The Brotherhood of Virtue
Shadows Over Jade Plum Citadel
Before being granted access to The Royal Wing, Chatelain Root confronted us and made us swear to respect our hosts, not to harm them and not to enter the hearthroom. That is not how one treats honored guests. That is not how one treats the Solar Exalted. Making us promise that we were not enemies waiting to strike at our host. The man said that it was custom and nothing personal and I believed him, but even so it annoyed me, and more importantly, it was something I could not promise him. The wording meant that I could not fulfill my promise to protect the manse should the assassin go for the hearthroom. The oath was adjusted to take into account the ongoing threat and after a conforming look from Keemia, we all swore the oaths.
We all went separate ways then, and Chatelain Root guided me and Jaina to The Royal Wing. It was strange, walking around inside a manse again, walking along luxuries and fine art, but not as the owner, not as an equal but as a guest to a “superior”. Keemia had been clear that she didn’t want me to show them who I was, not to draw attention to what I was…But without my Exaltation, without Gao I was…merely me, just an accidental son from one of Steel Lotus’ many whorehouses. Unclean, unworthy…
Sounds of combat shook me out of my foolish reveries. The sound of steel on steel once again reminded me of who I was; Dawn caste, A proud Bronze Tiger, a peerless warrior chosen by The Most High. I once again regained my composure, I knew what I was, even if no one else did, not even my friends, I still remembered.
The sounds came from outside, the youngest princess; Brilliant Veil was receiving sparring training and as the sounds rang in the hallway, my steps regained their confident rhythm that I had inherited from Gao. My shameful insecurity had only lasted a moment and thankfully no one had seemed to notice it. Root lead us to our rooms, gave explanations and then left me and Jaina to settle in.
In my self-absorption I had missed that Jaina had gotten uncomfortable as well. The luxury and the essence of wood and raw life that was all around us reminded her of her time as a Cynis. It was understandable and I should have realized it sooner, so I suggested we head outside to get some fresh air and meet the young princess.
As we entered the royal garden we saw a young girl in her teens practicing against a grizzled veteran, likely a former Realm legionnaire based on his complexion and the cowards mark branded on his face. They stopped their training as we approached, but the princess demanded that they finished their training and dealt with pleasantries later. I did not mind, watching them spar with one another was relaxing. I was not as skilled with politics and tip toeing around subjects as my friends were, I never was. Much like Gao I preferred to speak openly among friends and allies. Deception and guile was something one used against ones enemies. Combat however, I understood. I might not have Gao’s skill in swordplay, but I understood it. The girl was nod bad. By mortal standards she was quite skilled for her age. As was her teacher.
The two quickly wrapped up their training and came to greet me. They explained that they were practicing a sword based martial arts called Single Point Shining Into The Void Style. The princess was arrogant, proud and foolish, but she was also courageous. While the latter likely could be the result of her previous traits, I found myself rather liking the child. She was bluntly honest, immediately spoke openly about her views of the immaculates. It was clear that her teacher, Shiro was his name, had trained her to judge other fighters, she could tell I was a warrior despite being covered up in layers of robes and silk and insisted that I showed her my skill. Keemia had warned me not to reveal my nature to the others in the castle, but I decided it was worth establishing early that I was at least capable so she wouldn’t hesitate to call for me if the assassin struck. So I performed a simple trick my teacher once made me learn and it was sufficient to earn her respect and she immediately asked me to teach her.
I did not want to interfere with another’s student and declined and instead she went to prepare entertainment, dancers. Luckily, Punctual Friend Keemia showed up right on time, and allowed me to excuse myself. As I did so Shiro walked up to me, he too it seemed was blunt and said that the only feat he had seen similar to what I had done had been performed by an Immaculate monk, the statement almost a threat. I assured him I was not part of the order and with that his hostility vanished and instead spoke to me as a fellow warrior. It was good being around army men again.
Shiro warned me of the princess’ concubines, he was sure that they were more than they let on and seemed to suspect that one of them might have been involved with the murder. I studied the man dancing in front of Keemia and the princess, it was awkward being on the other side of such a performance but I focused on what Shiro had said, and I could see it. It was subtle but the man definitely had training in some form of martial art, probably something akin to what Keemia practiced.
As I studied the dancing man, I felt an arm coming toward me and instinctively grabbed on to it. It was a strange old man, Mataram the librarian. I had seen him briefly as he complained to the Chatelain about the elder princess, Midnight Ember, being in his library. The man seemed insane, rambling on and spouting nonsense. But I was able to explain my need for a book on Silver Shield and he explained that his brother had been her lover and had been killed by the dragonblooded. The man must have been ancient, but he finally agreed to help me with my plan to restore the honour of Silver Shield.
Keemia then approached me and confirmed my suspicion about the dancer, he was hiding something. For Keemia to learn more from him, she had to separate him from the princess. It was time to acquiesce to the princess’ request for me to train her. I changed my clothing and met her outside and we were ready to begin. There was only one problem; I had no idea how to train someone.
I looked back, scanning my memories for hints and suggestions. Uncomfortable memories of Pearl’s training flashed over me, and were quickly dismissed. I did not want to break the child, next came the memories of my training by the immaculate monks. That was not something I wished to pass on. No, I had to go further back. I remembered Gao and his tiger warriors. And I began my instructions. I demanded perfection of movement, of intent and of execution, just like he had.
But I failed; my teaching was flawed and inadequate. I taught her what to do, but I could not convey the essence of fighting the way Gao could. It is strange, remembering knowing something, but not how. I could remember Gao drilling countless soldiers, training them one way one moment and completely differently the next based on subtle changes in the soldiers mood and conditions, and it worked. I just did not know why. My memories were almost always of Gao doing something, but as with most people it was rare for him to reflect on how he did something, he simply did it. So I continued training the girl, learning alongside her from General Gao.
I continued my training with the young princess. It was an oddly calming feeling, barking orders, instilling discipline, forcing perfection of movement in to someone yet again. It was of course only for a few hours and it likely did not impact her understanding or capability of combat in any significant way. To train her fully would take far longer, a month at least. My impression of her had not changed much, she was indeed spoiled, vain and over confident, but from my experience those qualities are not always negative for a warrior, it takes a certain degree of arrogance to pursue mastery of combat. For such men and women they often grow up to be heroes or die, young and quickly forgotten in some alley fight. Perhaps with guidance and discipline…I had to stop myself from finishing that line of thought, she was not some raw recruit nor was I a general. Channeling Gao’s memories too strongly sometimes makes me forget the present.
I began to wind down the session as she was nearing her limit. She might have been spoiled in many ways, but she at least had Conviction, she never complained or made signs of giving up. Just as the session had ended my friends, punctual as always, approached me with worrying news.
Keemia led us to her room and explained to me the situation. Shadow Edge had gotten in contact with the resistance, and had agreed to kill an old immaculate monk. I did not much care about the loss of an immaculate monk nor whatever vileness he had done to make Shadow Edge decide he had to be put down, but it did however change things. Killing the monk would undoubtedly escalate things, unlike Resounding Bells; many of the people in Jade Plum Citadel bought in to the Immaculate’s lies and might result in panic if not handled carefully. One of the resistance members, a thief called Jinrika had invited Shadow Edge to a meeting but we concluded that having Shadow Edge stay inside the palace to keep watch was too important. Instead myself, Keemia and Shadow Edge’s friend Ririka would go to the meeting to see what was going on.
Before being able to agree to the plan however, I had to speak with the prince. I had promised to watch over his children and would not break my word to him. I went to the throne room where he was listening to a request, or perhaps even a demand, from his eldest daughter…and an immaculate monk. They needed access to Mataram’s library, but it seemed the old man refused to let immaculates into his library. As their conversation finished I entered the audience room, but while the monk exited, the daughter stayed behind. I did not know how much it would be wise to say in front of her and as a guest it would be rude of me to ask her to leave, so instead I took the opportunity to let the Prince know of the plans and sketches of the water locks I made when first arriving. It was of course not sufficient to repair the lock, but I suggested it could give a good starting point from which further plans and projects could be based on. To my surprise it was Princess Midnight Ember who first reacted to my claim. Apparently it was the water locks that she and the monk had been researching and desperately wanted me to help them and I said I would if time allowed. I was not sure how working along with an immaculate monk would work after so long. But what was important was to bring back the wonders of the first age.
She seemed excited by the new prospect and hurried away, leaving me alone with the prince. I explained my training with his youngest daughter which did not seem to please him much, and preferred I taught her to be a scholar rather than a warrior. I doubted how well that would work, and avoided the subject by going back to the issue at hand. I explained Vigilant Shadow Edge’s superiority when it came to watching over his children, and the prince agreed with our plans.
I returned to Keemia along with Shadow Edge who had prepared disguises for us. Apparently we did not trust the rebellion here and so would have to trick them, hiding not only our exaltations but our, especially Keemia’s station. As Shadow Edge recounted his meeting with Jinrika, he mentioned that she had snuck into the manse to leave protective amulets around the place. I inquired about them, such magicks should not work within a manse and asked him to bring one to me should he find one. I prepared the dirt, following the advice my friend had given me. I disliked having to lie to what should be allies, but my friends where likely right to proceed with caution. As both myself and Keemia had finished up the preparations, Shadow Edge returned successful, having found one of the talismans, presenting it to me.
I almost flinched away as I touched it, I felt what it was before I even brought the talisman up to the light to examine it. Gao’s hatred lived inside me just as much as his love. Whoever had made this had bound a ghost to the talisman, but had only bound the po, or lower soul, forcibly creating a hungry ghost within the talisman. It was a deliberate act, the blood on the talisman was proof of that and it was definitely created by a master of the craft. I urged Shadow Edge to remember the details of the conversation, and it soon became clear that it was the Ash Prophet, the man Shadow Edge had first told us about on our way to the Citadel. The man who knew about the Celestial Exalted. He was supposed to be our ally then, but…it seemed as though it was he who was responsible for the murder.
Time was of the essence, there were several more such talismans hidden. Keemia, covered in muck and grime, but still regal and proud as always hurried past the guards to warn the prince while myself and Shadow Edge went to the hearthroom. We had promised only to enter the room in search of the assassin, and so we did. I explained the situation to one of the two guards stationed outside and he quickly fell in line. Inside was a grand room, which seemed to be almost alive somehow. It brought back memories but for once I shoved them aside and urged Shadow Edge to the center. All he had to do was believe in himself, show the manse who he was and it would respond to him. My friend did not disappoint, as I knew he wouldn’t. The insight that came with his attunement seemed almost a physical thing. For a moment even my own senses seemed heightened merely by being in the same room. And as abruptly it was over, with his caste mark glowing he wordlessly turned and ran out the door, towards the ghosts. I followed and reluctantly so did the guard. But we had not gone far before the brilliant light of a raptor shone in the sky towards the mountains. I had seen the spell cast many times, and it was undoubtedly my teacher’s workings. She was fighting someone. Someone strong enough that she could not afford to hold back against it. This was no longer just a fight against the hungry ghosts, but against time.
Brave Shadow Edge immediately ran off to gather the talismans as I went to the throne room. I had drawn blood so as to attract the ghosts, reasoning it would be better for them to align at one place. I bellowed out warnings, or perhaps they were orders to the rest of the manse. All seemed to be going well until a small group of guards ran into the room accompanied by Root. He foolishly believed me to be harming the manse and ordered the men to apprehend me. I initially ignored them, but as I heard Shadow Edge coming my way I did not have time to let them get in the way. I put them out of the fight, trying not to injure them and got ready. Shadow edge appeared and as he did, the talisman I had brought with me activated and let out the hungry ghost. My first failure of the night, I got distracted by the guards and didn’t seal it in time.
Three ghosts chasing after my friend soon joined us. My cunning friend had understood the meaning behind my own action and had drawn his own blood to lead them to me. I attacked. Their way of moving and fighting was strange and unnatural, just like I remembered and I could feel an old hatred rekindling inside me. I proceeded to destroy them, quickly and efficiently, letting old emotions guide my blows. As the last of them fell, inches from the Chatelain, we heard Keemia and the guards above finishing off one of their ghosts, leaving the two near the royal wing. Myself and Shadow Edge joined just in time to kick the remaining ghost into the blades of Jaina and Shiro. They had already dispatched one and after confirming their well-being and our victory I immediately went to go to my teacher.
I rushed across the city, as fast as my legs could take me, as I came to the middle of the city; I saw an armed mob, likely Shadow Edge’s resistance. It was worrying, especially due to the necromantic feel coming from them, but my teacher was fighting in earnest, which had to mean something had gone very wrong in her investigation. So I left the rebellion alone, settling on trying to merely shout them down, the way Gao could. I doubted it would do much good, but at least it would have given the town warning. This was likely my second mistake of the night.
I went along the mountains, my caste light leading the way. As I neared the placed I had seen the brilliant raptor I heard the screams of Ghaspasar. When I reached him, he was terrified of me, calling me Anathema. This was not a new insult but I was surprised to hear it from him after the days of travel together. He said that another anathema was fighting my teacher and pointed in a direction. This worried me a great deal, another Solar? A Lunar? Why would they be fighting? I hurried along the way, following the signs of my teacher’s magicks.
I found her curled up on herself, weaker than I had ever seen her before. Beside her was the pyre of a person, an elderly man I thought, but it was hard to tell from the burnt flesh. Why would she bother creating a pyre when she was clearly that strained? As I approached her she staggeringly made it to her feet and explained what had happened. She verified my fears; the Ash Prophet had been a necromancer. A Dragon-Blooded necromancer? A torrent of emotions stirred in me after hearing the news. She seemed hesitant about confirming my fear; likely knowing the effect such memories would have on me. It likely also explained the pyre, the tie necromancers have with the underworld are too strong to simply let their spirits be. Performing the rites was likely a precaution. Still, why did my teacher have so much trouble against a Dragon-Blooded? He truly must have been an exceptional sorcerer…
I carried my teacher back as she explained what was going on, she was weak so there was little time for questions. She directed me back to Ghaspasar. He was still in panic, but she seemed to work some sort of magic and suddenly his memories seemed to have been wiped clean. She explained about the Dragon-Blooded necromancer and that I was no Anathema, but a Solar Exalted and he accepted it with surprising ease. What had my teacher done? I did not know that she could affect memories so directly before. Strange that she had never told me about it during my training…
Ghaspasar was told to wait in the mountains and I continued my way back to the manse, to Talented Friend Keemia. Pearl, barely able to speak explained to me what I must do. I had to send a message. She explained how my lessons over the fire were not just a way to harden myself, but to learn the secrets of the elements. She gave me the final pieces I needed to learn to bring elementals to life to serve me. I reached the manse, and Reliable Friend Keemia met us right as we arrived. She immediately began taking care of Pearl, who had grown steadily weaker even during this short period. Under Keemia’s treatment she seemed to be stabilized but it would take far longer until she would be well. Apparently the Ash Prophet was also a master of the Snake style. Who was this prophet? Pearl whispered weakly, urging me to send the message. I had to send a messenger to the Pinnacle of Mercy, but apparently not to the Golden Lord. To Yu-Shan then? The message was simply “It is as we feared”. What did that even mean? Surely with the necromancer slain whatever worries she had about the undead should be over. But she was too weak to answer questions and I did not have time to ask them, I hurried back to see what foolishness the rebellion was doing.
Keemia would follow me as soon as she had made arrangements for my teacher and the others in the palace. I met with Shadow Edge outside the immaculate temple. He seemed to be arguing with some warrior. As she saw me and my caste mark she immediately became hostile but my friend quickly calmed her down. My compassionate friend seemed adamant about not letting anyone die that day so he left the guards at the temple and we approached the mob.
As I neared them, their leader immediately dropped to his knees before me. At first this was a welcomed surprise. This was right and familiar but there was something off putting at the same time. The Ash prophet was preparing the people for…something. They clearly respected us, but some of what they said confused me and some of it was definitely not right.
Three ghosts were walking alongside them and Shadow Edge forced them to materialize. They approached us and it was clear they were part of this cult the Prophet seemed to have created. They spoke of lost kingdoms in the underworld, and many other strange things that they assumed I knew about. They also spoke of a ghost called Emerald Serpent, he had apparently been the Ash Prophet’s emissary amongst the rebels. I ordered them back to the underworld to await reincarnation.
They wanted us to storm the temple and tear the monks apart. They were bloodthirsty. Perhaps understandably, the way they had been treated, but killing the monks would create a civil war within the city. It might tear the city apart. Even though they seemed reverent, they demanded vengeance. They agreed to spare the monks as long as we tore down the temple. But soon their demands grew bolder; they wanted the silver the nobles of the city had taken as well. Tearing apart the merchant houses would tear apart the city’s economy with it and wouldn’t be much of an improvement to the civil war.
They demanded someone to be punished, to have their anger vented on someone. My friend Shadow Edge looked to me for guidance, seemingly seeking answers for what to do. I then naïvely volunteered myself. As long as they agreed to not kill me, they could vent their anger and frustration on me in whatever manner they saw fit. This was not an important enough issue to die for, but if they wanted to take their anger out on me, I would accept their punishment. But that was not enough; they demanded blood for the injustice they had suffered. I honestly considered crushing them then and there and be over with it. At least these people had armed themselves and so were ready to accept the consequences of doing so. That would at least be more honorable than killing unarmed civilians. I cared little about these people…but Shadow Edge did. So I stayed my hand.
Keemia joined us, and she too looked to me for answers…but I had none. I did not know what to say or do to make this right. To make the years of hardship these people suffered go away or how to avoid a massacre. Seeing my failure, Keemia stepped forward and suggested that we pass judgement on the noble families ourselves. We, as Lawgivers would judge them, sparing them from mob justice. However, as Keemia confided to us, she would not know who were guilty and who were not any more than I. It would be a matter of minimizing the murdering to those who it would be convenient for us to kill.
The mob agreed to this farce and looked forward to seeing the nobles be put down by the hands of ‘the mighty Solar Exalted’. My very core lurched at this, but said nothing. Keemia was clearly the one who hurt the most by this decision, I had no right to complain or judge as I had done nothing.
As we walked back to the manse we talked about what had happened. It was clear this event had changed things between us. Both of my friends seemed to have lost faith in the greatness of the Solar Exalted. They doubted their ability to do good. Of course they did, they had looked to me to show them. Shadow Edge seemed to have grown resentful or perhaps merely cold towards ‘humans’, presumably differentiating himself from other people to deal with his frustration. “We have to be more than human, we have to abandon the human part of us”, a subtle rephrasing of my own words, another example of how I had failed to mentor my friend.
As we spoke of the Ash Prophet, trying to understand his reasoning, I explained the strain on the weak that powerful sorceries could have on a person. “Like memories about a forgotten age?” Keemia asked. My throat felt very tight. She doubted me, not only my claims but my sanity. Of course she did, I had provided no proof about my claims, and now this. Did she fear I would one day be like him?
We entered the palace and consulted with the Prince. It was clear now that the situation had changed. It was clear when Keemia spoke that we were no longer giving the Prince advice, the Solar spoke and the Prince would follow. This should please me, this is what I wanted. This was right. But it felt hollow. This was not the venerated supplication to the exalted of The First Age. The Prince did not do as commanded because he trusted our judgement or out of respect. He did it because he feared us.
Keemia had learned of a Dragon-Blooded within the manse. The monk that Midnight Ember had been working with. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me. The secrets of The First Age were not so easily uncovered by mortal minds. I suggested that we waited with killing him, to see if he could be swayed to join our cause, or at the very least not oppose us. It would be yet another tragedy if the hopes of restoring the artifact would end today as well. The Prince agreed to my ‘request’ and I could tell that the bond that had briefly been made between us had been torn, perhaps permanently.
It seemed Keemia had had a similar feeling and the loss of a friend and caused even her often stoic face to show glimpses of the sadness and bitterness she felt after the day’s event. Shadow Edge was also visibly shaken. He had remained silent for most of the aftermath, unsurprisingly after a confrontation like that with his fellow resistance members. We split up, Keemia and Shadow Edge going to bed as I began preparation to create an elemental.
As the two went on ahead, their backs turned from me, it all sank in. I had failed them, all of them. I had been unable to protect my teacher or the faith and hope of my friends. We would have to kill the guilty and innocent alike merely to save face and uphold order. I remember The Virtuous Gao and his friends, remembered their values. But it is harder to be virtuous now in this broken age, in a world no longer carefully molded to preserve order. In a world where The Celestial Mandate no longer holds much power over men. Does that mean that doing that which is unvirtuous is justified? Because it is hard? Because it is more convenient? Was it truly right for me to speak of our virtuous past while simultaneously butchering people to gain the favor of zealots? To force my friends, to force Keemia to steel her heart and kill friends and rivals alike?
Of course it isn’t. I still remember the values our brotherhood once stood for. Like our friendship, those never change, those never waver. Not because it is hard or because it is convenient. I still remember. It is time I reminded Creation.
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