It was business as usual in Yu-Shan. The quicksilver canals flowed faster than the mighty Yellow River as skiffs and dragonboats traversed the very arteries of the heavenly city, delivering their passengers to every corner of heaven. The colossal domed sky shielding the great metropolis beamed with the magnificent glory of the Unconquered Sun, the current leader in the Games of Divinity. Even the thousands of aerial rickshaws and cloudriders buzzing about like bees along the invisible boulevards in the air were merely a feeble obstruction against the brighter than real noonday sky. The jade paved streets rumbled under the march of millions as gods, elementals, and dozens of other beings went about their lives, each intent on their individual cares, responsibilities, and thoughts, but all adding to the cacophonous hum of urban life.
No one noticed the young girl poking her head out from one of the numberless alleys that crisscrossed the glowing city of gods. Had someone taken the time to notice, they would have seen a lovely young woman, on the very cusp of womanhood. Clothed in a comfortable fitting shirt, vest, and pants of various shades of blue, she looked distressingly common and dull compared to the sophisticated fashions that were currently popular. A short mop of deep crimson hair crowned the womanâ€™s head and ran down her smooth and pale face, and reached as far as her neck. Star-filled eyes that matched the color of blood scanned the busy street in front of her, her brows scrunched up in concentration. Small but handsome hands gripped the marble walls at the edge of the alley as she peered into the crowds, as though it would anchor her against the roaring current of the main street.
Theyâ€™re not chasing me this time, she thought, seeing no signs of any of the Bureauâ€™s instructors, and breathed a sigh of relief, but something else nagged her. It felt almost likeâ€¦disappointment. She shook her head stubbornly at the thought. Well, good riddance!
Her thoughts briefly turned back to the events of the morning, and she fought off the instant wave of anger and embarrassment that it conjured.
â€œGreetings, old friend, for the first time.â€ The voice was deep and almost raspy, like it had been said from very far away and carried to her ears only after reverberating through miles of piping and chambers.
The young woman had little time to analyze the particulars of the strange voice however, as she jumped at the unexpected sound, her heart forcing air and noise from her mouth. She nearly leapt into the busy crowd, which would have most likely ended with her tumbling into some official or another and get herself into deeper trouble than she already was. Instinct however, brought her quickly back under control and she spun on her heel to face the person that had snuck up on her, her limbs falling into a familiar defensive stance.
That stance was quickly dropped when rune etched scarves filled her sight. The young womanâ€™s eyes widened into saucers as her heart froze at the sight of the god in front of her. She had only heard of Nara-O, the secretive head of the Forbidding Manse of Ivy in passing from her Sifu, and in hushed whispers from her peers. The godâ€™s form, covered in voluminous, dull green robes wrapped in countless scarves seemed to tower over the young Sidereal who could only be described as reenacting the proverbial deer in essence lights.
â€œYou are Karal Rose, Chosen of Mars,â€ the deity did not ask.
A childhood of noble upbringing allowed Rose to gather her wits to the extent that it allowed her to nod stiffly and say just as inappropriately, â€œY-Yes, sir!â€
â€œCome with me.â€
The Chosen of Battles swallowed the lump in her throat as the god turned and walked or rather, floated further down into the alley, the scarves that covered his robed body fluttered gently in a breeze that did not exist. His footfalls were completely silent and his passing disturbed nothing. As Nara-Oâ€™s figure continued to shrink into the shadows of the alleyway, Rose snapped out of her amazed stare and rushed to keep up. Even she knew better than to disobey someone that far up the chain of command.
She had not gotten very far from the Most Perfect Lotus of Heavenly Design before Nara-O found her so the walk back to headquarters of the Bureau of Destiny took less than half an hour. Rose dutifully kept five steps behind Nara-O as he led the way. Not one of the gods and elementals they encountered on the street seemed to notice their presence, but none failed to give the pair wide berth, even as they crossed through oncoming foot traffic. Her hands were folded neatly in front of her and she kept her gaze on the very ground the powerful deity had just moved away from as they navigated the maze-like streets of Yu-Shan.
All the while, the stories shared between recently recruited Sidereals played through her head. Tales ranging from detailing the various implements supposedly found in the mysterious interrogation chambers of the Forbidding Manse of Ivy, which officials insist do not exist, to the death squads from the Convention of Oversight spiriting away troublemakers, like her, to Dragons-know-where, and where these unfortunates disappear from sight and memory. As each scenario played out, the young Vizierâ€™s mind raced with possible outcomes and methods to talk her way out of her predicament or attempt some sort of getaway.
Even in her wildest imagination, things were looking grim.
Then suddenly, Nara-O laughed. Or she thought it sounded like laughter, a resonating rumble of chuckles blown from a hollowed-out gourd. The young womanâ€™s brows scrunched up in response to the godâ€™s odd behavior then looked up with a start in sudden realization.
Oh hell, can he read my mind?
Well thatâ€™s a relie-DRAGONS HELP ME HE CAN!
Rose gulped again, but this time the god did not laugh, or make any other sound for that matter as they entered the grounds of the Bureau of Destiny. She gave herself some hope when they entered the gardens surrounding the Cerulean Lute. Maybe he was just going to escort her back to her instructors. Kissing lessons and flower arrangement really did not sound very bad at this point for the young Sidereal. That hope however, died as the head of the Division of Secrets continued past the Lute and onto the courtyard of the division that was his purview.
As the Forbidding Manse of Ivy, an ominous tower of white marble and emerald vines loomed over her; Rose was barely able to keep hold of her nerves. When Nara-O silently entered through doors that seemed to open on their own accord, she had to squeeze her fists until they drew blood to stay calm. The interior of the manse was dark, made more-so from the unnatural brightness of the outdoors. Essence fueled lanterns bathed the halls and corridors with soft, orange light, perfect for preserving paper, and creating flickering shadows and dark corners. The exterior doors closed as Rose stepped inside with an echoing bang of finality, but she maintain her composure and her distance behind the god.
As they weaved through the dark corridors within the manse, they encountered the occasional god or Sidereal going about their business. Some gave them subtly curious glances before moving on, but none stopped them or impeded their progress. From the halls, she heard many a whispered conversation taking place from behind closed doors. The doors seemed to make it so that voices, no matter how loud, were distorted and completely unintelligible so that no one can discern anything beyond the simple fact that a meeting between someone was taking place.
This was Roseâ€™s first time in the headquarters of the Division of Secrets, and she could not help but wonder why she was brought here by Nara-O himself. It couldnâ€™t be for questioning, could it? Was she really in that much trouble? This was only the second time she had run out on lessons. Sure she had refused lessons before, but they had been all of the pointless Serenity training her Sifu signed her up for. They wouldnâ€™t interrogate her over something like thatâ€¦would they?
So caught up in her thoughts, she did not notice that Nara-O had stopped moving until the god brushed her shoulder with one of his many scarves.
â€œWe are here.â€
Rose craned her head upward as she marveled at the masterful pieces of art that filled the small room. Circular in shape, it was no more than ten yards across. Cushioned benches carved from green marble ringed the entire room save for the narrow doorway. The frames were covered with images of various heroes and gods, veterans from the Primordial War her Sifu had told her about. All around the high walls were exquisite stain-glass windows depicting the Maiden of Secrets and the constellations that were associated with the division. The ceiling was nothing more than a tapered point, from where a chandelier of flawless crystal hung. The radiant sunlight filtering through the glass made her realize that they had somehow reached the top of the Forbidding Manse of Ivy.
â€œW-why are we here, sir, I mean, Most Eminent One?â€ Rose asked clumsily, confused by her situation. This doesnâ€™tâ€¦look like a torture room.
â€œThis is a place of reflection and meditation,â€ the god replied in his echoing, almost emotionless way.
â€œBut why? Why me? I just donâ€™t get it,â€ the Battles asked again, momentarily forgetting any bit of godly decorum she may have cultured.
â€œTo present a gift.â€
As Nara-O spoke, one of his sleeves reached into his robes and drew forth a large wooden case. Guided by invisible hands, the box floated towards the young Sidereal, slowly and gracefully until it settled onto her tentatively outstretched hands.
Rose stared at the case. It was a masterfully carved piece of red wood. A pair of adamant hinges stood opposite of a set of latches. A simple flip would disable the locks if it werenâ€™t for the two prayer strips wrapped around the box. One strip bore the symbol of Jupiter while the other, of Saturn. Both were signed with Nara-Oâ€™s name and another she could not read. With a slight gesture the strips burned like hair, leaving behind a white, odorless smoke. The Chosen of Battles shook her head, still not quite understanding what was going on. Wasnâ€™t she in trouble? Why was someone like Nara-O even talking to her, let alone giving her something.
Without any idea of what to say, she went with a simple, â€œI am unworthy, Most Eminent One. But I donâ€™t understand why I am being honored so.â€
â€œThe gift is not from me.â€
Now she was even more confused, â€œThen who?â€ she blurted out, then realizing her mistake began to apologize but the god held up a sleeve to stall her.
â€œThe gift, is from you.â€
â€œOkay, what?â€ she asked in a deadpan tone, confusion and impatience having worn away any etiquette she might have had. The god did not elaborate and merely gestured towards the now unsealed box. She looked hard at the box, then at the god, then back at the box. A minute passed within the tiny meditation room, then two, but Nara-O was patient. Rose was not.
Her decision made, Rose placed the case on one of the benches and after a short sidelong glance at the silent god, kneeled and opened the box. Resting on a bed of scarlet velvet was a simple basket-hilted saber.
Rose sucked in a breath. She had never seen a more beautiful weapon. Gingerly, reverently, she grasped the crimson-stained, white jade handle. It almost looked blood-stained. The basket hilt was made of the same reddened jade and carved to into a loose weave that shielded the entire length of the hilt, merging with the pommel at the end. The sword gave the hum of a keen edge as she drew it from its fine leather scabbard. The blade was made of starmetal, and it too had a faded reddish hue to it. It was also slightly broader than the average rapier, and perfectly straight unlike the curved cavalry sabers of Lookshy.
Crimson Princess. The name came unbidden to her mind.
Rose shot another glance at the secretive god then turned her attention back to the sword. She hadnâ€™t realized that she spoken the name aloud.
After a while, she had lost track of time, she stood, slowed her breathing and cleared her mind; essence manipulation was still very new to her. Painstakingly, Rose coaxed the minute essence flows from her body and wrapped it around the blade, attuning the artifact to her body. Or at least, she tried to.
Something felt wrong. Whenever she nudged her essence into the blade, something pushed back. Frowning, she pushed harder, but the strange presence only pushed back harder. Again, she let her impatience get ahead of her and forced her essence into Crimson Princess. She gasped as lightning run up and down her arm while her essence latched onto the weapon, bonding it to her as completely as her Sifu had described artifact attunement to be.
Then the world turned white.
Blinding white light filled the room, so bright that it was seen even in the noonday glory of the heavenly city. As her eyes recovered, Rose found herself staring up at a strange glowing crystal. Roughly the size of a human heart, its edges were rough and milky, but at its core it glowed with a magnificent golden light.
â€œWhat the hell this that?â€ she asked Nara-O, but the god made no reply.
The crystal seemed to regard her for a moment and then pulsed once, as though thanking her, or giving her the metaphysical finger, she couldnâ€™t tell. And honestly, she held no illusions about understanding the light language of strange, floating, crystalline objects. Then as suddenly as it appeared, the crystal pulsed again, but this time there was force behind the radiance. The burst knocked her off her feet and shattered the stain-glass windows and the chandelier above her head. Still gripping Crimson Princess in one hand, Rose shielded her face from the falling shards of glass and emerged with only a few scratches. But by then, the strange crystal was gone.
â€œDragons damn it, my eyes. Just what is going on, Nara-O?â€ she asked as she picked herself up. She then frowned when her only answer was silence. She turned towards the doorway, where the god was standing and found empty air. Realization dawned on her and her eyes narrowed. â€œOh hell no, you did not justâ€¦â€ her sentence trailed off when she heard the steady drumming of boots marching towards her location and outrage overrode her astonishment. â€œNara-O! Get your ass back here! How the hell am I going to explain this!â€
* * *
One of the primary concerns of Division of Secrets head, Nara-O was to preside over his purview of â€˜Secrets Known Only to One.â€™ Secrets both great and small cross his desk every day, and are filed in the godâ€™s vast personal archive. These Secrets can be as insignificant as a childâ€™s thief of sweets to the first Secret spark of betrayal within the heart of an ambitious commander. Nara-O has in his possession all of these Secrets and more, and many in Yu-Shan and Creation fear, perhaps rightly so, just how much he knows.
So it comes as no surprise that when Nara-O returned to his office there was an envelope sealed with the mark of Jupiter on his desk labeled â€˜New Secrets Known to One.â€™ However, the parcel was quite thin, which was very uncommon. With no visible means, the envelope opened cleanly in Nara-Oâ€™s unseen hands. Within was a single sheet of paper with a substantial amount of white space. Intrigued, the god read on.
The offices and employees nearest the Division Headâ€™s office heard their boss laugh that day. The spine tingling experience was a rare occurrence to be sure, but this time it was also uncommonly lengthy and uncharacteristic. Whatever the cause, they concluded amongst themselves; it did not bode well at all.
â€˜Secrets Known Only to Oneâ€™ is the sole purview of Nara-O, Division Head of the Division of Secrets of the Bureau of Destiny. Unauthorized access of confidential materials is a high severity offense. Violators will be prosecuted harshly.
Date of Secret Creation: Venusday, the 20th of Ascending Earth, RY 562
Time of Secret Creation: 14:08
Author: Karal Rose
Subject Heading: Miscellaneous
Zhao Yi, "Venus! Will you look at the size of this closet?"
Midnight Rose, "Sifu, we're looking for booze here."
Current story is Sun and Stars
which can be found in my notebook.