Descending Fire 7 and 8
It was quite some time before Broken Walls and Saiten hove into view, sedately walking beside a horse with a bound captive on it’s back. It is hard to believe but Saiten outran a horse while carrying Broken Walls. I admit, I was not expecting us to actually catch up given the significant lead unless our quarry was foolish enough to make camp. One can easily miscalculate when Saiten is involved.
With our quarry out cold the walk back was uneventful and we stopped at an inn part way for a rest. I for one was exhausted but then I hadn’t slept after two rather physically and emotionally demanding days and was in poor spirits. At least I do not need to worry about it prematurely aging me. I have rather suspected that I haven’t changed much in the past three years but then I’ve always looked young for my age and most people in their twenties can look deceptively young.
I collapsed into bed, my sides and saddle sores aching. I have never ridden hard before and the effect it has on the thighs particularly reminded me unpleasantly of the open sores that cover so much of Dedecasi’s body. Everything ached. Once again I found myself thankful that Solar’s bodies heal so quickly. Our minds are however another matter. In my dreams I found myself once again in Dedecasi’s body, rendered mute as Glorious Star of Summer’s Glory paraded me through the streets of Champoor on a silver chain while people visibly recoiled from my unintelligible pleas for help. I woke to the pearly light just preceding dawn and went promptly back to sleep , dropping into a more comfortable dreamless abyss that I was reticent to wake from. Sleeping only every second night might be beginning to get to me. My dreams are getting worse.
We arrived back in Champoor and Broken Walls and Saiten wasted no time heading directly to the tournament grounds. With all the vendors packing the remainder of their wares the place looked sadly dismantled but Mauk still presided in his makeshift chair. We hauled our prisoner over for him to acknowledge as Broken Walls voiced a “prayer” to Hatellis which sounded more like an informal perfunctory note to a junior colleague. Something that Hatellis himself acknowledged when he appeared stating that it ranked as the worst prayer he had every received. We told them briefly about the capture and I hauled Rose Piercing Wind off to the medical tent where casual onlookers would get less of an eyeful.
What transgressed next made me seriously begin to question Saiten’s sanity. After finding Broken Walls would not fight him ( having officially resigned from the tournament the night before) Saiten goaded Mauk into fighting him instead. Mauk retrieved his cudgel and the two promptly squared off on the hill overlooking the tournament grounds.
I have come to the conclusion that Saiten has a deathwish. The inevitability of his demise at the hands of one of these fights he picks is more or less assured by the odds of sheer repetition.I should probably set aside a fund for a good mortuary tablet, altar and offerings against the day when he eventually falls victim to this folly.
As Saiten and Mauk squared off Rose Piercing Wind regained consciousness and finding himself bound and blindfolded started inquiring after my identity. I told him I was “no one” a joke and the truth after a fashion. I didn’t pay him much mind instead watching glumly as Saiten and Mauk concluded their challenge with Saiten very narrowly flattened by Mauk’s club and then engulfed in one large fist. My relief felt lessened. Like caring for an addict of dangerous substances I could except this only as a temporary stay of execution.
With that out of the way we dragged our captive back to the Rising Sun where he was bound and prepared for interrogation. Hatellis and Gisig were invited to witness as the poor boy was laid bare of his secrets by Broken Walls. The interrogation was… unsettling. Capture, torture and death are more or less what a spy can expect of his failures but being forced to have your dearly held secrets drawn from you with no ability to resist thus betraying the people you have sworn to serve… Well, despite his vigor in damning us all as hated anathema I felt intensely sorry for him.
Under Broken Wall’s questions our captive revealed himself to be one “Indebted Blood of Fire” fifth heir of the Motome clan. Makes sense given his fighting style and possibly why he was tapped to come here. Chijiwa never did explicitly prove he was a solar and he was quick to desert us after he became aware of our plans. My fears were confirmed when after being asked his purpose for being in Champoor Indebted Blood replied it was to assess the combat potential of the “foul Anathema who infest the city”.
If Chijiwa did go telling our tales then the time frame for preparations may be drastically shortened. I was also troubled that “foul anathema” might mean also mean “four anathema” Chijiwa was well aware of my peculiarities which means they might try employing extra levels of security against tampering from an impostor. It is always risky trying to operate as a body double particularly when there are too many gaps in my knowledge of that person’s comings and goings, it does not take much to make it more difficult if someone is on the lookout.
Broken Walls, who had asked us beforehand what questions he should ask decided to deviate from one that I recommended. I had hoped he would have asked our captive to relay what would have been in his report to his superiors. That might have told us how much about us they actually know, whether I figured into their calculations or not and what holes there were in the perceptions of a trained observer. Instead he substituted in a question about what sort of force he could expect on our doorstep. The youth answered in an imprecise fashion giving a number of legions and two Dragonbloods, or as he put it “The military might of Prassad”.
. I have no military education to speak of and couldn’t tell you how a legion differs from a battalion and so on but was not ultimately bothered by the vague impression this knowledge had as exact numbers are more or less irrelevant to the trade I ply myself. As long as I can assume the force is large enough to be a viable threat for either an attack or siege I can apply myself and leave factoring military strategy to the likes of Broken Walls and Chaoxi.
I mentioned to Broken Walls to ask if Indebted Blood of Fire had any allies in the city. Our captive strikes me as being the sort of agent whom one tells very little to. It is common that spies in a network only operate with the bare minimum of what they need to know to accomplish their task as it insulates the rest of the spies from being targeted once one is captured. One of the reasons I fled from conventional spy work in Nexus was because I found too late that I was being used but that is the harsh reality of being a junior in these sorts of organizations. Many who are employed as spies do so against their own best interest provided someone pulling the strings knows the right thing to say or do to make them dance. The next highest on the chain is more likely to be a seasoned spy though in all reality he is probably only be yet another isolated link. Still if you keep pulling on a chain it will eventually lead you somewhere.
We got our name : “Wonders of Forsaken Dreams of clan Suya” and Broken Walls asked how best we could find and trap him. Aside from the more concrete aspects like the rendezvous point ( a tavern called "the Outrageous Flagon) Indebted Blood answered rather strangely “Convince me to betray him”. I’m, not sure what to make of that. It pre-supposes that this man believes he could be somehow coerced or convinced to abandon his convictions and that it would the easiest action to be taken. Does that mean his beliefs are vulnerable somehow and that he has doubts of some sort that even he is aware we can exploit?
We convened a council to decide what to do. We all agreed that it would be worthwhile to collect this Wonders of Forsaken Dreams that much was certain but the news that we now had no uncertainty that the enemy knew we were here I think affected my comrades a little. I had long ago resigned myself to this an an inevitability, even so the very walls seemed to tighten like a noose, the world constricting to a new and claustrophobic shallowness. Years of compounded instinct screamed to tie up loose ends and make preparations to leave but those instincts are now counter intuitive unless I can convince the others to go
Once we adjourned I retreated to the kitchen and put some water on to boil. Retrieving a packet from my room I went through the motions of brewing some tea. I breathed deep of the faint kitchen scents. Here it smelled so reassuringly of Chaoxi and the spices she added to her cooking. It was a comfort but I don’t think I belong here any more than I belong anywhere. If happiness and comfort were all I sought out of life than perhaps so but I deserve neither of those things. I dedicated my life to an ideal of service, I can’t put the welfare of good people here on the line to benefit myself. My miserable hide isn’t worth it… but Is wanting to save my friends right or just my own selfish interest not to be alone anymore?
I took my freshly brewed tea to our captive who flinched against my approach. I removed his blindfold and regarded him with as much detachment as I could muster. I assured him that I had no power to make him speak against his will, that I just wanted to talk. I removed his gag after gaining his assurance that he would not scream the place down without it. His first question was of course who I was and what I wanted. I introduced myself as Obi and I told him that my intent was just understanding his side of the story. He told me of the evils of the Solar Anathema whose words poison men’s souls and deeds raise cities to the ground.
Then he did something that few have ever done… he showed concern for my welfare. Well… Obi’s welfare anyhow. He very firmly believes that those who joined the cause of the Solar Anathema “cast aside any hope for a proper resurrection”. He pleaded that if I could not assist him that at least I take pains to save myself lest that be my fate.
It is a noble thing to show that sort of compassion to an enemy.
At the tournament I had gotten a rather favorable impression of the man and here again confirms it. We may be enemies but Indebted Blood of Fire does not deserve my animosity. As for what he said he isn’t wrong. I am well capable of “poisoning men’s souls” if only temporarily and Aster may very well be able to on a more permanent basis. The temple guards of Kadu are still loyal to her after all. Furthermore our collective deeds may very well raise Champoor to the ground if we are not cautious.
The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle between two extremes. Perhaps those who have tread the path before me were prone to the abuse of power but from what I have witnessed the Realm is no better. Good and bad people may exist on both sides.
Not that I’m about to throw in with the other side. I’ve seen the callous membership of the Immaculate Faith collapse a house on top of a family for no other reason then they were in the path of their hammer whereas my colleagues seem distressed at causing people mild inconvenience and endangering civilians unnecessarily. I may sometimes question whether they are taking the appropriate course but I at least believe their hearts are in the right place.
The world is less than perfect. Circumstances may eventually play out so that we must need kill Indebted Blood but I for one hope that fate is kinder to both of us than that. The spinning wheel turns and we are both at the mercy of it’s influence. I left him feeling an odd pang of regret. Under different circumstances perhaps we might have been allies but I can’t help being Anathema to some. I will have only failed once I have become anathema to all.
I convened with the others for a brief meeting. They of course wanted to go find the spy waiting for Indebted Blood at “The Outrageous Flagon Inn” which was practical enough. With him in hand we could have a shot at ferreting out any Champoor spies and any future plans he was connected to. From the perspective of worrying that this man may somehow escape with any hard won secrets is virtually nil. Safeguarding Rising Sun from the influence of spies is virtually impossible when they do everything in the most public way possible. One doesn’t need trained spies when you can walk into any tavern in Champoor and hear of our exploits not an hour after they happened. It is like trying to scoop the ocean with a sieve and about as rewarding.
It was decided that I would go. Broken Walls offered to ask Indebted Blood more questions to arm me in my task but I hesitated. Is it strange that I find this form of questioning unsavory? The ease with which Indebted Blood’s will was subverted made me realize at once my feelings about this strange ability. I am glad it is a weapon in our arsenal but I can’t help feeling it should be avoided if not entirely necessary or warranted. Broken Walls gave me an odd look when I told him I rather he didn’t use it again but he didn’t press the matter. He asked if there was anything he could do to help me out in any of my projects to which I replied I would be in need of a wagon and a large crate with a bench inside. This peaked his concern and wound up with me assuring him it wasn’t for the use of transporting a dead body.
Over the past while he has been more explicit in asking me if I intend people harm. It is depressing that I must be continually reminded of my perceived untrustworthness but I suppose I should just be thankful he hasn’t seen my previous actions as grounds to cut ties with me altogether.
Broken Walls then asked if he should come along. I demurred. Time is short and Broken Wall’s time particularly is valuable given how much he can accomplish with even a short span. Furthermore his civic work genuinely benefits the city. Though capturing this contact is worthwhile I should not rob Champoor of time spent improving the welfare of those who need it to benefit ourselves or his improving of his armaments.
I left with Saiten for the inn on horseback. I am getting a fair amount of practice with riding but I am still not comfortable guiding these animals around. I would have been well served to spend my time thinking about how to approach the problem at hand but I did not. I struggled to collect my thoughts which turned ceaselessly over a host of concerns none of which bore any fruit.
I watched the sun slowly dip behind the horizon and though I made no progress in coming up with answers to my problems I at least gained some insight into the burden I carry. A feeling of distance between myself and my allies is growing. Saiten and I never had much in common but his stubborn plunging ahead without concern for our welfare much less his own makes me believe that our association will one day be cut brutally short. Broken Wall’s continued small gestures of distrust keep reminding me that I will always be kept at arms length and my suspicions of Aster’s power makes me doubt what good faith I have built.
I was caught by an old longing that has lost no sharpness with the passage of time. Peony. For all that may have gone wrong there is no one I had trusted more or who knew me better. There had never been secrets between us. Listening to Aster yesterday had brought her memory back to mind had made me recall the worst but for a long time she had made life worth the struggle. They say it is better to have loved and lost but I’m not so sure. If my existence is to be one of solitude like this than what good is carrying bitter remembrances?
We arrived at the inn and I too late realized that I hadn’t much of a plan to ferret out our spy. I haven’t even a physical description to go off of. By saving Indebted Fire the indignity of enduring second questioning I had made things much more difficult. Offering this bleeding heart up to my enemies will be my death but I find it a strange comfort that at least it is not dry and withered.
It was shortly after midnight and the inn was quiet. While posing as Indebted Fire might flush my prey out it also held risks. If there are doubts about a shape shifting spy existing in Champoor I could potentially confirm them. My aim is to deliver this man back to my allies for questioning. I don’t see the others killing him afterwards so their ultimate aim is either to release our captives at some point in the future or hold them prisoner indefinitely. As much as it would make finding this particular spy easier in the long run it isn’t the right play if I intend to keep the tactical advantage of keeping full extent of my abilities secret.
Perhaps I was also reticent to use Indebted Blood’s image so trivially…
I told Saiten to wait in the stables while I attempted to flush out our prey. I went in the inn and spoke with the keeper there trying to pose as a messenger sent with a message for Wonders of Forsaken Dreams. As covers go it was lackluster I suppose. The barkeep demonstrated no knowledge of anyone staying under that name and moreover that he just wanted to stay out of any shady business. None of the people listening in in the common space seemed to react either. I ordered a meals and said something to the effect of that I would try again in the morning. I went in the barn and informed Saiten that my first attempt had failed. He for his part seemed more concerned with food and stated that he was going to go in and get some food. Maybe he figured the cloak he had thrown on over his costume was enough of a disguise or maybe he didn’t know or care that his presence would drive our quarry further underground making him that much harder to find.
His childish stubborness was not endearing.
Unable to sway him I opted to go into the kitchen and stole him some food like a common thief. While he stuffed himself on ham loaf I scouted out the rooms of the inn that held sleeping people using my senses to try and determine the best candidate. I guessed that the realm’s spies, serving nobles as they do would probably have habits of cleanliness and self care that would be hard to break. I found two people who seemed to keep better care of themselves. One was awake, the other asleep. I crept into the sleeping man’s room and scouting his things found no definitive proof that he was my quarry. He did have a vial of expensive perfume that he himself was not wearing. A gift or a merchant’s sample maybe?
The other man lay awake in his room. I memorized his scent but I had no definitive proof that the man was not just a habitual insomniac. I went back to the stable and let Saiten sleep a few hours while I kept watch. Being a night caste must be some sort of curse that I am destined to spend the majority of my nights sleepless.
The morning came and with it another attempt to use the same trick again… to about the same effect only now all those I had identified as long time residents left, calmly with not waver or elevation in heartbeat to give away an anxious guest trying to appear calm. No body came forward to confront me.
We rode back to Champoor in silence. I had wasted our time to no end and it stung what little pride I possessed. I mostly wanted to just drop the whole endevour right then and there. I was bone tired, angry to an almost irrational degree more or less about my entire wretched existence and was fairly certain that this cavalcade of bad decision making had only come to it’s middle. We wasted no time finding Broken Walls who through his own uncanny insight devised that the insomniac of the night before was our man. We had two choices, let it stand or chase the blighter down and see where he fled….
I rode Saiten out of town. Chaoxi and Broken Walls would follow behind with a wagon for our captive and to assist if we got into further trouble. Saiten is faster and better winded than any horse and it gave me somewhat of a chance to rest, we followed the road we had seen him leave by until the crossroads and I sacrificed what pride remained me, planting my nose in the dust and even tasting the grit of the road to try and divine our quarry’s direction. It helped that he didn’t take the road but had veered into the tall grass leaving traces of his scent on the tall grass stems where they brushed his riding boots.
From a Sparrow in a cage to a common cur, the trajectory I trace is truly grand. Daimyo of Faces, forgive this idiot boy his errors and let this farce be of some use.