I, Seaside Scribe, feel it is necessary to preface the following with a brief discussion of politics in the Scarlet Dynasty. It had always been Sesus Alonâ€™s intentions to gain a seat in the Greater Deliberative and become a powerful senator. With temporal power second only to that of the Scarlet Empress herself, senators could easily accomplish a variety of personal goals, while also having influence over large portions of the world. This would certainly appeal to women of ambition such as Alon.
Following her failed marriage, and despite being granted recognition as an important household of Sesus, Alon certainly knew that she was not well-positioned for a senatorial bid. She had decades less experience and fewer powerful contacts and connections compared to others who sought a seat in the Greater Chambers. While Alon had more renown as a military leader coming out of the legions than most senators, service in the legions was more of a requirement than a recommendation for senatorial title. Alon needed powerful allies, probably within her own house, if she had any chance of realizing her ambitions within that decade.
I, and Weeping Triumph herself, believe that the pattern that was set in young Sekliâ€™s eighth year was one part of a greater strategy to wrest a place amongst the other powerful senators, each of whom knew that the addition of another senator to the Chamber was another vote that had to be swayed, or a new rival with which to contend. It must be stated that this theory is pure speculation. Although this theory is supported by converging evidence, it can never be proven. Alon kept no known enduring records of her personal thoughts and plans, probably knowing that this creates documentation that can be researched and exploited, for which she herself became famous in later decades.
To sum up my point briefly, I believe that the treatment Sekli received throughout the remainder of her childhood and into her adulthood was a tacticâ€”a ploy to further Alonâ€™s candidacy. Weeping Triumph herself grimly admitted to me that she hoped her mother had had such justifications and that the young Sekli did not experience such misery for a trivial reason, or no reason at all. Like most of us, Weeping Triumph would prefer that over the idea that her mother simply did not value her.
Dinner was presented with great fashion and fanfare. The guests of honor sat with Alon at the head table. Sitting at the mortal tables, Sekli, Xiche, and Decher never heard any part of the conversation that took place amongst their Dragon-Blooded betters. The girls could hardly eat for their nerves, but made a great show of dining with grace and dignity, as they had been taught. They politely ignored the servers except when the girls requested something, and then they spoke with quiet eloquence.
After the second course, the mortal table found itself under scrutiny from the high tables. Alonâ€™s major domo, a cantankerous man named Hejuda, came near and spoke quietly to Decher. Sekliâ€™s brother nodded, finished his bite, and washed it down with wine.
Rising, Decher strode to the central platform on which the dancers had been performing. As the entertainers cleared the stage, Decher stepped up, nodding to them, and bowing low towards the high table.
In a clear and graciously commanding voice, Alon spoke, â€œMy Lords, if you please. My son, Sesus Alon Decher, has recently been commended for his skills with thaumaturgy. He has been considering taking a post with the legions as an artificer and weather director. For your entertainment, he will now demonstrate his command of mortal sorcery.â€
At her motherâ€™s words, Sekli was stuck by the possibility that her brother would leave her. She felt betrayed and wondered why he had never before mentioned that he was going to join the legions.
Decher rose from his bow and clasped his hands behind his back. From her vantage point, Sekli could see that her brother held a knife with which he cut a shallow gash in his other hand. After that was done, he grasped some kind of parchment with the injured hand and began chanting inaudibly. Throwing the parchment into a brazier that had been placed before him, Decher concluded his ritual with a shouted phrase. Sekli was able to
translate the Old Realm words into, â€˜In accordance with our prior agreement, I request your attendance at this place!â€™
Immediately, three shapes took form within the brazier, and the flames rose high. Although many mortals were taken aback, they respectfully hid their concern as small fires leapt into the air and began circling the room. Sekli was amazed at her brotherâ€™s abilities, and she stared transfixed as the flames took on the shapes of butterflies. They spun around and around while their burning hues frequently shifted colors. The fiery butterflies danced and wove above the room and seemed to bask in the attention of those who had gathered. All too soon, as far as Sekli was concerned, the butterflies flew together and collided with a loud explosion, and were gone.
The Dragon-Blooded politely clapped, showing bemused smiles. Everyone else seemed much more impressed. Decher bowed low again, and left the stage when Alon waved her hand at him.
Decher returned to the table and Sekli was barely able to restrain herself from congratulating and questioning her brother. No one dared draw attention by speaking without permission. Decher carefully dressed his self-inflicted wound and resumed eating.
Following the main course, Hejuda again came to the low table. He whispered, â€œIt is time for a performance, young Sesus ladies. Your mother has requested you to play your best-rehearsed duet.â€ His tone was stilted and unimpassioned, but it nonetheless evoked waves of anticipation in Sekli and Xiche.
The girls smiled politely to the major domo and bobbed their heads. They cleaned their hands quickly and walked unhurriedly and with as little trembling as possible towards the platform.
Sekli could see her mother chatting with a Dragon-Blood whose skin looked more like bark than flesh. They were eating mammoth, like the low table, but were also dining on some kind of smallish bird whose fiery yellow and orange feathers adorned the dishes as decoration. She gulped nervously, wishing she had been allowed to drink a little wine before her performance. That would have surely calmed her nerves.
Although crossing the great hall seemed to take hours to the tense girls, they soon climbed the short steps and found that seats and two sanxian stands with instruments had already been set up for them. The girls bowed low and remained so until Alon spoke.
â€œMy Lords, I would like to present my daughter, Sesus Alon Sekli, for your inspection and approval. She has shown promise with strategic games and has demonstrated a great nimbleness for every instrument set before her.â€
To herself, Sekli thought that her mother was exaggerating quite a bit. The sanxian was the only instrument she had ever attempted, and only her quick fingers allowed her to play at all the songs that Sparrow-Song had insisted she learn this past week.
â€œMy daughter will present certain selections for your entertainment. Accompanying her tonight in duet is her cousin, Sesus Xiche,â€ Alon said, nodding to her sister who sat further down the high table. Sekliâ€™s aunt smiled and waved courteously to Alon.
Alon smiled thinly to the girls, and Sekli and Xiche took their cue to begin. They managed their entrances well, and were soon strumming paired harmonies with good precision. In her mind, Sekli heard Sparrow-Songâ€™s admonitions that the girlsâ€™ performance still lacked the depth of feeling that was required. After almost playing a wrong note, Sekli quickly returned her focus to the present.
The girls finished the song with a little flourish, and graciously accepted the applause. The Sesus guests seemed to approve of the music and paid more attention than the other senatorial dignitaries. One Sesus man in particular observed the girls with a highly critical eye. Sekli thought she remembered that this was one of the other household leaders and that he greatly valued musical aptitude, even more so than most members of House Sesus.
At Alonâ€™s cue, the girls began their second song while an exotic wine was served to the high table. Sekli was privately grateful that the Dragon-Blooded were somewhat distracted because she felt less confident with the fast passages in the fifth variation. She had to skip a couple of notes in the most difficult run, and spared a glance at the musical Sesus. He frowned slightly. She felt her face flush, but thankfully the song ended shortly thereafter. The girls took a small break and sipped a small amount of honeyed juice while the important adults chatted.
The Sesus lord who had noticed the slip leant close to Sekliâ€™s mother and whispered to her. Sekli met her motherâ€™s thoughtful expression with a timid smile. Sekli watched her mother gaze searchingly at the relative, before fixing her gaze at her daughter once more. After staring at Sekli for several minutes, and barely seeming to hear the conversation at the table, Alon stood up and spoke.
â€œMy Lords, I would like to present you with a solo performance by my daughter, Sesus Alon Sekli. She has been studying vigorously of late, and I would like to demonstrate the fruits of her labors. I know you will not be displeased,â€ Alon said somewhat forcefully. Alon gave the Sesus elder an unreadable look.
Without a word or glance to her cousin, Xiche left the stage. While Xiche was leaving, Sekli again wondered why her mother was fabricating her musical aptitude. Truly, she was nothing remarkable. In any case, Sekli had studied a solo song in case of just this eventuality, but she had never thought she would actually have to play it. It was slower, thankfully, and Sekli knew she would do her mother proud. She began the soulful piece with an insistent bass line that would later increase in volume and speed. Sekli lost herself to the music for the duration of the song. When she had finished, she knew she had done well, and was looking forward to returning to the low table. By the end of the piece, her fingers had begun to throb in time with the beat.
She was surprised when her mother stood up once more and spoke again, â€œMy Lords, I thank you for the praise you give me and my household with your applause. If one of you would care to make a request for any particular song, I would encourage you to do so. I am certain my daughter would honor you with an exemplary performance.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know, Alon, the girl looks to be wilting on that stage,â€ chuckled the man with bark for skin. Several Dragon-Bloods laughed. He continued, â€œLook, there goes a leaf now!â€ More laughter. Sekli smiled thankfully at the man, who was not looking but Sekli, although she thought he noticed her appreciation. â€œI, for one, would not mind seeing those dancers once again,â€ the man finished with a leer and wink. The high table was abuzz with amusement and talk about the next performance.
Alon met the othersâ€™ laughter with a strained smile more akin to a grimace. Before responding, she considered the matter carefully, but her gaze seemed to stray to the man who, presumably, she felt had criticized her daughter. At last Alon said, â€œI and my daughter would nonetheless be honored by a request.â€
Sekli did not know how much longer she could last, and she certainly could not answer any request someone might makeâ€”only an advanced student could do something like that. She forced herself to maintain a calm expression. Her palms ached and her fingers were sore.
â€œAlon, if I may speak to you a moment?â€ said Sekliâ€™s aunt, with an odd expression on her face.
â€œLater. Any takers? How about you, Geken?â€ Alon said to the bark-skinned man.
Gekenâ€™s smile faded for a moment, but he leaned forward and answered, â€œAlright, if you insist. Although I am certain your daughterâ€™s value is already demonstrated. Nonetheless,â€ he continued quickly before Alon could say anything, â€œI think perhaps an original work would be suitable. Let us hear your promising progenyâ€™s creative abilities.â€
â€œAs you wish,â€ Alon smiled, seeming to relax quite a bit. She gestured for Sekli to begin.
Sekli sat there for several seconds, pretending to concentrate, while she was, in fact, petrified. She had never composed an original work of music in her life. She envisioned her motherâ€™s anger and the harsh punishments that were sure to follow a poor performance. Sekli could not even imagine what would happen if she played nothing at all.
But in that panic-stricken moment, Sekli remembered a Spirit-Frog board; the solution, and its implied lesson, came to her mind. In short: for lack of a better plan, improvise with what little you do have.
What do I have? Sekli asked herself. I am small and scared, she answered. So that was what she played. She started with a plaintive base motif and added sporadic harmonies until a melody suggested itself to her. She tried to play some variations on it, but found that her fingers were tiring too quickly. So, she spread the melody out at half-speed and phased the base from the runs she had begun with, and went with chords. Sekli knew the piece sounded strident and disorganized, but she thought it at least had good expression. She finished with an incomplete chord that conveyed a lack of happy resolution.
Sekli looked up after finishing the piece, and noticed that the man who had requested the original work was looking at her speculatively. Most of the others were watching Alon for some reason. Her motherâ€™s mouth moved rhythmically, as though she was chewing, and Sekli was afraid of what her mother could be thinking.
Applause broke out and Alon nodded, seemingly in response to an internal comment. She stood up once more, â€œI did not have the opportunity to approve of that particular piece, my Lords, and I hope you did not find it offensive.â€ Smiles and shakes of heads met Alonâ€™s remark. At that, Alon shot the critical Sesus a triumphant look. â€œNow, with what may my daughter entertain us next? Are there other requests?â€
â€œI would request that we enjoy the many other pleasures you have provided for the evening, Alon,â€ said one of the senators.
â€œYes, we need more dancing!â€ cried Geken in a voice conveying helpless need. Everyone at the high table laughed good-humoredly, and Alon bowed her head. She stared long and hard at Sekli before waving the girl away. Others at the table watched Alonâ€™s behavior intently.
When Sekli returned to the low table, she dipped her throbbing and cramped fingers in cool water. The table was silent, but Sekli caught several discreet, consoling looks.
The rest of the evening passed blissfully quickly for Sekli. No more was required of her until she stood in line with the other members of the household to bow to each and every guest as she or he made their way either to a carriage waiting outside or quarters within the household.
The man with wooden skin, Geken, smiled at Sekli as he passed her, â€œYour performance tonight was mostâ€¦ inspired,â€ he murmured. â€œPerhaps I may hear it again someday, once you have a chance to actually compose it,â€ he grinned.
Sekli bowed low, â€œIt would be my honor, my Lord and honored Prince.â€ The man winked and moved on.
Back in their suite, Sekli and Xiche removed their elaborate formal gowns. Xiche was livid. â€œI canâ€™t believe her! She KNEW you havenâ€™t been playing very long. By Hesiesh, she was THERE when Sparrow-Song was giving us lessons. She behaved so strangely, like she had something to prove! Whatâ€™s gotten into her?â€
â€œI do not know and I do not care to know,â€ Sekli sighed. She was just glad it was all over.
Sekli found out the next day that it was not over. Sparrow-Song had received instructions to punish Sekli for her inadequate performance. It was clear he was confused by his orders, but he emphasized that one must always meet the expectations of the Dragon-Blooded. Her punishment was many hours of tedious music copying, so that she might better read the music she was supposed to be learning.
Despite this, Sparrow-Song complimented her improvisation. He was careful not to contradict Alon, however, so he praised Sekliâ€™s innovation but criticized her technique. â€œNot that it will ever be important to you, but with the creativity I saw on stage, you could easily make a living performing with musicians who favor an improvisational style. But you still need much work on your technical facility!â€ he emphasized.
â€œIâ€™m proud of you,â€ Decher told Sekli when she came for his instruction period.
â€œThank you, brother.â€
â€œIâ€™m curious to know what you thought about motherâ€™s insistence that you are a great musician.â€
â€œIâ€™d rather not talk about it,â€ Sekli sighed. Xiche had already worn the topic thin.
â€œAs you like. On the other hand, she might have a point, you know. Did you consider that?â€
â€œWhat do you mean? I made several mistakes in a public performance. I failed mother!â€
â€œPerhaps. But that piece you wrote: it needs work, but the tune was very good. Maybe mother knows something you donâ€™t.â€
Sekli just shrugged. She thought about the previous evening, and then she remembered something. â€œDecher, why didnâ€™t you tell me you were joining the legions?â€
Decher sighed and quirked an eyebrow, â€œI apologize if you were shocked, Sekli. But it was news to me, as well. I had never thought to be a soldier, even an engineer-savant.â€
â€œBut mother saidâ€”â€
â€œYes, she was full of surprises last night, wasnâ€™t she? Very unexpected,â€ he murmured more to himself than to Sekli.
The siblings sat in silence for a minute before Sekli voiced the question she could never ask anyone else, â€œDid I ruin motherâ€™s chances to be a senator?â€ Her guilt had been eating at her all day.
â€œI doubt it. If anything, her reaction to your playing will make the others watch her more closely. She got peopleâ€™s attention, which is a good thing,â€ Decher explained thoughtfully. â€œIâ€™ll have to ask my girlfriend about it. Anyway, we should get to the lesson now.â€
â€œWhen will I get to meet your girlfriend?â€ Sekli smiled sweetly, innocently.
â€œYou better not tell, or I wonâ€™t teach you anything more about the demons or Old Realm!â€ he threatened.
â€œOh, donâ€™t worry about me. Iâ€™m good at keeping secrets. Is she pretty?â€
â€œSure. Sheâ€™s very perceptive and intelligent, too. If you watch carefully, you might just see her around sometime,â€ he said cryptically.
â€œYouâ€™re such a tease!â€ Sekli laughed.
â€œAnd YOU are too good at distraction. Open your book!â€ he said, pinching her knee.
Sekli yelped and blocked Decherâ€™s strong grasp with her textbook. After a little rough-housing, they got back to work. Decher assigned her to study the Old Realm words important for the Immaculate Order and other religious terminology.
That night, Sekli sprawled on a couch with her book open for study. The night sky was visible through the window and lantern light illuminated the text. Sekli turned the page to memorize the next set of characters and study their formation. Suddenly, looking at the characters, Sekli knew why they seemed so familiar. She raced to her dresser and began shuffling through it.
Across the room, Xiche was writing poetry to practice her calligraphy and she looked up at the commotion, â€œWhatâ€™s wrong?â€
Sekli was quickly piling a number of shiny stones on top of the dresser. She did not answer.
â€œArenâ€™t those the pieces we found buried in the yard with the obuls weeks ago?â€
Sekli gathered up the rocks and scattered them across the floor. She brought her book and crouched on the fur rug, â€œYes, I think I found something.â€
â€œWhat is it?â€ Xiche came around to see what Sekli was reading. The other girl did not benefit from Decherâ€™s instruction, and so found the textbook incomprehensible.
â€œI found them!â€ Sekli cried happily. â€œI just KNEW Iâ€™d seen them before!â€
â€œThis,â€ Sekli pointed to one of the stones that bore a strange symbol, â€œIs the word for Wisdom. It can refer either to the wisdom of sages, or the Enlightenment earned by following in the footsteps of the Immaculate Dragons.â€
Xiche grinned, â€œI guess we didnâ€™t find an Anathema ruin, then.â€
â€œNo, this is even better! When was the last time Old Realm was used?â€
â€œUhâ€”was that the era of the Shogunate?â€
â€œYes, and pretty early on, really. These stones were probably created when this city was called Vanchow.â€
â€œBefore the Scarlet Empress made this the Imperial City. You can still find the name on some of the older buildings.â€
â€œI thought this used to be the Seat of Splendors.â€
â€œWhichever. Anyway, donâ€™t you see what this means?â€
â€œNo, tell me.â€
Sekli sighed happily, â€œWeâ€™ve found a piece of history. For all we know, Pasiap shaped these very stones to use in his lessons to the first Immaculate Priests.â€
Xiche looked doubtful.
Sekli hurriedly continued, â€œItâ€™s a great find, anyway. Now I want to see when this Manse was built. Maybe that would be a clue about who owned these stones and what they were used for.â€
â€œHave fun with that,â€ Xiche grinned. The girl returned to her poetry leaving Sekli to translate more of the runes.
An hour passed and Sekli had barely noticed. She had figured out the meaning of the words: Wisdom, Ascendance, Rulership, Revolution, Determination, Dragon, and Intimacy. She also noticed that the characters as they were drawn also referred to other meanings, such as travel, righteousness, secrets, and other seemingly unrelated concepts. Sekli had no clue what it all meant, and regretted that she could not speak to Decher about it. He could probably help her, but then he would wonder where she had gotten them, which could lead to finding about the jade coins. Sekli had promised Xiche that she wouldnâ€™t say anything to Decher.
Sekli looked up and saw that Xiche was sound asleep. Her cousinâ€™s breathing was soothing and reminded Sekli of how tired she was. She returned to the stones to their hiding place in a stocking she had grown out of long ago.
As she lay down to drift off to sleep, Sekli wondered if she could find out more about the rocks themselves. Each tile was smooth and slightly porous with small grains peppered throughout that reflected light like tiny stars. The unusual coloration would probably make them easy to look up, Sekli thought.
Very soon, she dreamt of mysteries and wonders that she could not fathom. The stones lay on a workshop table somewhere, awaiting scrutiny. Hands with unseen owners placed tools to the runed slates. Chemicals were applied to their backs, which quickly turned interesting colors. A number of other procedures were performed, but Sekli took no notice because a nearby paper caught her attention. An unseen pen scrawled hasty notes written in Old Realm. They indicated that the stones were thaumaturgically potent and would suffice as tools to a skilled astrologist. Something more was written, about the meaning of the stones, but Sekli could not quite read it. She came around the table for a better look, but was suddenly grabbed and pushed away. The young girl felt herself rising higher and higher, but not into the air. A moment before her mind turned towards other dreams, Sekli felt a sensation like surfacing from a body of water.