Imrama The scene opens with Imrama and Lucent in mid-discourse. "has severe limitations, obviously. And of course it has been misused many times as a flawed polemic against matriarchical systems. Nonetheless, Lucent, you cannot deny that the maxim has great precedent in literature. Consider the case of the Yeorwur twins and the Dame of Vermilion Veils."
Lucent "Well," Lucent sat on the garden, looking at the pastry on his hand, then at the demoness that had cooked it. Their alternatives to Birds just... were not... Birds. "You have to remember that the Sun was created to rule. Some try to see an implicit message there, without considering the relationship between Malfeas and the Lady of the Spheres."
Lucent "The Dame was a clear reaction against that. It is interesting to notice that she was so much like the Surkha herself, and how Mnemon wishes to be. Life imitates art, I wonder?" He bites it. Tasty. But not birds. "Hmmm, I wonder if some Sidereal wrote it."
Imrama raises his finger and opens his mouth to speak, withdraws both, takes a long pull on his pipe, and sits back in contemplation of Lucent's last point.
Imrama "Are you suggesting then a sort of prescient metaphor to explain the Epic Song of Hollow? Because that's an intriguing idea, but I think it only reinforces my point."
Lucent "I wonder now, if any stories would map to us as well as the dame did to Surkha?" He touches his chin, and gets prickled. Huh, beard. Annoying thing. What was it about growing up, anyway? "Yes, yes. See, even beyond rebelling against the standards of Celestial and Primordial court alike, it seems to feature archetypes that are... inherent to Creation, in their repetition."
Lucent "But I prefer to think of that as a reflection of inevitability, in how harsh they appear, rather than a cutting criticism of the workings of Fate, as some did, indeed, use against matriarchies and other aspects of the tale."
Imrama "But is it true inevitability, or merely a question of odds? Does the fabric of reality truely favor the under dog? Or, in this case, is the more sound policy to trust one's own brother above one's lover?"
Lucent "The Former. Creation *has* shown itself to favor those who seem to have no chance. We *did* survive the eclipse. Somehow." He nods. "And honestly, I think the lesson lies not on Asfertate's betrayal by the Dame, but on his treatment of her that allowed such resentment to breed. I am squarely in the camp of considering her a tragic figure, rather than a vilaness."
Imrama gives Lucent a wry smile, and a clap on the shoulder. "You are a canny debate partner, Lucent Copper Haze."
There is a knock at the door.
Imrama rises to open the door.
A harried messenger, whose garb marks her as a Range-Rider of Marukan, and whose name Imrama reads off as "Elej," stands at the door, just moments off of her horse. She bows as the Solars greet her, then begins to speak. "I come bearing news from Mishaka."
Lucent bows to her in turn. "News?"
Zahara "Ah, news." Zahara says as she sweeps in from behind the messenger. "It seems we are just in time to hear it." A flick of her fingers fills an empty goblet with wine, which she offers to the woman, making some for herself, Cerin, and the others as well.
Elej She takes the wine with a gesture of deep subordination to Zahara, but does not yet drink from it, instead getting right down to business. (...)
Elej "Since the invasion of Lookshy by the forces of the Mask of Winters, we have received an ever-growing stream of refugees from the city in our lands. Until now, we have made every effort to satisfactorily receive these refugees, but our capacity is growing full, and the largest group yet has just arrived." (...)
Zahara returns the gesture politely, listening intently to the news.
Elej "The leader of this group, an Elementalist, claims to know you and asked to speak with the Empress directly." She pauses. "Well, asked is a gentle way of putting it."
Zahara "And who would this Elementalist be?"
Cerin nods in greeting to Lucent and Imrama, standing beside Zahara, listening to Elej.
Lucent bows to Cerin and Zahara, smiling... and looking at Zahara. "Someone you know?"
Zahara looks thoughtful for a second, then nods to herself. "Ah, that would be Karal Linwei, yes? She was the Chumyo of Lookshy before it fell," she explains to Lucent. "I did try to warn her."
Lucent "Larquen always tried to take over a mountain. Makes him feel tall." He sighs.
Lucent "Height is overrated, really."
Zahara turns back to the messenger. "Tell her that she may seek an audience with us tomorrow."
Elej nods. "Will you journey to Marukan or shall I send her to the capital?"
Zahara "I believe I will journey to Marukan, so as to also see how the refugees are faring."
Elej nods. "I will return with word at once!"
Zahara looks to the others after Elej has gone, "Would you care to join me?"
Imrama "Most definitely, Empress."
Elej A day later, the Fable descends towards the city of Mishaka. A shanty town has sprung up around its walls, and the once pristine fields that surrounded it are churned with mud; the smell of meat cooking wafts over from even a great distance away.
Elej A group of five outriders, dressed in what the Marukan consider "ceremonial finery," await the Solars' arrival with bowed heads.
Aergan "Greetings, Empress," says the lead rider, a grizzled, bearded man of indeterminate (but notable) age.
Zahara descends from the ship, taking the time as she walks down the air to look over the shanty town, fields, and livestock, gauging supplies and such that will be needed to feed and house them properly. When she alights on the ground, she answers the man. "Greetings."
Aergan He bows once more. "We are glad that you have arrived. Two days ago, a column of thousands arrived at our very doorstep; we have done what we can, but we can give only what we have."
Imrama The Fable's phosphorescent crew begin lowering crates of food and supplies to the ground below, as Imrama falls slowly downwards to land near Zahara.
Aergan lets out a breath with a sound of relief.
Cerin makes his own assessment of the situation from the airship, and then leaps down, descending rather faster than both Zahara and Imrama did, landing to Zahara's side.
Lucent ::We need to take them somewhere... I wonder if it is possible to offer them asylum on the Sunlands?:: The orb of Mercury shines as he wonders. ::After last year overpopulation is the least of its issues, after all.::
Aergan "Shall I lead you to Linwei?" he asks the Solars. "She is awaiting your arrival."
Zahara "Of course. I appreciate you taking the refugees in and providing as well as you could for them. Please, lead on."
Aergan trots his horse around to one of the larger tents, where a woman -- her face tired, but her beauty accentuated by the hints of flame that dance within her eyes and at the tips of her hair -- cuts off a conversation with a mounted soldier to turn and face the Solars.
KaralLinwei "Empress Zahara," she says, and nods. "We meet again."
Phoenix` wanders over to Lucent's side, having apparently been conversing with the refugees.
Lucent "Did you learn anything, Bi... er." Lucent makes a face, the mini-maidens about him all sighing as he whispers to his companion "Well, did you?"
Zahara nods in return, the gesture shy of the depth of the first time they had met. "Chumyo Karal, a pleasure to meet you again. My companions are Cerin the Wolf, Lucent Copper Haze, Phoenix of Ashes, and Imrama Stormfound."
KaralLinwei nods to each of the Solars in turn. "I am pleased to meet you, though I would rather do so under better circumstances."
Lucent "It is a pleasure and an honor. Wish we could have met in a more auspicious time." Lucent bows, and the mini-maidens each bow in turn with their own song.
Cerin inclines his head briefly
Phoenix` nods in reply.
Zahara "Do you have somewhere more private that we can speak?"
Phoenix` She murmurs to Luc, "They endure; they are confused and tired and many are separated from their kith and kin, but they are surviving, and for now, that is enough for them."
KaralLinwei nods. "Let us step inside my tent," she says, and opens the flap to gesture the Solars within.
KaralLinwei Inside, the tent is quite warm, from three large jade braziers that hang from the roof in an even triangle. As the last of the Solars enters, Linwei closes the tentflap and drops a pinch of a blue powder into one of the flames, causing it to flare up angrily for a moment. "There, we should be safe to speak now."
Lucent "I see..." Lucent whispers in return. "But they will have more, soon."
Lucent The little floating maiden of battles pokes at the flame curiously.
Zahara "Thank you."
KaralLinwei nods. "Shall I begin at the beginning, then?"
Zahara "Please do." She smiles, studying the woman's new Essence pattern.
KaralLinwei seats herself, and gestures for the Solars to take any of the other makeshift seating arrangements that crowd the tent. "We were utterly unprepared for the Mask's assault. It took less than a day for him to decimate the front lines of our defense and capture the city itself." (...)
KaralLinwei "I had gathered a large portion of our forces to a redoubt east of the city, and began to engage in guerilla strikes against the Mask's forces, but... it quickly became evident that hit-and-run was ineffective against troops raised from the dead." (...)
Zahara seats herself on some sort of crate, after short deliberation.
KaralLinwei "Eventually, we made a final strike into Lookshy territory to liberate as many living citizens as we could, then fell back." She gestures as if to indicate the shanty town around the tent. "These are the remnants of my forces, and every civilian we could bring forth."
Imrama finds a stack of relatively soft sacks to lounge against. "Please forgive me Chumyo, but the question must be asked. Until quite recently, Lookshy was the greatest military power in the East, able to hold off the Scarlet empire for generations. How can it be that the City of Soldiers fell to the Mask in only one day's time?"
KaralLinwei sighs. "Two factors destroyed our ability to defend ourselves effectively." (...)
KaralLinwei "The first was the beast Juggernaut. We had taken great effort to protect ourselves against it, enact protocols specifically for such a situation -- we even sent a group into the Underworld itself, once, on a suicide mission to gain first-person knowledge of the beast." (...)
KaralLinwei "But somehow it defied all we had been able to learn, its flesh like iron against even Exalts who match your own command of Essence, its very proximity slaying outright soldiers before an instant had passed. My sorcerers now believe they have identified the dark alignment that gave it greater power during the Eclipse."
KaralLinwei reaches for a nearby mug and takes a deep draught. "The second was worse, for unlike the Eclipse the threat of it has not passed. There were elements within the Lookshy government who dealt with the devil, swearing fealty to him for their own petty benefit." (...)
KaralLinwei "The traitors have been put to the sword, but what concerns me is the effect it had those who were sworn to serve under them found themselves physically incapable of turning to resist against the Mask, even knowing that madness and greed had corrupted their commanders."
KaralLinwei sits back, warming her cup with tiny flames in both hands.
Zahara frowns thoughtfully. "And do they still find themselves incapable now that their leaders are dead?"
KaralLinwei "As best as we can tell, executing those who swore to his service loosed those beneath them to once again act freely. But I am deeply concerned at what could create such a binding, or what other such barriers we might unexpectedly encounter."
Phoenix` leans against one of the tent poles. "You do well to be concerned, but I think that you have slightly more...evidential...problems to attend to, and maybe it's not such a good time to divide your attention worrying about things you can't see."
Zahara "Are any still alive that you know of who have sworn such service?"
KaralLinwei shakes her head. "Not that I know of." She is about to continue her sentence when noises of altercation from outside the tent interrupt her.
Cerin observes what is going on through the walls of the tent.
KaralLinwei A group of dirty, battered Lookshians appear to be nearly coming to blows with three Marukani riders over a sheep.
Cerin "There appears to be a fracas over a sheep outside," Cerin relays for the benefit of all present.
KaralLinwei "Hell." Linwei rises, opens up the tent flap again, and steps out once again.
Zahara "Ah, perhaps you could convince them they have better things to worry about."
Lucent steps outside, his voice booming out like thunder! "STOP!" He commands with a voice that could hold a raging sea still. "You are better than that. This is beneath the dignity of proud Lookshy, or the great Marukani!"
KaralLinwei The individuals had progressed to blows by the time Lucent bellows his shout, but at the sound they freeze entirely; one refugee sitting bodily atop one of the riders pauses in mid-swing.
KaralLinwei steps over and violently tonguelashes her soldiers for several moments, before returning the Marukani sheep to its rightful owners and sending the chastened Lookshians off to do penance.
KaralLinwei She sighs as she reapproaches the Solars. "You are right, Phoenix of Ashes. It does me no good to dwell on our military defeat when my people will brawl over a single sheep for lack of food."
Lucent ::Hmmmm. She does know how to mantain discipline. A little too vicious, however.: He watches, wondering... ::Incidentally. Cerin, you should check all high-ranking officials of Lookshy to see if Quen got to anyone else. You can do that, right?::
Phoenix` "True. But the fields of Creation are vast; methinks that the food problem is not too difficult to solve. Merely find a pastoral nation that will not be too much trouble to conquer."
Imrama ::Um, Phoenix?::
Lucent ::Try NOT to incite them to war?::
Imrama ::When did we slip into the practice of promoting the violent conquest of peaceable lands?::
Lucent ::... also, Cerin. You should probably check the Sunlands' too...::
Zahara raises a brow at Phoenix, and turns back to Karal. "I am sure we can provide for your people, though it does bring up the question of whether you wish to join with the Sunlands or merely wait until you have retaken Lookshy."
Phoenix` ::Oh, right.::
Phoenix` nods. "That might be a -better- plan than taking some other nation, come to think of it. You'll already know where all your stuff is and so on."
Phoenix` ::I'll try not to indulge my warlike impulses too carelessly in future.::
KaralLinwei raises an eyebrow at Zahara's statement. "What... are you offering us, precisely?"
Cerin ::On that score, you can rest a little easier Lucent::
Imrama ::As an Elementalist, and the leader of an [exiled] nation, Chumyo Linwei makes an excellent candidate for the Exalted Deliberative.::
Zahara "If you swear allegiance to the Sunlands, I will see to it that your people will find more permanent homes and opportunity to use their skills in our cities, as they wish. Your legions would join with ours - with yourself remaining at the head of your troops. What artifacts you have left will be distributed according to need, possibly reproduced. Additionally, I would offer you a place on the Exalted Deliberative, to reflect your
Zahara to reflect your new status as a Celestial Exalt in good standing."
Zahara ::do you have anythign to add?::
Lucent ::Yes. 'Good job'.: He nods to what, for those not in the circle, seemed to be nothing apparent.
KaralLinwei considers for only a moment before nodding. "I will swear allegiance to the Sunlands." She drops to one knee for just a moment, to ceremonially indicate her willingness. "Now that I, too, am... 'anathema'" --
KaralLinwei she says the word with all the irony required to indicate the foolishness of her previous belief -- "I see no reason for us not to work together for the betterment of this world."
Imrama "Excellent. We should begin considering, as soon as possible, how your people are to be restored to their land and country."
Zahara chuckles, "And we will make it better." No matter how.
KaralLinwei allows the hint of a smile to flicker across her face. "I am eager to see this happen."
Zahara ::Perhaps now would be a good time to bring the food from the ship?::
Imrama ::Most definitely.::
KaralLinwei seats herself again. "I am not certain how we can break the Mask's power."
Lucent "Be. He looks impressive; He had a damn long time to look impressive. But he is anything but."
Imrama "You believe the Mask it more bluff than power, Lucent?"
Lucent "I believe not even he can tell the difference, anymore. He is not the Ebon Dragon, you see. He is a crafty. He is good. But at the end of the day, he may as well be Thirteen Blooming Flowers. He believes he is at the top of the world. He is too much like us for his own good."
KaralLinwei looks at Lucent oddly. "You speak as if you... know him."
Imrama continues over the Chumyo's confusion. "Still, I am concerned that the Mask of Winters seems to have some power or device at his disposal which allows him to enforce oaths made to him - even seemingly separate oaths made to those one degree or more removed from him. That is a problem, because the Sunlands are presently bound up in an oath with the Despot of Thorns."
Zahara ::A visit to Glimpse of Night may be in order somewhat soon, Lucent.::
Lucent smiles. "We used to get wasted and chase girls together. And boys. Sometimes."
Lucent ::Hmmm. To ask for his help? That... does place all of us in a weird place.::
Lucent ::Someone has to betray someone, there.::
Zahara sighs a little at Lucent. "This was, of course, far before he turned to the darkness."
Lucent "No, no, he was a little bastard who plotted world domination then too." He nods.
Lucent "Just... on our side."
KaralLinwei nods, a little uncertain of this turn of events.
Zahara ::Luc, please don't make her regret her alliance so soon.::
Lucent ::... right. But you have to understand, you did not spend long in the First Age. Try to imagine what was it living among Alahwi and Wei Dan and the others? The Perfect Circle were some of the sanest of us. For the rest... you learned to love people for what they ARE, not for their strange passions and plots.::
Zahara ::Yes, but there is a time and a place to tell your new ally that you used to consort with the man who destroyed her home and lands and slaughtered her people and this, my friend, is NOT it.::
Lucent ::... you have a point. That was thoughtless of me.::
Zahara "Have you memories of the First Age, Karal Linwei?"
KaralLinwei After processing for a moment, Linwei seems to have come to a conclusion. "Am I to understand that the Deathlords were... once... Exalts" -- her words are carefully chosen here -- "like you?"
KaralLinwei She nods, uncertain. "I have memories of... something, now. Vague. Faint. Mostly of death and dying."
Lucent "Yes. I... used to live on the time before, from whence the men whose ghosts would become the Deathlords came." Lucent nods. "And I am sorry if I sounded overly familiar with him, Linwei. He was my friend once. Now he is an abomination that must be destroyed and sent towards Letheon."
KaralLinwei nods. "Then we are in agreement."
Lucent "You were someone else once, Linwei. Many others, a lineage of kings, each receiving the power and memories of its predecessors." He lifts three fingers. "Love, Death, and Hatred are the three things most likely to cause those memories to surface."
Imrama takes out his pipe, lights it, and begins to smoke. "I, too, remember something. A legendary artifact of the First Age known as the Diplomat's Bane. The lantern possessed the means to render oaths and agreements magically binding after they were sworn, even without the knowledge of parties to those agreements."
KaralLinwei rubs one of her wrists absentmindedly. "Hmmmmmmmmmmmm."
Imrama "The Helmsfathom Heir used it to gain power over Oosanshi-of-the-Moors." Imrama adds, punctuating the statement by blowing a purple smoke-ring towards the tent's ceiling.
Lucent "Hmmm. That name DOES sound familiar. The Deliberative had that in their possession."
Imrama "Lucent, when Larquen Quen lived as a man, what office did he hold in the ancient Realm? What were his works and pursuits?"
Zahara fingers the hilt of her daiklave thoughtfully, considering her interactions with the Mask.
Lucent "He was the curator of the Most Unparalleled Gathering of Wonders. That is to say, the Deliberative's stash of artifacts and creatures of unique, puissant and ultimately useful nature. He reported directly to Black Iris of the Perfect Circle."
Lucent "That means, of course, that he has knowledge of, and access to, the most powerful devices created, captured or otherwise held by the Solar Deliberative." Lucent nods. "That was a very prestigious position."
Lucent "Now that I think about it... that *is* bad."
Zahara "Yes, quite."
Imrama "Yes Lucent. Very bad, I would say. There may be no limit to the depth and breadth of resources we can expect from such a one."
KaralLinwei seems to come back to the conversation with a bit of a jolt. "That is... bad."
Imrama "I think we can be confident that the Diplomat's Bane is in play, then. So long as this is the case, we will be bound by the prior pact of non-aggression between the Sunlands and the Mask. Our forces may not trespass his territory so long as his do not trespass our own."
Lucent "At the same time, however, he takes too much pride on that. That big monster he has up there is his ego, Imrama." ::And we... need to turn his arsenal into OUR strength. Somehow.: "Life mimics art. You may believe the Mask a satirical commentary of fate on the nature of the overconfident conqueror."
Zahara ::Perhaps Cerin could pay him a visit.::
Lucent ::We all should. Cerin should just fade into the shadows while we talk.::
Lucent ::It HAS been quite a while before you last met, has it not?::
Zahara ::It has. Yet I find myself reluctant to speak with him currently, lest a false bargain be struck.::
Lucent ::Much like when dealing with the Fair ones or the Yozi, just... do not accept anything. Do not eat anything. Do not drink anything. And do not laugh at anything. It is simple! ... well, except for the last part.::
Zahara ::Indeed.: She does not sound particularly amused. ::I will keep that in mind.::
Imrama realizes that, from the standpoint of their host, they have all been staring at each other silently for several moments now. "Chumyo, you have reported that the Mask of Winters has taken the city of Lookshy. Can you tell us how far his reach extends from that point? To the farm and hinterland that surrounds it, presumably, but what of your client states, Starshalla, Mugadesh and the like?"
KaralLinwei "When we camped out briefly in Mugadesh, his troops harried us there, but when we fled they retreated back to within Lookshy's immediate borders once again."
KaralLinwei "As best as my intelligence informs me, these states are safe... possibly because the Mask wishes to avoid even the possibility of crossing the Sunlands borders by accident," she says, suddenly theorizing.
Imrama "That seems likely, yes. I would suggest then that we address the governments of the former Lookshy buffer states immediately. It seems to me that it is in their interest to attach themselves to the only available counterbalance to the Mask of Winters, and it is in our interest to reign him in as tightly as we possibly can."
Lucent "Corner him with Sunlands on all sides?"
KaralLinwei "That seems like an excellent plan. I will arrange for messenger hawks to be sent immediately."
Imrama "To surround him on all sides we would have to include the nations across the river from Lookshy. Chumyo Linwei, what prospects would you say we have for an alliance with Calin and Northeast Spoke?"
KaralLinwei "We did not have a particularly hospitable relationship with Northeast Spoke, but I suspect the threat at their door will persuade them to compromise. Calin has always been a good neighbor."
Lucent "If bearing the banner of the Sunlands is not too invasive to them, they will probably prefer that to have their population slaughtered and defiled, I am sure."
Phoenix` "That is only half of 'all sides,' isn't it?"
KaralLinwei "You are correct, Phoenix; that does still leave the Mask with free access to the ocean and control of the East's most vital port."
Phoenix` draws on an imaginary map, marking out the shadowlands that pock the territories of Lookshy. "That's another thing that I didn't consider; my mind was in the Underworld."
Phoenix` "As long as he moves freely in the darkened lands, he cannot be trapped or cornered."
Imrama "Lookshy also commands the mouth of the Yanaze. He may choke off trade into and out of the East whenever it suits his plans."
Lucent "Of course, the Realm itself the piece of land directly in front of him is also part of the Sunlands... but Phoenix is right. He can conquer kingdoms through the Underworld and spread an Empire that is, for us, thousands of miles apart."
Imrama turns to Phoenix. "You are right, Phoenix. It may be in our interest to find a counterbalance to the Mask among the forces of the Underworld."
KaralLinwei "Grrr." She smashes her fist on the rickety table of boxes in front of her chair.
Zahara "The airships I have been working on should help with freeing trade again."
Imrama ::Empress, you have in your employ an Abyssal Exalt, one Ebon Blade of Vengeance, do you not?::
Zahara ::I do indeed.::
Imrama ::Who is his Deathlord?::
Phoenix` "Airships are good. But what counterbalance is there in the Underworld that won't eventually grow to be its own thorn in our side?"
Imrama "Forgive me Phoenix. I was using the term 'counterbalance' in its polite, diplomatic sense. I should more rightly have said that we might find another force in the Underworld to pit against the Mask, in order to weaken or destroy them both."
Phoenix` "Oh, of course. As you recall, I am not a diplomatist."
Zahara : *Informs Imrama of Ebon's Deathlord* ::
Lucent "That was the whole idea behind ressurecting Pluto. If we have the Shadeborn again we will have the ability to police the Underworld." He nods. "Speaking of that... did you look into that, Zahara?"
Zahara "I am working on it. Celestial gods are much more complex than Terrestrial ones, but I have begun my work on the lessers in order to further my understanding."
KaralLinwei starts to mouth the phrase "Plu...to?" but clearly thinks better of it.
Zahara : *Informs Imrama of Ebon's Deathlord, who is Walker in Darkness!* ::
Imrama ::Doesn't the Walker in Darkness have some sort of grudge against the Mask? I remember an incident from the accounts of this Circle's exploits...::
Phoenix` shakes her head. "Pardon my siblings for their burning interest in metaphysical particulars. How soon may we dispatch envoys to your vassals and neighbors?"
KaralLinwei "As soon as possible."
Lucent "We need to talk to Crow and Ember when we return. If we are to move against the Mask... we better not have scorpions in our bed."
Phoenix` "Unless you like it...jointed."
Zahara "mm... Hmmm."