In Gem, the heat has a smell. It bakes in the nostrils, hangs in the throat. It tastes like dryness, like sun-bleached stone and endless sand. It is not a pleasant thing, especially when one has been riding through said endless sands at breakneck speed, and especially when one is fresh from killing (however temporarily) a fairly powerful god and wishes only for a nice, quiet bath. So as Kash neared the gates of Gem at last, he was understandably in no mood to be confronted by a customs official.
"Name and business," said the bored-looking official from behind his blue-tinted spectacles. Kash looked at the paper-pusher and could see his sorry state reflected in the man's glasses: stripped to the waist, saddlebags from his Swift Rider (now stowed under a rock several miles from the city) gripped under one arm, a tattoo of a long, curved sword wrapped across his stomach, hair crudely chopped to a buzz cut, skin a little too red to be just tanned, whole body covered in dust and grime and sweat.
"Sivar Kash. I'm in consulting," he said--and as soon as the words faded he could almost feel the effort it took for the customs man to keep from laughing aloud.
"Consulting. Well, at least it's new." The man smirked over his ledger and scribbled it down. "Sivar Kash, consultant. Very well, Mr. Kash--"
"Sivar," interjected Kash. "Mr. Sivar. Kash is the family name." The official's gloating humor faded, replaced by annoyance, as he scratched out the name and rewrote it. "That's the Realm way, Mr. Sivar. Putting on airs, are we?"
Kash scowled and reached into his pocket. "Look, how can I speed this up?" He fished out a full jade obol and held it out, letting the magical material gleam in the sunlight. The customs man couldn't speak for a moment--a single Realm obol was more than he'd make in a year.
"Very well, Mr. Sivar," he said, shuffling his papers and noting something down. "The rest of this is really a formality, I'm sure I can clear it up later. Enjoy your stay in Gem!" He grinned in the most sycophantic way, eyes flitting every few seconds to the obol. "And if you're staying in the city I can suggest several fine inns for a man of your..means."
Kash returned the official's look with a bored stare, but nodded. If this is all it takes to get into the city, I've got my work cut out for me, he thought. "Very well, sir," the customs man continued. "Any establishment on the High Slope will do, of course, but may I suggest the White Lotus on Lapis Street? It has all the amenities one..."
Kash faded out of the conversation, waiting for the man to finish, till two words caught him--'indoor plumbing.' "Does it have private baths?" he asked, suddenly completely focused. The customs man nodded, and that was the last Kash saw of him. He was through the gates and out of sight in a heartbeat.
"Welcome, sir, to the White Lotus Inn." Kash had to admit, he was impressed. The outside of the inn was an unremarkable sandstone facade with a white lotus above the main doors worked in pearly marble. But the inside would've done a Cynis salon proud. The place eschewed natural light or candles, replacing it with glowstones appropriate to the time of day. During the high afternoon, as it was now, bright yellow light filled the lobby of the White Lotus, gleaming on the white marble floors and seeming to enamel the slender, decorative marble columns rising to the ceiling.
A bellhop had escorted Kash in as soon as he flashed some jade, and stepping from the blistering racket of afternoon Gem into the cool, quiet sanctuary of the inn was like diving into a mountain pool. Kash followed the bellhop towards the long hardwood reception desk, heedless of the dirty tracks he left on the floor behind him. The lobby was almost empty--Kash's only company was the bellhop, a man in neatly tailored white linen behind the desk, and a woman already talking to him. The woman, however, was more arresting than all the cool marble lobbies in Creation.
Her hair was a wild, sparking red, worked into a bun high on her head with a pair of long braids looping down to snake up into the main body. Her skin was a deep, flawless sienna a shade darker than the sand beyond the city walls. She wore a tight, flattering suit of white linen with red and orange silk that hugged her like snakeskin--and she certainly had curves worth hugging. After a week riding through the desert with nothing but dunes and an angry sun, Kash stared like a starving man at one of the Slugâ€™s banquets. The bellhop tugged him on towards the counter, where he ended up standing beside her just as the innkeeper headed into the back rooms. The woman looked him up and down--her eyes were golden, like a cat's. She completed one circuit and met his eyes, curious if nothing else. "I don't know if you've heard," he said, "but it's a bit sandy outside. Best be careful." He nodded sagely, and the woman cracked a smile. "I'm Sivar Kash," he said, extending a grimy hand to her. She took it without a second thought and shook.
"Kalila," she said, lengthening the A's like a native Southerner. "Pleased to meet you, Sivar Kash. The next time you're out in the desert you should take care to avoid rolling around on the ground. It tends to be a dirty business."
Now it was Kash's turn to smile. "I'll bear it in mind." He let their hands drop, but kept eye contact. "What brings you to the White Lotus?"
Kalila paused for a telltale moment before answering, "I'm visiting my father. He lives near here. And you?"
"My reason's nothing so pleasant as yours," he replied. "I'm here on business." Kalila's eyebrow rose as she looked him over again, this time a bit more practically than before. "What sort of business, Sivar Kash?" Kash smiled ever so slightly. "All kinds. I'm a generalist."
Kalila gave him a shrewd look, pursing her lips. "This isn't a good city for secrets, Kash. The walls tend to be very thin."
"Maybe you could teach me all about how this city works," he said, steering the conversation to more friendly waters. "Over dinner, at the best in the city." He pulled out the obol again, grinning. "My treat. Not every grimy traveler is grimy all the time." Kalila looked up at him for a moment, lip still pursed--but just then the innkeeper returned, holding a bronze key. "Mistress Kalila," he said, offering the key to her, and she slid it into a pocket with a nod. "Maybe some other time, Kash," she said, turning towards a stairwell at the far side of the lobby.
Kash struggled for a moment to control his annoyance before turning to the innkeeper calmly.
"Welcome, sir," said the man behind the counter, a middle-aged Southerner with a shaved head, a golden ring in his left earlobe and a gracious, pleasant manner. Kash felt more at ease instantly. "My name is Rud, and I welcome you to my establishment here. How may I serve you?"
Kash glanced over towards the stairwell. Kalila had paused just outside it, and seemed to be staring into space. She glanced back over her shoulder at Kash, her expression curiously neutral, before heading disappearing into the stairwell at speed. Kash sighed and turned to Rud to begin booking his room.
An hour later, Kash was drying himself with a linen towel and feeling thoroughly clean for the first time in a week. The room was excellent, even by a Realm native's standards--glowstones for light, a big well-cushioned bed, and of course the kind of fully-functional bathroom one rarely found outside the Realm or Lookshy. Kash had clean clothes laid out, a bottle of wine sent down from the kitchens, and an evening of wandering the city like some nobleman tourist while he settled into his new post. The real, dirty work of setting up a network in Gem would begin tomorrow--for now, at least he could relax.
Kash was just walking to the bed in only the towel when a deep, cracking thud came from the door. Kash had just enough time to swear and tighten his towel when a second thud send the door's bolt-lock flying, and through the newly-opened threshold strode Kalila. She was wearing the same linen and silk suit, but now two flame piece holsters rode a belt at her hips--empty holsters, because both weapons were in her hands and pointing into the room. There was also a long, slender sword hanging in a scabbard across her back, and her dark features were twisted in rage. "You son of a whore!" she roared, aiming both flame pieces at the towel-clad Sidereal. Kash took one look at Kalila and closed his eyes, intoning a message to the Maidens. "Venus, you conniving bitch, if this is your fault we're going to have words."
"Don't move, bastard!" Kalila shouted again, stepping into the room more fully, covering Kash with both flame pieces. "One twitch and I'll roast you!"
Kash raised his hands passively, sighing and turning to face Kalila. "Okay, I surrender. Now what's this all about?"
Kalila bared her teeth, her eyes positively glowing. "You know perfectly well, Sidereal! And I know now too! I know what you did to my father today!"
Kash stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded, then groaned as comprehension came. "Kal Kazra. You're Kal Kazra's daughter, aren't you?"
Kalila stepped closer her flame pieces just out of arm's reach. "That's right, Sidereal. And I'm going to make you pay for what you put him through!"
Kash sighed, looking almost bored. "You're sure about that? I mean, he'll reform in a week anyway."
"Yes I'm sure! You humiliated him before his whole court! That has to be answered for!" The god-blooded woman was all but growling with rage.
"You know what your biggest mistake was tonight, besides coming in here?" Kalila stared at him for a moment, taken aback by Kash's completely casual tone. "Coming within kick range." There seemed to be no transition. One second Kash was simply standing there, the next he was a dervish, his foot sweeping around in an arc that knocked both flame pieces to the ground on its first pass and slammed into Kalila's ribs with the second. The god-blood was sent stumbling backwards, struggling to raise her guard as Kash pressed in.
His fists darted forward, thumping against Kalila's hastily raised forearms and swishing through the air, missing her by centimeters when she dodged. The god-blood sprang backwards, buying just enough time to whip her long, curved sword from its scabbard and bring it up to dodge. Now she advanced, slicing the air where Kash had been a heartbeat before, sparks rising where her blade caught the walls.
Kash jumped backwards onto the bed and stood there grinning. "Swords, huh?" he said, reaching to the tattoo on his stomach. "Cool. I brought my own." His starmetal daiklave whipped from his abdomen, springing into full size from his skin. Using the bed as a springboard he faulted forward, cutting a neat, compact slip to fly over Kalila's head, his feet hammering back as soon as he was level with her shoulder to drop-kick her forward. The god-blood was sent stumbling into the side of the bed as Kash rose to his feet behind her and sprinted forward. She spun just in time to catch his starmetal blade on hers, and sparks flew from the contact.
Kalila shoved Kash back before the hilts of their weapons could lock and advanced to meet him. Their swords darted through the air, whistling through empty and meeting in short, ferocious classes. Kash dodged a vicious chop diagonal chop to slice his blade just above Kalila's navel, slicing through the linen of her suit without cutting her flesh and revealing a taut, tanned stomach. Kalila roared at the mocking blow and renewed her assault, sending a flurry of cuts that had Kash jumping and dodging just to keep his skin intact. At last she let her passion take just a little too much control and swung her saber in a heavy overhand chop. Kash evaded easily and Kalila's blow bit into the floor. Kash took the opportunity to kick her in the gut, sending her tumbling backwards onto the bed, sword still on the floor.
Kash dropped his own weapon and lunged, grappling with the god-blood. Kalila fought like a wildcat now, scratching, kicking and even biting Kash's shoulder. The Sidereal gave as good as he got, slamming Kalila's skull against the headboard before they both tumbled from the bed and onto the Delzahn carpet at its side. They landed as a furious tangle of limbs, lashing and groping, scrambling for any kind of purchase.
Finally, Kash managed to take hold of both Kalila's wrists and pin them to the floor, high above her head. At some point Kash's towel had come undone, which left him above Kalila, stark naked, hips between her legs. They stared at each other for a long, tense moment, panting, chests heaving, eyes locked. Kalila moved first, her lips parting just a fraction. Then Kash's head dove down, crushing her lips with his. Her legs wrapped around his hips, pulling him in tighter. The inn staff, having heard the fight, didn't dare to come near the room for hours. The sounds from within were too loud.
In a lava-tube estate high on the volcano of Gem the dark man took a long, deep draw on his hookah. The hashish smoke filled his lungs and he leaned back on the cushioned couch, letting the smoke coil inside him before releasing a long, lazy plume. The hashish was laced with Bright Morning, and he could already feel his senses expanding. Soon the visions, the glorious vision, would come. A rap came at his door, and his deep, rumbling acknowledgement cut the air. One of the Inner Circle entered, quick to avert his eyes from the dark man. "Master," said the acolyte, "You tasked us to wait for the Man of the Dust, the one our Lord said would come to hunt us. A traveler today tripped the wards at the southern gate. He flashed hard jade and was covered in dust and sand. The Watchers say his soul courses with power. They say he drips with Endings, master."
A quiver of fear had entered the acolyte's voice at that last admission--the dark man could see spirits of cowardice swimming towards him, clinging to his neck and chest. It made him laugh. "Have the thaumaturges begin the ritual. We will loose the champion against this traveler. If it succeeds, this man is not the enemy we await. If it does not...if it does not, then it is time to prepare. It will mean our greatest test, and greatest triumph, has arrived. Now leave me."
The Inner Circle messenger hurried away, shutting the door behind him. The dark man leaned back on the couch, closing his eyes as the drug took hold. He smiled as, despite the darkness of his manor, he felt his Lord's Sun on his face.
[01:57] Zeal: "You know, you're right." Kash lowers his sword, drops out of the martial stance. "I don't know what the hell you are." He takes a step closer.
[01:58] Xilanada: Makarios smiles, seemingly pleased.
[01:58] Zeal: "I don't think something that's not human can technically be a gentleman, but let's talk. I'm sure we can come to a conclusion we'll both--"
[01:58] Zeal: (Rolling join battle)