As the tale of the Exalted Continues

Piper's Journal 22

Calculations

Resplendent Fire 24 – Dawn

The oily black smoke rising from the burning bones and mummified corpses scented the air with the overwhelming stench of death which prompted people to brave the streets to investigate. Watching the crowd gather I sighed, the time of Rising Sun House’s relative obscurity was over. The next few days would cement the reputation of my friends and every step they take further into the limelight is a step further away. Joining them is out of the question. I need obligations and public scrutiny like I need a gaping chest wound. Better to be a spider, walking deftly across the web of power like a whisper, not a fly, betraying my every intention by my own thrashing momentum.

The first move Rising Sun made was to publicly stake their claim on the territory of Black Quarter. Aster delivered their official statement which was as vague as it was as brief but she tried to make clear that the purpose in taking on Akkimu was as a service to the average citizenry of Champoor. Trying to wrap iron in a silk cloth won’t fool everyone. This move could easily be perceived as the beginnings of a hostile take over. If it is Rising Sun House could be making enemies of not just the gods but the wealthy citizens who could band together to tackle a perceived threat. I voiced my concerns but in the end it is not my decision to make.

On the way back I noted Aster’s posture was slightly slumped, her face drawn and pale. I asked her if she was alright to which she replied that she was troubled by the events that had transpired. Sadly I’m not exactly adept at cheering people up. I tried to get her to focus on the present and the good that will flower from our actions but I don’t think it worked. As much as she hated Akkimu I think she feels guilt for ending her and her cadre of mortal followers. She shouldn’t. The world is a better place without them. Whatever baubles they were offered were enough to sell their souls for and lend themselves to perpetuating Akkimu’s evil unreservedly. Anyone so cheaply bought does not deserve her grief.

My dreams that night were uneasy and I awoke abruptly to some sort of ruckus coming from outside. Sharpening my senses I heard the voices of a mob. The night before Aster had offered to answer questions and the citizens of Champoor had come to collect. Outside Saiten, Aster and Chaoxi stood looking as out of their depth as I’d ever seen them. Aster pleaded for me to stay and advise and Chaoxi tried to strong arm me into staying. They forget that I am not responsible for speaking on the behalf of their franchise. I wasn’t about to be dragged into that nonsense just because they felt they needed a nursemaid.

As a happy consequence I had the pleasure of listening to Aster and Saiten answer public queries on behalf of Rising Sun House. The best bit was when someone requesting help rescuing his stolen his cat from Silgar had to be told – by Saiten no less – that “Rising Sun House is contractually obligated not to rescue your cat”. Priceless..

Not wanting to go too far in the event this somehow devolved into an angry mob I decided to put my time to proper use and dedicated myself to the practice of martial arts as I kept an ear on what was being said. I don’t doubt some of what was said will be misconstrued but the wishy-washy rhetoric Aster and Saiten delivered should at least keep people guessing.

When Broken Walls eventually returned it was made plain that he had forgot entirely that Aster had promised answers to the crowd. He had been caught up speaking with Nergui to make sure we were operating appropriately to set the spirits of Akkimu’s victims to rest. By the time of his return the soldiers manning the walls had picked up on Aster and Saiten’s intent and were delivering statements in adept official sounding blandness meaning Saiten and Aster were able to step down.

We all adjourned to the courtyard where Chaoxi had set up a chair and table and was three quarters into a bottle of wine – doubtless a side effect of listening passively to the rambling confrence with the concerned citzenry of Champoor. Our meeting was a war council of sorts. We had achieved a task that needed doing quickly and now that the blinders were off we needed to start anticipating the consequences. A virtually impossible task to do with what information there is at hand. Mauk had revealed a number of things to us yesterday but we still know practically nothing about the fellow players on the board here.

Most of what was discussed was fairly predictable until Broken Walls made plain his intent to go in person to Tenepeshu and tell her outright that he has no intent to act against her. I don’t think he realizes one can’t simply waltz into the domain of someone who believes themselves deserving of respect, tell them nothing but a carefully prepared statement and walk right out again. He will face questions he himself does not have proper answers for yet. If he so dares to refuse to answer a question it at best gives Tenepeshu reason to be suspicious and at worst is an insult a powerful entity would be loathe to let slide. Lying to her face is equally risky. Until we know more maintaining the false seeming of inaction is safest.

Acting outwardly as though we aren’t particularly bothered should make the suspicious come to us, the fearful avoid us and the complacent ignore us. With luck the uncertainty of whether we are a threat or not might keep everyone off balance for a little while. Charging in could earn the scrutiny of people we might otherwise not have to worry about. One doesn’t exactly win at majong by telling the table their hand the instant the tiles are dealt. It was after trying to convey this that Broken Walls insisted that he would just have to face her alone.

I couldn’t help but think Broken Walls had let that glowing armour of his go to his head! He could die, or get everyone affiliated with him killed because of his hubris. Thinking himself invulnerable is a potentially fatal mistake. Perhaps he was banking on us not being able to stand on the sidelines if he decided to blunder headfirst into disaster but I resented him for placing me in that position. Choosing to uphold common sense and letting him or the people we care about get spattered over half of Champoor to prove my point wouldn’t bring me any satisfaction! Thankfully Aster backed me up and we got him to at least delay making any rash action until we learned more about Tenepeshu but it was a near thing.

I tried to return to the practicalities we discussed but this time I tried to shift the focus. I encouraged each of them to start reaching beyond their walls and consult with the people here. In my experience the powerful react poorly to unanticipated changes in their landscape. If Rising Sun does not show those parties the respect they believe they deserve their meddling could turn Broken Wall’s utopia into a pit of vipers The more autonomously they act now the more they will be perceived as an authoritarian threat. Until Broken Walls achieves necessary momentum the people within Champoor could be just as dangerous as the threats from without. The others took this idea up and hit on the idea to reform Black District into a temple district which sounded like a sound political move provided they are willing to invite all the gods to be represented. Done properly it could establish Rising Sun as a seemingly neutral party willing to treat with all the Gods in the city.

Here came another snag.

They want to invite only the gods they support. Aai ya, they want to draw a line in the sand and risk insulting those on the other side! It would be a clear display of Rising Sun House’s stance towards all the parties in Champoor. Those parties not given space at the table could use their mutual disfavour as a rallying point and band together. I tried to convince them to at least invite the other patrons… even Silgur and Kadu. Personally I hardly need to find proper pretext to make the fat frog’s life more difficult but there is little to be gained in them publicly slighting him. I will lay the ground work to attend to him my own way and would personally much rather catch him off guard.

If anything this little chat has revealed that duplicity is an alien concept to my friends. Not a one of my companions has had occasion to walk the crooked path until now and as such they are as straight, direct and predictable in the intent of their actions as the path of an arrow. The haven’t considered that that predictability is a disadvantage. To them intent and act are inextricably tied and they aren’t keen to consider that extending a hand with a flower can distract from the serpent coiled at an enemy’s feet.

Perhaps they can be guided. Aster might might not approve of dishonesty but sees diplomacy as a negation of future conflict. I’ve noticed she agrees with me more often than not on couses of action, though not for the same reasons. Chaoxi possesses an attention to detail formal manners that are quite applicable to matters of politics. Broken Walls will be the real challenge, not because he has no capacity for criminality, politics or duplicity but because he’s becoming increasingly more hardheaded from his string of successes that convincing him of anything is getting progressively more difficult.

As for Saiten…

Trying to teach Saiten the smallest measure of duplicty has already proven a lost cause. Any further attempts are a waste of effort so I endeavor to leave him to his own devices. He keeps saying “heroes are meant to be seen” which I take to mean “anything that doesn’t further my vain-glory isn’t worth my consideration.” Hopefully he can channel that desire for public adulation into something constructive. He is a decent fellow, I’m sure whatever he ends up doing will be done with the best of intentions. In this arena though he is a bull in a china shop.

My struggle now is to prepare for the end game and to maintain appropriate distance. However I might advise my companions I must be content with whatever is decided. I cannot forget that I intend to walk away from all this one day. It would be unfair to meddle in Broken Wall’s business too much, particularly since as his goals come ever closer the more I see fault in them. The main issue now is certain a lack of cohesive vision. My companions are each in their own way of admirable character but I don’t think they are on the same page as to what their ultimate aim is here. Saiten, Aster and Broken Walls are all focused on a very narrow slice of the moon cake. Right now they are seeking to improve the welfare of Champoor’s citizens, or it’s landscape. Their individual intentions are all good but I don’t think they have examined the ethical ramifications of what it will take to turn Champoor into the impregnable fortress they want.

Cities are permeable. Unless they want to completely remove the autonomy of the people living here and kill or cast down the people who oppose them they will never achieve enough consolidated power. Even if they do somehow manage a bloodless victory they will be asking these citizens to suffer on behalf of them when the Wyld Hunt comes. I doubt any of them are comfortable with admitting that subjugating free citizens is their ultimate intent. The only other avenue they has is to treat with and share the power with those who live here and sacrifice security as a result.

I feel more than a measure of pity for Broken Walls particularly. He keeps claiming he wants a “home” and I honestly believe that he is being candid. He wants to be safe, not an unreasonable desire for anyone to have in a perfect world. However… If his desires are truly so humble then why is he staking his claim on a city and not retiring to a tiny farm on the outskirts of society where he might never use his powers again and safely disappear into the annals of obscurity forever? Can any of us carve out a piece of creation, however large, for ourselves, plant our flag and sit idly by in an imperfect world when we have such power at our disposal to try and better it?

The Realm wants us dead simply for the crime of what we are and I think I see why. The temptation to use our powers is almost impossible for us to resist. We are not uniform in our methods or beliefs which means we are divided in our aims in using that power and that is a weakness the Realm does not share. The Realm simply needs to maintain and preserve the world as it is. The course they steer is steady and sure. When they come they will test the allegiances here and if they are weak it will fracture along the cracks. If the Realm cannot break Rising Sun they can siege and starve the city. I don’t think any of my friends would be willing to huddle behind walls while the realm takes Champoor hostage. If anything they would be prompted to abandon their walls and fight.The more I think about it the more I believe they are backing themselves into a corner.

There is a saying “the prison you build yourself no prison is” but I cannot live without liberty. Broken Wall’s safety, his “home”, is just a wistful dream to decorate his next prison cell with until the Realm’s houses and armies are divided and defeated.

Considering the approaching day when I must expand beyond the vision of my companions my chest feels tight. It will hurt to leave my friends behind but I do not believe this place will ever be safe. Champoor is, as I originally thought, a good test case. I am learning so much and building the skills I will need to wage the larger war. If the others will not come with me when the time comes then the best I can do is try and leave them in a position where they will still be alive when I return. I think I can bank on loneliness being more tolerable if there is a promise that it won’t last forever.

Near dusk messengers arrived. Invitations to Mauk’s tournament and the Heart family gala were extended to each of us, including Mists of Ruby Skies. It made me wince internally as Aster expressed her delight. Notoriety is a double edged sword and one I particularly do not favour. While I might use this as a means to set up Mists of Ruby Skies as a wielder of influential power here there are not insignificant drawbacks. Increasing my footprint in the city poses risks. Mind you, that ship may have sailed after my lapse last night. I had theorized that I was capable that sort of display but I had somehow assumed mine would be less…. flashy….

Unfortunately I cannot opt out of the party entirely as would be my preference. This invitation could represent a trap but it also represents a potentially high reward in political connections for my friends. I cannot ask them to forfeit that and sacrifice their ambitions… Still, four known anathema, in a pre-arranged location with plenty of time for a possible enemy to prepare any number of contingencies. I do not like those odds.

After we adjourned Broken Walls asked me to vet the lingering crowd of questioners outside for spies from other factions. It reminded me of something I wanted to ask, namely, how he knew what Lang smelled like. He was evasive. The best answer I got was that he inferred things gleaned from my telling of the tale. He likened it to my power over disguises. My heart sank a little, if he could infer things as tangential as a smell could he not “infer” other things- actions that I did not tell him I had taken? I tentatively mentioned the time I had spent with Lang, inviting him to comment but he acted as though he had no idea what I was getting at. If he truly was unaware I wasn’t about to confess to the things I had done. His hesitation and the evasive way he tried to angle past truly answering my question bothered me. I shouldn’t let the possibility that he doesn’t trust me sting too much. After all, I didn’t trust him enough to tell him everything. If he did know that I was concealing something from him and the nature of what is being concealed why would he trust me? I haven’t exactly earned it.

I excused myself to carry out Broken Wall’s request and used my keen senses to try and pick up anything out of the ordinary in the crowd. Nobody was carrying anything unusual or was in a disguise that used anything other than maybe mud. Their questions were simple and straightforward enough to be genuine. After an hour I gave up and headed back into the common space to resume my practice. I stayed up until past midnight tinkering with all manner of objects and putting into practice integrating the skills I had gleaned from Lang. My association with her came at a staggeringly high price. I must make the most of it.

Resplendent Fire 25 -

With the crowds around Rising Sun mostly dispersed we decided to go and speak with Hatellis. His temple was manned by a skeleton crew and it looked sadly empty without it’s full contingent of accountants and few remaining furnishings. None-the-less we were informed that Hatellis was in residence and that he would see us. Now that Akkimu was gone Hatellis was free to speak openly about her and told us that she was something of an outlier amoungst the patrons. Few tears would be shed by her fellow patrons regarding her dispatch. He wasn’t able to inform us how the patrons would react to Mauk airing their dirty laundry but was able to tell us where and how we might be able to contact the surviving patrons, including Gisig, which was useful. Hatellis volunteered information when he could but appeared legitimately restrained by what he could and could not say..

After we could demonstrate what we already knew Hatellis was able to teach us a bit about the structure and nature of heaven. It sounds far more bureaucratic than my imaginings. A corrupt bureaucracy in some ways if Tenepeshu is somehow operating in such a way that heaven cannot see things here. “Blocking the eyes of heaven” could mean that somewhere along the line someone is being paid to look the other way. Tenepeshu might have carved out her own little piece of Creation where she is the top of the hierarchy instead of some sort of middle-managment where she belongs. In regards to her character Hatellis gave the impression that she spends most of her time “high” and is best left alone, advising against even sending her some sort of letter. It seems unless she is provoked into action she is likely to consider us beneath her notice. How long can we count on that complacency I wonder?

In asking about Natasha and Gisig’s whereabouts we learned that Natasha’s temple is located in coin district and referred to as “the Temple of Earthly Pleasures”. Hatellis advised us never to contact her while inebriated making me think she might have some influence over drugs. Possible the avenue to exploiting Tenepeshu then lies with Natasha who may be responsible for maintaining Tenepshu’s high. It is almost a pity I will have to leave the work of treating with this particular Goddess to one of the others but some things can not be helped. If I ever set foot in another temple that has the word “pleasure” in the title it will be several lifetimes too soon.

There was one remaining matter, Hatellis asked for our assistance in recovering several talents of jade that had gone missing from his personal finances. He could tell us where it was in a general sense since he could track where currency was (I shall have to be careful about this in the future if I ever need to go unnoticed in his presence) however something was interfering with his ability to pinpoint it. As such he could only tell us it was somewhere underground in coin district. My personal guess is that Silgur has something to do with this. In the event of having to cross into Silgur’s space I asked Hatellis what constituted being a “member of Rising Sun House” just in case I had been remiss. He mentioned it involved being an official member or acting on their behalf as an outside contractor. if that is all I believe I should be fine, I have never taken any form of payment or made any formal verbal or written contractual arrangements for any of the things I have done. My closest formal connection is as a renter of the room in the compound for which I paid a tidy sum a while back. While it cannot be argued that my personal association with four of it’s founding members has benefited Rising Sun House my involvement has never been a matter of dispatch. Perhaps it is worthwhile to double-check but I didn’t during our meeting. It is a sore point for Broken Walls to be reminded that I am not in his employ.

There did seem an element of informality in Hatellis’s request. He appears to be leveraging an unspoken expectation of reciprocity or perhaps just hopes to cash in on the infinite goodwill that the others splash about like water without committing to a reward.. While there are possible kickbacks for me (however nebulous ) if I entertain his request I am not so sure how much he is willing to step up his involvement to compensate for the time I am willing to spare at present. While I might entertain the notions of my companions I prioritize their requests because I value their friendship, our mutual interests and their safety. I am not exactly jumping up and down to work for free for someone who is about as useful as they are ever likely to get.

I anticipate Broken Walls is going to come down hard on that line of thinking. Doubtless he will think me ingratious to Hatellis for the assistance he gave in regards to Akkimu. His belief in absolute reciprocity is admirable but I detest being pressured into fulfilling obligations for people I don’t like. I’d best start marshaling my excuses now.

The whole matter is compounded by the fact that I still can’t quite sort out what to think about Hatellis. I do not consider him my friend and I don’t much like him. Professionally I recognize him as trustworthy enough to treat with but what he is like on personal level is so remote that I have no sense of whether he is genuine. I suffered through seven cursed years of watching Shufen adeptly maneuver through tiny loopholes and grease the palms of bigwigs while they treated me like furniture. People who operate in the sphere Hatellis has dominion over are often extremely pleasant on the surface when it is in their interest to be so but might have withered raisins for hearts. Hatellis might only see us as an opportunity to be taken advantage of and be willing to play act friendship to achieve those aims.

Perhaps I am simply too soured on those concepts which form his dominion. Laws and contracts, while necessary in my experience just represent a battlefield of wits where the one with the most knowledge of it’s arcane codex can manipulate the wording to make sure they come out on top every time. Evils can be perfectly legal and contracts can be used as a tool to control and manipulate the unprivileged. The concept of “fine print” exists for just this purpose. Currency, his other dominion, while again not evil in itself, can be a corrupting influence to a person’s character. More evils have been conducted in the name of wealth or the envy of it than I have time to list. Hatellis may represent the only legal voice this place has but that doesn’t mean he represents a moral standpoint.

I am curious about how Hatellis functions. What are his limitations and how does he fit into the picture here? I really must devote some time to digging down into his operations and see if I can get a better picture of this entity and what his goals truly are. Only then will I consider running his errands.

After bidding Hatellis goodbye we walked around the corner to the shrine to Gisig. It is a very small shrine that consisted of a number of small doors. We spoke to the gargoyle above the largest and found that it was, in fact, the god of doors. I formed a rather favorable first impression of Gisig. He invited us to speak with the displaced Gods he harbours and the experience was … enlightening. They loitered in the narrow alleyway that Gisig told us wasn’t a place but a space between places. The assembled spirits were shadows with begging bowls in hand. They had nothing to lose by telling us of Tenepeshu as they had already lost everything. I endevour to return and learn all I can from them and show them the respect that they have been starved for. Seeing these gods, principled dissenters of Tenepeshu’s absolute rule, reduced to such ruin I can’t help but feel pity.

When we returned to the compound I split off to take care of a bit of business that Broken Walls had alerted me to. Rue had noticed the multitude of people who came through wearing a rabbit necklace and was seeking to speak with one of them. I approached him as Featherweight and spun him a tale that I was one of many agents that operated in conjunction with but autonomously from Rising Sun House. He put forward an interesting offer. He was willing to join the ranks of my “organization” and offered to see to our bookkeeping in his spare time. I took Rue’s offer and welcomed him into “The Warren of Rabbits”.

Do I tell Broken Walls about this? Technically Rue should not be establishing allegiances independently. Rue represents a very lucrative arrangement for me. A specialist able to pick apart account books who is versed in the Guild’s codes and an observant spy within Rising Sun House who would build report directly with me… No, as tempting as it is to keep quiet I must inform Broken Walls once things settle. He is less likely to take it well if he finds out on his own. He should not have much cause for concern. I doubt Rue will betray Broken Walls for a shadowy organization unless things get truly out of hand. Perhaps he will even appreciate the joke that Rue is a spy network of one who believes himself one of many. None-the-less I shall have to treat Rue properly which means dropping him the odd tidbit now and then. It may have landed in my lap sooner than I expected but it is time I started converting the assets in my gossip network and the pickpocketing ring into proper agents. Delegating some of the duties I have heaped on myself would leave me more time to tackle more projects. Some of the more hard done by assets might appreciate an opportunity for a proper income. I shall have to see about procuring funds enough to support them. Perhaps I can levy it off of some who aren’t putting it to good use. It is always useful to aim to kill more than one bird with any stone.

I spent the rest of the evening tracking some of the Heart family’s servants back to their homes or the places they socialized and eavesdropped from rooftops and alleyways under cover of darkness. If something is in the wind for the gala I might be able to catch it early enough to prepare.

Resplendent Fire 26 -

Today Saiten and Broken Walls went out side the city to take part in a preliminary round for the tournament while I spent the day with Aster and Chaoxi helping them pick clothes for the gala and supplying a replica of Broken Walls for them to dress. It may not have been the most worthwhile application of my time but Aster has been gloomy of late and she cheered a little picking things out for Broken Walls and debating what each of us should wear to the gala. I didn’t have the heart to break it to her that I was planning on attending in a much less obvious capacity than Mists of Ruby Skies. She also lamented that she didn’t know how to dance… Well, at least she doesn’t know specific dances. I offered to teach her.

Afterwards I headed out to check in with Xi and continue my infiltrations. I convinced some of the performers at the Winter Meets Wind to provide entertainment for the opening night of the Rising Sun Night Market by telling them it was a good opportunity for them to make some extra coin until the theater adopts a schedule more appropriate for a city that stays up late.

In the evening I attended the opening of the market in the guise of Pearl Skinner. Hatellis was there but not in an official capacity. He offered his blessings on the going on and made a clear show of enjoying his time with Aster. It still irritates me to watch them go through the motions of romance so I focused on supplying music for the market. The players surprised me by putting on a hastily drafted play about the battle against Akkimu … complete with Mists of Ruby Skies and a battle scene complete with Seven Desert Roses draped in black veils sewn with tiny sparkling glass beads fighting Gabor Khalil who was dressed in a hastily thrown together Akkimu costume. I was mortified but did my best to not show it.

I suppose it is useless to hope this doesn’t catch on…

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