Wyld Hunt made sense to him. Even as far away as he was, the Wyld hunt was widely known. But a Magistrate was a new concept to him.

"The Imperial Magistrates are supposed to travel the Realm and its possessions in the threshold upholding the law and carrying out justice, though their power has waned greatly since the disappearance of the Empress has become public knowledge." It is very uncommon to see one leading a Wyld Hunt." Cub added.

"That is indeed strange." Cold agreed. Why would somebody who needs to uphold the law in the Realm hunt him down in the name of the Wyld Hunt? "But at least if an Imperial Magistrate leading a Wyld Hunt is so uncommon, it should be a lot easier to find her and hunt her down."

"Upholding their law is their official role, without the Empress what is official is not always what is true. When exactly did this happen?" asked Cub.

"Not too long ago. Eight months ago, maybe? Give or take a few months? Accurate time keeping wasn't exactly high on my priority list for a while." Cold admitted. "At first I was spending all my time dodging the Wyld Hunt, and after that I was trying to get to Nexus to meet up with the Lamplighter and you all."

The final symbol that Cub was able to discern the meaning of was also among the least auspicious. Unlike the other two, it was not a large heraldic sigil, but instead was a smaller encircled mark. Cold indicated that had been worn as a pin on the woman's collar. It was a circle showing four arrows pointing in the cardinal directions radiating out from a small peak that symbolized the Blessed Mountain. It was the symbol of the Wise and Knowledgeable Advisors of the Foreign Tributary, better known as the Foreign Office - the department of the ministry responsible for collecting and analyzing reports from the Satropies, assigning and reassigning the rule of Satrops to Great Houses, and dispatching agents to investigate rumors of mismanagement or wrongdoing in foreign lands. In the past, fear of the Empress's wrath and the potential revocation of a Satropy had meant that the Foreign Office commanded great respect, which served to deter dynasts from showing too much cruelty or rapaciousness in their governance, lest a disruptive (and expensive to put down) rebellion be instigated. Today, the Foreign Office is, like the Magistracy, considered a toothless husk of itself, and its warnings against outright brutality in the extraction of lucre are all but ignored by the Great Houses.

"Furthermore," Cub adds pointing to a third symbol, "she was a member of the Realm Foreign Office, the branch of the Thousand Scales responsible for dealing with the Satrapies. If you were... bothering certain Realm satrapies, that might be how she became involved in your situation."

Realization dawns on Hidden Reed's stolen face. "Ah yes, there was plenty of raiding involved. Especially of the less accommodating or willing to negotiate city states around us." Cold admitted. It was clear that among his tribe, promises to stop their raids on one, and to focus more on an enemy was a popular bargaining chip to extract tribute. "It could very well be possible one of the targets was a Satrapy of some sort."

"Where exactly was your kingdom? Or perhaps more to the point, who were your neighbors?" asked Cub.

"To the west of Diamond Hearth. Most of my neighbors were part of something called the Haslanti league. But we usually raided overseas." replied Cold.

Cub nods, "I know of it. It is no Satrapy, though, or indeed a Realm ally. Do you happen to know any of the names of the other major raiding-targets? Or perhaps if they had some particular trait - a gold mine, a site of ancient relics, or some such?" She asks, trying to recall which House might have interests that were disturbed by Cold's raiding.

Cub re-examined the sheet of paper with Cold's drawings on it. Wracking her memory, she finally was able to identify the meaning of a further symbol, the one that Cold said was worn not by the Wyld Huntress who led the highly disciplined soldiers to victory over Cold's tribesmen and tribeswomen, but instead was emblazoned prominently on the breastplate of the grim-looking older man next to her. It was the emblem of the Dragonguard of the Sacred Waters of Sextes Jylis, a monastic order dedicated to spreading the Immaculate Philosophy throughout the far north. Nearly every loyal Satropy north of Pneuma had originally been founded by the monks of the Dragonguard, sometimes built out of nothing but land cleared out from the forest itself and ultimately handed over to garrisons and colonists of a great house, and sometimes resulting from the subjugation of small tribal villages, converted to the Immaculate Faith at the point of a sword.

"We hit plenty of smaller coastal villages in search for food, but two targets we hit relatively hard were called Berzen and Jagelloc?" Cold gestured towards that symbol Cub was looking at. "I assume they did their tithe of soldiers."

"That fits with what I see here," Cub says and points out the fourth symbol, "The Dragonguard of the Sacred Waters of Sextes Jylis is a militant order of Immaculates who have founded those two nations and turned them into Realm Satrapies. Their influence also goes some way towards explain why the leader of the Hunt would be someone without a Great House affiliation, since they too have none."

Millitant Immaculates. Cold couldn't help the bark of laughter at that. Of all the people he hit with his raids, he hit the zealots. "That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for the information. It helps, a lot."

Cold pulled out his swing kit again and got back to work on. He didn't shush Cub or gesture at her that she should leave. Hopefully, she would still be more then willing to answer any of his questions.

He couldn't stop thinking about the look on Celcine's face when he had sat in front of her. The sheer gall the Dragonblooded woman had. Looking down at him with distaste on her face. He very much wanted to punch her in the face. But that wasn't really in the cards right now. So for now, he was happy with simply trying to create a dress that would fit better in with the high society. He didn't have the skill to make her look foolish. But he could take away at least one way she could look down on him.

Maybe it would open up the way for him to make a few scathing remarks about the woman's own robes.

Cold hummed a little tune as he went to work. Carefully referencing the many sketches he had made. Some from imagination, but others were clearly him taking note of the style of dress common around these parts. Making sure not too many more northern decorations slipped into his design.

"When I first met you, I would never have taken you for a tailor," Cub says - her tone halfway between impressed and incredulous. "Do you have any formal training in that style?"

Cold couldn't help but laugh at the incredulity in her voice. "You're not the first and definitely not the last one to think that. But I always enjoyed making things. Keeps the mind occupied while the storms rage outside the tent. Or if things go wrong on a hunt. It might not seem like much, but being able to keep your clothes in good order keeps you alive up in the North. Fur or not, the cold can bite."

As to the question of his training, he shook his head. "No, the training I was given is mostly by doing and by being shown how to do things. I'm mostly figuring this out as I go." He admitted. "I enjoy the challenge though. It's very different to what I'm usually making. Not just style-wise but also materials."

"I can imagine," Cub says, now clearly more amused than anything else. "What exactly are you making now?"

"Something to wear to the play this evening," Cold says. "I grew a bit tired of what I was wearing, and if I have to play the part of a relation to a dynast. I probably should wear something better then what I have been wearing. That and to make sure that red haired harpy doesn't have any more reasons to look down at me to be honest. Having to deal with her snide remarks was humiliating."

It was pretty clear he was using this to spite Celcine, though it was also very clear he was using the act of making something to mentally armor himself against whatever bullshit Celcine could be spouting. Because he wasn't naive enough a simple upgrade in wardrobe would keep that dragonblooded mouth shut. "So, you have an eye for these things, how am I doing up till now?" He leaned back a bit, so she could have a better look at what he was making and the designs he had sketched.

"Are you more interested in something that looks good for your own sake, or something that speaks to her aesthetics?" asked Cub.

"Hmm, a bit of both?" said Cold I can't stroll up in something that's completely alien to this place. Because that might cause some questions. But something that would fit in a Realm style while also just looking good for my own sake?"

"Remember," started Cub, "that these people haven't changed their tastes for six hundred years, so any contemporary Realm styles you may have seen goes against their customs. What you're looking for is probably something more along these lines," she says and even before she has finished speaking, the deep green dress she was wearing shifts into an elaborate concoction of gold and crimson with far too many layers to allow for practical movement.

Cold blinks in surprise as Cub's dress suddenly shifts. "Now that is something. I didn't know you had an artifact that could shift like that." He paused. "Though that does explain how you have that many changes of clothes around while traveling fairly light." He grimaced at the many layers of the dress Cub was now wearing. Trying to calculate the sheer amount of fabric that would be used in it's construction. "Now I'm wondering how you even move in that dress." Cold stood up from his working spot and circled Cub, eyes on the new style of dress and trying to figure out the construction behind it all.

"Your artifact, does it actually mimic the construction of the clothes you wish to wear? or does it cheat and use magic to keep the new design in place?"

"Very carefully," Cub answers Cold's query. "The clothes are real. The threads are Orichalcum and Moonsilver so it can make things that would not be possible with mundane materials, but this is a copy of a dress I saw in my grandmother's collection."

"The exalted really created some wonders," Cold mused, an idle thought crossing his mind that maybe he would one day be one of them who forged wonders. "Would you mind if I took a closer look at how the dress is constructed? it might help me with my own piece. Though I don't think I could quite copy the design, well, not if I want to be able to walk without tripping over it at least. Or without exhausting all the fabric I have on hand."

"Oh not at all," Cub says, a crooked smile widening on her face, "I've always dreamed of being undressed by the beastfolk's king-in-exile while confined to a small wagon."

"Strangely specific dreams you have Cub," Cold said with a laugh. "But I'm not in the habit of standing in the way of the long held dreams of my compatriots. But you won't have to worry about any wandering hands." Cold promised before he took a closer look at the dress. He even took up a piece of paper and made some sketches of the more complicated looking parts, occasionally asking Cub to show some parts of it off so he could get a better look. "Quite a complicated but intriguing design."

"Specific and numerous," Cub agrees. "I can alter it if you'd like to see something changed, or are interested in other styles. This is hardly the only thing that could be appropriate, merely the most spectacular."

"As amusing the reactions would be if I turned up wearing this. I really don't think I have the amount of fabric for something quite like this." Cold stroked Hidden-Reed's stolen chin. "Something to keep in mind when we arrive at our next destination. Get more fabric, it is quite a striking design." He took a few more sketches and notes. "I'm very much interested in you showing of some more things. Can't go wrong with more inspiration."

Taking stock of the amount of materials he had on hand, Cold concluded that a formal four-layer evening gown of the type Cub had demonstrated would be outside the realm of possibility for the evening. But even though he had decided to mimic the general style of dress of the Realm, he still had a few tricks up his sleeve.

These southerners (which in Cold's mind still was everyone who lived south of the White Sea) were outrageously decadent and wasteful, and would never survive in the northern tundra, where men and women were taught to make do with whatever was on hand. Cold hadn't initially understood why Cub was incredulous at the idea of him being adept with a needle and thread. In the icy steppes, such skills were a matter of life and death: a frayed tent that was improperly mended would rip open in the dead of night to the first midnight blast of wind that came off the mountains, and that was the quickest way to lose a few fingers, or an ear or a tail to frostbite. She had attempted to tactfully explained that in the realm and in most other places she had traveled, the role of making and mending clothing were considered to be inherently feminine, and that there, a man who was capable of any more than shoddily repairing a detached button would be roundly mocked as lacking in male virility. This only fueled Cold's anger: In the north among the tribes of Cold's shattered kingdom, a true man was expected to make and wore his own clothing, and was judged on the quality of his workmanship. To wear something that was not crafted by one's own hand, won in an honorable battle, or inherited from one's father was shameful and cowardly.

Considering his options, Cold instead struck upon another idea. Certainly, there was no way he could directly copy the cascading sheets of translucent embroidered silks that extended down from Cub's sides and down to the ground to ensconce the lower half of her body, their colors mixing together to generate a melange effect of ever-shifting iridescence as she took each step. Flipping his notes to one particular drawing he had doodled, he realized that he could use that design as a base, but achieve a similar effect to the cascading silks through alternative means - it may not be as durable, but it would suffice for the evening. With her blessing, he commandeered Nisalta's guild-issued notebooks from the chest in the wagon, he pulled out the heavy bound stack of extremely thin, translucent, multicolored papers that she had used to record various ledger statements and invoices: It was a strange type of technology that he still didn't fully understand, but by using the notebook in conjunction with a special lead-tipped writing instrument, she was able to write one one normal white sheet of paper and transmit the marks she made through to the three multicolored pages below to produce three exact copies, each one slightly fainter than the last. Cold began disassembling the book, until he had more than enough for his purposes, and then he began the process of binding the edges of the pages of the same color together until he had three broad sheets that he could use cut into various shapes and incorporate into his design.

Working for the next few hours, Cold finally managed to piece together the various elements of the new dress: the fabric he had remaining was used to form the sensual garment that would tightly wrap Hidden's Reed's form, displaying a tasteful amount of skin but ensuring her womanly features were heavily accentuated. Meanwhile, the rose red, sky blue, and lemon yellow tissue paper sheets were interwoven together in a complicated pattern that caused them to entirely evade recognizance as originating with cheap sheets of thin paper - if Cold didn't know better, he would guess they were made of the ripped-off wings of fae, hunted down and slaughtered for having the temerity to intrude into one of Luna's domains. He felt a deep sense of satisfaction at his handiwork, and now was the final step: to try it on.

Cold took a step back of his work. Giving it a final look over for any final mistakes or things he would need to quickly fix before. It had been an ordeal to be honest, and he was glad he had managed to get it all done before they had to go towards the play.

But it was done, and while it was a bit more fragile then he had hoped thanks to his substitution of paper for silk. But it looked amazing to his own eyes. Definitely would be turning a few heads with his craftsmanship here. If Cub was still there, he would give her a warning before he slipped out of his current clothes and started to dress himself.

Hidden-Reed wasn't exactly somebody who turned heads just by walking around. Decent looking enough for a peasant girl, at least in Cold's judgement, but the beastman's lack of poise didn't make things any better, and no matter what Cold did, there was still a sense of ferocity in him.

The dress managed to accentuate Hidden-Reed's features, leaving enough to the imagination to make people wonder without actually showing enough to be indecent. The paper sheets almost shimmered with every movement making her look slightly otherworldly and catching the eyes. If somebody else did something to Hidden-Reed's hair she wouldn't look out of place at a fancy ball at all.
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It would've been an odd sight for everybody that hadn't poked their head into the caravan. Cold had holed himself up in there as soon as they had arrived, only coming out once to badger Nisalta for paper of all things.

They had seen Cold go into the caravan as plain old Hidden-reed. And now hours later. Cold walked out as anything but plain. Wearing a long red dress in the older realm style that was popular around here. Which accentuated Hidden-Reeds womanly features perfectly without showing anything more then a tasteful amount of skin. But the most eye-catching feature were shimmering sheets falling around his lower body, every step Cold took made their colors shift. Lending an almost otherworldly air to him.

Granted, Cold's attempt at a friendly smile was a bit to much on the feral side and his poise was more that of an animal stalking its prey then that of a lady. Ruining the appeal somewhat. But at least Nisalta had taken Cold's usually neglected hair and wrestled it into something that fit with the dress. Her hair done up in a bun with a few locks of hair still framing Hidden-Reed's face.

"So," Cold said as he walked up towards Cub and Warden. "We ready?"

Warden had spent considerably less time on dressing up. His beard was freshly groomed and trimmed and he wore his best shirt, but best in this case paled before a dress fit for high society. He nodded as he looked up, then blinked in surprise when he saw Cold, or rather Hidden-reed. "Hrm, you put a lot of effort into impressing our hosts." He noted, his tone neutral. "Planning something?"

"Last time I spent nearly the entire time sitting in front of Celcine, subjected to her scorn and derision." Cold didn't hide the twitch of his eyes at the thought of that woman. "I thought it was wiser to blow of some steam by working on this then it was on hunting her down and putting her head through a wall in frustration. That and I wanted to show her up in the case she actually attended the play," he offhandedly mentioned. "So no, I'm not planning anything. Why I don't even know what your implying," he joked.

Warden rolls his shoulders in a slow shrug. "I was implying nothing, just curious. Let's hope you kept some energy in case things with Rock turn sour."

Well, that joke didn't land, thought Cold. "Don't worry, I'm more then able to help you put Rock in his place if things turn sour. Just give me a bit of time to show of my craftsmanship. I'm pretty proud of it."


"Calm now, friends," Cub admonishes with a smile, "no need to get too riled up before we meet our hosts. I'm sure they can handle as much of that as is needful themselves." She has held back a little on just what the Shimmering Cloth can do when put to use by her sense of fashion and knowledge of courtly dress in the Realm for long spans of its history so as to not upstage Cold more than is necessary. She can hardly afford to look less impressive than her 'mortal cousin,' but there is no need to go all in every night.

"I believe we are," she answers Cold's original question. "Any sign of our usual escort?"

Cold gestures over towards the street. Pointing their usual escort out. "They've been loitering around at the edge of the compound ever since we entered it."

"Shall we let them know we're ready to be escorted to our destination?" There was amusement in Cold's tone, the very idea that the three of them needed an escort was amusing.

Warden nods. "Let's."

As the sun began to descend, Cub, Cold, and Warden headed out into the city, towards the amphitheater located on the northwest side of town, in sight of the commercial district and approximately midway between Honto's residence and the Town Hall. As always, they were shadowed from a respectful distance by their assigned constables, who mostly looked detached and bored, though dutiful.

Cub, Cold, and Warden eventually arriving at the amphitheater. The courtyard of the compound was like a semi-circular stepped bowl dug into the ground, with benches occupying each row, with an open path in the middle leading down into the orchestra pit, where a dozen or so young-looking musicians, led by an instructor, were tuning their instruments. As the Exalts passing through the arched gateway at the entrance and approached the top of the the long stepped path down to the stage, the lanterns at the perimeter were being lit by teenage stagehands in preparation for the evening's entertainment.

It was clear, however, that this was to be a dress rehearsal in front of a private audience, and not a full performance: there was nobody occupying any of the wooden benches in the audience, and the front of the stage was covered in various pieces of tape and small cards, marking the performer's various cues and locations where they should stand during various scenes, accompanied by the clear, sweet voice of a woman performing her vocal scales. The curtain covering the rear two-thirds of the the stage was still lowered, but they could hear the sound of numerous light footfalls on the wood planks. Towards the bottom of the seating for the amphitheater were two special, roped-off boxes, one to either side of the aisle, each with half-a-dozen plush, high-backed seats rather than the plain benches. Plainly, this is the section for the important members of the audience. In one of the boxes was Honto, Marwin, and Marwin's two granddaughters that Cub had met the night before. In the other box, alone, was Rock.

Without sparing Rock more than a polite smile and nod, Cub heads towards the box with Honto and his family.

There was no way it wouldn't look strange if Cold didn't follow her 'aunt' into the box with Honto. Especially since cold hadn't even said a word to the monk. With an apologetic look at Warden he followed Cub into the box with Honto and his family. Keeping a pleasant smile on her face. It wasn't like Honto was going to talk about potential heresy in the theater right? And if things went horribly wrong in the theater and a fight broke out. well... The jig would be up if Cold assisted, but at that point everything would've fallen in the crack. Cold waited for Cub to break the ice. Acting like a good niece who deferred to her guardian.

Warden split off from the others to head towards Rock's box, which seemed like the obvious thing to do. He took his seat next to the Immaculate, greeting him with a polite nod. "Hmm, I hope we don't make the performers too nervous, showing up at their final rehearsal."

Cub and Cold occupied the final two seats in Honto's box - Cub sat in the front row aside Honto and Marwin, who bowed in proper greeting, while Cold took the available seat in the second row next to Marwin's grandaughters, Tinya and Nadiyo. Cold hadn't officially been introduced to them yet, and they took the opportunity to curtsy in their fine dresses to each of them as they entered the box. Warden followed behind the two of them a respectful distance, before seating himself next to Rock - they spared the formalities, and Rock merely returned Warden's polite nod.

Cold returned the curtsy before sitting down next to the two of them and giving them a smile. "I don't believe we've been introduced yet, I'm Lady Persistent Cub's niece. my name is Hidden-Reed."

"Pleasure" remarked both the girls nearly simultaneously as they craned to examine the dress worn by Cold in Hidden-Reed's form. It was something they hadn't seen before, and they were both somewhat intrigued at its construction. They also clearly were happy to be joined by someone closer to their age and perceived status. "I'm Nadiyo," said the slightly taller of two in a girly voice... "and I'm Tinya" declared the other, without missing a beat. Their speech patterns obviously pointed to a close bond between the two girls. "We're so excited for Lin to finally get the lead this year!" said Nadiyo. Before Cold could process the statement, Tinya added more: "H-T-M! That frussie Linnybells is suuuuch a good singer, I'm so jealous." "Right!" replied Nadiyo.

Honto and Marwin, having made their pleasantries, waited to speak until the chatter behind them between the girls and Cold had died down a bit. Marwin had an obviously less-than-amused expression at his granddaughter's frequent use of, what to Cold, was near-incomprehensible teenage slang, while Honto seemed wryly entertained by Marwin's disapproval.

By way of explanation, Honto leaned over and whispered to Cub: "Lin Euphonious Bell was the undeniable choice for the role of Six Quills in this this year's performance. She is an exceedingly talented vocalist and dancer."

"Quite skilled" Marwin gruffly agreed, speaking of Lin's talent. "The best we've had for generations. She's surpassed all her teachers already." "What's a frussie?" he quietly whispered to Honto a few seconds later, clearly suspicious of this new development in his granddaughters' mode of speech. Honto brushed him off with a shrug and a roll of his eyes.

"Impressive," Cub whispers back appreciatively, "does she come from a long line of talented artists?"

"Lushfield doesn't have talented artists." Honto quietly, but matter-of-factly replied. He continued to whisper: "Lin was raised as a ward in the temple. Her mother was a foolish farmgirl who ran away, hidden in an outbound caravan. She returned two years later, pregnant and addicted to opium. The official story is that she was kidnapped."

"I see," Cub answers and throws a quick glance at Honto to see by the lines of tension in his face if asking about the mother's current whereabouts would be appropriate.

Honto looked - if anything - bored. Glancing at Persistent Cub, he noticed that her face seemed to indicate interest in the story and further explanation: "The opium tremors were too strong for one with child. The mother didn't survive, but the daughter was saved - cut out."

"It's a contentious issue." Honto continued, musing: "Life for her here will be difficult. She can never be a full member of the community. Her breeding is considered unhygienic, you see, and she won't be permitted to marry. If I had my way, I would convoy her to Juche myself and see her enrolled at the Arizei Academy, where her talent can flourish." He glanced over towards Warden and Rock in the other box. "I'd take Rock there as well, to watch over her and to study at the Palace Sublime. He's in his twenty-first year, and has not yet stepped foot outside of our borders."

---

While Cub and Honto spoke, Cold keeps his composure as the two girls break out in excited chatter. Slang that meant absolutely nothing hitting him in the face. HTM? Frussy? It never ceased to amaze him how youth could always find new words for the same things. But he smiled at their reaction to his craftsmanship and made a few movements to show off his work, the paper 'silks' shimmering in the torchlight. "I'm glad you like the dress. I worked hard on it."

"I'll look forward to hearing her sing then, she must be great singer if she can get the two of you this excited." Cold said with a friendly smile. "Though, I'm sorry, what does H-T-M mean and what is a Frussy?" There was a friendly curiosity in his tone. She leaned in slightly closer. A slightly conspiratorial smile on her face as she whispered in a low enough tone that the 'adults' wouldn't hear. "My esteemed aunt never likes me using any words that aren't 'proper' speech." He put in a bit of an eagerness in his voice. Like a young adult who is trying to learn something they aren't supposed to learn about.

---

Meanwhile, in the other box, Rock was looking confusingly at Warden, as if he had just noticed something for the first time. "If you don't mind me being curious," he asked, "what's that you've got in that bundle that's all wrapped up that you're always carrying slung around your shoulder? Another tool of your trade, in addition to the one you've got strapped to your hip already?"

Warden reached back to the bundle over his back, running a hand along it as he nodded. "Yes, you could say that. It is... something reserved for the most worthy causes, the most dire needs. I use this one-" He taps a hand against the blade against his hip. "To scare off bandits and cutpurses and so on."

Rock looked even more keenly at the bundle, shifting in his seat to try and get a better look and puzzle out what could be inside. He was clearly curious: "Is it for... Malignant spirits? Faeries?" He wondered. His voice shifted to a whisper - "Anathema?"

Warden let out a good-natured chuckle at Rock's eager question about his sword. "Faeries, spirits, demons...can't say I've had a chance to use it on any Anathema, though." Technically, that was even the truth. "Why, I could tell you about this time a faerie-" His tale about the stray raksha was cut short by the orchestra and he turned his attention to the stage.

--

Interrupting further inquiries by Cub or Cold (whose keen ears permitted him listen in to the conversation even over Tinya and Nadiyo's twittering), an unseen directive caused the percussionists in the orchestra pit to commence their drumrolls, while a pair of teenage boys began rapidly snuffing out most of the lanterns around the periphery of the amphitheater, dimming the area around the audience and correspondingly emphasizing the bright torchlight around the edge of the stage. Slowly, the curtain began to rise. With a stern look, Marwin glared backwards at his boisterous granddaughters, who finally ceased their half-incomprehensible chatters and giggles.

The backdrop of the stage was an idealized, stereotyped image of the Blessed Isle: an amalgamation of simulacra of various landmarks from different prefectures. The Imperial Mountain lay off in the far distance, what appeared to be the tall main gate of the Imperial City off to one side, and a representation of the Pagoda of Pasiap's Footstep off to the other.

At the center of the stage was a young woman who appeared to be around the same age as Nadiyo and Tinya - the two girls together gave a cheer and a whistle as she was revealed on stage - this must be their "frussy" - Lin Euphonious Bell. She was wearing a quite beautiful, if antiquated sky-blue embroidered dress, carrying a large white goose-feather quill. Her face was whitened with antimony powder, her lips were painted bright red, she had pink eyeshadow under her sharply tapered eyebrows, and her dark hair was ensconced with a matching sky-blue tiara with golden filigree and a dozen blue pearl baubles hanging down. For Cub, Cold, and Warden, who had seen the portrait this morning in the antiquities collection - she seemed the spitting image of Six Quills, the revered founder of Lushfield.

Just as noticeable, however, was the woman at the front of the stage, apparently standing in a recessed area built into the stage so that only her upper body was visible. She faced away from the audience, and towards the actress on stage. She was dressed in a white immaculate robe, and her head was veiled, but shocks of red hairs were still visible around the edges: It was Celcine, who apparently was the director of the play. She was holding a baton in one hand and a book of stage instructions in the other. With an angry expression, she glanced back at Nadiyo and Tinya, the source of the cheers and whistles, shushing them instantly.

Turning back to Lin, Celcine queued her to commence the opening act, and the music began to swell. For those in the audience who had any sense of these things, the orchestra seemed adequate, though the composition was a little simplistic, lacking the complexity one would encounter at a professional performance. Lin was an entirely different story: She absolutely radiated stage presence, and her sweet voice carried through the amphitheater like waters rolling over a pebbled beach. The teenage boys in the roles of General Gias (Six Quills' husband) and the evil Magistrate Xin Zhou Fen (a completely ahistorical individual) tried to keep up, but they were almost shameful in the inadequacy of their performances next to Lin. Yet, as they repeatedly mumbled their lines or missed Celcine's queues, causing her to shake her conducting baton in anger, Lin flawlessly adapted to their mistakes, seemingly like a director in her own right. Somehow, she was simultaneously able to elevate and humiliate their amateurish performances.

The first act eventually drew to a close: Xin Zhou Fen's extortion attempts were rebuffed, his replacement of Six Quills' all-important dispatch of her findings to Her Imperial Majesty the Scarlet Queen with a counterfeit was complete, and he was valorously slain in a (clumsily choreographed) duel with General Gais. There was no choice remaining, proclaimed Lin in her rapturous solo performance in the finale: Her Imperial Majesty was under the influence of corrupt advisors who sought to arrest Gais for phony murder charges, and the true faithful must leave the Blessed Island to somewhere new, one day to return to be its salvation when the time is right.

---

The entire story smelled like reindeer-shit, thought Cold. All important findings of Six quill's replaced by counterfeit? Right, it was much more likely everybody else had seen how shit her theory was and discarded it. And then she and her husband threw a fit and left the blessed isle with a bunch of brainwashed cultists. When he had been king he had commissioned a few songs and plays just like it to paint him in a better light.

But blatant lies aside, the entire thing was delightful. He had to smother his laughter in his sleeve when the 'brave battle' was preformed. Hurriedly playing it of as a cough towards Tinya and Nadiyo. But Lin's sheer stage presence and voice. Luna, that voice. Carried the entire first act alone. And if Honto wasn't talking out of his ass she wasn't even trained that well. So this wasn't even the best she could be? Gears started turning in Cold's head and if Cub looked behind her, she could see greed flash in his eyes. Culture was a powerful tool, it created cohesion and a shared identity, made men and women willing to die for something. And nothing was better to create an identity then through songs and stories.

Cold could use somebody like Lin. To keep up morale with his troops, to spread propaganda among unsuspecting cultures and since he knew there were plenty of rich people with more money then sense, money. If she was properly trained in one of that academy that Honto mentioned. How much would people pay for her to perform? It would be a tidy sum no doubt and even after Lin's cut there still would be plenty to fund some of his own or the rest of the circle's projects. Last time he had found himself without allies because his only income was from raiding. He wouldn't make that mistake twice. And Lin looked like a perfect source of income to start with.

"That was...impressive. That girl has real talent. She could make it far." Warden says, mostly to Rock, since the others are out of range, once the first act ends. As for the play itself, he couldn't say he was impressed, but simplified moral plays and tales were hardly new to him. He knew that to tell a good story and a true story were sometimes different things.

Rock didn't respond to Warden's statement - looking over at him, Warden could see that the man seemed profoundly moved by the performance of the first act - there was a tear running down his cheek, his eyes were vacant, and there was a look of deep conflict or confusion on his face. In that moment, Warden realized just how young Rock was - the shaved head, heavy immaculate robes, and the confidence he carried himself seemed to add years, but in truth the Earth Aspect was not much more than young adult.

Cub applauded along with the other guests in the box when the act is over, having previously gasped at all the right junctions and given every impression of having enjoyed the play. Her eyes, particularly at this last instant, is almost exclusively for Lin. While she is personally no stranger to mortals excelling in a world dominated by the Exalted, this one's performance seems to be just too high to be merely extraordinary talent augmented by rudimentary training. Though it is of course also very possible that her unknown father is a god of one persuasion or another, the girl definitely bore watching.

---

The intermission commenced with a minor scuffle as the curtain seems to malfunction after only descended halfway down the stage, resulting in Celcine storming over to roundly berate someone offstage and threatening all sorts of physical abuse if such a thing were to happen during a real performance. Meanwhile, stagehands worked at breakneck pace to rotate out the Blessed Isle themed scenery with a backdrop more appropriate to the rolling green hills of Lushfield - apparently they had drilled this many times, and it appeared that, unlike the unlucky devil in charge of the curtain, they were going to be able to execute their duties flawlessly. Lin remained standing on stage, sipping at a glass of water and practicing her scales, keeping her voice limber while a woman on her knees and armed with needle and thread examined her costume for any signs of damage that needed emergency repair.

After a few moments, Celcine re-emerged on stage, striding over to Lin. Lin eagerly embraced the Archimandrite/Stage Director, and in response received hushed, but extensive words of of praise and support for her performance in the first act. Apparently, the relationship between the two was very close. A further conversation between the two ensued, and after Celcine gestured offstage, a female immaculate monk - who Cold recognized as the Archimandrite's personal secretary, emerged from offstage carrying a long, dark wooden case inlaid with jade. Cub heard an audible intake of breath from Honto, who was apparently staggered by this development.

Warden, too, was able to detect that Rock seemed to recognize the case, and also seemed surprised at its appearance here.

Lin, to her credit, seemed equally stunned, and held her hand over her mouth in shock as Celcine unlatched the case and cracked opened the lid just wide enough to show Lin what it contained, before snapping it shut again and having her secretary carry the case back offstage. Just in that moment, the berated technician seemed to work out the issue - and the curtain was able to fully descend.

---

While everybody was waiting, Cold's eyes wandered towards the woman who was checking over the costume. The distance was quite far, but with his essence-enhanced eyes he could still get a good enough grasp on how she was moving and trying to get a good grasp on how good of a tailor the woman actually was. Just professional curiosity.

When Celcine embraced Lin and started talking, now that got Cold's undivided attention, leaning slightly closer and tuning out the now chattering teenage girls next to him to try and get a bead on what they were saying. Especially as the Archimandrite's personal secretary walked on stage with something important looking. His mind went overdrive, cutting through idle chatter and background noise with as he hyperfocused on Lin and Celcine's voices. Picking them out from the noise.

Cold evaluated of the seamstress's work: swift and decisive, clearly the woman knew what she was doing with a needle and thread. Whether she could sew tough reindeer hide in the dead of winter while wearing mittens, that was another story. But maybe she could teach Cold a few tricks when it came to the working with finer materials and stitching for aesthetics and not strength alone. How in Creation could were those fancy exotic stitches that looped around and looks like embroidered lacework? It made his head hurt to think about it. He felt the same watching Scales tie those exotic knots when they were traveling up the Yellow river.

But what perked up Cold's attention more was the conversation that was occurring onstage. He attempted to ignore the teenage girls high-pitched ravings to each other and to their grandfather ("Linnybells was soooooo good"), and attuned his ears to the lower frequencies, to attempt to catch the latter half of the hushed whispers between Celcine and Lin - he thought he could puzzle out what was said:

Celcine: I have a wonderful surprise for you! [Celcine motions offstage]. Starting today, and for the actual performances, I've decided that you're not going to use a prop in the second act. You're going to use the real thing.
Lin: I don't understand Auntie? What real thing?

Celcine: The real sword, dear! The actual relic from the temple!

Lin: What? [hand over mouth as she is shown contents of box, indistinct high-pitched sounds (emotionality? crying?)]

Celcine: You've finally earned it, haven't I always told you that you were special? That this is the role you were born to play. Come here, calm down lovely. No, don't cry, its causing your makeup to run [snaps case shut and hands it back to secretary] Here, sit down over there and we'll fix it, then I'll show you how to carry it. It's not heavy." [Curtain drops]

Now that was... interesting. Cold pulled himself out of his focus. the chatter of the two teenage girls washing over him again. He really wanted to talk to her. Not only was Lin an extremely gifted singer. But it seemed like there was a connection between her and Celcine. A very close one as well if Celcine was willing to entrust her with the original sword of Six-Quills.

Cold honestly hadn't thought the shrew Celcine was capable of anything that wasn't selfish lust or petty jealousy. Maybe she had enough depth and warmth to her that he could upgrade her from bitch to cunt. Then again, it could be a cruel plot to humiliate Lin because she dared to be more important tot he production then her skills as a director. could go both ways to be honest. When the teenage ravings lulled slightly, Cold jumped back into the conversation. Plastering excitement and giddiness on hidden-reed's face. Which wasn't hard, the performance had been magnificent to his, admittedly untrained, eyes.

"She's amazing," Cold gushed. "When you two were talking about how good she was, I thought you were exaggerating a little bit because you're good friends. But she was even better then what you two led me to believe!" Cold gave a quick glance towards the 'adults' seated in front of them and lowered his voice. "Do you think you could sneak me in backstage? I mean, I really wanna meet her in person! Give her my thanks and tell her she's the best actress and singer I've ever had the pleasure of seeing." Which wasn't saying much, since he came from a beastfolk tribe from the cold icy wastes to the north. But as far as they knew, Hidden-Reed was from the isle itself, which sounded much more impressive.

Tinya and Nadiyo both grew mischievous smiles at the idea of sneaking backstage with their new friend after the play. "Okay, but you have to promise not to say anything to embarrass us" said Nadiyo. "Once everyone sees her perform the real thing in a few days, Lin's definitely going to be the most popular girl in the whole town" added Tinya, who continued - "And like, you don't even live here, so don't be telling everyone that you were the first to sneak backstage after her performance." "Yeah, that was totally our idea, we should get the credit." said Nadiyo.

"Of course not," Cold matched their mischievous smiles with one of his own. "If anybody asks me all they'll be hearing is how daring the two of you were for coming up with the idea." Cold had no problem with letting the teenage girls bask in the popularity of their peers, he didn't care for that.


---

"The Archimandite seems deeply invested in the play," Cub observes to her hosts. "Is this part of her religious duties or a more personal project?" "And I can't help but wonder, what is in that case?"

Honto seemed to have a look in his eye as he listened to Cub's question. With the girls in the row behind them tittering away, he apparently felt safe enough to discuss these matter: "Personal," he replied. "Entirely personal."

"I can't recall a single time the woman paid attention to the arts, and she's never cared for the traditions of the planting festival. No, this has to do with the sensitive matter we discussed last night, and also with that girl, Lin. She was raised by the monks in the temple, and the appearance of that case seems to clarify much. Tell me, Persistent Cub, do you think that an idea can have more power than any single man or woman?"

"Not more than her Majesty, but certainly more than most," Cub answers, drawing the line from Honto's look to his words and tone. Here as last night, it is crucial to understand not mere what he is and is not saying, but also what he is almost saying.

Meanwhile, the gears in Cold's brain were turning as Honto mentioned Celcine's utter lack of interested in the arts or the traditions to do with the planting festival. But how her sudden interest had something to do with the current events. Aka, Celcine's complete and utter belief that there was a place for them back on the blessed isle. No doubt Celcine's sudden interest in the arts was nothing but a blunt attempt at propaganda. Coupled with how Celcine had mentioned that she felt like being here was like playing in the mud and how everybody around Lushfield were mere barbarians. He really wondered how much of Celcine's affection towards Lin, whose blood was intermingled with non-lushfield bloodlines, was real. Maybe there was something there he could use to get a grip on Lin's talent, Cold supposed.

Honto raises an eyebrow at Cub's statement, perhaps grasping more of her meaning than she intended to convey. "More than most, assuredly, barring her Majesty, of course. Though in these strange times, I hear some in the Isle even consider the Empress to now only be an idea as well, and maybe even the same could be said of the Realm. Certainly our 'True Majesty' lark has to remind you of that. It's must seem to you like we're talking about an entirely different person that lived six hundred years ago."

"Some ideas are certainly stronger than me, I think." Honto whispers. "This place, Lushfield is an idea as well, and my cousin Celcine up there intuitively knows how to be its master. She is perfectly naive, and that is her greatest strength. Our people are toddlers and these walls that surround us are a cradle. She will mold that girl Lin into her standard bearer, I suppose. She'll put a glorious flaming sword in her hand and declare her a virgin-born miracle child, destined to guide our people back to the promised land. Watch this next act carefully."

"She should be a virtuoso, one of the greats." Honto passionately whispers to Cub. "But because of this mad idea that's stronger than I am, she'll be forgotten, dead in a field in Arjuf before her twentiest year. Every one of those boys you see up there will cheerily die alongside her. We can still save her - we can save all of them." As Honto spoke, a dim aura around him began to faintly glow as he exerted the wiles of subtle social influence upon Cub.

"And we should," Cub agrees readily, "you are absolutely right. Letting her talent go to waste would be a not merely a tragedy, but a dereliction of our duty to Creation itself." Though Cub does believe her words, she knows well that they are what Honto wants to hear, and thus she makes sure to add just a tad more passion and a tad more conviction than she truly holds in her heart. Surely, if he believes her to do his bidding, there will be nothing stopping him from telling her all.

"I cannot help feeling sorry for her," Cub continues, tilting her head slightly to take in Honto as well as Lin as she speaks, "she is just an extraordinarily talented girl and here she is thrown into the sea of politics like the most perfectly-carved unwitting pawn. And instead of a raft, Celcine gives her a case that makes everyone here assembled look as if she really were Six-Quills come again." As she says those last words, her eyes fall squarely on Honto, compelling him to elaborate.

Honto sighed. "The case contains one of a matched pair of Short Daiklaves that belonged to the founders. The prop you saw in the first act is meant to be the one wielded by the General, called Pale Defender, and it was buried with him. The other is called Lovely Resonator was carried by his wife, and ever since has been a relic of the temple. The popular legend goes that it shall only be wielded by her chosen true-hearted champion when the time finally comes to return to the Blessed Isle."

"And Celcine is giving it to her to wield in the play?" Cub asks with surprise creeping into her voice, "the people cannot help seeing that as a sign.

"Can she even wield it properly," she ponders aloud, "I've my share of eager young mortals trying to lift a Daiklave with only embarrassment and laughter to follow. Unless of course Lin is not entirely mortal," she speculates, her eyes once more piercing into Honto.

"I believe that is exactly her intention," responded Honto, "and why there is so much urgency in the timing of my proposal. The festival is in five days. If we do not act before that, I doubt the people's passions could ever be restrained. There is another part of the legend, you see, that shall come into play after the deed is done. The false-hearted are warned against using the blade for unworthy purposes, for they shall be struck down by their own hubris. And as for her ability to lift the damned thing, I suspect that's why we're seeing it brought out now, at the rehearsal."

"Besides her obvious talent as a performer, has she shown any other extraordinary abilities before?" Cub asks as she looks back to Lin.

The steady drumroll of the orchestra commenced as Cub finished speaking her question, queuing the beginning of the second act. Honto had a slightly sarcastic tone as he hurriedly whispered to Cub: "Well, she weaned off the dream tar better than her mother."

---

Meanwhile, in the other box, Rock's reaction to the case was not lost on Warden, who decided that the most straightforward path may as well be the correct one. "What's in that box? By her reaction, that's not exactly something she expected."

"I still could be mistaken," replied Rock to Warden, "but I think I've seen that case before. I believe it holds a relic of the Temple, rarely displayed, but important to our - culture - I suppose you could say. It's important in the second act, but at least in all past performances I've seen, an obvious simulacra is used, and certainly never the real thing."

A few moments later, Rock spoke up offhandedly. "It just feels very strange, you know." Rock says to Warden. "Lin and I were both raised in the temple together. She's always been like my little sister. But seeing her on the stage, dressed up like that, completely in her element... it's just... Wow."

Warden nods at Rock's words. "It's great to see the heights people can aspire to, the hidden depths they reveal. I'm sure she was stunned when you took your second breath as well."

"I was ordained to the faith in my ninth year, and I supposed Lin must have been in her fourth." Rock explained. "I was a third born child, you see. We are rare here, because under the charter us thirdborns cannot expect to inherit - an older sibling must predecease both parents without first having children of their own. Many of us go into the faith. The temple gives us meaning, a family, more real than the one I had before. It still is my family, is a lot of ways, and Lin was part of that." He smiled in remembrance. "One day, I was fourteen, and suddenly everything changed. I couldn't just be a simple temple boy anymore. Seeing Lin up there, though, brings back a lot of happy memories."

"We are alike in a lot of ways." Rock added. "You said you grew up in a temple as well. How old were you when you pledged yourself?"

Warden fully turns to Rock now, warring with some conflicting emotions, what he knew about the young man conflicting with the kinship he was starting to feel for him. "You are right, Rock. We do have much in common." His eyes wander through the room as he thinks back to his own youth. "I was fifteen then, I believe. No social expectation pushed me to it. Rather, I thought it was a worthwhile cause to dedicate my life to-" His hand twitches, as he resists the urge to touch the covered sword on his back as he hears the drumroll commence for the second act.
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The curtain rises for the second act. The beginning is a crowd-pleasing, jingoistic affair - Gais and Six Quills and their followers, having 'discovered' a virgin land of plenty across the sea and far beyond the reach of the corrupt advisors misleading Her True Majesty, proceed to violently evict its savage residents. It must be admitted that the practical effects behind the actors' violently flaring 'Anima banners' are quite impressive as the extras are smote two and three at a time. "This is the always the best part" whispered Nadiyo to Cold. It is decided to name the place Lushfield.

After a good half-hour of (remarkably well choreographed) violence, the tone of the performance shifts to a more somber affair. Lin's 15-foot high crane stance leaps (even if aided by obviously visible wires and pulleys) were incredibly graceful, and the way her foot always seemed to connect with the extra's chest perfectly in time with the thunderous boom of the kettle drum never seemed to get old. Alas: in the wake of their glorious victory to claim Lushfield, General Gais was tragically dying, a result of a lingering wound from his duel in the first act. "I always fell asleep during this part when I was younger" Tinya confesses.

Lin in the role of Six Quills exchanged vows of eternal love with her dying husband on stage. "This is new." Honto quietly remarked when Lin, in a prostrate position expressing her grief, took to her feet as the orchestra swelled. Apparently in a new creative decision, Celcine had decided to convert the historically boring monologue into an epic love ballad. Lin's powerful voice resonated with soul as she declared her eternal affection for not just her husband, but for all of their people, hitting every high note with perfect pitch and tone, with Celcine coaxing with her baton, encouraging Lin to reach ever higher and hold her notes longer. Tinya and Nadiyo were sobbing halfway through the song, and even the normally steadfast Marwin's eyes were wet.

The music slowly faded away into near-silence, until nothing but the somber plucking of the single string of a musical instrument remained. "This is a wondrous land we have created, and it will nurture us and give us strength, but it is not our home" declared the dying General Gais. "One day, perhaps many centuries from now, Her True Majesty will need our people to return to the blessed land to wipe out the corruption and restore her to the rightful place of glory." The actor exaggeratedly coughed in a caricature of one's final moments. "Take my swords, and ensure that they are wielded by one that is worthy of leading our people back to the blessed land when the time has come."

"I cannot bear it!" Lin cried out in agony. "I cannot take both from you. Please do not argue with me - one shall accompany you into the afterlife. I will have it buried aside you in the soil of this new land we have discovered. Our people live in beacon of light surrounded by darkness, and they will go through many tribulations. Your spirit will be called upon to defend them, so you must be armed! The other will be used to restore Her True Majesty back to glory. When its mission is complete, she will kiss it, and it will be buried on the side of the Imperial Mountain. One blade buried in the soil of Lushfield, and the other in the Imperial Mountain, and they will link the two lands forever together."

Lin bent over to kiss the forehead of her expiring husband, who solemnly closed his eyes in eternal sleep. "My fondest desire is for us to be swiftly reunited" she exclaimed to the audience. "But before that, I will ensure our people are bound to this glorious mission." She reached down behind the mattress the actor playing her deceased husband lay upon, and with apparent laborious effort, lifted the General's red jade Short Daiklave above her head for all to see.

The spotlight raised up to illuminate the blade, which glowed with the fury of the Immaculate Dragons. The band swelled with triumphant music. It was unmistakable: this wasn't a prop - it was very much the real thing, and its intricate carvings and inlaid gems scattered the bright stagelights across her dress and the backdrop behind her like a hundred miniature mirrors. Merely lifting even a mundane sword should not have represented much difficulty even for a teen girl on the verge of womanhood, but it was apparent that she was not used to carrying an object of this (actual or metaphorical weight), and a small bead of sweat ran down her forehead for the first time during the whole performance, imperceptibly smearing her white makeup. With Celcine's encouragement, she continued holding her proud pose through the instrumental, and before finally the lights dimmed, and the curtain finally descended in time with the orchestral finale.

Nadiyo and Tinya quickly leapt to their feet in applause, wiping the tears from their eyes in a ladylike fashion with their handkerchiefs. Marwin, Honto and Rock were not far behind, though Honto and Marwin's applause somehow seemed less unrestrained in praise for the content of the performance, and more for its quality itself. An audience of less than a dozen, however, was not a roaring crowed, but at least the applause continued through the final bow of the cast as they returned on stage to pay their respects to the audience, along with Celcine, who made sure she took the final, longest bow, as if to claim final credit for the whole performance.

---

Cold paid rapt attention to the play, eyes glued to the theater. The storyline was contrived and obvious propaganda, but aside from that the play was actually... very good. Especially the fights! They were obviously fake, but that only added to the spectacle and the effects, the gust of winds, the booming sounds of the orchestra that swelled in the right moments. Cold was completely sucked into the performance.

Cold's disappointment was easily seen on his face as the fights wound down and the death scene began. Tinya's confession of how she fell asleep during that part not really getting his hopes up. And then Lin started to sing, and that feeling was smashed to pieces. Lin's performance dragging him into an emotional journey that somehow made him care about the death of a long dead figure he never met and the sorrow of a woman who was likewase long forgotten and who was probably at least slightly insane.

The words Honto had said to Cub rang through his head. That if Celcine got her way, she would probably be dragged kicking and screaming into a war she wasn't ready for. Her talent sacrificed for some naive and impossible dream. He couldn't let that happen.

He wiped his eyes, trying to mimic Tinya's and Nadiyo's ladylike gestures before joining in with the applause. "That was brilliant" Cold whispered to the teenage girls. "Absolutely brilliant, did she write that love ballad?"

Despite the heart-wrenching tones of death and fruitless love in the play, Cub finds herself smiling at the quality of the performance rather than being gripped by the emotion. She has seen too much on greater stages both literal and figurative for her heart to be moved by this story. Lin's skill, however, is another thing entirely and she is quite thoroughly engrossed by the young actress's every move. "The performance is clearly stronger for it," Cub answered Honto's remark, "any move that gives Lin more room on stage is a good thing for this play, though perhaps not for her fellows."

When the play is done, she applauds enthusiastically and rises with the others. Standing there looking down on the stage, her attention is once more drawn to Lin and this time the reason is twofold: To see where her attention is - who among the crowd does she care for? And to make the other see her. After all, making Lin curious about her is the first step to getting her out of this place and into something better.

Given the limited audience, the volume of the cheers and applause Lin received as she retook the stage was impressive. If this had been a packed house, the place would absolutely be roaring right now. Cub keenly followed the actress's eyes as she took her bows. Just who was the girl trying to impress up there - who's attention and approval did she crave? Sure, the girl made a deep formal curtsy in the direction of Honto and Cub's box, as was certainly required and expected of her, and made a quick little wave to Tinya and Nadiyo to acknowledge them as as they screamed their silly nickname for her. But her gaze merely drifted over them with the barest acknowledgment, and instead she was focused to the other side of the audience - looking at the box occupied by Warden and Rock. The girl's emotions were worn on her sleeve in that moment, as her red-painted lips quivered in expectation. To a master manipulator like Cub, Lin's could be read like an open book: The only thing the girl cared about, in this very moment, was what Rock thought of her performance.

Cold, even with the distance between them, could easily make out the myriad of emotions running through Lin, each twitch and movement of her body as easily read as a book. And Lin cared only about one thing right now. what did Rock think? Cold quickly glanced over towards the other box,Trying to catch the younger dragonblood's reaction.

Warden had seen many pieces of propaganda in his time, many twisted tales of justice and manifest destiny, so the play, no matter how masterfully executed, really should not have moved him as it did. And yet move him it did all the same. For a moment he was swept up in it all, feeling for the loyal Lushfielders and their struggle. It passed, of course, but it left behind a lingering admiration for Lin, enough to make him enthusiastically join the growing applause.

Piercing the stoic temperament of Attenuating Rock, a chosen blessed with the blood of dragons and pledged to the Immaculate Order, represented a much taller task than reading the body language of an emotionally drained teenage actress. Nevertheless, a Celestial is capable of moving heaven and hell. Cold and Cub took different approaches to the same task.

Cold, though in the guise of a young woman, was still at his core a man of action, and thus was prone to judging men as men must do: through the lens of physical competition. Underneath the white robes and shaved head of a sworn immaculate, Cold saw there was a man there, and Rock was, in many respects, the pinnacle of one - tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, young, and handsome. In another place, a man like that would command respect from other men, and the adoration of women. It was no wonder that an older women like the Archmandrite Celcine (attractive as she was, though a little bony for Cold's taste) had staked her claim to him as an object of physical lust, twisting him around her finger. And yet, in that moment as he applauded Lin's performance, Cold detected in Rock not the swagger of a man, but the insecurity of a boy: self-doubt, nervousness, and shame.

Meanwhile, Cub had no use for such macho posturing, and perceived the heart of the matter through pure brute intuition: Lin's performance had clearly awaken in Rock some strange blend of feelings, likely of a complicated psychosexual nature that were plainly incompatible with a life pledged to an Immaculate Temple, and the poor man was desperately trying to suppress them.

"You see now," Honto whispers to Cub as both stood to give continued applause. "Why the deed must be done before the actual performance in three days time, if only for the poor girl's sake."

"I see that doing it after would be fruitless," Cub responds, "but I see also how close the two of them are. Doing the deed, as you say, would surely crush her spirit, and it is that spirit that raises her performance so high above her fellows. Furthermore," she adds, now turning her head ever so slightly towards Honto, "do not presume that I am your cats paw, such arrogance is unbecoming in a man like you."

As the applause finally dies down after the final bows have been taken and the actors and actresses clear the stage, a few stagehands emerge to begin relighting the lanterns that ring the amphitheater, signaling the end of the performance. Tinya and Nadiyo sneak out of the box with their new friend Hidden Reed, and guided her through an inconspicuous door which presumably leads backstage.

Honto, meanwhile, responds to Cub's stinging retort: "I do not presume as such - I merely hoped you were a like-minded patron of the arts. Is not appreciation of the refined things what separates the base instincts from nobility?" Honto probed for another angle to get what what he wanted from Cub. "And was it not the great Xian-Tu who remarked that true artistic talent is only forged in the crucible of tragedy and pain? Come, they have the right idea - he pointed to the three girls sneaking backstage. Meet the girl, and examine her noble spirit yourself, see if it will be crushed or driven to new heights."

Cold couldn't keep the smile of his face as he followed Tinya and Nadiyo out of their theater box. His eagerness to meet Lin and a little bit of hope that he could rub some salt in whatever wounds he could find in Celcine clear on his face.

Celcine was really.. puzzling him. She must know how dangerous her entire venture was to join the realm in a civil war. She must've known how likely it would be for Lin to end up bleeding out on some unknown battlefield. Was she blinded by naivety or did she simply see Lin as a useful tool? Or did she know about Rock having feelings, deeply buried yes but feeling's nonetheless, and was she planning on that? He needed to get to the bottom of this. Though to be honest, Cold was wondering if they couldn't ask Lin as part of the payment for removing Celcine.

"I have a deep appreciation for the arts," Cub answers now all smiles again despite her distaste for Honto which is beginning to become personal rather than merely racist, "but perhaps we do not see it in precisely the same light. We must acknowledge that despite how you have kept the spirit of the Blessed Isle alive here in the Threshold, the Isle itself has changed substantially in the intervening centuries."

"Come then, let me introduce you personally to the talented Lin Euphonious Bell." Honto stands up and cordially offers a bent elbow to Cub. Marwin also stands, preparing to trail behind them in the role of the retainer.

"Thank you," Cub answers and gracefully takes his arm, "I would appreciate it. And let me also thank you for inviting me to see this, it has truly been a delight."

---

Honto, smug in his success at receiving Cub's expression of gratitude, led Cub through the same side door previously taken by Cold, through a narrow twisting hallway, to the room where Lin was seated in front of a mirror, busy removing her makeup. Next to her were Tinya and Nadido, both so effervescent in their praise for Linnybells, their absolute best friend in the whole wide world, that Cold had not had the opportunity to even get a word in edgewise. Noticing the entry of Cub and Honto, however, they finally ceased their chattering. "Oh!" squeaked Lin, surprised at the unexpected guests.

"My dear Lin," said Honto, "this is Persistant Cub, a Dynastic Lady visting from the Blessed Isle, who was in the audience for your performance tonight, and her niece, er, Hidden Reed. They insisted on meeting you. Remember the place in Juche I was telling you about, the Arizei Academy? The Noble Lady was just telling me how she had seen many of its graduates perform in the great theaters of the Imperial City, and I'm sure you have many questions for her."

Cold gave a respectful nod as Honto introduced her. A pleasant smile on his face. "I just had to meet you, your performance was like nothing I saw before." Cold let Lin herself take her conclusions from that statement. He then waited for his 'aunt' to talk.

Lin smiles slightly at Hidden-Reed's flattering praise, gratefully acknowledging it with a meek "thank you so much, you're too kind," but the performer doesn't allow herself to give in to the vice of pride or vanity.

Cub smiles pleasantly and gives Lin a nod of greeting as she observes her odd interaction with Cub's 'niece'. What kind of budding young actor does not like being praised?

"It's not just kindness," Cold said, honesty plain in his voice. "It was a wonderful performance. Even the Vice-Archimandrite was impressed and touched by it." Cold had seen how her eyes had been glued to Rock as she took her bow. Eager to know how he had felt. But at that distance it might've been hard for a mortal to see his face. "Did you write that song yourself?" Cold's senses were wide open and took in Lin's reaction. Divinely fueled senses attempting to get a read on her.

Cub watched Lin's reaction as her two 'friends' Tinya and Nadiyo continued to chat her up. Cub eventually was able to understand the dynamic in play: Lin was still acting. This was a girl raised in a temple as an orphan, a charity case, a nobody. Her talents probably only blossomed in the past two or three years, and now the two most powerful teen girls in town (the Seneschal's grand-nieces themselves) maneuver themselves to be her best friends? Cub knew intimately how nasty the politics of popularity could be in the world of teen girlhood. Two girls like these, privileged since birth, and falling over themselves to ingratiate themselves with the beautiful swan? Cub suspected Tinya and Nadiyo never deigned to spare a kind word for Lin back when she was the proverbial ugly duckling. No, Lin was used to receiving praise from inauthentic people who only wanted to be her friend for the clout, and had learned that it was better to remain polite but distant, rather than becoming emotionally invested only to be disappointed.

At Cold's mention of the Vice-Archimandrite enjoyment of her performance, however, Lin's eyes grew wide for the briefest moment, and authentic joy flashed over her face, before her natural poise as both an actress and a disciplined and modest temple-raised girl reasserted itself. "Well... it was the Archimandrite's idea." Lin stated humbly. "I just helped with the melody, and some of the words." Cold wasn't a musician, but he wasn't sure what remained of a song after the melody and the words.

Cold paused for a bit, visibly trying to figure out what else there was to a song but the words and melody. Or if this was just Celcine dragging all the glory towards her and forcing others to bow their head with enforced humility to keep them from speaking up about it. "I don't know much about music I'm afraid," Cold said, an apologetic smile on Hidden-Reeds face. "But I'll be sure to give credit where credit is due when I see the Archimandrite next. She must be a natural then, Lord Honto mentioned earlier she hasn't participated like this in plays before."

He was sure it would piss Celcine off to no end if he gave her some backhanded compliments and mostly implying the quality of the performance was not due to her efforts, but to Lin's efforts, talent and training. He glanced over at Tinya and Nadiya, giving the two teenagers some actual attention for the first time he walked backstage.

It is practically impossible for the others to tell, but the smile that comes to Cub's face when she realizes why the young woman is less than enthused at Cold's praise is more genuine than any other she has offered the citizens of Lushfield. How old was she herself when she stopped believing in praise? Younger than Lin, certainly, but that is hardly a strike against the aspiring actress - few pits of vipers compare to the Spiral Academy after all.

"I have indeed seen performers from Arizei as well as other fine institutions on the Isle perform, and I have no doubt that if you put in the effort, you will be able to gain acceptance. I don't believe I've ever seen a more talented actor in the Threshold," she says with a smile that is now somewhat condescending. If Lin doesn't want flattery, Cub is more than happy to provide insults to rile her up. "And I would be happy to tell you about them, either now or when you've had time to refresh yourself form the rigors of the stage."

Lin's lips, with the bright red costume makeup freshly removed, broke into a smile at Cub's half-compliment, half-challenge. The girl (and without the makeup, it was clear that she was still in many ways still a girl) clearly hadn't grown up in the soft and comfortable environs of her two friends, or Cub herself. Despite her unnatural grace on the stage, she had the markers of a youth spent at labor. Underneath the costume and face paint, her skin was tanned and freckled, and her fingers bore the callouses of a childhood of sweeping, cleaning, and pulling weeds. Cub had apparently struck a useful lode: what motivated the girl wasn't praise or a desire to be accepted by her peers, or to please those in power and achieve a high station in life. Rather, Cub perceived within Lin a vein of rebellion and maybe even a little spite and ambition. The actress was driven to succeed in order to prove people wrong.

It seemed that whatever Cub was saying had more of an impact then anything Cold had said. Which honestly, did kinda make sense. She had a better grasp on how most people ticked then he did. Cold 's social graces were mostly tailored to a more tribal or warfare setting. Both places which were much more straightforward. As far as he had been concerned anyway. Cold simply hung back. keeping his eyes and ears open for anything interesting while Cub dealt Lin.

"I'd like that" replied Lin softly, clearly expressing her deference to the high-status visitor. "Is it true that there's there more than one school for acting on the Island? The Seneschal's only told me about the one, in Juche. Are they hard to get into?" Honto stood by silently, a bit disengaged and out of place surrounded by the five women (Cold included) all talking about Lin's performance. Meanwhile, the faint echoes of Celcine berating unseen crewmembers and actors for various minor deficiencies and miscues could be heard.

"Coming from Lushfield, it can be hard to understand just how many people live on the Blessed Isle," Cub answers, "but yes, there are several schools aimed at several kinds of people and of arts. As well as a multitude of old masters who will take on apprentices. The Arizei Academy in Juche is properly a dynastic secondary school which happens to focus on the arts in various capacities. Most students there start somewhat younger than you and have to learn a lot of things that have nothing to do with acting."

Lin looked a bit nervously towards Honto - apparently she hadn't been well informed about the peculiars of the school he had suggested to her? "Would it... still be okay for me to go there then?" she asked, the question seemingly directed at both Cub and Honto, slightly panicked. "Since I'm not a dynast, I mean, and I'm too old? And I don't mind learning other things too" she quickly added - "you know I like singing and dancing and learning new songs to play on the the guqin too. What else would I have to learn?"

Cold glanced into the direction of Celcine's voice. A hint of irritation flashing over Hidden-Reed's face and Cold's opinion of Celcine's competence was taking a steep nosedive and ended up underground. He honestly pitied the people who worked under her. He'd seen her kind before. If Honto's comments about her had been correct. The woman knew next to nothing about the arts. But here she was, demanding perfection from amateurs and shoving all the blame of every mistake and miscue onto them instead of taking a look at herself. It had been the same at the dinner. Instead of doing something herself she had shoved somebody else in the line of fire to do it for her.

Cub replied to Lin's question: "I did not attend the Arizei Academy myself, so I know it only by reputation, but as I understand it the curriculum would also include the history of the Realm and the genealogy of the Great Houses, the etiquette befitting a Patrician or Dynastic lady, and calligraphy, as well as less formal instruction in how to convince people to see your way. It is primarily attended by members of House Nellens, and in order to get in, a suitable donation should probably find its way into their coffers. If you were travelling in the company of a Prince of the Earth willing to be adopted into the House, that would also certainly make them more willing to admit you despite you being an unschooled mortal foreigner and somewhat older than is their custom."

She regards Lin silently for a few moments before continuing, "however, if your wish is to dedicate yourself to the stage, that would not be my recommendation."

Cub noticed a slight nod and a flicker of a smile cross Honto's face when she mentioned that 'a suitable donation' would likely convince the rectors of the Arizei Academy to admit her. Before Lin had a chance to respond, he interjected: "In fact, Miss Euphonious Bell, I began making preliminary inquiries on your behalf months ago with the rectors. They're very intrigued by your talent, and arrangements will be made so that you won't need to worry about money or anything that would distract you from your studies while you're there." Lin looked thoughtful for a moment, then replied to Cub: "What do you mean by that, Lady Cub? Is there somewhere better I should go if I want to be a great actress?" Honto's eyes and lips slightly narrowed as Lin pursued this line of questioning.

"The Arizei Academy is first and foremost an institution for educating dynastic courtiers, and while being a skilled artist is an admirable and desirable trait in dynastic courtiers, it is not their primary focus nor are they the best artists," Cub answers simply. "And while I hate to speak ill of young people who will one day help shape the Realm's future, I know from my own time in secondary school that the amount of petty cruelties and bullying that goes on in such institutions are a fright to behold," she adds sadly. "On a rather happier note, let me say that the best artists I have had the pleasure of seeing were educated at the House of Flowers that Bloom by Starlight, in the city of Pangu on the northern shore of where the Imperial River meets the Inland Sea. Their aim is simply stated: To bring joy and wonder to the finest gatherings in the Realm and indeed in all Creation. They educate actors, musicians, dancers, poets, acrobats, singers, and anything else that may delight and terrify a captive audience."

Honto eyed Cub as she told Lin about the House of Flowers. For an innocent girl like Lin, the mentioned of Pangu City meant almost nothing, but to Honto, the fact that the school just so happened to be the center of the ancestral homeland of House Cynis piqued his interest. Was this a signal from Cub that she viewed Lin as a bargaining chip that she wanted to negotiate for in exchange for rendering the services that Honto had requested of her? They would have to discuss the topic later, for in that moment, before Lin had a chance to respond, Celcine finally stormed into the room in a flurry of activity. "You were marvelous, Lin!" she cried out, shoving Cold aside as if she didn't even notice Hidden Reed was there, and embracing the star of her show. "Simply outstanding!"
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Meanwhile, for the moment, Warden and Rock remained alone in the audience of the amphitheater. It seems that the promised time had come, when the two could speak privately with each other regarding Warden's concerns about the gods.

Warden took a deep breath, centering himself for what's to come. "Rock. We meant to speak in private. Now seems as good a time as any." He began, addressing the monk, his tone serious. "You spoke before, about how you wished you could go out and hunt down wickedness. Tell me, was that just an idle wish, or something you are passionate about? "

As he continued, his words become more passionate, the fire of conviction burning in his eyes.

"If you really hope to do good and stop evil, then where you are matters far less than you think. What matters, what truly matters-" He rests a hand on Rock's shoulder. "-is recognizing it wherever it crops up and taking swift action against it. It is one thing to talk about doing good and stopping wickedness, to daydream about it. So tell me, Rock. Do you want to sit by idly, allow evil to happen by simple inaction, or act? Act and be the man I think you want to be?"

"It's always more complicated than that," replied a frustrated Rock, unsure about where the conversation was headed. "They make it sounds so simple when you're a child, you know. You put on a white robe and fight on the side of heavenly-ordered goodness. I'm sure they told you the same thing. Sure, anyone can say that you should fight evil whereever it can be found, who can argue with that? But you imagine there's a demon host carrying black banners just across the river, proclaiming their devotion to hell, and all you have to do is ride out and defeat them, and that's just not how it works." Rock was beginning to get agitated. "Sometimes evil feels like..." he looked down with an expression of shame, "...something to be fought within ourselves. You know, Honto once told me me a few years ago he didn't believe in good or evil at all - imagine that."

"A convenient thing for him to tell himself, I'm sure." Warden says a bit harshly. "But there undoubtedly are good and bad actions, wicked and worthy deeds. I think we both believe that. As for evil within ourselves, I don't find thoughts or feelings to be nearly as harmful as actions. Or inaction, as the case may be. We cannot help how we feel, Rock. But we can control how we act, what we do with whatever power, whether great or small, fate and circumstances have entrusted us with." Warden thought back to what he saw of Rock during the play, when his emotions were stirred by the excellent performance before them, when the monk's self-control cracked and everything was laid bare.

"I've read the epistle of Fei Bu on wicked and worthy deeds too - memorized it when I was twelve." Rock tried to put on a stoic expression again, with a thin smile. "She leaves the question unanswered though - of whether an action can be both wicked and worthy - if you understand me."'

"It is said to lie is always a wicked deed, but how can that be so if the lie is in service of a worthy goal, and to tell the truth would cause pain and suffering and shame? These are the questions that you will find when you set out and try and take swift action against evil." Rock smiled. "Sometimes to do nothing may be the only answer, for in neither lying nor telling the truth, you may avoid the wickedness of either."

Warden shook his head. "No, those are the questions dreamt up by scholars in their high towers, who have never seen true evil, or fought with anything but a stern word, who construct elaborate what-ifs that might never take place. How about we talk about a far more concrete case, Rock?" He double-checks that no curious member of the audience has crept close enough to overhear before he continues. "Like an Archimandrite of the Immaculate order manipulating prayer calendars to guarantee a god far more worship than is proper. What good could possibly come from not exposing such an act? How is silence justified in this case, can you tell me that?"

Rock struggled to respond, evidently staggered for a moment, before somewhat regaining his composure. He began to tremble ever so slightly, as it was clear that Warden's statement had tweaked him deeply. The smooth skin on his shaved head began to wrinkle and grow cracked and chalky. "And what would you know? You're a hired sword that professes no principles at all, presuming to lecture me on right and wrong? I'm tired of being told what to do and how to think and behave by people who haven't done a useful thing in their lives. Who have you ever helped besides yourself? I see your sleight of hand, you first say that hypothetical questions are useless, then you make up one of your own. What game are you playing at?"

Warden's keen sense for discerning motives told him that Rock wasn't taking this conversation well at all. The young man was clearly emotionally vulnerable and internally conflicted. Most of all, Rock really just seemed to want a friend he could confide in, one who wouldn't judge him or treat him like a child, and apparently he thought Warden could have been that friend. Applying further pressure or judgment to the already ashamed young man was likely to drive him away or cause him to snap.

Warden frowns when he sees just how agitated Rock gets over his words, his hostility. He raises his hands in a calming gesture. "Rock, please. I'm not trying to hurt you. I'm trying to help you, even if sometimes that means confronting things we'd rather let lie. I could tell it was weighing on you immensely, how could it possibly not, for a devoted man like you?"

Rock eyed Warden - he had perceived that the visitor was not talking in theoreticals, but in fact was insinuating that he somehow, some way, had knowledge of the fraudulent prayer scheme that was one of Rock's deepest shames. It had been going on for a long time - far longer than Rock had been alive, and he only was told about it a few years ago. He didn't choose himself to engage in it; it simply was what they did here. Rock knew, deep down, that it was wrong, but the mind has a way of rationalizing the longstanding practices of one's close friends and family. And what could a lonely Vice-Archimandrite do, anyways? He didn't even earn the position like the venerable prior Vice-Archimandite. He was given it because of his station in life, because of luck or fate - not talent or hard work. Now Lin - she had talent and worked harder than any other girl in the temple. And why did his mind turn to her?

He was anguished, but the shame he felt in that instance defeated his instinct to lash out. No, in that moment, under Warden's withering gaze, he wasn't a proud 21-year old proud Prince of Creation. He had mentally regressed to that 12-year old boy who had been caught peeping through the crack in the door of the girl's changing room. "Who are you?" He whispered in a demanding, scared tone. "What do you want from me?"

Warden leans in, letting him whisper back to Rock, trying to sound reassuring. "I'm someone that was charged with making the world better, with bringing virtue and righteousness to it. And so could you be, Rock. You have the Blessing of the Dragons, you were Chosen. And I think you were Chosen for a reason. What I want from you? To use the gift you've been given, Rock. To help you realize how much you can do. You are not a pawn in fate's game. You have the power to flip the gateway board and do what you know is right, to follow your heart." He sighs and eases off a bit. "Of course, if you want things to stay as they are, I can't and won't force you."

Rock blinked a few times. "I don't know... I just don't know...." he mumbled to himself. A lengthy moment of silence followed as Rock contemplated. Finally, Rock seemed to make up his mind. "Stopping it all will change everyone's lives here. Times will get... harder. The crops won't grow as tall, and when their children come down with the River Cough they won't always survive. That's what it all buys, the prayer."

"I know it's wrong and against the Immaculate way, but I can't be the one that makes that decision for them." spoke Rock. "The people have to choose for themselves. They have to know. And if they know and still decide to keep doing it, then I'll.... I'll leave. I'll just leave here, with nothing but the clothes on my back. I'll go on the road, like you do, like the traveling monks in the stories. I'll make my way to Juche, on the Blessed Island. Honto told me about it - there's a place there called the Fountains of the Pagoda of Pasiap's Footstep. I looked it up in the old manuscripts. It's where the founder of the Immaculate Philosophy was inspired. I'll go there and pray for salvation and guidance."

Rock looked up finally, up to the stage. "That's where I'll do it. In three days, when everyone - all the important families in town are gathered here, in the audience. Right before the performance, I'll go on the stage, and I'll tell everyone. They won't be able to stop me."

Warden waited, giving Rock the time he needed to come to such a momentous decision. When he spoke, he nodded approvingly. "That can't have been easy, Rock. If there is anything I can do to help, just say the word."

"I... I think I just want to be alone for a while." Rock said, sounding exhausted. He slumped down in his seat, with his hands on his knees.

"Of course." Warden acknowledged with a nod, giving Rock some space and standing up. He looked around the theatre, though it seemed his companions were still backstage.
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