Resplendent Fire 27-
The day started normally enough.
The public hearing at Kadu’s temple was today and so I bid the others farewell before changing my disguise and heading out a few minutes behind them. For the time being it is better to avoid anyone coming to the conclusion that they always travel with a fourth person whose position is on some kind of rotation. I expect that until things settle down Rising Sun will be under greater observation and while someone keeping track might not come to the same realization that Pekahan did it never hurts to be cautious. When I arrived Kadu’s courtyard was already packed. Spotting my friends near the front I lingered near the back and boosted myself up on one of the frog headed statues to peer over the heads of the assembled.
At the appointed time a priest, though not Razu Topeshi, began a series of prepared statements. The whole affair was boringly predictable. I got the impression that the stooge they had picked to deliver the statements knew nothing of any consequence. Far more interesting was what wasn’t visible to the rest of the crowd. Peering past the veil I immediately spotted Gumari speaking with one of Kadu’s small frog attendants. It wasn’t possible to pick out what he was saying over the noise of the crowd but it looked as though they were conducting some sort of formal business.
Paying little attention to the packed masses of mortals Gumari concluded his business and headed out. I tailed him on a winding route through the city where he stopped to speak with a number of disease spirits. It sounds like he’s running some sort of racket, very much like a human protection racket, but with prayer in place of currency and goods. Strange but it makes sense. He took lunch at the noodle restaurant the disease spirits in Gisig’s Alley had mentioned and the people there reacted to their beaded curtain swinging seemingly on it’s own with the familiarity of oft repeated routine. Gumari was brought a bowl of noodles, ate and then left out the back door.
Were he human this would be too easy, it’s a pity he probably can’t be poisoned like a mortal could. Mind you, he need not be poisoned, a powerful sleeping drought would do in a pinch. If Tenepeshu is any indication spirits can be drugged. Still, killing Gumari would be infuriatingly impermanent and him coming back to squeal the tale of his demise to someone who matters would make a second try more difficult. Other forms of retribution are impossible to pull off because he has no obvious authority who would find his actions deplorable nor does he appear to have assets I can take away. I must also consider my priorities. Until Kadu and Tenepeshu are dealt with or I come up with a more permanent solution Gumari choking to death on his noodles will have to remain an amusing daydream.
I tackled my errands for the day with a little extra spring in my step. I visited the Gods in Gisig’s alley though I didn’t learn much of use. The creatures there are more than a little out of touch. Oddly they are all younger than Gisig and sprung up after Tenepeshu came into power so they had no insights as to what Champoor was like before her rule and all they know about the Balorian crusade is that the fair folk were wrapped up in it somehow. Strangely Karoski has been gone from their company for centuries. I know the others still hold hope he will return but I am beginning to suspect he’s dead. I still have no idea what the significance of the thyme cutting we received is. A memorial maybe? I really must resume my studies into the spirit world in earnest.
My work with the people of Champoor was more rewarding. I started speaking with some of my more trustworthy associates converting some of my assets into formal agents. It isn’t hard to find people who are unhappy with how things are here to some extent but finding ones who are intelligent and motivated enough to assume a low level of risk is a little more difficult. Champoor does have it’s gems. A fraction of my contacts are qualified enough to assume leadership in my new “Warren”. The majority of people I deal with are too motivated for selfish gain, are of conflicting alligence or are too stupid to know that they are supplying information much less be told the ends that information is used.
Since I returned to Champoor I’ve been properly vetting the people whom I’ve been associating with and have taken some pains to prove that I align to their ideals. Provided they agree I intend to give them pendants which are a close match to mine so that should I come calling in a different form or if one of them needs to seek assistance from the others then they will know to supply aid. I’ll make sure to provide them with a code gesture for secondary authentication.
All of my potential agents come with their own pre-existing assets that were instrumental in getting my current informant network established. Thanks to Spindlewisp I have a good start picking apart the pre-existing underworld here. Most of her lot are of limited use as their alligence is purchased with coin and can never fully be trusted. That being said they do have the skills necessary to run basic tasks and the criminal professionalism to not ask who they are doing them for and their talk is worthwhile to listen to . She has put me in contact with some current Rathouse thugs who will be useful for keeping an eye on the competition. Toki has been my eyes on the street, her network of the city’s more prolific gossip circles have no idea that she’s been utilizing the information she’s given but she has been instrumental in pointing me in the direction of other dissonants. Lately I’ve convinced her to leverage that network to sow more directed discord. It is always handy to meet someone who loves intrigue for intrigue sake. Fenrio has something to gain from association. His sense of injustice from being an honest merchant in a den of backstabbing hypocrites has made him quite amenable to operating with me. Some of his more dishonest contemporaries have run into their own misfortunes recently and he’s been properly grateful. Perhaps, as a measure of good faith he will be willing to provide safe harbor to agents in crisis. I will have to work out proper codes and dead drop locations so that they can communicate amoungst themselves and with me.
I have decided to keep my young pickpockets mostly insulated from spywork since they would find such association a difficult secret to keep. Not to say they are without merit. One of my children has risen to the occasion of shepherding the others. He is intelligent, quiet and has taken on the responsibility of passing information on from the younger children to make it more concise. Walking amongst them I know the respect he has from the others is genuine. I am certain Calyn can step up to manage their concerns and pass along relevant information from them and any requests for assistance. The more self sustaining they are the better. I made sure to leave him standing orders to report anything unusual any of the children have witnessed.
Before I returned to Rising Sun House I paid a couple of musicians I know to provide music for dance lessons. Walking through the gate with them I immediately noted a great number of new faces, most of whom I had seen earlier that day. They were still wearing Kadu’s guard uniforms. This is where the day ceased to be typical.
Speaking with Broken Walls I got the details. Apparently shortly after I left the priest on stage, Sailing Dawn Defiant, had abruptly started speaking truthfully about the goings on with the fishmen and the “city improvement project’s” quarried stone going to build a fortress around the wyld rift beneath Kadu’s barge. Kadu’s Frog attendants materialized and made to tackle the errant priest to the ground but after intervention from Aster they halted and let the man speak unmolested. Afterwards, the whole guard contingent, apparently enamored with Aster, left alongside Sailing Dawn who has claimed sanctuary in Rising Sun House. This is exceedingly troubling on many counts, and strangely most of those counts have absolutely nothing to do with Kadu.
First was the priest onstage. When I had left he had been lying exceedingly competently on behalf of Kadu. What could have motivated him to suddenly switch to telling the truth in a packed public forum? His actions would have had immediate foreseeable repercussions for him personally and people who enjoy privileged positions are not often so keen to throw themselves on their own swords at the first sign of their superior’s complicity. I don’t think it coincidence that this frank honesty was prompted by questions asked by my companions. When I asked about the uncanny nature of this sudden about-face Broken Walls was evasive. He more or less admitted that my friends were collectively responsible for the priest’s behavior but deflected the majority of the credit (or blame) to Aster. It was obvious he was keen to get me not to focus on this part of the story and swept past it to brusquely.
What he wanted me to focus on was the odd behavior of the guards. To him this first strange occurrence was not cause for alarm. This leads me to believe that he anticipated it somehow. He either knew Aster could do that and is not troubled by the ramifications of that knowledge or he himself is more culpable than he’s letting on. Not for the first time I am beginning to wonder if he has some sort of strange power tied to objective fact. When speaking with him about Lang he seemed extremely certain about certain falsehoods and could ascertain information he couldn’t have known. Could it be possible that he can compel someone to tell the truth? I find myself hoping he does as the possibility that Aster possesses this power is more unsettling.
While Broken Walls is in theory entitled to his secrets if he does possess abilities of this nature it represents the potential of extreme advantage in obtaining intell and inflicting potentially ruinous damage to the credibility of our enemies. Acquiescing to his concerns for the moment however I addressed the matter of the guards rather than his own possible complicity. We called three of them into private interviews. Two of them I conducted with Broken Walls as Feather Weight and the last in the guise of Aster.
Broken Walls was right, they seem fixated on Aster though they do not hold any mystical tie to the real Aster that allows them to immediately recognize a fake. We learned that they had not been fully aware of the truth of the rumours about the fishmen but they were aware of the rumours. It did not seem central to their decision to abandon their posts and uniformly join Rising Sun. I wish I could have tested it properly but while impersonating Aster I didn’t dare ask them to do anything that caused them to harm themselves as I’m certain that information would find it’s way back to the real Aster. All I sought to do was annoy them and see how compliant they were towards Aster. They were infinitely patient in dealing with me when I was operating as her body double. The subject I had picked at random laboured to pick up a stone alter that four men couldn’t have lifted long past the point most would have given up or at least attempt some sort of excuse.
I can not be sure but I believe Aster has indeed done something uncanny to them. It’s like impressing her and serving her has overwhelmed their other priorities. Their behavior, reasoning and fixation are all very uniform across the subjects we interviewed…perhaps too uniform to be natural. Is it possible that Aster can suppress the free will of a person? Is it possible she has done so to me?
I know it is possible to apply our power to cause effects on people’s minds. I can do it myself, and not just with the Radius. Encountered by someone in a place I shouldn’t be I can give an explanation for my presence and cause it to be excepted provided that it is not completely beyond reason. I can choose to take advantage of my target’s uncertainty and they accept my story unquestioningly until something overtly to the contrary snaps them out of it. The first time I did it was strange. Like pushing out into the air and finding sudden resistance. Is Aster conscious that she is having this effect and if she is, is she comfortable overriding people’s priorities to suit her own needs?
Broken Walls and I confronted Aster about it. She phrased it in regards to “her light” spilling over and inspiring people and that people at times become so taken with her as a result and become her friends. When we phrased a question about the ethical implications of subverting someone’s will she seemed uncomfortable with doing so outright but may consider it a lesser evil then letting people fight and die.
I’m not sure my priorities align. I am terrified that someone can be so easily manipulated from within. Being forced to do something you hate is somehow more palatable then someone reaching in and plucking away your repulsion and stripping away the fabric of what makes you who you are. There is something inexpressibly horrifying knowing that if it happened it would be endurable by it’s very nature. You would be happy to be the puppet you had been hollowed out into.
Obviously disturbed, but less accustomed to hiding it, Broken Walls retreated as I carried out the promised dance lesson for Aster and Saiten. Afterwards I took Saiten aside and got his take on what had happened that day. His recounting of events revealed that Sailing Dawn Defiant had appeared confused by his own sudden sincerity and that it had happened directly after Broken Walls had questioned him. I asked Aster and while she stated that she can “encourage people” that she was not responsible for Sailing Dawn’s sudden honesty and she wasn’t sure what had caused him to act so.
This is a valuable tool to have at our disposal though I cannot fault Broken Walls for wanting to be secretive about it. As I see it there are two likely reasons why he would not be forthcoming. The first is that he doesn’t trust me. I am a spy, a thief and more than vindictive serial murderer (I’d call myself an assassin but I’ve never been paid for the work) none of those occupations encourage trust. He might enjoy my company but I wouldn’t fault him for keeping me at arms length. The second option is that he fears I will be unwilling to trust him to not utilize those powers on me. Were our roles reversed I would be hesitant to tell someone who obviously values privacy as much as I do that I have the ability to shatter that privacy at any time. While it does give me pause when considering what to tell Broken Walls he has never chided me or tried to restrict me given what he is aware (or potentially aware) I have done . He might not trust me fully but he trusts me enough. I am content with that.
Before retiring for the night I spoke with him again. Our conversation ranged widely. He is concerned as I am by Aster’s power. While I dislike the idea that her expressions of kindness may be consciously manipulative I don’t believe it is so. She has always been willing to help anyone, regardless of whether she profits from it or not. Her rhetoric regarding her “light” might just an expression of her sense of energy. In that sense it is not entirely metaphorical. When we exert ourselves we cast light in the same way Chaoxi gathers moisture. We are “Solars” so it makes sense. One could see how she could draw a connection. Light is often paired conceptually with life, goodness, purity and objective moral superiority in the same way “darkness” is paired with death, evil, degeneration and moral failing. Does she view this power as inherently springing from our divine good and righteousness? It is a mistake to draw the conclusion that all Solars are objectively good and their powers will not be abused. Painting the world in black and white obscures the middle ground and lofty ideals do not always pair well with reality. Right now she is only seventeen and the majority of her experience has been kind to her which supports her rose tinted view of humanity. From here she will only grow further away from her mortal experience…
There was something Broken Walls said in our talk. I had challenged his goal of building a fortress here and he repeated something he had said around that campfire the night we met, that he wasn’t good at running. When I brought up that the Hunt could potentially force his hand by taking Champoor hostage he claimed that he would let untold numbers die if it meant our personal safety. He would let Champoor burn to save me if he had to. While flattering, in an odd way, it demonstrates a divide. For Broken Walls personal loyalty overrides utilitarian moral notions. Is this a symptom of being too far removed from mortal expectations? If I examined my own values, could I weigh the lives of my friends against so much loss?
I’m not sure I can and somehow that is a comfort.
I never expected to live long. I still don’t. Life is dangerous and uncertain and the way I intend to live it will probably get me killed. How many of us supposed immortals really live as long as Broken Walls has? It is not unlikely that I will one day misjudge my strengths and end up digging my own grave. To that point more things have tried to kill me in the past five years than I dare tally and that had nothing to do with the Wyld Hunt. If I lived, or expected to live, to be a thousands of years old would humans start to resemble mayflies? Mortality’s hourglass demands things done quickly and decisively. A limited life meant only so much could ever really be achieved for good or for ill before death takes it’s due. It is to that standard that Creation runs. Does life have more value if it potentially can persist forever?
No. Immortality is nonsense, even gods can perish. All I know now is that old age won’t be the culprit. I have the right to try and preserve my life like any other living creature but it is folly to believe that my struggle is at it’s core different than anyone else’s. One day I might have to decide how selfish I am willing to be to preserve my existence but everyone makes those decisions. It is easier to weigh my own life than that of my friends. I sincerely hope the day never comes when I have to make that choice.
We are an interesting pair. In Broken Wall’s eyes I am probably not much better than Aster as I am only seven years her senior. I am not far removed from my experience of powerless inconsequence yet but already I have changed multitudes. I am thankful I possess the gift of faces. While I only mimic expressions of a normal life for show I do get a fair amount of exposure to normal people who treat me as though I am one of them. Hopefully that will be enough to keep me motivated to work on the mortal scale of time and not be tempted to turn good people so readily into unwilling pawns. Digging a bit deeper into Broken Wall’s experience I learned that he spent his youth as more or less the leader of a small gang. That experience must be rather removed after decades of solitude and books. As much as I enjoy reading a seemingly eternal prison surrounded by the leather bound legacies of other people seems to me like the stuff of nightmares.
Resplendent Fire 28 -
Odd dreams last night.
I stood on a lotus leaf afloat in an ocean as glassy and still as a mirror, reflecting a perfect blue sky with no hint of clouds. Walking to the leaf’s edge I peered into the water and was horrified to find myself wearing Lang’s body. Movement caught my eye and I leapt out of the way too late. Hissing in pain as a silver dagger sliced my arm I spun to face my assailant and was shocked to see it was my morning form. It’s – My face twisted into an empty smile. It advanced on me as the sky behind it bled a black void. I stepped back and lost my balance plunging into the ocean.
The shock of the cold water took my breath away. I clawed at the water to no avail. I’ve never learned how to swim and my single attempt as a child was disastrous. My wings, just as they were that day in the pond were useless in the water, weighing me down. In my dream I struggled inches from the water’s surface reaching desperately for air and rescue. Above me crouched my morning form, locking eyes with me as I drowned. Any moment I would gasp and my burning lungs would fill with water as my merciless adversary stood passively by…
I gasped and floundered in my sheets which had become stuck to my clammy body. Shaking I licked my lips and tasted salt and for a moment believed it was sea water before coming more fully to my senses. I was dripping with sweat. It was only a nightmare, not surprising given the events of the past two weeks. I fought to regain some semblance of calm. Once upon a time I was not afraid of the ramifications of being anathema but I think that is changing. I think I need some reassurance that we exist for good reason or one hell of a good distraction. I envy people who can drink away their problems temporarily, alcohol just seems to make mine worse and the carelessness that comes from indulging in substances is generally unwise.
I devoted the day to the comforting work of engaging with people whose company I enjoy and getting my network more formally established. I made contact with a few more associates of the Heart family and have been gleaning what regional differences there are in customs regarding service, table manners and dance. Recently the wealthy have been taking the time to brush up on their dancing skills and the musicians at the Winter Meets Wind, like any professionals aspiring to play the high paying venues, have made it their business to learn the dances. Dance Masters around the city have been employing them for weeks so the wealthy brush up on their skills. They are not challenging. The dance customs of the upper class move at a snail’s pace, always harkening back to long held traditions and archaic styles tested and made acceptable by time. Newer styles are seen as gauche, risque’ and classless – acceptable to be viewed as performance entertainment, but never performed by people of standing. While this place is a little ahead of the standard in what counts as acceptable it lags behind the novelty obsessed (and hedonistic driven) bleeding edge of the Butterfly Court. Pretentious formal dances were the dullest part of the foundation of my useless education but at least they tended to be hands off.
Aster and Saiten are picking the dances up quickly. Aster has an implicit sense of musical timing from her training and Saiten has a good sense of spatial awareness. I’m not sure why he wants to learn. He has been aspiring to establish some sort of “heroes guild” lately and might see this as a chance to impress and gain a sponsor… Or just as likely he sees it as good training to develop his dexterity or he just likes dance. I honestly don’t know. Saiten is somewhat of a mystery, not because he intends it but because he is incomprehensibly vague in his intent. I don’t know what kind of organization this “heroes guild” will be but I doubt I will like it. Having a a cavalcade of enthusiastic thugs with vague moral leanings obsessed with wordfame roaming around will probably make my tasks more difficult somehow. Mind you I have a complicated relationship with law enforcement even when it is done well.
To each their own.
I made sure Toki knew all the juicy details about Sailing Dawn Defiant’s… misfortune… The city is already buzzing though the citizens as of yet haven’t landed on any conclusion as to how to address it. I’ve seen a couple of smashed Kadu altarpieces in alleyways but I doubt that the majority of his faithful will abandon him. Right now we are simply twisting the knife he stabbed himself with. His ties to those fishmen seem the most exploitable. Whipping up moral outrage and demand that he be held accountable for compensating victims of their attacks might at least keep Kadu busy. It’s best to keep him on the back foot.
This evening I had a conversation with Aster. I’ve been trying my best to try and ascertain what a “solar” actually is in less practical terms and shared my thoughts a little. I have five examples to pull from as I know too little about Chijiwa to make conclusions. I think the point at which we gained our powers might be a significant clue. It doesn’t seem like it manifests randomly. I have a few hypothesis’s. Cheif among them is that our transformations may have come about as a reaction to mortal (though not necessarily immediate) peril. It seems likely that were we not rescued by the circumstance of our rebirth we would all be dead. One blow from that drunk fire aspect and Aster could have died, Broken Walls was in the process of being bloodily beaten to death and Saiten would have suffered the ill effects of gravity. Dasadi was terribly vague saying he “helped someone he wouldn’t have been able to”. That potentially means he risked his life attempting a rescue or that he was granted the power so that whatever he was rescuing would be rescued. For my own part I’ve never doubted that had there not been divine intervention as an element of my own little act of rebellion I would be dead. Shufen might not have murdered me in a rage for publicly embarrassing him but judging from long association he would have more likely driven me to kill myself.The ideal of “The beautiful death of an artist in his prime spared the degeneracy of age or fading into irrelevance” entranced the bastard and destroying me from the inside out would have given him a thrill.
My other thought is that we may have been chosen simply to serve an immediate divine whim. Aster, Saiten, Dasadi and Broken Walls all faced situations where they were opposed, enacting vengeance or trying to save some one. It has occurred to me more than once that I might just have been chosen just to spite Shufen. Maybe the Unconquered Sun wanted him dead as much as I did.
Speaking of our nature as Solars gave me a bit of a chance to feel out what Aster believed our purpose to be. I think she sees all of us as a sort of “light in the darkness”. Humorous given that my display during the battle of Akkimu was a dark void. After mentioning this she was quick to fall into metaphors about candles being brighter in the dark or some such. I can’t say I hold much stock in that even on a metaphorical level. Candles are the same brightness regardless of where they burn, they just they seem brighter when nothing is outshining them then and there. Still, she is convinced that I am a good person. Unsurprising given that she only knows a highly curated image of me.
Her thoughts on Kadu were somewhat of a disappointment. She doesn’t seem to harbor any strong opinion of him or about slavery in general. She rubbed me the wrong way stating that “poverty is like slavery in a way”. I understand the sentiment, particularly coming from someone with little first hand experience but it doesn’t help my concerns regarding her value of free will. The notion follows the idea that the impoverished, like slaves, have limited options and often have to make undesirable concessions for survival sake but it seems to me equating poverty and slavery is somehow unjust. As though it dismisses something vital and reduces something complicated and nuanced to something too simple. It doesn’t help matters that the sentiment is sometimes used by slave owners who claim that slavery is the lesser evil because at least a slave doesn’t starve. As if staying alive automatically makes life worth living.
A poor man lives and is rewarded for his will and resourcefulness, whatever end he comes to is in part his own choice. Even an indentured servant works under a contract he agreed to for a set amount of time and might hope for some windfall to purchase his freedom. A slave on the other hand is punished for expressing self determination and can never count on ever attaining functional freedom. The more valuable they are the less likely it is they will ever be freed and slaves do not have the luxury of picking and choosing what is and what isn’t acceptable to maintain their survival. They are not people in the eyes of their masters just objects to be owned whose value depreciates on resale. Ultimately slaves are are disposable. Once used up they might be dumped on the street or in the wilderness to die if it is illegal to kill them. That cruel invidious hopelessness that sets in not because the the body is spoiled but because there is no control of your future deserves some consideration. It is difficult to express what it feels like to know that your life will likely never amount to anything more than pleasing someone you never chose. Poverty might not be fair but it at least is universal. Everywhere you go it is largely the same. Slavery is both more subjective and more personal. If a slave suffers there is direct complicity. It is like comparing being murdered and dying by accident just on a slower scale. Yes, from the outside they might look the same but are they truly at all alike?
I’d hoped the difference was more obvious.