The new day found the servants in Corrastâ€™s keep scurrying about in a state of near panic that was unseen even when their king had been assassinated and the rebellion had taken over the fortress. Coups are normal enough business for the people of the Hundred Kingdoms, but a group of visiting Dragon-Blooded, including an Immaculate master no less, was a different matter entirely.
A pair of young maids stood outside the meeting hall, where the newly crowned king sat in conference with his exalted guests. The two girls, barely old enough to be called women winced each time someone within the chamber raised their voice, which happened all too often for their liking. The four heavily armed soldiers that stood guard over the heavy double doors also appeared less than enthused, and all six of them jumped when a loud boom, like a man had pounded his fist into a table, but ten times as powerful, reverberated out from within the audience chamber.
â€œThis is unacceptable!â€ growled the Immaculate, Ragara Hektor. The table he sat behind creaked with protest at the mistreatment it was forced to endure, but nobody in the room paid it any mind.
The young king and his advisors looked flustered at the display, but it did not bother Himura and his companions in the slightest or at least they showed no sign of it. They were all seated around a wide circular table. Built of sturdy woods and painstakingly lacquered, it only creaked under the monkâ€™s assault rather than splintering as most tables would have done. Himura suspected that it had been a recent addition, as the chairs did not match the table, nor did it explain the ornate throne that sat upon a dais at the far end of the chamber.
Himuraâ€™s sister, Mikoto was seated to his right while his friend and oath-brother, Kenji sat to the left of him. The leanly muscled man looked completely unfazed by the monkâ€™s outburst, leaning comfortably forward with his palm propped under his chin. He had a predatory smile on his face, one that made clear whose position was superior.
â€œI think youâ€™ll find our fees more than reasonable for what you would have us do,â€ Kenji said smoothly while ignoring the glowers from both Ragara Hektor and his current apprentice, Mnemon Zieg.
â€œYou canâ€™t possibly believe that our dojo has access to that amount of silver!â€ snapped the fire-aspect monk from House Mnemon. He wore a plain gi of heavy cloth, identical to his master's down to the straw sandals and shaved head.
â€œMaybe not,â€ agreed the smirking Lookshyan. His clear blue eyes then shifted back towards the Immaculate master, â€œBut you do.â€
â€œThereâ€™s an Anathema loose in this kingdom, in this very city,â€ Hektor rumbled like a cascading rockslide, â€œAnd yet all you care about is money. You are a disgrace to the sacrifices of your previous lives.â€
Kenji shrugged unperturbed, â€œWords. Why isnâ€™t your demon terrorizing the citizens? Why hasnâ€™t there been any word of anything out of the ordinary?â€
â€œHave you learned nothing from me?â€
â€œI learned quite a bit, actually. But I donâ€™t buy the whole Anathema demon deal.â€
â€œThen not only have you learned nothing, but you are a fool as well,â€ the Immaculate master rumbled with a sour glower.
â€œOh good, insult the people who you need helping you.â€
â€œWe do not need your help,â€ Zieg spoke up heatedly, bolting out from his seat. The motion almost knocked his chair over, but luckily it only wobbled precariously before righting itself.
â€œReally? The way I see it, youâ€™re quite undermanned for a Hunt. You need another pair of swords and a sorcerer, at least,â€ Kenji waved a hand towards the three of them, â€œAnd weâ€™re it, unless, of course, youâ€™d like to point out where the other perspective takers are.â€
â€œAmilar Himura,â€ Hektor said suddenly, returning Zieg to his chair with merely a look and then turned to address him, â€œI implore you. It is our duty as Princes of Earth to safe guard Creation from whatever threatens it. The Anathema, if left to their own devices, are the greatest threat our world will ever know. We must end this threat in its formative stages, before it becomes too dangerous to face with our current numbers. You have been to the Heptagram, you have seen what a marauding demons like them can wrought upon the land. You know what must be done.â€
Himura frowned and dropped his gaze to his laced hands as the collective eyes at the table turned to stare at him. Yes, he has been to the site of the Realmâ€™s previous sorcery college. He has seen the broken lands, the tortured essences and the barren devastation that it created. His guide, one of the schoolâ€™s instructors, whispered that a powerful Anathema managed to enter the Blessed Isle itself to murder the Dynastyâ€™s best and brightest. The ensuing battle saw the complete destruction of a massive swath of land, the school, and the deaths of all but one of the students.
It made sense to Himura then, and yet there was still no real evidence to support it either way. When he related the tale to his superiors when he returned home, they brushed it off as mere propaganda designed to sway Lookshy away from the mildly tolerant stance it has towards the Anathema.
â€œMaster Ragara Hektor,â€ Himura said carefully, â€œWhat proof do you have that this, individual, is an Anathema? And what harm has it done?â€
He could tell by the slight tensing of the monkâ€™s shoulders that this was not what he had been hoping to hear. â€œIt has so far bewitched several people from a nearby village. It has caused them to leave their work and families in order to become its followers.â€
â€œHave you seen this for yourself?â€
â€œâ€¦No. This was testimony from a man from that village, who came to us for aid.â€
â€œWhere is this man now?â€
â€œWe left him at the dojo in order to recuperate from his ordeal,â€ the Immaculate explain. His voice was still calm and steady, but the barely perceptible quickening of his words told him that the monk was getting impatient, â€œIs there a point to this line of questioning, Amilar Himura?â€
Himura nodded slowly, â€œThere is,â€ he answered firmly and looked up directly into the monkâ€™s marble-like eyes. â€œPlease try to understand out position. You have come here, insisting that there is a demon on the loose, yet all you have to base this on is the word of a man that we cannot even verify exists. As my brother says, we have heard no word of this Anathema and I have serious doubts of its existence,â€ he raised a hand to forestall any objections, â€œTherefore, I will not aid your endeavor without just compensation for our time.â€
Hektor nodded once, â€œYour words, though not what I had wished to hear, are wise,â€ he said with a sigh. â€œI agree to your terms.â€
â€œExcellent,â€ Kenji said cheerily, â€œThat will be two and a half dirham-â€
â€œHalf when we begin our search tomorrow, and half when the Hunt is finished,â€ Hektor cut in sharply, with a glare towards his former apprentice.
â€œAgreed,â€ Himura said quietly, to which the Immaculate master nodded.
â€œThen we have reached an accord then?â€ said the young, but wearily soft voice of Corrastâ€™s king. It was the first time he spoke since the beginning of their meeting and it drew the attention of everyone at the table.
The young king was dressed in full royal splendor. His robes of office, a sleeveless, bright yellow over-robe was adorned with precious, amber colored stones. Under that was a simple white robe with long and flowing sleeves made of thick but quality materials. Propped between his slim frame and the bored looking crook of his arm was Corrastâ€™s scepter of rule. It was a plain staff of polish wood topped with an egg-sized sapphire. Finely etched into the staff, Himura was told, were the names of every line of kings that have ruled this nation, and it made the Lookshyan wonder what would happen when they ran out of room on the staff.
â€œYes, our meeting is complete,â€ Hektor replied with due respect to the young monarch, who then stood, prompting the others at the table to rise.
As he left his chair, Himura admired the king, barely old enough to be a man, but carried himself with the confidence and intensity that many even twice his age may never accomplished. The boy-kingâ€™s kindly yet tired eyes swept over the assembled host, ending with Ragara Hektor, â€œMy troops will aid you in your search, Lord Dragon,â€ he said with all the seriousness of a traveled diplomat, â€œBut they will not follow your command or leave this city. Nor will they allow you to turn this investigation into a witch-hunt. The general public of this city may not know the true perpetrators of my fatherâ€™s assassination, but neither I, nor my advisors will ever forget that it had been caused by the Princes of the Earth.â€
â€œYour Majesty,â€ Hektor assured the king, â€œthe two responsible were in no way affiliated with the Scarlet Dynasty or the Immaculate Order.â€
â€œBe that as it may, it has tarnished the reputation of the innocent as well as the guilty. Know that Iâ€™ve only agreed to work with you are because of your reputation as a hero to many of Corrastâ€™s outlaying villages and towns, has preceded you. I wish you well in your search, Master Ragara Hektor, but I truly hope that there will be nothing to find,â€ the king said solemnly and left the chamber through a side door, his advisors trailing silently behind him.
Summarily dismissed, Hektor motioned to Zieg that it was time to leave, and as they moved towards the main double doors, the Immaculate master favored Himura with a nod of respect to which he matched in equal measure. The fire-aspect however, had only venomous glares for Kenji, who smirked and waved with thinly veiled condescension. Himura breathed a sigh when the two Immaculate monks disappeared out the door.
â€œHe does not enjoy the weight of rule,â€ Mikoto said softly after the doors boomed shut and they were left alone in the chamber. She then serenely smoothed her skirts then took a handful of Himuraâ€™s sleeve in her small fist as he nodded thoughtfully, his long, deep brown hair spilling around his shoulder.
â€œYet he bears it well,â€ Himura replied, and adjusted the simple cloth headband that she had purchased for him yesterday.
â€œCome on,â€ Kenji called from the door, looking anxious to leave. The swordsman looked almost giddy as they slowly made their way over to him, which only seemed to excite him all the more. â€œCome on, letâ€™s get out of here,â€ he said merrily and pulled the door open, then waving them on in the keepâ€™s main hall.
The audience chamber was constructed like many seats of power, with the throne room parked near the keepâ€™s front entrance so ruler may quickly meet and greet visitors. In their case, the chamber led into the main hall that led to the front gates, a cavernous and long room lined with numerous balconies overhead. The flagstones of the ground floor was left smooth and unadorned, a deathtrap for any invading force that sought to take the keep.
Soldiers in light plate mail were posted in intervals along the wall carrying polished halberds that have clearly seen battle. They stared rigidly ahead as the three of them passed through and Himura noted the distinct absence of the servants that had milled about when they had arrived this morning.
â€œThat,â€ Kenji said cheerfully and clapped Himura on the shoulder, interrupting his musings, â€œwas brilliant! I didnâ€™t think the old man would fold so high, but you did it. Didnâ€™t know you had it in you.â€
â€œIs this wise?â€ Himura wondered aloud. â€œI mean, hungry ghosts and such are one thing, but weâ€™re talking about Anath-gah!â€ he continued but then Mikotoâ€™s nail sharpened squeeze interrupted his train of thought.
â€œIt may not be wise to speak of it now, especially out in the open, Nii-sama,â€ she warned with a gentle shake of her head.
â€œMikoto-chanâ€™s got a point,â€ Kenji chimed in as they passed under the keep gates and into bright daylight. The drone of the city buzzed up from the base of the hill that the keep occupied. As they started down the wide road into the city, Himura caught sight of a pair of merchant barges that flew the Guildâ€™s banner. He frowned at the sight, mildly surprised by finding the Creation-spanning organization so far in the Threshold.
When the sails fell from view behind the hill, he turned to his sister, who followed gracefully at his side. â€œStill nothing from the Immaculate?â€
â€œStill nothing,â€ she replied softly, though it did not seem to be the whole of it, and it did not look like something he wanted to hear.
That meant he had to ask. â€œWhatâ€™s the matter?â€
â€œThisâ€¦will not end well.â€
He was right. â€œI didnâ€™t think it would,â€ he mumbled under his breath. If Mikoto heard him, she did not make any show of having done so. They were under the roofline now, and the clamor of activity became more distinct with each step they took. The smell of roasted meats sold from the street vendors filled the air as well and reminded him how long it has been since breakfast. The road soon ended in a wide square where entertainers and mummers plied their trades to locals and visitors alike. â€œSo we break our agreement? It shouldnâ€™t be too much of a problem since weâ€™ve yet to be paid,â€ he suggested, raising his voice due to the loud bustle.
â€œWhat?!â€ Kenji broke in but Himura ignored his boisterous friend for the moment and looked fretfully to the woman that clung to his arm.
Then she shook her head, â€œNo, we are meant to travel this path. And it is still too soon to say for certain.â€ She offered him a hopeful smile, â€œPerhaps I will be mistaken.â€
He knew better but made a grunt of agreement for her sake. He then looked ahead of them and into the crowd. They had best getting started preparing for the task ahead. None of them have had any experience with the Wyld Hunt before, and if Mikoto senses something wrong, there is bound to be trouble. But what worried him most was the nagging feeling that it was not the Anathema that they should be worried about.
* * *
As the threesome moved through the city square, and eventually into the city streets, they did not notice the woman dressed in the Shogunate era dress uniform standing at the edge of a crowd that surrounded a small performance stage, where a pair of actors danced about, manipulating fanciful paper puppets with thin bamboo sticks and thrown voices. Midnight Rose smiled to herself as Himura and his companions wandered out of sight, content on enjoying the now half-eaten meat skewer, which she held delicately in both hands with her thumb and index finger.
She liked Creation-born food. Even though her salary gave her enough ambrosia to feast like wealthy gods, there was something about food grown or raised, and then actually cooked with real coals and seasoned with real spices that she would not trade away for all the heavenly nectar in all of Yu-shan. It was food tied to Creation itself, and by proxy, the Loom. How can fare merely conjured into existence with ambrosia, with no history of its own, possibly compare?
Rose tore off another piece of tough beef from her skewer with her teeth, careful to not let any of the pepper-heavy grease touch her uniform, then turned her attention back to the puppeteers. The show had no name, but told the tale of the recent political upheavals the country had suffered, and the return of the prince who had brought benevolent rule back to the people of Corrast. The premise gave her a good chuckle. The speed of which talespinners and their ilk spread news through tales always amused her, given how the current king only came to power three days ago.
The thought gave her a momentâ€™s pause. Two days left, she mulled over a juicy chunk of roasted meat, thatâ€™s cutting it a bit close. But all was going moving along smoothly. She was sure that things would pan out very soon.
Children cheered and the crowd applauded politely as the performance built towards the climax, where the young prince, having suffered the death of his most trusted knight and friend, faced the treacherous ministers that had brought his father low and cast him into exile. The kids, all garbed in simple cotton cloths, gathered around closest to the stage and some of the motley crowd even spilled into the narrow road that led into the docks for a chance to better watch the dancing puppets.
As silly as the whole affair was, she was impressed by the level of detail found in the paper figures. The prince, while jostling about comically like a broken rag doll was dressed in finely painted robes of orange under a copper tinted breastplate of thin foil. His opponents, the evil ministers on the other hand, were depicted as monstrously as possible, but with no less detail. Their figures were clad in long flowing black robes and possessed claw-like hands that were covered with minute, greenish beads to denote scales.
Rose spat out a fatty bit onto the cobblestones and saw a lone stray dog loitering nearby. When it saw the scrap, it eagerly dashed for it, almost inhaling the bit in its haste. The Sidereal pursed her lips. It was a sorry looking creature, with a shaggy grey coat matted from digging through refuse. But despite it all, it looked up to her with large, glossy black eyes and whined rather brightly. Or rather it looked up at her meal and whined rather brightly.
She leaned forward a bit, keeping the beef tantalizingly out of reach, â€œPoor thing, are you hungry?â€
The dog barked once and hopped about excitedly around her boots. She smiled at the stray then turned her gaze up towards the nearby buildings and alleyways, where she spotted the moving shapes of several other forgotten canines of various shapes and sizes.
â€œHmmmâ€¦well then,â€ she said and twirled the prize over the dogâ€™s nose, making it spin around in circles then flung the meat, stick and all, towards the alley with a sharp, â€œFetch!â€
The little grey dog took off like a missile from a power bow, as did the many shapes hiding just within the shadows of the alley. As the kabob landed on the street, three stray dogs were already upon it, each snapping up the prize before another snatched it straight out of its jaws. Growls quickly turned into open snarls and harsh barks as the frenzy started to get out of hand, catching the attention of nearby vendors and parts of the crowd.
One of the dogs seized the meal and managed to keep the spoils as it bolted down the busy street towards the docks. The fleeing animal rushed headlong into a group of burly workmen loading a wagon with sealed crates. One man fell over, hurling the cargo in his arms into the air and as the other dogs gave chase, their passionate howls spooking the poor mule, which kicked and thrashed as the smaller animals scrambled between its legs. It strained against its harness and the wood creaked and splintered under the abuse.
Another man stepped forward to calm the panicking mule only to be sent flying by one of the skittish beastâ€™s frightened kicks. The man was taken off his feet and thrown into two of his companions and they all fell in a heap as the mule, once freed, took off into the busy street, scattering businesses and bystanders alike before disappearing around the corner.
Midnight Rose calmly watched the chaos then pulled her pipe from her jacket pocket as the racket from the muleâ€™s solo stampede began to fade into the distance. It will tire and be caught eventually, she knew. She also knew that it will scatter dozens of honest merchants and even injure three more people before this is over. The city guard will be called in to restore order of course, leaving certain areas unguarded and others off limits for some time.
One citizen may even be so shaken by the experience that he would forget to douse his work lamp after his shift at one of the warehouses in a momentary lapse, which may just cause some problems when a little grey dog, flushed with success and a satisfied belly decided to make the building its home for the night.
Or maybe not.
She lit the bowl with a match and took a deep drag. Mmm, she was running out of the good tobacco. Perhaps it was time to make a side trip and buy some more. She mused over the idea as she turned back towards the stage, where the puppet prince had just defeated the evil puppet ministers and was now grandly pronouncing the freedom and prosperity of his hard won nation to the many cheers of the crowd.
Rose gave the actors her polite applause then tilted her head back towards the blue, white marbled sky. She blew a long stream of smoke into the air and idly wondered if the Unconquered Sun took offense to her work against one of his Chosen. She smiled brightly at the burning orb in the sky, which showed no sign of acknowledgement, and then shrugged. Whatever the case may be, she was still hungry. It was certainly good fortune that the meat vendorâ€™s stall was on the other side of the square and thus spared from the muleâ€™s panicked flight.
Good fortune, indeed.