Virtues Forged Through Hardships

Leadership

Keemia led me back to her mansion and tended to my wounds. I don’t really remember the procedure; I forced my mind to wander to avoid focusing on the pain, until sleep finally claimed me. Despite the pain I slept well, secure in whom I was and who were with me.

Shadow Edge entered as I woke, immediately going about preparing breakfast for us. The rice was overcooked and had gotten a soggy, but it was one of the finest meals I had ever eaten. It was the first gift from my friends since our rebirth. Little Rainbow Claw woke up soon afterwards as did Kamui who ate with us and then left to see to his family. Claw went soon after to get her clothes back. As they left, Jaina entered the room.

Once again there was tension between us. We might have been allies in stopping the dragonblooded from destroying Resounding Bells, but that did not mean that she viewed herself as our ally, and might decide that I was the next threat that had to be dealt with.
Instead of tiptoeing around it, I pointed out that now might be the best chance she’d ever have of taking me down if that was what she was after, gauging her reaction. I had no intention of letting her kill me should she try, but I didn’t move as she silently walked towards me, drawing water around her hands. I waited for her to make her move, and then she finally did, and cleaned my wounds.

She made it clear that she was still not sure about me, so she would follow me and decide on it for herself. She asked what should be done with the legionaries who had murdered the lord and lady of Resounding Bells. I told her that they deserved death for what they had done, they might have been merely following orders, but they chose to carry them out. That said, there was little point in raising tensions in the city yet again by searching for them. If the soldiers managed to escape the judgement of the rebellion and the jungles outside, then so be it. Jaina agreed, but Shadow Edge had more to say.

If the legionaries deserved death, then surely so did Jaina. She had taken part in the slaughter of his village by Arackon’s orders. His pain was so evident that it felt as though it was my own; the loss of his family and friends was an open wound far worse than my own. It pained me to go against him in this, but I said what I knew was right, despite the fact I knew both of them would likely disagree.

The difference between the legionaries and Jaina, the one that mattered, was that she was exalted and they were not. It was a cruel, unfair statement. Jaina had already shown her disgust at people thinking themselves better than others but the fact is that the Exalted are, by their very nature, better than those who are not. We are better than they, we have to be. That is the only hope Creation has to survive.

There is no doubt that Jaina was part of something horrible. Her reasons, to protect her mother who had been taken hostage was an understandable one, but they did not bring back the people that Shadow Edge had lost. She could, however redeem herself by aiding us. Killing her would do us little good. Shadow Edge seemed to agree, but made it clear that he would not forgive her.

Jaina took that opportunity to leave. It was only then I really noticed Arackon’s great daiklave… Stormreaver, strapped to Shadow Edge’s back. It brought back hazy memories from yesterday’s battle. He had claimed it, during the previous battle. It also brought back memories of Keemia’s valor, and if on cue, Keemia returned. She had spent the night organizing the city and preventing chaos to spread rampant across the people. She asked me how I was doing, and to my surprise I was doing far better than I should be. Her powers, more subtle than my own, and possibly even those of Shadow Edge, was no less potent.

She asked me what should be the next step, who should be the next lord of Resounding Bells. I suggested her affiliates in the Guild, they would be easy to control and would also have an invested interest in the wellbeing of the city. The problem was, of course, The Star Jasmine Princess. We knew little about her and both I and Keemia distrusted her, to one degree or another. She claimed to be an Exigent of the Pale Mistress, and if so her ruling the city would be a cause for worry, it might even break The Golden Lord’s blessing on the city. So I suggested that we sought further information and asked the Golden Lord directly. My friends seemed perplexed by this notion, still not remembering our authority or our friendship with the Lord. Keemia was about to prepare the offerings necessary for the ritual but stopped, and asked me about what it meant to be Solar Exalted, and more specifically, our lifespan. I told her what I knew, that we had the honour to protect Creation for thousands of years, possibly even longer with various magicks and rituals.

To my surprise the answer did not seem to please her, and then I remembered the background noise back when I gave my thanks to The Most High, a daughter. I understood. Being exalted meant continuing to live on, while those who once knew and remembered you withered and died. I understood her pain… I told her what little I knew, that it should theoretically be possible to extend a mortal’s lifespan, perhaps even share it with that of an Exalt, but I did not know how or at what cost. She then asked me what our purpose was, what we were supposed to do. I tried to explain about our glorious past, about the titans that we vanquished so that Creation could be free, and that the mandate was then given to us Solars to govern Creation. She did not seem to listen much, but decided then that she would do her duty and in return, The Unconquered Sun would exalt her daughter.

I… did not know if such a thing could be done, if it should be done. It might very well be considered heresy. I did not know if it was possible, but I promised that I would aid my friend as best I could. Keemia nodded and went back to work. Little Rainbow Claw returned soon after, once again wearing what remained of her lintha garb. Only then did she inquire whether or not we had won, if all the dragonblooded had been killed. We explained that all of them save for Jaina. She immediately questioned this, I tried to explain and even Noble Shadow Edge gave a halfhearted plea in her defense. This was not enough for Claw however, she wanted blood for what she had done, but explained that at times, when a shipmate had killed someone or made a serious crime, instead of simply killing them, they let the family members strap the criminal on to the mast and flog them. She suggested this as a compromise, and it was clear that she would not budge. If she would ever accept Jaina among us, and to avoid future bloodshed between the two, it had to be done. Without really thinking about it, I offered to take her place.

At the time, I couldn’t say precisely way I volunteered, beyond knowing that we needed Jaina and her cooperation, but I knew that was not the only reason, it was an answer made by reflex rather than thought. I did not have much time to dwell on the matter however, as Keemia had finished the preparations. Claw accepted to have me take Jaina’s place after our business at the temple was over and so we all set out towards The Golden Lord’s Temple.

As we got to temple, Shadow Edge and his friend Ririka went aside to pray for the soul of his father. Meanwhile Keemia joined us in her finest regalia, a stark contrast to my bloodied and torn farmer clothes, but it was only fitting as this symbolized both aspects of The Golden Lord’s splendor. I wrote down the contract, set alight the offerings and called out to my old friend for guidance. First there was silence, and then, a large statue sitting on a throne began moving.

Sadly our old friend was busy, but his trusted vassal, Hammer on Brass heard our call of materialized. My disappointment was nulled however as the god said that our old friend remembered us, remembered me, and was defending our case amongst the gods of Yu-Shan. The other members merely seemed startled by the gods appearance however, Shadow Edge going so far as to stay in the back, as if thinking he might not be worthy of speaking to a god. I however sat down comfortably in front of Hammer on Brass as he did the same, and I and Keemia brought up our worries about the Star Jasmine Princess. Instead of abating our fears however, Hammer on Brass’ answers only worsened them. There was no report of The Pale Mistress creating any exigents, which meant that either she had betrayed Creation, or what the Princess told me was a lie. After much discussion, we decided that it was unlikely that The Pale Mistress had betrayed us in this way, since subtlety was not in her nature. This meant that either the Princess had lied to us, or she herself had been lied to.

As we were about to leave to visit the Princess, Shadow Edge stopped me. He wanted to tell me that he had started to believe. He might not remember Janira or the bonds that tied us, but it seemed that hearing about how the Golden Lord knew of us, had rekindled his faith and he had chosen to place that faith in me and expressed his willingness to follow me. That were I led, he would follow. I was of course honored by this high praise from my dear friend, but the wording troubled me. I told him that there was no need for him to follow my lead, that we should walk side by side, like brothers, but he remained adamant. I told him that I was not qualified to lead a group like ours; such was the preview of our Zenith, wise and beautiful Galatea. But alas, his mind was set and with a pained and heavy heart I resolved to do my best until we found Galatea and she could lead us to usher in a new age.

We went to see the Princess to find answers. She had already set up quarters within the palace, being guarded by her Erymanthoi. I questioned her about her powers origin, and it genuinely seemed as though she believed what she said, but Cunning Shadow Edge tracked the very scent of her essence, and learned that her exaltation could not have come from the jungled of An-Teng. This meant that it was almost certain that her Exaltation had been granted through the machinations of the demons or some other enemy of Creation. We brought the Princess back to the temple, and once more consulted Hammer on Brass. Sadly little could be learned, and in the end, it would fall on us to decide whether to trust the Princess or not.

We had the rest of the day to think about it as Keemia got to work with preparing the oaths that the new lord would have to swear by, while myself, Shadow Edge, Little Rainbow Claw and Jaina had to settle our own disputes. Jaina had been quiet and kept to herself during the audience with Hammer on Brass and was startled when I called out to her to follow. I did not explain what was going on to her, even as we met up with Claw and her newly acquired whip. Only as we stood inside one of Keemia’s storehouses did I tell her our purpose for going there. I had waited with telling her, since I myself did not yet fully understand why I had decided to take her punishment. But as I stood inside that room, I began to understand.

It is true that I felt a kinship with Jaina due to our past, but that was merely a small part of it, a larger and much more significant part was that I had a use for her. I needed her if I were to hope to ever recruit more Dragonblooded to our cause and restore order. But there was a third reason, and I had a feeling it was the driving force behind it all, I remembered. I remembered a core principle that Gao had during his command. That if someone had chosen to follow you, to fight for you, and possibly die for you, then it was your duty to protect them in turn, and you would always be ultimately responsible for their actions.

I understood that this situation was different, Jaina had not sworn fealty to me when she said she would follow me nor had she committed her crime while under my command, but I felt that if I were to ever expect her, or any other who might follow me to live up to my expectations, then so must I. And so I undressed and let Claw hang me up from the ceiling. I worried at first that it would be like the punishment back at Steel Lotus, or the kind some clients payed extra for. It was nothing like that… the pain was soul searing, the pain of her loss channeled in each strike. My instincts told me to break my bonds or harden my skin, but I refused as I saw the blood seeping from Claw’s own hands as she clenched the whip with all her strength. I remembered my teaching and endured, sharing in her and Shadow Edge’s suffering. And with that it was over. After the 39th stroke of the whip, Claw stopped and I broke myself free. My body ached, but I could see that some measure of reconciliation and acceptance on Claw’s face that hadn’t been there before. Jaina’s face was unreadable as usual, but she averted her gaze when I looked at her. Claw went to mourn White Tusk at the opium den as I left Shadow Edge and Jaina to say their peace to one another.

Shadow Edge and Keemia soon joined me in Keemias mansion, and after a brief explanation for my current state of being, we returned to the discussion of the Star Jasmine Princess. After long deliberation, we concluded that she was the only candidate who the people would follow without causing more blood shedding, at least for the moment. There were many questions and worries about her, but she seemed to be the best candidate.
Shadow Edge was quick to say that while he would not mind the Princess as the ruler, he could not in good conscious bring himself to be the one to do it. Similarly, Keemia abstained from being the one to pass judgement since she would be biased. She also didn’t feel comfortable making such a decision. And so it fell on me.

I was the one who ultimately had to choose if we should entrust the people of Resounding Bells to a potential akuma. It would be my responsibility if Resonding Bells was lost, and whatever ripple effect that would cause for the rest on An-Teng. Everyone seemed to want me to lead, to make decisions, and as a Solar Exalted I was supposed to be able to do that, I just didn’t know how.

2+1

Responsibility

There wasn’t time for second guessing, if my friends had left the act to me, then there was little reason to doubt them. I asked Keemia to wrap up my wounds and she generously provided us with clothes to wear for the ceremony. She even arranged the clothes and accessories in accordance with our castes’ colours. Wearing the clothes seemed odd, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, as if different memories collided with one another. While the silk itself wasn’t uncomfortable, my wounds in combination with the unfamiliar sensation made me walk more stiffly than usual. Shadow Edge on the other hand wore his clothes with ease, walking with an almost feminine sway about him, similar to that of Janira. None the less it was comforting to see my friend so comfortable in his newfound role.

We rode towards the palace on elephants, as befitting the “Elephant-Riding Ghost Generals”, as they had come to calling us. Even rash Wai Kei was amazed by our entrance as she greeted us. We strode into the palace as one, noticing idly the relative splendor that the people had managed to orchestrate in the short timeframe. We made our way to face to The Star Jasmine Princess to give her my blessing. I spoke to her in Old Realm, to keep up the image of grandeur and mysticism, but also so that I could have a chance to speak frankly with her. I warned her that should she take up her title, then she would be under far more scrutiny in regards to her power’s origin. I warned her that if she, what she was or what she represented became a threat to the people of Resounding Bells or Creation, then I would have to remove her. She did not hesitate, she admitted the risk that she was compromised (the first time she had done so), but refused to let that control her, she wished to be a just ruler and that was what she was going to be. There were still questions, still worries but her words rang true, and so I proclaimed that in the eyes of heaven as well as in those of man, she was worthy. I hoped I had not made a terrible mistake.

Keemia continued in her role as the lore master, reciting the oaths The Star Jasmine would swear by. It was a long procedure, but as she had finished and asked the princess to confirm her oaths, her words suddenly carried a familiar weight behind them, and as the Princess agreed, I saw my friend for who she truly was, as did everyone in the palace. My heart overflowed with emotion, joy, pride…loss. It was an impressive display.

With that the Princess was crowned and the feast began. It was clear that the Princess had remembered who had aided her to her throne, Lady Fishhook, the Keena siblings and their gang and of course, friend Kamui had been acknowledged by her with new elevated stations and honorary seats during the feast. It spoke well of her character.

I looked on at everyone enjoying themselves, celebrating. Shadow Edge was dancing and playing with his friend, Ririka and Keemia’s daughter. And Keemia exchanged pleasantries with the other guests. Everyone was celebrating one way or another but I found it difficult to join them and again I felt very alone. In fact many seemed to actively avoid me, perhaps out of reverence or perhaps out of fear. They had seen what I had done to my enemies after all.

I felt on edge, of course we had won, and we should be proud of what we had accomplished but it had been difficult. I had almost been slain, once again failing my circle and for what? The liberation of a small city on the outskirts of Creation. It was unfair of me to say so I knew, coming here had led me to reunite with Takes…Keemia and it was the city Shadow Edge grew up in, and I will forever be grateful for that. It was a city that mattered a lot to the both of them, but at the same time I couldn’t shake the thought that this was but a very minor victory in the grand scale of things. Thousands upon thousands cities yet remained. It felt like it wasn’t enough. That I wasn’t nearly enough.

Barely had that thought been voiced in my head before I felt my teacher’s presence next to me. She had disappeared after that brief sighting after the celebration of Somchai. She barely exchanged much in ways of greetings nor did she ask what had happened since our last meeting, instead she asked about my two friends. She did not trust them, even Shadow Edge who she had wrongly accused still seemed to be under suspicion. She even seemed to doubt their exaltations, even when I myself had seen Keemia draw her Second breath. Something had caused my teacher to be even more suspicious than usual, something worried her. I tried to calm her, explain that they were my old friends, yet she questioned even that. Was it truly friendship if it only went one way? I swallowed my heated response, and with that she left, telling me to prepare for the continuation of my training at Dawn.

Her words had shattered what little enjoyment I had for the feast, and I took my leave when I had a chance. Shadow Edge waited for me, he had spoken with Pearl and asked if I trusted her. It was a complicated question, much like the relationship I had with my teacher itself. I trusted her in her ability and willingness to hone me into a weapon capable of standing against the Realm on equal footing. But I did not know where my friends fit in her plans, especially considering her mistrust in them. So I warned him to be cautious of her. He then asked me if I trusted him, and I was taken aback by the absurdity of the question. He understood and clasped my shoulders as I willed my body not to flinch away at his touch. I did not know why, but it seemed as though he wanted to reaffirm his friendship to me, his friendship to me, Rakios. Not that between Janira or Gao. His words were bittersweet, but he did say he was thankful that he was no longer alone. These thoughts alone strengthened me, but they did not shake my unease. My friend trusted me, even trusted me to guide him. I was not nearly good enough. My meeting with my teacher had reaffirmed it; I needed to continue my training, for their sake.

I waited out the night out in the palace garden, I noticed Jaina out on an island nearby. She had cut her hair and once again changed her clothes. It seemed that she was preparing the stage for the death of Cynis Jaina. We acknowledged one another, but kept our distance. And so the night past and as Dawn rose, Pearl was once again with me, ready to continue our training.

Before I began, I challenged my teacher about her accusations of Shadow Edge. Her guidance nearly caused me to slay a dear friend. She apologized to me for failing in her role as adviser, but would not apologize to Shadow Edge. I was the one who had acted rashly; I was the one ultimately responsible. I did not have the luxury of blaming others for my actions, I was Solar Exalted. I had to be responsible. I had to be perfect.

Het words cut deep but I could hear the truth in them. And so I prepared to continue my training. The training, like most of Pearl’s lessons was simple and uncomplicated. I would be hung upside down from a tree above a fire and stare up onto The Most High, while my teacher tortured me. Any flaws on my part, any failures in my ability to focus, was not punished, it merely meant that my teacher would start over again.

The pain was different from that I felt from Claw, there was no emotion behind it, no feelings of loss guiding it. It was merely cold, calculated abuse meant to hurt but not injure me. And it did. By the gods it did. Her verbal abuse meant little, reminding me of who I was before my Second Breath was unpleasant, but I knew it had little to do with me now, I could block it out. So to the spear thrusts, I was able to follow the sun despite the pain. Then I heard my friend’s voice next to me and my focus shattered. I did not wish my friend to see me like this, for him to worry about me, for him to witness my weakness.

My friend behaved oddly, as though finding my condition amusing. His words were strange and I was unable to see the humor the way he did. Perhaps it was meant to be part of my training as he soon joined my teacher in her games. I failed to see how this could benefit my training, preferring fire and burning coals to their mockery. I had begun to once again find a focus as I dimply heard the two speak of dancing followed by my master delivering a hash blow to my friend, sending him flying. I knew it was a trick, I knew it was meant to distract me, but it did not matter. I forcibly broke free and used the same bonds that he tied me to throttle my teacher.

I knew it was a test, and even more reason to firmly set down some ground rules early before she got any further ideas. I would accept her teachings, the pain, the humiliation, but I wanted to make it clear that I would not allow her to hurt my friends as a way to teach me. She warned me to free her, but in my stubbornness I refused, not having patience for more of her games. It turned out that was a mistake, my teacher could have healed my friend had I let go, but the window of time had passed. At least she claimed that was the case. I sighed, once again feeling weary. She told me that I had to have more faith in my friends. That I could not always be there to protect them. I disagreed, it was not that I did not trust my friends’ competence, but I would be there for them regardless. They would never have to fight alone. “Even at the cost of the lives of others? One thousand, ten thousand? Protecting the lives of those of an entire city or that of your friend. Which would you choose?” I… could not give her an answer.

I accepted my ignorance and cursed myself for my friend’s wounds and once again returned to the tree. As I focused on The Once-Guarding Star, I continued with my training, but once again I was drawn out as I heard my friend’s parting words to Pearl, “Teacher”. That worried me. The speed my friend had accepted her teachings and what that would mean for him. Again the pain returned as the image of the Unconquered Sun blurred in front of my eyes.

As dusk settled and I could no longer follow His journey, my training ended. My teacher explained that I was to return there earlier the next day, before dawn to repeat the exercise. I walked home, slowly. Every inch of my body protesting each step until I finally returned to Keemia’s estate. I interrupted their meal; the poor child was frightened by my appearance. I could not blame her, even her mother seemed taken aback by it.

Keemia offered to clean my wounds and I gratefully accepted, but asked her not to heal them. I needed them for tomorrows training. She asked me why I was doing this, for what possible reason did I put myself through this.

The long day had but broken my resolve, and my voice broke as the shame and pain resurfaced. I had failed them once. I would never let that happen again, no matter the cost.

2+1

Understanding.

The pain continued. Each morning, before The Most High rose to the skies, I met my teacher underneath the tree and the training continued. Pearl knew well what she was doing, as soon as she noticed me getting accustomed to or at least prepared for one form of punishment she immediately switched to a new form of torment. My teacher was…creative. And so the days went on. The pain never truly got any easier, and as Sol Invictus began his march downwards on the third day, I felt my body begin to tear, the pain and wounds slowly eating away at me. My teacher had taught me sutras meant to distract me from the pain, to bind my body together but they were failing me. But I kept staring into the sun. If there was so much as a chance it would help in preventing me from failing my friends in this life as well, then I could not, would not give up.

As I slowly grew unable to continue reciting the sutras in my mind, and the pain began surging throughout my body, tears began clouding my eyes and during that time I no longer merely stared at The Most High, I looked at him. My passive stare, explained as a further form of torment, a way to force me to focus, turned into an admiring gaze at his radiant splendor. With it came an understanding; The Once-Guarding Star did not shy away from pain or attacks, Ignis Divine did not try to ignore them, The Unconquered Sun faced such things unwaveringly, absorbing them, bolstering him, fueling his everlasting radiance. Why should I attempt to act differently?

What was I doing, cowering behind prayers and sutras, whimpering over wounds that now seemed small and insignificant. I was Solar Exalted and I would not be broken.

I idly noticed that my teacher had stopped her barrage of attacks, she merely stared, no, looked at me. As the sun set I knew that our training was over and that I would never need to be bound by these, or indeed any chains again, and with a measure of satisfaction tore myself free.

My teacher remained silent, she did not continue with her normal confident lecturing but merely acknowledged that I had moved a step or two in the right direction. It was likely the closest thing to a compliment I had gotten from my teacher, and to my surprise I felt a measure of pride from hearing it. I could not bring myself to resent my teacher, no matter what words or punishment she might throw at me and no matter the cold and detached way she conducted her teachings, looking into her eyes during moments like these, it was always clear that she did what she felt she had to do to prepare me. Thinking back, throughout the three days, throughout all the different ways she tried to break my focus and bring me pain, she never once tried the one thing she knew would cause me the most harm, she never tried to touch me. That alone spoke something about my teacher and once again I was glad to have her guidance.

She told me that she would not hurt any of my friends again. I was relieved, but did not thank her, but simply agreed, she would not. We had come to an understanding, and with it the training was over. As my teacher left and I went back to Keemia, the surge of energy my realization had brought me slowly began to fade, but parts of it, something deeper, something more still remained. I felt my essence awakening.

I entered Keemias house and inside was Jaina who I hadn’t seen since that brief exchange during the ceremony. She was shocked and confused by my appearance but quickly reapplied her mask of calm indifference and explained that she would follow me as my chamberlain. I was surprised by this, I had not planned for her to be a servant, the dragonblooded served the Solars yes, but they were still Exalted. They were our soldiers and lieutenants but…at the same time, Jaina was not a soldier nor did she have the training to be a lieutenant. As chamberlain she would be able to judge my character and be in a position to advise me. If that was the way she had chosen to follow me, I suppose it would do. There was little time to discuss it further however as Thoughtful Friend Keemia asked to finally tend to my wounds. They might have felt less significant but they were still many of them, and the process of tending to them was arduous and time consuming and in my exhaustion I shamefully fell asleep in the process.

I woke, the dawn emanating from outside, or was it from inside? Once again felt the proof of my training and my understanding of the world and of myself. I rose alongside Shadow Edge. He looked at me curiously and hesitantly asked if Dawn had broken. No, never again. He seemed to have understood the change in my essence, perhaps thanks to his keen senses. He asked me questions about it and I answered as best I could. It surprised me how much he still did not know or understand about his exaltation, it was inexcusable for me not to have taught my friend better, it simple never occurred to me that he would know so little about it. He truly did not remember anything…

I explained that we are all blessed differently, with different strengths. And he understood that his senses were his and his alone. We went outside into the kitchen and gazed out to watch Keemia and her loyal servant and friend Denpazar dance with one another. It was a curious dance, passionate yet reserved, strict yet with an amazing room for freedom and improvisation. Suddenly one of Keemia’s sleeves lashed out and wrapped around Denpazar’s arm, dragging him to his knees. Only then did I understand the subtle danger in their movements.

Much like Shadow Edge’s confusion about his senses, Keemia asked me about what had happened. It was a martial art, but what she had done was something more. I explained that that was what it meant to be Exalted, everything she was had simply become more so, polished and honed by her essence and her martial art reflected it.

Once again I was honoured to receive Shadow Edge’s overcooked and unspiced noodles for breakfast and then excused myself. I wanted to speak with Hammer on Brass before leaving. Not only was he a trusted vassal of The Golden Lord, he had shown us hospitality and aided us and deserved our farewell.

As I entered the temple the priests, now understanding who and what I was, made way for me as I walked over to my friend. He materialized on his own accord and we said our goodbyes as friends. I asked him to keep an eye one the princess, while I had begun to trust her, the power, or rather the price she had to pay for that power was still unclear. He agreed to do so, and said he would call should the city be in danger. He also told me of his sister, Silver Shield, another vassal of The Golden Lord and guardian deity of the Jade Plum Citadel. We grasped hands and I left to join the others at Keemia’s Barge.

Everyone were ready and waiting for me, Keemia and her child Nonja and her trusted servant Chulei, Shadow Edge and his friend Ririka, Jaina, Flawless Pearl and.. a balding man with poorly written Old Realm scribbled on his clothes. I remembered him from when we first entered Resounding Bells, he was a loud mouthed exorcist that went by the name Ghaspasar.

I was confused by his presence but my teacher explained that his skills would be useful. And as Generous Keemia had agreed to hire him, he joined us as we set off on Keemia’s barge. We set off and made good speed. We talked amongst ourselves but very little was said, the battle of Resounding Bells had been draining on us, and we enjoyed the opportunity to rest and let the stress of battle be washed away. Tiny Nonja, child of Keemia, approached me one day as I was explaining some of Ghaspasar’s failings in his Old Realm. She inquired about many things, but I did not know how to properly respond to her, I had not spent any time with children besides during the time I was one, and even then…I was forced to grow up quickly. I sought memories from Gao to help me, but they were clouded, painful, as though he was keeping those memories sealed from me.

It meant I had little information to draw on, and I fear I might have just confused the child. She told me I was nothing like friend Shadow Edge, and the small child words weighed heavy on me. Perhaps I was not. On the fifth day we finally arrived, honored servant of Keemia, Chulei told us to prepare for an amazing sight as the jungle and trees thinned around us and opened up for the view of Jade Plum Citadel. As one, my friends drew in their breaths and gazed in wonder. I merely stared in despair.

Before us, along the mountain leading to the Citadel was one of the First Age’s waterlocks, meant to be able to transport ships to the top of the mountain. A beautiful and ingenious work of engineering…ruined. The waterlocks had fallen into disrepair, presumably the Dragonblooded had not known how or cared enough to maintain it, and instead it had broken down and been claimed by the jungle, turning instead into a mere hanging garden. Was this the fate of all the wonders of the first age?

I was no artist, but I wanted to preserve at least my meager understanding of the waterlock. I had used similar devices many times during the battles to protect Creation. I borrowed some ink and paper and tried to remember the waterlock as it once were, the simple and elegant mechanics that helped to pump the water, the machinery that constantly shifted the water, creating a mirage of light and colours, amplifying the beauty of the craftsmanship of the machinery overall.

I greeted an acquaintance of Keemia, a man named Kailoi who was an innkeeper and defacto leader of a small settlement that had grown at the feet of the mountain. But while he and Shadow Edge talked about a wooden statue standing on the outskirts, I continued with my calculations and drawings, hoping that one day the glories of the first age would no longer be forgotten. After speaking with Kailoi, Shadow Edge took off into the small settlement as we along with Keemia’s hired help began the long march up the mountain.

We had not gotten far however, before Shadow Edge came back with ill news. There was likely a Dragon blooded assassin within the Jade Plum Citadel, and he had killed the Prince’s wife. The Immaculate faith was strong within the Citadel which meant there were likely many places for the assassin to hide, but there was hope. A hermit going by the name of The Ash Prophet knew of the Celestial exalted, and had been gathering people to his cause. It was hard to say what would await us at the top of the crawling path to the citadel, all we could do was to take one step at the time, as the The Unconquered Sun gazed down upon us.

2 +1

Manners

We continued the long climb up the mountain and already did I notice the change in me. Despite the scorching sun and despite the hours of climbing, I felt little discomfort. The knowledge that the gaze of The Most High no longer drained my strength instead revitalized me. In fact after the past few days of rest, I almost felt like running up the enormous mountain pass. Instead I walked alongside my friend, keeping their pace and enjoying their company.

We reached the summit as dusk settled and Keemia sent off the workers along with her daughter and Shadow Edge’s friend Ririka. My teacher immediately took the balding exorcist along with her to begin working. Keemia then led me, Shadow Edge and Jaina to a teahouse where we ate and prepared for what was to come.

Keemia warned us about how the Prince prided himself in his ability to judge a person by how he ate and held himself. And so she described rules for what he would be looking out for. She would try to get an audience with the Prince as soon as possible tomorrow, but for now we had to prepare lodging. She would stay with her contacts, a merchant family called Rokan and knew that they would have room for us as well. There was a catch however, they were devout followers of the immaculate faith. They were hosts and friends of good Friend Keemia and I did not want to risk damaging her standing by speaking truths to her hosts. Instead I, and subsequently Jaina would spend the night at the temple of Silver Shield.

As the others left, Jaina asked me if I truly hated the Immaculate Faith and if so why. It was difficult to explain. I didn’t hate it so much what it represented. The order was supposed to help the less powerful Dragon Blooded to keep order in Creation. It had worked for a time, but it was clear now that they had failed. I did not hate those believing its lies; I hated those responsible for spreading them. I hated that they had spent countless generations spreading lies about the Celestial exalted. And I hated the fact that I had once believed them. The Dragon Blooded had stolen Creation from us, and by doing so caused countless deaths and suffering. The Order had tried to abate this but they had only been able to postpone the inevitable. The Order was proof that Creation needed to be saved from them.

Jaina confided that after her exaltation, she had planned to join the Order, but had instead chosen to join house Cynis to save her mother from poverty. Mother…I had not thought of my own mother in a long time, would I have sacrificed as much as Jaina to aid my own mother? The mother who had brought me up and raised me within…that place? I could not say, but I was thankful that Jaina had chosen the way she had, it would likely have been far more difficult to convince her to join us had she been trained by the Immaculates.

We found the temple within a large garden created by the large manse that dominated the city. I looked forward to seeing the temple of Brass on Hammer’s sister but what I found was…underwhelming. Something seemed off, the priestesses seemed far more concerned with their appearance than of their duties and when I saw Silver Shield’s statue, a proud young warrior goddess, she was missing her weapon. Surely she was a warrior like her brother, so why…?

It was late, so I simply gave my greetings to the God and went to rest. The temple’s accommodations for travelers were simple, especially so considering all the apparent petty wealth the priestesses had on display. None the less, Jaina fell asleep almost immediately and I too eventually fell asleep, wondering what was going on. I found some of my answers in my dreams. Inside of it, I moved inside the temple, entering Silver Shield’s sanctum. Who I saw in there was someone far different from the proud warrior depicted in the statue. She was fat, lazy and indulgent. She had thrown away her shield and instead busied herself caressing a mortal woman.

I was saddened to see one who friend Hammer on Brass had called sister reduced to this and I was angered that one who was supposed to be a loyal vassal of The Golden Lord had abandoned her duties. I tried to speak with her, but as soon as she noticed me, I was flung out of the sanctum and awoken. I did not know how much of the dream was real or not, but I was determined to find out the truth of what had happened to Silver Shield.

The rest of the night was uneventful and I woke up the next morning to the Morning Prayer. It was the old who led the ceremony as the priestesses slept in… I sat down to greet the sun and as I did noticed my teacher heading towards me. She had begun her project, but so far Ghaspasar had been unsuccessful. She explained that the dead had gotten restless. Something was agitating them and she feared that they might soon rise if they weren’t calmed. There was however little I could do to aid her in this worthy project and instead informed her of my own plans. I told her about Silver Shield and she explained that the god once wielded a mighty silver sword, but it would seem that Jade souls had taken it from her. I also asked her about the Prince and his late wife, Dawning Snow. She was originally a barbarian from the far north and the Prince had loved her dearly. And with that my teacher left, but in her place came Keemia’s trusted servant Chulei.

Keemia and Shadow Edge wanted me and Jaina to join them in front of the Prince’s manse and Chulei had brought with him clothes for me to wear. I went in to wake Jaina and while she readied herself, I asked one of the priestesses who had finally awoken about what had happened to Silver Shield’s sword. She was hesitant to speak of it, but explained that the Immaculates had come to the temple and punished her for voicing support for the rebellion. They had taken the sword from her and melted it, using its silver to adorn their immaculate scrolls…

This was the kind or arrogance that I truly hated about the Immaculates. In their shortsightedness, they had solved a perceived problem by subduing Silver Shield, and by doing so robbed Jade Plum Citadel of their guardian Deity. Not only that, they had done so to the sister of a friend. I wanted nothing but to enter the Immaculate temple and drive out the greedy and shallow minded fools who resided there and reclaim the stolen silver, but I had more pressing matters to attend to first, and sadly the chaos the would unfold was simply not something we had time for at the moment.

So I swallowed my anger and went to join the others along with Jaina. We were greeted by the châtelain and invited to…wait for the Prince. I reminded myself that this was a different time and it was not the Prince’s fault that the world were such where the Solar Exalted had to wait to be receive audience. Cautious Friend Keemia, seemed to notice my discomfort and asked me if I was always as direct and honest when dealing with people. While I’m sure my friend meant this as a compliment, I could not help but feel as though she feared that I would cause offence or appear tactless in front of the Prince.

Of course, to her some of my previous actions must have seemed strange and perhaps even arrogant and so while we waited I prepared to make sure I made a good impression that would aid my friend in her negotiations. I used the memory techniques my teacher had taught me and tried to remember as much as I could about Dawning Snow’s people, taking scraps of information from different sources and creating from it an image of their customs.

And so finally the meals and tables were prepared and we met Prince Josei of Notable Genius. We exchanged a few words and then began eating. I wanted to prove to my friend I was not a mere reckless and impulsive madman, and so I honored the Prince’s lost wife to the best of my ability. It was no mere act however, it was true that I wanted to aid my friend by making a good impression, but… I remembered the pain of love lost. Too rarely are people able to marry the ones they love, but he had managed to do so only to have her ripped from him. It was only right to try to honour the memory of our host’s loved one.

The meaning behind my action seemed to be understood by the prince as well as that of Keemia, and possibly even Cunning Shadow Edge, though a look of horror, quickly veiled, indicated that Jaina had not. The Prince began asking me questions which I answered honestly. Some answers were perhaps more information than Keemia had wanted us to share, but if we wanted the Prince as our ally I saw little reason to lie to him. Had we come here merely to use or depose him, then there had been little reason to tell him anything but the mere minimum, but Keemia had come seeking his aid, and so I told him what he wanted to know.

As the meal continued, we both shared our thoughts openly, as one should during times like these. The Prince suspected the Dragon blooded for the death of his wife, and he wanted vengeance. We would aid him and he would in turn aid us, starting with acknowledging The Star Jasmine Princess’ claim to Resounding Bells, an important first step to ensure continued stability in the region. Keemia would aid him with the preparations and Shadow Edge meanwhile would lead the chase for the assassin. I lacked the skill needed to move around the manse undetected, and so was left in charge to watch over the Prince’s daughters, who seemed to be the most likely target. I did not know what to expect from the time ahead. For the moment, all I could do was to wait for my friend to find the killer and hope that Keemia’s negations with the Prince would go smoothly and that I had in some way been able to aid my friend.

2 + 1

Virtues Forged Through Hardships

The Brotherhood of Virtue Riklurt Sydow