The Brotherhood of Virtue
The Return of The Brotherhood
A New Dawn
As if to cement my thoughts, leaving no room for me to weasel out and go for the easier path in the morning, I briefly visited Keemia and told her not to act too hastily and that I had a plan. At least the start of one, but I didn’t mention that part; there could be no room for doubt. With that thought in mind I went to the outskirts of town and began setting up the ritual as Pearl had instructed me. I lit a small fire, barely an ember, and slowly let it grow as I began chanting the words taught to me, forcing my will and through that, life, into it. It was a slow process, and while it required focus it did give me time to plan ahead. If this summoning was successful, then perhaps there would be a way to prevent this slaughter.
After a few hours, the small ember had grown into roaring flame. Finally there was a surge of raw elemental energy as the flames flared up, flickering wildly, almost playfully, before coalescing into the shape of a young woman with dark green skin. A Flame Duck, a creature of justice and a fitting ally. I had blurry recollections of them from my past and from my lessons with Pearl, but it was the first time that I could remember that I had seen a Flame Duck, or indeed any elemental, be created. Or perhaps born was the correct term, it was surprisingly human-like after all. I hurriedly explained her duties to her, to send Pearls message to the Pinnacle of Mercy and then seek out an Ifrit from the fire mountains that could aid us. She did not hesitate and immediately transformed and soared off towards the Golden Lord’s domain.
The summoning had been a success, but it was a draining process and I needed rest before I could go on to the next step of my plan. I went back to the palace and went to sleep, certain that, as always dawn would bring with it a new chance. A chance to do better.
The next morning I met Shadow Edge and Princess Brilliant Veil out in the garden. The young princess did not seem frightened by my nature, instead she seemed even more determined to learn from me. She wanted to come with us, for me to teach her everything, fighting both with and without a sword, to become a hero and leader of the rebellion.
I…was not sure that was wise. Not only was I unsure about bringing her with us, after seeing the members of the rebellion here, training her to be their champion felt off putting. But still, perhaps there was value in taking her in, I would have to begin training soldiers one day, conquering individual cities by ourselves will only get us so far, eventually we will need an army. And an army we can trust, unlike the zealots here. Shadow Edge said he too was interested in training her, which only strengthened the argument. And then there was the other reason…
I told her I would consider it and left her to her training. I and Shadow Edge met up with Keemia who had overheard parts of our conversation. She seemed to think bringing her along would be a good idea, and I understood why; having the daughter of the Prince with us would ensure his loyalty. Especially after the events of last night, perhaps that would be necessary. If so that would be a pity, I rather liked the Prince.
There was however more pressing matters to attend do. I asked my two friends to speak with them in private and we settled down in Keemia’s room to eat breakfast. Shadow Edge began the talk with the sour news that Rokan Taro, the son of Keemia’s friend and colleague was rapist who had abused the prisoners for fun. This would force Keemia into an even more difficult situation since the son’s crimes would be well known, and so he would have to be punished if not to seem incompetent, while at the same times she could not afford to lose the ties to house Rokan. It was a good time to explain my plan.
I explained about the virtues our brotherhood once stood for, and that I still stand for. As well as my thoughts on how to best uphold them; knowing now that creating elementals was possible, I could make a Mercury Ant to dig a tunnel underneath the temple, leading to a temporary safe house or exit and have cunning Shadow Edge lead them onto Keemia’s barge. They would become her indentured servants, still an obvious punishment for them, even though some of them might be innocent, but still better than what the crazed rebels would have done to them. The two agreed that it was worth the risk to avoid a massacre.
Before leaving, Keemia asked the two of us what we did for fun. The coming days would be taxing on us, and she insisted that it was important that we indulged in something to help us deal with it. It was difficult then not to take special note of the Maiden’s Tea in her hands as she said that, the fragrance was difficult to forget. Shadow Edge mentioned that he had enjoyed being a dancer while still a servant, but while looking at the Maiden’s Tea quickly assured her that he wasn’t one of ‘those’ dancers. Of course, he wouldn’t want her to believe he was a lowly whore… Trying to suppress the memories the tea and the comments brought up, I in turn answered ‘drawing’. In all honesty I have barely drawn much beyond what little that was necessary during my education with the monks, and some of the special charms and glyphs taught to me by Pearl, but it was the first thing that came to mind. With that we set out to prepare for what was to come.
I went to visit Pearl with the others, it was strange watching my teacher in that state but at least it seemed as though she was recovering. As she prepared to tend to Pearl, Keemia thanked me, not only for the plan but for saving her in Resound Bells. She felt indebted to me after what happened there. She, indebted to me, as she was just about to tend to Pearl. I explained that there was no debt for her to pay, that finding her was far more compensation than I could ever hope for.
I didn’t want to disturb Keemia as she was tending to Pearl and so proceeded to talk with Biraku. I asked the Chatelaine for directions, it would seem his view of me has changed once again, this time for the worse. After an overly long procedure to unlock the door, a procedure largely useless if he truly wanted to exit, I entered Biraku’s room.
I decided it was likely pointless trying to sugar coat any of my words, he was an immaculate and would likely be watchful of the ‘Anathema’s corruption’. But he also seemed to be a man of logic and so I tried to convince him through that. He could believe whatever evil he wished about me for now, what was important, for the both of us, was the restoration of the water works. It seemed Biraku agreed to much of it, and turned out to not be a particularly devout practitioner of the Immaculate faith. The faith was a philosophy to him, a way to guide people even if he knew much of it were lies. I tried to convince him to openly side with the Solars and denounce his faith. That should guarantee that the rebels wouldn’t try and sabotage anything. But on that issue he remained steadfast, he would aid us with the water works, but he would not side with us nor would he stop being a monk. Even so, he was a sensible man and I hoped we would come to an understanding eventually. While speaking of the first age, he mentioned having seen a tomb or monument of one of the Generals of that time. I felt a strange pain in my heart as I heard him speak, could it be that he had found Gao’s, my tomb? I forced myself from not derailing the talk for now. But it was definitely something I needed to speak with him about after all of this was over.
Shortly after my talk, Keemia approached me, asking me to explain the new plan to Jaina. She would need to disguise herself as Shadow Edge to not give away the fact that he would be leading the prisoners away. She on her part would go with Shadow Edge and her child and go shopping and allow Shadow Edge to be seen by the people. Before leaving, compassionate friend Keemia also asked me if there was something I wanted her to buy for me.
She once again insisted that it was important that I indulged in a hobby or something I did for fun, and with some embarrassment I asked for drawing materials. There was something I had wanted to do for a long time now and I would need them for it. She agreed, seemingly pleased with my answer and left to join Shadow Edge out in the town.
2 + 1
Legacy of The Ash Prophet
I went to speak with Jaina. She was meditating, seemingly trying to resolve herself for what was to come. I didn’t tell her my intention of changing the plan right away, first I gauged her reaction. Even Jaina, who could at times be almost as hard to read as Keemia was visibly torn up about the idea of killing a large group of unarmed civilians, corrupt and criminal as they may or might not be.
We spoke briefly about the situation and I was glad to see that she was open about her worries and doubt with me, despite earlier mistrust, and so I finally I brought up the plan to save the people from the slaughter by instead having Keemia take them on as indentured servants. I also asked for her help to imitate Shadow Edge. She realized the risk involved, not only to herself but to the stability of Jade Plum Citadel, but agreed that it was the closest thing to justice that we’d be likely to get. She asked me not to tell her the details of the plan, explaining it might be safest for her not to know, but even while saying that, she seemed worried that it was all a lie. Presumably she feared it was lie to make her more willing to participate in the mass slaughter, to prevent her from trying to stop us. Perhaps she doesn’t yet trust me as much as I thought…
While Jaina went in to the market to find Shadow Edge, I sought out the Prince. My Friend hurt because of what had happened between the two and I would not let it stand. He was having an audience with representatives from the noble houses. He deftly managed to answer or not answer questions that might cause worry and was eventually free to talk.
I asked to speak with him in private and invited him to have a walk in the gardens with me. The guards were worried but he explained that I needed him alive, reaffirming that my belief that his view of me had changed. As we entered the garden I spoke openly with him; I asked him if I had disrespected him during my stay at his home or otherwise acted in a way that had brought shame to my host. He assured me that I had not, but he felt hurt by Noble Friend Keemia’s treatment of him the night before. I assured him that Keemia had not wanted to disrespect him, she had been forced in a situation she was unused to and acted as quickly and capably as she knew how. She mourned the wound to their friendship as much as he did. He explained that he understood Keemia’s intent, and did not disagree with her judgement, but resented the feeling of having been treated as if he was an incapable child. If she was going to rule over him, then she should at least use him.
I was glad to see that he still respected my friend, and it seemed there was still hope for their friendship to be salvaged. I told him of the Princess’ request to follow us on our journey, he explained if that was the case there was little he could do stop it. I assured him that if she followed us I would uphold my part of the bargain and teach his daughter not merely how to fight, but the knowledge she would need to go along with it. He knew there was little he could do to stop his daughter from leaving, but explained that if Keemia was willing to make a contract out of it instead of simply taking her, it would go a long way to restore their friendship. I simply hoped that Keemia would take that opportunity; I can’t stand the thought of her hurting.
I left the prince and decided to utilize what I had learned after my conversation with Biraku. But first I went to the library to speak with Midnight Ember, she had been a part of the project for several years and consulting her before doing anything major only seemed right, besides she knew the details of the issues better than I. After explaining my intent on freeing the counterweight that kept the first level of the water work from opening properly she immediately wanted to come with me. She summoned her guards and we went quickly went over to the site.
Once there I disrobed, uncomfortably aware of the ease and reflex such actions came to me, and dove into the water. Once there I waded through the muck and grime, after 15 or so minutes I finally found the chain, and slowly followed it down to the counterweight itself, careful not to damage anything while I pulled it free. Barely had I loosened it before it flung free and I barely noticed the water pouring away, trying to take me with it, as the joy of seeing the craftsmanship of my long lost brothers and sisters in front of me. I swam against the rushing water, grabbing onto a chain and heaved myself back on land. The princess rushed towards me and shared my excitement as we eagerly talked about what to do next and the possibilities the water work would bring.
She returned to the palace to share the news with Biraku while I dressed myself. Punctual Friend Shadow Edge and his friend Ririka came just as I was getting done. My cheerful mood worsened as soon as I saw my friend’s expression, he was pale and was clearly troubled. They explained that they had explored a tomb of sorts, where a poisonous snake had bitten my friend. Resilient Friend Shadow Edge assured me that he was fine, and I believed him, no mere snake venom would best him. Still what the two said worried me and we hurried back to the tomb they mentioned.
It was hidden in the outskirts of town, a cave leading down into the cold earth. I felt it before I saw it, much like with the amulet, the vile feeling of wrongness filled the air, Necromancy. The room had bodies aligned in specific patterns, all directed towards a small pond in the middle of the room. That was the source of corrupted essence that filled the air, a Shadowland, no question about it, albeit small. And much like the amulets I could tell that it was not created by accident, another creation of the Ash Prophet. I addressed a ghost standing guard inside the place; he explained that he was to protect the place and the ‘relic’ of Emerald Serpent. I told him to return to the netherworld and await reincarnation. He blindly ended his existence, but not before apologizing for not being worthy and assuring that there were many thousands ready to serve me in his stead back in the underworld. Could it be true or another twisted lie made by the Ash Prophet?
What is happening in the underworld? Surely no Dragon blooded, no matter how talented, would be able to influence the Underworld to such a degree?. Unless there were more of them, he did say that he was merely paving the way for others. A sworn brotherhood then? There was little point in contemplating what might or might not be. First of all there was the link, inside a box on the altar laid a tooth, apparently once belonging to the Emerald Serpent. The ghost had apparently escaped back to the underworld as soon as he heard that his master had been slain, but the tooth would remain a link to the creature, allowing him to return if he so tried. Fury filled me once again. Fury over the twisted mockery of the powers of life and fury over letting the ghost escape. I crushed the tooth in my hands, and my Friend set fire to the dust. He would not return here so easily. Severing the ghost’s direct link was easy, but severing the tie to the Netherworld itself would require more effort. As we left that wretched place I could not help but to reflect on my teacher’s warning; “It is as we feared” .Is, not was. It would seem as though killing The Ash Prophet was not the end as I had hoped, but merely the beginning.
2 + 1
Drawings of a Better Time
The brief exaltation I felt earlier from the water work had long faded; a Shadowland had been created and the people of the city were too blind to see the result of their actions. We discussed what to do next, my gut reaction was to light the tomb on fire, to purge it; bodies, ghosts, shadowland and all. But as Shadow Edge’s friend pointed out, the locals might react poorly to such treatment of their ancestors. The fools would damn the living to appease the dead if they could. She asked if ancestor worship truly was so wrong. Of course it was! Or well…I admit that I might have biases against it, but what happened here should at the very least show why. She suggested that a burial would likely be better received by the populace. Faithful Friend Shadow Edge asked if I could collapse the cave myself, his faith in me a great comfort. I honestly did not know, I had not tried such feats before but it should be possible, but even if I could, doing so would be merely a sign of force. It would not teach the people anything. I would need to go about it a different way.
His friend promised to spread rumors that the rebellion was not to enter the tomb and Shadow Edge went to oversee the prisoners. I meanwhile went to the manse where I was immediately approached by Keemia. She led me to the gardens where we could speak in private and warned me that the Chatelain was planning on destroying the manse so as to protect it from being taken over by the ‘enemy’. She had of course the situation under control, but simply wanted to warn me about it.
I took the opportunity to talk to her about my conversation with the Prince. I explained what he had said and his offer to make a contract with her to help restore their friendship. She confided in me that she was worried since she didn’t know what role to play, what mask to wear, what etiquette to follow. I understood her worries, but assured her that she needn’t worry about such things, regardless of what social structure she followed, she would be at the top of it, and so had the freedom to act as she liked. She seemed unconvinced and asked me if the same applied to me, pointing out that I had been pushing myself. Perhaps she was right, but I had to. No matter what, I have to protect them. My soul could not bear to lose them again. I did not voice my reasons but she accepted them regardless. I moved the topic back to her, and explained that while I could not advice in matters of politics, I did understand the difference between those who allied with you out of fear, and those serving out of genuine love and loyalty. Perhaps that is something some of us had forgotten before the Usurpation…then again, those motivated by love could be just as treacherous.
More importantly, I knew the pain of losing friends and warned her not to cast aside her friends merely due to perceived duty. She should not sacrifice her happiness. It seemed as though she agreed and as if reminded by my words, had a few servants present me with the drawing utensils I had asked for. With that she left to speak with the Prince and I took my cherished gift to my room.
I had never been an artist, not in this life or in Gao’s. And I had never drawn much beyond during some lectures on nature during my education as well as training to draw symbol s and sigils during my training with Pearl. But after everything that had happened, not just in Jade Plum Citadel but in Creation at large. After so much had been lost, I wanted, needed something to remind me that the world could be better than it is. Something to remind me of my friends. A time when my friends remembered me…
I began attempting to draw simple portraits, the process was slow and many attempts were scrapped and discarded, but slowly, as the hours passed I began to get a basic understanding of how to do it. I drew my Gentle Friend, Janira, Thoughtful Friend Takeshi, Wise Friend Clear Sky and then finally, I tried to paint Precious Galatea. I tried, again and again, trying to capture her on canvas but there was always something missing, a warmth that alluded me. Finally I understood why; it was when she was surrounded by her friends that her true warmth and beauty was on display. It was then that her love for us and Creation became an almost tangible aura surrounding her. That was the Galatea I remembered. That was the Galatea that I…
I began a new drawing, this time not a portrait but a drawing of all of us together. No sooner had I started before I felt myself using Pearl’s memory training and sunk into an almost trance like state, recreating a memory on the canvas. It seemed as though I had barely begun there was a knock on my door. Annoyed by the interruption I broke the trance and looked up. The drawing was complete; all six of us were there, Galatea standing in the center of us, smiling. The drawing was far from perfect, but it had captured at least some of her warmth. That was enough, for now. Soon I would see her again.
I realized that a significant amount of time must have passed since I began drawing, and couldn’t say for certain which day it was. Still, the knocking brought me back to my senses and called out to see who it was.
It was Midnight Ember, apparently the Prince had ordered Biraku chained and escorted with heavy guards outside to examine the fifth and final water work level. She asked me to stop her father’s treatment of him and I agreed. I wanted Biraku to remain in Plum Leaf Citadel even after the work with the water work was finished, marching him in chains through the city would likely condemn him as a heretic amongst the fanatics and so forever ruining any chance of using him going forward.
I told Biraku to sit down and rest and he agreed, leaving his retinue of guards little room to argue. When I met the Prince he was engaging in a game of Gateway with Keemia. It was good seeing the two having seemingly mended ties. As I entered Trusting Friend Keemia asked for my council, she was in a losing position; she had set up a scheme to surround and flank The Prince’s army, but she had waited too long to spring the trap and The Prince had seized on the opportunity, marching to claim her Dragon. It was a minor thing of course, being asked for council in something like this, but it still made me happy to be trusted to aid her. I scanned my memory of battles, both real ones and imaginary like the ones on the board and the simplest way to stop her opponents assault was to be more aggressive; too much attention had been placed to keep the Dragon safe at the back, which had thinned out her army, instead moving the Dragon forward to where the brunt of her pieces were would free up more maneuverable pieces like the gryphons and war dogs to go on the offensive. The strategy worked, but it was not enough to overwhelm The Prince’s already prepared defenses and the game ended in a draw. A sting of regret for not being able to better aid my friend flashed through me, but I did not mind it too much as it was clear that the two were enjoying themselves.
Before they set up to play another game, I asked The Prince about Biraku. I convinced him to let him go free with the condition that I came with them. He agreed and so I, Biraku and Midnight Ember were carried down the mountain by palace servants. During our trip I asked Biraku if he had reconsidered my suggestion of leaving the Immaculate Order and swearing himself to us. He countered it with a suggestion of his own, to reform the Order to better represent the truth. Much of the Order’s teachings still had merit; it was after all built from rules set up by the Solar Deliberative. I argued that no matter what reform he suggested, the order would always be associated with the Wyld Hunt and the lies about the Celestial and Terrestial Exalted. But I agreed with the idea itself, we needed an alternative to the ancestor worshipping and a way to channel the rebel’s faith in the Solars. And so the plans for a new Order were put in motion.
We reached the end of the mountain and it was clear that something was blocking the chain within the machinery itself. After consulting Biraku about the likely location for the maintenance shaft, I leapt through the waterfall, sliding into the narrow hole. Inside I found the chain and climbed it to find the problem. I was no craftsman and no expert in repairs, but the source of the problem was obvious even to my untrained eyes; an enormous root from one of the essence infused trees maintained by the manse had dug itself in and around the chain. I had no tools and even if I had there was little room for delicacy. I plunged my arm through the giant root, twisting it to break it apart from the inside. With the chain free, it was easy to get the water work going and glowing through my efforts, I joined the others.
We watched in silence as the crew began sending down a boat Biraku had prepared in advance, and it was with surge of emotions I stepped onto the small craft alongside the other two and rose up to the citadel. The machinery itself was not what moved me however, yes the fact that it had survived thousands of years of disrepair largely unharmed was impressive, yes, it would allow for new farmlands and work for the people and yes the technology was more advanced than much of what is used in Creation today, but it was still barely scratching the surface of The Wonders of the First Age.
That was not what was important; it was the fact that we had managed to restore it that was important. Restoring this single water work sent a message, the Solar Exalted had returned, and they would bring a new golden age with them.
A few days went by after the restoration of the water work and while it did lift the spirits of the people temporarily, it was not enough to sway the uneasiness and lust for vengeance permeating through the city.
Finally, during breakfast one morning Hardworking Friend Keemia announced that she was finished and had rounded up as many of the guilty as she would be able to. We all agreed it was best to act quickly to prevent the people from getting restless and so we went to the immaculate temple to lay claim to its content. Keemia had suggested taking it for ourselves to help our endeavors which seemed wise, but my main concern was not the ostentatious wealth of the immaculates, it was their silver scrolls, stolen from Silver Shield.
I went in first and gathered the shrine in which the scrolls were kept and stepped out in front of the mounting crowd. Loyal Friend Shadow Edge set the parchment aflame and turned their hateful lies to smoke and ash in front of the crowd, signaling the coming change. As the Prince’s and Keemia’s men began hauling things out of the temple, I went off to the mountains to prepare the creation of a new Elemental.
I hurried up the mountains outside of town, gathering samples of earth and dirt as I went, which I kneaded together and ‘planted’ at the top of one of the mountains. And so I began the ritual to bring life into it, to make it grow. A few hours into the ritual I saw a cloud moving against the wind, heading south towards the Fire Mountains. A likely sign of a sorcerer, and with the legacy of the The Ash Prophet so fresh in my mind, seeing another practitioner was a cause for concern. But I could not investigate it further, without ruining the ritual. The cloud headed south where nothing lay besides mountains, The Domain of The Serpents Who Walks As Men and the Wyld. Except…except if they knew the location of the Elemental Court of Fire.
At any rate, an hour or two later, the earth beneath me began to stir, and out from it emerged a dog sized insect, a Mercury Ant. It stared up at me with its alien eyes and listened to my instructions, to prepare the tunnel that Shadow Edge would use to lead the convicted to safety…and to demolish the Emerald Serpent’s tomb and seal in the shadowland. It immediately obeyed and got to work. It was a stark contrast to the Fire Duck who it was far harder to view as an “it”. But perhaps I should? She was a creature who only stayed in existence because I willed it so, she too was an elemental force and perhaps viewing her any different from the Mercury Ant would be unwise.
With such thoughts in mind I headed back to meet Watchful Friend Shadow Edge overseeing the imprisonment of the guilty. As we met up with one another and confirmed the existence of another Dragon Blooded sorcerer we saw two guards hitting one of the convicted, one of the priestesses I had met inside Silver Shield’s Temple. I did not know that Keemia had found corruption within the temple as well. Apparently she was charged with taking bribes from the Immaculates and spreading their lies. It was understandable if regrettable, it was clear that she had not known that what she had done was wrong and “executing” Silver Shield’s priestesses would likely not be a good way to earn her trust. But, intervening now would weaken Keemia’s authority and…if Silver Shield had grown so cowardly that she would not step forward to speak for the sake of her priestesses, then she did not have the right to complain.
I ordered the men to do what they were supposed to and not hurt the prisoners. Shadow Edge still had more to prepare and so I went to the manse’s library to do my own preparations. I was to crush an immaculate temple with my bare hands; I had never attempted a feat of that scale before. What’s more, it could not seem to require effort, it would have to be quick and decisive; perfect. As if on que, Pearl stepped in next to me, glancing over my calculations, unimpressed. I told her what had happened after her fight with The Ash Prophet. I told her the major parts of what had happened while she was recovering, but she on part seemed reluctant to talk to me about the Ash Prophet. Instead she veiled her words, speaking around the subject. She agreed that there were likely more necromancers out there, but though it sounded as she knew more, she didn’t want to talk about the potential threat of there being a sworn brotherhood of necromancers in An-Teng. Instead she warned me that someone was unravelling the sorcerous working that laid over An-teng, a working the solars made during the early years of the first age. She alluded to it potentially being a Solar, and reminded me that all Solars might not agree with our course of action, they might have goals of their own.
At any rate, that was all the conversation we had time for, she was going to head to Adorned With Wisdom As A Sapphire, to hopefully learn more, but promised to finish our conversation before she left. I continued reworking my calculations as well as the designs for Silver Shield’s sword, but soon it was time to carry out the ‘execution’. I met with Keemia outside the temple where she had prepared seats for all three of us. I got to my seat next to hers as the final “criminal” was led to the other prisoners. Shadow Edge had infiltrated as he said he would, and was scorned and tormented like the others. The heavy oak chair cracked underneath my grip, but I kept myself form acting. Jaina, in an eerily well-made disguise sat next to us instead of Noble Friend Shadow Edge.
Keemia began with an awe-inspiring speech, not a syllable escaped the enraptured audience and as she ended I moved in to finally do my duty in all of this. I ignored the crowd, focusing merely on the task at hand, waiting for the signal from the Mercury Ant. Finally the signal that everyone had evacuated was given, and so letting out a final breath, I struck. I had studied the architecture of the place carefully and knew what and where to strike, and the force of the blow caused the temple to crumple in on itself. It was incredibly loud, but strangely, as the building collapsed I thought I heard a shrill scream, quickly cut off as the temple fell. It was probably merely the wind.
I turned to the crowd, after the loud fall of the temple, now all was deathly quiet. In the distance I could see the Fire Duck approaching, but I dismissed her and spoke to them, declaring the end of whatever rage and madness they had been consumed by. Their anger and hatred for those not punished would be buried along with the temple. So to their obsession with death, my words an order for the Mercury Ant to crumble the tomb. This would be a new age where life and those still living would be more important than the dead. Even as I said the words, I felt the hypocrisy in them, considering my latest drawings, and my still very much real feelings for my fallen friends, but I swallowed those thoughts and carried on. I presented them Brother Biraku and his converted monks and that they would aid them. And so I went on, praising life above death, and as my speech came to an end, they took my words to heart and the celebrations began.
2 + 1
A Test of Character
After my speech and as the celebrations were starting Keemia and Jaina, still disguised as Dear Friend Shadow Edge, approached me. Jaina in particular seemed to appreciate my speech and said she was proud to call me friend. Hearing that from her, and perhaps especially due to her disguise made me at ease, driving out much of the stress that had been mounting these last few days.
The two then walked off to meet with Shadow Edge and the convicted. We had decided to trust Jaina with guarding them and she would go with them. My duty meanwhile was to be seen. I went around town being celebrated, but for the majority of the evening I sat and drank alongside the Prince. He like me seemed to be aware that it was still too soon to celebrate. The real challenges lay ahead of us. But, for now, circumstances dictated that celebrating was what the people needed and so we did.
During that time, the Flame Duck reported back to me. She told me that she had met the Ifrit Jahandar Shammar, the Righteous Inferno, who bested the Dynast Ragara Yartal, whose wits solved the puzzle of the dragon Wong Bongerok, whose handsome form seduced Queen Neskarah, and whose hammer forged the daiklave Iron Rapture, and he was coming to see me. I considered dispersing her now that her task was complete like I had done with the Mercury Ant, but once again I found myself having difficulties viewing her the same way as that alien creature, to end her on a whim after having served me. Perhaps it was due to the feelings I had put into her creation, feelings of hope for a new age that I did not want to fade away.
It was an unusual situation for me, so I decided that for now, treat her as I would any other subordinate and reward her by allowing her to join the festivities. The Prince helped to arrange suitable clothing for her and so the night went on. Shortly before dawn; Jahandar Shammar, the Righteous Inferno, who bested the Dynast Ragara Yartal, whose wits solved the puzzle of the dragon Wong Bongerok, whose handsome form seduced Queen Neskarah, and whose hammer forged the daiklave Iron Rapture entered the square and called out to me. He wanted proof of my virtue and wanted to test me through combat.
The fight was brief, but long enough for him to show his character and he quickly admitted my strength. He was a fine warrior, despite claiming not to be one. Not a match for the chosen of Sol Invictus, but still a good representative of his kind. My dear friends were soon beside me after the fight and it seemed as though Keemia in particular was interested in him, or perhaps more specifically, in his lord; Aryabatha, and the possibilities of recovering the secrets of her families lost trade routes from him.
Eventually the topic came around to why I had sent for him, and as I had hoped and half expected, he was more than willing to assist us in our endeavor. It was a challenge and few Ifrits shy away from such. I went with him to the blacksmith where we continued our conversation; I talked to him about his martial arts and whether or not he knew of a master of The Dreaming Pearl Courtesan Style, and a potential teacher for Dear Friend Keemia. He told me he knew of one back at Kalimsha, Mumtaz Mahal. She would test her and so be convinced of my friend’s virtue.
Soon after, Keemia joined us in the smithy and told us about how she had been insulted. I immediately wanted to jump in, the very thought of it profane to me. But she assured me that it was nothing and Jahandar Shammar, the Righteous Inferno, who bested the Dynast Ragara Yartal, whose wits solved the puzzle of the dragon Wong Bongerok, whose handsome form seduced Queen Neskarah, and whose hammer forged the daiklave Iron Rapture was more than willing to go with her. It seemed best to give the two some privacy if that was what they wanted, and reassured that things were going well and that our new friend would protect Keemia’s honour, I headed back to the Manse.
A Tear in the Tapestry
As I entered the manse’s library, I saw Pearl researching several texts but apparently without result. We went over what had happened and once again I shared everything I knew on the matter, yet she still chose to keep things from me. She claimed it was because her role was to know, not to believe and for that reason, she would go to Adorned With Wisdom As A Sapphire and hopefully learn more. We also spoke of the Satrap’s sorceress envoy to Kalimsha. There was a risk that the Dragon Blooded might risk opening up Creation’s borders to the Raksha by enlisting the elementals to fight in their petty wars. It was possible we would have to go there before aiding Rainbow Claw, especially if there was a teacher for Keemia there as well.
Pearl gave me some advice regarding the court and then left to prepare for her travel. I meanwhile began reading up on my friend’s family and history alongside with that of the region. It would seem her family was originally called Jalan and were prominent merchant princes before they were set low. I wonder which version of her name she prefers. Be it Jelang or Jelan, I will help her to far exceed any of her family if that is what she strives towards.
I spend the rest of the day reading about her until I was interrupted by the guard’s captain. He told me that Keemia was preparing to leave. First I was worried but then realized that Jahandar Shammar, the Righteous Inferno, who bested the Dynast Ragara Yartal, whose wits solved the puzzle of the dragon Wong Bongerok, whose handsome form seduced Queen Neskarah, and whose hammer forged the daiklave Iron Rapture must have told her of the master and Keemia in her excitement had already begun packing. I hurried through the manse, pleased that she was looking forward to it so.
As she let me into her room, it quickly became clear that that was not the reason she was packing her things. She had had an argument with Shadow Edge, the two had fought, hurled insults and knives at each other. They were no longer willing to travel together, they were no longer friends.
A blow, far worse than any that Arackon ever mustered, shook me to my very core and I was surprised to find myself still standing. I made vague pleas for Keemia to stay while I went to talk to Shadow Edge. The short way from the guest rooms to the gardens felt like miles, and as Shadow Edge finished training Brilliant Veil and walked over to me, it was clear that he felt similarly to Keemia.
He echoed much of what Keemia had said and even though he said that he did not take any offense to me, it was possible that he was merely being kind, trying to spare my feelings. I tried to explain that it was likely a misunderstanding, that they were friends, but my words had little effect on them. I pleased with him not go as well and wait for Dawn. Things would surely be better tomorrow.
I spent the night awake, waiting and thinking about my friends. What had I been getting excited about? What would Keemia care about if I had learned more about her family? I was nothing to her, a man she happened across less than a month ago. Likewise Shadow Edge, he had his rebellion to prioritize, friends he had here and now, friends that he remembered.
They would leave me. They would leave me and once again I would be alone. What was I thinking, planning on overtaking the Realm? I was just one man, exalted or not, without my friends I am nothing. Less than nothing, I had failed to uphold the vow I had made to myself not to lay with any other than the one I loved. Now I was merely a whore, dirtied and soiled. Perhaps it was fortunate I had not yet met Galatea. I could not bear to see the disappointment in her face. That is, if she even remembered me in the first place.
Such thoughts filled my head as time went on, until finally dawn rose and I went to eat breakfast with them. We sat down at a table, the conversation was formal and forced. But there was a conversation, and I clung to that fact as hard as I could. My friends agreed to work together for now and we agreed to set our focus towards Kalimsha. Brilliant Veil would go with us, as part of the oath between Keemia and The Prince, so too would Shadow Edge’s mercenary. She was apparently alongside Nonya the source of my friends fight. It worried me but since they accepted it, so would I. I would accept anything just as long as we stayed together.
As we were leaving, Keemia surprised me by asking me about my drawings. She asked to see them and I of course said yes, even though it was somewhat embarrassing. First I helped organize some plans for a new irrigation system and as Keemia came to pick them up, she alongside Shadow Edge joined me in my room. I realized things had not been resolved with my friends, but the two joining me together still brought a smile to my face.
I showed them some of the portraits I had made of them, Janira Baccaran, the Kind Thief and Takeshi the Poet and then finally the picture with all of us together. I noticed myself getting excited as I told them about our friendship, not just Gao, Takeshi and Janira, but Clear Sky and of course about Galatea. Keemia asked me about the sixth person in the picture. The young girl on top of Gao’s shoulders, she who would grow up to be my wife and she who would betray us; Medea, younger sister of Galatea. I did not go into details as I did not want to mar this memory. It was precious to me; it was the first time Galatea and brought us to the village and sister she loved so much. It was during that moment, as her presence felt warmer than the sun on my skin that I fell in love with her.
It…seemed as though some of my emotions had been brought to the surface, as Keemia assured me that we would find her. Just hearing her say that calmed much of my worries from last night and I was again thankful for having her by my side. I answered a few more of their questions and told them of our brotherhood, and of our friendship. Hoping that some part of them would be reminded of the bond they shared between each other…and with me.
Finally Shadow Edge continued and explained what to expect from the jungle and what to prepare and what I should do and should not do. I burned it into my memory, determined not to disappoint him.
And so preparations were made, I talked with the two sisters and prepared them for what was to come and the next day I met everyone outside of town. It was a curious expedition, Keemia in particular contrasting with how she usually looked, but remained as fair as always. Shadow Edge gave us all one final cautionary warning and so we headed into the jungle. As we entered, I wondered what to expect in there and how to use it to help guide my friends back together.