Fate and the Iron Tiger Part 3


Fate and the Iron Tiger PART III
An Exalted Tale by Dr. Bender

Bearding the lion's den, Tetsu finds himself surrounded by enemies. Now more than ever he needs friends he can count on but what's a young Solar to do when even his friends harbour inscrutable motives and terrible secrets?

Author's Note: I'm going to try posting this in shorter installements, sorry this chapter doesn't reveal any major secrets as yet but there's plenty for you to chew on anyway!

Fate and the Iron Tiger PART III
An Exalted Tale by Dr. Bender

Chapter 13

The scent of crispy bacon and freshly toasted bread slowly drew Bonzo from her slumber. Still feeling dopy, she squirmed a little while she worked up the impetus to open her eyes, feeling warm and safe under the covers. The strange sensation of weight around her midsection, however, pulled her into full wakefulness.

Looking down, she couldn’t help but notice the bulge that was sticking out even with layers of blankets over her. Reaching down, her fingers probed the still small but steadily growing dome of her stomach, a strange and somehow alien sensation of peace and content satisfaction drifting over her.

“Hey there,” Sarro greeted, entering the room with a silver tray laden with breakfast enough for two (or perhaps three in this case), “how are you feeling this morning?”

“Wonderful,” Bonzo answered honestly, stretching out like a cat before sitting up in the bed, “in fact, I’ve never felt this good.”

“I see,” the dragonblood said, a tinge of sadness in her voice. She laid the tray on the bed and sat next to the mortal girl who was quick to shimmy over to snuggle against her.

“What’s wrong, Sarro?” She asked.

“Nothing you need to worry about, dear,” Sarro answered, kissing the girl on the lips, “all you have to do is work on the little one.”

Bonzo grinned, feeling strangely elated. “By the way, I know it might sound strange but what happened last night? I can’t seem to remember what I did.”

It was hard for Sarro to hold back her tears. Fearing that her voice might break if she spoke too loudly, she slid her arms around Bonzo and kissed her cheek. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll always keep you safe, I promise.”

The girl practically melted into her embrace and breakfast lay forgotten for a time.

#

The sun hovered just above the mountain range as Tetsu gazed over the vista from the temple’s balcony, the trees below bathed in rose-coloured light. The breeze caught her silky strands of dark hair, golden skin glistening in the light except for where she was covered by the wisps of gauze and exotic jewels that could barely be called clothes. Despite the idyllic scene, she couldn’t help but feel that something was very wrong, causing her to frown as she scanned the horizon. The more she thought about it, the more she became convinced that something was wrong with the scene but for the life of her she couldn’t figure out what was out of place.

All of her worries fled, however, as her husband’s hands slid around her waist, pulling her back into his arms. Sighing with contentment, she pressed herself against him, her cheek resting against his broad, strong, chest. Looking up, she pleaded with only her eyes for a kiss and, true to his nature, he enthusiastically complied. Consumed by lustful heat, she automatically parted her legs as his hand slid between her thighs, moaning into his mouth as he explored her most private places. Unable to hold herself back any longer, she fished his enormous, erect, member out from under his robe and quenched it in her depths.

Tetsu’s eyes fluttered open as he came, waking up in a tangle of silk sheets and sweaty feminine bodies. His seed came to rest on the bare hip of a tall, dark-skinned, redhead who’s long, supple, leg was resting between his while her head rested on the back of her older sister, Maeria, who’s arm lay across his neck. It took a moment but Tetsu’s befuddled brain eventually recalled that her name was Israfi. The petite sister, Pedenu, lay in the crook of his right arm with her head resting on his shoulder, waves of purple hair sticking to both her own body and his chest thanks to their sweat. Bovina, the large-breasted sister, was lying on the same side as Pedenu but inverted, her head resting near his right foot while her upper body rested against his shin with her left arm draped over Israfi. Until Tyria, the last girl, shifted a little, Tetsu thought that his head was resting on a pillow rather than a woman’s lap.

Amazed that he was still alive after the orgy of the day before, Tetsu felt surprisingly invigorated. The sisters had been ardent and enthusiastic lovers, each a jewel of unsurpassed value and indeed, all of them possessing the divine blood of Sanejin himself though they had been born to different mothers. They were also insatiable, Tetsu had completely lost track of everything that was going on after the first half hour as pure instinct drove him on with what felt like a bottomless well of energy. Time lost all meaning so he couldn’t be sure of how long he’d lain with the girls other than a vague estimate that it had to have been hours, though he remembered with some smug satisfaction that it had been the girls who had collapsed first.

Extricating himself from the bed took a few minutes, though it seemed that the girls were so exhausted that nothing would wake them from their slumber. The architect of the room had also ingeniously recognized the need for bathing immediately after an orgy of such a magnitude and built a large circular pool into the floor at the foot of the bed so that the revellers could simply dive in to cleanse themselves. So Tetsu said a short prayer of thanks to the God of Architects before sliding into the warm water, vaguely wondering what sort of first age magic could provide such delights as he washed himself. He tried to put the nightmare out of his mind as he relaxed, sinking up to his neck in the perfectly warm water.

Try as he might, however, he couldn’t stop his thoughts from ricocheting around the inside of his skull. Too much was happening too fast for his brain to sort through the millions of disparate pieces of the puzzle. What had started as a juvenile fight between two local factions had escalated to a high stakes game of nations without a single player that actually cared about the little people of River’s Bend who might be crushed by the machinery of war. The lines between friend and foe were already starting to blur.

Sanejin was unfathomable. Seemingly genuine with every word, something about the God’s manner still made Tetsu’s palms itch but it was hard to tell if it was a reaction to his divine aura or simply the echo of his recurring dream haunting his waking hours. As for the God’s story about a powerful artefact hidden in the wilderness, such tales were a dime a dozen in the Scavenger Lands, once the most populous area of the First Age. Inconsequential wonders were unearthed from dig sites across the East all the time. It was more disturbing, however, when a God paid credence to such a rumour, or pretended to.

Leaving the problem of Sanejin aside, Tetsu tried to order his thoughts, closing his eyes as he attempted to sort out the players in the game from the pieces. Of all the players, Greyfalls was by far the most active and overt, attempting to bludgeon every obstacle in their way into submission. By contrast, Lookshy was less a player than the timekeeper waiting to ring the bell for the endgame. The Guild seemed to have its hand in to support Greyfalls, likely figuring that a success for the isolated nation would encourage more military actions in the future. More military actions mean more profit for the Guild, either selling arms or capturing slaves.

“But they’re holding back,” Tetsu muttered to himself under his breath. The Guild wasn’t investing much, playing the odds and letting Greyfalls take the risks; cowardly but prudent, some of the defining characteristics of a successful businessman. The problem with the Guild was that it could be characterized as a double-headed snake, attack one end and the other might turn and kill you. Likewise, the Guild might buy a deeper stake in the game at any point if the potential reward appeared to defray the risk but they’d already lost the first hand along with Red Wolf and White Crane. Caution would rule their next move.

That left the players who had yet to reveal themselves overtly, whose existence could only be surmised from the plethora of seemingly unclaimed pieces on the board. Ullah was the perfect example. She seemed sincere in her desire to help the people of River’s Bend but who was supporting her? “The Cult of the Illuminated?” Tetsu asked the question out loud, seeing if voicing the idea made it sound less absurd than it did in his head. Unfortunately it did, if there was some sort of First Age device buried near River’s Bend and people with real influence started showing interest in it, then a cult that worships the beings who made it would naturally want to buy in.

Tetsu had to admit that he himself was a pawn on the board, possibly one that had been upgraded to a more powerful piece. He couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had guided his path over the last few days, ever since he’d run across that damn Dragonblood in the forest. “But the real question is who,” Tetsu mumbled. Had Markul somehow cursed his belongings before his death? Was Sanejin toying with him using divine magic? What was Ullah’s game and how had she really known that he’d needed rescue at the riverbank? None of these questions answered the greatest mystery, who had killed Markul in the first place?

Despite being unable to shake the feeling that Markul’s death was somehow linked to the troubles in River’s Bend, he pushed it and the question of who had killed him and why to one side. He didn’t have enough data to make even a hypothesis; it was a solitary piece of the puzzle that didn’t fit. Tetsu didn’t even want to consider that it was a piece for a completely different puzzle but only time and further investigation would prove it one way or the other.

Finally, his thoughts returned to Sanejin and the question of the God’s motives. Was Sanejin a tyrant, manipulating Red Wolf and White Crane as well as their masters in the Guild or had he been as much a prisoner and victim of their machinations as the village he ruled? Why risk harbouring an Anathema when his town was overrun by Dragonbloods in any case? Is the God a player or just another piece in the game?

“Holy shit!” Kano commented as he entered the room looking well rested and pleasantly dishevelled, staring at bed where the women were still sleeping. “Five of them? FIVE?”

“Not so loud,” Tetsu snapped in a low voice, quickly checking to make sure that the women weren’t disturbed, “you might wake them.”

“They look exhausted,” Kano whispered, still staring at the girls.

Grunting, Tetsu stood and stepped out of the bath, towelling off before donning the silk robe that had been left out for him. “It’s been a busy day,” he commented glibly, “but it will be a busier night… speaking of which, what have you gotten up to while I was preoccupied?”

“Oh, not much,” Kano blushed, looking away, “I ran into an old friend and did some catching up. So, what are we up to tonight?”

“We? I am going down into town to root out more information. You are going to snoop around here and find out everything you possibly can. I need to know the layout of the temple, I need to know how many girls live here, how they are treated and organized, I need to know about the Dragonbloods that frequent the place and I need to know anything about Sanejin that you can uncover…”

“I think I’ve proven that I can sneak around town with you after last night,” Kano interrupted, looking hurt.

Glancing in the girl’s direction as one of them stirred, Tetsu put his finger to his lip, gesturing for his companion to keep quiet before ushering him into the hallway outside, closing the door behind them. Turning back to Kano, Tetsu placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders and stooped to look him in the eye. “Kano,” Tetsu said in a low voice, “the job I’m giving you right now is more important than my own. Sanejin claims that there’s an artefact somewhere in these mountains that is Greyfalls’ true objective. I’m going to see if I can find any substantive evidence to that assertion but even if what he says is true, I need to know why Sanejin would trust me and what he is doing with this brothel. Whether he is telling the truth or lying is less important than his motives for doing so, do you understand?”

Kano nodded. “I… think so.”

“Good,” Tetsu grinned, patting the boy on the shoulder, “I leave it to you, I have faith in you.”

The boy didn’t seem to know how to take that sentiment, staring after Tetsu like a lost puppy as the Solar walked away. Feeling bad for his slight exaggeration, Tetsu gave his friend a wave of farewell before turning a corner to head towards the temple proper in search of Sanejin. The closer he came to the main building, the more traffic passed through the hallways as the girls busied themselves fulfilling the more basic needs of their guests. Laundry was an ever-present demand, often soiled in ways best left unmentioned. Food and drink was another for both the whores and their guests, orgies being surprisingly hard work. Several Madams kept the lower ranking girls moving and in line, rushing from one trouble spot to the next. The girls stepped out of his way as he approached, bowing their heads in subservience as he passed.

Turning another corner as he searched for some stairs up that might lead to an out of the way chamber, Tetsu ran directly into a girl carrying a wicker basket of laundry, knocking her back several steps. Startled, she looked up and Tetsu found himself staring down into the face of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. It wasn’t just her appearance that drew him in, he was surrounded by beautiful women, there was something intangible about this one woman that made him stare. The smudges of soot on her face, hands and feet and lack of make-up gave her an earthy quality the painted whores had given up for the illusion of perfection. Her hair was smooth, straight and inky black, though a little dishevelled from hours of labour. The sight of her generous curves made his member stiffen in anticipation.

Feather recovered from her surprise after a moment, lowering her head submissively like the rest of the girls. “Pardon me, my Lord,” she apologized in a small voice before quickly stepping past him, her heart hammering in her chest as the shock of the sudden confirmation of her fears hit home. The Solar was not only alive, he was somehow in league with Sanejin. It didn’t help that she could feel him staring at her as Feather’s mind raced through a million possibilities. Did he have some unholy charm that would pierce her disguise? Had he seen the male Feather and somehow made the connection between the person she had been with her current body? In moments, however, she came to a more shocking realization: he wasn’t staring because he knew; he was simply admiring the view.

With that realization came a host of options, her calculating mind discarding plan after plan in the space of several steps before falling back on what she knew best: manipulation. Feather glanced back over her shoulder, finding him still staring after her, and called on her essence. A red strand of fate, visible only to her, snaked out of the tip of her little finger and weaved its way toward him striking like a serpent. As their eyes met for a second time, the strand ensnared his little finger, tying itself into an unbreakable knot and sealing the connection between them. Feather looked away just as she went around the corner, allowing herself a short smile of triumph once she was out of his sight. Smiling in triumph, she paused with her burden and bit her lower lip, allowing herself to bask in the afterglow of her own cleverness. Tetsu the Wanderer would seek her out of his own accord in time…

“NEW GIRL!” The Madam barked, breaking Feather’s reverie.

Feather bowed her head, falling into her role again despite the internal struggle not to choke the life out of the petty waste of air that stood over her. The Madam held herself with the confidence of a Dragonblooded matron, dominating the other girls despite appearing to be the same age. “Yes, mistress?”

“Where have you been?” She demanded, holding her switch loosely in one hand.

“Washing this laundry, mistress,” Feather answered dutifully, holding up the large bundle of linen up for inspection.

“NOT FAST ENOUGH!” The Madam screeched, knocking the bundle out of her hands, her sudden shout making several other girls cringe away. “You must be quicker. Show me your heel.”

Confused, Feather lifted up her right foot so that her big toe was pointed to the ground as the Madam stepped around her. The switch whistled once, making Feather jump as a line of agony burned across her sole. She squealed, a sound that probably would have caused her old martial arts master to smack her to the ground.

“Now the other one,” the Madam ordered.

Gritting her teeth as she forced her injured foot to take her weight on the hard stone floor, she lifted her other foot so that it could receive the same treatment. The pain made tears well up in her eyes.

“There, maybe that will make you pick up your feet,” the Madam said smugly, “now run along, plenty of work to do!”

#

For a masculine divinity in charge of a brothel full of his own temple prostitutes, Sanejin seemed abnormally preoccupied with his own thoughts. Tetsu wondered for a moment if the god had even detected his presence for several moments after he entered the small private library, discovered thanks to directions given by a helpful Madam, finding him staring off into space as he sat in a comfortable-looking leather bound chair by the table that stood in the middle of the room. Shelves full of neatly organized books and scrolls lined the walls, their musty odour magnified by the lack of ventilation.

“Oh, Tetsu,” Sanejin greeted warmly as the door clicked shut behind the new Solar, “pardon me, I was lost in thought.”

“I thought gods were supposed to be all-seeing and all-knowing,” Tetsu observed with a wry smile as he pulled out the chair opposite and sat.

“Would that were the case,” Sanejin lamented. “Unfortunately, even the Incarnae have their blind spots; the rest of us are much more limited.”

“The who?” Tetsu feigned complete ignorance, wanting to test Ullah’s veracity.

“Oh, right, I keep forgetting how ignorant the Immaculates try to keep you mortals. The Incarnae are the current masters of Creation, creators of the Celestial Exalted and the strongest of the Gods created by the Primordials. They are The Unconquered Sun, Luna and the Five Maidens: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury. As a Solar, your abilities are empowered by a shard of the perfection of the Unconquered Sun but the other Incarnae have their own exalted. Luna has her shapeshifting Lunars, savages that fled to the fringes of Creation when the Solars were deposed at the end of the First Age. More dangerous are the Sidereals, heaven’s secret police. They retain the secrets of First Age technology and even the youngest are trained in the strongest of Martial Arts. If that wasn’t enough, they have virtual command of the Realm and the ability to manipulate Fate itself. They could be anyone and anywhere.”

Tetsu’s eyes narrowed. “You suspect their hand here?”

Sanejin laughed. “I always suspect Sidereals, it keeps me on my toes. Tell me, did your mystery saviour tell you anything about your new abilities?”

Scratching his chin, Tetsu leant back in the plush chair, considering how much to tell Sanejin about Ullah. “No,” he answered finally, “nothing beyond the history of the Solar Exalted, the same as you described.”

The god took a deep breath. “I would tell you to be wary of this person, whoever they are, but then I know you’re no fool. I also understand why you don’t trust me, though I hope to earn that trust in time. If you are amiable, I would like to make you more aware of your proper place in Creation before you rush out on your night’s errand.”

“I have time to listen,” Tetsu said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Good. As I said, there are three type of Celestial Exalted and each has, or had, five ‘castes’ just as the Terrestrials do. Rather than elements, however, they are defined by the celestial bodies linked to their Incarnae. The Five Maidens each have their own caste and the Lunars used to have five castes as defined by the phases of the moon though this has been narrowed down to three since their exile to the Wyld after the Usurpation. Solars also have five castes defined by the Sun’s phases: Dawn, Zenith, Twilight, Night and Eclipse. Each specializes in one of the basic arts of civilization: War, Religion, Intellect, Espionage and Diplomacy. As an Eclipse caste, you will find that your diplomatic abilities will be greatly enhanced, though this is not the only power you possess. Every caste has abilities that they share in common, separate from those known as ‘charms’. In your case, there are three. First, the Eclipse caste forged pacts long ago with the unnatural beings of other realms close to Creation. As such, many unnatural beings including Demons, the Fair Folk and other spirits must honour the rules of hospitality in regards to you and your companions unless you attack them first. Secondly, you may learn the charms of the other types of Exalted, though they must choose to teach you. Last but by no means least, you can use your Essence to sanctify an oath before all of Creation, enforced by Fate itself. This Oath may be between any two people and whoever breaks it will suffer dire consequences.”

Standing suddenly, Tetsu turned away from the God, shaken to the core. “The power to enforce an agreement, no matter how minor or world-shattering that deal is? I could own Nexus or conquer the Guild in a matter of weeks.”

“It takes a great deal of Essence to sanctify an oath,” Sanejin explained, “essence that takes some time to replenish when one doesn’t have worshippers. At the height of their power, the Eclipse caste could singlehandedly forge and destroy nations with a simple handshake. I wouldn’t be so concerned, you are still newly Exalted. The weight of your oath is not quite so heavy as that of an ancient Solar but it is still formidable.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Tetsu muttered, starting to pace.

“Tetsu, you were not chosen for this power lightly,” Sanejin insisted. “The Unconquered Sun ordained that you were worthy of the abilities you now possess. It’s time to trust in his judgement and trust in yourself to make the right choices. Oh, I almost forgot, there’s one other problem with sanctifying an oath. Your Anima Banner may flare from the use of Essence.”

Tetsu stopped and blinked dumbly at him. “My what?”

“Your Anima Banner,” Sanejin repeated, sliding out of his chair. “Your Exaltation marks you. Two kinds of Essence that running through your body: inner and peripheral. Your inner Essence may be used freely without consequence but use of your peripheral Essence will charge your Anima Banner, which will flare like fireworks. The caste mark on your brow will also glow for some time, revealing your blessing to the world… and any mortals, dragonbloods, unfriendly spirits or even Sidereals that happen to be nearby, all of whom will attempt to slay you.”

“Everyone has been out to kill me my entire life,” Tetsu growled, taking deep breaths to try to keep himself calm. “I’ve survived. I always survive, no matter what it takes. But I’ll be careful tonight, thank you.”

“I hope we can be friends, Tetsu,” Sanejin accepted graciously, “it is the least I can do.”

Sighing, Tetsu turned and smiled. “Perhaps we can. If you don’t mind my presumption, I have a request.”

“Name it.”

“While I appreciate the hospitality of your daughters, I wouldn’t dream of accepting their personal attentions during my stay here. I’m sure you value them highly. If I could select one of your other girls to assist me, it might go a long way towards assuaging my doubts.”

Sanejin stared at him for a moment before bursting into laughter. “Is that all? As far as I am concerned, my friend, everything I own is at your disposal. As a personal favour, I would prefer if you left enough to keep my guests occupied, though.”

Laughing with him, Tetsu slapped the god on the shoulder. “I wouldn’t dream of abusing your hospitality. I will see you later, I’m sure we’ll have much to discuss by dawn.”

Tetsu found himself more confused by the god’s motivations after the conversation than he did beforehand. Acquiescing to every demand, volunteering information without question of reward or return, not even questioning what he was about to do tonight, none of it made sense. Sanejin was sticking his neck so far out onto the chopping block the headsman would have to be blind and facing the other way to miss. The only motive that he discounted out of hand was altruism.

Ascending a narrow, dark, staircase, Tetsu was pleasantly surprised to find that he’d chosen correctly, emerging atop the wall overlooking River’s Bend. The worn stonework made for a perfect climbing surface, allowing him to descend rapidly. The road downhill was dark, not a single traveller to be seen above High Town. River’s Bend itself, however, was aglow with moving torchlight. Teams of workers continued their labours into the night, followed closely at all times by soldiers and Guild overseers. The new walls were slowly being erected as stone was moved from the harbour to the edge of town along roads of loose logs with efficiency born of Dragonblooded leadership.

Acutely reminded of the thousands of lives that rested on his actions, Tetsu crept into High Town with a renewed sense of purpose. Emerging from the tree line, he dusted himself off and arranged the fine robes he’d borrowed from Sanejin in an effort to make himself look like a wealthy merchant out for an evening stroll and continued down the street. The mansions around him were brightly lit but quiet except for the myriad banners that fluttered on the walls, each depicting the personal heraldry of the Lords that occupied the building. The streets were immaculate and mostly deserted, which Tetsu was grateful for.

It was easy to tell which mansion the Dragonbloods were using for their main headquarters thanks to the sheer number of banners that festooned the walls, not to mention the presence of an armed guard at the gate. Tetsu veered off down a side street before he’d be forced to pass by, just in case his likeness had been circulated. While he considered it a remote possibility since he was supposedly dead, he felt that it could hurt to be cautious.

He almost cursed when he came close to running straight into a patrol of five soldiers marching across the street, only hiding himself behind an empty supply wagon at the last moment. Muttering under his breath at his own clumsiness, Tetsu had to admit that he hadn’t thought this particular phase of his plan all the way through. The compound wasn’t a fortress by any stretch of the imagination but the walls were fifteen feet high and the Unconquered Sun hadn’t exactly given him a user manual with his exaltation.

Deciding not to risk getting stuck in the monster-infested sewer system again, Tetsu too a deep breath before stumbling around the corner towards the main gate and the two soldiers posted outside. Lurching drunkenly, he mumbled an incoherent tune to himself as he used the wall for support. “Ay! Goosh fellows ‘o th’ ‘egion,” Tetsu called with a thick slur, “spar a ‘and fer a pal, would je?”

Before Tetsu could blink he was staring at the pointy ends of two spears with stern-faced armoured legionaries at the other end. “Halt,” the one on Tetsu’s right commanded, “state your name, citizen.”

Shuffling back a few steps, Tetsu hit the wall and slid halfway down to his knees. “No need for tha’ ofishur,” the solar explained, hiccoughing, “I’s Cathik… Cachak… Ketchup… Ca-th-ack. Cathak Kinomomomo…”

The soldiers shared a look. Tetsu knew the look, it was the acknowledgement of shared disgust with the antics of a supposed superior. “I’ll need to see your seal, my lord. You’re roaming the streets after curfew.”

“…momomo…. mo… oh, my seal, wh’ ‘id that go?” Tetsu asked, stalling to buy some time to think as he made some show of patting down his robes and checking his sleeves. “Git ‘eze sticks outta my face, would yer, I can’t conshentrate wi’… oh, gods…”

A long time ago, Tetsu had mastered the art of losing the contents of his stomach on demand. Summoning the sense memory of the charnel stench of some of the seedier back alleys in Nexus always did the trick and it wasn’t long before he was retching into the gutter.

“Shit,” the younger soldier that hadn’t talked yet swore, “he’s straight enough to hold up the moon. We can’t leave him out here.”

“Come on,” the older one answered, “we’ll let him sleep it off in a holding cell and do the rest of this crap come morning.”

Tetsu had to wonder how many dragonbloods these soldiers had been forced to throw into a cell to sleep off a party. Considering the practiced way they dragged him along between them, he was guessing the answer was all too often. Playing the passed out drunk didn’t give him a chance to survey much of the grounds beyond the gate other than the ground passing beneath them but he memorized the twists and turns in their path along with the number of steps to keep a rough estimate of where they were going, pausing only for the guards to organize a temporary watch on the gate.

Eventually, they dragged him inside a building with a rough stone floor. They passed several more guards in the same uniform who shared some jokes at Tetsu’s expense before he was dumped on a rough straw pallet, the door quickly closed and locked behind him. He waited a few minutes for the guards to get some distance away before getting up to assess his surroundings. It was a small room with nothing but a strong reinforced wooden door, four stone walls, the hard straw bed, a tiny window and a pot for a toilet. Tetsu had to acknowledge that this would be a dire situation for most normal people, perhaps even challenging for the average dragonblood.

The lock came apart with a single swift blow aimed just above the door handle. He waited for a few more moments to see if anyone responded to the noise before slipping out into the hallway unobserved. Creeping down to the exit, Tetsu was glad that the other cells were unoccupied, no other baggage to get in his way or set off an alarm. He silently thanked the Incarnae when he discovered that the guard post was only manned by one soldier who was having trouble keeping his eyes open. A single unseen jab sent him into the realm of dreams so that Tetsu could lower him into a chair in one corner to prop him up like he’d simply fallen asleep on duty. His sergeant would probably chew him out but at least he was still alive.

Outside the makeshift jail, the mansion was buzzing with activity. Guards were less numerous inside, though they were stationed at most of the major entrances, but there were so many servants, messengers and local officials wandering about that blending in wasn’t going to be an issue. Straightening his robe and brushing most of the mud off, Tetsu strode confidently into the courtyard and stopped a younger servant carrying several bolts of silk. “These are for the mistress?” He asked authoritatively, though not loud enough that his voice rose over the general level of noise around them.

“Uh… no, sir,” the callow youth warbled, unsure of himself, “these are for Master Iselsi.”

“Yithais Iselsi?” Tetsu probed, making some show of inspecting the silks.

“Mithras, sir,” the servant informed, eager to please.

Tetsu frowned, almost feeling bad for what he was about to do. “You’re going the wrong way, fool; Lady Delani will have our heads. Come, follow me.”

The kid scurried along behind Tetsu as he strode purposefully into the building with the guards not even sparing him a second glance. Naturally, he had no idea where he was going but everyone believed he did because he walked with purpose and the kid made him appear to be someone who could give orders. Inordinately pleased with himself, Tetsu dampened his smug sense of superiority and remained alert to his surroundings.

The inside of the Cynis mansion was a maze. Marble hallways provided clear pathways to the chambers of the rich and debouched dragonbloods but the servant’s passageways were more traditional, complete with the sliding wood and rice paper doors so popular in the East. The servants rushed through these back passageways and rooms on various errands for their masters like stagehands support their actors from backstage. The mansion’s complex layout was further exacerbated by the various nooks and crannies that could provide lusty dragonbloods with privacy enough that anyone could discreetly ignore their various trysts, a favourite Cynis pastime.

“Um, sir?” The kid asked tentatively as they turned down another back hallway. “Isn’t this the way to the kitchens?”

Mentally cursing his misfortune to pick a servant with half a brain, Tetsu snorted. “Of course it’s the way to the kitchens, idiot. We’re almost there.” Spying the perfect solution, Tetsu stopped suddenly enough that the kid almost bumped into him. “Watch yourself, you bumbling buffoon. In here.”

Throwing open the door conveniently marked ‘storeroom’, Tetsu shoved the servant through and followed, shutting the door behind him.

Blinking stupidly at the room full of brooms, boxes, shelves and various cleaning tools, the kid turned back toward Tetsu. “Um, sir, this is…”

Tetsu’s punch knocked the kid down, unconscious before he even hit the floor. “A closet,” the solar finished for him, “thanks kid, I know.”

Shoving the kid into a corner after stripping off his robe, Tetsu folded his merchant’s robe and neatly added it to the stack of silks before donning the servant’s simple black tunic. Hefting the youth’s burden along with his own robe easily, Tetsu slipped back into the hallways, again moving like he actually had a job to do.

Bypassing the kitchens, Tetsu had to pick his way slowly through the crowded rooms where the musicians and other entertainers awaited their lady’s summons. “Lady Delani throwing a party tonight?” Tetsu asked the person behind him, a pot-bellied kitchen servant baring a tray of appetizers.

He snorted. “From what I hear, the Lords and Ladies are throwing a party for her, trying to curry favour.”

“I overheard Lord Peleps whisper to Lady Ragara that they’re trying to petition her support in hunting down the Anathema,” another rake thin servant interjected.

“Kadan or Tia?” The pot-bellied man asked.

“Tia.”

“It’s nonsense then, he’s just trying to stir up the other Dragonbloods, throw them off balance.”

“Anathema?” Tetsu scoffed. “I heard the Anathema was twenty foot high and breathed fire. They might need the army to take it down.”

“I heard it was so hideous that looking at it’s face scared thirty men to death,” the thin one lied, trying to up the ante on Tetsu’s tall tale, “and then, it drew in a deep breath and sucked down their souls!”

“All I heard was that it brought down half the mountainside with one stamp of it’s foot,” the pot-bellied one shrugged.

“I heard that it wore a cloak of feathers that made it look like an owl,” one of the male dancers said, joining in on the gossip.

“Don’t be stupid,” the thin one scolded, rolling his eyes.

Tetsu took advantage of a sudden gap in the crowd as the rest of the gossips joined in on the action to extricate himself. Continuing around another corner away from the crowd, he couldn’t help but grin when he discovered an empty set of stairs leading to the upper floors. Shifting his grip on his burden so that he could look around the pile of silks to see where he was putting his feet, Tetsu quickly ascended to the next floor.

The distinctive sound of moans and rhythmic thumping made him pause before continuing up. Gently putting his burden down in one corner, Tetsu peeked through the arch into the dark, otherwise quiet, hallway that he guessed ran the length of the main hall where the party was supposed to be taking place. A lady dressed in purple robes with embroidered gold sunburst and rolling white clouds had a young, handsome, serving boy pinned in a corner, her hands grasping his ass as she guided him through the motions.

“Wait, mistress,” the boy pleaded, his eyes screwed shut from concentrations, “I’m going to… to…”

Snarling, she reached down and squeezed the base of his penis hard enough to make the boy writhe. “Useless male,” she growled, “you do not have my permission to come, is that understood?”

“Yes, mistress,” he gasped, “I’m sorry, I can’t help…”

Tetsu winced when she smacked the back of his head against the wall. Before she could do anything further, however, she was interrupted by the distant sound of trumpets. Quickly extricating herself, she tossed him aside so that she was free to rearrange her robes. “Utterly useless, you’re a disgrace to the Cynis name, boy,” she snapped before turning on her heel and marching around the corner in a huff. Bursting into tears, the boy fled past Tetsu, running down the stairs without giving the solar a second glance.

Shaking his head, Tetsu slipped into the hallway, looking for a way of spying on the main hall for a few moments. His assumption proved correct when he discovered another nook with a hole that allowed him to peer out through the eye of a carving that depicted one of the elemental dragons. The room beyond was lavish, though likely not a patch on the palaces of Greyfalls or the Blessed Isle. The Lords and Ladies stood on lush crimson carpet before a throne of entwined silver and gold dragons with bejewelled eyes, their clothes a riot of colour under the glow of the crystal chandeliers over their heads.

The dancers that had been performing for the dragonblood’s entertainment were making a discreet exit as the trumpeters sounded a second fanfare while the orchestra took their positions. Finally, the great doors at the end of the room opposite the throne opened and the guests parted to provide a straight path for their host’s passage.

Lady Delani cut a striking figure as she stepped onto the carpet. She wasn’t the tallest terrestrial present but she exuded an aura of confidence and command that none of them could match, which made her seem much larger to Tetsu’s perception. While the rest of the assembly wore gowns and robes of exquisite tailoring, she wore a suit of deep blue Jadesteel armour composed of intricate plates forged to resemble a wave-tossed sea over a robe of chainmail. The chainmail sleeves hung from underneath her pauldrons as well as falling like a skirt from her waistline down to her shins over heavy black cloth and leather garments that would protect her skin. Her boots were also armoured with wave-ridges that would probably hurt anyone she kicked or stomped on quite greviously. Her dark, slightly blue-tinted, hair flowed freely down her back as a servant carried her crested helm with his head bowed between the two peacock feathers attached to the visor. To his surprise, Tetsu noticed that she wasn’t carrying any weapons.

She strode purposefully across the room and took her place on the throne in time to her musical accompaniment, wringing every ounce of melodrama from the moment. Tetsu had to admit, it was impressive and certainly added to the weight of her authority, a trick he mentally filed away for later use.

“Friends,” Delani addressed the crowd, “thank you for this kind gesture of gratitude and for your gifts. It is nice to know that the work of the Legion is appreciated, though I must apologize for the other members of my Sisterhood who are unable to attend because of their duties. I’m also sure you’ll forgive me if I can’t stay for long, there are many pressing matters that require my attention.”

One of the older, less ostentatiously dressed, dragonbloods stepped forward to bow to their hostess. “Lady Delani, you do us a great honour and show the full extent of your graciousness to humbly indulge this small token of our esteem. Since we have already introduced ourselves, milady, please allow me to introduce these other luminaries so that they may present their gifts. First of all, please allow me to present Lord Ledaal Tooke, a young fellow warrior on his tour of the Threshold.”

The young man that stepped forward stumbled slightly, obviously nervous. “L-lady Delani,” he stammered, almost as if his voice was still breaking, as he knelt at her feet. “It is a honour to meet you, I have heard much about your exploits. If you would please be kind enough to read this letter of introduction from my mother, Lady Elistaire, and consider the prospect of a marital alliance between our houses.”

Tetsu had to stop himself from chuckling, noting that Lady Delani was controlling her annoyance superbly. She gave him a warm, if insincere, smile as she took the scroll he was presenting out of his hands. “Thank you, Lord Tooke, please assure your mother than I will give the proposal all due consideration.”

Visibly relieved, Tooke melted back into the crowd as the older dragonblood ushered another visitor forward. “Lord V’neef Xegoku, Lady Cynis Delani,” he introduced simply.

Xegoku’s expression made him look like someone had slipped a slice of lemon in his mouth. “It is my pleasure to meet you, milady. It is with deep and sincere regret, however, that I must inform you that my gift of valuable silks from the Blessed Isle has seem to have gone missing…”

He paused as a titter of derisive laughter rippled through the crowd that was all too eager to take advantage of his embarrassment and undermine his political position. Tetsu had to cover his mouth and turn away from the peephole to stop himself from giving away his position, tears rolling down his face. As the parade of insincere well-wishers continued, Tetsu crept back to the pile of silk, retrieved his robe and neatly folded it before continuing up the stairs, leaving the rest behind.

Choosing to get off the stairwell at on the third level, Tetsu was forced to scurry past a guard who gave him a cursory glance but seemed more intent on picking the dirt from under his fingernails. The main problem, however, was continuing to look like he knew where he was going when the hallway he found himself in had thirteen doors and two other corridors leading away from it. Making a snap decision, he turned down the first corridor just to get out of the guard’s sight only to find himself staring down a long hallway at two guards who flanked the door at the t-intersection at the other end of the corridor.

Forcing himself to relax and act naturally, the solar counted down six doors on the left before grasping the handle of the seventh and twisting confidently as if he expected it to open. Naturally, his hope was in vein as the door refused to budge.

“Hey, you, halt!” One of the soldiers commanded, approaching Tetsu at a slow walk, his companion several steps behind. They carried swords at their hips and wore sky blue lamellar armour composed of heavy rectangles of boiled leather woven into overlapping strips.

Tetsu turned towards them and bowed, holding the robe out to support his bluff. “Pardon me, sirs, I was simply instructed to bring this robe to this room but unfortunately, it seems to be locked.”

“These doors are always locked,” the soldier informed forcefully. “Show us your face, servant.”

Cursing mentally, Tetsu stood up straight, showing not only his face but the difference in height as he looked down on them. The talkative soldier’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t recognize you,” he said, his left hand unconsciously coming to rest on his scabbard.

“Usually I tend the gardens,” Tetsu said politely, “we’re a bit short staffed with the party going on, sir.”

“Wait,” the other soldier interrupted, reaching out to touch the garment in Tetsu’s hands, “there’s still mud on this robe…”

Tetsu didn’t waste another moment. The robe went over the talkative soldier’s head as the solar stepped in close, tightening the cloth around the first man’s neck as he rammed his knee into the second one’s stomach. The blow shattered his armour, breath exploding out of his mouth as he was thrown into the air. The first was thrown over Tetsu’s shoulder even before the second one crashed to the ground, a swift punch between the eyes knocking the talkative one unconscious. The second hit the ground, bounced a little, then lay still, never seeing the blow thanks to the robe wrapped around his head.

Dusting his hands off, Tetsu almost forgot about the soldier that had been guarding the stairwell until he came around the corner and stood dumbfounded at the scene before him. Tetsu was moving the moment he heard the guard’s footfalls, however, whipping the talkative soldier’s sword from its scabbard and casting it end over end down the hallway. Fortunately for the guard, only the sword’s pommel struck him, though it struck with enough force to slam him into the wall behind and knock the guard senseless. He left a trail of blood as he slid down the wall, unconscious.

Blinking, Tetsu couldn’t quite believe the sight of the three unmoving soldiers that lay at his feet but only spared himself a moment of contemplation before necessity compelled him to move on. Stepping over the bodies, he ran over to the door the first two had been guarding and, foregoing finesse, shattered the doorjamb by simply barging through it.

He wasn’t suspecting what he found on the other side, just as the figure swathed in black with a matching scarf wrapped around his head to conceal his features hadn’t been suspecting anyone to come barging through the door. The thief, which was all Tetsu could assume he was, paused in the middle of shoving maps and scrolls off the table in the middle of the room into a sack, though there was a second sack sitting next to the window that was open with the bars that would have otherwise prevented entry seemingly having been transmuted into cheese.

“Unholy piles of Yeddim dung,” the thief swore, his voice slightly muffled by the scarf, “what are you supposed to be?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Tetsu answered, taking half a step forward.

The thief’s hand moved so fast that Tetsu wasn’t able to react, pulling a short rod from behind his back as a blade sprung from the tip. The next moment, Tetsu was staring at the tip of what looked like an imbalanced short sword made of gold pointed right between his eyes.

Tetsu held his hands out, showing that they were empty. “No need to be so hostile, from the looks of things, you and I are after the same thing.”

Sniffing, the thief glared at Tetsu down the length of his blade. “No, I don’t think so. YOU killed Cathak Markul.”

“No! Wait!” Tetsu called out in vein, narrowly ducking as the blade whistled over his head, separating the tips of several strands of hair from his head. What Tetsu didn’t see was the thief’s foot as he vaulted over the table and planted it squarely in the middle of his chest, knocking him back into the doorjamb.

Momentarily stunned both by the ferocity and unnatural speed of the attack, Tetsu barely managed to grab the thief’s knife arm before the blade plunged into his throat before stepping to one side, locking his assailant’s arm and twisting sharply, intending to throw the man to the floor. It would have worked but the thief simply rolled with the momentum, running up the wall and even planting a foot on the ceiling as he flipped over Tetsu’s head, landing behind him, back to back, forcing Tetsu to sway to the side to avoid the blade as he stabbed back past his right hip.

Losing his patience, Tetsu grabbed the thief’s collar and whipped him around through the air like a rag doll, spinning once before hurling him across the room. Impossibly able to control his flight in mid-air, the thief hit the wall on his feet, though the stonework cracked and crumbled from the force. Pushing off from the wall with his legs, he flipped in the air again, knocking the table up into the air and launching it towards Tetsu with a second horizontal spinning kick.

Planting his feet, Tetsu took a single stride forward, lashing out with his fist. The table shattered, splinters flying in all directions as he calmly stepped through the debris. Momentarily blinded by a flash of bright light, he had to shield his eyes with one hand to see the thief, his dagger glowing with bright golden radiance as the half-circle caste mark on his brow flared to life. “DIE,” the thief growled, levelling the tip of his weapon at Tetsu’s chest.

Tetsu moved by pure reflex, throwing himself backwards at the ground so fast that the air itself strained against his passage for a fraction of a second before it broke. He moved so fast that he left spectral after-images in his wake as the thief’s bolt of lambent energy singed the small hairs on the tip of his nose. Following the path of the blast with his eyes, Tetsu was astonished to see his own shadow transfixed by the bolt, his manoeuvre so blindingly fast that he’d managed to outpace light itself. Another moment later and he was thankful for his newfound power as the attack blew a hole cleanly through the stonework.

Rolling with his fall, Tetsu kicked his legs up and launched himself back on his feet, coming face to face yet again with his fellow Solar. The half-sun caste mark still glowed on the thief’s brow as he dropped into a defensive stance. “Your move,” he said in a low, deadly, voice, the light gleaming from his golden blade.

Standing calmly, hands resting easily at his sides, Tetsu sighed. “I just want you to know one thing.”

“What is that?”

“It didn’t have to be like this,” Tetsu answered wearily. Dropping to his knees, the eclipse caste raised his hands like he was trying to shield himself from his attacker. “Please don’t hurt me, sir!” He screamed pitifully, cowering for all he was worth. “I don’t want to die! Have mercy!”

Confused, the thief blinked. “What are you do…”

The thief was interrupted as a tall eastern dragonblood in a green robe and a warrioress in red armour burst through the door, followed closely by a dozen soldiers. They paused just inside the doorway, their eyes moving from what appeared to be a servant in a black robe grovelling for his life to the man with a blade that bore the glowing gold mark of ‘The Unclean’ on his forehead towering over a ‘helpless victim’.

“Oh you dog-raping son of a whore,” the thief swore as the full import of what Tetsu had done struck him.

“ANATHEMA!” The dragonbloods cried, raising their weapons high as they charged as one, their loyal subordinates close behind.

Wasting no more time, the thief turned, leapt out the window and dropped a handful of metal balls behind him. The deft footfalls of the dragonblooded managed to pick their way between the obstacles but the soldiers were not so lucky. Some of them slipped while other balls exploded on impact, filling the room with thick, greasy, smoke. Confusion reigned as the Lords charged after their quarry, leaving the mortals to fumble around behind them.

Taking advantage of the confusion, Tetsu crawled between the panicked soldiers as their officers tried futilely to restore cohesion. The smog was so thick that he could only see a few feet in front of him but it was enough to avoid their weapons as they brandished them carelessly or their falling bodies as they were either pushed over or slipped on one of the loose metal balls that still rolled around on the floor. Retrieving the two sacks that the thief was forced to leave behind, the eclipse caste crawled back out of the room before picking himself up and running as fast as he could away from the chaos.

Picking his way past the groaning soldiers that he’d laid out in the hallway, Tetsu’s mind raced. The sacks slung over his shoulders were a dead giveaway that he was up to something shady; he needed to stash them somewhere where he could retrieve them later. The obvious problem being that it had to be somewhere no-one else could find them. Spotting a window past the soldier that he’d slammed into the wall, Tetsu threw open the shutters and climbed out onto the tiled roof below and started inching his way along the wall.

Trying not to think about the three story drop into the grounds below or the even greater drop into the darkness over the cliff that the mansion perched atop, Tetsu moved cautiously, checking his every step on the slippery tiles. Moving around the corner formed where the stairwell met the perpendicular hallway inside brought him closer to the edge of the cliff and a potential fall of a few hundred feet. Forcing the thought from his mind, Tetsu kissed the sacks and said a short prayer for the safety of whatever was inside before casting them over the cliff to fall into the trees far below.

With the burden disposed of, the solar girded himself for the climb down the side of the building, returning to the corner where he could get a better grip and the potential fall was likely to be less damaging to either his body or his ego. Finally managing to clamber down to the eves on the first floor above ground level and feeling more comfortable, Tetsu decided to continue moving along the lower roof to avoid the servants and soldiers that scurried below, never bothering to glance upward in their haste.

Spotting a small, single story, protrusion from the main building that sported several skylights, Tetsu hopped over the short gap between the eves and the roof before dropping to his knees to crawl quietly towards the closest, intent on descending to the ground floor out of sight where he could blend into the crowds once more. Glancing over his shoulder at the windows of the main building to make sure no-one would spot him, he made sure the room below was dark and quiet before lowering himself down. Finding himself in what appeared to be a changing room, mostly empty except for racks of plain white cotton bathing robes, he took stock of himself in the floor length mirror to straighten up his disguise and get into character before exiting via the only door.

Creation seemed to freeze for a moment as Tetsu took in the sight that met him in the next room. It was a large room with several heated bathing pools composed of natural rock to give it the appearance of an authentic hot spring. Potted plants and small gardens enhanced the scene, though the floors were covered in roughly textured tiles that were designed to stop bathers from slipping and hurting themselves. Despite the skylights, the room was hot thanks to the baths, steam rising from the clear water into the cool night air. Most shocking of all for Tetsu, however, was the naked woman who reclined in a chair at the end of the pool, her lovely pale skin glowing in the light framed by a chaotic tangle of midnight black hair, a hot damp cloth folded over her eyes. Pieces of deep blue jadesteel armour and black robes lay discarded nearby, though Tetsu didn’t need them to identify the Dragonlord that lay before him.

Cynis Delani stretched languidly, wiggling her toes in the hot water as she sensed the presence of another in the room. “It’s about time, slave, I have half a mind to have you flogged for tardiness.”

Tetsu bowed his head, trying to fix an imagined image of Menji naked in his brain to counteract the effect of her natural beauty on his hormonal drives. “As you command, Princess of the Earth,” he responded humbly, staying in character despite the chaos in his mind as a million thoughts collided all at once.

She smiled, an expression that made her look predatory rather than pleasant. “Maybe later,” she teased coyly. Tetsu held his breath as she parted her thighs, displaying herself to him in all her glory. “Serve me, slave,” she ordered, snapping her fingers at him, “serve me well enough and I might just be moved to mercy.”

Utterly trapped, Tetsu understood that he had no choice. If he ran, she’d rally the rest of the soldiers and any remaining dragonbloods and hunt him down, if she didn’t just kill him herself. Despite his powers, he didn’t fancy his chances against a fully trained warrior, even with the element of surprise he had no idea what she was capable of. Even if he did kill her, it would only raise the alarm and get him killed anyway.

Seeing no other way out, the solar stepped down the short stairway into the pool, wading through it to kneel between her feet. She sighed as he slid his hands up her calves, tracing his lips up her inner thigh.

“Oh yes,” she gasped as he got to work, biting her lower lip, “yes, just like that…”

#

“You think we should, you know, help them?” Rage asked his companion as they watched two dozen dragonbloods in various states of dress, wielding a variety of different weapons, charge into the forest shouting ‘Anathema’ at the top of their lungs. They had the perfect view of the mad, incoherent, rush for glory from the branches of a tall tree just outside the edge of town, having arrived too late to the party to join in on the fun.

Edge shrugged, carefully picking the last bit of their dinner out of her teeth with one of her throwing needles. “You think they’d believe anything we said? Besides, the Solar’s probably long gone by now, we’ll have a better chance of tracking him down once the commotion subsides.”

“That’s true,” Rage sighed.

Looking at her lover from the corner of her eye, Edge felt nervous. He’d been a little morose all day, though she’d put it down to nerves at first, Rage was still a Chosen of Battles and the charge of the dragonbloods, as aimless and futile as it was, should have at least provoked a spark of enthusiasm in him. “Rage darling, what’s wrong?” She pried, knowing that brute force honestly was the best way to get him to open up.

“Nothing,” he murmured evasively, his eyes scanning the forest even though he knew well enough that the chances of spotting anything were slim.

“If it’s about that thing with Feather earlier, I’m sorry I got carried away,” she apologized.

He shook his head. “No, I was an idiot and said some things I shouldn’t have.”

“If it’s about Five Days Darkness…”

“It’s not that,” he interrupted, scoffing, “you know the rule: what happens in Yu Shan stays in Yu Shan. I don’t worry about you having to sleep with the occasional target either.”

“Oh,” she muttered, confused. “Are you worried about Feather, then?”

“I am,” he admitted, “but that’s not what’s bothering me. Feather’s a big boy… er, girl, I mean. She can take care of herself, probably better than I can.”

“I see. So what is on your mind?”

“The Anathema, Tetsu,” he said, eyes narrowing. “I missed him, Edge. I don’t miss. Now I’ve got to take a second shot at him and frankly, it’s pissing me off.”

Edge melted a little on the inside. Rage’s ability to end lives was what had attracted her in the first place, the serene majesty of the sweep of his blade as it cut the threads of destiny. He reminded her of her life as a surgeon before her exaltation, bringing peace to the injured one way or the other. Running a field hospital had given her a appreciation for the effect of war, both obvious and subtle, that gave her a deep and abiding love for conflict as art. If war was an art, however, Rage was an artist, a master of every martial discipline. Edge also knew that she wasn’t the only being in the Division of Endings who lusted after him; she was just the one that had caught him, a fact that gave her enormous prestige in the division.

Wriggling over, she insinuated herself under his arm, pressing her body against his side. “You know, maybe we should let the children look after themselves tonight.”

Looking down into her eyes, he grinned. “Maybe that’s not a bad idea.”

They kissed for a while before Edge pulled away, sliding seductively out of his reach leading him provocatively to a more private setting. “By the way,” she whispered coyly, “you know if you sleep with anyone else I’ll kill you, right?”

“Absolutely.”

#

Not for the first time, Kano wondered exactly how Tetsu managed to talk him into things. Or maybe more precisely, how he let Tetsu talk him into things, or even how Tetsu let him talk himself into things. Most troubling, however, was that it forced the former male prostitute into choosing between two conclusions: either the wanderer’s social technique was so subtle and efficient that he couldn’t possibly know he was being manipulated or he was an idiot. Though he preferred the former explanation to the latter, he was starting to wonder as the girls he was eavesdropping on from a quiet corner while they ate in the communal dining hall and gossiped over the comparative size of their client’s penises.

Finishing the last of the food off his plate, Kano returned the dishes to the sublimely beautiful kitchen staff, blushing at the steamy looks and blown kisses cast his way as the girls flirted outrageously at any opportunity. Most disturbing was the knowledge that at least some of them had to have been male at some point, it was simply impossible to tell who had or had not once been the angler instead of the fish.

Even worse, it seemed like the only thing on any of their minds was sex. They talked about it openly, praising some clients for their skills while denigrating others, discussing earnestly the various merits of different implements and even dragging one another into dark alcoves to test various theories in private. The last happened so frequently that Kano had already given up trying to sneak into dark corners in order to evesdrop.

Lost in thought as he stalked the underground hallways, Kano was startled by a sudden scream. Of course, screaming also wasn’t an uncommon sound in the temple but the nature of the scream was an entirely different tenor to the usual cries for more. The sudden chill that swept through his bones put a more urgent swing in Kano’s step before he broke into a flat out run towards the noise as the terrified screams pierced his ears. Pushing past several startled girls peering around a corner to try and see what was going on from a safe distance, Kano sprinted down the hall and hit the door without pausing, breaking the old wood as he burst into the room.

Kano barely recognized Inkfinger, though not even the girl’s perfumes could overpower the stench of rotting flesh that assaulted his nostrils. The lower half of the ghost’s face had rotted completely away, leaving a long, sinuous, tongue-tentacle protruding from the gaping hole in his neck. Necrotic grey flesh wept mysterious black liquid, particularly from the skeletal hands protruding from the sleeves of his dirt-encrusted scholar’s robe which stained the girl’s dress where he touched her. Stringy black hair fell across his face as he turned, a dark-haired girl clutched in his grip as his tongue wormed across her cheek, trying to slip into her mouth. The room was typical of a prostitute’s dormitory, well appointed but not rich, with a simple bed, closet and dressing table covered in vials, boxes and potions of various types as well as a mirror for the application of makeup.

“Kano,” Inkfinger’s creepy, spectral, voice gurgled weirdly from his ruined throat. “I see the puppet, from whence the puppeteer?”

“U-unhand her, ghost,” Kano stammered, cursing the weakness in his voice, “Tetsu left me in charge here.”

Inkfinger’s eyes flashed red for a moment, one hand slowly moving to the dark hole where Bonzo’s sword had pierced his chest. “Really? Actually, I have a bone to pick with your master, maybe two. If you’d kindly tell me where he is, I’ll let you live.”

“Really?” Kano asked, mimicking Inkfinger’s inflection, crossing his arms over his chest for effect. “Tell me, what piece of third rate theatre did you get that threat from? I’ve had better from school bullies.”

Snarling, Inkfinger threw the girl onto the bed, whirling around to charge Kano, claws outstretched. Startled at the ghost’s sudden ferocity, Kano took a step backwards, hit his heel on the doorjamb and toppled out of the room. Unable to check his momentum, Inkfinger smacked face first into the wall, one of his eyeballs popping out from the force of the impact to skitter wetly across the floor.

Rolling over, Kano scrambled across the floor as Infinger raged, lashing out blindly at everything around him. His claws tore long furrows from the walls, shredded what remained of the door and tore the handles off the nearby closet. The girl curled up in a corner behind the bed, crying and whimpering. Reaching the dresser, Kano pulled himself to his feet, grabbed the heaviest bottle on the table and pitched it at Inkfinger with every ounce of strength he could muster.

The heavy crystal bottle glanced off Inkfinger’s chest, splashing him with perfume as the stopper came undone with the impact then landed on the floor with a dull thud, seemingly too tough to shatter. Suddenly still, Inkfinger looked down at the bottle as if wondering where it had come from before raising his eyes to glare at Kano, who grabbed another item off the table and hefted it over his shoulder. “You want more?” Kano shouted, pitching the box at the ghost, his throw amateurish and limp-wristed. The box bounced off the wall, spraying Inkfinger with a cloud of mascara.

Screaming, the cold fire of hatred literally burned in Inkfinger’s empty socket as he charged, this time more cautiously. Kano managed to hit the ghost with a second vial that shattered when it hit the floor before Inkfinger lunged in a long, sweeping, slash with his left claw. Unfortunately, it was a bit too long, allowing even Kano’s untrained reflexes to duck the blow, the sharp nails promptly embedding themselves several inches into the wall.

“I’ll kill you!” Inkfinger threatened, yanking hard on his left arm to no avail while he attempted futilely to slash around his own body with the right. Realizing his opponent was stuck, Kano rolled to his feet, grabbed the chair that sat next to the dressing table, strained to lift it over his head and brought it down on Inkfinger’s back. Rather than breaking apart, however, it merely bounced back, smacking the former male prostitute in the face.

“Ow!” Kano protested, clutching his nose. “Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Oh, gods, I think I’m bleeding…”

“WHEN I GET FREE, I’M GOING TO BISECT YOU FROM YOUR NECK TO YOUR BALLS!” Inkfinger roared, planting one rotting foot on the wall to try and force himself free.

“Yeah? How’s that been working out for you so far?” Kano quipped, breathing hard as he hefted the chair again.

A momentary splintering sound was all that heralded Inkfinger’s sudden lurch as he pulled his hand free along with the chunk of the wall that his claws were still stuck to. With the walking corpse off balance, Kano took the opportunity to strike with the chair but the ghost battered the blow aside, tearing the chair from his grasp. Lurching forward, his movements slowed by the dead weight on his left arm, Inkfinger reached for him, forcing Kano to backpedal towards the bed.

Stalling, Kano grabbed the pillows off the bed and flung them at Inkfinger, the ghost’s free claw shredding them in an explosion of feathers. Howling, it vented its frustrations on the dressing table, smashing the mirror and scattering the desk’s contents over the floor. Glancing back again, searching for anything that might help, Kano’s eyes fell on the most welcome sight of his life: a six inch long dagger that had rested under the girl’s pillows.

He grabbed the blade just as Inkfinger lunged, crying out as the claws grazed his shoulder while he slashed the ghost across the chest. Inkfinger howled in pain disproportionate from the size or depth of the wound, clutching his chest as it began to smoke. Blinking stupidly, Kano watched as the black ichor evaporated from the blade. Howling again, the ghost reeled away, whirling in circles before leaping out through the window, plunging out of sight.

Kano sat on the bed before his knees gave out by themselves, the dagger clattering on the floor as it slipped from his fingers. A moment later, the girl was pressed against him, her arms wrapped around his neck. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She repeated, squeezing him hard even though he seemed totally oblivious. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t stopped him! Oh, gods! You’re wounded!”

Shaking his head, Kano looked down at the cuts on his shoulder, blood soaking into the sleeve of his robe. “Yes, I think I’m bleeding,” he observed, moments before blacking out.

#

The Majordomo of the Cynis mansion wrung his hands nervously as he approached the bathhouse, his mistress’ moans of ecstasy rising in volume with every step.

“…OH GODS! YES! RIGHT THERE! OOOOOH…”

The guards stood to attention as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, their faces blankly alert for any sign of trouble as they flanked the door. “I… I need to see Lady Delani,” the Majordomo requested, forced to pause for a particularly ardent cry.

“…YES! YES! YES! OH GODS I’M GOING TO... TO…”

The guards gave each other a knowing glance before the closest leaned over to speak into his ear. “Sir, I trust that what you have to tell her must be really, really, really important for you to even ask. But please, take my advice and let whatever it is wait until morning.”

“…AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!”

A sudden, awkward silence followed, each moment stretching out to minutes as they waited.

“Well,” the Majordomo whispered, “maybe I can…”

“Shhh!” The guard hushed him. “Wait for it.”

The other guard started to grin. “Looks like you owe me five Obols.”

“Waaaaait for it…”

“WHAT? AGAIN? PLEASE, YES, AGAIN!”

“Yeddim farts,” the other guard swore as the racket started all over again.

“Would you like to enter the pool, sir?” The first guard inquired. “The count’s up to seven now, highest bet is thirteen, minimum buy-in three Obols.”

Stroking his beard, the Majordomo considered the offer for a moment. “Put me on nine for seven Obols.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Chapter 14

Tetsu wiped the corner of his mouth as he dropped into the bushes outside the bathhouse, leaving through a window to avoid the guards outside the door, trying not to think about what had just happened. Lady Delani lay unconscious inside, overstimulated after several hours of lovemaking. Looking back over what little sexual experience he’d had, Tetsu had never in his wildest dreams imagined that any man could have that effect on a woman, much less find that power resting in his own hands. Shaking himself to snap out of it, he forced his introspective thoughts to one side and focussed on the task at hand.

As it turned out, escape was a relatively simple matter. Only a token force had been left to guard the mansion and the patrols were no longer in the streets. The mysterious Solar thief had done Tetsu a grand favour, though the wanderer knew there had to be a reckoning for what he’d done. He didn’t allow himself to believe that the other Solar had been killed by the dragonbloods, he simply wasn’t that lucky. In the end, however, he simply grabbed some tools from the garden shed and walked through the front gate mumbling something about needing repairs done.

Taking the long route down the stairs to Low Town, Tetsu discarded the tools behind a bush before following the cliff along to where he’d dropped the sacks, discovering them stuck safely halfway up a tree. Fortunately, the trees were old and strong, enabling him to climb up and retrieve his loot easily. Back on the ground, he opened the sack full of scrolls, quickly leafing through the contents to discover a plethora of local maps, some ancient while others seemed brand new. Leaving those to one side for later study, he opened the second sack.

The richest that Tetsu had ever been was at the height of his stint running the gladiatorial arenas in Nexus. Even then, he’d pulled only a modest wage, enough to be taken seriously as a merchant while not enough to make him an attractive target for blackmailers and thieves. Most of it had been sunk back into his investments anyway, likely sized after his disappearance from Nexus’ political sphere. Inside the sack in his hands, however, lay more money than he’d ever seen in his life, discounting the possible value of Cathak Markul’s Daiklave.

Bits, Obols and Shekels were mixed in with silver Dinars and stacks of Jade Script, enough money to buy River’s Bend several times over. Thinking back to the moment he’d burst into the room and surprised the thief, Tetsu recalled several empty boxes piled sloppily in a corner of the room. The other Solar had gone for the money first, despite the fact that his true objective had been the scrolls. Either it was a diversion to disguise his true objective or the man was just easily tempted and ultimately sloppy.

The problem, however, was exactly what to do with a sack full of money. It wasn’t the sort of thing one could just carry around without attracting attention. In the end, he wedged it in a crack in the cliff face and rolled a large rock over to conceal it, shoving only a few Dinars into his pockets before continuing on with the sack full of scrolls.

Creeping through the streets of Low Town again, Tetsu almost felt naked without the giant sword resting on his shoulders. The wave of nostalgia passed, however, when the sight of Menji’s reminded him of several moments of pure, knee-trembling, terror that he’d experienced only a few days before. Everything was the same as it had been, only it seemed so different from the wanderer’s new perspective. For the first time, Tetsu was confronted by just how much he’d changed as he stepped up o Menji’s door and knocked.

“Piss off!” Menji’s cranky old voice called, as eloquent as ever. “We’re closed!”

“Even to an old ghost?” Tetsu asked through the door, grinning.

There was a long pause before the door opened a crack. Menji peered out at him, worry and fear plain on his face. “Especially to old ghosts,” the old man whispered. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Are you surprised or disappointed?” Tetsu quipped, glad to see the old man again.

“Bah,” Menji growled, regaining his nerve, “I’m elated. I get the chance to poison your rice again. Get in here before someone spots you, idiot.”

Tetsu felt the same sense of strangeness stepping inside Menji’s house again. In some ways, the room felt more like home than anywhere he’d ever been. Some things were different, however. For starters, there were three bedrolls stacked in one corner, as if the old man were expecting guests, and a large backpack that seemed to be stuffed with shoes of remarkable quality. Looking around the room, Tetsu couldn’t help but notice Menji’s new sandals, humble in nature but of deceptively superb quality and refinement.

“What in all of Malfeas is going on here? You actually have lodgers you haven’t driven away yet?” Tetsu asked.

Menji snorted, sitting back down where his food sat at the table. “Yes, I think they’d be delighted to meet you too. If you’re hungry grab a bowl for yourself.”

“I just ate,” Tetsu begged off. Sliding into the seat opposite him, Tetsu noticed that the old man’s chopsitcks wavered as he lifted the rice to his mouth. “I’m no ghost, Menji. By the way, your son is alive and well.”

The old man choked a little on his rice. “Where is Kano?”

“Safe, he’s helping me.”

The admission made Menji look even more worried. “Helping you do what exactly? You got rid of Red Wolf and White Crane, now the dragonbloods are moving in… shouldn’t you be running as far away from this place as you can? Everyone believes you’re dead… and I don’t know, maybe you did die and you really are a ghost.”

Tetsu’s eyes narrowed. “What in all Creation are you blathering about? I’m no ghost… surely you heard what happened at Red Wolf’s mansion?”

“I heard you Exalted and fell off a cliff,” Menji glared back at him, “but now I have to wonder… you’ve the smell of the grave on you, Tetsu. Did you Exalt then die or die and become Exalted?”

“You know about the Exalted?” Tetsu asked, his entire view of the man before him suddenly turned upside down and shaken.

“Maybe you even managed to fool me this entire time,” Menji sighed, “perhaps you were even dead before we first met.”

“You’ve gone mad,” Tetsu growled, shaking himself. “Old man, you’re talking crazy!”

“Am I?” Menji asked, his entire tone and manner changing abruptly, his gaze suddenly focussing sharply on Tetsu’s face. “Consider this likely chain of events, then ‘my friend’. Consider the tale of one of the Chosen, outside of Fate and an avowed enemy of all Creation. He discovers a lone Terrestrial, a traitor to the Realm, on a lonely road. Seeing an opportunity to complete his mission, he slays the Terrestrial with a spell powerful enough to cloud the vision of Heaven itself. Stealing the Terrestrial’s regalia, he insinuates himself into the company of one of the few beings that may just be able to put him on the path to his real target. His plans go awry, however, with the arrival of the Chosen of the Maidens. Near death, he crawls away to lick his wounds, taking what that being holds most dear as a hostage… is that your plan, Tetsu? What I know in exchange for my son?”

Not knowing what to say, Tetsu just stared, at a loss for words. It took a moment for his brain to catch up with everything that Menji had said, linking it to the pieces of the puzzle that he knew while highlighting several rather gaping holes in he knowledge that he never knew existed. “I think there’s been some sort of misunderstanding here and I have no idea where to start,” Tetsu sighed. “I’m not holding Kano hostage. He’s safe. I’d tell you where but the less you know, the better for the both of you. If he can be discrete, I’ll let him come and tell you everything in his own words, even. Also, I did not kill Cathak Markul and I have no idea how you’ve gotten it into your head that I did.”

“Even if that’s true, Tetsu, I can no longer afford to trust you,” Menji stated bluntly.

“I could say the same thing… Menji. Is that your real name? Not that it matters. What are you? Little God? Elemental? Fair Folk? Does Kano know what he really is or did you just adopt him?”

“If you’re after the Oracle’s Trove, understand that I will not be moved by sentimentality,” Menji intoned gravely, “I will allow Kano and myself to die before I aid anyone in unearthing that terror.”

“I don’t give a yeddim fart in high wind for your Trove, old man,” Tetsu growled. Standing, he hoisted the sack over his shoulder and shook his head. “This is a waste of time. I’ll come back once you return to your senses.”

Storming out of the house, Tetsu retained enough control to close the door gently behind him so as not to disturb and nosy neighbours. Stalking through the streets, his mind turned over everything Menji had said trying to make sense out of it and failing miserably. As he walked off his anger, it became clear that there were things he didn’t know, great gaping pieces of the puzzle that needed to be filled. Red Wolf and White Crane had been swept from the board only for the stakes to be raised and new players to take their seats. Most glaring, however, was Menji’s near admission that he knew something about the Oracle’s Trove and feared its discovery enough to die before divulging what he knew.

What Tetsu missed most was that sense of homely familiarity that had been shattered by a single conversation. The idea that he could somehow return to a more ‘innocent’ existence away from the troubles and responsibility that came with his Exaltation was blown away like a candle in a hurricane. Shaking his head at his own folly, he glanced up at the night sky, estimating that he only had a few hours of darkness left to sneak back up to the Temple. Thought of the temple made his mind wander to the face of the dark-haired beauty he’d passed in the hallway with her wondrously blue almond eyes.

Making his decision, Tetsu turned back, intent on retrieving his ill gotten gains and returning to the temple to pour over the scrolls… or maybe find some comfort before the night was done.

#

Aten was swearing like a Lintha pirate as he stormed back into Menji’s house, discarding his black head scarf and flinging it hard against the wall. Kamaria followed him inside while Valdis trailed behind, closing the door behind her and peeking out through the window to make sure they weren’t being followed. Menji had placed rice and Sake out on the table for them, somehow knowing when they would return.

“Busy night?” Menji asked ingenuously, picking at the rice in his bowl using his chopsticks with delicate expertise.

The blonde solar dropped, cross-legged, opposite Menji in a huff. “It started well. The dragonbloods were distracted by the party for Dragonlord Delani like you said, so sneaking past the mortal soldiers was a relatively simple matter. You also accurately predicted the location of their strongroom in the Cynis mansion, it was child’s play getting through the window. I was just about to evacuate with everything that wasn’t nailed down when some scar-faced idiot disguised as a servant breaks down the door!”

“Please keep your voice down,” Valdis advised without turning from her vigil.

Hopping back onto his feet, Aten paced as he continued, keeping his voice level. “He tried to parley but I caught the same scent of defiled Essence that had killed one of my friends. I attacked but he was surprisingly strong and he used the Dark Messiah Style. I’ll admit, I lost my head and drew upon too much Essence casting Blazing Solar Bolt, an attack that cannot be blocked or avoided normally but he countered using Seven Shadow Evasion. When the guards arrived, my anima banner was flaring like a fireworks display and the next thing I knew I was running from a score of dragonbloods screaming ‘anathema’, leaving scar-face with all the loot. Fortunately I lost them, thanks to Valdis and Kamaria here.”

Kamaria acknowledged his thanks with a nod.

Sighing, Menji drained his Sake in one gulp. “Did he really use Dark Messiah Style? Are you sure of this?”

“Positive,” Aten confirmed. “I have a very short list of things that might be powerful enough to kill my friend in the way he was killed. A powerful Deathknight with access to Void Circle Necromancy is one of them and scar-face reeked with the same essence signature that had been left on my friend’s corpse.”

“I know, I sensed it while he was here,” Menji said, pouring himself more Sake. “It seems you have met Tetsu and, as much as it pains me after everything he did for River’s Bend, I must say that I also now entertain similar suspicions.”

“He was here?!?” Aten asked incredulously, halting in his tracks.

“Both before you arrived several days ago and not a quarter hour before you opened that door just now,” Menji confirmed. “Now sit and eat, all of you, while I tell you the whole story.”

#

Muttering a constant string of curses under her breath, Feather grit her teeth as she concentrated on the job of working the stains out of the clothes in her tub. Every muscle screamed in protests and she rubbed the cloth up and down over the washing board, having gone for hours without a break. The marks on her heels burned, though the wounds weren’t as painful for her as they might have been to a mortal girl, they still kept her from resting her feet. It didn’t help that the work was dull, repetitive and demeaning, considering that she simply didn’t want to know what half of the stains she was cleaning actually were.

She jumped when she felt a large hand rest on her shoulder, hopping back several steps on one foot as she whirled around until she regained her balance. Feather found herself staring at a broad, muscular, chest barely covered by a tight black servant’s robe that had been torn in several places. It wa the chest of a man used to labour and certainly, if the scars were any indication, a man that was no stranger to a fight.

“Sorry,” Tetsu apologized, touching her elbow gently despite the obvious strength in his arms, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Raising her eyes to his face, Feather found a pair of soulful brown eyes looking down at her. Feather had to wonder if those eyes really belonged to another face, one that had been disfigured years ago and healed badly. Remembering herself, she lowered her eyes. “No need to apologize to me, master. What do you wish of me?”

The madam chose that moment to impose herself on the conversation, clearing her throat meaningfully. “I’m sorry, sir, is there a problem?”

“No problem,” Tetsu answered without looking at her. “Sanejin gave me permission to take any girl that I wanted as a personal servant. I’ve chosen this girl.”

It took all of Feather’s self control not to smile. The charm she’d used to link their fates was one of the deadliest social weapons in all of Creation. The Sidereals called it ‘Cash and Murder Games’, the ability to link the fate of two beings so that one would define themselves in a relationship to the other of the Sidereal’s choosing. In this case, Feather had chosen her caste’s specialty: love. Whether he knew it or not, Feather already had him wrapped around her little finger.

“As our master wills… but sir, frankly, we have much better girls on offer more worthy of your attentions,” the madam protested.

“What?” Tetsu asked, turning his head slowly to face her.

“I-I only mean to say that she is new and inexperienced, if your tastes run that way I can offer you some rare maidens who…”

Tetsu interrupted her by raising his hand, looking down Feather’s body until he noticed the light bloodstains on the floor under her feet. “You whipped her?”

“You must understand, sir, sometimes it’s necessary to motiva…”

Her words broke off when Tetsu grabbed her ear and introduced her face to the side of the cast iron washing tub. She didn’t have much to say after that, falling flat on her back unconscious. Feather squeaked when Tetsu picked her up and carried her out the door, barely able to get her arms around his bull-like neck to support herself.

“Um, you really don’t have to carry me, sir,” Feather said, panicking a little, “I can walk, my feet don’t hurt that much.”

“Be still,” he snapped, “I won’t allow you to suffer needlessly.”

Feather’s heart jumped in her chest. For a moment, she considered ordering him to put her down but discarded the idea and simply forced herself to relax. He was right, after all, her feet hurt like she’d been walking the acid wastes of Malfeas for days. So she tried to let herself relax and be carried and within moments was surprised to discover that she was actually comfortable in his arms. Arriving in Tetsu’s room actually came as a disappointment when he placed her gently down next to the bath.

“Wash,” he ordered, “I’ll get some medicine and a new robe.”

She watched his back until he entered the wardrobe, hugging her legs to stave off the sudden feeling of vulnerability. Gods, Feather, she admonished herself mentally, you’re one of the Chosen of Venus, by all the Maidens, stop acting like a frightened virgin! It helped a little, so she stood gingerly and disrobed, lowering herself into the warm water.

Academically, Feather knew that being a woman didn’t matter. Women across Creation were the equals of men, few cultures made significant distinctions based on gender and even when they did both genders were equally valued. Feather harboured no gender bias, it was a laughable concept that one was greater than the other. Despite this, or perhaps because of Tetsu’s sheer bulk, she felt small and weak in a way she hadn’t felt since her exaltation. Even this didn’t make any sense, she was a martial artist, a noted warrior, one of the Chosen and she had her target right where she wanted him.

But now he wants you in his bed, her inner critic reminded her, the bed that you made for yourself.

Scowling at the thought, she shook herself. There was no way she was going to allow Tetsu, or ANYONE, to bed her. She resolved to use him up then kill him quickly, it might piss off Mistress Ura but the longer he was around the harder it would be to keep coming up with excuses to deny him and even Cash and Murder Games doesn’t last forever. Like it or not, he was still a Solar. Even if he was only a baby relatively, he could be compared to a baby at the controls of the Realm Defence Grid, dangerous and ultimately uncontrollable.

Breathing deep, she allowed the water to relax her, regaining hold of her emotions. The stress of the day had distracted her from the task at hand along with his overprotective reaction to her plight, which she convinced herself was flattering but misguided. Perhaps she was getting too deep into her role as the submissive prostitute as well. It was no matter, Rage would never forgive Tetsu for surviving his attack, the Solar didn’t know it but he was living on borrowed time. Tetsu was the apple waiting to be sliced and Feather was the worm eating away at its core… she just had to extricate herself before she got cut along with him.

Tetsu returned with a wooden bucket and a metal box, dressed in a loose black cotton robe and pants. Sitting a few feet away from her on the edge of the pool, he set his equipment down and held out his hand. “Your feet, please.”

Bowing her head, she tried to keep most of her body below the waterline where it would be obscured and eased her feet up onto his knee, resting her head on the edge of the pool. She winced a little when he gently probed the swollen skin. “You’re lucky,” he informed her, “it seems to be more bruise than cut and while the skin is broken, it’s not infected. I’ll clean it now and dress it when you’re done bathing, the pain should be nothing but a bad memory by morning.”

“You have done this before, sir?” She asked.

“You learn to take care of your own injuries after some time on the road,” he informed her, “I haven’t always had the luxury of proper medicines. And don’t call me sir or master or any of that nonsense. My name is Tetsu.”

“I… as you wish, Tetsu, my name is Feather,” she introduced herself.

He retrieved a small bottle of liquid from the box and applied it to a clean cloth. “Forgive me, Feather but this is going to sting a bit.”

Holding her feet firmly, he washed her soles gently with a separate cloth before applying the cleansing agent to the cuts. Feather hissed as it stung but endured the pain for the sake of healing. “Thank you,” she said, “for this… and for getting me out of that place.”

“A woman of your beauty shouldn’t be doing laundry,” Tetsu muttered darkly.

Feather’s heart skipped a beat. “I… forgive me but I’m nothing special here. There are plenty of beautiful women in the Temple.”

“You’re wrong,” he rebuked gently. “The moment I saw you, I knew you were different. The other girls might be pleasing to the eye but they don’t have your grace or inner confidence, the fire that you suppress because the world has taught you that others don’t like to be challenged. Then you looked at me over your shoulder and I saw your eyes, perfect and deep… your shell may be exquisite but it is what’s inside that makes you perfect.”

Squirming a little as her heart fluttered, Feather took a deep breath though it was hard to find words that could do the sincerity in his voice justice. “Er… I don’t know what to say,” she said breathily.

“Don’t say anything,” he said, smiling, “your presence is all the thanks I require.”

They sat in silence for a while as Tetsu attended to her wounds while Feather tried to think up a delicate way to broach the subject of his history. “So,” she finally mustered the courage to say, “what brought you to River’s Bend?”

“My feet,” Tetsu quipped. “Honestly, I’ve been walking east for so long, I’m not sure I’ll know how to stop when the time comes.”

She frowned, thinking of the giant, infinite, forest that marked the edge of Creation where the East met the Wyld, a region of trees vast in width and infinitely tall, stretching into the sky and down into the darkness forever, beyond which lay the Deep Wyld and almost certain death at the hands of the Raksha. “From where do you hail?”

“Originally, I don’t remember. I was young when I was forced to run from my home and… the memories are unclear. Most of my growing up happened on the streets of Nexus. Do you know of Nexus?”

“I have heard a little about it, though some of the stories seem fantastical,” she lied. In fact, Feather had been to Nexus many times, it was after all one of the largest trade hubs in all of Creation and many Sidereals were frequent visitors for one reason or another.

“I’d be willing to bet those stories aren’t entirely inaccurate,” he said, chuckling. “Nexus is a place of wonder… and horror.”

“Was that where you got the scars?” She asked before realizing she’d been too bunt. “No, I’m sorry, you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to.”

He shrugged. “Old wounds. A little while after arriving at Nexus I formed a, well, gang of street kids. I had the strength to stand up for myself and the brains to make life a little better for people who were on my side. Enslaving people might be illegal in Nexus but that doesn’t mean its safe, there are plenty of other predators lurking in the back alleyways waiting for the helpless to make bad choices. My group took in kids that made it over the line into the city proper. I got a line on fresh water running a con but there’s never enough fresh water for all the poor in the city. My gang took in a girl, she was pretty and smart, someone with a real shot at making something of herself with the right connections. When water was short I gave her my ration… and drank sump water. This is the result.”

Feather’s heart ached for him, though it was obviously a well-healed memory the way he talked about it. “What happened to the girl?”

His expression became solemn. “She became a dancer and eventually a rich man’s concubine. One of her master’s business rivals had her infected with White Sun Sickness. I flogged him skinless and buried him in salt.”

“I… I don’t… know what to say,” Feather admitted hesitantly.

“Then say nothing, that was a different life,” he said, lowering her feet back into the water once he was finished. “I got you some soap, feel free to take your time.”

Blinking, she stared after him as he got up and walked away. “Wait, you’re not going to bathe with me?”

He paused and looked over his shoulder. “No,” he answered simply before crossing to the other side of the room.

Frowning, Feather ducked her head under the water to get her hair wet, wondering what in all the green hells was going through his mind. What sort of man ‘rescues’ a girl, carries her back to his room, insists that she bathes and then leaves her alone? She was starting to think he might prefer the company of other men by the time she was done, particularly considering that her bath highlighted for her exactly how attractive her new body was. If so, he might have interpreted the effect of her charm as brotherly love, which would be perfect for her. Drying off and quickly brushing out her hair, she donned the silk robe he’d brought for her while standing on the balls of her feet, her heels still throbbing from the cleansing agent.

“Tetsu?” She called, poking her head around the corner of the room, finding the solar studying an ancient scroll. “What are you doing?”

“Pardon me,” he said, rolling the scroll back up and placing it on a neat pile of documents, “but the less you know, the better it would be for you. How are you feeling?”

“My feet still hurt,” she sighed, “but the bath really helped, thank you.”

“Maybe I can do something about that,” he told her, standing and gesturing to the bed, “take a seat.”

Her pulse quickened but she complied, wondering what he had in mind. Tetsu knelt in front of her and picked up her feet again. Gently, he began to rub his thumbs on the balls and arch of her sole, avoiding her heels. At first the pressure made Feather jump but slowly she could feel every muscle in her body turning to jelly, including those muscles she wasn’t ever aware were tense. Leaning back, she moaned. “Oh gods, did you learn this in Nexus?”

“No,” he answered, chuckling, “I’ve always taken work where it could be found, you’d be amazed what you can learn just by wandering from place to place.”

“Mmmm… I bet this makes you popular with the women.”

Sighing, he shook his head. “Perhaps you haven’t seen my face? I lost my virginity to a paid prostitute a long time ago… I wasn’t with a girl for a long time until recently.”

“Who was she?” Feather inquired, half out of genuine curiosity and half pumping him for information.

“Sanejin’s daughters,” he answered, rolling his eyes, “given as a gift the day I came here, all five of them.”

Feather’s heart started to hammer against her ribcage, the rush of blood bringing a flush of warmth to her skin. “Five god-bloods? At once?”

He nodded. “Right here, in this bed.”

Beathing hard, Feather’s extensive experience in the arts of love as a member of the Bureau of Serenity worked against her as she imagined the scene. “H-How did you…”

She paused when his eyes met hers, his gaze intense, level and heated. “Well,” he began in a low voice, “I like to start here.” Leaning in closer, he ran one hand up her calf while turning his head so that his lips could kiss the inside of her knee. Feather gasped, jumping slightly as a sharp tingle of elation crawled over her skin. A second kiss along with a quick brush of his tongue brought a stronger reaction as Feather drew a sudden intake of breath.

Her skin started to ache as his hands moved up her body to her hips, parting her legs as she stared numbly, caught between wanting to tell him to stop and the desire to beg him for more. Conflicting thoughts fled entirely, however, when he rose to his knees between her legs, reverently opening her robe to expose her breasts, sucking one into his mouth as he rolled his remarkably prehensile tongue around the nipple.

Feather’s back arched as she pressed her soft flesh against his hardened muscle, hands clinging to his back as she wrapped her legs around his waist. Creation tilted wildly as she sank back into the bed with him on top of her, driven by pure instinct, the organ between her legs pulsing in time with her heartbeat, wet, ready and practically begging to be used. Almost as if he knew exactly what her body needed, he shifted his mouth’s attentions to her neck as he slid one hand between her legs. Her hips started moving of their own accord as Feather cried out in ecstasy, the strange but effective technique he was using with his fingers combined with the feel of his lips on her neck making little bursts of pleasure pop though her body like fireworks.

“Yes, yes, yes… please, I need you so badly,” she begged, pure desire crawling through her body like an army of fire ants.

Pulling away, Tetsu drank her beauty as she opened herself to him, her small hands sliding over his chest while her striking blue eyes pleaded with him for release. Opening his robe, her eyes swept down her body until her gaze alighted on his crotch, the sheer size and girth of which made her gasp in disbelief. Smirking, he grasped her slender waist with his large hands, gently pressing and massaging her abdomen. She didn’t have enough time to wonder if she could accommodate him as her insides turned to quivering jelly thanks to whatever his hands were doing to her stomach. Feather moaned and writhed again, closing her eyes as pure sensation enveloped her like a warm blanket.

When his thrust came, she screamed, eyes snapping open as her whole body arched. It didn’t hurt at all like she was expecting, her body quivering as pure bliss suffused her soul like golden light. For a moment, a vision of ultimate perfection passed across her eyes and she saw the beauty inherent in Creation, freedom and all things held sacred until she was filled with a warm, golden, light that never seemed to end.

#

“Delani, wake up!”

The Dragonlord stretched languidly, feeling better than she’d ever had in her entire life. She could feel every strand of the fabric of the divan she was lying on, every muscle relaxed without a hint of tension and her mind sharp and crystal clear. It was like being pleasantly drugged only without any downside. “Mmmm, what is it Agani? You have got to try the new concubine, he’s… oh gods, you’re just going to have to feel it for yourself, words can’t describe.”

Opening her eyes, Delani had to stare at her second in command for a few moments even in her accelerated state to take everything in. Agani looked like she’d been on a thousand league hard march, her hair was a total mess with mud and twigs stuck in tangles, her armour was soiled and her face was covered in grime and dirt. There were black marks around her eyes from lack of sleep and blood on her gauntlets.

Sighing, Delani sat up and crossed her legs, not allowing her nakedness to phase her in the slightest. “Very well, report.”

Agani dropped to one knee. “My Lady, shortly after you retired from the party last night, Sarro and I heard a disturbance on the third floor. We gathered what soldiers we could and ran to the source, which turned out to be the strongroom. There we discovered one of the Unclean ransacking the paychest and any documents it could find, threatening a servant. It ran and we gave chase, though the soldiers were left behind. Sarro rallied the remaining Dragonbloods at the party who came charging into the forest after us. I’m sorry, My Lady, but we lost track of him. The other Dragonbloods have gathered what forces available to them from their households and are conducting a search of the surrounding woodlands.”

“And the blood?” Delani inquired.

“I ran into an enraged Boar,” Agani answered with some disgust, “I had to kill the filthy animal, that’s how the Anathema got away from me.”

Delani stood. “And what did you tell Sarro about those documents?”

“That they were only accounts and pay records.”

Breathing a heavy sigh, the Dragonlord began to pace. “I don’t like it, Agani. We’re playing this game far too close to our chests. Now that an Anathema is involved, our lies are only going to compound themselves. Thank the gods for these local idiots.”

“There’s more to the story,” Agani sighed. “When I returned, I went back to the strongroom and told the Captain to bring the soldiers that were rendered unconscious to me for questioning. We’d arrived in time to prevent the Unclean from his theft but when I’d returned the money and the documents were gone, despite a guard having been left both inside and outside the room. When I questioned the guards, they claimed that a large, ugly, man with facial scars disguised as a servant beat them all down despite being unarmed.”

Delani stopped pacing, feeling the sense memory of the concubine’s rough cheeks on her inner thighs. The rest of the memories that came with it were more pleasant. “So we have an Anathema, who fails to rob us and gather intelligence and some sort of spy who took advantage of the situation to make off with what the Anathema was after while everyone else was distracted? He must be the luckiest spy in all Creation.”

“I’m not so sure. Remember those rumours about the wanderer that supposedly was an Anathema that caused the landslide that destroyed the local militia? I’ve heard he was a large, extremely strong, man who could wield a jadesteel daiklave.”

“Two Anathema? Highly unlikely,” Delani said, a worrying suspicion gnawing at the back of her mind.

“I agree, plenty of beings could be capable of impersonating a dragonblood and causing a landslide. A second Anathema would be the worse case scenario, however, I thought it was important to entertain the possibility.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Delani concluded, “we need to keep our eye on the objective. Where’s Sarro now?”

“Checking on our increasingly gravid prisoner,” Agani answered.

“Good, that stroke of luck will keep her busy. If she feels like contributing, get her to help co-ordinate the glory hounds. With any luck, they’ll deal with the Anathema or at least keep it off our backs long enough to complete the mission. Once we have the Oracle’s Treasure, all other considerations become moot. I’ll organize things here, you tell Misari that she needs to hurry… oh and please have the guards outside send for my Majordomo, I think he and I need to have a little chat.”

Agani rose to her feet, bowed in crisp military acknowledgement of her superior’s orders and walked out with new purpose.

#

“…and that was the last I saw of Tetsu.” Menji finished his story, his three exalted guests staring at him incredulously.

“Old man,” Aten broached after a long, drawn out, silence, “please allow me to recap that tale briefly. You’re telling me that a large, brutish, con-artist with the strength to throw a daiklave around waltzing into town, humiliates the local militia then plays them off against the local organized crime ring. He then works his way into the employ of the criminals, who turn out to be working with the militia all along, then somehow manages to drop a mountain on both groups, shattering their power base while duelling with an enlightened martial artist on the cliff face as it collapses? And all of this because you begged him to help your town, no strings attached?”

“Never mind that you placed your trust and aided his hare-brained scheme,” Valdis added.

“You’re talking like I had a choice!” Menji growled. “I wasn’t exactly inundated with exalted last week, you know. He was what I had to work with and the situation was getting more desperate by the hour. No, I didn’t completely trust him and I didn’t tell him everything, in fact I tested him on numerous occasions. I don’t know how he could have fooled me, yesterday I would have sworn to you that he was as mortal as any of the louts roaming the streets… though that would have done him a severe injustice. You say his schemes were hare-brained and maybe they were but he made them work! Besides, I told you that the landslide wasn’t his doing. That was the Sidereals that have been snooping around.”

“But you admit that he openly associated with the ghost of a murdered man,” Kamaria pressed, “and wielded a daiklave. Doesn’t his sheer competency cast just as much suspicion, particularly in light of the events at Red Wolf’s mansion?”

“Yes, yes,” Menji assented, “I agree that it all looks very suspicious. I assumed that something had happened inside the mansion that caused him to exalt before he died but… as much as I hate to say it, his return places all those events in a new light. I would like to point out that mistrust could undo everything at this point. If I cannot trust Tetsu then how can I trust you three? Moreover, how can you trust that I’m not still working with Tetsu? The fact is that no-one sitting at this table can be certain of the motives that drive each of the groups we represent. All any of us can do is take calculated risks and hope for the best.”

Aten sighed. “I’ll admit that you have a point. Whatever his motives, the fact remains that Tetsu has the documents that we need to uncover what the Legion is up to. Furthermore, I know that Tetsu was involved in some way with the death of my friend. At the very least, he and I need to have a nice, long, chat.”

“Then let us work on the assumption that he is a Deathknight,” Kamaria interjected. “You mentioned that Tetsu visited a graveyard briedly in your story, honoured Menji. Where is this graveyard?”

“Across the river,” Menji informed, shrugging. “Shanku Toyo Graveyard has a dark reputation, which is well founded, the misery of the village creates many vengeful ghosts. I haven’t been there for years but I wouldn’t be surprised if the influence of the dead could be felt there. Personally, I have enough trouble with the living.”

“A shadowland would be the perfect hiding place,” Valdis concluded.

“Then we get some sleep and hit Shanku Toyo near midday when the Underworld’s power is at its ebb,” Aten said, following the thought to its logical conclusion, “are we agreed?”

Valdis and Kamaria both nodded.

#

Feather woke with her head resting comfortably on Tetsu’s shoulder with the rest of her body wrapped around his. It was almost as if there were some kind of physical force pilling her to him, all she wanted to do was lie there and feel the touch of his skin against her own. Looking up at his serene face, she wondered how she’d ever missed the inner beauty that lay under the mask. Glancing down, she bit her lower lip as the memory of everything they’d done flooded back to her, the sight of his member making her whole body warm.

She smiled as he stirred, his hand sliding down her back, causing a pleasant shiver when it reached her ass. Looking up into his eyes, she melted under his gentle gaze. “Good morning,” he greeted softly, smiling with no small amount of self satisfaction before leaning down to kiss her.

It was all Feather could do to stop herself from humping his leg as they lay joined together. She drank from his lips, thrilled with the expertise of his touch as their tongues flirted with each other. Being there in his arms she felt safe, safer than she’d been for several hundred years. His kiss dispelled the darkness of her fears.

“You’re so beautiful,” Tetsu complimented as they pulled apart, brushing her hair out of her face as an excuse to stroke her cheek. Her beatific smile was intoxicating. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“For what?” Feather asked, confused.

“Just for being here,” he answered. He tried to move but her grip tightened reflexively. “It’s ok,” he soothed, “I’m not going far. I’m sorry but I have work to do.”

Reluctantly relaxing her grip, Feather felt the ache of loss as he slid from her arms. She watched him dress, fascinated by the play of muscle across his torso, pulling the blanket around her as she sat up in the bed. “Maybe I can help?” She asked hopefully, part of her genuinely wanting to help while another reminded her why she was really there in the first place.

He sighed. “Only if you can read maps or decipher runes.”

It took a moment for Feather to process what he said. “What?” She asked, her interest suddenly piqued. Sliding her legs over the edge of the bed, she quickly put up her hair and pinned it in place before following him still wrapped in the blanket. His work desk was covered in neatly sorted piles of scrolls, when he rolled one out it revealed not only how ancient the artefact was but a scale map of a familiar region. “This is River’s Bend,” She said, pointing to the river at one edge of the map. The rest of the scroll was covered with streets, buildings, parks and landmarks, all denoted by what Feather recognized as first age High Script. “By the gods, this city must have been enormous! Where did you get this?”

“I stole it from the 23rd Legion,” Tetsu murmured, distracted as he concentrated on the map. “River’s bend must be what remains of the port. You can see the Temple right there, the bridges and the graveyard across the river. Now, look at this,” he said, taking a second scroll off the pile and rolling it out over the first. The second scroll had the same geographical markings but depicted what appeared to be a network of tunnels. “I think this is the sewerage system but take a look at these large tunnels. I’ve been down there, one of those is large enough to take a paddle steamer, this tunnel here must be just mindblowing in proportion.”

He pointed to a long tunnel on the map that was at least three times as wide as the smaller tributaries, though those smaller tunnels had even smaller tunnels branching off of them like veins. The ‘main arterial’ tunnel stretched from where the Temple would be on the map all the way through Mt. Makota and on off the map.

“Wow,” Feather said, unable to encapsulate the scale of what she was seeing.

“Oh, I’m not done,” Tetsu revealed as he rolled out a third scroll of the same geography painted with long, multicoloured, dragons of different proportions arrayed in flowing patterns. “I think this is a map of the city’s geomantic flow. See the main dragon line runs from the river, right down that huge tunnel through Mt. Makota. These other tunnels redirect the excess and vent it down the valley rather than allowing it to pool.”

Feather stared at him. “How did you learn about geomancy?”

He shrugged. “I was a wanderer. Everyone needs cheap labour, especially with big construction projects. I can’t tell you what this means but I picked up the basics, like ‘stagnant essence is bad’.”

Brushing the hair out of her face again, Feather moved closer to him as she retrieved the first map and placed it back on top. “The Palace of Eternal Perfection,” she translated, pointing at the runic script that labelled the building on the map. Drawing her finger southwest down where the main dragon line would flow, she stopped at a second building that took up an entire block. “Bower of the Voice of Heaven,” she translated again before continuing along the line to a lonely building that sat directly at the peak of Mt. Makota itself, “and The Pinnacle Beyond Perfection.”

It was Tetsu’s turn to stare at her in disbelief. “You know High Speech?”

She shrugged modestly. “I wasn’t always a prostitute.”

“I’m starting to think you’re a spy sent to seduce me,” Tetsu quipped. Feather’s heart skipped a beat but he immediately assuaged her panic with another kiss. “Which would just make you sexier,” he breathed lustily. Feather grinned and wrapped her arms around his neck, intent on doing a more through job of kissing him.

She would have succeeded except that Kano chose that moment to throw open the doors as he charged into the room. “Tetsu!” He cried out excitedly. “You are not going to believe what I just found ou… OH!” He ground to a halt as Feather’s baleful glare pinned him to the spot, at a loss for words.

“Not a good time, Kano,” Tetsu sighed, sliding his arm around Feather’s waist.

“Uh, sorry,” Kano apologized sheepishly, “really, though, what I have to tell you is important. Who’s your new friend?”

“Feather, meet Kano, my companion in crime,” Tetsu introduced. “Kano, meet Feather, my companion.”

“Oh, charmed,” Kano muttered, still intimidated by the look Feather was giving him. “Please don’t take offence but maybe she should take her leave so we can talk?”

“No,” Feather rebutted, looking up at Tetsu, “please let me stay and help, Tetsu. You know I can make myself invaluable to you.”

“There was no question of that,” Tetsu agreed. “She stays, Kano. I vouch for her, she’s on our side.”

“All right,” Kano answered, still uneasy about the situation. “Last night I was doing what you asked when I ran into your ghost friend trying to attack one of the girls.”

Tetsu blinked. “Inkfinger?”

“Inkfinger?” Feather inquired.

“The ghost of a scholar that was murdered,” Tetsu explained, “I promised to help him get revenge on his murderer. What’s he doing this far from the graveyard? He should either have passed on or become a mindless beast by now, even if Bonzo survived that landslide he’s either dead or pleasuring some drunken soldier.”

“Oh, I don’t know about mindless but bestial certainly comes to mind,” Kano growled, opening the top of his robe to show the bandage wrapped around his shoulder. “I got between him and a girl called Anko, ring any bells?”

Tetsu had to think for a moment to remember. “Anko… Omeki? Inkfinger’s wife? You’re sure he was trying to hurt her?”

“I’d define a rotting corpse trying to force itself on a girl as ‘hurt’, yeah,” Kano snapped. “We had a fight, if you could call it that, but I finally drove him off with a consecrated dagger that Anko was keeping under her pillow. I passed out after that but the girls took care of me in gratitude. When I woke up, I questioned Anko and she spilled the whole story. Inkfinger’s been lying to us this whole time, Tetsu.”

Looking from one man to the other, Feather sighed. “Ok, I admit, I’m totally lost.”

Tetsu quickly explained how he had met Inkfinger at Menji’s boarding house and how the two of them had joined forces against Red Wolf and White Crane.

“But the whole story about how he was just a lowly scholar who lost his wife was a lie,” Kano explained. “In reality, he and Anko were agents for a group called ‘The All-Seeing Eye’ who suspected the town was a hotbed of treasonous dragonbloods plotting to overthrow the Satrap of Greyfalls. Anko attempted to infiltrate the temple and was caught, so Sanejin added her to his roster.”

“So Bonzo wasn’t just removing an inconvenient client for Red Wolf,” Tetsu mused, “he was cleaning house.”

“Oh, it gets better,” Kano grinned, “according to Anko, Bonzo was their local contact. She blew his cover to Sanejin and the god threatened to expose him unless he turned triple agent. He killed Inkfinger to keep his mouth shut but low and behold, the bastard just doesn’t stay dead! So, the ten jade talent question is, why would he come to you if all Inkfinger wanted was to kill Bonzo? All he’d have to do is send a note to White Crane or Red Wolf, they’d have done it in a heartbeat just on suspicion.”

“That’s a good question,” Tetsu admitted, “but are you sure that Anko’s not lying to you?”

“She was distraught,” Kano defended, “babbling. Yeah, I believe what she said.”

“Well, good work,” Tetsu congratulated him with a slap on the shoulder. “I knew I could count on you but Inkfinger’s just a distraction, we have a more promising lead from the documents I retrieved from the Cynis mansion. Next time I run into the ghost, though, he’s going to have some explaining to do.”

Kano nodded soberly as Tetsu explained about the maps. “So we think they’re looking for this treasure everyone keeps talking about?” He queried once the solar was finished.

“Treasure?” Feather asked, her ears pricking up.

“Sanejin says that treasure hunters have been combing the ruins here for centuries looking for some sort of cache of first age artefacts,” Tetsu explained for her benefit, “according to him, none of them have been successful.”

“Look, I know you know what you’re doing Tetsu but why are we explaining all this to a whore?” Kano asked petulantly. “No offence, I used to be one myself.”

Feather glared at him again. “I was exiled here, I’ll have you know,” she lied smoothly, “I was educated by private tutors in Greyfalls. Mother married me off to a southern lout and when I refused to play to his sick fantasies, he sold me to Sanejin. I can translate High Script and I studied languages and history. You need me.”

“Did you used to be a man?” Kano asked glibly, crossing his arms over his chest as his eyes narrowed shrewdly.

“No,” Feather lied again. “Did you think to ask Anko that before you had sex with her?”

Blinking, Kano’s face suddenly went white.

Tetsu laughed. “Oh, man up Kano. Does it really matter? Find what love you can, when and where you can, because every moment of it is precious.”

His speech brought some colour back into Kano’s cheeks while Feather felt butterflies in her stomach and weak in the knees. Inwardly scowling at her childish swooning, she turned back to the maps on the desk and leant over them. “Anyway, what do these signify? The Legion’s obviously looking for this cache and these old maps would be a great start but they’re what, thousands of years old? The geography will have changed, tunnels will have collapsed, the geomancy all messed up, buildings destroyed…”

“The fortifications,” Tetsu interrupted. “They’re not fortifying the city, or at least the fortifications are just another distraction. I’ll bet jade to shells that they’re mapping out the area’s current geomantic lines looking for anomalies. It’s clever, though I have to wonder what they think they’re going to find that all the treasure hunters before them haven’t.”

They were interrupted by a sharp rapping on the door. “Tetsu, it’s Sanejin,” the god called out politely, a note of fear in his voice, “pardon my intrusion but you need to come up to the wall, now.”

“One moment,” Tetsu answered. He gave Feather a quick kiss on the cheek. “Wait for us, don’t worry, I’ll be back,” he reassured her before belting his robe and slipping on some sandals, leaving with Kano close on his heels.

Feather hugged herself as she watched them leave, conflicting thoughts and feelings buzzing around in circles inside her skull. Once she was sure they were out of earshot, she screamed through clenched teeth, grasping her hair and stomping her feet in pure frustration.

“What the hell am I DOING?!?!” She screamed at herself, pacing furiously. An instant later, she paled as the full import of the morning’s activities finally struck. “By all the Maidens, what did I do?”

Feeling butterflies again, she opened her robe and looked down at her stomach before pressing against it gently. Snapping out of it, she ran into the wardrobe and threw open every closet door and drawer until she found the stash of Maiden Tea, quickly setting the water to boil over the fire and started to pace again as she waited.

“Damn it, Feather, he’s a SOLAR,” she admonished herself, “and a man! You need to cure whatever this Eternal Perfection shit is, remember? Rage and Edge are counting on you! Remember?”

Stopping in her tracks again as another realization struck her she wilted and sank into a chair. “Rage and Edge… they’ll kill him. Oh gods, they can’t kill him, I need him! Wait, no… I don’t need him… do I?”

Turning to stare at the door that Tetsu had left from, Feather felt a dull ache in her heart.



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