The Sun glared down on the endless waves of the West. Not a single cloud marred the flawless pale blue sky, and the only way one could tell the difference between the sea and heavens were the gentle ripples of deeper sapphire that made up the ocean.
Bobbing about like a leaf in the wind, the empty hull of Dukanthaâ€™s Reach tossed and drifted on the seaâ€™s restless surface. She was an imposing vessel, a sleek and powerful raider ship armed with implosion bows and firedust cannons. Her Lintha crew was a band ruthless pirates and merciless slavers. Brutally efficient, they had been terrorizing Chiaroscuro shipping for months, sinking or outrunning any privateers that was sent after them.
That ended about two hours ago.
Midnight Rose yawned and stretched on her makeshift hammock that was lashed haphazardly near the shipâ€™s rudder controls. Her red and black jacket, cut military style, was unbuttoned and revealed the slightly mussed white shirt underneath. She groaned then shifted into a more comfortable position, one without Crimson Princess prodding her side, and then reached down for the jug of grog that sat within armâ€™s reach.
Maidens, itâ€™s hot today, she thought and took a sip of the repugnant concoction. Another 36 minutes and she would be at the Calibration Gate. A quick spell would have called the gate to her, but she had a few hours to kill before her next assignment and thought sheâ€™d make the most of it.
The jug felt a little light so she gave it a cautious shake. Not gonna last, she concluded with a frown and set the thing down. Better start rationing.
The pirates had chosen to go after bigger prey and caused several class one disruptions in the Tapestry for extra muscle. Too bad for them, since if it werenâ€™t for that, she wouldnâ€™t have had to book passage on a courier sloop destined to be attacked by the pirates. She wouldnâ€™t have been thoroughly annoyed with the intolerable conditions on the courier ship. And she wouldnâ€™t have had to take that frustration out on the unfortunate pirates.
Most importantly, she wouldnâ€™t have had to been stuck on a derelict ship without enough booze to pass the time. Never mind the fact that she could have called for the Gate at any time.
Her ride had escaped the carnage of course, its crew retaining no memory of their passenger, or that they even had one in the first place. Such was the way of her kind.
She sighed again and closed her eyes against the Sunâ€™s brilliance, then loosened the top buttons of her shirt and flapped the collar several times. Maybe she should raid the galley again. She found it hard to believe that a pirate ship would only have two jugs of this yeddim piss. They werenâ€™t even half full. The captain must have hidden some in his quarters or something.
Then a faint tug of essence, like a hint of smoke in the air, interrupted her train of thought. A shadow fell over the Chosen of Battleâ€™s face and made her frown. She was not expecting anyone else onboard to be still alive. Essence immediately simmered unseen beneath her skin while her body tensed with practiced ease. Her hand already began moving almost imperceptibly towards her saber. Confident in her power, she cracked open one eye to see what it was.
And then promptly dropped her battle readiness.
â€œSifu, youâ€™re in my light.â€
An exasperated sigh that had been repeated far too many times in the past was the response. â€œIs that really how you greet your Sifu, Rose?â€
Hua Zhao Yi appeared to be a man in his early thirties. For the two centuries she had known him, she had never seen her Sifu wearing in anything other than his silk wide-sleeved vest, linen pants and comfortable black slippers. His maroon colored clothes contrasted sharply with the azure hue of his star speckled eyes, which were hidden behind a pair of nondescript spectacles. He adjusted his glasses out of habit then ran a hand over his hair, oiled and perfect, and tied in a tight braid that reached his waist. His face was a mask of mild annoyance and disapproval. Not good.
Rose quickly tossed her legs over the side of her hammock and hopped to her feet, her boots clicking against the deck. The Chosen of Battle then smoothly preformed a half bow, her waist bent at a perfect forty-five degree angle, â€œYour humble apprentice greets you, honored Sifu,â€ she recited solemnly.
â€œLaying it on a bit thick donâ€™t you think?â€ Zhao Yi noted, the sour expression he wore breaking into an amused grin as he idly tossed his jet black braid over his shoulder.
â€œSifu always liked flattery,â€ Rose grinned back and lifted the grog into her hand with a precise kick of her boot, â€œCan I interest you in a drink?â€
Her Sifu eyed the offered vessel warily, â€œThatâ€™s grog, isnâ€™t it?â€
â€œWhatever the Lintha passes for it anyway.â€
The man who once called the West his homeland pressed his lips into a thin line, then shrugged and took a swig. â€œUerk! Venusâ€™ Delicate Flower that burns good,â€ he coughed out with an approving grimace.
â€œHey hey, Sifu that has to last for the next half hour.â€
â€œOh? Whyâ€™s that?â€ he asked and performed a half turn on his heel to take in the view, which coincidentally took the lukewarm beverage out of his apprenticeâ€™s reach.
â€œThat,â€ Rose took a step in and made another grab for the jug as he took another drink, but her Sifu was again one step faster, â€œis when this rig drifts up to the Calibration Gate.â€
â€œThatâ€™s why youâ€™re here? You people certainly have it easy in the Convention of Water.â€
Rose rolled her eyes, â€œYou know as well as I do that weâ€™re overworked and undermanned here. There are barely half as many field agents in the West than the next Directional Convention,â€ she paused. Her Sifu probably has heard enough of that from her convention chair, â€œSo howâ€™s the North treating you?â€
â€œCold, and the women wear too much.â€
â€œSounds like the perfect place for Sifu,â€ Rose quipped cheerily, her grin growing wider under her Sifuâ€™s glare.
â€œDonâ€™t insult your Sifu.â€
Zhao Yi nodded once then tossed the vile brew back to his apprentice. With his hands clasped behind his back he moved over to the side of the ship and looked over the railing at the vividly blue ocean. To Rose, he looked almost nostalgic. â€œKejak and the others have gone over your simulation results. Theyâ€™re impressed.â€
Rose gave the jug a shake, frowned, and then threw it overboard. â€œI lost,â€ she replied dryly and joined her Sifu by the railing.
â€œA single Waverazor assault skimmer and an Imperial patrol squadron defeating the entire Lintha armada? Iâ€™d call that a success.â€
â€œWith the entire Convention of Water lost at sea and only one Dynast ship capable of limping back home to tell the tale,â€ Rose looked hard at nothing, â€œI didnâ€™t win, Sifu. I just gave them nothing to celebrate.â€
â€œYouâ€™re much too hard on yourself, apprentice. Nobody has ever been able to defeat Righteous Tsunamiâ€™s scenario, staggering casualties notwithstanding. You need to learn to take credit when credit is due.â€
â€œWhat can I say? Iâ€™m stubborn.â€
â€œLike a blind yeddim.â€
Rose shot her Sifu a look that could never be mistaken for respectful. â€œThanks, Sifu.â€
Zhao Yi pretended not to see, â€œAnytime, apprentice.â€
â€œSo why are you here?â€ Rose asked cautiously and leaned over to peer at her Sifu, â€œIf this was just about the simulation they wouldâ€™ve just left an assessment report at the Monastery. Whatâ€™s really going on, Sifu?â€
â€œCanâ€™t a Sifu visit his apprentice for a nice quiet chat during off-hours?â€
â€œThey can, but you never have before.â€
Zhao Yi chuckled softly in quiet agreement and took a sealed envelope from a pocket inside his sleeve. It bore the seal of the Division of Battles in bright red wax. Rose wordlessly took the envelope when offered and broke the seal with her thumb. It was from Hu Dai Liang, Shogun of the Crimson Panoply of Victory. Thatâ€™s never good.
Source: Division of Battles, Bureau of Destiny
Date Dispatched: 21st of Ascending Fire, RY 763
Sender: Taraâ€™yan, Overseer of Lieutenants and Field Commanders, Daimyo under the Shogun of the Crimson Panoply of Victory
Recipient: Karal Midnight Rose, Chosen of Mars.
Agent ID: M12004
Date Received: 23rd of Ascending Fire, RY 763
The Field Agent Planning Committee has recognized one, Karal Midnight Rose, as capable of performing Bureau responsibilities within their home direction. It has been the recommendation of this committee that said agent be dispatched to the Convention of Wood, so that her skills and expertise are better utilized in light of the recent spike in unsanctioned essence activity in the region of said Conventionâ€™s jurisdiction.
Said agent is hereby ordered to report to the Convention of Wood headquarters within seven days of this missiveâ€™s issue for briefing and reassignment. All outstanding duties are also to be completed to the best of the agentâ€™s ability during this time period. Failure to comply with these orders is a class two infraction with the possibility of audit.
Hu Dai Liang, Shogun of the Crimson Panoply of Victory
Roseâ€™s furrowed her brow, â€œTheyâ€™re transferring me.â€
â€œCongratulations. Itâ€™s about time you got out of this dumping ground of a post.â€
â€œSifu, I just proved that I have an excellent grasp of naval strategy and tactics. And now theyâ€™re transferring me to the middle of the woods? They might as well drop me in a desert!â€ She folded the letter, envelope and all, and stuffed it messily into her jacket pocket. â€œNot what I call a wise use of available assets, if you ask me.â€
â€œDeployment politics has been rather, difficult of late,â€ her Sifu agreed carefully.
â€œThe Golds must be throwing banquets over your missing friend I bet,â€ Rose mused idly, grinning at the inquiring arch of her Sifuâ€™s brow. â€œBeing stuck in a supposed backwater doesnâ€™t mean I canâ€™t stay up-to-date, Sifu. Iâ€™d bet the news is already spilling all over the Tapestry.â€
â€œSo much for non-disclosure,â€ mumbled the Chosen of Serenity who took to playing with the end of his braid. â€œAt any rate, an opening came up in the Convention of Wood, one of ours, and Kejak didnâ€™t want another Goldie further bloating the convention. You were the only one the two sides could agree on, thanks to yourâ€¦general lack of devotion. Oi, where are you going?â€ he called after his apprentice, who had moved towards the stairs leading below.
â€œRaiding the pantry, want anything?â€ Rose called over her shoulder and mentally shrugged when her Sifu followed her into the ship. The interior was dark and dank, and smelled of rotting meat or worse. As they moved through the cramped interior, the Shieldbearer heard her Sifu mutter something about proper hygiene and suppressed an amused grin. Going by a hunch, she turned away from the galley and made her way to the captainâ€™s quarters, where she found the door locked. A swift kick did away with that obstruction.
â€œThe captainâ€™s tastes wereâ€¦questionable,â€ Zhao Yi thought aloud as the two of them entered the large suite.
â€œToo much white and pink,â€ his apprentice agreed, though her attention was more focused on the various chests and cabinets that were scattered around the room.
â€œVenus! Will you look at the size of this closet?â€
â€œSifu, weâ€™re looking for booze here.â€
â€œIn a moment,â€ came the distracted reply, then a much hushed, â€œmy aide would look good in thisâ€¦â€
The Battles rolled her eyes and rifled through a randomly chosen trunk. So far, her efforts have only turned up coins and jewels of various types and quality amongst other kinds of loot. Nothing an agent of heaven would be interested in. The pirates had been rather successful however; judging that the room was almost filled to the brim with mundane valuables. She guessed that they were probably on their way back to their base when they came across the courier ship. Still nothing immediately useful though.
After several long, dry minutes of searching however, a broad grin graced her lips as she hefted an ornate bottle of amber liquid. An elaborate label written in elegant Flametongue was emblazoned prominently on the side.
â€œIs that Delzhani honey wine?â€ Zhao Yi asked as he exited the extensive wardrobe of the recently deceased Lintha captain, tucking a colorful bundle of garments into his sleeve pocket, which seemed to accept far more goods that a pocket of that size would normally allow.
â€œRealm year seven thirty seven,â€ Rose reported, popped the cork and took a sniff of the heady fumes.
â€œWell then be a good little apprentice and pour your Sifu a glass.â€
Another moment of rummaging uncovered a pair of crystal glasses, which Rose deftly filled with some of the potent liquor. After she placed a filled cup in her Sifuâ€™s outstretched hand, the Shieldbearer closed the trunk with her heel and sat down on top. She took a sip, and savored the rich flavor of honey that carried a hint of the wildflowers that grew on coasts around Chiaroscuro. Her Sifu paced the room, enjoying his drink as they shared a moment of companionable silence. The ship creaked as it drifted along the waves in motions that the pair had long since become accustomed as the minutes stretched on.
Zhao Yi kept his eyes on a porthole, â€œBeen getting enough sleep?â€
â€œWhat are you, my mother?â€
The Chosen of Serenity chuckled, â€œA Sifu is whatever his apprentice needs,â€ and glanced at his charge from the corner of his eye, â€œregardless of what the apprentice may want.â€
Rose blew a sigh, and set her bottle and glass down, â€œI get enough,â€ she said as she traced the edges of her seat with her finger.
â€œWhen you have to.â€
â€œWhen I have to,â€ she repeated quietly. She did not look up when her Sifu sat down on the other half of the chest. Her muscles tensed when he patted her on the shoulder as one would a sulking child. For all her Sifuâ€™s charm, mentoring was never his strength, but she allowed herself to relax then refilled their glasses. â€œTheyâ€™re getting better,â€ she lied.
â€œGood.â€ She did not think that he sounded at all convinced, but was glad that he did not press the subject.
Her Sifu opened his mouth to say more when the sound of feet on the deck stole their attention. Rose stood and plugged the cork back into the bottle. â€œSounds like weâ€™re at the gate,â€ she noted with some relief.
â€œRighteous Tsunami sent operatives to commandeer the ship?â€ Zhao Yi asked with an arched brow as he followed his apprentice out of the room.
Rose shrugged her shoulders, â€œActually, she wanted me to bring the ship back to headquarters. Since she didnâ€™t tell me how, I decided to call in a favor from a lesser god of oceanic plant life to do it for me.â€
â€œHow did you manage that?â€
The Battles tucked her hands behind her back and tossed an innocent look over her shoulder at her Sifu, â€œI promised to take him as a guest to that Festival of Bells gala at the Cerulean Lute next month.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve been trading our invitations?â€ Zhao Yi sputtered at the sheer audacity of his apprentice, his face turning red. â€œThe Lute has stringent criteria for its guests. We canâ€™t just let any minor deity wandering in and disturb the guests.â€
â€œRelax, Sifu,â€ Rose reassured him as they arrived back on the top deck, where a number of lesser water elementals were preparing the rigging and sails for its voyage. The elemental beings more or less ignored the pair as they made their way towards the open Celestial Gate, a mighty archway of gleaming orichalcum covered from top to bottom with reliefs carved from all the colors of jade. At the portal stood the majestic form of a celestial lion and beside it was the comparatively diminutive form of the lesser god in question. The deityâ€™s skin was a pale shade of green with eyes of sea foam. His clothes were elegant, a robe woven out of kelp that carried with it the distinct scent of ocean spray, â€œI ensure that anyone I bring are on their best behavior. I have to make sure that I get invited back, donâ€™t I?â€
Her Sifu shook his head ruefully, â€œIâ€™m surprised youâ€™ve taken to a bit of heavenly politics, apprentice. I was beginning to think that I had raised a tactless hellion whoâ€™s only good for applying blunt force trauma to Tapestry disruptions.â€
Rose ignored the quip, and instead beamed a smile at the god as he offered her a hand onto the gate that hovered about a foot over the railing of the ship. â€œThank you for this favor, most gracious of spirits,â€ she said smoothly and climbed onto the gateway.
â€œIt is I who must thank you,â€ the god replied graciously. His voice was like the retreat of the waves over rocky tide pools. â€œAn invitation to one of Yu-Shanâ€™s most prestigious gatherings is one that will not be easily forgotten.â€
She smiled with feigned pleasure then turned to her Sifu, who had leapt onto the gate behind her. â€œPlease excuse me, Sifu. Iâ€™d better get back to my duties,â€ she told him and gave the pocket that contained her new orders a pat, â€œLooks like I have four days to do two weeksâ€™ worth of work.â€
Zhao Yi nodded and folded his hands behind his back as he started his walk back into Yu-Shan, â€œDo try to get along with your colleagues. I donâ€™t want to see you spend another hundred years in the West for inciting another Carnival of Meetings brawl.â€ Then with a more serious tone, â€œAnd if thereâ€™s anything troubling you, you know where your Sifu is.â€
Rose smiled a bit wanly and nodded. â€œI can handle a few bad dreams, Sifu,â€ she said and then turned her attention back to the deity.
The elder Sidereal let out a sigh once he was far enough away so that his charge would not notice. As the tunnel towards the city of the gods stretched out before him, the voices of his apprentice and her companion faded behind the quiet hum of essence that coursed through the passageway. â€œThat was what he told me too,â€ he whispered. The walls of the tunnel, unsurprisingly, said nothing as the Sidereal kept on walking.
Last edited by Fenris
on 20 Aug 2009, 19:49, edited 3 times in total.
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.